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Radio hyped the comic book star: Exploring Jack Kirby's life via audio drama

Comic Books

Radio hyped the comic book star: Exploring Jack Kirby’s life via audio drama

We spoke with creators Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman about the exciting ‘King Kirby’ podcast.

In 2014, Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman adapted the story of Jack Kirby into an off-Broadway plat called King Kirby, which debuted at the Brick Theater. The story highlighted the struggle for creator rights that Kirby championed throughout the latter part of his life. (Fans of 2017’s Batman & Bill documentary will notice similarities aplenty.) It eventually ran for eight shows during the 2014 Comic Book Theater Festival.

Now, as a reward for Kickstarter backers, Van Lente and Crystal Skillman have adapted King Kirby into an audio drama, with the original cast coming back and a brand-new score from Bobby Cronin. There’s currently two episodes available, and subsequent episodes will be released every Wednesday. Following the release of the final episode, the team will upload a behind-the-scene round-table conversation between the cast and creators. 

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

We were lucky enough to sit down with Van Lente and Skillman, where we talked about the show, the adaptation process, Kirby’s rich life, and much, much more.

AIPT: What was behind the original decision to adapt Jack Kirby’s story, and why have you decided to adapt King Kirby into a podcast now?

Fred Van Lente: How about I take the first half, and you take the second.

Crystal Skillman: That sounds great.

FVL: I really have always been fascinated by comics history. I grew up, sort of, reading old comics, like reprints of the old Marvel 60’s stuff, so I loved Jack’s work. But it wasn’t until, later, like in the 80’s when he was fighting to get his artwork back from Marvel, that as a teenager I really got into his life story. And that sort of developed to me, in my late 20’s, I’d say late ‘90’s/early 2000’s where I was writing a biography of him, and it kind of really went nowhere. Like a lot of 20-year olds I just started a lot of things and then never really finished them.

But I was dating a playwright at the time [gestures to Skillman], and it was sort of a monkey see monkey do situation where I thought I’d try my hand at playwriting. I’d done screenwriting in college, and I wrote a lot of cool comic strips, but I’d never really tried doing a stage-play before, and so I did a draft that I finished. We did a reading of it, which was interesting. I thought we had a lot of good inputs, but there just wasn’t a venue for it. This was like 2001/2002, this is before, y’know, Marvel really exploded in the larger consciousness, and a lot of people didn’t even really know what Marvel was, much less who Jack Kirby was, outside of our little comics’ sphere. So I stuck it in a drawer.

Radio hyped the comic book star: Exploring Jack Kirby's life via audio drama

CS: And, the comic book theatre festival at the Brick Theater, y’know, got in touch.

FVL: This is like a decade later.

CS: So we started to look at it, and I started to give notes, and then as I was giving notes, Frank gave me a draft back with my name on it. He says, “oh great, you’re co-writing this with me,” which was a great, great gift. I think what I’m really proud of is that we really ground the beginning of the story with getting to know Jack. It happens both in the audio-drama through the sound of him drawing, and also in the stage-play, you enter and as you get seated and Jack is there drawing. Everyone’s had an incredible reaction to that, but it also puts into context the creations of his we’re about to see, his leaps of imagination, where that comes from and the spark that he always had, that I think is a big inspiration for the piece and why we’re always drawn to it. Because even through all his hardships with trying to get credit for his art and do right by his family, there’s also that beautiful message of just keep creating no matter what.

AIPT: That’s awesome, and you’re kind of hitting on something I’ve wanted to talk about. I’ve listened to the first couple episodes, and Jack has a very distinct voice I think, in the way y’all have written him. Was it hard to capture his voice, and how did y’all go about doing that?

FVL: When I wrote the play initially, one of the fascinating things is that Jack, I think, is one of the most interviewed people on the planet. There’s a whole magazine that Jack Kirby collectors are dedicated to reprinting old interviews of him, among other things. He had a very distinct way of speaking. Talk about creating Captain America for example, he [Jack Kirby] always spoke in these, almost like, mythical tones, like he wasn’t even doing anything. It just sort of birthed out of him. “America needed a super-patriot,” was sort of how he talked. He always seemed to short-circuit people who asked the common question of, “Where do you get your ideas?” He’d be like, “The source,” y’knows, it’s just sort of this fire moving through him.

That aspect of it I felt was really, I’d read so many interviews by him, coming up with his voice was pretty terrific. And Steven Rattazzi, who plays him in the podcast… I guess you asked us what made us do a podcast. We got approached in the summer by somebody who asked us if we wanted to turn the play into an audio-drama, and we realized in our original production back in 2014 we’d actually recorded the complete play audio, aurally as a Kickstarter reward because we actually kickstarted the original production. That’s how we raised the money for the production. And we had that recording leftover, and you [Skillman] contacted Bobby Cronin, who’s a frequent collaborator of yours on musicals, and he added that music you [the audience] heard and remixed the audio.

Steven Rattazzi, who played Jack Kirby on stage, is known to a lot of fans as Dr. Orpheus from Venture Brothers, so he already had this great experience as a voice actor in cartoons. I don’t think he was really necessarily thinking of it when we did the kickstarter recording, which was in the comic book store by the way. We recorded that whole thing in Midtown Comics downtown, here, in New York. I don’t think he was really thinking of it, in and of itself, as an audio performance, but he has those muscles, that sort of muscle memory he can tap into when it comes to voice performances. 

CS: And in terms of the quality of his performance, Jack has such a distinct way of talking, both the director John Hurley, myself and Fred, and Steve[n Rattazzi] felt very passionate about finding the essence of that, as opposed to imitation. That’s where I think the quality of the warmth, the anger, the love, all the emotions that he’s going through really translate. You’re also seeing him go from being very young, drawing chalk drawings at the tenement and all these sorts of things until later. Steve’s quality of his voice really does age beautifully. Nat Cassidy also does that as well in his portrayal of Stan Lee, pretty early on. 

AIPT: One thing y’all are kind of skirting around is Jack Kirby needing credit for his work, if you could kind of succinctly explain that issue for our readers.

FVL: Kirby left Marvel, basically because he was sick of Stan taking credit for all his work, he went to DC where he created Mister Miracle, The New Gods and The Demon; a lot of them are terrific characters. He did have a brief stint back at Marvel. Then in the ‘80’s, as I’d mentioned earlier, he had got into a huge fight with Marvel over getting his artwork back. The copyright law had changed and Marvel was concerned that Kirby would try to get all the characters back that he’d created. So they were basically holding his artwork hostage.

This lead to a big public dispute, and eventually Marvel relented. But Marvel wouldn’t give Kirby credit, and for that matter money. Let’s face it, credit is great but we like to see appreciation shown in the form of money. And that wouldn’t happen ironically until 2014, which was weeks after our play debuted. Disney, who had by that point bought Marvel, settled with Kirby’s heirs out of court for a substantial sum of money, and fortunately now Kirby’s name is on all the movies, all that stuff.

AIPT: We’ll actually come back to that! Do you have a rough estimate of what he [Kirby] would’ve made if he had a proper creator contract from the very beginning?

FVL: I mean, it’s incalculable. The Avengers movie franchise is the most profitable film franchise in history. Even if, as the co-creator of those comics, he got 1% of that, that in itself would be millions upon millions of dollars. Most of the title characters in the Avengers movies are Jack Kirby creations or co-creations. It would just be incalculable. Not to mention the simple fact that none of those comics he created, or almost none of them; they’ve never gone out of print. Marvel kept reprinting Fantastic Four, Thor, The Avengers, Spider-Man and all that stuff over and over again. Again, that’s how I grew up, reading reprints, and he never got paid for those reprints. And you [to Skillman] have that great line in the play that Roz, his wife, has about how they’re on lunch boxes…

Jack Kirby Fantastic Four, King Kirby

Courtesy of Marvel.

CS: She sees his artwork everywhere; on t-shirts, lunchboxes, hats, frisbees and everywhere, and yet he’s not there. Their family is trying to make it like anyone else. I think that’s something that Fred poured his heart and soul into as a writer in this piece, and myself as well. Fred works in comics as well, and I work in musical theater and some places as a writer. There’s that thing where, “what is success?” People get excited, and you have fans, and they recognize what you do, but where is the relationship also with making a living. And what does that mean? I think there’s a lot of great, great dramatic questions that come up in this piece that we’re all thinking about right now during the pandemic. Y’know, I’m working my butt off; what does that mean? We made something together; what does that look like? So I think it’s really inspiring to people, particularly now, as they’re pursuing their dreams and thinking about how also to make their successful enterprises not just artistic, but provide a life for them.

AIPT: Jack has a line early in the play where he compares his work working on Popeye animation with his father’s work in a sweatshop. Do you think this struggle for creator rights has a lot of kinship with various labor movements, and do you think Jack would’ve felt that way?

CS: Yeah, as you can see Fred speaks so eloquently about history, and he writes Comic Book History of Comics, and [Comic Book History of] Animation, and a lot of what you’ve [Van Lente] written about Disney hits home these points. 

FVL: That’s a good point. My frequent partner in crime, Ryan Dunlavey and I right now are doing the Comic Book History of Animation for IDW, and a lot this history of Hollywood, not just animation, but Hollywood in general is the constant battle of unions trying to get pensions, reasonable work hours and all that kind of stuff. I think Kirby absolutely always sided with the working man. Even if you look at something like the planet Apocalypse, it’s not just a fascist dictatorship by Darkseid, it’s also a slave camp where people are being dragooned in the fire pits to create these war engines.

Jack Kirby New Gods, King Kirby

Courtesy of DC Comics.

You’ll see as the podcast moves along, not to give too much away, part of the conflict between Lee and Kirby, and why people worship Lee so much, and they love this hero worship stuff, is because people really want to believe in magic. They want to believe that it is possible to wave your hands and just create something. Krystal and I get this a lot, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you get to write for a living.” And we are extremely lucky, but then it’s always like, “I have to work for a living!,” like what we do is we just pull it out of our butts everyday. It’s a struggle to get people to understand that creative work is work. 

AIPT: For sure! Have you found that your audience first with play, and now with the podcast, is much more of a niche comic book audience where people who already knew Jack Kirby are really only interested in this, or do you feel like it’s found a place to expand to a larger audience?

CS: Oh, a larger audience definitely. And I think that was eye-opening to me. The play had eight legendary performances because it was part of a festival, and my friend Andy Webster from the New York Times, who’s not necessarily my friend, but he had followed my work. I didn’t know he was going to come. I didn’t know he was going to review the show. We were really just doing our work, passionate about the story, and then the news got out about this piece. It was sold out and half the audience was that. They came in wanting to see Jack get his due.

FVL: Yeah, I think originally we were only supposed to do six performances.

CS: Oh, yeah that’s true. So we got a couple more, so that was great. Then the other half of the audience had no idea. People were so passionate, coming up [saying,] “Crystal I love getting to know about these creators. Why does nobody know this story? I didn’t know this story.” Once I saw the passion for that and Fred and I began working on a tv series called Paper Heroes that also deals with creators and comics throughout the decades, we felt passionately about, I think Fred says it best, something about knowing where your pop culture comes from.

We’re seeing that with Wandavision. We’re seeing that with any of the Marvel creations. People really want to know more about, “how did they come to be,” and “what does that mean.” There’s some people that just care about these particular franchises in different ways. I think also, to answer your question Ryan, geek culture has become so different. I’ve been called a geek and kind of bullied since I was young. It wasn’t always fun, and now it’s like, “yay!” You’ve got your geek chic and you’re so cool. “Yay!” Everyone’s geek! “Yay!” So this is a part of that. Part of that is geeking out on who you love, what team of the Avengers are you on, who’s your favorite character and what that is.

Radio hyped the comic book star: Exploring Jack Kirby's life via audio drama

From ‘The Epic Life of the King of Comics’ by Tom Scioli.

I think people are more and more fascinated by anything that has to do with these universes and how they’re created. I think it’s prime time to talk more about the creators and Jack’s story.

AIPT: With y’all moving into podcast, do y’all feel any kinship with these classic superhero radio shows that defined characters? Like for Superman, Jimmy Olsen and Kryptonite all come from the radio show.

FVL: I grew up, and my dad had a box record set of the Orson Welles Shadow shows, and I loved those as a kid. In fact I had the pocket book reprints of the Ditko and Lee Spider-Mans, I’d have the cassette recorder, and I’d actually do them as pseudo-radio dramas, and do all the voice and sound effects myself. So this to a certain extent is kind of like a real bucket list thing, of actually getting to write and have performed a podcast-drama. It’s very exciting.

CS: Yeah, and I love the heyday that audio-drama is in right now. I have a new scripted series I’m working on, so I’m influenced by a lot of new shows also coming out. And I’m so excited this episodically works so well. It’s so exciting to me. I’ve been riveted by things like Sage and Savante, Girl in Space, obviously I’m a Night Vale fan, Hitchhiker’s Guide [to the Universe] which is older was a big influence on my writing, both the book and the radio series. What we tried to approach here, was to give the listener looking for those superhero kind of stories, being told in this serial box old time way, but couple it with the deep acting, which came off of the fact that it is recorded by actors who have lived in a performance for a while, and also the modern soundtrack.

Bobby has created a superhero soundtrack that sounds like his own distinct sound, but it’s like an Avengers soundtrack. It’s like a superhero take, and we really wanted that because I wanted that mix so that we understood we’re hearing something that happened then, but this is why it’s important now.

AIPT: Have y’all found that there’s a lot of different challenges adapting for podcast, as opposed to what it was like adapting for the stage?

CS: Oh, it’s so fun! I just think it’s so fun!

FVL: Yeah, not really, it’s so cool. Bobby was able to do so much with just changing the tenor. You haven’t seen the third episode; that’s how he gets involved with the Fredrick Wertham era in the early ‘50’s of comics. Wertham, who’s brought greatly to life by Timothy McCown Reynolds, is in this room. We were just able to do so much. Like originally Bobby had him speaking in this large auditorium, and we were like, “we don’t know,” but he was able to change the vocal quality so it seemed much more close at hand. It’s just spectacular what you can do, unless it’s literally like you need something to… I actually don’t know what you couldn’t do in the podcast medium.

CS: Yes, and what’s so great is that if you’re on a spaceship, you’re on a spaceship. As long as you give over to the quality of writing, or sound, and the soundscape is important and obviously it lends itself to the dialogue very, very well, now we can tap into the imagination. You don’t just have to see the set we did at the Brick. You can see in 360, wherever these environments are. I think Fred and I delight in the power of the imagination. So for us, rather than literally seeing Kirby drawing, we hear it. We hear the sounds of fighting. We imagine what he’s drawing and if we’re fans we have those images in our heads, and we see it circling around. We get to go into that fantasy.

Audio release is a new kind of fantasy fulfillment in such a cool way, in an economical way. It’s kind of the flip of, having come from theater, what theater people always talked about. When you got a ticket it was like, “I got a ticket!” and it only runs for so long, and we can see it here, and, “I have a precious thing.” This is kind of the flip of that, what’s something everyone can listen to and everyone can participate in, and not even within a certain amount of space and time. It takes away the, “Ooh, I’m a part of a special club,” kind of feeling, and says, “no, the club is whoever is interested in this.” Let’s make it accessible. I think we’re living in a time where we’re excited about that, and audio just lends itself to that so perfectly well. I’m really enjoying it.

AIPT: You mentioned the Midtown Comics recording earlier. I had actually found part of that on YouTube. Can you speak to just what it was like recording there, in what’s probably one of the most famous comic book shops in the world.

FVL: It is! This was their downtown location, I’d signed there a bunch as a comic book creator. It was fun. We technically recorded that for what wound up to be the Christmas Eve episode of the Midtown Comics Podcast. Dimitrios who now runs Anyone Comics in Bed-Stuy, here in Brooklyn, he organized it, and we had to do this anyway because we promised it to our Kickstarter backers.

We had actually attempted earlier to do it once, but the recording got screwed, so it was actually the second try of doing the audio recording. It was fun. It was neat. It was bizarre. It was after hours so there were no patrons, there wer no customers in the store, it was just us and some managers, and we all had just a grand ole time. We took everybody out to dinner beforehand at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest restaurants in the country which is already down the street in that South Street SeaPort venue, and it was just a blast.

If you saw it on youtube I was reading the scene directions, but for the audio drama I’m like, “cut me out.” Because that was a reading, right? We were recording a reading of the play, and we wanted something that was much more of a formal kind of drama. 

CS: One of the most beautiful things, and it’s happened a few times, I wrote a play called Open which happened at the Tank and it’s gonna be seen in videos coming up, whenever an actor has something in their bones, y’know a character, and they get to revisit it, especially when it’s closer to the show, sometimes in a year or two they can just tap in cause that character’s always a part of them, it’s very special.

You could see that night. It’s like getting to visit old friends, and getting to be these characters, but what’s really nice is you don’t have to worry about all the other stuff as an actor, that’s why I’m not an actor, like tracking props. I mean this was a very prop heavy show. We had pages that were suddenly blank, and then all of a sudden they’re half drawn, and then they’re penned and inked. I mean the plot was, for a small theater, quite intense. They were just purely acting, and just sitting around that table looking into each other’s eyes, getting to be these characters again, and that was really, really satisfying for all of us. 

FVL: And as I’m sure you’ve noticed from the podcast, each one of those actors plays like seven, or eight, or twelve different people. That in itself kind of lends itself to audio drama where it can just be the voice, and you don’t necessarily need to see the same person putting on eight different hats.

Jack Kirby, King Kirby

AIPT: You mention this as a reward for Kickstarter participants, what was it like funding your play through Kickstarter.

FVL: Nerve wracking! It was my first Kickstarter. I’ve done one, and am preparing to do another one since. It was nerve wracking. It was a lot of checking the app. We hit our goal, I wanna say, about halfway through. Crystal and I were essentially producing the play, and we were rehearsing while we were raising the money, and we’d already booked the space and everything. It was kind of like, “ughhh, what if this doesn’t go, this is gonna be rough,” but it all worked out.

CS: I think what Fred did, and I’m sure everyone talks about perks and stuff, but if someone can’t come to the show what can they get or receive that makes them feel like they’re a part of it.

FVL: Yeah, because the vast majority of our backers, like we had backers as far away as Israel. They’re not going to be able to come and see the New York production, so we wanted to be able to give people in Israel and around the world something they could experience in exchange for their generosity. Due to union laws, which I support, we couldn’t film the play, but we were allowed to do an audio version.

AIPT: One thing you touched on earlier is Bill Finger, not recognized for a long time for his contribution to Batman, to that world, was finally recognized as co-creator in September of 2015 just a year after y’all ran King Kirby. Is there any kinship for what they were doing at the same time [as you], or the Batman and Bill documentary made just a few years later?

FVL: Yeah! Bob Kane and Stan Lee went to the same High School in the Bronx. They were classmates. Then Bob Kane was famously disliked by many, many people, except Stan Lee. He and Stan Lee would always go out and eat and stuff. After Batman, Bob Kane would hire people to paint for him. There’s a lot of three card monte dealer in both Stan and Bob Kane. There are a lot of kinships between Bill Finer and Jack Kirby.

In many ways Bill Finger’s story is super tragic. He had a lot of problems with alcohol, a lot of problems with money. Kirby fortunately had a very tight knight family around him, and was able to get some financial success from his older work in animation later on. But yes, it’s very similar.

AIPT: Have y’all had any contact with the Kirby Estate while working on this, or in response to it?

FVL: Jack’s son Neal sent us a very nice note when our New York Times review came out and was a rave, and that was really cool, but not since then. 

AIPT: Do y’all have any desire, you know you’ve have done it on stage, you’re doing it on podcast now, is there any desire to move to film?

CS: Yeah, you know something that’s interesting is Bobby Cronin’s agent heard his soundtrack and was like, “This is supposed to be on tv! It’s amazing!” Like I said we have a series about comic book creators called Paper Heroes as well. I think it would be incredible for film or tv. Hopefully the phone will ring tomorrow.

FVL: The next hour!

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