Friday, December 19, 2008

The Hunger Dogs, Part Two


Ahem. So, when we left off this overview of “The Hunger Dogs”, Kirby’s climax to his Fourth World series, Orion had blasted in through a platoon of Darkseid’s soldiers for what seemed like his final confrontation with Stony Lonesome himself, as New Genesis hovered on the verge of destruction by the mysterious Micro-Mark, and Micro-Mark’s creator turned out to be Esak, the cute little kid who was Metron’s apprentice, somehow transformed into a hideous monster. He’s been creating mechanized weapons for Darkseid for the last decade—why? Because he wants Darkseid to kill him, something he doesn’t have the strength to do himself. In fact, he may not even be able to admit to himself that that’s what he wants. That’s pretty bleak.

Orion comes roaring in, as Darkseid once again makes a getaway on a shuttlepod. Here’s Darky’s revenge for Esak’s turning Apokolips into a wilderness of automated mediocrity: he’s going to let him face off against Orion alone, and see how well his gadgets can hold up against “livid, total rage!!!” Esak, who as I mentioned has a deathwish, seems to embrace this idea happily, and as Orion bursts in, he simply gasses him to death:

Esak then pauses for an ill-advised moment of contemplation (he hasn’t even seen Orion’s body, for pete’s sake!) as he remembers the good old days with Metron, before he left on a quest for “the ultimate object”. Esak delved further into scientific study and eventually discovered Micro-Mark in a laboratory explosion that disfigured him, and now he searches for “the machine that will erase my inner wound and restore all that was”. Which is, of course, a cue for Orion to pop back up and start blasting away at Esak. “The ultimate anger is the ultimate stimulus! It defies time! It stands firm against the hammers of change!” This is sort of the thematic center point of the whole series, as Kirby seems to be briefly rekindling the creative energy he felt he had lost, through sheer force of will.

As Esak lies dying, Orion feels pity for Esak and prays to the source to ease his passing---“see him not as a bitter pawn surprised in cruel defeat—but, only as a child, fallen upon cruel days…” as Orion watches, Esak’s face is changed back into his childhood beauty:

Suddenly, jarringly, we’re back at Himon’s, and Bekka is explaining how it is she’s managed to survive all this time, while she and Orion dance around their affection for each other:

BEKKA: Father struggled mightily with an almost impossible concept…but he solved it and used it to create an impregnable shelter for me!
ORION: All on New Genesis know “love’s” meaning…But it can never flower here! Thus, your persecution!
BEKKA: How willingly you accept that! Is “love” to be eternally outlawed on Apokalips?
ORION: You speak like an adolescent! Love, like hate, is a thing of many facets!

Yes, Kirby even puts “love” in quotation marks!

Anyway, Bekka reveals that she loves Orion inspite of his real face and the fact that he’s Darkseid’s son, so that, of course, is the point where the planet explodes.

No, I’m not joking.

That’s New Genesis, finally giving up the ghost. It’s also a last burst of creative energy for Kirby, who fittingly has chosen to portray the climax via one of his collages. And note the unapologetic use of “Star Wars” images scattered in there. Kirby almost seems to be encapsulating the whole of geeky pop culture that grew from his efforts in this one splash page, which is also the point where he symbolically brings it to an end. Talk about a torch-passing…

Anyway, Supertown itself, as you can see, survives the blast and drifts out into space, thus (hopefully) taking the population of New Genesis to safety. But something unforeseen occurs as well: the throngs of Apokalips, watching this, suddenly become aware of exactly what Darkseid’s new weapons can do, and belatedly realize that they’re sitting on silos full of these things. The slightest accident could annihilate their world, and this causes the soldiers to panic and turn against Darkseid along with the downtrodden workers.

Darkseid once again hops into his escape pod for a getaway while the hordes blast away at him, but everyone else isn’t so lucky. As the fragments of New Genesis rain down from the sky, total chaos erupts on the surface, and Apokalips begins to look like it’s living up to its name.

Darkseid, meanwhile, emerges at an abandoned station at the edge of town (or at least, one where all the soldiers are dead) and somehow immediately manages to find Himon, with Orion and Bekka. Anticipating his coming death, he’s quickly assembled…something…but whatever it is, it doesn’t save him, as Darkseid cuts him down. As he dies, he insists that Orion and Bekka leave, and Orion, rather uncharacteristically, does so. You see, Orion and Himon used the chaos to rescue Orion’s mother, Tigra—remember her? She makes her one-panel cameo in this comic here—and made it to the escape pod that Himon built (oh).

And with that, Orion seems to have reached the surprising end of his character arc. Rather than standing fast and engaging in the devastating fight we’d been expecting since the beginning, Orion has let go of his hatred and his need for combat, instead choosing to live and thus protect the life of his loved ones. He’s realized, further, that this is a far more appropriate fate for his hated enemy—not to go down in glorious combat, as he’d expected his entire life, but to be left alone, without even his tormentors and archnemeses for company, with his empire in ruins, and nothing left to do but rebuild it. Darkseid finally got his wish: his enemies will torment him no more, and the wills of the ones he has left will be utterly subservient to his. He’s alone. Forever.

In the final pages, we see a massive explosion tearing a chunk out of Apokolips, but, we’re assured, it remains in orbit. “Things won’t change when the thundering echoes fade. The Hunger Dogs will fill their bellies and strut…all too briefly! Then, Darkseid will re-build his self-made prison of suspicion, hate and murder!

Meanwhile, the New Genesisians drift though space in an elegiac final sequence, looking tiny against the surreal, expressionist Kirby cosmos, as speech balloons emerge from it, in one of the best dialogue exchanges in the series: “I-I fear time, Highfather!” moans an unknown companion. “You have the right to fear,” responds Highfather. “Am I a—a coward?” “If you are a coward, then take my coward’s hand.” “What lies ahead, Highfather?” “Hope, perhaps. A planet called hope!

Sure enough, on the very last page, we see Metron making his reappearance, towing a planet behind him. This, I suppose, will become New New Genesis, as he’s one day reunited with Highfather and the gang. But it hasn’t happened yet, and on that upbeat yet ambiguous note, the series ends.

And so, for all intents and purposes, did Kirby’s career. Sure, he kept cranking out work for another decade, right up until his death; he couldn’t not work, being Kirby and all, and he continued to tinker with animation, provide concepts for the array of new comic companies that were springing up, and do illustration work. But The Hunger Dogs is the last significant work of comics he ever did, and it’s an appropriate capstone, ending Kirby’s most personal work with a bang.

Except, as you may have noticed, it’s not really an “ending” as it is a handing-off to the next generation of cartoonists. While Orion doesn’t go down fighting as we all expected, he nevertheless makes his leave from the scene, leaving the field to a new generation who head out into the cosmos in search of new worlds to explore. Kirby clearly saw, by 1984, that the comics industry was changing in interesting and exciting ways, and that in some ways his brand of comics were becoming dated. Better, then, to blow the whole mess up and call it an ending, and look forward to a new tomorrow, than to dwell endlessly in the past. Essentially, Kirby seemed to be prefiguring other high-profile, paradigm-shifting superhero works of the next couple of years, including Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Dark Knight Returns, and of course Watchmen. All of these works make the case that the superhero comic as we know it was coming to an end, and that it would have to evolve, adapt, or pass phoenix-like through the fire and be reborn.

Kind of ironic, then, that superhero comics, and pop culture’s embrace of them, seem to have regressed so much since then. It’s almost as though, without Kirby out there, they’re missing their anchor. Too bad the King couldn’t stick around for a few more years to keep the ship righted, but his final legacy ought to have been more than enough: change is scary but vital, and those who cling to the past are doomed to become hollow shells of their past selves. If the superhero comic is inescapably bound up with the philosophies of Jack Kirby, we really ought to have absorbed that lesson by now.

And thus ends Fourth World Fridays…but I would like to keep this show rolling. That’s why I cannily called this blog “Fourth World Fridays AND BEYOND”, so that I can move into new territory now that I’m out of material. I’ve got some ideas for what to tackle next, some time in the new year (possibly February?) It won’t be by Kirby, but it will hopefully be semi-tonally appropriate as a companion to the Fourth World—in other words, something clever and well-conceived, a joy to read, but full of weirdness and awkwardness and insanity that I can make fun of in a reverential manner. You know: comic books.