Axel-In-Charge: Navigating the "Civil War II" Landscape, Bringing DMC to Marvel
As with many Jack Kirby creations, we could spend a long time on the Forever People. I’m not a Kirby scholar, although naturally I’ve tried to learn more about what the King wanted his characters to be. In that respect, the end of the original Forever People series was somewhat ironic: Kirby closed out Forever People Vol. 1 #11 (October-November 1972) with the group stranded on the distant planet Adon, far away both from Earth and from the ongoing conflict between New Genesis and Apokolips. Indeed, “stranded on Adon” was still their status when the big Who’s Who encyclopedia came out in 1985-86.
Not surprisingly, since then DC has revived the Peeps (if I may call them that) a handful of times. The latest is this week’s Infinity Man and the Forever People, which switches things up a little by giving top billing to the mysterious being who can trade places with his young allies. When DC announced that Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen were writing and drawing, I was skeptical, but willing to give it a chance.
In fact, it’s not a bad first issue. It introduces most of the cast (except for one headliner), it lays out a good bit of the New 52’s New Genesis setup, and while it occasionally seems a bit “edgy for its own sake,” generally it keeps to the spirit of the original. One character even says “without [Kirby], none of this would be possible.” That’s pretty on the nose, but appreciated.
Regardless, the new Forever People has a lot to live up to.
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For those who came in late, Forever People was part of Jack Kirby’s monumental Fourth World, created when he arrived at DC following his early-1970s split from Marvel. He started by taking over Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and soon launched Forever People alongside New Gods and Mister Miracle. Because it starred a group of with-it youngsters, we might think of Forever People as representing simply “Kirby hippies,” akin to the free-living Hairies of Jimmy Olsen’s Wild Area.
However, Forever People went deeper than that. Mark Moonrider, Beautiful Dreamer, Big Bear, Serifan and Vykin the Black weren’t just Kirby’s way to preserve some sort of 1960s-style youthful exuberance. Instead, the series charged the group with protecting the future against the cynical anchors and bludgeons of the past. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the “Happyland” arc, which introduced the Justifiers and their prophet Glorious Godfrey.
The first page of Forever People #3 (June-July 1971) is perhaps one of Kirby’s most arresting: It’s a sea of dead, blank-eyed faces, each different in detail but (as noted in an accompanying Hitler quote) bearing the same vacant-but-content expression. Different mouths voice parts of a unified sentiment:
“[Godfrey] is voicing what’s in our hearts!”
“Tell it, Godfrey! Tell us how our pride is being attacked and dragged in the dust!”
“It’s the others, Godfrey! Those who don’t think right!”
“This is our world! Our world! They have no right to meddle in it!”
The issue then opens up to a two-page spread of Godfrey himself, a sort of Kirbyfied televangelist whose organs pump sour notes and whose acolytes stare straight ahead.
“I hear you, right thinkers! You’re shouting Anti-Life — the positive belief! Listen, as the great organ catches your words and finds the wonderful music in them! And what am I … but another poor instrument that vibrates to your message? And I say, come to me! And I shall give you the power to wield death!”
His sermon continues on the next page:
“Yes, friends! Though life is ever filled with those who threaten us, it is Anti-Life which gives us the power to eliminate them! The holocaust is coming! The day of Apokolips on Earth! The day of Darkseid, who brings this power for only us to use! Yes, it is his gift to us, friends! The cosmic hunting license! The right to point the finger or the gun!”
As Kirby’s narration warns on the top of Page 5, “Thus, the harbingers of holocaust link up with the human minds and hearts that wait to act in chaos!” Indeed, the Justifiers — dressed like medieval enforcers, with metal helmets that show only their eyes — spend the next few pages either looking for the Forever People, rounding up undesirables (during which a Justifier gloats, “Listen to their cries! I’ve been waiting to do this for years!”), or burning down a library. In Jimmy Olsen and New Gods, Darkseid had used corrupt businessmen like Morgan Edge and outright gangsters like “Ugly” Mannheim; but with Godfrey, Darkseid was going straight to the so-called “silent majority.”
As Issue 3 winds up, the Forever People send their proxy the Infinity Man to attack Godfrey. Infinity Man succeeds in destroying Godfrey’s infernal organ, which “stimulate[s] the brute instincts that drive men into [his] service.” Before he can take down Godfrey himself, however, Infinity Man runs afoul of Darkseid, who causes him to switch places with the Forever People. Darkseid and Desaad make quick work of the youngsters, shipping them off to Desaad’s torture chambers (“terror, refined to perfection”) — and Darkseid reminds Godfrey who’s boss:
“I like you, Glorious Godfrey! You’re a shallow, precious child — the revelationist — happy with the sweeping sound of words! But I am the revelation! The tiger-force at the core of all things! When you cry out in your dreams — it is Darkseid that you see!”
Thus, August 1971’s Forever People #4 found its heroes in Happyland, an array of torture chambers that Desaad disguised as an amusement park. Prisoners could see ordinary patrons enjoying themselves, completely oblivious to anyone else’s suffering; because Desaad’s devices “scrambled” anguished cries into laughter. Happyland was a place where, just like the Justifiers, people could be comfortable with their own perceptions. After all, what better way to prolong someone else’s agony than to be convinced it doesn’t exist?
In fact, Darkseid walks openly through Happyland, pausing only to talk to a little boy and his grandfather. When the boy tells Grandpa he’s scared, the old man admonishes him, “It’s not polite to embarrass strangers!” Asking Darkseid if he’s “in the cast of some show,” the lord of Apokolips replies, “No, Grandpa! I’m the real thing!”
“This is no time for jokes, friend!” Grandpa says. “Can’t you see this child is frightened?”
“Of course, friend!” Darkseid shoots back. “All young humans recognize the real thing when they see it! Young humans see me — even in ‘Happyland’! But you elders hide me with ‘cock and bull’ stories to keep the premises smelling sweet!” As the boy and his grandfather run away, Darkseid continues: “And still, the cosmic joke escapes him! For how can he cope with me — by shunning me — his other face!”
The rest of the issue describes the various torments the Forever People are forced to endure, with most of them centered around the “scrambler” that converts despair into amusement and vice versa. Likewise, much of Issue 5 (August 1971) introduces Sonny Sumo, a wrestler recruited by the Forever People’s Mother Box to rescue her charges. That Sonny does, but he also (unwittingly) reveals his hidden knowledge of the Anti-Life Equation, which can “control all living beings.”
“I’ve handled power all my life!” Sonny says, “but this — kinda scares me!” Realizing that this makes him Darkseid’s No. 1 target, the Forever People befriend Sonny. Encouraging him to “live,” not just “exist,” Big Bear explains, “That’s our only objective! To stop the forces that won’t let us do just that!” Accordingly, Sonny and the Forever People destroy Happyland in the first part of December 1971’s Issue 6. New adventures await, but only in the short term — Forever People was canceled less than a year later.
Although one of Forever People’s overarching themes was the group’s journey, a good bit of the series focused on Darkseid and his minions. I’ve quoted and summarized these four issues not just to give you a flavor of Kirby’s work, but also to show that he spent about as much time on the bad guys as he did on our heroes. (To be sure, Kirby did a pretty good job of making the Peeps and their home attractive. Forever People #1 guest-stars a Superman who’s so taken with his brief glimpse of New Genesis that he spends most of the issue trying to get there.) Kirby keeps Godfrey and the Justifiers from getting too over the top, and likewise he makes Happyland’s torments all too believable. Still, re-reading those old stories, one got the impression that it might not have been enough to make the Forever People forthright and virtuous. Their opponents had to be pretty vile on their own.
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Giffen and DiDio are credited collectively with “story and art,” but this feels mostly like a Giffen production. Granted, my only real point of comparison is their previous collaboration on OMAC, whose big-dumb-fun attitude excused a lot. There’s not a lot of room for error when you’re revisiting one of Kirby’s signature creations, and particularly one that (for now) is the superhero line’s only constant glimpse into the Fourth World.
Anyway, this issue is all about introducing the characters. There are no villains (at least, none that confront the Forever People), so the conflict has to come from within them. We begin with Serafina, now Vykin’s sister, which means the character has changed gender, familial relationship and skin color. This isn’t a big deal. Bigger, probably, are the changes in character relationships generally. We know (or at least we suspect) they’ll become teammates and friends, but for now Vykin and Mark Moonrider don’t like each other, Vykin and Serafina are sibling rivals, Dreamer Beautiful tends to have a thousand-yard stare, and Big Bear only comes in at the end. Moreover, the Peeps are all part of New Genesis’ Academy of Higher Conscience, which promotes “order” standing against “darkness.” When your Forever People book begins with the sentence “[t]here is a sense of order to the universe,” you may be missing the point just slightly.
Fortunately, Big Bear seems to have read his Kirby, because Giffen and DiDio have made him appropriately laid-back. See, Serafina, Mark and Dreamer want to go to Earth, apparently as part of their schooling. Vykin wants to stay on New Genesis with his girlfriend, but he’s the only one who can work the Mother Box. However, once he sees Big Bear’s headquarters (“known in the Earth vernacular as a singles apartment”), tricked out by his Communal Reconstruction Bio-Engine, or “CRBE” — get it? I thought it was clever — he admits, “[i]f I was staying, I wouldn’t mind staying here.”
That same sort of aesthetic appeal helps the issue go down pretty smoothly as well. Giffen (with Scott Koblish inking and Hi-Fi on colors) has really plugged in to the Kirby style, from the krackle on the cover to the dots on Page 1 to some familiar poses and expressions. His New Genesis is deliberately less glossy and polished than the King’s, but presumably that reinforces the “civilization in decline” feeling the series must think it needs. His character designs are mostly faithful, with Serafina being the obvious exception and Dreamer looking more unkempt than in prior versions.
Overall, however, the vibe I get from this first issue is of a creative team comfortable with its story. I think I’ve read most (if not all) of Giffen’s New 52 work, and this is pretty good. I’m tempted to say it’s up there with the G’Nort issues of Larfleeze — which I genuinely enjoyed — but that sounds like the ultimate backhanded compliment. Regardless, in both cases I have the impression that Giffen and his collaborators aren’t overselling their work. In the past two issues of Larfleeze, he, J.M. DeMatteis and Scott Kolins have used their familiarity with G’Nort to offer a new perspective on Larfleeze; and here, he and DiDio just seem (largely through Big Bear) like they know what they want to do with the Forever People. It’s not like Threshold or Justice League 3000, which had (and have) their moments but which occasionally struggle to win over the reader. Infinity Man and the Forever People isn’t perfect, but it’s far from a train wreck. (Speaking of backhanded compliments …)
In that respect I suppose I did come to IM&FP with pretty low expectations. DC has an uneven history with the post-Kirby Fourth World, with the missteps like Countdown looming arguably larger than, say, Final Crisis or that nifty Mark Evanier/Steve Rude Mister Miracle Special. Likewise, the New 52’s use of Darkseid as a bludgeoning world-destroyer (as opposed to his more subtle, sinister work in Happyland) stands in contrast to Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s interpretation of Orion in Wonder Woman.
On that spectrum, I am happy to say that IM&FP is closer to Azzarello and Chiang; and I’ll be back for Issue 2. So far, so good, low expectations and all.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 6.
NOTES: This issue tweaked the series’ unofficial format slightly, pulling characters together according to their common interests (although that’s a stretch in a couple of cases). Instead of four subplots each taking up four to six pages, we have four pages of various folks at Terrifitech, followed by two extended sequences. It’s a good move overall, tightening the series’ various subplots and making various connections explicit. (Plastique becomes the OMAC Terry brought back!) However, it makes lingering subplots like Key/Plastique/Coil and Tim/Lois seem even more drawn-out. Good to see Tim punch the increasingly obnoxious Ronnie Raymond, though.
I really liked Patrick Zircher’s work on this issue — everyone is a little scowly, but on Lois it looks great — and I thought Ryan Sook’s cover came out a lot better than it did in the solicitations. The production values that went into all those graphic layers were well-used.
Finally, I was wrong about the ghostly figures from last issue’s teaser being Legionnaires (although Vartox could still be in the Phantom Zone) — but honestly, the Masked Superman has to be Val-Zod, Earth 2’s newly-revealed Kryptonian, right? That’s just too obvious to be a fake-out. He protects Lois because she reminds him of the Earth-2 version, he wears a mask so people will think he’s the regular Supes (and so they won’t lock him up with the other Earth-2 prisoners), and he wears the “S” to atone for the Earth-2 Supes’ misdeeds.
Oh well, it’s probably Power Girl with a holo-disguise …
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Lois comforts Madison! Mister Terrific confronts Terry! Black Adam kayos Frankenstein! Old Deathstroke!