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 Philip Portelli on May 26, 2013 at 7:32am

I feel the same way, mostly. I have no problem with Masks' extended cast; they're an interesting mix and it's an alternate reality. Again they focus more on Kato than the Green Hornet but it's been that way for decades now. IMHO, Dynamite should have waited until Masks ended (It's only an eight issue mini) before launching any new series. That way they could have seen which character(s) the readers would want to see solo.

Comment by Chris Fluit on May 26, 2013 at 12:45pm
Thanks for the comments, Phillip.

And thanks for the front page treatment, Cap.
Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on May 26, 2013 at 12:48pm

I was just as disappointed with you in Kirby Genesis -- it became a sprawling mess, more concerned with characters making an appearance than actually taking part in the story. I never tried and of the miniseries, nor have I tried Masks, despite having heard an interview with Roberson that made it sound like a blast. 

Maybe the problem is that Dynamite is based in New Jersey. Sprawl is what we do.

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on May 26, 2013 at 7:19pm

Good article, Chris. Like you, I mentioned over on the "This Week's Comics" thread a month or so ago that Roberson seems to be having a hard time with this huge cast. This went quickly to a series I couldn't wait for the next issue to come out, to wanting it to end quickly.

Also, I was glad I didn't get the Alex Ross cover on the last issue since that tells you who the big bad of the series is. I couldn't believe it.

Comment by Wandering Sensei: Moderator Man on May 27, 2013 at 10:22am
I was also left I satisfied by the Kirby book. However, unlike most other Dynamite books in my opinion, the artwork was really nice. Someone needs to scoop him up quick, more likely Marvel.
Comment by Uvu-Lad on May 27, 2013 at 11:24am

I was attending the Jack Kirby Tribute panel at the San Diego CC when official word came announcing Kirby: Genesis. I was really excited about the series, and hoped to see the likes of Hidden Harry finally explained.

I stayed with the title with effort. I remember having to re-read sections often, trying to keep some kind of order in my head. Eventually I let that go and just rooted for new, weird characters and for cool stuff to happen.

Overall, I got enough cool stuff to make it worthwhile, but I don't imagine the average fan digs Jack Kirby as much as I do.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on May 28, 2013 at 2:00pm

There’s another one you can add to your list, Chris: Project: SuperPowers.

It’s also from Dynamite, also showed great promise, also ultimately fizzled out.

I enjoyed “Kirby: Genesis” at first, but eventually “lost the story.” To be fair, that could have been just as much my fault as it was the story’s, but it doesn’t sound like it. I’ve been meaning to go back and read the whole thing in a “satisfying chunk” in hope that it will “read” better that way (and will someday), but haven’t gotten around to it yet, and frankly, don’t plan to any time soon.

Comment by Chris Fluit on May 28, 2013 at 7:04pm

There’s another one you can add to your list, Chris: Project: SuperPowers.

It’s also from Dynamite, also showed great promise, also ultimately fizzled out.

There's definitely a pattern here.  I didn't include Project: SuperPowers (beyond a brief footnote) because I didn't finish it.  My assessment would be similar to yours- an interesting premise that quickly fizzled- but it wouldn't be fair to review it based on a partial reading.

I enjoyed “Kirby: Genesis” at first, but eventually “lost the story.” To be fair, that could have been just as much my fault as it was the story’s, but it doesn’t sound like it. I’ve been meaning to go back and read the whole thing in a “satisfying chunk” in hope that it will “read” better that way (and will someday), but haven’t gotten around to it yet, and frankly, don’t plan to any time soon.

I actually re-read Kirby: Genesis a month or so ago to see if it would read better as a satisfying chunk.  Nope.  The story still unraveled at the midpoint and never really recovered.  So it's not just you, Jeff.  And it's not a format problem (singles vs. trades). 

Comment by Captain Comics on May 29, 2013 at 12:15am

Wow, I failed to finish Project: Superpowers as well. And I am virtually anal in being a completist.* Nice to know I'm in such good company!

* Undoubtedly I will finish the series someday, probably from a quarter bin.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on May 29, 2013 at 9:24am

Whoops. I somehow missed that parenthetical aside when I read the article yesterday. It may not have been fair to dismiss Project: Superpowers after only a partial reading, but it would have been accurate.

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