10 Jun 2009

Four-Colour Yesteryears: The 'Third Age' Of Jack Kirby, Part III

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

By Rob N

Click here for Part 1. Click here for Part 2.

With the commercial failure and abrupt cancellation of the Fourth World titles hanging over his head, Kirby was now under pressure to prove himself at DC and deliver some unequivocal ‘hits’. He had been given his chance to create anything he wanted, on the assumption that anything Kirby created would be massive, sales wise, but now Carmine Infantino was clearer about what he wanted: sales success like Marvel.

Some of Kirby’s early suggestions were extremely left field, and hardly what you’d expect from the man who had created the Silver Surfer.

True Divorce Cases was a B&W comic book that Jack proposed (and mocked up a first issue) to appeal to the sort of readers who bought Harlequin romance titles. Carmine was far from thrilled at the prospect, but when DC saw one story in the comic that starred a black couple, they suddenly became interested in the possibility of an all black anthology title. This idea swiftly grew to become a B&W comic magazine entitled Soul Love. Jack felt very uncomfortable being a middle-aged white Jew being charged with editing a magazine designed to appeal to the young Black Power generation of the early Seventies. He felt (and rightly so) that DC should really offer the job to black writers and artists. In the end the project died before a first issue could hit the newsstands. It didn’t help that National assigned the infamous Vince Colletta to tone down the ethnic features in the faces of Jack’s black characters and make them all look like Sidney Poitier (and all the women look like Diahann Carroll). Not the sort of thing that would appeal to fans of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes or followers of Malcolm X.

Jack pitched ideas at Carmine on a regular basis. He wanted to do a Dracula book starring the vampire in different time periods (Carmine declined). He wanted to buy the rights to Doc Savage (Carmine said no). Shortly after, Marvel published both of those characters. Kirby suggested (possibly not too seriously) a title called Uncle Carmine's Fat City Comix (along the line of the underground comix scene from the late Sixties). Carmine’s reaction sadly isn’t documented.

One of the things that was interesting about Jack was that he had very little preference as to which genre he worked in. He thought certain kinds of books were more commercial at certain times and, of course, he preferred to do a commercial book... something that would sell. But if you put that consideration aside, he didn't care that much if he was doing a Western or a war book or a love book. It was like a personal challenge to him to do something special with every project. So it was no hardship on him to do a crime book or a love book. It was like, ‘Okay, DC wants a ghost book... I'll give 'em the best possible ghost book I can do.’

– Mark Evanier (interview)

He even proposed a comics tabloid called Superworld which would be an arts magazine with a mix of film, television, dance, and theatre coverage, plus a large comics section. Mark Evanier worked alongside Jack Kirby during his DC years and remembered this proposal well:

One of the problems Jack had was, the way he talked, people often didn't understand what he pitched them. When he started talking about an idea, he went off in all directions at once, skipping over the basics, almost daring the listener to keep up with him. His style was not always conducive to conveying what he envisioned. Still, he was so hot on this idea that no one seemed to understand so he said, ‘Let's show it to them! Let's do a mock-up of this book!’

– Mark Evanier (interview)

About the only concept Jack didn’t pitch to Carmine was Monkey Tennis.

Back to more conventional material, DC (like Marvel) was keen to diversify away from the superhero obsessed Sixties into familiar genre areas such as Horror, Westerns, SF, Fantasy and Crime. The early 1970s saw an acceleration in publishing of non-superhero related titles (a subject that deserves and will get its own article on this blog at a later date) – most of which failed, despite the quality of the talent involved.

With some prodding from Carmine, Kirby launched new titles in 1972: Kamandi and The Demon. Kamandi (subtitled The Last Boy On Earth) was obviously inspired by Planet of the Apes (in turn an adaptation of the book, La Plan├Ęte des Singes, by Pierre Boulle) that featured a familiar early ‘70s apocalyptic dystopia (apocalyptic dystopias were huge in the 1967 to 1974 period of SF – they turned student bookshelves into radiation scarred wastelands where little else seemed to thrive!) where human beings had reverted to the status of beasts and intelligent animals now ruled the world. The central character, Kamandi, had grown up inside a bunker complex protected from the outside world and, through various plot devices, is forced to explore the new society after his home is destroyed.

The Demon was a supernatural title involving an immortal mystic, Jason Blood, who shared his body with a flamboyant demon called Etrigan (a character concept later revived successfully by Alan Moore in the pages of Swamp Thing).

Both titles demonstrated Kirby’s inarguable flair for invention and dynamic art, but again suffered from his outdated dialogue and inability to develop character progression. The Demon didn’t last much longer than the Fourth World titles, though Kamandi proved popular enough to outlive Kirby eventually leaving the book after 40 issues. But even so, the title was never in the league of Batman or Superman (or in fact any of the comics Kirby had created for Marvel). Where to next, Carmine cried?

OMAC (‘One Man Army Corps’) was set in a near future utopia, where the world was so happy and content and unified it didn’t bother with standing armies, but instead had a small Peace Agency to combat Blofeld like threats. Buddy Blank (a Steve Rogers like figure) became a super-powered champion of world peace by downloading his powers from an orbiting satellite called Brother Eye. Kirby returned to his practice of creating single-issue, ridiculous (but entertaining) SF concepts and characters, much as he did in the Fourth World titles. But OMAC died a death after only eight issues. By now it was becoming apparent that just about everything Kirby proposed either failed or was turned down before it could even see print.

Fans sat up and took notice when Kirby collaborated with his old Golden Age partner, Joe Simon, in creating a new Sandman character (later retconned by Neil Gaiman in his Vertigo title, Sandman). The first issue had large orders, thanks to dealers thinking it might be a good investment, but most copies remained unsold and later issues seriously under performed. The title never reached double figures.

Still under contract, Jack’s final years at DC must have been awkward. No longer was he even afforded the dignity of a series launch. The best he got was the opportunity to pitch new ideas in 1st Issue Special – a ‘try out’ title that featured a pilot proposal for a new series each month. The theory being that if an issue sold well, and fans liked the concept, DC might launch a series on the back of it. Kirby tried concept after concept: Atlas, Manhunter, and Dingbats of Danger Street (yes, really) and each one met the same fate of being shelved as quickly as the trial issue hit the newsstands.

Allegedly Kirby did have the option of renewing his contract (though on what terms, we can only speculate) with DC when it expired, but he chose not to do so. Marvel was keen to have him back and, disillusioned with the way DC had cancelled pretty much everything he had pitched, Jack was ready and willing to return to the company that had made him a star.

It had been a difficult few years at DC, but all that was behind him now. After all, Marvel WAS Jack Kirby. Returning to the House of Ideas was a move that couldn’t possibly fail, could it? Not only would he be writing and drawing Captain America, but he had a new cosmic concept called The Eternals that he just knew Marvel fans would love…


Next in part 4: The King of comics returns to Marvel!

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