The Great Debate is a weekly comic studies column examining new and classic books about the creators, craft, and history of comics. If you know of upcoming books you would like to see reviewed, please let us know!
Author: Tom Scioli
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Year: 2020
WHAT IS IT?
Tom Scioli’s unauthorized biography of Jack “King” Kirby is an in-depth look at one of the towering figures of 20th-century comic books. Scioli has Kirby tell his own story by framing the book as an autobiography, and he creates a fascinating and deeply personal portrait of Kirby and of the comic industry.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics is a comic book that celebrates the history of the medium through perhaps its most influential artist. Scioli moves chronologically through Kirby’s life and career, and ends with a short coda where his son Neal Kirby and others talk about Jack’s legacy, and how proud he would have been to see his characters in movies like The Avengers and Black Panther.
Scioli takes his role as proxy-autobiographer seriously, and it should be noted that because of this there are several industry favorites – Stan Lee first among them – who receive scathing portrayals through Kirby-colored glasses. Lee does get a small chance for a rebuttal, and Scioli has Jack’s wife Roz Kirby provide some of the story as well. But for the most part, this really is the story of Jack Kirby, told through the words of Jack Kirby. It is about the triumph of over half a century of continuous creativity and productivity, and also about the pain of seeing his work and creations owned by and profited on by others.
Tom Scioli is supremely well-qualified for this task. He said in an interview that “I wanted to do a comic of the legend of Jack Kirby" and he has succeeded, imbuing Kirby and his story with a larger-than-life quality, full of tremendous achievements and deep disappointments.
Scioli does an amazing job of stitching together interviews and comments from Kirby himself to create a convincing autobiographical monologue. The text is extremely well-researched and carefully organized, and Scioli steps in when necessary to provide backstory and context.
Scioli uses a very stylized and expressive design for Jack Kirby, while the other characters in the comic are drawn much more traditionally. This serves to focus the attention, energy, and emotion of each scene squarely on Kirby. It’s an extremely effective device for reminding us he is the character we should be listening to and caring about.
Scioli did everything in this book. He wrote, illustrated, colored, and lettered this comic. The art is understated, but very effective. I like that Scioli uses the six-panel grid favored by Kirby throughout most of the book. This effectively gives it the visual feel of a 1960s Marvel comic. That nostalgic visual sense is reinforced by other choices. The pages are off-white (almost tan) and evoke the look of aged comic paper, and the muted colors and classic bubble and caption styles complete the illusion, allowing the physical properties of the book itself to help immerse you in the story.
The overall art style is dramatically different from what you would expect from a Tom Scioli comic. Rather than the hyper-kinetic Kirby-esque panels that he normally prefers, Scioli gives a much tamer, more controlled performance here. Among other things this makes it easier to contrast Kirby’s story and Kirby’s work, and gives the book a solid “non-fiction” feel.
The early part of the book is especially strong. Scioli does a spectacular job of taking us through Jack’s early life, his time in the war, and his struggles finding his place in the industry during the late 1940s and 1950s. The friendship and collaborations of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were covered here as well and were handled very effectively.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
While the autobiographical conceit that frames the book is well-thought-out and well executed, many of the events and disputes depicted could do with a bit more context and more even-handed analysis. By choosing to link himself so faithfully to Kirby’s viewpoint, Scioli diminishes his ability to effectively question some of Kirby’s decisions and opinions.
Most modern analyses of the comic industry deal with – or at least acknowledge – the gender and racial inequities endemic to the business. Marie Severin got one panel in Jack Kirby, and other than that every creator mentioned in this book is a white male. I understand that this is told from the perspective of a man who died before gender and racial inequities in comics were commonly discussed. But there is something a bit tone deaf about a book published in 2020 where a fully employed, successful white guy spends 200 pages complaining about how he is getting screwed over by the system, without ever acknowledging or commenting on his privileged position.
This is the story of Jack Kirby the man, not a book about his art. Still, Tom Scioli may have studied Kirby's art and art style more closely than anyone alive, and it would have been nice to see him tackle more about the evolution of Kirby’s style. Plus there also is no actual Jack Kirby art in the book. Scioli does drawings of Kirby’s drawings, and through those, we do see Kirby’s art style change through the 40s, 50s and onward. But it is odd for a biography about an artist to not feature any reproductions or images of that artist’s work at all!
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
If you are already a rabid Kirby fan, you will almost certainly love Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of the Comics. Scioli has created a masterful love letter to the King that comic fans will thoroughly enjoy.
Because it is done in comic form, Jack Kirby may seem accessible, but the content is actually very dense and nuanced. This is not Classics Illustrated, where the comic version is a watered-down shadow of the original story. Artists, publishers and companies fly past at breakneck speed while major events such as the Senate hearings of the ‘50s are dealt with only tangentially. The viewpoint of the book is so tightly focused on Kirby and his world that other major events and trends are glossed over or never mentioned. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of the Comics reads best if you have a working knowledge of what’s been going on in comics for the last 50 or so years. If you are unfamiliar with comic book history, you might want to start with Comic Book Nation first, and circle back to Scioli and Kirby later.
Who it’s for: This book is a treat for fans of Jack Kirby or comic history who want to enjoy a name-dropping, behind-the-curtains look at Kirby’s life and career. Readers should be prepared to call Scioli (and by extension Kirby) on some of the book’s more controversial opinions and claims, but this is a tremendously enjoyable and engaging read.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
To continue with Tom Scioli: Fantastic Four: Grand Design
For more Stan and Jack: True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman (my review for this posts here at CBY on 3/2/2021)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Scioli has worked on comic books for Marvel, IDW and Image. His art style has been inspired by Jack Kirby from his earliest published work, The Myth of 8-OPUS. Scioli has collaborated with other creators, including a long run Gødland with Joe Casey, but many of his more recent works are solo efforts where he takes on writing, illustrating, lettering and coloring. You can find him on Twitter @tomscioli.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can talk to your Local Comic Shop and buy there, or purchase using one of the links below.
The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
This book is © 2020 Tom Scioli. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED