Friday, April 15, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: New Gods #1--"Orion Fights For Earth!"

One of the interesting things about serialized fiction is that it can have several separate beginnings (and, for that matter, endings). A good comic book storyteller will take advantage of the break between issues to shift the scene, to jump forward past events that are irrelevant or uninteresting, and to concoct something distinctive that unites each separate story, rather than simply having each issue be a new chapter in an ongoing narrative. Though, of course, there's nothing actually wrong with telling one big story in several issues either, it adds a great deal to a comic if each issue is somehow made discrete in terms of tone or structure. Think of Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, for instance; most of the stories were part of the ongoing narrative, but each was a separate self-contained story as well, often with its own narrative "hook", theme, characters, and so on.

Kirby got this. At Marvel he had often woven events between his three major books, Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America, but with the Fourth World he took it to the next level by telling four separate stories (or three and a half, since Jimmy Olsen was sort of a child of necessity that only vaguely hooks up with the main narrative), each with their own style and thematic concerns, that nevertheless each portray an aspect of the epic saga. It must be acknowledged that this kind of thing was later done more elegantly elsewhere, but for even conceiving of the idea (and for being capable of drawing four monthly books in order to promulgate it!) one must stand in awe of Kirby.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the opening pages of The New Gods, the third book in the Fourth World saga, seems to contain the most appropriate Prologue for the series as a whole:

There came a time when the Old Gods died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust! The final moment came with the fatal release of indescribable power--which tore the home of the Old Gods asunder--split it in great halves--and filled the universe with the blinding death-flash of its destruction!

Yeah, bee-yatch! That's a motherflickin' opening scrawl for you! Suck on that, George Lucas!

OK, I confess: my feeling that this is where the Fourth World truly starts may arise from the fact that this is the first Fourth World comic I ever read, in a reprint edition which I still own. But you gotta admit, that's the way you announce the beginning of a true epic! (Kirby actually labels it the Epilogue, what with it being the end of the previous story and all.)

Out of the depths of cold space left behind by the fiery conflagration, a lone figure emerges, first in long shot, and then--

Here is where Kirby finally seems ready to do something new, to throw aside the preconceptions of what superhero comics had been and tell the story he truly wanted to tell, with power, grace, and confidence. These first few pages manage to portray destruction and creation on a cosmic scale, and to set the stage for everything to come, without a trace of the awkwardness or rushed feeling that dogs some of the earlier books. Here, for the first time in the saga (and maybe in his career) Kirby is happy to let atmosphere and mood take center stage, to draw us in slowly instead of hurling us headlong into the action the way he usually did.

As I mentioned before, Kirby was a huge believer in change and growth, and his work at Marvel had been starting to stifle him somewhat; his "big idea" in the late 60s had been to have Thor experience Ragnarok, the mythical Norse end of the world. Kirby had intended this to literally alter the Marvel Universe forever, killing some characters, introducing new ones, and just generally setting the stage for a whole new world that he could play around in. In other words, Kirby was proposing one of those Earth-shattering, "Nothing will ever be the same"-type events that the big two comic companies now regularly try to pawn off on us. But back then, the idea of messing around with what was by then an extremely profitable status quo was not particularly appealing to the publishers, and Kirby's Ragnarok ended with things much the same as they had been, other than a growing sense of disenchantment.

So this opening sequence is, metaphorically, the apocalyptic destruction of the Marvel universe, even if only in Kirby's head; he never went back to the FF or Thor, even when he returned to Marvel years later. (He did do some work on Captain America.)

The stately, epic tone continues as our hero, Orion, descends into the capital city of New Genesis--the "Supertown" we glimpsed in the last installment. This whole issue is framed, rather brilliantly, as a travelogue, with Orion acting as our guide through the weird worlds that form the backdrop of the Fourth World saga. Do I detect a hint of Dante's Divine Comedy, a passage through heaven and hell and back to Earth, with a new understanding of exactly what's at stake here?

...Sorry, I'm getting a bit pompous here. Reading the New Gods will do that to you.

Anyway, here in Supertown we meet some of our main characters, who unsurprisingly also happen to be the New Gods of the title. There's the obnoxiously cheerful Lightray, so named for his speed and his ability to manipulate light; Metron, the Spock-like detached intellectual who rides through space and time on a floating barcalounger called the Mobius chair; and High-father, leader of the New Gods and stand-in for Thor's Odin, an old-school prophet of love, peace, and freedom. Orion, a grim sort who lives only for battle, seems uncomfortable amongst this love-in of a civilization, grumbling at Lightray's exhortations to "Live, Orion! LIVE!!!" and bickering with Metron, that "icy mask" whose cold intellectualism he doesn't trust.

(It's actually interesting that there's some merit to his unease. Metron is, in most post-Kirby New Gods stories that I've seen, portrayed as a fairly unambiguous good guy, but here he's a slightly shiftier figure who's later shown to have worked with Darkseid and seems rather umsympathetic to suffering. As Orion puts it, "For a scrap of knowledge you would sell the universe into slavery!"...and Metron doesn't actually disagree!)

Anyway, the Allfather's gathered them here for a purpose that must be seen to. In case his beard, "Wonder-Staff", spiritual leadership, and general attitude didn't tip you off to his inspiration, Kirby now hammers the point home by introducing us to the source of New Genesis's power, which happens to be known as...The Source. It's literally a wall in which a fiery hand appears to write messages from the great beyond, and on this particular occasion it's tasking Orion with a quest: "ORION TO APOKALIPS--THEN TO EARTH--THEN TO WAR!!!!"

Apokalips is the other world of the New Gods, and as you could probably suss out for yourself, it's every bit as hellish as New Genesis is paradisiacal. Darkseid happens to be the ruler of Apokalips, and Orion's been wanting to lay the beatdown on him for ages (maybe literally), so he leaps at the chance to head there and go mano a mano with Stoneface.

Incidentally, we learn later that there's actually a treaty between the two planets, and this technically constitutes a violation of that treaty; Apokalips has been violating the treaty by raiding New Genesis and, of course, mucking about with the affairs of Earth, but they've been keeping that under wraps. By invading Apokalips, Orion is dropping the pretense and declaring war. Kirby doesn't fill us in on this, which is too bad, as it would have made the events of this issue seem even more portentous.

Meanwhile, Metron and High-father are musing on Orion's un-New-Genesis-like passion for battle, with High-father confirming Metron's suspicions that he was actually born of the world which he now plans to invade--Apokalips. "If the other side of good is evil, then surely Apokalips is the other side!" muses Orion redundantly as he descends to the surface of the hellish world (nicely rendered as a place with fast, belching furnaces taking up much of its surface). The next six pages feature Orion's relentless battle towards Darkseid's palace, taking on flying "Para-demons", a swarm of generic underlings, Darkseid's "Dog cavalry", and finally the "Mass-director unit" that's been ruling Apokalips in Darkseid's absence. But the palace is occupied, by none other than Darkseid's son Kalibak the Cruel, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a caveman.

Before the battle can be joined, Kalibak suddenly finds himself restrained by green bands of energy projected by Metron, who has teleported himself into the fray in an attempt to make Orion feel stupid. At least, I assume that was the point. "Hey, Orion. So, you fought your way through the hordes of Apokalips to get here? Yeah, I teleported. Took me like five seconds. A lot of people find that easier." Metron then takes the opportunity to fill Orion in on Darkseid's plan, most of which we've already gleaned from the last few issues (short version: he's secretly set up an operation on Earth called Intergang, and he's working to find "The Anti-Life Equation" that will give him power over all life in the universe, which is apparently concealed in the mind of someone on Earth.) I'd say he ought to have explained this before Orion came all this way, but Orion probably would have charged ahead anyway.

Of course, that's because there's a deeper meaning to all this, if not a particularly complicated one; these are Gods, after all, even if Kirby just made them all up, so they tend to act along metaphorical lines. Where Orion is action, Metron is pure knowledge; he does nothing except tell Orion stuff and temporarily restrain Kalibak, and that only long enough to give his little speech. He ends by directing Orion to the next room, where Darkseid proves to have taken captive a group of Earthlings in order to probe their minds, then teleports in the "power rods" that Orion uses to fly around (OK, that's another thing he does) before skedaddling. Orion just has time to set the humans free before Kalibak comes storming in; unwilling to risk an encounter with civilians present, Orion summons a Boom Tube and the group makes a hasty getaway.

The comic ends on Earth, with Orion grimly informing his new charges that they are the first to be caught up in an epic struggle that is about to play itself out here on Earth, and making a speech while lightning crashes. Darkseid, in all his Easter Island glory, appears on the last page, labeled "Prologue" (see, because it's the beginning of...never mind) to declare, "I hear you, Orion! The battle begins!"

You know, I think this is my favourite single issue of the Fourth World saga, at least of what I've read. It's Kirby doing what he does best, and could draw better than anyone else--retro-futuristic mythological beings, vast cityscapes, cosmic explosions. Accompanied, of course, by Wagnerian angst and lots and LOTS of speechifying, but done in such an over-the-top manner that you can't help but enjoy it.

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