Friday, February 17, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #4--"The Closing Jaws of Death!"

Let’s talk about female characters in comics. If you’ve been reading superhero comics for any length of time, you’re familiar with the Women in Refrigerators syndrome...and if you’re not, a quick click on the link will fill you in. Short version: there’s an unfortunate tradition of sexism or outright misogyny in superhero stories, with female characters frequently being reduced to cheesecake, depowered, or, worst of all, killed off in a hackneyed attempt to motivate a male character. Obviously, this is an ongoing debate that’s not going to be resolved anytime soon, and the fact that we’re dealing with an entire genre, or even an entire medium, makes it hard to speak in generalities, but it certainly seems hard to argue that superheroes are dominated by the mindset of male geeks, and as such, frequently present a somewhat…skewed…vision of femininity.

What’s interesting about this whole trend, to me at least, is that in many ways this comics misogyny seems to increase as you get closer to the present. Some of the most powerful and interesting female comics characters, including the ur-superheroine, Wonder Woman, are products of the 30s and 40s. Sure, there’s always that streak of sexism native to the era—the infamous cover with Batgirl adjusting her makeup while Batman and Robin fight for their lives being somewhat typical—but back then, comics were actually written about girls and for girls, which necessitated a healthier viewpoint almost by default.

Which is not to say there weren’t issues. Most of the female characters Kirby himself created at Marvel were really, really bland—Susan Storm and Jean Grey were virtually made of cardboard in the early 60s—when they weren’t slightly offensive (Janet Van Dyne, like most early Marvel characters, had a single character trait, and hers was “boy-crazy”). By the time of the Fourth World, however, Kirby had a better handle on his female characters. Corny jokes about “Women’s libbers” aside (and believe me, there are plenty of them in the pages to come), the essentials of women’s empowerment seem to have penetrated Kirby’s worldview along with all that other counterculture stuff.

Which brings us to Big Barda, who makes her abrupt debut on the opening splash page, standing right behind Oberon as he frets about Scott. A rebellious member of Darkseid’s “female task force”, the Female Furies, Barda’s a gigantic lady even by Kirby’s standards, and her costume is one of the most bizarre he ever designed, being basically a cross between an Egyptian sarcophagus and a medieval crusader’s chainmail.

She’s also ungifted in social niceties, demolishing Oberon’s table just to get his attention, before resentfully declaring herself to be Scott’s friend and ally. Oberon takes an instant dislike to her, but nevertheless makes her a sandwich and milk. Geez, I guess the guy’s just stuck in permanent “servant mode”.

As you may remember, last time we saw Mr. Free he was being locked in a trunk and thrown off a balcony by the residents of an office building driven to homicidal madness by Doctor Bedlam’s Paranoid Pill. As soon as Oberon mentions this, Barda leaps up and teleports herself away to Chandler towers to help Scott, who we now cut to in media res, still tumbling through the air, as the crazed mob shoots at him. Barda beams in (the mob instantly declares her a witch) and sees the falling trunk: “Knowing Scott Free and his talent for trapping himself in strange places—I have the feeling that I’d better break the fall of this trunk!” Of course, after falling fifty stories, being “caught” isn’t really going to break his fall, but as it turns out, it’s a moot point. When Barda tears the box in half, it turns out to be empty—Scott is standing many floors above, having escaped under his own power. Obviously this makes sense—Scott gave his word that he’d escape without help, and besides, he wouldn’t be much of an escape artist if he couldn’t get out of traps himself—but it still kinda feels like Kirby wrote Barda in to come and save him and then suddenly realized it wouldn’t fit the story. Oh well. You can’t go wrong with having Big Barda show up in your comic for any reason.

Scott now reiterates that the wager is his alone to win or lose, as the mob grabs hold of him. They’ve now decided that he’s a vampire...apparently for the sole reason that he wears a cape. I guess he could be some kind of Ethiopian vampire… Anyway, they grab a wooden stake and a pipe to use as a hammer, but Scott’s too fast for them—in fact, he appears to literally vanish and reappear a few feet away. But as far as I can tell, he didn’t use any gadgets to escape. So…um…he got out of his ropes SO FAST that the mob didn’t even notice he was gone until the stake came down? “It takes a master to play it that close and cool!” Scott proclaims, humbly, and then he’s off again.

For the next two pages or so, he’s dodging the spray from fire hoses and sliding down banisters, and then something wonderful happens: he’s accosted by a guy in a medieval torturer’s costume, who lays him out by hitting his chest and producing a “BOK!” Here, see:

Yeah, I bet you were wondering what that cover was about, weren’t you? “Klieg lights!” gasps Scott. “Cameras! Good gravy! This is a movie studio! Of course! Galaxy broadcasting films its TV specials on this floor!” Yes, Scott has been captured by the cast and crew of one of those Spanish Inquisition TV dramas that were all the rage in 1971. You know, like Roots. Except with torturing. And Spanish people instead of African-Americans. This whole sequence is just a wonderful example of what makes Kirby Kirby. He’s got a killer premise, more than enough to keep him busy for another 12 pages, but he just can’t help going off on a completely random tangent. Come to that, the director and actors are behaving totally different than the rest of the mob: instead of just calling him a vampire or whatever, they’re determined to make him the real-life victim of their drama so they can win an Emmy (seriously, they say this). “A paranoid director and actors!” Thinks Scott. “How bad can things get?” Clearly, Scott has not spent much time in Hollywood. Come to think of it, maybe this has nothing to do with the paranoid pill at all, and these are just your usual early-70s filmmakers, doing a dry run for Apocalypse Now. I heard they killed, like, five superheroes on that set.

The hooded torturers drag Scott into their dungeon, spouting “thee”s and “thou”s and “varlet”s all the while. “The dialogue is terrible!” Thinks Scott. “But they mean every word of it!” Hey, that’s pretty much what I say whenever I read a Fourth World comic: the dialogue is terrible, but Kirby means every word of it. Mr. Miracle escapes from the fourth wall!

Scott is overwhelmed by the torturers, who shove him into a nearby iron maiden, bristling with spikes. Uh oh, it looks bad for our hero! Meanwhile, Barda is now finding herself confronted with more mob members, who didn’t get Bedlam’s memo about how this is just supposed to be about Scott. “I’ve no time to coddle your neuroses!” proclaims the Amazonian warrior, ripping a pillar from the wall and using it to beat back the hordes. Man, do I love Big Barda. She’s even more awesome than Big Bear. Basically, if anyone in the Fourth World has “big” in their name, they’re awesome. Though it was kinda cold to just flatten all those mob members like that. But then, there are probably dozens of casualties being caused by all this rampaging anyway, what with guns being discharged and railroad workers running amok and whatnot.

Anyway, Barda finds she can’t sit back and watch any longer—“I try not to worry about that wizard, Scott! But I can’t help myself!” This might be a good time to point out that Barda was, apparently, based on Kirby’s wife Roz, who made it her business to protect her husband from shysters and keep people from bothering him while he worked.

Barda uses her “Mega-Rod”, which is basically her own variation on a Mother Box, to blast her way up into the studio and subdue the crazed torturers. Again, though, Scott has managed to escape the trap set up for him. Now, for the first time, they have a chance to really talk—or rather, this being a Kirby comic, to exposition at each other—and they both remark on what a long, strange trip it’s been. As you may have guessed by now, both of them are former pupils of Granny Goodness, and Barda apparently helped Scott escape way back when, but she herself chose to remain. It’s not yet clear when she decided to switch teams, but it’s pretty obvious why she did it, judging from how she’s reduced to stuttering breathlessness every time Scott reveals that he’s still alive.

The hallways have suddenly gone quiet, and the reason becomes clear a moment later, as the pair are confronted by the disembodied spirit of Bedlam. He accuses Scott of cheating, given that Barda is helping him, and in retaliation he unleashes “every monster that has haunted every nightmare since time began” to rile up the rampaging mob. Um…wait…weren’t they already pretty riled up? I’m not sure how a few hallucinations are going to make people who had mistaken Scott for Bela Lugosi a few moments ago act MORE insane.

And apparently we’re not really going to find out, because we now cut to Oberon, sitting at home, fretting about Scott, wondering what he can do to help. Suddenly, he’s struck by a brilliant notion: call the police! Of course! It’s so obvious! I mean, it literally is the most obvious thing anyone would think of! And it kind of makes Oberon look stupid that he didn’t think of it before this! But never mind, because Mr. Miracle and Barda suddenly appear in a crackle of energy, and tell Obie that the cops are already at the scene. Again, nice job, Obie.

The rest of the comic is given over to Oberon’s continued bickering with Barda—one might say he seems a little jealous of her—and to a flashback recap of how Scott made all his wondrous escapes. We started this recap with one of my favourite things about the Mister Miracle comic—Big Barda—so it seems appropriate we should end it with a discussion of one of my least favourite things. That would be the way we tend to cut away from a dramatic escape to see the aftermath, and then get Scott’s summary of how he did it. Actually, this wouldn’t be so bad, except that the answer, without fail, is always, “I used a convenient gadget that I had on me and that you may or may not ever have seen before.” In this particular case, Scott plays coy about revealing his secrets (to his own assistant?) but says it’s OK to “do some supposing”:

SCOTT: Now, you take that trunk in which Mister Miracle was bound—falling to certain death—fifty floors below! It was indeed a time to panic! But was Mister Miracle that type? Suppose he wasn’t!

Whoa, whoa, hold on there, Scott! You’re totally blowing my mind!!!

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that he has a miraculous device called a “multi-cube”—not to be confused with Mother Box or that “cocoon spinner” he used in the first issue—that fired a laser to get him out of the trunk and fired a cable that he used to haul himself up. Then later he used it to squirt a corrosive spray to destroy the rear of the iron maiden, and finally, it produced an “electro-sonic signal which blanketed the brain of every paranoid in the building” thereby rendering them all unconscious.


Scott had a device that could have rendered everyone in the building unconscious…and he didn’t think to use it until he was almost out?!? GIVE ME A BREAK. Hopefully it’s clear why I don’t like this “deus ex machina” approach to Scott’s escapes anyway, but this takes it to a whole new level of sloppiness. Gah. Let’s not dwell on it, and hope Kirby improves in later issues.

Fortunately, that’s not where the issue ends. As Oberon is voicing his concerns about Barda to Scott, and Scott’s dismissing her as “A child, you know! A powerful, deadly child—playing soldier!” Barda enters in the outfit she wears when she’s not in uniform—basically, a jazzy red bikini kinda thing and a headband. She announces that she’s starving, Scott and Oberon do a double take and make some “That’s our Barda!” cracks as the audience applauds and the closing credits roll.

What was I saying about sexism, again?

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