This is a video I was commissioned to write for Comics Alliance, but it was never actually produced as a video for some reason (and consequently I never got paid for it). The premise was that it might start a new series of videos asking “What if…?” about various key points in comics history.
Anyway, I’ve got no home for this bad boy, so I might as well share it here.
What If Jack Kirby Never Left Marvel? By Benito Cereno
Jack Kirby! The King of Comics! Best known as the defining artistic vision for the early days of Marvel Comics and the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, the X-Men, the Hulk, Ant-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, and many others, Kirby rocked the comics world in 1970 when he pulled up stakes from the company he had helped make great and moved to its distinguished competition, DC. In this video, however, we will take on the role of Kirby creation Uatu the Watcher and ask: what if Kirby hadn’t left Marvel in 1970?
Kirby left Marvel for a number of reasons, including lack of creative control, broken promises by the publisher, and a certain mustachioed showman—whether intentionally or not—receiving most of the credit for Kirby’s creations. But let’s say these things didn’t happen. Let’s say Kirby was given more control, more credit, and more satisfying working conditions, and so he never felt the need to leave Marvel’s metaphorical bullpen. Kirby’s defection to DC is one of the biggest moves in comics history, and one of the defining milestones that separates comics’ Silver Age from its Bronze Age. If it didn’t happen, how would comics history be different?
Firstly, many of the characters Kirby created for DC wouldn’t exist. While some of these concepts would likely have found a home at Marvel—more on that in a second—there are many ideas that were created at the behest of DC editorial that Kirby would not likely have created unprompted. While there are some characters Kirby created in this period—Atlas the Great, the Dingbats of Danger Street, Manhunter, arguably his Sandman revival and even the otherwise beloved Kamandi—whose absence would not have a major impact on DC continuity, others would be more significant.
The Demon, for example, besides having multiple solo series, has also played a major role in such series as Swamp Thing, Sandman, and Green Arrow, was also the original home for Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman, who would later get his own beloved and award-winning ongoing series.
Furthermore, Kirby’s run on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen saw the introduction of Clark Kent’s new boss Morgan Edge, the revival of the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, and the development of the scientific facility that would come to be known as Cadmus. Besides these elements playing a huge role in the Superman mythos from the ‘70s through the '90s, Cadmus and its related characters are central to major plots from both DC’s Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice cartoons. Also, Kirby’s DC-era aesthetic is a major influence on the art direction of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon. No Kirby at DC means a huge difference in DC’s animated output.
On the other hand, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some of Kirby’s DC concepts might have found a home at Marvel. Besides imagining the possibility of having Kamandi team up with Devil Dinosaur, a couple of Kirby’s DC creations started life as ideas for some of his earlier Marvel properties.
The first of these examples is OMAC, the One Man Army Corps. A running motif in Kirby’s career is that of the super soldier, running from his first major hit Captain America to the Guardian to the Fighting American back to Captain America to OMAC back to Captain America again and finally Silver Star. OMAC was originally envisioned as a Captain America of the future, perhaps fitting somewhere in the lineage of Captains America throughout history that Kirby envisioned in Bicentennial Battles, a special Cap story he did upon his return to Marvel in the mid-'70s.
With that in mind, it’s pretty easy to picture Buddy Blank taking orders from SHIELD, getting beamed enhanced powers from a giant, orbiting Captain America shield in the place of Brother Eye. But past that, it’s pretty easy to imagine this future Captain America becoming home to some of the ideas Kirby brought to Original Recipe Cap in the mid-'70s, most notably the Madbomb and Arnim Zola. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to picture OMAC becoming home to many of the more satirical aspects that in actual reality found their way to the pages of the Fourth World, like Glorious Godfrey and Happyland, or Darkseid’s Evil Factory. It’s pretty easy to imagine Mokkari and Simyan working for Arnim Zola, honestly. And if you can imagine OMAC fighting Arnim Zola in the Evil Factory, you can probably see elements of the “Homo Geneticus” storyline from Silver Star finding a home in that book, too.
And speaking of the Fourth World…
Kirby’s most lasting legacy at DC has been the characters and concepts he created for the group of titles that came to be known as the Fourth World, including the New Gods, Mister Miracle, the Forever People, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Several of these characters have been key members of the Justice League over the years, and concepts such as the Mother Box and the Boom Tube have become inextricable parts of the DCU’s DNA in the last four decades. But the biggest of the big contributions here is that stony-faced god of evil, Darkseid.
Kirby, however, originally envisioned the Fourth World as a Thor storyline. Two races of gods were meant to go to war ending in Ragnarok and the total annihilation of the current generation of gods, who would be reborn as, you guessed it, the New Gods. The first page of New Gods even opens with an “epilogue” to that untold story. The gods of New Genesis are literally meant to be reborn versions of the gods of Asgard.
If Kirby had done this story in the pages of Thor as originally planned, that would theoretically mean that Darkseid would have become Marvel’s big bad, not DC’s. This new god of evil would battle Thor, or maybe Orion, or maybe some mixture of the two.
What this would of course mean is that there would be no need for Jim Starlin to introduce Thanos in 1973, as he could have used Darkseid, or even Metron as he originally intended. Maybe Darkseid gets the Infinity Gauntlet in 1991 instead, and maybe Josh Brolin plays Darkseid in Avengers 3.
As a side note: if Kirby can freely develop the New Gods at Marvel, that means he probably won’t need to introduce the Eternals upon his return to the company in 1976. Do the Celestials take the stage in the pages of New Gods, or maybe not at all? Would the Guardians of the Galaxy make their home inside a giant parademon head instead?
But the big question is, who becomes DC’s biggest big bad of them all? Darkseid has been at the center of many of DC’s major event, in comics, TV, and soon, movies. Without the Fourth World characters and concepts, there’s no Great Darkness Saga, or Cosmic Odyssey, or Seven Soldiers, or Final Crisis. Justice League International would probably still happen, but it would be significantly different. That one story where Superman and Big Barda make a porno wouldn’t have happened.
Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be all bad.
But think about how different Justice League Unlimited would have unfolded with a different villain in Destroyer, or a different threat facing the live action Justice League. Who would it even be? Brainiac? The Anti-Monitor? Eclipso? Maybe the best guess is to imagine that Len Wein and Jim Starlin still create Mongul in 1980, and since he takes the role of “big space guy who can fist-fight Superman,” maybe Cyborg has to teleport him back to War World in order to form the Justice League.
These are just a handful of possibilities for things that could have happened differently if Jack Kirby had been satisfied at Marvel and never left. What is clear is that the King’s influence to both companies’ expanded universes has been incalculable. The question you have to ask yourself, reader, now that you’ve taken a peek into this alternate world, is which do you prefer: our reality, or the world of “What If?”
How do you feel about Tom King writing New Gods? Can he do justice to Kirby's creations while maintaining his unique style.
Oh maaaaaan. For those who haven’t seen, King tweeted these over the last couple days:
"Is this not the true romantic feeling; not to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you.“ –Thomas Wolfe
“I need some older, wiser being to cry to. I talk to God, but the sky is empty, and Orion walks by and doesn’t speak.” –Sylvia Plath.
So it looks like this is the King/Gerads 12-issue 2017 book in-between volumes of Sheriff of Babylon King talked about last year. I really thought it was going to end up being Legion of Superheroes (and I do wonder how that revival’s going to go now), but if the New Gods are coming back into the picture properly outside the context of event bullshit, I genuinely can’t think of anyone in DC at the moment (or for that matter anyone in the industry as a whole, with maybe the exception off Al Ewing) who’s a better choice than Tom King, and Mitch Gerads while not someone I would have come up with for this gig is an inspired fit nonetheless.
In short: I am absolutely hyped as hell, and not even because there’s a greater than 0% chance Superman’ll poke his head in. If we’re getting something on an Omega Men tier - or good lord, Vision - this is pretty much by default going to be the best post-Kirby New Gods material, and especially given how much that property’s been devalued in spite of Morrison’s disregarded attempts at reinvigorating it, I’d say it’s long overdue. I don’t know that King’s a fit for the mad pop idea-rush that defines the (other) King’s work - though I sure wouldn’t mind seeing him try - but the real heart of the New Gods lies in the articulation of mortality through myth, and King’s a perfect fit for that. He’s been putting heroes through moral and mental wringers of genuine complexity throughout his Big Two career to often haunting effect, and more importantly, when it comes to cosmic-scale explorations of the human condition through metaphor?
I just recently posted a whole essay on how well King and Doc Shaner’s Green Lantern tie-in to Darkseid War worked that I wrote for school, and that wasn’t even *just* an astonishing single issue on the meaning of godhood, but it was specifically in the context of dealing with the New Gods. I’d absolutely say his skillset is suited to the basic nature of the material, and I’m very interested to see him stretch himself into the often dark but still fundamentally optimistic narrative space the New Gods inhabit as opposed to his typical tragedies (though that aspect of his craft will likely be a perfect fit for Orion), and whether or not he’ll go for something a bit wilder and more colorful and high-concept-driven than his previous work in the genre to fit with the world of the gods as defined by Jack Kirby.
DC Comics has announced six one-shots featuring characters created by Jack Kirby, to be released in August to celebrate what would have been “King” Kirby’s 100th birthday.
Though specific details have not been announced, the one-shots will feature characters such as Mister Miracle (who has his own solo series also launching in August), the Black Racer, the Newsboy Legion, Darkseid, Orion, OMAC, and Manhunter.
Image art by Chris Burnham, Bruce Timm, Bill Sienkiewicz, Howard Chaykin and Shane Davis.