This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics by Tom Scioli.
Biographies aren’t always the first thing you think of when you think of graphic novels, and vice versa. But the thing is a graphic novel is a fantastic way to tell a person’s life story, or a portion there of, that isn’t often used as much as it could be. Graphic novel biographies are a wonderfully unique way of telling a story that you really can’t capture the same way with a prose book. By utilizing the graphic novel format, the creative team have the opportunity to bring the story to life with picture, or temper the harshness of what the biography’s subject went through so that the reader can take more of the story in (seriously, imagine the first entry with realistic artwork). Or the artwork can tell give you a subtlety that’s missing in other mediums as you’re more readily able to spend time pouring over the images in front of you. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I think graphic novels are an underrated method of telling a biographical story.
Biographies told in the graphic novel format have been around for awhile, and I’ve found are often my preferred way to read story about a person’s life. Maus for example would be a much harder book to read in prose, and part of Spiegleman’s genius is in how he still conveys the horror of his father’s story with the art that’s never cute or adorable, but wouldn’t look out of place next to Andy Capp in your Sunday supplement (this isn’t a knock against the book – it remains one of my favourite graphic novels because of exactly this; the balance of the art to the horror is perfect and frequently left me questioning how I would be reacting if the art was realistic or had the story been told in prose with vivid descriptions).
But when it comes to reading a graphic novel, even a near 200 page one, to learn about the rich history of a subject, then there is an obvious trade off with the amount of information you can fit into a graphic novel verses a text book – sometimes that matters, and others it doesn’t.
I’ve read a few biographies of Kirby over the years (Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King Of Comics is probably my favourite), but this is the first biography of Kirby I’ve read in the graphic form. Other than some minor details, Scioli doesn’t tell me anything that I wasn’t already at least partly aware of, though that’s not because he doesn’t have a well researched book (he really does), but rather because this isn’t the first Kirby biography I have ever read – Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, published by Ten Speed Press, is a thoroughly engaging read, and Scioli’s dedication to the presentation of the book shines through early with a scene of young Kirby reading comics for one of the first times.
This is told from Kirby’s perspective, which does lead to him being portrayed in a very flattering light, but given the author’s well documented reverence for Kirby, I’m genuinely impressed that Scioli is somewhat restrained at the same time; he never crosses into a full worship of the comics legend (which is very easy to do given how much respect Kirby is due and how much he often gets outside of the comics community).
Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics is a really good book; it’s often overlooked in a lot of the circles I run in because it’s both a graphic novel and a biography – the combination of which never seems to excite people as much as a fictional graphic novel (or comic). It’s a shame, because this book is an ideal start to learning about Jack Kirby, and will propel you into reading the comics he so loved to create.
In the meantime, Underrated will return to highlight more comic book related stuff that either gets ignored despite it’s high quality, or maybe isn’t quite as bad as we tend to think it is.