With Spiderman’s retooled origin and the renewal of the Batman franchise, the summer of the big-screen superhero is upon us. Actually, most summers have come with computer-generated clobbering since July 2003, when Ang Lee’s Hulk first stomped its way through the cineplex.
You can put it all down to Marvel comic artist Jack “King” Kirby, whose four-decade output has become Hollywood’s version of blood diamonds. The majority of comic-to-film superheroes—Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk and Spiderman—originally sprang from the fevered imagination of a guy who never held the rights to his own work.
When I say fevered imagination, I mean it literally. Born into the violent precincts of New York’s Lower East Side in 1917, the young Jacob Kurtzberg literally had to fight to survive. Ray Wyman’s biography recounts how the boy once lay dying of pneumonia, a disease that often proved fatal to poor immigrant families of the time. In a last-ditch effort to save his life, rabbis performed an exorcism, demanding the names of the demons possessing him.
I have a pet theory that Kurtzberg/Kirby’s youthful illness and exorcism was his shamanic initiation, which cracked open his creative unconscious like an egg. Years later, a bottomless pantheon of superheroes, supervillains, sidekicks, monsters and freaks flowed freely from his pencil.
My second theory is that 20th-century superhero mythology is as Jewish as lox and bagels. Superman was the Depression-era brainchild of Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster at Detective Comics, while Kurtzberg/Kirby’s most inventive work came from his Marvel partnership with Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) in the ’60s. One of the prime motifs of the Marvel/DC universe is the “secret identity,” a fantasy of the assimilated Jew moving undetected through a society of goyim. An American friend recently told me how Kirby sometimes showed up at his synagogue in southern California in the ’70s to give talks to kids. “What did he talk about?” I asked, fascinated. “Morality,” he replied.
Kirby wasn’t just mining Yiddish fables for his two-fisted morality tales, however. He reinvented Norse mythology with The Mighty Thor, and whipped up space operas in which the Fantastic Four confronted ambiguous, God-like entities and interdimensional terrors. No one in comics could match Kirby for composition and dynamism. Yet to read of his dealings with Marvel is to weep. To support his family, for years the comic artist churned out four or more complete comic books a month—80 pages of material—and as his output increased, his drawing style became more rushed and eccentric-looking.
Tired of his restrictive treatment at Marvel, the comic artist relocated to DC in the early ’70s. There he came up with a whole new collection of characters called The New Gods. The presiding supervillain was a helmet-wearing, caped figure called “Darkseid” (pronounced Dark Side). Six years later, a young filmmaker called George Lucas revealed a similar-looking villain called Darth Vader, who siphoned his power from the “Dark Side.”
The creative bulk of the Kirby/Lee partnership lay mostly on the artist’s side, but it was the editor who became wealthy through the marketing of their ideas. Kirby died in 1994, without royalties or rights to his own work. In August 2011, Kirby’s heirs lost their court battle to reclaim the copyright on his creations. (In the first two weeks of its release, The Avengers made a billion dollars worldwide.)
The comic artist is still getting the shaft in another way. Before the rise of computer generated imagery, it was impossible to translate his epic visions into film. Unfortunately, with increasing processing power, the studios’ storyboard artists and software programmers have gone crazier than Dr. Doom on bath salts. With the exception of the first Iron Man film and perhaps an X-Men or two, the raid on Kirby’s catalogue has mostly resulted in big-screen video games, in which greenscreened, A-list actors fail to emote appropriately to the chaos happening around them.
I know we’re talking about fictitious characters in unitards, but Hollywood is playing fast and loose with the childhood fantasy worlds of boomers and Gen-Xers. As a guy who still owns several boxes worth of Kirby comics from his childhood, I say the guy deserves better than ham-fisted, paint-by-digital-numbers productions based on his work. At the very least, his estate deserves a cut of the profits.