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John Hodgman reviews Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World”

June 3rd, 2008 · No Comments · Art

From the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

Born in 1917, Kirby (né Jacob Kurtzberg) was a pugnacious child of the Depression-era Lower East Side and thus far more likely to favor a sure paycheck over a smartly negotiated contract. (Often, there were no contracts at all.) By the end of the ’60s, fights with Marvel over money and growing resentment over Stan Lee’s celebrity led Kirby to an unthinkable defection to the competition.

DC, by contrast, offered him vast creative latitude and an almost overdetermined amount of credit. “KIRBY’S HERE!” shouted bold sunbursts on the cover of early Kirby issues. The Fourth World was to be his liberation — the place where he would at last get to do his own thing.

The results were startling. Kirby fans already knew that his art was muscular and kinetic, and in this collection, he’s at the height of his powers. His characters are always in motion, leaping and punching at impossible angles, straining at the panels that try to contain them. Kirby’s writing was the same way. His stories were linear — even primitive. But there is something powerful and melancholy and personal that weeps in Orion’s epic, city-smashing rages.

He was 53 when he undertook the Fourth World, and a veteran of World War II. But as Evanier points out, and as is evident throughout this book, Kirby was deeply inspired by the young generation that was renouncing war around him. His understanding of the youth movement was perhaps idiosyncratic (in Kirby’s world, the “Hairies” built their perfect society in a giant missile carrier they called “The Mountain of Judgment”). But they too were forging a new world; and the pleasure he clearly took in their efforts seems to have balanced the bouts of Orion-like rage. In one moment, Highfather of New Genesis turns to one of the young boys in his care. “Esak,” he asks, “what is it that makes the very young — so very wise?”

“Tee hee!!” Esak replies. “It’s our defense, Highfather — against the very old!!”

This is probably the only passage in the English language containing the words “tee hee” that has actually moved me.

Hodgman’s review is touching, honest and true to what all Kirby fans know. To read Kirby is to love him. His stories were always fantastic and often quite odd - full of ideas at some points that remain fresh and resonant to today and at other times veering off into indescribable weirdness. But it was Kirby the draftsman that shook the world with his genius. Through sheer force of will he built an entire visual language and a kinetic philosophy of heroism and storytelling that continues to reverberate through our entire popular culture to this day.

Read the whole thing, then swing by and borrow some Kirby books from me. Even if all you do is thumb through and soak up the visuals, you’ll soon feel the pull of Kirby’s creative gravity.


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