You Don’t Know Jack
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce reviews Jack Kirby: The Epic Life Of The King Of Comics by Tom Scioli…
Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics
Writer and Artist: Tom Scioli
Published by Ten Speed Press
In the recent, celebratory release of Marvel 1000 there were three names that dominated the top of the ‘In Memoriam’ page: Stan Lee, Steve Dikto and Jack Kirby. This acknowledgement maybe too little, too late for many as – as with many creative who passed through the House of Ideas in the 60s – his undoubted genius as an artist and storyteller was blunted by a corporate atmosphere willing to exploit its workers and give little credit for said ideas. Yet his sobriquet as ‘The King of Comics’ reminds us that Jack Kirby has been given the respect – if not financial rewards – that his co-creation of the likes of Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther and The X-Men has deserved.
In his comic book biography of Kirby tries to shine a light not only the experiences that made Kirby the artist that he was but also the practises that would result in his complex relationship with the comic book industry.
Told in the first person (though the biography is keen to point that it is unauthorised, and it’s narrative is taken from various sources and interviews throughout Kirby’s life) we begin with Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzburg in 1917, and his early life living in New York, the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants. It’s uncanny how similar his early story is to the likes of Joe Siegel, Jerry Shuster and Steve Ditko – and eerie how similar their legacies would be later in life. Living in uncertain economic times, often have to fight tooth and nail on the tough streets of New York, it was an often gray world he was forced to inhabit. It was the colour comics came in the newspapers every week that his imagination would spark.
“Tarzan, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon – they were my art education,” says Kirby at one point “Hal Foster and Alex Raymond were my teachers.”
Early stories from his childhood are told with vivid abandon; a bout with pneumonia that resulted in him being ‘exorcised’ by the Rabbi, his rough and tumble with neighbourhood kids and his formative years hustling in various jobs before he got his shot in the comic book world.
The early years working in the studio of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger would set the template for much of his future career: doing something he loved but often at the behest of people who would turn the creation of a comic book into a factory floor. You went in and did your job and would often fight the powers that be. His early years at Timely – which would go on to be Marvel – are also documented.
A sojourn in World War II is graphically detailed as Kirby learns the terrible side of human nature as he experiences the insanity of war and then his return to America and a career that comes with it many ups and downs – many of which are amplified when he meets a certain publisher who goes by the name of Stan Lee.
Throughout it all Kirby is portrayed as a workaholic – partly because of his own drive, partly because of an industry that demands much work for little money. It’s partly a riposte to the whole ‘comic book as low art’ that still ripples throughout popular culture. It’s hard and dedicated work – all too often dismissed by a corporate hierarchy wanting to keep artists and their ideas under control.
Of course any superhero story needs an antagonist, and if there is anyone here it is Stan Lee. While he’s shown as an undoubted creative person, he here’s a blowhard and showman whose penchant for showmanship overshadows his talent. Here he’s the one who takes Kirby’s credit for the likes of The X-Men and The Fantastic Four. Even when he’s seemingly being magnanimous, crediting Layouts to ‘Jolly Jack Kirby’, it becomes a subtle dig: refusing to acknowledge Kirby’s creative contributions. It’s notable that the only shift in point of view comes when Stan Lee is allowed tell a little of his own story – here it feels like and invasion, yet another attempt to steal the show from our protagonist.
It would be perhaps unfair to paint Lee as the total villain of the piece – while he is shown as vainglorious and there are later incidences of their antagonism (such as an infamous radio show interview in which Lee and Kirby argued about who created what) there are also moments in which he does try to confer respect on Kirby (though one of the final panels puts the boot into Lee again). It’s more an entire corporate structure that says his is not much more than an artist for hire and that he doesn’t deserve to have his original artwork returned to him. It’s recounted that an older Kirby could not go into a toy store with his children as seeing toys made out of his characters – characters for which he would not earn a penny – would make him physically ill.
Of course an entire comic of someone complaining about contract terms and unfair compensation would be rather boring. There is plenty here about those flashes of inspiration that led Kirby to many of his grand ideas. He was a writer and artist he was perfect the medium – he revelled in the big, the grandiose. Those who have read the likes of The New Gods will know how much he loved to depict epoch shaking events, full of moments in which the galaxy would shudder. But his lack of subtlety, both in his art and his dialogue, was not a weakness. It was the boldness of his ideas, the striking nature of his work that made him a legend and this book tries to give us a better idea of the thought processes behind them.
Scioli’s art style is a contrast to that of Kirby’s, subtle colours and pencil shades which mix a comic book aesthetic with a veneer of naturalism. It is perhaps apropos to ground Kirby’s story within the real world, reminding us that all those ideas that were from out of this world were still from someone who worked in the everyday, mundane world of reality. But Kirby himself is marked out as different, with big quiff and large eyes almost like a Manga character – a visual reflection of his ‘otherness’ amongst his peers. With later pages containing cameos from a number of comic greats – Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Rob Liefeld amongst them – as well as an end montage of the Marvel films that were based on his characters, it reminds us of how great his influence was
While Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics does sometimes drift into the realms of hagiography it is still a fascinating and impassioned account of an artistic great and a reminder of the machinations of the comic book world that stopped many artists getting their due.
Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics is available now, published by Ten Speed Press