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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro

Finally got around to reading Ronin Ro's 300-page biography of Jack Kirby, TALES TO ASTONISH. Had mixed feelings about it, but overall I'd say it does an alright job of gathering information from a variety of sources, putting it in order and presenting a biography of Kirby good for an audience slightly familiar with the story. There's not a lot of new information for those already familiar with the background, although it is useful to have it all laid out between two covers as opposed to through several dozen magazines and books. There's also probably not enough background for a reader not already at least casually aware of Kirby's history and significance. Worth the price of the upcoming paperback edition.

If you do read the book, I'd suggest checking out Mark Evanier's impression of the book before and after and take his suggestions into account.

The book begins with a brief look at Kirby's childhood, runs through his early life and professional career rather quickly for my liking (we already meet Joe Simon by page six) and then follows the S&K team through the years. A few interesting anecdotes, some that I don't recall hearing before. The late 1950s DC period, with CHALLENGERS and SKY MASTERS and some lawsuits, goes by rather quickly in under a dozen pages, which seems to give it short shrift compared to its importance in the grand scheme.

That brings us to Silver Age Marvel, obviously the heart of the book, which is familiar to most fans. Some parts of the narrative seem wrong there, with the chronology sometimes not seeming to match reality, a few obvious errors (perhaps attributed to Kirby sometimes mixing things up, as Evanier mentions), and some key events I know of from other interviews being missing. This bit overall was quite a bit less than it could have been.

The move to DC and later return to Marvel, then the shift to animation, make up the next part of the book, and again some of the order of events presented in here don't quite seem right (although I haven't gone to check the actual dates). Also in some cases events are definitely presented out of order and there are some odd contradictions in the text, in particular regarding the sales of some books (probably as a result of taking two separate sources at their word).

The next part of the book deals largely with the art return issue from the 1980s, a rough period, and Kirby's somewhat bitter, perhaps regrettable but often fascinating COMICS JOURNAL interview, leading up to the end of his life. The book also spends I think way too much time around there discussing the comic book market of the 1990s (things like Image Comics, the 2099 line, the unpublished Excelsior line, Marvel's business woes), stuff mostly irrelevant to Kirby as a whole and distracting around the point that the book should have been summing up his career.

While the whole thing is obviously a pop biography rather than a scholarly one, it would also have been nice to see some sort of foot-notes about where some of the quotes come from. I recognize some of them, and the context does not make it clear if the version of some events comes from Jack Kirby, Roz Kirby or some other participant. With some foot-notes that could be checked and the larger context of the quotes could be researched. An index might have been nice, too.

A few things. Other than the covers (which feature parts of a 1972 Kirby drawing) the book has no artwork or photos. That's fine by me, since I have more than enough sources of Kirby art and photos, but seems to be an odd choice for a pop biography of a comic book artist. Not sure if this was a rights thing or a budget thing or something else, but figured I should mention that.

And getting Joe Shuster's name wrong, as this book does about a dozen times, is really grating. That's the comic history book equivalent of nails on a chalkboard to me.

And this is more a comment on the publisher, but I found it funny that the backcover blurb is based on the resurrection of Captain America and then teases with the dramatic turning point of the creation of... Daredevil? A trivial character in general and doubly trivial in Kirby's career (never penciling a full issue, just a handful of covers, having the costume he may have had a hand in designing almost completely changed a few issues in), but I guess it was the most recent Marvel movie when the book was being laid out and they thought they should cash in on some of that Daredevil mojo.

Anyway, as I said, mild recommendation to check out, see if your local library has a copy before buying it. The hardcover of the book is still available while the softcover should be out this summer.

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