Review: Jack Kirby – The Epic Life of the King of Comics
Coming off his work on Fantastic Four Grand Design as judging by his art style and themes in comics like Super Powers, Godland, and American Barbarian, cartoonist Tom Scioli is an excellent choice to write, draw, color, and letter a graphic biography of Jack Kirby, who co-created Captain America, Hulk, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, New Gods, and characters too numerous to mention. In Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Scioli tells the story of Kirby’s life using a first-person narrative device drawing on a backlog of interviews and magazine articles about him while occasionally shifting the narrator to his beloved wife, Roz Kirby, and his collaborator/rival/general pain in the ass, Stan Lee to show their sides of Kirby’s life.
The main takeaway I got from Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics was that his life and vivid imagination were almost always linked, and Scioli shows this by drawing Kirby wide-eyed, almost like Astro Boy compared to his more realistic portrayals of the characters around him. There ends up being a big, emotional payoff to this technique, and it’s interesting to see Scioli’s art style shift with the time that Kirby was living in from the classic adventure and humor strips that took him away from gloomy New York to the power and pain of his war days where he escaped death so many times. This is followed up by the chameleon days of the 1950s where Kirby and Joe Simon tried to keep up with the latest trends in the industry like crime and Westerns and even invented a new one: romance, the 1960s where Kirby turned monsters into superheroes and created pop culture icons, the 1970s where he was freed from dialogue balloon fillers-in and could create a new mythology that was both epic and personal.
Finally, the story concludes in Kirby’s twilight years where he finally got things like health insurance and paid days off to take a trip to Israel with Roz and spend more time with his family while working in animation, getting royalties for his New Gods characters, and getting his greatest paycheck yet when the Image Comics founders inked some of his old, unpublished art to create Phantom Force. After Kirby’s death, Scioli does away with his usual six panel grid and uses smaller screens with photorealistic drawings of everything from Frank Miller eulogizing him to photorealistic style panels of stills from movies from 2000’s X-Men to the upcoming Eternals and New Gods, which draw almost solely from his vision.
But for every great idea or creation, there’s a reversal with Jack Kirby spending as much time in heated arguments in offices and occasionally court rooms as at the drawing board creating stories and worlds. However, Tom Scioli spends plenty of time showing Jack Kirby in the act of penciling or plotting comics drawing on everything from a documentary about Easter Island to the personality differences between conniving Stan Lee and affable Larry Lieber (Who was huge fan of Kirby’s Captain America as a kid) to develop the first bad guys in Journey into Mystery (And later, Thor.) as well as the relationship between Thor, Loki, and Odin. From early pages where Kirby is sprawled out with the full color Sunday comics section on his building’s fire escape, Scioli portrays him as sponge for stories and pop culture of all kinds, especially mythology and speculative fiction.
Instead of being a nerd and hoarding comics or toys in his room, Kirby combined these rich stories with his experiences as a member of a youth gang in New York or as a soldier in World War II to create stories that are both relatable and full of wonder even if a few like Stuntman and True Divorce Stories didn’t get made or got less hype than Captain America or Fantastic Four. Every movie, conversation, or story told to him became fodder for Kirby’s own work, and those around him realize this before him. For example, in the 1970s, DC Comics wanted him to do a horror story in the vein of Swamp Thing, which wasn’t his favorite genre, so after a pep talk from his assistants Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, he created Etrigan the Demon by riffing off a scene in Prince Valiant where the protagonist disguises himself as one. Scioli’s grid darts from inspiration or conversation to penciled page and then success. (Or sometimes failure) However, that success is undercut by the exploitation that is a running theme throughout the comic, and it’s almost cathartic when the Ruby-Spears animators treat Kirby reverently as he works on the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon.
Tom Scioli’s most visually compelling sequences in Jack Kirby are the portrayal of his war days where he acted as a scout going through enemy territory and using his talents that he previously lent to Captain America or Boy Commandos to maps of Nazi positions. There’s the uncertainty of the early days of training in Georgia and hiding out in buildings in France before being immediately drawn into combat during the heady post D-Day battles. Scioli’s bright or neutral palette goes dark or red as he realizes that his unit is basically on a suicide mission, and this tension continues to Kirby’s days as a scout with lots of lots of scarlet when he kills Nazis with a knife taken from an SS officer. It’s not dynamic and powerful like Jack Kirby’s superhero action stories; it’s just war. Kirby was just fighting to stay alive for another day and get home to see his wife, Roz. The most searing scene of all is when Kirby helps liberate a concentration camp, and Scioli draws a survivor like a living skeleton.
Kirby’s resistance towards fascism from basically telling the German American Bund that he would beat their asses if they showed up at Timely’s (Later Marvel) offices before World War II to his actions during the war and finally through some of his comics like Nick Fury and The Losers, which were based on his military service and the Fourth World saga, which was about freedom and resisting tyranny on a larger more epic level that would influence later creators like George Lucas. (Jack and Roz Kirby watching Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back together in theaters is one of the comic’s most smile inducing moments.) These Star Wars sequences are one of many ways that Tom Scioli looks at the bigger picture of the comics industry, pop culture, and current events to add background color and context to Jack Kirby’s life and work. For example, a depiction of JFK’s assassination immediately bleeds into Mr. Fantastic lying as if dead on the ground as part of Kirby’s big Hulk vs Thing epic in Fantastic Four. He immediately turned his emotions about this tragic event into great art.
In a more of an inside baseball way (And honestly, the comics industry of the Golden and Silver Ages is begging to be turned into a Mad Men-esque prestige TV show.), Tom Scioli traces the relationships between Jack Kirby and various comics industry figures over the years. Obviously, Stan Lee takes up most of the space, but there are also some smaller moments like Kirby having a friendly relationship with Bob Kane as yet another freelancer for the Eisner/Iger studio to seeing him as arrogant and obnoxious or the tension between him and his various inkers like Vince Colletta (Who showed his DC pages to Marvel staffers), Mike Royer (Who drew Big Barda like Cher and got chewed out), and Joe Sinnott (Who shows up for one panel with Kirby and a Thing cosplayer). Tom Scioli is interested in both the art and commerce side of making comics, and it shines through the loving touches he gives to both Kirby at his drawing table and Kirby in a shouting match with Stan Lee about credits on their books. His prose is zippy, and Jack Kirby’s dry as a bone humor comes out in his dialogue.
Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics is a carefully crafted, appreciative feast of a biographical comic. Tom Scioli cites his sources in the back but focuses more on trying to get in the mind of Jack Kirby and think about how he would react to everything from his parents’ deaths to another guy trying to date Roz or even Stan Lee trying to slyly steal his Mister Miracle concept art to use in Fantastic Four. With Kirby’s expressive eyes as a kind of spirit guide, the book is a heartbreaking, yet empowering experience, and by the end of the book, I thought that not only would this website not exist without Jack Kirby, that I probably wouldn’t either. And now I’m off to actually finish his Fourth World saga!
Story: Tom Scioli Art: Tom Scioli
Story: 9.0 Art: 10.0 Overall: 9.5 Recommendation: Buy