Jack Kirby - The New Gods #1

POW! Et Al.

What may be the greatest unfinished pop-cultural artifact of the late twentieth century remains barely known outside a small coterie of comic-book fanboys. In February 1971, comic-book artist, writer, and editor Jack Kirby bailed on the revolutionary stable of characters ( Spiderman, Thor, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Avengers, X-Men, Silver Surfer , among others) that he helped create at Marvel Comics and decamped to rival publishers DC. Once there, he took over their lowest-selling title -- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen -- and launched three additional titles in a multilayered, densely interwoven epic entitled “The Fourth World,” which would redefine the parameters of the artform and serve as the blatant but unacknowledged inspiration for the most successful cultural mythology of our era: George Lucas’s Star Wars .

Jack Kirby’s most audacious creation was his first at DC: the commandeered Jimmy Olsen , revamped from its’ mannered dorky surrealism -- rendered in elegant but pedestrian delineations -- into a gorgeous bricolage of pop-cultural references, including a clone of Don Rickels named Goody and| the cryogenic revival of Kirby’s own nineteen-forties fictional kid gang The Newsboy Legion (among the first original characters he created over a quarter century earlier). The underlying premise of the entire series is that two planetsful of super-powered godlike aliens are waging a secret (and increasingly not-so-secret) war on Earth, pitting the self-regulating Utopian goodness of New Genesis against the fascist totalitarianism of Apokolips and its leader Darkseid (the model for Darth Vader).

Each title describes the ramshackle interactions of a different group of aliens with the regular citizens of our planet in the ultimate struggle between Good and Evil. None of them pretends to grasp the big picture. In fact, as soon as things get a little too congruous, Kirby inserts a new character. As early as New Gods #3, Kirby suddenly veers away from the plot and characters developed in the first two issues altogether to tell the story of a paralyzed black Vietnam vet who channels The Black Racer — a personification of Death itself — flying through space, time, and the mean streets of New York City on magic skis.

While Kirby introduced literally dozens of such characters, the action in “The Fourth World” focuses on a few central archetypes. Mister Miracle was New Genesis- born but raised mysteriously on Apokolips under the moniker Scott Free. Trained by orphanage proprietress Granny Goodness as one of her cosmic stormtroopers, Scott Free defects to Earth, where he tries to lead a normal life as a super-powered escape artist. His counterpart Orion is the central figure in The New Gods , the book that most directly addresses the struggle between Darkseid’s forces (attempting to locate “the anti-life equation,” which will give the possessor dominion over all living things) and Orion (secretly Darkseid’s son) and the other young gods. The Forever People are a group of variously powered space hippies who occasionally meld together into Infinity Man (by uttering the magic word “Taaru”) but mostly alternate between helping widows and cripples and fighting off Darkseid’s hellish minions.

While most contemporary art pundits are willing to pay lip service to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Art Spiegelman’s Maus , acceptance of the comics as a legitimate medium is generally limited to such tokens. While both are great works, each stands outside the commercial comic-book form that became an ongoing (if controversial) uniquely American popular art. Kat , being a freestanding world- unto-itself, appears too early in the history of graphic narrative to represent it fully (and was made possible only by the continuing patronage of William Randolph Hearst). Maus, in spite of Mr. Spiegelman's underground and bubblegum dues, is finally a self-conscious high-cultural appropriation of the language.

In contrast, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was one of a handful of creators who participated in the evolution of the comic book through the many peaks and valleys of its sixty-year history, from his early years as a drone for Fleischer studios through his stints in daily strips. He founded one of the two or three independent studios in the era's Golden Age: the period from the flukish success of the first Superman comics in the late nine- teen thirties until the decimation of the industry in the mid-to-late fifties.

Born Jacob Kurtzberg, Kirby was the son of immigrant Austrian Jews in the Lower East Side slums of Manhattan. His father was a Depression-era factory tailor. Kirby participated in the "brick-and-bottle battle" street-gang youth culture of the time, developing a class-rage swagger (like fellow ghetto refugee James Cagney) tempered with a deep vein of compassion, responsibility, and genius. Fully supported, at home in his congenital obsession with drawing, Kirby also found refuge, art supplies and his first experience with publishing at the Boys Brotherhood Republic; a sort of anarcho-syndicalist boy's club that still hangs a photo of Kirby in its front hall to inspire the Puerto-Rican and Dominican kids who inherited the Kurtzbergs' poverty.

By age 17, Jacob was in the cartoon business. By age 21 he was Jack Kirby, revolutionizing the comic medium with his collaborator for the next twenty-five years, Joe Simon. In an overwhelming 24,000 pages of strip, Kirby did everything, and much of it as a pioneer — romance comics, funny animal stories, crime, war, western, kid gangs, ghosts and monsters — but always, first and foremost, superheroes. Interrupted by service in World War II, broken by the 1955 Senate Committee investigations of the "Comic Book Menace" and the resulting self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority, he was born again through masterful collaborations with Wally Wood in his daily strip Skymasters and DC comic book Challengers of the Unknown .

Throughout, Kirby soldiered on, determined to support himself and his family at the craft he loved. Kirby's early work with Captain America and others redefined the language of graphic action, through constant innovation of panel design and layout, over-the-top depictions of movement and space, cinematic editing, radical foreshortening, and the introduction of frame-filling sound effects and explosions (Pow! et al.) that became the standard for superhero action stories, to the extent that it is now a primordial element of all Western popular visual culture, from the films of James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino to the fine art of Matthew Barney.

Kirby's work at Marvel in the 1960s was the single most identifiable factor in the resurgence of interest in the medium, and once again pushed the limits of the language. "The Fourth World," his magnum opus, was reached in a clear organic progression out of a largely unsupervised commercial medium through a stochastic process of trial and error — of constantly but incrementally expanding the limits placed on his work and of finding new ways to transform those limits into vehicles for his invention. The quintessential and still disdained cultural icon at the heart of the comic book's immense popularity is the superhero, of which Kirby, after Superman's creators Siegel and Schuster, was the prime architect.

To Kirby, superheroes were an embodiment of what he considered America's distinctive ability to go beyond traditional ways of life and create new realities based on imagination. Having helped establish the deeply psychological and highly lucrative possibilities of the genre, Kirby went on to stretch the mold far beyond the compartmentalized Freudianisms of men Super and Bat, pioneering a transpersonal ideal of humanity that embraced shadow and doubt, extended compassion to the darkest villain, and undermined his heroes' perfection with seething egotism and other human frailties. Kirby's writing is rife with bizarre word play, clichéd and surreal dialogue, awkward appropriations of youth- culture lingo, and entirely invented slang and technological argot.

While charged with giddy momentum, it is not humorous in the knowing "camp" way that typified so much of comic writing in the wake of his early sixties work (and its translation into TV dialogue on Batman ). Instead, Kirby's writing is riddled with the kind of rollicking unconditional humor that animates the work of Charlie Chaplin or Ornette Coleman: lyrical, sentimental, and revolutionary. Politically, Kirby shared a libertarian bent with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the other principal architects of the Marvel Universe. In Ditko's case, it later reached absurdly paranoid levels in his demented self-published Ayn-Randian Mister A comics, whose cramped wordy pontifications frequently took up more space than the drawings, resulting in a masterpiece of cranky idiosyncrasy on par with the writings of Frances E. Dec. It was in his collaborative books with Lee, however, that Kirby's dominance becomes clear, as Lee's trademark coldwar huckster bombast falls increasingly short of the expansively democratic and accelerating mystic vision that possessed Kirby.

At Marvel, the artist had perfected an episodic, almost soap-opera serial plotting structure, with stories stretching across dozens of issues and winding in and out of one another. Kirby's increasingly virtuosic action sequences were paced by exquisitely observed scenes of mundane human activities: showering, shaving, sitting in a waiting room, drinking a cup of coffee. Lee had insisted on conventional story dynamics and a jaunty, explicative narrative omnipresence that seemed to rein in Kirby just when things looked as if they might jump the tracks.

Suddenly at DC, Kirby was free do whatever his muse dictated. All aspects of his art—the visual structure and design, illustrative style, plotting, dialogue, and editing — became simultaneously more intricate and unmoored from traditional notions regarding their relationship to the story they tell. Kirby took to penning seemingly irrelevant vignettes from the earlier lives of his characters, like pieces of sky or ground from a jigsaw puzzle that do not directly touch on the part of the picture you have to put together. Only a few clusters of coherence become clear at any one time in a Kirby comic strip; every character, event, and detail is saturated with potential meaning.

In "The Fourth World," Kirby cast aside the conventional narrative straitjacket that had restrained him at Marvel. Beginning with fetishistically detailed, labyrinthine depictions of futuristic machinery and spreading through the language and structure of his intricately designed narratives like a virus, Kirby's overall style began to take on a distinctive resemblance to integrated circuitry, with its softly geometric mazes of contact nodules and parallel pathways creating a convoluted Book of Kells-like horror vacuii of in- finite informational complexity.

On one level, Kirby was still sketching out the scope of the mythological time and space that his stories occupied, and intended all things to be fully articulated in good time. Kirby reportedly had hopes that his "Fourth World" would expand exponentially, each of the dozens of new characters getting their own books and spinning off others in turn, other artists creating under his supervision, continuing for hundreds and hundreds of issues. He also hoped this would necessitate the establishment of a California-based comic-book publishing center and end the dominance of the tightly knit and extremely territorial New York comic establishment. Such was not to be.

There must have been some trepidation in the DC boardroom as to what havoc Kirby might wreak without the firm, stabilizing influence of Stan Lee's bottom-line discipline. When they saw the first shards of the complex, intricate, and fragmentary narrative mosaic Kirby was unveiling, they lost their nerve and pulled the plug. In spite of strong support from college-age readers and better-than-average sales, the skittish management at DC, having expected Fantastic Four -like success off the bat, canceled three of the titles before a dozen issues had run, citing low numbers and leaving Kirby with only Mister Miracle to tie up loose ends.

While there were immediate mutterings of "perhaps some point in the future," Kirby was assigned to increasingly self-contained and traditional narrative structures. While his visual art remained at top form for some time, his writing became even more fragmented, exploding in a flurry of one-shot titles, movie adaptations, and elaborate cosmologies that petered out and were quickly abandoned, as if in parody of the fate of "The Fourth World." Looking back on the series now, it seems that Kirby knew full well that the project was doomed, but had evolved an almost holographic symmetry, a genuine opening into mythological reality that, Joseph Campbell's fawning notwithstanding, Mr. Lucas reaches only in his dreams. In this light, Kirby's peculiar later work as evidenced in books such as OMAC (with the mohawked cyborg One Man Army Corps) may be seen as having a place in the grand vision that the artist was steadily creating throughout his career, regardless of the masks and names his characters wore, or the particular company that published the work.

The great strength of "The Fourth World" lies in its very incompleteness, its unraveled conceptual openness, its promise to accommodate absolutely any thing. Although the bits of the myth that reach us contain some semblance of the whole, the whole never reaches a point where the story is sealed off from mundane reality. To resolve it would be to kill it, to render it subject to categorization and dismissal. Kirby's unfinished work on "The Fourth World" insured that the breakdown of hierarchical mythological structures, through the proliferation of new characters and unpredictable associations, would continue toward an infinitely varied vanishing point, infecting all subsequent attempts at substantive storytelling.

Furthermore, he managed to accomplish this aesthetic feat in a habitually disdained vernacular American artform with a language that displays mastery over the superficial elements that draw and hold an audience's attention. Kirby set the standard for commercial comic-book design, while simultaneously parading a dazzling tour de force. In the process, he mapped the still undiminished twentieth-century popular archetype of the superhero onto a geodesic narrative montage that guarantees its survival through the radical restructuring of reality now occurring all around us.

Art issues. Number 61 Jan/Feb 2000