Saturday, April 30, 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136--"The Saga of the D.N.Aliens!!"

I...greatly apologize, I'm actually posting this early Saturday. Fourth World Fridays nearly slipped by me! This is unforgivable—how could I *possibly* forget…

Uh…fairly easily, as it turns out. After a sharp upward curve in quality, the resolution to the Big Green Jimmy fight and the Golden Guardians’ first mission turns out to be pretty boring. Boring by Kirby standards, that is. Which means “still completely nuts, just not that surprising from a plot perspective.” Unless the fact that—


--there’s actually just one D.N.Alien in the saga—


--is supposed to be the big twist.

We begin exactly where we last left our heroes, with Superman K.O.’d by the Kryptonite Jimmy-Hulk and the all-new, all-weird Golden Guardian, a clone of the original Manhattan Guardian who had looked after the Golden Age Newsboy Legion, leaping into the fray to save the Project. The Newsboys (version 2.0) fill us in on this with some expository dialogue, also ruminating over who could have stolen the cell samples to clone Jimmy, what with the Project’s security being so tight and all, as the Guardian battles Greenie over a few pages.

Now, look, I know Jimmy-Hulk was mostly counting on his coating of “synthetic Kryptonite” to put down Supes, but still, you got to figure he’s pretty darn strong, going toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel and all. So the fact that the Guardian gets taken out pretty handily by the Jimmy-Hulk is not really much of a shock. Real Jimmy rushes into swatting range to revive Superman and gets plucked up by the beast, saved only by the monster’s momentary confusion on discovering that his victim looks exactly like him. This gives Superman the time to tilt the entire floor with his foot, throwing the Jimmy-Hulk across the room and causing him to let go of Real Jimmy. Then, just as he’s getting to his feet to continue his rampage, a pink puff of smoke explodes out of the Jimmy-Hulk’s hair and puts him to sleep.

It turns out—are you sitting down?—while everyone was distracted by the fight, a miniature Scrapper clone parachuted onto Jimmy-Hulk and put him to sleep with a gas grenade. Recalling the Little Green Army Men of Toy Story several decades later, an entire army of micro-Scrappers swoop in and, briskly and efficiently, put the Jimmy-Hulk on ice, or rather liquid nitrogen, for further study.

Despite the fact that a bunch of tiny clones just did everything for them, Superman, Jimmy and the Guardian proceed to congratulate themselves on another impressive victory. Jerks. “Thanks for saving my skin, Superman!” declares Jimmy. “You’ve just closed the generation gap!” Oh, really? Just like that, eh? Nice of you to speak for everyone in your entire generation, Jimmy. I’m sure all those college kids who might have had slight reservations about the near-omnipotent vigilante working for the American government—in the Nixon era, remember—are happy to take the word of a bow-tie-wearing redheaded dork and establishment man that Superman’s A-OK! (Man, Watchmen really has ruined me for stories where superheroes work hand-in-hand with the government, hasn’t it?)

Anyway, while our supposed heroes pat themselves on the back that their DNA made such suitable fodder for growing a race of microscopic workers who live only to serve them, the supposedly evil Mokkari and Simyan, back at the Evil Factory, are getting a tongue-lashing from Darkseid. With Jimmy-Hulk out of the picture, the two henchmen have nothing left but “mere beasts of burden!” Yes, that’s right, they’ve been growing human clones to use as slaves! Dastardly and diabolical! Thank goodness our heroes at The Project are here to defend us against such menaces!

The next few pages are mostly boring exposition, recapping what we pretty much already new: that the original Guardian died, but not before passing on his secret identity to the grown-up Newsboys, who then cloned him back to life as the Golden Guardian. Now, obviously, all this cloning (and, cough, “fathering”) of new characters is happening to bring Kirby’s older characters into the present in new, sleek, shiny models; they’re pretty much acknowledging that the old, offscreen Guardian would have been too old to resume his old role. If Jim Harper (the Guardian’s secret identity) was around 30 at the time of the original comics, and if we go by “comic time” rather than actual real-world time, and assuming the original Newsboys were about 10 circa the Golden Age and are now about 30 themselves, that would have made Manhattan Guardian 50 years old at an absolute bare minimum. We’re told that the Guardian vanished when Jim Harper got a promotion to Detective, but clearly he was still pretty active as a cop, since he apparently died in a shootout “just recently”. That guy was eating his vitamins.

Anyway, we’re reminded how creepy the Project is as Superman shows him more clones-Gabbys, this time, to oversee the communications division—and we see a batch of “Normals” being raised in a nursery. “They belong here, Jimmy!” Explains Superman. “The Project grows its own!” Oh, that’s good to hear. For a moment I was thinking that you guys were genetically engineering human beings to act as forced labour and routinely denying them basic human rights, but it turns out they don’t want them. They’re happy just to do their jobs! Yay genetic engineering!

Superman goes into a lot of elaborate detail about the various types of people they’re growing—still not creepy, Kal-El!—which is all explained by this simple chart:

Oooooh, NOW I get it.

It seems there’s one other offshoot of The Project we haven’t seen yet, the titular D.N.Aliens. In fact, they’re just people, genetically engineered to look weird so that slack-jawed yokels like Jimmy can gawk at them. Or at least, that’s what I infer from Jimmy’s reaction when Superman introduces him to “Dubbilex”, a purple, bulb-headed guy with horns. “Dubbilex is resigned to being The Projects’ ‘conversation piece!’ He’s seen by every visiting V.I.P.!” laughs Superman, as the weary-looking Dubbilex looks on. This sequence is hilarious, because it’s obvious that Dubbilex had important work to do, and Superman boorishly yanked him away so that Jimmy could do his Cletus bit. Still a dick!

Mokkari and Simyan, meanwhile, are preparing their newest threat: a group of human cells exposed to “Beta Rays”, which have been gestating beneath a fog that prevented them from seeing in. Wow, does Darkseid know what you guys are doing with his funding down here? I couldn’t help thinking of This recent Onion article while reading this. Anyway, the yellow Darth Maul and his hairy chum have lucked out, in that this apparently neglected experiment actually produced something: a clutch of eggs, conveniently ready to hatch. The shell of the first one cracks, revealing…something with four arms!

OOOOOOH!!!! Four arms!!!! I’m sure that’ll do a lot of damage to the guy who just subdued a rampaging, super-strong monster covered in kryptonite!

By Kirby standards, this ish is a total snoozer. I mean, there’s only one five-page fight scene and just a handful of bizarre, genetically engineered freaks. He couldn’t even get a gorilla in there, apparently. Of course, I wouldn’t blame Kirbs for losing interest in this book, given what he’d been doing with the other Fourth World comics; this, as I’ve mentioned, seemed to be his “contractual obligation” that he made the best of. All joking aside, it’s still Kirby goodness, but he does seem to be dragging it out a bit too much; I’m sorry to say we’ve got two more issues before we get out of the Project and rejoin the goings-on on the outside world. Man, good thing there’s a flock of New Gods on Earth right now, cleaning up the place while Superman hangs out in a vast underground slave-growing complex, isn’t it?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #1--"The Murder Missile Trap"


As I mentioned in the last installment, by the mid-60s, Kirby was primarily drawing three books at Marvel: Fantastic Four (about a group of bickering explorers), The Mighty Thor (about a god and his companions fighting evil on Earth), and Captain America (about a pure-hearted hero who's a symbol of hope and freedom to others). I've already theorized that the apocalyptic destruction of the "Old Gods" at the beginning of New Gods #1 was essentially just a continuation of his "Ragnarok" storyline in Thor, taken to its extreme, intended to mark a symbolic ending to the characters he created at Marvel.

But the King must not quite have been ready to let go just yet, because in launching the Fourth World saga, he gave birth to three books: The Forever People (about a group of bickering travellers), The New Gods (about a god and his companions fighting evil on Earth) and Mister Miracle (about...well, you get the idea).

Mister Miracle seems to have been the most popular of Kirby's Fourth World books, given that it lasted longer than the others. Certainly, while I personally prefer the New Gods, there's no denying that Mister M. seems to come from a more personal place for the King. The story of a guy who's obsessed with his work, shunning social contact in an effort to keep outdoing himself, and hoping thereby to inspire people to "escape" from their lives, seems an obvious parallel with Kirby's own life. Kirby also had a faithful assistant and a bombastic wife who kept him safe from people who wanted to prevent him from doing his work...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The theme of escape artists is strangely common in comics. Batman was, of course, an escape artist, and I believe the Spirit had some facility in that regard, too. There's also the fictional comics character who's the creation of the title characters in Michael Chabon's already-classic novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and who is used as a remarkably malleable symbol of the various comics characters who made up the Golden Age. In the real world, Jim Steranko, the flamboyant artist who turned Nick Fury into a pop-art masterpiece in the late 60s, had also studied as an escapist, and it was he who reportedly inspired Kirby to create a superhero escapist--but, Kirby being Kirby, it had to be something more. Mr. M. didn't just get out of tough scrapes while fighting criminals; his escapes were symbolic, meant to inspire the world and create a legend. In fact, he focused so much on this that he might actually have, um, let the whole "fighting criminals" business slide a bit too much.

Mister Miracle #1 opens with the title character up and ready to go, practicing an escape in a field with his "little person" assistant, Oberon. "We must give a flawless performance for that young onlooker!" exhorts the escapist, as Oberon straps him into his elaborate shackles. Gee, good thing there is a young onlooker, huh? I mean, I don't know if you've heard, Mr. M., but there are people who will pay to watch this kind of stuff. But I guess Mr. Miracle thinks not of base affairs like payment, which will become clearer and clearer as we go through the various issues.

Oberon's unhappy with Mr. M.'s attempt to recapture his youth; he's worried that too much time has passed since the "Maestro", as he calls him, did this professionally, and that his life is at stake. The trick involves boarding him up, shackled from head to toe, in a wooden cabinet, which Oberon promptly sets on fire. This prompts the onlooker to rush in, horrified, and try and douse the flames...but of course, no flimsy wooden shack can hold Mister Miracle! He bursts loose, to the rather overstated shock of the young man, and introduces himself as Thaddeus Brown, longtime escapist and showman. The kid, meanwhile, goes by the unlikely moniker of Scott Free. "I was raised in an orphanage, and many of the foundlings were given such names to sort of--well--make them feel as individuals." I sense the clammy hand of foreshadowing at work...

No sooner have the two of them begun to hit it off than a sinister-looking car pulls up, and out pour a bunch of thugs right out of a Jimmy Cagney movie. Yep, it's our old friends Intergang again, and they're here to...well...harrass old men and dwarves in fields? Fortunately, not only are Mr. M. and Oberon quick on their feet, Scott turns out to be capable of taking on a whole bunch of goons. Thad thanks him profusely and offers him a place to stay for the night, which would seem to be a good deal for the rootless orphan--based on later events, I've got to assume he's essentially homeless at this point--but his only thought is to keep Thad safe.

Meanwhile, we meet the latest in Intergang's endless parade of weirdos, East Coast division chief Steel Hand. Steel Hand is known as such due to his--stay with me now--hand made of steel, which is capable of judo-chopping a titanium girder to smithereens. He apparently got it as an experimental transplant after his real hand was blasted by a tommy-gun, and then "with radiation treatments, it gained power--power!" You know it's got power, cause he said it twice. But wait, back up--we're all used to people in comics gaining superpowers through radiation, but this is an artificial hand. How the hell does exposing it to radiation do anything but weaken the joints? And why am I bothering to even ask when the explanation is clearly "Because Jack Kirby. That's why.*"

Anyway, Steel Hand has it in for Mister Miracle, obviously, thanks to a wager they made years ago while both were in the hospital. It eventually comes out that S.H. bet Thad $10,000 that he could come up with a trap from which no one could escape. The two haven't seen each other since then, but S.H. has since become a big shot in Intergang, and Thad was inspired to take him on after seeing his picture in the paper. It's never stated outright, but Thad seems to be somewhat in debt, and the money could no doubt help--but Kirby never explicitly states this. If I had to guess, I'd say that Kirby might have felt that escaping for money wasn't the kind of thing his supposedly hip, counterculture readers wanted to hear about. Or, given Kirby's tendency to blaze his own trail, maybe it was something he personally didn't take to--lord knows the guy never got rich off of his creations the way he should have, even though it reportedly burned him up in later years. Maybe this is Kirb's way of making that seem noble, which in a way it was--Kirby fits right into the tradition of the "starving artist" whose work will live on for generations even if he never became a big shot in his lifetime.

Anyway, back at Thad's Pad, Scott is about to demonstrate some talents of his own. After being wrapped up in chains, Scott uses some mysterious "gadget" to smash the chains into a million pieces. "This is an age of gadgets," Scott informs us. Oh, right, of course. Mr. Miracle is still curious, but when Oberon suggests these gadgets could help him in his attempt to win the wager, Thad replies, "Every professional must live or die by his own methods!"

The next day, Mr Miracle attempts another escape. Once again, it's a death-defying stunt performed in the middle of nowhere for some reason, and once again, Intergang is somehow able to find him. As Thad is trying to work himself loose from his bonds before a gigantic steel sphere can crush him, Steel Hand has a sniper take him out. Seeing that Mr. M.'s not going to make it, Scott jumps in with a blast of energy from his fist and diverts the ball's fatal passage. Too late, though: the bullet's done enough damage. "No more miracles for me--" he croaks, as Scott takes out a strange device he keeps on a brace under his sleeve...a small box, that makes familiar pinging sounds. Steel Hand's "big trap"--the one from which no man can escape--was death itself, but with his motherbox, Scott eases Thad's passing.

Steel Hand's obsession, it turns out, comes from a desire not to lose face with his gang. That's right--a bet he made a decade or more ago, which nobody knew about except he and Thad, was going to make him look weak, so he had to take the guy out. Man, that is some kind of mania. Scott, of course, can't let things end that way, so--as if you couldn't see this coming--he suits up as Mr. Miracle and bursts in on Steel Hand's operation. This prompts the usual "B-but...YOU'RE DEAD!" reaction from Steel Hand, who's apparently too dim to realize that Mr. Miracle suddenly has a different voice and is several decades younger behind his mask. The mask that conceals his face. Maybe you should focus more on your gullibility than on your gambling problem, S.H.

Scott is quickly downed by Steel Hand's goons, and now, of course, we get the inevitable "villain puts hero in death trap" sequence. At least this time it's been well established, since the whole comic's been building up to it, and it actually kinda makes sense that the villain wouldn't just shoot him...if you disregard the fact that he didn't want to give Thad the opportunity that he's now giving Scott, of course. Anyway, the deathtrap involves the "secret Intergang missile site". I guess it makes sense that they would own something like that, since their leader is from space and all, but yeesh. A criminal syndicate with their own space program? ...Other than the U.S. Government? (Barrump-pump-pum! Thanks, I'm here all week! Tip your waiter!)

The new Mr M. is strapped to the missile and launched into space--but only to around the upper ionosphere, where the missile explodes. Points to Steel Hand for not leaving the room while this happened, although a method by which he could have watched Mister Miracle die might have been a little more intelligent. Because as soon as he gets back to his office, who should be waiting there but Scott, prompting a homicidal freakout from S.H. We've only got two pages left, so we get two things at once: S.H. goes after Scott with his unstoppable Steel Hand, and all the while Scott explains how he escaped, while using those same devices to subdue S.H. Turns out he used "Hyper-sound intensifiers" in his gloves to break the metal chains, just as he now uses them to mess up Steel Hand's hand; he used retro-jets to blast free of the missile, and to pummel S.H.; and a little thingie that spins out yards of fabric within seconds to weave a chute, and to wrap up Steel Hand for the police, who come bursting through the door at that moment, summoned by Oberon.

Lord knows I'll have plenty of opportunities to discuss Mr. M.'s escape methods in later installments, but for right now I'll just say that using advanced Apokaliptian technology kinda sorta feels like...cheating.

The book ends with Scott vowing to take up Thad's mantle as Mr. Miracle and becoming a superpowered smasher of villainy as well as an inspiration to the masses...the masses who he seems determined to keep from witnessing his spectacular escapes. Or from making any money. Well, um...that's showbiz.

*Apologies to Chris Sims.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Nerd Woman Scorned

So, as I may have mentioned before, I'm exceedingly psyched for Game of Thrones, the HBO series premiering tonight, based on George R. R. Martin's fantasy books known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire. (Yeah, I'm glad they changed the name.) But with its imminent arrival, a recurring phenomenon has returned to the web: the cultural equivalent of the nerds vs. jocks conflict that seems to erupt whenever a somewhat esoteric geek property threatens to get some mainstream attention.

TV/Culture blogger Myles McNutt summarizes a lot of the debate here--he's concerned primarily with the gender aspects, but there's the larger issue of the fact that when critics give a negative review to an adaptation of a book or a comic with a passionate, geeky fanbase, they almost always find themselves under attack by the more hardcore members of said fanbase, even though the critics have seen the show or movie and the fans haven't. Sometimes the criticism of the criticism is valid, sometimes it degenerates into "but in the original..." (which tends to be beside the point--the critic is reviewing the adaptation, not the original work), and sometimes it gets a bit ugly, with the fans attempting armchair psychology on the critics, grasping around for reasons to dismiss their opinions, or just flat-out resorting to personal attacks.

When I read McNutt's essay, I agreed with him in theory, though I had to admit I thought Martin's fanbase had actually been pretty well-behaved, and that the criticism of the show had, in fact, been pretty shallow and poorly written, apart from being negative. (To be fair, McNutt points to io9's article as a rather noxious example of fanboy hype that's every bit as superficial.)

Turns out that was nothing. A few days after McNutt's article, this already infamous review by Ginia Bellafonte appeared in the New York Times, and the controversy re-erupted both on the gendered and "nerds vs. mainstream" front. If you were looking for a better example of how geeks feel bullied by mainstream culture, you couldn't have invented a more perfect one. That article is essentially a more eloquent version of the kind of contempt a nerd might have received from one of the popular girls in seventh grade. What's sort of perfect, though, is the way Bellafonte hung herself with her own petard by devoting so much of her "review" (far more than was spent on trivialities like analyzing the acting, production values, or story) to flatly stating that women were going to flee screaming from this show (and stopping just short of claiming that the exclusively male people who might enjoy this show will never know a woman's touch). The people who respond furiously to articles like this are often...not the kind of folks you want springing to your defense, and indeed might have proved some of her points about the social ineptitude of the show's fans, but by framing it the way she did, Bellafonte of course attracted an array of female nerds who were more than happy to inform her just how deeply up her own ass her head was located. There are too many responses to link to, really, though Annalee Newitz's clever comeback is particularly worth a read, and Matt Zoller Seitz's deconstruction is probably the most effective.

So, basically, while I'm often a little embarrassed by how brittle some of the fandoms to which I belong can be (Hi, Browncoats!), this is one example in which I can unhesitatingly side with the nerds. You done good, folks.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: New Gods #1--"Orion Fights For Earth!"

One of the interesting things about serialized fiction is that it can have several separate beginnings (and, for that matter, endings). A good comic book storyteller will take advantage of the break between issues to shift the scene, to jump forward past events that are irrelevant or uninteresting, and to concoct something distinctive that unites each separate story, rather than simply having each issue be a new chapter in an ongoing narrative. Though, of course, there's nothing actually wrong with telling one big story in several issues either, it adds a great deal to a comic if each issue is somehow made discrete in terms of tone or structure. Think of Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, for instance; most of the stories were part of the ongoing narrative, but each was a separate self-contained story as well, often with its own narrative "hook", theme, characters, and so on.

Kirby got this. At Marvel he had often woven events between his three major books, Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America, but with the Fourth World he took it to the next level by telling four separate stories (or three and a half, since Jimmy Olsen was sort of a child of necessity that only vaguely hooks up with the main narrative), each with their own style and thematic concerns, that nevertheless each portray an aspect of the epic saga. It must be acknowledged that this kind of thing was later done more elegantly elsewhere, but for even conceiving of the idea (and for being capable of drawing four monthly books in order to promulgate it!) one must stand in awe of Kirby.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the opening pages of The New Gods, the third book in the Fourth World saga, seems to contain the most appropriate Prologue for the series as a whole:

There came a time when the Old Gods died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust! The final moment came with the fatal release of indescribable power--which tore the home of the Old Gods asunder--split it in great halves--and filled the universe with the blinding death-flash of its destruction!

Yeah, bee-yatch! That's a motherflickin' opening scrawl for you! Suck on that, George Lucas!

OK, I confess: my feeling that this is where the Fourth World truly starts may arise from the fact that this is the first Fourth World comic I ever read, in a reprint edition which I still own. But you gotta admit, that's the way you announce the beginning of a true epic! (Kirby actually labels it the Epilogue, what with it being the end of the previous story and all.)

Out of the depths of cold space left behind by the fiery conflagration, a lone figure emerges, first in long shot, and then--

Here is where Kirby finally seems ready to do something new, to throw aside the preconceptions of what superhero comics had been and tell the story he truly wanted to tell, with power, grace, and confidence. These first few pages manage to portray destruction and creation on a cosmic scale, and to set the stage for everything to come, without a trace of the awkwardness or rushed feeling that dogs some of the earlier books. Here, for the first time in the saga (and maybe in his career) Kirby is happy to let atmosphere and mood take center stage, to draw us in slowly instead of hurling us headlong into the action the way he usually did.

As I mentioned before, Kirby was a huge believer in change and growth, and his work at Marvel had been starting to stifle him somewhat; his "big idea" in the late 60s had been to have Thor experience Ragnarok, the mythical Norse end of the world. Kirby had intended this to literally alter the Marvel Universe forever, killing some characters, introducing new ones, and just generally setting the stage for a whole new world that he could play around in. In other words, Kirby was proposing one of those Earth-shattering, "Nothing will ever be the same"-type events that the big two comic companies now regularly try to pawn off on us. But back then, the idea of messing around with what was by then an extremely profitable status quo was not particularly appealing to the publishers, and Kirby's Ragnarok ended with things much the same as they had been, other than a growing sense of disenchantment.

So this opening sequence is, metaphorically, the apocalyptic destruction of the Marvel universe, even if only in Kirby's head; he never went back to the FF or Thor, even when he returned to Marvel years later. (He did do some work on Captain America.)

The stately, epic tone continues as our hero, Orion, descends into the capital city of New Genesis--the "Supertown" we glimpsed in the last installment. This whole issue is framed, rather brilliantly, as a travelogue, with Orion acting as our guide through the weird worlds that form the backdrop of the Fourth World saga. Do I detect a hint of Dante's Divine Comedy, a passage through heaven and hell and back to Earth, with a new understanding of exactly what's at stake here?

...Sorry, I'm getting a bit pompous here. Reading the New Gods will do that to you.

Anyway, here in Supertown we meet some of our main characters, who unsurprisingly also happen to be the New Gods of the title. There's the obnoxiously cheerful Lightray, so named for his speed and his ability to manipulate light; Metron, the Spock-like detached intellectual who rides through space and time on a floating barcalounger called the Mobius chair; and High-father, leader of the New Gods and stand-in for Thor's Odin, an old-school prophet of love, peace, and freedom. Orion, a grim sort who lives only for battle, seems uncomfortable amongst this love-in of a civilization, grumbling at Lightray's exhortations to "Live, Orion! LIVE!!!" and bickering with Metron, that "icy mask" whose cold intellectualism he doesn't trust.

(It's actually interesting that there's some merit to his unease. Metron is, in most post-Kirby New Gods stories that I've seen, portrayed as a fairly unambiguous good guy, but here he's a slightly shiftier figure who's later shown to have worked with Darkseid and seems rather umsympathetic to suffering. As Orion puts it, "For a scrap of knowledge you would sell the universe into slavery!"...and Metron doesn't actually disagree!)

Anyway, the Allfather's gathered them here for a purpose that must be seen to. In case his beard, "Wonder-Staff", spiritual leadership, and general attitude didn't tip you off to his inspiration, Kirby now hammers the point home by introducing us to the source of New Genesis's power, which happens to be known as...The Source. It's literally a wall in which a fiery hand appears to write messages from the great beyond, and on this particular occasion it's tasking Orion with a quest: "ORION TO APOKALIPS--THEN TO EARTH--THEN TO WAR!!!!"

Apokalips is the other world of the New Gods, and as you could probably suss out for yourself, it's every bit as hellish as New Genesis is paradisiacal. Darkseid happens to be the ruler of Apokalips, and Orion's been wanting to lay the beatdown on him for ages (maybe literally), so he leaps at the chance to head there and go mano a mano with Stoneface.

Incidentally, we learn later that there's actually a treaty between the two planets, and this technically constitutes a violation of that treaty; Apokalips has been violating the treaty by raiding New Genesis and, of course, mucking about with the affairs of Earth, but they've been keeping that under wraps. By invading Apokalips, Orion is dropping the pretense and declaring war. Kirby doesn't fill us in on this, which is too bad, as it would have made the events of this issue seem even more portentous.

Meanwhile, Metron and High-father are musing on Orion's un-New-Genesis-like passion for battle, with High-father confirming Metron's suspicions that he was actually born of the world which he now plans to invade--Apokalips. "If the other side of good is evil, then surely Apokalips is the other side!" muses Orion redundantly as he descends to the surface of the hellish world (nicely rendered as a place with fast, belching furnaces taking up much of its surface). The next six pages feature Orion's relentless battle towards Darkseid's palace, taking on flying "Para-demons", a swarm of generic underlings, Darkseid's "Dog cavalry", and finally the "Mass-director unit" that's been ruling Apokalips in Darkseid's absence. But the palace is occupied, by none other than Darkseid's son Kalibak the Cruel, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a caveman.

Before the battle can be joined, Kalibak suddenly finds himself restrained by green bands of energy projected by Metron, who has teleported himself into the fray in an attempt to make Orion feel stupid. At least, I assume that was the point. "Hey, Orion. So, you fought your way through the hordes of Apokalips to get here? Yeah, I teleported. Took me like five seconds. A lot of people find that easier." Metron then takes the opportunity to fill Orion in on Darkseid's plan, most of which we've already gleaned from the last few issues (short version: he's secretly set up an operation on Earth called Intergang, and he's working to find "The Anti-Life Equation" that will give him power over all life in the universe, which is apparently concealed in the mind of someone on Earth.) I'd say he ought to have explained this before Orion came all this way, but Orion probably would have charged ahead anyway.

Of course, that's because there's a deeper meaning to all this, if not a particularly complicated one; these are Gods, after all, even if Kirby just made them all up, so they tend to act along metaphorical lines. Where Orion is action, Metron is pure knowledge; he does nothing except tell Orion stuff and temporarily restrain Kalibak, and that only long enough to give his little speech. He ends by directing Orion to the next room, where Darkseid proves to have taken captive a group of Earthlings in order to probe their minds, then teleports in the "power rods" that Orion uses to fly around (OK, that's another thing he does) before skedaddling. Orion just has time to set the humans free before Kalibak comes storming in; unwilling to risk an encounter with civilians present, Orion summons a Boom Tube and the group makes a hasty getaway.

The comic ends on Earth, with Orion grimly informing his new charges that they are the first to be caught up in an epic struggle that is about to play itself out here on Earth, and making a speech while lightning crashes. Darkseid, in all his Easter Island glory, appears on the last page, labeled "Prologue" (see, because it's the beginning of...never mind) to declare, "I hear you, Orion! The battle begins!"

You know, I think this is my favourite single issue of the Fourth World saga, at least of what I've read. It's Kirby doing what he does best, and could draw better than anyone else--retro-futuristic mythological beings, vast cityscapes, cosmic explosions. Accompanied, of course, by Wagnerian angst and lots and LOTS of speechifying, but done in such an over-the-top manner that you can't help but enjoy it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #1--"In Search of a Dream"

And here the saga truly begins, in more ways than one, since according to Mark Evanier this was the first Fourth World comic Kirby actually produced. It sounds as though Kirby drew the first few pages--maybe even the whole thing--and was told by the top brass at DC that he had to tackle an existing character first, hence the move to Jimmy Olsen...but Kirby kept the door open by inserting Superman in this issue, which is a little confusing, since it sort of sets the scene for the previous three issues. Sort of.

We start with a bit of impromptu poetry (VERY impromptu) on the King's part as the Boom Tube, another classic Fourth World concept, makes its first appearance. "Hold your ears--it must be coming through--from there to here--on a trip with a infinite [sic] view..."

Well, I did mention Kirby was a little uncertain in his writing at this point, right?

From out of the tube rockets a wild, and distinctively Kirbian, sight: a gang of wild cosmic hippies on a gigantic monstrosity that's part dirt buggy, part clutch of motorcycles all fused together (and with a garish magenta-and-orange paint job, to boot). As someone looking back from 2011, it sure seems like vehicular fetishism was on a cultural uptick in the 70s, from stunt bikers to supervans to trucker movies, and this seems to have worked its way into Kirby’s comics in the form of the Whiz Wagon and this monstrosity, the “Super-Cycle”.

The pilots are, sure enough, the Forever People, consisting of Mark Moonrider (the little guy down front on the cover above), Big Bear (the huge hairy guy steering), Vykin the Black ( guy) and Serifan (the cowboy-hatted blonde wuss on the far right. And I call him a wuss with good reason). They've come from the mysterious "Super-Town" on a mission to rescue one of their number, a foxy babe name of Beautiful Dreamer. To assist, they've got some snazzy Kirbian gadgetry, most notably the aforementioned Super-Cycle and the "Mother Box" that Vykin is toting around.

Materializing in the middle of the road thanks to Big Bear's psychotic driving, the quartet nearly sideswipes a car, but Big Bear (grumbling, "I know what buttons to push!" Gee, that's conforting) activates a doohickey that lets them phase their atoms through the oncoming vehicle. Nevertheless, the understandably rattled driver of the other car drives off the road, but is levitated back to safety by the Mother Box, toted by Vykin. Mark tries to explain away Mother Box to the astonished victims as a type of computer, but Vykin unhelpfully interrupts, "WRONG! Mother Box lives! She talks to us--protects us!" Vykin is apparently unclear on the concept of a “cover story”.

The Forev's now introduce themselves properly. Mark Moonrider is, nominally, the leader. Sort of. Kirby had a tendency, when creating super-teams, to make the leader a really, really bland guy; Moonrider's even worse than folks like Cyclops or Tommy of the Newsboy Legion, barely even registering as a character, let alone the guy in charge. His only real attributes at this point are his dorky outfit (complete with bright yellow loincloth), his dorky name, and his tendency to chew out Big Bear (who rightfully ignores most of his blustering). "Where did you park the Super-cycle?" asks Mark. "On a fat, white cloud!" replies Bear. "Does that make you nervous?" Big Bear is a) extremely weird, and b) awesome.

Vykin the Black continues the ignoble tradition of black superheroes with "black" in their names; he's the keeper of Mother Box and, as mentioned, doesn't seem to care much for assimilating into the local culture. And Serifan? He's the most touchy-feely of the lot, which I guess is natural, as he's telepathic. He tries to calm the driver's female passenger by giving her a bouquet, and astonishingly, it seems to work. "Dear God, we just drove over a cliff after phasing through a vehicle out of Salvador Dali's nightmares, and were levitated to safety by a magic box toted by people who look weird, even for hippies! Jesus, mom warned me about doing drugs! From now on I'm going to straighten up and fly--ooh! Posies! I'm all better now!"

Bobby, the driver, snaps a photo of the gang--turns out he's a friend of a certain red-headed weenie who takes pictures for the Daily Planet. Sigh. Here I was looking forward to an Olsen-free installment of Fourth World Fridays. Anyway, moments after leaving, Serifan swoons from mental contact with Beautiful Dreamer. Yes, using his ability in the most benign way to mentally contact their friend causes him to swoon. Are you seeing what I mean about Serifan being a wuss?

Meanwhil, watching from the bushes is a distinctly ratlike and thuggish individual, with an army of faceless gunmen. It's our mysterious friends at Intergang again, and sure enough, they're working for Darkseid. Their leader makes contact with ol' Stoney Lonesome via a portable monitor, and he directs them nothing except follow them. Ooooo...kay then.

Meanwhile, it's back to the Man of Steel, who, in his Clark Kent guise, is interviewing a boxer named Rocky. Turns out that despite his championship title, the love of Adrian, and his triumphant defeat of Ivan Drago, Rocky is unhappy. Why? Because he's well aware that for all his achievements in the ring, Superman could lick a hundred of him with one hand tied behind his back. Hey, Rocky, Mohammed Ali beat Superman! Quit whining!

Seriously, though, Rocky raises a good point, and one that Clark mulls as he leaves the building. "Poor Super Man!" he thinks (hey, that would make a good name for an avant garde play). "Despite his powers, he is a minority of one in a teeming world of billions!...Do they secretly resent him? Fear him? Hate him? For the first time in many years--I feel that I'm alone--alone!"

This is interesting stuff. Bear in mind that up until this point, angst was as alien to Superman as papercuts. DC's heroes were starting to get a little grittier--Batman had entered the Denny O'Neill era at this point--but Superman had been the symbol of everything noble, pure, and uncomplicated in the world, a beacon in an increasingly confusing and troubled America. Now, thanks to this Kirby guy, even Supes was having an angst attack! Kirby, in these two pages, certainly nailed the crucial dramatic potential of Superman that had gone mostly untapped up to this point. Despite everything he's done, he's still an alien amongst us, and he can never go home and be "normal". Combine that with the average American's growing mistrust of authority figures and people with immense power, touched on in the prior Jimmy Olsen issues, and you've got the basis of good drama even for a character envisioned as goodness and wholesomeness incarnate. It would probably be going too far to say that Kirby laid the groundwork to lead Superman out of the Silver Age...but he does seem to have glimpsed his potential before anyone else, just as Supes glimpses Supertown in the photos of the Boom Tube Jimmy shows him.

What a segue! So, anyway, Supes glimpses Supertown in the photos of the Boom Tube Jimmy shows him. Somehow, he realizes that this might be a place where he could fit in, and makes it his mission to track down the Forever People.

On the way, he zooms past the Intergang helicopter. Despite showing no particular interest in their doings, Darkseid orders them to take Superman out because "I don't want him meddling!" This despite the fact that they're all well aware their "Sigma guns" aren't up to the job of killing Superman. Man, that Darkseid...he's just in the supervillain game to yank his own henchmen around, isn't he?

Sure enough, the Man of Steel shrugs off the ray blasts and takes down the helicopter in full view of the Forev's, leading them to assume that he's a fellow "Supertowner". When he pleads ignorance, they inexplicably turn on him, even after he uses his X-ray vision to uncover a metal plate in the ground. Rushing in mindlessly, the boys spring a series of traps--first a deadly gas that Superman disperses, then a bunch of hot pink goons called "Gravi-Guards" who "transmit gravity waves from heavy mass galaxies" and are thus capable of wrestling Superman to the ground.

It's at this point that things get weird in that special Kirby way. Seeing they're in deep doo-doo, the Forev's levitate Mother Box into the air, raise their arms, and begin "The ritual":

VYKIN: Rise, Mother Box, unite us as one--
MARK: Send him your signal, Mother Box! Make us the door for him to enter--
BEAR: Prepare for the word, Mother Box! Let your circuits carry the word--let it grow loud--until it reaches the winds of infinity!

Well, actually they say "Tarru", but it's "Taaru" everywhere else, so I guess that's just a misprint.

I *think* this is Kirby riffing on the kinds of transcendental meditation and other ritualistic stuff hippies tended to do to "draw people together". The result of this ritual? Infinity Man!!!

It's really not clear whether Infinity Man is some kind of proto-Voltron made up of the Forever People all merged together, or whether he swaps places with them, though the latter seems to be the more likely option. Infinity Man is a very strange character, talking mostly in riddles and avoiding Superman's questions as to his origin. It's also been noted that this is a borderline hallucinogenic re-interpretation of the Newsboy Legion, with Infinity Man as the Guardian, i.e. the adult authority figure who shows up to save the kids whenever they get into trouble. One thing's for sure, though: you'd have to be a being of near-infinite power to get away with that outfit.

Infy...let's call him Infy...makes short work of the Gravi-Guards and starts bellowing out challenges to Darkseid, who rather hilariously makes his appearance grumping, "Don't shout, I am here!" He's wearing a different costume than the even sillier one he adopts later on, and tells them that Beautiful Dreamer is no longer needed. He had been hoping to wrest from her the secret of "The Anti-Life Equation", a big macguffin for the series, but it turns out her brainwaves weren't compatable, so instead he's basically just handing him over to the heroes.

Well...that was a lot of trouble for nothing.

Not really, though, because of COURSE he left her on a booby-trapped table. I have to admit, the fact that Darkseid doesn't even really care that they're here and that he gives back Dreamer of his own volition does make him seem pretty badass. It's like, "Hey, I don't even care enough to try and deprive you of the object of your quest. Here she is, I'm going. Oh, and if you touch her, you die. Yawn."

Superman, of course, is able to grab her off the table and carry both himself and Infy to safety, streaking "at near light speed" away from the explosion that takes out Darkseid's underground complex (which we, oddly, never got around to seeing. Come on, Kirby, this isn't a low-budget movie, you can draw these things for us!) With everything hunky-dorey, Infy disapparates and the Forever People return in his place, vowing to help Superman for his part in their rescue.

Superman asks to go to Supertown, which is easily done, but the Forev's lay a heavy guilt trip on him by mentioning how Darkseid's war is about to get serious, and Superman's help is needed. Despite his assurances he'll be back, the Forev's seem vaguely disgusted with Superman's decision to leave Earth and find suitable companionship for ten fricking seconds. Sheesh. Superman enters the boom tube and gets halfway down it, then succumbs to guilt and zips back down to our end.

Geez, this is supposed to be all poignant and stuff, and it kind of is, but two things:

1) Surely Superman can go visit Supertown for a DAY and not have the Earth be totally conquered by Darkseid--I mean, even putting aside the various New Gods who are already here, and the others who are about to arrive, there's, like, an entire Justice League out there;

and 2) The stuff Superman does back on Earth--if, as I say, we assume this comic takes place before the events of the Jimmy Olsen issues--is hardly so urgent that they couldn't spare him. I mean, he basically babysits Jimmy, the Newsboy Legion, and Don Rickles' evil twin.


Yes, I said Don Rickles' evil twin. That's not a joke. Oh, how I wish it was. It's coming. FEAR IT.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #135--"The Evil Factory"

In an event perhaps unprecedented in the history of the Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen comic, we've now had two covers in a row that fairly accurately depict the story inside. You know that can't last long, though, and sure enough, the cover of #135, above, bears little or no resemblance to the story that begins when you turn the page.

That story is even weirder.

Seriously, as strange as the story up to this point has been, it's been clearly satirical and obviously the work of an expansive imagination that's fully embraced the unbounded storytelling potential of the comics medium. However, with SP,JO #135 things get unmistakeably...psychedelic. I mean, I realize that comics of the 60s were undeniably being written and drawn by a bunch of buttoned-down middle-aged Jewish guys, and it's a little hard to believe that any of them, Kirby included, were chemically altering their consciousness on any kind of regular basis. Even if Kirby did seem to have problems with his memory later on.

No, I'm pretty sure Kirby was high...ON COMICS.

The trippiness begins right on the opening splash page, with a gloved hand clutching a handful of tiny Superman, Jimmy Olsen and Newsboy Legion figures. But wait, these aren't the traditional figurines waiting to be symbolically crushed by the villain; these are actual, tiny clones of Superman and co. that have been bred in...dum DUM DUM...THE EVIL FACTORY. The caretakers of this factory are two guys who appear to have flunked out of Imperial Stormtrooper School. This is hardly the last time the Fourth World epic will remind us of Star Wars...

Awkward expository dialogue ahoy! "We have done well thus far!" Self-congratulates the shorter one. "As representatives of our forces on Earth, we must be ever precise with our responsibilities!" Yes, that string of words certainly sounds like it might mean something, if you don't read it too closely! Mmm-hmm!

This, for the record, is called "Maid-and-butler dialogue": when two characters talk at length about stuff they already know just so that the audience can be brought up to speed. It's especially annoying when it's something that the characters have no reason to be discussing at that particular moment, and when it goes on for PAGES, as it does here. I mentioned in the last installment that Kirby still seemed to be weaning himself from Stan Lee's influence, which is something I think he accomplishes later on; but at this point, he seems to be actively embracing all of Stan's worst tendencies, with none of his strengths. This whole conversation is just absolutely painful, and takes away from the jaw-dropping imagery being presented: besides the tiny Superman gang, we see gigantic machinery as only Kirby could draw it, supporting gigantic test tubes full of distorted humanoid shapes, and culminating in a hooded giant surrounded by Kirby's trademark energy crackle. Matter of fact, that whole array of images pretty much tells the story by itself, with only a few well-chosen words being necessary, so how disappointing that Kirby chooses to weigh them down with such utterly artless text. It's a good thing that, even in his late 40s, the King was a really fast study, and later issues of the Fourth World pared back the dialogue to much greater impact.

The two Invaders from the Planet of Exposition end their little rant by snatching off their helmets to reveal their true faces. (Characters who wear masks for no reason, just so they can dramatically snatch them off when appropriate, are another obnoxious storytelling quirk, but at least here you can make the case that they needed them to protect themselves from...radiation...or something...) The short guy, it turns out, is named Simyan and is a hairy, Neanderthaline fellow, while the other looks remarkably like a yellow Darth Maul and is named Mokkari. (And if you think those names are ridiculously on-the-nose, brother, you ain't seen nothing yet.)

In the meantime, Superman, Jimmy, and the Newsboys are still hangin' at the Mountain of Judgment. And hey! MORE Maid-and-butler dialogue, in the form of an internal monologue from Supes, explaining the events of the last two issues! Comics do this all the time, so I'm not sure why this is annoying me so much right now, but there you go. I guess I'm fed up with Jimmy and eager to get to the Forever People.

"You are needed at The Project!" proclaims the Hairy leader, Jude, and like that, they're off. The Project, we quickly learn, is a heavily guarded military base where genetic experiments are conducted--in fact, the Hairies are the product of military genetic engineering.

So, wait, wait. The army created hippies?!?

Yes, in a bizarre scenario that could only have come from the mind of an FDR Democrat WWII veteran with a fascination for the youth culture of the 60s (but no predilection for drugs whatsoever!), the wild, mystical Hairies and the uptight death merchants of Uncle Sam are not only in cahoots, but seem to be working almost interchangeably on a project that Superman describes as "very similar" to the Manhattan Project (?!?). For the next three issues, we'll be confronted with the confusing spectacle of grim-faced, gun-toting soldiers working alongside flower children for the betterment of mankind, through wild cosmic technology and genetic engineering.

Its, like, beautiful, man!

Remember how, a while back, I proposed that the Newsboy Legion might actually be clones of the originals? It's suddenly looking a lot more likely, isn't it? Especially since we now see that the grown-up versions of the Legion are here at the Project, ready to claim their wayward sons (with their mothers nowhere to be seen). It's looking more and more like a really large, and strangely incompetent conspiracy is what brought the Legion here.

Superman fills Jimmy in on the Project and the fact that they have cracked "the genetic code", allowing them to duplicate and manipulate "any living man". When Jimmy expresses doubt, Superman proves the truth of his words in the creepiest way possible. A nearby soldier removes his helmet and reveals himself to be--Jimmy Olsen! Jimmy #43, to be precise--that's his "life number".

So you see, Jimmy? The military has stolen your DNA and used it to create an army of slave-clones! But don't worry, nothing can possibly go wrong!

Any real-world "Hairies" reading this on acid were about to find their trip going even further south as Superman directs Jimmy to a microscope...and looking down the viewpiece, Jimmy sees a slide filled with microscopic copies of himself. I'm telling you, people, Kirby was absolutely not on drugs.

Back at the Project's evil opposite, Simyan and Mokkari are putting the finishing touches on their "organic murder machine", the hooded giant mentioned earlier: they're spraying him with synthetic Kryptonite in order to make him an unstoppable anti-Superman weapon. They report their success to the boss, who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be the same man...or creature...pulling Morgan Edge's strings: the mighty DARKSEID.

As I'm sure most of you know, Darkseid (That's "Dark-Side", not "Dark-Seed") is the archvillain of Kirby's Fourth World series, and probably the most well-known character to come out of this saga. He's a huge guy with a burly frame and a face apparently made out of stone (and a rather silly costume, but I'll get to that at a later date). He's also a highly memorable character--like most of the New Gods, he's prone to purple prose, but somehow, coming out of that stone kisser, Kirby's cosmic nonsense becomes a curious sort of faux-Shakespearean poetry. Darkseid is Kirby's second greatest villain, second only to a certain Latverian doctor/dictator, and if anything he outstrips Doc Doom in the evil department. There's an aspect of Darkseid's philosophy that Kirby really got exactly right, which lends the series a lot of its greater resonance--but since D.S. is only putting in a cameo appearance here, we'll hold off on that for now.

Simyan and Mokkari impress Darkseid (in the sense that he doesn't have them instantly killed, not in the sense that he betrays any pleasure whatsoever) with their creation, and by not pretending to be doing this for any reason other than pure profit. "Had you wanted mere praise, I'd have deemed you--fools!" But lest you think these are the first non-incompetent henchmen in comic history, their plan goes immediately awry when the giant smashes his way out of the containment area and goes on a rampage. "Kill to live!" he bellows! "Kill! Kill!" S. and M. (heh) are forced to activate their "penetrator beam" (oh come on now) and teleport the giant to the Project prematurely (seriously, cut it out!)

And like that, Superman suddenly finds himself locked in combat with what is revealed to be...


(Hmph) (Snicker) (Grrt)

OK, people? Freaks? You can clone ANYONE to turn into a monster and send against Superman. You choose...Jimmy Olsen?!? The weeniest kid in Metropolis?!?

As with Kirby's subversion of the whole "Jimmy vs. Superman" dynamic of the last two issues, this seems to be Kirby's take on the Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen, plus it seems like a chance to pit Superman against, for all intense and purposes, the Incredible Hulk. So, that's cool and all, but still--come ON!

Anyway, due to Jimmy's Kryptonite skin cream, Supes is quickly down for the count. But wait! The Project's been anticipating a situation like this! Well, I hope to God they haven't anticipated this exact scenario, because that would make them all deeply insane, but they do have an ace up their sleeve! You see, back in the day when the Newsboy Legion had their own comic, superheroes were going through their first wave of intense popularity, and with the comic industry never wanting to miss out on a bandwagon, it was decided that the Newsboys would gain a superhero protector--The Manhattan Guardian. (Interestingly, he appears to be the first superhero character ever to simply be a supporting character rather than the star of his own series. You can read more about this odd footnote in superhero history here.) He would basically show up any time the Legion got into trouble, save their butts, give them a stern talking-to or something, and then vamoose.

Well, guess who the Project's been growing in a tank? That's right! It's the all-new, renamed Golden Guardian! Who has no superpowers whatsoever, and is about to try and tackle a Kryptonite-enhanced monster who just licked Superman in a fight!

Again, is the Project really that short on raw genetic material? You clone Jimmy Olsen--without his consent, no less--a bunch of stereotypical 40s brats, and a forgotten superhero from the same era with no special abilities at all? I realize a Superman clone wouldn't be that useful in this situation, what with the Kryptonite and all, but how about Wonder Woman? You know, the superhero everyone always forgets is almost as powerful as Superman, just because she's a woman? Or any one of dozens of powerful superheroes?

But no, Kirby's calling the shots, and thus the Newsboy Legion, and if they want to clone their dead benefactor back to life and send him out to tackle this (Pfff) unstoppable menace, that's their choice!