I was sorry to learn that Steve Sherman — puppeteer, writer, artist, designer, and all-around creator — died last week on June 24. He was 72 years old. My deepest condolences to his loved ones, colleagues, and admirers.
Steve Sherman had a long and interesting career in film and television, on stage, and in comic books, including stints working for Filmation, Sid & Marty Krofft, Hanna-Barbera, and toy design firm Fred Adickes Associates. In the mid 1980s, he and fellow puppeteer Greg Williams cofounded Puppet Studio, a partnership that lasted for decades and included work for theme parks, cruise ships, and pop music tours as well as television (for example, ABC Weekend Specials, Beakman’s World, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse) and movies (such as Mighty Joe Young and the first two Men in Black films). Together Sherman and Williams worked with, among others, Jim Henson’s Muppets and legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, and in the mid-80s they created characters and stories for Mattel.
Me, I came to know Steve Sherman through comic books. Specifically, I learned his name through reading Jack Kirby’s comics for publisher DC in the early to mid 1970s. I saw Sherman’s byline a lot in the letter columns of comics like Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earthand OMAC. I would also see another name, Mark Evanier, in some of those comics. What I didn’t quite realize was that Sherman and Evanier were Kirby’s two assistants, having been hired out of comic book fandom to help Jack with production and editorial duties on his DC books. They were also good friends. Evanier and Sherman had met in the late 60s through the Los Angeles Comic Book Club (which Evanier presided over), then worked together at the ill-fated Marvelmania (c. 1969-1970). Kirby, who did some work for Marvelmania, hired the two at about the time he was launching his grand Fourth World project for DC and envisioning a larger production outfit that could include other writers and artists under his editorship (a vision that never came to pass).
Text articles and letter columns by Sherman and Evanier began appearing with the second issues of Kirby’s titles Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle, which went on sale in February and March of 1971. Sherman would have been twenty-one then (and Evanier just going on nineteen). Essentially, Sherman and Evanier had a ringside seat for the creation of one of the most exciting projects in American mainstream comic books of that era.
Evanier and Sherman have described their work for Kirby as minimal, since Kirby did all his own writing and drawing and held the editorial reins of most of his DC titles. But they were key parts of a team and community that afforded Kirby greater creative freedom than he had enjoyed for many years. Sherman supplied Kirby with the premise of Kamandi #29 (May 1975) and co-created the character Kobra with him. In the late 70s, Sherman and Kirby also collaborated on two treatments for SF movies that went unfilmed but later resulted in Kirby’s independent comic book projects for Pacific Comics, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers(1981-1984) and Silver Star(1983-1984). Both Sherman and Evanier became good friends of Jack Kirby’s family and important figures in his career story.
I believe I met Steve Sherman at more than one Kirby-themed convention event organized by Mark Evanier. I know that together Evanier, Sherman, Paul S. Levine, and I did the Kirby tribute panel at WonderCon in 2016, which I greatly enjoyed. Steve was gracious, unassuming, and friendly. Getting to talk to him then was a gift. I wish I had known him better.
Mark Evanier has a fine tribute to Steve up on his blog. Also, Mark and Steve got together for a video chat last summer that you can watch on YouTube; it’s a lovely stroll down memory lane, and a treasure trove for anyone who wants to know more about L.A. fandom in the 1960s or Kirby’s amazing early-70s period.
Abraham Riesman’s True Believeris not the first serious book-length biography of Stan Lee—that ship sailed long ago. It is not even the first Lee bio to be published since his death in 2018. For the sake of contrast, I would recommend reading it alongside others, such as A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee (2019), an affectionate account by veteran Marvel writer and editor Danny Fingeroth that nicely captures Lee’s New York milieu. Or Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon (2003), a more distanced take—the first Lee bio, as far as I know, to draw upon the Stan Lee Papers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center (as does Riesman).
That said, Riesman does give an unusually meaty, substantial version of Lee’s life, one shaped by primary research. Moreover, True Believer has drawn an unprecedented level of mainstream media attention, with reviews everywhere (the most useful of which, for my money, has been Stephanie Burt’s in The New Yorker). Perhaps the book has garnered attention because it has been promoted as an unauthorized, demythologizing, warts-and-all bio written by a known journalist, as opposed to an insider treatment for comics fans (though Riesman has plenty of fan cred as well). Or perhaps, after more than a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and attendant hype, the time is simply ripe for an idol-toppling alternate take. In any case, True Believer is the first widely publicized mainstream book about Lee that is willing to say, to a broad audience, what thousands of fans and a great many fan publications have already said among themselves: that the distance between Stan Lee’s beloved public persona and his actual career story is vast—and that Lee himself did much to widen that gap, to mystify or obscure the real story.
Riesman comes closest among the published biographies to characterizing Stan Lee the way I see him now: as a jobber who did not love comics, did not quite understand the appeal of them, chafed at a demeaning and (in the early days) usually anonymous job, tried to get the hell out, and then, in the 1960s, got spectacularly lucky. Getting lucky meant, crucially, working with cartoonists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and writing the anchoring text for a bunch of lovely, artist-driven comics that fizzed and crackled with a certain weirdness and soulfulness. Getting lucky also meant presiding over and tightening up, editorially, the aggregate story-world built out of those comics, and then, just as crucially, venturing out into the world, out of his anonymity and into the limelight at last, to promote it.
From the mid-sixties on, Lee did all this in an eager, hyped-up voice, with a generous ladling of razzmatazz: salesmanship, but of a particularly ebullient and hilarious kind. He was good at it. That persona, at first confined to the printed page, got out and became “Stan Lee” to the rest of the world. In the meantime, the daily grind of comic book production continued. An astute editor, Lee knew how to seize opportunity and how to impose shape on a bunch of disparate stuff. Fueled by Kirby and other artists, he helped turn Martin Goodman’s vestigial early-1960s lineup of comic books into something to be reckoned with. Some of the comics sang, sharp, smart, and lovely. Lee, though, ached to move up and out. When he became Marvel’s publisher, he did a feckless and frankly disastrous job as the man upstairs (as Sean Howe’s 2012 book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story reveals). Then he went Hollywood, and then pitched and pushed his way from comic book front man to executive producer to geek culture icon.
Lee at Marvel, as I understand him, was by turns both a good and a bad boss: one remembered by some for a warmth and enthusiasm that were unusual among comic book editors, but by others for self-dealing and calculation. For some years, he presided shrewdly over a line of comic books that seemed blessed. During that time, Lee came to life as a writer, leaving behind what he considered hackdom for a zingier, more flavorful and engaged style. He was sometimes a charming and, from the late sixties onward, always a mannered wordsmith (I enjoy the moments when his ironic patter sells the stories, as opposed to the moments of overkill when it spoils things). He was the voice of Marvel, bantering, ingratiating, and self-aware. Of course, he was a consummate shill, but on some level he seemed to believe in the Marvel ethos, so forcefully did he promote it. Later, he became a bored and bewildered executive—and then a Hollywood parvenu, someone whom the grown fans in the movie industry loved to meet but would not take seriously until the whole Marvel business was, practically speaking, out of his hands.
That’s the outline of my own mental picture, and Riesman delivers something like it, albeit with a fair serving of ominous foreshadowing that frames Lee’s bio as the stuff of grand tragedy: an assimilationist American dream (of which Lee was a true believer) that ended in fibbing, grasping, and, finally, twilit years of exploitation, crooked business, and embarrassment. “His is a tale of triumph,” we’re told, but also “one of overreach and agony.” Riesman signposts his themes with a vengeance: if Lee rose, onward and upward, “so, too, did he fall” (14). This account of Lee doesn’t surprise me, but True Believer fills the outline with disconcerting charges and insinuations: hints of anxious assimilationism, rejection of family and heritage, alleged uncaring treatment of brother and collaborator Larry Lieber, frustrated careerism, and grandstanding, dishonest selling of the Stan Lee brand, often abetted by various showbiz sharks. The sum of all this is damning.
Sadly, True Believer doesn’t bring a lot of new primary evidence to the part of Lee’s story that interests me most: the creation of Marvel Comics and the Marvel Universe in the 1960s. That is a well chewed-over yet thinly documented period, its processes distressingly hard to prove, and has inspired various speculative and reconstructive efforts (like my own too-tentative account in Hand of Fire, or John Morrow’s methodical and diplomatic Stuf’ Said, or, most recently, Michael Hill’s avowedly partisan According to Jack Kirby). The most revealing passages in True Believer come before the 1960s, particularly in Lee’s long restive 1950s, and after, in Lee’s Hollywood period and dismaying final years. By contrast, Riesman’s treatment of the Marvel sixties, the peak of Lee’s career in comics, has a sort of overfamiliar quality.
However, as Riesman wades through the epistemological swamp that is the creation of Marvel, he goes one better than most mainstream biographers in questioning the nature of Lee’s role. True Believer does more than simply admit that Marvel’s characters of the sixties were designed by artists such as Kirby and Ditko who did much of the heavy lifting. Riesman, in fact, floats the idea that Lee may have had little to do with creating most of the characters, that his “co-creator” role may have been greatly exaggerated or simply made up: “It’s very possible, maybe even probable, that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the brain and pen of Kirby… How far did this deception go?” (13). To be clear, Riesman does not argue this claim decisively; despite various proofs of Lee’s mendacity and revisionism, he chooses not to interpret the evidence definitively one way or the other. Rather, he asserts the unknowability of the absolute truth—that is, he adopts epistemological skepticism. Wisely, he resists the impulse to say that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” that Lee’s and Kirby’s contrasting accounts of Marvel can be reconciled simply by splitting the difference. “We should not ignore the possibility,” he says, “that one of them was lying and the other telling the truth” (112-113). Based on Riesman’s account, it seems clear who the liar would be, yet Riesman stops short of nailing this claim down. While he is willing to entertain the thought that Lee may not have brainstormed the major Marvel characters, he does not press the point. The result is a kind of nagging irresolution in the text, but at least an honesty about the limits of what Riesman has been able to confirm.
If other biographers have acknowledged the slipperiness of this issue, Riesman is unusual in his willingness not to give Lee the benefit of the doubt. Granted, he is likewise critical of what he sees as Jack Kirby’s misstatements (e.g., page 96) and duly factors in evidence that may seem to affirm Lee’s active collaboration with artists. Yet the accumulated weight of the text suggests that Riesman finds Lee untrustworthy: Stan Lee’s story, he says, “is where objective truth goes to die” (12). He is careful not repeat as fact things that can be gleaned only from Lee’s accounts. To that extent, yes, True Believer performs its promised demythologizing work; Riesman casts doubt on many of Lee’s oft-told tales. However, Riesman is too cagey to counter Lee’s revisionism with a confidently asserted counter-truth. (Is this perhaps an implicit recognition that there were not two but multiple conflicting stories over time, as Lee and Kirby adjusted their tellings, sometimes contradicting themselves as well as each other? Riesman does not delve into this possibility.)
Riesman’s guarded arguments may disappoint those hoping for a more ringing clarity, especially those reading True Believer to discern more about Kirby. Against the backdrop of other Lee biographies, however, he appears positively bold. On certain matters, he renders judgment firmly. One of his concerns is Lee’s aloofness from Judaism and Jewishness, despite the book opening with an account of the Leibovici/Liber and Solomon families (Stan’s parents’ families) fleeing privation and antisemitic persecution in Romania circa 1901-1906. Riesman’s “overture” and first chapter gather up details regarding Lee’s Ashkenazi roots, and would seem to link True Believer to the burgeoning literature on the Jewish roots of the US comic book industry (there is a touch of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay about this). Yet the book acknowledges that Lee, after becoming “Lee,” after moving out and making a life and family of his own, remained at arm’s length from Jewish culture and community. I detect disappointment here, a sense that Lee’s self-fashioning entailed kicking his family history to the curb. We are told that the grownup Stan “would walk away from Judaism and the institutions of Jewish life—even, it can be argued, from Jewishness as a concept…” (21). Riesman’s Lee, “allergic” to religion and hounded by memories of poverty and ostracism, seems determined to escape from his origins—every part of his origins (34). Perhaps this underlies Riesman’s emphasis on Lee’s alleged heartlessness toward his father and brother. Perhaps it informs his depiction of Lee’s constant desperate striving for something more than salaryman status. Suffice to say that True Believer portrays Lee as an assimilated arriviste anxious to keep his background at bay. True “belief” in the American dream, for Riesman, equates to self-denial.
Clearly, Riesman regards Lee as a bullshit artist (that’s a technical term: see Harry Frankfurt). He seems puzzled by the why of Lee’s BS, and he repeats a point that others have made: that Lee sold short his actual achievements by insisting that he had done even more (14). That is, Lee’s overcompensatory claims to have “created” the Marvel Universe deny his real accomplishments as an editor and scriptwriter. To have done those jobs well within the comic book business was not enough, perhaps—after all, comic books were a marginalized and despised medium. So, maybe nothing less than having redefined the medium would satisfy. If Lee could not readily escape the comics business (as he often dreamed of doing), he could insist that he had changed it fundamentally. He could use the comics, in the end, as a passport to a bigger kind of showbiz, and thus become the mythic figurehead of something that was, of course, built by others (the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Behind all that, behind Lee the legend, lay a wordsmith and editor of some skill—one who could telegraph an excitement about comic books that he didn’t really feel. If that was bullshit, it did a wonderful job of making fans feel less dorky and put-upon, and helped usher in the ascendancy of geek culture in our time.
Readers’ reviews on Amazon (hardly a scientific sampling, I know) show that Riesman has touched a nerve. For a book like True Believer, angry, one-star reviews might be a kind of validation. Me, I’d say that True Believer is must reading for devotees of comic books and comics culture. I don’t say that lightly: it is essential, and will cited from here on out. Yet it is occasionally frustrating too. As Riesman labors to turn Lee’s life into a book with shape, to draw out and underscore themes, the editorializing comes down hard and heavy, as if he is determined to find in Lee a sobering lesson. He leans hard into the artistically negligible (though dismally compelling and tabloid-worthy) string of business disasters and false promises that was Lee’s final twenty years—a bleak last lap, notwithstanding Lee’s popular cameos in so many movies and TV shows. This final act turns the book gossipy and acrid (e.g., “There are few people who will speak on the record about what was going on in this period, but when one of them does, it’s always shocking,” 310-311). Perhaps Riesman thought this last arc would impart some tragic grandeur, or perhaps including it was simply a matter of due diligence. If the book’s homestretch aims to be the last act in a great tragedy, all karmic comeuppance and vultures coming home to roost, to me it reads simply as a string of pitiful incidents, each one sadder than the previous. At this point the text does become journalistically vivid, less secondhand, more dramatic, as Riesman himself becomes a character alongside various barrel-bottom showbiz types, shady entrepreneurs, and private detectives. Yet this final arc is unavoidably tawdry, a litany of depressing facts and speculations: securities fraud, sexual misconduct, elder abuse, secret surveillance recordings, backbiting assistants—so much scuttlebutt and slime.
Stylistically, Riesman works hard to derive poetry from all this. The strain shows: “Though the fluorescents shone brightly in the convention hall, the shadows stretched long” (301). The Stan Lee of the book’s final third wavers between a credulous, vulnerable old man—a poor judge of character amidst a pack of parasitic nobodies—and a disingenuous dodger who let terrible things happen on his watch and in his name. Riesman’s inner “twelve-year-old geek” (315) seems appalled but fascinated. It seems Lee mesmerizes him precisely to the extent that he disappoints. Some of Riesman’s speculative touches may come across as tendentious, some of the downfalls too fated. On the other hand, Lee’s life really is one hell of a story—the adage about truth outpacing fiction applies—and reassessments like these are, at the risk of cliché, overdue.
To his credit, Riesman knows that Lee’s story was really many other people’s story too, and he shows an appreciation for cartoonists as creators and storytellers. He duly acknowledges Kirby’s central role at Marvel in the sixties, and Steve Ditko’s as well. Hence, True Believer helps to undermine the logocentric myth of Marvel’s creation, thank goodness. It has opened the door a touch wider, and let more light through. More broadly, Riesman understands the queasy status of the mid-20th century comic book business and the lengths to which Stan Lee had to go to renegotiate his own status and remake himself as a cultural impresario: no longer a jobber, a functionary, an employee, but a legend. Why does it surprise so many people that this turns out to be an ugly story?
Thanks to Craig Fischer and Ben Saunders for their feedback and editorial help!
Tomorrow, Friday, August 28, 2020, would have been the 103rd birthday of Jack Kirby. To honor the occasion, the Jack Museum and Research Center is holding 3 Days for 103, a three-day online event series to be streamed live to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Running Friday the 29th through Sunday the 30th, from 11:00 a.m. into the evening each day, 3 Days for 103 boasts a terrifically diverse roster of guests from comics, art, film, and other fields, including colleagues, family, biographers, fans, and fellow artists. (I’m proud to be in that company: I’ll be interviewed on Saturday, Aug. 29, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. Eastern time.)
3 Days for 103, according to the Museum, will stream to Facebook and YouTube, and those who follow the museum on those platforms can elect to receive notifications for each event. In addition, the 3 Days for 103 events will stream to Twitter (via Periscope), but in that case, says the Museum, “there are no individual links to share”; simply follow @JackKirbyMuseum throughout the days.
The events will be promoted using the hashtag #Kirby103 — please spread the news! The Kirby Museum has the details, and full program, here: https://kirbymuseum.org/3for103/
Thanks, as ever, to the Kirby Museum for its tireless and inspired efforts!
Fittingly, it was fifty years ago this past Tuesday, Aug. 25, that DC Comics published Kirby’s first teaser for The Fourth World: the epochal, idea-crammed, and fearlessly strange Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133. Just to read that comic is to experience a sort of Kirby contact high: so amazing. It’s hard to believe it’s been half a century since The Fourth World premiered — a real milestone!
PS. Also, taking us back closer to Kirby’s roots, this week blogger Alex Jay shared more from his research into Kirby’s life — namely, images of Kirby’s World War II draft registration card. These images are revealing glimpses into Kirby’s (and New York City’s, and the USA’s) life in mid-October 1940. A lovely thing to see, especially during this special week.
(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.”
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.