When Words Collide: Playing Kirby: The Dynamite Problem

Mon, November 7th, 2011 at 12:58pm PST | Updated: November 7th, 2011 at 1:52pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
7

"So basically, we're doing Joe Casey's 'GODLAND' except with characters Kirby actually came up with" -- Alex Ross, in a January 27, 2011 interview at CBR.

According to that interview, laughter followed that line from Ross, presumably because ha ha "GODLAND" is just like a Kirby comic but it doesn't have real Kirby characters like Dynamite Comics does and ha ha we wouldn't really model our comic on "GODLAND" -- we're just kidding -- because that comic is a kind of Kirby pastiche and Kirby pastiches don't sell well at all and we want people to actually buy our comics.

I'm no mind reader, but we do have several issues of "Kirby: Genesis" now available and a few spin-offs on the way from Dynamite, and based on what Alex Ross and "Kirby: Genesis" scribe Kurt Busiek have said in interviews and what they've produced in the actual comic book series, we have plenty of information about what they think is the best approach to take with these Kirby creations. And their approach is painfully un-Kirbylike. Even if it's completely understandable why they would do what they have done.

A few declarations, before we get any deeper into this:

1. I'm not even going to tackle any issues regarding Jack Kirby's rightful ownership of most of the iconic Marvel characters. Those are legal matters, and they are unlikely ever to be satisfied to everyone's liking. Boycott Marvel, or don't. That's not what this column is about.

2. "GODLAND," if not a hugely significant milestone, is a notable road marker for 21st century comic books. It's better and more important than many readers realize, maybe because of its delays in recent years. I've written about it at length already (in the "GODLAND Celestial Edition Volume 2," and in shorter form for "When Words Collide" last year), so I won't get into it now.

3. "O.M.A.C." the closest thing to a Kirby pastiche coming out of DC's new 52, is a great-looking comic, and while it would be in my personal "Top 10 of the New 52," it's one of the worst-selling, if not the worst-selling of the entire line.

4. Jack Kirby characters are not inherently amazing, just because they are Jack Kirby characters. Out of all the characters he's created, what percentage of those characters have been done well by anyone other than Jack Kirby? Maybe 5%? Probably even less?

5. Jack Kirby is the best American comic book artist -- and best superhero character designer -- in history.

Now you know where I'm coming from, in case you had any doubt.

What Dynamite has done, if you haven't been following it, is strike a deal with the Kirby estate (kudos for that, definitely!) to resurrect a bunch of dormant Kirby creations and bring them together into a shared superhero universe under the watchful typewriter and paintbrush of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. Those two are basically shepherding the whole project, though only working explicitly on the main "Kirby: Genesis" miniseries, with Jack Herbert providing the pencil art for that book, and guys like Rob Rodi, Sterling Gates, and Jai Nitz writing the spin-off comics about the Kirby gods and faux-medieval heroes, Captain Victory and friends, and Silver Star, respectively.

Ross has a penchant for the iconic, while Busiek tends toward humanization.

It's a contrasting approach that served them while on "Marvels," the project that launched both their careers (even though Busiek had been writing comics for years before that), with that miniseries providing a chance for Ross to show the iconography of the Marvel Universe from a distinctly human viewpoint, and Busiek could retell the big moments of that Silver Age world through the eyes of someone at ground level.

Compare "Marvels" with Ross's later work, like DC's "Justice" (written in collaboration with Jim Krueger), and you'll feel the absence of Busiek. There's barely a shred of humanity in all the issues of "Justice," even when blown up to Absolute size. It's hollow and overwhelmingly obnoxious without the sense of fragility and moral weight Busiek brings.

Then again, compare "Marvels" to Busiek's run on "Avengers." The same problem arises, and that's with Busiek doing the scripting. But the writing did lean toward a sense of danger and moral weight -- characters wrestled with inner demons and with each other -- even if George Perez was better suited for the big action set pieces. Ultimately, it wasn't the lack of Alex Ross that tripped up Busiek's "Avengers" run, it was Busiek's own fascination with the machinery of the Marvel Universe. While in "Marvels" he was free to retell old stories from a new point of view, in "Avengers" he was bound by his own love for Marvel miscellany and fixated on making everything fit into his knowledge of what had come before. The result was like watching someone play against themselves at Stratego.

But with Busiek and Ross on the Dynamite's Kirbyverse, there was a chance to reclaim some of that "Marvels" magic, right? Or at least to do something much more successful than what happened the last time a company tried to do a "Kirbyverse" all their own -- back in the 1990s when Topps had their short-lived comic line (featuring writers like Kurt Busiek himself) and they launched eight titles based on Kirby properties, like "Satan's Six" and "NightGlider" and "Victory." The Topps project was unsuccessful, the common wisdom goes, because it was too much of a Kirby pastiche. It was like a Kirby parody at best, or tenth-rate Kirby imitations at worst. Better to go in a different direction with Kirby properties.

Better to go with the Ross/Busiek approach, apparently. Better to go with the iconic grounded by the human.

Yet if you actually read any issue of "Kirby: Genesis," and I would argue that it doesn't matter which issue you read, because they all do the same thing, you'll find that while there is some iconography and some humanity, it's completely off-kilter. It doesn't work at all.

Here's why: the Kirby characters -- any Kirby characters -- do not exist in our actual flesh-and-blood world. And trying to bring them down to a quasi-realistic human level takes away everything that makes them special and interesting. "Marvels" can only work once, as a photo album, and doesn't really serve as a storytelling foundation after that. Perhaps only Kirby can do it right, but the approach that has worked -- in the rare circumstances where anyone has followed Kirby with any success -- is not to bring the icons down to Earth, but to bring the humanity to the gods.

It's a matter of proportion.

That's why the Mark Evanier/Steve Rude "Mister Miracle Special" from 1987 rings true -- because it doesn't truck in reality, but has a soulfulness amidst its radiant otherworldliness -- and why the J. M. DeMatteis/Ian Gibson "Mister Miracle" series launched in 1989 fails in almost every way, with its suburban setting and its gods-walking-to-get-the-morning-newspaper approach.

Bringing the transcendent, magnificent Kirby creations down to our level may provide a sense of humanity, but it also strips them of their power and resonance. Imbuing the superbeings with human emotional substance is the way to go.

The former approach gets you Dolph Lundgren and the "Masters of the Universe" movie. The latter gets you Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" adaptations.

The former gets you Walt Simonson's "Orion," the latter gets you Devil Dinosaur in Jo Duffy's "Fallen Angels."

There hasn't yet been a movie that has done justice to a Kirby concept, other than "Star Wars."

So go ahead and read "Kirby: Genesis" and see Jay Baruchel running around like Shia LaBouf in "Transformers" and all the wonderful Kirby creations hovering around and popping in and out of the story like flashing lights and beeps from "Close Encounter" and see how Busiek and Ross have their sense of proportion completely out of whack and imagine a different kind of "Kirby: Genesis" that doesn't drag Captain Victory and Silver Star down to our level, but raises us up so we can watch their drama unfold across the universe.

One comic -- the imaginary one, the one Kirby might have created -- is a whole lot better than the one that costs four bucks an issue from Dynamite.

AND SPEAKING OF SILVER STAR

Jai Nitz's "Silver Star" #1 comes out this week. I wish I could recommend it.

I can recommend the script. As an approach to the Kirby concept, it works well. Nitz sent me the script a couple of months back, actually, and asked me for some feedback. Well, first there was a phone call, and Nitz and I had a long talk about comics and Kirby and Kirby comics and everything in between.

You know what, I'm going to call him Jai for the rest of this column, and here's why...

I've known Jai for a couple of years. We're both collectors of Grant Morrison ephemera, though he's actually a more comprehensive collector than I am, and when I need, say, a reference to a Morrison column from an old "Speakeasy" issue, Jai's the guy I will email. And he'll send me a scan right away. Of the two of us, he's the one who's really the Morrison archivist.

He's made the move to full-time comic book writer over the past couple of years, mostly due to his work with Dynamite Comics. They have given him plenty of work, and, knowing Jai, he hasn't hacked out any of it. He's played with it -- tried new things -- given the medium (or at least the small corner of the genre he's working with) a bit of a stretch to see what he can do. He's a guy who started out by self-publishing the ambitious -- and still impressive-looking --"Paper Museum" anthology. He breathes comics. He'll admit that he's still learning how to be a better comic book writer, but he's always out there hustling for more work, and when it comes time to write, he'll give it everything he's got. I'm sure that's true for most working creators.

Let me pause for a second and say this: as a critic, or a pundit, or whatever I am, I have often evaluated the "writing" of a comic based on what appears on the penciled and inked comic book page. I know, and have always known, that the visual medium of comics doesn't lend itself to clear delineations of "writer" and "artist" whether you're giving praise or blame. Kieron Gillen has, somewhere, somewhen, talked about the fallacy of writing about any comic and not thinking of the writer and artist as a single unit, even if it's two (or more) people doing the job. In my past reviews, when I've talked about what the writer has or has not done, I know that it was kind of a shorthand, easily done because of the credits on the book, the way you might say Robert Altman did or didn't do such a thing in some movie he directed, even if he wasn't really the one at the end of the decision-making process. But his name is there, and he's the one who gets the praise or takes the hit.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I would have judged Jai Nitz's writing on "Silver Star" #1 quite differently if I had read it as a comic first, but I didn't read it that way. I read it as a script first. Actually, I heard about it as a phone conversation, as Jai talked to me about the approach he wanted to take and then bounced some ideas off me -- knowing that I was one of the few people in the world he could call up who would actually have a position on Kirby's "Silver Star" and some ideas off the top of my head about how to tell new stories in that world, and he was right, because I think about that stuff all the time, which never seems to impress my wife and kids at all.

So I listened to Jai's story, provided some of my own perspective, later read the script, gave Jai a few notes about some lines of dialogue that could use a tweak and then, just this weekend, read the review PDF of the first issue.

And what a disappointment it is.

Stonefaced rections of surprise

The art is by Johnny Desjardins, and for every step Jai's script took to bring the humanity to the superhuman otherworldliness of Kirby's creation, Desjardins "grittied" it up and brought Kirby's Silver Star crashing to Earth.

Essentially, in Kirby's original telling (and the Image hardcover of Kirby's six issue "Silver Star" series is a must-own book, if you have any inclination toward Kirby at all), Silver Star is a state-sponsored hero, a Captain America type, with the powers of someone like Firestorm or Dr. Manhattan. And he's insane. Insane, as in his best pal is a little girl with a guitar who only exists in a dream world. But the villains he fights are even more insane than he is.

In Nitz's script for issue #1, Silver Star is still insane -- the series ends up as a kind of unofficial, years-later sequel to Kirby's original run, but without referring to any specifics of the old comics at all -- and still a Captain America-meets-Dr. Manhattan, but instead of giving us a Jay Baruchel character for audience identification, as we see in "Kirby: Genesis," he gives us a government handler who must quickly assimilate into the Kirby world.

He brings us up to the level of the Kirbyverse, he doesn't bring the Kirbyverse down to us.

So we get a scene where the handler, the agent, must act like a Kirby hero -- even though he's just a guy doing a job -- and grab a cosmic cannon and fight a giant monster while Silver Star is otherwise occupied. It's a nice way to solve the proportion problem so many post-Kirby creators have faced when telling stories using Kirby characters: by pushing the humans up into a more superhuman level of awareness and ability, you don't have to keep so many things "real" and you can still have a genuine sense of peril and conflict because even when these humans try to fight monsters, they are still human. Even if they're Kirby versions of humanity. Or the next best thing.

But Desjardins, a complete David Finch clone, but without the polish, can't actually draw humans very well. He's okay with the big action scenes, though by filling those panels with crosshatching and gritted teeth, he sabotages the otherworldliness of the Kirbyesque moments. But for every extra noodly detail Desjardins adds (and most of them just add to the stiffness of the scene, unfortunately), he gives us a blank-faced human with extra-rendering around the eyes and chiseled chin. Or he undermines any of the irony and humor by giving us stone-faced characters who don't seem to know who or what they're reacting to.

Desjardins fails to convey much of anything, here

In one panel, the script calls for a shot of surprised reactions, with two characters panicked by some shocking news and Silver Star himself uttering a stunned whisper. Desjardins draws all the characters as if they were traced from the same Finch pose, maybe from a "Moon Knight" issue where something particularly dull happened.

In another series of panels, on a later page, the script calls for Dunn, the agent and audience-sympathy character, to settle into a chair and wait. The script calls for two more panels emphasizing that he's been waiting for a long time, and he's been up for 48 hours straight. Desjardins, laughably, gives us a Photostat of the same exact blank stare, repeated in two panels, instead of any indication of excessive weariness. Before I went back to the script to see what was supposed to be going on in that scene, I thought maybe there was some missing, in-story reason that he became frozen in time. Nope, just bad artwork, sabotaging a plot point about an exhausted character.

Desjardins may someday develop into a competent artist -- once he tosses the Finch influence to the side -- but even David Finch himself would be the completely wrong visual style for this kind of story, for any kind of genuine "Silver Star" story. This is a character who represents the pinnacle of human mind, body, and spirit, but he's too wrapped up in his own problems to realize how much power he truly has. He's no gothic anti-hero. No withering vampire vigilante who benefits from a million tiny pen and ink lines. He's a god on Earth, created by Jack Kirby to fight, literally, the Angel of Death.

Silver Star deserves better. The script deserves better. Kirby deserves, as always, better.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, jai nitz, dynamite entertainment, silver star, johnny desjardins, alex ross, kurt busiek

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