Tuesday, September 4, 2012

He Was The Mightiest Of All!


This is The World That Was.

Volcanoes belch gobbets of lava into the permanent twilight, their Olympian fires raging above the steaming jungles, and amidst the shadowed tree trunks shamble a swarm of horrors. Strange cries echo through the twisting undergrowth, a deafening cacophony out of the deepest antediluvian hell. Every thing that lives, everything that breathes, hums with the same primal madness. Red skies above. Red blood below. Red, red, red, in bone and tooth and claw.

And then, silence. The volcano casts its red glow against the sky. The horrors recede, skulking backwards into the dark, their staring eyes wide and expectant. And out from the shadows, coming on gargantuan legs, tiny arms tucked against his craggy chest, teeth bared, eyes blazing, comes the reddest one of all.



It's a Tyrannosaurus. Yet it barely resembles the living creature that once stalked the world. It is instead something grander and stranger, an Ur-Tyrannosaur, the idea of the beast made flesh. A Devil Dinosaur.



Fast forward several million years and hop a few dimensions over. It is some time in the early 1970's, and Jack Kirby, the renowned king of comics, has begun playing with an idea. Creator or co-creator of heroes like Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four, Kirby has been in something of a slump. For years he's been occupied with "The World That's Coming," beginning in the pages of DC Comics' OMAC and culminating in his post-apocalyptic serial Kamandi. But DC is going through troubled times--series being canceled left and right, explosive fights between editorial and the publisher. The bombast of the 60's is dying, and DC lurches toward social consciousness and hard traveling heroes. Mad ideas are out. Strange worlds are over. Comics are for grownups, these days.

But Jack Kirby isn't interested in realism. Short, bespectacled, a cigar smoldering in his mouth, he's always dreamed of wilder things. So he returns to Marvel Comics, to the company that he helped build, his restless mind already turning to a different subject. He pitches them a new series, one that explores the savage madness the distant past. A time when the earliest men still walked in the shadow of the dinosaur.




Devil Dinosaur #1 debuts in April 1978. On the cover, Devil Dinosaur charges forward, his tiny human hands clutching, yellow eyes blazing with a mad light. The hairy Killer-Folk cower in fear, their torches and spears dwarfed by the reptilian rage that speeds toward them with the force of a hurricane. On his back, Moon Boy's arms rise toward the sky, silently pushing his companion on. A boy and his dinosaur striking out against the world that hates and fears them: Vintage Marvel at its finest.

But even with the ever explosive Kirby at the reins, the first issue is surprisingly low on mad ideas--despite the impossibility of man and dinosaur truly living side by side, Kirby chooses to depict the setting with some restraint. In the back of the issue, he preemptively defends himself against charges of inaccuracy. Perhaps it is possible, he argues, for a world such as he has created to exist. "After all," he writes in the back-matter, "just where the Dinosaur met his end, and when Man first stood reasonably erect, is still shrouded in mystery."

From anybody else, this would be a ludicrous assertion. But the world Kirby is creating, like every world he has created, transcends mere fact. The world of Devil Dinosaur is a feverish pulp of television and comics and drive-in movies, as distinct from the real world as T. rex from a toy. No dinosaur skeleton could ever fit inside Devil Dinosaur's grotesque body. No prehistoric forest ever burned with the spatters of energy that Kirby inks over every vista. Reality and evidence are hindrances to a mind like Kirby's. It's clear that even pseudo-scientific speculation isn't enough to restrain him for long.

And it's doesn't. Barely two issues have passed before the horizons of Devil Dinosaur's prehistoric world expand into stranger epochs. The spider god of the Killer-Folk. The valley of the malevolent ants. A prehistoric giant clad in ragged fur and a triceratops skull, swinging a stegosaurus like a club. There is talk of an animated spin-off, a television show for children. It's a natural transition--Devil Dinosaur is a child's id writ large across cheap paper, insane and logic-defying and gloriously energetic.


But even that's not enough. Kirby's pen takes Devil Dinosaur onward, upward, outward; attacking aliens, strange technology, Kirby krackle star-beasts of Lovecraftian size, the very cosmos taking life in a sea of staring eyes and claws and seething power. The World That Was and The World That's Coming are beginning to blend together. Devil Dinosaur goes into space. Devil Dinosaur magically rampages through the distant future of 1978. Devil Dinosaur stands supreme.


December 1978. Devil Dinosaur is canceled. The art is too stylized and strange, the writing too uneven and clunky. Comics buyers are ignoring it in droves. Low sales, that impossible enemy, do to the red giant what rival monsters and jet-pack aliens never could. Devil Dinosaur #9 is the last issue. The hoped-for animated spin-off never arrives.  A crossover between Devil Dinosaur and Godzilla is plotted in a last-ditch attempt to drum up some interest, but it comes and goes with nary a ripple.

Kirby moves on. It's what he does; he's had too many series canceled out from under him to weep over one more. Bereft of their creator's pen, Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy are left rudderless in the backwaters of Marvel's continuity. The World That Was withers, a discarded toy in Marvel's toy-box, to be plucked out and desultorily played with and then cast back and forgotten. One more occasional guest star and another casualty of the changing comics industry. Too strange. Too weird. Comics are for grown ups, these days.

But for nine insane, glorious issues, Devil Dinosaur was the mightiest of all.



Next Time! The many faces of Devil Dinosaur! Random adventures! Smoking jackets! 


7 comments:

  1. Double the fingers! Triple the action!

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  2. Absolutely awesome. Please, next time, include Stegron the Dinosaur Man ;)

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    1. Stegron and Sauron, the two dinosaurian villains of stranger marvel comics, will be making an appearance at some point. Possibly not in the next post, but we'll see. ;)

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  3. I had all nine issues......and sold them! Regrets - I've had a few.........

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  4. I've been enjoying the stuff with Devil, Reptil, and the Runaways lately espiecally the twist on Devil's gender.

    Oh and one can't but forget his role in Next Wave...

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    1. Oh believe me, Craig. I haven't. That glorious bit will pop up in the next survey post.

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  5. Still have a few originals of DD, and of course his guest-starring spot in Godzilla. I was disappointed that he was retconned into being a denizen of "Dinosaur World" (which really kind of screws up the Godzilla issues, which used a time machine to get the not-so-big-at-the-time-because-Pym-particles Godzilla to Devil's valley), but his appearance in Warren Ellis's NextWave was, while played for laughs, quite brilliantly done. Marvel recently released a hardcover collection of the entire series.

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