Posts Tagged ‘D. Bruce Berry’

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.