“Warning: This issue will not be found cheap!”
Before I begin, I must warn you: This column features the appearance of characters created by Jack Kirby in issues neither written nor drawn by Kirby. If you find any Fourth World material by Jack Kirby in the cheap bins, buy it. Even reprints! I’ve been able to get my hands on these gems only on rare occasions, so don’t expect this sort of find to happen frequently. That being said, the following issues rock (in their own special ways) and despite never being touched directly by the hand of Kirby, each should be sought out, purchased, enjoyed and shared.
Jack Kirby’s original Fourth World saga is a treasure. Being a child of the decompression age, I sometimes find it hard to read older material. Every page is packed with words, every character vocalises exactly what is being shown and every sentence closes with an exclamation mark. It’s often an adjustment for me to go back to explore the roots of my favourite characters. Not with Kirby, however! Though he’s drawn criticism for writing melodramatic, occasionally corny scripts, I can’t get enough. Reading old Stan Lee material feels like homework to me, but when Kirby writes I feel like his words are just an extension of the art. He isn’t too wordy and there’s always plenty of space for pictures. His artwork is another story altogether, but Kirby’s the King and if you don’t know that by now, you have some homework of your own.
It was this special combination of to-the-point melodrama and breathtaking artwork that drew me to the Fourth World material in the first place. For those that don’t know, the Fourth World saga detailed the struggle between two warring worlds– New Genesis and Apokolips– in a distant universe. This was played out between the pages of four different series Jack Kirby wrote and drew in the 1970s; New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. Each series was over-the-top, from the character designs and action to the concepts and scope. It was a large-scale epic rich in themes and world-building, wrapped in a science-fiction superhero package. When I think of Kirby, I think of his Fourth World saga. But what happens when you take all of that over-the-top awesomeness and subtract the King? Some might cry blasphemy! Others completely ignore the new material. Me? I find it in the cheap bins, and for the most part I love it.
Mister Miracle vol.2 #12
Written by Len Wein, Pencilled by Joe Phillip, Inked by Art Nichols, Coloured by Nansi Hoolahan
Scott Free (aka Mister Miracle) is Kirby’s super escape artist. He was born on the paradise-like New Genesis, but traded to the hell-planet Apokolips in a pact of peace between the warring worlds. Eventually he escapes to Earth with his amazon-like warrior girlfriend (and future wife) Big Barda and becomes a showman. Kirby’s original series often featured MM narrowly escaping death while fending off the forces of Apokolips in true Tuesday-morning cartoon fashion.
“One of my favourite superhero couples”
Why pick up this non-Kirby version of Mister Miracle? If you’ve read this column before, you’ll know I have an affinity for characters with obscure powers. Mister Miracle is one such character; despite being an escape artist and a “god,” we never really know how he’ll win the day. In fact, he’s one of the only heroes I can think of (though I’m sure there are more) whose hook is strictly defensive. I mean, Captain America can kick butt with that shield of his—even Invisible Woman has offensive uses for her force-field! With that in mind, I’m always eager to pick up an issue of MM just to see what he does. The results never leave me feeling completely satisfied, but most of the time it’s worth the read just to see that awesome costume. I can’t be alone there, right?
Hot on the heels of Giffen and DeMatteis’s Justice League International, DC was ready to give MM a humorous turn. This second volume of MM wasn’t designed as an epic to follow in Kirby’s footsteps, but a sitcom. Here, Scott Free and Big Barda are cast as the married out-of-towners trying to make a living in suburbia. Scott runs a fix-it shop. Barda becomes a housewife. Together with wacky short-stuff assistant Oberon, obnoxious agent Funky Flashman and a cast of neighbours and friends, Kirby’s Houdini analogue becomes more of an everyman and less a science-fiction superhero.
This comic aims to be a mix of heroics and humour but what sets it apart (for me, anyway) is how comfortable it is. In this issue Scott has to deal with the small-town popularity of MM, a dastardly contract from Funky Flashman, and some armed henchmen looking for a walking head-in-a-box (as seen on the cover). Meanwhile, Barda decides to dabble in animal-rights activism and two pesky kids try to uncover the true identity of MM. The whole story plays out like that cartoon you’d catch before heading to school on a weekday morning. It certainly isn’t the blockbuster Saturday morning cartoon you wait all week for, but it’s fun to watch while eating cereal. The stakes aren’t high, the plot is wacky but not hilarious and the art by Joe Phillips is great (but no Kevin Maguire). To tell you the truth, this is my favourite series to read right before bed. You could say this is the “warm glass of milk” of comics. It’s silly, predictable, lots of fun and well worth your quarter.
New Gods vol. 3 #12
Plot by Mark Evanier and Paris Cullins, Script by Evanier, Pencils by Cullins, Inked by Willie Blyberg, Coloured by Gene D’Angelo
Though Mister Miracle decided to tone down the epic, opting for a comfortable backyard/patio seat instead, Evanier and Cullins do just the opposite and crank up the larger-than-life aspects of the New Gods series, filling the pages with dialogue and themes in quasi-Shakespearian fashion. These New Gods weren’t twisting the Kirby mythos but amping it up.
Before diving into this book, take into consideration wher
e you are in the series. This is issue twelve and part 6 of the “Bloodlines Saga.” New Gods is a dense series, packed full of complex relationships, intriguing characters and long-established storylines. Despite this, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw this issue into the hands of a new (albeit brave) reader. Diving headfirst into this complicated world will only make you want to read more. (If you can handle it, that is!)
“Observe—Orion’s mighty hair growing powers!”
With this issue we get plenty of story threads. Orion, the gruff Apokolips-born hero of New Genesis, searches for his mother, intent on rescuing her from the clutches of his father (the Apokolitian ruler Darkseid). Metron the mysterious observer discovers the rebirth of the Old Gods. Kalibak, Darkseid’s other son, just wants to be loved. Everything here is so downright serious; there are times when you’ll probably laugh. Which might be the best thing about this issue.
Being the former assistant to Jack Kirby, Mark Evanier seems like a natural choice to write New Gods. Most fans would assume he’d be able to pursue Kirby’s original intentions for the characters. To an extent Evanier succeeds, but that isn’t why I like the writing in this book. Whether planned or unintentional, the melodrama gets the best of it. Kalibak, in a passionate rage, kills Darkseid’s assistant. Darkseid responds by killing Kalibak, only to remark, “I suppose I shall have to resurrect you both—again!”
And what of Orion’s quest? His mother decides she can’t be saved—she’d seen Darkseid emote. None shall see Darkseid emote! I don’t think Evanier meant to comment on the melodrama of Kirby’s original series by going silly on us, but if you read it that way it’s all the more enjoyable.
“The ridiculous moments are my favourite.”
Paris Cullins is noteworthy here as well. I’ve always found him to be underrated among artists of his generation. His style is very expressive, Kirby-like, but more curvy and less boxy. Proportions are exaggerated and stylized, but never in an overly cartoony way. I don’t think he was breaking any new ground here, but as far as New Gods is concerned, he certainly had the right idea.
Written and drawn by Walt Simonson, Coloured by Sherilyn van Valkenburgh
If you’ve read anything drawn by Walt Simonson, you know this is exciting. Although his actual drawing style would never remind you of anything Kirby, he is a close match in terms of dynamic storytelling, epic fight scenes and out-of-this world creativity. Ask those in-the-know and you’re likely to hear the same response—outside of Kirby’s original work, nobody has done the Fourth World better than Simonson.
While I revere Simonson’s artwork, I must say that I’ve always found his writing rather average. Never bad, mind you, just average. I’m slowly working my way through his seminal Thor work and finding plenty to like, but his art steals the show every time. That being said, Orion issue 5 contains almost no written words. Outside of a few lines at the beginning and end, this is one big fight scene. In terms of a Fourth World story, one might say it’s the most important fight scene there is! Almost every issue of every New Gods series has pointed to a legendary battle that would occur between Orion and Darkseid (just look at the cover for the issue above), and this is it.
Simonson realizes what he is drawing and pulls no punches. Every page is filled with bombastic action, devastating blows, rage filled expression and a sense of weight that leaves you breathless until the end. I’m not saying this is the best fight scene I’ve seen in a comic book, but it’s certainly one of the most dramatically rendered. Every exaggerated line Simonson puts to paper screams epic and soaking in the awesomeness that’s between these pages takes multiple readings. Check out the final page.
As an added bonus of weirdness we also get a DC Fashion Ad drawn by Paul Pope. This thing is right in the middle of the issue, so do yourself a favour and skip it until you’re done the story and check it out after. I have no idea what DC was trying to do, but there’s a good four pages here of Paul Pope art mimicking those early 2000s fashion ads for stuff like Levi’s and The Gap. It’s very strange, showing “hip” versions of Robin, Copycat and other DC teen idols wearing hoodies, baggy jeans and sneakers. It’s the kind of thing you can only find in back-issue bins—this stuff would never get reprinted! A true oddity—and part of what makes the bargain bins so much fun!