Ronin Ro’s recently published Tales to Astonish (Bloomsbury Books, available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com) chronicles the publishing life of the most important artist in the history of super-hero comic books, Jacob Kurtzberg… A.K.A. Jack Kirby. The book starts with Kirby’s brief career in animation in the 1930s and ends after both Kirby’s death in 1994 and the death of Kirby’s wife Roz in 1997. Ronin Ro (a self-proclaimed pseudonym inspired by Kirby) writes in an uncomplicated, concise style that keeps the reader absorbed in the narrative. The most fascinating parts of the book are the “behind the scenes” accounts of creator disputes, editorial interference and unfulfilled publisher promises. Kirby’s reasons for leaving Marvel Comics in 1970 and for returning to the company in 1975 are well detailed here. Also of interest are Kirby’s World War II infantry exploits during which he almost lost his legs due to frostbite.
The book stresses one fact of Kirby’s life: he worked at the drawing table practically every day of the year around the clock, except to sleep: “For fifty years, Jack Kirby drew more pages than any other comic book artist” (p. 287). Nowadays, comic book artists are considered “fast” if they can produce a full page a day, one book a month on schedule. In his mid-50s during the early 1970s, Kirby penciled three pages a day, three books a month. From this, Ro astutely points out the irony of Kirby’s working life: in the mid-1930s, Kirby left Max Fleischer’s animation studio because “it struck him as being too much like his father’s job in a factory” (p.3), but then for the next five decades Kirby chained himself to his drawing board “drawing other people’s stories” (p. 195), not getting the credit due him or the monetary compensation promised him until the end of his life.
Ro details Kirby’s legacy and places him at the top of the mountain of creators who have left a permanent impact on the comic book medium. Ro writes, “Jack’s influence in comics is inescapable” (p. 289), but Ro’s depiction of Kirby isn’t completely glorifying. Kirby is presented as an artist who can impart grandiose ideas and awesome visuals but who also provided defective, sometimes laughable, dialogue to his characters, particularly when he edited his own books in the 1970s. Tales to Astonish also doesn’t try to present Kirby as the sole creator of the Fantastic Four or Iron Man or Hulk or Silver Surfer or the Avengers or the X-Men. Ro stresses Lee and Kirby’s collaborative process, and the precise starting point of any of these characters or comic books is uncertain (and probably forever will be considering the conflicting testimonies from a wide range of sources). Ro recognizes that no one person deserves sole credit for the creation of these characters. As such, his treatment of Kirby is simultaneously mature and reverential.
This is a book most comic book fans should enjoy reading and find informative. However, by the time Tales to Astonish tackles Marvel Comics’ Silver Age emergence, several problems of the book have become apparent. The most glaring and vexing of deficiencies is that the book contains none of Kirby’s art (with the exception of the two figures gracing the dust jacket) and no photographs. It’s an absence the reader can’t help but notice because as the book attempts to describe Kirby’s style and aesthetics, there are no accompanying images to demonstrate them. I’m going to give Bloomsbury Publishing the benefit of the doubt and assume it wasn’t allowed to reproduce artwork. The Kirby estate, Marvel Comics and DC Comics may have made reproduction fees for Kirby’s artwork ridiculously expensive. Possibly, Mark Evanier, long time friend of Kirby and author of a forthcoming Kirby biography, has secured exclusive rights to the art and photos.
This though leads to the second problem of the book: an over-reliance on Evanier as a source of information. Because Evanier knew Kirby so intimately since the late-1960s, any biographer of Kirby must access his vast knowledge and personal experiences. But it’s only when Ro accesses Evanier does Tales to Astonish comprehensively specify Kirby’s feelings, reactions and machinations to particular events. Before dealing with Kirby during the 1970s, Tales to Astonish is relatively brief and light on specific details. For instance, the book devotes seven pages to describe the creation of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, Spider-man, and Iron Man. Committing seven pages to describe the super-hero comic book renaissance is not in the least bit adequate, but Ro has little choice but to be brief because he uses so few sources from that era.
Other aspects of Tales to Astonish indicate the book was rushed to press without careful proofreading, editing and fact-checking. Never mind the occasional split infinitive and unnecessary wording that disrupts sentence structure, the book is riddled with unclear statements that will madden any careful reader for its lack of specificity. Here’s one: “In The Fantastic Four No. 76, Jack wanted to introduce a new muscle-bound orange-skinned blond guy who resembled a recent villain on Star Trek… At his board, he drew a story about well-meaning scientists creating a self-sufficient, intellectual being” (p.119). It’s interesting to learn that, on at least this one occasion, Kirby used Star Trek as source material for a character he created. One would have liked to know though EXACTLY which Star Trek villain Kirby was trying to make his character resemble. Perhaps Kirby was inspired by the genetically engineered Khan Noonien Singh (portrayed by Ricardo Montalban) in the classic first season “Space Seed” episode. However, Khan had neither orange skin nor blond hair. Also, Fantastic Four No. 76 has a cover date of July 1968, but Khan appeared in Star Trek’s February 16, 1967 episode, which in my book doesn’t make him a “recent villain” for Kirby to refer to. Therefore, because Ro’s statement is too vague I’m at a loss at what Star Trek villain could have caught Kirby’s attention. Here’s a more aggravating pronouncement: “[Neal] Adams and [Roy] Thomas wowed readers with their first issue, May 1969’s X-Men No. 56, but after eleven or twelve issues, Goodman canceled the book” (p. 132). Okay, did X-Men last eleven issues or twelve issues after the Adams/Thomas debut? It’s either one or the other; it clearly can’t be both. This is infuriating because it demonstrates that Ro isn’t willing to spend five minutes to do a Google search and learn that X-Men, Volume 1 contained original material until issue No. 66, after which it reprinted earlier X-Men issues. So ELEVEN issues FROM the debut of Adams and Thomas’s first issue, Marvel’s publisher canceled X-Men.
These vague statements are so distracting that they pull us out of the reading experience. We find ourselves scouring our comic book collection and the internet in order to fill in Ro’s informational potholes. In other words, in too many instances, Tales to Astonish is a carelessly written text.
The full title of Ro’s book is Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution. This is both a misleading title and an unfair one. Ro does devote some space to describe Lee’s starting point in the comic book industry and his accomplishments as separated from Kirby. However, the book is clearly a biography of Kirby, not Kirby AND Lee. I understand why Bloomsbury Publishing would want to include Lee’s name in the title for marketing purposes, but its inclusion misleads buyers and is disrespectful, considering how Kirby felt Lee hogged the spotlight and took a disproportionate amount of credit for their collaborate work during the 1960s. Or, to pursue the matter differently, why wasn’t Steve Ditko’s name thrown into the title since he rece
ives just as much attention from Ro as Lee does?
Despite my complaints, believe it or not, I enjoyed reading Tales to Astonish. Once I started it, I was hooked. The history of comic book publishing is always fascinating to read, and this book attends to important comic book publishing history, like the origin of the Marvel Universe, the creation of Darkseid and the New Gods, and the feud between Kirby and Jim Shooter (and Marvel’s lawyers) over possession of his original artwork during the 1980s. Again though, for every compliment I can make of this book, I have a complaint. Here’s my final one: Tales to Astonish presents us with pieces of Jack’s personality (his accessibility to his fans, his creative spontaneity, his absent-mindedness, his devotion to his wife Roz), but it doesn’t exhibit a complete portrait of a Man, only of an Artist. It expounds, I conclude, on “King Kirby” but not on “human Jack.” After finishing this book, I don’t feel I understand Kirby as a person. I certainly appreciate him for his tremendous accomplishments, what he had to endure during his career, and his role in comic book history, but I’ll have to wait for Evanier’s biography for a full description of Kirby as a person.