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Jack Kirby sits at his drawing desk surrounded by Kirby Crackle on the cover of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli

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The story of how Jack Kirby ‘saved Marvel’s ass’ is now a comic

Get an exclusive look at Tom Scioli’s new biographical graphic novel

Jack Kirby’s legacy is well established. Co-creator of Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fourth World, and most of the foundations for the modern Marvel universe; the man is often referred to as ‘the King of comics’. But while his long-time collaborator Stan Lee is a household name, thanks to his appearances in the films and TV shows inspired by the pair’s creations, Kirby has gone largely unrecognized by the wider public.

Cartoonist Tom Scioli is aiming to address that imbalance with his new biography Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, which tells the story of Jack Kirby’s life from childhood onward.

Polygon has an exclusive preview from the graphic novel, out on July 14, and also spoke to Tom Scioli, writer and artist of The Epic Life of the King of Comics, to explain why it was so important to him that this story was told.

The tale of Stan and Jack

Jack Kirby recounts the street gang he ran with as a child, in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

“I think that’s most people’s starting point: okay, Stan Lee is this comic book genius, he created all the Marvel stuff,” Scioli, told Polygon. And even as a lifelong Kirby fan, it started the same way for Scioli himself.

“When I first encountered Kirby’s work, I wasn’t aware of who he was,” he says. “Thundarr the Barbarian was my favorite cartoon when I was little, he did the design work for that and some of the visual storytelling, then as I got older, I read Thor and Captain America comics – but even though the comics said Jack Kirby in the credits box, I still didn’t make the connection. It was like, ‘these are great comics because they’re from the great Stan Lee’. It really wasn’t until high school that I heard the name Jack Kirby.”

Once he did, though, it felt like discovering “the centre of my universe”. From Marvel to DC, comics to animation, and influences that reach far beyond his own work (the visual similarities between Darth Vader and Dr Doom, and how the father-son relationship with Luke echoes New Gods’ Darkseid and Orion, have often been noted). “This is the guy who created pretty much anything I ever thought was cool.”

Connecting the universe

Jack Kirby recounts his mother’s stories and protecting his younger brother from bullies, in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

The Epic Life of the King of Comics follows Kirby from his childhood as part of an Austrian-Jewish migrant family in pre-war Manhattan, through his time fighting in World War II, to his eventual death in 1994. It’s a compelling life story, regardless of his impact on comics – but doubly so because you can trace the earliest origins of ideas that would outlive the man himself.

It’s hard to miss the connections between Kirby’s origin story and that of the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm, aka the Thing: both Jewish kids with a penchant for scrapping who grew up on the Lower East Side. Those boyhood years also fed into the creation of kid gangs like DC’s Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos. And his wartime experiences are reflected in the stories he later told with Nick Fury and Captain America.

The book also traces Kirby’s own influences and fascinations, like Norse mythology – Marvel’s version of Thor was far from the first time he’d told stories with the thunder god – and how he’d come back to ideas from unused pitches or stories that hadn’t fully tapped their potential – the Fantastic Four, for example, is in part a revival of the Challengers of the Unknown series Kirby wrote and drew at DC in the ‘50s.

Ed. note: You might not recognize the clean shaven man beside Jack in the panels below, but that’s actually what Stan Lee looked like at the time.

Jack Kirby recounts working with Stan Lee on early Western comics and creating the Fantastic Four, in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

With so much of the man himself clearly poured into these characters, it might be easy to wonder how there’s ever been any question of his authorship. “Kirby wasn’t just taking dictation as Stan Lee created these amazing ideas. He was bringing at least 50%, maybe more, to the ideas, the stories, the world,” Scioli says. “He was a genius in his own right.”

The book follows in detail all the deals, disputes and depositions that led to Kirby not receiving full credit and compensation for his ideas, but the one thing you really need to understand is how these comics – at least the ones produced during Kirby’s time at Marvel in ‘60s, as told in the excerpt below – were actually created.

The Marvel method

Jack Kirby recounts his role in creating the Hulk and Ant-Man, as well as his grueling work schedule, in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

“In a lot of cases, the comics began as Stan and Jack getting together and just talking out some stuff, each of them contributing ideas. Jack goes home and draws a complete story with dialogue suggestions, and then Stan takes that and adds in his own verbiage,” Scioli explains. This became known as the ‘Marvel method’ – a looser, more collaborative way of creating comics that can also blur the lines of who created what. Especially when the exact process could change from issue to issue. “In some cases, Stan and Jack didn’t have chance to have that initial conversation and Jack would just create a complete story, bring it in to Stan and explain to him what’s going on.”

If that latter process sounds like one where at least part of the writing credit should go to Kirby – well, the man himself would probably agree with you. The fact that Marvel didn’t see it that way was a large part of why he ended up leaving, going on to build the Fourth World at DC and work on the cartoons that became a gateway for the young Scioli.

Jack Kirby recounts his role in creating Thor, Loki, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

The Epic Life of the King of Comics is resolute about where the main credit for that Marvel work should lie. Scioli, though, is a little more ambivalent, pointing out that this story is being told – with a few notable exceptions – from Kirby’s point of view. “When you tell the story of Jack Kirby, Stan doesn’t come across that well,” Scioli says. “I felt like, okay, Stan Lee is going to get shown in a light that he maybe hasn’t been shown to some people before – so I dedicated a spot in the book to let Stan tell his story a little bit, for balance’s sake.”

The excerpt below follows on directly from that section, with Kirby offering his version of events. Which is, as Kirby (or rather, the version of Kirby written by Scioli) sees it, is very simple: “I saved Marvel’s ass.”

Jack Kirby recounts his role in creating Spider-Man and the X-Men in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

The battle for Kirby’s legacy

This isn’t a story with a happy ending – at least not within Kirby’s own lifetime. Because he’d created the Marvel characters under a work-for-hire arrangement, he had no ownership over these wildly successful characters: no right to a creator credit, or the compensation that would come with it. This was upheld by a New York court in 2011, long after Kirby’s death, just as his creations were on their way to becoming the biggest force in cinema.

Things finally changed in 2014, when the Kirby estate – his surviving family – settled out of court with Marvel, which by then had been bought by Disney. “That was hard fought,” says Scioli. “That almost went to the Supreme Court. It only got settled because it was about to go to the Supreme Court, which would have possibly changed intellectual property laws for everybody. And Disney, of course, did not want that.”

Jack Kirby recounts his role in creating Nick Fury, Daredevil, and the Avengers, as well as his difficulty finding time to spend with his family while he worked, and lack of credit and compensation from his publisher, in Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, Penguin Random House (2020). Image: Tom Scioli/Penguin Random House

Whatever the motives, the arrangement finally recognised Kirby as a co-author of these works. While the exact details have never been revealed publicly, Kirby’s name returned to Marvel’s comics shortly afterwards, naming him as a co-creator, and he was officially recognised by the film side of the business.

“Now, from what I understand, everybody’s happy. He’s getting credit in the movies, they’re getting some sort of financial participation, which is great because prior to that, it was zero,” says Scioli. “That’s the happy ending – and when I started working on this, it hadn’t happened yet. If that hadn’t happened, the ending of the book would have been very different. It would have been kind of a bummer.”


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