Living with the King: Telling the Jack Kirby story

Jason Mehmel shares what he learned about Jack Kirby during his time directing the play “King Kirby” in Calgary in 2016.

All this week we’re celebrating the life and influence of comics legend Jack Kirby, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 28. Today we present a guest editorial from Jason Mehmel, a professional director and producer of theatre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who had a unique opportunity related to Jack Kirby.

by Jason Mehmel

I’ve known about Jack Kirby for years… his style is as unique as a fingerprint. Crazy designs, often using circles. Crackling energy balls of negative space (later called ‘Kirby Krackles’). It represented the platonic ideal of superheroes, particularly the Marvel characters he created, and the subsequent artists, composing with better anatomy, perspective or even composition, are still ultimately riffing on the energy behind Kirby’s pencil, and the choices it led him to.

Robert Klein as Jack Kirby (Jeff McDonald/Sage Theater)

Two years ago, I came across a theatre script about the life of Kirby and found myself running a theatre company. I decided to jump at it and produce King Kirby: A Play by Crystal Skillman & Fred Van Lente, which walked through the pivotal moments in Kirby’s life:

How he came from poverty, his early love of science fiction and big ideas, and of telling them visually. How he got into comics from that love, and the birth of Captain America, just before his own wartime experience. How Marvel Comics as we know it exploded from his pen, and those of his fellow pencillers, though it would be hard to compete with the sheer volume of characters and stories Kirby developed in those years.

Within the space of 10 years, Kirby would lay the cornerstone of Marvel Comics with Stan Lee, creating the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and bringing earlier creation Captain America into the Marvel universe.

David LeReany as Stan Lee, Robert Klein as Jack Kirby (Jeff McDonald/Sage Theater)

There was growing dissatisfaction at Marvel, and the tension of living under Stan Lee’s shadow. He left for DC Comics, thinking he would take the fans with him, and how he was unsure why the fans would stay with old characters when he was working his Kirby magic over in the Fourth World for DC.

Jason Mehmel, director of Calgary’s production of King Kirby (@typewriterjason/Twitter)

By the time the play ended, an older Kirby was left wondering why people were idolizing his Marvel work and not following him to the new ideas. (It has to be admitted that Kirby’s later work was cosmic and jammed full with amazing concepts, but it never had the empathetic characterization that sparked Marvel Comics as we know it, with Lee’s assistance.)

At the end of the play, Kirby went back to what he always did… tell such amazing stories.

I had to produce and direct this play because I felt strongly that we needed to know who Kirby was. His creations, his designs, are recognizably at the core of movie empires that bring in billions of dollars.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I found it difficult to get audience members from the comics community. Kirby’s legacy is complicated and confusing. When it comes to loving stories, it’s much easier to enjoy Stan Lee’s exuberant showmanship than it is to question the genesis and ethics behind those stories.

Cheryl Hutton as Roz Kirby (Jeff McDonald/Sage Theater)

In fact, some of our most passionate audience members were people who had no love for comics but found Kirby’s story profoundly moving. A pop-culture Death of a Salesman became a way to describe it to those people, comparing Jack Kirby to the fictional Willy Loman, a man who feels more and more out of place in the world around him, and ground down by it. The cast and crew, not being comics fans, found themselves entranced by his work and its energy. Working on the play created new Kirby fans in them.

Producing this play was also an excuse for me to re-explore Kirby and all those amazing machines and the stunning ideas behind them. One villain is searching for the “anti-life equation.” Let that phrase roll around in your head for a moment. It’s a fascinating idea that leads off in 12 different directions and evokes a story behind it. It feels like I’m always ready to dive in and soak in more of Kirby’s ideas.

Justin Michael Carriere as Joe Simon, Robert Klein as Jack Kirby (Jeff McDonald/Sage Theater)

I’ll close this meditation on Kirby and my process through by looking at two questions: why are his creations so firmly lodged in the public consciousness? And why, ultimately, did he never get the credit that he deserved?

When it comes to his creations, I think the energy speaks for itself. Kirby was a master at evoking a central core to his characters that persists through every iteration. Captain America’s steadfastness comes directly from the calm and determined expression Kirby gave him. Thor’s bravery and brashness are there in his first introduction. And the eternal conflict between our demure civilized nature and our roaring beast within, the Hulk brooded monstrously on his very first page. There have been innumerable variations of these characters over the years, but that through-line has always remained.

David LeReany as Stan Lee, Robert Klein as Jack Kirby (Jeff McDonald/Sage Theater)

And why isn’t Jack Kirby’s name everywhere? Why isn’t he in a cameo in every Marvel movie? As much as I love Kirby I will admit that he could have chosen differently. He assumed people would follow the energy that fueled the characters, instead of just staying with the characters. (To be fair, many people did follow Kirby!) Stan Lee might have brought Jack along for the ride as mutual faces of Marvel if Kirby had been willing to play that role. The problem was he never wanted to do anything but tell stories. He never understood the colossal impact some of those stories had in the world. It’s important to remember Kirby would have been flabbergasted to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, and the legions of toys and branding that wallpaper stores and magazines with his characters. He was making up new characters so quickly he was almost throwing them away. He wouldn’t understand why we’d hold on to them so tightly.

This is the magic and tragedy of Jack Kirby… his own energy carried him beyond reach.

Jason Mehmel is the artistic director of Sage Theatre and directed ‘King Kirby’ in April 2016. He also produces and writes the comic FIGHT COMICS! Jason can also be found on Twitter.

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