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DC’s Dog of War Gets Put to Sleep: Simonson speaks on ‘Orion’s’ end

by  in Comic News Comment
DC’s Dog of War Gets Put to Sleep: Simonson speaks on ‘Orion’s’ end
Three page preview of “Orion #24.”
[Orion #24]

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One of the biggest problems for comic creators in the past few years has
been to try and keep a new series going, whether it be from a smaller
company or a superhero comic book from the Big 2 – Marvel Comics & DC. This
is especially true of the legendary Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” properties:
they have not been able to support a long term ongoing series despite the
efforts of DC comics and many talented creators. Things looked up for Orion,
one of the most popular “Fourth World” characters, when he received his own
ongoing series two years ago with industry legend Walter Simonson at the
helm, juggling both writing and penciling duties. Despite a solid creator
at the forefront of the series and a tradepaperback for new readers or those
coming in late that collected the first 5 issues of the series, the series
never saw the necessary sales materialize and as a result it was announced
late in 2001 that “Orion” would be canceled. Walt Simonson recently took
some to talk to CBR News about the cancellation of this series and why it meant
so much to him.

“Sad,” says Simonson when asked to find a word that sums up how he felt to
learn the series had been canceled. “But DC told me straight up what the
score was and I appreciated it. ‘Orion’ was canceled for the same reason most books are canceled–sales
simply weren’t high enough to justify continuing the title.” Simonson says
that he has always been a fan of Kirby’s “Fourth World” concepts and adds
that, “I loved the original ‘Fourth World’ work Jack Kirby created and read
and reread the comics as they were coming out originally. It’s been a
pleasure and a treat to be able to work with these characters and concepts
so 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 decided
that 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 with
one question: “How does a god of battle stand between his own father and the
rest of the universe while maintaining his integrity, wrestling with the
conflicts of a divided nature, and still look good while flying the
Astro-glider? ‘Orion’ was different just as any title is different from any
other 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. I
find Orion virtually unique among the heroes of mainstream comics with his
struggles against his own personal demons, his stand against his biological
father, his exceptional potential for both greatness and damnation.” But, as
Simonson contends, it isn’t just the philosophical underpinnings of the
character that make Orion suited to his own ongoing series. “Brilliance of
concept. Or of multiple concepts really,” says Simonson of the factors that
justify an Orion or New Gods series. “From the small things like Motherboxes
to the larger things like the internal structure of the original four
concurrent series. The New Gods remain some of the most complex and
interesting characters in the DC Universe.”

Despite the series being canceled, Simonson feels no animosity towards DC
and feels that he was given a lot of creative latitude. “I was pretty much
given free reign. There was an occasional cross-over with DC’s books to be
accommodated but that was minimal, and the timing was such
that I was able to plug the requisite material in with relative ease and
still maintain a head of steam on the stories I was telling myself.” Any
problems that he had with the series could be described as “The same as
always,” admits Simonson and adds, “Having to work for a living with all the
pluses and minuses that entails. But it really was fun getting up in the
morning knowing I was working on these characters.” Even though he was
utilizing classic characters that have a cult following, Simonson said he
didn’t feel any extraordinary amount of pressure to live up to people’s
preconceived notions of how things “should” be in “Orion.” “I’ve been asked
this before but if you stop and think about it, most of my career–which
goes back to when comics were essentially ONLY ‘shared-universe’ comics–has
been about handling characters I didn’t invent, many of them invented or
co-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’s
previous work and he always tried to channel the “King’s” creativity when
producing the “Orion” series. “Jack’s original work was my primary
inspiration of course. After that, it was pretty much open season. All the
stuff I love. Mythology, science fiction, the internal dynamics of the
characters themselves, and the excitement of trying to tell stories with
these characters that hadn’t been told before. The Anti-Life
Equation–something I think of as Jack’s comic book reconstruction of
fascism–was at the heart of Jack’s original stories and I was able to
explore that concept a bit further during my run on ‘Orion.'” Kirby’s work
also strongly influenced Simonson’s visual approach to the series. “The
principal inspirations probably came from the work of Kirby and Philippe
Druillet in ‘Orion.’ Nobody’s done vaster landscapes or space-scapes in
comics than Philippe. Beyond that, I’ve tried to incorporate the graphic
design elements I like (the great Tree on the Abysmal Plane is a good
example) and elements of drawing I take from numerous sources.” As taxing as
being both the writer and artist can be, Simonson admits that he enjoyed all
the 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 break
from that and letting someone else do part of the heavy lifting, be it
writing or art, from time to time. Other creators come up with ideas and
visualizations I would never have thought of and that makes the combined
work richer.”

Some of the most popular and most prominent themes in “Orion” are the kind
that you’d expect to find in a literary classic, not your average superhero
comic. Simonson used this series to explore the responsibility one faces
when given the power to toy with someone else’s life, the consequences of
one’s actions and the disturbing relationship between Orion and his sadistic
father Darkseid. “These things seemed inextricably bound to the characters
as originally established by Jack in his work,” explains Simonson of their
inclusion in this series. “I did think that rather than try to create a
tapestry of multiple characters on several levels of power caught up in a
great cosmic conflict as Jack did originally that it would be more effective
for a single title to focus on a single character. Orion remains for me the
most interesting and most challenging of the New Gods, probably because of
his innately divided nature combined with his fierce commitment to the
defense 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 a
variety of his aspects.”

[Orion #25]
The cover to “Orion #25”

As someone who invested so much in “Orion,” you can bet that Simonson has a
lot of favorite moments and he has a hard time trying to summarize the
highlights of his work on the series. “I think the climaxes of a couple of
the individual story arcs appeal to me most although I like some of the
individual issues a lot. The silent fight between Orion and his father,
Darkseid. The solo issue of Orion and Sirius. The acquiring of the Anti-Life
Equation by Orion in ‘Orion #11.’ The victory of Orion over his Father in
the double issue 15 that is, of course, really the complete defeat of
everything Orion’s always fought for. I liked the Abysmal Plane and the
graphics representing the beginning of the destruction of the World Tree and
the universe beyond. The two part story that’s running now with Orion blind
and back on Earth. And if I can do it justice, No. 25, the final issue, a
double one, with Orion and Scott Free, the Children of the Pact.”
But Simonson also says that working with so many prolific creators – such as
Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Art Adams and others who contributed small “back
up” stories for various issues – was an absolute joy. With a hearty laugh and
sly grin, Simonson says he isn’t sure why those guys were so excited to work
on “Orion” with him. “You’d have to ask them that question. I’d like to
think it was my winning smile. I just asked them and they said yes, along
with a lot of other wonderful creators. I couldn’t have been more delighted
at the range of the artists and writers who worked on ‘Orion’ with me. One
of my biggest regrets about the book coming to an end is the now unfulfilled
list of creators I would love to have asked to contribute to the title.”
One stereotype that dogged “Orion” from the start was the misguided notion
that somehow the characters from the “Fourth World” are somehow inherently
hokier or more flat than most other comic book characters. When asked how he
made the characters in “Orion” seem remarkably human and three-dimensional,
Simsonson remarks that, “Well, since I haven’t been able to convince enough
readers 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 than
dozens and dozens of other characters out there in superhero land, some of
whom have been quite successful over the years. All I can say is that I’ve
tried to do ‘Orion’ so that I would have been interested in it as a reader
myself. To that extent, I feel I’ve succeeded. I’m just not a big enough
audience.” These sentiments are once again echoed by Simonson when he
describes fandom responding to the series with “mostly remarkable restraint”
but is also extremely appreciative of the fans who stuck by the series
through thick and thin. “On the other hand, there has been a small but
devoted core of fans who’ve done things like established an Orion message
board, 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 begun
with 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 the
series not been canceled, Simonson admits that he had a lot of ideas for
the continued adventures of DC’s “Dog of War.” “Too many [further plot
ideas] and too varied to describe here in a few sentences. Besides, why
would I give away plotlines I might someday want to use? Suffice it to say
that I had another two or three years worth of ‘Orion’ ideas already stored
in the filing cabinet.” Simonson grins and adds, “Boy, do I regret not being
able to use them!”

With the final issue of “Orion” shipping in April, Simonson feels
comfortable 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 a
sense, I’d already done that by Orion 25 (the final issue) and the last
issue is both a coda to the entire series as I’ve written it and a
reexamination of the relationship between Scott Free and Orion. Although
they are inextricably linked through their past (as both were hostages
traded by their fathers to stop a war back in Jack’s ‘New Gods’ issue, The
Pact), there have been very few stories exploring the relationship between
the 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 will
react is really up to them.” Perhaps hoping to create some more hype and
fanfare for the final issue, Simonson jokingly proclaims that, “I think I’m
going to be telling the best Scott Free story anybody’s done to date.”

While some people might be understandably mad and bitter about their comic
book series being canceled so relatively early in it’s run, Simonson isn’t
about to blame cancellation on any group of fans or the current state of the
industry. “Beats me other than that new titles have been a tough sell for
years 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 second
of time I’ve spent on ‘Orion’ and I would do it again in a heartbeat” After
news of “Orion” being canceled hit the Internet, Marvel Comics
Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada immediately lauded praise upon Simonson for his
work on the series and said that he’d love to see the legend doing some work
with Marvel Comics, feedback that pleases Simonson. “Comments like that are
welcome and always better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” says
the facetious writer and regarding characters he’d like to work on at Marvel
he adds, “There probably are somewhere.” But DC fans, have no fear: Simonson
may well continue to work there as well. “I’ve been offered some interesting
and curiously off-the-wall possibilities by DC, which is something I
obviously like to do anyway. So we’ll just have to see.”

Reflecting on the current state of the comic book industry, Simonson isn’t
sure how the increasing popularity of non-superhero comic books will affect
the superhero genre itself. “I really haven’t any idea. I only notice that
as 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, the
industry seems to have diminished in sales. There are a lot of reasons for
that of course. And I also think that superheroes were so successful in
comics for so long because they were really a genre that couldn’t be done
very well in any other medium, unlike mystery stories or romances or horror
tales. Now with movies and TV in the computer age, that’s no longer true. So
it 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 some
ideas on how to bring in new readers and explains, “Two things really. The
first is the publication of comics that don’t need Ph.D.’s in Continuity
Studies to understand. This has become more difficult as the years have gone
by and I don’t know if it’s reversible really but I think it important. The
second thing, probably the more important of the two, is that comics have to
reorganize 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 the
past eight years or so that it’s possible to live in many places in this
country now where you’re miles and miles from anywhere you can actually buy
comics. In some cases, tens or hundreds of miles. That’s not good. No matter
how excellent comics are or become, if people can’t find them, they aren’t
going to buy them. The general idea, I’ve always understood, is to produce
comics people actually want to read, and then get them into places where
people can actually find them.”

After “Orion #25” ships in April, Simonson fans can definitely expect to see
his 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 you
decide 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. “There
weren’t a lot of copies of ‘Orion’ printed and one of these days, they won’t
be so cheap!”

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