Archive for August, 2017

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.

 

 

Good vs. evil — at the end of the day, it’s what most stories boil down to. As I write this on the evening of August 12th, 2017, evil has reared its ugly head in this country once again, as three people lay dead thanks to violence perpetrated by a bunch of Nazi assholes who have re-branded themselves as the “alt-right,” but they’re not fooling anybody — evil is evil is evil, no matter what guise it cloaks itself with. Just ask Jack Kirby, who I’m glad didn’t live long enough to see this sorry day — he knew better than most.

Kirby’s experiences on the front lines of WWII drove home lessons he’d already learned about prejudice and anti-semitism in his youth — let it go unchecked, and people are gonna get killed — and he knew exactly how to confront it, both in representation and actuality : when his famous image of Captain America punching out Hitler pissed off Nazi “fifth columnists” here in the US to the extent that a handful of them decided to wait for him outside his office one evening, he rolled up his sleeves, headed out there, and prepared to do the same thing to them that his hero had done to their execrated leader on the printed page. By the time he got to the street, though, these supposed “tough guys” had already cut tail and run like the pathetic cowards they no doubt were. I would argue that in life full of towering, brave, and singular achievements, The King never stood taller than he did that night.

Fast-forward to 1981, and this truly great man had been thoroughly and shamefully used and abused by his corporate bosses, despite the fact that his creations had already earned millions for them and would go on to earn billions. Jack had understandably had enough and, in 1978, took his limitless skill and imagination to the world of animation, where he made more money than he ever had and, for the first time, even had company-provided health insurance for himself and his family. And yet, still the creative fires to invent new heroes, new villains, and new worlds for the four-color funnybooks still burned within him, and so, when a couple of comics retailers and distributors came to him with their idea to start up a publishing company — one that would, crucially, offer full copyright ownership to its creators and distribute their wares exclusively via the direct market (a truly radical concept at the time, as newsstand sales still accounted for the vast majority of comic book purchases) — Kirby was “all in” and became the first creator to sign on with the newly-minted Pacific Comics. And he had just the concept to bring to bring to the table.

According to his former assistant Steve Sherman, the basic framework for what would eventually become Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers was originally developed  by Kirby, with a bit of “sounding board” input from him, as a potential screenplay after the release of, and at least partially in response to, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, which Jack felt presented an overly-optimistic view of what the first contact between humans and aliens would look like. Why naively assume, Jack reasoned, that the so-called “space brothers” would necessarily be friendly? And what would happen if, in fact, they weren’t?

No Captain Victory film ever came to pass, needless to say (and its mostly-Earthbound story was radically different from what eventually did), but the idea still seemed like a good one to The King, and when the time came to flesh it out more fully, he gave us what would become his last great cosmic epic.

Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers #1 (cover-dated November, 1981) makes its grand ambitions known immediately : “where this force arrives, a saga begins!!” is as much a statement of intent as it is an introductory shot across the bow, and the action begins immediately and doesn’t let up. How many first issues literally kill off their hero before we’ve even had a chance to get to know them? How many take place almost entirely on spaceships, with no attempt to “ground” things in a recognizably human context until the last couple of pages? How many bowl you over with page after page of magnificent, high-concept technology without giving you a chance to catch your breath? How many start by surveying a planet that’s already been destroyed, letting us know right off the bat that in this story, the good guys don’t always win?

The quick answer to that, of course, is “none.” The equally-quick explanation? Because nobody other than Kirby could pull it off, and they damn well knew it.

To be sure, if bold, broad strokes aren’t your cup of tea, this comic will alienate you from jump. The King is too busy pouring it all out onto the page to hold your hand, and keeping up with his mile-a-minute imagination is up to the reader. After years of being reined in by tight editorial constraints, Kirby made the most of his newly-found (and hard-earned) creative freedom, and the sheer onrush of dazzling output on display here is exhilarating. One gets the distinct (and accurate) impression of an imagination unchained, unencumbered, and frankly unconcerned with dull and conservative comic book norms. The crew of the incredible Dreadnaught “Tiger” military space-vehicle risks death —shit, total annihilation — with every breath, and with the fearsome Insectons, a foe that literally hollows out and sucks dry entire planets, to defeat, half-measures aren’t even an option.

This non-stop “siege mentality” has created a unique, hard-edged, and frankly hyper-masculine culture within the Ranger ranks, and while Captain Victory himself bears a certain physical resemblance to previous Kirby protagonists such as Thor and Ikarus, he’s shown immediately to be far more mortal than any of them — even if he can’t exactly die, thanks to an endless supply of clones that his consciousness can be, in modern parlance, “uploaded” into. And herein lies one of the fascinating moral conundrums at the heart of this series : the Rangers themselves, while not enslaved to a “hive-mind” like their Insecton adversaries, are every bit as interchangeable and expendable, and even though their ranks are full to bursting with any number of alien races and species, some of whom are quite easy for readers to relate to (Major Klavus) and others decidedly less so (Mr. Mind), true and authentic individuality is effectively subsumed, if not outright obliterated, by their rigorous training and unwavering sense of mission. What, then, are the “good guys” really fighting for here?

Artistically, Kirby’s never been better than he is this book (and that’s saying something), especially in the first handful of issues, where he is aided and abetted by his finest-ever collaborators, inker Mike Royer, who understood Jack’s interplay of both line and shadow better than anyone else who ever embellished his work, and colorist Steve Oliff, who made flawlessly intelligent and creatively bold choices in every panel on every page during his short tenure on the series. This is a veritable “murderer’s row” of supporting talent, and the result is art that just plain shines. I say without any hyperbole whatsoever that “awesome” is probably too small a word to describe the raw power of the visuals on offer in this comic.

I’d also contend, although received “wisdom” among comics fans has long maintained otherwise, that Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers #1 marks a monumental leap forward in Kirby’s amazingly singular writing style. Some may trot out tired and dismissive terms such as “clunky” and “tone-deaf” to describe Jack’s latter-period scripting, in particular his dialogue, but I would counter that by calling it “majestic,” “sweeping,” “forceful,” and, most especially, “operatic.” There is a deliberate rhythm and cadence to it that no one else can effectively duplicate — no one should even try — that’s informed by Jack’s extensive reading list (everything from pulp sci-fi to “The Beats”), his love for authentic Shakespearean iambic pentameter, and his first-hand knowledge of military “barracks talk” that coalesces into something altogether brilliant and inimitable.

Like all of The King’s best works, though — and I don’t hesitate for a moment to include this series, and this issue in particular, among those exalted ranks — the philosophical discourse that runs through both writing and art here is where the real “action” is to be found for the considered and analytical observer. Good vs. evil may be at the heart of it, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of this comic — rather, it’s merely the starting point. The extent to which the former, in it attempts to defeat the latter, actually becomes it is the central question that Kirby is asking here, and for all its thematic and conceptual bombast, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers #1 isn’t a broadside or even a treatise on the subject, but rather the beginnings of a deep conversation, one which richly rewards the fully engaged reader by providing a conceptual framework through which they can intuit the answer for themselves.

 

Before I even started writing this review, I felt a bit boxed in — and it’s my own damn fault.

Allow me to explain : if I’d reviewed the first issue of Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ new Mister Miracle 12-part “maxi-series” from DC the day it came out, I could’ve written a positive review — which I still intend to do and which this book absolutely deserves — and that would’ve been fine. But I didn’t have or carve out the time, and now a review that’s merely “good” is going to look, well, kinda bad.

That’s because in the interim between Wednesday and now, other critics have weighed in with some of the most embarrassingly gushing praise you’re ever likely to see — we’ve been told that Mister Miracle #1 is “a leap forward for the medium” (it’s not), that it “revolutionizes comics” (it doesn’t), that it’s “the best single issue of the year” (in a year that’s already seen the first new Gary Panter comic in forever, the epic conclusion to Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence, and the best installment to date of Sammy Harkham’s Crickets? Please), that it “will blow your mind” (it won’t).

I have no desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” though, and I’ll always call it like I see it — so to hell with how it looks in comparison to everything else out there; in my (considered, I assure you) view, this is “merely” a very good comic — and if that’s not good enough, shit, I can’t help that.

Essentially, what King and Gerads have done here is “port over” the storytelling tropes that they so successfully established in their earlier Vertigo series The Sheriff Of Babylon into a super-hero setting by way of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (an influence so obvious that even CBR saw it —and keep in mind that their review completely missed that this issue’s opening and closing lines, which they chalk up to generic “carnival barking,” were directly lifted from Jack Kirby’s original Mister Miracle #1), and it works. In fact, it works quite well. But it doesn’t take much to see the scaffolding holding this structure together — and that may, in fact, be part of the point, perhaps even a bit of homage.

That’s because Scott Free, a.k.a. Mister Miracle, in addition to being the “Christ figure” of Kirby’s Fourth World opus (a fact made clear in both Nick Derington’s “A” cover and Gerads’ “B” cover for this book), is, of course, “the world’s greatest escape artist,” and a big part of the charm of his first series came from the explanations for his various death-defying acts that Kirby frequently provided. Here, I believe, the explanations are being provided for us, as well — although we might have to work a little harder to find them.

To dovetail back to Mulholland Drive for a moment, King’s deliciously clever script reverses the order of events somewhat — we open, rather than close, with the protagonist’s suicide attempt (as you can see from the double-page splash reproduced above, Scott has slashed his wrists) — but the core conceit of determining what is “real” and what isn’t, as well as how what is informs and/or “bleeds into” what’s not, remains, and Gerads provides any number of  visual cues, both subtle and less so, to assist us humble readers in that task of decoding.

Watchmen-esque nine-panel grids, for instance, are the norm here, but they are deviated from at key points, such as the childhood reminiscence shown immediately above (the joke at the end of which comes into play later), and “dissolve” into distorted “fuzzy TV” images as events appear to deviate further from (fictitious, mind you) reality, such as when Scott makes his first media appearance after his suicide attempt — on a talk show hosted by Dakseid’s chief propagandist Glorious Godfrey?

Speaking of Darkseid, his presence looms large despite it being merely a verbal incantation. The chilling two-word phrase “Darkseid is.” fulfills the same role as “Bang.” in The Sheriff Of Babylon, interjecting itself with greater and greater frequency through any number of scenes (Orion giving Scott a beat-down, the aforementioned talk-show appearance, working out a new escape routine with friend/mentor Oberon — except he’s apparently dead?), until it finally takes up an entire page just before Scott and his wife, Big Barda, step into a “Boom Tube” to join the war that’s underway on their adopted homeworld of New Genesis. It’s chillingly effective, but the idea that it’s some new storytelling innovation, as has been breathlessly claimed by many, is patented nonsense.

Beyond that, little hints that something isn’t right — or, at the very least, that something isn’t right in how Scott is seeing or interpreting things — abound : as mentioned, he works out a new trick with Oberon, but Oberon’s dead; Barda’s eyes are the wrong color; Scott’s walk on the beach with Highfather reveals a more chilly and distant relationship than we’ve seen between the two of them previously; Highfather’s later death (whoops! Spoilers!) and Darkseid’s discovery of the “anti-life equation” he’s dedicated his entire life to seeking out are mentioned in a nearly carefree, throw-away manner — what’s actually happening is anyone’s guess, but that’s rather the point.

If easy answers are your bag, then, it’s safe to say that King and Gerads’ Mister Miracle won’t be. But if you’re willing to invest at least a modest amount of time and mental energy into piecing together how much of this is actually taking place (or already took place), how much is near-death fever dream, how much is pure fantasy, and how much may be outside manipulation courtesy of Darkseid, then you’re in for a heck of a ride here. Gerads handles pencils, inks, and colors on the book, ensuring that all aspects of the various illustrated cues n’ clues remain firmly under his control, and he and King, probably by dint of their previous experience together, achieve the sort of seamless storytelling finesse that one usually only finds in comics both written and drawn by the same person. As events progress the insular visual language that they’ve developed will begin to make more concrete “sense,” I’m sure, but for now, trying to puzzle it all out is, dare I invoke the term in relation to a book this heavy, a great deal of fun.

No doubt, then, I’m damn eager to see where this series goes. I may not find it to be the singular and groundbreaking achievement that so many others apparently do, but I find it to be both an intelligently-crafted mystery, an interesting new take on an established set of characters (something which I think Kirby himself would appreciate far more than the dull, surface-level retreads of his work that so many other Fourth World -related revivals have been), a heartfelt exploration of mental illness, specifically depression, and, at the margins, an ingenious metafictional treatise on  its protagonist’s creator (“kid — comics will break your heart” hangs heavy over the proceedings) that even seems to establish him as a God-like, omniscient observer of all that’s happening. So no, Mister Miracle #1 isn’t the best single issue of the year — but it may very well be the best single issue that either of “The Big Two” has put out in a number of years. Is that good enough?

 

Quick question : who is the most tragic figure in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks 2017/Twin Peaks : The Return/Twin Peaks season three?

Is it Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper, bifurcated into two distinct beings? I’m thinking no — in part thirteen, “Evil Coop” finally dispenses with the troublesome Ray (played — for presumably the last time — by George Griffiths) once and for all, after winning an arm-wrestling match, placing the infamous “Owl Cave Ring” on Ray’s finger, pumping him for the co-ordinates he’s been needing (along with some info on the ever-enigmatic Phillip Jeffries), and, unbeknownst to him, forging an unspoken bond with the psychotic Richard Horne (Eamon Farren), who I still maintain is his son. And while all that’s going on, back in Vegas, the brothers Mitchum (Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper) are happier than hell with Cooper’s Dougie Jones persona, coming into his insurance agency’s office in an honest-to-God conga line along with their showgirl sidekicks (once again Amy Shiels’ Candie being the only one who actually speaks) and bestowing expensive liquor, cufflinks, and even new cars on both Dougie himself as well as his boss, Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray) as ostentatious tokens of appreciation for an enormous insurance claim being decided in their favor. Heck, Sonny-Jim (Pierce Gagnon) even gets the swing set of every kid’s dreams and Janey-E (Naomi Watts) — well, shit, she’s just happier than ever, and why shouldn’t she be?

Of course, this isn’t good news for everybody — and by “everybody” I mean Tom Sizemore’s Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Fischler’s Duncan Todd. Still, Dougie’s simple-minded fascination with Sinclair’s dandruff — yes, you read that right — triggers a 180-degree transformation in the ethically conflicted con artist, and soon he’s spilling his guts and probably saving his job in one fell swoop just when he was about to commit himself to a truly irreversible decision, and with the comedically incompetent Detectives Fusco (Larry Clarke, Eric Edelstein, and David Koechner) on the case of deciphering Dougie’s true identity and predictably writing off key clues as simple “mistakes,” our empty vessel’s newfound and truly mindless suburban marital bliss seems very secure indeed. No real tragedy to be found here, then.

Could our tragic figure then be Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne? There’s clearly a lot more going on in the battle of wills between her and her husband (Clark Middleton) than we suspected last week — in fact, this is some MK-ULTA, Chuck Traynor/Linda Lovelace-level manipulative bullshit that’s playing out before our eyes. Audrey doesn’t even seem completely sure of where she is, what she’s doing there, where she wants to go, or how to get there from here — wherever “here” even is. So, yeah, depending on how things shake out in future installments, she might be the character trapped in the most tragic situation of all — but I really don’t think so. She’s always been a survivor, and a devious one when needs be. She’ll work her way out of this mess one way or another.

Who, then? James Hurley (James Marshall)? There was talk way back in part two about him being in a motorcycle accident some years ago, and he does seem a shadow of his former self, but no less an authority than Shelly Johnson/Briggs (Madchen Amick) informed us, if you’ll recall, that “James is still cool,” and he proves it tonight by taking the stage at the Roadhouse (after being introduced by beyond-awesome emcee J.R. Starr) — the same stage recently occupied by the likes of Chromatics and “the” Nine Inch Nails — and making a transfixed female member of the audience cry with his  heartfelt rendering of what’s apparently still the only song in his repertoire, “Just You And I.” Even the two creepiest-looking backup singers you’ve ever seen in your life can’t diminish James’ musical magnetism, so nope, he’s not exactly leading a tragic existence, either.

A brief check-in with Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh shows that they’re headed through Utah, and that’s certainly tragic, no doubt, but they’ll get through to the other side of the state and make their escape at some point. And, as I predicted in my last review, Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Amp/Jacoby and Wendy Robie’s Nadine Hurley appear to be on the verge of cosummating their previously-confined-to-the-airwaves romance in the shadow of her silent drape-runners, so these two lonely souls may have just found true love at last. Let’s rule out all four of these “suspects,” then, and move on.

Becky Burnett (Amanda Seyfried) has it rough, there’s no denying that , given that she’s trapped in an abusive relationship with a drugged-out, two-timing loser, but at least her mom still loves her, loans her cash, and feeds her homemade cherry pie — and does she really have it any worse than her father, Deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), who’s reduced to eating alone at the Double R and pining after the wife and daughter he’s lost?  Hmmm —two strong contenders here, to be sure.

Except that in the end, Bobby doesn’t have to eat alone — he’s invited over to the table shared by Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) and (finally!!!) “Big” Ed Hurley — and I think Ed might just be our guy, because this happy trio is soon interrupted by Norma’s new beau, a cheesy financier named Walter (Grant Goodeve) who’s so blatantly phony and insincere that he makes old-school game-show hosts like Wink Martindale and Chuck Woolery seem honest and authentic by comparison. “Big” Ed still clearly carries a torch for Norma, and despite his assurances to Bobby that “nothing’s going on here,” he’s not fooling anyone. McGill gives a truly gut-wrenching (and largely silent) performance here in part thirteen, one that anyone who’s ever been sweet on somebody they can’t have (shit, I guess that includes anyone who was ever in their twenties) can immediately relate to. He’s obviously  envious of Mr. Plastic, but  at the same time you can feel that he wants Norma to be happy above all else — he just knows it sure won’t be with this sleazy operator, who’s convinced her to franchise out her diner (now we know why she’s doing her books all the time), but then has the unmitigated nerve to tell her how she should be running the place. “Big” Ed obviously loves Norma to death — always has, always will — and the final scene of him eating his take-out soup alone in his gas station as the credits roll is enough to rip your beating heart right out of your chest. This is emotional desolation at its most profound — and most profoundly difficult to watch.

Yup, that’s it then, case closed — the most tragic character on the Twin Peaks revival is “Big” Ed Hurley.

But then I remember Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah Palmer, self-medicating away her pain with fifty bucks’ worth of booze and three or four packs of cigarettes every night, her daughter and husband both dead at the hands of forces beyond her understanding that now appear to be coming for her as well, watching blood-soaked nature documentaries and 1950s boxing matches on her giant television every night, basking in the cathode ray (or whatever the hell they’re made out of these days) glow in an otherwise silent home — a woman for whom the end of the world is no longer an abstraction, but something that already happened a quarter-century ago and didn’t even have the decency to take her with it. Imagine an apocalypse so heartless and cruel that it leaves you behind with no road map for how to put your life back together while everyone else goes on with theirs all around you, as if nothing even happened, and you’ll have some inkling as to what Sarah’s going through. Compared to that, shit — even “Big” Ed has it easy.

 

Among the ranks of Jack Kirby devotees and casual fans alike, you won’t be able to find many willing to make the claim that Super Powers #5 (cover-dated November, 1984 and featuring the story title “Spaceship Earth! We’re All On It!”) ranks among The King’s greatest works — and I’m not here to make that case, either. What I am here to do is to advance a (hopefully) convincing argument that this is still a terrific comic well worthy of critical re-appraisal, and that the flaws it does have aren’t Jack’s fault. In fact, he tried his best to save this mess of a series and pretty much pulled it off.

Some quick background info is probably in order at this point : Super Powers was a mini-series launched by DC to capitalize on a then-popular line of toy “action figures” bearing the same name, which featured all of their “A-list” heroes and villains and set Kirby’s Fourth World chief baddie Darkseid up as the most evil mastermind of the bunch — which, of course, he already was, but it was definitely a swift about-face of sorts for DC to posit that he was the biggest, baddest evil-doer they had in their corporate “universe” given that just a decade earlier, the entirety of the Fourth World saga was unceremoniously cut short and that it largely went unmentioned until a lackluster attempt at reviving it near the end of the ’70s met with a similarly truncated lifespan. Here, then, was a tacit admission on the part of the publisher and its parent company, Warner Brothers, that they had a “blockbuster”-type franchise on their hands (the other denizens of New Genesis and Apokolips also figuring prominently in the Super Powers line-up), they just didn’t know what to do with it at the time.

Kirby knew what a potential “game-changer” he had on his hands from the outset, though, of course, and to their credit DC hired him to update the designs of all his characters for the toys and worked up a contract to pay him some royalties based on their sales, but still — when the time came to exploit his concepts on the printed page  via an official “tie-in,” Jack was once again largely snubbed. He was assigned the task of plotting the five-part story, but the scripting and art chores were handed to other (and, who are we kidding, lesser) talents, who quickly made a mess of things.

Writer Joey Cavlieri and artist Adrian Gonzales had taken Kirby’s simple-but-effective premise — Darkseid grants super-powers to the likes of The Joker, Lex Luthor, The Penguin, etc. in order to keep their foes in the Justice League at bay while he prepares an invasion of Earth, but his stooges can’t help themselves and betray both heroes and villains alike, sending them all bouncing around to various points in time and space while their boss readies his armies —and scuttled it by means of embarrassingly clunky and ineffective dialogue and lackluster art, resulting in four thoroughly fogettable issues and a situation where the guy who should have been doing the book all along was finally brought in to clean up the mess. That’s my take on things, at any rate.

Kirby arriving on the scene immediately made this series something it should have been from the beginning — fun — and he also cleverly and ingeniously managed to wrap up a story that had, just a month prior, looked like it was going to feature all of DC’s top characers aimlessly bouncing around the so-called “multiverse” forever, to wit : Darkseid decides that the best place to watch his conquest of Earth play out is from the offices of DC comics, where he shares an eleveator with a typically-beleaguered staffer named Shmidlapp — but little does he realize that while he’s getting ready to observe his ultimate victory, Kirby’s mysterious cosmic “wild card” figure, the unfathomable Metron, has snatched the big granite-faced guy’s adversaries from their endless loop-de-loop in order to join forces and put paid to his grand ambitions.

Darkseid has no less than four swarms of his dread Parademons waiting to descend upon our planet by means of “Boom Tubes,” but rather than engage them in head-to-head combat after the fact, the heroes (and villains) of Earth decide to combine their might in order to augment Metron’s own mental abilities and head the armies off at the pass. To that end, the first bunch, ostensibly headed for Metropolis, find themselves re-routed to the year 80,000 A.D., where a gigantic sentient “super-computer” blasts them into the far-flung depths of space; the second army gets the opposite treatment, being hurled into the distant past and “devolving” by means of “genetic regression” along the way into club-wielding cavemen who immediately set about each other; the third is drowned en masse in the murky depths of the ocean; and the fourth is dispatched to a “mad universe” created by none other than The Joker himself.

Okay, so a bit of mass-murder took place here, and heroes aren’t supposed to kill and all that — you can argue the morality all you want given that Parademons aren’t human and it’s Metron who technically does the slaughtering — but at the end of the day, Darkseid has to scamper away, non-existent-tail-‘twixt-legs, and our world is safe again (for now). My view, then, is that this issue represents the best, and dare I say cleanest, way out of a tricky wicket — and sets the stage for the sequel series that Kirby would at least be assigned to draw from start to finish. Continutiy-obsessives can also take heart in the fact that, even though volume two seems to proceed directly on from the events of Kirby’s The Hunger Dogs graphic novel,  these stories, being obvious commercial “tie-ins,” are not considered to be “canonical” at all. And anyway, this is still a pretty damn fun little comic and pretending it “never really happened” doesn’t change that fact at all.

Why, then, do I admit at the outset that it’s far from great — and state that its flaws are hardly Kirby’s fault? Well, Kirby being brought in as a metaphorical ninth-inning relief man is one reason, and the other can be summed up in two words : Greg Theakston.

There’s no nice way to put this — Theakson’s inks on this book are, as was almost always the case with him, flat-out atrocious. Kirby’s rich detail is “dialed back” considerably in panel after panel ; faces are, inexplicably, re-drawn almost in their entirety; backgrounds that considerable time went into drawing are either “skimped out” on or  omitted altogether; unfaithful “freelance” decision-making either distorts or destroys the original intent of the penciled images — the list of art crimes here is straight-up fucking endless. Here is but one sample of Jack’s pencils vs. the final “finished” pages, and if you so desire a few minutes on Google image search will yield countless other examples of Theakston’s unconscionable butchery :

 

So, yeah, it ain’t pretty — and certainly the most gifted, visonary, influential, and important creator in the history of the medium, at the tail end of a career for which the word “legendary” is far too small, deserved much better. But this book is what it is, warts and all, and I still think it’s a better-than-fine example of Kirby working his way out of a bad situation  not of his own devising (as well as the only chance you’ll have to see him draw a number of DC stalwarts that he hadn’t been allowed anywhere near previously), only to be ultimately saddled with yet another. Super Powers #5 will always go down in my ledger, then, as a very good comic book — but minus some earlier editorial short-sightedness on DC’s part (that Kirby was forced to compensate for) and some absolutely wretched inking on Theakston’s, it could have easily been a great one

 

 

 

I have to admit that when I first started to haphazardly plan my month-long tribute to The King Of Comics, reviewing Black Panther #1 (cover-dated January, 1977) wasn’t on my radar screen. It’s not that it’s a bad book, mind you — anything but — just that the schedule was already looking a little full, and while I left a few makeshift “slots” open to be filled by whatever struck my fancy, I was thinking those would most likely be a good fit for more obscure entries in the Jack Kirby canon like Dingbats Of  Danger Street or Atlas.

Both of which, fair enough, I may still get around to — but circumstances forced (well, okay, maybe forced is a bit strong — let’s go with compelled instead, shall we?) my hand a bit last Wednesday when Marvel started issuing bargain-priced Kirby reprints as part of their “True Believers” line in honor of his centenary and, lo and behold, among the first to hit the stands (for the princely sum of one dollar) was a re-packaged version (a Captain America/Black Panther team-up story is also included as a backup feature) of this very comic, and so — here we are. I’m not gonna pass on a chance to review a Kirby book that you can go and pick up at your LCS right now for a buck. That would just be stupid.

And it has to be said — while not too many people look back at Jack’s brief run chronicling T’Challa’s exploits in the late ’70s as one of the highlights of his career, in retrospect this was exactly the right direction for Marvel to take the character in at the time. The Panther had last been giving a starring turn in the pages of Jungle Action a few years prior, where writer Don McGregor had fashioned a lengthy political thriller heavy with spiritual and psychological undertones entitled “Panther’s Rage,” and he then immediately followed that up by having T’Challa take leave from his kingdom of Wakanda in order to to confront — and be confronted by — numerous societal ills, most notably racism, right here in the good old U.S. of A. The influence of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Hard-Travelling Heroes” storyline from the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow was fairly obvious, but McGregor’s prose was far more dense and purple, and his star character’s conflicts far more internalized — and paired with the sleek and stylish artwork of Billy Graham, a truly memorable run was concocted, the reverberations of which are still being felt today in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ current Black Panther series. Still, for all that, when it was over, a more “back-to-basics” approach was definitely in order. The Panther had been to hell and back — why not let him have some honest-to-goodness fun again?

And if there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear from the first page of this story, entitled “King Solomon’s Frog!,” onward, it’s that rip-roaring action and adventure were going to be the order of the day. Right off the bat, T’Challa and his new (and very temporary) sidekick —a guy named Mr. Little who’s a collector of rare antiquities and, well, little —- are plunged headfirst into the thick of it : on the trail of a mysterious and powerful artifact that’s said to have the power to warp and bend time itself (our titular frog) they discover the freshly-deceased body of a man named Queely, another collector and the last person unlucky enough to have the wondrous-but-apparently-cursed object in his possession. He’s been run through with a sword and his museum-like residence has been thoroughly ransacked, but the assailant —  an armored warrior hailing from time and place unknown — hasn’t gone far. And by that, I mean that he hasn’t even made it out he front door yet.

A dramatic battle (did Kirby ever do them any other way?) ensues that ends in something of a stalemate, with the torn-from-the-pages-of-the-pulps villain fleeing into the night, but no matter : T’Challa and Little, in a moment that some call curious but I would argue demonstrates both combat- veteran insight as well as a degree of compassion, allow their opponent to make good his escape, confident in the knowledge that he won’t get far looking like he does and that he’s probably every bit as scared as a cornered animal, anyway.  Besides, they’ve got the frog — for now, at any rate.

Our constantly-on-the-move duo — now ensconced aboard a futuristic techno-marvel aircraft upon which a customary bit of historical “info-dumping” takes place — are soon set upon by a wave of jetpack-wearing henchmen (hey, you know henchmen when you see them), which gives Kirby a chance to flex his artistic muscles with a spot of truly breathtaking aerial combat, but when the action returns to the ground, we learn that this particular “goon squad” is operating in  service of the regally cold-blooded Princess Zanda, who has her own plans for the frog once it falls into her grasp — which it does after Little is shot and (apparently) killed, and T’Challa’s own grip on it is loosened thanks to another burst of gunfire.

Still, things aren’t anywhere near as cut-and-dried as they seem here — not only is death in comics never a permanent state of affairs, but Zanda does T’Challa the courtesy of informing him that Little was planning on killing him once he no longer had need of his services, and even though the frog was once the property of our hero’s grandfather, odds are better than good that it would never be making its way back to Wakanda. There’s talk of an “activation code” to get the time-travel functions of the device working, but apparently a good, hard, jolt will do the job just fine, for as this issue ends, we find that a  doorway into the future has been ripped open, and a curious little being with the phrase “Hatch 22” inscribed and/or tattooed on its oddly-shaped forehead has emerged into our time, ready to raise all kinds of hell.

Black Panther#1, then, is clearly not a book that delves into any of the deeper moral and philosophical questions which Kirby explores with such insight, vigor, and humanity in many of his other works, but it is mile-a-minute thrill ride from start to finish, loaded to the gills with all the best trappings of pulp sci-fi storytelling : mysterious hidden agendas, competing interests, conflicted situational ethics, advanced-bordering-on-magical technology, even a gorgeous-but-deadly femme fatale. Kirby and inker extraordinaire Mike Royer delineate the breakneck proceedings with unmistakable energy and a heavy emphasis on the dramatic, and the end result is a feast for the eyes that won’t leave the mind feeling hungry, either. This comic is a textbook example of smartly-constructed and flawlessly-executed genre storytelling of the “high-octane” variety, and I guarantee that if you pick up the “True Believers” reprint, it’ll be the best dollar you spend all week.

When most people think of Jack Kirby, war comics don’t immediately come to mind. Super-heroes, absolutely. Science fiction, no doubt. Westerns, you bet. Kid gangs, heck yes. Romance — heck, he created the romance comics genre. But war mags? Those were the domain of Kurtzman, Glanzman, Kanigher, Kubert —

And yet, no one knew that war really is hell better than The King. He was on the front lines of the European theater in “The Big One.” He helped liberate more than one concentration camp. He’d seen the horrors of both fascism and the bloody struggle against it firsthand. So if the time ever came when he was assigned a war book, there was no doubt he could do the job.

That time came in the waning months of 1974, when both Kirby and DC’s editorial “brain trust” were well aware that he was essentially riding out his contract there and wouldn’t be “re-upping” once it was done. Kamandi was still selling well, but the entire Fourth World saga had been scuttled, The Demon was likewise suffocated in the crib, and Jack suddenly found himself with a sizable hole in his 15-page-per-week (written, drawn, and edited — damn!) workload obligation. The long-running WWII title Our Fighting Forces — which of late had been featuring the adventures of a hard-luck special forces unit known as The Losers — wasn’t exactly a fan favorite anymore, so the decision was made to shift Jack onto the series in the hope that a little bit of that patented “Kirby Magic” would go some way toward making it stand out from the pack on the newsstands once again. Those who were there at the time, most notably his assistants Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, have related tales of Kirby being less than thrilled with the gig — a persistent comic-industry “urban legend” has it that he stated he preferred to chronicle the exploits of “winners” — but damn, his reluctance never showed on the page. In point of fact, I have no problem stating that Jack’s brief tenure on OFF (collected in hardcover by DC a few years back as Jack Kirby’s The Losers) contains some of the very best war comics ever made by anyone.

Still, if I had to pick a single stand-out yarn of the bunch — no easy task, I assure you, which is why we might be returning to this title as “Kirby Month” goes along —in a pinch I would probably go with issue number 153, cover-dated February/March 1975 and bearing the compelling, attention-grabbing title of “The Devastator Vs. Big Max.”

A brief run-down of the series’ premise is probably in order here for those not exactly in the know : the then-titular starring foursome of the book — composed of Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner, and Sarge (no fuller name given) — were essentially the ultimate in plausible deniability, given that they were inserted (often by means never even explained) into supposedly “hopeless” situations anywhere the war effort was underway, immediately seconded to whatever branch of the armed forces was in need of their services, and then left on their own to either solve the mess they found themselves in, or die trying — in which case, hey, they were never even officially there, anyway. Issue 153 sees them tasked with taking out a new Nazi “super-cannon” — known as “Unser Max” to “Jerry” or “Big Max” to the Allies — that’s got greater range and firepower than anything ever devised and needs to be obliterated before it can re-shape the course of the entire war.  It’s no easy task, to be sure — no job The Losers get stuck with ever is — but fortunately, a shuffle through the sci-fi and adventure pulp magazines and comic books of an imaginative young private named Rodney Rumpkin yields a potential solution : a futuristic tank-like vehicle known as “The Devastator.”

Of course, any potential “Devastator” the Losers can build will be no more “real” than its printed-page counterpart, but by haphazardly slapping together a bunch of junked aircraft parts, they’re able to “MacGuyver up” a reasonably convincing facsimilie of the battle vehicle from Rodney Rumpkin’s funnybooks, and even throw the red-headed GI himself a bone by putting him in the driver’s seat and outfitting him in a gaudy super-hero costume, to boot! Who says dreams can’t come true?

The calculated gamble works — the Germans believe “The Devastator” to be real and haul “Big Max” out into the open in order to meet it head-on, at which point Allied aircraft bomb the shit out of the uber-weapon — but the admittedly clever plot is really secondary to the the story’s thinly-disguised analogy for Kirby’s own situation at the time : yeah, he wasn’t on this book by choice, but dammit, like his stand-in Rodney Rumpkin, he was still fueled by the power of his imagination, and he was still going to do the best he could under less-than-ideal circumstances. You could put Jack Kirby on a less-than-great comic, but you couldn’t stop him from making it great, and this story is certainly “evidence A” of that. Rumpkin may be hopelessly naive, but he represents a sort of eternal optimism that was sorely needed in order to win the war, and he emerges from this adventure mildly disappointed that his “Devastator” was a mere prop, but otherwise unscathed, and just as enthusiastic as ever for his fantastic four-color escapism.

Even in a small-scale story such as this, Kirby’s penchant for the grand spectacle holds sway : “Big Max” isn’t just “big,” it’s huge — the scale of the deception The Losers are employing to get it out onto the field of battle is equally preposterous — but the biggest thing of all is the scale and scope of Rodney Rumpkin’s starry-eyed, childlike imagination. Granted, there’s charm aplenty to be found in this simple tale, and Kirby illustrates the action flawlessly with able assistance from his best and most faithful inker, Mike Royer, but there’s also a timeless message about the power of the human spirit in the face of seemingly-insurmountable odds that’s delivered with such admirable earnestness that one could be forgiven for thinking this comic was the product of a guy who was absolutely thrilled to be making it.

And, ya know, I’m thinking it was. Our Fighting Forces may not have been precisely the comic Kirby wanted to be working on, but it was still a comic — and any comic was a place where he could display his limitless imagination on paper and inspire others to follow their own dreams. So maybe Rodney Rumpkin isn’t mean to symbolize his creator, but us. Or maybe both. I guess the jury’s out on how to interpret some of the rich metaphor on offer in this story, but one thing’s for certain — “The Devastator Vs. Big Max” is an extraordinary piece of work, created under circumstances where most writers and artists would merely be “running out the clock” and “mailing it in.” Kirby had too much respect — both for his own gifts and abilities and for his readers’ hard-earned money — to ever “half-ass it,” though. He accepted an unwanted assignment not as a burden, but as a challenge — and proved that he could produce some of the best work of his singularly stellar career in the pages of a book that he didn’t choose to have fall into his lap, but was nevertheless determined to make the most of once it did.

Hmmm — yeah, maybe he was Rodney Rumpkin after all.

With the 100th birthday of the undisputed King Of Comics fast approaching, we’re taking an extended diversion from our “regularly scheduled” programming around these parts to talk all Jack Kirby, all month long (my usual Twin Peaks reviews notwithstanding). I’m open to changing things up “on the fly,” so to speak, but the rough plan goes as follows : I’m more or less “contractually obligated” to review all of DC’s forthcoming one-shot specials based on Kirby characters and concepts (a couple of which I actually have something approaching optimism for), and I’ll be taking a close look at Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle #1, but the main “backbone” of our month-long celebration will be my appraisals of several of my all-time favorite Kirby comics — and where better to start than with the October, 1970 cover-dated Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133?

Oh, sure, there are more important entries in The King’s lengthy C.V. than this one, but I think a person would be hard-pressed to find a single issue that attempts to do more than this story does — after all, this was the very first comic that Kirby produced under his then-new contract with DC, and given the shock-waves that his departure from Marvel sent through the nascent fan circles just bubbling to the surface at the time, it’s fair to say that readers were expecting something more unbelievable, more exciting, more imaginative, more awesome than they’d ever seen before.

There was no need to worry, though, as Kirby always delivered the goods — in fact, giving his all was the only way he knew how to work. There’s been a long-circulating rumor/urban legend that Jack insisted-by-default on being given the Jimmy Olsen gig since he firmly believed that he could turn DC’s lowest-selling title into one of its biggest, and while I have no idea whether that’s true or not, he certainly arrived on the title with a bang, eager to revamp everything in sight in order to lay the groundwork for his Fourth World saga. Certainly if Kirby had been paying attention to what had been going on in this book’s pages before assuming its reigns it doesn’t show — he wiped the slate clean, immediately making his inherited “cub reporter” protagonist actually competent for the first time ever, and even  putting him at odds, albeit briefly, with his super-powered best bud, as the cover plainly (if exaggeratedly) shows. Things were gonna be different from here on out, and this issue is a thunderous overture hinting at the scope of the grand cosmic symphony to come.

I still wonder how Kirby managed to pack so much into this slim comic — hot on the trail of a whispered-about “miracle car” that’s been seen around Metropolis, Jimmy meets the “new,” Guardian-free iteration of the famed Newsboy Legion, who may not have their costumed leader with them anymore (at least for now), but do have a new member in their ranks named Flippa Dippa, as well as the amazing “Whiz Wagon,” the staggeringly advanced land-air-sea vehicle that our ostensible hero has been searching for. Just one question — why are all the Newsboy kids the same age as they were back in their 1940s heyday? They claim to be direct blood descendants of the originals, but is that the whole story? In any case, when Jimmy tells them that he’d like the help of them and their “super car” to make the trek into a foreboding district just outside Metropolis known as the “Wild Area” the kids are all-in, hence this issue’s title, “Jimmy Olsen Superman’s Pal Brings Back The Newsboy Legion!”

Forget all that for a moment, though, as next we meet the scheming Morgan Edge, president of Galaxy Broadcasting and new owner of the Daily Planet, who oozes sleazy menace as he confers with Clark Kent for the first time. Edge is essentially Rupert Murdoch a good couple of decades before anyone outside of Australia knew that execrated name, and therefore stands as yet another example of Kirby’s amazing precognitive ability. It’s Edge who has assigned Jimmy with task of entering the Wild Area to make contact with its hippie-ish residents known only as the “Hairies,” and while Clark would like to go along to ensure his young friend’s safety, Edge will hear nothing of it since he has it on good authority that the “Hairies” don’t trust anyone over 25 years old. It’s when Clark leaves the office of his newly-ensconced “superior,” though, that things really start to get interesting —

Okay, fair enough, we all know that a “no” from Morgan Edge isn’t going to stop Superman from going where he wants to go and doing what he needs to do, but Kirby’s portrayal of Clark/Supes (re-drawn faces aside) is entirely different to anything we’ve seen before — this is a moody, introspective, and thoughtful Man of Steel, fundamentally lonely and with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a super-being well aware of his ability to do almost anything and openly and actively questioning the perhaps-outdated moral code that holds him back from making the world a better place on anything other than a “micro” scale. Kirby’s Superman saw a world in distress, fraying at the seams, further slipping into the insidious grasp of big business — and, like his author, he saw the surest signs of hope for the future in the emerging “peace and love” youth culture of the time. No one had written Superman like this before, and all of these various themes — and more — would be expounded upon by The King not only in the pages of this series, but in The Forever People, as well.

For his part, Edge’s interior monologue also reveals more about him than the “poker face” he kept while meeting Kent did — he has his own surreptitious reasons for wanting Jimmy to penetrate the “Wild Area,” and it all has something to do with the dictates of a shadowy underworld organization that he’s a part of known as Intergang, but it’s abundantly clear that even this group of malefactors is only a means to an end, and that they are pawns for another, larger power that’s positioning them on a grand, three-dimensional chessboard.

A series of confrontations with a biker gang on the outskirts of the “Wild Area” known as the “Outsiders” ensues — first Jimmy and the Newsboys take them on, and then when they win that skirmish and Jimmy is made their de facto “leader,” they take on Superman, who’s been tailing his protege — and while falling back on a chunk of Green Kryptonite to bring the second fight to a conclusion stands out for its utter predictability in comparison to the rest of the events taking place in this otherwise-breathtaking story, it’s a situation that Kirby reverses quickly enough, and when Superman wakes up, he, Jimmy, and the Newsboys quickly arrive at a surprisingly tentative truce, and we get out first look at the sprawling forest kingdom known as “Habitat,” a kind of “super-commune” at the very heart of the “Wild Area.” The visuals, in true Kirby fashion, are absolutely spectacular — so spectacular that not even Vince Colletta’s lazy, sloppy inks can fuck them up —and if you need any further evidence that the so-called “Boy From Kansas” ain’t in Kansas anymore, well, look no further than page page 20 :

I would argue that this splash image represents the first significant distillation of the artistic through-line that would inform the entire Fourth World opus : Kirby grand-scale epic visual storytelling wedded to the ideals and ethos of the so-called “flower power” generation. The cliffhanger to this issue — which sees Jimmy enlist his once-and-future best friend in his sure-to-be-perilous journey to something called the “Mountain Of Judgment,” which can only be accessed by means of a hidden drag-strip known as the “Zoomway” — hints that further wonders are to come, of course, but the tone of the epic-to-be has already been set : Jack Kirby, WWII veteran, keen and learned observer of humanity who still hadn’t lost his fundamental sense of optimism, was putting his faith in a better future future, and in the youth — the same shaggy, hairy, “drop-out,” “hippie” youth that so much of popular culture, including the comics, was openly demonizing every chance it could get — who were going to make that better future happen.

It didn’t all work out the way that Kirby hoped, of course — nor did the Fourth World itself, for reasons entirely beyond his control — but Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 reflected the exuberance, idealism, and promise of its times. There have been better stories told in the funnybooks than this one (although not that many), but very few have been this significant, this heartfelt, this revolutionary. And Jack Kirby was only just getting started.