‘Jack Kirby: the Epic Life of the King of Comics’
Tom Scioli’s graphic novel gives the master his due
Anyone who knows anything about comics considers Jack Kirby to be the most prolific, innovative, and influential comics artist and writer of all time. Kirby created (or co-created, depending on your view of Stan Lee) virtually all of the characters that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more than a few across the street at DC Comics. His tenure in comics spanned six decades. Every part of the comics world owes a debt to Kirby’s creative genius, which often bleeds over into mainstream media.
Kids that grew up adoring Kirby’s comic-book creations would become comics writers and artists themselves, or they went into animation or, in the case of novelist Michael Chabon, they’d channel their Kirby fandom into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Tom Scioli is one such Kirby acolyte, a talented artist and writer who followed in his idol’s footsteps as the creative mind behind 2019’s best-selling Fantastic Four: Grand Design graphic novel, a vital reimagining of the original Marvel supergroup’s mythology. As the recently-published graphic novel Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics showcases, Scioli has a profound respect for the comics legend that borderlines on the obsessive.
Scioli has chosen a visual format pioneered by Kirby to tell the legend’s story, often re-creating panels from Kirby’s better-known works to help with the narrative. A beautiful hardback book with imaginative artwork and creative coloring, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics deeply sourcs from previous tomes such as former Kirby assistant Mark Evanier’s 2008 book Kirby: King of Comics and Stan Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) as well as past Kirby interviews with The Comics Journal and what I’m sure is a quarter-century of dog-eared copies of The Jack Kirby Collector fanzine.
Kirby did many interviews over his lifetime, as well as a number of convention appearances (the artist was, possibly, the first creator of note to recognize the commercial viability of comics conventions), so there’s lots of source material available for Scioli to draw from. Wherever possible, he lets Kirby the storyteller weave his tale in his own words. Scioli’s Jack Kirby is definitely a labor of love, a graphic account of the artist’s storied life and career, beginning with his family’s roots in Austria and their immigration to America; Kirby’s impoverished childhood growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (which would have a profound effect on his legendary work ethic); and his early love of comic strips by artists like Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant).
Kirby transcended his often-violent childhood to take his self-taught artistic skills first to the newspaper syndicates cranking out Sunday funnies, then to the animation sweatshops, before landing in the relatively-new world of comics. If he’d done nothing but dream up the Captain America character with his creative partner Joe Simon, Kirby’s place in American pop culture would be etched in stone. Scioli goes into depth detailing Kirby’s military service during World War II, his return to civilian life, the ups-and-downs of the industry during the late 1940s and throughout the ‘50s, and the revitalization of comics with the superhero-dominated 1960s. Kirby literally worked in every comics genre during his career. Superheroes, war comics, science fiction, horror, monster stories, he could handle it all.
Scioli doesn’t shy away from discussing Kirby’s problems with publishers, his often-fraught relationship with Marvel comics figurehead Stan Lee, and his struggles for better pay, royalties, and the return of original artwork, which has since become a significant source of income for poorly-paid comics artists. In his prime, Kirby would draw three or four pages a day, resulting in literally tens of thousands of pages over the course of his career. Scioli details the dynamism with which Kirby imbued his art, his natural narrative ability, his unique usage of the English language, his street-smart intellectualism, his satirical streak, and his uncanny ability to take readers into the future.
Scioli may be a Kirby acolyte, but he’s no mere mimic. While the master’s visual style influences his artwork in “Jack Kirby”, and his use of the traditional grid of panels seldom breaks form, Scioli’s style is more cartoony than fantastic, more humanist than otherworldly, befitting the book’s grounded subject matter. He portrays Jack Kirby as a wide-eyed protagonist with an almost angelic aura, and there are more than enough visual recreations of various Kirby milestones (character creations, panel artwork, beloved cover art) to make even the mildest of Kirby fanboys shake with glee. Like Kirby, Scioli also fills his panels with the little details that a reader barely notices but which improve the story in inestimable ways.
Scioli doesn’t end the story with Kirby’s death in 1994 at the age of 76. He continues past the initial posthumous accolades to touch upon the creator’s enormous influence on the subsequent Marvel and DC movie universes, and his children’s fight to see their father rightfully credited for his creative contributions (a case that made its way to the Supreme Court before reaching a settlement). Jack’s relationship with his wife Roz is a recurring motif throughout the book, and it’s questionable whether or not Kirby would have been as ambitiously creative without her love and enduring support. Every line he drew, Kirby did for the love of the form and his love of family, pushing himself to sit at his drawing table for 12 hours a day for decades.
With Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Tom Scioli does an admirable job in not only further mythologizing the life and career of an enormously-talented creator, but also in spotlighting Kirby’s many accomplishments as not only the architect of the Marvel Comics universe but as one of the influential founding fathers of the comic book art form and a leader in the fight for creators’ rights. I highly recommended this book not only for any Jack Kirby fan, but for any fan of comics art and visual storytelling.