Category Archives: Other Writers on Kirby

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…

Kirby Day: What a Blast!

Kirby4Heroes

Two days ago, Thursday, August 28, was Kirby Day—that is, Jack Kirby’s birthday. It brought a delightful outpouring of remembrance and appreciation that spilled over into Friday. The Kirby4Heroes campaign took the occasion to raise money for The Hero Initiative—I hope they were able to raise a lot!

It’s never too late to donate to The Hero Initiative. 🙂

I was glad to contribute to Kirby Day in my own small way: with a posting at Acts of Geek (also run here on my blog), and by taking part in the big two-part (one, two) celebration over at Comics Alliance.

I went a little Twitter crazy on the 28th, tweeting links to online examples of top-notch Kirby scholarship, Kirby appreciation, and Kirbyana. For the record, here are the things I linked to (besides those mentioned above):

Requiem for Jack Kirby (2001)

Of course I also followed the #WakeUpAndDraw campaign on Twitter, which you see here:

(Dig this Hollywood Reporter article about #WakeUpAndDraw!)

Congratulations to Jillian Kirby and her family for leading the charge on Kirby Day! As far as I’m concerned, it’s now a genuine holiday. 🙂

 

A Birthday Bonanza!

A moment of joy and optimism, from Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976)

Today is the 96th birthday of the great Jack Kirby, and it’s wonderful to see the online outpouring of interest, affection, and commentary that this event has inspired!

There’s so much about Kirby on the Web today that knowing where to go could be a right challenge. Me, I recommend:

Or you could just turn off your computer, pick up and read a vintage Kirby comic, and get your mind blown all over again. 🙂

Hail Kirby!!!