Friday, April 6, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The New Gods #5--"Spawn!"

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this issue of “New Gods” is monumental. And that’s being quite literal—we both begin and end the issue with gigantic splash shots of titanic creatures, and in between there’s as much Kirby Bigness as you could ask for. But perhaps the most monumental aspect of this comic is the change in the art. This issue introduces a new inker, Mike Royer, who replaced Vince Colletta on most of the Fourth World books at this time.

Colletta’s a bit of a flashpoint for comics afficianados. He inked a sizable chunk of Kirby’s stuff during his glory years at Marvel in the 60s—possibly more than anyone else. I can’t verify that, but it’s clear he did several of the crucial issues of Fantastic Four (including the legendary Galactus trilogy and the wedding of Reed and Sue) and most of his run on Thor, and as such, is inextricably associated with that classic Marvel work. Which makes it a shame that he wasn’t actually very good.

Now I readily admit to not being the greatest artist in the world, and the question has been debated ad nauseum amongst the leading lights of the industry. Some feel that Colletta’s work, which was undeniably competent, has gotten far too much of a bad rap over the years. But speaking personally, I find Royer’s work to be far more pleasing to the eye—there’s more line variance, energy, and detail. The latter is hardly surprising, since Colletta was apparently notorious for erasing details of the pencils that he was in too much of a hurry to ink (like Kirby, Colletta was ludicrously productive). Exactly to what degree Kirby wanted Colletta on board the Fourth World is up for debate; clearly he valued loyalty and was happy to keep the team together, but at the same time, Royer was apparently Kirby’s first choice for purely geographic reasons (he was in California, like Jack, and Colletta was in New York). The details of why Colletta was replaced (he stayed on Jimmy Olsen, which it’s now safe to say was the Fourth World book Kirby cared the least about) are a muddle—some say it was a falling out, others say his assistants encouraged the notoriously nonconfrontational Kirby to take charge of his own work—but when the dust had settled, Royer was in. And it most certainly made a difference.

At any rate, this issue of The New Gods begins, like so many others, with Metron, roaming the cut-and-paste montage galaxy in his Mobius Chair, because, as the narrative captions inform us, “this point in the saga of the great Celestialscan’t be told--outside the context of the larger tapestry—the universe!” Well, that certainly is a large tapestry, alright. I’m glad not every story requires an epic, cosmic prologue like this. “Call me Ishmael. I am the product of billions of years of evolution on a tiny speck of a planet in a galaxy called the milky way…” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, notwithstanding the Big Bang, a cosmic maelstrom that gave birth to the universe…” Man, I’m already exhausted.

Today’s installment of Metron Presents: Our Crazy Universe takes place in “The Promethean Galaxy”, where a gigantic green dude, “larger than a star cluster”, floats bound to a gigantic slab. Apparently he and his pals tried to penetrate the Final Barrier at the edge of the Universe, beyond which is The Source; their strategy was to enlarge their atomic structure to such a size that they would…um…outgrow the Universe? Yikes. Kirby’s Kosmology has a way of making my head hurt. Anyway, they ended up slowing down their own subjective time and now float nearly motionless, taking “a billion Earth years to feel one heartbeat!!” It’s not really clear, but Kirby seems to imply that Metron had been planning on risking the final barrier himself, but seeing the fate of the Prometheans changes his mind and heads back to New Genesis, to the place where the Source makes contact with the New Gods through High-Father’s Staff.

Hey…is that an allegory for religion vs. science? You know, I think it might be!

Anyway, time to go back to Earth and catch up on the fallout from the previous issue. As you may recall, Orion had attained a bunch of Earthly disciples who he quickly transformed into a street gang. None of that namby-pamby healing the sick or preaching the eternal love of the divine for Orion, no sir! They helped Orion infiltrate Intergang, only to see him take off into the ocean for a confrontation with Darkseid’s aquatic troops, the Deep Six. Now, apparently, the police have rounded up the remaining Intergang thugs and dragged P.I. Dave Lincoln off for questioning. The sergeant is a burly bulldog of a man named Terrible Turpin, who will be stealing the show in a few issue’s time; for now, he lets Lincoln know something fishy’s going on and turns him loose. Meanwhile, after a brief burst of competence last issue, the rest of the O’Ryan Mob has been sitting around uselessly in Lincoln’s apartment, cleaning out his refrigerator, tracking dirt all over the place, and watching movies on pay-per-view. Lincoln shows up, and they all clear out…except Claudia Shane, who pointedly sticks around. She and Lincoln are doubtless swapping spit the instant we cut away.

And cut away we do, to Orion…who’s rather ignominiously managed to get his foot stuck in a clam.


OK, OK, it’s a mutant clam. What happened is, see, the leader of the Deep Six, an amphibian-like fellow name of Slig, used his touch to mutate it into a monster killer clam, and it’s now entrapped Orion in his underground, cavernous lair. Yes, Slig can mutate stuff just by touching it with his right hand, as he demonstrates by turning a nearby crustacean into a weird kind of dragon-thing:

Then he kills it with his other hand, which can explode things.

Orion watches all this in shock, even though you’d think he’d know all this already, if he knew who Slig was. Slig, in classic comic book villain fashion, is enough of an egotist that seeing Orion humbled is enough to get him to leave the room without killing him. Jackass.

Naturally, Orion has a way out—he can channel the Astro-Force into an emergency blast through his wristband. The clam lets him go and, in a sequence that really shows off the energy Royer brings to Kirby’s work, rears up, revealing an elongated trunk that “draws energy deep in the bowels of the Earth”, to do battle with Orion. Orion blasts the thing to Clam Heaven, then takes out a sentient shark-man standing guard and stumbles into a huge cavern, where a vast harness lies empty. This is some nice foreshadowing—Orion remembers glimpsing something huge, something monstrous, in that harness before the lights went out last issue, and Slig verifies that they have indeed unleashed something horrifying on the seas of Earth. That would be the titular Spawn.

Man, I can’t stop making that joke. Seriously though, there are times when I feel like everything in comics for the last 30 years has come from people just flipping through Kirby’s work, picking out random elements, and expanding on them.

Back on the surface, Terrible Turpin has indeed twigged to what’s going on by interrogating an officer of his, bandaged from head to foot after an apparent encounter with the forces of Apokalips. I have no idea who this guy is, and I don’t think we’ve seen him before. Apparently the idea is just that the war of the New Gods is raging all over the place now, and regular folks are getting caught up in it as well. But it comes off as the ravings of a guy who just went through severe physical and mental trauma, being taken with utmost seriousness by his dour police chief. “A gang war!!--between super-spooks!!” Turpin muses, thoughtfully. When another officer puts down the guy’s testimony as “sounding like a UFO sighting”, Turpin employs his impeccable logic:


Anyway, we cut back to Claudia and Dave, lying in bed, smoking cigarettes—

Ha ha! Just kidding. This is the era of the comics code. They’re fully dressed and staring at the window. But to anyone who doubts these two are going at it hot and heavy, I’d like you to please explain what they’ve they been doing all this time? Playing Pachinko? It’s not like they actually have anything to contribute to Orion’s efforts other than to sit around worrying.

At least it’s well-founded worrying, as we soon see. The thunder outside roils and crackles and transforms into the shape of a Boom Tube, which spews forth an old buddy of ours: Kalibak the Cruel, now dressed to the nines in a spiffy green centurion suit. His first act, of course, is to start smashing stuff. Again, Royer really takes Kirby’s work to a new level in this sequence, which is also enhanced by Kirby’s strong storytelling. I love how we glimpsed most of these characters knocking around in the first issue, and now they’re showing up on Earth one by one. “The New Gods” really is the most coherent, narratively tight comic Kirby ever did.

Meanwhile, back in the actual plot, Slig has discovered the trail of incapacitated (dead?) guards leading from the cavern where Orion had been. I didn’t mention it before, but there was a couple of panels on a previous page where Orion was running through the tunnels, homing in on his equipment, and you see him carrying on an inner monologue, checking his wrist monitor, and looking pensive while casually putting the beat-down on an amphibian-monster with one hand. Orion is hardcore. Don’t believe me? Watch what happens next.

Slig bursts in just as Orion is strapping on his Astro-Force equipment. “Allowing you to live was a mistake, Orion!!!” Growls Slig. Um, yes, I would say so. Orion takes the opportunity to blast Slig from point blank range, and then, when that doesn’t finish him off, we get one of the greatest sequences in the history of comics. And no, that’s not my usual sarcasm.

Slig weakly protests his defiance, and Orion starts laughing like a madman, drops his equipment, and runs forward to start pounding Slig to death with his bare hands. “Talk, Slig, talk!! You seemed so fondof it when I seemed to be at your mercy!!!...You dogs of Apokalips are eloquent when destiny favors you!!!” With that, he rips off Slig’s headdress, revealing his Mother Box, and crushes it until it self-destructs to stop the pain.

Slig still stirs, weakly insisting “I’ll kill you for the sham you are!!--” (What?) In the heat of the fight, Orion’s face has gone from his pretty-boy visage to the ugly mug we glimpsed in the second issue, which the dying Slig sneers at—“HAHAHA!! ORION IS HIS VERY OWN MONSTER!! HAHAHA!!”—and prophecies that, even if he can’t kill Orion, his penchant for destruction will catch up with him eventually. Orion pretty much shrugs and says “Yeah, OK,” and then pitches Slig off a cliff to his death.

So after several issues of telling us how Orion was an out-of-control violent maniac who rejoiced in battle, we actually get to see it. Kirby’s development as a storyteller in a mere few issues is pretty astounding. Also, that was the awesomest thing ever.

And with a mere two pages to go, Kirby and Royer still keep the awesomeness coming, ending with that final shot of a Leviathan I mentioned earlier. Orion rockets out into the ocean to confront the monster Slig turned loose on the world, and here we finally see it in the final splash page: A GIANT PINK WHALE!!! WITH TUSKS!!!!

(Seriously, it looks cool when Kirby draws it.)

1 comment:

  1. I remembered this from when I was a small kid, and it disturbed me greatly. Heroes aren't supposed to be cruel and sadistic... are they? Kirby's work made me suspicious of heroes in comics and real life; what lies underneath their good looks and supposed good deeds?
    I really wanted to see Slig return and do the same thing to Orion; but first reveal his true face to the world before killing him. Or better yet, failing, but the world still seeing Orion for what he is: a cruel, twisted monster.
    Orion would then have nowhere to go without people shunning him and remembering his true, evil face. Too bad they never followed up on that...