When New Gods emerged in 1971, Kirby’s troubles with Marvel were well documented. At the tail end of the 60’s, tired with quarrels over money with Marvel, and the ever growing figurehead that was Stan Lee, Kirby did the unthinkable– he defected to DC Comics.
The plot itself was fairly basic, mythical certainly, but nothing groundbreaking. The treat here was in its execution with Kirby producing work that I’d place amongst his best. His work is kinetic and colourful with his characters almost seeming to burst from the panels that constrain them. Amazing and fantastical concepts such as Boom Tubes, Mother Boxes, and Mobius Chairs were peppered throughout the narrative.
In this way New Gods represents Kirby’s disgruntlement with the more traditional superhero fare of the time. Whilst New Gods was infused with concepts that pushed it past such stories, perhaps its biggest difference was in its proposed structure and sale methods. Kirby envisaged the series as finite with a subsequent series of collected volumes to be sold in mass market bookstores. Unthinkable in 1971, but proof that Kirby was ahead of the curve and tired of the old way of doing things.
So, this was the context, now lets get to the opening panel itself. Publication wise New Gods #1 came after The Forever People #1 but the former is the issue that introduces us to the origins of the Fourth World characters and settings. This begins in the first panel, fittingly and contradictorily titled with the legend, Epilogue.
The panel is a mass of colour, energy and character, bursting at the seams with fire, brimstone and Kirby crackle. The top of the page contains the suitably grandiose legend:
“There came a time when the old gods died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It >was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!”
The page is separated by a lance jutting across the middle of the page, held by the hand of an unseen warrior. Beneath this line we can see the hordes fighting, a mass of bodies, axes and clubs. All of this is rendered in bright, beautiful colours. If one looks at the colours we could argue that they were chosen for their contrasting natures, that they break up and highlight the disparate elements, action and figures on the page.
If we speculate however, something else emerges from the colour choices. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours, published in 1810, he developed a wide range of observations about the ‘character’ of colour. Chief amongst them was the notion that darkness wasn’t the absence of light, rather it was the polar of it. This certainly evokes connotations of the struggle between the leaders and denizens of New Genesis and Apokolips, but Goethe went further, positing that colour arose from the dynamic interplay between darkness and light. The panel definitely seems to be testing elements of that theory here with the colours contrasting in an extremely dynamic and lively manner, making the page ‘pop’ in a hyper-kinetic fashion.
“The chromatic circle… [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order… for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green; and vice versa: thus… all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa”
What we’re experiencing here is Ragnarok itself, the death of the old gods. Kirby of course, when at Marvel, had worked on Thor and Journey Into Mystery and was fully versed in Norse mythology and the concept of Ragnarok. It’s not a secret that this page is a direct continuation of his work with those characters. Indeed, if one looks halfway down the page on the left we can see a figure wearing a very familiar helmet, wielding what appears to be a hammer.
Ragnarok of course is an important part of Norse mythology, marking the end of the current cycle, the death of the old gods, old ways and the rebirth of something new from the destruction. This panel is Kirby’s Ragnarok, marking the end of his work with Marvel and bringing something ‘new’ from the rubble. So, with this ‘opening contract’ we’re not only seeing the death of an old belief system/world/set of deities, we’re also watching Kirby cast off the trappings of his earlier career to carve new paths for himself.