Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part XXII: The Fourth World ii: Resonance
by Travis Hedge Coke
“Kandinsky will survive your disapproval, Rothko will weather your dislike, and Kirby will triumph as well.”
– Colleen Doran
It would be a mistake to underestimate how much Jack Kirby tried to reach out to people with his art, how diverse an audience he sought. Kirby co-created Captain America to give Americans someone who would punch Hitler while the country was still debating what side to take. Dialogue by other hands, aside, Kirby’s women frequently showed an initiative and equal-footing to men which was rare in superhero comics of the early 1960s. Kirby nearly single-handedly created the romance genre in American comic books, distinct from slice of life or woman-with-career comics like Patsy Walker or Teen. Kirby’s Fourth World comics may have flaws in the politics or style of representing ethnicities, genders, and social classes, but they stand head and shoulders above many of the contemporary comics of the day. Flippa Dippa may be a weird kid, but he is not weird in a way that is stereotypically Black or stereotypically of the youth. Dan Turpin is not just any old (white) man. Big Barda’s body and face were so off the beaten track for more conservative comics talent, that the inker tried to bring her in line and was chastised by Kirby.
That these characters stand out less now is not because Kirby’s creations lacked impact or brilliance, but because enough talent in the industry have been able to recognize his brilliance and adapt some techniques to their own uses (while missing the proverbial boat on other techniques, often those which take more effort or present more risks, like collages, kitbashing, and the layering of a personality with strata and substrata).
Many artists today will render Big Barda slender, thinning her limbs, un-rounding her face, consciously – or by trained-reflex – emphasizing thigh-gap and a lack of bicep bulge.
What do we do when even those close to Kirby add characters to the Fourth World saga, such as Yuga Khan, Darkseid’ missing father and Fu Manchu mustachioed uh… Khan. Is the cycle of ages in Hinduism called the catur-yuga? Is “yuga” Sanskrit for a kind of “world age” (of which there are four)? Yes and yes. Is conflating that with a yellow peril mustache and the term/name, “Khan,” a lot of orientalism in a world which was, for its early years, fairly careful and positive by comparison to other American comics of the era? Unfortunately, yes. Good-intentions or no intentions or all the malice in the world, it is still racist any way it came to be.
Kirby let short people be short, old people be old, kids be kids, Vykin the Black is awkward but Vykin is a history scholar and a nerd and arguments can be made. It stands out a little more when the Black Racer is also, Black Racer. Sonny Sumo is Sonny’s wrestling name in the United States, and he is the most accomplished human on Earth, defeating Darkseid by living a good life. Some things are going to upset some people and not only not offend others but not even register to them. The general sublimation of women to men, the way Ava or Aurelie service male characters, male myths, despite an incredible promise to them. Is Flippa Dippa’s cartooned face and gestures a result of Kirby cartooning all his children more, even, than his adult characters? Or, as has sometimes been suggested, is Flippa Dippa verging on uncomfortably dehumanizing of a Black child? Every one of us can make these calls, but making them objectively is something else.
Whether Sonny Sumo has an “Asian face” or an Asian caricature is going to depend on the viewer and the moment of viewing.
Which, does not mean that Kirby is unclear in his art or communications. These lines can sometimes be impossible for an objective or singular declaration.
People talk as if Jack Kirby’s dialogue rhythms and narration were unnatural by accident or his cadence was outdated by chance or he stumbled onto something modern and in touch like sixteen monkeys typing half one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The scene in Forever People where a kid accesses one of Serafin’s cartridges and experiences a cosmic-level high. The relevance of the Fourth World to minority concerns. How could Jack Kirby be in touch and out of touch? What was he? Human?
Kirby has a character in Mr Miracle named Oberon who is a very short, handsome, smart, confident man. It is well known that the Fourth World comics are entrenched in mythology, in reference, in literature and entertainment. Somehow, though, more than one critical voice has decided that Kirby fell into a character who in many ways reflects the classical, literary Alberich/Oberon/Aubéron, of the Nibelungenlied and Roman d’Aubéron.
In the same self-serving fashion, how godlike or whether or not Kirby reckoned with the nature of gods, as opposed to simply very strong people I suppose, is a question many have turned around in the light like a trick coin.
Kirby’s Darkseid is genuinely bigger, subtler, and more expansive than anyone else’s portrayals have been. Even the very good ones.
Kirby’s Darkseid is “the tiger-force,” the one who dares, fascism, the bully, the guest who sits in your chair eating your food in your place uninvited and will leave when they want to. Darkseid is rain at an outdoor wedding. Darkseid never does huge gestures, never overextends. Darkseid operates in measure, but the measure is itself frightening, and maybe worse, because it is unconcerned. None of us are worth overextension to Darkseid.
The poetic language of Kirby comics, the affecting, glowing artwork, the range of the art, the emotions and tenses and sensitivities displayed, should fill us with confidence in his deliberateness. In the maturity of the comics, even as they are aimed at audiences of all ages.
Funky Flashman and Houseroy are cruel jabs at Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, which eagle-eyed, semi-savvy comics fans would recognize, but they represent types even more than people, and we all know the types. Unfairly of us, maybe, to ascribe the types to specific people, but we do, too, as Kirby does.
Don Rickles appears for two issues of Jimmy Olsen, which could date poorly, as Rickles becomes less and less known, but even Rickles is typified. Made a type and a specific person.
A comic sings of the Forever People that, “they belong to sunrise – they’re here in mid-day – to stop the dark spread of the night!” The Forever People are of our time, but impressed with devices and styles of our time because they are ahead of us. They are not only youth, or young, but a state of young, a state of sunrise at midday. To break it down prosaically dulls the poetry so much the line risks losing meaning as well as strength.
When someone says the Forever People are, “motorized hippies,” that is still a description with a flourish, but it is more prosaic as an overture, not a falter. Like, when a guy say Darkseid makes him believe Dracula is “alive and well in Transylvania.”
Something I think confuses some people who already have a guard up, is that Kirby does not prize classical literature or pop fiction, prose, poetry, song, movies or television. Comic books or operas.
Movie and paperback knockoffs of literary and mythic monsters, Dracula, the monster of Frankenstein, the monster of Frankenstein’s creation, werewolves and alien conquerors, Nessie in Loch Ness, play out in the Fourth World as integral stories, integral myths and cosmogonic forms.
Dracula and Darkseid are equally real even if there is no real Dracula and there is a real Darkseid.
When hallucinating, agitated shoppers and film hands try to stake Mr Miracle as a vampire it is because, in some form, in the mid 1970s and today, we all have vampires on the brain. Even if someone is not a fan, in particular, of vampire entertainment, the idea of the vampire is seeded in us.
When a Jimmy Olsen cover reads, “It’s the vampire bit! But like you’ve never seen it before!” it is not required that we all have the same vampire gag in mind, the same style or arrangement of vampire. Vampire is a thing we agree on, in general, the way we agree there is a type like Funky Flashman or a type like Darkseid.
The “small planet” Transilvane is, “a real world upon which real people have evolved… only… like the cast in a vampire movie.”
The “real people,” live out fantastic routines rooted in truths they intuit from horror narratives. They do not mimic one to one the movies they see, they combine, they develop. We do the same, whether we want to accept it or not. Superman changes the culture and politic of Transilvane by changing the movies that play across their skies from horror movies to Oklahoma!, and life is not (always) that simple, but the practice has potential.
The Fourth World stories are concerned with us, but if they reflect us at all, it is in the nature of reflections, that a reflection is not the thing but the semblance of the thing captured, impermanently, alterably, distorted, yet in a way which can be useful for practical and high-minded purposes. A reflection is handy when fixing your hair, your face, but a reflection is also integral to many telescopes, projections, to domestic lighting. Even if the reflection is not the goal, you have to reckon with reflection and reflective surfaces.
The big guy of the Forever People, Big Bear is fun-loving, warm, the big softy. Fan casting suggestions, over the years, have included Alexander Ludwig, Jack Black, and various young big guy actors. Big Bear almost has to be Merlin, because the Fourth World comics know that history and truth and story and being are reflections. The wisdom, in this case, of Merlin, is savvy. It is setting into motion the mechanisms of others’ nature. Human nature. And, trusting history to move in accord.
Fourth World comics invoke the Vietnam War and World War Two, the American Civil War, the Visigothic invasion of Rome which ended the Roman invasion of Britain, but as reflections. The New Gods shape Britain and create the myth of King Arthur, when a time-displaced Big Bear, a most unlikely but entirely revelatory Merlin. In the modern day of the 1970s, the spectral Vietnam War is not over there but omnipresent. The consequences and horrors of World War Two are everywhere. In temples in the Himalayas, in the eyes if veterans, the lingua franca.
The word “holocaust” is not shyly utilized in the Fourth World comics, without it ever being a cavalier or careless use.
Kirby is maybe more comfortable approaching the world from a eurocentric position, but Kirby did not necessarily make art to his comfort. Kirby historically sought to create characters or develop scenarios that spoke to audiences beyond himself. His efforts with nonwhite, non-Jewish characters can sometimes be considered clumsy or may have unfortunate holdovers of traditions of commercial bigotry or caricature, but it takes a willfully obtuse person to not see well-meant efforts being made. Kirby’s efforts to show diversity in the Fourth World and elsewhere are varied and variegated. Kirby’s later Devil Dinosaur retells the Eve and Adam in the Garden story as a parable of misogyny and male hubris coming together to create official history.
As John Cale and Lou Reed put it in their eulogy for Andy Warhol, “If you’re looking for a deeper meaning; I’m as deep as this high ceiling.”
An academic can go down a rabbit hole with the relevance of “sigma” in the sigma blasts which hit Superman and would destroy someone less resilient. ? represents the set of symbols that form an alphabet of a formal language. All of that Language, L and subsets and catenations are subsets of ?. ? has alchemical, chemical, economical, probability, engineering and bone physiology meanings. S for Superman.
This bottomless well is not a flaw. Everything has depth beneath it.
The Fourth World ii: Resonance
User Review( votes)