Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Fourth World: Omnibus Volume Four

I just finished reading the final Fourth World Omnibus. I love that DC put these books out, the issues hold up well, and are thematically extremely relevant to the world we live in today. This last volume is a downturn in quality from the earlier issues, but it concludes with a couple of great stories, the unjustly maligned “Hunger Dogs” graphic novel and its prelude are a satisfying, epic conclusion to the saga.

If there’s a central theme to The Fourth World, it’s the idea that darkness will always fail to control the world, and in the end, the forces of good will find a way to win. The reason for that is that the order Darkseid seeks to impose is inherently fragile. It’s a lot easier to shine a light than to blot out the sun. We see this played out in the final issue of The Forever People, where Infinity Man finds his way out of a cosmic prison to go back and battle Darkseid. The issue ends with Darkseid banishing the Forever People to another dimension, something they’re cool with. What he calls a punishment, they see as an opportunity to build a new home for themselves.

Mister Miracle is about escape, he is the incarnation of chaos, a man who cannot be held by any prison. Apokolips is a prison planet, so he is the ultimate affront to that world. He can escape from any prison they cook up for him, and even when the series drifts away from its Fourth World roots, the core theme remains present.

Most of this book is Mister Miracle issues, and he was always my least favorite of the Fourth World books. These issues aren’t bad, but they are a bit formulaic. The joy is in watching the developing relationships between the various characters. We get to watch the formation of the Mister Miracle Escape Troupe, the creation of a surrogate family for various characters. Scott and Barda are the central relationship here, and it’s great watching them get closer and finally get married at the end of the series.

Also introduced is Shilo Norman, a kid who will grow up to play a central role in Grant Morrison’s Mister Miracle series. He’s not too notable here, though I do like the way Kirby creates an inter-racial family with Scott’s adoption of Shilo. Kirby is extremely politically progressive, and his youthful energy serves as a rebuke to the traditional image of generational conflict in the 60s. Reading this series, it’s clear he’s philosophically right with the 60s counterculture, and Jimmy Olsen and The Forever People read as extended tributes to those ideas.

Kirby sounds like an incredible guy, it’s crazy to think of all the stuff he must have done in his life, making all these stories, fighting in World War II, and more. He came face to face with the Earth incarnation of Darkseid and Apokolips, and I’m sure much of the series is informed by what he saw there. It bothers me when people equate patriotism with this conservative ideal of the whitebread nuclear family. Kirby came out of that generation, but he’s making these trippy, progressive comics that are as groundbreaking as anything else that came out of the counterculture. You know if he were around today, he’d hate what Bush did to this country, and would be writing comics about people who fought back.

Morrison’s Mister Miracle will likely make a lot more sense if I read it now, after reading all the original stuff. I like the idea that Shilo wanders away from the wedding in issue #18 unsure of whether anything he just saw was real, and it’s those memories that come back to him when he plunges into the black hole in the series. Seven Soldiers owes a major debt to what the Fourth World books did.

After a bunch of random standalone issues, the Fourth World concepts and characters return in issue #18, the wedding of Scott and Barda. It’s great to see them back, many classic Mister Miracle foes return and we get a final confrontation between the forces of freedom and the forces of control. Highfather shows them all up, and everyone escapes to New Genesis. Darkseid is left behind to reflect on the fact that “Life at best is bittersweet.” Situated a panel away from a caption saying “The Mister Miracle series will not be continued…” that feels all too appropriate.

However, the saga is not over. The other titles fade to the back, and the Orion/Darkseid conflict surges to the fore for Hunger Dogs. These stories have a pretty bad reputation, but I really liked them. I suppose it could be a bit underwhelming if you’d waited fifteen years for the conclusion, but read in succession with the issues, it works well.

“Even Gods Must Die” is primarily a visual spectacle, Kirby’s art feels rawer and crazier than the old stuff, and his layouts are more experimental. Every page seems to be half covered in crazy Kirby gizmos, and filled to the brim with faces and bodies in motion.

The big conflict here is between Darkseid’s attempt to impose total order on Apokolips, and the spark of chaos that Orion brings. Darkseid has turned to machines, “The Micro-Mark” in particular, which is apparently an artifical version of the anti-life equation. He is using this to subdue the masses and turn them into mindless drones who believe only in Darkseid.

Again, there’s huge relevance to what we’re seeing happening in politics today. There’s a lot of talk about why movies about Iraq fail, and primarily I think it’s because it’s hard to express the anger that a lot of people feel without coming off as preachy and over the top. I think people have a hard time accepting their own culpability in what happened, so we wind up with movies that explicitly claim to have no political agenda. But, this is a time when we need people to speak out, and sometimes it’s easier to that through genre. What the Fourth World books do is tap into a conflict so eternal and fundamental to humanity, they remain forever relevant. The original concept came out of Vietnam, but Darkseid’s agenda feels like exactly the kind of thing we’ve seen Bush and his crew do.

Much emphasis is placed on the mechanation of Apokolips. They no longer need foot soldiers to kill and keep control. When we’ve got politicians speaking about unmanned drones to protect our borders, and an army where you can bomb people from remote, it’s clear how relevant this is. And, I think it’s only by viewing the conflict in this kind of archetypal genre narrative that we can recognize how dire our own situation is. Real life villains don’t have faces of stone, they wear suits and speak like they care about you. Is anyone supporting Darkseid when they read this story? No, and if that’s the case, why are people still supporting his counterpart on our world?

That’s why I like the fact that Kirby recognizes one man can’t save the world, he can only hope to ignite a change in the masses. Before reading it, I wondered why the book was called “The Hunger Dogs,” and it turns out that the dogs are the people of Apokolips. We’ve been following the conflict of gods, and never understood what it did to the people on the ground level. They want to throw off the control of Darkseid, but they don’t know how to. That’s where Orion comes in.

Orion is the spark of chaos, born in the darkness of Apokolips, he has seen the light and now returns to spread that light and tear through Darkseid’s control. In the prelude, we see him eventually reach Darkseid, and in an awesome turn of events, get abruptly gunned down. But, Darkseid doesn’t seem to even care. He’s going through the motions at this point, seemingly in an extistential crisis. His imminent victory feels meaningless. I particularly like the scenes where he revives people who’ve died during the series, only to find that they are little more than flesh puppets, their existence only reminding him more of what he lost.

“The Hunger Dogs” is ostensibly about the final confrontation between Darkseid and Orion, but the real action takes place away from that, on New Genesis. Throughout the entire series, we’ve seen New Genesis and Apokolips pitted against each other in this eternal struggle of freedom and control. Darkseid beings an assault on New Genesis, but High Father winds up totally subverting the paradigm. Darkseid thinks that destroying their world will destroy the people, but in the end, the destruction of New Genesis liberates them to go searching the galaxy for a new way of life.

Much like with the Forever People, Darkseid believes that upending the order of things will cripple his foe, only to find out that he’s given them an opportunity to find something better. Darkseid is ultimately about the status quo, keeping people locked in specific patterns of behavior. High Father is much more malleable, they have a satellite ready, and are perfectly willing to go searching the stars for a new world. Nobody knows what they’ll find out there, but they’ve got hope.

So, Darkseid first loses his cosmic foe, and next uses his personal foe, Orion. Rather than embarking on another duel to the death with Darkseid, Orion decides to take the people he cares about and run away. I’m guessing one of the big issues people have with the book is that they see this ending as a cop out. We’re deprived of the epic final confrontation between father and son. But, I feel like we get that in “Gods Must Die,” we’ve seen that you can’t defeat Darkseid through force. “Hunger Dogs” is all about destroying the idea of Darkseid, the Manichean ideal that he so stringently represents.

By running away, Orion deprives Darkseid of an enemy, and without an enemy, his life is meaningless. He doesn’t care about controlling the people anymore, they’re running over his machines and causing chaos in the society. At this point, he only cared about Orion and Tigra, and now they’re running away, never to be seen again. Orion chooses a life of adventure, of new discoveries, instead of continuing this tired old paradigm of good vs. evil.

That’s ultimately the greatest escape of all. The book begins with a war, and it ends with the close of that war. Evil is not defeated, it’s the idea of war itself that’s abandoned. The chaos Orion inspires in Apokolips will eventually bring down the civilization, in a way that acts of destruction never can. People can only be ruled by fascist governments if they believe that’s the only way things can be. Bush can install the Patriot Act because he says we’re in imminent danger and this is the only way to protect ourselves. But, once you realize that’s a lie, that the whole world is built on a lie, the people will revolt against the current order. Orion has shown the Hunger Dogs that Darkseid need not be feared, and they are ultimately the ones who will win the war. It is their human passion that will destroy the machines Darkseid barely even cares about.

I love the final couple of pages in the book, particularly High Father’s speech about the new nature of their existence. The people he’s speaking with fear that they might find a foe greater than Darkseid. But, where they fear the unknown, he relishes it, hoping that they will find a better world. It is a gamble to choose the unknown, but perhaps they can find hope out there. “The world we seek must find us. We are the ones who are lost!”

And the whole world closes out with one final appearance of Metron, towing a young planet behind him, the planet that will presumably one day become the new hope of High Father and the residents of New Genesis. Metron is essentially another fiction suit for John a Dreams, a person who’s outside the game, above the conflict, and moving to ensure that certain things happen as they need to. There are a lot of similarities between the Fourth World and The Invisibles, most notably the destruction of a Manichaean paradigm at the end. Evil is not defeated, it’s exposed as pathetic and lacking next to the overwhelming light of forward progress.

In the end, it’s disappointing that Kirby couldn’t finish the story as he’d hoped to. I’d have loved to see everyone come back for the finale, get the Forever People, Scott and Barda, Dave Lincoln and Claudia Shane, and even Jimmy and the newsboy gang back to help defeat Darkseid. But, I think it’s a total misjudgment to say that this ending is somehow a failure or disappointing. I think it’s as pop and exciting as any of the comics that preceded it. After reading these books, it’s easy to see why Kirby is revered as a god of the medium.

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