The fourth issue of Jack Kirby’s Forever People brought us the second chapter in the five-part story arc which would prove to be the centerpiece of this ultimately short-lived series. But, published as it was on the first day of June, 1971, the issue was also the harbinger of a new era for its publisher, DC Comics — marking the end of the 32-page comic book at the company (at least for the next eleven months), as the standard-size comic’s page length was increased to 48 pages, and the price raised from 15 to 25 cents.
I don’t actually know whether this particular issue was the very first 25-cent DC comic I myself saw or bought — unlike the occasion of DC’s last price hike, I have no clear memory of the specific comic that presented me with the sensation of “sticker shock” that surely must have accompanied my discovery of the change. (And it was a change I would have been utterly unaware of until I was confronted by it at the spinner rack; DC had given no hint this was coming in the past month’s books, and I was not yet plugged into any fan networks, formal or otherwise, that might have broken the news.) But Forever People #4 could have been the first — it was in DC’s first batch of 25-cent releases, for sure — so I’m going to use its release as a platform for discussing the change.
Of course, twenty-five-cent comic books were nothing new in and of themselves. I was quite familiar with DC’s “80-Page Giants”, after all (as well as with their inevitably less impressive 64-page successors). There were also Marvel’s annuals (aka “King-Sixe Specials”) and even Archie’s Giant Series Magazines. But these were all out-of-the-ordinary, in one way or another. A “regular” comic book that would cost a quarter every issue? That was definitely new, at least to me.*
As they had in 1969, and before that in 1961, DC ran a text piece explaining the reasons for the price increase:
But, in fact, other than the reference to giving DC’s readers “more pages for your hard-earned bread”, Editorial Director Carmine Infantino’s note didn’t address why the standard comic book’s page count had so substantially increased, requiring a correspondingly drastic hike in the price. For that, we’d have to wait until 1998, when Infantino was interviewed by Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist:. According to the account the former exec gave at that time, it all came down to intra-corporate maneuverings instigated by DC’s sister company (and distributor), Independent News:
CBA: Do you remember the books going from 32 to 48 pages? That was a radical move, jumping the price nearly 50 percent.
Carmine: That was Independent News’ idea. They made that decision!
CBA: What was their thinking — more for the reader’s buck?
Carmine: More for their buck! I didn’t find this out until I left the company and it killed me, but they were charging us 12 1/2%for their brokerage fee. Everybody else in the industry was paying ten percent, but we were paying 12 1/2%. That was quite a bite into my profit margin.
CBA: So it was a sweetheart deal — gouging their own company?
Carmine: It went into one pocket…
That, according to Infantino, is how we ended up (however briefly) with DC’s 48-page “standard” comic — which, by and large, broke down to roughly 60-70% new material, with the remaining story pages going to reprints — or, in Infantino’s words of 1971, “specially selected stories that we were planning for a special time… and that time is now!”
A “special time”, eh? Well, maybe. But I’ll defer what else I have to to say about this subject until nearer the end of the post.
We really are going to get to “The Kingdom of the Damned:, I promise — but before we do, there’s one more element of FP #4’s cover I’d like us to consider, which, if not quite as immediately arresting as that “Only 25¢ — Bigger & Better” seal was in June, 1971, was still not without significance.
And that’s the phrase that appears above the Forever People logo for the first (and last) time with this issue:
The complex, interconnected epic that Jack Kirby launched upon his arrival at DC Comics in 1970 is widely known to today’s comic book fans as “the Fourth World”. For that reason, I’ve used the phrase regularly on this blog ever since my post last August about Jimmy Olsen #133, the epic’s first chapter. But it’s worth noting that not only did Kirby himself never use the phrase in an actual story, but that it didn’t appear anywhere at all until May, 1971, at which time it graced the cover of Jimmy Olsen #139 (a comic I opted not to devote a whole post to, which is why we’re covering the topic here [don’t worry, you’ll get your Goody Rickels fix when I blog about JO #141 next month]). From there, “Kirby’s Fourth World” went on to appear on the cover of the fourth issue of New Gods as well as that of the subject of this post (both published in June), followed by Mister Miracle #4 in July. It then showed up in a house ad or two, as well as the cover of Mister Miracle #10 (in a smaller blurb at the bottom of the cover, this time)… and then it was gone. Gone — but, obviously, never forgotten.
But where did the phrase come from? Whose idea was it to slap it on these four covers, and no others? What does it mean, for the New Gods’ sake?
There are theories aplenty — but no definite answers. And after half a century, it seems unlikely that any will be forthcoming. So, rather than speculate, I’m going to let Mark Evanier, who served as one of Kirby’s assistants during this period, have the final (at least for now) say.
In an October, 2020 blog post, Evanier wrote:
Don’t try to tell me you know where that name [i.e., the “Fourth World”] came from. I didn’t know, Steve [Sherman, Kirby’s other assistant] didn’t know and Jack didn’t know, If we didn’t know, you didn’t know.
I think that’s going to have to do us, folks.
In Forever People #3, Kirby had given readers the darkest chapter in his saga to date. Leading off with a chillingly appropriate quotation from Adolf Hitler, he’d shown us how easily ordinary people could be persuaded to give up their own free will — in Kirby’s formulation, to choose “anti-life” over life — when doing so allowed them to justify acting on their own worst impulses towards those of their fellow human beings they perceived as “other”. Made anonymous by their face-concealing helmets, the Justifiers obey the word of their spiritual leader, the Apokoliptican “revelationist” known as Glorious Godfrey, and descend upon an urban neighborhood to brutalize and abduct its inhabitants. What makes these particular people “other”? We’re not told, and it really doesn’t matter — not to Kirby, not to us, and perhaps not even to the Justifiers (When one exults, “Listen to their cries! I’ve been waiting to do this for years!”, he may be relishing the opportunity he’s finally been givent to lash out against some long-resented minority — or he may only be expressing his glee at being given the license to wield terror and violence against anyone.)
In the opening pages of “The Kingdom of the Damned”, we learn at last the fate of the “human trash” we saw abducted by the Justifiers in the previous episode:
When I first read this sequence at the age of thirteen, I considered it to be one of the most disturbing things I’d ever seen in a comic book — and I still find it unsettling. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter that, as far as we can see, Desaad’s prisoners are being subjected to no physical torments more awful than being confined together in close quarters. Simply the idea that they can be seen by the amusement park’s customers, who are oblivious to their fellow human beings’ plight due to Desaad’s “scrambler”– and thus are thought by the prisoners to be callously indifferent to their suffering — was terrible enough, all by itself.
As noted by Desaad’s underling on page 3, Darkseid himself has just arrived at Happyland. While his hovercraft is glimpsed by some of the park’s attendees, it’s thought by them simply to be a service vehicle, and so they pay it little attention as it lands in a walled-off “staff only” area. The Lord of Apokolips promptly disembarks, and is immediately escorted to a place where his servitor is preparing “a most interesting feat” in his honor…
Removing his helmet, Vykin checks an indicator within it which informs him that Mother Box is close by. But before he and his comrades can make any use of this information…
Rather than engage firther with the Forever People one-on-one, Desaad;s minions simply lob “vertigo greades”, the dizzying light and sound effects of which quickly subdue our young heroes:
As the guards wait for the transport that will carry the Forever People to the fates prepared for them, they taunt their captives by telling them, “Desaad will soon attend to you! And you would quail if you knew what keeps him busy right now!”
Darkseid opts not to exit Happyland by hovercraft; rather, he’ll make his departure in a “leisurely” fashion, walking among the “happy throngs” enjoying the park. If Desaad has any reservations about the wisdom of this plan, he conceals them well: “Like all great leaders, sire, you have the “common touch!” Are they not your future slaves?”
This leads into one of the most indelible scenes Jack Kirby would ever write or draw featuring his ultimate villain:
Darkseid is, indeed, “the real thing”; and he is also us.
Desaad knows Mark Moonrider needs to simmer a while before he’ll be ready to provide “a proper show” of emotional meltdown; and so he turns his attention to Big Bear:
Once again the rifles fire — and once again, Big Bear is subjected to a “crashing, body-bruising shock wave!!”
But Desaad can take no real pleasure in watching the young god’s agony until he’s become “a spiritless wreck” — or so at least he says — and so, it’s on to Beautiful Dreamer:
The special, personal attention Desaad gives Dreamer has an obvious sexual subtext, and this sequence is all the creepier for it.
At this point, a guard calls Desaad’s attention away from Beautiful Dreamer — it seems the youngest Forever Person, Serifan, is refusing to “cooperate” with his captors:
With the exception of Desaad’s final, two-for-the-price-of-one trap — which feels more like something out of an old movie serial, or even the ’60’s Batman TV show — all of the situations to which the Forever People are subjected involve the use of the “master scrambler” in some way, and thus are variations on the scenario with which the story opened. Yet, regardless of how the basic setup may be amplified in the later instances — Big Bear’s getting rocked by shock waves, Beautiful Dreamer’s immobility and nightmarish visions — none of them can top the original scene for effectiveness, at least not for this reader.
And with the advent of this mysterious new character, Sonny Sumo, “The Kingdom of the Damned” comes to a close. We’ll be getting better acquainted with Mr. Sumo in a future post, rest assured — but for now, we’ve still got another 15 pages of comic-book content to review (and that’s not even counting the “Buzzing in the Boom Tube” letters page).
Said content leads off with a couple of pin-ups — which, incidentally, feature the inks of Vince Colletta, just as did the preceding story (and as will also the remaining “new” material in this issue). The first of these is the kind of relaxed group portrait that would have felt right at home in one of Marvel’s 1960s summer annuals:
But wait — where’s Beautiful Dreamer? I thought you’d never ask. Back in June, 1971, after perusing the aforementioned letters page, we readers were treated to this:
This pin-up is a bit more interesting than the first one — and not only because Beautiful Dreamer looks, well, beautiful. The caption’s declaration that both Dreamer and Darkseid “hold the key to victory” in the war between Apokolips and New Genesis is cryptically intriguing. It seems to call back to BD’s role in Forever People #1, in which she was identified as “one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation” — an idea that Kirby hasn’t referred to since then, but which seems to hold lots of promise for future stories.
Also, Darkseid’s huge, blank eyes in this pin-up are really creepy. Just sayin’.
And now, we come to the reprint section of the issue — well, almost…
To the best of my recollection, in June, 1971 my younger self had yet to see any Kirby artwork that pre-dated his late-’50s-early 60s Marvel/Atlas “monster” material — and so I was genuinely intrigued by the chance to check out some of his Golden Age stuff, even though I knew next to nothing about the four features the King named here. (I did have something of a leg up on the Newsboy Legion, but only because their sons/successors were currently appearing in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen.)
Actually, if I’m going to be honest, I also knew a little bit about the Sandman — or, at least, I thought I did. The version I knew, however, was the guy who wore a suit, hat, and gas mask. Him I’d liked ever since my eight-year-old self’s first glimpse of him being crushed between Batman and a THUD! on the notoriously campy cover of Justice League of America #46 — but I had no idea what relationship, if any, that hero had to this one. Eventually, of course, writers like Len Wein and Roy Thomas would clue us all in as to how Wesley Dodds had made the transition from his original modified-street-attire look to the purple-and-yellow tights he was sporting here (and then back again) — as well as to the tragic tale of what had befallen his protégé, young Sandy Hawkins. But at this particular point in time, I can’t say I was terribly excited by the notion of yet another “dynamic duo” in the vein of Batman and Robin, or (even more aptly) Captain America and Bucky — even if their adventures were drawn by Jack Kirby.
I’m not certain if I’d yet heard of Kirby’s collaborator on this tale from Adventure Comics #85 (Apr., 1943), Joe Simon — after all, in this era Marvel wasn’t exactly going out of its way to promote Simon’s role as the co-creator (with Kirby) of Captain America. And I’m not sure what I thought his actual job was in what I’d come to learn was the long-term “Simon & Kirby” partnership, either. But based on the credits-box conventions that another Kirby collaborator — Stan Lee — had established at Marvel, I probably looked at this story’s byline and assumed that Simon was the writer, while the art was all Kirby. The truth of how the two men worked together seems to have been a bit more complicated than that. (For the record, however, the Grand Comics Database credits Kirby with both the script and the pencils for this story, while noting that Simon may have contributed the inks.)
I’m not going to take you through this story page by page (my apologies if that’s a disappointment), but I do want to share a single page that gives a better sense of Kirby’s style circa 1943, especially in regards to his page design and approach to storytelling, than do the two pages I’ve already shown (which, aside from everything else, illustrate the exact same scene!):
To set this up: Ex-con “Gentleman Jack” Jarvis, wanting revenge on Sandman for sending him up the river in the first place, has lured the crimefighter to his very comfortable home, which he has set up as a fake “prison”, complete with bars and guards, ostensibly because “these surroundings provide the contrast that makes everything else seem much more luxurious!” (Jack had in fact dreamed of something similar while in stir — whence comes the story’s title, and its tenuous connection with Sandman’s night/sleep/dream motif.) But Jack and his “guards” imprison Sandman in a real cell — an airtight one, that’s slowly having the air pumped out of it. Luckily for our hero, his pal Sandy has disobeyed Sandman’s explicit instructions to stay home, opting instead to follow him…
The freed Sandman joins with Sandy to quickly overcome Jack and his hoods, then cart them off to jail. The end.
In 1971, if I hadn’t been told beforehand that the artwork in this story was by Jack Kirby, I don’t believe I would have recognized it as such. Seven panels to a page? Circular panel borders? Those spindly, rubbery figures? None of that evoked the Kirby “style” as I’d come to know it.
In later years, I’d come to appreciate the groundbreaking achievements of “Simon & Kirby” in expanding the visual vocabulary of the comic-book medium, especially in regards to page design and the depiction of action. But in 1971, I couldn’t see this work as much more than a novelty. And the “novelty” would wear off for me, pretty quickly.
The issue wraps up with one last pin-up, this one featuring the Forever People’s adult super-friend, the Infinity Man — whom Darkseid had vanished to some unknown nether region in the closing pages of FP #3:
Sadly for IM’s fans, his would be the last time we’d see the guy until the eleventh — and final — issue of Forever People, 14 months from now.
Forever People #4 was hardly what you’d call a bad package; nevertheless, my thirteen-year-old self would as soon have kept his 32-page comic book, with all-new art and story, just the way it was., even at a somewhat higher price Sorry, Mr. Infantino, he might have said, but if you want me to buy reprints — excuse me, “specially selected stories” — then please put them in a book all their own. Maybe I’ll buy it; I’ve done it before. But new stuff and reprints really shouldn’t mix — at least not in a 60/40, or even a 70/30, ratio.
I should note here that I was a fortunate young comics fan in 1971, in the sense that I don’t recall having to give up buying any titles due to the price increase. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I was an only kid, which allowed my middle-class parents to be rather generous with my allowance — which I didn’t spend on anything but comics (and the occasional paperback book). So while I may have had some general concerns about getting good value for my dollar, the price hike didn’t cause me any actual hardship, aa far as I recall.
In any event, the 25-cent, 48-page DC comic was here to stay — at least until April, 1972. Of course, not every editor at DC dealt with the need to fill those extra pages in the same way. We’ll have lots of chances over the next eleven months to see the different approaches taken by those different editors — beginning with our very next post regarding a DC comic, which ought to be coming your way about ten days from now. I hope you’ll join me then.
*Tower Comics (home of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents), in operation from 1965 to 1969, had distinguished itself by making 64-page, 25-cent comics the basis of their whole line; but, alas, I’d never bought any of their titles. More recently, DC had started experimenting with converting several ongoing series to “giants” — but those books were mostly all-reprint, and the ones that did include some new material (e.g., G.I. Combat and Young Romance) belonged to genres I didn’t read; in any event, they weren’t on my radar.