Friday, December 21, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #6--"The Omega Effect!"

The Forever People is becoming quite the saga at this point—it’s the closest of the Fourth World books to the formula Marvel had evolved at that point, of endless, ongoing plot threads that weave in and out of an interconnected narrative. We’re now on our fourth issue that comes in sequence, and this is only made more explicit by the return of Glorious Godfrey and his Justifiers, who as you may recall were instrumental in the capture of the Forever People at the end of issue #3. The FP’s had left their vehicle, the Super-Cycle, on the cliff’s above Godfrey’s revival tent, and now a swarm of Justifiers in goofy flying shoes come across it and attempt to destroy it .

However, as the captions tell us…“On New Genesis, the creed is “life!” Programmed to ward off “death”, the “Super-cycle” defends itself!!!” Kirby, it seems, enjoyed using “quotation marks” for “no reason”.

The Super-cycle does an Optimus Prime bit and morphs into a high-tech self-defending fortress with, as far as I can make out, a radar dish made out of one of the wheels, and a laser gun formed from the chrome headers:

It incapacitates the patrol and earns the ire of Godfrey, who then sends an entire legion of new recruits to take the thing on (I couldn’t help chuckling—and thinking of Anakin Skywalker—as the recruits scream “YAHOOO!!!” with childlike glee on being sent out as cannon fodder.) “What’s the secret, Godfrey?” Asks his bespectacled sidekick. “The helmet? The uniform? The creed??” “Earthmen are given all those things at birth!!” beams Godfrey. “I merely justify their readiness to use them!!” Hey! I wasn’t issued a helmet and uniform at birth! Ripoff!!

Anyway, back to the FPs themselves. As you may recall, in the last few issues the Forever People were captured by Darkseid and held captive in Desaad’s torture palace/amusement park, Happyland, until their Mother Box escaped and found a warrior named Sonny Sumo who came and rescued them. Sonny also tuned out to possess the power of the Anti-Life Equation which, when used in conjunction with the Mother Box, could be used to destroy free will, and Sonny is currently using it over the park’s loudspeaker to get the guards to surrender and release the prisoners.

Last time I mentioned that it was a little creepy to see the good guys wielding such a nasty power, and in this issue there’s at least some brief discussion of the morality of this. Obviously I can’t really blame them for making use of this ability when thrust into such a tight spot, but Beautiful Dreamer still comments on how “horrible” it is. Mark Moonrider says that, “as wielder of the power, Sonny Sumo is even greater than Darkseid himself!!” which seems like something you might not want to advertise. I mean, what if Sonny decides he likes using this power so much that he’s not going to give it up? It’s a lucky thing he’s shown himself to be such a noble warrior with a great moral code and all that. Also, what would happen if Sonny was to encounter Darkseid himself and start ordering *him* around?

It’s hard not to be a little frustrated here, since Kirby was trying to make a “profound” and “deep” comic in some ways, that he pretty much ditched all these questions as soon as they come up. I guess that, for Kirby, when the urge to make a comic that “said something” conflicted with the urge to make a crazy explosive punch-up, the latter won out. It pretty much gets to the root of what I was saying earlier, about superhero comics being somewhat limited in their addressing of more subtle or complex topics due to their insistence on good guys and bad guys. Oh well.

Moonrider blasts a few bits of machinery, starting a chain reaction that causes Happyland to destroy itself. The prisoners crawl to safety, and the police arrive to arrest the meekly compliant guards (though, somehow, the Justifiers get away in their boxy shuttlecraft). Or, at least, most of them do—Big Bear manages to grab hold of one of them as he’s leaving and starts clowning around with it, thus providing this issue’s requisite Big Bear is Awesome moment:

JUSTIFIER: Mad-dog hippie!! You’re holding back this tonnage with your bare hands!!...
BIG BEAR: My stars, sir!! Can it be that high density atoms flow through, and reinforce my own atomic structure?
JUSTIFIER: You moving mattress!! You’re from New Genesis!!
(He shoots at Big Bear, grazing his skull. Big Bear makes a goofy face.)
BIG BEAR: Oops!! Well, Big Bear is my name, sir! – and power is my game!! That’s my bag, sir!! I store an excess of free atoms and send them where they’re needed!! Here, perhaps!!!

Then he hits the bottom of the shuttle and sends the Justifier flying, cartoon-like, out of frame.

(If they ever make a movie of the Fourth World, Big Bear will have to be played by a young version of Brian Blessed. Or possibly Jonathan Rhys-Davies.)

More Justifiers streak in and start firing before being put to sleep by Sonny’s voice power. “I’m glad you stopped this, Sonny!” proclaims Beautiful Dreamer. “Big Bear could have hurt these men!!” Sonny expresses confusion: “But I thought I was saving him!!” Like Big Bear ever needs saving, Sonny. He’s mostly just ticked off about “getting involved in all kinds of violence!!”

Off in the corner, Darkseid and Desaad are having a petty and slightly pathetic blame-fest of a conversation, in which Desaad whinges and Darkseid verbally lambastes him. “Don’t think I shall overlook your cowardice!! Then, all tormentors are notorious for this trait!!” As Desaad points out that there’s not much he can do against the Anti-Life Equation, Darkseid responds with, “Boldness, Desaad! Risk!! The raw meat of existence!!! I shall strike with these!!...And the Omega Effect!!!” Yeah, that’s right, Darkseid, castigate him for not taking risks, then whip out this heretofore-unseen superpower of yours that will let you destroy them all by remote control, without even leaving the room. That’s risk for you. Douchebag.

Darkseid proceeds to generate “finder beams” that shoot out of his eyes and start swooping around in vast curlicues. They don’t have far to look at first: Vykin the Black, hotheaded as always, has decided to barge in and confront Darkseid alone. This is really, really stupid, as, in traditional horror-movie fashion, the black guy dies first. Or gets eradicated from existence first. Yes, the Omega Effect is “The end—the total wipe-out!”, and now it’s streaking around, seeking the FPs.

Mark yells at Sonny to use the Mother Box to protect them, but Sonny and Mother Box are the next ones to go. One by one the FPs are annhiliated by the beams—Moonrider tells the remaining FPs to split up, but oddly, Beautiful Dreamer declares that she won’t leave him, and they go “foom” together. (That’s a little strange—there’d been a vague assumption on my part that Mark and Dreamer are lovers, but this is the closest thing we get to confirmation. And even this is a little vague, to say the least.)

The only one left is Serifan, who immediately breaks down sobbing and attempts to move into the path of the beam to end it all. What a wuss. Unfortunately for him (?) Darkseid turns off the finder beams, having lost interest in killing them all now that “the threat to us—has passed!!” Desaaad screams at him “You would leave such a dramatic experience incomplete? No, sire, no!” But Darkseid slaps him away. The kicker is that I would have bought it much more easily if he’d simply said that he wanted to keep Serifan alive and tormented by the knowledge that he’d failed—I mean, I agree Serifan doesn’t seem like much of a threat—but Darkseid explicitly says that he “doesn’t have the stomach” for Desaad’s sadism. So he’s decided to act like an idiot instead?

It gets even worse: Darkseid suddenly confesses that he didn’t actually destroy the Forever People: he just removed them from existence…in the present. OK, this makes no sense. It’s the height of convenient “villain leaves the room” behaviour that assures these guys will always be defeated. And besides, he just teleported the guy with the Anti-Life Equation—you know, the thing he’s utterly fixated on finding?—completely beyond his own reach. Smooth, Darkseid!

Serifan pulls himself together for the nonce, piles into the Justifier’s shuttle which Big Bear captured and uses it to head back to the super-cycle. Unfortunately, he manages to arrive just as the Justifiers from before launch their attack on it. (Wait—it took them all day to climb the cliffs?) Anyway, we’re now To Be Continued once more…

But wait! There’s a double-dose of Big Bear awesomeness in this issue, with a short back-up feature about he and Serifan fighting off an Apokoliptish patrol back in the days before the two planets openly went to war. Well, actually, it’s about Big Bear fighting them off, and Serifan whining and almost getting killed. My favourite moment is when Serifan glimpses the gigantic cannon the intruders plan to use to bring down Supertown: “It’s a horribly ugly pollutant!” Um, and it’s also about to wreck your home, Serifan. I’m concerned about the environment too, but geez. Meanwhile, Big Bear shows up carrying a huge log, gets shot at, declares “You’ve destroyed my exercise!” and proceeds to trash the invaders. Both of these guys are delusional and self-absorbed, but only one of them is AWESOME. Guess which.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Hunger Dogs, Part Two


Ahem. So, when we left off this overview of “The Hunger Dogs”, Kirby’s climax to his Fourth World series, Orion had blasted in through a platoon of Darkseid’s soldiers for what seemed like his final confrontation with Stony Lonesome himself, as New Genesis hovered on the verge of destruction by the mysterious Micro-Mark, and Micro-Mark’s creator turned out to be Esak, the cute little kid who was Metron’s apprentice, somehow transformed into a hideous monster. He’s been creating mechanized weapons for Darkseid for the last decade—why? Because he wants Darkseid to kill him, something he doesn’t have the strength to do himself. In fact, he may not even be able to admit to himself that that’s what he wants. That’s pretty bleak.

Orion comes roaring in, as Darkseid once again makes a getaway on a shuttlepod. Here’s Darky’s revenge for Esak’s turning Apokolips into a wilderness of automated mediocrity: he’s going to let him face off against Orion alone, and see how well his gadgets can hold up against “livid, total rage!!!” Esak, who as I mentioned has a deathwish, seems to embrace this idea happily, and as Orion bursts in, he simply gasses him to death:

Esak then pauses for an ill-advised moment of contemplation (he hasn’t even seen Orion’s body, for pete’s sake!) as he remembers the good old days with Metron, before he left on a quest for “the ultimate object”. Esak delved further into scientific study and eventually discovered Micro-Mark in a laboratory explosion that disfigured him, and now he searches for “the machine that will erase my inner wound and restore all that was”. Which is, of course, a cue for Orion to pop back up and start blasting away at Esak. “The ultimate anger is the ultimate stimulus! It defies time! It stands firm against the hammers of change!” This is sort of the thematic center point of the whole series, as Kirby seems to be briefly rekindling the creative energy he felt he had lost, through sheer force of will.

As Esak lies dying, Orion feels pity for Esak and prays to the source to ease his passing---“see him not as a bitter pawn surprised in cruel defeat—but, only as a child, fallen upon cruel days…” as Orion watches, Esak’s face is changed back into his childhood beauty:

Suddenly, jarringly, we’re back at Himon’s, and Bekka is explaining how it is she’s managed to survive all this time, while she and Orion dance around their affection for each other:

BEKKA: Father struggled mightily with an almost impossible concept…but he solved it and used it to create an impregnable shelter for me!
ORION: All on New Genesis know “love’s” meaning…But it can never flower here! Thus, your persecution!
BEKKA: How willingly you accept that! Is “love” to be eternally outlawed on Apokalips?
ORION: You speak like an adolescent! Love, like hate, is a thing of many facets!

Yes, Kirby even puts “love” in quotation marks!

Anyway, Bekka reveals that she loves Orion inspite of his real face and the fact that he’s Darkseid’s son, so that, of course, is the point where the planet explodes.

No, I’m not joking.

That’s New Genesis, finally giving up the ghost. It’s also a last burst of creative energy for Kirby, who fittingly has chosen to portray the climax via one of his collages. And note the unapologetic use of “Star Wars” images scattered in there. Kirby almost seems to be encapsulating the whole of geeky pop culture that grew from his efforts in this one splash page, which is also the point where he symbolically brings it to an end. Talk about a torch-passing…

Anyway, Supertown itself, as you can see, survives the blast and drifts out into space, thus (hopefully) taking the population of New Genesis to safety. But something unforeseen occurs as well: the throngs of Apokalips, watching this, suddenly become aware of exactly what Darkseid’s new weapons can do, and belatedly realize that they’re sitting on silos full of these things. The slightest accident could annihilate their world, and this causes the soldiers to panic and turn against Darkseid along with the downtrodden workers.

Darkseid once again hops into his escape pod for a getaway while the hordes blast away at him, but everyone else isn’t so lucky. As the fragments of New Genesis rain down from the sky, total chaos erupts on the surface, and Apokalips begins to look like it’s living up to its name.

Darkseid, meanwhile, emerges at an abandoned station at the edge of town (or at least, one where all the soldiers are dead) and somehow immediately manages to find Himon, with Orion and Bekka. Anticipating his coming death, he’s quickly assembled…something…but whatever it is, it doesn’t save him, as Darkseid cuts him down. As he dies, he insists that Orion and Bekka leave, and Orion, rather uncharacteristically, does so. You see, Orion and Himon used the chaos to rescue Orion’s mother, Tigra—remember her? She makes her one-panel cameo in this comic here—and made it to the escape pod that Himon built (oh).

And with that, Orion seems to have reached the surprising end of his character arc. Rather than standing fast and engaging in the devastating fight we’d been expecting since the beginning, Orion has let go of his hatred and his need for combat, instead choosing to live and thus protect the life of his loved ones. He’s realized, further, that this is a far more appropriate fate for his hated enemy—not to go down in glorious combat, as he’d expected his entire life, but to be left alone, without even his tormentors and archnemeses for company, with his empire in ruins, and nothing left to do but rebuild it. Darkseid finally got his wish: his enemies will torment him no more, and the wills of the ones he has left will be utterly subservient to his. He’s alone. Forever.

In the final pages, we see a massive explosion tearing a chunk out of Apokolips, but, we’re assured, it remains in orbit. “Things won’t change when the thundering echoes fade. The Hunger Dogs will fill their bellies and strut…all too briefly! Then, Darkseid will re-build his self-made prison of suspicion, hate and murder!

Meanwhile, the New Genesisians drift though space in an elegiac final sequence, looking tiny against the surreal, expressionist Kirby cosmos, as speech balloons emerge from it, in one of the best dialogue exchanges in the series: “I-I fear time, Highfather!” moans an unknown companion. “You have the right to fear,” responds Highfather. “Am I a—a coward?” “If you are a coward, then take my coward’s hand.” “What lies ahead, Highfather?” “Hope, perhaps. A planet called hope!

Sure enough, on the very last page, we see Metron making his reappearance, towing a planet behind him. This, I suppose, will become New New Genesis, as he’s one day reunited with Highfather and the gang. But it hasn’t happened yet, and on that upbeat yet ambiguous note, the series ends.

And so, for all intents and purposes, did Kirby’s career. Sure, he kept cranking out work for another decade, right up until his death; he couldn’t not work, being Kirby and all, and he continued to tinker with animation, provide concepts for the array of new comic companies that were springing up, and do illustration work. But The Hunger Dogs is the last significant work of comics he ever did, and it’s an appropriate capstone, ending Kirby’s most personal work with a bang.

Except, as you may have noticed, it’s not really an “ending” as it is a handing-off to the next generation of cartoonists. While Orion doesn’t go down fighting as we all expected, he nevertheless makes his leave from the scene, leaving the field to a new generation who head out into the cosmos in search of new worlds to explore. Kirby clearly saw, by 1984, that the comics industry was changing in interesting and exciting ways, and that in some ways his brand of comics were becoming dated. Better, then, to blow the whole mess up and call it an ending, and look forward to a new tomorrow, than to dwell endlessly in the past. Essentially, Kirby seemed to be prefiguring other high-profile, paradigm-shifting superhero works of the next couple of years, including Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Dark Knight Returns, and of course Watchmen. All of these works make the case that the superhero comic as we know it was coming to an end, and that it would have to evolve, adapt, or pass phoenix-like through the fire and be reborn.

Kind of ironic, then, that superhero comics, and pop culture’s embrace of them, seem to have regressed so much since then. It’s almost as though, without Kirby out there, they’re missing their anchor. Too bad the King couldn’t stick around for a few more years to keep the ship righted, but his final legacy ought to have been more than enough: change is scary but vital, and those who cling to the past are doomed to become hollow shells of their past selves. If the superhero comic is inescapably bound up with the philosophies of Jack Kirby, we really ought to have absorbed that lesson by now.

And thus ends Fourth World Fridays…but I would like to keep this show rolling. That’s why I cannily called this blog “Fourth World Fridays AND BEYOND”, so that I can move into new territory now that I’m out of material. I’ve got some ideas for what to tackle next, some time in the new year (possibly February?) It won’t be by Kirby, but it will hopefully be semi-tonally appropriate as a companion to the Fourth World—in other words, something clever and well-conceived, a joy to read, but full of weirdness and awkwardness and insanity that I can make fun of in a reverential manner. You know: comic books.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Hunger Dogs, Part One


Like the Fourth World saga itself, we return belatedly to life for a final installment!

Unlike the previous installment, the faux “issue 12”, the Hunger Dogs is a full-length Graphic Novel, of the kind Kirby had more or less already pitched to DC way back in 1970. Apparently Kirby submitted it as a (regular-length?) issue, met with unenthusiastic response, and was asked to pad it out to a more substantial length in order to do justice to the story. This accounts for some rather weird formatting issues, as the original pages were designed at a different ratio than the later ones. But hey, if the page composition wasn’t reaching out and grabbing you every few pages, it wouldn’t be a Kirby comic.

It’s also great-looking, with a dazzling colour job, inks (partly by Mike Royer) that actually do justice to Kirby’s pencils, and Kirby himself clearly pulling out all the stops to provide at least a little bit of closure for his masterpiece.

As for the story, it’s shakier, but when it works, it really works. Starting with the opening pages, in which the residents of “Slum 9” of Armaghetto rise up and riot against Darkseid’s cruel regime. These, you see, are the Hunger Dogs, Kirby’s name for the oppressed rabble that always makes such a hard time for tyrants and dictators. They’ve managed to penetrate further towards Darkseid’s control center than ever before, and one of Darkseid’s minions recommends an automated “sonic storm” that will punish them by remote control. But Darkseid seems to be losing it, and refuses to give the command:

Um…wouldn’t punitive measures via technology instill fear just as much as a dude with a weapon? If not more so?

Nevertheless, the point is clear. The “Micro-Mark” and its attendant automation has given Darkseid exactly what he wanted, paving the way for the Anti-Life Equation, but at the cost of his fun. Good may suffer in a regimented, numb universe, but it’s a little hard to be a force of awe-inspiring terror either. By beginning the process of stripping his followers of his souls, he’s destroyed his own audience, reducing them to mindless drones who can’t react to his awesome evillitude. Catch-22!

Let’s not forget the context here, either. In 1985, when this book was published, Kirby’s old stomping grounds were firmly under the thumb of Jim Shooter. Honestly, Mr. Shooter’s reign is something I know little about, and I wouldn’t care to weigh in one way or another in terms of praising or condemning him. I just know that a lot of superhero fans really, REALLY didn’t like him at the time, and that furthermore, Kirby engaged in a running battle with Marvel under his tenure in an attempt to get back his original art. The biggest complaint about Shooter from this era seems to be that he turned Marvel into a soulless assembly line, and it’s not hard to see this aspect of The Hunger Dogs as Kirby sticking it to Shooter. If the creation of the Fourth World reflected Kirby’s metacommentary on the Marvel Universe as it stood right after he left, The Hunger Dogs is obviously his take on where it stood in the mid-80s: with evil triumphant, and even his greatest villain subdued by mediocrity.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the very next page introduces a new subtext: that of the Cold War. The same relentless war machine that’s pacified Apokolips is on the verge of introducing horrible new weapons to destroy New Genesis—and again, it’ll be done remotely, with no grand clash of armies to satisfy Darkseid’s penchant for violence. What’s interesting is that Darkseid’s engineers argue that the New Genesisiand won’t enter into a cold war with Apokolips, because it’s “not their way” to resort to the WMDs that they’re about to deploy. So, in other words, Kirby is arguing that refusal to engage in Mutually Assured Destruction is moral, but it’ll also allow your enemies to destroy you. Certainly these were the kinds of arguments being thrown around in the 80s, though I’ve never been entirely certain that I buy it. (For one thing, the Soviets were a lot less formidable an opponent than they were made out to be…but let’s not get too far off track.)

Meanwhile, elsewhere on Apokolips, Orion has been healed (or resurrected?) as per the particularly brutal picture at the top of the page. The party responsible is Himon, still hiding out on Apokolips, serving the forces of good, and resembling Jack Kirby. The image of him bringing Orion back from the brink of death pretty much hammers the connection home. I guess the idea of injecting your own avatar into a comic is something else Grant Morrison swiped from Kirby.

Orion’s been hiding out with Himon and has apparently developed a thing for Himon’s daughter, Bekka. Wait, what? Yes, apparently Himon has a daughter who’s survived to adulthood, despite Himon’s lousy track record with getting kids killed. She seems to feel for Orion, too, though she doesn’t seem to have seen Orion’s true face yet. That’s going to be an interesting conversation.

It’s at this point that the slightly fractured nature of the beefed-up narrative starts to be felt. We jump jarringly back to Darkseid heading over to one of his control centers in Armagetto with some flowery, and borderline incomprehensible, narration overlaid on top: “Did not the Elder Gods, on the eve of their doom, leave the warning of Armagetto behind them? Is not oblivion forever a dark red line which leads the mighty to the sewers of the contemptable silent?” Do not colourless green ideas sleep furiously?

A mysterious, faceless figure meets Darkseid and presents to him “The Micro-Mark”, the latest superweapon, and one that will finally allow him to triumph over New Genesis.

While it’s not 100% clear what Kirby intended Micro-Mark to be, it sure sounds an awful lot like nanotechnology, doesn’t it? Was that even a well-known concept in 1985? Was Kirby doing a lot of reading, or did he just stumble across a very potent idea?

Suddenly, Himon pops in to taunt Darkseid. “Dance, Himon!” he growls. “Phase in and out like a dancing flea! But, in this new era--look for the shadow of my descending fist!” Darkseid seems positively giddy (by his standards) at the possibility of a worthy adversary. He pretty much admits that he’ll miss Himon once he’s crushed him like an ant beneath his boot. The two of them reminisce about the olden days like the pair of old men they are, Darkseid musing “The fiery passions…brutality and wailing…endless—ever endless…” “So it was—and so it remains, Darkseid!” responds Himon. Yes, the ever-endless endlessness remains endless. You can’t get anything past these two.

Himon grabs the super-sized package of Micro-Mark, the one with the ability to destroy a planet, and takes off before Mystery Guy can club him from behind. He’s hinted that he just might want to use it to destroy Apokolips for good and all, but Mystery Guy assures him it’s no biggie—he can deactivate the bomb by remote control. Micro-Mark’s ease of use will deny Darkseid even this defeat of his ancient enemy:

Another jarring cut to the surface of New Genesis, which is…somehow…being over-run by these monsters that eat everything in their path. Wait, what do these things have to do with Micro-Mark? I dunno, but it makes for a cool visual:

While New Genesis is thus being despoiled, “measures are taken to recover a few such as Lonar and his Battle-Horse.” Wait, recover a few? They’re just going to let everyone else get chewed up by a bunch of hairy green bush-monsters in Liberace masks?

Oh, wait, maybe they just mean that New Genesis was basically uninhabited and that there’s only a few to save. Geez, I hope so. Otherwise Highfather’s a real dick.

Speaking of which, here’s Highfather to meet Lonar as he’s levitated up to Supertown, wearing a variation on Thor’s armour. It’s pretty obvious that Lonar was going to have some far more elaborate storyline had the series continued properly, but Kirby’s once again just giving us the highlights. Highfather and Lonar have a conversation about the potential nightmare that would be unleashed if they started throwing Apokolips’s bombs back at them, and refuse to do it, thus proving Darkseid’s mob right. Again, I’m honestly not sure which side Kirby was coming down on here.

Anyway, Lightray overhears them and takes of for Apokolips, where he and Orion are once again reunited in a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling:

The reunion is cut short by a green metal monster smashing through the wall, as tends to happen. It’s another of Darkseid’s mechanical patrolmen, who, I guess, saw Lightray make his flashy entrance and has come after them. Orion’s all for ripping it to pieces (because he’s an angry kinda guy, you see) but Lightray, for once, earns his title as a more restrained tactician by reprogramming the machine to ignore them, rejoin the patrol, head back to base…and then explode, violently, wiping out a whole station. So, yay suicide bombers?

“Damn me for a flea-bitten war hound, if Darkseid himself can match your insideous talent for scheming!! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Chortles Orion. Then, there’s a flash, and Lightray is gone (for good, as it turns out). Well, that was abrupt.

Orion is uncharacteristically shaken by the sudden departure of his friend, and collapses into Bekka’s arms. “I’m afraid, Bekka! I hate the winds of change! I hate the loss of nobility and action…and war, which, in reality is ‘packaged murder’!” Wait, is he saying he hates war, or the LACK of war? At any rate, this is pretty clearly one of those moments where Kirby is really putting himself into the story. What old man wouldn’t mourn the loss of his friend and connection to youth? Or look back sadly on a life that he felt was out of his control? Bekka manages to give him a pep talk, reminding him of the good times and the good work he’s done, and he’s back on his feet.

Now another jarring jump-cut, and we get a bizarre scene in which Mystery Guy (forever off-panel) experiments on a terrified beggar pulled from Armaghetto by implanting a Micro-Mark on his chest. The wretch is released, to much anger from the assembled guards, runs out screaming, and explodes, echoing the “suicide bomber” bit from the last sequence. Suddenly we see Darkseid, as well, not even bothering to turn his head to watch this moment of triumph…because that’s how badass Darkseid is.

By the way, I believe this whole sequence belongs, properly speaking, at the beginning of the story, and was shuffled to the middle in the rewrite. You have to admit, it doesn’t make much sense for them to be testing the Micro-Mark now, after they’ve already been launching it against New Genesis for some time. But then, that means that when Orion shows up at the end of this sequence, it means there wouldn’t have been an explanation for how he survived being torn to shreds by laser fire at the end of the last issue. So I can see why they changed it.

So, um, Orion shows up at the end of the sequence, leading a charge of “Hunger Dogs” who now worship him as their inspiration and call to rebellion, beginning a real revolution against Darkseid. But Mystery Guy is still pimping his WMDs as a solution to conquering Orion, and now we finally see his face:

Yeah, freaky enough, but the real kicker is who this turns out to be. It’s Esak. Remember him? He’s the kid who rode with Metron all over the universe, and convinced Highfather to bail the Forever People out of their time-travel jam. That cute little kid has become a disfigured monster, working for Darkseid, pumping out horrible weapons and enforcing tyranny.

And here we really get to the crux of the issue: the Fourth World was written, in part, to celebrate the new generation in whom Kirby saw so much promise. Now, fifteen years later, the King seems just a tad more cynical about things, and Esak is the embodiment of that. While Kirby was probably thinking specifically about the comics industry and what it had come to, Esak makes a pretty good stand-in for the Baby Boomers as a whole, gone from utopian idealism to materialistic excess and the promotion of war for profit.

When he wanted to, Kirby could sure leave toothmarks.

(THE HUNGER DOGS article will conclude next week.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I'm Actually In Hiding From Devilance.

Okay, so when I said “next week” I didn’t actually mean next week...

Things got away from me for a while there. I should have part one of the final installment of Fourth World Fridays up on Oct. 10th. Thanks for your patience...

Friday, September 12, 2008

The New Gods #12 (sort of)--"The Road to Armaghetto"


So that was that. In early 1973, after a steady decline and a series of compromises, Jack Kirby was finally forced, for once and for all, and with (by all accounts) significant personal dismay, to shutter his most personal creation. The Fourth World ended with Mister Miracle #18.

…Except it sort of didn’t. The series was clearly never a monster in terms of sales, but it seemed to have attracted a fanbase…one that, as the years rolled on, became more vocal in its praise for the Fourth World. Even as Kirby left DC and returned to Marvel, there were persistant rumours that the series had actually done a lot better than the top brass had reported, and the cancellation had been due more to short-sightedness. Some even said that they didn’t like Kirby’s plans for a fixed ending to the series and deliberately cancelled all of his books so that they could keep the properties and hand them off to other, less well-known (and less expensive) artists in due time. (Which did, in a sense, happen, though not for over a decade.) This all seems a little paranoid, but certainly there have always been manipulative sleazebags controlling the purse strings of the comics industry—and DC was both a large, greedy corporation and a little on the desperate side at that time.

Regardless of what was going through DC’s mind at the time, the Fourth World lingered at the edges of the newly-growing comics culture. The 70s is where the “fanboy” really got started—the collecting, the conventioneering, the obsessing over what were, then, obscure pop culture ephemera. This may be part of the reason that so many sales-unpopular series of the time—and there were a lot of them in the 70s—nevertheless managed to find fan followings in the long run. This was the era of Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and the Punisher at Marvel, and of Deadman and the Legion of Superheroes at DC.

This last became a crucial part in salvaging the Fourth World. Kirby’s characters had popped up here and there throughout the 70s, and of all of them, Darkseid in particular, had begun to resonate with readers. In 1982, Paul Levitz, writing the Legion, made Darkseid the villain for his “Great Darkness Saga”, often cited as one of the best superhero storylines of all time. And suddenly the Fourth World had moved back into comic reader’s consciousness.

About the same time, Kirby had begun working with DC again on a line of action figures, which grew to incorporate the Fourth World. With an interest in the series resumed, Kirby was asked if he would provide an ending to the saga, particularly the New Gods, and Kirby said yes. There were, apparently, some problems with this, but as Mark Evanier has insisted over and over again, Jack always said “yes” when asked if he could do something.

I’ll get into that when I get to The Hunger Dogs. For the nonce, the plan was to reissue The New Gods with a series of new covers, drawn by Kirby, and cap it with a new issue #12 that would provide a bridge between the series and the forthcoming graphic novel. The result was the double-sized issue “The Road to Armaghetto.”

The splash page shows Orion emerging from a Boom Tube, and, just to hammer the point home, an Apokoliptish minion declares “Orion is back!” The next few pages highlight how Kirby’s style had changed in the intervening dozen years: if anything, it’s grown bolder, with splashes that spill all the way out to the edge of the page. Unfortunately, it’s also a little on the sloppy side, with less detail (though a shaky inking job, by D. Bruce Berry, doesn’t help). Kirby’s art was suffering a little as his eyesight failed and his hands grew shakier. It’s still pretty fantastic design, though.

A more welcome change: Kirby has finally learned to scale back the dialogue, leaving plenty of silent panels that merely show action, giving everything even more power and dynamism than you’d normally expect from Kirby. He’s also experimenting with panel borders and page layout in a way that was becoming more popular at the time—ironically, mostly thanks to Kirby’s own devotees, like Jim Starlin. (Though, strictly speaking, what superhero artist isn’t a Kirby devotee?)

The first nine pages have Orion smashing his way non-stop through a horde of robotic patrols, which have apparently become de rigeur for crowd control and police work in Armaghetto. “Darkseid has turned to ’hangman’s humour’!” thinks Orion. “He’s transformed Apokolips into a ’mechanized madhouse’!” Ahhh. It’s good to see that the years haven’t worn away Kirby’s love for “completely random quotation marks”.

Orion is aided by a pair of street urchins, and then by a seeming stroke of luck as the pavement suddenly cracks open and swallows up a pursuing mechanoid. It turns out that this was another act of subversion by the Female Furies:

The new Apokoliptian mechanization, and the general contempt for it by the former elite, will form a major theme of the rest of the series. Right now, though, I’m a little confused. The Furies seem to have regained their former positions as warriors of Apokolips, but now they’re once again acting to help the forces of New Genesis, apparently out of sheer love of conflict. What’s more, the Furies turn on their robotic “monitor” and then on Granny Goodness herself when she runs in to check on them. Granny seems a little on the pathetic side here, actually, which seems consistant with the whole theme that Apokolips has begun to decay.

A fracas ensues, with the Furies apparently enjoying a chance at a little of the old ultraviolence, something that’s apparently been denied them in the years since the machines took over. Of course, they’re immediately put back in line with a punishing jolt of electricity from a supervisory computer installation. Mostly, this scene seems to exist just to provide a chance to give the Furies one last little bit of action…but don’t go thinking this issue, or the next one, are going to be a non-stop cavalcade of guest stars.

At any rate, this computer monitor thingie now reigns supreme on Apokolips, as we’ve seen, controlling robot patrols and watching over oppressed and opressors alike. It’s something close to Darkseid’s dream of perfect control, all wills subservient to his own, all completely controllable from a single location. And yet, irony of ironies, achieving all this hasn’t made Darkseid happy. You might even say…he’s ronery.


Anyway, a flunky suggests that Darkseid make use of their new, experimental technology to bring back his closest friend, Desaad, who, you’ll recall, he disintegrated via the Omega effect. Once again, the “wiping you out of existence” aspect of the Omega effect seems to have been gravely overstated.

Darkseid uses his techno-thingie, and next thing you know, Desaad is back:

Meanwhile, back in Armaghetto, Lightray catches up with Orion, much to the latter’s consternation. As you might remember from the link above, Orion ended the series by embracing the knowledge that he was Darkseid’s son. Somewhere between that issue and this one, he’s furthermore discovered that his mother, Tigra, is still alive and imprisoned on Apkolips. And there’s a prophecy, you see, that the father will meet the son in the light of the fire-pits of Apokolips, and that will decide the war. Lightray’s uncertain that this ought to happen, and has come to slow up Orion’s progress, but Orion is, understandably, hard to reason with. Lighray agrees to leave him be, but not before creating a diversion by using his solar powers to blast the various attacking gizmos to smithereens. I like this panel here, as Lightray melts an entire garrison with the force of his blast:

Suddenly, a new enemy approaches: a horde of “dog cavalry”, led by none other than Steppenwolf. This reanimated apparition knocks Orion off balance, but Lightray is quick enough on the ball to conjure up an illusion: a pile of soupbones. The dogs race towards them and bowl through, into a nearby canal. So…the guy was melting giant robots a moment ago, but when dogs attack him he turns into a Road Runner cartoon?

Orion finally manages to convince Lightray to shove off, and the two part with these awesome, wordless panels:

Megaforce, eat your heart out.

Meanwhile, Darkseid is busily resurrecting more of his buddies, the latest being Kalibak. As we’ve seen, though, the reanimants aren’t really the sharpest knives in the drawer—they’re crude parodies of themselves. This seems like Kirby displaying his disappointment at being unable to recapture the old magic, but “it’s still an impressive ‘game’,” admits Darkseid.

Orion has now managed to sneak and punch his way into his dad’s control room, and lets fly with a furious assault that, you guessed it, requires a double splash page. Which is so big I’m not even going to scan it in. “In the context of destruction, Orion transcends the term!” bellows the caption. “To oppose him is to die! To survive him is life lived in fragmented form!” To look funny at him is to have him rip your lungs out! To not say “God bless you” when he sneezes is to risk a couple of broken legs!

Darkseid uses the classic villain’s gadget, the Escape Pod, in this case a tube down which his throne disappears to merge with a rocket sled deep in the bowels of Apokolips. But Orion comes bounding after him, grabbing onto the back of the sled and smashing through the canopy as it rockets through the tunnels. Darkseid distracts Orion as the sled comes to a halt by showing him his mother, bound to a nearby rock—then tries to plug him with a concealed laser gun. Orion seems to get the drop on him: “..and now, you cruel, arrogant…!” “Yes…NOW!” yells Darkseid, and a platoon of soldiers pop up and riddle Orion with lasers (including a bunch through his head!)

Ouch. Orion then topples backwards into a firepit, leaving no body for Darkseid to salvage. Despite the seemingly fatal wounds he received, Darkseid knows Orion can never be underestimated, and he realizes that now he’ll be forever haunted by uncertainity.

See, this is what makes Darkseid such a great villain, and the series as a whole so much more interesting than most superhero punchfests. Darkseid hates and despises all life, all intelligence except his own; he’s spent his life attempting to bring about a world totally in his thrall, with no other will to oppose him. And as he draws closer to achieving that goal, he finds himself increasingly dissatisfied—the seeds of his own defeat grow from within himself. When challenged, he’s indomitable, but when there’s no one else left to put up a fight, and he’s forced to look inwards…that’s a prospect that genuinely terrifies him.

More on this next week when I start the grand two-part finale, The Hunger Dogs!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Pause Before the Big Finale...

Sorry I didn't update this week, folks--things are a little crazy. Besides, I need to pause and gear up for the big finale of Fourth World Fridays, which will run over three weeks, starting this Friday the 12th.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Mister Miracle #18--“Wild, Wild Wedding Guests”


(It’s just come to my attention that yesterday would have been Jack Kirby’s 91st birthday. I still say we lost him too soon…)

With Kirby’s plots getting more and more convoluted thanks to the editors' increased meddling, the supposed escape artist Mister Miracle was, ironically, getting entangled and restrained by his own book. So he did the only thing he could: he escaped. By being canceled. But as with The New Gods and The Forever People, he was able to give us something resembling a conclusion, however rushed.

This issue starts unremarkably enough, with the gang setting up an escape stunt that will apparently involve Mister Miracle crouching in a cylindrical glass tank filled with water, which in turn stands in the middle of a shallow pit. Barda’s unloading a crate of Nitroglycerin into the pit, and Shilo’s giving Mister M. a snorkel mask so he can breathe in the tank. And I’m completely confused as to how this trick is going to work. We never actually find out, either.

You see, Oberon and Shilo are grabbed by faceless hands as they crawl out of the pit, at which point weird, retro “shock grenades” are fired into it, resulting in a massive explosion. The fiend responsible? One Virman Vundabar, back from his sojourn on Apokolips and wearing a doofy hat.

“Virman’s mission seems hardly designed to generate a wedding! But there will be a wedding!” the narration informs us. And just in case there’s any doubt as to who this wedding will involve, we cut to Scott and Barda, huddling in a small tunnel Scott was somehow able to cut in half a second with his boot lasers. Man, those boot lasers work fast.

Barda mopes passive-aggressively about how she slowed Scott down, and asks “Why didn’t you leave me?” “The answer is simple--now. I love you Barda—I-I can’t live without you—“ responds Scott. Gee, good thing it wasn’t some stranger in the pit, or Scott totally would have left her to die. He only saves people he loves, you see.

The two of them fall into a clinch, and Kirby slips in some obviously self-referential dialogue regarding his wrong-headed attempt to make the book “more commercial” when it was bound for cancellation anyway:

But of course, the two are still in danger, as demonstrated by the “ground probe” that finds them. “This probe is super-sensitive! It can pick up a heartbeat!” announces Scott, right into the mouthpiece. Belatedly realizing that this isn’t the smartest idea, Scott desides to go the whole hog and screams into the probe, nearly deafening Vundabar and his minions. Scott and Barda take advantage of the downtime and pop up to subdue Vundabar, but no sooner have they done so then they’re confronted by another enemy—Granny Goodness. Looks like the Apokaliptians have decided to do away with that whole “single combat” thing and just finish the job.

Granny deploys “an invisible mass gravity beam” of the kind that Scott escaped from back on Apokolips, which grinds Scott into the Earth, petulantly whining “STOP IT!” as he goes. Geez, take it like a man, Scott. Disappointingly, he’s saved not by his usual skill but because the guy deploying the gravity beam decides to take it easy on him. The guy in question is yet another familiar face: Kanto the “master assassin” who never actually kills anyone. As regards Kanto…it’s pretty obvious that Kirby wanted to make him somewhat sympathetic, and he presumably would have defected to Scott’s side at some point…but at the same time, he’s supposedly motivated by the fact that his loyalty lies only with the highest bidder. I guess he’s the Han Solo of this series, or would have been if it had continued.

What happens next:

Yeah, they’re totally doomed. It’s not like Mister Miracle has escaped from every deathtrap he’s been put in.

On the other hand, the Apokoliptians have finally shown they’ve learned something, by shorting out Scott’s hood circuitry in advance, thus complicating matters for him. How did they accomplish this? Via some mental chicanery courtesy of the guy who was tripped up by Scott’s hood circuitry last time, Doctor Bedlam. Yes, it’s an all-star cavalcade of Scott’s archnemeses!

As if the “bomb-clock” wasn’t elaborate enough already, it’s now fired up into space (!) and, a panel later, explodes in the atmosphere. No sooner does Granny take a moment to cackle in triumph, however, than suddenly her soldier boys are “going down like ten-pins” under the onslaught of a familiar red-clad figure. Yes, it’s Special Guest Star Orion of New Genesis! He was just taping his Christmas special across the hall, y’see, and thought he’d stop by.

And the hits just keep on coming! Seems the explosion we just witnessed was Lightray, who now makes his entrance, and right on his heels come Metron and Highfather, towing Scott and his friends in a hovercraft. Yes, Highfather saved Scott’s ass, rather than his usual escape artistry. Hmmm…this being the last issue and all, I’m tempted to read a lot into this…given High-fathers’ godly nature, there’s a whole spiritual significance to him saving Scott on this occasion, when he was unable to do the job himself. Again, it seems like I’m catching a glimpse of a more elaborate story that Kirby was forced to cut short. It’s an interesting theme, though.

The Apokoliptish villains apparently at bay, Scott and Barda say goodbye to Shilo and Oberon, who are forced to leave before the godly shit goes down. They get a nice couple of goodbyes:

Meanwhile, wouldn’t you know it, there’s going to be a wedding, as decreed by The Source, and even the bad guys are invited. Except that there’s one particular , rocky-faced bad guy who tends to show up fashionably late, and they’d rather get the whole thing over with quickly, before he can show up, get drunk, and hit on the bridesmaids. Metaphorically speaking. It’s time for a mythological shotgun wedding!

Apparently it’s a quick matter of Scott and Barda declaring themselves “eternal” with each other, exchanging a smooch, and having Highfather tap them with his Wonder-Staff. So Scott, the master escape artist, ends the series with a Ball and Chain. Wokka wokka wokka!

No sooner is the job done than a tornado appears on the horizon, heralding the arrival of Darkseid. The gang piles into Highfather’s little barge jobbie, and the gang phases off to New Genesis, with Orion tossing off a final threat that he and Darkseid will meet “on the day called ‘Last Battle!’” And the New Gods are gone from Earth.

Oberon and Shilo, not having gotten very far, emerge from the rocks, only to find a solitary figure standing, watching the spot where the New Gods vanished. “Have you been out in the storm all this time, mister?” asks Shilo. “I am the storm,” replies Darkseid casually. Realizing there’s something terrifying about this guy, the two mortals take to their heels, leaving Darkseid to have the final word, describing Scott’s wedding and the Fourth World saga itself:

“It had deep sentiment, yet little joy. But—life at best is bitter-sweet!”

And that, or so it seemed at the time, was where the Fourth World would end. Sure, the characters would show up again—Mister Miracle joined the Justice League later on, there were various revivals. But that was it for Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, the original saga as conceived by its creator. It would forever be an unfinished symphony, ending with a whimper instead of a bang.

…Or so it seemed for a decade or so. But wouldn’t you know it, many years later Kirby did indeed get a chance to put a capper on his most cherished creation—and if not precisely satisfying, it certainly was an astounding bit of work.

Tune in next time, when we learn that “Even Gods Must Die!!!”