Posts Tagged ‘Mike Royer’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I said we’d probably be looking at this title again as “Kirby Month” went along, and here we are, with one of my absolute, all-time favorite stories The King ever did, the two-part saga of “Panama Fattie” from Our Fighting Forces numbers 157 and 158, cover-dated July and August, 1975 respectively.

As our story begins, some shady shit involving hijacked equipment and supplies has necessitated The Losers’ presence in the Panama Canal zone, but that doesn’t mean Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge don’t have time for a drink, and the bar favored by servicemen in the area is owned by a fellow American — specifically, a larger-than-life (in every respect) gal whose real name is Lil, but who everyone refers to as — well, you can probably already guess. Lil’s a fun-loving lady with a heart of gold (or so it would seem) and an eye for men in uniform, and she takes a special liking to Sarge right off the bat — and wouldn’t you know, despite being the hard-ass of the group, he seems to have a thing for her, too. Can Cupid work his magic even in the most unlikely, not to mention dangerous, situations?

Now’s not a good time for matters of the heart, though, for while our heroes don’t know it yet, “Panama Fattie” is leading a double life as the very leader of the gang of smugglers and hijackers they’d encountered earlier (in a scene that plays out very differently for “in the know” readers than it does for The Losers themselves), and she’s not too picky about who she does business with — and that’s put her in bed (metaphorically speaking, mind you) with The Emperor’s boys. If the Japanese want to pull off the audacious scheme they have in mind, though, they need both a “connection” and some protection — and Lil is happy to provide both for a price. Plus, as you can see from the double-page splash shown earlier, she’s a crack shot. Definitely not someone you want to mess with!

 

R &R is something that never last long for The Losers, of course, but they have some bad luck worthy of their name this time out and end up captured at the end of issue 157. It looks like it’s probably curtains for ’em as number 158 (entitled “Bombing Out On The Panama Canal!”) opens — it frequently does — but some serious on-the-fly ingenuity (that, fair enough, requires a heavier-than-usual dose of suspension of disbelief) sees them freed from their captors’ bonds and staring the true nature of their dilemma squarely in the face, as you can see below —

And so an honest-to-goodness Kamikaze run on the Panama Canal itself is what’s got to be stopped here, but hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, The Losers are going to need some outside help if they want to put the kibosh on this tragedy-waiting-to-happen, as well as survive themselves. The odds are slim — but their potential ally is anything but. Kirby’s story structure here is downright cinematic (villain introduced first while going about her dastardly business, protagonists come in next in a heavy-action sequence that’s followed by an uncharacteristically casual scene, then the particulars of their mission as far as they know them are laid out, then full-throttle combat, then capture, then escape, then “big reveal,” then — we’ll get to that in a second), and his pacing brisk and dynamic. Even the few “slow” parts feel anything but and work in service to aid  the eventual climax, which sees Sarge forced with a dilemma of both the mind and heart : stop “Panama Fattie” dead (literally) in her tracks, or return the favor she showed him (twice, but only once that he knows of) and refuse to shoot her even though it might mean death for them all — and countless others.

Moral quandaries are always fascinating — particularly when handled with the deftness and skill of Jack Kirby — but this one packs a double-wallop : Sarge doesn’t gun her down, but that actually turns out to be the right move both ethically and logistically, for it helps to cement a change of heart that Lil,  as our heroes had already glimpsed, was already in the midst of. Tragically, she dies anyway — just moments later, in fact — but under far different circumstances than she would have had Sarge pulled the trigger, to wit : she sacrifices herself to save Sarge and, in turn, everyone else. As fate and circumstance would have it, then, by doing the “wrong” thing, Sarge has actually done the “right” thing — and doing the “wrong” thing for years on end actually puts Lil in position to do the “right” thing when it matters most.

This is Shakespearean drama at its finest, and Kirby’s keen eye for period authenticity and first-hand knowledge of the rigors of close-quarter combat drive it home with stunning vigor. Once Lil and Sarge have shared her dying moment there’s still a bombing raid to be stopped, though, and Kirby’s aerial sequences are just as stunning as the more quiet tragedy that plays out just prior, with Johnny Cloud and Gunner, pursuing their quarry in a technical, brazenly swooping directly under it and lighting it up from below with a mounted machine gun. Breathtaking stuff, as only The King Of Comics and inker par excellence Mike Royer can deliver.

Still, for all its blistering action, it’s the “human element” that elevates these comics to “classic” status in this reviewer’s humble estimation. There are clear rights and wrongs offered up here, to be sure, and an unwavering commitment to his conscience (never shoot a civilian, never shoot a woman) proves to be Sarge’s salvation (as well as everyone else’s), but Kirby knew that the “bad guys” were human being with lives, loves, and dreams of their own, as well, and were all too often simply stuck playing a hand they wished, in retrospect, they’d never been dealt — even if, paradoxically, they’d dealt it to themselves. The story told over issues 157 and 158 of Our Fighting Forces, then, is more than a simple tale of betrayal, tragedy, and redemption — it is a statement of belief on Kirby’s part that even under the most dire circumstances, we’re all more alike than we are different, and that the connections we make with each other, no matter how brief or small, aren’t just what we live for — they can literally save us, too.

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.

 

Sometimes, nothing beats a short, sweet, simple, self-contained comic book adventure story — and the next time you find yourself in the mood for exactly that, you could do a hell of a lot worse than issue number three of Jack Kirby’s last original Marvel Comics series, Devil Dinosaur.

Cover-dated June, 1978 and bearing the story title of “Giant,” about all you need to know about the basic premise going in is that Devil is an unusually large, unusually strong, and unusually smart prehistoric beast who took on a sort of bight, “fire-engine red” color due to — well, we won’t go there, since I’m not sure that particular part of his origin story  necessarily stands up to even casual, much less anything approaching rigorous, logical scrutiny. It was painful as all hell for the poor creature, though, no doubt about that. His constant friend and companion is one Moon-Boy, billed on the cover of issue one as “The First Human,” but if we’re striving for accuracy, “Fist Human,” or “One Of The First Humans” might be closer to the mark. The two share a symbiotic — perhaps even a kind of rudimentary psychic — bond, and they inhabit a typically dangerous-for-its-time region known as The Valley Of Flame, yet another ingenious Kirby locale rife with possibilities for danger, trouble, all that good stuff.

This one starts (as well as proceeds and finishes) in elegantly concise fashion, as our two protagonists are awoken one night by ear-splitting screaming, the source of which, upon investigation, turns out to be creatures fleeing from an unlikely bipedal figure with what’s described as a “Thunder-Horn Head” (which turns out to be a mask) known only as our titular Giant. He hurls rocks with enough force to knock Devil off-balance — a not-inconsiderable feat — and even takes out a fearsome foe known as Bone-Back before a mysterious smaller figure manages to set about and capture Moon-Boy, who has been separated from his ferocious friend.

Upon discovering the disappearance of his sidekick, Devil is incensed, but uses his keen intelligence to track him down by following a trail of dinosaur bones and corpses to Giant’s non-existent front door. An epic confrontation ensues that actually sees both adversaries so equally-matched that it ends in stalemate, and so Devil turns on that mighty mind of his again and attempts a bit of on-the-fly battle strategizing : he’s gonna lure Giant into a bog.

Meanwhile Moon-Boy, for his part, after engineering a basic-but-clever escape, surreptitiously steers his former captor — now revealed to be a smaller “Giant” figure himself —to the very same bog at the exact moment his significantly more sizable counterpart (spoiler, it’s his daddy) falls in. Never fear, though — our heroes would never split up a family, happy or otherwise, and duly rescue Giant from his murky would-be grave in order to reunite him with his cub/son, thereby effecting a truce whereby the newly-complacent Giant silently “agrees” to leave the valley alone and in peace as a sign of what passes for gratitude in a primitive and deadly world.

Clearly, then, Devil Dinosaur #3 offers considerably less by way of the philosophical and thematic depth that most of the other Kirby comics we’ve been exploring this month do, but it’s wonderfully and dynamically illustrated by The King (with typically superb and intelligently-applied inks by the great Mike Royer), and the action in particular — of which there is plenty — is downright breathtaking and worth spending a good, long time feasting your eyes on. This one may not rise to the level of a “classic” by any means, but by juxtaposing its violent savagery against the bonds of family and (cross-species) friendship, it’s both exhilarating and endearing in equal measure — and as an example in microcosm of what makes Kirby’s storytelling so special, even stripped down to its barest elements, it’s very nearly perfect.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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