Monday, February 08, 2010

Even Gods Must Die and The Hunger Dogs

[Andy Bentley finishes up his look at every issue of Jack Kirby's New Gods.]

“Even Gods Must Die!” - New Gods (reprint series) #6. November, 1984
“The Hunger Dogs!” DC Graphic Novel #4. March 1985

Mister Miracle #18 marked the end to the New Gods series at DC and as the 1970’s rolled on, there were two failed attempts to continue the story with different creators. It would take seventh iteration of the Super Friends animated series, Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, to spark Kirby’s return. Super Friends needed some impressive villains for the Justice League to battle and Darkseid and his crew were a perfect fit. Kirby was hired to recreate several of his characters and was compensated well for his efforts. The Super Powers toy line was a huge success which led to DC to reprinting the series and then asking Kirby to conclude it.

This brings us to “Even Gods Must Die!”, which appears in the last reprinted issue towards the end of 1984. It opens on Orion entering Apokolips on what would appear to be the day of the fabled “final battle”. Immediately, I noticed a decline in the quality of the art. There are glaring perspective and anatomy issues and the art consistently felt flat. Mark Evanier mentions in the afterword that Kirby’s drawing hand had begun to fail him, so it would be cruel for me to dwell on it. Suffice to say, the art is a visual cue that the times have changed.

As Orion makes his way through Apokolips, there is a shocking wealth of technophobia which in incongruent to the beginning of the series and to Kirby’s futurist perspective. Under Darkseid’s decree of full automation, Apokolips is now guarded by giant mechanical monsters and Granny and the Furies have been relegated to “copu-team supervisors”. As Darkseid laments the loss of his free thinking servants, he is presented with a technological solution. The science officers of Apokolips have devised a brain scanner which will make the desire of the wearer a reality, including the creation of life! Darkseid tests the device by resurrecting his twisted servant, Desaad, and subsequently does the same for Steppenwolf, Kalibak, and Mantis. The results, however, are far from perfect. The newly revived characters seem to be devoid of free will, and act like a mindless, stereotypical versions of their former selves. The significance here is twofold. The modern technology Darkseid is presented with is complicated and imperfect which might have been a sentiment of Kirby himself, given his advanced age. The magic of the all powerful mother box was so much simpler. Then there’s the concept of resurrection which is a fantasy born out of the grief of losing a loved one which again Kirby conceivably could have drawn from personal experience. These assumptions towards Kirby’s state of mind are only drawn because I know how personal the Fourth World story was for him in the 70’s

While Darkseid is busy making these ghoulish creations, Orion stumbles upon his former partner, Light-Ray. Light-Ray agrees to help Orion in this fight, but warns him of the potential consequences of his mission. Orion reaches Darkseid’s inner sanctum and sends Light-Ray away so he may face his estranged father himself. Orion pounces towards Darkseid who quickly escapes through the floor below. Orion pursues and they banter, but you realize both Orion and Darkseid’s motives have shifted significantly since the original series. Darkseid seems listless without the goal of the anti-life equation, while Orion has made rescuing his mother his top priority with the destruction of Darkseid a close second. The two have brief skirmish which pales in the magnitude of Orion’s battle with Kalibak. Orion appears to have Darkseid dead to rights when Darkseid gives the kill order to an unseen firing brigade. They riddle Orion’s body with bullets and it tumbles lifelessly into a fire pit. The soldiers are confident of his demise but Darkseid stares down at the pits in disbelief.

In the afterword of the Omnibus, Evanier describes “Even Gods Must Die!” as a bridge between the old series and “The Hunger Dogs”, yet it feels like a muddled first take on the conclusion. The reason being, Kirby was originally asked to conclude the series in these twenty three pages. Now, the explanation for this lackluster story begins to take form. DC has asked a 66 year old Jack Kirby to go back to his cancelled saga from over a decade ago and wrap up a story he envisioned running around a hundred issues in twenty three pages. Under those conditions, there’s no chance of a satisfying story.

However DC and Kirby were willing to give it one more try. “The Hunger Dogs” would be released as DC’s fourth original graphic novel which would allow Kirby more pages to work within and lenient deadline. The result is a definite improvement in the art, in part due to the trio of colorists who added a lighting perspective and a diverse palette. The story also has an increased sense of grandeur with Himon, Metron, Highfather and New Genesis all significantly featured. Unfortunately, the plot is still obtuse and disconnected and the dialog is quite weak.

With Orion defeated, Darkseid has set his sights on the rival planet of New Genesis. His plan again depends on untested technology, this time in the form of tiny, yet destructive bombs that are being distributed to New Genesis via boom tube. It is soon revealed that Orion was rescued by Himon, the infamous rabble rouser against Darkseid’s regime. Himon has nursed Orion back to health, and during this time, Orion has fell in love with Bekka, Himon’s daughter. Himon has been busy attempting to steal and reverse engineer the “micro mark” bombs, but to no avail. Highfather of New Genesis has become aware of the destructive imports from Apokolips, and has been meditating on a solution for some time.

The premise is solid, but the execution is lacking. Almost every character in the story speaks in earnest soliloquy, trying dearly to impress upon the audience that their conflicts are as big as the universe itself. Stan “the man” Lee has been guilty of some ham-fisted dialog, but nothing on this level. There are mixed metaphors, inappropriate responses to queries, and old cliches strung throughout the novel. There’s also a bizarre third act reveal of the inventor of the destructive micro-mark technology. The creator happens to be Esak, a small boy seen briefly touring the cosmos in one of Kirby’s eight page backup stories. Once older, Esak was left in charge of Metron’s experiments when Metron toured the galaxy in search of the “ultimate object”. During this time, Esak was left horribly disfigured in an accident and the pain and resentment lead him to betray his planet and travel to Apokolips. Two pages are devoted to this reveal and they’d have been better spent on the more popular Fourth World characters.

The story plays out similarly to the last one, with Light Ray returning to Apokolips to defend and warn Orion. Himon and Orion’s fight has ignited a small revolution amongst the downtrodden citizens of Apokolips. The chaos in the streets allow Orion to gain access to Esak’s bunker where Orion shoots and kills the turncoat under the guise of giving him peace. Orion finds some kinship with the disfigured Esak who returns to his human visage as his life essence fades away. The next scene involves Orion confronting his love with his true face at Himon’s hideaway, however there’s no transition from the scene prior. The supplemental material in the Omnibus reveals that several pages have been repurposed from Kirby’s original treatment for the final New God’s story “On the Road to Armaghetto”. The results are jarring, but Bekka ultimately accepts Orion’s mangled features which feels like a deserved conclusion.

Suddenly an explosion rocks the planet of Apokolips. Highfather has allowed the destruction of the planet of New Genesis and escaped with the New Gods through their floating city. This solution would never occur to a despot like Darkseid who needs his planet to maintain authority. Apokolips delves into chaos and Darkseid decides to reap petty vengeance. He finds and murders Himon as Bekka and Orion (with his mother, Tigra) escape through the back. As their escape pod fires up, Orion chastises Darkseid for his ego and failure to control the events that will be his undoing. Another explosion rocks Apokolips and the planet teeters out of orbit. Inside the floating city, the people of New Genesis question the rash decision by Highfather. Highfather comforts them first with words and then with action. Metron appears carrying a young and lifeless planet for his people to repopulate.

“Hunger Dogs” is a more satisfying ending than “Even Gods Must Die!”, yet both have severe faults brought on by the circumstances with which they were created. They both reinforce the old saying “you can’t go home again”. As Evanier explains, so much of Kirby’s creative spark was living in the moment, and 1984 is a different moment than 1971. They also stand as one of many examples of corporate editors hindering the creative process. In one iteration, Kirby wanted to conclude the series with the destruction and Death of the New Gods. Editorial nixed this ending because DC wanted to utilize these characters in the future. Flash forward to 2008 where Jim Starlin killed the New Gods only to have them resurrected in 2009 by Grant Morrison in Final Crisis. Instead of pushing for new titles like The Demon and Kamandi, DC should have allowed Kirby to continue his most personal cosmic odyssey. But there’s no mother box or micro bomb that can reverse these decisions so we must come to accept them. And, as Bruce Timm says: “So, a lot of people say, ‘Well, it's not fair because Kirby never really got a chance to finish the Fourth World,’ and I'm not sure he really had anything in mind as a complete story, even though he said he did”.

Bruce Timm and Paul Dini would go on to recreate Jack’s Forth World characters on the small screen in several iterations of DC cartoons. This will be my final topic for the series.


scottmcdarmont said...

Sadly, the Super-Powers series was my first exposure to Kirby and, for years, turned me off to his art. In general, I never really cared for his DC work, beyond the basic design and look of the Fourth World (that is in basic aesthetic 'good art' terms... I have always liked the spirit behind what Kirby was trying to do). It seems to lack the dynamic fluidity of the best of his Marvel work.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Well, that was a disappointing way to wrap the series up. Yes, Hunger Dogs is sloppier than the original series, and Kirby's obviously in a different place creating it, but it's better than say, the back third of Mr. Miracle. There's ample material hear to analyze, particularly the final fate of Darkseid (and he is killed off, despite alleged editorial directions).

This series started off well, but the energy really seemed to go out of it when Mr. Bently hit the later Mr. Miracle material.

Andy said...

@ Joe
I'd be curious to hear your analyzation. I'd always hoped this series would create an exchange of ideas.

deepfix said...

Now that you've reached the end, I have to apologize. You started this six months after I finished reading the whole series and, though I found it at times interesting, I wasn't about to slog through it again in order to comment on it. I just read and found my initial instincs either supported or rejected, neither of which inspired me to respond. You did a good job and I read each entry. If I've learned one thing from reading the 4th World books and then reading your essays, it's that Stan Lee doesn't get NEAR ENOUGH RESPECT for what he did with Jack Kirby.

Otto Weininger said...

Andy Bentley,
I've just finished reading your blog posts on the New Gods. I didn't start with Kirby's work and I discovered them through the work of John Byrne (Jack Kirby's Fourth World ) and Walter Simonson (Orion). Both were excellent runs in my opinion and fantastic reintroduction for us readers born after the Kirby era.

I would like to hear your thoughts and perspective of these revamps or continuation of the original work if possible.