Thursday, 6 June 2013

Jack Kirby's Black Panther #1.

Black Panther #1, King Solomon Frog, Jack Kirby
If you've been keeping your ear to the internet, you may know, from other sources, that I recently had a dream in which Jack Kirby rewrote the Galactus Trilogy in the style of his 1970s' Marvel comics.

In it, the Silver Surfer became Shiny Waverider, a jive-talking brother from the 'hood, the Watcher became Chrome-Dome McGinty and Galactus became Mr Greedy.

I suspect this dream was prompted by memories of the first time I read issue #1 of Jack Kirby's Black Panther.

After having diligently and enthusiastically read all those issues of Don McGregor's Panther's Rage, it was a bit of a shock - not to mention a total let-down - to find my favourite Wakandan suddenly in the middle of an action-packed yarn about a time-portal in the shape of a frog

To be honest, at the time I felt appalled and even betrayed by developments. How could Marvel do this to me? How?

But that was then, and perspectives can change. So, how will my adult mind react to re-reading that tale for the first time since then?

Jack Kirby's Black Panther #1
What happens is this. The Panther and Mr Little (who's little) pay a visit to a man, only to find he's been murdered by a knight in shining armour. Refreshingly, the dead man isn't called Mr Dead.

After a brief fight, the Panther and Little depart with a statuette of a frog the dead man had been holding when they'd found him.

It turns out it once belonged to King Solomon and is in fact a time machine, sought by sinister forces who'll stop at nothing to get it.

Jack Kirby's Black Panther #1, Cancel him
By the end of the issue, Little has been killed and the Panther captured by Princess Zanda who wants the frog for herself.

That's when someone very strange indeed shows up...

To be honest, in terms of writing, the thing still seems terrible; crudely plotted and full of weirdly inappropriate and clumsy dialogue.

Characters are never developed in any way. We get to learn almost nothing about Mr Little and how the Panther came to be with him.

Jack Kirby's Black Panther #1, Hatch 22
The murderous knight is left to simply run off into the outside world, with no attempt made to stop him, and the feeling you get is that Kirby could have removed the Panther from the tale and replaced him with Captain America, Kamandi or Ikaris from The Eternals and it would have made barely any difference to how he'd told it. Kirby in this era seemed to have no grasp of the idea of catering a story to suit the persona and powers of the central character, meaning it's basically a string of action-oriented images with no feeling of being an actual story.

On the art front, it's fine. I know I'm in a minority here but, as a kid, I always preferred Kirby's art in the Bronze Age to his work in the Silver Age and, while I appreciate his 1960s stuff a lot more now than I did then, I still like his Bronze Age stuff too.

The truth is that, by the 1970s, Kirby's imagination had simply gone too free-range for a non-super-powered character like the Panther or Captain America, meaning there's a terrible sense of the ill-judged and out-of-place about his writing for them.

I do though like the climax's enigmatic visitor having the ominous words, "Hatch 22," on his forehead. Of just what unknown menace does that phrase hint?

11 comments:

Kid said...

There's no doubt that Kirby was simply out of step with the way comics were being done in the '70s. Proof, if any were needed, of just how much of his '60s work was improved by the contribution of Stan Lee.

Comicsfan said...

That's a fair point about Kirby's Bronze-period art having merit. Strangely enough, of the writers who might have done it justice, he would be the last person I'd pick to script any story he himself drew, if I even gave him the nod at all. Given his longevity in the industry and all the things he would have picked up about characterization, you'd think a Kirby story and Kirby art would blend together very well during his second time at bat in the 1970s--yet the combination proved to be a mismatch.

I suppose I'll always be curious about the "what might have been" scenario of someone else scripting (and perhaps co-plotting) Captain America and Black Panther while Kirby confined his work on both to penciling. Perhaps then Kirby's departure might have produced something other than a collective sigh of relief.

Doug said...

I recall wanting to stay far away from Kirby's work, 1970's or otherwise, when this book and Kirby's other "return to Marvel" stuff was on the stands. His art seemed to be on every Marvel cover at that time, and I can remember numerous occasions where I'd peek inside to see if he did the interiors. By the mid-70's, his art was so blocky, every finger was square-tipped, and all of his faces looked like the terror-mortis of a Speed Racer character.

Like Steve, I've really come to appreciate Jack Kirby in my adult years. I still far and away prefer his Silver Age output to his 70's run at Marvel (I am sadly ignorant to almost all of his DC work in the early part of the decade and very much need to rectify that), but can at least now look at it. All of Steve's comments in the post, as well as the two comments above mine ring true for me as well.

O, what might have been...

Doug

Steve W. said...

Doug, if you've not read his Kamandi comics, it might be a good idea to try. I do feel it was the 1970s strip his writing and drawing style was best suited to.

Anonymous said...

Kirby's scripting from his 1970s work mirrors his art and plot -- explosive, thematic, direct. Why it seemed to work better at DC is because most of those books had no precedents to reflect against. At Marvel, he was usually following the young turks of the 70s whose dialogue was intentionally more pseudo-literate and whose themes (for then) were more subtle. His Black Panther was a splash of cold water coming so quickly after Don McGregor's last issue of Jungle Action. It's likely that another scripter over top of the King would have been boring.

R. W. Watkins said...

I just realised, I'm pretty sure I put together a complete set of Black Panther in the early 1990s, yet I've never actually gotten around to reading a single issue! I have and have read all the Jungle Action issues, but nothing from the followup series. That's something for me to catch up with over the summer months....

Matt Celis said...

Kirby's Panther and Cap stories are just SO MUCH BETTER than the preachy stuff that followed him on both titles, I never understand why he is maligned in this fashion.

Lorenzo said...

First, a ripost to 'Kid', who claims that the increasingly diminishing returns of Kirby's later work is "proof" of how much he needed Stan Lee. While I agree that Stan's dialogue runs rings around Kirby's, I believe the drop in quality of Kirby's 70s Marvel (not DC) work was more due to burn-out & disillusionment with an industry HE had largely revitalised than any kind of "magic wand" Stan Lee supposedly possessed.

Thanks in large part to DC's mis-management (too tedious to go into here, but it's a matter of public record), and Marvel swamping the market with Kirby reprints, Kirby eventually quit "the sinking ship" of DC to reluctantly return to "the slave ship" (as he himself called tem) of 'Mighty Marvel'. Rumour has it that his books were actively ridiculed upon his return, by all those smug hippy a**holes, who fancied themselves as "great writers" (Gerry Conway & Doug 'Never Met A Pretentious Idea I Didn't Like' Moench, anyone?), and the letters pages of his comics were also supposedly weighted with negative mail (which I'm less inclined to believe, for reasons I'll outline later. Phew!).

Whatever the truth, Kirby was certainly approaching burn-out by the mid-70s, and he was definitely "a man out of his time", as far as stupor-heroes went (which wasn't very far - the world was still waiting for Alan Moore & Frank Miller, but I digress). I mean, who in their right mind in the hipper-than-thou, right-on & "sophisticated '70s" wanted Krazy Kirby Kosmic Koncepts when they had Jim Starlin (admittedly, one of the few REAL talents at Marvel at the time, but once again I digress!)? Well, I did, for one, though much of the Kirby magic was spent by this time. Kirby grew bored with even 'The Eternals', which started strongly, and gave Marvel 'The Celestials', which I note with interest are still popular with certain writer to this day.

As to the Black Panther, I MUCH preferred Kirby's stories to those pretentious and slightly sleazy 'Jungle Action' comics, but I concur, Steve, when you say it didn't matter WHO the titular hero of Kirby's 1970s books were, really - if Kirby had a krazy koncept on his mind, he was gonna tell it regardless of whether it suited the character or not! In that way, Kirby definitely could have done with a decent Editor - come back Stan, some is forgiven - LoL!

But essentially, most of all, Kirby needed a SCRIPTER. NOT a vainglorious glory-hog like 'The Man', but someone who WOULDN'T try to line his own pockets by claiming Kirby's characters as his own. But who could Kirby have trusted? Once shafted, twice shy, and who could blame him for that? I laughed at your 'Kirby re-wrote the Galactus/Surfer Saga' - not just derisively - but ruefully. Kirby's talent was squandered by a draconian & uncaring industry, so MY dream goes something like this:

Jack Kirby wrote the Galactus/Surfer saga (no change THERE then, but I digress), and Stan Lee DIDN'T steal most of the credit. Stan DIDN'T fall in love with "this weird-looking guy on a surfboard that Jack surprised me with", and allowed Kirby to create and work on the Surfer's own comic. The End.

Now, I'm not claiming that Kirby's Surfer comic would have been any better than Stan's, but I know one thing for sure - it would have been a damn sight more inventive, AND he wouldn't have been such a self-pitying crybaby, lamenting both his own fate and that of "ignoble, childish & selfish mankind" every frikken five minutes, that's fer damn sure!

Excelsior! :-)

Lorenzo said...

Oh - to sum up why I think Kirby's Marvel output was so crappy:
1: Burn-out.
2: Disillusionment with an industry that treated him with disdain.
3: Comics readers wanted a different brand of adventure by the mid-70s - more overtly counter-culture (not to be confused with "more sophisticated", as the laughably bad Howard the Duck proved - some of THE worst writing of the '70s. I can only assume my fellow 1970s readers were simply in thrall to the idea of a cartoon duck stuck in a realistic world, or simply couldn't see the shit for the pot haze), and less 'wham, bam, Madbomb in the White House, kablooie' ta very much.

aaaand um...that's it, really! Ta for sharing your thoughts, Steve!

Lorenzo said...

Oops - and of course:
4: He needed a decent scripter, and (possibly) a decent editor and/or co-author (fat chance at Marvel, with all those goddamn hippies running the joint, and even fatter chance at DC, where they NEVER "got" Kirby, even when he & Marvel were wiping the floor with their 1960s classics, and DC was laughably struggling to be "hep" & be "down" with the kids).

And while we're on the subject, WHEN will dingbats like 'comicsfan' realise that scripting is NOT storytelling? It's "merely"* writing the dialogue, that's ALL! (*inverted commas as it's not to be undervalued, something I WILL give Stan Lee all due credit for)

This basic confusion over what appears (to me at least) a pretty simple fact has added to Stan Lee's rep as THE creative genius at Marvel (why, even HE must have felt a bit stink at his own thievery at the time - witness how many times he wrote "Scripted by" instead of "Story by" in the credit boxes) . He wasn't, he isn't, has NEVER been the creative dynamo at Marvel's heart (that was Kirby & Ditko - just check to see how many "brilliant" super-villains Stan & John 'Paycheck' Romita came up with after Ditko's departure - I count The Rhino & The Kingpin, who was a 3rd-rate character right up till Frank Miller got his hands on him, besides).

So, any time you hear a hissing sound during one of his tediously interminable cameos in Marvel $$$ movies, don't panic - it's not snakes in a theatre, it's just me, at the back, hissing and giving that uber-cad the fingers! :-)

Lorenzo said...

P.S: Just to prove I'm that NOT an entirely humourless defender of Kirby, I belly-laughed at your "at least (Kirby) didn't call him 'Mr Dead'" comment. Kirby may have been many things, but subtle he certainly wasn't!

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