Friday, March 25, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134--"The Mountain of Judgment"

Kirby's departure from Marvel was somewhat acrimonious. According to Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones in their comprehensive The Comic Book Heroes, the inevitable "creative differences" between Stan Lee and himself played a part, with Jack feeling that Stan was hogging the credit. After all, Kirby was putting at least as much into the story as Lee, and Lee's major contribution--the dialogue--often seemed to be fighting with the story Kirby was trying to tell. The Fourth World books give us the first real glimpse of Kirby as writer, fully in charge of his own story, and based on this I feel that the guy's been given something of a bum wrap. I don't think Kirby was lacking in any of the basic fundamentals of writing, or at least, he wasn't any more than your average superhero writer of the time; let's face it, superhero comics of the gold, silver and early bronze age have to be judged on their own weird standards in writing, as with so many other things. I'm not saying that they were inherently bad, but they did speak their own rather bizarre language that can't reasonably be compared with, say, Ernest Hemingway, or Jack Kerouac. It wasn't until the Brits invaded in the late 70s and early 80s that comic writing really started to work as prose in the mainstream sense.

So by those standards, I think Kirby was an...OK writer. He certainly had a knack for a turn of phrase, his characters have reasonably distinct voices, and he usually knew enough not to overwhelm a panel with text. His dialogue is often problematic; Kirby just had no sense for the rhythm of natural speech, like, at all, but his voice is undeniably distinctive, and never less than readable.

One thing Kirby was not, however...was Stan Lee.

It's probably inevitable that Kirby would make an attempt to write like the man who'd worked with him on his greatest successes. And Kirby could pull it off to an extent; with writing, as with everything else, he had a terrific understanding of the cosmic and surreal. Stan's Thor and Silver Surfer-style faux Shakespearean dialogue lingers in much of the Fourth World, and it's a fine fit; I'd argue Kirby does it quite a bit better than Stan, partly thanks to his growing comfort with pacing. But man...when Kirby tries to do the beatnik-style wiseass thing, or adopt the manner of a bombastic carnival barker, the results aren't pretty. Here's the opening caption to this issue:

BEWARE! Prepare for events NEW to ALL your past experiences! This is the STRANGE assignment upon which Jimmy Olsen and his young friends of the Newsboy Legion have embarked!"

..."New to all your past experiences?" Yeesh.

The text in this issue also falls prey to a common tendency of Marvel work of Stan & Jack's era: the desperate attempt to explain something away with exposition in a slapped-on speech bubble. The classic example is in Iron Man's first appearance, where the yellow peril-type villain takes down Tony Stark's formidable new ultra-strong battle suit with a filing cabinet tipped down a flight of stairs; Stan, clearly sensing this rendered their hero just a TAD less impressive, added the thought bubble, "UGH! He weighted each of these drawers with rocks!" (Because communist warlords always have filing cabinets full of rocks handy for when they're chased by superheroes.)

This issue of Jimmy Olsen is unfortunately rife with this kind of thing, which is bizarre since Kirby was handling the text AND the pictures. I guess he was still finding his footing, or else he had gathered so much momentum that he could hardly slow down to clear plot holes out of his way.

And there surely is a lot of momentum to this issue. The whole thing is basically one extended car chase, starting with the Outsiders from last issue having a gigantic bike rally on the vast stump that makes up the public square of Habitat. Jimmy, in his mad pursuit of the scoop, is preparing to goad his new squad of Hell's Angels groupies down the "Zoomway" in search of the legendary Mountain of Judgment, apparently the home of the "Hairies" that he's been sent to find. The Outsiders seem excited and strangely philosophical (by which I mean "clearly stoned") about meeting up with this dread apparition, despite it having been described in the last issue as "...a THING! Like Moby Dick! You go out to meet it--and DIE!" "It can turn you chicken...or man!" opines one weirdo, but our freckle-headed protagonist has them under the spell of his vast charisma. Frankly, he's seeming more and more like Charles Manson Jr. by the minute.

A full-blown hippie love-in is on the verge of breaking out, until Superman shows up in his capacity as Official Buzzkill. He gets a few panels into a speech before one of the mental giants of Jimmy's gang decides he's heard enough, and tries to run him over with a motorcycle.

Let me reiterate: he tries to run Superman over with a motorcycle.

This has exactly the result you'd expect. Of course, it does accomplish something, I guess: once Superman realizes the kind of intellect he's dealing with here, he lets his guard down, conducting a casual, exposition-filled chat with a dude who tries to shoot him with a bazooka. Of course he catches and crushes the shell in his hand like it was nothing--but oh noes! The shell was filled with Kryptonite gas! Superman has been downed by a bunch of extremely dumb biker hippies! The Ignominy!

The clash between words and pictures is at its absolute fiercest here--the Outsiders are literally explaining stuff to Superman as they shoot him and try to run him over, and then--hilariously--as Superman passes out, one of the Outsiders pipes up, "Tell him some more about the Hairies, Yango!" And he keeps talking even as the clearly unconscious Superman is carried off!!!

Fortunately, that bit of unpleasantness behind us, we're about to embark on a much cooler portion of our journey--essentially, the rest of the issue (we're on page 6) is one long, frantic race down the Zoomway. The gist of Yango's little powerpoint presentation is that--shock of shocks--the Outsiders didn't actually build the bikes, weaponry or gigantic tree-mansions they've been using all this time. That was the work of the Hairies, who vanished an indeterminate length of time ago, but are still said to be holed up in the Mountain of Judgment. So, to the Mountain we go! As fast as possible! For no particular reason!

This next passage features our heroes indulging in extreme recklessness, to the point of idiocy, starting with Jimmy Olsen ordering the Whiz Wagon straight at a sheer rockface. Apparently he just "has a feeling" that it's a trick. And sure enough, it is! The Newsboy Legion and its various hangers-on go tearing through the fake promontory like Wile E. Coyote, only to encounter a long highway tunnel with a huge gap. Jimmy loses seemingly half his gang in the jump, but hey, they were just Outsiders! Given the level of intelligence they'd displayed earlier, Jimmy's pretty much doing the world a favour by removing them from the gene pool. (Actually, as Superman awkwardly informs us in another of those pasted-in bits of exposition later on, everyone's OK, it's only the bikes that were trashed. Yep, that's right. Only the bikes. Mmm-hmm. Keep moving.) Next thing you know, the tunnel's filling with water, which means it's time for Flippa Dippa to--

--Oh. Flippa Dippa. OK, I didn't really introduce the Newsboy Legion last time, did I? Well, they're mostly self-explanatory, and honestly pretty bland. There's "Scrapper", who picks fights, "Big Words", who's a genius because he uses words of more than one syllable, "Gabby",, and "Tommy", who has the amazing ability to completely fade into the background. These guys are, as I mentioned before, the supposed sons of the original Newsboy Legion...though that doesn't really explain why they use 40s slang. When I suggested they were clones, I wasn't totally joking...given what we see in future issues, it's actually a pretty reasonable assumption. But anyway, since in 1970 comics were, like the culture at large, struggling to get on the right side of history by paying more sympathetic attention to black people, Kirby's included a new member named "Flippa Dippa". He's African-American, and he's absolutely, dementedly obsessed with scuba diving. How obsessed? Anytime someone mentions fish, or water, Flippa Dippa feels the need to throw in a "Right on!" or "That's my bag!" To remind us that he likes scuba diving. Because the fact that he wears a scuba diving outfit everywhere he goes wasn't enough of a clue. So of course, he's been given an excuse to use his sole useful life skill in both issues so far. It's like how the Justice League was always conveniently encountering water-based threats so that Aquaman had something to do--except that scuba diving is at least a genuinely useful skill in some situations, whereas Tommy and Gabby don't seem to bring anything to the table. Come to think of it, "Big Words" doesn't do much either. And even Scrapper doesn't seem to be any better in a fight than the others. Jimmy's proving very adept at attracting followers with very little in the way of actual talent.

Anyway, Flippa heads out underwater to clear the way with a "shock grenade", which he promptly sets off too soon, "and too heavy", sending himself, the Whiz Wagon and the bikers blindly down the tunnel, ricocheting off the walls. We give you ONE JOB, Flippa...

Finally they touch bottom again...and with scarcely a moment's pause, they keep going. Tenacious, these kids. But they're about to face the worst obstacle of all: DRUGS.

Yes, they've triggered some kind of weird mental defense that makes it impossible to see the road, and sends them "careening madly through a nightmare of Kaleidoscopic form and color!" Kirby gets experimental once again and portrays this via an elaborate collage of photographic images (which are unfortunately in black and white, thus negating the "color" bit). It's a pretty jarring shock to turn the page and see this...I can only imagine a hippie reading this comic in 1970 and FREAKING OUT.

Jimmy's forced to switch to radar in order to keep the Wagon on track. "If we blow it here," pronounces someone from inside the car, "We blow the whole assignment!" Um, that's one way of putting it. I would have gone more with "We're endangering our lives for no particularly good reason", but you've got to admire Jimmy and the Newsboys for their work ethic, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, Superman, having been inadequately secured by the brain-addled citizens of Habitat, wakes up and, naturally, catches up with Jimmy and company in about five seconds. But something huge looms out of the tunnels behind...

Excuse me, I need a second.

It's the Mountain of Judgment, and here I must doff my hat to the master. In spite of its flaws, this whole section of the book has been a brilliant build towards the big reveal, and when it comes it's genuinely jaw-dropping. Turns out the Mountain is a gigantic missile carrier--essentially a really, really, REALLY big RV, carved to resemble a gigantic Chinese lion statue made of jade, and at least as big as a good-sized apartment building. We see this thing in a double-page splash, bearing down on the Whiz Wagon as Superman swoops down to catch up with them, and man is it breathtaking. It so terrific you almost forget to wonder, in the intervening issues, WHY the Hairies have bothered to make their headquarters mobile, given that they have a perfectly good and apparently well-protected stationary home base elsewhere, as we'll soon see. But who cares? This is Kirby-land! GO! GO! GO!

Superman picks up the Whiz Wagon from out of the Mountain's path, but is quickly sucked into the "mouth", whereupon the Hairies burst forth to go over the Whiz Wagon with "sensitive indicators". Here's where Kirby's attitudes towards the counterculture seem to do a sudden 180--the Hairies are, as their name implies, a bunch of hippies, albeit high-tech hippies with a bunch of crazy inventions and an oddly casual attitude to working alongside the U.S. Military.

I can't help but wonder what happened here. Kirby claimed that the Fourth World came about because of his desire to tell a personal story "with no bullshit", so what's the significance of this shift in perspective? Was the tweaking of the counterculture in the story so far something he did out of habit (comics, especially DC comics, hadn't been portraying hippies and their ilk in a very positive light up until that point), then decided that he liked these crazy kids after all and shifted the story to match? Or was this all planned from the start? Was the Dropout Society meant to provide balance against the more flattering depictions of the counterculture presented later? Was Kirby trying to say something about the promise of the free love era, going from confusion and anarchy to a Utopian ideal?

Kirby doesn't give us any time to ponder this in this issue, as the Hairies have identified a bomb on board the Whiz Wagon! Yes, it turns out this was all a plot on the part of Morgan Edge, working at the behest of the mysterious Intergang. Jimmy and the Legion were to provide the instruments of their destruction, thus ridding Edge and his masters of a bunch of meddling kids as well as their chosen target, which is why Superman's been putting so much effort into stopping them. See, he's not such a dick after all! Except, um, actually he is, since there was no particular reason he couldn't have warned Jimmy that the Wagon was carrying a bomb before now. Why, it's almost like this plot twist was suddenly inserted in order to make the preceding 40 pages make sense!

You see why I sometimes get a little skeptical about Kirby's grand vision for this series. While going from the anarchy of the Wild Area to the peaceful, Utopian Hairies may carry a major symbolic charge, we're also talking about a story whose plot seems to be made up on the fly at times. Yet, later in the saga, we see stuff that was pretty obviously planned out well in advance...starting with the second-last panel of this issue, as perhaps the Fourth World's most well-known character makes his first appearance ever.

I haven't spoken much about Morgan Edge, the new owner of Galaxy Broadcasting and the Daily Planet, because he hasn't done all that much in the story so far. It's pretty clear that the guy's evil, since he tries to have Clark Kent bumped off early on in issue #133, and he mentions "Intergang" as his bosses. For the past two issues, he's mostly been sitting in his office, thinking evil thoughts, as his plan moves towards fruition. Now that Supes has thwarted it, he's called on the carpet by his boss...and who is this mastermind? No mere gangster, it seems. Not even an agent of some hostile foreign government. No, Morgan Edge is the flunky of a force that transcends the human, or even the alien. He answers to no less than a god! And not just any god, but the embodiment of pure evil, a force that aims to eradicate love, peace, and liberty entirely from the cosmos, simply to serve his own unrelenting drive to power. A being so monstrous that he wishes to transform all life into mere appendages to his dark will.


Look, in a few issues time you're going to be really impressed by this, OK? Just roll with it.

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