Friday, March 30, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #54--"Sunny Sumo!"

There was a sketch featured on Late Night with Conan O’Brien a few years ago. In an effort to combat “harmful stereotypes”, Conan introduced a new character, “The Asian Guy Who’s Bad At Math”. The Asian Guy then ran out in a coolie hat and a kimono, rang a gong, stuffed his face with eggrolls, broke a plank in half with a karate chop, then turned to the camera and announced, “I’m bad at math!”

This sketch came to mind as I read today’s installment of The Fourth World, featuring yet another new character, Sonny Sumo.

I’m a longtime believer in the power of pop culture, not simply to influence (at least, not in the hamfisted way most Hollywood “message movies” or the baldly expositional fashion of “The DaVinci Code”) but to inspire in a broader context. A heartfelt, indie work of art may have more to say, but there’s nothing to compete with seeing a concept splashed up on the big screen, the TV, or the bestseller lists. This is why I think most popular media have an obligation to portray as much variety in its characters and viewpoints as possible—especially when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation. All the well-meaning lip service in the world can’t compete with creating a powerful and engaging character who captures the public imagination.

Superheroes are perhaps the ultimate pop creation, so it was a big deal when Kirby and Lee created the Black Panther, the first true black superhero. It may seem like a frivolous thing, but there’s something undeniably empowering about superheroes when done right, and it’s not surprising that people responded to the character. Apparently, around the same time, Kirby promised a Marvel production artist and letterer named Morrie Kuramoto that he’d create a Japanese superhero as well, and Sonny Sumo was the result (albeit five years later and at another company).

This kind of thing really is a big step forward for pop culture, but at the same time, it can present problems. Superheroes especially tend to be simplistic and iconic, being a personification of various ideas…which means that superheroes of a certain race are often highly stereotyped. Obviously I’m talking about the more benign kind of stereotyping here, the kind that paints a Japanese superhero as a modern-day samurai with all kinds of mystical martial arts skills and the last name “Sumo”. But hey, at least he’s bad at math. Sorry, I mean, at least he’s a superhero.

The opening caption calls him “the mystic type of a vanishing breed—the noble warrior!…At the mercy of today’s world, when nobility is a twisted credo and the warrior is a commercial enterprise, Sonny Sumo struggles to hold fast to an enigma which seems to make his life meaningful!” Whew! This run-on sentence seems to confirm that Kirby was trying to avoid having his heroes fight for money. Granted, that’s pretty much the M.O. for superheroes, but since Mr. Miracle and now Sonny are performers first, the money issue has to be dealt with. I actually find Sonny more interesting, in that, unlike Mr. M, he’s kind of lost and adrift, and has been reduced to (shock) (horror) taking money for his skills. Obviously this doesn’t reduce his nobility at all, and Mr Miracle will be taking his act on the road for cash soon too, so obviously Kirby had been doing some thinking. Even superheroes need to make a living, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with entertaining the people for cash as long as you don’t charge for your superheroic services. But I do like the image of Sonny, a warrior from another time, lost among the seedy underground world of robot fighting.

Yes, as a showcase for a fight promoter, Sonny’s manager, Harry Sharp, has obtained a gigantic kill-bot named “Sagutai” (which is Japanese for “vaguely Japanese-sounding word”) and turned it loose to face Sonny. When Fisher, the promoter, expressed understandable surprise that a low-rent underground fighter would have the capacity to build a fully-functioning, *talking* robot, Sharp responds, “I didn’t build him, Mister Fisher!” This obviously implies that either Apokalips or New Genesis was behind Sagutai’s creation. This is pretty weird, since we never get any indication that Sharp is in with either gang (at least, not in this volume). Is the New Gods technology starting to trickle down into the daily lives of Earthlings? An interesting idea, anyway…

As Sonny grapples with the tin-plated menace, which is twice his size and nearly manages to trap Sonny’s head by twisting a steel bar into a knot, we cut away to the Forever People, still in mortal peril in Desaad’s nightmarish amusement park! Why, they could be…scared…by the monsters Desaad is projecting! Or, if Serifan gets tired from having to press a level with his foot every few minutes, Vykin dies! Or, Mark could be…trapped in a glass box some more! What a horrific fate! Much more exciting than the raging robot battle!

The credits announce that this was written, drawn and edited by Kirby, “And inked by—who else?—Vince Colletta!” Man, THAT statement is going to seem pretty ironic by the next issue in this volume.

Desaad, in classic supervillain fashion, sits watching the sufferings of the FPs, with a “fear siphon” attached. Basically, it looks like a stethoscope, except he puts it to his neck instead of his ears. The FPs terror and (cough) pain take the form of a freaky, Francis Bacon-type montage of screaming faces…which also happens to resemble the spectral army of wraiths sent out by Doctor Bedlam in the last issue. But hey, it’s a good image, why not reuse it?

Back to Sonny, as Sagutai unleashes a bunch of hidden weapons—knife blades and a flamethrower. That second one torches Sonny but good, leading to consternation on the part of Fisher, the promoter, who seems to care more for Sonny than his own manager. But Sonny has a Special Feature or two up his own sleeve. Invoking his Ancient Vague Oriental Abilities, Sonny can call upon “Wound Rejection”, which enables him to revert to his pre-burned self just by concentrating (this is a neat sequence):

Roaring back with a vengeance, Sonny takes down the bot. “You’ve fought like the thing you are, Sagutai!” Whoa, how Zen. So, he fought like a big robot programmed to fight?

Sagutai is down on the mat, and deactivated. Wow, Mr. Miracle could learn a thing or two from Harry and Sonny. Imagine, NOT destroying a gigantic killer robot if it can be used again to make money! Gigantic killer robots are a finite resource, and Harry Sharp is doing his part to conserve them.

Sonny makes his way backstage—then suddenly collapses, his wounds reappearing. Apparently Wound Rejection is a temporary thing, which sort of re-raises the issue of his manager throwing him into a pit with a deadly robot. I mean, it’s one thing if he’s got a Wolverine-like healing ability; it’s another if it’s going to come back and scar him for life afterwards. Of course, Sonny and Sharp talk vaguely about how “this won’t be easy to heal”, and Sharp doesn’t seem too concerned about the horrible scars suddenly reappearing on Sonny’s face, so who knows. The main reason for this sequence is to allow Mother Box a chance to step in and do the healing for him.

Finding himself once again unblemished, Sonny starts talking to the magic box he found last issue. Apparently he’s now in communion with it, and gets an infodump regarding the trapped Forever People. Being a Noble Warrior and all, he leaps at the chance to save the FPs, and Mother Box teleports him away to Desaad’s Happyland amusement park of HORROR, where he glimpses the trapped Mark Moonrider, disguised as a skeleton attempting to break free of a glass box.

“But the skeleton can’t! Because his prison is made of more than Earthly glass!! Because an invisible scrambler has distorted his true image! Because he’s a captive of Desaad!” Because because because because becaaaaaaauuuuse…because of the wonderful things he does! La la la la la la la, la la!

Sonny frees Mark, leaping over a boatload of tourists to do so. We don’t get to see if they find this frightening or alarming, because we immediately cut to the shooting gallery “where the main attraction is a “Big Bear”--and apt name for the target! See, it’s apt because the target is a big bear, and also, it’s Big Bear in disguise. Just so we’re clear.

Sonny, wasting no time, literally rips the wall from the side of the gallery with one hand. I guess this is his Ancient Vague Oriental Abilities again, because Mark makes it clear that he’s a human, despite the fact that even Big Bear couldn’t escape from the gallery. Mark crouches over Bear’s body: “You moved! You’re still alive, you big, blessed bear!” Yes, he certainly is big. And a bear.

Desaad, meanwhile, has twigged to the fact that the FPs are escaping, just as his “psycho-fuge” explodes (apparently thanks to Mother Box—man, is there anything that crazy computer can’t do?) Desaad mobilizes his troops to wipe them out: “If I destroy the young Forever People--Mother Box will destruct!” Desaad has this weird delusion going. Remember in the last issue when Mother Box disappeared, and Desaad was all, “Whoo! I made her commit suicide! No really! I’m sure she won’t just reappear later and subvert all my plans!”

Meanwhile, the non-captive FPs are freeing Beautiful Dreamer, who you may recall had been placed in a glass box and was being forced into seeing the onlookers as hideous monsters, i.e., she got off pretty damn easy. Mark frees her by the thoroughly unimpressive method of telling the customers that the exhibit is closed, then using Mother Box to cancel out the monstrous illusions. “Only a psychotic like Desaad would subject you to the stress of facing endless fright and horror!” Nope…sorry. Doesn’t matter how much you talk it up after the fact, Mark, I’m still not buying it as anything more than a mild inconvenience for Beautiful Dreamer.

With Desaad’s troops hot on their heels, the mostly-reunited gang bust into the room where Serifan is being held. Big Bear, in typically awesome fashion, pounds a henchman’s head into the wall with the flat of his palm while going “Yea and verily! Pardon our anxious behaviour, sir! But we feel rather insecure in Happyland!” Serifan is released, as is Vykin from his moderately pathetic death trap via remote control, but Desaad’s gang followed him in. “We’d rather destroy you as a complete unit!” they declare. Someone didn’t get the memo about how the Forever People as a “Complete Unit” tend to form an all-powerful being who can pretty much kick anyone’s ass.

But that’s not what happens. Suddenly, energy crackles around Sonny and he booms out, “SLEEP! ” Next thing you know, Desaad’s shock troops have collapsed, unconscious, to the ground.

That’s right, folks: it was no coincidence that Mother Box found Sonny Sumo, for he, alone among mortals, is the mind Darkseid has been seeking. He’s the possessor of the Anti-Life Equation. And in conjunction with Mother Box, he can order anyone to do anything.

Personally I find it a little creepy that the good guys are the ones who get control of Anti-Life, and use it the way they do in the next issue. I mean, there immediately follows a page of talk about how evil the ALE is and how it destroys everyone, but it’s makes for a bit of cognitive dissonance that this destroyer of free-will, this spiritual superweapon, is in the mind of an unabashed hero and can only be unlocked using that tool of good guys everywhere, the Mother Box. Other than Big Bear quickly dismissing these concerns as “If Mother Box doesn’t fear you—neither do we!”, there’s no discussion of the morality on display here. Clearly this isn’t a Lord of the Rings-type situation, where the good guys have control of a tool of evil and realize they must never use it. Sonny and the FPs use the ALE pretty much without hesitation. Hey, what’s a little free will between buddies?

Anyway, both Sonny and the FPs find themselves trusting each other pretty much instantly. Darkseid, however, has been watching all this (despite the fact that he left the park last issue), and since the FPs didn’t hesitate to spell out their ownership of the ALE even though they knew the bad guys were listening, it looks like they got themselves a situation.

Again, Kirby tries a bit desperately to hype the next issue with some hilarious Stan Lee-isms: "WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL ASTOUND YOU!!!" By George, It astounded even me! And I, Jack Kirby, am much closer to this saga than you, reader! There's been nothing in comics that's equalled its like! I've seen it--and I'm still shaking!"'s...THE HYPERBOLE EFFECT!

Oh, wait. THE OMEGA EFFECT. Yes.

There’s an extra little four-page story at the end about a barbarian warrior type named Lonar. Basically, he’s a New God who wanders New Genesis by himself. Because he’s a Lonar. He explores an ancient city from before the cataclysm that destroyed the old gods, finds a living “battle horse” and rides it out as the city crumbles. It’s kind of an interesting attempt to flesh out the world of the New Gods with yet another character, and one of a genre that I don’t recall Kirby ever tackling before, the sword ‘n’ sorcery type, but the story’s too short to make much of an impact. Here’s hoping we see more of Lonar in future issues.