This is going to be less a review and more an appreciation. It should go without saying that Kirby’s Marvel work is seminal, absolutely and fundamentally integral to the company’s success in the 60s. A lot of critical attention has focused (quite rightly) on his Fantastic Four run or his phenomenal sequence of stories featuring Thor. His work on Uncanny X-Men, though less successful, is still worth a look.
To me, Kirby’s work is remarkable for three things: character design, dynamism and the sheer, overwhelming fecundity of the artist’s imagination. All three are on display in this issue.
I’ll be honest with you. Uncanny X-Men plays second fiddle to Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor and Amazing Spider-Man for a reason. Where FF and Thor manage to effortlessly conjure a pulpy sense of the sublime and Spider-Man is a wonderful character study of a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world, Uncanny X-Men is burdened with an overly earnest approach to teenage alienation whose characters’ overly respectful attitude to the patriarchal Professor X ensures that adventures are too tightly structured for the characters to develop or be realised effectively. Even the characters’ uniforms suggest a kind of conformity. There’s definitely a sense of Kirby’s imagination being constrained here. Issue 10 is a bit of an exception.
Issue 10 introduces Ka-Zar and the Savage Land to the Marvel Universe. Evidently influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (but still over a decade before its big screen adaptation), the issue sees Professor X uncharacteristically grant his graduates’ (not students at this point) request to pop down to the Antarctic for no good reason whatsoever. Having seen footage of a man in a loincloth, alongside a sabre-toothed tiger, wreaking havoc on a research base and having already established that the main in the loincloth is not a mutant, Professor X lets them go because… well, why not? Whatever his reasons (or lack of them) may be, the reader – and presumably Kirby himself – can breathe a sigh of relief as the creative gloves are off this issue and Kirby gets to show what he can do.
The plot is pretty standard fare. The team arrive in the Antarctic, find a mysterious tunnel that leads them to a primeval world, get attacked by savage swamp-men, rescue the too-powerful-to-actually-do-anything Jean Grey, destroy the swamp-men’s habitat in the process and then go home. Ka-Zar has a few moments as you might expect, but really there’s nothing particularly amazing here. Apart from the art and the little weird details that make everything else so much better.
The descent through the Antarctic tunnel is well done for a start; the team encounter a graveyard of gigantic bones which hints at the strangeness to come. Then they emerge from a cave and are immediately attacked by pterodactyls. Once that threat is dealt with both they and the reader are given a breather to take in the world to which they’ve travelled, a world where an ankylosaurus lumbers along underneath an archway of stone, while miniature horses get under Iceman’s feet. The sheer vibrancy of this bizarre world is fantastic to see.
It isn’t long, however, before the X-Men are attacked again, this time by barbaric-looking humans riding giant carnivorous avian mounts. Here, Kirby’s imagination rises to the challenge. The swamp men are not just savages on big birds; they are armed with rocks filled with volcanic gas and weird-looking bows that can fire four arrows simultaneously. They’re tactically astute enough to keep the X-Men busy while one of their number picks up a curiously inactive Jean Grey and whisks her off for a spot of human sacrifice.
The X-Men have to work with Ka-Zar to free her. The interesting thing is that there is no mention whatsoever of Ka-Zar’s Kevin Plunder identity. Indeed, Ka-Zar is barely able to string a sentence together at this point (although he nevertheless manages to make his feelings about his “no touch” rule very clear). Although Zabu is present, Shanna isn’t. This prototypical Savage Land is teeming with life, a good portion of which is unfriendly, but Ka-Zar cuts a rather lonely figure in his first appearance. This may explain why his social skills are so appalling. A misunderstanding leads to the obligatory fight between two groups of people who should really be working together (this issue comes right after the first X-Men v Avengers showdown, incidentally) and the fight is only stopped when “Maa-Gor, the Killer! Last of man-ape tribe!” makes an entrance and conveniently provides them with a common foe.
Once Maa-Gor is dispatched, there’s a really rather fantastic short journey to the swamp men’s sacrificial pyramid in which Angel’s encounter with a brontosaurus provides an impressive sense of the dinosaur’s sheer size. The Angel’s subsequent capture means that he’s added to the sacrificial running order, which adds to the sense of urgency and the feeling that the X-Men are really up against it. Particularly when the tyrannosaurus rex shows up.
Oh, come on, don’t even pretend that you’re surprised!
I’ve not done much research on this but I have the feeling that ritual sacrifice by dinosaur is one of the more inefficient methods of appeasing one’s dark, unknowable gods available to the aspiring acolyte. It certainly proves so here. Although Jean can’t manipulate her own bonds because they’re coated in pitch (really?!? Does this happen in any later X-Men books? It seems like the kind of thing Mr Sinister could do with knowing about), she can free Angel, although it is, to be fair, a close run thing. She has to mentally lob boulders at it to keep it away from the pair of them until she can turn her attention to Angel’s bonds. This sequence does raise the issue of why she can’t just lob an especially large boulder at the tyrannosaurus’ head and bash its brains out. There are, I suppose, a couple of answers to this. The first is that this is a kids’ comic and they might get upset at the sight of tyrannosaur brains in their favourite (well, second favourite, probably) comic. The second is that Jean’s a girl and has a specifically female damsel-in-distress role to fill. Don’t you worry, Jean. Emancipation (via becoming all-powerful, going mad, dying and being brought back to life, all while your former boyfriend marries someone who looks just like you) is on its way.
The last we see of the tyrannosaurus rex is its backside, by the way. This is the kind of thing that’s worth knowing. Not that you really notice because the next two pages are a gloriously throbbing actionfest of Kirby craziness, which includes Cyclops being upstaged by a herd of mammoths and Iceman rolling at least four swamp men into a snowball that actually only looks big enough to hold one of them comfortably. Having destroyed the swamp men’s village, the heroes hug and…
Ah, who am I kidding?
Ka-Zar gives the X-Men the brush-off and tells them never to come back to the Savage Land again. Which is obviously something they take to heart.
But, at least in the Savage Land no one (at the moment) cares if you’re a mutant or not. The complete absence of noble angst here is remarkably refreshing. Sure, Ka-Zar and the X-Men fight, but this isn’t because he’s an unthinking bigot and they’re super-powered mutants in a world that fears them, but because he’s alone in a prehistoric jungle deep below the antarctic wastes and both his social skills and grasp of the English language are extremely poor. I can live with that.
And you do get lots of Kirby weirdness here. Gas-filled rocks? Bird-riding enemies? Sabre-toothed tigers leaping across chasms? Maa-Gor the Killer? It’s all here and it all pulses with a vitality that, even 50+ years later, is breathtaking. Uncanny X-Men #10. A fine example of comic book storytelling. Enjoy!