Well, I finally finished Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. That was a fucking trip. Let’s see, where did I leave off last time? Two volumes of the omnibus, Kirby on mythology, ok, I’m caught up. Nice.
I hate to say this, I guess because everyone says this, but it’s not as good in the latter half. Kirby began to work under a lot more pressure as sales dropped, DC wanted to restructure some stuff, and superheroes, honestly, stopped being as popular. They wanted some “weird fiction,” basically some slightly horror-tinged stuff. Kirby obliged, after the Fourth World wrapped up, with Kamandi and The Demon (and you can bet you’ll hear about those here, sometime, when I can afford to buy them). But the story of the Fourth World’s demise – and eventual strange rebirth – is still pretty cool.
Kirby finally got out of doing Jimmy Olsen, which was a relief to him, but soon after DC “suspended” The Forever People and The New Gods. Now, in its last few months, Forever People was pretty bad. It wandered a lot, it had Deadman, for God’s sake, but it was still putting information and development into the Fourth World story. New Gods was pretty much where the fucking story was happening. It ends with a cataclysmic battle between Orion and his dark double from Apokolips, Kalibak. Orion wins, but only at the cost of finding he is content with the sort of violence Kalibak condoned so long as he destroys his enemies. So he is, in a sense, lost to New Genesis, something highlighted by the presence, for several issues, of Lightray, his childhood friend and the most stereotypical New Genesis kid you could ask for.
That left Mister Miracle. And according to some interpretations, that might have been enough, given that (again, according to some interpretations), Mister Miracle was pretty much set up to the be the new Christ of the Fourth World pantheon. He wasn’t really of either world, though he grew up on Apokolips – he was like an Earthman, just with a bag of tricks learned from Himon, the hidden sage in the dark land (those tricks include a Mother Box and a bunch of circuitry that can do about anything). Mister Miracle always escapes from traps – often spread out as though on a cross, visual hint there folks – and the story is a trap. As revealed in the belated ending, the war between light and dark always ends with each destroying the other while leaving enough survivors to start the war anew. The implication being that our gods are the old gods – God and Satan, the Norse pantheon and the frost giants, whatever – they were the ones who destroyed each other before the story started. Mister Miracle can escape from any trap ever devised. But when his comic got shuttered as well he ended up marrying Big Barda in a hurry and being spirited off to New Genesis to never appear in the Fourth World again.
Then there’s the conclusion. About a decade later, after action figure sales made Darkseid and other characters from these stories popular again, DC asked Kirby back. He wrote The Hunger Dogs, a graphic novel that finishes the Fourth World… Sort of.
As his assistant attests in his afterword to the final collection, Kirby rarely had the entire story plotted. He knew the high points, but even those shifted according to what was affecting him. So he literally had difficulty recalling the salient points of the story.
Now, also, being a little more critical here, the political situation was different. This wasn’t Vietnam, it was post-Vietnam. This was the era that created the Dark Knight Returns. Influences were different, things had changed – you can see that in Hunger Dogs: suddenly, for no reason, there’s this weird subplot about emerging technology taking away the role of man and the nobility of the warrior. And all these inventions / automations are made by the son of New Genesis secretly fostered on Apokolips… Some Dude. Seriously, he never appeared in the Fourth World until Hunger Dogs and doesn’t appear for long there. Darkseid laments the automation but never stops it, even though, you know, he’s the boss. Orion sneaks onto the planet, is nearly killed (really, probably is killed, and is somehow resurrected by Himon, thus filling Mister Miracle’s role, but in a far more savage way). He leaves Darkseid with no enemies by standing by as Himon is killed and escaping with his mother. At the same time, Highfather of New Genesis blows up his own planet, saving most of the people in a weird generation starship bubble house thing. Also, uh, Metron appears to tow another planet into its place, I guess trying to sustain the conflict? I dunno.
OK, why am I bothering with all this? Why all the summary? Well, first, it’s probably necessary, this shit be weird and shit. But also, you can see the outlines of the theme in it, even in its busted, weakened state. Violence is indeed a necessary part of life, but its deployment must be up to the individual. Orion can be violent because he accepts the decision and consequences for himself. Darkseid’s soldiers are grotesques of the breed because they are mindless –infantilized, since they’re all trained as the “children” of Granny Goodness. They never make a decision for themselves. Darkseid seeks the Anti-Life Equation – it remains occluded throughout the entire story, but it’s safe to say that adult freedom – the ability and tendency to make one’s own choices – is the Life Equation. Given that Kirby was in Korea and was writing amidst the backlash concerning Vietnam, it makes sense for the story to be about the existential necessity of owning one’s own actions and not allowing a government, despot, or society to do anything other than reason with one and ask things. You don’t have to do what anyone says, it might just be a good idea.