"The Avengers #4" from March 1964. Images from Wikipedia

On the centennial of Jack Kirby’s birth, his superheroes still pack a punch


He is known, quite simply, as the “King of Comics.”

Born Jacob Kurtzberg, artist and writer Jack Kirby, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 28, was a driving, creative force during the Golden Age of comics in the 1940s, and he revolutionized the comics industry again during its Silver Age in the 1960s.

Kirby was the co-creator of such comic book icons as the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Black Panther, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and, most notably, Captain America and the Avengers. It was Captain America’s initial appearance that put Kirby on the map as a dynamic and provocative storyteller — especially since that appearance featured America’s First Avenger punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw, a full year before the United States entered World War II.

Kirby’s controversial drawing made a splash at the time, but his prolific, creative output from that point on proved that he was no one-hit wonder.

Artistically, Kirby injected comic books for Marvel, DC and others with a much-needed boost of energy. His vivacious, explosive illustrations are often described as too big for the page, imbuing the images with buoyant grandiosity. Kirby also became known for humanizing his superheroes, bestowing them with moral failings, romantic entanglements and petty grudges as a means of infusing them with more down-to-earth relatability. The Fantastic Four, co-created with Stan Lee in 1961, signifies this shift toward realism.

The son of Austrian immigrants, Kirby grew up poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In a lengthy interview with The Comics Journal in 1990, four years before his death, he painted an image of Depression-infested tenements, daily street fights and anti-Semitism. Kirby hated the Lower East Side and longed to graduate to the glitzy Midtown newspaper offices of the writers and editors he admired. But Kirby was always quite the maverick: At age 14 he enrolled in New York’s esteemed Pratt Institute, but dropped out after a week because he “didn’t like places with rules.”

In his late teens and early 20s, Kirby freelanced for several different comic strips before a brief stint in animation. He then began to collaborate with Joe Simon, a Rochester, N.Y., cartoonist who proved to be the more business-savvy of the two. The pair finally burst onto the burgeoning comic book scene with the memorable, Nazi-bashing “Captain America Issue #1.”

Jack Kirby

Like many of his creative contemporaries — including Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and Stan Lee himself — Kirby and Simon were Jewish.

Although Kirby attended Hebrew school as a boy and grew up in a Conservative household, he used pseudonyms as a freelancer and eventually changed his name permanently to Jack Kirby because, as he explained in his interview with The Comics Journal, “I wanted to be American.” For these young men who craved success in the secular world and sought an escape from their poor neighborhoods, assimilation was less a vindictive act than a straightforward means of increasing their chance for success.

In fact, Kirby always believed in his faith and enjoyed reading the Bible, his wife Roz (née Goldstein) confirmed in a 1995 interview. And it is evident that Kirby drew from Jewish mythology for inspiration for some of his characters and storylines: Kirby’s “New Gods” series for DC Comics features a character formerly known as Izaya the Inheritor, whose encounter with the Source is similar to the biblical story of Moses and the burning bush.

Jewish folklore also played a part in constructing the characters of the Hulk and Fantastic Four’s the Thing, both of whom share physical attributes with the Golem. And although X-Men villain Magneto was only later reimagined as a Holocaust survivor, the parallels between antimutant sentiments in the X-Men universe and anti-Semitism in ours are self-evident.

Kirby’s backstory for the Thing’s alter ego, Benjamin Grimm, reflects Kirby’s own childhood as well. Like Kirby, Grimm grew up poor and Jewish on the Lower East Side, getting into scraps and street fights with
other neighborhood kids. Steve Rogers, the scrawny son of Irish immigrants who would go on to become Captain America, had a similar upbringing.

Although Kirby eventually would serve in the U.S. Army during World War II after he was drafted in 1943, “Captain America Issue #1” allowed him and Simon to express their displeasure with the moral repugnance of Hitler’s Third Reich even before the United States formally declared war. This espousal of big-picture ideals, patriotism and strong personal ethics is precisely what has made the character of Captain America so beloved to comic book fans and so enduring in American culture, especially now, given current tensions over white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis.

It is not only through Captain America that Kirby’s legacy lives on. At Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim in July, Kirby was named a “Disney Legend” for his lasting work with Marvel Comics. The Jack Kirby tribute panel is an annual feature of the famous Comic-Con International: San Diego, and the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center in Hoboken, N.J., provides and supports educational programming to commemorate the comic book legend’s legacy.

This year, a century after Jack Kirby’s birth, the X-Men, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers loom larger than ever in the cultural zeitgeist. When Kirby died in his home in Thousand Oaks in 1994, the headline of his obituary in The New York Times described him as having “created comic book superheroes.”

Thanks to the revolutionary imagination of this scrappy kid from the Lower East Side, Kirby is not just the creator of comic book superheroes — he’s the king. 

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING *Movie Review*


Peter Parker is back.

Spider-Man: Homecoming begins shortly after last year’s Captain America: Civil War ends with Tom Holland back, this time in the title role.  He’s the youngest Spidey in a decade trying to balance high school, his Spidey skills and learning to drive.  The problem?  His age shows.

Spider-Man: Homecoming also stars Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei and Jon Batalon.  It was directed by Jon Watts.

For more about how Spider-Man: Homecoming stacks up and what stood out the most, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

DOCTOR STRANGE *Movie Review*


This week I review DOCTOR STRANGE.  The latest Marvel superhero movie is about the mystical rather than the physical.  When Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon, loses use of his hands following a car accident, he travels to Nepal to see The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) as he learns that she may be able to help him.  The movie also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Benjamin Bratt with the requisite cameo by Marvel creator Stan Lee.

Time plays an interesting role because usually when time is used as a major theme it has to do with not having enough of it.  I think the bigger theme here had to do with how time can be a blessing and, perhaps even more so, a curse.  The differentiation is important because lack of time is a common concept; there isn’t enough time to do work or to relax or to spend with loved ones.  We don’t tend to consider that more time isn’t necessarily better.  For instance, if you live forever then you’ll have the heartache of watching everyone you love die since the whole world cannot live forever. Immortality and limitless time and life continue to be things we long for as a whole, but sometimes without acknowledging the consequences.  It’s interesting, too, how DOCTOR STRANGE uses time as a punishment, so pay attention for that element as well.

Water and how it cleanses and represents rebirth is another theme in DOCTOR STRANGE.

For more about water, religious symbolism in DOCTOR STRANGE and product placement deals, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR *Movie Review*


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the latest movie offering from Marvel.  While most action movies have a weak plot bolstered by great action sequences, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR delves deeper with themes about loyalty and revenge at the forefront.  The audience is asked to consider if loyalty should be given freely, if it should ever be withdrawn and when enough is enough.

Stocked with plenty of surprises for Marvels fans and newbies alike, it makes for a pleasant outing regardless of your previous Marvel knowledge.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR stars Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany.

For more about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR as well as some insider information about how actors stay cool in their superhero costumes and how fight scenes are shot, take a look below…

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Paul Rudd ponders how he will be remembered with Walk of Fame star


As audiences gear up to see Paul Rudd become Marvel's smallest superhero in “Ant-Man,” the actor candidly reminisced about the legacy he was leaving on Wednesday as he received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Rudd, 46, best known for films such as “This is 40” and “Anchorman,” deployed his usual sense of humor as he unveiled the 2,554th star on the landmark mile-long strip of plaques on Hollywood Boulevard.

“I remember being a kid and walking this boulevard and reading the names and thinking about what so many other millions of people thought about, which is, you know, who's that?” the actor said.

“The fact that millions of people are going to be able to now see me and ask that same question, for time immemorial, is humbling beyond belief.”

In “Ant-Man,” out in theaters on July 17, Rudd stars as a petty thief named Scott Lang, who acquires a special suit that gives him the ability to shrink in size yet gain superhuman strength, allowing him to use his talents to save the world.

The film is based off a character written by Stan Lee, which first appeared in Marvel Comic books in the early 1960s.

Rudd's co-star Michael Douglas, who plays scientist Hank Pym, said that he was amused at how much fun Rudd had donning the superhero costume for the film.

“He was like the kid in the candy shop, I've never seen anybody have so much fun in my life,” said Douglas.

Since the release of “Clueless” in 1995, Rudd has become a film comedy mainstay, with appearances in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “I Love You, Man.”

He has also appeared on the television sitcoms “Friends” and “Parks and Recreation,” and was joined by “Parks” co-star Adam Scott at his star unveiling.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame has honored influential figures in entertainment since 1960.

Recipients of the star-shaped plaques, which are cemented into the sidewalk, are approved by Hollywood's Chamber of Commerce. Sponsors of the recipients purchase the star for $30,000, with funds going to the Hollywood Historic Trust.

BONUS: Here is Paul Rudd playing softball at Kauffman Stadium – becuase you can never have too much Paul Rudd.

Actor Paul Rudd at bat during the Big Slick Celebrity softball game at Kauffman Stadium. Photo by Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Meet Brian Bendis, the man who killed Peter Parker


Spiderman heroically dispatched countless foes since he arrived on the scene in 1962.

Nearly a half-century later, Brian Michael Bendis managed to kill him.

In 2000, Bendis was hired to write Ultimate Spiderman, a modern-day retelling of the classic Spiderman story. More than 10 years, 160 issues and several blockbuster Hollywood adaptations later, Bendis did the unthinkable, killing off the superhero's famous alter ego, Peter Parker, and replacing him with a half-black, half-Hispanic 13-year-old named Miles Morales.

The change received national attention. Glenn Beck said Morales looked like President Barack Obama — and not in a good way. Lou Dobbs didn’t like the change either, prompting Jon Stewart to quip that Morales represented Dobbs’ worst nightmare: “a Latino that can climb walls.” But Bendis is unrepentant.

“Marvel is a representation of the real world,” Bendis explained from his home in Portland, Ore. “The Marvel Universe takes place in New York. Miles lives in Brooklyn — it’s actually Brooklyn. That’s a huge difference going back to my time as a crime writer. The city becomes a character you’re writing about.”

Bendis, 45, may be the most important comic book writer working today. He helped re-launch the Daredevil, Spiderman and the Avengers franchises, and his titles typically sell more than 100,000 copies, making him among the most popular comic book writers in the world.

“Brian is a unique and important voice in modern comics,” said Danny Fingeroth, a longtime Marvel editor and the author of “The Stan Lee Universe.” “He displays a profound understanding of, and respect for, the histories of the characters and their universe, but understands that they have to be updated for a modern readership.”

Raised by a single mother in Cleveland, Bendis attended an Orthodox day school and discovered comic books as an adolescent.

“I studied them like the Torah,” he said. “I memorized the ads. At 5, I literally stood on the sofa and said ‘I will be the artist on Spiderman.’ ”

Like others drawn to stories of caped crusaders and mega-muscled heroes, Bendis was searching for a stand-in for his absentee father. Stan Lee, the Jewish co-creator of Spiderman and other comic book heroes, became something of a father figure for him. But the rabbis who taught him as a child weren't too fond of Bendis' hobby, fearing that his penchant for drawing men in tights indicated he might be gay.

“I would just start drawing without thinking and [suddenly] it’s a bunch of naked guys and I’d get sent home,” Bendis said.

After high school, Bendis attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. An independent comic book publisher picked up his final thesis and published it. After graduation, he continued working on comic books but supported himself doing freelance illustration and caricatures at bar and bat mitzvahs.

“It’s the lowest form of human existence — and I worked at McDonald's,” he said.

Through the 1990s, Bendis hustled his work on the road with fellow independent comic book creators. Those years were somewhat of a golden age for the independent comic scene, producing a bevy of talented, original creators. But the period was financially rough for Bendis and his wife, Alisa, whom he met while doing a freelance assignment for the Hillel Foundation.

Even his successes didn't change the basic financial equation. The day after his work on the crime comic JINX won an Eisner Award, the comic book equivalent of an Oscar, he was back at a bar mitzvah drawing caricatures.

Bendis’ explosion on the independent comic book scene coincided with a shakeup at Marvel Comics, the largest comic book publisher in the world. A new president and editor in chief wanted a fresh voice for the company. Joe Quesada, then the editor in chief, called Bendis in 2000 and told him that he wanted to bring him to Marvel.

“I asked, ‘What do you need an artist for?’ ” Bendis recalled. After what Bendis describes as a long “dead” silence, Quesada finally answered, “ 'You know your art isn’t that good, but you’re an amazing writer.' ”

Bendis’ first assignment was a four-issue run on Marvel’s Daredevil. After the first two issues, Quesada asked him if he was interested in writing Ultimate Spiderman. The series became one of the best-selling comics of the decade.

“He’s really terrific,” Sean Howe, author of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” said of Bendis. “I think he’s one of the few comic book writers that has a really singular voice in terms of dialogue. He just has the snappiness of a really great crime novelist.”

The couple’s financial worries were over. Bendis finally had regular comic book work and his original graphic novels were optioned for movies. He and Alisa began thinking about starting a family.

Doctors told Bendis that Alisa wouldn’t be able to have children, but as they prepared to adopt, she became pregnant with their daughter, Olivia. Later the couple adopted Sabrina from Ethiopia and, three years later, a third daughter, Tabatha, through a domestic adoption program.

“Adoption is something I’m insanely proud of,” Bendis said. “My wife wanted to make a family of the world and help raise children with a lot of love that they might not have gotten otherwise.”

Bendis raised the idea of shaking up the Spiderman franchise at a Marvel creative retreat.

“We thought about what we wished we could do differently,” he said. “We talked about that the New York in Marvel comics isn’t the one you see when you walk outside the door.”

Ultimate Spider Man No. 160 was published in 2011. In that issue, Peter Parker is killed by his archenemy, the Green Goblin. Morales makes his debut in the next issue and inherits his super powers after being bitten by a genetically engineered spider.

The Jewish nature of comic book superheroes has long been an object of speculation, with much attention focused on post-Holocaust Jewish psychology and the yearning for powerful protectors of the innocent. But Bendis traces the connection back even further.

“The Torah is full of mythological sources of father and son, and so is Marvel Comics,” Bendis said. “I think about my upbringing with a single mother — I have father issues — I was born to do this. That’s why I can write.”

In December, Alisa gave birth again. It’s a boy.

Patriot games: Is Captain America too American?


In March 1941—nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor impelled America to enter the Second World War—one colorful American hero already had joined the battle: Captain America.

The famous front cover of “Captain America #1” showed its titular hero punching Hitler straight in the face, sending the ridiculous looking Fuerher tumbling backward.

With that single unforgettable image, the Nazi ideal of the Aryan ubermensch was dealt a fatal blow, as was what remained of the once respectable American “isolationist” movement.

As the first comic book character to enlist in World War II, Captain America was an instant success, selling nearly 1 million copies per issue. In a way that’s not surprising, considering the character’s pedigree. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, second-generation Jews who made no secret of their source of inspiration.

The character of Captain America, Simon said, “was our way of lashing out at the Nazi menace.”

In that first issue of the Marvel comic, readers meet the superhero’s “everyman” alter ego, Steve Rogers. A sickly Depression-era child, Rogers loses his parents at a young age, then tries to enlist in the military. Too feeble to join the regular forces, Rogers volunteers for a top-secret military medical experiment known as “Operation Rebirth,” being overseen by one Dr. Reinstein. (Note the character’s Jewish name, one that sounds suspiciously like “Albert Einstein.” In 1941, Einstein was a wildly popular—if little understood—cultural icon in the real world.)

In need of a human “guinea pig” to test his formula, Dr. Reinstein injects Rogers with his Secret-Soldier Serum. Unfortunately, a Nazi spy infiltrates the experiment and kills Dr. Reinstein, leaving the newly empowered Rogers as the serum’s sole beneficiary.

Hailed by the U.S. military as a superhuman savior, Rogers dons a patriotic costume of red, white and blue, with a star on his chest and stripes on his waist. Captain America is quickly dispatched to his most important early assignment: destroy his evil “super soldier” counterpart, a Nazi agent called the Red Skull.

Fast forward to 2011: This summer, Captain America returns to the big screen. Unfortunately, the spirit of 1941 (let alone 1776) is a long way off. In an era of anti-Americanism—at home and abroad—the movie’s director and star have been playing down the character’s American identity.

Director Joe Johnston insists that “this is not about America so much as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing.” Chris Evans, who plays the title character, echoes the sentiment, saying that “I’m not trying to get too lost in the American side of it. This isn’t a flag-waving movie.”

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has eagerly de-Americanized superheroes, sometimes by undercutting traces of “corny” patriotism with doses of winking irony. Take the 2006 film “Superman Returns,” which has Clark Kent’s boss cynically describing Superman as fighting for “truth, justice … all that stuff.”

Or take the 2009 movie based on a hugely popular toy from Hasbro. The film’s title, “G.I Joe: A Real American Hero,” was trimmed down to just “G.I Joe,” the toy’s iconic logo with the American flag was removed, and the storyline transformed the title character’s American anti-terror squad into an international peacekeeping task force that apparently took its marching orders from the United Nations.

The fact is, Hollywood movies today live or die based on worldwide ticket and DVD sales, and in a world in which American flags are burned regularly from Paris to the Punjab, received wisdom has it that anything too “American” is international box office poison.

Anticipating anti-American blowback, Paramount and Marvel Studios actually offered distributors the choice of marketing the new movie using its real title—“Captain America: The First Avenger”—or opting for simply calling it “The First Avenger.”

Most distributors say they are going with the original title, eager to take advantage of decades of “Captain America” brand recognition. However, three countries—Russia, Ukraine and South Korea—have decided to promote the movie as “The First Avenger.”

By literally cloaking their character in patriotism, Kirby and Simon displayed unabashed love of, and confidence in, the United States. Like many Jewish Americans during World War II, such as the heads of Hollywood studios, they felt duty bound to use their creativity in the service of their country.

Alas, times have changed. Hollywood is now more concerned with international box office numbers than national pride, never mind respecting the obvious wishes of the two artists without whom Captain America wouldn’t exist.

Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author whose latest book is “Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century.” He also chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the Pratt Institute in New York.

A Man Without Fear


When Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee createdDaredevil in 1964, he tagged his blind superhero: “Man Without Fear.” Thenickname also applies to Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, Marvel Enterprises’film/television division. Israeli-born Arad rescued Marvel from Chapter 11 inthe ’90s, turning it into a major film provider with “Spider-Man” and now”Daredevil.”

“Daredevil,” starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, thelawyer-turned-vigilante with heightened senses, symbolizes Marvel’s catch-up torival D.C. Comics, which for decades had the Hollywood edge with billion-dollargrossing franchises “Superman” and “Batman.”

“Prior [Marvel] management was really afraid of the moviebusiness,” Arad said. “They were run by financial people who had no interest inentertainment.”

That changed when Arad put Marvel on the Hollywood map.Marvel’s first smash in 1998 came with only a minor character, Blade. “X-Men”followed in 2000, and “Spider-Man,” which took in more than $403.7 milliondomestically, became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time.

Raised near Tel Aviv, Arad served in the Israeli army beforemoving to America, where a job driving a Nabisco truck connected him with a toycompany.

“I got a job in research and development and found out I hada knack for inventing toys,” said Arad, 55. “So I went on my own.”

“If you had a successful toy,” said Arad — the creator of”My Pretty Ballerina” — “you turned it into a cartoon. It was a naturaltransition for me to expand into animation.”

Since coming aboard as Marvel Studios’ chief in 1993, Aradplayed a key role in saving Marvel Enterprises from bankruptcy and untangled anearly two-decade web of courtroom battles over “Spider-Man’s” film rights, asdetailed in Dan Raviv’s 2002 book “Comic Wars.” Over that time, movie specialeffects have come a long way.

“I don’t know if we could’ve made the ‘Spider-Man’ that wehave today even five years ago,” Arad said. 

After “Daredevil,” 2003 will bring “X-Men 2,” “Hulk” and theshooting of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” sequel — with a Michael Chabon screenplay — for 2004. “Ghost Rider” (starring Nicolas Cage) and “Fantastic Four” will follow.

“He really cares about these characters,” Stan Lee saidabout Arad. “He gets the best writers and the best directors.”

So, will “Daredevil” attract a mass audience on a”Spider-Man” level while placating some diehard fans who feel that the movie’scasting choices and costumes stray too far from the comic?

As Arad told a reporter, “Ben Affleck looks good in even apaper bag.”

“Daredevil” opens in theaters Feb. 14.

+