23 May 2010

Devil Dinosaur Prologue

While in the midst of reading Jack Kirby’s very odd 1970s run on Captain America, I felt the incredible urge to read through another of Kirby’s Marvel-works from his last stint with the company: Devil Dinosaur. Not only that, but I knew I wanted to review on the blog every issue of its original run, one issue per post. I’ve always wanted to attempt such an extensive review of a series, and this one is short and interesting enough to make it a prime candidate. Consider this entry the prologue before I start with issue #1.

Devil Dinosaur is the last series that Jack “King” Kirby created at Marvel, and like most of the other projects he worked on during this period, it didn’t catch on with readers and lasted only a short time. Devil Dinosaur ran for nine issues in 1978 and then unceremoniously closed out with the words “Thus Endeth the Chronicle” in Prince Valiant font. Its two stars, the title red Tyrannosaurid and his primitive human pal Moon-Boy, have done some guest shots in the Marvel Universe since those days, and many artists and writers have show genuine sympathy, as well as outright love, for the Devil.

From Don Markstein’s excellent reference source, Toonopedia:
When Jack Kirby died, in 1994, a special book was planned as a memorial tribute—one in which hundreds of comic artists would each draw a picture of one of the hundreds of characters Kirby had a hand in creating. According to project coordinator Mark Evanier, the one more artists requested than any other was not Fighting American, Thor or The Demon. It was Devil Dinosaur. The big red guy may not be as iconic as Captain America or as enduring as The Silver Surfer or as commercially successful as The Fantastic Four—but clearly, he’s highly regarded by those who know him.
As Markstein goes on to point out, “those who know him” seems limited to artists and writers. The general public has never embraced the character, but there’s a lot of tradesman love for him based on those nine issues. I’m not a comic book writer or artist, but I am a writer, I love dinosaurs, and I dig Jack Kirby. Put me down as a “Devil Worshipper.”

Devil Dinosaur is more child-friendly than the other projects that Kirby took on during the 1970s when he worked his grand cosmic themes into unusual titles at both DC (“The Fourth World” collection of comics, The Demon) and Marvel (The Eternals and his amazing take on 2001: A Space Odyssey). Devil Dinosaur has a clear young-reader appeal, since its the tale of “A Boy and His Dinosaur” fighting other monsters and on a prehistoric world.

The child-appeal is rooted in the reason that Devil Dinosaur got created in the first place: animation. In the late-‘70s Marvel Comics was working extensively to get animated versions made of their properties. Stan Lee had given up his editorial position in New York to handle the West Coast operations that aimed to sell Marvel to Hollywood. (It took a while for the live-action part to take, but when it finally hit, it hit big.)

One of Kirby’s creations at DC that managed some success even after he left was Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, which owed more than a bit to the popularity of the “Planet of the Apes” movie franchise. (Marvel did their own Planet of the Apes comic book to seize on the increasingly younger appeal of the film series.) According to Tom Brevoort in his introduction to the 2007 hardcover collection of all issues of Devil Dinosaur, there were rumors about Kamandi getting developed for Saturday morning animation.

This inspired Marvel to craft their own original “ready for Saturday a.m.” project. Kirby was given the task to develop, draw, and write the series; certainly his bold artistic style lent itself better to animation than any other artist in Marvel’s bullpen, and his love of astonishing technology and strange creatures meant great visual eye-candy. Although Kirby’s original titles at Marvel were not hitting with the public (and, as I’ll soon discuss, his work on established titles like Captain America wasn’t getting much love either), the possibility that Devil Dinosaur might get spun out into animation would make it a worthwhile risk.

It didn’t happen, and Devil Dinosaur had its short time on newsstands and now wanders the Marvel guest-circuit mists as well as the minds of its artists and writers. Kirby, however, did move on to animation even if Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy didn’t follow him. Tired of the pay-per-page grind, he quit comic books for the rest of his career and moved into working for animation studios. His most famous work in the field was the production design he did for the still-loved Steve Gerber-created Thundarr the Barbarian, a science-fantasy sword-and-sorcery adventure which I watched studiously as a child.

In the original run of Devil Dinosaur, there’s no indication that the world in which Moon-Boy and Devil live is connected to the mainstream Marvel U. Kirby’s notes in “Dinosaur Dispatches” at the end of the first issue indicate that the action takes place in an alternate Earth past, similar to our own but with human development overlapping the time of the dinosaurs. (Kirby drops in some really awful scientific speculation on this, but hey, Jack Kirby.) Devil and Moon-Boy are “finding adventure in a savage world quite different from the shrinking global community we know today.” Ah, fun! I’m ready.

Later writers would integrate Devil and Moon-Boy into the greater Marvel U. Devil’s first guest-spot after cancellation was in Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the company’s intriguing working of the famous kaiju into the Marvel Universe. Sometimes Devil Dinosaur was described as coming from the mainstream Marvel Earth’s past, and other times as from an alien world concurrent with events on the mainstream Earth. Current continuity has the two characters as living in the past on an alternate Earth called “Dinosaur World” (Earth-78411)—which isn’t far off from Kirby’s original idea.

Later developments, however, don’t mean a thing when I sit down to read the original nine issues. I’ll hand it over to Jack and forget all that would come after. It’s Jack’s world, I’m just visiting.

I thought of adding this note at the conclusion of reviewing all of Devil Dinosaur, but I now think I should throw it out at the start. (And then repeat myself later.)

Pixar, here is your Marvel property.

Now that both Pixar Animation and Marvel Entertainment are under the same corporate umbrella, that of Disney, talk has burned up the ‘net that Pixar might want to adapt a Marvel Comics character or series for one of their films. The Pixar folks are definitely fans: just look at The Incredibles, a far better version of The Fantastic Four than either of the official movies. Also, the moment after Disney acquired Marvel, Pixar’s John Lasseter had a big sit-down with the Marvel magistrates and everybody got excited. No doubt, Pixar wants some Marvel Universe loving, and “Ant-Man” seems rumored the most often.

One website posted a great list of possible Marvel properties that Pixar could adapt. But they neglected the most important one: Devil Dinosaur. This is an out-of-the park grandslam project. Colorful spectacle, dinosaurs, action, astonishing landscapes, room for any weirdness you want, and lots of space for Pixar’s passionate character-building. Devil and Moon-Boy were originally aimed for animation; now is the time to realize it.

Do it, Pixar!

I’ll see you in about a week (have to do a report on Kirby and Captain America first) with a review of issue #1.