While it isn't exactly the definitive Jack Kirby biography we've all been waiting for, Kirby: King of Comics definitely falls into the "must have" category for any serious comic book fan. Written by longtime Kirby assistant Mark Evanier, this book chronicles The King's life, from his early days running with gangs in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to his death in 1994 and is packed with tons of artwork, some of which you've undoubtedly seen before, some of which I'm sure you haven't.
Though he didn't create the medium of comic books, it's safe to say that Jack Kirby made it what it is today. Let's run down the list of characters Kirby either created or co-created: Hulk, X-Men, Thor, Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, the New Gods, Captain America... and so many more. In addition to redefining the world of superheroics, Kirby created much of the language of fantasy and adventure comic books. His panel layouts and dynamic sense of design are still being imitated and emulated today. Superhero stories are often referred to as modern-day mythology thanks in large part to the work of Jack Kirby. He took simple concepts and elevated them to iconic levels. There's a reason why the man is referred to as "the King", and if you don't know Kirby, you need to get yourself to a library or your local comic shop. This book is a great place to start. Weighing in at 224 pages and standing 12.4 x 9.3 inches, this oversized monster does it's best to match the wealth of ideas that sprung forth from the brilliant imagination of its subject. Reprinting a variety of classic covers such as Fantastic Four # 1 or Avengers # 4 at this tremendous size truly gives the artwork an even more mythic feel.
In addition to these well-known works, there's also a ton of sketches, un-inked and un-colored comic pages, newspaper strips and paintings. It really is a fantastic overview of the man's body of work. But wait, there's more! While most coffee table books focus primarily on visuals, Kirby: King of Comics also functions as something of a biography. One could say that it's an incredibly slanted biography, painting a picture that probably isn't 100% accurate, but is definitely well researched. On the other hand, this book isn't meant to be a biography of every waking moment of Jack's life; it's really more of a loving overview written by a friend, an homage to one of the greatest talents the world has ever seen. If it comes off as being slanted, then so be it. The book isn't meant to delve deeply into the inner workings of Jack Kirby's mind or tell tawdry tales about the behind-the-scenes workings of the comic industry (though it does manage to do a bit of both); this book was created to celebrate the life and work of a genius. Plain and simple. The degree to which it accomplishes this is admirable.
You'll notice I gave the book an A-. Given the loving praise I have heaped upon this book and it's subject, you might wonder why. Let me explain why it didn't get a straight A. 224 pages is a lot, but can't lie: I just wanted more. In all honesty, this book could've been 1000 pages and it probably wouldn't have been enough to satisfy me.
As I said before, there's tons of artwork in this book. I could (and have) spent hours poring through it, studying page after page. Now, a lot of the artwork has been seen before, which is fine: I'd expect that there would be quite a few Fantastic Four covers in here and some Captain America, New Gods and Devil Dinosaur as well. There's a lot of artwork I've never seen and I'm sure that some of it hasn't seen the light of day prior to this publication. Or at the very least, it hasn't been seen by folks who don't have a subscription to the Jack Kirby Collector. My problem with some of this artwork is the lack of explanation, as well as the redundancy of the biography portions of the book.
For example: There's a two page spread featuring a bevy of godlike characters. The accompanying caption reads "Presentation drawings for a proposed new version of Thor". Now, it's fairly common knowledge that Kirby intended to have Ragnarok take place in the pages of Thor and for the gods of Asgard to die and be reborn. The idea was nixed by Marvel and Jack used some of his ideas when he went to DC and created The New Gods. I'm simplifying the story here, but that's not really what's important. I would've liked to have seen more of an explanation than simply "presentation drawings of a new version". The same goes for Captain Glory, a character that was published by Topps Comics in the early 1990's. Apparently, Captain Glory began life as a proposed new version of Captain America, a fact that I'd love to know more about. What were Kirby's ideas? Was this just a new costume, or a totally new character under the mask? Rather than give us brief, glossed over accounts of Kirby's life that can, in all honesty, be found in a million other places, why not give us a few details about these mysterious ideas that never quite saw the light of day?
But it's a small beef. The fact that the book gives only a cursory look at his life can easily be rectified by doing a little digging online or checking out the wonderfully well-written and researched "Tales to Astonish" by Ronin Ro. As for the lack of explanation for some of the lesser known origins and artwork: maybe it simply wasn't there. Both Jack and his wife Roz have passed away and as the stories say, Jack's memory was often sketchy at best. There's a good chance that he just forgot some of the minor details that obsessive fanboys such as myself would give their eyeteeth to learn about. Given his vast output and tremendous workload the man took on, it wouldn't be too surprising.
All-in-all, Kirby: King of Comics is the definition of a "must have" for hardcore collectors and maybe even for casual fans as well. Even if you don't read one word of the text, there's a veritable universe of excitement to be seen while turning the pages.