Hi. My name’s Symbifan. I’ve spent quite some time gracing you Unspoken Decade fans with my musings over cherished tales from 1990’s Marvel and DC (and one cleverly written Archie Comics epic). But sadly, those times are now through. Thats right, I’m done.
Ha! You really fell for that? I just meant that this particular article won’t be about a Marvel or DC Comics character! No, I’m simply stepping out of my comfort zone to bring you the story of Prophet, an Image Comics character. (Terrified you, huh?) Well, now that I scared the bejesus out of you guys, I should probably just begin….
Jonathan Taylor Prophet was a man possessed. (And I don’t mean possessed like your typical 2010’s “horror” movie. Anyone else miss the good old-fashioned slasher flicks? I know I do!) As he trudged through the barren wasteland, his thoughts turned only to combat. To calm himself, he remembered his favorite Bible passages. The Word kept him controlled, a comfort to a warrior’s mind.
He pauses a moment to reflect, his muscles tense for the coming conflict. He doesn’t have long to wait. Several orb-shaped mechanical attackers arise and prepare. Prophet pulls twin blades and takes an easy breath. They attack. The numbers are definitely on their side, a lesser man would fall easily. But Prophet is no ordinary man. He dispatches the robotic foes with ease. The orbs are replaced by more humanoid metal assailants. Now in full fighting form, the warrior slices through them as if they’re composed of hot butter. (Mmm! Damn! I wants me some toast now! Hmm….out of bread. Ah, the life of a starving artist….)
A rope ladder appears past his oncoming attackers. Seeing the automatons have multiplied in number, he takes a calculated risk and leaps. As his hands grip tough rope, he’s pulled to safety by the flying vehicle it’s attached to. Upon reaching the top and entering the craft, Prophet is shocked by who his saviors are. A man cloaked in shadow and adorned with a long, flowing red cloak and…..Mary, the long-lost love of his life!
The look upon her features is one of obvious and malicious betrayal. The man, though in shadows, looks pleased at the pained look on Prophet’s face. Prophet finds himself at a loss for words. Just then, the hooded man slowly reveals his face. It is one that our hero knows well. It is his own!
He wakes up screaming. Kirby, his trusted friend, lowers his already diminutive form to look upon John Prophet with concern. (“Diminutive.” And you thought it was more fun to hang out with friends than study in English class, huh? Fools! Now, I can say “short” in intelligent sounding ways. Ha!) Kirby listens as John recounts his dream. The small man simply dismisses this as John’s need to reconnect to D.O.C.C., the satellite that is the source of his amazing abilities and a type of “center” for his rage-filled mind.
This calms Prophet somewhat as he sits up in what we now see to be the inside of a moving helicopter. Kirby questions the pilot as to an arrival timeframe. The man replies that they will reach their destination in fifteen minutes. The small man makes his way back to Prophet and the two gear up for whatever mission they’re about to begin. As they do this, Prophet admits that he is in a very confused state of mind. He recounts his origins aloud to his dwarven partner. (Oooooh! An origin story! Sit back and grab some popcorn, kiddies! We’re in for a real treat! After all, we all know just how much superheroes despise recounting their origin stories…..Ha, I barely typed that sentence with a straight face!)
Jonathan Taylor Prophet began his journey a short time after his father had been brutally murdered by Nazi soldiers. Not wanting to become a hindrance to his mother, and being the eldest of two boys, he tried his hand at many odd jobs. But, it was the work that he did with a man named Dr. Wells that would change the course of the young man’s life forever.
He would endure countless physical and mental tests over the course of several weeks, sending money home to get his family far from Germany as tensions rose in the world. Prophet was assured that, in the end, he was to become superhuman. Wells definitely wasn’t lying! He was even given a brightly-colored uniform and an indestructible shield! (Hahaha! Sorry! That was just too easy! Forget that last sentence. I’ll be good now. Promise.) The warrior-to-be even befriended Dr. Wells’ lab assistant, a young Kirby. But, this was not to last. John was told that Hitler had caught wind of this project and sought to make it his own! Quickly, Prophet was assured that his family and young fiancee, Mary, would be well taken care of, but to keep him from enemy hands, he would need to be put into a type of cryogenic sleep. He would be awakened in the future to be mankind’s savior against an enemy Wells called the Disciples. Prophet agreed, and soon, he slumbered.
Awoken only recently, Prophet was now allied once again with a now much older Kirby and in search of the D.O.C.C. satellite to help clear things up in his confused mind. Meanwhile, as the helicopter nears its snowy destination, we turn our attention to Washington, D.C., the interior of the Pentagon to be precise. There, we look in on a meeting already in progress. A man in glasses speaks to those assembled around a large meeting table about Prophet and his superhuman capabilities and how, given proper funding, his creation process just may be duplicated! He finishes by stating that the subject remains at large at this time, but their new liaison assures them this will be corrected very soon. The liaison enters the room dressed in a crimson jacket and matching skirt. It’s John Prophet’s fiancee, Mary! (Shocking, eh? I mean, a crimson outfit worn at an important government meeting? Tackyyyyyyyyyy!)
We then return our attention to the two heroic figures that now parachute down to the frozen earth below. The two free themselves from their chutes and begin to get their bearings. Kirby admits that this mission may just go awry. They are infiltrating a secret government facility, after all, and technically, John is a wanted man. (Good time for cold feet, Short Stuff! Where were these second thoughts during this entire godforsaken journey?) The smaller man asks the taller for advice. Prophet states that he has already said prayers to the Lord above. Kirby replies that he would appreciate a better battle plan than prayers. They both suddenly find themselves surrounded by heavily armed soldiers that demand the two freeze! Kirby rethinks his earlier statement about prayer. They may just need all the help they can get!
Well, Legions of the Unspoken, that’s the end of issue one of Prophet and this article. If you want more of ol’ Symbifan’s thoughts on later issues of Prophet, leave a comment and I’ll maybe consider making this a ten part series. But, until then, stay classy, comic collectors! Symbifan….out!
The end…..or is it…..?
Dedicated to my mom. Though we are now separated by miles, know that you will always be with me in my heart. I love you.
Hello, Legions of the Unspoken! I had the chance to have a great conversation with Paul O’ Connor of Longbox Graveyard about the merits of the 70’s and Bronze Age vs. the 90’s! Scroll through some cool covers of both decades, and then you’ll find the podcast! Take a listen and comment with some of your thoughts! Thanks again Paul! Transcript coming soon!
“…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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.