“Even Gods Must Die” and The Hunger Dogs, both reprinted in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus vol. 4, are nothing short of astounding. Together, they represent a very different ending to the Fourth World saga than one might expect. Kirby’s interests were clearly different so many years later, and his growing physical frailty shows in his linework, but his inventiveness is as strong as ever. The pages look and read unlike anything I’ve seen before. Compositional elements that used to be part of costumes or machinery now hold entire pages together. Kirby plays with reading direction and panel shapes like never before, and he never runs out of new ways to make characters look like they’re leaping from the page.
Completing his epic years later, Kirby shows different concerns than before, with old age and fear of obsolescence playing a big role. Unable to end with the deaths of many characters after they’ve been integrated into the DCU, he also manages to surprise with the ending while feeling thematically consistent. Orion shocks by choosing love over war and Highfather ends the long struggle with Darkseid not through destruction, but retreat into the next great unknown, leaving Darkseid to deal with insurrection from within. It’s great stuff and a must read. For more, check out John Hodgman’s excellent review in the New York Times Book Review.
Inspired by Kirby’s completion of the story, I’m taking one last look at the many Fourth World revivals, Jim Starlin’s just-completed new ending to the saga, The Death of the New Gods, which has the misfortune of coming out around the same time as Fourth World Omnibus vol. 4 and inevitably fails by comparison. Below I attempt to review it on its own merits:
|The Death of the New Gods
By Jim Starlin with various inkers
DC Comics – 8 saddle-stitched @ $3.50
The Death of the New Gods is a strange animal. On one level it does exactly what it says on the box, while on another it’s tough to know what its larger goals are. Its ending certainly has the feeling of finality that the title implies, with no caption exhorting the reader to read the conclusion in Countdown. In fact, from what I’ve read, the ending is completely contradicted by the ending of Countdown, which came out around the same time, and the contradiction continues in last week’s Final Crisis #1. So, the obvious answer is to ignore all those other series and view this as a self-contained, semi-canonical send-off of the classic vision of these characters before Grant Morrison evolves them in Final Crisis, right?
Except not quite. While the ending seems to detach itself from outside goings-on, the opening picks up a story already in progress, presumably from Countdown. As the series begins, Jimmy Olsen sneaks into a hospital to view the remains of Sergeant Willy Walker, The Black Racer, and exclaims, “Just like with Lightray and Sleez!” It’s not hard to pick up what’s happening from context, but someday when this is a hardcover and its connection to Countdown is forgotten, it will be disconcerting to see the book begin with the mystery already afoot and characters not explaining how they know what’s going on or why they’re involved.
The series is also notable in that it continues some of the trends of previous Fourth World revivals. The first chapter features an image of Highfather recounting the origins of the Fourth World, as the page quotes both the words and pictures of Kirby’s The New Gods #1. On the next few pages, writer-artist Jim Starlin does his best Kirby impression. It might just be because this is meant to be their final outing, but virtually every character from the Fourth World puts in an appearance. When doing their version of the Fourth World, writers and artists seem unusually compelled to try and use everything, to directly homage the source material, as if they are extra aware that it is the creation of a personal, singular vision by an artist at the top of his game. By the same token, DC Comics has seemed conscious of trying to recapture that feel by giving the characters to single writer-artists more often than they do other series, most recently with John Byrne on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Walter Simonson on Orion. Bringing in Jim Starlin signals an attempt to finish the same way.
As for the story, the deaths––gross and painful-looking outward chest explosions––keep happening, and a team is assembled to find their source. New Genesis sends Orion, while Superman and Mister Miracle (who now for some reason possesses the Anti-Life equation) join him after Big Barda’s death in chapter one. From Apokalips, Darkseid takes an interest and begins looking for a way to turn the situation to his advantage. Along the way, everyone becomes suspicious of each other and fights amongst themselves. Eventually the Source, the cosmic element connecting all of Creation, reveals itself and becomes a player.
While there are some effective scenes and appropriately epic moments, Starlin fundamentally mismatches his approach with the subject matter. The New Gods exist to battle, but most are dispatched quietly and alone, only to be discovered by others, and the entire conceit of a murder mystery seems to miss the point in this context. Furthermore, the mystery itself is artificial, as Darkseid suspects what is going on from the start and Metron learns it soon after, both simply withholding the information for flimsy reasons, even in their own narration. Darkseid’s narration is particularly troublesome, since he loses all sense of menace once we’re inside his head, something that isn’t helped by how pedestrian and Earth-colloquial his observations are––at one point, sounding like nothing so much as Stan Lee’s captions, he introduces Mister Miracle and Barda thusly: “On Earth, a certain loving couple continued their mundane existence, unaware of the vast drama unfolding around them.”
Once the Source is brought in, the story drifts further off-course. The New Gods are a pantheon, so when the Source’s actions cause Mister Miracle to question his beliefs, it’s a reminder of what an awkward place a story featuring polytheism is for working through questions of monotheism. Allowing the Source a single sentient entity––and it’s amazing how quickly characters begin referring to a floating sphere as “He”––diminishes it from thing of mystery to run-of-the-mill (lowercase “g”) god. Its place in a hierarchy above the New Gods diminishes them as well, making them just slightly more powerful superheroes. The addition of so many new elements also requires voluminous exposition, making the whole story, including the final battle, incredibly talky. This talkiness forces Starlin to shoehorn in action where he can in scenes like an early fight between Superman and Orion, which is outed as unnecessary by Mister Miracle’s narration in a way that draws attention to it, rather than adding levity.
Starlin’s characterization is strong both in the writing and art, but it’s hard to overcome the wobbly narrative it’s stuck in. Some details, like Dark Mister Miracle, just don’t work, his circus costume looking silly in black and purple (I felt that Barda mourning Miracle would have been more interesting, though it’s possible there wouldn’t be as much distinction between Orion and Barda as Orion and Miracle). Several of the mystery’s twists are poorly plotted as well, as when Superman suspects Orion, forgetting that the two were together during some of the murders.
Where Starlin succeeds is including all the characters a reader would want to see one last time in a way that feels organic. His figure drawing, if a bit stiff, helps tell the story by presenting everyone visually in a way that pays homage to Kirby’s vision while saying something about them as characters. Orion is appropriately hulking and bestial, Metron looks atrophied from all the time on his Mobius Chair, early renditions of Miracle and Barda capture his playfulness and her power (though she probably shouldn’t be so much slighter than him). Starlin’s Superman looks clearly different from the celestial characters, but still walks comfortably among Gods, going back to Kirby’s original “Superman in Supertown” ideas.
Page layouts and panel compositions are powerful, though for a single writer-artist, Starlin occasionally has trouble leaving enough room for his own words, as in this sequence where Takion’s eulogy of Barda overlaps the panels until she is completely cremated, then jumps back to a point before the flames begin. The only other visual problem is that the colors and visual effects sometimes overpower the art and crowd the compositions, particularly in space scenes and when elements like skulls fill the borders.
On the whole, it’s a less than satisfying read, with a number of worthwhile moments, but a tendency to lose those moments in a mess of a story and themes. Affection for the source material carried me through early chapters, but the convoluted and off-track approach eventually overpowered it, and problems in the coloring and lettering sealed The Death of the New Gods’ fate as a series that I won’t want to read again. As a modern Fourth World revival, Walter Simonson’s Orion is much more highly recommended.
Kirby Continued part 4