As was related in our post about Forever People #11 at the beginning of this month, Jack Kirby is reputed to have already begun work both on that comic and on New Gods #11 when he received word from DC Comics that those two issues would be the last for both titles. The official word was that the two series were being “temporarily suspended”; but Kirby seems to have known that this was truly the end for both of his cherished creations, at least for the foreseeable future.
While we’ll probably never know just how far the writer-artist had already gotten in plotting, drawing, or scripting either comic, there can be no doubt that he made whatever adjustments were necessary to be able to provide the readers of both Forever People and New Gods with not just one last adventure of the series’ titular heroes, but with an ending for each. In the case of Forever People, Kirby quite literally took his characters off the field, transporting them across the cosmos to an idyllic planet far from the battlefront between the warring god-worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips.
But that approach would hardly do for the core title of the entire Fourth World enterprise, New Gods. The conflict between the series’ primary protagonist, Orion of New Genesis, and his ultimate enemy, Darkseid of Apokolips, was too central to the epic as a whole to be fully resolved in New Gods #11 — unless its architect really did want to make this comic the once-and-for-all finale of the storyline that his fans had followed through four different titles since the summer of 1970. And it seems (at least to this reader) that Jack Kirby wasn’t quite yet ready to give up completely on the most personal project of his career. After all, the last of the Fourth World titles, Mister Miracle, was at this point scheduled to continue; and even if Kirby had been directed by DC to excise virtually every aspect of “Fourth-Wordliness” from the series’ storylines going forward, as appears to be the case, that state of affairs might change in the future. And even if it didn’t — the twenty-two pages allotted to Kirby (and inker Mike Royer) for the final installment of New Gods simply didn’t provide enough room to conclude his complex, sprawling saga in the manner such an occasion demanded.
Still, while Kirby couldn’t provide New Gods with as definite and final an ending as he had Forever People, that didn’t mean he couldn’t bring some important plot lines to a point of climax, and resolve them in a way that felt like, if not the ultimate conclusion to his epic narrative, then at least a satisfying finale to what we (and perhaps he) might have optimistically thought of as “Book One”. And to keep our appetites whetted for Book Two — and to prove, without obvious effort, that he still had plenty of story left to tell — he included a few jaw-dropping revelations in this last-for-now chapter (the cover blurb “A Shocking Secret Revealed!!” was be no means hype) to leave us all with the impression that, even after two years, we had thus far only glimpsed a fragment of the Fourth World mythos — that, like an iceberg, much more remained unknown to us, hidden beneath the surface of the imagination of the King of Comics…
“Darkseid and Sons!” Kirby makes it clear straight from his story’s title (which we’ve also seen on the cover, of course) that he’ll be breaking new ground in this one. While Darkseid’s status as the sire of Orion had been, for all practical purposes, an open secret beginning with issue #1 — prior to being explicitly spelled out in issue #7’s monumental “The Pact!” — this is the first inking we’ve had that he might have other progeny, let alone that we may have already met them.
Of course, it’s pretty clear from the get-go who Darkseid’s other son has to be; even without the broad hints offered by the first page’s opening narration, there really aren’t any other candidates besides Kalibak. But why hasn’t the relationship been acknowledged in the character’s previous appearances — which, like Orion’s, go back to issue #1? That’s the mystery.
While Kalibak has displayed few personal attributes in his previous appearances other than savagery and brutality, the suggestion made here that he has a code of honor (even if only a very rough one) reminds us that, at the end of the day, he is still a god. On the other hand…
Maybe Kalibak honestly intends to take Commissioner Kiernan’s message to “those who fight for Apokolips and New Genesis” some time or another, when he gets around to it. But as we’re about to see, all he’s up for doing right now is heading straight back to the apartment of private detective Dave Lincoln, so that he can resume hostilities with Lincoln’s pal, Orion. That puts the city of Metropolis right back in the jam it was in in issue #8 before Sergeant Dan “Terrible” Turpin took Kalibak down with a massive electrical jolt, and doesn’t make Kiernan look very smart. But, of course, if Kalibak didn’t get free somehow, we wouldn’t have much of a story to discuss in this post…
The previous issue of New Gods had ended with Orion and Lightray in the company of Forager, a “Bug” of New Genesis who’d been introduced in issue #9. But there’s no sign of Forager when we rejoin the two New Genesis “Eternals” (as Forager called them) in issue #11, which could lend credence to the idea floated by some that Kirby had been pressured by DC to shoehorn the “Bug” two-parter into his ongoing storyline. Conversely, it may just mean that for Kirby to give New Gods the kind of finale he wanted within twenty-two pages, he needed to pare away every character and subplot that wasn’t completely essential to that story.
As the scene at Dave Lincoln’s place continues, Orion demonstrates what he’d like to do to Darkseid by destroying an old college athletic trophy of his host’s with his bare hands. (Yeah, he’s not what you’d call a great houseguest.). Then another of our hero’s Earth friends, Claudia Shane, rushes in to tell the guys the news that Kalibak has escaped from jail. (Apparently, Commish Kiernan has opted not to tell the press that he basically let the guy go.) Lightray proceeds to caution Orion that though the moment of action he’s been waiting for may have arrived at last, it should be met “without witless ferocity.”
Pretty chilling stuff all around… but also entirely consistent with what we saw of the Apokoliptican royal court in “The Pact!”
Left unanswered is the question of whether Kalibak himself knows who his father is; my personal guess would be that he doesn’t, since he’s never mentioned it, and he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who could or would keep such information to himself.
Speaking of Kalibak… arriving at Dave Lincoln’s apartment building, he announces his presence with a punch to the exterior front wall that sends a tremor through the whole structure. Lightray immediately flies out the window to meet him, despite Orion’s warning that he alone is no match for their foe…
Orion has been watching all this from Dave Lincoln’s window, unable to interfere due to “the ‘combat code’ of warriors” — but once poor Lightray stops moving, he’s free to go into action. As Orion heads out the apartment’s door, Lincoln wishes him luck: “Give that lump of hair and muscle the full treatment!”
This is the first time we’ve seen Willie Walker go into action as the Black Racer in a Jack Kirby comic since New Gods #4, although he’s made an appearance since then in Lois Lane #115, and the Racer showed up sans Willie in the “Fastbak” backup feature in NG #8.
As the Black Racer flies towards the scene, the battle between Orion and Kalibak begins…
Stunned by Kalibak’s unexpectedly potent energy blasts, Orion is unable to resist, or even move, as his enemy proceeds to literally drop a building on him:
Kiernan appears convinced that the Metropolis PD will soon have the situation under control, but Dave Lincoln is unwilling to wait, and so exits the patrol car…
Did Kirby in fact intend for this to be the last we’d ever see of Desaad, perhaps the second greatest villain he’d invented for the Fourth World? Maybe… on the other hand, things weren’t always quite what they appeared with the Omega Effect, as readers of Forever People #6 and #7 would already have known.
Back at the scene of the battle, a familiar arm claws upwards from beneath the rubble of the destroyed building…
Orion has never spoken of his parentage on panel before now, nor has anyone else discussed it in his presence. From the way he speaks here, one might think that he’s known the truth for some time; but, as we’ll see by the story’s end, it’s a bit more complicated than that…
It seems unlikely that, had Kirby been allowed to continue with his epic, he would have opted to reveal the secret of the fraternal bond between Orion and Kalibak, just to kill the latter off a mere fifteen pages later. But as it is, the death of Kalibak provides a suitably significant climactic event on which to close this “first volume” of New Gods, as well as a way to dramatically underscore the thematic importance of Orion’s new self-awareness. New Gods #11 may not be the greatest issue ever of this title — it might not even make the top five — but at this point in Kirby’s storyline, it’s hard to imagine how he could have crafted a better final issue.
Of course, back in August, 1972, my fifteen-year-old self didn’t know that this was the final issue of New Gods — at least, not with iron-clad certainty. There was, after all, no word of farewell at the bottom of page 22; nor was there any notice of the book’s “suspension” given in #11’s letter column. But much as with the conclusion of Forever People #11, it wasn’t hard to infer the truth from the tone of the final story panel; that, and the lack not only of a blurb teasing the next issue’s story hook, but even of the usual “Next issue on sale on or about [date]” bottom-of-the-page slug that appeared in most DC comics of this era. Instead, the book’s very last panel promoted one of Kirby’s brand new titles — in this instance, Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, the first issue of which would be going on sale at the end of the month, just twelve days after the release of New Gods #11.*
Naturally, however, even if I couldn’t immediately be dead certain that New Gods and Forever People were both gone as of their eleventh issues, within a couple of months time, when no FP or NG #12 arrived on stands, the jig was obviously up. Even so, I’m not sure I gave up completely on the Fourth World epic continuing under Jack Kirby, even in a severely truncated form, until the twelfth issue of Mister Miracle rolled around. That issue wasn’t the first to be virtually devoid of content related to the New Genesis-Apokolips conflict (that would have been #10), but as the first such following the disappearance of the other two Fourth World titles, it sent a clear message.
Still, even defining “Fourth World” the way I do (which, to be clear, requires at least some connection to the New Genesis-Apokolips war in the story’s plot, however small), the very end of the Fourth World According To Jack Kirby wouldn’t come along until Mister Miracle #18, which DC published in November, 1973. For that reason, I’ve decided to postpone my comments regarding the overall creative legacy of the entire uncompleted epic until I write my post about that issue, fifteen months from now.
However, I’ve decided to go ahead and share a few thoughts now about how and why the Fourth World “failed” (commercially speaking), since, from a historical perspective, the cancellations of Forever People and New Gods truly did signify the end of the project. I should note at the outset that I have no special knowledge concerning these matters; these are simply my own opinions, inspired by some fifty-two years of experience as a Fourth World fan, and considerably fewer years (seven, as of last month) as a comic book history researcher/blogger.
Plenty of comic book series — more than a few of them fan favorites — have failed in the marketplace over the decades. But the end of the Fourth World seems to generate more consternation, and conjecture, than most others combined. It seems that for at least some of those who love the project, it was so ambitious and special, and showed so much promise, that there just has to be more to its untimely termination than simply “poor sales”. But does there, really?
Let’s start with the notion that DC Comics — or, more specifically, DC’s president and publisher, Carmine Infantino, deliberately sabotaged the Fourth World titles. The theory here is that all Infantino really wanted was to hurt DC’s arch-rival, Marvel Comics, by “stealing” their top creative talent away from them; as far as Kirby’s new DC work was concerned, Infantino was either indifferent or even actively hostile, due to the fact that he didn’t really respect Kirby’s talent. Rather, he (like several others at DC), thought that Kirby’s artwork was “ugly”, or at least not quite up to DC’s supposedly higher standards.
Your humble blogger has to admit there there seems to be something to the idea that Infantino didn’t quite “get” Kirby — at least, not as a visual artist. There would appear to be few other reasons why DC would promote the coming of the King in the summer of 1970 with blurbs in house ads and on the comics themselves that invoked his name — and then, as early as with the second new Kirby comic released by DC, send a book out under a cover by Neal Adams rather than one by Kirby himself. Additionally, there’s the company’s practice of routinely having Kirby’s Superman and Jimmy Olsen faces routinely redrawn by another artist (usually Murphy Anderson).
Still, it’s quite some distance from acknowledging a likely aesthetic disconnect between Infantino and Kirby to concluding that the former wanted the latter’s books to fail. Besides the fact that Infantino himself denied the charge on multiple occasions, it simply doesn’t make any sense, business-wise. Why wouldn’t you want to damage Marvel and sell more of your own company’s comics at the same time? I have to believe that if Infantino had actually been that cavalier about spending corporate money to publish and promote books he didn’t want to see succeed, he would have been let go by Warner Communications a lot earlier than 1976.
A more reasonable theory than “DC killed the Fourth World out of spite” (at least in my view) is the proposition that “the sales weren’t really all that bad”, which has a number of variations. One version of this thesis holds that the Fourth World books, as well as other fan-favorite titles like Green Lantern, were victims of affidavit return fraud, a dishonest practice that had evolved within the old newsstand distribution system that allowed distributors to return unsold copies to the publishers for credit. By the early ’70s, the distributors could simply send in an affidavit saying that they’d shredded their unsold copies, rather than physically shipping them back, as had previously been the procedure. It was an honor system that some distributors appear to have defrauded by claiming to have destroyed comics which they’d in fact sold directly to enterprising comics dealers and collectors. This would inevitably skew the sales reports used by DC and other companies to gauge a title’s success, since they’d be assuming that a certain percentage of their publications’ runs had gone unsold, when in fact the books had been sold and were now either residing in the collections of happy fans, or sitting in a dealer’s inventory at marked up prices, awaiting future resale).
That this practice occurred at least occasionally seems to be an incontrovertible fact; it’s been attested to by at least one veteran dealer who was there at the time, Robert Beerbohm, who has written widely on the topic (beginning with an article in Comic Book Artist #6 [Fall, 1999]). What’s considerably less clear is the extent to which the fraudulent “secret” selling went on, and whether it was widespread enough that it could have directly impacted the decision-making of publishers regarding whether it was worthwhile to continue producing a given title. Based on the research your humble blogger has done (which I’ll admit may be woefully incomplete), it seems unlikely that we’ll ever have a definite answer to that question.
A related theory holds that maybe the sales expectations for the Fourth World titles were simply too high — that DC was expecting numbers comparable with those of Kirby’s books at Marvel, Fantastic Four and Thor, just prior to his 1970 departure. Believing this, they gave the early issues of the books huge print runs, and when the percentage of copies sold was less than they anticipated, they took a bath. The key idea here is that the sales were probably basically fine — comparable to a mid-level DC comic, perhaps — but the print run miscalculations made them look like losers. Again, this theory seems quite plausible; but, also again, with no official sales figures for Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle ever having been released by DC, the full truth will probably never be known.
This is probably a good place to point out that the Fourth World titles were hardly unique among the new DC comics of this era in being cancelled (or in the case of Mister Miracle, forced into taking a different direction) before they’d had even a dozen issues released. Beginning with Carmine Infantino’s ascension to the position of Editorial Director circa 1967-68, the venerable company had shown considerable innovation in its publishing schedule, releasing such offbeat projects as Secret Six, Beware the Creeper, Anthro, and Bat Lash. But then, after having greenlit such risky titles, Infantino routinely seemed to quickly lose faith in them when they didn’t become sales smashes right out of the gate; of the four titles listed above, none lasted more than seven issues. Viewed in that context, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles might be considered more fortunate than a number of their boundaries-pushing peers.
The observation that the Fourth World books weren’t alone in ending much sooner than their fans would wish brings me back to the question I asked back at the beginning of these ruminations, to wit: Does there have to be an explanation for why they didn’t last, other than that they didn’t sell well enough to satisfy the powers-that-were at DC in 1972? I touched on this point in my post about the last issue of the Denny O’Neil-Neal Adams Green Lantern back in February, but if you’ll allow me the indulgence of repeating myself: Can’t we all think of examples in other media — movies, TV, record albums, books, etc. — where work that’s been critically lauded and/or found a small but devoted fandom hasn’t met with a commensurate amount of commercial success? Surely, if any project faced a tough challenge in the American comic book marketplace of 1972 — a marketplace that was still dominated by a young, casual readership, rather than the committed and relatively older fan audience that would dominate the comics industry following the rise of the direct market, several years later — it was an interlocking tetralogy of four less-than-monthly titles, all but one of which featured brand new characters (most of whom were alien gods from outer space).
It’s especially interesting to me that so many of the Fourth World’s most ardent devotees (a class to whom your humble blogger likes to think he belongs) find it so hard to account for the fact of the project’s untimely end, given that a segment of comics fandom has never really warmed to the whole thing. There’s a certain class of fan who, while being great admirers of the work Kirby did in collaboration with Stan Lee at Marvel, don’t much care for the Fourth World books; they find the dialogue too stilted or the characters too remote (perhaps both), or they may consider the work to be seriously flawed in some other way. You can find their opinions in comics fan groups on Facebook and in other contemporary online forums, just as easily as you can in the letters columns of the original Fourth World comics themselves; perhaps they represent a minority of those who’ve read the work (and perhaps they don’t), but they most definitely do exist, now as well as then. Personally, I can’t help but feel that those fans are (and were) missing out on something great; but at the end of the day, you can’t make somebody else care for what they don’t like, just because you like it. To each their own, and all that jazz.
So, if I may, I’d like to recommend to my fellow fans of the Fourth World that we collectively spend a little less time mourning the fact that we never got to see Jack Kirby’s greatest work in its fully completed form, and a bit more time appreciating the fact that we got as much of it as we did. Beyond that, let’s be grateful that Jack Kirby himself was able to realize as much of his creative vision as he did; say what else you will about Carmine Infantino, but without him, the gods of New Genesis and Apokolips might never have had a life outside of the King of Comics’ imagination beyond the few presentation boards he put together in the late 1960s.
Jack Kirby’s Fourth World may be an unfinished symphony, but even incomplete, it continues to thrill, move, and inspire new readers in each generation. In my humble opinion, that’s a legacy worth celebrating.
*I hope that no one who has enjoyed my posts about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics will be too disappointed to learn that I won’t be writing about Kamandi here. As regular readers know, I try to keep this blog focused on the comics I actually bought and read fifty years ago, and I’m afraid I only ever bought one issue of the title (the first one). At the time, I thought it was just OK — well enough written and drawn for what it was, but not compelling enough to bring me back for the next issue. Part of my problem with the book was simply that it didn’t have anything to do the Fourth World (that was of course the point, but my fifteen year old self didn’t know that, and I’m not sure I would have cared if I did). The other part was that it seemed to be a blatant knockoff of Planet of the Apes, a franchise of which I was in fact a huge fan, but didn’t care to see imitated, even by the King of Comics.
I’ve since come to understand that the latter rap wasn’t really fair to Kirby (not that the first one was, either) — that, even though he had indeed been asked by DC publisher Carmine Infantino to work up something in the PotA vein, the material he ultimately produced not only diverged from that basic concept in ways more significant than “other animals besides apes have evolved, too!”, but also incorporated ideas that the creator had had for over a decade, independently of Planet of the Apes.
In addition to that point, I’ve read and heard enough praise of the Kamandi series over the years by people whose opinions I respect to make me believe that I really missed the boat (or should I say life raft?), back in 1972 — an error I intend to rectify by reading the whole series from beginning to end, one of these first days. Unfortunately, none of the above provides me with a time machine I can use to go back and tell my younger self to buy Kamandi, for crying out loud, so that I can write about it a half century later.
In the end, all I can say is: I’m sorry, Last Boy on Earth; it wasn’t you, it was me.