Exclusive: Only Living Boy creator David Gallaher: What Jack Kirby taught me about being a kid

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Aug 28, 2017

Today marks the centennial birthday of comics legend Jack Kirby. Born Aug. 28, 1917, "The King" passed away in 1994, but his work continues to inspire and impact creators throughout the medium.

Two such creators are David Gallaher and Steve Ellis, co-creators of the werewolf western High Moon and the sci-fi/fantasy fish-out-of-water adventure The Only Living Boy -- which has drawn favorable comparisons to the work of Kirby himself.

So influenced by Kirby, Gallaher reached out to SYFY WIRE to share his thoughts about Jack Kirby, and Ellis provided the gorgeous piece of Kirby-inspired The Only Living Boy art below.

Check out what Gallaher has to say, and do yourself a fan favor by engaging in a double bill of Kirby's Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth and The Only Living Boy.

What Jack Kirby Taught Me About Being a Kid
By David Gallaher. Art by Steve Ellis.

When my parents sat me down to indoctrinate me into the world of Saturday Morning Cartoons, they had no idea the impact it would have on my imagination. Wearing fuzzy pajamas and armed with my bowl of Alpha-Bits cereal, I felt ill-equipped to handle what was to follow. From what I was able to piece together, though … there was a runaway planet that flew between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction. Let me tell you, it is traumatic to watch the moon blow up when you are five years old.

The show was Thundarr the Barbarian. A post-apocalyptic adventure "kids" cartoon about a war-torn world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. Every Saturday, Thundarr — and his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel — would pit his strength and his courage against the forces of evil. It was mighty, it was mesmerizing, it was menacing … and it was also my introduction to the works of Jack Kirby.

Even though Jack wasn't the only creator to lend his designs to Thundarr, his fingerprints were all over it. Kirby, the visionary force behind the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, was working as a designer at Ruby-Spears Animation at the time. As a child hooked on Saturday Morning Cartoons, I was exposed to his imaginative ideas on other shows, including Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, and Goldie Gold & Action Jack. Saturday Morning Cartoons led to the discovery of comic books, where Kirby’s characters and ideas became the treasure map to a childhood filled with adventure.

Jack Kirby was one of the chief architects of modern mythology. Whether it was exploring the mysteries of Doctor Doom’s castle, uncovering the world of the Celestials or deciphering the Anti-Life Equation, Kirby’s stories unlocked secrets to the universe. Kirby invited inquisitive minds to meet him on the frontier of the imagination. Under his pen, tyranny became personified by characters like the Red Skull and Darkseid, science fiction became cosmic literature, and ancient artifacts became technological marvels that made Star Trek look like the Stone Age.

Between the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men, Hulk, and Thor, Kirby’s super-charged genius made archetypal stories for the gods, outcasts, and kids in all of us.

In the early 1970s, DC Comics tried to acquire the popular Planet of the Apes license. When that didn’t work, editor Carmine Infantino implored Kirby to create a comic with a similar premise. The day after Kirby’s 55th birthday, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #1 was published.

Jack hadn't seen the movies, but he got the gist — anthropomorphic animals, post-apocalyptic setting, the Statue of Liberty destroyed. That he was able to make the series so uniquely his own was part of Kirby’s bombastic genius.

If you’re not familiar with Kamandi, then don’t worry. I wasn’t, either. Kamandi had been rarely seen since the late '70s and had fallen into obscurity. So when our studio, Bottled Lightning, began developing The Only Living Boy in 2009, the character was the furthest thing from our minds. We drew our influences from the Paul Simon song of the same name, and adventure fiction stories that we loved as children: Flash Gordon, Thundarr the Barbarian, John Carter, Tarzan, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Jungle Book. When the first issue of The Only Living Boy debuted in 2012, some reviews compared it favorably to Kirby’s Kamandi, which was very flattering — and which led me to want to know more about this series!

Decades after I watched the moon blow up in one of his cartoons, I bought the first issue of Kamandi and re-discovered my love for Jack Kirby. The stories filled me with the same sense of wonder and imagination that Saturday Morning Cartoons did as a kid. The Tarzan-meets-Planet Of The Apes mash-up was a cool, bold, colorful call to adventure. Kamandi had this off-the-cuff, anything-could-happen feel that only Kirby could cultivate. It was also a tremendous testament of why we should live a life of freedom, a life absent of captivity.

This wonderful, wicked and wild world is meant to be discovered and explored. Kirby's comics are as much a rite of passage as they are a call to adventure. We live in a paranoid, risk-averse culture, where we're often afraid to take chances and make mistakes. As a child, Jack Kirby inspired my sense of adventure. His stories taught me to be an explorer and gave me the confidence to become a human being who was capable of dreaming big. As an adult making comics, I am awed by how his work still challenges me and pushes me. Kirby took chances with his career and his storytelling that transformed his work into something beautiful and profound.

To commemorate Kirby's centennial, Steve Ellis, co-founder of Bottled Lightning and co-creator of The Only Living Boy, illustrated this piece, "Escape From The Doomsday Engine," to honor Kirby’s influence and contribution to the world of comics.

Happy birthday, Jack.

May we all find the freedom to take risks in our life and in our work.