7340The Amazing Adventures of Pencil Man
- Jun 23, 2014
Theater | Theater Review | 'King Kirby'By ANDY WEBSTERJUNE 22, 2014“King Kirby,” now at the Brick in Brooklyn as part of the Comic Book Theater Festival, opens with a scene that prompts knowing eye rolls to those familiar with the show’s subject: In 1994, a Sotheby’s auctioneer, hawking work by the comic book artist Jack Kirby, dismissively confuses Spider-Man with Iron Man. Of course she does; after all, this is comic book art, not “fine” art, and the cultural elite, like countless parents, have sneered at comics since time immemorial. Even comic publishers, as this show demonstrates, were once happy to shortchange their own creators.Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente, the husband-and-wife playwrights behind “King Kirby,” know the score. She wrote the smart Off Off Broadway shows “Cut” and the fangirl-friendly “Geek”; he was a co-author of the graphic novel “Cowboys & Aliens,” later adapted for a Hollywood sci-fi western. With this supple, informative and poignant portrait, they offer penetrating insight into the tirelessly prolific Kirby (1917-94), whose brawny and dynamic yet nuanced style dominated comics for more than 40 years. Their play (Kirby was known as the king) documents a creator who attained immortality even as his life ended amid a morass of corporate exploitation.With deft compression, the show outlines Kirby’s impoverished Lower East Side origins and his longtime collaboration with the writer-artist Joe Simon (played by Joseph Mathers), with whom he created Captain America at Timely Comics in 1941. (Their studio gofer was a young Stan Lee, later the editor of Marvel Comics.) It touches on Kirby’s courtship of his wife, Roz (Amy Lee Pearsall), and his service under Patton in World War II. And it depicts the comics industry’s postwar decline, exacerbated by the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings into supposed links between comics and juvenile delinquency, embodied here in the toxic testimony of Dr. Fredric Wertham (Timothy McCown Reynolds).In closest focus are Kirby’s knotty dealings at Marvel in the 1960s and ‘70s with Lee, who was then Kirby’s boss. (Nat Cassidy, in a sly impersonation, presents a tireless news media self-promoter.) With Lee, Kirby created a revolution in the field; Kirby visualized numerous characters now ubiquitous in movies, television and licensing. In the play, Lee — nephew of Marvel’s publisher, Martin Goodman (Mr. Reynolds again, embodying icy, ruthless capitalism) — parrots the company line, denying Kirby’s request for royalties, rights to characters, and even the vast majority of his penciled originals. Lee is a celebrity, while the humble Kirby, Marvel’s golden goose, is paid merely by the drawn page. “Why does everyone worship the bosses?” Kirby cries, defeated.At a lean hour and a half, this production hits nary a speed bump, thanks to its fluid script and the director John Hurley’s assured pacing. Janie Bullard’s sound design and Olivia Harris’s set and lighting are unobtrusively effective, while Holly Rihn’s costumes nicely evoke changing times. The cast is uniformly on target, with Steven Rattazzi’s Kirby a sympathetic blend of street smarts, boyish creativity and a hard-working, over-trusting disposition.The Kirby story isn’t over; his heirs still press for a share of the rights to Marvel properties. But the play ends as it should, with a montage on a screen presenting characters bearing his stamp. The X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, Thor, the Fantastic Four — perhaps you’ve heard of them.A version of this review appears in print on June 23, 2014, on page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: The Amazing Adventures of Pencil Man.“King Kirby” continues through Sunday at the Brick, 579 Metropolitan Avenue, near Lorimer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 212-352-3101, bricktheater.com. The Comic Book Theater Festival also continues at the Brick through Sunday.