JACK KIRBY WAS dubbed "The King" by fellow Marvel Comics architect Stan Lee, and despite Kirby's modesty, the name stuck. In a five-decade career, he drew thousands of pages in nearly every imaginable genre and co-created such icons as Captain America and the Fantastic Four. Yet while much of Kirby's work has been reprinted in various collected editions, his magnum opus has been relegated to back-issue bins.
Thankfully, this comics tragedy has recently come to an end with DC Comics' publication of black-and-white paperback editions of The New Gods and Mr. Miracle, which Kirby wrote, drew, and edited in the early '70s. These tales show Kirby escaping from the vigilante vibe of his Marvel career, letting his hair down with casts and stories that may strike comics fans as surprisingly groovy.
The New Gods and Mr. Miracle (along with several yet-uncollected series) are interconnected parts of a larger work called the "Fourth World," which centers on the conflict between two planets, the good New Genesis and the evil Apokolips. The planets' names hint at a pulpy Biblical dualism, a kind of space-opera rendering of heaven and hell. As in Milton, the devil is far more interesting than God. Darkseid, Apokolips' despot, is a stony gray personification of evil, always searching for the "anti-life equation" whose secret will allow him to turn the chaotic universe into a rigid reich. In Kirby's hippie "Fourth World" scheme, the anti-life equation seems to be a commentary on all kinds of restrictive order--from women's roles in the nuclear family to censorship.
The New Gods, which documents the conflict between New Genesis and Apokolips, is the linchpin of the "Fourth World." It introduces a huge cast and tries to tell its story on the largest possible scale. Kirby shows an affinity for drawing intricate machinery, rendering Apokolips with a breathtaking overload of detail. The hellish planet is like a giant steel mill with fire emanating from vast pits; nature is nowhere to be found.
Mr. Miracle is more similar to traditional superhero fare, with all the accompanying silliness. The protagonist is a costumed escape artist who lives on earth. Only later in the story is it revealed that he grew up on Apokolips in a brutal orphanage. As if forced to indulge at least one cliché, the first issue features yet another comic-book villain who has a steel hand (Kirby, with great novelty, names the character...Steel Hand). A far stranger creation is The New Gods' Black Racer, a black man with a knight's helmet and flying skis who acts as a messenger for death. (The reader can only wonder if "Black Racer" is meant to have a double meaning.)
The difference between these two characters--one a stock figure, the other entirely novel--is emblematic of Kirby's "Fourth World," a work jarringly different from the other DC titles of the era. Why, one asks, was Kirby allowed to produce something so unorthodox and commercially questionable? The answer lies in Kirby's break with Marvel and Lee, a separation brought about by the illustrator's desire for greater credit on collaborative projects. Where Lee was a master of serialized plots that humanized his characters, Kirby bristled at the page limits and publication schedules that were the industry norm. He conceived of the "Fourth World" as one opus with numerous chapters--a format like that of the graphic novel, which wouldn't gain popularity for more than another decade.
To lure Kirby away, DC offered the artist creative control. Sales, however, were harder for the amazingly prolific Kirby to manage; they proved mediocre at best. And so DC canceled the "Fourth World" titles after a little more than a year, well before the conclusion of the story. Kirby was reassigned to projects the company deemed more marketable, such as OMACand Kamandi: Last Boy on Earth. Ultimately, though, DC got at least part of what it wanted by signing the artist: the best work of a fan favorite in the prime of his career.