The King and I
First and Last, Thrice Over
By Desmond Reddick
04 February 2009 — By 1975, Jack had had a long, creative and successful run at DC Comics. In the previous five years, he'd created the Fourth World, The Demon, Kamandi, OMAC and had rebooted the Golden Age Sandman with his now 30-year collaborator Joe Simon. This run is seen as pivotal to both the start of the Bronze Age and the creative boom of the 1970s.
It's no surprise that his triumphant return to Marvel Comics the next year gave him the creative clout he'd always wanted on books like Captain America, The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur. But there are little lost nuggets of greatness that suffered from the creative boom of the 70s, and, in some way, led to the crash that was to come. The crash nearly ruined DC and caused the cancellation of both Mister Miracle and Kamandi. But thanks to eBay and DC's huge print runs of the period, many of these undiscovered gems can still be bought for reasonable prices.
My name is Desmond Reddick and I am a Kirbyphile. In this column, I'll be breaking things down into three sections: the good, the bad and the Kirby.
1st Issue Special numbers 1, 5 and 6 were published by DC Comics in April, August and September of 1975 respectively. Each featured the debut of a new property and was to be released as standalone series based on fan reception. Think of it as the 1975 version of Top Cow's Pilot Season. Only two of the 13 published properties gained their own series (Warlord and Return of the New Gods), but, as we'll discover, two of the three Kirby properties deserved a little more play than what they got. The third, well, we'll get there.
"Atlas the Great," from 1st Issue Special #1: As a boy his people were murdered by Hyssa the Lizard King. Atlas was then brought up by a nomad named Chagra after the crystal he carried outed him as one of the people of Crystal Mountain. Chagra agrees to help Atlas seek revenge in exchange for being escorted to Crystal Mountain. Very much a Conan analogue, Atlas straddles the line between virtue and violence. He would much rather smash someone into a wall than talk to them, and I like that just fine. He looks badass and his actions do not betray that look.
"Manhunter," from 1st Issue Special #5: An aged pulp hero called Manhunter is beginning to prevail by a smaller margin each time he goes after intergalactic threats and feels the call of retirement. Meanwhile, Mark Shaw is a lawyer who is frustrated at the lack of justice being meted out against the mobsters who take advantage of the legal system. When he expresses these feelings to his uncle Desmond (coincidence?), he is told about the Manhunters. With a talisman that acted like an interdimensional telephone, Shaw contacted the Grand Master of the Manhunters to say "what's up" and ended up being sent a Manhunter costume. Beats a decoder ring, I guess.
"Dingbats of Danger Street," from 1st Issue Special #6: A small street gang calling themselves the Dingbats are bystanders in a fight between a detective and a fleeing criminal, and in the process end up with an important piece of microfilm and one less member of the team. The adult-weary Dingbats reluctantly join Detective Mullins to rescue their buddy. The group is composed of Good Looks (the normal looking one), Krunch (a big lout with long hair), Non-Fat (the skinny kid who eats constantly and is so stereotypically black the colorist in this issue must have been on opium to color him so white) and Bananas (the geekiest, most blatantly racist Asian stereotype since the Yellow Claw). Think Fat Albert's gang as if created by Jack Kirby. Dingbats! Who would call themselves Dingbats? I guess it beats my old street gang's name: The Douchebags of Doomsday Row!
Atlas: There is no doubt about how big this issue is. It opens with a classic splash page of the badass Atlas. Then, you turn the page and BOOM! Double-page spread of the badass Atlas. It's like seeing a really hot girl jog by, and then being run over by a tank made of boobs. Awesome! It's a rather simple revenge quest story, but it doesn't need to be anything more than that. The art is great, the action is powerful and you really get the feeling that Atlas moves about the world in a Karloffian Frankenstein's monster kind of way. Walk, punch, walk, punch. This book is ass-kicking.
To cap it all off, Kirby has a one-page column at the back of this issue that goes into the influence of myth on modern pop culture. A great, fun read.
Manhunter: The vigilante lawmaker is only second to revenge in the order of awesomest clichés ever for me. It combined a real cinematic vibe with a classic superhero trope. While there is a marked lack of ass-kickery compared to the Atlas story, I think the art is more dynamic and detailed in this one.
Kirby's column in the back is inspired. His call for justice in the world combined with the plea for this story to continue is heartbreaking only because of the fact that it didn't work. This also has one of the creepiest covers Kirby ever did. Faces nailed to a cave wall should not be talking.
Atlas: It didn't get turned into an ongoing series? Well, to be honest, for how awesome this is I have trouble believing it had legs. He was very near exacting revenge at the end of this issue and after that, he was too much of an asshole to go and do good, I think. It would have required a drastic change in direction to remain relevant.
The other bad part about this is that it took 33 years for Atlas' second appearance! Though, James Robinson promises that Atlas will be an important part of the Superman universe in the months to come. I look forward to that.
Manhunter: Again, it didn't get turned into an ongoing series. This is the property that could have been very successful. Manhunter could have been the edgy lawyer turned vigilante four years before Frank Miller started his work on Daredevil.
Dingbats: You know, Kirby is maybe the medium's greatest figure and is definitely its greatest artist, but he is not infallible. Even Wayne Gretzky had a game or two where he just wasn't feeling it. This is one of those games. Besides the cardboard characters and racial stereotyping, there's not a lot to like in this story. While it does have that vibrance that his mediocre art still crackles with, it fails to pull you into the story. And that is what Kirby is best at — drawing you in. It just never happened here. The lack of a strong adult character in Detective Mullins is another tick against this issue; a boy gang story needs a strong male adult mentor, and Mullins just isn't it. The potential is there, but it wasn't explored. This is a rare stinker in an illustrious career.
Atlas: The sweeping arcs of speed and flying bodies and ridiculous headdresses are all major trademarks of Kirby's style, but here is where we see the reoccurrence of the gruff hero like Orion and Thing before him. Atlas is equally blue-eyed but a lot less lovable.
Manhunter: This one hearkens back to Kirby's Golden Age roots while still retaining the intricate machinery and set-dressing we first started seeing in places like Castle Doom in Latveria. The action is pure Kirby, with bodies stretched in positions that seem unreasonable until you actually realize it looks more like a snapshot of action as it happens as opposed to an exaggerated representation of it.
Dingbats: Romance, superhero, war, horror. All genres Jack Kirby, and his longtime collaborator Joe Simon, created or redefined. The boy gang may well have been created by them, too. The Newsboy Legion, Boy Commandoes and Boys Ranch are all cheesy properties, but there is a streetwise honesty and innocence that pervades these books that "Dingbats" just failed to capture. At least it wasn't as bad as Joe Simon's 1st Issue Special featuring a Boy Gang: The Green Team.
Final thoughts: I'll end this triple-sized Kirby one-shot bonanza by saying that I believe at least two of these would have made excellent ongoing series. Why didn't they? Mike Grell's Warlord proved that the stranger in a strange land idea needs an air of humanity, which "Atlas" may have lacked. And it appears that the readers of DC were unable to see Jack for who he was: a constant innovator. When he wanted to go back to the drawing board, people would rather have seen a new creative team on the freshly cancelled New Gods series than they did a new property by the man who gave them said series in the first place. Jack Kirby, a victim of his own creativity.