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Independence: Kirby’s Final Battle Cry

Jack Kirby had had enough. After decades of working in the realms of mainstream comics, decades of underappreciation and sales-driven publishers, he decided to call it quits. He was tired of publishers constantly taking advantage of his ideas and milking them for all they were worth. He was tired of his own concepts being cut short before they really had a chance to shine. And he was tired of following orders. So, Kirby walked away from the two biggest comics publishers in America, DC and Marvel Comics, to forge his own path.

What we got was something really special.

A new comics publisher entered the scene in 1981 and lead the way for independent comics distribution. Pacific Comics was an independent publisher who wasn’t subject to the rigidity of the Comic’s Code and could feature any sort of material their creator’s saw fit. They were distributed, not through newsstands, but in specialty shops designed exclusively for comics. And, to top it all off, the creators who worked for them got to keep all rights to whatever they created. To everyone involved, this was a great deal. And when Pacific began calling on popular creators to come and work for them, Jack Kirby was one of the first in line.

Captain VictoryFinally given free reign to create whatever he wanted with no fear of editorial control, Kirby set out to finish the epic he had begun so many decades ago. From Thor, to the Fourth World, to the Eternals, Kirby was finally here: Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers.

CaptainVictoryCaptain Victory told the story of the titular Captain in command of his own team of Galactic Rangers as they patrol the universe, protecting innocents from various alien threats. However, over its thirteen-issue run the book begins to tell a darker tale about a suicidal war hero who will do anything to assure victory. As the story progressed, the pieces finally began to fall into place about the true origins of the Captain and his arch-rival, Blackmaas. In true Kirby fashion, Captain Victory was revealed to be the son of Orion, of the New Gods, who had died in final battle with Darkseid many years ago. Darkseid was severely wounded in the battle as well and became nothing but the shadowy form of Blackmaas, his evil never ceasing. Of course, Kirby couldn’t officially call this a Fourth World sequel, but he dropped enough clues throughout that it’s pretty easy to deduce. Unfortunately, Captain Victory was cut short of a finale (also in true Kirby fashion) due to Pacific Comics having to close its doors. Though his story was left hanging, Kirby at least got to give a final send-off to his favorite creations.

Silver_Star_ComicsBefore Pacific Comics closed its doors, however, Kirby would publish a second series called Silver Star. The book was his attempt at a new take on the X-Men, in a sense, with mutant heroes protecting normal citizens from evil. Originally intended by Kirby to be a screenplay, Silver Star was eventually adapted into a comic that, in an odd twist for the creator, had a beginning, middle, and end. Silver Star only lasted six issues, but it was a fast-paced, thrill-a-moment spectacular that warrants attention even today.

During this time, Kirby would go on to break one of his own rules when it came to comics work: he teamed up with another creator. Working with another independent publisher, Eclipse Comics, Kirby would co-create Destroyer Duck with Steve Gerber, a legendary creator from Marvel’s own Bronze Age. Gerber was famous for runs on Man-Thing and the Defenders, but what he has become synonymous with was his fan-favorite Howard the Duck. Unfortunately, due to creator’s rights of the seventies, Gerber retained no creative rights to the character he created for Marvel and was given no residuals outside of his freelance work. So, Gerber attempted to bring a lawsuit before Marvel to try and get his creation back. To raise money for the lawsuit, Gerber and Kirby created Destroyer Duck, hoping the sales would be strong enough to get them the money they needed. Kirby was so excited to get to help stick it to Marvel that he was happy to draw Gerber’s scripts and so, Destroyer Duck was born.

Destroyer_Duck_coverTelling the story of the titular duck, the book was mostly about the Destroyer’s quest to avenge the death of his best friend, known only as The Little Guy (alluded to be Howard himself). Destroyer would go up against the mighty Godcorps conglomerate, his quest for vengeance never sated. Gerber and Kirby’s run only lasted five issues before being handed off to another team, and, while Gerber didn’t win his lawsuit, Destroyer Duck was a fun ride while it lasted.

kirby odinBut, while Gerber didn’t win his battle against Marvel, Kirby, in a way, did. During this time, Marvel and DC had begun returning original artwork its stable of creators had worked on throughout the decades in accordance to new creator rights policies. In this vein, Marvel offered to return 88 pages of Kirby’s original art to him under the knowledge that Kirby was simply housing Marvel’s property and could do nothing with it (such as displaying or selling it). Outraged, Kirby refused to sign any sort of paperwork concerning the return of his art and instead began a long battle with Marvel for the return of all of his work, all 10,000 pages of it. During the drawn-out fiasco, many comics creators such as Neal Adams and Frank Miller spoke out in defense of Kirby and, eventually, Marvel caved and relinquished almost 2,000 pages of Kirby’s original art to him. A paltry number compared to what they had, but it was a heck of a lot more than 88.

Phantom ForceKirby would eventually begin work on what would be his final project, Phantom Force, published by a brand-new independent company called Image Comics. Phantom Force was a bit of a mess, with dozens of inkers muddying Kirby’s pencils, and Kirby himself only involved in the first few issues. Telling a mashed-up story with parts of a team book and Bruce Lee epic thrown together, Phantom Force had its moments but was mostly a forgotten final work for the King.

Jack Kirby passed away from heart failure in 1994, but his legacy lives on even outside of his Marvel and DC creations. His independent work deserves just as much attention as even his greatest mainstream epics.

silver star tradeIf you’re wanting to check out any of these amazing Kirby tales, you unfortunately don’t have many options outside of hunting down the individual issues themselves. Thankfully, they don’t fetch too high a price on their own and are easy enough to track down. Silver Star appears to be the only one of his series that is collected in its entirety in a one-volume hardcover that also contains Kirby’s original screenplay, a much-appreciated bonus. So, get to hunting, Kirby fans.

An entire universe of adventure is waiting for you.

 

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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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DC Comics: Kirby’s Final Years

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.

Kirby DemonFirst 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.

Kirby LosersDC 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.

Kirby SandmanBefore 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.

DC-Comics-Presents-84_00Kirby 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.

spiritworld1One 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.”

Kirby mobSpirit 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.

kirby omnibusMost 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.

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OMAC: One Man’s Awesome Concept

It’s safe to say that Jack Kirby’s time at DC Comics in the early seventies was a time the man didn’t remember fondly. Drawn to the company with promises of creative control and free reign to do as he pleased, Kirby quickly discovered that the competition was exactly like the company he had fled, Marvel Comics. His magnum opus, the Fourth World, was cancelled after only a year’s worth of stories, cut short by the sure death of low sales. Editors continuously made changes to his work, frustrated that Kirby’s unique style didn’t match the company’s own. The company didn’t particularly care what it was Kirby was working on, they just wanted his name on more and more books. After all, his name had been in large part what made Marvel so successful, it should’ve been working for them as well. But, no matter where they stuck Kirby, nothing seemed to initially click and, not wanting to give him the time to develop the numerous series, they pulled the plug again and again. Eventually, Kirby would find success with Kamandi, but in the meantime the King needed to fulfill the demands of his ridiculous contract. Kirby was not only contractually obligated to work on more than one title a month, he was also obligated to produce fifteen pages of art a week for DC.

Fifteen. Pages.

Most modern artists can barely produce five full pages a week, and here Kirby was pumping out fifteen, writing, illustrating, and, most of the time, editing his own work on multiple books a month. It’s an insane workload for any man, but somehow, Kirby met the challenge with aplomb. That doesn’t mean he particularly enjoyed the experience, but he could do it as a reasonable pace, so that was enough. During the success of Kamandi, Kirby needed another project to meet his weekly quota. One book a month, at only around twenty pages, wasn’t going to cut it. So, Kirby did what he always did and pulled something magical out of his hat.

OMAC.

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While working at Marvel, Kirby had toyed with the idea of doing a Captain America story set in the future, where the Captain was a lone soldier in the fight against doomsday. It’s a solid concept, so he retooled it and the world was graced with the first issue of OMAC, the One Man Army Corps. The initial idea was a relatively simple one: a meek and mild nobody would become the greatest soldier ever known to man, a true zero to hero. He was so meek and so mild that his name was literally Buddy Blank, with nothing interesting about him and no friends or family to interact with. He worked for a company in the future that produced android replicants for companionship in the modern world. Though pathetic, Buddy eventually is able to strike up a friendship with one of his coworkers, something he cherishes. It’s only when he discovers that the facility he works for plans to repurpose the androids into programable assassins that Buddy’s true destiny begins to take shape.

Omac-v1-1-1-Im0Captured and about to be killed, Buddy is suddenly bombarded with strange energies that transform him into OMAC, the One Man Army Corps. A true super soldier of the future, OMAC fights his way through the facility, taking out the armed guards and eventually discovering that his best friend was a replicant all along. Devastated, OMAC destroys the facility and is approached by the Global Peace Agency to work for them in protecting the world from a horrific future catastrophe. They reveal that it was they who bombarded OMAC with the energies to transform him into a super soldier with the help of their orbital satellite, Brother Eye. Indebted to the GPA and seeing nowhere else for him to go, OMAC agrees to go with them and defend the world.

Omac-v1-2-1-Im0Though the super solider was far from a novel concept (heck, Kirby had created more than one himself!) Kirby was able to put it in a completely new setting, the future, and use it to explore entirely new concepts and ideas about humankind. Throughout its eight-issue run, OMAC confronted cities that mob bosses could rent out for a weekend, an entire country’s military power, avenging atomic warbots, brain-swapping youth thieves, and mad scientists seeking to bottle all of the world’s water in order to sell it. It was wild.

Omac-v1-4-1-Im0Kirby was a noted futurist, always considering just what the world was going to look like in the coming years. He predicted the demise of the newsstand distribution of comics and the rise of specialty shops. He deduced that the world was going to find a way to bottle and profit off of simple water. He even guessed that, eventually, the world’s superpowers were going to grow too strong to fight in traditional wars. If any two world powers went to war, it would destroy the planet, so they would have to manufacture super soldiers to single-handedly fight wars for them. And, while a lot of that stuff exists solely in Kirby’s four-color adventures, a good number of them came true. OMAC was a fantastic opportunity for Kirby to explore any number of crazy ideas about the future and the One Man Army Corps’ continuous fight to save it from disaster.

omac-jack-kirby-scans038Unfortunately, all the fighting in the world couldn’t save OMAC. Once again, abysmal sales prevented the book from really gaining a solid foothold on the newsstands and it was eventually cancelled after only eight issues. Kirby’s contract with DC would end soon afterwards and he would never work on the character again. Others would try their hand at the high concepts of OMAC, even connecting the hero with the other Kirby creation, Kamandi. It was eventually revealed that OMAC was Kamandi’s grandfather and had failed to prevent the Great Disaster that Kamandi explores in Earth-AD. An awfully somber end to a great action hero, but it was better than being in limbo.

omac-jack-kirby-scans028OMAC wasn’t a book that Kirby particularly cared about all that much. It was a series created simply to meet a quota for a company that could care less about the man meeting them. It was dreamed up in a space where anything that stuck to the wall was considered better than nothing. It was, after all, just Captain America in the future, it wasn’t something Kirby had to try very hard to come up with. But I think that’s incredibly telling about the kind of creator Kirby was. He could take a simple, unimportant concept and make it into an essential, must-read series of the Bronze Age of Comics. Kirby was many things, but a lazy storyteller wasn’t one of them. He put everything he had into every story he ever told because he knew that somebody somewhere was reading it. It was his job to make sure that time spent reading his work wasn’t wasted. That’s not something you see every day.

OMAC3If you want to read Kirby’s OMAC, you’re in luck. There’s only one real option and that’s the Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps collection. It contains all eight pulse-pounding issues of the super soldier sensation of the future and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t check it out.

The World That’s Coming is waiting.

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Kamandi: The Last DC Epic

The seventies were a difficult time for Jack Kirby. Having become disgruntled with his treatment at Marvel Comics, a company he had helped put on the map, he had left to go to their competition, DC Comics. But, things quickly began to spiral into a familiar hole when the series he had been trying to tell his entire career, the Fourth World, was cancelled in under a year. Wanting to leave DC but unable to do so due to his contract, Kirby was forced to create new concepts for the company until he could escape. So, Kirby just began throwing ideas at a wall and explored the ones that stuck. It was in this time we were graced with the creation of OMAC, the Demon, and a brand-new take on his classic character, the Sandman. All of these were remarkable failures at the time and were quickly cancelled, but there was one concept that really took off. One simple idea that bloomed into an entire world of creative opportunity that went on long after Kirby eventually left the company.

This was Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth.

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It’s said that during the seventies, infamous DC editor, Carmine Infantino, had been trying to gain a license to produce comics based on the popular Planet of the Apes films, which he was never able to procure. So, as any good editor is wont to do, he went to Kirby and demanded he produce a comic similar to Planet of the Apes so DC could cash in on the growing popularity of the series. At the risk of upsetting Infantino, Kirby agreed to create the comic. But, there was a small hitch: Kirby had never seen the Planet of the Apes films. Sure, he knew about them, had heard about their concept, but he had no real idea about what to base the new series on. So, in standard Kirby fashion, he took the building blocks of a franchise and built them into something that was far and away more exciting, powerful, and all-around more fun than what had come before.

Kamandi 1From the cover of the first issue you could tell Kirby was trying to pull in the Apes audience. The destroyed Statue of Liberty drowned in an ocean that covered a city, one lone figure piloting a small raft towards the reader. It wasn’t subtle imagery by any stretch of the imagination, but, then again, Kirby wasn’t what you would call a subtle man. It’s telling that Kirby gave us that famous Liberty image from the word “go,” that image that some would chalk up to a rip-off but most others would find captivating. From that one image famous for its presence in an ending, Kirby is able to draw in an audience familiar with what had come before and begin something new. Kirby was telling us he knew what this was and he knew we knew what it was. But he was also telling us to forget everything we thought we knew and dive in because this was just the start of a wild adventure.

Kamandi followed the exploits of the titular hero throughout the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic world filled to the brim with dangers and excitement. After an ominous catastrophe called the Great Disaster, the world has become desolate and hostile, with radiation mutating many of the world’s animals into humanoid races warring over territory and power. Humans had mostly devolved into mute workhorses while races like the tigers and gorillas ruled with iron fists. This is the world Kamandi awakens to, stumbling out of the remains of an old bunker (the name of which, Command D, is where he finds his own) from before the Great Disaster. Raised by his grandfather, Kamandi was told stories of the World that Was and, after his grandfather’s death, decides to leave the bunker and meet this world head on. What he finds is far beyond the stories he heard from his grandfather and he is hunted at every turn by creatures that seek to destroy him. Aided only by a canine scientist named, of course, Dr. Canus, Kamandi travels across Earth-AD in hopes of reigniting the dying human race.

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Okay, so it was a little bit like Planet of the Apes.

Kirby was able to take the simple premise he was given and make it his something wholly his own. Gone was the cold, sterile world of Apes, Kirby gave us sweeping expanses of destroyed cities and flooded countries. There wasn’t time for the contemplative plot of Apes when you had Kamandi attempting to wrestle a giant cricket to be his steed. The world felt alive and truly lived in, as if every decision Kamandi made could be his last. A trusted friend could just as soon be the worst enemy with all the drama a massive leopard in chainmail and a laser gun could have. And, though Kamandi never really had a solid direction in terms of plot, it never really seemed to matter. One minute Kamandi could be riding on horseback across an arid desert that used to be Chicago and the next he could be fighting humanoid rats diving out of a zeppelin. It was the purest “Rule of Cool,” book Kirby ever put together, meaning that the logic of the world and stories never seemed to matter as long as what was happening looked cool. And, honestly, that’s not a bad philosophy to have when you’ve been tasked with making an Apes rip-off.

Kamandi_29Kamandi was an instant hit, becoming Kirby’s best-selling work of his entire DC Comics’ career. Audiences thrilled to the excitement of Kamandi’s adventures in Earth-AD and delighted in his fighting spirit. It also didn’t hurt that Kamandi was completely removed from the goings-on of the mainstream DC Universe that included the likes of Superman and Batman. This allowed for the characters to really come into their own and the book wasn’t forced into any sort of crossover material until long after Kirby had left DC. The only occurrence of Kirby himself tying the book into DC’s expansive continuity was in Kamandi #29, when Kamandi discovers a tribe of apes that worship the old, worn uniform of Superman himself. Of course, Kamandi had no clue to the importance of the uniform, but for readers this was a revelation. This wasn’t just a standard post-apocalyptic world that Kamandi was exploring. This was the post-apocalyptic DC Universe. And, if the legends of the ape tribe were to be believed, the heroes had failed to stop the Great Disaster that created this world in the first place. It was even mysteriously indicated that Kamandi was in somehow related to Kirby’s other series running at the time, OMAC. In that series, the hero, the titular OMAC, is attempting to stop the World That’s Coming from happening. If Kamandi’s world is any indication, OMAC failed just like everybody else.

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Despite the dark undertones surrounding the origin of Kamandi’s world, the stories themselves were usually light and full of high-stakes adventure. You could tell that Kirby was finally having some fun. While he was understandably upset over his visionary Fourth World’s cancellation, he at least had Kamandi to tell exciting stories and, on occasion, work in that famous Kirby philosophy. From the cover of the first issue, you knew that Kirby had a vision for even this mandated series. He drew out maps of the new world and how the different empires were distributed. He designed ancient machinery that somehow was beyond anything we had seen before and regaled the beasts of the world in the most insane armor one could realistically wear. You could say many things about the worlds Kirby created, but you could never say they were boring.

Kamandi map

It’s hard to say just what Kirby would’ve done with Kamandi had be continued the series. After a few years producing fifteen (fifteen!) pages for DC a week, sometimes on projects he could care less about, Kirby was ready to leave. As soon as his contract expired, nothing could keep him there and he left Kamandi and the rest of Earth-AD hanging. Other writers would come in and explore the world that Jack created, but it would eventually be cancelled a few years later. While Kamandi eventually ended in a whimper, at least while Kirby was on the book, it really was the place to go for the best adventures in comics. Kirby never seemed to let his unideal working conditions drive his passion for his own stories. He made the best possible book he could every time, and that’s something to be commended.

Kamandi omnibusIf you’re interested in checking out Kirby’s Kamandi, there’s really only one way to do it. Go grab the Kamandi by Jack Kirby Omnibus volumes 1-2, which collect his entire 40 issue run on the title. DC had made plans to publish a one volume omnibus this year collecting all of Kirby’s Kamandi, but the solicitation appears to have been cancelled until further notice, so if you don’t want to wait, the previous editions will do in a pinch.

Now, go treat yourself to the adventures of a lifetime.

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The Fourth World: Kirby’s Magnum Opus

In the late 1960’s, Marvel Comics was hitting its stride, becoming a real competitor on the newsstands. With best-selling titles like the Fantastic Four, Thor, and Spider-Man, Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, was beginning to get worried. Gone were the days where they controlled the market on superheroes. Now, mostly due to the imagination of one man, they finally had real competition. This man was, of course, Jack Kirby, leading the charge at Marvel to produce some of the most imaginative superhero stories ever told. His style was Marvel’s style, his creations their babies. So, naturally, it came as a great surprise to all involved when Kirby decided to quit Marvel and head over the pond to DC.

Becoming frustrated with not getting credit he felt he deserved and becoming cornered with the kinds of stories he was allowed to tell, Kirby left Marvel in 1970, taking entire universes with him. Kirby had quit offering new ideas to the company in the late sixties after seeing how he was credited (or wasn’t at all) and, instead, took them to DC to play with. He was, after all, a respected name in the industry as he was already being called King Kirby by anyone with a passing interest in the medium and his name garnered readers. Kirby knew this and decided to no longer work with anyone else on scripting duties for his new books, choosing to script himself so there would be no confusion as to who created what.

So, Kirby came to DC with ideas bursting from his pores. Chiefly, he was wanting to do a story he had always wanted to tell in the pages of Thor over at Marvel, a story about the death of the gods of old. He wanted to tell the story of the New Gods who would rise to take their place. But, of course, DC couldn’t just launch a brand-new series with brand-new concepts in 1970. Kirby needed to build to that, they needed to know he could draw in an audience for them like he did over at Marvel. They wanted to put Kirby on a safe book, look at the sales, and then see what they could do. Kirby, not wanting to take work from anyone currently working at DC, refused to take any of the high-profile books like Superman or Batman. Instead, he told them to stick him on their lowest-selling title and promised he would turn it around in only a few short months. And, so it was that Jack Kirby ended up writing and penciling Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

JimmyOlsen133cover_smlJimmy Olsen wasn’t the most popular book on the stands, far from it. Starring Superman’s titular pal, it was created at the height of Superman’s booming popularity in the 1950’s and somehow had made it into the seventies. On the brink of cancellation due in no small part to the formulaic nature of the stories and no writer currently steering it, Kirby couldn’t have come at a better time. Since there were no expectations for the book, he was free to tell the kinds of stories he wanted without fear of editorial reprisal. So, he launched with a bang, reintroducing the Newsboy Legion he had created back in the 1940’s along with a brand-new Guardian to match. It was here that Kirby began to plant the seeds to his cosmic epic, the Fourth World Saga of the New Gods.

Sales skyrocketed for Jimmy Olsen and showed DC that Kirby still demanded attention even then. However, as would become a common hurdle, DC editorial began to meddle in Jack’s work for fear of alienating their core audience. Jack’s Superman wasn’t DC’s, and they would continually have the likes of Curt Swan, a classic Superman artist, redraw the Man of Steel in Kirby’s books to have him match their more accepted house style. This would eventually lead to even more drastic troubles, but, for now, Kirby was content to simply tell his stories.

ForeverPeople1Cover_smlAnd tell them he did. Soon after the success of Jimmy Olsen, Kirby singlehandedly launched three new ongoing series all written and penciled by himself alone. First came the Forever People, an updated version of the kid gang concept he had pioneered in the Golden Age about a group of other-worldly teens from a world called New Genesis who could combine to form the Infinity Man to combat evil. Then there was the New Gods, the crux of his opus, which told the tale of the New God, Orion, and his quest to defeat the sinister Darkseid. Finally, there was Mister Miracle, perhaps the most conventionally superheroic of the bunch, about a master escape artist who was doing his own part to defeat the forces of Apokolips. To the average reader in the seventies, all of this must have been quite a bit to take in all at once. Apokolips? New Genesis? Darkseid? What is all of this?

miracleTrue to his word, it was Kirby telling the story of the birth of the New Gods. After the Old Gods of the Third World had destroyed themselves in a cataclysmic battle, a race of new beings rose from the ashes and claimed the cosmos for themselves. These were the New Gods and their struggles would threaten to tear the fabric of the universe to pieces. These New Gods were split into two main camps, those who lived on New Genesis and those who lived on Apokolips. New Genesis was a peaceful world full of light and hope and embodied everything that was good about the universe, led by the benevolent High Father. Apokolips, on the other hand, was a dark, evil, twisted factory of a world where all good was stamped out and every light of hope extinguished by the all-mighty grasp of its lord and master, Darkseid. Diametrically opposed, these two planets would rage in conflict for centuries, threatening to destroy their Fourth World in much the same way the Third World had. So, a peace treaty was brokered: High Father and Darkseid would trade their first-born sons with each other, a symbol of peace between their two worlds. High Father would raise Darkseid’s son as best he could in the ways of peace while Darkseid would torture High Father’s son until he succumbed to the darkness of Apokolips. And now, after years of relative peace, rumblings of war begin again and the DC Universe would never be the same.

Heady stuff for the seventies comic reader who just wanted to see Batman punch a murder clown.

New_Gods_1971_1Something of this caliber had never been attempted in comics before, nothing this large in scope had even been dreamed of being possible. One, epic story told across four separate titles that spoke to the nature of humanity when confronted with impossible moral problems? It was too much, too fast. Fans couldn’t wrap their heads around it at the time, and those only reading one of the books would be missing out on some vital information in the larger tapestry of the Fourth World Saga. While sales started strong on the series, they would eventually peter out and half of the books were cancelled in under a year. DC editorial again interfered, scared of the low sales, and killed the books before they really had a chance to tell their stories. Jimmy Olsen survived thanks to the brand and Mister Miracle, the more recognizable superhero book of the saga, made it another six months or so. When all was said and done, Kirby was left with an unfinished epic that he had worked so hard to tell for so long. Unsatisfied with DC’s editorial, Kirby would eventually leave the company to return to Marvel and his opus would go unfinished for years.

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A decade later, however, Kirby was allowed to return to DC to try and wrap up his story of the New Gods and their cosmos-crushing conflict. I say “try” because even in the eighties, when Kirby is still a proven commodity, DC refused to let him tell the stories the way he envisioned them. Kirby would come and create the tie-in comic to help promote DC’s new line of action figures called the Super Powers line. The comic included the New Gods and, while not a major chapter of the Fourth World Saga, it’s still worth mentioning for completion’s sake. Kirby’s real capstone to the saga would come with the publication of the DC Graphic Novel #4: The Hunger Dogs. It was here that Kirby tried to wrap up all of the lose ends from the decade previous and originally intended Orion and Darkseid to destroy each other and the rest of the New Gods in one, final conflict. Of course, DC couldn’t allow this, they had properties and brands to maintain, after all. With the option of the New God’s destruction off of the table, Kirby had to tell a softer story in which their conflict ended but with a wide enough door open that anything could happen afterwards.

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Again, Kirby was stunted at every turn to try and tell his story of the gods that had been simmering within him for decades. Unsatisfied with the corporate mindset of the Big Two comic publishers, Kirby would eventually take his story to the independent scene. But, that’s a story for another time.

Since you obviously need to read Kirby’s Fourth World Saga, you need to know how to get your hands on it. If you hate yourself and want to grab each series in their own collections unrelated to each other, you could always go the individual trade paperback route. The New Gods series is collected in its entirety in Jack Kirby’s New Gods, though, be warned these are in black and white and kind of on the older side. In that same vein, you can read all of his Mister Miracle series in Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle: Super Escape Artist and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: Featuring Mister Miracle collections, though, again, these are black and white. His Forever People series is collected completely in Jack Kirby’s The Forever People trade, again, without color. Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen, however, is reprinted in color in Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby volumes 1-2. The Super Powers stuff from the eighties that I mentioned briefly are actually (surprisingly) collected in the Jack Kirby Omnibus Volume 2 Starring the Super Powers, which has the entire Super Powers series along with a ton of other DC Kirby goodness. Now, for all of you out there who don’t hate yourselves quite as much, there are thankfully four omnibus collections that contain his entire Fourth World Saga in a recommended reading order and in amazing color called Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus volumes 1-4, which even collect his finale from the eighties. I say this with a slight caveat, however, as these volumes are currently out of print and a tad bit hard to find. But, just when you’re beginning to lose all hope, fear not, because DC has recently announced that this holiday they will be publishing the massive, one-volume Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, which contains everything, cover to cover Kirby greatness. Do yourself a favor and pre-order this beautiful book and treat yourself to the magnum opus of comic’s greatest creator.

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It’s definitely an epic for this, or any, time.

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Thor: Kirby’s Mighty Third World

Throughout Jack Kirby’s prolific career in the comic book medium, it’s easy to discern what it was he was most passionate about, what excited him the most when it came to the kinds of stories he wanted to tell. You see it stretching all the way back into the Golden Age and continue well into the Bronze Age, similar themes and characters popping up again and again, almost as if he’s telling one, long, massive story that no one company could contain. Kirby had a fascination with the gods and finding out just how human they actually were. You can see it in his acclaimed Fourth World series of books in the early 1970s, and he continued that work over at Marvel in the later half of that decade with the Eternals. He even carried it into independent publishing with his creator-owned Captain Victory epic in the early 1980s. But, to really get an idea about where these incredibly complex themes, stories, and characters came from, you have to go back to the very beginning of his massive epic.

Kirby ThorYou really have to start with Thor.

Adventure ThorWell, maybe not that Thor. We’ll get to him in a minute. Kirby obviously had more than a passing interest in mythology and bringing it into the modern world with larger-than-life Shakespearean operas laid bare on the four-colored pages of American comics. In particular, he seemed to love Norse mythology, specifically Thor, the God of Thunder. The first time we catch Kirby trying to bring these characters to life was actually years before Marvel had even had an inkling about its own superhero properties. Kirby was working for National Comics in the early 1940s with Joe Simon, writing and illustrating their creation, the Sandman, in the pages of Adventure Comics. In a one-off adventure, “The Villain from Valhalla!,” the Sandman was confronted with a powerful new foe who wielded a massive, electrical hammer that could blow holes through cars and buildings alike. This foe called himself Thor and used his massive power to rob banks. Eventually, the villain was brought to justice and was revealed to be nothing but a gangster with a penchant for technological weaponry named (get this) Fairy-Tales Fenton. This iteration of Thor would appear a handful of times throughout the years, but Kirby never revisited the character, probably for good reason. This wasn’t exactly what Kirby was after, it just wasn’t big enough.

Unexpected ThorFlash forward a decade and we still find Kirby at National Comics, now calling themselves DC. Kirby was still writing and illustrating small stories for their catalog of anthology books and was working on a horror/suspense title called Tales of the Unexpected. It was here that we see Kirby attempt to tackle the character of Thor once again, but this time, it wasn’t a two-bit gangster with a beard. In “The Magic Hammer,” a regular man discovers the titular hammer and finds that it can bring lightning and rain wherever it strikes the ground. The man is able to make some money with his new hammer, but it all goes south when the owner of that hammer shows up to reclaim it. The owner is none other than the Norse God himself, Thor, who had been looking for his hammer since it was stolen by his brother, Loki. It’s an interesting tale that brings us closer to seeing what Kirby wanted out of the gods he envisioned. No longer were they mere mortals playing pretend, now these were the real deal. But, again, there was something missing, something epic, something even bigger.

And then Marvel happened.

JourneyIn the 1960s, Marvel was booming. Fresh off the success of their superhero smash the Fantastic Four, the company was willing to try any number of different ideas to add to their growing catalogue of heroes. Kirby was back over at Marvel after some time away and now, with the company growing to greater heights with each passing month, he was able to really let loose. In August of 1962, Kirby and Stan Lee introduced the world to the mighty Thor in the pages of Journey into Mystery #83. An anthology title from its days producing monster and science fiction comics, Journey into Mystery had a decidedly mystical slant from that of its sister magazines and was a perfect fit for this new, sensational hero. Donald Blake, a crippled doctor, is visiting Norway when, of course, an alien invasion occurs. Running for his life, Blake loses his cane in the rush and finds an old stick in a dark cave. Upon striking the stick against the ground, Blake is transformed into the mighty Thor and is able to beat back the invaders.

Journey ThorWhere before Kirby was limited to the short stories he was telling over at DC, here he could let his stories breathe. Thor was able to be more than a mere god, he was able to be a hero. The Donald Blake persona allowed Kirby to keep Thor within the Marvel pantheon of superheroes and he even had his Thunder God join the Avengers, but where the character really shined was when he was outside the realm of the earth and exploring the Nine Realms of Creation. Kirby was able to introduce such characters as Thor’s father, Odin, his evil brother, Loki, his best friend, Baldur, and countless other gods of Norse mythology. He even brought in the Greek pantheon and set Thor against the incredible Hercules in a fight whose waves are still being felt today. Kirby was even allowed his own back-up stories which he called the Tales of Asgard, where he could explore all the other characters he didn’t have time to touch on in the main Thor feature. Or, he could regale us with a tale about Thor’s youth and his journey to become the hero we know today. Whatever the story was, it was hard to imagine anything more epic at the time.

But, you could tell that Kirby wasn’t satisfied with everything that was going on with the book. As the years went by, he was steadily working his way toward a definitive endpoint. Kirby was convinced that Thor and his friends needed to eventually die in the legendary Ragnarok of Norse legend so that new stories could be told. So that New Gods could rise to take their place. Kirby was planning to end the Thor stories and begin what would later become known as his Fourth World series when the infamous disputes with Lee began to get worse. Kirby realized that anything new he contributed to the company was never going to be his to truly shape and mold as he saw fit, and Marvel wasn’t just going to let a popular character like Thor simply end. So, Kirby eventually left Marvel altogether and created the Fourth World over at DC Comics.

LonarHis epic tale of these New Gods and their cosmic struggles became Kirby’s primary focus, but Marvel Comics wouldn’t be the last time we would see the Norse Gods of old. In a small tale from the Forever People #6, a New God named Lonar is exploring the ruins of the Old God’s destroyed kingdom, the legendary Third World. Among the rubble, he lefts a mighty, familiar helmet and, with it, Kirby is able to finally put his story of the Old Gods to rest. It may not have been the perfect ending we all had wanted for our favorite Norse hero, but it was an ending nonetheless, a rarity in superhero comics. Kirby would continue the themes and epic stories he had begun with Thor for years to come, but, it seemed the tale of Asgard was over.

Kirby was no stranger to epic storytelling. Everything he touched seemed to come alive with a yearning to go bigger and bolder than had ever been seen before. And, while it took him a few decades to finally get there, he finally realized his dream with the creation of Marvel’s Thor. The power, the grace, and the sheer humanity he poured into each page of his seven-year run should be celebrated and if you’ve always wanted more from your superheroes than simply punching bird-themed bank robbers, than this is certainly the place to go. Though, you know, there’s plenty of the bank robbers, too. It’s still comics, after all.

Mighty_Thor_Omnibus_Vol_1_2If you’re interested in checking out Kirby’s Thor for yourself, there are a few familiar ways to grab the whole story, including the Essential Thor volumes 1-4. Again, these are cheap and they collect a ton of issues in each volume, but they’re in black and white, so your mileage may vary. You could also check it out in color in the Marvel Masterworks Thor volumes 1-9, but we’ve discussed previously about how hard these are to find for cheap, so only get these if you only read Masterworks. Thankfully, I can once again recommend the Mighty Thor Omnibus volumes 1-3 for your reading pleasure, with all the goodies you’ve come to expect inside, all in color. There’s no wrong answer, and as long as you get to experience Kirby’s Thor for yourself, you’re doing it right.

It’s mighty fine reading, all things considered.