Jack Kirby's Fourth World books were middling sellers when they first came out in the 1970s at DC, and his characters (like Mister Miracle, Darkseid and Granny Goodness) didn't really catch fire with the public until the late 1980s. However, the Fourth World never completely went away! With The Darkseid War currently running in the Justice League title, the Fourth World once again is in the spotlight in the DCU, so going back to where it all began is a timely idea!
The Fourth World was 55 books beginning in 1970 and ending in 1974, an interlocking saga told over 4 titles: Jimmy Olsen, The New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle.
The Forever People was Jack Kirby addressing the counter culture and the best qualities of the Woodstock Generation. Kirby had a sympathetic eye for Flower Power! While most mainstream comics dealing with bell bottoms and LSD are hopelessly dated, Kirby internalized the struggles that young people who didn't trust anyone over 30 were experiencing, making them self-reliant but drawn into a great war between New Genesis and Apokolips. This title also integrated Deadman into the narrative, so it is a chilling reminder that Kirby was working for a corporation even while he was weaving an intergalactic epic. Not surprisingly, The Forever People characters have rarely been revisited by other creators, but these youths actually encountered Darkseid more often than than any other Fourth World characters did, so they are essential to understanding what is going on in the war.
The New Gods is the title where Jack Kirby explains how the war between New Genesis and Apokolips started. Highfather of New Genesis; in order to prevent greater slaughter; agrees to a baby exchange with Darkseid. Darkseid's son, Orion, is to be raised on New Genesis while Scott Free, Highfather's son, is to be raised in the slave camp of Apokolips. Raised in the idyllic New Genesis, Orion's bestial nature is still only under control because of his Mother Box, which alters his beastly appearance and keeps him calm in between battles. Scott Free is tortured by the sadistic Granny Goodness, but escapes from Apokolips. Scott Free's escape from Apokolips breaks the truce with New Genesis, so Darkseid is allowed to declare total war!
The Dr. Jekll/Mr. Hyde nature of Orion's character allowed Kirby to feature a "dark" hero long before such antiheroes became the norm for mainstream comics. Orion was zestful in battle to an uncomfortable degree, and slow to show compassion in any human encounter: in short, Orion was a thug.
As Superman weaved through The Fourth World titles; endlessly virtuous but often without a clearly defined enemy; Kirby was able to take Superman out of his "comfort zone" and question his role in this brave new world of grey areas. Kirby was able to challenge Superman in his epic narrative far more adroitly than contemporaneous efforts in Superman's own titles because Kirby was absolutely comfortable depicting characters of great power but also completely aware that such power does not absolve anyone from the consequences of their actions! Kirby showed Superman doubting himself in the middle of cosmic confrontations, even letting Clark Kent be rescued by Lightray in the middle of space without revealing his identity, because not every situation is a job for Superman. Now THAT'S storytelling at its finest, my friends!
Let me take this moment to point out that Darkseid is the best super villain ever created in mainstream comics: more elegant than Doctor Doom, more committed than The Red Skull, more slippery than The Joker! Jack Kirby has said that he sometimes thought of Richard Nixon when writing Darkseid, and Darkseid shares the complexity of Nixon. After all, Nixon came to prominence as a rabid anti-Communist, lost our first major war in Vietnam, opened trade with China but was our first resignation due to Watergate. Nixon was once more despised than Adolf Hitler! Darkseid in The Fourth World is riveting, undeniable and inescapable: the greatest villain of all time!
Mister Miracle is on the periphery of The Fourth World story, even though his escape caused the total war between New Genesis and Apokolips. Kirby's experience with "true life" Romance comics informs Mister Miracle's relationship with Big Barda of the Female Furies: they have an undeniable emotional connection which domesticates their adventures in a surprisingly disarming way. Oberon as Mister Miracle's assistant is much more respectable under Kirby than in his subsequent appearances under other creators. While this is the least propulsive of The Fourth World titles, it is also the title which lasted longest, a full year after the other The Fourth World titles were discontinued.
As a Super Escape Artist, Mister Miracle as a character comes out of the tradition of Harry Houdini, the great showman. Yet as a performing artist, Mister Miracle lacks the threat that a Batman has at his disposal. As a performer, Mister Miracle is closer to The Elongated Man or Booster Gold, but he has no particular levity as a character. However, Mister Miracle assimilates to Earth customs most successfully of all The Fourth World characters, probably because any place is better than the slave camp which he was raised in. Mister Miracle is Kirby's take on a Messiah character; abandoned by his God but able to escape the Devil; and that tension informs his participation in The Fourth World epic.
The oddest title in The Fourth World series is Jack Kirby's Jimmy Olsen. It was like Archie Andrews from Riverdale High had joined the Green Berets overnight! Having said that, Kirby used Jimmy's youth to inform The Fourth World, in that Superman was too old to appreciate the counter culture.
(Even in his own title, with the "Kryptonite Nevermore" storyline, Superman never became "hip" to the "Woodstock Generation". Even Oliver Queen in the first iteration of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow title; penniless and liberal; showed his rebelliousness by running for Mayor of Star City, which is actually the opposite of fighting The Man when you think about it.)
The Generation Gap between Jimmy and Clark Kent became an effective ongoing theme in this title, and Jimmy became objectively heroic, even politically assertive, in ways that he had never been before in comics. (One could only imagine what Kirby could have done with the Lois Lane title, as, after all, he had created the Romance Comic all those years ago. I mean, Big Barda ran completely contrary to women in comics at that time!)
The most oddball thing that Kirby did was bring Don Rickles into the mix. Who knew that Kirby could do satire with the best of them? His Don Rickles two-parter was like reading a Harvey Kurtzman-era Mad magazine spoof, and was every bit as good as the Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis comics that DC had produced in the 1960s.
The Fourth World is the largest graphic novel ever presented in a mainstream comic, but it has never been presented as such. It is a masterpiece, but it is also an entertaining, even emotional, reading experience.
THE GLORYBOAT in The New Gods #6 is a fine example! Kirby has a Conscientious Objector arguing with his dad, a vet who fought on the beach in Normandy. When faced with Apokolips danger, the vet freezes and the pacifist springs into action to be killed protecting him, which traumatizes his dad. This neatly summarizes what the Vietnam War did to innumerable American families during this period, the Draft Dodgers versus the Loving Parents trying to understand each other, somehow, and failing miserably. THE GLORYBOAT is a tragedy, a timeless tragedy presented by a master of the comics medium.
I cannot recommend The Fourth World Omnibus highly enough, because it does need to be read in the order that it was published to be fully appreciated. Once you read it, you, too, will bow down to The King, Jack Kirby! Excelsior!