By Jack Kirby & various (DC Comics)
Jack Kirby was – and still is – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are millions of words written (such as former Kirby assistant Mark Evanier’s revelatory and myth-busting Introduction in this gloriously enthralling full-colour hardback compilation) about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.
Off course I’m going to add my own tuppence-worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for two generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable kid you were his for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the â€œKirby Expressâ€â€¦
For those of us who grew up with his work, his are the images which furnish and clutter our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think â€œrobotâ€ and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation and every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, and we are all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpantsâ€¦
In a remarkably short time Kirby and his creative partner Joe Simon became the wonder-kid dream-team of the new-born comicbook industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of the influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the first Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit Captain America.
When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were never really comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.
They turned both around virtually overnight and, once established and left to their own devices, switched to the â€œKid Gangâ€ genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe and Jack created wartime sales sensation The Boy Commandos and a Homefront iteration dubbed the Newsboy Legion before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comicbook pages since 1940.
They demobbed and returned to a very different funnybook business and soon left National to create their own little empire.
Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years. Their small stable of magazines – generated for an association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines/Essenkay/Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s. After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom.
Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging society were suppressedâ€¦
Simon quit the business for advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (then a mere back-up strip in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his long-dreamed-of newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.
During that period he also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe Simon had closed their innovative, ill-timed ventures. At the end of 1956 Showcase #6 (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) premiered the Challengers of the Unknown. After three more test issues they won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was goneâ€¦
During that brief 3-year period (cover-dated 1957-1959), Kirby also crafted a remarkably large number of short comics yarns and this fabulous tome re-presents – in originally-published order – his super-hero, mystery and science fiction shorts; culled from Tales of the Unexpected #12, 13, 15-18, 21- 24; House of Mystery #61, 63, 65, 66, 70, 72, 76, 84, 85; House of Secrets #3, 4, 8, 12; My Greatest Adventure #15- 18, 20, 21, 28; Adventure Comics #250-256; World’s Finest Comics # 96-99.
Also included is a lost gem from All-Star Western #99 plus three impressive tales produced by Simon & Kirby from 1946-1947 for Real Fact Comics #1, 2 and 6.
Records are sparse and scanty from those days when no creator was allowed a by-line, so many of these stories carry no writer’s credit (and besides, Kirby was notorious for rewriting scripts he was unhappy with drawing) but Group Editor Schiff’s regular stable of authors included Dave Wood, Bill Finger, Ed Herron, Joe Samachson, George Kashdan, Jack Miller and Otto Binder, so feel free to play the â€œwhodunitâ€ gameâ€¦
National/DC Comics was relatively slow in joining the post-war mystery comics boom. At the end of 1951 they at last launched a gore-free, comparatively straight-laced anthology which nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles: The House of Mystery (cover-dated December 1951/January 1952). Its roaring success inevitably led to a raft of similar creature-filled fantasy anthologies such as Sensation Mystery, My Greatest Adventure, House of Secrets and Tales of the Unexpected.
With the Comics Code in full effect, plot options for mystery and suspense stories were savagely curtailed; limited to ambiguous, anodyne magical artefacts, wholesomely education mythological themes, science-based miracles and straight chicanery. Stories were marvellously illustrated, rationalistic, fantasy-adventure vehicles which would dominate until the early 1960s when super-heroes (recently reinvigorated after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook themâ€¦
In this volume, following that aforementioned Introduction – describing Kirby’s three tours of duty with DC in very different decades – the vintage wonderment commences with another example of the ingenious versatility of Jack & Joe.
Originating in the wholesome and self-explanatory Real Fact Comics, ‘The Rocket-Lanes of Tomorrow’ (#1, March/April 1946) and ‘A World of Thinking Robots’ from #2 (May/June 1946) are forward-looking, retro-fabulous graphic prognostications of the â€œWorld that’s Comingâ€. A longer piece from #6 (July/August 1947) then details the history and achievements of ‘Backseat Driver’ and road-safety campaigner Mildred McKay.
These were amongst the very last strips the duo produced for National before the move to Crestwood/Pines, so we skip ahead a decade and more for Jack’s return in House of Secrets #3 (March/April 1957) and ‘The Three Prophecies’: an eerie tale of a spiritualist conman being fleeced by an even more skilful grifter until Fate takes a handâ€¦
Mythological mysticism informs the strange tale of ‘The Thing in the Box’ (House of Mystery #61, April 1957) as a salvage diver becomes obsessed with a deadly casket his captain is all too eager to dump into the ocean, after which – from the same month – Tales of the Unexpected #12 focuses on ‘The All-Seeing Eye’ wherein a journalist responsible for many impossible scoops realises that the potential dangers of the ancient artefact he employs far outweigh the benefits â€¦
In House of Secrets #4 (May/June 1957) the ‘Master of the Unknown’ seemed destined to take the big cash prize on a TV quiz show until the producer deduced his uncanny secret, after which ‘I Found the City under the City’ (My Greatest Adventure #15, from the same month) detailed how fishermen recovered the last testament of a lost oceanographer, and read of how he intended to foil an impending invasion by aquatic aliensâ€¦
From May 1957 France E. Herron & Kirby investigated ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ (Tales of the Unexpected #13): a gripping crime-caper in involving gullible men, a vibrant vital femme fatale and the quest for eternal youth. There was no fakery to ‘Riddle of the Red Roc’ (House of Mystery #63, June) as a venal explorer hatched and trained the invulnerable bird of legend creating an unstoppable thief, before succumbing to his own greed, after which My Greatest Adventure #16 (July/August) featured a truly eerie threat as an explorer was sucked into a deadly association creating death and destruction and discovered ‘I Died a Thousand Times’â€¦
That same month Unexpected #15 offered ‘Three Wishes to Doom’: a crafty thriller proving that even with a genie’s lamp, crime does not pay, after which weird science allowed a hasty scientist to transform into ‘The Human Dragon’ (HoM #65 August, with George Roussos inking his old pal Jack), although his time to repent was brief as a criminal mastermind swooped in to capitalise on his misfortuneâ€¦
There’s an understandable frisson of foreshadowing to ‘The Magic Hammer’ (Tales of the Unexpected #16 August) as it relates how a prospector finds a magical mallet capable of creating storms and goes into the rainmaking businessâ€¦ until the original owner turns upâ€¦
A smart gimmick underscores this tantalising tale of plagiarism and possible telepathy in ‘The Thief of Thoughts’ (HoM #66 September) whilst straight Sci Fi informs the tale of a hotel detective and a most unusual guest in ‘Who is Mr. Ashtar?’ (Tales of the Unexpected #17 September) before My Greatest Adventure #17 September/October 1957) reveals how aliens intent on invasion brainwashed a millionaire scientist to eradicate humanity in ‘I Doomed the World’. Happily one glaring error was madeâ€¦
In Tales of the Unexpected #18 (October) Kirby showed how an astute astronomer saved us all by outwitting an energy being with big appetites in ‘The Man Who Collected Planets’ after which in MGA #18 (November/December 1957) the comicbook Atomic Age began with ‘I Tracked the Nuclear Creature’ as a hunter sets out to destroy a macabre mineral monster created by uncontrolled fissionâ€¦
A new year dawned with Roussos inking ‘The Creatures from Nowhere!’ (House of Mystery #70, January 1958) as escaped alien beasts rampaged through a quiet town whilst in House of Secrets #8 (January/February), greed, betrayal, murder and supernatural suspense were the watchword when a killer tried to silence ‘The Cats who Knew Too Much!’
In Tales of the Unexpected #21 (also January) a smart investor proved too much for apparent extraterrestrial ‘The Mysterious Mr. Vince’ whilst a month later in Unexpected #22 the ‘Invasion of the Volcano Men’ started in fiery fury and panicked confrontation before resolving into an alliance against the uncontrolled forces of nature.
Kirby never officially worked for National’s large Westerns division, but apparently his old friend and neighbour Frank Giacoia did, and occasionally needed Jack’s legendary pencilling speed to meet deadlines. ‘The Ambush at Smoke Canyon!’ features long-running cavalry hero Foley of the Fighting 5th single-handedly stalking a band of Pawnee renegades in a rather standard sagebrush saga scripted by Herron and inked by Giacoia from All-Star Western #99 (February/March 1958).
Meanwhile in House of Mystery #72 (March) a shameless B-Movie Producer seemingly becomes ‘The Man who Betrayed Earth’ whilst in My Greatest Adventure #20 (March/April) interplanetary bonds of friendship are forged when space pirates kidnap assorted sentients and the canny Earthling saves the day in ‘I was Big-Game on Neptune’â€¦
Inadvertent cosmic catastrophe is narrowly averted in Tales of the Unexpected #23 (March) when one man realises how to make contact with ‘The Giants from Outer Space’ after which issue #24 (April) slips into wild whimsy as ‘The Two-Dimensional Man!’ strives desperately to correct his incredible condition before he is literally blown awayâ€¦
When an early space-shot brings back an all-consuming horror in My Greatest Adventure #21 (May/June 1958) two harrowed boffins realise ‘We Were Doomed by the Metal-Eating Monster’ whilst ‘The Artificial Twin’ (House of Mystery #76, July) combines mad doctor super-science with fraud and deception before House of Secrets #12 (September) sees one frantic man struggling to close ‘The Hole in the Sky’ before invading aliens use it to conquer mankindâ€¦
Also scattered throughout this extraordinary compendium of the bizarre is a stunning and bombastic Baker’s Dozen of Kirby’s fantastic covers from the period, but for most modern fans the real meat is the short, sharp sequence of super-hero shockers that followâ€¦
Green Arrow is one of DC’s golden wonders: a more or less continually running fixture of the company’s landscape – in many instances for no discernable reason – since his debut in the early days of costumed crusaders. Created by Mort Weisinger & George Papp, he premiered in More Fun Comics # 73 (November 1941) in an attempt to expand the company’s superhero portfolio.
At first he proved quite successful. With boy partner Speedy he was of the precious few masked stalwarts to survive the end of the Golden Age. His blatant blend of Batman and Robin Hood seemed to have very little going for itself, but the Emerald Archer has somehow always managed to keep himself in vogue. He carried on adventuring in the back of other heroes’ comicbooks, joined the Justice League of America at the peak of their popularity and became – courtesy of Denny O’Neil & Neal Adams – the spokes-hero of the anti-establishment generation during the 1960’s â€œRelevancy Comicsâ€ trend.
Later, under Mike Grell’s stewardship and thanks to the epic miniseries Green Arrow: the Longbow Hunters, he at last became a headliner: re-imagined as an urban predator dealing with corporate thugs and serial killers rather than costumed goof-balls. This version, more than any other, informs and underpins the TV incarnation seen in Arrow.
After his long career and a few venue changes, by the time Julie Schwartz’s revivification of the Superhero genre the Emerald Archer was a solid second feature in both Adventure and World’s Finest Comics where, as part of the wave of retcons, reworkings and spruce-ups the company administered to all their remaining costumed old soldiers, a fresh start began in the summer of 1958.
Part of that revival happily coincided with the return to National Comics of Jack Kirby.
As previously revealed in Evanier’s Introduction, after working on a number of anthological stories for Jack Schiff, the King was asked to revise the idling archer and responded by beefing up the science fictional aspects. When supervising editor – and creator – Weisinger objected, the changes were toned down and Kirby saw the writing was on the wall. He lost interest and began quietly looking elsewhere for workâ€¦
What resulted was a tantalisingly short run of eleven astounding action-packed, fantasy filled swashbucklers, the first of which was scripted by Bill Finger as ‘The Green Arrows of the World’ (Adventure Comics #251, July 1958) sees heroic archers from many nations attending a conference in Star City.
They are blithely unaware that a fugitive criminal with murder in his heart is hiding within their masked midstâ€¦
August’s #251 takes a welcome turn to astounding science fiction as Kirby scripted and resolved ‘The Case of the Super-Arrows’ wherein the Amazing Archers took possession of high-tech trick shafts sent from 3000 AD. World’s Finest Comics #96 (writer unknown) then revealed ‘Five Clues to Danger’ – a classic kidnap mystery made even more impressive by Kirby’s lean, raw illustration.
A practically unheard-of continued case spanned Adventure #252 and 253 as Dave Wood, Jack & Roz posed ‘The Mystery of the Giant Arrows’ before GA and Speedy briefly became ‘Prisoners of Dimension Zero’ – a spectacular riot of giant aliens and incredible exotic otherworlds, followed in WFC #97 (October 1958) with a grand old-school crime-caper in Herron’s ‘The Mystery of the Mechanical Octopus’.
Kirby was having fun and going from strength to strength. Adventure #254 featured ‘The Green Arrow’s Last Stand’ (by Wood): a particularly fine example with the Amazing Archers crashing into a hidden valley where Sioux braves had thrived unchanged since the time of Custer. The next issue saw the Bold Bowmen battle a battalion of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender their island bunker in ‘The War That Never Ended!’ (also by Wood).
December’s World’s Finest #98 almost ended the heroes’ careers in Herron’s ‘The Unmasked Archers’ wherein a private practical joke caused the pair to inadvertently expose themselves to public scrutiny and deadly dangerâ€¦
During those heady early days origins weren’t as important as imaginative situations, visual storytelling and just plain getting on with it, so co-creators Weisinger & Papp never bothered to provide one for their emerald innovation. That was left to later workmen Herron, Jack & Roz (in Kirby’s penultimate tale before devoting all his energies to the fabulous newspaper strip Sky Masters), filling in the blanks with ‘The Green Arrow’s First Case’ as the Silver Age superhero revival hit its stride in Adventure Comics #256 (January 1959).
Here we learned how wealthy wastrel Oliver Queen was cast away on a deserted island and learned to use a hand-made bow to survive. When a band of scurvy mutineers fetched up on his desolate shores, Queen used his newfound skills to defeat them and returned to civilisation with a new career and purposeâ€¦
Kirby’s spectacular swan-song came in WFC #99 (January 1959) with ‘Crimes under Glass’. Written by Robert Bernstein the tale saw GA and Speedy battling crafty criminals with a canny clutch of optical armaments, as the Archer steadfastly slipped back into the sedate and gimmick-heavy rut of pre-Kirby times…
By this time the King had moved on to other enterprises – Archie Comics with old pal Joe Simon and a little outfit which would soon be calling itself Marvel Comics – but his rapid rate of creation had left a number of completed tales in National’s inventory pile which slowly emerged for months thereafter and neatly wrap up this comprehensive compendium of the uncanny.
From My Greatest Adventure #28 (February 1959) ‘We Battled the Microscopic Menace!’ pitted two brave boffins against a ravening devourer their meddling with unknown forces had unleashed, whilst a month later HoM #84 revealed the terrifying struggle against ‘The Negative Man’ which saw an embattled researcher struggling against his own unleashed energy duplicate.
It all ends with an unforgettable spectacular as House of Mystery #85 (April 1959) awakens ‘The Stone Sentinels of Giant Island’ to rampage across a lost Pacific island and threaten the brave crew of a scientific survey vessel until one wise man deduces their incredible secretâ€¦
Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.
That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in every arena of artistic endeavour for generations and still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.
This collection from his transformative middle period exults in sheer escapist wonderment, and no one should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventures in that ideal setting of not-so-long-ago in a simpler, better time and place than ours.
Â© 1946, 1947, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.