I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
I hold a certain piece of comic book publishing in my memory with a specific narrative, and I don’t care to fact-check it. I like it the way it is.
Artist Jack Kirby was one of the primary creators of the Marvel Universe, taking an integral role in the development of characters who now dominate practically every sphere of entertainment. Even without getting into the persnickety particulars of whether Kirby deserves more credit than writer Stan Lee for the stories they spun — from the Fantastic Four to the Avengers to the X-Men, and a dazzling portfolio alongside those foundational figures — it’s undeniable that Kirby’s bold, forceful design aesthetic defined the Marvel publishing house when it was a scrappy upstart and then for the years of dominance that followed.
So Kirby jumping ship to the distinguished competition in the early nineteen-seventies was the biggest of big deals. DC touted the imminent arrival of Kirby with breathless house ads.
Legend says that Kirby told DC Comics leadership that he would take ownership of the lowest-selling title on the roster, in a simultaneous act of humility (feeling it would be inappropriate to oust other creators from a popular book) and hubris (feeling he could turn around the dismal sales numbers). And that’s how Jack Kirby was assigned writing and penciling duties on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
In prior hands, the series starring a the cub reporter supporting character to DC’s flagship hero was a repository for the loopiest ideas. In a way, that heritage suited Kirby perfectly. He possessed a wild imagination and an utter fearlessness about presenting the bizarre and fantastical as if it made perfect sense, or was at least an extension of the myth-making that was a hallmark of human storytelling from the beginning. Where other comics creators tried to spin similar yarns only to get mired in eye-rolling hokeyness, Kirby had the verve and panache to make such material archly cool and casually grand.
Jimmy Olsen was only the beginning for Kirby at DC. And it was a fraction of the fantastical vision he had. Within a few months Kirby was also presiding over a trio of brand new titles: Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and New Gods. At Marvel, Kirby participated in the sea change that led comic book storytelling from interchangeable larks from issue to issue to an ongoing continuity, rewarding regular readers and creating a more urgent incentive to pic up every issue. Miss an issue of Superman in the nineteen-sixties and all that was lost were a couple stories that would never be referenced again. Miss an issue of Fantastic Four in the same era and there would be a nettlesome gap in the big puzzle of the Marvel saga.
Kirby’s four titles — known informally as the “Fourth World” — took the mighty Marvel model the next logical step. They introduced a vast new internal mythos for the DC Universe, filled with Shakespearean evil, heroism, and familial strife. And the respective titles didn’t necessarily explicitly connect, but they all commented on each other, giving a sense of a whole by concentrating on the inventive minutiae of each individual segment.
And, since it was created by Kirby, there were plenty of fabulous monsters.
I didn’t read the Fourth World comics when they were published. I would have been too young for them. Even a few years later, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my head around their beautifully ludicrous spectacle. Only years later, when I’d shed my defensive pretension that comics needed to be serious to be appreciated could I see the specialness of Kirby’s creativity at its most unguarded and unhinged.
More than any comic creator before or since, Kirby was able to render big ideas as zippy pop art infused with a childlike storytelling logic, invested in headlong progression rather than heady themes. His stories had weight because they were preoccupied with morality, but Kirby didn’t theorize or pontificate the way his former Marvel collaborator Lee did. Instead, there was a purity of purpose — a smashing delight in working in this dismissed art form — that carried the day. Anything was fair game to Kirby, from star-spanning wonders to a knockabout story teaming Superman with Don Rickles and a weirdo doppelgänger named Goody Rickles. The message printed across the top of a second issue guest-starring Rickles was the perfect credo for the romping Fourth World comics: “KIRBY SAYS: ‘DON’T ASK! JUST BUY IT!”
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.