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If superhero stories, as many have argued, offer a contemporary mythology, then the Fourth World Saga at the center of New Gods, ups that ante considerably. The DC Entertainment property is getting its highest profile yet, with the news that director Ava DuVernay will be tackling a film adaptation of the project for Warner Bros.
So, who are the New Gods?
Since its creation in the early 1970s, when Jack Kirby abandoned the Marvel Universe to create something altogether new at competitors DC, the Fourth World Saga has endeavored to tell stories on a scope that make even the most cosmic of superhero epics seem unambitious by comparison. Not for nothing did the first issue of 1971’s New Gods open with the gloriously melodramatic narration, “There came a time when the old Gods died!”
Told, initially, across four separate comic book series running in parallel — and then, in subsequent years, through even more revivals, guest shots and graphic novels — the Fourth World Saga is a sprawling storyline with a truly vast cast of characters that would take a long time to fully introduce. In order to get a quick handle on DuVernay’s film project, however, here is a brief primer on some of the primary players.
The main character of the original New Gods comic book — which was occasionally called Orion of the New Gods during its run — Orion was Luke Skywalker years before George Lucas was telling stories about a galaxy far, far away. The son of arch-villain Darkseid, Orion was raised by Darkseid’s opposite number, Highfather, on the utopian planet of New Genesis, and has struggled to maintain balance between his bestial nature and the love and nurturing he was given as a child. At heart a savage warrior, he possesses a nobility of spirit that allows him to aspire for more than just conquest and violence — which might be good, considering he is also destined to face his father in battle and may, eventually, take over rulership of his father’s planet, Apokolips.
Orion’s best friend, Lightray is free of the internal struggles that plague the son of Darkseid. Instead, he’s a strident optimist whose devil-may-care attitude can seem at odds with the situations in which he constantly finds himself. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t fight — not only by Orion’s side whenever necessary, but he also will battle Orion’s darker nature when his comrade seems too close to giving in to his worst impulses.
The ruler of the planet New Genesis, Highfather is the patriarch of the New Gods as a whole and the adoptive father of Orion. “Highfather” is actually a title for Izaya the Inheritor, the opposite number of Darkseid — his wife’s murder at the hands of Darkseid was one of the inciting incidents that started the war between New Genesis and Apokolips. His own son, Scott, was raised by Darkseid as part of a pact intended to postpone war; Scott went on to become Mister Miracle, a “super escape artist” who ran away to Earth in a failed attempt to avoid the war altogether. More than any other character in the saga, Highfather relies upon the Source, a cosmic force that represents all life, for guidance; the Source literally communicates to Highfather via messages written in flame.
The villain of the piece, Darkseid — pronounced “Dark Side,” as if “The Source” wasn’t enough of a sign that George Lucas took some inspiration from the Fourth World comics — represents a kind of cosmic fascism that seeks, not to put too fine a point on it, the eradication of all independent thought in existence. As much the inspiration for Marvel’s Thanos as he was an inspiration for Darth Vader, Darkseid is more understated and a more accomplished manipulator than either, and perhaps best introduced via the monologue delivered by one of his followers in the 1997 JLA comic book storyline “Rock of Ages”: “Who is beyond good and evil? Who is the prophet of anti-life? Who is the rock and the chain and the lightning? All powerful! All unforgiving! All conquering! Who is your new God now and forever?” Darkseid is.
Metron is a strange character in Kirby’s original New Gods conception — technically an observer who doesn’t chose sides, he’s been demonstrated to assist both New Genesis and Apokolips at different points of his comic book career. If each of the primary New Gods characters represent higher themes — Orion, man’s dual nature and struggle to transcend animal instincts; Darkseid, the evil in humanity that seeks to dominate and ultimately eradicate independence, and so on — Metron represents dispassionate curiosity and, at times, the dangers of such pursuit. He is assisted in his quest for knowledge by the Mobius Chair, which allows him to travel through space and time, not to mention offering up deus ex machina plot resolutions when writers require them.
Darkseid is far from alone on Apokolips, with all manner of minions and related toadies willing to do his bidding, whether it’s the mad scientist DeSaad, the charming but untrustworthy Glorious Godfrey or his monstrous son Kalibak. Perhaps the most interesting, though, is Granny Goodness, who trains orphans to become soldiers in Darkseid’s many armies. Using techniques including brainwashing and torture, she’s responsible for the creation of all kinds of warriors for the cause, whether it’s the nameless Parademons and Dog Soldiers, or the more colorful Female Furies, a group of women with specific skills whose very lives are in service to Darkseid’s whims. A wonderful, surreal fact: Granny Goodness was modeled after comedian Phyllis Diller, according to those close to Kirby.
Barda — Ava DuVernay’s favorite superhero, she revealed on Twitter — was once the leader of the Female Furies, having been raised since childhood by Granny Goodness. She abandoned both Darkseid’s service and Apokolips as a whole after falling in love with Mister Miracle, and instead devoted herself to fighting the nihilism at the heart of her former cause alongside her love, and later, husband. In many ways Orion’s counterpart — she, too, struggles against inner darkness in an attempt to fight for optimism and a better way that isn’t inherently inside her — Barda’s love for Mister Miracle provides an emotional anchor to the vast mythology at the heart of the Fourth World Saga as a whole, and makes her one of the most well-rounded characters in the entire epic. If DuVernay decides to use her as the point-of-view character for the movie, she’ll have chosen well.
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