Good article on The King’s collage work in the ’60s and ’70s, with his famous Fantastic Four pages and a few unpublished pieces. I love when great artists also do other art aside from what they’re known for/expert at.
Written by Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman
Art by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer
DC Comics $39.99 USD
It’s true; the majority of Jack Kirby’s significant work is now in print, enough to treasure and learn from and make an educated evaluation of a career. But the man was about the most prolific cartoonist in the history of the industry, and there are still some things worth checking out. Just out of the reprint pipeline is Spirit World, a fairly lavish hardcover collecting the sole issue of a halfhearted attempt by DC comics in the early ’70s to explore the magazine market that was beginning to take market share away from them, with college-age consumers moving from comics to things like National Lampoon and Creepy.
A visionary in more ways than one, if not a particularly good businessman, Kirby saw the future, or a possible future, and got DC to sign off on his idea of a whole new line of magazines targeting this young adult demographic, but DC not only limited the line to a couple magazines, they cut the format from glossy color to black-and-white newsprint, and only ended up printing one issue of Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob before calling it quits. It wouldn’t be fair to say, “cutting their losses”, because they canceled both titles before sales figures were even in, and made little attempt to push the unconventional product through their usual distribution channels.
In the Days of the Mob was Kirby’s return to crime comics, and one would expect that will be collected before long, but Spirit World tells stories of the occult, all introduced by one bearded paranormal researcher Dr. Alden Maas. It’s a framing device not unlike Rod Serling’s Night Gallery or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a reassuring presence tying the disparate, done-in-one supernatural stories together.
The first and only issue looks quite a bit like a Warren publication, with a painted cover (Neal Adams was called in to redo Kirby’s effort, another sign of no confidence in the King) and hysterical Table of Contents. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the issue wasn’t originally published with indigo ink in place of black the way it is here. It sets it slightly apart from most comics; not a brilliant choice but not a bad one. The first story, “The President Must Die!” involves precognition (oddly and helpfully, the Table of Contents lists the story title on the left and the theme on the right), with an anguished woman making predictions she has trouble getting people to believe. It’s a decent setup, with nice washes on Kirby’s art, but it’s too short and resolves unsatisfactorily, and the brevity seems to prevent Kirby from taking chances on the storytelling, relying on simple grids, although it should be noted the first page of the story is an awkward fumetti starring assistant editor Steve Sherman’s mother as a woman who displays panic in a sedan by cradling her head in her hands.
"House of Horror!" has a much more effective, unsettling collage splash page, and it’s the one story that really gives Dr. Maas an active role, although in the typical, "spend a night in a supposedly haunted house to prove it’s bunk" scenario. Kirby provides some fairly spooky, shadowy figures and unusual textures (a ghost’s encrusted mallet, a seething blob of demonic goo), but even in this more restrained, nothing jumping out of the panel style, Kirby seems by and large to be too much of a dynamic, in-your-face artist to effectively sell supernatural stories. There’s just not enough shadow and suggestion here to create mood or make the reader fill in the blanks from the depths of their subconscious fears, though it’s certainly attractive work.
"Children of the Flaming Wheel" is a silly but charming fumetti with a pretty Native American woman in a vinyl singlet attempting to impart the wisdom of the ancients to a guy with a mustache. It’s probably no worse an attempt by a middle-aged publishing veteran to pander to the hippie market than a lot of what was on the stands at the time.
"The Screaming Woman" is a better effort, though also pandering, a story of reincarnation that finds Kirby in the rare position of accentuating cleavage and side-boob shots of a young woman who is possessed by or the reincarnation of a Spanish peasant who lived hundreds of years before her. It doesn’t feel like Kirby is exactly in his element, but it does represent some of his sexiest depictions of women.
"Spirit of Vengeance" is a text story written by Evanier and Sherman, an okay two page filler that would’t have passed muster for most fiction magazines but did the job for a glorified comic book. Then we have a nice-looking but ineffectual Kirby comics bio of Nostradamus to end his contribution to the issue, followed by a one page Sergio Aragones gag strip ported over from stuff he was doing at the time for DC books like House of Mystery and Plop!
That’s the entirety of Spirit World as published, but the collection then features two pages of explanatory material by Evanier, followed by the remaining four stories prepared for the aborted second issue, which were subsequently published in the DC books, Weird Mystery Tales and Dark Mansion. These are in normal black-and-white.
"Horoscope Phenomenon or Witch Queen of Ancient Sumeria" is rather inert nonsense based on Kirby drawing zodiac-derived characters, but features some of the strongest art in the book, starring a sea witch who’s all swirly metallic surface—think Karnilla the Norse Queen with fins and, for some reason, a telephone she lifts out of the brine.
Another dull Dr. Maas intro needlessly delays the awesome “Toxl the World Killer”, an emphatic but confused ecology parable that thankfully features plenty of scenes of rough barbarians and their dancing girl entourage beating up on callow, sophisticated polluters and exploiters. Is it irony that the hero ends up destroying everything when he tries to stop the polluters, and his name is Toxl? I doubt Kirby thought about it for long, so why should we?
"The Burners" feels like Kirby read and article, or someone suggested, something about spontaneous combustion, and Kirby did a little research and then knocked out a story about it. If the book was called Gyro World, he could probably have done a similarly attractive, pointless story about a Greek family cooking lamb on a spit, and it would have been about as close to his own personal themes and interests. One could call it professional work based only on the visual presentation; there’s no real story here.
We finish up with “The Psychic Bloodhound”, which is at least a story, and not a bad one, about a psychic frequently called upon by the police. A loose cannon cop calls the psychic in to help find a kidnapper before he kills a girl, and aside from the kidnapper’s Central Casting Brooklyn dialect (“Dis goil will be pushin’ up da daisies!” type stuff), it actually has more suspense to it than most of the other stories.
It’s a Kirby Kuriosity, a long-awaited look at a book fabled for being one of many things DC screwed Kirby over on. To be fair, we will never know what might have resulted had DC been fully supportive of the title in terms of funding Kirby’s production ideas, or letting him have a few issues to settle in to something rather new to a veteran cartoonist who had spent decades producing comics, not magazines. But the truncated results here suggest that, while Kirby could still produce stunning images and an interesting idea or two, whatever the genre, he was not well suited to the project or at least not quite sure what to do right out of the gate.
As for the production, unlike the various Kirby Omnibuses of the past several years, this one is on thicker, nicer paper, not newsprint. There are some odd design choices (hot pink end papers but a rust colored title page don’t really go together, and the use of intentionally grainy b&w extracts from panels cheapens the presentation. It’s still a pretty nice book, but since it only adds up to about three comics, $40 is too much, and in all honesty DC should have lumped this in with In the Days of the Mob and the abortive Soul Love romance comic material, for the same price. Find it on sale or used.
I recently reviewed Marvel’s Thor Omnibus here on Trouble With Comics. That’s likely the last time you’ll find on this blog a review of a Marvel Comics product that stems from the original work created by Jack Kirby, unless Marvel Comics changes its corporate policies enough to do the right thing for the heirs of Kirby’s legacy. I’ve discussed this with my colleague Alan David Doane, and we agree that, even though we’re just one small part of the online comics discussion, we’re going to be true to our own values and not continue to endorse Marvel’s profoundly unethical treatment of the Kirby family.
The older I get, the more I prefer to just read and review comics and leave the punditry to others. And let’s face it, being a pundit/industry commentator is a fulltime gig, and who wants someone like me only piping up a few times a year to touch on the issues that dozens of others are already addressing quite capably. When it comes to the recent Kirby heirs vs. Marvel lawsuit, which found in favor of Marvel but is now set for appeal, luminaries like Tom Spurgeon and Stephen R. Bissette have written eloquently on the issue, more towards the moral and ethical aspect rather than the legal side.
As far as my own opinion, I just wanted explain where it comes from, and then explain how it will affect future content on this blog. My day job is underwriting Workers Compensation insurance. While it’s a legal requirement for employers to carry such insurance, the layperson probably doesn’t know just how subjective it can be to set pricing. Some of it’s driven by competition, some by analysis of the information that varies based on each underwriter’s knowledge and experience. You may think superhero comics are grim ‘n’ gritty, but how about a job where it’s better if an employee falling from a scaffold dies rather than becomes paralyzed, because death claims don’t cost as much? Some lives are worth $5MM, some $500. My world is not one where there is good and bad but where everything has its price.
Is it fair to hold Marvel Comics to a higher standard than a corporation whose products are not of the intellectual property variety, just because Marvel’s properties are characters who represent the triumph of good over evil? I’ve wrestled with that. I don’t think Marvel is evil or horrible because of some bad policies, and obviously it’s no coincidence that Marvel’s good fortune in being bought by Disney, having successful films, etc., leads to them being targets of lawsuits like this, but opportunism doesn’t by itself invalidate a position. I tended to always follow the precept that whatever a court of law decided in the case of creative ownership lawsuits, that was good enough for me. Wolfman’s Blade? He had his day in court, he lost, end of story. But the impact that Jack Kirby’s co-creations have had on Marvel Comics over the past 70 years is just too overwhelming for me to continue that stance.
I’m no paragon of virtue, and will get off the soapbox now, but the fact is that Marvel/Disney have the resources to make things right with the Kirbys without it hurting them substantially. It’s the right thing to do, it’s good PR, and quite frankly, it seems rather shortsighted to continue thinking that you can keep these old characters going forever with work-for-hire deals with talent who keep their original ideas to themselves. Legality and morality are fluid. What seemed fine in the ’60s doesn’t work now, just like we no longer own people like chattel, marry our 13-year-old cousins, etc. Marvel likes to be an industry trend-setter and seem progressive. Day-and-date digital comics are fine and all, but wouldn’t this be a more significant way to put their money where their mouth is?
Until such time as they make things right on this issue, Trouble With Comics will no longer be commenting on or reviewing Marvel product that derives wholly or in part from the efforts of Jack Kirby. We urge our fellow writers-about-comics to consider making the same commitment.
— Christopher Allen
Writers - Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein
Pencilers - Jack Kirby, Al Hartley, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck
Inkers - Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers, Al Hartley, George Roussos, Paul Reinman, Chic STone, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $99.99 USD
It’s appropriate that Thor finally gets the Omnibus treatment, as this book weighs as much as a sledgehammer. The Mjolnir-wielding Norse god made his first appearance in Marvel’s anthology series, Journey Into Mystery #83, starting a long, unbroken run that first had him in just half the book, but within a year or so the main Thor adventure was backed by the beloved Tales of Asgard. All the Thor material from #83-#120 and Annual (“Special”) #1 are here.
Jack Kirby had done a version of Thor in one DC comic before this, but the basic set-up of having Thor sort of sharing the body of lame (in both definitions) Dr. Donald Blake seems like more of a Stan Lee “hero with feet of clay” device, perhaps inspired by the Fawcett Captain Marvel/Billy Batson idea (and which would inspire Marvel’s own Captain Marvel/Rick Jones set-up). Blake finds a cane through improbable means and when he strikes it, he turns into the God of Thunder, aware of what happened while he was Donald Blake and yet not sharing or at least not interested in Blake’s knowledge; ie you wouldn’t ask Thor to perform surgery on you.
There’s the added gimmick that Thor cannot be separated from his hammer for more than 60 seconds (Asgardians measure time the same as us, even if they are immortal), or he turns back into Blake. Lee handled a lot of Marvel books back then, so he only plots many of these stories, letting brother Larry or Robert Bernstein script them, and of course it’s difficult to determine how much Kirby himself added. Even at his angriest, most anti-Marvel/Lee period, Kirby probably wouldn’t want to take a lot of credit for the first year or so of Journey Into Mystery’s stories, as most were pretty poor. Blake’s medical practice was left vague enough that one day he could be performing surgery in a hospital, while another day he could be working at a clinic, or as a kind of proto-Doctor Without Borders in a banana republic. Whatever happened, he would have some reason to become Thor, who so excites his beloved nurse, Jane Foster, but she is always kept at arm’s length due to misunderstanding or a desire to keep her safe from his dangerous double life.
This romantic thread is often irritating, and invariably gets in the way of what should have been a grand, mythological adventure book from the start, though I suppose something can be said for Lee’s ability to make even godlike characters relatable with dating woes, or Thor’s difficult relationship with his dad, Odin. Odin is basically a bigot: he loves his son, but can’t understand why he wastes his affection on Jane Foster, a human woman, and thus beneath him. There is something charming about Thor pining away and moaning in public over his girl trouble. And of course, Loki is a classic villain, the evil stepbrother who might have been better if he had been the favorite son…but probably not.
It takes quite a while for the series to get going. Aside from Loki, who appears constantly, Thor’s rogues gallery is pathetic, with losers like “Sandu the Supernatural” and “The Carbon-Copy Man.” Even decent villains such as The Radioactive Man, The Executioner, The Enchantress, The Cobra and Mr. Hyde aren’t all that interesting in their first appearances. Lee really misses an opportunity to draw parallels between Thor and The Executioner, both saps for love. It has to be said, though, that unlike, say, the Superman books of this period, Lee/Kirby & Co evolved the series beyond its confining status quo. Little by little, the Tales of Asgard become not just abbreviated versions of myths, but original adventures themselves, and also the main series draws more inspiration from the wonders of Asgard, making room for characters like Balder the Brave and Heimdall to play more of a part in Thor’s life.
Excellent piece by Gary Groth, refuting yet again false recollections by Jim Shooter regarding Jack Kirby’s ’80s fight to get Marvel to return his artwork.
Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps
Writer/Penciler/Editor - Jack Kirby
Inkers - Mike Royer, D. Bruce Berry
In the curious but arguably appropriate newsprint under hardcover DC format, this short-lived late ’70s Kirby DC project (eight issues) is a potent mix of wild ideas, headlong storytelling, and kitschy Kirby phrasing that nonetheless feels like a long walk for a short day at the beach, especially with DC’s cutthroat cancelation in the middle of a storyline.
Kirby’s notion of the mohawked super-cop OMAC, a normal guy named Buddy Blank getting a new identity and powers beamed to him by a mysterious sentient satellite named Brother Eye, is fascinating, though Kirby doesn’t get around to explaining how OMAC’s crime-busting principles jibe with the Global Peace Authority, a faceless force of agents who do not take any violent action of their own to keep the peace. It seems like cheating to subcontract this duty to OMAC, and of course there’s the issue of whether Buddy wanted to become OMAC in the first place. Sure, it beats his nebbishy former life as a real nobody (“Blank” indeed!), but he isn’t given a choice.
Kirby doesn’t seem particularly interested in characterization (there are no ongoing supporting characters for OMAC, nor is he at all introspective), or philosophy (the GPA are presented as basically benevolent, with no exploration of whether there are any flaws in their actions, or that it might lead to corruption. What Kirby wants is to, as he did in most of his solo ’70s work, just set up a hero against a succession of colorful, physically ugly bad guys with jazzy names like “Major Domo,” “Mister Big” and “Marshall Kafka” and his “Multi-Killer.” Much of Kirby’s work found him fighting through his heroes against cruel, Hitleresque villains in different guises, and this is no exception. It does serve to point out the value Stan Lee brought to their collaborations, however, as in very few cases does Kirby ever explore villains who have any dimension to them besides pure evil.
There are some interesting threads introduced here and there, such as OMAC being assigned foster parents in order to understand humanity better, but they’re quickly forgotten before that issue even ends, and not discussed again. Kirby’s notorious for starting to draw his comics with one idea in mind and then ending up somewhere else by the end, and while it can be exhilarating it also shot-circuits some dramatic possibilities.
If there’s any theme unifying the stories here, it’s that criminals will always use the latest technological advances as fresh opportunities to make a buck, whether it’s the lifelike robotic companions of the first issue, or subsequent stories featuring old crooks able to transfer their minds into the bodies of healthy, youthful kidnap victims, or the “atom collapsing” bar devised by Doctor Skuba to drain the world’s oceans for ransom money. That story, with its hints that Skuba’s daughter and son-in-law aren’t even human, is one of the better ones here, which is why it’s all the more disappointing that it ends so abruptly, with OMAC depowered back to a helpless Buddy Blank, a final panel not by Kirby wrapping the series up unconvincingly. One of many Kirby works for DC that suffers for being cut short too early, though of course the same act adds to its mythical potential. A fine Introduction by Mark Evanier puts the series in context.
In this, the Golden Age of Reprints, it seems like the majority of the great comic book stories and strips have been, or are being, collected. But there is still a lot of good, interesting, or charmingly bad work that hasn’t been reprinted. Growing up, I was a Marvel reader all the way. I could list the DC comics I owned on one hand.
Obviously, that eventually changed, and I won’t bore you with the details, but despite having a decent grounding in DC history, I’ve been wanting to dig deeper, especially back to the ’60s and ’70s for some books and characters that never really caught on. And so, through the miracle of eBay, we arrive at this 1975 DC series, a funky failure known as 1st Issue Special. Similar in format to the ’50s series Showcase, which debuted the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern we all know, love and insist on resurrecting, and which also featured the first appearances of enduring characters like the Challengers of the Unknown, the Metal Men and Hawk and Dove, 1st Issue spawned few recurring characters in its thirteen issues. In fact, some of the characters had debuted elsewhere, and only one, Mike Grell’s The Warlord, would go onto its own immediate series.
1st Issue Special #1: Atlas the Great
Writer/Artist - Jack Kirby. Inker - D. Bruce Berry
“See! His arms crush the stones like biscuits!”
Having Jack Kirby write and draw an introductory issue of a possible series and then letting him wait for sales figures and reader response to come in before DC decided if they wanted to continue with it probably wasn’t a very good idea. By the time the votes were in, Kirby and his restless imagination had moved on to new ideas and characters. Still, having Kirby and others present visions of of what might have been for the DC Universe was an idea that at least provided a better than average kind of “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” run of comics.
This first issue introduces Atlas, a buff warrior who is not just the young boy bent on revenge against the oppressive ruler who killed his father, but who is also a Chosen One type whose tremendous strength and insolence is mitigated by the fact he happens to be on the side of justice.
In the first eight pages, we see the shirtless strongman, Atlas, do nothing but kick ass. He destroys some stone beams in the square of a typically primitive-but-advanced Kirby village as a barker challenges the crowd to produce a champion man enough to best Atlas. With little effort, the once-mighty Kargin is not just beaten but smashed through the wooden stage. Some onlookers are amazed while others think it’s trickery, but before anyone can act next, a royal contingent comes through the street, rudely butting aside the “rabble,” which causes a swift reprisal from Atlas.
It’s not until he hears the familiar voice of Hyssa, the reptilian ruler who enslaved his mother, killed his father and burned his village does Atlas stop to reflect, at which point we get the origin showing those very things as well as the young Atlas’ Herculean feats that finally result in his journey into Lizard Country.
I mean no disrespect when I speculate that Kirby probably whipped up this story in about fifteen minutes. It’s pure Kirby without heady concepts, and with only two significant characters, the evil oppressor and the man of the people who refuses to be oppressed.
I can kind of understand why Atlas didn’t get his own series. Kirby didn’t seem to have a lot of support within DC and previous, superior work there like his various “Fourth World” books like New Gods and Mister Miracle had already gotten the ax. Atlas’ first story was rather elegantly told, cutting away to flashbacks before setting up the Atlas/Hyssa conflict at the end that would obviously drive the prospective series. But with its simplicity, and Atlas’ odd hood-and-metal-face-frame-with-no-shirt outfit, there was little to suggest that an Atlas book would succeed where the other Kirby efforts for DC mostly hadn’t.
As a post-script, Atlas remained unused, but for radically different interpretations and/or alternate universe appearances in books like Kingdom Come and All Star Superman, until James Robinson brought him into the DCU in his Superman run, making him a kind of gray area villain somewhat along the lines of Marvel’s Namor. With Robinson now off the Superman books but still writing Justice League, it’s unclear if he’ll continue using Atlas.
1st Issue Special #2 - The Green Team: Boy Millionaires
Writer - Joe Simon
Artist - Jerry Grandenetti
"Hmm, it smells good! What’s this here city made of, Dinkle?”
Former Kirby partner Simon, who had once again worked with Kirby prior to this outing on the 1974 update of their Golden Age Sandman, here revisits kid gang territory with “The Green Team,” a foursome of kid millionaires keen on adventure. Simon had struck out with prior attempts at DC at comics geared at the youth subculture in Brother Power the Geek and Prez, but clearly something compelled the man to keep trying offbeat ideas rather than just script any regular DC heroes. This would be admirable if the Green Team was any good.
Although the name today might suggest some ecology-minded kids trying to connect to and protect nature, this Green Team are just spoiled millionaires looking for kicks, although Simon doesn’t seem able to come up with anything grand enough. For instance, shipping magnate Commodore Murphy buys a small town just so he can sail his advanced toy boat in the town’s pond, while Cecil Sunbeam plays at being a studio mogul and film director as childishly as many of the adults who really hold those jobs. Simon barely gives his characters even the sketchy characterization of the Newsboy Legion. As he recounted later, The Green Team was basically Richie Rich x 4, and the only differences between Commodore Murphy and J.P. Houston was that Houston wears a cowboy hat and says, “podner,” while Cecil drops the cloying epithet, “sweetie,” in a stereotypical Hollywood, not homosexual, way.
The only distinct member of the team is Abdul Smith, African-American shoeshine boy (stay with me) who really wants to join, and through a banking miscalculation on a five dollar deposit, he suddenly has the million dollars needed to join the team. Why Abdul wants to suddenly put up his fortune to hang out with three white kids who aren’t his friends and with whom he has nothing really in common is a question Simon isn’t interested in exploring in this issue. He wants to get right to the wacky adventuring, which in this case isn’t much of an adventure at all but a poorly-executed tale of EC Comics-style comeuppance. A shameless Broadway producer, David D. Merritt (based on David Merrick) is for some reason angry at the Green Team when their promotion of an invention they bankrolled, the Pleasure Machine (don’t worry, it’s an all-ages comic) is thought by one onlooker to be a Merritt stunt. No, the motivation doesn’t make any sense, does it? Merritt jumps in the Pleasure Machine to be the first passenger on the ten day maiden voyage. Making it last ten days has no positive impact on the story and in fact leads to several boring, yet nonsensical, panels of the Green Team watching Merritt on a monitor, lamenting the cool kicks they’re missing that, as described earlier, are only happening in Merritt’s mind and thus not filmable.
When Merritt finally emerges, he’s lost his mind, and what was meant as a zany, lighthearted teen comic, complete with breezy, sloppy, sub-sub-Jack Davis art by Grandenetti, has now become a dark-tinged travesty. It’s like wiping your ass with a birthday balloon.
Somehow, two issues of a Green Team series were readied but were victims of the 1978 DC Implosion and never officially published. The characters have made brief appearances in a Dan Jurgens Superman and a Grant Morrison Animal Man, and it’s more than they deserve.
1st Issue Special #3 - Metamorpho
Writer - Bob Haney
Artist - Ramona Fradon
"Do not interfere, m’sieur, or the blade that dispatched a dozen mamelukes will cause your fool’s blood to flow like water!"
Why end on soiled balloons? The third issue is not a debut story like the previous two. As the cover proclaims, “The Fabulous Freak Returns,” meaning Metamorpho the Element Man. Also returning are co-creators Haney and the semi-retired Fradon.
Again, I was not a DC reader when these issues first came out, but I think my six year old self would have dug this, and now that I’ve seen enough sophisticated, dark, “mature” superhero books to hold me, I’ve come back to being able to appreciate such a bouncy, unpretentious adventure like this one. Rex (Metamorpho) and his girlfriend Sapphire are sightseeing in Washington, D.C., her protective dad and simian chauffeur/bodyguard Java in tow, when a cane-wielding ghost right out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon tries taking down the monuments as revenge for several Presidents never listening to his spectral advice about the gaseous weapon he’d first created to win the Revolutionary War. It’s nutty as hell but Fradon, while not in peak form, is still plenty enjoyable to look at, especially the Elderesque wide-eyed, toothsome Sapphire and the many chemical contortions of Metamorpho. She turns Haney’s cheesy script into a souffle’. It doesn’t appear to have led to more adventures at the time, but that’s your lost, 1970s.
Next time - issues 4-6, with the two remaining Kirby efforts for the series, as well Bob Kanigher’s rape-busting Police Woman ripoff, “Lady Cop.”