July 2015

Matt Terl

fiction

Orion Omnibus by Walter Simonson

Walter Simonson should be a household name, and not just in households that have a basement full of longboxes. Simonson, who's still working on mainstream comics today, was a contemporary (and studiomate) of late twentieth-century comics icons Frank Miller, Jim Starlin, and Howard Chaykin. His work on Marvel's Thor series was every bit as groundbreaking as Miller's Daredevil work or Starlin's cosmic melodramas -- even Alan Moore's reinvention of Swamp Thing.

But, perhaps because he never went on to an iconic creator-owned project (like Miller's 300 or Sin City, or Chaykin's American Flagg!, or Moore's Watchmen and V For Vendetta), Simonson's work for a long time seemed to receive much less notice outside the industry than it deserves.

In some ways Simonson was a victim of the nature of serial superhero comic publishing. Where Miller's Batman work was easy to carve out and save in a tidy, easy-to-consume package (four issues of Year One functioned perfectly as a standalone novel, as did the four larger format issues of The Dark Knight Returns, and both were completely divorced from any plots in the ongoing continuity of the character), Simonson's work came in long stretches mid-run -- he took over Thor with issue #337 and left it to other creators with #382 -- and it would take nearly 20 years for the trade paperback market to reach the point where it could support a multi-volume set of collections covering that sort of span.

In addition to several iconic superhero runs, Simonson, like Miller an accomplished artist as well as writer, elevated other-media adaptations into genuine examples of comic book art, most notably with a stunning graphic novel rendition of the original Alien movie, but also with work on Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Battlestar Galactica. (And, years later, in combination with Miller himself, a lunatic Robocop/Terminator crossover.)

But the reproduction rights on licensed books like that can be complicated, so those would-be-iconic works also went out of print and out of sight for decades.

Simonson's art is distinctive, carefully designed, and kinetic, his writing melodramatic, heightened, and steeped in myth. Very few people have captured the energy and bombast of comic book demigod Jack Kirby's characters as well as Simonson has, most famously with Thor, but again with an excellent extended run on Fantastic Four that's been unjustly overlooked.

And then, years later, at the start of the twenty-first century, he'd do it again, with Kirby's "Fourth World" characters for DC, in Orion. The Fourth World characters, from a certain perspective, are pure, distilled Kirby. It's the work he did later in his career, in the 1970s, when he'd left Marvel (and Stan Lee's input and/or meddling, depending on who you believe) behind and been given his own territory to mine at DC.

The opening line of the prologue of Kirby's first issue sums up not only the backstory of the plot, but -- from a certain perspective -- the backstory of the book's creation: "There came a time when the Old Gods died!" Kirby, never one to think small, crafted his own new mythology: strife between the worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips, an ongoing war between the stern, noble Highfather and Darkseid, the personification of evil; and, most foundationally, a swap sending Highfather's son to live on Apokolips and bringing Orion, Darkseid's bellicose offspring, to peaceful New Genesis.

Lukewarm fan response and editorial interference kept Kirby from completing the story as he'd originally envisioned, and ultimately the characters were subsumed into the greater whole of the DC Comics universe. So when Walt Simonson launched the Orion series in 2000, it seemed likely to be another middling attempt at interpreting Kirby's less-compelling later characters, and readers reacted accordingly: the series lasted just 25 issues and -- like so much of Simonson's other work -- vanished into the memory hole of unreprinted monthly comics. (DC released a trade paperback reprinting the first five issues of the book, which itself then went out of print.) 25 issues of Simonson doing Kirby -- as he'd done so successfully so many times before -- just dismissed. In hindsight, it's a preposterous decision. And, thankfully, DC has realized it. This edition collects Simonson's entire run, along with assorted related miscellany from across the history of DC publishing. It is enormous, comprehensive, and overwhelming -- and it is terrific.

It's hard to convey the thrill of having a collection like this appear, 25 new-to-me issues of one master interpreting and expanding on the work of another. And, against all odds, it lives up to expectations. Simonson's line is energetic as ever, his writing still hits the major chords that the mythic subject matter demands, and his sense of design and partnership with letterer John Workman remain as vital as ever. Simonson moves the Kirby story forward in logical, inevitable ways that still manage to tread new ground and leave all the characters within changed. He also indulges his fondness for high-concept set-piece issues, here in an issue-length face-to-face fight between Orion and Darkseid that eschews dialogue in favor of enormous sound effects ("THKRWHAM!") and Simonson's ballistic visuals.

It is, frankly, a characteristically terrific book, and one that feels like it probably reads better as a (gargantuan) collection than it did in its original publication schedule. The collection is not without flaws, though. In the original serial publication of the book, Simonson brought in an impressive list of fellow creators (including Miller, Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, and noted jeans salesman Rob Liefeld, among others) to contribute backup stories. These shorts sometimes provided context for the issues they appeared in, sometimes revealed hidden facets of the characters, and sometimes just moved the plot incrementally along.

For some reason, DC has elected to put all of these backup stories together at the back of this 700-page book, completely divorced from the individual chapters that give them context. The only way to enjoy the story as originally intended is with the judicious use of two bookmarks and lots of tedious flipping back and forth. It's a baffling decision, especially since this appears in all other ways to be a carefully curated collection, one that's being issued for love of the content and/or creator involved. There's no obvious tie-in to anything DC is publishing now, no real reason for this edition to have been published. Still, given the luck Simonson's had with his other major works, it probably makes sense to just be glad that this one made it onto shelves at all. Even if it's not optimally organized, a 700+ page slab of Walt Simonson work is something to be celebrated.

Orion Omnibus by Walter Simonson
DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1401255350
752 pages