Category Archives: Other Writers on Kirby

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 Day 2019

5kirbysept1972

Kirby at work, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sept. 1972. Photo by and (c) David Folkman.

Today, August 28, I call Kirby Day. This would have been the 102nd birthday of Jack Kirby (b. Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994), as inventive and influential a comics creator as the field has ever seen, and one of the under-appreciated architects of what is now 21st century popular culture, both in the US and around the world. On this day, this unofficial holiday, why not donate to The Hero Initiative in support of veteran comics creators in need? Giving back on Kirby’s birthday is a grand tradition that deserves continuing.

Hero Initiative masthead

And, if you’re in or near New York City — not, like me, on the wrong coast — then why not join the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center this evening on the Lower East Side, Kirby’s point of origin, for their celebratory walking tour and mixer? That sounds wonderful. It’s a free, non-ticketed event (the precise starting point and other info can be found on the Museum’s site at the above link). Kirby belongs to the world, but his roots in NYC deserve to be recognized and retraced. (How about a commemorative plaque at Kirby’s Essex Street birthplace, hmm?)

KIRBY, HYPE & HISTORY

Kirby’s name has now been coopted and rebranded as a “Disney legend,” and is at last gaining traction in entertainment media coverage, with film adaptations of his late-period auteurist works The New Gods and The Eternals looming (from Warner/DC and Marvel Studios respectively). However, his larger career story, beyond what can be harnessed to hype new adaptations, still seems unknown even to many fans of the Marvel Universe — a pop-culture franchise impossible to imagine without Kirby’s foundational work. Happily, the now-touring exhibition Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes (reviewed here on 23 April 2018) casts Kirby as, essentially, cofounder of that universe, and conversations around films like Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Eternals have made Kirby and his designs a frequent talking point. I have to admit, I had never expected to see this.

But to me the heart of the story remains (of course) Kirby’s own art and storytelling, and his own improbable record of unstinting creativity against long odds, in an industry that often treated creators like dirt. Thrilling to the latest news of pending screen adaptations ought to be balanced, I think, by a critical awareness that comics, as comics, do not necessarily gain from these things, and that a history of comics that is hostage to the current exploitation of corporate IP is not really history, but hype. Anyone who has published scholarship on comics creators like Kirby is probably familiar with  the odd sensation of seeing scholarly opportunities open up  precisely because of that hype — but I believe we should be wary of pop-culture presentism that repackages, but also occludes, the very history of the things we are researching. Sure, bring on the adaptations, the marketing campaigns, the DVD/Blu-ray extras and all that (I’ll be paying attention to the Eternals and New Gods films), but it’s the conversation around Kirby’s comic art as such that most interests me.

Kirby does not equal Marvel, or DC, and even his work for DC and Marvel ought to be framed in terms other than those of corporate mythology!

KIRBY STUDIES NEWS:

Man, I wish I had been able to go to France this summer. It’s been a feast of comic art exhibitions in France these last few months, and not one but two shows about Kirby have taken place in the Normandy region, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy and subsequent liberation of France. In France, Kirby’s name seems indelibly linked with his part in the liberation as well as his Marvel work, so this seems to have been perfect timing. One of these exhibitions closed just this past weekend, and the other (sigh) closes on September 29. I so wanted to give my passport another workout this summer, but, alas, could not.

I owe most of what I know about these exhibitions to social media posts and, especially, a review essay by comics scholar Jean-Paul Gabilliet (Of Comics and Men) for the International Journal of Comic Art. This thoughtful and detailed essay, by one of the leading historians of the American comic book, is happily available online, pending its publication in a future issue of IJOCA; I recommend it highly:

http://ijoca.blogspot.com/2019/08/about-four-comic-art-exhibits-in-france.html

One of the exhibitions, co-curated by French Kirby biographer Jean Depelley, focused squarely on Kirby’s wartime experience. Titled La guerre de Jack Kirby, l’inventeur des super-héros modernes [The war of Jack Kirby, the inventor of modern superheroes], it reportedly consisted of reproductions of comic book art and photographs, with emphasis on Kirby’s time as a combat infantryman in Nazi-occupied France. This fairly small exhibition ran from June 4 through August 24 at Les 7 lieux, a media library and cultural center in the city of Bayeux (famed in not only military history but also, of course, the history of sequential art).

At the same time, roughly 60 miles away, a very large exhibition titled Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super-héros ran (and is still running, through Sept. 29, having been extended) at Le Musée Thomas Henry, a fine-arts museum in Cherbourg, the famed Normandy port city. Co-curated by Musée curator Louise Hallet and comic art dealer Bernard Mahé, this exhibition is part of the Biennale du 9e art, a biennial event that centers on a big exhibition focused on a major creator. La galaxie reportedly includes more than 200 pieces of original comic art, about three-fourths of which are by Kirby, the other one-fourth being works by, as Gabilliet says, Kirby’s precursors (e.g. Hal Foster; Alex Raymond) and followers (e.g. Steranko; John Buscema). This sounds frankly like an overwhelming feast for the eye and the mind. Dig a couple of borrowed photos:

La galaxie exhibit entryway

Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super héros at Le Musée Thomas Henry. Photo: actua.fr, 28 July 2019.

Curator Louise Hallet (and Darkseid) at Le Musée Thomas Henry

Curator Louise Hallet and Darkseid, Le Musée Thomas Henry. Photo: Ouest-France, 22 May 2019.

La galaxie appears to have been one of the very largest Kirby exhibitions ever, comparable in scope to The House that Jack Built (co-curated by Paul Gravett and Dan Nadel for Lucerne’s Fumetto festival in 2010). Gabilliet writes thoughtfully of the exhibition’s pleasures and limitations, in terms that reminded me of the challenges I faced when curating Comic Book Apocalypse for the CSUN Art Galleries (2015). But, ah, just to see the complete “Even Gods Must Die” (New Gods, 1984 series, #6), on view at La galaxie — man, what I wouldn’t have done for that experience. I dearly regret missing these shows, just as I regret missing Mostri, uomini, dei [Monsters, Men, Gods], the Kirby exhibition at Bologna’s BilBOLBul comics festival last fall.

Right now, Gabilliet’s conclusion is ringing in my head:

[C]omic art exhibiting seems increasingly open to a plurality of conceptual and aesthetic possibilities that by far transcend the arguably increasingly humdrum pattern of “career retrospectives,” notwithstanding the genuine satisfaction one is perfectly free to experience while beholding wall-to-wall displays of original comic art drawn by a given creator. While many museums and galleries still regard comic art as “easily accessible” art that will likely attract paying visitors—a legitimate expectation by all means, unfortunately—the full museographic potential of comic art is yet to be tapped. The more imaginative curators will prove, the more alive we will all become to the versatility of our favorite art form.

Yet to be tapped. Absolutely. But things are happening. This puts me in mind of, one, Kim Munson’s forthcoming academic anthology, Comic Art in Museums (UP of Mississippi, 2020), in which I believe I will have a couple of pieces; two, the pending Comic-Con Museum in San Diego; and three, the pending Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles (currently advertising for a comic art curator). It would be reasonable to expect major Kirby-themed exhibitions from either or both of those places.

TWO OTHER NEWS ITEMS:

ONE. Speaking of Kirby’s wartime experience, acclaimed artist and Kirby expert James Romberger has a Kirby-themed biographical comic about to drop: For Real #1, promised from Uncivilized Books this November, which will reportedly contain:

“The Oven,” a short comics story that is a fictionalized amalgam of two little-discussed and largely undocumented parts of Kirby’s life: a harrowing encounter with Nazis in World War 2 and his treatment for cancer many years later, a story that touches on themes of PTSD, graphic medicine, courage and empathy; and “The Real Thing,” an accompanying essay by James that clarifies aspects of the story and contextualizes them with the reality of Kirby’s experiences.

For Real cover by Romberger

James Romberger’s anthology series For Real will begin with a comic and an essay about Kirby. In shops Nov. 6, 2019.

This comic book, Romberger says, is “the first issue of what will be a continuing anthology title” that he will edit, to be published by Uncivilized Books.

Romberger will be speaking about this project at the New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium next Tuesday, September 3, at 7pm at Parsons School of Design, University Center, 63 Fifth Avenue, Room UL 105. This event is free and open to the public.

I’m excited about this project, which promises to complement some other recent biographical projects: Tom Scioli’s graphic bio of Kirby (in progress), Scioli and Jean Depelley’s collaboration on “Private Kirby Adventures” (as seen in The Jack Kirby Collector #64, 2014), and Depelley and Marc Azéma’s 2017 documentary film La guerre de Kirby. Romberger is a superb artist, with a great feel for period and place and an abiding interest in Kirby.

TWO. On an academic and theoretical front, Kirby’s work figures in the recently released bilingual (French and English) anthology Abstraction and Comics/Bande dessinée et abstraction, a two-volume slipcased beauty edited by Aarnoud Rommens with the collaboration of Benoît Crucifix, Björn-Olav Dozo, Erwin Dejasse, and Pablo Turnes.

bandedessinéeabstraction

Abstraction and Comics | Bande dessinée et abstraction. La Cinquième Couche/Presses universitaires de Liège, collection ACME, 201

Abstraction and Comics is a project of the ACME research group at the University of Liège in Belgium, and jointly published by La Cinquième Couche and the University Presses of Liège. It totals nearly 900 pages, and includes essays and comics by more than fifty contributors (among them my esteemed colleagues Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey, Gene Kannenberg, Jr., Martha Kuhlman, Pascal Lefèvre, Gert Meesters, and Barbara Postema). Two essays will be of special interest to Kirby scholars and fans: “Jack Kirby: In-between the Abstract and the Psychedelic,” by Spanish scholar Roberto Bartual (author of Jack Kirby: Una Odisea Psicodélica); and “The Kirby ‘Krackle’: A Graphic Lexicon for Cosmic Superheroes,” by Argentinean scholar Amadeo Gandolfo.

There’s a ton to take in and think about in this pair of books. Recommended emphatically! My own research on collage in comics (including Kirby’s) will draw quite a bit from these pages.

It’s great to see Kirby studies flourishing internationally, and so many exhibitions and projects taking up his work. By Halloween I’ll have another such project to announce.

HAPPY KIRBY DAY! Indeed, #K i r b y I s E t e r n a l.

PS. My thanks to the great Paul Gravett for providing me updated and corrected information about the Cherbourg exhibition!

Will 2016 be a turning point for Kirby studies?

Happy New Year to all my readers, with thanks for your continued interest and support! I have the feeling that 2016 may be a banner year for the study of Jack Kirby. In that spirit, here are three items of Kirby-related news, one truly new, the other two somewhat-egotistical reminders:

  
1. The latest (Jan. 2016) issue of Art in America, the venerable art-critical magazine, has a comics theme, with several articles related to the medium. To me, the one that leaps out (besides of course another smart article by the great Ryan Holmberg) is Alexi Worth’s on Kirby, titled “Genius in a Box,” a welcome and indeed long-overdue appraisal of Kirby from a fine arts perspective. From my vantagepoint, this is an insightful piece of work, sharp, forcefully expressed, and only occasionally marked by the inevitable boundary issues (comics world vs. arts world). While the essay says a few things I would dispute, in the main I found it thoughtful, invigorating reading, and I’m grateful for it. I’m also grateful to have been cited in it: the Comic Book Apocalypse exhibition figures in the article, along with Dan Nadel’s important curatorial work. (My one complaint would be that Ben Saunders, co-editor of the Apocalypse catalog, should also be cited.)

Worth of course compares Kirby to a number of fine art masters, but also acknowledges that such comparisons don’t quite work, because

[Kirby’s] pictures were conceived as sequences. Continuity was their aim. And that continuity was built around the panel architecture of each page. When a furious Thor swings back his hammer, preparing to destroy a wall, he seems to be aiming his blow at the narrow white border that contains him—the very same border that, in the adjacent panel, frames the satisfying impact of his blow. When the Human Torch flies across the skies of Europe, zooming left, then right, then looping playfully around a quartet of missiles, his progress models the reader’s own zigzagging progress through the page’s quadrants. These are exhilarating sequences, not overpowering single images. That’s their point. For better or worse, much of the beauty of Kirby’s art is bodiless, suspended in the eager forward motion of the reader’s experience: a flight path, not an icon. 

Exactly right, I think — and with that Worth has put his finger on what was so challenging about arranging a Kirby gallery exhibition.

Responses to Worth’s essay have begun to crop up online. Over at The Comics Journal, Nadel has posted a response praising it. Kirby biographer Mark Evanier has also weighed in, on his blog. Nadel has responded to Evanier, in turn. I’ll be interested to see further responses spin out, over time.

Make no mistake: the Art in America article signals an important shift in the way art critics can talk about Kirby. A turning point?

  
2. The Comic Book Apocalypse catalog makes it to comic book shops this month, on Wednesday, Jan. 27. I hope your local shop will stock it! For more about this, see my post of October 30.

3. The Apocalypse catalog can also be ordered online, via the CSU Northridge Art Galleries website. For those whose local shop cannot get the book, that may be your best option. Further info can be found in my post of December 5.

I’m delighted to be part of what seems to be a groundswell in Kirby criticism and appreciation within academia and the art world. In the spirit of the New Year, let’s resolve and hope for more! I’m planning on it…