Tuesday, July 6, 2010


One of my recent Father’s Day presents was the second volume of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus and I’ve been having a wonderful time re-reading this brilliant, classic material; so much so that I’ve been thinking about writing a little tribute to Kirby and his extraordinary epic.  Then I remembered that I’d already written it, way back in 1988, for a text piece that ran in the back of the Forever People mini-series I did with artist Paris Cullins.  My FP story was nothing to brag about (not terrible, by any means, but not memorable, either), but I think the essay holds up.  So here it is, with some minor dusting and polishing.  Enjoy!
Like most people too in love with their own opinions, I’m fond of sweeping statements, and one of the sweeping statements I often toss out when the subject of comic books comes up is this:  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the two formidable talents who forged the Marvel Age of Comics—and, one might argue, all comics that followed—were the Lennon and McCartney of their medium.  Rock and roll and comic books were two of my greatest passions growing up and the link has always seemed obvious to me.  The Beatles, led by John and Paul, redefined popular music in the sixties, just as Marvel, led by Stan and Jack, redefined comics.  (Not that DC was sitting around doing nothing, mind you...any more than Dylan, the Stones and the Who were; but the Beatles and Marvel, at least in this writer’s opinion, were way ahead of the pack.)  But all that blew apart when the decade turned.
Those of you too young to have been comics fans in 1970—that tumultuous twelve months of Kent State, student strikes and Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip—can’t begin to grasp the impact that three words—”Kirby Is Here!”—had when they appeared on the cover of, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.  I was sixteen, a devoted Marvel follower, and still naive enough to believe that Lee and Kirby were as inseparable as, well, Lennon and McCartney.  Of course 1970 was also the year in which the Beatles publicly disintegrated, as well.  “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang—and it certainly was.  Across the board.  Across the country.  The idealism, the optimism, the inspired lunacy of the sixties—which had spread throughout our culture via music, film, novels, and, yes, comics—was beginning to turn sour.  Let’s face it:  if Stan and Jack, if John and Paul, couldn’t keep it together, what possible chance did the rest of us have?  (This sounds incredibly silly now, but, believe me, this was an unbelievably urgent question then.  At least to me.) 
But the energy and enthusiasm of those years was still pushing us forward and, in some ways, the creative energy of the early seventies surpassed the sixties.  Sure, the Beatles were a dead issue, but the music Lennon produced in the years after the split, most notably the brilliant John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, was some of the most powerful, important music rock and roll had ever heard.   (I told you I was fond of sweeping statements.)  And this music was produced as a direct result of Lennon’s boredom with the Beatles, of his pulling away from McCartney’s influence, from the security of success.  He danced out on a limb, the limb held, and the result was Art. 
The same can be said of Kirby.  With Lee, he had taken mainstream comics and turned them inside out, upside down, and left his mark forever.  But, as his later Marvel work too clearly showed, he was bored.  How many times can the Thing turn against his partners?  How often can Loki tiptoe past Odin’s bed and usurp the throne of Asgard?  Pretty often—but too often for a restless limb-dancer like Jack Kirby.  As with Lennon, Kirby’s vision was unique, singular; and, if his collaboration with Lee (as important to Marvel’s success as McCartney was to the Beatles’; neither man should be understimated) brought Kirby to new levels, those levels had now been attained, a plateau had been reached, and it was time to move on.  Without collaboration.  Artists, real artists, tend to burn.  When they’ve burned long enough, the smoke starts pouring through their lips and they’ve got to spit the fire out. 
In 1970, Jack Kirby jumped from Marvel to DC and started spitting fire.  The fire was called The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Jimmy Olsen and Forever People.  Books as important to comics as Lennon’s POB album was to rock.  Books that opened new doors, set new standards, did things that comics had never dared to do before.  New Gods was clearly the most focused, perhaps the best of the bunch; Mister Miracle offered the most flat-out fun; Jimmy Olsen was as wonderfully bizarre, in its way, as those Silver Age stories that featured Jimmy turning into aliens, werewolves and giant turtles.  Forever People—which featured Kirby’s cosmic hippies, the embodiment of youth and naivete, idealism and dreams—was my personal favorite; encapsulating, as it did, Kirby’s (and my own) hope for the future.  True, the dialogue in these stories was sometimes awkward—but dialogue was never Kirby’s forte.  Story-telling was.  Spirit was.  Vision was.  And these stories had them all.  They ran, they rambled, they surprised, they exploded.  (The language often did the same thing:  the dialogue, as noted, may have been clunky, but Kirby’s prose was also so wildly passionate, so utterly idiosyncratic, that it achieved a kind of mad poetic grandeur.)  There seemed no definite beginning, middle, or end; there was just the constant search, the quest for an intangible something that could never be defined.  The characters themselves couldn’t be called three dimensional, in the conventional sense, but they existed in a dimension all their own.   Orion and Lightray, Scott and Barda, Big Bear, Serafin, Desaad and, perhaps the greatest villain in the history of comic books, Darkseid:  these were people that I, as a reader, cared passionately about.  I enjoyed their company—and looked forward to their evolution.  Unfortunately, for reasons that I’ve never heard adequately explained, that evolution was cut short.  With the exception of Mister Miracle (which staggered on for several more issues), all the “Fourth World” titles were axed.
But you can’t kill a dream—and these stories live on, resonating not just through the DC Universe but all of popular culture.  The word genius is one that’s often overused, and cheapened by that overuse, but if the comic book business has ever produced a genius, Jack Kirby was it.  And that genius’s magnum opus was unquestionably the “Fourth World” saga.  If you’ve read it before, I urge you to read it again.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to put aside your preconceptions, grab the first volume of the Fourth World Omnibus and surrender to one of the 20th Century’s master storytellers. 

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis 


  1. Usually I find a few nitpicks in someone else's opinion piece, but I'll be darned! I totally agree with you on this one!

  2. Proving once again, Nicholas, that great minds think alike!

  3. Silly JMD. Kaine is the greatest villain ever! :)

    But seeing how you wrote this in 1988, I guess I'll either have to round up Doc and Marty for a spin in the Delorean or let you slide.

  4. Proving once again, David, that great minds don't ALWAYS think alike!

    Really, Darkseid is in a class by himself. He's like all the great comic book villains rolled into one. And, for the record, I never actually saw Kaine as a villain. He's done some terrible things, but not in the vein of the classic comic book villains. In some ways, the same can be said about Darkseid. You never really feel that he's reveling in evil, enjoying his sometimes brutal and terrible acts. The difference is that Darkseid's ultimate goal is to control every living thing in Creation. Kaine's just trying to survive...and perhaps find a little love along the way.

  5. I like Darkseid, but my primary experience with him has more to do with the DC Animated Universe than Kirby. He strikes me as pure evil in that incarnation, and I tended to agree with Superman that he needed to be dealt with severely. Buuuuuut...there was really no sane way to do that, so it was an interesting dynamic.

    I like sweeping statements, too, so you should always take my 'best' with a grain of salt. Truth be told, there are certain characters and stories that are so good they're all 'the best.' No one character or story fulfills all my literary needs. I'd like to think I'm past calling EVERYTHING that catches my attention the best, as I usually have a short list.

    But just so you know: Kaine is on that list, without fail, every time. He's just one of the most compelling and multi-dimensional characters out there. Period.

  6. Well, now we're pretty much in total agreement, David; proving that great minds DO think alike after all!

  7. Great piece! And I presume you read the love letter I posted this week on my blog to one of my own favorite comic series...? :-)

  8. I did indeed, Glenn: great piece. I was a huge fan of TOMB OF DRACULA, it remains one of the high points of 70's comics...and I often forget to mention it when I list my favorites from that incredible decade. The Kirby books (not just "Fourth World," but DEMON, ETERNALS and others), T.O.D, Wein and Wrightson's SWAMP THING, Steve Gerber's mind-blowing work on DEFENDERS, MAN-THING, HOWARD THE DUCK and many others, Moench and Gulacy's MASTER OF KUNG FU, Steve Englehart on DOC STRANGE, CAP, JLA and BATMAN...and on and on. A helluva great period for mainstream comics.

  9. Speaking of Kaine, "Hunting the Hunter" is AMAZING. I don't know how you did it. Building on KLH is kind of intimidating from my perspective (but then, being in competition with yourself isn't the worst place to be). But it succeeds as a Kaine and Kraven story, and adds new dimensions to KLH. And now the servants have names, which is cool for a guy who geeks out over this sort of thing. (And Max Fiamura nails the art!)

    On the subject of Kirby, I read somewhere he intended to kill off all the New Gods in a graphic novel in the early 80s, but DC forced a rewrite at the last minute because of the Kenner toy line.

  10. Glad you're enjoying "Hunting the Hunter," David. It was surprisingly easy picking up with both Kaine and Kraven. The story, of course, isn't in any way trying to top or compete with KLH, it's meant as fun supplementary material for both LAST HUNT and the current Spidey arc.

    That Kirby story sounds familiar. I'm sure if you go to Mark Evanier's site, you'll find a post somewhere discussing it. Also, if you've never read THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR, you're missing a real treat. Check out one of the collected editions on Amazon. They're amazing...in a over-the-moon Kirby-nerd kind of way!

  11. I'll have to check the site out...and eventually I might get around to the Kirby Collector, though I'd probably buy more of his material first. I'm not especially familiar with Kirby beyond his early Marvel stuff, and it always seems like there's something else out there I want just a little bit more.

    I get what you're saying about not competing with KLH, but there's inevitably expectations attached to it on my end. But it met them beautifully, so no worries!

    Haven't actually had the chance to read GRIM HUNT yet (I read HTH on Marvel Digital), but I'm hearing great things. I look forward to reading it all in one sitting, or when it gets around to my local bookstore in a few weeks. If what I'm hearing is true, it's good to know Marvel took the time to get this right.

  12. I think GRIM HUNT is a terrific story, well told, David. Very pleased with what they've done.

  13. Well, JMD, now you've gone and done it. I might just end up owning this in both formats. :)

    We eventually get ASM, even out here on the edge of nowhere. I wish I could say the same for Booster Gold. :(

  14. Well, they should be collecting BOOSTER in tpb down the line!

  15. The future is never a bad place to meet with Booster, is it?

  16. JM, I've always had a special affection for your Forever People mini, imperfect as you feel it might be. Not because it was totally in tune with Kirby's vibe, but because you used the basic material as genuine myth, drawing upon it to make a statement of your own -- the way many a writer or playwright has used, say, classic Greek myth as a starting point. Perhaps because we're almost exactly the same age, that story really spoke to me!

    While you're justly acclaimed for your vivid portrayal of childhood wonder, you're also one of the few writers in comics who deals with midlife. I'm thinking of that section in the third part of "Blood," set in our world, for example; or "JLA Realworlds." Personally, I think your approach is right up there with some of Rod Serling's best midlife material.

    I'd like to see more of it!

  17. Glad you enjoyed the FOREVER PEOPLE series, Tim. In the end, it doesn't matter what I think of any given story I've written, what matters is how the reader responds.

    I'm sure you know how much I revere Rod Serling, so you can imagine how touched I am by ANY comparison to the Master of the Twilight Zone. Thanks!

    Some years back an artist I was working with pointed out the same thing regarding "midlife material." I didn't even realize it till he mentioned it. It's not something I was/am consciously trying to do. I'm just writing about life as I see and experience it.

    Thanks for checking in, Tim. Always a pleasure!

  18. Reading this makes me wish DC would reprint the Fourth World omnibuses, it's a crying shame they'd let a classic run like that out of print.

    1. They're out of print? That terrible! Some of the greatest work in the history of the medium should not be allowed to fade away.