Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Kirby's Fourth World

A hundred years ago this week, Jack Kirby was born; it is striking to observe the medium of superhero comics begin to approach its own century mark, something that Kirby and his contemporaries brought about in their early adulthood. In an earlier post, I discussed Kirby's first work at DC, taking over the existing Jimmy Olsen title. Here, I break down Kirby's three original titles that presented his Fourth World.

Kirby's Fourth World work is a case study in extremes. Kirby came to DC from Marvel with a gigantic reputation and a new vision to match. DC practically could not debut his new work fast enough; he was first given control of the poorly selling Jimmy Olsen title. Kirby's ideas expanded in the three new titles he was allowed to launch: Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. In the span of his first few months (and issues), he introduced numerous characters who have been, individually and collectively, among the most enduring in DC's history. This is a remarkable achievement, and one that virtually no other creator has approached or matched.

And yet, this splendid body of work failed to thrive. The original work itself is not widely read / republished proportional to its creative power, and in its own time was not embraced. None of Kirby's three original titles caught on and two were cancelled before reaching their twelfth issue – an ignominious sign that would normally be interpreted as failure. There is some controversy regarding the reasons for this, whether it was outright disappointing sales, unrealistic expectations, or something else, but amid the brilliance and creativity there is a scattered, unhinged nature to the work itself that asks a lot of the reader's attention. Kirby's original Fourth World work has many qualities of a cult work – adored by a few devotees, but not loved or even liked very much by the masses.

The central fact of the Fourth World is an almost perfect division into two parts, one good and one evil. Two worlds exist opposite one another in both physical space and morality. The good world, New Genesis, is named after a beginning and the first book of the Bible. The evil world, Apokolips, is named after the last book of the Bible (alongside the more popular name in English, "Revelation," are alternate names involving the word "Apocalypse"). Those books, in turn, are not the beginning and end in terms of mere page order, but in terms of a narration of the human race itself, describing its origin and its annihilation. These names alone say a great deal about the Fourth World – the strict binary division, generous inspiration from classical and Judeo-Christian culture, and religious overtones.

Kirby's three new titles, while centered on different characters, also offered different kinds of dynamics. The Forever People acted as one unit, very much like Kirby's jovial, wonderous Hairies from Jimmy Olsen, and though they had distinctive names and appearance, they didn't have much characterization to distinguish one from the other. Fittingly, they were capable of unifying physically into one, nigh-unbeatable hero (though the metaphysical explanation was that they simply switched places with the Infinity Man rather than became him). This was a fitting tribute to the Youth Movement of the time, with a group of individuals becoming more powerful when they acted together. The Forever People's time on Earth memorably began with a guest-starring role by Superman in which his yearning to know other super-people was so evocative that the story earned a place in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told.

New Gods centered on Orion, who went to Earth and formed a small squadron of ordinary people to aid him in his battle against the forces of Apokolips. Subtle hints from the beginning led up to a dramatic and brilliant revelation in flashback that a secret pact between Izaya and Darkseid had them exchange their young sons so that neither of them could tolerate what would otherwise be an all-encompassing destructive war between them.

Among Kirby's Fourth World titles, Mister Miracle was the only one to last more than 11 issues, but it too was short-lived, ending after issue #18. Scott Free, the son of Highfather and raised by Darkseid in the trade with Orion, lives a heroic life on Earth, alternately performing as an escape artist and fighting for his life against various plots launched from his home world of Apokolips. Along the way, he befriends Oberon and begins a romance with Big Barda. Maybe this title outlived the others because Mister Miracle more closely resembled a conventional DC superhero. Maybe it's because he really was the greatest escape artist.

Not long after Kirby's titles were canceled, his Fourth World creations resurfaced in other writers' work, in memorable Justice League and Legion of Super-Heroes stories, a revival series penned by Gerry Conway, a key role in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and many times thereafter, including various animated features, Cosmic Odyssey, the post-Byrne Superman titles, Grant Morrison's mid-2000s work including Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis, the New 52, and soon enough in the upcoming Justice League movie.

Despite the conceptual symmetry, the Fourth World's good and evil beings have endured in different ways. Kirby's three titles were all named for good characters – the Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle – but the most compelling creation of this work is Darkseid, the central evil character. Generally speaking, Darkseid looms large in each title, sending different underlings in various plotlines to menace good people on Earth who are associated with the good New Gods. The overall effect is a stalemate, with the good characters winning almost all of the battles, which serves to neutralize one evil plan after another. In this regard, Fourth World stories are not unlike prototypical superhero comics.

The Fourth World came to belong to DC for contractual reasons, but it easily could have been Marvel's or even some other company's had one business relationship or another turned out differently. Creatively, the Fourth World wasn't very well tailored to fit into the DC Universe. The neo-mythological realm of the New Gods didn't span a Multiverse so much as it endlessly involved plots on Earth (which usually means the United States). Like the deities of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, the New Gods have a privileged relationship with Earth and it is little explained why, in a DC universe with countless civilized worlds, the New Gods are so transfixed with Earth as opposed to Rann, Thanagar, Oa, Daxam, etc. But obsessed with Earth they are. Darkseid has agents at work on Earth, searching for the Anti-Life Equation, but also doing evil for its own sake. Numerous members of the New Gods migrate to Earth and still others are shamelessly obsessed with its culture – cowboy movies, Prussian militarism, the Italian Renaissance, and more. Pragmatically speaking, the characters are obviously intrigued by these things because Kirby was intrigued by them, and they don't cite Thanagarian culture because it never existed. Later writers build on Kirby's slight hints that Earth is a particularly important planet as when Grant Morrison developed the plot line by which the Fourth World came to an end and the Fifth World began on Earth – a suitable backstory explaining their obsession with that one planet out of billions. And so, the New Gods – good and evil ones alike – readily obsess over terrestrial culture and the narrative is richer for it.

Kirby created a new mythology, with the various royal families and their followers engaged in a neverending war akin to similar epics in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies as well as the Bible, and akin in other respects to historical struggles between royal families. Darkseid and his following is explicitly patterned on Hitler and the Nazis. Kirby also choose names that pun so bluntly that one must wonder why characters in the story don't give pause frequently to point out the heavy-handed reference to inspirations such as "dark side" and apocalypse, Isaiah and Genesis, the Marquis de Sade, and unapologetic references to figures of speech and Earth culture such as the constellation Orion, the distinctly British phrase "scot-free," the Greek letter omega, and perhaps the biggest groaner of a pun of all – an evil team of underwater beings called the Deep Six. The "Fourth World" is an evocative phrase, inspiring curiosity as to what went before, not only the old gods before this generation but – apparently – two other generations before that; Kirby chose the name by extending the then-common term "Third World" to suggest that his inventions transcend reality in uncanny ways.

However much Kirby provided a big vision that spanned his four titles, the most apparent motif in his work is his wild inventiveness. Virtually every issue contains at least one new character who is weird and worth revisiting. The Fourth World concept allows Kirby to pile up great heaps of science fiction, technology, myth, magic, and mystery in his new characters. He is equally inventive in creating vehicles, disembodied concepts like the Anti-Life Equation and Omega Effect, making almost every issue entertaining to the point of disorienting the reader with a lack of certainty regarding what might happen next.

As an example of this, one Kirby trait is to end an issue with a cliffhanger, usually in the form of expository dialogue by a character in the story or expository text in a caption. But not all cliffhangers are equal. The typical cliffhanger in the 1966 Batman television series showed Batman and Robin in some elaborate death trap, from which they inevitably escaped at the beginning of the next episode. This plot device is notoriously formulaic, and is found even in many of the better comics and other forms of serial storytelling. Kirby's cliffhangers were different, often creating a threat whose true nature was unknown and even unguessable. Darkseid himself was created as such a cliffhanger, which hints at the magnitude and richness of Kirby's inventiveness.

What does Orion face? It has destroyed a god–and threatens the entire Earth! Don't miss SPAWN

What kind of world is it–that spawns gods of evil and lesser beings with horribly hostile hang-ups!!!?? You've seen some of its nasty products!! Now, come along with Scott Free and Big Barda!!–And take a fearful glimpse of– THE APOKOLIPS TRAP!!

It is Desaad's own little domain on Earth–A pilot project of purgatory–where torment is conputer–death is controlled–and escape impossible! Don't miss–Kingdom of the DAMNED!

Besides promising, and delivering, unguessable surprises, cliffhangers show another distinctive Kirby trait: unbridled, and shamelessly promotional hyperbole. Religious overtones and vocabulary of death and destriction permeate the text. Throughout the text of his stories, hyperbole is piled on top of hyperbole, and if I were to offer a fond parody, it would go something like:

To even attempt to imagine surviving the futility of meeting someone who would dare merely to contemplate speaking the name of Darkseid is sheer folly!

Of course, these words have to be backed up action, and Kirby no less than any comic creator offers scenes and entire issues packed with almost incomprehensible kinetic smorgasbords of punches, ray gun blasts, explosions, tumbles, and all sort of superpowers emanating from the hands, eyes, and minds of his characters. The human characters were no less bold, as one issue was devoted to the reckless heroism of normal human cop Dan "Terrible" Turpin going up against malefactors from Apokolips.

This disorienting quality is probably what made his work a cult classic – readers used to the more typically formulaic stories in other superhero titles probably found less of the strident heroism and more need to follow plot details than they were used to, and it would take an older reader to appreciate some of the cultural subtext, while the black-and-white morality of the concept offered less subtlety that such readers might enjoy. The Fourth World was for a particular kind of reader and those readers seemed not to be very numerous.

My comic-reading life began just months after Kirby's titles ceased publication. A few years later, I picked up the revival of New Gods scripted by Gerry Conway and found it memorably unsuited to my tastes. I wasn't aware then of what I see now, that this was the result of a new creative team trying to fill in for a master of his craft. Conway was a very good writer; he produced some of the best parts of the JLA Satellite Era, but DC's star superheroes have been the subjects of good stories from countless different writers. Kirby's work was different, and what makes it stand out is his distinctive style, not the greateness of his characters and his inventions. Many years later, as Final Crisis loomed, I went back and read Kirby's original Fourth World works for the first time, to understand better the villains at the heart of that story. Rarely have I felt so appreciative of the quality and originality of older material, and I now regard it a bit audacious for later writers to use Kirby's characters, because the difference between his handling of them and theirs is so readily apparent. And so, on the hundredth anniversary of Kirby's birth, I bid the great King Kirby a "thank you" from back down here on Earth. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dark Matter, Dark Multiverse

Galaxies Spin Faster Than We Can Explain
One of the things making superheroes different from ancient myths is the use of modern science – of course, not real science, but a fictional or misconstrued version of it – to explain the source of superheroes and supervillains powers and weapons. The first page of the first superhero story devotes some space to "explain" how the facts of insect strength make it plausible that a super-man could exist. Batman and Robin, back in the Forties, had communication devices resembling modern cellphones. The "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum physics likely helped inspire the Earth Two (and, later, Multiverse) concocted by Gardner Fox and other creators. Antimatter helped inspire Qward and the Anti-Monitor. Radium and heavy water were used to explain kryptonite, the Flash's super speed, and various other things. The various Flashes use Einstein's theory of special relativity. Final Crisis mentions a graviton superhighway. Comic book pseudoscience draws upon real science– frequently newer and more speculative science, the results that have not been explained or understood completely. Dark Nights: Metal is the latest to forge a new connection between cutting-edge science and the comics.

Way back in 1940, when Flash Comics #1 debuted some of the first science-based superheroes to follow Superman, Hawkman's power of flight was said to depend upon the use of "ninth metal." Presumably, the first eight were those metals known to the ancients, which did indeed number approximately, if not exactly, eight (copper, tin, lead, iron, gold, silver, antimony, and mercury). By the time 1940 rolled around, the periodic table had dozens of metals, but the ancient Egyptian setting of Hawkman's pre-reincarnation origin made eight a more plausible number, and so one could imagine that some unknown, undiscovered metal would have unique new properties. The fictional ninth metal in the Hawk-universe, with anti-gravity powers and various bio-enhancements, is considerably more interesting than whatever the actual ninth metal to be discovered was (possibly bismuth, platinum, or nickel, depending on the source). As comic book science caught up with the real world post-1940, someone realized that "ninth" metal was discovered a long time ago and so the number ought to be bumped to the vague, but similar-sounding "nth." This substance is due to play a starring role in Dark Nights: Metal, and its already-impressive list of properties is certain to grow.

The (pseudo)scientific surprise in Metal #1 was the notion of the dark multiverse being something based on the (seemingly) real scientific phenomenon known as dark matter. Dark matter is real, or at least it's a serious proposition that it may be real.

A realization that goes back to Isaac Newton is that the paths of bodies in space are predictable given their masses and initial positions and motion. If you watch bodies in space move for a while, you can figure out their masses. This was applied to the solar system and worked like a charm. But as soon as someone tried to apply it to galaxies, the results came out strange, seeming to indicate that galaxies were heavier than the number and size of stars in them would indicate. In the 1880s, this was noticed in our galaxy. In 1933, the same year that Jerry Siegel published his first character named Superman, it was noticed in other galaxies. At first, scientists figured that whatever they were missing would eventually be found, but 130 years later, there's still no answer. There have been plenty of ideas, but for one reason or another, none of them work. The stars we can see don't weigh enough. Clouds of dust and gas would glow softly in infrared. Scientists even came up with one idea if the dark matter came in big lumps heavier than the Sun (MACHOs = massive, compact halo objects) and another if they were tiny subatomic particles (WIMPs = weakly interactive massive particles). As of 2017, the explanations for dark matter fall into two categories: Disproven or Inconclusive. We still don't know what dark matter is. Along the way, there have been suggestions that dark matter may not exist at all, and maybe something else that we think is true is actually false. Maybe gravity works differently than we think. All speculative. Nobody knows.

But here's why dark matter is such a big mystery: If dark matter exists, there's a lot of it. Really a lot. It's not that we have a universe with regular matter and dark matter is a little something extra on the side. Dark matter outweighs regular matter considerably, by a ratio of 5.5 to 1. However much you weigh, there are five and a half yous worth of dark matter out there somewhere. The universe is mainly dark matter. Well, unless you count something else called dark energy, which adds up to even more than the dark matter. If you add up the mass-energy together, the dark stuff is 19.4 times as much as the regular matter we're made of. For every you, there are nineteen and a half dark yous. Granted, real science speculates that this is probably not grouped into things like you, but we really don't know how it's composed or arranged.

This little science lesson impacts the story as follows. Remember back in a little crossover called Crisison Infinite Earths when we had an infinite number of matter dimensions and one antimatter dimension? Well, there's a real physics tidbit behind that. In our universe, there really is a lot of matter and, so far as we know, only a tiny bit of antimatter. On paper, they are equal and in some ways opposite, but out there in space, matter is enormously more common.

So, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, in invoking a dark multiverse, aren't just paraphrasing a couple of sentences from a science magazine into their story. They're setting up this dark (and hostile) thing up to be something big, bigger than whatever our heroes and their multiverse have to throw against it. As Kendra Saunders explains briefly in Metal #1, "Dark matter and dark energy actually make up the great majority of our universe."

So, credit the Metal creators with this: They have followed a long tradition of drawing upon real science as the basis for comic book pseudoscience, and will probably educate readers at least a bit along the way. But for now, the more striking thing is the implication that Kendra's speech balloon introduced and this post explains in more detail – this promises to be the biggest threat that has been introduced yet. At least, if we measure threats in kilograms. Suffice it to read their intention: This thing is big and bigger than our heroes. Unlike the Injustice Gang, unlike the Joker, or Sinestro, Bizarro, the Antimonitor, or the Crime Syndicate, the bad guys in this story aren't going to be like our heroes' dark doubles, but as something much bigger, stronger, and more numerous. Wish them well.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017 film)

Once upon a time, superhero movies came along less than once per year. Nowadays, the annual output approaches ten, and the superhero genre has gotten into somewhat of a groove – for better or for worse. The skilled creators who make these movies have learned various formulas that have been proven to succeed. One may particularly note that Marvel has a good track record over a decade of producing mainly good, and occasionally very good movies. DC has been more erratic in its offerings, and perhaps it is the resistance to mere formula that allowed DC to score an original win with 2017's headliner, Wonder Woman.

The first thing that distinguishes Wonder Woman from the vast majority of other superhero movies is apparent in the title's second word, and this word and identity also distinguished the 1941 comic hero from almost all of her dozen-and-some predecessors. The star is a woman – clearly a break from the norm for superhero movies with a single, central star – but is that all there is to it, one chromosome of difference, or does it mean something? If so, is it because she is typical in some way of real women, or because of how the character is developed?

As I recently commented, Wonder Woman has been subjected to many new origins and reboots in recent years – more than one quite good one – which makes it an immediate challenge for any added version, cinematic or otherwise, to do something new. But director Patty Jenkins and the rest of her team succeeded. Or, if they didn't do anything completely new, they did something that breaks the pattern of lots of pretty-good but increasingly formulaic superhero movies.

The need for this is apparent. Deadpool lashed out against the conventions in one way: Its (anti)hero disposes with traditional superhero virtues in exchange for cynicism, humor, self-deprecation, and selective verisimilitude. He could easily, without superpowers, star in a remake of Animal House (in fact, he did; it was called Van Wilder). Deadpool laughs at the superhero conventions of virtue while dealing up a lot of action. When he is injured – even when a limb is severed from his body – he barely flinches and plays the moment with deadpan comedy.

Wonder Woman does something almost completely opposite. She believes in her heroic destiny, completely without reservation. She is noble and idealistic and stubborn and absolutely nothing throws her off her game.

If there is one scene that stays in the viewer's memory, it is probably her initial display of power in man's world, and the script picked a hell of a place for her to show it – on a World War One battlefield. As the less popular of the world wars, its savagery is probably less in the collective mind than is that of its sequel, but the trench warfare of the First World War put human fragility on display in a definitive sense. We can picture World War Two soldiers swaggering through the European countryside during a break in hostilities, ambling through some fields on the war to the next battle, but the No Man's Land on the Western Front of the earlier war allowed no human dignity. And so, there was no better place than No Man's Land to introduce Wonder Woman. Holding her shield against a rain of hot metal, Diana was everything the rest of the moment was not. Color where there was no color, strength where there was no strength, life where there was no life, a woman where all others were men. Her steady movement forward into the firepower of the enemy is likely the film's central image.

But a series of non-action, staid, talky scenes may do more to cement the film's uniqueness. In London and in Belgium, she's in completely unfamiliar territory surrounded by Steve Trevor's team of flawed and gray-moraled men. Both as witness to and object of their moral failings, she is completely unaltered by their weakness, their avarice, and their clumsy advances on her. She is completely inflexible in her morality, but she does not use her powers to win the argument. Before the film is over, she has made each of them, in some way, a better man than he was when she met them. She easily could have picked them up and spun them over her head until they bellowed for mercy, but that was not her way. Her primary contribution to Man's World was not to serve as a human tank on a battlefield but as a messenger of purer virtues.

And the credit there goes to Gal Gadot. She gave life to those values with the power sincerity. We've heard lesser actors read similar lines off a card in a bland
and perfunctory way, but she means them, or does an impeccable job of seeming to. Gadot is a former beauty pageant winner who also served two years as a soldier. Remarkably, she seems to have brought the best of each of those identities to her performance.

Wonder Woman's – and Gadot's – unbridled idealism is not new in superhero movies. It occurs in flashes here and there in all the better movies of the genre. To make the characters more subtle, more nuanced, they are more complex than noble. In many respects, that makes them better movie characters. It makes them worse heroes.

The last time we saw an actor bring a superhero to life with such unflagging idealism was Christopher Reeve's Superman. That series, to add some complexity, spent some time in the third film showing him as a red-kryptonite-forged Bad Superman. But even the Reeve Superman (though not his Clark Kent) had a mean streak, a whisper of sadistic pleasure, directed solely at wrongdoers, as when he made a building-scaling cat burglar fear a deadly fall, when he beat up the jerk trucker who beat up Clark Kent, and when he pretended to be powerless and crushed Zod's hand in a theatrical taunt. Henry Cavill's Superman is more consistently noble than Reeve's, probably at his ugliest when he tells Jonathan Kent that he isn't his father. His decision to kill Zod is the screenwriter's decision – a decision that the 1978 Superman never had to face, though the end of Superman II ­seemed to show him allowing the deaths of the three Kryptonian villains (a shot showing their survival was cut from the theatre version). Gadot's Wonder Woman also kills, in battle, because she has to. But we never see her use her powers with glee, with pride, except when she is a small child. When she begins her career, if it were, as Wonder Woman, she's already the person she needs to be. Man's World is the place where she accepts that role, but there is, fundamentally, no "Clark Kent," no "Bruce Wayne" to muddle her identity. Whatever life she adopts as Diana Prince (currently unseen by us except in a minute or two of dialogue-free scenes), it is as the person she has always been, perhaps playing a role to hide her identity, but Wonder Woman is who she has always been, if by another name.

Like many of the better Wonder Woman stories, the 2017 film is a Greek tragedy. The brilliant choice of history as the setting for her story is that the audience already has the big ending spoiled for us, and perhaps this is why her origin was moved, relative to the comic book origin, to the earlier of the world wars. World War One will end, yes; London, of course, will not be destroyed. And what Diana considers to be her single greatest purpose will elude her. We already know that World War Two is coming, so we know that beating Ares didn't stop war as she'd hoped it would. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, taking a break from his work as James T. Kirk) gives his life preventing a tragedy that didn't occur in the real world, and we have to presume that whatever Diana did after 1918, it failed to prevent the DC Extended Universe's version of World War Two.

One of the great challenges for the Superman film franchise was that its 1978 landmark captured the hero – and minted the genre – so perfectly that it was a hard act to follow. So seductive were its merits that Superman Returns flopped by attempting to copy Donner's 1978 work on a structural and thematic basis so closely that it lacked a life of its own. And so, Wonder Woman's greatest challenge will be to keep the character engaging in a team movie next year and a second solo feature later. It also remains to be seen how the broader superhero genre will respond to this alteration in its pattern, a hero who is completely, unblinkingly, noble – and a woman. Are you up to it, boys?