EW presents a crash-course in Jack Kirby's most personal creation

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

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…) 

Who’s who on Apokolips

While New Genesis is all flowers and sunshine, its sister planet is full of hellfire and industrial slavery. It is ruled over the iron will of Darkseid, whose greatest goal is to dominate all life in the universe. To that end, Darkseid is forever seeking the Anti-Life Equation, the mathematical equation capable of granting him control over all living thought (as shown by writer Grant Morrison in the 2008 series Final Crisis, the Anti-Life Equation broken down mathematically might look something like “loneliness + alienation + despair ÷ mockery ÷ condemnation x guilt…” you get the idea). It is said that the secret of the Anti-Life Equation is hidden in some unknown human soul, prompting Darkseid to infiltrate Earth and kidnap humans in search of this universal secret.

One of Darkseid’s primary servants is Desaad, the master of torture on Apokolips. Named after the infamous 120 Days of Sodom author Marquis de Sade, Desaad lives up to his namesake by inflicting excruciating pain on everyone he can get into his high-tech torture machines.

Granny Goodness is less obvious in her evil than Desaad, but even more sinister. As the matron of Apokolips’ orphanage, it was Granny who was charged with bringing up Scott Free. She tried her best to break Scott’s spirit and turn him into a mindless servant of Darkseid like the rest of her orphans, but she ultimately failed. Scott was able to make a connection with Big Barda, captain of the Female Furies, Granny’s all-female elite fighting unit (think the Dora Milaje but evil). Together, Barda and Scott were able to escape Apokolips and make a happier life for themselves as married superheroes on Earth.

DC Comics

Though based on Apokolips, the gospel of Darkseid has been spread far and wide throughout the universe. The dark lord’s chief propagandist is Glorious Godfrey, who comes off like an unholy mixture of Joseph Goebbels and Billy Graham. In more recent DC stories, Godfrey has often been used as a stand-in for blowhard TV pundits or late-night talk-show hosts.

Granny and Desaad are members of Darkseid’s Elite, but the majority of Apokolips’ population are poor servants forced to build monuments to Darkseid’s glory, and the Parademon soldiers who enforce his iron law (Parademons showed up alongside Steppenwolf in Justice League). As Orion describes it in New Gods #1, “Apokolips is an armed camp where those who live with weapons rule the wretches who build them. Life is the evil here! And death, the great goal!”

To their dismay, opponents of Apokolips have found the wretches truly are loyal to Darkseid. In the final episode of Superman: The Animated Series, the Man of Steel finally cast Darkseid down from his throne, telling the slaves they were free now. But rather than celebrate their freedom, the slaves picked up the wounded Darkseid and carried him to safety. As Darkseid explained, “I am many things, Kal-El. But here, I am God.”

After Kirby

Though Kirby’s Fourth World books sold relatively well, the numbers were still a disappointment to DC, who was expecting huge sales from such an iconic creator. They canceled the line before Kirby got the chance to finish his intended story. As a result, the New Gods have been left open-ended for subsequent DC writers to do with as they will. Darkseid has been the Fourth World’s main legacy character in the DC Universe, though heroes like Mister Miracle and Big Barda have also teamed up with the Justice League at various times.

The New Gods’ closest brush with mainstream popularity came in Superman: The Animated Series. Darkseid was first introduced as the mysterious backer behind gangster Bruno Mannheim; once he was revealed, he made his play for Earth and tried to bend Superman to his will. At one point, Darkseid even brainwashed the Man of Steel, turning him into a pawn of Apokolips. Superman’s anger at Darkseid for this violation carried over into the sequel series Justice League and established Darkseid as the ultimate enemy of the DC Universe. EW even named “Twilight,” the final confrontation between Superman and Darkseid, the best episode of Justice League.

Darkseid proved himself worthy of the Big Bad mantle in Final Crisis, a 2008 event series that saw the dark lord kill the New Gods and finally achieve the Anti-Life Equation, dominating all life in the universe. Although he was ultimately overthrown and the New Gods reborn to guide the universe back towards the light, the sequence of him taking over the entire population of Earth still makes for terrifying nightmare fuel. Speaking through everyone’s mouths at once, he declares, “When I make a fist to crush your resistance, it is with three billion hands! When I stare into your eyes and shatter your dreams, it is with six billion eyes! I will take you to a hell without exit or end, and there I will murder your souls!”

DC Comics

Darkseid has so far remained mostly off-screen in Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ current Mister Miracle comic. Over the first seven issues of the 12-issue series (EW’s favorite comic of 2017), the dark lord has appeared only briefly, and more often as a repetitive black panel bearing the two-word phrase “Darkseid is.” Mister Miracle finds protagonist Scott Free wrestling with anxiety and suicidal ideation on top of insufferable New Genesis bureaucracy — all of which is embodied in the figure of Darkseid. As King explained to EW, “Have you ever gotten to a situation where you had two choices, and you knew one was right and one would mess you up but you still did the wrong one? Darkseid is. He’s always present, and he’s the path you can always go down that represses you.”

Though DuVernay has said that Big Barda is her favorite superhero, it’s unclear at this point what she will take from the current Mister Miracle series (in which Barda is the co-protagonist) or any other New Gods stories. Like King, Gerads, Morrison, and Timm before her, she has the potential to take Kirby’s characters and spin them off in her own artistic direction. But this should serve as a thorough grounding in the basics of the New Gods, one of DC’s most underrated pantheons.

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