Smash Pages Q&A: Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente on ‘King Kirby’

The two collaborators discuss adapting their play about Jack Kirby as an audio drama.

Fred Van Lente is well known to comics readers for his many comics, including The Incredible Hercules and Archer and Armstrong, his novels The Con Artist and Ten Dead Comedians, and a string of great comics he’s made with Ryan Dunlavey including Action Philosophers, The Comic Book History of Comics and The Comic Book History of Animation. Crystal Skillman is a playwright and scriptwriter best known for the plays Open and Rain and Zoe Save the World and the musical Mary and Max

The two have collaborated in the past by writing the Webtoon series Eat Fighter, and they wrote the play King Kirby, about the legendary Jack Kirby. Originally produced in 2014, the play is currently being released as a four-part audio drama from the Broadway Podcast Network. Edited and with original music by Bobby Cronin, King Kirby stars Steven Rattazzi, Amy Lee Pearsall, Nat Cassidy, Joseph Mathers and Timothy McCown Reynolds.

The fourth episode of King Kirby is out today, a day before the release of issue #4 of The Comic Book History of Animation by Van Lente and Dunlavey, and tonight is the live reading of Pulp Verite, a new play written by Skillman. We spoke recently about Jack Kirby, theatricality and working in audio drama.

Where did the idea for a play about Jack Kirby start?

Fred Van Lente:  I was dating a playwright at the time, and when you date a playwright, you go to a lot of theater. I was working on a biography of Kirby and I wanted to do something with it, but I kind of lost interest in it. And if you’re like me, I went, “I could do that.” So I did a draft and it was fine. It ended up in a drawer. The X-Men movies had started coming out, and comics was not where it is right now. The Marvel characters weren’t where they are right now. There wasn’t a venue for it. A few people were vaguely interested, but Kirby was such an obscure figure. Stan Lee was an obscure figure for most of these people. It wasn’t until the Brick Theater in Brooklyn decided to do a Comic Book Theater Festival that we dusted it off. Crystal made a bunch of great suggestions and I said, “Congratulations, you’re the co-writer.” We did a very successful production of it in 2014.

By being together, you were one of each other’s first readers, but was this the first time you collaborated?

Crystal Skillman:  Everyone was asking, “When are you guys going to collaborate?” I was a little jealous because I hadn’t thought of trying to write comic books. Fred makes it look easy, but it’s not. I didn’t know how to articulate it to Fred then, but I came to learn that I had a special eye for what is theatrical and what is great live. Which also translates to audio, because it is a live experience which you are imagining. I still don’t respond to plays that are packed with information, or history plays. I tend to steer away from dealing with history. This was the first time I worked with a person’s whole life story. For me that opening moment was key because you’re going into the experience of this person’s point of view and who they are in a certain way. Then we can go anywhere in the play, which is exciting. Fred really loved that and since then we’ve written TV and Eat Fighter on Webtoons, and now we write together a lot. 

It sounds like some of the challenge of King Kirby was about the story, but also how to approach the story

Van Lente:  That was the challenge of the original draft. There was this New God superhero character narrating and you had jumping forwards and backwards in time. One of the things Crystal brought to it was narrowing the framing device. In the original version I had this whole Kirby-esque reality. We basically managed to do an off brand version of Fantastic Four #1 with all the characters in the spaceship. There were dramatizations of public domain comics like Blue Bolt, which was this really insane John Carter-type comic that Joe Simon did and brought Kirby on to help with. Ultimately we ended up focusing on Kirby’s story. There’s a bit in episode one of the podcast where Kirby is reading a pulp magazine and he imagines Cosmic Carson. That’s a character Kirby created before he met Joe Simon and drew for one of the grade Z comic houses. 

Skillman:  I think a lot of storytelling in theater is space and time in relation to the story. So the real estate of the story is about the creation of these things and us experiencing the creation through the people, rather than showing dramatized sidebars of those things. Fred and I are very united in trying to keep things brisk and moving so the audience is with it, but never ahead of it. There are two types of theater as Mac Wellman said, theater of the already known and the theater of the unknown. Fifty per cent of the audience wants to come in and see what they already know and the one half wants to go, wow, and see what happens next. Those are two different audiences.

So tell me about turning the play into a podcast. Because they are very related forms, but different in many key ways.

Van Lente:  This is the textbook pandemic project. We had someone approach us about doing this as a podcast. We realized that we had leftover from the 2014 cast, a recording of them doing it in Midtown Comics here in New York City for our kickstarter backers. We said, we don’t need to have anyone else record this. And in comes Bobby Cronin

Skillman:  I’m working on some new scripted audio, so I’ve been in this headspace. Bobby Cronin wrote the music for Mary and Max: The Musical, one of the musicals I wrote, and he wrote the music for a play of mine. We’re a team. I really wanted this audio drama version of King Kirby to capture his feeling of creation. That it’s timeless. I didn’t want the music to be stuck in a time period. We wanted it to have a take that is of that time period, but you’re getting the thrill of an adventure soundtrack. You’re getting the thrill of someone who’s creating superheroes doing the things in life that he couldn’t. Once Bobby heard that he took it and ran with it and created this lush score that really underscores the feelings of the characters and what they’re going through. I think it produces a lot of emotion. I also hope that the play will return to the stage and that this score will be a part of that. That’s a dream of mine.

The play really gives a great portrait of Roz and Jack and their marriage and that’s really the heart of the piece.

Skillman:  In the research so many people who knew Roz and Jack talked about the relationship and we had so many great stories. I found in an interview that she had inked some work, which was so interesting and I wanted to explore that in terms of their relationship. Between comic cons and us seeing couples work together, our own relationship working together as artists, it really is that relationship where they really needed each other. She really looked out for him, but also really appreciated his creativity and his dreamer-ness.

As you were writing this, and afterwards, did you read Kirby’s work differently?

Van Lente:  Thats an interesting question. I definitely had a lot more appreciation for the romance comics than. I was a superhero kid and the romance comics were for girls, so I avoided them like the plague. Since then Fantagraphics did a wonderful hardcover edition of some of the best romance stories. The rawness of Young Romance #1 really jumps off the page at you.

Skillman:  I loved comic books as an art form. Before I met Fred as a teen I had seen the pages of Maus as part of the exhibition at MoMa and so really before reading a lot of comics books I was thinking of them as art. I studied visual arts. I started reading graphic novels, and once Fred and I started dating, we have this extensive collection and Fred was suggesting things, but I didn’t have this vast amount of knowledge. Fred has been reading them since he was four and has a lot more in his head than me. I was reading Kirby along with the play and after the play, and so I do see the narrative. I do recommend if people are moved by the story to check out The Comic Book History of Comics, because you do follow that storyline in a really emotional ways, and I think Ryan Dunlavey’s artwork of Jack is just as moving.

New Gods is what captivates me the most. That world is so rich. The artwork is incredible. The characters are so complex. There’s something so extraordinary about that series. I feel like those characters surprise me every time I take a look at them. I really hope the play captures these experiences of reading a comic book, creating a comic book.

There are four episodes total, do I have that right?

Van Lente:  Yes. And there’s going to be a fifth one; we did a round table with us and the cast and Bobby and hosted by Rob Salkowitz of Forbes

Crystal, you mentioned that you were writing other audio projects. How have you found the medium?

Skillman:  There’s an experience that prepped me. I wrote a play called Open, which is a magic show without magic, and its about the love of two women and as you see them, you start to believe in this magic. I don’t know how to describe it. The point of the piece is that you’re never shown the magic. So I’ve been thinking so much how we can see something by imagining it just by dialogue. And how riveting that is.

In musicals there’s a lot we have to fill in. We don’t see every lyric or every moment, so we have to use our imagination. So I thought about how can I make this an incredibly visual world that you understand completely from the dialogue without anything expositional. I basically have been thinking along these lines for the past 5-10 years. Also, I’ve never been a naturalistic playwright, which is why I think it took so long for my career to take off. Now we’re at a time where it’s very rare to see a naturalistic play. It’s a much more inventive time. I know it’s very sad that theater is frozen right now, but it’s going to come back. 

The fourth and final episode of King Kirby is out today. Is there anything else coming out this month?

Skillman:  I have a reading of a play called Pulp Verite with The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, which will be online at 8 Eastern/7 central. It’s a really great play. 

Van Lente:  The fourth issue of my comics series with Ryan Dunleavy, The Comic Book History of Animation, which looks at Saturday Morning Cartoons, comes out. So you can get your comic at the store, download King Kirby so you can listen to it on your drive back from the comic book store, and then when you get home you can jump on zoom and watch Crystal’s play.

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