In honor of Jack Kirby’s birthday, here’s an essay I first posted here back in 2010. 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 2015 J.M. DeMatteis