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Monday, August 17, 2015

Panel Vision - The Origins of Devil Dinosaur

Edited by Robert Beach 

Based on the monster success of Jurassic World, the hype for Pixar’s upcoming The Good Dinosaur, and the knee-jerk reactionary nature of geek media reporting that I so thrive in, dinosaurs are about to be the next big thing. Even if that’s not the case, Marvel comics certainly seems to think so as they’ve green lit a new comic iteration of the 1978 character Devil Dinosaur. 

This new comic will revolve around the adventures of Devil Dinosaur in modern day as he pals around with his new human friend Moon Girl, a young black girl. This is great news for me because I’ve been a fan of Devil Dinosaur since high school, but it occurs to me a lot of folks excited about this announcement don’t know much about the classic Devil Dinosaur. Allow me to enlighten you. 


Devil Dinosaur's Big Bang: Jack Kirby

Long-time readers of my blog should not at all be surprised by my love for Devil Dinosaur as it was a ‘70s comic written and drawn by Marvel universe co-creator Jack Kirby. After Stan Lee and Bob Kane, I’d like to think Jack Kirby is one of the few comic authors most non-fans know off the top of their head. In case you don’t, here’s the deal. 

Jack Kirby teamed with Stan Lee to create pretty much all of the early Marvel universe like the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, the X-Men, and the Avengers. Even though Kirby didn’t stay on most of those titles he eventually transitioned to drawing and writing, making a huge mark on Thor and Fantastic Four.  He eventually ended up bouncing back and forth between DC Comics and Marvel for nearly a decade. 

During that time, he created the character of Kamandi for DC Comics as a Planet of the Apes pastiche. It was basically a post-apocalyptic adventure comic starring the last boy on Earth, Kamandi. The comic proved popular and, for a time, DC planned to produce an animated series.  That never happened by the hype for its possibility led Marvel to contract Kirby to produce the Marvel version of Kamandi. Basically, he was being asked to produce a copy of his copy of Planet of the Apes. The result was Devil Dinosaur

Devil Dinosaur's Original Universe

Given the weird history surrounding Devil Dinosaur, and how late it comes in Kirby’s career, it’s impressive how awesome the comic is. The series is a weird blend of ideas due to the new concepts Kirby was being exposed to at the time of writing. The early issues play as fairly standard prehistoric adventure pulp in the vein of One Million Years B.C. or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. 

Cavemen, dinosaurs, volcanoes, tar pits, and everything an adolescent reader might desire from a comic with a giant red dinosaur on the cover appear here. There’s a fairly interesting central dynamic with Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur’s shared origin. The idea is that Moon Boy is a Cro-Magnon, a newer and more intelligent species of hominid.  Because of this, Moon Boy and his people have a closer connection with animals than the villainous Neanderthals. 

In the first issue, we see how Moon Boy stumbled upon a tribe of Neanderthals about to eat T-Rex babies after killing their mother. Fire engulfed the whole party with only one baby Rex surviving and turning bright red. I love the lunacy that Devil Dinosaur couldn’t just be a random T-Rex Moon Boy befriended; he needed his own origin and super powers. I also like the subtle commentary of how Moon Boy’s people are more in harmony with nature and aware of its power than the less-developed Neanderthals; however, things don’t get really weird till issue 4, and that’s when the aliens show up. 

When Prehistoric Aliens Attack

Issues 4-7 comprises of a full arc of strange alien beings coming to prehistoric Earth and experimenting on the dinosaur and caveman population, a really cool and engaging story that takes a lot of great turns. The alien animal arc is an amazing spectacle; there’s an incredible sequence where Devil Dinosaur becomes the leader of Moon Boy’s tribe, add on a great second act where the alien computer system becomes a sentient threat. In case the alien angle seems a little out of left field, it actually makes a lot of sense given Kirby’s fascination in the era.

2 years prior to Devil Dinosaur, Kirby had been called upon to adapt the film 2001: A Space Odyssey to comic form. His adaptation is weird, focusing on the monolith as a tool for shaping human inspiration and evolution, but the series really shaped his work going forward. It’s where he first dove into caveman and dinosaur stories, for it’s also where he first encountered the now ubiquitous ancient astronauts theory. The impact of this concept is spread across a lot of Kirby’s late ‘70s work, most notably his creation The Eternals (a race of demigods created by alien manipulation of the human race in the far past). It only makes sense he’d find a way to integrate the same concept into a comic set in Earth’s far past.  

Kirby and Goldberg at the Top of Their Game 

Putting aside all the sci-fi craziness and fun prehistoric adventure, what really shines about the series is the artwork. Even though this was one of Kirby’s last mainstream comic creations, he hasn’t lost an ounce of talent. The exaggerated features and inherently unreal nature of the Stone Age world is a perfect fit for Kirby’s blocky and exaggerated style. The dinosaur renderings are incredibly fun, and the monster fights are top notch while the newly imagined stuff like a giant mutant caveman, the aliens, and a group of dino-riders are really well designed. Also, the alien monsters are some of Kirby’s best alien designs. 

However, the highlight of the comic is a series of 2-page spreads. For the first 6 issues, Devil Dinosaur would always open with a 2-page spread, and everyone of them is amazing: glorious action scenes, psychedelic renderings of weird alien vessels, beautiful prehistoric landscapes filled to the brim with dinosaurs. They’re some of the best comic art I’ve seen. Special mention also has to go to Petra Goldberg, the colorist on the series.  His color work is incredible, the perfect complement for Kirby’s designs.  Every panel pops in just the right way and nothing ever looks lost, blended, or crowded and that’s all thanks to Goldberg’s coloring.  

The Dinosaur Lost to Time 

After the series ended with 9 issues, Devil Dinosaur was relegated to one-shots and brief cameo appearances going forward. Probably his strangest appearance was in Marvel’s Godzilla comic. In the sequences, Godzilla attacks a movie set where a crew is filming “Devil Dinosaur the Movie” complete with an animatronic devil dinosaur that fights Godzilla. It’s an incredibly surreal sequence, much like Marvel’s Godzilla comic overall, but that’s a story for another day. 

For now, I’m happy that Devil Dinosaur is coming back to comic stands even if the new series has some big shoes to fill in the art department. I’m sure that we can expect a much more sophisticated story and character focus in the new series, yet it’s hard to imagine how they’ll top the original comic in terms of sheer artistic caliber. In the mean time, check out the original comics and see some of the best art that time forgot. 

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