The Mystery Men of April part 3

As Prince said, “Sometimes it snows in April.”  That was certainly the case again this morning so here’s the third instalment of this series:

Mr. Miracle:  He cheats death! He defies man! No trap can hold him!  The Super Escape Artist is probably my favourite Fourth World comic ( my favourite DC Kirby Kreation is Kamandi). It was the longest running title of the tetralogy, although it descended into rather juvenile super-hero shenanigans in its last days.

Mr. Miracle, the son of Highfather and raised in a brutal military academy, escapes to Earth and adopts the identity of showman Thaddeus Brown but is pursued by a number of foes from Apokalips, including the statuesque warrior Big Barda. Scott Free was one of the most handsome  Kirby heroes but was mostly hidden by his pharaonic death mask. In the sixth issue, there was a savage parody of Stan Lee in the shape of huckster Funky Flashman (later to appear, bizarrely as a supporting character in Secret Society of Super Villains). Famously, Scott was based on comics legend Jim Steranko.

Kirby had Barda and the Female Furies poised to spin off in their own comic in which, aided and abetted by The Lump, they would fight The Head from their Beauty Rock HQ. But the Fourth World titles were cancelled prematurely and, with their marriage in the final Kirby issue, the Frees left for New Genesis.

The hit Detective Comics  team of Englehart and Rogers revived Scott  for a brief period in the mid-70s. Just imagining their Batman teaming up with Scott is thrilling. As one of the most distinctive and unusual heroes of the decade,  Scott (and Barda) should have joined the JLA around 1977; it’s mooted by a reader in the extra lettercol of issue 147. It finally  happened in the 80s but both characters were lost in the slew of unfunny antics .

Scott and Barda appeared in a 1989 series. Like Marvel’s Excalibur, it was in the “dramedy” vein that began on US tv. I read the first issue and never came back to it. The suburban sitcom was an amusing premise for one story but De Matteis was simply not as humorous as he thought. Grant Morrison enrolled Barda into his hit Justice League in the 90s; in the following decade, however, Seven Soldiers Mr. Miracle  (starring Scott’s apprentice, Shilo Norman ) was one of the most dispiriting and unpleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had in comics.  On that symbolic level, the Caledonian magus succeeded.

Despite Starlin’s cosmic snoozer Death of the New Gods ( pretty much the same gimmick as 2003’s Marvel The End ) Barda can be seen in the roster of the Justice League in Batman Beyond spin-offs. It’s inevitable that Scott will return too; no trap can hold him.

Atlas:  A cross between Thor and Conan, this mythological Kirby hero could “break boulders like biscuits” and appeared in First Issue Special, the 70s Showcase revival. The twist was that Editorial knew these books were mostly inventory material and there would be no series- the sole exception being The Warlord. If there had been a market for a Kirby heroic fantasy epic, I bet Atlas would have encountered a UFO before long. We  never got to see Atlas fighting the Gorgon Masks or the Amazon sea raiders but after a tiny cameo in Kingdom Come,  Atlas  was revived four years ago as a Superman antagonist by James Robinson, in his quest to utilise every obscure DC property.

Jezebelle: the last issue of the aforementioned First Issue Special featured the New Gods. Gerry Conway and Don Newton brought a very Marvel flavour to the series, as was the case with most late-70s DC comics. The berserker Orion got a new heroic look ( Geo-Force would later adopt a similar outfit) and Jezebelle was introduced, another Female Fury with “fiery eyes”. Jezebelle hasn’t had a line of dialogue, I think, since 1978.

The city-trashing, planet-smashing conflicts of Orion, the gentle Lightray (given a trad superhero origin by Conway and Newton) and the cerebral Metron  were always an uncomfortable fit in the DC universe. But such was the potency of the Hitlerian Darkseid , Return was the first of numerous attempts to boost the popularity of Kirby’s  gods and the one I followed most assiduously. The longest-running was the late 80s series that followed on from Cosmic Odyssey. John Byrne’s Jack Kirby’s Fourth World was the most traditional but it rehashed many of the stories and made some uninspired additions (Valkyra).

Early Fourth World covers look like strange religious tracts or terrifying advertisements.

One of the twice-told tales Byrne produced was the first encounter between Superman and the cosmic flower children, the Forever People. Apart from a gloomy Big Chill storyline in 1988, the Young Gods of Supertown have rarely reappeared. but they were my second Fourth World find. The third issue above was bought on a trip to Dunure at Seafield post office in Ayr  and I will always have a fondness for them, especially for the DNA molecule linking them in the insignia.

Black Lightning: Created by Tony Isabella as DC’s first headlining black superhero in 1977. Isabella had previous experience of  Power Man and Black Goliath in 1974 and ’75. Problematically, therefore,  the character automatically had a dated flavour. An athlete and school teacher, BL is a more aspirational figure than his Marvel counterpart Luke Cage. Yet again, I discovered this series some months into its run.  After cancellation, BL next appeared in the JLA but turned down membership. He went on to become a charter member of the quirky, hokey Outsiders (nonetheless, one of my favourite 80s series for those very qualities).

Word Up: Black Lightning auditions for Cameo

He returned with a couple of  fashionable new costumes  in the early Nineties, in attempts to break out of the Blaxpoitation Look, just as  Cage would.

When novelist Brad Meltzer relaunched the Justice League, BL was a member, using his political nous from his role as Lex Luthor’s  Secretary of Education. I never felt that BL was suited to the  JLA and is more viable in the urban crime milieu. In any case, he was gone by the time James Robinson revamped the League.

As one of the more mature DC heroes, Black Lightning has two daughters who are superheroines: Thunder ( one of the modern Outsiders) and Lightning ( a JSA trainee). Strangely, an analogue of BL, Black Vulcan was a member of the Super Friends cartoon cast.  The late Dwayne McDuffie’s Static was relaunched as part of the New 52; it appears that the more contemporary teenage hero with his own tv show has overshadowed BL in the public domain.

Next: Mystery Men Part Four!

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners


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