Two years ago, Dynamite launched a limited series to great fanfare.  Kirby: Genesis would feature characters from Kirby’s late career foray into independent comics, like Captain Victory and Silver Star, and even a few discarded ideas that had never seen publication before, like Tiger 28 and Midnight Swan.  Kurt Busiek, whose history with Jack Kirby’s characters goes back to a couple of 1993 series for Topps, was on board as the writer and Alex Ross, who previously teamed with Busiek on the acclaimed series Marvels, was the primary artist.

Dynamite promoted the series effectively.  They started with a half-price Zero issue that introduced the unfamiliar characters to the readers, complete with notes from Busiek and Ross about character concepts and costume designs.  It was an excellent primer for building anticipation, as well as providing information.

Kirby: Genesis started out on decent footing.  Busiek decided to tell the story through the eyes of three normal people: Kirby Freeman, a slightly nerdy teenager; Bobbi Cortez, the knockout girl next door; and Jake Cortez, Bobbi’s dad and Minneapolis beat cop.  It’s a bit of a storytelling trope but one that worked well for Busiek and Ross on Marvels with photographer Phil Sheldon (and for Mark Waid and Ross on Kingdom Come).  However, the story quickly gets away from them.  Bobbi is possessed by the spirit of the Midnight Swan and essentially loses her role as a normal observer.  The three- no wait, two- point-of-view characters are separated, allowing the story to travel to multiple places, but their stories proceed at different paces.  For example, Kirby travels from America to Africa in the time that it takes Jack to get from Minnesota to Wyoming. (And can I also say that while I appreciate the idea of paying homage to Jack Kirby by naming a main character after him, it makes it difficult to clearly distinguish discussion about Kirby the character from Kirby the creator?)  By the third issue, Busiek and Ross had essentially abandoned their previous point-of-view concept as multiple characters entered the story without encountering anyone else.  Kirby: Genesis quickly loses any sense of cohesion.  Eventually, it makes about as much sense as a story as narrating a HeroClix battle.  Maybe that’s fitting for a Jack Kirby homage.  The King’s own stories had a habit of getting away from him (witness the certifiably crazy Don Rickles story in Jimmy Olsen).  But it was a disappointing mess nevertheless.  

Even as the story was riding off of the rails, Dynamite was trying to turn Kirby: Genesis into a franchise.  They introduced spin-off series for Captain Victory, Silver Star and Dragonsbane.  In some cases, the secondary titles were announced before the characters had even been introduced in the main story.  I understand that every comic book company exists to make money, but some are simply more crass about it than others, and Dynamite is one of the worst malefactors.  Instead of allowing interest in the characters to grow organically out of their appearances in the main title, Dynamite telegraphed their intention to build a franchise.  The plan backfired.  I don’t know if the spin-offs were supposed to be mini-series but most of them were gone before Kirby: Genesis had concluded its own run. 

Dynamite is now making the same mistakes with another major limited series.  Masks wasn’t launched with the same kind of fanfare that heralded Kirby: Genesis, but it shares a few of its features.  It’s designed to be an epic story, bringing together a broad group of characters with similar origins.  In this case, the common factor isn’t the same creator, but similar source material: the characters in Masks all originated in the pulp novels and radio serials that predated comic books.  That’s a pretty compelling selling point.  How many fans have dreamed of seeing Zorro, the Shadow and the Green Hornet in action together?  Chris Roberson, of Cinderella and iZombie fame, would get the job of writing this daydream while Dennis Calero, who previously worked on X-Factor, would take over the artistic chores. 

Once again, Dynamite couldn’t stick to the concept they introduced.  In the second issue, they brought in a bunch of early comic book characters.  The blend actually worked in a couple of cases.  The Green Lama has a lot more in common with the radio and pulp characters that preceded comics than the caped crusaders that came along later.  He’s essentially a blend of the Shadow and the Green Hornet, borrowing powers from one and visuals from the other.  He didn’t add much to the story but at least he filled out the cast without being disruptive.  Miss Fury was a more inspired choice.  Her understated costume and lack of powers fit well with the pulp and radio characters.  Plus, she added some gender balance while staying true to the milieu of the story.  Another added characters unfortunately stuck out like a sore thumb.  The Black Terror is a straight-ahead superhero, complete with a cape and a chest logo.  The former characters at least had a foot in both camps- pulps and comics- but the Black Terror seems out of place every time he crosses the page, and especially when he mingles with the other characters.  It seems like Dynamite threw him into the series only because he was already part of their stable (he starred in Project Superpowers and his own eponymous title for Dynamite back in 2008).

The miscasting is only a minor problem.  The bigger problem is that, once again, the story has gotten away from its creators.  Roberson had a handle on things when he was dealing with a smaller cast in the early issues.  But as more characters entered the story, he’s had trouble keeping track of them all.  It was fun to see these characters meet each other for the first time but they haven’t always had much to do afterward.  At this point, several smaller groups are running around getting into relatively random fights.  Sure, there’s a big bad organization lurking behind the scenes, a group of American fascists posing as the patriotic Justice Party, but the connection is occasionally tenuous.  More recently, the leader of the Justice Party engaged in a bit of monologuing- a story device that should have been abandoned long ago. 

Calero is also having trouble keeping up.  In the most recent issues, he’s abandoned any attempt at drawing backgrounds.  The characters are mostly floating in white space, whether they’re talking to one another or fighting another set of henchmen.  It’s not just that it looks rushed.  It’s that we lose any sense of time or place.  Are they fighting on the street or in an alley?  Are they fighting in a hallway or in the villain’s headquarters?  Those background details help us place the scene within the larger scope of the story.  Plus, they build the story’s reality.  Without the substance of streets and walls and doors, the story loses any authenticity for the reader.  Again, we might as well watch someone play with their action figures. 

To complete the circle, Dynamite is also using Masks to launch new series.  This time, they’re giving a much-deserved series to Miss Fury and another to the Black Bat, a pulp hero so obscure that I thought he was a new creation.  At least they waited until the story was well underway before announcing the new series so maybe they’re learning their lessons.  Yet it still sends the message that the Masks is seen more as a launching pad for other series than a story of its own. 

It’s too bad.  Both projects started with such promise.  In one case, it was a well-executed promotion campaign, an all-star creative team and a tantalizing Zero issue.  In the other, it was an intriguing premise, an acclaimed creative team and a solid beginning.  But in each case, the series became shaky by the midpoint and completely lost its way before the end.   It’s disappointing.  I wanted these limited series to be good.  I wanted them to live up to their potential.  And it’s kind of sad that they didn’t.

 

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Comment by Ron M. on June 30, 2014 at 4:15pm

Do they own Green Lama and Miss Fury and the others now? Are they public domain? I've seen The Spider series coming out by different publishers so I'm wondering what the copyrights on these characters are these days. 

Comment by Captain Comics on June 30, 2014 at 4:33pm

Most of the Project Superpowers characters are in the public domain, but don't press me on which ones. Wikipedia notes that Fighting Yank is public domain, but doesn't specify any others. I'd guess any character that is specific to Nedor or Crestwood is probably public domain. But I'm fuzzy on characters like Green Lama, whose comics appearances are probably public domain, but since he started in the pulps, the original pulp publisher might have some say. Someone less lazy than me would have to research each one individually.

Comment by Ron M. on August 28, 2014 at 11:44pm

Interestingly, wikipedia says the Green Lama was originally going to be the Grey Lama, but tests shows grey didn't come out right so they went with green, something Marvel would do many years later with the Hulk.

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