Monday, August 5, 2019

King Kong Cover for Amazing Heroes!

Originally posted July 13, 2017; updated with an addendum below, August 5, 2019.

Perhaps the best piece of art I created for the entire King Kong adaptation I drew for Fantagraphics' Monster Comics imprint in the early 1990s never appeared as part of the series. Instead, it was the cover for Amazing Heroes, the little sister publication to their more upscale publication, The Comics Journal. Here is a look at the original colored blueline.

For more on the art of my Kong adaptation, visit my King Kong blog!

As I've said before, King Kong was perhaps the most poorly marketed comic book in history. After years of effort to get the Kong license, Fantagraphics' strategy was to serialize the work in six bi-monthly issues (as if readers could be kept in suspense for over a year when they already knew the film's ending), with guest cover artists. I was drafted as a semi-name to write and draw the adaptation from the novelization (securing the RKO movie rights was prohibitive), and I like to think I did a creditable job. With no advertising, the household-name status of the property was supposed to sell itself. Naturally, sales were disappointing. But Fantagraphics was of the mindset that commercial success in comics = lowering your artistic standards, not making a creative effort at marketing.

To be fair, this was also an era in which the entire industry was still thinking in terms of serialized comic books and was not instantly repackaging them as graphic novels, which came later. If there was ever a series that should never have been a series in the first place but have gone straight to a graphic novel it was King Kong. In my view, Fantagraphics frittered away a golden opportunity to market this project as the definitive King Kong comic book adaptation and at the same time pioneer the field of original graphic novels.

Years later, when the Peter Jackson remake came out, Dark Horse Comics, which had secured the license for a new adaptation, maliciously maneuvered to keep my adaptation off the market (by that logic, sales of the old film on DVD should have been halted so as not to interfere with sales of the new version) . Unfortunately, the co-copyright I own in this work (which I share with the Merian C. Cooper estate) gave me insufficient leverage to enable this work to be collected as a graphic novel, as many people thought it deserved.

Addendum (August 5, 2019):

Recently, I digitally remastered the original Kong colored greyline for an 11" x 17" entitled "Anne and the Ape."

About a year ago, following Pulpfest 2018 and FarmerCon 100, I explored the status of King Kong permissions in comics and was directed to illustrator Joe De Vito, who represents the Cooper Estate and Kong property in these matters. In an email, I introduced myself and suggested,
Just as different film versions of Kong coexist in the cinematic space, there have been various graphic versions of Kong; as I see it, these interpretations do not compete with one another so much as testify to the enduring strength and popularity of the character and mythos originated by Merian C. Cooper.
[...] a recent inventory of my storage locker reminded me that I still possess all of the original art to the Kong series (including alternate pages and rough sketches), which is black and white, as well as the color cover I did for Fantagraphics' Amazing Heroes. This summer, I scanned and retouched all of the story pages (Zip-A-Tone does not age well!), a labor of love.
I produced a very small number of bound photocopies of the work as "proof of concept" for a graphic novel collection, and as an historical document of sorts, to show to fans and fellow artists for comment. The feedback has been very positive, and I am more convinced than ever that a graphic novel edition of this work would be not only viable but well-received.

I have since learned that you, as DeVito Artworks, have put an enormous amount of effort creatively and legally into the Kong property, and are working closely with the Cooper family to ensure the character's ongoing integrity.

It is not my wish to infringe on the King Kong publishing trademark, held by you and the Cooper family, (or to step on any Kong-size toes!), but to seek ways that will build upon the partnership I entered into with the Merian C. Cooper estate in the creation of the 1990-1992 adaptation.
Joe's very cordial reply came back,
[I]t goes without saying that we are kindred spirits in regard to a love of both art and King Kong. [...] I am not sure if there is any possible synergy at this point with your Kong comics and the Kong properties of both the Coopers and myself.[...] The long/short is I believe that there are potential conflicts of ©, existing contractual, and other interests that will cross wires with what you suggest. [...] In the mean time, all business aside, as one artist to another I want to say that I highly respect your Kong work. It is most excellent and over the years has been admired by Kong fans everywhere!
For the time being, my adaptation of King Kong remains in limbo, although I have all original art and retain a small supply of the single issues (scour your local comic shop's 50-cent bin!). I remain hopeful that one day soon a mass-market collected version can be enjoyed by Kong fans everywhere.

For more on the art of my Kong adaptation, visit my King Kong blog!
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  1. I always thought this was a great read! It's too bad so few people ever read it, much less even knew it existed.

  2. I created and wrote a 3 issue mini-series for Fantagraphics Monster Comics titled Tyrannosaurus Tex, which was drawn by Ron Wilber. This was about 1991 and at the time CBG was doing free previews of comics in their pages. When I contacted Gary Groth and said that Tex would be a perfect subject for this, he replied that he wasn't promoting any of the other comics like this so he didn't know why he would single mine out for this promotion. He didn't see that this was the entire problem.--James Van Hise

  3. I believe it. Apes and dinosaurs were supposed to just sell themselves because they weren't art the way Love and Rockets supposedly was. Commercial comics was all about selling out, no real effort involved. How did Fantagraphics survive all these years? They must have evolved their views somewhat.