Fourth World under $3

Great mail this week from Tumblecat-- a mixtape of Bjork remixes, some record labels that he drew for a Mystery Train release (just the labels), and New Gods #2, one of the few remaining comic books on my want list. I'm only 2 books away from completing my run of "Fourth World under $3"

mail from tumblecat

The Fourth World was a series that DC comics put out in 1970-1973, written and drawn by Jack Kirby after he quit Marvel. It's a weird one in that it isn't constrained to just one title-- different facets of the story are told across 4 titles that were all being released at the same time- New Gods, the Forever People, Mister Miracle, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. Kirby was one of those hyper-prolific artists who got very far out as his career went on, and like Tezuka, you get the feeling that he wasn't even being "experimental", he was just solving problems and then moving on to the next page, on a schedule that didn't include time for worry.

Some things I love about Kirby visuals include long squiggly lines on a shiny costume, a big black shadow in the middle of someone's face to indicate a heavy thought, and drawing a crackling explosion of energy with a black center ("Kirby krackle"). Here's a poster that Gary Panter made, listing some more Kirby trademarks:

image It's easy to forget that a lot of realistic art has abstract components, and when it works you don't think about it consciously. I don't think Kirby was thinking about it, he was just moving fast, operating on instinct, and not looking back. It's fun to look at a page and ask "what is this blob doing?". My feeling is that Kirby was unknowingly moving towards an abstract emotional shape language. As are all artists, I guess.


In addition to his visual inventions, Kirby came up with tons of great characters and storylines, much of which got credited to Stan Lee, a piece of shit who was hated by everyone that ever worked with him. The conventional way of looking at their relationship was that Stan Lee was the writer and Jack Kirby was the artist, and due to the primacy of the written word in Western culture, that gave Stan the upper hand in ownership. As I understand it, Stan was more like a script doctor, writing the dialogue, whereas Jack did the art and story. Anyway he eventually walked away from Marvel and went to DC, bringing a suitcase of new ideas.

Kirby did a lot of great stuff but I would say that this is his masterwork-- there's a lot of weird hippies, tons of cool machinery, psychedelic collages, a discomfitting melange of goofball shit and horror, it's insane. There's a lot that happens that sort of has horrible implications but everyone just moves on immediately, it's the accelerating change part of the future that no one else really nailed. There's kind of a William S Burroughs feeling to it, but maybe that's because both Burroughs and Kirby are riffing the Boy's Adventure paradigm into psychedelic nightmares against American fascism. I guess the key differences are that Kirby characters aren't constantly boning each other (or they're doing it off the page) and also Kirby books have women in them. Oh, and Don Rickles shows up at one point, don't think Burroughs would've thought of that one.


I started collecting these books in 2007, when DC rereleased them in handsome hardcover "omnibus" collections-- they were $50 each, and there were 4 of them, that's $200! Way out of my price range. But I did the math, that worked out to $3.70 per issue-- I figured if I could get each issue for $3 or under I could save some money and also spread the damage out over a few years. So that's what I did. The same books in pristine condition might be a hundred dollars each but fucked up copies are readily available if you enjoy the hunt-- $3 is the low end of achievable. This would not have been possible if I was looking for something made after say 1990, after people started treating comics as an investment, but luckily for me the kids of 1972 didn't give a shit and wrote their names in them.

The downside to collecting it this way is that I ended up reading the comics way out of order, and sometimes it was a long time between getting new issues-- if I had the omnibuses I could just blitz through them in a frenzy. But I realized pretty quickly that my minor annoyance was actually an advantage-- Kirby puts so many ideas on the page that when you read them all in order the effect can be dizzying and the plot can seem to move too fast. Reading them out of order over the course of many years gives you the feeling of a rich and insane world whose details you fill in and whose faults you gloss over. And when you can't just move on to the next episode immediately, you really soak in the details of whatever's in front of you. Plus the story as a whole doesn't really end strong, it just sort of drifts away-- Kirby was a storyteller, and wanted his characters to die at the end, but comic book companies don't like that, they treat a character as a property, which they manage for eternity. So probably if you read the comics as a book it'd be kind of a bummer. But reading them in this pointilistic style gives you a real feeling of multiplicity, possibility, and depth, in which a confusing ending is just a note in the song, not a denied resolution.


I know it seems kind of wrong, and it wouldn't work for every title, but to be honest, reading comics from this era out of order is not a problem. In fact I think it's kind of baked in to the format. Comic books at the time were distributed at drug stores and newsstands-- each one might get only a few issues of each comic, they didn't hang on to back issues, and there was no way to get an issue you missed. This was before comic books had their own stores. As a result the titles were written with the assumption that you might not have read every single book. So jumping around in the order is totally manageable, and brings this feeling of anticipation for when you finally get those middle issues. In contrast, reading them in a collected book can feel tiresome-- you're constantly being reminded of things that happened like 3 pages ago, or what everyone's name is.

Another advantage to reading the original books is that you get the ads and the letter columns. They aren't just fun to look at but they're an important part of the pacing. Comics have "beats" like poetry-- rhythmic moments of rest and reward and anticipation. There's a panel beat, a line beat, and a page beat, and a good artist will put little things in the story and artwork to pull you along, to reward you for turning the page, or tease your expectations. The page beat on the bottom of the left page is the biggest one, there could be anything when you turn to the next page. And to put a page or two of ads in between parts of the story, that creates a tension that a good artist uses to their advantage. The reprints fail to take this into account.

OK I picked this one at random, they don't all echo so nicely and there's no way this was planned--

image image image

Anyway I'm laying it all out like this just to say that reading this crazy fractured story in this crazy fractured way has been extremely nice. And hunting for the issues over the past 10 years or whatever has been very pleasant-- many lazy afternoons banana goofin' around New England with Dan Wars, hitting up comic stores and junk shops, getting eggplant parmasean sandwiches and iced coffee. Not really on a hunt for this one thing, mostly just looking around and keeping an eye open. On many occasions I bought doubles of books I already had without realizing it, but since the prices were so low it wasn't really a problem-- most of these I mailed without warning to Mike Taylor. I also looked out for Family Circus paperbacks but I wouldn't dare send those to Mike. Those I just left in someone's bathroom.

A lot of my solutions to problems involve doing things as cheap as possible, because I don't have money and hate to work, and if I can do things cheap, I can work less. In this case the cheap way worked out to be the best way, not best as in "preferred" but as in "ideal". I'm not trying to romanticize having no money-- but over and over in my life, I desire something expensive, then I figure out some cheap way to get something similar, and then that's just a good time all around-- I get what I want and I have a good time getting what I want. If I had $200 in 2009, I would've just bought the books, and then what? I mean it wasn't a choice-- I didn't then and still don't have that kind of money to throw around all at once. But if it were a choice, I think I made the right choice. There's a lot about the world I wish I could change but as far as being on weird old shitbird path, I'm mega into it!

image Sadly I don't think it's possible, starting now, to put the series together for $3 an issue, I think that door is closed and maybe the age of idly scouring weird cramped storefronts is at an end, or at least on an indefinite pause. I post not to brag but in the hopes that you can port some flavor of this methodology ("weird old shitbird") to other parts of your life.

If you want to read these books in this present moment I would just download a torrent of them-- there's a good scene for people scanning in and posting comics, and though it sort of sucks to read them on a screen, it's better than nothing. Search for "Jack Kirby Fourth World" however you do downloading. Some of the scans have the original ads, some don't. Shoutout to the ones that do. And try to only read like 1 or 2 a day, or 5 a week. I think the original dosage level was like 2 a month but I doubt anyone has the patience for that. The torrent pack I got also has later books with the same titles, not written or drawn by Kirby-- I would honestly just throw those away, although I'm sure there's cool parts in all of them. I'm not sure how many of my readers are weirded out by the idea of downloading but whatever the legality it's absolutely not a sin.


the main baddie dresses like a Fly Girl: thigh high boots, boy shorts, sleeveless top... it rules.

If you end up checking out the torrents, You can read them in the order they were released on the newsstands, or scrambled order, or whatever, but I think the least good way would be like, all the issues of one title, then another, etc.. That said, if you only want to read one title, I'd go with Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, starting with number 133. Jimmy Olsen was always a completely bonkers book and the Kirby run was batshit insane. I'd say that the whole Jimmy Olsen series are "about" when an outside force appear in a closed system, and the system goes into a chaotic state searching for balance. And the whole Fourth World series is sort of like that, but instead of being linear and causal it's asynchronous and delirious, like a denial of the very concept of a closed system... truly psychedelic... Anyway shoehorning the whole debacle into the Jimmy Olsen way of doing things puts it all in horrible focus. To top it all off, Kirby's bosses didn't like the way he drew Superman's face, so they had someone else redraw it and paste it over the originals! Like this one guy has a nice guy face and everyone else looks like they're made out of just mud and oil. Recommended.

Some particularly good Jimmy covers from my collection. Click to make them needlessly large. The last two are from the Fourth World run:

jimmy olsen cover jimmy olsen cover jimmy olsen cover
jimmy olsen cover jimmy olsen cover jimmy olsen cover

If anyone has any insight into Don Rickle's role in all this, I would love to hear it.

links / misc

OK that's it, I guess I did two "reviews" in a row, probably gonna get more wiggly for next week... it's a wiggly world. Drop me a line either by email or on the contact page ([link]) if you're digging it, or you have a question, comment, or... something that isn't a question of a comment. Anthony (dba Tony) sent me a message at 4:20am this morning just to prove that he was awake at "the other 4:20". Mazel tov, my old friend!

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