Thursday, March 06, 2008

Kirby: King Of Comics

It should come as little surprise that I'm a fan of Jack Kirby. I grew up on his creations, and I'm thrilled today that I can contribute in any small way to his legacy. So it should also come as little surprise that I've been eagerly awaiting Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics since he announced it some time ago. (As I recall, he unofficially started it at Jack's funeral when Roz Kirby asked, "So when are you going to start writing Jack's biography?" To which Mark replied, "Well, now, I guess.") Of course, the danger with such a long lead time is that it can build up one's expectations to a level that's too high to realistically achieve. Fortunately, Mark's generally pretty self-deprecating and usually works overtime to ensure that no one ever expects more from him than they might expect from a sixth grader.

In any event, I got my copy of Kirby: King of Comics this week, promptly ripped off the cellophane and started flipping through the large volume. The first thing that pops out is, not surprisingly, Jack's artwork. The book is filled with pencil sketches, inked production art, and reproductions of his printed work. Not to mention a number of photos. But each piece of art often takes up an entire page, making Jack's dynamic page and panel layouts explode past the very borders of the paper itself! People have long talked about how Jack's characters were too big for the confines of a comic book panel, and here shows that they're frequently too big for a comic book too! Each page of art comes across something like a Roy Lichtenstein painting... only more impressive.

You know the cover to Captain America Comics #1, right? With Cap leaping across the room and knocking Hitler's lights out? I have never seen it look as awe-inspiring as I have in this book.

"But, Sean," you might say, "I've seen Jack's artwork before. Unless I really want to scrutinize his work, why should I get this book?"

A fine question, which I shall answer by way of anecdote.

I first became aware of Jack Kirby through his creation: the Fantastic Four. As I began reading about the FF every month, I slowly learned about how they were created back in 1961. And as I realized how huge of an impact Jack had on the development of the characters and their world, I began reading more about him. At some point, my interest shifted from the characters to the creator. I began to recognize that, no matter how much I learned about the FF, their adventures were decidedly finite and quantifiable. They had appeared in precisely so many comic book stories, and that was it. Jack, on the other hand, was a real person who seemed to have a pretty interesting life himself. And while his life here on Earth was finite, it seemed that there was much more that could be learned about him.

Now, you've read a Jack Kirby comic book before, haven't you? And, even if you didn't like his illustration style, I think you'd be lying to yourself if you didn't admit that the story was powerful and crackling with energy. Jack couldn't draw people standing around talking without imbuing them with limitless verve. The reason he could do that is because that's what his life was like.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting he put on tights and shot laser beams out of his eyes or anything. But his life was a never-ending battle for truth and justice. When he felt slighted or wronged, he fought for his rights, regardless of how much the odds were stacked against him. He was physically a small man and carried around a kind heart, but if you attacked him or his family, you could bet you'd have your keister shoved into the nearest garbage can before you knew what hit you.

Art imitates Life, as they say.

Back to your question, then. The actual biography of Jack Kirby, as written by Mark Evanier, reads like a Jack Kirby comic book. You read through a Kirby comic, and your head is filled with grand characters and powerful imagery going through the most amazing adventures. And even when there's some down time in the story, you can still tell that the engine's revving in the background, waiting for someone to let loose the brakes. That's how Mark's bio of Jack reads. It comes across almost more as an adventure novel than a biography, with great characters and snappy dialogue.

Don't mistake my meaning there. Mark never really makes light of the more serious aspects of Jack's life, but the book reads like a biography of Jack should read. It's almost larger than life, and gives the man the respect often only reserved for the likes of Winston Churchill or John Kennedy. It's only appropriate that Jack's biography take on the tone of the serialized stories he spent so much of his life creating, and I only mean to pay Mark the highest of compliments by comparing this book to one of Jack's comics.

Some of the details and anecdotes were new to me, so I expect most people will find the information itself interesting and original. Between the incredible pages of art, the incredible characters and great story, it's hard not rate this extremely highly. Jack Kirby was the lead character of his own comic book and, while no one could even hope of capturing the true grandeur of his life, Mark does a stellar job.
No one did comics quite like Jack. And no one did them better. In light of Jack not having drawn his own story in comic book form, Kirby: King of Comics is as close as anyone could hope for.

Of course, now Mark's got me that much more eager for the "real", more-information-than-you-can-hope-for, only-dyed-in-the-wool-Kirbyphiles-apply, monster biography of Jack that Mark has talked about doing more specifically for the comic fan market!

2 comments:

Rob said...

Do you know when the other bio will be out? Or will this take a couple of years too?? Just wondering if you'd suggest picking this one up, or waiting on the other one.

Sean Kleefeld said...

My understanding is that the other one will be several years out. Unless you're REALLY keeping a lid on your finances over the long term, I'd go ahead and pick this one up.