All this week we’ll celebrate the life and influence of comics legend Jack Kirby, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 28. Watch for more interviews and posts as the week continues.
Tom Scioli has established a reputation as an artist who is working in what many have described as the Kirby tradition. In work like The Myth of 8-Opus, American Barbarian, Gødland and The Transformers vs G.I. Joe, Scioli has demonstrated the clear influence of Jack Kirby on his work, but Scioli isn’t an imitator. Kirby’s sensibility and style is one of Scioli’s biggest influences, but he’s carving his own path and crafting a style that is recognizably his own from that. This month he’s been posting comics and drawings about Kirby on his Twitter feed to mark the centennial, and he spent a few minutes to talk about Kirby’s work.
What was your first exposure to Jack Kirby?
My first exposure to Kirby was Saturday morning cartoons, though I didn’t know the name Jack Kirby. Thundarr the Barbarian had character and background designs by Jack Kirby. That style just stuck with me. I remember recognizing that style without really having a name for it. I remember there were some Super Friends episodes that he worked on, and there were these little flourishes, and I remember those registering. It was this way of drawing or a worldview that was alien, exciting, scary.
I’m not sure which Kirby comic came first for me, but I think there was a Thor Oversized Treasury edition with the story of Mangog and how Ragnarok almost happened. Around the same time I read the Captain America issue inked by Dan Adkins that had a white cover with Captain America in the center and he’s surrounded by this international rogues gallery of villains. There’s a Mussolini stand-in, and the Red Skull is there, and there’s a Stalin-esque character. This international rogues gallery of war criminals who are living in exile on the island with the Red Skull, and they’ve lured Captain America into this trap.
As you were growing up and developing your own style, what about that approach resonated?
There’s an alien element to it. It looked like it was from another planet. These stories were science fiction stories to one degree or another, but that world looked just looked different. It was unfamiliar but somewhat familiar. It was a very visually defined fantasy world that invited further exploration. It was this world full of visual delights and mysteries. The backgrounds would have all these strange characters that might only exist for one panel that all looked like they had a story of their own. Just the richness and vitality of it.
We associate Kirby with those complicated-looking characters, but then he would also create these characters that were incredibly simple. The Silver Surfer is probably the furthest he pushed it, where it’s just an open figure drawing with almost no features; just this friction-less surface. Kirby mastered both things, incredible simplicity and incredible complexity. Every artist’s version of simplicity or elegance has a lot in common with each other. Every artist’s version of complexity or ugliness or intricacy is very specific to each artist. When Kirby got funky, he was funkier than anyone.
For you what are the big differences between his 1960s Marvel work and his 1970s DC work?
The ’60s Marvel stuff is the reason why Kirby is this pop culture phenomenon. The ’70s stuff that he did for DC I prefer. That’s my favorite of Kirby’s stuff. He built on what he did in the ’60s. In the ’60s, he was finding his voice. I say he was finding his voice 20-something years into his career. He’d had a lot of success prior to that, but he’s finding this new voice. Then in the ’70s, he was like, ‘Okay, now that I’ve figured out this way of making comics, I’m going to direct it towards subjects that interest me and try to create something thoughtful and something great out of it.’
He did some amazing, amazing things in the ’70s. The main differences are that the stories that he did in the ’70s seem to me more like real stories. As somebody who’s studied the elements of writing, they meet the criteria of what a story is and what a good story is a lot better than the ’60s work. The ’60s work would go on all these interesting tangents, but nothing really resolved itself. I’m speaking in generalizations. As I’m saying this, I’m thinking of counter examples. But with the New Gods stories, real things would happen. In every issue there would be momentous occurrences with real stakes and real consequences.
Of course because Kirby is an artist as well as a writer, in the ’70s Kirby started to shed some of the things that didn’t interest him and started to focus on the things that did. As he entered the ’70s you lost some of the things that tied these worlds to our everyday world. He just doubled down on the alien aspects of what he did and drew more and more for impact rather than photorealistic representation. If you look at some of those ’60s work that he did with Joe Sinnott, like Fantastic Four, they reached a point where it’s just panel after panel of these beautifully rendered images packed with incidental detail and just really beautiful. In the ’70s there was less of that. The ’70s stuff read better, it flowed better. I felt the reality of those characters and situations more than I did with the ’60s Marvel stuff.
Do you have a favorite Kirby work?
My favorite issue is New Gods #7, “The Pact.” I wish Kirby made a hundred comics like that. You can tell that was him going all out on the pulp sci-fi fantasy that he grew up with and loved. It wasn’t until Star Wars came out that you saw something with that impact and imagination in a pop format. A close second would be Mister Miracle #9 which is called “Himon” and it’s similar to that. Set on these fantasy worlds of Apokolips and New Genesis, and Earth only exists as this far distant place that Scott Free is escaping to in the last couple panels. Other than that, you’re looking at something that’s a sci-fi fantasy epic, this whole new genre that was a blending of everything that was going through Kirby’s mind.
What are you doing for the centennial? Or are you spending it like Kirby would have, at the drawing table?
That’s pretty much every day for me. I’m doing a bunch of things for his centennial. The Saturday before I’m doing a talk about Kirby here in Pittsburgh, and I’m doing an appearance at a store. All of these things are in honor of Kirby’s 100th birthday. I’m doing some drawings for the Hero Initiative. There’s a bunch of things going on, but on the day itself, I think I will be doing exactly what you said, drawing comics. I’ve also been this past month doing short comics and drawings of Kirby that I’ve been posting on social media and my website. It’s his 100th. There’s not going to be another anniversary that’s quite as impactful so I put everything aside for a bit to celebrate someone who’s had that much of a direct impact on me.