Tag Archives: Jack Kirby

Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part One

8ballc-3d

Hey, friends, concurrent with the long-awaited release of Fantagraphics Books’ astonishing The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 super-deluxe hardcover slipcase boxed set — which you really need to go out and buy as soon as your budget can possibly accommodate its admittedly heavy $119.99 cover price (thank God for online discount retailers, am I right?)—Dean graciously invited me to take a breather from my usual hangouts (trashfilmguru.wordpress.com , unobtainium13.com , sequart.org , and dailygrindhouse.com is where most of my shit can be found if you’re interested) to stop by here and share my thoughts on this, my all-time favorite comics series.

Does that mean it’s the “best” comic ever? Hell no — although a strong case could probably be made in its favor — it simply means that Eightball was my “go-to book,” for all intents and purposes, for its entire 15-year, 23-issue run, and that in a very real sense I grew up right along with it, and matured at a rate vaguely approximate to that of series creator’s Dan Clowes’ evolution as an artist.

Yeah, sure, he’s a good number of years older than I am — and he’s certainly done a heck of a lot more with his life — but it’s truly uncanny how the trajectory of his his “career arc” seemed to hit just the right notes, at just the right times, in relation to “where my head was at” whenever any given new issue would hit the stands (which was usually a bit of mystery in these pre-Diamond Previews days — the book started out, in theory at any rate, on a thrice-yearly scedule, but delays weren’t just common, they became flat-out expected in fairly short order). The series debuted in August of 1989, when I was still in high school, and breathed its last in June of 2004, when I had just returned from spending nearly two years bumming around various parts of the world. Needless to say, a lot happened — both with the comic and myself — in the years in between, and as I sat down to start writing about it, I realized that my own personal memories were so inextricably linked to the material itself that there was pretty much no point trying to separate one from the other and fake some kind of “objective, dispassionate distance.” If that’s the sort of criticism you’re into, more power to ya, but you just ain’t gonna find it here. Eightball is too fucking personal to me. It means too much.

16778279475_4528a93830_o1

And so, what started out as a simple run-down /recap/appraisal of the series has morphed into a multi-part semi-monstrosity that I hope at least some of you good readers out there will find worth your time. Shit, maybe you’ll even be able to relate to parts of it. I realize that the subject matter is pretty far removed from this site’s unofficial remit of finding something at least semi-worthwhile in the Image, Marvel, etc. steroid-pumped superhero fare that was utterly ubiquitous in the 1990s (and that remains nearly as ubiquitous in the bargain boxes of comics shops today  — those that survived the implosion the onslaught of those titles brought on, that is), but what the hell. Eightball was — and still is — proof that there were, in fact, good comics coming out during that decade,  as well.

What do I mean, exactly, by “good”? Now there’s a question that you probably only need to consider on a site devoted to ’90s comics! As a semi-useful (I hope, at any rate) shorthand definition let’s just say that I mean books that possessed actual artistic merit that was obvious at the time, as opposed to, let’s face it, the absolute glut of material whose sole worth lies in its nostalgic value (although Clowes’ series certainly has plenty of that going for it when viewed from our present 2015 vantage point). Books that were more concerned with growing up than offering ever-flashier, but ever-more-creatively-stagnant, versions of the same sort of post-modern hyper-mythology that, let’s face it, has been getting bigger,louder, and more brash ever since Jack Kirby invented it, but with increasingly diminishing returns as the years go by absent the heart, humanity, and soul that The King imbued all of his works with. Books that were about real people dealing with real situations in real ways.tumblr_inline_nk2y3zR42O1s2tgut

Not that Clowes’ subject matter was primarily autobiographical in the same way that Harvey Pekar’s, Chester Brown’s, Joe Matt’s, and Seth’s (to name just a few) was. Granted, there’s a superb autobio piece called “Blue Italian Shit” in Eightball #13, but there’s also a wickedly precise deconstruction of the genre (“Just Another Day”) in issue five.  If that seems a bit scattershot or incongruous, rest assured that it is — and that’s one of the very best things about this series. Eightball, you see, is that now-rarest of beasts — the single-creator anthology comic. Adrian Tomine’s still got Optic Nerve going (occasionally) for D+Q, sure, but on the whole, let’s be honest — this is pretty much a dead format. And the  comics medium in general is desperately more impoverished for its passing from the scene.

Heck, kids today might be flat-out flabbergasted to discover that once there was a time when all of the creators just mentioned a moment ago, as well as the likes of Julie Doucet, Peter Bagge, Dennis Eichhorn, and the guy who started it all, Robert Crumb, had the freedom to just sit down at their drawing board (or typewriter) and crank out whatever kind of stories they wanted and that, miracle of all miracles, somebody would even publish them ! But those of us who are getting a bit longer in the tooth remember those times well indeed, and while none of these admitted labors of love moved  anywhere near the number of copies of Spawn Vs. Youngblood or whatever, they still sold at a clip that most “Big Two” books today would kill for.

Such are the vagaries of time, I guess. There’s no doubt that if Clowes was just getting started today and wanted to attempt something of this sort in the modern marketplace that he’d be confined to the so-called “digital realm,” but goddamnit, I still miss the days when indie creators who were living on the genuine margins still managed to find a way to get this stuff printed.

16590887960_cd8bd22393_b1

And has it ever been printed in this new collection! Fantagraphics has gone well and truly “above and beyond” with the physical product here, making exact facsimilie reproductions of each and every issue (no easy task considering that Eightball went through a fair number of format changes during its lifespan) and binding them inside two standard-comic-sized hardcovers that can be fully opened without cracking or damaging the binding in any way. Throw in some new front and back cover on each of the volumes as well as on the slipcase itself, and you’ve got yourself a package that can be looked at and drooled over for hours on end before you even start reading the thing.

It’s all here, folks — not just each and every story and strip, but the letter columns, the product-order pages drawn by Clowes, the whole nine yards. We go from cheap black-and-white newsprint for the first four issues to glossy covers and paper with increased color content in the interior pages to heavy-duty cardstock covers with even better, shinier paper inside. Hell, even the original mistakes are left intact — the most noticeable being when the printer accidentally ran the Ghost World segment in issue 16 in a risible sort of “split pea soup” yellow rather than the “cool blue” of all the other chapters. I hate to name-drop Kirby again in relation to a series that belies almost no influence from him whatsoever, but, as he once famously stated in 1970s DC “house ad” — “Everything is ‘as it was!'”  Yes, right down to the “Modern Cartoonist” pamphlet insert included with issue number 18.

CH6WpBfUkAAUzFZ

You’re alive? On this planet? And you still haven’t bought this thing yet? What — do your kids need to eat or something? And to think — I’m brow-beating you this mercilessly before I’ve even really started in on examining the actual merits of the comics themselves. Shame on me! Have I no class? No empathy? No basic salesmanship skills?

I’m going to plead the fifth on all of the above, but I’ll tell you what — that’s not a bad spot at all to leave things at for this introductory go-’round, but as for what’s still to come — Eightball went through four distinct creative  phases, each “anchored” by a central work, and when we dive in with part two of our analysis here we’ll break those down and then get into the nitty-gritty of critical dissection. We’re going to pay a little less attention to “phase three” and “phase four” because they’re not included in this collection (and, in fairness, while “phase three” started in 1998,  it concluded in 2000,  and “phase four” — apologies to Saul Bass — was entirely post-millenial, so they sort of fall outside of the loose parameters of this site), but for the sake of completeness even they will be addressed in due course. So buckle up! This is gonna be fun, I promise! As Clowes himself would say — welcome to my house of dreams!

Advertisements

HE CALLS HIMSELF CABLE – José Ladrönn and Joe Casey on the Man Out of Time

Warren Worthington: Before you go any further, you need to ask yourself… is any story really worth dying for?
Irene Merryweather: Depends on the story.

No theme this month at “The Unspoken Decade” so I have taken this opportunity to look back at José Ladrönn’s run on Cable that helped close out the nineties.

Irene Merryweather is a reporter, a storyteller. She acts as Cable’s chronicler and as the reader’s way to understand the man and his world. She provides a way for the plot devices and conflicting motivations of such a popular character to be examined and contextualized in a much needed way.

“Sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Askani’son here… He's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”
“Sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Askani’son here… He’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”

Who is Cable? What is he? Why does he call himself that? Maybe in 1990 when the character was first introduced this was considered a suitably sci-fi term. The modern equivalent of calling a character “Plastic Man” in an era before that was a household name. Did this name say something about the character that was deep and meaningful? Was it the name of one of his weapons, maybe an artistic way of describing his method for traveling through time?

No, of course not.

Cable is what you would call yourself if you had been raised two millennia into the future. This is the same reason his arch-foe (and one of several clones) is known as “Stryfe.” These people are as separated from “today” as “today” is from the beginning of the Common Era. Cable is a character that everyone recognizes, comic fan or not, even though he has avoided the Silver Screen for seven X-Films and counting. For me there is no more interesting take on the character than his extended tour of the Marvel Universe in the artistic styling of Jack Kirby.

The energy radiates from the center, reaching out at the reader and almost into their world. The mark of the King.
The energy radiates from the center, reaching out at the reader and almost into their world. The mark of the King.

The Hellfire Hunt is a story from 1997 written by James Robinson. Halfway through, after issue #50, scripting duties switch to Joe Casey. From then until issue #70, in August of 1999, Casey and artist José Ladrönn put their mark on the Man With Many Names. The run was bookended by extended crossovers with the plethora of other X-Titles, from Operation: Zero Tolerance (itself spinning out of Onslaught) to the Apocalypse centered The Twelve soon after its end. In between was an attempt to define the character of Cable in a way that made him grounded and believable, or in other words, in the Marvel way.

In addition to the extended X-Family (for the most part) there is no appearance by X-Force, the child soldiers that Cable usually drags into dangerous war zones, or Rob Liefeld, Cable’s self-appointed ‘sole creator.’ The Rob would eventually bring back the expected trappings of the franchise but in his absence Casey, and especially Ladrönn, build a supporting cast unique to Cable including re-introducing Nate’s own personal Yoda, Blaquesmith, and the aforementioned former gossip columnist Irene Merryweather, as well as the brand new love interest, and confidante, diner waitress Stacey Kramer.

Every Kirby story is a love story. He co-created the Romance Comic because he understood that having someone to fight for was the only thing that mattered.
Every Kirby story is a love story. He co-created the Romance Comic because he understood that having someone to fight for was the only thing that mattered.

Over the course of these twenty issues Ladrönn’s depiction of Cable, and the world he inhabits, comes to resemble one drafted by Kirby. The King himself passed away in 1994 so this type of tribute would not be uncommon except that Cable, and the Modern X-Men in general, had nothing to do with what he had come to stand for. This appears to be envisioning what Cable would have been if Kirby had created him at the peak of his career.

A time-traveling, cyborg with a Messiah Complex, locked in an Eternal Struggle with a being destined to conquer the world and subjugate its people. That feels as if it could have been a pitch for a story Kirby never got around to putting down on paper in the years after he left Marvel in search of the greener pastures he never found.

For reasons none too important to the overarching plot Cable finds himself in the nation of Wakanda fighting Ulysses Klaw alongside the Black Panther. A few issues later he engaged in the defining conflict of the run in a fight against Jack Truman, Agent 18 of SHIELD. An appearance by the newly revitalized Mighty Avengers closes out the run featuring Kirby Classics such as Captain America and Thor. This resembled a comic done in the Mighty Marvel Manner at a time when nothing else the company put out really did. Even non-Kirby, but classic nonetheless, vintage characters such as Zzzax and the Tinkerer make appearances. They are not furthering the plot, but rather showing how rich and imaginative a world Cable occupies.

If you touch your chest, hear a “tek” sound, and begin spewing acid from your fingertips then you were probably not invented by someone who left to create Brigade.
If you touch your chest, hear a “tek” sound, and begin spewing acid from your fingertips then you were probably not invented by someone who created “Brigade.”

A year and change after the bankruptcy that nearly buried Marvel, and comfortably before the movies would start to shape what the company would become, Cable takes a tour of an older version of the Marvel Universe, one not seen in some time. He himself gets a streamlined, shoulder-pad-less redesign that allows, as all Kirby characters must, to be in constant motion and bristling with power. The tons o’ guns are stripped away as this Heroic Quest sees Cable wield the Psimitar, a future-tech spear capable of focusing his advanced telekinetic abilities into Kirby Krackle. The static, cold images that had come to define the character up until this point are forgotten as Cable genuinely struggles with whether or not he can really save the future, a fight that seems u winnable and a task that seems unsurmountable, even though he can remember what happens if he fails.

Kidding. We all know what happens if he fails: Everyone is slowly murdered by the Mutant Robo-Pharaoh. Why has anyone ever wondered why we enjoy these comics?
Kidding. We all know what happens if he fails: Everyone is slowly murdered by the Mutant Robo-Pharaoh. Why has anyone ever wondered why we enjoy these comics?

I am not sure whose idea it was to go down this road but it does not happen all at once. Ladrönn had been involved with the title before Casey arrived and the latter went this route again with his later Image series Godland (I am not putting a “0” there, but you may need one if you want to research the series). Does the fact that no one else was doing overt Kirby homages on a regular basis make the issues worth seeking out, or picking-up discounted at least?

Yes and no.

This is one of the few full runs of Cable I have read but was by far the most rewarding. The aesthetic got me in the door, so to speak, but the character does not keep me there. Ladrönn clearly has a love for these particular layouts and design work. There are ways of presenting a story and moving events forward that only ever seem to appear in those older books. Figures in motion stride through scenes of intense action oblivious to “cool” poses and the constraints of the page. Not to say that the genre as a whole does not pull plays from the same book but these are specific, and in some cases too much so, references the work of a single man.

Ladrönn at one point, before the Kirby homages are overt, places a panel of only Cable’s foot in motion in the midst of an action scene. This warrants a caption box, with a message from the editors, stating that “we’re not really sure why Ladrönn put this panel here, but it was too fun & wacky to take out.” Fun. Whacky. These things have no place within our comics, clearly. This is how far the expected conventions had moved. Panels are mere recommendations to the characters and the Kirby Krackle is everywhere. This constant love and affection is also how they begin to lose their appeal.

…in the pages of Deathlok if I am not mistaken. “M-Tech” was an odd publishing line but at least it had a techno-organic monkey.
…in the pages of “Deathlok” if I am not mistaken. “M-Tech” was an odd publishing line but at least it had a techno-organic monkey.

There is a love here, but is there an understanding? Casey’s name is attached to many beloved runs in superhero comics as well as under the radar projects that remain fan favorites. The main pitfall I have come across that prevents me from embracing his work is that he never quite seems able to keep up with his own ideas. Superhero comics can be dense. Packed full of characters, ideas, and images that combine through the act of reading to form entirely new experiences. They should not be stagnant and they cannot to waste space. Casey does not seem to spend the time giving Cable, or any of the other characters, enough to do. He is not very imaginative when it comes to creating new ideas or concepts and he certainly does not seem to maintain the primary rule of a Kirby Comic: Create!

Jack Kirby created at a rate that far outstripped his peers. Physical number of pages (at one point Kirby was personally responsible for more titles per month than the Liefeld’s Extreme Studios), concepts, characters, and plots. Not only are the Marvel Age works with Stan Lee responsible for most of what we still read today but each of Kirby’s series after showed that the act of creation was the most important aspect of the work. A book such as The Demon has new villains and foes each issue, new obstacles to surmount. For good or bad (and many are not going to be action figures or cartoons any time soon) they were there. Jack acting as midwife to world after world from some unknowable higher power.

I cannot fault someone for using a Black Bolt pose but the panel to the right features more new character in a single instance than were created over the entirety of this Cable run.
I cannot fault someone for using a Black Bolt pose but the panel to the right features more new character in a single instance than were created over the entirety of this Cable run.

Casey’s primary contribution to the Cable Mythos is the Harbinger of Apocalypse, whose origins are actually steeped in Robinson’s final story (he was also responsible for Merryweather). The otherwise unnamed Victorian Era waif (he has a strange origin that still manages to feel unoriginal) provides the primary physical threat that hangs over the main story. No motivation, or real defining characteristics, just something for the hero to rail against. Another character, Blockade, is introduced as a MacGuffin for Cable’s Titanic Team-Up with his former beau Domino. I never got the feeling that this team could not create new characters but rather would not. I am not sure why as this was not the X-Market of today where all the good characters have their movie rights absorbed by 20th Century Fox.

There is also not a constant stream of creativity reflected with the use of classic characters. This is the SHIELD exactly as Kirby drew it back in the day. Same line work, same designs. The same goes for Klaw, Black Panther, and even the Master Man (in a Golden Age flashback story). I applaud the revisiting at a time when everyone else seemed to have no interest (had I read these at the time they would have been my first introduction to Kirby’s aesthetic) but I mourn the loss of opportunity. Who knows how much more enjoyable, and re-readable, this run on such an otherwise uninspired title would have been had the creators channeled the spirit of the man they honored instead of merely what they saw in his work?

My favorite parts of this run are the exclamations. Paramilitary guerrilla fighters from the Fiftieth Century shout “Oath!” and swear “By the Bright Lady!” more than you would think.
My favorite parts of this run are the exclamations. Paramilitary guerrilla fighters from the Fiftieth Century shout “Oath!” and swear “By the Bright Lady!” more than you would think.

Part of this is shown in the use of Apocalypse. Throughout the run there are vague allusions to a time, coming soon, when “Dayspring” will have the chance to complete his mission by ending the potential future reign of terror in the here and now. Presumably this was supposed to tie-in with The Twelve but if you remember reading that story you will probably also remember not caring all that much about what happened in it. Here Apocalypse haunts the background, hinting at a Master Plan and moving pieces into position. Anywhere else this would be just one more subplot but here the regularly overt character is reimagined as a subtle dark-skinned man in a suit. He arrives, seemingly from nowhere, with the reader and heroes knowing nothing of what he has planned.

When something similar to Apocalypse’s traditional form makes an appearance it is as a flashback (to far in the future) or when a character is describing him, as a threat hiding just out-of-sight waiting to usher in an eternal darkness from whence there is no escape. This teases a character who had been around for over a decade and lays the groundwork for an actual arc. Apocalypse, though never in on the action, appears as a genuine threat that Cable, heavy-hearted, must face or else face the doom of every single person he meets as well as each and every descendant they cannot possibly be aware of. For a character with more conflicting backstories than Hawkman, and an opponent that had been more Action Figure than realized person up until this point, this presentation made me genuinely interested in what would and could have happened next.

Kirby missed out on his chance to design Apocalypse (he did not stay on the original “X-Men” title, that he co-created, long enough to work on most of what is associated with that franchise) but here we see what may have been. If nothing else this is a version of a popular villain reimagined based on how Kirby approached his work in general, with the incredible scope of an endless world. There is a sense of dread permeating the way characters discuss Apocalypse that cannot be matched by all the times he has been shown monologuing about a Middle Schooler’s conception of Darwinism. Apocalypse (a character I love no matter what I seem to be indicating here) is often drawn as this mishmash of different concepts, none of which stand on their own.

From the future? Yes. From Ancient Egypt? Yes. A mutant? Sure. Access to unlimited Celestial technology? Appears to be the case.
From the future? Yes. From Ancient Egypt? Yes. A mutant? Sure. Access to unlimited Celestial technology? Appears to be the case.

Here we have a rather mundane man you would not look at twice and a walking natural disaster on par with any of the Cosmic Threats of old Marvel. The sense of scope has been retained and the character never risks becoming mundane. Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Jason Blood and the Demon. The works inspires your mind to fill in the gulf between the two and therein lies the beauty of what Kirby always did: Making the reader see the world for what it could be regardless of how it actually was. Joe Casey and José Ladrönn understood that more than most and while they worked with Nathan Summers they showed us what could be.

At one point a character refers to him as “The King of All Lies.” Looking upon this visage convinces me that we may still not have seen his true form.
At one point a character refers to him as “The King of All Lies.” Looking upon this visage convinces me that we may still not have seen his true form.

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.

KIRBYVERSE01
Can you tell this came out during the Gimmick Era? If you cannot then look agai- Wait, what…?
KIRBYVERSE02
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?”

KIRBYVERSE03
“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.

KIRBYVERSE04
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.

KIRBYVERSE05
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.

KIRBYVERSE06
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.

KIRBYVERSE07
He cuts well is what we are saying, and, yes, that is Dave “Watchmen” Gibbons’ sign-off just beneath.
KIRBYVERSE08
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.

KIRBYVERSE09
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.