To examine how comics changed in 1986, we should begin by looking at what comics were like in 1985. From that year, I have chosen one particular significant work to explore: Jack Kirby’s The Hunger Dogs, which DC Comics originally published as DC Graphic Novel #4 with a cover date of March 1985. Most of the creators of the comics of 1986 that I will be writing about were greatly influenced by the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the dominant creative partnership of comics’ Silver Age. Although Lee stopped writing comic books regularly in the early 1970s (though he continued to write The Amazing Spider-Man comic strip, as he still does to this day), Kirby continued to be active in creating comic books into the 1970s and 1980s, even as a new generation of comics professionals arose. One reason that The Hunger Dogs is important is that it represents Kirby’s farewell to his own creation, his “Fourth World” mythos of the early 1970s, on the eve of the radical transformation of comics by the new generation. Indeed, The Hunger Dogs seems largely to be about Kirby’s opinion of the new generation that was taking over the world from the “greatest generation” to which he belonged.
First we must review Kirby’s importance to American comic books and what the Fourth World saga had been like in the 1970s; only then will Kirby’s different treatment of that saga and its characters in The Hunger Dogs become clear.
Arguably, Kirby was the most important creative figure in the history of “mainstream” American comic books in the 20th century. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Kirby collaborated with Joe Simon, and together their creative achievements ranged from creating Captain America and other early super-heroes to introducing the romance genre in comic books. In the 1960s he collaborated with editor/writer Stan Lee at Marvel, and together they became the principal architects of Marvel Comics’ fictional universe, creating the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, and numerous other characters. Moreover, over the decades Kirby developed an innovative and dynamic art style that has long been the most influential style in drawing the action genre in American comic books.
In 1970, Kirby left Marvel for DC Comics where he wrote and drew comics stories on his own, without a collaborator such as Simon or Lee. There, Kirby produced his “Fourth World” tetralogy of comics, comprised of three new series he created in 1971—The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle—as well as the long-running Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which Kirby took over.
The Fourth World books involved a new mythology that Kirby devised and incorporated into DC Comics continuity. After the death of a race of Old Gods in a cataclysm analogous to Ragnarok, the end of the Norse gods, a race of New Gods arose on two planets whose names were derived from books of the Bible: New Genesis and Apokolips. (This origin suggests that Kirby thought of his New Gods mythos as a modern successor to the mythologies of past centuries, and perhaps also as a successor to the Marvel mythos on which he had worked in the 1960s, which included the new adventures of the Norse god Thor.) New Genesis is an idyllic world in its natural state, a paradise on the mortal plane. Its inhabitants, the New Gods, live in Supertown, a futuristic city that floats in the air above the planet’s surface. They are virtually immortal, and most possess superhuman powers. Their leader is Highfather, who resembles the archetypal image of an Old Testament prophet; indeed, his real name is Izaya, derived from the name of the Biblical prophet Isaiah. Highfather serves the Source, which, in Kirby’s stories, appears to be the God of Judaism and Christianity, or a being analogous to God.
In sharp contrast, Apokolips is a world that has been converted into a planetwide factory producing the weapons of war. It has a totalitarian government, headed by its absolute monarch, Darkseid. Most of the population, known as the “Lowlies,” are in effect slaves performing forced labor. (Kirby renamed the “Lowlies” as “the Hunger Dogs” in the graphic novel of that name.)
According to Mark Evanier, who was Kirby’s assistant when he produced the original Fourth World series, Kirby based Darkseid partly on President Richard Nixon, whom Kirby despised. Perhaps, however, it is more helpful to regard Darkseid as the ultimate totalitarian dictator, reflecting mid-20th century tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. The Lowlies of Apokolips, then, represent the oppressed population of countries under totalitarian rule. Apokolips is a planetwide forced labor camp, such as those in Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Darkseid’s ultimate goal in the Fourth World books is to find the “Anti-Life Equation,” which gives absolute control over the will, thoughts and emotion of all other beings. In other words, it represents the ultimate goal of the totalitarian dictator: total control over everyone else.
Obviously, New Genesis represents good and freedom; Apokolips represents evil and tyranny.
New Genesis could also be interpreted as an analogue to heaven. The planet seems like a paradise on the mortal plane, a worldwide Garden of Eden. Supertown seems like a science fiction version of the image of heaven as a shining city, as in the Book of Revelation (also known as the Book of Apocalypse) in the Bible.
Apokolips contains “fire pits,” so immense that flames rising from the pits are visible in Kirby’s illustrations of the entire planet in outer space. The fire pits probably allude to the furnaces in factories, but surely the fire pits also allude to the flames of hell. Apokolips, then, is a kind of hell on the mortal plane, and Darkseid is Kirby’s analogue to Satan. It’s also possible that Apokolips, with its fire pits, was meant to allude to the Nazi death camps, with their furnaces for cremating inmates. However, Kirby stopped short of depicting Apokolips as carrying out genocide; he would deal with that theme in his later Marvel series, The Eternals, as a later chapter will describe. The Nazi death camps and other means of mass murder are recurring subjects in the comics of 1986; it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kirby, a comics visionary, got to the subject before they did.
Kirby’s Fourth World mythos resembles the cosmology of the ancient Manichaean religion, which postulated that there were originally a world of goodness and light, and another world of evil and darkness. But whereas Manichaeism depicts good and evil as equal forces in the universe, Kirby’s Fourth World also includes the Source, who, as noted, is analogous to the Judeo-Christian God. As depicted by Kirby, the Source is far more powerful, presumably infinitely so, than any of the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips. The Source provides guidance to Highfather and is clearly on the side of good. Nevertheless, the Source usually does not intervene in the conflict between New Genesis and Apokolips. It may be more helpful to regard New Genesis as analogous to the Garden of Eden than to heaven. In Kirby’s Fourth World stories, heaven presumably is the realm of the Source, which lies behind a “final barrier” that not even the New Gods can penetrate; when a New God dies, he or she is transported to the Source. (I am only dealing with information about the Fourth World that comes from Kirby’s own stories, not with any additions or revisions to the Fourth World mythos by later writers and artists, such as the “Source wall.”)
The Fourth World saga also dealt with different generations of the New Gods. The oldest generation was represented by Darkseid and Highfather. Kirby’s story “The Pact” in The New Gods #7 (February-March 1972) is a flashback, in which the white-haired Highfather initially appears as the younger, dark-haired Izaya. This issue depicts a war between New Genesis and Apokolips that was resolved by a treaty whereby Highfather and Darkseid exchanged sons. Hence, Darkseid’s son Orion was raised on New Genesis and grew up to become its leading warrior against Darkseid and Apokolips.
Orion was the principal character of Kirby’s series The New Gods. So, Kirby’s Fourth World books primarily deal with the then-present, in which a new generation of New Gods, including Orion, wage a new war against the forces of Apokolips, using Earth as their battlefield, where Darkseid searches for the Anti-Life Equation.
Thanks to his genetic heritage from Darkseid, Orion has a tendency towards violent rages, reflected by his bestial facial features. Orion possesses a “Mother Box,” a device linked with the Source that now seems like Kirby’s anticipation of today’s portable computers, and uses it to control his rages and to smooth his twisted facial features into conventionally handsome ones. In his struggle to master his animalistic rages, Orion seems to be Kirby’s forerunner of Marvel’s Wolverine, who first appeared four years after Orion’s debut.
Highfather’s son Scott Free was raised on Apokolips, from which he escaped to Earth, where he became the super-hero who is the title character of Kirby’s Mister Miracle series. On Apokolips, Scott had been mentored by Himon, another member of the older generation from New Genesis, the wise inventor of the Mother Box, who was a leader in the underground opposition to Darkseid.
Orion and Mister Miracle are adults, but other New Gods in the Fourth World books were still younger. Orion’s friend and ally Lightray appeared to be younger than Orion both in age and in personality. The most prominent younger characters in the Fourth World saga were the five title characters of Kirby’s The Forever People, who seemed to be like teenagers. (It is unclear how old they were chronologically, considering that New Genesis gods like them have virtually unlimited lifespans.) Kirby was clearly inspired by the hippies of the 1960s in creating the Forever People, who represent Kirby’s positive vision of the new young generation of the late 1960s and early 1970s as brave, loving, and idealistic.
The youngest prominent character in the Fourth World books was Esak, a young child from New Genesis. (Again, it is unclear how old he was chronologically, but Esak was clearly a child by New Gods standards.) Possibly Esak’s name was a variation on that of Isaac, the son of the Biblical patriarch Abraham. Esak became the protege of Metron, a somewhat amoral New God who is a scientist who seeks out knowledge; Kirby showed Esak accompanying Metron in exploring the cosmos.
In his original appearances in the 1970s, Esak’s dominant characteristic seemed to be his youthful innocence.
Kirby had intended his Fourth World saga to be an epic that would take years to complete. However, DC Comics canceled both The New Gods and The Forever People in 1972, when each had reached only eleven issues, only a year and a half after they had begun. Mister Miracle did not last much longer, concluding its original run with issue 18.
By the mid-1980s, however, the comics industry and its audience had changed considerably. Kirby’s Fourth World saga was now widely regarded not as a failure but as a classic. Comics fans who admired the saga were now in positions of power in the comics industry, and the industry was increasingly marketing comics to fans who patronized comics specialty shops, whose tastes differed from those of the diminishing audience who bought comics at newsstands. So, DC Comics invited Kirby to finish his saga.
However, there was a catch: DC wanted Kirby to resolve his complex saga, which he had intended to take thousands of pages to complete over the course of years, within a much shorter number of pages. In the afterword to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 4 (2008), Mark Evanier wrote that Kirby “hadn’t gotten far enough into his novel to quickly cut to the chase, couldn’t do much of what he’d planned. Not in so little space.”
Furthermore, Evanier stated, in the various scenarios that Kirby had devised as possible finales for the Fourth World saga, “all had involved some of the main characters—especially Orion and especially, especially Darkseid—being killed.” However, DC was now licensing characters from the Fourth World saga to become toys. Indeed, Kirby later drew DC’s second Super Powers comics series that was based on Kenner’s Super Powers collection of action figures, which included Darkseid and other characters from Apokolips. Moreover, Evanier wrote about Kirby and the Fourth World characters, “he didn’t want to bring them back just to destroy them.”
From the perspective of the 21st century, this idea that DC did not want merchandisable characters killed off may seem quaint. For many years now, DC and Marvel have repeatedly killed off characters only to resurrect them later. Indeed, in 2007 and 2008, DC published the series Death of the New Gods, killing the New Gods off, and then resurrected them shortly afterwards in Final Crisis (2008); Darkseid, seemingly destroyed in Final Crisis, inevitably returned in the relaunched Justice League #4 (2012). Marvel got wide publicity for killing off Kirby’s co-creation Captain America in 2007 and then brought him back in 2009, shortly before he starred in his own movie in 2011. It would seem that Marvel never intended to kill the original Captain America off for good, and hence his death and resurrection were stunts to boost sales. As I shall discuss in greater depth in a later chapter, deaths and resurrections have become so common in recent super-hero comics that death has become meaningless in these stories. Yet, in the mid-1980s, editors and writers at Marvel and DC still intended deaths in their stories to be permanent, and therefore to have dramatic reality. So, since Darkseid and other Fourth World characters had become valuable properties, the DC of the 1980s would not allow them to be killed off.
Evanier also wrote that “He [Kirby] had trouble getting back into his story. Time had passed, the world had changed, Jack had changed. Issues that had mattered to him in 1971 were no longer front and center, clear and present.”
One specific example was that “The Forever People had been constructed with aspects of certain young people Jack knew. Now those young people weren’t so young anymore. Everything, everyone was a little different now including Jack, who’d modeled aspects of many characters on himself.”
Perhaps this is the most important reason why The Hunger Dogs of 1985 differs in tone and content from the original Fourth World books of the early 1970s. When the Fourth World saga began in Jimmy Olsen in 1970, Kirby was a middle-aged man of 53, starting a new phase of his astonishing career; when The Hunger Dogs was published in 1985, he had become a 68-year-old senior citizen in his final years as a comics professional.
In returning to his Fourth World saga in the mid-1980s, Kirby had to discover what this mythos and these characters meant to him in this new period of his life. Just as the creators of many of the comics of 1986 were reinterpreting the characters and series created by a previous generation of comics professionals, so too Kirby himself, one of the foremost members of American comic books’ Founding Fathers, was reinterpreting his own work to create The Hunger Dogs.
Perhaps the most startling difference between Kirby’s original Fourth World comics and The Hunger Dogs lies in Kirby’s depiction of the new generation. Instead of the optimism with which Kirby had portrayed the idealistic Forever People, in The Hunger Dogs Kirby appears grimly pessimistic about the generation that is succeeding his own, as we shall explore in the next installment.