Scioli’s Jack Kirby: Business Beats Art?

A GUEST POST BY CRAIG FISCHER.

Scioli Kirby bio cover

(This is the second part of a critical conversation about Tom Scioli’s new graphic biography, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. For the first part, see here. We’ll follow up with further discussion in the next few days.)

Like Charles, I found a lot to like in Scioli’s Jack Kirby. The book includes some of my favorite Scioli visuals to date. There’s a softness to the line and colors, particularly in the early pages, which evokes both a nostalgic mood and the qualities of the media Jack drew with as a child, such as the crayons he held when he scribbled on walls and the charcoal stick he tried to master during “drawing lessons at the Educational Alliance.” 

Scioli shows young Jakie drawing

I also agree with Charles about Kirby’s manga-eyes functioning as a distancing device, as Scioli’s reminder that his biography’s version of “Kirby” is as much a subjective construct as a true portrait of the man. On a more basic level, those eyes define “Kirby” as more cartoony than everyone else around him, more embedded in his artistic imagination than the quotidian real world. Kirby’s eyes get bigger as Scioli’s book progresses, as if—despite his love for Roz and his children—Kirby willfully abstracts himself down to pure thought and creation, akin to his portrayal in Supreme: The Return #6 (1999), where writer Alan Moore and artist Rick Veitch depict their idealized Kirby as a disembodied god who generates characters and concepts as easily as breathing. If anyone deserved to live in a crackling, physics-defying cartoon world of their own making, it’s Jack.

However, I also share Charles’ ambivalence with Scioli’s decision to narrate Jack Kirby in fictionalized first-person. I think the book needs less first-person Kirby and more of an art-history approach, more of a serious discussion of what made (and makes) Kirby’s art so revolutionary. How did Jacob Kurtzberg become Jack Kirby, King of Comics (fanfare!) and how did he build, acquire, and discover the storytelling skills he’d use and modify throughout his career? Kirby himself was mum on these subjects. In the dozens of Kirby interviews I’ve read, Jack speaks about his love for individual cartoonists only in broad, superficial terms: he intuitively digested ideas and techniques from artists he admired (Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood) but lacked the vocabulary or inclination to do specific visual or narratological analysis. He wasn’t an academic or an artist like Gil Kane who opined in depth about American comic book history.

Scioli gets this right: the Kirby in his biography—rightly characterized by Charles as in sync with the real Kirby, a scrappy doer rather than a self-reflective theorist—skips from publisher to publisher and event to event with only passing mentions of his inspirations and his own growth as a visual storyteller. On page 19, Scioli mentions that Kirby briefly drew Socko the Seadog, a comic strip designed to be a “two-bit…clone” of the popular Thimble Theater newspaper strip featuring Popeye the Sailor, and that Kirby’s art copied the style of Popeye creator Elzie Segar:

Scioli on Socko the Seadog

Immediately I was curious if Segar’s visual flourishes and storytelling techniques became part of Kirby’s toolkit, but Scioli—through “Kirby”—instead charges forward to discuss Kirby’s production of “a variety of strips in a variety of styles, under a variety of pen names,” all of which receive the same single-panel, cursory coverage as Segar. How much did Kirby learn and grow during this period? Did unrelenting deadlines force Kirby to grow quickly from a journeyman to a standout cartoonist? Scioli doesn’t explore these questions.

Another example: Page 21 shows us Kirby holding down a low-level job in Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comics sweatshop, where his pencils were inked by Lou Fine for a comic strip version of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo that appeared in Jumbo Comics in 1938. Here’s a panel from the published first Count strip and Scioli’s treatment of the same panel in the Kirby biography: 

Scioli, Monte Cristo

In Scioli’s caption, “Kirby” briefly acknowledges that Fine influenced his art, but the image in this panel doesn’t elaborate on the nature of that influence. We see Kirby’s pencil hovering over the paper, sketching the man in the top hat, rather than a picture or description that clarifies how Fine taught “shading and atmosphere” to Kirby. In writing the biography in first-person prose, and in being faithful to Kirby’s public tendency to utter vague, almost universally positive judgments about other artists, Scioli sacrifices his own opportunity to tell or show us more about Fine’s effect on Kirby’s cartooning. Scioli doesn’t place Kirby in the context of the other practicing cartoonists of the late 1930s, even though everyone was reading everyone else, and sharing brushes and stories at sweatshops and syndicate offices.

One defense of Scioli’s approach might be that his biography is for young readers who know little about Kirby and wouldn’t recognize Segar and Fine’s names at all. But even novice readers would better understand Kirby’s uniqueness if there were more historical context for his art, and more comparison with his contemporaries. (The interlocking simultaneity, the war-on-several-fronts storytelling, of the Fourth World is even more of an achievement when seen against the done-in-one inconsequentiality of most DC comic books of the early 1970s.) Further, I’d argue that a biographer—regardless of their readers’ median age and (un)familiarity with the person under scrutiny—should not only present their subject’s life as accurately as possible (Scioli does this) but also tell us why their subject matters. An argument that explains Kirby’s significance should include a deeper-than-the-surface consideration of the qualities of his art. The balance feels wrong when Scioli spends several pages on Jack Schiff’s shady treatment of Kirby, while ignoring the images and stories at the heart of Kirby’s importance.

Perhaps Scioli was influenced by the segment of Kirby fandom whose mission is to extol Kirby as the superior creator (writer and artist) over Stan Lee. I agree with these fans: Lee once described himself as “the hackiest hack that ever lived” during his pre-1960s, pre-Marvel writing career, and he only transcended hackdom by working with explosively creative artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko. That said, I’m tired of the endless discussions, especially on social media, about how Lee fucked Kirby over. He did. It’s true. But focusing on this point minimizes Kirby’s achievements during his non-Marvel years, while, ironically, keeping Stan the Man perpetually in the conversation. It’s time to make the case in positive terms for why Kirby is one of the most inventive artists of the twentieth century, and there are models to follow in this, such as Dan Nadel putting Kirby in dialogue with artists outside comic books (as in Nadel’s edited What Nerve! exhibition catalogue of 2014, where Kirby is discussed alongside the Hairy Who, Destroy All Monsters, and Forcefield) and the arguments in Charles’s Hand of Fire about Kirby’s drawing-as-writing and the technological sublime. Let’s not define Kirby primarily as a victim; let’s spend fewer words (and pages) on Schiff, Lee, and Martin Goodman than on the singular qualities of Kirby’s creativity and images.

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I agree with Charles that the first half of Scioli’s book is more inventive than the rest: the six-panel grid gets monotonous in the second half, as does the back-and-forth between (a) the introduction of new characters created by Kirby (where Kirby often credits earlier authors and cartoonists with inspiring these characters) and (b) events from Kirby’s life, including his disappointments at Marvel and DC in the 1960s and 1970s. But my disappointment with Scioli’s Kirby’s biography? Not enough about the art.  

Scioli’s Kirby

As I observed when reviewing James Romberger’s For Real, Jack Kirby has become a character on the page and on the stage. Many comics creators have depicted Kirby as a near-mythic figure, a kind of demiurge or creative Source. Recently, artists and playwrights have depicted a more down-to-earth Kirby, taking cues from the available biographical material and Kirby’s own self-depictions, particularly his autobiographical story, “Street Code” (1983/1990). Now cartoonist Tom Scioli (Gødland, American Barbarian, Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, etc.) has created Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, a book-length biographical comic—essentially, a graphic novel in which Kirby stars as narrator and protagonist.

Scioli would seem like a natural for this project. His published work, since The Myth of 8-Opus (1999), shows his devotion to Kirby and, often, frankly emulates Kirby’s late style. Scioli’s Jack Kirby combines that passion with the current vogue for biographical and historical graphic nonfiction—a trend its publisher, Ten Speed Press, has furthered with comics on Frederick Douglass, Alexander Hamilton, and other historical figures and topics. What we have here, it seems, is a fortunate meeting of market genre and individual creative passion.

Scioli’s Kirby is news: a substantial and personal work of Kirybana by an intriguing artist. That’s why I’ve asked my friend and colleague Craig Fischer to join me in a critical roundtable about it. First up is my review of the book. Craig’s will follow, and then we’ll stage a dialogue, a bit of critical give and take, about it.

Scioli Kirby bio cover

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. By Tom Scioli. Color assists by Bill Crabtree. Ten Speed Press, July 2020. Hardcover, 7 x 10 inches, 208 pages. ISBN 978-1984856906. $28.99.

Tom Scioli’s version of “Kirby” (Scioli too uses scare quotes to describe him, in an authorial headnote) seems based mainly on the many interviews that Kirby gave. The book’s first-person narration, Scioli cautions, is “a literary device,” and the story is synthesized and “adapted from a number of sources.” He notes that there is no easy consensus about Kirby’s life story, which has inspired “differences of opinion and other points of view.” That said, Scioli’s narrating voice, his “Kirby,” is an astute impersonation: an act of empathetic imagination and clearly a labor of love, with cadences and emotions that, to this reader, feel true. Certainly, the book is informed by the kind of Kirby lore made available by past biographers and especially by John Morrow’s ongoing magazine, The Jack Kirby Collector. As I read it, I felt as if I were reliving my years as a Collector reader; the book strings together many of the small revelations that shocked and enthralled me when I first read about them in that magazine. In that sense, Scioli’s Kirby feels like a gift to Kirby fans. Yet it also aims, I think, to help introduce Kirby to the uninitiated—and between those two missions, the book seems to waver, uncertainly.

Scioli sticks to the perspective of “Kirby” throughout, except for brief passages narrated by other key characters: first, Jack’s wife, Rosalind “Roz” Kirby (née Goldstein); second, Stan Lee. The three passages narrated by Roz recount the couple’s courtship and establish their all-important life partnership—Scioli shows why Roz was vital to Jack’s story. The single passage narrated by Lee, on the other hand, summarizes Lee’s career between the early Forties and late Fifties, setting the stage for Kirby’s return to working for (the outfit now called) Marvel. This passage strikes me as simply due diligence: a biographer’s way of acknowledging complexity, and perhaps adding a touch of nuance to what is otherwise a fairly unflattering portrait. Scioli’s Lee is a formerly brash young sprite turned “into an old man” before his time by the humiliating grind of working in the comic-book corner of Martin Goodman’s magazine-publishing outfit. His transformation into Stan “the Man”—the youth-savvy hipster of the late 1960s and beyond—comes as a shock:

From then on, Lee is mostly depicted as a glib bullshitter (though Scioli does show Lee intervening on Kirby’s behalf during Kirby’s tumultuous final run at Marvel).

Scioli, I think, walks a tightrope between a biographer’s professional dispassion and a fan’s devoted partisanship. Those expecting a complete dismissal of Stan Lee may come away disappointed, while those expecting another coat of varnish on the Marvel legend will certainly get plenty to think about. Scioli’s choice of first-person narration announces his loyalties clearly, but his Kirby is no plaster saint. At times brash and pugnacious, this is the tough Kirby, the scrapper, of legend, a guy with enough pent-up fury to pop off and smack someone who gets in his way:

The narration is blunt and occasionally salty: a nice evocation of the persona that emerges from Kirby’s longer and meatier interviews. Reading the book, I feel as if I know this guy.

Of course, “accuracy” is not the only criterion that matters. Scioli’s Kirby does more than register the facts of Kirby’s life and the tales that Kirby told. It’s a comic, after all—a graphic performance—and it’s marked by some quirky artistic choices. Most obvious (even on the cover) is Scioli’s habit of drawing Jack with big, neotenic, manga-esque eyes. This habit starts about a fifth of the way into the book and becomes pronounced with his courtship of Roz and especially Kirby’s traumatic wartime period. Compare the above image of young Jakie clobbering a classmate (from page 12) with, for example, this image of Roz and Jack’s wedding (page 51):

I’ve already had one friend tell me that they saw the book at their local comic shop but put it back on the shelf because of those eyes. But it’s not just the eyes. Over time, Scioli’s Jack becomes a cartoonishly exaggerated figure in an otherwise fairly understated world. Dig the book’s final panel:

Honestly, I can’t decide whether I like this quality or not. On the one hand, it’s distracting as all get-out. On the other hand, it signals that this is Kirby’s story and that he stands apart from everyone else—and it puts the lie to any assumption of objectivity or transparency. In a way, it becomes a self-reflexive distancing device, not unlike Art Spiegelman’s reigning animal metaphor in Maus. Perhaps Scioli is telling us not to take his account too literally? If the first-person narration is a literary device, then so too is the look of Scioli’s Kirby—a device that is comics-specific. Plus, the swimming-pool eyes (to borrow from Bryan Ferry) suggest Kirby’s visionary bent, his “very active and bright and colorful” mind. It’s an interesting choice.

The graphic style here is less like Scioli’s early emulations of 1970s Kirby (8-Opus, Freedom Force, Gødland) and more like the pencils-only look of his recent Go-Bots, Super Powers, and Fantastic Four: Grand Design. Like so many of Scioli’s projects, this book offers a digital simulacrum of rough, predigital printing; as Scioli told interviewer Ian Thomas, he likes to add “imperfections,” including a yellowing undertone that mimics old, decaying paper, his goal being “to age the art, distress the art.” In this sense, Scioli seems to be following the example of fellow Pittsburgher Ed Piskor (Hip Hop Family Tree; X-Men: Grand Design). The end result is not as grungy-looking as the very distressed look of Fantastic Four: Grand Design (which I find overdone and cloying), and Scioli’s drawing here often has a softer, finely shaded, almost gentle look. What this means is that Jack Kirby, ironically, has the least overtly “Kirbyesque” artwork of any Scioli comic. (For a deeper sense of the process and motivations behind Scioli’s pencils-only aesthetic, see this blog post.)

What really gets me about the book, though, are its structural choices. Scioli chooses to tell Kirby’s life story by sticking to a regular six-panel (2 x 3) grid for almost all the book’s pages. Of the book’s 191 pages of comics storytelling, only a score depart from this grid, and most of those occur early on. I can see the practical wisdom of this: Scioli has a long, complicated story to tell, and only so many pages to tell it; cleaving to a strict grid and maintaining a regular rhythm means packing in a lot of info and reducing the number of design choices he has to make. Truth to tell, the rhythm is so steady as to be metronomic, which gives the story a matter-of-fact, almost deadpan tone. Scioli sometimes capitalizes on this flattening of affect expertly, as when he recounts Kirby’s nightmarishly casual war stories: the affected simplicity and unvarying meter make the horrors more powerful by understatement.

At other times, though, the rhythm seems deadening: the book steamrolls over one event after another, treating most of them as similar. For every artful passage of knowing insinuation, there are other passages where the recounting seems like a dry slog, the mere working-out of a fixed scheme. Nodes of decision and crisis—and periods of artistic development—in Kirby’s life end up being sorely compressed and underplayed. I dig the formalist discipline, but miss the variability, the rubato, of humanized drama. While it’s probably smart for the book to avoid imitating Kirbyesque spectacle, this approach sometimes backfires, making huge moments in Kirby’s life story inert.

I wish Scioli had told less but unpacked and interpreted more. As the book marches through Kirby’s tangled career (briefly noting familial milestones en route), I get a sense of notes overwhelming story. Certain boxes are ticked off so quickly that I wonder why they were included at all. For example, the Lord of Light and Science Fiction Land project (1979), built around Kirby’s lavish conceptual drawings and famously used as a cover story by the CIA (see Argo), merits one crowded panel:

So does the murder of Kirby’s childhood friend Leon Klinghoffer by terrorists during the Achille Lauro hijacking of 1985. So does Kirby’s cameo on the sitcom Bob (1993). Incidents like these—there are so many—are known to devotees of the Kirby Collector, and are of course interesting, but in a relatively brief bio like this, I would hope for some sifting (and frankly cutting) of details for the sake of underscoring events essential to the book’s themes. My thinking is that certain details should either have been heightened to show their powerful effect on Kirby—for example, Klinghoffer and Kirby met in the Boys Brotherhood Republic when they were young, a connection that meant a lot to Kirby—or snipped out altogether, so that the book might give more selective attention to what it considers key incidents. As is, Scioli’s persistent rhythm seems to award the same degree of attention to every detail.

Again, there are times when the book’s steady pulse yields big dividends: for example, Kirby’s first heart attack, in the Eighties, comes up suddenly, a red, wordless shock; the moment is powerful. Or: a pair of panels captures Jack and Roz’s deepening relationship and hints at the romance comics to come:

I like those moments of economy, understatement, and silence—the deep breaths, so to speak. At moments like these, Scioli shows what rhythmic control and concision can accomplish. For my money, though, there’s too much crowding and not enough variation. I note that there are more sustained, multi-panel scenes in the first half of the book, which includes some dramatic departures from the 2 x 3 layout. But once the book finds its marching pace, it varies too seldom, and Scioli’s vision of Kirby, I think, gets muted by the piling-up of details. And it is here that Scioli’s conception of his audience gets a little vague: is the book a compendium of details best appreciated by other Kirby devotees, who know so many of the stories already? Or is it an introduction to Kirby for newcomers? What exactly does Scioli want to emphasize?

As a Kirbyphile, I found the book resonant and evocative, despite my qualms about some of its choices. Though it gave me little in the way of new information about Kirby’s life, it did affect me; I found Scioli’s dedication to his subject touching. Yet, being afflicted with the helplessness of the devout fan, I’m not sure I can judge how clearly Scioli’s Jack Kirby will come through as an artist and innovator for other kinds of readers. I’ll say this much: Scioli insists that Kirby was no mere illustrator of other people’s notions; that he was an imaginative powerhouse who made a big dent in our culture. The book makes these points emphatically, and I expect that these points will get through to most readers. Yet its account of Kirby feels so straitened and abbreviated that I’m left wanting more.

On balance, Scioli’s Jack Kirby is a passion project that wrestles with a stubborn, complicated subject: a vaulting, ambitious undertaking that yields, I think, alternately grand and befuddling results. It’s proof—if more were needed—that Scioli has gone beyond Kirby pastiche while still keeping a bright candle burning for Kirby in his own active, colorful mind. It’s also a reminder of what a storied and difficult life Kirby lived, and what a challenge that life poses to the biographer’s art.

Joe Sinnott (1926-2020)

A guest post by Craig Fischer (sequel to an earlier post on the passing of Joe Sinnott). Thanks, Craig!

This is a revised version of an earlier essay I wrote about Joe Sinnott in 2008.

Kirby and Joe Sinnott, 1975

Joe Sinnott and Jack Kirby, 1975.

Although my parents bought me my first Joe Sinnott comic, Fantastic Four #80, in August 1968, I didn’t become a devoted Marvel reader until 1970. I missed the original Kirby-Stan Lee comics altogether, and reconnected with the FF again with issue #104, art by John Romita and John Verpoorten. I’d only see Sinnott inks again in FF #106 (“The Monster’s Secret!”), over Romita’s pencils. I found something compelling there, though, because I read The Fantastic Four every month for the next three-and-a-half years, up to the wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver in #150. Then I drifted away, but never completely: I’d occasionally check in with the title and Sinnott. As a young teen, I loved Sinnott’s inks over George Perez’s impossibly detailed pages in FF #172, and the John Byrne / Sinnott FF #287 re-ignited my interest in comic books after a period of giving them up—I’d entered graduate school in English and felt it was time to “get serious” about literature. Didn’t take.

FF cover collage

Even as a kid, I recognized that Sinnott was the best of all Fantastic Four inkers. In the ’70s, as I read the contemporary post-Kirby FFs, I caught up on past issues through the reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics. (A sad irony: I eventually became a Kirby devotee by collecting Marvel’s avalanche of early-1970s Kirby reprints, even though these reprints forced Kirby to compete with himself on the newsstands as he produced his new, innovative DC Fourth World work.) For a while, I believed that Rich Buckler inked by Sinnott was more accomplished than Kirby inked by Vince Colletta. This was before I realized how much Buckler ripped off from Kirby, though even today Colletta’s inking in issues like FF #40 (“The Battle of the Baxter Building!”) still looks exceedingly rushed and shoddy to me.

I wasn’t the only one who found fault with the Kirby/Colletta Fantastic Four issues. According to Mark Evanier, Colletta lost the FF assignment when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman looked over Colletta’s work and asked Stan Lee, “How come our lead book looks like shit?” When production manager Sol Brodsky mentioned that with more money, he could find a better, more appropriate inker, Goodman coughed up a few extra dollars per page, and journeyman artist Joe Sinnott was hired to embellish Kirby’s pencils.

Sinnott was born in Saugerties, New York on October 16, 1926, and like many comics artists of his generation, he fell hard for newspaper adventure strips like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and Lyman Young’s Tim Tyler’s Luck. After serving in the Navy in World War II and working for three years at the rock quarry of a cement plant, Sinnott enrolled in the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and was encouraged by Tarzan artist and SVA Dean Burne Hogarth to specialize in cartooning. One of Sinnott’s teachers was Tom Gill, a freelancer for Fawcett Publications and artist of the Lone Ranger comic strip. Gill liked Sinnott’s art and hired him as one of his assistants.

In 1950, Sinnott asked Lee, then editor at the company that would later become Marvel (and was at the time called either Timely or Atlas Comics), for work, and received crime and western stories to illustrate. When the downturn of the comics industry in the mid-1950s prompted Lee (and publisher Martin Goodman) to fire artists and reduce the page rates of the still-employed, Sinnott left ur-Marvel and found work with the Gilberton Company, the publisher of Classics Illustrated, and with Treasure Chest (1946-1972), a comic book published by George A. Pflaum distributed exclusively to Catholic schools. In 1958, with Atlas’ finances marginally improved, Lee rehired Sinnott to draw pre-Marvel monster comics, and until the mid-1960s Sinnott labored for several clients simultaneously, including Marvel, Charlton, Dell, and Treasure Chest. Although Sinnott both penciled and inked many of these assignments, he also began inking other artists’ pencils for Stan Lee. As Sinnott explained in an interview with Jim Amash published in Alter Ego #26 (2003):

Stan called me out of the blue and said, “I got a western story here that Jack [Kirby] can’t ink. Can you fit it into your schedule?” I told him to send it up; I wasn’t going into the city [NYC] anymore. I did everything by phone. A couple of weeks later, Stan called me and asked me to ink another Kirby story. Jack didn’t want to ink his stuff, and Stan needed someone to do it. Of course, you know Jack didn’t ink the way he penciled. Not to belittle his inking, but it detracted from his pencils. Those pencils were so good, but his inking wasn’t–at least, not in my opinion. Jack needed good inkers to make his work look the way it should.

The first Fantastic Four comic Sinnott inked was issue #5 (July 1962), featuring the first appearance of Dr. Doom, although this would be Sinnott’s only real work on the title for the next three years. He returned with #44 (November 1965), replacing Colletta, stayed on for almost all the remaining issues of the Lee-Kirby run (through #102, September 1970), and continued to ink FF for several years after both Lee and Kirby left the comic.

Sinnott’s only penciling for Marvel in the 1960s is a handful of undistinguished stories that he drew and inked for Journey into Mystery starring Thor. In 1963, Marvel paid some of the worst rates in the industry, so it’s not surprising that Sinnott drew the Thor tales as fast as he could. When the money was reasonable, however, Sinnott slowed down and displayed several artistic strengths, particularly a detailed naturalism and textured inking style, that were best on display in his low-key stories for Treasure Chest. Below is a page he penciled and inked for a biography of Benjamin Banneker published in Treasure Chest in January 1969:

Sinnott Banneker page from Treasure Chest

Most notable about the art is Sinnott’s brush inking. In the first panel, Banneker’s coat is mostly a pool of solid black, but Sinnott’s brush teases out thin lines from the darkness, guiding the reader’s eyes towards the center of the panel. The same feathery inking is in panel two, where Sinnott renders Banneker’s lower leg as a silhouette, and finishes off the shadow with lines that become thinner as they travel upward and end around Banneker’s waist. Sinnott’s facility with ink is also clear from his stippling with the brush in panels two and four. In panel two, the tree next to the cabin is a dense arrangement of short, thick ink marks, while the plants in panel four combine representational shapes (black silhouettes of leaves) with amorphous ink blobs that signify tree foliage.

Sinnott brings this set of skills to his inking of Kirby’s FF pencils. Here are the original pencils and the final inked version of the first panel of page 19 of FF #89 (August 1969):

FF 89, page 19, panel one, pencils

FF 89, page 19, panel one, inks

Sinnott adds details and softens Kirby’s pencils. Kirby draws Sue’s hair with uniform wavy lines; Sinnott inks in a fatter, more undulating line around the hair’s outline that identifies a definitive shape for the colorist and adds lines of various width and length to indicate individual strands, making Sue’s hair flow more. Sinnott also adds texture to fabric. The line that begins on Reed’s chest (near Sue’s finger) and extends to his shoulder is, in Kirby’s pencils, unbroken and of consistent width, but Sinnott inks the line as a band of razor-thin brush marks that culminate in a thick loop curving around Reed’s collar.

In a craft talk with Amash in The Jack Kirby Collector #38 (2003), Sinnott refers to these panels and explains his reasons for some of these embellishments:

The pages should always hold up in black-&-white. It’s not enough to have two “colors,” meaning black-&-white. You need to have midtones, which is why I’d feather out of black areas, turn slashes into feathering, and vary my line weights so much. Using thin lines and thick lines for wrinkles creates a gray area. Using thin groups of lines in Reed’s hair, then spotting a few black places makes a great contrast to the lower half, where Reed’s hair is white.

The thinner lines in Sue’s hair, then, show (even in black-and-white) that she is blonde rather than brown-haired like Reed. Techniques like this–and Sinnott’s overall attention to craft and his cultivation of realistic textures and marks–are legacies of his affection for newspaper adventure cartoonists, and his training as a realistic illustrator at SVA.

Ironically, the signature visual effect the Kirby-Sinnott team brought to The Fantastic Four is neither realistic nor rendered in midtones. “Kirby Krackle” is the term fans have coined to describe the thick black dots, surrounded by white space, in Kirby’s superhero and science-fiction comics (or in Kirby’s later comics, period). Kirby and Sinnott sometimes pepper their drawings of outer space with these dots, to emphasize the alien nature of their celestial vistas, but their most common use is in situations where a character or object is releasing unusual and powerful energy. In the following panel from Fantastic Four #61 (April 1967, as reprinted in The Essential Fantastic Four volume 3), the dots serve both functions, as Reed Richards plunges through a gateway of streaming energy into the other-worldly Negative Zone:

FF 61, Reed thru dimension barrier

The origins of Kirby Krackle are elusive. Some see it in Blue Bolt Comics, a Kirby/Joe Simon superhero comic book published in 1940, while Ger Apeldoorn traces the technique back to an obscure science fiction story penciled and inked by Kirby in 1959. Sinnott claims that he used the dots even before he inked Kirby, but his solo crackle typically denotes real-life textures and objects, like the surface of water or the cluster of marks in Benjamin Banneker’s tree. Shane Foley points out that the amount of Kirby Krackle in FF increases exponentially beginning in late 1966, and from this moment on, both Kirby and Sinnott made the dots a permanent part of their visual vocabularies, even when they weren’t a pen-and-ink team.

Kirby’s great gifts as an artist were his dynamic compositions, his visual invention, and his uncanny ability to visualize people and objects from any angle in 360-degree space. His pencils, however, were never pretty in a conventional sense. Kirby never seemed interested in realistic depictions of the human form; both Sinnott and inker Mike Royer note that Kirby would usually draw faces with eyes askew from each other, and it was up to them to fix this mistake. Sinnott’s supple brush line, however, made Kirby’s characters human, and I wonder if Kirby himself fully realized this. Although he always said kind words about Sinnott, Kirby could be uncomfortable with inkers who changed too much of his source material. During his last tenure at DC (1970-75), Kirby’s resented that his drawings were retouched by other artists to resemble DC’s “official” version of Superman, and he also requested that Colletta be removed from his Fourth World titles. When Mike Royer inked his first Mister Miracle comic, he tried to “pretty up” the face of Kirby’s female powerhouse Big Barda. Kirby took an X-Acto knife, cut the face out of the surface of the paper, and instructed Royer to remain faithful to his pencils. I hope, though, that Kirby appreciated how Sinnott’s inks complimented his art in flattering ways.

In the past, I’ve been guilty myself of underestimating or misunderstanding Sinnott. After I resumed collecting comics in graduate school, I migrated from Marvel and DC Comics to black-and white alternatives: the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets, Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff, the stray late-’80s issues of the underground anthology title Snarf from Kitchen Sink Press. Only later, after striking up friendships with comics academics more perceptive than I and more tune with Kirby’s aesthetics (one of whom runs this blog) did I return to my worn copies of Marvel’s Greatest Comics, where I found power, grace, and profound memories of my evolving literacy. Joe Sinnott was part of all that.

RIP Joltin’ Joe Sinnott

Longtime comic-book artist and revered Jack Kirby inker Joe Sinnott (1926-2020) passed away peacefully on June 25. His family reported that the 93-year-old Joe “enjoyed life and was drawing up until the end.” Mr. Sinnott is such a beloved artist and essential part of the legend of Kirby (and of Marvel Comics) that I wanted to note his importance and passing here on kirbystudies.org. Sincerest condolences to all of his loved ones, colleagues, and fans.

Joe Sinnott at work

Joe Sinnott, 1975 (sourced from his Facebook page). Photographer unknown.

What follows are brief remembrances; in a coming post, my friend and colleague Craig Fischer will share a detailed essay about Mr. Sinnott’s work.

My friend and colleague Tony Puryear (co-creator of Concrete Park) posted the following to Facebook on the morning of June 25, and I reproduce it here with Tony’s kind permission:

Joe Sinnott was the comic book inker par excellence and a pro’s pro. Because of the poor reproduction of early comics publishing, printing comics art from pencil drawings was impossible. It was, and is, the inker’s job to turn those sometimes rough, sometimes rushed, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes awful pencils into crisp, clean black and white. The inker also must bring something to the party, their own style. Joe Sinnott did this as well as anyone who ever picked up a brush.

His work with Jack Kirby on their legendary run on Fantastic Four (and “with” is almost a misnomer in this case; the two men never met till after their run was done), remains a comics gold standard. Kirby’s work, his ultra-dynamic figures, his insane, bio-psychedelic machinery, his explosive …explosions, bloomed to mind-blowing life as embellished by Sinnott’s unbelievably sure, clean line. Hair looked like hair, metal looked like metal, stone looked like stone, The Human Torch looked like The Human Torch, and The Thing, with every issue, looked more and more like the platonic ideal of The Thing. This stuff is way, way harder than it sounds, but it is of the essence of the comic book experience.

Sinnott went on to ink John Buscema, a genius in his own right but a different kind of animal from Kirby, when he took over Fantastic Four. To me, that’s when you saw just how good Sinnott was. He didn’t miss a beat. Fantastic Four still looked like a million bucks, the crazy machines, the outer space vistas and The Ever-lovin’ Thing still looked just as they should, and you realized that if the great age of Marvel Comics had a house style, it lived in Joe Sinnott’s right hand.

RIP Joe Sinnott, one of the greats.

FF 55 page inked by Sinnott

Original art for a page from Fantastic Four #55 (Oct. 1966), inked by Joe Sinnott. © Marvel.

On June 30, my friend and colleague Geoff Grogan, cartoonist and teacher, who created the cover for Hand of Fire and a mural for our 2015 Kirby exhibition, sent me this note, which, again, I reproduce with his kind permission:

So much to say, but I’m struggling to find the words.

My three favorite inkers on Jack Kirby were Chic Stone, Mike Royer, and Joe Sinnott. Chic Stone’s brush, I think, brought an elegance to Jack’s line. If Mike Royer revealed the earthiness in Jack’s work, Joe Sinnott revealed the grandeur—or maybe a better way to say that is: Mike Royer revealed the Earth and Joe Sinnott the Stars.

Joe Sinnott''s last sketch: a cowboy

Joe Sinnott’s last sketch, according to his family (from his Facebook page).

FF 81 page inked by Sinnott

Original art, opening splash, Fantastic Four #81 (Dec. 1968), inked by Joe Sinnott. © Marvel. Image from Heritage Auctions.

Finally, I posted the following to Facebook on the morning of June 25:

RIP Joe Sinnott, whose exquisite inked lines limn the images in my dreams. Deepest condolences to his loved ones, colleagues, and fans everywhere.

Mr. Sinnott had a long and varied career in comic books as both penciller and inker. He is best known for setting the look of Marvel’s Fantastic Four through his long tenure as the inker on that title—and in fact his dynamic yet graceful inking, fluid, sensitive and adaptable, defined the Marvel house style for years. His inflected brush lines were impeccable, solidifying form, creating texture, imparting wholeness to pages touched by many hands. When paired with the intense, hyper-dramatic compositions of Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four, Sinnott’s work could be enticingly slick and yet mind-boggling. That was truly a felicitous combination of artists.

When Sinnott returned to Fantastic Four in 1965 and became its regular inker (starting with issue #44), everything about that title clicked, and, for my money, the very best run of Marvel comics began. Sinnott brought an extra touch of grace and fluidity to Kirby’s wild geometry and explosive action, and Kirby pushed himself to the limit too, gifting Sinnott with some of his best work to embellish. Rugged yet lovely, the book defined the best in superhero world-building for a long, long time.

Do yourself a favor and go search the Grand Comics Database (comics.org) for Mr. Sinnott’s work as both penciller and inker. He was an accomplished and delightful artist.

FF 62 page inked by Sinnott

Original art for a page from Fantastic Four #62 (May 1967), inked by Joe Sinnott. © Marvel. Image from Heritage Auctions.

For more online information about Joe Sinnott’s career, I recommend the overview by Steve Ringgenberg at The Comics Journal, http://www.tcj.com/joe-sinnott-1926-2020/, and the interview with Sinnott by Bill G. Wilson, Duffy Vohland, and Gary Groth at the New York Comic Art Convention in 1970 (fifty years ago!), posted to The Comics Journal by Groth, http://www.tcj.com/1970-joe-sinnott-interview/[.] The Seamon-Wilsey Funeral Home of Mr. Sinnott’s home town, Saugerties, New York, has his obituary.

Joe Sinnott lived a storied life, with grace and class, and man did he make comics look good. RIP, sir.

Joe Sinnott at his drawing board

Joe Sinnott, at home at his drawing board, Saugerties, NY. (Date and photographer unknown.)

Get, Read: The Oven, by James Romberger

Jack Kirby is in danger of becoming a mythological character. On the one hand, he is now a “Disney Legend,” his name and career story coopted to bolster the continuing mythification of Marvel. Hype for recent and forthcoming film blockbusters has brought Kirby to, almost literally, Disney’s Main Street:

Walt Disney Presents marquee

Jack Kirby, Disney Legend

On the other, scholars and creators have recently made Kirby into a literary character, on the stage and on the page: protagonist of both fantastical homages and more grounded historical fictions. Examples of the former can be found in, say, DC’s 2017 spate of one-shot “Specials” celebrating Kirby’s centenary (notably, the Sandman special dated Oct. 2017) or Tom King and company’s tragic homage in the pages of the otherwise-boring Kamandi Challenge (Nov. 2017). These are fantasies: dreams of Kirby freed from the rigors of historiography. For the latter, the more grounded historical fictions, take for example the biographical play King Kirby by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente (2014), premiered Off-Off Broadway at The Brick in 2014, or another biographical play, The King and Me, by Dutch writer Ger Apeldoorn (2015), performed in the UK, the Netherlands, the US, and most recently in conjunction with the exhibition Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super-héros in Cherbourg France.

For Real 1 cover.jpg

But consider too the comics informed by the details of Kirby’s life: Tom Scioli and Jean Depelley’s collaboration on “Private Kirby Adventures,” based on Kirby’s experience as a combat infantryman, or Scioli’s graphic biography in progress. Such projects undertake serious research into Kirby’s life, and constitute sequels, of a sort, to Kirby’s own classic autobiographical comic, “Street Code.” James Romberger’s just-released “The Oven” could be added to this list. It’s a subtle piece whose version of Kirby, while admittedly fictive, is sensitively and convincingly drawn. It’s also a beautiful comic.

Opening splash of James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

“The Oven,” opening panel

In “The Oven,” an elderly Kirby goes from his drawing board to the hospital, and a CAT scan, even as his mind turns back to the war-ravaged fields of France, circa 1944, and his own near-fatal encounter, as a foot soldier, with a troop of Nazis—a haunting moment in a brick and tile factory in the town of Corny, on the banks of the Moselle River. Romberger’s panels shift from black to gray as the older Kirby, near seventy, shifts from the present of the hospital back to his indelible memories of war, when he was in his late twenties. Young Kirby and a fellow soldier get holed up in factory kilns—ovens for baking ceramics—each one a squat octagon, a little cell. The kilns’ warmth draws the soldiers in; they are cozy:

A page from James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

Kirby, elder and younger: entrapment in “The Oven”

But then Germans troops enter the factory, and the two GIs have to hide inside the kilns, quiet, desperate. This scene runs parallel to the older Kirby’s immersion in the cell of a CT scanner, as he undergoes a test for cancer. Both, as Kirby’s dialogue suggests, are “tight spots,” pivotal and implicitly life-threatening moments. Romberger, however, takes a discreet, understated approach—there are no histrionics here—and ends on a near-silent page in which Kirby returns to his drawing board, while awaiting a doctor’s call (with test results). I found this last page quietly moving.

The conclusion of James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

Back to the drawing board…

“The Oven,” a 20-page short, appears in the first issue of Romberger’s projected anthology series For Real, which aims to focus on fact-based comics stories and essays (a typically quixotic and unconventional project for its publisher, the terrific Uncivilized Books). Alongside “The Oven” runs a roughly 10-page essay by Romberger, “The Real Thing,” which makes the case that Kirby’s wartime experience was life-changing and central to his art. Romberger breaks new ground in this now-familiar territory, stressing the “intimate acknowledgement of trauma and suffering” that suffuses Kirby’s work, and contrasting Kirby to other comics creators—notably the great Alex Toth, whose war comics, Romberger notes, have a sanitized glamour and little of Kirby’s lived-in, haunted quality. There are anecdotes and insights here that Kirby scholars will want to plumb.

Page detail from James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

I love the matter-of-factness here.

“The Oven” is a speculative biographical fantasy. Romberger is frank about fictionalizing Kirby’s experiences; he calls his story a mix of “approximation” and “guesstimation,” and begs indulgence for “the liberties I have taken.” Yet “The Oven” is also a respectful and soulful effort, persuasive in the unassuming way it depicts Kirby and his wife Roz. Geographical and biographical details are suggested rather that ostentatiously insisted upon; in effect, Romberger hides the depth of his research, or rather, does not ask to be hailed for it. “The Oven” goes by disarmingly quickly, belying the depth of knowledge and care surely required to make it.

Graphically, rather than aiming for spectacle in the familiar late-Kirby mode, Romberger’s drawing harks back to the plainspokenness of much of Toth’s work. Romberger’s naturalism, brushwork, and lettering all recall Toth, and the spartan four-tier grid that he favors here reminds me of the restrained three-tier, six-panel pages that were common in Toth’s Dell comics around the late 1950s. Shorn of the vivid colors that partner Marguerite Van Cook often brings to Romberger’s work (see their superb collaborations on Seven Miles a Second and The Late Child), “The Oven” is spare, unadorned work, with loose and rugged figures, muted body English, and minimal yet effective evocations of “tight” spaces. The freedom of the rendering remind me of other artists who have learned from Toth (Tony Salmons, say). But the tamped-down storytelling and hushed suspense are distinctly Romberger’s. The pages look as if they were drawn directly from the mind.

For Real #1 is a fascinating comic book, and highly recommended. “The Oven,” in particular, is excellent: a believable homage that links together Kirby’s well-known war experience and his less well-known fight with cancer near the end of his life. I’d call it a biographical dream—deeply affecting, and highly recommended. Look for it in better comic shops on Nov. 6.