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.