Friday, December 19, 2008

The Hunger Dogs, Part Two


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I’m not joking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Hunger Dogs, Part One


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he wanted to, Kirby could sure leave toothmarks.

(THE HUNGER DOGS article will conclude next week.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I'm Actually In Hiding From Devilance.

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

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

Friday, September 12, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Megaforce, eat your heart out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Pause Before the Big Finale...

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

Friday, August 29, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens next:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2008

We apologise for the interruption...

I have to skip Fourth World Fridays this week--I'm busy at the Toronto Fan Expo. I'll be at the Durham Comics Guild table--please stop by and say hello!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mister Miracle #15-17--“The Real Big Barda”/”Super Trouble”/ “Murder Lodge”


The transformation of Mister Miracle into a standard-issue DC superhero sort of worked, and sort of didn’t. In a sense, yeah, he fit in from the start—a relatively angst-free, iconic character surrounded by assitants and a faithful Girl Friday/unacknowledged love interest. Even the fact that he’s literally a “god” plays into the common perception of DC’s characters as mythological entities. And yet…this was still a Kirby book, and as a result it almost couldn’t help sticking out.

DC, in the 70s, was in a bit of an awkward spot. Despite what a lot of people assume, Marvel didn’t outpace DC in the sales department until the very end of the 60s; in fact, DC’s fatal flaw was in underestimating this upstart company. For most of this era, DC continued to grind out the kind of goofy, kid-oriented stories we associate with the Silver Age…and they were rewarded for it. Marvel’s audience skewed older and was more passionate about their product, whereas DC was a reliable publisher of ephemeral entertainment for young kids. In fact, I’ve actually heard it suggested that DC’s mistake was abandoning this kid’s stuff in the first place, that while Marvel’s growing popularity would have outstripped them anyway, DC could have continued to corner the younger kid’s market and thus weathered the storm up until the present day. Certainly, by the 80s, DC was regaining a bit of its luster by writing old-fashioned, optimistic, (mostly) kid-friendly superhero stories, thus distinguishing themselves from the increasingly “grim ‘n’ gritty” Marvel.

But in the 70s, it seemed that a change was needed, yet none of the top brass at this old-school, incredibly square publisher knew exactly what that was. Some interesting DC comics came out of this era, many of them involving Neal Adams, but it was the wrong time to launch new books; Marvel had had the advantage of being a small, scrappy publisher under the Aegis of an artist-friendly management during a time of relative economic stability, whereas DC was a conservative publisher with a fusty brand that hadn’t been updated in decades, hitting the skids during a time when a revolution in youth culture was affecting all areas of entertainment. They needed a new direction, but they couldn’t afford to stick with the new and more experimental books that might have carried them in the long term. And The Fourth World was a victim of that.

Still, it’s kind of weird to watch Mister Miracle regress to the point of gaining a kid sidekick--possibly the last superhero ever to try and use this schtick to appeal to new readers. I guess the fact that the kid in question was black was supposed to provide a new, hip take on the old formula, but it was still a bad idea, and I doubt it was Kirby’s. He may have been an old hand even then, but his work was all about looking to the future, not rehashing old, formerly-successful conceits.

At any rate, with issue #15 we meet Mister Miracle Jr., Shilo Norman. Incidentally, this issue doesn’t seem to have an official title, but it’s broken into chapter headings, one of which—“The Real Big Barda”—is referenced in the previous issue as the overall title, so that’s the one I’m going with. (Did that make sense? Because that title sure doesn’t.)

I mentioned earlier that I felt Kirby improved as a writer as he went on…but this particular issue sees him backsliding something awful into his “tell, don’t show” habits of the earlier issues. The first couple of chapters each open with a narration box that seems to pitch the concept of the story to us, like we were studio executives:

“Although this incident contains the bizarre elements that characterize the exploits of our hero, this is essentially a detective saga—the fast and thrilling attempt to stop a crime about to be committed in the wildest way with the wildest weapons.” (That’s all [sic]. Kirby has discovered periods.)

A police detective named Driver arrives, young Shilo in tow, at Mister M’ house as he rehearses his latest stunt: to escape from a metal cylinder before it’s crushed in a giant nutcracker wielded by Barda. And yes, the symbolism of Scott’s super-strong girlfriend wielding a nutcracker is not lost on me. By the way, Barda here is wearing an outfit that evokes her classic red metal bikini:

…But she changes back to street clothes pretty fast. Seriously, was this an editorial edict? An early example of “depowering the heroine so as not to make girl-fearing geeks nervous”?

Anyway, Scott escapes (yawn) and Driver, after dutifully registering his astonishment, explains why he’s here. Shilo is a witness to a murder—that of his own brother, as it turns out—and his testimony will be crucial in bringing down a local mobster named Mister Fez. Fez is clearly in with Intergang, though with the Fourth World stuff being played down as heavily as it was at this point, it’s never explicitly mentioned. Given Shilo’s importance, they obviously would like to rub him out, something they attempt to do almost immediately, with an anonymous hooded mobster chucking a grenade in through the window. Shilo shows his spunk by picking it up and throwing it back again, but the grenade doesn’t go off—Scott already neutralized it with his hidden gadgetry and blah blah blah. The point is, Shilo’s got spunk, and Scott and co. are obviously capable of protecting him.

Meanwhile, we meet Mr. Fez:

He’s building a gigantic gun that will “jam the brains” of the hotel residents next door, enabling him to loot their pockets while they’re unconscious. Shilo’s brother was one of their drivers, who saw too much of what they were doing—that’s why he had to be killed.

Back at Casa Del Free, Shilo is somewhat grumpily being put to bed, but Scott and Barda suspect something’s up, and wait outside his door. Sure enough, Shilo does the old tie-the-bedsheets-together dodge and escapes out the window, headed out to confront his brother’s murderers. Obviously this is a deliberate “don’t Narc to the police” moment, which is a nice bit of characterization, but it’s still pretty suicidal on Shilo’s part, even if we are hastily informed that he’s a Judo expert. Fortunately, Scott and Barda are on his tail, and pitch in to help him clean up the assortment of faceless hoods. Less fortunately, the heroic duo are promptly taken out by a smaller brain-jamming gun (Wielded by a guy named, um, Jammer) and Shilo is strapped across the barrel of the huge cannon. Oh no! They’re going to…brain-jam…his torso…to death!

Um, that part my not have been too well-thought-out.

At this point I don’t even have to mention that Scott and Barda were only pretending to be unconscious, do I? And Scott used his circuitry to block the brain-jamming? And that Barda saves the day by ripping up the cannon, while Scott disarms Mr. Fez? Oh yes indeed:

Yes, Scott. You’re special. You’re very, very special. Good for you.

Anyway, the cops arrive to mop up the scene, and despite some simmering resentment, Shilo sees that Mr. M and Barda saved his ass, so he agrees to be Scott’s apprentice and learn the escape arts… “Lieutenant Driver—I think you’ve bullied Shilo into a career!” proclaims Scott. And on that happy note, we end the issue.

OK, this is a really weird one. Shilo is getting his first lesson in escape artistry when he sees, well, this:

…When did Scott become such a prick? “Yeah, yeah, Shilo. Giant insect-man, standing right behind me. You crazy murder-witnessing ghetto kids are always having elaborate hallucinations, aren’t you? Ha ha! But it’s nothing I can’t casually dismiss for no particular reason, despite all the insanely weird stuff I’ve encountered over the course of my brief career.”

As is required by this kind of scenario, none of the others believe Shilo, either. The insect-thing materializes and dematerializes several times, and Shilo gets so frustrated that he…somehow escapes from the hand-shackles Scott had put him in. Distracted momentarily by his success, Shilo forgets what jerks the others are being…until the bug materializes again and ropes in Barda and Oberon before disappearing. With them gone, Scott starts to take Shilo a little more seriously. Playing a hunch, he activates some circuitry in his glove and detects some nearby “infinitely tiny footprints”—you see, the bug-thing is rapidly growing and shrinking, rather than teleporting, and it’s shrunk Oberon and Barda down to near-microscopic size.

Wait…Scott got all that on a “hunch”? After not believing a word of it a moment ago? That’s some hunch!

The next time the insect appears, Shilo jumps him and is shrunk down alongside him. He manages to overpower the bug with his patented, Austin Powers-style Judo CHOP, but it gets away and now Shilo’s lost in a subterranean world of bug-people.

Um…I’ll spare you the gory details. Shilo uses his various newly-acquired gadgets to fight off various bug-monsters, until he comes face to face with this guy:

Yes, a tiny mad scientist who’s breeding bug people is the culprit. Of course.

He traps Shilo by the novel trick of enlarging him until he’s pinned by the tunnel, unable to move. Professor Egg then steals his superior molecules to use in another one of his insectile creations, one which hatches looking like this:

Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be an Afro.

You can see how this is going to play out, right? Shilo escapes and vanquishes the bug that kinda looks like him, thereby demonstrating his worth as a budding escape artist and overcoming his symbolic shadow-self. Right?

Well, no. What actually happens is that…it all turns out to be a dream.

Yes. Seriously. He banged his head on some crates while he was leaping around, chasing the giant bug, and everything since has just been a dream. But wait—if that part was all in Shilo’s head, what about the giant bug itself?

Oh, you’re not going to believe this. Turns out they have a visitor:

So…he thought the polite thing to do would be to torment Shilo with visions of giant insects before they’d even been properly introduced? And how did Shilo see him in his visions before they’d even met? Or was the whole dream part of Professor “Exe”’s little gag as well? Because that’s one elaborately nasty prank to pull on a kid. And is that supposed to explain why Scott and co. were all blowing him off before? Damn, Shilo, you were right to run away from home last issue.

Another interesting point—again we have elements of the Fourth World showing up without being acknowledged as such. In this case, it’s the Evil Factory/Brigadoom all over again, except this time it’s a totally different evil scientist creating genetic horrors in a microscopic hideout. And, leave us not forget, this time it’s just a dream. Never forget that.

Think that was contrived? Would you believe that the next issue is even more so? Albeit in a hilarious, rather than infuriating, way?

The series seemed to be regressing as it went, to the point where Kirby’s now swiping from Abbot and Costello movies. Mister Miracle, Barda and Shilo once again blunder into danger, this time while their car breaks down in the middle of a tour. Of course this happens in a backwoods somewhere, and of course it’s run by this guy:

He’s just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.

Shilo makes the connection that widow’s peak + heavy eyebrows + devil beard + rubbing hands together in anticipation = EEEEEEEEEEVIL, but Barda admonishes him for judging people by their appearance. Ah, yes, but Barda, you’re in a comic book. Of course people who look evil turn out to be evil. By the way, note the classic “if we have the characters point out how clichéd this is, it’s not clichéd anymore!” trope.

In fact, no sooner have they laid down in their beds than Barda is electrocuted and Scott is dumped down a chute. Shilo, who with his RAMPANT PARANOIA avoided getting into bed right away, is spared long enough for the sinister dude—his name’s Peppi, believe it or not—to come barging in and start swiping at him with a sledgehammer. Shilo puts him out with a judo CHOP and then finds himself running a gamut of traps, proving that he finally did learn something about escape artistry. Finally, he’s thrown into the “Inferno Room”, which is basically a gigantic, fiery oven, by Peppi’s hulking assistant, Mungo. Shilo escapes, unconvincingly, by using his jet boots to instantly put out the roaring inferno (somehow he’s not troubled by the metal walls, which must have been white-hot even after the flames went out). He escapes and frees Scott and Barda.

Meanwhile, we check in with Peppi and Mungo, and we learn exactly what’s going on here. See, they run this motor lodge as a trap for runaway mob informants, and they kill them and collect the contracts the crime syndicates put out on them (so they’re Intergang agents, again, sort of). But…the motor lodge is said to be in the middle of nowhere. I can’t imagine sitting there in the middle of nowhere, hoping that people who are wanted by the mob will just happen to blunder in, was a particularly lucrative business until now. But if you think coincidences are starting to lay a little thick on the ground, wait until you see this:

Yes. Seriously. You saw that.

Peppi and Mungo were actually angling for a criminal gang who just happen to consist of an Amazonian brunette, an African-American dwarf, and a bandaged guy who sort of resembles Mr. Miracle. Unbelievable. It’s more and more clear to me that Kirby was using plots he’d conceived of before the order came down to prune the Fourth World elements, because just having Peppi and Mungo be Intergang agents would have allowed them to try and whack Mr. M, no further explanation necessary.

But then, of course, this issue wouldn’t have been anywhere near as gloriously insane.

Mister Miracle and his coterie burst in, Peppi puts out the lights, and a three-way battle ensues, involving a lot of blind firing with tommy-guns. Mister M. gets to do the only thing that comes close to an actual escape by dodging “Mad Merkin”’s bullets and rounding up Peppi (and Mungo, off panel). Shilo socks Little Bullets, and Barda takes on Della with a filing cabinet:

Thus it is that the police arrive to find “a festival of felons!” tied up and ready to be imprisoned. And they would have got away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!

As you can see, Shilo pretty much took over the book for these three issues. Again, I suspect this was an example of the editors flailing around a bit desperately—“Marvel has all these hip books with kid protagonists! Do that!” Although that doesn’t really explain why the teen-oriented Forever People were cancelled—but maybe their whole flower power schtick was seen as out-of-date in ‘73. At any rate, even with only three issues of a failing book, Shilo became an established figure in the DCU, popping up here and there over the years. Most recently, in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers miniseries, Shilo has actually become the new Mister Miracle and is a huge, worldwide celebrity, while Scott and the other New Gods have all mysteriously gone missing (which is thematically appropriate, given Shilo’s role in the original series). Like many other Fourth World elements, Shilo’s apparently playing a major role in the current “Final Crisis”.

But back to 1973. With only one issue of Mister Miracle left, it would seem the whole enterprise was about to end with a whimper rather than a bang. Fortunately, Kirby was able to give his characters something resembling a proper send-off…

Friday, August 8, 2008

Mister Miracle #12-14--"Mystivac"/"The Dictator's Dungeon"/"The Quick and the Dead!"


So here it is: the beginning of Mr. Miracle’s ignominious descent into (gasp) (choke) working for a living.

The comic lasted another seven issues beyond The New Gods and The Forever People, but it took a distinctly different tack. From this point on—except for the final issue—Mister Miracle was transformed into a far more conventional superhero book. And a DC superhero book, no less. That means less sprawling continuity, angst, and edginess and more arbitrary standalone adventures involving Scott foiling the schemes of bizarre but solidly terrestrial supervillains. Oh, and a teen sidekick. But we’ll get to that.

Since the Fourth World doesn’t play much of a role in these next six issues, I’m going to run through them fairly quickly. That’s not to say they’re totally devoid of interest, though. Take issue 12, “Mystivac”. It seems to have just as much to say about where Kirby was at this point in his life as many other Fourth World stories…which, with his most personal project slowly withering on the vine, was not a good place. So it’s not surprising that here, for the first time, we get a villain who actually hatches a credible scheme to defeat Scott Free. “Credible” in comic book terms, of course.

The issue starts with Scott escaping from a torpedo before it impacts its target, as shown on the cover. As usual, Oberon and everyone else makes a lot of worried noise before Scott turns up, safe and sound, in the water. Yawn. What’s more interesting is that Ted Brown, Mr. M’s new manager, has apparently persuaded an entire naval base to participate in this publicity stunt. What the hell, the Vietnam war just ended, it’s not like they had anything better to do, right?

Also as usual, Mr. Miracle is being observed by a hostile presence—in this case, supremely rich sportsman and gambler named Colonel Darby. You know he’s rich and nefarious, because he’s a colonel. He has a butler and a limo. He wears a monocle.

Even in 1972, this strikes me as some incredibly clichéd and lazy characterization. However, to give Kirby credit, I have a sneaking suspicion that Darby was a last-minute replacement for Funky Flashman. Like Darby, Flashman has a loyal manservant, is fanatically greedy, comes up with crackpot schemes, and probably has it out for Scott specifically after what happened last time. But, like I say, Mr. Miracle seemed to be sloughing off its existing continuity to be more “commercial”, so no Funky. Normally I’d bemoan this, but one dose of Funky is probably all any of us ever needed.

So anyway, Colonel Darby’s plan is simple: now that Scott’s making a name for himself as an infallible escape artist, he’s going to place a substantial wager against him and fix one of his escapes. How is he going to do this? Via Mystivac:

Before we can learn more about this bizarre being, we have a bit of low comedy back on the base—seems that the Female Furies are busily mopping up the sailors for making passes at them:


Now it’s time for the Colonel to put his plan into operation, by having Mystivac place a phone call:

Yes, Mystivac has the power to command people with his voice. Again, there’s a possible thematic link to earlier issues that’s been severed: Mystivac’s power seems an awful lot like the Anti-Life Equation. What’s more, he’s using it against Scott, the very symbol of freedom and irrepressibility, and subconsiously implanting within him a death wish—which for once gives us reason to think Scott might actually flub an escape. Indeed, during his next rehearsal with the Furies, Scott moves so sluggishly that he would have been crushed by a boulder if Barda hadn’t leapt in to block it with her body.

What I want to know is, given how many times they’ve been convinced Scott was done for, how did Barda know that THIS time was the one where she had to intervene? Though, thinking about it, Barda always tended to have faith in Scott before…so actually, I guess that’s a nice bit of characterization. On a side note, notice how Barda’s wearing civvies here? For some reason, she’s abandoned her bikini/armour combo, and never wears it again for the length of the series. Apparently another aspect of Mr. Miracle’s “New direction” was an attempt to conceal that Barda was a superhero, too, downgrading her to Scott’s girlfriend and assistant. She still has her super-strength, though, so I’m not sure what the point is.

Anyway, Colonel Darby makes his deal with Ted Brown, then places he and Scott’s other pals under his power. Scott escapes, but he’s still got that lingering death wish slowing him down as Mystivac attacks. By the way, check out this panel:

Not only does he have Wolverine’s claws, they make almost the same noise! John Byrne must have been reading this series…

Anyway, Scott fights back, mentally, with the help of Motherbox, and defeats Mystivac, leading to the bizarre revelation that he’s a tiny alien in an exosuit, like that Men in Black guy:

Darby attempts to cheat once more and knock off Scott via a handgun, but Scott gets the drop on him, and all ends well. Ted actually decides to turn down their winnings, since it left such a bad taste in all their mouths—even though it seems like they well and truly earned it.

You’d think that this battle for Scott’s subconscious would be a bigger deal, thematically—and in fact, I wonder if Kirby had something like this planned as a dramatic climax later on. But here, it becomes a symbolic struggle for Kirby’s own soul. Replace “death wish” with a desire to sell out (a theme referenced throughout the book as it is) and you realize that the real point is Scott attempting to retain his own identity in the face of pressure from the people who control the purse strings. Is Scott and Ted’s decision to turn down the money Kirby’s way of declaring his independence? Or is it an example of letting his characters remain pure in a way that just wasn’t possible in real life?

Issue 13, “The Dictator’s Dungeon”, sees Ted abducted by a hovering vehicle right in the middle of one of Scott’s escapes. He and Barda manage to come along for the ride, overpowering the ape-like pilots with oddly Oriental clothing. These, you see, are sentient Yetis from a lost kingdom in Tibet, ruled by one King Komodo, who has taken an interest in Ted for reasons unknown. Scott and Barda are ejected from the plane, but manage to land safely and make their way to the distant palace:

That panel is kind of baffling to me. As you may know, the Swastika actually originates in south Asia, where it’s a simple good-luck charm; the Nazis are the ones who appropriated it to their own ends. In other words, an oriental temple is a pretty likely place to find a Swastika, all things considered. I’d call this an example of ignorance on Kirby’s part, except it’s hard not to think that this issue was inspired by him glimpsing Swastika’s in some South Asian temple in the first place! But then why would he talk about how unusual it is to see them in Tibet? Did Kirby see a picture and just assume there were a bunch of escaped Nazi war criminals hiding in the Himalayas? …Or should I say…HIMMLER-LAYAS?!?

Sorry, I promise I won’t do that again.

Anyway, as it turns out, Scott’s right to be suspicious, as they then come across a Hindu-ized statue of Hitler as a god named “Dafura” (get it?). Ted confirms this when they catch up to him, though they’re then immediately knocked unconscious by some kind of force blast. Waking up in a tiny cell, Ted explains their predicament: “King Komodo” is in fact a Nazi war criminal named Albert Von Killowitz, who’s managed to use his technical genius to take over this remote valley and enslave the Yetis. “Dictator Komodo, is probably closer to the truth!” rages Scott, hilariously. Yeah, the nerve of this guy, portraying himself as a kindly, democracy-loving king when he’s really a murderous tyrant.

Von Killowitz attempts to kill them all by dumping acid from the ceiling of the cell, but Scott saves them by holding up his cape, which is treated to be acid-proof. Komodo/Killowitz decides to have some fun with Scott, and promises freedom for him and his friends if he can survive a series of escapes. Naturally Scott doesn’t expect him to keep his word, but he volunteers anyway, because, hey, he’s Mister Miracle.

The first trap comes while Scott is walking down a cylindrical corridor, only to dscover…HE’S IN A GIANT GUN!

Scott escapes, supposedly, by cutting through the barrel with his boot-lasers again, but come on!!! That’s a bullet in that panel, streaking towards him, about two inches away, and he hasn’t even begun to escape! “The timing must be faster than lightning!” thinks Scott as he wiggles free. Yeah, you’d think.

Scott next dodges a pendulum-axe before getting sick of this game and using his telepathy.

Wait…telepathy?!? Freaking telepathy?!? And it works, too, enslaving King Komodo to his will and allowing them all to leave abruptly, the now-passive Von Killowitz in tow. Seriously, what the hell, Kirby? I know your heart wasn’t in it at this point, but this is just insulting!

The issue wraps up with an even more abrupt explanation for why Von Killowitz wanted Ted—he had been in Korea (in the army, apparently) when he had been separated from his patrol, wound up in the Himalayas, and saved by a band of Mongols. Uh…Kirby apparently thought that Asia was about the size of Ireland for all those elements to exist within walking distance of each other. Anyway, the leader of the Mongols turned out to be Von Killowitz, who Ted immediately recognized. No doubt he had the “Nazi war criminal trading cards” as a kid. Von Killowitz, Herr Murderstein, Doktor Professor Stabenfunfel…collect ‘em all!

Anyway, Ted escaped somehow—we never find out how, because we’re out of pages—but Killowitz decided to track him down and eliminate him just to be on the safe side. Despite the fact that Ted hadn’t mentioned anything about his experience to anyone until now, and it was venturing forth that ended up getting him caught. Ah, the irony.

There’s some talk about how a weight has been lifted from Ted’s shoulders now that this affair is over. So apparently this is what’s been haunting him since he appeared. Uh, again, Ted, you could have just informed the authorities that there was a Nazi war criminal at large in Tibet at any time and spared yourself the angst. Oh well.

Finally, issue 14, a story which prompted one of my favourite lines ever from a comics review, from The Savage Critic’s Jeff Lester: “The whole thing is a bit like someone had tricked Fellini into directing an episode of Scooby-Doo.”

Like most issues of Mister Miracle from this late era, it begins with the characters simply blundering into some kind of nefarious plot, or having it come to them (I guess most of Mister Miracle’s enemies in the earlier issues came to him, as well, but there was a reason for that.) In this case, it’s a dude with a piñata for a head, running frantically away from a mob of creeps in robes and masks, who dogpile on the piñata guy and then basically ask Mister Miracle “What’re you looking at?” I love that they’re offended that anyone could find this bizarre in any way, shape or form.

One of the berobed types, this one not wearing a mask but incredibly creepy-looking anyway, throws a capsule (?) at MM and Obie, knocking them unconscious. Mister Miracle actually avoided the capsule’s effects, however, and just decided to lie on the ground watching them leave until Oberon came around. That’s what he says, anyway.

At any rate, the cult’s lair (because, naturally, it’s a cult of Satanists we’re talking about) turns out to be “only yards away”. Mister M’s approached is watched by the freaky dude from earlier and an even freakier woman with a terrible haircut. The designs here are incredibly creepy.

“Madame Evil Eyes”, as we shortly learn her name to be, greets Mister M. at the door with…laser beams that shoot from her eyes. These incapacitate Mr. M long enough to put him in, you guessed it, a deathtrap. He’s handed over to the grip of a gigantic stone idol…unless it’s actually supposed to be a living demon? It breathes fire on him, Mister Miracle gets out of it, blah blah blah. Though Mme. Evil Eyes’ gloating is pretty funny:

Yeah, Satan has such a good track record. And I love the sheer dowdiness of Mrs. EE. This whole thing is starting to remind me of this.

As a side note—what was it with comics and Satan in the 70s? It’s like comics had been holding their breath for a decade and a half, just waiting for a chance to get back to demons and skulls and grotesques they’d been indulging in before the comics code came down on them like a ton of bricks. I mean, I know The Exorcist was a hugely popular movie, and there were other devil-oriented movies both before and after, and that trend was bound to filter into comics, but there was so much enthusiasm for it. Heck, Kirby himself was already doing “The Demon” as a separate series at this point, which made it seem like an editorial mandate or something.

Escaping, MM and Obie stumble on the guy they originally saw trying to get away from the cult; Oberon has just enough time to recognize him as “’Ears’ Watson!--A top hood!” before a hand emerges from a secret panel and zap Ears with a freeze ray. Comics Code!

Some more uninteresting deathtrap shenanigans ensue before Mister Miracle gets the drop on Mrs. EE and unveil her as the head of a smuggling ring, with the satanic cult thing just a cover. Because nothing deflects the attention of the authorities like pretending to be a satanic cult. But uh-oh, the “Evil Eyes” gimmick is real, and the Madame isn’t going to refrain from using it on them:

You’ll be astonished to learn that Scott is able to combat this psychic attack with his usual array of gadgetry, and the two of them leave the supine Madame Evil Eyes to the authorities, as Scott thinks wistfully of Barda.

That’s actually the most memorable thing about this issue—there was a brief sequence I didn’t mention where we saw Barda examining her feelings for Scott, and now we see Scott reciprocating. Now, you may be saying, “Duh, of course they’re going to get together” but what’s funny is the way Kirby didn’t seem to have much interest in uniting the two romantically up until this point. It sure seems like he was headed in that direction eventually, and obviously the two had chemistry, but it was that kinda Mulder-Scully thing where it seemed like it was going to be more powerful for being unacknowledged by the characters. And it’s strange that we don’t have the two falling into a clinch until after the book devolved into a typical superhero yarn.