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The Fourth World Saga published by DC Comics
 

Jack Kirby's New Gods - cover by Jack KirbyJack Kirby's New Gods 1998 (SC TPB) 304 pgs.

Written and Drawn by Jack Kirby. Inked by Vince Colletta, Mike Royer.
Letters: unbilled. Grey Shades: unbilled. Editor: Jack Kirby.

Reprinting: New Gods (1st series) #1-11 (1970-1971) (the New Gods lead stories, plus some short "filler" tales, plus covers)

Additional notes: intro by Mark Evanier

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Considered by many as the crowning achievement of Jack "King" Kirby, the comic legend who co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and many others, and who helped usher in the modern age of more sophisticated superhero comics back in the '60s, The New Gods was one of four interwoven series labelled as Kirby's "Fourth World Saga" (called that, apparently, after the four comic book series comprising the saga) chronicling the war between demi-Gods of the benevolent planet New Genesis and its evil counterpart, the planet Apokolips, when Apokolips' evil master, Darkseid, set his sights on earth. First against him is Orion, New Genesis' atypically fierce champion who, unbeknowst to himself (but not the reader) is Darkseid's son.

I had never quite fallen under Kirby's magick, as others have. Though I've liked his art (particularly on the Fantastic Four), he was hardly my favourite artist, and when he started writing his own stuff in the '70s, after years of partnering with scripters like Stan Lee, I felt his writing...underwhelming; his dialogue clunky, his plotting simplistic. Ironically, there had long been debate in comicdom as to just how much of Marvel's 1960s stuff was Kirby and how much Lee, with Kirby proponents claiming Kirby basically wrote and plotted everything, and Lee just stole credit. My feeling was that one merely had to look at Kirby's solo stuff to see that was an argument hard to credit. Still, I picked up this book both because this was considered Kirby's magnum opus, and because, in comic circles, it was long claimed George Lucas had ripped off a lot of the New Gods for Star Wars, and I wanted to see for myself.

This reprints Kirby's entire original run of New Gods issues, but reprinted in black and white to keep down the cost. However, instead of just being black and white, DC painted the panels in shades of grey, giving the pictures a sense of colour, if not the colour itself. Although overdone in spots (a little too dark and glum) it's an interesting technique, something Marvel might want to consider for their Essential books.

Surprisingly, this TPB started to win me over. The early issues are sort of what I expected -- some interesting ideas, some big emotions, but marred by clunky dialogue and thin plotting. But then the thing starts to pick up, with some powerful, heady storytelling. At his best, Kirby wrote like he drew: raw, unpolished, a little uneven, but passionate and gutsy. There's also a refreshing emotionalism at times, in contrast to a lot of modern, "sophisticated" comics where characters are often drawn inexpressively, and react dispassionately.

Where the series is strongest, like with other superhero comics, is in its odd-ball mix of ideas in a way rarely mimicked in any other medium. The main core is the rather simple story of Orion on earth, allied with a few humans, playing out a covert war against Darkseid's minions. Pretty standard episodic fair with Darkseid and his crew plotting some villainy, then Orion stopping them. But where things get more off-beat is in the side-lines -- cutaways to New God Metron, popping around through time and space, pondering the mysteries of the universe; the Black Racer, an angel of death -- literally -- who claims the souls of dead Gods and inhabits the body of a paralysed Vietnem veteran and flys about on -- wait for it -- snow skies (shades of the Silver Surfer, another Kirby co-creation); or an ambitious flashback issue in which Kirby chronicles the beginning, middle and truce of a previous war between New Genesis and Apokolips that manages to be an epic-in-one issue -- and apparently was one of Kirby's all-time favourite stories. At times, The New Gods really does seem like a sprawling epic of mindless fisticuffs and staggering philosophical ambition.

Kirby manages to create a sense of a modern mythology, cemented by the fact that these characters know each other, implying a history that we only have hints of. It also gives the thing a kind of creepiness. Wars are usually anonymous, fighting enemies we intentionally depersonalize. But Orion knows his enemies by name, and they him, and still they still want to kill each other!

Of course, reading Kirby is still an acquired taste, with his curious grammatical structures and generous use of exclamations!!! Still, mayhap it can be likened to reading hiaku -- comics have their own rhythms, their own styles, that might seem strange or even childish to the uninitiated, but weave their own spell if you let them. Epithets like "Dog of Apokolips!" actually start to sound natural.

It's not perfect. As noted, the series' strengths comes in ebbs and tides. Kirby's dialogue is uneven, his plotting too quick to run to big fight scenes. The series was cancelled before Kirby could conclude it (which was supposedly his intention), but one wonders whether Kirby could have maintained it -- even in these issues there are inconsistancies, as if he was changing his mind as he went along. Darkseid (who remains largely in the background) comes to earth searching for the anti-Life formula buried in the subconscious of an earth person...but later issues drop any reference to that, and the assaults on earth seem largely just random, physical attacks (according to an e-mail I received, the anti-Life concept is explored more fully in The Forever People). The principle New Gods are the troubled Orion, given to berserker furies; the joyful Lightray, representing youth; and Metron, the ambivalent intellectual. But Metron disappears from the later stories, and soon Lightray is being referred to as "the planner", as if Kirby was reinventing him as a substitute Metron. And would we ever really have learned the secret of "the Source" and other metaphysical questions if Kirby had continued the series? After all, just because someone promises a beginning, middle and end, it doesn't mean that they'll deliver (one can't get burned watching five seasons of Babylon 5 and not be a little cynical -- a novel for TV my fanny!).

Kirby seems most comfortable with the demigod characters: Orion, Highfather, Lightray and the rest, even Darkseid, are dramatically, even subtly portrayed. There are some genuinely powerful scenes, and intense, florid dialogue. The human characters aren't always as well realized, again hinting at where Kirby's solo work differs from what he did with Stan Lee (and, therefore, revealing Lee's contribution). This is ironic, since Kirby often described himself as a guy interested in the average person.

The themes and moralising of the New Gods, I'll admit, leave me a little confused at times. Kirby seems to be saying something, but I'm not always sure what. Orion, though fighting for New Genesis, has the bloodlust of his Apokolips heritage. He's given to rages that border on making him an anti-hero, rages the other characters remark on...but Kirby falls short of actually criticizing his brutality. And since this is war, even good-natured Lightray has no compunction about plotting the demise of his enemies. At times the series seems like a gung ho war adventure, at other times, a grim critique of warfare. The series is at its strongest when this sense of darkness, of grimness, seeps through, distinguishing it from similar efforts. This is where the grey hues actually add to the mood of the thing.

In other ways, middle-aged Kirby seems to be embracing the hippie/youth movement of the period, with New Genesis a nature paradise, with young characters always around, while Apokolips is a foul industrialized hell. Yet that thesis too is not consistant, with the heroes relying on technology like the ambiguous Mother Box.

What's interesting about the New Gods is that the premise seems somehow atypical for an American to create. It's the story of two superpowers warring, with earth the battlefield and earth police raging at both sides, but helpless to truly interfere. Written during the cold war, this is an allegory you would expect from a European or Canadian, people who spent decades watching the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. struggle, knowing if a third world war was ever fought, the U.S. and the Soviets had no intention of fighting it on their territory. The bombs would land in Canada and Europe.

The series is an "unfinished symphony" as Mark Evanier comments in his introduction, and that makes it problematic, since some plot threads never go anywhere. Conversely, if Kirby had known it was going to be cancelled with #11, he couldn't have picked a better story. The final tale, "Darkseid and Sons", may not resolve the war, but it brings closure to a few other plot elements, giving a reasonably satisfactory finish to this collection.

Kirby, long acknowledged as a pioneer in comic art, has a nice eye for just telling a story with panels. There's nothing flashy or cutting edge, per se, but it's precisely because you don't find yourself (too often) thinking about the art that shows the true talent at work -- small panels to massive double-page spreads, close ups to long shots, it all unfolds logically, compellingly. Inking-wise, Vince Colletta inks the first few issues, Mike Royer the remaining lion's share. Colletta brings a restraint to Kirby's pencils that is actually kind of appealing -- cleaning them up, prettifying them. Royeer captures more of the purer Kirby -- rawer, uglier, but more passionate, more kinetic. Both men capture something, just different things. Ironically, the change in inkers creates its own subtext -- as the secret war progressess, things become more untamed.

Jack Kirby's New Gods has been published with the companion TPBs Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle, and Jack Kirby's Forever People. There are aspects to the New Gods that seem a bit abrupt, as information is dropped rather casually that, I wonder, might have been supplied in greater detail in one of the other series. New Gods stands alone, but probably gains a bit read in conjunction with the others. (And does to some extent: subsequently I re-read the collections of all three series together, crossing over between them, and it did create an even greater sense of a grand epic.)

Subsequently, DC itself published omnibus collections of all the series -- including Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen and the later graphic novel The Hunger Dogs -- in just such a manner, presenting the various issues chronologically, as opposed to series by series.

Actually, there is yet another "end" to the saga, though Kirby purists might cry foul. The New Gods was restarted in the late '70s with Gerry Conway as scripter and Don Newton as artist -- it ran, I believe, in a First Issue Special, The New Gods #12-19, and concluded in a couple of Adventure Comics (plus a Lightray tale in a Secret Origins Special). If DC really wants the Fourth World to be viewed as a literary epic in comic book form, why not reprint those stories in a TPB, as well, allowing the series to be completed. Fans who want can regard the various ends as apocryphal, and those who don't can be treated to a completed epic.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, there are many who feel there's more than a little of the New Gods in Star Wars. There both is and there isn't. In broad strokes, there isn't. Star Wars was a galactic war, New Gods is covert skirmishes. But in the details there're interesting connections: a hero who learns he is the son of the villain; an ill-defined cosmic essence called, not the Force, but the Source; a villain called Darkseid and a villain who worships the Dark Side (though Darth Vader owed as much to Dr. Doom and the martian ice warriors of TV's Dr. Who); even a war that owes its origins in past events. More obvious imitators of these stories can be found in comics themselves, such as Jim Starlin's Captain Marvel stories (collected in The Life of Captain Marvel) which, now that I've read the New Gods, contain a staggering number of parallels; or the Micronauts comics, specifically the early issues. The Micronauts had long seemed to me heavily influenced by Star Wars, but the connection to The New Gods I realize now is even more vivid.

I had picked up this collection just to satisfy my curiosity, and so I could say I'd read it, not really expecting to be impressed. I guess the joke is on me, huh?

Cover price: $16.95 CDN./$11.95 USA.


Orion - cover by SimonsonOrion: The Gates of Apokolips 2001 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written and illustrated by Walter Simonson. Additional back up stories illustrated by Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons, Klaus Janson and Jon Bogdanove.
Colours: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh. Letters: John Workman. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Reprinting: Orion #1-5, including back up stories, plus a couple of short stories from Secret Origins of Super-Villains 80-page Giant #1 and Legends of the DC Universe 80-page Giant #2 (2000)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This was yet another revival of Jack Kirby's problematic Fourth World saga -- problematic because, after all, even Kirby had trouble making it a success. Since Kirby began the saga, there have been various revivals under the New Gods title, plus a series called Jack Kirby's Fourth World. And then this one, named after the lead character, Orion.

In the first few issues of this series, writer/artist Walt Simonson allows us into his behind-the-scenes thinking with some afterwards (I don't know if these were reproduced in the TPB collection). And what's fascinating is how often such commentaries reveal the gap between perception and reality.

Simonson bemoans the gimmick marketing in modern comics, where series are restarted from issue #1 just to make them seem more collectible. He dismisses "jerk pages" (pin up style art aimed at the jerks in audience). And he says that his contribution to the Fourth World mythos will focus on Orion, and he isn't interested in just dusting off old characters but in creating new ones.

Yet Orion #1 follows directly on the heels of a series called Jack Kirby's Fourth World (which was done by John Byrne, not Kirby), even continuing a question introduced in it. In other words, Orion feels like a series re-started from #1 so it will seem more collectible (an irony Simonson acknowledges). The climax of this opening arc is a wordless, 22 page fight scene (so much for no "jerk pages"). And Simonson just seems to throw in various characters from the previous series, often with little context or relevance to this story.

Maybe it's a nitpicky, but it didn't feel like this was being fashioned for new readers, with too many references and concepts not really making sense if you aren't already familiar with the premise. Since I am familiar with the premise, that shouldn't be a problem. But I just didn't feel that The Gates of Apokolips quite stood on its own, as a story should.

The premise has Orion still wrestling with the news that the evil Darkseid may not be his father after all. As well, he goes to investigate strange events in small town America, all culminating in what's meant to be the final showdown between Orion and Darkseid (yes -- again!). Along the way Darkseid discovers the anti-Life formula for which he has long been searching (and which I'm pretty sure he's found a time or two before, but Simonson seems to ignore that). Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboy Legion are tossed in, and there are appearances by Lightray, Lt."Terrible" Turpin, Kalibak, and more.

When reading Kirby's original series, you couldn't help feeling Kirby was trying to grapple with big, philosophical ideas, technology vs. nature, war vs. peace, nature vs. nurture, fascism, idealism, and the plain old Human Condition.

Here...I just didn't really get any sense of bigger themes. Simonson regurgitates all the cliches (the Orion/Darkseid conflict, the anti-Life formula) but it feels like Simonson is just so eager to play with these toys, he hasn't thought about the game he wants to play with them. There are even scenes that seem meant to echo the original series (the first issue has Orion going to Apokolips, encountering Kalibak, and learning Darkseid is away on earth, planning some villainy...like the first issue of The New Gods back in 1971).

According to some, later issues (this series only ran a couple of years) had Orion mastering the anti-Life formula himself and facing the old "power corrupts" dilemma. So maybe Simonson had big themes he wanted to explore. But I'm reviewing this story in this collection, nothing more. And this story seems kind of wanting. As mentioned, he throws in various appearances, and has the Newsboy Legion be quite prominent throughout...but they never actually seem relevant to the action, or as though they exist for any reason other than because Simonson wanted to throw them in (or for comic relief). It's as though we have a story that is meant to seem complex -- constantly cutting between various characters on three different worlds -- without the plot actually supporting them.

Even the opening scene involving an eerie small town, which seems so promising, never quite delivers as it soon becomes just an excuse for a lot of fighting and explosions.

Simonson is no stranger to writing about demi-gods, having had a very successful run on Marvel's Thor. But Kirby's characters tended to be full of wild emotions and bombastic exclamations, nowhere more so than with the New Gods. Sure, it might seem too corny or stylized today -- but I miss that. Simonson's writing is mmore restrained, the characters and their emotions not as dramatic.

And their motives are vague. Orion has learned that his arch-foe might not be his father, which might actually be a relief to him, even as it might shake up his view of himself. But despite this being the central theme throughout this story, it was never clear what Orion thought about it! (Worse, we don't learn whether it's true or not in these pages).

For that matter, Simonson acts as if Orion not being Darkseid's son would change everything. But no one knew Orion was Darkseid's son, not even Orion, for a long time. So really, this would just switch things back to their status quo.

Perhaps nowhere is the lack of bombast/character stuff better demonstrated than in the climax. Simonson treats us to a 22 page fight scene between the two arch-enemies, almost entirely without words (Orion says, "The time for talk is past" and proceeds to stick to that for the rest of the issue). 20 pages without words (save sound effects)? Nothing but fighting? Besides, surely Orion's nature is that he can't fight without venting his emotions verbally. Likewise, surely Darkseid is a guy who loves the sound of his own voice. But instead of having a fight scene filtered through the personalities, it's an anonymous battle that could've involved anyone! And although I realize Simonson saw this as the climax to a decades long conflict...a mindless, Superman vs. Doomsday-style fight just seems anti-climactic, particularly when there's no strategy involved, just hitting and hitting.

Perhaps the biggest problem, as a climax of the Orion/Darkseid conflict, is: why now? What was it that meant they had this showdown, resulting in this resolution...now?

If Simonson's subsequent issues explored the notion of Orion being corrupted by power, maybe this initial story arc was simple house cleaning -- Simonson's way of getting the characters to the point where his "real" story could begin. I can sympathize if true, but I can only review this TPB as it stands on its own.

I have mixed feelings about Simonson's art. I like some of his stuff, and I don't dispute his talent. But he tends to go for a rough style which can often make it a little hard to figure out what's going on (particularly in fight scenes where he'll throw in lots of lines and weird effects). He often employs unusual panel arrangements and the like, and his figures are energetic, but the humanity can be muted. As well, the Fourth World stuff is constantly cutting between three locales: earth, bucolic New Genesis, and the industrial hell of Apokolips. An artist needs to clearly envision the various environments, so that when we cut from one to the other, the reader feels it. And that I felt Simonson failed to do. Things aren't helped by Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh's employing of drab hues, shading entire scenes in what are little more than variations on a single colour. It makes the visuals a tad dull and fails to distinguish the environments.

And the sound effects, written in stylized fonts that make it hard to read the letters, were just annoying.

I first read this some time after I read Kirby's original. Then I re-read the other TPB's on this page, and then re-read this...and it still didn't work for me. Granted, as the only non-Kirby collection of New Gods stories (other than maybe Cosmic Odyssey), fans of the Fourth World might want it just as part of their collection. But despite Simonson's undoubted passion for the material, it seemed tepid and half-baked.

This review is based on the story as it was originally serialized in Orion comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $12.95 USA.

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