Comics have had a history problem. Many books that touch on Marvel in the 1960s begin and end with the company version that was developed after Jack Kirby’s 1970 departure. The motivation behind an alternate history was the company’s need to preempt any intellectual property claims on Kirby’s part: he’d operated throughout the ’60s without a contract, and the incoming owners were rightly concerned. The revisionism meshed well with Stan Lee’s portrayal of his Marvel Method as an innovation in comics production, rather than the vehicle for his appropriation of other people’s writing pay, and in 1974 the first installment of the Official Version was published under his name as Origins of Marvel Comics. Compounding the situation, with the passing of labourers and fans of the Golden Age, there’s an increasing belief that comics history begins with Stan Lee creating the Fantastic Four.
The antidote to Marvel’s rewriting of history is the accounts of the freelancers: the writings of Steve Ditko and Wallace Wood, and Jack Kirby’s interviews. Tom Scioli’s Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics starts, not with the inception of the FF, but more than half a century earlier, with the inception of their real creator. Scioli employs a little-seen approach to Kirby’s story: he starts with Kirby’s interviews and treats them as the historical record. In addition to Gary Groth’s 1989 interview in The Comics Journal, he incorporates the 1985 Leonard Pitts, Jr interview, featuring Kirby’s invocation of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? In Scioli’s telling, Jack Kirby is taken at his word, as he should be.
I wouldn’t have chosen the graphic novel format for a Kirby reference book, but Scioli’s book and James Romberger’s For Real have won me over. This is a book that will bring Kirby’s epic life story to a wider audience.
Jack Kirby is a deeply researched labour of love. Scioli’s careful approach is evident in his portrayal of Kirby’s career-derailing confrontation with Jack Schiff, giving voice to Kirby’s words from his court testimony. Schiff’s intentions are obvious when the scene is acted out, but equally obvious is why the judge wasn’t convinced when Kirby expressed those words on the stand. His sense of betrayal when Jack Liebowitz testified against him is palpable.
One weak spot is the Simon and Kirby years, where a dearth of Kirby interview material, or any other supporting accounts, forces Scioli to rely on Joe Simon’s The Comic Book Makers. Kirby himself was reluctant to talk about his time with the famously litigious Simon, other than a somewhat revealing interview with James Van Hise. 1 When Simon’s book came out in 1990, Roz Kirby asked that it be kept from her husband because it would upset him; it has the same passing relationship with the facts as Lee’s Origins. Many details from Simon’s stories, already considered sacrosanct, need to be rigorously fact-checked: these include the circumstances surrounding the team’s departure from Timely, and Kirby’s alleged grudge against the teen-aged Lee for ratting them out (something Kirby never mentioned). Since Simon wasn’t present, his accounts of Kirby’s conversations with Goodman in the ‘60s could only have been imagined.
A technical point: Simon is listed as the inker of Kirby’s stories in Young Romance #1 (and the Kirby Checklist has the same error). With some exceptions of Simon inks that really stand out, Kirby was frequently his own inker until the late ‘50s. Scioli does make a point of showing Kirby in charge creatively throughout the S&K period.
Jack Kirby saw himself as primarily a writer, and from that perspective the physical effects of aging that caused him to reinvent his drawing style had no effect on the grandeur of his writing; the word decline could no more be used to describe Kirby’s later works than it could Picasso’s or Kubrick’s. Fandom’s dinosaurs, Mark Evanier and Charles Hatfield among them, hold that only fanatics can love Kirby’s later efforts. Scioli represents a different generation of Kirby readers, and his enthusiasm for the ‘80s material has always been infectious.
Appropriately, the book features a number of familiar scenes showing the recognition Kirby received in his later years. His death is marked by a solid black panel with a small date in the corner, followed by three pages of half-height panels highlighting assorted posthumous events, speeches, and screen credits. Stan Lee is perfectly summed up, without comment, in just three of these panels.
Tom and I joined the Jack Kirby internet mailing list around the same time two decades ago, and at that time, news of the Official Kirby Biography was already a few years old. If that book does someday come to fruition, it will be encumbered in various ways by the Official Company History (if not designed to dovetail with it). Tom Scioli started with a clean slate and produced a Kirby biography with everything I had hoped for. I’m thrilled that he got there first.
back 1 “Jack Kirby in the Golden Age,” Jack Kirby interviewed by James Van Hise, The Jack Kirby Collector #25, August 1999.