I have to admit that when I first started to haphazardly plan my week-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 Manhunter.
And yet, 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 titles like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (somewhat) recently-concluded 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.
But then, who in their right mind would expect anything less? If there’s one thing Kirby never did, it was run short on creative fuel.
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, “A 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.
One could argue that I should have started this “Kirby Week” theme I’ve got going with with this, as it marks the beginning of what many of The King’s fans consider to be the best and most important phase of his career, but in truth the October, 1970 cover-dated Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen#133 is such a flat-out transformational comic (not just for the series itself, but for the medium in a more general sense) that even on an umpteenth read-through, it offers a hell of a lot to unpack and analyze.
Oh, sure, there are more important entries in The King’s lengthy C.V. than this one, but I think a person would be hard-pressed to find a single issue that attempts to do more than this story does — after all, this was the very first comic that Kirby produced under his then-new contract with DC, and given the shockwaves that his departure from Marvel sent through the nascent fan circles just bubbling to the surface at the time, it’s fair to say that readers were expecting something more unbelievable, more exciting, more imaginative, more awesome than they’d ever seen before.
There was no need to worry, though, as Kirby always delivered the goods — in fact, giving his all was the only way he knew how to work. There’s been a long-circulating rumor/urban legend that Jack insisted-by-default on being given the Jimmy Olsen gig since he firmly believed that he could turn DC’s lowest-selling title into one of its biggest, and while I have no idea whether that’s true or not, he certainly arrived on the title with a bang, eager to revamp everything in sight in order to lay the groundwork for his Fourth World saga. Certainly if Kirby had been paying attention to what had been going on in this book’s pages before assuming its reigns it doesn’t show — he wiped the slate clean, immediately making his inherited “cub reporter” protagonist actually competent for the first time ever, and even putting him at odds, albeit briefly, with his super-powered best bud, as the cover plainly (if exaggeratedly) proclaims. Things were gonna be different from here on out, and this issue is a thunderous overture hinting at the scope of the grand cosmic symphony to come.
I still wonder how Kirby managed to pack so much into this slim comic — hot on the trail of a whispered-about “miracle car” that’s been seen around Metropolis, Jimmy meets the “new,” Guardian-free iteration of the famed Newsboy Legion, who may not have their costumed leader with them anymore (at least for now), but do have a new member in their ranks named Flippa Dippa, as well as the amazing “Whiz Wagon,” the staggeringly advanced land-air-sea vehicle that our ostensible hero has been searching for. Just one question — why are all the Newsboy kids the same age as they were back in their 1940s heyday? They claim to be direct blood descendants of the originals, but is that the whole story? In any case, when Jimmy tells them that he’d like the help of them and their “super car” to make the trek into a foreboding district just outside Metropolis known as the “Wild Area” the kids are all-in, hence this issue’s title, “Jimmy Olsen Superman’s Pal Brings Back The Newsboy Legion!”
Forget all that for a moment, though, as next we meet the scheming Morgan Edge, president of Galaxy Broadcasting and new owner of the Daily Planet, who oozes sleazy menace as he confers with Clark Kent for the first time. Edge is essentially Rupert Murdoch a good couple of decades before anyone outside of Australia knew that execrated name, and therefore stands as yet another example of Kirby’s amazing precognitive ability. It’s Edge who has assigned Jimmy with task of entering the Wild Area to make contact with its hippie-ish residents known only as the “Hairies,” and while Clark would like to go along to ensure his young friend’s safety, Edge will hear nothing of it since he has it on good authority that the “Hairies” don’t trust anyone over 25 years old. It’s when Clark leaves the office of his newly-ensconced “superior,” though, that things really start to get interesting —
Okay, fair enough, we all know that a “no” from Morgan Edge isn’t going to stop Superman from going where he wants to go and doing what he needs to do, but Kirby’s portrayal of Clark/Supes (re-drawn faces aside) is entirely different to anything we’ve seen before — this is a moody, introspective, and thoughtful Man of Steel, fundamentally lonely and with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a super-being well aware of his ability to do almost anything and openly and actively questioning the perhaps-outdated moral code that holds him back from making the world a better place on anything other than a “micro” scale. Kirby’s Superman saw a world in distress, fraying at the seams, further slipping into the insidious grasp of big business — and, like his author, he saw the surest signs of hope for the future in the emerging “peace and love” youth culture of the time. No one had written Superman like this before, and all of these various themes — and more — would be expounded upon by The King not only in the pages of this series, but in The Forever People, as well.
For his part, Edge’s interior monologue also reveals more about him than the “poker face” he kept while meeting Kent did — he has his own surreptitious reasons for wanting Jimmy to penetrate the “Wild Area,” and it all has something to do with the dictates of a shadowy underworld organization that he’s a part of known as Intergang, but it’s abundantly clear that even this group of malefactors is only a means to an end, and that they are pawns for another, larger power that’s positioning them on a grand, three-dimensional chessboard.
A series of confrontations with a biker gang on the outskirts of the “Wild Area” known as the “Outsiders” ensues — first Jimmy and the Newsboys take them on, and then when they win that skirmish and Jimmy is made their de facto “leader,” they take on Superman, who’s been tailing his protege — and while falling back on a chunk of Green Kryptonite to bring the second fight to a conclusion stands out for its utter predictability in comparison to the rest of the events taking place in this otherwise-breathtaking story, it’s a situation that Kirby reverses quickly enough, and when Superman wakes up, he, Jimmy, and the Newsboys quickly arrive at a surprisingly tentative truce, and we get out first look at the sprawling forest kingdom known as “Habitat,” a kind of “super-commune” at the very heart of the “Wild Area.” The visuals, in true Kirby fashion, are absolutely spectacular — so spectacular that not even Vince Colletta’s lazy, sloppy inks can fuck them up —and if you need any further evidence that the so-called “Boy From Kansas” ain’t in Kansas anymore, well, look no further than page page 20 :
I would argue that this splash image represents the first significant distillation of the artistic through-line that would inform the entire Fourth World opus : Kirby grand-scale epic visual storytelling wedded to the ideals and ethos of the so-called “flower power” generation. The cliffhanger to this issue — which sees Jimmy enlist his once-and-future best friend in his sure-to-be-perilous journey to something called the “Mountain Of Judgment,” which can only be accessed by means of a hidden drag-strip known as the “Zoomway” — hints that further wonders are to come, of course, but the tone of the epic-to-be has already been set : Jack Kirby, WWII veteran, keen and learned observer of humanity who still hadn’t lost his fundamental sense of optimism, was putting his faith in a better future future, and in the youth — the same shaggy, hairy, “drop-out,” “hippie” youth that so much of popular culture, including the comics, was openly demonizing every chance it could get — who were going to make that better future happen.
It didn’t all work out the way that Kirby hoped, of course — nor did the Fourth World itself, for reasons entirely beyond his control — but Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen#133 reflected the exuberance, idealism, and promise of its times. There have been better stories told in the funnybooks than this one (although not that many), but very few have been this significant, this heartfelt, this revolutionary. And Jack Kirby was only just getting started.
You’ve gotta hand it to Jack Kirby — if you or I had been toiling away in the comic-book industry for approximately four decades, only to have our major life’s work strangled in the proverbial crib, we would probably give up on the whole notion of the “sprawling cosmic epic” altogether and just stick with simple stand-alone stories, punctuated by the occasional two-or-three-parter, until it came time to hang up our pencils and call it a career. Who needs the disappointment of early cancellation all over again?
And yet, after the editorially-mandated quick demise of his Fourth World opus, The King’s non-stop imagination kept chugging away at the only speed it knew how to operate : full throttle. And while he kept creating new and innovative concepts and characters during the remainder of his tenure at DC (Kamandi, The Demon, OMAC), these were all essentially self-contained narratives that didn’t attempt to replicate the scope of his then-recently-scuttled saga. And yet, the siren call of the cosmos never fully let go —
When Kirby returned to Marvel at the tail end of 1975, he was ready to reach for the stars again, and while he would (apparently somewhat reluctantly) return to famous characters he’d created like Captain America and the Black Panther, the project that he was most excited about was his next “high-concept” science fiction masterpiece-in-the-making, originally entitled “The Celestials” and then “Return Of The Gods” before making its July, 1976 cover-dated debut as The Eternals.
Right off the bat in this first story, titled “The Day Of The Gods,” it’s clear that Kirby is playing a “long game” here : incorporating then-popular elements of the cultural zeitgeist such as the purported “sunken kingdoms” of Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu, and the like; mysterious “vanishing zones” such as the Bermuda Triangle; and, most especially, the “ancient astronauts” theories popularized by the dubious-at-best Erich Von Daniken, this debut issue is all about setting a vast and ambitious stage for itself encompassing not only all of human history, but the histories of two purported “sibling races,” as well — the genetically-and-morally-challenged Deviants, and the titular and quasi-godlike Eternals. Most of the principal characters we’d come to know over the course of the book’s run aren’t even introduced in these pages, so dense and complex is the task of “world-building” that Kirby has set for himself, but it almost doesn’t even matter in the scheme of things — this isn’t so much the “ground floor” of something big as it is its foundation. Sure, we get to meet Ikaris (albeit in his thinly-disguised “civilian identity” of Ike Harris) as well as archaeologist Doctor Damian and his fetching daughter/assistant, Margo, who would go on to become semi-important supporting players, but on the whole this is one big old info-dump.
Why, then, is it so endlessly fascinating and eminently readable, even after all these years?
A lot of it is down to Kirby’s genius pacing — despite its heavy reliance on Ikaris’ lengthy “here’s all you need to know before we begin” monologue, there is a clear and present danger hanging, Sword- of- Damocles-style, over the proceedings here, and before we even see a single Celestial (which doesn’t happen in this issue, in case you were wondering), the senses-shaking prospect of their imminent return is established as something larger and more profound than our mere mortal minds can process —and Kirby communicates it all with such vital urgency that there’s no mistaking the import of what’s about to happen, even if it doesn’t happen here. Seriously, though, I defy you not to be absolutely hooked on this comic by, oh, page four or five.
The art (masterfully aided and abetted by the heavy-but-faithful brush of John Verpoorten, for my money one of Kirby’s most underappreciated inkers) is absolutely killer, too — a heady stylistic mix of any number of various ancient cultures, particularly the Incas (who, along with the Aztecs, had long been a major influence on The King’s visual ethos), it nevertheless looks like something from several centuries into the future given its incorporation not only of all kinds of typically-awesome “Kirby Tech,” but of truly alien designs courtesy of the undersea realm of the Deviants. This may be a Marvel comic, sure, but it looks like something from a universe all its own — and indeed, such was Jack’s original intention, to the point that even when the company’s bean-counters handed down dictates to include guest appearances from The Thing and The Hulk, Kirby cleverly (and probably to the chagrin of said “superiors”) made certain they were only lame dopplegangers and not the “real” thing. After all, when you’re pouring this money concepts onto the page at once, tying yourself down to a pre-existing, inter-connected corporate “world” is only going to slow you down.
And if there’s one thing that this comic doesn’t do, even in this first issue that skirts the edges of “information overload,” it’s slow down — not even for a single second. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read it, then what are you waiting for? Do it before the much-hyped movie comes out and see where Marvel Studios’ latest billion-dollar idea came from. Hint : from the same place most of ’em did, one man’s limitless imagination.
Good vs. evil — at the end of the day, it’s what most stories boil down to. We live in a time when various age-old evils such as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and nationalism (among others) have re-branded themselves as QAnon, MAGA, America First, Oath Keepers, etc., but 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 age) — 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, Kirby 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 a life full of towering, brave, and singular achievements, The King probably 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 CaptainVictory 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 VictoryAnd 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 becomesit 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.
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.
Let’s keep on rolling and look at another of my absolute, all-time favorite stories The King ever did. This time up : 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 ultimate hard-luck heroes 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.
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 oh 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, damn 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.
A new year may be upon us, but we’re not quite done talking about last year here at Four Color Apocalypse. My next “best of” list takes a look at my picks for the Top 10 Vintage Collections of 2020, which is to say : books that collect material originally published prior to the year 2000, including Manga and Eurocomics. Let’s dive right in —
10. Atom Bomb And Other Stories By Wallace Wood (Fantagraphics) – One of the best volumes yet in the long-running EC Artists’ Library series collects the very best of the Wally Wood/Harvey Kurtzman collaborations from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, and as a special added bonus Wood’s strips with Archie Goodwin from Blazing Combat are included, as well. I love Marie Severin’s colors, to be sure, but this stuff has never looked better than it does here, in pristine black and white.
9. The Pits Of Hell By Ebisu Yoshikazu, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (Breakdown Press) – Grotesque, absurd, and darkly humorous to a degree that’s downright painful, Yoshikazu’s 1981 masterpiece takes the banalities of urban living to illogical extremes and gives no fucks as to who it offends along the way. A strong contender for the most subversive and outrageous book of the year.
8. Stuck Rubbery Baby 25th Anniversary Edition By Howard Cruse (First Second) – The autobiographical (for the most part) magnum opus by the late, great Cruse is more than just one of the great masterworks of LGBTQ comics and literature, it’s an important chronicle of a movement and an era, and a testament to the fact that “coming of age” lasts a lifetime. Arguably the most accomplished and pivotal graphic novel of the 1990s is as relevant today as it ever was.
7. Jack Kirby’s Dingbat Love By Jack Kirby, Edited By John Morrow (TwoMorrows) – Collecting unpublished works by The King Of Comics originally produced during his early-’70s DC stint, there are no capes or tights to be found in the pages of True-Life Divorce, Soul Love, or the further adventures of the Dingbats Of Danger Street, but they all prove beyond a doubt that it was the humanity of Kirby’s work that was always its defining feature. Editor Morrow has gone above and beyond here, though, by including a wealth of scholarly essays, personal reminiscences, and early-stages art pages, as well, making this not just a “must-have” item for Kirby fans, but an indispensable historical artifact.
6. Perramus : The City And Oblivion By Alberto Breccia And Juan Sasturain (Fantagraphics) – Epic in scope yet never anything less than intensely personal, the latest volume in The Alberto Breccia Library is a hard-edged dystopian political thriller that accurately and acutely reflected the tensions and fears of life under the Argentinian military dictatorship its authors were subjected to. This is comics as a righteous act of resistance.
5. The Sky Is Blue With A Single Cloud By Kuniko Tsurita, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (Drawn+Quarterly) – Collecting the very best stories from Tsurita’s remarkable career, this book is, on the one hand, a tribute to a pioneering female Manga artist, but on the other, at least to English-speaking audiences, it’s a revelation. Delicate, surreal, and lyrical, these tales run the gamut from first-person accounts of Tokyo’s 1960s/70s Bohemian subculture to explorations of gender identity to harrowing works informed by the artist’s own fragile health. This is a collection that will stick with you forever.
4. From Hell Master Edition By Alan Moore And Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf) – A lot of people thought the addition of color to Moore and Campbell’s conspiratorial Jack The Ripper epic would ruin the whole thing, but they needn’t have worried : Campbell colored it himself, after all, and rather than subsume his line art, he found a way to complement it. I guess I’ll always prefer it in black and white, sure, but any excuse to re-visit this dense and intricate deconstruction of both Victorian England and the 20th Century is a welcome one.
3. The Man Without Talent By Yoshiharu Tsuge, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (New York Review Comics) – A standout in the history of autobiographical Manga, Tsuge’s unvarnished portrayal of himself as a habitual loser with no hope of changing his ways is both disarming and heartfelt — as well as remarkably raw, even for those of us well-accustomed to “warts and all” autobio and memoir. They saw “write what you know” — well, this is a case of writing and drawing what you know all too well, and turning it into a singularly powerful reading experience.
2. The Complete Hate By Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics) – It seems “Generation X’ will never die, but in point of fact Bagge, who wasn’t even a part of said generation, understood it better than any artist working in any medium. It wasn’t all “grunge” rock and postponing the responsibilities of adulthood — the lethargy, the casual disillusionment with everything, the fucked-up relationships — these are are all present and accounted for here in honest, and honestly hilarious, detail, as well. And the accidental stumbling into their 30s and 40s of Buddy Bradley, family, and friends makes for an astonishingly complete record of a series of fictitious lives that are among the most “real” in the history of the comics medium.
1. Gross Exaggerations : The Meshuga Comic Strips Of Milt Gross By Milt Gross, Edited By Peter Maresca (Sunday Press) – Not only do slapstick humor strips get no better than this, comic strips in general get no better than these meticulously-reproduced selections of Nize Baby, Dave’s Delicatessen, and Count Screwloose Of Tooloose. Sunday Press is setting the standard for vintage newspaper strip reprints, and this gorgeous collection of uniquely Yiddish comedy is not only their best book to date, it’s an object you will treasure forever.
Okay, that’s four lists down, with two lists still remaining. Next up : 2020’s Top 10 Contemporary Collections!
Review wrist check – Tsao Baltimore “Torsk Diver” green dial model, riding an Ocean Crawler orange and black NATO strap.
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Another day, another year-end “top ten” list. This time out is the year’s best vintage collected editions, in this case “vintage” meaning that the books in question collect works originally published prior to the year 2000. One of these years I suppose I should push that “cut-off date” up a bit, but for now, we’ll play it as it lays. And so, without further ado —
10. Alay-Oop By William Gropper (New York Review Comics) – Arguably the first graphic novel ever published, Gropper’s 1930 wordless morality play/love triangle drama is a tour de force of fluid visual storytelling, and the fact that it’s now available for contemporary audiences to re-discover is nothing short of a miracle.
9. That Miyoko Asagaya Feeling By Shinichi Abe (Black Hook Press) – A trailblazer in the field of autobio Manga, Abe’s early-1970s GARO strips are a moving testament to the power of inspiration and obsession, an exploration of the fine line between the two, and a fascinating historical record of a Tokyo Bohemian subculture that by and large no longer exists.
8. Ink & Anguish : A Jay Lynch Anthology By Jay Lynch With Ed Piskor And Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) – An exhaustive collection of the late, great underground legend’s works that’s as poignant as it is funny, sure — but also eerily prescient in many respects. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and that’s a damn shame.
7. Return To Romance : The Strange Loves Stories Of Ogden Whitney Edited By Dan Nadel And Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – Love is a battlefield, sure, but in Whitney’s 1950s romance comics that battlefield is psychological, with women constantly battling their dueling inclinations toward freedom and domesticity, with the former leading to heartbreak, the latter to happiness. Exploding every one of the genre’s sexist tropes by taking them to their logical extremes, this is visionary stuff cleverly disguised as status quo reinforcement.
6. Tale Of The Beast By Tadao Tsuge (Black Hook Press) – The first English-language edition of Tsuge’s 1987 hard-boiled Manga noir is a visceral revelation that eschews typical “whodunnit?” structuring by showing us the guilty culprit from the outset — yet it never fails to surprise at every turn. A visual and narrative marvel that oozes darkness and menace from every panel.
5. In The Wilderness By Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics Underground) – Before creating his stand-in (okay, sometime stand-in) character of Tad Martin, Frankenstein was churning out these late-1980s/early-1990s autobio strips that are imbued with such direct immediacy that the act of committing them to paper feels and reads more like an exorcism than anything else. DIY comics before the term was known, these stories breathe a kind of fire that time and distance can’t diminish.
4. Absolute Swamp Thing By Alan Moore Volume One By Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Shawn McManus, And Dan Day (DC/Vertigo) – This long-awaited deluxe presentation of one of the transformative works in the history of the medium is every bit as gorgeous as anyone could hope for, but I really wish DC (and some other publishers, to be fair) would get over this whole urge to re-color everything. Granted, if you’re gonna go the computer coloring route, Steve Oliff is the best there is, was, or will ever be — but rich and textured as his work here is, it still buries a lot of the detail in the inks that showed through in Tatjana Wood’s original hand-done colors, and there was absolutely no compelling reason to cast aside her terrific work, which frankly would really shine in this slick, oversized format. That being said — this is still a “must-own” book, and re-visiting this material never fails to yield new surprises and deepen one’s appreciation for its revolutionary approach to mainstream horror comics.
3. Walt And Skeezix : 1933 – 1934 By Frank King (Drawn+Quarterly) – Every volume in this wonderfully-restored chronological reprinting of Gasoline Alley has been sublime, but for my money this eighth installment in the series represents the period when King was absolutely firing on all cylinders. I think a lot of people probably owed their very survival during the Great Depression to this charmingly transcendent comic.
2. Doll By Guy Colwell (Fantagraphics Underground) – One of the overlooked gems in the history of the medium and arguably one of the last true undergrounds, Colwell’s late-1980s series remains perhaps the most smart and sensitive “sex comic” ever produced on this side of the Atlantic, his story not only accurately predicting the arrival of the “Real Doll” (Google it if you must), but addressing issues ranging from toxic masculinity to misogyny to female objectification and dehumanization at a time when many of his peers were still trading in all that crap for cheap laughs. Having this collected between two covers, with its gorgeous art reproduced at a generous size, is cause for genuine celebration.
1. DC Universe : The Bronze Age Omnibus By Jack Kirby (DC) – I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the “omnibus” format, generally finding it to be unwieldy in the extreme, but come on — who are we kidding? When you’ve got all of Kirby’s The Demon, The Losers, and OMAC collected together in one book, plus all kinds of one-offs and collaborations ranging from Dingbats Of Danger Street to Super Powers ? This one’s gonna win the top spot even if the damn thing weighs as much as a small child.
Next up we’ll do the year’s top ten contemporary collections, but until then please do your humble list-maker a favor and consider supporting my ongoing work by subscribing to my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse