Jack Kirby's Unpublishable, Eyebrow Arching Novel Has Reappeared
As a creator, illustrator, and writer of Marvel icons, Jack Kirby was The King of comic books. But even the Captain America of creating Captain Americas felt the need to be taken more seriously as a storyteller, which is why he once wrote a novel to prove he was more than just an angry comic book fanboy. And what better way to do so than to pen an intelligible manifesto on white genocide?
Recently, a rare copy of Jack Kirby’s novel The Horde (or, to give it its full Kirbyan title: THE HORDE: A Visionary Novel) was uncovered by millionaire Marvel fan Chuck Rozanski in a box of the legendary artist’s personal effects. Originally written between 1969 and 1974, only a handful of people have ever read the 248-page epic as Kirby never managed to get it published, only a handful of “extrapolations” (Kirby-approved fan fiction) making it to print. To remedy this, Rozanski has hinted that he will finally make Kirby’s tights-less epic available to sci-fi readers everywhere. So what is his grand departure from comic books about? Set in the very near future where overpopulation has created a global famine, Jack Kirby’s The Horde …
… tells of the story of a magical Mongolian warlord named Tengujai …
… and the African American soldier chosen to succeed him as the khanate’s next Falcon …
… in their quest to invade the capitalist West by unleashing The Great Worm …
… the name of billions of underground Asian communists who are tunneling their way into Europe and North America to burst out of the ground like Mongolian mole men.
Plenty of sci-fi authors have made their fortune writing self-important stories about resource wars, colonialist stereotypes, and giant worms (looking at you, Frank Herbert), so why did it take Kirby’s epic half a century to get published? That depends on who you ask. Ask Kirby himself, and he’d have said it was because The Horde was just too gosh darn prophetic. According to his wife Ros, Kirby kept hesitating to finish his modern Mongolian horde book (the final chapter was never completed) because every time the Silver Age soothsayer wrote a new chapter, “it was coming true in the newspapers.”
Ask the novel’s editor, Janet Berliner, and she might say it was because the book was the literary equivalent of a chaotic splash page. Not used to letting words do all of the talking, she described Kirby’s prose style as “undisciplined bursts of language” that read “more like notes or verbal sketches.” Unable to find a publisher to take him seriously, Berliner spent most of the ‘70s and ‘80s on the Hulkian task of turning The Horde from a Ritalin-fueled rant into something readable, barely making headway as Kirby endlessly debated every minor edit she made. (You’d be a bit possessive if you too had worked with Stan Lee for 30 years.)
And if you asked the novel’s later collaborators, authors Ray Wyman & Peter Burke, it was probably because The Horde was no longer zeitgeisty. By the time Berliner and Kirby had finessed it into something publishable, the novel was over 20 years old. Reading like a quintessentially mid-century dystopian sci-fi, nineties publishers weren’t all that interested in a Cold War cautionary tale cautioning something that stopped being relevant in 1989. So when Kirby died in 1994, others were brought on to give his story some of that nineties blockbuster magic and retool it into a big-budget Hollywood movie. Sadly, the closest The Horde ever got to the big screen was serving as the basis for two middling Star Trek episodes.
Plans were then made to expand The Horde into a series of books to fully explore the complex socio-economic themes Kirby was trying to communicate. That was in 2001. Instead, the original novel’s few remaining copies spent the next twenty years stored in boxes waiting for someone to cash in on the Marvel hype. While that might explain while the legendary Kirby novel took so long to get published, it also answers a more important question: should it? Probably not. If the people who worked on it are to be believed, Kirby’s novel is a brilliant story wrapped into a problematic mess of a novel.
Like Berliner, author Tom King once described Kirby’s writing as possessing “not the subtlety of Hemingway but the scream of myth.” If that’s the case, the myth The Horde seems to scream is typically muffled by a pointy hood: white genocide. After all, the novel combines all of white people’s worst fears about Yellow Peril, Red Scare, and Black Power, combines them into an un-American Voltron, and warns of an impending future where capitalist caucasian culture will have to play endless games of whack-a-migrant to preserve its way of life.
That surface-level xenophobia isn’t helped by another sixties sci-fi trend the book adopts, that of the Uber-white author adopting the voices and cultures of non-white characters. Kirby really leans in on the ‘vernacular,’ making Asian characters sound like Charlie Chan rejects while black characters get the urban treatment with lines like “I kin sure use some mo’a dat good booze,” all while sprinkling in more N-words than the liner notes of an NWA album. Now, implying that concentration camp liberating, civil rights marching Jack Kirby was a white supremacist wouldn’t just make him spin in his grave — it’d make him roll up his ghost sleeves, take the elevator down from heaven and come kick my ass.
On the surface, its plot could perhaps be misinterpreted as misguided xenophobic scaremongering. But at its core, the novel is obviously on the side of its multicultural main characters, products of a desperate situation created by generations of colonialist trust fund kids, and any problematic content is just a common side effect that all seventies sweater dad sci-fi suffers from — its authors thinking that casual bigotry isn’t harmful when you’re talking about magical neo-medieval Mongolians.
Kirby clearly had the talent but not the skill to write such a story, which is why he spent his entire life trying to fine-tune The Horde to best communicate its nuanced themes. With that in mind, having Chuck Rozanski promise/threaten to release The Horde’s original draft in our post-nuance age, where most devoted comic books fans will either rage at it for being racist or for not being racist enough, doesn’t feel like doing justice to the legacy that Kirby tried to create for himself. The whole point of The Horde seemed to be that Kirby wanted to write an important, challenging story that his regular medium of cartoon dudes in tights wasn’t ready to tell yet. Today, every other important, challenging story features cartoon dudes in tights — and that evolution in great part thanks to Jack Kirby perfecting the medium. So maybe we should just let his first drafts stay in the box.
For more writings that lack the subtlety of Hemingway *and* the scream of myth, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: Jack Kirby