Friday, November 25, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: (Orion of) The New Gods #3--"Death is the Black Racer!"

I’ve never been sure exactly how well the Fourth World books did in terms of sales when they first came out, and it seems I’m not the only one. The series was, of course, cancelled before its time, supposedly due to low sales, but there sure seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence to indicate that they were both popular and much-discussed at the time. For example, in the afterword to the first omnibus volume, Mark Evanier writes how the publishers reported to Jack that the readers “loved all the new characters in each issue”, which certainly doesn’t sound like a description of a struggling book. This same conversation apparently also led to Kirby inserting a new character into Orion of the New Gods #3, a character he had planned for a separate project. That character was…Death, the Black Racer.

There are so many things wrong with Death, the Black Racer (whom I will hereafter refer to as DTBR) that it’s not even funny. Actually, it is funny. That’s why all those things wrong with the character are actually things right with the character.

That's him on the cover above. First of all, the “Black” in his name doesn’t refer to his costume, obviously, but rather his skin colour. Like much of comics (which tended to follow Kirby’s lead anyway), Kirby was belatedly realizing that he had been unfairly ignoring black people for decades, and attempting to make up for it by awkwardly inserting a bunch of black characters in his work, many of them unfortunately stereotypical or featuring “black” in their names for no real reason.

Secondly…a suit of armour could be a good look for an embodiment of The End of Life, but a garish red, yellow and blue one? And…and…


OK, so Kirby had hit the bullseye a few years before with a cosmic surfer of the starways, and that must have seemed just as unlikely…but…but…


Let’s just get started.

OBLIVION!!! I face oblivion!!! I am the quarry of a power that challenges all power!!” bellows Lightray in this issue’s opening splash page. Not wasting any time, Kirby’s introduced us to DTBR right off the bat, and he’s chasing Lightray for…no reason that I can see. I mean, OK, he’s the embodiment of Death, and he claims all things, and (in a nice bit of metaphor) even the supremely fast Lightray can’t actually outrun him, just outmaneuver him for a while. But…I mean, why is he chasing Lightray at this particular moment? Was Lightray playing with matches or running with scissors moments before? Because I don’t think it’s fair if Death gets to actually cause your death. I thought his job was just to take you away afterwards. Apparently the New God of Death is a more proactive sort.

Anyway, it’s time to check in on Orion, back on Earth. As you may have noticed, this particular comic is falling into a neat little formula: we start with cosmic goings-on back on New Genesis and environs, then cut back to Earth as the story starts. It builds a nice rhythm, with a sense of growing tension, as we wait for these cosmic characters to arrive on Earth and join or hinder Orion.

Orion’s still hanging back at the pad with his disciples. For the record, these are Dave Lincoln, P.I.; Claudia Shane, token female; Harvey Lockman, annoying teenager; and Victor Lanza, perpetually nervous insurance salesman. Quite a posse you’ve got going there, Orion. But at least they’ve been able to procure clothes for him! In only two issues!

Orion goes into the back room to change…in more ways than one. While indulging in a typically Kirbian soliloquy about how he has to hide his true nature and blah blah blah, Orion reveals to us that he’s not actually the good-lookin’ stud that Claudia’s been drooling over; his true face is one that’s just as grim and ugly as a scion of Apokalips. If you haven’t figured out what the deal is with Orion yet, based on all these clues Kirby keeps dropping, you may want to find some new reading material more your intellectual speed, like “Dick and Jane”. Or Spidey Super Stories.

Meanwhile, back in space, Lightray’s prospects are looking dire as he slams into an asteroid—but just as the Black Racer is almost upon him (“It is the end, Lightray! It could only end this way!” It could only end on a planetoid in deep space, via a homicidal renfest reject on skis? Yeah, how could he have not seen that coming?) a Boom Tube opens up and draws the Black Racer off to another plane of existence. Lightray’s rescuer is Metron, natch, who tells Lightray off for not thinking to do this himself. It seems that, in traditional mythological fashion, the only New God who has any brains is the one with “intelligence” as his special purview. Also in traditional mythological fashion, Metron’s kind of a pompous dick about it.

The Black Racer--where is he now? Where has the Boom Tube taken him?” asks Lightray, a question answered by the splash on the following page, where DTBR proclaims, “So, destiny has changed my course and takes me here—to Earth!!! Uh, dude, that wasn’t destiny, that was Metron. What was I saying about this guy being proactive? So first he chases Lightray around space for no reason, then as soon as he’s diverted, he just gives up and starts harassing the locals? DTBR apparently has ADD.

“There, below—a place of black men!” he narrates, referring to a ghetto. Yikes. “Those who fight to live—others who risk my presence!” He watches as we meet to participants in a gun battle: Screamer, dressed in a natty gangster suit, and Sugar-man, who’s straight out of Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song. Screamer is apparently a stool pigeon, and Sugar-man is, you guessed it, working for Inter-Gang. He ices Screamer (“Your last scream won’t be to the law!”) and then notices the presence of an onlooker. This is one Sergeant Willie Walker, Vietnam hero, wounded in the line of duty, who now lies in a bed, unable to move or speak. So Sugar-man decides he can’t leave him alive as a witness. He decides that the guy who can’t move or talk is going to rat him out somehow. Sugar-man is not a genius.

OK, that’s not fair. It also sort of plays out as Sugar-man being a jerk who can’t resist taking out an easy target, or maybe even thinking he’s doing Willie a favour by putting him out of his misery. Nevertheless, he’s prevented from pulling the trigger by the Black Racer, who causes the gun to explode in his hand and sends Sugar-man running away, clasping his burned face. Um…so why is the Black Racer, who was so happy to arbitrarily kill a perfectly healthy New God a few pages ago, now preventing the death of someone who, we learn in a second, is pretty much crying out for euthanasia?

Well, it turns out, ol’ DTBR is about to give Willie a special gift—by inhabiting his body. First Willie finds his hand moving, stretching out towards the stranger—then he gets up, finding himself able to speak—then he tears away the brace from his neck and, as you’d expect, gets pretty excited. “It’s happened! I’m whole! I’m strong! I’m no longer half-alive!” At which point the Black Racer collapses to the ground and…dissolves? Leaving his armour behind. Willie, after a moment of befuddlement, realizes that he is changing, and…well, it happens between panels, so it’s not clear if he puts on the armour himself or it somehow materializes around him. Either way, Willie now realizes he is now the Black Racer, and passes through the wall to jump on his skis and head out to hunt the doomed.

Got all that? Because the first thing I thought of when I read this was Hermes on Futurama bellowing, “That just raises further questions!!!”

I mean…why does the Black Racer need a body to possess? None of the other New Gods needed to do this to come to Earth (though it might have been cool if they did, and in fact some later writers like Grant Morrison have had the New Gods inhabiting human bodies). The new, Willie-ified DTBR seems to be just as invisible and intangible as his cosmic counterpart, and the old Black Racer was clearly capable of touching and affecting things, based on what he did to Sugar-man’s gun. And on top of everything, in spite of his claims to the contrary, he didn’t actually kill Willie! Or maybe the idea is that he…took Willie’s place…or something…but again, why does Death need a secret identity? I mean, things are dying all the time. This brings a whole new level to the traditional image of the superhero deciding he’s needed and changing into a new form in order to swoop off and do his duty. Instead of zooming to the rescue, death changes into his cowl in a phone booth and races to a scene of disaster to sweep away human souls.

I guess you could argue that DTBR is simply the Death of New Genesis and Apokalips, and that’s why he doesn’t bother with non-New God related phenomena. Although that would suggest that no one can die on either of those two planets as long as he’s kicking back on Earth. What a slacker, that Death!

Meanwhile, Orion (or “O’Ryan”, as his minions suggest he should call himself while on Earth) has donned the guise of Dave Lincoln’s new partner and set out to find the people who kidnapped the foursome in the first place. “It is best we do this alone, Lincoln! The others need not risk their lives in this venture!” “They lack the experience, at any rate, Orion!” agrees Dave. “Also, they’re a bunch of obnoxious boobs with no useful skills whatsoever, and I’m happy to get away from them for as long as possible!” OK, so he doesn’t actually say that last part, but you can tell he’s thinking it.

Orion and Dave use Mother Box to find the hideout of yet another branch of Intergang, this one overseen by a human gargoyle named “Badger”, who looks astoundingly like a cross between Telly Savalas and Fin Fang Foom.

He’s sort of mockingly consoling Sugar-man on his horrific facial injuries, then telling him to shut up as they go over the details of their nefarious plot. They’ve been paid to set off an Apokoliptish bomb in the heart of the city—I’m going to assume this is Darkseid’s fallback plan now that Superman stopped the Project from going nuclear, and man, that guy really wants to destroy Metropolis—but of course, Orion and Dave know an opening when they see one. Orion “literally smashes through concrete and metal walls” (as opposed to metaphorically smashing through them) and trashes the goons, despite their Apokaliptish weaponry. Actually, Mother Box just short-circuits them as soon as he enters the room, but they hold them off long enough to let Sugar-man get away with the bomb. He leaps in the van and drives away…but is pursued by DTBR, who’s swifter than any early-70s model truck. Sugar-man sees the Black Racer in his rearview mirror, but can’t get away from him as he passes his ski-pole through the truck to the bomb and triggers its, um, anti-gravity circuits. Of course. Because what city-destroying bomb is complete without an anti-gravity device capable of sending a truck flying into outer space? It’s just common sense, really.

Despite the fact that we just saw DTBR do this himself, Orion takes credit on the next page for levitating the truck with Mother Box, then blows it (and Sugar-man) to smithereens at a safe altitude. Hmmm…so I guess either DTBR is a glory hog, taking credit for other people’s work, or Orion is amazingly lackadaisical about letting people get away with city-destroying bombs. “Say, Orion, didn’t we just let the bad guy get away?” “Not to worry, Dave Lincoln, I’ll use my…um…magic box…to levitate the truck into the air…c’mon, Black Racer, you owe me one!” “Say, that’s neat. Any particular reason we didn’t use that same technology to beat up these goons from a distance instead of risking our lives?” “Dave Lincoln, I find the warrior’s fury growing in my breast!” “Forget I asked.”

A job well d…OK, a job done, the Black Racer returns to Willie’s apartment and changes back to the paralyzed, helpless Willie Walker, just in time for his primary caregivers, his sister and her husband, to come barging through the door, castigating themselves for leaving him alone. Which, yeah, I have to kind of agree, even if Willie’s brother in law mentions that they arranged for the neighbours to check in on him, in a truly awkward bit of retroactive plot spackling. The neighbours didn’t show up because they were busy with “all that trouble tonight!”, which sounds an awful lot like they got drunk and passed out, but let’s let it slide. The issue ends with a creepy closeup of Willie’s eyes—“He now knows his next quarry! Who is it? Him? Her? YOU?!?

I don’t know if the Black Racer reappears anywhere in the Fourth World saga—you’d think he’d show up every time someone died, kinda like the other DC Universe version of Death, the Sandman’s sister. He does seem a bit shoehorned in, which isn’t that surprising given that the comic was apparently planned without him and editorial suggested adding him in at the last minute.



Coming up next: the moment we’ve all been dreading, as Goody Rickels makes his terrifying first appearance…

No comments:

Post a Comment