Jack Kirby’s a great artist. He just can’t draw very well.
–Anonymous comics fan
Okay, so it was me. I’m not proud of it, but that “anonymous” quote was something I actually said a few years ago. And despite how it sounds today, it wasn’t intended as a snarky or clever put down. It was, instead, my sincere attempt at explaining the contradictory feelings I had about Jack Kirby. Because believe it or not, the first time I saw his work … I hated it.
In many ways it was like my introduction to Bob Dylan. When I was a kid, I used to pour through our family’s set of the World Book Encyclopedia. As a result, I learned lots of names, titles, and bits of information about a wide variety of subjects long before I ever really knew anything about them. For example, I knew Bob Dylan (pronounced “Die-lan” I figured) was one of the legendary figures in Rock history.
And then I heard him sing.
I won’t lie. To my young ears, it was a more excruciatingly awful sound than I thought possible to emit from a human voice box. I couldn’t believe anyone who sounded like that—like some dying animal being tortured in a slaughterhouse—had his own bio in the Encyclopedia.
Of course, the more I listened to him, the more I loved his music—and not just his songwriting. Dylan is actually a great vocalist. His voice is an instrument, and he uses it to create any number of effects, from low growls to nasally wails. The world may be filled with people who have more pleasant singing voices, but few of them know how to use their voices as well as Bob Dylan.
Which brings us back to Jack Kirby. Like Dylan, Kirby’s reputation preceded him, but the first time I read Kirby’s work all I could see was the crude draftsmanship, the lack of polish, the limited range, and the inconsistency. I knew he was a great artist. He just … didn’t draw very well.
It was a chapter from Robert C. Harvey’s highly underrated The Art of the Comic Book that finally helped me “see” Kirby’s work—the dramatic pacing, the sense of movement, and the impeccable storytelling. Like so many of the things that make the world worthwhile—Dylan, coffee, jazz, baseball—Kirby was an acquired taste.
So when I heard that we were going to celebrate Jack Kirby week here at Sequart, I decided I’d talk about a single work that best exemplifies all the many contradictions that come with Kirby. The Hunger Dogs, an original graphic novel, is the last “major” work Kirby ever completed, and it brings with it a full slate of high expectations, dramatic power, and eccentric flaws. It’s also one of the key works in the gradual transition from the Bronze to the Modern Age of comics.
By the late ‘70s, Jack Kirby was mostly through with comic books. Despite having helped create much of the Marvel Universe, as well as the “Fourth World Saga” for DC, Kirby’s time working for the big two comics publishers had been marred by exploitation, editorial interference, and disappointment.
So after his second stint at Marvel, Kirby started working for Hollywood. He provided concept art for an aborted science fiction movie and theme park—the proposal wound up as a front for the CIA rescue operation depicted in Argo—and he also did design work for several Saturday morning cartoons. But just as he had returned to Marvel for a second round, Kirby wound up returning to DC in the mid-‘80s for a couple of related projects. Artistically, however, these two projects were worlds apart.
DC was launching a toy line inspired in part by Kirby’s “Fourth World Saga” from the early ‘70s. Kirby was hired to redesign the characters for the toys, and then collaborated on two comic book miniseries, designed as companions to the toys. For one of the industry’s Mt. Rushmore figures, this was somewhat sad, like watching the 42-year-old Willie Mays fall down in the outfield during his final World Series.
But the Super Powers gig was only part of his return to DC. In addition to the miniseries, DC had also decided to reprint the core of Kirby’s original saga only this time they wanted a conclusion. As many of you know, his original saga—arguably the most narratively ambitious mainstream comic anyone had attempted—was abruptly cancelled after less than two years, leaving the story incomplete. Now, a dozen years later, Kirby was going to finish the job.
However, like so much of Kirby’s career, things with the publisher didn’t go smoothly. While Kirby’s return to comics might have warranted celebration, DC wasn’t simply turning him loose to explore his own vision. They wanted to breathe new life into the Fourth World characters, but they had designs on future projects. Kirby’s plans, which at various stages involved killing Orion, Darkseid, and the other New Gods, kept facing rejection. Finally the two sides agreed on what was essentially a two-part conclusion. Kirby produced a 48-page confrontation between Orion and Darkseid for the final issue of the reprint series, and then his remaining ideas would be compiled and expanded into a 64-page original graphic novel.
In concept, everything about the project seemed grand. The graphic novel format was still relatively new, and it meant better paper, square binding, larger dimensions, and the perception of “quality.” For many people, this format represented the promise of a future with more sophisticated, literary comics aimed at older readers. At an age when most creators were no longer getting work, Kirby, whose career spanned back to the Golden Age, was racing headfirst into the new, Modern era. Nothing could’ve been more prestigious. It was like the legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, titled Ran, which also debuted in 1985. This was Kirby’s Ran, Kirby’s King Lear.
But it didn’t really work out that way. The cobbled-together nature of the story made the book seem unfocused and jumpy. Kirby raises ideas and themes only to drop them, then introduces new concepts with little explanation while simultaneously picking up on older story threads not introduced in the book at all. And Kirby’s writing, never his strongest suit, often suffers from vague, abstract nouns and empty adjectives. Some of the narration, meant to enhance and clarify, winds up doing the opposite:
Did not the elder gods, on the eve of their doom, leave the warning of Armagetto behind them? Is not oblivion forever a dark red line which leads the mighty to the sewers of the contemptible silent? What matter if the Holocaust is borne on the wings of dragons or flowers as a notion—a small curiosity, brought to the stage of tinkering …
Now I’ve read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury at least three times from cover to cover, but I’ve got no idea what Kirby’s talking about. However, critiquing Kirby’s scripting is a little like talking about the pizza at Chuck E. Cheese’s. No one goes there for the food.
And Kirby’s Hunger Dogs art looks better than much of his late-Marvel work—certainly more powerful than his pencils on Captain America and Black Panther from that era. In particular, his splash pages remind us of his sense of pacing, power, and melodrama. He doesn’t throw in a random splash page to get “oohs” and “ahhs.” He builds to them and uses them for dramatic effect, like a boxer waiting to deliver a perfectly timed, knockout punch.
As for the story, he works hard to introduce several ideas, even if they sometimes appear in a harum-scarum fashion. The Hunger Dogs focuses in part on Darkseid’s efforts at maintaining control over Apokalips in the face of changing times. When we first meet him, Darkseid is waxing nostalgic about the days gone by when it was easier to keep the most impoverished classes on Apokalips, the so-called “hunger dogs” under his control. When one of his advisors suggests some new techniques, Darkseid interrupts him: “I know it all, fool! The conspiracy of family! The conspiracy of time! A new age of buttons, dials and foul chemicals!”
It’s unusual seeing Darkseid struggle with change—a representative of the old guard. Most of his loyal servants are gone, and his new lackeys are pushing for new forms of asymmetrical warfare against New Genesis, but Darkseid is skeptical: “A new kind of war for this new age, eh?” It seems the legendary Darkseid is becoming a relic in this new, modern age unless he can learn to adapt, using their newer weapons. It’s easy enough to see Kirby wrestling with a changing comics landscape, struggling to produce a great work for an industry that appeared to be passing him by.
But The Hunger Dogs is far more than a meditation on growing old and confronting change. Like those two comics landmarks that would appear the following year—Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns—The Hunger Dogs focuses on the social and political markers of the ‘80s—the nuclear arms race and the growing sense of inequality and economic disparity.
Following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated to some of their highest levels since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The fears were certainly reflected in pop culture, including the feature film, Testament, and the TV movie, The Day After, both of which appeared in 1983. The following year also saw the publication of Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book, a thinly disguised critique of the arms race.
By the end of The Hunger Dogs, Kirby winds up tapping into this fear as well. Although the mechanics of his plot are not always clear, he ultimately focuses on Darkseid’s decision to unleash a new weapon that may destroy everything. When Highfather, the leader of New Genesis, allows his planet to be destroyed, Darkseid’s followers panic, realizing that Apokalips houses thousands of such weapons: “That horror now rests in our own silos!” At this point, the much abused and neglected “hunger dogs” finally revolt.
Again, the book is full of ideas, though it sometimes feels like whenever one of them starts to take hold, the narrative loses track of it and things drift into murkiness. That lack of clarity and coherence is what separates The Hunger Dogs from the transcendent, Apocalyptic-themed works by Moore and Miller that followed it. But in retrospect, Kirby’s efforts here in what is essentially his final bow, foreshadow much of what was to come. On the next-to-last page, Highfather attempts to comfort some of the survivors from New Genesis. As one of them expresses his fear of their journey becoming “an endless night,” Highfather responds in a way that can be read in much broader terms: “If the cosmos is alive with such overwhelming mysteries as the ‘Source,’ it is versatile enough to bombard us with sights and questions of monumental value.”
For Kirby’s comics career, the endless night was near, but for the medium of comics that he had helped define, there would indeed be a bombardment of “sights and questions of monumental value.” The Hunger Dogs was intended as a capstone to the “Fourth World Saga,” but I don’t see it as an end. Instead, as a prelude to the adult, literary mainstream comics to come, I like to think of it more as … a cliffhanger.
 After writing this, I discovered an excellent two-part article by Peter Sanderson that explores some of these same ideas. You can read his more detailed analysis here.