Thursday, 4 April 2013

Fourth World: Mister Miracle volume two

Jack Kirby Fourth World: Mister Miracle volume two (1974)

I seem to have heard loads about Kirby's Fourth World without ever quite working out what it was, beyond the greatest story ever told, apparently. A cursory level of research revealed it be some massive cosmic scale saga originated by the man who effectively invented Marvel Comics, or at least who effectively invented how Marvel Comics looked in the 1960s and 1970s providing you pretend Steve Ditko never happened. Fourth World was what our boy cooked up once he got tired of Stan Lee's alliterative bullpen and went to work for DC, creating an entirely new mythos spread across a series of titles looking forward to comics as something other than just newsstand fodder - well, this is what the internet seems to think, which is probably why I had somehow taken the impression of Fourth World being revolutionary beyond human imagination, sort of like Aeschylus with capes and people who behold things over yonder instead of merely looking at them.

Unfortunately none of the proverbial hot cakes were ever invoked as a result of Fourth World sales figures, and by the time Kirby came to produce these last eight issues of Mister Miracle, cancellation loomed, obliging him to wrap up a much larger story whilst trying to take the book off in its own direction in the hope of staying afloat; so this is probably a somewhat shitey place to start with this Fourth World stuff, but anyway...

Okay. Given that what we're dealing with here is caped superhumans having fights with evil looking men who turn out to be as dastardly as their moustaches imply, lumpy looking henchmen called Lefty, and other elements that wouldn't seem too inconsistent with your average episode of Scooby Doo, it's probably an idea to remind ourselves of context when referring to Fourth World as revolutionary. It isn't Kierkegaard, it's a comic book tailored for the enjoyment of small children who also like Batman; but true enough, it is a very good comic book tailored for the enjoyment of small children who also like Batman.

Thing is, I'm not really even sure what makes it good. Having little of the apparently impressive Fourth World back story related in earlier titles for reference, I'm left with just the adventures of a superhero escape artist repeatedly cornered by criminal types. In terms of narrative it's hokey as fuck and yet somehow transcends the limitations of its genre, the terrible science, the bad guys failing to get away with it due to meddling kids. Possibly it's not so much the stories - which should by all rights be nothing special - so much as how they're told, the even pace, the economy of language, and most significantly, the astonishing art. More than any other comic artist I can think of, Kirby seems to represent some sort of pinnacle and as such is most at home right there on the page - it would just seem arch and insincere given the Roy Lichtenstein treatment. It's too much its own thing, which is probably why none of Kirby's imitators ever really achieved the same sort of reputation.

Cough cough. Herb Trimpe.

Kirby's panels are crowded with detail and yet often seem surprisingly simple, clear solid forms reaching out towards the reader and a tremendous sense of depth. It's odd, and even quite ugly in places, but more in the way of that accomplished, expressive brand of ugly associated with Modigliani and certain Cubists. I think I read most of this collection with my mouth hanging open. Much as I hate to repeat what everyone else has been saying for years anyway, Kirby's art really was amazing.

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