Jack Kirby is best known as the creator of beloved Marvel characters like Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four in the 1960s. Twenty years later, though, at the end of his career, he was making promotional comics for DC’s new line of toys.
The 1984-85 Super Powers comics, as they were called, were not Kirby’s, or really anybody’s, best work. They’re interesting though as a semi-unintentional commentary on the relationship between comics, creativity, commerce, and King Kirby himself.
Kirby had left Marvel because he felt (with much justice) that the company had stiffed him on royalties. He’d moved to DC and created the Fourth World epic around his purple arch-villain Darkseid and the New Gods. By the mid-80s, Kirby was trying desperately to get his original pages of art back as Marvel stone-walled him.
The other major comics company, DC, had mistreated Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the past. But DC executives Jenette Kahn and Paul Levitz were, in this case, determined to do right by Kirby in at least a limited way. Inspired in part by the success of Star Wars toys, DC had contracted with Kenner to create a line of posable action figures based on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other characters featured in the company’s Super Friends cartoon. DC had Kirby redesign his Fourth World villains for the Super Powers toy line, so that he could receive royalties for one of the first times in his career.
DC also tapped Kirby to work on two Super Powers mini-series released to promote the toy line. For the first series, he drew the covers and plotted the stories; Joey Cavalieri provided scripts, Adrian Gonzalez turned in extremely Kirby-influenced art which Pablo Marcos inked. In the second series, Kirby provided pencils for Paul Kupperberg’s script.
The less said about the second series the better. The first, though, has a certain clunky Kirby crackle. Darkseid, as is his way, plans to destroy the earth. He invests four of his blocky, armor-clad, nameless warriors with great powers including time manipulation, taking over others’ wills, and reactivating people’s atavistic violent impulses. The nameless warriors then turn around and pass these powers down again, this time to those friendly familiar supervillains, the Joker, the Penguin, Lex Luthor, and Brainiac.
The delegation and redelegation of superpowers makes the action seem contrived. Why doesn’t Darkseid just zap people himself if he’s going to zap people? Why does he prefer a pointless bureaucracy of supervillainy. Darkseid gives orders to lesser creators, who then pass the buck to even more lowly creators. It’s not very efficient
It does, though, function as a kind of unintentional parody of the way comics companies are constructed, and of the way they treated Kirby. Marvel and DC are both big corporations, in which the owners of the means of production give orders to middlemen/editors, who then tell the artists and writers to whip up evil plots to challenge/immiserate all those superheroes.
The Super Powers mini-series even reproduces the dynamic of corporate abuse. Darkseid is constantly threatening his evil minions, who in turn threaten and intimidate the supervillain grunts who have been given the actual difficult job of creating interesting plots.
The parallel is most obvious in sequences involving the Joker, Clown Prince of Crime. A blue-clad Darkseid minion gives the Joker control of a “psychoactive dimension” where he can literally create anything he can imagine—the world is essentially his blank page. He can turn everything in Batman’s utility belt into silly string. He can make his enemies fall forever through the blackness. (“You might say the bottom’s dropped out of the super-hero biz!” he chortles while swimming along beside the plummeting protagonists.) He wraps Superman up in a Christmas present and subdues him with an anchovy and kryptonite birthday cake (“I’d forgotten how much you hate anchovies!”)
Kirby usually wasn’t this tongue-in-cheek; presumably, the humor here is writer Joey Calvieri’s contribution. But the way the Joker pulls random goofiness out of the air panel after panel is very much in line with Kirby’s volcanic creativity. The sequence is fun in the way the best superhero comics are fun. You never know what improbable nonsense is lurking behind the next panel border.
Even with all that anarchic power, though, the Joker’s still constantly bullied by his editors/super bosses. In one panel, Darkseid’s minion actually stands over Joker as the villain sits at a drafting table, designing his next trap with pencil, paper, and a straight edge, just like editors stood over Jack Kirby’s shoulder all those years. “We have brooked one failure,” Darkseid’s warrior declares, “we will not tolerate a second!”
To which the all-powerful, all-creative Joker can only say, “Ulp!” He may be a God to the superheroes, but when he looks up from his workstation, he’s still just a wage slave.
Eventually, the superheroes thwart the Joker by freeing his kidnapped therapist. After a final blast of silliness in which we see a flashback to the Joker’s childhood (his parents also wore clown make-up?), he is cured and, as he says, driven sane. He decides to become a productive member of society: “Get me a Wall Street Journal! Find me a job!”
But before the heroes can get the Joker a Wall Street Journal or a job, Darkseid’s minions teleport him away, so they can continue lambasting and bullying him. You can give up your own crazy wonderful vision and volunteer to design toys. But even that doesn’t get the bosses off your back.
Kirby and his colleagues weren’t trying to use their promotional comic to comment on the inequities of corporate comics. But when you get Jack Kirby to plot your toy tie-in, you’re bound to end up reproducing some of the push-pull between creativity and corporate dictate. The Joker can be inventive, but not too inventive. And then he has to lose. Kirby, and anyone who’s ever done creative work for hire, can surely relate.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.