Friday, January 25, 2008

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #143--"Genocide Spray!"


So to recap: the guy who everyone thought was Dracula is actually a microscopic resident of a horned planet that’s hovering in the basement of a mausoleum, surrounded by fog and camera-like objects. And he’s embiggened (OK, I believe the technical term is ‘re-biggulated’) himself in order to discover the date that his creator had planned for the tiny world’s destruction, which for some reason was coded onto the individual Photostat dots of a photograph in the mad scientist’s lab.

Now, this being Kirby, most aspects of this bizarre situation are not explained in any way, shape or form, but interestingly enough, one of them is. And the explanation is so bizarre that you’ll be sorry you asked.

See, the “cameras” are actually movie projectors…and they’ve been projecting horror movies into the skies of Transilvane for “generations”, causing the sentient inhabitants to mold their entire culture on them. I’m going to assume that time moves faster on Transilvane, since its creator Dabney Donovan (described as “A never-seen, brilliant, wild, wild scientist!”) hasn’t been at this for very long. As for how the Transilvanids actually came to look like vampires and wolfmen, well, we’re told at the very end that “Those people are natural “copiers!” They have a fluid atomic base! After generations of watching sky movies—they became what they saw!!!

MmmmmMMMM, that’s good technobabble.

The only explanation the narration gives us for this demented arrangement is that “Scientists are human beings!! And it’s when they play “God”--that human beings make their worst mistakes!!” So I guess Donovan gave into the weak, all-too-human urge to create a miniaturized planet filled with horror movie monsters. You know you’d do the same, in his shoes.

Anyway, Superman finds a hidden chamber by moving the arm of a nearby statue, and moving “forward into the strange, dark and goose-bumpy caverns”, he and Jimmy come across Count Dragorin and Lupek resting in their coffins. Except, as Superman theorizes, they aren’t coffins at all, but decompression chambers, necessary for restoring the Transilvanids after their molecular expansion from microscopic to human-sized.

My God, I must be reading too many of these comics, because that actually sort of made sense to me.

Of course, apparently decompression isn’t enough to stop Lupek from leaping from his coffin behind Superman and leaping on them. Then, while the two of them are distracted, a third Transilvanid, this one looking like Frankenstein’s monster, goes after Jimmy. “Superman!! It’s a triple feature!!” Superman’s elegantly logical solution is to throw the wolfman at the Frankenstein. It’s just basic math, people.

Unfortunately, not only are a horde of Transilvanids emerging, but Count Dragorin is now up and active, using “the sign of the Mystican” to…explode Superman and Jimmy. No really. It’s a glowing occult type-sigil that appears on the floor, tracks the heroes like a laser sight, and then goes “WAHAAMMMM” and goes up in a gout of pink smoke (and Kirby Crackle, natch). This puts out Jim and Superman (supposedly, at least).

Now it’s back to the Newsboy Legion, who, when last we left them, had found themselves, via a ludicrously unlikely series of coincidences, in the same room with the man who shot their dear friend, the original Manhattan Guardian, just as he was announcing that fact loudly into the telephone. “You heard me! I said that you couldn’t have seen the Guardian! Because, detective Jim Harper was the Guardian—and I shot Harper!! I’ll say it again, see! I shot and killed Jim Harper!” I swear, he’s about two panels away from just painting a big bull’s eye on his back. And again I ask, how did this low-level crook know the Guardian’s secret identity?

Naturally, the Newsboys try to subdue him, and also naturally, they somehow manage to screw it up. Fortunately, the Intergang types on the other line overhear that our nameless thug has been caught, and send a giant, floating bomb—with a TV monitor on it!—to explode him up real nice. (I love the idea of a bomb with a monitor on it. Intergang has so much money to burn it’s not even funny.) The Newsboys, a few pages later, stumble across his body and decide that justice has been served. Yeah, I’ll say. First this guy practically falls in your lap, then he gets blown up for you, keeping your hands blood-free. Luck favours the obnoxious 30s style street urchin, or so they say.

Meanwhile, the Transilvanids have Superman strapped to a torture device: a gigantic crushing press covered in spikes (which is curiously referred to as “the rack”). “Well, I’ve played along with the visiting firemen from Transilvane long enough,” thinks Superman. (Firemen?) He casually frees himself, and the monsters start to freak out that “the hour of the demon dog” is approaching. “The ‘picture-prophecy’ in our skies--cannot be altered!!” moans Dragorin, but Superman implores him to “stay calm and think logically!!” Yes, of course. You’re a microscopic lifeform evolved to look like Dracula, trying to prevent the horror movies that you’ve been watching in the sky for generations from coming true. If you’d only think logically, I’m sure you could find the solution to your problems.

A bell tolls for the Transilvanids—literally—and they pretty much dissolve into helpless wailing. Superman, being a more proactive sort, digs away at the wall and finds a secret passage to Donovan’s hidden lair—just in time to miss the Demon Dog as it zooms past. Predictably, the Demon Dog is a robot, programmed to fly out and sweep Transilvane clean of biological life with a blast of industrial-strength pesticide.

Perhaps this is a good time to note the odd fact that we never meet Dabney Donovan, and thus, we never get any answers as to what the hell was going through his mind when he created this whole bizarre situation. The fact that he’s forever off-screen, and that even his personal secretary never met him face to face, seems to suggest that he was an agent of Apokalips—maybe even Darkseid himself? But then, why go to all the trouble of creating an entire planet full of Universal Horror monsters—which does seem like the kind of thing Darkseid’s minions would do—if you’re just going to wipe them out at around the same time the whole New Genesis/Apokalips war is getting started?!? Alternatively, if there was some other reveal in mind further down the road for Donovan--he was actually Flippa Dippa all along!!!--it’s tragically aborted by the cancellation of the Jimmy Olsen comic in five issues’ time…

Anyway, there’s some extremely mild suspense as we wonder if Superman can possibly catch the Demon Dog before it destroys Transilvane (hint: he can. Because he is Superman. Also, the Demon Dog is a procrastinator.) Jimmy wakes up, having spent the climax of, again, his own comic lying passed out on the floor, just in time to look through a micro-telescope thingie and see a fleet of coffins flying/shrinking back down to Transilvane. Superman pontificates a bit on the Demon Dog—“The symbol of their destruction! – As our own is forecast in the prophecies we’ve inherited!!” I’m sorry, exactly what movie was that, again? If there’s a lost Hammer or International horror movie about a flying demon dog that destroys the world, I’d kind of like to track that down.

The hilarious ending shows Superman and Jimmy sitting down to watch the new movie Superman’s chosen to broadcast to the people of Transilvane, in hopes of changing their culture. A little movie called “Oklahoma!”

Oh man, as wonderfully demented as the whole Transilvane idea is to begin with, that ending just makes it that much more awesome. You just KNOW Kirby was going to do a follow-up storyline further down the line, where Superman shrinks himself down to visit a microscopic world of singin’, dancin’, vampire cowboys. Forget Kirby, someone needs to do a follow up to this story right now. I mean, who wouldn’t pay to see that? “Superman shrinks himself down to visit a microscopic world of singing, dancing, vampire cowboys.” Just throw that description in the next issue of Previews and watch the comic book industry recover instantly. Warner Brothers would adapt it into movie form and beat Titanic’s box office gross. You could build an entire “Final Crisis”-style event around it.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #142--"The Man From Transilvane"


As I’ve suggested in previous installments, the first few issues of The New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People seem to show Kirby’s confidence and enthusiasm for the project growing at a remarkable rate, and by the time Mike Royer jumped on board as inker, Kirby really seemed to be pushing himself to a new level. However, this new seriousness with which he approached the core three books seems to contrast with his work on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. I already mentioned that the fact that Colletta remained as inker on that book made it seem as though Kirby was treating it like a red-headed stepchild, and this is reinforced by the fact that the Fourth World elements mostly seemed to vanish from the comic around this point, except for a series of expository backup features, which Kirby used to flesh out his world.

If I was *really* cynical, I would say that Kirby completely stopped giving a damn about SPJO altogether—but that’s not really fair, as there are still some neat story beats to come, even in this issue. Besides, Kirby not giving a damn still means plenty of crazy, stream-of-consciousness crap for us all to enjoy and mock! And the coming two-part storyline is a doozy as far as that goes…

For starters, the opening caption of Jimmy Olsen #142 features another howler of a sentence:

“Amid the strange sounds at midnight, this classic horror figure never fails to emerge and haunt our dreams with terrifying effectiveness!”

Yes. He NEVER FAILS to emerge. Every time you hear sounds at midnight, it’s immediately followed by a vampire emerging, and proceeding to haunt your dreams with terrifying effectiveness. By the way, does that description make anyone else think of Monsters, Inc.? “Sully, you’ve haunted another child’s dreams with terrifying effectiveness. You win Employee of the Month yet again.” “Thanks, chief, but I bet I can make my effectiveness at least 20% more terrifying if I work at it!”


The comics code was still in effect at this point, though it was getting a bit creaky—the very next year would see the famous Spider-man issue that ran without the Code, effectively dealing it a death-blow—so vampirism was a bit of a dodgy subject. This is why vampires are treated in such an odd, convoluted fashion in the silver and early bronze age, usually relying on some kind of pseudoscience to explain them away—but of course, no one could come up with a more convoluted or pseudoscientific explanation than Kirby!

We kick this off by witnessing a vampire emerging from the forest with a werewolf companion to menace a sleeping woman. But again, because of that pesky code, he can’t do anything as scandalous as biting her. Instead, he shoots out eyebeams that fly through the air and hit her neck, creating vampire-like puncture marks (!) Thank you, Comics Code, for protecting our nations’ youth from the sight of neck-biting, and necessitating this kind of crap.

“What has been done—is now done!! The results of it will rival the most awesome events ever recorded!” The first sentence fulfills this issue’s redundancy quotient; the second, the hyperbole quotient. Also, the first sentence fulfills this issue’s redundancy quotient.

The woman, by the way, is Morgan Edge’s secretary, Miss Conway, and the next morning, we see that Clark and Jimmy, WORLD’S MOST PATHETIC REPORTERS, are still arguing with the goddamn secretary about getting in to see Morgan Edge. That’s Clark Kent, the man who can throw planets around, stymied by a chica in a miniskirt at a desk. He can’t be bothered to take stronger action against the man who tried to kill him and blow up a secret research facility full of his friends. But to give him credit, he’ll wait in that waiting room as long as he has to! Provided the magazines aren’t too old!

Of course, Miss Conway makes for a bit of a distraction, with her increasingly chalk-white skin and the fangs she reveals when she talks. Then she faints, prompting Jimmy to lean in and Clark to swat him back with the baffling comment, “One side, diplomat!” He quickly notices the “bitemarks” and the fact that Miss Conway is suddenly no longer visible in the mirror. The caption declares that “A pattern is followed—a complete and total pattern!” A pattern terrifying in its effectiveness! And completeness! And totality!

Throughout the next few panels, Miss Conway takes on a really unnatural chalk-white complexion that seems to move over her like colour on an inkjet printer. “The total pattern must remain fixed!!” continue the captions, growing more and more incoherent as the sequence grows on. Basically, what Kirby’s trying to say is that he knows what a bunch of horror movie clich├ęs all these story beats are, but just stick with him, there’s an explanation. (And there is, and man…you’re going to have to see it to believe that the human mind could come up with something so insane.)

Anyway, in keeping with the total pattern, a bat flies in and transforms himself into a pale, cape-wrapped figure who introduces himself as “Count Dragorin of Transilvane”. (At this point, I’m wondering if the makers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show derived some inspiration from this comic.) “I regret the intrusion upon your many activities in this place,” sneers the Count. I love how sarcastic that sounds, like he doesn’t quite believe Clark and Jimmy actually do anything at the Planet. That’s very perceptive of your, Count.

This recap is going to balloon to Russian novel-length if I quote and deconstruct all the bizarre, nonsensical dialogue, so I’ll just say that Dragorin insists he’s in a hurry, and continues to do so while making no move to do anything. Meanwhile, Jimmy spouts a lot of random phrases like “I second Clark’s motion!” and Clark tries asking him politely if he wouldn’t mind restoring Miss Conway from her cursed eternal unrest. Dragorin responds by zapping him with the Evil Eye, which literally sends them flying back in a burst of light.

Jimmy is knocked unconscious, but as Clark thinks to himself, “I have more effective protection! It’s called Superman!” As the colouring takes on an eerie greenish hue, Dragorni causes Miss Conway to rise and begin delivering details about her former employer, Dabney Donovan. Her only real bit of advice is to check Nasa’s Science Research Center, where, it seems, Dabney was Researching Science. Clark takes advantage of the Count’s moment of distraction to leap on him, but he vanishes in the classic puff of smoke. As Jimmy and Miss Conway come round (Conway suddenly cured of her vampirism), Clark assures them he “got a lead on” the Count “before he bugged out.” I guess that’s how Clark gets all his leads: by feigning unconsciousness until a vampire soliloquizes about something. No wonder he’s such an ace reporter.

After bundling Miss Conway off to “the clinic” off-panel—gee, that doesn’t sound creepy at all—Clark and Jimmy head out to the Science Research Center, where Science is Researched. There they find a door ajar, and inside, waiting for them, is Dragorin’s briefly-seen henchman Lupek, a werewolf. Ish. Thing. He attacks Clark and puts him down for the count, or at least he does as far as Jimmy knows. Credit where credit is due: our red-headed, freckle-faced pal shows he’s got courage by pulling up a steel fence post and using it to keep the lycanthrope away from his supine friend. Lupek chases him away down the corridor, giving Clark time to change into Superman and come to his rescue. “Superman, I’m your fan for life!” declares Jimmy. Yes, Jimmy, that is the role you play in the series. You don’t need to spell it out for us at random intervals.

Dragorin suddenly materializes, blasts Jimmy and Supes again with his Evil Eye, and disappears with his henchman. Handy, that. But while Superman and Jimmy ransack the abandoned Science Research Center and all of its Science Research for clues, Superman comes up with an odd theory to explain Dragorin’s disappearances: “Suppose they became smaller!! Too small to see!” Yes, um, that makes more sense than him being an actual supernatural entity, alright.

Superman also explains away Clark’s absence by saying he sent him back to town for medical help. Dabney Donovan, meanwhile, he describes as “the closest thing to a mad scientist we have! Well, I guess wild would be a better word!” He seems to be vaguely connected with the Project in some way, though he doesn’t explain how. He and Jimmy then proceed to make a series of rather, um, creative logical leaps: first, that the picture of a green orb with horns on the wall is a picture of planet Transilvane; then that there’s a message implanted on the picture that Supes can read with his microvision, which turns out to be correct. The message reads “Bloodmoor destruct date 1971”, which points them towards, you guessed it, an old cemetery of that name.

Meanwhile! We pick up with the Newsboy Legion, who as you may recall had snuck out of The Project and were boating down an underground river. Predictably, this has Flippa Dippa practically orgasming in delight. Because he enjoys water, don’t you know. Reaching the end of their underground tunnel, Flippa dives in and discovers an exit with an elevator at the end. By an absolutely astounding coincidence, this just happens to lead them to a secret room being used by an operative of Intergang—and not just any operative. This particular guy just happens to be yelling into the phone at the exact moment the Newsboys emerge behind him, identifying himself as the man who killed Jim Harper.

That’s the original Jim Harper, of course—the one who would have been an old man by now. His death was, you’ll recall, mentioned passingly several issues back. Apparently the presence of the new Guardian has both taken the heat off this guy and made his Intergang masters displeased, since they now assume he failed to kill Harper. (Somehow, these guys know Harper was the Guardian. Bang-up job protecting your secret identity, Jim…) Anyway, the last panel of this sequence shows the Newsboys roiling with anger as they realize they’re confronting the man who killed their…parent’s guardian. Who I’m sure they felt a great deal of affection for, and all, but honestly it seems like Kirby forgot these aren’t the original Newsboys, and thus, probably weren’t as emotionally attached as their dads would have been…

Nevertheless, “The drama of life begins to mount in many quarters!!” as the endlessly hilarious captions inform us. We transition to Superman and Jimmy landing in Bloodmoor, as Superman continues to opine that they’re not facing real monsters. “I wish we’d waited for Clark!” Mutters Jimmy. “He’d get facts!--Not opinions!” Yes, solid facts like “I somehow got a lead on that vampire in the three milliseconds before he evaporated! Don’t question me, just go!”

As they approach the mausoleum, Jimmy is hung up on the idea that they’ve found the vampire’s coffin, and Superman continues to be skeptical, theorizing that the huge slab blocking the door could be circumvented by growing very small. “Think small!” He says to Jimmy. “Like Dabney Donovan—who undertook to simulate cosmic matter in small terms! Small continents! Oceans! Life! In short--a small planet! Welcome to Transilvane, Jimmy! and at that moment, they descent the stairs and witness…

Well, words can’t do it justice.

Yes. Transilvane is a tiny planet, hovering in fog, surrounded by holographic projections, in the basement of a mausoleum, in a graveyard.

And believe it or not, that’s not the craziest thing about this scenario, as we’ll discover in the next chapter…

Friday, January 11, 2008

The New Gods #5--"Spawn!"


It’s not an exaggeration to say that this issue of “New Gods” is monumental. And that’s being quite literal—we both begin and end the issue with gigantic splash shots of titanic creatures, and in between there’s as much Kirby Bigness as you could ask for. But perhaps the most monumental aspect of this comic is the change in the art. This issue introduces a new inker, Mike Royer, who replaced Vince Colletta on most of the Fourth World books at this time.

Colletta’s a bit of a flashpoint for comics afficianados. He inked a sizable chunk of Kirby’s stuff during his glory years at Marvel in the 60s—possibly more than anyone else. I can’t verify that, but it’s clear he did several of the crucial issues of Fantastic Four (including the legendary Galactus trilogy and the wedding of Reed and Sue) and most of his run on Thor, and as such, is inextricably associated with that classic Marvel work. Which makes it a shame that he wasn’t actually very good.

Now I readily admit to not being the greatest artist in the world, and the question has been debated ad nauseum amongst the leading lights of the industry. Some feel that Colletta’s work, which was undeniably competent, has gotten far too much of a bad rap over the years. But speaking personally, I find Royer’s work to be far more pleasing to the eye—there’s more line variance, energy, and detail. The latter is hardly surprising, since Colletta was apparently notorious for erasing details of the pencils that he was in too much of a hurry to ink (like Kirby, Colletta was ludicrously productive). Exactly to what degree Kirby wanted Colletta on board the Fourth World is up for debate; clearly he valued loyalty and was happy to keep the team together, but at the same time, Royer was apparently Kirby’s first choice for purely geographic reasons (he was in California, like Jack, and Colletta was in New York). The details of why Colletta was replaced (he stayed on Jimmy Olsen, which it’s now safe to say was the Fourth World book Kirby cared the least about) are a muddle—some say it was a falling out, others say his assistants encouraged the notoriously nonconfrontational Kirby to take charge of his own work—but when the dust had settled, Royer was in. And it most certainly made a difference.

At any rate, this issue of The New Gods begins, like so many others, with Metron, roaming the cut-and-paste montage galaxy in his Mobius Chair, because, as the narrative captions inform us, “this point in the saga of the great Celestialscan’t be told--outside the context of the larger tapestry—the universe!” Well, that certainly is a large tapestry, alright. I’m glad not every story requires an epic, cosmic prologue like this. “Call me Ishmael. I am the product of billions of years of evolution on a tiny speck of a planet in a galaxy called the milky way…” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, notwithstanding the Big Bang, a cosmic maelstrom that gave birth to the universe…” Man, I’m already exhausted.

Today’s installment of Metron Presents: Our Crazy Universe takes place in “The Promethean Galaxy”, where a gigantic green dude, “larger than a star cluster”, floats bound to a gigantic slab. Apparently he and his pals tried to penetrate the Final Barrier at the edge of the Universe, beyond which is The Source; their strategy was to enlarge their atomic structure to such a size that they would…um…outgrow the Universe? Yikes. Kirby’s Kosmology has a way of making my head hurt. Anyway, they ended up slowing down their own subjective time and now float nearly motionless, taking “a billion Earth years to feel one heartbeat!!” It’s not really clear, but Kirby seems to imply that Metron had been planning on risking the final barrier himself, but seeing the fate of the Prometheans changes his mind and heads back to New Genesis, to the place where the Source makes contact with the New Gods through High-Father’s Staff.

Hey…is that an allegory for religion vs. science? You know, I think it might be!

Anyway, time to go back to Earth and catch up on the fallout from the previous issue. As you may recall, Orion had attained a bunch of Earthly disciples who he quickly transformed into a street gang. None of that namby-pamby healing the sick or preaching the eternal love of the divine for Orion, no sir! They helped Orion infiltrate Intergang, only to see him take off into the ocean for a confrontation with Darkseid’s aquatic troops, the Deep Six. Now, apparently, the police have rounded up the remaining Intergang thugs and dragged P.I. Dave Lincoln off for questioning. The sergeant is a burly bulldog of a man named Terrible Turpin, who will be stealing the show in a few issue’s time; for now, he lets Lincoln know something fishy’s going on and turns him loose. Meanwhile, after a brief burst of competence last issue, the rest of the O’Ryan Mob has been sitting around uselessly in Lincoln’s apartment, cleaning out his refrigerator, tracking dirt all over the place, and watching movies on pay-per-view. Lincoln shows up, and they all clear out…except Claudia Shane, who pointedly sticks around. She and Lincoln are doubtless swapping spit the instant we cut away.

And cut away we do, to Orion…who’s rather ignominiously managed to get his foot stuck in a clam.


OK, OK, it’s a mutant clam. What happened is, see, the leader of the Deep Six, an amphibian-like fellow name of Slig, used his touch to mutate it into a monster killer clam, and it’s now entrapped Orion in his underground, cavernous lair. Yes, Slig can mutate stuff just by touching it with his right hand, as he demonstrates by turning a nearby crustacean into a weird kind of dragon-thing:

Then he kills it with his other hand, which can explode things.

Orion watches all this in shock, even though you’d think he’d know all this already, if he knew who Slig was. Slig, in classic comic book villain fashion, is enough of an egotist that seeing Orion humbled is enough to get him to leave the room without killing him. Jackass.

Naturally, Orion has a way out—he can channel the Astro-Force into an emergency blast through his wristband. The clam lets him go and, in a sequence that really shows off the energy Royer brings to Kirby’s work, rears up, revealing an elongated trunk that “draws energy deep in the bowels of the Earth”, to do battle with Orion. Orion blasts the thing to Clam Heaven, then takes out a sentient shark-man standing guard and stumbles into a huge cavern, where a vast harness lies empty. This is some nice foreshadowing—Orion remembers glimpsing something huge, something monstrous, in that harness before the lights went out last issue, and Slig verifies that they have indeed unleashed something horrifying on the seas of Earth. That would be the titular Spawn.

Man, I can’t stop making that joke. Seriously though, there are times when I feel like everything in comics for the last 30 years has come from people just flipping through Kirby’s work, picking out random elements, and expanding on them.

Back on the surface, Terrible Turpin has indeed twigged to what’s going on by interrogating an officer of his, bandaged from head to foot after an apparent encounter with the forces of Apokalips. I have no idea who this guy is, and I don’t think we’ve seen him before. Apparently the idea is just that the war of the New Gods is raging all over the place now, and regular folks are getting caught up in it as well. But it comes off as the ravings of a guy who just went through severe physical and mental trauma, being taken with utmost seriousness by his dour police chief. “A gang war!!--between super-spooks!!” Turpin muses, thoughtfully. When another officer puts down the guy’s testimony as “sounding like a UFO sighting”, Turpin employs his impeccable logic:


Anyway, we cut back to Claudia and Dave, lying in bed, smoking cigarettes—

Ha ha! Just kidding. This is the era of the comics code. They’re fully dressed and staring at the window. But to anyone who doubts these two are going at it hot and heavy, I’d like you to please explain what they’ve they been doing all this time? Playing Pachinko? It’s not like they actually have anything to contribute to Orion’s efforts other than to sit around worrying.

At least it’s well-founded worrying, as we soon see. The thunder outside roils and crackles and transforms into the shape of a Boom Tube, which spews forth an old buddy of ours: Kalibak the Cruel, now dressed to the nines in a spiffy green centurion suit. His first act, of course, is to start smashing stuff. Again, Royer really takes Kirby’ work to a new level in this sequence, which is also enhanced by Kirby’s strong storytelling. I love how we glimpsed most of these characters knocking around in the first issue, and now they’re showing up on Earth one by one. “The New Gods” really is the most coherent, narratively tight comic Kirby ever did.

Meanwhile, back in the actual plot, Slig has discovered the trail of incapacitated (dead?) guards leading from the cavern where Orion had been. I didn’t mention it before, but there was a couple of panels on a previous page where Orion was running through the tunnels, homing in on his equipment, and you see him carrying on an inner monologue, checking his wrist monitor, and looking pensive while casually putting the beat-down on an amphibian-monster with one hand. Orion is hardcore. Don’t believe me? Watch what happens next.

Slig bursts in just as Orion is strapping on his Astro-Force equipment. “Allowing you to live was a mistake, Orion!!!” Growls Slig. Um, yes, I would say so. Orion takes the opportunity to blast Slig from point blank range, and then, when that doesn’t finish him off, we get one of the greatest sequences in the history of comics. And no, that’s not my usual sarcasm.

Slig weakly protests his defiance, and Orion starts laughing like a madman, drops his equipment, and runs forward to start pounding Slig to death with his bare hands. “Talk, Slig, talk!! You seemed so fondof it when I seemed to be at your mercy!!!...You dogs of Apokalips are eloquent when destiny favors you!!!” With that, he rips off Slig’s headdress, revealing his Mother Box, and crushes it until it self-destructs to stop the pain.

Slig still stirs, weakly insisting “I’ll kill you for the sham you are!!--” (What?) In the heat of the fight, Orion’s face has gone from his pretty-boy visage to the ugly mug we glimpsed in the second issue, which the dying Slig sneers at—“HAHAHA!! ORION IS HIS VERY OWN MONSTER!! HAHAHA!!”—and prophecies that, even if he can’t kill Orion, his penchant for destruction will catch up with him eventually. Orion pretty much shrugs and says “Yeah, OK,” and then pitches Slig off a cliff to his death.

So after several issues of telling us how Orion was an out-of-control violent maniac who rejoiced in battle, we actually get to see it. Kirby’s development as a storyteller in a mere few issues is pretty astounding. Also, that was the awesomest thing ever.

And with a mere two pages to go, Kirby and Royer still keep the awesomeness coming, ending with that final shot of a Leviathan I mentioned earlier. Orion rockets out into the ocean to confront the monster Slig turned loose on the world, and here we finally see it in the final splash page: A GIANT PINK WHALE!!! WITH TUSKS!!!!

(Seriously, it looks cool when Kirby draws it.)

That's the end of this issue, but there's a brief four-page story at the end. I'll write about that a little later today, stay tuned.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Forever People #5--"Sonny Sumo!"


There was a sketch featured on Late Night with Conan O’Brien a few years ago. In an effort to combat “harmful stereotypes”, Conan introduced a new character, “The Asian Guy Who’s Bad At Math”. The Asian Guy then ran out in a coolie hat and a kimono, rang a gong, stuffed his face with eggrolls, broke a plank in half with a karate chop, then turned to the camera and announced, “I’m bad at math!”

This sketch came to mind as I read today’s installment of The Fourth World, featuring yet another new character, Sonny Sumo.

I’m a longtime believer in the power of pop culture, not simply to influence (at least, not in the hamfisted way most Hollywood “message movies” or the baldly expositional fashion of “The DaVinci Code”) but to inspire in a broader context. A heartfelt, indie work of art may have more to say, but there’s nothing to compete with seeing a concept splashed up on the big screen, the TV, or the bestseller lists. This is why I think most popular media have an obligation to portray as much variety in its characters and viewpoints as possible—especially when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation. All the well-meaning lip service in the world can’t compete with creating a powerful and engaging character who captures the public imagination.

Superheroes are perhaps the ultimate pop creation, so it was a big deal when Kirby and Lee created the Black Panther, the first true black superhero. It may seem like a frivolous thing, but there’s something undeniably empowering about superheroes when done right, and it’s not surprising that people responded to the character. Apparently, around the same time, Kirby promised a Marvel production artist and letterer named Morrie Kuramoto that he’d create a Japanese superhero as well, and Sonny Sumo was the result (albeit five years later and at another company).

This kind of thing really is a big step forward for pop culture, but at the same time, it can present problems. Superheroes especially tend to be simplistic and iconic, being a personification of various ideas…which means that superheroes of a certain race are often highly stereotyped. Obviously I’m talking about the more benign kind of stereotyping here, the kind that paints a Japanese superhero as a modern-day samurai with all kinds of mystical martial arts skills and the last name “Sumo”. But hey, at least he’s bad at math. Sorry, I mean, at least he’s a superhero.

The opening caption calls him “the mystic type of a vanishing breed—the noble warrior!…At the mercy of today’s world, when nobility is a twisted credo and the warrior is a commercial enterprise, Sonny Sumo struggles to hold fast to an enigma which seems to make his life meaningful!” Whew! This run-on sentence seems to confirm that Kirby was trying to avoid having his heroes fight for money. Granted, that’s pretty much the M.O. for superheroes, but since Mr. Miracle and now Sonny are performers first, the money issue has to be dealt with. I actually find Sonny more interesting, in that, unlike Mr. M, he’s kind of lost and adrift, and has been reduced to (shock) (horror) taking money for his skills. Obviously this doesn’t reduce his nobility at all, and Mr Miracle will be taking his act on the road for cash soon too, so obviously Kirby had been doing some thinking. Even superheroes need to make a living, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with entertaining the people for cash as long as you don’t charge for your superheroic services. But I do like the image of Sonny, a warrior from another time, lost among the seedy underground world of robot fighting.

Yes, as a showcase for a fight promoter, Sonny’s manager, Harry Sharp, has obtained a gigantic kill-bot named “Sagutai” (which is Japanese for “vaguely Japanese-sounding word”) and turned it loose to face Sonny. When Fisher, the promoter, expressed understandable surprise that a low-rent underground fighter would have the capacity to build a fully-functioning, *talking* robot, Sharp responds, “I didn’t build him, Mister Fisher!” This obviously implies that either Apokalips or New Genesis was behind Sagutai’s creation. This is pretty weird, since we never get any indication that Sharp is in with either gang (at least, not in this volume). Is the New Gods technology starting to trickle down into the daily lives of Earthlings? An interesting idea, anyway…

As Sonny grapples with the tin-plated menace, which is twice his size and nearly manages to trap Sonny’s head by twisting a steel bar into a knot, we cut away to the Forever People, still in mortal peril in Desaad’s nightmarish amusement park! Why, they could be…scared…by the monsters Desaad is projecting! Or, if Serifan gets tired from having to press a level with his foot every few minutes, Vykin dies! Or, Mark could be…trapped in a glass box some more! What a horrific fate! Much more exciting than the raging robot battle!

The credits announce that this was written, drawn and edited by Kirby, “And inked by—who else?—Vince Colletta!” Man, THAT statement is going to seem pretty ironic by the next issue in this volume.

Desaad, in classic supervillain fashion, sits watching the sufferings of the FPs, with a “fear siphon” attached. Basically, it looks like a stethoscope, except he puts it to his neck instead of his ears. The FPs terror and (cough) pain take the form of a freaky, Francis Bacon-type montage of screaming faces…which also happens to resemble the spectral army of wraiths sent out by Doctor Bedlam in the last issue. But hey, it’s a good image, why not reuse it?

Back to Sonny, as Sagutai unleashes a bunch of hidden weapons—knife blades and a flamethrower. That second one torches Sonny but good, leading to consternation on the part of Fisher, the promoter, who seems to care more for Sonny than his own manager. But Sonny has a Special Feature or two up his own sleeve. Invoking his Ancient Vague Oriental Abilities, Sonny can call upon “Wound Rejection”, which enables him to revert to his pre-burned self just by concentrating (this is a neat sequence):

Roaring back with a vengeance, Sonny takes down the bot. “You’ve fought like the thing you are, Sagutai!” Whoa, how Zen. So, he fought like a big robot programmed to fight?

Sagutai is down on the mat, and deactivated. Wow, Mr. Miracle could learn a thing or two from Harry and Sonny. Imagine, NOT destroying a gigantic killer robot if it can be used again to make money! Gigantic killer robots are a finite resource, and Harry Sharp is doing his part to conserve them.

Sonny makes his way backstage—then suddenly collapses, his wounds reappearing. Apparently Wound Rejection is a temporary thing, which sort of re-raises the issue of his manager throwing him into a pit with a deadly robot. I mean, it’s one thing if he’s got a Wolverine-like healing ability; it’s another if it’s going to come back and scar him for life afterwards. Of course, Sonny and Sharp talk vaguely about how “this won’t be easy to heal”, and Sharp doesn’t seem too concerned about the horrible scars suddenly reappearing on Sonny’s face, so who knows. The main reason for this sequence is to allow Mother Box a chance to step in and do the healing for him.

Finding himself once again unblemished, Sonny starts talking to the magic box he found last issue. Apparently he’s now in communion with it, and gets an infodump regarding the trapped Forever People. Being a Noble Warrior and all, he leaps at the chance to save the FPs, and Mother Box teleports him away to Desaad’s Happyland amusement park of HORROR, where he glimpses the trapped Mark Moonrider, disguised as a skeleton attempting to break free of a glass box.

“But the skeleton can’t! Because his prison is made of more than Earthly glass!! Because an invisible scrambler has distorted his true image! Because he’s a captive of Desaad!” Because because because because becaaaaaaauuuuse…because of the wonderful things he does! La la la la la la la, la la!

Sonny frees Mark, leaping over a boatload of tourists to do so. We don’t get to see if they find this frightening or alarming, because we immediately cut to the shooting gallery “where the main attraction is a “Big Bear”--and apt name for the target! See, it’s apt because the target is a big bear, and also, it’s Big Bear in disguise. Just so we’re clear.

Sonny, wasting no time, literally rips the wall from the side of the gallery with one hand. I guess this is his Ancient Vague Oriental Abilities again, because Mark makes it clear that he’s a human, despite the fact that even Big Bear couldn’t escape from the gallery. Mark crouches over Bear’s body: “You moved! You’re still alive, you big, blessed bear!” Yes, he certainly is big. And a bear.

Desaad, meanwhile, has twigged to the fact that the FPs are escaping, just as his “psycho-fuge” explodes (apparently thanks to Mother Box—man, is there anything that crazy computer can’t do?) Desaad mobilizes his troops to wipe them out: “If I destroy the young Forever People--Mother Box will destruct!” Desaad has this weird delusion going. Remember in the last issue when Mother Box disappeared, and Desaad was all, “Whoo! I made her commit suicide! No really! I’m sure she won’t just reappear later and subvert all my plans!”

Meanwhile, the non-captive FPs are freeing Beautiful Dreamer, who you may recall had been placed in a glass box and was being forced into seeing the onlookers as hideous monsters, i.e., she got off pretty damn easy. Mark frees her by the thoroughly unimpressive method of telling the customers that the exhibit is closed, then using Mother Box to cancel out the monstrous illusions. “Only a psychotic like Desaad would subject you to the stress of facing endless fright and horror!” Nope…sorry. Doesn’t matter how much you talk it up after the fact, Mark, I’m still not buying it as anything more than a mild inconvenience for Beautiful Dreamer.

With Desaad’s troops hot on their heels, the mostly-reunited gang bust into the room where Serifan is being held. Big Bear, in typically awesome fashion, pounds a henchman’s head into the wall with the flat of his palm while going “Yea and verily! Pardon our anxious behaviour, sir! But we feel rather insecure in Happyland!” Serifan is released, as is Vykin from his moderately pathetic death trap via remote control, but Desaad’s gang followed him in. “We’d rather destroy you as a complete unit!” they declare. Someone didn’t get the memo about how the Forever People as a “Complete Unit” tend to form an all-powerful being who can pretty much kick anyone’s ass.

But that’s not what happens. Suddenly, energy crackles around Sonny and he booms out, “SLEEP! ” Next thing you know, Desaad’s shock troops have collapsed, unconscious, to the ground.

That’s right, folks: it was no coincidence that Mother Box found Sonny Sumo, for he, alone among mortals, is the mind Darkseid has been seeking. He’s the possessor of the Anti-Life Equation. And in conjunction with Mother Box, he can order anyone to do anything.

Personally I find it a little creepy that the good guys are the ones who get control of Anti-Life, and use it the way they do in the next issue. I mean, there immediately follows a page of talk about how evil the ALE is and how it destroys everyone, but it’s makes for a bit of cognitive dissonance that this destroyer of free-will, this spiritual superweapon, is in the mind of an unabashed hero and can only be unlocked using that tool of good guys everywhere, the Mother Box. Other than Big Bear quickly dismissing these concerns as “If Mother Box doesn’t fear you—neither do we!”, there’s no discussion of the morality on display here. Clearly this isn’t a Lord of the Rings-type situation, where the good guys have control of a tool of evil and realize they must never use it. Sonny and the FPs use the ALE pretty much without hesitation. Hey, what’s a little free will between buddies?

Anyway, both Sonny and the FPs find themselves trusting each other pretty much instantly. Darkseid, however, has been watching all this (despite the fact that he left the park last issue), and since the FPs didn’t hesitate to spell out their ownership of the ALE even though they knew the bad guys were listening, it looks like they got themselves a situation.

Again, Kirby tries a bit desperately to hype the next issue with some hilarious Stan Lee-isms: "WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL ASTOUND YOU!!!" By George, It astounded even me! And I, Jack Kirby, am much closer to this saga than you, reader! There's been nothing in comics that's equalled its like! I've seen it--and I'm still shaking!"'s...THE HYPERBOLE EFFECT!

Oh, wait. THE OMEGA EFFECT. Yes.

There’s an extra little four-page story at the end about a barbarian warrior type named Lonar. Basically, he’s a New God who wanders New Genesis by himself. Because he’s a Lonar. He explores an ancient city from before the cataclysm that destroyed the old gods, finds a living “battle horse” and rides it out as the city crumbles. It’s kind of an interesting attempt to flesh out the world of the New Gods with yet another character, and one of a genre that I don’t recall Kirby ever tackling before, the sword ‘n’ sorcery type, but the story’s too short to make much of an impact. Here’s hoping we see more of Lonar in future issues.