“Whoever is Responsible For This is Too Bold to Go Unpunished! You’ve Got to Challenge Him!”

January 1, 2008 at 6:02 am (Comic Books)

Now is the time for some to make lists of the year’s best comics, and all I could muster is a review. The title above is a quote from the following:

Devil Dinosaur

It’s kinda odd how little press this thing got. It’s Kirby’s last series for Marvel! It stars a huge dinosaur! With a monkey boy speaking articulate English translated from the lingua franca of the time! And they fight other dinosaurs and space monsters!

Okay, maybe its inconspicuous release is somewhat deserved, but I like it, at least.

And Jack Kirby does, too. He submitted an essay for the first four issues, rambling on topics as diverse as modern man’s “fetish for security,” the possible coexistence of man and dinosaur, and the nature of evolution. Each is a doozy, and all hope to further the invisible themes of the comic contained within, but they all suffer the meandering tangentiality of a digression. This is a comic with aw(ful)esome dialogue like “He knows it not, but he comes to die,” how can it be about that? But the essays always rush into iconoclasm. The first one dispels any notion of fantasy to the story, stating clearly that man could have existed with dinosaurs. Those that say he couldn’t have are the same who claimed certain species of fish extinct who audaciously exist. He then tears down more buildings, claiming that a work could be created which is more fantastical in detail than the work of Homer or Verne (obviously the mutual commensurate of each other), and anyone with an opinion conflicting with his gets the swiftest arrow in the nads. This is his story, goshdarnit, and you will like it!

And I do kinda like it. Kirby had developed his own idiosyncratic style by this time, inked with the thick brushstroke of Mike Royer with work colored as if nothing has transpired since the Fantastic Four first got their radioactive powers. The influence may have been snatched from the sixties, but here, the huge Kirby monsters are at their least self conscious display, having already been crafted in his earlier Marvel work, and here he takes his crazy monsters and themes, and applies them onto a very thematically direct work. Its pertinence is striking.

The work deals with primordial elements; the dawn of man, monstrous dinosaurs, and the bond between man and animal. With the essays in the back struggling to match Kirby’s artistic vision with his polemical, it only makes sense that I should indulge the artist by studying the work as myth, as a collection of forces embodied instead of focus on the craft and how pictures interplay with pictures here: this is Kirby’s solipsistic mythology, and we should treat it as such, because clearly Kirby began to view his work with much more self consciousness as time progressed, eventually morphing the Fantastic Four from a band of superheroes into a cosmogony.

The work concerns itself chiefly with the interplay between intelligence and strength. The big bad protagonist, Devil Dinosaur, is aided by a small protohuman, Moon Boy, who lacks any strength on his own: he is the weakling of his group, and Devil Dinosaur is strength, biê incarnate.

The duo encounter their first difficulty with a group of savage humans. The antagonist mirrors the protagonist in many ways, and eventually falls because they relegated their source of strength, a spider, to a cavernous pit and were not the most nurturing of pet owners. They are eaten, and Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur live to see another day.

Interestingly, Kirby offers us the thematic thrust of this story in the fourth issue’s essay. Men are too concerned with their fetish for safety, with calling anything not resembling men monsters. These protohumans were guilty of that, and were eaten when they needed their monster to have a human trait, to have compassion when it was hungry and they were thrust into its lair for safety. Naturally, the spider filled its belly rather than its heart, and the issue ended with an impending threat promised.

The impending threat is another mirror image of themselves. A giant with immense strength loses his other half, a baby cub, and begins tearing Devil Dinosaur’s countryside apart looking for his companion. The two come into conflict, and Devil Dinosaur emerges the victor, but Moon Boy ascertained the source of conflict was the lost cub. The giant is quickly sinking and approaching death, and Moon Boy persuades his big pal to snatch the giant from impending doom, a thought which would never have crossed the thunder lizard’s mind without Moon Boy’s pleas. We are given another mirror image of the two protagonists by showing both separate and how they react, but that strays from the story’s message: Strength must be tempered by sincere affection. The rest of the book follows a similar path, sometimes giving us another mirror image to fortify Moon Boy and Devil’s traits and why they succeed, and sometimes evincing their character through less reflective oppoisiton. It’s done with typical late Kirby aplomb, and still suffers the dreaded weight of purpose.

Simply put, Devil Dinosaur doesn’t work in many ways similar to other Kirby comics because it’s too concerned with making rectilinear statements. Accompanying essays are not supposed to vivify myths or make them marionettes, the essays are written after decades of appeal morphs the myths into public statements. This work is too anxious about what its dinosaurs are trying to say to its audience, instead of how its dinosaurs act and how majestic they can be. Interestingly, this edition of the work does not stop at its pictorial content, and extends itself with the essays illuminating the purpose behind these strips, which casts the work in an odd light. The flesh, actual aesthetic content, and bones, its structural composition, are here, and we can see the path of the author from each.

The bombast of a Marvel design fits this book perfectly. In these essays, is Kirby just trying to sell the comic as a mind expansion tool? Because those essays at the back, they can’t possibly link up with the comic within, can they? But they do, just as Kirby became aware that telling these fantastical stories can say something different than what they actually say, here he tries to control the unconscious message of the work, and strangles it with unaffectionate hands. As much as Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy succeed because they let each other work in their area of specialty, here Jack Kirby fails because he tries to tell a story and tell us what the story means. He tries to be both the workhorse finishing a piece of art and the critic.

The entire product is a beautiful portrayal of an artist striving to push his work in a particular direction in the sea of meaning, but looking at the work this way would lessen Kirby’s achievements as an artist: we would be giving him the role of Kinbote instead of Nabokov, and I respect the artist too much for that. Perhaps this never should have been republished in as faithful a manner as it was, essays and all, and we could have gotten an idiosyncratic mythology instead of the path to an idiosyncratic mythology.

Regardless, it’s still Kirby, and there needs to be more highly produced reprints of his work before and after the Marvel Age. This is a firm step in that direction, although I wouldn’t necessarily call it productive.

Next: My favorite album of 2007! Burn in anticipation!

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