In his Art of the Comic Book, R. C. Harvey offers Boys’ Ranch as an example of Jack Kirby having elevated comics into an “art form.” It’s a contention that it’d be entirely foolish to argue with. And one of the most fascinating aspects of Kirby’s achievement as both scripter and artist on Boys’ Ranch lies in the way in which his work reflects an exceptionally dynamic approach to the creation of what Harvey calls “art.” Tales such as “Lead Will Fly At Sunset” and “Mother Delilah” carry none of the self-conscious, comics-literary approach to storytelling which marks so many of the medium’s generally acknowledged landmarks. Because so much of Kirby’s achievement lies in the fact that his art was in a constant state of purposeful development, his stories rarely seem to be striving to make a definitive statement. Instead, they’re constantly alive with the spirit of the moment at which they were created. Tirelessly drawing from the never-to-be-resolved tension between the demands of the market-place and those of his own creative drives, Boys’ Ranch reflects the mind of a creator who’s forever filtering the broader culture of the time through his own personal experience in order to create stories which are substantial, entertaining and popular. In that sense, Kirby wasn’t so much creating art in the knowing terms of an existing form as he was constantly pushing the bounds of what comics might achieve. He was endlessly reflecting contemporary affairs, purposefully reframing and redeveloping genre conventions, perpetually striving to create something striking and meaningful where others might be more than content to attain a particular degree of competence and effect. For a man all too often assumed today to have contributed to a lifeless codification of what the superhero comic should be, Kirby’s work across a huge range of genres was always anything but hollow and repetitive. As such, his decades-long process of striving to stay culturally relevant, economically successful and artistically invigorating is the statement which defines his art just as much as any “greatest hits” selection of his successes might.
Though it’s often a truth ignored by many beyond the Kirbyologists, his work was repeatedly shaped by the interaction of his ethics with the broader public debates of the moment. His humane fascination with social justice was obvious from the loathing of fascism expressed in the first Captain America tale to the fear of corporate power and post-industrial politics which underpinned OMAC and The Hunger Dogs. Boys’ Ranch, published as America was threatened by the neo-fascism of McCarthyism, reflected a surprisingly daring range of contemporary debates about youth, gender and race. It was, after all, a time when the politics of denial and exclusion characterised the overwhelming majority of comics. While most books either represented both women and people of colour in terms of patriarchal, racist stereotypes, or else entirely excluded them from events on the page, Boys’ Ranch engaged with issues of fairness and equality which were progressive — if hardly radical — in terms of both the medium and the politics of the time. As such, it’s particularly notable that Boys’ Ranch should begin its run with “The Man Who Hated Boys.” It was, after all, an age when the post-war moral panic about youthful male criminality was degenerating further into the hysteria which led to the infamous Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency.
It certainly made commercial sense for Kirby’s first Boys’ Ranch script to take the part of the very young lads who constituted his audience. Yet Kirby was himself of course a man who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in conditions which were characterised not just by hardship, but by an excess of violence too. As he told Gary Groth in The Comics Journal;
“I hated the place because I… Well, it was the atmosphere itself. It was the way people behaved. I got sick of chasing people all over rooftops and having them chase me over rooftops … The whole area is extremely poor… It’s not even amusing now that I think about it. You know, the punches were real, and the anger was real, and we’d chase each other up and down fire escapes, over rooftops, and we’d climb across clothes lines, and there were real injuries.”
It’s impossible to believe that Kirby wasn’t keenly aware that many of the very youths who were being demonised in the media often came from backgrounds very similar from his own. And as was characteristic of the man, Kirby’s sympathies lay with those that he considered powerless. His script for “The Man Who Hated Boys” presents the doomed Jason Harper, who, having been betrayed by his own son, refers to “all children” as “hateful little savages” and “young devils” who are “at the bottom of all troubles.” Convinced on his death-bed of the fundamental decency of the gun-toting orphans Angel, Wabash and Dandy, Harper leaves his ranch and estate as a “shelter for homeless boys.” Though the three young men are rootless and armed, and in the case of Angel quite disordered, Kirby’s scripts project the conviction that it’s their situations rather than their natures which have left them seeming purposeless and troublesome, and his solutions are entirely pragmatic and profoundly optimistic. With the strong and fundamentally decent Clay Duncan as their adult role model, the lads are grounded in a life of routine, responsibility and mutual cooperation, complimented, of course, by frequent opportunities to fire off rifles at dangerous outlaws and — mostly quite understandably — furious Native Americans. It’s a set up which allowed Boys’ Ranch to present its readers with a series of lad-thrilling frontier adventures while allowing Kirby to discuss a solution to youthful disaffection which neither involved white-picket-fenced conformity or heartless boot-camp square-bashing.
Or far worse.
It’s in the figure of Angel that Kirby’s sympathy for a great many of those young men who society would label incorrigible troublemakers and criminals becomes the most obvious and the most touching. Often compared to Kirby’s ’70s character Kamandi on the facile account of their similarly long blond hair, Angel is in fact one of the earliest comic book anti-heroes, and his fictional descendants include Wolverine and all the many psychopathic players on the other side who followed. In the character of Angel, we can see the influence of a public debate about delinquency so often framed in terms of the crude cod-Freudianism which became so ubiquitous in post-war America. Traumatised by the childhood loss of his parents in a Native American attack on a Westward bound wagon train, Angel’s a profoundly disordered and intimidatingly dangerous boy. When we first meet him, he’s shooting holes into the hat upon Jason Harper’s head while the “great lion of a man” stands but three steps before him. It’s obviously no isolated incident, for the citizens of the town of Four Massacres are clearly terrified of him. And no matter how reassuringly good humoured the tone of Boys’ Ranch, Angel remains a dark and unsettling figure. Even the Ranch’s elderly cook, Weehawken, has to take the daily precaution of emptying Angel’s guns of bullets before waking him for breakfast and chores. Yet the cold-blooded killer is also a deeply anguished child, and that’s never so obvious as in the acclaimed “Mother Delilah,” in which Angel’s longing for a mother leads to his manipulation and humiliation at the hands of a saloon owner out to punish Clay Duncan for spurning her. There may be no more touching moment in all of Kirby’s work than the single panel in which the untypically gun-less and hair-shorn Angel collapses in tears in Duncan’s arms, while the other Boy Ranchers line up grim-faced to defend their friend against the townsfolk’s mockery.
The fact that many of society’s most feral youngsters could be as deeply wounded and vulnerable as they were unsettling and even threatening was rarely as well portrayed in the fictions of the period. In a comic book marketplace where the likes of Crime Does Not Pay relied upon portraying delinquents as irredeemable psychopaths, so as to legitimise the excesses of their tale-closing suffering, Kirby’s Boys’ Ranch pressed the case for sympathy and support with a lightness of touch and a passionate conviction which critics of the King’s work rarely acknowledge. “It’s about real boys,” as Kirby later described Boys’ Ranch, and it’s in the way that he shows how different lads react differently to similar circumstance which makes the comic such a challenge to any generalisations about “today’s youth.”
In “Mother Delilah,” Kirby presented his readers with the virtues of an informal and yet strongly-bound family, and he showed how close and yet how different these were to those of a gang. Duncan and his charges stand together because they understand each other’s needs and compliment each other’s virtues. Cross them and there’s a reckoning of one sort or another coming, and yet, as a strange kind of loving family, they’re at the very least as social as anyone else shown in the book. In an age when there was a tendency to see great swathes of the Republic’s young as the enemy within, Kirby’s message was clear. Though he never pretends that Angel’s damaged psyche could ever be entirely repaired, he constantly emphasised how the boy’s good-hearted nature expressed itself when he was more securely attached. In short, the solution for the problems caused by a childhood lack of love was, where Kirby was concerned, a great deal more love matched with compassion, discipline and responsibility.
It’s easy to see how Kirby’s Fourth World books of the early ’70s often seemed so sympathetic to the counter-cultural ideals of the period, for in many ways, his work had often quite deliberately espoused the same individualistic and compassionate values. For all the strangeness and occasional awkwardness of Kirby’s take on the youth of the Nixon era, the values espoused by the likes of Mark Moonrider and Lightray were in many ways facets of his long-established and fundamentally tolerant liberal beliefs. As such, it’s impossible to believe that Kirby just happened to write those first few issues of Boys’ Ranch by chance at the very same time as pop-psychoanalysis and enemy-at-the-gates moral panics were crowding out the public discourse in America. Given Kirby’s record of engaging purposefully in political issues at other significant moments in his career, and regardless of how deliberate or intuitive Kirby’s work on Boys’ Ranch was, I think the coincidence argument is extremely unlikely.