Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Life will make you doubt. Anti-Life will make you right!

The Forever People was far and away the weakest of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books. Mister Miracle had colorful foes and Scott Free’s determination to be free of Apokalips (and “He cheats death! He defies man! No trap can hold him!” is a description that can’t be beat). New Gods had Earth caught up in an epic cosmic war.  Forever People had … space hippies.

It’s very much a product of the late 1960s/early 1970s zeitgeist. When I reread it a few years ago, I kept wondering why the Earth people they meet label a team in superhero costumes as hippies. Then I remembered that in that era, anyone with hair as long as Mark Moonrider’s or Big Bear’s was automatically part of the counter-culture; squares kept it trimmed. But even for that time period, Kirby’s efforts to capture the hippy spirit in dialog were often painful:

“Truth is forever — and we are the Forever People!”

“We leave you what cannot die — love! Friendship!”

I’ve seen TV sitcoms do hippy parodies that sounded more like real people.

Rereading a few years ago, though, I realized what Forever People did have was the clearest statement about the conflict running through the three books: free will vs. total obedience. Life vs. anti-life. As Moonrider explains it at one point, life is the freedom to choose; if it’s taken away or you surrender it, you’re no longer truly alive. The anti-life equation Darkseid seeks eliminates free will. If someone who possesses the equation says what you’re going to do, you do it. There’s no fighting it, no triumph of the human spirit: you may not like what you’re doing, but defiance isn’t an option.

Darkseid doesn’t have the equation, of course;  Apokalips is simply an imitation of what he’s striving for, anti-life induced by training and constant messaging. That’s not possible on Earth yet, which is where Glorious Godfrey comes in.By Darkseid’s standards, Glorious Godfrey is kind of a twit. The “evangelist of anti-life” doesn’t believe the anti-life equation exists; he’s terrified when Darkseid tells him free will can be annihilated completely. Godfrey’s happier believing anti-life is something you have to sell to people, a snake-oil solution to their woes. Life makes you doubt yourself, but with anti-life you know you’re right — isn’t that better? Like the sign in that panel says, “Judge others! Enslave others! Kill others! Anti-Life will give you the right!” Put on a Justifier helmet, accept a life of total obedience and everything you do becomes justified.

That is a horrifying concept, more so because it’s voluntary (the post-Crisis decision to give Godfrey a superhypnotic voice is less scary and much less imaginative). In the story the Justifiers are an obvious Nazi allegory but they apply equally well to 21st century American authoritarians (the audiobook is available in other formats here). Like this scene at an anti-life rally —

The first eight issues of Forever People are one big arc dealing with Darkseid’s hunt for the equation and the Forever People’s efforts to stop him. It doesn’t work as well as Scott Free’s opening arc, rambling way too much; there’s a time-travel issue that feels like pure filler (and would inhabitants of New Genesis know or care about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination?). But moments like those above made it worth rereading for me.

#SFWApro. All art by Kirby.

13 Comments

  1. Peter

    Yeah, in terms of actual plot and characterization, The Forever People is much less worthwhile than the other Fourth World books. The themes are interesting, but there’s a reason why Mister Miracle, Orion, and even Project Cadmus are revisited by later writers much more often than Mark Moonrider, Big Bear, etc.

    However, I do think the first issue is one of the best Superman stories ever told. Kirby did a great job of movingly, efficiently capturing the “lonely alien” side of the character. Many later writers also explored that characterization, but Kirby did it without being too maudlin or navel-gazing.

    1. While I don’t think of Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen as really a Fourth World book — the Hairies, the DNA Project and the Newsboy Legion make it very much it’s own thing — the DNA Project is way easier to work into stories than Hippies From Space.
      Though while I give Kirby credit for adding a black face to the next-generation Legion, making Flipper Dipper a scuba diver really seemed like an odd choice.

      1. David107

        From https://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/365fourth/2010/10/15/day-14-flippa-dippa/ an off the wall theory on why Flippa Dippa (the spelling varied) was into SCUBA:

        John S.
        16 October 2010 at 2:06 am
        I’m gonna go out on a limb here and explain how I THINK Jack came up with the Flippa Dippa character.

        Do you remember back in the early ’70s, when it seemed as if every black character in comics had the last name “Wilson”? Of course you do! Sam Wilson, Jim Wilson, etc. How could you forget! Well, why did the writers back then choose that name? Because, as you’ll no doubt recall, by far the most popular black celebrity at the time was the inimitable Flip Wilson. So the writers just automatically associated the name “Wilson” with blacks, thereby making the name-selection process an easy task. I honestly believe that Jack did the same thing; except he used Flip Wilson’s FIRST name instead of his last name as the inspiration for his character. Then it was simply a matter of creating character traits that would fit the name — hence the scuba-diving connection. Of course, it didn’t help the situation when Marvel, a short time later, hired a black artist named (Rampagin’) RON Wilson! AAARRGH! That can’t be real… can it? Yes. It can be. And that’s my explanation and I’m sticking to it — until someone else can provide a better one. Why did I post it here? The Devil made me do it!

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    The problem with the Forever People is that it is the most metaphorical of all of his 4th World books. Kirby had endured visits from young fans, friends of his children and seen the counter culture of the time. Jimmy Olsen is more Kirby’s look at the counter-culture, mixed in with unrestrained science and the need for there to be a moral component to scientific development. With Forever People, it is less about the counter-culture and more about the idealism of youth. Mark Moonrider is famously inspired by Mark Evanier and the rest were based on young people Kirby had met. They are the youth of New Genesis, which is in a Cold War with Apokolips. There are parallels to the youth and Vietnam; but, Kirby goes beyond that. Kirby was a New Deal liberal and, according to Evanier, hated Nixon’s presidency. He was also wary of evangelists like Billy Grahama, who held great sway over large audiences, audiences often hostile to minorities, as witnessed by statements that Graham was caught making. Glorious Godfrey was based on Billy Graham. The segment involving Godfrey is the strongest, as it is Kirby’s statement on fascism, how charismatic leaders offer up easy solutions to personal failures: blame it on others and take your shortcoming s out on those targets. Surrender yourself to the leader’s will and you will be rewarded when his great utopia is brought about. It’s a Nazi allegory, but the same scenarios have played out in Klan gatherings, revival meetings, political rallies, protests, cults and other organizations.

    Also, there is a segment revolving around Desaad’s twisted amusement park that is very horrifying and is a bit of comment on things like Disneyland and the attached consumerism and excess.

    The series starts out with Beautiful Dreamer being a key to the Anti-Life Equation; but, it kind of peters out. The problem is that Kirby wasn’t following a road map; he was improvising on the page. When he started getting interference from DC, he all but dropped his themes in favor of putting in whatever they wanted to make it more commercial and abandoning his epic tales.

    Kirby wrote in very broad, thematic strokes and Forever People was probably the broadest, while he could put more of his own life and experiences into New Gods and Mister Miracle, and his scientific interests into Jimmy Olsen.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        I think Kirby understood and identified with the idealism and it seemed like he enjoyed being around young people, even as it interrupted his work. Kirby was a dreamer, which is part of why he wasn’t allowed to drive, as he would daydream too much. I also suspect there was a lot of appreciation for his own lost youth, as he had to grow up quickly, to help support the family and then was off to war. His depiction of childhood is neighborhood fights with rival gangs, drawing, and poverty. So, I can see having some identification with the youth culture.

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