Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 2 - The Fourth World

So Jack Kirby had left Marvel comics for DC and began an epic story told in fragments across four books: Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, The Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. Kirby's imagination was on display in all four as they featured strange alien vistas, some visually spectacular characters, and mind blowing science fiction concepts. Unfortunately without a collaborator on the writing or an editor to keep things in check they also featured horrifically bad dialog, some spectacularly ugly designs, and an odd fascination with hippies that seems very awkward forty years later.

While I had read bits and pieces of these books before (particularly New Gods) but I did not have the opportunity to read most of these until DC recently collected them in The Fourth World Omnibus. Since they're heavy bound volumes it makes scanning pages difficult without ruining the binding (that's how you know a book nerd; by how concerned they are for a book's binding). If you hold any interest in Kirby's art in this period the books are well worth getting since they reproduce the finest examples of his design and layout in high quality.

A regular pattern in the Fourth World books is that they started out strongly but as time went by Kirby seemed to get lost, the quality dropped off until the books were finally canceled. In addition Kirby had a horrible ear for dialog that got even worse when he was dealing with young characters.

As for the individual titles:

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen

This might be the book with the biggest quality swings of Kirby's efforts. Before Kirby worked on it Jimmy Olsen was a weak artifact of a dying age. Kirby gave it a whole new cast centering on one of his creations from the 1940's the Newsboy Legion, Jimmy's new boss became a reoccurring villain, and stories focused on a government genetic engineering program called.

Oddly enough no one seems to have a problem with that program producing super powered clones of Jimmy Olsen without Jimmy being aware that it or cannon fodder versions of the Newsboy Legion. It's a very odd attitude especially given that a major theme reoccurring in these books is free will. The idea that it's okay for the government to make a copy of you without your permission to use for military applications is disturbing.

Still those first half dozen issues where Kirby presents the project the book zings from concept to concept. Then it falls into an odd story about scientific based vampires and the Loch Ness Monster. It takes a swing back to quality for one issue in #147 when Superman tours the home of the New Gods before it finally ends on a straight Superman story. The other highlight is a two issue block that features the comedian Don Rickles; he and Jimmy get poisoned and spend an issue racing for a cure before they explode.

The Forever People

If I had to pick a low point for the Fourth World this would be it. The premise of this book is a group of six teenage gods decide to leave home and see the Earth. The constantly run into the plans of the evil god Darkseid, Kirby's most enduring creation at DC who first turns up in this book.

The Forever People really felt like a rudderless title. While it featured the "youth movement" in the war between gods they didn't really do anything along the lines of those contemporary protesters. They showed up, Darkseid was doing something in his persuit of the mind control method called "the anti-life equation", and they stop it before moving on.

Despite the large cast the villains were the only characters of real interest. Everyone else might as well have been a cypher; they do little more than work through the plot. The only active characters in these stories are Darkseid and his minions.

Particularly embarrassing is the use of Deadman toward the end of the run where Kirby takes what is a supernatural character and shoves his misfit of science hero mold. It completely misses the point of the character. Fortunately this revamp was quickly abandoned.

The best single issue of The Forever People is #4 which introduces the torturer Desaad who imprisoning them in an amusement park where they are tormented in view of an apparently uncaring populous that sometimes even participates.

New Gods

By far the best of the Fourth World books New Gods featured the Orion, the son of one of the rulers of the gods, making his own personal war against evil. This book was to be the centerpiece of the Fourth World saga and the effort that Kirby put into it shows. It's the only book with a strong theme which helps make it more readable.

Kirby quickly introduced a set of human characters to get caught up in the war but they stay off stage for the majority of the series. Instead the story focuses on the history and battles between the gods and that is one area where Kirby's art excels.

The biggest misstep of the series was the introduction of one of the most ridiculous comic characters ever presented as serious: the Black Racer. He was a spirit of death in day-glo medieval armor that flew on modern skis. It's so incongruous that it passes bizarre comic book acceptable weirdness and heads straight into madness.

I can't point to a single story as the greatest but issue #7's "The Pact" acts as a coda for the series and is the key moment in the Fourth World story.

Mister Miracle

The impression I have of Mister Miracle is that Kirby felt constrained to a superhero format which did not suit the book. The idea of a "super escape artist" is unique and could have been entertaining but the book falls into a formula where the villain shoves Mister Miracle into a death trap and then he escapes thanks to tricks that the reader couldn't have been aware of before hand. It removes any trace of interest in the conflict of the story.

It would turn the book into an unpalatable mess except for the fact that Kirby populated this book with his best characters. The supporting cast and character interaction that makes up the bulk of Mister Miracle is very well done and I think that if Kirby had been willing to abandon the hero/villain format it would have been a revolutionary title. As it stands it is just a curiosity.

The best issue of the series is #6 in which Kirby introduced Funky Flashman, a con man intended as a parody of Kirby's former partner Stan Lee. Kirby channeled his resentment into that issue and the result is something special.