Life and Anti-Life: Kirby’s Fourth World Gambit

Jack Kirby’s move to DC Comics in 1970 was undoubtedly an audacious, earth-shattering decision, a risk of note. Kirby’s work at Marvel, an entire career in itself, was nothing less than awe-inspiring. Co-creating a number of instant classics such as The Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, X-Men, Thor and a myriad number of supporting characters, Kirby glowed with uninterrupted and undiluted creativity.

However… While the comicbook world reaped the benefits of Kirby’s expansive imagination, Kirby himself was given a raw deal. Unable to claim copyrights or creative control, Kirby was forced to watch as his creations became corporate icons and commodities, far removed from his artistic hands. Kirby’s unrewarded labors left him continually working long arduous hours for little compensation. In an act of frustration and defiance, Kirby jumped ship from Marvel and headed to rival publisher DC. Again, Kirby was nothing if not daring in both his art and career choices.

Kirby came to DC with a new lease on life. Given the freedom and opportunity, as well as the creative control, to craft whatever his heart’s desire may be. The result is the Fourth World. Comprised of four titles, three of these being original Kirby creations, which would tell one grandiose, overarching saga the likes of which had never before been seen in comics. Perhaps this is Kirby’s most daring move of all. At the time, the comicbook distribution system of corner newsstands was slowly breaking down. Comic prices continued to steadily rise past the meager allowance children gleaned from their parents. As prices rose, comics became less and less a form of mass media and more a special interest piece. Orders for comics began to significantly drop, throwing the entire industry’s future into uncertainty.

Kirby, always the visionary, foresaw a future where comics would require a more specialized distribution system. No longer would these supposed “funny pages” be nickel and dime newsstand trash. That era had passed. Comics, in time, would come to have entire stores dedicated to them, while also having more mature, direct and consumer friendly avenues of sales open to patrons, namely through mass market bookstores. Comicbooks would morph into finite stories that could be read as a novel of sorts, a graphic novel if you will. Comics would one day be collected, bound and sold at bookstores.

For Kirby, at least commercially, this is the genesis behind the Fourth World saga. Artistically, Kirby let loose his wild creativity and indulged in constructing a dense, mythological laden rich world of secret wars, god weapons and omnipotent conquerors. He also crafted an inverse to this… the character that would become Darkseid. The Fourth World was just as much concerned with destruction as it was focused on creation. The themes within this epic are as pertinent and timeless as any installment of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Indeed, many of the Fourth World’s archetypes are straight out of Joseph Campbell’s exhaustive musings on mythology and storytelling.

The journey of Orion, the son of the otherworldly despot Darkseid raised by Highfather, Darkseid’s mortal enemy and dramatic foil, as part of an exchange of children to cement a tenuous peace, resonates as strongly as Luke Skywalker’s journey. Kirby accomplished this feat of storytelling years before George Lucas would dazzle the world with his space opera. Indeed, tropes of Lucas’ magnum opus can be seen in the historically older work of Kirby. Lucas’s Force seems awfully similar to Kirby’s Source while the Emperor is strikingly familiar when compared to Desaad. This is just one instance of the influence, often unrecognized, the Fourth World has on popular culture today.

So much of what Kirby brought to the Fourth World was ageless and universal. Good versus Evil. Father versus Son. Freedom versus Tyranny. Injecting this level of thematic density, timeless memes and bombastic storytelling was unheard of in contemporary comics. All of this, minus a few DC Comic stalwarts, was imagined from the ground up.

The first title of Kirby’s Fourth World was a pre-existing, if inauspicious, one, Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen. However, this allowed him to slowly introduce an existing fan base to the unbridled imagination of a true artistic genius. Keeping readers grounded, at first, by focusing on Superman and Jimmy Olsen, Kirby, over time, began to ratchet up the weirdness to eleven. Unveiling the Harries, a pack of tree-living motorcycle enthusiasts, the government super think tank titled the D.N.A. Project, and a micro-world based off classic Hollywood horror films, Kirby’s output was not forgiving to an overly serious or slothful mind.

Cutting loose and moving forward, Kirby went on to delve the complex mythology he had created for the Fourth World proper. The New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People all filled niches within the cosmology of Kirby’s creation. Orion, son of Darkseid, played center stage in The New Gods, challenging his evil father Darkseid’s quest for the Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that would grant the wielder complete control over all life, at every turn. Mister Miracle, in another example of dramatic foiling, was the converse of Orion.

Not only were the two different as night and day, Orion being a brash, almost reckless warrior and Mister Miracle a thoughtful, sly escape artist, but they were brothers of circumstance. While Orion, the natural born son of Darkseid, was raised by Highfather as part of a truce, Mister Miracle was the other son in this exchange, born to Highfather but riased by Darkseid. Taking this relationship to its logical conclusion in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, an aged Orion, having overthrown and replaced his despotic father, describes his story as “a generational one” and “that many men eventually become their fathers”.

Finally, there is The Forever People. A band of young New Gods traveling the cosmos, Kirby used these youngsters as an expression for his deeply desired and cherished freedom. Mirroring the freewheeling youth culture of the time, Kirby embedded his most inspirational messages in this title. The Forever People were a brand of youthful comrades dedicated to love, peace and protecting the innocent. However, beyond those sentiments, they were dedicated to each other, banding together as friends and equals regardless of appearances, identities or mannerisms.

Having seen combat, fighting in the Second World War, Kirby, a Jew, was undoubtedly aghast at the mindless conformity and unspeakable atrocities enacted during this period. The Forever People are a reaction to the brutality witnessed and an expression of his desire for freedom, peace and the untamed optimism of youth.

All four of these titles intermingled with each other, creating a vast pantheon of heady concepts and characters. Each book added in its own way to this mosaic, broadening and enlarging the composition. A move such as this was undoubtedly risky. No comicbook strove for this level of interweaving storytelling and complexity. The shared universes of Marvel and DC were more accidental than premeditated.

Writers had Batman and Superman exist in the same shared space initially as a gimmick for the 1940 New York World’s Fair. There was no intelligent design inherent to the creation of these modern, mobile mythologies. The Fourth World was different. From its inception the entire project was designed to tell one maxi-story that would believably require four monthly books to tell. An ultimate end was, unlike many comic counterparts, envisioned. Again, herein lies the most revolutionary aspect of Kirby’s entire epic. This opus was designed to be published as individual issues, collected, bound and distributed as a compiled whole, much like the graphic novels and trade paper backs of today.

Sadly, however, Kirby never saw his dramatic vision realized. Comics, as with many art forms, are essentially a business. Poor sales killed Orion, Darkseid, Mister Miracle and the rest of the inhabitants of New Genesis and Apokolips, the twin worlds of the New Gods reflecting light and darkness in equal measure. Kirby never had a chance to write his ending and his story remains unfinished. The comicbook reading world wasn’t prepared to part with the newsstands and embrace the comic shop and bookstore yet. It seems Kirby was too ahead of his time. His concepts were too rich, too heady for his contemporary readers. Never the less, time has vindicated the august writer/artist.

Comicbooks are much more of a mature art form today. The lush themes extrapolated onto panel and page format by Kirby are the forerunners of today’s deeply complex, highly sophisticated seminal works such as Planetary, Kingdom Come and Seven Soldiers. Without the advent of the Fourth World, modern comics would be an entirely different animal. Leave it to Jack “The King” Kirby to continue casting a long, bold shadow across the face of an art form he revolutionized again and again.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.