While I can’t claim to have strong, specific recollections of my thirteen-year-old self’s reactions to the cover of Forever People #2 the first time I saw it, sometime in February, 1971, I’m sure I must have found it at least somewhat startling. Mainly because the five titular heroes — presumably the stars of the book — were relegated to a row of floating heads at the bottom (where they might not even have been visible on the spinner rack), while a brand-new character, Mantis — evidently the villain of the piece — took the front and center spot. Even the Forever People’s ally/secret weapon/kind-of-alter-ego, the Infinity Man, was relegated to the background, completely overshadowed by this “evil power vampire!”
Power vampire? I definitely recall being struck by the use of that latter word in the cover copy. This was likely just because I was interested in vampires, thanks to my enthusiasm for the daytime television serial Dark Shadows. But it may have also resulted at least in part from my subconscious realization of how unusual it was to see that word on the cover of a comic book — at least one published by either of my two favorite companies, DC and Marvel.
That’s because prior to February 1, 1971, the very mention of vampires was verboten by the Comics Code Authority. On that date, the mechanism by which the majority of U.S. comic book publishers voluntarily policed their own content was revised for the first time since the Code’s adoption in 1954. Among the notable alterations to the existing document, which had expressly forbidden the kind of imagined undead terrors that had once filled the pages (and covers) of horror comics across the land, was this statement: “Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”
I’m not exactly certain how or where Mantis, the evil power vampire from the god-planet Apokolips, fits into the “classic tradition” of “high calibre literary works”, but someone at DC must have thought he would pass muster, since they approved the use of the v-word on the cover of Forever People #2 — a comic that was released on February 2, one single day after the revisions to the Comics Code became official.* I’m pretty sure that that makes this the very first comic to reflect the easing of the Code’s restrictions in ’71 (although I’ll welcome any corrections to, or qualifications of, that claim from comics historians better informed than myself).
Still, as I’ve already noted, while my younger self might have registered the use of the word “vampire” on a DC Comics cover as unusual, I wouldn’t have recognized its full significance, by any means. Though I was obviously familiar with the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval that appeared on every DC or Marvel cover, I had little understanding of what the Code actually was, or how it worked. Perhaps I’d idly wondered once or twice at the fact that the Gold Key comics I bought didn’t carry the seal at all; but it would never have occurred to me that that publisher’s non-participation in the CCA meant that it could publish a Dark Shadows comic book — an ongoing title which not only had a vampire as its central character, but was also free to refer to his being such a creature on its cover (as indeed it had with the most recent issue at the time of Forever People #2’s release, issue #8 [Feb., 1971], shown at left ) — whereas, prior to February 1, 1071, neither DC nor Marvel, nor the majority of other American comics companies, could do so (at least, not without forgoing the Code’s seal).
But, to reiterate — I didn’t know all that at the time. And if I was thinking about vampires as I perused the cover of FP #2, I probably stopped doing so once I opened the book, at least for the time being. Because the menacing Mantis was nowhere to be seen on the first page — rather, the opening splash put the focus back on the titular heroes who could reasonably be said to have been given rather short shrift by the cover — the fresh-faced, if fairly freaky and far-out, Forever People, themselves:
Like the series’ first issue — as well as all the other issues to date of the group of interconnected comics titles fans would soon come to call the Fourth World — Forever People #2 was largely the product of one man, writer/penciller/editor Jack Kirby, though the inking was done by Vince Coletta. Unlike Forever People #1, however — not to mention every issue of Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen thus far — FP #2’s Kirby-Coletta artwork had not been subjected to selective redrawing of certain hallowed DC characters (i.e., Superman and Jimmy Olsen) by an uncredited artist, as every character in the new issue was a 100% Kirby Kreation.
The “exciting” city in which our young heroes find themselves isn’t named in the issue, but, in consideration of the previous issue’s events, it seems safe to suppose that it’s Superman’s home city of Metropolis.
Big Bear’s brief encounter with the hapless “Mister Corn” is a very funny bit (well, I think so, anyway), though the former’s reference to “ancient vaudeville” is a little puzzling, when you stop to think about it. While issue #1 had been fairly cagey about the origins of these “super-teens”, reader who’d been paying attention to all the other Fourth World books as well, back in ’70-’71 — most especially to the premiere issue of New Gods — would have been able to work out by now that “Supertown” was on New Genesis — one of the two opposing worlds of Kirby’s “new gods”, whose cultures had arisen out of the ashes of the the old gods’ destruction (Ragnarök, basically). But when he drops that vaudeville line, Big Bear sounds more like a time traveler from the future than he does a young alien space-god. Are we supposed to think that New Genesis went through a period in their cultural development that closely paralleled 20th century Earth?
This is merely the first of several such references we’ll run across as the story progresses. Taken in the moment, they help serve to establish the Forever People as being “not from around here”, which is probably all Kirby was after; considered more closely and deliberately, however, they raise more questions than they answer.
This is the first time we’ve seen the FP’s mode of conveyance, the Super-Cycle, pull this “phasing” trick to teleport them to another location; in the first issue, it was only used to avoid a collision by making the vehicle temporarily immaterial.
Before we get to see just where our heroes will end up, however, the story gives us our first look at Mantis since the cover. In its own way, this appearance is even more startling, as Kirby upends our expectations by showing the confident, taunting figure we “met” earlier now screaming in terror:
Of course, the abject fear that the menacing Mantis displays in the presence of his master subtly serves to underscore just how formidable that master — Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips — must be.
There are some interesting nuances in this scene’s dialogue between Darkseid and Mantis that one might easily miss. All of Darkseid’s underlings whom we’ve seen to this point, in any of Kirby’s Fourth World comics, have been plainly and unquestionably subservient to him. Yet Mantis, though clearly frightened of Apokolips’ craggy-faced ruler, has just as clearly been acting on his own initiative — and perhaps even sees himself as independent of Darkseid in some way. Kirby is dropping hints here regarding Mantis’ true nature which won’t pay off for over a year — and even then, in the pages of another Fourth World title, rather than in Forever People. It’s an excellent example of just how deeply interconnected all four titles are.
“Unleash the terrors of the night!” Even if we hadn’t already seen Mantis called a vampire on the cover, dialogue like that — coupled with the concept of the villain needing to sleep within the dark confines of a coffin-like “pod”, itself hidden underground — would begin to get the idea across.
The Forever People may not know Earth very well, but they appear to immediately recognize the economically distressed inner city area they’ve phased into for what it is. Vykin, keeper of the group’s Mother Box, cautions his friends to sit tight until the seemingly sentient device analyzes their situation, to which Big Bear scoffs, “Mother Box can save her advice! We’re no longer children!” The group’s apparent leader, Mark Moonrider, pushes back on that declaration of independence, however:
Vykin is prepared to use Mother Box to resolve this tense situation, but is dissuaded by Beautiful Dreamer, who has her own, gentler means for dealing with it:
In dealing successfully (at least for now) with Uncle Willie’s prejudices, the Forever People don’t actually challenge them; indeed, you could even say that they play into them. Kirby may be making a point here about the intractable biases of the old, and the resultant necessity for the young to work around them; but it’s also possible to see this episode in a somewhat more hopeful light. Perhaps what Kirby is actually saying is that if people — young or old — can only get past surface appearances, they’ll find that relating to one another isn’t so hard, after all.
Having decided that the FP are “nice enough kids”, and hearing that they’re looking for lodgings, Uncle Willie invites them to say with him and little Donnie in “Number 309” — apparently one of many abandoned apartment buildings in the neighborhood. Meanwhile…
Kirby continues to conjure a horror-movie vibe in this second scene featuring Mantis, effectively framing him as a vampire without using the v-word (which only ever appears on the comic’s cover, never within its interior pages).
Mark Moonrider’s remark concerning “early, post atomic, middle class home visuals” is another instance where the Forever People’s perspective on our world seems more that of a visitor from Earth’s own future than of someone newly arrived from an alien god-planet.
“And don’t worry, Donnie! Your first Cosmic Cartridge is free!”
Sorry, but it’s just about impossible to pass by that last page without making a drug joke. (At least it is for someone with as little resistance to temptation as your humble blogger. Or Donnie, for that matter.)
Back in November, 1969, Kirby responded thusly to a question from interviewer Shel Dorf regarding young people and drug use:
I think that drugs are harmful… And I believe that any sort of stimulant or irritant used for any sort of motivation… it’s a kind of a wild thing without guidelines. We don’t know what its guidelines are, and we’re experimenting with it all the time and that’s its most dangerous period. I won’t hang anybody up on a gallows who uses drugs, but I won’t respect them, either.**
Based on those sentiments, as well as everything else I’ve ever read about the man, it seems unlikely that the King of Comics ever partook of any controlled mind-altering substances. But he certainly seems to have been at least intrigued by the possibilities suggested by the hippie subculture’s experimentation with LSD and other hallucinogens in that era.
Quickly reaching the dining area, Serifan delivers the bad news to his fellows. They’re all equally familiar with Mantis, and all are also in agreement that he’s too powerful for the five of them to face. Time, then, to use Mother Box to summon the Forever People’s ace in the hole — the inscrutable Infinity Man:
Meanwhile, the Metropolis police department is bringing all the firepower they have to bear upon Mantis, with little effect — and the marauding menace is quick to retaliate:
Mantis is momentarily rocked by the Infinity Man’s sudden attack, but then…
Converting his stored energy to cold and frost, Mantis quickly has his foe completely immobilized in a block of ice — and then it’s back to making mayhem. Meanwhile…
This is the first appearance of Desaad — one of Darkseid’s most important lieutenants, and one who will go on to play an especially significant role in Forever People‘s eleven-issue run. In early 1971, Kirby’s derivation of this master of cruelty’s name from that of a certain well-known French writer went right over my head; though when I did figure it out, months or (maybe) years later, it seemed entirely apt.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Metropolis watch helplessly as their city burns, wondering if anybody is coming to save them. Unfortunately, Superman appears to be out of town (as he’ll tend to be for any Metropolis-set scenes in the Fourth World books, with the exception of those in Jimmy Olsen). But while the Infinity Man may be down, he’s not yet out:
The Infinity Man quickly engages once more with his opponent, but…
With the coming of the dawn, Mantis retreats to the dark confines of his underground lair — just like a traditional vampire.
As the story reaches its conclusion, the Forever People take a moment to frame the just-ended conflict in terms of the larger war within which it’s a mere skirmish, reminding readers of the greater stakes at hand. But, fittingly, it’s Darkseid who has the last word.
Like our heroes’ initial outing in issue #1, “Super War!” is essentially a done-in-one story, though obviously still a single chapter in a larger epic. We can even see, here, the beginnings of a formulaic approach that might have provided the structure for any number of one-off adventures, going forward. Having established their “base” in Metropolis at Number 309, the Forever People might now have slipped into a pattern which would find them confronting a different menace from Apokolips in each issue, summoning the Infinity Man to fight and beat the baddie, and then returning home at the end of the tale — only to repeat the cycle in two months’ time. Jack Kirby’s imagination could have kept such a formula going quite some time before it began to feel stale, I believe.
Perhaps Kirby did seriously consider taking this sort of approach with the Forever People title; but if he did, the thought evidently didn’t last for very long. With issue #3, the series would veer off into another, much more interesting — as well as more harrowing — direction.
We’ll be back to take a look at that issue’s “Life vs. Anti-Life!” two months from now. Well before that, however — in just two short weeks, in fact! — we’ll be exploring still other new developments in the overall Fourth World mythos, courtesy of the second issue of Forever People‘s sister title, New Gods. I hope I’ll see you then.
*A one-day window may seem insufficient time for the changes to the Code to have been able to affect the publication of FP #2; however, according to Amy Kriste Nyberg’s article “Cracking the Code: The Liberalization of the Comics Code Authority” (Comic Book Artist #1 [Spring, 1998]), revisions had been discussed and approved at a special called meeting of the board of directors of the CMAA (Comics Magazine Association of America) held on December 7, 1970, and then scheduled to go into effect nearly two months later, on February 1. Based on my understanding of the comic-book production process, this would appear to have been enough time for the changes to have influenced the content of FP #2’s cover. (Contrary opinions from folks who have more expertise in this area than me are more than welcome, however.)
**”Innerview”, The Jack Kirby Collector #42 (Spring, 2005), pp. 16-17.