In Defense Of “Devil Dinosaur”

Posted: July 12, 2014 in comics
Tags: , , ,

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Real quick — what’s your favorite Jack Kirby comic? It’s a good bet that a fair amount of you chose one or more of the titles in his legendary Fourth World saga. Others probably said to themselves Fantastic Four or Thor almost reflexively. Fans of his early work are probably more partial to Captain AmericaBoys Ranch, or Challengers of the Unknown. People with somewhat more eclectic tastes might put more “far-out” comics such as OMACThe Demon, or The Eternals at the top of their lists.

But it’s probably pretty safe to say that no one counts Devil Dinosaur as being the King of Comics’ greatest creation. And ya know what? Neither do I. But that’s not the point here. I’m not out to convince you that this book is some “lost classic” deserving of intense critical re-evaluation or that there’s a whole lot going on beneath the surface here that has never been properly understood until now. I’m just here to tell you that this book is nowhere near as lousy as people made it out to be for years and that it’s actually an imaginative, well-drawn, highly entertaining comic that more than deserves a lot more respect than it seems to ever have garnered.

Lasting only nine issues, all of which saw print in 1978, the adventures of the world’s only red tyrannosaurs rex and his  almost-human rider/companion, Moon-Boy, are just that — adventures. Unlike other Kirby projects of approximately the same time period that masterfully explored deeper themes such as the passing of the torch from one generation to the next (The Forever People), man’s diminished place in a technological world (OMAC), the ultimate futility of violence (New Gods), or the power of love to overcome even the most insurmountable odds (Mister Miracle), this is pure, light-hearted, escapist fantasy — albeit done with lots of care, charm, craftsmanship, and creativity.

In many respects, then, it treads similar thematic ground to the admittedly better Kamandi, but probably comes up a bit short in that comparison simply because it’s so truncated and lacks something of the “personal touch” of earnest and only somewhat wistful nostalgia that permeates the exploits of the “last boy on earth.” Considered from that angle, it certainly falls more than a hair short of being a great comic — but it’s still an awfully good one.

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Really, anything and everything you could wish for in a pre-historic romp is in here somewhere — savage killers with names like Stone-Hand and Seven Scars; intense battle sequences featuring massive, brutish beasts; a heart-warming friendship between one of our less-evolved ancestors and his mighty reptilian companion; heck — we even get some space aliens and a bit of cosmic “Kirby Krackle” thrown in for good measure. In short, there’s simply no reason not to like this comic, and if you go into it again with an open mind, I think you’ll find a lot more worth your time here than perhaps you first thought.

There’s no doubt that Kirby’s still very much “on top of it” as far as his artistic game goes here : Devil Dinosaur is filled with page after page of awesomely-realized spectacle, dynamic action, fluid sequential visual narration, and impactful bombast. Jack knows when to be grandiose and when to “dial it back” just enough to make sure that when he lands his next blow, you’ll feel it. Events move along at a brisk but measured clip, and there’s not a solitary panel that goes to waste, each one fulfilling its task of depicting life in an awesomely surreal version of prehistory that could only have come from one mind. Add in Mike Royer’s crisp,  solid,  and always respectful inks, and you’ve got a book that really is a treat to look at.

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Perhaps surprisingly to some, it reads pretty well, too. I know Jack’s scripting has its critics (mostly those who like to drag his reputation as a writer down in order to maximize the value of whatever Stan Lee’s contribution may have been to 1960s Marvel), but I’ve never really been among them. A Kirby-written story is certainly a product of its time, but if an issue of this or any other of his 1970s books were stripped of its credits and put alongside something written by Lee, or Denny O’Neil,  Steve Englehart, or Jim Starlin from roughly the same period that had equally been rendered anonymous, you couldn’t honestly say that any of them were more “clunky” or “unrealistic” than others. Jack frequently gets saddled with the reputation of a “stiff” and “tone-deaf” writer quite simply because it suits the agenda of those who wish to credit Stan Lee for pretty much everything to do so. In truth, his writing style is very much of a piece with the way comics storytelling was done at the time and he’s got absolutely nothing whatsoever to apologize for in that department.

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At the end of the day, then, maybe the fairest assessment one can make of Devil Dinosaur is that it may not be a great Jack Kirby comic, but it remains a great example of precisely why people still love his work, and always will. If that even makes any sense. Marvel put out all nine issues in a trade paperback collection a few weeks back, and the back issues are relatively easy and cheap to come by, so why not give it a go (or give it a go again, if you’ve read it before but it’s been awhile) in either format and enjoy the ride for what it is — a fun, furious, expertly-told tale of a boy and his big red t-rex. It may not knock your socks off like the very best of the King’s works always did and continues to do, but it’ll definitely charm them off, and that’s plenty good.

Comments
  1. Volker says:

    I quite agree, in fact, I sprung for the large-format glossy-paper hardback reprint and it does not disappoint. DD works much better with that volume’s garish colors and deep blacks than my yellowed newsprint comics. It’s a great read in one sitting. At the end, I’m left wondering if this would ever tie in with THE ETERNALS in some way? I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a vague feeling.

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      I missed the DD omnibus hardcover, it went out of print really fast, as Kirby collections often do. As for how or why it would have tied in with “The Eternals,” I sort of doubt it ever would/could have happened. Jack came up with DD when he had less than year left on his Marvel contract, and Marvel editorial had specifically requested something along the lines of “Kamandi,” since that book was still selling pretty well for DC, and the end result was Moon-Boy and his bug red t-rex, with the plan being that Jack would work on it until his contract was up, then pass it off to somebody else if sales were good enough to warrant the book’s continuation. Which, ultimately, they weren’t.

      • Volker says:

        Oh, I agree, there was nothing planned of that sort–it’s pure “What If?” speculation on my part. But if Kirby had stayed, I could easily see the Celestials visiting to see how the Black Monolith they planted had made Moonboy evolve 🙂

      • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

        That would be interesting ,that’s for sure!

  2. Victor De Leon says:

    Great post! I am so glad I never got rid of my copies. Even though they are a bit beat up but I still have them in their bags. You are so correct on the very cool visual flow and action that Kirby manifested here. I love these books and will be re-reading them very soon. Awesome work, Ryan!

    • trashfilmguru (Ryan C.) says:

      Thanks for the kind words, stop back here again after you’ve re-read them and let me know how you think they held up!

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