Jack Kirby’s Legacy with The Fourth World

When the Old Gods died — there arose the New Gods. In 1971 writer and artist Jack Kirby asked, “Who are our gods? Who are the evil gods? Who are the good ones?” At a time of late 60s counterculture shifting the perspective of society, old mentalities and habits were dying. Gone were the days of social acceptance of bigotry, sexism, and simple war. This was a time of Vietnam War protests, a new wave of feminism, and a fight for racial equality in the middle of civil unrest across the world.  Kirby took his own experiences of war, examining the world around him, and crafted the story of an endless fight between higher beings. New Gods gave us not only a dynamic story of good versus evil, but also a battle of ideas and morals.

Taking elements from the Bible and science fiction, the epic saga was meant to reflect the world of 1971, but in our current time of political scandals and freedom fighters, the “Fourth World” remains a testament of the constant struggle between freedom and subjugation, both physically and mentally. The eternal war between New Genesis and Apokolips examines the principle of Yin and Yang. Both worlds exist as inseparable yet contradictory, with New Genesis divinely guided to live free, and spread light and freedom to the universe. The dark and cold Apokolips exists to control in rigid power, bred to serve their tyrant Darkseid(Is). Many people can parallel this struggle with real world affairs in various countries with rivalries that stem from centuries of political powers at odds.

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The characters Scott “Mister Miracle” Free, and gentle warrior Big Barda are a prime examples of the spirit of social justice. Both raised on the hellish and dominating world Apokolips, living to serve, but their thirst for freedom drove them to escape and fight against oppression. Many immigrants can connect to the idea of escaping to a land of freedom and growth, and with many odds against them. While Scott is the son of New Genesis’ leader Highfather, an uneasy truce led to the young boy being transported to enemy territory. Growing up in those harsh conditions drove Scott to work harder, and with a few allies, his method of retaliation birthed the greatest escape artist in the galaxy. Barda on the other hand, was trained as an elite warrior, living to serve only her superiors, until she herself recognizes the beauty of freedom in her love for Scott. The freedom fighters of the cosmos perfectly reflect the advocates of many social issues that plague society. One could so far as to say that Barda’s tall stature and strength could be Kirby’s commentary on feminism, as she refuses to allow herself to be controlled by anyone, while also embracing her femininity. This iconic heroine’s role comes full circle in Mitch Gerad’s and Tom King’s “Mister Miracle” (2018) as she is a warrior, mother, and literal goddess. The couple also embrace their identity, with their forbidden love in the eyes of their instructor Granny Goodness being the catalyst to fight. Everyone can relate to their story on some level.

While Scott and Barda may appeal to fighters of social justice, Kirby tackled the mentality of war with the stern Orion. The noble yet erratic prince is a child of Apokolips, but being raised on the gentle utopia New Genesis created a poetic and caring god of war. While he finds joy in a battle, it is ultimately for the greater good. He is a study of “nature vs nurture” as he himself acknowledges the conflicts within himself, hiding his true monstrous face with the help of a Mother Box. He rejects and despises his birth world, as he learned compassion at an early age. On the other side there’s his blood brother Kalibak, raised as a cruel and sadistic soldier, finding peace in endless war. He looks down on anything he considers physically weak, and constantly seeks validation from his superiors. Unlike Orion, he is a towering Neanderthal that embraces the aggressive nature of his home world.

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Both reflect two sides of war, one just and one savage. Their conflict rises as Darkseid (Is) despises Kalibak, but respects Orion, creating tension between the brothers. The concept of war being born from tyranny shines a light on the wars of history and today, as people cry for honor and justice. Global debates of the character and morality of war constantly shake the foundations of lives, as innocent casualties are caught in between. Many opinions reflect Orion, sighting war as an end to justify the means, but even Orion learned that there are bigger stakes when war is involved.

Of course, there’s the god of evil, leader of Apokolips, the Omega himself: Darkseid (Is). His hunger for control and dominance can be found in the philosophy of fascism. No one is above him, and God(s) forbid if anyone attempts to be. His quest to solve the Anti-Life equation imitates real world individual’s desire for subjugation. Kirby theorized the equation as, “If someone possesses absolute control over you – you’re not alive”. Darkseid and his adviser and scientist Desaad go to great lengths to tease the equation out of many hosts. The imagery of laboratories, experiments and militaristic tyrants do mirror the Holocaust of the 1940s, but various countries to this day suffer from similar acts. While his leadership mirrors the real world figures Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini, everyone can identify someone retaining the tyrannical qualities of this character.

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Another interesting aspect shown is that Darkseid is the catalyst that began the war of the worlds. His devious acts drove Highfather to the edge, resulting in an almost universe-ending war. It wasn’t until he saw that he was becoming his enemy, that Highfather chose a different route of peace and serenity. With the neutral God of Knowledge Metron, the pact was created, but even he admitted that Darkseid only received power by “intrigue and war”, echoing many figures’ rise to power through cunning tactics. That is what makes him dangerous—not only is physically intimidating, but he also understands how to manipulate most situations around him.

Other instances that are more in your face seem almost prophetic. In the era of “fake news”, Glorious Godfrey is more relevant than ever as a message of the dangers of a cult of personality. Taking on the role as a sensationalist with charisma, the devious character finds joy in fear mongering for Apokolips. Another interesting study is the group of beings on New Genesis known as the “Bugs”. Inhabiting the surface world, while the gods live in the sky, this species found themselves suffering from the bigotry of their neighbors. While considered “on the nose”, the commentary on racism shows that Kirby acknowledge all spectrums of humanity. Forager, on the side of good, finds himself fighting for acceptance among the likes of a bigoted Orion, often saving his and many lives in the process. Not helping the situation is the bug Mantis, whose craving for power drives him to side with Apokolips. Often times, it’s stated that he is as powerful as Darkseid (Is), but his mindset of being a “bug” results in him appearing as weak.

There is a reason the New Gods stories are often celebrated. Kirby’s dedication to crafting a world and characters that reflect the core beings of people on such a large scale is truly an awe-inspiring achievement. Everyone can relate to slavery, bigotry, war, love, and the battle between oppression and freedom that is displayed in these stories. The idea of an old world dying to give way to the new is displayed in all walks of life. At the time it was created, protests and political debates echoed across the world, the first issue called it “An Epic For Our Times”, and it continues to remain that way.

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