Reading Jack Kirby in the Bronze Age made me wonder what his fans were smoking.
Why did everyone keep talking about the guy who wrote Devil Dinosaur and The Demon as some kind of genius (sure, I liked The Demon but I couldn’t see it as genius work)? The only books I really thought showed brilliance were Kamandi (which I blogged about here) and The Eternals (which I’ll blog about here soon), so where the hell did Kirby get this reputation for greatness?
To put this in perspective, I’d been a DC kid during the Silver Age. Even if I’d been a Marvel fan, I didn’t really appreciate art in my pre-teen years. To me the images were just a vehicle to convey the story the writer was telling, not anything interesting in their own right. There were one or two artists I disliked — that Neal Adams guy with his weird drawings! — but I never realized how much Curt Swan, Gil Kane or Ditko and Kirby (when I occasionally browsed Marvel) contributed to my liking a comic..
After my family moved from England to the U.S. I didn’t start buying comics again until Kirby’s Fourth World was almost done, and I found it hard to get into. After that/ Well, most of Kirby’s work seemed to have some good ideas but forgettable execution, like his Black Panther series. Or the topic of this post, Omac, The One Man Army. There were moments in Omac that I loved, but I sold the whole run a few years back without a qualm (I normally have great qualms about selling Silver or Bronze Age books).
Since my teenage years I’ve read most of Kirby’s Silver Age work and some of his Golden Age stuff, and I no longer have any doubts how tremendously creative and talented he was. I still don’t regret selling Omac.
The 1974-5 series is set in “the world that’s coming,” a near future setting where a Global Police Agency maintains a watch over WMDs, mad science and other threats to world peace. The agents have faceless Question-style masks so it’s impossible to know their name or nationality. However some extraordinary threats require extraordinary agents, so the orbiting GPA satellite Brother Eye turns schlub Buddy Blank into one such hero: Omac, the unstoppable One Man Army Corps.
Kirby’s friend and former assistant, Mark Evanier, has said Kirby originated the Omac concept as a futuristic Captain America, one he could work on without Stan Lee (Kirby disliking Stan’s portrayal of Cap as an angsty veteran uncomfortable in the civilian world). By the time Kirby hit on this idea, though, he was fed up with his lack of reward from Marvel and looking for the exit. The idea didn’t see daylight — obviously in a much mutated form — until he was working for DC.
The first issue hooked me, no question. Not Omac per se but all the little cultural details about the coming world. Sexbot girlfriends. Crying rooms at his workplace (“I feel so much better after a good cry.”) along with burning and stabbing rooms. Feel so angry you’d like to set your boss on fire? Pour gasoline on a mannikin and relieve your stress!
This was right in line with some of the 1970s speculation about the near future, which gave it a really cool feel. In #2, the billionaire villain pays off an entire city to evacuate for the night so that he can throw a party for his friends — actually a set-up to take down Omac — without anyone getting in the way. Aside from the impossibility of evacuating that smoothly (even with small towns, the logistics are nightmarish), I could easily see one of today’s 1 percenters trying something like that.
If Kirby had kept that up, I’d have been in heaven. Instead, the book slid into generic stories: Omac takes down a dictator, Omac fights a mad scientist, Omac fights a big ugly monster. Omac himself is a cipher, with no personality other than being heroic. There’s no supporting cast other than the faceless agents (Omac’s assigned a couple of parents in one story, but we don’t see them again).
Rereading the book in 2013 (this post expands on a blog post I wrote at the time) I spotted another problem, that Brother Eye hand-waves all Omac’s obstacles away. Omac gets hurt, Brother Eye heals him. Bad guys blast Omac with a flamethrower, Brother Eye shields him with a “molecular cocoon.” Omac’s flying chair in #5 just pulls out one weapon after another — freeze gas! Acid jets! — as if it were Green Arrow’s quiver of gimmick shafts. There’s no challenge when the hero draws unlimited powers out of his butt. If Brother Eye doesn’t have a ray to fix things, the Peace Agents can be counted on to show up and arrest everyone.
I suspect Kirby’s intention was to give the story a “wow” factor, stunning us with the tremendous, nigh unlimited tech at Brother Eye’s disposal. He did something similar in Mister Miracle: rather than escape by mere human tricks, Scott Free relied on his wonder-working New Genesis technology to cheat death. When I finally read the early issues this was my least favorite part; like Omac, the lack of clear limits on Scott’s abilities felt like cheating. But Mister Miracle had a lot of things Omac did not, such as colorful villains, a strong supporting cast, real imagination and a much more interesting hero (“He cheats death! He defies man! No trap can hold him!”). I could overlook the flaws.
Not so much with Omac. Unlike Neal Adams’ art, looking at the series as an adult doesn’t change my younger self’s views.
#SFWApro. All images by Kirby.