One of the biggest problems for comic creators in the past few years hasbeen to try and keep a new series going, whether it be from a smallercompany or a superhero comic book from the Big 2 - Marvel Comics & DC. Thisis especially true of the legendary Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" properties:they have not been able to support a long term ongoing series despite theefforts of DC comics and many talented creators. Things looked up for Orion,one of the most popular "Fourth World" characters, when he received his ownongoing series two years ago with industry legend Walter Simonson at thehelm, juggling both writing and penciling duties. Despite a solid creatorat the forefront of the series and a tradepaperback for new readers or thosecoming in late that collected the first 5 issues of the series, the seriesnever saw the necessary sales materialize and as a result it was announcedlate in 2001 that "Orion" would be canceled. Walt Simonson recently tooksome to talk to CBR News about the cancellation of this series and why it meantso much to him.
"Sad," says Simonson when asked to find a word that sums up how he felt tolearn the series had been canceled. "But DC told me straight up what thescore was and I appreciated it. 'Orion' was canceled for the same reason most books are canceled--salessimply weren't high enough to justify continuing the title." Simonson saysthat he has always been a fan of Kirby's "Fourth World" concepts and addsthat, "I loved the original 'Fourth World' work Jack Kirby created and readand reread the comics as they were coming out originally. It's been apleasure and a treat to be able to work with these characters and conceptsso many years later. John Byrne had been doing 'Jack Kirby's Fourth World'for DC; I had been doing the covers for that title. So when John decidedthat the time had come to move on, I spoke to his editor, Paul Kupperberg,about taking over the title after John. Paul took me on. Simple as that."
Simonson says that the driving concept behind "Orion" can be described withone question: "How does a god of battle stand between his own father and therest of the universe while maintaining his integrity, wrestling with theconflicts of a divided nature, and still look good while flying theAstro-glider? 'Orion' was different just as any title is different from anyother title -- the characters the book is about, if they're well drawn (I don't mean with a pencil) and well written, give each title its own flavor. Ifind Orion virtually unique among the heroes of mainstream comics with hisstruggles against his own personal demons, his stand against his biologicalfather, his exceptional potential for both greatness and damnation." But, asSimonson contends, it isn't just the philosophical underpinnings of thecharacter that make Orion suited to his own ongoing series. "Brilliance ofconcept. Or of multiple concepts really," says Simonson of the factors thatjustify an Orion or New Gods series. "From the small things like Motherboxesto the larger things like the internal structure of the original fourconcurrent series. The New Gods remain some of the most complex andinteresting characters in the DC Universe."
Despite the series being canceled, Simonson feels no animosity towards DCand feels that he was given a lot of creative latitude. "I was pretty muchgiven free reign. There was an occasional cross-over with DC's books to beaccommodated but that was minimal, and the timing was suchthat I was able to plug the requisite material in with relative ease andstill maintain a head of steam on the stories I was telling myself." Anyproblems that he had with the series could be described as "The same asalways," admits Simonson and adds, "Having to work for a living with all thepluses and minuses that entails. But it really was fun getting up in themorning knowing I was working on these characters." Even though he wasutilizing classic characters that have a cult following, Simonson said hedidn't feel any extraordinary amount of pressure to live up to people'spreconceived notions of how things "should" be in "Orion." "I've been askedthis before but if you stop and think about it, most of my career--whichgoes back to when comics were essentially ONLY 'shared-universe' comics--hasbeen about handling characters I didn't invent, many of them invented orco-invented by Jack. I've been doing this a long time. I'm not intimidated; it's what I do."
Simonson's inspiration for the series came from a genuine love for Kirby'sprevious work and he always tried to channel the "King's" creativity whenproducing the "Orion" series. "Jack's original work was my primaryinspiration of course. After that, it was pretty much open season. All thestuff I love. Mythology, science fiction, the internal dynamics of thecharacters themselves, and the excitement of trying to tell stories withthese characters that hadn't been told before. The Anti-LifeEquation--something I think of as Jack's comic book reconstruction offascism--was at the heart of Jack's original stories and I was able toexplore that concept a bit further during my run on 'Orion.'" Kirby's workalso strongly influenced Simonson's visual approach to the series. "Theprincipal inspirations probably came from the work of Kirby and PhilippeDruillet in 'Orion.' Nobody's done vaster landscapes or space-scapes incomics than Philippe. Beyond that, I've tried to incorporate the graphicdesign elements I like (the great Tree on the Abysmal Plane is a goodexample) and elements of drawing I take from numerous sources." As taxing asbeing both the writer and artist can be, Simonson admits that he enjoyed allthe challenges that this creative arrangement wrought. "I like mixing it up.I like working on projects where I do double duty but I enjoy taking a breakfrom that and letting someone else do part of the heavy lifting, be itwriting or art, from time to time. Other creators come up with ideas andvisualizations I would never have thought of and that makes the combinedwork richer."
Some of the most popular and most prominent themes in "Orion" are the kindthat you'd expect to find in a literary classic, not your average superherocomic. Simonson used this series to explore the responsibility one faceswhen given the power to toy with someone else's life, the consequences ofone's actions and the disturbing relationship between Orion and his sadisticfather Darkseid. "These things seemed inextricably bound to the charactersas originally established by Jack in his work," explains Simonson of theirinclusion in this series. "I did think that rather than try to create atapestry of multiple characters on several levels of power caught up in agreat cosmic conflict as Jack did originally that it would be more effectivefor a single title to focus on a single character. Orion remains for me themost interesting and most challenging of the New Gods, probably because ofhis innately divided nature combined with his fierce commitment to thedefense of the cosmos against evil. And against his own father. The comic,'Orion,' was really something of an examination of the nature of Orion in avariety of his aspects."
As someone who invested so much in "Orion," you can bet that Simonson has alot of favorite moments and he has a hard time trying to summarize thehighlights of his work on the series. "I think the climaxes of a couple ofthe individual story arcs appeal to me most although I like some of theindividual issues a lot. The silent fight between Orion and his father,Darkseid. The solo issue of Orion and Sirius. The acquiring of the Anti-LifeEquation by Orion in 'Orion #11.' The victory of Orion over his Father inthe double issue 15 that is, of course, really the complete defeat ofeverything Orion's always fought for. I liked the Abysmal Plane and thegraphics representing the beginning of the destruction of the World Tree andthe universe beyond. The two part story that's running now with Orion blindand back on Earth. And if I can do it justice, No. 25, the final issue, adouble one, with Orion and Scott Free, the Children of the Pact."But Simonson also says that working with so many prolific creators - such asFrank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Art Adams and others who contributed small "backup" stories for various issues - was an absolute joy. With a hearty laugh andsly grin, Simonson says he isn't sure why those guys were so excited to workon "Orion" with him. "You'd have to ask them that question. I'd like tothink it was my winning smile. I just asked them and they said yes, alongwith a lot of other wonderful creators. I couldn't have been more delightedat the range of the artists and writers who worked on 'Orion' with me. Oneof my biggest regrets about the book coming to an end is the now unfulfilledlist of creators I would love to have asked to contribute to the title."One stereotype that dogged "Orion" from the start was the misguided notionthat somehow the characters from the "Fourth World" are somehow inherentlyhokier or more flat than most other comic book characters. When asked how hemade the characters in "Orion" seem remarkably human and three-dimensional,Simsonson remarks that, "Well, since I haven't been able to convince enoughreaders to buy 'Orion' to keep it going, we can probably skip this question.And I'm not sure I seen the Fourth World characters as any hokier thandozens and dozens of other characters out there in superhero land, some ofwhom have been quite successful over the years. All I can say is that I'vetried to do 'Orion' so that I would have been interested in it as a readermyself. To that extent, I feel I've succeeded. I'm just not a big enoughaudience." These sentiments are once again echoed by Simonson when hedescribes fandom responding to the series with "mostly remarkable restraint"but is also extremely appreciative of the fans who stuck by the seriesthrough thick and thin. "On the other hand, there has been a small butdevoted core of fans who've done things like established an Orion messageboard, kept track of what I've been doing, and enjoyed the title immensely,offering their own support and contributions to the enterprise. For which I've been very grateful."
Despite the premature cancellation, Simonson looks back at his work on"Orion" with fondness and no real regrets, saying that "I might have begunwith fewer plot threads right off the bat but I'd have to think about that"when asked if he would have changed anything in retrospect. But had theseries not been canceled, Simonson admits that he had a lot of ideas forthe continued adventures of DC's "Dog of War." "Too many [further plotideas] and too varied to describe here in a few sentences. Besides, whywould I give away plotlines I might someday want to use? Suffice it to saythat I had another two or three years worth of 'Orion' ideas already storedin the filing cabinet." Simonson grins and adds, "Boy, do I regret not beingable to use them!"
With the final issue of "Orion" shipping in April, Simonson feelscomfortable talking about the experience of ending this series with issue#25. "I've tried to draw a number of my story threads to a conclusion. In asense, I'd already done that by Orion 25 (the final issue) and the lastissue is both a coda to the entire series as I've written it and areexamination of the relationship between Scott Free and Orion. Althoughthey are inextricably linked through their past (as both were hostagestraded by their fathers to stop a war back in Jack's 'New Gods' issue, ThePact), there have been very few stories exploring the relationship betweenthe two of them. It was something I wanted to do before the series ended and it turns out that I'm going to be able to do it as the conclusion of the series. How fans willreact is really up to them." Perhaps hoping to create some more hype andfanfare for the final issue, Simonson jokingly proclaims that, "I think I'mgoing to be telling the best Scott Free story anybody's done to date."
While some people might be understandably mad and bitter about their comicbook series being canceled so relatively early in it's run, Simonson isn'tabout to blame cancellation on any group of fans or the current state of theindustry. "Beats me other than that new titles have been a tough sell foryears and the New Gods a tough sell for even longer," says Simonson of"Orion's" inability to find a large audience. "But I don't regret a secondof time I've spent on 'Orion' and I would do it again in a heartbeat" Afternews of "Orion" being canceled hit the Internet, Marvel ComicsEditor-In-Chief Joe Quesada immediately lauded praise upon Simonson for hiswork on the series and said that he'd love to see the legend doing some workwith Marvel Comics, feedback that pleases Simonson. "Comments like that arewelcome and always better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," saysthe facetious writer and regarding characters he'd like to work on at Marvelhe adds, "There probably are somewhere." But DC fans, have no fear: Simonsonmay well continue to work there as well. "I've been offered some interestingand curiously off-the-wall possibilities by DC, which is something Iobviously like to do anyway. So we'll just have to see."
Reflecting on the current state of the comic book industry, Simonson isn'tsure how the increasing popularity of non-superhero comic books will affectthe superhero genre itself. "I really haven't any idea. I only notice thatas comics have gotten further away from what we might call 'mainstream'superheroes, to a great deal of critical acclaim as far as I can tell, theindustry seems to have diminished in sales. There are a lot of reasons forthat of course. And I also think that superheroes were so successful incomics for so long because they were really a genre that couldn't be donevery well in any other medium, unlike mystery stories or romances or horrortales. Now with movies and TV in the computer age, that's no longer true. Soit may be that comics have lost one of their strengths and I'm not sure they've found anything to replace it with yet." However, Simonson does have someideas on how to bring in new readers and explains, "Two things really. Thefirst is the publication of comics that don't need Ph.D.'s in ContinuityStudies to understand. This has become more difficult as the years have goneby and I don't know if it's reversible really but I think it important. Thesecond thing, probably the more important of the two, is that comics have toreorganize their distribution so they can be found again, by ordinary people. The newsstand market, as I understand it, seems to be just about dry, and so many comic shops have folded over thepast eight years or so that it's possible to live in many places in thiscountry now where you're miles and miles from anywhere you can actually buycomics. In some cases, tens or hundreds of miles. That's not good. No matterhow excellent comics are or become, if people can't find them, they aren'tgoing to buy them. The general idea, I've always understood, is to producecomics people actually want to read, and then get them into places wherepeople can actually find them."
After "Orion #25" ships in April, Simonson fans can definitely expect to seehis work again soon: "The only project I'm committed to right now is issue 11 of the Stan Lee "Just Imagine" series for DC in which he's reinventing the Sandman. Beyond that, I'd only be guessing. Or telling stories about potential projects that haven't yet really been given a go-ahead.
"The only thing I'd like to add at the end here is to say that, kids, if youdecide you want to get those back issues of 'Orion' out of the quarter box,better do it now before it's too late," says Simonson with a grin. "Thereweren't a lot of copies of 'Orion' printed and one of these days, they won'tbe so cheap!"