Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics. by Tom Scioli. Ten Speed Press, 2020. 202pp, $28.99.
A book that is doing very well these days and just got back on my radar is an in depth look at the life and times of Jack Kirby, the creator or co-creator of such icons as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther. Now, all sorts of things pop in and out on my radar but this one compels me to share. Tom Scioli feels like a doppelganger at the moment: we are both auteur cartoonists determined to get to the bottom of the story. Scioli hitched his wagon to one star and I did to another. In Scioli’s case, it is Jack Kirby. In my case, I have a book that I’m shopping around with George Clayton Johnson as your guide to a wider world. In Scioli’s case, Jack Kirby is the focus and, from there, we see a wider world too. Also, I must stress that Scioli is a one-person operation, a true auteur. That’s the same way that I roll. It’s not easy but it is most rewarding and, in fact, provides the reader with the ultimate comics artistic expression coming from one creator.
Recently, I’ve been taking a very close look at Jack Kirby and how he figures in the study of comics as a true art form. We are very enlightened about comics, as a general audience, but the dust perhaps has yet to settle on all these questions of what constitutes art. For the record, I will state again that there is no question that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. Comics is a big deal and will only continue to grow in estimation and appreciation. As for Mr. Kirby, well, of course, he was an artist of the first rank in many ways and he dazzled all of us with what he was able to accomplish. What is so fascinating about Tom Scioli’s book is that here you have a true comics artist providing his own careful and idiosyncratic look at another comics artist. This is an outstanding example of an extended study of comics created in the comics medium. We have precious little of these sort of works, comics about comics. In fact, we have far more comics about painters, novelists, and various other historical figures. Ah, but that will change. We still have plenty of time, right? No rush. We can relax and appreciate Tom Scioli’s very home-grown approach, which all adds up to visual storytelling at a deep and intimate level. Scioli has a very offbeat style as unique to him as his own handwriting or his casual chatting. So, in a sense, Scioli has pared it all down to just a regular guy holding court and riffing on one of his favorite subjects. Yes, that’s perhaps the best way to look at this book. Maybe it’s not an official biography or the last word on Jack Kirby but it is definitely an unusual and personal take on him.
Take any figure, well-known or not, and there’s a very high probability of creating a compelling story in the right hands. That is precisely what is happening here. Tom Scioli has the passionate interest in his subject and that energy propels the reader. It’s not like anyone, outside of friends and family, knew anything about the actual life lived by Jack Kirby. And some things will always be left to speculation. Here is where the power and magic of comics comes into play. The comics creator is compelled to make you, the reader, care and so the process begins from the very first page, the very first panel. On page one, we see a family history unfold back in the old country of Galicia. Kirby’s parents meet in New York City at an Austrian social and, by the next page, little Jack Kirby is born, August 28, 1917. It is a life of limited resources on the Lower East Side but it is a life full of love. By the very next page, little Jack awaits the birth of his baby brother while poring over the pages of Krazy Kat comics! And, by page four, it is clear that the only color in little Jack’s life comes from the Sunday funnies. Jack is set for a life of adversity with comics already proving to be a gateway to something more.
Fast forward and, indeed, a life emerges filled with challenge and adventure. And, of course, it is Jack’s particular life story that will bring the reader up close to how things worked at Marvel Comics, specifically the working process known as “The Marvel Method,” with the legendary big-name editor, Stan Lee–and all the complications and frustrations that wrought. But before any of that happens, a lot of rain must fall, a lot of struggle and uncertainly coupled with steadfast determination. Before Jack Kirby became part of the Marvel bullpen, he had to pay his dues in a far more modest role as part of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comic strip staff. This is a staff that included, among others, the now much despised Bob Kane, infamous for stealing credit for Batman from co-creator Bob Finger! Just one of the gems of info to be found here. As the saying goes, a creative person needs to be their one biggest fan. That is what Jack Kirby was for himself, his biggest fan. It was that level-headed persistence that would get him to the promised land of the Fourth World and a legion of his own fans.
One of the great things about a book like this is how it ends up becoming a treasure trove of information. It just happens naturally as all the dots are connected. This is what resonates the most with readers, especially those invested in art process and pop culture. Even a casual reader will get caught up in the events and get hooked into learning more about the lad who literally picked up a copy of Wonder Stories just before it was swept into a gutter and saw his fate within the pages of the first pulp magazine he’d ever read. As I’m in a position to articulate these matters regarding comics, pop culture and art, I’m thrilled to do so here and on any panel at any comics convention. This very unique look at Jack Kirby is very exciting stuff. No doubt, when you find one book like this, well, it leaves you wanting more. That is what leads me to know that my book will find a home. I’m so happy to see that Tom’s book found a fine home and has been welcomed by scores of readers!