Everyone has to start somewhere, so they say. Not me, of course, I sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus.
But yes, even Jack Kirby was just a punk kid fresh off the street, once upon a time. When “the King” was just 22 years old he created a strip called "Solar Legion," which ran in the first three issues of Crash Comics Adventures from a short-lived outfit called Tem Publishing. Crash itself lasted only five full issues, which wasn’t that unusual back in 1940. There was lots of money to be made in the Golden Age, and plenty of fly-by-night publishers out to make it. Some of those publishers thrived and grew, but most merely faded into the background din of a noisy newsstand crowd, pushed to the sides as larger outfits consolidated.
The Solar Legion did not go on to further fame, either through the work of subsequent creators or Kirby himself. Soon after finishing that initial run of three strips for Crash, Kirby and partner Joe Simon were hard at work on Captain America, whose titular magazine premiered in the final days of 1940 for Timely. Cap was famously a huge hit out of the gate, and that success catapulted the Simon & Kirby team into the first rank of comic book makers. No need for Kirby to ever go back for the Solar Legion. There was no shortage of new ideas on tap, always new ideas from the bottomless bucket of the King’s imagination. There’s a reason people took to calling him the King, you know.
We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of Kirby’s death, this coming February. Quite a testament that even with decades to sift through his trailings we haven’t come close to sounding the floor of that bucket. And so even today there are new things to be found in his oldest work, which brings us to our topic: the unlikely recurrence of the aforementioned Solar Legion, courtesy of Tom Scioli and Image Comics.
In the first, we should probably give a description of just what this book is. The full title you will encounter on the shelf is "Jack Kirby’s Star Warriors Starring Adam Starr and the Solar Legion" (the legal indicia refers to it as Jack Kirby's Starr Warriors: The Adventures of Adam Starr and the Solar Legion). It is not a straight reprint of the "Solar Legion" feature. Having fallen into the public domain long ago, those strips have seen print in various packages from the likes of Pure Imagination and Titan, as part of their respective attempts to compile the public domain Kirby material. This package has been compiled by Tom Scioli, with the full permission of the Rosalind Kirby Trust, which shares a copyright for the finished product.
If you want something that looks as much like a technically accurate reprint presentation of the material as possible, the options are there. But that’s not what this is. What Scioli has given us, instead, is something both more unusual and more flattering for Kirby. In contrast to printing the original story, “warts and all,” complete with garish early '40s coloring and abysmal printing, Scioli has torn the pages apart in order to extract the art and present it in a far more reverential package. It’s a very nice-looking book, but I’m also aware that simply the act of recontextualizing the original art like this is going to rub some people the wrong way. That’s fair, certainly, and if you want to see the art as it was originally printed, happy hunting. What Scioli has done here, by contrast, is to atomize the original panels, rearranging them on the pages such that, for example, an original page with six panels is broken up among two new pages, printing the original art at a much larger size than you would be able to appreciate were this a straight scan of the 1940 page. Scioli has also taken away the original color and refinished the work, replacing Kirby’s early brushwork with his own graphite line ("re-drawing those drawings, trying to reverse engineer what the pencils might have looked like," as Scioli describes it at 49:30 here). The eyesore original color has been swapped out with a single tone, a burnished rust. It’s credited on the first page as a “Remix” by Scioli, and that’s probably as good a word as any to describe the hybrid here.
The effect of the finished product, art presented on a large scale and for the most part without panel borders, is not unlike what you could have expected to see in a children's book from the same period. The first point of comparison that jumped into my head was 1939’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. That was a very popular commercial style. Of course, the fun of looking at original stories from long-ago times is precisely the charm of “eyesore” colors; what Scioli has done here may be of a different quality than the de rigueur digital recoloring that infests so much in the way of contemporary reprints, but it’s not different in kind. Just another kind of modernization. And if you’re the type to bristle at any such liberty, well, more power to you. Similarly, if you find Scioli’s Kirby-drenched idiom cloying, you’re not going to find anything here to change your mind. Thankfully, remixers don’t get to destroy every original master tape of the original record, and the point of comparison is also part of the fun.
With all that said, I like what Scioli has done here. Although I think I’d probably seen the original strips in passing at one point or another, they were more or less new to me when I opened this version. Kirby’s original is clearly the work of a kid who was learning as he went with the ink brush, while Scioli’s finishes have a sophisticated and gratifying sheen. Yet in some ways the actual virtues of the original work are more evident here: Kirby could already draw quite well by age 22, even if he hadn’t yet managed a cohesive style to hold it all together. But you can see this is the work of someone who spent a bit of time studying their Caniff and their Foster. Alex Raymond especially was huge for Kirby, you can see here, in everything from the use of rich spotted blacks for texture through the ever-present phallic rockets and other space vessels to frame compositions. He doesn’t seem to have quite managed to art of drawing girls, but to be fair, some people never get that one.
If Scioli’s remix accomplishes anything, it should be to cast a spotlight on an obscure document that is nevertheless utterly foundational for Jack Kirby, and therefore American comic books in general. These stories feature Kirby’s first aliens and first spaceships - how amazing is that? As stories, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear these are very rudimentary drafts indeed. Adam Starr doesn’t have a single character trait outside the general suite of stolid comic strip hero attributes. There isn’t a lot of room for twists and turns in the space allotted: there are monsters, and death traps, and mustache-twirling villains, all trotted out with the aplomb of a kid doing their level best to copy the surface attributes of something they know very well but as yet only partially understand. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for all the avowed primitiveness on display it’s remarkable how much of what Kirby wanted was already there on the page. He just needed some time in the trenches, so to speak, in order to be able to put it all together the way it needed to go.