Mark Evanier: Kirby, King of Comics

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Evanier, Mark. Kirby: King of Comics (New York: Abrams, 2008)

It's been some time since I wrote about Jack Kirby's legacy (with the exception of the recent Avengers film), and Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics satiated my craving for some Kirby creativity. Although the book has a general-audience feel, lacking in the level of detail a dedicated fan like myself would want, it's still a great read. (Besides, an appropriately thorough biography would take several volumes; for a single volume, this one is nearly perfect.)

Its heft and large 9"x12" size suit its subject well--Kirby's art deserves to be presented in an imposing manner. The dozens of full page images (including sketches, finished pencil art, and even some comparisons between Kirby's original art and the inked and colored published versions) were mostly non-narrative pages, aside from Kirby's ten-page "Street Code" story; kudos go to whoever managed to get permission from the various publishers to include example of Kirby's art from every era of his five-decade career. (I found it odd, however, that the book's only foldout image was an Alex Ross recreation of a Kirby scene; this was a strange editorial decision.)

Early in his career, Kirby's pseudonyms (pencil names, rather than pen names, one might say) were as varied as his output: Brady, Lawrence, Jack Curtiss, Bob Brown, and Teddy. This doesn't seem to be an evasion of Kirby's Judaism, but rather a restless striving for the means to make his mark. Of Kirby's first major superhero creation, Captain America, Evanier observes that "not everyone loved the flag-draped hero," and that Simon & Kirby received "threatening phone calls and anti-Semitic hate mail:"

Another time, Jack took a call. A voice on the other end said, "There are three of us down here in the lobby. We want to see the guy who does this disgusting comic book and show him what real Nazis would do to his Captain America." To the horror of others in the office, Kirby rolled up his sleeves and headed downstairs. The callers, however, were gone by the time he arrived. Years later, he told an interviewer, "I once got a letter from a Nazi who told me to pick out any lamppost I wanted on Times Square, because when Hitler arrived, they'd hang me from it." (pp. 54-56)

The first half of the book covers Kirby's life and career up until his 1960 return to Marvel; the latter half will likely interest fans even more. This anecdote about his "battered drawing table" is perfect:

It was the last thing the movers loaded on the truck in New York, waiting patiently as he finished an issue of Thor. And it was the first thing unloaded in California. They set it up, and Jack started drawing Fantastic Four while the moving men went and got the bed out of the van. (p. 157)

The work he did at that drawing board is still vital and important; Evanier's book helps to explain (and to show) why this is so. Mania is effusive about the book:

Kirby: King of Comics definitely falls into the "must have" category for any serious comic book fan. [...] It really is a fantastic overview of the man's body of work... [...] In all honesty, this book could've been 1000 pages and it probably wouldn't have been enough to satisfy me.

Graphic Novel Reporter writes that "what distinguishes it is Evanier's 'inside baseball' approach to the material, and he clearly makes generalizations about Kirby based upon the quarter century he spent in his company:"

In this sense, Kirby: King of Comics is probably the closest we'll ever get to an authorized biography. In fact, given how close he was to his subject, it's remarkable how even-handed and diplomatic Evanier is in chronicling the various slights Kirby suffered at the hands of industry leaders.

Sean Kleefeld opines that the book "reads like a Jack Kirby comic book...It comes across almost more as an adventure novel than a biography, with great characters and snappy dialogue. [...] "It's almost larger than life:"

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.

NPR interviews Evanier, with an excerpt from the book. At BookForum, J. Hoberman writes that "Jack Kirby (1917-94) more than deserves the royal sobriquet with which he's been crowned:"

King Kirby embodies the drama of his medium as well as the drama of its history--how, starting on the eve of World War II, a bunch of mainly working-class, first-generation Jewish kids created a garish, subliterary mythology of fantastic supermen. [...]

Kirby was fantastically prolific--his career output has been estimated at twenty-five thousand published pages. He was also a fast worker who made no preliminary sketches, never erased, and could, when necessary, crank out an entire comic book over a weekend.

"Working with writer Stan Lee," writes Hoberman, Kirby "was instrumental in tilting Marvel toward epic sagas of cosmic struggle:"

For a while, it seemed that he was introducing a new comic (and a new concept) every month, many lasting only a single, collectible issue.

There is a bit of hyperbole here. Although Kirby's imaginative output was unparalleled in its breadth and energy, he generally tended to want to continue shepherding his creations past the point when publishers wanted him to move on to other pastures. Interestingly, many of his creations with short-lived publication histories have been revived (some repeatedly; how many times has DC revisited his New Gods?) by other creators now that markets are more tolerant of catering to niche audiences.

ComicMix's Rick Marshall interviews Mark Evanier, who observes that "I always knew that I was going to write stuff about him, I just didn't know what form it would take or when I'd write it:"

But then, after he passed away, his widow said to me, "Listen, when are you going to write a book about Jack?" I said, "Oh, do you think this is the time?" She said, "Yes, please do it." I agreed to do it and she helped me a lot and gave me all of Jack's personal papers and effects and such.

I've been working since Jack passed away, which is 14 years now, on a humongous-sized book about his life. It's still a few years off in the future, so when the Harry N. Abrams Company asked me to do an interim book to tide people over, I took a look at what I was doing and realized the massive book I was writing was getting too mired in minutia to the point where I thought a lot of ordinary civilians wouldn't be able to make their way through it. So I thought I'd do a sort of simplified version first. [...]

Kirby: King of Comics is about 35,000 words and the other book is over 250,000 and growing, so the minute you write 35,000 words on Jack you're leaving out an awful lot of words. If I read it over, I think, "Oh, I wish I'd added that." But if I had added everything that I wished, there'd be no room for the pictures.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on November 21, 2012 9:14 PM.

Rolling Stone interview was the previous entry in this blog.

Charles Hatfield: Hand of Fire, The Comics Art of Jack Kirby is the next entry in this blog.

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