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Comic Art, Clandestine Operations, and the High Cost of College Tuition

An auction of comic book art held in early August featured two works which played a role in the event which inspired the movie, Argo. The artwork was created by iconic comic book artist, Jack Kirby, the co-creator of Captain America, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk.  After a long and prolific career at DC and Marvel Comics, Kirby left publishing to work in animation, creating storyboards and animation art. In 1979, he was hired by producer and visionary, Barry Ira Geller, to create storyboards for the film adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s scifi-fantasy book, The Lord of Light. Geller’s vision included a theme park, Science Fiction Land, for which Kirby created architectural renderings.

The movie and them park were never produced; under allegations of embezzlement on the part of Geller’s assistant producer, the entire operation was shut down. The project materials, however, were resurrected when CIA operative Tony Mendez contacted Geller’s make-up artist with a request for a suitable film project which would provide a cover story for a clandestine operation in Iran. The agency needed a film project to provide a cover story for a rescue operation of six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy during the Iran hostage crisis. The script and Kirby’s illustrations for the Lord of Light – renamed “Argo” for the operation – were used as props. Iraninan authorities bought the ruse, and the Americans were successfully smuggled out.

Geller was kept in the dark about the operation and the role Kirby’s artwork played. In 1993, with Kirby’s permission, he sold the drawings at a Sotheby’s auction (ostensibly to pay for his son’s college education). Two of the drawings were snapped up by a young comic book artist and publisher, Jim Lee.  A fan of Kirby’s work — Jim Lee had started his career at Marvel Comics, where he worked on the revamp of X-Men — Lee snapped up the works without knowing the back story. When the tale behind the operation became public knowledge, Lee (now a co-publisher at DC Comics) realized the value of the work and put it up for auction — also to meet his children’s college costs. The artwork was auctioned off August 2 for purported total of $41,000.

While Geller wishes he had known the role Kirby’s artwork played in the rescue operation (and its true value) at the time he sold it, he remains upbeat about the publicity. As he reported to Wired Magazine, “I’m very, very happy, in fact, to see it in auction because anything that further brings notice and credit to Jack Kirby and his life is important to have.” The full story of the operation was covered in an extensive Wired article in 2007. In November of 2012, a documentary on the Argo backstory, “Science Fiction Land”, received full backing as a Kickstarter project and is now in post-production.

Below: Two stills from the documentary, “Science Fiction Land”, showing Jack Kirby’s renderings for the theme park. Copyright © 2012 Flatbush Pictures | Brooklyn Film Networks, Inc.

Science Fiction Land storboard art
Science. Fiction Land storyboard


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