Among my first comic book purchases was Marvel's Greatest Comics #57, which was a reprint of Fantastic Four #75. The story's artwork by someone named "Jack Kirby" was so dynamic and distinctive, it's no exaggeration to say that this single issue may have been what "set the hook" (to use a fishing term) and made me a comic book fan for life.
Later that year, a buddy of mine received his first issue of FOOM Magazine (Marvel's fan publication). Trumpeting "Jack's Back", the cover made it clear that this Jack Kirby guy was one important dude. This, paired with the stunning artwork from MGC #57, cemented my perception of Jack as a sort of demi-god of the comic book scene.
That perception was tempered somewhat as I grew older and became aware of various voices within the comic industry and their competing views of its own history. As with any large industry boasting such a long and organic history, the comic biz had (and continues to have) its share of competing perspectives, factions, and agendas. Sadly, these divergent (sometimes contradictory) views of the same history can cloud the character and contributions of its most prominent architects...even a giant like Jack Kirby.
It's with this wary attitude that I now approach all comic book histories, knowing full well that its narrative often conforms to the perspective and proximity of the author. Even widely acclaimed comic book histories like Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow (which I recommended here) have a viewpoint not everyone is going to agree with or appreciate...so imagine my wariness as I approached Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, a long time Kirby acolyte and chronicler.
As the first of two Kirby biographies, this hardcover volume is intended to be a sort of "Silver Surfer" prelude to the more extensive "Galactus-sized" biography the author is still working on. Despite the streamlined approach of its "coffee table" format, Evanier still provides a brisk overview of not only Kirby's long career but also the early influences and attitudes that shaped it.
Of course, being primarily an "art book", the highlight of the book was the impressive amount and variety of artwork. From childhood sketches to his first professional gigs, from his Olympian heights to his twilight years, the book offers a comprehensive overview of Kirby's entire career....which, considering how prolific the man was, is no small accomplishment. Better yet, many of the images are reproduced from original artwork that Evanier procured from various sources, which alone justifies the purchase price.
However, as much as I enjoyed the artwork, Evanier's proximity to Kirby and his estate made the book read more as hagiography than biography. Sure, in some respects I was pleasantly surprised...such as Evanier often giving the benefit of the doubt to Stan Lee (a well-beaten pinata of Kirby partisans) and actually acknowledging (albeit passingly) various quirks of Kirby's personality that may have contributed to the other problem I had with the book: it's steady drumbeat of prosecution and victimhood.
Although the negative aspects of a life should never be ignored, Evanier seemed to wallow in negativity by portraying Kirby as little more than a hard working, yet hapless victim tossed this way and that by clueless and/or vindictive know-nothings. Ironically, in an effort to make Kirby look good by blaming most of his setbacks on the ungrateful or uncomprehending nitwits around him (which apparently included everyone except his wife Roz), Evanier makes Kirby come off as an insecure, paranoid masochist. That's unfortunate, because the essense of Kirby I see in his artwork is full of joy, pride, and enthusiasm...and not the beaten-down wage slave of Evanier's depressing hard luck tale.
Personally, I would have loved to get more insights into the artwork itself, Kirby's working process, or any other "behind the scenes" glimpses into his marvelously creative mind, rather than the familiar litany of personal slights and corporate screw-overs allegedly inflicted upon the man. At one point, even the motivations of Kirby's various inkers were called into question in a quote by fellow inker (and Kirby pal) Mike Royer:
"I kept seeing other artists trying to make Kirby work
look like their work and impose their viewpoints..."
This quote sums up my irritation with the book. Royer, who should know better (at its core, the very act of inking another artist's pencils is "imposing" another viewpoint), instead characterizes the honest efforts of Kirby's fellow professionals in the worst possible light...as if they had some anti-Kirby agenda they were advancing. Worse yet, Evanier (for whatever reason) decided to include it. This is the spirit of persecution and finger pointing that characterizes so much of the book from Kirby's early career onward, and it's a damn shame Evanier chose to take the story of this man's interesting and influential life on such a low road.
I have no doubt matters between Kirby and his employers caused him and his family grief and aggravation...but at the same time, I don't think airing so much of that dirty laundry was the way to go, since it ultimately made everyone involved come across as petty and grasping...even Kirby himself.
Strangely, in the last chapter, Evanier characterizes Kirby's outlook during the final ten years of his life:
Really, Mark? Now, Kirby may very well have "always" had a positive outlook, but it's a quality that rarely (if ever) surfaces in the preceding six chapters of "Somebody Done Him Wrong" songs....which is why I can only recommend this book on the strength of the artwork alone. For those who thrive on the "Big Company Screws Little Guy" narrative, this book (and Evanier's larger volume) is definitely for you...but for me? Eh...no thanks.