Category: jack kirby

Fantastic Bore

Fantastic Four (2015): based on the comic book created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee; written by Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, and Josh Trank; directed by Josh Trank; starring Miles Teller (Reed Richards/ Mr. Fantastic), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm/ Human Torch), Kate Mara (Sue Storm/ Invisible Girl), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm/ The Thing), Toby Kebbell (Victor Von Doom/ Doctor Doom), and Reg E. Cathey (Franklin Storm):

A truly misguided effort sucks all the fun out of Marvel’s first family of superheroes. Writer-director Josh Trank got this gig on the basis of Chronicle, his found-footage film about teen-agers with super-powers gone horribly wrong. And there are moments in Fantastic Four that would make for a great superhero movie just so long as it wasn’t about the Fantastic Four. Our heroes were some of the first whose origins were presented straightforwardly by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as moments of Body Horror. Some of that remains here, and it’s the best thing about the movie.

Unfortunately, the movie is slow, ponderous, and weighed down with characters who seem to have been written to be as annoying as possible. Following the lead of Marvel’s revisionist Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book (not by Lee and Kirby), our heroes are all teen-agers now, while Doctor Doom is only a few years older. None of this helps. The actors, especially Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, do their best with the awful material. This isn’t their fault. 

The movie pretty much throws away everything that made the original FF awesome, from the bickering, nearly soap-operatic melodrama to the low-comedy hi-jinks of The Thing and The Human Torch to the looming menace of Doctor Doom, here reduced to an angry crash-test dummy with ill-defined super-powers. The FF no longer get their powers by being heroic in a very early 1960’s way (they want to beat the Soviets into manned orbit). Now they get drunk and take their goofy-ass transdimensional Stargate out for an ill-advised test drive. What larks, Pip!

It’s all really pretty terrible, and as boring as Hell for long stretches. I think Josh Trank could do a great job on certain revisionist superhero properties — or preferably on his own creations. This movie made me long for the goofy mediocrity of the early oughts FF movies. And I had to read 200 pages of classic Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four to get this movie out of my head. Also, whoever thought taking away The Thing’s blue shorts was a good idea should be fired. Now. Forever. Not recommended.

Three Chose Adventure!

The Straight Story: written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; directed by David Lynch; starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose), Everett McGill (Tom the John Deere Dealer), Kevin and John Farley (The Twins), and Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle Straight) (1999): David Lynch had no part in the writing of this movie so far as I can tell, a first in his career. The visuals, the soundscape, and the performances of the actors are all Lynchian, though. 

It’s a brilliant, based-on-a-true-story look at one stubborn old man on what seems to be a quixotic quest to visit his ailing brother whom he’s not talked to in a decade. The quixotic part concerns the fact that our protagonist Alvin Straight is too near-blind to drive a car and too poor to afford a bus or train visit from his home in Iowa to his brother’s home in Wisconsin. So he decides to make a six-week trek on a John Deere riding lawnmower pulling a hand-modified, covered cart.

And he does. The bulk of the movie concerns that trek going down the road, the people Straight meets along the way, and the natural landscapes through which he passes, quietly observing. Lynch punctuates the movie with Sublime scenes of thunderstorms, vast fields, and the starry sky above, all of them subject to Straight’s quiet regard. 

It’s the acting, though, that makes The Straight Story especially special. This was a cancer-wracked Richard Farnsworth’s final role before his death. His Alvin Straight is stoic and stubborn, but also extremely protective of those whom he loves — including his mentally challenged adult daughter, marvelously realized by Sissy Spacek. He’s a straight shooter. And his stubborn decency wins over everyone whom he encounters. It’s an extraordinarily sweet movie, especially for Lynch, but I don’t think it’s as out-of-character as many critics did at the time.

For one, Lynch has always been fascinated by idiosyncratic characters. Well, he must be — he’s written so many of them! Alvin Straight is perhaps most similar to the eponymous character in The Elephant Man, achingly human while faced with hardship. But the idiosyncratic characters support the movie throughout as well, from the fine Everett McGill’s (Big Ed!) John Deere dealer to the fellow World War Two vet with whom Straight commiserates about the mental scars of those long-ago battles.

And while the movie takes its stubborn optimism from Alvin Straight, it’s also shot through with darkness remembered and long contemplated by Straight, from a horrible secret of his World War Two career as a sniper to the bitterness and alcoholism that led to falling out with his brother. Maybe the movie contains one too many Alvin-delivered homilies about the importance of family, but I think what’s put on the screen earns those homilies their imaginative space. It may be a sweetheart of a movie, but it’s the dark moments that put that sweetness into high relief. Highly recommended.

Garth Ennis’ The Demon Volume 1: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John McCrea and others (1993-94/Collected 2015): Ennis and McCrea’s anarchic, vulgar take on Jack Kirby’s non-anarchic, non-vulgar Etrigan the Demon is a hoot for those with a strong stomach. It’s no more faithful to Kirby’s original conception of a demon who fights on the side of the angels than, well, pretty much every other take on The Demon after Kirby’s. Indeed, the only comic book that ever came close to Kirby’s energetic mix of super-heroism and the supernatural is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

Ennis and McCrea, like Alan Moore and Matt Wagner before them, make Etrigan a barely controlled monster. They make the human Etrigan shares a body with, Jason Blood, into a whiny incompetent. They make the various supporting characters into buffoons and punchlines. So it goes. It all works because Ennis and McCrea are really good at ultraviolent horror comedy. It also works because they introduce their super-powered hitman character (cleverly dubbed Hitman) in the course of these issues. Hitman would get his own series. As is pretty much always the case with Ennis, he’d seem a lot more comfortable and a lot less scabrous writing his own character.

The standout story arc here sees Ennis and McCrea bring back DC’s venerable weird war series The Haunted Tank. The cognitive dissonance generated by a story of an American tank haunted by a Confederate general taking on a bunch of resurrected, supernatural Nazis with the help of a nihilistic Demon is a wee bit mind-blowing. Perhaps never moreso than in a scene in which the Demon explains to the Nazis why he finds them repugnant. It’s crazy fun, and it allows Ennis to himself resurrect some of the ridiculous maneuvers the dinky little Haunted Tank once performed so as to defeat seemingly endless hordes of vastly superior Nazi machinery.

Is this Kirbyesque? No. And Ennis’ decision to have Etrigan speak in rhymes all the time — based on a long-standing, DC-wide misreading of Kirby’s original Etrigan , who only occasionally spoke in rhyme — can make for some truly godawful writing at points. But, you know, Nazi zombies in tanks! Recommended.

Ramsey Campbell, Probably (1968-2015/Collected in 2015 Revised Edition) by Ramsey Campbell, edited by S.T. Joshi: 40 years of non-fiction pieces by World’s Greatest Horror Writer Ramsey Campbell. There are autobiographical pieces which illuminate Campbell’s often harrowing early life, essays on various writers, pieces on social issues related to horror, and essays and introductions originally written for Campbell’s novels and short-story collections. 

In all, they’re dandy. And so many of them in this big book from PS Publishing! Campbell is thoughtful and often self-effacing when he writes about his own work, and those essays that do this offer a wealth of information about how and why certain decisions were made in the writing process, and what Campbell thinks about those decisions in retrospect. 

He’s also debilitatingly funny in many of the essays, never moreso than when he deals with The Highgate Vampire hoax. There’s also hilarity to be had in portions of his self-appraisal (for some reason, a section on his attempt to include the word ‘shit’ in a Lovecraftian story submitted to August Derleth’s Arkham House nearly had me lying on the floor). 

His essays on writers are occasionally scathing but for the most part positive. A melancholy essay on the late John Brunner stands out as a painful meditation on what happens when a very good writer is forgotten in today’s publishing climate. A wide-ranging essay on the novels of James Herbert is a sensitive reappraisal of that (alas, also late) best-selling writer’s work as a foundational stratum of working-class, English horror shot through with deeply held social concerns not usually seen in English horror up to that time.  Many of the writers Campbell writes about are also friends, thus shedding a certain personal light on writers ranging from Robert Aickman to the (then) Poppy Z. Brite.

General pieces include the almost-obligatory ’10 horror movies for a desert island’ essay, several examinations of horror in general and the general public’s attitude towards horror, the ‘Video Nasties’ censorship hysteria in the Great Britain of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and examinations of the history of horror. Campbell’s lengthy autobiographical essay “How I Got Here” is also invaluable in understanding his life and work. He’s almost painfully self-revelatory at points, while remaining refreshingly free of self-pity. 

Oh, and there’s an essay on British spanking-based pornography. Really, you can’t go wrong with this collection. How often is one going to find revelatory close readings of major H.P. Lovecraft stories and brief ‘plot’ synopses of faux-English-school-girl spanking pornography in the same book? Highly recommended.

End of Night

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume 4: written by Jack Kirby; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, Greg Theakston, and others (1974-1986; collected 2010): The last omnibus of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World work, or at least of Fourth World work that he both wrote and drew, spans about a decade. Kirby was having major problems with his eyesight by the mid-1980’s, and it shows a bit in some of the art, but the conclusion to the saga of Apokolips, New Genesis, and their far-reaching war is a fascinating and essential part of Kirby’s body of work.

Of course, it’s not really the end: DC Comics would use Kirby’s creations again and again after this ‘conclusion,’ a couple of times with Kirby on-board writing and/or pencilling in the two Super Powers miniseries. The saga was never meant to be wrapped up in less than a hundred pages. So the final graphic novel of Kirby’s Fourth World, The Hunger Dogs, is really more of an intermission than anything else, albeit an intermission without any more of the play after it.

The volume collects the last few issues of Mister Miracle from the early 1970’s, Kirby’s last Fourth World title to remain standing back then. That title concludes with a truly bizarre sequence involving the wedding of Mister Miracle and Big Barda, a wedding the evil god Darkseid decides to crash at the last minute. Groovy!

The concluding material from the 1980’s goes places super-hero comics generally don’t go — into the futility of endless war and the possibility that conflict can sometimes simply be walked away from. It was never meant to be an ending, but the last scene between Darkseid and his warrior son/nemesis Orion is both poignant and celebratory. Orion has changed. Darkseid has not. There will be no last battle of prophecy. This time, anyway.

Perhaps thinking of President Nixon’s squirmy final days, Kirby invests the previously nigh-omnipotent Darkseid with hitherto unseen characteristics of failure, impotence, and obsolescence. The dark god stands revealed as just another tyrant watching his empire crumble, shaking his fist impotently at the sky.

It’s powerful stuff, capped by a terrific final one-page spread that could have stood as the final image of the Fourth World and the New Gods. Kirby was still teaching writers and artists where to go near the end of his colossal and unparalleled career. In all, highly recommended.

Disco Apocalypse Now

Superman in the Seventies, Introduction by Christopher Reeve; featuring stories written by Jack Kirby, Paul Levitz, Elliot S. Maggin, Martin Pasko, Cary Bates, Denny O’Neil, and others; illustrated by Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Dick Dillin, Dick Giordano, Bob Oksner, Werner Roth, Jack Kirby, and others (1970-79; collected 2000):

Solid collection of mostly stand-alone adventures of the Man of Steel from the Me Decade. Arranged thematically with one-page essays introducing each section, the book covers a broad range of treatments of the Man of Tomorrow.

Stand-outs include “Make Way for Captain Thunder!”, in which Superman and a thinly disguised Captain Marvel do battle (Superman would meet the real deal a few years later); “I am Curious (Black)”, a Lois Lane story that aims at racism and social issues; and a couple of sympathetic treatments of Lex Luthor, never more interesting a character than he was here, willing to save Superman’s life if he wasn’t going to be the one who defeated him. The Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen story is a bit of a peculiar inclusion, as it ends on a cliffhanger — there are several other Kirby Superman stories that might have better served this collection.

Classic Superman penciller Curt Swan works on a lot of the stories included here, to great effect. He’s terrific on the Captain Thunder story, and on “Kryptonite Nevermore!,” the early 1970’s story that attempted to modernize (and Marvelize) the Man of Steel. That latter story also ends without complete resolution, as the storyline would play out over the course of a year.

The 1970’s Superman stories often move into uncharted territory for the character. Clark Kent gets moved to television and now answers to media mogul Morgan Edge for several years. He also loses his perennial blue suits for some occasionally funky 1970’s business attire. New additions to the Superman cast include annoying sports broadcaster Steve Lombard, the somewhat bizarre space-cowboy Terra-Man, the ultra-powerful Galactic Golem, and a host of other new friends and enemies.

Throughout, we see attention given to making Superman and his Clark Kent alter-ego more fallible and occasionally troubled, though he soldiers through regardless. The volume also includes a nice array of classic covers from the era, including the Neal Adams gem that kicked off the “Kryptonite Nevermore!” arc and a number of great pieces from Nick Cardy when he was DC’s line-wide cover artist. All in all, a nice piece of work. Recommended.