Mike Marsland/WireImage; DC Comics
March 16, 2018 at 05:50 PM EDT

Stan Lee is the one who pops up in every Marvel movie, taking his well-deserved victory lap for co-creating everyone’s favorite superheroes. But he didn’t do it alone — characters from Thor to Hulk owe just as much to the late artist Jack Kirby, Lee’s longtime collaborator at Marvel. Unfortunately, Kirby’s tenure at Marvel was not as pleasant as Lee’s, and in the ‘70s he left for rival publisher DC. There, he created a whole new pantheon of characters known as the New Gods. Now, decades later, reports are that acclaimed director Ava DuVernay will be helming a film adaptation of New Gods for DC and Warner Bros. DuVernay has made her name with Oscar-nominated films like Selma, shows like Queen Sugar, and her recent adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but the New Gods remain relatively obscure.

So who are they, and where did they come from? The New Gods are rather hard to explain briefly. Kirby’s original story was divided into three different comics — New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People — which led to the construction of an intricate fictional universe. Here’s the background you need to get excited for DuVernay’s film.

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In the beginning was the end

Although Lee was credited as the writer and Kirby was credited as the artist on their Marvel collaborations, the division of labor was a bit blurrier than that. The so-called “Marvel Method,” and the fact that Lee was writing so many different comics, meant that Kirby was often coming up with plots and characters for books like Fantastic Four, not just drawing Lee’s orders. So when he went to DC, Kirby took on full creative responsibility as both writer and artist for his new comics. As a result, the books are full of Shakespearean bombast rather than Lee’s slick humor. Just take the explosive first line of New Gods #1, which explains how this world came to be: “There came a time when the old gods died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble died in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!”

So, yes. The idea is, after the old legendary gods perished in fiery apocalypse (think of Ragnarok from the Norse myths and/or Thor movies as an example), the resulting cataclysm produced two new worlds filled with younger gods for a new age. One of these worlds was bright, shining New Genesis; its opposite, hellish Apokolips, lay in the shadows. As one might expect from two such fundamentally different worlds, New Genesis and Apokolips spent ages locked in a terrible war. Finally, the leaders of the two sides — Highfather of New Genesis and the dark lord Darkseid of Apokolips — came up with an unusual solution to the war. As part of their peace pact, Highfather and Darkseid exchanged their infant sons, so that each would have a hostage against the other to prevent further attacks. Darkseid’s scrappy, monstrous young son was sent to New Genesis, where he grew into the noble warrior Orion. Highfather’s golden boy was sent to the hells of Apokolips, where he was christened Scott Free in mockery of his imprisonment. Scott’s attempts to escape his demonic prison forged him into the super escape artist known as Mister Miracle. These two characters would grow to shape the destiny of the so-called Fourth World, but they’re far from the only members of Kirby’s incredibly detailed fictional universe.

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Who’s who on New Genesis

New Genesis is a paradise, but not a utopia. That’s evident from the first time we see it in New Gods #1, when Orion returns after an excursion in space. After all, New Genesis is supposed to be a bastion of peace, but its greatest protector is a god of war. As the story goes on, other contradictions in New Genesis’ sunny exterior pop up as well.

Orion isn’t the first son of New Genesis to prove himself in battle, however. Highfather was known as Izaya the Inheritor in his younger days. After Darkseid’s uncle Steppenwolf (who you may remember from the Justice League movie) killed Izaya’s wife Avia, he launched a destructive war against Apokolips in retaliation. Izaya soon got his revenge on Steppenwolf – that’s right, the villain of Justice League only lasted a few pages in his original comic appearance — but soon realized the war was only serving Darkseid’s goals of galaxy-wide destruction. Subsequently, Izaya had a religious experience before the Wall (the only remnant of the Old Gods’ kingdom) that convinced him to change his ways. He became connected to the universal life energy known as the Source, and became a peaceful Highfather in its service. In his later years, his greatest pleasure was to teach New Genesis’ youngest children.

Highfather had a benign influence on Orion, teaching the battle-ready young man to harness his skills to fight for goodness and peace. Orion is nevertheless caught in constant tension between his New Genesis upbringing and his origin as the son of evil. This conflict is most clear in his face. Thanks to New Genesis technology known as a Mother Box (basically a smartphone for gods), Orion is able to appear like a handsome man. But the stress of battle sometimes break the illusion and reveal Orion’s face to be just as craggy as his birth father’s. This tension weighs heavily on Orion because there is a prophecy that Darkseid can only be defeated by his own son. But which son…?

(P.S.: Have you noticed a trend here? A universal life energy called “the Source,” wise old bearded men teaching the secrets of the universe, a son prophesied to defeat his true father who doubles as a dark lord of evil … perhaps now you see why New Gods, first published in 1971, is sometimes seen as an unheralded influence on 1977’s Star Wars).

The beauty and light of New Genesis is reflected in Lightray, a relentlessly cheery New God who flies around at the speed of light, trying to cheer up everyone he meets (making for a funny pair with the constantly-surly Orion). On the other hand, New Genesis’ contradictions are summed up in the figure of Metron. Riding around in his time-traveling Mobius Chair, Metron is constantly seeking more and more knowledge but has very few morals; in many ways, he is Kirby’s prediction of the modern internet user. 

New Genesis’ hypocrisy is also seen in the character of Forager, the champion of a race of bug people who live underneath the surface of New Genesis and form a poverty-stricken underclass to the race of benevolent gods. Kirby was a veteran of World War II, and he brought that experience to New Gods; Darkseid, for example, is a distillation of authoritarian dictators like Hitler and Stalin. But he was also open to contemporaneous events and youth culture. The Forever People, for instance, were a group of hippie-looking young superheroes with names like Beautiful Dreamer, Big Bear, and Mark Moonrider. The Forever People were even more powerful as a unit than they were individually; together, they could summon forth the powerful being known as Infinity Man. (On the next page: As for Apokolips…) 

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