Friday, August 9, 2013

Platonic Concepts Gone Wild

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 1: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby, Vince Colletta, Al Plastino, and Neal Adams (1971; reprinted 2007): DC cleverly re-collected the various comics dubbed "Jack Kirby's Fourth World" (by DC, not Kirby) into chronological order, rather than by individual title. Doing so makes the shape of the saga much clearer.

Superman found himself drawn into the never-really-completed Kirby saga by virtue of the fact that Kirby started his 1970's tenure at DC by writing and drawing the Jimmy Olsen comic book. Things get super-scientifically weird very, very quickly, with sci-fi concepts such as The Cadmus Project and the Evil Factory becoming part of Superman mythology, though it would be fifteen years before writers and artists other than Kirby -- most notably John Byrne, Dan Jurgens, and Roger Stern -- would bring these concepts back into the Superman books.

The titles collected here are Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. They lay out Earth's fate as the battleground between the opposing forces of New Genesis and Apokolips, the planets of the New Gods who are either aliens who act like gods or gods who act like aliens. Or something. Later, non-Kirby interpretations would vary wildly on this question. Writer Grant Morrison suggested in one series that the New Gods are living, physical Platonic Concepts, which is as good a way to look at them as any.

In any case, Darkseid, the evil ruler of Apokolips and wielder of the powerful Omega Force, seeks dominion over Earth so as to find the key to the Anti-Life Equation, a philosophical concept that would give anyone who knew it complete control over all life in the universe. He's opposed by the forces of New Genesis as embodied by his own son, Orion, who wields the Astro-Force; the Forever People, cosmic hippies who can combine to form the powerful Infinity Man; and Mister Miracle, the son of New Genesis leader Izaya the Highfather who has escaped imprisonment on Apokolips to become a super-powered escape artist on Earth. Guiding and commenting upon all actions is the avatar of The Source, the energy field that suffuses the universe and possibly created it.

Kirby's level of invention here is extraordinary, though in some cases he was running so far ahead of the curve (with Darkseid, for instance) that it took DC Comics ten to 20 years to figure out what to do with the concepts. In Darkseid's case, that meant becoming the uber-villain of the entire DC Universe both in the comic books and in various iterations of the Justice League cartoon.

Kirby's writing is funky and bizarre and idiosyncratic. The art is explosive. Artistically, though, two problems plague DC's handling of Kirby from the get-go. One is that DC decided that Kirby's face for Superman didn't fit DC's House Style for the Man of Steel, leading them to have veteran Superman artist Al Plastino redraw the faces of Clark Kent and Superman throughout. It's a bit jarring, as all other faces are Kirby faces.

The other problem lies with DC's choice of Vince Colletta, who'd previously inked Kirby on Marvel Thor, as the inker for the various Fourth World titles. Colletta's virtue was that he was really fast. Unfortunately, he's also one of Kirby's two or three worst inkers, with a tendency to avoid inking backgrounds in certain situations. Steve Ditko famously expressed disgusted agogment at Stan Lee's choice of Colletta to ink Kirby. I imagine these pages would have provoked further agogment.

So it goes. It's still better than the Kirby-pencilled issue of The Avengers that Chic Stone seems to have inked with a crayon and a broken hand, but it would be a couple of years yet before Kirby took control of the inking process with his own hand-picked inkers, Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry. But despite Superman's head and Vince Colletta's hand, highly recommended.

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