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Marvel Comics: Kirby’s Farewell Tour

DC Comics had never treated Jack Kirby with the trust and respect he deserved after his unparalleled success during Marvel Comics’ formative years. One project after another was cancelled due to poor initial sales and Kirby was getting fed up with it. After his magnum opus, the Fourth World, was canned, Kirby began creating projects for the sole purpose of meeting his contractual obligations to the company. While these projects were far and away more imaginative and exciting than anything else at the time, Kirby’s heart didn’t seem to be in it. He wasn’t creating what he felt he truly needed to be working on. The relationship with DC had ultimately soured after so many broken promises. It was during this time that Kirby began talking to some old friends over at Marvel who were making even better promises than DC had. Complete control over whatever projects he wanted to work on. Little editorial oversight. Pure Kirby bombast. All he had to do was come back home. And, so, after his contract with DC was finished, Kirby returned to the creative den he had left so many years before. But what he returned to wasn’t too much different from what he had left.

Stan Lee, Kirby’s partner in the formative years of Marvel’s rise, was still very much in charge of the editorial department and most of the books at the time were mandated under an “illusion of change.” Right before Kirby had left Marvel the first time, the company had been sold to Cadence Industries, which allowed Marvel to produce as many titles as it wanted and create more merchandise than fans knew what to do with. In essence, the characters that Stan and Jack had created had become brands and, as such, they couldn’t change too much from their core appeal or Marvel would risk losing merchandising sales. Marvel had become very business driven and Kirby wasn’t seeing any credit for his co-creation of most of the characters that were putting a roof over the Marvel offices. And, when he returned to the company, it was still very much focused on this aspect of the “illusion of change.” Kirby didn’t really want anything to do with that and initially refused to work on anything he had had a hand in during the sixties. No more Fantastic Four, no more Thor, nothing. He wanted to focus on brand-new stories with brand-new characters and stretch his creative muscles that had started to atrophy over at DC. Marvel obliged, of course, but with a few caveats. Kirby could create anything he saw fit as long as he came back to work on Captain America. Kirby rolled his eyes at the thought, but decided that if it had to be anybody, he could at least return to one of his favorites. He had a solid run on the title, but the real fun began when he launched the Eternals.

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We’ve discussed ad nauseum about how Kirby’s mythological science fiction opus, the Fourth World, was cut short of its deserved ending due to DC’s lack of faith in the product, and Kirby was itching to continue to explore the themes of not only the Fourth World but Thor as well. And, so, we were graced with his all-too-short run of the Eternals, a book about (you guessed it) gods and their relationship with man. Long ago, a race of supreme beings called the Celestials came to earth and experimented on the emerging humanoid species of ancient history. From their experiments, they were able to create not only the human race, but two others: the Deviants and the Eternals. The Deviants were a race with a genetic structure so volatile that each new Deviant that was born was horribly disfigured and hostile. The Eternals, on the other hand, were a race of near-perfect beings with superior abilities such as flight and immortality that sought only to better themselves. From these two races spring the myths of old, of monsters who lived below and the gods who reign above. But, in the present day, the Celestials were returning to judge their work, and not everyone on planet earth was happy about that.

EternalsThe Eternals was a modest success for Marvel, as it heralded the return of the Kirby everyone had fallen in love with in Thor. High concepts, mythological drama, and over-the-top cosmic action graced every page, but Marvel and its fans began to get worried. How did all of this fit into the expansive continuity of the Marvel Universe? How can this be the true origin of mankind when everything seen up to now seems to contradict it? Does Kirby even know what he’s doing? The thing was, Kirby never really intended the Eternals to be a part of the larger Marvel tapestry. He simply wanted a space to explore all the concepts he didn’t get a chance to with his Fourth World titles. He just didn’t care about how the Eternals fit in the fictional history of earth. But, editors and fans alike demanded an explanation and the Eternals placement in the Marvel cosmology and, eventually, Kirby gave in. But, he did it in a way that was truly Kirby. He trumpeted the inclusion of the Thing and the Hulk in the series, but pulled the rug to reveal they were simply actors or robots. The only real connection the series ever had with the Marvel Universe was the inclusion of a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Eventually, Kirby’s insistence on staying outside the lines lead to the series’ cancellation and he was once again left with an unfinished epic on his resume.

2001-1-00During his time on the Eternals, Kirby was exploring another space opera in the form of an adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Initially just a strict one-shot adaptation, Kirby eventually spun it out into a ten-issue ongoing series where he took the concepts originally introduced in the film to new limits. He explored how the Monoliths transformed certain individuals into what he called “New Seeds” that would go into the cosmos to explore and transcend. While not one of his greatest works, the series is notable for introducing Machine Man, a sentient robot who learns to be human after encountering the Monolith and being raised by his human creator. 2001 would end soon after Machine Man’s introduction, but a new series starring the titular robot would spin out of it, guided by Kirby’s ever-dramatic hand.

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Machine Man was a fairly simple concept: a machine wants to be accepted as a man. But, humanity fears and hates this new robotic man and seeks to destroy him at every turn. While Machine Man yearns for some kind of human connection, he becomes embittered at humanity’s constant revulsion. He eventually saves the planet from an alien invasion, but Kirby would eventually leave Marvel altogether and the series ended after only nine issues before he could explore Machine Man any further.

Black PantherDuring his second tenure at Marvel, Kirby would also take over a brand-new Black Panther ongoing series starring the African King he had helped introduce in the pages of the Fantastic Four in the sixties. While Kirby wasn’t particularly excited to work on a character he had already created, he nonetheless created a twelve-issue extravaganza that involved cosmic, time-traveling frogs, highly-evolved, antagonistic humans from the future, and even a future version of the Panther himself, psychic powers and all. To put it bluntly, it was weird. But, weird is Kirby’s trade and he left a pretty impressive mark on the Panther after his all-too-brief time on the book.

There was one other series that Kirby created during his final stint at Marvel, a series that was editorially mandated but which Kirby took on a fast-paced romp of prehistoric proportions.

Devil Dinosaur.

Devil DinosaurMarvel had gotten word that DC was looking to turn Kirby’s run-away hit, Kamandi, into an animated television show and suggested to Kirby that he should create something like the Last Boy on Earth for them. Hopefully, whatever he created would have animated potential as well. And, after a bit of brainstorming, Kirby came up with the novel idea of a boy and his dinosaur. Set in the foggy “X-Age” of prehistory, Devil Dinosaur follows the adventures of an early human, a dawn-man named Moon-Boy. After helping rescue a young, red-skinned Thunder Lizard from the clutches of the evil Killer-Folk, Moon-Boy adopts the beast as his brother and names him Devil. Together, the two would encounter not only the return of the savage Killer-Folk, but an alien invasion, giant ants, and the Tree of Knowledge itself! Marvel’s hopes of an animated series never were realized, however, and Devil Dinosaur was cancelled after only nine issues, leaving Moon-Boy and Devil lost in the mythical X-Age.

Eventually, Kirby became as fed up with Marvel as he had in the sixties, with editorial oversight, refusal of credit, and the company’s overall bad attitude leading to a heated resentment of the company. Realizing that the promises they had made him were as hollow as DC’s, Kirby left Marvel for the last time, never working for either of the Big Two again. But, his seventies return to the company produced some of the most fun, innovative, and all around best comics of the decade. From space-god operas to prehistoric dinosaur adventures, Kirby proved once again that no other was his equal.

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To check out Kirby’s seventies work for yourself, you can go grab a number of amazing collections. The Eternals Omnibus collects every issue of Kirby’s run in a nice hardcover, but if paperbacks are more your style, it’s nicely split into two volumes. Kirby’s Black Panther is collected in Marvel Masterworks: Black Panther volume 2, but if you’d rather have more affordable collections, I’d suggest picking up Black Panther by Jack Kirby volumes 1-2. Devil Dinosaur is collected in its entirety in a one-volume paperback that’s pretty easy to find and Machine Man has been collected in the Machine Man: The Complete Collection by Kirby and Ditko. While this collection doesn’t include the 2001 material due to copyrights, it’s still a recommended read. Kirby’s time at Marvel has left an indelible mark on the comic industry and it can safely be said that his contributions changed the medium forever.

But what was truly marvelous was what happened next.

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