Talking Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics with Visionary Comic Book Creator Tom Scioli

Visionary comic book creator Tom Scioli discusses his new work, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, set to be released July 14, 2020 from Ten Speed Press.

Tom Scioli won a Xeric Grant in 1999 for his creator-owned comic book series, The Myth of 8-Opus, and gained further prominence as co-creator (with Joe Casey) of the Eisner-award nominated comic book series Gødland (2005-2012) published by Image Comics.  More recently, Scioli wrote and drew a five issue Go-Bots mini-series (2018) published by IDW Comics, as well as his (very awesome) “Super Powers” (2017) back-up feature for DC Comics' Young Animal imprint.  Scioli also drew and co-scripted (with IDW editor-in-chief John Barber) the critically acclaimed Transformers vs. G.I. JOE maxi-series (2014-2016) published by IDW.  In 2020 he wrote and drew Fantastic Four: Grand Design, published by Marvel Comics.

Jeffery Klaehn: How might you elevator pitch Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics to audiences, especially new readers who may not yet be familiar with Jack Kirby or your own comics work?

Tom Scioli: Everybody’s knows Marvel, everybody knows Stan Lee, but there’s another guy who is at least as important in the creation of the Marvel Universe. Jack Kirby has been a big part of comics history from the very beginning and is a real life hero in his own right. If you’ve never heard of Jack Kirby, or just know the name and not much more, prepare to get your mind blown.

JK: Please take us behind the scenes on how the project materialized, from the initial idea to the completed work.

Tom Scioli: I’ve always wanted to read the story of Kirby’s life in comics form. I always had it in my back pocket as a possible thing to work on. I figured somebody else would do it eventually. Frank Miller, Erik Larsen, Steve Rude, somebody like that, a Kirby superfan from the previous generation of creators. As Jack Kirby’s 100th anniversary approached I thought, maybe it’s time, and maybe it’s on me to do it. That’s the formula, what would I like to read, and if it doesn’t exist, make that.

JK: In what ways has it been a labor of love project for you, personally?

Tom Scioli: In every way. I’ve studied Kirby’s life story and his work for most of my life. It’s a story I know pretty well backwards and forwards. The ability to really dive in on a whole other level was great. In a way, working on this book, it felt like I was living his life.

JK: Can you guesstimate how many hours you’ve spent working on it, in total?

Tom Scioli: A lifetime. All those years of studying Kirby’s life are all part of the equation. Having an understanding of the full span of the story was a necessary ingredient. I can’t imagine if I just had to go into this cold. The active time of writing and drawing it has been something like 4 years maybe?

JK: What aspects of the work were the most fun for you and what did you perhaps find challenging?

Tom Scioli: The scenes with Jack and Stan were the most fun. I think those are the parts people will be most curious about. I don’t know what it is exactly, but we really want to see them together. We want to see what their relationship was like, and this book goes deep on that.

The hardest part was finding new ways to make a guy at a drawing table visually interesting. As the story goes on, more and more of his life is spent at the drawing board. It was a challenge finding ways to vary it. I think I was successful in that regard. It was kind of head spinning, being at a drawing table, drawing an artist at a drawing table.

JK: How much research was involved? 

Tom Scioli: There was the casual research that I’d been engaged in for life. Once I fully committed to this project, I went all in. Just immersing myself in the research. Tons of fact checking. I’d lay out the story to the best of my recollection, but then I’d go back and double check and see where that bit of information originated from. Very different from the escapist fare I usually do in comics. There’s some similarity in the kind of research I’d have to do for Transformers vs G.I. JOE or Fantastic Four: Grand Design, but this is real people and their real lives. I can tweak the stories of the G.I. JOE team, but for Jack Kirby, I needed to make sure everything was spot on.

JK: Please tell me about Fantastic Four: Grand Design.  How did the project come about and what drew you to want to do it?

Tom Scioli: The editor, Chris Robinson, approached me about working on it. Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design was out and they were considering following it up with other creators on other books. They were tentatively considering it. Chris asked for a short pitch. After that, I didn’t hear anything for a long time, so I committed to Gobots. I thought the project was dead so I posted some of the art I’d done while brainstorming on Twitter. I don’t know if it was coincidence or what but shortly after I heard from Chris that the project was a go. As far as what made me want to do it? It was a dream project. This is Kirby’s signature comic, the beginning of the Marvel age. And I was being asked to rewrite it, to take all the bits and pieces and tell a big overarching story from it. And to do it with minimal editorial interference. I was asked to be me and do my thing with it. As a fan, it was a chance to create something I always wanted to read. Kirby’s Fantastic Four had such a feeling of being this big epic, with a growing cast of thousands that was building toward a smash bang conclusion. The realities of the comics industry and Kirby’s own career trajectory didn’t allow that. Instead, Stan and Jack’s run fizzles toward the end. Then Jack leaves and Stan continues on and it really feels like the dream is over. As a fan I wanted an ending, where all the little subplots come together in a powerful and surprising way. Fantastic Four: Grand Design was my opportunity to give the story of the Fantastic Four and their expanding cast an ending and a sense of completeness. Like Frank Miller did with Batman with his bookends of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman “Year One.” That was the big incentive. That was the opportunity.

JK: For audiences who have yet to experience it, how would you characterize Fantastic Four: Grand Design, and how do you see this work dovetailing with Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics?   

Tom Scioli: I was working on the two projects simultaneously so I see them as companion pieces. Both involved close study of Kirby’s work and trying to step into his shoes to some degree. It all happened accidentally, but it was a perfect segue.

JK: Please tell me about how you approached Fantastic Four: Grand Design and also Transformers vs G.I. JOE.  How did your art and art style fit within your approach to design, action, composition and page layouts? Your work with both projects is endlessly bold and creative. Each panel of Transformers vs G.I. JOE has intense energy.  There’s an almost kinetic creative energy and joy in the work.  Fantastic Four: Grand Design is very different in terms of design, yet brings that same degree of relentless creativity and joy, exuding that same passion for content and form.

Tom Scioli: Transformers vs G.I. JOE was the beginning of a new phase of my work. I was all in and writing and drawing as if my life depended on it. I wrote and drew and rewrote and redrew in an almost compulsive manner. As a result, every page is its own universe. The panels are packed with characters and struggles and life and death. I was trying to tell as much story in as few panels as possible.

Fantastic Four: Grand Design was a few years and a few projects removed from Transformers vs G.I. JOE so I approached it a little differently. I wanted to make something that read very linearly. I was trying for something like a page of newspaper comics. I was doing my thing with it, but it wasn’t a purely original story like Transformers vs G.I. JOE. Fantastic Four: Grand Design was first and foremost an adaptation. I was building on a very solid structure. It was almost like an accelerated version of my Transformers vs G.I. JOE process. It’s a much shorter work, and I have a lot of ground to cover. I was innovating, but almost in the opposite way from Transformers vs G.I. JOE. Instead of trying to make as few panels as possible, and as many splashes as possible, Fantastic Four: Grand Design has more panels per page than any comic I’ve ever done. It has no splash pages. But when you get to a panel that takes up half the page, it feels like a double page splash. I was going for a different reading rhythm with it. At first I thought of using a 4x4 grid, because it’s the fantastic FOUR, but that wasn’t enough panels for me to cover all the ground I needed to cover. I went with a 5x5 grid which is almost unheard of in superhero comics. I was able to hit almost every bullet point I wanted to hit.

JK: Were there any aspects of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics that were revelatory for you, Tom?

Tom Scioli: Looking at his story in more or less chronological order was really interesting. That’s where I realized Blue Beetle was the first superhero Jack worked on. I knew before then he worked on Blue Beetle and that it was pretty early, but I didn’t realize it was the VERY first superhero on his drawing board. The big thing is getting a very concrete reckoning of how prolific he was. We know Jack did a lot of pages of comics, and that he created or co-created a lot of characters, but when you’re drawing page after page of creation, I was just gobsmacked by the never ending parade of major pop culture characters he created.

JK: What about the work are you most proud of?

Tom Scioli: I really like the epilogue, where I show Kirby’s legacy. I think it puts all of it in perspective. By the time you get to that point, it’s been a real journey, this dam-breaking accumulation of a life’s work and how it changed the world.

JK: Imagine you’re giving a talk to an audience unfamiliar with Jack Kirby, and that your aim is to communicate three essential points on how Kirby has influenced both comics and pop culture.  You begin, noting that …

Tom Scioli: Have you heard of Marvel? Jack Kirby’s responsible for at least half of it. That’s really all you need to say. His Marvel work changed everything. Comics, cinema, gaming. The fingerprints are everywhere. He had bestselling comics in the 1940s with Captain America and The Boy Commandos (one of the bestselling comics during World War II). He fought Nazis in France during World War II. He helped create the Romance comics genre in the 50s. He co-created most of the Marvel characters in the 60s. He broke out on his own, refusing to work with a co-writer for the remainder of his career (with a few exceptions) and in the 70s created the New Gods and Mister Miracle [at DC Comics], then went back to Marvel and created The Eternals (soon to be a major motion picture). He helped pioneer independent comics with Captain Victory. He had a whole other career in animation. This was all one guy.

JK: How do you view Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics within the context of your own career? What does the work mean for you and how excited are you to share it with audiences?

Tom Scioli: It’s a culmination. I’m at a little bit of a loss as to what to do next. This is a comic book about the greatest influence in my life and career. This is the apex. Hopefully I’ll find something equally good to follow it up with, but personally it feels like the top of Everest. I can’t wait for people to read it. I want the world to know about Jack Kirby and really understand what he did. I think once people know his story, we’re going to have a whole new wave of Kirby appreciation.

JK: The book will be available in hardcopy and digitally on July 14, 2020?

Tom Scioli: That’s right!

JK: I really like that name, Ten Speed Press, by the way …

Tom Scioli: It is a pretty great name. It’s a great company, great people. I’m really amazed at the job they’ve done from start to finish. They’re really enthusiastic and energetic about this project and getting the word out.

JK: Last question. Why create this work as a comic, Tom?  And why is the medium important in relation to the story and stories within the overarching narrative that you’ve set out to tell in this work?

Tom Scioli: The comic part is so important. It’s Jack Kirby’s life in the form he worked in the form he helped pioneer. I did the artwork in pencil, it’s not inked. Kirby lived through his pencil. Everything just fits together so nicely. My personal journey and Kirby’s really coalesced in this project. If I put it out in monthly installments, that’s the only way it could more closely mirror his production process.

Author Biographical Summary

Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Amsterdam and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Strathclyde.  His interests include pop culture, music, storytelling, comics and graphic novels, digital games, game design, and interactive fiction.