Big Art and Big Ideas in Jack Kirby’s ‘Devil Dinosaur’

Marvel Comics just announced a new series that, frankly, has me pretty darned excited. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, scheduled for a November release, is part of the publisher’s “All-New, All-Different” marketing and publishing push, and boy does it look promising. The series—by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclaire and Natacha Bustos—will feature the pre-teen heroics of Lunella Lafayette, a.k.a. Moon Girl. Lunella is a Reed Richards-style Marvel super-genius with Inhuman DNA. She is also the best friend and companion of a bright red T-Rex known as Devil Dinosaur. I’ll be there for the first issue and so will my pre-teen daughter.

Moon-Girl is a new character and another attempt on Marvel’s part to further diversify their universe. The new series is also, I’m sure, an attempt to continue Marvel’s expansion into the young female market. Whatever their motivation, I’m all for it.

Devil Dinosaur, on the other hand, has a long history at the House of Ideas. He first appeared in Devil Dinosaur #1 way back in 1978. (I was a pre-teen myself in 1978, though back then we were just called “kids”.) Devil has appeared here and there in the years since. Lately, he’s been starring in Sam Humphries’ and Marc Laming’s Planet Hulk series, part of Marvel’s summer crossover event, Secret Wars. In Planet Hulk Devil Dinosaur is teamed with a gladiator Captain American and an intelligent and articulate version of the Incredible Hulk known as Doc Green. It’s as great as it sounds.

As excited as I am about the new Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur series, however, I have to admit that it will have to be pretty special to match the original series, of which I am a huge fan. Part of the reason for that is that I am a sentimentalist at heart when it comes to comicbooks. As much as I love the current renaissance of comicbook storytelling, nothing ever seems as wonderful as the stuff I read when I was a kid. Comics tend to work that way, which is why it is so important that Marvel gets books like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel right; my daughter is probably going to remember this stuff forever.

From Devil Dinosaur #7 by Jack Kirby, Marvel (1978).

With that personal confession out of the way, however, I’m going to insist that there are reasons other than nostalgia to be a fan of the big red dinosaur’s original run.

Devil Dinosaur was created by the legendary Jack Kirby during his latter-day return to Marvel Comics following his creatively powerful, if commercially unsuccessful, years at competitor DC. The story has it that Kirby’s Kamandi series—a Planet of the Apes influenced post-apocalyptic story that was probably his most commercially successful DC book—was being developed into an animated television program. In response, someone decided that Kirby should create a similar series for Marvel. The result was the critically and commercially disastrous Devil Dinosaur.

It only lasted nine issues.

The story of Devil Dinosaur is the story of Moon-Boy, a hirsute early human who lived alongside dinosaurs on a prehistoric Earth. Moon-Boy befriended Devil when the monster was young and after the lizard’s mother and siblings had been killed by another, more ferocious tribe of proto-humans. Devil survived the attack, despite being burned so badly that his skin was permanently colored red.

There is much to dislike here.

To get right to the point, Kirby was never great at writing dialogue. More often than not his dialogue was best articulated with the help of a collaborator. Kirby’s work on Fantastic Four and Thor, arguably his best work for Marvel Comics, was usually improved by his writing partner, Stan Lee, who had the ability to smooth out Kirby’s edges and add a bit of naturalistic flair. (I know. I know. Lee sometimes hurt more than he helped. But that is an argument for another day.)

Kirby’s own dialogue probably was at its best in his majestic “Fourth World” masterpiece which he produced while at DC. In that case, his heavy dialogue seemed to match the grand, mythic, and formal story that he was telling; and when it didn’t match, it often served as a sort of comedic complement, a way to break the tension and keep things in perspective.

From Devil Dinosaur #1 by Jack Kirby, Marvel (1978).

Devil Dinosaur was not a grand, mythic or formal story, however, and Kirby’s dialogue throughout is strained. Things are made worse by the fact that Moon-Boy’s partner is a dinosaur who lacks the ability to speak. This means that Moon-Boy’s dialogue almost always takes the form of soliloquy, and that it is almost always painfully boring. I hate to admit this, but the nine issues of Devil Dinosaur are the rare Kirby storyarc that I just cannot get all the way through. The going is so rough that I find myself skipping over the narration and the dialogue and reading the series as if it was a story told in pictures and without words.

With that out of the way, however, let me say again that I really love this series. Really love it. Reading it, and re-reading it (even when I just skim the words), is always a rich and rewarding experience. There are two reasons why that is so.

First of all, Kirby’s art is in top form in this series. Beginning with his last few years on Fantastic Four and Thor for Marvel, and reaching its zenith with his work on DC’s New Gods, Kirby produced some of the greatest artwork in the history of the medium. Sure, fans and critics at the time were more inclined to sing the praises of the naturalistic style of Neal Adams, but looking back on it now it is clear that Kirby was doing something really special. His work after he returned to Marvel may not have matched his earlier masterworks, but he was still an artist in full control of his talents. Furthermore, on Devil Dinosaur, Kirby’s pencils were inked by Mike Royer, unquestionably his greatest collaborator.

The Kirby of Devil Dinosaur is the Kirby of the oversized and overstuffed panels, panels that gave him plenty of space for his heavy-lined figures and careful background details. The standard here is six panels to a page, but he often worked with just three or four. These are big pictures that tell a big story. The traditional full-page opening splash is, at least for the first six issues, followed by a two-page spread that is invariably immersive and finely balanced. The two-page spread that opens the fourth issue—depicting Moon-Boy’s prophetic nightmare of the dreaded Leviathan rising to swallow the moon—is, in my opinion, one of Kirby’s very best.

From Devil Dinosaur #4 by Jack Kirby, Marvel (1978). (enlarge image)

Trust me, flipping through any issue of Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur, even without stopping to read the words, is a mighty fine use of your time.

But there is a another reason, in addition to my own nostalgia and Kirby’s fantastic artwork, that makes me insist that Devil Dinosaur is a Kirby treasure, if a thorny one. And that’s because Devil Dinosaur is full of big ideas—big, Kirby ideas.

Kirby’s return to Marvel was marked by an emphasis on themes from the pseudo-science, paranormal, and occult revival that was so popular at the time. He was interested in alternative history, ufology and cryptozoology—and in all the interesting and mad ways that these topics could be blended together into ideas about such things as ancient astronauts and modern-day dinosaurs. These ideas weren’t necessarily new to Kirby’s work—they were clearly important in his work on The Fantastic Four and Thor—but now he brought them front and center, especially in the pages of his adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and his new book, The Eternals. And, even though on the surface Devil Dinosaur was just a simple “caveman rides a dinosaur” story, Kirby managed to make it so much more.

You can see this right from the start, in Kirby’s rambling—almost stream of consciousness—editorial comments that filled the letters pages in the first few issues.

The “Dinosaur Dispatches” page began with Kirby’s attempt to make the events in the pages of the comicbook seem somewhat plausible. Admitting that there was no accepted evidence that dinosaurs and early hominids ever coexisted, Kirby then marshaled what little counter evidence he could muster to argue that it was, nevertheless, just possible. Drawing on that cryptozoological staple, the Coelacanth—which was discovered in the early twentieth century to be far less extinct than was previously thought—Kirby next made appeal to the Loch Ness Monster and other modern day cryptid sightings to argue that it is just possible that dinosaurs did indeed walk the Earth with our primitive human ancestors—and perhaps still do so today.

In the second issue, Kirby speculated that the ancient legend of the Roc might just be based in fact. In the third issue, he rambled on about what he called the “X-Period” or the “X-Age,” a time before history that is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, a time when the legends of today may have been reality. Into this mix he tossed the Bermuda Triangle, which he described as a potential time warp that might lead into both the past and the future.

Now, of course, it is hard to say how much of this Kirby meant as serious speculation and how much he meant only to add color and interest to the stories that he wanted to tell. But, in any case, it is clear that Kirby intended to draw upon all of these bits of popculture mythology to fill out the stories in Devil Dinosaur. And that is exactly what he did.

After three issues of dinosaurs versus cavemen stories, Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur becomes decidedly weirder—and downright trippy.

First, a flying saucer lands in the midst of Devil’s and Moon-Boy’s prehistoric world and its crew begins the process of examining and exterminating life forms. These ancient astronauts, right out of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, capture Moon-Boy and prepare him for dissection; they slaughter dinosaurs and early humans alike; and, most importantly, they provide the fodder for the birth of human mythology and religion.

Kirby’s tells the tale of humanity’s fall from paradise in the pages of Devil Dinosaur #6 and issue #7, in a story that takes place after Devil has succeeded in destroying the invading spaceship and its mechanical crew with the help of a marauding army of giant ants. Kirby lets on that something different is about to happen with the opening text box on the first page of Devil Dinosaur #6:

The greatest story ever told could have begun with dinosaurs, demons and giant ants! Of course, there had to be a man…and a woman called Eev!

With that, Kirby proceeded to retell the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Two of Moon-Boy’s tribe, a man called Stone-Hand and a woman named Eev, are encased in a protective dome by the computerized remnants of the destroyed flying saucer. The computer, in the form of a tree-like antenna, provides its captives with a garden paradise in which to live. But they, of course, are human and so struggle even in paradise.

”Here,” Eev says to her partner, “take this fruit, Stone-Hand. It will help to keep you content…”

“No!” he replies. “I shall only be content when these strange walls are gone…and I am free to go!”

The “tree” in this garden is both provider and captor, but it is the serpent—Devil Dinosaur—who frees Eev and Stone-Hand from their captivity and casts them out of the garden and into the world of struggle and toil, like Adam and Eve cast from Eden. The red T-Rex charges through the force field and into the garden, destroys the tree, and ends humanity’s brief stay in paradise.

“Eev and I shall remember what happened here and tell the tale to all we meet!” Stone-Hand promises. Kirby’s narrator, however, knows that the story will change with time:

The tale of the demon tree will be told, of course —— many times in many ages —— and each time it is told, there will be slight differences and changes, so that the original version will be lost —— and remain true —— only to those who took part in it.

See what I mean? Big ideas. Big, Kirby ideas.

Of course, Kirby’s mythic story is not perfect, not by a long shot. His wooden dialogue is matched by often inelegant and hurried plotting. To tell his tale of Stone-Hand and Eev, he leaves poor Moon-Boy woefully undeveloped to focus on transient characters that we never really come to care about. Sometimes there is just too much going on. Sometimes, it is just a mess.

But it’s Jack Kirby at near the peak of his artistic talent. It’s Kirby doing big, Kirby art.

And it’s Kirby digging deep into yet another source for storytelling, energized again by the chance to take comic books in a new direction. It’s Kirby working with big, Kirby ideas.

Kirby drew from contemporary crackpot theories and ancient mythology to tell his story about a hairy, ape-boy who rides a big, red Tyrannosaurus Rex. And he does it in a book that was intended as an audition for a new children’s cartoon series. It’s fun, it’s heady, and it’s just a little nuts.

And it has lived with me for almost 40 years.

So when I hear about Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, yeah, I’m pretty darned excited. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting any sort of Kirby tribute and I’m not expecting a return to Kirby’s big style—neither his big art nor his big ideas. That kind of thing hardly ever works.

But Reeder, Montclaire and Bustos are going to be telling stories about a pre-teen genius named Lunella Lafayette, a.k.a. Moon Girl, whose best friend is a bright red T-Rex known as Devil Dinosaur.

I’ll be there for the first issue and so will my daughter.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll both still be reading it in 40 years.