Full Fathom Five
March 27, 2011
You kinda had to be there… at the middle of the story, in an underground cavern beneath the sea, with three long years to go on the Nixon presidency. When I was a kid Kirby’s Fourth World books showed up at the convenience store and pharmacy with the frequency and reliability of a mirage; I found New Gods #5, then #11, and then it was gone; my brother had picked up Mister Miracle #2 somewhere, then I saw #8 and #9, then nothing; forget about The Forever People. On the upside, before completing my collections at price-gouging comic shops, I’d almost entirely missed the era of inker Vince Colletta’s scratchy, awkward and eraser-happy anti-graffiti over Kirby’s Dolby Cinemascope pencils, right in time for the delusional majesty of Mike Royer’s brush on the issue from which this image is taken, New Gods #5 (October 1971).
[HiLobrow recently published a series of 25 posts, by 25 authors, each analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book. This essay by Adam McGovern is the third of several Kirby exegetical commentaries that we’ll publish in weeks to come.]
Kirby’s lucid fever-dreams were so infectious that you didn’t need to know what had gone before, because you were in that subaquatic cave, and you’d feel what was going on soon enough. But for those of you who aren’t back in the convenience store with me, the rageaholic angel of death Orion (pictured here), born on the gulag planet Apokolips but adopted by the idyllic New Genesis and fated to end the two worlds’ ancient war by killing his own father (Apokolips’ ruler), has been dispatched to Earth to subdue “The Deep Six,” nightmare mermen who are mutating the life of our oceans (which makes ya wonder why the post-Horizon Tony Hayward didn’t audition on Apokolips).
Orion would encounter intrusive father-figures throughout the series, from dickish shipwrecked industrialist Farley Sheridan, who wants to run the show of his own rescue by Orion, to bullheaded detective sergeant “Terrible Turpin,” who’ll have none of the New Gods’ block-leveling horseplay in his town; in this issue Deep Sixer “Slig” is able to mutate animals with one hand and disintegrate them with the other — the alpha and omega of the stern celestial dad — and prophesies that Orion’s anger will do his enemies’ work for them, consuming him when he thinks he’s so right, which no son wants to hear.
By the time this issue starts Slig has trapped Orion by the leg in a giant mutant clam (no comment), and their war of threats and insults was very unusual for comics of the time (though not uncommon for, say, squint-eyed closeup conflicts in Western and war movies of the time); there’s a rancor and a claustrophobia to both setting and emotional tone that was both compellingly dramatic and, to a seven-year-old, magnetically sick; this is the intimacy of combat, and of human cruelty, and, it’s depressing to note, apparently of divine cruelty too. The New Gods (and devils) conduct themselves in tune with mystic tech, a spiritual frequency called The Source which is composed of the lost souls of “gods” who died when a single planet split into New Genesis and Apokolips in a kind of thermonuclear Ragnarok. This presence is accessed by a sentient computer-circuit called a “mother box,” and in the panel above Orion has just squeezed the one inside Slig’s helmet until “she” self-destructs.
Orion interprets this as a lovelorn suicide for a now-unreachable soulmate, and the bizarre assignment of gender and personhood, along with one of Royer’s frightful staccato stuck-computer-key “HAHAHAHA”s, turned my young mind inside out. The lettering was art approaching mechanics, and the mother-box murder was technology approaching obsession; it would be decades before all comics were produced with programs and most American males reported inability to get aroused without internet porn, but all us nerdboys longed for Royer’s sleekness and each one of us would have married our toys. What was news to us, so much so that it’s the first Kirby panel I think of when asked 40 years later, was the destructive rapture from the closest thing the story had to a hero, and the revelation of all it is that Orion really loves.
CHECK OUT “Cosmic Debris: Kirby in the ’70s,” a series that ran in tandem with “Kirb Your Enthusiasm” at the 4CP gallery of comic book details | Kirby cutaways and diagrams collected at the Comic Book Cartography gallery | Joe Alterio’s Cablegate Comix and HiLobrow posts about comics and cartoonists, and science fiction | The Jack Kirby Chronology | scans of rare 1940-50s Kirby comics at the Digital Comic Museum
KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker | BTOOM! Kirby vs. Lee, by Rob Steibel |
What do you think?
Great essay! As a footnote, the later sequence in which Orion re-camouflages his true Apokolips visage makes you realize that Justin Bieber is an agent of Darkseid. I’m just saying.
Oh, Orion, you motherbox fucker
I just realized something: you know how you’re reading Dostoevsky, and all of a sudden, you have no freakin’ idea what emotional turn happened three pages ago that all the characters are processing and laughing and weeping over? (Oh, come on, even Edith Wharton admitted she had this problem — man up and admit it.) That’s what the Fourth World is like.
Also, if the big O is right, that is one selfish motherbox.
Great comment, GDG!
You laugh, GDG, but The Big O won’t be layin’ no *small* death on some Apokolips ass! Kirby was working under intense time constraints and moving toward a minimalist brevity of expression so he had to convey emotions in a strange jump-cut shorthand. And Dostoevsky was…I guess, Russian. True story Josh, I cut a claim from the upcoming Bowie blurb that his Mod-era hairstyle influenced Bieber, but you’re right, archetypal science-hell is a more plausible provenance…
Welcome, Comics Journal readers!
Great choice, so much character information packed into one moment. I think this is the panel where New Gods went from being a great comic, to being Kirby’s all-time best series–whatever the opposite of jumping-the-shark would be.
“Dodging the Leviathan”? :-)
Taming the Leviathan?
No, Yosh-U.A. — mold it! “Re-actualize” it with a techno-tonic “enlightenment beam”!!
The Leviathan is dodged in the very next issue. Literally in this case.
Kirby commenting on his work again?
Oh, and Adam: you forget to mention the important difference in Apokolips-model Mother Boxes from their New Genesis sisteren. Is this just because reading this at the time you had yet to see Mr. Miracle no. 9?
What, that only New Genesis models will sometimes diverge from their operators’ intent or expectations while the Apokolips versions follow blindly and desperately? Every mom has to choose between doing what she knows is best for you and supporting you right-or-wrong…and that doesn’t change just ‘cuz you’re big and strong or she’s a disembodied intellect in a BlackBerry…
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