The Comic Book Club: Strange Adventures and Kirby Genesis

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There are some beautiful-looking pieces here, not least the Paul Pope cover (to that list of recent notable SF comics, I’d add his Adam Strange serial from Wednesday Comics). But good science-fiction comics short stories have to do their worldbuilding work incredibly quickly–make a few quick strokes, and get on with the business of building a plot that arcs and crests and resolves. Back in the ’80s, when 2000 A.D. was running one-off five- or six-page SF stories (“Future Shocks”! “Time Twisters”!) almost every week, they were where new writers had to prove themselves–to demonstrate they could come up with a killer story, soup to nuts, in 30 panels or so. The ones who could do it well are the ones you’ve heard of. (Alan Moore was the king of the “Future Shock” for a year or two at the start of his career.)

What’s particularly weird is that Strange Adventures, in its first incarnation in the ’50s and ’60s, had what seems like a perfectly workable template for updating: start with some sort of inexplicable thing, don’t bother trying to explain it, and then just run with what happens after that. But as you note, Evan, most of these stories spend their entire length patiently trying to explain their premise.

GRAEME: I just found this issue very empty. Nothing felt complete, or approaching original, which… is a problem for science fiction, you know? I felt like I’d read everything before, and that familiarity made each of these adventures far less Strange than they were supposed to be. I agree that books like this should be where creators experiment and new creators come up, but this really felt like same-old, same-old to me. Even the Paul Pope cover seemed very familiar, and considering how much I love Pope, that should be a sign of how disappointing this whole thing felt to me.

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EVAN: I’m going to leave it to the true comics scholars in our midst to explain the ins and outs as needed, but I know enough to say that Kirby Genesis #0 isn’t the first time that these Jack Kirby characters have been trotted out for reboots. It’s a tricky thing to say, but these latter-day creations aren’t Kirby’s most inspired work. Oh, the existential themes that crop up throughout his career were there, as was the genius-level speed, composition and design that made him a legend. But when I read the Pacific Comics run of Captain Victory way back when something seemed to be missing. Some spark, some snap wasn’t there. Jack Kirby stands as comics’ ultimate work-for-hire martyr, but the latter-day stuff always seemed evidence to me that he might actually have needed collaborators like Stan Lee. Either that, or the righteous anger that had justifiably been boiling up in him as his creations became culturally adored moneymakers–with Jack himself unable to reap benefits–affected his creativity in a meaningful way. Even, if you love Kirby as the King of Comics, parts of that infamous and recently reprinted interview with Gary Groth from The Comics Journal are hard to read. You wonder if the joy of his old work diminished in his new work.

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That interview led me to wonder if Genesis just might be the fundamentally right approach for these characters. Take away the cruel twists of fate Kirby’d been dealt, keep the visual energy and cosmic ambitions for characters like Silver Star and Captain Victory and put them in the hands of talent who won’t ape Jack’s work but gently try to re-frame it. Not a bad springboard, I think.

But the key thing you need to accept if you’re going to get any enjoyment out of this book is that Kirbywork (TM) is pretty much a genre unto itself, and has been for decades. There are whole schools of artists who are happy to try and capture the King’s quirks into a formalist style. There’s Ladronn–even though the Euro graphic album approach is thick in his art DNA, too. There’s Tom Scioli, who, in both his collaboration with Joe Casey on Godland and his own solo work like American Barbarian, uses Kirby’s style as a point of departure. I’m glad Kirby Genesis doesn’t do that, though. Recontextualization, not slavish devotion, is key here. Even though his sounds like he could’ve worked for Martin Goodman, Jackson Herbert has a sleek, modern style more in line with Brent Anderson than classic Kirby. For Jack’s designs to still look good, wild and crazy under someone else’s pencil underscores the power of his work.

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