24 Jun 2009

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

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, here for Part 2 and here for Part 3.

Kirby’s return to Marvel was trumpeted loudly in the pages of FOOM #11. FOOM (short for ‘Friends Of O’ Marvel) was the Marvel house magazine that resembled the various fanzines of the day, featuring a mixture of articles, coming attractions and the bombastic promotion of their titles that Stan Lee was by now famous for. Jack would be returning to the pages of Captain America and be responsible for a Treasury Size (a very large format slab of a comic that proved impossible to store anywhere) adaptation of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He would also be working on another SF series that was to become Eternals.

Marvel fans were of course excited at the prospect of the prodigal son returning home, but many of them failed to notice certain ominous words in the interview with Jack in FOOM #11 when he made it clear that his run would be Captain America the way Captain America was supposed to be. What did he mean by that? Marvel’s output had changed significantly since Jack had left for DC. A new wave of younger writers had taken over from the Stan Lee/Roy Thomas partnership, and they had introduced a level of character development and soul searching that was in keeping with the turbulent times. Captain America in particular had gone through some important changes in what was seen at the time to be a quality run from circa #161 to #192. At the tail end of Watergate, Steve Rogers had discovered that the enemies he had been fighting were entrenched in the ‘highest offices’ of the White House. Embittered and disillusioned, he discarded his Captain America identity to become the Nomad (‘The Man Without a Country’). He fought Marvel’s most crazed and nihilistic super villain - Madame Hydra/The Viper – her new personality influenced very much by the Baader-Meinhof women, in a set piece siege that I believe was the first time Marvel had portrayed a realistically deranged villain (as opposed to the ‘comical Nazis’ approach of Red Skull stories in the Sixt
ies). Worse still for Steve, the Falcon had gone from questioning his role in light of the Black Power movements of the early Seventies to discovering he was a brainwashed minion of the Red Skull – a sleeper agent (a clever retcon of the Falcon’s earlier origin that worked as a piece of revisionist writing), planted with false memories and identity, to kill Rogers at an appointed time. It was a dark period for Cap, reflecting the confusion felt by the US and much of the Western World in the wake of Vietnam. Jack returned to the pages of Captain America in the middle of some important story arcs... and promptly ignored them all.

Overnight, several years’ worth of character progression and intelligent plots were discarded, ignored and forgotten. They weren’t simply retconned, they were treated as if they had never existed in the first place. Suddenly Cap and the Falcon were effectively Batman and Robin from the early to mid-Sixties – clean, wholesome, simple, full of truth, justice and mom’s apple pie. They probably drank glasses of milk. Fans who had enjoyed the previous thirty issues thought, ‘what the fuck?’

When Jack had moved to DC he had been at pains to ensure that he took over a title (Jimmy Olsen) that wouldn’t see him treading on anyone’s toes. But by taking over Captain America, he was interrupting and radically changing an ongoing title that had become a fan favourite, sweeping away a creative team that had earned a lot of respect. This wasn’t a good way to start. Feathers were indeed ruffled.

Jack’s opening story was The Mad Bomb saga – intended to run up to the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. It consisted of the (by now) familiar Kirby writing style – signified by flamboyant and ridiculous concepts that were of course entertaining but lacked any real depth or substance. Many of the plots and characters could have been equally at home in the pages of Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen run.

And there was another major problem. Kirby appeared to want nothing to do with the Marvel Universe. Marvel owed much of its success to trading heavily on the interconnectivity of its titles. The shared universe concept meant that Marvel’s titles all referenced one another and drew from a pool of familiar super villains. Jack wanted nothing to do with the established stable of characters and concepts, preferring to create wholly original material. Fans liked a certain level of familiarity in their comics and they began to voice their disapproval that Captain America seemed to inhabit a secluded world of its own. When Jack did (grudgingly) incorporate SHIELD into his run, the organisation was unrecognisable. The agents appeared to resemble ordinary New York cops armed with rifles. The letter pages quickly filled with complaints from fans who wanted the soul searching pre-Kirby plots to be reinstated and from other fans who wanted recognisable Marvel super villains to appear. Perhaps in response to the latter complaints, Kirby was ‘encouraged’ to include the Red Skull in his post Mad Bomb story line. Eventually, after a relatively short run on the title, Jack was replaced.

It has been suggested that Kirby’s stubborn refusal to integrate the existing Marvel Universe into his work contributed heavily to his failure to sell books. He had followed a similar approach during his years at DC, but at least then he had the excuse that he'd been hired to do just that – come up with new concepts because DC didn’t have any continuity worth speaking of. Now with Marvel he was effectively turning his back on the house he had co-created in the Sixties.

Jack’s other two books further added to the belief that he didn’t want to play with anyone else’s football. 2001: A Space Odyssey became a (short-lived) ongoing title that frustrated fans because it essentially told the same story each and every month. Readers would be introduced to a two-dimensional character who, in the course of a single issue, encounters the Monolith and is turned into a Star Child. Jack simply repeated the formula over and over again. Is this going anywhere, fans demanded to know? Have patience, came the reply in the letter column – Jack has a plan. But after ten issues the comic was cancelled.

For those people who didn’t like the cosmic SF elements of the Fourth World titles, the launch of Eternals must have been a reminder of Jack’s DC work. Here was another epic saga of Space Gods, this time inspired by Erich von Däniken’s extremely popular book, Chariots Of The Gods, that through various dubious photographs and meaningless semi-archaeological mumbo jumbo postulated that the Aztec/Incan ruins were evidence of alien races having visited Earth, where they were worshipped as Gods. It was a ‘crop circles’ phenomenon for the
Seventies. Once again, Kirby wanted nothing to do with the established Marvel Universe. Only when sales were bad was he forced to include a robot version of the Hulk in one of his stories to try to save the book. It didn’t, and Eternals was cancelled after #19.

Rather more successfully, Kirby was tasked with creating covers for a wide range of Marvel books, and here his dynamic art style and visual imagination worked at full strength, producing many eye-catching designs for the spinner racks.

It seemed to be that history was repeating itself. Jack had been given full autonomy and once again all his titles had tanked. DC had responded by believing the second wave of Kirby titles would do better. Now Marvel followed the same suit. Jack would create some new titles, and hopefully these ones would prove popular.

Next: Black Panther, Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man.


Matt Clark said...

Although I can understand fans of the time reacting to the dramatic change in tone of Captain America et al, looking back at those books now - even with their flaws - they're still quite astounding with their madcap ideas (Hitler's brain!) and artwork so full of energy that it seems to be barely contained by the panels.

The Cap Treasury Edition in particular was terrific.

boo said...

good gravy! - as a one time 'star child' myself, i personally can't help but adore the feeling of basking in the stellar glory of my favourite run of comics ever: kirby's 2001 tales. maybe the theme is repeated somewhat, but that's because it's a damn good theme - kirby obviously had something to say about human evolution, and he wasn't going to let up until we were all gurgling and bloated from the force fed message. i've never felt more resplendent... nowhere else in comics does human existence get so concisely wrapped up in a nutshell than within the pages of kirby's 2001, and certainly not with the velocity and cosmic bravado he displays.(issue 7 in particular) to have such lofty ideas conveyed in such humble naive tones is endearing to the point of jismic tears. in my top 3 runs of comix ever, is also the invisibles which treads similar ground of course, but in a much more confused and convoluted way than jack's glorious one dose 'scienti-pellet'....may the framed issues of 2001 tales on my wall never fade. go easy on 'solomon's frog' in the next installment boss...

Anonymous said...

I should perhaps point out, because it doesn't necessarily come across in the 5 part article, that I'm a big fan of Kirby - including his controversial '70s phase. I did however put my own preferences aside in writing the piece to concentrate more on how the comics were received at the time, as opposed to saying “I think he's great”. By today's standards, it's remarkable how many harshly negative letters were published by Marvel and DC in the letter cols. Kirby was my favourite artist when I was a kid (the older lads at school all preferred Neal Adams) and I lapped up his bizarre concepts during the early to mid '70s (I began reading comics just as the Fourth World series was on its last legs, to put the dates in perspective) and I couldn't understand why so many people were angry about what he was doing. In hindsight I can see why slightly older readers thought the books were old fashioned, but I can also see what they were missing. The important thing to bear in mind about Jack is how his creations have lived on and become central parts of Marvel and DC mythology. He was a great 'dynamic' artist and a superb creator. - Rob N

boo said...

go comix!