When I was a kid, I didn't much care for Jack Kirby's work. I could only see the tortured anatomy, the crazed motion lines, the style that didn't look like any other comic book out there, and, to my shame, I thought that was a bad thing. I wised up a few years ago, particularly in regards to Kirby's Fourth World comics - a quartet of titles, centered around New Gods, that focused on the war between peace-loving New Genesis and fascist Apokolips.
So as you can imagine, I was intrigued when I saw The Forager's argument that Kirby's Fourth World characters are actually neoconservative superheroes (link courtesy of The Hurting). He makes an interesting case, but I don't completely buy it - partly because I don't share his political assumptions and partly because I think he's reading Kirby's comics in ways quite contrary to their original context.
The Forager claims that Orion, specifically, is a neocon hero because he's willing to intervene not just in other countries but in other dimensions to fight the spread of totalitarianism. Fair enough, but the association with conservatism only works if you assume that conservatives are the only ones who fight wars. Remember, Kirby wrote his Fourth World comics in 1970, when it was the liberals who were at war in Vietnam.
(Of course, Vietnam can be laid squarely at the feet of both parties… Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon… but even Eisenhower and Nixon ran liberal administrations by today’s standards, and with foreign policies barely distinguishable from those of the Democrats. It's interesting to note that in the 1970s, after things had gone irrevocably sour, Republicans had no problems blaming Vietnam on the liberals; consider the 1976 vice-presidential debate, when Bob Dole famously charged that World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were "all Democrat wars." Funny how much this country's political polarities and attitudes toward war have changed… just imagine today’s Republicans trying to pawn off any war, especially World War II, onto the Democrats!)
To his argument's credit, the Forager acknowledges that Orion doesn't have the only point of view in the Fourth World. He also accounts for Kirby's Forever People, a bunch of long-haired motorcycle-riding space hippies. (If they’d only played musical instruments they would have definitely had their own 70s variety show.) He claims, and I think he's basically right, that Orion and the Forever People need one another:
By aligning Orion and the Forever People, Kirby suggests that it is only the sacrifice of Orion that makes the Forever People's freedom-loving way-of-life possible, but it is their way-of-life that makes his sacrifice meaningful.
This touches on one of the great ironies of the Fourth World: Orion is the mightiest defender of New Genesis (and possibly the only reason they’re not all speaking Apokolipsese) only because he's touched by Apokolips and tainted by the blood of their leader, Darkseid. He can protect his idyllic home only because he's marred by the very evil it's fighting. (Not, I think, a line of argument that most neocons would be eager to connect to themselves.)
But the line before that, Forager writes,
What makes the Fourth World a fantasy is that the Forever People, unlike their real world counterparts, understand that warriors like Orion are necessary to protect their own way of life and their philosophy of peace and love. Moreover, they recognize that warriors like Orion should be honored and respected, and not be treated as merely the lesser of two evils.
This may be a handy way of tarring real-world leftists, but it doesn’t quite capture the Forever People, who are themselves warriors, by deed if not by training. They’re on Earth, battling Darkseid’s propagandist Glorious Hannity – I mean, Godfrey – and foiling his attempts to discover the Anti-Life Equation. In Kirby’s universe, the New Left/counterculture is fighting evil, too, specifically by resisting the fascist authority of Apokolips. That doesn't fit within Forager's assumptions that no liberals or leftists ever fight.
A complete look at the politics of Kirby's Fourth World books should also consider the case of Izaya, the leader of New Genesis, particularly in Kirby’s classic tale “The Pact.” (According to Mark Evanier, this story was Kirby's favorite.) This story reveals the origins of the war, when Darkseid manipulates his uncle into attacking New Genesis and killing Izaya's beloved wife, Avia.
Izaya clearly has every right, every reason to fight back against Apokolips – his people's survival depends on it. (And, unlike Bush Jr. in Iraq, Izaya is at least striking back at the people who actually attacked him, so points all around for the Highfather.) But the planets are so evenly matched, their war so destructive, that they quickly threaten to consume the entire universe: Izaya and Darkseid are lobbing stars at each other, for Christ's sake. The best analogy here is not Vietnam or the second World War, but World War III. Kirby, writing under the shadow of nuclear annihilation, brings Apokolips and New Genesis to the brink of mutually assured destruction.
And then Izaya realizes he has to find another way, has to reject the self-destructive designs of Darkseid, in a moment of revelation that may be one of the most powerful scenes ever written in American comics. Wandering alone in the war-torn wasteland of his once-beautiful planet, Izaya demands a sign - and he gets one -
This is the source of all life, and it's telling Izaya there is another way. It's hard to see the neoconservative argument when Izaya casts off his arms and armor and screams, “I REJECT THE WAY OF WAR!!”
This is not to say that the Fourth World is a “liberal” saga, either. It’s a complex, beautifully messy story, messy like life – perhaps like the life of a cigar-chomping World War II veteran (remember: “Democrat war”) who suddenly in the late 1960s decides that the Flower Power Generation is “where it’s at.” A life-long fighter who never forgets that combat can be both necessary and self-destructive, and who's looking for ways to fulfill its obligations without succumbing to its traps. Whose characters try a variety of means - the open warfare of Orion, the two-fisted pacifism of the Forever People, even the artistic self-discovery of Mister Miracle, and above all the patient, nonviolent resistance of Highfather - of fighting Darkseid without sacrificing everything that makes them different from him. That's why I think Kirby is fundamentally more comfortable with the left and the counterculture than the Forager's reading suggests.
By the way, if you read the next item down on the Forager's page, you'll find a link to "the best critique of the current state of the American left." Except that it's a year and a half old, and Ron Rosenbaum's brilliant critique of the American left is to say that we're all Stalinists. Sorry, no dice. I was first exposed to this rancid essay in 2002 (by a friend who was oh so courteously trying to "convert" me, I think) and I have no desire to get into it again, except to say that Rosenbaum makes a simple error and carries it out to offensive conclusions: he mistakes a few fringe elements, or caricatures of fringe elements, for all leftists. Maybe Ron Rosenbaum knows some real assholes, but confusing them for all liberals and leftists is like confusing the clinic-bombing, cross-burning, evolution-denying, homosexuality-banning element of the radical right for all conservatives.