Friday, February 12, 2010

When New Gods walked the Earth (or at least Santa Cruz)

[Pic: Portia, wife of Brutus, designed by Jack Kirby]

When I walked out of the theater summer before last after screening the Jon Favreau Iron Man, I got in my car and wondered why such a perfect "live action" realization of the comic book of my youth would leave me feeling so completely hollow. My Marvel-addicted inner child had suffered through so many disappointments, from the 1970s Spider-Man TV series to the Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno Hulk to the Captain America movie starring J.D. Salinger's kid to the Dolph Lundgren Punisher — a series of lessons in how adult reality throws a wet blanket on juvenile wonder. The new slew of movies like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man were so perfect in their visual recreation and fidelity to the smart-ass Marvel style that they were taking over Hollywood. So why did they make me feel even worse than their clumsy predecessors?

On reflection, I concluded the problem is this: well-realized comic book movies obliterate the negative space of the comic book form, depriving the imagination of its ability to create by filling in all the spaces previously left unfilled. The brief appearance in a 1971 comic book of some character you had never encountered before, or even the description of other narratives in progress on the Stan Lee Excelsior page, was an infinitely more stimulating trigger of readerly creation than the actual filmic occupation of a reality in which Robert Downey Jr. drunkenly detonates the mujahideen.

So I was very intrigued last week to come across evidence of a very different instance of comic book realization in reality. One so very much like some fantastic counterfactual invention that I'm sure it is a pop-Borgesian reality disruption. The strange story of New Gods-era Jack Kirby's creation of costume designs for a 1969 U.C. Santa Cruz production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The (surely invented) Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center tells the story, without ever indicating it has been written by Lost Pages-era Paul Di Filippo:

In 1969, Sheldon Feldner contacted Marvel Comics, asking if one of Marvel's artists would be interested in designing costumes for a production of William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar by the University Theatre Company at Santa Cruz at the newly-built Cowell College of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

As luck would have it, the Kirby family had recently moved to California, and Stan Lee recommended that Feldner contact Jack Kirby. Kirby designed the costumes and provided a drawing that was used on posters, handbills and programs at no cost to the students. The poster drawing was rendered onto large two-color posters by Robert Page of the UCSC Art Department. Page also adapted Kirby's color costume designs into black-and-white. Not only were color photographs taken of cast members in their costumes, but black and white photos were taken during the costume production.

[Pic: Calpurnia and maid]

An article about Kirby providing the costume designs was published in the 3 May 1969 issue of "Peninsula Living," a Santa Cruz-area Sunday newspaper magazine supplement. The article was illustrated with some of Page's adaptions of Kirby's designs, as well as two Thor panels from "Lest Mankind Endure!" published in May 1969's The Mighty Thor 164.

Alas, the awesome revelation that, for a brief period in 1969, the New Gods actually walked on stage and laid down acid-filtered Bardic verse under the black lights, mostly just confirms the extent to which contemporary Capital has appropriated wonder and squeezed out the space for this kind of experimentation with the boundaries of reality and imaginative narratives.


Unknown said...

Hi Chris,

The Kirby Museum is an actual non-profit with programs and wonderful supporters. It's invented only as all corporations are...

- Rand Hoppe

Christopher Brown said...

Thanks, Rand, it's great work you guys are doing.