‘King Kirby’ Takes The Stage: Fred Van Lente On His New Play About Jack Kirby’s Life [Interview]
Jack Kirby is considered by many to be the single most influential figure in the development of American comics. He defined the parameters of superhero artwork in the 1940s, he helped invent romance comics in the 1950s, he was one of the primary architects of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, he brought a sweeping cosmic sensibility to DC in the 1970s, and he played a vital role in the independent publisher boom of the 1980s. Kirby was astoundingly prolific, drawing thousands of pages and covers in a career that spanned seven decades, and created or co-created many of the world’s most memorable and popular characters: The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Wasp, Ant-Man, the X-Men, Black Panther, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the New Gods, Nick Fury, the Avengers, and countless others.
Theatre-goers in New York City will learn about the man behind those iconic creations when the new play King Kirby has its world-premiere engagement as part of the Comic Book Theater Festival in Brooklyn, starting June 20 and running through June 29. We spoke to playwright (and acclaimed comic writer) Fred Van Lente about the roots of the show, and his motivation in adapting Kirby’s life for the stage.
ComicsAlliance: What inspired you to turn Jack Kirby’s story into a stage production? Is there something about this medium that seemed particularly well-suited for this topic?
Fred Van Lente: Well, I came up in comics doing lots of DIY self-published stuff, producing my own books, handling all the details of creation and production. And theatre is something that’s really attractive to me, as it’s a similarly accessible form – it has a lot of the same sort of down-and dirty DIY spirit, where you can make a lot with a little.
Jack Kirby’s story is also something that a lot of people in comics know, but that not a lot of people outside comics are familiar with. And this seemed like an interesting way to get the story out to different people. There are some pretty universal themes in the Kirby story that are fairly easy to identify with: creating art while providing for a family, the conflict with big corporations… And so part of the motivation is to bring the story outside the realm of comics, and let a different audience know about the man and his work.
CA: Is this your first foray into doing this type of theater? Have you worked with this festival before?
FVL: Well, this is only the second Comic Book Theater Festival, but yes, I was somewhat involved last time. At the last one, in 2011, my wife Crystal adapted my book Action Philosophers into a stage show. It featured some of the same cast that are in this production, and though I wasn’t as hands-on with that, it certainly gave me a taste, and was pretty inspirational.
CA: Kirby himself did some stage work – his designs for a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are fairly legendary… Did you draw on any of that work for inspiration, or is this production more down-to-earth?
FVL: Yeah, I’ve seen some of that, and it’s pretty amazing. He’s also semi-famous for the Argo designs, for that unproduced film. hat’s all pretty grandiose.
This, however, is more real-life, more realistic. It’s a small festival production, so almost out of necessity, it focuses on the real-world aspects of things. There was an earlier version of the script with far more cosmic stuff, but this is really focused on telling his entire life story… Or as much as we could fit in. It goes from when he was a child in the LES up through his life, and it’s a story that manages to cover most of the 20th century, so there’s a lot to fit in.
CA: Having written The Comic Book History Of Comics and spent lots of time talking about Kirby in there, did you have to do a lot of additional research when you were putting this together? Or did you already have most of the information rattling around?
FVL: Well, the roots of this project go back to around 2000, when I started writing a biography of Jack Kirby. That was something I worked on for quite a while, and I had a lot of the research accumulated, and had gotten part way into that… And then the idea for a show based on Kirby’s life happened, and I started writing the play straight from working on the biography. I had all of this work put together, and I used it in the script, and then the script sat in a drawer for a long time.
But there were a lot of different sources I referred to: The Jack Kirby Collector, Joe Simon’s autobiography, old issues of The Comics Journal, those Complete Jack Kirby Comics books, and plenty of other things.
CA: Were there particular pieces that you found that you knew instantly you’d have to use? And were there other elements, historical moments that you wanted to use to put this story in perspective and give it the proper cultural context?
FVL: Well, we’ve recreated Doctor Wertham‘s testimony at the Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency… That was a pivotal moment in comics history, so that had to be in there. And there were other elements – press coverage, a real hodge podge of stuff.
And then the way we ended up structuring the show, we’ve taken all these different pieces and assembled them to tell the story: we have direct quotes, dramatizations, and even one dream sequence.
CA: A dream sequence? Is that still based in reality, or does it start to veer toward the fictional realm?
FVL: I don’t want to say too much, but… How about this? The dream sequence portrays a confrontation between two people who never actually had a confrontation in real life. But it’s how things could have played out.
CA: Does that give you a chance to move more into worlds of Kirby-esque imagination? With someone whose work is so identifiable, there must be a difficult line to walk in trying to capture some of his style without it simply looking strange and out-of-place, contrasted with the real-life elements…
FVL: Well, again, this is a small production, it’s a first step for this show. It’s more than a workshop, but it’s part of a festival, so we have to keep it small and workable. Let me say this: we can’t go too far into the very abstract elements, but I think we do dramatize the Kirby style in a very cool way.
CA: What’s the show’s running time?
FVL: It’s a full play, a 75-minute show. Which means that we have to cover a lot of ground in not much time… It’s about a year a minute, when it comes down to it. Things happen at a positively Kirby-esque pace!
CA: And what goals do you have for this piece beyond the festival? Are you planning to move ahead, and stage a full-scale run of this show down the line?
FVL: We’ll need to see what the reviews say, and see what the reaction is from audiences, but yes, the goal would be to move on to do a full-scale stand-alone production at some point. Right now we’re focused on making this run a success, and then we’ll see what the interest is in pursuing it further, and figure out what comes next!
King Kirby opens in Brooklyn on Friday, June 20th, and plays through June 29th. For tickets and additional information, click here.