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!


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