…the gods are ever near—a part of men’s lives!! Giant reflections of the good and evil that men generate within themselves! —Orion, NEW GODS #10, 1972.
In my attempt to create a serious novel for our medium, I have chosen that most basic of experiences, one we have all shared at one time or another—survival! I have taken this innate response to danger, and have portrayed it in mythological terms.—Jack Kirby, “Kirby on Survival,” NEW GODS (vol. 2?), #6 (1984).
A handful of comics-artists working during the 1960s took special notice of the success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Middle-Earth” works-- not least among them Jack Kirby, one of the founding talents of the medium. Though the most famous work in Tolkien's fantasy-cycle was published in the 1950s, THE LORD OF THE RINGS did not achieve best-seller status in America until the mid-1960s, when the trilogy was re-packaged into paperback-book format by Ballantine Books.
American comic books had been mining the themes of mythic good vs. mythic evil for many years prior to Tolkien's rise to international fame. So even though comics-professionals—including Kirby—might not have specifically pursued Tolkien’s themes, some comics-pros sought to find out if comic books could also follow in Tolkien's successful footsteps by creating a “secondary world” with a mythology-derived basis.
I cannot, in one blogpost, cover the complexity of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” concept—a tetralogy of sorts, which extended over four regularly published comics-titles—nor the business-based complications attending the epic’s cancellation in 1972 and its resumption in 1984. I also won't touch on three of the books that contributed to the epic tale: FOREVER PEOPLE, MISTER MIRACLE, and JIMMY OLSEN. The strongest mythic discourse of Kirby’s tetralogy appeared in the title NEW GODS, so that is my subject here. This comic-book epic is comprised of eleven stories published in the early 1970s, and two stories published in 1984: a new 48-page story that appeared as part of a reprint collection and a softbound graphic novel, THE HUNGER DOGS.
No one living knows how Kirby might have concluded NEW GODS in 1972 had he been given the chance to do so, or whether that conclusion would have strongly resembled the one he wrote and drew for the 1984 resumption. But the delay may have been fortunate. In the days of newsstand comics, it was rare to see any series conclude on a definite and coherent end-point. American comic books were designed to be indefinitely open-ended, and when a comic proved unsuccessful, the feature simply ended, usually with no effort at a send-off, much less a resolution. Many critics have sneered at the open-ended approach on aesthetic grounds, but it engendered a creative response that had its own peculiar power. Comics-professionals had to be peripatetic creators, constantly shifting from one bizarre image or motif to another, always with the aim of capturing the short attention span of juvenile readers. Jack Kirby was an early master of the peripatetic mode, possibly the most accomplished of his generation, in that he excelled in almost every genre popular in newsstand comics: war, crime, superheroes, science fiction, and even romantic tales.
But though the peripatetic mode allowed for great fluidity of myth-concepts, it didn’t allow for much coherence, except for what one could expect from a self-contained short story. I’ve cited examples of Kirby co-creations that managed to consummate their mythic discourses, here and here for example, while others, like this one and this one, were not so successful. In Kirby’s mind, he may have been creating a “serious novel,” but he had to frame it in terms that the market would recognize.
Because of these market considerations, most of the stories in the NEW GODS mythos, the ones published in 1971-72, have been accurately critiqued for its rambling plots and problematic characterizations. Both of these circumstances were the result of long-standing creative habits Kirby had developed in his thirty years as a professional.
But where NEW GODS excels is in Kirby’s take on a theme that Tolkien himself had evoked. In a world where mythic good and mythic evil have palpable existence, and where their battle is the proper working-out of their joint destiny, how does good keep from becoming corrupted by the power of evil?
The book’s hero Orion embodies this conflict. Long before his birth, a major war erupts between the gods of good, who live on the vernal planet New Genesis...
...and the gods of evil, who dwell within the dark Satanic mills of Apokolips.
Darkseid, a Machiavellian plotter who eventually becomes supreme ruler of Apokolips, engineers his world’s war with New Genesis—and then belatedly realizes that he stands to lose as much as his opposite number, Highfather of New Genesis. Highfather comes up with a way to end the conflict: the two leaders exchange their children as what Kirby calls “war hostages.”
Thus Scott Free, the genial son of Highfather, is brought up in the infernal domain of Darkseid, while Orion, who inherits a savage disposition from his father and mother, is raised among beings who strive to rise about hate and violence. Scott Free eventually flees Apokolips and takes refuige on Earth, where he becomes the costumed hero Mister Miracle. However, the plotlines of his feature have only an indirect influence upon the NEW GODS continuity. NEW GODS focuses upon Orion, who suspects from childhood that he is the spawn of evil, though only during the renewed god-war does he learn that he is the spawn of Apokolips’ ruler.
On top of all that, the new war descends to the mortal world of Earth, for Darkseid has discovered a new means to exert his dominion: “the anti-life equation,” a quasi-mystical mental power that dwells within the brains of certain Earthpeople. Darkseid pursues a variety of strategies to detect the hidden power, and Orion seeks to stop him.
Yet, though the anti-life equation is a strong parallel to that of Tolkien’s One Ring, Kirby’s conclusion is quite different. The equation is something of a “McGuffin” sought by both good and evil powers, and it does not influence the struggle between Orion and his father. Indeed the equation is barely mentioned in Kirby’s long-delayed conclusion of his epic. Significantly, the evil of Apokolips is unable to conquer the good within Scott Free, in contrast to the way the Ring overmasters Frodo at the conclusion of LORD OF THE RINGS. Yet though Orion is tormented by his alienation from the pacific gentleness of New Genesis, he becomes the right hand of his new father and repeatedly renounces the old. Ironically, though Darkseid spawns Orion upon a wife forced on him by political considerations, and another son, the brutal Kalibak, upon a woman he Darkseid actually cherishes, Darkseid regards Kalibak as no more than a useful tool, and in issue #11 he flies into a fatherly rage when one of his aides, without his permission, almost kills Orion.
The 1984 story from NEW GODS #6 concludes in an anti-climactic manner compared to most good/evil battles in comic books. The final battle between Orion and Darkseid is foregrounded from the very first, but instead of Orion obtaining a martial victory, Darkseid springs a trap and apparently slays Orion. Yet the hero’s body disappears from sight, and the story concludes with a caption observing: “Who among us can convince the evil? Unmoved by guilt, they forever live with doubt!” Kirby’s phraseology is awkward, but it communicates a salient message: that the evil are not blessed by their lack of guilt, but that doubt, the perpetual fear of external retribution, takes the place of guilt’s internal monitoring.
HUNGER DOGS, though it suffers from various narrative problems, follows through on the theme of good finding a way to survive evil’s depredations. Some time after Orion’s apparent death, Darkseid manages to infect New Genesis with a species of “toxic rot.” Apokolips’ technology enters the computer age, and even Darkseid himself is flummoxed by the innovations of the artificial intelligence “Micro-Mark” (not one of Kirby’s better cognomens). Darkseid feels misgivings at the over-mechanization of his infernal domain, and he fears being superseded by “the voice of a pygmy—too small for the eye to see.”
Orion storms Darkseid’s redoubt and destroys the Micro-Mark before it can discover the anti-life equation, but it’s Highfather on New Genesis who most decisively checkmates Darkseid’s technological superiority. Instead of assailing Apokolips itself, Highfather and all of his godly kindred flee their world in a flying city, just before the planet of New Genesis blows up. The planet’s detonation sparks a revolt from the underclass of Apokolips—the “Hunger Dogs” of the title-- and in the confusion, Orion is able to free his mother from Darkseid’s prison, and to escape Apokolips with both his mother and his newly introduced girlfriend Bekka. It’s stated that Darkseid will eventually quell the revolution, but that now, without the “sister planet” of New Genesis to bedevil, the overlord has become confined to his own “self-made prison of suspicion, hate and murder.” In contrast, the denizens of New Genesis survive on their own terms, pursuing a new destiny free of their evil mirror-image.
This summary does not by any means exhaust the many myth-motifs containing in the NEW GODS continuity. But it should be evident that even if Jack Kirby did not create anything like a “serious novel,” he nonetheless articulated a masterpiece of modern myth.