Probably what I miss most in our perilous, terrifying and end-of-times-like historical era is the ability to read irresponsibly. There’s just too much responsible reading around; it can drive you to drink. Everything we’re supposed to read keeps looming up out of the darkness, bristling with portents, economic data, apocalyptic planetary crises and an endless urgent blizzard of news bulletins about tweets, personal liberties, gun violence and conflagrations both natural and metaphorical — all of which require more sober attention than most of us can muster. Increasingly (and understandably), reading has become a duty to be performed by conscientious citizens and students. And I’m sorry, but jeez, that just isn’t right.
When I was young, reading irresponsibly was easy. I did it all the time. In fact, well into my late teens and early 20s I could easily lose myself in books and comics; it just came with the territory. Books were pleasurable, and not judged for the amount of information they provided. For example, I read the entire series of Doctor Dolittle books without learning a single accurate fact about animals. I also read the entirety of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while sitting in the back seat of our car during a family vacation and didn’t think twice about the dangers of fascism, or the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War — I just wanted to know what would happen to Robert Jordan and Maria when they climbed out of their sleeping bag each morning. And I certainly didn’t read responsibly when I read Thomas M. Disch’s “The Genocides,” or Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana,” or John Dos Passos’ “The 42nd Parallel” in roughly one sitting apiece, or “The Lord of the Rings” over a Christmas break, or the many sequential volumes of stories by Ray Bradbury and John Collier and Shirley Jackson and Carson McCullers and John Steinbeck that lit my post-school hours away from my boring, information-bound textbooks.
Piled up in the rooftop-high warehouse of my imagination, those multitudinous books didn’t teach me any of the things I was later to learn in college-level literature courses. They didn’t teach me about ideology, or gender and racial stereotypes, or commodification, or how to deconstruct the Western metaphysic. They only taught me how to submit my imagination to the visions of good writers. They taught me to trust in the pleasures of reading irresponsibly. And there are times when I wonder if any of us will enjoy such pleasures ever again.
Among all those countless great, absorbing artists I read as a child, the one who probably taught me the most about the pleasures of unprofitably sitting on my ass for hours at a time was Jack Kirby, who, often with his most famous collaborators, Stan Lee and Joe Simon, created, designed and visually narrated the tales of almost every comic book I read from the age of 6 to 16. And in this, the year of his centenary (he was born and raised Jacob Kurtzberg in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1917 and died in California at the age of 76), it is hard to walk down any street in the world without observing iterations of his countless inventions on billboards, movie screens, T-shirts and bookstore windows: The Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Avengers, Thor, The Hulk, Ant Man, The Wasp and Iron Man — all were imagined into existence by the manically sweeping pencil of Kirby.
Kirby (like Hitchcock) was one of the first “auteurs” I learned to recognize by sight when one of his grimacing, ker-powwing super heroes came rattling by in the rustily revolving magazine racks at our local Woolworth’s or Walgreen’s. They announced themselves at first glance, and immediately shouted: Hey! Look over here! This is what you’re looking for, kid! Which is why I always plunked down the 12 or 15 cents, took it straight home, and read it at least twice before dinner.
On every page, and in every panel, Kirby’s wildly implausible characters came bursting through every effort to contain them. They expanded and contracted from one physical manifestation to another (one of which was usually a nerdy scientist), or fired flames and hurled shields from one panel to the next, or fought battles with super-villains that exploded into one- and two-page dioramas that were never big enough to include all the monsters and cataclysms and miraculous celestial machinery that came flowing from Kirby’s pencil. Even the stories were too big for a single comic or a series of comics — spilling over into several different titles, and several dozens of stories, over months and years. Everything was cataclysmic with Kirby: from the WWII battlegrounds of “Captain America” and “Sgt. Nick Fury” to universe-expanding serials chronicling planet-smashing conflicts between the Silver Surfer and Galactus. Over those amazingly productive days at Marvel during the ’60s (probably Kirby’s best years as a storyteller, when he was kept firmly on the page by Stan Lee), it seemed that Kirby, like the universe, couldn’t keep expanding forever. Eventually he would reach his limits, slow down and contract into predictability. But it never happened. Not by a long shot.
It is hard to tell whether Kirby went completely off the map with his multi-comic mega-story at DC in the early ’70s or whether his readers simply failed to keep up. Now published for the first time as a single, massive, beautifully-produced omnibus to celebrate the Kirby Centenary, “The Fourth World” is a weighty pleasure to purchase, haul home, heft onto your lap (you’ll need a cushion or two) and read or reread, as time allows. It is a mad, mad work. It is exasperating and often impossible to follow. And it absorbs, delights, and it makes you glad. For a few hours at a time, anyway.
When Kirby moved to DC in 1970, he felt unfairly treated at Marvel, believing that Stan Lee had received undeserved credit for many of his stories and inventions (Marvel comics were often plotted by illustrators before writers saw them); as a result, at DC he contracted for credit as writer, artist and editor on all his books. Then, with the wisdom of a true artist, he moved to Southern California, where New York couldn’t easily keep an eye on him, and set out boldly to explore how much he could do on the infinitely wide canvas of his imagination. First, and surprisingly, he took over the least adventurous title in the DC list, “Jimmy Olsen.” For the previous decade or so, the Jimmy Olsen plots had been clumsy, deus ex-machina affairs in which the “cub reporter” got himself into dangerous situations and waited to be bailed out by his “pal,” Superman; but after only two issues with an unmonitored Kirby running things, it exploded into fireworks of colliding story-lines, a parade of new and outlandish characters and ever-multiplying subplots that no scorecard could adequately chart. In just the first few issues, for example, Jimmy hitches up with a gang of (possibly super-powered?) bikers, drags Superman off to new worlds through the “Boom-Tube,” introduces the concept of something called the “Wild Area,” unleashes “D.N.Aliens” from a secret research facility, and brings several old WWII-era Kirby characters (the Newsboy Legion and their super-buddy, the Guardian) back from the dead. At one point, as if he needed to keep inventing ridiculous plot situations or die, Kirby decided to make Don Rickles a character, just so he could hurl insults at Superman; but when the confetti of plot complications finally settled, there were two different Don Rickleses, and neither of them managed to meet Superman, or deliver the long-planned “zinger”: “Just my luck. Forty years I’ve been building up a stash of ethnic jokes. I gotta run into a yo-yo from Krypton.” As often happened in “The Fourth World” comics, Kirby had a great idea. But then a dozen other great ideas got in his way.
Jimmy Olsen was just the beginning. Over the following year, Kirby created three new titles to fill in the rest of his outrageous cosmogony: “The New Gods,” “The Forever People” and (the longest running series of the three), “Mister Miracle–Super Escape Artist!” The DC editors only wanted three things from Kirby: more, more and more. More super heroes. More super-villains. More crossover story-lines. More first issues of more titles. And when this infinite hunger came into contact with Kirby’s passion for invention, the sub-plots multiplied exponentially, new brightly-uniformed characters came zooming in and out of the pages like jet-powered butterflies, and the vast titanic panel-upon-panel cataclysms and ker-powwings of universal conflict exploded thick and fast, until reading “The Fourth World” feels a little like listening to a symphony orchestra play “Die Valkyrie” full blast while being rolled down the spiral staircase of the Sistine Chapel in an aluminum barrel.
Everything is wondrous and confusing. “The Forever People” series alone begins with five central characters (who often morph into a composite superhero called the Infinity Man), and by the sixth issue, it’s never quite clear what any of them do. One has lots of red hair, one sleeps a lot, one is black (Kirby created some of the first African American superheroes, including the Black Panther), and one blond guy named Serafin who dresses like a cowboy. Then, just when you think you know something about one character in the various books (Serafin keeps several “magic capsules” stored away in his cowboy hat) several more come barging onto the collective pages: Granny Goodness, Mother Box, Mantis, Sonny Sumo, the aristocratic con-man Funky Flashman, Doctor Vundabar, Metron on his dimension-hopping Mobius Chair and a bed-ridden, paralyzed ex-cop named Sergeant Willie Walker, who miraculously transforms himself each night into The Black Racer, skiing across the city skies looking for, well, I’m not sure. But he does it every night, so it must be important …
Here’s an impossibly reductionist summary of “The Fourth World” (and please, no angry tweets from lifelong fans, I’m doing my best). There are two planets — or what seem more like “pocket universes” — Apokolips and New Genesis — that represent the Manichaean extremes of good and evil. Apokolips is a massive industrial factory of oppressed, miserable gargoylish monsters ruled over by the stone-faced Darkseid (Kirby was later convinced that George Lucas’ Darth Vader was modeled on him). On New Genesis, humanoids have learned to release their inner superpowers and achieve celestial harmony. But smack dab in the middle of these dimensional extremes lies Earth, and when the final Miltonic war for domination arrives, the mighty forces converge, making Earth their battlefield.
Talk about spilling over from one universe to another, from one page to another and, more often than not, from one panel to another. There are so many things happening at once that they may actually be unencompassable by the human imagination — they were certainly unencompassable by Kirby’s, since he clearly forgets characters and situations almost as fast as he invents them. But never in doubt of his own abilities, Kirby always plowed full speed ahead. And readers, when they were smart, followed in his boiling wake.
I know, I know. We don’t have time for this stuff. Fifteen-hundred pages! Of superhero comic books from the early ’70s? In an epic series that never comes to a satisfying conclusion since all the titles were canceled within a year or two of conception? We don’t have time for this nonsense. The radios, newspapers and websites are already calling our names and singing: “The Trump administration announced today —” “Global temperatures rising faster than expected — ” “Murder spree --” “Shot by police— ” “Nazis on parade — .” Such escalating events are far more important than a bunch of comic books, and far more urgent. But sometimes our brains need a little rest, and a break from all this, well… this responsibility. And next time you get that feeling of being overwhelmed by actuality, consider carting home this three-doorstopper-sized book from the local bookstore, and burying your head for a while.
Be irresponsible. You know you want it. So go do it.
You’ll thank me later.
Bradfield is the author of a dozen books including, most recently, the novel “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
“The Fourth World Omnibus”
DC Comics: 1,536 pp., $150
“The Newsboy Legion Vol. 1 & 2”
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby