Sunday, July 17, 2011

the Deathwish of terrible Stone

A lone police lieutenant, on the verge of retirement decides that he's been stuck on the sidelines of the superhero fights for too long, and in the middle of a savage brawl, threatening to destroy an urban metropolis, decides to make his stand. Barging in amid amazingly powerful figures claiming celestial powers, a single mortal man risks everything to bring in a savage madman, no matter his towering size, or beastly physique. Despite seemingly having no chance of stopping the lunatic bursting with power, the veteran lieutenant prevails by sheer force of will, stopping the invading lunatic amid rooftops toppling all over, in the process helping the superheroes avert a deadly outcome.

At first glance, this amounts to be a summary of what is arguably one of Jack Kirby's highlights in working on the sprawling Fourth World saga, "New Gods #8", that has long been recognized a classic superhero moment. The saga was a logical extension from his work on "Thor", and even hints at taking place in the future after the fall of Old Gods. The implied connection aside, Kirby's work has long been one of the chief artistic influences on creators working in mainstream superhero industry that he helped define in his mountain of prolific work.

Thus, seeing creators working on the books he created routinely leads to some amount of homage to "the King", which has always been respected, if not outright encouraged by the fans. When Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz got tasked with continuing "Thor", after Walt Simonson left the title, following a change in the editorial direction, the mandate seems to have been to go back to the title's roots. Bit by bit, the character was restored to a semblance of his original Silver age incarnation, as imagined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Forgoing Simonson's take, heavily inspired by Norse mythology, DeFalco and Frenz deliberately proceeded in a different direction, first by returning the character's original costume, then by preventing him from returning to Asgard, the home of his fellow Norse Gods, and finally, by restoring Thor's secret identity.

Having recreated Thor as the Silver age Marvel book Lee and Kirby pioneered the concept as, DeFalco was free to construct stories inspired by mythology, and taking place on the streets of New York. In all this, he was aided by collaborator Ron Frenz, a Kirby inspired penciller who excelled equally at superhero fights, as well as the soap opera amid the newly created human supporting cast, centered around Thor's new human host. Inked by veteran artist Joe Sinnott, Frenz' adoration of Kirby extended past figurework, and extended to include layouts, and even panel shapes.

It's clear that DeFalco and Frenz, following their collaboration on "Amazing Spider-Man", envisioned their "Thor" to be a callback to Kirby, but even then, #414 is guaranteed to surprise the reader cognizant of the King's DC work. Simply put, a major subplot in the issue doubles Kirby's "New Gods #8" almost scene by scene, and there can be no doubt that this is intentional. Using the introductory paragraph of this review as the deliberately generic approximation of the actions of a supporting character in a superhero comic, fits both Metropolis' lieutenant Dan "Terrible" Turpin and his opposite number Marc Stone from NYPD.

For a start, creating in 1990, DeFalco and Frenz could routinely make their supporting character African American without feeling the need to stress it out. Working two whole decades previously, Kirby's two major Fourth World minority characters were named Vykin the black and Black racer, which is understandable considering the comicbook standards of the time. In fact, despite a minor Jimmy Olsen character being a stereotypical African American sidekick, Kirby's Silver age work was still forward thinking enough to produce the first major African superhero in Black Panther, and it's clear that the King at least tried to be respectful when in comes to the racial issues in his later work.

Considering that Dan Turpin has since been recognized as a stand in for Jack Kirby in "Superman the animated series", the race issue is largely irrelevant when making the comparison. Marvel's lieutenant Stone has gone on to become a long standing Thor character (continuing into Frenz' run spin-off "Thunderstrike"), while Turpin's popularity still stems from New Gods #8, and the defining moment Kirby crafted for him in the soon to be cancelled title. It is no mistake that many have recognized parallels to the King's own past in the tough as nails police lieutenant, raised on the suburbs of the urban metropolis, and determined to make his voice heard. This same scrappy and individualistic streak can be seen in Fantastic Four's Thing, another fictional stand in for Kirby, at least as some of his fanbase is concerned.

In both cases, the writers wheel out a traditional cop fiction trope of a police officer determined to make a stand when faced with a chance of an early retirement. When it comes to comics, perhaps this is epitomized in Frank Miller's "That Yellow bastard", which can be said to be completely devoted to a Terrible Turpin's fighting back against forces beyond his control in Sin City, albeit stylized in such a way that pays equal tribute to creator's past in superhero publishing and the crime fiction that inspired him. It goes without saying that Kirby's passionate portrayal and a career high point overshadows DeFalco and Frenz's effort that is even advertized as nothing more than another fight between Thor and Ulik.

Perhaps the most direct comparison lies in the choice of villain in Thor #414, as the rock troll is look virtually identical to how Kalibak was depicted in "New Gods". It goes without saying that Ulik is another Kirby creation, but even then both are portrayed as hideous giants sporting wild manes and full beard, spending most of their fight against respectively lt. Stone and Turpin with most of their costume in shreds, or non existent. The effect is primal, designed to pit an ordinary man against a savage giant, and have him somehow manage to survive overwhelming odds stacked against him.

In fact, considering Kirby's inspirations when it comes to creating the Fourth World, it should come as no surprise even if the original scene was inspired by the biblical battle of David and Goliath. DeFalco and Frenz certainly harbor no such ambitions, and it can be seen that by reappropriating the original Turpin/Kalibak fight, the creators merely wished to extend their run, or even Thor's mythology, to include such an iconic moment, executed in the rival company's books. In fact, considering the nebulous state Kirby's original Fourth World books assumed in DC's continuity following the reboot of the Superman continuity they were ostensibly linked to, perhaps a deeper goal can be inferred in their New Gods homage.

They can be said to have brought back to Thor ideas that Kirby has reportedly saved away from future non-Marvel use, when he was finishing his first run with the company. And even though DC has continued to use New Gods since, the status of Kirby's original stories is still nebulous, due to successive creators sporadically and non consistently reintroducing parts of the King's Fourth World lore to the Superman family of titles.

In this aspect, by introducing the Turpin/Kalibak fight to the burgeoning Stone/Ulik feud, DeFalco and Frenz have made it a part of their story, and as such, it even works as a parallel of the Thor's secret identity dynamic. Marc Stone is presented as a man who has to choose between family and his vow to protect the innocents, which is the traditional inspiration for the superhero's troubles with keeping a private life separate from the constant barrage of villain of the month threats.

Yet, how DeFalco and Frenz continue their "Thor" run has little to do with the original point of comparison. By the time they started on the character, it was quite clear what were the limitations on working on company owned properties, and even the amount of influence a new take can have on the generation of creators that follow in their steps. If anything, by following Walt Simonson's run on Thor, both Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz seemed determined to return the character to his roots as a Kirby creation, and envisaging their own stories around it.

This is where the homage most importantly diverges from the inspiration. Coming to DC in 1970, Jack Kirby was given a guarantee that he will be able to publish three whole books, completely created, written, drawn and edited by himself. The only succession readily apparent was his work on Jimmy Olsen, and even then, he used the book to launch the other Fourth World titles. The King was reportedly working for a much higher fee than DC's standard creative roster, and everything that followed until the books' eventual cancellation was a unique experience at that point in superhero comics. To this day it's unheard of that a single artist can be able to write and draw four bi-monthly books, with three of them at the same time being completely created from his own ideas. Even today, it's pretty unlikely that a company would let a single individual, no matter how talented and influential, basically create his own imprint in the middle of their publishing line, and proceed to do work that his little to do with the other titles of their line.

Of course, the hard lesson behind "Death wish for terrible Turpin" and the plethora of other stories, both teased and realized, was that the work was still company owned, and there quickly came a point where DC decided to let Kirby refocus his efforts in creating new properties that they would have more control over. Thus, the King was forced to unceremoniously cancel the Fourth World titles, and concentrate his efforts on tying in to the "Planet of Apes" popularity by creating a DC comic book approximation in "Kamandi". Even "Demon", the supernatural anti-hero realized as a superhero comic was purposefully divorced from the Fourth World concept.

That DC has continually returned to the New Gods concepts following Kirby's return to Marvel is of little consequence, seeing as how it was overshadowed by the King's fighting for intellectual rights to the characters he created and developed into perennial sellers for the Big Two superhero publishers. Kirby was always adamant that he preferred working on his own characters, and his one advice to the up and coming creators was always to try and develop their own heroes and setting, and not to continue retracing his steps.

In that respect, it's very strange to see lieutenant Stone fight Ulik in exactly the same way Terrible Turpin fought Kalibak, and have it all take place in the pages of Kirby's "Thor". The love and respect DeFalco and Frenz no doubt harbor toward Kirby's work informs every one of their pages, but there is little doubt how their idol would have looked at the work they created. Even if it was only to amuse themselves and play at the times they were already creating in "Thor", DeFalco would recently publicly complain that he was being type cast into writing a certain kind of company comic.

This was in context of his and Frenz's run on "Spider-Girl", but it nevertheless speaks to certain underlying truths of North American Direct Market publishing. Mainstream creators are encouraged to nurture their own sensibilities, but the financial reward is certain only when working on decades old company owned characters, whose stories have been told and retold countless times from their original creation. Arguably, it can be said that a Kirby fan reading "Thor" comics looks for precisely the kind of New Gods recreation DeFalco and Frenz exhibited in Thor #414, but is there any surprise then that a potential new audience keeps resisting these decades old characters and storytelling techniques?

No comments: