The New Mythology of Jack Kirby
Posted by Tony Ingram on May 14, 2008
In February 1971, New Gods #1 introduced an unsuspecting readership to a whole new mythology, and completely blew their minds. Now, in the aftermath of The Death of the New Gods, we look back to their beginnings.
While working at Marvel in the ‘60s, Jack Kirby had worked on, among many others, The Mighty Thor. While the main Thor strip mostly dealt with Stan Lee’s ‘super-villains and science fiction’ formula, in later issues Kirby had tried something different, a short back-up feature called ‘Tales of Asgard’, introduced in Journey into Mystery #97 (1963). Over the course of the series, which ran until March 1966, Kirby eventually crafted something of an epic which would, if he’d been allowed to go his own way, have ended in Ragnarok (the legendary decimation of the Norse Gods) and their replacement with a whole new pantheon. Stan Lee vetoed the idea, but Kirby never forgot it, and his eventual move to rival publishers DC in 1970 eventually gave him the chance to craft his new mythology.
It was in late 1970, in the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134, that probably the most significant character in what would become known as Kirby’s ‘Fourth World saga’ first appeared, albeit in a one panel cameo - the granite faced embodiment of evil, Darkseid. This relatively low key debut, though, would prove to be the calm before the storm as February 1971 saw the explosive launch of New Gods and The Forever People, two of the trio of books in which the Fourth World would come to life. The third, Mister Miracle, followed the next month.
The Fourth World concept was, from the start, unlike anything that had previously been attempted in mainstream comics. Using character concepts originally created while he was still at Marvel just in case they came in useful, Kirby created a host of new heroes and villains (and some, like the enigmatic, amoral Metron who didn’t really fit either category) who were literally gods, born out of the destruction of an older pantheon ages ago and based on two worlds which existed outside normal space and were polar opposites. New Genesis was the peaceful, green, idyllic world of the New Gods, ruled by the benevolent and wise Highfather, and Apokolips was a hellish, industrial, nightmare planet devoted to evil and cruelty under the control of the dreaded Darkseid. The first issue of New Gods, recounting the destruction of the old pantheon made it plain that, in Kirby’s mind at least, this was the story he’d been prevented from telling at Marvel, of the aftermath of Ragnarok – one scene shows Thor’s trademark winged helmet lying in the rubble.
The three central Fourth World books (and Jimmy Olsen, which had strong links to them) featured a cast of some of the most outlandish characters imaginable, with some of the most outlandish names to go with them – Scott Free, AKA Mr. Miracle, the super escape artist; the Forever People, five super powered teenage hippies who could combine their powers to bring forth the incredibly powerful Infinity Man; Darkseid’s sadistic aide, Desaad; the Female Furies (including the statuesque Big Barda, who would marry Mr. Miracle) and their evil trainer and mentor, the inappropriately named Granny Goodness; the amphibious monstrosities known as the Deep Six; grim Orion and his optimistic companion Lightray, and dozens more. It was as though, free to write unhampered by collaborators, Kirby’s creative side went wild.
But for all the crazy characters, there was a genuinely mythic quality to his saga, with stories like "The Pact" – which told of how Darkseid and Highfather had sealed a truce decades before by having Darkseid’s monstrous son, Orion, raised on New Genesis while Highfather’s son, Scott Free, was sent an orphanage on Apokolips – catching the readers’ imaginations. Darkseid’s search for the mysterious ‘Anti-Life Equation’ which would make him all powerful; concepts such as the Source, a mysterious energy which empowered the gods; the Source Wall at the end of the universe, where ancient "Promethean Giants" were trapped forever as living statues after trying to breach the wall – these all added to the scope of Kirby’s epic. There was humor, too, provided by characters such as Funky Flashman, a none too subtle parody of Stan Lee!
Kirby had begun his saga with a definite aim in mind. Comics were at that time seen as disposable ephemera, and mostly ongoing series with no end in sight. Kirby saw his New Gods saga (divided between all four books) as something different – a story with a very definite beginning, middle and end, which would subsequently be collected together and benefit from being reread as a whole. To that end, he introduced sub-plots and characters in staggering numbers, which he envisaged picking up on and fleshing out as the series progressed.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. DC as a company was still highly conservative in its attitudes- Kirby’s attempts at breaking new ground did not sit well, they didn’t understand why he was cramming in so many characters and plots without first properly fleshing out those already there…and, worse, while they quickly gained a loyal core audience, the books were not the mainstream success DC had anticipated. Kirby was dropped from Jimmy Olsen after #148, and following months of editorial interference, Forever People and New Gods were both cancelled after 11 issues and Mr. Miracle after 18. Kirby’s Fourth World saga would never be finished, at least in the way he had intended.
Following Kirby’s return to Marvel (where he would again attempt to write his new mythology, this time in the pages of his 1976 title The Eternals with the superhumanly perfect Eternals in place of the New Gods and their opposite numbers the Deviants in place of the hordes of Apooalips), DC revived both the New Gods and Mr. Miracle in 1978, but in a rather diluted form; Orion’s transformation from armored warrior into a masked, generic superhero type was one example of this, though thankfully a short lived one. New Gods lasted eight issues, Mr. Miracle, only seven. Both titles have been revived (more than once) since then, as have the Forever People, but though some revivals were better than others, none really captured the spirit of Kirby’s work or were tremendously successful. The characters, Darkseid in particular, also became frequent guest stars in other DC titles.
In 1984 Kirby created a new story concluding the entire Fourth World saga, to be printed in the final issue of a New Gods reprint series; it was rejected. Eventually, an altered version of the story saw print as Kirby’s 1985 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, which gave the epic an ending at last, but this has been generally ignored since – the Fourth World characters were evidently considered too valuable to lose, even if no-one knew quite what to do with them.
And then, in 2007, someone at DC decided their time was up. In April 2008, the final issue of Jim Starlin’s The Death of the New Gods and a tie-in in Countdown #2 ended the mythology and saw an old prophecy fulfilled as Darkseid finally died at the hands of his son, Orion. Are the New Gods really gone for good? Well, comics being comics, no story ever seems to end forever, and the seeds have already been sown for new life on New Genesis. But whatever they do with them, one thing is certain – somewhere on high, Jack Kirby will be watching…
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