Comics

New Gods And Old Soldiers: Jack Kirby In The Seventies

To put it simply, it’s impossible to imagine comic books existing in their modern form without Jack Kirby. It’s hard to fathom what Marvel Comics at their inception and heyday might’ve been like without Jack drawing most of the books, stretching imagination to its limits, all while establishing a house style. During the celebrated Marvel Age of the 1960′s, Kirby, a workhorse of uncanny proportions, produced more books a month than most creators do in a year today.

He was often and easily taken for granted, and stretched thin to the point that the work he’s most recognized for, unfortunately, isn’t really his best work. As much as I love his 100 issue marathon run on Fantastic Four, his truly epic Thor issues, wall to wall action in Avengers, all Marvel Comics he brought to life, and characters he created, it was his ’70s leap to DC Comics that brought his truest vision to paper. Foreseeing the trade paperback market of today, Jack knew that comic fandom was strong enough that at some point, the slowly rotting newsprint of floppy comics would give way to more permanent reprint collections, and started writing his New Gods saga for an eventual collection and larger audience one day. Basically a story of generational struggle told with cosmically Shakespearean characters, Jack’s new world was launched initially in the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, because when the heads at DC told him he could have any book, he only wanted to take on one where it wouldn’t result in anyone else losing their jobs.

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Mister Miracle, chronicling the adventures of an escape artist hero based on Jim Steranko, and Forever People, which was like the cast of Godspell as outer space explorers, were both fun an interesting books, but the real mainline dose of brain melting head zap came through loud and clear in New Gods. New Gods followed the reign of destruction and terror that Orion, the very estranged and maladjusted son of Darkseid, wrought against his father and his lackeys. With the puckish and well-meaning Lightray ever attempting in vain to yin his yang, Orion might’ve just been the most brutal comics anti-hero of the ’70s. Not since Bill Everrett’s Sub-Mariner of the 40′s did the main character of a book so gleefully cause chaos.

His cruelty culminated in a brutal moment when Orion crushed the “Mother Box,” the sort of sentient cellphone every New God carried, of one of his enemies, who was laying prone and defeated…for no good reason. He then laughed hysterically. “She’s gone Slig!! When she couldn’t serve you- your Mother Box chose to die!! She loved you, Slig!!! Hahahahaha!!!!”

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Orion’s usually handsome face would slide into a monstrous visage whenever he got this far gone, his “true face” that was hidden by Mother Box reconstruction, courtesy of his upbringing on New Genesis. Kirby seemed to be the ultimate proponent of nature over nurture, as evidenced by the story that unfolded in New Gods #7- “The Pact.” Many have said it’s Kirby’s single greatest issue of all time, in which the backstory is revealed that Darkseid of Apokolips and his ultimate opposite, Highfather of New Genesis, traded sons decades previous in order to avoid war. While Orion was brought up with hugs and love, he still turned out embittered and furious, while Highfather’s boy Scott Free would grow up to become the Devil-May-Care Mister Miracle, in spite of growing up tortured and tormented.

Unfortunately, ’70s DC Comics wasn’t the time or place for the innovations in deeply personal and heady comics he was making, and the three books that made up the continuing story were canceled after about a year. Although DC would go on to utilize the characters he created there to great success, especially the villainous patriarch Darkseid, the saga Jack intended to tell with a beginning, middle, and end was cut short.

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Never one to be discouraged, Jack went ahead and kept on at DC for a while, creating more characters in Demon and Kamandi, but he ended up returning to Marvel and getting carte blanche doing story and art on Captain America, which became a trippy and occasionally existential journey into madness. For the first time in a very long time, Jack was back home, working on perhaps the strongest character that he created, and his imagination really ran wild.(This was where Cap would hop dimensions and encountered incredibly bizzare and surreal foes like Arnim Zola and Doughboy.)

The books were unpopular in the bullpen of the time. Certain creators were known to call them “stupid” and considered them embarrassing, even as they created books that were mere shadows of what Jack was doing. Attempts to top the late ’70s Captain America for sheer surreality were chronically doomed to failure. I always like to think that Kirby covertly dropped acid at some point and that his wild creations came from somewhere besides just pure imagination…but I also like to believe that he didn’t, and they were.

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These were the first Kirby books I saw as a young kid, and I couldn’t completely make heads or tails of them. They’re challenging. You have to sit with them. In my case, it took decades to fully get my head around them. There’s a certain vibe to the work that he did there, the images are hypnotic and explosive. The sensibility is grandiose, but there’s such grit to what he did. Like all the best tastes, Kirby in this period is an acquired one.

In the mid ’80s, Jack returned to DC to finish his New Gods story. It was a great coup, as Marvel was celebrating a 25th anniversary, and Kirby was noticeably absent from their self-celebratory products. It was the perfect time for DC to celebrate the genius they had shafted years prior. The initial issues of New Gods were reprinted on fine, thick Baxter Paper, the first issue of the compilation series featured the great line “Read the New Gods –As they really are!” A number of writers and artists since had their way with the New Gods (and continue to do so), but this continues to be the reality of company owned IP. Stung with Darkseid and company, the plan had been that they would all be Kirby from start to finish.

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In the conclusion to the saga called Hunger Dogs, the fated final confrontation between Darkseid and his son Orion transpired, and ended in a way that no one had predicted. It’s not a beloved piece of work by most, but it is by me. Jack’s art takes on almost a Picasso like post-impressionistic tone, and the story told is ultimately one about moving past trauma and a thirst for getting even. Darkseid, although often depicted as some sort of noble character, was intended by Kirby to be the ultimate dishonorable, conniving mensch. He was the personification of everything that Kirby hated about anyone he ever didn’t like, and was primarily based on Richard Nixon, whom he despised. So of course, when Orion showed up to duke it out with dad for once and for all, he encountered a hidden firing squad that took him out without Darkseid breaking a sweat.

A barely alive yet recuperating Orion would initially plot revenge, but in the end, he met a girl he liked and changed his mind. In one series of memorable panels, Darkseid grew smaller and smaller in his rocket’s rear view as he blasted off to explore the universe with his new found love.

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This wasn’t what most people were expecting or desired, but to me, it was perfect. The final fate of Darkseid was explored in the Super Powers comic, oddly enough a toy line tie-in, told in two miniseries soon after. Usually dismissed offhand as “non-continuity,” it’s hard to imagine Jack gave a damn what the book was called when he drew it, or what editorial’s larger plan for how it related to their other books was.

In those stories, Darkseid’s lapdog Desaad (As in The Marquis De Sade, the real life inspiration for the character) ultimately betrayed his lord and master, blowing his mind for good with a wild device at what would’ve been his moment of greatest triumph. That was the last time Kirby drew him…so that was his final fate as far as I’m concerned. I accept no substitutes, and I read the New Gods…as they really were.

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This article was originally published at Sequart.

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