Forever People #4 takes up immediately after last issue: Darkseid has captured the heroes after banishing or destroying their protector, the Infinity Man, and has shipped them off to Desaad’s concentration camp…
“THE KINGDOM OF THE DAMNED is not a far place! It’s not a hidden place! It’s in full view of us all! But, it has been rigged by a malignant force so that its tormented inmates are seen and heard–and ignored!!”
We spend a few pages as the Forever People recap their situation, stage a jailbreak, and get beaten down by Desaad’s guards and their vertigo grenades.
Even the Mother Box is having a hard time:
Pierced by the executioner’s electro-spikes, the Mother Box explodes.
DARKSEID: “The Mother Box has vanished! They always do that!”
DESAAD: “No! It disintegrated! That’s it! I’ve made it commit suicide!”
Frustrated, Desaad then proceeds to torture the Forever People themselves, as Darkseid cuts out: “If this involves mere cruelty I may not be amused!” Bored with the red-carpet treatment, Darkseid strolls out through the Happyland crowd…
Desaad then arranges torments for the young gods of Supertown, mainly through illusions:
- Leading man Mark Moonrider is disguised as an impotent skeleton in the Tunnel of Mystery
- Burly buffoon Big Bear, disguised as a robot bear, is the target for a gleeful shooting gallery
- Nerdy Vykin is placed in the path of a roller coaster…
- And only spared so long as young Serifan can keep pulling a lever to get Vykin out of harm’s way
- While Beautiful Dreamer gets corrupted by Desaad
Meanwhile, the Mother Box materializes in front of a guy named Sonny Sumo, who we’ll see more of next issue.
First of all: 25 cents for this?! Are you crazy?! The previous issues in the Fourth World saga had sold for 15 cents apiece. But in late 1971, World Color Press, who printed both DC and Marvel Comics, raised its prices. Marvel and DC had to pass the cost along to the consumer, raising prices by 62% overnight. That’s a huge increase. To sweeten the deal, the comics went from 32 pages to 48 pages. But the comics companies weren’t going to pay the creators for 50% more story: instead, they’d fill in those extra 16 pages with reprints. (In the case of the Fourth World titles, the reprints would be Kirby & Simon’s work from the 1940’s, like the original Newsboy Legion stories and Sandman.)
To hear Mark Evanier, Kirby’s apprentice at the time, tell the story, readers became increasingly frustrated at the price hike and the unwanted filler material. Comics, then sold at newsstands, became less commercially viable at the retail level, so newsstands cut down the space devoted to comics–keeping perennials like Superman and Batman, but ditching marginal titles like the brand-new Fourth World stuff. By the time DC scaled the comics down to 20 cents for 32 pages again, returning readers had missed almost a year’s worth of stories, and these closely interwoven titles just couldn’t survive.
In hindsight, something like this was probably inevitable. Many super hero comics fail shortly after their debut, for any number of reasons. Kirby’s idea was to create a “mega-series” or something, a story built out of several individual titles. And while he intended the story to be finite, it was still going to be pretty long, at least several years’ worth of comics. If any one of those titles ran into sales problems and got cancelled, it would screw up the whole plan. It would be hard to predict this particular problem, but from a commercial standpoint what Kirby had proposed was extremely risky from the outset. You can bank a lot on your talent and reputation, but you can’t control everything. Even Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers project, a similarly dense micro-continuity spread over several titles, only ran for 4 months.
Also, let’s talk for a second about pacing. For Kirby, this is almost a filler issue: the Forever People begin trapped, stay trapped, and end trapped. But I really like it all the same.
We’ve seen extended arcs in this project before: Jimmy Olsen #133-138 is basically the story of Jimmy discovering, acclimating to, and then saving the DNA Project. The problem with the Olsen arc is that Kirby would begin each issue by resolving the cliffhanger established last time, and in the middle of the issue we’d achieve a happy stasis, only to discover a new peril leading to a cliffhanger closing out the issue. It’s that period of stasis that gets me. In the Olsen stories, that intermediate period is completely free of tension: we meet Dubbilex, view clones of Gabby or Scrapper, or go on a psychedelic solar-phone concert. Then the Evil Factory unleashes a brand-new threat and the tension has to accelerate from a dead stop. Like narrative syncopation: the rhythm of publication was half an issue off from the rhythm of the plot. (Kirby would do this in some of his most famous Fantastic Four issues, too.)
In my mind the more satisfying approach is to get rid of the intermediate stasis, or at least indicate that it’s extremely unstable, so that the issue-opening cliffhanger evolves into the issue-ending cliffhanger. Forever People #3 ends with the kids losing their protector and falling into Desaad’s clutches; Forever People #4 takes them from mere captivity to torment. I really like that he constantly escalates the threat here, while also allowing some time to lend characterization to his villains.
And this issue is all about villains. One of the cool things about Darkseid is that he appears in all of the Fourth World titles (okay, only by reference in Mister Miracle so far) and in almost every issue. So you’re literally seeing Darkseid four times more often than you’re seeing Superman, Orion, or Jimmy Olsen. He’s acquiring weight and prominence due to constant emphasis. Amazingly, Kirby pulls this off without over-exposing the character to the point where, like Wolverine some fifteen years in the future, he loses all cachet.
Part of this is that Darkseid is powerful (he blows up the Infinity Man), part of it is that he’s never truly defeated. But also, he’s a pretty cool character in his own right. In this issue he takes no interest in mere torture for its own sake–but of course doesn’t prevent it. He’s bored with ceremonial departures so he decides to stroll among the common folks at
Disneyland Happyland. He respects children’s instincts, though he’s proud to terrify them–and he’s genuinely delighted by the adults’ capacity for self-delusion.
Darkseid’s sense of humor in this passage makes me wonder if Happyland in its entirety is constructed to make Darkseid happy: the whole thing is an exercise in hedonism heedless of horrors built into the experience. I may be bringing my own biases into it, but it’s hard to see Happyland as anything other than a critique of consumerism built on suffering. The entertainment literally blinds the guests to misery. And even once people know the truth, they retreat from it.
I’ve rattled on for too long, but let me just complain for a second about how Kirby treats Beautiful Dreamer. She’s practically the only female character in the entire Fourth World thus far, with the exception of Granny Goodness. Granny Goodness, of course, has personality to spare; Beautiful Dreamer usually has nothing to say. That’s not necessarily a problem in a crowded team book: Beautiful Dreamer has to share 22 pages with four co-stars, plus the Infinity Man and the villain of the month, so it’s to be expected that she’s simply “friendly girl with illusion powers who dresses in a ragged orange garbage bag.”
What bugs me is that she’s relegated to being a helpless captive twice in the first four issues, strapped helplessly to a table and brainwashed as the villain stands over her. This is, of course, Superheroics 101 stuff, but it’s nonetheless a little disappointing to a modern reader, and I am really looking forward to Kirby shattering this stereotype in a few weeks’ time.
But in the meantime check out this issue’s letter page, though, in which one reader of Forever People #2 was surprised that Beautiful Dreamer could speak at all, considering how passive she was in the debut issue:
You said it, DC Comics!