Monday, May 13, 2013

Opening Contract - New Gods #1

It was only a matter of time before Jack Kirby made an appearance. This weeks Opening Contract is from New Gods #1 from DC Comics, written and drawn by Jack Kirby with inks by Vince Colletta and letters by John Costanza. This page shows Kirby doing what he does best– huge, epoch-shattering action. Seriously, take a look at that page. That IS comics right there. But, if we take a closer look at this panel, as well as place it into the context of Kirby’s career as a whole, a parallel reading begins to emerge.

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.

Many of the concepts that came to be used in Kirby’s Fourth World books (the umbrella term coined for the titles following the New Gods characters) began their life in the title Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (Kirby had to take on a regular title too, and didn’t want to see anyone out of work so picked DC’s lowest selling book, one without a regular artist). This metaseries then carried over into titles such as New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle. The story itself was concerned with Good Vs Evil, albeit between the worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips. The ruler of Apokolips, Darkseid plotted to possess the Anti-Life Equation, something that would allow him to control all sentient beings. Opposing him were a cast of characters from New Genesis, including his son Orion, Mister Miracle, the Forever People and Lightray.

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!”
And that’s pretty much what we see– a final, apocalyptic battle between the old gods and their assembled armies. The top left of the page is taken up by a frantically rendered structure, all thick black lines and patterns. In the top right a warrior screams a battle cry, ready to charge into the fray whilst one of his allies lies dead across an outcrop in a crucified pose. The middle of the panel is taken up by a man with a sword, riding a flying dragon against a backdrop of yellow that suggests a raging, unnatural heat. Close to him more of the old gods battle one another on yet another majestic, otherworldly outcrop.

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.

Goethe went on to say that “When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.” This chromatic scale can be seen in Goethe’s symmetric colour wheel. Take a closer look at that wheel and then glance back at the panel. Whether purposeful or not, the panel is incredibly close to using all of the colours on that wheel. Each colour on the wheel has a polar opposite and this page is using all of them. In this way it’s suggestive of the dichotomies at play here as well as the ones that will spring forth from this fiery Ragnarok– Good and Evil, Old Gods and New Gods, Death and Rebirth, New Genesis and Apokolips. Goethe elaborated on this notion of polar opposites:
“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”
He also assigned each of the colours on the wheel an aesthetic quality, which I won’t stray into here, but it’s fun to look at and think about if you’re so inclined. Goethe’s theory on colour met with derision in the scientific community (in the arts however it flourished) and has seemingly been ‘replaced’ by more scientific theories by such luminaries as Isaac Newton.

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.

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Grandpa Chet said...

Save for the assertion that Colletta colored this, your entry is as good a summation of how very different this was at the time. I don't think anyone who didn't live it the first time can truly appreciate how shockingly abrupt this felt. Up to this point, Superman had never been in conflict with his own humanity, nor had his cosmic significance been addressed.
Thor's helmet was found in the ruins of New Genesis in a later backup story. We learn that the opposite of Life is not Death, but loss of choice - Anti-Life. And thru it all, we find confrontation doesn't work against Darkseid, but our examples do.
Kirby was indeed pushing the limits, and DC - among others - are still re-mining the ore which he extracted.

Dan Hill said...

Thanks for the kind words!

I can't even imagine how this would have read at the time of its original release. There are elements that are so out there and ahead of its time even now!

Re: Colletta, that was a total mistake on my part which I've now corrected.

American Zombie (R. A. Wonsowski) said...

I have been absolutely passionate about the New Gods for a long time. Considering how much is set up here, and then leads into stories such as The Pact and (personal fave) The Glory Boat, Kirby truly was giving his Marvel years its twilight, and brought so much vitality to the DC Universe.

The first page alone justifies calling Kirby the KING. Thank you for highlighting this wonderful series.

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