Friday, August 29, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens next:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2008

We apologise for the interruption...

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

Friday, August 15, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, we meet Mr. Fez:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Seriously. You saw that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 8, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mister Miracle #11--"The Greatest Show Off Earth!!"


So one of the things that I keep fixating on, when discussing Mr. Miracle, is the fact that we never seem to have any idea of just how he operates, on a professional level. Is he world-famous? Is he still making a name for himself? Does he shun the limelight? He certainly seems to prefer to do his escaping far from any potential audience, but there have also been throwaway references to charity events and so on. As I mentioned way back when, I get the distinct impression that Kirby was trying to make Scott as anti-materialistic as possible, in keeping with the counterculture vibe of the Fourth World. On the other hand, it also seems that he’s trying to make himself into a symbol, opposing the forces of Apokolips. Hence his bizarre, self-contradicting career of calling himself a performer while simultaneously keeping all his performances secret.

However, things are different now; as you may recall, Scott’s mentor Thaddeus Brown turned out to have spawned a son, Ted, who showed up on Scott’s doorstep last issue, hat in hand, planning to set himself up as his manager. His radical idea is to have Scott give “performances” to “audiences” in exchange for “money”.

What’s funny about this is that it corresponds with the slow decline of the Fourth World saga, and seems to represent, on some level, Kirby selling out his ideals. The Forever People also recently got jobs. Even Kirby was obviously figuring out that the 60s were over, and the materialistic 70s had begun. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened to overlap with the period in which Kirby started backing away from the more personal aspects of Mr. Miracle, turning it into “just another superhero book”. So it’s ironic that this is one element that actually improves the book, or at least causes it to make more sense.

At any rate, Ted Brown’s slick promotional idea is to make a demo tape of Mr. M doing his thing—along with Scott’s merry band of helpers, who have apparently officially expanded to include not only Ted, Oberon and Barda but the rest of the Female Furies, as well. They all get in on this act, which consists of Barda hefting a very tall pole with Scott balanced on top in restraints, Burnadeth igniting a pool of gasoline at its base, Lashina cracking the pole, Stompa kicking it over, and Ted taping the whole thing. While Mad Harriet, um, stands off to the side and cackles. Oh, and Oberon gets to wear a ridiculous costume and do his usual vital routine of yelling, “Work, Scott, work! Escape from that deathtrap! By which I mean, the thing which is in immediate danger of killing you!” And he gets to jabber on and on in this fashion via the magic of comics, in which huge word balloons can be crammed into a panel that realistically portrays the second or two it takes Scott to escape. Chris Claremont knows it! Now, so do you!

There’s the usual utterly predictable moment where all the characters think Scott’s bought it in his latest escape, but no, he’s still alive, yay, how surprising. What is nice is how Barda is the one character who has total faith in Scott’s ability to survive, even if she does lose track of him for a moment. “You kept your eye on the fire—instead of me!” winks Scott as he swings down from a nearby tree branch. “Nonsense! My eyes never left you!” retorts Barda. Oooh, methinks I detect a hint of romantic frisson between these two crazy kids.

In the meantime, though, Scott is being watched by an enemy, in the second most common trope of this series. In this case, it’s Doctor Bedlam again, or more precisely, one of his “animates”, the faceless robots which he uses as shells for his consciousness. I already mentioned how disappointing it is to me that the supposedly soulless and personality-less animates talk of their own volition, even when Bedlam’s not around, but hey, I think I’ll do it again. It’s the very embodiment of Kirby’s unfortunate tendency, which I assume he picked up from Stan Lee, to over-explain everything via text. (By the way, to skip ahead a little, Kirby does eventually grow out of this tendency…too bad it takes him over a decade.)

Anyway, again a single animate is seated and becomes the vessel for the Doctor, with much unnecessary exposition. He and his crew then immediately reveal the gigantic pseudo-UFO they’ve got hidden in the underbrush. “The Ceri-skiff!” Bedlam calls it. “Made to snare and kill Mister Miracle!!”

Meanwhile, Oberon is relaxing from his latest Mother Hen panic attack by admiring himself in the mirror:

Suddenly, his image turns ghastly…um, ghastlier, that is…and he finds himself in the grip of terrifying illusions once more. Scott rushes him and saves him by remaining calm and naming their visitor, at which point he withdraws. Um…I’m not sure why the Doctor bothered to attack Oberon, since the only thing he accomplished was to alert them to his presence. But I guess it’s a point of honour sorta thing…I mean, being a supervillain obviously isn’t about winning, so I guess it’s more to do with making an entrance.

Anyway, the Animates come bursting in and a fight ensues, one in which even Oberon gets to dismantle one of them—naturally the Furies make short work of them as a group. And once more, the Animates just can’t shut the hell up, announcing loudly their intention to destroy Scott’s Mother Box before actually doing so. He does get off a shot at Scott’s shoulder and seems to fry MB, though immediately afterward Barda throws him out the window.

So now—you guessed it—Scott’s decided to once again head out and walk right into the bad guy’s trap. Of course, at this point it feels a lot more like simple, and well-placed, confidence that he’ll be able to get out of anything, but he sure doesn’t go out of his way to give his archnemeses a hard time, does he? For good measure, he insists that Barda not follow him. Mr. M is a cocky bastard, isn’t he?

Anyway, a few panels later he’s strolling on board the Ceri-Skiff to confront the Doctor:

“Despite the fact that we’re sworn enemies, I don’t take setbacks lightly!” adds Bedlam, vying for the coveted Non Sequitur Award (villainous speech division). Scott responds properly by punching him in the face, but of course he’s jumped out of the body, leaving behind an empty animate (albeit one which keeps the Doctor’s clothing, for some reason.) Then the doors to the skiff slam shut, and it rockets into space, immediately throwing itself into a meteor swarm and convincingly bashing Scott around, hardly leaving Scott the time to move, let alone escape. I guess, for a guy who gives Scott plenty of warning that he’s about to try and kill him and practically dares him to escape—which is something that, if you haven’t been paying attention, he always does--the Doctor doesn’t mess around once the actual deathtrap has been sprung.

The ship rises up into the atmosphere and heats up to incredible degrees, yet, somehow, conveniently, Scott survives. “I can sense your presence, Doctor Bedlam!” he announces. “And, also—your failure to kill me!” Well, yeah, you generally would sense that you hadn’t been killed. Perceptive of you, Scott.

Now it’s up, up, up into deep space, and a killing chill sets in…yeesh, don’t people bother to insulate their spaceships these days? As Scott wraps himself in his cape to fight the cold, the Doctor returns to the Animate to drink in what he believes will be Scott’s final moments, and to be a big stupid lame-o who sows the seeds of his own defeat because Kirby needed to wrap things up conveniently. Ahem, sorry. At any rate, he knows Scott’s about to crash into the moon and die, but suddenly a pinging comes from…Scott’s head. And before Bedlam can make a move, a beam from Scott’s forehead has woven an “electro-web of micro-cosmic atoms” around the Doctor, from which his consciousness can’t escape.

A web.



You guessed it—Bedlam ends up trapped in the Animate as it crashes into the moon, dazzling onlookers back on Earth. Hey, thanks for the free promotion, Doc! Come clean, you’re not really a super-villain at all, aren’t you? You’re just bashful. You really just want to help Scott any way you can, don’t you?

And of course…Scott then teleports back to Earth. You know, teleportation? The thing which he swore he wouldn’t do in previous issues, because it was cheating?

And if you think that’s bad—

He duplicated Mother Box’s circuits into his hood. Without giving us any indication or setup. LAME. DUMB. DEUS EX MACHINA.

This issue is classic Fourth World, in that it’s a pretty good concept that’s executed in a way that seems calculated to annoy with its awkwardness and inconsistency. There really, really needs to be more set up, and more consistant rules, for the wondrous devices Scott pulls out of his butt in a given issue.

Fortunately…or unfortunately…it’s not really a concern for the rest of the series. Mister Miracle continues, but the Fourth World more or less vanishes for most of it, and with it all Scott’s annoying gadgets. I tend to peg the sudden decline of Kirby’s storytelling in this issue to his knowledge that his baby was being ruthlessly pared down, and the attendant cooling of passion for the project. As it turns out, though, the Fourth World would endure…though we’ll have to wade through some crap before we get to glimpse it again.