Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part XX: The Fourth World i: Symbolism
by Travis Hedge Coke
I never met Jack Kirby, but all my life I have known that even those singing his praises were lying about him. It is often that he is a genius, but only in this small way, or he was competent at this but ignorant or incompetent this other way. Every compliment lubricates the digs. Many digs do not have the compliment to go with.
I have always known that Jack Kirby was smarter, more conscious, more deliberate, better educated, sharper, wittier, and more capable than what fans, shop clerks, fanzines, other comics professionals would say or snidely imply. Writers who could never escape the same older man/young girl who fucks him dynamics and verbal tics their entire career would call Jack Kirby nearly illiterate. Critics will spend months if blog roll on a Kirby comic only to suggest every other paragraph that Kirby was ignorant or incapable; confused, so confused.
In the 1970s, they used to pin Jack Kirby pages up on the wall to mock. At DC and Marvel, Kirby would be rewritten, re-dialogued, redrawn to de-politicize, to defuse, to create a generic company semblance. No one ever elevated a Jack Kirby comic. No one made a Jack Kirby comic better. They met him at his level or, too often, they did less but called it better. And, Kirby still shone.
Not knowing how Kirby thought, himself, I always slot him in with Allen Ginsberg, more than Roy Thomas or Gene Colan, Stan Lee or Joe Kubert. No slight on those comics legends, all of whom produced work I love. I knew Ginsberg a little. He made part of a comic I have stashed away, co-made with Crisosto Apache, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy. Ginsberg was about ten years younger than Jack Kirby, but there is a sense of consideration in their work, a Jewish identity, a New York mythic poet radiation that flows out to take the whole United States and beyond even the other side of the veil. Jack Kirby’s work is always poetic, always symbolic and big and cool and intimate and real the way good surrealism, smart abstraction, driven cubism, reaching art is. Jack Kirby could do things with collage or with pencil, with word and with phrase that will knock the shoes off the prepared and enlighten the unwary.
Every part of a Jack Kirby comic is reaching to you.
What I mean is, I knew Ginsberg as a child knows an adult they met and learned more of later. I know Kirby only from what I have read, heard, seen, and what I believe, which is not necessarily or fairly derived from what I have heard, seen, read, or been told.
I spend my life wishing I could apologize for half or more of what I do, the entire time, thinking, “You can’t apologize for someone else.”
What to do I know?
People who knew Jack Kirby have called him, “the William Blake of comics.” Famed critics have said Stan Lee’s dialogue, that inkers and editors saved this or that comic.
I know Jack Kirby as someone who first read his comics as a child knows him. Through his comics, though the mind of a child.
What do I know?
In his Fourth World comics, those runs he drew and wrote for DC Comics, including Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, New Gods, Mr Miracle, and the later Hunger Dogs comic, the two Super Powers miniseries he plotted and partly drew, if you want to include them, Jack Kirby took a life and career of making metaphor out of everything and meat and bone out of metaphor, and developed a world and a way of approaching in comics form, wherein everything, wherein each thing was a thing and an idea, a complex of ideas and interrelation of things, and interpolation of being and an enterprising potential.
Are the Forever People the five kabbalistic levels of the soul? Nefesh, Ruash, Chayah, and so? You could lay it out and make it stick.
It is important to the Forever People that they have the drive to live, that many of them are students, that understanding and compassion come into play as much as transcendence. Four of the five come together in the form of the Infinity Man, yet the Infinity Man is not simply the four combined. Robot lions click into place to form Voltron, not God. “We’ve got an arrangement,” as Big Bear, one of the Forever People phrases it. Infinity Man is in a covenant with the Forever People. With the word, “TAARUU,” they are replaced or switch places with this mysterious and unencumbered figure.
The Infinity Man from “where all natural law shifts and bends, and changes,” counters gravity with anti-gravity, counters this with that, and that with anti-that. “Your rules,” they say, “don’t apply to me.”
Apropos of none of us truly being sure what “Fourth World” means or implies, there are present in these comics, individuated souls, relational souls, object-souls and concept-souls. Machinery and non-anthropomorphized objects or states can have will or behavior, thematic resonance and innate being. “Mother Box lives!” Darkseid is a particular rainstorm, but is Darkseid all rainstorms? Where and when does rain become rainstorm?
Brola’s name may give us little to go on, but, referring to himself as the “fighting arm,” he is consistently trying to foment fights, and perpetually has a brick as a hand/in his hand. He is the first brick-thrower, the agitator, the fire starter, the riot-starter.
You can make an easy case that Kirby’s New Gods are a PG-rated William Burroughs’ Nova Mob without the antisemitism. You can make that stick, too. Brola as the Intolerable Kid, always agitating situations, always starting and sustaining fights. The fake moral duality of Apokalips and New Genesis, hiding – transiently – the productive aspects of Apokalips’ denizens and the flaws – including classism, hubris, and combat-induced post traumatic stress – intractably present in the New Genesis New Gods and lesser species and classes amongst both worlds.
It makes a good deal of sense, really, not only because Burroughs and Kirby have plenty of overlapping interests, including similar tastes in fantastical literature and collage. And, who does not like thing… but without antisemitism?
It can be difficult, though, for the traditional sustained Fourth World audience to embrace the New Genesis gods as flawed, as societally and systemically flawed.
Izaya is both High-Father and “the Inheritor.” His wife, Ava, is dead and alive. Izaya is a god, but even with the accoutrement of the classical European God representation, from the white beard and masculinity to the shepherd’s crook, Izaya is not an omnipotent, omniscient, or unwavering deity. Izaya has to grow. Izaya reconsiders, even bargains. Izaya learns things, but he learns the hard way. Papa Smurf if Papa Smurf ever had to learn humility.
Other symbolism is very direct and so pure it sometimes takes us by shock. Darkseid has finder beams, which extend from his eyes and seek out with intentionality and this is called looking. What finder beams are, is a fantastical way to say that he is looking.
The Mobius Chair of the science-centered New God, Metron, called the “knowledge seeker,” is used to monitor, to seek out, to identify. It is a lens put to scientific use. A scope. A microscope, telescope, fetoscope, telescope. Horoscope?
Metron’s name is Greek for, “measure.” Science, in this sense, is measure, the making and cataloguing of measures.
Kanto, whose name derives from song, from singing, but connects too, to poets and poetry, is a show-off, a braggart, the God of Being Full of Shit.
Himon is named for a real acquaintance of Jack Kirby’s, Hyman, and the great thinker, the inspirer, the mentor is a different kind of patriarch from High Father or Darkseid, the dads or elder men we meet elsewhere in the comics of the Fourth World. Himon is patient, forgiving, has a humor, and will absolutely bomb a Nazi while he eats his dinner.
Hymen, the Greek’s God of Marriage, has a name that connects to “joining” or “combining.” More literally, “one who sews.” Himon connects others, brings them together, unifies in meaning and initiative. Himon works on Apokalips to turn it to New Genesis, and by extension, to improve New Genesis. His pursuit of equality and fairness and celebration is an alchemical marriage.
Some names are very easily connected to a concept. Kreetin wears his character on his name tag. The God of Sadism, Desaad, is named after the namesake of Sadism. The eternal younger brother (Kalibak), jealous of his more favored elder sibling, carries to battle a “beta rod,” while big, masculine Barda, wields her, “mega rod.” Some are layered, some maybe unintentional but revelatory nonetheless.
The first half of New Gods involves oceanic New Gods. The great unexplored land of Earth, the oceans. Noble Seagrin, good God of the waters, a gentle warrior whose name might derive from Seagren or Sjögren, from the sign of victory or “ocean smile,” Swedish for, “lake branch?” The Apokalips gods, the Deep Six, a term already, associated with water, include Shaligo, which reflects the Latin, calico, or, “mist,” “darkness.” It includes Jaffar, whose name, in Arabic, comes from “small stream” or creek. Jaffar has power over self-mutation, self-protection, connecting to the ocean as a place of life, change, evolution, and his colleague, Slig, has power over mutation, disintegration, change in other things than himself. Internal change. External change. Malignant changes, but only in directive, in intent. Change itself is rarely with an innate malice. Malice comes from the hand the guides, not what or, sometimes even how it guides.
In Jimmy Olsen, Flippa Dippa is the new addition to the resident kid gang, a child obsessed with deep-sea diving, because the deep see was, in the Mid-20th Century, of interest. Of note.
Mad Harriet, Stompa, Lashina, Bernadeth, Gilotina and the other Female Furies are of Apokalips, raised hard and cruelly, but they are not bad folks. They come to Earth and mostly hang out. They tour with a performance. They eat meals and have jobs and do life. Being of Apokalips is, itself, not a sign of wrongness, even if all residents of Apokalips can be rebirthed, controlled, or killed by Darkseid.
Orion, God of Combat, son of Darkseid, raised by High Father, is not all good, but who is?
The god Orion was swapped with, as a child, given to Darkseid as part of a pact which was destined to be broken, is named Scott Free, because Darkseid and his cronies find it funny that the child who will one day escape and everyone will owe a debt because of it, should be called, “scot free.”
The New Gods, all, owe the “old gods,” who have died and passed, including their God of Death holding, still, many old god traits.
The Black Racer is death, but with his skis and armor is often treated as a riff on the Kirby-created angel of Galactus, the Silver Surfer and his cosmic surfboard, but the Black Racer, as well, shares his skis and ski poles with a Norse mythological or artistic figure, Skaði, who walks into the land of the dead fully armored and, for her efforts is awarded a god as a husband. When Marvel Comics published a character based on Skaði, they took her ski equipment away and gave her a hammer. There are folks who will tell you the talent on those comics are savvier, subtler, more well-read than Jack Kirby, but Kirby did not take away the skis or hide behind the mythological and poetic forerunners.
The New God, Fastbak, has a name not derived from a classical source, but the fastback model of car. That style of vehicle can represent speed, youth, sex, prestige and it can really represent the pursuit of those things as a kind of proving ground. Symbols of status and capability. Fastbak is not only the fastest, the hero, the big man, the accomplished one, he is one in pursuit of proving he is.
Mokkari and Simyan took me forever to understand. A pair of geneticists, mad science fellows, creating monstrous people and things, I was mispronouncing their names from how they work as puns. Once, I understood they were “Mockery” and, an aping god, “Simyan,” the characters and their relevance opened for me like a blooming flower and a flowering garden.
Steppenwolf, the Herman Hesse novel, was having a revival of popularity when the Fourth World comics debuted, and so Darkseid’s uncle, odd, old-fashioned in an out of fashion and too avant-garde-seeming way, is called Steppenwolf. Darkseid is many evil things, but he is also He Who Dares. “I dare anything,” he says of himself, and that is how he sees it. Called, “tiger-force,” his son Orion is referred to as a tiger and self-refers as such. When someone claims, “that tiger leads a charmed life,” Orion declares, “tigers merely know their work.”
Tigers merely know their work.
Darkseid knows his. Izaya wonders about his. Darkseid knows his.