Kong: Pulp Fiction

Friends, we’ve talked about the sequels and knock-offs of King Kong. And you can probably guess how excited we are to see Kong: Skull Island when it opens this weekend. But I’m here today to talk about a world of new King Kong stories you can read right now! I’m talking about the work of Joe Devito, Brad Strickland, and Will Murray chronicling the authorized history of “King Kong of Skull Island.”

In 1935, when Merian C. Cooper, the creator of King Kong and newly hired vice-president in charge of production at Pioneer Pictures, tried to launch a Tarzan Meets King Kong movie, he was frustrated to discover that there was some ambiguity as to who actually held the rights to the character. It seemed that RKO, the studio for whom he’d produced King Kong, considered themselves the rightful owner, and this confusion was just the beginning of a story that, while it only got more tangled in the ensuing decades, would inadvertently allow for a thriving expanded universe of Kong prequel and sequel novels, including (finally!) last year’s King Kong vs. Tarzan.

Cooper conceived of King Kong in 1929, and over the next couple of years he developed the characters, places, and situations that would eventually appear in the movie of the same name released in 1933. He would later maintain that when he came to work at RKO, he’d refused a salary or official employment until he was confident that he maintained all rights to Kong. As part of the development process, he worked with the novelist Delos Lovelace, a friend of Cooper’s who adapted the screenplay into a novelization. The novel was published in December of 1932, months in advance of the film’s opening as part of the marketing campaign, and Cooper held the copyright. The movie was released on March 7, 1933, and was followed later that year by a sequel, Son of Kong. At the time, Cooper was under the impression that he owned the concept and character, and that he’d simply licensed the idea to RKO for the film and its sequel. But the studio had other ideas, and when Cooper began exploring the possibility of Kong/Tarzan project (conceived as a technicolor prequel that would bring Tarzan to Skull Island, it was blocked anyway when MGM refused to let him use Tarzan), he realized he might not have the control he thought he did over his creation.

The issue flared up again in 1962, when Willis O’Brien pitched Cooper on a story involving Carl Denham (to be played again by Robert Armstrong) setting out to find the Abominable Snowman. While nothing came of that project, Cooper was enraged when that same year saw Toho Studios, Universal Studios, and producer Jerry Beck release King Kong vs. Godzilla (itself the result of another O’Brien story pitch, though Beck ended up making it without him). To add insult to injury, Coop discovered that RKO had been profiting off of Kong through licensees like the Aurora model-kit company without his knowledge. He and his legal team produced a variety of letters and documents to show that he owned Kong, having simply licensed him to RKO for two films. Unfortunately, he’d lost several documents between his time at RKO and his return from military service in World War II, and among them were two key letters, an informal but binding letter from the former president of RKO and a formal binding letter from the current president of RKO, both confirming that Cooper had only licensed the character to the studio for King Kong and Son of Kong. Without those letters, it seemed that the only rights Cooper retained to the character were the novelization that he’d copyrighted. That is how the issue stood until Cooper’s death in 1973. But two years later the issue roared to life again. At the time, Universal Studios had spent several years developing a remake of King Kong set in the 1930s, so when RKO licensed Dino De Laurentiis the right to produce a remake, Universal sued both of them for breach of contract and wrongful interference with contractual relations, claiming they’d been promised exclusive remake rights. The resulting legal battle roped in Merian Cooper’s son, Richard Cooper. It turned out that the copyright of the novelization had expired without renewal and passed into the public domain. In November of 1976, the judge ruled that the since the novel had indeed entered the public domain, Universal was not infringing any rights with their remake as long they stayed away from the original 1933 film. But a month later (days before De Laurentiis’s film opened in theaters), in a ruling known as the “Cooper Judgment” the judge held that Cooper did indeed own all the rights to the name, character, and story of King Kong outside of the original film and its sequel (which were owned by RKO) and its remake (owned by De Laurentiis’s company). Having vindicated his father’s belief in his ownership, Richard Cooper then sold his Kong rights, with the exception of worldwide publishing rights, to Universal (who went on to finally produce their own remake with Peter Jackson in 2005).

And it was those publishing rights that allowed the estate to authorize artist Joe DeVito to develop a Skull Island mythos that draws both from the original story and a broader well of pulp storytelling.

Like so many artists in the fantasy and adventure genres, a childhood viewing of King Kong left DeVito reeling. And as he revisited it over the years, he began to develop his own answers to the mysteries suggested by the film (how did they get Kong from the island to New York? what happened to Kong’s body after his fall from the Empire State Building? and most intriguing, what of that giant wall and the people living on the island?). DeVito’s answers evolved into an expansive history of Skull Island, and he approached Richard Cooper and received a blessing from the Cooper Estate to write and illustrate what is now described as the official King Kong/Skull Island origin story, “exclusively authorized and endorsed by the Cooper family.” The new books use the original novelization as a source (though functionally this only means that instead of the Venture, Captain Englehorn’s ship is called the Wanderer). Over nearly the last two decades, DeVito worked with writers Brad Strickland and Will Murray (as well as comics company BOOM! Studios) on an ongoing library of Kongiana.

With so many titles containing some combination of “King,” “Kong,” and “Skull Island,” it can be confusing to track which book/movie/comic is which. For example, when Legendary Pictures announced a movie titled Skull Island (now Kong: Skull Island) at the 2014 Comic-Con in San Diego, there was some confusion among fans as to whether this was the same as the adaptation of Kong: King of Skull Island (to be titled Skull Island: Blood of the Kong and directed by Neil Marshall) that was rumored in October of the previous year (it wasn’t). So as a handy reading guide, here are the projects officially connected to DeVito’s Kongiverse:

Kong: King of Skull Island (2004)
Created & Illustrated by Joe DeVito, Written by Brad Strickland with John Michlig

Ignoring the events of Son of Kong, the story of Kong: King of Skull Island acts as both sequel and prequel to the original. After a brief prologue glimpsing Carl Denham’s journey to return Kong’s body to Skull Island, the action then jumps forward twenty-five years and follows Denham’s son, a paleontologist named Vincent, as he travels, with a middle-aged Jack Driscoll, to discover what became of his father on Skull Island. Upon arriving, he encounters a mysterious old Storyteller who, when he asks about his father, instead begins to tell him a story of Skull Island’s history. She tells a tale of the Tagatu, the human inhabitants of the island, and the competing factions within their civilization that brought them into contact (and conflict) with the Kongs, a pirate crew from a foundering ship, and the enormous and malevolent reptilian beast-god Gaw.

It’s a good story, and provides a nice send-off for the film’s main characters while also populating the world with a great variety of new characters, species, and concepts. DeVito clearly worked hard to create a thoroughly imagined world. And with lavish full-color illustrations throughout, and a story that poses answers to some of the big mysteries in the original story, Kong: King of Skull Island is a fascinating return trip to for fans of the original Kong.

Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong: A Novel (2005)
by Joe DeVito & Brad Strickland

To tie-in to the release of Universal’s remake of King Kong, the Cooper estate commissioned DeVito and Strickland to do a full rewrite of Delos Lovelace’s original novelization of the film. The intention was to give the writing a more modern feel, but DeVito and Strickland took the opportunity to expand the story a bit and create something truly of a piece with the rest of their Skull Island work. The updated version’s depiction of the island natives incorporates characters and concepts from Kong: King of Skull Island, including the Storyteller, and it features additional chapters that give a slightly extended look at what happens during Kong’s time in New York.

Doc Savage: Skull Island (2013)
by Will Murray

This is the first of two pulp hero team-up novels by novelist Will Murray. Murray is the literary executor for the estate of Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, and has written a series of novels based on Dent’s outlines under the name Kenneth Robeson (Dent’s pseudonym). Though he’s not as well known now as many of the characters he influenced, Doc Savage was a hero that originated in pulp magazines (in 1933, the same year that the original King Kong was released!) and a precursor for the modern superhero. Raised by a team of scientists his father had assembled to train him to be nearly superhuman, Doc was an explorer, scientist, physician, and inventor.

Doc Savage: Skull Island opens with a prologue showing Doc and his companions being recruited by the city to figure out how to remove Kong’s body from the base of the Empire State Building. They manage to convey him back to the hold of the Wanderer (and send him off with Carl Denham into the events of Kong: King of Skull Island), but the experience makes Doc reminisce about the other time he encountered Kong. The novel then flashes back to find Doc, intending to return to the training that had been interrupted by the advent of World War I, being enlisted by his father, Clark Savage Sr., to accompany him on an expedition to find Doc’s grandfather. It seems the elder Savage’s ship has gone missing, and the search leads Doc and his father to Skull Island. Once there, they have a pretty exciting adventure dodging dinosaurs and headhunters (who have come to the island for the greatest prize of all: Kong’s head), and encountering the island’s lonely beast king. Murray is an excellent writer for this kind of story, and he builds the thrills toward a series of satisfying encounters between the Man of Bronze and the Eighth Wonder of the World.

King Kong vs. Tarzan (2016)
by Will Murray

Covering another unexplored pocket of the Kong story, this long-awaited meeting between two adventure-story icons begins by focusing on the logistical problems faced by Denham, Englehorn, and the crew in safely transporting Kong from Skull Island to New York City. The novel opens right in the middle of the story, with Driscoll and Ann fleeing Kong back to the safety of the wall. The action plays out as it always has, but once Kong has been knocked out by Denham’s gas bombs, we stay with the characters as they figure out exactly how they’re going to get a giant, unconscious gorilla safely loaded into the ship’s hold, fed, and maintained (and sedated) for the length of the voyage. They receive assistance from Penjaga, the storyteller introduced in Kong: King of Skull Island, but despite that they run into trouble and have to put ashore on the east coast of Africa where Kong breaks free of the ship’s hold and escapes into the jungle. When word reaches Tarzan of the titanic newcomer to his jungle, he sets off to investigate and the meeting Merian Cooper imagined 81 years earlier finally takes place.

Murray once again proves an excellent fit for a Kong story. His grasp on the movie characters (and their ’30s movie speech-patterns) is strong, and he finds an excellent balance between pulp thrills and pacing and an almost procedural focus on the problems posed by the Wanderer’s unusual voyage.

Kong of Skull Island (2016-present)
Written by James Asmus, Art by Carlos Magno

Partnering with DeVito’s company and the Cooper estate, the comic publisher BOOM! Studios is publishing an ongoing series depicting the backstory of Kong and the Skull Islanders from their arrival on the island. The first four issues have been collected in a trade paperback.

King Kong of Skull Island (The future!)
Written by Joe DeVito & Brad Strickland, Illustrated by Joe Devito

This new project, just announced as a Kickstarter campaign, is a fully-illustrated novel expanding on the history of the Tagatu civilization and their history on Skull Island.