Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Black Racer!


Even the giants sleep. And many think that must've been what happened to Jack "King" Kirby when he concocted The Black Racer, the Fourth World's emissary of death. Admittedly looking at this black man perched atop a pair of flying skis, poles in hand, encased in bright red and blue armor, you might not immediately think of the Grim Reaper, but there you go.


The Racer debuted in the third issue of New Gods, allowing the book to actually live up to its broad spectrum title and taking the limelight from Orion.


Our first glimpse of the Black Racer, "black" apparently only because of his apparent racial origin, is as he pursues Lightray, or as the Racer calls him "Light-Ray".


You get the definite sense from these few pages that the Racer is someone you don't want to encounter, even if you have the power and speed of a denizen of Supertown. The Racer appears implacable, relentless, inevitable.


Until he's not. In the story Metron arranges a Boom Tube to transport the "Messenger of Death" to Earth, away from Lightray, sparing our young hero. Once on Earth, the Black Racer quickly finds others who resemble him, sadly committing crimes in the streets of the hectic city. He senses a change in his mission, or at the very least a relocation.


He finds paralyzed Vietnam veteran Willie Walker (ironically named for sure) and we see that destiny has indeed led the Racer to this bedside where the man who had been the Racer gives up the ghost and the mission and Willie Walker assumes the deathly role.


He then goes out to perform his grim mission of bringing doom to those who as he puts it "are marked for oblivion".


When not bringing oblivion, the Black Racer disappears into the frail form of Willie Walker, who remains paralyzed, but now bears a great secret which the reader shares, and just possibly dreads.

There's a pretty good notion  here, but sadly the bright four-color nature of the Black Racer undermines what might've been one of the most gruesome of the New Gods.


It's hard to take even Death seriously if it shows up in brightly colored armor atop flying skis. The absurdity of the image undercuts the potential power of the idea.


But here's a glimpse at an early version of the Black Racer by Kirby. In this rendition we see that the Black Racer's gaudy armor was something else. Neatly he is divided into two halves, a bright and a dark half. Admittedly the star on the end of the pole doesn't help much, but you have to wonder what they were thinking when the palette was selected for the Racer.


Red and yellow and blue are simply not the colors we associate with death. In later stories of course, his colors have been altered to darker hues. If the Black Racer were truly a "Black Knight", then perhaps the symbolic connection with that most profound and lasting of black nights Kirby was seeking would take hold.


One thing about the classic Black Racer though, you can't miss him if he chooses to select you for oblivion. There's that much for sure.

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5 comments:

  1. I always wondered what Jack was thinking with this one. In fact, it initially put me off buying his DC books after thumbing through New Gods #3 on the spinner-rack. Makes you wonder whether Stan would've accepted the character if Jack had stayed at Marvel.

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    1. Stan was probably so hungry for a new character from Jack by the time he left, that he'd likely have welcomed the Racer with open arms.

      No doubt Jack was thinking he was tapping the same vein as the Silver Surfer, but where the Surfer's specific tie to a sport is vague, the multitude of props with the Racer are clumsy. The poles are the kickers I think, they just don't get over somehow.

      And if the Racer had been wearing black armor I think the pain would be less, but that's hard to judge at this point. I like the concept, but execution is gaudy to say the least.

      The worst of these is Gaard the cosmic hockey goalie from a later issue of FF. Yuck!

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    2. I remember seeing that one - and still have a British reprint of it. I suspect that the then-current team was taking a pop at how ridiculous the Black Racer was.

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  2. I love the Black Racer. Much more interesting to me than that whiny guy with the surfboard! i never thought the name referred to his ethnicity but rather felt it was Kirby trying to concoct somethin foreboding like the Grim Reaper. Just "Racer" with no adjective wouldn't have worked. Color adjectives are a superhero mainstay and of course only black would work for a death figure. Anyway, the Black Racer/Willie Walker story is what brings me into the New Gods: human interest. I could not care less about Orion. Stories like this and that one with them all stuck on a boat ("Doom Boat"?) are why I read these comics.

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    1. I like the Racer too. Too many fans dismiss him as just goofy. It's just that he does have some visual weaknesses which, to my eye undermine his overall impact.

      You make a great point about Willie's very personal story making the broader New Gods saga more identifiable. Like Eisner's Spirit, the stories did often focus on the side characters and not so much the stars.

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