Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hero Worship

From the early 1930s to the early 1980s, Jack “King” Kirby never stopped drawing heroes despite a lack of formal art education, war, stingy bosses, declines in the comics industry, and his own failing eyesight and health. Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics affectionately and encyclopedically traces the career of one of the true Founding Fathers of American comic books. Like Captain America, one of Kirby’s creations, punching out Hitler on a cover that hit newsstands almost a year before Pearl Harbor, Kirby could both seemingly see into the future and courageously fight against any foe set before him. As Neil Gaiman puts it in his introduction, Kirby “took vaudeville and made it opera. He took a static medium and gave it motion… Jack Kirby made comics move, he made them buzz and crash and explode. And he created…” The comic book industry as we know it today, from the monthlies to the graphic novels to the Hollywood blockbusters, doesn’t exist if Jack Kirby’s not there to create it.

Evanier’s book is as much a tale of Kirby’s life as of the comic book industry itself from its comic strip origins to today—the good, the bad, and the greedy. “It was his spin on the American Dream,” Evanier writes of Kirby, “You make your boss rich and he’ll take care of you. All Jack’s life he believed in that, no matter how many times the bosses got rich and he didn’t.” Kirby survives on sheer talent where lesser artists succumb to the exploitation by the money men. Just as Kirby began to gain some success with his heroes such as Captain America, riding the hero craze begun by Superman and Batman, real war called and he went off to serve, almost losing his feet to frostbite at the Battle of Bastogne in 1944. When he returned, the audience for superheroes seemingly disappeared, forcing Kirby to work on romance, Western, crime, horror, and even gimmick comics such as one that came with 3-D glasses. War comics such as The Guys in the Foxhole (above, from 1954) drew on Kirby’s own wartime experiences, but also failed in the wake of the Seduction of the Innocent scandal that almost ended American comics.

Kirby scrambled to find work in the late 1950s. When work was available, it often came with the price tag of toning down his signature style. “They kept showing me their other books—books that weren’t selling—and saying, ‘This is what a comic book ought to be.’ I couldn’t communicate with those people.” After bouncing around several comic book companies, Kirby finally returned to Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, reteaming with his old colleague Stan Lee. Together, Kirby and Lee redefined the superhero comic book, adding a more human element to go along with Kirby’s dramatic, electric drawings. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, and many others came to life from that collaboration. Evanier takes Kirby’s side in the debate over how much these characters belong to Kirby and how much to Lee. Lee’s decades of self-promotion have created the public opinion of him as the primary force behind these characters, which rankled Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other Marvel artists for many years. One undeniable fact is how much Kirby put himself into his characters, especially The Thing (above), the living rock formation of The Fantastic Four. “If you’ll notice the way the Thing talks and acts,” Kirby once said, “you’ll find that the Thing is really Jack Kirby.” Kirby’s gruff, introspective personality, embodied by the Thing masterfully, may have hindered him more than anything else in the struggle for recognition with the outgoing, media-savvy Lee.

After years of bitterness with Marvel and Lee, Kirby switched to rival DC Comics in 1970, stipulating that he’d draw only from his own scripts or completed scripts by others, vowing never again to get in a dispute over who created what. At DC, Kirby created his last great masterpiece, the “opera” Gaiman alludes to in his introduction—Kirby’s Fourth World, the umbrella title for several monthlies, including New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People. In The Forever People, Kirby based his young teenage gods on the idealistic “hippies” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “He saw idealism, passion, and a better future in them,” Evanier write, “and sought to infuse his Forever People with the same hopes, the same sense of responsibility at inheriting a world made dangerous.” Sadly, the books failed commercially when first published. Kirby always believed that they would succeed, which they did in graphic novel reprints after his death. Fortunately for Kirby and his family, Kirby finally began to receive royalties for his Fourth World, just a fraction of what he could have made on royalties on the decades of his creativity. When a lucrative original comic art market sprouted in the late 1970s, Kirby hoped to ensure his family’s security and asked Marvel for his original work still in their files. Marvel responded with a Faustian offer of returning the art if Kirby would sign a release form that would basically erase him from the history of the creation of his characters. Kirby had seen other comics artists—specifically Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, and Joe Simon, his old partner—vanish without a trace and feared a similar fate. Under economic pressures, Kirby signed a version of the release and got much of his original art back (such as his panel from Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers; above, from 1981), but the public outcry over Marvel’s treatment of Kirby ensured that he would not be forgotten. When the U.S. Postal Service issued commemorative stamps of DC Comics heroes in 2006 and of Marvel Comics heroes in 2007, 8 of those stamps featured art by Jack Kirby—a posthumous stamp of mainstream approval.

Evanier brings a personal touch to the life of Kirby. His bias is clear, but his passion makes it forgivable. In a personal afterword, Evanier, who began as Kirby’s assistant before becoming his friend and colleague, describes Kirby’s amazing mind: “He was a deep thinker, often taking it to such depths that he got hopelessly submerged in his own imagination… That was Jack Kirby: not only ahead of everyone else, but often too far ahead of himself.” Kirby defies categorization as “just” a comic book artist. In the 1960s, Kirby began creating collages combining his drawings and images cut from magazines, hoping to create new effects for his heroes, such as the 1966 collage above designed for The Fantastic Four. Despite no formal artistic training, Kirby had an innate sense of how to represent dynamic movement, employing foreshortening with such power as to make you believe that the characters were about to leap from the pages. If Kirby had painted frescoes on the church ceilings, the world would have hailed him as a Renaissance master time-travelling to the twentieth century. Because Jack Kirby drew and painted whole worlds on paper, in books not meant to stand the ravages of time, only those who know his art realize just how great an artist he was. Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics brings a great artist to a whole new audience made up of people who may have only seen the films based on the fruits of Kirby’s labors but who now seek out the source. The King is dead. Long live the King.

[Many thanks to Harry N. Abrams, Inc. for providing me with a review copy of Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics and for some of the images above.]

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