Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part XXIV: The Fourth World iii: Sociological Being
by Travis Hedge Coke
I have been thinking, recently, more than even usual, about a student of mine who came to America and was murdered by a racist misogynist and how he now is sentenced to life in prison while the search for her body in the place they know it likely lies has not begun, will probably never begin.
I have been thinking of my grandma, who was taken from her home in California some years ago, a Canadian citizen being deported to Mexico via bus and internment camp because she fit an ethnic profile they were eyeing and because they could.
I have been looking at the Russian invasion of Ukraine and anglophone world’s reactions, the folks referring to it as the first nation to be bombed like this where nearly everyone has a cell phone, or, the fault of Ukrainians for antagonizing Russia.
I have been thinking of the recent bans on the comic, Maus, a dramatization of the author’s real, lived, family stories, the story of his father, cartooned into talking animals, or maybe just people wearing animal faces to help it get to us.
One of the worst outcomes of Jews being so central to American comics and to the superhero, is that comics and superhero people have begun to believe that Jewish Americans have no idea of hardship, of oppression, of bigotry or bigoted violence. Time and again, we will see Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, or more contemporary comics professionals, Trina Robbins or Brian Michael Bendis, treated as if they have no idea what it is like to know your police force is there to police you and could drive you out to the edge of the city and kill you or keep driving and take you to an internment camp.
We see a similar take on professionals who work on X-Men comics and are of Asian descent, but that seems limited to X-Men comics and their aficionados.
In his Fourth World comics, Jack Kirby is, to my knowledge, the first person to make comics in which Superman is explicitly aware he is a minority, a first-generation immigrant, and what that means culturally in the Twentieth Century United States of America. What that means in Twentieth Century politics.
So often, then, when the politics are very clear, when an understanding of real threat, real world applications of systemic and government violence are too clear to ignore or erase in the moment, audiences and critics react with a shock that is painfully genuine, that one of these artists or writers could get it!
In similar fashion, “King” Kirby is frequently referred to in the leagues of Christian mystics, “the William Blake of comics!” and the comics, themselves, are framed in a Christian-first understanding. The Fourth World is often referred to as biblical. I have no doubt made that faux pas. But, all the Bible-sounding names in the Fourth World comics, Izaya, Esak, Ava, Serifan, Bekka are Hebrew names. The Bible borrows those stories, those people, but they are not derived from, nor were they created for the Bible.
Genetic Criminal, a short backup story in an issue of Kirby’s Fourth World comics, is a defiance of the notion that genetics or lineal inheritance make someone bad or criminal. It is an attack on racism, on profiling based on physical characteristics, on phrenology. It connects classism to racism, not racism to classism as hypocritical liberal or right wing politics will sometimes insist. The racism comes first. That they can see something in the facial features, in the eyes, in the shoulders or hands or accent or foods in a neighborhood, the style of comfort clothes, the way you sing or what you sing comes before the class issue, and informs and forms the class issue.
When Jack Kirby makes a comic where the best man, the best god in the universe bombs Nazis while they dine, it is because this is a high calling.
When Jack Kirby writes the first Superman to acknowledge and deal with his minority status, is status as a person whose ancestors are all dead, whose people are all dead, it is because Jack Kirby cares what that is like.
When Jack Kirby compares and conflates new-styled organized crime and newly-minted revivalist churches and their pursuit, in America, of fear, money, shame and domination, of control, it is because Jack Kirby cares.
Reprinting old comics stories by Kirby as backups for new comics, bringing back old characters as clones, as adults, as legends, does not look backwards, but pushes those old stories to new relevance. Each of those old comics is a reminder now, the now of republication and the now of today, that caring about these things, social things, political things, things in our souls, our kitchens, our neighborhoods and nations is important to do, to feel, that caring is an important thing to be doing and to be.
We, ourselves, may never have been bilked by a preacher, politician, or charity fundraiser that we know of, but we each know someone who has. We all remember an adult who pretended to be teaching us important lessons and fostering maturity, but who, really, was only a bully.
Jack Kirby’s use of booster clubs, evangelical churches, billboard culture, organized crime outfits, biker gangs, hippie communes, and satanist-themed masked ball parties are sometimes treated as anachronistic, to the culture at time of publication or outdated now. As if, today, there would be no meditating fad-decorated bearded meditators who might say to Superman, “Welcome to the Wild Area, Brother! You are now free to do your own thing!” As if we no longer have dance clubs or bars or society gatherings or bed and breakfasts and mega-churches do not rob the United States every day.
There are still private and government laboratories. They do not cease to exist because a particular subgrene of fiction is less popular.
The Sect, the Satan Club, the Hairies, the gang called The Outsiders are all groups and gatherings as we have today, with a few cosmetic differences. And, believe me, only a few. The World Protection League, a transnational protection racket is only too real today as it was then.
The Fourth World comics by Kirby which are sometimes criticized or written out for not having enough to do with the New Gods or “Fourth World mythology,” are erased because of an idea that the “mythology,” is only the gods or their tools. And, bizarrely, that it has to have a minimum number of those gods and the ones who count. Specifically, the second half of Mr Miracle and several Jimmy Olsen comics are cut out by these audiences, because Scott and Barda or Jimmy and his kid gang are not facing a god that DC is likely to license for an action figure, but instead con artists, career criminals, frauds of the religious sort or cryptid promotion sort, and these same people expecting these stories to be excised from the canon are often concerned that these stories lack a thematic connection. Because, if a god is not behind the scenes, how can one fake, criminal church be similar, thematically, to another fake, criminal church?
One of the worst things, to me, that has happened with the Fourth World, is when the media or the audience reception becomes locked into basic superhero narratives to the erasure of anything else. The idea that if it is not Orion vs Darkseid, it is filler or Kirby/whoever has made a misstep.
When we talk of Barda and Scott, we so often refer to, “Mr Miracle and Big Barda,” or, “Scott and Barda,” but in the comics, under Kirby, Barda’s name often comes first. This makes sense when we take honest stock of the characters. Of course her name comes first. He is the headliner of his comic, but she is the headliner of his life.
Ava is an integral part of the Fourth World cosmogony whether or not she will ever have a physical fight with another god. Ava, “the prophetess,” the god who is dead and alive, like Orion or Jesus, perhaps, or any other deity who is stories as already deceased, is neither an action toy nor a superhero.
Lonar, the fair weather archaeologist, the wanderer, the quintessential loner, who finds, “evidence of a violent culture base lies everywhere,” and resdiscovers the (war) horse on New Genesis, home of the positive, or at least, positively-viewed gods, makes for a poor fighting toy, but he is a useful god. He is a useful concretization and anthropomorphism of ideas.
The hippies, bikers, dropouts, secretaries, old carnies, old stagehands, soldiers, veterans, police, poets, thinkers, journalists, scientists, hobbyists, are all as important to the Fourth World, and what Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is, as any god or godlike being. To complain that a comic is less valid to the world because it has an alien from outer space who is not a New God is silly when Superman is a central part of what is a curated corner of the larger DC Universe.
The Fourth World extends “from Mad Avenue to Desolation Row,” and beyond.
That some gods, like the Forever People, are squatters, that some people are scientists or photojournalists or entertainers does not make them less than the princely sorts like Orion, who is born to greatness but also every and any common soldier. Darkseid is the big cheese of big cheese bad gods, but he is also some guy in your easy chair.
“The more you know, the more you’ll suffer,” I think Fred Ward said in a movie. The more you know, the more there is, for sure.
If I say Robert Heinlein could be discouraging to other writers, or play up his own personal myth, I do not mean every time, every moment of his life. He was helpful to another writer, once, giving them a list of prompts. Heinlein did library outreach, and belonged to a group of writers early in his career, who would look over each other’s work. He was introduced to that group by his then-wife, who kind of also gets erased from things a bit. This is human being human.
You can cut Bill Cosby out of any scene he is in, during the entire run of A Different World, and lose nothing of consequence, but you cannot remove Bill Cosby’s rapes from him producing a television program which nails down rape in terms for more definitive and aware than most other early 1990s television.
The writers of Bill and Ted movies are not Bill and Ted movies. The writers of the Bill and Ted movies did play Bill and Ted before Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves.
If I do not bring up the supposedly-racist novel written by Jack Kirby, which may some day see publication, or maybe it will not, it is not because I am protecting his reputation or that I can find no connective tissue to the issues in his Fourth World comics. Not any more than I bring up Allen Ginsberg or Desolation Row simply to.
People are too complex to fit into chapters or books or comics. Real person, Don Rickles, is a cartoon of Don Rickles to be on television, or, as here, in a comic. You have to be.
Roy Thomas and Stan Lee are, in the Fourth World, lampooned as caricatures, cartoons.
When Kirby quotes Hitler about the uniformity of their members, he has Americans saying, “he’s voicing what’s in our heats” and, “This is our world! Our world! They have no right to meddle in it!”
The face given to the cult leader framed in that Hitler Quote, the god-preacher Glorious Godfrey, is based on Billy Graham. Visually, tonally, and thematically, a dark god Billy Graham.
The New Gods are aghast at human politics, human fragility, at pollution in the late Twentieth Century. They are in awe, simultaneously, with combustion engines, television, and Darkseid seems to enjoy our living room furniture.
Jack Kirby never hems or haws over the horrors of rape, of sexual coercion, of assault, of war, that children die in war, that war is sometimes manufactured and sometimes redirected to profit on the deaths of children.
Darkseid, Dr Bedlam, Desaad, Granny Goodness, Kanto and Mantis are all war profiteers.
Orion dies because he cannot let go of war. He comes back, because war cannot let go of him.
Forager is not like the Bugs on New Genesis, not because he is superior to them, but because they serve one illustrative point and he another. The point of Forager, at least a point of Forager, is that they are none of them inferior. Inferior races, inferior cultures, neighborhoods, species, nations do not exist.
That the gods of New Genesis hold the Bugs and other groups to be lesser is a reflection of their need to learn otherwise, and our need to learn, or to remember otherwise.
When Sonny Sumo faces the ultimate attack by the ultimate enemy, the life trap of Darkseid, Sonny does what no other human and what no god ever does. Sonny wins.
Sonny Sumo is thrown backwards in time, deprived of his life and world, and Sonny Sumo, professional wrestler, lives a good, peaceful life, tending to the poor and in need, a “wise man, athlete, farmer.”
The Fourth World iii: Sociological Being
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