Archive for the 'Comics Nonsense' Category


kirbsday: the paranoid pill!

It’s still Thursday somewhere, right?

Mister Miracle #3 is a bit like last time: an eerie challenger from Apokolips dares Scott Free to face an inescapable trap.  Doctor Bedlam isn’t as frightfully archetypal as Granny Goodness, but he ain’t bad.

Here’s the deal with Doctor Bedlam:

He takes interior decoration very seriously…

He can project his consciousness into those silver furniture-mover robots…

And he has the super power to know Scott Free’s phone number without dialing directory assistance.

“And now to my task!–To subjugate and break the spirit of that young rebel who dared to reject the powers that rule his world–and the master I serve!  The great Darkseid himself!”

That “and” makes it sound like the powers that rule Scott’s world also rule Darkseid.  I don’t know if that’s the intention.  Reading too much into Kirby’s grammar–is probably a mistake!!

radio bedlam animates the anti-life follower

Let me blither for a quick second about the Doctor Bedlam concept.

I love it that this super villain is basically a state of mind: anybody can become Doctor Bedlam if they’re thinking the wrong thoughts.  (Doctor Doom has a similar power.)

Check out the themes going on with Apokolips, though.  In Forever People #3, “Life vs. Anti-Life,” Glorious Godfrey is using a supersonic pipe organ to obliterate critical thinking skills and lull people into becoming perfectly obedient Justifiers.  We’ve seen in New Gods #2 and Forever People #2 that Darkseid hopes to discover the Anti-Life Equation, the infallible method of destroying free will, by terrorizing the citizenry.  It’s your standard Rise-of-Totalitarian-Dictatorship-by-First-Inducing-Societal-Breakdown stuff, and as we’ve seen repeatedly Kirby endorses that theory in very strong terms.

And now as a direct progression along that axis, you’ve got Doctor Bedlam projecting his brainwaves into the mindless, robotic “animates,” who only exist as extensions of his bodiless will.  For my money, the Doctor Bedlam/animate relationship is the perfect demonstration of what the Anti-Life Equation would actually look like, except starting with a regular human instead of an empty robotic shell.

So here’s a little clue about Scott Free’s origin, too.  He’s been tight-lipped about where he comes from so far, though of course long-time Kirby fans know the deal.  But a hint is that last issue, Scott was messing around with a robot, “my people refer to it as a follower,” which appears to operate on the same principles as the animate-robot here, blindly obeying his psychic impressions.  If this was a deliberate hint, it’s delivered with uncharacteristic subtlety, but I dig it all the same.

(By the way, that expression on Bedlam’s face during the possession sequence reminds me of a similar Kirby character, Psycho-Man.)

shut up and summarize

So dig that.  First, there are formal dueling rules on Apokolips.  When Mister Miracle first sees the paranoid pill, he thinks that Doctor Bedlam is going to sedate him, and is outraged.  “You know the code of combat!  You cannot tranquilize an adversary!  He must be equally aware, to take full advantage of what weapons he possesses!”

While I’m a bit puzzled that a dog-eat-dog world like Apokolips has governing rules for bloodsports, it’s nevertheless a good touch for Mister Miracle as a series.  The deal with Mister Miracle is that he’s a super escape artist.  But that gig requires him to constantly subject himself to super-traps.  Which sort of obliges him to let himself get captured all the time, just like he did with Steel Hand in Mister Miracle #1 by making a bet.  I found it a little strange that a Earthly mobster like Steel Hand would consent to a gentleman’s agreement rather than just hauling him out into the woods and shooting him, but at least with super villains from Apokolips there’s apparently a formal process for these sorts of battles which helps to justify Mister Miracle’s affectations.

Second, it’s simply a cool idea for a trap.  As Doctor Bedlam says, “no metal, no gimmickry, no medieval chan or link for you, my boy!  My world is of the mind!”  The super hero has to fight his way past an army of ordinary people driven berserk.  It kind of reminds me of the whole “we want Barrabas!” bit, where the common people torment and destroy their would-be savior.

Yet even though Doctor Bedlam has forsworn any crude physical restraints, somehow Mister Miracle winds up inside a trunk…

Wrapped up in chains and ropes…

And then thrown down a stairwell straight out of Vertigo.  Cool shot, though–you don’t often get a sense of depth in comic books.  TO BE CONTINUED NEXT ISSUE!!!

what else is there to say?

Not  whole lot more about this particular issue.  But let’s take small step backward.

The Fourth World Saga lasted about two years of bi-monthly publication–11 issues in each of the three main series.  A couple more of the monthly Jimmy Olsen title, and a few haphazard Mister Miracles once the other titles had been cancelled.  So we’re now about a quarter of the way into the aborted epic.

What we’ve got, basically, is a trio of titles with extremely strong thematic links, and some looser links via some shared setting elements like Darkseid, Mother Box, and Inter-Gang.  The Jimmy Olsen issues don’t feel quite as strongly connected thematically, but then it’s an on-going series with Kirby jumping on late in the game.  Main themes so far revolve around non-conformity, mass craziness, totalitarianism, and (very lightly so far) parenthood.

We’re also deep enough in that the series are beginning to look and feel different.  A Mister Miracle story begins with a stunt rehearsal, interrupted by the arrival of a super villain out of Scott’s past who challenges him to a match; Mister Miracle cheats death, sometimes literally, with the aid of Mother Box.  New Gods opens with cosmic portents, before downshifting to Orion seething for battle before he launches the Astro-Force to protect his simpering Earthlings.  The Forever People features the title characters reacting to quaint Earth customs, sometimes oblivious to our resentment, heartbreak, or danger, but when they deduce that Darkseid’s around they tag in the Infinity Man.  And Jimmy Olsen these days seems to involve Superman showing Jimmy yet another gee-willikers unsettling aspect of the DNA Project, when Simyan and Mokkari try to wreck everything via rampaging mutants.

I’m being very reductionist here, which isn’t fair to the broader ambitions of Kirby’s project, but I’m highlighting these plot formulas for a reason: things will change up pretty soon.  I don’t know whether that’s due to editorial insistence, reader reaction, Kirby’s long-time intent, or just his restlessness taking the series into new directions.  But we’re at the end of the first act, and all of the major characters and their agendas are known to us.


kirbsday: the guardian fights again!

Well, somehow I got through the Black Racer; I can get through Jimmy Olsen #139 too.

Plot: Jimmy Olsen, Superman, and the Guardian finally leave the DNA Project.  (The Newsboy Legion is quarantined for medical reasons, but slink out anyway.)  Olsen and Clark Kent confront media magnate Morgan Edge, but are diverted into an Inter-Gang trap: Clark gets shanghaied into outer space, while Jimmy and the Guardian only have 24 hours to live!

But you will forgive me if that is not the chief interest in this, the debut of . . . Goody Rickles!

Yes.  It is Don Rickles.  As a super hero.  But with a different first name.  The past is a foreign country!

tell me there is a world where this makes perfect sense

According to Kirby’s then-assistant, Mark Evanier, he and his fellow assistant Steve Sherman were kicking around ideas for subplots and incidental gags in the Fourth World books, and somebody suggested, “Hey, what if Don Rickles met Superman?” as a brief throw-away incident.  Apparently someone at DC marketing loved the idea and insisted that it become the focus of the story, for media tie-in’s.  (Rickles’s star in Hollywood had been rising throughout the late 60’s with numerous appearances on Johnny Carson, and about six months after this story was published had his own sit-com.)  Except DC didn’t do any cross-promotion and neither did Rickles’s people.  So you’ve just got this comic book sitting out there, all alone, like its creator was some kind of crazy person…

So it turns out that Goody Rickles is a Don Rickles look-a-like working at the Daily Planet‘s parent company who is apparently insane.

Morgan Edge, who was hoping to sign the real Don Rickles to some contracts, decides there’s no other option but to murder Goody so that he won’t muck up the contractual negotiations: “The solution is obvious!  This man must be killed!”  (Murder appears to be Morgan Edge’s answer to everything.)  So he sends Goody on a suicide mission to investigate an Inter-Gang UFO.  He sends Jimmy and Clark along too.

Except they get jumped by goons, and the UFO instead vanishes with Clark inside, to Goody’s total befuddlement…

And the others are taken prisoners by Inter-Gang underboss Ugly Mannheim…

Who feeds them a meal laced with “pyro-granulate,” a poison which will cause people to spontaneously combust in 24 hours.  (This is not meant to give Eric ideas about new poisons in the Glantri campaign.)

they do things differently there

Last issue, Superman saved Metropolis from nuclear annihilation by incinerating a litter of tragically mutated Four-Armed Terrors.  This issue, Goody Rickles.

There’s always been absurdity in Kirby’s work.  Sometimes it’s the crazy pulp adventure absurdity of the Savage Land in the midst of Antarctica.  Or the “it must have made sense in his mind, and I’ll go along with it” absurdity of the Black Racer or Flipper-Dipper.  But Kirby doesn’t usually try for slapstick guffaws.  I’m not sure it works 100%, but it’s funnier than most of the Newsboy Legion stuff, and it’s also nice to see some room for silliness in the middle of Kirby’s sturm und drang about the Twilight of the Gods.  Goody Rickles is the Tom Bombadil of the Fourth World Saga.

What’s interesting about Goody, of course, is that he’s a super hero parody by the guy who will be forever linked with grandiloquent super heroics.  Not the first parody either: Kirby and Simon had created a parody comic in the 1950’s, The Fighting American, which didn’t take off, and arguably the Fantastic Four and the Hulk in their earliest incarnations were, if not parodies, then pretty serious deconstructions of the super hero concept.

Anyway, here we’ve got Goody, a put-upon news reporter who is so bullied and misled that he’s evidently become deranged, and puts on a crazy costume not to fight injustice but to star in a movie that will never get made.  He’s a clueless, obsequious, abrasive schlemiel.  It’s not Watchmen, but it’s also not 1986, either.

jimmy, what happened to you?  you used to be cool (briefly)

Ha ha!  My teenage friends have been infected by microorganisms at the secret government biological warfare lab!  Also, they won’t be reporting this scandalous story!  And I stole their super-car!

The boys escape quarantine with the aid of one of the miniaturized “Scrapper troopers” from issue #136.

Darn right!  I don’t know enough DC continuity, but it would be awesome if the post-Crisis Flippa-Dippa became Black Manta.


kirbsday: death is the black racer


Okay, look, here’s the plot of this one, just to get it out of the way:

Orion gets a new pair of clothes from his friends who keep formally introducing themselves all the time, but he feels sad because he’s all ugly and stuff.  He and his pet, Dave “Dave Lincoln” Lincoln, find the members of Inter-Gang who had abducted people to Apokolips.  With the help of Mother Box, Orion and Dave stop their plot to destroy all communication devices in the city.  The End.

Along the way, the Black Racer shows up.  And God almighty, what to say?



In his afterword to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus vol. 1, Kirby’s apprentice Mark Evanier notes that the Black Racer was originally a character who had nothing to do with the Fourth World.  Just some doodle sitting in the pile, maybe to feature in his own series someday.  DC’s then-publisher Carmine Infantino (who illustrated plenty of formative Flash stories) asked Kirby to throw in some brand-new characters in each issue of the Fourth World stuff, thinking it would be good for sales.  So, Kirby re-wrote New Gods #3 to debut the Black Racer.

Therefore running throughout the Orion plot of this issue there’s also a Black Racer plot, which doesn’t intersect especially well.

Just as the Black Racer is about to kill Orion’s friend Lightray, the science-god Metron diverts him to Earth, where he encounters a blaxploitation gunfight between members of Inter-Gang.  Moved by the death-wish of Willie Walker, a totally paralyzed and bedridden Vietnam vet, the Black Racer’s spirit possesses him, and Willie becomes a marauding spirit of doom who chases down and torments one of the gunmen.  The End (Again).

There are at least two things going on here.  One thing is, “This visual makes no sense.”

Many years prior I had learned about the Black Racer from Rovin’s Encyclopedia of Superheroes, which had a text description of the guy but no pictures.  I’m like, “Okay, cool: a guy in an all-black lycra wet-suit type of thing that professional skiers wear, with a big red ski helmet, and some red trim.”  And then I finally picked up a copy of this issue and I’m like, “Armor?!  Cape?!”

Obviously the Silver Surfer is another crazy cosmic dude flying around on something that doesn’t normally fly.  But the Silver Surfer is an extremely elegant design: basically a naked, hairless guy standing on an oval, and all of it sleek and shiny.  The Black Racer is a lot more complex visually–the skis, the ski poles, the cape, the high collar, the kooky helmet, the jarring mix of primary colors.  It kind of reminds me of the early design for the Black Panther.

The other thing is, “This concept makes no sense.”

The idea seems to be that since Walker is trapped in a kind of living prison, he is granted limitless power as an undead grim reaper . . . on skis.

And then it turns out that the Black Racer is some sort of composite entity with many different hosts–sort of like bi-location or something–and is a hit-man, excuse me “messenger,” for the Source, which is usually linked to the benevolent society of New Genesis.  We never see the Source itself, only the weird “moving hand” that writes letters of flame on High-Father’s wall.  The Black Racer, although a proxy, appears to be the Source at its most active.

For a messenger of the all-important Source, the Black Racer doesn’t do a great job of articulating his mandate.  He shows up out of the blue picking on Lightray for reasons we’re never told.  When he arrives on Earth, he does nothing to save the life of a helpless snitch when Sugar-Man, an Inter-Gang hitman, takes him out.  But when Sugar-Man threatens the helpless Willie Walker…

…the Black Racer saves Walker’s life, disfigures Sugar-Man, and then does his whole “take my hand” thing.  Once Willie becomes the Black Racer, he hunts down the half-blind Sugar-Man, activates the bomb Sugar-Man’s carrying with his mystic ski pole, and then sends both Sugar-Man and the bomb careening into the sky to explode.  Why?  As vengeance for killing the snitch, and if so then why not protect the snitch in the first place?  Or is it for attempting to kill Willie, but if so then why wait to kill Sugar-Man?  Or is it for being involved with Inter-Gang in the first place, but if so then why not go after his accomplices?  And if Willie wanted to die in the first place, why did the Black Racer get involved?

At some point you just gotta throw up your hands and say, “Dude, fuck it.  Death is the Black Racer.”  Near as I can figure, there’s something that sets this dude off about fearing death: he will find you and reunite you with the Source.  If you’re at peace with death, or even yearn for it after great suffering, you’ll be recompensed.

should I feel uneasy when a black character is referred to as “Black _______”?

Probably.  Sugar-Man is a pretty bad stereotype.  And when the Black Racer first appears over the city, and observes Sugar-Man’s gunfight in the ghetto, he remarks, “There, below–a place of black men!  Those who fight to live–others who risk my presence!”  That sure sounds pretty racist.  It’s not like any other mainstream comics were any better (“Sweet Christmas!”), but come on.

I will say one thing for the Black Racer, though: for better or worse this is one of the most unique visuals, and most unique concepts, in all of super comics.

what about orion?

yeah, so in this scene Orion is getting dressed in the nice clothes the Earthmen bought for him, and decides to have a soliloquy:

and he’s like, let me sneak a peek at my real face for a second:

Back in New Gods #1 we are told that Orion is the son of Darkseid of Apokolips, but Orion himself doesn’t know that.  In fact, Orion seems to think he’s some hideous, inexplicable New Genesis mutant freak.  That self-loathing is why he’s pissed off all the time, and what makes him their society’s most powerful warrior.  Thanks for not explaining the guy’s origin to himself, High-Father!  I mean sure the guy’s been tormented all his life by questions he cannot answer, but at least your secrecy gives you a berserker warrior to do all of your society’s dirty work.

No wait–God damn it, they just bought you those clothes!  Don’t go vaporizing them the minute someone asks a stupid question!




kirbsday: the big boom!!

Last time: a Four-Armed Terror hellbent on devouring the DNA Project’s atomic power plant trapped Jimmy Olsen, the Newsboy Legion, and Superman in some weird energy-egg thing, and now continues its march toward meltdown.

I confess that the Jimmy Olsen series has entertained me less and less after an incredible start, but this is a great issue.  Kirby piles on the tension, partially by showing the supporting cast’s panicky reactions to the news about the impending meltdown.

From this headlong, desperate charge (which, by the way, is yet another five pages of splash panels–but because it’s a typical action comic sequence it’s less noticeable than last issue’s psychedelic concert), Kirby cuts to the kids trapped inside the egg…

(eh, no great pictures of this: they’re trapped in an egg, believe me)

And then a terrific shot of the Four-Armed Terror.

Now, the Four-Armed Terror as a concept doesn’t do a whole lot for me.  He’s a prototype mutant bred to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war, which is cool.  And he eats radiation, which is cool.  But he’s basically just an ugly dude with four arms who’s really hungry.  He’s no Granny Goodness, let alone a Darkseid.  But he looks totally boss, and all he says is “Arruk!” over and over, which I guess is what I want in a monster, even if he doesn’t really seem like a worthy foe of Superman.

The Terror digs toward the nuclear plant, while Jimmy and Superman escape the egg via comic book science:

The logic here is pretty impeccable.

  1. The Four-Armed Terror created the egg via electrical discharges
  2. The egg’s density must be controlled by static electricity
  3. Rubbing your hands together creates static electricity rather than blisters (contradicting an experiment I performed when I was 8 years old)
  4. If Superman does something, it is like magic

I really wish there was a super hero game that worked like this.  “Aquaman, those guys just robbed a bank, and all you can do is talk to fish!  We hate you!”  “Bah!  Behold the power of Aquaman!  I can mentally control fish!  All humans, including bank robbers, evolved from fish!  I will psionically dominate the primitive Fish Cortex of their brains, causing the robbers to flop helplessly on the ground, gasping for water.”  The more logical fallacies involved in your proposal, the more tokens it costs to pull off.

Anyway, Superman escapes and goes chasing after the monster.  Meanwhile…

Holy hell, the Daily Planet!  In a Jimmy Olsen comic no less!  We haven’t seen the Daily Planet since issue 134, four months ago in publishing time, but probably only a couple of days in fiction.  Here, Terry Dean, a character from before Kirby took over, stops by to get news about Jimmy from his boss, Perry White.  White remarks that his own boss, Morgan Edge, is a “‘smiling cobra‘ . . . [who] assigned Jimmy to drop out of sight . . .  Edge is ruthless!  And he’s not above gambling with human life!”

It’s really nice to get a breather from the DNA Project and see regular people again, even if, as 365 Days of Kirby theorizes, this page was simply an editorial mandate to include more familiar elements from the series.

The art fixes here strike me as totally unwarranted.  For Superman and Jimmy, I can almost understand: Kirby’s faces aren’t in the style of long-running Superman artists Curt Swan and Wayne Boring, and maybe don’t match how DC wanted to market the book.  But who’s buying the book for Perry White?  Or for Terry Dean, who showed up only in issue #127?

Cut to the soldiers and former Newsboys closing in…

Cut to Simyan and Mokkari sending in more Four-Armed Terrors from their hatchery…

Cut to Morgan Edge, alerted that all of Metropolis will detonate in a nuclear holocaust in less than five minutes, now flees via the helipad while assuring his employees that everything’s fine…

Cut to a hug firefight as Superman, the soldiers, and the Terrors all converges at the nuclear reactor.  The soldiers and the Golden Guardian try to hold back the monsters, while Superman throws the reactor into a tunnel the Project had been drilling toward the center of the Earth.

These are, presumably, heavily genetically modified human beings–quite possibly clones of Jimmy Olsen–committing mass suicide because Superman threw away their only food supply.  But hey, nothing else was working.

The reactor explodes far underground, Metropolis is saved, and everybody is happy except for Jimmy and the Newsboys, who got left behind in the egg yolk and missed the whole fight, and are grumpy about it in classic sit-com fashion.

a few comments

With this issue, we’re six months into Jack Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen.  Kirby got off to a jaw-dropping start by recasting Jimmy Olsen as bullheaded hellraiser determined to get a story at all costs–more like a pulp adventure hero than a sidekick.  And there was one heck of a story to get: the Whiz Wagon, Wild Area, the Mountain of Judgment, the DNA Project, and an invasion from Apokolips.  And with each issue the supporting cast expanded.

Yet over the last few issues I felt this series slowing down a bit.  It’s like when the Whiz Wagon landed at the Project, Jimmy Olsen lost his narrative momentum.

The supporting cast now includes the young Newsboys, the original Newsboys, the Golden Guardian, Dubbilex, Yango and the Outsiders, Jude and the Hairies, a cluster of clones, Simyan and Mokkari, Morgan Edge, and the monster of the month.  This issue also folds in some old-timers like Perry White and Terry Dean.  It’s a huge cast, but few of the characters are mutually antagonistic and none of them seem to have internal conflicts.  So you’ve got a setting under siege, populated with characters who make a strong first impression but then have little to say.  Sometimes literally: Tommy has barely said a word in six months.

(Sometimes you want a static character.  But if you want a character who’s in an uneasy spot, give her goals which are irreconcilable, or desires that run contrary to her best interests.)

All of which is to say that this issue, which is almost nothing but a race-against-time action thriller, really helps to juice up the series a bit, and it’s interesting to check out Kirby’s pacing techniques here.

  1. The first page splash recaps the situation.
  2. The next four splash pages work to impart a sense of urgency and enormous scale.  It’s interesting: last issue, I felt that 5 pages for a drug trip felt a little over-long, like Kirby was padding things out a bit.  That may have been entirely due to the quality of the reproduction: in smudgy black & white, the trip doesn’t look exciting or fun.  Maybe in color it would have had an otherworldly aspect to it.  Anyway: here the extra space helps to emphasize the emergency mobilization of a military base.
  3. Right as we’re rushing along with the soldiers, smash cut to the gooey, inescapble egg.  This sudden shift from reckless headlong movement to what’s basically a tarpit helps to sell the kids’ frustration, interspersed with images as the Four-Armed Terror wreaks destruction on the base.
  4. All throughout this issue, Kirby’s narrator captions keep chanting out: “Eleven minutes to doomsday… Nine minutes to doomsday… ” etc. etc.  This refrain, coupled with images of all these characters racing around frantically, helps to sell that we’re on the cusp of disaster.
  5. The sudden cuts to the Daily Planet–first with Perry and Terry, and then with Morgan Edge–theoretically halt the flow, but sort of work as palate cleansers and reminding us exactly what’s at stake if Metropolis explodes.  The bit with Morgan Edge is particularly well done: we’re reminded of the countdown clock (5 minutes), plus we get some excellently loathsome characterization of Edge.  It’s not enough he’d send six children to their deaths to blow up the Hairies, but he’s casually lying, in an especially smarmy way, to people just moments from death.
  6. After each of the Daily Planet interludes, the stakes escalate as more soldiers and monsters show up.
  7. There’s finally a big ol’ scene where practically everybody is on stage panicking at once, which is a stage play technique but effective here too.
  8. Superman saves the day not by force, but by desperately outwitting his enemies as the clock reaches zero-hour.  Admittedly, the previously unmentioned tunnels down to the center of the earth are a kind of annoying deus ex machina, but apparently they featured in another Superman story appearing that month, so it’s not totally out of the blue.

at last his identity is revealed!

I am obsessed with whoever answers the phone at Inter-Gang.  People are always like, “Hello, is this Inter-Gang?  Put me through to your Insidious Scheme division” or, “Operator, I want to talk to Joey Exit-Wounds in Wetwork & Removals.  Can you give me his extension?”  Who is this operator?  Is the Evil Factory’s cloned version of Gabby, as I theorized a few weeks ago?  Have I gone completely insane?

No . . . it’s some weird dude with sunglasses and a cigar who looks like he’s never smiled in his whole life.  He looks sort of worried, in fact.  (Probably because the whole city is about to explode.)  I guess working for a super-villain is, in the end, just a job like everything else.


kirbsday: life vs. anti-life

Last time, these idealistic aliens called the Forever People settled down to live in a slum alongside a lonely little boy named Donnie, and with the help of the Infinity Man scared off a bug-vampire-creature named Mantis.  It wasn’t bad, but it was relatively standard stuff.  This is better:

Glorious Godfrey is in town, preaching the gospel of Anti-Life.  Godfrey is plainly based on Billy Graham, who was a close associate of Dick Nixon, one of the main inspirations for Darkseid.  From the Wikipedia:

After Nixon’s victorious 1968 presidential campaign, Graham was an adviser, visiting the White House and leading some of the private church services that the President organized there.  Nixon offered Graham the ambassadorship to Israel in a meeting they had with Golda Meir, but Graham turned down Nixon’s offer.  Nixon appeared at one of Graham’s revivals in East Tennessee in 1970; the event drew one of the largest crowds to ever gather in Tennessee.  Nixon became the first President to give a speech from an evangelist’s platform.  However, their friendship became strained when Graham rebuked Nixon for his post-Watergate behavior and the profanity heard on the Watergate tapes; they eventually reconciled after Nixon’s resignation.  Graham announced at that time, “I’m out of politics.”

The Anti-Life creed bestows total certainty, total unity, and total entitlement–especially the entitlement to murder. “Yes, it is [Darkseid’s] gift to us, friends!  The cosmic hunting license!  The right to point the finger or the gun!”

One of Godfrey’s minions, a Justifier, accosts Donnie and threatens him for the location of the Forever People.  Luckily, the kids save Donnie with Mother Box–but not before the Justifier blows himself up with a suicide vest.

The Forever People realize Glorious Godfrey must be behind this religious frenzy, and set off after him, but not before one of the saddest scenes in the whole Fourth World saga:

Wow.  I know you can read the panel, but I have to break that out for a second:

BEAUTIFUL DREAMER: Goodbye, Donnie!  We leave you what cannot die–Love!  Friendship!

SERIFAN: It is so in New Genesis!  It can be here!

DONNIE: You must come back!  You must!

now hold on a second there, donnie

Donnie, I know you live in an abandoned slum neighborhood where your only other source of human contact is Uncle Willie, who is like 90 years old, senile, and ready to shoot anything that moves.  And a few weeks ago these extra-dimensional teenagers show up and start, like, giving meaningful responses to your dialogue balloons, which has probably never happened to you before. And they fix your TV.


  1. They have no problem giving a massive hit of Space LSD to a 10 year old boy
  2. They get hunted by suicide-bomber religious maniacs armed with “omega rays!  Earthmen would disintegrate instantly!”
  3. The Justifier blew up your house.  The Forever People can’t be bothered to fix it.
  4. The fact that the Justifier got into Donnie’s home, and then blew it up, strongly suggests that Uncle Willie, who was in charge of “security,” is dead.  The Forever People can’t be bothered to find him or heal him.
  5. Also, Donnie, I hate to bring it up, but you are crippled.  And the Forever People, with their crazy techno-magic, haven’t helped you.
  6. Would you like some more LSD to take your mind off what shitty friends the Forever People are?  Too bad, the Forever People are cutting out.  Bye!
  7.  You beg them to come back.  SPOILER ALERT: The Forever People will never see you again.  You were a drag, Donnie.

I presume the reason we never see Donnie again in the Fourth World saga is that he commits suicide.  Seriously: when the Forever People come back to the slum, not only will they make no effort to find Donnie, they don’t even mention him.

“It is so in New Genesis!  It can be here!”  Can be.  Not will be.  Apparently you’ve gotta earn it.

stop making fun, kirby was awesome

But let us pretend that scene works and move on.  Godfrey’s Justifiers are going on a rampage:

The Forever People arrive outside Glorious Godfrey’s revival tent and summon the Infinity Man–TAARU!–who bypasses the Justifiers and demolishes Glorious Godfrey’s psychoactive sound system.

And then:

In case you were wondering: this proves that Satan is more powerful than God, or at least that the Forever People’s faith breaks apart on that particular jagged rock.  Also: you don’t want to dare Darkseid to do his worst.

And then this classic page:

is this the end?

Nope.  This issue kicks off a pretty good arc in The Forever People, and as we’ll see the rest of the titles begin to pick up steam as well.

This issue speaks for itself pretty plainly–maybe a little too well–so there’s not a lot to say.  Whereas Granny Goodness is practically a Jungian archetype, Glorious Godfrey feels more like an editorial cartoon.  Not a bad one!  And there’s a time-honored place for topical political cartooning in super hero comics, starting with Captain America punching Hitler in the face all those years ago, also courtesy of Jack Kirby.  But generally I feel that making super-stuff too topical is often a mistake: it certainly hasn’t done the Forever People, as a concept, any favors over the past forty years as one revival after another has fizzled.

I do like that the Forever People leave Donnie with a blessing of love and friendship, while Glorious Godfrey’s organized goon squad of crusaders are burning books and rounding up undesirables.  And that ultimately the transcendent Infinity Man is denounced by the religious zealot.  It’s also a little unusual to see evangelical Christianity, or at least something with its trappings, portrayed in a relentlessly negative light in mainstream entertainment.


super-police procedural

For thirty-four years, America’s top scientists have failed to unravel the secret of this song’s incredible catchiness.

warning: 2000 words of obviousness

When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old I got a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game, loved it, but never really played it until eighteen months ago, at which point I felt confused and overwhelmed about how to run the silly thing.  After a whole lot of flailing around, I think I’ve cracked it, or at least have a set of solutions which are painfully obvious in hindsight.

One of the things I love about the Moldvay and Mentzer version of Dungeons & Dragons is that the rules instruct you how to build a dungeon.  The results may not be lauded genius like The Caverns of Thracia, or as atmospheric as Zak’s Library of Zorlac (tucked away in Vornheim) or minimalist masterpieces such as Antti Hulkkonen’s Den of Villainy (one of the 2010 One-Page Dungeon Contest winners) or Rob’s Vermin Hollow (ditto for 2011).  But even if the rules don’t produce works of genius, if you follow them, you’ll end up with something playable.  It frustrates me that there’s nothing analogous for super hero games, at least that I’m aware of.

dungeon = case

So my theory is that the super hero equivalent of a dungeon is the case.  This isn’t true for all super heroes in all decades, but is broadly true for Silver Age Marvel, the main period I’m interested in.  The case has a couple of basic elements:

Starts with a super-crime.  A bank robbery, which is how almost all super hero one-shots start IME, is not a super-crime.  A crime what is super, is defined by being either

  •  impossible (your classic locked-room murder mystery)
  • baffling (breaking into a bank to put money into the vault)
  • beyond law enforcement’s ability to handle (“Uh, sarge, how do we ticket a 40′ radioactive lobster that’s illegally parked?”)
  • visually or conceptually crazy

There’s some play in here about what constitutes a “case,” depending on what matters to your super-folks.  In the early days, the Fantastic Four were like, “Whoa, the Bermuda Triangle exists!  Let’s check that shit out!” and the X-Men were like, “Gee willikers, another mutant hit puberty somewhere, let’s come across way too strong so they won’t want anything to do with us.  Cyclops, are you wearing your hideous plaid suit?  Great!”  But my assumption is that we’re talking about criminal activity, just super-sized.

This super-crime is part of a plan.  Someone did it for a reason, and they’re not going to be satisfied until they take it to the next stage.  What does this super crime lead to?  And why should the super heroes care?  This last bit is important.  In the occasionally awkward but still very satisfying RPG With Great Power…, figuring out what the players value, and then drawing a bullseye around that, is actually the very first step of prep–so you know that, as a GM, you want to endanger Aunt May or challenge Tony Stark’s image as a hedonist, and work up some plan that puts those aspects at risk.

A super villain has a stake in the plan, and therefore in the super-crime.  Committing or planning the crime (by far the most likely), discovered it accidentally and is now exploiting it (best for weird-phenomena type cases), opportunistically using it to discredit the super heroes, whatever.  If you need more than one super villain, okay, but keep it simple.

The super villain isn’t worried about law enforcement.  The classic explanation is that her powers make her seemingly unstoppable (bulletproof, travels too fast to catch, teleports out of jail, mind-controls the jury, etc.), but simply paying off corrupt cops, intimidating witnesses, or having a great hiding spot are reliable standbys too.  Don’t blow past this step carelessly, because you’re basically posing a puzzle to the players, and they’re going to MacGuyver up some crazy solution.

If the super villain has any sense at all, she’s anticipated the most obvious counter-moves to her cop-trumping advantages, and worked out a way to keep her ass out of jail.  If the super villain is super-duper-smart, she’s also figured out a way to incorporate obvious counter-moves into the plan itself.

One thing I’m toying with, for the plan, is to steal the “countdown clock” technique from Apocalypse World.  For those who don’t know it, the idea is that a threat is divided into 6 scheduled segments (0 to 3 o’clock, to 6 o’clock, to 9 o’clock, and then to 10, 11, and midnight; these times are figurative rather than literal).  Once the plan hits 9 o’clock, it can no longer be prevented, you’ve just gotta brace for impact.  Segments are ticked off as the plan approaches completion.  (Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set actually has some decent rules on how long it takes for people to build doomsday weapons, so that may take the place of this little clock thing.)

can we play yet?

Anyway, that’s the super-crime related stuff.  Once the players get wind of the super-crime, it’s off to the races.  (Actually, making the players aware of the crime is something to think about too.  Many great super hero comics begin with the crime in progress, and the hero learns about it afterward, and is like, “Gee, I missed it, but I’ll look into it anyway!”  This works because a comic book can switch between viewpoints, but most RPG’s don’t.  So don’t waste your cool visual for the super crime if no player will be around to see it.)

So you open with the super-crime, and maybe if the heroes are on the scene there’s a fight.  If the super villain is on the scene at all (maybe she’s not) then she should have some way to cope with being captured or even killed.

what Morrison intends as irony, is all too often how play proceeds

You’re then left with something resembling a police procedural.  The super heroes investigate the super-crime, looking for clues as to the villainous plan, how to prevent it, and how to capture the super villain.  On TV and in real life, this involves interviewing witnesses, interrogating suspects, painstaking examination of physical evidence, stake-outs, undercover work, shadowing people, and so on.  In a police procedural on TV, the investigators are gonna get the necessary clues; the only question is how the search leads to other dilemmas and sub-plots.

In an RPG session, this is probably going to involve skill checks or similar mechanics.

  • If the players succeed, hey, great, give them a clue.  You should have lots of clues, and they should be legitimate.  Giving players a fake-ass clue is sadistic, because studies have repeatedly shown that the act of sitting down at a table to play RPG’s lowers people’s IQ by 50 points.  Your players are spastic lunatics with 7-second attention spans.  If you give them a fake clue, they will forget the 120 other real clues and drill down on that fake one, and it will be aggravating for them because nothing makes sense and aggravating for you because they’ll just sit around arguing (more so).
  • If the player fails the skill check, consider giving them the clue anyway at a price.  I’m stealing this idea from Mouse Guard, where the heroes can succeed at the cost of being made Hungry, Tired, Angry, Sick, or Injured, each of which is debilitating and difficult to remedy.  In Marvel Super Heroes, the likely targets would be a hero’s Health, Karma, Resources, or Popularity: present the player with a situation where they can get the clue but at a risk to one or more of those values.  So, for example, this witness will talk–but only if the super hero looks the other way regarding his gambling (failing to arrest someone means loss of Karma).  The condition ought to make dramatic sense in the fictional situation.
  • Alternately, if the players fail the skill check, not only do they fail to gather a clue, the situation gets dramatically worse via a twist.  (Again: stolen from Mouse Guard.)  Naturally, you should only use these if they’re appropriate to the fictional circumstances–which means keeping an eye out for these opportunities during prep.  Here are some classic twists:
    • God damn it, Human Torch, this is our case!  Leave us alone!  Some idiot super hero decides to tackle this case himself, which by the laws of super heroics means fighting you for it.  This gets old after a while, so you probably want to keep an eye out for really short-tempered super-types who don’t always see reason–unless nobody knows each other yet.
    • Freeze!  You’re under arrest!  The police somehow get their signals crossed and think that the super heroes are to blame.
    • Uh… why are you wearing that costume?  Somehow, a super hero’s secret identity (or some other sensitive bit of information) is at risk.  This doesn’t have to be widespread knowledge or wind up in a villain’s hands – sometimes it’s enough of a twist for your wife to find out what you’ve been doing at night when you said you were working.
    • They struck again!  While the heroes were screwing up with this clue, the super villain or her minions went out and did it again.  This enables the plan to ratchet forward another step along the “countdown clock.”
    • It’s a trap!  Oh no, what looked like a clue was actually a fiendish death trap.  I guess that means I have to figure out death traps in a later post.
    • Let’s fight!  The super villain gets tired of the super heroes’ interference, and so sends a gang of goons, or a trusted lieutenant, or something, to fight them.
    • Chase Scene!  Man, somebody’s getting away, time to bust out the vehicle rules and give them a work-out.

if i break your wrists, james, will you please stop typing?

At some point the players will get tired of fishing for clues, and decide to make a run on the super villain, and/or wait around at a likely target to intercept her. Remember that the super villain has probably anticipated the most likely responses, so the players might need to first call in a few favors, or build a special gadget, and that process may cause the plan to ratchet forth another step toward midnight.

  • You’ll need a map of a villain’s lair – the Marvel Advanced Set has some stuff on building a super heroic headquarters that would work for lairs as well – or the scene of the next crime.  Make sure this place is just bursting with “interactivity”–ropes to swing on, exploding barrels, clueless civilians milling about with no clue of the danger that’s about to go down, trapped tunnels, nuclear reactors about to go critical, escape subs, and so on.
  • You should also think about what the super villain wants to accomplish.  Fights are boring when all that one side wants to do is clobber the other side.  Does the super villain want to delay the heroes long enough for the final countdown to go off or reinforcements to arrive?  Maybe imprison and brainwash them?  Make it look like they committed a murder?  Seize and hold territory?
  • If a super villain takes some pretty serious licks (in Marvel, health is reduced to Endurance rank value or less), she’s gonna bolt, fake her own death, or give up with the knowledge she can easily escape.  Preferably, the plan keeps marching along.

Important point: do not cheat to keep the super villains or their plans going.  If the players get lucky, or play very well, totally let them enjoy their accomplishment.  You’ve got new super villains every month, some of whom will try to learn from the failures of their peers.  In comic books, the status quo never changes very much, because of publishing demands.  This is deadly for RPG’s.  Keep things unstable and moving along.

Anyway, that’s my current thought on this thing.  It’s all incredibly obvious in hindsight but I had to clear some mental blocks first.


the prince of peace

Click for the entirety of the first issue, written, penciled, and edited by the King himself, inked by Mike Royer.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill toward men, or, failing that, a bellowing, hysterical, mohawked product of “hormone surgery from space” stomping around the place putting things to rights.

I am told that Keith Giffen’s new OMAC series is decent, but haven’t checked it out yet.


kirbsday: the four-armed terror!

Last time, the scientists of the Evil Factory, Simyan and Mokkari, sent a rampaging monster to destroy the DNA Project, and Superman was on the ropes after dissing Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboy Legion.

Alas, this issue delivers almost exactly the same thing.  In the past I’ve run some interference for Kirby’s repetitious elements, characterizing them as recurring motifs.  But in this case, it’s pretty much the exact same plot, just as Forever People #2 and New Gods #2 are almost the same story.  All three of these issues have a cover date of April-May 1971 (appearing on the stands in January or so), though, which surely isn’t coincidence.  It’d be interesting to know what was going on during that period.

Anyway, recognizing that issue #137 is a lot like issues #135-36, what’s there to appreciate about this one?

Well, I think the Four-Armed Terror, though kind of a lame adversary in the abstract (he has four arms, is ugly, and is starving for nuclear radiation to eat) is always depicted in a creepy and savage way.

Last issue, the Step-Ups invited Superman and Jimmy Olsen to a concert – but it turns out Jimmy gets to play the instrument (click to enlarge)

Please note there’s another 2-page splash collage immediately afterward, for a total of 5 splash pages devoted entirely to a “solar-phone” concert.  For comparison, the hell-planet Apokolips itself gets, thus far, a single half-page panel and peeks over into a splash.

Five consecutive splash pages is an absolutely overwhelming amount of narrative force in this medium–I don’t think there’s a single precedent for it in super hero comics at that time.*  And it’s devoted to Jimmy Olsen and the teenage Newsboy Legion basically hallucinating to electronica.  I really wish I could find a color version of these panels: the collage stuff looks about a million times better in color, and maybe that justifies the huge space devoted here.

So either Kirby really wanted to make a big deal about Jimmy Olsen tripping, a bigger deal than was made about anything else in comics before . . . or he really wanted to rush these issues along.  (This issue has 22 pages, 8 of which are splash pages.)   Given the similarity of plot to the previous issues, and really tight analogues between the other issues coming out this month, I’m inclined to say he was rushing.

Eventually Superman discovers the Project is under attack and tells the kids to stay out of it.  He wants to keep them safe, but as usual he’s pretty high-handed about it.

Oh hey, it’s Yango from issues #133-34!  The Four-Armed Terror is raising such a ruckus that the Outsiders and the others must evacuate the Habitat, and maybe the Wild Area itself.  I omitted a scene earlier in which Yango briefly mourns Jimmy Olsen, “the best yet,” having gone to his presumed death at the Mountain of Judgment.

The Four-Armed Terror double-strangles Superman until Jimmy shows up with his Hairy-designed harmonica gun.

Somewhere in here, Superman deduces that this creature was stolen from the Project’s own radiation-eating, four-armed monster cells: in this case, they were trying to breed a creature capable of surviving after an atomic war.  Two things are obvious:

  1. Simyan and Mokkari are really abusing the grant process, since all they do is just steal stuff from the Project
  2. It would have been a lot easier for Superman to just fight the dang ol’ Project, since all of their research gets used against him anyway

The monster traps them in an energy egg.  More monsters should do this.

On page 21 we finally learn the villains’ scheme:

SIMYAN: There’s the blip!  Our fledging is in the main conduit!

MOKKARI: Praise Darkseid!

SIMYAN: Yes, directly in his path is the giant atomic pile that supplies power to the entire underground world of the “Project!”

MOKKARI: He must feed on radiation!  He’ll rip that pile apart and trigger a chain reaction!  Then a great while flash!  A fire storm of indescribable heat!  Shock upon shock as a mushroom cloud rises where once the Project stood!  A job well done, eh, Simyan?

SIMYAN: It will be beautiful, Mokkari!  And with it will go all the rest!  Yea–and even the city of Metropolis–which lies above within range!

Alas, Mokkari’s reverential description of the nuclear meltdown is only text: too much space devoted to the solar-phone concert, not enough time for a Kirby-vision nuclear disaster.  But . . .

* = Hmm.  Ditko manages six splash pages in Spider-Man Annual 1965, where Spidey takes on the Sinister Six, but they’re not consecutive pages.  Steranko manages a colossal 4-page spread in Strange Tales #167 as Nick Fury wages his final battle against the Yellow Claw.  So Kirby’s usage here is more of degree than of kind.


I don’t want to repeat myself any more than I already have.

This month Kirby’s got a thing about children having psychedelic experiences.  It is unmistakably the highlight of little Donny’s life over in Forever People #2, and the format of this issue strongly implies that it’s the most important thing ever to happen to the Newsboy Legion or maybe all of comics.  And of course, the idea of these huge collages–which look beautiful in full color but I think reproduce very poorly in black & white–is to sell a vicarious psychedelic experience to the child readership.

It’s hard to see what Kirby’s doing here that wouldn’t be of a piece with contemporary psychedelia.  By the early 70’s this stuff had become extremely commercialized and exploited by the wider culture; the real surprise is that it took so long to penetrate into mainstream comics.  Kirby’s attitude appears to one of uncritical, enthusiastic acceptance, which again is typical of the wider culture at the time though maybe a little unusual in a guy who was 49 years old.

I have some partial thoughts about crime in super hero games but I’ve got to do work…



the world that’s coming

Belated joesky tax from last Kirbsday: a super hero setting I’ve been mucking with over the past week or so, basically ripping off Kirby’s mid-1970’s works.  (The collage by Jay Garrattley above captures the concept pretty well, but I only discovered it after writing all this…)

The goal isn’t to literally use the same characters and situations, but rather to tease out the thematic connections, file off some serial numbers, and just fool around for a bit.  Other inspirations might include THX 1138, Zardoz, and Seaguy.

when gods walk the earth

Once upon a time, a zillion years in the past, the Shining Ones descended from the heavens and walked among men.  Some of the men, the Shining Ones changed.

And the Shining Ones departed, but the changed men remained.  Long-lived, brutal, domineering due to altered genes and cultural contamination, in-bred to the point of deformity, in latter days the changed men would inspire sinister veneration.

The Shining Ones left relics of their passing.  So too did the changed men leave strange traces, and stranger descendants, of their prehistoric dominion.  In the fullness of time, antiquarians, eccentrics, and adventurers would scour the globe for these lost artifacts.

Those who decipher the ancient writings know that the Shining Ones promised, or threatened, to return when summoned.

a space odyssey

The world that’s coming is a strange place, where everything from broadcast energy to brain transplants is commonplace.  Thinking machines match adult orphans with childless couples, while DIY sex-droids distract a restless populace from ecological and financial catastrophes.  Geopolitical super powers bellow and squawk in the tar pits of mutually assured nuclear armageddon.  International crises must be defused with preemptive precision.

The road charted by the Shining Ones in millennia gone by leads past miracles of the modern age, but appears to end in holocaust.  The bone begets the bomb—and the bombardier.  When the Space Program encounters undeniable evidence of the Shining Ones, will we at last transcend our patrimony, or will it drive us to the final cataclysm?

The line between man and machine blurs.  Is this triumph of a schizophrenic civilization our brother, our betrayer, or our bulwark against an intergalactic threat?

In the distant future, the Shining Ones have come and gone.  New species with only the dimmest recollection of man’s accomplishments prowl a world thrown into ruin.  Can this fate be avoided?

action! in a mystic realm!

Thinking this over, the closest analogue is maybe Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though in the future, and hopefully less sucky.  Or maybe The X Files done as pulp adventure rather than as suspense.

My instinct would be to set this in the World That’s Coming, the freaky future of 2001 as seen from the early 1970’s, populated by genetically modified super-cops sworn to non-violence, renegade robots, sinister lurking mutants, devious antiquarians, two-fisted astronauts, and a star-child or two.

One possibility: a tiny nation in equatorial Africa has been selected, after many tortuous rounds of United Nations bickering, as the site of the Space Elevator.  This development project promises riches beyond compare, but at great ecological risk.  The ruling prince, after securing the project, dies and now the nation is sinking into disarray as factions of the royal family scheme for advantage.  KGB and CIA agents parry each other, trying to dispel rumors of an eerie discovery on Mars, while unscrupulous adventurers scour the countryside looking for lost artifacts.

This needs to bake a little bit more: I suspect you’d have to focus on a little piece of the setting, and play it out for a while, and then make up some other guys doing some other thing elsewhere, and I’m also unsure if this would work better as a “party-based” thing or as a bunch of independent protagonists.  But there’s promise here.


kirbsday: o’ deadly darkseid

Last time, the warrior god Orion stormed the hell-planet Apokolips.  He rescued four human captives and took them to Earth, where he declared war against Darkseid and his sinister expeditionary forces–all in accordance with the Source’s prophecy.  How will Darkseid react?!

By straight chillin’.  But he unleashes that dude standing in the back there, Brola.


The hand of what?

The, uh, the . . . the Hand of Stone, which apparently is a hand holding a brick.  I want to stress that this is the biggest Darkseid scene thus far in the Fourth World: this is the scene where the mastermind sics Oddjob or Jaws on Bond and just leans back to watch.  But the crazy outer space henchman Brola, taking on a “mad, cosmic animal,” is armed with a cattle prod and a sandy, crumbly-looking brick.   Brola, I’m sorry this fight didn’t work out; I have a cardboard tube with wrapping paper on it, maybe you can use it next time.

Darkseid leaves via “tele-ray” (he’d been waiting in the apartment of one of Orion’s new friends), and it is time for awkward dialogue.

Don’t look at me, James Nostack, for an explanation!  Maybe people in this town, Metropolis, like to speak about themselves in the third person with their full names, e.g. John Q. Public.  But then again, they’ve just been through an Apokolips brain-reader device, maybe they’re still a little woozy.

Speaking of which: more of the same scheme we saw in the current issue of Forever People.  Apparently Darkseid blew his budget on Desaad’s Fear Machine, and couldn’t afford a nice brick for Brola.

Meanwhile Orion uses his Mother Box device (he has one too, just like the Forever People and Mister Miracle) to project images into his pets’ new friends’ brains about the Apokolips invasion.  Then he is surprised that they are frightened out of their wits, and surmises Darkseid must have some sort of Fear Machine.  I think it’s a lucky coincidence.

Orion riding the Astro Force device…

yes of course

After Orion destroys the Fear Billboard, Darkseid reveals that he’s kind of high-strung about this whole thing.  Clearly Darkseid knows that Orion is his son, but Orion and poor Desaad haven’t figured it out yet.

assorted commentary

It’s a sad day when the best thing in a Kirby comic is cosmic hit-man with a brick for a hand.  Similar, of course, to Steel Hand from Mister Miracle 1.  As already noted, the villains’ scheme in this issue is almost identical to the plan in Forever People #2.  It’s not surprising these themes return: Kirby was contractually required to illustrate, write, and edit 15 pages per week, which is like doing 3 people’s jobs.  Charitably, it’s more like emphasis, or an undercurrent, rather than straight self-plagiarism.  It’s a shame that the economics of the industry obliged him to just grind this stuff out so fast: it’s a great product, but it would be even more impressive to see what he could do given all the time he wanted.

This issue is unusual for Kirby because it’s almost parodically formulaic.  In the early 1960’s, the classic Stan Lee super hero story had four acts:

  1. Establishing the threat plus character development for the hero
  2. Hero brashly encounters the threat and gets trounced (or it ends inconclusively)
  3. Hero receives exposition and additional character development
  4. A wiser hero triumphs over the threat

Here we’ve got the basic structure.  I omitted some exposition at the start of this issue where Kirby recaps the whole Apokolips / New Genesis war, and a scene where Lightray unsuccessfully begs High-Father to let him follow Orion to Earth, but otherwise this issue hews pretty close to the formula–there’s even this screeching halt as Orion sends mind-movies to advertise other comic books. Though this formula was used in practically every comic book Stan Lee ever plotted, it’s a little rare for Kirby.  Maybe he chose the structure because it’s an easy way to squeeze characterization in, early in an untested series.

But it’s sort of interesting that the character that’s being developed in those interstitial acts is the Fourth World setting in its own right.  Here’s a shot from early in the comic:

Apokolips is defined by industrial fire-pits the size of continents, around which flocks of demon-creatures swarm.  So obviously New Genesis is defined by a gumball twirly-go-round suspended from an enormous gantry.  As a vision of the New Jerusalem it fails to persuade, but I do wish people dressed like this.

speaking up for the human race

So what are we, Readers of Mule Abides, to make of Orion’s eagerly self-referential helpers, Victor Lanza, Claudia Shane, Harvey Lockman, and Dave Lincoln?  And that’s almost all the characterization we get for these guys.

Kirby’s first story for Timely Comics, Marvel’s predecessor, was “Mercury in the 20th Century,” in which the Roman god journeys to Earth to fight Hitler “that dark rascal Pluto.”  (Page of art and commentary here.)  It’s a theme Kirby turned to about twenty years later in The Mighty Thor, where the Norse god of thunder mingles with the Cold War and the Space Age, and would return to again with The Eternals in the late 70’s.  Ancient mythology banging up against the modern world; the sublime juxtaposed with the mundane; man against the very gods.  (We’ll see this, literally, in several months’ time.)

Kirby clearly loves that sublime, mythological dimension, but he seldom convinces me when engaging with the human half of the dichotomy.  Thor, back in those days, had an alter-ego as Donald Blake, and Blake, despite being a crippled surgeon who could transform himself into a Scandinavian god, was a pretty dull dude in his own right.  In the Thor comics, Asgard is a crazy dimension full of bloodthirsty rock trolls with their apocalypse machines bedecked with goat skulls who fight swashbuckling Teutonic warrior gods.  While Earth is, um, this cute nurse, and Avengers Mansion.  Blake’s hospital doesn’t even have a name.  Likewise The Eternals is long on backstory and exotic locations, but none of the regular humans are especially captivating: they’re basically passive observers.  Over in Jimmy Olsen, Jimmy himself has become relegated to a back-up character despite a strong start, and the Newsboy Legion are intermittently successful comic relief.

It’s tempting to say that Kirby felt obligated to talk about the human half of the gods-meet-humans premise but had little enthusiasm for it.  Maybe it was like eating your vegetables.  Obviously I think all of Kirby’s stuff is about the human condition, but it’s speaking through metaphor.  Addressing human frailty directly–dealing with household finances or emotional insecurities, the way Lee and Ditko did in The Amazing Spider-Man, or say the way Will Eisner did in The Spirit–apparently wasn’t a natural topic for Kirby’s creativity.  Look at Kirby’s favorite Marvel characters: the Thing is an ornery dude who gets transformed into a monster, unable to have a normal life–which he mourns, but at least it leaves him with plenty of time to clobber stuff.  And Captain America, a living fossil who in the mid-60’s found peacetime far more unsettling than anything the super villains ever threw at him.

shouldn’t you have some gaming stuff in this post?

Yes, but I’ll break it into its own post later today.

Seriously, Grant Morrison: I want a 6 issue mini-series about Brola, whose power is the shock-prod and the hand of stone.  People can’t leave MODOK alone, but Brola is just sitting there languishing, trying to choose what to take on his next mission, a pair of blunted children’s scissors or a boffer sword, patiently waiting for the phone to ring…

Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2020

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