They're the core characters behind DC's summer extravaganza Final Crisis, but that doesn't mean that you necessarily know who Darkseid, Orion, Metron or any of the rest of the New Gods actually are. Before "evil wins" in the DC Universe, here's a quick primer to let you know just what a Fourth World actually is, anyway.
There came a time when the old gods died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!
Those were the words that started the first issue of The New Gods, one of three comics from the 1970s that formed the core of creator Jack Kirby's Fourth World line of books (The line had theoretically started earlier when Kirby had taken over Superman spin-off title Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, but that book - as enjoyable as it is - is at best peripheral to the main Fourth World storyline. Although it does feature Don Rickles). Kirby, who had co-created the majority of Marvel Comics' big names - essentially, everyone except for Spider-Man, and there's even some doubt there -had jumped ship to main rivals DC in 1970 as a result of increasing frustration at lack of creative or legal control over his creations, and immediately started work on what came to be possibly his greatest achievement: One sprawling, epic, story that gave the old mythical gods new life as technological, alien creatures locked in a war that threaded through multiple comics running simultaneously and could be read on multiple levels.
The story of the Fourth World is deceptively simple: Darkseid, personification of evil and despotic ruler of the planet Apokolips, has come to Earth in order to find The Anti-Life Equation, a mythical concept that will enable him to destroy all free will in the universe and finally win the ongoing war between Apokolips and New Genesis, another planet that happens to be a utopia led by the kind and loving Highfather. There was a lot more to it, of course (Each issue was filled with new concepts - each character could travel through a Boom Tube, which created a tunnel between two points in space, and they each had living computers called Mother Box, who could understand and meet their needs without being asked - and introduced new characters, almost too quickly for the reader to make any sense of what was happening), and that's where each of the three series came into their own. Those series were:
The New Gods: Also titled Orion of The New Gods, this series concentrated on the adventures of New Genesis' greatest warrior, Orion, and his friend Lightray, as they dealt with Darkseid's latest schemes on Earth. In a move that foreshadowed George Lucas' movie franchise, Orion was revealed to be actually the son of Darkseid; he and Highfather's son had been exchanged as babies to be raised on each others' home planets as the result of a (failed) peace treaty. In many ways, this series was WWII-veteran Kirby's chance to deal with war as both an idea and a reality; as well as the sacrifices Orion has to make in order to fight Darkseid (including literally changing his face from handsome to a more natural monster-like appearance; subtlety wasn't Kirby's strong point), there are moments where a pacifist son confront his veteran father over Vietnam, or we see Highfather deal with the loss of his wife, killed as a result of the conflict with Apokolips. Kirby's strengths were always ideas and art, and so the rawness of the writing can sometimes betray the depth of the intent, but nonetheless, this was groundbreaking stuff in 1971.
Mister Miracle: The second of the three series focused on Highfather's son who, after having been given to Darkseid as part of the same pact that brought Orion to New Genesis, had run away from Apokolips to become Earth's Greatest Escape Artist... Well, you'd probably do the same thing in similar circumstances. Mister Miracle - or Scott Free, as he had named himself, mid-escape ("Let me be Scott Free - And let me find myself!") - also ran across Darkseid's plans on a regular basis as the stories demanded, but was much more of a lover than a fighter, especially when his own lover (and, by series' end, wife) Big Barda was involved (Barda had also run away from Darkseid's clutches, abandoning life as a soldier for true love). In some ways the most fanciful and whimsical of the three series - Never mind the hero called Scott Free, check out his dwarf sidekick Oberon - this was also the longest-lived; maybe there was something about series' almost Saturday Morning Cartoon "death trap of the issue" set-up that made people want to stick around, or perhaps kids just wanted to read that it didn't matter about nature or nurture - if you were a good person, it'd find a way to show through somehow.
The Forever People:, Appropriately, given such a hippie-friendly name, this series focused on. essentially, cosmic flower children who rejected the fight between good and evil altogether and just wanted to, like, just be, man. With names like Beautiful Dreamer, Big Bear and Mark Moonrider, there was no escaping the hippie nature of Kirby's intent, even though it came four years after the Summer of Love; they even tuned in and turned on thanks to their "cosmic cartridges," which gave them insight by temporarily making them one with the universe until their mellow was harshed, dude. Nonetheless, these were the only characters who actually came across the real Anti-Life Equation (more than once) in what was possibly commentary on the belief that Kirby felt in the potential of the younger generation of the day.
All three titles were cancelled midway through their planned runs due to claims of low sales, but the characters refused to go away, being revived and making guest-appearances in other series for years afterwards, but all without their creator's involvement; Kirby became disillusioned with DC in the mid-70s following the commercial failure of these and other books, and returned to Marvel.
By the mid-80s, a new market had opened up to comic publishers - A niche "direct market" that would pay more for comics, and could support smaller print-runs. As a result, DC started offering higher-quality reprints of fan-favorite books, and one of those was New Gods. To celebrate this - and also tie-in with the Fourth World characters appearances in the Super Friends TV show of the time, Jack Kirby was invited back to DC to complete the story the way he had originally planned for this series. He accepted and ended up creating a standalone graphic novel, The Hunger Dogs, which... wasn't really what anyone expected. Instead of bringing everything to a pulse-pounding, explosion-filled conclusion, Hunger Dogs is a sad story about technology corrupting everything, even the nobility of war, that ended with no one side truly victorious but everyone having lost, in some way. It's a wonderful book, but hardly likely to sell more Super Powers figures.
Despite having been revived multiple times since - and even having a series called Death Of The New Gods published last year - the entire Fourth World concept has essentially remained in a holding pattern since Kirby's involvement until this year's Final Crisis series, which started with the discovery of Orion's corpse and promises to finish with some kind of resolution for all of the New Gods. The story centers around Darkseid - now hiding in human form as "Boss Dark Side" - finally finding the Anti-Life Equation, and it allowing evil to finally "win," although it remains to be seen just what will happen after that; writer Grant Morrison and others at DC have talked about the series re-examining Kirby's characters and creating the "Fifth World" for them to live in, after all.
Perhaps Kirby had it right the first time; gods clash, die, and always find themselves reborn, doing the same thing over and over again, just looking somewhat different each time.
Jack Kirby's Fourth World [DC Database Project]