On Feb. 28, 2013, Jeremy Kirby, grandson of pioneering comic book artist Jack Kirby, posted to his grandfather's Facebook site: “Have a whole box of Lord of Light/Argo stuff that has barely been sifted through in the last 30 years. Perhaps it's time to take a look.”
The project in mention was a clandestine operation conducted by CIA operatives, posing as filmmakers, to rescue six U.S. embassy workers in Iran in 1979 — recently recounted in the Oscar-winning film Argo.
What the film didn't show was the artwork itself, which agent Tony Mendez used to dupe the Iranians into green-lighting his fake production. This month, Heavy Metal magazine will publish 14 prints from Kirby's original concept designs.
The Lord of Light project began as a screen adaptation of Roger Zalazny's classic sci-fi novel in 1977. Before Kirby was hired to make its illustrations, he'd spent the previous 35 years creating some of the most iconic superheroes in the industry: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, the X-Men. By the late '70s, Kirby retired from comics to begin a second career as a concept designer for Hollywood. Enter Barry Ira Geller.
Geller lives today in Tujunga Canyon and is the one responsible for providing Kirby's sketches to Heavy Metal. Back in the summer of 1977, Geller was working as an associate producer in television when he optioned the rights to Lord of Light and went about turning it into a screenplay.
Zelazny created the Hindu/futuristic confluence, Geller recalls, but “Jack Kirby was the visionary artist who could bring it to life,” says Charles Hatfield, author of the academic tome Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby.
Hatfield is currently curating a Kirby retrospective titled “Comic Book Apocalypse,” which opens Aug. 25 at CSUN and covers the years 1965 to 1980. (It includes several Lord of Light posters.) Hatfield points to Kirby's 1968 issues of Thor as the watershed moment when the artist's geometric technique standardizes and sets the stage for the “cosmic ideas” he developed throughout the 1970s.
By 1971, Kirby left Marvel — where he had created his most iconic titles — due to salary and copyright disputes. He went to rival DC Comics, where the artist developed wildly psychedelic titles like New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle. They didn't sell then, but now they're considered his masterworks by some historians. Kirby left DC by the mid-'70s and briefly returned to Marvel, creating the Mayan/techno hybrid The Eternals and a progg-ish expansion of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It didn't last. In 1977, Kirby announced he was done with comics.
In 1978, he made preliminary sketches for productions of The Black Hole (Disney) and Thundarr the Barbarian (ABC) and also started work on Geller's Lord of Light. Though the producer paid Kirby, he says the relationship went far beyond simple work-for-hire. “Jack and I would have conversations about the art,” Geller recalls. “I supplied him with books on the subjects. … He altered my consciousness.”
Hatfield says Kirby's sketches — filled with Hindu/Mayan deities in futuristic space gear and ancient ruins updated to interplanetary landing pads — were “a direct continuation of motifs in Kirby's '70s comic books” and also were influenced by then-popular ancient alien theories such as Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods.
By the end of 1978, Kirby's work on Lord of Light was finished. For Hatfield, the drawings represent “the apotheosis of a cosmic style developed over 10 to 15 years,” though it's hard to know what studio execs, let alone Iranian cultural ministers, thought when they saw the work.
Sketches of rotating towers overflow with heads of Mayan gods, fauna, space orbs and abstracted musculature — the figurative audacities of a workaday surrealist. One composition, titled Planetary Control Room, shows a giant open hand, holding a 3-D cube that emits beams of light through a circular metallic stargate. Hatfield says they are “Kirby's final act at the top of his game.” (The artist developed arthritis in the '80s and struggled to complete bigger projects.)
Geller made up portfolios to shop around to studios, promising potential financiers that Kirby's set pieces would be turned into a grand theme park after production finished. For the project, dubbed Science Fiction Land, Geller courted luminaries such as author Ray Bradbury, inventor Buckminster Fuller and architect Paolo Soleri as advisers. “I wanted it to be like a permanent World's Fair,” Geller says of his outsized plan. “It was to be a theme park and an institute for science.”
No one got it. Both film and theme park folded in early '79. Geller and Kirby moved on to other projects, though, says the producer, they remained friends until the end of Kirby's life in 1994.
In 1980, Geller published the drawings in an issue of Fantastic Films magazine. Kirby did a brief interview about the production during the '80s, calling it “a very special project,” and noting, “It is also going to be very valuable to humanity.”
When the artworks were auctioned off — at Sotheby's, in 1993 — they fetched $41,000. Geller says he'd previously given Kirby several of the drawings back and used the proceeds from the auction for his kids' college education. He also had negatives struck of all the images, which were done in B&W and later reassembled by Kirby enthusiast Tom Kraft.
Then something strange happened. In 2000, retired CIA operative Tony Mendez appeared on the Bravo TV show First Person and for the first time recounted how the agency used Geller's failed Lord of Light project — renaming it Argo — to rescue the hostages. Geller knew nothing about it. Kirby, dead six years by then, never found out. A 2007 feature in Wired magazine confirmed Mendez's story and was optioned for the film Argo.
As to that box of Lord of Light/Argo artifacts that Kirby's grandson announced online, no more has been said since 2013. Jeremy Kirby did not respond to requests for an interview. Geller has continued to strike prints and make them available to the public. The black-and-white series was for sale at Geller's Comic-Con booth in 2014; his new blacklight versions, published by Heavy Metal, will sell in limited editions of 50 starting the second week of August.
Thirty-six years ago, the work fell on deaf ears — its secret usage a true Hollywood story stranger than fiction. Barry Geller and Jack Kirby, however, never wavered in their belief in the project. Bloated, misguided, earnest, visionary: It seems time has finally caught up to Lord of Light.