Friday, January 20, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #4--"The Kingdom of the Damned!"

So to pick up where we left off last time I reviewed The Forever People…Kirby wasn’t the first to try to say something a little deeper with comics than “good will always triumph over evil!” He was, however, the first (with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) to really try and push “bigger” ideas into the superhero genre in the form of subtext, and in the context of the Fourth World, Kirby grabbed that ball and sprinted with it. As we’ve seen, of course, the weirdness and action which were by that point ingrained in Kirby’s work, combined with the natural dictates of the superhero form, meant that this commentary often wasn’t particularly profound. Despite Kirby’s pretentions (in every sense of the word), the primary motive of the Fourth World is still to tell an entertaining story about dudes in tights beating each other up, and in that context reflections on the meaning of life tend to be reduced to laughably simplistic forms. Or else they seem awkwardly shoehorned in, especially when delivered in the form of wordy monologues. The demands of a visual medium and an action-oriented genre tend to overwhelm subtler commentary.

But not always. A talented comic book maker can still hit that sweet spot in which a simple idea turns out to have endless ramifications, both as a source of entertainment and a reflection of life or human society. The key is usually to find some new way of delivering an old archetype, one that hasn’t been used much before but, when tweaked the right way, seems instantly logical and resonant. And in this issue, I think, Kirby comes up with a very good one.

As you’ll recall, I thought that Kirby took an issue or two to really figure out what this series was going to be about, but with issue three it came into focus: it’s basically a bizarre cosmic superhero version of Easy Rider, with a gang of biker hippies trekking across a warped alternate America. What’s more—and this is a touch I simply love—most of their encounters seem to be inspired by roadside attractions. It’s a cross-sampling of the various sights and experiences you might have while motoring across the country during the summer of love on a quest to find yourself…or, possibly, while crammed into a wood-paneled station wagon with 2.5 kids squabbling in the back. You know, whatever.

Anyway, the last issue saw our erstwhile god-hippies visiting a revival show…of evil!!!…and getting captured by their nemesis and ours, Darkseid of Apokalips. They awaken to find themselves in another roadside attraction*, the sprawling theme park…of evil!!…named Happyland.

Here’s where that whole subtext thing I mentioned at the beginning comes into play. Plotwise, the story is that hoary old comic book chestnut where the archvillain has captured the heroes and turned them over to his sadistic henchman to be tortured or otherwise forced to undergo a test of endurance. In this case, the henchman is Desaad, and his torture palace takes the form of an amusement park. Again, an “evil amusement park” was nothing new to comics at this point—the Joker had been turning them into deathtraps for decades already—but it’s what Kirby does with it that makes it a gas.

See, Happyland may house a battalion of prisoners, subject to torments of all kinds at Desaad’s cruel whims, but they’re concealed by illusion. In the opening splash, we see a group of wretched souls pound on the glass of their prison, pleading for help, only to see on the next page that their screams and visages are concealed by illusion from the milling throngs of parents and children attending the park. For all they know, Happyland is just a fun place to visit on the weekend, and they’re oblivious to its true, nefarious purpose.

It doesn’t matter how bluntly Kirby drives the point home later on; this twisted setup is too solid a concept for storytelling, and too great a metaphor for the world as a whole, to be messed up even by ruining it as subtext. It makes for the best issue of “The Forever People” to date.

Elsewhere, unseen by the masses, Darkseid himself is paying a visit to the park, while the Forev Peeps brood on their fate in Desaad’s dungeon. (Since both the FPs and Darkseid were in the same place last issue, you’d think they would have arrived together, but never mind.) Our erstwhile Scooby Gang catches us up on the events of the last issue via some heavy-duty exposition, also informing us that, as you’d expect, Mother Box has been taken from us. But they don’t know where they are, until a medieval-looking type enters and informs them that Desaad is now the master of their destinies. “Desaad! We’re in the hands of Desaad! Darkseid has given us to that demon!” moans Vykin. “He worships torment!--Refines it to an art!” Agrees Moonrider. It’s Serifan, of all people, who’s actually trying to do something useful, by surreptitiously pulling a stun capsule from his hat, but the minions are too fast for him. They hit him with a “Nerve Beam” that causes him to…bend backwards…and make a bored, pouty face? Well, I guess the Comics Code Authority was still going strong at this point, and there was only so much “torment” they could show. As if to drive the point home, the minions deploy a no doubt effective but curiously painless weapon to subdue the FPs: “Vertigo Grenades” that cause them to lose their sense of balance and fall down, to be dragged away to their doooooooooom.

Meanwhile, Darkseid is paying witness to Desaad’s attempted “murder of a Mother Box!” It seems that this is the first of the group to suffer his depredations, in the form of an electronic green warthog shoving glowing spikes into it. Mother Box “screams” and then disappears with a “ZZOSSH!” “They always do that!” sniffs Darkseid, to which the clearly unhinged Desaad responds, “No! It disintegrated! That’s it! I’ve made it commit suicide! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” Um, yeah, good one, master of torment. I have a couple of balloons you can make commit suicide, too, if you want to keep going. Darkseid is rightfully unimpressed. “Does the Mother Box vanish—or disintegrate? You don’t really know! Nor do I!

Desaad tries to get back in the bosses’ good graces by inviting him to watch the Forever People “thrashing around in his net”, but Darkseid has no interest in petty cruelty. Again, it’s obvious the guy has no interest in other thinking beings in any capacity, not even as something he can destroy for fun. Other people are just an annoying obstacle to him, to be transformed into mindless slaves to his will. Darkseid doesn’t crush you because he enjoys it. He does it because that’s just how things ought to be.

As if to emphasize his callousness towards humanity, he brushes off the vehicle he came in and casually walks out amongst the masses attending Happyland. “Grandpa!” whines a small child, “That man is scary! Make him go away!” Grandpa tries to reassure the kid that The Master of Evil is just a costumed character, but Darkseid is having none of it. “No, Grandpa! I’m the real thing!” Then, as the old man leads his sobbing child away, D.S. continues, “All young humans recognize the real thing when they see it! Young humans see me—even in “Happyland!” But you elders hide me with “cock and bull” stories to keep the premises smelling sweet!” Oddly, the old man’s reply is to yell “Fool!” at Darkseid. Um…fool? Wouldn’t “jerk” or “douchebag” be more appropriate? I mean, isn’t that the kind of thing that a quasi-medieval character like Darkseid should be calling other people, not being called himself? Especially not by confused grandparents?

Anyway, Kirby’s really intent on running this whole “people are distracted by the suffering of others by a theme park” theme into the ground, so we now get a series of vignettes showing the Forever People in peril while attendees remain oblivious. To sum up quickly: Mark Moonrider is trapped in a glass box in the tunnel of terror, but people think he’s just a fake-looking skeleton prop! Big Bear is enclosed in the shooting gallery, where the pellet guns produce intense vibrations that cause him pain! Beautiful Dreamer is immobilized and kept in another glass box, surrounded by visions of monsters, but the onlookers think she’s that “Sleeping Beauty” exhibit a lot of old carnivals used to have! And Serifan is hooked up to a monitor showing Vykin strapped to the roller coaster, his head protruding through the boards, where he’ll be decapitated if Serifan doesn’t press the pedal to lower him out of harm’s way every time the coaster runs overhead! Which is probably, like, once every two minutes or so!

…Uh…OK, these are fairly lame torments. Damn you, Comics Code!

Still, it’s clear that this is going to be pretty rough on the FPs if someone doesn’t come to their aid soon! But have no fear—Mother Box isn’t dead after all. As it turns out, she did in fact teleport herself out of danger, and towards the most likely candidate for help.

Who could it be? I bet it’s Orion! He’s on the ball when it comes to Darkseid’s schemes. Or Mister Miracle! He’s the master of escape, right? Sure! Or any one of hundreds of New Gods. Or how about Superman? I’m sure he’ll save them!

Well, no. Turns out…the FP’s potential saviour is…this guy:

…The ancient winds of trouble blow…inside the box?

This does not look good.

*© The Tragically Hip.

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