Let me begin by saying this: Jack Kirby was a genius, in every sense of the word.
Kirby was also astonishingly prolific, having an entire portfolio of ideas from the ’70s and ’80s that were never truly completed, much less adopted into print. Along came Topps Comics, a subsidiary of the trading card company of the same name and one of the practically countless companies that mushroomed in the comics boom of the early ’90s (and withered away in the crash of the late ’90s/early ’00s). With an eye toward long-time readers of comics, Topps licensed some of Kirby’s old concepts to form the basis for the company’s very own “Kirbyverse.” Granted most of the titles under the Kirbyverse umbrella would be written and drawn by people who were distinctly not Jack Kirby, who would pass away the year after “Satan’s Six” was published, but these were still concepts from the same mind that gave us the X-Men, the New Gods, the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Newsboy Legion, and Destroyer Duck.
One of those unused concepts that probably lied in a file cabinet in Kirby’s home for many years was “Satan’s Six,” which is a great title however you cut it. Kirby had come up with the premise, most of the character concepts, and had even scripted and drew eight pages. When Topps picked up the license, they had Tony Isabella (probably best known for his run on “Ghost Rider” and as the creator of DC Comics’ “Black Lightning”) write a script incorporating Kirby’s pages with art by John Cleary (who didn’t do much outside this series, except some work for Image Comics in the early-mid ’90s). Whatever Kirby originally envisioned with this series, and info on what “The King” himself had in mind with “Satan’s Six” is surprisingly scarce, the published result was, in spite of the title, a light-hearted comedic romp, just about the adventures of a group of wayward souls trying to earn passage into Hell.
Topps certainly treated the comic like a fan’s dream event, having big names like Frank Miller, Terry Austin, and Steve Ditko ink single pages while the pages Kirby originally drew and scripted were included in full (albeit far from seamlessly). But…did it merit such attention by so many greats?
I will say that, out of all of Kirby’s ideas brought to light by Topps, “Satan’s Six” is easily the most distinctive. The eponymous six include five human souls from different locales and time periods – a narcissistic knight from King Arthur’s court, a dancer from a Babylonian temple, a Victorian mad scientist, a Zulu warrior disgraced for refusing to harm animals, and a hard-luck gambler from Prohibition-era America – who were all neither virtuous enough to ascend to Heaven or evil enough to be sentenced to Hell. Desperate to end their time in eternity’s waiting room, they all demand entry into Hell at least. A low-level manager of the Abyss finally relents and offers to let them into Hell if they return to Earth and help corrupt souls. At the London nightclub they’re stationed at, they’re finally joined by their “sixth”, a demon with a fondness for heavy artillery named Frightful. Meanwhile the angel Priscilla, who has responsibilities over “comic book characters” (they’re real, except they’re not, but…oh, whatever) has plans to intervene and instead redeem the five, no matter what Frightful and his employers intend…
It’s a fun premise that takes a fairly dark concept – I mean, imagine a group of people so fed up with a bland, desolate afterlife they’re eager to go to Hell, and that same group who without hesitation sign up for a job of leading others into damnation – and builds a zany comedy from it. It’s perfectly possible to have something light-hearted and militantly goofy from even the idea of eternal punishment – after all, Looney Toons had plenty of blunt references to the Devil and Hell – and in the grimdark, macho atmosphere of early ’90s comics “Satan’s Six” still stands out as a nice change of pace. Also it is true that the comic was clearly written for diehard fans; hell, the very first couple of pages include a rather touching tribute to Joe Shuster.
So why was “Satan’s Six” a failure, destined only to be remembered by Kirby fans?
Well, there are plenty of theories. One is that fans were willing to lay down money for something drawn and written by The King, but not old concepts of his handled totally by other people, no matter how well-known or talented in their own right. Another is that Topps failed to stand out in a market that was already oversaturated and being dominated by newcomers like Image/Wildstorm and Valiant. These are probably true, but for me…well, look at the page above and behold the teeth.
I don’t get any delight from blaming the failure of a collaborative work on any single person, but John Cleary’s contribution is…to put it in polite academic-ese, problematic. For starters, saying his style is somewhat influenced by Todd McFarlene is like saying that Oreo cookies are slightly derivative of Hydrox cookies (and no, it’s not the other way around). Then there’s…the teeth. But it’s not just the teeth, it’s that even when his characters are just talking they look like they’re screaming or at least they appear like they’re trying to hold a conversation in the middle of a bowel movement.
It’s not even so much the questionable art choices – after all, this is the era when Rob Liefeld became famous enough that Marvel was willing to hand most of its major properties over to the tender mercies of his pen – but what it’s up against. Compare what’s above to something from Jack Kirby’s original pages:
Put aside arguments about quality; the styles are so different they don’t even seem to belong in the same galaxy, much less the same pages in the same comic. Couldn’t they have hired an artist who would or could closely imitate Kirby’s style? Would that have been so difficult? It’s not like Jack Kirby was the single most influential comic book artist of all time.
To be more positive, Tony Isabella does what he can with what he has. There are some good gags and one-liners, even if the jokes about Arthurian knight Brian’s megalomania make him out less to be a lovable oaf and more an unpleasant sociopath (much like latter-day Homer Simpson, actually) and the Babylonian dancer Dezira is a receptacle for dumb blonde jokes so ancient they probably were uttered in the comedy clubs of Babylon (although, Dezira’s existence notwithstanding, did the have blondes in Babylon?). Honestly, at the risk of blaspheming the King, I think some of the key flaws from the writing front come straight from the original concept. The protagonists really are terribly one-note – literally the only thing we learn about member Harrigan is that he was a gambler from the 1930s – and the subject matter is maybe treated too lightly even in the outlines. Maybe it would have worked better in the ’70s when you had weird and PG-rated yet still edgy occult concepts like Marvel’s “Son of Satan”, and as far as I know maybe comics like that were the original inspiration, but in a grittier medium that had known the pitch-black comedy of Marshal Law and Milk & Cheese, a comic with a premise like this one demanded somewhat darker tones.
Like I said, if you look at it from a certain angle or maybe while standing on your head it does look like an early satire of ’90s comics. Brian the knight kind of does come across as a parody of the macho ’90s superhero. But that might be reading too much into it, and the fact of the matter remains that even an industry veteran like Tony Isabella couldn’t figure out how to take a half-finished concept from Jack Kirby and make it into something that would fit into the medium as it stood in the ’90s and at the exact same time hearken back to the glory days of one of the greatest minds to work in comics and, honestly, any medium.
Oh well, at least the issue also has a “Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre” strip drawn by Steve Ditko.