Did the man whose comics predicted sentient, feminine-gendered, hand-held computers called “Motherboxes” (“Hello, Siri!”) also predict the orange despot Donald Trump? When I re-read Jack Kirby’s masterpiece, the Fourth World saga, this winter, I was struck by how prescient and how disturbingly reflective it was of our times even though it was written in the early ’70s.
Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, is regarded as the father of American comics, having co-created most of the historic Marvel Universe. Kirby was Jewish, from New York City’s working class, Lower East Side, a veteran, and a New Deal Democrat—and these factors underpinned the politics of his work.
Kirby had experienced tyrants and bullies first hand. As a young artist, he served in the military during World War II, where he saw combat as a scout and earned a bronze star. He stood up to Nazism before the U.S. even entered the war when he and creative partner Joe Simon famously depicted Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Kirby confronted Nazi sympathizers in the U.S. who sent him and his colleagues death threats. These death threats were taken seriously enough that comics fan Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally dispatched police to offer protection to the comics publishers and spoke up on their behalf.
In 1970 Kirby left Marvel comics to work for the competition, DC Comics. DC won him over with an offer of greater creative freedom to write and draw what he wanted to and earn marginally fairer pay. In short order, the newly liberated Kirby created not one but three new comics series, in which super-powered hippies challenged fascism and stand-ins for right-wing conservative leaders.
Kirby’s new series, each drawn and written by him, were The New Gods, centered on the evil god’s son, who in an experiment of nature vs. nurture is raised by the good guys and becomes a hero who struggles with his temper but is truly noble in his self-sacrifice and dedication; Mister Miracle, the galaxy’s greatest escape artist and a god of freedom with a super strong paramour who he inspires to leave Darkseid’s army; and The Forever People, who are hippies from a utopian planet of gods—all of the heroes have shaggy hair and get described as “groovy” by impressed humans.
The interwoven stories in these series, later dubbed The Fourth World Saga (since DC comics already had parallel earths 1, 2, and 3), focused on the eternal struggle between freedom and the forces of oppression and destruction. Evil gods and their minions from the oligarchical planet Apokolips along with human collaborators from earth had already covertly begun a campaign to subjugate our planet. Their goal is the end of free will across the galaxy. Kirby invented a new crop of hippie heroes from the utopian planet of New Genesis to stop these forces of oppression.
The “big bad” of his saga was the understated but megalomaniacal master manipulator Darkseid, allegedly inspired by Richard Nixon, and certainly also inspired by Hitler. Darkseid means to end free will by probing the human mind so that he can discover “The Anti-Life” equation, a sequence that would make all humans follow his commands. In Kirby’s mythos, the opposite of free thought is death.
But one of Kirby’s most prescient creations was the proto-Trump, Glorious Godfrey. Kirby designed Glorious Godfrey as an evangelist in the Billy Graham model—Kirby is said to have accused Graham of promoting “biblical fascism.” Glorious Godfrey’s parallels to Donald Trump are uncanny—their terrifying, elaborate orange bouffant hairdos pumped full of air are only the start. They rise to power on television, and they both manipulate the emotions of their followers in order to divide, conquer, and oppress.
The Forever People issue 3 opens with a crowd shot of white people (and Kirby was drawing plenty of multi-racial crowd shots when he wanted to by 1970) staring dead-eyed at the reader. They are exclaiming, “He’s voicing what’s in our hearts!” “Tell it, Godfrey! Tell us how our pride is being attacked and dragged in the dust!” “This is our world! Our world! They have no right to meddle with it!”
These statements are consistent with fascist thought: the idea that the world is yours and anyone different is a dangerous interloper. The mere existence of “outsiders” is an assault on your pride and identity, and your identity is entirely meshed with a national identity. They view themselves as aggrieved victims as an excuse to victimize others.
Trump followers regularly attest that the reason they support Trump is that he says what is in their hearts (“He’s voicing what’s in our hearts!”). That sentiment is repeated within the Glorious Godfrey storylines.
Kirby underscores this terrifyingly real opening image by captioning with a quote he attributes to Hitler. Maybe that sounds heavy handed but as a Jewish person who literally fought Nazis, Kirby knew whereof he spoke. Godwin’s law does not apply.
The scene opens with Godfrey holding a televised revival meeting replete with a sci-fi pipe organ and inspirational signs straight out of Goebbels’s but also Trump’s playbook. “Life Has Pitfalls! Anti-Life Is Protection!” “Life Will Make You Doubt! Anti-Life Will Make You Right!” “You Can Justify Anything with Anti-Life!” The white crowd is revealed to be the audience of one of Godfrey’s revival meetings.
Godfrey’s followers’ words resemble Trump supporters’ totemistic belief that even when Trump says or does things they would object to anyone else saying or doing, if Trump does it, it doesn’t count—it’s justified. In fact, Godfrey’s followers are called Justifiers, and this revival meeting is his attempt to grow its ranks.
Like Donald Trump, Godfrey encourages people to join his legion by handing out hats—in this instance, metal helmets that conceal the wearers’ face so they won’t be judged and instead can judge others with anonymity (hello Twitter eggs). Godfrey markets the helmets as part of Darkseid’s “gift of Anti-Life, the happiness package.” The metal helmets cover the wearer’s entire head, leaving only a tiny slit for the eyes. It literally narrows their vision.
Godfrey empathizes with his viewers—he knows their lives are hard and freedom and choices are hard. What Godfrey sells to his followers is a chance to free themselves from responsibility for their actions—they can commit all their atrocities while masked and he grants them moral authority to justify anything they want.
Freedom is hard. It comes with uncertainty and conflict with those who are different from you. But when you sign away your freedoms, you lose what is valuable in life. The opposite of freedom is the Anti-Life Equation. Kirby emphasizes that the Anti-Life Equation is already on earth, it is hidden within the human mind. Darkseid only needs to find it and tap into the self-destructive urge humans have to give up control, lose responsibility, and join an all-powerful mob.
Godfrey speaks from behind an elaborate gold podium evoking the two-headed eagle motif used in lots of fascist iconography. Trump enjoys elaborate gold ornamental settings and uses them in his own propaganda images. In this splash page Godfrey professes his humility to his viewers and his hands are reached out to the reader, enormous in perspective (I realize Trump’s hands would be tiny in comparison). Kirby directs the reader’s eye across the page’s layout, which conveys the dizzying appeal Godfrey makes to his viewers.
Godfrey preaches that Anti-Life is Darkseid’s “gift to us, his friends! The cosmic hunting license! The right to point the finger, or the gun!” This resembles so-called Stand Your Ground Laws and the Trump supporters who brought guns to polling places and asked people who they were voting for.
Back in his dressing room getting his hair poofed, Godfrey listens while one of his lead Justifiers enthuses, “Anti-life is a heady, exhilarating experience, Godfrey! They’re in ecstasy!” Godfrey replies, “They no longer think! They revel in violent emotion! They will do anything I say in order to feed their emotion! They are now no more than zombies in my control.”
Trump’s supporters grew increasingly violent at his rallies as Trump encouraged them to respond violently to any counter-protesters. When questioned in a GOP debate about his violent supporters Trump said they “come with tremendous passion and love for the country and when they see protest… they have anger that’s unbelievable. They have anger. They love this country.”
Godfrey tells his followers, “When we wear this helmet we feel unified! Glorified! Justified! Step up friends! Take your helmet, be superior!” Trump tells his supporters, “Together we will make America great again!” and gives you a hat.
Justifiers set out to burn “decadent” libraries. Trump is not a fan of books, is explicitly anti-intellectual, and attacks journalism and public institutions—and libraries are public institutions. Burning books is so on the nose but Trump has already said that people who burn the flag should lose their citizenship and has also threatened to sue journalists for their work, so real life is entering mid-century dystopian fiction territory.
In another scene, a lone Justifier bullies a young boy using crutches who’s befriended the Forever People and was helping them hide in a part of town slated for “Urban Renewal.” The Forever People use science and superpowers to confuse the Justifier and escape with the boy. In the end the Justifier himself is a victim of Godfrey’s manipulations when he’s compelled to try suicide bombing the Forever People. Ultimately, the bulk of Trump’s supporters are also his victims.
The Forever People track down Godfrey’s revival tent. The Forever People profess to be nonviolent and generally succeed at that, but their super powers include the ability to hold hands with their motherbox sentient, hand-held computer and switch places with an almost all powerful being called the Infinity Man.
The Infinity Man attempts to break up Godfrey’s revival meeting but Darkseid appears and probes the Infinity Man for weaknesses, realizing that the Infinity Man is really made up of a diverse set of teens. So Darkseid uses his powers to switch the Infinity Man with the diverse (for a 1971 comic by a white publisher) group of teens. Once materialized he knocks them out.
Meanwhile, more Justifiers are dispatched with a list of people to round up based on the neighborhood they live in. “Don’t bother to discriminate! The women and children are as hated as the men!” one Justifier proclaims, mimicking the barbaric detention of child refugees from Central America even under President Obama, which would certainly be increased under Trump, who’s threatened to deport undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children.
The people the Justifiers round up are brought back to Darkseid’s right-hand-man Desaad’s (yes, with two aa’s) torture camp, called Happyland. Happyland is a torture camp hidden in plain sight disguised as an amusement park.
The caption reads, “The kingdom of the damned is not a far place! It’s not a hidden place! It’s in full view of us all! But it has been rigged by a malignant force so that its tormented inmates are seen and heard and ignored!!”
Guests at Happyland believe Darkseid’s prisoners aren’t actually human, but are animatronics that are part of the park’s amusements. The hero called Big Bear is perceived as a mechanical bear in a shooting gallery, the telepathic illusionist Beautiful Dreamer is billed as Sleeping Beauty and rendered immobile and guests gawk at her and try to wake her (for a $1,000 prize) by whispering “the magic word.”
With contemporary Nazis in hipster garb already questioning the humanity of Jewish people and the general refusal of Trump to treat Muslim people as individuals rather than a faceless horde, the dehumanization of non-Christians in the eyes of Trump supporters is an immediate danger. We’ve already seen the increase in hate crimes. There’s been a 67 percent rise in hate crimes against Muslim people and hate crimes have spikes since the election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and police records in many municipalities.
Like the early Nazi ghettos, which were set up in existing Jewish neighborhoods, essentially concealing oppression in plain sight, Happyland’s detainees are hidden within the park’s amusements and through super science appear to the park’s guests as part of the rides and fun while behind the scenes they are actually crying for help.
The Forever People, although sometimes referred to as teens, are drawn as young adults. The team consists of a young white woman, her white boyfriend, a young black man, and two other young white men. There are some signs that the latter two can be read as gay or bisexual: One frequently describes things as “campy,” and the other is small, blond, and referred to as “a sensitive.”
Glorious Godfrey nearly disappears from Kirby’s narrative at this point. Darkseid dismisses him as a useful fool after the Forever People break up his revival meeting. Godfrey, like Trump, was always the salesman of evil, not the underlying source of the evil.
Godfrey has made multiple appearances in the DC Universe since, including on the wonderful all-ages animated TV show Young Justice that began in 2010. In it Godfrey is a Glenn Beck/Andrew Breitbart-esque conspiracy theorist with a Lou Dobbs-like television show he uses to demagogue against “aliens” and “alien superheroes” like Superman. He’s a major villain in the series and while I doubt he will appear in the new Season 3 of the show, which is in the works, I really wish he would.
Ultimately, The Fourth World Saga is a story of free beings, both superpowered aliens and earthly humans who frequently say things like “I’m a secretary, not a pawn in a spy game,” but when push comes to shove say, “I’m scared silly but count me in,” opposing fascism together. It is informed by Kirby’s lived experience fighting Nazis. The story deliberately recalls Hitler’s concentration camps and the images here also show similarities to Trump’s world view and manipulation of his followers.
Comics are full of despots and Hitler metaphors, but few are as seductive as Glorious Godfrey. He’s depicted as attractive and charismatic. He plays his audience perfectly. He sells people their own death. With polls showing a decrease in the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy, reading Jack Kirby is an emotional gut check. For those of us already sounding the alarm on Trump’s existential threat to democracy, understanding Glorious Godfrey’s emotional appeal is instructive.
The Fourth World Saga was canceled before it was able to run Kirby’s intended course. We don’t really know how the story was originally supposed to end. Kirby did have an endgame, but in various interviews his explanation of the denouement varied. He did release a graphic novel attempting to complete the saga in the mid ’80s, in which the tortured citizens of Apokolips’ “Armaghetto” unite and overthrow Darkseid. Kirby was limited in what he could do by editorial mandate, but the antagonists from Apokolips that he created are still out there in the DC Universe.
Comics are generally a serial medium, so we frequently don’t get clear endings. We don’t know what will happen in real life either. The fight against authoritarianism is sort of like any superhero’s fight against evil—it is a struggle that we all must continually renew and engage in. It’s no surprise that as the generation who literally fought Nazis is almost gone, a man who most closely mimics Hitler’s approach has risen to power, even though the majority of Americans did not vote for him.
In the battles within these comics, we do see what wins in fights between the forces of oppression and the forces of freedom: a diverse group of humans and aliens, some super powered, some not, willing to stand together and fight, even when it’s hard.
Oh, and Don Rickles’s superhero alter-ego also helps out. That seems unlikely now so you’ll have to start organizing in your community without an insult comedian placed by editorial mandate.
You can buy Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus at comic stores, bookstores, and online. The issues described here are in the first volume.