DC’s New Gods Special Misunderstands Jack Kirby’s Legacy

Released to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Jack Kirby (which is coming up at the end of this month), DC’s New Gods Special was positioned as a tribute to the influential creator. And rightfully so – overselling the influence Kirby has had on the comic book medium is an overbearing task. While art and writing styles have evolved since his heyday in the 70’s, his work is still placed on a pedestal by creators, fans, and critics alike. There’s no denying that, especially for his time, Kirby was incredibly talented.

At the core of much of his work, however, is creativity and a willingness to experiment. The characters that he created for the New Gods remain among the most fascinating, unique creations in the DC Universe. Although they remain a significant portion of his legacy, his art and designs on a multitude of other books blazed the trail for more inventive art and storytelling. His work is a strong endorsement of interesting art selling comics.

But enough with the history lesson, and on to the New Gods Special. It’s rare that we get to dip into this world in the modern era, although Bug: Adventures of the Forager recently launched, and Mister Miracle will be making a comeback in the hands of Tom King and Mitch Gerads. Both of these books are exciting (even though I didn’t love the first issue of Bug) if only because they go back to those characters. This special one shot was exciting for the same reason.

Unfortunately, the book does a disservice to the legacy of Jack Kirby, which is more than just a group of characters and an interesting set of worlds. If anything, Kirby’s legacy should be a lesson in the importance and validity of experimentation and risk taking. This one shot does none of that – instead, the new stories feel incredibly traditional and rote. Moreover, the writers make attempts to emulate an outdated writing style.

These stories feel old, and not in a “loving tribute” way. Just using Kirby’s characters isn’t enough of a tribute to the man. In fact, this book would have better embodied his legacy had it starred completely new characters, and told stories that weren’t being told anywhere else in comics. After all, that is what Kirby was doing when he created the characters found here. In fact, his career is defined by pushing the envelope. So even though his comics certainly feel of a certain time, they’re worth exploring because of the man’s willingness to innovate.

Of course, I can’t speak for Kirby himself. But this issue, written in the style of a 1970’s comic, loses sight of what made his career tremendous. He was well aware of the need for comics to expand into new territory, which DC seems uninterested in. Had this simply been written in a more contemporary style, it likely would feel like a more apt tribute to Kirby’s work. Simple attempts to replicate great works don’t count as tributes.

The art here is similarly bland. Unlike the writing, it does feel more contemporary. However, it just looks like more DC house style – the antithesis of Kirby’s work. It’s competent enough, sure. But it doesn’t capture the essence that it’s going for. Instead of being visually dynamic and creating characters and monsters that are visually unique, it leans heavily on pre-existing designs and styles. Artists wearing their influences on their sleeves is one thing, but failing to draw anything that feels new or interesting in a book meant to honor the legacy of Jack Kirby is a waste.

If you’re interested in a more interesting use of Kirby’s New Gods, give Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman run a shot. It uses characters like Orion and High Father, but in a more contemporary setting. Chiang creates a cast of characters that is compelling on a solely visual level – a hallmark of Kirby’s work. His reimaginings of the Greek pantheon are truly breathtaking. The story pushed the boundaries of what a superhero comic could be, and for that reason felt more Kirby-inspired than the soulless husk that DC charged $4.99 for last week.

Better yet, seek out some of Kirby’s work and just look at it. You can read it (I would argue you should even if the style is a turnoff), but the visuals are more than enough to understand how truly skilled the man was. A better understanding of his legacy – as well as that of a variety of classic creators – could certainly go a long way in the current market.