Category Archives: Critical Conversations

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.