Devil Dinosaur Omnibus

Jack Kirby was always a powerhouse comic book artist, but his work in the 1970s is among the most amazing of his career as well as the most divisive. I say divisive because Kirby’s work in that decade took some often strange turns — sometimes producing amazing classics and sometimes producing fascinating failures.

I have to place Devil Dinosaur in the latter category. This short-lived series only ran eight issues in 1978 and, according to Tom Brevoort’s introduction in the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus edition I just finished reading, it was an attempt by Kirby to capitalize for Marvel on some interest an animation studio had in the Kamandi series he created for DC.

Kamandi itself was an oddball series, reportedly inspired by the Planet of the Apes movies, the first issue of that series prominently featured a destroyed Statue of Liberty and was set in a post-apocalyptic future full of mutated half-animals and, of course, the titular last boy on Earth. Even though Kamandi borrows its premise at least partly from a popular movie series, that comic book’s storyline had somewhere to go.

Not so Devil Dinosaur, which flounders partly because it’s a pretty thin concept to begin with and partly because there’s not really any place to take the story. For those who’ve never read this series, Devil Dinosaur is a T-Rex style dinosaur living in prehistoric times who is burned by a mad mob of early human “small folk” and emerges bright red in color. He teams up with a young “Dawn-Man” named Moon-Boy, and together they defend their valley home from various threats.

A typical panel from Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur.
The first problem is that Devil Dinosaur is not human and can’t speak. Kirby constantly attributes human emotions to Devil, both in the narration and through Moon-Boy’s dialogue, such as loyalty and a willingness to fight. But in the end,he’s still a dinosaur drawn so that even Kirby can’t get any kind of expressiveness into his fang-filled face. And Moon-Boy’s habit of shouting out plot points and talking to himself may be in the good tradition of comic book heroes, but it’s also very strange with a partner who can’t even add a “Great Scott!” to the discourse.

The first three issues concern threats from various beasts and tribes of ape-like men attacking Devil and Moon-Boy, and in each case Devil’s too strong and strong-willed for anyone to beat for more than a moment.

The next few issues concern aliens coming to prehistoric Earth, forcing Devil and Moon-Boy to evade alien weapons and such, followed by an attack from the “Dino-Riders” and a final issue in which Devil falls through a time portal to 1978 Nevada.

Devil visits modern Nevada in Devil Dinosaur #9 (Dec. 1978), written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inks by Mike Royer. 
Reading these stories, I can’t help but think there’s not too many more ideas that were going to really work with this series had it managed to continue beyond its meager nine-issue run. Unlike Kamandi, where all kinds of strange things could be invented and thrown into the plot, the prehistoric setting of Devil Dinosaur left the only believable opponents to be other beasts and cavemen.

Despite those limitations, Kirby’s scripting on the series is, I think, pretty good and on a par with a lot of the better-regarded series he did in this era.

It’s also interesting to note that there are no connections of any kind to the Marvel Universe — something that would just not happen anymore given the corporate demands for synergistic universes in comics.

An example of how Kirby could compose the hell out of any panel, courtesy of Devil Dinosaur #1 (April 1978).

The strongest element in the entire package is — no surprise, I’m sure — Kirby’s artwork. The early issues particularly have some fantastic compositions, designs and that distinctive Kirby design style. Every issue has a double-page spread right after the splash page, and each of the is worth soaking in and enjoying. Early issues also have some fantastic panels and sequences in which Kirby shows more command of composition and style than any dozen of today’s comics artists put together. The effort does seem to slack off a bit in the last couple of issues, however, perhaps because Kirby knew at that point that poor sales was about to claim yet another of his comic series.

In the end, these are some pretty-to-look-at comics that offer only a fleeting — if strangely satisfying — thrill.