Friday, April 25, 2008

The Forever People #8--"The Power!"


As I mentioned in another entry, I really like that the unifying theme of the Forever People is that they’re basically on the world’s weirdest road trip. This month’s destination is a ghost town, though as is fairly typical for Kirby, there’s a lot of other elements thrown in…probably a few too many, in this particular case, but we’ll get to that later.

At least Kirby sets everything up in the first couple of pages. We’ve got a ghost town, separated from anywhere else by “The Barrier That Bates Built” and guarded by “an army that Bates bought.” That would be “Billion-Dollar Bates”, this issue’s villain…sort of…but we don’t meet him just yet. Instead, we cut to “the depths beneath the estates that belong to Bates” (Kirby also rhymed “Gates” with “Bates” earlier, making it clear that he was going for some kind of Beatnik poetry here, but thankfully he drops it by the end of the page.)

One of Bates’ soldiers is here being overrun by a group of really-creepy pink alien dudes who call themselves “The Sect”.

But the effect is immediately undercut by the exposition-packed conversation the soldier is having with them (while firing wildly, his expression not at all matching up with his words) in which he makes it clear that “The Sect” is actually a group founded by Mr. Bates, and that the “aliens” are just dudes in pink masks. Furthermore, they’re intruders who are here to infiltrate Mr. Bates’ mansion and The Sect. That’s a lot of exposition to cram into two or three panels, and like I say, a lot of it actively negates the creepiness of the scene. As it turns out, there IS a reason for this incredibly belaboured set-up, but for now all you have to know is that the pink dudes are bad, and they’re trying to infiltrate the other group of pink dudes…who are also bad. Um.

Anyway, the sentry is taken out, replaced with more impostors who talk completely naturally:

FIRST SENTRY: Hear that!? It means the “take-over” is complete!!
SECOND SENTRY: As our comrades are the sect--we are the sentries!
FIRST SENTRY: Do your job--sentry! Alert the upper levels!!

Nothing suspicious there! “Good evening, fellow human! Boy, we sure are unable to breathe pure nitrogen and ingest metals, aren’t we! Ha ha! Now let us discuss last night’s sporting event!”

Meanwhile, because everything always seems to happen at once, the Forever People are materializing in the middle of town. Yes, materializing. They suddenly have the ability to move along “the electron road”, which, as far as I can make out, is some kind of random plot-based teleportation that takes them anywhere that might make for a good comic book, and they trotted it out now for the first time because, um, they were getting bored?

Of course, they manage to appear right in the midst of a group of mercs, who immediately start badgering them with questions—for an unrealistically long length of time, actually—before deciding to get violent and attempting to exterminate them with extreme prejudice. Oh, that’s ridiculous. As if a mercenary warrior employed by a fantastically rich person who essentially owns an entire town would use excessive force on innocent people just because they got too close.

For some reason, the FPs all run for cover, moving (as the soldiers say) “like greased lightning” out of the way…but Big Bear just sits in the middle of the road on the Super-Cycle, trying to fix it, and quickly getting ticked off (in a polite sort of way) about the constant gunfire. Eventually, he politely throws a truck at them.

To change things up a little, I’ll say this time that Big Bear is an impressive and entertaining fellow.

No exaggeration—a full four pages are spent re-establishing that Big Bear is a) very strong and b) impervious to pretty much all weaponry, thanks to the “free flowing atoms” that “reinforce his body structure.” But then, the rest of the comic is relatively (for Kirby) light on action, so I guess we needed this here. This also seems to make clear that the other New Gods aren’t invulnerable the way Bear is, which seems kind of arbitrary, genetically speaking. But I guess that’s mythology for you.

The mercs eventually get the hint and dash off, just as Serifan phases in with the Mother Box. You’ll recall that he was separated from the rest of them via an “Alpha Bullet” and wound up in Japan, where Sonny Sumo had bequeathed the Mother Box to them. (Hey, does anyone else think that “the Adventures of Sonny Sumo with Mother Box in ancient Japan” would make, at the very least, a good miniseries? I’m hearing that Sonny is featured in Grant Morrison’s upcoming “Final Crisis”, so it’s not totally out of the question.) Anyway, the team is reunited, to much rejoicing, including a hilarious moment where Big Bear calls Serifan a “copy-cat cowboy”. He’s laughing and looking happy, but man, that cuts a little too close to home, doesn’t it? “You wussy John Wayne” would have been my choice of words.

This month’s Literary Reference to the Book Kirby Was Reading At The Time is “1984”, which will be driven home later in the issue, but for now it makes its appearance in the form of a telescreen, on which the gigantic head of Billion-Dollar Bates makes its appearance.

Bates tells them to obey the orders of the soldier that’s about to arrive, which causes the Forever People to laugh and blow him off, ‘cuz they’re like, slaves only to the open road, man, and can’t dig your “rules”. Except that as soon as the soldier arrives, they do indeed start jumping about and following him with military precision. Clearly, Bates has some manner of mind-control powers…wait, isn’t that kind of a recurring theme in this book? You don’t think he’s…

We cut to the interior of Bates’ lavish mansion—he’s a tubby dude in the traditional (for 1971) brown jacket and string tie that connotes a fat cat Texas billionaire. I mean, I don’t know for a fact that he’s from Texas, but that’s how Kirby draws him. He proceeds to expound on “the Power” that he’s had since birth, that’s made him a champion of industry and multi-billionaire snake oil salesman—since, of course, people can’t resist buying whatever he’s selling. His audience, seated at a dinner table, display an odd antipathy considering they’re his dinner guests—until we discover that they aren’t his friends at all, but a number of officials, journalists and nosey types who figured out that Bates had this Power. Rather ghoulishly, Bates has used his powers of compulsion to keep them all prisoner without bars or chains, and toys with them as cruelly as the comics code will allow. He forces one guy to put a gun to his head and pull the trigger, which the man unhesitatingly does, though fortunately for him the gun isn’t loaded. Then he leans in really close to one attractive blonde woman and simply leers at her, “you see now, what it means to antagonize me!” as he suggestively fondles her shoulders. This is an effectively chilling sequence, to say the least.

Bates then mentions how his plans to extend his rulership to the entire world are in motion. “O’course, it’s gonna take a little “mumbo jumbo” to satisfy the sect! But I owe it to ‘em!” Uh…here I was thinking that the sect were a group of mindless followers that you entranced with your magical powers. Why would you need to dress it up for their sake? Just tell them to shut up and follow.

Down in the caves under the mansion, the Forever People are being led around by the mercenary, who tells them to wait for Glorious Leader…and they find themselves powerless to leave. Serifan points out that Mother Box could phase them out of the cave, but Mark is dead set against leaving. Like the others, he’s figured out that Bates possesses the Anti-Life Equation, and must be stopped before Darkseid figures this out.

Except…am I missing something here? Wasn’t it Sonny Sumo who had the Anti-Life equation? You know, the guy who Darkseid had totally at his mercy, and decided instead to randomly send through time, to where he couldn’t reach him? I thought they said that there was but a single mind that possessed the secret of the Equation, but now we’ve suddenly got two. Unless Sonny’s descendants somehow ended up in Texas. OK, fine, I guess I’ll just have to take it as read that there are a bunch of people on Earth with the Anti-Life Equation stuck in their heads.

The Sect re-enters the room and drags the Forev Peeps off in chains and stocks, then drag them off to Bates’ little torchlight rally, where they’re paraded as symbols of man’s helplessness before “the power”. Or maybe it’s how they’re shackled by disunity without the guiding hand of Bates’ superior will. He’s a little inconsistent with his metaphors here. This is where the 1984 references get overtly dropped, with Vykin calling it “Double-Think” (which it isn’t really).

This night of all nights, Bates is getting ready to put on the “stimulus hat” which will extend his power somehow, even though it seems to me that all he really needs is to make a few phone calls to various world leaders, instead of hanging out in the basement wearing a funny hat. In fact, that’s even better advice than you’d think, because the hat doesn’t quite behave as predicted. Instead, it places him in Slytherin House.

Wait no, I mean it builds up a tremendous store of energy and then renders him unconscious. The supposed high priest of the Sect barely has a moment to cackle in triumph before Bates is spirited out of his grasp by an invisible force and sent flying round the corner. At the same instant, the FPs vanish from their shackles. Yes, it turns out they had a plan after all—the Sect members didn’t actually chain them up, it was all an illusion cast by Beautiful Dreamer. If Mark didn’t waste a moment to pop up on a nearby balcony and taunt them instead of running, they probably would have gotten away clean with the insensate Bates. Smooth, Mark.

The fake Sect members snatch off their masks, revealing the high priest to be none other than Desaad, and another, imposing Sect member blocks the FPs’ passage. Big Bear uses Bates’ body as a shield, but this backfires—sort of—when a jittery merc pumps him full of lead. “Mister Bates—when I saw him in their hands—I—I—reacted--too fast--!” he wails. But he doesn’t react too fast when the gigantic Sect member lands a hearty blow on the merc’s head, possibly killing him. Sure enough, the Sect member is Darkseid in disguise. Man…I just realized that Darkseid’s been in every single issue of “The Forever People” except the one where they’re trapped in time, and that’s because of Darkseid. He’s a great villain, but I think Kirby came pretty close to overusing him here…I mean, the Fantastic Four didn’t fight Doctor Doom in every single issue. He’s part of the over-arcing tapestry of the stories, but this is an ongoing comic book, there should have been room for another minor villain or two.

The next scene is, seriously, one of the weirdest in the entire Fourth World saga, as the two mortal enemies confront each other—and proceed to toss insults back and forth. Let me remind you that this is a Kirby comic. The man needs no excuse whatsoever for superbeings to get in 4-page long fights that level city blocks. And here we have Darkseid confronting a whole batch of New Gods under desperate circumstances, and the result is a glorified “Yo’ Momma” contest. But what’s really weird about it is the way the Forever People just stand there and obey as Darkseid begins barking at them like a drill sergeant. They get all flustered and start trying to make excuses for themselves as he berates them and starts boasting about his high rank being equal to that of All-Father’s. He even grabs Big Bear’s nose and tweaks it, and Bear just sort of looks rattled. That’s not the Big Bear I know! Where’s the overwrought indignance, the throwing of r immensely heavy objects?

I don’t know if this is supposed to be some kind of residual effect from Bates’ mental commands—but if it is, why would they be obeying Darkseid? They were told to obey the mercenaries. Besides, Bates is dead. You’d think that would put the kibosh on his telepathy.

The scene continues to get weirder as Mark declared that Darkseid’s “tricked” them. I fail to see how yelling at them constitutes a “trick”, especially since they were the ones who decided to roll over like a bunch of neutered puppies as soon as Darkseid began asserting an ounce of authority, but it seems that, the whole time, he’s been saturating them with “invisible Omega beams.” The FPs now fade away like phantoms. But, as Desaad guesses, Darkseid hasn’t killed them. Of course not. He just teleported them back to their Cycle and sent them on their way with the lame excuse, “Greatness does not come from killing the young! I’m willing to wait until they grow!!” “We could have fared worse!” Declares Mark as they take off into the sky. “He’s a strange enemy!!”

Uh, yes he is, Mark. If by “strange” you mean “completely arbitrary and lackadaisical”. Also, “kinda stupid.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #147--"A Superman In Supertown!"


When Kirby first took over the writing and art chores on “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen”, he envisioned a sprawling storyline similar to what he’d been doing over at Marvel, one that would tap into the fundamental angst of Superman’s existence and help flesh him out as a character. He even laid the seeds for it in The Forever People #1, the first Fourth World comic to actually be drawn. But DC was the more institutionalized and corporate of the superhero publishers in the early 70s, and it still hadn’t quite sunk in that what Marvel had been doing for the past decade was going to dictate the future of comics. As such, they were heavily resistant to change. They could see that this Kirby kid was a hugely popular artist, and that hiring him would give their sales a bump, but they couldn’t take the additional step of trusting him to really do his thing. Time has proven Kirby right about many, many things, and one of those things was the fact that Superman wasn’t going to be cool anymore in the new fan culture. He needed a new hook, and Kirby wanted to lay the groundwork for that. This was all too radical for a publisher that was only just beginning to see its numbers enter a steep decline after several decades at the top, so they put the kibosh on Kirby’s plans. Naturally, most of what he wanted to do with Superman—particularly exploring the idea that his great powers and near-omnipotence isolate him from the very humanity he’s so devoted to saving—has since been done by other writers, and in fact you can argue that it’s *the* most compelling dramatic angle one can take when writing the Big Blue Boy Scout, but as ever, Kirby was cursed with being ahead of his time.

As you can infer from all this, Kirby eventually grew a bit sick of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen”, and—perhaps not coincidentally—the sales entered a tailspin. Which in a way was good, as it meant Kirby didn’t have to draw the book for very much longer. Sensing this, Kirby decided to bang out a truncated version of the Superman story he’d wanted to tell in this, his penultimate issue of SPJO.

So Jimmy’s in Scotland, recovering from being a Caveman. Yes, apparently being genetically regressed to an ancient hominid is something you get over, like the flu. Just take his temperature and give him hot soup every so often, and he’ll be fine in a week or two. Oh, and don’t let any ravenous, psychotic bug-monsters come bursting into the room where he’s staying.

…Dammit, people, what did I just say?!?

Apparently the Scottish police are kind of lax about letting their genetic aberrations run wild in hospitals. But as it turns out, Charlie only eats…chairs. Because he likes the chemicals used to treat the wood. He’s also calmed by Gabby’s voice, thus making him possibly unique in the animal kingdom. Actually, I guess he’s pretty unique anyway. Certainly the dialogue confirms him as “the last o’ the beasties we had under lock n’ key!!” with no mention of exactly what happened to all those other mythical animals. My guess: Unicorns seem like fine eating in the country that deemed Haggis to be edible.

Anyway, Gabby slips Charlie a knockout pill, and Tommy declares that he’s now their responsibility for some reason. The Loch Trevor police force is, obviously, happy to have him out of their hair, so the Newsboys make their plans to ship Charlie back to America.

Meanwhile, we’re picking up where we left Superman—in his much more interesting plotline, which fortunately dominates this issue. If you recall, some Apokoliptish troublemakers posing as a rock band had destroyed a disco…as is pretty much the duty of any half-decent rock band, come to think of it. But Superman happened to be in this disco, and he tracked them to a series of tunnels underneath that led back to “The Project”. The rockers headed home through a Boom Tube, but Superman is now just in time to catch another Tube with a figure emerging from it. Supes, of course, has an only semi-complete knowledge of the New Gods, and thus immediately assumes this guy is from Apokolips. What he doesn’t know is that this guy, who calls himself “Magnar”, is pretty much his equal in strength, and is able to put Superman in a judo hold and toss him down the Boom Tube. Superman emerges in New Genesis, and immediately realizes that this sunny, garden-like world could never be home to the evil beings from Apokolips. Because, as we all know, your taste in decoration is directly linked to how good or evil you are. Sunny, flowery, nature world = good, oppressive stone carvings, fire pits, and darkness = evil. It’s just common sense. In a comic book.

Anyway, Superman’s attempts to reassure his captors fall on deaf ears for the nonce, which of course allows for a time-tested tradition: A Good Guy Fight. Of course, the New Genesisians are coming off kind of jerky, as Superman’s trying to talk sense to them and they just keep piling on with more punches. Eventually, Magnar channels “the combined magnetic repulsion-flow of a hundred galaxies” to send Superman flying.

Back to the Newsboys, who are leaving Scotland behind to cross the Atlantic in the Whiz Wagon, with the unconscious Charlie strapped precariously to the back. Halfway across the ocean, they suddenly find themselves lost in a fog, which is the moment Charlie chooses to wake up and burst free of his shackles. For whatever reason—I guess it’s because Charlie stomps on his face—Gabby doesn’t speak up to calm the rampaging pink bug-man, and he begins to tear apart the whiz wagon—as, all the while, a huge volcano comes into view below, rising out of the sea. As if that weren’t enough, the Wagon’s controls seize up and begin steering them towards a gigantic landing platform that looms out of the volcano’s mouth. Once they’ve hit the deck, a crowd of “Pseudo-men” emerge and hit them with immobilizing eye-beams.

Back to Superman, who’s managed to talk some sense into the New Genesisians mostly by adopting a pleasant tone of voice, something that a dude from Apokolips would never, ever do. Quickly making amends, they invite Superman to come visit Supertown, repeating the phrase from earlier: “This is a world of friends!” Superman then attempts to show off by inviting Magnar’s young pals to grab hold of his cape and fly with him up to the hovering city, but of course Magnar can fly as well, and the kids can follow along in his “magna trail”. Following slowly behind, Superman finds himself blending in with the Supertown crowd, for whom a flying super-strong man is a common sight. “They don’t even notice me!” he thinks. Five minutes among his equals, and Superman’s already starting to develop a neurosis about it.

Jimmy and the Newsboys find themselves waking up at a table, wearing green, cultlike robes. Uh-oh—that’s never a good sign. Sure enough, at the head of the table stands a dapper, sophisticated, eight-foot tall gentleman, dressed in Victorian-style clothing and drinking a cup of liquid that he lights on fire with a blowtorch. Yep, uh-huh, I’d say what we have here is a supervillain. You wouldn’t happen to be a “Doctor” or a “Professor”, would you, sir?

Yep. Definitely a supervillain.

(“That’s the kind of premise sold in “Golden Age” comics!” Unlike these completely sane modern comics, huh, Big Words?)

Back in Supertown, Superman is gawking at the décor and the inhabitants. “Supertown is truly a place for super-beings!!” He thinks, and then proceeds to completely forget what he just saw when he spots a pillar that appears to be falling on a young girl. He snatches it away, only to be met with scorn by the girl, who was of course moving it around on purpose with her telekinetic powers. Duh. And now she’s put out at Superman for attempting to save her life. “I keep forgetting that I’m in a city of super-beings!!” Thinks Supes. Yes, Superman, you do. You might want to write it on your arm or something.

Just then, he’s grabbed by a colossal iron hand that slams him against a wall. Aha! Here’s something Superman can punch without complaint—a gigantic metal ape-man. “With a face like that, you could only have slipped into town from Apokolips!!” declares Superman, judgmentally, and proceeds to wail on the robot. But of course, once again, Superman’s goofed…it’s a “harmless Protonoid”, and his owner shows up, all chuffed at Supes. Because, clearly, in a world where everything that we’ve seen so far indicates that the good guys are beautiful and innocent-looking, and the bad guys are ugly, to be physically assaulted by a giant robot just shows that Superman should have known better.

Yeah, um, actually, he friggin’ attacked Superman, Captain Sanctimony McMustache. “I may be a big deal on Earth!!” thinks Kal-El, “But in this place I’m just another meddling super-being!!” Well, you’re kind of a meddling super-being on Earth, too, but at least there people don’t get ticked off at you for jumping to perfectly reasonable conclusions.

Superman stops to have an emo attack on a nearby park bench, and who should be sitting next to him but All-Father. He’s there to provide the kind of third-act moral direction you typically get in an episode of Full House. Izaya lays out what’s instantly obvious to us: Superman isn’t needed on New Genesis, and he needs to be needed, so he’ll always be happier on Earth. Especially given that his friends were just captured by a fire-drinking crazy person, and they need him to go and rescue them. Superman grabs hold of the Wonder-Staff and instantly finds himself transported back to Earth—specifically the lair of Professor Volcanum, where Jimmy and the Newsboys are being held captive. But no sooner has he entered the room, than he’s trapped by the walls, which close in on him…

And…that’s pretty much it for angsty Superman. I mean, obviously Superman survives—duh, it’s just a couple of rock walls, he could smash them with his pinkies—I mean, that’s the resolution to the emotional drama Kirby wanted to set up. Superman realizes he’s not needed and goes home. A trifle anticlimactic, isn’t it?

Oh well. As with so many other aspects of Kirby’s work, we can now look back and see how he had the right idea, even if it took someone else to really follow through on those ideas. It’s just a shame more people couldn’t have seen that Kirby knew what he was doing when he was actually doing it. Like they say: a pioneer is that guy ahead of you in the trail with an arrow in his back.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mister Miracle #7--"The Apokolips Trap!!"


Partly because of the nature of the times, and partly due to the work itself, Kirby and Stan Lee’s comics started to garner a certain level of cachet with a more culturally discriminating crowd as the 60s wore on. College students and other cultural commentators began to focus their attention on Marvel’s superhero work, praising it for any number of reasons, and Lee was certainly happy to encourage them. This new gravitas they attributed to Kirby’s work seems to have made him more determined to lend depth and meaning to his comics, which is spawned the Fourth World in the first place. Fortunately, Kirby never started taking himself so seriously that he forgot what had made people love his work in the first place; so when, for example, he started to incorporate literary references into his work, far from being pretentious, it was usually as delightfully insane and entertaining as anything else he did. (Well, OK, maybe it was a little pretentious.)

On the other hand, comics have been borrowing (and “borrowing”) from literature since they first began; The Hulk is just Dr. Jekyll crossed with Frankenstein’s monster, the Joker owes a huge debt to Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs”, and so on. So it didn’t have to be literary pretentions that inspired Kirby to use “Oliver Twist” as the basis for Mister Miracle, but that may be why Kirby felt the need to make the point more clearly in this and future installments, starting with a return to where Scott grew up: Granny Goodness’s Happiness Home on Apokolips.

On Apololips, an “Aero-carrier” discharges a load of frightened, miserable kids into the hands of a group of “Harassers”, who make it absolutely plain that the kids aren’t here on a field trip. “When the worms disembark, let ‘em know where they are!!” Bellows one meatheaded creep in unlovely close-up. “No Goddling!! No Faltering!!” screams another, though I’m kind of assuming he meant “coddling”. Proper spelling will not be tolerated on Apokolips!

The point is made ad nauseum over the course of four pages, as the Harassers sneer cruelly and begin marshalling their pathetic charges across the plain, beneath the ominous shadow of Darkseid’s statue, and into the waiting arms of Granny Goodness. No opportunity is spared to dole out a punitive whack, and of course there’s much talk of molding them from quaking little wussies into disciplined soldiers. Granny herself, of course, provides both the carrot and the stick, offering cooing, sarcastic words of encouragement to the kiddies right before encouraging her lieutenants to boot them in the behind. She spends a moment chatting with her right-hand man, Hoogin, who we learn was once much higher-ranked but has been busted down—seems he was the leader of a squadron that was home to a certain mister Scott Free, and accepted responsibility for his escape, hence his demotion. Nevertheless, he’s itching to get his hands on Scott once more, an opportunity Granny assures him he will soon have.

Meanwhile, back at Casa Del Free, we’re witnessing a tearful scene as Scott and Barda make plans to return to Apokolips, following up their decision of last issue. As usual for this series, the motivations are a little vague, but the idea seems to be that Scott’s prior escape was somehow bending the rules, whereas if he goes back and escapes again in full view of everyone, he’ll have earned his freedom under these Apokoliptian codes of conduct we keep hearing about, and they’ll have to leave him alone. Or something. Look, don’t ask me—I think that being able to escape from an incredibly hostile and well-guarded fortress-planet in another dimension ought to count as an achievement no matter what circumstances under which it’s done. But apparently Scott, and for that matter Darkseid, don’t see it that way.

Oberon is, predictably, giving Scott a hard time about this decision. “Don’t fill this room with sentimental slop!” sneers Barda. “Just say good-bye—and blow!!” There follows one of those scenes you always get in buddy movies, where the two characters are insulting each other to mask the fact that they really care about each other. It ends with Obie and Barda hugging while Obie calls her a “loudmouthed, military, man-killing harpy” and Barda stutters, “Oh, shut-up!-- or I’ll—I’ll—“ Awwwwwwww.

Anyway, Barda and Scott whisk themselves away to Grayborders, while Oberon suffers a last-minute attack of nerves or something and goes running into the room, screaming at them not to go, as they fade from view. “Oberon eyes the wisp of vapor where his friends have been! --And knows that he’s truly--alone!” Yeah, laying it on a bit thick there, aren’t you, Kirby?

I mentioned “Grayborders”, the region of Apokolips to which the pair are headed—but it’s not the same area in which the Orphanage is located—that would be “Night-Time”. I think the idea is that part of Apokolips is constantly in daylight and part in shadow—presumably, the part that faces New Genesis is the “light” area. Though obviously that would make for a pretty inhospitable environment. More inhospitable than it already is, I mean.

Anyway, Barda has taken them to the border instead of the actual Orphanage region because…wait, why?


Oh, it’s because Barda is insane.

Seriously, she literally materializes them right under a patrol. I guess she couldn’t control that part of it, but she was literally cackling about “fighting their way” to the orphanage as they faded out, and when the patrol orders them to stay put, she starts barking at them that she wants to commandeer their vehicle. “You recognize an officer’s uniform—don’t you?” she bellows. Given that the Female Furies don’t seem to wear anything resembling a consistent uniform, this seems more than a little like picking a fight. Which it is. Barda brings a column down on the hapless patrolmen (Shouting “Run a check on this, you clod!!!”) to which Scott calmly replies, “Well—as they say—in the standard cliché—the fat’s in the fire!!” “Sure! I like it that way!!” responds Barda, and proceeds to hijack a car and ride it into downtown Apokalips. It’s like Grand Theft Auto: Apokolips Edition.

As the two of them blast down the “Long-Shadow” road to Night-Time, their car is suddenly brought to a grinding halt by a saboteur’s blast, and it is here that Scott meets his latest opponent: Kanto the Weapon-Master.

Despite looking like a guy who the Renfest nerds beat up, Kanto’s able to overcome Barda with her own Mega-Rod, prompting Scott’s surrender. And if you guessed that he’s about to put him in an elaborate deathtrap from which Scott will escape using some heretofore-unseen gadget, give yourself a gold star!

In this case, the trap is strapping Scott into a metronome that moves back and forth against a target, while Kanto’s men take shots at him.

The escape involves, literally, deploying an airbag. No, I’m not kidding.

Geez, I could laugh death in the face too, if I had a giant inflatable cocoon that I could deploy every time things looked hot. To hell with it, I could use something like that anyway. “Hey, Adam, did you finish that TPS report?” WHOMP! “Damn, I thought I saw him in here, but the room is empty except for a gigantic cocoon of some sort.”

Scott traps Kanto in another cocoon, while leaping free of his own, but is quickly ensnared by Kanto’s men again (prompting the hilarious “horseplay” line at the top of this post). They rope his boot and start dragging him around in an Aero-cycle, but Scott escapes by—no, not unwinding the cable from his leg, but by sending an electrical charge from his shoe up the wire to the vehicle, causing it to explode. Hey, here’s an idea, Kanto: take Scott’s damn boots off. Then we’ll see who’s mister fancy-pants escapist.

After all that, Kanto just hauls Scott up and points Barda’s Mega-Rod at him point blank…but Scott’s able to talk his way out of it, mostly because Kanto’s grown bored with trying to kill him, and because Scott knows how to pour on the flattery. Kanto laughs and lets them proceed onwards to the Orphanage, where Scott has a really anticlimactic encounter with Hoogin, basically marching up and demanding that he challenge Granny to trial by combat. Granny orders Scott sent out to “Section Zero” to face one of Kirby’s most bizarre creations: The Lump.

So now I’m wondering why Oliver Twist didn’t end with the hero battling a glob of pink protoplasm in a mental arena. To hell with literary references, Kirby outdid the classics.

Friday, April 4, 2008

New Gods #7--"The Pact"


So, I should probably talk about Star Wars at this point.

I’ve been tiptoeing around it for most of this series of articles, but it’s pretty widely acknowledged that the Fourth World Saga was a *huge* influence on George Lucas, and if you’ve been paying attention to my recaps, you’ve probably noticed this yourself. We’ve got a mythological cosmic epic that takes the form of a space opera but conceals more a primal, archetypal sensibility; good and evil in impossibly pure forms, with good represented by verdancy and the rejection of violence, and evil by the totalitarian domination of a chilling but charismatic master manipulator; an elaborate mythology full of strange beings, with a pre-existing backstory; and lots of other details, big and small. More obviously, you’ve got a villain named, phonetically, “Dark Side”, whose ruthless personality and will-to-power are more than a little reminiscent of a certain Sith Lord with whom we’re all familiar; throw in the physical characteristics (mutilated body encased in cloak and armour) of another of Kirby’s classic villains, Dr. Doom, and the connection is even more obvious. You’ve also got heroes worshipping and deriving their powers from something called “The Source” (and one from “The Astro-Force”), a gigantic technological hell-planet with great circular pits, and even Laser Swords make a brief appearance at one point. And there’s another major point of similarity which has been pretty heavily hinted at throughout the series, but which this issue, one of the best of the whole meta-series, will make abundantly plain. (This is gonna be a long one.)

In the Beginning--The New Gods were formless in image and aimless in deed!!! On each of their two new worlds, their races had sprung from a survivor of the old!! The living atoms of Balduur gave nobility and strength to one!!—and the shadow planet was saturated with the cunning and evil which was once a sorceress!!"

With this opening caption, Kirby comes as close as he ever does to admitting that, yes, the Fourth World is supposed to have emerged literally from the wreckage of his imaginary destruction of the Marvel Universe, or at least the Asgard segment of it. I’m not sure why he even bothered to change the name of “Balder”, since he’s a mythological entity, and thus, not owned by Marvel. Although the way copyright laws are going…

So yeah, to recap, once he split with Stan the Man and the House of Ideas, Kirby basically performed a pretty stunning mental purge, metaphorically destroying the universe he’d worked on for so long and summoning a new work out of the ashes. It’s not hard to see how stuff like Countdown to Infinite Crisis That’s Final For Really Reals This Time and Spider-Man Sells His Continuity To The Devil and all the other status-quo-smashin’, father killin’, nothing-you-know-will-ever-be-the-same-again reinventions of the DC and Marvel Universes over the years were taking their cue from what Kirby did here—but none of them ever did it with the kind of breathtaking commitment Kirby brought to it (even though the world he ‘destroyed’ remained alive and static at the company he left behind).

There are almost too many ramifications to this to sort through, though as I mentioned elsewhere, it lends a surprising amount of logical consistency to the series if you imagine that the New Gods come from a parallel Universe—this aforementioned far-future Marvel Universe that’s been destroyed and reborn. It would explain why they talk about Earth like it’s a relic of their own history, why they’re seemingly millions of years old despite the fact that their predecessors are clearly the gods of Earth mythology, and why no one in the DCU ever stumbled across them until Darkseid decided to stop by. (The current “Death of the New Gods” places New Genesis and Apokolips firmly in a parallel dimension from the rest of the DCU).

Of course, there’s still some stuff that doesn’t really make sense, and it starts right on the first page, when we meet Izaya The Inheritor and his wife Avia, reposing in bucolic splendour on New Genesis.

Now, here’s the thing: Izaya is the man who will one day be known as “All-Father”, and I think Kirby meant for this to be a surprise, but I literally never even thought to question that they were the same guy until the end of the story; his beard isn’t grey, but otherwise the resemblance is obvious. Of course, there are some issues raised by this, like, um, New Gods can age? Also, he’s described as a warrior…yet we’re told that this is at a time before New Genesis and Apokolips went to war. So what was he fighting against? Did the New Gods just pull themselves out of the cosmic goop left by the Old Gods and say, “Hey, those guys fought a lot. We oughtta get some warriors, too! They get all the chicks!”

Tragically, Izaya is about to learn the true meaning of being a warrior, as he and his bride are attacked by Steppenwolf.

I’ve been waiting months to do that joke. And it was totally worth it.

No, this is the Steppenwolf we’re talking about:

Steppenwolf is simply German for “wolf of the steppes” (or Coyote), so it’s probably just a coincidence that it’s a band (and a Hermann Hesse novel) as well as a Kirby character. This particular Steppenwolf lives up to his name by being a pack hunter, who hunts the deadliest game of all: MAN. Or actually, NEW GOD. Yes, in what seems like a fairly suicidal move to me, Stepp has decided to hunt and kill a leader of their neighbouring planet for sport. Diplomacy: not an Apokoliptish strong point.

But then, this may be a classic case of a dumb, spoiled rich kid getting in way over his head, for you see, Stepp is the brother of Heggra, the witchly ruler of Apokolips…and mother of Darkseid. Who, we learn in very short order, was the one who suggested this hunting excursion in the first place. And while Izaya gives them a good run for their money at first, he’s rendered spiritless by the sudden death of Avia, who wandered back onto the battlefield to prevent Izzy from killing Stepp and got whacked herself. Izzy then gets taken out by Darkseid’s “Killing-Gloves” and left for dead. Stepp is just barely bright enough to suspect that something’s rotten in Denmark:

STEPPENWOLF: I don’t trust you, nephew! --Or your bizarre companions!
DARKSEID: Would you care to examine the body, noble Steppenwolf??
STEPPENWOLF: There’s no need! I know I’ll find no sign of life!!! Let me add further, Darkseid!! I don’t like you! You’re clever and cunning—and a plotter!!

Yeah, good thing you’re none of those things, Stepp. “I don’t trust you! Let me demonstrate this by falling into your trap with a minimum of goading!”

For of course, Darkseid set this whole thing up to ensnare New Genesis and Apokolips in a war. Izaya wasn’t killed, and when he wakes up, he’s ready to do some serious vengeance-taking against those who killed his wife. Darkseid’s motivations in setting up the war are never really spelled out as such, though obviously focusing Izaya’s wrath on his mother and uncle is going to help him seize power later. Plus, Apokolips seems to have been created as a world of warriors and weapon-makers, so it was inevitable that they would find someone to fight against. It just doesn’t speak very well of Stepp or Heggra that it took Darkseid to figure this out for them. What were they doing for the first few thousand years of their existence? Holding lavish banquets?


The Darkseid family basically sits around rather pathetically in a bunker, squabbling for no particularly good reason except for the fact that they’re eeeee-vil, while the Monitors of New Genesis bomb the surface flat. Heggra castigates Steppenwolf: "You’re brash!! Arrogant! Loud!! You command an army which only produces battles and body counts!” As opposed to what, sensible shoes? Again, for all their sinister, warlike appearance and cackling and basically looking the part of a bunch of ruthless intergalactic warlords, these guys sure need the essence of conflict spelled out for them, don’t they? Fortunately, Darkseid is planning to betray them all and sieze power, and it can’t happen soon enough—even though he’s clearly a million times more competent, it’s still kind of goofy to see Darkseid playing the part of someone’s runty nephew. (By the way, Hegg and Stepp and the rest of Darkseid’s immediate family are a bunch of lemon-yellow, red-eyed weirdos, looking like severely stylized versions of Ming the Merciless, but Darkseid is his usual, rocky self. I know, I know, they’re gods, and aren’t constrained to follow the usual laws of genetics. But still, he kinda sticks out.)

Darkseid is showing off a mysterious “X-Element” that he (or Desaad, who he’s apparently already got working for him) have stumbled upon in the labs. Suddenly, the party is interrupted by Metron, uncharacteristically flustered, bursting in and pleading like a little bitch with Darkseid to be given the X-Element.

If you remember, way back when, I mentioned that Metron’s status as a good guy was a little shaky, and that Orion was basically right to distrust him. This scene is a big part of why. Metron is overtly described as being part of New Genesis, yet he completely sells them out here, agreeing to use the X-Element to open the “Matter Threshold” that will allow Apokolips to transport heavy weaponry directly to New Genesis. His reasoning is that he desperately needs the X-Element to build his Mobius Chair.

“You’re a nice boy!!” croons Heggra. “Does it bother you---to create the means for mass slaughter??” “I have no link with the Old Gods—or New!!” rationalizes Metron. “I am something--different! Something that was unforeseen!!--On New Genesis—or here!!” “You’ll betray us all in time, Metron!” Glowers Darkseid. “But this thing—you shall build—for us!!

OK, so, we’re going with a Cat’s Cradle-style “the detatched immorality of science” thing here, apparently; Metron just wants to build and discover, and he doesn’t give a thought to what anyone might do with his inventions. Makes him kind of a dick, though, and you have to wonder how New Genesis ever got around to trusting him ever again. As Metron leaves, Heggra laughs with joy, paising her son, and Darkseid grins for I think the only time in the entire series:


Next thing you know, the Dragon Tanks and canine cavalry of Apokolips are blazing across the serene fields of New Genesis, led by Steppenwolf, who, with his tiny, tiny brain, has gone back to thinking well of Darkseid simply because he let his uncle lead the raid. Of course, the inevitable happens: Izaya the Inheritor appears from between the ranks and gets his revenge on Steppenwolf, driving off the Apokoliptish forces while he’s at it.

Metron appears to be castigated by Izaya—though not nearly enough, it seems to me—and makes a lot of “Ooh, that Darkseid! I hate him so much!” noises which are apparently sufficient to placate Izzy.

Over the next couple of pages, the war and the carnage grow ever greater, as the two forces turn to genetic engineering and bacteriological warfare, call down asteroids to slam into each others’ planets, focus the energy of the sun into gigantic flaming lasers (Kirby literally draws them as huge, flaming gouts cutting across space) and just basically making a mess of the entire universe. Somehow, despite being right next door to each other, the two planets don’t manage to wipe each other out, but New Genesis is transformed into a barren wasteland littered with ruins, over which Izaya looks sorrowfully.

“We are worse than the Old Gods!” He cries, in a bout of typically Kirbian anguish. “They destroyed themselves!! We destroy everything!! This is Darkseid’s way! I am infected by Darkseid!! To save New Genesis—I must find Izaya!!

He proceeds to wander out into the wilderness and do a whole “biblical prophet” thing, ruminating on his past choices, declaring that he rejects the way of war, ripping the armor and war-staff from his body and declaring that he’s rejecting the way of war forever, as the wind whips itself into a frenzy around him. “Darkseid’s game is not mine!!” He howls. “Where is Izaya!!!?? Where is IZAYA!!!??

In the middle of a re-enactment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it turns out, as suddenly a gigantic monolith comes into view across the plain. OK, so this one’s white and has a goofy little pointing-finger icon that writes “THE SOURCE” across it in fiery letters. Hey, I just realized: the Source is a Mac.

Some time elapses. Izaya returns to his throne in new robes, with a new staff; Darkseid, meanwhile, succeeds to the throne of Apokolips following the demise of his mother, and suddenly the war cools off. Darkseid and Izaya make a secret pact which involves their respective, and so-far unseen sons.

Yep, Darkseid’s got a kid: in fact, it seems he’s been married all this time, to this woman:

And as it turns out, the kid takes more after his mom, with the flaming red hair and the violence, than his rocky, pontificating dad. It’s not so surprising, either, since Darkseid never really wanted to raise a family anyway, and his son was raised on the other side of the planet, never knowing his dad. So the terms of the Pact seem fairly agreeable to him: he and Izaya will swap kids, the way ancient rulers were known to do, in order to cement a new truce between the two worlds. Of course, as it pretty much goes without saying, Darkseid just wants to buy some time and re-evaluate his options, so when Izaya’s young son is carried in by Granny Goodness, he immediately hatches a plan to someday break the truce: the kid will be raised in Granny’s Soldier-Orphanage, but he’ll harbour the dream of escape—and if he ever manages to do so, it’ll break the Pact and provide a convenient excuse to resume hostilities. In honour of this day, Granny names the kid “Scott Free”. (You’ve got to feel bad for Scott—it seems like his whole life, including his rebellion against evil, has been planned out by his archnemesis already. So much for being the living embodiment of freedom…)

At the signal, Darkseid’s son is thrust through his own Threshold and finds himself in a warren of tunnels, fighting and kicking the whole way. He’d kept a weapon secreted in his sleeve, and he now turns it on the first figure he comes across: Izaya, now in his white-bearded form of All-Father, offering him friendship and trust for the first time in his life. Orion—for it is he—screams that his father hates him, but Izaya responds with “‘Hate’ is no longer a word in this place!!!” Uh…but you just said…oh, never mind.

The point is that Orion is obviously in desperate need of a daddy, and with All-Father offering to fulfill this role, he decides to symbolically drop the weapon and embrace his new destiny as protector of New Genesis. Fade out.

Once again, I’m impressed by how much more confident Kirby’s storytelling is here than on the other series. The plot comes together much more tightly than I ever would have expected, and while I wish Kirby’s dialogue was smoother and more subtle, the underlying ideas are so powerful that it almost doesn’t matter. These characters’ actions convey who they are beautifully, even if what comes out of their mouth is kind of clunky, and while the forces of evil still seem to be more intellectually engaged (as it often does in these kinds of stories), the good guys actually manage to steal the show this time out. As usual, it’s hard not to think that Kirby was working out some personal issues in the sequence where Izaya rejects violence; perhaps he was coming to see the inherent conflicts in a cosmic war epic that revolved around hippie ideas of peace and brotherhood, and was making an effort to resolve them a little more clearly. As it is, this issue is a crucial peace of mythology that elevates the whole story quite effectively.

Oh, and that whole “hero turns out to be the son of the villain” thing? That’s a great idea. Someone ought to steal that for their own space epic.