A creative force to be reckoned with in the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages of American comics, Jack Kirby (né Kurtzberg) pretty much created the look-and-feel of the archetypal superhero as we know it today. Think about it. The reason so much other Golden Age artwork, even that in the service of classic stories and characters, strikes readers today as charming and quaint is that they’re so un-Kirbyesque: They resemble Saturday afternoon serials in comparison, colorful and imaginative but generally polite and safe, not to mention stagy. When Kirby burst onto the scene—and kept bursting over the ensuing decades—the impact on his audience was more like that of special-effects-laden blockbuster movie or an immersive videogame: the explosive action and heightened visual drama seemed barely contained by those fragile little panel borders.
Of course many who worked in the industry, including its canniest operators and creators—people like Joe Simon and Stan Lee—knew that Kirby was something special. Yet sadly what the majority of publishers and editorial bigwigs over the years seemed to value most was his mind-boggling productivity. And what of the average comic book reader? Over time many came to know Kirby’s name and his unmistakable style, but, even more sadly, it was only during his years of semi-retirement and retirement that he was publicly acknowledged in a way that was commensurate with his achievements. Although by all accounts affable, loyal, and fun-to-be-around, Kirby was apparently lacking in the self-promotional and business skills that comic book artists today know that they need to some degree, even if they aren’t happy about this. When combined with his basic faith in others’ goodwill and a tendency to play things conservatively so as to be assured of providing a baseline income for his family, Kirby was remorselessly taken advantage of. As the opening chapter eloquently puts it: “It was his spin on the American Dream: You make your boss rich and he’ll take care of you. All Jack’s life he believed in that, no matter how many times the bosses got rich and he didn’t.”
A long-time Kirby friend and assistant, Evanier spins this tragicomic story with such conviction and such a keen eye for the revealing incident that one finishes the book wishing that it would be adapted into a gripping miniseries starring someone like Joe Mantegna or Chazz Palminteri. In fact, it’s a tale filled with so many ups-and-downs, and so many instances of irony and reversals of fortune, that it’s almost as if a clever pop culture historian had made it up. We get young Jack toiling away on Popeye in the famous Fleischer Studios as sub-journeyman animator, then being grateful to land a gig with Will Eisner, and then eventually becoming the key figure along with Eisner in the pioneering of sequential storytelling on the page-basis (i.e., comic books rather than comic strips). Along the way he meets a jumped-up office gofer named Stan Lee who tries to learn all he can from Kirby in between fetching him coffee. The highlight of the early phase of Kirby’s career was, of course, the co-creation of Captain America, a character that Kirby and Simon would follow up with numerous other patriotic-themed heroes, some serious, some tongue-in-cheek. When superheroes died down in the lull before the Silver Age really hit its full stride, Kirby persevered by extending his talent into the crime, Western, romance, and dark fantasy genres, and Evanier includes samples of all of these that help validate his subject’s nickname (one that he largely shunned, by the way) as the “king” of the medium.
That’s actually the chief virtue of Evanier’s efforts in portraying Kirby’s aesthetic contributions to comics—the author simply puts one incredible example after another in front of readers, who are then free to form opinions based on the evidence at hand. Some of these pieces of art depict classic Marvel and DC characters whose emblematic quality fans will quickly appreciate (the last reproduction in the book is a heartbreaking series of panels from Fantastic Four). Others are beyond-rare and make one feel like part of a museum tour: a Hanukkah card featuring the Thing, one-off illustrations for NASA and the NFL, a pencil sketch done for Paul McCartney showing him and Linda meeting Magneto. It’s in this role as expert curator that Evanier really shines. However, while the text and art frequently reference and illustrate the well-known dynamism and power of Kirby’s art, don’t look for explicit explanations and clarifications. You simply won’t find careful deconstructions of a given page or a panel even when they would have been most welcome. Just how did Kirby use page layout, panel composition, line weight, figure positioning, and cartooning conventions (e.g., motion lines) to achieve his startling effects? Readers must glean such answers by studying the art themselves. There’s also not much commentary regarding Kirby’s evolution as an artist despite the existence of thousands of pages of comic art that document his growth. One comparison that comes to mind concerns the Beatles: like the Fab Four, Kirby started out by leveraging his knack for creating high-energy, straightforward fun and then gradually became increasingly “cosmic” and visionary, not to mention idiosyncratic, as time went on.
Still, maybe these are topics for a different book. This one is anchored by emotions more than anything else. Indeed, what distinguishes it is Evanier’s “inside baseball” approach to the material, and he clearly makes generalizations about Kirby based upon the quarter century he spent in his company. In this sense, Kirby: King of Comics is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an authorized biography. In fact, given how close he was to his subject, it’s remarkable how even-handed and diplomatic Evanier is in chronicling the various slights Kirby suffered at the hands of industry leaders.
On the other hand, one can’t help but suspect that perhaps because of his relationship with Kirby, the author doesn’t pursue certain areas of inquiry and criticism—not intentionally, as a form of hagiography, but simply because he lacks the distance from his subject that such approaches necessitate. For example, Kirby’s combat experiences in World War II are mentioned, but nowhere do we get a sense of how these formed—or changed—his notions of heroism, violence, and sacrifice as reflected in the numerous comics he created that dealt in such themes. For that matter, what about the actual content of those early adventures of Captain America, one of Kirby’s signature creations and often considered one of the prime examples of pop culture propaganda? And what about their racist depictions of the Japanese? Even if Kirby wasn’t directly responsible for such dehumanizing imagery, what, at least, was his reaction to it even if only in hindsight?
One expects the final chapters of such a sprawling but positive portrait to yield a sentimental coda with some concluding but rather predictable remarks. And, yes, to a degree those elements are present in Kirby: King of Comics—but only to a degree. In many ways, the ‘80s and ‘90s represented one of the most interesting periods of Kirby’s life, and arguably the most poignant. Evanier does a wonderful job of balancing the personal and professional sea-changes that marked these years. Readers can’t help but sense how liberating it must have felt to Kirby to benefit from employer-provided health insurance through his animation work, or the financial piece of mind he must have enjoyed from retrieving some 2,000 pieces of original art from Marvel’s clutches.
Moreover, being respected by a whole generation of creators and animators who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s must have been indescribably gratifying. Of course these professionals were fans as kids and teens, and it’s the changing role of fandom that Evanier is careful to pay attention to. The advent of the direct market not only created additional revenue streams for publishers and creators, but also a subculture that increasingly bestowed star status on individual artists—not just characters, “universes,” and publishing houses. These days we may be sick of the hype that flows from comic book stardom but Kirby: King of Comics helps us see it in the context of a contrasting age in which “names”—and the individual talent—were, to be blunt, unimportant. To some extent artists were even considered interchangeable, which is why Marvel could see nothing shady about having another artist trace over a Kirby poster of the Hulk and then take full credit for it. The most obvious irony is that Kirby, with his distinctive style and overflowing creativity, not only helped a dedicated, adult-driven comics fandom to develop, but (as Evanier points out), his individuality helped move comics away from the emphasis on a uniform “house style.” In effect, Kirby’s work over half a century created the financial and ethical framework for the field that has since benefited countless artists who have never known anything else… but which benefited Kirby himself only in the twilight of his life. For this reason it’s safe to say that while Evanier may have set out to offer heartfelt praise to a towering figure in a particular art form, in the end he penned a tribute to countless other artists—both within comics and without—who were born too early, or never lived long enough, to enjoy the fruits of recognition due them.
Reviewed by Peter Gutiérrez on July 9, 2012