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14.5.08

"So Powerful in Concept – It's Almost Terrifying!"



In 1970, stuck in a rut and itching to try new ideas and approaches, Jack Kirby left Marvel and went hustling for work at the Distinguished Competition. They were delighted to have him, and initially gave him pretty much free rein to do whatever he wanted; but none of the concepts he came up with over the next half-decade turned out to be commercial successes by the standards of the time, and all ended up being cancelled within a year or two of launch. Although revered now by connoisseurs of such things, the likes of OMAC: One Man Army Corps and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth were just too intense, too personal, too unlike anything else for most contemporary readers to deal with.

The first and most egregious of these casualties of fans' conservatism was the unfinished epic which came to be known, for reasons that still remain obscure, as the Fourth World: three (four if you count Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen) interlinked series examining different facets of a cosmic conflict between beings collectively known as the New Gods.

Others are better qualified than I to detail the ins and outs of the saga's publishing wrangles: suffice it to say that, notwithstanding their curtailment of the original series, DC have made several trademark-protecting attempts to relaunch a "bold new chapter" in the New Gods mythos, some of which have been better than others. With a couple of exceptions (and it's no accident that the best non-Kirby treatments of the New Gods have been by writers who know a thing or two about non-Kirby mythology), the story of the Fourth World for the past thirty years has been the story of lesser writers just not getting it.

Two weaknesses bedevil these revivals. Stylistically, they often fail to convey the grandiose operatic bombast of Kirby's original, the declamatory prose and opposition of absolutes that made these characters resonate with the genuine mythic traditions to which they were supposed to be the heirs. Jim Starlin's recent The Death of the New Gods unfolded mostly with a whimper, debased by colloquial language and proceduralism to the level of a plodding sci-fi whodunnit - CSI New Genesis - so that when the final conflict eventually came, it ended up mired in page after page of expository dialogue and philosophical mischaracterisation, enlivened only by Superman's frustration at being too impotent to intervene effectively.

The second weakness is more substantial. To Kirby, the Fourth World saga was literally an exercise in mythmaking, an updated synthesis of the Norse and Classical pantheons he'd played with at Marvel. The New Gods may have dressed in spandex rather than togas, and used Astro-Force Harnesses and Boom Tube Generators rather than lightning bolts and winged sandals - but they were actual gods, walking embodiments of particular principles or ideas, just like the gods of old. Rather than just run with this idea, too many of Kirby's successors have tried to explore, explain or explode it; to rationalise their status in the context of the broader DC universe - a universe where the Old Gods, far from being dead, appear regularly as supporting cast to the likes of Wonder Woman and Doctor Fate. Sometimes this manifests as a a sort of Gaimanesque psionic multiculturalism, in which gods are seen as being created and powered by the belief of their followers - a handy notion for a composite universe, but not one that's supportable for a pantheon too new to have any followers!

Other times, fervently mono(or a-)theistic writers have preferred to dismiss the New Genesites and Apokoliptians as not really gods at all - just immensely powerful aliens with pretensions, like the Goa'uld or the Squire of Gothos. Starlin, whose reputation as the 1970s' other doyen of cosmic comics is largely based on his iconoclastic Warlock/Thanos saga, falls into the latter camp. His antipathy to the very notion of godhood even spills over into his choice of godkiller, such that Kirby's ineffable, all-nourishing "Source" - the numinous superdivine power of which even the gods are in awe - becomes just another pan-dimensional gameplayer bent on genocide, and Darkseid - Darkseid! - is thrust by default into the role of plucky individualist underdog. It's hard to imagine a more bizarre travesty.

Darkseid is Kirby's greatest villain: the ultimate enemy of joy, freedom, creativity and compassion, as conceived by a New York Jew who went to war against the Nazis and then came home to find himself living under the shadow of the H-Bomb. He is not merely a god of evil: he is the god of triumphant evil, of authority for its own sake, of the subjugation of individual hopes and dreams to the demands of groupthink, militarism and automation. His eternal goal is the "Anti-Life Equation" - the outside control of all living thought (the quotation marks are important: like many of Kirby's big ideas, Anti-Life is an elegant concept given a clunking, unwieldy name, like an inadequate translation from an unknown language).

What Kirby did with Darkseid, in true mythographic fashion, was diagnose what he saw as the greatest contemporary threats to the human spirit - meanness, paranoia, intolerance, the abuse of power - and posit a god of them, poised on the brink of hegemony; and then posit a whole raft of other gods, rising to oppose him at the eleventh hour. These New Gods, with their absurd definitive names and iconic costumes, who act out of love, enthusiasm and hope - who champion Life against Anti-Life - are the angels of our own better natures, our connection to the Source in an age of fear and despair.

So what would a religion of the New Gods look like?

A few pieces of nomenclature apart, the very existence of a pantheon would make it more like classical paganism than the Abrahamic faiths to which we're now accustomed. The gods themselves revere The Source of all life; but although able to communicate in oracular letters of fire, the Source is not a moral authority, still less a person -- it is more like an energy field, or a natural phenomenon like sunlight or the Nile floods.

Highfather Izaya is its guardian, a benevolent shaman/prophet, counselor and patron of the arts. Highfather has renounced war: his way is to promote reconciliation, as with "The Pact" that forestalled the conflict for a generation in NG#4, or the the alchemical marriage between Mister Miracle and Big Barda in Forever People #14.

Yet New Genesis is not undefended -- it has Orion, born the son of Darkseid but raised by Izaya as part of "The Pact". Orion is not really a war god -- he is violence personified, but neither leads nor cajoles others into combat: he is a god of wrestlers and duellists rather than of generals, an acme to be emulated by those who choose a fighter's life, rather than a patron whose favour can be invoked to turn the tide of battle.

Most of the New Gods are like this, in fact: ideal figures or one sort or another, each finding their joy and fulfilment in some sphere of activity at which they excel -- Orion the brawler, Metron the scholar, Lonar the explorer, Big Bear the technician -- even Scott Free, who as God of Escape is the closest thing the mythos has to a messiah, does not really promote a code of behaviour for others: he has a small group of "disciples" (Barda and her Furies, Oberon, Shilo Norman), but they are friends rather than followers.

The fundamental principle of this odd, worshipperless non-religion, then, seems to be something like "to thine own self be true" or "be all you can be" rather than "do as we tell you". Radically, there is only one New God who behaves like the God of Abraham -- who demands worship, obedience and praise; who offers rewards to those who do his will, and destruction to those who oppose him: