My best friend’s Dad had a PHD in geekology. As a young and budding geek, this officially made him the coolest adult in any room at any time. As the-kid-in-you no doubt remembers, the farther an adult is from an adult, the more you can trust him – so meeting an adult who collected action figures, who watched wrestling and played video games and read comics – it seemed unbelievable. He seemed like some kind of all-knowing nerdgod from above – my middle school self would lavish praise on Bendis and Bagley’s ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, he would counter with stories of Wolfman and Perez’ TEEN TITANS. I was set that DRAGONBALL Z was the greatest anime of all time, but this cat had seen AKIRA. My best friend and I would gather around as he, like a bearded figure with stone tablets, would regal us with stories of the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Miller/Moore age, the post-Miller/Moore age, the surreal twisting worlds of Grant Morrison…it all seemed unreal that anybody could have read that many comics. That became less hard to believe, as he passed his books on down, and soon I sat confused, looking at drawings that seemed to come from alien worlds – Miller’s scratchy, inward-looking lines, Ditko’s pysche-shattering worlds of angst and fear… the initial reaction was one of baptism in ice, of THIS DOES NOT LOOK LIKE JIM LEE, of refusing to accept the weirdness. But it haunted me and I kept going back to it, especially the pile of single issues I’d read third hand from my best friend, that first belonged to my best friend’s Dad.
The cover was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. If film is the language of dreaming, a shared subconsciousness that feels familiar to all of us, than comics have to be above dreaming, about what our dreams aspire to be. At least, that’s sure as hell how I felt when Orion’s eyes looked back at me from the cover of NEW GODS #1. So many beautiful words have been spilled trying to describe the effect of the Fourth World saga, Kirby’s operatic opus, the cosmic Spaghetti Western bible tale we didn’t know we were waiting for, that it seems embarrassing to even make an attempt at it. Instead, this is a memoir, a traveling monologue sideshow, handing out free stories about my experiences with the hip Forever People, with the bicycle gang leader that was Superman’s pal, with the greatest escape artist of all time.
Beyond the first reading of it, or even the third, one of the best experiences I have with The Fourth World is turning it on to new people. It has this way of coming up, of presenting itself to people and infecting their lives the way it infected mine. Just recently, while I was at a screening of the Norwegian flick TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! another movie-goer noticed The Fourth World volume 1 I had in my arms, which I’d been rereading on the bus on the way to the theatre. The eyes of Orion gazed out at him, and he came up to me, “Love that art, very cool, I respect that ’70’s comic art, such a cool look, so iconic” Kirby’s the King, no doubt about it, deserves every bit of respect he gets “Hey, what is that about anyway, what’s the story, tell me about it?”
And for a minute, I didn’t know what to do. I looked at Orion, too, for an answer or at least guidance, a hint of some kind. Then I thought, there’s really only one way to go about this. Well, you see, Darkseid is after the Anti-life equation, a mathematical formula that proves all life is meaningless, and he’s created the InterGang to act for him on Earth, to go after the Anti-life, find any clues about it they can, so InterGang is like this combination of technology and evil, of what that could really accomplish under the god of Darkness, anyway they recruit a who’s who, they even get a puppet figure to buy the Daily Planet, put’s Jimmy Olsen on a case that’ll surely kill him, but Jimmy just discovers the secrets, the secrets of PROJECT, of cloning, there’s an army of clones of him, of the Newsboy Legion, not the old Newsboy Legion but they’re around too, and Guardian is the ultimate human-created-supergod, a meta-Captain America, our dreams come to save us, and Superman has to stop Jimmy from learning too much but save him at the same time, but Jimmy’s got the Whiz Wagon and that’s the ultimate seeker of truth, and the evil PROJECT led by Darkseid’s family well surely they’ll stop him before Supes even gets the chance, and the world’s greatest escape artist meanwhile, it’s about the end for him, but his manager needs a reason to live, but there’s a new boy, a new MISTER MIRACLE who no one will ever forget, not with the aid of MotherBox, and Death dies outside the window of a coma victim in a poor neighbourhood and now he lives to chase those who dare outrun the unescapable, only to return each night to the body of a half-dead man, and then the Forever People, the ultimate young-people, the dream Bohemians from beyond the stars and…
He looked at me like this was all some sick joke, like I was playing him or setting him up for a punch line. His eyes were wide in wonder and horror and he whipped out his iPhone and said “…lemme make a note of this. This I gotta read, The Fourth World, Jack Kirby? thanks so much anyway, man, now that’s something I gotta read.” The dream was awake in him now. And in a world where question number one in every circle of comics culture is ‘what’s accessible to new readers?’ the one I find grabbing hold of people the most is the one that couldn’t be more confusing, couldn’t be more drenched in the mythology of superheroes, with the history of it around the corner at every turn. But one of the really great things about Fourth World is how enjoyable it is on so many different levels. It can be read as beat literature, as cosmic space opera, Haney/SilverCamp fans can read for the sheer insanity, it can be read as the peeling back of Jack Kirby’s unstoppable imagination… but to me, what The Fourth World is like is a meme. In many ways, it’s the Life equation we kept reading about. With stories like these, with art beyond life like Kirby’s, with heroes like Orion or Mister Miracle… Darkseid really didn’t seem that scary.
I’ll never outrun the man in skis. I’ll never have Motherbox to get me out of any trap. But I’ve got four volumes of the Life equation, four volumes of pure imagination, four volumes that remind me just what comics are capable of. And I owe it all to my best friend’s Dad.