If Kirby's Fantastic Four was a surprising success, then his Fourth World saw the anticipated resistance come back in full force.
Certainly I put up some barriers to entry, assigning "The Pact" and "Himon" on their own. These issues almost stand apart from the ongoing storyline, but still depend on the reader's recognition of characters that my class hadn't seen in any other guise. When you factor in the rougher art, the overstuffed plots, and all the idiosyncrasies of Kirby's writing (my students had a lot of fun with "Armaghetto"; good thing I didn't explain about "Himon") it's easy to see why these comics don't go down as easily as those airy Lee-Kirby concoctions.
But that wasn't the problem. Our Fantastic Four discussion had primed them to look for the changes in the creative process, and our critical reading from Charles Hatfield gave them a common language to discuss thematic preoccupations like Kirby's technological sublime. When I finally uncovered the source of their resistance, it was one I hadn't anticipated at all.
In the midst of a wide-ranging (and, frankly, lecture-heavy) discussion about Kirby's apocalyptic imagery, his morally compromised heroes, the cynical political commentary, and the moments of spiritual crisis and epiphany, one of my students observed that she couldn't imagine any kids identifying with these heroes.
And I can't either, which might go a long way towards explaining why the Fourth World books never sold as well as DC hoped. But it had never occurred to me to evaluate them that way. I regard these comics as Kirby's masterpieces because of the way they weld his thoughtful, nuanced worldview and a genuine moral crisis onto the raw stuff of superhero comics. Everything that I love about these books flew in the face of convention. But for my class, that just meant they were bad superhero books. Perhaps they are--though that reflects less poorly on these comics than on the genre that, at the time, was not quite ready to contain them.
In any case, it should be interesting to see how this plays out as we venture farther and farther from the class's expectations of what the genre can do. Presumably there will come a point where they stop evaluating these comics for the way they think some hypothetical child would react and realize that they are smack in the middle of the target age group. It'll be interesting to see exactly where that falls--presumably somewhere between "Dog carcass in alley this morning" and "both X-Men realize that the disco isn't a very nice one." But I wish they'd come to it in time for--the Source!
Green Lantern/Green Arrow was a different story. These were the first comics we read by creators who weren't around for the Golden Age, and some of the class appreciated Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams's attempts to update the genre. And this was a problem, too, because you never want to be in the position (as a colleague once put it) of telling your class that this thing you made them read actually sucks. There's a fine line between trying to hone their critical reading skills and simply imposing your own reading on them, but those Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues call out for some skepticism.
For all their postures at social relevance, these are not morally complex stories--quite a bit less so, in fact, than the Kirby. Every time O'Neil starts to confront a social problem it turns out to be a feint. The villain of the story is always guilty of hiring a hit man or faking an assassination attempt or doing something else that calls for the timely intervention of a superhero, allowing the hard-traveling heroes to fix the immediate problem without combating the greater social injustice or transgressing the boundaries of what the genre, at that time, would allow. These are formulaic stories with easily identifiable bad guys, insufferable authorial spokesmen, and a moral calculus much simpler than the Fourth World or even Galactus.
And to O'Neil's credit, he knows it. In what I can only regard as a pedagogical stroke of luck, the second story in the John Stewart issue features Green Arrow realizing that he can't accomplish anything as a superhero and deciding to run for mayor. His superhero buddies, ever the voices of the status quo, all try to talk him out of it. (This culminates in a terrific joke about Superman and secret identities that highlights the ludicrous rules of the genre.) You can watch O'Neil pushing against the limits of the genre and realizing they aren't about to give way.
The class initially resisted my take on these comics, I suspect because they are at that age that equates serious subjects and blatant messages with sophistication. But as the discussion developed they became more willing to voice their own criticisms of these issues, particularly when it came to the John Stewart story. A look at the stereotyped dimensions of his character and the formulas in his first appearance then expanded to the other stories, and pretty soon the students were pointing out flaws I hadn't seen. And that was when my skepticism finally paid off--because while you have to permit the class to disagree with you, sometimes you have to give them permission to disagree with the readings, too.