Friday, August 31, 2007

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #135--"The Evil Factory"


In an event perhaps unprecedented in the history of the Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen comic, we've now had two covers in a row that fairly accurately depict the story inside. You know that can't last long, though, and sure enough, the cover of #135, above, bears little or no resemblance to the story that begins when you turn the page.

That story is even weirder.

Seriously, as strange as the story up to this point has been, it's been clearly satirical and obviously the work of an expansive imagination that's fully embraced the unbounded storytelling potential of the comics medium. However, with SP,JO #135 things get unmistakeably...psychedelic. I mean, comics of the 60s were undeniably being written and drawn by a bunch of buttoned-down middle-aged Jewish guys, who didn't seem likely to be altering their consciousness on any kind of regular basis. It just goes to show that some people are just born with their weirdness filters turned on. (Of course, Kirby seemed to have problems with his long-term memory in later years, too...but, um, never mind. Onward!)

The trippiness begins right on the opening splash page, with a gloved hand clutching a handful of tiny Superman, Jimmy Olsen and Newsboy Legion figures. But wait, these aren't the traditional figurines waiting to be symbolically crushed by the villain; these are actual, tiny clones of Superman and co. that have been bred in...dum DUM DUM...THE EVIL FACTORY. The caretakers of this factory are two guys who appear to have flunked out of Imperial Stormtrooper School. This is hardly the last time the Fourth World epic will remind us of Star Wars...

Awkward expository dialogue ahoy! "We have done well thus far!" Self-congratulates the shorter one. "As representatives of our forces on Earth, we must be ever precise with our responsibilities!" Yes, that string of words certainly sounds like it might mean something, if you don't read it too closely! Mmm-hmm!

This, for the record, is called "Maid-and-butler dialogue": when two characters talk at length about stuff they already know just so that the audience can be brought up to speed. It's especially annoying when it's something that the characters have no reason to be discussing at that particular moment, and when it goes on for PAGES, as it does here. I mentioned in the last installment that Kirby still seemed to be weaning himself from Stan Lee's influence, which is something I think he accomplishes later on; but at this point, he seems to be actively embracing all of Stan's worst tendencies, with none of his strengths. This whole conversation is just absolutely painful, and takes away from the jaw-dropping imagery being presented: besides the tiny Superman gang, we see gigantic machinery as only Kirby could draw it, supporting gigantic test tubes full of distorted humanoid shapes, and culminating in a hooded giant surrounded by Kirby's trademark energy crackle. Matter of fact, that whole array of images pretty much tells the story by itself, with only a few well-chosen words being neccessary, so how disappointing that Kirby choses to weigh them down with such utterly artless text. It's a good thing that, even in his late 40s, the King was a really fast study.

The two Invaders from the Planet of Exposition end their little rant by snatching off their helmets to reveal their true faces. (Characters who wear masks for no reason, just so they can dramatically snatch them off when appropriate, are another obnoxious storytelling quirk, but at least here you can make the case that they needed them to protect themselves from...radiation...or something...) The short guy, it turns out, is named Simyan and is a hairy, Neanderthaline fellow, while the other looks remarkably like a yellow Darth Maul and is named Mokkari. (And if you think those names are ridiculously on-the-nose, brother, you ain't seen nothing yet.)

In the meantime, Superman, Jimmy, and the Newsboys are still hangin' at the Mountain of Judgment. And hey! MORE Maid-and-butler dialogue, in the form of an internal monologue from Supes, explaining the events of the last two issues! Comics do this all the time, so I'm not sure why this is annoying me so much right now, but there you go. I guess I'm fed up with Jimmy and eager to get to the Forever People.

"You are needed at The Project!" proclaims the Hairy leader, Jude, and like that, they're off. The Project, we quickly learn, is a heavily guarded military base where genetic experiments are conducted--in fact, the Hairies are the product of military genetic engineering.

So, wait, wait. The army created hippies?!?

Yes, in a bizarre scenario that could only have come from the mind of an FDR Democrat WWII veteran with a fascination for the youth culture of the 60s (but no prediliction for drugs whatsoever!), the wild, mystical Hairies and the uptight death merchants of Uncle Sam are not only in cahoots, but seem to be working almost interchangably on a project that Superman describes as "very similar" to the Manhattan Project (?!?). For the next three issues, we'll be confronted with the confusing spectacle of grim-faced, gun-toting soldiers working alongside flower children for the betterment of mankind, through wild cosmic technology and genetic engineering.

Its, like, beautiful, man!

Remember how, a while back, I proposed that the Newsboy Legion might actually be clones of the originals? It's suddenly looking a lot more likely, isn't it? Especially since we now see that the grown-up versions of the Legion are here at the Project, ready to claim their wayward sons (with their mothers nowhere to be seen). It's looking more and more like a really large, and strangely incompetant conspiracy is what brought the Legion here.

Superman fills Jimmy in on the Project and the fact that they have cracked "the genetic code", allowing them to duplicate and manipulate "any living man". When Jimmy expresses doubt, Superman proves the truth of his words in the creepiest way possible. A nearby soldier removes his helmet and reveals himself to be--Jimmy Olsen! Jimmy #43, to be precise--that's his "life number".

So you see, Jimmy? The military has stolen your DNA and used it to create an army of slave-clones! But don't worry, nothing can possibly go wrong!

Any real-world "Hairies" reading this on acid were about to find their trip going even further south as Superman directs Jimmy to a microscope...and looking down the viewpiece, Jimmy sees a slide filled with microscopic copies of himself. I'm telling you, people, Kirby was absolutely not on drugs.

Back at the Project's evil opposite, Simyan and Mokkari are putting the finishing touches on their "organic murder machine", the hooded giant mentioned earlier: they're spraying him with synthetic Kryptonite in order to make him an unstoppable anti-Superman weapon. They report their success to the boss, who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be the same man...or creature...pulling Morgan Edge's strings: the mighty DARKSEID.

As I'm sure most of you know, Darkseid (That's "Dark-Side", not "Dark-Seed") is the archvillain of Kirby's Fourth World series, and probably the most well-known character to come out of this saga. He's a huge guy with a burly frame and a face apparently made out of stone (and a rather silly costume, but I'll get to that at a later date). He's also a highly memorable character--like most of the New Gods, he's prone to purple prose, but somehow, coming out of that stone kisser, Kirby's cosmic nonsense jumps up several notches to become a curious sort of faux-Shakespearean poetry. Darkseid is Kirby's second greatest villain, second only to a certain Latverian doctor/dictator, and if anything he outstrips Doc Doom in the evil department. There's an aspect of Darkseid's philosophy that Kirby really got exactly right, which lends the series a lot of its greater resonance--but since D.S. is only putting in a cameo appearance here, we'll hold off on that for now.

Simyan and Mokkari impress Darkseid (in the sense that he doesn't have them instantly killed, not in the sense that he betrays any pleasure whatsoever) with their creation, and by not pretending to be doing this for any reason other than pure profit. "Had you wanted mere praise, I'd have deemed you--fools!" But lest you think these are the first non-incompetent henchmen in comic history, their plan goes immediately awry when the giant smashes his way out of the containment area and goes on a rampage. "Kill to live!" he bellows! "Kill! Kill!" S. and M. (heh) are forced to activate their "penetrator beam" (geez, this is getting pornoriffic) and teleport the giant to the Project prematurely (seriously, cut it out!)

And like that, Superman suddenly finds himself locked in combat with what is revealed to be...


(Hmph) (Snicker) (Grrt)

OK, people? Freaks? You can clone ANYONE to turn into a monster and send against Superman. You choose...Jimmy Olsen?!? The weeniest kid in Metropolis?!?

As with Kirby's subversion of the whole "Jimmy vs. Superman" dynamic of the last two issues, this seems to be Kirby's take on the Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen, plus it seems like a chance to pit Superman against, for all intense and purposes, the Incredible Hulk. So, that's cool and all, but still--come ON!

Anyway, due to Jimmy's Kryptonite skin cream, Supes is quickly down for the count. But wait! The Project's been anticipating a situation like this! Well, I hope to God they haven't anticipated this exact scenario, because that would make them all deeply insane, but they do have an ace up their sleeve! You see, back in the day when the Newsboy Legion had their own comic, superheroes were going through their first wave of intense popularity, and with the comic industry never wanting to miss out on a bandwagon, it was decided that the Newsboys would gain a superhero protector--The Manhattan Guardian. (Interestingly, he appears to be the first superhero character ever to simply be a supporting character rather than the star of his own series. You can read more about this odd footnote in superhero history here.) He would basically show up any time the Legion got into trouble, give them a stern talking-to or something, and then vamoose.

Well, guess who the Project's been growing in a tank? That's right! It's the all-new, renamed Golden Guardian! Who has no superpowers whatsoever, and is about to try and tackle a Kryptonite-enhanced monster who just licked Superman in a fight!

Again, is the Project really that short on raw genetic material? You clone Jimmy Olsen--without his consent, no less--a bunch of stereotypical 40s brats, and a forgotten superhero from the same era with no special abilities at all? I realize a Superman clone wouldn't be that useful in this situation, what with the Kryptonite and all, but how about Wonder Woman? You know, the superhero everyone always forgets is almost as powerful as Superman, just because she's a woman? Or any one of dozens of powerful superheroes?

But no, Kirby's calling the shots, and thus the Newsboy Legion, and if they want to clone their dead benefactor back to life and send him out to tackle this (Pfff) unstoppable menace, that's their choice!


Friday, August 24, 2007

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134--"The Mountain of Judgment"


Kirby's departure from Marvel was somewhat acrimonious. According to Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones in their comprehensive The Comic Book Heroes, the inevitable "creative differences" between Stan Lee and himself played a part, with Jack feeling that Stan was hogging the credit. After all, Kirby was putting at least as much into the story as Lee, and Lee's major contribution--the dialogue--often seemed to be fighting with the story Kirby was trying to tell. The Fourth World books give us the first real glimpse of Kirby as writer, fully in charge of his own story, and based on this I feel that the guy's been given something of a bum wrap. I don't think Kirby was lacking in any of the basic fundamentals of writing, or at least, he wasn't any more than your average superhero writer of the time; let's face it, superhero comics of the gold, silver and early bronze age have to be judged on their own weird standards in writing, as with so many other things. I'm not saying that they were inherently bad, but they did speak their own rather bizarre language that can't reasonably be compared with, say, Ernest Hemingway, or Jack Kerouac. It wasn't until the Brits invaded in the late 70s and early 80s that comic writing really started to work as prose in the mainstream sense.

So by those standards, I think Kirby was an...OK writer. He certainly had a knack for a turn of phrase, his characters have reasonably distinct voices, and he usually knew enough not to overwhelm a panel with text. His dialogue is often problematic; Kirby just had no sense for the rythm of natural speech, like, at all, but when he put his mind to it he could do OK.

One thing Kirby was not, however...was Stan Lee.

It's probably inevitable that Kirby would make an attempt to write like the man who'd worked with him on his greatest successes. And Kirby could pull it off to an extent; with writing, as with everything else, he had a terrific understanding of the cosmic and surreal. Stan's Thor and Silver Surfer-style faux Shakespearean dialogue lingers in much of the Fourth World, and it's a fine fit; I'd argue Kirby does it quite a bit better than Stan, partly thanks to his growing comfort with pacing. But man...when Kirby tries to do the beatnik-style wiseass thing, or adopt the manner of a bombastic carnival barker, the results aren't pretty. Here's the opening caption to this issue:

BEWARE! Prepare for events NEW to ALL your past experiences! This is the STRANGE assignment upon which Jimmy Olsen and his young friends of the Newsboy Legion have embarked!"

..."New to all your past experiences?" Yeesh. And talk about a non sequitur.

The text in this issue also falls prey to a common tendency of Marvel work of Stan & Jack's era: the desperate attempt to explain something away with exposition in a slapped-on speech bubble. The classic example is in Iron Man's first appearance, where the yellow peril-type villain takes down Tony Stark's formidable new ultra-strong battle suit with a filing cabinet tipped down a flight of stairs; Stan, clearly sensing this rendered their hero just a TAD less impressive, added the thought bubble, "UGH! He weighted each of these drawers with rocks!" (Because communist warlords always have filing cabinets full of rocks handy for when they're chased by superheroes.)

This issue of Jimmy Olsen is unfortunately rife with this kind of thing, which is bizarre since Kirby was handling the text AND the pictures. I guess he was still finding his footing, or else he had gathered so much momentum that he could hardly slow down to clear plot holes out of his way.

And there surely is a lot of momentum to this issue. The whole thing is basically one extended car chase, starting with the Outsiders from last issue having a gigantic bike rally on the vast stump that makes up the public square of Habitat. Jimmy, in his mad pursuit of the scoop, is preparing to goad his new squad of Hell's Angels groupies down the "Zoomway" in search of the legendary Mountain of Judgment, apparently the home of the "Hairies" that he's been sent to find. The Outsiders seem excited and strangely philosophical (by which I mean "clearly stoned") about meeting up with this dread apparition, despite it having been described in the last issue as "...a THING! Like Moby Dick! You go out to meet it--and DIE!" "It can turn you chicken...or man!" opines one weirdo, but our freckle-headed protagonist has them under the spell of his vast charisma. Frankly, he's seeming more and more like Charles Manson Jr. by the minute.

A full-blown hippie love-in is on the verge of breaking out, until Superman shows up in his capacity as Official Buzzkill. He gets a few panels into a speech before one of the mental giants of Jimmy's gang decides he's heard enough, and tries to run him over with a motorcycle.

Let me reiterate: he tries to run Superman over with a motorcycle.

This has exactly the result you'd expect. Of course, it does accomplish something, I guess: once Superman realizes the kind of intellect he's dealing with here, he lets his guard down, conducting a casual, exposition-filled chat with a dude who tries to shoot him with a bazooka. Of course he catches and crushes the shell in his hand like it was nothing--but oh noes! The shell was filled with Kryptonite gas! Superman has been downed by a bunch of extremely dumb biker hippies! The Ignominy!

The clash between words and pictures is at its absolute fiercest here--the Outsiders are literally explaining stuff to Superman as they shoot him and try to run him over, and then--hilariously--as Superman passes out, one of the Outsiders pipes up, "Tell him some more about the Hairies, Yango!" And he keeps talking even as the clearly unconscious Superman is carried off!!!

Fortunately, that bit of unpleasantness behind us, we're about to embark on a much cooler portion of our journey--essentially, the rest of the issue (we're on page 6) is one long, frantic race down the Zoomway. The gist of Yango's little powerpoint presentation is that--shock of shocks--the Outsiders didn't actually build the bikes, weaponry or gigantic tree-mansions they've been using all this time. That was the work of the Hairies, who vanished an indeterminate length of time ago, but are still said to be holed up in the Mountain of Judgment. So, to the Mountain we go! As fast a possible! For no particular reason!

This next passage features our heroes indulging in extreme recklessness, to the point of idiocy, starting with Jimmy Olsen ordering the Whiz Wagon straight at a sheer rockface. Apparently he just "has a feeling" that it's a trick. And sure enough, it is! The Newsboy Legion and its various hangers-on go tearing through the fake promontory like Wile E. Coyote, only to encounter a long highway tunnel with a huge gap. Jimmy loses seemingly half his gang in the jump, but hey, they were just Outsiders! Given the level of intelligence they'd displayed earlier, Jimmy's pretty much doing the world a favour by removing them from the gene pool. (Actually, as Superman awkwardly informs us in another of those pasted-in bits of exposition later on, everyone's OK, it's only the bikes that were trashed. Yep, that's right. Only the bikes. Mmm-hmm. Keep moving.) Next thing you know, the tunnel's filling with water, which means it's time for Flippa Dippa to--

--Oh. Flippa Dippa. OK, I didn't really introduce the Newsboy Legion last time, did I? Well, they're mostly self-explanatory, and honestly pretty bland. There's "Scrapper", who picks fights, "Big Words", who's a genius because he uses words of more than one syllable, "Gabby",, and "Tommy", who has the ability to fade into the background. These guys are, as I mentioned before, the supposed sons of the original Newsboy Legion...though that doesn't really explain why they use 40s slang. When I suggested they were clones, I wasn't totally joking...given what we see in future issues, it's actually a pretty reasonable assumption. But anyway, since in 1970 comics were, like the culture at large, struggling to get on the right side of history by paying more sympathetic attention to black people, Kirby's included a new member named "Flippa Dippa". He's African-American, and he's absolutely, dementedly obsessed with scuba diving. How obsessed? Anytime someone mentions fish, or water, Flippa Dippa feels the need to throw in a "Right on!" or "That's my bag!" To remind us that he likes scuba diving. Because the fact that he wears a scuba diving outfit everywhere he goes wasn't enough of a clue. So of course, he's been given an excuse to use his sole useful life skill in both issues so far. It's like how the Justice League was always conveniently encountering water-based threats so that Aquaman had something to do--except that scuba diving is at least a genuinely useful skill in some situations, whereas Tommy and Gabby don't seem to bring anything to the table. Come to think of it, "Big Words" doesn't do much either. And even Scrapper doesn't seem to be any better in a fight than the others. Jimmy's proving very adept at attracting followers with very little in the way of actual talent.

Anyway, Flippa heads out underwater to clear the way with a "shock grenade", which he promptly sets off too soon, "and too heavy", sending himself, the Whiz Wagon and the bikers blindly down the tunnel, ricocheting off the walls. We give you ONE JOB, Flippa...

Finally they touch bottom again...and with scarcely a moment's pause, they keep going. Tenacious, these kids. But they're about to face the worst obstacle of all: DRUGS.

Yes, they've triggered some kind of weird mental defense that makes it impossible to see the road, and sends them "careening madly through a nightmare of Kaleidoscopic form and color!" Kirby gets experimental once again and portrays this via an elaborate collage of photographic images (which are unfortunately in black and white, thus negating the "color" bit). It's a pretty jarring shock to turn the page and see this...I can only imagine a hippie reading this comic in 1970 and FREAKING OUT.

Jimmy's forced to switch to radar in order to keep the Wagon on track. "If we blow it here," pronounces someone from inside the car, "We blow the whole assignment!" Um, that's one way of putting it. I would have gone more with "We're endangering our lives for no particularly good reason", but you've got to admire Jimmy and the Newsboys for their work ethic, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Superman, having been inadequately secured by the brain-addled citizens of Habitat, wakes up and, naturally, catches up with Jimmy and company in about five seconds. But something huge looms out of the tunnels behind...

Excuse me, I need a second.

It's the Mountain of Judgment, and here I must doff my hat to the master. In spite of its flaws, this whole section of the book has been a brilliant build towards the big reveal, and whn it comes it's genuinely jaw-dropping. Turns out the Mountain is a gigantic missle carrier--essentially a really, really, REALLY big RV, carved to resemble a gigantic Chinese lion statue made of jade, and at least as big as a good-sized apartment building. We see this thing in a double-page splash, bearing down on the Whiz Wagon as Superman swoops down to catch up with them, and man is it breathtaking. It so terrific you almost forget to wonder, in the intervening issues, WHY the Hairies have bothered to make their headquarters mobile, given that they have a perfectly good and apparently well-protected stationary home base elsewhere, as we'll soon see. But who cares? This is Kirby-land! GO! GO! GO!

Superman picks up the Whiz Wagon from out of the Mountain's path, but is quickly sucked into the "mouth", whereupon the Hairies burst forth to go over the Whiz Wagon with "Sensitive indicators". Here's where Kirby's attitudes towards the counterculture seem to do a sudden 180--the Hairies are, as their name implies, a bunch of hippies, albeit high-tech hippies with a bunch of crazy inventions and an oddly casual attitude to working alongside the U.S. Military.

I can't help but wonder what happened here. Kirby claimed that the Fourth World came about because of his desire to tell a personal story "with no bullshit", so what's the significance of this shift in perspective? Was the tweaking of the counterculture in the story so far something he did out of habit (comics, especially DC comics, hadn't been portraying hippies and their ilk in a very positive light up until that point), then decided that he liked these crazy kids after all and shifted the story to match? Or was this all planned from the start? Was the Dropout Society meant to provide balance against the more flattering depictions of the counterculture presented later? Was Kirby trying to say something about the promise of the free love era, going from confusion and anarchy to a utopian ideal?

Kirby doesn't give us any time to ponder this in this issue, as the Hairies have identified a bomb on board the Whiz Wagon! Yes, it turns out this was all a plot on the part of Morgan Edge, working at the behest of the mysterious Intergang. Jimmy and the Legion were to provide the instruments of their destruction, thus ridding Edge and his masters of a bunch of meddling kids as well as their chosen target, which is why Superman's been putting so much effort into stopping them. See, he's not such a dick after all! Except, um, actually he is, since there was no particular reason he couldn't have warned Jimmy that the Wagon was carrying a bomb before now. Why, it's almost like this plot twist was suddenly inserted in order to make the preceding 40 pages make sense!

You see why I sometimes get a little skeptical about Kirby's grand vision for this series. While going from the anarchy of the Wild Area to the peaceful, utopian Hairies may carry a major symbolic charge, we're also talking about a story whose plot seems to be made up on the fly at times. Yet, later in the saga, we see stuff that was pretty obviously planned out well in advance...starting with the second-last panel of this issue, as perhaps the Fourth World's most well-known character makes his first appearance ever.

I haven't spoken much about Morgan Edge, the new owner of Galaxy Broadcasting and the Daily Planet, because he hasn't done all that much in the story so far. It's pretty clear that the guy's evil, since he tries to have Clark Kent bumped off early on in issue #133, and he mentions "Intergang" as his bosses. For the past two issues, he's mostly been sitting in his office, thinking evil thoughts, as his plan moves towards fruition. Now that Supes has thwarted it, he's called on the carpet by his boss...and who is this mastermind? No mere gangster, it seems. Not even an agent of some hostile foreign government. No, Morgan Edge is the flunky of a force that transcends the human, or even the alien. He answers to no less than a god! And not just any god, but the embodiment of pure evil, a force that aims to eradicate love, peace, and liberty entirely from the cosmos, simply to serve his own unrelenting drive to power. A being so monstrous that he wishes to transform all life into mere appendages to his dark will.


Look, in a few issues time you're going to be really impressed by this, OK? Just roll with it.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133--"Kirby's Here!"


So it was, in August 1970, after months of hype and buildup, that Jack Kirby finally made his debut at DC, beginning the epic saga of the Fourth World and the New Gods that would forever leave its mark on the comics industry; the auspicious debut of Kirby's most heartfelt work, and one of the greatest stories ever attempted in comics.

In Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133.

That's comics for you. The sublime and the ridiculous don't just rub up against each other, they're frequently indistinguishable.

The famous (untrue) story is that Kirby had bragged that he could turn DC's lowest-selling book into its highest-selling one. Mark Evanier, in the afterword, says that it was actually a case of Kirby not wanting to boot any existing artist off a book they'd been attached to, and Jimmy Olsen was one that had no permanent creative team. So it was here that Kirby started to plant the seeds for the Fourth World epic.

This is pretty ironic, since Kirby was well known for rarely wanting to tackle other people's characters, or even return to his own once he was through with them. The story gets even weirder when you learn that the DC editors, unhappy with his version of Superman in an age when they were still desperately trying to stay "on model" with their characters, had some of the more traditional artists redraw his Superman and Jimmy Olsen drawings!

...Did I say this was an "auspicious" debut?

Still, when you understand what Kirby had to work with, the results grow a lot more impressive. Kirby immediately made two smart moves that revitalized Jimmy Olsen's book. One was to bring in his own Golden Age characters, the Newsboy Legion, and have them team up with Jimmy, which of course makes a certain amount of sense, being kid reporters and all. For the first time in this issue, but not the last, Olsen suddenly becomes the de facto leader of a group of misfits.

The second move was to reinterpret Olsen, and the book as a whole, as a stand-in for the countercultural youth movement that even the squarest of Americans were beginning to accept. Now, desperate attempts to make a character "hip" by dressing him differently and having him use modern slang is a long, ignoble tradition in comics, and in some ways, SPJO #133 is no different. But Kirby had a strange and sincere affection for the counterculture of his time--possibly due to the fact that they embraced his comics so warmly--and, interestingly enough, he seemed to understand them on more than a superficial level. What makes this issue immediately interesting is the way Kirby zips back and forth between celebrating the free love era and parodizing it.

Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion (who are actually the children...or possibly clones...of the original WWII-era Legion) hop into their Whiz Wagon at the behest of the shifty Morgan Edge, the new owner of the Daily Planet, to seek out the mysterious "Wild Area", home of "weird motorcycle gangs" and a "dropout society". This inexplicable (even by comic standards) lost land is apparently located...somewhere on the other side of an ocean, yet, as we later see, part of it is under Metropolis. Given the bizarre adventures Jimmy's had over the last three decades, I suppose being saddled with an amphibious, flying car and a gang of 40s-era street urchins and being told to find a lost civilization of biker gangs shouldn't be *that* disorienting, but it's still pretty obvious we're deep in Kirby-land.

Edge's reasoning for sending this gang of minors is that the inhabitants of the Wild Area, to coin a phrase, don't trust anyone over 30. Superman, of course, follows along to look after Jimmy--at least that hasn't changed with Kirby's taking the reins. (I have a theory that Silver Age Superman and his Justice League cohorts were so powerful, and so good at their jobs, that virtually all regular crime vanished from the face of the Earth in the DC Universe of the 50s and 60s, leaving only the crazy supervillains, aliens and mad scientists to cause trouble. The relative scarcity of these types explains why Superman had so much free time to play pranks on people, save Jimmy's butt every time he went charging off into danger, and try to kill Lois Lane. But anyway.)

On arriving in the Wild Area, Jimmy and co. immediately run afoul of a couple of low-rent Doctor Doom lookalikes on motorbikes, named Iron Mask and Vudu. "GO! GO! GO! Vudu! Death is fast! Death is loud! Death is Final!" screams Iron Mask as they charge into battle; the phrase "GO! GO! GO!" becomes a catchphrase that will haunt the rest of the Fourth World series, and makes for perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of Kirby's philosophy one could ask for. Despite apparently being seriously outmatched, Jimmy and his charges make short work of the bikers, and are promptly proclaimed to be the new leaders of their gang, in accordance with the Uncouth Savages Act of 1932. (Seriously, I love how nakedly Kirby transposes the "lost civilization" tropes onto a story about biker hippies. And the hilarious thing is that it works so perfectly.)

So when Superman arrives, he finds himself facing one hell of a generation gap. The "dropout society" of the Wild Area is one modelled on true anarchy, and here comes Supes, the very symbol of order and patrician authority. "The Establishment", if you will. There's no WAY this is unintentional, even though Kirby, admirably, doesn't belabour the point. Even more interestingly, considering what comes later, Kirby takes Superman's side in this sequence, pitting him against a bloodthirsty gang of militia-types who, believably enough, have used the Wild Area's lawlessness as an excuse to pull a Most Dangerous Game on whoever they can track. ("We dig only our own vigilante group! So--it's like you're doomed!") Superman, of course, makes short work of them, deadpanning, "Sorry, but I CAN'T play your scene!...[That's] something you should dig--but FAST!" Apparently his powers also include super-sarcasm.

Eventually Supes meets up with Jimmy, and here Kirby does something fairly brilliant. We all know that Jimmy attempting to kill Superman, or vice versa, is de rigeur in these things, and indeed, the cover features yet another depiction of Supe and Jimmy's unhealthily abusive relationship. But would it shock you to know that the events depicted on the cover--Jimmy, gleefully commanding his gang to take down Superman--actually happen in the book? And it's not the usual, convoluted explanation of Jimmy being mind-controlled or having amnesia or it being a shapeshifting witch from the future taking his form (that happened, what, every other thursday?) No, while Jimmy apologizes for this particular bit of the ol' ultraviolence a few pages later, the attack itself was motivated by Jimmy himself, in sound mind and with no real extenuating circumstances--and in fact, Jimmy's latent hostility towards Superman erupts several times throughout the rest of Kirby's run! The King isn't just following the standard tropes of the comic here: he's recasting the antagonism between Superman and Jimmy as the generation gap, the struggle between the counterculture and the establishment, writ large.

Heavy, man.

Superman is knocked out thanks to a convenient Kryptonite gun and wakes up in "Habitat", a jaw-dropping tree-city as only Kirby could render it, whereupon it becomes clear that there's more going on here than a few random biker savages and crazy hippies. No, some advanced force built this place, and Jimmy is determined to get to the bottom of it. But that's for next time...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fourth World Fridays: Kirby Would Call This an Epilogue.

OK, so here's the deal. I've gotten into trouble in the past for my comments on Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and their inimitable contributions to the comics medium. I don't deny for a second that these are two towering titans of the industry and the artform, that no one has impacted the genre of superheroes the way they did, and that their respective mark on pop culture is indelible. They're like Elvis: it doesn't even matter how good they are, they're there and you have to deal with them. Their offhand ideas and cocktail-napkin jottings have become canon. You have to consciously choose not to imitate them if you're working anywhere near their area. Their way of doing superheroes is THE way of doing superheroes.

Which is already getting into my problems with them: seeing as how I've never been much of a superhero fan, compared to most other comics readers, I sometimes get frustrated by the fact that this one genre tends to entirely dominate comics. And the reason that genre dominates comics is because of, yes, Stan and Jack. It's not like they set out to destroy every other genre of comics or anything (well, Stan played a less-than-noble part in the whole Comics Code fracas of the mid-50s, but let's not get into that here.) It's just that, partly through sheer talent and partly through luck, they caught an unstoppable wave that elevated a fun genre into something that it was never meant to be: the bedrock of a medium. When less visionary but more sophisticated hands began to work in comics in the decades that followed, they found a nicely paved and bulldozed patch of land on Comics Island, prepared for them by Stan and Jack, labelled "Superheroes"...but most of the rest of the island had been allowed to sink into the sea. And as a result, the medium has become a ramshackle city built, teeteringly, on the houses directly below, up and up and up, but rarely outwards--and down at the bottom, there's ol' Stan and Jack, holding the whole thing up. And as good as the stuff they did was, it can't possibly hold that much weight--which is why Comics Island has a disconcerting habit of collapsing every so often, forcing us to build up from the rubble.

So when I and others cast a critical eye on the Fantastic Four, Thor, the 60s Captain America, and all the rest, a lot of people can't help but start screaming, "Ohmigod ohmigod, get away from the foundations!!!! Just don't touch 'em and we'll be fine!!!" When, to me, this is more of a neccessary process of kicking the beams, finding them wanting, and gently suggesting we should start migrating to less developed patches of land.

The long and the short of it is that the churl, on rereading those old comics with neither an overt familiarity with the conventions of the superhero nor any particular fondness for the genre, might be compelled to point out that, say, Kirby's anatomy was often kinda dodgy, Lee's prose sometimes obnoxiously florid, and the whole enterprise given to a strange mixture of pomposity and goofiness that can grate as easily as it charms. Said churl--oh, what a scamp he is!--might also bring up the point that these lapses can't simply be forgiven as simply an improvement on what came before. Yes, superheroes were a fairly uninspiring genre before Stan & Jack, full of static compositions and formulaic storytelling, and the two of them expanded the possibilities of the genre immensely. But it's important to look at the full context here: the Silver Age Marvel stuff was following on the heels of much of Will Eisner's best work, Carl Barks' superlative Disney Duck stories, and EC's lavishly drawn and narratively sophisticated multi-genre works, any one of which is almost certain to be more appealling to the average modern reader. To act as if these two guys invented comics is to limit the medium terribly.

However! He cried, as the mob coalesced around him, this theoretical churl will not go unchallenged on this blog, no sir! No, no, I will, at the end of the day, defend the Kirby/Lee Marvel epics along with anyone else--their raw power and amazing creativity is unquestionable, and comics are richer for having produced them. Shut up, you stupid churl! Ha ha! Man, I hate that guy.

Seriously though, I hold Kirby books in high esteem, and recognize their value, as I said way back at the top. I just don't, y'know, choose to read them very often. That's my cross to bear.

But there is one Kirby epic that I not only will reread, but have now bought in several different formats to obsessively pore over in detail. That epic?


I used to be a real Stan Lee-basher, one of those guys who would go on and on at length about how Kirby did everything and Lee just rode his coattails. Of course, the real world is never so simple, and I'm now forced to admit that Stan contributed a significant amount, even if I still believe that Kirby was the true visionary. I mean, if nothing else, Lee deserves credit for being the man who finally snagged some credit for the hardworking, and until then, nameless, creative talent behind the scenes, turning them into celebrities and opening the door for some at-long-last respect for funnybook makers everywhere. The fact that Stan happened to be one of those funnybook men, and that he dined out on his newfound celebrity more than anyone, in no way diminishes his accomplishment.

Still, it was Kirby whose genius ultimately won me over, and I think it's Kirby alone who captured that bizarre spark of wonder that others seem to find so readily in their joint work. Because, simply put, I love the Fourth World. I love it. I adore it. When I grow up, I want to marry it. I want to french kiss it and have its babies.

Is it often silly? Sure. Is the dialogue often stagey? You bet! Does it feature Vince Colletta's substandard inks for the first few issues of the run? Obviously. Does it smack of a 50-year-old trying to speak to The Youth Of The Day across an abyssal generation gap? To ask is to know. Did he make the damn thing up as he went along? It's entirely possible.

Doesn't matter. Unlike the Marvel Masterworks, I can completely overlook all flaws in The Fourth World saga. Because when it's on, man, there's just something that leaps across 4 decades of radical shifts in comics storytelling and just downloads a pure jolt of Jungian madness into your forebrain.

I recently purchased the Fourth World Omnibus, Volume one, a gorgeous full-colour hardcover edition reprinting the first 14 issues of the saga, in the order they were published (I think--anyway, it's the order they were meant to be read). I own some of these in individual form, as well as a Jimmy Olsen collection and that unfortunate black and white paperback collection of the New Gods, but this is how these stories were meant to be read--literally, in fact, since Kirby (in one of his many astounding leaps of prescience) foresaw the day when comics would be collected and sold as book-form collections.

The foreword to that black-and-white collection, which also happens to be a neat encapsulation of the history of the project, can be read at Mark Evanier's blog. Reading it, it becomes obvious that Kirby really did see the future of the comics industry. It's too bad that he was so far ahead of his time that he never managed to profit substantially from his innovations.

So, for this reason, I've decided to take an in-depth look at the Fourth World, issue by issue. In honour of the King, I give you: Fourth World Fridays. Every friday, I'll be reviewing one issue from this collection (and eventually, the next, and the next), poring over it as much as possible. No doubt this will be a bit schizophrenic, as I swing from mockery to admiration, trying to figure out just what was going through the guy's head. But at the end of the day, this is a story that rewards careful examination.

Next friday, we begin with Jimmy Olsen #133, Kirby's first salvo at DC, and a pretty good encapsulation of the project as a whole. GO! GO! GO!