Oh, My Aching Cranium!:

Jack Kirby’s OMAC Deconstructed and Reconstructed, Part Two

15 pages a week — written, penciled, and edited. Think about that for a minute.

That’s the number that Jack Kirby’s fairly-lucrative-for-its-time DC contract called for when he created the concept of the One-Man Army Corps back in 1974. There are few — if any — comics creators today who would welcome the task of either scripting or drawing that much over a seven-day stretch, much less tackling both, yet the King of Comics did it week-in, week-out, over the entire length of his four-year return engagement with the former National Periodical Publications. And even more amazing, he never seemed to run out of ideas — even if some weren’t exactly all that new.

Case in point: many of the core conceits at the heart of OMAC had actually been floating around in Jack’s ever-imaginative mind for years. As a matter of fact, according to his former assistant, Mark Evanier, Kirby had actually envisioned much of this material when he pitched the idea of a re-booted Captain America to Marvel back in 1968.

The general gist of Kirby’s proposal went as follows: Cap had already been successfully “resurrected” in the early ‘60s (a trend that continues to this day), but it was the same guy who was around back in WWII — Steve Rogers had simply been frozen in a block of ice for a couple of decades before being found and, subsequently, thawed out. Jack, though, figured the idea of an American costumed super-soldier was an eternal one, and to that extent he thought it might be fun to re-cast the ongoing Captain America monthly series with a whole new man behind the mask, and set the story in some far-flung, futuristic (possibly overtly totalitarian?) state — to bring Cap into a world where the symbol of what he stood for was more needed than ever. It sounds nifty enough to me. It certainly intrigued Kirby. And it probably would have been a hit with readers.  But it was never to be.

For reasons lost to the murky recesses of time, the King never went ahead with the project. Whether it was nixed by Marvel editorial, or shelved by Jack simply because he was so busy with other stuff, remains unclear. All we know for sure is that it just didn’t happen — until it did (sort of) at DC. Hold on while I explain!

Fast-forward from ’68 to ’74 and we find the greatest creator in the history of the medium at something of a career crossroads: things at DC hadn’t gone as smoothly as he hoped, with the “suits” there (specifically Carmine Infantino) never fully getting on board with his vision. His monumental Fourth World series of books had all been cancelled; The Demon met the same fate after 16 issues; Kamandi was selling well, but apart from that all Jack had going was to help fill up that massive page count he was tasked with as his ongoing work on The Losers for DC’s war title Our Fighting Forces. Don’t get me wrong here — The Losers was a great strip, and in recent years it’s finally received the positive critical evaluation it was long overdue, but it wasn’t an assignment Jack was necessarily pleased with having been given. In his mind, he liked to create comics about winners, grand cosmic champions in the eternal battle of good vs. evil: sweeping, mythological heroes and villains who duked it out — physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally — on the highest planes of existence, and for all the marbles. The universe itself quite often hung in the balance in many a Jack Kirby tale, and he was usually at his best when his material matched the scope of his vison.

The Losers was many things, but it wasn’t that. Jack had been in the trenches of World War II. He had seen and lived the horrors of frontline combat. He loved telling war stories, by all accounts, but he wasn’t necessarily eager to do comics about a subject that he knew so intimately — and, yet, what he lacked in enthusiasm for the subject he more than made up for in heart and authenticity. There’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that this series was one of his most personal. It certainly has the power to capture readers, like myself, who aren’t even particularly partial to war comics. It’s such a strong work, in fact, that I think it propels Kirby into the top tier of creators to have ever worked in that genre, alongside names like Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman, and the eternally-underappreciated Sam Glanzman. It’s a magnificent, human-scale, provocative, challenging, accomplished series. Jack may have chafed a bit at the assignment, but he still gave it his all.

His all wasn’t enough to fulfill the terms of his contract, though. He still needed to add another book to his workload.

With Kamandi proving to be successful, DC editorial suggested that Jack try his hand at another series set in the future. They even suggested that it might be set in the same future that the Last Boy on Earth inhabited. But Kirby’s boundless imagination didn’t necessarily function at its best when its scope was limited by higher-ups. To that end, then, he decided to create another future — by going back to the past.

Kirby dusted off the old notes and sketches for his aborted Captain America revamp, picked the bits he liked, discarded those that no longer interested him, and threw in quite a few new ideas as well. (He never really ran out.) How much of what eventually became OMAC was cribbed more or less directly from his old 1968 Cap proposal and how much was entirely fresh-from-his-mind remains anybody’s guess, but it’s fair to say that at least a reasonable amount of what eventually made it onto the pages had been in the back of Jack’s brain for a long time, even if he had originally envisioned it featuring an entirely different cast of characters, and being published under the banner of another company altogether.

Still, it’s never a good idea to let good ideas go to waste, and OMAC is loaded with not just good ideas, but great ones. It’s probably safe to say that, knowing his contract was soon to be ending and that both he and DC had little to no interest in continuing their working relationship once it was over, that one of his major goals with the series was to set up a world that was rich, expansive, immersive, and intriguing enough to survive his soon-to-be-inevitable departure; one that other creators could pick up the ball on and run with.  That certainly proved to be the case — eventually. But we’ll get to all that later.

For now, enjoy these reproductions of early pencil  roughs and full-pencil-and-ink pages included with my inadequate ramblings, marvel at the breadth and scope of the creativity they contain, and be here on Saturday as we dive head-first into our analysis of OMAC #1. Hope to see you then!

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Ryan, you’re just teasing us! Nice post though. You contextualized the series quite nicely. I do not love Kirby unabashedly. I think a lot of his work is unpolished and rough (it’s certainly one of the many reasons people love his work) and I think that had something to do with his insane contractual obligations. As for my Kirby preference, I like him when he’s balls-to-the-walls crazy with ideas and I don’t think any of his comics are as filled with big ideas as O.M.A.C.. It also helps that the main character is rocking a mohawk so effectively.

    I look forward to your article on the first issue.

    • Ryan C. says:

      Thanks for the kind words, fair warning : the next part is already written and I ended up digressing into an examination of the character of Buddy Blank, so the full issue one review won’t happen until the post after that! I’m getting there, though, I promise! You’re right to point out that when it comes to Kirby, I do love his stuff without reservation, but I have periods of his career that I enjoy more than others. Like you, I find he’s at his best when he’s throwing a shit-storm of ideas out there and really letting loose with his imagination, which is why the latter part of his career is, in my respect, my favorite. I think he sustained a period of intense creativity all the way from the “Fourth World” books up through “Captain Victory” and “Silver Star” that is probably unequaled in comics history. Even his “tamer” stuff when he returned to Marvel in the late ’70s shows and incredible amount of creative energy, and I’ll take “Devil Dinosaur” or “The Eternals” or “2001″ or his ’70s stint on “Captain America” over his ’60s stuff with Stan Lee any day of the week. His second stint with Marvel is a bit of a step back from his amazing DC work of just a few years prior to that, but still head and shoulders above what just about anyone else was doing at the time.

  2. Bruno Franco says:

    I am eagerly awaiting what you have to say about this Captain America that never was. I read all the Omac series in preparation and just because its really awesome. I dont know if you read Tom Scioli’s comic book God People, but its worth cheking out. The guy is a major Kirby aficcionado and knows how to emulate his epic style brilliantly, though with a bit of punk-rock and snarckyness added into the mix. He’s also publishing free webcomics too, out of witch American Barbarian and Final Frontier are the most Kirbyesque of all. And they are GLORIOUS. Here’s the link to the first page if youre interested: http://www.ambarb.com/?p=11

  3. Ryan C. says:

    Oh yes, I’ve read “Godland,” enjoyed it quite a lot! Image has another new series out now called “Nightworld” that’s a very fun Kirby-esque homage, as well, and Dynamite has re-launched Jack’s “Captain Victory” with Joe Casey — -writer of “Godland” — doing the scripting, so that’s well worth a look as well! I’ve reviewed both books recently over on my blog, http://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com .

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