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The Return of the New Gods

Writer: Gerry Conway. Art: Don Newton, with Rich Buckler. Inks: Dan Adkins, others.

The New Gods #12-19, Adventure Comics #459, 460, DC Special Series #10 (Secret Origins of Super-Heroes Special) (1977-1978)

Although comics tend to be continuity heavy -- they also give rise to a lot of semi-apocryphal tales, simply because subsequent editorial regimes decide to just ignore inconvenient tales from earlier. The New Gods is a case in point -- I mean, how many times has villain Darkseid "discovered" the secret to the anti-Life formula...as though for the first time? Perhaps no better illustration of this than was the late 1970s revival by Gerry Conway.

The New Gods was, of course, Jack Kirby's magnum opus -- and his unfinished symphony as it (and its companion series) were cancelled before Kirby could bring it to a climax (assuming he ever would've). But then the characters were revived for a new series in 1977 under the pen of Gerry Conway, with the main artist Don Newton -- continuing the numbering from Kirby's run, though now labelled "Return of the New Gods". Actually, they were first revived in an issue of 1st Issue Special, a try-out comic in the days when anthology comics were used to test the market (like Showcase, Marvel Premiere, etc.). I had assumed the 1st Issue Special was the start of this run, particularly as it was plotted by Conway -- but it actually came out a year before the revival of the regular comic, and was otherwise by a different creative team (Denny O'Neil and Mike Vosburg) and, though the subsequent series made a few passing references to it, it's not especially relevant to the plot -- and, honestly, in my opinion, just wasn't very good. So you can skip it or include it as the whim takes you.

Conway's run received a mixed response from fans -- sure, partly due to its own uneven merits, but partly, I suspect, as a knee jerk response because Kirby fans saw it as almost sacrilegious for another writer to dare to follow Kirby. In later years, the adventures of the New Gods have been guided by a string of writers in various series, including Mark Evanier, Jim Starlin, Rachel Pollack, John Byrne, Walt Simonson. But back in the 1970s, Conway was the first post-Kirby writer to assume control of the characters for a regular series -- and it would remain the only non-Kirby run until the late 1980s! (Though Steve Englehart had revived Kirby's Mr. Miracle for a short-lived revival around the same time).

The fact that neither Kirby, nor Conway, were able to make a commercial success of the concept presumably led to DC's editors being gun shy about the whole project. Indeed, it's not clear how successful even the later revivals have been -- none exceeding 30 issues, and undergoing various title changes (from New Gods, to Jack Kirby's Fourth World, to Orion) suggesting DC is still in search of that marketable label.

Though some criticized Conway's run for mishandling the Kirby concepts, Conway faithfully roots his story in Kirby's originals (including elements from the spin-off series Forever People) so that it is indeed a continuation of Kirby's story, in some cases trying to provide "answers" to elements Kirby left frustratingly vague. Conways does make some cosmetic changes (more likely an editorial edict, rather than his decision) such as having hero Orion's costume redesigned to look more "super hero"-esque, and powers Orion used to have through mechanisms are now incorporated into his suit -- a fact only really articulated in the editorial pages (making it perhaps confusing for some readers when, in an ancillary Secret Origins of Super-Heroes comic, Lightray is referred to as the only New God with special powers).

The arc of the series is that evil Darkseid has deduced that the anti-Life formula (for which he has long sought) resides in the sub-conscious of six humans -- so it falls to hero Orion and various other New Gods to protect them. The various familiar New Gods split up, each to bodyguard a different charge. The human characters seem deliberately edgy and provocative: the US general suffers from paranoia, and another character is a junkie -- yes! a junkie when just a few years earlier, comics weren't allowed to even talk about illegal drugs! But Conway spends very little time developing a soap opera/human interest element, focusing instead on diversionary battles. It's as if Conway came up with the basics for a great, multi-layered saga...then ran into writer's block when it came time to actually develop it. Despite its ensemble air, other New Gods like Metron and Lightray get little page time, while a sequence where Orion and Jezebelle (Conway's chief addition to the New Gods pantheon) are subjected to a "memory machine" supposedly laying bare their inner turmoils proves decidedly anti-climactic. Conway breaks his saga into acts, with "Part One" covering the first four issues (itself broken up into smaller chapters)...yet such labeling seems arbitrary. Even stranger, "Part Two" begins with a chapter three, with no indication what happened to chapters one and two (nor is there any indication we've missed scenes, so I'm guessing it was a typo that no one caught).

There are oddities, like Conway giving Darkseid a sidekick named Gargon who is basically just a substitute for his previous sidekick, Dessad (whom Kirby killed off in #11 of the original series) -- and then, with no explanation, suddenly Gargon is gone and Dessad is back! And then there's the Eskimo (one of the humans the New Gods are protecting) who is basically depicted as a loin cloth-wearing primitive...even though this is the 1970s! (Comic book writers have often seemed to have trouble depicting Native People as just, well, people).

Of course, like with Kirby before him, Conway's saga was cut short (but at least he did get to bring it to a climax) so some things can't maybe be blamed on him. Threads that were left dangling may have been intended to be explored later -- such as a sub-plot where Darkseid kidnaps the New Genesis youth, Esak, and exchanges him for an Apokoliptian lad.

So with its shortcomings, what's the appeal of the saga?

Well, maybe like with Kirby's original, it's as much for the promise as the execution. As much as I am a genuine fan of Kirby's original, he was equally guilty of haphazard plotting, tossing in a story idea or character...then seeming to forget about it, or with characters evincing arbitrary abilities as the scenes require. Honestly, it would be hypocritical to knock Conway for those things, and ignore Kirby's problems, too.

What Kirby did have going for him was passion, and a sense he really was using the saga to explore philosophical issues. Something Conway -- and most subsequent writers who've tackled the characters -- pull of with considerably less conviction (though the critical depiction of the airforce general has aspects of provocative commentary). Yet one assumes Conway was sincere in his affection for the concepts -- both because his saga draws heavily upon Kirby's originals (as opposed to ignoring them for his own ideas, as others have done), and because Conway stuck with the property, not just writing this series, but their appearances in other comics around that time.

The pacing is good, with enough things going on to keep your attention. If Conway was a poor man's Kirby in some areas, his ear for dialogue was a little better. Interestingly, how connected Conway's New Gods were to the greater DC Universe is a bit vague. It might seem odd to modern readers, who seem to regard cross-continuity as the rule of comics, that there might be some attempt to isolate different series. But DC in the 1970s had a few series that seemed to exist in a nebulous no man's land where it wasn't clear if the characters were part of the DC U or not. Although Kirby himself had set the New Gods in the DC Universe, it wasn't too entangled with it. Perhaps both creators realized "gods" were more unique in a world where they weren't brushing shoulders with super heroes!

The saga also benefitted immeasurably from the art of Don Newton, particularly when inked by Dan Adkins. Newton's realist, softly organic style with its elements of Classic Romanticism (evoking Alex Raymond and the like) couldn't be further removed from Kirby's craggy cartooniness -- but maybe that was the appeal. Instead of coming across as a second rate Kirby substitute, Newton made the series his own. And not only was he good at drawing the people, and the city scenes -- which I knew he could do -- he also nicely evoked the kind of otherworldly splendour of New Genesis, and the weirdly dreamlike architecture. Comics are a visual medium, and a good artist can certainly tip the scale on a story. I've picked up comics I might not have otherwise, just because Newton drew it. I figured I should be up-front about that. (Rich Buckler pinch hits an issue, to more than decent effect).

Unlike Kirby's original series, Conway doesn't deliver many stand out issues or story lines -- there are no "The Glory Boat", or "The Pact", there's nothing like the Fantasy land arc from The Forever People. The issues tend to blend into each other, the "plots" wrapped around some attack by Darkseid's forces (which usually then turn out to be a distraction from his real scheme). Yet viewed as merely chapters in service of the greater arc, I enjoyed these issues more the second time through. The lack of development for the human characters becomes less glaring if you accept them as plot points, rather than players in a proposed on going soap opera.

And it does build to a definite climax, which is why I have a certain fondness for it, as opposed to it simply being a run of issues that carry along, and then stop. Although the series was cancelled in mid-run, forcing the concluding chapters to appear in two Adventure Comics, earlier text captions had already indicated they were building to a conclusion. And the final story, serialized over those two Adventure comics, totals 25 pages (the earlier New Gods were 17 page issues) just at a time when DC was switching some of its comics to 25 pagers -- again indicating this really was the story intended for the 20th issue of The New Gods, and that Conway had already intended to wrap up the conflict (though not, of course, the series).

A few months after the series' end, Conway and Newton reunited for a Secret Origins of Super-Heroes Special (DC Special Series #10) in which, in an issue also featuring the origin of Dr. Fate and Black Canary, they contributed a 14 page New Gods tale -- telling the hitherto unrevealed origin of Lightray (again, an example of Conway trying to "explain" inconsistencies in Kirby's original, namely why Lightray has powers different from other New Gods). Though in plotting it is unconnected to the greater Conway epic, I include it both because it is by Conway & Newton...and also because it's a good tale. The irony is, it's a tale that in many ways puts to rest any questions about whether Conway could follow in Kirby's footsteps. It's a retro tale (as Kirby himself would sometimes tell), and though focusing on Orion, Lightray and Metron as youths/kids...Conway actually does a better job of capturing their personalities, and evoking a sense of interpersonal dynamics, then he did in the main series. It's an interesting story, playing on some of the themes of war & peace Kirby did, but told with clever, sharp dialogue and interplay, and beautiful visuals. It's as if, after the regular series had been cancelled, Conway finally connected with the muse that had been eluding him.

While I'm at it, I'll mention a couple of other ancillary comics. Super Team Family #15, featured a teaming of the New Gods with the Flash in a story written by Conway and published in the midst of the regular series. Yet it's not really clear where it fits into the overall arc, and is drawn by Arvell Jones, not Newton, making it unessential to the "saga". Though it does feature a prominent use of the cosmic barrier in the Promethean Galaxy, which proves crucial in the climax of the main saga, so could be viewed as a foreshadowing (since, otherwise, I'm not sure Conway references the barrier until the climax of his saga). A couple years later Conway would toss the New Gods into the mix of the annual JLA/JSA team-up told in Justice League of America #183-184. Dick Dillin drew the first issue, but sadly passed away, leaving George Perez to finish it, with his hyper detailed style perhaps better evoking the oppressiveness of Apokolips (where most of the story takes place). But it too feels unessential to the regular series -- Conway not using it to tie up any lose ends from the regular series (no mention is made of Esak). It's an enjoyable adventure, just doesn't demand to be regarded as part of the overall narrative.

As mentioned at the beginning, there are more than a few New Gods stories that tend to be dismissed as apocryphal (or at least ignored) -- Conway's run inparticular. Characters Conway introduced, like Jezebelle, haven't been used much since. When Kirby returned to the property for his Hunger Dog's graphic novel, he ignored the events in Conway's run. Yet Conway's ideas resurfaced in later stories -- perhaps suggesting it was more influential than most will admit. So Conway has the boy, Esak, kidnapped to Apokolips -- Kirby has Esak on Apokolips in the Hunger Dogs (though hinting at a different reason). The climax of Conway's run involves Darkseid trying to breach the cosmic wall in the Promethean Galaxy -- in the subsequent X-Men/Teen Titans one-shot, the climax has Darkseid attempting to breach the cosmic wall. And so on.

Equally interesting is the fact that comics fans have long pointed out thematic similarities between Kirby's New Gods and George Lucas' Star Wars movies -- notably that both involve a hero who is the son of the villain. Well there's a scene toward the end of Conway's run, where Darkseid attempts to recruit Orion, that could've been the template for the same scene a couple of years later in the Empire Strikes Back!

This isn't a "great" run -- it has its flaws. But it's an engaging page turner. Building on what Kirby wrote (and so maybe not a great jumping on point for new readers), but itself existing in a finite number of issues (as opposed to just being a rambling, on going series), while delivering a "final" showdown between the heroes of New Genesis and evil Darkseid, beautifully rendered by Don Newton's pencils, it makes a pleasing addition to a New Gods library -- a "lost", if possibly apocryphal, saga.

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