kirby_king_comics.jpgMark Evanier long-time friend and collaborator of the late Jack Kirby, and the world’s foremost authority of the man and his work, has been working on a comprehensive biography for years. Recognising that this book will be huge, as well as expensive and perhaps hard to market to a broader audience, he has put out an abbreviated, coffee-table version, Kirby — King of Comics, which is to serve simultaneously as a primer on Kirby to a general audience and and lavishly-produced art book showcasing a representative selection of the best of Kirby’s vast oeuvre.

This is a good idea. Kirby’s work is not only experiencing something of a popular renaissance by proxy through the newly-minted, goldlined silverscreen incarnations of his creations, but seems entirely ripe for a broader reassessment as a major artist of the 20th Century. This is a well-timed book, but how well does it succeed? Less well than one would have hoped, unfortunately.

Evanier’s writing is lucid and conversational. His account of Kirby’s life in comics is easy-going, entertaining and rich on anecdote, and he achieves a nice balance between the detail and more general information. This is not primarily a text for people thoroughly familiar with Kirby or the history of the comic book — the information here is solid but basic — but simply by dint of his vast knowledge of all things Kirby, Evanier still serves up a handful of fascinating nuggets of new information on the man and his work.

I, for one, didn’t know that Kirby had initially planned to render the parallel-universe discovered by the Fantastic Four, the Negative Zone, entirely using collage, but had to abandon it for practical reasons, and later planned an entire comic of his delirious collage work. Neither did I know that he was struggling with failing eyesight for the last couple of decades of his career, something that sheds clarifying light on the strange distortions in his drawings, and flatness of his figures, in his late work.

Also, I cannot recall having read as succinct an account as the one Evanier delivers of Kirby’s travails on the lavish but ill-fated newspaper strip, Sky Masters, which he created in collaboration with Dave and Wally Wood in the late 50s. The story of how the disadvantageous contract he was working under led to his falling out with the strip’s facilitator Jack Schiff, and how he ended up having to defend himself against a lawsuit for breach of contract, which again led to him being blackballed at DC, where Schiff was also an editor, for a decade-and-a-half, is made emblematic of Kirby’s career. The sharp contrast between his lack of business acumen and high sense of morals and the comics industry’s lack of ethics and high level of greed, came to mean that he would never receive proper credit or compensation for his work — work fundamental to large parts of the very same industry’s continued success today.

Evanier veers into straight hagiography in places, especially towards the end, but his informal approach makes this feel natural; and it is in any case made up for his sheer knowledge of the subject at hand. This is not a critical in-depth study of Kirby as a man, but Evanier is probably too close to his subject to ever write such a thing anyway, and should not be expected to. More problematic, however, is the almost total lack of analysis of Kirby’s work as such. As rich as the text is in factual detail, as poor is it at offering insights as to why Kirby’s art is great. This is a real problem for a book that is meant to serve as an introduction to the man and his art to a broader audience.

One could argue that the art speaks for itself, and one would of course be right. But good critical writing can often provide a crucial eye-opener to the reader, and there seems no doubt that a book introducing Kirby to a broader audience would benefit from an argument for his artistic relevance, beyond his obvious general significance for the development of the American comic book, which can be surmised from the biographical detail alone.

All this would be much less of a problem if the art direction were impeccable. It unfortunately is not. Being an introduction to a general audience and an assertion of his primacy as an artist, you would expect this book to be at once representative of Kirby’s six decade-long career, and of the very best of his work. And it is to an extent: It is, for example, great to see the original art to the stunning cover of Foxhole #1 (1954) and the astonishing full-page headshot of Galactus from Thor #161 (1969), as well as to be able to read in its entirety his late, fascinating autobiographical story “Street Code” (1983), but ultimately the book seems to place itself between two chairs, too often choosing rare and unseen work rather than the comics pages Kirby is understandably most famous for, losing the general audience while placating the fans. Comparatively weak work such as rejected covers, unused ideas, pinups, character designs, and commission drawings made for fans in the autumn of his career thus take up way too much space that could instead have been used to showcase his best comics pages.

The choice to shoot from original art is a good one — it is a joy to see the pages with Kirby’s margin notes, production department paste-overs and the like — but unfortunately this editorial choice seems to have dictated the selection of artwork in places where going with reproductions of more remarkable comics pages as printed would have done a better job of showing Kirby in all his glory. The Boys’ Ranch page chosen (from #2, 1950), while great, seems a rather arbitrary choice for that landmark series, and the same goes for the Fighting American story — “Handsome Devils” (1954) — printed in its entirety.

Perhaps most egregiously, the book only prints two interior pages from Kirby’s run on Thor: the above-mentioned Galactus page and the splash from the character’s introduction in Journey into Mystery #83 (1962). His work on this series is some of the most visually inventive and epic of his career, a milestone of imaginative comics storytelling and crucially important in Kirby’s oeuvre. The problem, however, is that most of this work (though not JiM #83) was inked by Vince Colletta, of whose work Evanier has long been one of the most vocal detractors. Despite having inked perhaps a couple thousand Kirby pages, Colletta’s name is reduced to two mentions: once as part of a list of the staff at Marvel in the early 60s and once in the caption for an image. And only three examples of his inks over Kirby, including the Galactus page, have been included.

I fully agree that Colletta’s work was generally substandard — and often downright terrible — and that his frequent erasure of parts of Kirby’s background work is a discredit to his name and — especially — those of his employers, but those Thor pages are still amongst the very best and most influential work Kirby ever did and should have been given more space in a book such as this one. In other words, it seems Evanier has let his bias get in the way of a better book.

Another masterpiece, Kirby’s unfinished, so-called “Fourth World” saga of the early 1970s, is also given somewhat short shrift. Why, when so much stellar work (a good deal of it Colletta-inked, of course…) from this, Kirby’s perhaps most personal work, is available, spend a spread presenting a comparatively unremarkable page from Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #143 (1971)? This primarily seems to have been done to showcase DC’s lamentable policy of having on-hand hacks redraw Kirby’s faces of Superman and Jimmy to fit their anodyne house style, but surely this could have been illustrated using less space. And why, for the gods’ sake, when you have one single fold-out page to play with, use it to publish a recreation of Kirby’s famous climactic single-page splash from “The Glory Boat” (New Gods #6, 1971) by Alex bloody Ross and two single-page images on the other side, when you could have used it to present, say, two of Kirby’s amazing double-page splashes?

Despite everything, this is of course still an attractive book with high-quality reproductions of lots of great art and an easy-to-read and thoroughly informed introductory text. It is a good introduction to Kirby and his work, but one cannot help feel that Evanier could have played the winning hand he was dealt quite a lot better. Fortunately, he still has another go; and given what is here already, the full-length biography, though it will probably be short on the art, still promises to be both a great read and essential document on the life of one of the great artists of the 20th Century.

Mark Evanier, Kirby — King of Comics, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008. UPDATE: designer Paul Sahre on his work on the book, and especially the cover.