A Celebration Of All Things Kirby At DC

A Celebration Of All Things Kirby At DC

Kirbyesque

Tripwire’s contributing writer Scott Braden talks about how his love of Jack Kirby goes back to when he was a child and how Kirby has cast a huge shadow over DC years after he worked for them…

Orion of the New Gods is indomitably Kirbyesque.

Intersecting sprawling space opera with cosmic parable, creator Jack Kirby’s adventures starring this interstellar champion orbits around the fact that he was raised in paradise as a force for ultimate good, although he was begat as a scion of universe-conquering evil. Born to rule with an iron fist like his dark father, he instead uses “epic battle” to save the myriad masses he has sworn to protect. Well beyond the classic Kirby Krackle, he and his “Astro-Force” fight the good fight across varied dimensions – and countless worlds upon worlds.

Orion drawn by Walter Simonson, an artist who owes a bit to Kirby’s creations at DC

He is power incarnate. He is the great and galactic end-all, be-all.

Again, he is Kirbyesque, and he is coming to save us all from ourselves. And, so was his “Fourth World” for DC Comics – and all that came after.

* * *

I first experienced the four-colour glory of the New Gods when I was nine years old – but their prophet wasn’t Kirby. His were tales told years before. No, it was in a cramped, hot summer house in Myrtle Beach, SC, in 1979, when my cousin Bryon lent me his copy of Adventure Comics #459 – a big, thick “Dollar Comic” that featured, among other meta-human man-gods, the terrible Darkseid on the cover.

Within its pages, now-legendary writer Gerry Conway and artist-extraordinaire Don Newton brought the majesty – and more importantly, the mystery – of these great and powerful beings to the imaginations of readers everywhere. Picking up the after-Kirby storyline that ran in an issue of 1st Issue Special and the recently cancelled Return of the New Gods, it did a number on young, impressionable readers like myself. And, dear God, were the New Gods and their story as intimidating as it was intriguing. As a bright young lad trying to understand, if not somehow better comprehend, Christianity’s Gospels which I was being indoctrinated in at various Sunday Schools within small town Westminster, MD, the “Fourth World” saga, as I would later know it to be called, was something else altogether. It was an epic that was way out there for this pre-teen – and probably one of Kirby’s grandest concepts of all time.

Needless to say, both the characters and the concept stayed with me. All the way to a Justice League of America / Justice Society of America crossover that saw print a couple years later. Conway returned as scribe for this next chapter in the story of the New Gods, which had been previously concluded in its post-Kirby mythos with the seemingly invincible Darkseid being destroyed by his own minions in the deep space surrounding his nightmare world of Apokolips within the pages of Adventure Comics #460.

Drawn first as the omega assignment of the late DC Comics stand-by Dick Dillin, and finished by master storyteller George Perez as the alpha in his classic run on Justice League of America, the crossover story dealt with the heroes from three parallel worlds – Earth-One, Earth-Two, and Olympus-like New Genesis – fighting to prevent a resurrected Darkseid from replacing (and thereby destroying) Earth-Two with Apokolips. Of course, at the end of the day, the good guys won – but this time, the New Gods, side-by-side with the “World’s Greatest Heroes,” appeared to resemble mere mystery men as opposed to divine beings of great power and expanse.

And, with that comic book anti-climax, I left the concept (and soon, comics) to better concentrate on a young man’s pursuit of girls – that is, until I saw Kirby’s original “Fourth World” stories in high school . . . at the insistent prompting of my big brother, Steve.  Those early chapters in the saga, like most everything else Kirby created by putting pen to paper, blew my mind – and opened up shining, new doors of possibility.

The stories, of course, were not only written, drawn, and edited by Kirby, but they were Kirbyesque in their grandeur. In fact, en masse, Kirby’s “Fourth World” epic – and everything that came after – had a strength and intensity that was worthy of a king. A “King of Comics,” even.

* * *

Kirby’s early DC Comics work was a revelation to me. Sure, I knew he co-created the better part of the Marvel Universe – including Captain America, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, and so on – as well as many of the secondary characters who appeared in those books during his tenure. And, yes, his Eternals and Devil Dinosaur were also mighty indeed.  But the New Gods and everything else he created at DC . . . wow!

The “Original Universe,” as its promotional department called the publisher in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, set Kirby free on its mid-selling, extremely vanilla Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen comic (Jimmy Olsen?!) way back  in 1970 . . . and, boy, did he hit the ground running. From rebooting Golden Age favorites like the Newsboy Legion and The Guardian, to introducing new concepts like Darkseid, the D.N.Aliens and the monster-movie planet of Transilvane, the acclaimed creator began to build the foundation of what would become his “Fourth World” epic – and it was good.  Then came his triumphant cosmic trilogy – Forever People; New Gods; and Mister Miracle – and lo and behold, comic book history was made.  

And, we’re all the better for it.

* * *

The “DC Explosion” take on Orion was indubitably not Kirbyesque.

In fact, the warrior god’s 1976 revamped super-hero look – including mask, spandex costume, and a Superman-ish “O” on his chest so you couldn’t mistake him for another – didn’t live up to the King’s unconquerable original design at all.

Yes, I wrote “unconquerable.” Remember: “Orion fights for Earth!”

And, like his genius creation, Scott Free – the new god known as “Mister Miracle” who was based on the early exploits of comics legend Steranko – Jack Kirby created Orion, et al, after he escaped his “marvelous” manacles at what was then “The House of Ideas” in the late 1960s, and sent comics fans’ imaginations spinning wildly with his “Fourth World” at the “Distinguished Competition.” Not only did Kirby end up escaping the mediocre and the confining with his epic four-color mythos, but so did we – his readers.

Let me show you how.

Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was “us” – humanity as a whole – bearing witness to the unimaginable. Forever People was the children of the gods fighting the good fight with a passion for life and all its pleasures. New Gods was the battleground, the point zenith, the ground zero of Kirby’s Fourth World. And, Mister Miracle was the reluctant warrior and his companions from all points Fourth World – Scott Free originally of New Genesis, Big Barda of Apokolips, and Oberon from Earth – and the magic that they held sway over the rest of the mythos.

Like New Genesis, the epic was four-colour heaven. But, evidently, there was more to discover.

* * *

Because of the efforts of Conway’s Return of the New Gods and the Steve Englehart-resurrected Mister Miracle, et al, Kirby’s small part of the DC Universe didn’t exactly up and disappear in the mid-70s when the King of Comics returned to Marvel. Apparently, DC’s Powers that Be thought enough of Kirby’s creations to keep them around for a while. A long while, in fact. True, it continued askew from its creator’s original design; but still, his characters fought on nonetheless.

So, if DC wasn’t willing to let go of Kirby’s characters, then why did they let go of the King himself?  That’s a question to ponder as we look at his creations’ post-Kirby stories.

The top-selling Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth continued on in his own comic until issue #59, which itself continued in The Brave and the Bold #157. (The long-lost last issue #60 was finally reprinted decades later in the pages of 2017’s Kamandi Challenge Special #1.) Within the non-Kirby issues, readers would observe Kamandi transform briefly into an OMAC himself (issue #50), while learn once and for all that Buddy Blank was indeed the adventurer’s “grandfather” hinted at in the fan-favorite story’s first chapter. The end of the series would also give readers a taste of Jim Starlin’s classic OMAC back-up story – including a new origin for the “One Man Army Corp” – which would finally conclude years later after the main stories of Warlord #37 to #39.

Meanwhile, plot points from the last issues of OMAC – issues #7 and #8 – were tidied up inside Hercules Unbound #10. Written by Cary Bates and illustrated by Kirby aficionado Walter Simonson, the fate of the nefarious Dr. Skuba was pondered by Hercules and the Atomic Knights, with our heroes witnessing firsthand the devastation left behind by the Kirby villain.

The Demon bewitched Detective Comics #483 to #485 in 1979 – courtesy of the incomparable writer Len Wein and legendary artist Steve Ditko. Within this unholy trilogy of tales – which actually began in Detective Comics #482 in a chapter drawn by comics superstar Michael Golden – Kirby’s supernatural avenger faced off against the maniacal Baron Tyme. A short-lived villain, the evil Baron had just previously faced Man-Bat under Ditko’s watch in the first issue of the bat-hero’s ill-fated comic, and was apparently set to finish off Etrigan. Thankfully, he didn’t succeed.

Jason Blood’s protégé Rand Singh from Kirby’s The Demon was also found in another of the King’s creations (with Steve Sherman), Kobra, where he lost his eyesight in issue six – but not his “Second Sight.”

The ominous Darkseid reappeared as the evil benefactor in Secret Society of Super-Villains, which he used to replace the apparently ineffective Inter-Gang.

And, don’t forget the non-Kirby Newsboy Legion back-up story in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #150 – “Where’s Charlie Now?” – bringing readers up-to-date with our favorite “weirdie” from the aptly named Evil Factory.

So, yes, these books continued Kirby’s mythos at DC Comics into the late ‘70s and beyond, but they weren’t the only ones influenced by the King’s fertile imagination.

May I re-introduce Superman’s girlfriend, Lois Lane – or rather her self-titled comic.

* * *

Although not officially part of Kirby’s “Fourth World” canon, Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane did indeed offer comic book fans an apocrypha for the New Gods mythos.

Of course, does that mean Lois Lane – Gal Reporter – is Kirbyesque? With the evidence presented, that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.  In any case, Kirby’s characters were brought in to reach out to the King’s army of fans and tie into the popularity of his work on Jimmy Olsen.

You know, maybe if Kirby wrote, drew, and edited the title like he did with the others he oversaw, it would have sold more.  In any case, those jobs were left to respected editor E. Nelson Bridwell, legendary writer Robert Kanigher, and very competent artist Werner Roth. And, although the stories didn’t have much to add to Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos, it did offer readers some small outsider’s insight into DC’s “Kirbyverse.”

First, there was Lois Lane #111 – a tale called “The Dark Side of the Justice League!” – which pitted the unsuspecting reporter against tiny clones of “The World’s Greatest Heroes” produced at the Evil Factory, a nefarious genetics laboratory helmed by Darkseid agents Simyan and Mokkari, and introduced in the pages of Jimmy Olsen.

Lois Lane #114 and #117 continued the “Fourth World” influence by having Morgan Edge, the Daily Planet publisher who was replaced by a clone that served Darkseid in Inter-Gang, appear within their pages. In fact, Edge’s story becomes the focus of issues #118 and #119, as readers discovered more about his replacement by a clone agent of Darkseid, while the real Daily Planet publisher escapes the Evil Factory and meets up with The Outsiders – a super-motorcycle gang introduced in the pages of Jimmy Olsen.

The New Gods mythos was felt more strongly in issue #115 when Lois encounters the then-new Kirby creation, The Black Racer, who debuted in New Gods #3. This issue, the Racer’s second appearance overall, has Willie Walker going about his mission as a messenger of death.

Lois Lane #116 has our heroine investigating Happyland, the deadly amusement park from Forever People that was the brainchild of Darkseid’s henchman, Desaad. Darkseid even puts in an appearance in the issue – which was likely the villain’s first ever non-Kirby-drawn appearance.

So, for a time, Ms. Lane, like her young colleague Jimmy Olsen, found herself embroiled in a “Fourth World” of both peril and brilliance. And, even though they weren’t spun by the King of Comics, her tales — like the rest of the saga — were absolutely essential for Kirby fans nonetheless, although she herself was not and will never be considered Kirbyesque.

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