kirbsday: death is the black racer


Okay, look, here’s the plot of this one, just to get it out of the way:

Orion gets a new pair of clothes from his friends who keep formally introducing themselves all the time, but he feels sad because he’s all ugly and stuff.  He and his pet, Dave “Dave Lincoln” Lincoln, find the members of Inter-Gang who had abducted people to Apokolips.  With the help of Mother Box, Orion and Dave stop their plot to destroy all communication devices in the city.  The End.

Along the way, the Black Racer shows up.  And God almighty, what to say?



In his afterword to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus vol. 1, Kirby’s apprentice Mark Evanier notes that the Black Racer was originally a character who had nothing to do with the Fourth World.  Just some doodle sitting in the pile, maybe to feature in his own series someday.  DC’s then-publisher Carmine Infantino (who illustrated plenty of formative Flash stories) asked Kirby to throw in some brand-new characters in each issue of the Fourth World stuff, thinking it would be good for sales.  So, Kirby re-wrote New Gods #3 to debut the Black Racer.

Therefore running throughout the Orion plot of this issue there’s also a Black Racer plot, which doesn’t intersect especially well.

Just as the Black Racer is about to kill Orion’s friend Lightray, the science-god Metron diverts him to Earth, where he encounters a blaxploitation gunfight between members of Inter-Gang.  Moved by the death-wish of Willie Walker, a totally paralyzed and bedridden Vietnam vet, the Black Racer’s spirit possesses him, and Willie becomes a marauding spirit of doom who chases down and torments one of the gunmen.  The End (Again).

There are at least two things going on here.  One thing is, “This visual makes no sense.”

Many years prior I had learned about the Black Racer from Rovin’s Encyclopedia of Superheroes, which had a text description of the guy but no pictures.  I’m like, “Okay, cool: a guy in an all-black lycra wet-suit type of thing that professional skiers wear, with a big red ski helmet, and some red trim.”  And then I finally picked up a copy of this issue and I’m like, “Armor?!  Cape?!”

Obviously the Silver Surfer is another crazy cosmic dude flying around on something that doesn’t normally fly.  But the Silver Surfer is an extremely elegant design: basically a naked, hairless guy standing on an oval, and all of it sleek and shiny.  The Black Racer is a lot more complex visually–the skis, the ski poles, the cape, the high collar, the kooky helmet, the jarring mix of primary colors.  It kind of reminds me of the early design for the Black Panther.

The other thing is, “This concept makes no sense.”

The idea seems to be that since Walker is trapped in a kind of living prison, he is granted limitless power as an undead grim reaper . . . on skis.

And then it turns out that the Black Racer is some sort of composite entity with many different hosts–sort of like bi-location or something–and is a hit-man, excuse me “messenger,” for the Source, which is usually linked to the benevolent society of New Genesis.  We never see the Source itself, only the weird “moving hand” that writes letters of flame on High-Father’s wall.  The Black Racer, although a proxy, appears to be the Source at its most active.

For a messenger of the all-important Source, the Black Racer doesn’t do a great job of articulating his mandate.  He shows up out of the blue picking on Lightray for reasons we’re never told.  When he arrives on Earth, he does nothing to save the life of a helpless snitch when Sugar-Man, an Inter-Gang hitman, takes him out.  But when Sugar-Man threatens the helpless Willie Walker…

…the Black Racer saves Walker’s life, disfigures Sugar-Man, and then does his whole “take my hand” thing.  Once Willie becomes the Black Racer, he hunts down the half-blind Sugar-Man, activates the bomb Sugar-Man’s carrying with his mystic ski pole, and then sends both Sugar-Man and the bomb careening into the sky to explode.  Why?  As vengeance for killing the snitch, and if so then why not protect the snitch in the first place?  Or is it for attempting to kill Willie, but if so then why wait to kill Sugar-Man?  Or is it for being involved with Inter-Gang in the first place, but if so then why not go after his accomplices?  And if Willie wanted to die in the first place, why did the Black Racer get involved?

At some point you just gotta throw up your hands and say, “Dude, fuck it.  Death is the Black Racer.”  Near as I can figure, there’s something that sets this dude off about fearing death: he will find you and reunite you with the Source.  If you’re at peace with death, or even yearn for it after great suffering, you’ll be recompensed.

should I feel uneasy when a black character is referred to as “Black _______”?

Probably.  Sugar-Man is a pretty bad stereotype.  And when the Black Racer first appears over the city, and observes Sugar-Man’s gunfight in the ghetto, he remarks, “There, below–a place of black men!  Those who fight to live–others who risk my presence!”  That sure sounds pretty racist.  It’s not like any other mainstream comics were any better (“Sweet Christmas!”), but come on.

I will say one thing for the Black Racer, though: for better or worse this is one of the most unique visuals, and most unique concepts, in all of super comics.

what about orion?

yeah, so in this scene Orion is getting dressed in the nice clothes the Earthmen bought for him, and decides to have a soliloquy:

and he’s like, let me sneak a peek at my real face for a second:

Back in New Gods #1 we are told that Orion is the son of Darkseid of Apokolips, but Orion himself doesn’t know that.  In fact, Orion seems to think he’s some hideous, inexplicable New Genesis mutant freak.  That self-loathing is why he’s pissed off all the time, and what makes him their society’s most powerful warrior.  Thanks for not explaining the guy’s origin to himself, High-Father!  I mean sure the guy’s been tormented all his life by questions he cannot answer, but at least your secrecy gives you a berserker warrior to do all of your society’s dirty work.

No wait–God damn it, they just bought you those clothes!  Don’t go vaporizing them the minute someone asks a stupid question!




6 Responses to “kirbsday: death is the black racer”

  1. 1 Charlatan
    January 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Is there an upcoming issue in which Vykin the Black and the Black Racer start to face off, and then are like “there’s some superstructural shit going on here, screw this white dude’s plot.”? I understand Kirby worked on the Black Knight for a while… was the knight actually black during that run?

    Hey, what does Flippa-Dippa think about all this?

  2. 2 James Nostack
    January 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Alas we shall never witness that ultimate confrontation, but we will have some lesbian stereotypes in a few months’ time.

  3. January 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    The Black Racer was later revealed to be an aspect or avatar of Death, the gothy Neil Gaiman version. Yep.

    Even more recently, he turned up in one of DC’s continuity-breaking crossover events, in which they tried to make him more more edgy and less silly, because superhero comics are all serious now and stuff. What they didn’t seem to realise is that an embodiment of death on skis is always going to be silly, and the key is to embrace that, not turn him into a black Cylon with pointy feet.

  4. 4 James Nostack
    January 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    @ Kelvin
    Linking the Black Racer with Death of the Endless made me slap my forehead in bewilderment. But thinking about the Black Racer in any capacity makes me slap my forehead in bewilderment. But thanks, I don’t know DC continuity very well.

    I don’t think that Final Crisis redesign is bad, exactly–frankly, the Black Racer in Kirby’s hands is kind of an eyesore–but does look very 1990’s xxxxxxxtreeeeem.

  5. January 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I confess that I am unsettled on the Black Racer. He is, anyway you slice it, a stupid design. And yet, as you say, DEATH IS THE BLACK RACER!”. Something awesome struggles with something stupid and I’m never sure who wins.

  6. January 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Oh I don’t think the modern Black Racer is a bad design as such, just that it seems pointless in trying to rationalise a flying armoured bloke on skis; there’s no way you can make it look like anything other than a flying armoured bloke on skis, so why not embrace the silliness?

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