A birthday salute: The King was born 103 years ago…
The late Jack Kirby was born Aug. 28, 1917, and to call him one of the greats would be something of an understatement.
Now, given his larger-than-life artistry, normally we’d trot out a 13 COVERS birthday salute. But this time around, we’ve got Kirby maven Fred Van Lente’s deep dive into the King’s return to Marvel in the ’70s, a period often overlooked compared to his role building the Marvel Age in the ’60s and his brief but profoundly influential sojourn at DC in the early ’70s.
So here are the TOP 13 ISSUES OF JACK KIRBY’s 1970s RETURN TO MARVEL – RANKED:
By FRED VAN LENTE
Hi, my name is Fred Van Lente, and I read old comics so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, I read a metric crap-ton of old comics, and then I come and tell you which 13 of those you should read, somewhat arbitrarily ranked in order of preference, because the human brain has developed a Pavlovian attraction to listicles.
I have been looking forward to this since Dan invited me to rank comics on creators’ birthdays: Today is the cosmic spawning of my favorite comics creator, and, statistically speaking, yours, Jack Kirby, whose work I first fell in love with in the pages of the 1970s Pocket Books reprints of classic Marvel. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve found my favorite Kirby period is his actual 1970s period at Marvel, when he returned from a tempestuous sojourn to DC after the company let him credit himself as a writer, and be his own editor, once The Man had moved on to Hollywood. (You know which Man I mean — in fact, my wife and I wrote a play about their relationship.)
Heretically, I actually prefer The Eternals from this period to DC’s New Gods — for one thing, with its roots in Earth history, the Eternals are more my bag anyway. For another, as brilliant as so much of the Fourth World saga is, it is a rambling, freeform epic speaking, I think, to Kirby’s confidence that, like his world-building in Fantastic Four and Thor, he would have dozens if not hundreds of issues to lay down story-track before bringing all these concepts together.
It must have been a crushing blow when New Gods and Forever People got the ax a year and a half into their runs and Mister Miracle was divorced from the Source and became a fairly humdrum hero book for the remainder of its run. The sting of that experience must have stuck with Kirby when he returned to Marvel because the plotting on these later books — particularly Eternals — is much tauter, the relationships much more fully realized earlier on.
What amazes me about this list is how much Awesome didn’t make the cut: The first appearance of Arnim Zola (“The Bio-Fanatic!”); a Kirby-style retelling of Genesis; first use of the term “Mutant Massacre”; the entirety of Jack’s 12-issue Black Panther run because it is, alas, just not very good at all. Despite co-creating him, Kirby didn’t really know what to do with T’Challa; I suspect he couldn’t wrap his mind around a King-Superhero, his Stan Lee-bestowed nickname notwithstanding. It seems like he thought, well, the Panther’s from Africa, and so turned him into a melanin-enhanced Allan Quatermain, chasing after King Solomon’s Frog (and Tomb).
But enough negativity! KIRBY’S BACK!!! AND 13TH DIMENSION HAS HIM!!! Here’s my TOP 13 ISSUES OF JACK KIRBY’s 1970s RETURN TO MARVEL – RANKED:
13. Marvel Treasury Special 1976: Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles. The gigantic Treasury Special Format was pretty much invented for Jack Kirby, and while you can get this on Comixology and/or in TPB form, I would strongly recommend sifting through the bins of back-issue dealers at your local con (when there are local cons again) because it really needs to be appreciated in the original gigantic format, which is full-on Kirby all up in your face.
Must be a slow day at Avengers Mansion, because Cap goes to visit a random cosmic mystic named Mister Buda, who sends him on a crazy journey throughout time to reconnect with The True Meaning of America. The story makes no goddamn sense but is nevertheless extremely awesome. It’s worth it to see Barry Windsor-Smith inking Kirby in the opening pages, which looks as amazing as you might think, and for when Cap rescues his co-creator as a newsie:
(Strangely, this sequence is explicitly set in 1934, when Jack Kirby was 17, way older than he depicts himself here.)
12. Captain America and the Falcon #213: The Night Flyer! Blonde, blue-eyed, square-jawed Steve Rogers is exactly the sort of protagonist that seemed to bore Kirby to tears; I suspect Jack was pretty much done with his co-creation when he left Marvel the first time, back in 1942. Fortunately for us, when he re-inherited his birthright book in the 1970s, Cap had already been paired with ex-Harlem street hood Falcon, a character much dearer to Jack’s heart. Sam Wilson constantly mocks Steve Rogers’ white privilege and gung-ho optimism, which clearly helped keep up Jack’s interest in an old creation, saving this book from the fate of the stiffly regal Black Panther.
Kirby turned Cap’s book into I, Spy in masks. SHIELD — here depicted as generic government suits — sends our heroes off into one bananas-insane adventure after another. Blinded by the Red Skull last issue, Cap is put in a SHIELD hospital next to a recovering defector the titular Flyer has been hired to murder. A great one-off villain, the Night Flyer is basically Kite-Man, but cool (apologies to Tom King): a self-help aphorism-spouting hang-gliding sociopath who’s never failed an assassination—but then he’s never had to face another airborne opponent like the Falcon before.
11. The Eternals Annual #1: The Time Killers. I don’t want to turn this entire article into “Eternals Rule, New Gods Drool,” but hey, you know another reason the Eternals are better than the New Gods? Kirby problematized the simplistic Good Planet vs. Evil Planet dichotomy of the Fourth World by having some downright evil Eternals, most notably Druig, a torturer to rival DeSaad. We also get heroic members of the ostensibly “evil” race, the genetically-unstable Deviants, including psychopathic looker Reject, despised for his handsomeness, and the monstrous, noble Karkas. Here, the Eternal Thena — who is in love Satan-impersonator Kro, just to completely confuse who’s-on-whose side — recruits these two to come with her after a Deviant mad scientist sucks evil people from beyond space and time to wreak havoc on the boarding house where they’re all staying in human guises. If this was an Airbnb, I would absolutely give it a 1-star review.
10. Captain America and the Falcon #196: Kill-Derby. In their first long arc, SHIELD agents Rogers and Wilson go after a bunch of One-Percenters called the Elite that want to drive the working stiffs of America crazy with Madbombs so they can take over and set up an American aristocracy. Cap and Falc get captured by the ’Leet in their underground HQ and have to duel to the death on skateboards for the amusement of the blue-bloods because, Kirby. (And Rollerball.)
What particularly incenses Steve is that the bad guys have taken his shield and given it to one of their pro-fascist fighters. It’s one of the very few times Cap shakes his square-jawed squareness and channels Kirby’s own anti-fascist fury, summed up by a panel that (sadly) could have been written this morning:
9. Devil Dinosaur #5: Journey to the Center of the Ants! Marvel was just starting to get into animation in the late 1970s — which would bear fruit soon enough — and asked Kirby to come up with a cartoon-friendly version of his bestseller at DC, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. Since it took the threatened intervention by the United States Supreme Court to get Marvel to pay Kirby fair backend two decades after he died I’m not sure what motivation he had to develop Other-Media IP for the House of Ideas. So that might be why the series he delivered, Devil Dinosaur, is pretty “grounded” by his standards — a fairly straightforward depiction of a (Moon-) Boy and his Dino whereas Kamandi was gonzo post-apocalyptic fantasy.
And again, when I say Devil Dinosaur is “grounded,” I mean Kirby-Grounded, i.e. aliens don’t show until Issue #4. ET a-holes have landed their saucer in the Valley of Flame and have rounded up dinosaur and hominid alike as specimens, forcing DD to the seemingly suicidal act of unleashing a hill full of giant killer ants on them.
8. Captain American and the Falcon #203: Alamo II! A mad scientist has accidentally shifted an insane asylum and all its inmates into a whole other dimension. The inmates, now known as the Night People, kidnap Falcon’s girlfriend to lure him into the other dimension because they figure having a superhero around could come in handy. This of course sets off Cap trying to find Falcon, along with a rootin’-tootin’ Texas oil baron Sam befriended earlier. They all show up just as wave upon wave of monsters descend on the floating insane asylum to wipe everybody out, leading to the Last Stand promised in the title.
If you don’t think all of that sounds completely awesome, I am afraid I am going to have to insist you turn in your badge, gun, and comics-reading license. Just leave them right on my desk there. Thank you, you can see yourself out. Look, I don’t make the rules.
7. The Eternals #11: The Russians Are Coming! The USSR tries to take out one of the giant space gods who created the Eternals and Deviants, the Celestials, but the army brass who try suffer a terrible fate. Also, the reader’s eyeballs are blasted by the stunning spectacle of the Polar Eternals arriving at Olympia to form the Uni-Mind, which is worth the price of admission alone. In this issue we also find out Toshiro Mifune is an Eternal, which explains a lot.
6. Devil Dinosaur #3: Giant. This is a lovely, simple, done-in-one story in which a huge Neanderthal wearing a triceratops head storms into the Valley of the Flame and starts trashing the place, until DD figures out what it is Horn-Head (see what I did there) is looking for.
5. The Eternals #7: The Fourth Host. The Eternals is more visually stunning than the Fourth World titles (sorry, apparently I can’t help myself), with Ajak and his human pal looking on in awe as the Celestials go about their business in the giant city of the Space Gods in the Andes. Ajak had to rescue a bunch of generic white-guy SHIELD agents (who presumably wandered from the studio next door where they were shooting Captain America and the Falcon) to protect them from the Space Gods’ wrath. American government agents take the idea that there are forces in the universe more powerful than they about as well as you’d expect. They try a bunch of action-movie heroics to bring down the Celestials and when that fails they try to flee to warn Washington — and that, uh, does not go well.
4. Captain America Annual #3: The Thing From the Black Hole Star! Cap needs to learn to establish better boundaries with his fans, because some rando farmer calls him up and brings him to a crashed UFO in the heartland. The human-looking alien therein is a fugitive from a black hole and asks for help from the waves of crazy space monsters sent out to recapture him. Steve and Farmer Hendricks, a surprisingly useful sidekick, fend off the killer ETs until the Star-Spangled Avenger finally figures out, uh, maybe they kept this guy trapped in a Black Hole for a reason…? Just the kind of terrific done-in-one science-fiction action tale that Kirby excelled at.
3. Marvel Treasury Special: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Talk about “invented for Jack Kirby.” If you can’t see Kubrick’s masterpiece on an IMAX screen, blowing your eyeballs with the King’s eight-years-later adaptation is the next best thing. Due to licensing conflicts, this book and the short run of Kirby’s series has never been reprinted; it’s currently going for $200 on Amazon, so good luck. What’s neat is that Kirby had access to earlier scripts as well as the Arthur C. Clarke novelization and his version incorporates bits and pieces from all three sources—his HAL talks a bit more colloquially than the cold fish of the movie, for example. (Click here for more on this classic treasury.)
2. The Eternals #13: Astronauts! The Deviants decide to murder the Space Gods while all of the Eternals have merged into a giant glowing, floating brain but two — the mischievous Sprite, who goes and recruits the other, the Forgotten One, aka Gilgamesh, shunned by the Eternals for walking too much among men. Gilgamesh defies his people to save the human astronauts caught up in the Deviants’ crazy plan. Great world-building, true drama and pathos, along with mind-bending cosmic visuals: This is peak (*chef’s kiss*) Kirby.
1. Machine Man #4: Battle on a Very Busy Street. I bow to no one in my love for Aaron Stack, aka Machine Man, and that’s not just because, according to my royalty checks, my best-selling Marvel comic stars him. The saga of the robot X-51 concluded Kirby’s 2001 series, and continued here, in his own comic. One wonders if The King of Comics had caught his Japanese counterpart “God Of Manga” Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy on TV in the ’60s, because the premise is the same: a human inventor raises his robot son like a person. In Kirby’s version, all the other X-series robots go Destroy-All-Humans so have to be terminated. After his surrogate father dies, Machine Man finds himself on run from the US military.
Yes, the-government-who-created-me-is-trying-to-kill me is a fairly tired superhero trope, but Kirby really does superlative work with it here, as Aaron accidentally summons Ten-For (I know, shut up), a fascist alien robot, to Earth. Now only Aaron Stack stands between our planet full of squishy humans and the approaching armada of death-bots from the Autocron Empire.
When Kirby really wanted to monologue, he could out-Stan Lee Stan Lee. The highlight of this issue is where Aaron argues with the ghost of his “father” as to whether or not he really should Defend Those Who Hate and Despise him. The most criminally underrated series of Kirby’s 1970s Marvel return, every issue of Machine Man is worth checking out, but this one is the cream of the crop.
— The Powerful, Clashing Visions of KUBRICK’s and KIRBY’s 2001. Click here.
— Nothing Will Stop Us, Readers! 50 Years of JACK KIRBY’s FOURTH WORLD. Click here.
Comics writer/historian/playwright Fred Van Lente is a 13th Dimension regular contributor and writer of the upcoming The Comic Book Story of Basketball.
August 28, 2020
It’s funny how I was just reflecting yesterday how much I love Kirby’s Cap. I especially remember fondly being absorbed by the ‘76 Treasury issue when it came out; what a treat. But, then just as I was getting upset over all the love being thrown on The Eternals and seemingly sidestepping what I think is one of his best creations…. you end with Machine Man. I just love that character. I think it was because Ditko replaced Kirby at the end of this run that soured his own legacy in my teenage mind.
August 28, 2020
Happy birthday to the late Mr. King.
August 29, 2020
Nice write up. I agree, Machine Man is a very underrated series and often overlooked in the Kirby Canon.
November 19, 2020
i don’t know why, but i am really into Devil Dinosaur. i like that its on here twice, its such a unique comic.
December 9, 2021
Nice to see Machine Man at #1. I’m a big Aaron Stack fan myself.
August 30, 2022
amazing post, and great selection. Some of the comics that ended up on the cutting room floor but would probably have made my selections are: Eternals# 1-2 ( featuring some of King Kirby’s most spectacular art); Black Panther #1 ( I was amazed by King Solomon’s Frog and Mr Little), Captain America #193 (the King’s return); Eternals #8-10 ( Thena and Kro’s doomed love story); Captain America #206-212 ( the Swine, Arnim Zola and the return of the Red Skull); What If #11 ( the Marvel Bullpen as the FF) and the Silver Surfer Graphic Novel ( Stan, Jack and Joe together for the last time). In fact, Jack produced 3 years of memorable comics, the only duds being the Eternals/Cosmic powered Hulk issues.
Next time, how about a best Kirby Return covers selection?