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Kirby’s best Fourth World character? BIG BARDA. – Mister Miracle #4

October 31, 2012

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga is rightly venerated as a font of colorful characters, a gushing well of heroes and villains that have fueled story after story for DC Comics in the decades since their creation. Highfather. The Black Racer. Desaad. Kalibak. Metron. The list goes on. Not only did the Fourth World offer readers a new rainbow assemblage of dramatis personae, it also spawned the grandest villain that DC has to offer: Darkseid. Yes, Lex Luthor and the Joker have dibs on larger footholds in the broader pop conscience, but their puny Earth-bound devilry seems so pedestrian when compared to the galactic scheming flowing from the stony ruler of Apokolips. I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that one day, should Warner Bros. ever tire of recycling Lex and General Zod as the villains in the cinematic Superman franchise, we’ll finally get a villain in Darkseid who poses a true challenge to the Man of Steel. Maybe in that nebulous Justice League movie, the one that always looms over the horizon like a celluloid mirage. Who wouldn’t want to see the Omega Beams in a theater near you?

If Darkseid had been the only thing to thing to come out of the Fourth World, you could have called it a success. But there was a whole lot more.

That’s not to say that this new mythos was an unalloyed triumph. It was weighed down, like so much of Kirby’s work, by his charming yet hackneyed scripting. Try as I might, I’ve just never been able to get into the bulk of the tales that he wove together back then, reveling only in the eye-popping panache. The New Gods, with stiff old Orion leading the charge, just never did it for me. The Forever People, boiled down to their essence, were a bunch of hippies (we know how vile they can be — cue an Eric Cartman “HIPPIES!”). Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, which spawned the great Darkseid, still had a freckled photographer as its central character, and the thick aroma of his silly Silver Age adventures lingered.

Yet…

Then there was that other book. Mister Miracle. It was the longest-running of the Fourth World titles, and ladies and gentlemen, this was not random happenstance.

Scott Free, the greatest escape artist on any world, whether that world was Apokolips, New Genesis or Earth, was by far the most visually arresting of the kaleidoscopic Fourth World army. Once you got past that eye-roller Kirby name of his, you were dazzled by his blazing yellow and red costume, and when you combined that with his green cape, it was like an actor in a Kabuki play had been fused with Evel Knievel and a circus strongman. And his stories had a joy to them, too. Yes, every issue offered more and more preposterous scenarios from which Scott would extricate himself, sometimes with the assistance of his diminutive sidekick/manager, Oberon. Yes, every issue’s cover was an over-the-top representation of the challenges facing the hero: chained to a cement block, thrown into the water with sharks all around, a torpedo sloshing toward him — or something like that. But his flight from his life on Apokolips — in the clutches of Granny Goodness — and his attempts to earn a living on Earth as a modern Houdini made him accessible to readers. Despite that retina-blasting outfit, he was the most relatable of his pantheon, the most grounded. He was just a man plying his goofy trade.

And then Big Barda showed up, and we were gifted with one of the truly great female characters in all of comics.

You really can’t say enough good things about Barda. Though a secondary character in a secondary mag, she carved out a place in the hearts of readers because she was every inch a lady, though one dressed like an alien Cleopatra draped in chainmail. She was outsized both in stature and personality, was proud and boastful and aggressive on the outside, yet sheltered a tender heart within. A product, like her friend and future husband, of the Apokolips orphanage system, she too rebelled against authority, eventually casting aside her status as the head of Darkseid’s Female Furies to be with the man she loved.

It’s possible for an ardent feminist to read tragedy into that last point, that a woman would set aside her career to be with her man (that’s not really what happened, but let’s not allow that to get in the way of a convenient generalization). This reading couldn’t be more incorrect, though, and this brings us to Barda’s great subtext. She was in many respects an unheralded feminist icon who outshone that great paragon of comic book ladies, Wonder Woman, the glorious Amazon whom x-chromosomes naturally gravitate towards like eels to a fish’s flank. Michael Chabon, comic fan and Pulitzer Prize winning author of the comic-infused The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published an essay a number of years ago entitled “A Woman of Valor” (you can find it in his Manhood for Amateurs collection, which I had to track down in my local library to finish this blog post — IRONY). It was an encomium to Big Barda’s many virtues, in part shredding the false god(dess) in Wonder Woman (among others). (It also has the merit of deploying the words “pop-Zoroastrian,” “Rabelaisian,” and “tergiversations” within the first two paragraphs, which aren’t usually found in articles touching on comics.) When I first read it, I was stunned with how utterly sympatico I was with its main thrust (which came out of Chabon’s youthful comic-reading days in the 1970s), as if Chabon had burrowed into my own head and tapped into my thoughts on the matter. Wonder Woman has evolved since Chabon’s early comic-loving days, but the contrast relative to Barda still holds.

On the lady with the golden lasso:

Wonder Woman’s story just never added up. It made no narrative sense. Her motivation, her purpose in life, her relations to men and their world had been formulated and reformulated by a succession of writers over the years without growing any clearer. We were told that she was an Amazon princess of misty origin, a demigoddess, heiress to Hellenic splendor and daughter of Queen Hippolyta herself, yet she dressed in a costume that appeared to have been aired previously by a burlesque dancer at the Gayety in Baltimore, Maryland, on the Fourth of July 1933…Rooted in mythology, she never generated any mythology of her own; she contradicted herself without struggling against or embodying those contradictions; in other words, she had no story.

Barda?

The world of fire that she was born into and the way she was raised obliged her to learn to be strong, vigilant, resourceful, and submissive to no one…In time she would mutiny against the might-makes-right strictures of her home and attempt to form a partnership of physical and intellectual equals — with Mister Miracle, her paramour, the love of her life. In his company, in rare moments of quiet, she doffed her armor, laid down her Mega-Rod, and made him a gift — both of them knowing full well its value — of her vulnerability, her sorrow, the pain of her childhood in youth. She was a Valkyrie with a brain and an aching heart.

Chabon’s essay is really about his wife, and how the erotic power of strong women can come in all shapes and sizes. Still, I could have saved a lot of words in this post by typing a big Ibid. underneath it. No offense intended to Wonder Woman, but Barda is in another class entirely.

And now we come to her very beginning. Though Kirby’s scripting in Mister Miracle #4, Barda’s first appearance, was as ham-handed (endearingly so, of course) as always, the groundwork was laid for all that Barda eventually became. With her very first words she was already busting balls:

Having arrived on Earth via her Mega-Rod (a device with phallic implications perhaps unrivalled in comicdom — and straight out of the classic SNL “Fresh pepper?” skit), she promptly makes herself at home, kicking back and putting up her feet as poor overwhelmed Oberon raids the fridge to placate her:

Scott is at that moment trapped in an apartment building, whose denizens have gone crazy thanks to Doctor Bedlam’s (a being composed entirely of Kirby Dots) Paranoid Pill and are bent on killing him. When Barda hears about this, she becomes a protective lioness and Mega-Rods her way over. You can see a lot lying under the surface during the reunion of these two friends who would become more in short order — and in the first panel you can perhaps glimpse the beginnings of one of those “moments of quiet” that Chabon wrote about:

Miracle and Barda, side by side for the first time.

Both of them eventually make it out of Bedlam’s house of horrors, and there’s a lot more of Barda’s fiery temper to be had when they get back to Scott’s place (not to mention clear evidence of her height advantage on her man). As usual, her quick anger always seems to be a lot for show, because, let’s be honest, if Big Barda is really pissed at you, you’ll realize it when you wake up in a hospital bed:

(I have to make an aside here: One quibble I always had with Mister Miracle was that his escapes weren’t always just spontaneous ingenuity on his part. When he gets home this time, he explains to Oberon how he made it out of a box in which he’d been tied up that had been tossed from the top of a high-rise’s stairwell. HE’S A BIG FAT CHEATER:

I know, I know, all escape artists have tricks of their trade, and Houdini himself wasn’t above a dab of chicanery. It’s just that I much prefer it when Miracle works his way out of jams with his own wherewithal and agility, not an otherworldly Swiss army knife. I mean, I could have done that.

Just a quibble. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Much has also been made over the years about the reversal of the classic gender roles with Miracle and Barda, with the woman being the taller and physically stronger of the pair. In that vein, there’s a cherry on top at the end of this dinner, as Scott slaps on an apron to whip up some dinner, while Barda, um, slips into something more comfortable:

WHEN BIG BARDA DOFFS HER ARMOR SHE DOES NOT MESS AROUND. (Love the look on Oberon’s face.)

There you are. Barda’s Beginnings.

Before we go, a few words have to be devoted to Barda’s looks, and after a gratuitous bikini shot seems as good a time as any. It’s been well established that Barda’s physique was modeled on a Lainie Kazan playboy spread, and that her peppery but kind repartee with her friend/husband was based on Kirby’s with his wife (it’s right at the top of her Wikipedia entry, for gosh sake), but it ould be that Barda is the most physically appealing of any of the women Kirby ever drew. Let’s be frank — as frank as Barda would be: the man wasn’t gifted when it came to bringing winsome, pretty women to life on the page. His talents were best suited to visceral action, to fists, machinery and monsters. His most famous ladies, from Jane Foster to Sue Storm to you name her, all looked like gussied up cavewomen to me, with big brows and shady slits for eyes. Delicate flowers were not Jack’s forte, they were his faux pas.

Barda was different because she belonged more in the world of titans that Kirby was most comfortable with. If you were looking for a close equal in terms of physicality, Thor’s Sif would be the only comparable figure. But Sif lacked that great Barda personality, and might as well have been named Stiff — she was just like the rest of her straight-backed Asgard peers. Not so with Barda. Though her face and eyes really didn’t vary that much from the Kirby mold (and I don’t know if she’s and Beautiful Dreamer have ever been seen in the same room), that mold worked so much better when draped over Barda’s inner fire. Her looks rendered her all the more believable and human, big bones and all.

Okay, I’m out of breath. I could type on and on about Barda and her somewhat unheralded glamor, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say, I think she’s great — a woman in full. Time and time and time again Kirby was a part of wondrous doings, but one of the things I’ve always been most thankful for is the Big lady from the another world, and all the seeds of her awesomeness were planted in this first appearance.

Track down that Chabon essay if you ever get the chance (it used to be on the Internet, but I had a hard time finding it). And maybe the second volume of the Fourth World Omnibus if you want to hit the Barda ground running.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 8:10 pm

    superb and opening article; excellent

  2. mark valentine permalink
    December 8, 2012 10:48 pm

    yes BARDA is an amazing character i love origin her personality an she jus a kick ass character

  3. Jason Damato permalink
    June 4, 2015 12:57 am

    Yup…great character and solid undervalued investment with MM #4. She is shore to show up in a DC movie as a minion of Darksied and almost certain to turn sides and join the Justice League in the later phases of the cinematic universe!

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