Every couple of years, local sketch-comedy troupe Pineapple Shaped Lamps (PSL) produces a full-length show they did not write. This spring at the Red Barn they’re doing “King Kirby” by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente. A biographical play about Jack Kirby, arguably one of the great innovators of sequential art in the 20th century, the script looks like a natural choice for a group of comic book-loving performers. The moment of creation of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Thor, New Gods, Galactus, Silver Surfer, The Incredible Hulk, and many more beloved characters are sprinkled throughout. Essentially, it makes for an ongoing geek fest of joyful recognition.
The script follows Jack Kirby’s (Bryan Cournoyer) life, and begins with his discovery of comics as a child in New York. The love and obsession only grows and cannot be abated. For the child of a sweatshop worker, this does not look like a path to security. But, by his late teens, he was contributing to the family coffers steadily through work as an artist. Eventually, Kirby meets the man who will change his life: Joe Simon (Anthony Corvino). The meeting in Joe’s apartment when the two commiserate over the long shadow of garment industry in both their lives is poignant and beautifully understated with a clinking of glass to “fuckin’ pants” and accompanying headshakes. The two form a collaborative partnership that changes the comic-book industry over and over again.
Not long after Kirby meets a second collaborator, Rosalind “Roz” Kirby (Emily Gomez). She becomes essential to his work, as the love of his life and creative partner in work and art. He needs her more than he realizes, as he heads off first to WWII and then to the bigger battle awaiting him back home: finding work.
Cournoyer’s Kirby has an infinite capacity for production. But finding jobs post WWII? A bit harder. Eventually, Kirby lands in the office of Stan Lee (Phill Antonino), the kid he and Joe used to work with years earlier. Thus begins one of the most famous partnerships in comics. The script traces the development of the sequential art industry and all its bumps and changes: it use as war propaganda, the development of horror comics, romance comics, and the hearings on indecency of comics—followed by the development of Comic Cons, movie deals and collectibles.
A sprightly, energetic and versatile ensemble (Maria Buchanan, Jordan Vogt, Jay Zadeh, and Jamie Davenport) bring to life an assortment of characters, including fast-talking, baseball-loving comic artists, Kirby’s family members, fans, General Marshall, and more. Their fun is infectious, the characters are distinct and the action moves with explosive energy of comics on a page.
Tini Howard has designed a set with sequential art panels and a screen for video projections of cartoons made from Kirby’s work. One has to imagine a show about an artist puts quite an emphasis on visual elements of production. Adding video is really a nice touch to a show intended as an homage to an artist who laid ground work for future generations.
Cournoyer has his hands full with Kirby, a man of many contradictions. But he convinces us of the terrier-like tenacity Kirby had for life, work and survival. One of the tools in his arsenal is a love of work—an escape there. Kirby’s refrain throughout the script—“The work is the magic!”—is perhaps the most beautiful message about art a show like this could convey. It is also his downfall in the real world, because he doesn’t care for or understand the business side of what is happening; being lost in the magic of his studio is his elixir of life.
My date commented how in many ways the show is sort of “Death of a Salesman” in comics. The charismatic, larger-than-life Stan Lee comes with more expectation from fans than Kirby, who didn’t get as much of the limelight during his lifetime. Phill Antonino clearly relishes this part and moves from irritating kid to comic mogul with surprising ease in the course of two hours. His sense of theatrics are never dampened. As Lee’s image grows, his own glee increases. Of the leads perhaps, it is Gomez and Corvino who have the most latitude with their interpretations. Both play people who were mostly out of the public eye. With Corvino, it’s the quiet but strong and hard-nose kid, determined not to spend his life making pants. But Gomez has something harder: the love interest, helpmate and partner in all things without an equal vote. Sorry, but that’s not just her, that’s a description of most wives (i.e., the under-appreciated part of the partnership). She’s strong when she needs to be and determined for him when he needs her to be, but she is not above pleading. Cournoyer loves her, and so did I.
“King Kirby” is a surprising show in a lot of ways. Foremost, it seeks to give credit to a man who found external success largely elusive in his lifetime. What makes it come alive is a cast that fills each moment with devotion, extraordinary energy and connection. In spite of all the challenges Kirby faces (which are a powerful allegory for any creative life), he knows the secret: The magic is the work. Clearly, PSL knows it, too.