Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Notable Links for 03/24

Hey, guess what? No links today. Too much stuff on the burner. You get what you pay for, yadda yadda yadda. Don't worry, we'll be back tomorrow... or, at least, we should be... I might start to like this whole hiatus thing.

Anyway, just so you aren't totally disappointed, here's a new reivew I've had stashed for just such an occasion:

ORION #1-25

Its been a long time since the words “Innovation” and “Mainstream” have belonged anywhere near each other. The mainstream of the American comics industry these days seems designed for the express purpose of strangling ingenuity in the proverbial cradle. Truly gifted creators have, as can be imagined, gone their separate ways with the mainstream many years ago.

One of the few puzzling exceptions to this rule is the long career of Walt Simonson. Possessed of one of the most striking styles in the whole of the mainstream, Simonson has worked his entire career in the unforgiving and largely unrewarding salt-mines of corporate comics. Despite this, he has managed to retain a great deal of critical integrity simply through the creative virtuosity with which he tackles every new project.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics have been soiled almost beyond recognition by three decades of mishandling. The intense mythological drama that motivated the core of Kirby’s vision was replaced by standard-issue superheroics, turning Orion and Mr. Miracle into members of the Justice League and Darkseid into just another villain-of-the-week.

Most fans of Kirby’s work have probably long ago given up hope that the characters would ever again be treated with the dignity and respect of their origins. As such, they most likely weren’t playing attention when Simonson began his run on “Orion”. (The fact that “Orion”s premiere came on the heels of two years of solidly unintelligible spandex mumblings from John Byrne, in the form of the late and unlamented ‘New Gods’ and ‘Fourth World’ titles, probably did not help the title find its’ audience).

"Orion" faced an uphill battle from day one. It was placed securely outside the superhero ethos. Simonson understood something Kirby knew but no one else has bothered to remember: Orion and the rest of the New Gods aren’t super-heroes. For someone who is familiar with Kirby’s work but relatively ignorant of the incestuous cesspool that is modern superheroics, this may not seem like much of a revelation. Just try, however, to pick up any book featuring Kirby’s Fourth World characters from the past two decades and you’ll see what I mean.

Kirby’s gods are granite blocks of motion incarnate, massive figures representing primal conflict and inchoate morality. Kirby’s richly surreal representational style met its greatest zenith in the lushly jumbled action montages of the Fourth World books – thick black stabs of ink (corrupted only slightly by Vince Colletta’s finishes) that utilized motion and power as metaphors for existentialist conflict. This is certainly dangerous ground for most superhero comics to walk over, so most of Kirby’s “inheritors” simply ignored the concept’s depth in favor of exploiting the characters as action figures.

Simonson is smarter than that. His Orion had as much in common with Superman as nothing. The conflicts that fueled the book had no relation to the infantile morality under the surface of nearly every superhero comic: Orion’s conflict with his father Darkseid, with his own darker nature and, later in the run, with his own death wish.

The storyline involves, very roughly, the climax of decades of struggle on Darkseid’s part - his acquisition of the Anti-Life equation. Anti-Life here is portrayed as a soul-deadening antidote to Kirby’s primal dynamism – the key to complete mental submission throughout the universe, the end of free will, the true antithesis of life. Virtual facism. Over the course of the book’s run Orion discovers the key to the equation and succumbs to the temptation represented by its almost-infinite power. After he is finally defeated, he spends the remainder of the series dealing with his own inadequacy as he struggles to understand how he could have – despite his best efforts - become everything his father had been, and worse.

Simonson is no mere cipher. In translating Kirby’s characters into new situations and idioms, he translates them into his own style as well. More than just about any other living cartoonist (at the very least within the confines of the mainstream) Simonson understands the concept of pacing. The layout becomes an elastic, living creature under his guidance, stretching and contracting to communicate the story’s underlying tension.

He understands instinctively how to propel the action along through manipulation of the reader’s viewpoint. His panels are no mere windows into storyline, they are musical notes – abrupt and staccato to communicate jagged suspense, elongated and panoramic to indicate a pause or to establish mood. I daresay there are few artists in comics who could not learn something from his skill at pacing a scene or constructing a page.

It can be argued that no one could ever truly recapture what Kirby attempted to create with his Fourth World – certainly, most would agree without hesitation that the characters have known nothing but misery since their creator’s death. But Simonson has crafted a loving tribute to Kirby by simultaneously steering closely to Kirby’s original intentions and branding the franchise with his own unique sensibilities.

Unfortunately, none of this was enough to save the title from cancellation. It’s a sad fact that in the mainstream comics industry, anything even slightly new or different sometimes fails to find an outlet – sometimes fails miserably. Two years – 25 issues – is nothing to scoff at by any means.

Simonson will undoubtedly land on his feet. He hardly reinvented the wheel with his work on “Orion” but his ingenuity in reimagining concepts which had been almost worn to death, combined with his unmistakable flair for storytelling, should not be ignored.

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