Posts Tagged ‘jack kirby’

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.”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Near as I can tell, 2017 looks like it’s gonna be a pretty rough year — what with an insane, mouth-foaming lunatic in the White House and everything — but on the plus side, it’s also the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest genius to ever grace the comic book medium with the fruits of his imagination, the one and only Jack Kirby. From all appearances, Marvel appears to be doing fuck-all to honor the man who created 90-plus% of the characters they’ve built a multi-billion-dollar empire off, but at least DC seems to be willing, perhaps even downright eager, to give “The King” his due, so kudos to them for that. First item up in the year-long celebration? Kamandi Challenge, a 12-part “round-robin”-style series that revives the old DC Challenge conceit of having a different creative team solve the “pickle” left for them by the previous one.

Truth be told, though, the rules of the DC Challenge were considerably more difficult — back then, writers and artists would lay down subplots and cliffhangers that the next folks had to solve using entirely different characters, while this time out, it’s strictly a cliffhanger-only affair and, of course, The Last Boy On Earth is the star of each and every issue. So, I mean, yeah — as far as “challenges” go, this one’s pretty easy. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be a hell of a lot of fun.

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DC co-head honcho Dan DiDio and veteran artist Keith Giffen get the ball rolling in this extra-sized first issue with a “prelude”-type story that sets the ground rules and provides a reasonably decent introduction of sorts to the characters, but before you all head for the hills, let’s remember that, for all his numerous and obvious flaws, DiDio is a massive Kirby fan and he and Giffen teamed up for an OMAC series in the early days of the “New 52” that was one of the best offerings that now-concluded (I guess?) revamp had to offer. DiDio also has at least a decent surface-level grasp of Kirby’s writing style and can turn in a respectable approximation of his absolutely unique dialogue, and Giffen, for his part, knows how to impart his illustrations with a certain amount of Kirby-esque dynamism and flair without being slavishly beholden to the idea of aping his style outright. All in all, then, the two of ’em do a more than adequate job of laying out the particulars here and then getting out of the way and letting post-catastrophe Earth take center stage.

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Enter scribe Dan Abnett, artist Dale Eaglesham, and colorist Hi-Fi, who bring us a brightly-hued, dare-I-say-magnificently flowing action spectacle that pits all the characters fans of the series love — Kamandi, Prince Tuftan, Doctor Canus, King Caesar, etc. — against all that the future world of intelligent animals and danger lurking around every corner has to offer, beginning with a fight to the finish against the giant ape, Tiny, and racing at breakneck pace from there to a less-than-imaginative, but staggeringly appropriate in its simplicity, “countdown clock” cliffhanger. Abnett’s dialogue is more than a  bit overly-expository by contemporary standards, but that’s all part of the fun as far as I’m concerned, and “fun” is definitely the operative word of the day here — a point driven home nearly relentlessly by Eaglesham’s gorgeously fluid art, which Abnett wisely allows to do the bulk of the storytelling. Does it “look like Kirby”? Hell no, but it fits Kirby’s world nicely, and besides, if straight-up homage is your bag, there’s always Bruce Timm’s splendid cover to make you (probably more than) happy. In short, I think that if “The King” himself took a look at this book, he’d be downright pleased to see what these guys have done with his characters and concepts.

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What if you’re a “Kamandi Virgin,” though? Hmmm — good question. I’ll be perfectly honest — longtime fans are probably bound to get much more enjoyment from this comic than newbies, but my best guess is that anyone and everyone, regardless of “experience level,” will find more than enough here to make the five bucks they plunked down for it seem like a fair trade. If “high adventure in a world gone mad” is a premise still capable of entertaining you, then Kamandi Challenge #1 is more or less stone-cold certain to be up your alley. It’s got highly likable characters in far-out and far-flung situations, cool monsters, and amazingly illustrated action, so I don’t care who you are — this is a comic that damn near forces a smile onto your face, and then dares you not to keep it there. Whether it can continue doing so is up to the creators that will be stepping up to the plate to handle future installments, but given that Peter J. Tomasi and Neal Adams are up next, something tells me it’s safe to assume that we’ll be in very good hands indeed.

So — how much did I love Kamandi Challenge #1? I’ll put it to you this way : Jack Kirby’s original Kamandi is quite possibly my favorite series of all time, and while this has absolutely no hope of supplanting of superseding that, it feels like a very worthy successor. Strap in for the duration, then — this promises to be an exhilarating ride.

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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Last week, I cranked out a little column called “Five Comics To Help You Survive The Age Of Trump” that got a fairly healthy number of hits and re-tweets and all that shit — for which I’m grateful, rest assured — but while that piece focused entirely on currently-running series, the perhaps-unbelievable truth is that comics’ ultimate response to the “Trump Age” actually came out way back in 1971.

If there’s one creator who could predict the future with uncanny accuracy it was, of course, Jack Kirby — and he frequently did just that. Kirby was — and remains — comics’ pre-eminent visionary, but one could actually make a strong argument that the fruits of his boundless imaginative prowess constitute the single-greatest body of work produced by any artist in any medium in the last century. Every great creative genius has a greatest work of his or her own, though, and it’s a fairly safe bet that the majority of Kirby fans and scholars would point to his Fourth World opus — a long-form series of connected titles comprised of Forever PeopleNew GodsMister Miracle and, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen — as representing “The King Of Comics” (a title that he will never relinquish) at his absolute apex. The raw, undeniable power of Jack’s illustrations from this early-’70s period is still breathtaking to behold, it’s true, but what sets his Fourth World books apart from the already-stratospheric heights achieved by his previous works (he did, after all, create a multi-billion-dollar mythical juggernaut you may have head of called the Marvel Universe) is the sheer philosophical, conceptual, and metaphysical weight of the (sorry to use the term, but) “senses-shattering” storyline that he was able to marry seamlessly with his jaw-dropping visuals. Add in a  poetically bombastic writing style that the ill-informed have often chided as being “clunky” and/or “unrealistic” (as if “realism” was ever the point) and the end result is a true modern epic in every sense of the word. If, in the far-flung future, our civilization is effectively plowed over and forgotten to the point where no trace of the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or any other purportedly “holy” books remains, one can actually envision some neo-primitive survivor stumbling across a couple issues of any of these comics and basing a new religion on them, so soul-shaking and perspective-rattling is the magnitude of their scope. These aren’t just comics — they are four-color transmissions from a consciousness quite beyond our understanding, but one that we recognize to be undeniably true and good. To many readers of the time, they were almost “too much” to fully take on board — no less an authority on subjects both comic and cosmic than Grant Morrison has described his first youthful encounter with them as leaving him feeling as though he’d been “mugged by the word of God” — but with the full advantage of hindsight, we can finally see them for what they were and are : a gauntlet thrown down in the spirit of showing us the way forward, if only we possess courage enough to accept the challenge.

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Unfortunately, of course, all too often we don’t. A world based on kindness, voluntary co-operation, peace, understanding, mutual respect, and open communication was what the so-called “Flower Power” generation claimed it was aiming for, absolutely — and of all the Fourth World books it was Forever People that made the most direct appeal to these ideals via its youthful protagonists (Big Bear, Mark Moonrider, Beautiful Dreamer, Serifan, and Vykin, The Black, for those of you who may not know) — but Jack had fought in the European theater during WWII. He’d helped to liberate the concentration camps. He’d felt the sting of anti-Semitic bigotry personally as a youth. And he understood the frightening siren call of surrendering your individuality to a kind of comfortable-but-deadly “group mind” exemplified by the blank-eyed masses shown on the first page of Forever People #3 (cover-dated July, 1971) shown above.

He also knew that a charismatic charlatan able to tap into humanity’s darkest and most primal fears could then exploit these masses to his own ends after sufficiently strip-mining them of their critical reasoning ability and promising them “safety” and “security” as part and parcel of joining his movement. “Leave it to me — leave it all to me — and I’ll take care of everything” has been the demagogue’s hollow promise since time immemorial. It was at the core of Hitler’s appeal. Mao’s appeal. Franco’s appeal. Mussolini’s appeal.

And today, both depressingly and predictably, it’s back to rear its intellectually and morally worthless head yet again. A vulgar and combative con man with a lifetime of broken vows, both business and personal,  trailing in his wake has grabbed this country by the — well, you know what — with talk of building walls to “protect” us. Of kicking out millions of people for the “safety” of those who remain. Of destroying our purported “enemies” utterly and without mercy. Of putting our unemployed citizens back to work in factories and production plants that by and large no longer exist. Of ridding our communities of crime root and branch not by addressing its causes, but by turning loose the power of militarized law enforcement. All we have to do is give in. Trust him. Follow him. Place our faith in him. Surrender to him. But before Donald Trump, there was Glorious Godfrey.

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A smooth-talking huckster from the dread world of Apokolips, Godfrey even looks like Trump, doesn’t he? And his travelling revival show — rumored to be based on the religion-as-spectacle efforts of Billy Graham — eerily echoes the Trump rally 45 years before there was such a thing. Life itself is the problem, Godfrey tells us, but he alone can make yours right if you just, ya know, fork it over to him, and allow yourself to become one of his zombified, technologically-augmented “Justifiers” — shock troops in his army to remake the world in his own image. Purposely conflating unity with submission to the point where the average attendee of his batshit-crazy carny show can’t tell the difference anymore, Godfrey doesn’t just have answers, he has all the answers — hell, he has the answer. It’s called “Anti-Life.” And it’s gonna Make America Great Again.

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Like all would-be conquerors, though, Godfrey is himself merely a pawn for the power behind the throne he looks to place himself on, just as Trump is a front for the very same “global elites” and “international bankers” he rails against. A 20-percent cut in the corporate tax rate and a six-percent (for now — watch that cut get bigger and bigger with successive income tax “reform” packages) slashing of the top marginal personal tax rates ain’t gonna do shit for Trump’s working-class base, but it sure will make the rich bastards who owned all those shuttered factories where they used to work happy. And if you know Kirby’s Fourth World, you already know that the puppeteer pulling Godfrey’s strings is none other than Darkseid himself, a creature of such unyielding and incalculable evil that the pages he was depicted on could scarcely contain his malignant ferocity. As always, no matter how wretched the public face of mass control may be, the one that hides in the shadows, controlling the would-be controller, is even worse.

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Of course, our intrepid youthful heroes were able to scuttle Godfrey’s plans in the pages of Forever People #3, but their victory was shown to be a temporary one. The forces of darkness and dehumanization, Kirby knew all too well, would always be there to haunt us, and would always find a willing audience among those frightened to be truly alive — as well as to the extend the basic right of self-determination to others. I’m glad Jack’s not here to see the rise of Donald Trump. He was a kind, caring, loving, generous, and brilliant man — and as famous as he is for saying that “comics will break your heart,” (an opinion he arrived at thanks in no small part to another staggeringly duplicitous con artist, Stan Lee) I think this sorry and reprehensible period our nation has entered into would have crushed him perhaps beyond all hope of repair. But I’m even more glad that his work — in all its undeniable vibrancy, vitality, heartfelt integrity, and glory — is with us still, and resonating as clear a clarion call as it ever has. They may have Donald Trump, but we have Jack Kirby — is there any doubt who you’d back in that titanic struggle of cosmic absolutes?

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If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that director Josh Trank’s new Fantastic Four flick just isn’t very good, right? I mean, yeah, the troglodyte faction of comics fandom has been out to bury this one since the day it was announced that an African-American actor, Michael B. Jordan, would be playing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (of course, if you ask them, racism had nothing to do with their petulant reaction — rather they claim, embarrassingly, that they just wanted the movie to remain true to the “source” material. Which, ya know, came out in 1963 and was aimed at an all-white audience of 12-year-olds. Good luck with that in 2015), but there’s just gotta be more to it than that, right? I mean, the movie only has a 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes and absolutely toxic word of mouth has poisoned its chances at the box office.

Sure, the usual top-down “whisper campaign” from Disney/Marvel, who wanted this movie to tank so that they could buy the rights to the characters back from Fox on the cheap, certainly played a part in this new FF’s immediate DOA status, no question (any movie based on Marvel characters needs to be absolutely pitch-perfect from start to finish, it seems — unless it’s a movie coming from Marvel Studios itself, in which case it can completely suck and people will still delude themselves into thinking it’s good out of sheer, stubborn, stupid brand loyalty), but come on — even that, combined with the ignorance and prejudice of stick-in-the-mud, nostalgia-addled, aging comic book readers still isn’t enough to account for just how reviled this film already is. Any reception this poor has got to be honestly earned on some level, doesn’t it?

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I’ll be honest — for about the first 45 minutes of Trank’s feature, I thought everybody was nuts. And part of me was really hoping that everybody was nuts, simply because if there’s one group of folks that I take great pride in pissing off on a regular basis, it’s the intellectually-stilted, emotionally-subrnormal (thank you Alan Moore) segment of comics fandom who openly “roots” for all these Marvel properties to “come back home,” but who could give a rat’s ass about the fact that  the creative geniuses from whose imaginations they sprung, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, got positively fucked by Marvel for decades on end. These are people who are loyal to characters, not creators, and whose reading tastes were permanently arrested at a junior high level thanks to their sleazy and despicable hero, Stan Lee (who at least doesn’t show up for his customary nauseating cameo here — nor are he and Kirby listed as “co”-creators). Never mind that it was Lee’s horseshit skills as a wannabe wheeler-dealer in Hollywood that saw all of these Marvel characters licensed out to other studios at a relative pittance in the first place. So,uhhmm, where were we? — oh yeah,  the first act of Fantastic Four isn’t just good, it’s flat-out great, and I was relishing the chance to come home, sit down, and talk about what a delusional bunch of assholes the majority of the Marvel-loving public is once again.

I admit, I had my doubts going in, as well. The idea of Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (played by Miles Teller), Sue Storm/The Invisible Girl (Kate Mara), Ben Grimm/The Thing (Jamie Bell) and the aforementioned Johnny Storm/The Human Torch being “re-imagined” as kid geniuses under the tutelage of the Storm family patriarch, Franklin (Reg E. Cathey) sounded like a dicey proposition, at best (I understand that this set-up borrows heavily from writer Mark Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four comics series, but not having read that, I can’t say for certain how true that is or not), but damn if Trank and his army of screenwriters don’t make it work — for awhile.

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During the film’s second act, though, the wheels really come off. Or maybe that should be “slowly and gently roll off.” The story sputters along at any ever-decreasing speed until finally grinding to an absolute halt, and while Trank does his best to inject a David Croneneberg flavor into the proceedings by emphasizing the “body horror” aspects of the various characters’ new-found abilities after their trans-dimensional jaunt (an updating of the origin story that actually makes sense given that the idea that “cosmic radiation” would transform space explorers on a cellular level was pretty well shot down six years after the FF’s creation once we sent astronauts to the moon — assuming you believe that we did) and tossing in a very gory-and-nifty homage to Scanners, it’s simply not enough — especially if, like me, you’re one of the few people out there who actually read future MythBusters producer Eric Haven’s fine (but tragically short-lived) black-and-white indie comics series Angryman back in the early ’90s, where he did a much better job of telling more or less the exact same story in a short back-up strip in issue #2. Seriously, hunt it down and you’ll see what I mean.

Anyway, back to the business at hand. Trank tries to kick things back into gear for his big finale, which sees the team going back to “Dimension X” to battle their fifth member (who’s got every reason to be pissed off since they left him for dead), Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell),  but he’s too far behind the eightball at this point to possibly regain all the ground he’s lost. Reed starts talking in extended info-dumps, Dr. Doom’s plot to destroy our reality makes no sense, and the surprisingly cut-rate CGI often borders on the flat-out laughable. Really, for a big-budget movie Fantastic Four starts to look and feel like it was done on the cheap, and by the time we reach the eyeball-rolling “so what should we call ourselves, anyway?” conclusion, you’ll have to admit, as I did, that all those stick-in-the-mud, hyper-conservative fans were right. This just ain’t a very good movie.

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I’ll say this much, though — not only is this better than previous cinematic iterations of the FF (I’m damning with faint praise there, I know) it’s also nowhere near the complete train-wreck its legion of detractors claim it to be. Its chief problem isn’t so much that it’s an abomination of unprecedented proportions as that it’s just a really boring and predictable movie. You know, like Ant-Man. Or Guardians Of The Galaxy. Or The Avengers. Or Iron Man. Or  — well, just about any of ’em, really. Fantastic Four is in no way appreciably different than most officially-sanctioned “MCU” garbage, and during its first act, it’s actually a damn sight better than a lot of its Marvel step-siblings. Unfortunately, it just couldn’t keep that standard — or even anything close to it — up for the remainder of the ride.

As we’ve all seen, the recriminations are coming hot and heavy now. Trank tweeted on the day of his film’s release that he had a version that he was really happy with about a year ago, then implied that meddling from studio higher-ups resulted in the mess we see before us today. Good luck getting work at Fox again, buddy (although, given that he’s only 31 years old, it’s way too premature to say that this movie has torpedoed his chances in Hollywood permanently). Reports are coming out that the set was so fraught with tension that the director and one of his stars, Teller, damn near got into a fist fight (never mind that this kind of on-set drama is actually pretty common, it’s just that when a movie does well, we don’t hear about it until years later).  And more un-substantiated reports of more problems will be forthcoming, I’m sure. So Marvel and their self-proclaimed “zombies” will probably get their wish, and if and when we see the next FF re-launch, it will probably be under the “MCU” banner. Which means that I don’t expect it to be any worse than this — but I highly doubt that it’ll be any better, either.

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Like many an armchair movie critic, once I decide that I’m gonna review a particular film, I browse the web for some pictures of said film to include within the body of my write-up/rant so that you, faithful reader, aren’t just confronted with a “wall of text” if I’m fortunate enough to have your attention long enough to read whatever shit I’ve decided to blather on about. I usually opt to include four or five images with a standard-length review — sometimes more, sometimes less, but generally I find that four or five spaces things out nicely and gives a review a good “look.”

What’s this boring “behind the scenes” info got to do with Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Simply this : when I did a Google image search for pics related to writer/director Joss Whedon’s latest Marvel Studios mega-blockbuster, it was virtually impossible to tell actual film stills (which I prefer to use) apart from  heavily-airbrushed, digitized promotional art issued by Dis/Mar and/or fan-made photoshop art. Seriously. Try this yourself and tell me I’m not wrong — go to Google image search, type in “Avengers Age Of Ultron” and see if you can tell the difference. Even if you’ve seen the movie, I’m tellin’ ya, in many cases you can’t. I know that all film — yes, even documentaries to some degree — is artifice, but seriously : when you can’t discern an “actual” movie still from a promo mock-up, it seems to me that we’ve silently crossed some sort of line and are in new and uncharted territory. How many actual “sets” were used in Whedon’s CGI “epic”  vs. how much was shot entirely in front of a blue-or green-screen I couldn’t say you with any certainty, but, as with last summer’s Guardian Of The Galaxy, which saw Vin Diesel credited as one of the flick’s “stars” simply for doing the equivalent of animation voice-over work, here James Spader is credited prominently for “starring” as the villainous Ultron despite never actually, ya know, appearing on screen at all.

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Now, if you’re at all familiar with my previous appraisals of so-called “MCU” movies, this is probably the point at which you expect me to launch into some diatribe about what a piece of shit this thing is. It’s no secret that, apart from Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, I really haven’t liked many of these at all. I find them to be dull, predictable, repetitious, uninvolving, way too heavy on spectacle at the expense of characterization, you name it. And while Avengers : Age Of Ultron is certainly guilty of all those things, let me let you in on a little secret even though it may threaten to completely ruin my reputation as a loud-mouthed cinematic contrarian — I really didn’t hate this flick as much as I did the last several Marvel offerings and, in fact, I may not have even hated it at all.

Which isn’t to say that I really liked it either — I’m still getting all that sorted out in my head, but this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie. Maybe I’ve just given up (finally), accepted these things for what they are, and am willing to make some kind of peace with the fact that the public at large seems to really dig the hell out something that I don’t. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. But who knows?  Maybe — just maybe — this movie is, in fact, marginally better than the rest of its brain-dead ilk. It’s a possibility I’m willing to at least consider.

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Detailed plot recaps of these things aren’t really necessary, of course, because Marvel movies don’t have detailed plots, but if you must know the basics here they are : Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and  Murk Ruffalo’s Hulk all return as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!” to battle a problem of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s own creation, a power-mad artificial intelligence “virus” called Ultron that inhabits a bunch of robotic bodies and wants to save the world by — yawn! — destroying it. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — who can officially appear in Marvel Studios product now that it’s been revealed that they’re not Magneto’s kids and therefore don’t fall under the umbrella of the X-Men properties owned, cinematically speaking, by Fox —switch sides about halfway through the action and join the team, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury all pop up later to varying degrees when the obviously lily-white (okay, and green) makeup of the main team becomes so obvious that even Marvel can’t ignore it anymore, and Paul Bettany gets to graduate from a disembodied voice to an actual character when a variation of the Jarvis A.I. program he’s been dubbing in lines for takes on  physical (albeit android) form as the MCU’s version of The Vision.

The final outcome of the decidedly non-dramatic “drama” here is never, of course, in doubt — one way or another The Avengers are bound to win — but what I at least found somewhat noteworthy is that between the film’s frankly stupid-as-shit first act and predictably bombastic third, Whedon manages to squeeze in a second act that almost threatens to be actually interesting at times.

From what I gather, it’s this second act that a lot of hard-core Marvel fans have problems with, given that The Vision’s origin is basically nothing like its printed-page progenitor, Hawkeye is given a completely different backstory to the one that’s been established for him in the comics, and the Black Widow/Hulk romance that’s introduced here is a wholecloth invention on Whedon’s part. For my part, I felt most of this was rather plausible enough — okay, apart from the origin for The Vision, which is just plain staggeringly dumb — and certainly found this section of the film to be of far more interest than the CGI extravaganza that both precedes and usurps it, but is it enough to make Age Of Ultron something I’d actually watch a second time? I gotta admit, probably not — but at least it kept me from completely tuning it out the first time I saw it.

Of course, in addition to over-reliance on special effects, many of the same problems from the first Avengers flick are still on glaring display here — Johansson is the least-convincing Russian spy ever and exudes a kind of “negative charisma” as The Black Widow that literally sucks out whatever scant traces of life most of the scenes she appears in might have; we get way too many shots of Downey inside his Iron Man helmet; Ruffalo’s facial expressions run the shortest gamut you can possibly imagine (his looks can best be described as “concerned as shit” and “self-pitying plus concerned as shit”); and at the end of the day the only remotely sympathetic character (Tony Stark, incidentally, graduates from “more or less and asshole” to “complete asshole” as events unfold here) of the bunch is Renner’s Hawkeye. But whatever. As far as two-dimensional ciphers go, Hemsworth and Evans at least appear to be having fun as Thor and Captain America, respectively, and I’ll give Spader some credit for sounding suitably menacing and nuts in his “turn” as Ultron.

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In the end, though, Avengers : Age Of Ultron‘s greatest success in an entirely inadvertent one : the Ultron character him/itself is, you see, a pretty effective metaphor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Think about it — like the robotic bad guy here, these movies exist not so much to be themselves, but to replicate themselves. An astonishing amount of time in this flick is devoted to foreshadowing/set-up for the forthcoming (and apparently two-part) next Avengers extravaganza, which will finally see them  fighting Jim Starlin’s Thanos character for control of the so-called “Infinity Gems.” And you can bet that once that conflagration takes place, it will be loaded with “hints” about the next big Avengers “spectacular” slated to follow it. And whatever that ends up being will probably be weighed down with “spoilers” for the next. And the next. And the next —

And so it goes. Look, I’m not a sucker (at least, I don’t like to think that I am).  I might have found Avengers : Age Of Ultron to be marginally more to my liking than both its predecessor and most of its “sister” films — and it was nice to see Jack Kirby’s name displayed prominently in the credits this time (even if Stan Lee’s, as always, comes first) — but the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios as a whole, as well as the overtly cynical nature of their cash-grabbing ways, are as plain to see as ever here. These aren’t movies that even give a shit about being good, they’re movies that are designed to get you to keep on coming back for more. Fans might argue that “well, if they weren’t so good in the first place, people wouldn’t be coming back for more, so you’re negating your own point, asshole!,” but I don’t buy it. All the public really wants from these films is a sort of easily-digestible, not-too-taxing status quo. Marvel has been succeeding at giving them just that in the pages of their comics ever since true visionaries like the aforementioned Mr. Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and (a little bit later) Steve Gerber left the fold and succeeding generations of “fan creators” with no greater ambition than to tell bigger, noisier versions of the same stories they loved as a kid took over. Now the same thing is happening on celluloid, with bigger bucks behind it and bigger audiences consuming it, but the basic hustle remains the same. As “Stan the Man” himself might put it in that nauseating faux-Shakespearian way of his that people insist is “charming” and “fun” : ’twas ever thus, and so it shall remain.

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By now, you’ve no doubt all seen the news — yesterday, word was handed down from on high that the estate of  Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics, more specifically its parent company, Disney, had reached an agreement to bury their long-standing legal disputes with each other, just as the Supreme Court was considering hearing the case. The details of the settlement haven’t been made public, and perhaps they never will be, but it’s fair to guess that in fairly short order we’ll be noticing some changes — and they’ll probably be changes for the better.

What sort of changes? Well, keep in mind, the very nature of this little article is highly speculative, but we might as well have a little fun while we can, right? But maybe before we go too far down that road, we should clarify a few common misconceptions with some incontrovertible facts — and then we’ll speculate away.

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First off, and probably most importantly, let’s be clear about who was suing who here. The comics press is rife with article after article referring to “the Kirby suit against Marvel,” but in fact, the opposite is true — yes, the Kirbys ended up filing a countersuit against Disney and Marvel, but it was “The Mouse” who sued them first. The Kirby family, under the 1976 copyright act, had every right to file for what’s called a “right of return” on the characters their father created (or co-created, if you’re still buying the Stan Lee/Marvel company line), and that’s exactly what they did. Dis/Mar, not wanting to see the cash cow that Jack’s boundless imagination has become  end up as the property of, ya know, folks he actually loved and cared about, quickly filed suit to prevent said “right of return” from going into effect. The countersuit just mentioned came about as a result of the lawsuit that Dis/Mar initiiated against the Kirby estate, but let’s not keep perpetuating this myth that “the Kirbys sued Marvel” when it was, in fact, the other way around.

Secondly, I’ve noticed a lot of folks in comics fandom, and even some pros in the field (we’ll get to them in a minute), saying that pressure from “us” helped this settlement come about. Nonsense. Much as I wish it were otherwise, the truth is that there aren’t enough ardent Kirby supporters to make much difference to Disney’s bottom line. Don’t think for a moment that I’m not tremendously glad that there have always been a number of us who have been willing to voice our displeasure at Jack’s treatment by the very company he essentially resurrected from the dead, but nothing we said factored into Dis/Mar’s thinking here (just as all our griping hasn’t hurt Marvel one bit at the box office) — they just did the math. Sure, maybe they figured the best odds were that SCOTUS was never going to hear the case, or that if they did, they’d simply let the lower court rulings that went in the company’s favor stand, but there was a chance — just a chance — that they might hear it, and that the Kirbys might win, and rather than risk losing pretty much everything, they settled out of court.

Besides, to fandom’s unending discredit, there are at least as many voices out there who were cheerleading for Marvel to “beat” the Kirby estate as there were on the right side, and some of these folks were pretty loud, as well.

Our last piece of “myth-busting” is saved for the comics pros out there who are hinting that there was enough belly-aching behind the scenes in the freelancers’ community to make this happen. Sorry, but we’ve gotta call bullshit on that, as well. Maybe if this settlement had been reached back in 1989 or something, when the top “A-list” talent was uniformly in support of Jack (and he was still alive), but not these days. When names like Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, Mark Evanier, and Frank Miller (back when he still made sense) were taking up the charge for Kirby, that was one thing, but most of those creators have a substantially lower profile in comics these days, or have walked away from the business altogether, and while a handful of newer first-tier creators like Kurt Busiek, James Romberger, and Grant Morrison have. at least to my knowledge, pretty much always been firmly in the “Kirby camp,” as it were, most everyone else has been silent. Not because they don’t have an opinion on the matter, but because they’ve probably never even been asked. This just isn’t the same burning issue for most creators that it was 20 years ago, even if, by all rights, it probably should be, since some of them might be in Jack’s shoes, at least to a certain extent, someday. I’ll never fully understand why this issue failed to remain “front and center” with the comics community at large, I guess, but the fact is that it really hasn’t been for some time. People are more concerned with what’s going to happen in the next issue of, say, Saga (no disrespect intended to that title, which I quite enjoy, I’m just trying to pick a “hot” series to use as an example and that came to mind) than in this actual, “real world” issue.

And, again, while there have been a number of creators who have been willing to speak out in favor of the Kirby family, there have also been some who have done quite the reverse. John Byrne, in particular, has been making an ass of himself on the internet ever since the settlement was reached with his spiteful railing against it, even though he pretty much built his entire career working on Kirby creations like the X-Men, Fantastic Four, OMAC, The Demon, etc. — except for that brief period when he went and screwed up Siegel and Shuster’s greatest character for a few years.

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With all that out of the way, then, let’s get back to guessing about what this means for the future. First off, it’s a pretty safe assumption that Jack’s name will no longer be buried in the end credits of most Marvel Studios films. While I would personally be surprised if he were given an air-quote executive producer credit on the movies like Stan Lee gets — although, for the record, it wouldn’t be the first time a deceased individual was given such a credit — you can bet the words “created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby” will be front and center from now on in the opening credit scrolls.  I’d love it if the order were reversed, of course, or better yet if Lee’s name were omitted altogether, but that just ain’t gonna happen.

Likewise, the printed page will probably see some evolution, as well., with Jack listed as a creator in the titles of most Marvel books. We may even see language along the lines of “Created By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Used by Special Arrangement with the Jack Kirby Family “(or their legal entity, The Rosalind Kirby Family Trust) in the credit boxes of future issues of X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk,  etc. books, as we see over at DC in any and every comic in which Superman makes an appearance and we’re told, quite rightly, that “Superman is Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Used by Special Arrangement with the Jerry Siegel Family.”

And, of course, some cash has obviously changed hands here. We don’t know how much, or how it’s been (or will be) distributed, but an initial lump-sum payment with sliding-scale royalties to follow for movies featuring Jack’s creations and reprint collections of his comics work is par for the course with settlements of this nature.

What does Dis/Mar get out of the deal, besides the continued ability to profit handsomely off the fruits of Kirby’s labor and genius? More than likely a complete cessation of future legal filings and some sort of written agreement that the company always owned these characters even though Jack created them. That”s probably why this has been characterized in some quarters, depressingly but accurately, as something of a  “win” for the work for hire system — but WFH is dying on the vine, anyway, as evidenced by the fact that there are probably 50 or 60 creator-owned books out there that are better than even the best corporate-owned Marvel and DC comics right now.

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In answer to the question I posed about “what does this mean?” at the outset, then, right now the most specific answer we can offer — lacking any real, ya know,  specifics — is “who knows yet?” But the Kirby family seems happy, Marvel has stated that Jack’s contributions will be acknowledged more publicly, and all in all it seems the good guys won. It may be far from the complete and total victory many of us were hoping for, but it’s a step in the right direction, and does two things that are very important — provides financial security for future generations of the Kirby family , which was the number one thing most near and dear to Jack’s heart, and helps set a precedent for present and future creators so that, hopefully, they never find themselves in a situation where they do all the work, and their publishers make all the money. Time will tell, of course, as it always does.