This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the King of comics, Mr. Jack Kirby, and DC Comics has marked 2017 with a series of Kirby-related projects that celebrate the master’s contribution to their universe. In fact, they’ve really made Marvel Comics look bad, given that Kirby’s legendary reputation was made at the House of Ideas. The New Gods Special #1 is one of those projects, and though everyone involved tries their best to deliver an issue that glorifies Kirby’s most significant DC Comics creations, it does wind up reminding you why there really hasn’t been anyone since who can equal the crazy, unfettered bombastic over-the-top creativity of the King. The result is an issue that is always a fairly enjoyable read, however it never feels momentous and only fleetingly captures the spirit that suffused all of Kirby’s work, for good or ill.
The New Gods Special #1 doesn’t in fact, really focus on a variety of New Gods to a great degree, instead really being about Orion, the Dog of War. For those unfamiliar, Orion is the son of Darkseid who, as part of a peace treaty between Darkseid’s planet Apokolips and New Genesis, was sent to be raised by the New Gods while a New god child, Scott Free, was sent to be raised on Apokolips. As a result, Orion is kind of a living metaphor for the the struggle of nature vs nurture. Filled with the rage born into him due to his parentage, Orion’s perpetual arc is his struggle to deny his dark heritage and finally embrace the more peaceful and enlightened ways of his adopted world.
The main story of the issue sees Orion’s brother, Kalibak surreptitiously invade New Genesis with the aim of deploying a sinister weapon. Whereas Orion spends most of his life trying to refute any connection to Darkseid, Kalibak spends his time desperately trying to prove himself worthy of his father’s pride. Writer/Penciler Shane Davis crafts an enjoyable enough story, packed with action, that sees Orion, Lightray and Forager head into battle to stop Kalibak and save the insect colony of Forager’s people who have been forced into slavery.
Davis delivers great art, to be sure, with his story entered around an excellent, knock-down, drag-out fight between the two brothers. He doesn’t in any direct way try to ape Kirby’s style, which would obviously be a mistake, but he does manage to give the story a lot of dynamic energy and impact, always a hallmark of the King’s work. There’s some really great work here, and all of the characters are expressive and distinct, and although the action is more violent in a modern sense than Kirby ever tried for, Davis is definitely trying to evoke the breathless pace Kirby’s work often captured.
The drawback is that this story is pretty much like every other Orion story I’ve read, resulting in a familiar and ultimately disposable feel. Orion is shown to be bigoted and prejudiced against Forager’s insect heritage, a plot point I’ve seen probably ten times before. And the crux of his journey as a character within the story is how he comes to accept his rage-filled heritage, without denying its strengths or giving in to its weaknesses or cruelties. There’s just nothing new to this story, and despite the fact that I thought the story was executed fairly well, it just never felt new or fresh enough to engage, nor light enough to coast on charm. The story basically feels not unlike a disposable back-up that would have popped up in an annual from 1998. That’s too bad, because I think Davis has affinity for the characters and certainly an ability to tell an exciting battle-heavy story. I just wish he had decided to tread on some ground that was far less well-travelled.
The second story, a short little tale written and drawn by the legendary Walt Simonson, has more promise. It’s too bad it’s a six page story, as the brevity doesn’t allow it to do very much. But Simonson is more successful in capturing the brash, often ridiculous, faux-loftiness of Kirby’s New Gods work. The story follows a young Orion and his brash and light-hearted pal Seagrin as they dodge leviathans in an underwater adventure. With a group of monsters called The Deep Six and the Krake and a title like “Teeth of the See,” this story absolutely nails a Kirby-esque vibe, and Simonson’s style has always in some ways more easily evoked Kirby’s. But it’s the slightly goofy bombast of the writing that most effectively evokes the King’s style, and this gives this short tale a charm despite the simplistic plot rendering it a bit slight.
The rest of The New Gods Special #1 features reprints of some of Kirby’s DC material, and I’m not too sure why these pieces in particular were picked. There’s a Kalibak pinup, which is cool, but the rest of the material doesn’t have much, brief cameo aside, to do with Orion who had starred in the other stories in the issue. Instead, the reprints focus on Lonar, a New God not in the rest of the issue at all. Just felt a bit random.
Compared with the bold and risky innovation that was “The Kamandi Challenge” or the unfettered creativity and fun of “Bug! Adventures of Forager”, The New Gods Special #1 winds up feeling by the numbers and slight, only making us regard Kirby’s work with these characters with even more esteem. As a collection of stories, it’s a pleasant enough diversion, but as a tribute to one of comics’ greatest talents, one wishes the book had tried to be as ambitious as its inspiration. 6.5/10