by TerencePark on 12-20-2014 12:29
Influences. We all have them. I'm going to talk about comic books; American comic books, from the Silver Age. I was there when Jack Kirby's Fourth World came out and what an impact it had on me.
American comic books of the 60's sold in their millions. Well some of them did. The biggest in terms of circulation was Superman. The comic was widely distributed and could sell up to 1 million copies each issue. In practise it sold between 70% and 80% of that figure. A common theme that irritated more sophisticated comic book buyers was: DC would run a story with life-changing consequences that under the rules of continuity, ought to be evident in future issues. But this didn’t happen; characters were reset at the start of each new issue.
The main rival to DC was Marvel. it had a strong line of heroes. They sold well, each ranking up sales between 200k and 400k per month. Unlike DC, they were every month - many DC titles were bi-monthly, or came out, at best, 8 times per year. Supes was the big DC star. At that time he was in Superman, Action Comics, World's Finest Comics, Justice League of America, Superman's girlfriend - Lois Lane, Superman's pal - Jimmy Olsen.
Oh, bring those memories back. The big problem for the Superman family was that they fared less well, subsisting on circulations of 150k - which at that time was a trigger for cancellation. They were ripe for change. DC knew this but its culture was somnolent. It needed shock treatment to stay on terms with Marvel.
The star in Marvel's armoury was the late, great, Jack King Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). He worked on titles like The Mighty Thor, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Sgt Fury's Howling Commandos, and had been instrumental in bringing to life outstanding comic book characters such as Galactus and the Silver Surfer.
Kirby had great vision and was an absolute art monster. He regularly did 3 + comic books per month. that was 60 + pages of art work. Many struggled to put in a full shift of 20.
In 1970, Jack dropped a bombshell onto Stan (the Man) Lee. He was leaving. it wasn't as if Stan didn't know this was coming. Kirby had been taken for granted and Marvel weren't going to change. They had DC on its knees. Marvel comics had heroes with real life problems - a new thing at time, as under the Comics Code Authority, comics had reverted to simplistic pre-teen content, which defined DC. Marvel had found a formula that didn’t cross the Authority and yet appealed to older audiences. DC managed mouldering properties. Superman had a whole family to support - but suddenly, Jack Kirby was available. He had worked at DC in years past - on stuff such as Newsboy Legion, Manhunter, the Sandman.... There were no other real opportunities in the field for Jack - Charlton wouldn’t publish its one bi-monthly superhero title -E-Man - until 1973, Archie comics didn't do superheroes, Dark Horse, Image and other imprints were yet to be formed;Creepy and Eerie (the Horror market) wasn't where Jack was coming from and besides they were only b&w.
Jack went to DC. He was full of ideas.
The comics blazed out the news:
KIRBY IS HERE
Marvel ran a monthly Bullpen Bulletin Board in most of their comics. it was the biggest news in comics industry but they said nothing. Jack's output was prodigious and regular pencillers had to be found to replace him. There are various accounts of the inner workings of Marvel’s Bullpen - here isn’t the place for that.
Jack brought his Fourth World Saga with him. This was an interlinked tale ‘AN EPIC FOR OUR TIMES’ of good and evil. New Genesis v Apokolips. It ran in three comic books: The New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle. These ran side by side, along with a re-envisioned pal of Supes - Jimmy Olsen, who got a bunch of side-kicks - the Newsboy Legion. Kirby (& Joe Simon) created the original Newsboy Legion which was based on the child-labour used by the respective newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at the start of the Twentieth Century. These weren’t employees but rather purchased the papers from the publishers and sold them as independent agents. Yep. Child-labour. New York then.
DC were protective of the Superman look. Change meant threat and DC baulked at Jack's envisioning of Superman. He drew Supes' face, they redrew it. Jack's art style was dynamic. House artists were static. Jack's Superman looked muscular. If DC's house artists were told to bring Jack's Superman into line - well that's what they did. Re-booting heroes was - well done with care. The debates surrounding owner-creator v hired-hand were still to come.
Change brought opportunities. The insignia; for a long time, a double circle enclosing the letters DC in the top left hand corner, was revamped. For Jack Kirby’s series, the circle grew and now contained a bullet image of the main character(s) in the comic.
Below are the covers from the respective first issues of his Fourth World. Beyond tweaking for ‘color-cast’ I have left them as they are. I could clean up these images - but why? They have character as they are...
The New Gods
Main character: Orion of the New Gods
Earth name: O’Ryan
New Gods #1
Read: Orion Fights for Earth
Main character: Scot Free of New Genesis. He decides to become an escape artist - this is both metaphor for his escape from Apokolips and for sublimation of hope into cynicism in attempts to revive an obsolete form of entertainment. In many ways he is diametrically opposed to Orion, who, when the chips are down, resorts to smashing his way out of traps.
Mister-Miracle #1 cover
No Trap can Hold Him
The Forever People
The genesis of this group is quite interesting. Jack was often disturbed by groups of motorbike enthusiasts, tearing up and down the road that his California hangout overlooked. Enthusiasts? Fiends? it depends on which side of the peace and quiet debate you lie. They irritated the life out of him- and became the inspiration for his Forever People
The-Forever-People #1 cover
Big Bonus Beautiful Dreamer
and from page 10 of The New Gods: Apokolips
Ruled by the enemy of life, Darkseid. Simple but great visuals.
(if you've lived in some neighborhoods, this might look pretty familiar!)
Was it good? How can you ask? Re-reading these is a visual feast.
Final thought. Just look at that blurb.
I like grand themes but I prefer them realistic. My work is probably closer to The Road than Kirby's Fourth World content-wise.
Originally published October 24, 2014 on my Daily Telegraph blog.