|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
Kirby's Fourth World: An Appreciation
Written by & © Charles Hatfield
with illustrations from Jack's New Gods PortfolioFrom Jack Kirby Collector #6
Beginning slyly with Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" line (1970-1973) unleashed an astounding surge of creative energy which represented Kirby at his professional zenith. Jimmy Olsen, New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People formed an eccentric, arguably brilliant, mythos which irrevocably changed the horizons of superhero comics. Whenever I reread or think back to Kirby's Fourth World, three distinguishing aspects of the tetralogy always come to mind: its originality of conception, its variety, and its urgent subtext.
Structurally, the Fourth World was unprecedented: it introduced several new series, all centered on a single premise, all at once. This approach has since been imitated numerous times within mainstream comics (for example, in Epic's short-lived Shadowline saga, or more recently in superhero lineups from Malibu, Dark Horse, Milestone, and others). At the time it was a logical extension of the intertextual continuity Kirby and Stan Lee had pioneered at Marvel in the 1960s; yet the Fourth World went Marvel one better, by offering several variations on the same theme simultaneously.
The basic conflict behind the Fourth World (Apokolips vs. New Genesis) perfectly distilled the dualism already inherent in Kirby and Lee's X-Men (with its good mutant/bad mutant theme). Kirby must have realized that such a conflict was too big, too promising, to be limited to a single book, so he took the next logical step - he launched several new series at once. The consequences of this step are still being felt today.
Originality was also evident in Kirby's arsenal of ideas and gimmicks. Devices like the Boom Tube, Metron's Mobius Chair, the Mountain of Judgment, and, best of all, the omnipresent Mother Box, offered vivid symbols of human/machine interdependence. Bizarre beings such as Mantis, the Deep Six, the Bugs, and the Black Racer suggested that Kirby had been breeding characters in the back of his mind for years. Settings such as Armagetto, Supertown, the Habitat, and Zoomway offer breathtaking vistas and endless narrative possibilities, while the cosmic mystery of the Source, and the overarching menace of Anti-Life, gave the story a weird, mythic urgency
Another notable aspect of the Fourth World is its variety. While innovative in structure, the lineup allowed Kirby to revisit familiar genres: Jimmy Olsen and especially Forever People revived the Simon & Kirby kid gang formula, while Mister Miracle recreated the familiar "acrobatic hero" type which S&K brought to life with such characters as Captain America, the Sandman, Manhunter, and Stuntman.
The Fourth World in fact revitalized these classic Kirby formulas. The Forever People trumped the S&K kid gang premise by dispensing with the usual adult chaperone (e.g., the Guardian in The Newsboy Legion, Rip Carter in Boy Commandos) and replacing him with the Infinity Man, a superbeing who appeared whenever the Forever People joined together around their Mother Box and uttered the key word "Taaru!" Infinity Man functioned much as the Guardian had in the Newsboy Legion's adventures, but did not seem much like a fatherly protector. Rather, Infinity Man seemed a composite of the Forever People themselves, a mysterious being summing up,the power and appeal of the whole group. The character was a brilliant stroke.
Mister Miracle took S&K's acrobatic hero and gave him a new gimmick, one perfectly appropriate to Kirby's flare for balletic action: he was an escape artist! Scott Free's struggle to break free from his past was symbolically reenacted in each adventure by his daring escapes and stunts. Seldom has a superhero's ability or gimmick seemed so psychologically apt.
The Fourth World's flagship title, The New Gods, represented something new. While its ostensible hero was Orion, and its central conflict the clash between Darkseid and Orion (a father-son conflict, as it turned out), the book's title allowed Kirby to focus occasionally on other characters - the bug Forager, for example, in the splendid two-parter about Mantis' invasion of Earth (#s 9-10), or Highfather and Darkseid himself in the classic "The Pact" (#7). New Gods was the most innovative of the Fourth World titles, and flexible enough to give scope to Kirby's restless imagination.
On rereading the Fourth World books, it's clear that Kirby's whole mind was engaged in the project. These comics represented Kirby's boldest bid to turn the superhero genre into a vehicle for ideas. New Gods and its companion titles were about something: the dualism of the Fourth World's premise allowed Kirby to use his heroes allegorically, to represent basic issues which obviously mattered to him very much. The not-so-subtle subtext of the Fourth World line gives it much of its urgency and character.
The Fourth World books suggest that the essence of human life is choice, and that Anti-Life is the negation of choice - absolute domination. (Forever People No. 5: "If someone possesses absolute control over you - you're not really alive!") Darkseid, in his quest to discover the Anti-Life Equation, becomes Kirby's ultimate totalitarian villain, a tyrant determined to bend the universe to his will; in contrast, the gods of New Genesis become champions of human freedom. This conflict between control and freedom gives the Fourth World books their peculiar urgency. Clearly, Kirby believed in this struggle: no matter how outlandish the concepts, these comics are in dead earnest, and are refreshingly uncondescending.
Subsequent revisions of Kirby have reinterpreted the fundamental conflict of the Fourth World along very different lines: Jim Starlin's Cosmic Odyssey, for instance, interpreted Anti-Life as a malevolent, sentient force, while J.M. DeMatteis' Forever People revival made Kirby's heroes champions of order over chaos. Neither one of these revampings is satisfactory, and in fact the cosmology imposed by DeMatteis is exactly wrong: in Kirby's Fourth World books, Darkseid did not represent chaos but order - suffocating order, robbing its subjects of choice and therefore life. Granted, Darkseid and his minions evoked chaos in their assaults on Earth, but with one ultimate aim: to ferret out the secret of Anti-Life and thus dominate all living things. In sharp contrast, characters such as the Forever People and Mister Miracle represented the possibility of radical freedom (a point nicely underscored in the 1987 Mister Miracle one-shot by Mark Evanier and Steve Rude).
Tellingly, Kirby's champions are outsiders even on New Genesis - the Forever People are restless, Scott Free earthbound, and Orion too warlike to enjoy the peace of Supertown. The premise of the Fourth World requires these heroes to come to Earth: as ever, Kirby's concern is humankind, and his battleground our own backyard.
Characteristically, the heroes of New Genesis are mostly youths, representing hope, energy, and enthusiasm. Kirby's identification with kids made itself strongly felt throughout the Fourth World line, most notably in Forever People and Jimmy Olsen - which broke new ground for mainstream comics by making heroes of "hippie" characters (e.g., the Forever People themselves, or the superscientific Hairies in Jimmy Olsen, who "live in harmony with whatever and whoever they contact"). Not surprisingly, some ambivalence about youthful rebellion survives in these books - particularly in Jimmy Olsen, with its covers emphasizing generational conflict between Jimmy and Superman - yet for Kirby to create such characters as the Forever People suggests a daring and sympathetic imagination, trying to keep pace with the youth culture of the time. These youthful characters perfectly embody the idea of freedom which underlies Kirby's saga.
Like much of Kirby's work, the Fourth World suggests a largely untutored yet fiercely active mind, ever searching, always looking for ways to communicate grand ideas. Arguably, the Fourth World mythos was Kirby's boldest attempt to personify abstractions, to turn a battle of ideas into rip-roaring adventure. Kirby was fully engaged, heart and mind, in this effort - it's a damn shame he did not have the opportunity to see this dream through to the end while at the height of his creative powers.
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