As Jack Kirby’s The Hunger Dogs draws to its close, the arcs of two of its major characters, Orion and Esak, are resolved, as shown in the previous installment. Then, Kirby moves the action of The Hunger Dogs to an epic scale. The planet of New Genesis “is blown apart!!” This is literally the apocalypse, the end of the world. It may also symbolize the feared result of nuclear war in the real world, which would not actually break apart the planet but would wipe out all life. Perhaps Kirby meant New Genesis’s destruction to echo the destruction of the world of the Old Gods who preceded the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips. In the context of superhero comics, the explosion of New Genesis might even echo the annihilation of Krypton.
However, Highfather, the leader of New Genesis, has cunningly manipulated events to save the gods of New Genesis and to defeat Darkseid’s forces. Supertown, the satellite city, is unharmed by the explosion. (What happened to the race of humanoid “bugs” like Forager who lived beneath the surface of New Genesis? Kirby seemed to have forgotten them.) But debris from New Genesis rains down in Apokolips, setting off explosions of “Micro-Mark” bombs stored in Apokolips’ weapons silos. In a strategem resembling jujitsu, Highfather thus turns Darkseid’s lethal assault on New Genesis against Apokolips.
Darkseid quickly realizes that the real threat to him is not the explosions but the effect that the disaster has on his subjects’ psyches. He thinks, “Paranoia!! Highfather’s weapon!!”
Indeed, the narrator observes that “Panic and hysteria sweep through the levels of Darkseid’s rigidly structured society!” Darkseid’s tyrannical regime, an extreme form of order, is now threatened by the chaos of rebellion.
Apparently blaming Darkseid for this catastrophe, the “Lowlies” turn against him, and the rebellion that has been going on since the start of the graphic novel reaches the tipping point.
One Lowly yells, “You won’t escape, Darkseid! We fear you no longer!”
Another Lowly sneers, “Automaton! Micro-Mark! Your stinking New Age!” The “Hunger Dogs” have rejected Darkseid’s “new age” and through revolution, hope to start a new age of their own.
One Hunger Dog even aims a gun at Darkseid, an action that would have been inconceivable in the police state of Apokolips in the original Fourth World comics of the 1970s.
Again, Kirby points to the power of human emotion to combat tyranny and oppression. Describing the Hunger Dogs, the narrator notes, “Their fear is contagious! Their anger is raw power!”
In the melee, Darkseid shoots his old enemy Himon, apparently killing him. But Orion saves both Bekka and his mother, Tigra, and leaves Apokolips, thus fulfilling the traditional heroic role of rescuing damsels in distress. In departing from Apokolips, Orion calls out, “As for us, adventure beckons! Life beckons! The great ‘Tomorrow Overture’ has begun!”
Apokolips, Orion’s birthplace, is a world of death; Orion has instead chosen to follow “life.” Note his comment that both adventure and life “beckon” him. It is appropriate that a hero like Orion regards life as an adventure; this is also a positive vision of life that contrasts sharply with the soul-destroying existence that the Lowlies of Apokolips led under Darkseid’s tyranny. One might also think of the “call to adventure” at the start of the “hero’s journey” as defined by the myth scholar Joseph Campbell. The end of Darkseid’s rule, and the end of Apokolips and New Genesis as we knew them, have become a new beginning, the start of a new life of adventure, for Orion, and, as we shall soon see, for the New Gods of New Genesis as well. Unlike Darkseid’s new age of the Micro-Mark, this is the start of a glorious new age of adventure that Orion and Kirby welcome.
It’s noteworthy that Kirby, through Orion, likens the start of this bright new age to music: “The great ‘Tomorrow Overture’ has begun!” Perhaps Kirby was thinking of Richard Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, in which he set the twilight of the Norse gods to music. The catastrophes that befall New Genesis and Apokolips are like a sort of Ragnarok. But Kirby’s focus is on the start of this great new age; hence, the music is a “Tomorrow Overture,” perhaps more like a heroic Beethoven piece than Wagner.
Unfortunately, the revolution on Apokolips will not have permanent effects. The narrator informs us that “Things won’t change when the thundering echoes fade. The Hunger Dogs will fill their bellies and strut. . .all too briefly! Then, Darkseid will re-build his self-made prison of suspicion, hate and murder!”
It seems right that Darkseid will be incapable of change for the better, and that he thus cannot be part of this “new age”: his own dark psyche will force him to return to his usual patterns of thought and behavior, his “self-made prison.” But it seems disappointing that the Hunger Dogs will not keep their new freedom and will fall once more under Darkseid’s sway. Kirby, through Orion, has already warned against “cynicism” in The Hunger Dogs. Was Kirby really pessimistic enough to believe that the Hunger Dogs’ revolution would inevitably be undone? Or did Kirby recognize that since DC Comics intended to keep doing Fourth World stories, Darkseid would inevitably return to power on Apokolips? Hence, Kirby got to depict the fall of Darkseid and the libration if the Lowlies, but knowing full well that the old status quo would return following the end of this graphic novel.
It is not the youngest generation, as represented by Esak, who provided hope for the future; Esak, as we have seen, fell from grace and failed. No, in Kirby’s The Hunger Dogs, it is the old, represented by Highfather, who still provide hope, wisdom, and guidance. It is Highfather who has brought about the defeat of Darkseid and saved the New Gods of New Genesis.
With his white beard and robes, Highfather resembles the archetypal image of an Old Testament patriarch or prophet. At this point in The Hunger Dogs, Highfather is like Moses, leading his people away from a catastrophe that has claimed their enemies, wandering though a vast expanse (in this case, outer space) in search of a new homeland.
Earlier, Orion had condemned cynicism; now Highfather exhibits and extols faith. He does not know where to go to find the new homeland, and says, “The world we seek. . .must find us. We are the ones who are lost!”
One of the New Gods responds, in dread of the future, “This may become an endless night, Highfather!” (The fact that this frightened New God is unidentified may indicate that Kirby means him to represent the New Gods of New Genesis in general.)
Highfather answers, “True! But ahead may be an endless voyage of wonders!” Like Orion, Highfather also sees himself and the New Gods of New Genesis as the future as a potential adventure. Highfather continues, “If the cosmos is alive with such overwhelming mysteries as the ‘Source,’ it is versatile enough to bombard us with sights and questions of monumental value.”
Thus Highfather expresses his faith and trust in the universe, of which the Source is part. Highfather does not regard the cosmos as hostile. Rather, he sees it as full of “wonders,” one of which may well be “the world we seek.” He may be indicating that the universe is literally alive and sentient, in which case, Highfather may be implying that the universe and the Source (in other words, God) are one and the same. Notice that Kirby chooses the word “versatile”: the universe can be bleak and cruel, immersing the unfortunate in an “endless night,” but it can also bestow “monumental value” on its inhabitants.
Notice too that Highfather speaks of “such overwhelming mysteries as the Source” and “questions of monumental value.” He seems to be saying that there is more to the universe than what is readily apparent to our perceptions. There is the “mystery” of the Source, which may entail the existence of a spiritual dimension to reality and the nature of God. Neither Kirby nor Highfather define what the “questions of monumental value” are. Perhaps Highfather simply means that the New Gods of New Genesis will explore previously undiscovered parts of the universe in the course if their wanderings. But perhaps Highfather is also speaking of religious and philosophical questions, about God, and the nature and purpose of the cosmos and of existence.
The unseen, unidentified person conversing with Highfather stammers, “I—I fear time, Highfather! I-It’s an enemy greater than Darkseid!” Here is the graphic novel’s theme of change and the coming of a new age once more. It is not just change, but time itself, which inevitably brings change, that is identified as a source of fear.
Highfather acknowledges, “You have the right to fear.” This may be his admission that he cannot guarantee a happy fate for the New Gods of New Genesis; their wanderings could prove to be “endless” or even end in disaster.
But then the unseen person asks, “What lies ahead, Highfather?”
Highfather replies, “Hope, perhaps. A planet called Hope!” In that first sentence Highfather appears uncertain, as he admits that hope is only a possibility. But Highfather delivers the second sentence more forcefully, putting passion into his hope for a better future. This is Highfather voicing his faith in unseen, enigmatic powers, whether they are called the Source or the cosmos.
Highfather has taken what the philosopher Kierkegaard called a leap of faith. Highfather does not know for certain that he and his people will find their new homeland, but he hopes that the Source will lead them to it, that the “world we seek” will find them.
The narrator declares, “Highfather has traded Holocaust for uncertainty!” Kirby could be using the word “holocaust” simply to mean catastrophic destruction, such as what has just befallen the planet of New Genesis. But surely Kirby was aware that the word “Holocaust” is also the name for the Nazi genocide of European Jews and others.
The theme of death on a massive scale recurs through many of the important comics of the year 1986, and, of course, Art Spiegelman’s Maus deals specifically with the Holocaust. Kirby’s use of the word “Holocaust” here may signal that he intended The Hunger Dogs to be in part a commentary on the real life Holocaust. Darkseid’s Apokolips, a planetwide totalitarian state, is akin to Nazi Germany. Highfather leading the New Gods of New Genesis on their search for a new home, following the showdown with Apokolips, is like Moses leading his people out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But Highfather’s quest might also be compared to that of European Jews after World War II founding the state of Israel as their new homeland.
Kirby emphasizes Highfather’s leadership abilities. The narrator states that “Highfather has traded Holocaust for uncertainty! He shares his strength with those who waver. He does more! He generates a personal energy. . .which probes the unending road of the universe for reasons that rise from his own instinct!”
As creator of the cast of his Fourth World comics, Kirby presumably saw something of himself in each of his major characters. But did he identify more with certain characters than with others? It is tempting to think that when Kirby did the original Fourth World comics in the early 1970s, he most identified with principal heroes Orion and Mister Miracle. The younger Forever People were clearly Kirby’s means of commenting upon the younger generation arising in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Darkseid, Highfather, and Himon belonged to an older generation, and may have represented the generation of Kirby’s parents. Indeed, Kirby said in an interview in the magazine Amazing Heroes that Himon was based on his father-in-law: “He was named after my father-in-law. We used to have wonderful times when I was dating my wife. I enjoyed every minute talking to him. For me he was a real find. Being a street kid, to find people who really give you attention makes life wonderful. Himon represents that to me.”
But when he wrote and drew The Hunger Dogs, Kirby was himself a senior citizen, nearing the end of his career. Did he now identify more with Highfather, who is the dominant figure in The Hunger Dogs‘ closing pages? Or did Highfather represent to him the great inspirational leaders that he associated with times and generations past, even Biblical times?
Whatever the answer may be, it is clear that in The Hunger Dogs Kirby points not to the young but to the old, with their wisdom, as the leaders into a potentially better future.
That future emerges on the final page of The Hunger Dogs, in which Kirby portrays the New Gods’ seeker of knowledge, Metron, towing a new, “young” planet behind him, that presumably will become the new home of the New Gods of New Genesis: “Metron has trapped a large, young, lifeless planet, which Metron pulls in his wake with the help of strange forces. . .toward familiar quadrants. . .toward a rendezvous he never considered!” Is this why Metron left Esak behind? Even back then, was Metron seeking a potential new home for the New Gods? But Kirby’s narrator refers to “a rendezvous he never considered.” Perhaps, then, Metron was simply exploring the universe, as he typically does, when he came across this promising new world, and was unaware that New Genesis would soon be destroyed. But as fate—or the Source—would have it, Metron’s new discovery appears to be just what Highfather is now looking for.
Jack Kirby worked on only one more series of stories involving his Fourth World characters; the second Super Powers mini-series, based on Kenner’s line of toys based on DC Comics characters, later in 1985. Darkseid and some of his minions, such as Desaad, appear in the series, which was written by Paul Kupperberg and illustrated by Kirby, although surely Kirby had input into the plot, as he had with his Marvel work with Stan Lee. This series followed the continuity of The Hunger Dogs, depicting Darkseid as having fled the revolution on Apokolips.
But DC Comics ended up not treating either The Hunger Dogs or the Super Powers series as canonical parts of its official continuity. Indeed, Darkseid is clearly shown in his familiar position as ruler of Apokolips in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Since DC Comics did not want Kirby to kill off major characters like Darkseid and Orion, Kirby had had to change his plans for resolving the Fourth World saga. This now seems pointless, since DC continuity ended up ignoring The Hunger Dogs anyway. Moreover, in 2007 and 2008 DC Comics published the series Death of the New Gods, written and drawn by Jim Starlin, wherein Kirby’s New Gods, except for Darkseid, are killed off. But by the early 21st century DC and Marvel’s attitudes towards killing characters have turned cynical. The New Gods were killed off in Death of the New Gods only to be resurrected almost immediately in the 2008 series Final Crisis. Death for the characters of the DC and Marvel Universes nowadays is no more than a temporary hiatus from appearing in new stories, and continuity at DC is in a nearly continual state of revision.
In retrospect, then, it was pointless to force Jack Kirby to revise his plans for resolving the Fourth World saga to keep the main characters alive. He should have been allowed to end his story just as he wanted, even if DC ended up declaring it to be an “imaginary story” or an “Elseworld” or an alternate timeline.
But back in 1985 DC and Marvel Comics still treated death in their stories as permanent, or, to put it another way, they treated mortality realistically. This would change radically at DC Comics in the course of 1986.