29 May 2009

Four-Colour Yesteryears: The 'Third Age' Of Jack Kirby, Part II

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

By Rob N

Click here for Part 1.

By the time Jack arrived at DC his vision for comics had grown beyond the confines of the traditional four colour publications on newsstands. He was consumed by the idea of exploring new formats and new markets for comics – an ambition that was in hindsight probably ahead of its time. Among his ideas was a line of black and white magazine format titles (only two debut issues were ever published: Spirit World and Days Of The Mob – but both were glorious comics, arguably some of Kirby’s finest work of his career) to rival Warren’s horror publications, but his big launch idea was the Fourth World – a series of four inter-connected titles that would be serialised at first and then later be collected in book format. Nowadays we take for granted the idea of ‘graphic novels’ and collected editions, but in the early Seventies this was a new and largely unproven concept. Will Eisner had enjoyed some modest success with what would later be termed ‘graphic novels’ and Gil Kane had created Blackmark in 1971 – a paperback original fantasy comic that was supposed to be part one of an ongoing series, but by and large publishers weren’t too keen on the idea. Newsstand sales were still seen as the means by which comics thrived.

The Fourth World was launched in the pages of Jimmy Olsen, and continued in the new titles, Forever People, New Gods and Mister Miracle. The concept revolved around two opposing forces – the planets New Genesis and Apokalips, representing the opposites of order and chaos and life and death. Invoking the power of myth and Kirby’s fascination with cosmic forces, he wanted the DC Universe and Earth specifically, to be a battleground for an age-old conflict involving Darkseid’s quest for the Anti-Life equation. The comics were to run for approximately 24 issues each and tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end: ambitious stuff for the time, when traditionally superhero titles were designed to be open-ended soap operas.

Kirby had spent years sketching out characters for the Fourth World, and in his eagerness to showcase them all he was perhaps guilty of throwing too many new concepts at the reader in too short a time. There was barely enough time to digest Character A before Character B appeared the following issue. Within a few months the Fourth World titles began to resemble a fast moving conveyor belt of Kirby weirdness, introducing Big Barda, Dr Bedlam, the Boom Tube, Granny Goodness, Metron and his Mobius Chair, Glorious Godfrey, the Mother Box, Desaad, Mantis, the Deep Six, the Black Racer and many, many more. There was no doubting the power of his imagination, nor the level of his prolific output, but the concepts were disappearing as quickly as they came, to make way for yet more ideas. It seemed to be the comic book equivalent of diarrhoea. Notable amongst the onslaught of new characters was Funky Flashman – a manipulative entrepreneur in a badly fitting wig who bore more than just coincidental resemblance to Stan Lee. Accompanied by his sycophantic assistant House Roy (Roy Thomas), Funky was hardly a flattering take on Kirby’s old partner.

It also became apparent, very early on, that Kirby did not have Stan Lee’s ear for dialogue. If ever the extent of Lee’s contribution to the Sixties Marvel titles was evident, it was in his absence in the writing of the Fourth World titles. Kirby was great at developing bizarre concepts. He was even a decent plot writer. But the pacing of his scripts was questionable, and his dialogue was sadly juvenile at best. Unfortunately for Kirby, his chance at writing coincided with the exact point comics began to ‘grow up’. Comics, more than ever, were beginning to explore social issues of the day (DC in particular was soon to champion ‘relevance’ in comics with titles such as Green Lantern/Green Arrow, a revamped Superman, the gothic take on Batman, and the new look Wonder Woman and Teen Titans), and a fresh influx of young writers, influenced by the liberal philosophies of the hippie movement and by experimental, New Wave SF literature, sought to bring a fresh approach to characterisation. Kirby’s characters however continued to talk as they did in 1963.

Sales at first were impressive as collectors snapped up multiple copies of the new titles, convinced they would be a sensible investment. But very quickly the sales began to drop off, no longer buoyed by the novelty factor of a new launch. Also, there was a growing sense of disappointment amongst many comic collectors. There were perhaps too many new ideas; too many new characters, and not enough that remained familiar. In many ways it drew a parallel with a successful rock band changing its musical style and refusing to play any of its old material in concert. Fans began to miss Kirby drawing the Fantastic Four and Thor, and it became apparent very soon that despite moving to DC, Jack had little interest in drawing any of the established characters, preferring instead to invent his own. The letter columns began to fill with critical complaints about Jack’s writing style.

The cracks didn’t take long to show. From the very first issue of Jimmy Olsen, Kirby had met with problems. His depiction of Superman didn’t look enough like Superman, according to Carmine Infantino, who insisted that Curt Swan draw facial features over Jack’s basic pencils – a humiliating state of affairs for the most famous comic book artist of the time. By late 1971 Infantino informed Jack that he was to be dropped from the Olsen title, which reverted back to its more traditional stories. A year later, Forever People and New Gods were cancelled prematurely, having barely reached double digits. Mister Miracle remained, but the major elements of the Fourth World saga were shelved (with a vague promise to complete the story at some point) as Jack was ‘encouraged’ to simplify the character into a more straightforward action hero. By 1974, even this title died.

No one could have predicted such a meteoric burn out. Kirby had arrived at DC as one of the two most important comic book creators of the era. He had been lured over by a contract that offered creative freedom unheard of at the time. His launch of new titles was the biggest thing to have hit comics since Marvel had arrived on the scene in the early Sixties, and yet within a dozen or so issues, his epic vision had crashed and burned. Many editors at National must have been scratching their heads and wondering how things could have gone so wrong, so quickly. This was Jack Kirby – he was the equivalent of a new Beatles album. How had all four of his comics failed so spectacularly?

There is a suggestion now that sales on the titles had not actually been as bad as was first thought. Infantino had probably panicked, seeing the drop off from the first few issues (when speculation had inflated sales), but there was also perhaps a feeling at DC that Jack hadn’t delivered material that was commercial enough.

But in the eyes of most people, Kirby was still Kirby, and Kirby was King. Maybe he had been a bit too ambitious? Surely lessons had been learned and his next wave of titles for DC would be the commercial goldmine that they were looking for? This had to be just an unfortunate blip. Kirby was instructed to come up with new concepts. These of course couldn’t possibly fail…

Next up: the declining years at DC - Kamandi, The Demon, OMAC, Sandman and more...


Matt Clark said...

His dialogue may have been clunky at times but Kirby's art still had the power to make your eyeballs burst with sheer unrestrained awesomeness.

Anonymous said...

I didn't hate the dialogue at all. I do remember feeling a little bit of this:

"There were perhaps too many new ideas; too many new characters, and not enough that remained familiar."

But what did I know? Now I wish that I'd been more broad-minded and willing to soak it all in. I'm glad there are reprints, so that I may read and repent.