Friday, September 12, 2008

The New Gods #12 (sort of)--"The Road to Armaghetto"


So that was that. In early 1973, after a steady decline and a series of compromises, Jack Kirby was finally forced, for once and for all, and with (by all accounts) significant personal dismay, to shutter his most personal creation. The Fourth World ended with Mister Miracle #18.

…Except it sort of didn’t. The series was clearly never a monster in terms of sales, but it seemed to have attracted a fanbase…one that, as the years rolled on, became more vocal in its praise for the Fourth World. Even as Kirby left DC and returned to Marvel, there were persistant rumours that the series had actually done a lot better than the top brass had reported, and the cancellation had been due more to short-sightedness. Some even said that they didn’t like Kirby’s plans for a fixed ending to the series and deliberately cancelled all of his books so that they could keep the properties and hand them off to other, less well-known (and less expensive) artists in due time. (Which did, in a sense, happen, though not for over a decade.) This all seems a little paranoid, but certainly there have always been manipulative sleazebags controlling the purse strings of the comics industry—and DC was both a large, greedy corporation and a little on the desperate side at that time.

Regardless of what was going through DC’s mind at the time, the Fourth World lingered at the edges of the newly-growing comics culture. The 70s is where the “fanboy” really got started—the collecting, the conventioneering, the obsessing over what were, then, obscure pop culture ephemera. This may be part of the reason that so many sales-unpopular series of the time—and there were a lot of them in the 70s—nevertheless managed to find fan followings in the long run. This was the era of Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and the Punisher at Marvel, and of Deadman and the Legion of Superheroes at DC.

This last became a crucial part in salvaging the Fourth World. Kirby’s characters had popped up here and there throughout the 70s, and of all of them, Darkseid in particular, had begun to resonate with readers. In 1982, Paul Levitz, writing the Legion, made Darkseid the villain for his “Great Darkness Saga”, often cited as one of the best superhero storylines of all time. And suddenly the Fourth World had moved back into comic reader’s consciousness.

About the same time, Kirby had begun working with DC again on a line of action figures, which grew to incorporate the Fourth World. With an interest in the series resumed, Kirby was asked if he would provide an ending to the saga, particularly the New Gods, and Kirby said yes. There were, apparently, some problems with this, but as Mark Evanier has insisted over and over again, Jack always said “yes” when asked if he could do something.

I’ll get into that when I get to The Hunger Dogs. For the nonce, the plan was to reissue The New Gods with a series of new covers, drawn by Kirby, and cap it with a new issue #12 that would provide a bridge between the series and the forthcoming graphic novel. The result was the double-sized issue “The Road to Armaghetto.”

The splash page shows Orion emerging from a Boom Tube, and, just to hammer the point home, an Apokoliptish minion declares “Orion is back!” The next few pages highlight how Kirby’s style had changed in the intervening dozen years: if anything, it’s grown bolder, with splashes that spill all the way out to the edge of the page. Unfortunately, it’s also a little on the sloppy side, with less detail (though a shaky inking job, by D. Bruce Berry, doesn’t help). Kirby’s art was suffering a little as his eyesight failed and his hands grew shakier. It’s still pretty fantastic design, though.

A more welcome change: Kirby has finally learned to scale back the dialogue, leaving plenty of silent panels that merely show action, giving everything even more power and dynamism than you’d normally expect from Kirby. He’s also experimenting with panel borders and page layout in a way that was becoming more popular at the time—ironically, mostly thanks to Kirby’s own devotees, like Jim Starlin. (Though, strictly speaking, what superhero artist isn’t a Kirby devotee?)

The first nine pages have Orion smashing his way non-stop through a horde of robotic patrols, which have apparently become de rigeur for crowd control and police work in Armaghetto. “Darkseid has turned to ’hangman’s humour’!” thinks Orion. “He’s transformed Apokolips into a ’mechanized madhouse’!” Ahhh. It’s good to see that the years haven’t worn away Kirby’s love for “completely random quotation marks”.

Orion is aided by a pair of street urchins, and then by a seeming stroke of luck as the pavement suddenly cracks open and swallows up a pursuing mechanoid. It turns out that this was another act of subversion by the Female Furies:

The new Apokoliptian mechanization, and the general contempt for it by the former elite, will form a major theme of the rest of the series. Right now, though, I’m a little confused. The Furies seem to have regained their former positions as warriors of Apokolips, but now they’re once again acting to help the forces of New Genesis, apparently out of sheer love of conflict. What’s more, the Furies turn on their robotic “monitor” and then on Granny Goodness herself when she runs in to check on them. Granny seems a little on the pathetic side here, actually, which seems consistant with the whole theme that Apokolips has begun to decay.

A fracas ensues, with the Furies apparently enjoying a chance at a little of the old ultraviolence, something that’s apparently been denied them in the years since the machines took over. Of course, they’re immediately put back in line with a punishing jolt of electricity from a supervisory computer installation. Mostly, this scene seems to exist just to provide a chance to give the Furies one last little bit of action…but don’t go thinking this issue, or the next one, are going to be a non-stop cavalcade of guest stars.

At any rate, this computer monitor thingie now reigns supreme on Apokolips, as we’ve seen, controlling robot patrols and watching over oppressed and opressors alike. It’s something close to Darkseid’s dream of perfect control, all wills subservient to his own, all completely controllable from a single location. And yet, irony of ironies, achieving all this hasn’t made Darkseid happy. You might even say…he’s ronery.


Anyway, a flunky suggests that Darkseid make use of their new, experimental technology to bring back his closest friend, Desaad, who, you’ll recall, he disintegrated via the Omega effect. Once again, the “wiping you out of existence” aspect of the Omega effect seems to have been gravely overstated.

Darkseid uses his techno-thingie, and next thing you know, Desaad is back:

Meanwhile, back in Armaghetto, Lightray catches up with Orion, much to the latter’s consternation. As you might remember from the link above, Orion ended the series by embracing the knowledge that he was Darkseid’s son. Somewhere between that issue and this one, he’s furthermore discovered that his mother, Tigra, is still alive and imprisoned on Apkolips. And there’s a prophecy, you see, that the father will meet the son in the light of the fire-pits of Apokolips, and that will decide the war. Lightray’s uncertain that this ought to happen, and has come to slow up Orion’s progress, but Orion is, understandably, hard to reason with. Lighray agrees to leave him be, but not before creating a diversion by using his solar powers to blast the various attacking gizmos to smithereens. I like this panel here, as Lightray melts an entire garrison with the force of his blast:

Suddenly, a new enemy approaches: a horde of “dog cavalry”, led by none other than Steppenwolf. This reanimated apparition knocks Orion off balance, but Lightray is quick enough on the ball to conjure up an illusion: a pile of soupbones. The dogs race towards them and bowl through, into a nearby canal. So…the guy was melting giant robots a moment ago, but when dogs attack him he turns into a Road Runner cartoon?

Orion finally manages to convince Lightray to shove off, and the two part with these awesome, wordless panels:

Megaforce, eat your heart out.

Meanwhile, Darkseid is busily resurrecting more of his buddies, the latest being Kalibak. As we’ve seen, though, the reanimants aren’t really the sharpest knives in the drawer—they’re crude parodies of themselves. This seems like Kirby displaying his disappointment at being unable to recapture the old magic, but “it’s still an impressive ‘game’,” admits Darkseid.

Orion has now managed to sneak and punch his way into his dad’s control room, and lets fly with a furious assault that, you guessed it, requires a double splash page. Which is so big I’m not even going to scan it in. “In the context of destruction, Orion transcends the term!” bellows the caption. “To oppose him is to die! To survive him is life lived in fragmented form!” To look funny at him is to have him rip your lungs out! To not say “God bless you” when he sneezes is to risk a couple of broken legs!

Darkseid uses the classic villain’s gadget, the Escape Pod, in this case a tube down which his throne disappears to merge with a rocket sled deep in the bowels of Apokolips. But Orion comes bounding after him, grabbing onto the back of the sled and smashing through the canopy as it rockets through the tunnels. Darkseid distracts Orion as the sled comes to a halt by showing him his mother, bound to a nearby rock—then tries to plug him with a concealed laser gun. Orion seems to get the drop on him: “..and now, you cruel, arrogant…!” “Yes…NOW!” yells Darkseid, and a platoon of soldiers pop up and riddle Orion with lasers (including a bunch through his head!)

Ouch. Orion then topples backwards into a firepit, leaving no body for Darkseid to salvage. Despite the seemingly fatal wounds he received, Darkseid knows Orion can never be underestimated, and he realizes that now he’ll be forever haunted by uncertainity.

See, this is what makes Darkseid such a great villain, and the series as a whole so much more interesting than most superhero punchfests. Darkseid hates and despises all life, all intelligence except his own; he’s spent his life attempting to bring about a world totally in his thrall, with no other will to oppose him. And as he draws closer to achieving that goal, he finds himself increasingly dissatisfied—the seeds of his own defeat grow from within himself. When challenged, he’s indomitable, but when there’s no one else left to put up a fight, and he’s forced to look inwards…that’s a prospect that genuinely terrifies him.

More on this next week when I start the grand two-part finale, The Hunger Dogs!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Pause Before the Big Finale...

Sorry I didn't update this week, folks--things are a little crazy. Besides, I need to pause and gear up for the big finale of Fourth World Fridays, which will run over three weeks, starting this Friday the 12th.