The Comic Book King, Part 5

Jack Kirby's Fourth World

During his days at Marvel Jack Kirby had created a wealth of titles and characters, generating an amazing total of over a thousand pages of art a year. Under his talented vision Kirby turned out a myriad of stories he not only drew but plotted as well. As a result, Marvel's fortunes zoomed, not only through newsstand sales, but from a considerable body of collectable memorabilia; posters, hard cover anthologies, label pins, action figures, t-shirts, videos and video games, and even a 14K gold chess set.

Much of this material was modeled after characters Jack had designed. The problem with all this success was an old one in the comics industry; as a free lancer Jack Kirby was getting a small return for the investment of his time and talent.

Worse, not only was he receiving a flat page rate, with little or no royalty returns, but he wasn't getting his originals back, while collectors were paying high prices for some of the over 13,000 pages he had produced for Marvel. The company retained all copyrights over Jack's characters as well. As Kirby later put it in a Comics Journal interview, "All these businessmen are at the top of the pyramid, but the entire pyramid is resting on two little stones, and the pyramid denies the existence of these stones because its so big."

Disgruntled, Kirby broke with Marvel in 1970 and was promptly sought out by DC editor Carmine Infantino, who flew out to Kirby's home in California to propose that Jack return to the National (now DC) fold. Kirby's tenure at that company marked the beginning of a new era and the creation of some his most powerful work, viewed by many as an important contribution to the DC universe: his "Fourth World" concept of The New Gods.

The new series was launched, oddly enough, in the pages of one of DC's more minor titles, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen (#133, October 1970). Kirby's verbal agreement with Infantino was that he would work on an existing title and create a new series of three books. Kirby chose a low-seller, some have suggested, to prove that his work could sell anything. With Jimmy Olsen Kirby introduced a new world, a war of the worlds between two competing god-like societies; New Genesis, "a golden island of gleaming spires that orbits a sunlit, unspoiled world," and its antithesis, Apokolips, a grim, despoiled world inhabited by slave-workers and ruled by the grimly satanic Darkseid --next to  Dr. Victor Von Doom, one of Kirby's greatest villains.

Jimmy Olsen (which featured a revised version of Kirby's 1941 Newsboy Legion) told of the effects of that rivalry on earth as Darkseid sought out the "Anti-Life Equation" through mortal pawns like Morgan edge, Clark Kent's boss at Galaxy Broadcasting. The title also sparked a festering controversy when Infantino had artists like Curt Swan redraw Jack's facial versions of Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. Infantino was disappointed with the initial sales, which took off and then suddenly dropped. What had happened, in all likelihood, is that hard-core Marvel fans and back-issue collectors had snapped up multiple copies of the early issues, and when they backed off, sales fell.

Kirby had wanted to edit his own series of titles, creating them to be handled by other writers and artists. The original New Gods concept was that his series was to be an epic published in three rotating series of twenty four comics each, which, when concluded, would be collected in hard-cover volumes. There were also to be black and white adult-oriented titles, but all that came of that were two one-shot titles, In The Days of the Mob (an updated version of his Headline Comics of the 1940s), and Spirit World (reminiscent of the Simon-Kirby book, Strange World of Your Dreams). Both books were published under the imprint tag "Hampshire Publications" (Fall, 1971).

Still, the much-reduced epic that Kirby built with four titles was an impressive effort, pulling in glowing reviews and going beyond Marvel's more earthly stories to tell an Olympian story spread across The New Gods, The Forever People, Jimmy Olsen, and Mr. Miracle.

For all its cosmic scope, Kirby's Fourth World was also fun to read and collect, displaying some of King Kirby's best drama in splash panels and double-page spreads that explode with action, set against surrealistic photo-montage backdrops. The titles also featured an impressive array of villains; Granny Goodness, a sadistic but matronly dominatrix, the multi-bodied Dr. Bedlam, that evangelist for evil, Glorious Godfrey, and the vicious pain-addict Desaad. ("People like villains," Kirby observed. "The villain is as valid as the hero.")

Spreading out one overall story line with interlocking characters through four books is a common practice today, but a major innovation in the early seventies. In a few short years Jim Starlin would follow Kirby's lead with his own memorable "cosmic" story arc tying in with Captain Marvel, Warlock, and The Avengers.

Two young assistants, Steve Sherman and Mark  Evanier (Groo) aided Kirby in his work. The two were more plugged into the youth culture upon which his more sympathetic characters were based on (Kirby was now in his 60s). Later Evanier would become one of Kirby's most loyal defenders, going head to head with Infantino and DC production manager Sol Harrison over the demeaning practice of redrawing Superman's featues to fit the DC "house style."

Years after the Fourth World series was canceled, it was discovered that the sales figures on the series had been solid enough to be in the black, if not the blockbusters Infantino had expected. Still, many titles (including The Fantastic Four) had started out slowly enough and had succeeded. It's possible that Kirby’s series might have caught on.

We'll never know. Infantino pulled the plug on Kirby's Jimmy Olsen when he gave the title to editor Murray Boltinoff in late 1971. The New Gods and Forever People followed in 1972, outlasted by escape-artist Mr. Miracle, who was unable to escape a cancellation with the 18th issue (March, 1974), but was revived for two more series in 1989 and 1996.

By the early seventies, Carmine Infantino had been promoted to publisher, while Sol Harrison had ascended to Vice President, Director of Operations. Marvel had recently captured a larger market share than the two men felt comfortable with, by means of a cleverly timed price cut. Now readers could buy five Marvels for a dollar to DC's four. Kirby was asked to produce some new series that were less celestial and more commercial, coming up with Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth and The Demon.

Next: To Be Concluded.
 

---Steve Stiles