Like many a comic reader, Tom Scioli is a fan of Jack Kirby. Only now you can go ahead and practically call him a Kirby scholar.
Scioli is the author of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, out next week (July 14) via Penguin Random House/Ten Speed Press. The “full-color comic book biography” covers the entire scope of Kirby’s rich life, melding the personal and the professional to tell the dynamic story one of of comics’ most important figureheads.
Scioli’s certainly got the pedigree for such an endeavor. Godland, which he co-created alongside Joe Casey, is both an homage and a modern deconstruction of Kirby’s work, especially that of the New Gods. But as he tells it, Scioli wasn’t always such a massive devotee.
“The first thing I remember seeing was Thundarr the Barbarian,” he says. “Then I saw the Superfriends, when they included the New Gods stuff, that it reminded me of Thundarr. But I never looked further. I wasn’t familiar with his scope, and he was just another guy that worked with Stan Lee. It wasn’t until maybe freshman year of college that I maybe finally made the connection.”
It’s enough to say that Kirby changed the game, re-drafting the scope and purpose of comics like few other creators. But as Scioli mentions, Kirby’s didn’t just create fictional universes but something far more dynamic and intricate over a decades-long career.
“The way he draws is unlike anyone else,” Scioli says. “There’s a kind of culture in his work, whether he’s drawing Apokolips or the Kree. They’re made from the same factory. His stuff is very grounded. Guys like Kirby and [Steve] Ditko have their own rules and structures. You could populate an entire planet with all the characters he created. It’s just so endless. They’re all good, and there’s no duds. People say [Joseph] Shuster created Superman, and [Bill] Finger created Batman. Jack Kirby created everything.”
But Scioli doesn’t just cover Kirby’s artistic accomplishments. So much of the book are focused on those moment’s away from his desk, like his foundational experiences growing up in the Great Depression or his time fighting in WWII. Kirby, as Scioli portrays him, was a great man that inevitably made meaningful art.
“Kirby certainly had his flaws, but he did live an exemplary life,” he says. “I think that shows through his work. He didn’t go through life with blinders. Even the most conflicted of his characters, like Orion, is still overwhelmingly good. He hated bullies, and he was never afraid or he wouldn’t allow himself to keep the fear. The thing I like is that he loved to curse, but fans knew him as very cordial.”
Perhaps the most compelling part of the book is the perspective, as Scioli made the decision to use first-person throughout the entire thing. As Scioli says, “I wanted to let him tell his story, and not to editorialize at all. That way, you can draw your own conclusions. I tried to be as responsible as possible, and let him have his voice. I wanted to stick to the facts and be factual.”
Another essential element is that Kirby’s face/head remain effectively the same throughout, a slightly over-sized, distinctly cartoonish cranium. That, Scioli says, was another essential design decision.
“It’s definitely something I committed to from the beginning,” he says. “I wanted the reader to be in Jack’s shoes, sort of like a first-person shooter. It’s like that part from the book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, about masking. It’s how you become more relatable to the character.”
The book’s not entirely a happy story, though. Scioli readily addresses some of the controversies in Kirby’s professional life, namely his relationship with Stan Lee and his struggle for creator rights.
“If you take a close study, Stan Lee takes a lot of the blame — at least 90%,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, he created Cap[tain America].’ No, he didn’t.”
As Scioli explains, some of that is just an an “inevitable part of telling the story.” But it’s also a chance to shed some new light on Kirby and his legacy.
“There’s a story where Kirby basically suspected young Stan Lee of ratting on him,” Scioli says. “And then, maybe a decade passes, and there he is showing up, asking to work with Lee. Life’s sort of like poetry, it ebbs and it flows. I also think that says something about him [Kirby].”
Scioli adds, “There’s [another] story on page one, the one his dad tells where he came to America because he offended some aristocrat. But it’s done very tongue-in-cheek. There’s no way to tell if it’s true or not, but it still important part of Kirby somehow.”
And like any great storyteller, Scioli manages to connect some of these larger issues with modern comics.
“I think in the years since we’ve experienced a backslide of sorts,” he says. “Creator rights kind of reached an apex, and so some of the issues Kirby dealt with are more contemporary than we’d like them to be. But creators have made a lot of progress.” The end result, then, isn’t just a story of a great man, but a fable for how art struggles against commerce and that, one day, there’s still hope for a better model of business.
If there’s any larger element of Kirby in Scioli’s work, it’s the sheer commitment to building a truly dynamic world. Scioli says after he finished the book, he was “so worn out I did nothing for a month.” But that dedication shows through in spades, and this book manages to explore the Kirby mythos with truth, wonder, and ample imagination. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just the story of a visionary, but a roadmap of sorts for how we can all make things a little more weird and wonderful.
“It’s hard to boil it down to just one sentence,” Scioli says of the book’s larger message. “If I had to, it’d be ‘Do your thing.’ Don’t ever worry about making money or what people will think. Take criticism, but don’t slow down. You are your most valuable asset, and people care about the thing that’s most unique to you. People want to know about you, and they’ll embrace your quirks.”