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The Fourth World: Kirby’s Magnum Opus

In the late 1960’s, Marvel Comics was hitting its stride, becoming a real competitor on the newsstands. With best-selling titles like the Fantastic Four, Thor, and Spider-Man, Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, was beginning to get worried. Gone were the days where they controlled the market on superheroes. Now, mostly due to the imagination of one man, they finally had real competition. This man was, of course, Jack Kirby, leading the charge at Marvel to produce some of the most imaginative superhero stories ever told. His style was Marvel’s style, his creations their babies. So, naturally, it came as a great surprise to all involved when Kirby decided to quit Marvel and head over the pond to DC.

Becoming frustrated with not getting credit he felt he deserved and becoming cornered with the kinds of stories he was allowed to tell, Kirby left Marvel in 1970, taking entire universes with him. Kirby had quit offering new ideas to the company in the late sixties after seeing how he was credited (or wasn’t at all) and, instead, took them to DC to play with. He was, after all, a respected name in the industry as he was already being called King Kirby by anyone with a passing interest in the medium and his name garnered readers. Kirby knew this and decided to no longer work with anyone else on scripting duties for his new books, choosing to script himself so there would be no confusion as to who created what.

So, Kirby came to DC with ideas bursting from his pores. Chiefly, he was wanting to do a story he had always wanted to tell in the pages of Thor over at Marvel, a story about the death of the gods of old. He wanted to tell the story of the New Gods who would rise to take their place. But, of course, DC couldn’t just launch a brand-new series with brand-new concepts in 1970. Kirby needed to build to that, they needed to know he could draw in an audience for them like he did over at Marvel. They wanted to put Kirby on a safe book, look at the sales, and then see what they could do. Kirby, not wanting to take work from anyone currently working at DC, refused to take any of the high-profile books like Superman or Batman. Instead, he told them to stick him on their lowest-selling title and promised he would turn it around in only a few short months. And, so it was that Jack Kirby ended up writing and penciling Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

JimmyOlsen133cover_smlJimmy Olsen wasn’t the most popular book on the stands, far from it. Starring Superman’s titular pal, it was created at the height of Superman’s booming popularity in the 1950’s and somehow had made it into the seventies. On the brink of cancellation due in no small part to the formulaic nature of the stories and no writer currently steering it, Kirby couldn’t have come at a better time. Since there were no expectations for the book, he was free to tell the kinds of stories he wanted without fear of editorial reprisal. So, he launched with a bang, reintroducing the Newsboy Legion he had created back in the 1940’s along with a brand-new Guardian to match. It was here that Kirby began to plant the seeds to his cosmic epic, the Fourth World Saga of the New Gods.

Sales skyrocketed for Jimmy Olsen and showed DC that Kirby still demanded attention even then. However, as would become a common hurdle, DC editorial began to meddle in Jack’s work for fear of alienating their core audience. Jack’s Superman wasn’t DC’s, and they would continually have the likes of Curt Swan, a classic Superman artist, redraw the Man of Steel in Kirby’s books to have him match their more accepted house style. This would eventually lead to even more drastic troubles, but, for now, Kirby was content to simply tell his stories.

ForeverPeople1Cover_smlAnd tell them he did. Soon after the success of Jimmy Olsen, Kirby singlehandedly launched three new ongoing series all written and penciled by himself alone. First came the Forever People, an updated version of the kid gang concept he had pioneered in the Golden Age about a group of other-worldly teens from a world called New Genesis who could combine to form the Infinity Man to combat evil. Then there was the New Gods, the crux of his opus, which told the tale of the New God, Orion, and his quest to defeat the sinister Darkseid. Finally, there was Mister Miracle, perhaps the most conventionally superheroic of the bunch, about a master escape artist who was doing his own part to defeat the forces of Apokolips. To the average reader in the seventies, all of this must have been quite a bit to take in all at once. Apokolips? New Genesis? Darkseid? What is all of this?

miracleTrue to his word, it was Kirby telling the story of the birth of the New Gods. After the Old Gods of the Third World had destroyed themselves in a cataclysmic battle, a race of new beings rose from the ashes and claimed the cosmos for themselves. These were the New Gods and their struggles would threaten to tear the fabric of the universe to pieces. These New Gods were split into two main camps, those who lived on New Genesis and those who lived on Apokolips. New Genesis was a peaceful world full of light and hope and embodied everything that was good about the universe, led by the benevolent High Father. Apokolips, on the other hand, was a dark, evil, twisted factory of a world where all good was stamped out and every light of hope extinguished by the all-mighty grasp of its lord and master, Darkseid. Diametrically opposed, these two planets would rage in conflict for centuries, threatening to destroy their Fourth World in much the same way the Third World had. So, a peace treaty was brokered: High Father and Darkseid would trade their first-born sons with each other, a symbol of peace between their two worlds. High Father would raise Darkseid’s son as best he could in the ways of peace while Darkseid would torture High Father’s son until he succumbed to the darkness of Apokolips. And now, after years of relative peace, rumblings of war begin again and the DC Universe would never be the same.

Heady stuff for the seventies comic reader who just wanted to see Batman punch a murder clown.

New_Gods_1971_1Something of this caliber had never been attempted in comics before, nothing this large in scope had even been dreamed of being possible. One, epic story told across four separate titles that spoke to the nature of humanity when confronted with impossible moral problems? It was too much, too fast. Fans couldn’t wrap their heads around it at the time, and those only reading one of the books would be missing out on some vital information in the larger tapestry of the Fourth World Saga. While sales started strong on the series, they would eventually peter out and half of the books were cancelled in under a year. DC editorial again interfered, scared of the low sales, and killed the books before they really had a chance to tell their stories. Jimmy Olsen survived thanks to the brand and Mister Miracle, the more recognizable superhero book of the saga, made it another six months or so. When all was said and done, Kirby was left with an unfinished epic that he had worked so hard to tell for so long. Unsatisfied with DC’s editorial, Kirby would eventually leave the company to return to Marvel and his opus would go unfinished for years.

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A decade later, however, Kirby was allowed to return to DC to try and wrap up his story of the New Gods and their cosmos-crushing conflict. I say “try” because even in the eighties, when Kirby is still a proven commodity, DC refused to let him tell the stories the way he envisioned them. Kirby would come and create the tie-in comic to help promote DC’s new line of action figures called the Super Powers line. The comic included the New Gods and, while not a major chapter of the Fourth World Saga, it’s still worth mentioning for completion’s sake. Kirby’s real capstone to the saga would come with the publication of the DC Graphic Novel #4: The Hunger Dogs. It was here that Kirby tried to wrap up all of the lose ends from the decade previous and originally intended Orion and Darkseid to destroy each other and the rest of the New Gods in one, final conflict. Of course, DC couldn’t allow this, they had properties and brands to maintain, after all. With the option of the New God’s destruction off of the table, Kirby had to tell a softer story in which their conflict ended but with a wide enough door open that anything could happen afterwards.

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Again, Kirby was stunted at every turn to try and tell his story of the gods that had been simmering within him for decades. Unsatisfied with the corporate mindset of the Big Two comic publishers, Kirby would eventually take his story to the independent scene. But, that’s a story for another time.

Since you obviously need to read Kirby’s Fourth World Saga, you need to know how to get your hands on it. If you hate yourself and want to grab each series in their own collections unrelated to each other, you could always go the individual trade paperback route. The New Gods series is collected in its entirety in Jack Kirby’s New Gods, though, be warned these are in black and white and kind of on the older side. In that same vein, you can read all of his Mister Miracle series in Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle: Super Escape Artist and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: Featuring Mister Miracle collections, though, again, these are black and white. His Forever People series is collected completely in Jack Kirby’s The Forever People trade, again, without color. Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen, however, is reprinted in color in Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby volumes 1-2. The Super Powers stuff from the eighties that I mentioned briefly are actually (surprisingly) collected in the Jack Kirby Omnibus Volume 2 Starring the Super Powers, which has the entire Super Powers series along with a ton of other DC Kirby goodness. Now, for all of you out there who don’t hate yourselves quite as much, there are thankfully four omnibus collections that contain his entire Fourth World Saga in a recommended reading order and in amazing color called Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus volumes 1-4, which even collect his finale from the eighties. I say this with a slight caveat, however, as these volumes are currently out of print and a tad bit hard to find. But, just when you’re beginning to lose all hope, fear not, because DC has recently announced that this holiday they will be publishing the massive, one-volume Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, which contains everything, cover to cover Kirby greatness. Do yourself a favor and pre-order this beautiful book and treat yourself to the magnum opus of comic’s greatest creator.

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It’s definitely an epic for this, or any, time.

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