Friday, May 27, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: (Orion of) The New Gods #2--"O' Deadly Darkseid"

I remain continually impressed by how much better The New Gods (or, as it's rechristened here, Orion Of The New Gods) is than the other books in the saga. Don't get me wrong, the others are frequently very good, but Orion sees Kirby playing to all his strengths, and synthesizing everything he'd learned in (at that point) 30 years of making comics into something waaaay ahead of its time. It's cinematic at a time when even cinema wasn't anywhere near as bold and Wagnerian as Kirby dares to be here.

I mean, the first three pages of this comic are a splash page and a double-page spread! Kirby, by the way, didn't actually invent the plash page as he's often credited, but he standardized it, and he used it so effectively that it became inextricably bound up with his work. Kirby also does something I haven't seen done before: he spends the first five pages on a "prologue" of sorts, before the title and credits page (which is another splash). With all these prologues and sweeping epic vistas, zooming down into the action from outer space, is it any wonder this comic is often cited as a huge influence on George Lucas?

Come to think of it, that first splash shows Apokalips in the foreground, flame belching ominously in the foreground, as we see it seemingly loom over the green world of New Genesis. Like some kind of body...a star. A star of death. A death star?

In the double-page spread, children are merrily romping in New Genesis, on some kind of bizarre whirlygig that looks like it was spawned by Salvador Dali. Inside the city, though, things are more grim. Highfather is once again confronting the Source Wall for advice: "WAR--FOLLOW ORION". That tears it, I guess. Earth is to become the battleground between New Genesis and Apokalips, and judging from the names, I'm doubting it's going to end well.

"I am one among those assembled, High-Father!" proclaims Lightray unnecessarily. "I am eager to join Orion!" But High-Father's decided Lightray's too young to jump into the fray, so he's going to have to wait another couple of issues.

Back on Earth, Orion has somehow ended up in the spartan pad in which Darkseid has been chilling, and furthermore, he's brought his new gang of followers with him. Darkseid, in typically ultra-cool fashion, lounges casually in a chair as his sworn enemy bursts in and accuses him of kidnapping Earthlings and violating the treaty. "I dare anything! I am Darkseid!" replies the bored-looking ruler of Apokalips, not even bothering to turn his head and look at Orion! Damn, that's cold.

"King of the damned! I can finish you now!" cries Orion. "Finish me--and you finish yourself!" replies Darkseid. "You hesitate, Orion! You can sense why--but you don't know--do you--? But Darkseid is free of mysteries! He can act!" And refer to himself in the third person! By the way, there's some heavy-handed foreshadowing in both this issue and the last one, but this exchange is rather well-done; clearly Kirby had SOME aspects of the overall story, at least, worked out in advance.

Anyway, Darkseid still doesn't bother to so much as turn his head while saying this, and a second later his minion Brola attacks. It's not that much of a surprise, since we did see him lurking behind the door on the previous page. Brola has a supercharged cattleprod in one hand, and the other. Yes, a brick, referred to as his "hand of stone", which he uses to pummel Orion. But Orion fights through the shocks and the beating and throws Brola through the wall, only to see him vanish in midair along with Darkseid, "snatched away by tele-ray" to "one of the secret bases established beneath the city." (Incidentally, we're never told exactly which city this is. I guess it's the same place The Tick hangs out.)

While Darkseid puts the boot to his useless minion and sends him scuttling out of the comic forever, another, rather more competent minion is working on the latest wild Apokaliptian scheme. It's Desaad, making what I believe was meant to be his debut appearance, despite the fact that he popped up in The Forever People #2, which hit newsstands first. Anyway, in typical New Gods fashion, Desaad's name tells you pretty much everything you'd need to know about the character--namely, that he's an insane weirdo who gets off on inflicting pain. However, because this is a Kirby comic, he's less interested in penning controversial novels and being played by Geoffrey Rush than he is building gigantic, convoluted devices with weird functions. The latest of these is "The Fear Machine" which will, in some unexplained way, flush out the mind Darkseid is looking for--the mind that holds the secret of the Anti-Life Equation.

Incidentally, Darkseid also explains, in a throwaway line, what the Equation is. He'd earlier referred to it as having the ability to destroy all life, but in fact, what the Equation does is take away free will...since, as explained earlier, someone without free will is not truly alive.

This is interesting, and I think gets to the point Kirby was trying to make with these comics. Darkseid doesn't want destruction for its own sake, nor does he want raw power. He wants to rule the world--and, I guess, the universe--but on far more terrifying terms than Doctor Doom did. In his quest to eradicate free will, Darkseid is possibly the purest personification of tyranny we've ever seen in comics: a character who literally wants to be the only thinking being left in the universe, or rather, wants every other mind to be an appendage of his own. I think that when you look at the long, sad, history of real-world dictators and tyrants, you'll find there's a lot of truth to that. What made people like Hitler and Stalin so monstrous wasn't simply the sheer number of people they killed and the warped shape into which they twisted their societies; it's that they wanted to impose their will on the world, a will which, no matter what their original intentions, left no room for other people except as mindless drones. I think that's why Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany ended up in much the same place, despite the seeming differences in their basic philosophies. They were solipsists--Hitler didn't want to share the word with anyone but Hitler, Stalin wanted to be alone with Stalin. They wanted pure freedom for themselves, which meant denying it to others.

Meanwhile, Orion has decided to fill his new friends in on what exactly is going on, and to that end, he produces Mother Box and gets them to touch it, in order to receive a literal infodump of exposition. "A movie without film! That's wild! Roll, man, roll!" enthuses Harvey, the stereotypical representative of today's youth. In 1971.

We then get a three-page montage--two of them splash pages--detailing what's been going on in Jimmy Olsen and The Forever People to date. Earth invaded by the forces of Apokalips, Boom Tube, Mantis, Dropout society, yadda yadda yadda. We do get an interesting bit of foreshadowing with a glimpse at the aquatic menaces known as the Deep Six, who Orion will confront in a couple of issues' time.

The powerpoint presentation...OF THE FUTURE! cut short by Mother Box, who "detects an invisible beam sweeping this very city!" Suddenly, the group of Earthlings are cowering in fear. Orion, conveniently, is "trained to resist all degrees of fear," and thus immune. Strapping on his flight harness, he zips out into the night in search of the source of the beam, which turns out to be this:

So advertising never hurt anyone, eh, you Madison Avenue fat cats?

One brief and anticlimactic battle later, Orion has smashed the billboard o' death and is on his way back to his buddies. Desaad and Darkseid watch him go, bickering in typical supervillain fashion--though, oddly, Darkseid won't hear Desaad's smack talk about Orion.

DARKSEID: We could never take one such as Orion captive! His kind dies in battle! And in death would look greater than a vermin like you!
DESAAD: So! The great Darkseid rises quickly to the defense of an enemy!
DARKSEID: Orion is an enemy to be respected!
DESAAD: Yes, it is strange how very like us he is--in his fierceness and--
DARKSEID: Silence, Desaad! Were Orion my own son--he would mean nothing to the purpose of our mission!

Hmm. HMMMMMM. Think that means anything?

The issue ends back in Dave Lincoln's pad, where Orion has apparently decided to crash for his time on Earth. The Earthlings swear fealty to Orion, and the whole thing wraps up with the traditional monologue.

All in all, that issue was kind of a filler, but it was elevated by Kirby's excellently worked-out vision for this series; the stately pace of the narrative feels epic, instead of belaboured, and the story flows naturally, one event logically following another, rather than the sometimes chaotic stories in the other books. You end the comic with the premise fixed in your mind, and eager to see where the story's going. What are all these hints leading up to? What's being foreshadowed so heavily? What will happen next?

If I had to guess, I'd say it involves splash pages.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #2--"Super War!"

I have to admit that I don't "get" The Forever People the way I do the other books in the Fourth World saga. Jimmy Olsen was Kirby's window into the DC Universe, the contractual obligation that he used to smuggle in his concepts. The New Gods/Orion was the central book from a plot perspective, detailing the mythology behind the clash of these fantastical beings on Earth. Mr. Miracle was the thematic heart of the series, revolving around a symbolic Christ-like figure who fought for an ideal. But the Forever People? Other than the fact that it was about a bunch of super-hippies, Kirby didn't seem to have the greatest handle on the concept at first. Like The Fantastic Four, it seemed, in some ways, to be his "tryout book" for random ideas before working them into the other, more thematically coherent comics, and the fact that it was the first of the Fourth World books to be drawn seems to reinforce this.

I say this because the groundwork we see being laid in this issue sort of contradicts the later issues. Nevertheless, if you're going to have Kirby doing your comics, you've got to have an occasional book where superpowered beings in zany costumes beat the living hell out of each other, with no particular agenda or deeper meaning. Kirby was constantly trying to be, and occasionally succeeding in being, "profound" with these books. However, TFP #2 is mostly just a mental breather, an excuse to trot out a concept Kirby had dreamed up and set it loose. The concept: MANTIS.

The issue starts with some Komedy as the Forever People park their Super-Cycle smack-dab in the middle of traffic. The Forev Peeps, you see, are eternal innocents, speaking in their own cosmic idiom and living in a Utopia, and thus unable to understand our mundane, Earthbound ways such as our need to get from one place to another without some gigantic, hairy jackass parking his eye-scorchingly psychedelic dune buggy/RV in the middle of the road, thereby creating the mother of all traffic jams RIGHT AT RUSH HOUR, and I was only FIVE MINUTES AWAY FROM GETTING HOME for &*$^#%'s sake, and the season premiere of "Dancing With the Stars" is on and I'M GOING TO MISS IT--

Well, there's some understandable hostility being expressed. One guy cracks wise about "Hippies", causing Big Bear to jump in jovially:

BIG BEAR: The dialect is primitive, brother! But the humor cries out for a straight man! Tell me, Mister Corn! What's a hippie?
LOUDMOUTH GUY: Ha, ha--dat's easy! All ya gotta do is show him a bathtub--an' if he runs--he's a hippie!
BIG BEAR: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! It's like direct involvement with ancient vaudeville! Thank you, for the experience, brother!

Then he crushes the guy's upper body with a bear hug and leaves him dying on the concrete! Ha ha!

OK, we see the cop picking him up a panel later, and I think he's supposed to be alive. I think. The point is that, once again, we have proof that Big Bear is AWESOME.

Anyway, it eventually seeps through the skulls of our pack of heroic stoners that they're not really wanted in this particular location, and they move on via the Super-cycle's "Phasing" ability.

Meanwhile! Darkseid is preparing one of his big guns: the monumentally powerful Mantis, who is a dude in an insect suit. Um. Well, he's really strong and fast, anyway, and has the rather cool ability to regulate kinetic energy--he can either "charge" an object with immense power (rather like Gambit, I guess), shoot beams of pure heat, or drain the energy from anything he touches. All of which are abilities he will put to use in this issue.

His weakness, however, is that he goes through energy pretty fast, and when depowered he has to rest up in his "Power-pod". Darkseid rouses him out of this before his charging cycle is complete, apparently to give him a stern talking-to. As usual with Kirby, the exact chain of events is a little vague, but it seems as though Mantis had snuck down to Earth significantly before any of the other New Gods and was planning on subjugating Earth for himself. Since Mantis possesses all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Darkseid is almost amused by his apparent betrayal and bids him continue, as long as he doesn't challenge his power.

"DONE!" yells Mantis.

"Then return to your wretched pod!" commands Darkseid.

"DONE!" yells Mantis.

"Unleash the terrors of the night! Make Man cringe! Make him tremble--make him FEAR!!"

Mantis is already asleep.

The Forever Peeps have meanwhile made tracks to the bad part of town, where they hope to set themselves up in some new digs. Mother Box starts pinging away like mad, but the FPs ignore her, in a snit. They tend to do that a lot, don't they? Makes you wonder why they even brought her along. Vykin's the only one that listens to her, and as a result he tends to be a bit of a drag. But they really ought to listen, because lurking in the shadows lies--

--A crippled child?

OK, so the actual danger source turns out to be the boy's Uncle Willie, supposed security guard, despite the fact that he's casually dressed in a loud orange jacket and purple fedora. He threatens the crew with his old-fashioned revolver, but Beautiful Dreamer manages to cool his jets by invoking her ability to project mental images--in this case, they all take the form of old-fashioned, innocent kids in 30s clothing. Trustworthy kids! Kids from a time when young folks respected their elders, by cracky! These are kids Uncle Willie has no cause to be scared by! (Shouldn't the black guy be invisible, then? Ba-Dum!)

Seriously though, this, along with the hippie wisecracks and Big Bear's reaction on the opening pages, is another interesting look at Kirby's mindset towards the hippies. He definitely seems to be siding with them against the establishment, but at the same time, he doesn't seem to be taking them so seriously that he can't give them a tweak. Here, once again, after an initial mistrust, the older generation--of which Kirby was undeniably a part--comes to trust and respect the young'uns, with their wild clothing and the rock and the roll and whatnot. It's the same subtext as the rather half-baked Jimmy vs. Superman subplot of his first three Jimmy Olsen issues, done in two pages. It's agreed that the Forev Peeps can move in--though I hope they're not planning on getting too comfortable.

Later that night, a clock tower silhouetted against the moon strikes midnight...the wind ghosts through the trees...and Mantis rises from a graveyard!! Seriously, an actual graveyard. A master of comics he may have been, but a master of understatement was something you couldn't accuse Kirby of being.

Despite the late hour, the FPs are apparently up and about, furnishing their new apartment with old junk that Big Bear, with typical joviality, calls "pure camp". Mark Moonrider refers to the old, broken TV as "A pure representation of early, post atomic, middle class home visuals!"

OK, hold up. This is really interesting. Again, going back to Big Bear's comments about "Ancient Vaudeville"...are we supposed to infer from this that the FPs are from the future?!? They're not talking about their alien world, they're referring to stuff from our world as if it was their own distant past. Unless Kirby wants us to swallow the idea that the development of civilization on New Genesis *exactly* paralleled our own, complete with cultural tics, and that they're merely a futuristic version of our own society--which is pretty much directly contradicted everywhere else in the saga--than the suggestion seems to be that the two worlds of the New Gods exist in our future, possibly unimaginably distant. Does this resonate with Kirby's idea that we've seen the death and rebirth of the Marvel Universe? Because if I'm following this, it means that the New Gods are visitors from both a parallel reality (the Marvel U.) AND from the distant future. The Marvel Universe will eventually go down in flames and reform itself as part of he DC Universe.


Tiny Tim, I mean Donnie the crippled boy, expresses amazement that Serafin got the TV to work, but Serafin, in a pointless and bizarre digression, explains to Donnie that he's using a bit of New Genesis technology called a Cosmic Cartridge, which are the things on his hat. They resonate with the universe, you see, and put one in touch with the great cosmic harmony. Serafin gives Donnie one to hold, and away he goes on an acid trip, Kirby style.

For one panel.

Then he snaps out of it and continues to pester Serafin about the Supertowner's mysterious origins. Unfortunately for him, the TV suddenly breaks in with a report on Mantis's destructive rampage. Recognizing the Grasshopper of Grimness (OK, sorry), our heroes do what they always do: call on Infinity Man to help them.

Regular reader "Supersonic Man" over at the BMMB was under the impression that the FPs were "non-violent superheroes"; I started to correct him before realizing that they didn't, in fact, do much fighting--they just conjure up Infinity Man every time things get hairy. So in that sense, I guess they are non-violent, but you can see why they don't brag about it. On the other hand, if Infinity Man is a composite of all the Forever People merged into one being, then...well, that's confusing. So let's drop it.

Even though the comic's only half over, there's not much more to tell, because as I mentioned above this is a good old-fashioned Kirby fight comic. Nobody ever did this kind of thing better than the King, and this particular battle runs on for about 8 pages, with occasional interjections from Darkseid and Desaad. (Desaad, for those of you who don't know, is Darkseid's #1 henchman, and makes his first chronological appearance here, but given how perfunctory it is I suspect that once again we're dealing with a comic that was drawn in a different order than how it was published, and that Desaad's proper introduction is in the next issue. So more about him next week.)

Aaaaanyway, the long and the short of it is, Mantis leaps and rampages through the city, cops shoot at him to no effect, Infinity Man gives him a drubbing, Mantis uses his energy-sucking touch to encase Infy in an implausibly cubical block of ice, Mantis rampages some more, Infy uses his ability to bend the laws of time and space--which is looking more and more like a deus ex machina--to break loose of the ice block, he hilariously grabs hold of those impractical ribbons of fabric dangling from Mantis's back to his feet, drains Mantis's power, and Mantis goes crawling back to his Power Pod. The FPs reappear to give a little soliloquy, and the issue abruptly ends.

Next time: Orion lays it out for us, New Genesis goes to war, and more on that Desaad guy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Lot of Important Stuff Just Happened in the World. Here's a Post About Doctor Who.

So a common line I've been hearing about "Day of the Moon" from hardcore Who-Heads (yes, I know that's not their nickname) is that the Doctor committed genocide by implanting the subliminal suggestion in humanity's head to kill the Silence.

I honestly and truly do not get these complaints.

Absolutely no one has to die because of what the Doctor did here--I think his goal was as simple as making sure the Silence get out of the human race's way. Or, at worst, a leveling of the playing field.

We have a race that's been manipulating human civilization since it came into existence, for as-yet unknown ends--but whatever they are, the Silence seems to agree that they're not at all beneficial to the human race. Not only can you not fight or resist them, you can't even look at them without possibly getting subliminal messages implanted in your head. It's one of the most horrific oppressions imaginable.

And the human race is incapable of fighting against them or even knowing they're being enslaved. That takes the whole situation to yet another level. Given the incredibly narrow options here, the Doctor's solution strikes me as downright elegant.

My understanding is that a lot of Who fans are very big on the idea that the Doctor never uses brute force, and that the old show had some memorable episodes about how Ugly Creepy Things Are People Too. So I can't speak to the continuity of the show or the ideals that it maintains. But you can't possibly tell me that the Doctor has never used the threat of force to dissuade his enemies? Because that seems like the crucial business here: the Doctor gave someone (the human race) who had been bullied, oppressed, and had the deck stacked against them for thousands of years and gave them the tools to fight back, something that was remarkably difficult to do given the parameters of the situation.

What the Doctor's done is use their own methods, and their own *words,* to transmit information to everyone who needed to hear it. OK, there's an element of compulsion, but there's an element of compulsion about everything the Silence do, and since they're literally being hoist by their own petard here, I can't see how this is unfair or cruel. All the Silence need to do to avoid getting shot is to back off--it's not like the human race is going to form hunting parties to track them down. And that's, of course, notwithstanding the many other means the Silence presumably have at their disposal to fight back, beginning with another subliminal broadcast to counteract the first. (There may be plenty of ways this wouldn't work, but my point is the Silence did not suddenly become helpless victims after the broadcast.) Indeed, since the Silence are almost certainly returning, you could make the argument that the Doctor's solution is far too temporary a fix.

Now, the argument here seems to hinge on exactly how much the Doctor is allowed to let bloodshed occur, and yes, it surely seemed likely that some Silents were going to be killed right after the initial broadcast. I guess, based on what I know of the Doctor, it could be considered out of character for him...not to be upset that he couldn't have found a better way? That seems reasonable. I do think it might have spoken to everyone's concerns a little better if he'd simply taped the Silent saying "We are your enemy" or "we are your secret oppressors" or something--I'm sure violence would have resulted from that as well, but the Doctor wouldn't have had as much moral culpability. I say this, though, as a guy who doesn't really have a problem with the idea of the Doctor subverting a bunch of interstellar Svengalis by urging their subjects to kill, when the tools available are so flimsy and the situation is so tricky, and again, given the many, many ways that the Silence could undo this within a relatively short time.

At any rate, we can argue at the level of violence, or approval of violence, or compulsion to violence, committed by the Doctor, but calling it "genocide" seems to me, again, to be rather absurd.