Review: New Gods by Gerry Conway hardcover (DC Comics)

[Welcoming back guest reviewer Zach King for a series on post-Jack Kirby New Gods titles. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

“Honestly, I think there was really only one New Gods — the series that Jack did. Everything that followed was a pale imitation of that — including my own stuff.” — Gerry Conway

Any comics fan worth their salt knows that “there came a time when the old gods died,” the famous opening salvo in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga. From 1970 to 1974, Kirby wove his New Gods epic across four titles before cancellations and editorial disinterest drove him back to Marvel Comics, from whence he had come. (Kirby had left Marvel after disputes with Stan Lee over creative control; see John A. Morrow’s Kirby & Lee: Stuf' Said! for the whole story.)

A scant two years later, DC gave the New Gods another chance in an edition of 1st Issue Special before resuming Kirby’s series with #12. Ironically, it would be another Marvel émigré, Gerry Conway, who would pick up where the King left off; as Stan Lee’s successor on The Amazing Spider-Man, Conway had killed Gwen Stacy and created The Punisher before making his way to DC. Conway has taken credit for the idea of reviving the New Gods, citing his own personal desire to “tie up” the saga that editorial had abandoned.

So it was that 1976 saw the “Return of the New Gods,” and it’s those stories we find collected in New Gods by Gerry Conway. While the Kirby material has been a publishing perennial (something the King foresaw and tried to anticipate), the post-Kirby runs haven’t enjoyed the same reprint afterlife. This book was published in April 2020, perhaps to capitalize on the since-kiboshed New Gods film (announced in 2018 and axed in 2021) that would have been directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Tom King.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Conway, it seems, would be the first to admit it, but his New Gods is largely a pale retread of the Kirby saga. Conway’s run follows the twin plots of Darkseid’s pursuit of the Anti-Life Equation (as housed in the minds of six earthlings) and his abduction of the child Esak, in a wicked yet self-aware inversion of “The Pact,” the peace treaty that saw Darkseid’s son Orion marooned on New Genesis in exchange for Highfather’s son, Scott Free. It’s heady stuff, but one senses that we’ve seen all this before; indeed, one sequence is set amid the ruins of Happyland, the Apokoliptian theme park visited by the Forever People, and this particular invocation of Kirby’s run feels a bit like Conway is traipsing through its corpse. That Conway then destroys Happyland in a fiery explosion is perhaps too on-the-nose of a critique.

Conway’s run does add a few new toys to the sandbox, yet even they feel a bit like reprises of better-defined Kirby characters. On the side of good, we meet Jezebelle, a reluctant soldier of Apokolips who defects for New Genesis at her first opportunity. Conway has certainly mastered the Kirby style of naming characters, but he’s also apparently cribbed Big Barda wholesale. (Barda was appearing in the Mister Miracle reboot - about which, more next time.) Meanwhile, Darkseid has replaced his fallen torturer Desaad with another purple-robed sadist, Gargon, but the distinction between the two is so slippery that either Conway or artist Don Newton forgot the difference; lo and behold, Desaad appears resurrected halfway through the book, replacing Gargon without comment. (To be fair, though, death and resurrection - both at his master’s hands and eyebeams - are something of a stock-in-trade for the lackey Desaad.)

Regarding Don Newton, he’s not Jack Kirby, nor is he trying to be. Newton’s work is more of a piece with the clean house style of 1970s DC books, somewhere between José Luis García-López and Neal Adams. He draws a finely tormented Orion at many points in the book, though we don’t see Orion’s full berserker face until Newton’s very last chapter. What we do get with Orion, though, is a new costume that makes him look more like a superhero than his Kirby garb. Newton and Conway posit the New Gods much more as a team of superheroes than a motley band of cosmic deities, forming a kind of Justice League of the Fourth World that ends up stripping these characters (especially Metron and Lightray) of their distinctive personality.

Though the book attempts to tie up the Fourth World Saga, its ending never quite gels with Kirby’s original; what’s more, New Gods by Gerry Conway actually concludes with a reopening of the story. In a two-parter from Adventure Comics (New Gods having been canceled for a second time), Conway resolves “to present the concluding ADVENTURES in this epic war of worlds.” Any good Kirby scholar knows that the Fourth World was prophesied to end with a fiery battle between Darkseid and Orion, father and son, and yet Conway ends his story with (spoiler warning) Darkseid breaching the Source Wall, being mutated into a promethean giant, and ultimately being destroyed by the cannons of Apokolips as he re-enters his homeworld’s airspace. It’s not at all the ending Kirby foreshadowed (though nor, to be fair, was Kirby’s ultimate finale, The Hunger Dogs, published in 1985).

And so we return and begin again, for Conway’s New Gods saga concludes with a trio of Justice League of America issues, in which the JLA and the JSA team up against the resurrected Darkseid. Elsewhere, between the 1st Issue Special and full series revival, Conway had included Darkseid as the shadowy organizer of a supervillain cabal in Secret Society of Super-Villains. Though Kirby had created Darkseid as the brains behind Intergang, Conway was the first to posit him as the ur-villain of the DC Universe, and that plot reaches an apex here with a multiversal epic. It’s pretty standard team-up fare, with mixed gatherings of heroes on side adventures before reuniting for the grand finale, but what really stands out is that this closing story marks the debut of George Pérez as Justice League artist. You don’t need me to tell you that Pérez’s pencils are bold and dynamic, infinitely expressive and perfectly suited to the heightened reality of Apokolips. Pérez orbited the Fourth World throughout his career with bits in Superman, Wonder Woman, and Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it’s only a shame there wasn’t more to collect. (Hmm, Fourth World by George Pérez Omnibus, anyone?)

New Gods by Gerry Conway isn’t Kirby, try though it might, and it’s become something of a forgotten chapter in the Fourth World Saga, irreconcilable as it is with Kirby’s own codas. While this run is remembered largely for Orion’s alternate costume, it also represents a flattening and an attempt to close the door on Kirby’s most expansive and ambitious story. The world needs more Kirby, not less, and fortunately DC Comics recognized that when, two years after Conway’s final issue, Darkseid returned once more as the primary antagonist of Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga. The rest, they say, is history.

Next time, the revival continues with Mister Miracle by Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber.


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