Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles were an ambitious attempt to create a new form of comics, by presenting a combination of titles, united by a central concept and a central villain, challenged from different directions and in different aspects over four different series, including the entirely improbable Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
It didn’t work. That is to say, it didn’t work commercially. New Gods and Forever People were both cancelled after eleven bi-monthly issues, on the usual grounds that they weren’t selling. I’ve heard otherwise, especially from Kirby’s then-assistant, writer and historian Mark Evanier. He’s not the only one to suggest that Kirby was presented with less-than-accurate figures by DC Editorial Director/Publisher, Carmine Infantino. Evanier has stated that whilst the books were not high-sellers, they were bringing in better-than-cancellation figures.
Given that it was Infantino who worked so hard to detach Kirby from Marvel, his treatment of him once signed up to DC – which was to basically deny him everything he’d been promised and to hinder him from being Kirby in favour of promoting the DC style – was bizarre and perverse, but not necessarily so mysterious.
As well as the Fourth World, Kirby was still the creation machine he’d always been. The idea was always that he would create and start off titles before handing them off to assistants, like Evanier and his colleague Steve Sherman to write, and other artists to draw, under his supervision. But Kirby came up with Kamandi, the Last Boy, Infantino liked it, insisted Kirby continue it himself and, in order to give him time to do so, cancelled New Gods and Forever People. Given Infantino’s track record in the Seventies, it’s horribly believable.
Mr Miracle lived on. It was almost the most easily detachable from the overall mythos, the super-Escape Artist quickly convertible into a lone wolf. It ran for another seven issues, getting increasingly simplistic, until it too hit the Cancellation Wall, this time probably for sales, culminating in a final issue that brought back practically all the New Genesis and Apokalips characters (save for The Forever People, who’d been stranded in a far distant limbo) to act as witnesses to the marriage of Scott Free and Big Barda. This was, incidentally, the only one of the Fourth World issues I bought when it was published.
Just over three years later, DC revived the series for a further seven issues. I might almost have characterised it as another Infantino’s Follies save for two things. Firstly, that Mr Miracle was revived under Jenette Kahn as Publisher, and secondly that it was actually quite good. Nevertheless, the same thing that dogged Infantino’s mid-Seventies series, was still present, namely multiple creators. In seven issues, we covered two writers, two pencillers, two editors and multiple inkers, not to mention two complete changes of direction, one at the start, the other at the swap of writers. I call this quite good? Oh, but I do.
The New Gods had already been revived, under the title Return of…, as a one-off in First Issue Special under Infantino, and then as a series under Kahn, but as this was being written by Gerry Conway, all right-minded Fourth World fans regard it as never having happened. The Mister Miracle revival followed, under a writer with a better pedigree, Steve Engelhart, working with hotshot new penciller Marshall Rogers.
Engelhart had made his name at Marvel but had walked out on them in a fit of pique at what he saw, rightly or wrongly, as interference with his work, by Conway, ironically. Actually, Engelhart intended walking out on comics, period, but before doing so, in a wonderfully small-minded act of petty revenge, for which I applaud him, whole-heartedly, he decide to go to DC for a year and knock their socks off with his writing in a two-finger gesture to Marvel.
Engelhart wrote a superb year of Justice League of America. He wrote an eight-issue run on Batman, the first two issues a kind of try-out with an unrecognisable Walt Simonson inked by Al Milgrom, and the rest stunning from Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, done DC style, from full script and unseen by Engelhart until the finished series was sent to him in Europe.
And Rogers was wonderfully paired with Engelhart for Mr Miracle, albeit without Austin. Instead there was one issue credited to Ilya Hinch, a name representing nine different inkers working on different characters, one of them Rogers himself, and three by the notorious Vince Colletta, who couldn’t quite obliterate Rogers’ art but who made his usual uninterested in wasting time effort to do so.
Engelhart picked things up where Kirby had left off, with Scott and Barda on New Genesis, on honeymoon, effectively in retirement. Scott’s starting to feel a bit out of it, especially as everyone else is in action, and the point becomes extremely pointed when he is attacked via Boom Tube by Darkseid’s hierarchy, namely the same four that tried to kill the pair before their wedding: Granny Goodness, Virmin Vunderbar, Kanto and Dr Bedlam. Scott fights back, but Barda is kidnapped, for reindoctrination as a good little Darkseid trooper, with Scott following her to Apokalyps to get her back. He’s allowed to get to where they are keeping her, but only by separating himself from Mother Box.
That meant Scott having to rely on his human skills. And next issue, having spirited Barda away, despite her having been brainwashed to attack him, he got her away to New Genesis and their version of a hospital there. Unfortunately, when he tried to repair and re-bond with Mother Box, she pushed him off: up till now, he has relied on her, seeming to have no god-like powers of his own, but now he has to draw upon his own strengths.
And Scott decided to fight back against Darkseid by becoming a messiah: on Apokalyps certainly, and maybe on Earth too. Scott started his campaign whilst Barda was recovering.
At which point, after three issues, Engelhart was gone, without warning or explanation. Rogers stayed on for issue 22, which was written by an unknown, John Harkness, and which featured Scott Free, out of the blue and with no foreshadowing, deciding that the only thing to do was to kill Darkseid, Messiah-dom obviously not being cut out for the impatient.
At the time, it caught me by surprise. What I didn’t know, and didn’t learn for several years, was that John Harkness was Steve Engelhart, taking his name off the script because he was essentially doing what was required of him by incoming editor Larry Hama, who had replaced Denny O’Neill: not his idea, not his name.
The fill-in issue isn’t that bad. The first two-thirds is divided more or less equally between Mr Miracle fighting his way across Apokalyps to Darkseid’s personal bunker of darkness, and his friend Oberon desperately trying and succeeding in making contact with New Genesis, Highfather and Himon to tell them what Scott is doing and seek aid for him. Oberon does not have high hopes of Scott succeeding, and the New Genesis high command has even less, since all they do is burst out laughing, treat it about as seriously as you’d treat a ram trying to headbutt a hole in a dam, and suggest he stops broadcasting before someone local homes in on his radio position.
And then Mr Miracle gets there, into Darkseid’s bunker, and suddenly it’s scary shit with full page art, all dark and craggy, and the lack of balance of powers between him and the Master of Apokalyps becomes vividly, visually apparent, and Darkseid just disappears him with a wave of his hand…
Enter a new creative team. This consists of writer Steve Gerber and penciller Michael Golden, paired on inks first time with Joe Giella, and then Russ Heath for the last two issues, by which we can actually see that it’s Golden doing the art, and not just his name being taken in vain.
The first of Gerber’s issues takes up Mr Miracle’s dismissal. He winds up in some sort of limbo land, confronted by an either female or at least androgynous figure calling herself Ethos, and who may or may not be a manifestation of Mother Box. We are drifting even further from Kirby’s conceptions here, especially as Ethos’s teachings are bent to re-orienting Scott’s perceptions, divorcing him from both his godly heritages, Apokaplyps and New Genesis.
Thankfully, it doesn’t start intimating that he is actually human instead, but it does send Scott back to New Genesis, to a) collect Barda and b) blow off Highfather with unfilial rudeness, before heading back to Earth with Barda.
Scott plans to start up a new Escape artist tour as a preliminary to building himself up as messianic figure, helping people escape from their perceptions (a rather trite ambition). He sells up Oberon’s home, moves everyone to California (I know exactly how Oberon feels), re-hires his old publicist Ted Brown and sets about building himself up in the public eye.
Gerber also introduced an interesting young character, by name Aleetha. Aleetha is fifteen years old. Ten years ago, she suffered injuries, impliedly due to a mistake by her weakling father, that leave her in constant pain. Despite this, and under tutelage by her domineering, not to mention sneering mother, she has trained herself to perfect control of her body, fuelled by her pain, and is now to be used as a weapon against Mr Miracle by Granny Goodness.
Aleetha strikes in issue 25. She’s more than a match for Scott Free. Unfortunately, for her parents at least, she is not interested in inflicting pain, in combat of any kind, except against the limitations of her body. This makes her useless to Granny and ensures her parents’ deaths: no loss, as far as I can tell.
Mr Miracle saves her from Granny and was clearly going to take her on as part of his team, but at this point the infamous Implosion occurred. This iteration of Mr Miracle was cancelled, and Aleetha and any plans Gerber had for her went with him. Pity: she was a genuinely intriguing character.
Not, of course, that this was the end of Mr Miracle: far from it. In it’s way, it was a transition series, setting Scott Free both in the context of, and divorcing himself from what Kirby had established for him. He’s still around, forty plus years later – Kirby characters tend to do that – even though, the last time I noticed, Shilo Norman, not Scott, was the one getting out of impossible traps.
But even though this brief run ought properly to be regarded as a travesty, it was a travesty by two superior writers and two great (when not pissed all over by crap inkers) artists. I bought it all then and I’m glad to have it back now. So two cheers from me.