As we have seen, in The Hunger Dogs, the graphic novel in which Jack Kirby resolved his “Fourth World” saga, Kirby’s optimistic vision of the early 1970s turned dark and ominous. The young, as represented by Esak, had betrayed their potential for good and had turned to the dark side—and to Darkseid, Kirby’s ultimate villain. Possible worldwide annihilation, either through weapons of mass destruction or ecological catastrophe, threatened Kirby’s once idyllic world of New Genesis.
Before The Hunger Dogs, Kirby had written and drawn a new story to end a reprint series of the original New Gods comics (”Even Gods Must Die!” from issue 6 of The New Gods reprint series, cover-dated November 1984). This story too was dark: it ended with Darkseid finally killing his own son Orion, the champion of New Genesis.
Yet grim as Kirby’s Fourth World has become, hope is not yet dead. Early in The Hunger Dogs Darkseid observes that “The risk is in the corrupting of the virtuous—because virtue has a bad habit of coming back!”
Soon thereafter, Kirby shows his readers that Orion, the heroic warrior of New Genesis, is painfully coming back to life. Darkseid’s longtime adversary, the inventor Himon, does not want the oppressed masses of Darkseid’s world Apokolips, the “Lowlies” or “Hunger Dogs,” to witness this seeming miracle. He tells Orion, “Yes, they’ll burn you as one born with the life-equation!” That suggests that the Hunger Dogs would react to the resurrected Orion with hatred born of envy. The reference to burning might be meant to conjure the idea of witch burnings. Remember, too, that Kirby is co-creator of The X-Men, the Marvel series that is famously about ordinary humans’ fear, hatred, and persecution of super-powered mutants.
Yet Himon also says that the Hunger Dogs could react differently to Orion: “But they’ll dare the most fearsome horrors for a legend which cannot die!”
From the opening of The Hunger Dogs, Kirby has shown the readers that the “Lowlies” of Apokolips are beginning to rebel against Darkseid’s tyranny. “Where have the days gone when the sight of an armed warrior kept those ‘Hunger Dogs’ in line?” laments Darkseid, who thus recognizes another sign of changing times. Himon seems to be suggesting that the Lowlies are waiting for a hero like Orion to be their champion, to inspire and lead them in their revolt against Darkseid’s dictatorship. Orion has survived what would be mortal injuries to most, but Himon may also be suggesting here that through his heroic feats Orion has become, or may become “a legend which cannot die.” By extension, Orion may become a symbol to the Hunger Dogs that represents the courage and will to fight for liberty, neither of which can be destroyed by tyrants.
Indeed, later Orion kills one of Darkseid’s soldiers, thereby inspiring the Hunger Dogs who watched. The narrator states, “Then, spontaneously, in one loud, raucous voice, the ‘dregs‘ of Apokolips shout their defiance of Darkseid!”
Although Kirby depicts the “new age” in The Hunger Dogs as an age of machines, like the immensely destructive “Micro-Mark” bombs, he also depicts aspects of humanity that can fight back against the machines of tyranny. Even Darkseid prefers human emotion to machines. Early on in The Hunger Dogs he berates his soldiers: “You blind ‘tinkertoy‘ promoters of mediocrity! It’s fear that rules the cosmos! Primal, naked fear! Gut-level fear!” Darkseid, of course, is the master of using fear to rule.
Anger is not usually seen as a positive quality. But in The Hunger Dogs Kirby presents anger as the means to fight back against Darkseid’s oppression. Certainly the rebels among the Hunger Dogs are driven by their hatred of Darkseid.
It is bestial rage that drives the warrior Orion. In his last encounter with Esak, Darkseid contemptuously leaves him to face his fate at Orion’s hands, telling Esak, “It shall be interesting to note how your toys fare against livid, total rage!”
Orion charges in and lays waste to Esak’s technology. Esak shouts at him, “Stop it! Stop it! You can wreck my machines – but you cannot hold back a new age!” by which Esak surely means his new age of the Micro-Mark.
But Orion replies, “True enough, foolish one! Whether it be by flesh or machine – a new age shall be born –!”
Earlier, Orion had confessed to Bekka, the woman he loves, that he feared change and the new age with its “loss of nobility.” But now Orion appears to accept the idea of change and foresees the coming of a “new age.” This age, however, seems to be different than Esak’s age of the Micro-Mark; Orion seems to be saying that his “new age” will come about by means of “flesh” rather than by “machine.” Is Orion referring to his own flesh, that of the warrior fighting against tyranny?
Now that he is on the losing side, it is Esak who rejects change. Esak calls out to the Source, which appears to be God, or the Fourth World saga’s counterpart of God: “O, great source –Why did you rob me of the early magic and the solidity of Metron’s presence? Why do you bring change and adversity and forms unfit to behold?”
Esak even questions his own identity, wondering if he is the same person as the once innocent child whom Metron mentored: “Am I Esak, now? Am I the one filled with indescribable joy and the eerie structure of the cosmos?” Finally, Esak asks, “Where is the machine that will erase my inner wound and restore all that was?”
Orion responds by declaring his commitment to “total destruction” and shooting Esak with a blast of energy, mortally wounding him. Both Orion and the corrupted Esak are devoted to destruction, even if they are on opposite sides of the war.
The narrator then declares, “And thus, the truth roars from Orion’s lips! For, what do the gods symbolize but the natural imperfections native to all but the unseen Source? Conquer all, but one escapes! Govern all, but one dissents! Embark on genocide, and one shall rise to damn you!!”
That is one of the most important speeches in the book. It is Kirby’s declaration that tyranny, such as that of Darkseid, can never wholly triumph, because there will always be someone or some people who escape, who rebel, who continue to cherish and fight for freedom. If Darkseid seeks the Anti-Life Formula to give him absolute power over everyone in the universe, Kirby is saying that such absolute control over everyone is an impossibility.
Kirby’s sudden use of the word “genocide” should startle the reader. Is Darkseid then indeed a counterpart to Hitler? Did Kirby intend Darkseid’s attempt to destroy New Genesis—and, presumably, its inhabitants– as a parallel to the Holocaust?
Triumphantly, Orion proclaims that “The ultimate anger is the ultimate stimulus! It defies time! It stands firm against the hammers of change!” Here Orion again seems adamantly opposed to change, at least in the form of Esak’s “new age” of the Micro-Mark. Kirby appears to be extolling anger and even destruction when they are directed against the correct target, such as tyranny and the perpetrators of genocide.
Continuing his praise of anger, Orion declares that “It mocks life and defies death! It’s a monster spring from birth! Where but on Apokolips could it be finally exorcised–” Then he concludes, as if confiding in the enemy he has just mortally wounded, “I’ve come home, Esak!–to fulfill my destiny!”
What is the destiny of which Orion speaks? In part it is Orion’s defeat of Darkseid and his forces. Kirby did not give Orion a final clash with Darkseid in The Hunger Dogs, but by defeating Esak and destroying his machinery, Orion has put an end to Darkseid’s ability to create further “Micro-Mark” weaponry.
Orion’s reference to exorcism suggests that his destiny goes further than this victory. Note that Orion calls anger “a monster” and points out that it can not only defy death but also mocks life. In other words, this sort of rage is a bad thing, which can be directed effectively against evil, but which is also hostile to good. Therefore, now that Orion has used his anger, his dark side, which is his literal genetic inheritance from his father Darkseid, Orion must exorcise that rage so that he can become part of a peaceful society.
Although Orion fights for New Genesis, he is Darkseid’s son, and therefore has a potential for violence and rage; therefore, Orion recognizes that Apokolips is his true “environment” and has come there to exorcise that rage. He also has a wisdom that Esak, the scientific genius, lacks.
Esak: “A-Am I dying, Orion?”
Orion: “Yes, Esak. . .You came here to die. . . didn’t you?”
Esak: “I—I–suppose–I did. . .But—but–I thought—I. . . belonged —here—!”
Orion: “No . . . This is my environment, not yours–! Had you stayed on New Genesis, this would never have happened–!”
Orion recognizes that Esak had a death wish, that was perhaps subconscious. In turning away from his former self, and instead serving Darkseid and creating weaponry for him, Esak embarked on a path of self-destruction, perhaps due to that “inner wound” caused by his loss of his mentor Metron. Having lost one father figure, Metron, Esak turned to another, Darkseid, whom he both served and hated.
Orion’s exorcism of his rage takes the form of a turn to mercy and forgiveness, which he extends to the opponent he has mortally wounded. Again, Kirby addresses the theme of change. Times may change, but, he says through Orion, the essence of an individual does not. Orion tells the dying Esak, “Cynicism can lead one astray, Esak. . .but we never really change. Don’t you see? To the very end we remain what the Source has made us. . . !”
One of the recurring themes, both in some of the comics of 1986 and in Kirby’s body of work, is the nature of God. Kirby famously deals with “gods” with a small “g,” such as the Norse gods of Marvel’s Thor, the New Gods at DC, and later at Marvel, the Eternals, immortals, many of whom were believed to be gods by ancient human cultures. These gods are really superhumans: beings with super-powers but with recognizably human personalities.
But Kirby also dealt with the concept of God with a capital G, delving into what the being or beings who created and govern the cosmos might be like. In the “Galactus trilogy” of Fantastic Four #48-50, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby present different visions of God. Uatu the Watcher is a benevolent god who takes an interest in humanity but nevertheless chooses to intervene rarely in their fate. Galactus represents a very different vision of God as a cruelly insensitive deity, who regards humanity as no more significant than ants, considers himself beyond human concepts of god and evil, and will not hesitate to wipe out humanity if he so desires. The Silver Surfer is like a fallen angel, or perhaps a Christ figure, defending humanity from a god of wrath.
In The Eternals, Kirby presented the Celestials, the immense, all-powerful “space gods” who created humanity and have returned to Earth to judge—and perhaps to destroy—the human race. As depicted by Kirby the Celestials are almost wholly enigmatic. Although they appear to be gigantic humanoids, Kirby never shows the readers what the Celestials look like without their armor. Do they have truly humanoid forms or physical forms at all beneath that armor? Although Ajak the Eternal can communicate with them to some extent, the Celestials never speak. Why did they create the human race and the Eternals? By what sort of standards, moral or otherwise, are they judging humanity? We never know. (As with the New Gods, I am concerned here only with how Kirby depicted the Celestials, not how subsequent writers have portrayed them.) The Celestials cannot be described as benevolent towards humanity; indeed, they may decide to exterminate humanity once their “fifty year judgment” of Earth is complete. Rather, the Celestials have their own agenda, which we do not know and perhaps could not comprehend.
The Source in the Fourth World saga is the closest to what God, if He exists, may be like. Kirby never visually depicts the Source (except as a hand in the story “The Pact” in The New Gods #7, 1972). Therefore there is no reason to believe the Source resembles a human in form, like the old, bearded man in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. (That, indeed, is what Highfather looks like.) Nor does the Source speak, although he does communicate to Highfather by inscribing flaming letters on a wall, in a clear reference to the Biblical story of the divine writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast (in the Book of Daniel). The Source seems unknowable and incomprehensible. Indeed, those who attempt to penetrate the mystery of the Source, the Promethean Giants, ended up turned to stone and affixed to the great wall that separates the realm of the Source from the rest of the cosmos. The Source seems more like a sentient force than a being that in any way resembles us.
However, the Source is definitely benevolent, providing guidance to Highfather, leader of New Genesis. (In “The Pact” Kirby’s narrator even calls the Source “the Uni-Friend.”) Like the Watcher, the Source does not intervene directly in the affairs of the New Gods or humanity. The New Gods of New Genesis believe that when one of them dies, he or she is united with the Source, and Kirby never disproves this; so it may be that the Source provides an afterlife in heaven for its worshippers.
Moreover, the Source receives and may even answer prayers from its worshippers. Though various comics of 1986 that are discussed in this book address the subject of God, The Hunger Dogs is the only one that depicts prayer seriously.
Although Orion in his angry warrior mode delivered the death blow to his antagonist Esak, Orion then prays to the Source for Esak’s redemption: “Oh, great Source! Show kindness in his passing! Judge him as he was—and not as he became! See him not as a bitter pawn surprised in fatal defeat—but, only as a child, fallen upon cruel days. . . .” Esak dies, but his distorted facial features vanish, and he reverts to his original appearance, as an innocent child. It is like in a horror film in which, upon death, a vampire or werewolf resumes his or her human appearance. It is a sign that the Source exists and has shown mercy to Esak, and that Esak is at peace in the hereafter. As evil and twisted as Esak’s personality and life had become, he finally achieved redemption through the kindness of his adversary.
Much of The Hunger Dogs is dark and bleak, but through Esak’s redemption, Kirby shows reason for continued optimism amidst the darkness.
Orion too is redeemed. In a significant though understated scene, he reveals his true, bestial face to the woman he loves, Bekka, and she accepts him. As Orion finally forgave and accepted Esak, recognizing his innocent face beneath the evil face, so too Bekka extends acceptance and love to Orion, recognizing both his faces—the heroic one and the bestial one.