A lot of people criticise Jack Kirby's writing. They point to Captain Victory as an example:
"This material has a pretty crappy rep -- it's the ass-end of Kirby's comics career, when health problems had begun to affect his drawing prowess and his increasing age seemed to be contributing to the woefully out-of-touch and sometimes cringe-worthy goofiness of his prose. Nonetheless, CAPTAIN VICTORY is f**cking glorious." (source)
"Out of touch"? Maybe, in
the sense that Kirby ignored the direction that other comics were going
in. Ever since the 1960s, superhero comics had just recycled Kirby's
ideas. But Kirby kept moving forwards, so readers barely recognised what
he was doing. "Cringe-worthy goofiness"?
On the surface, yes. The greatest thinkers always have a surface layer
of goofiness (see Demosthenes, Einstein, the 14th Dalai Lama, etc.)
But look deeper and they deal with very, very serious topics. On this
page I will argue that Captain Victory is the greatest comic you have
probably never read. And even if you have read it, it's worth reading
again, this time taking it slow. Here's a quick overview:
Kirby is called "the king of comics", largely on the strength of his art, and Captain Victory does not disappoint:
But on this page I will argue that Jack Kirby is also the greatest comic writer ever.
I will now give ten reasons why I think Kirby is the greatest comic
writer ever. I will use Captain Victory, to show that eve his "worst"
stories are better than other writers' best stories. Many of these
points focus on his ability to create characters with real emotional
depth, characters who feel real and stay with us for life.
And here is where we learn of his father. Seen that before anywhere?
Scale is more than number of pages. Captain Victory is about the future of mankind, the scale of the universe, the purpose of life, and more. Everything Kirby touches takes on an epic scale. Take for example a story set in space. Other writers show Earth as the effective center of the universe, with humans racing about space with no effort, and space being filled with beings who are much like us. So they make space seems small. But Kirby's universe is much, much bigger than us. He gives a feeling of infinite scale, where there us always something more amazing to discover.
I love that line about the edge of the universe: "where life and order become speculation and superstitious fear". And that Kirby understands distance: how the light from the explosion will take hundreds of thousands of years to be seen by the nearest star.
And let's talk aliens. When other writers do beings from another dimension they look human, more or less. But Kirby knows what the word "dimension" means. Captain Victory notes that, to this higher dimensional being, we appear like simple flat cartoons. And he captures the frustration and difficulty she has interacting with us.
Kirby does not do small. Or rather, when he does do "small" (such as when he co-invented the romance genre) he deals with themes that are as big as the human race itself. for more examples, see the discussion of humor, below.
Although Captain VIctory is packed with new ideas, it has enough references to other part of the Kirbyverse that it feels familiar and wonderful. Here for example is the distortion zone between our reality and sub space:
To anybody who loves the Fantastic Four this is so familiar! And anybody who remembers FF 51 will recall that what we later called "the negative zone" was in fact merely a part of subspace (here called hyperspace: same thing). This is a perfect example of where Kirby is head and shoulders above other comic writers. In the Fantastic Four, the negative zone was just the beginning of sub-space. But after Kirby, alter writers never got any further. John Byrne for example spent several issues exploring the Negative Zone (FF 251-256) and his stories could have taken place in our own galaxy, they did not add anything new. But when Kirby returns to the topic he pushes the envelope farther and farther: giant higher dimensional beings, galaxies that blink in and out of existence, disembodied galaxy spanning voices, unborn creatures, the very meaning of life itself!
To someone who loves Kirby's more famous work, the pleasure of this continuation is beyond words!
Many of his characters remind us of earlier ones: but they have changed, they have grown. Marvel characters do not grow, or change, but Kirby's characters are alive, and life is growth! Life is change!
Kirby's dialog is not like most comics. It is both easier and more difficult, but infinitely more rewarding IMO. it is easier because on the surface it uses simple words, short descriptions, and visual imagery. To somebody bought up on Stan Lee's easy familiarity Kirby's dialog can seem stilted or clunky at first. But at least it is very plain.
However, when we slow it down, and treat each sentence fragment as a separate panel, Kirby's dialog is a thing of beauty. There is so much packed into every phrase. In my view, moving from Stan Lee dialog to Jack Kirby dialog is like moving from sweetened milk to rare prime steak. It requires slowing down, savouring, recalibrating how we read. Yes, it takes more time. But it's worth it.
With most comics, what you see is what you get. But with Captain Victory there are always new emotional layers to uncover. On the surface, Captain Victory is like Judge Dredd: more machine than man, with no life outside his work. He seems always cold, sometimes brutal, sometimes a jerk.
But Kirby provides a supporting cast to bring out the nuance that we might miss. First we have Klavus. While not technically human, Klavus shares familiar goals and fears and reactions, so we can easily relate to him. We can see ourselves in his shows, dealing with this frustratingly distant captain. Klavus shows us the surface CV.
Next we have Tarin (the lion creature). Tarin is more heroic, and his arguments with CV show us that CV is not what he seems. In the climax to the insecton battle for example, Tarin is clearly the better choice for operating the final weapon. And in any other story we would expect the argument to end with Tarin doing the job (and dying heroically). But we clearly see that CV does not always choose the best thing for his role. In fact CV wants to die, even though it means risking the mission.
Finally we have Mister Mind, the telepath. If we haven't worked it out by issue 6, he states it plainly: CV's surface coldness is to hide the inner turmoil: it is just bad acting.
Captain Victory is a pressure cooker of emotions. Read his origins story, his childhood and his first love. See how he destroyed himself at the end of the Insecton arc. See how he loves his people, yet duty forces him to hold his face like iron. See how he feels such pain when anybody dies, even his enemies (hinted at with his unwillingness in issue 1, and made explicit in his origin in issue 13). He does not live for his job as it appears. He does not want this. he is a man in turmoil. This becomes clearer and clearer toward the end. We can then go back over CV's earlier actions and see the interpersonal conflicts in a new light.
I think the layers are why CV did not sell well. At first it seems like a one dimensional story. But by the second arc it is anything but. I think the second arc is much more enjoyable than the first. But the first was necessary,as a build up. In that regard it reminds me of The History of Mr Polly by H. G. Wells. When I read it at school I hated it at first. Mr Polly begins as an uninteresting and not likeable character, and the reader has t slog through chapter after chapter... until he begins to realise that Mr Polly is a lot more interesting than he seems. Captain Victory is the same.
Humor is a personal thing, so feel free to disagree. I love absurd silliness that turns out to be deadly serious. Like the toilet cleaner that ends up saving the galaxy because our greatest danger is tiny germs.
I also really relate to Captain Victory's sense of humour. it's extremely subtle but it's there. For the first arc he seems deadly serious all the time, and this is necessary because it establishes the pressures he is under. But look at the time when he smiles. He gets an innocent playful pleasure from the few things he enjoys (see a later post). And he seems to genuinely enjoy his little contests with Mr Mind. As a telepath, Mr Mind should know exactly when Captain Victory is winding him up. But CV gains pleasure from misdirection, and the intellectual exercise of pitting his mind against one that is (on paper) superior to his. Mr Mind's weakness is that he is so overwhelmed by data that he tends to take things literally where possible. CV is tickled by these little conflicts, pretending to be super angry. You can tell he likes it.
Another great example of humor is the Goozlebobber. If you don't look below the surface then you are missing something sublime.
The Goozlebobber is about the life of the intellectual
The Goozlebobber behaves exactly like the fool in Shakespeare: in a desperately serious story, the foolish character is the one who speaks truth. So what is this truth?
A story about tolerance
The first story (in CV 4) begins with this question: "who would give a second thought to a life-form like the Goozlebobber?" and that is the theme of all three stories. Who can put up with him? Only people under the age of 12 can tolerate him: those who still have open minds. Others think he's annoying or frightening and just wants him gone. Story one ends by saying that our attitude to the Goozlebobber is very important: "the consequences could be hilarious or shattering! It all depends if you're good or evil!!" That sounds pretty serious. yet apart from the initial burglars we don't see anybody who is cartoonishly evil. So what is this about? The next issue (CV 5) entitles him "king of the unwanted" and ends with a page about him: saying he is "galactic flotsam", "not really bad", but will make you "laugh, cry, itch, and pry at your pimples". the question posed by the Goozlebober is, what do we do with an irritating person? The next and final Goozlebobber story begins by saying every being has a right to exist, even its "a cluster of free floating atoms that gives you frights". His story ends by showing Goozie as Ronald Reagan, who some adored and other despised, and ends warning us against cosmic diarhoea. What in image! What is our species' warlike nature, or essential lack of understanding for others, except a form of cosmic diarrhoea? Goozlebobber is a story about tolerance.
Goozie is a shape changer: he refers to any irritating person. He is our great test. Those who accept him find him pleasant (children or in this case their enlightened parents). The story is about how he persuaded the police to accept him. Once he had done that he left, as his "work was done". This is the message of Captain Victory, but the Shakespearian Fool is there to make the message obvious.
A story about victory
I think Captain Victory is about final victory, victory over war itself, victory on a galactic scale. Captain Victory is about victory over our warlike nature: instead of a superhero comic, where we glory in easy success through violence, we have issue after issue of restraint. Yes, the captain faces global dangers, and yes he faces death, but that does not stop him being super cautious. He does not try to preserve his own life, and treats enemy lives as valuable, and will use only the absolute minimum force. His goal is not to fight or to kill, but to live in peace with the Insektons, with them inhabiting their own worlds and he his.
CV is about one generation in the future, when war is finally being solved. After the climactic Ragnarök - new gods conflict is over, the galaxy is more or less united under law. It's a metaphor for Europe and America after World War II. After 1945, first world powers would never again fight each other, and all that is left is to solve the problem of Insektons - the terrorism and global inequality of today, which is a whole other topic. The key to victory over war is to not let people irritate us. yes, their ways are different, and we naturally dislike them, but what harm do they actually do? The Goozlebobber makes this theme black and white. Once we learn to live without hating those who are different then his job is done.
The name goozlebobber
I said before how I love Kirby's names. Goozle is southern slang for throat, so Goozlebobber probably refers to his irritating snoring sound (see his first appearance). Goozle (written as gözle ) is Turkish for "beautiful" - given that Yiddish is a mixture of words from eastern Europe, there'sa good chance that Kirby had an idea of this. Being able to find beauty in people we find irritating is a beautiful thing.
A story about intelligence
The story starts by contrasting Mr Mind with Goozlebobber. At first glance one is intelligent and the other is foolish, but in the end which of them has the solution to war? Which of them is therefore more intelligent? There is a long tradition of great philosophers being fools. from Socrates knowing nothing, and the original cynics puncturing pomposity, to eastern mystics emphasising simplicity and humility, to Einstein's famous photograph with his tongue out.
To me, the Goozlebobber is the final stage in intelligence. He rides a spacecraft that represents the final triumph of technology over war. So what is left? The purest study of what is new. The Goozlebobber spends his life exploring worlds, doing good, learning anything new and helping others to widen their ideas. He is like a great philosopher in retirement. It is fitting that he began (so the legend goes) as a story that Kirby told his children. Goozie is very much like a wise old grandfather figure, he looks foolish and delights children, but hides great wisdom. He even has the grandfatherly whiskers and red nose from enjoying his drink.
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated, one of the hallmarks of Stan Lee's writing (according to a article in the Comics Journal, if I recall), was the tear jerking noble death. See Franklin Richards, the unnamed scientist in" This Man This Monster", the Gremlin, etc. When people argue about what influence Kirby had on the plots, those parts are all Stan. I agree. Because I think Kirby did deaths much better.
Stan Lee's typical noble death is either a red shirt death or a sham. Either we get somebody we never heard of before to die for us, or the hero dies but comes back. I loved these stories at first, but the more they happen the more they bother me. How can a hero be a hero if it's the other guys who always pay the price? And if the hero does die for good, doesn't that mean the bad guys won? And since when is death ever noble? There is nothing noble about seeing a loved one suffer, their children abandoned. But I think Kirby's approach is more powerful and more inspiring.
Kirby's attitude to death is that it is not a good thing: he fought in the war and that hammers any "noble death" idea out of you. He has said in interviews that his characters do not die. Or rather that he does not believe death is permanent because we live on through our children. This is how he handles death in Captain Victory, and I think it's beautiful. When CV's mentor dies he lives on through Captain Victory.
CV is allowed fifty clones. But he is burning though them as quickly as possible, which brings up the counterpoint to the noble death: CV is not happy with his life, so why would he want it to continue?
When CV's lover died it was powerful because it is half way between the noble death and CV's unwanted life: she should have lived on through his love, but she cannot. At least, not as a body. He is one of the gods: his life is duty. She cannot share that and so (if we see her as an individual - more on this later) her ideas and hopes die with her. CV never wanted the life that was forced on him, and is not free to be the carefree person he wants to be, so must let her go though he does not want to. It's powerful stuff.
I put this high up the list because Kirby is often accused of not having human relationships and emotion in his stories. I disagree. Kirby's characters have such strong passions that they must keep them barely bottled up les they overflow and destroy them. Kirby is like Jane Austen in that regard: such powerful feelings are expressed with just a word or a look. But unlike Austen he does not go for the easy ending. Captain Victory does not get his old sweetheart back at the end, and she does not get him: she stays dead. Captain Victory has to deal with it, and deal with it he does (next!)
Kirby explores the biggest questions. He contrasts the romantic approach (Captain Victory, always seeking new horizons) with the spiritual approach (Klavus, seeking rest and closure). He deals with a universe that is infinitely complex, with no "final" scale in sight, yet at the same time the tiniest germs can fell the mightiest warrior. I love the debates between the characters.
I love this sequence:
This is where Kirby rises above other giants like Alan Moore Moore has question but (as far as I can tell) no answers. Any fool can ask questions, but providing intellectually satisfying answers is far harder. Kirby does both.
We see the only times that Captain Victory is happy: when he is exploring and discovering. He gains pleasure simply from being part of this. As a youth he loved a woman but that was not to be. In issue 1 it is hinted hat he loves his work, but that is an act. What he really loves is ideas. Eventually he finds a higher dimensional being, someone who sees our reality the same way we see a flat page of a book. She becomes his true love, always unattainable, yet a vision to inspire him.
I list this as number 2 in my top 10 because I am so impressed by Kirby's story structure, his unity of theme, how it holds together as a single story. The "victory is sacrifice" theme is front and center throughout. It's a strong message.
It's a powerful message: we win by giving ourselves for our friends: we are a group, not individuals. And so Kirby's great epic comes full circle. Kirby's fame began with Captain America,. an individual who represented a group. it ends with Captain Victory, and individual who is one with the group.
Kirby's Captain America agonised over the death of Bucky. But Captain Victory has victory over death. he does not agonise over the death of Alaria. Yes, he wept when she died, but she had chosen to devote her every waking thought to the group. She became one with the group. because the group survives so does her ideals, her thoughts, her choices, her likes and dislikes: she lives forever. And since Captain Victory is exploring an ever expanding concept of reality (including fiction), one day no doubt they will be physically, individually reunited as well.
This story has a strong beginning, middle and end. CV grows and develops as a character, from suicidal to happy. At the start we see CV as very cold and distant. But by the end he seems to be at peace and happy. The Three Musketeers issue is a wonderful way to show that they are now friends having fun. Sure, CV acts like a serious leader should, but you can tell they are best friends, exploring the wild edges of reality (in that case, where "reality" and "fiction" meet). It's happy ever after.
My number one reason for loving the Captain Victory comic is the richness and depth of his character. This is the first time I have ever really identified with a comic character. CV shares Kirby's philosophy, regarding the purpose of life, silly yet serious sense humour, and life after death. So do I. I used to identify a little with Mr Fantastic. But Reed Richards is not as nuanced, not as developed, and is (deep down) not very deep. As for other Marvel characters, I never felt they were real. Spider-man for example, was supposed to be relatable because he had acne and money problems, but after Ditko left he just annoyed me: Peter Parker never learns from his experience! Thor was too alien. Daredevil did not have the grandiose vision I wanted. All of them seemed (to me) to have fake problems and fake changes. But Captain Victory feels real. He deals with real issues, reacts in nuanced and layered ways, acts like an adult, and grows and learns. For me the richness of his character is the best thing about the book. I can so relate to his desires, his interests, his frustrations, his discoveries.
I love the early Fantastic Four because it was mind expanding, always moving to new frontiers. But when Kirby started holding back his best ideas that golden age ended. Ever since then, Marvel has tried and failed to recapture that initial spark, and failed. But in reality the spark never died! It just moved on. The Fantastic Four, through Crystal, continued into the Inhumans. The Inhumans became part of Thor's world, which continued in the New Gods. the whole story reached its amazing climax in Captain Victory. It's one of the worlds greatest epics, created by one of the world's greatest story tellers:
Jack Kirby. King of comic books.