Friday, March 15, 2013

Fourth World Fridays: New Gods #7--"The Pact"


So, I should probably talk about Star Wars at this point.

I’ve been tiptoeing around it for most of this series of articles, but it’s pretty widely acknowledged that the Fourth World Saga was a *huge* influence on George Lucas, and if you’ve been paying attention to my recaps, you’ve probably noticed this yourself. We’ve got a mythological cosmic epic that takes the form of a space opera but conceals more a primal, archetypal sensibility; good and evil in impossibly pure forms, with good represented by verdancy and the rejection of violence, and evil by the totalitarian domination of a chilling but charismatic master manipulator; an elaborate mythology full of strange beings, with a pre-existing backstory; and lots of other details, big and small. More obviously, you’ve got a villain named, phonetically, “Dark Side”, whose ruthless personality and will-to-power are more than a little reminiscent of a certain Sith Lord with whom we’re all familiar; throw in the physical characteristics (mutilated body encased in cloak and armour) of another of Kirby’s classic villains, Dr. Doom, and the connection is even more obvious. You’ve also got heroes worshiping and deriving their powers from something called “The Source” (and one from “The Astro-Force”), a gigantic technological hell-planet with great circular pits, and even Laser Swords make a brief appearance at one point. And there’s another major point of similarity which has been pretty heavily hinted at throughout the series, but which this issue, one of the best of the whole meta-series, will make abundantly plain. (This is gonna be a long one.)

In the Beginning--The New Gods were formless in image and aimless in deed!!! On each of their two new worlds, their races had sprung from a survivor of the old!! The living atoms of Balduur gave nobility and strength to one!!—and the shadow planet was saturated with the cunning and evil which was once a sorceress!!"

With this opening caption, Kirby comes as close as he ever does to admitting that, yes, the Fourth World is supposed to have emerged literally from the wreckage of his imaginary destruction of the Marvel Universe, or at least the Asgard segment of it. I’m not sure why he even bothered to change the name of “Balder”, since he’s a mythological entity, and thus, not owned by Marvel. Although the way copyright laws are going…

So yeah, to recap, once he split with Stan the Man and the House of Ideas, Kirby basically performed a pretty stunning mental purge, metaphorically destroying the universe he’d worked on for so long and summoning a new work out of the ashes. It’s not hard to see how stuff like Countdown to Infinite Crisis That’s Final For Really Reals This Time and Spider-Man Sells His Continuity To The Devil and all the other status-quo-smashin’, father killin’, nothing-you-know-will-ever-be-the-same-again reinventions of the DC and Marvel Universes over the years were taking their cue from what Kirby did here—but none of them ever did it with the kind of breathtaking commitment Kirby brought to it (even though the world he ‘destroyed’ remained alive and static at the company he left behind).

There are almost too many ramifications to this to sort through, though as I mentioned elsewhere, it lends a surprising amount of logical consistency to the series if you imagine that the New Gods come from a parallel universe—this aforementioned far-future Marvel Universe that’s been destroyed and reborn. It would explain why they talk about Earth like it’s a relic of their own history, why they’re seemingly millions of years old despite the fact that their predecessors are clearly the gods of Earth mythology, and why no one in the DCU ever stumbled across them until Darkseid decided to stop by. 

Of course, there’s still some stuff that doesn’t really make sense, and it starts right on the first page, when we meet Izaya The Inheritor and his wife Avia, reposing in bucolic splendour on New Genesis.

Now, here’s the thing: Izaya is the man who will one day be known as “All-Father”, and I think Kirby meant for this to be a surprise, but I literally never even thought to question that they were the same guy until the end of the story; his beard isn’t grey, but otherwise the resemblance is obvious. Of course, there are some issues raised by this, like, um, New Gods can age? Also, he’s described as a warrior…yet we’re told that this is at a time before New Genesis and Apokolips went to war. So what was he fighting against? Did the New Gods just pull themselves out of the cosmic goop left by the Old Gods and say, “Hey, those guys fought a lot. We oughtta get some warriors, too! They get all the chicks!”

Tragically, Izaya is about to learn the true meaning of being a warrior, as he and his bride are attacked by Steppenwolf.

I’ve been waiting months to do that joke. And it was totally worth it.

No, this is the Steppenwolf we’re talking about:

Steppenwolf is simply German for “wolf of the steppes” (or Coyote), so it’s probably just a coincidence that it’s a band (and a Hermann Hesse novel) as well as a Kirby character. This particular Steppenwolf lives up to his name by being a pack hunter, who hunts the deadliest game of all: MAN. Or actually, NEW GOD. Yes, in what seems like a fairly suicidal move to me, Stepp has decided to hunt and kill a leader of their neighbouring planet for sport. Diplomacy: not an Apokoliptish strong point.

But then, this may be a classic case of a dumb, spoiled rich kid getting in way over his head, for you see, Stepp is the brother of Heggra, the witchly ruler of Apokolips…and mother of Darkseid. Who, we learn in very short order, was the one who suggested this hunting excursion in the first place. And while Izaya gives them a good run for their money at first, he’s rendered spiritless by the sudden death of Avia, who wandered back onto the battlefield to prevent Izzy from killing Stepp and got whacked herself. Izzy then gets taken out by Darkseid’s “Killing-Gloves” and left for dead. Stepp is just barely bright enough to suspect that something’s rotten in Denmark:

STEPPENWOLF: I don’t trust you, nephew! --Or your bizarre companions!
DARKSEID: Would you care to examine the body, noble Steppenwolf??
STEPPENWOLF: There’s no need! I know I’ll find no sign of life!!! Let me add further, Darkseid!! I don’t like you! You’re clever and cunning—and a plotter!!

Yeah, good thing you’re none of those things, Stepp. “I don’t trust you! Let me demonstrate this by falling into your trap with a minimum of goading!”

For of course, Darkseid set this whole thing up to ensnare New Genesis and Apokolips in a war. Izaya wasn’t killed, and when he wakes up, he’s ready to do some serious vengeance-taking against those who killed his wife. Darkseid’s motivations in setting up the war are never really spelled out as such, though obviously focusing Izaya’s wrath on his mother and uncle is going to help him seize power later. Plus, Apokolips seems to have been created as a world of warriors and weapon-makers, so it was inevitable that they would find someone to fight against. It just doesn’t speak very well of Stepp or Heggra that it took Darkseid to figure this out for them. What were they doing for the first few thousand years of their existence? Holding lavish banquets?


The Darkseid family basically sits around rather pathetically in a bunker, squabbling for no particularly good reason except for the fact that they’re eeeee-vil, while the Monitors of New Genesis bomb the surface flat. Heggra castigates Steppenwolf: "You’re brash!! Arrogant! Loud!! You command an army which only produces battles and body counts!” As opposed to what, sensible shoes? Again, for all their sinister, warlike appearance and cackling and basically looking the part of a bunch of ruthless intergalactic warlords, these guys sure need the essence of conflict spelled out for them, don’t they? Fortunately, Darkseid is planning to betray them all and seize power, and it can’t happen soon enough—even though he’s clearly a million times more competent, it’s still kind of goofy to see Darkseid playing the part of someone’s runty nephew. (By the way, Hegg and Stepp and the rest of Darkseid’s immediate family are a bunch of lemon-yellow, red-eyed weirdos, looking like severely stylized versions of Ming the Merciless, but Darkseid is his usual, rocky self. I know, I know, they’re gods, and aren’t constrained to follow the usual laws of genetics. But still, he kinda sticks out.)

Darkseid is showing off a mysterious “X-Element” that he (or Desaad, who he’s apparently already got working for him) have stumbled upon in the labs. Suddenly, the party is interrupted by Metron, uncharacteristically flustered, bursting in and pleading like a little bitch with Darkseid to be given the X-Element.

If you remember, way back when, I mentioned that Metron’s status as a good guy was a little shaky, and that Orion was basically right to distrust him. This scene is a big part of why. Metron is overtly described as being part of New Genesis, yet he completely sells them out here, agreeing to use the X-Element to open the “Matter Threshold” that will allow Apokolips to transport heavy weaponry directly to New Genesis. His reasoning is that he desperately needs the X-Element to build his Mobius Chair.

“You’re a nice boy!!” croons Heggra. “Does it bother you---to create the means for mass slaughter??” “I have no link with the Old Gods—or New!!” rationalizes Metron. “I am something--different! Something that was unforeseen!!--On New Genesis—or here!!” “You’ll betray us all in time, Metron!” Glowers Darkseid. “But this thing—you shall build—for us!!

OK, so, we’re going with a Cat’s Cradle-style “the detatched immorality of science” thing here, apparently; Metron just wants to build and discover, and he doesn’t give a thought to what anyone might do with his inventions. Makes him kind of a dick, though, and you have to wonder how New Genesis ever got around to trusting him ever again. As Metron leaves, Heggra laughs with joy, praising her son, and Darkseid grins for I think the only time in the entire series:


Next thing you know, the Dragon Tanks and canine cavalry of Apokolips are blazing across the serene fields of New Genesis, led by Steppenwolf, who, with his tiny, tiny brain, has gone back to thinking well of Darkseid simply because he let his uncle lead the raid. Of course, the inevitable happens: Izaya the Inheritor appears from between the ranks and gets his revenge on Steppenwolf, driving off the Apokoliptish forces while he’s at it.

Metron appears to be castigated by Izaya—though not nearly enough, it seems to me—and makes a lot of “Ooh, that Darkseid! I hate him so much!” noises which are apparently sufficient to placate Izzy.

Over the next couple of pages, the war and the carnage grow ever greater, as the two forces turn to genetic engineering and bacteriological warfare, call down asteroids to slam into each others’ planets, focus the energy of the sun into gigantic flaming lasers (Kirby literally draws them as huge, flaming gouts cutting across space) and just basically making a mess of the entire universe. Somehow, despite being right next door to each other, the two planets don’t manage to wipe each other out, but New Genesis is transformed into a barren wasteland littered with ruins, over which Izaya looks sorrowfully.

“We are worse than the Old Gods!” He cries, in a bout of typically Kirbian anguish. “They destroyed themselves!! We destroy everything!! This is Darkseid’s way! I am infected by Darkseid!! To save New Genesis—I must find Izaya!!

He proceeds to wander out into the wilderness and do a whole “biblical prophet” thing, ruminating on his past choices, declaring that he rejects the way of war, ripping the armor and war-staff from his body and declaring that he’s rejecting the way of war forever, as the wind whips itself into a frenzy around him. “Darkseid’s game is not mine!!” He howls. “Where is Izaya!!!?? Where is IZAYA!!!??

In the middle of a re-enactment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it turns out, as suddenly a gigantic monolith comes into view across the plain. OK, so this one’s white and has a goofy little pointing-finger icon that writes “THE SOURCE” across it in fiery letters. Hey, I just realized: the Source is a Mac.

Some time elapses. Izaya returns to his throne in new robes, with a new staff; Darkseid, meanwhile, succeeds to the throne of Apokolips following the demise of his mother, and suddenly the war cools off. Darkseid and Izaya make a secret pact which involves their respective, and so-far unseen sons.

Yep, Darkseid’s got a kid: in fact, it seems he’s been married all this time, to this woman:

And as it turns out, the kid takes more after his mom, with the flaming red hair and the violence, than his rocky, pontificating dad. It’s not so surprising, either, since Darkseid never really wanted to raise a family anyway, and his son was raised on the other side of the planet, never knowing his dad. So the terms of the Pact seem fairly agreeable to him: he and Izaya will swap kids, the way ancient rulers were known to do, in order to cement a new truce between the two worlds. Of course, as it pretty much goes without saying, Darkseid just wants to buy some time and re-evaluate his options, so when Izaya’s young son is carried in by Granny Goodness, he immediately hatches a plan to someday break the truce: the kid will be raised in Granny’s Soldier-Orphanage, but he’ll harbour the dream of escape—and if he ever manages to do so, it’ll break the Pact and provide a convenient excuse to resume hostilities. In honour of this day, Granny names the kid “Scott Free”. (You’ve got to feel bad for Scott—it seems like his whole life, including his rebellion against evil, has been planned out by his archnemesis already. So much for being the living embodiment of freedom…)

At the signal, Darkseid’s son is thrust through his own Threshold and finds himself in a warren of tunnels, fighting and kicking the whole way. He’d kept a weapon secreted in his sleeve, and he now turns it on the first figure he comes across: Izaya, now in his white-bearded form of All-Father, offering him friendship and trust for the first time in his life. Orion—for it is he—screams that his father hates him, but Izaya responds with “‘Hate’ is no longer a word in this place!!!” Uh…but you just said…oh, never mind.

The point is that Orion is obviously in desperate need of a daddy, and with All-Father offering to fulfill this role, he decides to symbolically drop the weapon and embrace his new destiny as protector of New Genesis. Fade out.

Once again, I’m impressed by how much more confident Kirby’s storytelling is here than on the other series. The plot comes together much more tightly than I ever would have expected, and while I wish Kirby’s dialogue was smoother and more subtle, the underlying ideas are so powerful that it almost doesn’t matter. These characters’ actions convey who they are beautifully, even if what comes out of their mouth is kind of clunky, and while the forces of evil still seem to be more intellectually engaged (as it often does in these kinds of stories), the good guys actually manage to steal the show this time out. As usual, it’s hard not to think that Kirby was working out some personal issues in the sequence where Izaya rejects violence; perhaps he was coming to see the inherent conflicts in a cosmic war epic that revolved around hippie ideas of peace and brotherhood, and was making an effort to resolve them a little more clearly. As it is, this issue is a crucial peace of mythology that elevates the whole story quite effectively.

Oh, and that whole “hero turns out to be the son of the villain” thing? That’s a great idea. Someone ought to steal that for their own space epic.