Walter Simonson has had a long career in comics that includes such highlights as DC's Manhunter with writer Archie Goodwin, Marvel's Thor, and the creator-owned title, Star Slammers. This month, he turns his attention to Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters in DC's Orion. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Simonson about Orion.
Westfield: What can you tell us about the book?
Walter Simonson: I'm a huge Kirby Fourth World fan. I read the stuff when it was coming out in the early 1970s. Loved it. They're some of my very favorite comic book stories, especially the New Gods comic. I've been looking forward to doing these characters for a long time and I'm delighted to have the opportunity to do them now. What I'm doing specifically is a version of Jack's New Gods comic book, not the entire New Gods tetrology, which also included Mr. Miracle, The Forever People, and Jimmy Olsen. The New Gods was originally stories about the adventures of Orion and his buddy, Lightray. And that's what I'm concentrating on in Orion. I would have called it New Gods, but DC thought something different would be better to start off with since they had used New Gods during John Byrne's run not too long ago. The characters from the other Fourth World books will occasionally show up. There will be some cameos. The Forever People, Mr. Miracle eventually, and so on. Some of the other characters that are in the New Gods pantheon, like Tachyon from the non-Kirby material, will also be appearing in it. But the stories that I'm telling will pick up directly from the end of John's final issues of Jack Kirby's Fourth World and involve Orion.
John had been playing with a really interesting idea. He was running a storyline where Tigra, Orion's mom, was going around telling people that Darkseid was not Orion's father. I thought that was a great place to start a series of stories. John had very kindly asked me toward the end of his run if there was anything he could do to set up my early issues. I asked him not to resolve the Tigra/parentage question and I would pick up on it. So in the first story arc I'm doing, which is four issues long, Orion's parentage is one of the central cruxes of the story.
Westfield: These characters are associated very closely with Kirby. Was it daunting taking on the characters and bringing your own voice to them?
Simonson: I've liked these characters a long time and I've done comics in creator-shared universes most of my career. Very few of my comics, like the Star Slammers, have been creator owned. Most of the work I've done in comics has been in shared universes where lots of different people are responsible for creating and maintaining the characters. You jump into a corner of the sandbox, you play with the sand there, you build your own castles, and when you're done, you walk away and somebody else knocks them down and builds their own castles from the same sand. I've already followed Jack on all sorts of things like Thor and the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, so in a way, the idea of being daunted by it never really occurred to me simply because it's what I do. I don't just follow Jack; I follow every freelance writer and artist whos ever done comics. And I've done non-Kirby characters as well. Of course, anybody who does super heroes post-1961 or 62, pretty much walks in Jack Kirbys footsteps, whether you're doing Jack's characters or not. He's a watershed creator in comic books. Jack really rewrote the graphic vocabulary of comics in a way that no single creator has done since. He was a graphic innovator and a guy who expanded the visualization of comics, particularly of super heroes, but of other genres as well. So following in Jack's footsteps, hey, it's my life. It's my career in some ways. I didn't really consider it from a daunting point of view in part, I suppose, because I don't consider what I'm doing as recreating Jack's version of these characters. I'm not Jack. I'm not channeling Jack's spirit while I'm doing this stuff. I can only be my own voice. That will come through no matter what I do and because I've done comics for so long at this point, I don't think I could disguise my voice if I tried. The best I can do, and perhaps the best tribute I can make to Jack, is to do these characters as well as I can possibly do them. That, in and of itself, is kind of daunting. But that's always daunting when you think, "Aw man. I've got to be better today than I was yesterday."
Westfield: Since Orion is a shared universe character, have there been any problems or challenges since Orion is part of the JLA?
Simonson: Not much, one continuity glitch. Frankly, it wasnt a big deal. My personal view, and this may or may not fly in the long run editorially, is that I'm telling Orion's adventures in his own book. If Orion is given a new costume in the JLA, I won't be giving him a new costume in Orion. If I give him a new costume in Orion, I don't care if they give him the new costume in the JLA. I know that we have continuity fanatics and continuity aficionados and continuity likers and continuity haters out there. It's a whole range. I like some continuity, but I'm not berserk about it. As a reader, I grew up at a time when Batman and Superman were hanging out together in World's Finest. It never made any difference if Superman was off time traveling in space trying to save Krypton in his own book, Batman was off fighting the Joker in Gotham in his book, and the two of them together were off fighting the Sandwich Man in Metropolis in World's Finest that same month. I'm not a believer in the idea that because a character is doing one thing in one book, whatever happens in that book has to be exactly matched by everything else. These arent real people who occupy only one space at one time, but flexible fictional characters. What I would rather see instead of stories being told essentially for the purpose of creating precisely matched continuity is just some really good stories in Orion and some really good stories in the JLA, and a general agreement between them without getting nuts. If both books use Orion, that's fine.
Westfield: What can people look forward to in upcoming issues?
Simonson: Some kick-ass comic books! Jack did about 40 or 50 Fourth World comic books about 30 years ago. I don't expect most modern readers to have read that stuff, although DC has put out trade paperback reprint collections recently of Jacks New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Forever People comics. So some of the folks who had never seen that work before will have had a chance to see it now. But I'm not assuming an audience already familiar with the material. So, first of all, I'm writing a comic that a new reader should be able to read without having to go back and run down all of Jack's issues or all of John Byrne's issues. If the audience likes it, I hope they will go hunt down the old issues because it would make comic shop owners very happy. And theres some cool stuff in them. And secondly, I hope that readers who do know the old stuff will like what Im doing with the characters, something new I hope. But I'm basically trying to give every reader the essential information so that whether you already know a ton of stuff about these characters or you know nothing about them, youll be able to pick up Orion cold, read it, and be interested.
The end of Kirby's run on the titles remained unfinished; the books were canceled before Jack had really completed his story. The general sense today is that he was doing what we would now regard as a maxi-series. Back 1971 or 72, that concept was pretty much unknown. Books were started to go on forever. However, it seems likely that Jack had a conclusion to the entire story in mind and it looks as though he was headed towards a final Darkseid/Orion confrontation. The last issue of his New Gods ends with Orion swearing to meet his father in the fire pits of Apokolips. As a result, if you do the New Gods in any form today, whether it's mostly Orion or all the different gods, at some point you feel obligated to do an Orion/Darkseid fight. It's a little like doing Thor. If you do Thor for more than 20 minutes, you have to do a Ragnarok story, because Ragnarok is just so nifty. I did it twice myself in a single run on the book. So what Im going to do first is an Orion/Darkseid fight rather than spend a lot of time dancing around it. In a sense, I want to get it out of the way; then I feel I'll be able to take the character places he hasn't gone before.
My first four issues are the set up for why the fight occurs now, after all this time. Issue five will be the fight, but I'm not saying what happens in it. I am bringing in Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboy Legion in a subplot for several issues, because after all, they're news hounds and the idea that two of the greatest New Gods are going to scrap for all the marbles, that's news! I'm introducing some new characters, one in the first issue. I'm giving Desaad a lieutenant named Justeen, who has her own agenda, because on Apokolips that's what youve got. It's an entire planet full of Machiavellis and I'd want to play with that.
Were also going to run a series of backups. This is something John Byrne did and I liked it. I like the idea of seeing other people's visions of the Fourth World. What we're doing to start with is I'm tapping some of my buddies to see if they want to do a 5-page backup story. The way it's worked out is that I know more about the New Gods than a lot of my friends. Most of them read the stuff, but they read it when it came out almost 30 years ago. So it turns out that I'm writing several of the backups, not all of them, but I'm writing the lion's share. Because of that, what I've begun to do is write stories that illuminate certain aspects of the lead story. There are three backups in the works now and some others where the stories aren't set, but the artists are. The first two issues of Orion will be complete issues by me because, believe me, they're crammed. If you don't like reading, this may not be the book for you. You'll have to actually read this comic to figure out what's going on. The third issue, once I've got everything rolling in the first two, is nowhere near as dense. Its a 16-page story because there's going to be a 6-page backup story of Orion's birth. Since one of the major threads in my first story arc examines the question of Orion's parentage, I thought it would be illuminating to go back and look at Tigra just after she's given birth to Orion and learn what happened when her husband dropped by. That's being penciled and inked by Frank Miller. Issue four is going to be a story about Lightray who knows that his good friend Orion is in some difficulty because suddenly, the question of his parentage has become an issue. If you're one of the toughest mothers in the valley, and one of the reasons for this is because your father may be the toughest mother in the valley, and then suddenly you find out he's not your father, what does that mean about who you are? Lightray would like to help out and makes a rather secretive visit to Apokolips to try and uncover some of the truth. The artist on that one is Dave Gibbons. The fifth issue is just going to be the Orion/Darkseid fight, the sixth issue is going to include a short story written by Eric Stephenson and drawn by Erik Larsen which will be a Kalibak/Desaad story. It will illuminate some of what's going on in issue 6 and lead directly into issue 7. The backups are, so far, an organic part of the whole comic rather than just being little 5-page addenda at the end. I don't know how it's going to work out as far as readers are concerned, but I'm really excited about it. Howard Chaykin's also going to do one for me as well.
Westfield: Can you say anything about what happens after the first storyline?
Simonson: I'll have to paint it in general terms; I dont want to give away more than I must. The book is called Orion, so if I'm doing a Darkseid/Orion fight, you could make some rough guesses about out how it's all going to work out. And if, in fact, Orion is still around after the fight is over, then what would he do? Well, perhaps he would try to bring light and illumination into a very dark and shadowy place. And if he does that, what's the effect going to be? Orion himself, as long-time readers of the character know, is not an entirely light-hearted, happy-go-lucky sort of guy. The result could be that he would become affected by the shadows in which he walks and, given his possible parentage, he might very well turn out to be a real chip off the old block. And if he is a chip off the old block, that's going to be trouble for an awful lot of people [laughs]. And if that were true, then an awful lot of people would probably have to get together and decide what they could do to remedy a really really unpleasant situation.
Westfield: So, even though Orion is the main character, you will be bringing in the other Fourth World characters.
Simonson: I will. The Forever People will be making a cameo appearance around Orion #3. I do have a Mister Miracle story that I really want to tell in the first year, but it will probably be near the end. For those who remember the Kirby New Gods, issue 7 of that run was essentially a step away from the continuing storyline for an issue while Jack did a story called The Pact. In The Pact, he finally let readers in on the back story of Orion, Darkseid and High Father, and told the tale of a hostage exchange, of how Orion had been traded by Apokolips to New Genesis in exchange for High Father's son as a way of keeping peace for a while. The next issue, Jack went back to the main story line. That's what I would like to do with the Scott Free story. I want to step back from the Orion continuity at some point and do this Scott Free story because it will have powerful implications for Orion.
Westfield: You've obviously done a lot of research for this book. Did it require more than other projects you've worked on?
Simonson: The thing is that although theres a lot of New Gods work over the many years, it's all scattered. I haven't tried to go back and look at every appearance of the New Gods in every DC book for the last 25 or 30 years because there've been a ton of them. When I was doing Thor, I went back and re-read most of the complete run of Thor before doing it, just to get reacquainted with it. But I didnt, for example, reread all the Avengers issues with Thor in them. In a way, with the New Gods, the amount of research I have to do is a lot less than it was with Thor because there are far fewer New Gods issues. In Thor, I not only read a lot of comics, I also went back and dug into the mythology. In the New Gods, we make the mythology up. So, I've gone back and read Jack's issues. I have yet to go back and read the Return of the New Gods series than ran in the early 70s. I believe Gerry Conway wrote it. I know Don Newton drew some of them, but I don't remember who did most of that work. I did sit down and read all of Mark Evanier's issues and the stories Jim Starlin wrote, which was a series in the late 80s. Ive read all of John Byrnes run of course, but he was continuing a series begun by Tom Peyer and Rachael Pollack so Ive read those too. And I've gone through the Kirby Collector, checking out the articles that relate to the New Gods.
What I have done is thought about this stuff more than I've thought about other books that I've worked on, except maybe Thor. When I was doing Thor, the initial story I did about Surtur was a story I had come up with 14 years earlier when I was a fan and reading the stuff in college and I finally had a chance to do it. So you could say, in a sense, that I had been thinking about that story for 14 years. I haven't been thinking about the New Gods stories for 14 years, but I have spent a lot of time the past couple of years thinking about them, trying to clarify what I think about the characters, what I think the relationships between the characters are, where they should be going, and then distilling that down to something I can fit into a monthly comic book. Ive made extensive notes. I have a lot of ideas for stories, some of them I'm sure will happen, some of them probably won't. Part of what's going on now is that a number of years ago, the possibility existed briefly for me to write a New Gods mini-series that Arthur Adams would have drawn. I had actually plotted the series, and submitted the proposal. I don't remember why it didn't happen. Some of the storylines I'm pursuing now evolved out of that earlier work. I believe in keeping every old idea because you never know when you're going to be able to pick it up, dust it off, and send it back into battle. I'm reading more widely. In Thor, I read the Norse myths. For Orion, I'm covering myths from different cultures. Not a whole lot yet and not with the eye towards literally picking up something specific and including it, but I am interested in getting a broader feel for the uses of myth, the applications and inventions of mythic stories, and developing some sense of how I might be able to apply such ideas to the New Gods.
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Simonson: I'm having a blast doing these characters. I've loved them for a long time and hopefully that will come across in the work to any reader who picks it up.