Monday, February 08, 2010


Before Age of Bronze or Sandman or even Cerebus, before anyone else (in North America, at least) even conceived of the possibility of a long-running comic that would tell a single story and be collected in bound volumes to be read as literature for years to come, Jack Kirby created the Fourth World.

It was an ambitious plan, spread over three bi-monthly comic book series plus one monthly, an incredible pace. Most comic book pencilers are lucky if they can do a complete book every month, much less two or three, much less writing and plotting all of them as well. And yet, the art never looks rushed. And lest one suspect that Kirby did "loose" pencils, leaving much of the detail to be added by the inker, this set includes reproductions of many of Kirby's original penciled pages, which are astonishing.

The new mythos Kirby created for the series involved new gods -- indeed, one of the new series was called "The New Gods" -- superpowered beings who rose from the ashes of what is obviously a reference to Ragnarok of Norse mythology. Kirby's fascination with Norse mythology had been evident in his depiction of Thor as a superhero for Marvel, but this was something new. There were two groups of gods, inhabitants of two different worlds, New Genesis and Apokolips, who have been at war since their new beginning. An uneasy truce, a cold war, has been in effect for some time, but as the series begins war is breaking out in earnest again, with Earth as the primary battleground.

In addition to "The New Gods" Kirby created "The Forever People," which followed a group of younger gods who were more or less Kirby's tribute to the hippies and flower people of the 1960s, and "Mister Miracle," about an escape artist extraordinaire named Scott Free, who we soon learn has himself already escaped from Apokolips itself. Incongruously enough, the fourth book in the series, in fact the one in whose pages the Fourth World was first launched, was "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen," which had long been an offbeat, often whacky vehicle for lighthearted fun. Kirby not only continued but even extended this tradition, giving us Don Rickles, a giant de-evolutionized Jimmy and featuring through most of his run a new young cloned version of his 1940s group of scrappy heroes, the Newsboy Legion. The Jimmy Olsen comics are mostly tangential to the main story, but definitely connected. One might think of them as similar to the clown scenes in Shakespeare's tragedies.

The books never met with the commercial success DC had hoped for. They seemed to think that by luring Kirby away from Marvel he would be able to spark for them the kind of explosion that company had experienced in the 1960s. This was unrealistic -- aside from the extremely important roles others like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had played in the Marvel explosion, it ignores two important facts: a) it's easier to "explode" a tiny company reinventing itself with mostly new characters and complete revisions of a few existing ones than it is a behemoth whose own success is largely based on the familiarity of its hugely successful franchise stars like Superman and Batman; and b) the 1960s were a unique period in American history primed for cultural change, reflected in many different fashions across nearly all available popular media, including comic books, and by the time Jack Kirby came to DC that period was already waning. It would have been impossible for anyone to do for DC in the '70s what Kirby and others had done for Marvel in the '60s.

One could argue that Kirby's ambitious plan was just too grand to be understood and appreciated by the comic book audience of the time. On the other hand, one could also argue that Kirby's reach exceeded his grasp, and his own artistic failings, especially as a writer, doomed the comics.

A good representative example of both Kirby's strengths and weaknesses are visible in two adjacent pages of the recent reprinting of the entire saga as "Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus," a four-volume set. This is from volume 2, pp.46-47, reprint pp. 10-11 from "The New Gods" #4. On the first page, we have a close-up of Darkseid, ruler of Apokolips. He had just witnessed Orion, champion of New Genesis, shouting his defiance and fury to the skies at the death of one of his fellow new gods, one who was killed by Darkseid's forces, and speak about bravery and glory and how his death will not have been in vain. Among the thoughts of Darkseid's presented to us on the page is the following:

"Oh, how heroes love to flaunt their nobility in the face of death! Yet they know better than most that war is but the cold game of the butcher!"

If you ignore the over-wrought exclamation marks (ubiquitous in the medium and possibly added by the letterer), this is actually a deeper thought than most folks in 1971 would have expected from a comic book, and it's also well expressed, almost poetic. On the very next page, however, the effect is seriously marred by some extremely clumsy expository dialogue:

DAVE LINCOLN: I tell you, I saw it with my own eyes! We're in a war! It's hidden -- but it's very real!

VICTOR LANZA: B-But why us? We're just ordinary people!

CLAUDIA SHANE: Oh, yeah? How many just plain folks have been abducted to a weird world like Apokolips!

HARVEY LOCKMAN: Orion got us back here! We owe him that!

DAVE LINCOLN: We owe him that, Mister Lanza! Such as we are -- we may have to tackle super-beings!

VICTOR LANZA: But I'm Victor Lanza! An insurance executive! A family man! My wife makes me carry an umbrella in case it rains!

VICTOR LANZA (cont., new panel): And now, this! New Genesis! Apokolips! And things that would scare John Wayne!

CLAUDIA SHANE: What about it, Lincoln? I'm Claudia Shane, simple but worried secretary! What am I involved in this time? --

HARVEY LOCKMAN: And me, young but cool, Harvey Lockman!

Aside from the unlikely nature of this conversation, or the absurd notion that people who already know each other well would blurt out both first and last names in the course of it, I find it literally impossible to believe that anyone would introduce himself, either on first acquaintance or later, as "young but cool Harvey Lockman!"

(And of course, the inevitable exclamation points -- no one in American comics ever says anything, it is either declaimed, shrieked or simply yelled, apparently -- make the whole thing even sillier.)

In this, Kirby was no worse than many comic book writers who got paid only for their ability with words and couldn't draw at all. And while the dialogue is sometimes contrived or hokey, his conception and plotting is excellent, at least until near the end, when commercial considerations caused a hurried climax that was left unresolved. Years later he came back and finished the tale in a graphic novel, also collected in this edition, but even that ending doesn't ring quite true, as if it's not quite the ending originally planned. Reading the whole series collected in these four volumes, one gets the feeling that at least another volume, maybe even another three or four volumes, would have been needed to complete the story as originally conceived.

Despite all these problems, I think the work generally stands the test of time. It is obviously an important work that should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of American comics, but more importantly it's an enjoyable reading experience that I would recommend to many people with no such interest.

I would not recommend it to those who disdain superheroes, and certainly this is not the book to convince someone with a poor opinion of comics that they can be of real artistic value. Not that it doesn't *have* real artistic value, mind you. But it's of a type that such a person would be unlikely to see.

For it's own sake, just as a reading experience, the series probably rates a 3-1/2 or 4 on a 5-pt scale. If you care anything at all about the history of the medium or the development of mega-novels like the ones mentioned in the first paragraph, it's a 5, an absolute must-read.


Volumes 1-4

Jack Kirby and others

DC Comics

Vol. 1, 296 pages, $49.99

Vol. 2, 396 pages, $49.99

Vol. 3, 396 pages, $49.99

Vol. 4, 424 pages, $49.99

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A New Beginning

I'm trying something new here - starting this blog over again and posting this new start from my new iPhone.

I will probably get around to doing more on religion and Cerebus one of these days, but for the nest few weeks I'm planning to concentrate on doing some reviews, which is going to be the main purpose for the site, I think.