[26 June 2014]
Jack Kirby’s Forever People began not with a bang and not with a boom. It began with a poem. The poem hugs the top left corners of three horizontal panels on the comicbook’s opening page. An unidentified light hurtles forward, growing as it moves, panel by panel, from the center of the page to the far right. Kirby Krackle crackles in the background.
Listen to the night,
You may hear sounds heard by few men.
Watch for the light,
You’ll see it, if you’re sharp, and then . . .
Hold your ears,
It must be coming through,
From there to here,
On a trip with an infinite view.
What is it? Who’s in it?
Well they’re both new to this age.
Stand back for the answers,
They’re on the next page!
Turn the page and the Forever People, in a two-page splash, explode from a Boom Tube aboard their Super Cycle: Vykin the Black clutching Mother Box, Serifan and Mark Moonrider, looking scared out of their wits, Big Bear grinning at the handlebars. They have come to Earth from Supertown to rescue Beautiful Dreamer from the clutches of Darkseid. Kirby’s narrator describes what is happening: “They’re from a place that men have sought but never found—We’ve seen their like before—in different ages—in different guise—but never like this—yet, always like this—when man’s civilization faces destruction.”
Forever People is part of the Fourth World crossover storyarc that was produced by Jack Kirby in his brief tenure at DC Comics in the early 1970s. The Fourth World story played out across four books from 1970 until 1972: The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People and, improbably, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, all of which were edited, written and drawn by Kirby himself. It was arguably the first mutli-title crossover event and the first time episodic comicbooks, across several titles, were written to be read as one big, continuous story. The Fourth World is the story of Highfather and the world of New Genesis who are locked in a great battle with the evil forces of Darkseid, one of the greatest villains in comicbook history, and the fallen, broken world of Apokolips. It is loud, brash, confusing, overwhelming, bigger than life, maddening and, without question, brilliant.
On nearly every page Kirby adds something unique, some unexpected idea or character. It sometimes feels as if he had been saving ideas for years, ideas he felt were too good to share with Stan Lee and Marvel Comics; then, once he jumped ship to DC, he put them all on the page to sometimes dizzying and disorienting effect. He gives us beautiful, strange, and exotic new worlds; futuristic and marvelously unworkable technology; human and superhuman characters in tattered fedoras and colorful costumes. Sometimes this all falls flat or goes spiraling out of control; sometimes it is eye-opening and revelatory. After reading it, and re-reading it, I now read everything else in light of it. This cannot be helped. The Fourth World is a culmination of everything that came before it and, simultaneously, something astonishingly new.
Like so many people, I missed the wonder of the Fourth World the first time around. I discovered Kirby only after he returned to Marvel in the mid ‘70s for his second great run with the company. As a kid, I thrilled at his work on Captain America, The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur, but I knew nothing of Darkseid and Highfather or of Orion and Mister Miracle. I certainly knew nothing of the Forever People. Then, just a few years back, DC reprinted the epic story in four beautiful hardback volumes. The publication of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus changed my own understanding of the writer/artist and helped to usher in a Kirby revival.
DC Comics, for example, just kicked off a new version of Kirby’s Forever People, the hippie supergroup from Supertown. The first issue of the new book, now called Infinity Man and the Forever People, is by Keith Giffen and Dan Didio, who recently revamped Kirby’s OMAC character as part of the original lineup for DC’s New 52. The new take on the characters adds a bit more diversity to the cast, which is a good thing; it swaps the primary colors of the original for a decidedly more pastel palate, which is a bad thing; and it drops the weird, hippie lingo that Kirby placed in the mouths of his super team, which may or may not be an improvement—I haven’t decided yet.
The new comic opens with the words of Highfather, an excerpt from his commencement address to the students of the Academy of Higher Conscience: “There is a sense of order to the universe, and with it, a sense of being, a sense of mind, a sense of purpose. We represent that order.”
And, with that, right from the start, Infinity Man and the Forever People gets it wrong.
Kirby’s Forever People were never the champions of order over chaos. In contrast, they are, in Kirby’s words and picture, the very embodiment of disorderly creativity. The Forever People, like Kirby himself in this great rollicking period of his career, were about nothing if not controlled chaos, pushing the boundaries of what has been, and expanding the horizons of the possible. Kirby, World War II veteran, a member of the greatest generation, was channeling youth when he produced Forever People. He was on the side of change, on the side of disorder in the cause of freedom.
It is Darkseid, the villain, who stands for order in Kirby’s Fourth World.
Out of all of Kirby’s characters, out of all of his villains, from Loki to Galactus to Doctor Doom, Darkseid’s evil is the most profound. He is on a quest to find the Anti-Life equation, the secret that will allow him to assume total control over all life. He believes that this secret equation is buried in the minds of certain human beings. If he can find, and open, these minds he will achieve dominion. Free will will be no more.
On this level, of course, Darkseid’s quest is pure sci-fi, pure “comicbook” evil; it is pretty silly stuff. But then, especially as his story plays out in the pages of Forever People, the methods that Darkseid uses to seek his goal reveal that he understands that there are many ways to control others without recourse to such gimmicks as hidden formulas or, for that matter, cosmic cubes or bejeweled gauntlets. The methods that Darkseid employs to achieve dominance over the human race are tried and true; they have been used by tyrants and dictators since the dawn of time. They are methods that are almost always guaranteed to turn life to anti-life, freedom to captivity, chaos and creativity to order.
In the first few issues of Forever People, before the powers that be at DC Comics ruined the series by insisting that Kirby add the Deadman character to his book, Darkseid employed his strategy with the help of other citizens of cursed Apokolips. Mantis strikes first, in Forever People 2. He is an insane, power hungry, fury who bounces off the walls of the city while raining terror down upon the heads of the unsuspecting crowds. Mantis seeks only to destroy; he is a force of nature, seeking to conquer his human victims with overwhelming violence. Darkseid, however, sees Mantis as part of a deeper strategy. He knows that Mantis’ acts of terror strike fear into the hearts of the population and he knows that fear will yield anti-life.
Darkseid monitors the rising fear among the populace. “What is the city’s fear quotient, now, Desaad?” he asks his sadistic lieutenant. “Spiraling to a lovely high pitch, O Darkseid! I can feel them—like crashing surf—wonderful waves of raw fear!”
Then, Darkseid reveals his plan, “Mantis is inspiring great results! He’ll shake every mind in that city to its very roots! Especially the mind we seek to contact—the one that must be made to yield its secret—the anti-life equation!” Darkseid knows that fear is a powerful force; he knows that humans get careless with their freedoms when they want to be protected from that which frightens them; he knows that frightened people seek safety in order and in authority.
In Forever People 3, an even more dangerous threat surfaces in the form of Glorious Godfrey. The splash page signals immediately that Kirby is not playing around: a sea of blank-faced human zombies stare ahead. Above them, in a torn and tattered banner, are the words of Adolf Hitler: “That is the great thing about our movement—that these members are uniform not only in ideas, but, even, the facial expression is almost the same!” Godfrey is what Darkseid calls a “revelationist.” He inspires the crowds, sways them with rhetoric, preaches sermons that pit the insiders against the outsiders; they follow him with religious fervor as he stands before them in his colorful robes.
The banners in his revival tent reduce his message to catchy slogans: “Life has pitfalls! Anti-life is protection!”, “Life will make you doubt! Anti-life will make you right!”, “You can justify anything with anti-life!” Godfrey proclaims to Darkseid, “I believe in anti-life, great Darkseid, but it can only be induced in others by the means of inventive selling!” Godfrey’s “inventive selling”, his gospel of anti-life, is meant to lead his followers to adopt a uniformity of ideas, to give up their individuality for the sake of the greater order that is anti-life.
Then, in Forever People 4-6, Desaad takes the scene, employing torture to elicit anti-life, torture that is hidden in plain sight so that many of his victims are not even aware of their plight. Desaad’s torture chamber is disguised as, of all things, an amusement park. The masses idle away their time in a world of bright colors and flashing lights. They seek out carnival rides while ignoring the real world, ignoring those who suffer under the flashy surface of their entertainment, ignoring the real threats to their freedom Kirby uses one scene in particular to drive this point home.
Darkseid walks through the crowds of Happyland to admire Desaad’s handiwork. Along the way he encounters a man walking with his young granddaughter. The little girl is terrified of Darkseid; she refuses to accept her grandfather’s explanation that the fiend is simply an actor in a costume. The grandfather asks Darkseid to comfort the girl, to explain to her that he is no real danger. Darskseid, of course, does the opposite; he tells the truth, sending man and child fleeing. “Young humans see me—even in ‘Happyland!’” Darkseid proclaims. “But you elders hide me with “cock and bull” stories to keep the premises smelling sweet!” Kirby’s narrator then says the rest: “Darkseid’s massive features crack wide with the laughter of Apokolips! But the sound of it is drowned by the melodious music of ‘Happyland!’”
Bread and circuses, or in this case amusement parks, are used to keep the masses in line, to impose order on their thinking and their behavior. The evil that lurks under the surface goes unnoticed. No one sees that the amusement is more of a curse than a blessing, for those behind the scenes as well as those riding the rides. While the innocent might notice the truth, the adults never do, at least not until it is too late. Darkseid hides in plain sight; Desaad tortures in the name of amusement; the puppeteers work their will while the masses smile and let it happen.
This is all pretty heady stuff for a comicbook, especially one produced forty years ago. The comic book evil of Darkseid’s quest for the anti-life equation pales beside the real-world threats that the villain employs: terror, empty homilies and corrupt religion, and a constant stream of mindless amusement meant to hide the evil that should be in plain sight. Kirby’s comicbook had as its context the America of the early ‘70s, but I suspect that it still has some relevance today.
And against the evil of Darkseid stand the Forever People, booming onto the scene aboard their Super Cycle, disrupting everyday life, causing chaos everywhere they go. Their first arrival has them speeding down the highway on a head-on collision with a car. Then they ride the electron highway into the city, snarling traffic and attracting a crowd of people who marvel at their strange ways. They choose as their new residence a crumbling, abandoned city block, barely a part of ordered society. They dress funny, and talk funny, and flout the rules meant to keep us all in line. They stand over against the world of law and order, over against the mindless, blank-faced crowd.
So, fittingly, Kirby’s Forever People begins not with a speech from old Highfather, not with a lesson about good versus evil or order versus but chaos, but with a poem. Not a very good poem, mind you, but a poem that points toward the future, that celebrates not an old order but something strange and new, something creative and provocative. The poem, like the comic book, is a prophecy, a hopeful dream of what the future may bring, an optimistic song about a new thing that is coming:
Hold your ears,
It must be coming through,
From there to here,
On a trip with an infinite view.