Saturday, February 16, 2008

I was, as it seems was the case with so many remarkable cultural benchmarks, slow to embrace Kirby's new comics for DC back in 1970 at age 10. Why, I can't really say- certainly a limited income factored in, and perhaps I was reluctant to read Kirby comics if they weren't in tandem with Stan and in service of new Fantastic Four stories. Maybe the slipshod, jerry-rigged look of the covers of the first few issues of New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People, and Jimmy Olsen turned me off, all full of hysterical blurbs, cutout-colored figures, and so forth- I was strongly visually oriented even then. Maybe the local distributors just didn't put them up on the spinner racks, unlikely but distribution was spotty back then; nobody seemed to care that it was important for kids that loved X-Men #59, for example, to get #60 to keep reading and find out what happened next. Whatever the reason, I finally stuck my toe in the churning waters of the Fourth World via Mister Miracle #6, reprinted in volume two of these handsome hardcover collections. I don't know why I chose that particular issue. While I'm sure I didn't get all the in-jokes in what amounted to a pisstake at Stan Lee and Roy Thomas' expense, I kinda understood that Jack was making fun of Stan since they weren't working together anymore, and I LOVED Barda, Oberon, Scott Free and the family-type dynamic they had going on. Especially Big Barda, and her former battle partners the Female Furies, who were introduced in that very same issue. I even liked the Golden Age reprint (I forget what it was). After that, I did not miss an issue of Mister Miracle. For some reason, though, I never bought New Gods or the other two- I guess I was afraid that I had already missed too much of the interrelated storylines, who knows. Years later, when I began collecting comics for real, I made it a point to go back and get those issues I missed, only lacking a couple of Jimmy Olsens before I sold most of my original collection in 1987. I was caught up in a grand way by the sheer magnitude- the sprawling panoply of ideas, and the relentless action of Kirby's vision. I have held the opinion since that these were among the best, and most memorable, comics sagas in the history of American comics.

At this point I can hear you saying "That's all well and good, Dave, but aren't you supposed to be reviewing JACK KIRBY'S FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS Vols. I & II, not reminiscing?" And that's right. It's now 20-something years later, and I'm rereading this stories for the first time since I was in my twenties. So what do I think now? OK, the basics: As I said, these are handsomely packaged collections. I like the cover designs. The paper stock could be better, but it's an improvement over the toilet paper they were printed on in 1972. Plus, I kinda like that the paper has a little texture to it, and it's not as smooth and glossy as better stocks would be- kinda suits the grunginess of Kirby's work. The afterwords and forewords, especially those written by Mark Evanier, are very well written and informative. Vol. 2 has some reproduced pencils, which are always interesting. These are not half-assed, slipshod collections. But what about the content? Well, it's definitely Kirby, with all that that entails. These works were done as he was a shade on the downhill side of his great career, after the peaks of the late 50's and early-mid 60's at Marvel, when his style became squatter, stockier and squared-off, without the attention to detail that was a hallmark of his earlier work (and I know that a lot of this was the fault of his inkers, but a man that draws as fast as he did would of course take shortcuts). But his storytelling style didn't suffer at all- and these stories, each and every one of them, is sheer balls-to-the-wall action all the way, breathless and delirious. Even the quieter moments are colored with the promise of hell about to break loose at any second. And that, coupled with the seemingly never-ending array of cleverly realized characters and ideas, are what makes these stories great. These are not, I say with complete understatement, dull comics. But one thing, and one thing only, drags these down- and it's a well-known and much-discussed caveat, no doubt about it- it's Kirby's hamfisted dialogue that almost sinks these stories. I don't know how else to put it. I guess I could be kind and just say it's "idiosyncratic" and let it go at that, but the ongoing parade of characters constantly explaining what's happening in the panel, and constantly explaining who this is and who that is and why this person wants that and what that thing does and so on and so forth, coupled some of the strangest diction and misplaced emphasis words, just makes me wonder- since DC was so willing to fuck with Jack on so many things when it came to these books- cutting up covers, getting Vince Colletta to ink the first few issues of each title, having Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson redraw Jimmy Olsen and Superman's faces- then why didn't they insist on someone with the ability to write with a more naturalistic voice, like Stan did for him for so long? I'm not trying to be iconoclastic here- I revere Kirby (as much as I can revere someone who I never met, anyway) for what he meant to me growing up and fully recognize him as one of the greatest creators ever, even still. But since DC, and by DC I'm assuming Carmine Infantino, had no apparent respect for his grand vision in the first place, then why didn't they intervene on this? And speaking of editorial intervention, sometimes Jack could have used more of it, I hate to say- right off the bat, in the first few issues of Jimmy Olsen, we're given a belligerent, thrill-seeking Jimmy, sans bowtie, running around with the new Newsboy Legion in the Whiz Wagon and brawling with the Hairies, who smarts off and seeks to subdue his former pal Superman- then an issue or two later (in Forever People #1) we're given the traditional green-jacketed, bowtied Mr. Olsen, palling around with Clark Kent in time-honored "Gee whillikers, Mr. Kent" style. Strange. Ah well, water under the bridge. More than anything, I guess I wasn't prepared at all for how much the dialogue took me right out of the story sometimes. And that, kids, is really my only beef. Kirby's vision, as strange and as wide-ranging is it was, will still draw you in no matter how clumsily written it is. And even with my bitching I can't help but observe that nobody, and I mean nobody, else has been able to write Darkseid, arguably Kirby's greatest creation, as well as Jack. This same dialogue style that I've railed so much against here fits the Apokolyptian despot to a tee, and Kirby could also give him a depth, a majesty, a certain gravity that has managed to elude a legion of successors. Kirby's Darkseid is hissable and a villain for sure, but there's a black sort of charisma, a dimension that makes him fascinating and even somewhat admirable- and that's a difficult trick to pull off anywhere. So there is that. And honestly, no one's really been able to hit the right character notes on a consistent basis with Orion either, although Walt Simonson surely came close one more than one occasion. It certainly is a puzzlement on top of a contradiction, no doubt about it.

There's also a part of me that can't help but wonder, fully aware that hindsight is of course 20/20, what could have been if the business practices of the comics industry, specifically Marvel in 1968, had been flexible and different enough to allow Jack and Ditko and others the financial recompense and creative voice they felt like was their due. Most certainly, Darkseid, Orion, Scott Free, and others would have found their way into the pages of Fantastic Four and Mighty Thor, like when the FF got mixed up with the Inhumans and their struggles, or Thor and the whole High Evolutionary thing- and wouldn't THAT have been a wonderment? Oh well, such speculation is pointless. It's a good thing, I believe, that DC is putting these comics out in this format, because it's an epic saga that has gone on to influence everyone that's come along to create comics since, and they deserve such a showcase. Plus, especially if you can overlook the tin-eared dialogue, these are Kirby-crackling good yarns, full of adventure, non-stop action, and grandeur. The price tag is steep, for me anyway, but the reward is great- and I think 12-year-old me would agree.

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