Monday, April 20, 2009

NEW FEATURE: Jack Kirby's New Gods 1

[Andy Bentley has stepped up with a plan -- a plan to look at every issue of Jack Kirby's New Gods here on the blog! This struck me as dead perfect for several reasons. 1. New Comics suck and I have been meaning to take this time to go back and read old comics, just like I got all caught up on TV I missed during the writers strike. 2. Kirby's New Gods, now collected in four very nice plural-of-the-word-Omnibus, has been at the VERY TOP of my COMICS TO READ list since they came out as part of a lead in to Morrison's Final Crisis. (Just under that -- Drake's hella-nutty old skool Doom Patrol, so anyone can get started on that project when they feel like it). Final Crisis had problems, but the New Gods sucking were not one of them, and Morrison has spoken of them in hushed tones forever -- Rock of Ages was the first non-X-men comic book I ever bought -- a dozen years ago now. That means that Powell and Bentley will be taking me through the background I should have had in the first place for the stuff that started me loving comics. I am also particularly interested in thinking through Morrison's claim that Kirby is the Blake of the 20th Century, which is interesting -- I can certainly see it in the raw poetry and personal mythology that comes crashing into the mundane world in weird places. 3. New Gods is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from Claremont's X-Men all cosmic DC space opera instead of Marvel soap opera so we will have two totally distinct things running here. I will be reading along, but I read Claremont as well, and did not necessarily have that much to say, at least so far. But we will see. I always tell myself I can pipe up whenever I want to. As for the rest of you, go get those Kirby New Gods trades, and enjoy. They are a must if you like Morrison -- right from this first issue you can see where Morrison comes from, all compressed insanity, and a hipster Olsen.]

Andy Bentley

“The Newsboy Legion” AKA Jimmy Olsen, and the Mountain of Judgement
#133 October 1970

Because this is a little informal blogging, I should give you some context for this opening article about Kirby’s Fourth World. I am not a Kirby devotee. I respect the man and his work a great deal, however I have read little of his material. I’m 29, I was an Image Comics kid when I started out. My exposure to The Fourth World is limited to 1996’s Superman: The Animated Series and a handful of appearances by New Gods in the 1990’s and 2000’s. I’ll never fully know what it was like to be a Marvel Zombie of the 1960’s eagerly anticipating Kirby’s first work with the Direct Competition. But we do have the historical benefit of seeing this in almost 40 years hindsight. Nixon is in the White House, the Kent State Shootings are fresh in a collective consciousness and Vietnam is at full tilt. The Beatles have disbanded and Sabbath and Zeppelin are around the corner. The comic industry is also in upheaval. Newstands are shrinking and comic books are the 1st to go. The secondary comic book market is on the rise as people have begun to collect comics. This could have influenced the large spanning type of story told by Kirby. Mark Evanier also cites the rediscovery of the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy as another factor. At DC, Kirby has 3 new books and takes over one existing book, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. Superman’s Pal didn’t have a solid creative team so Kirby didn’t push anyone out.

And so begins out journey, with issue #133 of Superman’s Pal. The cover proclaiming “Kirby is HERE!”, the cover suggests a common silver age theme: Jimmy or Superman doing something horrible to one or the other, to entice readers to buy the comic just to see how this unimaginable scenario unfolded. For more of these types of covers, merely google “Superman is a dick”. We open with Jimmy, who now looks a lot more like James Dean than Jimmy Olsen, meeting the successors to Simon and Kirby’s 1940’s creation, the Newsboy Legion. The Newsboy Legion, along with the Yancy Street Gang, confused me when I was foreign to comic books. I came to learn that the Yancy Street Gang was just a 1 note gag in the Fantastic Four, while the Newsboy Legion was a group of wise talking street kids who sold papers. The Legion kids do not stand the test of time. They’re one dimensional with no cool costumes and limited powers. The leader is a bit of a Scrappy Doo character and we all know how Scrappy is remembered. Jimmy has been sent by Morgan Edge, the president of the Galaxy Broadcasting System (and new owner of the Daily Planet) with the Legion and their new Wiz Wagon to go get a story in the wild area, a sanctuary for weird motorcycle groups. Clark Kent gets word of this and feels Jimmy is over his head and goes to investigate as Superman. It's here that you really start to get the sense of a generational gap. Clark and Superman are played as out of touch and while Jimmy is our 25 year old everyman who can blend in with the ‘Hairies’, a biker gang in the Wild Area. Kirby is 53 when writing this and served in WW2 but seems to have some progressive ideals. Jimmy and the Legion take off in the Wiz Wagon, (a quintessential Kirby design) encounter The Outisders biker gang and of course get into a brawl with them. Jimmy beats up their leader, which in turn makes him the NEW leader (logic?) and then brings us to the moment we see on the cover. Superman is doused with some green K from an odd looking weapon of unknown origin which is a hint of things to come. When he comes to, Jimmy reveals his true assignment: to discover the mystery of the Mountain of Judgement. But before more can be revealed the mountain begins to move, bright lights are seen in the distance and Jimmy heads out with his new gang threatening Superman to not stop them.

If I were to have read this back when I was 17 I’d have hated it. The 1970’s hadn’t become retro-hip yet and Superman taking a back seat to Jimmy Olsen wasn’t my idea of a good time. Even now, it’s a bit of a struggle. There’s none of the elements of the Fourth World I came to love in the Superman cartoon. Kirby delivered a Jimmy Olsen story with some small elements of his Fourth World saga and looking at it with an academic eye, there are some interesting elements. The broad representation of the counter culture movement, the distrust in authority and the move of news to the TV instead of the paper. I don’t even know what the Mountain of Judgement is yet, but I feel like you could write a term paper just on the name. The dialogue doesn’t ring true for 1970 but that argument can be made throughout comics . The art is solid, my particular favorites are the look of the Wiz Wagon, the design of the wooden city the bikers live in, and the storytelling sequence of Clark Kent being hit by the car. It wasn’t until I was leafing through the book again that I realized how great the storytelling was in the car sequence. Good sequential storytelling is often only noticed when it is absent.

Final note: Longtime comic fans have heard the tales of how DC had artists redraw Superman’s face in these Kirby comics because DC’s feared their greatest icon would look to Marvel-ish. It’s fairly apparent here and its a shame. The ironic twist? DC Direct producing a 100% Kirby-Superman into their 2nd line of New Gods Action Figures.


James said...

I have to admit that I found the first volume a bit of a slog - to the extent that I've yet to get any others. The chronological ordering of the issues - while quite possibly the least of several evils - definitely hurts some of the material. The Orion issues worked best for me, I think. What the hell a Don Rickles is, I do not know.

They're beautifully presented books, though, and I had a much better time with the O.M.A.C omnibus.

James said...

Also, I'm not sure how ironic DC's action figure-based mea culpa is - surely none of the people working at DC now had anything to do with the Swan-enising of Kirby's faces, and I'm sure if there was a way of restoring the original art for the Omnibuses, they would've.

Marc Caputo said...

Is it "omnibii"?

Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

I never really got the fascination with Kirby till I read his Eternals stuff. I started to finally get it with that, but I haven't yet read any of the New Gods stuff. If those books were cheaper, I'd probably check them out.

James said...

Eternals, yes! I knew I was forgetting something before OMAC. The presentation's nowhere near as nice as the DC stuff, but that's some great comics.

Mikey said...

Swell, I've been looking forward to this series of posts for a few reasons - not least because the saga of The World That's Coming are some of the best comics (Geoff, new comics totally suck).

When I was a teenager I would've hated this too (although at 17 I was on the verge of jacking in comics). I'll try and contain my enthusiasm and stick to some clear points:

I think with these issues, and Jimmy Olsen in particular, it takes a while for Kirby to warm up. But you know you're on to something great the moment you turn the page and there's one of those famous-but-not-famous-enough-dammit! Kirby collages. That there aren't more of these flourishes at this early stage actually heightens their use: This is a Jimmy Olsen comic?! On the flip side, Kirby doesn't use these cosmic collages to anything like the degree he did in Fantastic Four - I reread the issues leading up to the "Coming of Galactus" story and some of that art was off the chain. Although New Gods, like The Eternals, has a series of utterly beautiful single splash pages and the prerequisite amount of Kirbytech.

Totally agree on the serviceable storytelling side of things, which people might overlook. When I was a kid I dug the Image artists, sure, but these days I've got more love for guys like Sal Buscema - not showy, just quiet, solid, moving the reader through the story.

And the best is yet to come.

Todd C. Murry said...

Cool idea, but I'd have enjoyed your post more if you added to the end "that looks like Fred Willard."

The second and third volumes are the best and volume one gets progressively better, but the worst stuff is the end of Mr. Miracle (after the others were canceled and it was the only one left), which is mostly the beginning of 4. Hunger dogs (the end of 4) is odd, not always in a good way, but overall pretty neat.

pla said...

I actually read these issues of Jimmy Olsen when I was maybe four or five (my dad had lost most of his comics, but managed to hold on to these). I found them completely bizarre and compelling. I think these comics are the reason I always got into the deep history aspect of DC - I loved the tie from the actual 40's Newsboy Legion (which my dad had to explain to me) to the present day clones.

Anyway, I read all 4 volumes recently, and actually liked the first volume the best. Something about the gradual introduction of the Fourth World stuff into a fairly dull comic like Jimmy Olsen made the other titles seem much more apocalyptic and eventful than they might have.

Matt said...

I must say, I was seventeen when these came out, and having read them then for the first time

I LOVED them.

However, my dad is forty-five and this volume made him grow hives, to the extent that he refuses to read the next three. ("But volume three has 'Himon'!" I pleaded.) was the suggestion that it was a generational thing? Because that's what I figure it is...

Dougie said...

I must have been about nine years old when I discovered the Fourth World; I certainly knew Kirby from FF. Despite the very spotty distribution of Marvel and DC comics in the West of Scotland ( I believe they arrived as ballast for ships) I was able to read many of the same issues as Grant Morrison, although he's a city boy.
I discovered Olsen, Forever People, New Gods and Mr.Miracle on the spinner racks (in most cases with the fourth or fifth issues)and I was devoted to them. They were unsettling, humourous and very violent: ideally suited for boys who could memorise the mythos, just like Tolkien.
As I say, the action was fequently brutal- I found it hard to look at the Terrible Turpin issue- and characters often had horrible deaths: for example, the pacifist son in "Glory Boat" and Auralie in "Himon".
They were transgressive in terms of language too: "Kingdom of the Damned" was the first time I'd seen that word in a comic.