October 30, 2017

, , , , , , ,   |  

Understanding Kirby #2: Tales of Suspense #15
"Goom! The Thing From Planet X"

For Jack Kirby's Centennial year, I will be taking a dive into his comics and trying to figure out what a Jack Kirby comic really is.  We'll continue this monthly series with a look at a Jack Kirby monster comic, perfect for Halloween.  "Goom! The Thing From Planet X" can be found in Monsters Unleashed Prelude from Marvel Comics.

In the early 1960s, before he would revolutionize superhero comics with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby returned to Marvel comics and drew their monster comics. In titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense, Kirby, Lee, and Lee’s brother Larry Lieber would begin to create something that looked more like comics of the 1960s than like anything that had come before but it still wasn’t quite the comics that would make Kirby the King.

These comics would tell tales of monsters invading helpless and unsuspecting towns. They had names like Grottu, Gorgilla, Groot, Vandoom, and Rommbu plastered over the covers. This short span of Marvel Comics would basically feature a monster-of-the-month on their way to having some kind of morality tale about both healthy doses of acceptance and fear. Sometimes these monsters looked to take over the world from space. Sometimes they were man-made, a folly of our own scientific mistakes. And now and again, they were misunderstood creatures, an evolutionary step that existed for our own protection.


One of the otherworldly invaders was Goom, from Tales of Suspense #15. In a quest for hidden planets, a scientist from our world broadcast signals into space and discovered planet just behind Jupiter. There, Goom received the broadcasts and found a world that he could conquer. This orange, bulbous-headed creator threatened the world with his technology to destroy mountains and his powers to de-age people. He was set to become Earth’s newest dictator until others from his planet came, far more peaceful and benevolent, to take their rogue madman away.

Kirby’s work here presages some of his greatest creations of the Marvel age. The story (unclear if it was written by Stan Lee or Larry Lieber) also provides glimpses of what’s to come. Goom himself looks like a prototype Ben Grimm while acting like an otherworldly threat that the Fantastic Four or the Hulk would be battling in just a few years. After almost a decade of working on romance comics, Kirby’s art here plays on the fears that Americans lived with throughout the 1950s before it would transform into the heroes of the Marvel age.

This in-between storytelling of the past (romance) and future (superheroes) shares the sense of melodrama that Kirby could do so easily. Inked by Dick Ayers here, Kirby is already a master at getting his characters to “act.” From stern, disapproving glances to ultimate fear of Goom’s powers to even the relief that Goom is an anomaly among his people, Kirby sells his characters actions and emotions in his very dramatic fashion. For all of the talk of Kirby’s power, it’s his character work that’s maybe his greatest strength. And that character work is fully on display in these pages. 
The monster designs, particularly that of Goom, are pretty ridiculous. An American’s take on kaiju, Kirby’s monsters are actually pretty soft and non-descript. There’s only a handful of these monsters who have had any staying power like Groot (and the current incarnation of Groot is quite different than the original invader) and Fin Fang Foom. And while Goom’s son Googam shows up a few issues later, there’s not a lot to set these characters as timeless designs. Instead, Kirby’s generic designs lend even more credence to the monster-of-the-month schedule these stories must have been on.

The charm of these comics is in seeing our hopes and fears of that time translated into these tales of monsters and aliens. Kirby, Lee and/or Lieber’s tale of Goom preys on both the fears and hopes that we have of the unknown. While other stories are either more pessimistic of mankind’s fare while others have a remarkably hopeful beat at the end, Goom’s story straddles the line in its visions of the future. In what we don’t know exists both monsters and allies. It’s a remarkably even-keeled conclusion that leaves its reader feeling as unsettled as it leaves them reassured in the goodness of existence.

In Tales of Suspense #15 as well as all of these monster comics, Kirby and his co-creators start laying the groundwork for the Marvel Universe. In the next couple of years, Kirby and Stan Lee would take these fantastic creatures and make them humans. Instead of Goom and Gooram, they would become Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom. Spider-Man and the Hulk are just humanized versions of these monsters. Of course, when they do that, the monsters become teenagers and citizens of the United States. The otherness of these threats become metaphors for how we live and act in our society. These monster comics lay the groundwork for the very human stories that they would begin telling in Fantastic Four #1.

Next month I'll be looking taking a slight step back in time with  Jack Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown comics.