A portrait of Jack Kirby, one of the most influential artists in the history of comic books, “King Kirby” runs through Jan. 23 at Ballard Underground.
If you ever take in a movie, or covet memorabilia or a vintage comic book featuring The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man or Captain America, give a silent thanks to Jack Kirby.
A skilled graphic artist with a fantastical imagination, Kirby first drew those and many other cartoon superheroes for Marvel Comics and other major purveyors of action fantasias. He eventually received recognition for his influential artistry, but only a fraction of the royalties and credit owed to him given his role in American pop culture.
It’s all laid out in “King Kirby,” an engrossing bio-play by Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman that’s receiving a dynamic staging from Ghost Light Theatricals. On now at Ballard Underground, the production is served well in the compact basement venue thanks to Rob Raas-Bergquist’s four-point, in-the-round staging and a vigorously engaged cast.
By Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman. Through Jan. 23 at Ballard Underground, 2220 N.W. Market St., Seattle; $12-$15 (206-395-5458 or ghostlighttheatricals.org).
Four ramps spoking out from center stage, and outsized silk-screen prints of famous comic-book champions, define Brandon Estrella’s crafty scenic design. The set allows the role-switching cast smooth access as they exit and reappear in a variety of guises and eras.
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“King Kirby” opens with the canonization of its subject at a high-level sale, where an auctioneer recounts the artist’s pictorial achievements and begins the bidding on each Kirby illustration at thousands of dollars.
From somewhere in the beyond, Kirby (who died in the 1990s, and is portrayed with vigor and conviction by Rick Espaillat) looks on disgustedly at the pretentious upscaling of his work.
In a pungent Brooklyn accent and with a defensive edginess, Kirby takes us back to his humble beginnings growing up in a rough neighborhood, where he had to use his fists to fend off attackers.
No wonder he invented heroic protectors and epic rescuers. Fascinated by mythology and quick with a sketchbook, Kirby starts out doing grunt work in a cartoon sweatshop, forms a partnership with a business-savvy pal, and comes into his own working under a series of amusingly irate moguls. In collaboration with head honcho and collaborator Stan Lee, he’s a big reason why Lee’s Marvel Comics still thrill the masses with spinoffs of characters created in the 1940s and ’50s.
Lee is portrayed as a marketing maestro and idea man, who not only stiffed his top artist out of franchise deals and royalties but also presented himself as the sole inventor of superheroes co-created and fleshed out by Kirby.
“It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done,” explained fellow Marvel artist Gil Kane. “Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field.”
It’s a familiar story: By the time a trusting Kirby realized he was being cheated, it was impossible to recover the royalties he deserved.
Kirby attains some measure of heroism here as he sticks to his decency and principles in a ruthless industry (also the subject of another play, Book-It Rep’s recent “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”). And speaking of credit, a good portion here should go to Espaillat, a versatile TV and film actor tackling his first major Seattle stage role.
Whether bitterly angry or crotchety, sweetly infatuated with the encouraging gal he marries or dodging bullets while hunting down Nazis in Europe, Espaillat never flags at conveying Kirby’s angry aliveness, and his relentless creativity.