Freedom’s Just Another Word

Meet Captain Freedom

With Captain America set to conquer the silver screen and further whet Marvel zombies’ appetites for Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie, I thought it appropriate to highlight Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s work on another star-spangled hero.

Captain Freedom debuted in Speed Comics #13 (Harvey Comics, May 1941) as yet another publisher’s response to the commercial success of such patriotic characters as The Shield, Uncle Sam and – of course – Simon and Kirby’s Captain America.

Credited to “Franklin Flagg” (the writer’s real name is unknown, sadly, but the art to most of Captain Freedom’s adventures is by Arthur Cazeneuve), Harvey’s defender of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was a crusading newspaper publisher who decided he could better aid the American War effort by dressing up like a walking flag.

The good Captain was frequently aided on his adventures by a group of courageous newsboys known as “The Young Defenders.”

Captain Freedom proved popular enough to become Speed Comics’ cover feature and lasted until the magazine was finally canceled in 1947. His adventures were pretty much standard punch-em-ups, but at one point the Captain unexpectedly found himself elevated to the A-List after Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were hired to draw a number of covers featuring Harvey’s star-spangled avenger.

Simon himself depicted the Captain in Speed Comics #17-#21 and #23 while Kirby and Simon teamed up for a striking cover to Speed Comics #22. It probably goes without saying that the covers outshone the Captain’s adventures inside the comic, but that’s a comic-book tradition that persists to this very day.

Here are the Simon & Kirby covers to Speed Comics. Be aware that some of the following images contain racial stereotypes that were considered acceptable in their day but are decidedly offensive now.


Give A Hoot

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Before Joe Simon and Jack Kirby introduced Captain America to the world, the pair honed their super-hero chops by writing and drawing a somewhat obscure Batman-wannabe for Prize Comics: The Black Owl.

The character – created by Robert Turner and Pete Riss of the Jack Binder Studio – first appeared in 1940 as “K The Unknown,” your typical good-for-nothing millionaire playboy who decided fighting crime was a worthwhile hobby to alleviate boredom. The “K” gimmick apparently worked about as well as the concept of a pro-wrestling dentist, however, as the name was changed to The Black Owl without explanation in the character’s second appearance.

The Black Owl continued, in one form or another, for about seven years. Although the character never really hit the big leagues in any incarnation, Simon and Kirby’s short stint on the would-be Caped Crusader remain a definite high point and set the stage nicely for the duo’s more heralded work on Captain America.

From Prize Comics #9 (Prize, 1941), here’s “The Menace Of Madame Mystery” by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

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If you’d like to read a more pristine version of this comic – along with tons of other boss Simon/Kirby creations – I heartily recommend purchasing The Simon & Kirby Superheroes, published by Titan Books.

‘Nuff said!

Seeya Later, Alligator

Jack Kirby was not only one of the premier action-adventure writer-artists of his – or just about any – generation. He could also draw a mean funny animal strip.

Lockjaw the Alligator – whose demeanor and speech pattern will undoubtedly strike a familiar chord with fans of a certain Blue-Eyed Ever-Lovin’ Thing –  was one of Kirby’s rare forays into the genre. Although the story is only  five pages long, it aptly demonstrates an interesting direction The King’s career could have taken. Plus, there’s an unexpected – but expertly choreographed  – dance scene to boot!

And yeah, it’s entirely possible that Lockjaw’s memory lives on in the form of The Inhumans’ lovable, teleporting pooch.

“Lockjaw Goes To College” originally appeared in Punch And Judy Comics, vol. 3 #1 (Hillman Periodicals, 1947)

King Is Coming

Speaking of Jack Kirby …

Ninety-three years ago today, the King Of Comics was born and the world became a much richer place.

It would take far too many words to sum up Kirby’s contributions to popular culture via the uniquely American artform of comics, so let’s turn our focus to the days before the King earned his crown.

In 1938, the Fiction House publishing group – which owned and operated such wild and wooly pulp magazine imprints as Glen-Kel and Real Adventures Publishing Co. – decided to expand into the nascent, but rapidly growing, comic-book field.

Publisher Thurman Scott subsequently turned to an aggressive, young company known for creating and packaging comic books, Eisner & Iger (i.e. Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, two guys who already knew a thing or two about comics at that early date).

The result: Jumbo Comics #1, cover dated September, 1938. A compilation of adventure strips, the book is notable today for two reasons – the American debut of Eisner and Iger’s Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and the first comic-book work of one Jacob Kurtzburg,  better known to us today as Jack Kirby.

Working under a variety of aliases, Kirby contributed a science-fiction strip (“The Diary Of Dr. Hayward” as Curt Davis), a western (“Wilton Of The West” as Fred Sande) and a serialization of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count Of Monte Cristo” (as Jack Curtiss, probably the best pseudonym of the three.)

The features are said to be four pages apiece, but I was unable to find the complete stories. Still, considering that the comic is more than 70 years old and the product of a defunct publisher to boot, we’re fortunate that any material survives at all.

From Jumbo Comics #1, here are fragments of Jack Kirby’s first comic-book works. The strips are crude and only contain hints of what’s to come, but are more than worthwhile for those interested in comics’ rich history.

Happy Kirby day!

The Artificial Twin

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After the fabled team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby parted ways in the mid-50s, the once and future king of comics lent his talents to DC and produced an astounding 600 pages of material for the company in 30 months.

His contributions to the company included co-creating DC mainstays The Challengers Of The Unknown, blasting Green Arrow off into a unique series of science-fiction based adventures and assorted short stories in the publisher’s many anthology titles.

Despite his prodigious output, however, Kirby soon found himself at odds with a few notable – and powerful – figures within the company. Superman editor Mort Weisinger, the co-creator of Green Arrow, disliked Kirby’s take on the Emerald Archer and often spoke disparagingly of the King’s artistic style.

Complicating matters, Kirby found himself embroiled in a contractual dispute with DC editor Jack Schiff over disputed royalties owed from the artist’s work on the syndicated Sky Masters comic strip with Wally Wood.

The sum result of these, and other, disputes within DC led Kirby to rejoin Stan Lee at Atlas Comics … and of course, the rest is history.

“The Artificial Twin” was one of many stories Kirby illustrated for DC’s House Of Mystery horror anthology. Although DC’s horror and sci-fi offerings were rather tame even before the Comics Code Authority was established, the King’s art provides its customary kick and there are a few nice, paranoid moments as the protagonist struggles to make sense of his fiance’s sudden change in behavior.

From the House Of Mystery #76, here’s “The Artificial Twin.”

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The Darkseid Equation

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The hive mind that controls classic rock stations around these parts has an inexplicable love for Aerosmith’s cover of Come Together.

Nothing against Boston’s finest, mind you. Like any child of the ’70s, I blew out a good portion of my eardrums rawking to such cocaine-laced classics as Uncle Salty, Last Child and Draw The Line.

But Come Together? Sure, Aerosmith’s version was technically precise and Steven Tyler’s voice mimed the proper tone of menace in all the correct spots. Compared to The Beatles’ original version, however, the Toxic Twins sound positively timid.

(No way in heck could Tyler compete with John Lennon’s audible hard-on for Yoko, perhaps one of the most erotic vocals ever committed to tape.)

Now what does Come Together have to do with Darkseid? More than you might think. Ever since DC pulled the plug on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics, the company has resurrected the King’s characters and concepts time and time again … particularly Darkseid, one of the more intriguing “big bads” in comics history.

In nearly every instance, though,  the revamps, ret-cons and reboots have been little more than pale reflections of Kirby’s original brilliance.  Just like Aerosmith’s version of Come Together.

A few weeks (months? years??) ago, our good Internet friend plok challenged bloggers to identify the unique characteristics of Kirby’s Darkseid. This good-natured call to arms emanated from a review of Forever People #8 that stated the Darkseid of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Superman cartoon was “a distillation and modernization of the character which improves upon the original source.”

I’m a big fan of the Batman:TAS/Superman/JLU universe myself, but generally found the episodes that featured Darkseid rather disappointing. Rather than a “distillation and modernization,” I considered Timm and Dini’s interpretation off-target and over-simplified.

I’ll even go as far to argue that neither creator “got” Darkseid.

As evidence, let’s look back at an interview published in The Jack Kirby Collector back in 1998. Discussing his use of the Kirbyverse, Timm stated:

… What does Darkseid want?  It’s not just enough for him to conquer the Earth; why does he want to conquer the Earth? We (Timm and Dini) went back to the comics to figure out: what is Darkseid’s motivation and what is the Anti-Life Equation? We decided we couldn’t figure it out ourselves. We got the idea that maybe even Jack didn’t know what he was doing! He had this really cool idea and even if he had something that he meant to do with it in the comics, the series was cancelled before he had a chance to.

To fulfill their story-telling purposes, Timm and Dini settled upon a Darkseid who gained strength from others’ despair. The villain sought to utterly destroy Superman so he could feed off the grieving populace of Earth and increase his power a thousandfold.

Not a bad concept in and of itself, but that character is not so much a distillation as a complete reinterpretation of the figure who originally appeared in the Fourth World comics.

To be honest, I’m not sure I fully “get” Kirby’s Darkseid.  The King’s solo comics of the ’70s and early ’80s are “messy,” a phrase I’m not pulling out of the ether to imply that Kirby suffered from unfocused story-telling abilities or sloppy craftsmanship.

Just the opposite, in fact. I think the King knew exactly what he was doing with The Fourth World et al.

But his comics are messy because they don’t look or read the way we’ve been conditioned to accept.

A cosmic despot seeking to smash Earth and its heroes makes sense. We’ve seen that story played out millions of times. But there’s so much more to the Fourth World than that hoary chestnut.

There’s Orion, a character straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy; the conflicted prince heading toward a fatal confrontation decreed by destiny. The Forever People, space hippies who represent the unlimited possibilities of youth. Scott Free, the embodiment of individuality triumphing over the forces of oppression.

And then there’s Darkseid, the self-described “Tiger-Force At The Core Of All Things.”

Which means … what exactly?

The key to that question can be found in Darkseid’s quest to possess the Anti-Life Equation, a concept Timm claimed Kirby never clearly defined.

Perhaps I’ve read the comics incorrectly but it seems the King left a pretty big hint in Forever People #3, which contained a story helpfully entitled “Life Vs. Anti-Life.”

Here are the first two pages …

Anti-LifeFrom Forever People #3

Clearly it involves the abandonment of free thought and individuality, a notion furthered in this exchange between Darkseid and Desaad taken from Forever People #4, “Kingdom Of The Damned.”

From Forever People #4

Seems pretty obvious to me but if any questions remain, Forever People #5 delivers the punch-line with the introduction of Sonny Sumo, a human who unknowingly possesses the secret of the Anti-Life Equation.

From Forever People #5

Anti-Life is the complete and utter destruction of free will, a state that is nothing less than the negation of creation itself.

Like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Darkseid wages war with existence because he refuses to accept himself as one small part of a grander scheme to the universe. His foe isn’t Superman, the Justice League or even the New Gods particularly.

The master of Apokolips is the enemy of all existence. He desires to overthrow sentience and truly become “The Tiger-Force At The Core Of All Things.”

“Darkseid Is,” indeed.

Except, Darkseid “Isn’t.” Not really.

As long as the Anti-Life Equation remains outside his grasp, Darkseid is nothing more than another in a long line of tyrants whose power is outstripped by insane ambitions. Just as Hitler mounted a long, arduous and ultimately unsuccessful war against Russia, the wielder of the “Omega Effect” has established a beachhead on Earth to find the secret he so covets.

(A task that even a megalomaniac like Darkseid admits is difficult.)

Continuing the WWII parallels – let’s remember that Jacob Kurtzberg was a decorated veteran of the “Big One” – Darkseid wages his war on several fronts: straightforward assaults led by Apokolips’ best and brightest (or should that be worst and darkest?) are witnessed in New Gods while stealth and espionage techniques are employed in Jimmy Olsen and, as we’ve already seen, Forever People.

Heck, parallels can even be drawn between New Gods #7’s justly famed “The Pact” and the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” of 1939 that forestalled war between Germany and Russia.

(Mister Miracle deals with the carnage of war and oppression on a more personal level, as Scott Free’s adventures represent the cry of an individual struggling to remain unique – kind of like Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner.)

Let’s also note that Darkseid is portrayed as a “Master Of The Holocaust” who installs torture camps disguised as amusement parks on Earth.

From Forever People #4

(The scenario also presents Kirby an intriguing opportunity to comment on the common man’s willful ignorance of evil. In a face-to-face confrontation with Darkseid himself, a “Happyland” customer insists the Dark Lord is nothing more than an elaborately costumed carney.)

Some have noted Darkseid’s propensity for deceit and trickery in the Forever People, wondering if it would be more in character for him to simply obliterate all opposition. While such an act may be appropriate for the Bruce Timm or *gak* Jeph Loeb iteration of the character, Kirby’s take was … well .. a cheat and a coward.

Reading over the Fourth World comics, I couldn’t help but notice that for all of Darkseid’s talk of bold action and the nobility of combat he usually resorts to cheating when backed against a wall.

As an example, here’s Darkseid’s confrontation with the powerful Infinity Man from Forever People #3.

From Forever People #3

The confrontation is over in less than a second because HE ATTACKS THE HERO FROM BEHIND.

The seemingly odd manner Darkseid uses to subdue the Forever People  in the eighth issue (rattling the young heroes’ confidence by utilizing the intimidation tactics of a drill sergeant) is another instance where the villain prefers to utilize psychological tactics over one-on-one battle … seemingly out of fear of the New Gods’ powers.

The Trickster

(Although I have issues with Grant Morrison’s treatment of the Fourth World characters in Final Crisis, it was more than appropriate to show Darkseid escaping the pre-destined final showdown with Orion by having his son shot in the back. Who says cheaters never prosper … besides Jack Kirby that is.)

The bits and pieces revealed in the original Kirby comics paint a very different portrait of Darkseid than what we’ve seen the past few decades in far too many DC comics. Because The King was never able to finish the Fourth World saga as he sought fit, it’s unlikely that readers and creators alike will never truly agree how the “real” Darkseid or Orion should be portrayed.

Given the complexity of Kirby’s creations, however, maybe it’s fitting that The Fourth World series never achieved true closure. Like life itself, it’s just too messy to be wrapped up with a nice, pretty bow on top … even if that is the way fan boys and girls prefer their escapist fantasies be presented these days.

Jack Kirby’s Inverted Pyramid

A Word To The Wise: After locking up my old blog, The Fortress Of Fortitude, and throwing away the key, it was brought to my attention that one of the posts I so hastily deleted was written in collaboration with a number of bloggers as part of an Internet event known as “Panel Madness.” Devised by the ever-brilliant Plok, the meme involved picking a random panel of art from a comic-book or other publication and describe just what made it a great piece of storytelling. It was a great idea that inspired a number of great essays from writers I admire a great deal.  In the interests of keeping Plok’s meme intact, here’s my humble contribution to the effort. If you’d like to read the other entries – and by all means, you should – check out the “Panel Madness” sidebar over at A Trout In The Milk. And now, back from the grave for one night only, here’s your friendly neighborhood Fortress Keeper.

The Keeper has chosen the following panel from “The Traitorous Challenger,” a story by Dave Wood and Jack Kirby that appeared in Challengers Of The Unknown #2.

Panel Madness!

At first blush, it might seem like an odd choice given that the tale featured a box-like turtle monster that sported a vacuum cleaner for a head. Why go for a seemingly group shot when you’re dealing with an artist known for his wild imagination and vivid action sequences.

First of all, let’s consider the “bigger picture.” (When discussing Kirby comics, it’s necessary to use a lot of “quotes.”)

“The Traitorous Challenger” was published in 1958, an era when Lois Lane devoted herself to tricking Superman into marriage and Wonder Woman tussled every other month with some sort of evil doppelganger. The notorious “Good Girls” of the Golden Age, who were generally strong and competent characters despite their cheesecake appeal, were scattered to the four winds by the force of the Comics Code.

In this climate, June Robbins – who wasn’t even considered an “official” Challenger – occupied a rather unique and unheralded space in comics history: a strong female character who solved problems with her wits. Heck, her action togs weren’t even all that revealing!

And let’s face it, fan people, how many times have we seen a comic where the male leads marvel over a heroine’s prowess while she poses in a manner that states – rather emphatically – that she not only deserves but expects such respect! No shy smiles or blushing cheeks for our June!

But we’re supposed to discuss The King’s art here, not conduct a sociology lecture. The Keeper isn’t exactly a graduate of the Joe Kubert School Of Art so any mention of technical form should be taken with a grain of salt. Your humble host is no expert, but he does know what he likes as the old saying goes. And, of course, we can all agree that Jack Kirby is great … right?

(If you think differently, we’ve got a lot more to discuss than a panel from a 30-year-old comic-book!)

So, using terminology this old journalist understands, let’s look at Kirby’s use of what we call “The Inverted Pyramid.” The phrase usually refers to writing news ledes (essentially, draw readers in with general information before hitting them with the specific point), but we believe it works in this instance as well.

The four Challengers provide the base of the pyramid, guiding us to the main point of the panel: June Robbins, triumphant.

Let’s look at the Challengers’ figures for an instant. For guys who are just standing around, there’s a lot going on. Prof is leaning forward, Ace and Red beam their approval and Rocky is rather bemused, crossing his arms and sporting a wry smile.

The apex of the pyramid, of course, is June. Despite her small stature, the character’s posture is as straight as a rail. The expression on her face is confidence personified, accepting the Challengers’ acknowledgement as her just due for a job well done. Like Rocky, her arms are crossed but the body language is completely different, almost haughty.

The coloring of the panel brings June even more to the forefront. We don’t exactly have digital perfection here, but Ms. Robbins’ red jumpsuit stands out against the Challenger’s purple outfits and the dark sky behind our heroes’ backs – adding yet another layer to our pyramid.

Digital perfection? Forget all that; we have a panel that achieves a 3-D effect without the 3-D, a piece of old-school legerdemain that “out-beyonds” Superman Beyond by “popping” June Robbins right off the printed page.

Actually, our use of the phrase “dark sky” simplifies things a bit too much.

Shades of lighter blue intermingle with black, suggesting that the Challengers’ darkest hour is now behind our intrepid foursome. Rocky mentions the adventures that lie ahead, adding still another component to the outward push of the illustration.

(Yeesh. And we thought those old Superman panels where Clark winked at the reader were Meta.)

So, there’s really nothing static at all about what could have been a throwaway panel. Instead, you get proto-feminism along with some 3-D hocus-pocus! Who else but The King, right?

And now, over to Derik Badman

Jack Who?

Nuff Said

In an affront to anyone who believes in truth, justice and fair play, Jack Kirby’s greedy heirs have the unmitigated gall to send notices of copyright termination to such benevolent arts foundations as Marvel Entertainment, Disney, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and others studios that hold licensed media rights to Marvel characters.

Can you imagine that?

Just as new best buddies Disney and Marvel about to usher in a new golden age of super-hero merchandising, the no-account relatives of some insignificant hack hire an attorney who clearly hates comic books and try to ruin everything for everybody!

After all, this Kirby guy signed a contract right? Everything was fair and square and if it wasn’t … well, tough! And it’s not like his heirs ever did any of the work!! Why should they get money that rightfully belongs to Marvel?

Wait a minute. Do you think this legal crap could f* up Dark Reign? That would really suck!

I swear. These greedy leaches make me so …. MAD … that I’m liable to do something crazy like post a very strong comment stating my displeasure on the Newsarama site.

I’ll do it too; Just you wait and see!