The Comic Book King, Part 6


Jack Kirby is the undisputed monarch of the comic book field, considered to be both a star of the Golden Age of comics as well as the Marvel Age of comics. In the early 1970s, Kirby moved from New York to California, leaving Marvel for DC Comics and the promise of an ambitious new project of his, The Fourth World. That bright new concept, spanning out over four comic titles (The New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen) was prematurely nipped in the bud despite critical acclaim. The New Gods and Forever People were canceled after eleven issues to make room for what publisher Carmine Infantino hoped would be more commercial fare, Jack Kirby's Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth and The Demon.

Kamandi (which had its origins in Jack's 1956 syndicated attempt, Kamandi of the Caves) featured the story of a human boy struggling to survive in a future world dominated by intelligent animals (a theme uncomfortably close to Planet of the Apes).

Debuting in November 1972, the title had a better track run than the Fourth World series --it lasted 40 issues, but although it may have appealed to younger readers, objectively one can only conclude that the title, with its fairly predictable plots, was one of Kirby's lesser efforts. It particularly suffered in comparison to the likes of Frank Miller's Daredevil and Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, both which were coming out at about that time. (Currently Bruce Timm, producer of the Batman Beyond animated series, has hopes of bringing Kamandi to television and is looking at the possibility of doing a pilot for Cartoon Network.)

The Demon, which debuted in September 1972, was a more interesting series, a blend of horror and adventure, featuring the story of a mystic, Jason Blood, who shared his body with a demon, Etrigan-- a supernatural variation on The Hulk. The title would only last sixteen issues but was resurrected in a four issue mini-series scripted by Matt Wagner and then, in 1990, in a long-running series with scripts by Garth Ennis and Alan Grant. Periodically The Demon also appears in various Vertigo titles.

OMAC ("One Man Army Corps") was a third new title, and far richer in ideas. Buddy Blank, a scrawny nobody, is recruited by a secret "Peace Agency" and is given super powers by means of a linkage to an orbiting Artificial Intelligence, "Brother Eye." Science fiction was always one of Kirby's interests and although his theme of crime exploiting robotics had interesting possibilities, the book was allowed to expire with its eighth issue, in December 1975.

At that point Kirby had become considerably disillusioned while working at DC, but was under contract and obligated to spin out books. One of them was a revival of Gardner Fox's Sandman, which originally debuted in New York World's Fair 1939 (a collector's item now valued at $24,000 in near-mint condition). Initially Sandman (which was scripted by Joe Simon) was considered to be "hot" by retailers who stockpiled many more copies than they could hope to sell. As a collector's item the Kirby Sandman may only be of interest to completists because it marks his last collaboration with the man who helped create Captain America. Later the series was resurrected and brilliantly handled by another comics giant, Neil Gaiman, who promptly revealed that the Kirby/Simon Sandman was a deluded fraud, introducing his own Lord of Dreams.

After creating a few more DC titles (The Losers, Dingbats of Danger Street, Kobra), Kirby returned to Marvel in what was to be his last stint at that company. Back once more on Captain America, Kirby also revived The Black Panther,produced 2001: A Space Odyssey,Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, and took another stab at Fourth World concepts with his The Eternals.

The Eternals, a short-lived but memorable series, posits two unknown species sharing the Earth with homo sapiens; on one hand, the Eternals, an immortal and wise race; on the other, a bitter and genetically unstable race of grotesques, the Deviants, set on world domination. Complicating matters, all three races are threatened by inscrutable, god-like beings, the Celestials, whose motives are unknown. The Eternals represent Jack's last hurrah at cosmic drama, but like too many of his projects in the mid-seventies, had a short run of only nineteen issues. (An Eternals 64 page one-shot, The New Eternals: Apocalypse Now!, was published in December 1999.)

By the early 1980s, Kirby briefly left the comics field for the world of animation, creating material for Ruby-Spears (Thundarr), Hanna-Barbera, and Walt Disney. In the fall of 1981, he returned to comics with Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star for Pacific Comics, one of the first of the new companies to take a dip in the direct sales market (sinking into bankruptcy in 1983).

Kirby also lent his talents to another new company, Eclipse, in order to aid comics writer Steve Gerber in his legal battle to retain the rights to his creation, Howard the Duck. Eclipse (founded by Dean Mullaney in 1978) published Gerber's Destroyer Duck, illustrated by Kirby. Profits from the book, featuring an enraged waterfowl fighting corporate America, was a direct slap at the policies of the Big Two comic companies, and profits from its sales went to Gerber, who eventually won his battle (and optioned Howard the Duck to George Lucas --I liked the movie, but most people thought it was more turkey than duck).

Jack Kirby had every reason to be involved in a battle for creators' rights; he had created over 13,000 pages of art for Marvel and was unable to obtain any of his originals -- pages that were finding their way into the collectors' market and selling for high prices. By the 1980s, under editor Jim Shooter's more enlightened reign, it was easy for most freelancers to get their art back by signing a simple release form. Kirby's release form, on the other hand, was more a massive document that, in effect, stripped him of various rights, including the right to sue. Kirby refused to sign, resulting in a deadlock.

In February 1986, Gary Groth's Comics Journal detailed Kirby's legal battle and response from fans and pros alike were overwhelmingly in Jack's favor. For years thereafter Jack Kirby became a symbol of the plight of the freelancing "work for hire" creator, a person who had creatively and financially helped launch Marvel, but who was powerless against the upper-management bean-counters.

This story has no happy ending. When Kirby passed away in 1994, at the age of 77, the issue still hadn't been settled to his satisfaction. But to generations of fans and professionals, Jack Kirby will always be the man who led his readers into realms of wonder, truly the comic book "King."
 

--Steve Stiles