Monday, July 16, 2007

Graphic Lit: Jack Kirby's Fourth World


Back in 1970, if you wanted to make a decent living in the comic book industry, there were two companies you could work for: DC or Marvel.

So when an embittered and frustrated Jack Kirby — co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men and Captain America, to name just a few of his many accomplishments — decided he’d had enough mistreatment by the higher-ups at Marvel Comics, there was really only one place he could go to.

“Marvel had undergone a change of ownership,” said writer Mark Evanier, Kirby’s assistant at the time.

“The [new] conglomerate didn’t know who Jack was and ... promises to Jack had suddenly been forgotten. He was being asked to sign documents he found legally offensive.”

Kirby came to DC with a vision, Evanier said. Inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was undergoing a revival at the time, he wanted to take comics out of the 32-page, pamphlet format they had been consigned to and create an epic, self-contained story that could eventually be collected in book format.

The result was a series of four interrelated titles: “The New Gods,” “The Forever People,” “Mister Miracle” and, believe it or not, “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.” These stories came to be known — for reasons that were never fully explained — as “Kirby’s Fourth World.”

Sadly, the comics never sold to DC’s unrealistically high expectations, and the company canceled the line before Kirby could finish his story.

Long neglected and undervalued except by devout Kirby fans, the series is finally getting the deluxe treatment it deserves with the arrival of the first volume of “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus,” a four-volume attempt to collect the entire series in the chronological order that the individual issues were published.

The plot ostensibly involves the valiant heroes of New Genesis, led by the tortured, conflicted Orion, fighting against the supreme evil of the planet, Apokolips, ruled by the sinister Darkseid, with Earth as the battleground. Darkseid’s goal is the attainment of “anti-life,” the secret of which he believes is hidden in the mind of an ordinary earthling.

As you might guess by the above description, these comics collected here have a heady, fever-dream approach to conventional super-heroics, where it seems like almost anything goes, from the “space hippie” peace and love vibe of “The Forever People” to the “one man against impossible odds” thrills of Mister Miracle, an extraordinary escape artist bent on foiling Darkseid’s schemes.

Kirby was at the peak of his powers here and let his imagination run wild.

Should Jimmy Olson fight a monstrous, gigantic green clone of himself only to be saved by pint-sized paratroopers? Absolutely! How about some black and white photo collage spreads? Why not! The Grim Reaper redesigned as African-American, armor-clad skier? You got it! A Don Rickles look-alike named Goody? Um, sure thing!

“He didn’t think a lot about what he was going to do, he just sat down and did it from the gut,” said Evanier, who has a biography of Kirby coming out later this year. “And frequently he was very surprised by what he had created. He would have no real idea of how he had gotten from A to B.”

All this pop culture insanity, however, is firmly grounded by Kirby’s strengths as an artist and storyteller. Vast, intricate cityscapes, extreme uses of perspective, and thick, almost granitelike characters (especially Darkseid) connote weight and significance and keep matters from seeming too ridiculous.

Unfortunately, as good as Kirby was with his art and stories, dialogue (and, as you might have guessed subtlety) was never his strong suit. A good deal of the dialogue, especially in “Jimmy Olsen,” comes off as forced and stilted. It sounds fine when coming out of the mouth of an otherworldly being like Orion, but not so much when being uttered by a supposed teenager.

There are other problems, few of them actually having to do with Kirby.

DC, nervous about having a Kirby Superman that looks so vastly different from the way he had been drawn before, had other DC artists redo the faces in “Jimmy Olsen,” all but ruining the effect Kirby was going for.

While it seems a horrible crime that Kirby’s work was messed with in such a manner — not to mention that he never got to complete his story (“At that point at DC, they canceled more comics over those couple years than they had in the 20 years preceding,” Evanier noted) — we are lucky to have this handful of extraordinary comics, especially when reproduced in such a loving manner as DC does here.

For all the awkwardness and hokum, Kirby’s “Fourth World” saga is a stunning achievement; a personal, far-reaching epic that takes the sort of chances no one in superhero comics seems interested in attempting today.

In many ways, Kirby is a lot like Mister Miracle himself: an escape artist who, despite being imprisoned by a variety of overwhelming (and in his case commercial) forces, was able to break free and produce a work of art.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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3 Comments:

At 5:15 PM, Anonymous xlpharmacy said...

Hey, that was my first comic book convention! The Seuling Cons of those days were just wonderful events. That’s the same show where I met Jack for the first time, as well! I had him sign Jimmy Olsen #141 and Sgt. Fury #13… still have those treasures but nothing beats the memory of chatting with the gentleman. What a hero to me he is!

 
At 5:19 PM, Blogger keythd23 said...

Jack Kirby's writing was terrible. While continually asserting that he alone did all the writing and character creating at Marvel, he constantly proved it wasn't so with the abysmal titles he cranked out after leaving Marvel in 1970. Although the characters, such as the New Gods, are still with us they have never been able to succeed on their own as comic books. It feels painful to criticise an artist who was such a part of my comics collecting experience and, really, one of the all-time greats. But he tarnished his own legacy with wild claims he couldn't back up. His dialogue was some of the most painful in the history of comics and his editing, which gave free range to his weaknesses and excesses, caused the many failures he experienced from 1970 - 1985.

 
At 5:19 PM, Blogger keythd23 said...

Jack Kirby's writing was terrible. While continually asserting that he alone did all the writing and character creating at Marvel, he constantly proved it wasn't so with the abysmal titles he cranked out after leaving Marvel in 1970. Although the characters, such as the New Gods, are still with us they have never been able to succeed on their own as comic books. It feels painful to criticise an artist who was such a part of my comics collecting experience and, really, one of the all-time greats. But he tarnished his own legacy with wild claims he couldn't back up. His dialogue was some of the most painful in the history of comics and his editing, which gave free range to his weaknesses and excesses, caused the many failures he experienced from 1970 - 1985.

 

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