Jack Kirby’s Ten Most Amazingly Underused Concepts
If you read comics — or heck, if you’ve been to the movies in the past five years — then you’ve gotten a lot of entertainment from Jack Kirby. In a career that spanned six decades, Kirby was the driving creative force in comics, creating or co-creating lasting characters like Darkseid and the Demon, the entire genre of romance comics, the entire Marvel Universe and, when you get right down to it, modern comic book storytelling as we know it. The thing is, comics like Thor, Avengers, Fantastic Four and The New Gods were only the tip of the iceberg.
To say that Kirby was prolific is sort of like saying the sun is a little warm, and while we’ve all seen his most famous creations in comics, movies and TV shows over the years, he has a list of creations that remains unrivaled. That’s why today, in celebration of the 96th birthday of the King of Comics, we’re throwing the spotlight on some of his most under-used ideas — ten Kirby Creations that really ought to be a lot more famous.
10: THE EVIL FACTORY
Kirby’s characters have always existed in a world at the center of a constant struggle between good and evil, where the heroes are in action constantly, battling against a rotating roster of villains that step up with a fiendish plot just as soon as the last one gets knocked down. The reason for this, of course, is that comics come out every month and nobody wants to read about the same villain over and over, but with the Evil Factory, Kirby took the real-world pressures of creating new enemies and made it part of the story.
Like a lot of Kirby’s best ideas, this one is so simple that it’s always a little amazing nobody else got to it first, and with such a blunt, self-descriptive name. It’s a factory that manufactures evil — or in this case, creatures that serve evil, disposable monsters designed to test and push the good guys to their limits, keeping them busy and tipping the balance in favor of the bad guys while their real plans, the sinister machinations that they need to keep in place without the interruption of the heroes, are allowed to continue unabated. It’s a great idea, and with a mastermind like Darkseid behind it all, it’s the sort of thing that takes even the most generic villain-of-the-month and makes him a cog in a master plan that actually means something.
9: KING SOLOMON’S FROGS
So yeah, Black Panther owns a pair of brass frog statues that allow him to travel any distance through time and space.
Amazingly, the Frogs tend to show up relatively often, and with good reason. Even in a universe stocked up with bizarre and powerful objects with names like The Satan Claw or the Radical Cube, time traveling frog statues tend to stick out as something nobody ever would’ve expected — especially when you consider that Kirby used them to explain both how Aladdin got a reputation as a guy who could summon genies and how a plesiosaur ended up in Loch Ness. If only Doctor Doom had been able to get a hold of them, he wouldn’t have needed to build his own time machine in order to steal Blackbeard’s treasure, and we’d all be living in a glorious Latverian paradise.
8: ROXY’S RAIDERS
After leaving comics in the late ’70s, Kirby went to work putting his boundless imagination to work as a concept designer for Ruby-Spears animation. Sadly, a lot of his ideas were never produced, and chief among them was a series called Roxie’s Raiders, a pulp-inspired adventure about a beautiful animal trainer and her team of circus performers who were actually highly trained spies battling against the Empire of Steel.
Honestly, if you hear a concept like “Jack Kirby doing Raiders of the Lost Ark starring a whip-cracking redhead with a pet eagle, a unicycle-riding magician and a strongman with giant hands” and don’t think that’s something you need to read about immediately, then I’m not sure we will ever understand each other.
7: ARISHEM THE JUDGE
Kirby wasn’t just responsible for populating the Marvel Universe with characters like Captain America (with Joe Simon) and the Hulk (with Stan Lee), he was also the primary architect of the entire history of its cosmos. The main characters in this star-spanning saga were, of course, the Celestials, and while they have more than a few appearances under their belts, the world really needs more of Arishem the Judge.
I’m not gonna lie, Arishem might be one of the goofiest ideas in the history of comic books. He’s the Celestial responsible for determining which worlds in their cosmic experiment need to be destroyed, and then carries out the sentence with a cosmic formula inscribed on his hand so potent that he can destroy an entire planet just by gesturing at it. In short, he blows up planets by giving them the Thumbs Down.
Like I said, that is kind of inarguably silly, but that’s a huge part of Kirby’s genius. While other creators might discard an idea for being too far out there, Kirby runs with it and treats it as something that makes just as sense as anything else in a world where orange rock monsters bicker with flammable teenagers, and makes it feel dangerous. There are a few great Arishem stories out there (find that Tom DeFalco/Ron Frenz Thor story where they do their best to capture the feeling that Kirby brought to his comics), but honestly, there is no story where the Watcher shows up and hangs around staring at superheroes that could not be dramatically improved by swapping a bald voyeur out in favor of a cosmic Dislike Button.
6: THE DINGBATS OF DANGER STREET
Kirby grew up poor on some pretty mean streets, so it’s not really surprising that he went back to the idea of tough kids banding together in gangs more than a few times over the course of his career. The most well-known example is, of course, the Newsboy Legion, but in the pages of First Issue Special (a clearinghouse for off-the-wall ideas), Kirby introduced their far less famous cousins: the Dingbats of Danger Street.
Long before other creators got hip to the idea of showing a street-level view at superheroics, the Dingbats were a group of normal kids in the inner city who had to deal with super-types showing up and wrecking their neighborhood. Kirby’s notes call them “comic relief in deadly situations,” and that’s the kind of concept that could always work, especially if the comic relief in question is a dude named “Bananas.”
5: THE GLOBAL PEACE AGENCY
Speaking of Kirby being ahead of his time, OMAC is full of over-the-top but still weirdly prescient examples of a creative genius trying to figure out what the future would hold. With the GPA, Kirby was ahead of the trend by decades, creating a group of people who saw superheroes as the alternative to weapons of mass destruction, dispassionately deploying them (well, him) to trouble spots to avoid a war of apocalyptic proportions.
You may recognize this idea from every comic from the past ten years.
4: GALAXY GREEN
For the record, not every Kirby creation was about struggles for freedom and cosmic morality plays. In the ’70s, Kirby experimented with a strange sci-fi sex farce called Galaxy Green, focusing on the titular leader of the “Astro Chicks” in the far-off year of 3048. In the grim darkness of this particular future, there are only ladies, and so naturally, they’re on the hunt for men in order to keep the species going.
It’s certainly a far cry from the operatic philosophy of the New Gods, but that it’s so out of character is part of the reason I really want to see more from it. I mean, really, if nothing else, there is no reason at all why Ms. Green shouldn’t be in charge of the Legion of Super-Heroes’ sex ed course. Call me, DC. We’ll make it happen.
3: KARKAS AND RANSAK THE REJECT
When I asked fellow Kirby fan Benito Cereno if he had any Kirby concepts that he thought were woefully underused, Karkas and the Reject were two of the first characters to come to mind. With all the cosmic drama and thumb-based explosions of The Eternals, it’s easy to overlook these two, but they’re kind of the best buddy cop pair in the Marvel Universe.
Karkas is a deformed but invulnerable super-genius whose intelligence allowed him to realize that there’s really no point in being evil when you’re in a world where evil routinely gets trounced by guys with magic hammers and jet boots. Reject is also deformed, in that he’s a Deviant who was deemed too handsome to be a part of their society because he looks like a normal human. Together, they rebel against their evil society, defecting to the good guys and smashing up pretty much everything that gets in their way. And the best part? They are also teens.
Okay, admittedly, Kamandi might not seem like that much of an underused concept. Of everything on this list, he’s the only character to headline an ongoing series (for years, no less), and he still pops up here and there in various DC events. That said, there’s no good reason that there isn’t a Kamandi comic on the stands today.
Seriously, stop me if you’ve heard this one: Years after a nuclear war obliterates society as we know it and gives rise to a strange world with stranger creatures, the last human boy on Earth, with flowing blonde hair and blue shorts, wanders the land with his pal, an older, wiser talking dog, fighting for good and trying to do the right thing and live up to the heroes of the past. Call me crazy, but that seems like the sort of thing that a lot of people would be totally into, and that’s before you get to the part where his arch-nemesis is a racist tiger.
A racist tiger, you guys. What are we even doing not reading this comic right now.
If you look back over this list, you’ll see a lot of strange ideas that throw subtlety aside and replace it with hooks designed to reel in readers and surprise them with something new. Nothing, nothing in Kirby’s vast catalogue does that better and gets less of a mention than TRANSILVANE, THE PLANET SO EVIL IT HAS DEVIL HORNS.
Originally introduced in Jimmy Olsen #142, the miniature world of Transilvane was created as an experiment in learning how to terraform other planets, but for reasons known only to Kirby, the scientist in charge of the project decided instead to seed Transilvane with tiny artificial people and use orbital projectors to constantly play horror movies in the sky. So naturally, this led to the Transilvanian lifeforms evolving into Draculas, Frankensteins and Wolfmen who eventually started blasting off to the larger earth around them in coffin-shaped spaceships, which in turn caused the scientist to try to wipe everything out with a handy dose of Genocide Spray. Fortunately, Superman and Jimmy Olsen stopped all this, and switched out the horror movies for westerns, and now THERE IS AN ENTIRE MINIATURE PLANET OF TINY COWBOY DRACULAS THAT IS STRAIGHT UP A THING THAT EXISTS IN SUPERMAN’S HOMETOWN, AND NO ONE EVER TALKS ABOUT THIS.
If I was in charge, that would get mentioned at least twice a month. This, I think, is probably a good reason why I’m not in charge, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kirby gave us so many creations, so many strange and wonderful corners and ideas to use or pass by that it’s almost impossible to fit them all into the very comics he created. But that doesn’t mean that we should ever stop trying — and more importantly, that we should ever stop trying to add our own.