By Ronin Ro
Bloomsbury 2004

Tales to Astonish CoverJack Kirby is fundamental to American comic books the way Edgar Allen Poe is to the American short story. Both shaped a nascent medium in ways that go straight to the heart of the sub-genres they each specialized in. Poe's was horror and mystery fiction, and Kirby's is the mythology and the visual power of the superhero adventure. Each man produced large amounts of material in other areas than the ones for which they are most famous, but fame has a way of narrowing a life to a single category in the popular consciousness. In Tales to Astonish, Ronin Ro tries to give a fuller picture of Kirby's career, and insights into his personal life, which seems to have rarely strayed far from the demands of his drawing board. Churning out 15 pages a week is considered superhuman in the world of the superhero comics, but Kirby kept to a regime like that for decades, working late hours and sleeping until noon, ultimately producing an estimated 25,000 pages in his lifetime.

Ro uses access to the Kirby family and his friends to provide details that would not be possible from a general comic book history. Besides this, there are also extracts from published interviews (from the Kirby Collector magazine) with both Kirby and a number of his contemporary's. The book also covers, in a less detailed way, the story of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the development of Timely Comics into Marvel Comics, and the business acumen of owner Martin Goodman. Goodman comes across as a man who trusted Kirby's and Stan Lee's instincts for saleable comics, but also used what seems like a combination of legal moves and personal caprice to withhold credit and the actual physical possession of Kirby's art pages from the man who drew and often wrote them. In the battle to outmaneuver Kirby from making any copyright claims on the characters that made Marvel successful (which Kirby apparently did not seriously entertain doing), the story spans decades of obfuscations and personal tensions between the principals, the most written about here being between Kirby and Lee.

The question of who invented what character, and what stories and plots were developed by whom are handled in a back-and-forth series of claims and counter claims. Ro uses simple logic and third-party recollections and the viewing of copies of Kirby's rough pencil pages to draw conclusions about who did what, despite in many cases both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby each claiming individual responsibility for the same characters and stories. The stakes on those characters (or "properties") became the question of millions of dollars in licensing as Marvel grew in the 1960s, dwarfing issues about the actual sales on the comic books themselves. Ro shows that only late in life did Kirby see any success in combating the Goodman/Marvel Comics effort to rewrite it's history and in effect delete Kirby. Ro also chronicles the "cause" that Kirby became which garnered the support of a long list of notables in the world of comic books, which seems to have played a significant role in forcing Marvel to return a small percentage of the actual art pages they had in their possession, with the majority unaccounted for and considered stolen or lost. Also chronicled are Kirby's years at DC Comics and the mixed fortunes of both Kirby and the company itself in those years of declining newsstand sales and major changes in management.

I found this book quite readable and interesting, however it has a lack of clear organization, and contains several fudged dates and typos. Stories repeat and in some instances anecdotes do not clearly pertain to the topic under discussion. While this annoying and gives me a feeling of the book not having been edited adequately, it is also the major issue which reduces the book from history to that of a kind-of memoir with foggy accuracy and explicitly contradictory stories. Ironically, the book lacks a visual history of Kirby's career as there is not a photograph or illustration throughout the entire book. Also lacking is a bibliography or a single footnote for sources.

The book is available from HERE.

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