Friday, October 10, 2008

The Hunger Dogs, Part One


Like the Fourth World saga itself, we return belatedly to life for a final installment!

Unlike the previous installment, the faux “issue 12”, the Hunger Dogs is a full-length Graphic Novel, of the kind Kirby had more or less already pitched to DC way back in 1970. Apparently Kirby submitted it as a (regular-length?) issue, met with unenthusiastic response, and was asked to pad it out to a more substantial length in order to do justice to the story. This accounts for some rather weird formatting issues, as the original pages were designed at a different ratio than the later ones. But hey, if the page composition wasn’t reaching out and grabbing you every few pages, it wouldn’t be a Kirby comic.

It’s also great-looking, with a dazzling colour job, inks (partly by Mike Royer) that actually do justice to Kirby’s pencils, and Kirby himself clearly pulling out all the stops to provide at least a little bit of closure for his masterpiece.

As for the story, it’s shakier, but when it works, it really works. Starting with the opening pages, in which the residents of “Slum 9” of Armaghetto rise up and riot against Darkseid’s cruel regime. These, you see, are the Hunger Dogs, Kirby’s name for the oppressed rabble that always makes such a hard time for tyrants and dictators. They’ve managed to penetrate further towards Darkseid’s control center than ever before, and one of Darkseid’s minions recommends an automated “sonic storm” that will punish them by remote control. But Darkseid seems to be losing it, and refuses to give the command:

Um…wouldn’t punitive measures via technology instill fear just as much as a dude with a weapon? If not more so?

Nevertheless, the point is clear. The “Micro-Mark” and its attendant automation has given Darkseid exactly what he wanted, paving the way for the Anti-Life Equation, but at the cost of his fun. Good may suffer in a regimented, numb universe, but it’s a little hard to be a force of awe-inspiring terror either. By beginning the process of stripping his followers of his souls, he’s destroyed his own audience, reducing them to mindless drones who can’t react to his awesome evillitude. Catch-22!

Let’s not forget the context here, either. In 1985, when this book was published, Kirby’s old stomping grounds were firmly under the thumb of Jim Shooter. Honestly, Mr. Shooter’s reign is something I know little about, and I wouldn’t care to weigh in one way or another in terms of praising or condemning him. I just know that a lot of superhero fans really, REALLY didn’t like him at the time, and that furthermore, Kirby engaged in a running battle with Marvel under his tenure in an attempt to get back his original art. The biggest complaint about Shooter from this era seems to be that he turned Marvel into a soulless assembly line, and it’s not hard to see this aspect of The Hunger Dogs as Kirby sticking it to Shooter. If the creation of the Fourth World reflected Kirby’s metacommentary on the Marvel Universe as it stood right after he left, The Hunger Dogs is obviously his take on where it stood in the mid-80s: with evil triumphant, and even his greatest villain subdued by mediocrity.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the very next page introduces a new subtext: that of the Cold War. The same relentless war machine that’s pacified Apokolips is on the verge of introducing horrible new weapons to destroy New Genesis—and again, it’ll be done remotely, with no grand clash of armies to satisfy Darkseid’s penchant for violence. What’s interesting is that Darkseid’s engineers argue that the New Genesisiand won’t enter into a cold war with Apokolips, because it’s “not their way” to resort to the WMDs that they’re about to deploy. So, in other words, Kirby is arguing that refusal to engage in Mutually Assured Destruction is moral, but it’ll also allow your enemies to destroy you. Certainly these were the kinds of arguments being thrown around in the 80s, though I’ve never been entirely certain that I buy it. (For one thing, the Soviets were a lot less formidable an opponent than they were made out to be…but let’s not get too far off track.)

Meanwhile, elsewhere on Apokolips, Orion has been healed (or resurrected?) as per the particularly brutal picture at the top of the page. The party responsible is Himon, still hiding out on Apokolips, serving the forces of good, and resembling Jack Kirby. The image of him bringing Orion back from the brink of death pretty much hammers the connection home. I guess the idea of injecting your own avatar into a comic is something else Grant Morrison swiped from Kirby.

Orion’s been hiding out with Himon and has apparently developed a thing for Himon’s daughter, Bekka. Wait, what? Yes, apparently Himon has a daughter who’s survived to adulthood, despite Himon’s lousy track record with getting kids killed. She seems to feel for Orion, too, though she doesn’t seem to have seen Orion’s true face yet. That’s going to be an interesting conversation.

It’s at this point that the slightly fractured nature of the beefed-up narrative starts to be felt. We jump jarringly back to Darkseid heading over to one of his control centers in Armagetto with some flowery, and borderline incomprehensible, narration overlaid on top: “Did not the Elder Gods, on the eve of their doom, leave the warning of Armagetto behind them? Is not oblivion forever a dark red line which leads the mighty to the sewers of the contemptable silent?” Do not colourless green ideas sleep furiously?

A mysterious, faceless figure meets Darkseid and presents to him “The Micro-Mark”, the latest superweapon, and one that will finally allow him to triumph over New Genesis.

While it’s not 100% clear what Kirby intended Micro-Mark to be, it sure sounds an awful lot like nanotechnology, doesn’t it? Was that even a well-known concept in 1985? Was Kirby doing a lot of reading, or did he just stumble across a very potent idea?

Suddenly, Himon pops in to taunt Darkseid. “Dance, Himon!” he growls. “Phase in and out like a dancing flea! But, in this new era--look for the shadow of my descending fist!” Darkseid seems positively giddy (by his standards) at the possibility of a worthy adversary. He pretty much admits that he’ll miss Himon once he’s crushed him like an ant beneath his boot. The two of them reminisce about the olden days like the pair of old men they are, Darkseid musing “The fiery passions…brutality and wailing…endless—ever endless…” “So it was—and so it remains, Darkseid!” responds Himon. Yes, the ever-endless endlessness remains endless. You can’t get anything past these two.

Himon grabs the super-sized package of Micro-Mark, the one with the ability to destroy a planet, and takes off before Mystery Guy can club him from behind. He’s hinted that he just might want to use it to destroy Apokolips for good and all, but Mystery Guy assures him it’s no biggie—he can deactivate the bomb by remote control. Micro-Mark’s ease of use will deny Darkseid even this defeat of his ancient enemy:

Another jarring cut to the surface of New Genesis, which is…somehow…being over-run by these monsters that eat everything in their path. Wait, what do these things have to do with Micro-Mark? I dunno, but it makes for a cool visual:

While New Genesis is thus being despoiled, “measures are taken to recover a few such as Lonar and his Battle-Horse.” Wait, recover a few? They’re just going to let everyone else get chewed up by a bunch of hairy green bush-monsters in Liberace masks?

Oh, wait, maybe they just mean that New Genesis was basically uninhabited and that there’s only a few to save. Geez, I hope so. Otherwise Highfather’s a real dick.

Speaking of which, here’s Highfather to meet Lonar as he’s levitated up to Supertown, wearing a variation on Thor’s armour. It’s pretty obvious that Lonar was going to have some far more elaborate storyline had the series continued properly, but Kirby’s once again just giving us the highlights. Highfather and Lonar have a conversation about the potential nightmare that would be unleashed if they started throwing Apokolips’s bombs back at them, and refuse to do it, thus proving Darkseid’s mob right. Again, I’m honestly not sure which side Kirby was coming down on here.

Anyway, Lightray overhears them and takes of for Apokolips, where he and Orion are once again reunited in a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling:

The reunion is cut short by a green metal monster smashing through the wall, as tends to happen. It’s another of Darkseid’s mechanical patrolmen, who, I guess, saw Lightray make his flashy entrance and has come after them. Orion’s all for ripping it to pieces (because he’s an angry kinda guy, you see) but Lightray, for once, earns his title as a more restrained tactician by reprogramming the machine to ignore them, rejoin the patrol, head back to base…and then explode, violently, wiping out a whole station. So, yay suicide bombers?

“Damn me for a flea-bitten war hound, if Darkseid himself can match your insideous talent for scheming!! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Chortles Orion. Then, there’s a flash, and Lightray is gone (for good, as it turns out). Well, that was abrupt.

Orion is uncharacteristically shaken by the sudden departure of his friend, and collapses into Bekka’s arms. “I’m afraid, Bekka! I hate the winds of change! I hate the loss of nobility and action…and war, which, in reality is ‘packaged murder’!” Wait, is he saying he hates war, or the LACK of war? At any rate, this is pretty clearly one of those moments where Kirby is really putting himself into the story. What old man wouldn’t mourn the loss of his friend and connection to youth? Or look back sadly on a life that he felt was out of his control? Bekka manages to give him a pep talk, reminding him of the good times and the good work he’s done, and he’s back on his feet.

Now another jarring jump-cut, and we get a bizarre scene in which Mystery Guy (forever off-panel) experiments on a terrified beggar pulled from Armaghetto by implanting a Micro-Mark on his chest. The wretch is released, to much anger from the assembled guards, runs out screaming, and explodes, echoing the “suicide bomber” bit from the last sequence. Suddenly we see Darkseid, as well, not even bothering to turn his head to watch this moment of triumph…because that’s how badass Darkseid is.

By the way, I believe this whole sequence belongs, properly speaking, at the beginning of the story, and was shuffled to the middle in the rewrite. You have to admit, it doesn’t make much sense for them to be testing the Micro-Mark now, after they’ve already been launching it against New Genesis for some time. But then, that means that when Orion shows up at the end of this sequence, it means there wouldn’t have been an explanation for how he survived being torn to shreds by laser fire at the end of the last issue. So I can see why they changed it.

So, um, Orion shows up at the end of the sequence, leading a charge of “Hunger Dogs” who now worship him as their inspiration and call to rebellion, beginning a real revolution against Darkseid. But Mystery Guy is still pimping his WMDs as a solution to conquering Orion, and now we finally see his face:

Yeah, freaky enough, but the real kicker is who this turns out to be. It’s Esak. Remember him? He’s the kid who rode with Metron all over the universe, and convinced Highfather to bail the Forever People out of their time-travel jam. That cute little kid has become a disfigured monster, working for Darkseid, pumping out horrible weapons and enforcing tyranny.

And here we really get to the crux of the issue: the Fourth World was written, in part, to celebrate the new generation in whom Kirby saw so much promise. Now, fifteen years later, the King seems just a tad more cynical about things, and Esak is the embodiment of that. While Kirby was probably thinking specifically about the comics industry and what it had come to, Esak makes a pretty good stand-in for the Baby Boomers as a whole, gone from utopian idealism to materialistic excess and the promotion of war for profit.

When he wanted to, Kirby could sure leave toothmarks.

(THE HUNGER DOGS article will conclude next week.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I'm Actually In Hiding From Devilance.

Okay, so when I said “next week” I didn’t actually mean next week...

Things got away from me for a while there. I should have part one of the final installment of Fourth World Fridays up on Oct. 10th. Thanks for your patience...