By the time DC Comics released New Gods #1 on December 22, 1970, we readers were beginning to get some sense of the scope of the conflict at the heart of the imaginative construct we would eventually come to call Jack Kirby’s Fourth World.
Information had been delivered on a steady, if limited basis since the release of Kirby’s first new comic for DC, Jimmy Olsen #133, back in August. There we’d been introduced to Inter-Gang, a shadowy criminal organization whose insidious reach extended even into the everyday workplace of the DC Universe’s premiere superhero and his closest friends. In the following issue, published in October, we’d learned that Inter-Gang reported to someone called Darkseid; and in November’s JO #135, we’d discovered that this craggy-faced figure was also the boss of a couple of aliens, hailing from a world named Apokolips, who managed an Evil Factory where they conducted sinister experiments with human DNA — with the clear implication that Darkseid shared their extraterrestrial origin. Finally, in Forever People #1, published December 1st, we’d met a group of strangely garbed — and gifted — young folks from someplace called Supertown, who arrived on Earth by a bizarre means of transport called a Boom Tube. One of their number had been kidnapped by none other than Darkseid, who had come to our world in search of an “ultimate weapon” called the Anti-Life Equation — and it seemed clear that while Darkseid himself might not be from Supertown, he and these Forever People were nevertheless connected in some way.
The first issue of Forever People also contained a text page entitled “A Visit with Jack Kirby” by a young writer named Marvin Wolfman, which gave us our first official confirmation of what many readers had likely already guessed — that all four of Kirby’s books at DC would be interconnected:
There is an entire world of imagination awaiting you in the pages of these books [Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle]. What Jack has done is create a new mythology for our times. These three books comprise a trilogy which, along with Jimmy Olsen, form one huge, continuing novel … the likes of which have never been seen. And all this is the product of one man acting as Editor, Writer, and Artist … Jack Kirby.
So, by late December, we fans were well primed for the further unfolding of this “new mythology for our times” within the pages of New Gods #1 — though I doubt most of us expected to have the first of these new revelations presented in the form of an epilogue.
But before we dive into this classic comic’s immortal opening pages, I’d like us to spend a little time with the cover. We’d already gotten a taste of it, thanks to this full page ad which had appeared in books released by DC in November…
…though the black-and-white reproduction really didn’t do the finished product justice at all.
Actually, that reproduction was itself based on an earlier iteration of the cover, as is self-evident when you compare it with the published version; besides the addition of the color and the collage background, the figure of Orion has been tilted slightly, and the text blurb (“An epic for our times…”) has been slightly reworded as well as chopped in two.
The cover appears to have had its genesis in this piece of presentation art Kirby had created (with the inking assistance of either Frank Giacoia or Don Heck, depending on the source you consult) back around 1968:
There’s also another early version of the cover, originally published in the 10th issue of DC’s “official” fanzine, The Amazing World of DC Comics (January, 1976), reflecting the fact that DC originally wanted to launch Kirby’s new features in the “tryout” title Showcase prior to moving them into their own titles (obviously, they later changed their minds):
But that’s probably enough about the cover, I think — except to note that the only thing that disappointed my thirteen-year-old self about New Gods #1 was that Orion’s costume didn’t have the same near-psychedelic color scheme on the comics’ interior pages as it had on the exterior. (I realize now that it would have been just about impossible to execute that kind of coloring consistently in an American color comic in 1970, but at the time, it was a small but genuine letdown.)
And, now to get back to that epilogue I mentioned:
It’s generally understood that the cosmic conflagration depicted here, in which “the old gods died“, should be identified with Ragnarök — the “twilight of the gods” in Norse mythology. Assuming that’s true, this would be the second time that Kirby had visualized this event, having adapted the traditional tale for Marvel Comics in two installments of “Tales of Asgard”, which were published in 966 in Thor #127-128. (His inker on this issue of New Gods, Vince Colletta, had embellished those strips as well, although the scripting was, naturally, by Kirby’s usual writing collaborator at Marvel, Stan Lee.)*
As obvious as the Norse mythological inspiration for this sequence is to me now, in 2020, I have to confess that I’m not at all sure I “got” it when I first read these pages, way back in 1970. That may be mostly because I hadn’t yet read those two “Tales of Asgard” (my own first issue of Thor had been #158); nevertheless, I find my obtuseness rather curious, since I’m sure I had read about Ragnarök in other sources by this time. For this reason, I’m inclined to think that there were other factors at play that helped distract me from the references to the Norse material.
One of those factors — perhaps the main one — is the story’s frequent allusions to the related traditions of Judaism and Christianity, especially as embodied in the ancient texts collected in the various editions of the book we call the Bible.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. — New International Version
By the end of his epilogue, Kirby has taken us from the end of one world — its Apocalypse, to use a Biblical term — to the beginning, or Genesis, of another. Now, as his story reaches its proper beginning, he brings his central character upon the stage:
“Orion” is not a Biblical name, of course, but neither is it Norse; rather, it comes from Greek mythology, and Kirby’s appropriation of it for his epic’s central hero is indicative of the breadth of traditional and literary influences Kirby draws on on in building the Fourth World.
The earlier allusion to the Bible’s Book of Genesis is underscored by page 4’s revelation of the name of the “home of the New Gods”: New Genesis. (For the record, this is the first appearance of that name, outside of its inclusion in a Kirby-penned text page in Jimmy Olsen #135.)
As used here and in the pages to follow, “New Genesis” is the name of both the shining city where the gods dwell, and the Eden-like planetary sphere that the city orbits. And though the city is never referred to in this comic (or in most issues of New Gods) as “Supertown”, it is indeed the same place as that which the Forever People call home.
Kirby quickly and efficiently lets us know that Orion, while valuing the peace and splendor of New Genesis, doesn’t feel entirely at home there — in contrast to his cheerful friend Lightray (and, by inference, most of the city’s other denizens). And the duality which will prove one of the major themes of the entire Fourth World saga is here expressly located within the psyche of its central hero.
Lightray himself is probably the most clearly “superheroic” of all the principal characters we meet in New Gods series. When we first see him, he’s flying through space under his own power, manipulating light beams; and his skin-tight, streamlined attire, with its distinctive chest emblem, is the sort of outfit you can imagine helping him blend right in at a meeting of, say, DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. Then, of course, there’s his name — apparently the only one he’s got, although in any other context it sure would sound like the codename of a costumed metahuman. As for his personality, we don’t get much of a chance to form a first impression before Kirby shuffles him offstage; but besides his cheerful and optimistic disposition, he’s obviously a sensitive and supportive friend to Orion. There’s actually quite a bit more to Lightray than is first apparent, however, as will come to light (if you’ll pardon the expression) as the series progresses.
While this isn’t the first appearance of the name Apokolips — besides being referenced in the Jimmy Olsen #135 text page mentioned earlier, the Evil Factory’s Mokkari identifies it as his and his colleague Simyan’s place of origin in that same issue’s story — the juxtaposition of it with New Genesis adds another layer of symbolic meaning to both names, as Apokolips is, of course, derived from the word “apocalypse” — which, besides generally connoting the end of the world, is, as we’ve already noted, a Biblical term. More specifically, it’s one of the names of the last book of the Christian Bible — the Apocalypse of John, also known as the Book of Revelation. As such, it counterbalances the name New Genesis, which is derived from the first book of the Bible — the one which tells of the beginning of the world.
Highfather, the apparent leader of the gods of New Genesis, offers a fascinating contrast with his equivalent in the Norse pantheons with whom Kirby had worked while drawing and plotting Thor — Odin, the “All-Father”. While both characters are portrayed as white-bearded patriarchs, Highfather is a considerably less imposing and grandiose figure than his Marvel predecessor, both in appearance and in manner; it’s difficult to imagine Highfather ever referring to himself as “power absolute in every manner!”, or as “the word — and the way — and the wonder!“, in the manner that Kirby’s Odin (whose published dialogue was actually scripted by Stan Lee) did on a fairly regular basis (and usually in the third person, at that).
The other thing one might note right away about Highfather is that his general appearance suggests associations with mortal (if holy) figures out of the Bible, such as Moses, at least as much as it does divine overlords like Odin or Zeus. Highfather’s Biblical vibe is perhaps most plainly signified by his “Wonder-Staff“, which, like the crosier of a Christian prelate, resembles a shepherd’s crook; just as does its ecclesiastical parallel, Highfather’s staff indicates authority, but of a pastoral rather than imperial nature, being inspired by such Scriptural passages as the 23rd Psalm.
The Source is one of the most important concepts in Kirby’s Fourth World mythology (and perhaps one of the most influential, as well), though we learn very little about it in this introductory scene, at least not at first. However, Orion’s description of it as “the Life Equation” — the opposite of the Anti-Life Equation, which we learned in Forever People #1 is Darkseid’s main goal — makes it clear that its significance to the New Gods must be great indeed.
I’m not sure that my younger self knew quite what to make of Metron when I first encountered him in December, 1970 — or for some time after that, frankly. Moral ambivalence wasn’t a concept that had a great deal of meaning to me at age thirteen, generally speaking, and in a fictional setup like this one, which I understood to be an epic conflict between “good” heroes and “evil” villains, I assumed Metron must be one of the good guys — if not, why would he be hanging around on New Genesis with Highfather and Orion? If I paid much attention at all to Orion’s line about Metron being willing to “sell the universe into slavery” for “a scrap of knowledge” — or to Metron’s unruffled response to the characterization — I probably just took it as indicating a personality conflict between two characters who were, at the end of the day, allies in the same good cause.
We’ll have more to say about the meaning of Metron in later posts; for now, however, we’ll simply note that with his coming, we’ve now met the last of the gods of New Genesis who will play a major role within the eleven issues of the New Gods series. That makes this an appropriate point, I think, for us to recognize the fact that although females are obviously part of the society of New Genesis (they appear in every scene that features “ordinary” residents of Supertown), we don’t see them in positions of authority, either here or in future issues; indeed, few ever even receive names. It’s not so much that Kirby’s Fourth World mythos is devoid of strong female characters, however, as it is that virtually all such have their origins on the darker of his god-planets — on Apokolips. Whether this dichotomy represents an intentional thematic choice on the writer-artist’s part, or is simply where randomly following his creative instincts ultimately led him, is another discussion we’ll have to reserve for later posts.
In 1970, my younger self — who’d been attending Sunday School at my Southern Baptist church for as long as he could remember — probably felt pretty confident in interpreting the phenomenon of the “moving hand” writing in fire upon the Source Wall as a riff on the Biblical story of “Belshazzar’s feast”, from the Book of Daniel — from whence, of course, comes the familiar expression of “the writing on the wall”. And since I knew that the hand in the Bible story was the hand of God — at least, that’s what my Sunday School teachers had always told me — I figured I had a fairly good idea of how I was intended to interpret the Source. Was I right? Again, that’s a highly complex subject we’ll need to return to in later post.
In addition to the strong intimations it offers concerning the nature of the Source — the Life Equation — the panel above is also important for giving us the clearest and most explicit definition yet of its opposite. Described in Forever People #1 in general terms, as “the ultimate weapon” with the power “snuff out all life on Earth”, we now learn (via the words of the cold, rational Metron) that the Anti-Life Equation “means the outside control of all living thought!” For Jack Kirby, life is all but synonymous with freedom — a point made earlier by Highfather when he bowed to the children’s chorus, and underscored by him again in the very next panel:
As the story leaves New Genesis for the time being, we readers have been made privy to a secret its protagonist, Orion, doesn’t himself know — he is in fact a native not of New Genesis, but of Apokolips. And Metron’s rhetorical question, “Who is more ready to fight the father — but the son!“, strongly hints at an even darker secret involving Orion’s origins (though I’m not sure I picked up on this as a thirteen-year-old reader).
Swiftly crossing the cosmic gulf between worlds, Orion arrives at his destination — and we readers get our first look at the world which lies “in the shadow of New Genesis” — Apokolips:
This is the debut appearance of Darkseid’s para-demons, who’ll be showing up an awful lot in this and the other Fourth World books.
Orion initially attempts to fight these guys hand-to-hand, but simply due to their overwhelming numbers, he’s eventually forced to bring the “astro-force” into play:
Finally making landfall, Orion is quickly beset by more Apokoliptican troops — foot soldiers, this time. He lays his astro-force gear at the base of Darkseid’s statue, knowing that his foes have too much awe for the monument to get too close to it, and then lays into them:
As Orion breaks through the enemy’s defenses, a call goes out for reinforcements…
The giant dogs are as savage and deadly as their riders; eventually, however, Orion wins through, and presses on to his goal — the dwelling place of Darkseid himself. But when he arrives, he find the great halls empty:
Kalibak — whose name appears to be derived from that of Caliban, the monstrous servant of the sorcerer Prospero in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest — will turn out to be a good bit more important a character than he might first appear to be in this introductory scene, with a significance for Orion that goes well beyond him being an adversary big and powerful enough to give our hero a run for his money.
Though disdainful of Metron’s offer of assistance, Orion listens as the other god informs him that Darkseid is not to be found anywhere on Apokolips — that, rather, he has gone to Earth, where even now he is “paving the way for its complete subjugation!” (This is another instance where Kirby lets the reader be one up on his protagonist — assuming that the reader has already perused Forever People #1, that is.)
Metron’s reference to the old gods’ “bridge to Earth”, and its destruction, appears to be another allusion to the Norse myth of Ragnarök, which describes the collapse of Bifröst, the rainbow bridge between Asgard and Midgard. These panels also reveal that the Boom Tube — so important to the events of Forever People #1 — owes its existence to Metron; and that the forces of Apokolips, as well as those of New Genesis, have access to this technology — and have used it to establish a beachhead on Earth.
Metron tells Orion that his charge is now to return the humans to Earth; then, the knowledge-seeker teleports the warrior’s “power rods” (i.e., his astro-force gear) from the statue where he’d left them, just before he teleports himself away, riding his Mobius Chair to somewhere “outside infinity”.**
Before Orion can explain the situation to the dazed and confused former captives, Kalibak — no longer held at bay by Metron’s barrier, which has vanished with him — charges to the attack:
Knowing he dare not fully engage with Kalibak while the humans remain in his charge, Orion hits his opponent with a burst of astro-force, and while Kalibak is stunned, summons a Boom Tube:
And so this first chapter in the saga of the New Gods, which began with an epilogue, inevitably ends with a prologue — one which finally brings onto the stage the figure who, while dominating the narrative throughout the issue, hasn’t actually appeared in the here-and-now of the story until this very moment. Unsurprisingly, the advent of Darkseid makes for an exceptionally dramatic and ominous moment, with the chilling sense of dread conjured by the Lord of Apokolips’ dark, stony visage only enhanced by the shadowy but intimidating forms of his minions (none of which can be easily matched to characters appearing in later issues, interestingly enough), lurking behind him on the city rooftops.
This was a terrific conclusion to a thrilling first issue, one which left my thirteen-year-old self eagerly awaiting not just New Gods #2, but the next issues of Jack Kirby’s other three DC series as well — and probably none more so than the premiere outing of Mister Miracle, the fourth and final title in Kirby’s ongoing tetralogy. That particular comic book would be showing up on the stands in a little more than three weeks — but when it finally did, I found that it not only defied my expectations, but, if I’m going to be honest, actually disappointed me a little. If you’d like to know all the whys and hows of that unexpected reaction, I hope you’ll check back around the middle of January, 2021, when I’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
*Kirby is believed to have come up with the basic concept for what became the Fourth World while working on Thor, as an exploration of what would follow after the death of the old Norse gods and the destruction of their realm, Asgard. As Ronin Ro wrote in his book, Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2004):
The idea of the New Gods had come to Jack years earlier, when he was plotting 90 percent of the “Tales of Asgard” stories in Thor. He wanted to have two planets at war and end with Ragnarok, the battle that would kill Thor’s lucrative pantheon…
Following the demise of the Asgardians, Kirby would introduce a new race of gods to take their place. Supposedly, soon after coming up with this idea, the creator set it aside for a while; either because he didn’t believe Marvel would be willing to implement such drastic changes to the existing Thor character and title, or because he didn’t want to provide Marvel with any more of his best ideas under his current working conditions. But he continued to consider the possibilities, and had at least the rough outlines of his new mythology in place by the time he started talking seriously to DC’s editorial director, Carmine Infantino, about making the jump from Marvel back to DC. The late ’60s presentation art pieces scattered about this blog post are evidence of the imaginative work Kirby had put into developing his “new gods” while still ensconced at Marvel.
Though he [Kirby] wouldn’t ever say it publicly, the New Gods books started right after the gods in Thor killed one another. The first page of Orion of the New Gods showed the same scenes from Thor—a planet torn in half and armored gods holding swords and dying on a fiery battleground.
Other writers in addition to Ro have pointed out the similarities between the “Epilogue” pages of New Gods #1 and the depiction of Ragnarök and its aftermath in Thor #127 and #128. And it’s true; take this panel from #128, which could easily be slipped in right after New Gods #1’s opening splash, with none the wiser:
And this later panel, presenting Kirby’s vision of the civilization which eventually emerges out of Asgard’s embers — the home of “the young, new race of gods” who rise to succeed the old ones — could be a snapshot of a New Genesis street scene:
That Kirby’s conception of the Norse myth of Ragnarök provided the seed for the origin story of his New Gods is, I think, beyond doubt. Nevertheless, your humble blogger would counsel caution to any reader inclined to think of the “Old Gods” of the Fourth World mythos as being precisely identical to Marvel’s Asgardians, or of New Gods as some sort of direct sequel to the Lee-Kirby Thor. For one thing, Kirby was well able to imagine the Norse gods (as well as those of other pantheons) in more than one way. For another, back in Thor #128, when he drew what remained of Asgard after the “monumental explosion” that ultimately destroyed it, he drew one “charred, smoking mass”…
…not “two giant molten bodies”.
Yeah, I know that doesn’t prove anything. But it makes me feel a little better about not recognizing Ragnarök when I first saw it in New Gods #1, fifty years ago; so I’m sticking with it.
**The name of Metron’s mode of transport — another of the Fourth World’s most durable and versatile concepts — is presumably derived from the eponymous strip, although the relationship between the two is rather hard to see in the final version of the Chair; it’s somewhat easier to discern in Kirby’s early presentation art piece depicting Metron, shown earlier in the post.