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Book Review: Jack Kirby’s The Fourth World Omnibus: Volume One

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A while back, I read the black and white trade of Kirby’s New Gods, and enjoyed it, but didn’t fully embrace it. I couldn’t get past some of the goofy writing and dated style. But, I did enjoy it enough to pick up the new hardcover omnibus of the Fourth World stories, and I’m really glad I did. Seen in the context of the overall Fourth World narrative, New Gods itself makes a lot more sense, and I get a whole bunch of other great comics. This book is so full of ideas and pop fun it makes today’s writers, in any medium, just look lazy.

There are four different series collected in the volume, and I’m going to go through them one by one. It’s astonishing to think of Kirby not only writing, but also drawing, four series at a time. I feel like he’d have no time to focus on anything else, all his mental energy must have been expended filling these pages with the succession of crazy stuff we encounter. These comics aren’t like today, where one idea can fill a six parter, each new issue brings with it a new story, new concepts and frequently new characters.

The series that introduced the Fourth World was, strangely enough, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Reading this series, I can see exactly where Grant Morrison got his inspiration for All Star Superman. While it lacks the cosmic scope of All Star, this series features the same relentless energy of progress, battling against the dark forces seeking to hold back humanity. Throughout all the series, the central thematic idea is progress versus restriction, as embodied in the life vs. anti-life struggle. This is also Morrison’s central theme, and, one could argue, the central theme of humanity’s existence!

All these series emerged directly from a cultural moment that still determines much of our way of thinking, the 1960s counterculture. It’s a shame that Iraq didn’t produce a genuinely forward thinking anti-war cultural movement in the way that Vietnam did. There were definitely some issues with the 60s counterculture, but it was critical in changing the way art and society were perceived. Things have fractured so much that it would be tough for anything to make that same impact. However, at least those people believed in something more than ironically recreating twenty year old fashions.

Both Jimmy Olsen and The Forever People center around the struggle between a forward thinking gang of young people and an entrenched power system. The best thing about Jimmy Olsen is the way that Superman is used to show the merits and failures of existing power structures. He struggles to understand the way Jimmy and the Newsboys work because he’s from an older generation. However, Jimmy also fails to recognize that Superman does have a lot of merit, and is working in his own way to push things forward.

The opening issues directly engage with this counterculture moment when Jimmy becomes head of a biker gang and discovers a hidden society of hippie scientists called the Hairies. Some people would probably say that the series is dated because of its counterculture emphasis; however, I’d argue that its immersion in the moment makes it an even more valuable document today. This book helps us understand what was going on then, and we can use what Kirby has to say about that moment to examine the world we’re living in today. Plus, I really love the ’60s moment that this work came out of, and I’m glad to travel back there.

Jimmy Olsen, unlike the other titles, uses very ordinary characters as a contrast to a crazy world around them. In the New Gods or Forever People, the characters are used to the craziness of the Fourth World. Here, each new weird thing is a source of wonder and joy, and the things that Kirby brings out are pretty wondrous. There are so many crazy things going on here: cloning, travel through alternate dimensions, genetic manipulation, Goody Rickles. Each issue had me smiling at the new stuff Kirby came up.

Artistically, my favorite thing was Kirby’s photo collage pages, where he superimposed the drawn characters onto weird backgrounds. The first time I saw it, I literally gasped. It’s something I hadn’t seen before in comics, and it felt like the trip beyond the infinite in 2001. Later, there’s a great sequence where the characters engage in a collective hallucinatory experience with a machine that converts radio signals from space into music. It’s really trippy and so very counterculture. I love the utopian feel of this sequence, of these characters connecting in this way.

Jimmy Olsen is my favorite of the series so far; it’s so much fun, it practically jumps off the page, and things keep picking up, as in the first part of the Don Rickles two parter, which closes the volume. This is so nonsensical, the idea that there’s a Don Rickles doppleganger named Goody Rickles who works at the Daily Planet. It makes no sense, but you’ve just got to run with it and enjoy the craziness. I think Kirby’s closing teaser for the next issue sums up “Spine-Chilling! Blood-Freezing! Heart-Stopping! For many lives hang in the balances – when a strange question is answered. Will the real Don Rickles panic??” It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to dismiss and laugh at today, but if you engage with the material, this is really groundbreaking stuff.

Forever People was my second favorite series. This engages with a lot of the same themes as Jimmy Olsen, focusing on a bunch of young people going along, trying to fight Darkseid and the forces of Apokolips. The first couple of issues take a while to get going, it’s with issue three that the book really hits its stride. My major problem with the first two issues is the reliance on Infinity Man. He’s the superhero who forms when the Forever People combine. He’s basically invincible, and as a result is pretty boring. I like the thematic idea of these five people joining together to become something bigger, but Infinity Man is just a generic hero, and doesn’t actually seem to be a fusion of the other characters. Of course, the characters aren’t particularly defined, so it would be hard to incarnate them all in one being.

Kirby’s greatest strength is his ideas, and I think that’s part of the reason that Jimmy Olsen works so well. We know who Jimmy is; we know who Superman is; and he can use those archetypes to riff on the themes he’s interested in. The other titles feel more intellectual and idea-based because we don’t know the characters that well. I’m not as engaged in the emotion of the story. The emotion I usually get is joy or awe at the ideas that Kirby’s putting out, but I’m not that concerned about the characters themselves. Of course, in the twenty-two page comic format, it’s difficult to develop characters. So, if Kirby can keep bringing great ideas and fun stories like this, the lack of fully developed characters isn’t a huge issue.

Issue three, “Live vs. Anti-Life,” tells the story of Glorious Godfrey, a revivalist hooking people on anti-life. The issue opens with a quote from Hitler, a bold decision, but it earns the right to draw on history like that by writing a story about the dangers of subscribing to a mass ideology like Nazism. Kirby fought in World War II, and it’s interesting to think about a guy from that generation embracing so thoroughly the ideology of the counterculture, connecting their fight for increased freedom to his fight in World War II.

The story focuses on a wave of attacks from anti-life believers, who are trying to restrict individuality and knowledge. They burn books, claming that “You need know no more than the proper things,” and gather at a revival beholden to the empty words of this false prophet. The story’s focus on the way religion can be used to negative ends is particularly relevant today, when we’ve got our own Glorious Godfrey preaching the gospel of anti-life in the White House. This is a perfect example of using genre concepts to tell a story that is extremely relevant. Darkseid, like Bob from Twin Peaks, can be seen as both a fantasy villain and an incarnation of the darkness in all of us. He is seeking to create a strict order without the mess of individuality. That’s what Anti-Life is, putting people in a societal box and never letting them do what they really want, to be a nation of zombies.

In Morrison’s Mister Miracle, the anti-life equation was used to put Shilo Norman through a series of crazy alternate lives, each their own form of prison. He was aware of the sadness, but unable to do anything to stop it. It’s a brilliant reinvention of the basic concept we see here. Reading this volume makes me appreciate just how much of Seven Soldiers is inspired by Kirby’s work. The Guardian and the Newsboy Legion are drawn from the pages of Jimmy Olsen, and Mister Miracle is Morrison’s tribute to Kirby’s work, spinning the archetypes in a different, fascinating direction. I really need to reread that series when I finish the fourth omnibus.

If Kirby were writing today, I think he would see George Bush and his crew as the incarnation of Darkseid and anti-life in this world. They seek to create a world where their belief is the only acceptable one, calling anyone who doesn’t agree un-American. Luckily, the people have largely turned on them, but not enough. They’re still doing damaging things and enmeshing us further and further in destructive conflict. Just this week, there was the absolutely ridiculous senate condemnation of moveon.org. How is the Senate wasting their time criticizing legitimate free speech? How can these people even go on when they’re more concerned with a one-page ad in the New York Times than the thousands of people who’ve died in Iraq? The entire Senate, both Democrat and Republican, is shameful for not heeding the will of the public and getting us out of this war. But, it’s that same drive we see in the issue, the attempt to control people and vilify anything outside of what they want, that’s putting our nation in peril today.

For me, it’s this genre stuff that really tells us about the world. Real life doesn’t have the individual drama of sci-fi. That’s why Battlestar Galactica is a more compelling examination of Iraq than any movie that’s actually about Iraq. It engages more with the ideas and underlying issues than with specifics of the moment. You couldn’t do a movie about sympathetic heroes blowing up an Iraqi police graduation, but you can in BSG. Genre provides a disguise, but it engages with these concepts all the same. Works like The Fourth World and Star Wars instill in the reader a progressive mentality, and give you an idealistic charge that is lacking from all but the most compelling real world stories.

Yes, it may seem ridiculous to talk about this work in that way. It’s goofy comics, right? Yeah, on some level, but the ideas are there and they infect your brain and change your world. That’s what Morrison’s work has done for me, and Kirby’s, too. Ideas have power, and works like this open your mind in new ways.

That pretty much sums up my feeling on the book. New Gods and Mister Miracle are both good in their own way, but I’ll cover them more when I talk about Volume II, and also talk some about the intriguing interweaving of concepts through the different books. That Volume’s on the way and I’ll be reading it right after I finish 52 Volume 3.

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