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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Kirby: King of Comics -- Author Mark Evanier mentions at one point in this generously illustrated biography that one could have filled ten such volumes full of Kirby's art, and of course that's true. I don't know if anyone has ever estimated how many pages of art the man born Jacob Kurtzburg produced in the seven or so decades he drew comics, but it's safe to say it was more than nearly anyone else of his time. Or any time.Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, from Harry N. Abrams Publishing.

Virtually every one of those pages was dynamic, and packed with a powerful sense of emotion. More importantly, almost from the very beginning, every page Kirby created was uniquely Kirby. There's a page in this wonderful book that shows covers featuring three different Kirby creations (The Demon, Machine Man and Captain America, I think) in strikingly similar poses. And unlike lesser artists who slide by on a limited skill-set, Kirby's stock images still arrest the eye with their drama and immediacy.

Mark Evanier was friends with Kirby from the time he was a teenager; he was there for the humiliations (Marvelmania, DC doctoring his artwork to conform to the house style) and the triumphs (Jack finally getting his art back; Jack finally getting his due, albeit from the animation industry, not comics). Kirby's vision and contribution to the comics artform so transcend normal boundaries of accomplishment that even his most cherished and sought-after victories in life tend to seem pyrrhic. Yes, he got his art back, but how many hundreds or thousands of pages were first stolen from Marvel's warehouses? Yes, he lived to know that he was truly respected as the King of Comics (and how he got that title and what it really meant to him is wondrously told by Evanier over the course of the entire book); but was it ever enough? Did Jack Kirby get his due?

From most readers of comics, I'd say he did. From the comics industry, the debt owed Kirby could never really begin to be repaid. His imagination, and perhaps more importantly his work ethic, were too staggering and too constant. Comics could never keep up with him, from the publishers, to the sales outlets, to the readers. From almost the birth of the artform as we understand it today, Kirby was always decades ahead of his time. Look at the recent, successful repackaging of Kirby's Fourth World work as a series of expensive hardcover omnibus editions. Kirby knew before the original comics were even created that this was their ideal form. It took over 30 years for readers, comic shops, bookstores and publishers to "get with it."

As I say, Mark Evanier spent a good portion of his life as Kirby's friend and colleague. No one save his wife Roz probably had more of Jack's trust and understanding. And Evanier even admits there's still aspects of Kirby he is trying to understand today, over a decade after we lost him.

Kirby: King of Comics. The book is a treasure, a celebration of the greatest superhero artist who will ever live and one of only five or so true geniuses of the comics artform entire. Kirby: King of Comics. The title reminds me of the first time I heard Evanier's name, watching the Tonight Show one night, as Johnny Carson read a letter from Mark Evanier (Carson said his name wrong) explaining why Jack was "the King of Comics," a title Carson had mocked on an earlier episode because he thought the title was referring to comedians, and Carson had never heard of Kirby the comedian and so made fun of the very idea.

Mark Evanier set Johnny Carson straight about Jack Kirby that night, and I've been a fan of his ever since. Mark's done a lot of things in life aside from set people straight about Jack Kirby, but there's nothing more noble he's accomplished that I know of. In words and pictures, Kirby: King of Comics is the official record of the life and work of one of the greatest, most unique minds to ever grace us with its workings. Evanier lets us understand Kirby to the extent that understanding is possible, and in its way, that is as remarkable as Kirby himself.

Kirby: King of Comics



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