Category Archives: Jack Kirby’s Life

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.

Get, Read: The Oven, by James Romberger

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

Walt Disney Presents marquee

Jack Kirby, Disney Legend

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

For Real 1 cover.jpg

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

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

“The Oven,” opening panel

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the drawing board…

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

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

I love the matter-of-factness here.

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

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

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

Kirby (and Kirby Studies) in Moselle

 

Nov. 11, 2017. Studying Kirby never gets old. These past few days I’ve been in Metz, France, learning new ways to think about him and his work.

Metz lies in France’s northeast corner, in the region of Lorraine, not far from the German border. It belongs to the Département (i.e. administrative region) of Moselle—that is, within the Moselle River valley. It is about an hour and a half’s ride (by super-fast TGV train) from Paris. To me-—to my awestruck American eyes—it seems like a pleasant city that wears its history like a badge. It’s home to the Saulcy campus of the University of (Université de) Lorraine, or UdL, which is where I’ve been these past few days.

To commemorate this, Kirby’s centennial year, the Département of Moselle is paying tribute to him and his work with a series of comics-related events and exhibitions (see kirbysuperheros.fr). That is what brought me to the UdL.

Metz was a pivotal place in Kirby’s life—which is an understatement. As a 27-year-old combat infantryman in World War Two, Kirby took part in La Bataille (Battle) de Metz, which raged in the Moselle from September to December 1944. He was lucky to survive; most of his comrades-in-arms did not.

To be specific, the 11th Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army came to Metz in early September 1944. From September 8th to 10th, Kirby and some 1200 other soldiers took part in an ill-fated bid to cross the Moselle at Dornot-Corny (Dornot being a village on the west side of the river, and Corny a village on the opposite shore). They were ordered to establish a bridgehead and drive the Germans from the Fort St. Blaise. Opposing them were battle-worn German soldiers reassigned from the Russian front (the Voss battalion), as well as fresh graduates from a SS school (the Berg battalion) and elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The Moselle had become a heavily defended German frontier, so the Metz campaign was hard-fought and brutal. Dornot-Corny in particular became a disaster. The Americans were poorly informed and ill-prepared; lines of communication were tangled, and roads clogged; rain poured down, and the waters of the Moselle were ice-cold. Expected support did not come, and artillery support, when it came, inadvertently killed Americans (“friendly fire”). The Germans, for their part, rained artillery on the Americans nonstop; shells whistled and howled through the air, explosions ripped up the ground. Many Americans huddled in makeshift foxholes in a small wood that they came to call Horseshoe Wood (named for the horseshoe-shaped pattern of the troops’ movement). Trees were blasted apart—wooden shrapnel flew—and the woods were laid bare.

The roughly mile and a half of territory around Dornot-Corny became a killing ground. Of the 1200 Americans who went into it, 945 were eventually reported lost or wounded. Within days, American troops did establish a bridgehead further south, at Arnaville, but Dornot-Corny was remembered, if it all, as a defeat—the kind of thing armies would prefer not to remember, in fact. Indeed Dornot-Corny been has been described as “une bataille oubliée” (a forgotten battle). The people of Metz, however, have worked to make sure that it is not forgotten, and the events of September 8-10 are now memorialized as “60 hours in hell.”

Jack Kirby lived through that.

I visited Dornot-Corny two days ago. I will say more about that in a later post, and hopefully with a few photos. It was an oddly appropriate Veterans’ Day observance, so to speak. Suffice to say for now that the experience was moving and eye-opening, and I will not forget it. Thank you to Elisabeth Gozzo and the Association Thanks GIs for working so hard to preserve the memory of the soldiers and their sacrifice.*

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How and why did I get to Metz? I was invited to speak at the colloquy or symposium Expérience autobiographique et bande dessinée de genre: le récit de soi in spaces contraints (Autobiographical Experience and Genre Comics: Self-Narratives in Constrained Contexts), organized by scholar Jean-Matthieu Méon of the CREM (Centre de eEcherche sur les Médiations, or Center for Media Research) at the UdL. The impetus for this colloquy was Kirby’s centenary, as indicated by the subtitle Autour de Jack Kirby et de son passage en Moselle/Traces of Jack Kirby’s War in Moselle—thus the symposium built on Moselle’s larger Kirby tribute. Méon worked generously, tirelessly, to involve me in the symposium, arrange my travel to France, and make sure I understood things despite my language deficit—for which I cannot thank him enough. (Merci mille fois, Jean-Matthieu!)

The colloquy consisted of two days’ conversation in the UdL’s Salle Ferrari (a conference room arranged in concentric rings and with microphones everywhere!). Its main purpose, to paraphrase Jean-Matthieu, was to talk about Kirby, his life, his style, and his development, in order to talk more broadly about the category of “autobiographical comics”; or, in other words, to “expand the repertoire of authors, works, and formal strategies to consider when discussing the expression of autiobiography in comics.” As both autobiographical comics and Kirby are deep interests of mine, I was thrilled to have been invited. Moreover, the opportunity to talk about Kirby in a European context was something I had never experienced before—and frankly I had not realized how deeply Kirby’s work has affected so many readers outside of anglophone North America. To see such strong, firsthand evidence of this has been a great experience. Kirby studies is international!

Fourteen scholars gave papers: eight from France, three from Belgium, one from the UK, and two (including myself) from the US. In addition, Jean-Matthieu framed the event with opening and closing remarks, establishing a rich theoretical and historical context for our discussions. Following, in order of presentation, are brief notes about the talks. Some addressed Kirby particularly, while others dealt with different topics at the intersection of comics and autobiography studies:

  • Benoît Crucifix of the University of Liège, Belgium (whom I had met before), spoke on autobiographical readings of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley in the archival reprint volumes organized by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer.
  • Benoît Tellez spoke on autobiographical dimensions of Winsor McCay’s comics.
  • Maaheen Ahmed discussed authorial presence in works situated between autobiography and genre comics, including works by Pratt, Seagle and Kristiansen, and Larcenet, and how those works construct author-personas by invoking memories of past comics as well as memories of other media incorporated by comics.
  • Jean-Charles Andries de Levis discussed Alex Barbier’s Lettres au maire de V., and how the image of the werewolf in that and other works takes on an autobiographical function.
  • Benoît Glaude explored the phenomenon of pseudo-autobiographical texts attributed to comics characters (Little Nicholas, Corto Maltese, etc.), i.e. “the passage of non-autobiographical comics through the autobiographical literary genre.”
  • Pascal Robert spoke on the drawn signatures of cartoonist André Franquin and how those signatures assert the individuality and status of the author and renegotiate the relationship between author and editorial/publishing establishment.
  • Bounthavy Suvilay presented on the work of mangaka Hiroyuki Arakawa and how that work, as it conveys the story of a community rather than giving an individual confession, does not subscribe to Western conceptions of autobiography as genre but instead follows models specific to Japan.
  • Jean-Matthieu Méon spoke on the autobiographical works of the late Sam Glanzman and how they both conform to and exceed the conventional straits of the war comic genre.
  • Hugo Frey (University of Chichester, UK), with whom I have worked but whom I had never met, spoke on Hugo Pratt’s contributions to British war comics (Fleetway’s War Picture Library) in the late 1950s to early 60s, and how hints of Pratt’s later expressionistic style emerge even in these highly conventionalized comics.
  • Laura Caraballo (presenting a paper written in collaboration with Roberto Bartual) explored Kirby’s treatment of the sublime and the “concern for pure form” that emerges in the second half of his career, in relation to abstraction, Pop Art, and psychedelic art.
  • Éric Maigret presented on contested or fractured masculinity (or conflicts between hegemonic and subordinate masculinities) as the ground of Kirby’s personal and professional struggles, as revealed in diverse works.
  • Mathieu Li-Goyette (Université de Montréal, Canada) spoke on how Kirby’s war comics address the self “in a context of brotherhood” and heterogeneity, as analyzed within a schizoanalytic framework informed by the theories of Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Steven Brower (Skyping in from the US) discussed Kirby’s late works, particularly OMAC, as prophetic and dystopian “cautionary tales.”

I had the honor of leading off the colloquy with a keynote exploring Kirby’s changing view of war via his depictions of Japanese soldiers in two very different comics, one “The Treachery of Osuki,” a Boy Commandos story from Detective Comics #68 (Oct. 1942), and the other “Bushido,” a Losers story from Our Fighting Forces #154 (April 1975). My goal was to contrast early Kirby and late Kirby regarding the way he imagined the “enemy” and the nature of heroism in war—and to show how Kirby moved from wartime propaganda to more complex views. Along the way, I indulged my growing interest in the “kid gang” genre of comics pioneered by Kirby and Joe Simon in the early 1940s, and sought to place that genre in the context of Kirby’s autobiography as well as popular culture influences.

 

I wish I could share photos from the actual symposium proceedings, but I did not get any good ones of the speakers speaking—partly because the setting was small and intimate and I didn’t want to make anyone feel awkward, and partly because most of the presentations were in French and I was straining to understand them. The colloquy included both French and English talks, but frankly when it comes to French, I have seulement un trop petit peu (though this trip has given me some practice) and cannot converse in the language, so I relied on notes and impromptu help from colleagues. Fortunately, all presenters used PowerPoint, and most embedded in their slideshows text in whatever language they were not speaking; in my case, for example, I prepared French-language text for my talk. So that meant that I could follow the outlines of arguments in cases where I could not grasp the details of language. But I was keenly aware of my language deficit and working hard to show that I was listening and trying to understand—an occasionally frustrating experience, but overall the group worked hard to realize Jean-Matthieu Méon’s vision of a truly international summit. Everyone was gracious about it. I have to say, it was intense to spend so much energy trying to pick out whatever words I could recognize; fortunately, most presenters explicitly framed their talks in terms of theoretical perspective, methodology, and corpus of study, and those academic habits, which I’m familiar with, helped make up for my lack of fluency in the language. (In all, six presentations were in English and eight in French.)

This was a tremendous intellectual workout for me, and a great social occasion too. I got to make new friends, stretch my understanding, get a renewed feel for French language and culture, and—as I’ve said—learn that there are diverse international perspectives on Kirby. I only wish that I could have made it Metz earlier this year, and spent more time there, so as to fully experience the region’s celebration of Kirby (again, see kirbysuperheros.fr).

Once again, my deepest thanks to Jean-Matthieu Méon and his colleagues for making this happen!

KIRBY VIT!

*(My two main sources for the above account of the battle at Dornot-Corny are, one, my memories of conversations at the battle site, particularly the recollections of historian Elisabeth Gozzo; and two, the commemorative booklet Une bataille oubliée: les têtes de pont de Dornot-Corny et d’Arnaville, 2009, partly written by Gozzo and sponsored by the Office National does Anciens de la Moselle and the Association Thanks GIs, which Gozzo leads. They have done some wonderful “memory work” to make sure that the terrors and sacrifices of the War are not forgotten.)

Essential Reading: Growing up Kirby

Jack Kirby at work in The Dungeon, East Williston, Long Island, c. 1949

Jack Kirby’s son Neal (b. 1948) shares a wonderfully vivid, detailed remembrance of his father in the article “Growing Up Kirby: The Marvel Memories of Jack Kirby’s Son,” published yesterday, April 9th, on the Los Angeles Times‘ blog Hero Complex.

Besides being heartwarming and emotionally deep—a true, loving family portrait—this essay is a vital piece of Kirbyana, giving an atmospheric account of Kirby’s working habits in the basement studio in the Kirby family’s Nassau County, Long Island home during the 1950s and ’60s, the period when, essentially, Kirby laid the foundations of the Marvel Universe. Absolutely essential reading, for which I can only say a fervent thanks.