WRITER/ARTIST: Jack Kirby ~ PUBLISHER: DC Comics ~ YEAR: 1970-71
What’s it about?: Once, the Old Gods ruled supreme. Now, after they fell, out in the depths of space dwell the New Gods, inhabitants of the warring planets of New Genesis and Apokolips. But the hand of the tyrannical Darkseid is reaching out to Earth, searching for the elusive answer to the Anti-Life Equation, and soon all of humanity is in deadly jeopardy…
The Story: 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, while completely remixing 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 generally 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 happened, and it ended up having such a gigantic influence that this ‘flop’ series ended up as an integral 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 2008 ‘event series’, the fantastically insane Final Crisis, was 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.
So, the Fourth World saga is kind of a Ground Zero for many of the modern-day DC superhero comics, and a redefining moment for the more mythic branch of superheroes. Not to say that the gritty, empathetic world of Marvel didn’t have its strengths, but superhero adventures could also be genuinely epic, telling 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 this Omnibus series, we’ve basically got the set-up – it’s a 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 ‘Mister 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.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’, and while it’s an admittedly crazed ride, but it’s also one that’s well worth taking.
These collected 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 rather than going for glossy high-grade paper, it actually works perfectly. Kirby’s comics were designed to work on this kind of paper- his work can look garish if presented in the wrong way, but with these Omnibus editions you’re essentially getting a remastered version of the original comics experience, with enhanced colour, a great introduction from Grant Morrison, and a backup essay from Kirby disciple Mark Evanier.
The Art: 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, with Kirby coming up with evermore lurid and weird double-page spreads and bizarre costume ideas. From angular designs that verge on the abstract to surreal photographic montages depicting psychedelic landscapes, it’s a wild and eye-catching ride. Most of all, there’s the sheer level of energy that’s packed into every single panel – Kirby transformed the concept of how to present action in comics, and in the Fourth World he pushes it to a completely different level. It’s the chance to see a legendary artist at the top of his game, pushing comics in some truly weird and wonderful directions. It’s not the kind of style that’s going to appeal to everyone (especially since modern comic art styles have evolved in an extremely different direction), but if you love Kirby’s work, you simply can’t afford to be without this.
The Verdict: 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.