Sunday, June 9, 2013

Unearthed: Action Comics#593

It's been awhile since I ran an "Unearthed" feature, but with a new Superman film on its way, I wanted to look back at one of my first Superman comic books. I can only barely recall my very first Superman comic - I know it involved Superman & Hawkwoman, but the book itself was thrown away too long ago. I didn't begin following Superman myself until 1987, during the reign of writer-artist John Byrne, who masterminded both Superman and Action Comics.

Although Byrne occasionally ran continued stories between his two Superman comics (and even less frequently included Marv Wolfman's Adventures of Superman), the two books usually held separate continuities. While Byrne's Superman involved Clark, Lois, Luthor, the Daily Planet and their various running subplots, Byrne's Action Comics tales were usually self-contained team-up stories. Coming so soon on the heels of DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths and its revised continuity, teaming Superman up with various DC heroes provided a means to reintroduce characters to the readership and reestablish their connection to Superman (if any). Although Byrne's time on the Superman franchise was a major landmark in the character's history and featured possibly the most significant revision of his backstory, ultimately Byrne was gone within just two years!

Action Comics#593, featuring a team-up between Superman & Mr. Miracle (actually continued from the previous issue's Superman & Big Barda story) is a little notorious amongst comic book fandom - this is the story where Superman and Big Barda become porn stars! You can see a fairly apoplectic video review by Linkara here. This was where I began following John Byrne's Superman, thanks to the copy given to me by my grandmother on my birthday.

Yes, my grandma gave me a comic book where Superman became a porn star. Thanks, grandma!

I can't believe just 16 years later, I'm suddenly wondering why Barda's feet aren't touching the ground on this cover. I mean, she and Superman appear to be about the same height in the story within, so how is this possible? Is Superman standing atop a steep ramp? Or hovering about 2 inches from the ground?

Our story ("the Suicide Snare") opens with a fairly neat 9-panel grid page of Mr. Miracle assembling the doorknob to his front door to prevent a bomb from going off; it's an extreme form of home security, but also a neat way of establishing Mr. Miracle's prowess at evading traps (even traps he evidently places in his own home to test his abilities). I should mention, while this comic book was my first exposure to Mr. Miracle, I did own his Super Powers action figure, so I was eager to see what the hero was like.

Mr. Miracle enters his house with his diminuative aide Oberon at his side; however, instead of finding his wife Barda waiting for him, Mr. Miracle is greeted by Darkseid, sitting in an armchair sipping wine. Seriously, I wouldn't kid you. Even though Keith Giffen's Ambush Bug mocked the idea of Darkseid's ubiquity in DC Comics all the way back in 1985, it seems no one got the memo as Darkseid would continue to make appearances like this up to present times. Darkseid sipping wine in Mr. Miracle's living room is about as menacing as Darkseid serving Ambush Bug a hamburger in Ambush Bug#2. Ah well; in 1987, I knew of Darkseid through the Super Powers figures and Super Friends cartoon show, so at least he was a familiar face.

At any rate, Darkseid hasn't come to start a fight with Mr. Miracle... heck, Darkseid's power level is such that if he actually fought his enemies, they'd be killed... and then their friends would avenge them and we wouldn't have Darkseid stories any longer. So Darkseid is best left uttering impotent threats rather than picking fights. Darkseid hands Mr. Miracle a VHS tape and instructs him to watch it. We don't see what's on the tape, but instead watch as Mr. Miracle's face becomes increasingly troubled; Oberon describes some of what they're seeing, notably recognizing Big Barda in their video. Their shared surprise indicates something terrible is happening to Barda on film, but it's left to our imagination to determine what. This is the "porn" part, but it's not explained at a level this nine-year old could have figured out.

Darkseid explains his "agents" acquired the tape from a shop in Suicide Slum, a crime-ridden section of Metropolis which became very popular during the Byrne era. I wonder who exactly Darkseid sent as his "agent." I think Desaad wouldn't look too out of place in an adult video store - the clerks would probably assume the hunched-over ugly guy in the cloak was a flasher or something.

Our attention turns to a porn director named Grossman (a very subtle name) although the exact nature of his job is, again, left vague for the kiddies. Grossman is visited by a little green creature in a trenchcoat named "Mr. Smith." That could be an alias! We can quickly infer from dialogue Grossman made the film of Barda seen earlier with "Smith's" help; Grossman notes he's had "thousands" of orders for the tape. "Smith" then introduces Grossman's next star: Superman! At first, Grossman doubts this could be the real Superman, but "Smith" explains Superman is "completely" in his power and demonstrates by having Superman smash a desk. Grossman likes the idea of using Superman in his films, but wonders how "Smith" controls him; "Smith" refuses to explain but mentions his goal is to earn enough money to "forge my army!" One wonders why a fellow with mind control powers needs to finance himself through the porn industry; why not simply mind control an executive and have him empty his corporation's coffers into "Smith's" hands?

Grossman wonders who he could possibly use as Superman's partner when "Any co-star's gonna wind up looking like my desk!" Ah, yet another pervert who spent too much time thinking about Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex." "Smith" reminds Grossman they already have a superhuman woman making pictures for them: Big Barda (garbed in a bikini costume)! I have no idea what I thought Grossman and "Smith" were talking about back in 1987; I was a naive child then (I'm a naive man now).

Our story returns to Mr. Miracle, who glides over Suicide Slum wearing "aero discs" on the soles of his boots (easily my favourite thing about Mr. Miracle's gadgets). As he searches, he recalls his origin, which was a very nice treat for me and continued to my growing interest in the character; in just two pages, Byrne summarizes the plot points of Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle series. We also learn Miracle is carrying a "Mother Box" on his right shoulder; the device somehow can sense danger; just as he checks it to learn there's "no immediate danger," Mr. Miracle is jumped by a gang of men who beat him over the head with a club, throw him into a sack, tie up the sack with chains, throw the sack into a dumpster, weld the dumpster shut, then drop the dumpster into the river. On the very next page, we see Mr. Miracle: hale hearty and not trapped inside a dumpster. "Mother Box was right... there was no immediate danger." This goes unexplained for a few pages and again made a great impression on me as to Mr. Miracle's abilities.

On a meager soundstage, Grossman is trying to direct Big Barda & Superman, but finds Superman's reactions are very unnatural; he and Barda haven't even removed their clothes, they're just sitting together on a bed (further ensuring we 1987 kiddies wouldn't figure out what the story was really about). "Smith" realizes since Superman is essentially subject to hypnosis, he can't perform any action he wouldn't normally; "Smith" attributes this to Superman's particular "strong moral fibre," so one wonders how Grossman successfully made a Barda picture earlier? Is Barda's moral fibre lacking? Having suffered through a childhood on Apokalips as one of Darkseid's servants, surely Barda's own natural resistance to being dominated would be awfully strong?

"Smith" amps up his power, his own thought balloons helpfully explaining he's an empath who feeds on the emotions of others: "The base emotions. The dark, hidden depravity buried deep in the core of every human soul." He tries to increase Superman's "depravity," then. However, Mr. Miracle has finally arrived and leaps into the room via a skylight. "Smith" wonders how Miracle survived his trap, but Miracle explains he used a cutting laser in his "multi-cube" to escape his bonds and cut a hole through the bottom of the dumpster while the flunkies were still welding it. As I'd later learn, this was a tradition inherited from Kirby's Mister Miracle stories.

"Smith" attempts to control Miracle's mind, but Miracle explains he was trained to resist anyone "less powerful than Darkseid." Again, then, how did "Smith" control Barda? "Smith" makes a run for it; before Miracle can stop him, an octopus-like Ash-Crawler attacks the hero, having been evidently held nearby by "Smith." I don't know if the Ash-Crawler originated in Kirby's "Fourth World" comic books - heck, I don't know if Sleez (the true identity of "Smith") originated with Kirby either (checking online sources... no, Byrne created him). Evidently Mr. Miracle's arrival broke Sleez's control over Superman & Big Barda, because Barda comes to her husband's rescue, reaching inside the creature and crushing its brain. Mr. Miracle apprehends Grossman, but Superman has already departed after Sleez.

Superman follows Sleez into Metropolis' sewers, somewhat inhibited by lead pipes which restrict his x-ray vision. Superman finally hears Sleez and flies after him, but Sleez declares, "Are you a match... for a match?" Striking a match, Sleez causes an immense explosion in the sewer, burning away most of Superman's cape (a Byrne tradition!). Sleez has seemingly been destroyed (but since he must have known the explosion couldn't kill Superman, we readers assume he caused the explosion to cover his escape).

By the time Superman returns to Mr. Miracle & Big Barda, Barda has resumed wearing her full costume. The trio compare notes, piecing together Sleez was one of Darkseid's former henchmen who'd been banished to Earth. Miracle supposes Darkseid told him about Sleez because he "Couldn't be bothered with it himself!" I don't get that - how does Darkseid have enough time on his hands to review Sleez's activities, sit around Miracle's living room sipping wine and talk Miracle into pursuing Sleez, but not enough time to finish off Sleez himself? Or dispatch one of his own minions to deal with Sleez? He can be bothered with pulling Miracle's strings, but not getting off his fat duff?

Barda notes in the previous issue (via a footnote) Superman had tried to stop her from attacking Sleez and wants to know why; Superman won't explain, which is a bit confusing for those of us who began the story with this issue, but the last page illuminates Superman's reasons. Finally, Superman addresses what went on between he and Barda while under Sleez's mind control; their memories are clouded and Barda isn't inclined to explore what happened. So, it's a healthy dose of suppression for everyone!

On the final page, Clark Kent visits a clinic where some old people are being treated; we quickly learn these people were all victims of Sleez, kept alive by a connection to his life force. Clark assumed they'd be dead if Sleez died in the explosion; their survival indicates Sleez yet lives...

Overall, it's interesting to note what a small impact Mr. Miracle has upon this story; his biggest moment is leaping through a skylight and causing Sleez to run away. The Ash-Crawler is killed by Barda, Superman chases after Sleez, Darkseid sets the plot in motion... I love seeing Mr. Miracle go through the paces, but I wish there'd been more for him to do; there's no reason he couldn't have entered the comic searching for Barda in Suicide Slum.

As to the Superman/Big Barda porn: per Sleez & Grossman, Superman's willpower prevented him from giving in, but Barda? We never learn what exactly she did on film and she's not inclined to review it in her own mind. Whatever Barda did is left to your imagination (you buncha preverts!). I don't think it's too outrageous - this is the most kid's friendly-possible story you could get out of a super hero being brainwashed into becoming a porn star. Of course, I would later discover the previous issue was somewhat more egregious.

Ultimately, the story and art still hold up for me (although there are a few colouring errors). But it's a very light story, what with spending two pages on Mr. Miracle's origin recap and the length of time spent maneuvering the characters into place. It's average Byrne, which is pretty much better than any other "average" comic book.

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