Monday, August 28, 2017

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF KIRBY

In honor of Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday, here (with a couple of minor revisions) is an essay I first posted back in 2010.  Enjoy!



Like most people too in love with their own opinions, I’m fond of sweeping statements, and one of the sweeping statements I often toss out when the subject of comic books comes up is this:  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the two formidable talents who forged the Marvel Age of Comics—and, one might argue, all comics that followed—were the Lennon and McCartney of their medium.  Rock and roll and comic books were two of my greatest passions growing up and the link has always seemed obvious to me.  The Beatles, led by John and Paul, redefined popular music in the sixties, just as Marvel, led by Stan and Jack, redefined comics.  (Not that DC was sitting around doing nothing, mind you...any more than Dylan, the Stones and the Who were; but the Beatles and Marvel, at least in this writer’s opinion, were way ahead of the pack.)  But all that blew apart when the decade turned.

Those of you too young to have been comics fans in 1970—that tumultuous twelve months of Kent State, student strikes and Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip—can’t begin to grasp the impact that three words—”Kirby Is Here!”—had when they appeared on the cover of, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.  I was sixteen, a devoted Marvel follower, and still naive enough to believe that Lee and Kirby were as inseparable as, well, Lennon and McCartney.  Of course 1970 was also the year in which the Beatles publicly disintegrated, as well.  “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang—and it certainly was.  Across the board.  Across the country.  The idealism, the optimism, the inspired lunacy of the sixties—which had spread throughout our culture via music, film, novels, and, yes, comics—was beginning to turn sour.  Let’s face it:  if Stan and Jack, if John and Paul, couldn’t keep it together, what possible chance did the rest of us have?  (This sounds incredibly silly now, but, believe me, this was an unbelievably urgent question then.  At least to me.) 

But the energy and enthusiasm of those years was still pushing us forward and, in some ways, the creative energy of the early seventies surpassed the sixties.  Sure, the Beatles were a dead issue, but the music Lennon produced in the years after the split, most notably the brilliant John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, was some of the most powerful, important music rock and roll had ever heard.   (I told you I was fond of sweeping statements.)  And this music was produced as a direct result of Lennon’s boredom with the Beatles, of his pulling away from McCartney’s influence, from the security of success.  He danced out on a limb, the limb held, and the result was Art.


The same can be said of Kirby.  With Lee, he had taken mainstream comics and turned them inside out, upside down, and left his mark forever (just as he’d already done, in earlier times, with Joe Simon:  Kirby, it seemed, never met a revolution he didn’t like).  But, as his later Marvel work too clearly showed, he was bored.  How many times can the Thing turn against his partners?  How often can Loki tiptoe past Odin’s bed and usurp the throne of Asgard?  Pretty often—but too often for a restless limb-dancer like Jack Kirby.  As with Lennon, Kirby’s vision was unique, singular; and, if his collaboration with Lee (as important to Marvel’s success as McCartney was to the Beatles’; neither man should be underestimated) brought Kirby to new levels, those levels had now been attained, a plateau had been reached, and it was time to move on.  Without collaboration.  Artists, real artists, tend to burn.  When they’ve burned long enough, the smoke starts pouring through their lips and they’ve got to spit the fire out. 

In 1970, Jack Kirby jumped from Marvel to DC and started spitting fire.  The fire was called The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Jimmy Olsen and Forever People.  Books as important to comics as Lennon’s POB album was to rock.  Books that opened new doors, set new standards, did things that comics had never dared to do before.  New Gods was clearly the most focused, perhaps the best of the bunch; Mister Miracle offered the most flat-out fun; Jimmy Olsen was as wonderfully bizarre, in its way, as those Silver Age stories that featured Jimmy turning into aliens, werewolves and giant turtles.  Forever People—which featured Kirby’s cosmic hippies, the embodiment of youth and naivete, idealism and dreams—was my personal favorite; encapsulating, as it did, Kirby’s (and my own) hope for the future.  True, the dialogue in these stories was sometimes awkward—but dialogue was never Kirby’s forte.  Story-telling was.  Spirit was.  Vision was.  And these stories had them all.  They ran, they rambled, they surprised, they exploded.  (The language often did the same thing:  the dialogue, as noted, may have been clunky, but Kirby’s prose was also so wildly passionate, so utterly idiosyncratic, that it achieved a kind of mad poetic grandeur.)  There seemed no definite beginning, middle, or end; there was just the constant search, the quest for an intangible something that could never be defined.  The characters themselves couldn’t be called three dimensional, in the conventional sense, but they existed in a dimension all their own.   Orion and Lightray, Scott and Barda, Big Bear, Serafin, Desaad and, perhaps the greatest villain in the history of comic books, Darkseid:  these were people that I, as a reader, cared passionately about.  I enjoyed their company—and looked forward to their evolution.  Unfortunately, for reasons that I’ve never heard adequately explained, that evolution was cut short.  With the exception of Mister Miracle (which staggered on for several more issues), all the “Fourth World” titles were axed.

But you can’t kill a dream—and these stories live on, resonating not just through the DC Universe but all of popular culture.  The word genius is one that’s often overused, and cheapened by that overuse, but if the comic book business has ever produced a genius, Jack Kirby was it:  a genius who taught me that keeping my eyes wide, focused both on the limitless heavens and the infinite universes within the human heart, is the surest way to creating stories that matter.

The “Fourth World” saga was unquestionably Kirby's magnum opus.  If you’ve read it before, I urge you to read it again.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to put aside your preconceptions, grab the first volume of the Fourth World Omnibus and surrender to one of the 20th Century’s master storytellers.


© copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis 

45 comments:

  1. Personally, I think that you both do a disservice to Lee and Kirby, and vastly over praise Lennon and McCartney by drawing that comparison.

    Jack

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    1. You are free to think whatever you'd like, Jack!

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    2. Of course, you are always free to have the correct opinion.

      I still remember the first time I experienced the Fourth World. I was 18 and it was powerful,It was like

      Jack

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    3. It was like a punch in the face you wanted to thank the guy for.

      It was like a sun exploding in your face.

      IN all honesty, I think Kirby was better with Lee, and the Fourth World proved Lee was a MAJOR contributing factor. I think Starlin did cosmic better. But there was something about The Fourth World.

      It was raw, it was visceral. Almost violent to your brain.No polish, now style, just an explosion of imagination.

      It started with a trade about Mr. Miracle. I couldn't place what I liked about it. The pages of escape explanation were dull... but I couldn't look away from the rest.
      I even wanted a Frey leather jacket. True statement. And typing this, I kind of still do.

      I went to the comic shop and had them order me the New Gods, Forever People, and teh back half of Mr. Miracle. Keep in mind. I'm a teenager, in High school, in a middle-working class family in Metro-Detroit. I'm not made of money here.

      I sought out the Hunger Dogs for an affordable price with all teh pages (no easy task.

      In a month I had read almost all of Kirby's Fourth World (the Hunger Dogs lead in that was in the 80s reprint, came later).

      I was inspired, my mind was exploding. Yes, the Fantastic Four was better, more connectable (again Lee), but this was a chain reaction in my mind. I couldn't stop doodling crazy cosmic stuff in my notebooks when I sat in class.

      Remember, this was decades after it saw print.

      Jack

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    4. I can believe it, Jack. Kirby's work just seems to get better with time. I was just reading a piece by Mark Evanier where he said that every time he revisits the Fourth World he finds something new he never saw before.

      "I was inspired, my mind was exploding." That really gets to the heart of it!

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    5. I wouldn't quite go that far. The Fourth world, sure that may be a rolling snowball. However, in all honesty, I cringed pretty hard as I read his solo Captain America from the 70s. Rough stuff.

      I have a theory about the Fourth World. Marvel is Stan Lee's baby. I don't mean to diminish the effects of Kirby, Ditko, Romita, or anyone else. But, Lee was the guy pouring the words i the characters mouth, he was the editor. It was mad e in his image, and that image was one of reality and naturalism. Things might become fantastic, but teh people were very every day.

      Just as that was a rebellion against the stagnant superheroes of the 50s and early 60s DC, I believe the New Gods were a rebellion against more natural characters. Or at least to say there should be a place in the industry for less human people.

      The classic Silver Surfer debate shows this as well. Lee was right by the way, Kirby's was basically the Vision.

      I would also like to point out, that DC's way of dealing with the New Gods is probably why it was cancelled at issue #11. A sprawling epic that comes out every other month... that isn't a great way to eep something going. I mean, I get that the multiple books were probably assumed to fill in the gaps, but I don't think they did. I think it was a book a week(New Gods, Mr. Miracle, Forever People, Jimmy Olsen), it would have gone on longer.

      Of course, publishing was different then, you can't blame some one for working with in the constrains of teh time.

      Jack

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    6. Jack was trying to invent something new to comics: a genuine, interlocking epic that flowed and built from title to title and would eventually come to a conclusion. (MY memory, and it could be wrong, was that the books came out two each month.) And Jack's dream, according to Mark Evanier, was for the saga to be collected in the kinds of graphic novel collections we take for granted today, but which didn't exist back then.

      In any case, yes, Kirby's vision far outreached the constraints of the time and he did the very best with what was available.

      Speaking of Silver Surfer: I understand both points of view on the character. I love Stan's "Christ on a surfboard"—the first six issues of the Lee-Buscema Surfer are among my favorite comics ever, not far behind the Fourth World—but I also respond to Jack's "alien on the outside looking in." A kind of Spock on a surfboard, trying desperately to understand the human race.

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    7. Yes, yes, I kn ow all about Mr. Evanier's claims. Including Kirby's goal of acting as editors to other creators as they expanded it out from Him, which would probably have robbed us of a lot of work from Starlin and Simonson's ilk.

      Of course,the three biggest Kirby Devotees (Starlin, Simonson, and Byrne) all had significant contributions to the Fourth World mythos.

      I remember Evanier talking about claims that Kirby changed his name because he was ashamed of his Jewish heritage. Which of course is ludicrous.

      But I remember thinking how weird it would be for anyone who read the fourth world could think that. There was a lot of Jewish imagery in the New Gods. IN fact, three fourth world books show the evolution of Jews over time, with the New Gods as the biblical era, Mr. Miracle as immigrants coming to America (the real homeland), and The Forever People a post-war American Jews. And of course, they can all co-mingle, beacuse few ethnic groups are as aware of history as the Chose People.

      My favorite however is his Last... Bekka. I just love that was the name that he chose.

      For any Gentiles who don't know many Jewish women, for some reason I have never figured out. Jewish women named Rebecca are way more likely to go by Becca opposed to Becky, which is usually shiksas.

      Am I the only one that noticed that?

      Jack

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    8. I fervently disagree about Silver Surfer. Kirby's idea was well worn idea in science fiction, even by 1966.

      Which is fine, but to make it work, you really have to have a strong grasp on characterization to work. Kirby did not.

      He DID have Lee. But he then has to expect Lee to go with an idea he didn't think was good.

      And there is some irony in that. The issue people forget is that the Lee-Kirby Lee -Dtiko feuds were about Lee saying the TRUEST creator was who had the idea first.

      I don't necessarily agree with that, but I understand it. It isn't malicious.

      However, Kirby in the Silver Surfer believed he as the guy who had the first idea should have more sway.

      Comic creators are people, kids. They can have jumbled logic too.


      Jack

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    9. Interesting take on NEW GODS through a Jewish lens, Jack.

      I'm glad Kirby didn't turn the Fourth World into a line of books that he edited. As much fun as it would have been to see Romita, Heck, et al tackle those characters, the Fourth World Saga was so profoundly personal that I can't imagine it working. At least not on the same level. That said, Kirby editing other books with a group of classic Marvel creators would have been VERY interesting. Maybe in some parallel universe...

      Bekka of the New Gods became the Wonder Woman of Bruce Timm's GODS AND MONSTERS animated movie. I wrote the prequel comics series and loved that character. Maybe my favorite version of Wonder Woman. (Heresy, I know!)

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    10. The truest creator was the one who had the idea first, but there's some major disagreement with WHO had some of those ideas first! And that's a skein we may never unravel. And maybe it's more magical if we don't!

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    11. Well, Lee came up with the Fantastic FOur (and Spider-Man) in the first place. Memos have been published that proved this. And he never denied Kirby drew the Surfer first.

      As for Bekka, ell I guess first am I the only one that noticed the Becca/Becky thing?

      More importantly, Bekka was involved in my disillusionment with the Bat.

      There was a story (after she had met Orion) where she falls head over heels for Batman for a bit. And that was when Batman finally crossed that line of being WAAAY to unapproachable amazing.

      And that was the last thing she ever did, since her death at the end of the story began DEATH OF THE NEW GODS.

      Jack

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    12. There are differing opinions about who came up with Spider-Man, so that's hardly set in stone. As for the FF, I know about Stan's original outline, but that doesn't mean he didn't discuss it in detail with Jack before writing it up—as the similarity with Kirby's CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN underscores. That said, I don't want to get into a "who did what" debate. People have been engaging in that for years and they both deserve credit for all they did together.

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    13. Okay, that's fair. And they do certainly both deserve credit. Anyone but Kirby's art would not have had the sheer power, and as for Lee... well, I think we have all seen how characters come out when Kirby has no help.

      I will just say, Ditko has never disputed Lee coming up with the initial ideas. In a fanzine he did a drawing that said as much. Which is weird, because it was one out of anger.

      Second, just as you don't see the connections between the New Gods and Star Wars, I think the connections between the FF and challenger of the Unknown are overblown.

      You want to talk about an unoriginal concept, groups of adventurers goes back to the Victorian era.

      Challengers have no power, real personality, or many of the hallmarks for the FF. They are far more similar to Doc Savage and his crew (only for the atomic age)... but less developed as characters. Many of the similarities came later on to emulate the higher selling Fantastic Four.

      Still an amazing talent mind you, he just had more inspiration for many of his works than many people are willing to admit. It is part of the deification of the man, no one wants to admit he used the same avenue creators often use. People want to believe it is some what more mystical. People also want to believe he was taken advantage of, because it is a better story.

      I just want to point out one thing that everyone forgets, unlike your precious Beatles, Lee and Kirby DID have their reunion album, and kept i at least some kind of friendly contact int the decade before Kirby died. Facts often forgotten by those who want it to be just one guy who got screwed over.

      Jack

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  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCu84_vbT48


    Jack

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  3. When I was younger if it had Kirby I bought it. Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, New Gods, Topps had those comics for a minute. It was Kirby and it was always breath taking.
    Now, let's talk about this withdrawal problem I'm having. I'm missing Justice League Dark more with each passing month. They have a film coming and the animated feature. Where in the heck is my comic book?

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    1. There's also a John Constantine solo animated series coming to CW Seed in 2018. But the comic? I have no clue. DC doesn't tell me these things!

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    2. I have never been a huge fan of John's. He works in the JLD for me, but his solo stuff I have read about half of it with no desire to go further. I think someone needs to have a chat with DC. Also, I need a collection of Dr. Fate and would appreciate some new Phantom Stranger. There! That's my Christmas list for this year.

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    3. Re: Doctor Fate. This was listed on Amazon UK:

      https://www.amazon.co.uk/Immortal-Doctor-Fate-Martin-Pasko/dp/140125876X

      It includes the mini that I did with Giffen. Here's hoping it comes out here, too!

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    4. If it comes out here, great. If not, I'm paying the extra postage when it becomes available next year. Thanks, man!

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    5. You're welcome. And I might have to do the same!

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    6. Douglas, when You say that you read half of Constantine's stuff, did that include the 300 issues of Vertigo?

      Because those are VERY different animals. DC tied writers hands behind their backs in the New 52 in the first solo series, and the one after that was... I won't get into it.

      The NEw York era stuff is not the best way to gauge the character. A lot of back office politics and desire to turn him into a "lunchbox character." Had mixed results.

      I do remember a comic writer saying John was like Lennon.. of course the same creator compared Christ to John Lennon, so grain of salt.

      Dematteis... go read Vertigo Hellblazer. Douglas, I await further knowledge of Your experience with John.

      Jack

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    7. I am more familiar with the Vertigo version of Constantine than you may realize. That said, I loved writing the New 52 John in JLD and I think Ray Fawkes did an excellent job with the CONSTANTINE monthly.

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    8. The problem with Fawkes is run was that he clearly wanted to do a Vertigo style book, but had road blocks thrown in his way.

      When they revealed the NEW 52 origin for John... it hurt. I realized it can never be THAT John again. So, good or bad, that is not an easy pill to swallow.


      Jack

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    9. My Constantine experience is almost all Vertigo. Unless you count the excellent JLD. He was pretty good in that as well. I am currently working through the Vertigo issues of Black Orchid.

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    10. Well Mr. Waltz, I am admittedly a curious as to why you read a 150 issues of a character that didn't do it for you, but as for not liking him... whatever.

      Vertigo under Ms. Berger is similar to Image now. There were/are a lot of books you can look at and say, "this is pretty well done... but it is not something I want to read.' Niche work. Nothing wrong with that.

      And how bg of a jackass would I have to be to say what I like has to be liked by everyone?

      John is admittedly a hard character to like. That was sort of the point, hell in Swamp Thing that was MORE than the point.

      We all have different levels of bastard we can take in characters. I can cling to the goodness John wishes he could be, and that hope. You need something firmer? No prob.

      Or maybe it is one of the other million reasons someone might not like ANY character.

      I mean for God's sake, there are enough people who think Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a story worth praising, that it is getting a massive rel-release this week.

      People are strange. while I do wish you would fix john with a different eye, and see what he has to offer, it you don't like him than you don't like him. No harm no foul.

      JAck

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    11. I'll let that snipe at CLOSE ENCOUNTERS go, Jack. But if aliens show up at your house tonight, don't be surprised.

      As for John C: From what I know about the upcoming Constantine animated project, I think you'll like it.

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    12. I didn't even know there was a John Constantine animated project.

      As for Close Encounters, no snipe, just observation.

      It is a film about abandoning your family, but only after ignoring them. I also believe that he had a small child, and was a primary source of income.

      If you replace aliens with booze, or some chick he met at a bar, there would be no sympathy.

      It is a crystallization of every negative stereotype of Baby boomers. Not only is it active selfishly, but being applauded for it.

      Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer is the best possible comparison in terms of character. Of course she may have been portrayed in a negative light, but she was supposed to have a lot more sympathy than she deserved.


      At least John hates himself for being a bastard.

      Jack

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  4. Jack, back in the day I had much more disposable income than I do now and Vertigo was such a wondrous place. If it was Vertigo, I bought it. Hellblazer was on that list. I read it for a long time, but then things happen and budgets get slashed for one reason or another. Hellblazer was one of the cuts. It held my interest the least. If you forced me to tell you my favorite Vertigo series it would always be Sandman Mystery Theater. That needs to be in a collected volume. I would buy it without hesitation.

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  5. Okay, here is a question, Dematteis...

    You have talked about how great anthologies were in your early days, do you ever wish they were back?

    I mean from a creative standpoint for you.

    Jack

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    1. Simple answer: Yes. I've often said that my dream gig would be writing for a TWILIGHT ZONE-like anthology show, where you get to write a different story ever week.

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    2. So, your dream job is to exit comics. Can't say I can blame you these days. Gotta get while the getting is good. No one wants be left with that check.

      However, if you did work on an anthology TV show, you would only actually write a story maybe, MAYBE once a month. Staff and all.

      However, Dynamite DOES have the rights to Twilight Zone comics, and have no current Twilight Zone projects.

      I actually have always thought an anthology could do alright in comics if you used established creators and say it is their chance to "cut loose."

      Probably wouldn't rival Spidey or Bats, but I think that it could have solid, at least Berger era-Vertigo, sales.

      Start out as a mini-series and say point blank in the end, "if this works, it goes ongoing." Maybe bring in writers like Stephen King who have an affinity for the medium.

      Jack

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    3. Yeah, I think it would need top-tier creators to work. But it would be great.

      But I still want to write my anthology TV show!

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    4. Of course you still want to write our anthology show, no one wants to be on the S.S. comic Book when that ship sinks.

      And what do you mean by top-tier exactly? Does Len Wein count? That was the first name that popped into my head.

      also mention Stephen King as you recall.

      I feel this s doomed to be another comic a say should happen and then someone else does it to less effect.


      Jack

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    5. Len is ALWAYS top-tier in my book!

      And if that new kid Stephen King is looking for a break, who am I to say no? (Especially since this project doesn't exist!)

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    6. "new kid?" Didn't he write (or something) for the same comic that premiered Greenberg the Were-bat... or whatever he was?

      I don't think there will be a chance for that anthology, even if it could sell decently.

      With the recent announcement that comic sales dropped off 25% in just a year, my guess it will be all hands on deck for and company that could or would publish it.

      I think everyone involved in comics (creators, publishers, readers, distributors, and retailers) are all going to be holding our breaths and be in for some times.

      They are saying there hasn't been that big of a drop off since right after the crash, in 97. And there was more product THEN.

      But, isn't the real question, do you think that Stephen King's Children of teh Corn is (or was intended to be) the spiritual sequel to Bradbury's "Zero Hour"

      A lii to jog your memory if you don't remember the actual Bradbury story from memory
      https://dmacarthur1.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/zero-hour-by-ray-bradbury.pdf

      Jack

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    7. I remember ZERO HOUR very well. Along with reading the story, I've got a few wonderful radio adaptations. CHILDREN OF THE CORN? Don't think I've ever read the story or seen the movie.

      And, yes, I believe that kid King did have a story in the same issue as the first GREENBERG story. Always riding on my coattails!

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    8. Well, Children of the Corn is about a g guy and gal that run across a town in Nebraska, where they can't find any adults.

      They can't find any adults, because all the kids in the town killed them under the command of a mysterious and malevolent force (who may or may not be Randall Flag), who speaks to them through a child preacher.

      They then kill any adults who came into their town.

      So you know, it does seem sort of similar in basic idea.

      Of course I do enjoy Zero Hour more... no disrespect to King.

      AS far as him riding your coat tails... I heard that was just King doing his Six-Fingered Hand saga.


      Jack

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    9. Everything I do, six months later that King kid does the same thing!

      For your listening and dancing pleasure:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fb3HIxgOLjY

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    10. I heard that the first draft of the Langoliers was basically Kraven's Last Hunt, the second draft basically just the Batman punching Gut Gardner issue. That editor really saved King from a Law Suit.

      Thanks for the link, but I already have it on CD.


      Jack

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    11. X MINUS ONE is one of my favorite Old Time Radio shows. I've been re-listening to them in the car the past few weeks. Such great stuff.

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    12. X-Minus One is great so is Dimension X.

      I will say this, despite the fact it is a different genre, my favorite old time radio opening s "I am the whistler, and I know many things for I walk by night."

      Jack

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    13. I know THE WHISTLER more from parodies done on the JACK BENNY SHOW than from the WHISTLER show itself.

      And, yes, DIMENSION X is great. A lot of the same scripts were done on both DX and XMO.

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