Review: “Kirby: King of Comics”

I’m thrilled with this book. Mark Evanier, onetime assistant to comics legend Jack Kirby, has written the definitive biography of the creator of such iconic characters as the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and the New Gods.

More than the text, however, the real treat of Kirby: King of Comics is the lavish presentation of Kirby’s art. Never before have I seen comic book art reproduced so faithfully (and if anyone deserves such treatment it surely is Kirby). In fact, when I first peeked inside the book’s covers, I literally gasped.

Where other art books offer simple halftone reproductions of comic art, this one pulls out all the stops. Wherever possible, Kirby’s artwork has been reproduced from the original pages, and a rich, high-fidelity color process has been used throughout — even for black and white originals.

The results are stunning. Pencil marks and under-drawing are indistinct, but visible. The black lines appear as the inker laid them, full of tonal variations and clear brush strokes. Here and there the ink has faded to brown from light damage, or a piece of yellowed transparent tape can be seen. Still other drawings have obvious corrections made in white gouache. As the introduction by Neil Gaiman suggests, this incredible reproduction is truly the next best thing to standing in front of a Kirby original in a museum.

The book covers the span of Kirby’s career, from early, crude newspaper strips and advertising illustrations, to his last regular comics work for the independent publishers of the 80s. The works on display range from pencil roughs, to fully-inked, double-page spreads, to elaborately rendered watercolor presentation drawings. Many of them are marvels to behold (no pun intended).

I confess I never really “got” Kirby as a kid. By the late 1970s, when I was reading comics, artists like John Buscema and Neal Adams had arrived, bringing to comics a slick realism borrowed from the world of commercial illustration. Kirby comics would keep cropping up, and I’d be baffled: Who was this guy who seemingly couldn’t get his head out of 1961, with his weird, blocky anatomy and his ugly faces? Why did they keep hiring him?

It wasn’t until much later that I could fully appreciate Kirby’s genius — his dynamism, his effortless composition, his rich, pleasing use of contrast, his near-endless creativity. Sure, some of his ideas really were pretty hokey; it’s hard to see how kids raised on the X-Men could fall for a gang of teenage hippie-heroes called the Forever People. But had a book like Kirby: King of Comics existed back then, I could at least have appreciated the raw, unadulterated talent of the man.

As for the text, well, it is what it is. If you want a thorough account of Kirby’s life and career, from humble beginnings to accolades late in life, you got it. If you want to talk about whether Stan Lee or Jack Kirby deserves more credit for inventing Marvel’s most memorable characters, or debate the finer points of Kirby’s contractual disputes, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This book makes no effort to criticize much of anything Kirby did, opting instead for a generous, even obsequious tone throughout.

But much of that stuff is lost to history, anyway. The only person who could answer your questions would be Stan Lee, and he’s the first to admit his memory isn’t what it was. What remains are the art and the stories — and I doubt you’ll find a better representation of those than this book.

I give this one my highest recommendation. My only gripe is that, at 224 pages, it could have used a couple hundred more.