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Jack Kirby:

A Tale To Astonish

February 6th, 2008, marked the 14th anniversary of Jack Kirby’s death and on April 15, 2008, I’ll be hosting a special Comica event at the ICA in London, Live From Kirby Plaza…, which celebrates Kirby’s life and career. I’ll be joined by TV and radio presenter and collector Paul Gambaccini; Kim Newman, writer, broadcaster, journalist and critic specialising in horror and fantasy; Chrissie Harper, editor of Jack Kirby Quarterly. Official Kirby biographer Mark Evanier and John Morrow from Jack Kirby Collector join us via a live internet link-up, with Kirby himself (who died in 1994) appearing virtually via sound extracts from a 1993 interview.

‘Kirbyology’ is an invented word for ‘the study of the life and works of Jack Kirby’. Although it’s not yet become a degree subject or entered the dictionary, the field of Kirbyology has greatly expanded during the decade since his death in 1994. It’s very different to the scarcity of information twenty or more years ago.

Back then I was a youngster living in England. In 1971 I ordered my first ‘textbook’ on the subject from an advert I had spotted in Kirby’s Fourth World comics for DC. It was a bit of a gamble mailing dollars as cash payment across the Atlantic, and then there was the long, expectant wait for it to arrive. My school friend and collecting buddy Alan Gaulton never forgot how I ran out of the house and down the street to meet him, holding the large illustrated envelope and shouting excitedly, "It’s come! It’s come!"

The two of us spent the rest of that afternoon and evening poring over every rare image and first sight of Kirby’s uninked pencils, and memorising every nugget of biographical information about him. The oversized portfolio Kirby Unleashed was a revelation to me, not only into his career and techniques but more broadly into the fascinating secrets behind the comics I loved. It made me realise there was so much more to discover behind the panels. As a footnote, TwoMorrows has re-released Kirby Unleashed, remastered, updated and expanded.

TwoMorrows publisher John Morrow deserves huge credit for maintaining high standards and unearthing rarities since September 1994 in his magazine Jack Kirby Collector, now in the same large luxurious format as Unleashed. But let’s not forget other pioneer Kirbyologists, such as Greg Theakston, who started his two volumes of The Jack Kirby Treasury in 1982 and continues today as Pure Imagination, or Ray Wyman, who compiled the most handsomely produced monograph so far, The Art Of Jack Kirby, in 1992. And in Britain there’s Chrissie Harper whose pioneering  Jack Kirby Quarterly, launched in September 1993, is set to return later this year. At least Kirby was alive to see these labours of love and the high level of regard he was held in.

For several years now, the comics writer, historian and former close assistant to Kirby, Mark Evanier has been writing the most exhaustive, not to say exhausting, biography of Kirby. To tide us over until that much-anticipated tome arrives, you might be tempted to try Ronin Ro’s new book Tales To Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee & The American Comic Book Revolution. Writing in a breezy novelistic style, Ronin (named after Frank Miller’s comic) brings the personalities and behind-the-scenes power plays to life. Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer prize for his novel The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, a fictionalised account of comic book history, partly inspired by Kirby’s life and dedicated to him. Ronin Ro’s "factualised" account proves that life can indeed be stranger and maybe even stronger than fiction. In nearly 300 pages, he charts Kirby’s life story and how it interweaves with those of his two great partners Joe Simon and Stan Lee, and the business deals and disasters, the lawsuits and grudges, and those periods of soaring flights of four-colour imagination. He shows a genuine sense of sympathy with Kirby’s desire to better himself, perhapsreflecting Ronin’s own troubled childhood in the South Bronx.

On the plus side, I am impressed that Ronin went straight to his sources and conducted new interviews, up to five a day, with as many of the principals caught up in this history as he could and with many of Kirby’s closest associates. His first-hand research helps to provide atmosphere and telling anecdotes to this book. In one case, Joe Simon remembers Kirby’s surprise when he first met him: "He’d never seen a comic book artist with a suit before." Both Jack and Joe’s fathers were tailors, but Jack’s only made trousers. In fact, Stan Lee’s father was a dress cutter and even Lee himself worked for a time in a shop that made and sold trousers. Among the many tales I enjoyed discovering are: the inspiration behind The Vision emerging out of clouds of smoke coming from Simon and Kirby’s shared passion for cigars; the Kirby family’s railroad-style apartment, with all the rooms lined up in a row; Kirby seeking Jerry Siegel’s blessing to create his version of Superman in Jimmy Olsen; and, after all the disputes over who created what, Lee recalling Kirby’s private words to him as they hugged each other at the 1993 San Diego Comic Convention, "You have nothing to reproach yourself about, Stan."

Ronin does not avoid the thorny question of who should receive creative credit for Marvel’s phenomenal burst of concepts starting with the Fantastic Four in 1961. While this greatly contributed to the gradual breakdown of the Lee-Kirby relationship, it didn’t help that Stan started enjoying the lion’s share of the media attention, while in one newspaper report Jack in insultingly described as resembling "the assistant foreman in a girdle factory." It only worsened when Lee began to take charge of the characters like the Silver Surfer and steer them away from Kirby’s intentions. Ronin has also smartly gone back to those Stan Lee’s Soapbox columns, the "official" cheerful voice of Marvel on the Bullpen Bulletins page, and quotes them to contrast the public hype with the private discontent of several artists at Lee’s self-aggrandising and publisher Martin Goodman’s broken promises. Still today, despite fan petitions and Lee’s praise for his partner, Kirby receives no credit in the comics for his role in creating so many of Marvel’s characters.

Fantastic Four #9
by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee

As Kirby’s assistant, official biographer and friend, Mark Evanier has wisely declined to review Ronin’s book. He accepts "There’s room for other views than mine", but does caution readers not to believe everything they read in this work. So on the minus side, this would seem not to be a wholly reliable work of reference. For that we have Evanier’s handsome Kirby: King Of Comics, a mass-market art book and biography, out now from Abrams, and that eventual doorstop to look forward to. Speaking of inaccurate comics histories, Ronin shares one story I had never heard before. Do we believe him when he alleges that in the early Eighties, while Kirby was working with Steve Gerber on Destroyer Duck, Marvel had planned a ‘History Of Marvel’ in comic book form that would have shown likenesses of Kirby, Lee, Ditko and others “acting out the company’s official version of events (Stan as sole creator telling them what to draw)”? It seems Kirby’s lawyers soon put a stop to that effort to rewrite the past.

As an aside, another more bizarre example of history being rewritten occurred on the communal Wikepedia site where Kirby’s entry was supplemented this January with details of his heretofore unknown foray into jazz. Somebody added:  “After leaving Marvel, Kirby also took up oboe playing. He became quite prolific and enjoyed small success playing at lounges and night clubs. Columbia Records offered him a contract, but he snubbed it in order to continue his work in comics.” This total fabrication stayed online for several weeks but was recently removed!
Whatever its flaws, for me, this book probably serves best as one eager researcher’s sincere, personal take on Kirby and his hardworking life, seated day-after-day in his stiff-backed dining chair at his worn little table (now a museum piece kept for the nation by the Smithsonian), writing, drawing and creating to provide for his wife, children and grandchildren. In the end, despite Kirby’s remarkable achievements, I can’t help feeling slightly saddened that he had to struggle so much for proper reward and recognition, and that so many of his ambitions for comics were thwarted or only partly realised - for example, his vision of overseeing a whole Fourth World line of his characters, or his faith that the future lay in adult graphic novels. Ronin quotes Mike Thibodeaux’s toast after Kirby’s funeral, which expresses this well:

"[Kirby] said he never wanted to do piecework in his life; he didn’t want to end up like his dad. Yet, if you think about it, he ended up doing piecework. Even though he didn’t work in the sweatshop, he still ended up working, just turning out page after page, for a salary…  But if he didn’t turn the pages out, he didn’t get the salary. I don’t know if he ever achieved the level that he was hoping he would, where the work would generate an income without his having to sit at a table and draw."

My other misgivings with Ronin’s book are that it would have helped to give each chapter a title, something to indicate its subject and development, and an index would have been very useful. One minor disappointment is that there are no illustrations inside, perhaps because of copyright permissions. Even so, a section of photos would have been welcome, I feel. Still, for Kirby’s artwork you can always return to the comics themselves of course, choosing from the original collectors’ items classics and the growing library of affordable reprints. And for an eye-popping celebration of Kirby’s unfettered genius at Marvel Comics, there’s Arlen Schumer’s art book The Silver Age Of Comic Book Art (Chronicle Books), in which he devotes no fewer than 32 pages, quite rightly the largest section, to the King’s Sixties masterworks. Also recommended is the Kirby volume of Fantagraphics’ Comics Journal Library, compiling some of his best interviews.

After reading Tales To Astonish, Kirby’s life seems to me to have been one of tantalizing yet unrealised possibilities: What if Kirby had been able to stay at DC in the late Fifties, so that his Challengers Of The Unknown became DC’s Fantastic Four? What if Kirby had left Marvel with Steve Ditko and they had set up their own company? What if Kirby had been able to introduce his Fourth World series at Marvel in 1970? What if DC had allowed him to enlarge the Fourth World line of books, bringing in other artists to draw Lightray, Lonar, Infinity Man, and freeing him to develop graphic novels of his own? And how might his life and comic book history have changed if Jack had taken up the offers to become Marvel’s Art Director, or even DC’s Publisher? All of these ‘What Ifs’, ‘Imaginary Stories’ and ‘Elseworlds’, and more, could have happened, but Kirby’s real life as chronicled by Ronin Ro remains remarkable enough in itself. His is truly a Tale To Astonish.

Posted: April 10, 2008

The original version of this article appeared in 2004 in Comic Book Marketplace.


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