Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kirby, King of Comics

Mark Evanier's biography of Jack Kirby, entitled Kirby, King of Comics, has been published by Abrams. The book is a retrospective of Kirby's career as an artist, starting with boyhood drawings and covering his lengthy career in the comic book industry. Evanier's text is a biography of Kirby.

I like this book a lot and anyone who loves Kirby's work won't need my recommendation to buy it. However, while Evanier's text does a good job of delineating Kirby's background, personality and work ethic, and while Evanier's love for Kirby as a person and a subject comes through, it doesn't begin to do justice to Kirby as an artist. Evanier has stated in an interview that, "I'm very happy that it came out from a very prestigious art book publisher. They're the same people who publish Picasso's work -- and I think that Jack deserves to be on the same shelf as Picasso." As much as I love Kirby, I don't know if I would agree with that. One thing I know, however, is that a book on Picasso would examine his artistic innovations and his place in the larger art world. This book doesn't do that for Kirby.

You can't write about D.W. Griffith at Biograph without talking about how his use of the camera and editing changed the way that movies communicated to an audience. Similarly, Kirby's dynamic figures, his tilted compositions and his page designs had a huge impact on how stories were told in early comic books. Kirby's treatment of the figure continued to evolve over the course of his career and surely the representation of the human figure is a topic of importance in the art world.

There are also sociological aspects to Kirby that are ignored. One of the most curious sides of Kirby's career is that he and partner Joe Simon created the genre of romance comics. I would be hard pressed to name a comic book artist who I think is less suited to romance, yet the books were immensely successful in the late 1940s. Gil Kane once remarked that Kirby's repressed anger showed up in his superhero costumes, which were covered with straps, buckles, and other types of restraints. Kirby's love comics are full of huge, operatic emotions and fit the zeitgeist of the time that produced film noir. I doubt they would have succeeded in any other time period. By the time the domesticated '50s rolled around, romance comics had degenerated into tearful women pining for Mr. Right, something alien to Kirby's sensibility.

Evanier's status as a comics professional is both a blessing and a curse for him as an author. It provided him with first-hand knowledge of Kirby and his contemporaries and access to many people who contributed Kirby artwork for the book. However, his life-long exposure to Kirby blinds him to the aspects of Kirby's drawing that someone new to Kirby would struggle to understand.

Furthermore, Evanier's friendship and professional relationship with Stan Lee restricts him to acknowledging Kirby's problems with Lee but he refuses to take sides. Lee is an immensely charming person with media smarts, but the fact remains that Lee's two most important collaborators, Kirby and Steve Ditko, both broke with him and that Lee became wealthy based on those collaborations while his collaborators did not. Instead, they had to fight for acknowledgment. That does not speak well for Lee, even if Evanier refuses to criticize him.

Mark Evanier is working on a more detailed Kirby biography that won't appear for several years. When that book is published, I will buy it and can already predict that I will enjoy it. Jack Kirby is fortunate to have a champion in Mark Evanier and would have been thrilled to see this book. However, Kirby needs other champions. While the specifics of Kirby's life are important, it's his art that is his main claim on our imaginations. Kirby's qualities as a draftsman and designer are too important to ignore. While anyone writing about Kirby is most likely affected by nostalgia for the man or his work, I believe that Kirby needs an unemotional re-evaluation. There's more to say about Kirby's art than is in the text of this book.

1 comment:

Thad said...

I have to admit, I don't know much about the history of these books, mainly because I'm not into that kind of drawing style or storytelling, despite my father being a real hardcore fan of this stuff (he's more into DC than Marvel though).

Mark, is there a better history out there? It sounds like Evanier is biased into not giving a full, accurate account.