Wednesday, 6 January 2016

JACK KIRBY'S DC MAGS - FANTASTIC, OR FLOPS?


Images copyright DC COMICS

Back in the early '70s, I initially wasn't too impressed by JACK
KIRBY's FOURTH WORLD output at DC COMICS.  It took me
a while to warm to it, and even after I did, I still preferred his stuff at
MARVEL.  To be honest, if it hadn't been for the fact that one of his
books was JIMMY OLSEN (and therefore included SUPERMAN),
I may never have bothered taking a second look at his other DC
titles, resulting in me somewhat revising my opinion of them.


Despite the rewriting of history that some people are prone to these
days, Jack's DC books were, in the main, flops.  Which is not to say that
they were completely without merit (or entertainment value), but looked
at in the context of the times (and measured against the expectations of
their commercial performance), they failed to hit the bullseye.


Look at the facts:  Jimmy Olsen, 15 issues;  NEW GODS, 11 issues;
FOREVER PEOPLE, 11 issues;  MISTER MIRACLE, 18 issues.  His
other mags didn't fare much better, with The DEMON lasting 16 issues,
and OMAC a mere 8.  The one exception was KAMANDI, which lasted
for 40 issues before Kirby left, although #38-40 were scripted by
GERRY CONWAY.  (The series ended with #59.)


What were the reasons for the lacklustre reception of Kirby's DC
books then?  Part of the problem, I believe, is that there was a popular
misconception being promulgated at the time that the 'King' was solely
responsible for everything good at Marvel.  "Forget STAN LEE" seemed
to be the cry in some circles - Jack was 'the man'.  Deprive Marvel of Jack
and it would inevitably crumble, employ him at DC and sales would surely
soar.  I'm reminded of the proverb about building one's house on sand.
If that was DC's motivation in luring Jack over to their ranks, it was
doomed to failure from the start, being based on nothing more
than an illusion, spread by a handful of Kirby sycophants.


Some people point to the fact that Jack's DC creations are still
around today in some form, either in reprints or 'reimaginations', but
the present situation doesn't necessarily contradict the realities of the
past.  None of his DC characters under other hands have attained any
kind of longevity in their various revivals, and seem to spring more from
a nostalgic affection on the part of people who want to play with Kirby's
toys (and relive their own youth in the process) than any patent appeal.
There's also a voracious appetite for collected editions nowadays that
needs to be fed, and hey - Jack's stuff was bought and paid for
years ago, so one assumes it's a cost-effective enterprise.


Don't take me the wrong way 'though.  Jack Kirby was one of
the most important creative forces in comicbook history, and when
he was at the top of his game, there was no one who could touch him.
However, he didn't remain at the top of his game for his entire career,
and much of his later work - measured against the standard of his
own earlier accomplishments - didn't really cut the mustard and
were hardly the finest examples of the medium.


Rabid Jack Kirby fans will disagree with me of course, as the
object of their deification could do no wrong in their eyes, but to
those who are more discerning in their evaluations, the King's reign
was chiefly during the '60s, when, along with Stan Lee, he ruled a
comicbook kingdom containing magic without measure. 

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful piece as usual Kid. I absolutely loved the hippy-nuttiness of these creations at the time. Mr. Miracle was the most sane along with Kamandi (which was so much like Planet of the Apes, it was unbelievable no-one was sued). I was really sad to see them die a death - and of course the padded comics of those years with heavy reprints from earlier DC work might well have put some readers off. Now THAT would make a great research project!
Norman

Kid said...

As you'll know, Norman, Carmine Infantino tried to secure the comicbook rights to Planet of the Apes, but Marvel beat him to it. He therefore instructed Jack to come up with a similar premise, which he did, utilizing elements he'd conceived years before. The reprints may have put some people off (personally, I loved them), but it was perhaps more likely to have been the price, as Marvel mags were 5 cents cheaper. Thanks for commenting.

TC said...

Even when I was twelve, I was turned off by all the hype ("Kirby Is Coming!!!") in DC's ads even before the comics themselves premiered. And DC was trying too hard to be hip and cool and trendy.

I actually liked the Golden Age reprints (at least they were not pretentious) better than the new stuff. But DC seemed to give all the credit for those to Kirby, ignoring Joe Simon. Just as they seemed to think that Kirby was solely responsible for the popularity of Silver Age Marvel. (No one person deserves all of the credit for Marvel's success. That goes for Kirby as well as for Stan Lee.)

I never could get interested in the whole "War of the Gods" scenario, for some reason. And Kamandi was so obviously derivative that, like Norman, I'm surprised that there wasn't a lawsuit. Mister Miracle had some potential, because he could be used as a straight superhero, and was not so tied to the New Gods premise, but his gimmick (escape artist) was limiting and formulaic.

I've no idea how much of a factor the higher cover price was. It might have made a difference to preteen kids, who were a big part of the comic book audience back then. But I doubt if the New Gods and Forever People appealed to younger kids, anyway.

By 1970, DC was consciously imitating Marvel, and the results were not always good. And Marvel fans saw no reason to buy the imitation when they already had the real thing.

Kelly Friesen said...

Wow! This is quite a brave outlook on these so-called DC "epics". Since I actually purchased one or two issues of New Gods and Mister Miracle when they first hit the newsstands back in the 1970's, I actually came to a similar conclusion way back then. The fantastic concepts and the awe-inspiring artwork enticed me to buy the comics but the writing and story pacing were just so awkward that I couldn't enjoy the stories. I get that same feeling when I try to read the new DC or Marvel series that Neal Adams has been putting out recently. Nothing can replace a really good comic book writer (like Stan Lee and Roy Thomas) to tie the artwork into a story that is spellbinding enough to get me to plunk my money down for the next issue.

Phil said...

The Fourth World books had an obvious flaw. Kirby didn't write in English as it is spoken. Also 5p for a colour comic seems so reasonable in retrospect .
I read Kamandi and the Demon. New Gods the obvious super hero comic didn't make a lick of sense to me.

J.H. Bromley said...

Fantastic!! The Fourth World was Kirby at the peak of his career. Amazing concepts on every page nearly. An incredible time to be a DC fan. Swamp Thing was around then too with Wrightson, and Neal Adams on Batman, Joe Kubert on Tarzan, all those mystery books with the Filipino artists. Wonderful wonderful times!

Kid said...

Interesting comments so far, everybody. Anyone else like to contribute?

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

I thought the ideas were very good and imaginative (well it was Kirby) for all these titles but there was something missing (dare I suggest Stan Lee) in the delivery of the stories. I think he should have worked with an experienced writer / dialogue writer (if comics have those) and it would have had a very different animal. I found the main characters in the New Gods, Forever People , OMAC (and to a lesser extent Mr Miracle) difficult to have any empathy with . However I really liked Kamandi and Jimmy Olsen - the Demon had potential and some great issues but the constant rhyming hacked me off. Definitely not flops but his title like Justice Inc and Sandman etc were (imho) – no matter what the man was never boring.

jeirich said...

For me, Kirby's work at DC was magic. I encountered these books at exactly the right time in my life, starting at around 10 years of age. For me, they were more impactful than just about any other comics, ever. Kirby's unparalleled imagination, his quirky yet effective writing and of course the dynamism of his art all combined in my young brain to open a world of possibilities. I think this is particularly true for Kamandi, at least until about issue 30 or so. Forty years on, in my mind they still have a mythic resonance.

Graham said...

My favorites were Kamandi, Our Fighting Forces, and Mister Miracle. I was late coming to New Gods and Forever People. They were gone by the time I really started reading, I got a couple of Jimmy Olsen issues at a yard sale of some kind, one of them was with Don Rickles and was a bit weird. The Demon was interesting, but I wasn't able to get all of the issues at the time and I completely missed OMAC.

To me, Kirby was about to burst with ideas. I think that he was ahead of his time in some ways. He really needed a writer to help him get his ideas across.....especially his dialogue. It didn't bother me as bad in Kamandi for some reason, but it was pretty stiff and dated in the others.

Rip Jagger said...

The Fourth World was the peak of Kirby's creativity. He never did a more compelling nor more important story. That said Kamandi did find a solid enough readership (for the 70's) and Demon is a hoot. By the end of Kirby's tenure at DC, you can see his skills are slipping.

Rip Off

The Source said...

Just look at those covers. Every one is a masterpiece. If they were flops it was only because most readers were too stupid to appreciate Kirby unchained.

Kid said...

A very astute observation, TC, as always. It's interesting that, in the one-page essays Kirby wrote for his DC mags, I don't think he referred to Joe Simon once, preferring to give the impression that he'd done it all himself.

******

Yup, I tend to agree with you, KF. Kirby 'unchained' didn't always lead to the best results. Clearly he thought the ideas were the thing, but the way the story is told is also important.

******

Most of Jack's mags tended to have that flaw, Phil - sadly.

******

I think Kirby had already peaked by this time, JHB. It was mostly downhill after he left Marvel.

******

Kirby never seemed to have any trouble coming up with ideas, McS, but he was mainly using themes he's picked up from other sources. (DNA, Clones, etc.) I've always thought that most of his DC characters would never have got their own books at Marvel, at least not without first appearing as supporting characters in some of the established mags. (That's probably why Jimmy Olsen is my favourite out of the DC mags he worked on.) Perhaps DC would've been better building up an interest in them by doing it that way?

******

I suppose, at ten, perhaps never having experienced Jack's Marvel work, it's understandable why the books made an impression on you, J. And looking at them now, you're reminded of that happy period from childhood, but I think that New Gods and Forever people were far from his best work. (You're still allowed to like them 'though.)

******

Funnily enough, G, I found most of his dialogue on the Olsen mags closer to Stan Lee's than the other titles. Of course, Superman was a big plus for the mag, and I wonder if the others would've lasted even as long as they did without him being involved in some way. Sure, Kirby had plenty of ideas, but sometimes I think he'd have been better to say 'nah!' to some of them.

******

I dunno, Rip. The whole idea of the Fourth World never really grabbed me for some reason. It might've worked as a story plot in a couple of magazines, but I think it was stretched too thin. And the dialogue and captions - ouch.

******

Regarding the covers, effective certainly, but hardly masterpieces, Superman (JO) is far too big in relation to the motorbike hitting him, even allowing for foreshortening. Orion's body is too long and his legs are too short on the NG cover, Kamandi's cover is based on a piece of art by someone else, The Demon's knee is absurdly lumpen, and Omac is an illustrated piece of lettering. If the mags were flops (which they were), maybe it's because Kirby wasn't giving readers what they were looking for. Now if only Stan had scripted them.

The Source said...

Yeh if Stan had scripted Kamandi maybe it would have run as long as Silver Sufer. Oh wait, Kirby's Kamandi ran for far longer. Furthermore you can't slate Kirby's figure work, he wasn't trying to draw realistic figures. The Omac cover works as a piece of design incorporating the lettering. You of all people should know that!

Kirby was King. Always will be.

Kid said...

Let's see now, Stan scripted FF - was still around 'til fairly recently; Stan scripted Thor - still around today; Stan scripted Spider-Man - still around today. Yet you ignore all the positives and focus on one negative. And even then, although the Silver Surfer's own mag lasted for only 18 issues, he enjoyed a much higher profile in the Marvel Universe over the years than Jack's characters did in the DCU. And doesn't ol' Norrin have his own magazine today? Yet DC's revival of The Forever People lasted only 9 issues. H'mm, not really making your case, are you? As for Kirby not trying to draw realistic figures, my point is that he SHOULD have been. And whether he was or not, his later work just didn't cut it, ether art-wise or story-wise (Hunger Dogs anyone?). As for the Omac cover, perhaps the 'design' HAD to incorporate the lettering because it was a little lacklustre in the art department. It could've been better. And remember - it was Stan who crowned Kirby 'King'. The Source, eh? Of what? Absurdity? However, as you don't seem to know how to express your blind devotion to Jack without insulting those who don't share your delusion ('most readers were too stupid'), you've shot your last bolt on this blog, so there's no point in you responding further.

B McMolo said...

"Omac is an illustrated piece of lettering"

If they put that on the cover as a blurb, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

I've always loved many of the ideas of Kirby's DC stuff, but it's kind of a tough slog. I think I prefer Walt Simonson's take on the New Gods to Jack's, and the recent New 52 OMAC to the original as well. It's telling, though, that even these attempts failed to land with a huge audience. I think the Fourth World stuff is a niche market.

The Kamandi World Map is probably better than any individual issue of the series ever was. As with the Fourth World - some really cool ideas, but intermittent execution.

I think it all might work as a rebooted HBO series of some kind, though. (But, what wouldn't?)

Kid said...

Actually, I quite enjoyed Jack's stuff at DC (eventually) - it's just that I think his '60s Marvel work was better. If anything, Jack's DC mags proved that it's not always having ideas which counts, it's what you do with them. It's telling that neither Kirby or Ditko had the same level of success with their post-Marvel stuff. The absence of Stan Lee was a factor in their relative failure, I'd venture to say.

Christopher Nevell said...

I didn't like it then and I don't like it now. But he was brilliant all the same and remains one of my favourite artists (at his peak).

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

I think Kirbys work on the FF around the time of the introduction of the Silver Surfer etc was his high point and his Thor (Magog etc) was up there as well - I think you can see Kirby's more (focused) creative side here (Stan helping him there imho). I did really like Kirbys Fourth World covers (except OMAC) they were (to me) filled with more promise that the interior work 9as good as it was).

Kid said...

I'd say that was my view as well, Chris. If he hadn't been so good (helped by his inkers of course), then his later, less impressive work wouldn't have been so noticeable in contrast.

******

Kirby's work took on a more cosmic scope around the time you refer to, McS, and, of course, being inked by Sinnott on FF and Colletta on Thor imbued his pencils with something extra. However, I think his work was at his absolute best on Challengers of the Unknown when he was inked by Wood. And I really liked some of his early issues of FF, Thor and Avengers when Dick Ayers was inking what I suspect were tighter pencils by Kirby. Stuff like Hunger Dogs and Captain Victory were immense in their awfulness in my opinion. They looked as if they were drawn by someone who was trying - but failing - to emulate Kirby, rather than Jack himself. Age and illness, alas.

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

I used to get the "Challengers of the Unknown" comic regualarly that DC reprinted in the 70s and the later one after that in the early 80's (one had a fantastic Mikle Nasser cover) I will need to check out City Centre comics and see if I can pick these up again - I agree Kirbys "Challengers" work (in the reprint editions) was really good.


Kid said...

I don't think I was aware of that reprint comic at the time (although I've got one issue now) - it was the DC Special containing Challengers strips that brought them to my attention. If you compare the strips not inked by Wood with the ones he did ink, the difference is startling. Good as Kirby was, McS, he was even better when paired with the right inker.

Dougie said...

I agree with Jeirich: I was about 8 or 9 years old when I first encountered the Fourth World and those comics seemed more mature and dark than 71-72 Marvel. ( Note- "seemed") They were also slightly easier to find (especially in EK) as soon as UK Marvel stemmed the influx of colour titles. I was disappointed when Forever People and New Gods ended although they had sometimes unsettled me.
The Demon was a favourite for a while: it seemed like an "acceptable" alternative to Son of Satan and Marvel characters that would've appalled my parents. Omac was more action-based and although I read four issues, it never grabbed me. I followed Kamandi as well as I could during '75-76 however and was really enthusiastic about Kirby's return with Eternals when I was 12/13.
However, I found the pace very slow compared to the Fourth World and I thought Captain America was ludicrous and 2001's Mr, Machine childish. I never bought Devil Dinosaur or Black Panther because I never saw them on sale.
I did buy a couple of issues of Captain Victory in the early 80s but the style seemed rather dated by then. So I'd say I was the right age for Kirby's DC work to have an impact on me.

Kid said...

Had Jack offered the Fourth World concept (and Omac, and The Demon) to Marvel, I doubt that Stan would have allowed each title a mag of its own. I suspect their stories, initially at least, would have been played out as subplots in the pages of FF. For some curious reason, I could never really relate to any of Kirby's DC characters; with the possible exception of Mr. Miracle, they all seemed a bit second-rate. Perhaps it was because Jack's quirky style of dialogue didn't lend itself to bestowing any degree of charisma to the characters' personalities. I'd say leaving Marvel was a huge mistake from Jack's point of view. His crown no longer seemed to fit. His DC work was okay, it just wasn't (in the main) anything brilliant to the degree that his Marvel stuff had been.

Phil said...

First let's not equate longevity with quality. Sometimes it's related, sometimes not.
Second the New Gods concept wouldn't work at Marvel because it means the death of the old gods meaning no more Thor. I guess it could have been an alternate universe but they didn't do that in 1970.

Kid said...

What we're doing here is looking at the cold hard facts, Phil. Only one of Jack's DC mags (Kamandi) made it past 20 issues. They failed to perform as expected and were cancelled - in that sense, they were flops. And, considering that Marvel has more than one pantheon of gods (Asgard, Olympus, The Eternals, etc.) which are, to some extent, seemingly contradictory, then the New Gods stuff could have been fitted into the Marvel Universe with just a little tweaking. Incidentally, Marvel DID do alternate universes in the '70s - even earlier if you accept the notion that time travel into the past created an alternate 'future' while leaving the original unchanged.

Britt Reid said...

"Stan scripted FF - was still around 'til fairly recently; Stan scripted Thor - still around today; Stan scripted Spider-Man - still around today."

Jack drew FF - was still around 'til fairly recently; Jack drew Thor - still around today; Steve Ditko drew Spider-Man - still around today.

At Marvel, literally all the material was collaborative. Stan & Jack, Stan & Steve, Stan & Don (Heck), etc...
So, when you're giving Stan his well-deserved credit for those characters, please give the artists who co-created them equal credit.

In truth, Kirby needed a strong editor and someone who could do more naturalistic dialogue.
When he worked with someone, like Lee, who could do that, the team was unbeatable.
Conversely, Lee needed an artist who could take his often bare-bones plots and expand them with additional elements (as Kirby did when he introduced the Silver Surfer into the "Coming of Galactus" plotline.)

"Marvel DID do alternate universes in the '70s - even earlier if you accept the notion that time travel into the past created an alternate 'future' while leaving the original unchanged."

Most of them (like the alternate universe of Avengers #56 and Annual #2) disappeared when the timeline was corrected.)
IIRC, the first one that actually stayed intact was the Squadron Supreme's world introduced (with them) in Avengers #85-86.

Kid said...

And I always do give the artists credit, Britt, and that credit is implicit in what I said. However, I mentioned Stan's scripting in particular because that was what 'The Source' was questioning. Also, I was comparing Lee/Kirby Marvel comics with Kirby/Kirby DC comics, and the fact that Lee & Kirby's Marvel titles enjoyed a good long run (even after both men had departed them), whereas Kirby's solo DC titles didn't. Having said that, in view of the relative lack of success of Jack's solo books, I think it's legitimate to wonder if the Marvel books would have lasted so long had he scripted them himself. Remember, Jack's art was never a problem (not until much later), it was only ever his idiosyncratic captions and dialogue which turned off a lot of readers.

On the question of alternate universes, I suppose it's really a moot point as to whether Marvel had them in the '60s or '70s. If they'd wanted to do the Fourth World stuff (assuming Jack had offered it to them), creating an alternate pantheon of 'old gods' for the New Gods to replace wouldn't have been a problem, regardless of whether Marvel had any at that point or not.

Britt Reid said...

"Also, I was comparing Lee/Kirby Marvel comics with Kirby/Kirby DC comics, and the fact that Lee & Kirby's Marvel titles enjoyed a good long run (even after both men had departed them)".

Which of Lee's non-Marvel projects have been wildly-successful beyond their launches?

The problem with comparing is that Lee was a writer/editor, while Kirby wrote/edited and illustrated, but didn't write for others to draw, so there's no way to do a direct comparison between the two creators' output.
Together, they were a once-in-a-millenium phenomenon.
Seperately, (or in Lee's case, with other comic illustrators), they were both among the top echelon of creators.

"On the question of alternate universes, I suppose it's really a moot point as to whether Marvel had them in the '60s or '70s."

Two of the factors Silver Age Marvel emphasized to differentiate themselves from DC was tight story continuity/interaction between titles and no alternate (Earth-Two, etc) universes or Imaginary Stories, at least until the 1970s.
Today, after decades of "events" that unsucessfully-tried to clean it up, "continuity" is a dirty word at both companies...

Kid said...

Well, as I wasn't referring to any of Lee's non-Marvel projects in the context under discussion, it hardly matters. This conversation is specifically about Kirby material in collaboration with Lee, compared to Kirby material produced by himself. (And that's the only comparison I'm making.) 'The Source' used Lee's scripting of the Silver Surfer's 18 issue run as an example of failure. (Although perhaps it should be pointed out that the mag wasn't cancelled until after Kirby drew what became the last issue.) I merely pointed out that most Lee/Kirby productions enjoyed longevity, not only while both men worked on the titles, but long after they left. It should also be remembered that after Kirby and Ditko left Marvel, sales on FF and Spidey actually increased - while still being scripted by Lee, note. We can only look at what we have in front of us: Kirby solo books didn't last - Kirby books in collaboration with Lee enjoyed, in the main, good long runs (SS #18 being the exception). That at least suggests that Stan Lee's involvement was an important factor in the books' successes. Kirby had greater success with Lee than without, as did Ditko. Lee may not have created any character of note without them, but while he still scripted FF and Spidey, etc., they didn't dip in popularity.

You'll note that I said that Marvel allowed for the concept of alternate universes in the '70s. The first time I was aware if it was FF #118 (on sale in October '71), in which Ben Grimm travels to another dimension. (I'm using 'alternate universes' and 'other dimensions' in a synonymous way, of course.) However, even in the '60s, Doctor Strange travelled to different dimensions/universes all the time. However, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter (moot point), because I was responding to Phil's view that Marvel would never have published New Gods (if it had been offered to them, that is) because they didn't 'do' alternate universes', which is what would've been required in order not to have to bring Asgard and Olympus to an end. In fact, as the Asgardians and the Olympians are essentially the same gods (or Norse and Greek interpretations of the same gods), there's an example of alternate universes right there. Zeus and Odin are the same person, so the notion of a 'built-in' alternate universe is required to accommodate both of them co-existing.

However, the main point I was making (which I repeat) is this: had Marvel decided to publish New Gods, and had they thought that it required an 'alternate' pantheon of 'old gods' to do so, that wouldn't have been a problem.

As for DC's attempts to clean up continuity, they simply ended up with more confusion than before. I haven't followed Marvel's attempts to do the same thing, so I'm blissfully unaware (in the main) of how they've b*llsed things up, thank goodness.

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