Jack Kir­by: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

  • Review
By – October 12, 2020

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.

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