Review by Graham Johnstone
Jack Kirby had an eventful life, which also serves as history of American comics, so a sound subject for a biography in comics form. Writer/artist Tom Scioli opts for a classic birth-to-death biography, though in fact, it begins earlier, with Kirby’s grandparents, and extends to his legacy.
Most prospective buyers, will have an idea of Kirby’s career arc: collaboration with Joe Simon, including creation of wartime bestseller Captain America; his 1960s heyday ‘co-creating’ Marvel’s ever more lucrative properties; the vaulting aspiration of his move to DC; and his sadly declining fortunes. Scioli covers it all, and the numerous events in between, from creation of the 1940s Vision, to stints in animation, via the CIA’s use of his work in the Iran hostage crisis.
Scioli also captures the softer aspects, like Kirby’s inspirations: his mother’s ‘wonder stories’ from the old country; newspaper comics; and the 1939 World’s Fair. The Munsters prompted their super-heroic counterparts The Inhumans, while Jekyll & Hyde, and Frankenstein, with an atomic-age update, spawned the Hulk. Kirby’s egalitarian optimism was invested in JFK, whose assassination triggered a darker turn to his stories. He based brothers Loki, and Thor, competing for father Odin’s favour, on Marvel colleagues Stan Lee, Lee’s artist brother Larry Leiber, and their uncle and publisher, Martin Goodman. This detail, enriches Scioli’s Kirby with a dash of mischievous Loki himself. More seriously, Scioli makes a compelling case for the extent of Kirby’s contribution to Marvel, in creating not just the lucrative characters and concepts, but a decade of enduring stories. Sick and tired of Lee hogging both payment and recognition, Kirby left for rivals DC.
Even over 200 pages, this is a packed book. Scioli writes with hard won economy, and nails the details that bring each scene to life. Few readers will find anything significant missing, or fail to find some fascinating details. Best insight of the book? Perhaps Kirby watching Star Wars, and observing that not only is Darth Vader his own character Doctor Doom, but also that his relationship to Luke mirrors that of Darkseid and Orion from his New Gods.
Some elements test the suspension of disbelief, such as rabbis expelling demons from ill young ‘Jakie’, or GI Kirby dispatching a group of Nazis with a dagger plucked from their officer’s boot. Still, as a major modern myth-maker, Kirby has surely earned the right to create some myths about himself.
Scioli is an accomplished illustrator. He pastiched Kirby on Fantastic Four: Grand Design, and (the New Gods channeling) Gødland, but dials down the excitement here, in favour of biographical gravitas. Beyond the trademark ‘crackle’ on the cover, the most Kirbyesque element is Jack himself. The addition of huge manga eyes may divide opinion, but it makes Jack instantly recognisable amongst the large, and more naturalistically rendered, cast. Scioli renders in his signature pencil, which makes conceptual sense, as Kirby’s originals were in pencil, and lost beneath the inks of others. Scioli’s re-creation of Kirby’s pages (featured image), therefore gives the added value of seeing an unearthed pencil original. The painted colouring adds clarity, if not evocation of his subject’s artwork. It’s all on a yellowed newsprint background, a now familiar, but still appealing device. However, having the colour and ‘paper’ reflect each era would have added an extra dimension.
This is both a page-turning biography of a key creator, and comprehensive history of American comics through his eyes. Tom Scioli superpowers the case for Kirby’s contribution to the medium, and lack of due credit. Were Kirby alive to see it, he’d surely be delighted.