By MATT PETRAS
Pittsburgh Current CONTRIBUTING WRITER
It’s clear from reading Tom Scioli’s comic books that he draws a lot of inspiration from legendary comic artist Jack Kirby. He describes Kirby as his hero.
Just recently, he finished a biography of Kirby’s life in comic book form, a project he took on for a few years.
“I felt very close to him,” Scioli says. “It felt like I was hanging out with him. I was spending that much time immersed in his world. In a way, it felt like I was sort of living his life.”
Scioli’s 208-page comic book, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, releases Tuesday, July 14, telling the entire story of Kirby’s life from childhood to death.
Kirby, who most prominently began to make comics in the early-’40s and passed away in 1994, co-created many of the most beloved and well-known superheroes from Marvel Comics, such as the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. Kirby also did a lot of work for rival company DC Comics throughout his career, most notably New Gods, a cosmic epic that serves as the source material for an upcoming film directed and co-written by Ava Duvernay.
Scioli outfitted the book, published by Ten Speed Press, with narration written as though it’s a first-person account from Kirby and primarily used evenly-sized six-panel layouts, a go-to for Kirby in his artwork. Scioli set out to exhaustively detail every significant part of Kirby’s personal and professional life.
“It starts with his parents and his birth and then goes through his whole career and ends with his death and legacy,” Scioli says. “What his life and work gave birth to.”
Scioli leaned heavily on The Jack Kirby Collector, a magazine that, through dozens of issues, compiled Kirby’s art work and interviews he had given.
“My education in Kirby largely came from there,” Scioli says. “Of course there were other sources, but because The [Jack] Kirby Collector has been so committed to cataloguing everything and putting it all in one place, that was an invaluable resource.”
A significant chunk of the book focuses on the infamously tense relationship between Stan Lee and Kirby. Many fans contend that Lee took too much credit for the characters and storylines he co-created with Kirby.
“I’d like people to walk away from this book having a better understanding of what the creative process is, the complexity of it and how far assumptions about who did what tends to be pretty far removed from the truth of these things,” Scioli says.
Though both men played important roles in creating characters that have become household names, thanks in large part to the enormously successful Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise spanning movies like Avengers and Black Panther, Lee ultimately became the most well-known. Many people who’ve never read a comic would recognize Lee from a picture. While Kirby certainly became a titan by the time he passed, he never quite reached that same level of fame.
“Stan Lee was in a position of power,” Scioli says. “He was the editor. He had the last word. He had final approval. He could put his name on everything and everywhere.”
To some extent, it also came down to personality differences and Lee’s amazing ability to self-promote, Scioli says.
“Stan Lee was a narcissistic figure,” Scioli says. “He loved attention. He loved being in the spotlight, and he really came alive in those moments when he was on display and he could be charming and liquacious and everything you would want as a fan. He would just kind of put on a show for anybody.”
Kirby was a complicated man who had a well-documented relationship with anger.
“He was incredibly intense, but it was an energy that was mainly directed inwardly… He had a violent temper but would continually fight to keep it contained, almost like the Hulk,” Scioli says. “He was very generous. He was generous with his time and his attention and his work, very generous within his work and loved his fans.”
Kirby did not showboat, Scioli says.
“He had a sense of his accomplishments and his skills and had a realistic understanding of how exceptional his work was, but it never came across as arrogant,” Scioli says. “He still had a tremendous humility about himself and his work.”
Kirby’s work had an unparalleled impact on the way comic books were and continue to be made, something Scioli wanted to capture with his upcoming book. His work in the 40s had a big impact, Scioli says, but it was his work for Marvel in the 60s that really touched the entire comics industry.
“Everybody who came after had to at least reckon with what Jack Kirby did and understand it, and then maybe decide to do something different or build on that,” Scioli says. “But you still feel it today.