Friday, May 30, 2008

The New Gods #9--"The Bug!"


Here’s a weird thing I’ve noticed about Kirby: he’s really, really not interested in uniformity, even when it’s thematically appropriate. One the rare occasions when he has a group of characters wearing identical outfits—like the Justifiers or the pointy-headed guys who work for Granny Goodness—they’re just background rabble with no real personalities, almost always under the guidance of a more colourful and distinctive leader. Any other gang is usually going to have a widely variegated look to them—I already commented on the Female Furies, who are all radically different from each other despite all being part of an elite military unit, and in a larger sense, there’s the Apokoliptians in general: they may inhabit a ferocious, Darwinian hellscape under the total control of a monomaniacal egotist, but they sure value individualism! (Which leads to a powerful, if possibly unintended, theme of the saga: just because you’re not forced to dress the same and march in lockstep, doesn’t mean you have any real “freedom”.)

This tendency of Kirby’s is repeated in this issue of The New Gods, as we meet…THE BUG. As random as this character seems in the context of this story, Kirby was clearly laying the seeds for it in prior issues, once again making The New Gods seem like the most carefully planned of the Fourth World comics.

As you may recall, back in issue #7, we were informed that, during the epic war between New Genesis and Apokalips, the latter employed biological weapons against the former. The details were a bit vague, but apparently the result is that the caverns of New Genesis are swarming with sentient, semi-human insects who regularly swarm to the surface to raid New Genesisian supply depots. We see this in action in the opening pages of this issue, as the puny “Forager” leads a troop of bugs to an (unidentified) food source, overwhelm the sentries on the walls, and make off with gigantic sacks full of some kind of nosh. “Remember—everyone must try to make it back to the colony!” declares Forager, somewhat unnecessarily. I mean, I know the Bugs aren't big on thinking for themselves, but was there a big chance that several of them were likely to lay down and die if he hadn’t said that?

Anyway, as the Bugs dash off, the New Genesisian monitors come swarming in with, you guessed it, bug spray. Swooping overhead like crop dusters, the deadly fumes take out a seemingly large proportion of the fleeing bugs. I gotta say, this whole scene makes me a little uncomfortable. I already mentioned that the Apokoliptish folks don’t always act like clichéd bad guys, and in some ways display traits that are usually elevated to heroic status; now we see the New Genesisians acting uncomfortably like villains, attempting to wipe out a whole race of clearly intelligent beings. What’s really off about this is that the Bugs mostly resemble human beings in bug costumes (each one appearing like a different insect species, no less). It’s possible that the colorist accidentally coloured them pink instead of green, but still, these guys talk and think and generally behave like sentient beings, and the Monitors (who are consistently portrayed as a little on the fascist side, again, for such a freedom-loving planet) just wipe them out indiscriminately.

The New Gods, as a comic, only lasted a couple more issues, so it’s hard to say what Kirby had planned, but I can’t help but see this as a glimpse at the future. Was he planning to subvert the audience’s perception of New Genesis as a utopia? Is it possible that the others aren’t aware of the Monitors’ ongoing campaign against the bugs? Were the Monitors (who, incidentally, wear identical costumes) going to be revealed as villains later on? As the “cops” who clash with the young hipsters throughout the series, it’s a role that would certainly fit them.

Anyway, Forager makes a get away by diving into the water, below the fumes, and makes his way back to the mound.

Meanwhile, Orion and Lightray are resting up on the roof of a building from their clash with Kalibak last issue, which in typical fashion, means a lot of speechifying about how the dark night has given way to the dawn. At least from Lightray; Orion, of course, is still a grumbling, bloody mess. “Let the coming light be bright and strong,” pronounces Lightray. “Let it play upon these wounds—let it bring things that wash—the pain—with pleasantries—“ he trails off as a woman in a pink coat walks out onto the balcony. “Go on—you’ve got the floor—“ she says. Lightray, always happy to receive an invitation to pontificate, lights up like a Christmas tree.

The woman, Eve Donner, is a wealthy playwright, who recognizes the two companions from “that top-secret police battle in the city last night!” Uh…if it was top secret, how does she know about—oh, never mind. Anyway, Eve ruminates about monsters as we get our first real glimpse of Orion this issue:

Back on New Genesis, the bugs are tearing into the fruits of their labour. Apparently forager gets the special privilege of being allowed to eat alone, as a reward for his good work, but that doesn’t spare him the Bug’s tendency to fight over food, as a large, tusked bug wanders over and tries to snatch his meal. Forager puts up a good fight, but it is ended by the arrival of “Prime One”. If this was “Starship Troopers”, Prime One would be the Brain Bug—not the leader of the colony (there’s a queen, of course) but the one who does the thinking and strategizing. Prime One has always taken a special interest in Forager, and as he takes him aside into a private chamber, we see why: Forager is a human in a bug suit.

…Which doesn’t make him any different from the rest of the colony as far as I can see, but you get the point. Anyway, Foragers’ alien feelings of compassion and imagination have inspired Prime One to think of forging a truce with the Eternals above. Before this idea can be explored much further, though, the invasion alarm goes off, and Forager is called away to join the Bugs in defending their colony against what’s described as “The armored killer species!” We don’t even get a good look at these things, except that they seem to be gigantic versions of the Bugs.

“But, on Earth, ‘peace’ is the momentary word!” (I thought ‘Grease’ was the word, but OK.) Orion is…no kidding—sunbathing on Eve’s balcony, his hideous face still visible. There follows another of these scenes in which normal Earthlings meet with Orion and Lightray and we get a kooky clash of cultures. While these often seem like space-filler to me, I think I see what Kirby was doing: Orion is slowly building up a crew of followers, like any God, new or old. Eve is particularly significant because she has a whole “beauty and the beast” thing going on, crushing on Orion despite his horrific visage and all that. She starts falling into the New God’s pattern of speechifying, but starts as Orion opens his eyes. “A pity!” he proclaims. “All that flowery crud ripped off—by untimely fright!” Eve reacts with appropriate ire, and Orion, dismissing his sunbathing as “the practice of lizards and idiots”, jumps to his feet and starts shouting, rattling the very rooftops with his anger.

Back to the bugs; the mysterious invaders have been driven off with the help of an old comrade, Mantis. Mantis, of course, showed up in a prior issue of the Forever People, and as a dude in a bug suit, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that he’s related to the bugs, though his exact relationship is a bit foggy. One thing’s clear, though: he’s angling for Prime One’s job, and apparently he’s passed the interview with his defeat of the invaders. The problem for Prime One is that the bugs don’t really have a retirement plan—deposed Prime Ones are killed by the queen (the “All-Widow”) in a ritual sacrifice. Forager, who considers Prime One a father to him and is burdened by those all-too-human feelings of familial affection, can’t help but step in and interfere with the ceremony, rousing the ire of the other Bugs. Prime One accepts his fate coolly, but as he’s being led off he tells Forager that it’s his responsibility to carry out his plan to form an alliance with the New Gods. He knows that Mantis is a tool of Apokolips, and despite his supposed agenda of freedom from the New Genesisians, siding with Darkseid will only end with their being oppressed by a different group. The only hope is to make contact with the “Eternal” on Earth who could use his help and try to forge an alliance with him.

When Forager asks how he’ll make contact with Orion without being squashed, Prime One calmly informs him that he’s one of the Eternals himself, which Forager doesn’t take well. “No! I don’t believe it! I’m a bug! If you’re a bug—then—I AM A BUG!” he screams. Prime, however, steps calmly down into the pit to be killed by the All-Widow. Forager, however, raises a ruckus, and the All-Widow puts out a hit on him, as well.

Back on Earth, the scene is wrapping up rather cryptically as Orion recovers his composure and prepares to leave. Eve, who’s gone from affection to fear at Orion’s temper, now says she feels sorry for him—“You’re big--! But not bigger than what’s eating you! Your enemy, Darkseid, will use it against you!” Orion responds that he will use his wits against Darkseid, and “though I pay for victory with death—I shall seek you out in that final moment!” In response to her consternation, there follows this cryptic exchange:

ORION: At that moment, madam--you’ll have the choice of greeting me with scorn—or a tear!
LIGHTRAY: It would mean our victory, lady! You shall judge Orion! –and none shall do it for you!

As they take off, Eve wishes for Orion to find some kind of peace in the future.

Despite the fact that not much has happened to Orion in this episode, plot-wise, his story here demonstrates that Kirby’s writing was improving dramatically as the series went on, and it’s a great encapsulation both of the characters and the themes of the comic.

I’ll have more to say on this in a moment, but first we have to wrap up the story: Orion finally returns to Dave Lincoln’s apartment, only to find the police waiting to arrest him for massive property destruction. Yeah, you’d think. Meanwhile, Forager makes a desperate escape from the colony, now bent on killing him. As Matis opens a Boom Tube to Earth, Forager leaps through, yelling defiance, and makes his escape to Metropolis. To be continued.

It’s issues like this that make me so frustrated that Kirby was unable to finish this story properly. Sure, he was often sloppy and haphazard in his plotting, relying heavily on deus ex machinas and awkward plot spackling or exposition, and he’s constantly described as a guy who made stuff up as he went along. But it seems pretty clear to me that he *did* have a plan in mind for The New Gods, and scenes like the one with Eve Donner drive that home. Clearly, the big finale was being forshadowed here—besides being a fairly poignant “what might have been” moment, where Orion rejects the possibility of happiness in order to complete his mission, there’s some intriguing thematic stuff being set up. How was Darkseid planning to exploit Orion’s psychology? How was Eve going to redeem him and save the day by “judging” Orion? Tragically, we’ll never find out the answers to these questions.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Forever People #9--"The Monster in the Morgue!"


One of the more common traits among comic book writers these days is their willingness to go back and resuscitate older properties by reimagining them in new forms. This tendency is probably most closely affiliated with Alan Moore, who turned Swamp Thing into a truly memorable character, and Frank Miller, with his distinctive take on Daredevil and Batman. The modern standard bearer for this is Grant Morrison, who’s been busily reinventing the DC Universe for years now. But as with so many things, Kirby did it first.

We’ve already seen his attempt to put a new spin on Jimmy Olsen, and, by extension, Superman, but his ideas were too bold for DC’s flagship character, and the result was the cancellation of the title. But someone must have liked Kirby’s take on Supes, because almost immediately after the Superman experiment failed, Kirby was handed the reins to another, less pivotal character. The logic, clearly, was that Kirby’s bizarre touch would be more useful applied to a character that didn’t find an audience the first time around, as opposed to a character that had been beloved in his current form for decades. The only problem is, Superman, as an icon, invites reinvention, as we’ve seen in decades since. A more recent, obscure character is less likely to be adaptable, unless the concept truly didn’t work—and the character they chose was Deadman, who, simply put, did work.

As you may know, Deadman was created in the late 60s by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino, though he’s usually associated with rising star Neal Adams, who took over the art after a few issues. Deadman was a circus performer who was mysteriously murdered in the first issue, but became compelled to walk the Earth in spectral form in order to find his murderer. His power was that he could possess the bodies of anyone nearby, using them to accomplish his goals. The gritty premise, combined with Adams’ famously realistic artwork, did a lot to issue in the Bronze Age style of comics, and secured a cult following, but the comic was cancelled due to low sales after a year or two. Still, DC knew they had something worthwhile on their hands, hence their handing him over to Kirby.

It probably seemed like a good idea on paper, and it might have worked with another character, but Deadman and the King just weren’t suited to each other. For one thing, Kirby had repeatedly indicated that he wasn’t as happy working with other’s characters, and had deliberately attempted to keep the Fourth World free of other DC Universe trappings—which must have made it frustrating that it so rarely worked out that way. For another, Kirby honestly didn’t seem to like the character—Mark Evanier quotes him as saying, “How can you have a superhero with no body?” but, as is becoming clear the more I read about him, Kirby never said “no” to a challenge—and thus it was that Deadman ended up in a two-issue story in The Forever People.

I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m reading too much into what seem like metafictional winks throughout this series, but given the above context, it’s pretty obvious Kirby was extrapolating from the situation into the comic when he opens with a pseudo-Frankenstein mad scientist trying to raise a patchwork creature from the dead. The scientist, “Doc” Gideon, is even referred to as an “obscure dreamer”, much like Kirby himself…and the fact that his experiment fails doesn’t speak well of Kirby’s own mindset at the time.

But in fact, the Doc’s crackling electrodes have had an effect: they’ve recalled Deadman from beyond the grave (and cancellation). As I understand it, his comic had ended with his finding the man who killed him (a man with a hook hand, in a nod to “The Fugitive”) and being allowed to merge with the infinite. But now he once again walks the Earth; can science really undo the will of mystic destiny?

Meanwhile, the Forever People have just been walking down the street, minding their own business, when they’re thrust into another exciting adventure! Boy, trouble follows these kids around like cat hair on a tuxedo! Does that metaphor make any sense? Of course not! Moving on!

It’s the classic “old lady being mugged” bit, of course, and there’s not really a lot of suspense involved in wondering if a couple of goons with guns can overcome five superpowered hippies, one of whom has a “Megaton Touch”, another of whom can left a Mack Truck, and a third of whom has a hatband full of little thingies that can do pretty much whatever the plot requires at that moment. Needless to say, when the cops, rather lamely, show up on the scene, Big Bear has the thugs, and their car, well in hand. The old lady, one Trixie Magruder, argues their case for the cops, who realize that the FPs have put paid to a rash of burglaries in the neighbourhood.

Doc Gideon happens to be passing by, and as it turns out, Mrs. MacGruder is his landlady, but being a jerk, Gideon does anything possible to avoid having to get involved, sneaking up the rear stairs. Unbeknownst to him, though, he is being followed by the incorporeal Deadman. On entering his apartment, Gideon hits the books, and we learn that his experiments have incorporated research into the mysticism of Rama Kushna, the deity that guides Deadman’s fate. Man, science has gotten, like, so uptight these days. Scientists get hot under the collar at the mere mention of intelligent design or holistic healing, let alone dabbling in the dark forces man was never meant to know! How much we’ve lost since the seventies. All I can say is, when some Cthulhu cultist discovers a cure for cancer, they’ll be sorry, that’s for sure.

Gideon’s intense flipping through the book, sardonically observed by Deadman, is interrupted by “all that cackling and gabble” coming from Trixie’s room, where she and Beautiful Dreamer are having a midday slumber party. It seems that after 9 issues, someone finally got the nerve to tell Beauty that the tattered slave-girl rag she’s been sporting doesn’t really do her any favours, aesthetically. You’ve got to commend Beauty for her pure-minded rejection of sartorial vanity, and hey, I sure didn’t have a problem with her gadding around in what looked like a slightly overlarge napkin, but that thing probably was getting a bit stinky by now, so it’s probably a good thing that Trixie gives her one of her old dresses to wear:

And then, almost instantly, Serifan barges in, takes one look at this fairly nice dress, and decides to meddle by shifting it into a new form:

God, Serifan is a DOUCHEBAG. And what’s wrong with Beauty, anyway? She’s passive even for a Kirby heroine! This little clothes-swap is more than she’s done in any preceding issue, and it’s basically consisted of two people forcing her to wear clothing she didn’t really have any interest in, but has just passively accepted them.

The fact that this dress suddenly seems to have amplified her physique to va-va-voom levels, and that her proportions will continue to slowly grow to absurd levels over the course of this and the next issue, is small consolation. Seriously, you’d think a hippie chick like this would be all, I am woman, hear me roar, you know? Instead she’s got less personality than Mother Box.

At any rate, Beauty immediately blends into the background again so that Serifan can brag about his cosmic cartridges, showing off yet another ability we’ve never seen before—the ability to bring a semblance of life to inanimate objects. And who just happens to be looking on as he does this? Yep, “Doc” Gideon, who immediately sees the value this power could have in his reanimation experiments. Well how conveeeeeeeenient.

For some reason, Kirby immediately recaps the previous page, with Trixie and the FPs reiterating how awesome Beauty looks now (Beauty herself, of course, just hangs her head and stays quiet.) Despite this disrespect displayed to her property, Trixie thinks the FPs are a hoot and invites them to stay in her apartments without paying rent.

Doc Gideon breaks up the love-fest by introducing himself and reminding Trixie that he was invited to “one of your exciting séances tonight.” He reiterates to the FPs that Trixie is “a fine medium”. Without further delay, Trixie changes into a fortune teller’s costume and the gang gathers around the table with the usual trappings—crystal ball, brazier fill of smoking stuff, etc. It’s made almost immediately clear that Trixie’s a fake, so when strange lights start flickering around the table, she's more terrified than the others. (According to Big Bear, it’s courtesy Beautiful Dreamer’s illusion power, but she looks as blank-faced as ever while this is happening) While everyone is thus distracted, Gideon manages to snatch the “animating” capsule from Serifan’s discarded hat (by the way, is a hat really the best place to keep these objects of unimaginable power?)

Suddenly, by the will of the spirits and the power of coincidence, Trixie has a flashback to her days as a circus fortune teller, and a young acrobat named Boston Brand…who, surprise surprise, happens to be floating around in disembodied form at this very moment, now going by the name Deadman. Called forth by Trixie, he demands to know why he once again has been called forth to walk the land of the living. Trixie, terrified, blurts out that the man he thought he killed wasn’t his killer at all—the hook was on the wrong hand. D’oh!

Overwhelmed by stress, Trixie passes out, and the FPs are sufficiently distracted not to notice the absence of both “Doc” and the relevant cartridge for a few crucial moments…but eventually Serifan clues in. “I—I think we’ve been pre-occupied with the wrong incident!!”

Sure enough, Doc is already back at the morgue—man, that place must be right across the street—and taping the cartridge to the head of his monster, which almost immediately springs to life (no Frankensteinian finger-twitching here!) After a panel’s worth of triumphant crowing, the Doc suddenly realizes that he’s called into existence a huge, unruly creature who’s disoriented and pissed off, and that he has no discernable way of controlling it. Gee, there’s this book called Frankenstein, Doc. It details pretty specifically the potential pitfalls of tampering in God’s domain. You might want to check it out.

Naturally, a classic rampage follows:

…and quickly spills out onto the street. The Forever People (but not Beautiful Dreamer—seriously, this is some hardcore sexism right here) quickly home in on the beast, or rather, his cartridge, via Mother Box, and end up doing battle with him in front of a theatre showing, you guessed it, Frankenstein movies. That’s just a little too cutesy for me.

Turns out, because the creature is powered by Serifan’s cosmic cartridge, it absorbs the various rays and energy bolts that the FP throw at him—Vykin’s “Repelli-force”, Mark’s Megaton Touch—and send it back. Mark notices a small lump beneath the monster’s bandages, but is thrown away before he can snatch it. Serifan catches him with an anti-grav ray, but while that’s happening, the monster somehow manages to slip away. Vykin, with a sarcastic “Don’t bother helping me!” is able to de-magnetize himself (he was stuck to the wall by his own “magna-force”)…and then Big Bear wanders up, indicating that he almost snuck out of the superhero melee to go catch a movie.

Big Bear is AWES—wait, that’s actually kind of dickish. But he’s still awesome.

So who will stop the creature’s mindless rampage? “Doc” Gideon sure isn’t—he was rendered insensate by the creature and is being hauled away by the police. Meanwhile, the creature has made his way into the sewers, where he’s wreaking havoc on the main gas pipeline. Deadman, however, is on the job, and he’s decided to step in…literally. However, his attempt to possess the monster is blocked by the inverse energy from the cartridge, or some such gibberish. Deadman fights through the pain as the gas mains begin to explode left and right, but just as the citizens are gearing up for their Godzilla movie act as the flames pour out onto main street, the explosions suddenly stop.

The Forever People eventually show up to assess the damage, and Serifan makes up slightly for his recent jerkishness by capping the gas line. Shuffling through the rubble, the Forev Peeps dig up the monster’s body, apparently unsalvageable…but talking. Deadman is, of course, using the thing’s barely-used vocal cords to explain his plight to the FPs. The issue ends with Serifan pulling yet another Deus Ex Machina out of his hat to give Deadman a body by “compact[ing] the few atoms that still cling to you!” and allowing them to meet face to face for a while. The FPs shake his hand and pledge to help him find his killer. For at least one issue longer.

All things considered, this wasn’t too bad. If Deadman had to be injected into the Fourth World Saga, the Forever People was probably the best place for him, since, with the departure of Jimmy Olsen, that was the “random encounter” book without a tight plotline; by their nature, the FPs are able to meet and thus incorporate all kinds of characters into their storyline.

At any rate, this “free atoms” thing is only a temporary fix, so we’ll have to wait until next issue to learn what Kirby had in mind by way of giving the character a real body…and rest assured, it’s a doozy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mister Miracle #8--"The Battle Of The Id!"


I’ve already talked a bit about the subtext of the Fourth World, but it’s a little funny how inconsistent it is. Sometimes the saga is as superficial and broad as any other comic of the time; more often than not, though, the sheer power of Kirby’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling creates something resonant and fascinating. And I don’t mean to say that all the interesting stuff in the Fourth World is there by accident, either; it just seems like a lot of it comes straight from Kirby’s subconscious, without a lot of filtering. Kirby was uniquely capable of channeling his imagination directly onto the page, without necessarily trying to force an authorial interpretation; that’s one of his greatest strengths.

Still, it’s clear that sometimes he did have a specific idea for what he was trying to say, beyond a simple allegory (and he almost never slipped into straight sermonizing). Those are the times when the Fourth World is at its most fascinating, and this issue is one of those times.

The issue opens with Barda making her way back to the Female Fury barracks, leaving a trail of beat-up henchmen in her wake. “You ‘kill-crazy’ she-wolf!” Grunts one. “You’ll pay for this!” First of all, on Apokolips, isn’t being called “Kill-crazy” kind of a compliment? And secondly, she hasn’t really killed anyone. Maybe that’s what “Kill-crazy” means here. “You’re so crazy, you won’t kill!”

Perhaps I’m overthinking this.

The next pages are one of the very best two-page spreads in the entire saga—the interior of the Female Fury barracks, where the Furies are fighting (still?) over who gets to be the new leader now that Barda’s gone. Kirby seems to have blown through a whole bunch of designs here, all of them pretty great, in that distinctly Kirby “too-much-is-not-enough” way. I especially like the pirate chick:

But the girl with the two-foot-long steel finger, the green ersatz Catwoman, and the girl with mind-bogglingly enormous wing-flaps are all pretty cool too. It’s like a van full of hippies, a bunch of S & M enthusiasts, and a group of mythological Valkyries all collided and got their costumes mixed up.

Anyway, Barda shows up and reasserts herself: “I’m still in command! Make no mistake about that!!!” she announces, tossing several random Furies around. Wait, so she defected for several months so she could consort with Apokolips’ Public Enemy #2, and she’s still in command?!? Apokolips has a more flexible approach to military discipline than I would have thought. But then, given that they still haven’t chosen a new leader in all that time, maybe it just comes down to whoever can beat everyone up.

There’s some more extremely nice art—Kirby was on a roll—as we see the captured Mr. M crossing a bridge over a steaming, noisome pit somewhere deep within the fabled Section Zero. Turns out the pit is full of malformed, pathetic creatures (“whinning [sic] freaks” as the guard calls them) who are apparently there as punishment. What’s odd is that they’re never actually explained, but the implication is that these are what’s left of those who failed the challenge that Scott’s about to face.

The instant he enters the room, Scott’s knocked out by a tranq gun (so…Mr. World’s Greatest Escape Artist couldn’t get away from a couple of guys with sticks?) and some creepy ninja technicians prepare him for “‘psycho-merge!’--the ‘mind hook-up!’” “—with the Lump!” “Yeah! The Lump just loves intruders—in his world!” (That was sarcasm.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is all being done for the sake of Granny Goodness’s amusement. Scott and The Lump will battle to the death—but not in any conventional arena:

Granny enters with her typical bravado, and along with her come two familiar faces: her pupil Virman Vundabar, and the ever-ambiguous Kanto. “I was dropped into a deep pit!!” says Virman, clicking his heels as he bows to Granny. “But Virman Vundabar, with the proper tools, was out of there in record time, Granny!” Um…is that supposed to impress us? The fact that he climbed out of a pit? Someone’s pretty desperate to curry favour with the boss. Kanto, meanwhile, elides Granny’s questioning by claiming that, when he had Scott within his sights, he “merely chose not to succeed” because he knew Scott was on his way to this arena. “Bully for you!” sneers Granny Goodness, clearly as unconvinced as the rest of us are. “Get this show on the road!!

But before that can happen, there’s one more audience member to arrive—who the guards describe as a person of high rank, but who “bears the status of ‘non-being!’” “This can be none other than the infamous ‘mystery prisoner’ of Section Zero!” thinks Virman. Who do you think it is? Go on, guess.

Yep, it’s Tigra, who, as you may recall, happens to be Darkseid’s wife. I’m not quite sure what the deal is—are they divorced? Because I’m not really sure why Darkseid didn’t just do away with her, if he found her so embarrassing. Could it be that ol’ Stoney Lonesome actually bears a spark of human feeling for her?

Oh yeah, and that son of hers, of course, is Orion, who she’s never met and has no idea who his real parents are. But Tigra seems to know that fate will drive them together eventually. It always does, doesn’t it?

But now it’s time to start the show. Mister Miracle awakens in a vast plain inside the mind of The Lump, observed by Granny and her compeers. A panel later, he’s knocked out by a familiar pink arm. “You’re the Lump!!” observes a quick-on-the-uptake Scott. “B-but not like you were on that table!” You know, I hate to nitpick, but technically Scott didn’t see him on the table…

The long and the short of it is, The Lump occupies a mental realm of his own devising—apparently on a permanent basis, which isn’t surprising, considering that he’s basically a useless wad of flesh in the real world. Whereas here, he’s a useful wad of flesh. “Life without form”, he calls himself. He can shift both his own shape and the landscape around him, though curiously he never alters his own self-image to something more pleasing to the eye. He can, however, transform his physique into pure muscle, grow or shrink, spout spines, breathe fire, or change—

Um, yes. Anyway, the point is that The Lump hates company, and he controls the mental realm in which Scott finds himself, so he’s seriously outmatched. Scott attempts to make peace and calm down the raging sac of pink goo, but the Lump is on a serious ego trip, and he’s not big on conversation.

The battle rages for a while, and it’s a corker—Kirby embraces the possibility of a shape-shifting warrior to its fullest. But Scott, of course, is an escape artist, so you know it’s only a matter of time before he finds a way out.

Meanwhile, Barda’s been busy, apparently having won over the trust of the Female Fury Brigade once more. I guess that whole business of Stompa, Lashina, Mad Harriet and Burnadeth trying to kill her a few issues ago is all in the past, huh? Anyway, the sexy Gilotina manages to do the old “seduce the guard” trick (made more plausible by the fact that these two know each other, and he’s been hitting on her for weeks) and renders him unconscious, allowing a flood of Furies to swarm into Section Zero and overpower the operators.

Back in The Battle in the Id, Scott is faring poorly against The Lump, but once he’s at the thing’s mercy, being crushed in his rubbery grip, he at least manages to get him to listen. As Scott points out, killing him just means that more intruders will enter the Lump’s realm, again and again, and the Lump will just have to keep killing them, forever, at the whim of Granny and her servants.

But the Lump keeps up his death grip, and just as things look bleak, the Furies burst in. Tigra, who had been watching the battle with contempt, takes up the cause with glee and blows away the guards. Kanto, as ever, remains neutral, but Granny can’t resist cackling that Scott is dead, and that Barda is a traitor. This really sets her off, as she gets ready to crush Granny: “Why, I’m the purest, most superior product you ever turned out!” Again, we have this weird case of divided loyalties on Barda’s part—she seems to think she’s still being loyal to Darkseid in some weird way, and that it’s OK to whomp on Granny and her minions because they’ve strayed from true loyalty. Since, as we’ve seen, the code of Apokolips seems to allow for some pretty vicious infighting, I guess she may have a point. Nevertheless, Barda seems willing even to defy Darkseid to get Scott back, and is on the verge of crushing the life out of Granny in a berserker rage, when Scott himself pops up.

Yep, it’s another “See, I escaped! Now let me tell you how!” denouement. But in this case, it was pretty reasonably set up; Scott managed to close his case to the Lump by breaking off a piece of glass, which had been fused out of the ground by the Lump’s fire-breathing, and using it to show him his reflection. Getting a glimpse of himself sent the Lump screaming in terror, deep into the recesses of his mind, and Scott was able to escape. Scott demonstrates by holding up the piece of glass he used…in the mental landscape…which he’s now somehow holding in the real world. Oops.

I make fun of these books a lot here at Fourth World Fridays, mostly due to the awkward dialogue and sometimes erratic plotting. But when you really start to look for them, it becomes obvious just how many ideas Kirby packed into this series, and you start to get a little staggered by his genius. If he’d only been a little better at consistently conveying those ideas, the Fourth World might easily stand as the greatest comic book series, like, ever. This issue is one of his best, with a lot of meat to chew on. What is the Lump, exactly? Is he a personification of Kirby’s own fears? Every artist risks withdrawing too deeply into his own imagination and thus, losing the ability to relate to others or face the outside world, a process that is portrayed pretty concisely here. The Lump really is Scott’s opposite number, but whereas Scott uses his talents to set himself and others free, the Lump withdraws into extreme solipsism and becomes a tool of the forces of evil.

Heady stuff. Kirby was really hitting his stride here; it’s too bad that the very next issue we’ll be looking at saw the beginning of corporate interference in this book, and the slow decline of the saga as a whole…

Friday, May 9, 2008

Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #148--"Monarch of All He Subdues!"


You know, referring to a villain as “Monarch Of All He Subdues” sounds impressive until you think about it. Of course you can be monarch of stuff if you subdue it. But what if you can’t subdue anything?

Speaking of which, Superman being defeated by a cage? Lame. Almost as lame as expecting us to believe that Superman is going to face a challenge in the form of stone walls that crunched together, as he did last issue. Gee, do you think the monumentally powerful Man of Steel is going to escape?

Sure enough, he busts loose and frees Jimmy and the Newsboys within moments. No sooner has that happened than Victor Volcanum appears on the classic viewscreen to harangue the group. No supervillain’s lair is complete without one!

Volcanum is gearing up for his single-handed conquest of Earth, alluded to last issue, by changing into some Napoleonic military duds and filling them all in on his backstory. It seems he was a daring scientist and balloonist a hundred and ten years ago and crashed in this volcano while attempting an Atlantic crossing. Trapped in a burning underworld with nothing to eat, Volcanum used his scientific knowledge to extract nourishment from the volcano in the form of that flaming liquid he drinks. Hey, it’s the world’s first energy drink! And it works really well, having made him immortal, plus causing him to grow several feet over the last century.

But wait—when Jimmy and Co. first awoke last issue, Volcanum was offering them dinner. If he hasn’t left the volcano since the 19th century, where did he get that food from?

My gosh! I’ve found the tiny plot hole in this otherwise immaculately logical and plausible scenario!

Anyway, Dr. Volcanum also figured out how to build an army of robot slaves, because why the hell not? And since then he’s lived in luxury, growing slowly more isolated and paranoid, until Jimmy happened to drop in on the very day he had planned to emerge to conquer the world. Good timing, that.

On that note, Volcanum signs off and sends his robots to crush the lot of them, and again, I’m having a hard time seeing how these guys present a huge difficulty to Superman, a guy who can pretty much bench-press an asteroid. Sure enough, they go down even more easily than expected, due partly to their rather moronic decision to line up neatly s that Superman can bean them all with a single rock:

Continuing down the passageway, they face a gigantic, flaming gout of lava which presents a more believable challenge for Superman, who’s forced to rapidly gouge a fissure in the rock to divert the flow of lava. Nonetheless, it comes WAY too close to the Legion. (As movie, comic book, and video game makers don’t seem to understand, lava is melted rock, which means it’s very, very hot. Like, so hot that even standing near it would produce enough heat to fry the skin off your face. If you can see a lava flow, and you’re not in a helicopter, you’re standing way too close.)

While Superman is distracted, Jimmy and the gang encounter an unusually chatty robot, Boxxa, who feels the need to explain that he was programmed for “bouts” to amuse his master, but is currently on guard duty, before attacking. Jimmy, despite being way outmatched, puts up a heroic, desperate fight, which loses something due to the fact that he’s still wearing the dorky green robe Volcanum dressed him in, which looks more than a little like a dress. (I guess a man gets very, very lonely after spending a hundred years in a remote volcano.)

Jimmy luckily manages to put down the mechanical pugilist, by finding the button to deactivate him—which is, natch, located right on the front of his collarbone just below the neck. In other words, in about the most vulnerable spot. Good job, Dr. Volcanum.

Possibly because all these laughable threats are making them cocky, Superman and friends proceed into a tunnel, in which they’re hit by a “brain blocker” that renders them unconscious. Dr. Volcanum then packs up his flying gondola with enough fire-water to keep him going for a while, and abandons his home to greener pastures.

A mere two pages later, Jimmy has jerked himself awake to find himself in Dr. Volcanum’s inner sanctum, where Superman is already awake and tinkering with things. We see that the Doctor has yet another villainous staple ready to hand—the miniaturized model city, with accompanying model of his devastating doom weapon, which he can use to enact the destruction that he’s never going to be able to cause in real life. Sure enough, it turns out the little model gondola has a functioning hyper-sonic projector (!) that reduces the city to rubble, helpfully cluing Superman and Jimmy in on his evil plan. (So…that model was built to be used once and then self-destruct, and Dr. Volcanum never actually bothered to use it?)

Rounding the corner, Superman and Jimmy are reunited with the Newsboys, the Whiz Wagon, and Angry Charlie, who appears here in his final panel, ignominiously strapped to the Wagon’s hull once more. The whole group takes off and escapes seconds ahead of a vast explosion—not eruption, explosion—that destroys the entire volcanic island.

As the Doc approaches Metropolis, he’s engaged in a dogfight by Jimmy and the Whiz Wagon gang. Despite the fact that his “hyper-spinner” weapon is located on the bottom of his gondola, is not articulated, and seems like it would be a real bitch to aim at a moving target, V.V. somehow manages to get the drop on the Wagon and nearly get shaken to pieces until Superman saves them. Continuing with the whole recurring theme of “threats that Superman is able to deal with ridiculously quickly by virtue of the fact that he’s Superman”, this is accomplished in two panels by Supes smashing his way onto the bridge and ripping out the weaponry circuits. Superman then makes his plea to the Doc:

Wow, along with everything else, Dr. Volanum invented Objectivism back in the 1800s? No wonder he went evil.

Realizing that he’s only got a page left in the issue in which to indulge his fetish for destroying his own equipment, Volcanum hits the self-destruct button. We get the obligatory sanctimoniousness from the hero (“And so ends Volcanum’s madness!”) before the issue wraps up abruptly with the whole gang literally flying off into the sunset, and back to Metropolis:’

And…that’s it. Yep, that was the final issue of Jimmy Olsen, not just for Kirby, but for all time, as DC, feeling the beginnings of the downturn that hit comics in general and their company in particular during the 70s, cancelled the book. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, they’ve never resurrected it, either. Jimmy Olsen is one of those concepts that belongs unqualifiedly to the Silver Age, which was just ending at the very moment Kirby was producing this comic. Could Kirby’s touch have brought Jimmy Olsen into the modern era, had he been given the leeway he needed? It’s hard to say, but he gave it a good shot anyway.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The New Gods #8--"The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin"


Can you remember aaaaaaaall the way back to New Gods Issue #5? That was the one where Orion uncovered Intergang’s jamming device and embarked on a three-issue odyssey out to sea, ending with the cacophonous conclusion aboard The Glory Boat. But also in that issue, Kirby laid down the seeds for another storyline, one that comes to fruition now, three whole issues later. While Orion was doing battle with the Leviathan of the deep, none other than Kalibak the Cruel, his old enemy from way back in the first issue, has come to Earth in order to…well, mostly to smash stuff. Actually, he’s pretty much another blunt instrument in Darkseid’s “dominate and subjugate” operation. Darkseid likes to keep a lot of really powerful dudes around without too much in the way of brains. Wouldn’t you?

Kalibak has come tracking down the Earthlings who Orion rescued from him, and he’s found them in the persona of Dave Lincoln, P.I., and Claudia Shane, Simple But Worried Secretary. Who’s pretty much right to worry at this particular moment, as a gigantic neanderthaline gentleman comes smashing into their apartment, bullets bouncing off him. “Orion once snatched you from my grasp!” he bellows. “Now I’ll use you as bait--to destroy him!!” “You’ll need our consent to do that, Kalibak!” Replies Dave. “And you’ll have to get it from my gun!” As tough-guy lines go, that one lacks a certain something. Let me see if I can do better:

“You’ll need a permission slip for that, Kalibak! A permission slip…of justice!


“You’ll need a signed affidavit for that, Kalibak! And I happen to have two notaries willing to make it legally binding right here--my fists!!!

OK, maybe not.

“I sure hope this gun can bring him down!” yells Lincoln, continuing to fire at Kalibak, who of course keels over dead immediately. No, of course he doesn’t. Bullets working? In a Kirby comic? Fuggedaboudit. Dave then throws his gun at Kalibak, because that’s likely to bring him down after unloading his gun at him point blank didn’t. (Hey, I’d probably do the same thing in his situation. That doesn’t make it any less stupid.)

And cut to the police station. The issue I linked to above, you may recall, also introduced the titular Terrible Turpin, the gentleman who compared his headgear to an alien spaceship via the world’s most tortured analogy, and who, at the time, seemed to be fulfilling the standard role of “grizzled chief who yells at the hotshot detective”. However, as we’ll see in this issue, there’s a lot more to his character.

At the moment, he’s being dressed down by his superior, the commissioner, apparently for caring too much. It seems that commissioner Kiernan, who Turpin trained from a rookie, is concerned about his old mentor’s determination to confront the godlike beings who are leveling Metropolis with their struggle. As cops burst in to inform them of the Kalibak situation, Turpin leaves with them, with the chief’s threat to bust him down to crossing guard following behind him. Yes, this issue is totally a 70s cop movie.

Meanwhile, Lightray and Orion, fresh from their explosive confrontation with the gigantic pink penis-whale known as SPAWN, have touched down on a rooftop, where they “humourously” go unnoticed by a pair of canoodling lovebirds. “And so it is with the romantic young, Lightray!” Pronounces Orion dourly. “Part fantasy, part truth—all comedy!!” “Not to them, Orion!” responds Lightray. “It’s reality to them!”

There’s a pointless digression, first as Lightray marvels over the elevator (“what a fantastic curio!”) and then they encounter a swingin’ 60s chick who invites them to a costume party. Orion, naturally, declines—“and that means ’no,’ female! Frivolity is far from my thoughts!!” All this takes two pages. Take your time, guys. It’s not like a homicidal, monstrously powerful caveman is tearing the city apart.

At least Turpin is doing something, racing to the scene of Kalibak’s rampage. Actually, he’s probably overcompensating a little: “King Kong on a rooftop is no more dangerous than a nervous punk with a pistol!! The idea is to give as good as you get!!” Seems dodgy to me, but then, the story’s not called The Measured Response of Reasonable Turpin.

The cops have put up their standard barricades and called in the SWAT team, which apparently draws Kalibak’s attention for just a moment:

He then throws a power-blast from his laser-shooting club that trashes a bunch of cop cars and hardens Turpin’s resolve.

Meanwhile, Orion and Lightray are crashing Victor Lanza’s pad and lounging about while his wife offers them fruit. Can you handle the pulse-pounding excitement?!?

But don’t worry. This *is* a Kirby comic. The little woman turns on the TV, and Orion is finally galvanized into action by a glimpse of the chaos unfolding on the screen. In fact, he’s so galvanized that he picks up the TV, over Lightray’s exhortations to be careful with that “authentic electronic period piece”. Jeezly crow, Kirby, we get it. Our most sophisticated, 1970s-era technology is like a bunch of toys to these futuristic visitors. We should look upon their works and despair. Yadda yadda yadda.

Turpin is holding the fort with bulldog-like tenacity, demanding, amusingly, that the invulnerable super-being from beyond space surrender himself for questioning. And when Kalibak replies with a threat, Turpin responds by, well—

And then Kalibak throws a chimney at him.

But Turpin just will not stop. Even as he lies battered and bleeding in a pile of bricks, he’s tossing concussion grenades at Kalibak, which is a sufficiently surprising move to knock Kal off the roof. But only for a moment. As police start to swarm up onto the building, Kal pops back up with another force blast, picks up Turpin, and prepares to dash him to the concrete ten stories below. He’s saved only by Orion’s timely arrival.

Seriously, Turpin’s attack sequence is so awesome that once Orion arrives and we start getting a true superpowered smackdown between these two mortal enemies, one we’ve basically been expecting from the first issue, it feels like a step down. At least for a moment as Kalibak puts Orion down with his club and turns on Lightray. L.R. employs his “solar thermo-beams” to try and melt Kal’s club, but to no avail—Lightray’s about to have his head crushed when Orion pops back up again, wrestles the club out of his hands, and—

The two start exchanging blows, raving about who’s the better fighter, and how they’ve been drawn to trade blows over and over again for some mysterious reason. Of course, Orion being Darkseid’s son and all, he and Kalibak are brothers, so their unawareness of this fact lends a certain poignancy to their struggle.

Back at the ground level, Turpin, clothes in tatters, his face an unrecognizable mass of bruises, is still trying to struggle to his feet, and when Lightray offers him help, he threatens to book him, too. “No super ‘muk-muks’ are gonna use this town—as—a—fight arena!!” he chokes, while waving the cops to bring in his secret weapon: a gigantic electronic device that will employ all the power generated by the entire city to shock Kalibak into submission. Seriously, can this series just be about Turpin from now on?

Both Kalibak and Orion are looking the worse for wear as their epic fistfight takes them to the top of a neon sign. Kalibak levels a mule-like kick to Orion’s face, then retreats to the top of the sign, taunting Orion to climb up and meet him—but he’s taken aback to be met by this:

Just as it seems the battle is going to be decided once and for all, Lightray swoops in and snatches Orion away from the sign, just as Turpin employs his superpowered zapper to take down Kalibak. In a very nicely rendered couple of panels, Kal plummets to the ground, where Turpin, supported by two cops, chokes out a little soliloquy (basically, “This is our town! One super-muk-muk down…eight zillion to go!”) before collapsing. The art makes it seem like he’s dead, though the dialogue hastily assures us that he’s still alive. (A concession to the comics code? Or just Kirby not finding it in himself to kill off a character he clearly had a lot of affection for?)

Dave and Claudia arrive on the scene, having conveniently managed not to do anything to help, and to have been well out of the line of fire for some reason. There’s a brief epilogue where Lightray awkwardly tries to change the subject away from Orion’s sudden attack of the Uglies, but Orion, straightforward as ever, won’t let it drop. Finally, Lightray responds that “I saw scars--both new and old—taken in the cause of New Genesis!” and Orion, in a rare moment of emotion, calls him a good friend before putting his helmet back on.

Seriously, this whole issue is pretty awesome, and the whole theme of a comparatively powerless, but unrelenting and borderline insane policeman trying to bring a super-being to justice is really well handled. It’s got a great, human element to it that this series sometimes lacked, and for once the Orion-Lightray relationship actually seems human…in fact, that final scene is all the more effective because they briefly drop their florid, convoluted manner of speech. It’s no wonder Kirby listed this issue as one of his favourites.