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Cannon Films’ unintentional homage to the work of Jack ‘The King’ Kirby

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Retro review

Cannon Films’ unintentional homage to the work of Jack ‘The King’ Kirby

Reading time: 4 minutes

In the history of the He-Man franchise, from the original cycle of storytelling and toy sales, there’s never been a more exciting time for fans of the Masters of the Universe (MOU).

There are new toys by the Super7, lush hardback books by the awesome powers of Dark Horse, Mattel and Dreamworks, new comics by DC, high profile documentaries and we’re only a few weeks away from the return of She-Ra and the Princess of Power on Netflix.

It’s a fantastic time for the fandom. And it’s never been culturally more significant to discuss the colossal body of work of comics master-craftsman, Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby, the king

His legacy could take up ten articles this size – his co-creations at Marvel Comics have been a foundation for the Marvel cinematic universe which has grossed over 17 billion at the box office in its 10-year history. Kirby’s legacy can also be found in the recent output of DC’s movies, with director Ava DuVernay set to direct Kirby’s magnum opus, The New Gods

Before all of this success, recognition and the massively instrumental, godlike hand he had in the creation of Marvel comics (as well as the fact he’s now rightly seen as one of the masters that defined the art form), it was 1987 and there was Masters of the Universe.

Masters of the Universe is remembered (or misremembered) for various reasons. Some see it as just another low budget Cannon film – this isn’t the case. MOU had a healthy budget for a Cannon film and initially, it was significantly higher but dropped by the time the movie went into production. Some remember it as Dolph Lundgren’s first leading role, some remember it for the early performance that Courtney Cox gave, but what it should be remembered as, is a Jack Kirby tribute.

Where it all began

It starts with director, Gary Goddard who was approached by the production team after they saw the live action spectacle at Universal Studios: The Adventures of Conan, a sword and sorcery spectacular which Goddard wrote and directed.

Robert. E Howard’s portrayal of Conan the Barbarian had a huge impact on the He-Man franchise as Mattel had originally wanted to use the Conan brand to sell toys. Goddard drew on his wide-ranging creative influences when approaching pre-production on the Masters of the Universe.

Kirby’s influence would become even more direct on Goddard’s approach to storytelling as Goddard became close friends with Jack and his wife Roz, it was during this time they’d spend time together and discuss storytelling concepts. This influence would have a profound effect on the storytelling within the film. In a very ‘Kirby way’ the villain would effectively be telling the story. Frank Langella’s Skeletor has more than just a tiny bit of DNA from Dr. Doom and Darkseid.

Goddard hired William Stout as production designer. One of the absolutely incredible things about this film is the calibre of artists that were attracted to the project in terms of concept art. Stout is an awesome artist in his own right, with a prolific filmography and worked on inking Kirby’s comic The Demon. He furthered this connection by having worked on both Conan films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Stout used concept art designs from the likes of Ralph McQuarrie, famous for his work on Star Wars – also inspired by Kirby’s New Gods as well as the work of Moebius. Kirby’s influence was always completely present, in fact his style became a shorthand between the two.

They wanted to create a motion picture comic which was incredibly far-sighted and well ahead of its time. The pair didn’t find comic books derivative of other art forms, they celebrated them and wanted to imbue the movie with the magic of comics.

The road to recognition is one full of pitfalls

Kirby’s legacy got bigger and bigger and because of this, he suffered disappointment – his work was exploited by corporate suits and market forces within his lifetime.

Goddard wanted to hire Kirby for Masters of the Universe but Cannon nixed it. This is insane on many levels especially when you consider that Thor clearly inspired the Masters of the Universe character, Thundarr the Barbarian – something Kirby worked on proto He-Man cartoon.

This predated MOU by years and effectively set a whole new standard in quality for Saturday morning cartoons. For whatever reason, movie fans missed out on Kirby’s involvement in the film and will be forever bereft of some killer concept art.

It was also Goddard’s intention to give Kirby a credit in the form of a dedication, but once again, Cannon didn’t allow it. This is a strange and sad microcosm of Jack’s working life – a man who imbued a whole art form with a unique perspective yet failed to get the recognition he so richly deserved.

But the story doesn’t end there

Time and a passionate fandom are causing the scales to balance once again in Kirby’s favour. To this day, Goddard and Stout still quote the influence of Kirby when interviewed on the subject. Many other creatives and critics have publicly credited Kirby’s influence on Masters of the Universe.

Comic book creative, John Byrne has even said that MOU is very much a New Gods movie. This is a strong argument, one can make many, many parallels to the world that Kirby created in the New Gods cycle. In fact, comparing the comics to the film’s counterparts is quite a fun game to play.

There’s also another point of view proposed by fans such as critic Brian Cronin: Masters of the Universe was intended to be a film enjoyed as a tribute to all of Kirby’s work, not just the New Gods.

Either way, Kirby’s influence is now becoming recognised, even the MOU Wikipedia page has a whole section on Kirby’s influence on the movie.

And through all of his heroes and Masters of the Universe, Kirby reinforced the fact that:

“WE HAVE THE POWER!”

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