Review: Orion: Gates of Apokolips trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

Walter Simonson’s Orion series has fallen into obscurity bordering on myth due to simply being published at the wrong time. It ended shortly before DC’s “Rebirth” period (2003-2005), when major parts of the DC Universe were being changed around and when reprints were not a trade priority. It didn’t help that Orion had its roots in two series, Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, which were not regarded too fondly at the time (or at present, really). The main continuing storyline from those stories involves Orion’s mother, Tigra, revealing that Darkseid is not really Orion’s father and thus the pact between New Genesis and Apokolips is void. Clearly his real father is the Skrull impersonator of Hank Pym.

Obscure Mighty Avengers jokes aside, the paternity plot is a compelling place to start Orion: The Gates of Apokolips. It overturns the central pillar of the entire Fourth World mythos and paves the way for more changes. Simonson approached the Fourth World in much the same way he approached Norse mythology when writing The Mighty Thor, acknowledging past stories while manipulating them for his own. For instance, when Orion finds Darkseid and Desaad executing their latest plans, it turns out to revolve around “Billion Dollar” Bates, a villain from The Forever People. More backstory is provided by Simonson in a short text primer prologue. I’ve never been a big fan of the Fourth World -- I’m too much of a fan of real world mythology to really invest in them -- but Orion made me want to read some of the old comics for the first time.

One unusual aspect of this title is that while Orion has a supporting cast, he never really interacts with them due to his single-minded pursuit of Darkseid. Many of them simply appear to present the status quo, such as Takion being the new leader of New Genesis, Dan Turpin having nightmares (probably about Final Crisis), and Kalibak escaping from custody yet again. Mister Miracle only shows up in one of the collected back-up stories. There are a few characters, such as the Newsboy Legion, who needed some more backstory established. You might not know who they are unless you’re up on your post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superboy knowledge. Nevertheless, the Legion gets its own subplot of grabbing Jimmy Olsen and filming the final fight between Orion and Darkseid, a subplot which plays out completely silently.

Simonson’s skill at page design goes to another level in Orion’s fifth issue, in which only two sentences are spoken. The story is instead told with sound effects provided by the god of lettering, John Workman, and pages with one large panel in the middle bordered by long header and footer panels. These border panels are filled to the brim with characters watching the battle. This is also where the Newsboy Legion’s story plays out, with them interviewing characters and getting into scuffles with unfriendly Apokoliptians. At various points, these characters scatter as Darkseid and Orion “blast” the panels. Otherwise the banners are filled with numerous cameos ranging from every Fourth World character to the third (android) Hourman and the Paul Kirk incarnation of Manhunter. The absolute best of these is the X-Men villain Apocalypse getting to appear on the planet Apokolips.

That last bit is indicative of the way Simonson approaches the Fourth World mythos: he takes the stories seriously but understands the inherent silliness and uses it to his advantage. Some of this comes from the names -- “Apokolips” looks even more ridiculous after typing it ten times -- but it also comes from Kirby’s own ability to go crazy with his concepts when he needed to. The Mister Miracle back-up story involves he and the residents of Armagetto pranking Darkseid’s troops in order to celebrate one of their rare holidays. He also added the Suicide Jockeys to the ranks of Darkseid’s troops ... who happen to speak in limericks. Like last week with Loki: Agent of Asgard, I literally have seen weirder things happen in these kind of stories, and they provide a little bit of levity during an otherwise horrific battle.

One of the best conceits of Orion are the back-up stories. Simonson wrote the entire series and drew almost every issue (John Byrne drew a two-parter), but the back-ups were specifically designed to match Kirby’s characters to various artists and occasionally other writers. This is why the birth of Orion is drawn by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons draws the tale of Lightray sneaking into Apokolips to get more information on Orion’s paternity. The aforementioned Mister Miracle story is drawn by Klaus Jenson in one of his very rare penciling credits. This story first appeared in an 80-Page Giant, as did the absolute best back-up, “Goodness and Mercy," drawn by Jon Bogdanove and telling the origin of Granny Goodness. It’s a riff on the stories about special forces soldiers raising a pet and then being ordered to kill it; Simonson gives this a major twist and establishes why Granny is such an awful person.

Much like the classic Valiant books, Walter Simonson’s Orion took on a legendary status despite just the single Orion: Gates of Apokolips collection because of how good it is. Get the Orion by Walter Simonson Omnibus when it comes out so that DC knows that readers really are interested in pre-Infinite Crisis uncollected runs. Perhaps the omnibus’ success will allow the title to be published in smaller softcover editions. Since the omnibus is on the horizon, I can’t recommend paying extra to get this trade on eBay or Amazon, but if you stumble upon it cheaply at a convention or used book store, grab it and see what’s coming next year.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about omnibuses and other large collections, and I’ll continue on that theme next week with the first Mammoth edition of Elephantmen.
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3 comments:

  1. I actually quite enjoyed what I've read of Byrne's run. He seemed to have a good grip on most of the characters and had some interesting ideas. I especially liked how he finally addressed the "the Norse/Pagen gods still exist in the DCU even if the Old Gods died"-issue. Some of his ideas seem to have been the basis for a lot of what Morrison did prior to and during Final Crisis. I never got to read any of the Genesis material though, which seems to be what most people have a problem with.

    (I think you may be mixing up the Newsboy Legion and the Legion of Superheroes. The latter were the ones who frequently hung around with Superboy. The former is a group of Kirby- and Simon-created characters that joined Jimmy Olsen in the Fourth World related issues of his series.)

    Thanks for the heads up on the Omnibus. Good to finally see them collected, had lost hope that they ever would. Here's to hoping they will release a paperback edition to mach my other Fourth World omnibuses and TPB.

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    1. Just to clarify, I meant the Kon-El Superboy; the cloned Newsboy Legion appeared in his title as part of Project Cadmus. The 90s were weird.

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    2. I adjusted this to say "post-Crisis on Infinite Earths" Superboy, though I knew what you meant. This would be kind of a piecemeal collection, but I'd love to see collected some of the Project Cadmus stuff originally introduced in the Superman "Triangle Titles" (after Kirby, of course) even before much of it moved over to Karl Kesel's Superboy titles. Superman's first post-Crisis meetings with the Guardian, Dubbilex, Dabney Donovan, the Evil Factory, the Haries, etc., etc. I'd venture this was some "Death of Superman"-era fans first introduction to the world of Jack Kirby's creations.

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