Category Archives: Topps Comics

THE KIRBYVERSE! AN UNLIKELY SEQUEL TO THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK BY DARRY WEIGHT

“…a bunch of guys trying to get into Hell but the Devil won’t let ‘em, ‘cause they’re not all bad. So they try to go out and do bad things, which turn out to be good!”

That is Jack Kirby (on March 14, 1993) speaking about his new series, Satan’s Six. Not that there is any problem attributing that quote. Who else but the King of Comics could sell a premise like that? For more on that particular series see Emily Scott’s article focusing on these “rejects from Hades… because they couldn’t do anything bad!” This is “Indie Month,” so let us discuss the rest of the line that proved to be the last major work from the medium’s greatest creator and the chrome-foiled cards that came packaged with it.

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Can you tell this came out during the Gimmick Era? If you cannot then look agai- Wait, what…?
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THEY COINED THE TERM! I already respect this comic line more than the New 52.

This is one of the few occasions such synergistic marketing made sense, as the publisher was Topps, the trading card company, still in business today years after “Fleer” and “SkyBox” went the way of the Hologram Card. I was confused after learning that the King’s long reign ended at this company, but that was his greatest gift, always leaving the reader with no idea what would happen next.

Jack Kirby passed away in 1994. I imagine it was not just The New Gods’ Black Racer that greeted him but all of his characters, lined up to send off their curmudgeonly father figure. You have seen the movies, you have bought the toys. You know his work even if you have never seen it before. If you found this blog by accident and have decided to stick around, you probably have at least one friend who corrects you when you say, “Stan Lee created all of these characters, right?”

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“Look at Mr. Smiles over here. Where’s your wife, old man? What a Class A pre-vert.”

After years of toiling away for everyone else, Jack made his move. Topps Comics was the new guy on the scene, during the height of the comics boom, and they wanted to see what designs and characters the King had squirreled away during the years that came after he realized Marvel and DC were never going to cut him in on the real action. You may remember this tactic as exactly what is happening right now, more than two decades later. Every time you read Avengers or X-Men and realize that it has been a while since you have seen anything truly new, jot down the date and look at what that same creator had coming out from a company where they took home the rights to the books. I imagine the headspace was the same.

What did Topps get to spend all of that hard earned trading card money on? The Secret City Saga! The sprawling, four-colored epic that would usher in the next era of superhero comics. Or at least that is what everyone hoped. The end product itself is remarkable but not for the reasons it should be. Comprising a five issue mini-series (beginning with a #0, which I imagine someone had to explain to Jack without coming across as Funky Flashman) and three one-shots, each of which introduced a new character of Jack’s own design, the saga is one complete story with the promise of more that, technically, never came. Kurt “Maximum Security” Busiek (because of that book I own every single Marvel issue from December 2000) attempted a few follow-ups including, “in the tradition of the X-Men,” the “TeenAgents” and Dynamite’s “Kirby Genesis” from a few years back.

The original issues boast talent on an unprecedented scale. Though the designs (and most importantly the copyrights) are Jack’s, the first thing you see is Walt Simonson’s cover for the inaugural issue. He is joined by Roy Thomas’ script and Steve Ditko’s pencils. They were not just successors in the industry that were honoring the work of their hero but were Jack’s peers getting another shot at storytelling in the way they knew how, an oasis amidst the grime n’ grit that we all recall fondly. Even the next generation gets in on the action with the daughters of Marvel Bullpen regulars Artie Simek and Sol Brodsky showing up in the credits. This thing reads as if it were a pitch for a series about the Third Act of the greatest creators from the Age of Marvel Comics that are not Stan Lee. Even “The Man’s” presence was felt in the form of Jim Salicrup, the series’ editor, doing his best Stan impression on every non-story page. Have to fill those pages somehow and there certainly were no outside advertisers in these things. Plenty of house ads though (I may hunt down Jurassic Park before I watch Star-Lord take down Devil Dinosaur next Summer).

So why did it fail so miserably?

To say that the Secret City Saga detonated on the launch pad would not be fair, but when the first character we meet in 1993’s Bombast #1 is a black teenage junkie running from “The Crack Man,” you can see why this does not appear on anyone’s Top Ten Lists for the decade in question (not that it has ever been collected). He is joined by the manipulative, careerist newscaster, one of two female characters, and the heroes themselves, who are as white (and in at least one case, as blonde) as any of their European descended super-peers, regardless of the fact that they are from Chicago 15,000 years ago (a fact we are reminded of again and again in case that is something you are likely to forget). Glimmers of what could have been show through with Glida, the Nightglider, drawn and dressed more practically than her peers at any other company at the time.

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Not “The Crack Man” but I am pretty sure someone grabbed one of the reimagined NFL designs Jack did in the seventies. At least I hope they did.

Here is where the reach of the King is felt. I am not sure where the line between Thomas and Jack’s contributions is, but some of the ideas feel quite familiar. Every fifteen millennia the Human Race is replaced. We men of today are the Tenth Men and the superpeople of the story are of our forebears, the Ninth Men. No civilization yet has been spared the ravages of “The Darkstorm,” but the last one at least tried to save whatever came after. Without getting too muddled in the nonsense, the Greatest Military Heroes and the Finest Scientific Minds were sequestered away, in a Secret City built far beneath what is now Chicago, to wait for the next inevitable collapse. Big ideas, sprawling across the page, with more new characters and gimmicks than you even realize upon first read? That’s Jack Kirby. This story sits on my shelf next to “The Fourth World” and “The Eternals” where it feels right at home. There is a sense of grandeur, a broadening of scope, on display here that most superhero stories simply do not bother with (either because their creators cannot or will not for fear of leaving us poor readers behind). To explain what I mean, I should begin with my entry point, Captain Glory.

Captain Keltan was an epic warrior of the Last Age. He fought “The Primitives” (by which I think he means whatever we are descended from) and won Glorious Battles! He was, as the Ben Grimm-esque Bombast keeps reminding him, a Commissioned Officer, and so a little of the Lower East Side kid bleeds through once again. Keltan means “glory” in the sing-song language of our garishly garbed antecedents. This is also the name the aforementioned newscaster christens him with. Such discrepancies, the origins of the characters’ names and what exactly they are trying to accomplish in the modern world, are commonplace. I am not sure how tight a ship was being run, but Topps Comics did not survive the nineties, so that may have something to do with it. Keltan is the type of Captain America figure that Jack has been peddling since the forties, and that is not a bad thing. Keltan wants what he wants and that is the best for everyone no matter what the personal cost. He understands the burden of leadership and of wearing that sweet freakin’ mask.

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If this image had not been the cover to a Jack Kirby Collector magazine I would think that someone had just penciled over an old Captain America cover.

The Ninth Men’s principal city-state was Gazra, a wonderland in complete harmony with the natural world, though in relative isolation. This is not the case for all of the Other Previous Men, some of whom were far more advanced than us. Jack always reminded us how small we can be and how to strive for more. This particular ancient civilization had no time for mechanical or artificial structures. They did just fine without them, providing ongoing conflict when the heroes are thrust into the Modern World. They did have vibrant, beautiful colors that we apparently shun. The type of bold, primary colors that only seem to work in the world of comic book superheroes (even their movie counterparts never seem so bright by comparison).

Glory is a man who is, just about, the last survivor of a way of life everyone he meets from here on in will never understand. He dresses as if he were wrapped in a nation’s flag, its ideals and hopes. He is the best of what was, and even the tone of his voice is enough to sway characters who cannot understand him to his cause. He even has incredible “super” strength from all that time spent in “genetic hibernation.” Jack may not have had the chance to really develop Superman while he was working at DC but some of what he could have done seems to have made its way here. One of the interesting storytelling devices used is that the three main characters never learn English. There is no throwaway line about why the language barrier has been breached nor is it merely ignored altogether. It is acknowledged and dealt with in some creative ways. The alien nature of superpower is retained.

Though this is a new shared universe, Officer “Savage” Dragon makes an appearance, and a few of his early adventures are mentioned in passing. Dragon, for the uninitiated, has met damn near everyone in his long superhero career. Taken holistically, in a St. Elsewhere snow globe kind of way this would mean that a fair chunk of this universe has been witnessed since. Salicrup actually mentions, in one of his off brand Stan’s Soapboxes, that he personally believes there to be only one “uni”verse (hence the name), and as far as he is concerned nothing should bar the Ninth Men from meeting the Justice League or the Avengers. Being an avid fan of The Multiversity, I prefer packing away each world into its own little box. The first brush with superpower this world has comes from a variety of age-old superpeople showering the world with naturally grown super-weapons and technology that dwarfs our own in creativity and brilliance. The characters we are introduced to are only a small cross-section of the ones that have survived, and an entire Super City resides beneath Grant Park.

The potential here is as much a Genesis story as anything in ongoing superhero stories. As much as I would have liked to have seen this world again, either in Image or some expanded Dynamite verse, I wonder what these ideas would have been like had they found their way into an issue of Fantastic Four or Jimmy Olsen. I would never decry Jack and his heirs the chance to profit from the work that, literally, consumed his life, but years later I feel bad that these ideas are unused with no one to speak for them. They could just as easily be ignored by Marvel along with the First Family over in that sandbox. At least there we would have had a chance to see where this would have gone.

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We hardly knew ye. To think, you could be getting Converged into Battleworld if you had played your cards right!

The Democrat pictured here was revealed to be a shape-shifter (named I-kid-you-not “Shiftor”) who collapsed beneath the burden of having to impersonate a man occupying such a potentially duplicitous job. Shortly after he sacrificed his life in a noble gambit to stave off an awful, prolonged death and get back at the man who cursed him. I imagine this made cover artist, and noted Objectivist, Steve Ditko quite content. This series is a product of its times no matter how much it attempted to call to mind an earlier era and still remain timeless. President Clinton plays a major role in the story and each issue comes packaged with Collectible Trading Cards. I know this because that fact was advertised on each cover. That was the selling point here, as much as the creators and promise of “Action Adventure!” in case you were wondering why this series did not recently celebrate a Milestone Triple Digit Issue Number alongside its peers Spawn and Savage Dragon.

The villains and heroes alike look as if they were designed for a toy line that was never made. Each villainous member of “The Renegades” makes sure to shout his name and remind the boys and girls at home what his special ability is. Bombast can throw things “really well” and even Nightglider has her patented glide-suit. They come off as toy ideas that even Masters of the Universe would have passed on, and I am pretty sure the primary foe, General Ordiz, is supposed to have the lost hidden technology of an eighties recording devices on his chest.

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He cuts well is what we are saying, and, yes, that is Dave “Watchmen” Gibbons’ sign-off just beneath.
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Yeah, that is Bill Sienkiewicz. These issues are worth hunting down with their original polybags just to see whose name is attached to the trading cards.

Another problem is that not enough time had passed so that the bad could be forgotten. There are many adaptions of Darkseid’s invasion of Earth and “The Coming of Galactus!” but what we never see is a bold retelling of the time the New Gods went up against Don Rickles or Reed Richards berating Sue Storm for “being a woman.” Context is important because as it enters into its Act 3 the Secret City Saga goes completely off the rails. Not content with merely hinting at the advanced back stories of the characters we meet briefly (more than I have ever seen in an issue of Youngblood), and making sure that I had to read the Wikipedia entry on Mayor Daley, the Secret City Saga decides to plug a longstanding plot hole in Western Literature when it answers, as an issue’s cliffhanger no less, what exactly Lewis Carroll meant by a Boojum.

I cannot speak for the man but I am pretty sure this is the best comic to ever feature his work, though its main competitors are whatever covers Zenescope Entertainment produce and Alan Moore’s Victorian Era fanfic The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (which has devolved into clever tricks to get around paying for the use of copyrighted characters, because why would he of all people have a problem with that?). The intentionally nonsensical creature is actually a mythical creature of the Ninth Men’s age whose sudden appearance shocks them as much as the normal humans watching the spectacle unfold. Someone mentions a famed “Dr. Snark” and his psychic abilities and then, in typical Kirby fashion, an unimaginably powerful shape-shifter speaking gibberish takes down a living machine that has existed since the dawn of time that has transformed into robot named Genetitron.

For all its faults, I will miss this book.

The Secret City Saga is only part of the larger Kirbyverse which went on to include other properties that Jack held onto. Silver Star, late of Pacific Comics, joined the fray as did Captain Victory. You may remember him from such series as that one where the writers involved tried desperately to retain his greatest selling point (he is Orion of New Genesis’ son, Darkseid’s grandson) without incurring the wrath of the Gentr- I mean DC! Silver Star’s new series had one issue see the light of the day, same with the re-titled “Victory,” though both promised more to come. The artwork is a clear departure from the SCS. Maybe this was a move meant to increase sales but I am not sure. To go along with the theme, the latter title even had an honest to goodness variant cover, hallmark of a book that no one will ever regret buying. The artist is one of the few that needs no introduction and can, literally, be recognized instantly from afar.

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I did not have the heart to remove the watermark as sadly my copy is the standard issue and only that site seemed to be aware of this.

This issue saw print at about the same time that Jack Kirby passed on, leaving behind a richer legacy than any I have ever come across in fiction, regardless of genre or medium. We cannot know how involved he was with any of the “Kirbyverse,” never mind the Secret City Saga, but what we do know is that the last comic the line published had a variant cover by Rob Liefeld. This issue promised “the end” on its cover, but it is a poor one (my favorite sendoff is the Jack inspired portrayal of Dan Turpin in 1998’s “Apokolips… Now!” from Superman the Animated Series). If you can see past the trappings of the series, there are a few gems worth knowing about, but if nothing else look upon these books as a cautionary tale. We have no way of knowing where we will arrive but it is not always a place of our choosing.

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The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions: Satan’s Six by Emily Scott

Welcome back to Indie February here at The Unspoken Decade! If you missed Dean Compton’s great look at Exiles in Part 1, I suppose you’ll just have something to look forward to once you’re done with this, Part 2, which delves into Topps Comics’ Satan’s Six! This comic is part of the Kirbyverse, made up of multiple titles released simultaneously that develop unrealized designs and concepts of the King himself, Jack Kirby. Darry Weight’s look at the whole of the Kirbyverse is coming up next in Indie February, so hopefully this glance in will whet your appetite for the whole enchilada!

Of course, that endeavor would probably be more likely if I had more positive things to say about Satan’s Six…

Before any fans of this work go reaching for their torches and pitchforks, as thematically appropriate as it might be for this comic, I should make the disclaimer that I won’t be wholly critical. There’s a lot of fun to be had reading Satan’s Six, and it injects a lot of humor into a traditionally horror setting. It’s got a great premise. All of the good so far, sure, but even from the first few pages, I would swear Satan’s Six is actively trying to get me to dislike it. For example, the word I kept coming back to in describing the art is abrasive:

Abrasive
I hope your eyes have not been too seared to continue reading.

The color palette is loud and garish, proportions distorted and grotesque. Much of the action is so heavily stylized that I can barely tell what is depicted in multiple panels. I’m sure some of the off-putting effect is intentional to reinforce the hellish subject matter, but the comic is so, well, just unpleasant to look at that I spent most of my time reading it going, “Gaaaaah” in my head.

My impulse to make that noise is helped not at all by the fact that of the three or four facial expressions characters make in this comic, one of them looks exactly like they are making that noise too. Seriously, this face:

Face 5appears over….

Face 4and over…

Face 3and over again.

Face 1

The whole comic, however, does not look like this. Several pages were drawn by Kirby himself, which would be great (both because well, it’s Jack Kirby, and because they’re the only pages that don’t feel like the top layer of my eyes are being scrubbed off) if it weren’t for how awkwardly they are shoehorned in: the narrator basically just says not to mind the style change, this being hell and all.

This is not the only instance where the comic suffers from what I can’t decide is either lazy writing or attempts to be more clever than it actually is. The narrator herself, a Guardian Angel First Class of the Comic Book Division, is problematic in this vein, but before I get too deeply into those shortcomings I should probably, you know, say what the comic is about. I will kill two birds with one stone by showing some of Kirby’s work on the project and getting the premise across:

I will let you decide if that's lazy writing or cleverness.
I will let you decide if that’s lazy writing or cleverness.

Pretty great premise, right? Being raised in a Pentecostal church, a denomination big on the fire and brimstone, I have always been fascinated by depictions of Hell and demons and different takes on the afterlife in general. The idea of a group of people trying to make it out of Limbo by winning souls for Hell is a great twist (made doubly great by them constantly messing up because they’re not evil enough), and the comic works best when it hews closest to this simple but brilliant idea. Where it starts to lose me is when they reach for the heavens.

I told you that the narrator, Pristine, is a guardian angel from the Comic Book Division, but what I can’t tell you is what purpose it actually serves to make her so meta, unless it is to highlight the gimmicky nature of the comic. She could just as easily be the guardian angel to these characters without explicitly telling you they are comic book characters, and I kept waiting for this breaking of the fourth wall to have a greater payoff than, say, allowing writer Tony Isabella to use the first six pages of Issue #2 to recap Issue #1 through Pristine.

I chose this page because this is a 90s comics site, and what could be more 90s than a beeper?
I chose this page because this is a 90s comics site, and what could be more 90s than a beeper?

None of this criticism is to say that the character doesn’t work at all. When the winking at the reader is toned down and she is merely meddling with our anti-anti-heroes’ plans, she is quite entertaining. For instance, while the Six are assisting a professor who has sold his soul to stop an ancient archaeological find of his from breaking free and taking over the world, Pristine reminds Frightful that if any of the Six should die saving someone, they’d likely go to Heaven, forcing him to intervene. There’s something sinister behind her wide grin, the inversion of the angelic and demonic does its best to add back a satisfying layer of complexity that the meta-ness subtracts.

Had this comic gone on longer, these two would totally have been someone's OTP.
Had this comic gone on longer, these two would totally have been someone’s OTP.

The rest of the characters would have benefited greatly from a longer run, since they are thoroughly one-note in their introduction, but that doesn’t stop Satan’s Six from having some legitimately emotionally affecting moments. The third issue centers on one of Dezira’s old flames, everyone’s favorite hunchback Quasimodo, cutting loose from Limbo to save her from the Devil’s trickery. His own penance was almost up, and his act of self-sacrifice earns him an automatic ticket to Heaven, a sweet ending in a place I didn’t expect.

Of course, that sweetness is somewhat tempered by other weirdness going on in this issue, including a plot in which Quasimodo becomes a movie star after running into Lloyd Kaufman from Troma Entertainment. It’s a completely random-feeling and wonderful cameo, and the story gets in some nice satire of Hollywood, but like a lot of things in this comic, its many disparate elements feel like they were tossed in a blender, mixed up, and thrown at the wall to see what stuck rather than carefully thought out. There’s a haphazard feel to these proceedings that sometimes work and sometimes don’t but always make me feel frantic.

Just to further illustrate how many inconsistent parts make up this Frankenstein’s monster of a comic, I’ll mention, but not go into any great detail about an unfortunate incident involving Dr. Mordius drinking a potion of his own concocting and turning into a dog. On its own, that transformation wouldn’t be so bad, but the “what the fuck?” quotient is upped when he is chased around by another, amorous dog. Yeah, that’s all I’ve got to say about that…

Doge
Yep, that happened.

How about we look at another page of Jack Kirby’s, just to cleanse the ol’ palate?

Kirby Cleanser
That’s better.

The fourth and final issue in its initial run also tells a pretty emotionally satisfying story in which Harrigan schemes to negate a former colleague in crime’s contract with the Devil, but once again, the sweetness is undercut by a pretty silly gimmick. This time it’s another cameo, one that could actually make more sense, given the hellish backdrop of the story, but is somehow integrated worse into the story than freakin’ Lloyd Kaufman.

JasonThe gist is that Odious Kamodious, the demon who made the deal to send the Six back to Earth, is unhappy with Freightful’s performance as Team Leader and threatens to replace him with Jason Vorhees. Everyone fights for a bit and then Odious sends Jason back to Hell, but not before hanging a lampshade on the gimmick. Once again, I don’t know if this is supposed to be clever, but it just feels half assed. They could have legitimately inserted Jason into a story a million better ways, which I know to be true because one of Dean’s favorite things to do is talk about Jason showing up to machete irritating people, and it’s always more entertaining than this diversion.

Sigh
I should not be this inclined to call a comic named Satan’s Six cutesy.

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing Satan’s Six, but the more I’ve written about it and read sections of it again, the more I actually like. It’s worth reading for its premise and humor alone, and given more time, I think it would have suffered less from its gimmicks, since the non-gimmicky stuff seems so outweighed in only four issues.  It’s frustrating to read something that doesn’t live up to its potential, but its flaws make it almost more intriguing than if it were just good, which is probably why I took up so much space discussing them. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like Satan’s Six, and sometimes that’s the most ringing endorsement I can give.

Something else I enjoyed about this comic were the mini comics that closed out each issue, my favorite being one from Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre. (Such a great name.) Wolff and Byrd turn up again in the main story of Issue #4, and at the end of Issue #1 they defend a demon summoned and abused by a professor. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite context-less panels ever and remind you one more time to be sure to come back for more of the Kirbyverse as Indie month continues!

Tenure