Friday, December 28, 2007

Mister Miracle #4--"The Closing Jaws of Death!"


Let’s talk about female characters in comics. If you’ve been reading superhero comics for any length of time, you’re familiar with the Women in Refrigerators syndrome...and if you’re not, a quick click on the link will fill you in. Short version: there’s an unfortunate tradition of sexism or outright misogyny in superhero stories, with female characters frequently being reduced to cheesecake, depowered, or, worst of all, killed off in a hackneyed attempt to motivate a male character. Obviously, this is an ongoing debate that’s not going to be resolved anytime soon, and the fact that we’re dealing with an entire genre, or even an entire medium, makes it hard to speak in generalities, but it certainly seems hard to argue that superheroes are dominated by the mindset of male geeks, and as such, frequently present a somewhat…skewed…vision of femininity.

What’s interesting about this whole trend, to me at least, is that in many ways this comics misogyny seems to increase as you get closer to the present. Some of the most powerful and interesting female comics characters, including the ur-superheroine, Wonder Woman, are products of the 30s and 40s. Sure, there’s always that streak of sexism native to the era—the infamous cover with Batgirl adjusting her makeup while Batman and Robin fight for their lives being somewhat typical—but back then, comics were actually written about girls and for girls, which necessitated a healthier viewpoint almost by default.

Which is not to say there weren’t issues. Most of the female characters Kirby himself created at Marvel were really, really bland—Susan Storm and Jean Grey were virtually made of cardboard in the early 60s—when they weren’t slightly offensive (Janet Van Dyne, like most early Marvel characters, had a single character trait, and hers was “boy-crazy”). By the time of the Fourth World, however, Kirby had a better handle on his female characters. Corny jokes about “Women’s libbers” aside (and believe me, there are plenty of them in the pages to come), the essentials of women’s empowerment seem to have penetrated Kirby’s worldview along with all that other counterculture stuff.

Which brings us to Big Barda, who makes her abrupt debut on the opening splash page, standing right behind Oberon as he frets about Scott. A rebellious member of Darkseid’s “female task force”, the Female Furies, Barda’s a gigantic lady even by Kirby’s standards, and her costume is one of the most bizarre he ever designed, being basically a cross between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a medieval crusader’s chainmail.

She’s also ungifted in social niceties, demolishing Oberon’s table just to get his attention, before resentfully declaring herself to be Scott’s friend and ally. Oberon takes an instant dislike to her, but nevertheless makes her a sandwich and milk. Geez, I guess the guy’s just stuck in permanent “servant mode”.

As you may remember, last time we saw Mr. Free he was being locked in a trunk and thrown off a balcony by the residents of an office building driven to homicidal madness by Doctor Bedlam’s Paranoid Pill. As soon as Oberon mentions this, Barda leaps up and teleports herself away to Chandler towers to help Scott, who we now cut to in media res, still tumbling through the air, as the crazed mob shoots at him. Barda beams in (the mob instantly declares her a witch) and sees the falling trunk: “Knowing Scott Free and his talent for trapping himself in strange places—I have the feeling that I’d better break the fall of this trunk!” Of course, after falling fifty stories, being “caught” isn’t really going to break his fall, but as it turns out, it’s a moot point. When Barda tears the box in half, it turns out to be empty—Scott is standing many floors above, having escaped under his own power. Obviously this makes sense—Scott gave his word that he’d escape without help, and besides, he wouldn’t be much of an escape artist if he couldn’t get out of traps himself—but it still kinda feels like Kirby wrote Barda in to come and save him and then suddenly realized it wouldn’t fit the story. Oh well. You can’t go wrong with having Big Barda show up in your comic for any reason.

Scott now reiterates that the wager is his alone to win or lose, as the mob grabs hold of him. They’ve now decided that he’s a vampire...apparently for the sole reason that he wears a cape. I guess he could be some kind of Ethiopian vampire… Anyway, they grab a wooden stake and a pipe to use as a hammer, but Scott’s too fast for them—in fact, he appears to literally vanish and reappear a few feet away. But as far as I can tell, he didn’t use any gadgets to escape. So…um…he got out of his ropes SO FAST that the mob didn’t even notice he was gone until the stake came down? “It takes a master to play it that close and cool!” Scott proclaims, humbly, and then he’s off again.

For the next two pages or so, he’s dodging the spray from fire hoses and sliding down banisters, and then something wonderful happens: he’s accosted by a guy in a medieval torturer’s costume, who lays him out by hitting his chest and producing a “BOK!” Here, see:

Yeah, I bet you were wondering what that cover was about, weren’t you? “Klieg lights!” gasps Scott. “Cameras! Good gravy! This is a movie studio! Of course! Galaxy broadcasting films its TV specials on this floor!” Yes, Scott has been captured by the cast and crew of one of those Spanish Inquisition TV dramas that were all the rage in 1971. You know, like Roots. Except with torturing. And Spanish people instead of African-Americans. This whole sequence is just a wonderful example of what makes Kirby Kirby. He’s got a killer premise, more than enough to keep him busy for another 12 pages, but he just can’t help going off on a completely random tangent. Come to that, the director and actors are behaving totally different than the rest of the mob: instead of just calling him a vampire or whatever, they’re determined to make him the real-life victim of their drama so they can win an Emmy (seriously, they say this). “A paranoid director and actors!” Thinks Scott. “How bad can things get?” Clearly, Scott has not spent much time in Hollywood. Come to think of it, maybe this has nothing to do with the paranoid pill at all, and these are just your usual early-70s filmmakers, doing a dry run for Apocalypse Now. I heard they killed, like, five superheroes on that set.

The hooded torturers drag Scott into their dungeon, spouting “thee”s and “thou”s and “varlet”s all the while. “The dialogue is terrible!” Thinks Scott. “But they mean every word of it!” Hey, that’s pretty much what I say whenever I read a Fourth World comic: the dialogue is terrible, but Kirby means every word of it. Mr. Miracle escapes from the fourth wall!

Scott is overwhelmed by the torturers, who shove him into a nearby iron maiden, bristling with spikes. Uh oh, it looks bad for our hero! Meanwhile, Barda is now finding herself confronted with more mob members, who didn’t get Bedlam’s memo about how this is just supposed to be about Scott. “I’ve no time to coddle your neuroses!” proclaims the Amazonian warrior, ripping a pillar from the wall and using it to beat back the hordes. Man, do I love Big Barda. She’s even more awesome than Big Bear. Basically, if anyone in the Fourth World has “big” in their name, they’re awesome. Though it was kinda cold to just flatten all those mob members like that. But then, there are probably dozens of casualties being caused by all this rampaging anyway, what with guns being discharged and railroad workers running amok and whatnot.

Anyway, Barda finds she can’t sit back and watch any longer—“I try not to worry about that wizard, Scott! But I can’t help myself!” This might be a good time to point out that Barda was, apparently, based on Kirby’s wife Roz, who made it her business to protect her husband from shysters and keep people from bothering him while he worked.

Barda uses her “Mega-Rod”, which is basically her own variation on a Mother Box, to blast her way up into the studio and subdue the crazed torturers. Again, though, Scott has managed to escape the trap set up for him. Now, for the first time, they have a chance to really talk—or rather, this being a Kirby comic, to exposition at each other—and they both remark on what a long, strange trip it’s been. As you may have guessed by now, both of them are former pupils of Granny Goodness, and Barda apparently helped Scott escape way back when, but she herself chose to remain. It’s not yet clear when she decided to switch teams, but it’s pretty obvious why she did it, judging from how she’s reduced to stuttering breathlessness every time Scott reveals that he’s still alive.

The hallways have suddenly gone quiet, and the reason becomes clear a moment later, as the pair are confronted by the disembodied spirit of Bedlam. He accuses Scott of cheating, given that Barda is helping him, and in retaliation he unleashes “every monster that has haunted every nightmare since time began” to rile up the rampaging mob. Um…wait…weren’t they already pretty riled up? I’m not sure how a few hallucinations are going to make people who had mistaken Scott for Bela Lugosi a few moments ago act MORE insane.

And apparently we’re not really going to find out, because we now cut to Oberon, sitting at home, fretting about Scott, wondering what he can do to help. Suddenly, he’s struck by a brilliant notion: call the police! Of course! It’s so obvious! I mean, it literally is the most obvious thing anyone would think of! And it kind of makes Oberon look stupid that he didn’t think of it before this! But never mind, because Mr. Miracle and Barda suddenly appear in a crackle of energy, and tell Obie that the cops are already at the scene. Again, nice job, Obie.

The rest of the comic is given over to Oberon’s continued bickering with Barda—one might say he seems a little jealous of her—and to a flashback recap of how Scott made all his wondrous escapes. We started this recap with one of my favourite things about the Mister Miracle comic—Big Barda—so it seems appropriate we should end it with a discussion of one of my least favourite things. That would be the way we tend to cut away from a dramatic escape to see the aftermath, and then get Scott’s summary of how he did it. Actually, this wouldn’t be so bad, except that the answer, without fail, is always, “I used a convenient gadget that I had on me and that you may or may not ever have seen before.” In this particular case, Scott plays coy about revealing his secrets (to his own assistant?) but says it’s OK to “do some supposing”:

SCOTT: Now, you take that trunk in which Mister Miracle was bound—falling to certain death—fifty floors below! It was indeed a time to panic! But was Mister Miracle that type? Suppose he wasn’t!

Whoa, whoa, hold on there, Scott! You’re totally blowing my mind!!!

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that he has a miraculous device called a “multi-cube”—not to be confused with Mother Box or that “cocoon spinner” he used in the first issue—that fired a laser to get him out of the trunk and fired a cable that he used to haul himself up. Then later he used it to squirt a corrosive spray to destroy the rear of the iron maiden, and finally, it produced an “electro-sonic signal which blanketed the brain of every paranoid in the building” thereby rendering them all unconscious.


Scott had a device that could have rendered everyone in the building unconscious…and he didn’t think to use it until he was almost out?!? GIVE ME A BREAK. Hopefully it’s clear why I don’t like this “deus ex machina” approach to Scott’s escapes anyway, but this takes it to a whole new level of sloppiness. Gah. Let’s not dwell on it, and hope Kirby improves in later issues.

Fortunately, that’s not where the issue ends. As Oberon is voicing his concerns about Barda to Scott, and Scott’s dismissing her as “A child, you know! A powerful, deadly child—playing soldier!” Barda enters in the outfit she wears when she’s not in uniform—basically, a jazzy red bikini kinda thing and a headband. She announces that she’s starving, Scott and Oberon do a double take and make some “That’s our Barda!” cracks as the audience applauds and the closing credits roll.

What was I saying about sexism, again?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141--"Will the Real Don Rickles Panic?!?"


(Note: Jimmy Olsen #140 isn't included in the omnibus, as for some reason it was a reprint issue, not drawn by Kirby, and with nothing to do with the Fourth World. Hence the skipped issue.)

I’ve been defending Kirby’s writing on this series since the very beginning, but it wasn’t that I thought he was unreservedly talented as a prose stylist so much as I thought he was about on par with a lot of the hacks writing comics at the time. If I’m totally honest, I find what few early-70s Roy Thomas and Steve Engelhart comics I’ve read to be really verbose, and they tended towards fanboy pedantry rather than the demented imagination Kirby brought to his work. If I have to read an awkwardly-written, pretentious comic, I know which of the two I’d choose.

Still, though…after two issues of Superman vs. Don Rickles, I’m prepared to throw in my lot with the conventional wisdom. Kirby really did seem to have trouble with the English language this early in his career as a writer. Here’s a few samples from the first three pages of Jimmy Olsen #141:

“…A strange galaxy never before seen by man! – That is, until Superman, in his guise as Clark Kent, has been hurled into the unknown—trapped in a bizarre space craft!!”

“…Clark Kent gazes helplessly as he drifts past awesome wonders that stagger all imagination!”

“But the unknown says nothing! It glides by—a silent, shimmering animal – tense – and waiting for the kill!

That last one’s my favourite. Only Kirby would describe the void of space as a shimmering animal, tensing up to pounce on the “helpless” Clark Kent. Who, just in case you’ve forgotten, is Superman. He can fly through space and move planets. But apparently he’s helpless in the face of mixed metaphors.

The situation, in case you’ve forgotten, or deliberately repressed it, is this: in the previous issue, Jimmy and Clark put two and two together and realized that their new boss, Morgan Edge, had made an attempt on their life. They marched up to his office to confront him, but gave up when Edge’s secretary Miss Conway told him Edge wasn’t in, and gave them a new assignment. Which they went on. And which turned out to be another attempt on their life. Wotta couple of schlemiels.

Clark Kent was trapped in a spacecraft that instantly transported him to Shimmering Animal Space. Meanwhile, Jimmy, the Golden Guardian, and a (sigh) Don Rickles impersonator in a superhero suit named Goody Rickels were kidnapped by Intergang, forced to eat food laced with an explosive chemical that would cause them to combust within 24 hours, and thrown out on the curb.

Makes sense to me!

Superman drifts through deep, uncharted space, as represented by another one of Kirby’s patented, and patently weird, photographic montages (to which he’s added some colour this time!) It quickly becomes clear exactly where Clark’s been extradited to when he spots “two giant planets!—One, brightly green and beautiful – the other, in its shadow…” and then spots a human comet coming his way, one immediately recognizable as our friend Lightray. Clark’s inner monologue describes him as “hardly the kind you’d meet at the office!” Well, I dunno, Clark, depends on where you work. If you were a gymnast or a ballet dancer, maybe…

But enough of this “interesting” stuff, let’s get back to Jimmy! And the Guardian! And fucking Goody Rickels! They’re busy expositing away about how doomed they are, despite how unbelievably unthreatening and pointlessly complex the method of their destruction has turned out to me. I mean, if I were in that situation, the first thing I’d be wondering is, “Why did Intergang just go to such lengths not to kill me?” I don’t think I’d even believe there was such a thing as “pyro-granulate”, but even if I did, the hospital is probably nearby, and I’ve got 24 frickin’ hours. But then, I’m not a crack cub reporter or a superhero, because *their* first idea is to go after the RV from which they were ejected in search of a cure…while Jimmy and Goody go to Morgan Edge for help.

…Wait, what? No, I must have misread that. Carrying on…

The Guardian gets into his new role as a rooftop-jumpin’ protector of the innocent pretty quickly, using his implanted knowledge of the city in which his predecessor was born and raised (which, again, is now Metropolis, not Manhattan). “Life at the D.N.A. Experimental Project never gave me this sense of freedom!” he monologues. Yeah, you’d think so, Jim, seeing as how the Project kept you in a giant glass jar.

Back at the Galaxy Broadcasting System, Miss Conway is freaking out over the impending arrival of the real Don Rickles, and so, in short order, is everyone else. Simply walking through the office, Rickles is assaulted from all corners by rabid fans begging for autographs, and amourous secretaries who demand to be insulted. Was Rickles really *that* big at the time? I mean, I know he was popular, but Kirby’s treating him like it’s 1963 and he’s all four Beatles rolled into one.

I mean, not that I’m denying he’s a sexy, sexy man and all.

There follows several pages of what can be charitably described as corny schtick. I’ll confess, right here and now, that I’ve never heard Rickles’ act, except in movies like X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes and, um, Toy Story. Sure, he’s pure Borscht Belt, but he always seemed relatively funny to me. I’d like to think that, at his peak, his material was at least a little bit stronger than the stuff Kirby has him spouting, much of which isn’t really “funny” in any sense…just kind of sarcastic and shticky. He meets the wave of adulation with “Relax, you cockamamies! You’re liberated! The Nazis are gone!” Then, after they tear his clothing and are scared off by Edge: “Savages! I’ll send you thirty pounds of raw meat tomorrow morning! And may the Gods rain on your memos!” Then he exhorts a delighted Miss Conway to “get yourself a bikini and start a chain of heart attacks at a garden party!” and refers to Edge as “Mister Smoothie on the outside—‘Mac the Knife’ on the inside!”

I dunno, maybe it loses something on the page.

Meanwhile, we’re getting the historic meeting between Superman and Lightray, out in space. “I was in this sector – and curious to see what sort of specimen was on its way to Apokolips!” declares our merry funster. Lightray, I mean. “You speak my language!” Exclaims Superman. “Are you able to communicate by probing one’s mind?” Wow, a more astute observation than I was expecting. Not that Lightray evinces the ability to read minds anywhere else. And…hmm, he actually kinda brushes Superman off, saying, “You haven’t time for small talk!” Wait, does that mean Kirby was trying to conceal some kind of secret about the New Gods’ language? Is it to do with my hair-brained theories that the New Gods are the descendants of a parallel universe, specifically Marvel’s, and thus have a store of human knowledge? I’m going to pretend it is!

Anyway, the thing Lightray’s concerned about is the fact that they’re looming closer and closer to Apokolips, which Superman remembers hearing about from the Forever People. “They also mentioned a name--Darkseid!!!” Yes, Superman, they mentioned that name right before you met and fought him. I guess it’s possible that Superman is trying to cover his secret identity here…though why he would bother with a cosmic being on the other side of the universe from Earth, I don’t know. And besides, he’s pretty blasé about mentioning that he knows the Forever People. Lightray generously offers to save him from the Parademons rising to intercept the craft, and Clark accepts. Again, I’m gonna hope that was a secret identity thing. I mean, Superman has a tendency to forget his powers, but I don’t think he’s ever gone so far as to forget that he’s Superman and doesn’t really need other superheroes to help him, unless Kryptonite or red suns are involved.

Nevertheless, this B-plot is infinitely more involving than the main story, to which we’re now forced to return. Oh look, Jimmy and Goody are riding the subway. Goody is complaining. Ha ha. Actually, I have to say I appreciate everyone on the subway yelling at Goody to shut up. Also, Goody starts steaming and is about to die. Ha ha!

Seriously, let’s just move on to the Guardian, who’s caught up with the mobile home and comes crashing down through the top hatch, only to be met by Ugly Mannheim and his goon squad. “The pastry’s all gone! – But we’re servin’ plenty of ammo!” You mean, the ammo you could have used to kill Jimmy and the Guardian back when you had the chance? That ammo? Oh, don’t mind me, I’m living in a non-Comics-Code-approved reality. The long and the short of it is, we get this issue’s de rigeur Kirby stompfest as the Guardian beats the antidote out of them.

Meanwhile, the moment none of you have been waiting for, as Jimmy and Goody come face to face with the real Don Rickles. Can you stand the excitement? Bursting into Edge’s office, where he and Rickles are still thrashing out some kind of deal that Kirby never sees fit to explain properly, Goody proclaims, “I’m back, Mister Edge! And, now that I’m dying, I can find the nerve to really tell you what I think of--” and then, for no reason except that it makes for a funny…I mean cool…I mean intensely predictable panel, the real Rickles then repeats his dialogue exactly. Which makes no sense, in the context of the conversation they were just having. I mean, the real Rickles just said he was dying. Despite the fact that he’s still alive and well almost 40 years later. Then we get have a page of “HUH? B-but…you’re me!!!” type reactions, Edge starts blustering, Goody begins to smoke, and Jimmy…begs him for help.

OK, WHAT??!? Jimmy, you idiot, you know Edge was trying to kill you! You got into this mess because of an assignment he sent you on! He’s obviously the one trying to have you killed, even if it is in the most Rube Goldbergian way possible! I mean, we’ve long known that you, Lois, and Clark are all terrible, terrible reporters, but you’d think you’d be able to put the extremely obvious pieces together in order to save your own life!

The story just gets dumber from there, with Jimmy and Goody beginning to glow and then catch on fire--the art making them look like they’re virtually going supernova, as Jimmy remarks, “Strange! I don’t feel any heat!” Edge shoves Rickles out the door—literally shoves him out like an uninvited guest—and tells him to read a magazine. Then he calls the bomb disposal squad. Then the Guardian comes crashing through the window (sure, why not?) and Rickles comes back into the office. Then something explodes—no, not Jimmy or Goody, because next time we see them they’re safe and sound, sipping the antidote Guardian was able to procure. (“It’s not unlike cheap wine!” announces Goody, approvingly.) There’s literally nothing about this sequence that makes any sense at all, even narratively, and the obnoxiously lame shtick from the two Rickles—seriously, they’re pretty much equally unfunny at this point—just makes it all the more painful.

Rickles yammers weakly while Edge fumes via thought balloons, wondering how this brilliant, completely foolproof scheme could possibly have failed. Then a Boom Tube materializes in the office, depositing Clark and unceremoniously blasting Rickles out of his chair. The look on his face in this panel is the one mildly amusing moment in this comic:

There, I saved you ten minutes. Except…I guess it probably took you that long to read this recap. But not as long as it took me to write it! Seriously, this is time we all could have spent curing cancer or something, and now it’s gone. Thanks a lot, Kirby.

But wait! There’s a page left! Surely there must be some hacky komedy cliché that hasn’t been milked yet!

Of course! Comical insanity! The bomb disposal squad arrives, Edge proclaims that the bomb threat has been neutralized, and the now-insane Rickles contradicts him: “I’m the bomb! And I’m primed to blow! Get me outta here! Stop me from killing! Tick-tick-tick-tick--”

Poor guy!” Mutters one of the disposal guys, “With your routine—this had to happen!”

Seriously, is it just me, or do like 50% of all dumb humour comics end this way? With a character who’s experienced some mild weirdness being dragged away to the insane asylum “hilariously”? Yeah, I think it’s safe to say, as we bid a blessed adieu to both Rickles, that comedy is something Kirby ought to have steered clear of. Forever.

Rickles wasn’t the bomb. The bomb was this comic. Handle it with care.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The New Gods #4--"The O'Ryan Mob and the Deep Six"


The most common theme associated with Kirby’s work is “cosmic” (well, and “weird”), but of course he had other idioms he came back to over and over again too. One of these was the hard-boiled world of gangsters and crime-busters, talkin’ tough, wearin’ fedoras, ventilatin’ each other, and embeddin’ their nicknames in a forest of quotation marks. You can definitely see how this would appeal to Kirby, especially the quotation marks. He’d already sprinkled a liberal helping of gangsters into the Fourth World in the form of Intergang; now, in this issue, he gives us, essentially, a crime comic, with a lot of Fourth World stuff lingering around the margins.

Well, OK, it starts on a distinctly Cosmic note, with Metron and his young…I’m going to say, “apprentice”, Esak, who we’ve never seen before, hovering above a primitive planet in the Mobius chair. You know, before we continue, I’m just going to point out that I’m not going to make any dumb NAMBLA-referencing jokes about the fact that Metron is chairing his chair with a young boy in short shorts. I mean, enough with that kind of thing already. I’m not saying comics are innuendo-free or anything, but there was a time when people didn’t automatically assume two characters who hung out together were having sex. And when an adult spent a lot of time with a kid, even one to which he was unrelated, that was called being a father figure. Not HA HA HA THEY’RE TOTALLY GAY. I mean, sheesh, folks. The real irony here is that this is exactly the kind of thing the much-despised Frederick Wertham was so obsessed with, and comic book fans consider him to be a few rungs below Osama Bin Laden on the ladder of hate, yet everyone on the internet is constantly making pedophilia jokes about Batman and Robin. Yes, it’s easy to do. Yes, they wear tight outfits and live together alone. Yes, they fought a guy who spent an entire issue obsessing about “his boner”. But the horse has not only been beaten to death, he has been crushed into glue at this point. MOVE ON ALREADY.

…You know, I just realized that this entry is going to be the first Google hit for anyone searching for “Osama Bin Laden pedophilia gangsters boner NAMBLA”. I’m going to try not to think too hard about that.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Metron and Esak are casually hovering mere feet ahead of a pair of alien monsters that just so happen to resemble T-Rexes. Esak is afraid, but Metron assures him that they can never match the chair’s speed. Of course, considering that they’re about six inches off the ground and neither of them are looking where they’re going, I’m not sure speed is the only factor involved here.

Metron quickly wises up and, in a breathtaking two-page splash, we see the pair moving up into the air, past a smoldering volcano, with two packs of aliens clashing in primitive battle below. One group looks distinctly caveman-ish, the other like some kind of green goblin-men. “Those creatures below bear the image of man!” marvels Esak, presumably referring to the first group. I wonder if he means “man” in the sense of “humans”, or if he’s including the New Gods in that as well. Either way, note the old-school SF assumption that the evolution of alien life will more or less exactly parallel our own.

Metron mentions that they will return in what “will be a millennium to them!”

METRON: Time to them is not as time to us—is it?
ESAK: Tell me, Metron! Are we truly beyond time? – Are we beyond death?
METRON: My sensors indicate there is an answer in New Genesis!

...Well, that’s one way to avoid answering the question. He could also have tried “My sensors indicate that you should shut the hell up.”

Actually, what Metron’s referring to, obliquely, is the announcement High-Father makes on their arrival back at New Genesis: one of the New Gods has fallen. And of course, he’s also referring to the very end of the series itself, but that’s still a long ways off…

The fallen one, as we learn in abrupt cut to Earth, was a New Genesisean frogman named Seagrin, who the police are currently fishing out of Metropolis harbour. P.I. Dave Lincoln and Orion, in his secret identity of…O’Ryan, have just arrived, and the latter does all but throw himself across Seagrin’s lifeless chest and break out sobbing. Describing him as “a gentle warrior” (riiiiiight), Orion immediately intuits that he’s met his death at the hands of Apokoliptish agents deep beneath the ocean. This being a cosmic being inhabiting a Kirby comic, he needs a proper sendoff, so Orion somehow summons a storm to demolish the pier and give Seagrin a Viking funeral. (Which is appropriate, since this whole sequence would make a hell of a lot more sense if it was in Marvel’s “Thor”.) Invisible through the leaping flames, the Black Racer swoops in and spirits away the soul of the departed (see, that’s how death is supposed to act) before heading back to his apartment for a boring rehash of last issue. (Seriously, how was Kirby planning to build a whole comic around this guy? It’s the most static premise ever—he doesn’t even do anything heroic, really. Was it going to be like an “EC” type comic where he comments wryly on the events of the issue?)

Fortunately, this only lasts two pages, and the next one is one of the most famous splashes in the entire run of the series: it’s a close-up of Darkseid at his creepiest, peering around a corner and delivering an elaborate internal monologue, the most famous line of which is “Yet they know better than most that war is but the cold game of the butcher!” Which, mixed metaphors aside, is a truly iconic line.

Again, either Kirby was improving as a writer, or the influence of Evanier was starting to make itself felt. Remember, Evanier was originally going to write the series, with Kirby being more of a project manager, shooting off the basic ideas. Honestly…that probably would have lead to a more polished series, and perhaps a better one. Kirby could have played to his strengths as an idea man and composition/breakdown artist, and left the prose and specific plot points to Evanier, who’s a more conventionally talented writer (at least nowadays). Evanier tends to downplay his own role in the Fourth World, but I think he definitely had at least a holistic influence.

By the way, this seems a good time to note that Comics Should Be Good just devoted an article to the New Gods (and another to Mister Miracle…will tomorrow’s be The Forever People?) and in it, they make a point that’s so obvious I hadn’t even thought to mention it yet. The Fourth World saga was coming out as America—not just the counterculture--was getting really, truly sick of the Vietnam war, and reflections on the futility of combat were becoming hardwired into the mindset of a generation. Of course, Kirby was a WWII veteran, as well, and he seems to have had a conflicted attitude about the honour of soldiering, but Darkseid’s little musing here seems to sum up the basic ideas about war.

Meanwhile, we’re back with “the O’Ryan mob”, and a lame mob it is. Honestly, I really do like the idea of a bunch of normal people having an experience with a cosmic power greater than themselves and being forced to become adherents of a War God, but these guys can get pretty annoying. And it’s ironic that, facing one of the famously best pages of the series, we also get one of the most infamously awful. This is the bit where Orion’s followers reintroduce themselves via the most hilariously clunky dialogue ever:

LANZA: But I’m Victor Lanza! An insurance executive! A family man! My wife makes me carry an umbrella in case it rains! And now, this! New Genesis! Apokolips! And things that would scare John Wayne!
SHANE: What about it, Lincoln? I’m Claudia Shane, simple but worried secretary! What am I involved in this time?—
LOCKMAN: And me, young but cool, Harvey Lockman!

Admittedly, I think Harv was going for a “hiply ironic” thing there, but man oh man. That is some hilariously bad dialogue.

Orion enters and lays out the plan: basically, they’re going to pose as a rival gang, muscling in on Intergang’s turf. This is, um, ballsy, in that exactly one of them (not including Orion himself) could pass as thug, and the other three are pretty obviously hapless bystanders. I do like that Orion’s first major mission for his followers is to rope them into a life of crime, though.

Asking that they place their hands on Mother Box so they can “see what Mother Box sees in her effort to penetrate Intergang,” Orion sends the four Earthlings a vision of a hatchet-faced goon and a glimpse of his thoughts. They catch that his name is “Snaky Doyle”, that he works for Intergang, and that he’s thinking of something called the “Jammer”, which is what’s allowing Apokoliptians to pass undetected among Earth society. OK, I’ll just say it: Mother Box is really getting to be an annoying Deus Ex Machina. She can do whatever the plot requires at any given time, and is virtually omnipotent when people are paying attention. But rarely do Orion or Mister Miracle or The Forever People think to use her to read minds, which she can apparently do. Nor do they use her to activate remote machinery very often, the way she did in the last issue of New Gods. Mostly she’s used to create illusions—which is ironic, since at least one of the Forever People can apparently do that by herself—and later she plays a key role in computing the Anti-Life Equation. And she summons Infinity Man, of course. With all these powers at her beck and call, the characters forgetting about her to further the plot reaches the same level of annoyance as Superman constantly forgetting his powers.

Anyway, rather than simply grabbing Snaky and beating the information out of him, Orion has a plan to pull a con on Snaky. You know, it’s funny—in virtually every non-Kirby appearance he’s made, including the current “Death of the New Gods”, Orion is portrayed as something akin to a late-90s character, all hypermuscled torso and teeth-baring grimace, and his first thought is always violence, violence, violence. In Grant Morrison’s JLA run it was suggested that Mother Box’s soothing beeping was the only thing that kept him from being a total psychopath. But of course, the character was never like that when Kirby drew and wrote him—sure, he has a tendency to lose it in the heat of battle (as we’ll see next issue) but when he’s not actually fighting, he’s as calm and calculating as any other New God, if a little on the grim side. The relatively elaborate trap he’s about to set for Intergang demonstrates this.

As Snaky leaves the pool hall later that night, he’s grabbed and held at gunpoint by Dave Lincoln, spouting amusing “tough guy” dialogue like “If yuh unzip yer lip, I’ll plug ya!” He frisks him and finds a tiny radio transmitter, which conveniently enough is just at that moment transmitting a message to Snaky to come and “baby-sit” the Jammer. Lincoln cuts him loose, telling him to let Intergang know that the O’Ryan mob has taken over the territory (what, the whole city of Metropolis?). Orion, of course, will follow Snaky from above.

Phase two begins once they’ve tracked Snaky to an old mansion on “a little-used sea-coast road,” where Claudia pulls up in a car and does the “stranded motorist” act. While the Intergang thugs patrolling the area try to help her get her car started so she can clear off, Claudia rolls up the window and presses a trigger that releases knockout gas that “Orion whipped up for this occasion.” The thugs are knocked out, allowing Lincoln, Lockman and Lanza (did Kirby come up with their names by pulling a random page from the phone book?) to emerge from the bushes.

Phase three involves Lanza impersonating a representative of the O’Ryan mob in order to make Intergang tip their hand, something he doesn’t seem to be up to. “You don’t have to play Little Caesar,” reassures Lincoln, “just his smart business manager!” But Lanza is still drenched in flop-sweat.

His entry into the inner sanctum is met with little surprise by Inter-gang’s representative “Country Boy”, who mistakes Lanza for O’Ryan: “We’ve been expectin’ ya! Seein’ that our boy Snaky practically gave yuh a road map!” Glad to see I’m not the only one who thought Snaky acted kinda dumb in heading straight to his headquarters after being accosted by a rival gang. Snaky’s tied to a chair in the office, about to become a cautionary example for Lanza, as “Country Boy” shows off his devastating…fly-fishing ability.

Yes, this is how “Country Boy” intimidates Lanza: by hooking the trigger of a nearby gun with his fishing rod and using it to shoot Snaky. Well, I guess Snaky’s still dead, after all, and—

COUNTRY BOY: Aaaaa—Snaky ain’t dead! – But he is stiff! Paralyzed! And our guns can get spookier than that!

Thank you, Comics Code.

Lanza, needless to say, is immediately reassured that he’s dealing with a bunch of complete tools, and grows more confident. “We know about Intergang,” he says nonchalantly, puffing on a cigar, “But not enough! Frankly, what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t spend a penny on!” Country Boy, being the easily provoked moron that he is, proceeds to immediately show Lanza the Jammer, which he accesses by pulling a secret lever and causing a wall to roll back. “The party we deal with can take this thing apart and set it up again in minutes! That’s organization and power, man!”

…Does it feel to anyone else like Country Boy is overcompensating for something? And doing a lousy job of it?

Anyway, that concludes the crime comic portion of the evening, as Orion immediately blasts through the front door and incinerates the Jammer with a quick burst of Astro-Force. At the same moment, Lanza lays a roundhouse blow to the nearby thug, who was in the process of pulling his gun. Well, what do you know…Lanza AND Claudia both turned out to be competent! Now if only Harvey had done something, anything, to contribute…

But anyway, we’re now leaving the Normals behind and following Orion as he streaks into the wreckage of the Jammer and into a secret passageway beyond. (Hilariously, the Jammer appears to be about as thick as a piece of drywall in this panel.)

Orion shoots down the passageway, while expositioning that Mother Box has now detected the culprit behind Seagrin’s murder: Darkseid’s underwater shock troops, The Deep Six. He shoots out an airlock into the open ocean, Mother Box providing an air bubble for him to breathe (seriously, is there anything Mother Box can’t do if it’s convenient to the plot?) and immediately comes face to face with Slig, leader of the Deep Six.

We’ll be getting to know Slig and the Deep Six better in the next issue, but for now, we quickly (a little too quickly) learn of his ability to mutate creatures simply by touching them, which he proceeds to do to a clump of seaweed. The tendrils reach out and overwhelm Orion, but he blasts free using the Astro-Force, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by a glimpse of…something off-panel.

“What does Orion face? It has destroyed a God—and threatens the entire Earth! Don’t miss—SPAWN!!!”

What, really? That was a pretty terrible comic and all, but I don’t think it threatens the entire—

Oh, OK. Different Spawn.

So, we now have all three of the “real” Fourth World books embroiled in a multi-part storyline, which, perhaps not coincidentally, seems to have elevated the level of the storytelling and the intensity. However, whereas this was a sudden improvement for Mister Miracle and the Forever People, I can’t help but notice that (with the arguable exception of the last issue, which featured the last-minute inclusion of the Black Racer), The New Gods flows extremely smoothly from the first issue to this one and beyond. Each issue is discrete, but the stories evolve logically out of the end of the prior issue, and there’s even ground being laid for future story developments right from the start. That Comics Should Be Good article I linked to above calls The New Gods the best comic Kirby ever did, and I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks so.

But then, I’m just Adam Prosser, simple but snarky cartoonist and blogger. What do I know?

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Forever People #4--"The Kingdom of the Damned!"


So to pick up where we left off last time I reviewed The Forever People…Kirby wasn’t the first to try to say something a little deeper with comics than “good will always triumph over evil!” He was, however, the first (with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) to really try and push “bigger” ideas into an existing mainstream genre in the form of subtext, and in the context of the Fourth World, Kirby grabbed that ball and sprinted with it. As we’ve seen, of course, the weirdness and action which were by that point ingrained in Kirby’s work, combined with the natural dictates of the superhero form, meant that this commentary often wasn’t particularly profound. Despite Kirby’s pretentions (in every sense of the word), the primary motive of the Fourth World is still to tell an entertaining story about dudes in tights beating each other up, and in that context reflections on the meaning of life tend to be reduced to laughably simplistic forms. Or else they seem awkwardly shoehorned in, especially when delivered in the form of wordy monologues. The demands of a visual medium and an action-oriented genre tend to overwhelm subtler commentary.

But not always. A talented comic book maker can still hit that sweet spot in which a simple idea turns out to have endless ramifications, both as a source of entertainment and a reflection of life or human society. The key is usually to find some new way of delivering an old archetype, one that hasn’t been used much before but, when tweaked the right way, seems instantly logical and resonant. And in this issue, I think, Kirby comes up with a very good one.

As you’ll recall, I thought that Kirby took an issue or two to really figure out what this series was going to be about, but with issue three it came into focus: it’s basically a bizarre cosmic superhero version of Easy Rider, with a gang of biker hippies trekking across a warped alternate America. What’s more—and this is a touch I simply love—most of their encounters seem to be inspired by roadside attractions. It’s a cross-sampling of the various sights and experiences you might have while motoring across the country during the summer of love on a quest to find yourself…or, possibly, while crammed into a wood-paneled station wagon with 2.5 kids squabbling in the back. You know, whatever.

Anyway, the last issue saw our erstwhile god-hippies visiting a revival show…of evil!!!…and getting captured by their nemesis and ours, Darkseid of Apokalips. They awaken to find themselves in another roadside attraction*, the sprawling theme park…of evil!!…named Happyland.

Here’s where that whole subtext thing I mentioned at the beginning comes into play. Plotwise, the story is that hoary old comic book chestnut where the archvillain has captured the heroes and turned them over to his sadistic henchman to be tortured or otherwise forced to undergo a test of endurance. In this case, the henchman is Desaad, and his torture palace takes the form of an amusement park. Again, an “evil amusement park” was nothing new to comics at this point—the Joker had been turning them into deathtraps for decades already—but it’s what Kirby does with it that makes it a gas.

See, Happyland may house a battalion of prisoners, subject to torments of all kinds at Desaad’s cruel whims, but they’re concealed by illusion. In the opening splash, we see a group of wretched souls pound on the glass of their prison, pleading for help, only to see on the next page that their screams and visages are concealed by illusion from the milling throngs of parents and children attending the park. For all they know, Happyland is just a fun place to visit on the weekend, and they’re oblivious to its true, nefarious purpose.

It doesn’t matter how bluntly Kirby drives the point home later on; this twisted setup is too solid a concept for storytelling, and too great a metaphor for the world as a whole, to be messed up even by ruining it as subtext. It makes for the best issue of “The Forever People” to date.

Elsewhere, unseen by the masses, Darkseid himself is paying a visit to the park, while the Forev Peeps brood on their fate in Desaad’s dungeon. (Since both the FPs and Darkseid were in the same place last issue, you’d think they would have arrived together, but never mind.) Our erstwhile Scooby Gang catches us up on the events of the last issue via some heavy-duty exposition, also informing us that, as you’d expect, Mother Box has been taken from us. But they don’t know where they are, until a medieval-looking type enters and informs them that Desaad is now the master of their destinies. “Desaad! We’re in the hands of Desaad! Darkseid has given us to that demon!” moans Vykin. “He worships torment!--Refines it to an art!” Agrees Moonrider. It’s Serifan, of all people, who’s actually trying to do something useful, by surreptitiously pulling a stun capsule from his hat, but the minions are too fast for him. They his him with a “Nerve Beam” that causes him to…bend backwards…and make a bored, pouty face? Well, I guess the Comics Code Authority was still going strong at this point, and there was only so much “torment” they could show. As if to drive the point home, the minions deploy a no doubt effective but curiously painless weapon to subdue the FPs: “Vertigo Grenades” that cause them to lose their sense of balance and fall down, to be dragged away to their doooooooooom.

Meanwhile, Darkseid is paying witness to Desaad’s attempted “murder of a Mother Box!” It seems that this is the first of the group to suffer his depredations, in the form of an electronic green warthog shoving glowing spikes into it. Mother Box “screams” and then disappears with a “ZZOSSH!” “They always do that!” sniffs Darkseid, to which the clearly unhinged Desaad responds, “No! It disintegrated! That’s it! I’ve made it commit suicide! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” Um, yeah, good one, master of torment. I have a couple of balloons you can make commit suicide, too, if you want to keep going. Darkseid is rightfully unimpressed. “Does the Mother Box vanish—or disintegrate? You don’t really know! Nor do I!

Desaad tries to get back in the bosses’ good graces by inviting him to watch the Forever People “thrashing around in his net”, but Darkseid has no interest in petty cruelty. Again, it’s obvious the guy has no interest in other thinking beings in any capacity, not even as something he can destroy for fun. Other people are just an annoying obstacle to him, to be transformed into mindless slaves to his will. Darkseid doesn’t crush you because he enjoys it. He does it because that’s just how things ought to be.

As if to emphasize his callousness towards humanity, he brushes off the vehicle he came in and casually walks out amongst the masses attending Happyland. “Grandpa!” whines a small child, “That man is scary! Make him go away!” Grandpa tries to reassure the kid that The Master of Evil is just a costumed character, but Darkseid is having none of it. “No, Grandpa! I’m the real thing!” Then, as the old man leads his sobbing child away, D.S. continues, “All young humans recognize the real thing when they see it! Young humans see me—even in “Happyland!” But you elders hide me with “cock and bull” stories to keep the premises smelling sweet!” Oddly, the old man’s reply is to yell “Fool!” at Darkseid. Um…fool? Wouldn’t “jerk” or “douchebag” be more appropriate? I mean, isn’t that the kind of thing that a quasi-medieval character like Darkseid should be calling other people, not being called himself? Especially not by confused grandparents?

Anyway, Kirby’s really intent on running this whole “people are distracted by the suffering of others by a theme park” theme into the ground, so we now get a series of vignettes showing the Forever People in peril while attendees remain oblivious. To sum up quickly: Mark Moonrider is trapped in a glass box in the tunnel of terror, but people think he’s just a fake-looking skeleton prop! Big Bear is enclosed in the shooting gallery, where the pellet guns produce intense vibrations that cause him pain! Beautiful Dreamer is immobilized and kept in another glass box, surrounded by visions of monsters, but the onlookers think she’s that “Sleeping Beauty” exhibit a lot of old carnivals used to have! And Serifan is hooked up to a monitor showing Vykin strapped to the roller coaster, his head protruding through the boards, where he’ll be decapitated if Serifan doesn’t press the pedal to lower him out of harm’s way every time the coaster runs overhead! Which is probably, like, once every two minutes or so!

…Uh…OK, these are fairly lame torments. Damn you, Comics Code!

Still, it’s clear that this is going to be pretty rough on the FPs if someone doesn’t come to their aid soon! But have no fear—Mother Box isn’t dead after all. As it turns out, she did in fact teleport herself out of danger, and towards the most likely candidate for help.

Who could it be? I bet it’s Orion! He’s on the ball when it comes to Darkseid’s schemes. Or Mister Miracle! He’s the master of escape, right? Sure! Or any one of hundreds of New Gods. Or how about Superman? I’m sure he’ll save them!

Well, no. Turns out…the FP’s potential saviour is…this guy:

…The ancient winds of trouble blow…inside the box?

This does not look good.

*© The Tragically Hip.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Mister Miracle #3--"The Paranoid Pill"

Wrapping up the final issue of the first omnibus on a high note, “The Paranoid Pill” sees Kirby getting more comfortable with Mister Miracle just as he was with The Forever People. The pacing here is better, the characters’ behaviour is more logical, and the idea of Mister M. undergoing a series of trials at the hands of his former classmates is better handled here than it will be even in the next volume.

Which is not to say it isn’t mockable! Here’s the awesome opening caption to this issue:

Sometimes, there are things that take place in empty rooms that defy belief, and so go unnoticed!!

No, seriously: sometimes things that happen in empty rooms go unnoticed. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

What’s happening in this particular empty room is that a Boom Tube from Apokalips is coming through, and a horde of faceless silver androids are pouring out. Kirby explains via caption that these are “‘Animates’ manipulated by the power of a single mind!” So you’d think they’d have no need to spout expository dialogue to each other, wouldn’t you? You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Not to harp on it, but this really takes away from the potential eeriness of the scene. Again, it’s kind of surprising that an artist like Kirby took so long into the Fourth World to figure out the value of just shutting up and letting the pictures tell the story, but I guess he was still working his way out from under Stan Lee’s influence.

Having furnished the room and placed a single, central “Animate” in a chair in the center of the room, we watch as the “mind-force” takes possession of this body and molds it into the distinctively bizarre form of…Doctor Bedlam.

And all the while, the exposition is flying fast and furious, explaining that the Doctor is pure mind, able to inhabit bodies at will, that he serves Darkseid, and that he’s here to subjugate Scott Free.

I know it hardly needs to be said that Kirby characters talk a LOT when they don’t need to, and much of what they say doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway, but in this case, Bedlam is literally talking to himself—the only other people in the room are the Animates, who only have a semblance of life because he animates them. But what’s really hilarious is the kind of stuff he feels the need to explain to the audience. “Here on Earth, by the simple act of lifting this primitive instrument men call a telephone, I shall begin the little charade I have planned!” Then later: “Nothing can be hidden from one such as I, Scott Free! Your telephone number is known to me!!!” Doctor Bedlam has use of a demonic Apokaliptian device known as the “Telephone-book!

Man, I want a whole comic just of Doctor Bedlam’s daily routine. “By activating the ‘tooth-brushing’ device, I can render my teeth, which I use to masticate food, to a spotless white, as though I had not eaten an entire bag of ‘potato-chips’ this evening! And soon, I shall evacuate my bowels into the toilet! It shall be as though the chips had never existed!

Splash page time! We cut to Scott, shackled into a particularly elaborate set of restraints that sort of look like an upright set of medieval stocks. Hanging above him is a gigantic granite block, which Oberon opines will fall in mere seconds…but Scott is barking at Oberon to answer the phone.

Who else feels bad for Oberon? I mean, he’s been in show business a lot longer than Scott, yet Scott pretty much instantly assumed the mantle of overbearing master and started ordering him to do menial tasks for, as far as I can see, no money. I mean, as we’ve seen, performing in front of an audience is the last thing on Scott’s mind. He just whips up these spectacular devices from common household items, escapes from them once, and then leaves Oberon to clean up the mess. Or else he’s running off to challenge some weirdo and leaving Oberon to worry about him. Dude, seriously, even if it’s your goal in life to be an escapist’s assistant, you have better options. I hear David Blaine is hiring. I’m sure he’s only 9/10ths the asshole Scott is.

Anyway, despite the ringing phone (and you’d think that a distraction like that could really screw up a split-second escape, but no, Scott Free is just that good) Scott escapes. Oberon takes the call for him. “That’s odd!” Mutters Scott. “I know no one in this area, Oberon!” Wow, that is odd. It couldn’t be that the caller is somehow…transmitting his voice an extended distance, using some kind of…tele-phonic…technology? No, that’s too crazy.

Scott takes the call and agrees to Doctor Bedlam’s terms of battle. By the way, Bedlam refers to his plan as “a charade”, and yet the villainous sorts who hail from Apokalips seem to adhere to a ridiculously formal and honourable code of conduct, as we’ll see clearly in this book. At least, they do when confronting Mister Miracle. Others have no qualms with sending genetically altered super-strong Jimmy Olsens to do their fighting for them.

There follows an extended four-page sequence in which Scott explains that Doctor Bedlam is a creature of pure mind, who would crush them were they not protected by Mother Box. They then proceed to hold a weird little séance in which they feel themselves assaulted by unknown terrors—Doctor Bedlam’s mental attack, which Scott provoked for some reason. Really, there’s nothing wrong with this sequence—actually, it’s kind of creepy—but it’s a little jarring to see Kirby spending so much time building up the situation. After all, in some of the earlier issues, major plot points were dispensed with via one-panel blocks of exposition. Here Kirby’s actually taking the time to set up the characters, and my knee-jerk response is, “Hurry up! Get to it already!” even though this comic is still way more compressed than your average Brian Michael Bendis story.

Mister Miracle confronts the Doctor in his ersatz office, which we now learn is on the top floor of an office building called “Chandler Towers.” Just be thankful it’s not “Joey Towers.” (By the way, let me say that I really like the imagery here and at the beginning, with Doctor Bedlam occupying an empty suite and turning it into a temporary office, just as his mind temporarily occupies the robot body. His entire existence is a series of redecorations of vacant suites.)

When Mister Miracle refuses to submit to Bedlam’s citizen’s arrest, he displays the lynchpin of his plan: a tiny, nondescript pill. Mister Miracle protests that the code of combat disallows Bedlam from tranquilizing an adversary, but Bedlam replies that his is not what he has in mind. Instead, he’s going to drop the pill into the building’s ventilator system, whereupon it changes into vapour and infects the “literally thousands of Earth folk” in the building with raving, homicidal madness. (I’m not sure that even a huge office tower is likely to hold thousands of people, but never mind.) Mister Miracle’s mission, should he choose to accept it—and he already has—is simply to walk out the front door of the building…which will entail getting past thousands of extras from 28 Days Later without, presumably, doing them any serious harm.

No metal, no gimmickry, no medieval chain or link for you, my boy! My world is of the mind!--And all the twists and turns that lead it to the pit!

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be seriously cool. Much better than that stupid “X-Pit” which you can get out of by pushing buttons, or even some of the heavy-duty traps he escapes from later. It’s a genuine “escape”, but one that requires him to use his wits and resourcefulness instead of just his manual dexterity (or whatever handy Apokaliptian technology he happens to have up his sleeve that month). And it’s certainly an escape that’s actually going to be substantial enough to fill an entire issue, for a change. Or even two.

Mister Miracle, overcome with rage, gives Bedlam a serious booting, but he’s already vacated the robot body in question. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the tower have gone crazy…COMIC BOOK STYLE!

BIG-MOUTHED MAN: Someone here wants to kill me!
CRAZY LADY: It’s the UFO’s! They’ve landed!
BESPECTACLED GUY: I don’t have to work here! I’m needed in the president’s cabinet!
SECRETARY: You ruined my typing!

I especially like the delusions of grandeur mixed in there. Nice touch, Bedlam.

A guy who thinks he’s being held prisoner smashes down doors. A security guard starts blasting away at “robbers”. “From every doorway—in every corridor—madness, in all its horror, spins into wild frenzy…” No, worse than madness…DARKNESS! KRUG!

“Bedlam’s Paranoid Pill seems to be working!” muses Scott.

Being a logical sort, Scott’s first thought is to simply fly out the window on his aero-discs, but it seems that Doc Bedlam’s sealed the building with “COSMI-CURRENT!” Meanwhile, a gang of freaked-out citizens, including a railroad worker for some reason,

have beaten down the door and are after Scott with drainpipes and whatnot. Scott manages to fly past them with the aero-discs, dodging thrown items and worrying that “one of them is bound to get lucky and…” Well, uh, not that I’d particularly want a vase upside my head either, but aren’t you, like, a New God, Scott? I mean, in “The Forever People” and “New Gods/Orion” they make a pretty big deal about how only Apokaliptish weapons can hurt them. You’d hardly think he has much to be afraid of from a couple of thrown bits of debris.

Nevertheless, it’s probably prudent of him to avoid this stuff, which he does by slipping into an elevator…somehow failing to notice it’s occupied. By a dude with a gun, no less.

With bullets ricocheting around the elevator, Scott hits the emergency stop and gets out on the 45th floor—only to be met with another howling mob. They’re convinced he’s a demon, because “only a demon would look like that—and dress like that!” Well, a demon or a Mardi Gras dancer. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The mob subdues him, Scott, of course, being restrained by his unwillingness to hurt anyone. They manhandle him into a trunk and chain it shut, the whole way shrieking that he’s a demon, that he’s dangerous to them, that they have to destroy him…and then someone insists that they can’t let him suffocate in there. So they punch air holes.

Um…why even bother? One way or another, it’s not like Scott is about to spend a lot of time in the trunk. And needless to say, this sudden care for his well-being is pretty nonsensical, coming from a ravenous mob. Kirby really should have just had them try to frantically stab him through the trunk, with the air holes being a minor benefit.

Anyway, proclaiming themselves to be heroes for ridding the world of this demon, the howling residents of Chandler Towers manhandle the trunk to the central stairwell of the building and drop him down, 45 flights of stairs, to the bottom. “I waited too long!” Thinks Scott. “The chances of my escaping from this-- are ten past zero!!!”

Oh, OK, then. End of the book, I guess. No need to—oh wait, it’s to be continued. But I’m sure he can’t escape, right? I mean, who wastes time thinking, “Gee, I can’t escape from this,” and then immediately escapes?

Mister Miracle, that’s who!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139--"The Guardian Fights Again"


Even Kirby’s #1 fan and bestest friend ever, Mark Evanier, has admitted that Kirby could be a bit on the flaky side. This tendency is illustrated nicely by the two-issue Jimmy Olsen storyline we’re about to endure; the fact that it got so out of control wasn’t entirely Kirby’s fault, but it certainly didn’t help that the guy was so easily distracted. Evanier claims that he and Kirby’s other assistant, Steve Sherman, were mostly used as a sounding board for Kirby’s ideas during the creation of the Fourth World, but occasionally one of their own ideas would slip through, and one of these was to have the then-immensely-popular Don Rickles show up in a brief cameo and insult Superman. Somehow—apparently it had a lot to do with a DC publicist thinking they could reap some major publicity from it—this tiny idea was inflated into a two-issue extravaganza, which was bad enough—but by the time Kirby was done with it, the original idea had been lost, and the whole storyline had gone way off the rails. Most excruciatingly, Kirby had for some reason decided that what the story really needed was to give Rickles an evil twin who was intentionally unfunny. Hence, Goody Rickels (sic) was born, and the moment I’ve been dreading since I started these reviews is upon us.

It starts innocuously enough, back at the Project, where Tommy Sr.—who, you’ve no doubt forgotten at this point, is one of the Project’s doctors—is on the verge of giving the Guardian a clean bill of health and sending him out into the world, the first of the Project’s creations to be thus cleared. The Newsboys arrive to cheer him on and berate Superman in a flurry of clichéd dialogue along the lines of “Make wit’ a little “koitsy” , will ya. Muscles?” (Scrapper) and “Coudja lower the flippa for Dippa, soul brother?” (Flippa Dippa. Because he’s black, you see. Oh well, at least he’s not spazzing out over something water-related.)

Jimmy tells off Scrapper, who responds with “AAAAAA, Pish and Tush, Olsen!” Pish and tush? I thought these were 30s style New York street urchins, not 19th century schoolmarms.

The Guardian is given “clearance” (In quote marks. Slow down with the technical talk, Kirby!) by Tommy’s dad, who nevertheless makes cryptic reference to something weird in the Guardians’ brain, something that they don’t understand fully, and which is apparently common to all the Project’s creations. Nevertheless, the Guardian is eager to high-tail it out of there and get back to Metropolis…even though he’s technically never been there.

“I was grown with the memories of the original Guardian intact in my mind,” he explains. Ah, the old Xerox-clone standby. By now, of course, everyone knows you don’t produce exact, fully-grown copies of people by cloning them, and really, most reasonably well-informed people knew it in 1971, too, but hey, it’s a comic book contrivance. I’m sure that the scientist at the Project, who are constantly creating beings that they don’t understand and either sending them off into the world or enslaving them know what they’re doing.

By the way, the Guardian’s claim that he knows Metropolis introduces a fairly major continuity issue. The Guardian’s original name was The Manhattan Guardian, but here he’s portrayed as a resident of Metropolis, not Manhattan (as are the Newsboy Legion). It reminds me of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, which included a new Manhattan Guardian, and explicitly acknowledged that Metropolis and Gotham City were fantasy versions of New York. I guess we can explain this away with the usual “Earth A/Earth B” nonsense (the Golden Age DC characters inhabited Earth B), but that seems to suggest that there is no Metropolis in Earth B. I guess.

Does it seem like I’m stalling? Oh, I am. I dread what’s coming, reader, dread it deep in my soul.

Moments later, Superman is zooming down the Zoomway, with Jimmy and the Guardian in tow in the Whiz Wagon…but without the Newsboy Legion. While musing about how people will someday learn of the wonders of the Project, Jimmy and the Guardian explain their absence:

JIMMY: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! They won’t learn about it from the Newsboy Legion! HA HA HA HA!
GUARDIAN: (Stone-faced) Poor kids! I’m sure they’d find that joke no laughing matter!
JIMMY: Awww…I can’t help laughing, Guardian! Soon after the Doctor approved your leaving he turned “thumbs down” on them!
GUARDIAN: (Still stone-faced, still staring straight ahead) Too bad! One of the boys came down with a cold! Too bad!

Man, is that the flimsiest excuse possible to ditch the Newsboys, or what? I mean, I’d seize on every opportunity to do the same, too, but it’s like they weren’t even trying. You can tell the Guardian feels kinda bad about it. That’s not going to stop him from getting wasted tonight, of course. I hear Metropolis strip clubs are the best. Let’s hear it for no underage accompaniment!

As they emerge into the world above, Superman suddenly puts on a burst of “faster-than-lightspeed” (!) and unsuspiciously races ahead. It’s so that he can adopt his guise of Clark Kent and play dumb about where they’ve been when Jimmy and the Guardian burst into his apartment. (You know, as much as people make fun of Silver Age stuff like Superman having a bunch of robot doubles to cover for him, at least it did allow for this kind of extended absence.)

“Another human original!” Exclaims the Guardian, shaking Kent’s hand. “It’s always an experience to meet one!” Uh, yes, and it’s an experience you’re likely to have many, many times in the next few days, so if you could just keep yourself from saying that every single time, that would realy go a long way towards not creeping everyone out. Thanks, Guardian.

Anyway, Jimmy’s gung-ho to get Morgan Edge based on what happened in the Wild Area. Clark insists that they should have “facts”, which Jimmy seems to implicitly acknowledge…even though they don’t really have any facts. I mean, other than their general dislike of Morgan Edge, how do they *know* he was the one that planted the bomb? Of course, if Superman is listening in with his super-hearing a little later, he’ll hear one doozy of casual confession…but more on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, the Newsboys are stuck back at the Project thanks to Gabby’s apparent illness. (I’m not sure why the Project workers insisted on quarantining the Newsboys but not Jimmy, but again, I’m not complaining.) Being bad sports, the Newsboys are about to reenact the soap-beating scene from Full Metal Jacket on Gabby before Tommy’s dad breaks them up.

“Kids like the old Newsboy Legion get kinda careful when they grow up!” Explains Tommy. You mean, the way they blasted headfirst into a potential nuclear meltdown last issue?

Meanwhile, Morgan Edge has arrived back in his offices at the Galaxy Broadcasting System as if nothing had happened. When his secretary, Miss Conway, expresses consternation over his abrupt departure last issue, this is his reply:

“Well, you see, I learned that Metropolis would suffer an atomic explosion!

Miss Conway’s reaction to this—I swear—is, “Oh, er--Clark Kent called! He said that Jimmy Olsen is back—and they both want to see you!”

“I’d have favored the atomic explosion!” Thinks Edge.

…Seriously, WHAT?!? He just casually admits to this?!? I’ve been defending Kirby’s writing to a degree, but I have absolutely no idea what he was thinking here. Where is the secretary supposed to think he got this bit of info? A gypsy fortune teller?

…And didn’t he fire her last issue?

Anyway, I’m going to assume Miss Conway has gone into a dead-eyed panic and is keeping up the pretense of normal conversation for the rest of the scene, until she can sneak out on this obvious sociopath. She quickly changes the subject to Don Rickles, with whom Galaxy is on the verge of signing some kind of contract, and reminds Edge that “we’ll have two of them now”. When Edge expesses puzzlement at this, she tells him about…Goody Rickels, on their research staff.

Edge gets a glazed look in his eye. “I remember him now! I’m chilled to the bone!” Clearly, Edge is a man after my own heart. He also thinks, “Demons of Darkseid!” which is the kind of thing I make it a habit to say a couple of times a day. But Darkeid cannot save him now. In walks Goody.

So, I think the point is supposed to be that Goody is Rickel’s exact opposite, and thus, well-meaning, idiotic, and unfunny. Having us spend more time with the “unfunny” Rickles may not have been the best plan, but then, the dialogue Kirby (and, I guess, Evanier and Sherman) come up with for the “real” Rickles when he makes his appearance isn’t noticeably funnier, so…

Why is he wearing a superhero costume? Because some guys in the office told him he was up for a TV series. Even though Goody apparently realized this was a gag pretty quickly, he continues to wear the costume for the rest of his appearance. But then, nothing else about Goody makes any sense, why should this?

Edge decides to make use of Goody for a scheme of his to bump off Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen, and after some grating hijinx on Goody’s part, Edge, with teeth-gritted, tells him he’s being promoted to reporter and sent on an assignment.

Meanwhile, Clark and Jimmy are on their way to confront Edge. They know the score now (apparently), and are determined to bring him down. They demand to see him! Nothing will distract them from this mission! Except Miss Conway telling them he’s not in and leaving another assignment for them!

So they go and cover the assignment.

Yes, I’m sure the fact that their boss is a homicidal maniac who’s in with an international crime organization run by a supremely evil being planning to enslave everyone in the Universe is a story that can wait until they’ve checked out this…

UFO landing?!? Are you $^%*&ing me?!?

So, even though they know Edge is out to get them, even though this whole assignment smells incredibly fishy, even though he’s freakin’ Superman and could probably find Edge in about two seconds, Superman decides the best course of action is to go and check out this mysterious object to which Edge has directed them.

Good one, Supes.

The park is bizarrely abandoned if this is supposed to be a real UFO landing—there’s not even police tape or anything, But hey, Goody is there! He’s already been inside the UFO and indicates that it’s empty, prompting Superman to step inside. At which point Goody presses a button, the door slams closed, and the whole UFO disapparates.

I really don’t get Goody. He’s supposed to be harmless comic relief, but this whole scene plays out like he was willingly doing Edge’s bidding in knocking off Clark. Except that once the UFO is gone, Goody sits around, shell-shocked at what he’s done. Tossing out stupid one-liners the whole time. Argh, what an exasperating character.

Suddenly, Jimmy, the Guardian, and Goody are attacked by…dudes. Like, random dudes. OK, they’re goons sent by Intergang, but why are they dressed like football players?

A three-page scuffle ensues, with Goody sitting around moaning and bumbling, accidentally knocking out one of the thugs by sitting up too quickly. Finally, the battle comes to a halt when a grim-faced goon grabs Jimmy and puts a gun to his head. This is the appropriately named “Ugly” Mannheim, who’s about to engage in desperate measures against our heroes. He’s about to FEED THEM DINNER.

Yes, really.

“Meanwhile, in a space-time continuum--far from Earth, the UFO, with Clark Kent inside, drifts in alien space!!!” “Goody was right!” mutters Clark. “There are plenty of buttons!” I have nothing to add to that.

Back on Earth—or under it—we get a quick scene of the Newsboys. They’ve managed to procure one of the miniature “Scrapper troopers” from a few issues back—basically, living versions of the little green army men—and have used him to crawl into the lock on their door and let them out. They head downwards through rocky tunnels until they encounter an underground river, conveniently furnished with a boat, which naturally causes Flippa Dippa to comment on how great water is. Man, that was close! We almost went an entire issue without being reminded of Flippa Dippa’s monomania for aquatic activities!

Did you think I was kidding about Mannheim feeding Jimmy dinner? Because I wasn’t. He’s forcing Jimmy, Goody, and the Guardian to eat a feast, at gunpoint, in what is probably the lamest and most needlessly complicated villainous plot in history. See, the food has been treated with “pyro-granulate” which bursts into flames at the slightest spark. In 24 hours, our heroes are going to go up like Roman candles. Man, that makes so much more sense than just shooting them. At this point, the Adam West Batman villains are rolling their eyes.

And as if that wasn’t enough, they then proceed to let them go. This is the cliffhanger to the next issue, but come on. There are about five million ways this evil plan could be thwarted, many of them involving just getting to a doctor. Or inducing vomiting. It’s like Intergang isn’t even trying anymore.

I’m tempted to say that this issue is a perfect example of all Kirby’s faults and weaknesses, compounded into one: his capitulation to corporate thinking, his nonsensical, half-assed plotting, and his inability to focus. Sorry to say, we’ve got a whole ‘nother issue of this nonsense coming up, folks. But at least we finish off the first omnibus volume with a cracking Mister Miracle yarn…

Friday, November 16, 2007

(Orion of) the New Gods #3--"Death is the Black Racer!"


OK, so I'm late by an entire weekend. I had a very important 3 discs of Samurai movies to watch. Shut up.

I’ve never been sure exactly how well the Fourth World books did in terms of sales when they first came out, and it seems I’m not the only one. The series was, of course, cancelled before its time, putatively due to low sales, but there sure seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence to indicate that they were both popular and much-discussed at the time. For example, in the afterword to the first omnibus volume, Mark Evanier writes how the publishers reported to Jack that the readers “loved all the new characters in each issue”, which certainly doesn’t sound like a description of a struggling book. This same conversation apparently also led to Kirby inserting a new character into Orion of the New Gods #3, a character he had planned for a separate project. That character was…Death, the Black Racer.

There are so many things wrong with Death, the Black Racer (whom I will hereafter refer to as DTBR) that it’s not even funny. Actually, it is funny. That’s why all those things wrong with the character are actually things right with the character.

That's him on the cover above. First of all, the “Black” in his name doesn’t refer to his costume, obviously, but rather his skin colour. Like much of comics (which tended to follow Kirby’s lead anyway), Kirby was belatedly realizing that he had been unfairly ignoring black people for decades, and attempting to make up for it by awkwardly inserting a bunch of black characters in his work, many of them unfortunately stereotypical or featuring “black” in their names for no real reason.

Secondly…a suit of armour could be a good look for an embodiment of The End of Life, but a garish red, yellow and blue one? And…and…


OK, so Kirby had hit the bullseye a few years before with a cosmic surfer of the starways, and that must have seemed just as unlikely…but…but…


Let’s just get started.

OBLIVION!!! I face oblivion!!! I am the quarry of a power that challenges all power!!” bellows Lightray in this issue’s opening splash page. Not wasting any time, Kirby’s introduced us to DTBR right off the bat, and he’s chasing Lightray for…no reason that I can see. I mean, OK, he’s the embodiment of Death, and he claims all things, and (in a nice bit of metaphor) even the supremely fast Lightray can’t actually outrun him, just outmaneuver him for a while. But…I mean, why is he chasing Lightray at this particular moment? Was Lightray playing with matches or running with scissors moments before? Because I don’t think it’s fair if Death gets to actually cause your death. I thought his job was just to take you away afterwards. Apparently the New God of Death is a more proactive sort.

Anyway, it’s time to check in on Orion, back on Earth. As you may have noticed, this particular comic is falling into a neat little formula: we start with cosmic goings-on back on New Genesis and environs, then cut back to Earth as the story starts. It builds a nice rhythm, with a sense of growing tension, as we wait for these cosmic characters to arrive on Earth and join or hinder Orion.

Orion’s still hanging back at the pad with his disciples. For the record, these are Dave Lincoln, P.I.; Claudia Shane, token female; Harvey Lockman, annoying teenager; and Victor Lanza, perpetually nervous insurance salesman. Quite a posse you’ve got going there, Orion. But at least they’ve been able to procure clothes for him! In only two issues!

Orion goes into the back room to change…in more ways than one. While indulging in a typically Kirbian soliloquy about how he has to hide his true nature and blah blah blah, Orion reveals to us that he’s not actually the good-lookin’ stud that Claudia’s been drooling over; his true face is one that’s just as grim and ugly as a scion of Apokalips. If you haven’t figured out what the deal is with Orion yet, based on all these clues Kirby keeps dropping, you may want to find some new reading material more your intellectual speed, like “Dick and Jane”. Or Spidey Super Stories.

Meanwhile, back in space, Lightray’s prospects are looking dire as he slams into an asteroid—but just as the Black Racer is almost upon him (“It is the end, Lightray! It could only end this way!” Um…how? On a planetoid in deep space, about to be taken by a homicidal renfest reject on skis? Yeah, how could he have not seen that coming?) a Boom Tube opens up and draws the Black Racer off to another plane of existence. Lightray’s rescuer is Metron, natch, who tells Lightray off for not thinking to do this himself. It seems that, in traditional mythological fashion, the only New God who has any brains is the one with “intelligence” as his special purview. Also in traditional mythological fashion, Metron’s kind of a pompous dick about it.

The Black Racer--where is he now? Where has the Boom Tube taken him?” asks Lightray, a question answered by the splash on the following page, where DTBR proclaims, “So, destiny has changed my course and takes me here—to Earth!!! Uh, dude, that wasn’t destiny, that was Metron. What was I saying about this guy being proactive? So first he chases Lightray around space for no reason, then as soon as he’s diverted, he just gives up and starts harassing the locals? DTBR apparently has ADD.

“There, below—a place of black men!” he narrates, referring to a ghetto. Yikes. “Those who fight to live—others who risk my presence!” He watches as we meet to participants in a gun battle: Screamer, dressed in a natty gangster suit, and Sugar-man, who’s straight out of Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song. Screamer is apparently a stool pigeon, and Sugar-man is, you guessed it, working for Inter-Gang. He ices Screamer (“Your last scream won’t be to the law!”) and then notices the presence of an onlooker. This is one Sergeant Willie Walker, Vietnam hero, wounded in the line of duty, who now lies in a bed, unable to move or speak. So Sugar-man decides he can’t leave him alive as a witness. He decides that the guy who can’t move or talk is going to rat him out somehow. Sugar-man is not a genius.

OK, that’s not fair. It also sort of plays out as Sugar-man being a douchebag who can’t resist taking out an easy target, or maybe even thinking he’s doing Willie a favour by putting him out of his misery. Nevertheless, he’s prevented from pulling the trigger by the Black Racer, who causes the gun to explode in his hand and sends Sugar-man running away, clasping his burned face. Um…so why is the Black Racer, who was so happy to arbitrarily kill a perfectly healthy New God a few pages ago, now preventing the death of someone who, we learn in a second, is pretty much crying out for euthanasia?

Well, it turns out, ol’ DTBR is about to give Willie a special gift—by inhabiting his body. First Willie finds his hand moving, stretching out towards the stranger—then he gets up, finding himself able to speak—then he tears away the brace from his neck and, as you’d expect, gets pretty excited. “It’s happened! I’m whole! I’m strong! I’m no longer half-alive!” At which point the Black Racer collapses to the ground and…dissolves? Leaving his armour behind. Willie, after a moment of befuddlement, realizes that he is changing, and…well, it happens between panels, so it’s not clear if he puts on the armour himself or it somehow materializes around him. Either way, Willie now realizes he is now the Black Racer, and passes through the wall to jump on his skis and head out to hunt the doomed.

Got all that? Because the first thing I thought of when I read this was Hermes on Futurama bellowing, “That just raises further questions!!!”

I mean…why does the Black Racer need a body to possess? None of the other New Gods needed to do this to come to Earth (though it might have been cool if they did). The new, Willie-ified DTBR seems to be just as invisible and intangible as his cosmic counterpart, and the old Black Racer was clearly capable of touching and affecting things, based on what he did to Sugar-man’s gun. And on top of everything, in spite of his claims to the contrary, he didn’t actually kill Willie! Or maybe the idea is that he…took Willie’s place…or something…but again, why does Death need a secret identity? I mean, things are dying all the time. This brings a whole new level to the traditional image of the superhero deciding he’s needed and changing into a new form in order to swoop off and do his duty.

I guess you could argue that DTBR is simply the Death of New Genesis and Apokalips, and that’s why he doesn’t bother with non-New God related phenomena. Although that would suggest that no one can die on either of those two planets as long as he’s kicking back on Earth. What a slacker, that Death!

Meanwhile, Orion (or “O’Ryan”, as his minions suggest he should call himself while on Earth) has donned the guise of Dave Lincoln’s new partner and set out to find the people who kidnapped the foursome in the first place. “It is best we do this alone, Lincoln! The others need not risk their lives in this venture!” “They lack the experience, at any rate, Orion!” agrees Dave. “Also, they’re a bunch of obnoxious boobs with no useful skills whatsoever, and I’m happy to get away from them for as long as possible!” OK, so he doesn’t actually say that last part, but you can tell he’s thinking it.

Orion and Dave use Mother Box to find the hideout of yet another branch of Intergang, this one overseen by a human gargoyle named “Badger”, who looks astoundingly like a cross between Telly Savalas and Fin Fang Foom.

He’s sort of mockingly consoling Sugar-man on his horrific facial injuries, then telling him to shut up as they go over the details of their nefarious plot. They’ve been paid to set off an Apokoliptish bomb in the heart of the city—I’m going to assume this is Darkseid’s fallback plan now that Superman stopped the Project from going nuclear, and man, that guy really wants to destroy Metropolis—but of course, Orion and Dave know an opening when they see one. Orion “literally smashes through concrete and metal walls” (as opposed to metaphorically smashing through them) and trashes the goons, despite their Apokaliptish weaponry. Actually, Mother Box just short-circuits them as soon as he enters the room, but they hold them off long enough to let Sugar-man get away with the bomb. He leaps in the van and drives away…but is pursued by DTBR, who’s swifter than any early-70s model truck. Sugar-man sees the Black Racer in his rearview mirror, but can’t get away from him as he passes his ski-pole through the truck to the bomb and triggers its, um, anti-gravity circuits. Of course. Because what city-destroying bomb is complete without an anti-gravity device capable of sending a truck flying into outer space? It’s just common sense, really.

Despite the fact that we just saw DTBR do this himself, Orion takes credit on the next page for levitating the truck with Mother Box, then blows it (and Sugar-man) to smithereens at a safe altitude. Hmmm…so I guess either DTBR is a glory hog, taking credit for other people’s work, or Orion is amazingly lackadaisical about letting people get away with city-destroying bombs. “Say, Orion, didn’t we just let the bad guy get away?” “Not to worry, Dave Lincoln, I’ll use my…um…magic box…to levitate the truck into the air…c’mon, Black Racer, you owe me one!” “Say, that’s neat. Any particular reason we didn’t use that same technology to beat up these goons from a distance instead of risking our lives?” “Dave Lincoln, I find the warrior’s fury growing in my breast!” “Forget I asked.”

A job well d…OK, a job done, the Black Racer returns to Willie’s apartment and changes back to the paralyzed, helpless Willie Walker, just in time for his primary caregivers, his sister and her husband, to come barging through the door, castigating themselves for leaving him alone. Which, yeah, I have to kind of agree, even if Willie’s brother in law mentions that they arranged for the neighbours to check in on him, in a truly awkward bit of retroactive plot spackling. The neighbours didn’t show up because they were busy with “all that trouble tonight!”, which sounds an awful lot like they got drunk and passed out, but let’s let it slide. The issue ends with a creepy closeup of Willie’s eyes—“He now knows his next quarry! Who is it? Him? Her? YOU?!?

I don’t know if the Black Racer reappears anywhere in the Fourth World saga—you’d think he’d show up every time someone died, kinda like the other DC Universe version of Death, the Sandman’s sister. He does seem a bit shoehorned in, which isn’t that surprising given that the comic was apparently planned without him and editorial suggested adding him in at the last minute.



Coming up next: the moment we’ve all been dreading, as Goody Rickels makes his terrifying first appearance…

Monday, November 12, 2007

Guestblogging--The Demon #1

And now, a special bonus feature here on the ol’ LiveJournal. A Mr. Paul Kienetz, known to those of you who frequent the Bad Movie Message Board as “Supersonic Man”, has contributed a look at another comic Kirby dreamed up for DC, the enduring Etrigan The Demon. Take ‘er away, Sonic!

The Demon #1

The sad fact is, Kirby's "Fourth World" titles didn't sell.  And so,
before long, they were canned.  He responded by thinking up a bunch of new characters, and this time, they diverged further from the paths he had worn ruts in at Marvel.  For some of these characters, he reached back to ideas that had felt exotic and exciting to him when he was himself much younger.  The most enduring of these new characters -- not especially popular, but refusing to die off -- has been Etrigan the Demon.  My theory is that he has endured because he is awesome.  When I first encountered this origin story as a kid in 1972 I thought it was one of the coolest comix I'd ever seen... and I still feel much the same way.

It's well known that Kirby was inspired in his design for the Demon by a Prince Valiant strip that had run decades earlier, in which the prince fashions a fake demon mask out of a goose, using the feet for ears.  And the tale of Kirby's demon opens in the same setting: Camelot.  On its final day of existence -- an army is at the gates, led by Morgaine le Fey.  We see a wizard, clutching a book to his chest...

(They shall not take what they are after -- Merlin and his treasured Eternity Book!)

Next we encounter one strong incentive to read these old Demon issues, though there are only 16 of them: a signature of the series was that pages 2 and 3 were always a single gigantic panel.  In this case, they depict the assault on the walls of Camelot.  Men, arrows, towers, walls, shields, horned helmets, battering rams, fire, fire, fire everywhere.  In these pages Kirby the artist did his utmost, and it is something to see.  "The fates were bringing an age to a close!!!"

An explosion rends the walls.  (BAAAAAM!!)  "The new names for [these forces] were not yet born -- and men still called them magic!"  Morgaine, having broken through, sends her men (and other, er, entities) inside.  (And what is the well dressed evil witch wearing in the dark ages?  A golden mask and a headdress bigger and gaudier than that of Galactus... yet pleasingly feminine.)

Her massed troops are thrown back by a single opponent -- "Legend would say it was a demon in the service of Merlin!!"  And at this point, unlike how he is depicted later, or even on the cover, he's got two-tone skin: an orange face and yellow scalp.

The Demon's fight comes too late to turn the tide... Merlin decides it's over and calls him up into a tower, gives him a scrap of parchment from a page of the book, and sends him away.  Then, with a wave of his hand, he obliterates Camelot.  (BAARROOOMM!!)  And the demon's hunched form straightens up... and walks away like a man.
(W-what's happening? All memory is leaving me! -- I - I)

And we jump to modern times and meet "Jason Blood! -- Demonologist!"  So proclaims a gnarled old man named Warly, whom Mr. Blood has sought out as one of the few more knowledgeable in matters of magic than himself.  He shows Warly the parchment, which says "Yarva Etrigan Daemonicus".  It turns out that "Yarva" means "I summon".  They discuss the great effort Jason had to make to track down Warly's well-concealed whereabouts.  And Jason gives his reason:

JB: "A demon haunts my dreams!  A demon
haunts my life!  But to find a meaning in it -- I first had to find ---"

Warly: "The true authority -- a true sorcerer!"

Warly's response to this seeker for knowledge is rather surprising: he uses his magic to animate an empty suit of armor, which then does its best to chop Jason Blood in half.  (KROMP! SHOK! RRUPP!)  He dodges desperately -- he grabs a shield only to have the suit punch its broadsword right through it (KLUNKKK!!) -- and can't understand why Warly has attacked him.

Warly: "You'd better know the demon well, Jason Blood --- or you'll die!"

Jason's answer prefigures the approach that Etrigan will end up taking with a
lot of unsavory supernatural opponents in the forthcoming issues:

JB: "Then let the flame be my reply!  Let the fires of the primal inferno give power to this burning brand!"

He grabs a burning stick from the fireplace and jabs it at the armor's faceplate.  The suit explodes.  (DZZWOMM!)  Jason falls
unconscious.  "Well done, Jason Blood!" says Warly... as he is joined by Morgaine le Fey.  Who reveals what is under her mask --she's finally dying of old age, and the only answer is to find the Eternity Book.  Her plan: to locate the tomb of Merlin by tracking Jason Blood, who will soon be called to it.  How was she able to identify him?

Morgaine: "His loss of memory ever betrays him!  It makes him hunger for his true identity!"

When JB comes to, the Warly mansion is a burnt ruin, and has been for years.  The cop who finds him attests that he's used to hearing weird stories from those he pulls out of there.

Meanwhile, at Castle Branek, somewhere in Eastern Europe, a statue comes to life and walks... a character named Milovic shoots at it with no effect.  He and a mustachioed gent in a goofy uniform resembling that of Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein only more colorful, addressed as "Inspector", watch a hole open in the ground and the statue walk into it.  Milovic says they should go in after it and destroy everything they find...

Inspector: "It was tried, years ago [...]  That's how I lost my left arm!!"

JB is at the City Men's Club, with his pals Randu Singh and Harry Matthews.  Jason and Randu are sparring at some martial art resembling judo.  Jason wins -- Randu noting that he seems extra fired up due to whatever happened to him in "Witches Brew, Vermont".  And while later artists tended to depict Jason Blood as a tall, thin, rather effete upper-class gentleman type, Kirby draws him nearly as heavily built as his
alter ego, only with better posture.  Harry's workout regimen consists of smoking a cigar and making wisecracks.  As they towel off, Randu says he's bringing a blind date for Jason to tonight's party.

The blind date is a blonde named Glenda, who is, er, built in classic Kirby fashion.  We'll see her again in later issues.  She is very impressed with the Jason Blood collection of art and antiques.  And... she notices that the paintings of Blood's "ancestors" all look exactly
like the Jason of today.  One is a Rembrandt, and Kirby, in a rather clumsy bit of writing, tries to give her an excuse to say "you referred to
him --- as if you actually knew him!"  But any minor clumsiness of this bit is instantly wiped from your mind by the following classic line, spoken while putting on a record and starting to dance:

Harry: "Let's get off the weirdie jive, gang!  Let's rock it!  Sock it! -- And send it first class mail!!"

Now that is unique and deathless prose.

Fortunately for readers who have sensitivities to prose, the party is then interrupted by a knock at the door... a stone statue.  It's about the size of Shaq, only with a head resembling an oversized gray watermelon.  With shades on.  Which fit perfectly.  It's also wearing a trench coat, dress shoes, and a cravat.  But no hat.  The statue delivers
a scroll, which asks Jason to come to Castle Branek.  Jason is downright eager to go.

Morgaine and Warly see the whole thing.  Not with magic, not with electronic bugs, not with telescopes... they've moved in next door and replaced the whole wall with a one way "trick" mirror.  You'd think JB would notice something like that, given that his pad is not a ballet studio.  I guess he lives a life where he's accustomed to the macabre and unusual, which would give ordinary people pause.

They don't even, like, whisper when they do their gloating over the guy who is still right in the next room.  And they're fully lit.  By weird
mystic smoky candles.

Jason and the statue ride horses through the town of Wolfenstag, people jumping out of their way.  It's the last inhabited town before Castle Branek.  The townspeople know that trouble is coming -- "The inspector
must be told!"  Cold wind, lightning, up a rocky ridge, across a long causeway, to the castle.  They enter the courtyard... and the gate is slammed behind them, and goons with two-pronged pitchforks (?!) jump them en masse.

goon: "The one who summoned you here must make himself known -- or watch you die!!"

JB: "Killing me won't be that easy!"

The statue, who isn't bothered by pitchforks (though they do stick into him somehow) clears the goons away from their target.  And that's when Jason Blood hears the summoning voice, and sees the opening in the ground.  It tells him that it's time for the awakening... and then it does something which would, in the hands of later writers, grow into a permanent un-eraseable contamination -- excuse me, enrichment -- of the mythos of Etrigan.  It speaks in verse.

"Cross the border where man's world ends! ---
Where time and space --- and matter bend!
That which feared --- and that which ran --
Was ne'er the kin of Etrigan!"

Passing stone faces and flaming stone hands, JB comes to a tomb guarded by stone gargoyles.  At the voice's command, they move and advance on him, snarling, then return to their seats...

"Closer --- closer --- Jason Blood!
Let thought run through you like a flood!
Powers that were --- are powers that be...
Like these, you live as part of me!!"

The voice ceases, but JB's eye is drawn to one inscription on the tomb... he knows instinctively that it is meant for him.  He translates it, and reads aloud the words that will remain forever a potent part of the DC universe...and as he speaks, he transforms:

"Change! Change, o' form of man!
Release the might from fleshy mire!
Boil the blood in heart of fire!
Gone! Gone! --- the form of man - !
Rise, the demon Etrigan!!"

Morgaine and her soldiers are right behind him.  She boasts that he's too late, her forces have breached the tomb.  (And what does the well-dressed evil witch wear nowadays?  Her headdress now includes a 'fro wig over a bushel in volume, and golden horns with a span of about 1.5 meters.  And a cape, which appears to be hanging not from her shoulders, but from the 'fro.)  And in the final panel of the book, Etrigan smashes through her men, scattering weapons and bodies willy nilly.  The events of Camelot are repeated in reverse.

"Demons cannot be stopped when unleashed!  What had been Jason Blood explodes with fury into the twentieth century!"

So what we're left with, then, is the loosing of a terribly powerful character whose real motives and desires we know absolutely nothing about.  We have seen him in action only when carrying out the will of another... as a free agent what he might do is unguessable.  All we can be sure of is that it will certainly make a lot of noise.

But Kirby's final narrative box does give us a hint... Etrigan will be "one of the strangest and fiercest heroes ever to battle the horror-cultures that have plagued this world since time began!!"  So, apparently, despite his demonic nature, he's going to function as a good guy. And some say that this is just where the series went all wrong, after such a promising start: in having him, all too soon, take on a conventional superhero role on the side of the good guys.

But, I ask you... when had any previous superhero ever been this wild?