Posts Tagged ‘Fourth World’

With the 100th birthday of the undisputed King Of Comics fast approaching, we’re taking an extended diversion from our “regularly scheduled” programming around these parts to talk all Jack Kirby, all month long (my usual Twin Peaks reviews notwithstanding). I’m open to changing things up “on the fly,” so to speak, but the rough plan goes as follows : I’m more or less “contractually obligated” to review all of DC’s forthcoming one-shot specials based on Kirby characters and concepts (a couple of which I actually have something approaching optimism for), and I’ll be taking a close look at Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle #1, but the main “backbone” of our month-long celebration will be my appraisals of several of my all-time favorite Kirby comics — and where better to start than with the October, 1970 cover-dated Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133?

Oh, sure, there are more important entries in The King’s lengthy C.V. than this one, but I think a person would be hard-pressed to find a single issue that attempts to do more than this story does — after all, this was the very first comic that Kirby produced under his then-new contract with DC, and given the shock-waves that his departure from Marvel sent through the nascent fan circles just bubbling to the surface at the time, it’s fair to say that readers were expecting something more unbelievable, more exciting, more imaginative, more awesome than they’d ever seen before.

There was no need to worry, though, as Kirby always delivered the goods — in fact, giving his all was the only way he knew how to work. There’s been a long-circulating rumor/urban legend that Jack insisted-by-default on being given the Jimmy Olsen gig since he firmly believed that he could turn DC’s lowest-selling title into one of its biggest, and while I have no idea whether that’s true or not, he certainly arrived on the title with a bang, eager to revamp everything in sight in order to lay the groundwork for his Fourth World saga. Certainly if Kirby had been paying attention to what had been going on in this book’s pages before assuming its reigns it doesn’t show — he wiped the slate clean, immediately making his inherited “cub reporter” protagonist actually competent for the first time ever, and even  putting him at odds, albeit briefly, with his super-powered best bud, as the cover plainly (if exaggeratedly) shows. Things were gonna be different from here on out, and this issue is a thunderous overture hinting at the scope of the grand cosmic symphony to come.

I still wonder how Kirby managed to pack so much into this slim comic — hot on the trail of a whispered-about “miracle car” that’s been seen around Metropolis, Jimmy meets the “new,” Guardian-free iteration of the famed Newsboy Legion, who may not have their costumed leader with them anymore (at least for now), but do have a new member in their ranks named Flippa Dippa, as well as the amazing “Whiz Wagon,” the staggeringly advanced land-air-sea vehicle that our ostensible hero has been searching for. Just one question — why are all the Newsboy kids the same age as they were back in their 1940s heyday? They claim to be direct blood descendants of the originals, but is that the whole story? In any case, when Jimmy tells them that he’d like the help of them and their “super car” to make the trek into a foreboding district just outside Metropolis known as the “Wild Area” the kids are all-in, hence this issue’s title, “Jimmy Olsen Superman’s Pal Brings Back The Newsboy Legion!”

Forget all that for a moment, though, as next we meet the scheming Morgan Edge, president of Galaxy Broadcasting and new owner of the Daily Planet, who oozes sleazy menace as he confers with Clark Kent for the first time. Edge is essentially Rupert Murdoch a good couple of decades before anyone outside of Australia knew that execrated name, and therefore stands as yet another example of Kirby’s amazing precognitive ability. It’s Edge who has assigned Jimmy with task of entering the Wild Area to make contact with its hippie-ish residents known only as the “Hairies,” and while Clark would like to go along to ensure his young friend’s safety, Edge will hear nothing of it since he has it on good authority that the “Hairies” don’t trust anyone over 25 years old. It’s when Clark leaves the office of his newly-ensconced “superior,” though, that things really start to get interesting —

Okay, fair enough, we all know that a “no” from Morgan Edge isn’t going to stop Superman from going where he wants to go and doing what he needs to do, but Kirby’s portrayal of Clark/Supes (re-drawn faces aside) is entirely different to anything we’ve seen before — this is a moody, introspective, and thoughtful Man of Steel, fundamentally lonely and with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a super-being well aware of his ability to do almost anything and openly and actively questioning the perhaps-outdated moral code that holds him back from making the world a better place on anything other than a “micro” scale. Kirby’s Superman saw a world in distress, fraying at the seams, further slipping into the insidious grasp of big business — and, like his author, he saw the surest signs of hope for the future in the emerging “peace and love” youth culture of the time. No one had written Superman like this before, and all of these various themes — and more — would be expounded upon by The King not only in the pages of this series, but in The Forever People, as well.

For his part, Edge’s interior monologue also reveals more about him than the “poker face” he kept while meeting Kent did — he has his own surreptitious reasons for wanting Jimmy to penetrate the “Wild Area,” and it all has something to do with the dictates of a shadowy underworld organization that he’s a part of known as Intergang, but it’s abundantly clear that even this group of malefactors is only a means to an end, and that they are pawns for another, larger power that’s positioning them on a grand, three-dimensional chessboard.

A series of confrontations with a biker gang on the outskirts of the “Wild Area” known as the “Outsiders” ensues — first Jimmy and the Newsboys take them on, and then when they win that skirmish and Jimmy is made their de facto “leader,” they take on Superman, who’s been tailing his protege — and while falling back on a chunk of Green Kryptonite to bring the second fight to a conclusion stands out for its utter predictability in comparison to the rest of the events taking place in this otherwise-breathtaking story, it’s a situation that Kirby reverses quickly enough, and when Superman wakes up, he, Jimmy, and the Newsboys quickly arrive at a surprisingly tentative truce, and we get out first look at the sprawling forest kingdom known as “Habitat,” a kind of “super-commune” at the very heart of the “Wild Area.” The visuals, in true Kirby fashion, are absolutely spectacular — so spectacular that not even Vince Colletta’s lazy, sloppy inks can fuck them up —and if you need any further evidence that the so-called “Boy From Kansas” ain’t in Kansas anymore, well, look no further than page page 20 :

I would argue that this splash image represents the first significant distillation of the artistic through-line that would inform the entire Fourth World opus : Kirby grand-scale epic visual storytelling wedded to the ideals and ethos of the so-called “flower power” generation. The cliffhanger to this issue — which sees Jimmy enlist his once-and-future best friend in his sure-to-be-perilous journey to something called the “Mountain Of Judgment,” which can only be accessed by means of a hidden drag-strip known as the “Zoomway” — hints that further wonders are to come, of course, but the tone of the epic-to-be has already been set : Jack Kirby, WWII veteran, keen and learned observer of humanity who still hadn’t lost his fundamental sense of optimism, was putting his faith in a better future future, and in the youth — the same shaggy, hairy, “drop-out,” “hippie” youth that so much of popular culture, including the comics, was openly demonizing every chance it could get — who were going to make that better future happen.

It didn’t all work out the way that Kirby hoped, of course — nor did the Fourth World itself, for reasons entirely beyond his control — but Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 reflected the exuberance, idealism, and promise of its times. There have been better stories told in the funnybooks than this one (although not that many), but very few have been this significant, this heartfelt, this revolutionary. And Jack Kirby was only just getting started.

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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?

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Call me old-fashioned, but if I were putting together DC’s “Villains Month” line, here are two things that I would do:

1) I’d make sure each of these stand-alone “specials” made sense on its own, without being bogged down too heavily in continuity, so as to be welcoming to both new readers and old readers who have been enticed back into the fold by the whole 3-D holographic cover gimmick, and;

2)I’d see to it that each issue was actually good, so that said new and/or returning readers would be sufficiently intrigued to check back in next month with the “regular” DC titles.

Alas, I’m not in charge of “Villains Month,” and the Dan DiDio/Jim Lee co-captaincy at DC just doesn’t seem to see things my way. Having fleeced the gullible (myself included) out of four bucks for each of these issues, they’re happy to just say “see ya, suckers!,” pocket the cash, and laugh as they ride off over the ridge.

To be honest, each of the five “Villains Month” books I read was pretty damn underwhelming in its own way, but by far the worst of the bunch has got to be Desaad #1 (or Earth 2 #15.1 as far as “official” continuity goes), a comic that made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.

At least we’re spared a “reimagined” version of the character’s origin here, but even that probably would have been preferable to the mess offered up by veteran writer (and former DC head honcho) Paul Levitz and artist Yildiray Cinar, who give new readers no explanation as to who Desaad is or why he does what he does, opting instead to just show him washing ashore (literally) on Earth 2 and start scaring the shit out of people in order to psychically “feed” on their pain and fear. In one particularly tasteless sequence, he even induces a security guard at a hospital to commit a mass shooting (although, hey, maybe Newtown never happened on Earth 2, in which case this lame contrivance is only offensive in the “real” world — which is still, last I checked, where all this book’s readers live) before going on to mess with the minds of a few of the patients there himself.

Next up he somehow hires a mercenary strike force to steal some equipment he needs from an outfit called Holt Industries, then he creates some irradiated super-soldier for reasons completely unknown, then gets bored and opens some kind of time-space portal to spy on his creator, Jack Kirby, only to opt to leave “The King” in peace at his drawing board and not kill him (although one suspects seeing what’s been done to his character in the pages of this magazine would, in fact, do Jack in if he weren’t, sadly, dead already). Then Desaad returns to his base of operations, kneels down before a statue of Darkseid, and we’re all finished.

Clearly, without detailed knowledge of current “New 52” continuity, Desaad #1 makes no sense whatsoever — but that’s okay, I guess, given that an acquaintance of mine who actually does keep up with most current DC goings-on reliably informs me that the book doesn’t make sense even to those who follow this stuff religiously.

I’m not going to lay too much of the blame for the mess here on Cinar — sure, his art is dull and lifeless, but he’s just a (cheap, I’m guessing) hired hand — it’s old pro Levitz who really ought to know better. Simply put, his script is an absolute shambles consisting of no clear plot progression, a tin-eared and insensitive (at best) attempt at being “topical,” and a clumsy attempt at tribute/homage to the greatest talent in the history of super-hero comics, all strung together for no readily apparent reason apart from the need to kill 20 pages with as little actual effort as possible.

Apparently rumors are swirling that DC intends to bring back all of the “Fourth World” in a big way sometime in the near future. If this is the kind of story we can look forward to should this come to pass, then all I can do is hope this scuttlebutt is wildly off-base. Genuinely imaginative characters and concepts clearly have no place at comics’ second-biggest publisher these days (or its first, but that’s another matter for another time), so please, DC, I’m begging you — leave New Genesis, Apokolips, and all of their denizens alone. Jack Kirby’s memory has been dragged through the dirt enough as it is.