Sure, Jack Kirby’s a revered artist, and he created some of the best known comic characters around. Captain America and the Avengers and the Inhumans and the X-men, Galactus and the Silver Surfer and Red Skull and Darkseid, Kirby had a major hand in the stories and look of the heroes and villains currently raking in millions upon millions for film franchises on both sides of the ‘verse divide. He’s a giant of a figure, as BBP continues celebrating a summer of Kirby at 100. But did you know Jack Kirby was a spy?
Okay, spy’s a pretty huge stretch. But Jack Kirby had a small part to play in the rescue of six American hostages trapped in revolutionary Iran, a true tale most of us know through Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo. In 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown, and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in a tidal wave of religious zeal. The American embassy was stormed and all the diplomats there were taken hostage. Except for six diplomats lucky enough to escape in the confusion. They managed to get to the Canadian embassy, no one the wiser that six Americans had evaded capture.
The problem was that those six diplomats had no way to get out of the country. The second they left the safety of the Canadian compound, odds were they would be captured and immediately taken hostage along with the rest. So they hid out. For nearly three months. The Canadian ambassador alerted his government, who in turn informed the U.S. that these six people were safe, sort of. But if they were seen or their Canadian cover broken, they’d be in immediate danger. Someone was going to have to go in and get these Americans out.
Enter Jack Kirby! Well, no, not yet. Rather, enter Tony Mendez, a CIA operative skilled at exfiltration. Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez in Argo, coming across as a determined cypher, but nothing like the studied blankness of the man himself. Mendez’s life philosophy is to be invisible, a “little grey man.” He was so good at being grey the CIA gave him its rare highest honor, the Intelligence Star. Which he had to keep secret. Cuz the CIA.
Mendez hatched the plan to get the Americans out under the cover of being a Canadian film crew. Low-budget Canadian films were flying on Hollywood’s radar a lot at the time, owing to favourable tax deals. So he figured it wasn’t much of a stretch to have a Canadian crew scouting locations in Iran, even if there was a revolutionary war going on. To be believable, though, Mendez needed a viable property to hang his film on. So he headed to Hollywood to work his contacts and set-up a fake production company.
Enter Jack Kirby! Well, no. Nearly, but still not yet. Rather, enter John Chambers, a special makeup effects artist who’d worked on the original Star Trek TV series and Planet of the Apes. Chambers had done some makeup work for Mendez in the past, assisting with CIA disguises, so he was an easy pick. Chambers had a pile of Hollywood connections. Even better, he had exactly the script in mind, an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s award-winning sixties sci-fi fantasy novel Lord of Light. Barry Ira Gellar had written a screen adaptation of the novel, with even more elaborate plans to use the film to launch a theme park called Science Fiction Land. Gellar had gotten a pile of people involved in the project, including not just Chambers but luminaries like Ray Bradbury and Buckminster Fuller. They did a pile of development work on the film and the theme park, drawing up posters and storyboards as well as rough sketches for the park’s layout. But the project fizzled. Films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were heating up interest in science fiction, but Lord of Light was too elaborate and weirdly psychedelic.
Guess who did all the artwork, the posters and the sketches and storyboards? You got it. Jack Kirby! Between his many back and forths at Marvel and DC, Kirby briefly worked for Hana-Barbera at the end of the seventies. He did designs for Thundarr the Barbarian and The New Fantastic Four animated series, and illustrated an adaption of The Black Hole. His time in Hollywood brought him into Gellar’s orbit, and he created all of the Lord of Light and Science Fiction Land illustrations.
Chambers and Mendez built a whole fake production around the Lord of Light. Mendez, showing a flare for production himself, thought the name sucked, and rechristened it Argo. He got the name from his favourite knock-knock joke, with the punchline “Argo fuck yourself.” (The joke wound up in the movie as a running gag, but not Mendez’s original use of it.) They ran ads in Variety for the movie, establishing it as a credible cover. The ads used Kirby’s artwork. And when Mendez went to Iran posing as Argo‘s producer, Kirby’s art was a key part of the pitch that won authorities over. Iranian officials saw his images for elaborate palaces and deistic figures and saw how the film could capture Iran’s history in its setting. The artwork anchored Mendez’s elaborate lie, just as much as the Canadian passports and other forged documents.
Ironically, Ben Affleck’s Argo doesn’t use Kirby’s artwork. Guess they didn’t want to pay for the rights. But it’s a great story, even if the last third of the movie is total Hollywood fantasy. While the film crackles with superb knuckle-whitening tension, there were zero actual incidents at the airport getting the hostages out. Tony Mendez was really good at his job, and the Canadian government provided many vital assists (they bought the plane tickets well ahead of time that the movie creates such a panic about). Still, along with the CIA and the Canucks, Jack Kirby deserves a significant share of the credit, for creating images that made a fantasy real enough to fool a hostile government and save six lives. Good on ya, Jack! Happy birthday!
For the collectors out there, you can own some of Jack Kirby’s Lord of Light artwork, colored by Mark Englert and published in Heavy Metal #276. The edition came out in 2015. Happy hunting!