Review: Orion Omnibus by Walter Simonson hardcover

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

“I didn’t think I’d be able to do what John [Byrne] was doing, working with a focus more or less on the entirety of the Fourth World material. I thought I’d be better off focusing on a single character as the mainstay of my series. Then I could bring in other Fourth World characters as the stories or my own inclinations dictated. I always had Orion in mind …” — Walter Simonson

Two years after John Byrne left the Fourth World, Walt Simonson stepped up to the plate. Simonson had been something of a reserve pitcher, doing covers and the occasional backup feature throughout Byrne’s run. Yet for a writer and artist who became most famous for a four-year stint on Thor, it’s perhaps inevitable that Simonson took the reins with another of Jack Kirby’s helmeted warriors.

Faithful readers of the blog might recall that we’ve brushed against these shores before, with guest reviewer Doug Glassman taking a crack at the original trade collection, Orion: The Gates of Apokolips, back in 2014 (a year before Orion Omnibus by Walter Simonson was published). After reviewing most of the post-Kirby Fourth World content — all of it that’s been reprinted, at any rate — I think it’s worth revisiting Orion in toto as the last time the New Gods got to headline an ongoing series; after Orion ended in 2002, Fourth World fans would have to wait until 2007 for Death of the New Gods and the contemporaneous/dismal Countdown to Final Crisis. (In the interim, Mister Miracle was briefly relaunched as a Seven Soldiers miniseries from Grant Morrison in 2005.)

It should be no surprise around these parts that Walt Simonson’s work is strong, vibrant, and dynamic, and if I implied last time that John Byrne was the de facto heir to Kirby’s cosmic empire it’s only because I hadn’t reread Orion yet. Simonson does double duty for the bulk of this volume (with a few issues illustrated by John Byrne and a handful of back-up features by an all-star lineup), and the synergy between his script and his pencils is almost more classically Kirby than it was when John Byrne was writing and drawing the Fourth World.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

With a focus on Orion and his ascension to the throne of Apokolips, Simonson keeps the narrative tight, making this one a real page-turner. The book opens with the spooky revelation that Darkseid has possessed the small town of Main Line, Nebraska, a discovery that leads Orion into direct conflict with the god who may or may not be his father. (In Byrne’s run, Orion’s mother Tigra cast doubt on Orion’s parentage, a mystery that lingers over Simonson’s story.) Right off the bat, Simonson jumps in medias res, with Darkseid as the archvillain already nearing completion of his master plan before his son and presumed heir calls him to the mat.

In the tradition of Superman #75, Simonson’s fifth issue is almost entirely silent, comprised of giant widescreen panels and full-page splashes that depict the ultimate slugfest between Orion and Darkseid. It’s the sort of issue you want to pull apart and frame on a wall, and it lets you linger over the contributions of letterer John Workman, who might be the unsung hero of this omnibus were it not for how loudly his THOOMs and KRAKADOOMs ring out. Take your time with this issue, dear reader; it’s one of the high points in a very strong book, and in a lesser volume it would seem that the book had peaked too early.

It may seem odd for the book to jump headlong into the prophecy of patricide, but Orion quickly clears a path forward for Orion to study the Anti-Life Equation, jockey for and then assume the throne of Apokolips, and ultimately journey beyond the known universe to find the Source’s opposite number, the Ecruos. Meanwhile, an earthbound subplot involving the Newsboy Legion bubbles over as the mysterious and ageless Arnicus Wolfram makes a bid for Suicide Slum. Finally, it wouldn’t be a mammoth DC collection without a nonsensical event tie-in, but Simonson rolls with the punches when Slig of the Deep Six is “Joker-fied” in a Joker: Last Laugh two-parter. (Hey, there’s a crossover that’s overdue for a new comprehensive collection. Probably sell, too; no lack of love in the market for the Joker. – Ed.)

As sweeping as Simonson’s story sounds, it’s surprisingly tight in its focus on Orion and the effect he has on the other characters and their worlds. Simonson deftly evolves the character past being a mere berserker, through his “Red Orion” phase, and into a more strategic and compassionate leader. It’s only too bad that Orion fell off the DC radar for years after this series, because it seems that the characterization he developed in this series got lost along the way. Overall, though, Simonson provides a thoroughly satisfying narrative rooted in the classical hero’s journey, building Orion up before tearing him down and reconfiguring him. Simonson’s final issue reunites Orion with Mister Miracle, both children (and victims) of “The Pact.” It’s almost too much for Simonson to tackle, even in one oversized issue, but he manages to tie up a loose end from John Byrne’s run while gently recalibrating both characters for whatever would lie ahead.

When Simonson is in control, it’s like sitting at the feet of the master, and the Orion Omnibus is one of those books you almost don’t want to finish. As a collected volume, however, the Orion Omnibus met with some controversy when it was published in April 2015. A month before the book debuted, Simonson posted on his Facebook that the backup features in his issues had been divorced from their original sequence, unfairly shunted to the back of the omnibus:

“To say I was dismayed at these discoveries is probably too gentle a word, but what’s the point of going further? What’s done is done. It seems unlikely that there will be future collections of the same material. I feel it’s some of my best work, and I am very unhappy that the stories in this collection are never going to be read in the correct order by anyone except perhaps by extremely die hard fans of the work, or by people who simply go back and buy the original back issues.”

Simonson would later note that Dan DiDio personally apologized for the error, promising that it would be rectified in any subsequent printings. The omnibus itself was never reissued, but its contents were reconfigured into a two-volume paperback set in 2018 and 2019. True to his word, DiDio saw to it that the stories were rearranged to Simonson’s satisfaction. 

As a reading experience, though, it’s an almost unforgivable blunder, and it casts an unfortunate pall over the whole book. There are clear moments in Simonson’s 500+ pages where the narrative should be continued, but no one can be expected to flip back and forth to get the full story. For example, there’s a sequence by Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld in which Mantis attacks the Forever People, but if you’re reading only the Simonson pages, we see Mantis head off to battle but learn of his defeat through some expository dialogue chapters later. There aren’t too many of those moments, but it’s clear that Simonson’s story was done a disservice, and I came away from the volume feeling that I still hadn’t read Simonson’s full run, not entirely. 

Much like the cancellation of Kirby’s Fourth World, it’s all too easy to play armchair quarterback on decisions like this and wonder what the editors were thinking. But then again, “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts,” as the Vision would tell us, nor is its beauty marred in any significant way by its flaws. Whether it’s in the right place or not, it’s hard not to thrill to Frank Miller drawing the birth of Orion, or to Steve Ditko trying his hand at a Desaad back-up. And I was especially warmed by the inclusion of “A Highfather Christmas,” Simonson’s contribution to 1997’s DCU Holiday Bash. In this riff on Miracle on 34th Street, Highfather winds up playing a department store Santa Claus, with a begrudging Orion as his holiday elf. I read my original copy of DCU Holiday Bash quite literally to shreds (I’ve since replaced it), and seeing it again took me back 25 years down memory lane.

Comic book stories never truly end — they can’t, as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and a host of other deconstructionists have told us — but Simonson puts a fitting button on his run with one of the more fulfilling post-Kirby takes on the New Gods. Like Orion himself, Simonson soars, in part because he’s not trying to compete with or conclude Kirby’s work. He’s reveling in that playful creative spirit that ought to govern any Kirby follow-up. I think I’m drawn to the Fourth World precisely because its stories can never end. And even when they did, as in Final Crisis, they began again, with the promise of a Fifth World.

If there’s been a theme running through these reviews, if I’ve learned anything from my obsessive study and collection of Fourth World material, I think Mark Evanier actually sums it up best: 

“Kirby’s story was never fully realized, and never can be. Others have and will continue to do their takes on the material, their explorations of his themes — I did an especially unimpressive one I wish I could do over — but we’re all just playing with someone else’s character names and designs. Some attempts have been delightfully entertaining — wonderful, even — but they no more complete what Kirby did than a new Winnie the Pooh book is a part of the work of A. A. Milne.”

(I am grateful to Collected Editions for giving me the space to blab on about one of my favorite fictional sandboxes, and I am especially grateful to Back Issue for its full-length exploration of the Fourth World after Kirby. Any fans of the New Gods should check out Back Issue #104 [June 2018] for more creator insights, newsstand context, and even a spotlight on the Mike Mignola New Gods film that never was.)


Post a Comment

To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.