This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 9, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Cosmic Odyssey just had a big re-release after being out of print. You turned me and a bunch of others at CB onto that book a while back, and there’s one element that has stuck with me from it. Orion, of the New Gods, doesn’t learn anything during that story. He massacres groups and continues to dismissively refer to Forager as “Bug” even after his death. How can we as readers learn from a character who doesn’t in the long term?
First thing, thanks for calling out the series I wrote with Sacks, Elkin, Gehen, and Garret on Cosmic Odyssey. It began with some late night drunken San Diego Comic Con ranting and hopefully ended with a few more people reading this incredible comic. While I recognize it’s not a classic to everyone, it’s one of my absolute favorite comics and one I wish more people would give a read. That’s why I’m glad to see DC Comics finally reprinting it in a prestige format because it seems relevant now more than ever.
That’s something your question gets to the very heart of.
In the mythos of The Fourth World Orion is the hero, or the closest thing to that central role as it is possible to identify. I’m talking Joseph Campbell sorts of heroes here, the ones to which we can trace Skywalkers and Buddhas alike. He’s the son of the evil tyrant, raised by the benevolent figure, who must wander his own journey in order to discover his destiny. The guy has the makings of a Hollywood star. He’s also kind of a dick.
I won’t get into the intricacies of Kirby’s work, but that’s not accidental. Goodness is always a struggle for Orion and he’s often at his best when putting his worst tendencies to a good cause. There’s a lot of moral gray areas contained within the character that allow him to save the world and support noble causes while also killing folks who may not deserve it and being prejudiced against his allies. He’s a blunt instrument perfectly designed for political allegory.
That depiction of Orion has been consistent throughout the best continuations of Kirby’s originating work, whether we’re discussing Morrison’s JLA or Cosmic Odyssey. In Cosmic Odyssey Orion kills dozens, if not hundreds, of brainwashed Thanagarians to Superman’s horror. The result of this horrifying action is that he saves existence. That’s not an overstatement either. As a direct result of his actions, he helps to stop a plan that would unleash the Anti-Life Equation and end existence as we know it. It’s still possible to argue over the possibility of another way, but it’s difficult to not sympathize with the position of “by any means necessary” in this specific scenario.
None of that stops Orion from being an asshole. He spits shame on Superman for criticizing these violent tactics in the moment, but the much more telling instance comes at the end of Cosmic Odyssey in his final interaction with Forager.
Forager, also known as Bug, is a New God just like Orion. He was raised by a different race of people though and is looked down upon by Orion and some others, referred to disparagingly as Bug because of it. Forager accomplishes the same task as Orion at the conclusion of Cosmic Odyssey; he stops a bomb and in doing so saves Earth and the entire Milky Way Galaxy. The difference is that when Forager accomplishes his goal nobody dies, except for Forager. There’s a zombified Parademon and police officer, but they’re both already rotting. It is only Forager who chooses to pay the price for the salvation of countless other lives.
And how does Orion acknowledge this tremendous sacrifice?
It’s great that Batman plants one on Orion’s jaw for that minimizing response, but it doesn’t quite make up for the insult. As much as I love superhero comics, there’s no way that punching can solve deep-seated prejudice or an entire worldview. It’s only good for a brief cathartic moment, no matter how well drawn by a master like Mike Mignola.
This is where it gets complicated too. It’s bad that Orion doesn’t appear to learn anything in Cosmic Odyssey. It’s bad that he treats an incredible soul like Forager with such disdain. It’s bad that he kills hundreds of innocents in order to save billions of others. Yet we can’t deny that Orion is one of the good guys.
He’s not an incidental ally. He’s not an accidental hero. He’s not a vague anti-hero. He really is one of the good guys who is fighting for core values of humanity every day. I think we as readers can take two lessons from that, specifically within the context of Cosmic Odyssey.
First, we learn that our heroes aren’t without fault and don’t need us to apologize on their behalf. The great thing about Batman’s takedown of Orion at the end of the story, or even Superman’s horror midway through, is that they don’t undermine Orion’s accomplishments. Superman doesn’t state that the goal of saving the universe was unworthy and Batman doesn’t act as if Orion’s vile language undermines what he did before. But those actions don’t redeem the sins either. These rebukes acknowledge a world of moral complexity in which heroes also need to be held accountable for their failings.
It’s easy to see this in regard to a field of dead Thanagarians, but the righteous anger Batman feels at the insult against his dead friend Forager is more raw and complicated. It’s a passing slight, something far easier to imagine overlooking, but Batman cannot unhear what has been said and reacts. He rebukes Orion for not being the best hero he can, and there’s no one on the page or reading the page who would hesitate to support that choice. Orion fucked up and the final pages of Cosmic Odyssey are focused on that fuckup, rather than the galactic victory of literally saving everything.
Before we can get to that ending though, it’s important to touch on the second lesson of Orion’s complex moral standing: The strongest of the New Gods does learn from the weakest. Within the mythos created by Jack Kirby, Orion isn’t just the obvious hero, he’s the biological and adopted son of the two most powerful beings in existence. Orion stands tall even among the most powerful beings of the DC Universe. Forager, on the other hand, was cast aside early in his life, and is looked down upon by those who should consider him a peer. By virtue of his raising and outlook, he is constantly considered less than.
At the end of Cosmic Odyssey, it is Forager who is the great hero and Orion who is the champion requiring wisdom and repentance. That doesn’t occur because of where they come from, who they are, or what they say. It is a role reversal that comes about through their actions. And those actions are what ultimately allow Forager to rise far higher than Orion within Cosmic Odyssey.
The final page of Cosmic Odyssey isn’t a celebration or bit of foreshadowing; it’s a small human moment that predates Mignola’s many great “small” moments throughout the course of creating Hellboy. Highfather dispatches Orion to return Forager’s remains to his people in the hopes that it will teach him a lesson. Flowers fall from above while Orion is left in silence, something so rare to the character, his head cast down in shame.
This ending isn’t change, but it’s the opportunity for change.
We are watching a character who from the very start of this story has always followed his own directives and instincts be forced to question his values and actions. What Superman could not accomplish over a field of corpses has been done by the actions of a noble individual transformed into a legend before Orion’s eyes. The leader of the heroes has been led to a chance to reconsider what good may be done in the world.
That isn’t fair. It’s certainly not right. But you look at that moment, and you know it’s something true. Changing hearts and minds is not as easy as stating the logical or pointing out the horrific. Oftentimes, changing someone’s heart comes with a horrific cost as understanding does not come easy. That doesn’t rob this moment of some beauty though, no matter how bittersweet. As Orion turns his head down, ceases to speak, and reflects, we see that the good are always capable of change, and in that change there lies hope.
Orion is not the only character in Cosmic Odyssey that fails to change. The same is true of Forager. While Orion is obstinate, vicious, and angry in his quest for the good outcome, Forager is steadfast, calm, and serene in his own. Forager’s path and his dedication to both ideals and methods of goodness manage to inspire all of those around him. They provide the ever dour Batman with a friendship he won’t forget and manage to even impact the mightiest of the mighty in Orion.
The story of Forager is the story of Orion in Cosmic Odyssey, and it tells us not to lost hope. Forager gave everything, but in the giving he discovered new wells of goodness in the world. That’s a change worth believing in.