Kirby at War! Review

By | Thursday, May 21, 2020 1 comment
Kirby at War
A few years ago, a documentary came out called Kirby at War! that was focused on Jack Kirby's actual experiences during World War II. I was disappointed at the time, though, that it was entirely in French and I wasn't able to watch it. However, Paul Gravett alerted me to the fact that it has now been dubbed into English and is conveniently available on Amazon Prime. I'm not sure when the English version was released or when it was added to Prime, but it's there now at any rate!

The vast majority of work talking about Jack Kirby, not surprisingly, focuses on his comics. Which makes sense. He worked in the industry for about a half century, and created or co-created some of the most iconic characters in the medium. Less discussed, though, is his time in the US military during World War II. Which also makes sense. He was drafted in 1943 and wasn't sent to the front lines until a year later, where he was on the front lines before being injured and hospitalized less than five months later. In January 1945, he was stateside. The army was proportionally a very small part of his life. However, it was an incredibly impactful part of his life and this documentary focuses on Jack's time on active duty, and how that impacted his work.

For whatever reason, I have a blind spot for military strategy. I don't know if it's some peace-loving hippie bias or what, but I have a great deal of difficulty in understanding when people explain troop movements and deployments and such. However, the first half of Kirby at War! follows Kirby's movements across Europe, combining archival footage, re-enactments, animated maps, contemporary shots of the locations as they look today, and Kirby's own artwork. Perhaps because it was focused on a single individual's movements, or maybe because of the particular combination of presentations, it was easier for me to follow, and I didn't have the usual issues that come up for me in these types of overviews. For the first time, I got a decent understanding of where Kirby was and when throughout the war.

The other thing that this helped cement in my mind are the broad situations Kirby faced. I've heard more than a couple of his war stories (not directly from him, mind you -- via recordings and transcripts) but those were all specific incidents. What I found interesting here was that they (mostly) eschewed from referring to those specific events at all, and instead put their emphasis on what his entire company faced. This wasn't "The Adventures of Pvt. Kirby" -- this was "How the Unit Pvt. Kirby Was in Got Decimated from 1200 Troops Down to Just Over 200." Putting it in that context, I think, emphasizes what Kirby witnessed more than those individual stories.

The use of Kirby's art throughout the documentary cleverly helps to underscore the film's main premise that some part of Kirby continued living in WWII throughout his career. That much of what he did for decades afterwards was an effort to excise the demons that haunted him. (Mark Evanier notes at one point that Kirby did indeed continue to sometimes wake up screaming in a cold sweat well into his 60s and 70s.) They film does use a few minor animations to take advantage of the medium, but these are limited -- think more "artistic pans and zooms" and less "1966 Marvel Super Heroes attempt at a cartoon." Interestingly, many of the re-enactments include actual animations of Kirby-style graphics. As troops are running across a battlefield, for example, the explosions are animated in a Kirby-esque style around them. It's very well executed, making a surprisingly effective mix of live action and animation, and it comes across as a fairly sophisticated approach.

The second half of the documentary focuses more on Kirby's ongoing legacy including chats with some of Kirby's children and grandchildren, Jack Kirby Collector publisher/editor John Morrow, and long-time friend and collaborator Mark Evanier. Much of this takes place during Comic-Con International in 2017, which celebrated what would have been Kirby's 100th birthday.

Overall, the film is excellent! It's very well made, and covers a fair amount of content that I was either wholly or partially ignorant of. My only real complaint is that I would've liked it to have been longer so we could get even more details about Kirby's time at the front. But it was excellently put together and I dare say that the vast majority of folks -- even Jack Kirby fans! -- will learn something from it.
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Billy Hogan said...

Thanks for reviewing the documentary and providing a link to it on Amazon Prime. I just finished watching it, and I'm glad I did. Thanks again for bringing it to my attention.