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The Secret History: Jeff Returns to Blab About Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus

Jeff Lester

The mind is a strange machine. After three (very busy) weeks where my thinking about comics consisted of litte more than “I bet Bill Finger wrote this story” (my reading before bed has been that very enjoyable third volume of Superman Showcase), the brain kicked right in this morning as I ran my quasi-ecstatic hands over JACK KIRBYS FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS VOL 1 HC. And since Brian just had his birthday, and Graeme is (I hope) whacked out on pain pills and watching Gilmore Girls, I figured it might be worth sharing those thoughts with you oh-so-briefly. (I’d like to post the few remaining items on my to-do list too, but that probably won’t be happening anytime soon, alas.)

So, the Omnibus. Lemme start by confessing that I own the Marvel Visionaries hardcovers of both Kirby books, the Romita Sr. volume, as well as a slightly beat up Ditko volume that I bought on the cheap, and one of the things that bums me out about them is when I peel off the lovely looking bookjackets and see nothing underneath but a very generic title engraved on the cover. And yet, like some strange version of “peek-a-boo,” I’ve continued to pull aside that jacket in the hopes I was mistaken and some wondrous image will yet appear.

With that in mind, you can imagine my delight when I peeled off the wonderful Omnibus bookjacket and found underneath a gigantic close-up of Orion’s face, with the Kirby credit box underneath. For a Kirby fan, the cover and the endpapers–more outsized excerpts of Kirby panels–are perfection. And, interestingly, it’s this strain of perfection that led me, the longer I flipped through the version, into a spongy emotional morass.

The book exists, you see, in a very strange state–caught between high and low production values–that seems, unfortunately, fitting for Kirby’s Fourth World titles. There’s lovely, spongy blue cotton paper separating the cover from the innards that feels pleasingly swank to the fingertips, but the paper on which the stories themselves reside is barely a few steps up from newsprint. Weirdly, that’s initially satisfying–reading Grant Morrison’s introduction, or the ending essay by Mark Evanier, it seems eerily so, catching the odd tingle one gets from reading Kirby’s books now as they manage to be timelessly futuristic and charmingly anachronistic simultaneously–and gives you the feeling that you really are reading (to badly paraphrase Morrison) a pulp gnostic text. But that feeling quickly fades: it works in the beginning- and end-papers because the graphics are carefully crafted to show the tiny dots of the long-abandoned coloring process. But the stories themselves have been carefully recolored so there are no dots to be found anywhere, which would be fine if the paper was as glossy as the coloring but it’s not. The effect makes the book into an odd literary design sandwich–two thick slices of design-savvy nostalgia in which a power-point presentation of Kirby’s Fourth World stories is only semi-comfortably nestled. If someone at DC had the moxie (and let’s face it, the budget–the Jimmy Olsen issues herein are presumably just the innards from the already digitially recolored trades from a year or two ago), they would’ve had the whole thing done in a loving dot-heavy coloring style of the originals: it would’ve been thrilling, and, again, a fine tribute to that futurism/anachronism duality in Kirby’s work.

Thinking about it, though, this odd sandwich unfortunately–but fittingly–highlights some of the other dualities in Kirby’s work. After all, Kirby’s Fourth World saga wasn’t a success, but a failure: all of Kirby’s plans for the Fourth World were destroyed, more or less to the letter, by the machinations of a large comic book company with a commitment to both the bottom line and seeing a return on the sizeable investment it had made in Kirby. So I think the sting I feel when I see (book title aside) Kirby share equal billing with company man and deadline king Vince Coletta everywhere throughout the book (including the inside back bookflap bios) is altogether fitting. Being unable to find the name of the book designer anywhere but being able to easily find the name of DC’s VP of Business Development, Jeff Trojan, is entirely fitting in a book reprinting stories where DC hired Al Plastino and Curt Swan to draw over the faces Kirby drew for Superman and Jimmy Olsen. Even in an expensive hardcover devoted to his work, Kirby is just one more cog in the machine, the way he was when DC cancelled his titles and put him on other books that they thought would sell better–a very important cog, to be sure, but a cog nonetheless.

You might think it silly to spend so much time on the trappings of this collection and not on the stories themselves, and I’m inclined to agree. However, the stories themselves were written and drawn long ago; it’s only the context that’s changed and will continue to change from this point on. And in this context, I found the emergence of Mister Miracle from toward the end of this volume to be both touching and incredibly apt. I think it’s Mark Evanier who’s pointed out that Mr. Miracle is, of all the Fourth World heroes, the one closest to Kirby himself. Thanks to the help of a strong and devoted partner, his years of training and his own divine heritage, Scott Free escapes again and again from a succession of brutal deathtraps that may or may not represent the threatening straitjacket commercial expectation poses to the creator. Mr. Miracle/Scott Free is Kirby’s idealized version of himself–a man raised in the violent war-state of Darkseid’s brutal society who is not himself violent or brutal and who supports himself and enlightens others by freeing himself again and again–but Free is, ultimately, just a dream, a fantasy, dreamt by a man who worked for The Man and who had to do, ultimately, what the people signing the checks asked for. Those dreams may not seem as sweetly poignant–may risk, in fact, not speaking to us at all–without that bitter context, a context lurking, like yet another cover, underneath the sumptiousness of JACK KIRBYS FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS VOL 1.

Whether you have or haven’t read Kirby’s Fourth World material, this is Excellent material and well worth getting. But on the weekend where Kirby’s dreams seem at their most successful (what with Silver Surfer premiering on the big screen and this hardcover on the shelves), it’s probably prudent to consider that the yoke from which the King dreamt of freedom is not altogether absent.

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