Monday, October 3, 2011

My Five Favorite New Gods

It’s already been revealed that the first major villain of the new Justice League series by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee will be none other than Darkseid, marking his first appearance since being ostensibly killed by Batman back during Final Crisis in 2009. Whether or not this heralds a full-on return for the New Gods in the near future remains to be seen, but I must say, the idea of a reconstituted Fourth (Fifth?) World as part of the re-imagined DC Universe—and perhaps in conjunction with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity project—does intrigue and excite me.

When I was a kid, the New God and their mythology were a curiosity to me. I believe my first exposure to the characters was during Panic in the Sky, where Orion and Lightray were among the heroes going up against Brainiac. That story was among the first big DC ones I read, so a lot of the players in it were unknown quantities to me, from Deathstroke to Agent Liberty to even Captain Marvel, but even amongst that crowd, I could tell that the denizens of New Genesis were a step removed from what little I knew of this universe at large, from their unique visual designs to the hints that they were only a small part of a huge tapestry of story.

I was immersed into the Fourth World piece by piece throughout the 90’s and into the next decade, be it Knockout’s origins in Superboy, Orion and Big Barda joining the JLA, Darkseid in the Great Darkness Saga and reading old stuff like the JLA/JSA crossover with the New Gods or Lashina as Duchess in Suicide Squad. Every story was a piece of a larger puzzle I couldn’t quite see the edges of. I had just stopped collecting around when John Byrne and Walt Simonson did their series and the Genesis crossover, so I missed that info dump; I did pick up Cosmic Odyssey at some point in college, but saw it more as a cool story with great art, not a guidebook to the sprawling world Jack Kirby had created.

When the Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus series came out, I decided by hook or by crook to acquire every volume and finally get to know these this characters and this epic I’d been dancing around for decades in full. I was not let down as Kirby’s stories—pardon this—crackle with all the energy and enthusiasm I’d always heard they did, with the frankly often insane stories measuring up to art the page barely contains. The man truly created a modern day mythology as close to being on par with the ancient Greek tales I read as a kid as I could imagine. The colorful characters, interconnected tree of relationships, bizarre technology and even the purple prose speak to a boundless source—did it again—of creative excellence.

Perhaps nothing featuring the New Gods has ever even come close to those original ahead of their time tales, but of the dozens of featured and background players who make up the Fourth World, here are the ones who have most captured my attention over the years.

Honorable Mention: KANTO
He’s an absurd looking fop who is also the greatest assassin on a nightmare planet with an incredible array of weapons; I didn’t make a secret of it, but I wanted to see Smallville’s take on Kanto so bad.

Super hippies! Everybody knows I’m generally a fan of teen heroes as a rule, but I applaud that the Fourth World doesn’t just have the boilerplate young good guys, but beatniks who have stayed true to that attitude for going on 30 years or so now. It’s such a great mix of kooky personalities too, with the expected true blue hero in Mark Moonrider and pretty girl in Beautiful Dreamer, but then a mellower big dude than usual with Big Bear, a brain with an edge with Vykin and then Serifan, who is a cowboy. They also predate the Planeteers, who stole their Infinity-Man gimmick with Captain Planet.

A scary old lady who runs Apokolips’ torture camps and who can be played for laughs or taken deathly serious. Even though the visual and the demeanor of Granny Goodness are ridiculous, everybody outside of Darkseid himself is still terrified of her. She’s an inspired bit of eccentricity from Kirby, who took the archetype that made the least sense in the given role and then dialed it to eleven. She was a ridiculous caricature voiced by Ed Asner on Justice League and an eerie old crone on Smallville and both interpretations had equal validity—versatility.

At first glance, Big Barda is such a weird study in contrasts. Her name, her attire and her ferocity as a warrior paint her as one type of character; her physical beauty beneath all that armor—I love that moment in the original Mister Miracle series where she takes off her headdress and Oberon is blown away—as well as her deep feelings for and heartfelt romance with Scott Free paint a different picture. I dig that Barda is a beyond strong female character who kicks major ass and can still have a tender side without sacrificing any of the things that make her so. In a lot of ways, I like Barda better than Wonder Woman as she is a similar figure who possesses a confidence in where she stands and what she fights for I feel Diana has struggled to maintain from era to era. Barda was—and could be again—a fantastic member of the Justice League as she had the respect of everybody, male and female, but the affection of only those who took the time to get to know her, and she was fine with whatever because, again, she knows where she stands, and that’s what counts.

How can you not love Darkseid? To start, he looks like an utter bad ass despite the fact he basically wears a skirt. More than that, he is very much a bad guy, but not so much a villain, as his motivation goes far beyond greed, conquest or even simply wanting to do wrong—though all those things play a role—and goes into a unique realm of not wanting, but needing fill the void existence has left him with power, domination and knowledge. I think deep down Darkseid knows nothing he does and no achievement he notches will truly satisfy him, but he loves the quest perhaps more than he could ever love the goal. Darkseid has endured more than any other Fourth World character because he has a weight to him that carries with him wherever he goes. He seems to be that rare character that cannot be tainted by a bad story or weak concept; Darkseid still seems like the ultimate threat every time he shows up no matter how he was previously dispatched. Heck, when Darkseid showed up in Young Justice surrounded by parody there was still a tangible element of danger. He’s the embodiment of evil and you’re damn sure you never want to see him win, but you can’t help but be transfixed by whatever he’s up to.

Scott Free has a great look; he’s the epitome Jack Kirby’s knack for taking a design that should by all accounts be too busy, but pulls together disparate elements and colors to work in unexpected harmony. He’s got the totally unique and neat “super power” of being the greatest escape artist anywhere and his adventures are more akin to puzzles than slugfests, which makes for a nice change of pace. He’s set apart even more by being one of those happily married super heroes who demonstrates a guy can be in a healthy, committed relationship and still also pull off the role of charming swashbuckler. Above and beyond all that, though, what I love most about Mister Miracle is that he is the embodiment of taking whatever life throws at you and making the best of it to the extreme. The Pact that sits at the core of the Fourth World concept in which Highfather exchanged his son—Scott—with Darkseid’s son—Orion—utterly screwed this guy over, forcing the boy who should have been the heir apparent to paradise to basically reside in hell for doing nothing wrong and knowing his suffering maintained peace between two worlds. Rather than wallow in this miserable situation, Scott Free trains to escape it, and once he does, goes on to not only become a hero, but forgive the father who abandoned him and champion the world once lost to him. Mister Miracle’s story is one of escaping despair and the prison of terrible circumstances to embrace freedom in every way, not just enjoying it but continuing to forever fight for it; great character all around.