Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: New Gods

As any comic afficionado knows, Jack Kirby is the in-the-comics-world-legendary artist-writer who basically co-created the vast majority of superhero characters that the average movie viewer is familiar with – Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men – and many more that they aren’t familiar with (at least not yet) – eg Machine Man, Kamandi, and the Black Panther.

One of his most critically-acclaimed but popularly little known creations was his Fourth World Saga, a series of four interlocking titles that he wrote and drew when he shifted from long-time employer Marvel Comics over to competitor DC Comics in the early 1970’s.  The Fourth World saga was grand, epic, daringly imaginative, but ultimately unsuccessful.  The series only lasted for about 3-4 years (it varied from title to title) and failed to reach its hinted-at grand, epic conclusion. 

In the 1980’s, Kirby did get the chance to do some final follow ups on the Fourth World stories, and then a few years ago, DC published the Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus volumes.  These were four hard cover books which reprinted the entire series in the precise order in which it was originally published.  They also contain a number of extras, including extensive notes from Kirby-associate Mark Evanier, who speaks of his former mentor in almost deified terms, although there are inconsistencies (eg. Kirby both intended to hand the Fourth World books to other writers and artists after the first few issues, but he also had 100 more chapters of the story up the sleeve of his imagination including the epic climax.  It was only with these omnibuses (omnibi?) that I finally jumped onto the Fourth World, and even then only when they hit paperback.  But they were worth the wait.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jack Kirby’s art, even as I acknowledge what a significant creator and innovator that he was.  Still, I enjoyed  finally experiencing the grandiose vision that I had heard so much about.  But I did find it a bit jarring and confusing to read it in that particular chronological format.  Though each of the series was obviously part of one meta-narrative, they still functioned essentially as individual titles.  In today’s day of trade paperbacks and collected editions, where we are used to being able to read through six to eight issues of a title in a row, having each chapter of the Fourth World story interrupted by two or three disconnected issues of other series made it hard for me to get the feel of what was going on.

So, just recently, I decided to reread just one of the four titles, and see how it came across.  I may do this with each of the series, and so I decided to start with The New Gods, which as I have mentioned was clearly where you find the core story.

For the uninitiated, that story is about the earth becoming a battleground for a secret war between two opposing races of cosmic beings – the hippie-esque peace-loving celestials from New Genesis, and the demon-hordes of the nightmare world Apokolips.  The first issue sets the story in motion with Orion, the warrior of New Genesis whose battle-lust conflicts sharply with the ethos of his home world, journeying to Apokolips – the world of their enemy Darkseid and his minions, with whom they have had an uneasy truce for many years.  He discovers that Darkseid has already begun to quietly move upon the earth, kidnapping four humans in his quest to discover the Anti-Life Equation – the key to absolute subjugation of all free will – which is apparently locked in the mind of one human somewhere.  Orion rescues this band of humans and escapes to earth, where they become his allies in countering Darkseid’s efforts to take the earth.

As you can see from even this brief description, Kirby’s New Gods was jam-packed with immense concepts and tremendous story potential.  His audacious art style flings these larger-than-life ideas off the page and at the reader.  And I haven’t even mentioned the Mother Box, the Source, or the Astro-Force!  The series continues with details of this war and with new characters and concepts introduced in every installment.  Issue #3 brings us the Black Racer – the New Gods harbinger of death, who flies around the sky on a pair of skis.    Issue #9 brings us Forager, part of a race of scavengers largely ignored by both New Genesis and Apokolips, who has a mysterious connection to the New Gods that is never fully explored, probably thanks to the series’ cancellation.  On top of that, there’s Kalibak, Metron, Lightray, Highfather, the Deep Six, Steppenwolf, Dan Turpin, and lots of others.

And then there’s Issue #7, “The Pact,” which in some way must be the greatest comic story ever written.  It’s in this tale where Kirby pulls the curtain back on Orion’s backstory, and indeed on the back-story for the entire war between New Genesis and Apokolips.  It’s at this point that you suddenly see that you are not just reading a big story, but a epic tale of mythic proportions, whose scope expands far beyond this one title.

There are weaknesses, of course.  Some of the lesser ones involve clunky dialog and awkward exposition, with characters constantly needing to speak out their own names as well as summaries of their own personalities.  Another is just the obviousness of some of the social commentary, with the already mentioned hippie-ish denizens of New Genesis feeling quite dated.  But the biggest issue is just that there was never a proper ending for the series.   Kirby’s original New Gods title from the 1970’s ended on an unresolved note, with Orion determined to face Darkseid and brings things to closed.  The follow up didn’t happen until Kirby was given a chance to conclude things nearly 15 years later.  That story ends on a cliffhanger with Orion apparently gunned down in an effort to rescue his mother on Apokolips.  That story  then led into the original graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, which was supposedly the epic conclusion of the entire saga, although really there were very few elements from any of the other titles involved.  The book is a bit of disjointed mess, some key elements of a story findable if you look hard enough,  but the execution lacking.  A key problem is the fact that DC editorial had by now decided the Fourth World characters were marketable, so things had to both “end” but also leave room for the concepts to continue to be exploited.

The result is that we have an epic that never did really end, but which gripped the imagination, thus inviting creators of all sorts and styles since to try their hand at continuing or concluding the storylines that Jack Kirby conceived.  From Walt Simonson to John Byrne, from Jim Starlin to Grant Morrison, from Gerry Conway to Paul Levitz (and some would say even George Lucas!) – all talented people, but none of them has ever or will ever be able to put the definitive final word on the Jack Kirby’s Fourth World epic simply because none of them are Jack Kirby, and the story, the concepts, and the characters were very much his.

Still, for both what is and what might have been, for its enormous impact on the writings of many mainstream creators today, for the chance to have your own imagination stirred, and for the opportunity to try to count all the elements that seem to have helped inspire George Lucas on his Star Wars story, Jack Kirby’s New Gods is well worth a read.

More about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World:
Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen

The Forever People

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