Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Kirby's Fourth World

A hundred years ago this week, Jack Kirby was born; it is striking to observe the medium of superhero comics begin to approach its own century mark, something that Kirby and his contemporaries brought about in their early adulthood. In an earlier post, I discussed Kirby's first work at DC, taking over the existing Jimmy Olsen title. Here, I break down Kirby's three original titles that presented his Fourth World.

Kirby's Fourth World work is a case study in extremes. Kirby came to DC from Marvel with a gigantic reputation and a new vision to match. DC practically could not debut his new work fast enough; he was first given control of the poorly selling Jimmy Olsen title. Kirby's ideas expanded in the three new titles he was allowed to launch: Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. In the span of his first few months (and issues), he introduced numerous characters who have been, individually and collectively, among the most enduring in DC's history. This is a remarkable achievement, and one that virtually no other creator has approached or matched.

And yet, this splendid body of work failed to thrive. The original work itself is not widely read / republished proportional to its creative power, and in its own time was not embraced. None of Kirby's three original titles caught on and two were cancelled before reaching their twelfth issue – an ignominious sign that would normally be interpreted as failure. There is some controversy regarding the reasons for this, whether it was outright disappointing sales, unrealistic expectations, or something else, but amid the brilliance and creativity there is a scattered, unhinged nature to the work itself that asks a lot of the reader's attention. Kirby's original Fourth World work has many qualities of a cult work – adored by a few devotees, but not loved or even liked very much by the masses.

The central fact of the Fourth World is an almost perfect division into two parts, one good and one evil. Two worlds exist opposite one another in both physical space and morality. The good world, New Genesis, is named after a beginning and the first book of the Bible. The evil world, Apokolips, is named after the last book of the Bible (alongside the more popular name in English, "Revelation," are alternate names involving the word "Apocalypse"). Those books, in turn, are not the beginning and end in terms of mere page order, but in terms of a narration of the human race itself, describing its origin and its annihilation. These names alone say a great deal about the Fourth World – the strict binary division, generous inspiration from classical and Judeo-Christian culture, and religious overtones.

Kirby's three new titles, while centered on different characters, also offered different kinds of dynamics. The Forever People acted as one unit, very much like Kirby's jovial, wonderous Hairies from Jimmy Olsen, and though they had distinctive names and appearance, they didn't have much characterization to distinguish one from the other. Fittingly, they were capable of unifying physically into one, nigh-unbeatable hero (though the metaphysical explanation was that they simply switched places with the Infinity Man rather than became him). This was a fitting tribute to the Youth Movement of the time, with a group of individuals becoming more powerful when they acted together. The Forever People's time on Earth memorably began with a guest-starring role by Superman in which his yearning to know other super-people was so evocative that the story earned a place in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told.

New Gods centered on Orion, who went to Earth and formed a small squadron of ordinary people to aid him in his battle against the forces of Apokolips. Subtle hints from the beginning led up to a dramatic and brilliant revelation in flashback that a secret pact between Izaya and Darkseid had them exchange their young sons so that neither of them could tolerate what would otherwise be an all-encompassing destructive war between them.

Among Kirby's Fourth World titles, Mister Miracle was the only one to last more than 11 issues, but it too was short-lived, ending after issue #18. Scott Free, the son of Highfather and raised by Darkseid in the trade with Orion, lives a heroic life on Earth, alternately performing as an escape artist and fighting for his life against various plots launched from his home world of Apokolips. Along the way, he befriends Oberon and begins a romance with Big Barda. Maybe this title outlived the others because Mister Miracle more closely resembled a conventional DC superhero. Maybe it's because he really was the greatest escape artist.

Not long after Kirby's titles were canceled, his Fourth World creations resurfaced in other writers' work, in memorable Justice League and Legion of Super-Heroes stories, a revival series penned by Gerry Conway, a key role in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and many times thereafter, including various animated features, Cosmic Odyssey, the post-Byrne Superman titles, Grant Morrison's mid-2000s work including Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis, the New 52, and soon enough in the upcoming Justice League movie.

Despite the conceptual symmetry, the Fourth World's good and evil beings have endured in different ways. Kirby's three titles were all named for good characters – the Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle – but the most compelling creation of this work is Darkseid, the central evil character. Generally speaking, Darkseid looms large in each title, sending different underlings in various plotlines to menace good people on Earth who are associated with the good New Gods. The overall effect is a stalemate, with the good characters winning almost all of the battles, which serves to neutralize one evil plan after another. In this regard, Fourth World stories are not unlike prototypical superhero comics.

The Fourth World came to belong to DC for contractual reasons, but it easily could have been Marvel's or even some other company's had one business relationship or another turned out differently. Creatively, the Fourth World wasn't very well tailored to fit into the DC Universe. The neo-mythological realm of the New Gods didn't span a Multiverse so much as it endlessly involved plots on Earth (which usually means the United States). Like the deities of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, the New Gods have a privileged relationship with Earth and it is little explained why, in a DC universe with countless civilized worlds, the New Gods are so transfixed with Earth as opposed to Rann, Thanagar, Oa, Daxam, etc. But obsessed with Earth they are. Darkseid has agents at work on Earth, searching for the Anti-Life Equation, but also doing evil for its own sake. Numerous members of the New Gods migrate to Earth and still others are shamelessly obsessed with its culture – cowboy movies, Prussian militarism, the Italian Renaissance, and more. Pragmatically speaking, the characters are obviously intrigued by these things because Kirby was intrigued by them, and they don't cite Thanagarian culture because it never existed. Later writers build on Kirby's slight hints that Earth is a particularly important planet as when Grant Morrison developed the plot line by which the Fourth World came to an end and the Fifth World began on Earth – a suitable backstory explaining their obsession with that one planet out of billions. And so, the New Gods – good and evil ones alike – readily obsess over terrestrial culture and the narrative is richer for it.

Kirby created a new mythology, with the various royal families and their followers engaged in a neverending war akin to similar epics in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies as well as the Bible, and akin in other respects to historical struggles between royal families. Darkseid and his following is explicitly patterned on Hitler and the Nazis. Kirby also choose names that pun so bluntly that one must wonder why characters in the story don't give pause frequently to point out the heavy-handed reference to inspirations such as "dark side" and apocalypse, Isaiah and Genesis, the Marquis de Sade, and unapologetic references to figures of speech and Earth culture such as the constellation Orion, the distinctly British phrase "scot-free," the Greek letter omega, and perhaps the biggest groaner of a pun of all – an evil team of underwater beings called the Deep Six. The "Fourth World" is an evocative phrase, inspiring curiosity as to what went before, not only the old gods before this generation but – apparently – two other generations before that; Kirby chose the name by extending the then-common term "Third World" to suggest that his inventions transcend reality in uncanny ways.

However much Kirby provided a big vision that spanned his four titles, the most apparent motif in his work is his wild inventiveness. Virtually every issue contains at least one new character who is weird and worth revisiting. The Fourth World concept allows Kirby to pile up great heaps of science fiction, technology, myth, magic, and mystery in his new characters. He is equally inventive in creating vehicles, disembodied concepts like the Anti-Life Equation and Omega Effect, making almost every issue entertaining to the point of disorienting the reader with a lack of certainty regarding what might happen next.

As an example of this, one Kirby trait is to end an issue with a cliffhanger, usually in the form of expository dialogue by a character in the story or expository text in a caption. But not all cliffhangers are equal. The typical cliffhanger in the 1966 Batman television series showed Batman and Robin in some elaborate death trap, from which they inevitably escaped at the beginning of the next episode. This plot device is notoriously formulaic, and is found even in many of the better comics and other forms of serial storytelling. Kirby's cliffhangers were different, often creating a threat whose true nature was unknown and even unguessable. Darkseid himself was created as such a cliffhanger, which hints at the magnitude and richness of Kirby's inventiveness.

What does Orion face? It has destroyed a god–and threatens the entire Earth! Don't miss SPAWN

What kind of world is it–that spawns gods of evil and lesser beings with horribly hostile hang-ups!!!?? You've seen some of its nasty products!! Now, come along with Scott Free and Big Barda!!–And take a fearful glimpse of– THE APOKOLIPS TRAP!!

It is Desaad's own little domain on Earth–A pilot project of purgatory–where torment is conputer–death is controlled–and escape impossible! Don't miss–Kingdom of the DAMNED!

Besides promising, and delivering, unguessable surprises, cliffhangers show another distinctive Kirby trait: unbridled, and shamelessly promotional hyperbole. Religious overtones and vocabulary of death and destriction permeate the text. Throughout the text of his stories, hyperbole is piled on top of hyperbole, and if I were to offer a fond parody, it would go something like:

To even attempt to imagine surviving the futility of meeting someone who would dare merely to contemplate speaking the name of Darkseid is sheer folly!

Of course, these words have to be backed up action, and Kirby no less than any comic creator offers scenes and entire issues packed with almost incomprehensible kinetic smorgasbords of punches, ray gun blasts, explosions, tumbles, and all sort of superpowers emanating from the hands, eyes, and minds of his characters. The human characters were no less bold, as one issue was devoted to the reckless heroism of normal human cop Dan "Terrible" Turpin going up against malefactors from Apokolips.

This disorienting quality is probably what made his work a cult classic – readers used to the more typically formulaic stories in other superhero titles probably found less of the strident heroism and more need to follow plot details than they were used to, and it would take an older reader to appreciate some of the cultural subtext, while the black-and-white morality of the concept offered less subtlety that such readers might enjoy. The Fourth World was for a particular kind of reader and those readers seemed not to be very numerous.

My comic-reading life began just months after Kirby's titles ceased publication. A few years later, I picked up the revival of New Gods scripted by Gerry Conway and found it memorably unsuited to my tastes. I wasn't aware then of what I see now, that this was the result of a new creative team trying to fill in for a master of his craft. Conway was a very good writer; he produced some of the best parts of the JLA Satellite Era, but DC's star superheroes have been the subjects of good stories from countless different writers. Kirby's work was different, and what makes it stand out is his distinctive style, not the greateness of his characters and his inventions. Many years later, as Final Crisis loomed, I went back and read Kirby's original Fourth World works for the first time, to understand better the villains at the heart of that story. Rarely have I felt so appreciative of the quality and originality of older material, and I now regard it a bit audacious for later writers to use Kirby's characters, because the difference between his handling of them and theirs is so readily apparent. And so, on the hundredth anniversary of Kirby's birth, I bid the great King Kirby a "thank you" from back down here on Earth. 


  1. I Absolutely knew you'd have a Kirby blog but didn't expect it so soon . Fantastic. . I still remember the days during RIP I questioned if you might actually be Grant Morrison having a bit of fun . As always Thank You

  2. Thanks so much, Bones! I started writing the two Kirby pieces literally years ago, but never finalized them until his birthday came up. I am not Grant Morrison! But Final Crisis is probably the next thing I'll review, and the logical relationship of Kirby and FC compelled me to post this before moving on to FC.

  3. I know , but that was Such an amazing and fun time . I had just gotten back into comics since just after Onslaught at marvel and honestly never cared about anything DC besides Batman . I had a good day and decided to after maybe 10 years thought " Oh I finally have some money , I should spend it somewhere I respect " I immediately thought LCBS and they just happened to have 2 boxes of back issues of WIZARD (various from 93'-04') that I bought all of for a straight 20.(that I actually had to Walk home in two trips but those blocks were completely worth it)
    But the one New Comic I bought was Batman
    (I forget # but around the 3 batman arc)
    . As imaginable , a mass download of everything comics for the past decade ( and stuff I never knew about ) immediately sent me into furious quest for EVERYTHING.(Que gif for Professional Gary Oldman EVERYONE )
    I moved in with a friend who had Internet a couple months after this and ingesting a Decade plus of Comic Book Universes and my Insatiable hunger (mostly I gravitated towards Morrison and Ellis and then Books by Artists I liked ) led me to your blog .
    I have zero idea whatever search I did where I found your link but , even though you're not Morrison, your Perception or Perspective (whatever you want to call it), I'll call it Passion , Really brought me back to a calling I long forgot .
    (I write and pencil my own "KirbyVerse")
    I forgot your name for a couple years
    but glad I remembered again and seriously,
    Your blog is like a song that I will forever remember , like a scent or a song that immediatly reminds you of an incredible memor in time

  4. Please Please Please
    Revisit Final Crisis
    If I had money I'd Pay You

  5. Bones Justice,
    Thanks for your comments, and be assured, I most definitely will be reviewing Final Crisis sometime soon. I've begun that – in fact, I began that over a year ago – but I want to do justice to it. FC was published right before I began this blog and circling back in time to get up to that point has been an implicit goal the whole time; I didn't necessarily think that it would take nine years, however.

    Perhaps the longest retro review I've written here was for Infinite Crisis; Final Crisis deserves no less.

  6. "Circling back in time to get up to that
    (Vanishing?)Point has been an implicit goal the whole time " I see what you what you did there ... Thank you