Friday, November 23, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: Mister Miracle #5--"Murder Machine!"

I love that cover. I love that Vundabar wasn’t quite certain enough of the flamethrower and the gun and the A-bomb, so he added a dagger. To kill a guy fully encased in a metal casket.

Proving that shamelessly gratuitous cheesecake pinups are just as much a part of Kirby’s ouevre as any other adventure artist’s, this issue opens with a full-page splash of Barda in her red bikini mode, doing calisthenics. He even provides audience surrogates, in the form of a bunch of deliverymen who have come to deliver a civil war cannon Scott’s ordered, but get an eyeful of Barda and make construction-worker noises at her. She of course puts them in their place by picking up the 20-ton cannon (with one hand!) and carting it off, leading to the traditional “This ‘women’s lib’ thing is getting more serious than I thought!” reaction.

A word, please? If you don’t mind? Thank you. I’m 100% on the side of feminist superhero fans who find the subculture creepy and weird and misogynist at times, but I don’t think stuff like gratuitous shots of a muscular, bikini-clad woman exercising is what bothers them. I think the real sticking point is when female characters are badly or thinly written AND they’re constantly being offered up for oglement by the artist. The female character serves no point and is in no way memorable or interesting except as a sex object—hence “objectification”.

There’s a certain trope comics frequently use to try and spackle over this kind of exploitation, namely, the “Generic Kickass Female” argument. The character is superficially heroic, strong, can fight off an army of ninjas with one hand behind her back, etc. So, argue the writers and artists, she’s a positive female role model! That’s all well and good, but just making her “kickass” doesn’t totally mitigate the sexism. Turning a vapid, scantily-clad sexpot into a vapid, scantily-clad sexpot who punches people a lot is not exactly a great blow for women’s rights; it’s just a knee-jerk bit of ass-covering. And honestly, it’s become such a cliché that it always bothers me when it shows up.

So why don’t I think the brazenly cheescakey Barda sequences in Mister Miracle count against this? Well, the answer is more or less implied by the above. Barda is not only a memorable character, she often comes close to overshadowing the hero of the book by force of her personality alone. Furthermore, she’s not really a traditional image of beauty (maybe less so now than in 1971, but still). If anything, this whole sequence is a pretty solid example of being sexy without being exploitative. Still, I had to admit I was rolling my eyes a bit at the deliverymen’s “Bu-WHA?!?” reaction.

But on to the actual story, which, fortuitously for my purposes, involves one of those villains that only Kirby could have thought up. Okay, maybe he’s not the only one who could have thought him up, but he’s the only one who would have done so and then actually had the guts to build a comic book around him.

His name is Doctor Virman Vundabar.

And yes, he’s basically a cartoonish, 19th century Prussian dictator.

For the record, I’m pretty sure that Kirby was somewhat aware of the camp value of this comic and even saw it as a selling point; witness Big Bear’s comments about their décor in The Forever People #2. And this is a comic book, which at that time still benefited from being cheap, disposable entertainment for kids, and could thus get away with stuff most other media couldn’t.

Still, Vundabar is pushing it. And yet, Kirby manages to add another, interesting level to all this later on, as we’ll see.

At the moment, one of Vundabar’s lackeys, name of Hydrik, is displaying his prototype deathtrap which Vundabar, natch, intends to use on Mr. Miracle. The trap—in which a dummy is shackled to a hydraulic spinner—is a pretty spectacular failure; not only does it self-destruct, but the Mister Miracle dummy is thrown clear! The point being to demonstrate that Miracle would have escaped, but honestly, the fact that a lifeless mannekin was able to escape shows that Hydrik’s competence at building deathtraps is roughly akin to that of a Narwhal’s. To top it all off, Hydrik’s machine “severely impairs” him when it explodes, and a sneering Vundabar puts a bullet in his head as he lies there helplessly. You know, I know it’s standard M.O. for supervillains to cack a henchman or two to prove their evilness, but this one bordered on a mercy killing.

Meanwhile, Scott is setting up his new civil war cannon (where’d he get the money to afford that, again?) while Oberon complains that Scott’s got him dressed up in a Confederate outfit. Or maybe it’s a Union. Whichever one is blue. (Hey, I’m a Canadian. We didn’t learn this stuff in school.) Of course, Oberon’s complaints that Scott is robbing him of his dignity are entirely justified, but he continues to go along with it after Scott gives him an extremely perfunctory “Hey, you’re as important to the act as I am!” speech.

At least Oberon manages to wheedle some more information out of Scott and his backstory while he’s about it. Scott explains about Granny’s Orphanage between his escape from being strapped to the cannon while it’s lit (a pretty perfunctory escape, actually, though Oberon naturally does a lot of squealing about it). We get the basic idea that we’ve pretty much already figured out: that there’s a weird, never-fully-explained code of honour restricting the Apokoliptians from just tromping over and killing Scott…despite the fact that they fight dirty on several occasions.

Perhaps more interesting is that extra layer to the inherent campiness of the comic that I was talking about earlier. Vundabar, like Scott himself, is an alumnus of the orphanage, where, it’s now made clear, the orphans were given silly names in Kirby’s homage to Oliver Twist. But more than that, they were given ridiculous identities, themes, and traits by Granny, and by extension, Darkseid. Vundabar took his to extremes, but all the orphans of Apokalips have had their personalities, basically, assigned to them—which makes their goofiness kind of tragic, when you think about it. It’s a very nice fit with the themes of the comic, and the Fourth World as a whole: the various ridiculous personalities of the Apokaliptians are a cruel joke on the part of Darkseid, and a measure of just how determined he is to control everyone and everything. He’s essentially condemning his soldiers to lifelong humiliation, and getting them to play along with the joke. Scott’s escaped from this humiliation just as he’s escaped from his homeworld, by building his own personality.

(Though there’s a bit of an irony here, in that Granny named him “Scott Free”….so by rebelling and escaping, he’s still fulfilling the destiny Darkseid handed down to him. Which adds yet another level of complexity to Darkseid’s motivations, which I’ll discuss in a later entry.)

Anyway, while Scott and Oberon are rehearsing, Barda’s completing her cheesecake quota for the issue by splashing around in a nearby pond. She reflects on how much pleasant it is here than on Apokalips, though interestingly when she name-drops Darkseid, even negatively, she can’t help but add “great” to the beginning of his name, a nice, subtle way of reinforcing just how much brainwashing she’s undergone. Meanwhile, a bunch of Granny’s pointy-headed troops have snuck up behind her, but of course Barda’s too good to be taken by surprise like that; she activates her armour, which materializes around her, and begins laying waste. So naturally the pointy-heads have a secret weapon up their sleeve to conveniently neutralize her so they can carry her off. Even though she put in a good showing, I still say she went down a little too easily for the kick-assiest warrior babe of the Fourth World, but never mind.

Scott catches sight of the “Magna-lift” as it departs over the treetops, and somehow intuits that Barda’s been kidnapped, which means of course that it’s time to summon his aero-discs and follow after. Scott somehow further intuits that Barda’s been taken to the remote Barclay Canyon, and even more astonishingly, figures out that it’s Virman Vundabar who took her. Man, Scott’s become a psychic. Sure enough, he finds a bright orange complex waiting for him with Vundabar’s image greeting him on an image=screen at one end. “It probably also serves as a door to your trap! Very efficient, Virman!!!” Um, that’s how you prove Virman’s love of efficiency? What about the fact that he went to all the trouble of kidnapping Barda, even though Bedlam was able to sucker him in just by offering a challenge?

Vundabar starts ordering Scott to enter the compound. “What if I tell you to go blow your nose!?!” spits Scott, master of the snappy comeback. (As you’ll recall from the end of issue #2.) But of course, Vundabar’s offering Barda’s life in exchange for Scott’s compliance, so he steps onto the track and is immediately encased in the conveyor belt o’ doom pictured on the cover. On the next page, he’s battered by giant metal hammers and electrocuted by what Vundabar’s new henchman Klepp calls "a controlled atom blast”. Vundabar refuses to gloat until he knows for certain Scott is dead, but lest you gain any respect for him at this point, he then turns his attention away to provoke Barda. There’s an interesting exchange here:

BARDA: That’s why I deserted Apokolips! I can no longer soldier in the company of twisted fiends like yourself-who worship their power--more than Darkseid!
VUNDABAR: Silence! I want no further blasphemy! Great Darkseid rules Apokolips like a colossus!! His is the creed of destruction! --Not fair play! I accommodate my whims--but I also know that my opponent must be destroyed!

OK, that’s pretty confusing. Shouldn’t Vundabar be saying, “Darkseid accommodates my whims”? How do you accommodate your own whims? But the general idea here seems to be that Barda is accusing Vundabar of being disloyal to Darkseid, in a purely intellectual sense at least. What’s more, she seems to be admitting that she still feels loyalty to Darkseid! Or rather, that she’s still committed to the idea of Darkseid. This seems to be a case of being so faithful to the image of someone that you have to rebel against them when they fail to live up to their own standards. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the two of them meet…

Anyway, the Murder Machine passes through flamethrowers and then an acid pit at the end that melts it into nothingness. The toadying Klepp proceeds to ask “If I cannot laugh now, please allow me to applaud!!” To which Vundabar replies, “Laugh away, Klepp! Here -! I’ll join you! AHAHAHAHAHA!!” That’s pretty funny—Vundabar apparently doesn’t allow himself to laugh very often.

And need I point out that Mr. Miracle is standing right behind him in this panel, looking smug?

Yet again, the villains are horrified to find that Scott escaped from a locked cabinet which they couldn’t see inside of. “A mother-box!” Screams Vundabar. “With the aid of a Mother-box, you thinned your atomic structure and transferred yourself out of that coffer!” “Not so!” replies Scott. “Even in the ‘crunch’ I play it fair—and you know it!!! You thought of everything, Vundabar--except the soles of my shoes!! You couldn’t see the laser-jets activate!! The jets burned through my foot clamps but not those that held the coffer fast to the moving track! Then, with a short by powerful laser beam, I blasted downward!!” And crawled out through the hole, digging downwards and coming up behind Vundabar.

So, um. Using the Mother Box is cheating…but using foot-rockets isn’t? This is what keeps bothering me about this comic. Most of the time, Scott escapes simply by using whatever gadgets he happens to have brought with him, even if we’ve never heard of them up ‘til now. Scott rarely uses actual escape skill or even his wits to get away. Sometimes it’s worse than others—the “Paranoid Pill” business was actually pretty clever—but this falls under the discussion of whether Superman is a lousy hero because he can save lives and do what’s right without much exertion on his part.

Anyway, Vundabar immediately proceeds to try and cheat by blasting Scott at point-blank range, whereupon the floor collapses underneath them—Scott had dug it away, after all. He then lifts Barda in the classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon” pose and carries her off.

Wow, condescending much, Scott? So much for powerful female role models…

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