I said we’d probably be looking at this title again as “Kirby Month” went along, and here we are, with one of my absolute, all-time favorite stories The King ever did, the two-part saga of “Panama Fattie” from Our Fighting Forces numbers 157 and 158, cover-dated July and August, 1975 respectively.

As our story begins, some shady shit involving hijacked equipment and supplies has necessitated The Losers’ presence in the Panama Canal zone, but that doesn’t mean Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge don’t have time for a drink, and the bar favored by servicemen in the area is owned by a fellow American — specifically, a larger-than-life (in every respect) gal whose real name is Lil, but who everyone refers to as — well, you can probably already guess. Lil’s a fun-loving lady with a heart of gold (or so it would seem) and an eye for men in uniform, and she takes a special liking to Sarge right off the bat — and wouldn’t you know, despite being the hard-ass of the group, he seems to have a thing for her, too. Can Cupid work his magic even in the most unlikely, not to mention dangerous, situations?

Now’s not a good time for matters of the heart, though, for while our heroes don’t know it yet, “Panama Fattie” is leading a double life as the very leader of the gang of smugglers and hijackers they’d encountered earlier (in a scene that plays out very differently for “in the know” readers than it does for The Losers themselves), and she’s not too picky about who she does business with — and that’s put her in bed (metaphorically speaking, mind you) with The Emperor’s boys. If the Japanese want to pull off the audacious scheme they have in mind, though, they need both a “connection” and some protection — and Lil is happy to provide both for a price. Plus, as you can see from the double-page splash shown earlier, she’s a crack shot. Definitely not someone you want to mess with!

 

R &R is something that never last long for The Losers, of course, but they have some bad luck worthy of their name this time out and end up captured at the end of issue 157. It looks like it’s probably curtains for ’em as number 158 (entitled “Bombing Out On The Panama Canal!”) opens — it frequently does — but some serious on-the-fly ingenuity (that, fair enough, requires a heavier-than-usual dose of suspension of disbelief) sees them freed from their captors’ bonds and staring the true nature of their dilemma squarely in the face, as you can see below —

And so an honest-to-goodness Kamikaze run on the Panama Canal itself is what’s got to be stopped here, but hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, The Losers are going to need some outside help if they want to put the kibosh on this tragedy-waiting-to-happen, as well as survive themselves. The odds are slim — but their potential ally is anything but. Kirby’s story structure here is downright cinematic (villain introduced first while going about her dastardly business, protagonists come in next in a heavy-action sequence that’s followed by an uncharacteristically casual scene, then the particulars of their mission as far as they know them are laid out, then full-throttle combat, then capture, then escape, then “big reveal,” then — we’ll get to that in a second), and his pacing brisk and dynamic. Even the few “slow” parts feel anything but and work in service to aid  the eventual climax, which sees Sarge forced with a dilemma of both the mind and heart : stop “Panama Fattie” dead (literally) in her tracks, or return the favor she showed him (twice, but only once that he knows of) and refuse to shoot her even though it might mean death for them all — and countless others.

Moral quandaries are always fascinating — particularly when handled with the deftness and skill of Jack Kirby — but this one packs a double-wallop : Sarge doesn’t gun her down, but that actually turns out to be the right move both ethically and logistically, for it helps to cement a change of heart that Lil,  as our heroes had already glimpsed, was already in the midst of. Tragically, she dies anyway — just moments later, in fact — but under far different circumstances than she would have had Sarge pulled the trigger, to wit : she sacrifices herself to save Sarge and, in turn, everyone else. As fate and circumstance would have it, then, by doing the “wrong” thing, Sarge has actually done the “right” thing — and doing the “wrong” thing for years on end actually puts Lil in position to do the “right” thing when it matters most.

This is Shakespearean drama at its finest, and Kirby’s keen eye for period authenticity and first-hand knowledge of the rigors of close-quarter combat drive it home with stunning vigor. Once Lil and Sarge have shared her dying moment there’s still a bombing raid to be stopped, though, and Kirby’s aerial sequences are just as stunning as the more quiet tragedy that plays out just prior, with Johnny Cloud and Gunner, pursuing their quarry in a technical, brazenly swooping directly under it and lighting it up from below with a mounted machine gun. Breathtaking stuff, as only The King Of Comics and inker par excellence Mike Royer can deliver.

Still, for all its blistering action, it’s the “human element” that elevates these comics to “classic” status in this reviewer’s humble estimation. There are clear rights and wrongs offered up here, to be sure, and an unwavering commitment to his conscience (never shoot a civilian, never shoot a woman) proves to be Sarge’s salvation (as well as everyone else’s), but Kirby knew that the “bad guys” were human being with lives, loves, and dreams of their own, as well, and were all too often simply stuck playing a hand they wished, in retrospect, they’d never been dealt — even if, paradoxically, they’d dealt it to themselves. The story told over issues 157 and 158 of Our Fighting Forces, then, is more than a simple tale of betrayal, tragedy, and redemption — it is a statement of belief on Kirby’s part that even under the most dire circumstances, we’re all more alike than we are different, and that the connections we make with each other, no matter how brief or small, aren’t just what we live for — they can literally save us, too.

You’ve gotta hand it to Jack Kirby — if you or I had been toiling away in the comic-book industry for approximately four decades, only to have our major life’s work strangled in the proverbial crib, we would probably give up on the whole notion of the “sprawling cosmic epic” altogether and just stick with simple stand-alone stories, punctuated by the occasional two-or-three-parter, until it came time to hang up our pencils and call it a career. Who needs the disappointment of early cancellation all over again?

And yet, after the editorially-mandated quick demise of his Fourth World opus, The King’s non-stop imagination kept chugging away at the only speed it knew how to operate : full throttle. And while he kept creating new and innovative concepts and characters during the remainder of his tenure at DC (KamandiThe DemonOMAC), these were all essentially self-contained narratives that didn’t attempt to replicate the scope of his then-recently-scuttled saga. And yet, the siren call of the cosmos never fully let go —

When Kirby returned to Marvel at the tail end of 1975, he was ready to reach for the stars again, and while he would (apparently somewhat reluctantly) return to famous characters he’d created like Captain America and the Black Panther, the project that he was most excited about was his next “high-concept” science fiction masterpiece-in-the-making, originally entitled “The Celestials” and then “Return Of The Gods” before making its July, 1976 cover-dated debut as The Eternals.

Right off the bat in this first story, titled “The Day Of The Gods,” it’s clear that Kirby is playing a “long game” here : incorporating then-popular elements of the cultural zeitgeist such as the purported “sunken kingdoms” of Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu, and the like; mysterious “vanishing zones” such as the Bermuda Triangle; and, most especially, the “ancient astronauts” theories popularized by the dubious-at-best Erich Von Daniken, this debut issue is all about setting a vast and ambitious stage for itself encompassing not only all of human history, but the histories of two purported “sibling races,” as well — the genetically-and-morally-challenged Deviants, and the titular and quasi-godlike Eternals. Most of the principal characters we’d come to know over the course of the book’s run aren’t even introduced in these pages, so dense and complex is the task of “world-building” that Kirby has set for himself, but it almost doesn’t even matter in the scheme of things — this isn’t so much the “ground floor” of something big as it is its foundation. Sure, we get to meet Ikaris (albeit in his thinly-disguised “civilian identity” of Ike Harris) as well as archaeologist Doctor Damian and his fetching daughter/assistant, Margo, who would go on to become semi-important supporting players, but on the whole this is one big old info-dump.

Why, then, is it so endlessly fascinating and eminently readable, even after all these years?

A lot of it is down to Kirby’s genius pacing — despite its heavy reliance on Ikaris’ lengthy “here’s all you need to know before we begin” monologue, there is a clear and present danger hanging, Sword- of- Damocles-style, over the proceedings here, and before we even see a single Celestial (which doesn’t happen in this issue, in case you were wondering), the senses-shaking prospect of their imminent return is established as something larger and more profound than our mere mortal minds can process —and Kirby communicates it all with such vital urgency that there’s no mistaking the import of what’s about to happen, even if it doesn’t happen here. Seriously, though, I defy you not to be absolutely hooked on this comic by, oh, page four or five.

The art (masterfully aided and abetted by the heavy-but-faithful brush of John Verpoorten, for my money one of Kirby’s most underappreciated inkers) is absolutely killer, too — a heady stylistic mix of any number of various ancient cultures, particularly the Incas (who, along with the Aztecs, had long been a major influence on The King’s visual ethos), it nevertheless looks like something from several centuries into the future given its incorporation not only of all kinds of typically-awesome “Kirby Tech,” but of truly alien designs courtesy of the undersea realm of the Deviants. This may be a Marvel comic, sure, but it looks like something from a universe all its own — and indeed, such was Jack’s original intention, to the point that even when the company’s bean-counters handed down dictates to include guest appearances from The Thing and The Hulk, Kirby cleverly (and probably to the chagrin of said “superiors”) made certain they were only lame dopplegangers and not the “real” thing.  After all, when you’re pouring this money concepts onto the page at once, tying yourself down to a pre-existing, inter-connected corporate “world” is only going to slow you down.

And if there’s one thing that this comic doesn’t do, even in this first issue that skirts the edges of “information overload,” it’s slow down — not even for a single second. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read it, Marvel reissued it (complete with Mike Royer’s introduction from the series’ hardcover omnibus collection, two historical appraisals by Robert Greenberger written prior to Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.’s 2006 relaunch of the title, and three of Kirby’s original letter-column essays) this past Wednesday as part of their bargain-priced “True Believers” reprint line, and there’s probably no better comic on the new release racks this week than True Believers : The Eternals #1. This is brash, boisterous, and bold imagining that backs up its sound and thunder with super- charged lightning that hits its mark directly.

 

 

I admit it —at first, I was planning on reviewing The Hunger Dogs as part of this “Kirby Month” series I’ve got going, but about halfway through writing that appraisal, it occurred to me that there were any number of fine essays devoted to that graphic novel available online already, and since one of my goals with this entire enterprise has been to shine a light on some of the lesser-discussed works in The King’s canon, I quickly decided to shift my attention elsewhere — although I’m not going that far away.

By way of explanation, in 1984, DC’s post-Carmine Infantino regime of Jenette Kahn and Paul Levitz brought Jack Kirby back into the fold in a big way, wisely deciding to finally allow him to “finish,” albeit in truncated form and after a lengthy hiatus, his legendary Fourth World epic. Right off the bat it was clear that whatever conclusion Kirby would be providing now would be both a) substantially different to what he had originally envisioned given that there were probably a couple hundred comics (at least) along the way to wrapping up the story that he never got the chance to do given the premature cancellation of the entire line a decade previously; and b) not really a “conclusion” at all since all the characters had firmly and irrevocably been “folded” into DC’s larger corporate “universe” by that point.  The big finale was going to come in the form of the previously-mentioned The Hunger Dogs, but prior to that, the entire 11-issue run of the original New Gods title was slated to be re-issued in a series of six deluxe-for-the-time monthly comics (featuring no ads, shiny white paper, and a then-high cover price of $2.50) as a lead-in to what was no doubt the comics event of the year. There was just one little wrinkle : the two-old-issues-per-one-new-issue publishing schedule meant that number six (cover-dated November, 1984) was going to come up short in its page count.

What, then, to do? Well, why not turn the “back half” of that final book over to Kirby himself and let him tell a new story? And tell a new story he most certainly did —  a 48-page story, in fact, that had something of a double editorial remit : it had to serve as a bridge between the “old stuff” and The Hunger Dogs, but it also had to serve as a suitable “ending” in and of itself for the readers who had been picking up the preceding issues but maybe couldn’t (since it wasn’t going to be available on newsstands) or wouldn’t (because six bucks was a lot of money back then) get the big, fancy graphic novel when it came out. And so “Even Gods Must Die!” was born.

As most folks know, The Hunger Dogs had a convoluted gestation, originally being commissioned as a single-issue special carrying the title “On The Road To Armagetto” before being “fleshed out” (and mercilessly fucked with) into its final form, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, this late-in-the-game addition to the Fourth World mythos, while admittedly shoehorned into a (highly fluid, fair enough) pre-existing plan, came about at least a little bit more smoothly after it was commissioned, and frankly it does add quite a bit of depth to both what came before it and, crucially, what was to follow — but I’d be lying if I said that, on the margins at least, it didn’t belie a sign or two of being at least a little bit rushed . More on that in a moment.

First, the good : while the story’s a fairly simple affair — Orion gets wind that Darkseid is holding his mother, Tigra, against her will and duly stages a daring one-man-raid on Apokolips, specifically its deadly slum region known as Armagetto, in order to bust her out come hell or high water — but it’s no doubt effective, and its expanded page count, while perhaps not strictly necessary, allows for the re-introduction of many characters (Desaad, Granny Goodness and her Furies, Kalibak, etc.) in a manner that doesn’t come off as cluttered or read like The King was just checking every box on a “to-do” list; we’re treated to all kinds of awe-inspiring and majestic sets (Darkseid’s HQ shaped like his head? Amazing!) and some of the most stunning “Kirby Tech” we’ve ever seen; there is a lengthy and quite poignant scene between Orion and Lightray that’s allowed room to “breathe” as it plays out over the course of a few pages; and Jack is afforded the opportunity to experiment with some innovative page layouts and panel designs (circular panels, insets, and the like) as he takes his time telling his tale. Plus, the double-page spreads are just plain breathtaking, as you can see :

In addition to this lengthy list of attributes, the shocking ending to this tale really hits like a ton of bricks — don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of The Hunger Dogs (despite its handed-down-from-on-high flaws) and think it’s absolutely essential reading, but if the whole Fourth World thing had ended here, well — it would’ve worked. It would’ve ended (again, not that it was really ever going to “end” at this point) on an entirely different note, to be sure, but it would have been tonally, logically, and thematically appropriate for all that.

Where, then, does my charge of this feeling “a little bit rushed” come from? Well, I’m not sure when, or under what set of circumstances, veteran Kirby inker D. Bruce Berry was brought into the fold, but there are a number of instances here where he doesn’t seem to exactly be on his “A” game. A number of pages — hell, most — look just fine, if somewhat less than inspired, but a handful of others clearly skimp on the details, cut corners on the backgrounds, and “dial back” a fair amount of Kirby’s masterful interplay of light and shadows. I can’t believe he’d do this intentionally given the fealty he usually showed toward Jack’s pencils (my mild criticisms of some of his OMAC work notwithstanding, he almost always did a solid job), so my best guess is that he may have come on board at the last minute — and hey, it could have been worse : DC editorial could have given the gig to Greg Theakston. In fact, given how frequently he swooped, vulture-like, into Kirby projects that in no way required his “assistance” during this period, I’m rather surprised they didn’t.

All told, then, “Even Gods Must Die!” is a thoroughly satisfying and impressive read that can hold its own with any other installment of the Fourth World saga, and offers an intriguing “what if this had been the conclusion?” possibility for fans to ponder over. It may have been “wedged in,” but you know what? It still fits into the overall tapestry damn near seamlessly regardless.

 

The “alpha” of OMAC in our rear view mirror, then, let’s look at the two-part “omega” that ran in issue numbers even and eight (cover-dated October and December, 1975 respectively) —

Jack Kirby created many – some would even argue most – of the iconic villains in comic book history.  The list of Kirby rogues is a long and distinguished one, a veritable “Bad Guy Hall Of Fame” that includes such names as Dr. Doom, Galactus, Darkseid, Desaad, The Red Skull, and Arnim Zola, among far too many others to list, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Somewhere far underneath that iceberg, though, is where you’ll find the guy who causes OMAC no end of trouble in the final two issues of his original 1974 comic series – one Dr. Skuba.

I don’t want to be too rough on the character, though – nor  on his creator – because as far as dastardly schemes go, the one he’s attempting to pull off here is a real doozy: Sandor Skuba, a man with, according to GPA agent 430, a “case history – of ‘lone wolf’ atomic research” has invented miraculous, clear storage bars that are capable of “collapsing –water atoms at a fantastic rate – literally shrinking the water and storing it as it pours inside.”  The bars are “voracious,” but unfortunately, given that most bodies of water are, in fact, inhabited by numerous living creatures, the fish don’t fare so well – in fact, “the marine life is crushed and broken by its own atoms – which cannot reduce as fast as the water.” Ouch.

Skuba’s plan is to steal, as OMAC states on the cover for this seventh issue, “all the water in the world!” and then sell it back to the various countries (that would be, ya’ know, all of ‘em) that need it at an astronomical price, and he’s gotten a good head start by devising a bar big enough to swallow all the contents of the Atlantic Ocean. As you might expect, though, these super-concentrated bars are awfully heavy – OMAC himself has trouble lifting one that he finds at the beginning of our story that has gulped up all of the fictitious (I think, at any rate) Madras Bay, and that’s even after his satellite companion, Brother Eye, has zapped him with a “power surge” that increases his already remarkable strength tenfold.

How, then, to actually steal the water once it’s been hyper-concentrated? Rest assured, our guy Sandor’s thought his way around that nagging little problem, as well – he’s got a massive aerial vehicle that he’s equipped with a “weight neutralizer” to winch the bar up, then, once inside, he can simply grab it with a pair of “neutro-gloves” that took “years to develop,” and stick it away in a handy storage chamber (a storage chamber that, one would assume, must be “weight-neutralized” itself – as must the entire ship, come to think of it, or it wouldn’t stay airborne for very long).

Clearly, then, Dr. Skuba is a man who thinks big – perhaps bigger than any other Kirby rogue this side of Darkseid or Galactus. He’s even got a cool secret hideout (discovered by Brother Eye, of course, and infiltrated by OMAC after he borrows yet another GPA single-seat mini-plane to get there) on a volcanic rock (where property values are probably pretty cheap – I’m guessing that he’ll be trading up to a mansion or palace in a much safer locale if he’s able to make as much cash off this whole water hustle as he’s planning) that’s the exclusive domain of himself, his daughter Seaweed, and her fiancée, Apollo. Granted, the family has a pretty rocky relationship – he refers to Seaweed as a “money-hungry brat” and taunts Apollo by calling him “fumble-fingers” – but at least there are no neighbors around to torment with their constant bickering.

Given all this, then, why did I insinuate at the outset here that Dr. Skuba isn’t exactly one of the King of Comics’ top-tier creations? Well, let’s face it – his name is pretty lame, and his appearance seems to be at least loosely based on the look of the evil aliens from the old 1950s “B” movie Killers From Space. He might have “A-list” ambitions, then, but he’s “D-list” all the way in terms of his look and moniker. Plus, for all his criminal ambition, there’s something sort of lonely and pathetic about the guy, and a careful examination of the page reproduced below even indicates the lengths to which he’s willing to go in order to create some companionship for himself–

Yup, you read that right, friends –Dr. Skuba has manufactured an artificial “daughter” and “son-in-law” for himself – and he still can’t get along with them! Fear not, though, for what he lacks in social skills he more than makes up for in twisted scientific genius – as OMAC learns, to his regret, when he attempts to bust into the villain’s lair and is met with “a powerful electronic shock wave” that “surges from the rock and engulfs” him. He’s zapped good and hard for a solid few panels and even Brother Eye can’t save him.

So – is he dead? Well – yes and no. When the electro-bombardment finally ceases, OMAC is gone, and in his place stands (or, to be more accurate about it, cowers) – Buddy Blank! More specifically, a terrified, confused – and, yes, whiny – Buddy Blank, who has no idea where he is or what’s happened to him.

And that, dear readers, is how you do a comic book cliffhanger ending. In point of fact, OMAC #7 is a veritable clinic from start to finish in how to construct a solid sci-fi action story – even if the villain has some flaws that are difficult to overcome. The story is topical for its time (remember, “water shortages” were a common fear people had about the future in the 1970s), bold and audacious in its execution, and remarkably well drawn – apart from D. Bruce Berry’s inks, which are a mix of good and bad in this issue and can occasionally detract from the look of several important scenes, most notably the early double-page splash image showing OMAC surveying a dried and desolate lake bed littered with dead sea creatures.

Still, that problem would be quickly remedied with the imminent return of Mike Royer on OMAC’s eighth (and last) issue, so without any further ado we’ll jump right into that one —

 

But before we get into the beginning of the end, I suppose we’d better talk about that cover first. Yeah, it’s not by Kirby. In fact, I’m willing to bet that even if his distinctive signature weren’t present, most committed—and even many casual—comics fans would recognize it as the work of the one and only Joe Kubert. So what gives?

Well, by the time the cover chores for the eighth and final issue of OMAC were undertaken, The King had left the building (even though he worked from his California home). When Jack’s contract at DC was up, that was it. He was gone. The entire story of his often-acrimonious relationship with DC editorial has been recounted numerous times, so we won’t go into too much detail here—suffice to say that they hired Kirby do to do what he did best, and then numerous “higher-ups” (perhaps chief among them Carmine Infantio) decided that they didn’t like what it was that he did best, after all. It was a rocky four years filled with numerous title cancellations, faces of flagship characters (most notably Superman) redrawn by other (invariably lesser) artists, and a general attitude among the powers that be that Jack Kirby’s style of comic book storytelling just “didn’t work” at the stodgier, more mundane (at least at the time) DC. They did their level best at nearly every turn to stifle The King’s creativity, but he was bursting forth with too many long-bottled-up ideas to fully contain, and as a result, many fans—myself included, if I’m too be honest—feel that the best work of his entire career came out of his early-70s DC stint. But when it was over, it was over.

Mark Evanier has remarked that “there was a feeling at DC that Marvel was just going to close up shop the minute Jack left, and of course that didn’t happen.” I would contend that once it didn’t, DC editorial had little interest in keeping him around long-term. The cancellation of the Fourth World books, for reasons never clearly spelled out, was obviously a huge blow to Kirby, but he kept on innovating, creating new and magnificent characters that have all stood the test of time. Darkseid is pretty much the main bad guy in the DC Universe to this day, The Demon is constantly turning up in various series, and even OMAC himself has been revived a number of times —so they’re more than happy to keep milking Jack’s creative genius for all it’s worth, but when it came time to part company with the man himself in 1975, it’s safe to assume that no tears were shed on either side.

Jack would return to Marvel, where he would create The EternalsDevil Dinosaur, and Machine Man, among other notable characters, as well as take up the writing and penciling chores on titles such as 2001 : A Space Odyssey (a run that is covered in depth in Julian Darius’ fine book “The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made,” available from—you guessed it—Sequart), Black Panther, and Captain America, which would see him return to the seminal hero he created with a fresh, timely perspective and subject the star-spangled adventurer to the wildest ride he’d ever been on. But before all that could happen, there was a little bit of business to take care of as far as fulfilling the terms of his expiring contract.

What happened specifically when it comes to OMAC’s big wrap up depends on who you ask, but there’s certainly no doubt that the book didn’t end the way Kirby would have liked it to. Indeed, the climactic series of events that make up this issue’s final few pages have “to be continued” written all over them, but it wasn’t to be. I’ve heard three different stories as to how and why this was, so here’s the skinny on each:

The first version goes that Jack was setting up a big cliffhanger for the end of number eight with the idea that a new creative team would take over when he left; the second posits that Jack actually wanted to stick around for one extra month to finish the story off but DC wouldn’t let him; and the third is that he was just getting his job over with and didn’t care what the hell happened.

I don’t give the third version much credence because Kirby was all about work ethic and never left a job undone; the second seems plausible enough because, let’s face it, the story is unfinished; and the first could very well be the case, as well, and simply never came to pass because DC decided to drop the axe on OMAC immediately following Jack’s departure. So—which is it? I couldn’t tell you for certain, but here’s what we do know :

Rather than end the eighth issue on Jack’s planned cliffhanger, an abrupt–as-all-hell final panel was jammed in there, written and drawn by someone else (don’t ask me who, and it doesn’t really matter all that much, anyway) at editorial’s “discretion,” and the series “concluded” in pretty much the most unsatisfying was one could possibly imagine. Seriously. It’s a real mess. Even if you didn’t like the book, you’d feel cheated by the ending. Every time I read it, I have to stifle the urge to scream “this—just—can’t—be!”

Of course, it would only be a short time before DC began its steady habit of reviving the character, but post-Kirby OMAC is, as you’d rightly expect, uniformly lousy OMAC, so it’s fair to say that, like the Fourth World, this series remains an unfinished work, no matter what anyone else decided to do about and/or with it.

So those are the circumstances that swirled around the final issue of this truncated epic—as for the specific details of the story itself, hey, I’m glad you asked —

It’s panic time in “The World That’s Coming!,” OMAC having reverted to the form of his human alter-ego, Buddy Blank, who has no knowledge of where he is or how he got there, further strengthening the theory that the timid worker drone and his super-human counterpart weren’t really the same “person” at all and that the GPA’s One-Man Army-Corps was essentially a being whose more forceful persona effectively “over-wrote” his past self.

In other words, they just needed poor ol’ Buddy for his body, and even that was changed quite radically via “computer hormone operation.” Still, I guess it’s nice to know that you’re needed for something

We’ve discussed the particulars as to why this eighth and final issue of Jack Kirby’s last original creation for DC came to find itself in the shape it did already, but even given all that foreknowledge going in, OMAC #8 is a peculiar beast and stands out as perhaps the single weirdest issue in a series where “high strangeness” was already the order of the day. The best example of this is that the “hero” himself only appears once—in the double-splash image shown above—and it’s not even the “real” OMAC at all but a “structure print” that the super-satellite Brother Eye is preparing to beam down from space onto Buddy Blank in order to once again wipe the pesky little runt out of existence—which is a nice plan and all, but unfortunately things don’t go according to Hoyle.

Just before the beam hits, Buddy finds his molecules scrambled by the villainous Dr. Skuba and he’s re-assembled in the mad scientist’s hollowed-out volcano home/secret lair. He’s given a cursory introduction to the would-be blackmailer of the world himself, as well as to his artificially-created “daughter,” Seaweed, and her equally-manufactured suitor, Apollo (who seems to resent the competition for Seaweed’s attention and continually refers to Buddy as “twerp”) before having the entire process of exactly how Skuba was able to create his super-secret den of villainy explained to him and getting a guided tour of the megalomaniac’s “chamber of horrors”-style repository for failed and discarded previous genetic experiments. To say that this all proves to be more than Buddy’s somewhat feeble mind can grasp is, as you’d probably expect, putting things kindly.

Elsewhere in the bunker while all that is going on, Skuba finally manages to piece together the link that exists between Buddy and Brother Eye, and despite the fact that the satellite isn’t able to get another “structure print” sent down to its now-powerless servant/stooge, it is able to engage his captor in long-distance battle, sending down beams that can “penetrate (Skuba’s) atomic shield” and do semi-useful things like hurl metal canisters at the dastardly villain “at bullet speed.” It doesn’t necessarily make for the most inspired and gripping fight sequence of Kirby’s career, but it is still reasonably effective, and is certainly in keeping with this issue’s overall “this is probably a lot better than anything I’d come up with if I had one foot out the door” vibe (thanks in no large part to the very welcome return of Mike Royer on inks).

During the fracas, Buddy’s able to escape (although, in fairness, there’s really nowhere for him to go)—and at a critical time given that Skuba had just been pointing a gun at him—but it’s too little, too late, given that the evildoer has devised a way to, in his own words, “make a ‘hero sandwich’ out of” the “satellite programmed to play hero.” Not The King’s greatest piece of dialogue, I’ll grant you, but give him a break—we’re racing to a heart-stopping conclusion here.

Or are we? Skuba fires “three powerful beams” at Brother Eye, and immediately all kinds of meteors, asteroids, and other space debris begins to fly directly at the satellite, which “has become a giant magnet attracting its own destruction!” I know, I know—I had no idea that chunks of floating space rock were magnetic, either, but the end result is that Brother Eye becomes literally subsumed under a pile of them, until another beam, this one of “solar intensity” emerges from Skuba’s volcanic stronghold, heating “the stones which cover Brother Eye—What was space rock becomes a molten, seething, fiery mass—It finally cools—Brother Eye is now helpless and silent, in a prison of slag” (and a prison of slag tumbling at high speed towards the Earth, at that)—and then this happens:

That right there is the infamous final panel of which we made mention of previously, the one written and drawn by somebody else (don’t ask me who), and commissioned by DC editorial to wrap up the story more or less instantaneously—a task which, I’ll grant you, it certainly achieves, but there’s simply no way loyal readers of the series could have found it even remotely satisfying. Shit, 40 years later no one still does. I believe I called it “whiplash-inducing,” or at least should have, and that seems pretty fair—although “head-scratchingly bizarre” would do in a pinch, as well. Knowing what we know now about the behind-the-scenes aspects of this issue’s creation it all makes a kind of sense, I suppose, but if you’d just grabbed this issue off the newsstand (remember those?) because you were excited to see how the story from the previous month would was going to wrap up, well—you might be tempted to sue DC for consumer fraud, even if the most you could get was your 25 cents back.

None of which, of course, was even remotely Kirby’s fault, for reasons already mentioned. But it’s certainly an inauspicious way for a comic that was so jam-packed with ideas—some of them, admittedly, more well-realized than others, but all invariably intriguing—to meet its end, and it’s fair to say that both OMAC and his fans deserved better.

 

“Man, that cover scared the shit out of me when I was a kid!”

You have no idea how many times I’ve heard or read various iterations of that same statement made in regards to the image depicted above, which greeted kids all over America at newsstands (remember them?)  back in 1974 (the issue is cover-dated October of that year, so it probably came out some time in the summer). Consider the words of noted Kirby scholar Charles Hatfield, who states that “ this frankly disturbing cover  introduces a comic that is chilling, dystopic, and just plain flat-out bizarre,” or cartoonist Scott Shaw, who calls it “one of the most disturbing sexual images in the history of funnybooks,” or prolific YouTube comics commentator (and major Kirby fan) Howlermouse, who says it more or less verbatim – “this  cover scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.”

So, like, what exactly is it about this cover, anyway? Even without the benefit of the context surrounding it – which has to be gleaned by, ya’ know, actually reading the book – it’s clear that Jack Kirby struck a chord with this image alone that continues to resonate for many people even all these years later.  One could argue that said context, once understood, actually makes this thing even more shocking – that’s a “build-a-friend” named Lila in the box, essentially a mechanical sex toy, and one of “her” exact duplicates is the closest thing our ostensible “hero” has to a “girlfriend” in his civilian identity as Buddy Blank – but let’s leave all that out for the time being and just focus on the picture and words right there in front of us, shall we?

For one thing, those words and that image definitely play off one another in a manner so expert that perhaps only someone with Kirby’s decades of experience in the field could have done it (he’s not called “The King Of Comics” for nothing), the picture itself definitely being a “startling” one, and the text promising us a “startling look into — the world that’s coming!” Again, as mentioned in our first entry in this series, not the world that “might be coming,” or “could be coming” – the world that most definitely is coming. “Does this shit creep you out, kids? Well, it should, because it’s gonna happen!”

Then we have the stark and impactful nature of the cover’s layout. Our bizarre-looking “hero” (remember that “Mohawk”-style haircuts were even less common back in 1974 than they are now) is rendered way in the background, so far back as to almost be meaningless apart from what he’s doing, which is throwing that box with a female head and limbs suspended in some sort of liquid concoction directly “at” the reader. I heard Howard Chaykin opine at a convention panel last year that the artistic genius of Kirby lies in the fact that he was the first person who understood that the impact an action had was more important to a reader than the actual action itself, and that little axiom is never more clearly illustrated than it is here. “Comin’ at ya!”

The other “startling” feature of this cover is, of course, the almost-overwhelming amount of empty, or “negative,” space that Kirby utilizes.  Seldom do comics – or any other publications, for that matter – go for that much “blank” (pun most definitely intended) real estate, and when they do it’s because they want the reader’s eye to be drawn to one thing and one thing only since – hey, that’s all there is. Nothing superfluous. No distractions. This is it, folks.

And yet that “nothing” says a whole lot, doesn’t it? One is left with the distinct notion that the rest of the world doesn’t matter, that this action takes places in a completely clinical, isolated, antiseptic setting – and considering that this comic, as we’re made fully aware from the outset, takes place in the future, that’s a scary commentary on the type of society we’re going to be presented with:  namely, that it’s an empty one. We’re told, in no uncertain terms, before even  opening up to the first page, that OMAC will be centered on a character that is isolated, minimized, perhaps even flat-out insignificant, in the hollow, cavernous – one might even go so far as to say soulless – future world that he inhabits.

The sexual nature of the cover that Shaw alludes to is debatable, I suppose, and probably has greater resonance once a person has read the contents of the book, so we’ll leave that alone for a paragraph or two, especially since it probably wasn’t Kirby’s explicit intention to create even a covertly – much less overtly – sexualized image anyway, so hopefully you’ll agree with my decision to “table” that for the time being. It’s not due to any “prudishness” on my part, I promise.

And yet, no sooner do I say that than, hey, look! It’s our “girl” from the cover—and apparently she’s got a name and everything! Dear readers, allow me—by way of Jack Kirby, of course—to introduce you to Lila, a manufactured “Build-A-Friend” that comes our way courtesy of the decidedly unethical Pseudo-People, Inc. in “The World That’s Coming!” Chalk one more uncannily eerie prediction up to “The King”—not only did he accurately foresee the coming of a soul-dead technocracy, dangerously huge income disparity, ecological disaster, faceless global bureaucracy, mind-numbing workplace drudgery, and other facets of contemporary life (some of which will be explored in OMAC #1, while others turn up in future issues), but he also foresaw the coming of the “Real Doll” artificial sex “partner.”

Come on, don’t pretend you’ve never heard of them. Just because Jack couldn’t come right out and label these robotic women what they clearly are doesn’t mean we can’t see them for, well—what they clearly are. But the first issue of OMAC is a decidedly breakneck-paced affair, and no sooner to do we begin to wrap our heads around the whole “Build-A-Friend” concept than we get the following, on the very next page(s):

Yup, we’re being thrown right in at the deep end here, folks, with the shit having already hit the fan, and while Kirby certainly didn’t invent the storytelling conceit of putting the reader into the action long after it had already begun, this kind of “timeline-shuffling” wasn’t anywhere near as common in comics—or any other form of popular entertainment—in 1974 as it is today. For a guy whose writing is often derided as being “behind the times,” ol’ Jack sure seems a few steps ahead of them here, if you ask me.

Hell, truth be told, all of OMAC #1 is incredibly forward-thinking. Sure, Kirby plays along with the popular-at-the-time notion of dividing his narrative up into distinct four-or-five-page “chapters,” but beyond that, this issue makes almost no gestures towards admitting that it’s part and parcel of then-contemporary super-hero yarns. How different is it? Let’s take a closer look…

For one thing, our “everyman” character, Buddy Blank, is aptly named. The guy’s just nobody. Furthermore, he’s not even a particularly likablenobody. He’s given to indulge in self-pity and whining to a degree that’s flat-out annoying, and one of his bosses gets so fed up with it that he assigns Buddy to a program of what essentially amounts to forcible attitude re-adjustment. I probably would too if I were in his shoes.

Not that our guy Buddy doesn’t have cause to be a little miffed, mind you. He’s on the receiving end of every practical joke and thinly-veiled threat his fellow functionaries can think of. But come on, enough is enough. Sooner or later you’ve gotta stand up to bullies and act like a man—right?

Perhaps the reason he doesn’t is because he’s lovesick.  There’s a special girl who seems to pop up just when Buddy needs her the most—her name is Lila, and while she never has much to say, her words seem perfectly measured to calm him down and ease the turbulence in his mind. One might even suspect that she’s too good to be true—if one had a brain, which apparently Buddy very nearly doesn’t. Remember, we’re talking about a guy who has no fucking clue what the company he works for even manufactures, despite the fact that it’s right there in the name, “Pseudo-People, Inc.”

Still, even if Blank lives up to his name in the utter cluelessness department, the powers that be at the Global Peace Agency have taken notice of his employers’ shenanigans and are prepared to act. The “nameless, faceless” agents of the GPA, working together with the illustrious Professor Myron Forest, have determined that “the world that’s coming” can’t afford full-scale armies or wars, but that a special type of “super-protector” might be needed to weed out extraordinary threats in this dangerous new future. To that end, they’ve constructed “the most advanced satellite ever built,” Brother Eye, and plan to link him/it up with their man on the ground, their One Man Army Corps—Buddy Blank.

Exactly why Buddy gets the call isn’t entirely clear—Professor Forest remarks that he’s basically noteworthy only for how un-noteworthy he is, and while that’s certainly true, there’s a little bit of “right place, right time” going on here, as well, since there are probably millions (at least) of dulled-down, “walking dead, ” interchangeable work drones in the future world of OMAC, but perhaps only one is close enough to the operations of “Pseudo-People, Inc.” to bring the whole thing down.

And by close, I mean real close. Despite the fact that we already know his first mission ends in success and his bosses are permanently put out of business, the Memento-esque reverse narrative structure that Kirby employs in this book is pretty goddamn riveting. Buddy meets Lila on the way to his company-assigned “stress-relief,” but this time he decides to follow her after she blows him off—and finds that she’s entering a restricted area of the factory, where she’s going to be disassembled and prepared for shipment to a special target—err, customer. Yup, Lila’s a “Build-A-Friend,” wouldn’t ya just know it?

He gets caught, of course—schmucks always do—and while he’s pinned down to a chair, the whole scheme of “Pseudo-People, Inc.” is laid bare: they’re wiring these sex-dolls-in-all-but-name up to explode, then sending them to important political dignitaries around the globe to act as undercover assassins!  Buddy’s worried that this might trigger a chain reaction that starts an atomic war, but the big-wigs at P-PI don’t care about that—they’re paid handsomely by unknown benefactors  to engineer these murders, and that’s all that matters to them.

Needless to say, this info-dump proves to be a bit more than a grunt like Blank can handle, but just as he starts losing it completely, Brother Eye steps in and, by means of long-distance “electronic surgery” transforms our hapless less-than-hero into a giant guy with an eye emblem on his chest and “Mohawk”-style haircut named, of course, OMAC. This “computer hormone operation—done by remote control!” affords us the opportunity to get a nice amount of patented “Kirby Krackle,” as you’d expect, and once it’s all over it doesn’t take him long to destroy the whole operation—he is,  after all, a One Man Army Corps. The action sequences that follow are frenetic, fast-paced, highly dynamic and impactful, and for my money really show Kirby firing on all cylinders. Throw in the fact that inks for this issue were done by Mike Royer (D. Bruce Berry takes over in #2), who I personally believe to be the best of Jack’s latter-period inkers, and you’ve got yourself a really good-looking comic here.

It’s also a comic that’s not without its quieter, more heartfelt moments. The initial characterization of OMAC seems to be that of a reluctant conscript, perhaps even a philosophical one—a guy who wishes that his job weren’t necessary, but who will do it to the best of his ability because he knows that he is, in fact, needed. Hell, even though Lila isn’t real, he’s downright apologetic about the fact that he has to destroy “her,” telling “her” that  “they’ll pay for this, Lila — they’ve done more than trifle with human life — they’ve made a mockery of the spirit.” Sounds like the soul of a “warrior-poet” to me.

The issue ends on a decidedly ominous note, as Brother Eye remotely informs his new friend that “I shall always help you — we are linked by the eye symbol on your chest — we are like brothers.” I get the feeling this is one “brother” you can’t go out and grab a beer with, though. He’ll just watch you go have a beer by yourself from his vantage point in low-Earth orbit—and probably cut you off by remote control when you’ve had enough. No fun at all, this Brother Eye character.

Obviously, there’s a lot to absorb in the pages of this book—Kirby is throwing concepts out there by the bucket-load, and not all are fleshed out very definitively.  OMAC’s origin makes enough sense as far as it goes, the action is pretty breathtaking, and the basic outline of “the world that’s coming” is both manageable and intriguing. It’s some of the little details that don’t add up, though—like GPA agents who hide their faces with “cosmetic spray” in order to be “anonymous” since they “could be of any nation, “ but just look like they’re wearing blank-featured orange masks.

Still, to be perfectly honest, I don’t see a whole lot of upside in dwelling on the minor failures of the book, when so much about it really does work. They tell us that “world-building” is an important feature of all first issue comics, and Kirby gives a downright clinic on how to go about that task here. This is powerful, imaginative, bold, highly prescient stuff—and that trend continues in earnest as the series progresses.

 

Anybody else still reeling? ‘Cuz, I mean, part fourteen of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks 2017/Twin Peaks : The Return/Twin Peaks season three was one “holy shit!” moment after another —

In fact, about the only thing that wasn’t surprising to find out tonight that Lynch’s Gordon Cole has Monica Bellucci dreams — but they’re considerably “cleaner” than yours or mine would most likely be, and Ms. Bellucci even offers cryptic hints as to the very nature of dreaming itself within them. Let us, then, turn our attention away from this and toward our catalogue of shocking instances —

Holy shit! It’s one of my favorite scenes from Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me — the one with David Bowie’s Phillip Jeffries — and this time it comes complete with something vaguely approximating explanations! Great to see Bowie again, and he needn’t worry about appearing only in flashback — that’s all Kyle MacLachlan gets this week, too.

Holy shit! Diane (a role that Laura Dern is now just straight-up inhabiting) just told Cole, Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) and Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) that Janey-E is her sister! I didn’t see this  coming at all — in fact, I’m not even sure I buy it, to be honest. We all know she’s in cahoots with “Evil Coop” — could she just be trying to steer all of them to Las Vegas in order to meet, one would assume, their potential doom? Gotta think more about this one. Let’s check in on things in the town of Twin Peaks proper —

Holy shit! John Pirruccello’s Deputy Chad is busted! Have fun going from working in a jail to living in it, asshole! A really nice moment showing Cole and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) speaking on the phone for the first time in 25 years is followed by the long-anticipated trek to “Jack Rabbit’s Palace” by Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) and Deputies Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), Hawk (Michael Horse), and Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). The pleasant reminiscences Bobby is experiencing don’t last long, though, because —

Holy shit! It’s Nae Yuuki, the woman from “The Zone” in part three with her eyes sewed shut — here? On our world? And holy shit! It’s another vortex! And holy shit! Andy’s been taken into it! And holy shit! He meets Carel Strucyken, whose “real” name isn’t “The Giant,” but “The Fireman’! And holy shit he shows Andy the two Coopers! And the Woodsmen! And the being from the atomic explosion that created Bob! And — hey, wait a minute : does Andy actually know more than we do now? That would be a first.

They bring the prone, strange-sound-emitting woman to jail in order to keep her safe — Andy informs us that “she’s very important and people are trying to kill her” — and there she gets to make the acquaintance of both Deputy Chad and a gruesomely injured local drunk (Jay Aaseng) who has the annoying habit of repeating everything he hears while blood drips from his mouth. I wouldn’t blame her for wanting to high-tail it off this sorry plane of existence already.

Holy shit! James Hurley (James Marshall) works as a “rent-a-cop” minimum wage security guard! Come to think of it, this one’s not too surprising either — but the story that his youthful co-worker, Freddy (Jake Wardle) tells him certainly is. One day poor Freddy got sucked up into a vortex and met a guy called “The Fireman,” who told him to go buy a single rubber glove at a particular hardware store near his then-home in London. The glove would give him super-strength in the hand he wore it on. Then he was to fly to a town in Washington state called Twin Peaks, and there he would meet his destiny. So, hey, now he’s just waiting for that to happen, I guess — and odds are that something big’s gonna go down, because when Freddy got to Heathrow to buy his plane ticket, he found that one was already waiting for him. James finds his friend’s tale both incredible and believable in equal measure, but now it’s time to have a look at the furnace — and something awe-inspiringly creepy is just around the corner with this whole routine maintenance check, believe you me.

Next up it’s back to Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer, who’s varying up her routine by drinking at a dive bar rather than at home. A redneck MAGA dickhead approaches her and when she declines his company, he immediately lays into some trip about her being a “cunt” and a “bull dyke” and a — well, you know the routine. She tried to warn him off. She really did. But then it’s holy shit Sarah Palmer holy shit Sarah Palmer holy shit Sarah Palmer holy shit Sarah Palmer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“False faces” apparently run in the Palmer family — remember, Laura pulled a similar “trick” earlier this season — and one torn-out throat later, Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich have one less YouTube subscriber.  Of all the “holy shit!” moments in part fourteen, this one was, for my money, the — errrrrmmmm — “holy shittiest!” of the bunch. Like I said, still reeling.

Before things end, though, we get one more conversation at the Road House referencing this missing “Billy” character (the one Audrey Horne seems so fixated on, as well), and then J.R. Starr gets a “holy shit!” moment all for himself when he introduces Lissie to the stage and makes is abundantly clear that he’s a big fan.

Holy shit this was some good stuff.

 

 

 

Sometimes, nothing beats a short, sweet, simple, self-contained comic book adventure story — and the next time you find yourself in the mood for exactly that, you could do a hell of a lot worse than issue number three of Jack Kirby’s last original Marvel Comics series, Devil Dinosaur.

Cover-dated June, 1978 and bearing the story title of “Giant,” about all you need to know about the basic premise going in is that Devil is an unusually large, unusually strong, and unusually smart prehistoric beast who took on a sort of bight, “fire-engine red” color due to — well, we won’t go there, since I’m not sure that particular part of his origin story  necessarily stands up to even casual, much less anything approaching rigorous, logical scrutiny. It was painful as all hell for the poor creature, though, no doubt about that. His constant friend and companion is one Moon-Boy, billed on the cover of issue one as “The First Human,” but if we’re striving for accuracy, “Fist Human,” or “One Of The First Humans” might be closer to the mark. The two share a symbiotic — perhaps even a kind of rudimentary psychic — bond, and they inhabit a typically dangerous-for-its-time region known as The Valley Of Flame, yet another ingenious Kirby locale rife with possibilities for danger, trouble, all that good stuff.

This one starts (as well as proceeds and finishes) in elegantly concise fashion, as our two protagonists are awoken one night by ear-splitting screaming, the source of which, upon investigation, turns out to be creatures fleeing from an unlikely bipedal figure with what’s described as a “Thunder-Horn Head” (which turns out to be a mask) known only as our titular Giant. He hurls rocks with enough force to knock Devil off-balance — a not-inconsiderable feat — and even takes out a fearsome foe known as Bone-Back before a mysterious smaller figure manages to set about and capture Moon-Boy, who has been separated from his ferocious friend.

Upon discovering the disappearance of his sidekick, Devil is incensed, but uses his keen intelligence to track him down by following a trail of dinosaur bones and corpses to Giant’s non-existent front door. An epic confrontation ensues that actually sees both adversaries so equally-matched that it ends in stalemate, and so Devil turns on that mighty mind of his again and attempts a bit of on-the-fly battle strategizing : he’s gonna lure Giant into a bog.

Meanwhile Moon-Boy, for his part, after engineering a basic-but-clever escape, surreptitiously steers his former captor — now revealed to be a smaller “Giant” figure himself —to the very same bog at the exact moment his significantly more sizable counterpart (spoiler, it’s his daddy) falls in. Never fear, though — our heroes would never split up a family, happy or otherwise, and duly rescue Giant from his murky would-be grave in order to reunite him with his cub/son, thereby effecting a truce whereby the newly-complacent Giant silently “agrees” to leave the valley alone and in peace as a sign of what passes for gratitude in a primitive and deadly world.

Clearly, then, Devil Dinosaur #3 offers considerably less by way of the philosophical and thematic depth that most of the other Kirby comics we’ve been exploring this month do, but it’s wonderfully and dynamically illustrated by The King (with typically superb and intelligently-applied inks by the great Mike Royer), and the action in particular — of which there is plenty — is downright breathtaking and worth spending a good, long time feasting your eyes on. This one may not rise to the level of a “classic” by any means, but by juxtaposing its violent savagery against the bonds of family and (cross-species) friendship, it’s both exhilarating and endearing in equal measure — and as an example in microcosm of what makes Kirby’s storytelling so special, even stripped down to its barest elements, it’s very nearly perfect.