Jack Kirby had a pretty stressful time while working for DC Comics in the early seventies. He had been blocked at every turn from telling the kinds of stories he had wanted to, having series after series inevitably cancelled. DC editorial didn’t have much faith in Kirby and pulled the plug on numerous projects before they could really find a foothold with any sort of audience. The exception to this was, of course, Kamandi, but there were a few other projects he worked on that never really caught on like the Last Boy on Earth. Kirby would leave DC in the mid-seventies, but before then he created some truly memorable works that still resonate to this day.
First and foremost, Kirby created the Demon. He a tenuous relationship with the character as DC editors demanded that Kirby create a horror comic for them. Already involved in his Fourth World titles and never really interested in creating a horror story, Kirby wasn’t happy about the commission but begrudgingly produced a first issue. An initial hit, the Demon sold well enough to warrant an ongoing series, much to Kirby’s dismay. He was frustrated that it had sold so well as it meant that DC would cancel one of his Fourth World titles so that he could focus on the Demon. But, to his credit, Kirby never set out to create a bad comic and produced some of the best Bronze Age fantasy tales on the stands.
Set in modern-day Gotham City, the Demon follows a reclusive demonologist, Jason Blood, who, long ago resided in ancient Camelot. Unhappy coincidence ensured that the wizard Merlin would bind a sinister demon, Etrigan, to Jason as punishment for Etrigan’s transgressions. Forever trapped in a mortal shell, Etrigan is forced to walk the world of man for all eternity. Jason, on the other hand, is unlucky enough to be that shell and, when a magical chant is uttered, trades places with Etrigan on the mortal plane. Though not a happy relationship, Jason and Etrigan work together to stop magical threats that seek to destroy the modern world, such as the evil Morgaine le Fey. With Jason working as the brains of the duo, tracking clues and magical occurrences, when danger strikes he calls forth Etrigan to do the dirty work. But, Etrigan isn’t always reliable and usually fights for himself more often than not. Jason continuously has to wrench control away from Etrigan to stop him from causing more harm than good.
The Demon was a modest success, but Kirby’s frustration was justified when it was cancelled just over a year later. The Demon would continue to appear in DC’s universe for decades, but this would be the last time Kirby would ever touch the character. He was already on to new concepts and a few of them were on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
DC handed Kirby the reigns to one of their waning war comics at the time, Our Fighting Forces, to try and see if Kirby’s name could reignite interest. The main feature of the anthology title involved a group of war heroes called the Losers, created earlier by a man named Robert Kanigher, who had written most of their adventures up until that point. Kirby was reluctant to take over characters he hadn’t created, as he was more comfortable working on his own ideas like he had been doing most of his career. But, once again, Kirby buckled down and got the job done. While Kirby didn’t have a lengthy run on the title, he definitely left an impact, changing the men from comic book characters to real soldiers during wartime. This was met with more than a little resistance from the Losers established fanbase (another reason Kirby didn’t want the book), but throughout his time on the title, Kirby more than proved himself.
Kirby was continuously haunted by his own military service during World War II and he always strived to tell those stories whenever he could. He seemed to be of the mindset that things that upset you should be talked about to ease the burden. Well, he talked up a storm with the Losers, depicting realistic wartime violence and attitudes (or, as much as could be done in a Comics Code approved title) throughout his thirteen-issue run. But, despite Kirby’s best autobiographical efforts, war comics just didn’t sell in the Bronze Age, and he eventually left the title when he left DC Comics.
Before he left, however, Kirby would work on a few more projects for the company, including a revival of his and Joe Simon’s original Golden Age Sandman concept. Kirby wasn’t excited to work on Sandman with Simon again, as he didn’t like working with other writers after the falling out he had over at Marvel. He and Simon were still good friends, for sure, but Kirby didn’t want to work with him again and end up resenting each other. Plus, the concept that DC had for this new Sandman didn’t seem to excite Kirby very much and he didn’t think it would last very long. He was right, of course, and the series only lasted six issues, but it stands out for having exclusively Kirby covers and, while he never contributed any writing to the series, it had a classic outlandish Kirby concept. This new Sandman was actually the defender of dreams, fighting off nightmares to protect sleeping children. While not the most exciting concept on the outset, it allowed for some truly bizarre visuals in the Sandman’s Dream Space and the stories are remembered fondly.
Kirby would go on to produce a number of one-shot stories throughout his tenure at the company, creating such characters as Atlas, the Dingbats of Danger Street, and a revival of his classic Manhunter concept in the pages of the anthology 1st Issue Special. These characters would go on to appear in many other DC stories, but Kirby never really got a chance to explore them outside of the one-shots. He would even get the chance to revisit his original Challengers of the Unknown in an issue of DC Comics Presents where they teamed up with Superman. It was a nice homecoming for the King and it’s an issue that should definitely be in everyone’s collection.
One final thing to note, however, is Kirby’s attempt at publishing prestige-format magazines that would showcase more mature content for a more distinguished audience. Unfortunately, DC had next to zero confidence in the projects and published them in the worst way possible and had a distribution plan that didn’t even include the whole country. So it was that the only two issues of Kirby’s prestige projects were ever released, if you could call the sorry distribution a “release.”
Spirit World was an attempt to create a Twilight Zone-esque anthology magazine that would be more akin to the classic horror titles of the fifties (though, the final product was much more tame). On the other end of the spectrum was In the Days of the Mob that was one of the more autobiographical works Kirby ever created. This was an anthology that told the stories of incarcerated gangsters and their lives before the joint. Every page was bursting with the energy of a memory, as Kirby pulled from his own experiences growing up in Manhattan where gangs were everywhere and getting in a fight was a good day. Both Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob were fantastic attempts at reaching an audience outside of the common DC readership of the time, but they were gutted before they were even released. Kirby envisioned full color strips, but DC printed them in black-and-white, something he was never fond of. Kirby thought to bring in other great talents like Wally Wood to contribute stories, but DC demanded that the projects be completely created by Kirby himself. To top it all off, DC cancelled orders for the second issues before they even received the sales figures of the first. The new, untested quality of these projects scared the company and their lack of foresight cost them some of the most original material they could have published.
All in all, Kirby had a rocky career at DC Comics. Lured in with promises of more creative control, he was cut off at every turn to tell the kinds of stories he wanted due to the company’s lack of confidence in the audience. Kirby left DC as soon as his contract ended and jumped back to Marvel Comics on even more promises that would inevitably prove just as hollow. But, Kirby’s time at DC wasn’t all for nothing, as he created some of the greatest work of his career and established brand-new characters for a new generation of fans to enjoy.
Most of Kirby’s later DC work is collected in easy-to-get paperbacks or hardcovers. The Demon is collected in one convenient package in Jack Kirby’s The Demon, which contains his entire sixteen-issue run. His sporadic one-shots, the Challengers revival, and his Sandman stories are all collected in the Jack Kirby Omnibus volume 2, which also contains his Fourth World-related Super Powers series of the eighties. Kirby’s Losers work is collected in its entirety in The Losers by Jack Kirby and Spirit World is collected in its own hardcover while In the Days of the Mob is collected along with its never-printed second issue in a self-titled hardcover. So, go experience it all for yourself.
The King’s most ambitious work is also some of his best.