This week’s Guest Star is writer, producer and friend of the Gutter John Crye. John Crye is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles.
Jack Kirby’s work made him both a living and a posthumous legend. Having created or co-created some of the world’s greatest superheroes, starting with “Captain America” in 1940, Kirby was already an undisputed member of the pantheon of comic book gods decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe would bring his magic to the masses. Yes, some of Kirby’s later work lacks the focus and power of his earlier stuff–I’m looking at you, “Dingbats of Danger Street”–and it is true that much of his legend is consumed by his battles with Marvel’s beloved face man, Stan “the Man” Lee, but there are few artists in history whose work has so fundamentally shaped their medium. For a kid collecting comics in the ‘70s, Kirby’s influence was impossible to escape.
I moved to the suburb of Thousand Oaks, California from Boston, Massachusetts –with a brief and regrettable stop over in an apartment in Hollywood–in 1996, and lived there for twenty years. I raised my kids there, coached soccer there, volunteered in the community, the whole shebang, but it was only just before I moved again that I found out that Jack Kirby had lived in Thousand Oaks right up to his death in 1994. What’s more, I know people who knew him, or had met him, or had seen him at the grocery store on occasion. I share mutual friends (IRL, actual lowercase friends) with the Jack Kirby! Jolly Jack Kirby! His work has been as persistent an influence in my life as that of any pop culture creator I’ve encountered, from Jim Henson to Stephen King to the Beatles, and I had missed my chance to meet him by a little more than a year. The close proximity of the miss just made it worse.
I have had the fortune (I think that’s the word for it) of being in the position to meet famous and legendary people as part of my job. Every now and then I have been able to meet someone that I truly admire, and on a couple of occasions I have even met personal heroes. In fact, I had the opportunity to meet Kirby’s erstwhile partner, Stan Lee back around 2009. He was already a kind of Walt Disney figure in my “true believer” imagination, and he did not disappoint. He was charming and funny and everything else you’d hope Stan Lee would be. Somehow, though, the joy of having met Stan in no way matches the scale of the disappointment of missing Jack. I ask myself why that should be, and the best answer I can provide is that I knew Stan Lee–or I knew the image of Stan Lee–and meeting him, while delightful, was little more than a first-person confirmation of the image. As the figurehead of Marvel since the 1960’s and the narrator of my personal cartoon jam, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Stan always seemed to be as much Mickey Mouse as he was Walt Disney, a creation as much as a creator, and the hour I spent with him did nothing to change that opinion. Kirby, however, was ever the retiring figure, with no such larger-than-life character preceding him. There’s more than one book out about Kirby, mostly of the pop culture academic variety, but he generally let his work speak for him. When Kirby was sought out for interviews, they were typically focused on his legal battles with Lee over custody of their immortal progeny. Was Kirby really taciturn and bitter, or just a mishandled interview subject? Was he really the Tesla-like misunderstood genius lost in the glare of Lee’s Edison-scale wattage, or just an ironically blank canvas on which we’ve been projecting a picture that, like one of Kirby’s own splash pages, over-sells the content that follows. Impossible to say. We never got to know Kirby the way we got to know Lee. That’s the part that hurts. That’s what I decided I would write about for my article commemorating the 103rd anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth.
And then, on Kirby’s birthday, we lost Chadwick Boseman.
I suddenly found it difficult to compose anything that makes even a passing reference to Kirby’s co-creation, Black Panther, without mentioning Chadwick Boseman. But there is no way to just mention Chadwick Boseman. I stopped writing. Obviously, I would need to re-think. Such a stunning loss would require a different piece, but what could I say? Like pretty much everyone on the planet, I’m a fan of Boseman’s work. Like too many of us, I didn’t consider just how much of a fan I was until he was gone. This is no slight to his achievements, which were so grand and concentrated in such a brief period that he seemed to have emerged onto the scene like Athena, full-grown and armored. He was so young and vibrant that his blazing future felt like a foregone conclusion. I had assumed that there would be more time for consideration.
And then I realized that I was writing the same piece, after all.
Chadwick Boseman had been working consistently in television for a decade before he played African-American baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the 2013 feature, 42. In yet another layer of dreadful coincidence, Boseman died on Jackie Robinson Day. That was followed the next year with a portrayal of godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up. In between those two leads, he starred opposite Kevin Costner in an Ivan Reitman film, Draft Day. Perhaps it had something to do with the iconic status of the men he was playing overshadowing him, perhaps it was due to Boseman’s noted humility and work ethic, perhaps it was due to the systemic racism that keeps Black celebrities from sharing the same limelight as their white costars, likely it was a combination of all of the above, but despite those starring roles, Chadwick Boseman was still yet to be deemed a “star.” He retained the anonymity of a working actor. We all know what happened next, of course, and I don’t mean the would-be career cul-de-sac known as Gods of Egypt (2016). Boseman made his first appearance as the Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and suddenly we all knew him. He was T’Challa. If there were still any doubters, they were forever silenced by his return to the role in 2018’s Black Panther, but between those two features, Boseman starred in a fantastic stripped-down Thriller, Message from the King (2016) and then once again played an icon in Marshall (2017) about the rise of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
Even as Boseman was on his way to becoming a household name, he remained a celebrity of the lowest profile. He dutifully promoted his films, but otherwise his public appearances were minimal and lacked anything close to gossip or controversy. His demeanor appeared to be warm, but reserved. The kind of news he made was charitable and positive. He provided no grist for rumor mills. He would appear as the Black Panther two more times, in the two-part conclusion to Marvel’s Infinity Stone saga that wrapped up in 2019. His screen time was limited but Boseman needed no time at all to establish T’Challa’s combination of nobility and empathy. He was T’Challa.
The past year saw Boseman turn in strong work in 21 Bridges and Da 5 Bloods, and meanwhile his fans grumbled about the delay of the next appearance of Black Panther. And then came the first piece of news that seemed impossible: he was gone at the age of 43. The second piece of seemingly impossible news followed closely on the heels of the first: he had succumbed to a 4-year battle with cancer. I had to stop and do the math. His diagnosis would have come in 2016, around the same time that he was stepping into the role of T’Challa for the first time. Every time we saw him in that black and purple suit, he was battling cancer. The entire time the world was celebrating what we perceived as a meteoric rise, he was enduring a painful struggle to survive. The entire time, he suffered in silence and outwardly projected the confidence, pride and grace that we had all come to expect. To my mind, this is a wonderful gift that he granted to his fans, particular his young fans who saw in him a role model that they could identify with and trust. He preserved the image of the Black Panther for them, knowing just as well as T’Challa does that the symbol outlives the man. Unfortunately, the public didn’t have the opportunity to get to know the man so often described as “deeply private” and “guarded”, as well.
According to his son, Jacob “Jack Kirby” Kurtzberg proposed the idea of the Black Panther by saying to him one day in 1966, “I think the world needs a Black superhero, don’t you?” Launching a character called “Black Panther” in the heated midst of America’s (still on-going) battle for equal civil rights may have seemed commercially risky, but it was perfectly in keeping with Kirby’s personal politics. “He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day,” his son, Neal, said in a 2018 interview with “The Hollywood Reporter”.
Kirby was also no stranger to controversy. After the cover of “Captain America” #1 featured Cap punching Hitler on the jaw–a scene replicated to comic perfection in 2011’s Captain America: First Avenger–Kirby and his partner, Joe Simon, received death threats from members of the American Nazi Party. Mayor LaGuardia sent police officers to protect Simon and Kirby’s offices. That was 1940, a full year before America would enter World War Two, but whatever the period equivalent of the “good people on both sides” argument was, Jack Kirby was having no part of it. So when Kirby and Lee established this new African-American hero as being equal or superior to his fellows on the Marvel roster, their intent was clear and purposeful. Most who look back at reprints of Kirby’s run of “The Black Panther” will likely be disappointed. His broad, bombastic style is far removed from the serious tone we now associate with the character, and the stories he and Lee told with T’Challa were pulpy adventures that are bland compared to the blistering “Black Panther vs. the Klan” storyline by Don McGregor and Billy Graham. Still it remains true that the heroic Wakandan prince that has inspired so many was born from Kirby’s question–perhaps his challenge, “I think the world needs a Black superhero, don’t you?”
I regret that I missed my opportunity to meet Mr. Kirby. I missed a chance to ask him about Black Panther and the Fantastic Four and the New Gods and Funky Flashman. It feels like we all missed out on Kirby, to some extent. So much of his work speaks of an expansive, empathetic mind that was as deeply thoughtful as Lee’s was charming and glib. ‘Deeply thoughtful’ often means ‘quiet and retiring,’ however, and so we have comparatively few articles and books about the ironically nicknamed “Jolly Jack,” the kind of misanthropic personality one must seek out or miss entirely. Kirby may have complained bitterly–and justifiably–about being denied credit for and ownership of his characters, but he never sought to steal the spotlight from Lee. My regret is entirely selfish, I understand. It is selfish in the same way that wishing I could see more work from Chadwick Boseman is selfish. I comfort myself with the thought that he would, likewise, wish to have told more stories, but the truth is, Boseman was just as private an individual as Kirby, as we have all been stunned to learn. They presented us with their very fine work, and with as much of their outward persona as they were willing to share. We may never have the chance to know what motivates an artist we love, or maybe we only learn their truth after they are gone. We may never have the chance to tell them how much we love their work and what a big fan we are. It is selfish, maybe, but it still hurts.
There’s a way to shed these feelings of regret. As we all fumble forward through the rest of 2020, let’s all please pause to consider this: we do not know what burden anyone else is bearing right now, only the public face that they present, so be kind. We cannot know how long we will have those we admire and love with us, so be present. We cannot know how the struggles we face will end, but we can face them together, so be brave. Our heroes expect no less.
John Crye is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. When he’s not writing and producing, he’s offering development, editing, and coaching services to writers via his website, True Development. Visit him at www.truedev.sharpcrye.com