In December, 1970 — a little over three months after the appearance of Jack Kirby’s first new comic book work for DC, in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 — the first of the creator’s three brand-new titles for the publisher finally had its debut, with Forever People #1. The comic’s cover, pencilled by Kirby and inked by Frank Giacoia, was a powerful (if somewhat busy) invitation to check out the story within — a story which, via its inclusion of Superman, was clearly set smack-dab in the middle of the DC universe every bit as much as Jimmy Olsen was.
But DC could have put the book out with nothing on the cover but the title, and it would have sold just as readily to my thirteen-year-old self. Because after three wildly imaginative, breathlessly paced issues of Jimmy Olsen, I couldn’t wait to see what “King” Kirby would give us next.
The very first page featured the payoff to a tease DC had offered readers via a full page ad that had run in their books published in the late spring of 1970 — an ad that hadn’t even mentioned Jack Kirby’s name, let alone the Forever People.
What it had mentioned was the Boom Tube.
(Clicking on the following image to embiggen it is highly recommended; it’s the closest approximation to the original experience of physically turning from page 1 to the double-page spread on pages 2 and 3 that this blog’s format affords.)
The Super-Cycle is the latest in the long tradition of Kirby fantasy vehicles, joining the Fantasti-Car, the Whiz Wagon, the Mountain of Judgement, and many others less well-known. Does it achieve its wonders through highly advanced science, or through some sort of magic? As we’ll soon come to understand, in the Fourth World there may not really be a difference.
Vykin “the Black” — this was the era in which virtually every Black superhero had the word “Black” as part of their name, for reasons that are hard to fully comprehend today — actually has a fair claim on being DC Comics’ first Black superhero. It’s not quite a slam-dunk, as Vykin was preceded by Mal Duncan, who joined the Teen Titans in issue #26 of that team’s series; however, Mal had neither super-powers, nor a costume, nor a codename (nor, indeed, even a surname) when he was introduced. On the other hand, some might argue that Vykin isn’t really a “superhero” at all, as “Vykin the Black” isn’t actually a codename, and the dude’s attire is apparently normal street dress where he and his friends come from. But that blue-and-green ensemble sure comes across as a costume to us readers, and — as we’ll eventually learn, though not in this issue — Vykin also has unique super-abilities. Like I said — not a slam-dunk, but a fair claim, nonetheless.
Vykin is also the primary custodian of a Mother Box — the first example we’ve seen of what will prove to be one of the most fascinating and enduring concepts to emerge from the Fourth World.* Over the last decade or so, it’s become almost rote to claim that Kirby predicted the invention of the smartphone (or, before that, the PDA), and there is something to that idea — but I think that Vykin’s correction of Mark Moonrider’s statement that “Mother Box is like a — computer–” with his adamant declaration, “Wrong! Mother Box lives!” ultimately still holds true. Human beings still haven’t created a living, sentient mechanical device (though of course that doesn’t mean we’re not closer to doing so than we were fifty years ago, for good or ill.)
With this scene’s depiction of Serifan’s attempt to calm down a young woman with “flower power” (a rather sexist impulse by today’s standards, of course, but we’re going to let it go), we can begin to see that the Forever People’s similarity to the real-world young people of the era’s hippie movement goes further than the obvious surface appearances. We’d already seen one take from Kirby on this theme since his return to DC — the Hairies, in Jimmy Olsen — but the Forever People had actually come first (Kirby wrote and drew FP #1 before producing any of the Olsen issues), and would prove to be his most elaborate and definitive treatment of this optimistic theme.
(Back when the Forever People series was still new, I recall people making the joke that Serifan’s name was strongly reminiscent of “Serutan”, a then-popular laxative product. It seems much more likely, however, that Kirby had the word “seraphim” in mind when he coined the name.)
Yeah, that Jimmy Olsen. In December, 1970, it made all the sense in the world for the name of the Daily Planet‘s number one cub reporter to turn up in Forever People #1, since we’d been reading Kirby-penned Olsen adventures since August. I think it’s worth remembering, however, that Kirby’s original idea appears to have been to launch the Fourth World through the first issues of Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle, rather than via Jimmy Olsen — which means that this would have been the first mention of Superman’s pal in the saga, had the creator’s initial design been followed.
With the mention of Darkseid’s name, we get our first definite confirmation that Forever People will somehow tie into the storyline that’s been unfolding over in Jimmy Olsen. The character had been seen briefly (though only via communication device screens) in both the 134th and 135th issues of that series, where he was revealed to be the master both of Inter-Gang (who’d tried to kill Clark Kent in JO #133) and the Evil Factory (who’d sent a giant green Jimmy Olsen clone to kill Superman in #135).
And speaking of Inter-Gang…
The story now shifts scenes to the offices of the Daily Planet in Metropolis, as its very special guest-star finally enters on stage.
At the risk of belaboring a point, it’s useful to recall that Kirby wrote and drew this story well before his first issue of Jimmy Olsen, so it’s hardly surprising that it doesn’t slot neatly into that title’s current continuity, or that Clark Kent is shown still working as a newspaper reporter at the Planet, rather than as a broadcast journalist for Morgan Edge’s Galaxy Broadcasting System — a change that had occurred in Superman #233, published just one month previously. On the other hand, one of the other changes introduced in that issue — an update to Clark’s wardrobe — does seem to have influenced the comic’s coloring, as otherwise we’d probably see the man from Smallville rocking a white shirt and dark blue pants, the way he had for decades prior to the change.
Clark’s scene with the boxing champion, “Rocky”, is here for no other reason than to set up the theme of Superman’s alienation; intriguingly, Kirby frames that alienation in terms not just of the Last Son of Krypton being separate from the mass of humanity, but of being resented by them.
I believe that when I first read this story in 1970, I had some mild reservations about Clark referring to himself as “a minority of one“, who has no peers among the billions of other inhabitants of our glove. Was he forgetting about his super friends in the Justice League? Or his cousin Kara, aka Supergirl?
On the other hand, DC had always done a good job of conveying the idea that, no matter how many superheroes the company published, Superman was and would always be on a different, higher level than all of the others; plus, by now I’d pretty well absorbed the theme of Superman’s deep feeling of loss over the destruction of his home planet Krypton, which had been regularly hammered home during the era Mort Weisinger was editing the Super-books. Reading Forever People #1, I would have been at least subconsciously aware of those factors; add to that some especially effective writing by Kirby (who may not have been all that well-versed in the Man of Steel’s social relationships in the first place), and I ultimately bought fully into the premise.
Jimmy Olsen shows up here in V-neck sweater and bowtie — a traditional look for the character, though one he’d never actually sport in any issue of JO written and drawn by Kirby. But remember, the creator produced this story prior to beginning work on Jimmy’s series.
At this point I feel obliged to stop and repeat the shamefaced confession I first made in my Jimmy Olsen #133 post, which is that in 1970 I didn’t realize that Kirby’s renderings of Jimmy, Clark, and Superman in this comic had been redrawn by Al Plastino. My best (though admittedly still lame) excuse is that I’d never seen Jack Kirby draw these characters before and didn’t know what his versions should look like. And hey, the published credits said the art was by Kirby and inker Vince Colletta, so I didn’t have any reason to suspect other hands might be involved.
Jimmy’s friend Bobby must own one hell of a camera, for it to produce pictures of such quality that a microdot enlarged a million times still provides a crystal-clear, high resolution image. But we’re just going to let that slide, and enjoy this moment, in which we’re given our first brief glimpse of New Genesis — one of the two god-inhabited planets whose conflict will occupy the center of the Fourth World’s overarching narrative, as it develops.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Even my unsophisticated thirteen-year-old self should have been able to look at the Superman figure in that last panel and tell that it wasn’t by the same artist whose work on Fantastic Four, Thor, and other titles I’d followed for years. (Sigh.)
Superman flies on until he spies the Super-Cycle parked off the road at an abandoned lumber mill. And then…
Realizing he may be able to gain the confidence of these “super-kids” by assisting with their search for the mysterious Beautiful Dreamer, the Man of Steel trains his X-ray vision on the ground, and discovers a “strange metal valve” hidden beneath the surface:
The Gravi-Guards have the ability to “transmit gravity waves from heavy mass galaxies” — making them formidable opponents, even for Superman. But the Forever People still have one more card to play — or, if you will, one more trick in their Box:
What follows after the young men shout their magic word probably didn’t come as a surprise to any readers in 1970 who were familiar with the original Captain Marvel (though it was probably lost on my younger self, who at the time only knew “Shazam!” as one of the favorite expression of the TV character Gomer Pyle).
The Infinity Man’s advent really is an enormous surprise — neither the cover, nor the double-title page spread on pages 2 and 3, nor anything else in the issue has given the slightest hint of this powerhouse’s existence.
At last, Darkseid appears in person, rather than merely on-screen. It’s interesting that Kirby practically throws the moment away, giving us our first full view of the villain via a long-range shot in the next-to-last panel of a five-panel page. Of course, he’ll make up for it with any number of more imposing and dramatic portraits of the Fourth World’s Big Bad in the months to come.
Also making its debut on this page is another of the saga’s most central and intriguing concepts, the Anti-Life Equation — though neither Superman nor we readers learn very much about it, beyond the Infinity Man calling it “the ultimate weapon!” — and Darkseid making it clear (in the following panels) that his intended use of it to “snuff out all life on Earth” is just the beginning, as far as he’s concerned:
Picking up Beautiful Dreamer with his free arm, Superman accelerates to the speed of light in no time (literally!), so that he, she, and the Infinity Man are all well clear of the explosion when the bombs go off.
No sooner has the Action Ace returned his charges to terra firma than I.M. abruptly announces his departure:
In these final pages, Kirby’s writing of Superman — perhaps the most well-established and best-known character in all of comics, but one the veteran creator had never handled before — is remarkably sensitive, revealing the Man of Steel as altogether “human” where it counts: capable of feeling great yearning as well as loss, but utterly committed to putting the needs of others over his own. It’s no wonder that DC’s 1987 hardcover collection, The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, included this story — the only story so honored not originally published in a “Superman family” title. Not bad for an artist-writer whom DC didn’t entirely trust to actually draw the hero, back in 1970.
As I recall, I finished my first reading of Forever People #1 feeling a little sad for Superman, but also with a sense of great anticipation for what would come next. Having already read Kirby’s first three issues of Jimmy Olsen, I knew that Superman was already involved in the “super-war” (or would be, depending on how you look at the chronology), even if he didn’t yet realize that Darkseid was the power behind the attacks on “The Project” in that series. My feeling at the conclusion of FP #1 was that Superman would find out eventually, and that he’d meet the Forever People again one day, and that this story would just keep on getting bigger and bigger until… who could say? The sky was definitely not the limit.
Of course, the full scope of the story was as yet unknown. We readers finished this first installment of Jack Kirby’s first new series for DC with at least as many questions as Superman. What was Supertown, exactly, and where was it? Who were the Forever People, and Darkseid, and how were they connected? What were Darkseid’s ultimate goals, if he saw ending all life on Earth as a mere test?
Luckily for us, at least some of those answers would begin to emerge in three short weeks. I hope you’ll join me back here later this month, when we’ll be exploring the wonders of the next chapter of Jack Kirby’s great epic, in New Gods #1.
*Unfortunately, the manifestation of the “Mother Box” concept most likely to have been encountered by general audiences, at least to date, is that found in the 2017 Justice League film, where the term is used to refer to ancient alien objects of immense power which never do anything the least bit “motherly”, rendering the epithet nonsensical. Maybe things will make more sense in the “Snyder cut”, but I’m not holding my breath.
You know, after all these years, I’d had no idea that DC hired others to re-draw their main characters over Kirby’s pencils. I’d assumed as a thirteen-year-old that Kirby drew those figures and had no reason to question it ever in the years since. Now, in the short few months since you let the cat out of the bag, I can’t see anything else. Those figures are obviously not drawn by Kirby and it must have galled him everytime he read one of his own books that his bosses didn’t trust him to do the very thing that made him The King in the first place.
I was also taken aback by Darkseid’s more active role in the antics of his minions. These days, we’re used to Darkseid issuing edicts to his henchmen and monologing for a page or two, but he never gets his hands dirty; in fact, modern representations of the character make it feel like Darkseid is “too much” and too powerful to be wasted on such mundane machinations. I guess the eventual discovery of the Anti-Life Equation really tuned him up power-wise.
Finally, whatever happened to The Forever People? My memory is that is was a far less popular book than Kirby’s other Fourth World entries and while Darkseid, the New Gods and Mister Miracle are all very much present in the modern DCU, I can’t remember the last time I heard a name drop of the FP. I’d think Beautiful Dreamer at least could be turned into a decent foil for the forces of Apokalips, but she’s been AWOL as well. Am I asking questions you plan on answering down the road? If so, I’m sorry, but this has really got me curious. Thanks.
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Don, I’m sure I’ll be doing some sort of “whither the Forever People?” wrap-up when we get to issue #11 a couple of years (!) from now, but for now, let me just say that you’re basically right — the FP never seem to have had as much juice as Orion, Mister Miracle, and others. I think that may be due to several factors — one is that they were always a little more peripheral to the main conflict than those guys I just mentioned; another has to do with the situation Kirby left them in at the series’ conclusion (no, no spoilers today); and the last is that I think that to many people, they seem too much of the era — space hippies, etc.. One of their few starring turns post-1972 came with a 1988 miniseries that treated them with a real “Big Chill” vibe; our friend Ben Herman wrote a great article about that one for “Back Issue” a couple of years back, if you’d like to know more. 🙂
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Thanks for the kind words about the Back Issue article. I’m glad I had the opportunity to write it. As a huge fan of the “Fourth World” I feel that the miniseries was the most interesting use of the characters post-Kirby, in that it specifically addressed their seemingly anachronistic nature and juxtaposed it against the state of American politics & society in the mid 1980s.
Getting back to the actual stories written & drawn by Kirby, it has been suggested by others that one of the drawbacks of the Forever People was that too often they’d swap places with the Infinity Man, removing them entirely from the narrative. I do feel like Kirby could have developed their personalities and backstories more. Maybe he would have if the series had not been canceled.
But I definitely love Kirby’s designs for the five characters. They are very visually appealing.
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I’ve been a huge fan of the Fourth World saga ever since I retroactively discovered it, and getting to re-experience through the enviably accurate memories of one Alan Stewart is only making me like it even more! True, the stark reality of how many faces/figures were jarringly redrawn by hands other than Kirby’s gets harder to look at all the time, but the sheer power and scope of this tale only gets stronger with each new examination! I’ve heard comments about Jack’s dialogue and captioning in these stories for decades now; mocking it as stiff, awkward, or overly grandiose (at best), but the more I go back to this material, the less I agree with such estimations. When I first got my hands on these stories, I felt that Jack’s writing style made the events of the story feel more epic, more important, even more “Shakespearean” in a way. With each look back, that feeling has only intensified for me. The writing style is part of the magical realism inherent in and crucial to the kind of story being told here, in my opinion. Thanks again for another awesome entry, Alan!
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You’re welcome, Max! For whatever reason, I’ve been putting off the “Kirby as writer” discussion in my Fourth World posts, though I know it’s inevitable. Now, when I do tackle it, I can just quote you, since you put things so well! 🙂
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I deserve no such honor, sir! I’m just happy to find that you may indeed agree with me on the appraisal of Mr. Kirby’s admittedly idiosyncratic writing style! 🙂
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I confess that my first thought when I saw “The Forever People” in 1970 was, “oh no, not another hippie group!” My first thought was of the Outsiders from Jimmy Olsen and other attempts by D.C. and Marvel to attempt relevant looks at the hippie culture (yes, I thought this at the age of nine). I much preferred “New Gods” and “Mister Miracle”. In the comments to your post there was a discussion about how “The Forever People” quickly became dated and attempts to counteract that. Looking back with more knowledge and material to compare now, it reminds me of how Marvel began the 1980s creating with great hype the disco singer super-hero Dazzler and then quickly having to make wholesale changes because disco was dead.
Still, a lot from Forever People made an impact on me then and gave me lasting memories. Over 20 years later, when I saw the first episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, I immediately thought of the Boom Tube when I first saw the wormhole. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TsMyLt2BTM I remember Mother Box really well. I actually made my own “Mother Box” (well, not a functional one) when my younger brother and I did some comic book playacting. I remember when I first read about the Anti-Life Equation. That certainly sounded intimidating and something that a serious Big League Villain would seek.
I had completely forgotten all about the Infinity Man and how the Forever People exchanged places with him. It’s funny that you mentioned Captain Marvel/Shazam. First of all, the, er, Marvel Captain Marvel at this time was doing the same switcheroo with Rick Jones. (By the way, back in 1970, when I thought of Shazam, I thought of this Saturday morning cartoon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AkHgrGgrMk) However, the Mother Box-initiated switch is different from the switches of the Captain Marvels in that it involves a joint transfer (although apparently not needing all of the Forever People as Beautiful Dreamer is absent). On the other hand, refreshing my memory of it this time made me realize how much of a plagiarist Jim Shooter was when he was putting together HIS “New Universe” with the Psi-Force. http://www.marvunapp.com/Appendix3/psihawknu.htm
Some things haven’t changed for me in 50 years. Whenever I hear the name Beautiful Dreamer, I get this in my head: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtgklHQ52WE OK, not the Bing Crosby version. If that wasn’t annoying enough, now, when I hear that Superman wants to go to Supertown, I get this in my head. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVwiixXViT0 Maybe that’s what also made me think of the Dazzler analogy.
While I appreciate the attempt to characterize Superman by pointing out his loneliness in the world, I think that it gets carried too far here. As you already pointed out, Superman does have fellow super-powered friends and even family. If he is looking for other Kryptonians, he even has the residents of Kandor. In any event, to suggest that even for one minute Superman would refuse to help out against a major threat to the world by someone that he had just seen in action trying to create a major explosion just so that he could look for some like-minded people to talk to is completely against Superman’s character. I’m glad that he came to his senses, but this really was a bridge too far (a tube too far?) to begin with. I think that D.C. should have been concerned less with Superman’s face and more with his character here. On the other hand, I did think that the scene with the boxer telling Clark Kent that Superman’s skills make a mockery of his profession and calling was a very interesting take.
I agree with you that it is unusual that a major league alien villain like Darkseid would take a micro-managing hand in things like an Earth criminal gang. I do now remember when I first saw Jim Starlin’s creation of Thanos in the early 1970s that I thought that he was trying to create his own Darkseid (without the Earth criminal gang). Certainly, Thanos was fond of his own “anti-life equations”.
As usual, thank you for putting up with my random thoughts as I revel in the nostalgia of days long gone (one more nitpick in the story: the Forever People do seem to like to talk a lot when they realize that toxic gas is spraying on them. One would think that holding their breath would be a better strategy). I apologize for providing all of these links in my comments. It might be because I just finished playing Jacob Marley in a Zoom presentation of “A Christmas Carol” (link by link, yard by yard). 😀
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No need to apologize for the links, Stu — all of which I’m pleased to say I anticipated. Glad to know I’m not the only person who thought of the “Shazzan” cartoon when DC started promoting “Shazam!” (My other association was, of course, with Gomer Pyle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxQ-Ltfs9ds )
Thankyou for another detailed annotation, Alan, once again I bow to your thorough knowledge of all things Bronze Age– I read FP #1 last night but was too tired to really follow what was going on, and there were so many new ideas being hurled at me that I just read the last dozen or so pages in a daze. So this morning I’ve re-read it and then checked out your commentary. I too wondered why Superman seems to have forgotten Supergirl! It’s most useful for me to understand which concepts are totally new in this series (eg Supertown) and which are already part of the DC universe– like the magic word transformation. My own understanding of such a device comes from Alan Moore’s Marvelman (which had to be altered to Miracleman eventually), which started out in a British monthly anthology title (along with V for Vendetta) called Warrior back in the early 80s– the guy in that (Mike Moran) utters the word ‘Kimota!’ to transform into his super alter-ego (try reading the magic word backwards…). Moore’s version was a modern take on an old UK strip from the 50s. Anyway, before I get completely side-tracked, I’m certainly intrigued by the concepts on display in FP, and intend to read them month by month along with the other Fourth World titles.
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Andrew, your bringing up “Warrior” made me smile. My British comics knowledge is nothing to write home about, but I’m familiar with that one, at least! “Warrior” actually got some distribution in U.S. comics shops (perhaps facilitated by Alan Moore’s burgeoning stardom at the time), and I read it regularly. Also, if memory serves, I picked up a few issues I was missing on my one and only visit to London’s Forbidden Planet in 1985! Kimota!
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Just think– If you were there in 85 we might actually have been in Forbidden Planet at the same time! Being a huge 2000AD fan and reader of Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly, I recognised a lot of Warrior’s creators (Moore, Dillon, Lloyd, Bolland) straight away, so felt very much on familiar ground in one way, but realised that comics could offer so much more because of the quite sophisticated ideas on offer. Also the occasional nudity and swearing made it seem quite dangerous, because in those days there was nothing like that in 2000AD. All in all, Warrior enabled me to transition to what was to come, like Watchmen, Love and Rockets and Hellblazer.
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The possibility that we might have been at Forbidden Planet the same time (minuscule though it might be) had occurred to me as well, Andrew! If it’s not too impertinent a question for me to ask, about how old would you have been at the time?
I was 18 in 1985, Alan, and I was a student living not far from London, so I used to visit FP and the other London comic shops a fair bit around that time. I’d already been there maybe half a dozen times before that, and to the newly open Forbidden Planet 2 just round the corner where they did Film and TV merchandising instead of comics.
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The Marvelman that Moore revived was basically a continuation of the original Captain Marvel comic. When Fawcett decided to stop publishing Captain Marvel in 1953, partly as a result of DC’s lawsuit, the British publisher that had been reprinting the US stories didn’t want to stop. So they changed the names of the characters a little bit, changed “Shazam” to “Kimota”, and just started doing new stories.
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Great bllog I enjoyed reading
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Thank you, Mya. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I have always loved the Gravity Guard thought balloon, “This one knows no defeat!” Kirby got to the essence of Superman there.
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