I was in the second grade when I discovered Jack Kirby’s box of treasures at a local flea market. And it was on sale.
The cover of Devil Dinosaur showed a massive scarlet Tyrannosaurus Rex facing off with an army of torch-wielding Neanderthals (This was the late-seventies when we said science be darned and fudged the prehistoric timeline a few million years so we could have our dinosaurs fighting cavemen) Astride the red-skinned behemoth was a curiously blue-furred creature that the cover text informed me was “Moon-Boy – the first human!”
Behind the issue of Devil Dinosaur was an issue of OMAC – One Man Army Corps. Despite his Mohawk, this hero looked more like a traditional superhero than Moon-Boy or his carnivorous steed. Skin tight spandex costume – check. Superhero symbol emblazoned across the front for easy identification and super-branding – check. But instead of fighting a cape-wearing madman or giant robot, Omac was standing in the middle of a bombed-out city, surrounded by an army of ragged, fanged mutants.
This wasn’t the Super Friends or Spider-Man cartoons. This was something I’d never seen before. Whose comics were these? What sort of hidden mystery had I uncovered? Who was Moon-Boy and why was he blue?
I’d found the box of comics under a folding table weighed down with collectable flatware and army paraphernalia. It was one of the sad tables at the end of the flea market walkway, in the area few people ventured because it was the only part of the flea market grounds that was actually uphill. Tables balanced on a precarious incline and if you accidentally bumped something off you might be chasing it downhill for quite a while.
As they say – location, location, location – and that’s why I guess this box of comics gold, a full box of rare issues by the King of Comics, Jack Kirby himself, was sitting there at the end of the day, unsold.
Five dollars later and I was on my home in the backseat of my parents’ car with a box of comics half as long as I was. Little did I know then, that some twenty years later a stack of long lost comics, and the mystery behind them, would factor so heavily in my superhero novels Powerless and Super. Things stick with you, I guess.
But back then, long before I dreamed of becoming a writer, I was still struggling to become a reader and those Kirby comics helped me take my first step. Much can be said about Jack Kirby’s dynamic, groundbreaking art (and it already has been by better folks than me) With Stan Lee, he co-created the Fantastic Four, Hulk, the X-Men and many more. But those Kirby books I’d discovered were both drawn and written by the King himself, alone. Unedited and unfiltered, there was something else in those Kirby comics that impressed me, changed me even. These were stories I wanted to read.
Using today’s literacy buzzwords I might describe them as high-interest reading primers – full of dynamic art with plenty of action, but also surprisingly heavy with prose. Take a look at some of those seventies comics and you’ll be surprised how much page space is covered by big, bolded words! Full of hyperbolic exclamations and awesome alliteration!
By today’s standards, the faux-Shakespearean grandiosity of Kirby’s prose is more than a touch eye-rolling, but every second grader has his own dreams of grandeur and Kirby’s words were magic to me. Let the other kids shout nanna-nanna-boo-boo, I would scale the jungle gym and proclaim, “My destiny is battle! I wield the mighty power of the astro-force! It is a grim and fearful responsibility!”
It started a life-long love of language, and that first fling was flagrant and over-the-top and just plain wonderful. By the time I’d get around to writing Powerless, I’d settled a bit and learned the value of restraint in service of story. But there’s no question that Kirby had a heck of a lot more fun with his language than I ever have. He told a story in big, bold ways to match his kinetic art.
There’s really nothing quite like it now. Today’s comics are more cinematic than literary, with today’s writers aping Mamet more than Shakespeare. And the Golden Age of comics, even the Silver and Bronze Ages, are long gone. That joyful exuberance, that Kirby-esque language that captured my young imagination, is gone with them.
My own son is growing up in an age where comics, books, even video games are more and more sophisticated and complex. Kids’ stuff is garnering critical respect, and it’s for the best, I guess.
But I have some old-fashioned comics to show him some day soon. I’ll introduce him to the King, his ground-breaking art and, more, his bombastic writing. As it says, right there on the cover of Devil Dinosaur number one –
“In an age when giants walked the world, He was the mightiest of all!”
I couldn’t agree more.
Matthew Cody is the author of the superhero novels Powerless and Super, as well as The Dead Gentleman, also fromKnopf. Outside of novels, Matthew has written for both Marvel and DC comics. Originally from the Midwest, Matthew now lives with his wife and young son in Manhattan. You can find him online at http://www.matthewcody.com and on Twitter as @matthew_cody.
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