Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Tom Scioli
Publisher: Random House/Ten Speed Press imprint
Price: $28.99 US/$38.99 CAN
My introduction to comics came in the late 1970s, and I was a DC kid from the start. As such, my first exposure to the work of Jack Kirby probably didn’t come until I saw his covers on the Super Powers comics tying into the toy line featuring DC heroes in the mid 1980s. I wasn’t impressed with Kirby’s style, as I was far more enamored of the work of such artists as George Perez and Jim Aparo. It was only later in life that I came to understand the depth of Kirby’s influence on American comics as a whole, and today, I can clearly see that influence at play in Perez’s dynamic and bombastic action scenes, for example.
While Kirby’s contributions to the form are undeniable, extensive and practically impossible to reproduce, it’s his place in the medium’s history that’s probably even more fascinating than the myths he fashioned and reshaped. Cartoonist Tom Scioli – whose own affection for the late King of Comics shines through in every single panel he crafts – has developed an enlightening biography of the man, written in an attempt to capture Kirby’s own voice, thoughts and remembrances. It’s certainly a compelling and persuasive account, despite some errors in the historical details, as attested by others in the know, but the result seems like a sympathetic yet honest portrait of the man. More importantly, it works to counter the beloved but impossibly positive public persona of Stan Lee, who’s always seemed more to me as a salesman more than a storyteller.
Jacob Kurtzman, the first-born son of European Jewish immigrants, was shaped by his youth on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The diminutive boy quickly learned he had to be tough to survive a rough and tumble childhood in his dense, urban neighborhood, and toughen up he did. But that fierce side did nothing to suppress his sense of wonder, imagination and a creative drive that led him to become a cartoonist. Working from a young age in the burgeoning comic-book industry, he’d rebrand himself as Jack Kirby and become one of the medium’s greatest talents, if not the most important and formative. And it appears it was only his determination to provide for his family and to tell stories that kept him from becoming one of the industry’s greatest victims as well.
Tom Scioli’s love for and dedication to Kirby’s legacy has been apparent throughout his career, from G0dland to more mainstream contributions at DC and Marvel, so seeing him craft an unauthorized biography of his hero comes as little surprise. While he tells the story in his own style, the Kirby influence is always apparent, especially in his portrayal of the King himself. He distinguishes Kirby from all other characters. While he renders other players in a conventional, more realistic manner, Jack Kirby is rendered in a much more cartoonish manner, notably with huge, wide eyes. It reinforces the child-like sense of wonder that appears to have been an ever-present characteristic in the man. Scioli, despite that approach, nevertheless manages to convey how he aged, how his experiences weighed on him year after year. The color palette also conveys the dichotomous nature of comics of yesteryear, garish and dull at the same time, which would have been the result of simpler printing processes and cheaper paper quality back in the day.
Scioli takes a rather matter of fact approach to the script, and specifically in the narration, most of which is presented in Kirby’s voice (gleaned from interviews and other sources from over the decades). It makes the story seem a little flat at times, and the tone even borders on becoming bland, but conversely, it reinforces the credibility of this biography. Events never seem overblown or overstated. Hyperbole isn’t the order of the day, which certainly seems in keeping with who Kirby was (unlike his more famous counterpart, Stan Lee).
After reading this book, I’m pretty well convinced I wouldn’t really have liked Jack Kirby all that much. I certainly wouldn’t have disliked him, but his radically different, formative experiences made it clear that he felt violence – or at least the thought of it – was a proper response to personal affronts. I don’t fault the man for it; it was a trait that he had to develop in order to survive the times and places that formed him. But I nevertheless connected with Kirby on a different level, and that was as a family man. He was willing to bear affronts to his values as long as they were only piled on him, because his main goal – even beyond the expression of his creativity and imagination – was to provide for his family. Professional compromises may seem like mistakes, but when one accepts difficult realities in the name of responsibilities, I believe there’s dignity and honour in that. 8/10