It’s probably not what you think.
You see, last year for Christmas, I got the Jack Kirby Fourth World Omnibus’ final volume.
Consistent with the many, many reports I’d had of it, I found it profoundly anticlimactic. But with the emphasis most definitely on the “profound” part: as this Hunger Dogs book it seems I’ve always just kept missing all these years provides a unique and much-needed punctuation to the petering-out of Kirby’s visionary Fourth World. Just as I imagined it would, of course…
But, I never anticipated just how it would…and thus I was unprepared for the complexity of the experience. People say a lot of things about Hunger Dogs: that it’s a disappointment, that it’s bad, that Kirby looks not-himself, that he seems hurried and frazzled and out of his usual control. That it reads like the work of an older man who’s past his prime, and who’s lost his once-sure touch; that it limps downhill to a fractured and fizzled termination of its promise and its prophecy, instead of delivering the goods in the good solid concluding way comics should, and Kirby himself certainly always did. And…
That’s all true, actually!
Except, not really.
I had a clever little bon mot for it once. A few years ago now, I received an e-mail from the late great Steve Gerber (I know!) asking if I’d be so kind as to give him a little background on Canada’s medical system…because, as he said, down in the States people are always hearing about how long wait-lists in Canada are forcing them to go south for treatment, but the problem is they’re always hearing it from the wrong people. So was there, Steve wanted to know, an iota of truth to those claims of theirs?
Seeing a chance to be clever in front of my idol, I eagerly replied:
“An iota? Yes. Of truth? No.”
…Followed by about fifty thousand words of fabulously unnecessary elaboration, but then hey: gotta be me.
And the same holds here, in more ways than one. Disappointing, HAH! It’s so disappointing it makes your skin crawl, it’s so disappointing you worry how it will all come out! It seems I’m always banging on about happy accidents, serendipitous collapses, and the like…but this one was a challenge even for me, and for just one simple reason, which was that it totally worked. I believe in the evolution of the artist, you see. I believe in “old men’s stories”. I believe in making it more personal and less easy for much of your old audience to follow you as you go along. I believe in complexity and idiosyncracy, and even metatextualism-gone-mad, for that matter. But Hunger Dogs makes it all far, far too real not to feel it: not to feel the real moment taking over, and the truth being laid bare, and the heart-cry going out willyou-nillyou to be heard. It’s usually so easy for us to gloss over Kirby’s topical ambitions while we’re looking at his timeless “myth-making”, just as we always gloss over his subtlety while we’re absorbed in his taste for action…we’re used to wishing somebody would come along and ink the rough pencils of his words, to make them more lugubrious: less like operatic declaration, less like so many verbal speed-lines, less like the sound-effects of characters and more relatable for us as their naturalistic “thoughts”. But of course none of Kirby’s pencils have ever exactly been rough, have they? And so there’s an assumption concealed in that occasional wish of ours, that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. When we wish (say) that someone like Stan Lee had been around to dialogue Orion, it isn’t a wish that makes much sense if we’re willing to examine it closely: was Stan ever really subtler, or more naturalistic? Did his dialoguing ever truly temper Kirby’s “eternalistic” flights of fancy by bringing them down into a more topical sphere, more relatable to specific time-and-place, as the popular story goes? I like Stan’s dialoguing quite a lot, but just because he brought the soap to Kirby’s opera, that didn’t make him more concerned with “relevance” than Jack was; quite the reverse. Because (arguably, I suppose), it was the relevance that was the jarring thing about Kirby’s work…the unsettling thing, the truly hyper-stylized thing, the thing that many fans erroneously deemed “rough”.
Hunger Dogs, as it was published, is perhaps the roughest thing Kirby ever made, in that sense. But also, I suppose inarguably, it is actually rough: as the pure graphical brilliance flickers in and out, one moment a stunningly composed page showing Kirby still — still! — innovating to beat the band in terms of layouts if nothing else, and the next a weird throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it sheer bolt from A to B, the music turned to brute hammering, seemingly uncaring of what technique is “best”, so long as the momentum keeps up. The tension, for a reader like me, mounts and mounts. There’s a certain panic creeping into the pages: desperation running to and fro.
So: relevant? Yeah, it feels pretty damn relevant…to the point where it may be the most relevant comic of its type, to its times, that I’ve ever seen…!
Which is a most unlikely triumph, if ever there was one. Kirby, of course, was always interested in fusing the topical to the timeless — indeed, I feel pretty comfortable saying that interest was at the root of his mythmaking efforts! — and in the most productive phases of his Fourth World, topicality was his most indispensible tool. Because you have to start with Cosmic Hippies if you want to get to some real FOREVER PEOPLE when you’re done — naturally, since how can they really be thought of as pinballing across time and space, if they don’t have anyplace to start pinballing from? And from thence to meet Chance, Infinity, Hope and the Devil…as all who are young, finally, are young in the same and most significant way: and everything that happens is the expression of an ultimate even as it is the expression of a particular. Hippies? Yeah, of course they’re hippies. Is that clunky, that they’re hippies? Yes, it probably is, but don’t worry: the young are made to move things forward from where they begin, to inhabit all times eventually…and moreover, we should probably be alert to the fact that not only is the window on an immediate “oh, I see: hippies” default reading of the Forever People rapidly closing, but even more rapidly than that, the phase-pulse of cultural context is crawling caterpillar-like up the transmission to a place where, even to those who themselves remember the hippies in real life, the meaning of what they were at the time is getting lost. So what started in the centre, is escaping to the outskirts; old contexts are falling away, the good no less than the bad, and new ones springing up in their turn to pass away in their turn, and whenever we remind ourselves that it’s later than we think, we should also learn to remember that actually it was already later than that ten minutes ago, and we already missed it…
…And can never catch up to it, now.
Sounds good so far, okay; but there’s more than one way of skinning a cat, and one man’s transcendence can be another man’s crash, too. Or, is that the other way around? Look at these pages, both in Hunger Dogs proper and in “Even Gods Must Die!” from one year earlier: art aside, Kirby is hitting new heights as a writer here, as he winds up to what we’ve all been waiting for, all the payback of philosophy, all the teleological big-T truth his prophecy’s been closing in on. But it all rushes rather stumblingly into the space of conclusion, and it does look hurried, even harried, and through a series of strange reversals the fusion starts to become unglued, and the topical begins to dominate things with a distinctly ominous force. Defeat. We’re in the mid-Eighties now, and all the rules have changed, all the high and mighty objectives have become tarnished…the odour of the specific times is everywhere, and the air’s that close in here now, you know? The general implication of doom in every layout and on every page whips up our alarm with remarkable force, like the winds of a gathering storm, and in this final moment the colours and textures have all gone strange too, flattening out the perspectives, draining away the scope of things. We are looking at a master, but we’re looking at him through a very specifically-distorting lens in 1985, we’ve dosed and now the peak is coming…or perhaps, more accurately, the hangover’s kicked in. The sounds of the action have to fight their way to us; the silver platitudes of old no longer sing to us as they once did. It’s all a mess. There is no guarantee that we will be well, because we may not be in safe hands: and this is what Comics looks like now, at this time, in this place. Grimy. Muddy. Trite. Unsatisfying.
Try threatening instead, perhaps. “Boredom is horror spread thin”, and all that. None of this came about in the way it should have come about, all the way from the early Seventies to now, and you can practically taste the accumulated dissonance…and yet thematically, this same dissonance serves a purpose for the reader, gives the whole enterprise a mighty metatextual punch that it otherwise might not have had. So is it, therefore, a happy outcome? No, most definitely it isn’t; and I feel sure that none of us would let the course of things go this way if we were given a chance to go back and change it. But just for that reason, there’s something oddly precious about this frustrated finish…or, not precious exactly, but perhaps suspended. Something that fits precisely because it is so glaringly unmeet, and indeed such a shame. Because it’s right in the Master’s own title-blurb: history is ultimately decided by the Hunger Dogs, and not by you or me or anyone else who has a name — and that this is a war story, not a stirring super-ethical fable of flashing fists, bold speeches, and clever Plans, becomes a clearer fact to our eyes in this degraded masterpiece, as we see — really see, damn it all! — sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not, as that brilliance flickers! — how the advent of the Age of Micro-Mark finally sucks every last bit of nobility and gravitas and justice and even good and evil, right out of the heroic fable’s marrow. Which is why it’s Orion who wins us through to meaning again in the end, against this terrible conceptual corrosion, this manic nerviness…because he is the only person who truly understands these things, the only one who feels the true reality of contingency in his bones and blood. So, it’s sloppy and it’s awful. It’s pointless and it’s hallucinogenic. It’s better than “The Pact”, because it’s so bad. And it sticks in your head just the same way that all Kirby stuff does, despite everything this time, but also this time because of everything. Because it’s the end of everything, part bang and part whimper, it’s both a mishandled deflation of Comics’ New Possibilities and its crowning glory all at once, and it’s not for the faint of heart!
Because of everything that didn’t happen as it should’ve, you have to really work at the hope, here!
Which makes the whole thing so much stranger, and more powerful, than anything I’d been expecting…
…That, really, I hardly know what to say about it.
Something dies, here.
And yet something survives, too.
I think I may have talked about it before, in terms of the Norse Creation that Kirby loved so well: Odin, from the beginning of the world doing everything he can think of to avert its promised end, somewhere around its noontime creates the first man and woman…created free of fate, as he himself isn’t. So the story’s already over before it’s properly gotten started, Odin has come to the top of the wheel and is headed ineluctably back down; he cannot break free from the cycles of time and seasonality. But his newly-created human beings are not so imprisoned, are not bound to cycles: instead branching off at right-angles from them into an open space of possibility. And “further forward, few can see now/ Than Odin fighting the Fenris-wolf” means just that the old bastard’s story doesn’t turn into anything other than what it’s always been. In other words: there’s nothing to see, because there’s nothing to say. The old species simply can’t have, what the new one has got. The wheel can’t turn into the arrow.
It’s all already over; it’s all already been later than Odin thinks. He just hasn’t realized it yet.
An “old man’s story”: well, it certainly is! It’s ambitious, it’s provocative, and it all but yanks the rug out from under your feet as it first thwarts, then dissolves, your expectations. Crisis is here, some culmination of events that is utterly implacable, that will destroy you as you face it unless you yourself can change to meet it. The future, the new species, has escaped: somewhere in the exile-universe of the Infinity Man, the Forever People walk off to explore an uncharted planet, where perhaps “the unsowed fields bear ripened fruit” — where “not only the children of men, but the children of gods too” will dwell in a new reconciliation — the afterlife not of people, but of the universe itself. Somewhere Metron advances, towing something utterly new behind him, and Highfather delivers the moral: you just have to leave all that stuff behind, turn your face from it. Failure’s normal, as is fear. But it doesn’t matter.
The lesson of Himon, I think!
But it’s hard to learn. By the end, you have to want to learn it, or you just can’t. You have to choose to learn it. Is Hunger Dogs everything I heard it was, is it a disappointment, is it bad, is it a depressing anticlimax full of rough work and unachieved ambitions? Is there an iota of truth to that story?
An iota, you say?