One of the things comic books do the best is cycles. Characters and teams get destroyed, taken apart and built back up in such a way that you get a satisfying story that feels weighty and important, but by the end of it all the characters are able to be passed on to the next creative team. This is the core of superhero comic books really, at least at the Big Two (DC and Marvel). Their characters have to be able to endure; to be flexible enough to sustain fan interest for decades without losing that which makes them unique and beloved. Some people don’t like that, and that’s fine, but it’s also at the heart of comics and when it’s done right can be very, very satisfying to read. Orion by Walt Simonson does this better then just about any comic book I think I’ve ever read. Orion goes from defeating his father Darkseid and becoming ruler and master of both Apokolips and the Anti-Life Equation, to a prisoner in a nether realm between dimensions to lastly a blind beggar on earth before regaining his old purpose in life and defending his adopted homeworld from all that challenge it.
First off, before we get into what makes his book so great, it should be said that this is not a book for everybody. I suppose you could read it cold without any understanding of who Orion, his father or the New Gods are, but I think you are missing so much of what makes this book great if you do so. The fight between Orion and Darkseid, while beautiful, dynamic and fun to look at, loses so much of its weight and power if you don’t understand the nature of their relationship and why such a battle matters so much. Similarly, characters like Desaad or the other lieutenants of Apokolips lose much of their charm if don’t have some basic understanding of them and their world. Created by Jack Kirby, the New Gods as a whole are him at his most bombastic, imaginative and unconstrained best. The ideas and characters are wild and so much fun.
One of the best things about this book is the main character himself. Orion is fascinating not only because of who he is but what he represents. He is not merely a soldier, but he is the heir to the greatest evil in the known universe. He must fight everyday against his savage nature in the name of those whose lives he has sworn to protect. Not only that, but ultimately, he can’t; he actually needs the constant help of another, his Motherbox, to regulate himself and keep him from turning into the beast he is. That’s such a neat and interesting paradox that sits at the heart of Orion. He is an outcast from both of his homeworlds. You can tell by his interactions with the other New Gods on New Genesis that he doesn’t quite fit there. Early in the book he actually begins to rule Apokolips and in some ways he fits in there much better than he ever did anywhere else. Normally a character like him would find refuge eventually, but the only refuge he ever finds is in the fight. It’s a good fight, but what Simonson does in this book is show that no matter who you are, or how noble that fight might be, it wears and destroys us all, even a god.
That leads into the other really great thing about this book; for all its action, outstanding fights and epic moments, it’s ultimately a rather sad book. A lot of the book is set around the planet Apokolips, which is a down beaten, harsh, totalitarian planet where there is no hope, there is no better way of life, there is simply living, fighting, and dying. That way of life is so ingrained in it’s people that even when Orion gives them freedom, they don’t really want it; the masses are happy to simply accept his new orders as much as they were the old orders of Darkseid. Orion has such good intentions but they keep getting thrown back into his face. Even his use of the Anti-Life Equation is adorned with the very best of intentions. He wants peace and cooperation so much that he forces it on EVERYBODY, no matter if they want it or not. The use and nature of how the Equation is presented in this book is one of the best I’ve ever seen in comics. It’s such a comic book idea that I think creators feel like they have to make it corporeal and specific instead of the wonderfully abstract idea it is. Simonson nails it; it’s simply Orion’s will and voice. Sometimes its so subtle in the book that you don’t realize he’s used it till later in the story. The end of the book is mostly positive, to be sure, but even that is tinged with sadness. Orion has been reinvigorated with passion and returns to his eternal war, but it’s just that; a war that will nver end in part because comics will never end.
Walt Simonson is one of the all time bests. His Thor run is legendary and holds up remarkable well; if you haven’t, go read that book as well. It contrasts nicely with this one. His story telling and his art are unparalleled. The fight early on between Orion and Darkseid is one of the best fights I’ve ever read in comics. The power, the colors and the sense of impact are breathtaking. He frames each page with the faces of all the New Gods that are watching which only amplifies the moment. When that fight is combined with Orion receiving the Equation, the art takes off even more and turns wonderfully abstract and surreal. Something Simonson manages well in this book is scope. Orion goes on a journey that takes him from being the ruler of a planet, to the savior of the known universe with the aid of the living embodiment of time itself, to a blind man on the streets of Metropolis helping poor and homeless people get by in their lives. And it all makes sense, it all feels consistent and it is all very compelling. That is a hard trick to pull off, especially with a character like Orion.
Walt Simonson has crafted a tale for the ages in this collection. The main story is a definitive and amazing tale about the rise and fall of Orion, but the collection includes so much more. The backup stories and the one off issues are great. Simonson introduces a Green Lantern of Apokolips that might just be one of my favorite Green Lanterns of all time. I could go on, but I wont. If you like big superhero comics and if you love the New Gods even half as much as I do, check Orion by Walt Simonson out. It’s simply fantastic.
Next Movie: Whiplash
Next Book: Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf by R.A. Salvatore