Monday, June 30, 2014

Unearthed: Captain Glory#1

1993 was a boom time in comics, spurred on by the seemingly-bottomless well of speculators come to invest their life savings into overprinted materials only somewhat-more solvent than tulip bulbs. At this time, the impending crash was a distant glimmer and new publishers kept crowding into the overcrowded marketplace to hock their wares. Such a publisher was trading card magnate Topps and perhaps their best-known foray into the speculator market was their line of comics printed under the name of Jack Kirby, packaged with "Kirbychrome" covers and trading cards.

My scanner cannot do the resplendent beauty of Kirbychrome justice

In fact, Topps' bread and butter - the trading card market - had almost run its course as well, setting up hobby shops for a double-whammy of misfortune. "You should have been selling albums!" the shopkeeper next door snorted, unaware how fleeting his own business model would become.

By the time I arrived on the internet in 1998, "Kirbychrome" was a popular Usenet shorthand for "failure." I don't know how badly the Kirbychrome project flopped but evidently it flopped hard. Then and now, Jack Kirby was considered one of the greatest talents in comic books, if not the greatest; however, Kirby had very little do with this project beyond giving Topps' his blessings; the project utilized character designs from Kirby's files, but beyond repurposing those designs into covers (and Kirbychrome trading cards), this was a case of Kirby Without Kirby; fortunately, the comic industry realized audiences had little interest in Kirby Without Kirby and never did this again.

Despite all this, last week I finally broke down and invested $1 in Captain Glory#1, still bound in its original polybag with trading card. Although the Kirbychrome books had no actual Kirby, how bad could they be considering the talent involved? Let's find out together!

Right there on the cover are two good reasons to give this book a shot: Roy Thomas & Steve Ditko are the writer & artist! True, neither man is Kirby, yet Ditko was (and is!) a living legend in his own right and Thomas, as the original "I Can't Believe He's Not Stan Lee!" scribe provides a pair of veterans who know their way around Kirby's environments and can compose a decent super hero book blindfolded; of course, circa 1993 they weren't creators with much heat behind, not in an era where comics fandom had elevated Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld & Todd McFarlane to the heights of the industry (please forgive us, future generations). The late 90s did see a renewed interest in "retro" comics, but Kirbychome arrived too early to capitalize on it.

Our story opens in then-contemporary Chicago as deep beneath the city, a costumed figure emerges from a suspended animation pod; he expects to find his allies Glider and Bombast in the two adjacent pods, but somehow they've already left, despite having planned to emerge simultaneously. Thankfully, he soon begins a flashback to explain who he is and why he was lying inside of this pod; his name is Keltan and he was a warrior of Gazra some 15,000 years earlier; in his age, Keltan fought alongside the warrior classes Night-Gliders and Hurlers against club-wielding Savages to defend their home.

Eventually, Keltan was summoned before a cabal of scientists; check out two of them above. They look like a couple of 1980s action figures, don't they? Considering this is a Kirby project, I wonder if they were rejected designs for the Centurions? Anyway, the scientists tell Keltan how the Earth undergoes a cataclysmic upheaval every 15,000 years; it's happened eight times previously and will soon occur for the 9th time. The scientists hope to preserve a number of their rank along with some warriors and enter into stasis, believing that while they won't be able to prevent the 9th cataclysm, somehow they'll able to help stop the 10th. Keltan has been chosen as one of the warriors (the aforementioned Glida & Bombast being the others - Glida a Night-Glider, Bombast a Hurler). Amusingly, one of the scientists is named Cal Cutta; again, there's a great 1980s action figure name! He sounds a pun-tastic Masters of the Universe figure.

The flashbacks are great, giving Ditko an opportunity to show off weird landscapes and tree-dwelling civilizations. Of course, our hero Keltan was probably meant by Kirby to be some sort of patriotic US hero, given the star and eagle on his uniform and red, white & blue colours; I guess it's just a sheer coincidence and not a terrible one to absorb when the story posits there have been 10 different ages of humanity each within spans of 15,000 years!

As the awakened Keltan prods around his stasis pod, he finds a recording from the Speaker, the official who asked him to participate in the project; the Speaker warns Keltan that he doesn't trust the scientists, who are evidently hoping to subjugate humanity after awakening; Keltan cries upon realizing the Speaker and everyone else he knew is dead - a quite welcome and very human emotional reaction. Exploring the area, Keltan discovers his strength increased while he slept, rendering him superhumanly strong; he also finds a vacant stasis chamber where the scientists evidently slumbered.

Climbing up a tunnel, Keltan claws his way to the surface, right inside a gorilla pen in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo! Put out at the intrusion, the gorillas become territorial, so Keltan leaps over the cage and into a mob of the zoo-going children of the world. The crowds are startled and he draw the attention of WCHI-TV reporter Kimba Nolan; frustrated at her current assignment at the zoo, Kimba is all-too eager to investigate the masked man in tights who leaped out of the gorilla cage; unfortunately, being from 15,000 years in the past, Keltan speaks a completely different language than English and can't communicate with her; zoo guards confront Keltan and he asks them to identify who's in charge, but naturally that goes nowhere; finally tired of Kimba pushing her microphone in his face, Keltan crushes it with his hand and heads out of the zoo, hoping to find Glida & Bombast.

As soon as he exits, Keltan witnesses a police car in pursuit of a speeding vehicle; Keltan gives chase, correctly surmising the fleeing vehicle contains criminals; his speed being evidently prodigious, Keltan catches the car and the crooks crash while trying to get rid of him; Keltan easily cleans up the crooks (revealed as drug dealers) and turns them over to the police. The police and Kimba converge on Keltan and when the police remark the costumed stranger "grabs all the glory," Kimba insists "that's his name," dubbing him Captain Glory! Our hero has a codename... not that he understands it, mind you.

Before Kimba can continue to harass Captain Glory, he's suddenly snagged by a rope from some kind of flying airship and drawn up into the vessel. Within, Glory is reunited with the cabal of scientists from his own time. From comparing notes, Glory soon learns the scientists were awakened one year earlier and verify their objective is not to help the present-day humans but rule over them. However, Keltan is committed to his original mission and refuses to aid them; therefore, they engage in battle! Glory only manages to hold his own against them as they've gained power extreme from their time in stasis. Unable to best his former allies, Captain Glory leaps out of the airship, crashing through a house as he lands.

Returning to the zoo, Glory climbs back down to where his stasis pod lay and, to his surprise, finds Glida and Bombast - but the allies are for some reason battling each other. Angrily, Captain Glory separates them, ordering to stop "or you'll both answer to Captain Glory!" No explanation as to how he knows his English moniker is now "Captain Glory," but ah well... this is where the story ends.

According to handy graph inside the front cover, the Kirbychrome series began with Secret City Saga#0 and continued in Bombast#1 & Nightglider#1 before reaching this issue - hence although this story does a fairly good job of standing on its own in the explanation of Captain Glory's mission and his connection to Bombast & Nightglider, the other two heroes' revival had already been handled their respective books. The story continued in the rest of Topps' Secret City Saga, but there was no issue#2 for any of these three heroes (the only Topps Kirbychome series to go past #1 was Satan's Six).

I liked this comic just fine; it's pretty much an average super hero book, but the hook about a cataclysm occurring every 15,000 years is pretty good (though I suppose once the contemporary cataclysm is dealt with, the heroes don't have a present-day mission). Ditko's art is lively and there's some very good colouring effects by Janice Parker, notably when Keltan enters a red chamber and is bathed in pinkish tones.

Did I get my money's worth? To quote the great philosopher:


Britt Reid said...

The covers for most of the KirbyVerse titles were Kirby model sheets of the characters.
Topps went on to do numerous movie-tv tie-in comics including both Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, numerous Jurassic Park titles, numerous Jason (from Friday the 13th) books, Hercules and Xena, and most famously, The X-Files.
For a couple of years they were the #3 company, behind Marvel and DC, and edging out Dark Horse.
Unfortunately, internal politics and budget cuts due to making the company public instead of privately-owned,doomed the comics line.

Michael Hoskin said...

I find it beggars belief that they could have been outperforming 1993 Image. Or Valiant. Surely those companies held a larger % of the marketplace?

Britt Reid said...

In '93, there was the Comics Crash caused by speculators buying multiple copies of comics with variant/special covers...
which ended up crippling Image (who also screwed themselves by missing shipping dates and cancelling books mid-run).
Marvel itself was on the edge of bankruptcy!
Topps entered the market as the crash hit, and the KirbyVerse, unfortunately, never really took off.
But the media-tie in books launched in 94-95 proved amazingly successful (especially the multiple X-Files titles), so much so that the 95-97 period had Topps in 3rd-5th place in total sales depending on the month.

Michael Hoskin said...

Being kind-of out of comics during the crash, I thought it happened a little later, considering line expansions were still evident in 1994 (maybe some publishers were delusional?).

It's a little hard to believe Topps were that close to the top when they published a relatively smaller line of books compared to the other Third Place Publishers, but I take you at your word.