Kay (left) and Jay, as they originally looked. Artist: Sandy Carruthers.


Original Medium: Comic Books
Publisher: Aircel Comics
First Appeared: 1990
Creators: Lowell Cunningham (writer) and Sandy Carruthers (artist)
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Men in Black was one of the biggest feature film sensations of 1997. Most people don't know the property started as a lowly black-and-white comic book, from a …

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… very minor publisher. It's the biggest hit to come out of that publishing category since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Like Gremlins, Men in Black (no relation) have their origins in modern folklore. They're associated with UFOs. Like the larger phenomenon, there is so much rumor, eyewitness reportage, disinformation, scientific evidence, speculation and just plain craziness attached to them that it's hard to separate reality from fantasy, if those words have any meaning at all in this context. One thing that's pretty generally agreed is that anyone having a close encounter with a UFO would probably do well to avoid a close encounter with the MIB.

Hopeful comic book writer Lowell Cunningham saw story possibilities in the Men in Black, and wrote one about a pair of them. Kay was hard-nosed, merciless, utterly unconcerned with the idea that anyone he was after might have a point of view. Jay was a newbie in the organization, and ready to learn all that Kay had to offer. Cunningham shopped it around to several publishers. It wound up at Aircel, one of a cluster of interrelated companies putting out black and white comics at the time, other parts of which had names like Malibu and Eternity.

Aircel published a three-issue Men in Black mini-series dated January through March, 1990. The artist was Sandy Carruthers, a graphic designer by day, who later did some work on Captain Canuck. The following year, Aircel published a second mini-series, also by Cunningham and Carruthers, and collected the first into graphic novel form.

Malibu/Aircel/Eternity/whatever publisher Scott Rosenberg had his fingers in a variety of entertainment pies. By 1992, the company was sewing up airtight rights to such properties as Dinosaurs for Hire, Ninja High School and, of course, Men in Black. That same year, Columbia Pictures acquired film rights to the latter.

In 1994, Malibu was acquired by Marvel Comics, which placed Men in Black in the portfolio of America's largest comic book publisher. By that time, Columbia's plans for the film version were well advanced.

The movie, with Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Will Smith as Jay, was released to theaters on July 2, 1997, and all of a sudden Men in Black was an international phenomenon. In fact, it quickly became the all-time highest-grossing movie based on a comic book, a record it held until the 2002 release of Spider-Man. To celebrate, Marvel put out three oneshot comic books about them, all written by Cunningham.

That Fall, Men in Black became an animated TV show. The producer was Adelaide Productions, which seems to specialize in cartoon versions of movie properties like Extreme Ghostbusters and Starship Troopers. Kids WB began airing it on November 10, 1997. Ed O'Ross (Itchy in Dick Tracy) started out as the voice of Kay, but was replaced in the second season by Gregg Berger (several voices in Smurfs). Keith Diamond (Transformers) did Jay. 53 episodes were made.

Video games came out in 1997, '99 and 2000, and a role-playing game in 1998. Videos about various aspects of the making of Men in Black littered the landscape during most of the late 1990s. Books, toys, and all sorts of other merchandising abounded. A feature-length sequel was released July 3, 2002, so the property appears viable well into the new century.

And it all started as three issues of black-and-white comic books, from an off-brand publisher.


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