Review: Fourth World by John Byrne Omnibus hardcover (DC Comics)

Sunday, January 01, 2023

[A series on post-Jack Kirby New Gods titles by guest reviewer Zach King. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

“Several less-than-stellar post-Kirby interpretations of the characters and concepts had severely tarnished the Fourth World mythos in the minds and hearts of fans … so I saw my primary job to be doing everything I could to polish it up again, and to get people paying attention. In that I think I was successful, for the most part. Too many writers and artists over the years have tried to put their own spins on Kirby characters and ideas. What Kirby created was usually so simple, so PRIMAL, that messing with it just, well, messes with it.” - John Byrne

It’s been a good time to be a John Byrne fan. For one reason or another, DC has seen fit to reprint much of his work lately, often in lavish hardcover and omnibus treatments. We’ve gotten deluxe hardcovers for his Superman and Wonder Woman runs, an omnibus for his Doom Patrol, and a comprehensive collection of one of my all-time personal favorites, Superman & Batman: Generations. Heck, he even got a “DC Universe By” collection!

Somebody in DC’s collected editions department must have loved Byrne. (Meanwhile, I’m still holding out for Blood of the Demon or Lab Rats.) So whether it was this abiding Byrne affection, corresponding sales patterns, or just a continuation of DC’s fits-and-starts effort to collect New Gods material, John Byrne’s thirty issues in the Fourth World got the omnibus treatment in 2021 with Fourth World by John Byrne Omnibus. There’s only one major Byrne issue missing - see if you can guess it before the end of this review - but overall it’s a continuity wonk’s delight, even if the story pales in comparison to the lush Byrne art, a worthy successor to Kirby’s pencil if ever there was one.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

As I’ve been reviewing the Fourth World collections, I’ve been careful to point out what’s missing for our trade-waiting brethren. Byrne’s run on the third New Gods series came on the heels of eleven issues by Rachel Pollack, Tom Peyer, and Luke Ross. (Interestingly, Pollack just got her own Doom Patrol Omnibus in late 2022.) This run was high cosmic space opera, edgy, and extreme in the way of most mid-90s comics, and it ran parallel with seven issues of Mister Miracle (in which Scott Free acquired new powers as a god, while Big Barda joined the Amazons). Meanwhile, Paul Kupperberg created Takion and got seven issues to introduce this Source Elemental who was prophesied to replace Highfather one day. Outside of myself, I don’t know that there’s a market for a pre-Byrne omnibus, but there’s ample material, including a few Showcase short stories from the period. (While we’re at it, how about hardcover collections of Showcase ‘93-’96? Seconded! – Ed.)

All of this is to say that DC well and truly cleared the deck when John Byrne took the helm of the Fourth World. He wrapped up the Pollack run before starting his own series, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, while Mister Miracle and Takion were canceled and merged into Byrne’s opus. Right from the start, Byrne does his fair share of folding and condensing, dropping an amnesiac Metron into his first issue to reunite all the disparate New Gods before Apokolips and New Genesis are merged into one brand-new planet. 

With such a bold mission statement as an opening salvo, you’d think Byrne had something truly special up his sleeve for the Fourth World, but it is sadly one of many plot points that Byrne abandons; this collection continually wrestles with growing the mythology while leaving the toys unscathed. Quite why Highfather conspires to unite the two worlds into one is never fully explained, and it’s undone before the end of the book. Throughout the book, Takion’s powers ebb and flow, Orion’s mother may or may not be lying about his true parentage, and a subplot about those interred in the Source Wall leads to nothing in particular happening.

Indeed, the book’s greatest strength and weakness is that so many pages are comprised of characters standing around and saying portentous, vaguely ominous things like, “I sense the coming of a time of great turmoil … a time when ancient debts will at last come due.” It’s a weakness because the plot is ponderous at best and plodding at worst, but it’s an overwhelming strength because the Fourth World characters haven’t looked this good since Kirby was drawing them. Perhaps Byrne’s pace is so leisurely because he indulges his art in full-page splashes and two-page spreads, to say nothing of the lavish pages upon pages of knock-down, drag-out slugfests between Orion and Kalibak. If your eyes glaze over upon the umpteenth prophecy of doom, fear not - the real kicks come at your eyeballs, not at your soul.

Surprisingly, the book is strongest when it’s rewriting Kirby with prequel stories, or “Tales of the New Gods.” Here Byrne verges on heresy by giving us definitive origins for Darkseid, Kanto, and the Infinity Man, among others. But these stories clip along, answering questions we didn’t know we had about the New Gods and adding layers of complexity that deepen, as distinct from some prequel stories that end up making the world more shallow. (These “Tales” were collected on their own, along with the back-up features from Walt Simonson’s Orion, in 2008. That trade also included Steve Rude’s Mister Miracle one-shot, along with a Fourth World tale by Mark Millar and none other than Steve Ditko!)

If the story doesn’t make sense, it’s not the fault of the collections department, because they’ve scoured the contemporaneous newsstands for everything. One could imagine a collection that skipped New Gods #12–15 or that omitted the “Secret Files” and “Gallery” issues - and it’s the impossible dream of every ‘90s fan to have Genesis, finally, collected. Even if the crossover story is muddy, verging on nonsensical, it’s here, in all its Electric-Superman peak-’90s glory. (Sidebar: Now that we’ve cleared that hurdle, how about a Genesis Omnibus collection, pulling in all 24 tie-ins?) They’ve even put in the “New Year’s Evil” issue spotlighting Darkseid, scripted by Byrne and featuring the denizens of Apokolips in all their scheming glory. Truly, hats off to Alex Galer, the collected editions editor for this volume.

If there’s a plot in this omnibus, I haven’t found it, but then again I’m not sure that you can summarize Kirby’s Fourth World in a sentence. It’s a series of images, ideas, and moods, of bonkers comics imagination pushed to its maximum and slammed against the DC Universe proper. Things certainly happen in this book - Mister Miracle renounces his godhood, Takion and Beautiful Dreamer begin a flirtatious courtship, and Ares kills Izaya the Highfather, only to find (like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi before him) that a god is even more powerful when he’s dead. But it’s not a book that properly begins or ends; it’s but a waypoint on the road from Kirby’s Fourth World.

And on his way out, Byrne closes off most of his big changes: Supertown is restored, Orion’s romantic affair1 with Valkyra (the mother of Vykin the Black) concludes in tragedy, and Darkseid is once again the rightful monarch of Apokolips. Even if the plot hasn’t gone anywhere and it’s impossible to summarize, you have the sense that you’ve reveled in a world for a good long while - and not just because of the sheer weight of the hardcover in your lap.

It’s not every day that a series ends so that its cover artist can take over the title, but then again not every cover artist is Walter Simonson. By Byrne’s own account, he left the title because his editor Paul Kupperberg was also leaving, but he left a few toys in the box at Simonson’s request. Next time, we’ll pick up the baton with Simonson’s Orion Omnibus, a collection which famously caught the ire of the creator for reasons we’ll discuss next time.

Postscript - if you haven’t figured it out, the missing issue is one that will almost certainly never be reprinted. It’s Darkseid vs. Galactus: The Hunger, a prestige one-shot by Byrne. Byrne has confessed to getting the idea from a fan at a convention, and it is the kind of low-hanging conceptual fruit that these intercompany crossovers used to do best. If you can track down a copy, it’s a fun juxtaposition of Kirby’s two greatest cosmic baddies, who are as much forces of nature as beings of evil. And it’s such a breathless romp that you’ll wonder why DC and Marvel ever stopped doing these one-shots.

  1. Everyone, it seems, forgets about Bekka. In “The Hunger Dogs,” Kirby introduced us to Bekka, the daughter of Himon and the wife of Orion, but she disappeared for years without explanation. She was nowhere to be seen in Cosmic Odyssey, Evanier‘s New Gods, or even here in Byrne’s run, and you won‘t be seeing her in Simonson’s Orion, either. We wouldn't see her again until a 2007 arc in Superman/Batman, just in time for the Death of the New Gods event. Fortunately for Bekka, the New 52 era looked on her more favorably (see the “Godhead” crossover in Green Lantern Vol. 6: The Life Equation and related books, and through to Cullen Bunn's Sinestro – Ed.), and she even got a turn as Wonder Woman in the animated film Justice League: Gods and Monsters.  ↩

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  1. "Surprisingly, the book is strongest when it’s rewriting Kirby with prequel stories, or 'Tales of the New Gods.'”

    The irony of the Fourth World is that DC (and this includes every creator going back to Kirby) keeps skipping over the most interesting part of concept (the origin and backstory of the parallel rise to power of Highfather and Darkseid) in order to focus on the banal modern day stories of the New Gods coming to Earth. The palace intrigue of the "accidental" death of Highfather's wife, Darkseid's overbearing mother and his machinations to take over from her, The Pact, Scott Free's experiences in Granny Goodness' orphanage, Orion's upbringing on New Genesis, plus the aforementioned origins of Infinity Man, Kanto, etc.: All of this is infinitely more interesting than Orion and Darkseid continually coming to Earth. And yet, no matter who is telling the story (Kirby, Byrne, Simonson), these more interesting stories keep getting relegated to occasional backup stories.

    DC should hire someone to do a Chronicles of the Fourth World mini-series or OGN that tells this Game of Thrones in Space story as the main feature in a chronological, linear story.

    1. That's a great idea, Daniel! Just imagine if DC could lure John Byrne out of retirement for this... or reunite him with Walt Simonson and give us one for the ages.

      I have to imagine the lure of doing a Fourth World book is "playing the hits" - parademons pouring out of a boom tube, Kalibak and Orion duking it out, Superman gawking in awe at Supertown - but as we're seeing, the real gold is in the past, the untold secret origins of the Fourth World. Only don't go too far back into the Third and Second Worlds...

      Then again, DC did try something like this very recently with "Female Furies," and the results/reception were somewhat mixed. Still, a more faithful and reverential take could be a goldmine!