Friday, December 9, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #3--"The Paranoid Pill"

Wrapping up the final issue of the first omnibus on a high note, “The Paranoid Pill” sees Kirby getting more comfortable with Mister Miracle just as he was with The Forever People. The pacing here is better, the characters’ behaviour is more logical, and the idea of Mister M. undergoing a series of trials at the hands of his former classmates is better handled here than it will be even in the next volume.

Which is not to say it isn’t mockable by a shallow and juvenile yutz like myself! Here’s the awesome opening caption to this issue:

Sometimes, there are things that take place in empty rooms that defy belief, and so go unnoticed!!

No, seriously: sometimes things that happen in empty rooms go unnoticed. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

What’s happening in this particular empty room is that a Boom Tube from Apokalips is coming through, and a horde of faceless silver androids are pouring out. Kirby explains via caption that these are “‘Animates’ manipulated by the power of a single mind!” So you’d think they’d have no need to spout expository dialogue to each other, wouldn’t you? You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Not to harp on it, but this really takes away from the eeriness of the scene. Again, it’s kind of surprising that an artist like Kirby took so long into the Fourth World to figure out the value of just shutting up and letting the pictures tell the story, but I guess he was still working his way out from under Stan Lee’s influence. That aside, though, it's really an incredibly awesome little scene, both as a weird set-piece and as a metaphor for the character we're about to meet: his entire existence is a series of redecorations of vacant suites.

Having furnished the room and placed a single, central “Animate” in a chair in the center of the room, we watch as the “mind-force” takes possession of this body and molds it into the distinctively bizarre form of…Doctor Bedlam.

And all the while, the exposition is flying fast and furious, explaining that the Doctor is pure mind, able to inhabit bodies at will, that he serves Darkseid, and that he’s here to subjugate Scott Free.

I know it hardly needs to be said that Kirby characters talk a LOT when they don’t need to, and much of what they say doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway, but in this case, Bedlam is literally talking to himself—the only other people in the room are the Animates, who only have a semblance of life because he animates them. But what’s really hilarious is the kind of stuff he feels the need to explain to the audience. “Here on Earth, by the simple act of lifting this primitive instrument men call a telephone, I shall begin the little charade I have planned!” Then later: “Nothing can be hidden from one such as I, Scott Free! Your telephone number is known to me!!!” Doctor Bedlam has use of a demonic Apokaliptian device known as the “Telephone-book!

Man, I want a whole comic just of Doctor Bedlam’s daily routine. “By activating the ‘tooth-brushing’ device, I can render my teeth, which I use to masticate food, to a spotless white, as though I had not eaten an entire bag of ‘potato-chips’ this evening! And soon, I shall evacuate my bowels into the toilet! It shall be as though the chips had never existed!

Splash page time! We cut to Scott, shackled into a particularly elaborate set of restraints that sort of look like an upright set of medieval stocks. Hanging above him is a gigantic granite block, which Oberon opines will fall in mere seconds…but Scott is barking at Oberon to answer the phone.

Who else feels bad for Oberon? I mean, he’s been in show business a lot longer than Scott, yet Scott pretty much instantly assumed the mantle of overbearing master and started ordering him to do menial tasks for, as far as I can see, no money. I mean, as we’ve seen, performing in front of an audience is the last thing on Scott’s mind. He just whips up these spectacular devices from common household items, escapes from them once, and then leaves Oberon to clean up the mess. Or else he’s running off to challenge some weirdo and leaving Oberon to worry about him. Dude, seriously, even if it’s your goal in life to be an escapist’s assistant, you have better options. I hear David Blaine is hiring. I’m sure he’s only 9/10ths the asshole Scott is.

Anyway, despite the ringing phone (and you’d think that a distraction like that could really screw up a split-second escape, but no, Scott Free is just that good) Scott escapes. Oberon takes the call for him. “That’s odd!” mutters Scott. “I know no one in this area, Oberon!” Wow, that is odd. It couldn’t be that the caller is somehow…transmitting his voice an extended distance, using some kind of…tele-phonic…technology? No, that’s too crazy.

Scott takes the call and agrees to Doctor Bedlam’s terms of battle. By the way, Bedlam refers to his plan as “a charade”, and yet the villainous sorts who hail from Apokalips seem to adhere to a ridiculously formal and honourable code of conduct, as we’ll see clearly in this book. At least, they do when confronting Mister Miracle. Others have no qualms with sending genetically altered super-strong Jimmy Olsens to do their fighting for them.

There follows an extended four-page sequence in which Scott explains that Doctor Bedlam is a creature of pure mind, who would crush them were they not protected by Mother Box. They then proceed to hold a weird little séance in which they feel themselves assaulted by unknown terrors—Doctor Bedlam’s mental attack, which Scott provoked for some reason. Really, there’s nothing wrong with this sequence—actually, it’s kind of creepy—but it’s a little jarring to see Kirby spending so much time building up the situation. After all, in some of the earlier issues, major plot points were dispensed with via one-panel blocks of exposition. Here Kirby’s actually taking the time to set up the characters, and my knee-jerk response is, “Hurry up! Get to it already!” even though this comic is still way more compressed than your average Brian Michael Bendis story.

Mister Miracle confronts the Doctor in his ersatz office, which we now learn is on the top floor of an office building called “Chandler Towers.” Just be thankful it’s not “Joey Towers.”

When Mister Miracle refuses to submit to Bedlam’s citizen’s arrest, he displays the lynchpin of his plan: a tiny, nondescript pill. Mister Miracle protests that the code of combat disallows Bedlam from tranquilizing an adversary, but Bedlam replies that his is not what he has in mind. Instead, he’s going to drop the pill into the building’s ventilator system, whereupon it changes into vapour and infects the “literally thousands of Earth folk” in the building with raving, homicidal madness. (I’m not sure that even a huge office tower is likely to hold thousands of people, but never mind.) Mister Miracle’s mission, should he choose to accept it—and he already has—is simply to walk out the front door of the building…which will entail getting past thousands of extras from 28 Days Later without, presumably, doing them any serious harm.

No metal, no gimmickry, no medieval chain or link for you, my boy! My world is of the mind!--And all the twists and turns that lead it to the pit!

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be seriously cool. Much better than that stupid “X-Pit” which you can get out of by pushing buttons, or even some of the heavy-duty traps he escapes from later. It’s a genuine “escape”, but one that requires him to use his wits and resourcefulness instead of just his manual dexterity (or whatever handy Apokaliptian technology he happens to have up his sleeve that month). And it’s certainly an escape that’s actually going to be substantial enough to fill an entire issue, for a change. Or even two.

Mister Miracle, overcome with rage, gives Bedlam a serious booting, but he’s already vacated the robot body in question. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the tower have gone crazy…COMIC BOOK STYLE!

BIG-MOUTHED MAN: Someone here wants to kill me!
CRAZY LADY: It’s the UFO’s! They’ve landed!
BESPECTACLED GUY: I don’t have to work here! I’m needed in the president’s cabinet!
SECRETARY: You ruined my typing!

I especially like the delusions of grandeur mixed in there. Nice touch, Bedlam.

A guy who thinks he’s being held prisoner smashes down doors. A security guard starts blasting away at “robbers”. “From every doorway—in every corridor—madness, in all its horror, spins into wild frenzy…” No, worse than madness…DARKNESS! KRUG!

“Bedlam’s Paranoid Pill seems to be working!” muses Scott.

Being a logical sort, Scott’s first thought is to simply fly out the window on his aero-discs, but it seems that Doc Bedlam’s sealed the building with “COSMI-CURRENT!” Meanwhile, a gang of freaked-out citizens, including a railroad worker for some reason,

have beaten down the door and are after Scott with drainpipes and whatnot. Scott manages to fly past them with the aero-discs, dodging thrown items and worrying that “one of them is bound to get lucky and…” Well, uh, not that I’d particularly want a vase upside my head either, but aren’t you, like, a New God, Scott? I mean, in “The Forever People” and “New Gods/Orion” they make a pretty big deal about how only Apokaliptish weapons can hurt them. You’d hardly think he has much to be afraid of from a couple of thrown bits of debris.

Nevertheless, it’s probably prudent of him to avoid this stuff, which he does by slipping into an elevator…somehow failing to notice it’s occupied. By a dude with a gun, no less.

With bullets ricocheting around the elevator, Scott hits the emergency stop and gets out on the 45th floor—only to be met with another howling mob. They’re convinced he’s a demon, because “only a demon would look like that—and dress like that!” Well, a demon or a Mardi Gras dancer. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The mob subdues him, Scott, of course, being restrained by his unwillingness to hurt anyone. They manhandle him into a trunk and chain it shut, the whole way shrieking that he’s a demon, that he’s dangerous to them, that they have to destroy him…and then someone insists that they can’t let him suffocate in there. So they punch air holes.

Um…why even bother? One way or another, it’s not like Scott is about to spend a lot of time in the trunk. And needless to say, this sudden care for his well-being is pretty nonsensical, coming from a ravenous mob. Kirby really should have just had them try to frantically stab him through the trunk, with the air holes being a minor benefit.

Anyway, proclaiming themselves to be heroes for ridding the world of this demon, the howling residents of Chandler Towers manhandle the trunk to the central stairwell of the building and drop him down, 45 flights of stairs, to the bottom. “I waited too long!” Thinks Scott. “The chances of my escaping from this-- are ten past zero!!!”

Oh, OK, then. End of the book, I guess. No need to—oh wait, it’s to be continued. But I’m sure he can’t escape, right? I mean, who wastes time thinking, “Gee, I can’t escape from this,” and then immediately escapes?

Mister Miracle, that’s who!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fourth World Fridays: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139--"The Guardian Fights Again"

I didn't even want ONE Rickle...

Even Kirby’s #1 fan and bestest friend ever, Mark Evanier, has admitted that Kirby could be a bit on the flaky side. This tendency is illustrated nicely by the two-issue Jimmy Olsen storyline we’re about to endure; the fact that it got so out of control wasn’t entirely Kirby’s fault, but it certainly didn’t help that the guy was so easily distracted. Evanier claims that he and Kirby’s other assistant, Steve Sherman, were mostly used as a sounding board for Kirby’s ideas during the creation of the Fourth World, but occasionally one of their own ideas would slip through, and one of these was to have the then-immensely-popular Don Rickles show up in a brief cameo and insult Superman. Somehow—apparently it had a lot to do with a DC publicist thinking they could reap some major publicity from it—this tiny idea was inflated into a two-issue extravaganza, which was bad enough—but by the time Kirby was done with it, the original idea had been lost, and the whole storyline had gone way off the rails. Most excruciatingly, Kirby had for some reason decided that what the story really needed was to give Rickles an evil twin who was intentionally unfunny. Hence, Goody Rickels (sic) was born, and the moment I’ve been dreading since I started these reviews is upon us.

It starts innocuously enough, back at the Project, where Tommy Sr.—who, you’ve no doubt forgotten at this point, is one of the Project’s doctors—is on the verge of giving the Guardian a clean bill of health and sending him out into the world, the first of the Project’s creations to be thus cleared. The Newsboys arrive to cheer him on and berate Superman in a flurry of clichéd dialogue along the lines of “Make wit’ a little “koitsy” , will ya. Muscles?” (Scrapper) and “Coudja lower the flippa for Dippa, soul brother?” (Flippa Dippa. Because he’s black, you see. Oh well, at least he’s not spazzing out over something water-related.)

Jimmy tells off Scrapper, who responds with “AAAAAA, Pish and Tush, Olsen!” Pish and tush? I thought these were 30s style New York street urchins, not 19th century schoolmarms.

The Guardian is given “clearance” (In quote marks. Slow down with the technical talk, Kirby!) by Tommy’s dad, who nevertheless makes cryptic reference to something weird in the Guardians’ brain, something that they don’t understand fully, and which is apparently common to all the Project’s creations. Nevertheless, the Guardian is eager to high-tail it out of there and get back to Metropolis…even though he’s technically never been there.

“I was grown with the memories of the original Guardian intact in my mind,” he explains. Ah, the old Xerox-clone standby. By now, of course, everyone knows you don’t produce exact, fully-grown copies of people by cloning them, and really, most reasonably well-informed people knew it in 1971, too, but hey, it’s a comic book contrivance. I’m sure that the scientists at the Project, who are constantly creating beings that they don’t understand and either sending them off into the world or enslaving them know what they’re doing.

By the way, the Guardian’s claim that he knows Metropolis introduces a fairly major continuity issue. The Guardian’s original name was The Manhattan Guardian, but here he’s portrayed as a resident of Metropolis, not Manhattan (as are the Newsboy Legion). It reminds me of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, which included a new Manhattan Guardian, and explicitly acknowledged that Metropolis and Gotham City were fantasy versions of New York. I guess we can explain this away with the usual “Earth A/Earth B” nonsense (the Golden Age DC characters inhabited Earth B), but that seems to suggest that there is no Metropolis in Earth B. I guess.

Does it seem like I’m stalling? Oh, I am. I dread what’s coming, reader, dread it deep in my soul.

Moments later, Superman is zooming down the Zoomway, with Jimmy and the Guardian in tow in the Whiz Wagon…but without the Newsboy Legion. While musing about how people will someday learn of the wonders of the Project, Jimmy and the Guardian explain their absence:

JIMMY: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! They won’t learn about it from the Newsboy Legion! HA HA HA HA!
GUARDIAN: (Stone-faced) Poor kids! I’m sure they’d find that joke no laughing matter!
JIMMY: Awww…I can’t help laughing, Guardian! Soon after the Doctor approved your leaving he turned “thumbs down” on them!
GUARDIAN: (Still stone-faced, still staring straight ahead) Too bad! One of the boys came down with a cold! Too bad!

Man, is that the flimsiest excuse possible to ditch the Newsboys, or what? I mean, I’d seize on every opportunity to do the same, too, but it’s like they weren’t even trying. You can tell the Guardian feels kinda bad about it. That’s not going to stop him from getting wasted tonight, of course. I hear Metropolis strip clubs are the best. Let’s hear it for no underage accompaniment!

As they emerge into the world above, Superman suddenly puts on a burst of “faster-than-lightspeed” (!) and unsuspiciously races ahead. It’s so that he can adopt his guise of Clark Kent and play dumb about where they’ve been when Jimmy and the Guardian burst into his apartment. (You know, as much as people make fun of Silver Age stuff like Superman having a bunch of robot doubles to cover for him, at least it did allow for this kind of extended absence.)

“Another human original!” exclaims the Guardian, shaking Kent’s hand. “It’s always an experience to meet one!” Uh, yes, and it’s an experience you’re likely to have many, many times in the next few days, so if you could just keep yourself from saying that every single time, that would really go a long way towards not creeping everyone out. Thanks, Guardian.

Anyway, Jimmy’s gung-ho to get Morgan Edge based on what happened in the Wild Area. Clark insists that they should have “facts”, which Jimmy seems to implicitly acknowledge…even though they don’t really have any facts. I mean, other than their general dislike of Morgan Edge, how do they *know* he was the one that planted the bomb? Of course, if Superman is listening in with his super-hearing a little later, he’ll hear one doozy of casual confession…but more on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, the Newsboys are stuck back at the Project thanks to Gabby’s apparent illness. (I’m not sure why the Project workers insisted on quarantining the Newsboys but not Jimmy, but again, I’m not complaining.) Being bad sports, the Newsboys are about to reenact the soap-beating scene from Full Metal Jacket on Gabby before Tommy’s dad breaks them up.

“Kids like the old Newsboy Legion get kinda careful when they grow up!” Explains Tommy. You mean, the way they blasted headfirst into a potential nuclear meltdown last issue?

Meanwhile, Morgan Edge has arrived back in his offices at the Galaxy Broadcasting System as if nothing had happened. When his secretary, Miss Conway, expresses consternation over his abrupt departure last issue, this is his reply:

“Well, you see, I learned that Metropolis would suffer an atomic explosion!

Miss Conway’s reaction to this—I swear—is, “Oh, er--Clark Kent called! He said that Jimmy Olsen is back—and they both want to see you!”

“I’d have favored the atomic explosion!” thinks Edge.

…Seriously, WHAT?!? He just casually admits to this?!? I’ve been defending Kirby’s writing to a degree, but I have absolutely no idea what he was thinking here. Where is the secretary supposed to think he got this bit of info? A gypsy fortune teller?

…And didn’t he fire her last issue?

Anyway, I’m going to assume Miss Conway has gone into a dead-eyed panic and is keeping up the pretense of normal conversation for the rest of the scene, until she can sneak out on this obvious sociopath. She quickly changes the subject to Don Rickles, with whom Galaxy is on the verge of signing some kind of contract, and reminds Edge that “we’ll have two of them now”. When Edge expresses puzzlement at this, she tells him about…Goody Rickels, on their research staff.

Edge gets a glazed look in his eye. “I remember him now! I’m chilled to the bone!” Clearly, Edge is a man after my own heart. He also thinks, “Demons of Darkseid!” which is the kind of thing I make it a habit to say a couple of times a day. But Darkeid cannot save him now. In walks Goody.

So, I think the point is supposed to be that Goody is Rickel’s exact opposite, and thus, well-meaning, idiotic, and unfunny. Having us spend more time with the “unfunny” Rickles may not have been the best plan, but then, the dialogue Kirby (and, I guess, Evanier and Sherman) come up with for the “real” Rickles when he makes his appearance isn’t noticeably funnier, so…

Why is he wearing a superhero costume? Because some guys in the office told him he was up for a TV series. Even though Goody apparently realized this was a gag pretty quickly, he continues to wear the costume for the rest of his appearance. But then, nothing else about Goody makes any sense, why should this?

Edge decides to make use of Goody for a scheme of his to bump off Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen, and after some grating hijinx on Goody’s part, Edge, with teeth-gritted, tells him he’s being promoted to reporter and sent on an assignment.

Meanwhile, Clark and Jimmy are on their way to confront Edge. They know the score now (apparently), and are determined to bring him down. They demand to see him! Nothing will distract them from this mission! Except Miss Conway telling them he’s not in and leaving another assignment for them!

So they go and cover the assignment.

Yes, I’m sure the fact that their boss is a homicidal maniac who’s in with an international crime organization run by a supremely evil being planning to enslave everyone in the Universe is a story that can wait until they’ve checked out this…

UFO landing?!? Are you $^%*&ing me?!?

So, even though they know Edge is out to get them, even though this whole assignment smells incredibly fishy, even though he’s freakin’ Superman and could probably find Edge in about two seconds, Superman decides the best course of action is to go and check out this mysterious object to which Edge has directed them.

Good one, Supes.

The park is bizarrely abandoned if this is supposed to be a real UFO landing—there’s not even police tape or anything, But hey, Goody is there! He’s already been inside the UFO and indicates that it’s empty, prompting Superman to step inside. At which point Goody presses a button, the door slams closed, and the whole UFO disapparates.

I really don’t get Goody. He’s supposed to be harmless comic relief, but this whole scene plays out like he was willingly doing Edge’s bidding in knocking off Clark. Except that once the UFO is gone, Goody sits around, shell-shocked at what he’s done. Tossing out stupid one-liners the whole time. Argh, what an exasperating character.

Suddenly, Jimmy, the Guardian, and Goody are attacked by…dudes. Like, random dudes. OK, they’re goons sent by Intergang, but why are they dressed like football players?

A three-page scuffle ensues, with Goody sitting around moaning and bumbling, accidentally knocking out one of the thugs by sitting up too quickly. Finally, the battle comes to a halt when a grim-faced goon grabs Jimmy and puts a gun to his head. This is the appropriately named “Ugly” Mannheim, who’s about to engage in desperate measures against our heroes. He’s about to FEED THEM DINNER.

Yes, really.

“Meanwhile, in a space-time continuum--far from Earth, the UFO, with Clark Kent inside, drifts in alien space!!!” “Goody was right!” mutters Clark. “There are plenty of buttons!” I have nothing to add to that.

Back on Earth—or under it—we get a quick scene of the Newsboys. They’ve managed to procure one of the miniature “Scrapper troopers” from a few issues back—basically, living versions of the little green army men—and have used him to crawl into the lock on their door and let them out. They head downwards through rocky tunnels until they encounter an underground river, conveniently furnished with a boat, which naturally causes Flippa Dippa to comment on how great water is. Man, that was close! We almost went an entire issue without being reminded of Flippa Dippa’s monomania for aquatic activities!

Did you think I was kidding about Mannheim feeding Jimmy dinner? Because I wasn’t. He’s forcing Jimmy, Goody, and the Guardian to eat a feast, at gunpoint, in what is probably the lamest and most needlessly complicated villainous plot in history. See, the food has been treated with “pyro-granulate” which bursts into flames at the slightest spark. In 24 hours, our heroes are going to go up like Roman candles. Man, that makes so much more sense than just shooting them. At this point, the Adam West Batman villains are rolling their eyes.

And as if that wasn’t enough, they then proceed to let them go. This is the cliffhanger to the next issue, but come on. There are about five million ways this evil plan could be thwarted, many of them involving just getting to a doctor. Or inducing vomiting. It’s like Intergang isn’t even trying anymore.

I’m tempted to say that this issue is a perfect example of all Kirby’s faults and weaknesses, compounded into one: his capitulation to corporate thinking, his nonsensical, half-assed plotting, and his inability to focus. Sorry to say, we’ve got a whole ‘nother issue of this nonsense coming up, folks. But at least we finish off the first omnibus volume with a cracking Mister Miracle yarn…