The Sandman #1 (1974), by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. DC.
It's always fun to cherish history's little failures. 1974 was a doldrum time for the comics medium, more or less the middle of a nadir that lasted from the end of the superhero Silver Age and the collapse of the underground comix market to the re-energizing appearance of Raw and Heavy Metal magazines. It was a time during which one could be forgiven for thinking comics were dying. Perhaps appropriately, it was also the formative time for the direct sales market, the publisher-to-distributor-to-retailer model that replaced newsstand comics sales and remains the dominant mode of commercial exploitation for the art form to this day. As I understood it in the shop as a teenager from the comics-retail crusties who couldn't get anybody but me to listen to their war stories, it was the beginning of comics being marketed as content rather than artifacts. They were being sold by people who both knew and cared, not ones who had more of ground beef or tabloid magazine prices in their heads than superhero worship.
The upshot is that when the team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon -- the men who'd brought forth Captain America, Captain 3-D, the Boy Commandos, the Fighting American, the Guardian, the Blue Bolt, the Fly, the Stuntman, and the entire romance comics genre a generation previous -- re-teamed on a little-remembered WWII-era creation of theirs called the Sandman, the direct market had one of its first Big Deals on its hands. Orders -- and this is all secondhand, but from what I've heard, orders were through the roof. How could the thing not be a blockbuster?
Here's how. For all that Kirby was the greatest artist ever to use the superhero genre, this particular comic caught him at a low point in his career. Emotionally drained by the cancellation of his epic, deeply personal Fourth World saga, and creatively taxed by pulling double or triple duty on a succession of increasingly frenetic, bizarre monthly series that functioned almost completely on the power of raw, unrefined Kirby art and Kirby ideas more than any narrative sense or structure, there was a reason Kirby worked with a writer on this book. King of Comics he may have been, but it's debatable how much a king with a ragtag kingdom is worth. Simon, for his part, was just on some weird shit. DC produced many comics that are better than the ones Simon created during his late-'60s to mid-'70s stint at the publisher, but few stranger. From the hallucinogenic Brother Power the Geek, simultaneously mainstream comics' most benighted and interesting attempt at exploring the same countercultural headwaters that were giving underground comix their success, to the almost disturbingly absurd Prez, a Watergate-informed clusterfuck of a comic about the adventures of a teen President, Simon's DC comics are the work of a true visionary, less commercial objects than totemic symbols of a completely unique voice. That being said, when corporate comics are "less commercial objects" than anything else, that's a problem.
So the early comics retailers ordered big on the shiny new first issue of The Sandman (the idea of comics' collectability was also in the ascendant), and they just kinda sat there. Because this comic is no blockbuster, it's a weird, tired, dashed off fever dream from a genius running on fumes and a great talent long past his sell-by date. It's easy to imagine the fans' disappointment with this kind of comic in 1974, but its wounds are the kind that time heals pretty well. Strange and borderline-incomprehensible it may be, but most midcentury superhero comics read that way these days, honestly. And the past decade or so has birthed a fairly persuasive line of thinking in which dashed off Kirby art is the best kind, all the big stylistic flairs and the crackling aura of the work left untouched by any attempts at prettiness or even boundary pushing. Sandman is Kirby working entirely within the parameters of the style he'd constructed over the past three decades and change, every gesture a stock gesture, every composition one he'd long since made a part of the medium's basic grammar. It comes close to automatic drawing at points, pulled straight from a subconscious repository of "Kirby images" without any interference.
(he ain't even used a ruler on the panel borders there)
That sense of the panels is enhanced by their subject matter: this is a highly surrealistic comic about dreams, a place where all the unique weirdness Kirby had built up since he and Simon parted ways in the '50s with all the equally idiosyncratic bizarrenesses Simon had developed. This is a Kirby comic more than anything else, the unmistakable visual style blazing across every page, a sense of dynamism taking hold long before any of the plot information can, subtlety sledgehammered into a distant memory. But what elevates it above the metric ton of similar work Kirby did in the second half of his tenure at DC is the presence of Simon as writer. Where Kirby had a tendency toward overexplanation, treating his every panel as a complete plot point and sometimes allowing his rambling Beat-Shakespearean narration and dialogue (after a certain point they both basically served the same function) to overtake the power of his panels, Simon is elliptical and vague in a way that serves Kirby much better. This comic really moves, never getting bogged down in exposition and honestly rarely bothering to explain things at all. Simon was a writer far ahead of his time: his presentation of raw, undeveloped ideas and willingness to let them work as content has more to do with the high style of the "pop comics" writers of the 2000s. At its best, this feels like a Kirby comic scripted by Grant Morrison or Mark Millar or Warren Ellis, loud and shouty, with the all reason for the shouting lost between the panel gutters.
Though Simon's plotting is highly elliptical, his scenes have much more flow to them than pretty much anything Kirby ever drew, which forces the artist into a different mode of working than usual: check out his motion-tracking here, with the boy hopping out of bed and into his waders in a single transition between gestures, and then rushing out the door in another. Kirby could do more naturalistic figure animation when he wanted to, but the premium here is on speed and energy, the pictures whipping by faster than even Simon's punchy, to the point dialogue.
Like I said before, Kirby's drawing in this comic is untethered from anything but itself, tapping the depths of the mannerisms that propel it with no time for anything else. It makes sense, then, that the dream scenes are the most fully realized visual moments in the comic, with Kirby constructing everything from whole cloth, no concession to realism necessary. Simon's scripting is up to the task, giving Kirby strong doses of the unsettling strangeness he smeared across everything he was doing at the time to work with.
Then there's this, the single funniest page of comics Kirby ever put pencil to. The setup is pretty basic: this weird doll that a lone shipwrecked sailor bestowed on young Jed in his final moments of life seems to be causing the boy terrible nightmares, so finally his grandfather (who's always regarded it with suspicion because "boys don't play with dolls") just takes it and starts smashing the fuck out of it, just destroying this completely inanimate object for absolutely no logical reason whatsoever. Blocked out in Kirby's hyper-action style, which frames an old man banging a doll against a table in the exact same way as Thor smiting a frost giant with a stone sledgehammer, it reaches a sublime level of ridiculousness, a truly dreamlike place of hyperbolic bizarrerie. The old man's sudden pangs of regret are just as good: completely understandable thoughts of self-reproach in the wake of something that goes beyond all rational comprehension. "How will I ever explain this insanity to Jed?" he asks himself -- for some reason his sober characterization of the actions two panels previous as "insanity" is particularly hilarious -- before referring to the destroyed doll as "that thing", making it clear that remorse only goes so far and he's still got a pathological hatred for the object of his fury.
The subsequent burial of the doll is a rare instance of a wordless Kirby page. It's uncommon to see Kirby's breakdowns this literal, the tracking of moment to moment this clear. Simon's influence is almost certainly at work on this page, and it's delightful to see him pull something this focused on a single moment from his artist. Also, that grandpa just stays creepy.
Here's a panel from another wordless sequence: check out that blank space at the top. I'd bet anything that the words were actually erased from it. The way comics use inherently disconnected images to propel narrative is surrealistic as anything, honestly, and Simon's refusal to lead his every panel off with bridging narration the way pretty much every other '70s comics writer did hints at a deep understanding of the form and the way it could be used to enhance his content.
Another uproarious moment: as any Neil Gaiman fan knows, the Sandman carries around a bag of magic sand that instantly sends anyone whose eyes it's sprinkled in to dreamland. Here, the mysterious vigilante makes his first appearance in the world of the waking to help the cops out with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. When not enough doctors can be found, he uses his magic sand to alleviate the wounded's suffering. But think about how that would look to anybody else! This cat is throwing sand in people's faces! That's a bad thing, not a good thing! It's both entertaining and quite impressive to see Simon acknowledging the bald absurdity of the situations he's presenting, none of which are too different from standard hero-comics action. Honestly, if there's a reason for this comic's existence, that light, playful subversion is it. Cloaked in Kirbyist action storytelling, it reaches a pinnacle that few other comics have known, or even display an awareness of.
It's all so strange that there seems little point in mentioning the overarching story specifics. They're few, and simple, because "story specifics" is less important to this comic than like six or seven other things: the Sandman, Master of Dreams, watches as young Jed acquires his sinister doll, and intervenes when it turns out to be one of many that a group of disgruntled former Axis scientists have sent out to ravage America the way we ravaged Japan and Germany in the Second World War. "Why, that was almost thirty years ago!" cries an indignant Sandman. The way these people hold unreasonable grudges! Laying out the plot like that makes it seem a lot more straightforward than it actually is, though: thanks to Simon's dreamlike, more or less unsequential plotting and Kirby's slapped-out, almost ragged drawing, this comic feels more like a series of vaguely connected events than a real story. Sometimes the best way to talk about a book is just to describe the highlights, and this is definitely one of that kind.