One of the truly great things about this time in popular culture is the oppurtunity that arises to introduce those drawn in to the medium by movies and television to the sheer scope of comics proper. While not as household a name as his frequent partner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby's influence on the contemporary superhero comicbook cannot be denied. The man co-created a slew of classic characters from Captain America through the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man. . .the list goes on and on. His art style was nothing if not distinctive, and the scope of his ideas ranged from the contemporary to the cosmic, often within the same issue. He stands as a giant in the industry, and rightly so.
Kirby's style was one of the first I consciously recognized even before I became aware that comicbooks were actively created by individuals, rather than simply magically materializing into a grocery store or pharmacy. I think the first time I ever encountered his art was in an issue of the comics adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, bought as part of those wonderful 'grab-bags' of comics that used be sold in department stores for about fifty cents. Another similar purchase by my parents yielded a copy of The Eternals #1, and years later when I bought a copy of Super Powers #6 at the Green Gables in Fort McMurray, Alberta, I knew immediately that this was more of the same. Kirby's art is powerful, energetic, and dynamic. If it could be summed up into a single word, it'd have to be action; things jump out at the screen, machinery looks intricate and futuristic, figures look primal and idealized, a mixture of primitive and paragon. Kirby's characters don't walk, they stride. They don't jump, they bound. Even when they're standing still there's a sense of a coiled spring ready to snap, that something is about to be unleashed and when it does it'll be sudden, intense, and amazing.
It was through the cartoon SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show that I was first introduced to Kirby's personal opus: The Fourth World. At the time I had no idea that uber-baddie Darkseid, his son Kalibak and the scheming majordomo Desaad were anything more than the creation of Hanna-Barberra and Saturday Morning, but in later years I've come to appreciate Kirby and his creations as perhaps some of the most ambitious and amazing concepts to come out of North American Comics.
The story of the Fourth World begins with an ending:
'There came a time when the old gods died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!'
From those opening lines in New Gods #1 we're then introduced to the core concepts of this universe: That from the destruction of the realm of the 'old' gods sprung two new worlds, the idyllic and utopian New Genesis and the smoke-filled, fiery dystopia of Apokolips. New Genesis is ruled by the benevolent and wise Highfather in accordance with the will of the Source, a primeval energy said to be part of the very foundations of creation. Apokolips bends to the will of Darkseid, the despotic ruler of this grimy, industrialized and warlike planet who yearns to bend the whole of creation to his will, both through force of arms and the discovery of the Anti-Life Equation, a formula of incredible power that will give him absolute control over the whole of sentient thought. The twin realms have discovered such amazing technologies as sentient supercomputer/companions called 'Mother Boxes' and the powerful 'boom tubes' which can span vast gulfs of space and allow for near-instantanous travel. An uneasy peace has existed between the two worlds thanks to the Pact, a nonagression treaty that culminated in the exchange of the sons of both Highfather and Darkseid. Darkseid's son, the warrior Orion, was raised on paradisical New Genesis, his adventures chronicled in the central New Gods. Highfather's son. . .well his tale is the story of Mister Miracle.
Thaddeus Brown is a down-on-his-luck escape artist who hopes one last big break as the theatrical Mister Miracle will win him a wager placed years ago with a criminal. His sidekick and friend, the dwarf Oberon, is of the opinion that the stunt won't work, but Thaddeus is determined. The pair meet a mysterious young man, Scott Free(yes, it really is his name, explanations to follow) who offers to assist with their act, and displays some feats of ledgermain with eldritch, intricate-looking technology(Kirby-tech was always awesome looking) that aid him in his own escapes that seems almost. . .unearthly. When Thaddeus is killed by the aforementioned criminal in an effort to weasel out of the bet, Scott takes up the mantle of Mister Miracle in an effort to avenge his death. Scott defeats the villains handily, and goes on to become an escape artist and general magnet for trouble. You see, Scott is the only man to ever escape Apokolips. That's a blemish on the reputation of Granny Goodness, denmother of the 'Terror Orphanages' that indoctrinate the Apokoliptian youth into a life of servitude and slavery from near-birth. Scott's luck has him running up against old foes from Apokolips. . .and an old friend as well in the form of Big Barda, leader of the Female Furies--the elite female corps of Darkseid's armies--- and a fellow renegade fleeing the tyranny of Darkseid. Eventually the attacks and pursuit of the two fugitives grow to be too much, and they must return to Apokolips to earn the chance to fight for their freedom in trial by combat.
What I absolutely love about Kirby's work is his energy, the sheer exuberance he managed to put down on the page no matter the subject matter or if it was work for hire. With his Fourth World creations he was given the keys to the kingdom and could essentially tell any kind of story he wanted. And he went for it with a kind of glorious abandon that'd make his daredevil of a protagonist proud. Mister Miracle was an adventure story, but he wasn't a traditional superhero, rather a performer(based in part on stories artist Jim Steranko told of his days as an illusionist) whose unearthly origins often landed him in serious danger. His background was a tragic one, but from the beginning there's a core of optimism and goodness that grants him the potential to be far more than another one of Granny's drones. In fact, he takes her mocking label of 'Scott Free' and embraces it, turning that gesture of contempt into a credo to live his entire life by. Scott values freedom; be it his own, his friends, or the Earth's, and he'll do whatever he can to defend it. He's a compassionate, adventurous soul and easily one of Kirby's finest characters.
Another aspect of the book that I love is that the hero's 'love interest' is anything but the typical damsel in distress. Big Barda kicks ass, a warrior nearly without peer with superhuman strength and resilience. She's the brawn of the pair, where Scott relies more on quickness and his wits. A seasoned, hardened fighter, she nevertheless has a core of goodness to her that even the worst indoctrination and brutality can't squelch. She and Scott fall for each other, but the relationship doesn't feel forced, but rather a natural outgrowth of their situation and cameraderie. Kirby based Barda physically on actress Lainie Kazan, but the interplay between the two characters was apparently based--however slightly--on the relationship between Jack and his wife Roz. That lends a bit of veracity to their relationship, and it makes them feel real. Barda to me is Wonder Woman refined; a badass warrior woman who can be feminine (as in her quite revealing casual attire) but when action calls for it and there's a threat to her safety or her friends she can be utterly relentless (via her warsuit, fearsome martial skills, and her weapon of choice the mega-rod).
The stories are late Silver Age/Early Bronze Age in tone, and the dialogue sometimes veers into the territory of the cheesy, but the book is nothing if not fun. Seriously, how can you not love a book that features a villainous criminal mastermind named Virman Vundabar? Seriously, say the name and try not to smile. Kirby's art is an acquired taste to some, and I'll grant that it's not without flaw but there's just something in his characters and in the way they move, the situations they get into. . .even the covers have an energy that the current crop of 'movie poster' style covers of today just lack. If you haven't read any Kirby and want something self-contained that doesn't require decades of comicbook minutuea committed to memory, or just a fun little adventure serial with a twist of space opera, give Mister Miracle a try