A Final Family Reunion
by Mark Lerer
From The Jack Kirby Collector, Vol. 9, Issue No. 33, TwoMorrows Publishing, November 2001
Comic book historians have written about it. The most dedicated Kirby buffs have wrestled with it. It’s the one irony that permeates all Kirby scholarship: How, with all the imagination, skill, and experience at his fingertips, Kirby’s self-edited creations like the Fourth World books never achieved the popularity or the commercial success of Jack’s Silver Age Marvel work. Explanations run from Kirby’s inconsistencies at writing dialogue to fluctuations in the comic book marketplace to ill-treatment on the part of inexperienced editors. Gene Popa’s excellent article “Stan Lee Presents: The Fourth World” (TJKC #26) subtitled “What would a Marvel Comics New Gods have been like?” raised the issue, but gave only passing mention to what I believe is a key to the question.
I’d like to bring to light what I consider a comic book archaeological find, the closest existing answer to the question of what a Marvel-published, Kirby-created Fourth World series would be like. The evidence lies in an obscure title Marvel published at the twilight of the Silver Age—a few overlooked episodes of a super-hero strip that didn’t even take up an entire book, but makes for a fascinating moment in the history of comics and particularly in the career of Jack Kirby: That rarest of rare animals, a series that Kirby wrote as well as drew—under the editorship of Stan Lee. Its title was “The Inhumans,” in a book called Amazing Adventures.
The Time And Place
It was 1970, nearly a decade after the debut of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. The Marvel style, canon, and universe were all well formed, commercially proven, and easy to crank out. They were also eminently applicable to characters from other media, like Conan the Barbarian, and to genres outside the super-hero vein, like the horror anthologies Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness, and the romance books My Love and Our Love Story, that also premiered that year. Trying out different ideas in hopes of a new hit seemed to be the order of the day.
Two new titles, Amazing Adventures and Astonishing Tales, revived the “split” format that had been used several years earlier in Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and Strange Tales, spotlighting some secondary Marvel characters, presumably to see if they could garner the popularity to support their own books. Astonishing Tales starred the perennial Tarzan knock-off Ka-zar and Dr. Doom. Amazing Adventures featured the Black Widow and the Inhumans.
It’s on the splash page of the first Inhumans story that we first find Jack Kirby credited as a writer, as well as artist, of a Marvel super-hero series. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know how this arrangement came about, since Stan Lee is notorious for his bad memory and Kirby is dead. Did Stan, delighted at how well Jack had been plotting the Fantastic Four and Thor for so many years, ask Jack if he wanted to script a series? Did Kirby petition Stan to let him try his hand at writing? Was Jack so frustrated by his lot at Marvel that he insisted on writing any new books Stan gave him to draw? Whatever the circumstances, we can safely assume that Jack wanted to write. The prospect probably appealed to Stan as well—if Jack could write as dependably as he drew, there would be one less editorial assignment to worry about. A strip in Amazing Adventures or Astonishing Tales would provide the perfect place to give Jack Kirby a shot at it.
Why The Inhumans?
Why the Inhumans? Why not Ka-Zar, which Kirby was penciling in Astonishing Tales? Or Dr. Doom, whom Jack had drawn in the Fantastic Four since God was a boy? Probably because the Inhumans were largely Jack’s creation, like that other intriguing Fantastic Four supporting character from 1966, the Silver Surfer. Although the Inhumans had been introduced into the pages of the Fantastic Four individually over the course of a year or two, the emergence of these strange beings as a group—members of a common genetic offshoot of humanity—happened at a time when Jack was doing most of the plotting on the Fantastic Four—unlike Doom, who premiered in FF #5. Also, the idea of a race of genetically offbeat people is a theme Jack returns to several times in his career, most notably in The Eternals.
In 1968, the “Tales of Asgard” feature that had occupied the last 5 pages of every issue of Thor was dropped in favor of an Inhumans series, spotlighting their origins. Again, we have no verifiable idea whose initiative this was; we can see, though, because Stan Lee was writing the dialogue and Jack was drawing, that this Inhumans series reads very much like the Fantastic Four and Thor—we have Jack’s tremendous action scenes and cityscapes, and Stan’s noble heroes declaim their intentions with typical Lee-esque drama.
I believe Jack thought of the Inhumans, like the Surfer, as “his,” and may have actively encouraged Stan to let him write, as well as plot and draw, the Inhumans in a strip of their own. In any case, it came to pass. The first of four ten-page Inhumans stories, titled simply “The Inhumans” premiered in Amazing Adventures #1, cover date August 1970.
A Sound Editorial Presence
The first, most obvious thing one notices upon reading the ten-page Inhumans stories in Amazing Adventures #1-4 is that the disfluencies that mar Kirby as a scripter in his later, self-edited books are practically nowhere to be found. One would never know from reading these stories that Jack Kirby was as flawed a scripter as his later books might reveal him to be. There are far fewer instances of emphasis on the wrong words. Dialogue is understandable on the first reading. The conversations between characters clarify for the reader whatever may not be evident in the pictures alone, without sounding forced or contrived. The awkwardness is absent. Occasionally there is a triple exclamation point, but they’re rare. Compared with Jack’s DC books, or his post-1976 Marvel work, these stories are much more readable.
The immediate conclusion? Obviously, Kirby was being edited here, and being edited carefully. Jack’s scripts read better when edited by Stan Lee than when edited by Jack himself.
The plot of the first Inhumans story in Amazing Adventures #1 and #2 is very simple, and like a lot of series openers, involves some popular established characters as guest-stars. Evidence is discovered that the Fantastic Four are attacking the Inhumans. In the very last panel of part one, Black Bolt makes the fateful decision to battle the FF (“War!”). We learn that Maximus is behind the deception, and after some good old-fashioned fight scenes, Maximus’ plan is revealed and the heroes make up. There are no subplots. This story is modest in scope, but well-paced and executed. It gives us a nice tour of the Great Refuge, and fascinating walk-ons by some wild and imaginative creatures. “The Inhumans” and “Friend Against Friend” read like stories by a talented scripter working under a skilled and respectful editor: A very fine “first assignment.”
There is one more plus to Kirby’s Marvel material: exceptional lettering. Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry were good letterers, but Artie Simek and Sam Rosen were master craftsmen, and their lettering—whether very straight and formal like Simek’s, or having Sam Rosen’s “bounce”— make the Inhumans stories look much more professional and, again, easier to read.
Jack’s Style Emerges
Marvelesque touches are in evidence in Amazing Adventures #3 and #4. The title “With These Rings, I Thee Kill” is very, very Stan. The Inhumans fight an old Marvel villain, the Mandarin, and the splash page of issue #4, with the Mandarin’s ringadorned fist looming at the reader, wins the prize for exaggerated perspective, beyond anything in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.
But however much it looks like a typical Kirby Marvel story, by this point, the critical reader is sure to have noticed a different writing style from the other Marvel books. Sure, like any good super-villain, the Mandarin gloats egomaniacally, but these stories do not read like a Stan Lee comic.
The tone of these stories is less corny, less jaunty, and considerably more straight-faced than the usual Marvel super-adventures. The dialogue and captions are not written the way that Stan or Roy Thomas would have written them. They tell the story, but they haven’t been jazzed up. The Inhumans don’t talk to one another in the snappy patter that the Avengers do, nor with the melodrama of the Fantastic Four or X-Men. The drama is very understated instead of powerfully wrought, so the stories don’t read like the 5-pagers that ran in the back of Thor; and most of all, there are no Stan Lee-isms (i.e., no “Jolly Jack,” no “powerhouse presentation,” no “pussycats”). There’s a less flippant, more understated feel—one could almost use the word “deadpan”— than the usual late Silver Age Marvel fare.
The Inhumans and the various characters who encounter them, like the Chinese border guards who stumble upon the Great Refuge in issue #1, speak in complete sentences with strong verbs and flawless grammar. If there is a fault to be found in the writing, it is that some of these characters can sound a bit wooden; but as a writer of dialogue, Kirby is clearly more interested in advancing the story than dazzling the reader with wit. Kirby’s occasional attempts at clever chatter—for example, the guest-star Fantastic Four’s banter in Amazing Adventures #1—fall a bit flat (although Jack does pull off the characterization of Ben Grimm admirably). Banter is not Jack’s strongest point as a scripter and, for the most part in these Inhumans stories, he avoids it—indeed, Jack’s distaste for Stan Lee’s gimmicky style was made evident a year or two later when he parodied “Funky Flashman” in Mister Miracle.
(There are times in the Fourth World books when Kirby attempts some humorous narrative in the “coming next issue” boxes, and it just doesn’t fly. Similarly, his post-1976 Captain America is filled with colloquialisms that don’t come across. We would have been better off having Cap and the Falcon speak in the more conservative style of these Inhumans stories.)
Because Jack’s syntax has been cleaned up by a good editor, and because he felt no compulsion to tailor his writing to suit the “house style,” there is less silliness, and also less pathos, to these Inhumans stories than in a lot of Marvel Silver Age books. As a result, these stories are appropriate not only for beginning readers who like a good super-hero tale, but also for those older readers who liked Marvel comics but who may have outgrown Smilin’ Stan’s soap-opera cutesiness. Even if it wasn’t quite Conan or Tomb of Dracula, this Inhumans series promised to depart from the Marvel cliches while delivering the elements that made Marvel super-hero comics so popular in the first place: action, mystery, interesting characters, and, of course, exciting artwork.
Evolution And Transition
And so, for one brief, shining moment, there existed a credited relationship between writer-and-artist Jack Kirby and editor Stan Lee, and the result was a promising little comic book series. It is the major surviving example of a Lee-edited, Kirby-written comic—done in the tradition of the Fantastic Four and Thor, but looking toward the next level of sophistication. Of course, as everybody knows, Jack Kirby jumped ship and attempted to achieve this next level of sophistication on his own terms. While developing his mature storytelling style over the years at Marvel, he discovered several themes that he wanted to explore in books of his own invention.
It is commonly agreed, for instance, that Thor contained a lot of the elements that evolved into the New Gods. I now assert that, similarly, The Forever People evolved, as a concept, from The Inhumans.
Consider the elements common to both series. Both the Forever People and The Inhumans feature five good-hearted but somewhat naive major characters, representatives of another world—the Forever People from New Genesis, and the Inhumans from the Great Refuge—who adventure among us normal humans. In both cases the major characters enjoy a rapport with one another that shows a great deal of affection, mutual respect, and sense of purpose. As the Inhumans are spirited around dimensionally by Lockjaw, over whose teleportations they have very little control, so are Vykin, Big Bear, Beautiful Dreamer, Serifan, and Moonrider teleported around by the Boom Tube, their destinations not always under their control. The Forever People look to the Mother Box, which hums in moments of agitation, for leadership; the Inhumans look to Black Bolt, who doesn’t speak but whose antenna emanates energy during decisive moments. I believe, whether consciously or subconsciously, Jack here is drawing essentially the same group of heroes.
There are, of course, one or two very important changes in the evolution from The Inhumans to The Forever People. For one thing, the Inhumans, both in name and in appearance, are a fairly monstrous group, even at their noblest. They’re introduced with the word “Beware!” The Forever People are much more attractive and appealing characters. Jack probably reasoned at the time of creation that his newest vehicle would be much more popular if the major characters were more lovable and less threatening than, say, Gorgon and Karnak.
Even Medusa, though alluring, is kind of freakish compared to Beautiful Dreamer, and one would certainly want to hug Serifan and Big Bear sooner than Black Bolt and Triton. Compare the splash page below of “Friend Against Friend” (Amazing Adventures #2) and page 5 of “Kingdom of the Damned” in Forever People #4 and you’ll see the contrast firsthand. As a result, The Forever People has a brighter feel than The Inhumans. But the precedent for the band of otherworldly people, often interacting with us normal human beings, is unmistakable.
An overlooked series, “The Inhumans,” written and drawn by Jack Kirby in the first four issues of Amazing Adventures in 1970, represents a fascinating moment in the history of comics. First, it is proof that Kirby was an excellent writer when helped by a seasoned and supportive editor. Second, it is a moment of transition. Jack honed his style at Marvel in the ’60s with The Fantastic Four and Thor. By 1970, he was ready to script as well as draw his own creations, exploring themes he’d discovered along the way. Instead of working it out with Stan, though, Jack left Marvel, and so his most personal creations never had the benefit of an editor who treasured Jack’s work and understood best how to present it. What would, say, a Fourth World trilogy have been like had it been published by Marvel and edited by Stan Lee? We can only speculate—but this little comic book curiosity, “The Inhumans” in Amazing Adventures, gives us a tantalizing hint.