There are few people, if any, in comics who made more of a singular impact than Jack Kirby. There’s a reason he’s the ‘king of comics.’ Actually, there are hundreds of reasons why, and many of them are explored in Tom Scioli’s new Ten Speed Press book, “Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics.” Scioli is a Pittsburgh-based artist who has done some of the most vital and interesting comic work in recent memory. From his webcomics “American Barbarian,” “Satan’s Soldier,” and “Princess” to IDW’s “Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe” to his “Super Powers” backups in DC’s Young Animal titles, Scioli’s recent work has been diverse, innovative, and unexpected.
Scioli is also a Kirby devotee, and his love for Jack is quite clear throughout the pages of his graphic novel. The book doesn’t just tell the story of the creator, but rather the son, the father, the soldier, and the man. I spoke with Scioli about how he discovered Kirby, the conflicts between Kirby and Stan Lee, Kirby’s late-period work, and much more.
Make sure to pick up “Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics,” out today, wherever you get books.
Written and illustrated by Tom Scioli
Told in vivid graphic novel form by a groundbreaking Eisner-nominated comics creator, the long-overdue biography of the legend who co-created Captain America, Iron Man, Black Panther, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and many more superhero favorites.
“A fast-paced celebration of an underheralded legend within the comic-book industry.”—Kirkus Reviews
This sweeping, full-color comic book biography tells the complete life story of Jack Kirby, co-creator of some of the most enduring superheroes and villains of the twentieth century for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and more. Critically acclaimed graphic novelist Tom Scioli breathes visual life into Kirby’s life story–from his days growing up in New York during the Great Depression and discovering a love for science fiction and cartoons to his time on the frontlines in the European theatre of World War II where he experienced the type of action and adventure he’d later imbue his comic pages with, and on to his world-changing collaborations at Marvel with Stan Lee, where the pair redefined comics as a part of pop culture.
Just as every great superhero needs a villain to overcome, Kirby’s story also includes his struggles to receive the recognition and compensation that he believed his work deserved. Scioli captures his moves from Marvel to DC and back again, showing how Kirby himself and later his family fought to preserve his artistic legacy.
Drawn from an unparalleled imagination and a life as exciting as his comic book tales, Kirby’s super-creations have influenced subsequent generations of creatives in the comics field and beyond. Now, readers can experience the life and times of a comics titan through the medium that made him famous.
You and I have talked a lot in the past about Kirby. Kirby is obviously a huge part of all comics, but especially your comics. This is such a boring place to start but I feel like for this conversation, it’s a good place to begin. When was the first time you were aware of Kirby’s work?
Tom Scioli: You mean like aware of… Because like I was aware of just like, “Oh, I’m looking at this like really cool thing.” But it was years until it was like, “Oh, I’m looking at this really cool thing and the guy responsible for it is Jack Kirby.”
Exactly. So what was that moment for you?
TS: Yeah, that would have been like… It was maybe like 1994. And just at the comic book store, they had a little Jack Kirby section. This was Phantom of the Attic comics in Oakland [district of Pittsburgh, PA] and the university neighborhood. It’s kind of like right between University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and I was a freshmen and just checking out comics. There was this Jack Kirby section and there was like the Jack Kirby Collector magazine. Then there was The Art of Jack Kirby, the book by Ray Wyman published by Kevin Eastman. That was when I was aware. It’s like, I’m looking through that book and looking through those magazines and it’s like, “Holy crap, this is that guy. This is that guy who did Thundarr and Darkseid and all this.” Not only is there… Like I knew Darkseid and Kalibak and DeSaad and all those characters from the Super Powers cartoon, but it’s like, there’s actually a bunch of good guys too. There’s this whole universe and planets.Continued below
So that was the moment of like, “Oh, okay, this is what…” Because I’d heard the name Jack Kirby and I’d read some Kirby comics, but it didn’t compute to me that, oh, I am reading a Jack Kirby comic right now. But that was when all that stuff came together.
When you realize, okay, this is all Jack Kirby, and when you started to dig into it, what was the first bit of Kirby’s work that opened a door for you? What was the first thing that blew your mind?
TS: Well, yeah. I mean, then it was like, okay, I got to get my hands on some of these comics. I got to get like New Gods. So it was like… It would have been the “New Gods” Baxter reprint, which reprinted issues five and six. Then there was another issue which I got, which I might’ve gotten on the same day. I might’ve been in like the “New Gods” section and got two of the Baxter reprint volumes, which each reprint two issues. Then “New Gods” #11 was the first run New Gods comic I had where it’s not a reprint. I think I might’ve gotten them all the same day or within a short period of time.
Issue 11, which is the final issue of “New Gods,” up until “The Hunger Dogs” and all that. But that was the weak one of those five stories. But those four stories were like…my mind just exploded. It’s like, “Oh my God, this is Jack Kirby. And he’s so much cooler than I could have ever imagined. I knew this was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be this good.”
Obviously it all works together, but initially were you more blown away by the stories or by the art?
TS: The stories. It’s like you can’t have one without the other and all that stuff, but yeah. I was just blown away by the content. Yeah, this entire universe of very original sort of sci-fi, mythic stuff right at a time when I was really into mythology and Joseph Campbell and all that stuff and Star Wars. To have something like this that’s like an undiluted version of that, that’s just like head and shoulders above most of the comics I’d read up until that point. Then it’s like, why didn’t anybody tell me about this? Because it’s like, I’d heard of Kirby, but it was always as like, “Oh, he’s one of the Marvel guys and Fantastic Four, Captain America, whatever.” But nobody told me about this and this stuff. I felt almost like evangelical about it where it’s like, people got to find out about this. This stuff is so good. And word’s not getting out. I got to get the word out about this stuff.
I want to talk to you about Kirby the man a little bit, because I think that there are few people who I have admired for their work and then found out about them as people that my admiration grew more than Jack Kirby. Jack Kirby’s life is an incredible story of perseverance and bravery and creativity and all this. As you are approaching doing a Kirby graphic novel, a biographical book, where was the balance for you in the life story versus the story of the work?
TS: Yeah. Yeah, I came to his work first and was blown away by it. Yeah, I learned about the guy and then that was a really pleasant surprise, because yeah, it usually doesn’t work that way. Usually it’s like, I guess he’s not as great as his work. But with Jack Kirby, it was like, “Oh, wow. His life is super fascinating.” I’m definitely drawn to the work first. My pull is even after having done this whole project, it’s still the work is what speaks to me. Then the man himself is a close second, but the work is… I mean, that’s how I got here was the work. I didn’t mow his lawn and know him as a person. It’s like, I knew this work and that’s the prime draw for me.Continued below
In terms of putting together the book, did you feel it was more your responsibility to tell the story of the man or to tell the story of the man’s work?
TS: Yeah. I mean, the story of the man is way more interesting, I think, to an audience. I think people who pick up this book are going to find the guy way more interesting than his creations, but you got to tell the story of his creations too. It’s almost like the creations are like the second half. The first half of his life is very interesting in an external way: the gang fights as a kid and the World War II experiences and hitting the streets, going from publisher to publisher, trying to get a foothold in some kind of business and stuff like that.
Then even being like a young father with young kids. That stuff is interesting in the external world. But then the rest of his life was spent very much inside his own head, inside his own basement at the drawing board. That’s a big part of his story.
Yeah. I’m very curious because when you see the comics you’ve made, your art is obviously indebted to Kirby. I mean, so much art is, but you have a very clear Kirby influence. So when I’m reading the book, there are definitely parts of it that feel Kirbyish, but it also feels like you made a conscious effort at points when you’re telling his story to not rely on too many “Kirby tricks.” It’s like you were going for something different. What was your inspiration for the real life, non comics, portions of the book?
TS: Well, I mean, the way Kirby looks, I drew him as sort of like a cartoon character and sort of like childlike. It works in a bunch of ways, but my primary conscious reason for that was just to just make the reader identify with him more. Just that sort of a trick that Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics, where it’s like, he calls it masking, you make a super simplified main character. Then the reader identifies with that character and feels like their story is the character’s story. Then everything else is drawn in like a more detailed or more naturalistic mode. Then that’s the sort of central world that the character interacts with. But I mean, if I drew everything in a Kirby style, then Kirby’s art wouldn’t stand out. The world doesn’t look like a Kirby drawing. It’s like, okay, I’m going to have a world that looks one way. And then when Kirby sits down at his drawing board, then we’re in Kirby land.
Right. Was there a particular portion of his life that you found more difficult to illustrate?
TS: I mean the easiest stuff was the more external stuff, like the gang fights and whatnot. But then it’s like, yeah, when you’re trying to show somebody having like a legal dispute with somebody, that’s a little trickier. That’s a little harder to show. That takes a different set of skills. And trying to illustrate some of these ideas of how two people can go into a room together and then come out and each one thinks that they created something and the other guy didn’t. Just trying to communicate some very abstract ideas that there isn’t like some easy shorthand for.
Right. Well, I actually felt like the sort of simplifying of Kirby’s visual, making Kirby look the way he did, I think that actually helps with a lot of the moments that maybe don’t lend themselves to necessarily illustration because he was still so animated in those moments that it helps you get the point across a little bit in a way where maybe if he looked like everybody else on the page, it wouldn’t have been quite as easy to do that.
TS: Yeah. That is one of the ways that that sort of masking effect is really effective because the head is larger, the features are larger. Yeah, it’s easier to read them. I’ve kind of noticed some artists who work in that, like Michael Golden or something like working on “Bucky O’Hare,” would have somebody flying a spaceship and it would be kind of like a medium shot where you’re seeing all these spaceships zipping by, but you can still see everybody’s face pretty clearly and see what everybody’s emotions where it’s almost like these long distance shots are kind of like closeups too. You get the same amount of information that you get from a closeup. So it’s a really useful technique.Continued below
Absolutely. Yeah. So much of the stories we hear about Kirby today involve his working relationship and then eventual clashes with Stan Lee. I know that that is a big part of the book, and it’s very easy to make this into a Kirby is the hero, Stan Lee is a villain situation. What is your perspective on their relationship having done all the research for this book?
TS: I’m curious to see how people read it because I feel like it’s complicated enough that you could sort of come to your own conclusion about it. I think like Stan Lee in real life and in this book is a very charismatic figure and is kind of like a cartoon character. Like he sort of created this persona for himself that’s very appealing. I feel like somebody could come away from this book maybe thinking he’s the hero or whatever, but yeah. I mean, my impression… The conclusion I came to is basically that Jack Kirby was the driving creative force in like every way, not just like, “Oh, he provided the visuals and Stan provided the ideas and blah, blah, blah.”
Kirby created fully realized stories and fully realized characters and brought them into Stan Lee. Then Stan Lee started adding his bit to it. But by the time Kirby would give him these things, much of the creation was already done. There might be some little things here and there where Stan might have said like, “Oh, we need this or that.” But the stuff that Kirby did just worked, and if Stan hadn’t said, “Oh, we need a character who’s blue, or whatever,” Kirby would’ve come up with something pretty amazing in any event. I just feel like it’s overwhelmingly Kirby, but we’ll never know for sure exactly how these things break down. Only two people know, Stan and Jack know exactly.
That’s my impression of it, but I don’t know. Maybe there’s room for error there. I think it is like in a lot of these creative partnerships, in music and whatever, it’s like when two people go into a room together and then it’s like, “Okay, we created this thing.” It’s a co-creation. That is the main act is when it’s like, “Okay, we’re creating this thing. We’re putting both our names on this.” Who did what is for the super fans. The super fans try to figure that stuff out.
Again, this is complicated because they weren’t like two equal partners who got together and decided to do this thing together. That’s more like a Jack Kirby and Joe Simon [partnership]. With Stan Lee, Stan was the boss. He was the editor. He had final say. So if he’s like, “Okay, Kirby, I’m going to be the writer. I’m going to get writer credit, and you’re going to get artist credit.” Jack, it was basically take it or leave it, and he was kind of out of options by the time they got together. There’s an imbalance of power there.
I mean, I get the impression that at least early on in their collaboration, Jack was enthusiastic. The sort of disappointments and bitterness and anger kind of came later when, “Okay. These things we did are a huge success and I’m not getting the kind of things that I feel I’m due or that I was promised or whatever.” But I think there was a period where it is like the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that fans kind of thought they were or wished they were. There was kind of a moment of like, “Oh, man, we’re really doing this. This is great. This is awesome.” There was a moment for that, but I don’t think it lasted very long and definitely got very ugly as it went on.
Now, the book is written in the first person with Kirby narrating. Did you pull this all from interviews he did or is it a literary device?
TS: It’s a literary device, and I went out of my way to kind of make it clear in the front that I did not find some lost Jack Kirby manuscript or something where he’s like telling the life story. It was a choice because I think it would be a really interesting and fun way of delivering this information, to deliver it as though it’s like Jack Kirby telling the story. I mean, some of the things that he says are from interviews, like verbatim or whatever. But yeah, a lot of it is just like I’m telling Jack Kirby’s story, but then I’m telling it as if he’s telling it. I mean, whenever there was like a real juicy quote that would perfectly accompany a moment, I’d do my best to have an actual Kirby quote in there.Continued below
And there are some points in the book where it is, and I feel like, at least to me, it’s like you can kind of tell when it’s like really Kirby talking, because he has like a cadence and a vocabulary and a syntax that is very much his own and kind of difficult to follow. A lot of his interviews, when you read them, you have to sort of parse what he’s saying. He had just a very idiosyncratic conversational style. So if I had really, really faithfully emulated his language, the book would be like a difficult read. I wanted it to capture some of the Kirby flavor, but still have it be like an enjoyable read. As much as I wish Jack Kirby would have sat down and told his life story or did a graphic novel of his life story, he just didn’t. We have what little bits and pieces he talked about in interviews and some primary source information like census forms and stuff like that. But yeah.
What was the research like for this book? How did you approach the research?
TS: Well, I mean, as a Kirby fan, once I really got into Kirby, I’d been just gobbling up whatever information I could get. I kind of went into this with a pretty good grasp of what his story is. Then it was like, when I started really formally putting it together, it’s like, okay, I kind of remember him saying something like this. Okay. Where did I think I saw it? And then go looking and double-checking and things like that. Yeah, I just immersed myself in Kirby as I was doing it. It was sort of the body of Kirby’s scholarship that exists. Like the Jack Kirby Collector is the main resource. John Morrow who publishes that and the goal of the magazine is to get every Jack Kirby article, every fanzine, every little bit of Jack Kirby information, every drawing and put it in this one place. I mean, that was a tremendous resource.
Then the various books that have been written about Kirby like the Ray Wyman book I mentioned. Then also like Greg Theakston who was maybe the earliest Kirby scholar. He had all this stuff. He would regularly interview Jack and he put together a number of books. And then also he’s responsible for, I think, most of the videos of Kirby that have surfaced that you can see on YouTube and whatever, where he’s saying, “Hey, Jack, tell us some war stories.” And then Jack’s going on and on about all these different things that happened in the war.” Yeah, a lot of this video stuff is pretty great too.
Did you do any interviews yourself with anyone?
TS: No. I mean, I didn’t do any primary source kind of stuff. It was just like hitting the books. Because I felt like the story that I had to tell about Jack Kirby, it’s like unless I interviewed Jack or Roz [Jack’s wife] or Stan Lee, it’s kind of secondary information anyway. I felt like that story, as I envisioned it, was already out there. It was a matter of connecting dots and realizing, “Oh, this is connected to this.”
I mean, I guess one piece of investigative legwork that I did that I’m really proud of is I was trying to figure out…Kirby would describe these stories that his mother would tell him. Some people thought like, “Oh, she’s telling him the Grimms Fairytales or whatever or maybe they’re Bible stories.” But none of those explanations felt right. When Kirby would describe the stories that his mother would tell him, none of those fit the mold. Then I was just kind of like looking, trying to find what are these stories?
Then I sort of came upon this body of oral storytelling that was like… They were called the Vunder-mayses, I think. It was this tradition of like Yiddish storytelling of these folk tales. When I found those, I’m like, “This is exactly what he’s talking about.” The stories that were part of this tradition are like precisely the stories he was describing about, with the little guy triumphing over some like huge impossible situation with maybe some supernatural element or whatever. But it was like, “Okay, this is it.” I don’t know that anybody else has made that connection. So it’s stuff like that where it’s like you’re like hitting the books and connecting the dots.Continued below
That’s really cool that you were able to track that down. Good work, man.
What is your opinion on Kirby’s later years in terms of the stuff he was working on? Because his later years, a lot of it was spent unfortunately trying to get some justice for the bad deals that he was a part of, whether by Marvel’s fault or whoever’s. But I remember being a young kid collecting comics and you’d go into a store and you’d see a “new” Kirby creation, or a new take on an older Kirby creation. I think that’s the period of his career people don’t know a lot about. What’s worth seeking out from the last years of Kirby?
TS: The last years of Kirby. I mean, it depends on where you put that, because it’s like… Are you talking after he leaves Marvel for the last time?
TS: So it’s like after “Devil Dinosaur.”
TS: So yeah. Well, he did a ton of really cool animation concept drawings and storyboards and some comic strips too. When they’d try to pitch these TV shows, sometimes they’d pitch like, “Oh, and it can be a comic too.” So they’d have Jack spend a week or whatever putting together something. That stuff’s great. What I’ve seen of that stuff’s great. But again, it’s not like fully available. Sometimes they’ll tease the release of a book that has this kind of stuff in it, but it hasn’t happened yet. There was like a set of trading cards that had some of them. Then again, the Jack Kirby Collector has published a lot of this stuff, but it’s not complete.
But he did storyboards for the Fantastic Four cartoon, the one with H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot instead of Human Torch. Those are amazing. They’re like these very cinematic comics that he made of Fantastic Four adventures. The ones that I have read are really good reading. They’re just like super cool. So there’s that. Yeah, he did a couple of days’ worth of Thundarr the Barbarian comic strips. Then there’s another one called Roxy’s Raiders that never came about and it was kind of like a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of thing. It takes place in the 1930s and she’s a treasure hunter and she’s got this whole team of specialists. He did a lot of work on that and storyboards and stuff. That stuff, what I’ve seen of that, looks super compelling.
Then there’s the comics he created at that time. Comics were his side job at that point. He’d pretty much retired from comics and they became his side job. The first two issues of “Captain Victory” are up there with the Kirby classics. They were published in the eighties, but they were drawn in the seventies and inked by Mike Royer. So they kind of have that Kirby look. Then the subsequent issues are kind of hit or miss in terms of art quality. But the story just keeps getting more and more compelling with each issue. Then you get to the last couple issues where he starts tying it in with the “New Gods.” Those stories are phenomenal. Then “Silver Star” is great. “Silver Star” is one of a very small number of stories where Jack Kirby got to close the book. It’s a self contained graphic novel or a mini series, but it has a beginning, middle and end. Then was conceived that way. 99.9% of Kirby’s body of work are these run on sentences, these endless continuities that just kind of stop when the book gets canceled.
Then you have his DC stuff where he puts an end to the New Gods. And just off the top of my head, maybe “Silver Star” and “New Gods” are the only two series that he actually got to give some kind of real conclusion to, rather than just “Oh, and then they walked into the sunset. The end.” There’s “Eternals,” “Forever People,” there’s a number of ones that kind of have an ending, but not really. But yeah, he got to end the “New Gods.” He got to end “Silver Star.” Can’t really think of anything else where he got to do that, like an actual ending. As disappointed as fans of the New Gods are in the Jack Kirby ending, it is a real ending and maybe it’s not exactly the ending like you wanted, but it’s a real ending and things do play out in an interesting way.Continued below
Yeah, so there’s that stuff. There’s “Hunger Dogs.” He did a story for that too called ‘The Road to Armagetto,’ which still hasn’t seen print in its original, like as a comic. That was the best of the bunch. He did a really great story that was supposed to end the New Gods, but didn’t quite. It was kind of like another chapter of the New Gods. It was phenomenal. But DC kind of had him redo it. Then he did another comic and then it’s like, “Okay, that’s not quite it either.” And then he did another comic and it’s like, “Okay, well, yeah, that’s not really it.” Then he kind of mixed them all together and came up with “The Hunger Dogs.” But I like all of those things. I really like the unpublished one best of all, but I like all of them.
Then he did “Super Powers.” It was like one of the rare instances where he didn’t write it and it seemed like he wasn’t interested in being involved in the writing. Sometimes even if Kirby didn’t write something, if he was given a script, he would still change it and do his thing. It seemed like late in his career, it was kind of like, “Okay, if somebody is going to write something for me, then I’ll play along. I’ll do whatever.” The first “Super Powers” miniseries was like plot by Jack Kirby, script and art by somebody else. Except for the final issue. The final issue of the first “Super Powers” mini-series was written and drawn by Jack Kirby. And it’s great. It’s so much fun. It’s got cool little twists and time travel and stuff. It’s a real gem.
Then he did the second “Super Powers” series, which was the one where he was just brought on as an artist. It’s fun. There are virtues in it, but like I said, Kirby’s writing is like the big thing for me. As much as I love his style and his art, it’s like I really love the way he tells a story and his crazy sci-fi ideas. Then after that, it’s kind of slim pickings. He wasn’t doing comics anymore. Then you have the Topps Kirbyverse stuff, which was kind of like Kirby concepts. I think there was like a handful of pages that were comics that he did in “Satan’s Six.” If you kind of ignore the new pages and just read the Kirby pages, you get a nice little Kirby story in there.
Then after that, it’s “Phantom Force,” the two issue image thing. It’s pretty cool. It’s just like “Hunger Dogs.” It’s kind of like Kirby took a bunch of comics that he had sitting around and then kind of put them all together into one story. So it’s a little disjointed, but it’s got some cool moments in it. That’s pretty much the tour of late years of Jack Kirby.