Kirby Week : “Super Powers” (Vol.1) #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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