Saturday, June 16, 2007

Grab it, Chum

This week DC Comics released the first of four volumes collecting Jack Kirby's Fourth World series. It has apparently become a runaway best seller for DC. That doesn't surprise me. Jack Kirby has long been recognized as a primal force in the comics industry and even now, thirteen years after his death, his prodigious imagination can still sell comic books like nobody's business.
In a very literal sense, Jack Kirby IS comic books. Without him, there might not even be any comics today. Don't believe me? Here's a short list of characters Kirby created or co-created. Captain America. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. The X-Men. (Yes, the X-Men) The Silver Surfer. He also had a hand in the creation of Spiderman. And those are just some of the better known characters. I could fill this blog screen with the names of the heroes, villains, and concepts that Kirby created for comic books. (Oh and remember Romance Comics? True Love, My Date, True Romance, etc. Guess who created those. Yep.)
But more importantly, Kirby is the driving visual force behind comics as we know them today. Much of the visual shorthand still used by current comics creators can be linked to Kirby. The way they draw energy blasts, explosions and impact. The way cityscapes are rendered. The gigantic, fantastic banks of machinery. Even down to the way superheroes pose and leap and thrust their hands toward the camera. All of these things were pioneered by Kirby.
Now admittedly I'm biased. Kirby is my hero. He is my all times favorite comics artist and the guy I most tried to emulate when I was learning to draw. (I can still do a pretty mean Kirby art imitation when called upon.) As the saying goes, he was a god to me. I'll talk more about Kirby in later posts. There's plenty to say. Funny thing is, though it was the Fourth World Omnibus that set this post in motion and sent me down memory lane, I pretty much missed out on the Fourth World titles in their original run. in fact, the first Jack Kirby comic I ever bought was the final issue of his run on Jimmy Olsen. Yeah, Jimmy Olsen. Red hair. Bow tie. Jeepers, Mr. Kent. Not on Kirby's watch.
I actually remember buying Jimmy Olsen issue 148. I still have it. In fact it's here on the desk as I type this. Summer of 1973. A drugstore diner on the southern end of Canton Georgia, next door to a men's clothing store owned by my maternal grandfather. Both places are long gone now. I remember seeing the cover, a dynamic illustration by Neal Adams, another comics legend, showing Superman attempting to save Jimmy Olsen and a bunch of guys I didn't know from a steel cage hanging on a massive chain. It wasn't like any image of jimmy Olsen I'd ever seen before. I bought it on a whim.
The story followed Jimmy, Superman, and a bunch of kids called the Newsboy Legion through the second half of an adventure inside of a gigantic Volcano. They fought robots. They got zapped by a 'brain blasting' machine. There was talk of DNA, clones, atomic weapons, world domination. Superman diverted a lava flow with his bare hands and threw a rock at supersonic speed through a line of robots, disabling them all. He leaped and flew and fought in a very un-Curt Swan kind of way. Yow.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was looking at the end of one of Jack Kirby's dreams. After years of growing dissatisfaction with Marvel Comics, Kirby had jumped ship in the early 1970s to DC, where he was offered the chance to create, write, and draw his own series. What he produced was a trio of titles about what he termed the Fourth World. The titles were New Gods, Forever People, and Mr. Miracle. In addition to creating these, he also took over Jimmy Olsen, the poorest selling of the Superman titles, and added it to the Fourth World mix. Kirby's original intention was to create comics first epic mini series. The three Fourth World books were meant to have a finite run, building over the course of several years to an epic finale, and would then be collected into books. Sound familiar? It's one of the primary publishing models for comics today, where monthly books are produced in mini-series like arcs that are latter collected into hardback and trade paperback volumes.
Unfortunately for Jack, he was, as ever, ahead of his time. The powers that be at DC treated the Fourth World books like any other monthly comics. Reportedly, when the books sales figures weren't as strong as DC might have wished, they canceled the Fourth World books and Kirby left Jimmy Olsen. He remained at DC for a couple more years, producing new series such as The Demon and Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth. Eventually he returned to Marvel before ultimately leaving the comics business to work in animation. If you were a child in the 1980s you probably saw characters designed by Kirby on cartoons like Scooby Doo, Super Friends, Goldie Gold, Thundarr the Barbarian, and others.
But here's the thing. Over the next three decades, writers and artists of comics would return again and again to the concepts and characters Kirby created in the Fourth World titles. John Byrne's famous run on the Superman titles was steeped in Kirby concepts. He brought back the Newsboy Legion, New Genesis, the DNA Project, and most of the Fourth World characters. The Superman titles almost became Fourth World books for several years. Over at Marvel, Jim Starlin had done his own take on Kirby's New Gods, creating a character called Thanos, modeled on Darkseid, the main villain of the Fourth World. DC has tried at least twice to start new versions of the New Gods and Mr. Miracle, and Darkseid is perhaps the most powerful villain in the DC universe.
It doesn't end there. Many people have noted the similarities between the New Gods and a certain epic space movie series. Darkseid and Darth Vader. Hmmm.
Anyway, I'm glad to see the Fourth World material available again and it will be nice to be able to have them close at hand on a bookshelf rather than stored away in comic boxes. And it means that a whole new audience has a chance to see some of Kirby's most amazing work. Jack's Back. And that's a good thing.


Lanny said...

Awesome entry! Made me glad I got up this morning! Gotta have it! Oh man. Kirby rocks!

My first 4th World Book was Mr. Miracle #1. I was hesitant on the other titles, but I started Forever People with #3 and so on. That material was a huge influence on me.

The Darkseid / Vader connection was never lost on me. As a matter of fact, I always saw Vader as Darksied and Dr. Doom (another Kirby creation) rolled into one.

It has always seemed to me that Lucas has been oddly silent about reading comics. Don't cha think?

CoyoteAllyson said...

Thank you for this!

I am still very much a layperson as far as comics go. I really want to know more. You have been an incredible help-you keep from feeling small and stupid on comic subjects that I know everyone else has already know about for years. I don't have to sit and think, Gee, salsa yummy! :)

I've known Kirby's name for years, but I had no idea how influential he was, plus I didn't know about his animation skills. That is so cool! Tell us more stories!! And, at the risk of sounding like a fool, who's Curt Swan?

I may be married to The Dr. No's Guy, but keep this in mind: the cobbler's children rarely have shoes. ;)

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Allyson, I'll write a long post about Curt Swan at some point. The short answer is that he is the artist who pretty much defined the way most people think of Superman. He started drawing the character in the 1940s and drew him right into the 1990s. Swan's artwork is very realistic. His figures look like real people of flesh and bone. Naturalistic might be a good way to describe his art. I love Swan's work, but it's the polar opposite of Kirby's powerful approach. Swan's Superman was a classic. Kirby's was a revelation. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Lanny, you do indeed gotta have it. As the King says, "If you survive the action, you'll groove with the plot."