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Krofft & Ruby-Spears: Reviving Lost Kirby

by  in Comic News Comment
Krofft & Ruby-Spears: Reviving Lost Kirby

This week, the New York Times broke a particularly uncommon piece of comics-related news that soon caught fire across the comics blogosphere with word that classic kids TV producers Sid and Marty Krofft and Joe Ruby and Ken Spears would be taking a slew of concepts created under work for hire by Jack Kirby into multiple media channels.

As the story goes, the legendary artist took up a staff job with Ruby-Spears productions (known for a wide range of shows including “Alvin & The Chipmunks” and the ’80s “Superman” cartoon) after becoming fed up with the practices of the big comics houses. While working with the independent animation studio, Kirby not only provided design work for completed animated series like “Thundarr The Barbarian” but also spent his days dreaming up dozens of ideas and hundreds of characters for potential shows that never saw the light of day. For years, the sketches, designs and art produced by the artist, with titles ranging from “Golden Shield” to “Roxie’s Raiders,” lay in storage, saved by Joe Ruby who insisted they’d be of value some day.

Finally, last year, Ruby and Spears decided to dust off the drawings and took the whole lot to the Krofft brothers (producers of live-action series including “H.R. Puffenstuff” and “The Banana Splits”) thanks to Ruby-Spears manager and former Krofft employee and ABC development executive Bonnie Dore. “When Ken and Joe came in here with Bonnie, we heard this whole thing, and when they left, Michael Stokes - the VP of development and production here - said, ‘Hey, Marty. If they have the rights, you can sell this by the pound,'” Marty Krofft told CBR. The producer went on to explain that he and his brother had already been working with Ruby-Spears to bring their ’70s superhero duo Electra Woman and Dyna Girl to the big screen. Krofft said that their plans to take the Kirby work into the realm of movies, TV, video games and comics was a natural extension of a longterm respect and growing partnership between the two independent companies. “It took us a long time to do this. It didn’t take us a long time to get together as partners, but it did take us a long time to get this right so we could let anybody know about it.”

To share more of their history, their specific plans for Kirby creations, their thoughts on how to preserve the spirit of Kirby’s art and more, Krofft, Spears and Dore took the time to speak with CBR News. The producers also shared three exclusive pieces of art from the Kirby vault that they hope will be making their way into new stories soon.

CBR News: I think the best person to start with is Ken. Almost everyone read the New York Times story that announced your plans, and you had talked there about how your partner Joe Ruby had wanted to hold on to these Kirby drawings, knowing someday you could do something with them. What was it in the past year or two that made you go, “Now is the time to bring these out and develop them?”

Ken Spears: Well, obviously all the movies that were out with the Marvel and DC characters perked our ears up. We said, “If this is where everyone’s going with the big name characters and $200 or 300 million dollar pictures, let’s find a way to exploit the properties that we own and we’ve had in storage all this time.” And that’s what led us to Marty. We just thought that the time was right.

Marty Krofft: Ken forgot what really happened. In 1991, they gave me the key to the vault and forgot I had it! [Laughs] Just kidding. But the big thing is that while Ken has always been complementary to myself, Ruby-Spears was the animation king. They were an independent company, and we were independent with live action and still are independent. So us getting together today is really what we should have done years ago. But if we did it then, we probably wouldn’t be talking to each other today! So this is a good thing that it happened right now. Ken said it right: this is the right time. We’re together for the right reasons. And even if I have to be the one to say it, I think the four of us are nice people, and we’ve done everything first class in our whole careers. And now we have a chance to honor the great legacy of Jack Kirby in a way that has some real class and dignity.

What have you guys done so far in terms of just combing through all this material? I assume there’s just boxes and boxes of this stuff. Have you both looked through it all, and what material stands out?

Spears: What we’ve come up with going through all the Kirby materials – and a lot of it was catalogued verbally, but we could remember everything that we had - and going through a tremendous amount of boxes in storage in the initial phase, was that there’s almost 700 individual drawings of Kirby’s that we know what they are and what they’re named. We’ve got that all digitized and so forth now.

Krofft: They had over 1,000 characters. All kinds of characters - villains and good guys - and vehicles and everything. With Jack Kirby, I’ve never seen this kind of creativity where he doesn’t repeat himself. The first thing I saw when they brought the artwork was that, when Joe and Ken developed this – with Joe as the writer of the team - they developed the origin stories. So without even thinking, we probably have 27 origin stories that can be film or televisions shows. But I noticed eight or nine that stick out, and we haven’t really looked at everything. The beauty of these characters is that they created something with Jack, let’s say the Roxie Raiders, that the characters in that could be sent over to another property. If we ever made a deal with somebody to have some of these characters, it’d be a 20-year business for a studio or a toy company. I’ve already had calls last night where I don’t even want to talk about who they are. We’ve had major, major people already call after the thing was up for eleven minutes the other night. So I think my gut feeling about this is that we can do this a lot of ways. We’ve William Morris Endeavor [the agency] and we’ve got Ari Emmanuel who owns the company as our agent.

As you conceptualize your plan for taking these characters from Ken and Joe’s vault out to different production companies through Ari, do you have any plans for saying, “This is the first step we have to take?” Do you go, “We really want to start this in comics,” or, “in TV,” or, “in film?”

Krofft: We really don’t know at this moment. Should we make a comic book deal, or do a movie with JJ Abrams? I picked Ari because I thought he was the best guy there is as an agent. And he’s been great, as you can see from the New York Times story where Ari gave the best quotes. But he’s really behind this, and he’s got all the talent. He knows that one of the ways we may want to do this, because we can’t handle it all as independents, is to hook up with a major company and see how that works. I already know from the other night that there are three major companies interested in furthering a dialogue with us.

What’s the challenge in taking these drawings and concepts and fully exploiting them while keeping the uniqueness of Jack Kirby in there?

Krofft: If you want my answer, then you’ll get Ken’s, because the first thing I think of when you ask that question is the number of creative people, whether they’re writers or directors, that are going to come in and look at 10% of the artwork and go, “I want to do that.” That’s already happening.

Spears: Basically, the beauty of the whole thing is that a lot of Jack’s stuff did not have a time set behind it. A lot of the things he did for us were things he did on his own. Even when he was doing a specific project for us, where we had an origin story developed for that direction and he would come up with the creative direction of what they looked like, he would do things on his own.

Krofft: I always said that Stan Lee was to Jack Kirby what Joe Ruby was to Jack Kirby. I think Jack loved to work with Joe and Ken.

Spears: The bottom line is that there are so many opportunities with his characters to go and to explore in different areas, whether they take our written concept or develop a whole new concept for the characters, that’s the wonder of it.

Krofft: That’s why I said that this is like a 20-year business for a company. This is all the lost stuff. It’s like the Titanic sinking and finding all this stuff at the bottom of the sea 30 years later. That’s how Ari put it.

I know that Mark Evanier was quoted in the Times story, and he’s both the expert on Kirby and someone who’s worked with you in the past. How much will you be relying on people like him, from the comics world, who are familiar with Kirby to help you find ways to develop these ideas?

Krofft: I’ve known Mark a long time, but I’ve got to tell you…he bugs me. He knows too much. [Laughter] This guy knows too much! I call him all the time for information, and we should pay him by the sentence.

Bonnie Dore: I’ve worked with Marty and Joe and Ken for over 30 years, and we know Mark very well. He’s developed two books with Joe and Ken - one book on Kirby and the other on Ruby-Spears Studios, so Mark has been very, very involved with us.

To wrap, the thing I’d ask would be, with so much going on and so many characters on hand, what’s your ideal time frame for when we’ll be seeing some new life from these properties? Do you hope to have something rolling by the end of 2010?

Krofft: I’d like it out by Friday. [Laughter] You know what, I have an expression: if you want to give God a good laugh, tell him what your plans are. I don’t think I have the answer to that, but I’d say as soon as we can. Each thing has its own process. Movies have a very long lead time. Television has less of one. I don’t know how long comic books take. And there’s all kinds of ways to get this out to the public. I think we’re developing the plan as we speak.

Spears: All I’ve got to say is, “Thank God Joe never listened to me about throwing this stuff away!”

Krofft: Being together with these two guys is a breath of fresh air. These are great and talented people. Bonnie Dore was very instrumental in this happening, and we’ve been in each others lives. We lost each other in Los Angeles for a minute, but then we picked up right from where we left off. We’re on an adventure here, and I don’t know where we’re going. We’re on the A-Train, and we’re not driving. Let’s just see where it goes.

Dore: Joe and Ken and Marty and Sid – I’ve had the pleasure of working with them for over 30 years, and putting them together was the most fun I’ve ever had, truly.

Krofft: This is a healthy relationship…until they fire me. [Laughter]

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