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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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):
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:
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.