“The gods…dice for life and death. Understand that…or you understand nothing!”

Walter Simonson is one of comics’ greatest storytellers.

Whether he’s handling writing, art, or both his work is incredible and always worth checking out. The Mighty Thor. Fantastic Four. Ragnarok. World of Warcraft. X-Factor. Star Slammers. Manhunter. And beyond. Simonson is a creator who I feel exemplifies both style and substance, always pushing inventive compositions while maintaining a clear flow for storytelling. His artwork can be considered flashy, but it’s also always structured. And his stories can almost always be considered epic, even when showing quiet character moments. He brought all of this to Jack Kirby’s ugly duckling of a New God, Orion in the early Aughts, the first five issues collected as Orion: The Gates of Apokolips by Simonson, Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh, and John Workman.

The Orion series itself was a follow-up to the Jack Kirby’s Fourth World series by John Byrne, itself coming out of the very ’90s, but still entertaining, fourth volume of The New Gods from Tom Peyer, Rachel Pollack, Luke Ross, and others before Byrne took over that. While both previous stories help inform Simonson’s Orion, they aren’t particularly necessary to dive in to the story. What is important gets a flashback so no one’s left out of the loop. It’s a story that taps in to Kirby’s Shakespearean approach, presenting Darkseid coming closer to his goal of tapping in to the Anti-Life Equation, while Orion works to topple his father. Throw in a question as to whether or not Darkseid really is his father and a prophecy being written on an inscrutable wall, and there’s some fun Greek tragedy motifs coming in to play. (This latter portion also aided by the back-ups, with mostly the same creative team, but Simonson relinquishing the art duties to Frank Miller and then Dave Gibbons.)

It’s also a visual textbook in comics composition. It starts with pages of roughly equal six tiered panels, giving a formal structured beat to the mundane nature of Nebraskan life, while adding tension to the horror of what’s going on in the heartland. Before it explodes in a literally awakening from a nightmare and the layouts begin to shift. There’s incredible action as Suicide Jockeys are unleashed, Orion discovers the horrors that Darkseid hid on Earth, and differing beats for soliloquies, flashbacks, and more. Ultimately leading to a mostly silent issue (bar pretty much sound effects) to conclude the story, with the audience to the fight between Darkseid and Orion framing the top and bottom of the page. This has a double effect of carrying on a tandem narration of what’s going on in the crowd and giving the layout of the page almost a letterboxed, cinematic effect. It’s truly impressive work.

The overall sense of design is echoed in how John Workman incorporates his lettering into the storytelling flow. Workman includes word balloons that cross the gutter and narration boxes that either bisect a panel or open into the gutter themselves in much of his work, but they always seem to be intentional parts of the design when he collaborates with Simonson. When you add the sound effects, it’s as wonderful to see how Workman’s letters fit in to the flow of the story.

Likewise with Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s colours. Much of the sequences on Earth have a muted, earth-toned colour palette. It helps reinforce that grounded, run of the mill feel to Nebraska, but it also makes the brighter primary colours for Orion himself stand out that much more. This latter portion really shines in the battle with Darkseid, bring the two opponents to the fore, while the background, particularly the audience, is a wash.

Orion: The Gates of Apokolips by Simonson, Workman, and Van Valkenburgh kicks off an incredible run with a corker of a final battle that turns out to be only the beginning of an epic story. It’s practically a how to manual on pacing, reveals, composition, and just darn good comics storytelling, all while telling an enthralling tale. Superhero comics don’t get much better than this.

Orion by Walter Simonson

Classic Comic Compendium: Orion by Walter Simonson

Orion: The Gates of Apokolips
Writer & Artist: Walter Simonson
Back-Up Artists: Frank Miller (#3) & Dave Gibbons (#4)
Colourist: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh
Letterer: John Workman
Publisher: DC Comics
Release Date: July 17 2018
Available collected in Orion by Walter Simonson – Book One

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!