Friday, June 28, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read: The Persecution and Restoration of Scott Free

I think the best part of Kirby's Fourth World Saga is the arc revealing the events leading up to the current war between New Genesis and Apokopolips that begins in New Gods #7 (1971) and culminates in Mister Miracle #9 (1972). It is not really the story of a warrior, but rather that of a man who runs away from war. Scott Free is an escape artist, and what he wants to escape is others defining who he is.

Izaya the Highfather may have given his only begotten son to avoid war with New Genesis, but we see little in the way of paternal affection toward that son even after his escape. Indeed, both rulers are in a very real sense more fatherly toward the boy they fostered than the one that is actually their kin. It's Darkseid, the horrifically authoritarian parent, that seems to want Scott Free on his team and gives him a pitch like Darth Vader gave to Luke:

Perhaps Scott Free is genetically or spiritually predisposed toward goodness, but it's Himon, the inventor hiding in the slums of Apokolips, a benevolent serpent in Darkseid's anti-Eden, that puts him on the path away from being a cog in the Apokolips war machine. Himon helps him make his first and perhaps greatest escape. And that's what he does. And that's what he keeps doing.

If the new gods are actually gods, well, Mister Miracle would be the sort classified as a dying-and-rising deity, like Adonis or Tammuz--or Jesus. He's sent to Hell as an infant but escapes not to return to the Heaven of New Genesis but to go to Earth. His career (and comic) become about ritually recapitulating this act, escaping death again and again.

Scott Free in Kirby's stories is not an active participant in the gods' war. Steve Gerber, the second writer to follow Kirby on the Mister Miracle title makes explicit what Kirby only implies: Scott Free has a vision of the warring gods as racers going round and round a track. To join in is to be stuck in the loop. Scott Free's destiny, this story tells us, is to become a messiah and offer a different way. This messianic element is certainly not explicit in Kirby's issues; on the other hand, Scott Free recruits Big Barda to his defection, and she in turn brings along the Female Furies. He also gets a disciple in the form of Shilo Norman. His stage name proclaims his wondrous nature: Mister Miracle.

We'll never know where Kirby's Mister Miracle might have done, ultimately. The summer of 1972 saw the end of Kirby's run on two of his Fourth World titles, Forever People and New Gods with their 11th issues. Mister Miracle escaped their fate for a few more issues, but most aspects of Kirby's wider mythology were dropped from the title, in favor of more off-beat superheroics of the sort Kirby would bring to Captain America and Falcon and Black Panther upon his return to Marvel. Since that time, Mister Miracle, like all the New Gods characters have been stuck in that loop Gerber warned about, cycling toward different creators' visions of their Neo-Ragnarok.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read (part 4)

The story in New Gods #7 reveals the pact that had maintained a truce between New Genesis and Apokolips and the origins of Orion and Scott Free, infants exchanged to be raised on worlds not their own. Orion became a warrior for good, albeit one constantly challenged by his nature. Scott Free was given over to Granny Goodness to be trained to conformity, perhaps to become another cog in the Apokolips machine, except that his nature wins out and he escapes. Mister Miracle #7 (1971) has Scott and Barda return to Apokolips to face the horrors of their upbringing and its architect.

The social order of Apokolips is a little hard to fathom. On one hand, we are shown Granny's fascist training camp orphan where conformity and submersion of individuality is all important. On the other hand, the villains from Apokolips bedeviling the heroes of the Fourth World titles are a diverse, even eccentric, lot. It's unclear how many of the villains we see are a product of Granny's tutelage, but certainly Virmin Vundabar and at least some of the Female Furies seem to be.

I suspect some of the Apokolipsians (Doctor Bedlam, Desaad, Kanto) are products of the older, aristocratic society of Steppenwolf and Heggra that Darkseid has transformed into a fascist state. The others are probably the most "successful" graduates of Granny's schooling. These strong-willed enough to retain some individuality, while still being conditioned for Darkseid's service. This presumably is the outcome Darkseid intended for Scott Free. Unless the irony of the son of High Father being merely a faceless grunt in his army appealed to him. This seems unlikely to me, because Darkseid seems more calculating than pointlessly cruel.

Mister Miracle #7 gives us our most extended look yet at the hell that is Apokolips. It's an armed camp emblazoned with grim, fascistic slogans. Workers are dressed something like a combination of Medieval serfs and German work camp prisoners. Here, they're attacked by Kanto, an assassin who looks like he grabbed his style from the Italian Rennaissance. He's a man of honor after a fashion. He let's Free and Barda go out of respect. His sort of evil is out of place in the more mechanized, modern Apokolips.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read (part 3)

I had intended to talk about Mister Miracle #6 and Funky Flashman this week, but instead I read Forever People #8 (on sale February 1972), and I feel like that better encapsulates the oddness of what Kirby was doing with the Fourth World saga.

There is a lot going on in this issue. A man known as Billion-Dollar Bates lives out in the desert with a barrier and deserted town guarded by para-military private security. He's involved with a Satanic cult called "The Sect" who has a ritual space beneath his mansion and wears weird looking masks. He's holding a group of prominent citizens against their will with some "power."

If that isn't enough, someone is infiltrating Bates' compound, wearing the masks of the Sect, and killing his guards. Then the Forever People show up.

Ultimately, we discover that Bates (like time-lost Sonny Sumo) has the "Anti-Life Equation," the innate ability to control minds. Unlike the virtuous Sumo, who worried about ever using the power, Bates has made himself wealth and powerful--and still has the desire to gloat to others about his deeds. It ends badly for him:

The infiltrators are Darkseid and his minions. And accident keeps Darkseid from the Anti-Life Equation: bullets through Bates. This is the second time Kirby has introduced the Equation in the flesh, and the second time he takes it off the table. Presumably he feels if it's ever here to stay he's reached the climax of his story.

With his ribbon tie, big cigar, and jowled face, Mister Bates is a rich man caricature. His very name hints at the self-gratifying nature of his use of the power and the way he has lived his life. He also fancied himself a "wheeler dealer," he tells his captives, but then the Sect revealed the true nature of his power. His life blessings almost literally derive from Satan.

The weirdest thing in this issue is, when confronted with the Forever People, Darkseid starts sort of playing drill sergeant and lines them up to berate them. Later Darkseid reveals it was a ruse to throw the Forever People off-guard, suggesting he fears them a bit. It's not at all how Darkseid is portrayed in the modern DCU.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read (part 2): Boat to Glory

One thing that virtually all of the continuations of the Fourth World saga by other hands seem to miss is that it isn't just a superhero action epic, but like all good mythologies, there are things going on beneath the surface.

New Gods #6 (on sale in October of 1971), continues Orion's struggle against the Deep Six, a group of Apokiliptian fishmen with the ability to mutate other lifeforms. They are not the best villains of the saga by any means, but Kirby uses them in issue 5 to reveal things about Orion, and in this issue, "Glory Boat!" to tell an allegorical story about war and its human cost.

The setup is almost Biblical. A great sea creature recalling Leviathan and all the primeval, Chaos monsters of the depths, a family, emblematic of humanity as a whole: the bellicose and overbearing father, the "conscientious objector" son, and the daughter who doesn't get to do much between the two's bickering. God of war Orion also has someone to play off here, his friend, Lightray, embodying the enlightenment of New Genesis.

Where Orion's instinct is to destroy his foes, Lightray strives to show a better way, to rehabilitate. He succeeds in transforming one of the Deep Six's creatures into the service of our heroes. Unfortunately, for the humans, the Deep Six are drawn back to the boat.

The father freezes, having some sort of breakdown when confronted with the creatures. The son, the peacenik, goes on the offensive, attacking the Apokoliptian Jafar. Jafars kills him, mutating his face into that of a featureless, metallic mannequin. Lightray opines that the war has taken "another faceless hero."

Lashed to the mast, the father bears witness to what is to come.  Orion and Lightray take the son's body and launch themselves into a possibly final attack against the remaining Deep Three, in an epic two page spread.

But Lightray and Orion are not destined for some Neo-Vahalla just yet. The boy goes "to the Source" and the New Gods live to fight another day. The father, still on the mast amid the wreckage of the ship is left to wonder (as Kirby tells us): "What is a man in the last analysis--his philosophy or himself?"

It's heavy-handed perhaps, but no more so than work of the writers that would come to be seen as seminal figures of the 70s leading the "maturation" of comics.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Notes from A Fourth World Re-read

Back during the pandemic, I realized I had not read the entirety of Jack Kirby's run on his so-called "Fourth World" titles at DC in the 1970s (Forever People, Mister Miracle,  and New Gods, and ok, it starts in Jimmy Olsen, but I'm not reading that) since the black and white collections of 1999, so it seemed like a good time to revisit the series. I did that in a haphazard fashion, and these are the notes I made at the time...

These titles were supposedly an attempt to write a new mythology for the modern age, an idea Kirby had had at Marvel, but never got to execute. The titles are interrelated but not strongly interlinked (not unlike Morrison's Seven Soldiers over 30 years later). Last night I read Mister Miracle #3 and 4 both published in 1971.

Mister Miracle tells the story of Scott Free, a man from another world, who befriends, and then assumes the stage persona of an aging escape artist known as Mister Miracle. While Free's athletic and escape abilities are impressive, he accomplishes most of his escapes by using advanced alien technology. Scott Free is being hunted by agents of the planet Apokolips. So far, we've seen their human, organized crime agents, Intergang, and the monstrous orphanage matron, Granny Goodness.

Issue #3 introduces us to Doctor Bedlam. Bedlam is a being of pure thought, and very malign thought at that. His psychic assault upon Mister Miracle and his assistant, Oberon, is almost Satanic (or maybe Outer God-like) in intensity--only Free's "Mother Box" device protects them.

Bedlam draws Free into a trap in an office building. After a confrontation with what is essentially an android body possessed by Bedlam, Free must make his way through 50 floors of people turned into violent suffers of psychosis by Bedlam's "paranoia pills."

Bedlam is a great concept, particularly within the Apokolipsian pantheon, who all are some sort of aspect of oppression. His name comes from the nickname of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, which at one time represented the most frightening and dehumanizing aspects of mental asylums. Bedlam seems a personification of the snake pit asylum. He is almost literal madness in human form, or rather in the form of a number of faceless automata--suggesting the evil of systems, not individual actors.

Free's escape through 50 stories is likewise a great story conceit that would work well today. The choice of a single office building and an urban setting as opposed to some sort of small town or even city street, seems to suggest the deleterious mental effects of corporate employment, or maybe the paranoia induced by office politics. It's not hard to see Kirby's experiences at Marvel as informing these choices.

As good as it all is, Kirby seems to have a dilemma as to how to deal with the amazing feats of his super-escape artist. The "trick" of the last three of Mister Miracle's daring escapes are related to Oberon as he and Scott make dinner, and all involve the use of one really versatile device. Oberon's response seems to sort of lampshade the shakiness of it all:

The other weak spot is a couple of panels of Big Barda (who is introduced this issue). Perhaps is was the inker (Vince Colletta) that let him down, but I suspect being a one-man band essentially on some many titles just sometimes led to him being rushed.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Despite the attention lavished on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and even Star Trek or the Alien universe, I feel like the science fiction franchise most consistent in quality is the Planet of the Apes. Sure, it's not without its duds (Burton's film) and lesser lights (the last original film, the cartoon, perhaps), but the Wyatt/Reeves reboot?/prequel? series of the 2010s defied sequel gravity and only got better as it went along. (To me, anyway. Some would say Dawn was the high point. Either way, War was still good.)

When Reeves left and Disney acquired Fox, I had some trepidation about where the series would go. Happily, it seems like Wes Ball has things well enough in hand, at least with this first installment. While it's not as good as the best of the 2010s series, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes was more enjoyable and more substantial than any other existing-franchise entry I've seen in the theater since the end of the pandemic--though perhaps that's damning with faint praise.

Anyway, it's "many generations" after the time of Caesar. He has become a mythic/religious figure. His name is borrowed. and his legacy evoked by an up-and-coming bonobo tyrant who (like King Louie in the Jungle Book) wants the technology of humankind. He needs (ape) slave labor to get it at it and a mysterious, young human woman, so when he captures Noa's village and kills his father, the young chimpanzee makes common cause with the human. 

There are hints of Beneath of the Planet of the Apes in here, and (perhaps unintentional, perhaps not) Biblical echoes with a hero named "Noa," but those are as they should be with an ape installment. The special effects are amazing, and it makes me mad the Marvel Cinematic Universe films often seem sloppy. I guess when your whole premise requires motion capture, you have to get that thing right.

I miss Andy Serkis here like everybody else, but he trained the new cast of apes well. It probably could have been a bit shorter, particularly for a film that is a lot about establishing a new conflict, but I'm not immediately sure what I would have cut.

All that to say, if you liked the previous ape films you should see this one. If you haven't seen any of the new apes films (which lately I've discovered a large group of folks that haven't) then you should see those and see this one.

You can also check out the watch and commentary Jason "Operation Unfathomable" Sholtis and I did of the much less good but still entertaining 70s Planet of the Apes TV show.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: The Brave and the Bold vol 1 #200

Brave & the Bold vol 1 #200

Cover Date: July 1983
On Sale Date: April 21, 1983
Editor Len Wein
Cover Artists Jim Aparo, Anthony Tollin

Story Title:  "Smell of Brimstone, Stench of Death!"
Penciller: Dave Gibbons
Writer: Mike W. Barr
Inker: Gary Martin
Letterer: Dave Gibbons, Gaspar Saladino
Colorist: Adrienne Roy

Trey: This comic was the end of the road for The Brave and the Bold, a series that started in 1955. It was initially an anthology book of adventure strips featuring the likes of the Silent Knight, the Viking Prince, the Golden Gladiator, and Robin Hood, but with issue 25 it got a makeover as a "try out" book for new concepts/characters. The original Suicide Squad got their start here, as did the Silver Age Hawkman, and then in #28 a little group you may have heard debuted: The Justice League of America.

With issue #50, it became a team-up title, and with issue #74, exclusively a Batman team-up book. The title was the first to feature Neal Adams on Batman and the place where Adams' redesign of Green Arrow debuted.

I didn't know any of that stuff when I read this issue as a kid, though. What captivated me about this issue was this was the first place I was exposed to the idea of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Here was a Batman and Robin that acted like the ones I was used to in the cartoon, and then this darker, serious (and somehow sadder to 10 year-old me due to his Robin-lessness) other Batman.

Jason: The contrast between the golden age pastiche and the state-of-the-art early 80s Batman (and the Earths portrayed here is stark, both in style and substance. I felt a pang that the kinder, gentler, zanier Batman of old depicted here was by this time no longer available in the comics. The Earth-Two stories I remember from the Adventure Comics a handful of years before this were as modern and "adult" as anything else on the stands at the time. Earth-Two Batman was already officially, canonically "dead", at least as much as can be managed in the comics!

Trey: In the main story, Earth-Two Nicholas Lucien is a B-grade villain with a devil gimmick who is defeated by Batman and Robin and put into a long coma by a head injury. He revives 28 years later in Arkham to find himself an old man, and Batman dead and thus beyond his vengeance.  Unwilling to accept this, he mentally reaches out to that other him he always sensed existed, a respectable businessman on Earth-One. He essentially possesses that version of himself to execute a terroristic plan to lure Earth-One Batman into a trap and kill him.

And then, there was a preview for a brand new comic! Batman and the Outsiders. New comics with a whole slate of new (some just to me, some completely new) characters. That was not the sort of thing that happened every day, in my experience.

Jason: Indeed! With no generic filler or reprints, this special double-size issue delivers bang for the buck admirably, especially for its era.

Trey: The main story isn't as mindblowing as I found it to be as a child, but I still think it's a good one, in no small part to Gibbons shifting art styles for Earth-One and Earth-Two. I also think Brimstone as a good central motif for a Batman villain and could have been used more, though I do like the implication that Golden Age Gotham might have been awash in theatrical criminal wannabes and almost-wases. I also think it's a nice twist that the so-called World's Greatest Detective never knows what exactly was going on here.

Jason: The opening pastiche sets the tone for the level of realism one is to expect from this incarnation of the Caped Crusader. By the time we're asked to swallow the whole possession from another, more cartoony reality angle, the premise seems perfectly reasonable in the context of this tale and we need not ask questions. The Golden Age sequence was delightful, and the incrementally more sober Late Bronze Age sequence delivered as well.

Gibbons turns in a hell of a job here. His trademark precision and beautifully rendered backgrounds, his eye for meaningful details (one of the hoods' cartoony cauliflower ear, etc.), and his ability to present multiple styles that transition seamlessly elevate this work and render harmless any flaws in the story. It's an early career tour de force, I tell you!

Trey: It's also billed as a Batman and Batman team-up, but the two Batmen never meet.

Jason: The cover is nebulous enough to fit within the ethical standards of comics of the day. It doesn't actually guarantee anything. Never trust a cover, as the savvy spinner-rack devotee of 1983 already knew!


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