Jack Kirby Self-Portrait, from "Jimmy Olsen #141" (September 1971)

Over the weekend, me and the New York Red Box gang were talking about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga, and I figured it would be an easy thing to blog about occasionally.

For people who are not insane comics nerds, the short version is that in 1970 Jack Kirby, who had been the top talent at Marvel Comics throughout the 1960’s, co-creating The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Mighty Thor, The Uncanny X-Men, and a zillion other characters, got sick of Stan Lee’s bullshit and left to join Marvel’s chief competitor, DC Comics. There he created this weird little self-contained universe, telling a crazed futuristic allegory about super hippies, concentration camps run by Walt Disney, the amorality of man’s quest for knowledge, Harry Houdini, bug people, Jimmy Olsen, eugenics, Viet Nam, environmentalism, our addiction to violence, Satan as Hitler from outer space … and Don Rickles.  If you went to Ancient Greece, grabbed Homer, took him to Cape Canaveral to watch the Apollo missions, and got him high as hell, he might produce something like this.

The Fourth World was probably the creative summit of Kirby’s long career, and like so many other phases of his career it ended in disappointment.  The idea was to tell this huge tale, through four different comic books, that wound run for a few thousand pages and then end.  A self-contained epic for the Age of Aquarius. Then the books got cancelled midway through.

We’ll never get to see how Kirby would have tied things up. When he came back to the titles in the mid-80’s he was pretty obviously in decline, and the end wasn’t satisfactory.  Attempts by others to carry on have never been successful.

One of my RPG fantasies, never to be satisfied, is to finish the Fourth World Saga. Start in mid-1973, at the point of cancellation, stat everybody up, and just jam out and collaboratively nail this thing.

Anyway: I’m thinking of summarizing this thing one or two issues at a time, with a lot of art, and maybe some thematic commentary.  It’ll last until my “blogging stage fright” returns.

the series of the Fourth World saga

For people looking to get into the Fourth World titles, Jimmy Olsen, The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mister Miracle:

  • These series have all been collected into expensive hardbacks. If you have lots of money, you can buy them.
  • At various times, each series was reprinted in paperback collections. Some of these were B&W, which sucks IMO, but others were in color. The first Jimmy Olsen collection was in color and might be a good starting point.  (Clarification: lots of people worked on Jimmy Olsen over the years; I’m talking about this one.)
  • In the 1980s, DC reprinted the one of the titles, The New Gods. Each of the reprint issues contained two episodes of the original series. Ten years ago, these were cheap on the Mile High Comics website and elsewhere.  It looks like they’ve since sold out but maybe you can find ’em.
  • Various internet downloads for the unscrupulous.

Darkseid and Beautiful Dreamer, Jack Kirby, "Forever People #4"



6 Responses to “Kirbsday”

  1. October 7, 2011 at 2:45 am

    Ooh, will definitely be keeping an eye on this.

  2. 2 Aos
    October 7, 2011 at 4:42 am

    It’s my understanding, that the omnibus editions of the Forth world stuff are being re-released in paperbacks in December. I love these books, but i would extend the notion of Kirby’s peak to cover all his 1970’s work at both DC and Marvel. !970’s Kirby is 100% off the hook. I just read some OMAC tonight , for example, and I really loved it, too bad it was also cut off before it had a chance to really get where it was going to.

  3. October 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Aos, that view is certainly shared by a lot of Kirby fans. I think his 1970’s stuff is conceptually far superior to his 1960’s work at Marvel. How on God’s green earth does anyone turn 2001 into an on-going series? What is going on with Kamandi’s World? And Devil Dinosaur is simply genius.

    But despite the strength of the ideas, I think the execution sometimes was lacking. Kirby’s scripts make Stan Lee’s dialogue sound like natural speech. His plots are often exciting, but there are no sub-plots, very little parallel construction, no reincorporation of previous plot lines, the secondary characters barely exist, etc.

    There’s also a sort of monotony of tone going on too. You don’t have something like the Thing reading a ghost story on a stormy night and then freaking out when Reed puts a hand on his shoulder, or Volstagg’s vainglorious boasting. You certainly don’t get many plausible love scenes or much of everyday family and work life to act as a counterpoint to the crazy action.

    Don’t get me wrong! I think Kirby’s 1970’s output is pretty damn good. But I think it’s amazing how well these issues work, considering all the things he’s not even attempting to do.

  4. 4 Aos
    October 12, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Sorry, I’ve been away from the computer. I think the dialogue thing must be a matter of taste. I have no problem with Kirby’s dialogue, whereas I think Stan’s is both over abundant and cringe-worthy. I find the general lack of subplots in Kirby’s 70’s work to be refreshing really, and in books like Kamandi it is far more of an asset than a liability; however, Kirby’s 70’s Captain America run is loaded with subplots, romance (certainly no less realistic than what we see in the Lee/Kirby FF or Thor)- and a surprisingly mature rumination of race relations. As a whole though, I prefer the action, action, action and more action that dominates his 1970’s work. When it comes to his 1960’s work, i vastly prefer Thor after Jane Foster’s departure and that title more or less is consumed by pure action to all of of his other Marvel work.
    Anyway, read the captions in OMAC aloud sometime, and see if after a few minutes you don’t find yourself saying things like, “I am going to make a sandwich- so that man may live!”

  5. October 13, 2011 at 3:14 am

    Aos, I agree that Thor is more fun after Jane Foster gets written out in issue #136. But damn, that is one of the funniest endings of a long-running plot line in all of comics. The fact that the “which bad guy kidnapped Jane this month” plot dragged out for years makes the abrupt resolution that much funnier.

    But even without Jane, there are still complicated plot structures involving Sif, Baldur, Odin, Loki, and the Norn Queen. I’m thinking specifically about the whole mess around issues #145-50, with the Circus of Crime, the Wrecker, and so on. There’s still a lot of plot-juggling involved. Most of Kirby’s work at DC feels much simpler structurally, at least in my view. Whether that’s an improvement is a matter of taste, of course!

    I say stuff like that all the time. Lunch at my place is pretty grandiloquent.

  6. 6 Aos
    October 14, 2011 at 2:14 am

    Just because I love talking about Kirby, I’d have to say that for me the absolute peak of the Thor is probably when he returns to Rigel and goes out to fight Galactus with the Recorder. (160-161 I think). Anyway, thanks for the back and forth!
    Now, i must put my kids to bed, so that I may live!

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