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.

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