Kirby!

Kirby! King of Comics, written by Mark Evanier, introduced by Neil Gaiman (2008): This loving, lovingly illustrated biography of comic-book writer/artist Jack Kirby — creator or co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Magneto, the original X-Men, Darkseid, the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Boy Commandos, the entire sub-genre of romance comic books, the Red Skull, Nick Fury, the Challengers of the Unknown, Professor X, Cyclops, the Beast, the Thing, Ice-man. Mr. Fantastic, the Mole-man, Machine Man, the Avengers, the Newsboy Legion, the Guardian, OMAC, Etrigan the Demon, Mister Miracle, Big Barda, the Cosmic Cube, the Negative Zone, the Boom Tube, the Forever People, the Source, the Omega Force, the Astro Force, and literally thousands of other heroes, villains, concepts and supporting characters — is a joy to read. And it’s a teaser for a much longer Evanier biography promised sometime in the next few years.

A limited business sense and the cut-throat nature of the comic-book business in the 1930’s and onwards meant that Kirby never got adequately compensated for all the work he did, and that attention-grabbers like longtime writing collaborator Stan Lee got far more credit for their work with Kirby’s than they merited. Kirby was there nearly at the beginnings of the American comic-book industry, and he was still occasionally drawing work when he died at the age of 77 in 1994.

Kirby’s characters continue to form the backbone of the Marvel Comics Universe; his visual language is there in pretty much every superhero artist who ever lived, as early on Kirby pioneered techniques such as ‘breaking’ the panel, tilting the ‘camera’, one- and two-page spreads, and always action delivered by operatically enhanced heroes and villains. No one threw or took a punch like a Kirby character.

Evanier, who knew Kirby for more than 20 years, supplies both a broad historical context and a rich supply of anecdotes both by and about Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg in New York in 1917 — he changed his name to Jack Kirby because he thought the name sounded more powerful and successful, and not because it was a Jewish name). The book is copiously illustrated with both the expected (comic book covers, panels, and character designs) and the unexpected (a sketch Kirby presented to Paul and Linda McCartney at a 1975 Wings concert in L.A., Kirby’s sketch of what should have gone on the Pioneer and Voyager space probe plaques).

Kirby and wife Roz become vital characters; Kirby’s treatment by the comic-book companies, and especially Marvel, could form the basis for a tragedy if it weren’t for the fact that Kirby essentially refuted tragedy with his outlook, embodied by many of his heroic characters. Those writers, artists, editors, publishers and animation-studio executives who’d come to love him, sometimes only through his work, were able to supply something of a happy financial late Golden Age beginning in the late 1970’s and continuing until Kirby’s death.

As the American superhero-based comics industry sputters into oblivion, one notes how much it could use someone like Jack Kirby now — and how little the beancounters and coat-tail-riders deserved him when they had him. Hail to the King, baby! Highly recommended.

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