In 2006′s God War storyline, writer Mike Carey and artist Pasqual Ferry introduced their versions of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters to the pages of Ultimate Fantastic Four. Join us as we revisit this most unique Marvel/DC quasi-crossover.
Comics creators deliberately creating a thinly-veiled copy of a super-powered character (what is sometimes referred to in comics fandom as a “Captain Ersatz“) in the interest of metatextuality isn’t a new or a particularly rare phenomenon. Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s Squadron Supreme (a transparent Marvel Comics take on DC Comics’ original Justice League of America roster) debuted in the pages of The Avengers in 1971. Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s Superduperman—that lynchpin of fair use protection for parody—goes back even further, all the way back to a 1953 issue of EC Comics’ Mad. In some cases, the characters being referenced don’t even belong to other publishers: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were directed by editor Dick Giordano to create their own versions of characters owned by DC Comics for use in Watchmen because of the publisher’s potential objections to how the duo would portray them in their serialized graphic novel. The late Dwayne McDuffie added his own unique spin to the trope in 2003, using three established and well-known DC characters instead of tailored knock-offs to stand in for Marvel Comics’ original Defenders trio in the excellent Justice League cartoon episode, “The Terror Beyond“.
In 2006, writer Mike Carey and artist Pasqual Ferry introduced their versions of some of DC Comics’ Fourth World characters to the pages of Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four in the six-issue God War storyline, serialized in Ultimate Fantastic Four #s 33–38 and later collected in the Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 7: God War trade paperback. The story starts off with a bang, with what appear to be aliens explosively teleporting in from out of nowhere into a Manhattan mall:
Pasqual Ferry’s excellent double-page spread—complete with a variation of the “boom tube” sound effect—is a respectful contemporary re-rendering of the two-page splash that Jack Kirby used in 1971 to introduce readers to the Forever People in the first issue of their eponymous series:
These aliens, introduced by Carey’s adept expository dialogue as members of a group known as Seed Nineteen, soon find themselves in the middle of a fight against the pair of Reed Richards and Susan Storm, who just happen to be at the mall doing some shopping. The impromptu battle between two groups of superheroes due to a misunderstanding is a common trope in crossovers, but Carey uses the dust-up to introduce these new players by name and showcase their impressive array of powers. Even with these earliest scenes, the character design and roster hierarchy parallels between Seed Nineteen and the Forever People are readily apparent:
The story progresses conventionally enough for a (quasi-)crossover, with the Fantastic Four and Seed Nineteen eventually forging an uneasy alliance to combat a common threat represented by the forces of Acheron, an empire from a distant galaxy pursuing Seed Nineteen and their charge, an injured soldier named Tesseract, whose Infinity-Man design influence is tangentially hinted at by his name, costume design, and the way Seed Nineteen seem to hold his implied tactical value in nigh-reverential regard.
As the action shifts from Earth to Seed Nineteen’s home galaxy, more and more parallels and composites of Kirby’s Fourth World ideas and designs appear or are elaborated upon. Keen-eyed and well-versed readers will notice the planet Acheron’s similarity to Apokolips and that the villain Gallowglass—whose body is formed from super-dense “neutron-degenerate matter” that interacts explosively upon contact with normal matter—is a nod primarily to Kirby’s anti-matter powered Fourth World villain Mantis (who first appeared in Forever People #2, cover-dated May 1971). Gallowglass’ soldiers, the Ravens, are evocative of the Parademons, Darkseid‘s shock troops.
Standing in for Darkseid in God War is the Ultimate Marvel version of Thanos, a delightful “Easter egg” considering the history of the two characters—Thanos creator Jim Starlin recounted in an interview published in TwoMorrow Publishing’s Comic Book Artist #2 that then-Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas, upon seeing his early designs for Thanos, instructed him to
Beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!
One of the core, if unofficial, conceits of the Ultimate Marvel Comics line, at least during the years before its restructuring with 2009′s Ultimatum event, was that it was to serve as a stage for the modern retelling of classic stories from Marvel’s Silver Age. Carey, being politic in a 2006 CBR interview, did state that God War was really an update of the Fantastic Four’s first brush with the Kree Empire‘s interstellar marshal, Ronan the Accuser (seen in Fantastic Four #65, cover-dated August 1967). And God War‘s climactic final battle does indeed loosely mirror the events of the Fantastic Four’s initial meeting with Ronan the Accuser, particularly the scene where the Thing wrests Ronan’s vaunted “Universal Weapon” from him. But that event is preceded by Seed Nineteen and the Fantastic Four merging their powers and abilities and pouring them into Threshold (who supplants Tesseract as the book’s Infinity-Man surrogate in this particular sequence), an homage to the Forever People’s ability to combine into one being and a recurring motif in Kirby’s 1970s “cosmic superhero” work—the Eternals, created by Kirby upon his return to Marvel Comics after the commercial failure of his Fourth World experiment at DC Comics, also had a similar power, able to join their consciousness into an omniscient “Uni-Mind”.
The design and role for God War‘s Accuser Ronan owe as much to the Fourth World‘s Devilance the Pursuer (who seemingly destroyed Infinity-Man in the final issue of The Forever People) as they do to Fantastic Four #65′s Ronan the Accuser while the strained father-son relationship between Accuser Ronan and Thanos is also a clear analogue for the Orion and Darkseid dynamic.
When it is hinted at partway through God War that not only does Seed Nineteen’s home galaxy lie innumerable light-years away from the Fantastic Four’s home system but that they also come from a distant future (an excellent illustration of the relativistic relationship between space and time that is rarely addressed in superhero comics), it underlines the vast temporal and cultural gulf that separated Jack Kirby’s 1961 Marvel Comics creations from his 1971 DC Comics work. The Fantastic Four, empowered by exposure to radiation, tapped into the conflicting emotions of fear and wonderment that gripped the imagination of many Americans in the early decades of the Atomic Age. They were also establishment heroes, a government-sanctioned superhero team dressed in relatively sedate standardized uniforms and led by a patriarchal scientist who once told Invisible Girl that “wives should be kissed—and not heard!” By contrast, Kirby’s designs for the Forever People were inspired by the counterculture movement. Post-1965, Kirby’s art had taken an even more psychedelic flavor and it was in full effect by the time he had started work on his Fourth World project. The story of free-spirited extraterrestrial youths fleeing an authoritarian alien empire was a fantastical premise to be sure, but the stories he told in the pages of The Forever People were in tune both with his established idealism and the tenor of a late-1960s America in the midst of major societal upheavals.
With God War, Mike Carey and Pasqual Ferry crafted a loving tribute to the King of Comics, bridging time, space, and copyright constraints in putting together two of Kirby’s most memorable superhero creations in a thrilling space opera adventure that stands unquestionably as the high point of the Ultimate Fantastic Four series.