[GRINDHOUSE COMICS COLUMN] JACK KIRBY’S ‘SILVER STAR’ #1

 

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Last week we took a look at Jack Kirby’s uncannily eerie prediction about the rise of Donald Trump in the pages of Forever People #3, but please don’t get the wrong idea: Kirby may have been able to peer into the dark corners of the human heart in order to limn the potentially dangerous borderlands of humanity’s future, but he remained, at heart, an eternal optimist — albeit one with a strong and well-informed streak of realism that tempered all of his Utopian visions with cautionary notes of warning. At the tail end of his career — a period which the wretchedly ill-informed and hopelessly conservative have said represents the King Of Comics working “past his prime” — those cautionary notes became more pronounced, it’s true, but the heroism of Jack’s protagonists grew in relation to the threats they faced, and a clear and ever-present internal tension was presented as being part and parcel of scientific and technological progress, particularly as those concepts related to super-powered human advancement : they presented a potential way forward, yes, but one littered with numerous pitfalls (both predictable and otherwise) and, ultimately, it would be up to us “normal” folks to navigate our bold new future with wisdom and a degree of caution, sure, but also with courage, compassion, and an unyielding belief in the power of humanity to sort out its own messes. And arguably no single Kirby work distilled that duality down to its purest essence more succinctly and successfully than Silver Star.

 

Originally a screenplay he pitched around to various Hollywood studios, Jack modified the story of Morgan Miller, the vanguard of a new wave of beings called “Homo Geneticus,” into a six-part, self-described “visual novel” — beginning with issue one, cover-dated February, 1983 and published by Pacific Comics, an early-wave independent outfit who also put out his superb Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers series. This may seem a tangential at best tidbit to mention, but for my money I think it’s actually quite crucial: there’s simply no way that either of the “Big Two” publishers would have known what to do with material this forward-thinking and challenging, as the relatively short runs a number of Kirby titles received at both DC and Marvel in the 1970s attest to. These guys simply had no idea how to even comprehend, much less market, the work of a transcendent creative genius who was growing understandably less concerned with couching the messages inherent in his astonishing output in “safe,” comfortable terms so as not to alienate any members of a mass readership, and was far more inspired by the idea of finally being able to do something he had absolutely and unquestionably earned the right to, namely: telling his stories his way.

 

 

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The opening pages of Silver Star #1 still seem to come from another place and time far ahead of where we even are now, as a little girl “reaches out” to Morgan’s mind via her own and plays a birthday song (written by Kirby’s free-spirited daughter, Susan) for him, the lyrics of which are quickly and seamlessly overlaid atop a battlefield sequence that shows how our protagonist came to be in the quasi-comatose condition he now finds himself in, and that also demonstrates the first near-apocalyptic explosion of his hitherto-dormant superhuman powers. It’s heady, transformative stuff — among the most raw and powerful scenes ever delineated in Kirby’s career — yet delivered with an absolutely singular and uncanny blend of the surreal and the semi- rueful. We don’t know anything about these characters, their lives, or their world at this point, but we know that all of the above have been shattered, irrevocably and immediately, by what we’ve just witnessed, and that the entirety of this series will happen after the point of “things will never be the same again.” The human imagination is scarcely more courageous than it is here.

 

 

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Throughout the remainder of this debut installment, Kirby and his inking/lettering partner, Mike Royer, begin to fill in some of the blanks by letting us know that Morgan has been granted his extraordinary abilities thanks to the genetic manipulations of his scientist father, who has taken it upon himself to steer humanity’s next evolutionary leap forward by “raising up” a select handful of children from all races and ethnic backgrounds in attempt to build a truly egalitarian society at some point down the road — but profound questions about his fundamental right to “play God” necessarily underpins any enthusiasm we as readers might have for his admittedly heady dreams with a whole lot of entirely reasonable doubt.  And lurking just around the corner is the ever-present figure of Darius Drumm, perhaps Kirby’s last great villain, a one-time experimental subject himself who has decidedly different ideas about the place he and his “brethren” are destined to hold in the world. Moral and ethical complexities abound here, to a degree that comics wouldn’t attempt again until Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and yet Silver Star dares to ask these profound queries in a less refined, more stream-of-consciousness manner than did its more-celebrated successor. The result is a comic that gives readers not only no easy answers but, crucially, no easy way to even begin searching for them other than to intuitively feel our way forward.  Talk about having faith in the intelligence of your readers! This takes fearlessness. This takes absolute confidence in one’s abilities. Above all, this takes vision.

 

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To call Kirby simply “brave” — or any combination of euphemisms conveying the same idea — is an understatement bordering on the criminal, though. Work such as Silver Star shows that he was daring his audience to meet him at his level, and was doing so without necessarily showing them how to get there. A fan at a convention once remarked to Jack that he had no idea where one of his previous series, OMAC, was going, to which he replied: “I knew exactly where it was going. If I had though you wanted to come along, I’d have brought you with me,” and while the same principle holds true here to a certain extent, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that this comic is in any way alienating or inaccessible. On the contrary, almost anyone can pick up this first issue and be reasonably intrigued and entertained on a purely surface level. But if you want to get the most out of it that you can, then you’ve got to be more than willing to do a good part of the metaphorical “heavy lifting” on your own. Kirby was more than happy to show you the way, but he’s not going to hold your hand as you try to get there. You’ve got to be downright eager to think for yourself, to form your own conclusions, to navigate profound and perspective-shifting philosophical terrain in a manner that feels “right” and “true” to you. Long before books were labelled “Suggested For Mature Readers,” Kirby was creating work that only a fully mature, fully engaged, fully questioning, and fully open mind could ever hope to fully comprehend. Five or ten years after this series wrapped up, the mainstream media finally got on board with the idea that “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!,” but ya know what? Jack Kirby’s comics never were.

 

 

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Which isn’t to say that Silver Star #1 is peppered with any of the cheap ultra-violence or salaciousness-for-its-own sake that would mar later “adult” funnybooks. Far from it. You could show this thing to a six-year-old. And who knows? Perhaps the eager, unencumbered imagination of a child is exactly what’s required to grasp everything that Kirby’s rich and generous mind offers here, in much the  same way that I “got” Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (later adapted for comics by — need I even say it?) much better as a youngster than I do today. Kirby never went in for Kubrick’s clinical and austere perfectionism, it’s true, and imbued his pages with a truly personal level of emotional involvement that one can only imagine Kubrick would have cringed at, but there were no “accidents” in either man’s work, and everything we saw from each, whether on the page or the screen, was there for a reason, and advanced a very specific artistic intent. Perhaps that’s why both, at the end of the day, continue to inspire such deep, even reverent, wonder and awe in audiences — and always will.

 

 

 

— @TRASHFILMGURU.

 

 

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