Ask Chris #54: The Mythology of Jack Kirby’s ‘New Gods’
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Beyond Thor and Hercules, who are the best gods in comics? — @Wraithstrike
A: Well, I hate to be pedantic about this — because as we all know, the Comics Internet simply can’t abide pedantry — but it actually sort of depends on what exactly you mean by “gods.” If you mean mythological figures that were actually worshipped by people in the real world, then I have to admit that Thor and Hercules pretty much have that one sewn up, if only because I’ve never really gotten around to reading as many stories of the Monkey King as I want to.
If, however, you mean any characters that are referred to as gods with a similar aesthetic and scope, then there’s absolutely no question about which ones are the best. Why even bother with the old gods when Jack Kirby gave us The New Gods?
Comic books are often referred to as modern mythology, but it’s not quite the same thing. While both forms tend to center around phenomenally powerful characters engaging in gigantic, often allegorical battles waged through impossible feats, the modern super-hero tends to have a lot less in common with classical mythology than they do with folktales and stories of heroes like Robin Hood. The difference is one of intent: While their stories often do have deeper morals and mean more than just the surface, the primary goal for the super-hero is to entertain.
Mythology, on the other hand, has its roots in education, rather than just entertainment. It seeks to provide instruction or answer questions about the world around us by personifying concepts into explanations people could relate to. Why does the sun rise and set? Because Apollo rides his chariot across the sky. What holds the sky up? A gigantic dude with some severe back problems. Why do spiders make webs? Because Athena’s a really sore loser.
The fact that these explanations also have the potential to make really entertaining stories — What makes that big boom when it’s raining? Thor beating giants to death with a hammer — is a secondary concern, and one that seems to be based on getting people to actually listen to the explanations. If classical mythology was more boring, it wouldn’t have survived for thousands of years.
Of course, there’s another key element to their survival that’s also their biggest similarity to modern super-hero comics, and that’s that the same thing happened with them that happens whenever someone creates a popular group of characters: The audience wants to know more. So this Thor guy fights giants? That sounds like something I’d like to hear more of, especially if it takes my mind off of chipping through the tundra for four hours so that we can get the spring planting done. The stories then grow, and the result is that you end up with abstract concepts and aspects of nature that are viewed through the lens of humanity.
That’s what forms the bridge between explanation and entertainment. The entire reason why we still talk about mythological gods and heroes thousands of years after anyone thinks that the Sun is actually a dude being dragged across the sky by horses who lands somewhere off the coast of California every night is because we can relate to them as people. For all their lofty power, the gods of Greek mythology have very human concerns: Hercules was strong enough to punch a lion to death, but he still had to wake up in the morning and work 12 jobs he didn’t want to do because he screwed up. Zeus isn’t just a gigantic raincloud, he’s a dude in a bad marriage who has trouble relating to his kids and thinks the girl down at the vineyard is pretty hot. Of course, he would also think that the best way to hit on her would be to transform himself into a swan and hope she was what we in the Internet age would call a “Feathery,” but that’s beside the point.
The Norse gods went even further by having the one concern that’s uniquely and ultimately human: They knew they were going to die. As a result, while the original intent of explaining why we have rainbows has faded, the characters themselves endure.
And all that brings us to the 20th century and the world of super-heroes. With their educational value removed by the advance of science and the fact that we had the actual reasons for natural phenomena, the only thing the heroes had left was their value as entertaining stories — and for the people Kirby was telling stories for, that was a role that had been supplanted by the comic book super-hero. Even the mythological characters that had survived had been recast into new roles; the Thor and Hercules that Stan Lee created for Marvel Comics certainly aren’t the same characters as their inspirations, if only because Aeschylus never wrote them into a titanic team-up with Iron Man or Dr. Doom.
In other words, there came a time when the old gods died.
With that in mind — and having just recently left the company where he’d created the comic book version of Thor, giving the panel above an added metatextual element — Jack Kirby created a series of comic books that were truly mythological in scope. But rather than dealing with the explanations that the rapidly advancing science of the 20th century had made irrelevant, he focused on other, more metaphysical questions: What is the nature of good and evil, and is it possible for one to arise from the other? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to lose that freedom? Can the horrors of war and violence be justified? These weren’t new questions by any means, but they were the ones people ask that don’t have easy, scientifically provable answers, which is why they persist and inspire stories that explore them.
Of course, Kirby’s genius lies in the fact that these are stories that can be read and enjoyed perfectly well on the surface level as nothing more than epic adventure stories. The underlying ideas that drive mythology are all there in every character, but seen most clearly in the conflict between Orion, Mr. Miracle and Darkseid.
Of all the Fourth World characters, Mr. Miracle is probably the easiest to read on a metaphorical level, because it’s all right there in front of you: The son of Highfather, he was exchanged for the son of Darkseid to seal a non-aggression pact between the idyllic planet of New Genesis and the dystopian Apokolips, and as his greatest attempt to prove the superiority of Evil, Darkseid imprisoned him and raised him to be a mindless drone, stripped of all individuality and made into an unthinking soldier who lived only to serve those in charge of his society. There’s even the fact that the plan was carried out by Granny Goodness, a monster wrapped in the name of something pleasant, the living embodiment of lies and propaganda.
But instead of succumbing, he escaped, literally removing himself from the very idea of evil. And not only that, but in doing so, he spread the idea of freedom to others, even luring away Barda — the deadliest of Darkseid’s Female Furies — through the simple, enduring idea of love. She is shown a better way, and rejects the horrors she has been conditioned to both accept and perpetrate in Darkseid’s name.
That alone would be a beautiful story, but it seems to rely on the idea that goodness is inherent, and that if you possess it, you can resist the crush and temptation of evil. That’s part of it, but there’s an equally important aspect to the story that comes from Orion.
If Good and Evil were inherent properties, then Orion would’ve just been Mr. Miracle in reverse — he would have remained evil despite Highfather’s best efforts, and returned to his father unchanged. But he doesn’t, and that’s one of the most important statements that Kirby makes in the entire New Gods saga: Orion resists Evil simply because he’s been shown a better way to live, which means that in the exchange of children between Highfather and Darkseid — between Good and Evil — Darkseid loses three times. From the beginning of the saga, there’s no question about which is more powerful.
Of course, while it comes easily to Mr. Miracle, Orion struggles. ComicsAlliance’s own David Brothers is fond of talking about Ann Nocenti’s highly underrated run on Daredevil, where she inverts the traditional model of super-hero comics by characterizing every time Daredevil resorts to violence as a failure. The same holds true with Orion, whose very nature tends towards violence. Every time he’s forced into a fight, every time he loses control, he’s betraying his ideals and there’s a level where New Genesis loses and Apokolips wins.
It’s also worth noting that the only things that keep him from giving into his tendency for bloodshed are the teachings of Highfather and the calming influence of the Mother Box. Again, it’s all right there on the page, and Kirby’s not exactly subtle about it. It’s his mother and father, his upbringing, the way that he’s raised that shows him a better way to live.
Kirby, a veteran of World War II who had nightmares about the horrors he saw for the rest of his life, created a mythology where there’s no such thing as a god of war, because the very act of war itself is a losing proposition. Orion himself refers to it as “packaged murder,” and at best, it’s shown to be a regrettable necessity that can never truly be won through the temporary solution provided by, but by eliminating the root causes of hatred and fear.
Which brings us to Darkseid, the embodiment of hatred and fear, a swaggering bully who devotes himself only to his own personal gain. But the interesting thing about Darkseid is that he’s not just the super-villain space monarch who sits on a throne plotting destruction. Instead, he’s both grand and insidious, showing up anywhere at any time, even in your own home:
For all his intimidating physicality, Darkseid is very rarely seen in “action.” He doesn’t punch through a wall and start trading haymakers with Superman, his actions are geared towards conditioning people to embrace and exploit their own base hatred and fear. That’s how he wins and remakes the world in his own image, by dividing humanity and spreading the evil of hate, fear and ignorance, allowing them to believe that they can justify believing that someone else is somehow less of a person.
Unlike most villains, Darkseid’s ultimate goal doesn’t really involve killing anyone. He’s devoted not to death but to Anti-Life — described by Walter Simonson “the outside control of all living thought,” a slavery that masquerades as freedom by allowing its victims to give in to the dark side of humanity. Again: No subtlety whatsoever.
But it’s what he does. In Forever People, it takes the form of an amusement park where the exhibits are his victims, conditioning people to ignore the suffering of their fellow man, terrifying the children who realize what’s happening while the adults become more an more jaded. In Mr. Miracle, he commissions a trap for the world’s greatest escape artist that doesn’t involve ropes, chains, or locks, but rather a building full of people who have been convinced that Mr. Miracle isn’t one of them, that he’s something other, something that isn’t a person and is therefore there to be destroyed.
It might not be subtle, but at the same time, it’s hardly the grandstanding form of blow-up-the-world evil that comic books have a reputation of portraying. This is a villain who exploits the small selfishness that we all see, experience, and even commit on a daily basis and shows how it all adds up to towering evil, and that makes him one of the most genuinely terrifying villains in comics. Darkseid’s not real, but the evil he dabbles in is.
And that’s the essence of mythology. As real as Darkseid’s evil is, the struggle that Orion experiences to avoid giving in is just as real, as is the desire for freedom that drives Mr. Miracle. It’s designed to teach something as well as entertain, and it succeeds.
Q: I want to read Maggin and Bates’ Superman, but I need a good starting point. Are there any trades for that, and if not what are the best back issues to get? – @GentlemanMonstr
A: It’s actually not a comic, but if you really want to get some excellent work by Elliot S! Maggin, then you should definitely track down the two Superman novels that he wrote, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday. They’re honestly some of the best Superman stories ever told in any medium, and they’re cheap enough that I often see ‘em floating around conventions for a buck each.
Failing that, I’ve talked a few times about the amazing three-issue Lex Luthor/Superman team-up story that Cary Bates did in Action Comics #510 – 512 that’s well worth picking up.
Q: Are there any women comic book writers/artists? Can you recommend your favorites (if you have any)? — Amanda, via email
A: Oh yeah, there’s a bunch, and in fact, Marvel just recently did a three issue anthology series called Girl Comics that was produced entirely by women. As far as personal favorites, artwise, I’m a huge fan of Colleen Coover (currently drawing Top Shelf’s Gingerbread Girl, which is available to read online), Amanda Conner, Emma Rios, and Ramona Fradon was one of the best artists of the Silver Age. As far as writers, I like an awful lot of what Gail Simone’s done — particularly her old Deadpool/Agent X run — and Kelly Sue DeConnick is doing a great story at Marvel with Osborn.
And in webcomics, there’s even more: Ming Doyle draws The Loneliest Astronauts, Jess Fink does the amazing erotic victorian robot romance comic Chester 5000 (NSFW), JoJo Seames draws Monster Plus, and Sheli Hay draws Troop Infinity. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Q: Who the hell is Jake Friedfeld? – @ageofarune
A: I think “Jazzy” Jake Friedfeld was a character who appeared in exactly one issue of Patsy Walker as a soda jerk with a crush on the title character. He stared longingly while filling up a root beer float for Patsy and Buzz, only to become distracted and have it spill on his shoes, punctuating the strip with his would-be catchphrase “Aw ploppers!” Apparently reader outcry was so strong that he was never seen again.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!