Jack Kirby is seen by comic readers as one of the most creative, recognizable and iconic creators of our time, influencing not only the medium of comics but also work that has inspired music, art and modern literature. However, when it comes to a wider “geek” audience, the awareness of just how influential Kirby’s work is seems to be lacking. While Stan Lee has managed to ascend above comics to tackle other media, Kirby’s work has never seemed to work out of the medium of comic books into the wider spectrum of cross-media, television, and film. The King’s vast body of work goes in many ways unnoticed but yet holds so much untapped potential and an entire universe of ideas that could no doubt make superb cartoons, shows, films or computer games.
Comics that line the shelves also proudly sport the titles, ideas and inspiration from his work with books like Godwar, and Astro City being two great examples that tap into his style and visual storytelling. Indeed, his unused work is being re-done by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in the excellent Kirby Genesis. But for the man who created icons like the Fantastic Four (whose iconic first issue front cover is the pure Kirby style of a huge green monster roaring out of the ground) — and then from this, an entire line of superhero titles created by the pair that included books starring characters such as the Hulk, X-Men, Daredevil, Ant-Man and many more — the lack of awareness of his influence is a wider spectrum of “geek” culture is shocking.
It is not hard not to find one or two passing Kirby influences in today’s comic-book shops, but these for the most part are homages to his work. From the obvious, such as Joe Satriani’s Surfing with an Alien album cover or American geek-punk band Kirby Krackle, or T-shirts that show one of the characters he created, the legacy of his work is evident but once you have left the comic book shop, it won’t matter that you knew Kevin Smith’s character in Daredevil is named “Kirby” because Kirby’s work has not had the impact that it should have.
And to me, that’s a huge shame because once you dig a little deeper, you get into the fantastical realms, innovative visual designs, and stunning character creations that make up the body of his work, you realize just how brilliant his work is and imagine the possibilities. Imagine an adult-style HBO show based on The Eternals in the style True Blood, or Kamandi as a post-apocalyptic dystopian future mini-series that could give The Walking Dead a run for its money.
Along with the more iconic and bombastic Stan Lee, Kirby helped create numerous weird and wonderful places and characters that are ripe for further development for both for DC and Marvel. Indeed, the House of Ideas has had its eye on the television market for a while and some of Kirby’s creations would sit very well next to the proposed A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Hulk, or Power Pack. Imagine a show set in the mythical mountain of Wundagore (home of the High Evolutionary) where strange beasts battle for power or a Kung-Fu-esque show starring Iron Fist based in the mythical eastern city of Kun Lun or even a political thriller like The West Wing focusing on the African nation of Wakanda where the Black Panther rules.
Keeping in the current Marvel Universe secret agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. such as Ant-Man and the Wasp, or ATLAS led by Jimmy Woo could week by week be like Stargate and take a peek into Kirby’s parallel worlds ruled by demons or monsters in the Micro-verse, a sub-atomic dimension filled with creatures like Blastaar and the insect-like Annilhius. How would that look as a film designed by the comic-focused eye of Edgar Wright or motion captured by Stephen Spielberg like in Adventures of Tintin? The potential for visual fun of giant ants, microscopic monsters and liquid universes filled with bug-like critters could be fantastic.
What about a medical drama / supernatural show featuring a student named Stephen Strange tacking the dark corners of the universe using magic against Dormammu or Baron Mordo overseen by Guillermo del Toro? These other-worldly concepts of course would have to be filled with Kirby’s unique style of drawing and character design, with pages being crammed with “Kirby Machines” – giant futuristic technology filled and detailed with chrome pipes, odd angles and cracking with unknown energy in the form of “Kirby dots” (a method that the artist used to portray energy).
Now think about this: the super-powered equivalent of Game of Thrones featuring the Inhumans. Taking Kirby’s trademark ideas (namely, superhuman secret civilizations that lived alongside man) these secretive beings hailed from the secret city of Attilan and have in the past fought and been allies with some of Earth’s mightiest heroes. But think about a show where the political machinations of royal life, external threats like the Kree or Supreme Intelligence or internal vying for power by Maximus go hand-in-hand with the personal stories of characters Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and their mute leader Black Bolt.
Layering another aspect could be the fact that bio-diversity being the main key to Inhuman life each character has to go through the “Terrigen Mist,” a mystical substance that could unlock their genetic potential. This gave all the Inhumans superhuman powers such as the ability to breathe under water (such in the case of Triton) or to have vocal cords that could shatter mountains (as in the case with Black Bolt) but also in some cases mutations that are next to useless like San who became a dough-like rabbit creature. A show that tackles diversity as its main key point, change, mutation, and lifestyle choices could all add up to a show that could rival anything seen on television at the moment.
Even if this show proved too costly, what about the Eternals (who first appeared in 1976)? Similar in a lot of ways to the Inhumans, the Eternals consisted of genetically altered proto-humans who had been experimented on by the Celestials, huge skyscraper sized alien gods who wore suits of bizarre stone armor. Seeking to judge earth, the Celestials developed the Eternals to help the evolving of humanity and to test whether the species was deemed worthy to exist. Therefore, characters such as Kronos, Sersi, Ikaris, and Makkari assisted humanity in things like architecture, farming and transport. Again, these characters names after mythological creations was Kirby’s way of saying that these comic characters were seen by the first civilizations as gods due to their great knowledge. Living side by side with humans, these secret super-powered heroes could protect the Earth from deviants, aliens, and the dark corners of the universe such as the mad god Thanos recently seen in the end credits of The Avengers.
These mind-expanding ideas of secrets, super-gods, and aliens are pure Kirby and are ripe for cross-platform development. This idea of giant space gods, superhuman assistance, and alien races were greatly influenced by the work of Erich von Danikens book from the 1970s, Chariots of the Gods in which the author surmised that humanity’s knowledge was given to use by aliens and that we worshiped them as gods. Taking this idea of alien races, “space based supermen” and higher beings would not just work in Marvel’s favor because at DC Kirby explored the idea of cosmic characters even further under the banner of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. The first titles from the series consisted of three titles: The New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People, which were originally intended to be huge mega-series with all the titles linking together in some way and for the books to have a finite lifespan.
The books main themes once again revolved around hidden civilizations and god-like creations. Kirby’s Fourth World books told stories of giant alien gods and the battle between good and evil represented by two planets; the goodies coming from the paradise-like New Genesis and the bad guys coming from the industrial hell-like Apokolips. Using advanced technology such as the sentient computers called Mother Boxes and teleport systems called Boom Tubes, the comics covered the evil lord of Apokolips Darkseid’s quest to find the anti-life equation.
Filled with weird and wonderful characters such as Kalibak, Lightray, Big Barda, Granny Goodness, and Scott Free (a.k.a. Mr. Miracle) the books were off the scale when it came to high-concept sci-fi, intergalactic action and vast space battles that would put Star Wars to shame –and while the high concept would never make it to a live action scenario, imagine a interpretation of this in the style of Star Wars: The Clone Wars – a beautifully rendered CGI cartoon that could bring Darkseid and the rest of the residents of the Fourth World to life.
Then of course there are his lesser-known books and ideas. For every success Kirby had, he also produced numerous concepts that fell by the wayside but seem so full of potential that it would be a shame not to develop them. Ideas such as Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers for the relatively small publisher Pacific Comics is a great example, and with Marvel moving forward with Guardians of the Galaxy, the notion that studios will once again be looking up and into space for their next big franchise could be a great excuse to dust off these lesser known characters and tweak them for the big screen. Think about a kid-focused set of movies with the same feel as Spy-Kids and have Robert Rodriguez to do the honors for this one (in 3D of course). And what about his other characters like, Machine Man? Well, that honor could go to Seth McFarlane to produce crude, offensive animated superhero show based on Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. in which the introspective pondering robots was tweaked to be a hard-drinking, angrier version of Bender from Futurama.
Finally, there are the vast archive of non-produced concept of nearly 600 ideas that Kirby created in the late 1970s and early 80s for Sid and Marty Krofft and Ruby-Spears Productions. Ideas such as the magical themed Warriors of Illusion or the sci-fi Bodyguards would all make ideal Saturday morning television shows – think Power Rangers only with a much higher concept overseen by Genndy Tartakovsky.
There’s a lot of opportunity here, waiting to be realized.
Much as I’d love to see an “Eternals,’”New Gods,” “Kamandi,”or even “Devil Dinosaur” TV show or film, some of Jack’s imaginings are still only achievable with the very biggest of Hollywood budgets. He always thought in big, broad, bold strokes, and Hollywood is only now catching up with there Kirby’s imagination was 40, 50, even 60 years ago. I have to admit, though, that I think there are plenty of “Kirby-sinpired” film and TV properties out there already — Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Iron Man, The Hulk, X-Men — any objective analysis of how things worked at Marvel in the early “bullpen” days leads one to conclude that aside from coming up with the names of characters or teams and then filling in word balloons (that were already largely written for him in advance by the artists), Stan Lee didn’t have much of a hand in actually “creating” anything. He’s alive to take all the credit, as he loves to do, while Jack has sadly long since passed on and Ditko leads a life where he’s distanced himself from all this by design, but let’s not kid ourselves — the Marvel way has always been the artists do the real work, and Stan Lee takes all the credit and receives all the adulation. I take your point that none of Kirby’s “solo” creations have made the transition into other major media and it would be lovely to see them do so, but I respectfully disagree that Lee had much hand in “co”-creating the propertiesa ssociated with his name at all. to my mind, the “collaborators” involved in the creation of the Marvel universe were, by and large, 90% Jack Kirby and himself, 8% Steve Ditko and himself, and 2% Bill Everett and himself, with Stan Lee providing minimal editing, minimal dialogue and word-box tinkering, andthen proceeding to put his name at the top of the credits, reap the rewards and adulation, and generally appointing himself the public face of all this work he had very little to do with beyond dreaming up a few catchy names for characters and throwing the occasional “Face front, true believers!” into a panel that Jack, Steve, or Bill had already written. Where are the Kirby-inspired Hollywood properties, then? Why, ruling the roost at the box office for the past decade.