Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Forever People 2: Rotting, Dangerous Shells

Progress is a tricky thing to get right, may be the moral of this issue. As a society develops, certain aspects of said society are lost from memory. Part of what this story deals with are the hidden realities of existence which can be dulled by the flash of modernity, and about things hidden inside a society like a forgotten neighborhood or forgotten people or maybe even the forgotten ancient crypt of a power-hungry antagonist.

The issue starts off with The Forever People in the middle of a crowded, mechanized city street. The gawking, milling citizens are confused by the kids…not just because their Super-Cycle is blocking the precious traffic, but because they’ve never seen Hippies on wheels ("Motorized Hippies! How about that?" says one nonplussed asshole.) The sampling of spectators Kirby gives us in one panel all want a technocratic solution to this simple problem…One wants the cops to take care of it, another says he’ll "have to take the subway to cross the street", another wants them airlifted out by helicopter. We’re being shown technology-crazy dupes conforming to a modern standard. Were this issue done today, you can imagine that every one of those suckers would be carrying a cell phone. Gullible mobs appear throughout the series.

As a counterpoint to the up-to-date part of this city, the kids materialize in a decaying neighborhood "where abandoned buildings wait for the coming of urban renewal." This isn’t a slum…it’s simply the heart of a genuine, original city, complete with a Fire Hall, deserted by an innovation-dazzled bourgeois. Here the Forever People find a lame-legged boy and his paranoid old uncle, Willie. Whether they’re actual family or not isn’t clear…Willie may be the boy’s uncle in the same way he’s supposed to be a security guard (which is what the boy tells the teens…Actually, Willie’s no security guard…he’s just got a gun.)

The old man considers the Forever People to be like the gangs who have apparently abused him in the past. Beautiful Dreamer enters his mind to find some old-time images that’ll calm him down, and she disguises the teens as 1930’s-style youngsters and the Mother Box as a beat-up old suitcase. Though harmless, this illusion (or white lie, if you will) is interesting coming from a character who just rambled a speech about The Truth. Later in the series, Kirby shows how dangerous similar simple illusions can be when used by Darkseid’s followers.

Mantis, the villain of this issue, is defined as a disciple of Darkseid’s in a few different ways. First, and most obviously, a mantis is a carnivorous and cannibalistic insect…it’s the perfect name for a dangerous God. However, mantis is also the Greek word for Prophet, and while Mantis doesn’t do any "converting" like Glorious Godfrey will in the next issue, he does preach a doomsday sermon of what is to come. Kirby also connects Mantis to vampire imagery, having him "recharging" in a crumbling, underground tomb and only coming out to destroy the city when a clock has chimed midnight. In the first issue of the Forever People, an Inter-gang agent compares Darkseid to Dracula, and the will-sapping, zombie elements of vampire mythology are apt metaphors for the conformist plague Darkseid is planning.

The communal theme of the Forever People is brought into focus when the teens move into the dilapidated ruins of the forsaken neighborhood (Willie and the boy live in building 309…the Numerological meaning of which is solidity, calmness, and home). The invalid kid, Donnie, asks about, and is handed, one of Serifan’s Cosmic Cartridges and suddenly becomes one with the universe. He says he’s "everywhere at once", and is depicted as transforming into a view of the cosmic (or perhaps the microscopic). As Donnie is brought into "harmony," and the rest of the teens share a meal with Uncle Willie, they discover that Mantis is attacking the city, so they link up with Mother Box to become The Infinity Man. Now, that’s communal!

Infinity Man then roughs up Mantis in a seven-page battle sequence. In a repeat of the public’s earlier reliance on technology, a peace officer says, "these new, heavy-caliber rifles should stop him—but they don’t!" Also, a big-mouth bystander to the destruction yells, "Something has to be done to stop him! They’re going to need planes---tanks—" Though the action of this sequence is beautifully rendered, the dialogue between Mantis and Infinity Man is plenty dull and reveals little about the characters except what their powers are.

After Mantis is defeated and crawls back to his pod, a clue is given to exactly what Infinity Man is. He says his magic word, disappears, is replaced by The Forever People, and Beautiful Dreamer says that they were all "one—and so, shared his experience!" So Kirby’s let us know for sure that Infinity Man isn’t some dude who just shows up…instead their consciousness’ combine within Infinity Man. More hints as to how this happens show up later in the series.

While standing above the spared city, the Forever People contemplate the horrors that are coming in this now-declared war between New Genesis and Apocalypse. As they love the antiques of a recent, yet forgotten world, they have to fear the profound changes that would come to this already changed society under Darkseid’s brand of totalitarianism.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Forever People 1: Old Man Superman

Though I can’t back it up with numbers, I’d say The Forever People is the least popular of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles. I base this on the fact that the other New Gods show up in many other comics and cartoons, and just seem to "fit" into the DC Universe better than this group of freaky, superpowered, teenaged hippies. Also, I base it on the fact that the 1999, black-and-white reprint of their series has gone unsold in the comic book store I frequent since it was first ordered ten years ago (even marked down from the outrageous Canadian cover price of 23.50 to 4.99).

I mention this only because it helps my case when I ramble on about The Forever People being a hidden treasure, even though it’s currently available in your local comics shop under the title JACK KIRBY'S FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS, and it’s by one of the best-known Cartoonists in the Western World.

The opening narration of the first issue (which is in rhyme, no less) sets us up for the main motif of the Forever People series…that of The Gifted vs. The Rest of Us. The unseen narrator indicates that we, as the reader, are one of a select few to witness the mysteries of the New Gods as a squealing, Kirby Krackling hole is ripped into our reality. This is The Boom Tube, and it spews forth the Super Cycle-riding male members of the Forever People.

Kirby quickly, if somewhat heavy-handedly, defines the relationships between the characters through their dialogue with each other and with the two saps that they almost run down. Big Bear is the smiling, waggish giant. Mark Moonrider is the uptight, diplomatic wang. Vykin the Black (and yes, he is black) is the moderately out-of-it guardian/translator for Mother Box (when Mark tries to wrap the hapless human’s brains around the freakiness of Mother Box by saying it’s "like a – Computer –", Vykin snaps, shouting "Wrong!" at him and the mortal onlookers. He jabbers that Mother Box is a living entity, to which the dude in the car mutters, "I-is that right---How about that---") Then there’s Serifan, a sensitive and romantic lad who starts seizing when he makes mental contact with Beautiful Dreamer, the missing female of their troupe and the reason the kids have come to Earth for their first time.

The iceberg tip of villains reveals itself, with Inter-gang agents stalking our heroes. Acting as human representatives for Darkseid, they hold Beautiful Dreamer prisoner and are instructed to follow the Forever People. Like the reader, they are not yet aware of the cosmic implications of this simple kidnapping.

At this point, the story shifts entirely to Superman,
and though I don’t find his sudden bellyaching about being lonely and yearning for the company of non-mortals very convincing, it does give the story a secondary drive (adding Superman’s search for Supertown, glimpsed from a photo of the Boom Tube, to the search for the missing Beautiful Dreamer). It also thematically reinforces the opposition between the Gifted Individual and the "Teeming millions" as Clark Kent refers to the ant-like commoners.

After deciding Supertown is the only place he can be himself, Superman comes upon the Forever People at a lumber mill, which is an appropriate Dream Symbol for Superman’s impulse of loneliness. Wood can be interpreted as representing an inner void in the dreamer, and can mean he will act without considering consequences. As this story is entitled "In Search of a Dream" (referring to the search for Beautiful Dreamer, Superman’s search for a Utopian city, and to a lesser extent to Darkseid’s search for the Anti-Life Equation), looking for dream symbols is apropos.

After a quick confrontation with Inter-gang (in which Superman drives an oversized stake through the heart of their helicopter), the Forever People mistake Superman for a New God, and immediately get annoyed by him when he explains that he’s not. They then face a gauntlet of traps and foes placed between them and Beautiful Dreamer. This hints at another theme in the series…that of Communalism vs. Conformity. The Gravi-guards work as one, serving Darkseid, coming out’ve the ground and swarming the kids like ants. The Forever People are also able to act as one (literally) when they transform into Infinity Man. But unlike the nameless, indistinguishable Gravi-guards, they are individuals who come together for a common goal.

It’s interesting that Kirby withholds information about Infinity Man till later in the series, leaving the reader, and definitely Superman, puzzled. (When Infinity Man appears to save Superman, Kal has to wonder where the heck the boys went. And when they "return", he has no idea where they came from.) In fact, there never is a definite answer about who Infinity Man is…Kirby gives us tidbits, but leaves it to the reader to figure out exactly what goes on. (I have my own personal definition of who or what he is, but I’ll leave that for later.)

Also interesting is the fact that Darkseid is such an asshole, he denies us a final, climactic battle between himself, Superman, and Infinity Man. He’s had his chance to experiment on Beautiful Dreamer, he didn’t find what he wanted, so he just gives her up and leaves. Sure, he leaves her strapped to a doomsday device, but the ensuing explosion and rescue is no substitute for genuine, dramatic combat. This being the first issue of an ongoing series, I guess an ultimate melee like that wouldn’t make much sense, though.

With the Forever People’s desire line of finding Beautiful Dreamer
concluded, it’s now time for Superman to have his desire fulfilled.
The kids don’t know why Superman would want to go to Supertown when Earth is in such peril, but they won’t stop him. But when Superman enters the Boom Tube, "a sting of apprehension" nags at him, and he makes the moral decision to stay and protect his home. Yet, he’s still left with his self-pitying belief that he’ll only be happy with his own kind.

I should say that this first issue is the weakest of the series. At best, it sets up plot, character, and theme for the rest of the run. At worst, it’s old man Superman whining about being so damn great (and with Al Plastino redrawing his face, he not only acts like a self-indulgent dinosaur, he looks like one, too). Plus, Beautiful Dreamer, the subject of the plot, doesn’t even get a line. That being said, it’s a tightly constructed and incredibly readable comic (which were rare attributes when it came out, and is even harder to find with most comics of today).
My Zimbio
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