The Comic Book Genius Every Man Should Know
Captain America (detail), no 1, March 1941, by Messrs Jack Kirby and Syd Shores, Marvel Comics. © Marvel Characters, Inc. Courtesy of Abrams
The origin story of Marvel and DC Comics superhero artist Mr Jack Kirby.
In its own way, the story of comic-book artist Mr Jack Kirby’s life is as fascinating as those of the super-powered characters – including Captain America, Thor and the Incredible Hulk – that he spent his career bringing to colourful life. Like the best stories, it has an epic timespan, from his birth in 1917 to his death 1994, and features, in Mr Kirby, a protagonist who is continually beset by obstacles and challenges, whether financial, personal or artistic. Of course, we at MR PORTER aren’t the first people to notice this – Mr Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize-winning 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay is dedicated to Mr Kirby, and weaves many details inspired by the artist’s life into its affecting narrative. But still, the real thing, told in the newly released second-edition of Mr Mark Evanier’s book Kirby: King Of Comics, remains a gripping read, not least because, in 2017, so many of Mr Kirby’s creations (or rather, co-creations – it’s still unclear how the work was split on some of his earliest, and most famous characters) are now multi-million pound properties, the tent poles on which Hollywood’s summer programming is built.
Left: Captain America, no 1, March 1941, by Messrs Jack Kirby and Syd Shores, Marvel Comics. © Marvel Characters, Inc. Courtesy of Abrams. Right: Metron, presentation drawing/collage, 1969, by Mr Jack Kirby. © Rosalind Kirby Trust. Courtesy of Abrams
As well as being the biography of a fascinating, feisty, and sometimes stubborn man – not to mention an incredibly prolific artist who spent countless hours in his “dungeon” studio and seldom laid his pencil to rest – Kirby: King Of Comics provides an overview of how comics became a big business, and how little of that success trickled down to some of the people that actually produced them. Though, according to Mr Evanier, it was Messrs Stan Lee and Jack Kirby together that ushered in the “silver age of comic books” at Marvel with the creation of The Fantastic Four, it was Mr Lee alone who became the star of the enterprise, while Mr Kirby remained poorly paid, without a contract or any intellectual rights to his creations. This second edition (following the original of 2008) at least has a happy ending, explaining how Mr Kirby’s surviving family received a hefty payout from Marvel (under the aegis of Disney) in 2014, as recompense for the thousands of pages that Mr Kirby produced for the company. But the bulk of the book is about the central imbalance in Mr Kirby’s life: how tirelessly he laboured and innovated in his astoundingly creative stories compared to how little he was rewarded for it.
Left: The New Gods, no 7, February 1972, by Messrs Jack Kirby and Mike Royer, DC Comics. © DC Comics. Courtesy of Abrams. Right: Fighting American, no 1, May 1954, by Messrs Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Headline Publications. © The Estate of Joseph H Simon and the Rosalind Kirby Trust. Courtesy of Abrams
Naturally, the other draw here is the substantial overview of Mr Kirby’s artwork. This ranges from the iconic – the very first cover featuring Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy number 15, 1962); some cosmic scenes from The Fantastic Four – to lesser-known, but no-less-interesting pieces of original and unpublished artwork, meticulously scanned so it’s possible to see how Mr Kirby collaged and developed his compositions. In every frame, it’s clear to appreciate the kinetic quality of Mr Kirby’s work, all of which is imbued with what acclaimed fantasy author Mr Neil Gaiman eloquently describes, in his foreword for the book, as “power, pure and unadulterated, like sticking knitting needles into an electrical socket.” But what’s particularly moving about such panels, viewed in the context of Mr Kirby’s often difficult life, is the sheer back-breaking effort that it must have taken to produce them. Whether you’re a comic fan or not, it’s an undeniably astounding body of work, which – as we goggle at the latest iteration of Spider-Man currently playing in cinemas across the globe – deserves more than ever to be known and celebrated.
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