The Fourth World (And Beyond):
Some Minority Opinions
by and © Adam McGovern
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
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
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
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
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