Jack Kirby’s Silver StarA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Thom Young
Writer: Jack Kirby
Artists: Jack Kirby (pencils), Mike Royer (inks for chapters 1-4), and D. Bruce Berry (inks for chapters 5-6)
Publisher: Image Comics
I remember reading an article in an issue of The Comics Journal twenty-six years ago that reported on the news that Jack Kirby was returning to comics. He’d been working in animation for Ruby-Spears Productions after leaving Marvel near the end of 1977, but he was enticed back to comics almost four years later by a new publisher out of San Diego.
Pacific Comics gave Kirby complete control and ownership of the properties he was bringing to their company. Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers debuted for Pacific in late 1981, followed a little over a year later by the six-issue miniseries Silver Star (which Kirby called a “Visual Novel”).
Synchronistically, I first discovered Kirby’s work just as he was leaving Marvel in 1977. I had just started buying comics six years earlier in 1971. However, in those early days of my hobby, I only read titles that had Batman in them—which meant I only bought Batman, Detective, Brave and the Bold, and Justice League of America.
My sister, though, decided to collect comics with Superman in them (probably at my urging), which meant I also got to read Superman, Action, World’s Finest, and Superboy, Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes. For some reason, my sister didn’t “collect” Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
I suspect our mom would only let us subscribe to four books each, but perhaps DC didn’t offer a subscription to Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. In any event, my sister’s books didn’t include Jimmy Olsen, which meant I wasn’t exposed to Kirby while he was working on his Fourth World series for DC.
Instead, it was my love of Batman that eventually brought me to Kirby even though he never worked on a comic book that featured the character. In the summer of 1977, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers began their run on Batman beginning in Detective #471. I was immediately taken by what I still consider the greatest Batman arc of all time.
Two months later, Englehart and Rogers produced Mister Miracle #19, and I picked up that title based solely on my admiration for their work on Detective. Up to that point I had never heard of the New Gods or Jack Kirby (I never had been much of a Marvel fan and didn’t know he had created Captain America and almost all of Marvel’s Silver Age characters).
After reading Mister Miracle #19, I sought out issues #1-18 in the back issue bins (those comics were still inexpensively priced at the time). Those back issues led me to The New Gods and The Forever People—and, finally, to the Jimmy Olsen issues that my sister had never had.
I could hardly believe this great work had originally been coming out just as I had started buying comics six years earlier, but that I had completely ignored it when (or if) I saw it on the spinner racks. Thus, it was with great excitement that I learned that Kirby was coming back to comics four years after I finally came across his work.
Unfortunately, I didn’t much care for Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers when the title finally appeared. Those stories weren’t as exciting as The Fourth World stories, and the quality of the illustrations was noticeably lower.
I knew from reading the Fourth World material that Kirby had difficulty with dialog, but his writing in Captain Victory was horrible—at least that’s how I remember it (I haven’t actually re-read those stories in the past 26 years).
So, when Silver Star came out in late 1982 or early 1983, I didn’t hold out much hope for liking it any more than I had Captain Victory. In fact, I ended up disliking it even more—to the point of not buying the last four issues of the six-issue limited series. In 1983, I was convinced that old age had caught up to Kirby (he was 65 when he produced Silver Star).
Fortunately, Kirby then went on to prove me wrong. In fact, concurrent with his work on Captain Victory and Silver Star, he penciled Steve Gerber’s Destroyer Duck #1-5 for Eclipse Comics from 1982-83. Of course, at the time I thought the higher quality of the illustrations on Destroyer Duck was due to inker Alfredo Alcala “fixing” Kirby’s pencils.
Since then, though, I’ve seen some of Kirby’s un-inked pencils from Captain Victory, Silver Star, and Destroyer Duck—and it was obvious that Kirby was still an extremely talented illustrator, and that the poor quality of the illustrations in the Pacific Comics titles may have been the fault of his inkers.
It was with all this in my mind that I approached Image Comics’ new collection of Kirby’s Silver Star “visual novel.” I wanted to find out whether the work was really as bad as I had thought 26 years ago. Perhaps I would now have a more “mature reaction” that would reveal to me how great it was.
Unfortunately, I have to say that it’s still just as horrible as I remember it. The dialog and narration are horrendous, the nomenclature is ridiculous, and the illustrations lack depth—and many of them are crude and simplistic. However, I now have some insight into why it’s all so bad.
In preparing this review, I read a one-page “analysis” of Kirby’s dialog (published in the April 1998 issue of The Jack Kirby Collector) in which Robert L. Bryant Jr. claims that Kirby didn’t write bad dialog. Instead, Bryant says that Kirby emphasized (emboldened) verbs in his dialog, and that fans in the 1970s reacted harshly to it because Stan Lee emphasized nouns in the dialog he scripted for Kirby’s stories in the 1960s.
Even if it turned out to be true that Kirby emphasized verbs instead of nouns, Bryant’s argument seemed ludicrous. However, I then looked at several pages of the Fourth World stories. I found that most of Kirby’s emboldened words are nouns, just like Lee emphasized according to Bryant.
Instead, I discovered that the reason readers in the 1970s (and 80s) believed Kirby’s dialog was bad is because it really wasn’t good. For instance, Kirby awkwardly introduces exposition in his dialog—as when a man walks into an army M.A.S.H. hospital in the first chapter of Silver Star and asks, “Am I in the presence of Colonel Walter Hammer, M.D.?”
No one talks like that. The phrase “Am I in the presence of” is too formal for the situation—but I can see Kirby’s problem. He wanted the reader to know that Walter Hammer is not only a colonel in the army but also a medical doctor. The man couldn’t ask, “Are you Colonel Hammer?” or “Are you Dr. Hammer?” because those questions would not have provided all the information Kirby wanted to convey.
It would have been slightly better, of course, if the man had asked, “Are you Colonel Hammer, M.D.?” The use of the double title would have still been a bit awkward, but at least the stiff “Am I in the presence of” would have been avoided.
Another possible solution to the problem would have been for the man to ask, “Are you Colonel Hammer?” to which Hammer might answer, “I prefer Dr. Hammer, actually.” The slight awkwardness of the double title would have been avoided with a more casual conversational tone. However, Kirby was also trying to cram as much into each 20-page chapter as he could, so he didn’t have the space to devote to natural-sounding conversations—and so his scripting suffers tremendously for it.
That same effort to get in as much as he could probably accounts for the poor plot development. Kirby had countless concepts that he wanted to cram into this six-chapter series—several Nietzschean Overman concepts that Kirby envisioned genetic engineering bringing to fruition.
So in the first two or three chapters we’re given a series of philosophical concepts that aren’t explored beyond their superficial introduction. Furthermore, the cramming in of as many concepts as he could necessitated Kirby’s exclusion of character development. What we end up with are a number of flat characters engaged in superficial discussions of undeveloped concepts.
When the plot finally gets moving in the third chapter, it turns out to be a shallow tale of an evil genetically engineered man, Darius Drumm, attempting to kill (and often succeeding) other genetically engineered men and women—people whom Kirby has given the scientific name of “homo-geneticus” but whom he also refers to by the odd name of “super-normals.”
The fourth chapter is entitled “The Super-Normals: Are they God’s or Satan’s Children,” and the opening sentence in the fifth chapter is “Suppose the super-normals sparked a war and didn’t invite us!!?”
There’s nothing in the story that suggests to me that the name “super-normals” was an intentional oxymoron, and the only reason I can think of as to why Kirby chose that term for his race of “homo-genetici” is that he was attempting to come up with a name (super-normal) that would be a scientific equivalent of the idea of the supernatural.
Why Darius Drumm sought to kill all of his fellow “super-normals” is never made clear—other than the implication that he’s a spoiled brat who can’t get along with his playmates (in one scene, Kirby shows Drumm eating an ice cream bar and drinking a malted milkshake).
In the final chapter, Drumm inexplicably transforms into “The Angel of Death” (a demonic figure with large feathery wings and horns, and who is dressed in a purple hood and robe). The narrative alternately alludes to this Angel of Death is an agent of Satan and an agent of the Judeo-Christian God’s Final Judgment.
In the end, Silver Star prevents the Angel of Death from turning the Earth into a barren planet void of all water, atmosphere, and life by making the Angel of Death see Darius Drumm’s face on all the people of the world whom he is in the process of destroying—because the Angel of Death “cannot kill Darius Drumm because he is Darius Drumm!”
Then, for some inexplicable reason, “A sea of atoms parts to accept his [the Angel of Death’s] descent. He sinks in silence . . . vanishing into the bowels of the Earth.” In the last panel, Silver Star provides us with some sort of moral to the story. Levitating high above the ground in a crucifixion pose, Silver Star stares out at the reader and explains:
A “super-normal” can levitate until sundown, but he’s still a man for all that! He can survive the “bomb,” but, like all men . . . can he survive himself??The “visual novel” might have worked if Kirby had taken 12 issues to tell the same story. As it is, though, too much is crammed into too little space, and the tale just alternates between being confusing, frustrating, and silly.
Finally, the illustrations are not terrible on each page. Some pages appear to be essentially of the same quality as Kirby’s mid-1970s work on The Eternals that he did for Marvel. Other pages, though, are embarrassingly crude and simplistic. However, I’ve seen some of the un-inked pencils for Silver Star, and they are amazing panels that I would be proud to hang on my walls as art.
Oddly, the un-inked pages that I’ve seen are the same pages that look good in the first four chapters of the book (inked by Mike Royer—who also inked my two favorite issues of The New Gods, issues #7 and #8). However, not even all the pages that Royer inked are examples of Kirby at his best, and without seeing the original pencils for these pages it’s difficult to know where to lay the blame—on Kirby or Royer.
As I mentioned earlier though, the five issues of Destroyer Duck that Kirby penciled around the same time are examples of some of his best work, and I’ve seen some of the un-inked Destroyer Duck pages and Alcala didn’t re-draw those pages in Kirby’s style to “fix” them when he inked them.
So why am I giving Silver Star three bullets when it obviously has so many problems? Because it’s an important book historically. Aside from The Hunger Dogs graphic novel that he did for DC in 1985, Silver Star is Kirby’s last fully developed personal project).
This Image Comics edition of Silver Star also has Kirby’s original un-inked character designs that he penciled eight years earlier in 1975 when he and Steve Sherman were trying to sell the concept in Hollywood as a movie script.
This book is historically important, and all collectors of Kirby’s work should own it. However, TwoMorrows Publishing has a “graphite edition” of the same material that’s shot from Kirby’s un-inked pencils.
While I don’t have it, the graphite edition would probably be worth buying as well. It would then be possible to do a side by side comparison and contrast of the pencils and inks to see why many of the illustrations in the final version of Silver Star are lacking in quality.