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…

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