This Bittersweet Life: Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus vol. 4A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jason Sacks
"Life is at best bittersweet!"
—Darkseid, Mister Miracle #18
Jack Kirby was the King of Comics, in great part because of his brilliant work on the Fourth World series. The first three volumes of the Fourth World Omnibus present a string of stories that are legendary for their power and intensity. Stories like "The Pact" and "Glory Boat" are among the greatest stories Kirby ever created, which means they are among the greatest stories in comics history.
Many devoted fans of Kirby's work likely saw the fourth volume of this series as an afterthought, as stories that represent the decline years of a man whose time was past. There was a general feeling towards the end of the 1970s that Kirby's best days were behind him. To say the least, the stories in this fourth volume don't have nearly the reputation that their predecessors have.
But I found this fourth volume to be just as fascinating as the first three. In fact, volume four of this hardcover series is almost more powerful than the previous three books because it presents Jack Kirby's career in several interesting and poignant lights.
Most of the attention paid to the King's career focuses on its high points, for good reason. But the stories in this book are less well-explored. They represent the endgame of Kirby's career. In fact, the last two stories in this collection are among the final stories that Kirby ever created. As such, they present an interesting portrait of Jack Kirby towards the end of his life.
Readers can see Kirby's insecurities and concerns in his stories. We can see Kirby's emotions behind the gestures and acts of his favorite characters. And ultimately, we can see the astonishing mastery of the comics form that Kirby showed even in his later days. Against all odds, Kirby presents an ending to the Fourth World saga in this book that is a tremendously moving, almost Shakespearean tragedy.
The first half of the book presents the end of the Fourth World saga as presented in 1972 and 1973. It contains the final issues of both New Gods and Forever People, as well as the final nine issues of Mister Miracle. There's a distinct feeling of loss and sadness that pervades the stories in the first half of the book. There is an almost omnipresent mood of frustration in these stories that clearly conveys Kirby's disappointment with the cancellation of his dream project.
Maybe the best example of that sadness is the final page of Forever People #11. That series was created in large part as Kirby's take on the idealism of the hippie movement. The Forever People were nonviolent and multicultural, and also worked harmoniously as a team. With names like Mark Moonrider and Beautiful Dreamer, the Forever People embodied values that seemed at the heart of the dreams of the Summer of Love. The Forever People stood in dramatic opposition to Darkseid, a being of immense evil power that was in some ways a proxy for Richard Nixon, a man that Kirby apparently despised even before Watergate.
In a real way the Forever People represented a valiant yet vain attempt to use love to overcome pure hatred. They were clearly a group of young people fiercely committed to their ideals in a sincere but ultimately untenable dream that love, peace and friendship could triumph over unspeakable evil. And just as the summer of love in 1967 was swept aside by the riots and assassinations of 1968, so too did the idealism of the Forever People get swept away by the power and chaos of Darkseid.
The last page of the final issue Forever People finds the team exiled forever to a bucolic and Edenesque planet. In the final panel, the team literally walks off into the sunset as a butterfly flies past in the foreground. In place of the "next issue" box, Kirby reminds readers that a diametrically different character is on its way – the Demon.
It's hard to find a more symbolic moment than that in all of Kirby's comics. As a group of young people finds their beliefs becoming dated and literally shoved off to a marginal corner of the universe, a newer and darker vision has taken shape. Instead of reading about the idealistic Beautiful Dreamer, readers were soon to read of the possessed Jason Blood, a man cursed for centuries with an evil demon inside him. Kirby had literally turned from an exploration of characters who deep and idealistic love for one's fellow man to an exploration of the evil that lives inside of one man.
In the same way that the idealism of the '60s faded into a resigned sadness and cynicism in the '70s, so too did the Fourth World stories move into a prolonged, dreamlike decline after the cancellation of New Gods and Forever People. In fact, it's not fair to even call these late stories "Fourth World" stories, since they were thoroughly Earth-bound and presented bizarre adventure stories.
Mister Miracle survived the cancellation of its partner titles, perhaps because it seemed on the surface to be a typical super-hero comic. Likely in subconscious reaction to the cancellation of his favorite titles, Kirby almost seemed to enter a dreamlike state with the latter issues of Mister Miracle. Issue #16 is quite literally a dream, but there is a surreal element that to permeates all the latter issues of this series.
Take issue #14 as an example. The story in that issue begins, rather arbitrarily, with Mister Miracle and his assistant Oberon taking a walk through the woods when they stumble over a bizarre Satanic cult. Kirby is at his inventive best depicting the strange masks that the cult members wear – only Kirby could create images that are so uniquely other-worldly.
There's no explanation for why Miracle and Oberon are wandering through the woods, much less why Mister Miracle is wearing his gaudy costume at such a time. But Kirby does know why the cult is in the woods. The cult is in the woods trying to capture a turncoat member who had tried to escape their clutches.
Being heroes of some sort or another, Miracle and Oberon follow the cultists back to a spooky old house hidden in the forest; a house that Mister Miracle somehow knows is called "Satan's Lair". Living in the house is a spooky old woman with the improbably nickname of Madame Evil Eyes. The witch manages to hypnotize Miracle and tries to offer our hero up as a sacrifice to Satan. Of course Miracle escapes due to the literal deus ex machina of "amazing micro-circuitry in his mask," and Miracle and Oberon endure an Indiana Jones-style escape to get away from the crazy evil woman.
This story seems so arbitrary, so fixed in its own bizarre inner logic, that it has a uniquely dreamlike power. The story really has no beginning and no satisfying end; it also has no connection to the greater Fourth World saga. But in its own odd, understated way, this story has an intriguing sort of energy. Kirby may have been depressed about the state of his career at that time, but even a depressed Kirby was able to deliver a story with real power.
It was also easy to see Kirby's growing apathy to the stories by how he gets Mister Miracle out of his deathtraps. Again and again in this section of the book, Miracle faces certain doom, only to be freed because of "amazing micro-circuitry in his mask." Scott Free might be a super escape artist, but, according to Kirby, Scott earned that honor not through his amazing skills but essentially because he cheated. There's a never-ending feeling in these stories that Kirby couldn't be bothered to create anything more interesting than this unsatisfying resolution.
It puts the reader in a weird state of mind reading about Mister Miracle's very arbitrary escapes. It almost feels like Kirby is giving the readers a bit of a wink, as if it's an inside joke to Kirby that he's providing an adventure story in which things happen completely arbitrarily.
To wind up the Fourth World saga in the final issue of Mister Miracle, #18 from late 1973, Kirby brings back most of his core cast of Fourth World characters. Orion and Lightray of the New Gods return, along with assorted friends and enemies (None of the Forever People return, however; is this sign of Kirby respecting his continuity or did they simply slip his mind?).
The return of the Fourth World trappings in this story has the feeling of a band reunion gone wrong. Many of the villains and heroes from the previous Fourth World stories return, but the characterization feels off. The villains don't seem like menaces as much as mischievous and oddly-dressed plot elements that exist simply to close off a storyline.
For instance, there's a death-trap in this story so absurd it might have been rejected from the old Batman TV show. In this case the death-trap is defeated not through micro-circuitry but through the intervention of a character that had not yet appeared in the issue, and in fact hadn't appeared for over a year in real life time. It's a pretty rotten cheat, but at least readers were given a different sort of cheat than they usually got.
The story does, however, end in a powerful note, a note that reminds readers of Kirby's brilliance. Darkseid had just disrupted the wedding of Scott Free with the titanic Big Barda. As the saga fades to black, we are presented this great dialogue:
Shilo Norman: Wow! Look at that dude! Have you been out in the storm all this time, mister?
Darkseid: I am the storm.
Oberon: L-let's go, Shilo. No use in pressin' our luck.
Shilo: That dude's got eyes that could stop a clock.
Darkseid: But not a wedding. I did spoil it, though! It had deep sentiment – yet little joy. But – life is at best bittersweet!
At which point Darkseid bursts into laughter.
What a unique portrayal of Darkseid. We're all so used to the character being depicted as the ultimate evil in the DC Universe that it's kind of shocking to see the odd humanity of the character in this book. Kirby's Darkseid is evil, absolutely, but he's also oddly vulnerable and complex. It's interesting to see Darkseid philosophize, and it's difficult to not see Kirby really believing Darkseid's words.
And Darkseid laughs! He laughs a bitter laugh, a laugh not of evil, cackling Joker-like evil. No, the laugh is ironic and bittersweet. He's laughing about the inhumanity of his experience, about how, for at least one fleeting moment, he has embraced his beloved concept of anti-life.
It's scenes like that one that get me excited about this book, but really the whole first half of the book is wonderful and intriguing. Even mediocre Kirby comics are full of wonderful storytelling and imaginative plot twists. Kirby was a true comics master, and by that point in his career there was no way Jack could have produced something that wasn't polished and professional. There was literally nobody like Kirby; this book gives readers yet more reasons why that fact is true.
It's fascinating to study Kirby's later work, to delve into the passions and emotions that the man brought to comics late in his career. Nearly all of Kirby's work was in some ways autobiographical, and even the most rote late Mister Miracle stories contain interesting veiled looks into his inner life. "Life is at best bittersweet," Darkseid says. It's very easy to imagine Jack Kirby, seeing the last of his favorite titles cancelled, thinking the same thoughts.
Kirby dream of the Fourth World saga was compromised from the very beginning, by the machinations of DC Comics, the apathy of the buying public, or even his dreams of the story never quite making it to the printed page. It had to be bittersweet in 1973 seeing that despite all his success, Jack Kirby's dream project would never be completed.
These feelings become more obvious as readers flip the pages to the two stories that wrap up this book. By the mid 1980s, Kirby's comics career was coming to a close. The King was in his late 60s by that point and had suffered some health problems that robbed him of some of the exquisite artistic skills he had shown in younger life. In addition, his career had by that point hit some bumps – Kirby spent much time in his later years, for instance, fighting with Marvel about the return of hundreds of pages of his original artwork from the Silver Age.
But DC Comics was in an expansive mood in the early '80s, and the executives at the company offered Kirby a chance to wrap up the New Gods saga for a new generation of fans. Kirby, as was his practice when work was offered to him, said yes to the project and launched into "Armagetto" and "The Hunger Dogs", two troubled projects that many concede were simply beyond Kirby's reach and interests at that time.
As others have pointed out, it had to have been hard for Kirby to resurrect his enthusiasm for the Fourth World stories after spending over a decade away from the characters and storylines. Leave it to Kirby, however, to produce a joyful surprise: a conclusion to the Fourth World saga that spins off in unexpected and astonishing directions.
In fact, what might be most surprising about these stories is the energy and mastery of the comics form that Kirby shows in them. "Armagetto" begins with a 17-page action sequence in which Orion attacks Darkseid on Apokolips. Kirby's linework isn't what it once had been, but the King still had an amazing knack for action. This sequence hurtles along breathlessly, full of energy and momentum and subtle storytelling tricks amidst the spectacle.
Kirby shows readers that he hasn't lost his innate abilities, even in his late 60s. Reading this sequence made me wonder what Kirby would have done in a world where he wasn't constrained by 20-page stories. One shudders to imagine the majestic excitement Kirby might have brought readers if he'd been free to create epics of whatever length he wanted.
This story never loses the momentum it gains from this early sequence. Kirby delivers big moments and enormous gestures, delivering an epic story that's worthy of being part of the Fourth World saga.
But along with that epic feel is an interesting sort of sadness. Only Kirby could portray Darkseid saying lines like, "I could use a friend. Desaad, perhaps. He was a strange one, but he had the gift of finding humor… where none could thrive." When Darkseid resurrects Desaad using his memories of his friend, Darkseid finds to his great sorrow that the resurrected Desaad is not truly the man he missed. Desaad is only a shadow of his former self, a chimera of memory rather than a full-fledged person.
These are the reflections of a man growing older and seeing his lifelong friends becoming sick and changing. The past was becoming ever more a haunting specter, a tempting but ultimately empty escape into reflexive nostalgia.
This story presents Kirby at his autobiographical best, conveying life lessons and sadness that reflect his emotional state of mind. When Darkseid says, "Someday, our machines will do it all. They'll dwarf the cosmos itself! We'll praise them… curse them… and fear them!" he is clearly channeling some of Kirby's anxieties about the world he's living in.
But still Darkseid soldiers on, true to himself by leading Apokolips in its endless battle with New Genesis. What else is he to do but stay true to himself? If Darkseid is not pure personified evil, then who is he? If Kirby didn't draw, who would he be? It's a fascinating moment because Darkseid seems a proxy for Kirby's fears and anxieties about his own aging. Kirby had to be wondering what his admirers would think of him when his skills were gone and he could no longer work a pencil with the mastery he once was able to use.
The theme of aging is spelled out even more richly in "The Hunger Gods," the concluding book of the Fourth World saga and the final major comics work of Kirby's life. Though this book was troubled for a number of reasons, it also is well-drawn and dramatic.
Purely on an artistic level, Kirby's work is fascinating. He goes out of his way to try unusual panel arrangements. One page uses a modified 16-panel grid, a format Kirby never used elsewhere to my knowledge, while the facing page presents jagged panels on a page that has an "x" shape to its panels. Other pages see Kirby use circular panels in unusual ways, or see him place a circular panel in the middle of a page and navigate panels around it. It's fascinating to see Kirby experiment even in his last major project.
We even get one last, glorious, Kirby collage on pages 362 and 363. What can be more wonderful than that?
The story in "The Hunger Gods" is muddled, but its themes are quite fascinating. Typically, Kirby delivers the grandiose in this story, but he also delivers some wonderfully moving, smaller moments. In this book, readers see a portrait of Orion and Darkseid that could only come from Kirby.
In "The Hunger Dogs", the feral Orion actually finds happiness with Bekka, daughter of the great Himon. Orion was once a vicious warrior, in many ways the personification of the untrammeled power of pure hatred and anger. But in "The Hunger Gods", Orion has found his own inner peace. In one panel Orion quite movingly helps a villain to die in a way that emphasizes the villain's humanity rather than his evil. Orion soliloquizes, "I understand torture and pain! Cynicism can lead one astray, Eask… but we never really change. Don't you see? To the very end we remain what the Source has made us! Oh, great Source! Show kindness in his passing! Judge him as he was – and not as he became! See him not as a bitter pawn surprised in fatal defeat – but only as a child, fallen on cruel days."
Orion, who had always represented the eternal warrior in the New Gods cycle, has actually found some inner peace later in his life. He has achieved the ultimate victory by triumphing over his deeper impulses. Late in life, Orion has mellowed. He's contradicted the words he said to Esak, and, what's more, Orion seems to know that. The former feral warrior learned to grow from the impulses that shaped his younger life. At long last, all of his childhood feelings of rejection have moved to the back of Orion's mind. He is a man at peace with himself and his world.
It's extraordinarily moving to see Orion reach this spot in his life. Just a few hundred pages before, in the reprinted pages of New Gods #11, readers had seen the vicious face of the warrior Orion in one of the most intense panels of the entire Fourth World saga. It would have been almost impossible at that time to imagine that Orion could grow up and become content in his own skin; to see him do so feels like the ultimate triumph over evil.
Darkseid, too, battles his deeper impulses. He has begun to find his weapons antiquated. The old ways have passed. It's no longer fashionable to have colorful villains fight as proxies in a war; now the amazing Micro-Mark is far more powerful and far less risky. Darkseid's world has literally changed from an analog world to a digital world. Darkseid's prophecies from the previous story are already coming true. A new age is dawning, and Darkseid is no longer the right man for that age.
Most tragically, Darkseid is never able to transcend his weaker impulses in the way that Orion was able to. Though he sees himself as strong, Darkseid is never quite able to give up his passion for evil. He even sows the seeds of his own destruction, as the very forces of terrorism that Darkseid unleashes are used against him to destroy Apokolips. Good actually has triumphed over evil. The victory is not simply because of a battle, but also because good people can actually defeat their evil impulses. Bad people simply have a harder time turning good.
Ultimately it's hard not to feel sympathy for Darkseid. Shockingly, by the end of "The Hunger Dogs," Darkseid has become a tragic hero, a man brought down from the heights of power by his own hubris. The most tragic element of it all is that Darkseid is fully aware of his failings, but seems incapable of ever transcending them. Orion, his son and greatest enemy, has grown and changed. But Darkseid can never change. He may be a feared monarch, but ultimately he is a pitiable character. "Life is at best bittersweet" for Darkseid and there is little hope for things to improve for him.
What better moral is there for a book written by Jack Kirby, the man who seemed to symbolize all that was great about super-hero comics? It's a simple message: ultimately good will always triumph over evil. Orion will ultimately defeat Darkseid because Orion has room in his soul to truly grow, while Darkseid can never change. In the end, despite his personal struggles, Kirby delivers a message of optimism and hope in his final major work. Could any man write a better elegy for himself than Kirby does in this book?
If you've stayed with me over the preceding 3600 or so words in this piece, I think I've made the case for why this book is well worth buying. The entire Fourth World collection is an amazing tribute to the brilliance of the King of Comics. Isn't it incredible that even a book that contains some of Kirby's least inspired work is still legitimately transcendent? As Kirby once said, "Don't ask. Just buy it!"