Features and Columns · Movies

Jack Kirby Demands Cinematic Justice

We imagine an adaptation of the new Tom Scioli graphic novel that rights decades of creative and financial mistreatment.
Jack Kirby Biography
Ten Speed Press
By  · Published on July 13th, 2020

Welcome back to Pitch Meeting, a monthly column in which we suggest an IP ripe for adaptation, then assign the cast and crew of our dreams. This month we’re hoping ‘Jack Kirby: The King of Comics’ gains some serious respect for one founding father of Marvel Comics.

If you don’t know who Jack Kirby was, there’s a good chance you will soon. Looming on the horizon are a pair of historically significant comic book adaptions from Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios: Ava Duvernay’s The New Gods and Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals. What separates them from the rest of the superhero herd is Jack Kirby as their sole creator.

So? Jack Kirby’s name is currently plastered all over movies like ThorBlack PantherAvengers: Endgame, and nearly every other entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those flicks cannot be dismissed or denied. They currently command a tremendous chunk of any film-related conversation.

This is true, but on those films, shackled to Kirby’s credit with a dominating ampersand is the name of Stan Lee. As the corporate godhead of Marvel who outlived Kirby by several decades, Lee is seen as the father of the Marvel Universe. He deserves a good portion of that praise. But Kirby should claim at least half, if not two-thirds, of that title.

The debate over who created what and who deserves what between Lee and Kirby has raged throughout comic book shops, conventions, and online spaces for years. The fandom turmoil may never end, but at least now readers and moviegoers have access to a graphic novel biography that devotes all its energy into telling Kirby’s side of the story. Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, written and illustrated by Tom Scioli, is a real banger of a narrative. And it would make one helluva sensational movie.

The Book

Understanding the roles Jack Kirby and Stan Lee played in the formation of these icons requires a passing knowledge of the “Marvel Method” of creation. In an effort to crank out as many books as possible, comics were constructed with an assembly line mentality. Kirby would create all the art first (sometimes based on an outline, but not always). Lee would then fill in the dialogue, thought balloons, and captions second. Meaning, Kirby plotted the stories and designed most of the characters. Lee gave them a personality, Kirby gave them a look and a story.

Scioli’s book devotes a massive segment to the magical cocktail of Kirby and Lee, and how their partnership resulted in multiple IPs that would make billions for their corporate overlords. We see how Lee positioned himself as the face of the company, slapping his name on as many comics and characters as possible while also making it his mission to get in front of television cameras. Lee loved the spotlight and respected its power.

Kirby never craved attention. The drawing board is where he felt most comfortable, and that’s where he stayed. He did the work.

When Kirby saw Lee transition from office prankster teenager (and original publisher Martin Goodman’s wife’s nephew) to the top dog of the company, he gritted his teeth. When Lee published Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974, declaring himself as the sole creator of characters the two collaborated on, Kirby saw red. The injustice boiled his blood, but with a family to feed, the man who was condemned as “just the artist” perceived few options of retaliation.

One could easily concoct a Barbarians at the Gate or Moneyball out of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. The personality war between Kirby and Lee that Scioli depicts stirs a tantalizing, if not sour soup. It jabs like a tabloid, manipulating readers to the side of Kirby, the underdog, and while it does pause to deliver Stan Lee’s point of view momentarily, there is no doubt whose side the author falls on.

The Jack Kirby/Stan Lee cold war is not the point of Scioli’s narrative, and to fall into the weeds of creator rights would be so incredibly dismissive to Scioli’s subtitle: The Epic Life of the King of Comics. As fans of Captain America and Spider-Man, of course, we want to duke it out over who contributed the most to these utterly adored characters. However, as Scioli’s book reveals, there is so much more to Jack Kirby than his creations.

Scioli’s book is a chronological adventure. We meet Kirby’s father, Ben Kurtzberg, as he flees the Austro-Hungarian Empire after offending a local duke. In New York, his parents connected through a matchmaker, and Kirby was their first child. He grew up rough, and when honor or loyalty called for it, Kirby happily engaged in fisticuff combat.

Life was never better than when Kirby was reading the funnies, and that passion translated into his drawings. A low-level job at Max Fleischer Studios led to a gig ghosting strips for Lincoln Features. Jack Kirby was on the ground floor of the comic book industry, crossing paths with Will Eisner and Bob Kane before joining up with Joe Simon and co-creating Captain America.

Kirby hated bullies. You only need to look at his cover for Captain America #1 to see the relish he engaged in illustrating Steve Rogers slamming a right hook into Adolf Hitler’s glass jaw. Like many young American men, Kirby answered the call of service and entered World War II through the Army, experiencing heavy combat.

The horror of taking lives and watching live be taken forever altered his worldview. He rendered his war into his work, but he also gained an unquestionable appreciation for the love of his life, Roz Kirby. He learned that you could not wage all battles. You must choose the wars to fight.

Marvel and other companies put food on his family’s table. The credit and respect would come toward the end of his life, and the veneration would only grow stronger beyond it. Kirby found satisfaction in the younger generation discovering his work, but ultimately, his romance with Roz and the love of his children and grandchildren were where contentment existed.

The Adaptation

Birth-to-death biopics are a troublesome proposition. Containing a life within two hours invites cliche and expositional shorthand. The best biographies tend to narrow their focus, tearing a section from a life and using a moment to define a person.

The Kirby/Lee rumble seems the obvious timeline choice, but the filmmaker must keep Kirby’s days in the war under the surface of every action, which requires a significant amount of screentime devoted to the European theater. Also, Roz Kirby is cast member number two, not Stan Lee. If anything, Lee haunts the screen more than he resides upon it.

Terry Zwigoff seems a natural fit for the director. His indie comic book treasures CrumbGhost World, and Art School Confidential reveal an intense love for the medium as well as an appreciation for dissensions of commerce and art. Bad Santa shows a filmmaker who delights in the absurdity of hot emotions, where deplorable rage is still sold with charm and comedy.

One of the allures of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics is how Tom Scioli illustrates his hero. While the characters around him are recognizably human, Scioli’s Kirby features two enormously blue eyes, almost aligning him to the Chibi style of certain Japanese manga. To pull this off in a film, you either have to work within animation or digitally enhance your lead actor, as Robert Rodriguez did in Alita: Battle Angel.

Scioli chose this method as a means of garnering as much empathy for Kirby as possible. It’s a trick described as “masking” by cartoonist and comic book theorist Scott McCloud. By juxtaposing a simplistic, archetypal figure against a highly detailed, realistic world, the artist projects a deeper identification between reader and protagonist.

As satisfying as this is within Scioli’s comic, it’s unnecessary for an adaptation. Cinema is your empathy machine. Let the movie do its job.

Besides, in going live-action, Zwigoff would create an entirely different joy in the adaptation. You gotta cast big personalities with big actors. Use Scorsese’s The Aviator as your guide, and let’s get chewy with these performances.

Do you think we can get Benny Safdie for Kirby if he’s not directing alongside his brother? In Good Time, Safdie plays the developmentally disabled brother to Robert Pattinson’s fumbling bank robber. He owned the emotional stew, where the camera lingered on his face. It was on him to silently communicate the anxiety, dread, and anger felt by his character. When the movie demanded catastrophic outbursts, he ruptured exceptionally. That’s Jack Kirby.

Folks champion Marc Maron for Stan Lee all the time. No argument here. Shape his hair, style his mustache and slap a pair of dark sunglasses on his face, and he’s a spitting image. Maron is also a master of leaning hard into blowhard, bullhorn personalities. That’s the kind of Stan Lee we need. His Lee is a bit of villain, but he cannot lose charisma or likability.

Now, granted, there is a twenty-two-year age gap between the two actors. They will need to be prosthetically/digitally aged or de-aged, depending on where they are in the timeline. Apply this to the rest of the cast too.

Ah, but here’s the other thing, you can cast another actor for the younger Stan Lee. When Kirby first started working with Lee on Fantastic Four, he looked nothing like the Lee we know today. The hairpiece, mustache, and glasses would come later. So would the Barnum & Bailey routine. Highlight Kirby’s astonishment toward this radical persona shift by casting phase one Stan Lee with David Cross.

Then, grab Alison Brie for Roz Kirby, Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems reunion, baby) for Joe Simon, Jake Gyllenhaal for Will Eisner, Shia LaBeouf for Steve Ditko, Wyatt Russell for Roy Thomas, and so on and so on.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics is an astonishing tour through the life that shaped our pop culture. Tom Scioli serves justice to the creator who never saw the financial reward he deserved, detailing the circumstances that put him on his path and caused Kirby to make the creative and business choices he did. Jack Kirby deserves a book and a film on his side, an equal challenge to the numerous cameos Stan Lee peppered throughout the MCU.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)