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By RAVEN SNOOK
Why do some artists become household names while others toil away in obscurity? That question's at the heart of King Kirby, a bio-play by husband-and-wife writers Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman that dramatizes the life and career of prolific comic book illustrator Jack Kirby.
If you're furrowing your brow trying to place the name, don't feel ignorant. While his frequent collaborator, Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee, became the face of the comic book industry and his own sellable brand, Kirby fought in vain for recognition (and adequate remuneration) despite co-creating characters like the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, several X-Men, and (with his former collaborator Joe Simon) Captain America.
The origin story of King Kirby, which is currently enjoying its world premiere at The Brick's Comic Book Theater Festival Issue #2, dates back three decades, when Van Lente was a comics-loving teen. "I grew up reading a lot of the '60s Marvel stuff that Kirby did," he says. "Since every Marvel Comic said 'Stan Lee Presents,' I assumed he basically did everything. But in the '80s there was a big controversy about Kirby wanting his original artwork back. That was my come to Jesus moment, a deflowering of innocence if you will. I realized that there was more to the story, and I became obsessed with it. I wanted to try to get people not into comics to learn about it."
To that end, Van Lente, who himself has written celebrated comics like Cowboys & Aliens, started a book about Kirby in 2000. A year later, he tried transforming the material into his first play. "I was still struggling career-wise, figuring out what I wanted to do," he says. "That original draft was much more playful in terms of history and had a comic book kind of reality. We did a very successful reading… and then I got distracted."
It wasn't until a decade later, when The Brick mounted its first Comic Book Theater Festival in 2011, that Van Lente decided to pick his show up again at the behest of his playwright wife Skillman, a longtime darling of NYC's indie theatre scene (Geek, Wild, Cut). "Kirby's struggle was personally very moving to me," she says. "In any art form, for every big name there are 10 people that stand behind it. We all influence each other. How does it feel for one creator's name to be there while another's is not? It's a very emotionally powerful issue."
The pair wasn't able to get King Kirby in shape for the original Comic Book Theater Festival, but the delay turned out to be fortuitous. While many of the other offerings in this edition of the fest, which runs through Sunday, are stage adaptations of comics (Matthew Thurber's Mining the Moon, R. Sikoryak's Masterpiece Comics Theater) or shows inspired by the genre (The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl & The Scarlet Skunk), King Kirby is a potent, real-life underdog story that still resonates today. It's particularly timely since X-Men and Captain America movies are currently raking in millions while Kirby's heirs continue to fight in court for a piece of Marvel's very ample pie.
But King Kirby doesn't go into all that. It's a fast-paced tribute to one man's amazing and often contradictory life as he evolved from a young tough on the Lower East Side to a soldier in World War II to a tireless artist and family man who wasn't sure how to stand up to an unfair system. "It's a memory play, so it has a very fluid structure," Van Lente says. "Time flows and doubles back on itself. The script is this crazy patchwork of me and Crystal and history and direct quotes. We made a synthesis out of all of that that makes dramatic sense."
"It will always be a work of fiction since we weren't there," Skillman adds. "However, I think the emotions ring true."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Hunter Canning