The New Gods #3

With this third issue of The New Gods and the showcasing of The Black Racer, it becomes obvious Jack Kirby is jockeying to launch spin-offs of his tetralogy. (Actually, I have heard our dark-skinned skiing deity had been created separate from the New Genesis/Apokolips saga, but the DC office, eager to expand the Fourth World should it hit big were looking for characters who could headline their own books, so Jack threw in the ebony harbinger of death.) I confess I have mixed feelings about the character, particularly the visual elements. I mean, c’mon! It’s a dude dressed in a medieval suit of armor painted in garish red and blue, flying through the cosmos on a pair of skis, wielding ski poles! I’ve always thought the appearance of Sgt. Willie Walker’s alter ego a little silly, as if it were a fruitless attempt to replicate an earlier, albeit much more popular creation, The Silver Surfer… And, if true, who could blame Jack? When you think about it, the concept behind He Who Possesses The Power Cosmic is pretty goofy, yet in execution it worked superbly, enough so to become perhaps the most resonate character to soar out of the 1960s. (And we’re not even mentioning the sordid events surrounding Stan Lee’s treatment of Jack in the whole Silver Surfer affair which would lead anyone to try again to better advantage.)

But, putting aside the costuming, The Black Racer does work, I think, and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in lives of Willie, his care-giving sister and her husband, all trying to get by in Suicide Slum. But I really dig the idea of a Grim Reaper, even one on skis, playing a direct role in the epic. Whose side is this personification of death on? Certainly Darkseid and his ilk ultimately worship death — what else is anti-life? — but their fear of The Black Racer (they’re as afraid as their New Genesis adversaries of BR’s mortal touch) shows us he’s neutral, ambivalent even. Very cool.

I’m also a fan of Jack’s (for lack of a better term) “Blaxpoitation” work at early ’70s DC, so I do respond to the Walker subplot. Jack may be off-target now and again, trying a little too hard to be hip and with it, but like his extraordinary romance work with Joe Simon, he remains earnest and empathetic with minority characters. If you haven’t seen his Soul Love work from that era, you’re missing a treat and you must seek out those unpublished stories. Wild stuff.

One could argue from the get-go Jack painted himself into a corner with the broad strokes of Willie Walker’s ordeal — paralyzed, completely dependent on his sister — or never took the chance to expand in the short time left for the Fourth World. In the few appearances to follow, the Vietnam vet’s situation remained the same: him lost in thought, his sister Verna fretting over his fate and brother-in-law Ray comforting the sister… a person might imagine Jack moving The Black Racer to another mortal vessel just to get things jumping!

Anyway, The New Gods #3 is a fine issue and, however clunky he looks, The Black Racer is a worthy addition to the opus. It’s also fun to see a two-fisted, Earthling-attired Orion duking it out in the Metropolis ghetto, and while Sugar-Man and Badger are hardly candidates for membership in the Secret Society of Super-Villains, they are classic if unrefined Kirby bad guys, so no complaints here! Jack is chugging along, gaining momentum, building tension… things are starting to rock!

One thought on “The New Gods #3

  1. patrick ford

    It’s always seemed to me that all super-heroes, their names, and their costumes, are fairly absurd. What happens is, after the reader has seen a character for some time, the name and costume become accepted. I honestly have a hard time thinking the Black Racer’s costume is any (maybe a little?) more ridiculous than Superman’s.

    And no doubt he’s got the cooler name by far. Superman has some real negative Randian aspects to it. Of course, the original Superman was an anti-fascist so that counters the negative.

    Evanier has said The Black Racer wasn’t a character intended for the Fourth World. Infantino urged Kirby to introduce him out of an awareness Kirby had shown people at Marvel his concept drawing for the Fourth World, as well as a completely revamped Thor. The Black Racer may have been a variation on the Black Sphinx character Kirby pitched on spec to Marvel.

    For me, when I look at Kirby’s work, I take the super elements in context. I don’t see Willie as a secret identity, or the Racer as a super-hero. As I see the story it’s an example of a fairly common type where an author wants to deal with a Grim Reaper figure. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is an example.

    In Kirby’s story, Mr. Death (The Black Racer) needs a human host to enter our world. By introducing Walker Kirby was able to insert the figure of a badly crippled soldier. This almost certainly ties in with Kirby’s opposition to the Vietnam war. Walker is a wasted life. Then Kirby places him along side another wasted life from Walker’s home turf. Kirby on several occasions mentioned how easy it was for kids from his childhood turf to end up as criminal types. Kirby is contrasting the decency of Walker whose valuable life has been wasted in a pointless war, against someone who has taken another path. Both men ended up on the wrong end of a gun. Walker loved and cared for by his sister (an indication of their family character) is given something of an escape when he is borrowed by the spirit of the Racer. Although the Racer retains a personality of his own when using Walkers body as a conduit, we are made aware that Walker in some way along for the ride. He’s not acting, but he’s aware of what the Racer is doing. The Racer interestingly isn’t an avenger as Kirby makes clear. He is first seen stalking Lightray. Lightray is the embodiment of purity and goodness, so Kirby makes it (ah-hem) Black and Light the Racer might touch anyone.

    As a little kid, this kind of story bugged me slightly. I’d think, “How can this guy be death? He’d be racing around the globe like Santa Claus to keep up with everyone who’s dying.” These kinds of stories aren’t trying to follow a child’s logic. Death spends weeks traveling with the knight in The Seventh Seal, the kind of continuity comic book fans worry about isn’t always the concern of a storyteller.

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