“THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED!”
That is the single most awesome sentence ever to appear in comic books. The caps lock on my computer turned itself on as soon as I started typing, such is the power in those words.
In 1971, Jack Kirby put those words on the first page of DC’s New Gods #1, setting out the themes of what would become known as the “Fourth World Saga.” It began with the end of the world, an apocalypse playing out over four exclamation-pointed sentences.
On page 2, the world was reborn.
Kirby had destroyed and recreated the cosmos in two pages. The world of New Gods was Kirby’s world, DC having offered him a degree of creative freedom that Marvel never could. At DC, Kirby had the opportunity to remake the world in his own image after spending a decade as part of the collaborative world-building enterprise that was Marvel Comics.
Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, wrote most of the company’s titles throughout the 1960s. He did so via a factory process that enabled him to churn out a dozen or more stories every month. Through the “Marvel Method,” Lee would give each artist a plot outline for the upcoming issue, the artist would draw the assigned pages, then Lee would go back and script the dialog.
As long as they hit the beats Lee asked for (which sometimes included nothing more than pitting the hero against a particular villain), the Marvel Method could give artists a great deal of influence over a series’ ongoing plots. But ultimately, the buck stopped with Stan the Man, ensuring cohesiveness and uniformity to Marvel’s output.
As editor-in-chief, Lee also made sure to annotate references to prior stories found in each issue. These editorial notes demonstrated the continuity between stories that was one of Marvel’s hallmarks. Events in one story had consequences in the next.
Unfortunately for readers in the 1960s, retailers didn’t stock back issues. Barring a lucky yard sale find, a kid whose first comic was Amazing Spider-Man #28 might never be able to read earlier issues. Lee’s editorial notes were really subtle reminders to readers not to miss a single issue of their favorite Marvel titles.
As a writer, Lee insisted that Marvel characters behave with a certain degree of pettiness, shortsightedness, and resentment.
This introduced an artificial tension to stories, suggesting the possibility that the hero might fail, or perhaps even give up of his own accord.
Lee used this tension to lure readers from one issue to the next, continually subjecting his heroes to a string of pyrrhic victories.
Underneath the Spider-Man mask, Peter Parker was just a teenager who hated his boss, struggled to meet girls, and was kind of a dick to his friends. Fictional superpowers might help Spider-Man defeat fictional super-villains like the Rhino, but they were no help against the real-life struggles of adolescence. While Superman’s weakness was kryptonite, Spider-Man’s was self-doubt. Marvel’s characters weren’t simply grounded in the real world; they were bound to it like Prometheus.
Jack Kirby wanted to see super-heroes released from earthly fetters.
Kirby grew up in an observant Jewish household on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he attended Hebrew school. The themes of cosmic cataclysm and rebirth that permeate Kirby’s work ultimately derive from the Biblical flood story. As an adult, Kirby drew images of God’s creation and destruction of the world and hung them on the walls of his home. Late in life, he seemed to reflect on his work as a lifelong contemplation of the Divine:
In the “Tales of Asgard” backup feature in Thor, Kirby depicted Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, the prophecies of Norse myth playing out in the Marvel Universe.
In a few short pages, Thor and his fellow Asgardians perish as the world is unmade and remade.
No longer satisfied with Stan Lee’s super-powered soap operas, Kirby wanted to tell stories with the same grandeur and ambition as actual, Wagnerian opera.
Kirby desired to create a world of his own, tell the stories of its heroes and villains, and then destroy his creation, bringing those stories to a close. The tightly interconnected Marvel Universe could allot only a handful of pages in the back of a single title to stories like that. DC was willing to entrust Kirby with much more.
DC gave Kirby its lowest-selling title, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, which exclaimed on the front cover, “Kirby is here!” They then allowed him to start three new titles – New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People. These four interwoven series, all written and drawn by Kirby, formed the Fourth World, a subsection of the DC Universe in which Kirby was king.
The real exploration of Kirby’s mythology took place in the new titles, while Jimmy Olsen served as the bridge between the Fourth World and the mainstream DC Universe. Establishing a new line of titles and handing them all over to a singular talent would have been unthinkable at Marvel, but DC had always been editorially modular.
DC’s longtime editorial director, Whitney Ellsworth, focused more on getting the company’s characters into other media than on coordinating comic book output. Ellsworth’s subordinates governed “editorial kingdoms” that had little contact with one another. It was a simple matter to add one more feudal domain to the DC realm for Kirby. I’ll explore DC’s editorial subdivisions more next time, as well as the pros and cons for storytelling offered by such a structure.
EPILOGUE: GODS IN LIMBO
Kirby never got to finish his saga, as low sales brought about the premature cancellation of most of his titles. In 1984, DC offered Kirby the chance to bring an end to the Fourth World, but then reneged.
Thus Kirby’s characters became just another part of DC’s stable, which was not what their creator wanted for them. The Fourth World awaits a Ragnarok that now will never come.
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