Some Respect for The King!

by
Jack Kirby: Storyteller
Produced by John Mefford
On Fantastic Four 2-disc Special Edition – MSRP: $26.98
  

When DVD started to take off about ten years ago, it brought new life to the art of the Director’s Cut… then killed it. In the new competition to have more extra minutes of material than other discs, studios have replaced director’s cuts with something called Extended Editions. These are made without the participation of a film’s director and generally restore any completed scenes that have been cut from the film for any reason, without regard to pacing or relevance, all in the name of “added value.”

Such is the case with the new extended edition of Fantastic Four. The new version is 20 minutes longer and with a little more care could have contained a decent director’s cut within it, through the reappearance of scenes that more fully flesh out the characters and tighten the plot slightly. However, these scenes are balanced out by the inclusion of redundant scenes, such as two nearly identical versions of Reed and Sue’s date coming back-to-back, and embarrassing moments that were rightly cut, as when Alicia Masters erotically dusts The Thing.

No, the reason to own this DVD over the original release is the material on the second disc, specifically the documentary on Jack Kirby, entitled simply Jack Kirby: Storyteller. There’s also a documentary about the history of the Fantastic Four comic book called The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, but it suffers from too strong a feeling of official history, highlighting the same eras and creators that any Marvel Comics history of the FF would. The amusing sequence in which it’s plainly apparent that John Byrne must have refused to cooperate and his run is described through captions uses nearly the same wording to describe his time on the series as the back covers of the Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne series. The highlight is Walter Simonson describing some of his artistic choices from when he was FF’s writer/artist, but the film is largely skippable unless you’re new to the Four.

Not so Jack Kirby: Storyteller. Considering the acclaim that Marvel DVDs to date have given Stan Lee, it was about time The King received the credit he’s due as well. At just over an hour, this documentary provides a satisfying overview of much of Kirby’s career and stature in the industry, told in an alternately reverent and thoughtful manner by some of his contemporaries and many of the artists he influenced. It was fascinating to hear how many were at first “freaked out” by Kirby before coming to appreciate his work (Grant Morrison admits to the same in his introduction to The Fourth World Omnibus volume 1: [Page 1] [Page 2]). Kirby’s work can seem off-putting to a contemporary audience, but I had no idea so many of his peers initially found his work so strange.

Details like that kept me interested, even though the general story was familiar. The documentary finds a good balance between discussing the appeal of Kirby’s work (Neal Adams admits that Kirby’s anatomy may not be right, but challenges other pros to match his power), different stages of his career, his personal life and place in fandom and even a tribute to Roz Kirby, his wife, partner, protector and partial inspiration for Big Barda. That last section is both amusing, when fans describe Roz taking away art that Jack had absentmindedly given them, and touching in its description of her place in fandom after Jack died. As one of the only places music appears in the film, it gets a bit cloying, but convincingly relates Roz’s importance in Jack’s life and work.

The biggest surprise to me, given the company line feel of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, is the inclusion of controversy in Jack Kirby: Storyteller. While Marvel has generally been happy to credit Stan Lee as the architect of its universe, the documentary challenges that claim. A few of the artists interviewed broach the subject, with Barry Windsor-Smith going so far as to say, “You think Stan Lee could have created the FF? No!” Since the questions of adequate credit and compensation run through Kirby’s biography, allowing the documentary to get into controversial territory adds considerable depth to the film’s narrative. Interestingly, no defense of Lee is included.

The only real problem with Jack Kirby Storyteller being included on a Marvel DVD is that it limits how much of Kirby’s career can be discussed in depth. The filmmakers make an effort to include every era of his career and certainly mention his time at DC and other publishers both before and after his famous Marvel period, but they’re given short shrift, presumably because the filmmakers only have rights artwork from his Marvel years. Some very early Kirby work shows up, but no art from, for instance, his time at DC in the ’70s is included. With nothing to put on camera, the film understandably speeds through Kirby’s later non-Marvel work.

I enjoyed Jack Kirby: Storyteller and learned things that I didn’t know. It’s not a perfect portrait and couldn’t be as long as Kirby’s entire career didn’t receive equal attention, but it’s the best film effort I’ve seen to date to give The King his due.

Highly Recommended.

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