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Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics

Tom Scioli presents this unofficial Jack Kirby biography in “first person.” The author’s note at the beginning states that the prose was adapted from sources such as interviews, where Kirby recounted events in his own words.

Jack’s parents were from Galacia, though Jack and his brother David were born and raised in the Bronx, New York City. Jack’s childhood was rife with childhood gangs, Sunday and pulp comics, and his mother’s stories. As he grew up, he took odd jobs before breaking into an artistic career by drawing the in-between shots in animation. Eventually he started drawing comics. The biography details his career, first drawing comic strips, then superhero comics for both Marvel and DC, including his creation or co-creation of many, many characters we know and love today. We also see his personal life, from getting married, to time served in World War II, to his many, many collaborations with other creators, to his children being born and his parents and brother passing away, and how they all eventually made their way into his work – art imitating life.

The “first person” literary device was extremely effective. Though Kirby is gone, through this graphic novel, “written” in his own words and with his own distinctive voice, he lives again. The intimacy and immediacy of the narrative would have been lost without it. There are some passages that are in what I believe to be German and Hebrew, which only add to this effect. Though no translation is provided, you can get the gist of what’s being said from context =) There are some instances where different characters “speak” in the same style, but their exposition boxes are in different colors to indicate the shift.

Not only was the “prose” in the characters’ own words, the art was in Kirby’s own style. There were plenty of examples of his work, in the style of the times. As the book went on, you could see it change and evolve. The touch that was most fun for me were the pencil smears. The exposition boxes, speech bubbles, filler space, and some illustrations all had pencil smears on them. It wasn’t overpowering – everything is still legible – but it added an earthy, tangible touch to the book: like you’re holding a precious original instead of a mass-produced item.

The element that was least effective for me, and took me out of the experience at times, was the character design for Kirby himself. Every other character had small eyes, sometimes mere lines and dots for pupils without the whites, which was common practice at the time. Jack Kirby had big, anime-esque eyes. I imagine this was a deliberate choice made to differentiate him from other characters, but it looked weird and out of place. In that vein, a “cast of characters” page and yearly (or decade) timestamps would have also been helpful for navigating a dense read with many people in it.

The end of the book has a meaty “Notes” section, a bibliography, and an index.

All in all, this was an enlightening and endearing look at one of the most influential people in the comics industry. I learned a lot, and it was a real treat to get an “insider look” on how Kirby worked, and how his work was influenced by his eventful life. The “first person” prose is what makes this biography so special. Coupled with the resources at the back, I could easily see high school students using this graphic novel for a biographical project. Recommended for anyone who wants to see how comics were made.

– Kathleen

Scioli, Tom. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. 2020.

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers: Edmonia Lewis

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers is a graphic novel series, newly published in September 2020, that focuses on highlighting historical figures of different colors, races, gender, and sexual orientation. The first volume is about Edmonia Lewis. She was a Black/Native American sculptor who lived and worked from 1844 – 1907. Throughout her childhood, she created Native American wares (baskets, moccasins, and the like) with her aunts. She was educated at the abolitionist Oberlin College, which was radical for the time. A scandal at Oberlin caused her to move to Boston and seek out a sculpting tutor. After a few months, she opened her own studio and was successful in selling marble busts of abolitionist figures. In order to better connect her work with fine art, Edmonia moved to Rome in 1866. She spent most of her remaining life there, working and creating, until her death in London in 1907.

While a small, short graphic novel, it is positively packed with information. The writing is straightforward and matter-of-fact, with little embellishment or fuss. But Edmonia Lewis’ story was so fascinating that it doesn’t feel dry at all! This series is obviously made for the classroom: there are definitions sprinkled throughout for words students might not be familiar with, a reference list, and a teaching guide for grades 6-10 at the end.

My only complaint about the presentation is that the book is much smaller than I expected. The small size, of course, makes for small font. For how text-heavy this graphic novel is, it could have been bigger to more easily accommodate bigger text. Younger students and those needing special accommodations for poor eyesight will struggle with it.

Also journalistic in presentation was the art. Precise line and color work made for not only a clean foundation for all the text, but more accurate depictions of Edmonia and her artwork. As far as I could tell, the illustrations of her sculptures were very true to life – er, well, marble!

I highly enjoyed this first in a new series, and learning about their flagship heroine: sculptor Edmonia Lewis. She was an inspiring figure in both life and work. I imagine students will enjoy it as well, even if they are made to read it for school 😉 Highly recommended and can’t wait to see what other figures they highlight.

– Kathleen

Walls, Jasmine, Bex Glendining, and Kieran Quigley. Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers: Edmonia Lewis. 2020.

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television

You most likely recognize Rod Serling as the host of the popular TV show, “The Twilight Zone.” That’s what he’s most known for, but he had a long and varied career in radio and television well before “The Twilight Zone!” After his service in World War II as a paratrooper, he used his G.I. benefits to go to Antioch College. He discovered his love of radio during his work/study internship at WNYC in New York City, and became the manager of Antioch’s radio station, ABS, in 1948. It was here that he tried his hand at writing anthology shows – and his skits got him noticed. Navigating through fame, fortune, a grueling work schedule, and a marriage, he spoke out against commercialism and censorship in the radio and television industry. He protested executives changing scripts he wrote based on the war, the Emmett Till case, and more. It wasn’t until he penned the first script for “The Twilight Zone”, a science-fiction story containing all the elements he had previously been censored for, that he found an audience willing to listen.

Koren Shadmi writes as if Rod is telling us his own life story. Quotes pulled from Rod’s scripts, shows, and interviews make for an immersive experience. Though he died at 50 from heart problems, it feels as if Rod is speaking to us himself.

As a biography, it’s very straightforward reading. The book is broken down into chapters covering a different era of Rod’s life. The panel layout is clean and clear. The art is all in black and white, like the television of his era, with a deep purple/blue used as an accent color.

I learned a lot by reading this graphic novel biography. “The Twilight Zone” was a product of a man who lived through World War II – one of the most horrific and tragic events of mankind. Through the shows he wrote, we were able to process and heal from this event (and many others, as the show is still very popular today) through that one ubiquitous and timeless method that we humans know: storytelling.

Kathleen

Shadmi, Koren. The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television. 2019.

The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman

Everyone knows Superman. Big guy, born on the planet Krypton but raised in Smallville, Kansas. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Fights for the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way. What you might not know is the fascinating story of how the idea of Superman was born.

Joe Shuster is a quiet kid growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. He likes to read comic books: the pulps, adventure stories, and detective mysteries, but the science fiction stories are his favorite. He dreams of becoming an illustrator some day, because of his talent for drawing. Through a cousin, he is introduced to Jerry Siegel, a writer with the same passion for comics. Together, they prove an indomitable team of not only creators, but friends.

When they came up with the character they called “Superman,” it was already after a series of successful and unsuccessful publications together, but they knew they were onto something big. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it as big as they thought. Through a string of corporate manipulations, Jerry and Joe were coerced into selling the rights to Superman. These two boys had basically built the superhero comic industry, and they were getting nothing for it. Joe was just content to get a paycheck and provide for his family, but Jerry was ready to fight for more. What’s more important? Staying silent and getting by, or raising hell and demanding change?

Though the book does center more on Joe, Jerry’s story is so entwined with his that it’s almost a dual biography. And though I knew their names, I had no idea how much Jerry and Joe had gone through to get Superman, the first and now arguably the world’s most popular superhero, published. At the time, between the World Wars and during WWII, there were biases and discrimination against Jewish people, which is partially why it was so hard for them to sell their work. Ultimately it was why it was so easy for publishers to manipulate them. Their story is heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful… like someone else we know, huh? 😉

The art is wonderful. It’s soft, more painterly than graphic, with very little of the hard lines and shading that we’re used to from superhero comics. The warm palette it’s rendered in evokes the nostalgia associated with the time period and the wonder of two teenagers deep in the creative process.

The best thing about the book is, it’s meticulously researched. There is a bibliography at the end for further reading, and a comprehensive notes section. I found the story so fascinating that I read through the notes! I am planning to check out a few of the materials listed in the biography, so I can learn more about Jerry and Joe’s story. This is essential reading for all Superman fans, but anyone interested in the history of the comic publishing industry will love it too.

– Kathleen

Voloj, Julian, and Thomas Gampi. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman. 2018.

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