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Most comics fans know at least the rough outlines of the story of Jack Kirby (née Jacob Kurtzberg), the artist who, in the early 1960s, created or co-created (with Stan Lee, née Stanley Lieber) a staggering number of Marvel Comics characters as beloved by kids born in the 2000s as they were by the boomers. All three of Marvel’s key super-teams, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men, were designed, if not created, by Kirby when he was in his mid-40s. The “Marvel method” of scripting, wherein Stan would give Jack just a few paragraphs of synopsis to turn into 22 drawn pages over which Stan would then apply dialogue, allowed for much more authorial ambiguity than the full-script method, wherein the writer would tell the artist exactly how many panels to draw on each page.But like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster before him, Kirby was the victim of predatory contracts that made publishers, not artists, the owners of the intellectual property the artists created. Kirby got screwed. He defected from Marvel to rival imprint DC Comics in the 1970s, creating comics even weirder and grander and more personal—albeit less popular—than his Marvel work had been. Stan stayed put, happily cultivating an identity as Marvel’s public ambassador and mascot long after he stopped writing—though just how much writing he’d ever done was something Kirby, who died in 1994, bitterly challenged in the last years of his life.
When Kirby discovered in the 1980s that pages he’d drawn for a modest per-page rate were being sold to collectors for many times what he’d been paid when he turned them in, he began a long public campaign to have his original pages returned to him. (He eventually got back about a tenth of what he’d drawn, the stuff that no one had deemed worth stealing and/or selling.) Every popular creator of the time rallied to his side. The publicity gave Marvel a black eye and ultimately, slowly made the self-proclaimed “House of Ideas” offer terms that made it a more attractive place for top talent to work. It came too late to do Kirby any good.He might’ve been a visionary, but he saw himself as a workhorse—a guy who always cited his mortgage and his family as his motivation, not some siren call of the muse. That’s a mystery that gets unpacked and explored in King Kirby, a portrait of the man, and of his contentious 30-year relationship with Lee, by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente first staged in 2014. (Van Lente is a writer who’s done most of his work in comics.) Director Keith Cassidy found a copy of the script in Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop and got Off the Quill to support a brief, just-concluded run at the Greenbelt Arts Center—one strong enough to make me wish for one of D.C.’s better-funded companies to revive it.
They’d probably try to get Ed Gero to play Kirby, or coax Rick Foucheaux out of retirement. But I say keep Off the Quill’s sober, hulking Kirby—Josh Mooney—and keep their alliterating, equivocating Lee—Erik Harrison—too. They’re talented newcomers who deserve a bigger stage.
King Kirby at the Greenbelt Arts Center, closed on August 13.