Jack Kirby Collector 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.

The Fourth World (And Beyond):
Some Minority Opinions

by and © Adam McGovern

From Jack Kirby Collector #17


Mister Miracle drawing done for the Masterworks portfolio;
thanks to Steve Rude for inking this for our back cover!

Mister Miracle © & ™ DC Comics Inc. Art © Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World series, and much of what came after, were sweeping sagas which can prompt a variety of readings. Mine may contrast with some which have long been held, but the essence of Kirby was to look at familiar ideas in different ways.

The Asgardian Connection

For one thing, to conclusively view the New Gods as heirs to the Aesir, even if that's what Kirby intended in a strictly narrative sense, is to impoverish the full scope of his vision in creating the series. First of all, many old sources and new inventions converged in these characters' formation. Their unspecific familiarity is just what gave them resonance, and helped make Kirby one of the few artists to successfully create modern myths for an age without mysteries.

Second, the series had just as many roots in the Jewish experience (a legacy which both Kirby and I share, behind our Irish-sounding names) as in Norse tradition. Apokolips' ideology resembles a triumphant Third Reich, and its visual presentation is unmistakable as a planet-wide concentration camp. Much of New Genesis' names (Isaiah, Esak) and imagery (Highfather's patriarchal raiment), its codes of vengeance and inherited burden, its times to love and times to kill (the pacifist Lightray's transformation into a kind of warrior, and Isaiah/Highfather's opposite course), its characters' reliance on prophecy, are straight from the Old Testament and other Jewish lore. Interestingly, this specific reference makes the series more universal, in that the living religions of Judeo-Christianity are open to more interpretations than the closed circle of Norse myth.

Kirby's Crystal Ball

Surely Kirby's foresight about his medium cannot be over-emphasized. This would not be the first essay to note the Fourth World's introduction of such then-unappreciated but now-commonplace concepts as limited-run series and overlapping narratives in simultaneous publications - not to mention Kirby's rejected plans to present the saga as a series of what would much later be known and embraced as "graphic novels." The King was equally perceptive of current events, from his early assimilation of countercultural motifs (The Forever People, Jimmy Olsen's "Hairies") to his exploration of late-'70s millennial anxiety in The Eternals, to his astute and witty wordplay: Delicious puns and non-sequiturs like "Boom Tube" and "Fourth World" itself show him to be second only to George Clinton, among '70s artistic figures, in his keen ear for social psycho-babble.

But Kirby's insight goes way beyond the fact that Darth Vader is identical to Doctor Doom and "The Force" is "The Source" and the Death Star looks like Kamandi's Tracking Site and the entire end sequence of Close Encounters is lifted directly from the coming of the Celestials in Eternals #2, and so on. What interests me most is not Kirby's pop-culture contributions, but his social predictions.

The idea of swapping children between New Genesis and Apokolips to suspend their cosmic conflict would be seriously proposed by peace advocates for the rival US and Soviet union in the mid-'80s. The New Gods' practice of patching into the spirits of their ancestors with what would one day be familiar as hand-held computers accurately anticipated both the electronic toys and the new-age mysticism of our own decade. The high-tech Hairies indeed find their match in Jaron Lanier ("The Father of Virtual Reality") and today's other freak mathematicians and scientists.

Likewise, the image of the defeated dictator Kafka standing for a mug-shot during the OMAC series eerily approximates similar real-life photos of Manuel Noriega after the Panama invasion. (Of course, unlike George Bush, the One-Man Army Corps did it clean, never having actually employed Kafka and hauling him in without sacrificing thousands of innocent civilian lives. But Kirby was tapping into the same popular fantasy, and much sooner.) In many other ways, from its advance depiction of late-'70s/early-'80s video-arcade hysteria (a scene in the "New Bodies for Old" storyline) to its envisionment of the Mohawk's return (the title character's "warrior god" hairstyle), OMAC's "World That's Coming" came sooner than anyone expected. These lowly comics held keys to our near future that no one noticed, during or since.

The Gods, Ourselves

Notwithstanding the generations of readers who have cherished and identified with the Fourth World series, I would caution us not to look for too much of "ourselves" in these heroic beings. In an era of "relevant" comics, Kirby jettisoned a certain measure of realism, thereby making the medium show an uncommon honesty about itself. Kirby understood that gods, and super-heroes, and celebrities, are projections; anyone who accused him of hokey dialogue and broad gestures was off the mark because the New Gods' very unreality is what made them ring true. We relate to them as personified abstractions (to borrow Charles Hatfield's definitive phrasing from TJKC #6), not as familiar peers.

That said, Kirby did - innovatively - humanize these deities to the extent of imbuing them with the very qualities that make us uncomfortable about ourselves and our society. In their murderous inter-generational conflict, the New Gods are the ultimate warring, fragmented family; many protagonists, particularly Orion, have no worse enemies than themselves. These characters' deeds were larger than life, but so were their dysfunctions - another way in which Kirby was ahead of the societal times, by anticipating the confessional pop culture and public discourse of the '90s.

When The King's Away...

It may come as a surprise that I also don't believe Kirby's creations have been mishandled in his absence. Not exactly, anyway: I believe they haven't been mishandled enough. Nearly every Kirby revival by other hands has been an unqualified travesty, but the main cause is over-adherence to a model that can't be duplicated. Contrarily, when the ultra-optimistic Kirby's Mister Miracle was resurrected by the ultra-skeptical Steve Gerber (significantly, a later Kirby collaborator) for a handful of issues in the late-'70s, the results were unexpectedly wonderful. The audacity of the mismatch suited Kirby's own sense of adventure, and it worked. (Unsurprisingly, it got cancelled even quicker than Kirby's original.)

Similarly, subsequent New Gods scenarists have neglected to explore unfamiliar territory, endlessly reassembling the elements left by Kirby in his handful of issues, rather than moving on from the Orion/Darkseid conflict as Kirby most likely would have by now. How about bringing that storyline to a long-overdue conclusion, and proceeding to an epic civil conflict between the "Bug" society and the pious gods of Supertown? (The condescension that even Orion and Lightray show toward Forager of the Bugs is one of those grand dysfunctions I was referring to.) Or a crusade for Orion's soul after the ferocity of the final conflict makes him crack and take the place of his father as the head of their hellish world? Enduring so many rash cancellations, Kirby had to learn how to leave things behind, and so should his would-be successors; but I guess new action-figure molds can only be minted so fast.

What Happened Next

One view I hold which is no doubt shared by the majority is that Kirby's post-DC, non-Eternals work does not rank among his best. The short-sighted powers that be cancelled such a large number of his great books that eventually even the King had to start straining for ideas. Nonetheless, I'm not so bothered by the incompletion of his magnum opus. I'm even satisfied by it, in a way. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls (an apt analogy, given Kirby's subject matter), the Fourth World's unanswered questions enhance its mythic stature; the empty spaces let it loom all the larger in our imagination. What we have should be enough for us. And what Kirby needed - recognition - was, thankfully, largely his before the end. His failures were really the industry's, but the triumphs were all his.

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