The Fantastic One

The father of so many superheroes could never conquer the forces of corporate America.

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Reviewed by Glen David Gold
Sunday, March 23, 2008; Page BW08


King of Comics

By Mark Evanier

Abrams. 224 pp. $40

Jack Kirby, possibly the greatest of American comic book artists, battled his whole life, first in a kid gang, then as an infantryman in World War II. Then he fought against the short-sighted corporations who ran his medium of expression -- funnybooks -- as if his contributions hardly mattered. With the rising academic interest in comics, new battles have erupted over whether he had artistic intent or just a perpetual adolescent worldview. Kirby, a stunning new collection of his art, will settle some -- but not all -- of those scores.

Kirby's output is overwhelming: He co-created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the Silver Surfer, Thor, the Sandman and an entire universe, the Fourth World, which you might not have heard of, but George Lucas surely did when distilling the Star Wars mythos. And Kirby's influence extends beyond popular film into contemporary literature. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead and Junot D¿az have all acknowledged their debts to him. Me too, for that matter. I own a collage, reproduced in Kirby, of Mister Fantastic exclaiming: "I've done it!! I'm drifting into a world of limitless dimensions!!" -- which is how I wish I felt when writing.

In December 1940, Kirby catapulted comics into World War II -- a year before America itself -- by drawing Captain America punching Hitler. He made perspective scream; characters' swinging fists were larger than their heads and harder than adamantium. Emotions flared from each panel: anger, nobility, lust. "Splashes" -- single panels taking up the whole page -- weren't enough for him; he created the "double splash," commemorating actions of such limitless dimensions that they filled two pages.

And, holy smokes, does this book show that stuff off. A revelation to me was the obscure 1950s "Foxhole" comic -- in which a D-Day GI, whose flat-bandaged face indicates his nose has been shot off, is writing a letter: "Dear Mom -- The war is like a picnic! -- Today we spent A DAY AT THE BEACH!" Almost every page presents a jaw-dropper of an image: Doctor Doom leading a robot army, the Avengers wrestling the Hulk, The Thing slumped morosely in the rain, the Silver Surfer conquering outer space.

So what did Kirby get out of the industry he so influenced? According to Mark Evanier's history, the answer is bupkis. Kirby entered the game in the mid-'30s with the naive view that "You make your boss rich and he'll take care of you." The puzzle is why by the late '70s he hadn't figured out his mistakes, as he continued to see his creations make a lot of money for a lot of other people. Stan Lee, who wrote the dialogue for or co-wrote many of his greatest stories, ended up with all the credit.

Setting the record straight after years of distortions, lies and bad memories is one of Evanier's fortes. Another is to explain how Kirby went from simple adventure tales to tangling, in the '70s, with theology and social upheavals. Evanier's style is informal and informative, and, as befits his career in television writing, he's quick with the story twists and turns (even as the fanboy inside me notes that The Demon ran for 16, not 18, issues).

But it is an odd experience to read this back-to-back with David Michaelis's biography Schulz and Peanuts, which has been castigated for its seeming fixation on Schulz's poor qualities. Evanier, in contrast, presents Kirby as a decent and generous soul with some understandable fits of frustration. Contemporary accounts agree with that assessment, but a reader hungers for something deeper to explain his violent and angry imagery.

For instance, Kirby seems to have had post-traumatic stress disorder after World War II, and I suspect that certain recurrent figures in his artwork came from his unconscious attempt to work out the horrors of the battlefield. Evanier treads lightly on Kirby's dark side, perhaps out of respect for a man who got so little of it during his lifetime (he died in 1994). But examining the alchemy by which human experience becomes art would explain why Kirby matters.

At the same time, Evanier's attempt to document the history of comics and Kirby's place in them is probably impossible in just 35,000 words. According to his blog, he's working on a "fans-only" biography, already 250,000 words and growing, that might capture the subject.

It's extraordinary that Abrams, a publisher of art books -- rather than a fanzine or specialty press -- has produced a volume about a comic book artist. But the result is an exuberant celebration of a pop-art cornucopia. Like Mister Fantastic, Jack Kirby really did throw us into a world of limitless dimensions. It's a fun trip. *

Glen David Gold is the author of the novels "Carter Beats the Devil" and the forthcoming "Sunnyside."

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