Category Archives: Kirby in Media

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.

Jack Kirby’s Marvels on Imaginary Worlds

Imaginary Worlds label

I had the pleasure of being among the scholars interviewed by host and producer Eric Molinsky for “Jack Kirby’s Marvels,” an episode of Imaginary Worlds, his biweekly podcast  on the Panoply network about science fiction, fantasy, and geek culture.

An experienced radio reporter and producer, Molinsky has worked for NPR, PRI’s Studio 360The New Yorker Radio Hour, and many other programs. He has been producing Imaginary Worlds for nearly four years, and in that time has done more than ninety episodes. Molinsky describes Imaginary Worlds as “a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief.” This particular episode, “Jack Kirby’s Marvels,” explores the question of “Kirby’s influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” The show includes a visit to the Tenement Museum of New York’s Lower East Side, featuring IW assistant producer Stephanie Billman and museum educator and guide Jason Eisner; and historical commentary from Mark Evanier, Kirby’s biographer and onetime collaborator; Rand Hoppe, Acting Director of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center; and Arlen Schumer, designer, illustrator, and popular culture historian (The Silver Age of Comic Book Art). I’m in there too.

You can listen to the episode (about 32 minutes) via the links above, or right here:

(My first moments come in around 16:50, he said egotistically.)

I’m glad to have done this, and in such good company. The end results are sharp, professional, and engaging. Imaginary Worlds boasts top-notch production and creates an interesting audio-imagescape (with, in this case, sound bites from Marvel movies woven into the mix). It’s a thrill to be a voice on such a show. Further, I’m happy to hear Kirby credited, unambiguously, as the source of so many of Marvel’s enduring properties from the Sixties.

But, ahem, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how my own perspective differs from that ultimately taken by the ‘cast. In particular, I disagree with the angle of the last seven minutes or so, as Molinsky pivots from the Marvel Sixties to Kirby’s stormy Seventies, including the Fourth World and then his troubled return to Marvel in the mid-decade. I was sorry to hear so much great work summarily dismissed, and to hear the show repeat the canard that Kirby had never written dialogue before 1970 (false) and, worse yet, that he really couldn’t, that as a writer his work was “clunky” and inelegant. This is an old chestnut among Marvel fans, but of course I don’t buy it. When I reread, say, New Gods #5-9, Mister Miracle #9, The Demon #1, Kamandi #11-16, Eternals #8-10, or Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, this claim makes no sense to me.

Jack Kirby’s Marvels” seems determined to highlight Kirby’s contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe above all else, which would be fine if that choice of focus were explained at the outset as simply one of many possible angles—yet at the same time the show tries to encapsulate all of Kirby’s career, the result being a too-brief and frankly misleading sketch. Molinsky privileges Marvel “IP” even as he reads Kirby’s work through the lens of autobiography; what emerges from all this is an odd mashup of Marvel-centric fan lore with the biographical tendency in Kirby studies. In effect, the episode makes Marvel (and I find this terribly ironic) the center of Kirby’s life story. The rest of his career, both before and after, is thinly documented, or simply undocumented (Captain America Comics is the one thing brought up from Kirby’s early career). Again, all this would be understandable if the ‘cast had clearly announced its scope and intentions up front—but instead it offers, by way of an ending, a quick, misleading capsule summary of the rest of Kirby’s career, presented as a tragic fall.

IMO the show gets bogged down at the intersection of Kirby bio and Marvel movie IP, and the cost is obscuring history. You would never know from this ‘cast that Simon and Kirby scored other big hits besides Captain America in the WWII years, such as The Boy Commandos. You wouldn’t know that comic book sales peaked in the early Fifties, after the heyday of the superhero, or that superheroes were not the barometer of the industry’s health. You’d never know that Kirby did his most lucrative, and one of his most influential, genres, romance, from the late Forties through late Fifties. (I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: you cannot explain the Marvel superheroes of the Sixties, with their domestic melodrama and expanded though sentimental women’s roles, without the influence of romance comics.)

“Jack Kirby’s Marvels” does good work in highlighting Kirby as Marvel’s co-founder. Kirby’s centrality is never questioned, and Molinsky and company have edited many voices into one succinct, riveting account. Further, the early portion of the ‘cast, with the visit to the Tenement Museum, could be eye-opening to many (the tenement segment is great). For these reasons, I hate to go public with my criticisms, which may smack of ingratitude. But I have to admit my heart fell during the final fourth or so of the ‘cast, and I reckon I should state for the record how my interpretation of the history differs.

It’s a shame that the episode’s emphasis on Marvel IP causes it to short-shrift other important aspects of Kirby’s biography, including huge successes like the Commandos and Young Romance, the harrowing details of his military service, the ups and downs of his partnership with Simon, and the upheavals in the comic book market after the mid-Forties. Finally, I was disappointed by the episode’s ending, which comes down to, simply, a reaffirmation that both “Jack AND Stan mattered”—a conclusion that is hardly surprising, indeed by now has become standard. I guess that was a gesture toward closure, and listeners do need closure—but so much gets swept under the floorboards when we do that.