Friday, January 27, 2012

TheFourth World Fridays: New Gods #4--"The O'Ryan Mob and the Deep Six"

The most common theme associated with Kirby’s work is “cosmic” (well, and “weird”), but of course he had other idioms he came back to over and over again too. One of these was the hard-boiled world of gangsters and crime-busters, talkin’ tough, wearin’ fedoras, ventilatin’ each other, and embeddin’ their nicknames in a forest of quotation marks. You can definitely see how this would appeal to Kirby, especially the quotation marks. He’d already sprinkled a liberal helping of gangsters into the Fourth World in the form of Intergang; now, in this issue, he gives us, essentially, a crime comic, with a lot of Fourth World stuff lingering around the margins.

Well, OK, it starts on a distinctly Cosmic note, with Metron and his young…I’m going to say, “apprentice”, Esak, who we’ve never seen before, hovering above a primitive planet in the Mobius chair. You know, before we continue, I’m just going to point out that I’m not going to make any dumb NAMBLA-referencing jokes about the fact that Metron is chairing his chair with a young boy in short shorts. I mean, enough with that kind of thing already. I’m not saying comics are innuendo-free or anything, but there was a time when people didn’t automatically assume two characters who hung out together were having sex. And when an adult spent a lot of time with a kid, even one to which he was unrelated, that was called being a father figure. Not HA HA HA THEY’RE TOTALLY GAY. I mean, sheesh, folks. The real irony here is that this is exactly the kind of thing the much-despised Frederick Wertham was so obsessed with, and comic book fans consider him to be a few rungs below Osama Bin Laden on the ladder of hate, yet everyone on the internet is constantly making pedophilia jokes about Batman and Robin. Yes, it’s easy to do. Yes, they wear tight outfits and live together alone. Yes, they fought a guy who spent an entire issue obsessing about “his boner”. But the horse has not only been beaten to death, he has been crushed into glue at this point. MOVE ON ALREADY.

…You know, I just realized that this entry is going to be the first Google hit for anyone searching for “Osama Bin Laden pedophilia gangsters boner NAMBLA”. I’m going to try not to think too hard about that.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Metron and Esak are casually hovering mere feet ahead of a pair of alien monsters that just so happen to resemble T-Rexes. Esak is afraid, but Metron assures him that they can never match the chair’s speed. Of course, considering that they’re about six inches off the ground and neither of them are looking where they’re going, I’m not sure speed is the only factor involved here.

Metron quickly wises up and, in a breathtaking two-page splash, we see the pair moving up into the air, past a smoldering volcano, with two packs of aliens clashing in primitive battle below. One group looks distinctly caveman-ish, the other like some kind of green goblin-men. “Those creatures below bear the image of man!” marvels Esak, presumably referring to the first group. I wonder if he means “man” in the sense of “humans”, or if he’s including the New Gods in that as well. Either way, note the old-school SF assumption that the evolution of alien life will more or less exactly parallel our own.

Metron mentions that they will return in what “will be a millennium to them!”

METRON: Time to them is not as time to us—is it?
ESAK: Tell me, Metron! Are we truly beyond time? – Are we beyond death?
METRON: My sensors indicate there is an answer in New Genesis!

...Well, that’s one way to avoid answering the question. He could also have tried “My sensors indicate that you should shut the hell up.”

Actually, what Metron’s referring to, obliquely, is the announcement High-Father makes on their arrival back at New Genesis: one of the New Gods has fallen. And of course, he’s also referring to the very end of the series itself, but that’s still a long ways off…

The fallen one, as we learn in abrupt cut to Earth, was a New Genesisean frogman named Seagrin, who the police are currently fishing out of Metropolis harbour. P.I. Dave Lincoln and Orion, in his secret identity of…O’Ryan, have just arrived, and the latter does all but throw himself across Seagrin’s lifeless chest and break out sobbing. Describing him as “a gentle warrior” (riiiiiight), Orion immediately intuits that he’s met his death at the hands of Apokoliptish agents deep beneath the ocean. This being a cosmic being inhabiting a Kirby comic, he needs a proper sendoff, so Orion somehow summons a storm to demolish the pier and give Seagrin a Viking funeral. (Which is appropriate, since this whole sequence would make a hell of a lot more sense if it was in Marvel’s “Thor”.) Invisible through the leaping flames, the Black Racer swoops in and spirits away the soul of the departed (see, that’s how death is supposed to act) before heading back to his apartment for a boring rehash of last issue. (Seriously, how was Kirby planning to build a whole comic around this guy? It’s the most static premise ever—he doesn’t even do anything heroic, really. Was it going to be like an “EC” type comic where he comments wryly on the events of the issue?)

Fortunately, this only lasts two pages, and the next one is one of the most famous splashes in the entire run of the series: it’s a close-up of Darkseid at his creepiest, peering around a corner and delivering an elaborate internal monologue, the most famous line of which is “Yet they know better than most that war is but the cold game of the butcher!” Which, mixed metaphors aside, is a truly iconic line.

Again, either Kirby was improving as a writer, or the influence of Evanier was starting to make itself felt. Remember, Evanier was originally going to write the series, with Kirby being more of a project manager, shooting off the basic ideas. Honestly…that probably would have lead to a more polished series, and perhaps a better one. Kirby could have played to his strengths as an idea man and composition/breakdown artist, and left the prose and specific plot points to Evanier, who’s a more conventionally talented writer (at least nowadays). Evanier tends to downplay his own role in the Fourth World, but I think he definitely had at least a holistic influence.

By the way, this seems a good time to note that Comics Should Be Good just devoted an article to the New Gods (and another to Mister Miracle…will tomorrow’s be The Forever People?) and in it, they make a point that’s so obvious I hadn’t even thought to mention it yet. The Fourth World saga was coming out as America—not just the counterculture--was getting really, truly sick of the Vietnam war, and reflections on the futility of combat were becoming hardwired into the mindset of a generation. Of course, Kirby was a WWII veteran, as well, and he seems to have had a conflicted attitude about the honour of soldiering, but Darkseid’s little musing here seems to sum up the basic ideas about war.

Meanwhile, we’re back with “the O’Ryan mob”, and a lame mob it is. Honestly, I really do like the idea of a bunch of normal people having an experience with a cosmic power greater than themselves and being forced to become adherents of a War God, but these guys can get pretty annoying. And it’s ironic that, facing one of the famously best pages of the series, we also get one of the most infamously awful. This is the bit where Orion’s followers reintroduce themselves via the most hilariously clunky dialogue ever:

LANZA: But I’m Victor Lanza! An insurance executive! A family man! My wife makes me carry an umbrella in case it rains! And now, this! New Genesis! Apokolips! And things that would scare John Wayne!
SHANE: What about it, Lincoln? I’m Claudia Shane, simple but worried secretary! What am I involved in this time?—
LOCKMAN: And me, young but cool, Harvey Lockman!

Admittedly, I think Harv was going for a “hiply ironic” thing there, but man oh man. That is some hilariously bad dialogue.

Orion enters and lays out the plan: basically, they’re going to pose as a rival gang, muscling in on Intergang’s turf. This is, um, ballsy, in that exactly one of them (not including Orion himself) could pass as thug, and the other three are pretty obviously hapless bystanders. I do like that Orion’s first major mission for his followers is to rope them into a life of crime, though.

Asking that they place their hands on Mother Box so they can “see what Mother Box sees in her effort to penetrate Intergang,” Orion sends the four Earthlings a vision of a hatchet-faced goon and a glimpse of his thoughts. They catch that his name is “Snaky Doyle”, that he works for Intergang, and that he’s thinking of something called the “Jammer”, which is what’s allowing Apokoliptians to pass undetected among Earth society. OK, I’ll just say it: Mother Box is really getting to be an annoying Deus Ex Machina. She can do whatever the plot requires at any given time, and is virtually omnipotent when people are paying attention. But rarely do Orion or Mister Miracle or The Forever People think to use her to read minds, which she can apparently do. Nor do they use her to activate remote machinery very often, the way she did in the last issue of New Gods. Mostly she’s used to create illusions—which is ironic, since at least one of the Forever People can apparently do that by herself—and later she plays a key role in computing the Anti-Life Equation. And she summons Infinity Man, of course. With all these powers at her beck and call, the characters forgetting about her to further the plot reaches the same level of annoyance as Superman constantly forgetting his powers.

Anyway, rather than simply grabbing Snaky and beating the information out of him, Orion has a plan to pull a con on Snaky. You know, it’s funny—in virtually every non-Kirby appearance he’s made, including the current “Death of the New Gods”, Orion is portrayed as something akin to a late-90s character, all hypermuscled torso and teeth-baring grimace, and his first thought is always violence, violence, violence. In Grant Morrison’s JLA run it was suggested that Mother Box’s soothing beeping was the only thing that kept him from being a total psychopath. But of course, the character was never like that when Kirby drew and wrote him—sure, he has a tendency to lose it in the heat of battle (as we’ll see next issue) but when he’s not actually fighting, he’s as calm and calculating as any other New God, if a little on the grim side. The relatively elaborate trap he’s about to set for Intergang demonstrates this.

As Snaky leaves the pool hall later that night, he’s grabbed and held at gunpoint by Dave Lincoln, spouting amusing “tough guy” dialogue like “If yuh unzip yer lip, I’ll plug ya!” He frisks him and finds a tiny radio transmitter, which conveniently enough is just at that moment transmitting a message to Snaky to come and “baby-sit” the Jammer. Lincoln cuts him loose, telling him to let Intergang know that the O’Ryan mob has taken over the territory (what, the whole city of Metropolis?). Orion, of course, will follow Snaky from above.

Phase two begins once they’ve tracked Snaky to an old mansion on “a little-used sea-coast road,” where Claudia pulls up in a car and does the “stranded motorist” act. While the Intergang thugs patrolling the area try to help her get her car started so she can clear off, Claudia rolls up the window and presses a trigger that releases knockout gas that “Orion whipped up for this occasion.” The thugs are knocked out, allowing Lincoln, Lockman and Lanza (did Kirby come up with their names by pulling a random page from the phone book?) to emerge from the bushes.

Phase three involves Lanza impersonating a representative of the O’Ryan mob in order to make Intergang tip their hand, something he doesn’t seem to be up to. “You don’t have to play Little Caesar,” reassures Lincoln, “just his smart business manager!” But Lanza is still drenched in flop-sweat.

His entry into the inner sanctum is met with little surprise by Inter-gang’s representative “Country Boy”, who mistakes Lanza for O’Ryan: “We’ve been expectin’ ya! Seein’ that our boy Snaky practically gave yuh a road map!” Glad to see I’m not the only one who thought Snaky acted kinda dumb in heading straight to his headquarters after being accosted by a rival gang. Snaky’s tied to a chair in the office, about to become a cautionary example for Lanza, as “Country Boy” shows off his devastating…fly-fishing ability.

Yes, this is how “Country Boy” intimidates Lanza: by hooking the trigger of a nearby gun with his fishing rod and using it to shoot Snaky. Well, I guess Snaky’s still dead, after all, and—

COUNTRY BOY: Aaaaa—Snaky ain’t dead! – But he is stiff! Paralyzed! And our guns can get spookier than that!

Thank you, Comics Code.

Lanza, needless to say, is immediately reassured that he’s dealing with a bunch of complete tools, and grows more confident. “We know about Intergang,” he says nonchalantly, puffing on a cigar, “But not enough! Frankly, what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t spend a penny on!” Country Boy, being the easily provoked moron that he is, proceeds to immediately show Lanza the Jammer, which he accesses by pulling a secret lever and causing a wall to roll back. “The party we deal with can take this thing apart and set it up again in minutes! That’s organization and power, man!”

…Does it feel to anyone else like Country Boy is overcompensating for something? And doing a lousy job of it?

Anyway, that concludes the crime comic portion of the evening, as Orion immediately blasts through the front door and incinerates the Jammer with a quick burst of Astro-Force. At the same moment, Lanza lays a roundhouse blow to the nearby thug, who was in the process of pulling his gun. Well, what do you know…Lanza AND Claudia both turned out to be competent! Now if only Harvey had done something, anything, to contribute…

But anyway, we’re now leaving the Normals behind and following Orion as he streaks into the wreckage of the Jammer and into a secret passageway beyond. (Hilariously, the Jammer appears to be about as thick as a piece of drywall in this panel.)

Orion shoots down the passageway, while expositioning that Mother Box has now detected the culprit behind Seagrin’s murder: Darkseid’s underwater shock troops, The Deep Six. He shoots out an airlock into the open ocean, Mother Box providing an air bubble for him to breathe (seriously, is there anything Mother Box can’t do if it’s convenient to the plot?) and immediately comes face to face with Slig, leader of the Deep Six.

We’ll be getting to know Slig and the Deep Six better in the next issue, but for now, we quickly (a little too quickly) learn of his ability to mutate creatures simply by touching them, which he proceeds to do to a clump of seaweed. The tendrils reach out and overwhelm Orion, but he blasts free using the Astro-Force, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by a glimpse of…something off-panel.

“What does Orion face? It has destroyed a God—and threatens the entire Earth! Don’t miss—SPAWN!!!”

What, really? That was a pretty terrible comic and all, but I don’t think it threatens the entire—

Oh, OK. Different Spawn.

So, we now have all three of the “real” Fourth World books embroiled in a multi-part storyline, which, perhaps not coincidentally, seems to have elevated the level of the storytelling and the intensity. However, whereas this was a sudden improvement for Mister Miracle and the Forever People, I can’t help but notice that (with the arguable exception of the last issue, which featured the last-minute inclusion of the Black Racer), The New Gods flows extremely smoothly from the first issue to this one and beyond. Each issue is discrete, but the stories evolve logically out of the end of the prior issue, and there’s even ground being laid for future story developments right from the start. That Comics Should Be Good article I linked to above calls The New Gods the best comic Kirby ever did, and I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks so.

But then, I’m just Adam Prosser, simple but snarky cartoonist and blogger. What do I know?

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