Looking For The Awesome – 23. Why Did The Fourth World Fail?

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We’re honored to be able to publish Stan Taylor’s Kirby biography here in the state he sent it to us, with only the slightest bit of editing. – Rand Hoppe

WHY DID THE FOURTH WORLD FAIL?

Actually this is somewhat of a misnomer; the Fourth World books did not fail. The characters and worlds that Jack Kirby created are still alive and ever-present in the current DC continuity, and comic reality. Darkseid is at the top of DC’s villain pantheon. Yet it is obvious that the original series did not make the immediate impression necessary for DC to continue them. So while I can’t label them a failure, they certainly weren’t a rousing success either.

Much has been made- and very little convincingly-that for some unexplained reason, Carmine Infantino undercut Kirby’s series. The suggestion is that Infantino, in some Machiavellian scheme had simply hired Jack Kirby away from Marvel with the mistaken impression that without Kirby, Marvel would fold.

How absurd! First, Carmine and Jack were longtime friends before and after Kirby’s tenure at DC. Carmine had personally sought out and hired Kirby, giving Jack an unprecedented four books to tell his tales, and DC had followed through with a huge advertising blitz spotlighting Kirby’s new books; hardly the action of an editor and company who cared not if Kirby succeeded.

As for sabotaging Marvel, Carmine was an editor; his job was to sell books, not work behind the scenes trying to undermine the competition. At the time that Kirby left Marvel he was doing two monthly books and the occasional filler strip; less than one twentieth of Marvels output, no one could imagine that his leaving Marvel would cause irreparable damage to them.

Editors have to answer to owners and bean counters; they don’t cancel books that are profitable, but they might cancel a borderline seller if they think the creator might have better sales with a different concept. Not so different from Stan Lee transferring Jim Steranko from the poor selling Agent of SHIELD, to the better selling Captain America. Carmine didn’t fire Kirby, he simply shifted him in another direction in the hopes that the next idea might be the blockbuster title he so wanted. I see no evidence that there was any personal animosity or political intrigue behind what happened to Kirby, just an editor doing what editors do–right or wrong.

Now saying this, I am intrigued that just after Kirby left DC, they began bringing back some of the Fourth World characters, more intermingled in the regular DC continuity. But I think that might have happened anyway, copyrights demand that a concept be used periodically and it’s not unusual for dormant characters to be returned to active duty for a short period and then return to the trash bin. It happened with some of Ditko’s characters created just before Kirby came to DC. Plus there was a regime change just after Kirby left and Carmine was gone and new editors took over. It’s possible that they saw the sales figures and compared to what DC was than selling, those figures looked good.

I have come to the conclusion that Kirby’s Fourth World series failed for five specific reasons; four were industry changes beyond Kirby’s and Carmine’s control, and a fifth that Kirby might have changed but it would have gutted any sense of grandeur and “epicness” from the concept.

The first reason was simple bad timing. The comic industry was caught in one of its cyclical downswings, and nowhere was this more evident than DC. DC was hemorrhaging! Stan Lee and the boys had produced a new generation of readers to whom DC had become anathema. Marvel Zombies didn’t do DC. In some ways Jack’s past success at Marvel prevented him from growing a new crop of readers. It was around this time that Marvel’s total sales eclipsed DC’s, and DC’s continued falling. DC was gasping and even Kirby couldn’t overcome the perception.

Nothing that Infantino tried since he became editor had worked; despite artistic and writing changes, many longtime series such as Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Atom had reached bottom and were jettisoned. And none of the myriad new series, despite quality work from such artists as Steve Ditko, Neal Adams and Bernie Wrightson had caught on; in fact, it was rare for them to last more than 6-7 issues.

DC of the early ‘70’s was much like the comic industry of today; nothing they tried caught the public’s fancy and the editorial turmoil meant that the editors had to show immediate results or they and the series got canned. There simply was no time for a series to grow organically, steadily building a hardcore following with new readers joining with each issue. The results had to be immediate and overwhelming, so instead of new concepts, they simply retold and packaged the popular characters in new books

But to Jack’s credit, his series did last longer than most. Perhaps Kirby did have a core constituency that followed him–not large enough to guarantee success, but large enough to try to build on. Perhaps Carmine felt that with some fine tuning the series had a chance The Deadman issues of Forever People and the makeover of Mister Miracle from Apokolyptian palace intrigue into a typical super-hero strip may have been attempts to widen their appeal, especially among the many die-hard DC fans who had resisted the Kirbyization of DC.

Either way, DC of the early ‘70s was a black hole even Kirby’s cosmic light couldn’t escape; which brings us to reason #2.

When Marvel finally got out from under the yoke of DC’s distribution company in 1968, they embarked on a program of expansion that would see them go from fewer than 20 titles to over 40 in two years and upwards of 60 by the mid-Seventies; first by increasing their super-hero line, than by adding sword and sorcery and horror titles and then romance and westerns. But most of all they flooded the market with reprint titles. In a normal market this possibly would not have had any effect on Kirby’s Fourth World titles, but this wasn’t a normal market. While Marvel was expanding their line, the retail reality was that the outlets were either maintaining the same space or cutting back due to smaller profit margins, which meant that new titles had to fight for space like never before. This same thing happened after World War 2 with the easing of paper restrictions the companies glutted the stands, with the result that many new titles were returned unopened or got pushed to the side in favor of better known quantities. If one ran a mom and pop store and were faced with carrying only 50 titles from among 5-6 companies, you naturally would choose the fifty most popular, or at least well-known titles. Mister Miracle had to fight with Spider-man, FF, Batman, Superman and the other long-time favorites for decreasing space in a shrinking market. It’s no wonder that new series failed much more often than succeeded. Outside of large markets, just finding these titles was a major battle. This flooding of the market was an old stratagem of Martin Goodman’s; in fact it was his usual m.o. when he controlled his own distribution. It should have come as no surprise that as soon as he had the chance he would revert to old ways. The big change was that Marvel had become a big fish and his glutting was killing DC, the largest fish.

Reason #3 may be Martin Goodman’s final stroke of genius. As revenues from advertising declined (due to the shrinking market) the companies felt the need to raise the cover price. DC decided to jump from 15 cents all the way to 25cents, while enlarging their books with low cost reprints. Two months later Marvel followed suit making their titles a similar 25cents. But after one month, Marvel reduced the price down to 20cents and shrunk their size back down to 20 pages, giving the impression that they were reducing the price while in reality they were raising the price for a smaller package.

Only $.25 reprints for free

What this did was allow Marvel to offer a larger percent to the dealers giving the retailers more profit for the same size book, and more of an incentive to push Marvel’s titles. So not only were Kirby’s new books fighting for actual space in a shrinking market, the dealers were actively pushing the competitor’s goods for a few cent’s more an issue. Plus, the kids could get more titles for their buck; a win-win for Marvel.

This changeover happened about the time of the fourth issue of the main titles, At a time when the books were desperately looking for new readers, the retailers had another reason to either not order the books, or to minimize the amount and the prominence of the titles. The really sad part is how long it took for DC to react to this maneuver. The 25 centers lasted about nine months before they were reduced to 20 cents. By this time the Kirby titles sales had dropped as had all of DC’s books, and the writing was on the wall. Some have charged that Goodman’s ploy was sleazy, but it wasn’t Goodman’s actions, but DC’s inaction that hurt so much. Just as today, these behind the scene industry games point out just how little quality matters if the product can’t get to market, which brings us to another aspect that actually may have been the most damaging to Kirby’s series.

#4 was serious. With the huge proliferation of Marvel’s reprint books, Kirby’s new DC books were in direct competition with Kirby’s old Marvel books. From the very beginning of Jack’s DC tenure, Marvel actually had more Kirby covers and more Kirby pages published each month than did DC. So for any new or casual reader, which was still the lifeblood of the industry, the appearance was that Jack Kirby was still pumping out titles for Marvel, on popular characters, at a cheaper price. If one accepts the premise that a new generation of comic readers occurs every five years, these reprint books were just as new and topical as the Fourth World books.

For examples, let’s look at certain periods. Between Oct 1970 when Kirby’s first DC book appeared and Feb, 1971 when the New Gods and Forever People started, Marvel released 25 books with Kirby work, and 10 sporting Kirby covers, that’s 3 DC books as compared to 25 Marvel books. In the next two months, Feb. and March 1971 when New Gods, Mister Miracle and Forever People hit the stands, Marvel countered with 13 books and 6 covers. This makes a total of 38 books and 16 covers for Marvel as opposed to 7 new books by DC; over a 5-to-1 ration just when the new books sought to make their most dramatic impact.

August and September of 1971, when DC introduced the new 25cent format, Kirby did 4 books for DC, while Marvel released 10 books with 6 covers; over twice the output, at a lower price, and usually with well known characters as opposed to new untested and untried characters.

An esteemed editor for Marvel told me that these policies were not aimed at Kirby, and I think I agree. Of course that editor was not there when these occurred, and I think it’s possible for an objective person to look at the data and come to the opposite conclusion. Either way, the negative results for Kirby’s new books were just a sad collateral damage inflicted by the larger comic industry wars.

Let’s look at the data for the complete run of the Fourth World books.

DCMarvel
October 1970 Jimmy Olsen #133 Astonishing Tales #2 New
Chamber Of Darkness #7
November 1970 NoneAmazing Adventures #3 New
Fear #1 w/cover
Nick Fury #16 w/cover
Two Gun Kid #95
Where Creatures Roam #3 w/cover
Where Monsters Dwell #6 w/cover
December 1970 Jimmy Olsen #134 Fantastic Four Annual #8
Kazar #2
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #29 w/cover
X-Men Annual #1 w/cover
X-Men #67
January 1971Jimmy Olsen #135Amazing Adventures #4 New
Avengers Annual #4
Captain America Annual #1
Fear #2 w/cover
Hulk Annual $3
Mighty Marvel Western #`12
Nick Fury #17 w/cover
Special Edition #1
Thor Annual #3
Tower Of Shadows #9
Where Creatures Roam #4 w/cover
Where Monsters Dwell #7 w/cover
March 1971 Jimmy Olsen #136
Mister Miracle #1
Fantastic Four #108 New
Creatures On The Loose #10
Fear #3 w/cover
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #30
My Love #10
Nick Fury #18 w/cover
Sgt. Fury #85 w/cover
Where Creatures Roam #5 w/cover
Where Monsters Dwell #8
April 1971Jimmy Olsen #137
Forever People #2
New Gods #2
Monsters On The Prowl #10
Rawhide Kid #86
Special Marvel Edition #2
X-Men #69
May 1971Mister Miracle #2Creatures On The Loose #11 w/cover
Mighty Marvel Western #13
Where Creatures Roam #6
Where Monsters Dwell #9 w/cover
June 1971Jimmy Olsen #138
Forever People #3
New Gods #3
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #31 w/cover
Monsters On The Prowl #11 w/cover
Western Gunfighters #5
X-Men #70 w/cover
July 1971 Jimmy Olsen #139
Mister Miracle #3
Fear #4 w/cover
Where Creatures Roam #7 w/cover
Where Monsters Dwell #10 w/cover
Creatures On The Loose #12 w/cover
Aug 1971Forever People #4
New Gods #4
Monster On The Prowl #12 w/cover
Our Love Story #12
X-Men #71 w/cover
September 1971Jimmy Olsen #141
Mister Miracle #4
Creatures On The Loose #13 w/cover
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #32 w/cover
Mighty Marvel Western #14
Rawhide Kid Special #1
Special Marvel Edition #3 w/cover
Where Creatures Roam #8 w/cover
Where Monsters Dwell #11
October 1971Jimmy Olsen #142
Forever People #5
New Gods #5
Monsters On The Prowl #13
Rawhide Kid #92
X-Men #72 w/cover
November 1971 Jimmy Olsen #143
Mister Miracle #5
Creatures On The Loose #14 w/cover
Fear #5 w/cover
Iron Man Annual #2
My Love #14
Two Gun Kid #101
Where Monsters Dwell #12
December 1971 Jimmy Olsen #144
Forever People #6
New Gods #6
Fantastic Four Annual #9 w/cover
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #33 w/cover
Monsters On The Prowl #14
Thor #194
Thor Annual #4 w/cover
January 1972Jimmy Olsen #145
Mister Miracle #6
Amazing Adventures #10
Avengers Annual #5 w/cover
Captain America Annual #2 w/cover
Creatures On The Loose #15
Hulk Annual #4
Where Monsters Dwell #13
February 1972Jimmy Olsen #146
Forever People #7
New Gods #7
Fear #6
Marvel Triple Action #1
Monster On The Prowl #15
Sgt Fury #95
Special Marvel Edition #4 w/cover
Mar 1972Jimmy Olsen #147
Mister Miracle #7
Beware #1
Creatures On The Loose #16
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #34
Mighty Marvel Western #16
Two Gun Kid #103
Where Monsters Dwell #14
April 1972 Jimmy Olsen #148
Forever People #8
New Gods #8
Monster On The Prowl #16
Fear #7
May 1972Mister Miracle #8Creatures On The Loose #17
Marvel Premier #2
Marvel Triple Action #2 w/cover
Where Monsters Dwell #15
June 1972Forever People #9
New Gods #9
Fear #8
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #35
Monster On The Prowl #17
Marvel Triple Action #3
Special Marvel Edition #5
July 1972Mister Miracle #9
Weird Mystery Tales #1
Forbidden Tales Of Dark Mansions
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #36
Western Gunfighters #10
Where Monsters Dwell #16
August 1972Forever People #10
New Gods #10
Fear #9
Marvel Triple Action #4
Monster On The Prowl #18
September 1972Mister Miracle #10
Demon #1
Weird Mystery Tales #2
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #37
Western Gunfighters #11
Creatures On The Loose #19
Marvel Super Heroes #32
October 1972Forever People #11
New Gods #11
Demon #2
Monsters On The Prowl #19
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #38
November 1972Mister Miracle #11
Demon #3
Weird Mystery Tales #3
Kamandi #1
Marvel’s Greatest Comics #39
Marvel’s Super Heroes #33
Western Gunfighters #12
Where Monsters Dwell #18

Not counting the last 7 issues of Mister Miracle, which veered away from the Fourth World format, we have 48 titles for DC against 106 titles for Marvel, over a 2 to 1 ratio for the life of the series.

In the months immediately prior to Kirby leaving Marvel, there were three reprint titles regularly spotlighting Kirby work; Two active (Where Creatures Roam, Where Monsters Dwell) and one on hiatus (Marvel’s Greatest Comics) Within four months of Kirby starting at DC, the number had swollen to seven. The previous three (Marvel’s Greatest Comics had restarted) , two new titles (Fear, Special Marvel Edition) and two old series downgraded to reprints (X-Men, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD) The timing coinciding with Kirby’s new releases does sound more than coincidental.

Within 6 months another two series would be retrofitted and highlight Kirby reprints. (Monsters On The Prowl, Creatures On The Loose) plus 7 super-hero Annuals (FF, Thor, Avengers, Hulk, X-Men, Iron Man, and Captain America) would feature Kirby reprints with 3 sporting Kirby covers.

To new customers, those known quantities must have been preferable to chancing an unknown one. It actually got worse later in Kirby’s stay at DC. In 1973, Marvel would unleash a third wave of reprint titles including such series as Marvel Double Feature, Marvel Spectacular, SHIELD, Tomb Of Darkness, Human Torch, and Journey Into Mystery, in addition to the continuing titles such as Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Marvel Super Heroes, Special Marvel Edition, and Mighty Marvel Western, all frequently featuring Kirby covers and stories. There was never a time in Kirby’s 5 year stay at DC, that Marvel wasn’t publishing more Kirby work. This was the problem that Dick Ayers had fought about so incessantly. With reprints, the artist was basically in competition with himself, without the benefit of getting paid for one half of the work.

Infinity man day glo
Infinity goes psychedelic

The fifth reason I feel the Fourth World books failed was that Kirby extended himself and his talent too far. His tale was told over four separate, yet interrelated books, forcing the buyer to spend too much. It was very hard for anyone to casually pick up an issue and understand who the characters were, where the plot was going and what was the central theme. The cast was so large and overwhelming with new characters jumping in and out at the oddest times. The books had a strange non-linear plotline, one never knew where one issue fit into the others. The idea of picking up a new book, enjoying it, and tracking down back issues was not yet plausible, so the readers needed a scorecard to keep track of what was going on previously. While in retrospect, these features highlight just how far ahead of the curve Jack was, at the time it must have been off-putting to the readers used to short self-contained stories with a small cast and no overarching interconnected plot. At a time when the casual reader was still the bread and butter of the industry, Kirby’s extended epic format was too unwieldy and sprawling. It was just too large an undertaking at that time.

Kirby’s talent as a writer has been a topic of much debate. One side claiming that Kirby’s dialogue was very weak. Some use the term stilted and awkward, saying that compared to Stan Lee’s words, Kirby’s were odd and out of place. Kirby did have his own voice, often bombastic, out of date, and in your face. Kirby lacked grace and subtlety. This continued over at Marvel where many complained bout Kirby’s voices in his later Marvel work. I personally don’t have a problem with Kirby’s dialogue—nobody says that aliens and super-heroes must sound like poetry and songbirds. My problem was that I often found Kirby’s plots and continuity lacking. He was always so full of ideas that he would include them without explanatory accompaniment and a sense of timing that made them more natural and less jarring. There was too much on the plate at times. The New Gods offered too much in too little time. Stan Lee often told Jack to spread out his ideas better and make the others more fully realized. The Black Racer is target #1 for me. A good idea perhaps that came at the wrong time.

It is interesting that later, when Kirby returned to the typical self contained, small cast adventure format with Kamandi, he would have that long running success that Infantino hoped for, but it was too little, too late. By then, Kirby felt betrayed and resentful, his epic had been cut short and while he enjoyed doing Kamandi, it was not where he had envisioned his career at DC to be.

So were they a failure? Yes and no; not everything that Kirby had hoped but more than Infantino ever dreamed. If one deems them a failure, don’t look for scapegoats or conspiracies; there aren’t any. It was a simple case of the stars being aligned against them: A new style series, at a struggling company during a shrinking market, overpowered by a shrewd competitor. It’s a wonder that the series lasted as long as it did. But as usual, Kirby left the company with a treasure trove of characters and concepts that are still in play today.

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