Epic Life of the King Comics Review

By | Tuesday, August 11, 2020 1 comment
Tom Scioli is well-known for an illustration style that strongly resembles Jack Kirby's, so it makes sense that he would be the one to craft a graphic novel biography of Kirby. Of course, the danger in this is that he's effectively raising the bar on himself, particularly after working in this vein for over two decades now. Over the years, he has proven himself to be a very talented storyteller, and not just a walking pastiche of Kirby, so expectations for this new work were fairly high as soon as it was announced.

The story is told from primarily Kirby's own perspective and covers from slightly before was born in 1917 until 2021 -- referencing the Eternals and New Gods films still currently under development. Scioli tries to cover everything and some of the work Kirby is most known/celebrated for -- the creation of the Fantastic Four and the subsequent Marvel Universe -- doesn't come up until page 107, over half-way through the book. I liked this aspect in that I don't think Kirby's early life is covered very much; I appreciated that Scioli was willing/able to spend a fair amount of time there. However, the down side to this is that the back half started to seem a bit rushed, as if he realized he only had so many pages left to work with and had to hit a lot of things quickly in order to get the rest of it in. I think the book could comfortably have been another 20-25% longer, but I expect there were publisher/pricing considerations to take into account.

The book also covers Kirby's personal life beyond comics. Beyond just his childhood, we see his romance with his future wife Roz, his time in the army, his time with his kids and (to a lesser extent) his grandkids. While Kirby certainly spent much of his life in/around comics, we do see him in a more rounded light here. And while I never had the pleasure to meet Kirby in person myself, from the clips and interviews that I have seen of him, Scioli seems to do a good job capturing his character throughout the book.

I've been studying Kirby for decades now, so there was little in here that I didn't already know. But what Scioli does put in clearly involved a great deal of research. Some of the incidents and anecdotes that were included here were ones I've only seen discussed once or twice. The more well-known stories are in there, too, of course, but that that Scioli was able to include as much as he did helped to give that well-rounded look at Kirby that I mentioned earlier.

Another aspect I quite liked was how Scioli transitioned from one period to another. Frequently, when I see writing about Kirby, it's focused on a very specific time period or a very specific aspect of his career. What I don't see often are those transition periods: after he left Mainline but before he started back at DC, after he left Marvel but before his first issue of Jimmy Olsen came out, after he left Marvel (again) but before he started working at Ruby-Spears, etc. It would have been easy to put decisive chapter breaks between them, but Scioli opts for a more continuous story flow. He hits all of those different eras but ensures that they connect with one another smoothly. I think this is something most looks at Kirby's life don't do very well.

It's obviously worth mentioning the art itself. Scioli opts here for using a pencils-only approach, so it doesn't bear as close a resemblance to the actual Kirby art you're probably more familiar with, regardless if you prefer Joe Sinnott or Vince Colletta or Mike Royer or anyone else inking his work. Futher, while Scioli does still primarily draw the book in a style reminiscent of Kirby, the drawings of Kirby himself are decidedly not drawn in the same style but something more akin to manga. I don't know if this was an attempt to put the reader more in Kirby's shoes, as the figure doesn't resemble Kirby as much as other characters resemble the actual people they are depicting. Given that the only other figure in the book that's really cartooned at all is Stan Lee (although not to the extent that Kirby is) I suspect that may be the case. And while I don't mind the idea conceptually, it did prove a little distracting when Kirby was interacting with other real world people. I wonder if the cartooning approach to Kirby would've meshed better if Scioli drew him perhaps more akin to Kirby's own self-caricature from "This Is a Plot?" or something.

I will also note that Scioli's research in the illustration shines again. A great many panels were drawn from actual photographs and/or comic book pages. Scioli redraws all the artwork superbly (regardless if it was originally by Kirby or another artist) and the photo references all seem to drop in organically -- they don't feel like he was drawing it in just because he had that particular photo to reference. While the average reader probably wouldn't recognize many of the photos, that Scioli uses them in a natural manner lends additional credence to the story he's telling. The reader gets the sense that, yup, this is what happened.

I think all but the most knowledgeable Kirby afficiandos will learn something about the King of Comics from this book. And while there are few minor elements to the execution I wouldn't have minded seeing changed and lengthened a bit, it's still an excellent book and helps present a solid picture of Jack Kirby, the man over Jack Kirby, the legend.
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Gratteful for sharing this