A man I consider a mentor once told me about the men he calls the barons of popular culture. The creative people behind so much of the world of entertainment recognized the world over. More often than not these creators spent a lot of time and effort to cultivate and image for themselves to become just as memorable as what they created. Often times behind the scenes were those who worked right alongside the credited creator. They often focused on putting forward quality work over seeking glory. As a result they far too often lose their place in history while their colleague revels in fame.
Ub Iwerks: While working for a cartoon studio in Kansas City in 1919, Ub Iwerks formed a friendship with a fellow cartoonist who would change his life, Walt Disney. He and Walt eventually went into business together, producing their own animated shorts. Iwerks was responsible for creating the now instantly recognizable style of the early Disney cartoons. Along with Walt, Ub created Oswald the Rabbit and a certain mouse who many are familiar with. When Walt lost his deal with Universal, most of the artists in their stable left, but Iwerks remained loyal to his friend and served as animator for the Silly Symphony shorts for Walt Disney Productions, including “Steamboat Willie”. As history tell us Walt Disney was more than happy to take credit for all of the success they had, and understandably Ub felt neglected that his contributions to the success of Disney’s company was never acknowledged. This caused a split in the partnership and Iwerks left to work for MGM, where he found little success but became the mentor of a young hopeful cartoonist named Chuck Jones. In 1940 he returned to Walt Disney Studios where he developed the way to overlay cell animation onto live action for the controversial film Song of the South. Like many others who worked on Disney’s film projects, they were recruited to work for WED Enterprises (now known as Disney Imagineering) in creating the rides for the Disney Land theme park.
Jack Kirby: Stan “the Man” Lee has become the go-to guy when people think of comic creators. Lee has done a brilliant job crafting his public image from his early days at Marvel to his multiple film cameos today. Often forgotten by the general public was the man who stood by his side during the formative years of his career. The cigar smoking, curmudgeon Jack Kirby was the artist who gave life to Stan’s ideas. With characters like: the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Black Bolt, the X-Men, Groot, Black Panther and countless others, Kirby was right there along with Lee creating the Marvel Universe. According to many historians Kirby even played a major role in telling these stories as well, as the “Marvel style” of publication gave the writer the responsibility of just coming up with the plot, it fell to the artist to put it all together. To this day the style of Jack Kirby is unmistakable as everything he illustrated was grand and epic full of style and life. Just like in the other entries on this list, Kirby’s well known collaborator had a genius for PR and creating this great public image which fans latched onto. While we comic fans may revere the man we call “the King of Comics”, his place in history has been largely lost in pop culture. As far as the general public knows, Stan Lee alone created the colorful heroes and villains they see on film and TV completely oblivious to the gifted artist who helped him along the way.
Bill Finger: Until recently every Batman: comic, cartoon, action figure, movie, TV show, T-shirt, or pajama set came with the message “Batman created by Bob Kane”. True the New York based cartoonist conceived of a superhero dubbed Batman (or in this case “the Bat-Man”). But his creation was that of a man in a domino mask and red spandex suit who battled crime with a cumbersome glider on his back. As expected this idea was shot down when pitched to the editors at what is now DC Comics. He took his silly idea to his friend Bill Finger to see what could be done to salvage the character. Finger took this awful idea and transformed it into the legendary superhero now recognized all over the world. Batman now donned a point-eared cowl with a cape, used a utility belt loaded with gadgets, and had white slits for eyes, which Bill though made him look more ominous and mysterious. Recognizing his friend’s gift for creativity, Kane contracted out Bill Finger to write the adventures of Batman while he illustrated them. In this role Bill Finger thrived in developing the character and filling out the rest of the Caped Crusader’s world. Making him an aloof millionaire who fought a colorful rogues gallery by night, all came from the imagination of Bill Finger. Unfortunately Finger did not have his collaborators business sense or connections and Kane ensured that for the rest of time he would be credited as Batman’s sole creator. As Bob Kane gained wealth an notoriety thanks to this status, the man who made it all happen fell into poverty and alcoholism. I highly recommend the documentary Batman and Bill which chronicles not only the life of Bill Finger but the crusade which was undertaken to ensure he finally received the credit he deserved.
Gary Kurtz: You may have noticed that a little franchise called Star Wars is a global phenomenon. But would it have had the same cultural impact if the movie was about Annikin Starkiller and his family of dwarves joining forces with the green scaly Han Solo? Luckily we do not have to worry about that because producer Gary Kurtz was able to talk George Lucas down from many of the crazier ideas during the early production days of Star Wars. Having produced George Lucas’ earlier film American Graffiti he knew how to work with the imaginative filmmaker to make his ideas work. Together Lucas and Kurtz formed quite the creative partnership, until Lucas began to shift his style. Rather than crafting a story, the director now wanted more flash and elements which could be marketable. The conflict over this change in direction led to Kurtz leaving the Star Wars franchise during the planning for Return of the Jedi which was intended to be a darker and more serious film. Now that we have seen the prequel trilogy and know how George Lucas works when nobody keeps him in check, it should make Star Wars fans that much more appreciative of what Kurtz brought to the franchise in those early years.