Trump Before Trump : Jack Kirby’s “Forever People” #3 (1971)

Posted: November 20, 2016 in comics
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Last week, I cranked out a little column called “Five Comics To Help You Survive The Age Of Trump” that got a fairly healthy number of hits and re-tweets and all that shit — for which I’m grateful, rest assured — but while that piece focused entirely on currently-running series, the perhaps-unbelievable truth is that comics’ ultimate response to the “Trump Age” actually came out way back in 1971.

If there’s one creator who could predict the future with uncanny accuracy it was, of course, Jack Kirby — and he frequently did just that. Kirby was — and remains — comics’ pre-eminent visionary, but one could actually make a strong argument that the fruits of his boundless imaginative prowess constitute the single-greatest body of work produced by any artist in any medium in the last century. Every great creative genius has a greatest work of his or her own, though, and it’s a fairly safe bet that the majority of Kirby fans and scholars would point to his Fourth World opus — a long-form series of connected titles comprised of Forever PeopleNew GodsMister Miracle and, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen — as representing “The King Of Comics” (a title that he will never relinquish) at his absolute apex. The raw, undeniable power of Jack’s illustrations from this early-’70s period is still breathtaking to behold, it’s true, but what sets his Fourth World books apart from the already-stratospheric heights achieved by his previous works (he did, after all, create a multi-billion-dollar mythical juggernaut you may have head of called the Marvel Universe) is the sheer philosophical, conceptual, and metaphysical weight of the (sorry to use the term, but) “senses-shattering” storyline that he was able to marry seamlessly with his jaw-dropping visuals. Add in a  poetically bombastic writing style that the ill-informed have often chided as being “clunky” and/or “unrealistic” (as if “realism” was ever the point) and the end result is a true modern epic in every sense of the word. If, in the far-flung future, our civilization is effectively plowed over and forgotten to the point where no trace of the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or any other purportedly “holy” books remains, one can actually envision some neo-primitive survivor stumbling across a couple issues of any of these comics and basing a new religion on them, so soul-shaking and perspective-rattling is the magnitude of their scope. These aren’t just comics — they are four-color transmissions from a consciousness quite beyond our understanding, but one that we recognize to be undeniably true and good. To many readers of the time, they were almost “too much” to fully take on board — no less an authority on subjects both comic and cosmic than Grant Morrison has described his first youthful encounter with them as leaving him feeling as though he’d been “mugged by the word of God” — but with the full advantage of hindsight, we can finally see them for what they were and are : a gauntlet thrown down in the spirit of showing us the way forward, if only we possess courage enough to accept the challenge.

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Unfortunately, of course, all too often we don’t. A world based on kindness, voluntary co-operation, peace, understanding, mutual respect, and open communication was what the so-called “Flower Power” generation claimed it was aiming for, absolutely — and of all the Fourth World books it was Forever People that made the most direct appeal to these ideals via its youthful protagonists (Big Bear, Mark Moonrider, Beautiful Dreamer, Serifan, and Vykin, The Black, for those of you who may not know) — but Jack had fought in the European theater during WWII. He’d helped to liberate the concentration camps. He’d felt the sting of anti-Semitic bigotry personally as a youth. And he understood the frightening siren call of surrendering your individuality to a kind of comfortable-but-deadly “group mind” exemplified by the blank-eyed masses shown on the first page of Forever People #3 (cover-dated July, 1971) shown above.

He also knew that a charismatic charlatan able to tap into humanity’s darkest and most primal fears could then exploit these masses to his own ends after sufficiently strip-mining them of their critical reasoning ability and promising them “safety” and “security” as part and parcel of joining his movement. “Leave it to me — leave it all to me — and I’ll take care of everything” has been the demagogue’s hollow promise since time immemorial. It was at the core of Hitler’s appeal. Mao’s appeal. Franco’s appeal. Mussolini’s appeal.

And today, both depressingly and predictably, it’s back to rear its intellectually and morally worthless head yet again. A vulgar and combative con man with a lifetime of broken vows, both business and personal,  trailing in his wake has grabbed this country by the — well, you know what — with talk of building walls to “protect” us. Of kicking out millions of people for the “safety” of those who remain. Of destroying our purported “enemies” utterly and without mercy. Of putting our unemployed citizens back to work in factories and production plants that by and large no longer exist. Of ridding our communities of crime root and branch not by addressing its causes, but by turning loose the power of militarized law enforcement. All we have to do is give in. Trust him. Follow him. Place our faith in him. Surrender to him. But before Donald Trump, there was Glorious Godfrey.

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A smooth-talking huckster from the dread world of Apokolips, Godfrey even looks like Trump, doesn’t he? And his travelling revival show — rumored to be based on the religion-as-spectacle efforts of Billy Graham — eerily echoes the Trump rally 45 years before there was such a thing. Life itself is the problem, Godfrey tells us, but he alone can make yours right if you just, ya know, fork it over to him, and allow yourself to become one of his zombified, technologically-augmented “Justifiers” — shock troops in his army to remake the world in his own image. Purposely conflating unity with submission to the point where the average attendee of his batshit-crazy carny show can’t tell the difference anymore, Godfrey doesn’t just have answers, he has all the answers — hell, he has the answer. It’s called “Anti-Life.” And it’s gonna Make America Great Again.

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Like all would-be conquerors, though, Godfrey is himself merely a pawn for the power behind the throne he looks to place himself on, just as Trump is a front for the very same “global elites” and “international bankers” he rails against. A 20-percent cut in the corporate tax rate and a six-percent (for now — watch that cut get bigger and bigger with successive income tax “reform” packages) slashing of the top marginal personal tax rates ain’t gonna do shit for Trump’s working-class base, but it sure will make the rich bastards who owned all those shuttered factories where they used to work happy. And if you know Kirby’s Fourth World, you already know that the puppeteer pulling Godfrey’s strings is none other than Darkseid himself, a creature of such unyielding and incalculable evil that the pages he was depicted on could scarcely contain his malignant ferocity. As always, no matter how wretched the public face of mass control may be, the one that hides in the shadows, controlling the would-be controller, is even worse.

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Of course, our intrepid youthful heroes were able to scuttle Godfrey’s plans in the pages of Forever People #3, but their victory was shown to be a temporary one. The forces of darkness and dehumanization, Kirby knew all too well, would always be there to haunt us, and would always find a willing audience among those frightened to be truly alive — as well as to the extend the basic right of self-determination to others. I’m glad Jack’s not here to see the rise of Donald Trump. He was a kind, caring, loving, generous, and brilliant man — and as famous as he is for saying that “comics will break your heart,” (an opinion he arrived at thanks in no small part to another staggeringly duplicitous con artist, Stan Lee) I think this sorry and reprehensible period our nation has entered into would have crushed him perhaps beyond all hope of repair. But I’m even more glad that his work — in all its undeniable vibrancy, vitality, heartfelt integrity, and glory — is with us still, and resonating as clear a clarion call as it ever has. They may have Donald Trump, but we have Jack Kirby — is there any doubt who you’d back in that titanic struggle of cosmic absolutes?

Comments
  1. Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

  2. chuckl8 says:

    Ryan C: Once again, your courageous and brilliant little group has hit the nail on the head, scored a bullseye, hit a grand-slam, scored a perfect 10 and, well, … you get the point.

    The “Forever People” storyline is a perfect match for the current situation. The second panel from the top of this page, with the Hitler quote, only needs a few red “M.A.G.A.” baseball caps in the crowd to complete the comparison. If I hurry, I may have time to order a few t-shirts with that panel printed on them for friends and family for Christmas.

    Thanks for being one of the true voices of reason. It’s exactly what is needed.

  3. smithallen301 says:

    Nice commentary, although Glorious Godfrey seems more articulate than does Trump. That might be the only problem with the comparison. Trump doesn’t use honeyed words to describe his vision of America. And, of course, he might surprise us and govern contrary to what his words imply. We’ll see. Kirby of course is a known quantity: brilliant.

    • Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

      We’ve been waiting for that “new” Trump to show up for some time now — first he was going to “tone it down” after he got the nomination. Then after he won the election. Then when he started making his cabinet picks. It has yet to happen, and at this point it’s pretty safe to assume it never will. This guy will govern like the hard-line fascist buffoon he campaigned as. Your other point is eminently fair, though — Godfrey was a bit of a silver-tongued devil, while Trump can barely vomit out a coherent sentence.

  4. Good Lord.
    A kindred spirit.
    I thought I was nearly alone but your blog has helped to articulate my thoughts. I am mighty happy to have found this site and look forward to more insightful commentary by you.
    Thank you very much.

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