Tagged: Jack Kirby

Kirby Goes Savage – Uncanny X-Men #10

_20170711_095711This 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.

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The 60s tradition of having a character describe the action as it is happening is alive and well here.

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.

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Not only is he a great fighter (and looks good in a loincloth), but apparently he’s really loud. Rock and roll!

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.

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Awesome. Just awesome.

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!

Be He Ever So Humble…

… there’s no foe like Doom.

I’ve not been hibernating, honestly!

The job has been busy and I just simply haven’t had much time to update the blog. (Oh, and I became a grandfather, too! That’s been interesting.) I’m going to try and do something about that over the next couple of weeks. There’ll be some reviews hopefully, although I will actually have to finish some books first. There’ll definitely be some fiction and there may even be some political/cultural stuff. Who knows?

In the meantime, here’s some Silver Surfer…

Last birthday, my son (I may have mentioned him already) who is something of a comic aficionado himself gave me the first Silver Surfer Epic Collection. It is, as you might expect, rather good. I’m going through a bit of a Kirby phase at the moment. My teenage disdain for his Super Powers era style has given way to a sort of awestruck wonder at Kirby’s storytelling powers and a deep sense of shame that I could have ever been that ignorant. Rather than focusing on the whole collection (which would be difficult, because – yes – I still haven’t finished it), I’m going to look at a particular moment which, I think, highlights just how good the creative team on the title at this point were.

As is invariably the case with 60s Marvel, issue 57 of the Fantastic Four, which starts the second story arc in the collection, crackles with ideas, invention and the kind of over-the-top grandiose dialogue that was typical of the era. It’s also genuinely funny, not least when the Silver Surfer is summoned to the picturesque residence of Doctor Doom.

At this point, following his dramatic introduction during the FF’s first encounter with Galactus, the Surfer is essentially exiled to wander the Earth and has decided to stop off in Latveria. Whether he already knew that he was visiting the homeland of Doctor Doom is unclear. It’s the meeting that’s important ultimately and the Lee/Kirby partnership delivers us a really rather intriguing scene between two of the most iconic characters they have ever created.

That the Surfer, for all his power, is an ingenu, largely ignorant of the political machinations of people like Doom means that the reader, while generally sympathetic to the Surfer’s moral viewpoint, is considerably more aware of the threat posed by Doom than he is. The subsequent underlying tension in the scene is handled very well. Doom starts off by trying to flatter the Surfer, but the Surfer ignores this and cuts right to the heart of what Doom is all about: “Why do you rule other humans? What quality of leadership do you possess that so sets you apart?”

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Doom’s answer is brilliantly disingenuous and is deliberately shown to be false by the creative team a couple of pages later.  Having earlier proclaimed himself to be a “servant” to his people, Doom dismisses the Silver Surfer’s offer to rebuild the portion of Doom’s castle that he’s just destroyed as a way of demonstrating just how powerful the ‘power cosmic’ can be. (Technically it’s Doom that destroys it – the Surfer has merely built the weapon that he uses. Actually, that’s pretty clever, too, now I think about it. Rather than just displaying his power with a generic blast, the Surfer builds a weapon out of thin air whose simplistic and lightweight design completely belies its effortless destructiveness. This kind of approach has already been used in Fantastic Four in the form of the Ultimate Nullifier, a potentially universe-ending weapon that can fit in the palm of Reed Richards’ hand. A similar idea is used in the first Men in Black movie for a more explicitly comedic effect.) Doom responds by saying that the Surfer doesn’t need to exert himself. He’s got “serfs” for that kind of thing.

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“Servant of the people?” Erm… right.

This moment is deliciously ironic, but also a great example of Lee and Kirby at the heights of their power. It’s memorable, genuinely amusing and reminds the reader that, while Doom’s literal mask (almost) never comes off, the self-aggrandising arrogance of the character can never be concealed for very long.