Over the six years that I’ve been producing this blog, I’ve found the fifty-year-old comic books I write about here — all of which I bought off the stands when they first came out — generally fall into one of three categories. First, there are those comics that I liked, or even loved, when I originally read them, but which don’t hold up all that well today; though I can usually still find things to enjoy about these books, it’s by considering them either through the rosy lens of nostalgia, or at something of an ironic distance — sometimes both. Second, there are those comics which, allowing for the inevitable changes in popular tastes and prevailing styles that have occurred over the last half-century, still hold up quite well indeed; such books continue to provide an entertainment experience that can be recommended to other readers with few if any reservations.
And then there’s the third, as well as the smallest, category: the comic books that I didn’t enjoy as much when I first bought and read them as I do today. The comic books that I needed to grow into to fully appreciate.
As you’ve probably already guessed, such a comic book is the subject of the post you’re reading right now. Not that I didn’t like New Gods #6 at all when I first read it; I was too much of a Jack Kirby fan in general, and a Fourth World fan in particular, for that to be the case. Nevertheless, compared to the issue that had preceded it — and to an even greater extent, the one that would follow it — this comic was vaguely disappointing. As much as I enjoyed the fiercely dynamic action and extravagantly imaginative imagery that Kirby served up in “The Glory Boat!!”, my fourteen-year-old self found the story’s events too strange and unsettling, its violence too sudden and shocking, and its conclusion too abrupt and ambiguous for the narrative to be completely satisfying.
Thankfully, I’ve learned enough about life — and art — in the last fifty years to be able to better appreciate this work than I was able to in October, 1971. That doesn’t mean that I believe I’ve fully plumbed its depths, mind you — a fact which in itself is probably a testament to this comic’s greatness. But at least I have a more mature perspective to bring to bear on a discussion of what’s likely one of Jack Kirby’s single finest works.
We’ll begin by noting that this story picks up immediately after issue #5’s “Spawn”, as Kirby (with the assistance of inker Mike Royer) continues the story arc of Orion’s quest to defeat his enemies in the Deep Six, and stop the living engine of destruction — the “spawn” of the previous installment’s title — which they’ve released into Earth’s oceans. But even if one hasn’t read New Gods #5 or its predecessors, “The Glory Boat!!” is eminently readable, all by itself; Kirby gives the reader all the information necessary to follow the action, and to understand the stakes, in his story’s early pages:
In literal terms, the Deep Six have not “resurrected” anything — their Spawn is a wholly new creation. But by using such language, Kirby evokes the sea-monsters of human myth and legend, most especially the Biblical Leviathan:
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up.
Who can stand before it?
Who can confront it and be safe?
—under the whole heaven, who? (Job 41:10-11, NRSV)
Following this expansive and extravagant four-page prologue, the action moves into a much more constrained space, in both physical and psychological terms, where it will remain for most of the rest of the story; indeed, the narrative is constrained even in a temporal sense, its events unfolding in something close to real time. What follows over the next twenty-two pages might almost be considered a tightly-constructed one-act play, even if one that would be prohibitively expensive to produce on stage. (Although it might work as an audio drama, or one of those newfangled scripted podcasts.)
Orion isn’t leaving, of course — he’s just doing reconnaissance. His rising up out of the sea at the spot where the survivors of the Aurora happen to be drifting has hardly happened at random; rather, his Mother Box has led him to this precise latitude. “If I’m to meet the enemy,” he thinks, “it’ll be here!!!” Still, the warrior doesn’t let his primary, martial purpose prevent him from offering assistance to people asking for help; though, as we see below, his duty also requires him to let those people know that their accompanying him may well lead them into greater danger yet:
The bound figure standing on the boat like a mast is an eerie, arresting image, suggestive of legal execution or even religious sacrifice as much as simple imprisonment. Interestingly, Kirby barely establishes this tableau before dispensing with it (counting the cover, we see the kelp-wrapped captive only three times).
This is Lightray’s fifth appearance to date (his most recent one prior to this was in Jimmy Olsen #141) — but the first time he’s shown up on planet Earth. In New Gods #2, we’d seen the young god petition Highfather to allow him to leave New Genesis and join Orion in the latter’s fight against Apokolips’ forces — a petition which was categorically denied. Now, it appears that the willful Lightray has taken matters into his own hands…
It’s been clear from page 5, where we first met the Sheridan family, that Farley Sheridan is openly disdainful and belittling of his son, Richard; now we understand why. (At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re obliged to note that being a conscientious objector in America at the time this story was produced and published was very much an active rather than a passive stance, as the United States remained deeply involved in the Vietnam War; in 1971 alone, 2,357 U.S. military personnel were killed in action.)
Meanwhile, Lightray’s comment invites some skepticism, especially for those readers who witnessed Orion’s savage takedown of the Deep Six leader Slig in New Gods #5. Is Lightray actually naive enough to believe that his friend Orion is thoroughly averse to “war, violence, or killing”? Or is he consciously excluding Orion from “everybody” else on New Genesis?
Orion now emerges from the craft’s hold to tell his comrade that he needs to come see what the Deep Six have left behind…
What does “techno-active” mean, exactly? What is a “caller“? The gods obviously know whereof they speak, but they don’t have time to explain their actions to mere mortals (a category that includes us readers, as well as the Sheridans), save in the most basic terms: “We’ve arranged a battle…”
Over the months we’ve been reading about the two opposed god-worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips, we’ve likely come to associate the former — a green, fertile globe — with the organic, and the latter — a barren orb studded with fire-pits — with the inorganic. So it may seem incongruous that in this story, the results of the mutations of Apokolips’ denizens come across as biology-based — very messily so, in fact — while the one generated by New Genesis’ Lightray emerges, at least initially, in the sleek, seemingly sterile form of a gleaming cube.
Writing in The Jack Kirby Collector #24 (Apr., 1999), Adam McGovern notes of the preceding two page sequence:
It’s been observed before… that Kirby had a love-hate relationship with the machine age; he repeatedly implied that our technology will destroy us while he gave everything, including skin, a metallic shine. Ostensibly [these two pages] are about the destruction/creation dichotomy in Orion’s and Lightray’s respective philosophies. But what strikes me most about this page — and about what it sets in motion for the remainder of the story — is the bizarre but definitive expression of Kirby’s mixed technophobia and technophilia to be found in Lightray’s transformation of an ugly organic pest into a gleaming, cybernetic… er, bomb.*
Meanwhile, Orion and Lightray are making a sweep of the sea — below as well as above the surface, thanks to Lightray’s powers of illumination — though Orion frets about leaving the Sheridans unprotected. (It’s interesting to note that although Lightray — “the smiling lamb“, as Orion called him on page 8 — has been more outwardly friendly to the three humans who’ve fallen into their orbit, Orion is the one who seems the most sincerely concerned about their safety.) Unfortunately, Jaffar has the ability to bend Lightray’s beams, effectively making himself invisible as he swims beneath his enemies — and onwards towards the Deep Six’s wooden control ship, where waits the Sheridan family…
If there’s a weak element in the dramatic conflict Kirby has set up between his story’s three human characters, it lies with the role of Lynn Sheridan. One imagines that the writer-artist saw the daughter as a point of balance between the diametrically opposed father and son — but since we never learn what Lynn herself actually believes in regards to the issues that divide the male members of her family, she appears to lack agency, and never really emerges as a complete character in her own right.
Like Farley Sheridan, Jack Kirby was an active participant in the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944; nevertheless, it’s clear that the creator’s sympathies lie elsewhere than with the character whose biography is superficially closest to his own.
Where Adam McGovern sees “mixed technophobia and technophilia” in the transformation of the Deep Six’s “sender” to become Lightray’s “caller”, his fellow critic Charles Hatfield (writing in the same issue of The Jack Kirby Collector) perceives “Kirby’s fascination with mingled organic and inorganic forms (remember, this is the designer of the Thing, the Silver Surfer, Brother Eye, and Machine Man).” Elsewhere in the same article, Hatfield writes:
God bless Kirby’s machines. The “techno-active” cube is a perfect example, because it grows. Metallic but fecund, it spreads, refashioning and extending itself—as if to become were the essence of being. This is an organic conceit, ill-suited for machines but quintessentially Kirby. What I find most fascinating about this is that Kirby presents cold, glistening metal as the symbol of New Genesis — that is, as a symbol of fertility, ordered growth, and natural function. Whereas the “sender” was a shapeless mass of ugliness, this “caller” is a thing of beauty.
Considering how many other nasty-looking beasties we’ve seen over the last five-and-a-half issues of New Gods — not to mention in all Jack Kirby’s other work — it should be impossible for us to feel the same terror and revulsion at Jaffar’s sudden appearance as do the Sheridans. Yet, in this masterful sequence, Kirby brings us awfully close.
Death is a good deal more common in superhero comic books today than it was in 1971; yet, the suddenness of Richard Sheridan’s murder still has the capacity to shock us. That’s due in large part to the bizarreness and mystery of Jaffar’s method, which robs a young man of his identity at the same time it does his life. Somehow, the wiping-out of Richard’s face is more horrifying than a more conventionally gory act of violence could ever be.
“The skirmish with Jaffar has finally ended a quarrel!! — and decided an issue!!!”
Four months after the publication of “The Glory Boat!!”, the letters column of New Gods #8 printed a negative commentary on Richard Sheridan’s final actions from a self-described “recognized conscientious objector”. Christopher C. Zavisa of Ypsilanti, MI wrote, in part:
…I found the treatment of Richard Sheridan as a conscientious objector to be over-simplified and, in the end, a betrayal to men of similar philosophy. Kirby had Sheridan battle Jaffar, rejecting his previously announced beliefs against violence and killing. Kirby, a veteran of World War II and a long-time artist of war mags, seemed to be saying that, in the end, every man will turn to violence as the last resort, no matter what his personal philosophy…
The editorial response, credited to Kirby’s assistants Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, was as follows:
Your interpretation is not what was intended, by any means. Richard Sheridan was a conscientious objector and, as such, came under severe accusations of cowardice. What Kirby was trying to show was that it was not cowardice: merely an adhering to principles that his father could not understand. Richard proved this when he gave his life for his father — Even the most pacifistic soul wouldn’t stand idly by and watch his father and sister perish. The father thought that claiming conscientious objection was a cover for cowardice and, as Richard Sheridan’s sacrifice demonstrated, he was wrong.
Evanier and Sherman may have been somewhat presumptuous in stating flatly that even “the most pacifistic soul” would never reject violence when his loved ones’ lives were at stake; in fact, there is an absolute form of pacifism that demands just that of its adherents. On the other hand, that’s not the only form of pacifism in existence; we might also note that, with all due respect to Mr.Zavisa, not all conscientious objectors are required to subscribe to the exact same creed. In any case, the more important point made by Evanier and Sherman is, in my view, sound. Jack Kirby wasn’t saying that any human being will resort to violence in extreme enough circumstances, making pacifism a sham; rather, he was making the point that holding a pacifistic philosophy doesn’t equate to cowardice. That, and not the ethical validity of war and violence in general, is the issue “decided” by Richard’s sacrifice.
And so Lynn Sheridan, who’s never really managed to become a vital presence in our story anyway, exits the scene completely. The idea here seems to be, as Adam McGovern puts it: “Women are at once marginalized from the Great Conflicts and excused from culpability for them.”
But neither Shaligo nor his two cohorts, Trok and Gole, are any match for Orion’s ferocity, or for his cunning; he dispatches them in little more than a page.
How and why has Richard’s face been restored? What did Lightray mean earlier when he said, “this one shall go to the Source as one of us!!” There seems to be some sort of apotheosis awaiting the late young man, although Kirby leaves its exact nature and purpose unexplained. The gods, we are once again made to understand, move in mysterious ways.
Besides, Kirby doesn’t have time for explanations. He only has three pages left to deliver the climax and denouement of his story — and two of those are about to be devoted to full-page splash panels:
I’ve been debating with myself about whether pages 24 and 25 should be presented singly, as they are in contemporary digital editions, or side by side, as we originally experienced them in print fifty years ago. In the end, I’ve decided that they work best seen as a unit — though I have no idea whether or not that was Kirby’s actual intent.
On page 24, Kirby gives us a counterpoint to the Biblical allusion to “Leviathan” from the story’s opening page, although this reference is of much more recent origins; in referring to the sonic summons of the mutated “caller” as “the ‘Lorelei‘ sound”, the writer-artist evokes the supposedly legendary siren-like creature (actually an invention of the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine) whose song distracted sailors on the River Rhine and caused them to crash upon the rocks. The allusion to a siren’s song also lends extra resonance to Lightray’s binding of Farley Sheridan to the ship’s mast, by suggesting the episode in Homer’s Odyssey where the eponymous hero’s crew lashes him to their craft’s mast, so he can hear the sirens but is unable to go to them.
We’re not allowed to see the final, cataclysmic clash between the forces of Apokolips and New Genesis; perhaps the result is beyond the capacity of mortal senses to process. Where up until now we’ve been right on top of the action, for the moment of collision, our point of view is abruptly cast backwards, into the far distance:
And the curtain comes down on the last character left standing upon our aquatic stage, as Kirby’s closing captions evoke “grand tragedy” and is cathartic effects. Farley Sheridan — his sanity seemingly restored, though this is left ambiguous — will spend the rest of his life “…wondering…” As will we. Because we’re mortals, who must ever strain to comprehend the ways of the gods… but also because one measure of the worth of a work of art is that one never feels they have quite finished exploring its depths. And “The Glory Boat!!” is one of those works that may keep us exploring, wondering, and pondering, to the end of our own days.
As Jack Kirby devoted all 26 pages allotted for new content in New Gods #6 to his epic drama, there was no room left this issue for a 4-page “Young Gods of Supertown” strip, or even for a pin-up or two. Following the tantalizing tease for the next issue’s “The Pact!”, we went straight on into the issue’s Manhunter reprint by Kirby and Joe Simon:
Interestingly, even after this, editor Kirby and his assistants were left with two pages to fill this issue; and so, they dusted off this Simon & Kirby two-pager:
Yeah, even in 1971, we were already beginning to wistfully wonder, “Where’s my jetpack?” (Though I suppose that fifty years later, there’s a bit less wistfulness, and a lot more bitter disappointment.)
*”…er, bomb”: Not to give anything away, but you’ll see what McGovern is talking about — and also implying — once we get to page 25.