My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was and remains the most revered artist in the tradition of American superhero comics. Born to working-class Jewish immigrants in New York City, he was there as a hustling and prolific young artist at the superhero genre’s foundation in comics’s so-called Golden Age of the 1930s and ’40s. With his collaborator Joe Simon, he co-created Captain America and struck a blow against Hitler before the U.S. (and Kirby himself) entered the war.
Then he was crucial in superheroes’ second inception with Stan Lee’s adolescent-friendly Marvel Comics revolution of the early 1960s. A middle-aged Kirby, in fraught collaboration with the script-shirking and credit-hogging impresario Lee, made his masterworks. The standout of his corpus in this period is The Fantastic Four, a worlds-spanning science-fictional family saga that suited the gargantuan and futurist dimension of Kirby’s visual imagination, even as it was grounded in Lee’s sense of character and wink-nudge carnie-barker narrative voice. Around this time, Kirby began to be addressed—the marketing label was predictably Lee’s—as the King of Comics.
Lee sold superhero comics to an older audience by using what would later become an advertiser’s staple: the invitation to appreciate unsuitable or embarrassing content ironically. Kirby, by contrast, approached his work earnestly. But this was not the major quarrel between artist and writer; more importantly, Kirby felt that, as superhero comics became culturally prominent in the late ’60s with all things youthful and countercultural, Lee as executive took all the money and as celebrity took all the credit, even though Kirby and his fellow artists had done the bulk of the imaginative and physical labor.
So the King took his awesome capacity for labor (he regularly drew 80 pages or more per month) to Marvel’s perennial rival, DC Comics, which offered him the chance to create and write his own characters. “Kirby is coming,” their ads announced, this in a time before the comics-creator-as-star was common. What he created was the Fourth World saga, which spanned four different comics series (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle) from 1970 to 1973 before it was canceled for low sales. DC gave Kirby a chance to wrap up the saga a decade later, which he did in a 1985 graphic novel called The Hunger Dogs. In 2017, DC collected this 1500-page mass of material into one impressively sturdy, glossy hardcover omnibus volume, the book under consideration here.
Each of the Fourth World titles was more or less standalone—like the graphic novel itself, the idea of storylines extending across multiple titles was rarer in those days—but the overall narrative can be summarized as follows. In a mix of myth and science fiction, Kirby gives us a cosmic war between two rival planets: the pacific green utopia New Genesis, ruled by the benign Highfather; and the industrial gray hell-planet Apokolips, presided over by the stony Teutonic dictator Darkseid. As Kirby narrates in quasi-Biblical cadences:
It came to pass—that the holocaust which destroyed the old gods split their ancient world asunder—and created in its place two separate and distinct homes for the new forces to rise and grow and achieve powers to move the universe in new ways…
Now there is Apokolips—forever orbiting in shadow—its surface marked by mammoth fire pits—which illuminate its stark and functional temples—in which creatures of fury worship a creed of destruction!!
And moving with majestic serenity, in eternal partnership with this seething giant, is its sunlit sister world, New Genesis!
This Wagnerian war escalates when Darkseid, in his quest to find the Anti-Life Equation that will enable him to control all sentient beings, targets earth. To forestall this threat, both the edgy and angry warrior Orion and the bright-eyed hippie-like Forever People travel from New Genesis to our planet, where they confront various Apokolips heavies and horrors that arrive as Darkseid’s stormtroopers to enslave humanity. Luckily, they are guided by a mysterious beneficent power known as The Source, as well as their trusty Mother Box, an all-purpose technology in which some readers see an anticipation of the smartphone. Meanwhile, Scott Free, a refugee from one of Apokolips’s oppressive warrior-training orphanages, also flees to earth, where he finds shelter—itself occasionally menaced by incursions from Apokolips—as a super-escape artist named Mister Miracle.
In a barely-related side story, Superman occasionally enters this war along with his “pal” and protégé Jimmy Olsen when they investigate a genetic engineering project that produces the monsters and marvels known as D.N.Aliens. Superman and Olsen are also aided by a rambunctious youth gang called the Newsboy Legion, who tend to speak in a terminally-irritating Depression-era urban patois (“The Newsboy Legion is a foist rate outfit—just as it was during da forties!”), except for their lone black member, who often talks jive, as when he addresses Superman as “soul brother.” Insult-comic Don Rickles also makes an appearance—the cover of the relevant issue reads, “Kirby says: ‘Don’t ask! Just buy it!'” Don’t ask or buy it would be my advice.
In the age before the graphic novel—and given DC’s ruthless willingness to pull the plug on any underselling titles—the Fourth World saga never coheres into a complete narrative. Many of the notes Kirby strikes—Homeric, Biblical, and Wagnerian on the one hand; on the other, an older man’s open-minded overture to late-’60s youth culture—go on resonating today, but the comic-book conventions of the time block contemporary appreciation. Because each issue had to tell its own discrete story, and generally also to recap what went before, the stop-and-start structure that no doubt worked for newsstand and drug-store spinner-rack browsers defeats the book-reader’s attention.
Kirby’s writing is also strained, as even his champions will concede, from the stagey dialogue to the labored slang to the awkward narrative voice, in which Kirby tries and fails to capture Stan Lee’s successful but counterintuitive amalgam of the epic and the sarcastic. Still, he often attains true grandeur, as in this oft-quoted monologue of Darkseid’s:
I like you, Glorious Godfrey! You’re a shallow, precious child—the revelationist—happy with the sweeping sound of words! But I am the revelation! The tiger-force at the core of all things! When you cry out in your dreams—it is Darkseid that you see!
Or Orion’s reflection on humanity’s relation to the gods, which doubles as a wise commentary on the role of the very mythological fiction Kirby is composing:
But the gods are ever near!—a part of men’s lives!! Giant reflections of the good and evil that men generate within themselves!
But Kirby lacks the gift to create characters as opposed to archetypes. His wooden Superman, for example, only wants to leave earth and join the New Gods, to frolic in Supertown among superkin—one can hardly imagine this chilly Übermensch loving Lois Lane or bothering to write newspaper articles.
As for The Forever People, I can barely name them or tell you anything about them without going back to the book: there’s Mark Moonrider (a memorable moniker, but is anything else about him memorable?), a big hairy man, someone dressed like a cowboy, a black man helpfully named Something the Black, and a beautiful woman also appropriately called Beautiful Something.
The exception to this lack of characterization in the Fourth World saga only comes in Mister Miracle: the eponymous escape artist—and his fellow Apokolips-refugee and love interest Big Barda, Kirby’s heavy-handed but endearing idea of a “women’s lib” heroine—actually do develop in a sensitive if mostly symbolic portrayal of overcoming early trauma.
Like many an epic bard before him, Kirby is of the devil’s party without knowing it; that is, his villains are more intriguing and energetic than his heroes. The New Deal left-liberal Kirby gives Apokolips a rogues’ gallery inspired by Nazi and Nixon-administration personnel: the Prussian-style martinet Virman Vundabar, the heartless orphan-mistress Granny Goodness, the inventive torturer Desaad, and the fundamentalist preacher Glorious Godfrey (famously based on Billy Graham). Kirby also satirizes Stan Lee himself as a glib salesman known as Funky Flashman, though the artist’s understandable resentment perhaps gets the better of him when he portrays Funky as a southerner longing for the days of “mint juleps! cotillions! happy slaves singing for the family!!!”
In recent years, critics, still haunted by the shade of Fredric Wertham and consequently eager to prove the superhero a liberal rather than fascist icon, have been excessively impressed by Kirby’s rather obvious political allegory. For example, Jeet Heer argues for Kirby’s worldview as an enlivening political rarity in American pop culture, an authentically left sensibility in an incorrigibly libertarian landscape:
Rare among American artists, Kirby was not an individualist. That position was taken to an extreme by his Marvel colleague Steve Ditko, a follower of Ayn Rand. But Kirby himself was formed by groups: the kids’ gangs he grew up with, the Boys Brotherhood Republic (a youth group that steered him away from gangs), the army, and even the Simon and Kirby studio. He had a profound belief that human destiny lies in groups, even if those groups are made up of misfits and freaks. If there is one overriding message in Kirby’s work, it’s a communitarian one: to triumph over evil, we have to come together. Forming such a collectivity is never easy (Kirby’s groups were full of internal strife) but always necessary.
Kirby is often more aware than his sometimes overzealous leftist fans of the problem with (singly or collectively) punching our way to peace. The genealogical secret at the Fourth World saga’s heart—New Genesis’s greatest warrior, Orion, is in fact Darkseid’s son—implies Kirby’s understandable anxiety that fascism’s enemies, to defeat fascism, may have to be themselves fascistic. On the other hand, the Forever People’s alliance to the warriors of New Genesis suggests less Kirby’s warm embrace of the counterculture than a 50-something New Dealer’s self-soothing daydream of a left that never split itself into Old vs. New, soldier/worker vs. student/bourgeois, hardhat vs. long hair. In other words, this is overall less a complex political vision than a facile fantasy.
What is the case for Kirby, aside from grandiose political arguments? First, our current culture is saturated in his influence, from the Marvel and DC movies and the Star Wars franchise (which many think the Fourth World inspired) to Gen-X literary figures like Michael Chabon and Ta-Nehisi Coates. You have to read Kirby just to stay abreast of this cultural history. Second, there is for Kirby’s admirers a sense of redress or reparation in entering him into the canon: overworked and underpaid all his life, he died before he saw his fame expand beyond the small circle of comics fandom or his creativity hailed (over Stan Lee’s) as the true engine of modern superheroes.
Ultimately, though, there is Kirby’s distinctive art, his oft-imitated but unmistakable style. Critics writing about this aspect of his achievement usually resort to autobiography: learning to love Kirby, after early and philistine resistance, as bildung. My story fits this template at the beginning. As a young comics reader, I did find Kirby’s art off-putting. Even in those pre-Internet days, though, I learned from print media and word of mouth (letter columns, magazines, my father) that he was the King of Comics, master of the visual idiom that would define superhero art at least from the Marvel revolution of the early 1960s forward, and that I should therefore understand his innovations.
What revolution in comics storytelling did Kirby’s art effect? It was not about page layout—there Kirby, unlike such experimenters as Eisner or Steranko, tended toward the staid: six- or four-panel grids between splashes and spreads—but about the inner composition of panels. In short, Kirby insisted on three-dimensional drawings. Not a panel of his comics goes by without some action exploding in the foreground, the midground, and often the background too. Boulders and bullets and missiles and monsters rocket up off the picture plane six times per page. Where a previous artist might have staged a hero’s fist punching a villain along a horizontal axis parallel to the bottom of the panel, Kirby rotates the view 45 degrees so that the hero, in the midground, punches the villain into the foreground, where his foreshortened fist also looms, inches from the reader. The increase in dynamism can’t be denied if you compare Kirby to his precursors and contemporaries.
Kirby’s actual drawing style, though, blunted his composition’s putative power, at least in my youthful experience. Among my dad’s stacks of old comics from the 1960s and ’70s, I much preferred the cinematic experiments of Steranko and John Buscema’s magazine-ad elegance, Neal Adams’s attempts at trompe l’oeil and the cross-hatched grotesqueries of Bernie Wrightson, not to mention Heavy Metal, with Moebius’s grainy Euro-delirium and Richard Corben’s high-porn magic airbrush. Naively seeking the mimetic in visual art, I found Kirby’s supposedly vigorous compositions to be immobilized by the near-abstraction of his rendering. He built his heroes’ and villains’ colliding bodies from slabs of thickly-outlined shape, decorated but not textured by what in other artists would have been modeling lines but in Kirby granted adornment without the illusion of depth. I felt like I was reading stories about plastic rocks in combat. Kirby’s work was notionally three-dimensional, but without a hint of sensuality; an anticipation of CGI, his was not a world I could inhabit.
Still, Kirby was and remains required reading if you want to study either superheroes or the history of comics art. Even within Kirby’s oeuvre, though, you’re better off with the Fantastic Four than the Fourth World. Stan might have treated Jack more like the help than like a friend or collaborator, but his literary voice framed Kirby’s peculiar genius properly, balancing its overwhelming earnestness of vision with just the right critical distance. Then there’s the matter of inking in American superhero comics’ Fordist production process. During the high period of the Fantastic Four, Kirby’s pencils were finished faithfully and slickly by Joe Sinnott, who brought the King’s granitic style to something like a Kennedy-era gloss; half of the Fourth World work, by contrast, was inked by Vince Colletta, a notorious corner-cutter with an inaptly feathery line—no match for Kirby’s work ethic or his aesthetic. The later Fourth World inking by Mike Royer is a definite improvement.
These caveats aside, I have grown up into a proper Kirbyphile, haven’t I? At this moment in a literary man’s Kirby essay, said literary man is supposed to say that he got older and wiser, went to school with the hard teacher experience, and came to hail the King as a latter-day Futurist!—a pulp Picasso!!—an American Blake!!! But no: I obdurately cling to my adolescent judgment and find these claims extravagant, even more extravagant, if that’s possible, than the claims now made on behalf of H. P. Lovecraft. More realistically, my father advised me of Kirby appreciation when I was 11 or 13, “You had to be there at the time”—the same thing he’d said a few years earlier when I was unimpressed by Star Wars.
Should adults who didn’t grow up on this material bother to read it today? At the risk of treason to the King, I have to answer with a qualified no (qualified by the caveats above: Kirby is a must-read for those interested in the superhero genre or the development of comics art). If the classic is that which endures beyond its time, any art you had to be there to appreciate is by definition non-classic—for the ambitious reader, then, the Fourth World is optional, not essential.