Fresh Eyes is a column reassessing milestone stories in comic book history from a modern perspective. Do they hold up, and how might they resonate with today’s readers?
In the late 1970s, Jack Kirby made a triumphant return to Marvel Comics. Among his mini-line of new ideas and character, there was Devil Dinosaur, a prehistoric adventure series about a mighty red T-Rex and his best friend, an early human named Moon Boy. In celebration of what would have been Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday, I sought out to read the comic series for the first time.
It’s difficult to overstate Jack Kirby’s importance to comics. The pure vitality of his imagination and his technical skill to capture it and present it on the comics page has resonated so strongly with comics readers, fellow cartoonists and pop culture fans. He could be gritty, visceral, bizarre, trippy, silly, and heartbreaking, yet always still unmistakably Kirby.
In the 1940s, he co-created Captain America and innovated bold page layouts. In the 1950s, he helped introduce the romance genre to comics, a concerted effort to include girls and women as readers of comics. In the the ’60s, he co-created what seems like half of the Marvel Comics universe, providing ideas, images, and iconography that have fueled the multi-media company for decades. In the ’70s, his move to DC Comics, where he expanded the DC Comics pantheon with the New Gods, Kamandi and The Demon, raised awareness among fandom about creative control and the realities of working for comics publishers.
By the mid 1970s, his relationship with DC Comics, which finally let him get full writer credit for the first time in his career, had begun to sour. The comics industry was not as diverse at the time, so the only real viable option was for Kirby to return to Marvel Comics. Fortunately, a good deal was worked out wherein Kirby would retain sole authorship over his comic titles. He returned to Captain America, took on a new Black Panther series, and created a new corner of the Marvel Universe, The Eternals, which thematically continued his New Gods saga from DC. More unexpected was Kirby producing a comics adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This led to Kirby creating new stories exploring the film’s concepts in a new comic book series, and even led to a spin-off series Machine Man.
A Kirby/Kubrick is perhaps bizarre enough, but it was not the most bizarre project Jack Kirby worked on during his ’70s Marvel stint. In 1978, then came Devil Dinosaur.
Devil Dinosaur is not generally recognized as one of Jack Kirby’s major works. Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America, the New Gods; both those characters and their comics have made much more significant impact and garnered much more critical praise.
Devil Dinosaur isn’t directly related to one of the major comic book universes, so obsessed continuity hounds weren’t really interested. The comic is a prehistoric adventure series, not a genre that comic readers in the mid-1970s were really clamoring to read. And the prestige of Kirby wasn’t quite what it was. Some younger, newer comic readers didn’t “get” Kirby’s artwork or found it old fashioned, a stigma that would only grow as Kirby moved into the 1980s. So it is probably not a surprise that the legacy of Devil Dinosaur is not as large as some of Kirby’s other works.
It’s also generally overshadowed by Kirby’s Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, an acclaimed post-apocalyptic series produced for DC in the early 1970s. Apparently, during Kirby’s transition back to Marvel, rights for an animated adaptation of Kamandi had been worked out. So Marvel asked for a similar series that might also turn into an animation deal, and Devil Dinosaur was the result. Needless to say, it also never made it to TV.
Regardless, Devil Dinosaur offers a fascinating glimpse into Kirby’s mind, and presents it in a tightly focused world and cast of characters with little interference from his publisher. The series only lasted 9 issues, making for a quick read, another rarity for a creator known for his sprawling epics.
The comic series allowed Jack Kirby to explore the endless possibilities in our unrecorded past. He took the position that just because we don’t know it didn’t happen, means that it could have happened. And so, we get a comic where early humans and dinosaurs exist at the same time, despite it not being conventional scientific consensus at the time.
Devil Dinosaur stars a dinosaur named Devil and his friend Moon Boy. Devil displays exceptional strength and intelligence, but he is still just a dinosaur. He does not speak. As such, Moon Boy carries most of the dialogue in the series, with narrative captions supplementing the unsaid.
Kirby’s dialogue has sometimes been criticized for being a bit clunky or awkward, but here there is something quite lyrical, even sing-song cadence, about it that fits really well with the world he’s created. Early on it’s established that the dialogue is representative of their primitive language, and this seems to free up the voice of the series to remove any pressure of precision in favor of emotional resonance. As such, I think it results in some of Kirby’s most effective and charming dialogue.
The story is set in the Valley of Flame, and the environment is a crucial player in the story. Much like New York City in a lot of Kirby’s work, the “city” and its people are a character.
The Valley of Flame has its gangs, tribes of different types of early humans, like the violent Killer-Folk, the Hill-Folk, the Forest-Folk, and the gentle Small-Folk, who cast out their own Moon Boy when he befriended Devil. These tribes echo Kirby’s fascination and history with gangs. In the 1920s and ’30s Lower East Side of Manhattan, he grew up among tough street gangs. While the different Folk rarely interact, the power dynamics among them is explicit. In fact, the hierarchy of the Valley is a recurring theme. Devil immediately proves himself as the ruling champion despite threats to his position from these tribes and other dinosaurs. Like any good city, the Valley has its neighborhoods too. Swamps, jungles, caves, pits, volcanoes, all fleshing out a fully realized and fully populated community.
While clearly set before any major religions, it doesn’t mean the community is not without religious beliefs. Moon Boy and most other characters will often pray to spirits. A bad turn of luck means evil spirits or Night Spirits are afoot. If things turn out alright, good spirits intervened. Spirits are unseen but they can exist inside others, forcing them to act poorly or wisely, and they can exist inside objects, such as Wood-Spirits. With this recurring motif, it’s interesting to see Kirby riff on the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. That story is turned upside down, with an alien invasion and an evil computer driving the story. The story explores the permutations of myth and story. He’s looking at prehistory as a blank slate where anything could happen, and it the verbally gets passed down until it barely resembles the original events.
With all of this talk of myth, religion, and evolution, it might seem like this is an intellectual treatise. That is definitely not the case. Kirby aimed for mass appeal whenever possible, and the series is still about giant dinosaurs stomping around and fighting. It’s a blast to watch Kirby draw all of your favorite dinosaurs, often with unexpected twists. The most notable is Devil himself. Most depictions of a tyrannosaurus rex focus on the teeth. But what about those giant feet? Kirby draws outrageous scenes of Devil stomping and kicking his way through fights. It’s such a delightfully novel take on a t-rex, but it’s also surprisingly obvious. Why wouldn’t those giant legs be used more?
One of the highlights of the series is a 2-page spread on the second and third pages of the first 6 issues. No one ever drew larger than life better than Kirby. No one ever drew mass and momentum like Kirby. And that energy and passion embedded in each panel drives home a joy in these stories that is hard to deny. Above is a gallery of each 2-page splash page from the series that hopefully captures some of the dazzling imagery this comic contains.
Another unique aspect of the comic is a series of essays Jack Kirby provides while waiting for reader letters to arrive in response to the first issues. These highlight Kirby’s enthusiasm for the series, as well as his fascination with the themes he was exploring and his thought process behind them.
Devil Dinosaur may not be one of Kirby’s crown jewels, but it’s still an action-packed and surprisingly thoughtful yarn.
HOW TO GET IT
Marvel Comics has reprinted the series for the bookshelf a couple of times, once in 2007 as a hardcover omnibus (now out-of-print) and more recently in 2014 as a paperback (still in-print). The omnibus was priced at $30 and seems to be going for at least twice that. The paperback is priced at $25 and can usually be bought for less, and is probably the way to go.
If you prefer reading pixels, the paperback is available for Kindle, and comiXology offers the entire series both as individual issues at $1.99 each and their version of the paperback collection at $16.99. Marvel Comics also has the entire series on their all-you-can-eat subscription service Marvel Unlimited, which is how I read the series.
WHO MADE IT
Devil Dinosaur #1-9
Writer, artist, cover artist, and editor: Jack Kirby
Inker and letterer: Mike Royer
Colorists: Petra Goldberg (#1-6 and 9) and George Roussos (#7-8)