Comics biographies can be hit or miss as the person doing it sometimes ends up just being a cheerleader for the person they’re discussing, but in the case of Tom Scioli’s long-awaited biography of Jack Kirby it ends up being needed because if there’s one thing Kirby needs is some cheerleading to offset the decades of Kirby being ignored by the mainstream media.
Scioli does a lot here detailing Kirby’s life, and even if you’re soaked in Kirby history like myself, there’s going to be stuff you’ll read here that you don’t know. For me, it was the World War 2 section where even though I was aware of a lot of it, it really was breaking new ground. Not to mention putting it in context with Kirby’s later life gives it a resonance I’d not previously considered. As an aside I’d also recommend Kirby at War, an excellent documentary from France which should be on streaming services.
At times the book does screen out other viewpoints of Kirby’s history to give such a one-sided view that critically, it weakens the book. For example, it’s downplayed just how awful Kirby was at business as opposed to say, his former partner Joe Simon, and drawing Kirby as a wide-eyed innocent places him as an instantly sympathetic character, however what Scioli is focusing on is telling Kirby’s story in as much of a way as Kirby would have done his autobiography while setting the world straight. And that really means his relationship with Stan Lee.
Lee is often praised as the man who created, or co-created the Marvel Universe yet comics historians have for decades fought this position, which Scioli does too by laying out a few simple facts including the main one which is what did Lee create prior and after his relationship with Jack Kirby (and Steve Ditko who is a major player here) and the blunt answer is fuck all apart from She-Hulk. Lee’s sole major creation without any aid from Kirby or Ditko was a cash-in on an existing creation. The facts are that Lee was facing unemployment when Kirby walked through his door, and within five years Marvel had totally turned itself around with Kirby at the very least penciling and writing 8-10 titles a month plus covers, plus annuals. His body of work, and the sheer volume of it throughout the 60’s at Marvel is like no other creative period of anyone else in superhero comics. Ideas would be introduced, used and moved on from in a few pages, whereas today a creative team would milk that idea to the bitter end.
Did Lee play a major part in all this? Yes, he did. Lee’s drive and salesmanship pushed Marvel from a dying company into what it is today. If Lee had never sold comics hard in the 60’s to 80’s then you’re not going to have a cinematic universe and Disney wouldn’t have a billion-dollar money making machine sitting in its lap. But had there been no Kirby, then Lee would have tried selling weird horror tales and giant monster comics. He’d be a footnote in the history of comics so take Kirby out the equation there’s nothing to play with. We know Lee wouldn’t know anything about some of the characters Kirby would create, and we also know Lee would take Kirby’s dialogue and plot ideas and rewrite them often into something lesser than they first started out as.
You can however now make your own mind up properly without the endless pumping Marvel/Disney version of history playing in your head, and now you can get Kirby’s side of the story. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, flaws aside, is widly entertaining for what is a history lesson and a much needed counterweight to the myth of Stan Lee. Now perhaps more people can treat Kirby with the respect he deserves.