This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 2, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
The Fourth World is a cornerstone of the DC Universe that was created and populated by Jack Kirby, but does it truly function as it was crafted to after Kirby?
It’s really strange to hear you describe The Fourth World as a cornerstone of the DC Universe. You’re not wrong; The Fourth World feature prominently in both best-selling series like Justice League and is a foundational component of Warner Bros. flailing collection of superhero films. Darkseid is the biggest bad of the DC Universe and Steppenwolf is going to be the villain of the first DC superhero team movie. So you’re definitely not wrong.
But as a huge Jack Kirby fan, I feel like you’re not quite right either.
Yes, the big stone monster that shoot freaking laser beams out of his freaking eyes in Geoff Johns’ Justice League was called Darkseid. Yes, those clunky boxes in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Junky Titles are referred to as Mother Boxes in the script. But are they really these things? Does anyone actually connect them to the the Jack Kirby creations in a manner that doesn’t require the word “technically” be used multiple times?
That doesn’t just apply to these current incarnations either. This isn’t me saying that modern DC is bad. This is me saying that pretty much all of DC has been bad forever when it comes to the Fourth World. It’s much easier to single out the instances when the Fourth World was used to great effect and in a way that is true to its origins than all of the times it was not. Basically, the list goes Orion by Walt Simonson, Cosmic Odyssey, then a few comics that are pretty good, but not great. It’s a really short list. The Fourth World is a concept beloved by pretty much everyone who has worked at DC Comics, but it has also been failed on a more regular basis than Flint, Michigan by the federal government. So how does that happen?
To look at this question in another way: Does owning a piece of intellectual property mean that you can effectively redefine it in any way that you like?
You certainly can redefine it. You own it. But the key word here is “effectively” and that’s where the trouble begins. When Jack Kirby created the Fourth World, he was at the absolute top of his game. Some of his other creations from the same period in his career (e.g. The Demon, Kamandi) have been more effectively reimagined, but they aren’t the New Gods. This wasn’t just Kirby at the apex of his artistic and storytelling achievements, it was Kirby at his most Kirby. Quite Frankly, The Fourth World saga is Kirby’s masterpiece, Fantastic Four be damned.
So who can come along and continue the story of a masterpiece by an indisputable master? Well, we have Simonson and Mignola on that very short list earlier, so you can already see the bar is incredibly high. Neither of their works are really continuations either, they’re stories that utilize established concepts, ideas, and narratives, but do their best to avoid actually tapping directly into what Kirby achieved. They build on the Fourth World like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen builds on Victorian literature. Any storyteller worth their salt knows we don’t actually need a novel titled What Atticus Finch Did Next, but maybe there are some ideas within To Kill a Mockingbird worth exploring in a new context.
Attempts to integrate the Fourth World into the DC Universe regularly crumble and I suspect that’s why you’re asking this question. Everytime we see DC Comics try to make this superb comic by the greatest superhero creator to ever live into their line, the flaws are abundantly apparent. Part of that reason is the creations are so singular in their nature, so clearly the work of an auteur master, that continuation is an impossible challenge.
There’s also the issue that the New Gods aren’t really superheroes. Just like everything Kirby brought to DC Comics after leaving Marvel, they’re part of an attempt to expand his own horizons and the medium. The New Gods are an epic morality play in which Kirby is attempting to understand the true nature of good and evil. They’re explosive, active, and bombastic, but they are also all about metaphors and do a great job of leaving power fantasies and Earth as a whole behind. This stuff is far closer to religion than spandex.
You might object to both of these arguments. You could say something like Captain America was another Jack Kirby creation that had just as much to do with war and propaganda, but we’ve received a lot of great Cap stories as he became a cornerstone of the Marvel universe. And you would be right.
That counter-argument also ignores the precision and clarity with which the New Gods were conceived. So many of our superhero icons were conceived by truly great creators, but their earliest stories are rarely their best. The first Captain America comics or Superman comics or Spider-Man comics all have the ingredients of greatness and elements worth studying, yet none of them are the absolute best to ever come along. The quickest any of these evolve is Spider-Man which hits its series’ high point almost 3 years after being created.
The Fourth World was perfect at the beginning.
That’s what I mean when I say masterpiece. This is the perfect, intentional creation of a true genius doing exactly what he intends. That’s the difference between utilizing these characters and their worlds, as opposed to so many other things that also came from Kirby’s mind. Whether you’re talking the Fantastic Four or Captain America, these ideas weren’t perfect when they first hit the page. They evolved and changed, taking the great ideas at the start and refining them. That invites further reinvention and imagination. But how do you reinvent the perfect?
It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult. It requires an ability that can compete with the original, one with the vision and follow through to do more than tinker, but to add a new mark of greatness. That’s how you wind up with the incredible work of someone like Simonson or Mignola seemingly adding to pantheon of Fourth World stories, when these works actually couldn’t be much more separate. It’s the same reason that someone like Mike Allred and the rest of the Allred family tackling a single Fourth World character like Forager (a.k.a. Bug) makes sense because they’re actually that good.
The bottom line is this: You don’t fuck with perfection. You don’t paint over the Sistine Chapel and you don’t try to cram the New Gods into your monthly cycle. True masterpieces are bigger than that, and only masters can hope to handle the challenge presented by painting a new picture with those similar elements.