The Return of Kong:
Joe DeVito expands the monster mythology with Kong: King of Skull Island
By Joe Nazzaro
Artist Joe DeVito has been a diehard King Kong fan pretty much his entire life. As a kid growing up in New York, the young DeVito would go along to the Museum of Natural History where he’d ask workers if they knew what happened to the giant ape’s body after he fell to his death. Although he never got a satisfactory answer, that all-consuming fixation with Kong never really left him.
The result of that fixation is Kong: King of Skull Island, a lavishly illustrated novel published by Dark Horse Press earlier this year. Created by DeVito and written in collaboration with Brad Strickland, the book serves as both a prequel to the original King Kong story as well as a follow-up to those events. In 1932, showman Carl Denham returns from a mysterious island with the discovery of a lifetime: a giant ape named Kong. When the monster escapes in the middle of Manhattan, he wreaks havoc on the concrete jungle, before plummeting from the top of the Empire State Building. But within hours of Kong’s death, his body and Denham both disappear without a trace.
Twenty five years later, Denham’s son discovers a hidden map of Skull Island and with the help of Jack Driscoll from the original expedition, he returns to the scene of his father’s greatest adventure, where he hopes to unravel the mystery of King Kong once and for all. “He wants to go back find out if Kong was real or not,” explains DeVito, “so in broad terms, that’s how I began. The hard part was making Vincent Denham’s life relevant to what happens on the island, and creating a dynamic whereby when he gets there, he’s able to find out what happened before.
“I was also trying to tell the story of how the wall got built, and how Kong became King Kong. Did he live on that island all of his life? What are the dinosaurs even doing there? How do you have a 25 foot-tall primate on an island populated by dinosaurs? Those were some of the story dynamics I had to come up with.
“For me, the focal point became the wall, which reflected a perfect parallel between what was happening to Vincent in the present with the island dynamic both past and present. Vincent has built an emotional wall around himself, while the island has built a physical wall. Vincent is dying behind his wall because he’s afraid to go beyond it, and afraid to deal with his emotions, while the culture on the island is dying because they’re all living in fear behind their wall, afraid of what is on the other side of it. Of course, Kong’s fate is bound up in the wall as well. In telling the story of King Kong the wall provides the ideal backdrop. As soon as I found that hook, I knew I had my tale. I eventually regarded the wall as a character in its own right, and referred to it as the ‘W’all.”
The story of King of Skull Island began nearly a decade and a half ago, long before director Peter Jackson announced his plans for a remake of the 1933 film. DeVito was exhibiting his work at LunaCon, when he bumped into a man named Barry Klugerman, who approached him with the idea of collaborating on a coffee table book of the original story. They began kicking around ideas, and DeVito quickly realized that he didn’t want to create illustrations that recreated scenes from the movie. “I always wanted to know how they got Kong on the ship, or what it was like, shackling him to the scaffold in New York City. I wanted to create something unique, a story that hadn’t been told yet, so I talked to Barry about it, and he said, ‘By all means, go for it!’”
At this point, the artist hadn’t even approached the Merian C. Cooper estate, or anyone else, about obtaining the rights to a follow up, or if it was even possible. “That’s where a little bit of naiveté came in,” he admits, “because I never even considered that. My approach was to develop it, and then worry about trying to sell it. I don’t know if that was the wisest way to go, but I figured if I went to them and said, ‘Hey, I want to do this!’ they’d say, ‘Great, come back in three years when you’ve got something to show,’ so I immediately went to work and started putting something together.”
Instead of creating a series of finished paintings to sell his pitch for the project, DeVito decided to create the actual story first. “From my point of view,” he elaborates, “I’ve had some of those images in my mind for years, including the scene with the skeletons in the museum, but you can’t really sit down to illustrate something unless you have a story. If you look at the pre-production art from the original movie, Merian C. Cooper went in with these gorgeous black and white drawings, but they were all based on the story. If you are not creating images based on a pre-thought out story, you run the risk of not using some of them, and when you finally sell the book, then you have got to do even more images on top of the ones you’ve already done. If I tried to get permission from someone and said, ‘Here are five big paintings of King Kong kicking the daylights out of this or that dinosaur,’ they would say, ‘Oh, these are nice images, but what is the story you want to tell?’ You need to create a frame for the house before you hang all the details on it.”
As it turned out, creating the story for Kong: King of Skull Island took much longer than DeVito ever anticipated. “I had a broad idea about what I wanted to do, but trying to figure out a way to make it work took a long time, for two reasons. One is that even though I had done a lot of writing and love to tell stories, the fact is, I was a professional illustrator. So while sitting down to do a painting was second nature to me, it was much more difficult to sit and write a story and I progressed comparatively slowly.
“At the same time, I had to maintain my regular work schedule. My first daughter had just been born and I had been working such inhuman hours. I realized that I couldn’t continue that pace anymore. Even so, I knew I had to find another way to take care of my family over the long run. It time, but I found a way to get it all done. Creating the book was a conscious decision to do something that I would own.”
Once DeVito had finally come up with a storyline and characters, as well as reams of notes for what he wanted to do, he enlisted the help of veteran novelist Brad Strickland to collaborate on the final writing chores. “As much as I wanted to write it myself, I had to face that it’s an awfully difficult story for a first-time writer to tell. After that, I collaborated with John Michlig for a while as well, but he had to finish a another Kong project he was already working on called The Eighth Wonder before actual writing began so Brad and I wrote the book together.
“Because my tale operates in three different timelines, and there was an enormous amount of information to fit into a relatively short space, I wanted to make sure that I worked with a seasoned writer who knew how to structure the story efficiently. That’s what Brad did, and masterfully, I might add. Brad took my voluminous plot and character notes and made sure the framework of the house was built properly. From then on, it was a true collaboration all along the way. Brad kept everything on pace, and he and I traded chapters back and forth throughout. I’ve never had so much fun working with someone else.”
DeVito eventually found the safest way to do a follow-up to the original story of King Kong was to base his story on the original novel, and received the full endorsement of Merian C. Cooper’s estate. Finding a publisher was another matter. Although it seems difficult to believe now, there was a period of time when Kong wasn’t as cool as he is today, and nobody wanted to gamble on an expensive coffee table book. “I’ve got to give an enormous amount of credit to Mike Richardson at Dark Horse, because it was a very expensive project to do, and my book is based completely on the original novel. It’s not connected to the original movie, or Peter Jackson’s movie or any other movie; it’s based on the original novel. When I began talking to publishers, Brad and I had outlined the whole book from front to back and the first five chapters were written. I had already done six or seven oil paintings, and everybody who saw the proposal, loved it.
“The thing was, there wasn’t as much interest in King Kong at the time, and it was also too costly. Thank God for Dark Horse, who took a chance on doing it because Mike loves King Kong. In fact, not only was the project well on its way for years, but I’m also pretty sure everything was virtually finished before any announcement was even made about a new King Kong movie, so it was pure chance that it all lined up that way.”
With the first printing virtually sold out, Dark Horse has already printed a new soft cover edition, which will include six to eight pages of additional artwork. “I’ve added some really cool stuff in the back of Carl Denham’s sketchbook,” says DeVito. “That was a lot of fun; I enjoyed writing all the copy by hand, which allowed me to fill out little details that make the island and its culture more real. The book is selling very steadily, and Dark Horse intends it to be in print for a long time, so I’m very grateful for that.”
With the success of KONG: King of Skull Island, DeVito and Strickland have re-teamed with the Cooper estate on an updated version of the original King Kong story. “It’s called Merian C. Cooper's KING KONG: A Novel, and it will be released from St. Martin’s Press this October. What we did was update the syntax to make it more readable for one thing. The two stories are basically identical in terms of plot and characters, but they do differ in some details. The spider scene that was cut out of the movie is still in the book. And if you’re familiar with the movie, you know that they finished it up with 13 reels and Cooper wanted to shoot a 14th so as not to be unlucky. Because of that, they put in the scene where Kong beats the hell out of the subway car, which is not in the original novel.
“One of the other things that was very lacking in the original book is what happens when Kong gets to New York. In the space of twenty pages, he’s dead. That section was not developed as much as it needed to be in our opinion, so we added four full chapters to the book. The language was also very dated, because it was written in its time, so we enhanced all of that. It’s structured better now. It moves better and is expanded, but at the same time, we’ve kept all of the classic lines and characters while introducing a couple of others. I’ve done a color cover for it, and seven black and white illustrations for the inside. It is being released as a large format trade paperback.”
DeVito has also created a new King Kong statue called “The Cooper Kong’ which was sculpted for the Cooper estate. It is inspired by pre-production art for the original film, but with a notable difference. “What I love about this piece is that when King Kong was pitched, the Empire State Building was not finished yet, so they didn’t know what the dome was going to look like. They were guess-timating and the production art reflects that. My sculpture goes a step further. It’s unlike any other Kong statue that you’ll see; it is familiar, but interestingly different – something of an alternate universe kind of thing.”
With interest in King Kong building again in the run-up to a new film, a restored version of the 1933 film is also about to be released on DVD, which is welcome news indeed for fans of the original. “There’s something visceral and dream-like about it,” reflects DeVito, “almost as though the movie turned on a switch in some of us. I think it’s a combination of the fact that it was in black and white, and the atmosphere was so ethereal, with images emerging almost out of nowhere and drifting back in. I’m also convinced that there is something about giants that is mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. While dinosaurs exist in their own right, they’re not anthropomorphic. Dinosaurs are utterly different creatures, but Kong is a character that we can relate to on some level as a thinking creature and because of that he is scarier. From the story point of view there are archetypes that the movie captures that plug directly into the human psyche, beauty and the beast being just one of them.
“The other thing about the original King Kong is that it was done in stop motion. Although time consuming, it is essentially done by one person. The personality of the animator is instilled into what is being animated more directly and intuitively, as opposed to CGI, which is done by teams of people pushing buttons. There is no literal hand contact as there is in stop motion. When I look at the work of Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen, their characters have life in them. There’s something palpably identifiable about them that me that I don't see often enough with CGI – although ‘Gollum’ was extraordinary in that regard and I’m sure we’ll see the gap close more consistently time goes on.”
Although the upcoming version will rely heavily on digital FX, DeVito is looking forward to seeing what director Peter Jackson comes up with in his big-budget remake. “I’ve never spoken to him, but by all accounts he’s a very nice guy, and I know I’ve sent him one of my books, just from a fan point of view.
“I’m sure he would say there’s no way to replace the original film, and neither of us would really want to try. My book is not meant in any way to replace the original film, and I have no doubt that he would say the same thing about his movie. We’re all fans, doing what we do because we love it; out of respect for what that film and story engendered in us. His is based on the movie and mine is based on the novel, so they’re two different worlds. I guess what they have in common is reinterpreting that mythos for a new generation, who may not have grown up with King Kong.”
With the success of Kong: King of Skull Island, Joe DeVito is pleased to be sharing his own personal vision but it was not without trepidation at times. “One of the scary things about doing my book,” he recalls, “was wondering if it was going to be worth all of the work, but something in me said, if you love it, it’s worth doing. What makes it doubly rewarding is all of the things that happened along the way; things I never dreamed would happen, combined with all of the good things that are coming out of it after the fact. One of them was becoming great friends with the Cooper family and how accepting they were of me and my work and what I was trying to do. They’re wonderful people. In addition to that, meeting Ray Harryhausen [who wrote the book’s foreword], Ray Bradbury and others who had helped lay the groundwork of my imagination, was something that I did not anticipate. I’m very thankful for such unforeseen developments that occurred all along the way. ”