The Road To The Fantastic Four, The Road To The Fourth World: On Two Jack Kirby Comicbook Covers From June 1958,

In which the blogger, keen to learn more about the period, writes about two different 1958 Jack Kirby covers and the way in which each appears to point forwards in time to several of his most notable later triumphs.

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Challengers Of The Unknown #3 arrived on America’s newsstands and spinner racks in June 1958. Its cover is by Kirby, of course, with some additional inking by Roz Kirby and lettering by Ira Schnapp. It’s an issue that’s particularly famous amongst fans and scholars alike for the second of its two stories, The Menace Of The Invisible Challenger,  which contains a host of key plot points and visuals that would reappear in 1961’s game-changing Fantastic Four #1. The doomed spaceflight, launched despite compelling arguments in favour of remaining Earthside.  The ascent into the heavens that leads to the acquiring of mysterious, numerous and threatening super-powers. The super-team riven by inter-personal conflict. Even the way in which Kirby depicted blasts of super-heat projecting from Challenger Rocky Davis’ hands appears to prefigure the manner in which Johnny Storm would soon put his own flame powers to work. (The Golden Age Torch, of course, was more associated with the hurling of fireballs instead.) All of this means that the Challengers’ third issue is perhaps better known for prefiguring FF#1 than it is as a comic in its own right. What can it tell us about the degree to which Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were responsible as individuals for Fantastic Four #1? To what degree did the Marvel Revolution actually begin at DC some four years before its taken-for-granted commencement? Given that the credit for The Menace Of The Invisible Challenger’s story and script is still uncertain, will the line of transmission of influence ever be as clear as we might want it be?

I’ll soon return to CotU #3’s cover, in a post which considers it in the context of DC’s July 1958 output as a whole. But for today, I’d like to take the opportunity to chin-stroke about another, and rather different, Kirby cover from the same month, which you can see immediately below. For if the third issue of the Challengers seems to point forward to the invention of the Marvel Universe some three years hence, then Kirby’s title-defining contributions to Race For The Moon #2 suggest nothing so much as his Sci-Fi/fantasy titles of the Seventies. In its cover alone – a collaboration between Kirby, inker Al Williamson and, perhaps, Joe Simon –  RFTM#2 evokes much that would later be absolutely central to the likes, amongst others, of 1970’s Fourth World tetralogy and 1976’s The Eternals.

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The above cover stands out from that of every other action/adventure comic published in the USA during June 1958. (*1) Determinedly sidestepping any suggestion of fiercely immediate jeopardy, let alone the threat of physical violence, Kirby trusts that his readership will respond instead to a sense of cosmic awe. Long before he presented the impossibly vast and unsettlingly mysterious universe of the New Gods, Kirby was lacing his comics with a magical, muscular and disconcerting sense of the romantically sublime. Here, he depicted a universe that absolutely dwarfs its human inhabitants and renders the very idea of individual agency absurd. Rather than conflict, Kirby presents us with its absence. Mysteries there clearly are, but the reader used to more obviously pointed fare might well wonder where the plot-driving strife was? Who was threatening who, and how might a victory of whatever sort be claimed? Those had always been the signs that children were trained by experience to look for, and yet, here was Kirby defying expectations. The force emanating from Jupiter isn’t signed up as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, while the astronauts appear safe from any threat bar an understandable bout of being surprised. As for the figure in the transparent barrel heading for the Red Spot, it’s impossible to say whether it’s human or alive. Whatever it might be, its situation, such as it is, is hardly likely to scream out ‘buy this comic!’ to any youthful casual browser.

But Kirby clearly had faith in his audience’s sensibilities. To him, comics were, by their very nature, capable of delivering as meaningful an experience as any other storytelling medium. Nor did comics have to be directed solely to a prepubescent readership. So why shouldn’t a grandiose and pulpish evocation of the great unknown grab and hold an audience’s attention? After all, Kirby appears to have always trusted that whatever fascinated him would do the same for others. If the cover for Race For The Moon #2 lacks obvious conflict, it doesn’t lack for signs that something of considerable importance is happening. Even if we discount the presence of a previously unknown and massively powerful force on Jupiter, there’s still that comatose and largely naked human being, or so it seems, who’s being dragged through space, or so it appears, at what’s presumably a remarkable speed. (The cover blurb insists the figure is ‘drifting into Jupiter’s Red Eye’, but Kirby’s art insists the journey is speedy and precisely directed.) At a first glance, it’s hard to know what to think, but that’s surely key to the cover’s intended appeal. The prone figure’s journey through space towards a looming gas giant appears almost matter-of-fact, with a route that seems clearly mapped out and a destination that’s an irresistible given. As such, the suggestion is that we’re looking at the surface manifestations of a hitherto-unknown aspect of reality. That in itself is gloriously disconcerting. Who knows what the truth of this universe might be?

Perhaps everything we know is wrong, for all of our science and technology.

*1 – I’ll return to the details of that tomorrow.

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(The first page of ‘Island In The Sky’, from Race To The Moon #2. Those expert in these things will know whether, as I can’t help but strongly suspect, the cover was adapted from this page or vice versa. Interestingly, the colour work used for the cover is far darker than that in the interior story, meaning that the former seems far more opaque and mysterious. The sense of awe in the directly above is considerably diminished by that, as is the fact that the astronauts take up more of the scene as depicted in the first panel and therefore appear somewhat more powerful and purposeful. Neither can it be said that skintight, bright blue underpants contribute effectively to a sense of mystery and trepidation.)

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Yet there are also signs that things might not be as calm and peaceful as they first seem. Encased in a transparent cylinder, the balled fists of the apparently entombed figure certainly suggest the possibility of, at the very least, unease. Baldness and near-nakedness also imply the presence of someone who’s somewhat less-than-typical. After all, America’s heroes were rarely seen captured, hairless and clad only in flesh-coloured underpants.

So is that a human passenger that’s headed for Jupiter, or perhaps a prisoner? Could it be an alien traveller of some sorts? Does that figure want to be headed for the Red Spot, or are they even able to know what their situation is? Is this a journey or perhaps, in its own way, a funeral? Given that the astronauts on the cover are depicted as nothing more than onlookers, and apparently surprised onlookers at that, it’s quite possible that no-one in the scene – beyond the confines of Jupiter, and perhaps not even there – knows anything at all about this event. Even the cover’s atypical colour scheme of, predominantly, purple and yellow accentuates the feeling that human beings are at best bit players in this drama. Space wasn’t typically represented in such a purposefully lurid fashion.  The result is a cover in which it’s the fluorescent universe that’s the major player, dominating our perception while any and all human characters are crammed uncomfortably into the bottom third-or-so of the page. As such, it’s easy to imagine that the cover is there to spell out humanity’s relative insignificance and powerlessness.

Left largely to his own devices, Kirby often liked to present inventive, spectacular situations as reader-beguiling events in themselves. Too often described as a storyteller whose work was in essence action based, he was in truth often brilliant in his depiction of quiet, if rarely unthreatening, stillness. (To take but one example out of a great many, the cover to 1970’s New Gods #1, with Orion hovering mysteriously in space, lacks anything that we might consider pressingly dangerous. In subject matter and execution, that opening salvo in the Fourth World has a great deal in common with the cover of Race For The Moon #2.) Trusting – there’s that word again – that the reader, of whatever age, was as fascinated and moved by the sublime as Kirby was, he produced image after image over the decades that still resonate with astonishing force. As he gained more control over his work in the 60s and 70s, and as the comics culture he helped to develop welcomed more expansive storytelling, Kirby returned again and again to the expression of awe through a spectacular establishing shot. The abyss appears in any numbers of forms. So too post-apocalyptic landscapes. With them comes the suggestion of the terror of forces beyond either understanding or control. It’s there in the double-sided photo-montage of Reed Richards adrift in the Negative Zone, in Kamandi’s travels through a sunken New York, in the tomb of the space aliens discovered with Ikaris’ help in The Day Of The Gods, in the doomed, petrified Source Wall Giants. Conflict and danger, where it exists, is overshadowed by immensity, mystery and consternation. (*2)

And it was all there in the haunting first page of The Face On Mars, perhaps the best of the stories in Race For The Moon #2, which you can see directly below. I don’t have the time to discuss it in any detail here, but its almost-splash page alone testifies to Kirby’s supreme ability to evoke the sublime in the context of comic book adventure tales.

*2:- It’s surely telling that in the Fourth World, the noblest gods bow before the forces they can neither comprehend or control, while the worst seek to reduce the universe to, firstly, an equation, and then, a weapon of domination. At their heart, Kirby’s stories always laud the virtues of modesty, bravery and kindness, and the absence of those qualities can always be trusted to bring down Nemesis. Kirby’s sense of the sublime, I can’t help but believe, helped him to frame and express his passionately held moral and political beliefs.

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For those with an eye to Kirby’s turn-of-the-Seventies work, it’s surely impossible to see the chap on the rocket-chair on the cover of Race For The Moon #2 and not think of Metron, another fascinated observer caught between incredible technological abilities and unfathomable cosmic mysteries, and his Mobius Chair. Similarly, Jupiter and its eye evokes the same air of the sublime that the Source Wall does in the Fourth World. There, the bodies of the vainglorious who’ve approached the presence of the Source have been transformed into unmoving stone giants. How and why this should have happened were, thankfully, questions that Kirby never cared to explain in anything but the passing. Lesser writers, ignorant that the sublime demands a surrender to mystery rather than its reduction to bite-sized resolutions, would have felt the need to explain, and worse yet, to explain in banal terms to great length.

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The interior tale that the cover to Race To The Moon #2 trails  – Islands In The Sky – is, at just 5 pages long, a wonder of concision. In it, a lead cylindrical coffin containing the body of astronaut Bill Fenner, who’d been killed by a meteorite, is inadvertently sent into Jupiter’s Red Spot. It’s a destination that Fenner had always regarded with dread;

‘He used to say it was a big eye watching him … waiting for him to get real close and …’

But the dead man and his coffin are soon returned to his colleagues in their orbiting spacecraft by forces unknown. Now hale, hearty and possessed of remarkable physical abilities, Fenner has become a superman. A small ‘organism native to Jupiter’ is discovered to have been implanted into his mind prior to his now-resurrected body being returned to his comrades. The result is not just rebirth accompanied by superhuman abilities, but another 1000 years of life.

No matter how Kirby’s astronauts attempt to analyse Fenner’s second life, events prove to be beyond their understanding. No amount of curiosity, bravery and intelligence can make them masters of their own destiny. (In many ways, the same fate dogged, for all their immeasurable power, Kirby’s Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips.) It was a theme that Kirby – with and without Simon – had played with before, and far more than just a few times, when depicting the fantastical in titles from Black Magic to Alarming Tales. Clearly Kirby believed that a conclusion which conjures a shiversome sense of humanity’s relative powerlessness and vulnerability can, at the very least, match a sub-O-Henry ‘shock’ twist. That Islands In The Sky also suggests that the universe can be kind as well as cruel adds a touch of wry irony to the mix.

Yet, doubt and unease remains. Who’s to say that Fenner’s return to life will prove to be in any way a good thing? Indeed, is there any proof that it’s really Fenner himself who was shot back out of Jupiter’s atmosphere? The essential unfathomability of things remains, barely obscured by the story’s somewhat cheering conclusion.

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to be continued tomorrow:

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