When Franz Peter Schubert passed away in 1828, he left behind an amazing legacy of music — hundreds of compositions which are
performed to this day. Now and forever, his symphonies and orchestral works are performed, including the well-known "Trout Quintet" for violin,
viola, cello, double bass, and piano, and the "String Quintet in C Major" but his best-known work is undoubtedly his immortal "Unfinished
I'll explain in a minute what this has to do with this week's topic.
I almost never plug stuff in this column that could mean a nickel to me, and this week is no exception. DC is about to release a
collected paperback book of Jack Kirby's New Gods comics of the early-seventies. I did the foreword for the collection, but I've been
paid in full for it, and stand to gain nada if you buy it.
Nevertheless, what follows is my highest recommendation and noodging. I think New Gods and its allied titles are a work of
genius from one of the few folks in comics to whom that overused mantle clearly applies.
Now, before I explain why, I want to discuss my objectivity on this topic. I have very little, I'm afraid. I love the comic
and I even more loved the guy who did it. I had the honor of being an utterly-useless assistant to Mr. Kirby at the time, so I got to be on the
premises as he brought forth this masterpiece.
My contribution was darn close to non-existent, for New Gods was a unique and deeply-personal work — one that I have read
maybe a hundred times since I first read it, right off Jack's pencilled pages. (And with no disrespect to any of our industry's fine artists,
there has never been, nor will there ever be, anyone who could have inked that work and captured 100% of what was in those pencils. Not humanly
possible. Mike Royer, who embellished the latter half of the run, came as close as anyone could.)
What most impresses me about it is that, with every reading, I find something that wasn't there before. This was the special
talent of Kirby on almost every comic; His work was so rich, so filled-to-overflowing with ideas, that writers still fight to take over the
characters he began. There simply is so much there to work from, so many concepts on which one can expand.
If anything, New Gods was too rich in ideas. Jack thought he would do perhaps forty, maybe fifty issues of it and
as many of its two allied titles, Forever People and Mister Miracle, culminating in a grand finale of the entire trilogy. Then,
he hoped, his 3000-page epic would be condensed and reissued as a series of mass-market books, preferably in hardcover. (On college campuses,
J.R.R. Tolkein's famed trilogy was then enjoying a renewed popularity, selling faster than the answers to an Anthropology final; Kirby thought the
comic business was nuts not to be going after that audience.)
Since he never got to complete his epic, New Gods and the other two are crammed with ideas and characters he intended to
develop, explore and later explain. Even hanging around him, as I got to do in those days, I didn't understand everything he included in those
early issues, and still don't.
But I'll bet I would have, by the time he'd finished.
The format he devised was not mere vanity at work. Comic books then were under an atrophying system of newsstand
distribution. This was before the days of direct sales, and the comic book shop as we now know it. The market was dying, and there were
ominous predictions that in 5-10 years, the comic book industry would be about as viable as the manufacture of flea collars for mastodons.
Kirby felt that comics, to survive, would have to move into upscale formats and legit bookstores.
Today, many of comics' best work appears in similar, albeit shorter packages. But back then, Jack was, as usual, ahead of the
industry. He envisioned, long before anyone else, the mini-series, and the idea of collecting an entire one in book format.
To pioneer this form, he devised the series that, for reasons that remain in dispute, came to be called the Fourth World.
The characters, and a rough idea of their milieu, had come to him in his latter days at Marvel. You can see the embryonic stages in the last
Tales of Asgard stories he did in the hindquarter of the Thor comic for a time. At the time, he was, as is well known, unhappy
with his lot at Marvel. He had co-created some of the most popular and profitable characters in comic book history only to quickly lose both
copyright and creative custody of them.
Back then, it was an inviolate rule of comic book publishers not to allow creators to retain even a fraction of either. As Jack
was unable to change this, he decided instead not to give this newest idea to Marvel. He drew up some prototype sketches, made some notes, and
put it all in a drawer. A few years later, when he had the chance to go over to DC, out it came.
He briefly talked of only plotting and editing the whole series, with writing and art to be done by others under his supervision.
Then, when DC insisted he handle it all, he turned it into his most personal work ever.
This was in 1970. Jack Kirby had worked in comics for thirty-some years — about as long as there'd been comic books —
but usually in collaboration with others. He had written or co-written many of the comics he'd drawn, but had rarely had the opportunity to
find his own voice without a scripter or strong-willed editor hovering nearby.
Most of those comics were quite wonderful, but some were wonderful in spite of Jack and his collaborator pulling in different
directions. This was especially true his last few years at Marvel, when Jack would pencil and largely plot an issue of Fantastic Four or
Thor, and then Stan Lee would compose the dialogue to fit the pictures. Stan was and is a very clever wordsmith, but when you put two
writers in a room, you wind up with two different points of view, often more.
Sometimes, two differing viewpoints can coalesce and enhance one another. Sometimes, they neutralize each other and you wind up
with a compromise that embodies neither standpoint. You and I look at those last few years of Lee-Kirby creation and see some fine, fine
comics. But Jack looked at them and saw comics wherein he was telling one story and the text was relating another. For that, and many
reasons having to do with the way he felt Marvel was treating him, he felt things had to change.
This can be hard for those of us in the audience to accept; that most creative people feel the need to progress, to not do the same
thing forever. We, however, find something we love and want it to go on forever, delivered to us in endless supply. We forget that
creators grow, or even burn out on one subject, and that they need to follow their muses, often into uncharted territory.
It isn't just comic fans who feel this way. I recently read an unpublished manuscript about the Beatles. In it, John Lennon
is quoted complaining about those who didn't grasp that he could no longer run in place, cranking out Beatles music with Paul McCartney. They'd
done wonderful things together but he'd been there, done that, and felt compelled to move onward. It wasn't so much that he wanted to leave
Paul but that he could no longer stay. He didn't see why his followers couldn't grasp that.
In 1971, when New Gods was first published, it was greeted with mixed reactions. Some loved it, some seemed puzzled.
I think many of the latter were expecting another Fantastic Four or Thor. A lot of fans felt Kirby belonged, if not on those
specific books then certainly back at Marvel. Others expected or wanted something that read like the Marvels he'd done with Stan Lee.
That, Kirby never attempted. Just as Lennon wasn't out to make Beatles music without Paul, Jack wasn't trying to do Marvel Comics
without Stan. He was after something new, something different, something more thoroughly Kirby. Even though I worked with Jack at the
time, and thought I knew him better than any reader, I don't think I appreciated how autobiographical and personal a story he was constructing.
It's in the drawings, it's in the plot, but it's even more in the dialogue, which he wrote in a quirky, almost operatic style.
Some complained that it didn't sound like natural speech, missing the point that Jack was no more interested in realistic conversation than he was in
realistic anatomy. (I was one of those who found the speech awkward, and even said so in a few interviews. Today, as I re-read those
books, I think I was out of my ever-lovin' mind. The dialogue is, for me, the best part.)
The New Gods was intended as a mythology for our times. It is the story of two worlds — New Genesis and Apokolips
— that represented the eternal conflict that we all must confront 'twixt good and evil. Representing evil — in this corner —
was the aptly-named Darkseid. (Darkseid, by the way, was pronounced "Dark-side," as in "the dark side of man's nature." It was not
pronounced "Dark-seed," as some readers assumed, and a few still insist. They are wrong. It's not a bad name either, but they're
And in the opposite corner, we had Orion — a champion of New Genesis, but one cursed with his own duality. Orion was a man
of two faces, one representing the ideal he wished to achieve; the other befitting his heritage as the son of Darkseid, exposing what he often had to
become to survive against the realities of a combative world. Many scholars have noted the Kirby self-caricatures in almost any character who
sported a cigar (The Thing, Nick Fury) but Jack was actually digging into himself in most of his works.
Orion is Kirby, not literally but emotionally, and among the many inhabitants of the Fourth World, one finds dozens more Jack Kirbys,
each an analogy for some facet of his life and career. Still other characters represent other people and issues in Jack's life and worldview,
some so camouflaged and removed from reality that they can never be matched up.
A tip: Don't waste your time trying. It took me twenty-some years to figure out who Lightray was based upon and, even then, I'm
not sure I'm right.
What I am sure about though is that New Gods represents 11 issues of honest expression by comics' greatest creative
talent. There are moments in there I love, scenes I don't, sequences I don't pretend to understand...but all of it was created with a gut
passion. There were very few things Jack couldn't do on a comic book page. One of them was to depict a scene or emotion he did not
believe told a truth about our world.
Since we're talking about honesty here, I have to make two admissions, one being that when you buy this New Gods collection, you
will not get a complete story, now or ever. As fine as it was, New Gods was halted just as it was getting started. DC's
then-publisher proclaimed it a sales failure. His successors feel otherwise, and have continually revised and reprinted it, as they are doing
Although they later asked Jack to finish it, and he complied with something of an ending, to me the Fourth World books comprise comics'
great unfinished symphony. Now do you see how the opening paragraph relates?
Kirby's story was never fully-realized, and never can be. Others have and will continue to do their takes on the material, their
explorations of his themes — I did an especially unimpressive one I wish I could do over — but we're all just playing with someone else's
character names and designs. Some attempts have been delightfully entertaining — wonderful, even — but they no more complete what
Kirby did than a new Winnie the Pooh book is a part of the work of A.A. Milne.
Still, the chapters that Kirby did of New Gods are wonderful and well worth your patronage. In there is "The Pact," which
was his all-time favorite among the eight-zillion comic stories he did. I personally prefer "The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin" and "The Glory
Boat," both of which are in this volume. (You also get a number of short tales Jack did of "The Young Gods of Supertown," and a cover
I must also admit that I was fibbing when I said I had nothing to gain from your purchase of this new collection. We all stand to
Lately, a lot of things don't sell in comic book shops and one of them is reprints of older comics. There are, however, many
wonderful funnybooks of the past that cry out to be back put back in print.
Some of the recent attempts have perhaps been priced too high. They haven't sold, so there haven't been more. But DC has
priced this New Gods reprint volume low enough that it oughta be within everyone's budget. This has necessitated doing it in
black-and-white, which I regret, but if that leads to a whole series of these, it's a great trade-off.
I'd like to see them bring out collections of Forever People and Mister Miracle, and then some of Jack's other DC work
like Jimmy Olsen, Kamandi, and — going back further — Challengers of the Unknown and everything Simon and Kirby did.
Plus, we could all list piles of non-Kirby comics that ought to be reissued. (Send your suggestions — and your thanks for this book
— to DC's diligent and wise editor of such things, Bob Kahan.)
So talk this one up, buy it and get your friends to buy it. Maybe that'll get the other Fourth World stories in print.
Maybe I'll even get another gig writing forewords. At the very least, you'll get to see Jack Kirby at the peak of his creative powers.
You can't do better than that.
And on the way home, pick up a CD of Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" and try listening to it as you read New Gods. I
haven't tried this myself, but I'm betting it fits.