They are legendary: Captain America, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, X‑Men, Silver Surfer, Black Panther, Mister Miracle — superheroes whose names have become so embedded in American popular culture that to legions of fans they are like living, breathing beings. But of course, they aren’t. No matter how many times we see these characters on a screen, or at a toy store, or on the many pieces of ephemera that swirl in the ether of our everyday lives, what connects them all is that they sprang from the pen and imagination of Jack Kirby.
It was Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) who, along with his frequent collaborator and nemesis Stan Lee, created the lexicon of the modern superhero. His contributions to the visual language of comics remains unmatched, even decades after his death. While his stories are beloved by millions of people world-wide, the story of Kirby the man and the artist is often ignored or widely misunderstood. Though nicknamed “The King” and held in high regard by those in the industry, to the general public, Kirby is almost a footnote. But now, a new biography, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, by the cartoonist and writer Tom Scioli in the medium so associated with Kirby himself, sets out to correct this oversight.
Like Kirby , Scioli conjures up fantastical beings from other worlds. But it’s here, in this nonfiction account, that all of Scioli’s talents come to the fore. Jack Kirby is a beautifully rendered, thoroughly researched graphic biography that artfully displays even the mundane aspects of the fantastic.
By narrating historical events, Scioli not only takes readers through Kirby’s life; he also gives readers an insider’s look at the birth and (multiple) rebirths of the comics industry, from the exciting and wild Golden Age to the mega-blockbusters of the modern era. At every step of change and innovation in the comics industry, Kirby was there, creating entire new genres.
But Kirby had his flaws. He was a man of emotion — usually anger — and his professional relationships suffered as a result. The most charged rivalry found in the book isn’t between cosmic beings, but between Kirby and Stan Lee. Lee, perhaps Kirby’s best-known collaborator, was not above taking credit for characters and stories that Kirby had meticulously plotted. Scioli explores this professional friction as even-handedly as he can; he even gives some of the narrative power to Lee. But readers will know where Scioli’s sympathies lie.
There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to Kirby: “Comics will break your heart.” Though the medium is loved, the industry is not without its share of demons. Kirby was directly affected by the original sins of the early comic book companies. Yet his story is, ultimately, a uniquely American tale of inspiration. And in Scioli’s able hands, those who admire Kirby’s creations will better understand the man behind the myths.