photo & text by nacrowe
its interesting, the life narrative of legendary COMIC BOOK artist JACK KIRBY is not all that dissimilar from early BLUES and ROCK N ROLL musicians: that being the story of EXPLOITATION. in KIRBY you have an artists who basically created the vocabulary of modern COMICS and was shafted every step of the way by those (i.e. DC and especially MARVEL) who profited mightily from his talent and labor. it is almost tragic in a sense that he wasn't worthy of respect by his employers, before you stop to consider that he is probably the most beloved figure in the history of COMICS. more so than even his former collaborator STAN LEE.
the documentary JACK KIRBY: STORY TELLER (SPARKHILL, 2007) really gets at the man behind the pencil, as lovingly recounted by his family, assistants, close friends and admirers. what emerges is a touching portrait of a scrappy son of ORTHODOX JEWISH immigrants from AUSTRIA who used his untrained talent to claw himself out of both the GREAT DEPRESSION and a life barely above subsistence in LOWER EAST SIDE tenement housing that he was hellishly raised in. the man had drive and a work ethic bar none. during his peak in the 1960s he would often work 14 hours a day. every day. weekends. holidays. the man did not quit and was determined not to have his growing family have to suffer the difficulties he did in his youth. it was also the ethic that made him susceptible to taking on bad contracts and being paid below his worth.
and just so we are clear, his worth was immeasurable not only to MARVEL but to COMICS as an industry.
its not a happy story outside of the fact that he was able to meek out a living and had a close, loving family. and the respect of not only writer and artists who came after him, but interestingly as the film points out, those also who came before. the film recounts how he was generous to a fault, giving away quick drawings to fans and admirers alike. MARVEL was not the same way. KIRBY worked until his passing in 1994 and was never allowed access to his original drawings from MARVEL, who have gone on to franchise his creations into movies as well as license such in countless merchandising efforts.
but that is CAPITALISM i suppose. all's fair in LOVE, WAR and COMICS. the dude deserved better and at least there is some hope in the fact that in the 1990s through IMAGE COMICS the industry was permanently shifted. much like those players that played before collective bargaining was established in BASEBALL, KIRBY was not able to benefit from such progress, but at least he lived to witness such change.