Archive for the ‘comics’ Category

On August 28th, 1917, in New York City’s rough-and tumble Lower East Side, the most visionary and significant artistic innovator of the 20th — and, so far, the 21st — century was born. I say that without a hint of hyperbole, exaggeration or, even more appallingly, irony, because the boy that  Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg named Jacob (or, in their native Hebrew, Ya’akov) went on to shape modern popular culture — and, by extension, culture as a whole — more than anyone else you can name.

And speaking of names — he had many, in addition to the one written on his birth certificate. Some called him Jolly. Some called him The King Of Comics. Some shortened that to simply “King.” Early in his career he experimented with nom de plumes such as Fred Sande, Curt Davis, Jack Curtiss, and Ted Grey, among others. But the “handle” by which he is best known is the professional moniker that he stuck with, the one that would adorn all of his monumental works in the decades to come, the one that would eventually be engraved on his tombstone — Jack Kirby.

If you love it, odds are better than good Jack created it : Captain America. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. Black Panther. The Avengers. The X-Men. The Silver Surfer. The Inhumans. Doctor Doom. Magneto. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Galactus. Darkseid and The New Gods. Kamandi. The Demon. The Newsboy Legion. The entire romance comics genre. And all this? It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Jack Kirby created characters as effortlessly as most people concoct excuses. He was literally a non-stop idea generator. And his ideas stuck. The overwhelming majority of them have not only stood the test of time, they’ve gone on to earn billions. What is cynically called “intellectual property” these days? Most of it came from one man’s intellect.

Here’s the damndest part of all, though — he never slowed down. Never stopped. Innovation was in his blood. He may not have created the comic book. He may not have created the super-hero. But he re-created both so many times that they would be unrecognizable today, if not extinct altogether, were it not for him. And with each successive project he undertook, he went bigger. Bolder. Challenging himself to push beyond what he’d done before, and to re-shape not only his readers’ expectations, but their perceptions.

No less an authority than Grant Morrison has called Kirby “the William Blake of the 20th century.” The comparison is apt. Like Blake, Kirby seemed attuned to something beyond that he was able to translate into the immediately recognizable. He filtered complex thought-forms into visionary illustrations and stories that were both mythic in scope and human in scale. The universe of the imagination was his playground, and he not only went to worlds far beyond our own, he invented them. Time and time again.

Jack Kirby re-wrote the rules with explosive force. While his predecessors concentrated on making four-color action smooth-flowing and balletic, he set out to sock you in the jaw. While they went for something akin to formal grace and even elegance, he went for impact. Art that you’ll always remember is nice, but art that makes you remember how it felt to see it for the first time with each subsequent viewing? That’s something else altogether. That’s, as the kids say today, “next-level shit.”

Look beyond comics for a minute and consider films. Consider that Jack Kirby gave us “The Source” and Orion being Darkseid’s son before George Lucas gave us “The Force” and Luke Skywalker being the progeny of Darth Vader. Ask yourself if the concept of the “blockbuster” film as we’ve come to know it would exist if not for Kirby. The scale, the magnitude, the grandeur of the multi-million-dollar Hollywood production — Kirby did it all on the printed page first.

How about video games? Today’s “POV” and “multi-player/interactive” games all put the action right up “in your face.” Who was the first person to introduce that perspective? To put the consumer right in the middle of the action and “see” things from their vantage point before he put pencil to paper? You got it.

To drag things back to the medium that Kirby not only operated in and excelled at but flat-out owned, there are entire artistic tropes that he devised from whole-cloth and that remain entirely his as surely as the label “King Of Comics” does and always will : “Kirby Krackle.” “Kirby Tech.” “Kirby Collage.” All these are spoken of not only with awe, but with reverence. There’s nothing else like ’em. There never will be.

Let me add one more innovation to the list that The King never gets enough credit for — “Kirby Dialogue.” It was singular. It was, appropriately, mythic. It was as unconventional as his art — and every bit as effective. It contained, and communicated, entire universes of meaning. It was magnificent, in the strictest dictionary definition of that word.

What could motivate one man to do all this — to reach for the stars and bring them down to the rest of us day in, day out? How about love. Kirby was never too proud to admit that he was, at the end of the day, a worker. And he took pride in how hard he worked for the best and most noble reason of all — he was doing it to put food on the table. To provide a better future for his wife, Roz, and their four kids. Sure, he wanted to keep us glued to the page — but he did so in order to provide for them. Intentions don’t come any more pure than that.

Jack also served his country in the European Theater in WWII. Those experiences, as well as his hard-scrabble upbringing, frequently made their way on to the pages he wrote and drew, and that leads to yet another point I want to make : for much-larger-than-life modern mythology, the entire Kirby canon is, in all ways and at all times, a highly personal one. There’s more than virtuoso artistry and dynamic scripting in every Jack Kirby comic, there’s a hell of a lot of heart and soul. His work speaks to us all on a core level in a way no other comic-book creator has ever been able to duplicate — and trust me when I say, they’ve all tried.

In the coming years, we’ll be hearing more about Jack Kirby than ever. The power of his imagination, having been tapped by the Marvel/Disney bean-counters and suits for well over a decade at the box office, is about to bear lucrative financial fruit for DC/Warner, as well — Darkseid, and the rest of the Fourth World characters, are about to take center-stage in the so-called “DCEU” in a big way. Residuals, which hopefully his heirs won’t have to fight tooth-and-nail for as they spent decades doing with the so-called “House Of Ideas,” should be enough to help guarantee them all a comfortable retirement. Yup, even 23 years after his passing at the age of 76, The King is still providing for his family — and something tells me that if he’s looking down on this world, that fact makes him proudest of all.

As for everything else going on down here on the mortal plane? Kirby saw it coming. Streaming entertainment, consumerist gluttony, pointless war, clashes of ideals, global communication, even Donald effing Trump — all predicted, often with uncanny accuracy, in the pages of his books.  The King was a product of his times, without question — but he was also, and always, a few steps ahead of them. That depressingly-overused “genius” label that now gets applied to anyone who writes a half-decent novel or makes a watchable film? It’s actually too small in this instance.

And so the legacy of this great man is destined to continue on, for as long as there are ideals to aspire to and children (and grown-ups) to dream. For all the turmoil Kirby foresaw in the times ahead, his work always retained an essential and irreducible optimism — a belief that the human spirit would not only endure, but triumph. If you were to ask me to name a more aspirational, and inspirational, artist, I couldn’t do it. But Jack did a lot more than hope for the best from us — he was the best of us.

I have four heroes in this life : my mom, my dad, my wife, and Jack Kirby. The first two raised me, and continue to do so, because goddamnit, I’ll always have a lot of growing up to do. The third saved me. The fourth inspired me to dream and his work continues to keep those dreams alive. My existence wouldn’t be anywhere near as rich, as rewarding, as joyous without them. And they each, in their own way, show me the way forward every day. One could argue that I only personally know three of these remarkable, extraordinary individuals, sure —

but then I pick up any random issue of New Gods. Or Captain America. Or Kamandi. Or Machine Man. Or Black Panther. Or Silver Star. Or Challengers Of The Unknown. Or Mister Miracle. Or OMAC. Or The Sandman. Or The Forever People. Or my personal favorite, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, and I realize — the fourth name on that list? I know him, too. And I know that, cliched as it may be to say, “He Will Always Be The King.”

 

 

 

 

If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to name my all-time favorite Jack Kirby story, on most days I think I’d have to go with the two-parter from issues five and six of 2001 : A Space Odyssey known in fan circles by its short-hand title, “Norton Of New York.” This pair of comics has anything and everything you could ask for — high drama, deep philosophical questions (specifically in relation to the subjects of individuality, the heroic ideal, the ever-fragile male ego, and the ever-deepening flight of huge segments of the populace into realms of pure fantasy), superb cosmic artwork, dystopian existentialism, even something of an unrequited love story. We’ll get to all of that (and more, I promise) in due course, but first a little bit of backstory for those not steeped in comic book history —

With the near-unprecedented success of Marvel’s Star Wars film adaptation and spin-off series (which, as it turns out, may very well have saved the company from bankruptcy given that their cash-flow was extremely tight, despite their dominant market-share position at the time, thanks to a series of questionable business decisions), the so-called “House Of Ideas” revealed that they had a dearth of precisely those and actively went searching for other cinematic properties, specifically of the science fiction variety, to exploit in the funnybook pages. The problem was that, unlike these days, there just weren’t that many “blockbuster” films ready-made for mercenary licensing opportunities in the late ’70s — so they had to go back a few years. Thus was born the rather unlikely marriage of Marvel Comics and MGM Studios, who worked together to come up with a deal to publish a “Treasury Edition” (basically a larger, thicker comic with heavy cardstock covers) adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s legendary film 2001 : A Space Odyssey (based, of course, on Arthur C. Clarke’s equally-legendary novel), to be followed by a monthly series — and with Jack Kirby recently returned to the fold, there was probably never any doubt about who the perfect choice to helm this particular four-color ship would be.

Kirby’s “Treasury Edition” film adaptation is breathtaking stuff that makes brilliant use of every extra inch it’s given in order to literally overload readers’ senses with mind-boggling outer space imagery that sears its way into the visual cortex, but I think it’s fair to say that the follow-up comic series takes a little while to find its feet, given that each story, whether told in one or two parts, tells a separate and disparate tale vaguely informed by, but not overly chained to, the film and novel. The first four issues are perfectly fine reads with some amazing artwork, with Kirby wisely concentrating his creative energies on portraying various and sundry situations where the iconic Monolith would act as a kind of cosmic “critical mass” or “wild card” and push a situation (usually of the evolutionary or developmental variety) forward rather than going the dull and unimaginative route of, say, directly continuing the story seen in the film and letting us know “what happened” to Dave, HAL 9000, etc., but it wasn’t necessarily all that clear where The King Of Comics was going with the whole concept.

Until issue number five (cover-dated May, 1977 and bearing the story title “Norton Of New York, 2040 A.D.”), that is, when the answer became clear : Kirby was taking us much farther than we ever could have hoped to expect.

Our saga begins with an ostensible super-hero who calls himself “White Zero” taking on a horde of space monsters in order to save a captured princess, but in a move that some may consider tipping his hand a bit too early, Kirby makes it clear that the whole scenario is a cheap charade — a paid afternoon’s entertainment for bored aficionados of the fantastic at a theme park known as “Comicsville.” The King’s abilities as a Cassandra are well-known, and here he accurately predicts everything from so-called “cosplay” to indoor paintball games to the pathetically immersive nature of today’s various fandoms decades in advance. “Comics have reached their ultimate stage,” the narrative caption-boxes inform us, and “what began with magazines, fanzines, and nation-wide conventions has culminated in a fantastic involvement with the personal life of the average man!”

All of which leads one to suspect that the life of “the average man” in the year 2040 is a particularly empty and vacuous enterprise — and so it is. “White Zero” is, in actuality, Harvey Norton, an interchangeable office drone who yearns for more than his post-industrial world has to offer (and has something of a shallow and superficial streak, as his reaction to the “princess” shown below demonstrates) — a yearning that’s exacerbated by his first brief encounter with a Monolith within the confines of his pseudo-heroic “interactive” narrative — but at the end of the day, he still inhabits a New York that’s the logical end-result of soulless consumer capitalism : atomized, isolated people with little to no connection to each other transported, zombie-like, on over-crowded subway trains through a city covered by an “astrodome” and choked with smog to the point that everyone wears the same drab protective suits as they make their way from vapid escapist entertainment complexes like “Comicsville,”enclosed shopping centers, and vitality-sucking corporate workplaces to warehoused high-rise living quarters where they select  pre-recorded serial programs (years before steaming services were “a thing”) and vegetate in front of their “hologram boxes” as they consume self-heating frozen dinners and treat themselves, if they can afford it, to doses of packaged “fresh” air.

Kirby’s visual depiction of this all-too-accurate future is equal parts breathtaking, harrowing, and visionary, and the following page communicates everything you need to know even minus its expertly-crafted wordsmithing :

How, exactly, one can escape an edifice of pure spectacle and reach for something authentic that transcends artifice is a struggle that’s been exploited time and again within the science fiction genre, but let’s keep in mind, this is well before The Matrix or even The Truman Show, both of which borrowed liberally from the scenario Kirby outlines here. And yet there is still apparently a place for actual nature in the midst of all this, or so it would seem, as Norton is planning to spend his Sunday at the beach — which leads to what is, for my money, the most impactful and devastating sequence in this already-remarkable comic :

The beach, as it turns out, is no beach at all — “it’s not real! It’s film and solar lamps! It’s wave machines and plastic sand!” — but there is, in fact, something very real beyond the illusion : the Monolith, and once again it prods Harvey Norton forward in pursuit of something other, something greater, than the thoroughly homogenized, commodified, hollow world of 2040 has to offer. And hey, before you know it, our guy Harvey is in outer space!

Kirby mentions briefly the two-year training program that his protagonist has to go through in order to earn himself a spot in the “space program,” but in a whiplash-inducing moment, we literally go from the Monolith at the “beach” to “1,000 miles above the planet Neptune,” where Norton and two fellow astronauts are reeling in a mysterious capsule of some sort that they find orbiting in the distant gas giant’s upper atmosphere. They manage to get in on board their ship, where it opens automatically in fairly short order, and within it, wouldn’t you know that they find —

That’s right! An honest-to-goodness “space princess!” And while the obese woman at “Comicsville” may not have been to Harvey’s tastes, this bizarre-looking alien female appears to be right up his alley, and transfixes him immediately. Still, he may not have much time to pursue the object of his affections, because no sooner does he set eyes on her than he and his crew-mates find themselves taking heavy fire by an unseen and unknown enemy! The barrage is short-lived — “a show of power, rather than an attempt to destroy us” — but it’s clear that the “giant battle craft” that has pulled up close to their vessel is populated by beings that have designs on the “princess” themselves. To say that the situation is “fluid” and “up in the air” would be an understatement of mammoth proportions, but as this issue closes, Norton knows that “whatever happens now can only fulfill my destiny!”

As issue six (cover-dated May, 1977 and titled “Inter-Galactica,” subtitled “‘The Ultimate Trip!,'”) opens up, the detente between the alien spacecraft and Norton’s proves to be short-lived — the cover demonstrates a level of communication between the antagonists that’s never actually achieved, as the spacemen’s language can’t be translated, but whatever — the one-sided firefight picking up steam again within a few pages, and heavier than before. To say that Norton’s head isn’t exactly “in the game” is probably a polite way of putting things, as even in the midst of battle he can’t help but comment that the monstrous ship firing at them is “a comic fan’s dream,” but what he lacks in social graces he more than makes up for in a sort of intuitive understanding of what’s going on that his colleagues clearly don’t share — he just knows, goddamnit, that it’s the “princess” those weird-looking fellas are after, and he’s got a plan to save everyone.

I’ll be the first to admit that what happens next is — how should I put this? — problematic. But as a logical extension of Norton’s so-called “character arc,” it does make perfect sense : with their ship heavily damaged and exposed to the vacuum of space, the three crew members desperately scramble to find their space suits, but in the confusion, Harvey, having figured out that the aliens have a “fix” on the capsule containing the “princess,” absconds with her in an attempt to both draw the aliens’ fire away from his (now former) vessel, and — uhhhmmm — get her to safety. It’s a risky strategy as well as an inherently contradictory one, but over and above all that, it’s also an act of desertion at best, possibly treason at worst. Fortunately for Norton, his fellow astronauts don’t see it that way — one exclaims that “he was a damned hero!” after he reads the hand-written note (no, I’m not kidding) that good ol’ Harv had the decency to leave behind — and the ensuing space-chase gives Kirby a chance to illustrate visionary and awe-inspiring starscapes for page after page, ensuring that kids (and anyone else) who bought this comic in 1977 got way more than their thirty cents’ worth.

As it turns out, the “capsule” piloted by the “princess” proves to be anything but, and Norton’s probably not too far off the mark when he refers to it as a “tin comet.” Still, their pursuers are relentless, determined, and better-armed, and as they reach the very “edge” of the solar system, the “bad guys” unleash “a mass of flaming energy” that Harvey says has “set fire to the universe!” Rather than dodging the inferno, though, the “princess” plunges their craft right into it, engaging the tiny ship’s “star drive” as she does so, which causes them to “leap” both “the solar system — and the galaxies beyond!” Following an incredible journey that sees “Norton’s senses desert him,” the pair finally emerges — well, somewhere. Specifically, here :

Wherever “here,” is, though, doesn’t seem to be a place where the “princess” is very popular, either — her compact craft quickly draws fire again, and a crash-landing leaves her injured and the two of them sitting ducks. As armed interlopers sweep down upon the apparently-helpless duo, Norton quickly learns how to handle an alien blaster/ray-gun and manages to get his charge to safety — or what passes for it, at any rate, as they enter a cavern that leads to a teleporter (or a “‘sending’ mechanism,” as Kirby terms it) — but if escape is to be had, it will have to be had separately. It’s not for lack of trying to say together, mind you — the “princess” beckons Norton to join in her disappearing act, and he makes it clear he’s eager to accompany her, even imploring her to not to leave without him — “but fate has planned differently for Norton,” and as another fierce blast shakes loose the cavern’s rocky walls, she disappears and something else comes into view behind Harvey as he lies prone and unconscious —

When our “hero” next “awakens,” he really is that — a hero — just as he’s always dreamed of being. His name? “Captain Cosmic.” His domain? A “unique skyscraper” that overlooks “the city he loves” — a city that “stands clean and clear against the brightening dawn,” as opposed to the grim reality of the New York he knows all too well. It appears that Harvey Norton’s deepest desires have all, finally, come true — but his triumph is to be a short-lived one, for, in a manner similar to the magnificent third act of Kubrick’s film, he is aging rapidly in preparation for the “change” that will see him re-emerge as a “cosmic fetus” traversing the universe until it finds the proper time and place to be born anew, a literal “child of the stars.”

What happens next? Well, shit — who knows? The “teaser” at the end of this issue strongly hints that the following month’s yarn, entitled “The Child,” will show the final fate of the Harvey Norton “Star Seed” — but as it turned out, number seven was about another, different, “upgraded” former astronaut altogether. I suppose it can be reasonably assumed, or at the very least intuited, that the reborn/reincarnated Norton had a similar journey, but any way you slice it, “Norton Of New York” is, strictly speaking, a two-part story.

And my, what a two-part story it is. Kirby’s art in 2001 : A Space Odyssey numbers five and six, with expert embellishment from his finest (in my view, at any rate) inker, Mike Royer, is bold, expressive, very nearly unbearably imaginative, and the very definition of “next level” stuff — but for my money, it’s The King’s writing that elevates this epic (in the truest sense of the word) tale to “legendary” status. Its flawed protagonist, as the logical extension of the very “fan culture” that his author/creator essentially gave birth to, is at once an easily-relatable “everyman” and a hopeless dreamer doomed to disappointment — until, suddenly, he’s not. And yet, just when it seems his “happy ending” is finally within his grasp, he loses it — only to get it, albeit temporarily, from a source even more unexpected than an actual “space princess.” This time, though, it’s in service of a purpose greater than his own ego gratification — one ultimately beyond his own understanding, and perhaps even ours. For what is one man in the face of a faceless, heartless monoculture? What is one man in the face of his own dreams and expectations? What is one man in the face of insurmountable, odds-stacked-against-him battle? What is one man in the face of an uncaring, but all-knowing, cosmos? These are the questions Kirby asks in “Norton Of New York” — and four decades later, I’m still puzzling out the answers. I heartily encourage you to read these two extraordinary comics and do the same yourself.

 

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.