Time for a confession – I’ve slowly but surely been rediscovering my love of comics. It’s been slowly growing over the last six months, and yes, it’s no coincidence that I’ve reactivated my love of fun four-coloured escapism at what’s been one of the roughest times in my life, when escaping into bright and lurid otherworlds is downright appealing. But it’s here, and it’s certainly not going anywhere right now, so, in a decision that may come to haunt me later, I’ve decided to try and add to my occasional series of blatherings on the subject of TV with an occasional series of blatherings on the subject of Comics, going from new discoveries to old touchstones, and what they mean to me (and if anyone wants to suggest any potential discoveries or interesting comics to explore, feel free). I’ve always loved the variety of comics, and its potential for stories that can do absolutely anything – so, to start things off, here’s a look at the first volume of the epic ‘Fourth World’ saga, crafted by the man who can safely be described as the Godfather of superhero comics. Stan Lee may have come up with plenty of the ideas, but I’m not sure the mighty house of Marvel would have achieved quite such staggering success in the Sixties if they hadn’t had Jack Kirby on their side…
JACK KIRBY’S FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS – VOL 1
As ahead-of-their-time concepts go, the Fourth World saga was up there with the best of them. Having jumped ship from Marvel and signed with DC in the early 1970s, Jack Kirby basically had carte blanche to do what he wanted. He’d already been drawing comics for decades, doing everything from crime to romance, and had completely remixed the idea of what superhero comic art could be with his classic run on The Fantastic Four. And naturally, he wasn’t about to do anything small. What he came up was a sequence of stories that ran through four seperate titles, all of which linked up to tell a bizarre, mythic story of interplanetary gods fighting an epic war that (naturally) spreads onto Earth, where mankind is soon in danger of being caught in the crossfire.
The thing with the Fourth World is that it’s the comics equivalent of The Velvet Underground – it wasn’t really that succesful, with sales peaking early and then trailing off, and was genuinely regarded as something of a flop at the time, petering out and being cancelled long before Kirby got to build up to the epic finale he had in mind. But then, something odd happenned, and it ended up having such a gigantic influence that this ‘flop’ series ended up as part of the overall architecture of the DC universe, with its set of characters (including Orion, Mr Miracle and Darkseid) turning up in all manner of places. It’s got to the point where DC’s latest ‘event series’, the fantastically insane Final Crisis, is actually a gigantic homage to the Fourth World – not copying it, but almost attempting to do the kind of insane, boundary-stretching storytelling that Jack Kirby would be doing now if he was still around. (For any Sandman fans out there – issue 5, the brief (and never-really-repeated) sequence which tries to connect up Morpheus to the mainstream universe? The humanoid character that Sandman meets before he encounters the greenskinned Martian Manhunter? That’s Scott Free, aka Mr. Miracle, super-escape artist, one of the star characters of the Fourth World, and the dream he has is packed with all kinds of Fourth World references (including vilainess Granny Goodness). Gaiman was a big fan of Kirby and the Fourth World, as was Alan Moore, who revived Kirby’s previously forgotten character Etrigan the Demon during his run on Swamp Thing (Kirby created Etrigan, but it was Moore who turned him into a sinister rhymer).
So, the Fourth World saga is kind of a Ground Zero for DC superhero comics, and a redefining moment for the more mythic branch of superheroes – not saying that the gritty, empathetic world of Marvel didn’t have its strengths, but superheroes could also be genuinely epic, and tell tales like nothing ever seen before. Jack Kirby certainly believed they could, and the Fourth World was soon speeding off the map into its own particularly barmy unexplored territory.
In Volume One of the Omnibus series, we’ve basically got the set-up – it’s 380 page hardback graphic novel that contains the first 16 issues of the saga in chronological order, and which leaps in sequence between four different titles. It all starts off in the seemingly inauspicious pages of Jimmy Olsen’s Pal Superman – a vehicle for Clark Kent’s bow-tie wearing, gosh-wow junior reporter sidekick which had certainly never been especially interesting or experimental before, but in Kirby’s hands was soon turning into a hallucinatory tale of dropout societies, motorbike gangs, secret scientific projects, genetic engineering and alien invasion. Then, there’s The Forever People, a gang of teenage bike-riding heroes from a place only known as ‘Supertown’ who are soon tackling the forces of evil and the sinister Anti-Life equation, while in ‘Orion of the New Gods’, we finally find out that this is all revolving around the war between peace-loving alien world New Genesis and hellish fire-planet Apokolips, a war that’s soon spreading to Earth. And finally, in Mr Miracle, we start off with what seems to be the story of a super-powered escape artist, but are soon finding that it all connects up with the other stories in a variety of unpredictable ways.
The main thing to remember when reading the Fourth World is that these are comics from the 1970s – while there’s plenty about Kirby’s world that’s forward looking, there is also plenty that has a goofiness and a B-movie charm that can make it feel like you’re reading some bizarre cross between Barbarella and Easy Rider- Kirby’s characters are bigger than life, archetypal gods fighting it out on a human scale, and the dialogue can often come across like the crazed outpourings of a nutty beatnik mastermind. And yet, while there’s plenty of goofiness here, there’s also an awesome amount of invention and energy, with almost every page crackling with life. It’s worth remembering that not only was Kirby writing, editing and doing the pencil art on every issue, but he was also in his Fifties at the time, and the Fourth World has the kind of manic momentum and spitballing energy that you’d usually only find in a twentysomething artist eager to prove themselves. There’s also a warmth and a generosity of spirit, and a belief in the younger generation that’d it’d be very easy for the Fiftysomething Kirby not to have – this was a period when it was very easy to still regard the younger generation as a rebellious enemy, and yet the Fourth World is forward-looking and consciousness expanding – it’s ‘far out’ in a way that’s unintentionally funny at times, and yet the energy and the heart of the story shines through.
Big, energetic and crammed full of boggling invention, the Fourth World is also an artistic goldmine, with almost every frame being a masterclass in form and style, and with Kirby coming up with evermore lurid and weird double-page spreads and bizarre costume ideas. It’s nutty and surreal, with god-like characters fighting it out against four-armed monstrosities while intoning what Grant Morrison describes in his introduction as ‘Shakespearean Jive’. Fun, ludicrous and epic in equal measure, it’s a crazed ride, but it’s one that’s worth taking. It’s the chance to see a legendary artist at the top of his game, and the chance to see comics being pushed in some truly weird and wonderful directions. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to appeal to everyone, but if you love Kirby’s work, you simply can’t afford to be without this.
It’s only the expense that’s stopped me from immediately picking up the other volumes – the DC editions are gorgeous, but they ain’t cheap (coming in at about £33 pounds each), and while there’s been criticism of the decision to use a more traditional comic-style paper stock than going for glossy high-grade paper, it actually works perfectly. These comics were designed to work on this kind of paper- Kirby’s work can look ugly and garish if shown in the wrong way (Paul Cornell recently blogged about the black-and-white Marvel Essentials, and said that he thought Kirby’s stuff looks better in black-and-white – I disagree, but I think the glossy look doesn’t help him, and his work is best when presented as it is here), but with these Omnibus editions you’re essentially getting a remastered version of exactly how it was supposed to look, with enhanced colour, a great introduction from Morrison, and a backup essay from Kirby disciple Mark Evanier. As collected editions go, it’s pretty damn good, and as superhero comics go, this is close to essential – a firecracker of work from an artist firing on all cylinders that’s gloriously insane, and genuinely inspirational in a completely loopy, free-form way..
Now, all I’ve got to do is get hold of the rest of it…