Comic book reviews: Jack Kirby’s Silver Star

Jack Kirby was, without a doubt, one of the most influential comic book creators of the 20th Century.  His dynamic art style and storytelling techniques influenced dozens upon dozens of other artists.  Kirby was also responsible for creating or co-creating literally hundreds of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics.  Among these were Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the original X-Men, the New Gods, Darkseid, the Demon Etrigan, OMAC, and Kamandi, just to name some of the major ones!

Unfortunately, Kirby spent the majority of his career working during a time when the legal rights of comic book creators were few and far between.  Both financial benefits and creative control were almost unheard of.  So, despite creating a major share of the Marvel universe, and contributing key concepts to DC, Kirby was sadly denied both creative and financial recognition by the owners of those two companies.

Nowadays, of course, this situation has improved somewhat.  If a successful creator chooses to, he has the option take his brand new ideas to a publisher such as Image Comics, Dark Horse, or IDW, where he will retain ownership of a series.

Creator-owned titles really did not become prevalent in the marketplace until the early 1990s, though.  By this time, Kirby was already in his seventies, suffering from poor health, and had retired several years before.  He would pass away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76.  I’ve always thought it was a great tragedy that Kirby did not live longer, and of course retain his health & drawing ability, so that he could have brought some of the many unpublished concepts he had conceived to a company such as Image and produced a long-lasting series on which he held full ownership and creative control.

Fortunately, Kirby did have the opportunity to work on a small number of creator-owned projects a decade before, in the early 1980s.  One of these was Silver Star, which was published for six issues by Pacific Comics in 1983.

Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby

Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby

In 2006, TwoMorrows Publishing released the Silver Star: Graphite Edition, a black & white trade paperback collection.  It was printed from photocopies of Jack Kirby’s penciled pages from before they were inked by Mike Royer, D. Bruce Berry and Mike Thibodeaux.  There are a handful of pages, mostly splashes and double page spreads, that there aren’t any photocopies of.  In those cases, the pages were printed from the inked artwork.

I had seen scans of the some of the original artwork from the Silver Star books posted on Comic Art Fans, and was intrigued, especially because of some striking pages from the sixth issue.  So when I found a copy of the Graphite Edition for sale at the Jack Kirby Museum table during MoCCA Festival 2010, I immediately purchased it.

(There is also a collection of the Silver Star material that was issued by Image Comics in 2007, an oversized hardcover printed in full color on glossy paper, with selected new coloring by Erik Larsen.  I’ve been meaning to pick up this edition for a few years now, but I’ve yet to come across a copy in the comic shops.  Sooner or later, once I have some extra funds, I’ll buy it at Amazon or Ebay.)

Silver Star is the story of “Homo Geneticus,” the next stage in human evolution, artificially jump-started by Doctor Bradford Miller.  Hoping to find a way for humanity to survive a nuclear holocaust, Miller created a “genetic package” that he injected into a number of pregnant women, including his own wife.  All of these women’s offspring were subsequently born with various superpowers, including “atomic manipulation,” the ability to reshape matter itself.

Miller’s son Morgan first manifests his abilities during the Vietnam War, when he unexpectedly uses them to save his comrades from an enemy attack.  However, Morgan’s body immediately begins emitting massive amounts of energy.  The military is forced to encase him in a metal suit.  This silvery outfit, combined with the medal for valor Morgan receives, causes the government to give him the code name “Silver Star.”

Unfortunately, not all of the recipients of the genetic package are as altruistic as Morgan.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Darius Drumm.  Born to a stern, wife-beating evangelical preacher, leader of the “Foundation for Self-Denial,” Drumm grows up in a strict, puritanical environment.  This upbringing, coupled with the discovery of his seemingly unlimited powers, leads Drumm to become a very twisted individual.  Mentally unbalanced, convinced of the inherent corruption of all humanity, Drumm is determined to wipe the world clean of sin.  He is the ultimate nihilist, ready to reduce the entire Earth to a sterile globe.

Before Drumm can proceed, he feels obligated to kill all of the other members of Homo Geneticus he can locate, lest they pose a threat to his scheme.  This he does via some particularly violent and gruesome acts, ones that not only take out his quarry, but also cause an immense loss of innocent life.

One of Drumm’s targets is Norma Richmond, an attractive stuntwoman whose main Homo Geneticus ability is near invulnerability.  At first, as with his other prey, Drumm attempts to kill her.  Morgan thwarts this attempt, and rescues Norma, but Drumm strikes again, this time kidnapping her.  At this point Drumm is unable to decide if he wants to seduce Norma or kill her, violently torn between his lust for the beautiful woman and his father’s strict discipline of self-denial.

In the final issue, Drumm, fully committed to his apocalyptic mission, uses his atomic manipulation on himself.  He transforms into the horrific, towering figure of the Angel of Death.  Spreading vast wings, Drumm sweeps out, scorching the surface of the planet with his flames.  Morgan sets off in pursuit, desperate to halt Drumm before mankind is completely annihilated.

Jack Kiirby's uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10

Jack Kiirby’s uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10

I have to admit, as a great fan of Jack Kirby’s work, I was a bit underwhelmed by Silver Star.  The story is not his best writing.  I think he probably hit his high point, both as a writer and an artist, a decade or so earlier, when he was creating the Fourth World books featuring the New Gods at DC Comics.

By the time Kirby was working on Silver Star in 1983, it’s quite likely that he may have been burned out on comic books, due to his shoddy treatment at the hands of Marvel and DC.  I cannot say I can blame him for that.  His advancing age & declining health may also have been a factor.  That said, Silver Star is not without its merits.

While it appears that while Kirby intended for the conflict with Darius Drum to conclude in Silver Star #6, he may have believed the book would last on past that as an ongoing series.  Kirby spends a significant portion of the first four issues establishing a supporting cast and status quo.  As a result, the pacing on these issues is too leisurely.  Things only kick into high gear with the final two issues, as Drumm becomes the Angel of Death, and the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.  It’s possible that if Kirby had known he would only have half a dozen issues to work with, he would have structured the story somewhat differently.

At least the conclusion, while somewhat abrupt, is quite inventive.  Realizing that he has little hope of physically besting Drumm in a contest of superpowers, Morgan instead is forced to use psychology to defeat his nigh-unstoppable opponent.

One story point that I felt was much too casually brushed aside was Doctor Miller conducting genetic experimentation on unborn babies.  I do not know if he ever received the parents’ consent, but even if he did, there are still ethical issues.  One can argue that Miller is at least partially responsible for the massive destruction Darius Drumm subsequently wrecks.

Kirby did something similar with “The Project” in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.  In that case, the government cloned numerous copies of Jimmy Olsen without his permission.  Jimmy, rather than expressing outrage at this violation of his person, merely seemed in awe by the whole accomplishment.  It’s strange, in that Kirby appeared to view concepts such as cloning and genetic engineering with a black & white morality.  In his stories, he either presented well-intentioned scientists such as The Project or Doctor Miller experimenting with human DNA for the selfless betterment of mankind, or he had insane nut jobs like Simyan & Mokkari or Arnim Zola transforming & twisting organic life out of some sort of sadistic, perverse curiosity.  Kirby didn’t seem to acknowledge that the act of genetic engineering itself, regardless of the intent of the scientists behind it, can have a host of complicated moral issues.

Looking at the Graphite Edition, it’s worth mentioning the penciling appears on the sketchy side.  There could be a few reasons for this.  I don’t know if Kirby’s art looks unpolished because these are reproductions of quarter century old photocopies, because he was getting on in age, or because he simply didn’t finish his pencils as tightly as he could have since he knew they were going to be inked.  As I said, there are several pages where TwoMorrows needed to print from the inked art by Royer, Berry and Thibodeaux.  This finished art looks fantastic.  Obviously, I understand the archival and instructional value of presenting Kirby’s rough, uninked pencil art, as it reveals a lot of the creative process.  And there is always the alternative of the Image hardcover to see the series fully inked.

That said, Kirby’s unlinked, black & white pencils for Silver Star #6, with the titanic Angel of Death unleashed upon the Earth, are amazing.  Perhaps the excitement of illustrating the end of the world inspired Kirby, because his artwork on these pages is dramatic, horrifying, and riveting.

Silver Star originated as a pitch for a film that Kirby and Steve Sherman wrote in 1977.  It was never produced, and Kirby used many of the ideas from the film treatment several years later in the Silver Star comic, albeit with certain alterations.  The entire story treatment by Kirby & Sherman is reprinted in the back of the Graphite Edition.  It’s interesting to compare their initial premise to the finished comic book version.  And, y’know, with today’s special effects technology, Silver Star would make a fantastic movie!

I also thought it noteworthy that Kirby suggested actor Jack Palance to play Darius Drumm.  According to Kirby’s former assistant Mark Evanier, the grand cosmic villain Darkseid from the Fourth World books was also modeled on Palance (an early concept drawing for Drumm printed in this book bears a more than passing resemblance to Darkseid).  Kirby obviously thought very highly of Palance’s acting abilities & screen presence.  Certainly he wasn’t the only comic book artist to feel that way, as Gene Colan acknowledged that his version of Dracula from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula series was also based on Palance.

Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby

Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby

There are several other concept illustrations and previously unpublished drawings by Kirby contained in the trade paperback.  My favorite would have to be the original design for Norma Richmond, or “Jayne Davidson,” as she was originally called in the Kirby/Sherman film pitch.  Several years ago, someone on a message board once suggested that Kirby was incapable of drawing sexy women.  That, I argued, was pure nonsense, and I listed at least half a dozen examples of curvy Kirby women who were absolutely gorgeous.  I have to add Norma to that list.

I don’t know if I would recommend Silver Star to a Kirby newcomer.  It is something of an acquired taste, and a better intro to Kirby’s tremendous body of work would be the Fourth World Omnibus editions from DC, or the various Essential Fantastic Four volumes published by Marvel.  But if you are already a fan of Kirby, then Silver Star is worth picking up.  It’s an unusual but memorable story, and one of the last complete works in Kirby’s long & varied career.

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