In 1940, Timely Comics' first issue of Captain America hit the newsstands; Jack Kirby's cover featured the title character (whom Kirby co-created with Joe Simon) clocking Adolf Hitler squarely on the jaw, paying no mind to the bullets headed his way. Kirby never got that close to the Fuhrer himself, but Ronin Ro's new biography Tales To Astonish leaves little doubt that the scene would have looked much the same. Kirby's comics career was interrupted by the army, and he returned from WWII with stories of fighting the Nazis hand to hand, trading insults in the harsh words they knew of each other's language. Kirby probably never shouted "It's clobberin' time," but Ro's descriptions of him in the thick of intimate, chaotic combat makes it hard to see the melees of his Marvel Comics work in quite the same light.
Upon his return, Kirby continued his partnership with Simon through the late '50s. Later, Kirby found a new partner in Stan Lee, whom he'd first met in the '40s, when Lee was a young aspiring writer hanging around the Timely offices. Together, they co-created most of the Marvel universe, from the Fantastic Four through the Silver Surfer. Kirby brought the unmistakable art, while Lee supplied the inimitable dialogue. The stories and concepts, on the other hand, came from some gray area between the two, a fact that would become a source of trouble in the years to come.
Kirby had a habit of falling into gray areas. A singular talent in an industry that valued uniformity, and a creative whiz in a business that cared little for creators' rights, he's one of the prime movers of postwar 20th-century pop culture. But Lee became the household name, and while Ro admirably refuses to take sides in the impossible debate over who deserves more credit, it's clear that he constructed Tales To Astonish at least partly to give Kirby a bit more of his due. Kirby's relationship with Lee emerges as a fruitful partnership between men who never really understood each other, and the tensions between them were heightened by a company that rarely had either's best interests in mind. (By the end of the book, Marvel seems only slightly more caring an employer than Ro's previous subject, Suge Knight's Death Row Records.)
Emphasizing straight reportage, Ro cleanly lays out Kirby's story, from his New York kid-gang childhood to his late-career crusade to have his artwork returned. He does so well by the facts that it's a pity he didn't dig deeper. Ro never really explains what set Kirby's art apart from that of his contemporaries or engages him as a creator. What to make, for instance, of the ongoing tension between apocalyptic despair and almost naïve hopefulness that grew more pronounced as Kirby aged? That indelible image of Captain America decking Hitler aside, there was almost always more going on in Kirby's work than good guys and bad guys, and that complexity makes up a large part of what makes his story worth telling.