From the start of Jack Kirby’s The Hunger Dogs, a new age had arrived. When Kirby’s original Fourth World series debuted, the Forever People were the primary representatives of the new, young generation. They were a young super-hero team modeled after the “flower children” of the 1960s, and embodied a hopeful idealism, the promise of a better future. However, Kirby did not bring them back in The Hunger Dogs.
Instead, the representative of the new generation is Esak, who was only a child in the original Fourth World books. But he has undergone a terrible transformation.
“Am I Esak now?” he asks at one point in The Hunger Dogs. “Am I the one filled with indescribable joy and the eerie structure of the cosmos?” Here Kirby pictures the young Esak as he once was, looking angelic. Kirby recalls how the “younger” Esak was the protege of Metron, the New Gods’ seeker of knowledge, traveling with him through time and space in his Mobius Chair. But then., seemingly abruptly, Metron departed on a quest for the “Ultimate Object,” whatever that may be. Esak recalls that “it was sad. . . On New Genesis, I was left in charge of his alternative quests . . . alone . . . unaided . . .and maturing.” Esak seems to have felt abandoned, and he was reaching physical maturity without guidance,
Apparently following Metron’s example, Esak continues to seek knowledge, turning to scientific experiments. “Metron’s torch —the flame of his creativity! I represent it in his absence —and keep it alive!” A soldier of Apokolips disparages Esak as “Metron’s mimic,” a phrase that may suggest that Esak is a mere imitation of the real thing.
If so, perhaps that is because whereas Metron seeks knowledge, for its own sake, Esak warped the quest for knowledge into the creation of weapons of mass destruction. “Amazingly,” Esak recalls, “my work led me to the realm of the ‘Micro-Mark.’”
By this odd name, Kirby refers to a weapon of miniscule size but immense destructive power. At one point Esak imprints the Micro-Mark on a prisoner’s chest, causing him to blow up. A soldier tells Darkseid, “Behold the work of Metron’s Micro-Mark.” (Note that the soldier does not credit Esak with the creation of the Micro-Mark, thus perhaps suggesting that Esak’s Micro-Mark is an extension of Metron’s science.)
“I hear it!” exclaims Darkseid, “The voice of a pygmy. . .too small for the eye to see!” Kirby then draws a mushroom cloud rising from an explosion in the background.
The Micro-Mark, then, appears to be The Hunger Dogs‘ counterpart of the nuclear bomb. The specter of death on a massive scale haunts many of the key comics of 1986, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the prospect of nuclear war are major factors in Watchmen. In The Hunger Dogs the nuclear bomb, in its guise as Micro-Mark, is the sign of this destructive new period of history. “A new age is dawning, sire!” Esak exclaims to Darkseid, “And Micro-Mark is its herald!”
That word “herald” should remind Kirby readers of the Silver Surfer, the “herald” of Galactus, the planet-destroyer who sought to bring about the end of the world in Lee and Kirby’s “Galactus trilogy” in Fantastic Four #48-50.
The tininess of the “Micro-Mark,” which is “too small for the eye to see,” presumably is a reference to the atom itself.
“If Micro-Mark—if the pygmy can destroy a continent –”, Darkseid says.
Esak, showing Darkseid a bomb, continues, “–Then, in this form, sire—he can smash a world –!” The Micro-Mark is the means by which the end of the world can come about.
In real life, the atom bomb was the creation of Kirby’s own generation; it was first used at the end of World War II. Nonetheless, the threat of nuclear war that could devastate Earth is associated with the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in subsequent decades, so it makes sense that Kirby associates the nuclear bomb with a generation after his own.
In the course of his work with the Micro-Mark, Esak fell victim to an explosion that ravaged his facial features. “Damn that foul unexpected blow-up!” exclaims Esak. “The trauma. . .the irreversible change . . .the face and heart of a cruel stranger!”
The explosion disfigured Esak so that he no longer resembled his previous innocent self. His new, ugly face mirrors the emerging dark side of his personality, as he creates weapons and turns to serving Darkseid. Perhaps Esak’s new grotesque appearance is also a symbol of the way that the pain of losing Metron has twisted his soul. “Where is the machine that will erase my inner wound and restore all that was?” laments Esak. But, of course, he is missing the point if he thinks that a machine can bring him redemption rather than his own actions.
Now that he has become ugly, Esak seems to look more like a denizen of Apokolips than one of the New Gods of New Genesis, so perhaps that is one reason that he defected to Darkseid. Keep in mind that Darkseid’s son Orion also naturally has bestial facial features, though Orion uses his Mother Box, the product of New Genesis technology, to calm his rages and smooth out his features into handsomeness.
Students of Kirby’s work should also realize that the disfigurement of Esak echoes the similar disfigurement of Kirby’s greatest Marvel Comics villain, Doctor Doom. Victor Von Doom was likewise engaged in a “forbidden” experiment when a machine exploded, scarring his face.
Moreover, Kirby had dealt with the price of creating a nuclear weapon before in the origin of the Incredible Hulk at Marvel. Dr. Bruce Banner, a nuclear physicist, was another scientist who set morality aside and created a weapon of mass destruction, the gamma bomb. When this bomb exploded, it too gave its creator a new, ugly face that represented the dark, violent side of his personality, by transforming him into the Hulk.
Indeed, even apart from the standard super-hero trope of the masked identity, Kirby repeatedly dealt with the theme of how faces reveal or disguise one’s true self. Consider, too, Kirby’s Machine Man at Marvel: a robot who sought to be human, and who disguised his robotic visage with a human face mask.
Perhaps out of resentment towards Metron for abandoning him, Esak seems to hate his elders, including Darkseid’s adversary and contemporary Himon, the inventor of the Mother Box. Esak sneers to Darkseid about Himon, “The poor, shabby old relic uses unchanged wizardry made obsolete by simple toys! He plays at games your peers can no longer win!”
Esak continues, “His day is over, great Darkseid! Regard him as a pitiful, harmless object!
“This is micro-mark’s hour! There’s no need for intrigue or great strivings— the cosmos lies open to button-pushing babies!” Presumably Esak is referring to himself, since Kirby still seems to present Esak as quite young, still not yet an adult.
Brilliant as he is at technology, Esak is not clever at watching what he says. In his rant about Himon, Esak is saying that Darkseid’s “peers”–and presumably, by extension, Darkseid himself–“can no longer win” and that “button-pushing babes” like himself are seizing power from Darkseid’s generation. Indeed, when Darkseid is not present, Esak refers contemptuously to “an aging, quaking Darkseid!”
And Darkseid sees through him. At one point Esak boasts, “Have I not outdone Metron, sire? Have I not turned his awesome talent into ‘child’s play!?’” Esak is asserting his superiority to his elder and mentor Metron and reveling in his own youth, by claiming that his own achievements, great as they are, are merely “child’s play,” something a young genius like himself can easily accomplish. Esak hopes for acknowledgement of his greatness from Darkseid.
But Darkseid perceives the insecurity beneath Esak’s boasting. “You scoff at old men and laugh too loudly,” Darkseid tells Esak, “Yet, you really respect us – and cry when you bow that ugly head!” In other words, beneath his hatred of his elders, Esak really knows that Darkseid’s generation is still superior to him. Darkseid continues, “Old men and their outmoded ways may be grist for your will, my boy. . .It shall be interesting to note how your toys fare against livid, total rage!” And then Darkseid leaves Esak to face his fate at the hands of another New God who is older than this arrogant child, the warrior Orion.
Although Darkseid remains the principal evil figure of Kirby’s Fourth World Saga, Kirby thus casts a child gone wrong, a representative of the new generation rising in this new age, as one of the villains of The Hunger Dogs. Neil Gaiman’s revival of Kirby’s Eternals for Marvel seems to echo The Hunger Dogs in this respect. Gaiman turns the Eternal named Sprite, who despite his centuries-long chronological age outwardly resembles a child, as the prime villain of the 2006-2007 Eternals series, who takes away the powers and memories of the adult Eternals. Sprite is finally killed by one of the adult Eternals he victimized, the Eternals’ patriarch Zuras.
The Micro-Mark, this analogue of the nuclear bomb, is the principal icon of destruction in the “new age” that Kirby depicts in The Hunger Dogs. But there are other means of destruction and mass murder as well. Early in the graphic novel, Darkseid calls it “A NEW age of buttons, dials, and foul chemicals!” A major in Darkseid’s army then refers to “’Doomsday’ mechanisms! Deadly toxins! Poison sprays! Ravaging life-forms! We’re turning them out by the thousands!” Not only are machines being used to kill, but Apokolips has ventured into chemical and biological warfare. Darkseid responds, “A new kind of war for this new age, eh?”
The Hunger Dogs is in the long tradition of stories of the end of the world. In this case that world is New Genesis, but Kirby may have been using New Genesis as a metaphor for Earth in this regard. New Genesis is falling victim to a planetwide ecological disaster. The narration of The Hunger Dogs states that “In their last days, even worlds are no more than huge ailing carcasses”; that image of a planet as a dying, diseased body, likened to a corpse, is particularly disturbing.
The narration continues: “The gods have entered a new age . . . It’s malodorous and heady with sweet poisons. . .Still, it stirs and galvanizes the swarming maggots of Apokolips . . . !” If this is the twilight of the New Gods, it is not a glorious final battle, but death by poisons that give off a stench. Monstrous creatures from Apokolips “fill their bellies” by burrowing through the planet of New Genesis and devouring the planet from within. Kirby’s Galactus was a “planet-devourer,” too, but he was a godlike being of grandeur. New Genesis is instead being consumed by giant insect-like creatures. Again, Kirby gives us a disturbingly physical metaphor in his narration: “Apokolips is their home. . .but they feed on the body of New Genesis,” like worms eating away at a human body before it is dead.
Highfather tells another New God, Lonar, that Darkseid’s Boom Tubes “pour their hideous bounty of carrion and toxic rot upon New Genesis!” and observes that “We are in a new age which he strangely refers to as ‘micro-mark’!”
The “new age” of the New Gods brings not just the physical decay of their world but also a spiritual decay. Even Darkseid is disgusted by the new weaponry for war, demanding of a major in his army, “You expect me to sanction this. . .this filth?”
Nevertheless, Darkseid does approve and use it. According to the narrator, the new age reflects both the state of Darkseid’s soul and the world’s fall from greatness: “Darkseid’s heart is growing like the widespread muck of this new age. . .something in the power of once majestic and fearsome standards is being re-molded by an impish fate. . . .”
As Orion exclaims, “Apokolips has abandoned warriors for machines!” This “new kind of war” for the “new age” no longer is waged through personal combat, as it had been in the original Fourth World books. When individuals fought the war, there was the potential for heroism and even for true villainy.
Darkseid storms at this minions, “You blind ‘tinkertoy‘ promoters of mediocrity!” He harangues the major, “You’d never dream of seizing the cosmos, itself!! To watch it kneel before you in total . . . obedience!!” Kirby appears to be saying that Darkseid’s ambitions for power, however evil, had a grandeur and vision to them that the military bureaucracy that conducts the new mechanized kind of war lacks.
Darkseid still intends to conquer in this new age, but even he seems to recognize that he is past his prime, telling his old enemy Himon, “Old age is snapping at our heels—reaching for the hunter and the hunted.”
Darkseid, Highfather, and Himon represent the old, whose time may be passing. Esak is The Hunger Dogs‘ sole representative of the youngest generation, and he has become morally corrupted. Between these two generations is that of Orion, who recognizes that the new age’s new form of war threatens to make him obsolete. The fierce warrior kneels before Himon’s daughter Bekka, holding onto her for emotional support as he makes a startling confession:
“I-I’m afraid, Bekka! I hate the winds of change! I hate the loss of nobility and action, which, in reality is ‘packaged murder!”
And so in The Hunger Dogs Jack Kirby presents a “new age” in which one of the old (Darkseid) wreaks destruction while his contemporaries (Highfather, Himon) seem helpless to stop him; the sole example of the youngest (Esak) is a moral failure, a traitor who serves the enemy; and the hero who represents the generation between them is terrified that the time of heroes is over.
Yet however bleak this picture may be, Kirby still finds hope in the new age he depicts, as we shall see in the next installment.