James Romberger’s For Real is a narrative of layers. Not just in the overlapping timeframes of its main comics story ‘The Oven’ but also in the supplementary essay that follows it which complements, expands and focuses the thematic thrust of its storytelling partner. It’s a piece of speculative graphic medicine that contrasts two points in the life of that most pivotal of figures in comics history, Jack Kirby. Juxtaposed, and weaving in and out of each other, we observe Kirby at two distinct points in time. Firstly late in life as he undergoes exploratory hospital procedures looking for cancer and secondly during the war, when as one of just two survivors of his unit he had a near fatal encounter with Nazi forces.
The trauma of the past echoes forward to the relative present as the dual Jack Kirbys are portrayed as embroiled in two equally terrifying conflicts, one taking place in a tile factory in France and the other beginning in the confines of a medical scanning machine decades later. Romberger gives the latter scenes a more pronounced visual clarity with clearer lines while the 1940s sequences feel hazier, rooting them in a past that nonetheless still impacts on the future. His careful panel-to-panel pacing is sublime in tempo but it’s the power of those quieter moments that say so much about Kirby’s experiences without any need for added narration; pure empathetic storytelling that speaks directly to the reader via visual characterisation and nuanced timing.
It’s impossible to separate the comic and prose sections here as, though separately presented, they are each an integral part of the other in terms of the reflective study Romberger is creating. He speaks of both his own meetings with Kirby and the artist’s professional and family life in that text piece with a deep respect that reassures the reader that although the comic account is a fictionalised one, Romberger is concerned with capturing the truth and essence of his subject if not the strict actuality of the events depicted.
For Real is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s easy for any comics commentator to use that oft repeated line about a project being work that rewards re-reading but I cannot think of a comic I have read in recent memory that more accurately embodies that sentiment. This is a genuinely multilayered one-shot that explores how Kirby’s wartime experiences shaped the man and found expression through his storytelling approach. A standout example of graphic biography in 2019 that may fly below many readers’ radars but one that deserves far wider acclaim.
You can order For Real #1 online from Uncivilized Books here.
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Review by Andy Oliver