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What I thought of Kirby: King of Comics

April 7, 2021

Art and entertainment offer many examples of great partnerships that produced iconic, touching, beautiful objects and moments that the individuals would never have get close to on their own. The proof can be seen once the partnership breaks down – nothing either party did before or does afterward reaches the heights they reached together. This is no disgrace – we’re talking about all-time great work that very few ever create. Chances are, what they create after is still very good, but it’s rarely magnificent or ground-breaking. Or rarely has the same magic.

Frequently, these partnerships are fraught with tension and resentment. The individuals don’t get on, or they were fine on the way up, but the tensions of success form fissures that eventually break them apart. Or the balance of power tips to one side or the other, and one or the other partner comes out better in terms of recognition, remuneration, respect, remembrance. There are dozens of examples: The Band, Lennon and McCartney, even Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

We’re foolish if, standing outside their creative partnership, we pick a side. As outsiders, we don’t really know who these people are, or how their working relationships functioned on on a daily basis. We might get a sense of who their values or demeanour through the things they create, from the interviews they give, from quotes that get passed down from magazine to newspaper to social media to conversation in the pub, but ultimately we’re guessing.

Which leads me to me say I have read both Excelsior, Stan Lee’s autobiography, and Mike Evansior’s Kirby: King of Comics, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. Both Lee and Kirby were America-born, Jewish New Yorkers, for whom there were finite opportunities within the WASP blue chip world. Both men began creating comics because they needed to earn money to support their family. They were scrappers, battlers. They found a love for the work, which carried through their adult years but, at first, they would have loved to do something grander, Lee especially, who used the pen name, Stan Lee, for comics in order to save his real name for the proper literature he one day wished to write.

Kirby made comics on his own, which weren’t well regarded by his publisher at the time, but which were revered in the long run. Lee’s dream of being a great literary author never came to pass – he needed others to make his stories real. Both Kirby and Lee had successful partnerships with other people – Lee with Steve Ditko on Spider-man, (after it was deemed not to work with Kirby) and Kirby with Joe Simon on Captain America, then with dozens of others after leaving Marvel. But the work they did together is the stuff that resonated with the wider world: Lee’s street-wise narrative, Kirby’s dynamic, rule-breaking graphics.

There is an argument about who did the work, who was the brains behind the operation, who was the genius that brought the magic, and about how, ultimately should get the credit. But it was never so simple. In Excelsior, Lee gives Kirby credit as co-creator. That should settle the argument. There’s no need for the rest of us to get involved.

Anyway, Kirby King of Comics is a beautiful book, a book that Kirby deserved, with great writing (the authors) and even better artwork, (Kirby’s). It’s a labour of love. Even the stitching holding the book together could grace a fine pair of lovingly hand-crafted leather shoes. But you get a sense from the text and Neil Gaiman’s intro that everyone was in awe of Kirby. They revered him, but they were always on ceremony, (I might have misread that subtext, but I don’t think so). Kirby didn’t have Lee’s avuncular charm, where people thought of him as a mate. That’s one of the reasons for the schism between them. Lee was happy to give the kids what they wanted, and part of what they wanted was to knock about with Stan Lee, by reading his writing or rope him in to their projects. My son and I watched the MCU movies one after another in the first lockdown, and we loved to spot Stan Lee as he made his brief cameo. He invariably took the mickey out himself. When I told him Lee had passed away, he suggested the guy was buried in an Iron Man costume.

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