Jack Kirby’s 10 Kirbiest Creations
In this, the week that The Avengers rock your world on the big screen, Badass Digest has already paid tribute to the genius of Jack Kirby, the artist and writer who co-created Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Hulk, as well as virtually every other Marvel character of note. But what about Kirby's other creations, the ones that were too weird or too cosmic – too Jack Kirby – to get a sniff of cinematic infamy? Here's our rundown of Kirby's ten Kirbiest creations...
The Vagabond Prince
Created during Kirby's post-war partnership with Joe Simon, the Vagabond Prince was one of many costumed crimefighters who failed to survive into the Silver Age. In this case, it's easy to see why. The Vagabond Prince is Ned Oaks, a humble poet who pens rhymes for greeting cards. It turns out he's actually the rightful owner of the land that his home town, the New Orleans-alike Esten City, is built on. Gangsters discover this fact before Oaks, and try to intimidate him into signing the land over to them. He resists, they rough him up and he ends up roaming skid row, where the hobos laugh at this bedraggled figure who claims to own the city. The Prince teamed up with a slum kid, who takes the rather grand sidekick name of Chief Justice, and some dude called Jester, and together they proceeded to sock crime square in the jaw for as many issues as the public would allow. Which wasn't many.
It's not a bad origin story for a pulp crimefighter, but it's hard to guess just what Simon and Kirby were thinking when they came up with the Prince's impossibly camp costume. Looking for all the world like he should be leading a high school marching band, he also recited a lot of poetry and talked in Olde Worlde cliches because when you look like that, why not?
Of course, Kirby had far stranger treats in store...
Lo-Karr, Bringer of Doom
In the pre-Marvel years, Kirby turned out dozens of monster strips and in doing so cemented his style as a purveyor of distinctive lumpen creatures. All had evocative names – Goom! Groot! Grottu! - and usually turned out to be the secret vanguards of yet another alien invasion, sent packing by the plucky hero or sheer bad luck.
Any of Kirby's creatures would be a worthy entry in our list, but Lo-Karr is a particularly interesting example as he's clearly a prototype for The Thing, from the orange rock exterior right down to the blue shorts. Sadly, the design was refined by the time Fantastic Four rolled around, so Ben Grimm missed out on the fabulous fur collar and eye beams. A prime example of Kirby's chunky, tactile penmanship, Lo-Karr is a pleasing collection of bulges and lumps, looking for all the world as if he's been sculpted from clay and pressed into the page rather than drawn there.
Fin Fang Foom
Marvel revived and reused many of Kirby's monsters over the years, but only one became a star in his own right. Debuting in Strange Tales #89 in October 1961, just one month before the Fantastic Four kickstarted Marvel's Silver Age superheroes, Foom was an alien dragon who crashed in Ancient China. His origin story was typical monster comic fare, though he would go on to be folded into the mainstream Marvel continuity through appearances opposite Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and others.
But let's look at what Kirby brought to the character. Foom looks like a dragon, sort of. He has the long neck and wings we've come to expect from dozens of fairy tales. But he also has that face. It's expressive and interesting, with aspects of the old Oriental wise man cliché woven in among the reptilian features. He's the Smaug of the Silver Age, a being of immense power and intelligence trapped in a monstrous form. And he wears purple shorts. The amazing thing about Fin Fang Foom isn't that he exists, but that we look at him and go “Yeah, that makes sense.” Comics!
Kirby's imaginative eye for monster design perhaps reached its peak with this utterly bizarre Marvel villain from 1968. According to his debut story, published in issue 154 of Thor, Mangog was created by the combined hatred of the billions of beings killed by Odin throughout history. That alone is enough to make him a unique proposition, but trust Kirby to go above and beyond for the visuals.
With his bull-shaped head and weird pincers for hands, his yellow jumpsuit and purple shorts (always with the purple shorts!) there's very little about Mangog that makes sense. In that sense, he's the very embodiment of the Silver Age that Kirby helped to define. Monsters didn't have to make sense. We didn't need to look at them and understand how they evolved, or what function their various mutated body parts performed. They just had to look freaky and be strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the hero. Mangog was all that, and more.
Where Mangog represented Kirby's aesthetic turned up to eleven, the Awesome Android found him stripping his visual style back to the bare essentials. So many of his creatures had a doughy, clay- like look but this synthetic henchman, built by Fantastic Four villain The Mad Thinker, was literally a lump. No face, no features, just a big square head and chunky limbs. His malleable appearance was echoed in his personality, which is to say he didn't have one and existed only to do his master's wicked bidding. Over the years, the Awesome Android – his name obviously drawn from the original “awe inspiring” definition of the word, not the fist-bump modern usage – clashed with everyone from the X-Men, Iron Man and ROM.
In a wry twist that Kirby would probably have enjoyed, the Awesome Android was redeemed during Dan Slott's run on Sensational She-Hulk, liberated from Mad Thinker's control via a lawsuit and given a job working in the offices of law firm Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway. Lieber and Kurtzberg were, of course, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original surnames.
Ego the Living Planet
For a WW2 veteran from the East Side of Brooklyn, Kirby's sensibilities were very much in tune with the spaced-out mind-expanding ethos of the hippies. Even coming up on his fiftieth birthday, Kirby's interest in matters cosmic had steered the likes of Fantastic Four and Thor into ever weirder directions, building up to the introduction of Galactus in Fantastic Four #48 in March 1966. The notion of vast cosmic gods was a theme he'd return to time and time again, but few of his creations embody that concept as purely as Ego.
Created only months after he'd unleashed Galactus, Silver Surfer and Uatu the Watcher in the pages of Fantastic Four, Ego was literally a planet with a face. Like so many Kirby characters, he roamed the universe, feeding on other planets. This, eventually brought him into conflict with Thor, who was recruited by Rigellian colonists to stop him from devouring their home. What goes around comes around, and Galactus shows up, ready to snack on Ego in turn. Thor helps Ego repel Galactus, and Ego graciously agrees to allow the Wanderers, the nomadic race left homeless by Galactus's very first meal, to live on his surface. Marvel never revealed who got to live on the ass.
You could easily fill this list with characters from The Fourth World, Kirby's ambitious and allegorical cosmic DC mythology from the early 1970s. Indeed, Godfrey almost lost his spot to Granny Goodness, the evil octogenarian battleaxe who trained orphans to fight for Darkseid, and was surely the inspiration for Futurama's Mom character.
Godfrey wins out because he's a perfect example of Kirby's subversive streak. While fellow Silver Age pioneer Steve Ditko drifted into didactic Objectivist screeds, Kirby's solo work proved much more groovy and rebellious. Glorious Godfrey was, essentially, Darkseid's propagandist, using his special power of persuasion to spread the “Anti-Life” doctrine.
With his wavy hair, wide grin and flowing white clothes, Godfrey's “vigorous dynamo of belief” was clearly a satire on the new wave of charismatic televangelists that began filling the airwaves in the late 1960s and early 1970s, led by Billy Graham. But Kirby also drew on imagery reminiscent of Nazi rallies to make his point about the dangers of charismatic demagogues hiding their repellent ideas inside insidious platitudes. As an American Jew who had served in World War II, liberating a concentration camp, he clearly had a deeper perspective on that than most of his younger contemporaries at the time. That he smuggled this withering critique of extremism inside a sprawling cosmic soap opera is just further evidence of his genius.
The New Seed
Kirby's fascination with cosmic theology eventually led to a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of comics, literature and movies.
In 1976, almost ten years after the movie came out, Jack Kirby ended up writing and drawing what was surely a dream project for him: the official comic book adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for Marvel. That, in itself, is amazing. The fact he was then able to pick up the torch bequeathed by Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke and run away with it in his own monthly spin-off is nothing short of miraculous. Hey, it was the 1970s. Shit got wacky.
Kirby's adaptation of the original story is a fun curio, but nothing compared to what followed, as Kirby imagined the Star Child as a benevolent God-like observer, a giant-headed baby floating through the cosmos, witnessing and commenting on the highs and lows, the good and bad, of organic life. As with Clarke's text and Kubrick's film, death and rebirth was a common theme of the book, which often involved stories with a strong political or spiritual subtext.
Given Marvel's tendency to absorb everything it touches – this is, after all, a company that has adopted numerous mythological gods as well as Frankenstein's Monster - Kirby's 2001 fan-fiction eventually leaked into mainstream Marvel continuity. The character of Machine Man, a sentient robot introduced in 2001 #8, went on to have his own Kirby-penned solo series and was soon crossing paths with the other Marvel heroes.
Ultimately, the New Seed isn't one of Kirby's greatest creations. Its look was dictated by Hollywood, and its character was really little more than a combination of the Silver Surfer and Uatu the Watcher, two Marvel characters that Kirby had already created. But that's almost beside the point, since few could argue that a Kirby/Kubrick/Clarke mashup shouldn't be treasured and celebrated.
Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy
This perennial cult Marvel character is kind of a no-brainer in the visual department. A giant bright red T-Rex? With a name that sounds like the most awesome metal band ever? Devil Dinosaur, and his oft-forgotten hair-covered sidekick Moon-Boy, was always destined for cult success.
Kirby wrote and pencilled all nine issues of Devil Dinosaur's initial run himself, back in 1978, but the idea had clearly been kicking around in his head for some time – back in 1961 he'd already illustrated a story in Amazing Adventures #3 where a pair of time travellers encounter a red tyrannosaur. A riff on such movies as One Million Years BC, it found the unlikely duo of mutant dino and plucky cave-lad battling prehistoric foes in the aptly named Dinosaur World.
The character never took off as a standalone title – it was intended to lead into an animated TV show – but like so many of Kirby's weirder creations, Devil Dinosaur endured in the sidelines,making memorable cameos. In one memorable crossover, the year after Devil Dinosaur's own series folded, he teamed-up with Godzilla during his time in the Marvel Comics stable. He's still popular today, as Warren Ellis gave him a crowd-pleasing turn in his acclaimed Nextwave, as the head of a terrorist organisation who devoured Moon-Boy, leading to “considerable rectal distress”. Conservative as ever, Marvel later explained that this Devil Dinosaur was a clone.
The Dingbats of Danger Street
Finally, a reminder that while his mind may have been exploring the cosmos, Kirby's heart belonged to the streets. The “kid gang”, a perennial comic concept in the 1940s, was already out of favour in 1975 when Kirby created the Dingbats for DC so it's no surprise that this “1st Issue Special” was their only outing.
There were four in the gang – Good Looks, the leader, Krunch, the tough guy, Non-Fat, a skinny kid with an enormous appetite and Bananas, an Asian kid with mental issues whose slanted eyes and goofy teeth made him look like he should be getting punched out by Captain America in 1943.
While their first adventure was comedic in tone, it did pit the gang against two costumed criminals – Jumping Jack and the Gasser – and featured as many action scenes as pratfalls. It's an uneven mix, too goofy for a country still reeling from Watergate and Vietnam, but lacking the honest pluck of a genuine 1940s strip. Kirby was 58 when he created the Dingbats, and frankly, it shows. The Dingbats were quickly mothballed, and returned only briefly in 1997 for Adventures of Superman #549, where Supes had to mediate a dispute over gang hideouts. The Dingbats finally signed off this year in the last ever issue of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as Bat-Mite lists the forgotten DC characters that will go unused now that the crossover comic was ending.
That seems like an appropriate note to end on, as Kirby's creations are a poor fit for the current comic book market, dominated as it is by cynical reinventions, stories that trade in rape and mutilation for their thrills, and characters driven as much by psychosis as any heroic urges. Kirby was the Silver Age incarnate, a celebration of ideas and possibilities, unrestrained by irony or self- awareness. From dragons wearing purple pants to flying space babies, Kirby didn't just explode the panels of his comic books, he expanded the imaginations of his readers.