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Sunday, April 06, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Kirby: King of Comics

It seems I discovered Jack Kirby at the worst possible time. I started reading comics in the early 1970s, but I was pretty much a Marvel zombie, thus missing New Gods and the other books from his "Fourth World" until about a decade later. So when the "Jack is back!" mantra came to Marvel in the mid-1970s, I was excited to see the work of the legendary KING of comics. Boy, was I disappointed. Captain America seemed to be a character from another time. The formerly sleek Black Panther seemed cartoony. And Devil Dinosaur?!

So it wasn't until I started working at a comic book store in Albany called FantaCo when I got to really get an understanding of Jack Kirby's significance, and more importantly, tremendous skills in developing the Marvel universe that I knew and loved. And digging further, I recognized his prolific output in the pre-Marvel days.

But it took the Mark Evanier book, Kirby: King of Comics, before I got the full measure of the man born Jacob Kurzberg on August 28, 1913 in New York City. More than just a narrative, this small coffee-table presented artwork from his days as a comic strip writer working under several pseudonyms and his work for several comic book companies.

A couple core narratives flow through the book: 1) Jack was creative and fast, 2) Jack obsessed with financial security, though largely did not know how to achieve this, long before the disputes over what parts of the classic Marvel universe Jack was responsible for and how much writer/editor Stan Lee created. Jack, not always glib of tongue, had a strong sense of justice and often thought that his hard work would get him the financial remuneration to which he was undoubtedly entitled. If Evanier, Kirby's assistant and friend for a number of years, tends to err on the side of his subject, it seems consistent with the throngs of Kirby fans who believe that Jack has gotten ripped off, not just monetarily but also in terms of credit.

This may not the definitive Kirby biography that some may have been seeking - at 219 pages, over half are full-page illustrations or pictures, and many other pages have accompanying art on them - but I'm happy to own it, perhaps BECAUSE of the many pictures from over the years. Incidentally, Amazon suggested that the book would take two to five weeks, but I ordered it on February 29, and it arrived on my birthday, March 7, a mere week later.

I spoke to Jack Kirby only a couple times, chronicled here. At that time, I was just beginning to get a sense of what a great contributor to comic-book art - no, scratch that, ART - he was.

One criticism of the book was that Evanier didn't take advantage of his long association to dig deeper inside the man, but I get the sense that Jack was who Jack was, with no psychobabble analysis needed. And the one story that Mark told about himself and Jack at the end of the book was both moving and a good representation of Jack's character.

So, thanks, Mark. And thank you, Jack.
ADD's review.



Alan David Doane said...

Thanks for the link to my review, Roger, and thanks even more for bringing more attention to one of the best comics-related books of the year.

Evanier has said that he is working on a much longer bio of Kirby; I don't know if that is still in the works or not, but in the meantime, Kirby: King of Comics is a great celebration of the man and his art.

RAB said...

Yeah, Mark has been clear all along that he is doing a Kirby biography and that this current book isn't it. I have a feeling -- this is pure supposition on my part, and does not reflect any statement by Mark -- that the healthy sales figures on this book have made it a lot easier to get that biography published when the time comes.

Also, that biography when it arrives is certain to be full of previously unrevealed facts and empirically verifiable data...but it may not be any "deeper" in the psychological sense. Mark doesn't do psychoanalysis -- that's just not his approach to writing -- and even if he did, he'd probably consider it presumptuous to speculate on the inner life of someone like Kirby. That's not meant as a criticism of Mark; writers have to come at these things from their own individual directions, and Mark's approach is a very material, let's get down to brass tacks kind of direction. The speculation and theorizing is left to others like me, who will happily spin outrageous theories untroubled by reality... ;-)