Friday, March 22, 2013

Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier

An excellent biography and retrospective of the Da Vinci of comics
It’s hard to imagine a better book on Jack Kirby than this 2008 retrospective by Mark Evanier. Part biography, part coffee-table portfolio of the master’s art, Kirby: King of Comics succeeds immensely on both levels. Kirby is famous primarily for his revolutionary work at Marvel Comics, in particular his creation or co-creation of heroes like the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men, among many others. While this book gives these golden years their due, Evanier wisely and judiciously takes an in-depth look at Kirby’s entire career, treating each period fairly and giving all his myriad creations their due, from his Golden Age work in westerns, romance, and horror comics; to his partnership with Joe Simon in creating some of the earliest superheroes; to his legendary work at Marvel; his bizarrely fascinating sci-fi tales for DC; his later work in animation; and odds and ends for minor publishers along the way. The result is an intimate glimpse into the mind and the profession of a man who was creativity personified. On the one hand he was a workhorse capable of cranking out thousands of pages at an alarming rate. On the other hand he was a perfectionist who upheld the highest standards for jobs others might have considered hack work, and who pushed the envelope of his medium to take it to places others couldn’t have imagined it would go.

There is an undercurrent of tragedy to Kirby’s story. While he was a brilliant artist, he was a lousy businessman. Despite being at the top of his craft, he spent most of his life struggling to make ends meet. He was exploited and abused by many of the publishers who employed him, and never given due recognition for his creations, particularly at Marvel. Evanier is clearly on Kirby’s side when it comes to discussions of his various legal disputes. He doesn’t shy away, however, from pointing out when Kirby made a stupid business decision or even when he made a bad comic. Evanier tries to be objective and impartial when detailing the raw deals that Kirby was subjected to. He never really goes after Marvel Comics’ celebrity ringleader Stan Lee, for example, yet he never really tells Stan’s side of the story either. I suspect this is due not to bias on Evanier’s part, but rather to the fact that Stan the Man probably wouldn’t talk to him about it. Evanier once worked as an assistant to Kirby and shared a personal friendship with the man, which isn’t really made clear until the book’s Afterword. At times Evanier’s tone can be a bit casual, as if he can’t make up his mind whether he’s writing a definitive biography or just a personal memoir. Overall, however, the biography takes precedence over the personal reflections.

The collection of art here is absolutely fabulous, and the variety is astounding. As mentioned before, the book covers all aspects and subject matter of Kirby’s career. The art selected also represents different stages in the production process. Included are pencil drawings, inked pages, scans of original art showing paste-ups and deletions, and full-color printed comic book pages. The selections take the various forms of lettered panels, wordless presentation drawings, animation storyboards, or entire short stories. In all cases, every piece of art in the book is beautifully reproduced in brilliant color and clarity. This book is a must-have for any Kirby fan or anyone who appreciates the history of comic art. It’s also a perfect memorial to a genius who never got his due. With this book, there can be no doubt that Kirby was indeed the King of Comics.

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