Before the King: Bringing the Life of JACK KIRBY to Comics

Credit: Tom Scioli

Jack Kirby’s known to many fans as the “King of Comics,” and the creator/co-creator of the New Gods/Fantastic Four/X-Men/Captain America/most of the Avengers/we only have so much room has received renewed critical and popular attention in the past year with the centennial of his birth.

But while almost everyone who’s read a superhero comic knows Kirby’s characters…fewer people know the story of the man behind them.

Tom Scioli aims to change that with Kirby, a new biography currently being serialized at Using Kirby’s own words, it unfolds the story of his life and art from the very beginning – and shows how he was already a creative dynamo before he became one of the biggest names in comics.

Scioli’s already known for paying homage to Kirby’s style and wild ideas on such books as Gødland, American Barbarian and Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe, which makes him a unique fit for telling Kirby’s story. We spoke with Scioli about the new biocomic, and his plans for where it’s going.

Newsarama: Tom, wanted to ask up front – do you plan a hard copy of this, or where is it going to be available?

Tom Scioli: There's going to be a deluxe print edition, in time for Jack Kirby's 101st birthday. I have a major publisher lined up but we're not ready to announce it yet.

Credit: Tom Scioli

Nrama: Kirby's work has obviously been an influence on your own style, but what made you want to tackle his life specifically?

Scioli: It's a classic American success story. He was born in a tenement, and through hard work and pluck, created our modern mythology.

Nrama: What kind of research did you do for this story? Where did you get the Kirby quotes used for the narration?

Scioli: I've been studying the art and life of Kirby for my entire adult life. The narration, Jack Kirby telling his life story, is taken partly from interviews and partly trying to “channel” him. Kirby never sat down and told the story of his life, and when he was asked about his work, his answers were often elliptical or evasive.

Part of this project is wish fulfillment. I wish Kirby would've written his life story. More so, I wish he would've done a comic telling his complete autobiography. I'd love to read that, but such a thing doesn't exist, so I had to create it. It's how I approach most of my projects. I wish there were “X,” so I make it myself.

Credit: Tom Scioli

Nrama: In trying to see Kirby's life through his own eyes, how did you find yourself affected as a creator? That is, you're trying to see the life of this person through how he described it in his own words, and you're rendering it in an artistic style based closely on the way he drew.

What is getting into that headspace like, and do you feel it's provided you with any new insight into Kirby's own imagination or creative process?

Scioli: It feels like I'm in school. Looking at his work under a microscope and getting inside his head has been so informative. I recommend it for cartoonists in training. It's also made me look at his work differently, seeing themes that show up in his mature work, there at the very beginning.

One of his first comics was about the son of Thor. It casts the whole “who did what” debate in a very different light.

Credit: Tom Scioli

Nrama: You cover just up to Captain America's premiere in the first compilation, and there's obviously a lot to go. How long do you estimate this running? Are there any parts of his life you're particularly excited to render, or any that you're uncomfortable about (either in terms of doing them justice or because they represent a darker period of his life)?

Scioli: I plan to tell the whole story of his life from start to finish. It's going to take years. I don't want to begin to guess how many years that'll be.

Kirby was a good guy, as far as the historical record shows. It's a life worth celebrating, and I intend to celebrate it with this book. If I were to tell an unblemished gushing fan account of his life, it would be useless. This is a warts-and-all account.

Credit: Tom Scioli

Nrama: Do you see your art style adjusting as Kirby's style adjusts over the years? The first installment is very much in the style of a 1940s comic and grid. Do you see yourself getting more into things like the four-panel pages and crazy spreads of the 1970s as you reach that era, etc.?

Scioli: I'm keeping the layouts clear and simple. I want this book to be accessible.

Credit: Tom Scioli

Nrama: What's the most interesting reaction you've gotten to this project so far?

Scioli: I'm not going to say who, but somebody who's pretty high-profile approached me about buying the movie rights.

Nrama: And what does it mean to you personally?

Scioli: I feel like this is something I should have done a long time ago. This is my first departure from escapist sci-fi adventure.

Credit: Tom Scioli

Nrama: What are some of your favorite biographies – prose, comics, film, etc.? 

Scioli: In comics, Maus is the gold standard. Tatsumi's A Drifting Life.

I like that Robert E Howard biopic with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger (The Whole Wide World). Real Housewives of New Jersey. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison doc.

Nrama: Biography/nonfiction has become a very interesting art form in recent years -- obviously, it's always been popular, but now more than ever, it's being used as a form of commentary and artistic expression -- the last few years have seen two major, thoughtful works about O.J. Simpson, just saw I, Tonya, there's always a lot of work being done that combines real facts and people with commentary on the present.

Why do you feel there's been such a surge of biographies in different media, and why do you feel it's such an enduring form?

Scioli: We're a voyeuristic culture. We want to know what everybody's up to.

Nrama: What's next for you?

Scioli: It depends on which pitch gets greenlit.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Scioli: This is a long-term project. It'll be interesting to talk to you again. We're only up to Captain America #1. It's a landmark work, but it's only the beginning of what Kirby created. Keep watching @kirbycomic on Instagram.

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