This King… This Kirby!

One hundred years ago today, on August 28, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born in the Lower East Side slums of New York City.  Kurtzberg would grow up to become Jack Kirby, one of the most innovative, creative, prolific individuals to ever work within the comic book industry.

Jack King Kirby

There is absolutely no way that I can do justice to the memory of Jack “King” Kirby, to the literal legion of amazing characters he created over the decades, in a single blog post.  Entire books can, and have, been written about the man and his works.  The Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows, is a magazine devoted entirely to the life, work & legacy of Kirby, and it has been in continuous publication since 1994.  If you do a Google search, you will find numerous other tributes to Kirby that have been prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

If I had to pick one piece to which I would want to direct your attention, it would be “Kirby at 100” by Mark Evanier.  A comic book writer & historian, Evanier worked as Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s, and is one of the definitive authorities on the man.

I would also like to direct your attention to “The Top 10 Reasons Jack Kirby is the King of Comics” at Between the Pages.  In addition to spotlighting some really great examples of Kirby’s work, Between the Pages also offers up an amazing Kirby-themed cake!

Kirby’s work often had very political overtones.  Captain America’s Creator Spent a Lifetime Punching Nazis examines Kirby’s service in the armed forces on the battlefields of World War II, and his continuing struggle against fascism & injustice in his stories throughout the decades.

New Gods 7 double page splash

It is very difficult to imagine what comic books would be like without Kirby, or even IF there would have been a comic book industry today without him.  That is how incredibly important and influential he was.

Or, to put it another way, recently commenting on Facebook about Jack Kirby’s importance to the comic book biz, writer / artist Howard Chaykin bluntly stated “He’s why all of us have jobs, for fuck’s sake.”

To celebrate Kirby’s 100th birthday, I’ve begun re-reading (for the upteenth time) his astonishing “Fourth World” saga, beginning with New Gods.  These stories were originally published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, and they are among my all-time favorite works by Kirby.  Issue #7 of New Gods, “The Pact,” was once cited by Kirby himself as his favorite single issue that he ever created.  It is indeed a magnum opus, at once both epic in scope and intimate in it’s tragedy, an examination of the terrible losses war inflicts, the corrupting influence of conflict upon even the best among us.  The artwork by Kirby and inker Mike Royer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Tonight I expect that I’ll dig out my copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 and re-read the classic tale “This Man… This Monster!” Kirby, working with co-writer / editor Stan Lee and inker Joe Sinnott, produced Fantastic Four #51, one of the finest single issues of that series.  One can endlessly debate “who did what” in the Lee/Kirby collaborations at Marvel Comics, but whatever the division of labor, there is no doubt that together the two men crafted some wonderful stories, including this one.  That first page splash from FF #51 by Kirby & Sinnott of Ben Grimm, the Thing, standing forlornly in the pouring rain, is one of the most iconic images in the history of comic books.

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

Jack Kirby was a genius.  As longtime comic book writer Roy Tomas observed today, “We’ll never see his like again. But then again why should we think we would? After all, we never saw his like BEFORE, either!”

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Remembering Victor Pemberton

British writer and television producer Victor Pemberton passed away on August 13th. He was 85 years old. I was a fan of Pemberton’s work, and over the past several years I had corresponded with him via e-mail.  Based on his e-mails, and on interviews he gave, he appeared to be a warm, intelligent man.

Victor Pemberton Fraggle Rock

Victor Pemberton and Sprocket

Pemberton was born on October 10, 1931 in Islington, London. His experiences a decade later, living through the terrible events of the Blitz during World War II, were a formative influence.  Decades later Pemberton wrote a series of 15 historical novels set in mid-20th Century London.  He described these books as, at least in part, “an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind.”

One of Pemberton’s earliest successes as a writer was in 1966, when he penned The Slide, a seven part science fiction radio drama broadcast weekly by the BBC from February 1 to March 27, 1966. This eerie, atmospheric drama starred Roger Delgado and Maurice Denham.

In the newly developed English town of Redlow, several earthquakes have occurred. This in itself is odd, as the area is considered geographically stable.  Things become considerably more unusual when a mysterious greenish-brown mud begins to ooze out of the fissures in the ground.  Not only is this mud highly acidic, it seems to have a life of its own, spreading out across flat ground, and even creeping uphill.

Called in to investigate these mysterious phenomena is Professor Josef Gomez, a South American seismologist portrayed by Delgado. Gomez previously encountered similar earth tremors in the nearby English Channel.  Assisted by local scientific authorities, the Professor makes a startling discovery.  The mud, it turns out, is not only a living entity, but it is also sentient.  And it  has the ability to telepathically influence certain individuals, driving many of the residents of Redlow to madness and suicide.  Gomez and his colleagues find themselves in a race against time, struggling to halt the lethal mudslide before it destroys the entire town.

Like so much other television and radio material from the 1960s, the master copy of the radio play was purged from the BBC archives. Fortunately, Pemberton himself recorded all the episodes of The Slide during their original broadcast.  Decades later, he discovered the tapes in his garage.  This stroke of luck allowed the BBC to restore the recordings and release them on CD in 2010.

The Slide

In 1967 Pemberton became involved with the Doctor Who television series. He acted in a small part in “The Moonbase” and served as Assistant Script Editor on “The Evil of the Daleks.”  Pemberton was then promoted to Script Editor on the next serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis.

Among his contributions to “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Pemberton scripted a scene in the third episode which showed the character of Victoria Waterfield, who had joined the TARDIS crew at the end of the previous story, adjusting to her new life.

THE DOCTOR: Are you happy with us, Victoria?

VICTORIA: Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here.

THE DOCTOR: Yes, I know, I know.

VICTORIA: I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now.

THE DOCTOR: You miss him very much, don’t you?

VICTORIA: It’s only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man, I shall never forget him. Never.

THE DOCTOR: No, of course you won’t. But, you know, the memory of him won’t always be a sad one.

VICTORIA: I think it will. You can’t understand, being so ancient.

THE DOCTOR: Eh?

VICTORIA: I mean old.

THE DOCTOR: Oh.

VICTORIA: You probably can’t remember your family.

THE DOCTOR: Oh yes, I can when I want to. And that’s the point, really. I have to really want to, to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind, and I forget. And so will you. Oh yes, you will. You’ll find there’s so much else to think about. So remember, our lives are different to anybody else’s. That’s the exciting thing. There’s nobody in the universe can do what we’re doing.

It is a beautifully written scene which is wonderfully performed by Patrick Troughton and Deborah Watling.

Pemberton decided to leave the Script Editor position after only one story in order to concentrate on his writing. He quickly produced the scripts for the six part Doctor Who serial “Fury from the Deep,” which was broadcast in 1968.  Regrettably only a few short clips from the story are known to still survive, along with the complete audio soundtrack and some behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of the final episode.  Nevertheless older fans of the series who saw “Fury from the Deep” when it was first broadcast have very fond memories of it.  Eighteen years later Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize the serial for the range of Doctor Who books published by Target.  When I read that book at the tender age of eleven, I found it to be incredibly scary.

“Fury from the Deep” is also noteworthy in that it contained the debut of the Doctor’s now-iconic sonic screwdriver, which was devised by Pemberton. The serial also saw the tearful farewell of Victoria from the show.

Pemberton would write for Doctor Who on one other occasion. In 1976 he scripted “The Pescatons,” the very first Doctor Who audio adventure.  It starred Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.  Pemberton had the opportunity to novelize “The Pescatons” for Target in 1991.

Doctor Who The Pescatons

After he left Doctor Who, Pemberton went onto a long & prolific career working in British television and radio.

In 1983 Pemberton became involved in the British version of the Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock. The series was about a group of funny and bizarre creatures, the Fraggles, who lived in a vast, wondrous subterranean civilization.  The Fraggles and their neighbors, the diminutive builders known as the Doozers and the giant bad-tempered Gorgs, were all brought to life by Henson’s amazing Muppet creations.

Fraggle Rock was broadcast in a number of foreign countries, and different framing segments involving a human character and his dog Sprocket (a Muppet) were recorded for each market. In the original American version, the human was the eccentric inventor Doc.  As a writer on the first season of the British version, Pemberton devised the human character of “The Captain,” a lighthouse keeper in Cornwall.  Pemberton became the producer of the British version from the second season onward.

When I e-mailed Pemberton in 2010 asking him about his time on Fraggle Rock, he had fond memories of his time working with the Muppets:

“It was a great fun series to do, with a lot of talent involved, something one always got from the late, lamented Jim Henson and his team. Needless to say, Sprocket, as in every version, was my hero of the show, mischievous and lovable to the last!”

One of Pemberton’s most acclaimed works was a trilogy of radio plays for the BBC based on the lives of his parents. The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore was broadcast in 1978, with the next two installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea, airing in 1987.  These three radio plays would form the basis for the first of his historical novels, Our Family, published in 1990.

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family was a wonderful book, and I made sure to let Pemberton know how much I enjoyed it. He appreciated my kind words.  In his response he noted:

“A few years ago, an historian referred to my novels as ‘archives of true family life during the London blitz of the Second World War’. I hope that’s true, and that, through the simplicity of the stories, current and future generations will have the opportunity to understand what it meant to live through those times.  After all, without knowing about the past, there can be no genuine future.”

In the later years of his life Pemberton retired to Murla, Spain. He was kind enough to autograph copies of his two Doctor Who novels which I mailed to him in 2010.  I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to correspond with Pemberton over the last several years.  He was a wonderful writer, and will definitely be missed.

In Case You Missed It

I am very grateful to Hannah Givens for linking to my blog in her recent In Case You Missed It post on her excellent blog Hannah Reads Books. Hannah is a very intelligent, insightful blogger, and I have always enjoyed her writings.

I will let Hannah explain how In Case You Missed It works…

So, that’s the idea of the ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) Tag: Go through the past two years of your blog and pick the five posts you most want people to read. Then tag your favorite blogs to do the same — people you’ve lost touch with, new discoveries you’d like to get to know, however you want to do it. Feel free to link back to me, I’d love to see it spreading!

Great idea, Hannah! I’m definitely happy to participate.

In Case You Missed It

Here are five blog posts I’ve written within the last two years with which I was very satisfied:

  1. Our Family by Victor Pemberton – I wrote this piece shortly after my girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away. Pemberton has written a number of excellent historical novels examining family life in England during the first half of the 20th Century. Michele’s mother enjoyed his books, which reminded her of her childhood in Liverpool.
  2. Batman Co-Creator Bill Finger – A brief look at the life & work of legendary comic book writer Bill Finger, who in late 2015 at long last received official recognition as the co-creator of Batman.
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – My review of the much-anticipated first Star Wars movie to be produced by Disney.
  4. Black Lightning Strikes Twice – I take a look at the long-awaited trade paperback reprinting the original Black Lightning comic book written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden in the late 1970s, the first DC Comics series to star an African American superhero.
  5. Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing – Diversity in comic books is important. I examine this from a personal perspective, as I look back at how Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, was finally revealed to be Jewish.

Here are the excellent blogs that I am tagging:

  • Witches Brew Press – My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s wonderful blog about art & music.
  • The Unspoken Decade – Dean Compton’s enjoyable look at the comic books of the 1990s.
  • the m0vie blog – Darren Mooney writes fascinating reviews that examine moves & TV shows within the wider cultural context.
  • Three Cat Yard – The wonderful adventures of housecats in suburbia, with many beautiful photographs.
  • iBLOGalot – J.R. LeMar looks at comic books , TV shows and movies, as well as political & social issues.

I hope everyone will check these out! If I’ve posted a link to your blog, I hope you will also be able to do your own In Case You Missed It post.

 

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #225

This year Image Comics is 25 years old, which makes it very appropriate that Savage Dragon by Image co-founder Erik Larsen has just reached issue #225.

Larsen has written, penciled & inked every single issue of Savage Dragon in the last quarter century.  This 100 page anniversary issue is the culmination of a number of different character & story arcs that Larsen devised over the proceeding 25 years.

As a reader since day one, I found Savage Dragon #225 amazing.  It was a very rewarding read, featuring the final confrontation of the original Dragon with his long-time enemies Darklord and Mister Glum.

Savage Dragon 225 cover

In previous issues the diminutive alien dictator Mister Glum was attempting to find another alternate reality version of Angel Dragon who loved him.  Glum’s obsessive quest led him to the lair of the half-human, half-alien tyrant Darklord, who via time travel experiments had created thousands of alternate timelines.  Glum sabotaged Darklord’s machines, resulting in the destruction of these countless parallel Earths, with the inhabitants of the “main” Earth suddenly becoming inundated with the memories of their destroyed counterparts.  Glum’s crazed reasoning for inflicting this colossal damage upon the fabric of reality was that it would result in Angel Dragon absorbing the feelings of her deceased counterpart from another timeline who had loved him, and she would want to be with him.

I remember that after the merging of multiple Earths took place last issue, my first reaction was that this would have to be incredibly confusing & inconvenient for the average person.  I could just picture the mile-long lines stretching out from ATMs around the globe as each person attempted to sort through his or her now-overloaded memories of multiple existences to figure out what their PIN was on this particular Earth!

We do actually get a few brief moments of that sort of comedy in #225, although for the most part the alternate memories that the cast experiences are of a slightly more serious manner.  Maxine is furious with Malcolm now that she “remembers” that in different timelines he married her best friends instead of her.  It’s an utterly irrational, yet perfectly human, reaction, and even though Malcolm insists, quite logically, that he did not really cheat on her due to these events taking place in parallel realities, Maxine is still upset.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 7

It was great to have Darklord return for this storyline.  He is one of my favorite Savage Dragon villains.  Not only does Darklord have a very cool design, but he also possesses an intriguing back story, with close ties to several other characters in the series, and a certain moral ambiguity to his motivations.  Larsen alludes to all of that, adding a melancholy tone to this issue’s brutal battle.  You get the impression that under different circumstances Darklord could have been a friend and ally to Malcolm, which makes it quite tragic that here instead he is an extremely dangerous menace who needs to be stopped at any cost.

(Mind you, I sort of don’t blame Darklord for going nuts and wanting to destroy the world in this issue. If I found out that the entire multiverse had been erased and the only remaining Earth had Donald Trump for its President, I would probably feel exactly the same way.)

I was genuinely shocked that the original Dragon died in #225, this time for good.  Truthfully, this is not at all out of left field, since Larsen has been laying the groundwork for the Dragon’s demise for quite a while now.  He spent a long time easing Dragon out of the spotlight, shifting the book’s focus over to his son Malcolm.  For the last few years Malcolm has been the series star, with the depowered, retired Dragon serving as a mentor to the young hero.

Finally killing off the original Dragon feels like a necessary step by Larsen.  It could be argued that Malcolm was never going to fully come into his own until his father died, because no matter how much the original Dragon was pushed into the background his presence in the book meant that there was always a possibility that he would regain his powers and once again become the main character.  Now that Dragon is permanently, irrevocably dead (well, as permanent and irrevocable as you can get in fiction) I’m looking forward to seeing where Larsen takes Malcolm, along with the rest of the cast, from this point forward.

In any case, Larsen offers up a poignant farewell to the original star of the book, which culminates in a scene which was first dangled before readers way back in issue #31.  Let’s just say that after this I need to give serious consideration towards adopting a belief in an afterlife where I will spend an eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 21

There are several back-up stories in Savage Dragon #225.  My favorite was written by Larsen and illustrated by Nikos Koutsis, the team on the recent Mighty Man special.  SuperPatriot at long last gets sick of working for President Trump and quits the government’s Special Operations Strikeforce.  Due to the merging of alternate realities, SuperPatriot now has memories of his other self from the Earth that was seen in the first 75 issues of this series.  These inspire him to ask several of the other SOS members to join him in forming a new incarnation of Freak Force.  As a fan of the original Freak Force, I would love to see Larsen & Koutsis do a miniseries or special featuring this new team.

Frank Fosco, who’s worked on a great many back-up stories for Savage Dragon over the years, illustrates a moody tale featuring Malcolm going solo against a giant monster that emerges from Lake Michigan.  There’s also a very bawdy, comedic story starring Angel Dragon with cheeky (not to mention NSFW) artwork by talented newcomer Raven Perez.

Also, if you really want to see just how much Larsen has grown as both an artist and a writer in the past 35 years, this issue reprints the very first Savage Dragon story he ever published waaaaay back in 1982 in Graphic Fantasy #1, done when he was only 19 years old.

Savage Dragon 225 pg 48

Earlier I indicated that Savage Dragon #225 was tremendously rewarding for long-time readers.  That is not to say that it will be impenetrable for newer fans.  I was rather surprised that a handful of people were complaining that # 225 was not friendly to new readers. Larsen has given readers at least a couple of “jumping on” points on Savage Dragon in the last few years, which seems to be quite fair.  Marvel and DC pull “jumping on” issues out of their asses with alarming regularity, and it’s gotten annoying as all hell.

When I first got into comic books in the mid 1980s I began reading plenty of long-running titles without the benefit of any “new reader friendly” stories.  I really feel that Larsen includes more than enough exposition in his dialogue in each issue of Savage Dragon to bring everyone up to speed.  It’s not necessary to have a “First Issue in a Bold New Direction” like clockwork every 12 months.  Most intelligent readers who jump into an ongoing serialized narrative like Savage Dragon are going to be able to get up to speed pretty quickly.

I definitely must congratulate Erik Larsen.  Savage Dragon #225 is an amazing issue, one that both caps off all the great work he has done over the past 25 years and sets the stage for the series to continue forward.  Larsen is one of my all time favorite comic book creators, and I very much hope that he is able to continue Savage Dragon for a good long time.