Monday, February 22, 2010

Kirby's Fourth World Gets Animated

[Andy Bentley caps his look at Jack Kirby's New Gods by looking at how they get picked up in the animated DCU.]

When Bruce Timm and co* approached the Superman Animated Series in 1996, they already had the Emmy award winning Batman: The Animated Series under their belt. The Superman character was nowhere near as relevant as Batman, so they took great lengths to make Superman and his world feel modern. One of the ways they did this was to incorporate the Kirby style into various objects. Timm explains:

When the time came to do Superman, we really didn't know what to do that would make it visually different from Batman but at the same time just as cool. We didn't wanna go back and make it look just like the Fleischer cartoons; I didn't want anybody to put our show up against Fleischer's and say, "Well look, they're doing the Fleischers, just not as well." One of the things we wanted to do with Superman was to kind of "Marvelize" Superman a little bit. That's why the police don't just carry handguns, but these Kirby-like weapons. All of the science-fictional elements in this series-whether it's a tank or something from outer space-has a kind of Kirby feel to it, or at least we try to. Even in the pilot, the origin story, there's this Brainiac satellite floating around Krypton and we tried for the longest time to come up with a design for it, and we didn't come up with anything I really liked. I found this Kirby gizmo in one of the Kirby comics and I turned it upside-down and said, "Hey! That's our satellite." There are things like that all the way through the show where we would just find Kirby-ish elements and turn them into things in the Superman show.

The other issue was that Superman's villains paled in comparison to Batman's rouges gallery. Timm goes on to explain:

When we were doing Superman, we were trying to find interesting villains for him to come up against. The regular Superman villains are pretty uninteresting and most of them are fifty-year-old fat guys in suits. We figured, "Well, there's Darkseid; let's definitely use Darkseid in the show."

Darkseid is a great nemesis for Superman because like all great villains, he's an imperfect reflection upon the hero. Both are visitors from another world, but Superman resembles our race while Darkseid appears as a giant monster. Superman seeks to inspire hope where Darkseid rules in fear and feeds off of despair. It also seems like a natural connection given Kirby's tenure on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

The story begins in the twelfth episode of Superman entitled Tools of the Trade, which introduces Intergang, Kanto, Dan Turpin, and Bruno Mannheim - all Kirby creations. Mannheim is positioned as the leader of Intergang who has become increasingly frustrated by Superman's interventions. Kanto approaches him in disguise and offers a solution to his problem in exchange for his allegiance to an unnamed superior. After a quick demonstration of some Apokolips technology, Mannheim is sold. His plans are ultimately squashed by the cooperation between Superman and Metropolis inspector, Dan Turpin. Joseph Bologna voices Turpin in a solid Brooklyn accent and his attitude is that of a pit bull. Timm took the liberty of designing Turpin to look like a 'tooned up version of Jack Kirby himself, so it feels like the creator is living amongst his creations. This is quite apropos, given the autobiographical nature of The Fourth World. With the cops closing in, Kanto fires up a Boom Tube to escape and reluctantly agrees to take a sniveling Mannheim with him. The results are quite unexpected: CLICK HERE TO VIEW

As Timm mentions in the commentary, Mannheim has found himself in hell.

It would not be until the twenty-eighth episode, Father's Day that the story line would continue. Father's Day introduces Desaad and Kalibak who vie for Darkseid's approval. While Desaad is exactly like his comic counterpart, Kalibak is more civil but desperate to earn his father's acceptance. Dessad tricks Kalibak into disobeying Darkseid's decree and he travels to Earth to engage Superman. They two have an all out brawl through Metropolis for most of the episode until Superman finally gets the upper hand. Darkseid is forced to Earth to reprimand is unworthy spawn: CLICK HERE TO VIEW

Back then, seeing a villain bring Superman to his knees and just walk away was quite foreign. The magnitude of this rarely glimpsed character was beginning to soak in.

The conflict finally comes to a head in Apokolips...Now!, the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth episodes of the series. It opens on a heist by Intergang, similar to the one that began this saga. This time, Intergang has tanks and weapons from Apokolips and their impact is quickly felt. Turpin's partner, Maggie Sawyer, is significantly injured in the battle and Superman can be seen bleeding from the ears after an audio assault by a gadget that screams Kirby. Mannheim's is still in league with Darkseid, however petty theft is not on the agenda. Darkseid vaporizes the money and offers Mannheim king hood once his plan is at fruition.

The story shifts to a press conference being covered by Lois and Clark, which is interrupted by a Boom Tube which sends Orion crashing to the ground below. In a clever misdirection, Orion shouts for Superman and grabs Clarks lapels implying he knew Clark's secret identity when he was merely asking for Superman's location. Orion is very close to his incarnation in the comics, but like Kalibak has had his unfocused rage toned down. His character is quite weary of the battle with Apokolips, yet he has an underlying steel reserve, which will not allow him to quit. When he meets Superman and Turpin, he allows mother box to bring them (and the audience) up to speed: CLICK HERE TO VIEW

This amazing two-minute recap takes Kirby's disjointed story elements and streamlines them for the uninitiated while providing authentic visuals for The Fourth World devotees. Timm and Dini also defined Darkseid's strength and goal giving him a Galactus element of a world conqueror. Even if the anti-life equation does not reside on Earth, the despair he could reap by destroying Superman, Earth's protector, would give him unimaginable power.

Superman and Orion take off to Sinnot Air Force Base, which is under attack by several Apokolips tanks. This is a diversion as Mannheim and an army of Parademons hijacks an offshore nuclear power plant and set the machine for detonation. Darkseid's holographic image appears to rescue his Parademons and to congratulate Mannheim . CLICK HERE TO VIEW

I'm pretty sure Mannheim didn't make it.

As the second part opens, Superman discovers his radio link to Orion has been severed so he must stop the nuclear explosion himself. Darkseid anticipates this and sends his most experienced hunter, Steppenwolf, along with a multitude of Parademons. Superman is forced to deal with this threat above Metropolis where the skies have turned a crimson red. He tries valiantly but is brought down to Earth by the sheer numbers. Again Darkseid brings Superman to the point of physical defeat. He eventually rises, and deals with the Parademons while Turpin takes out Steppenwolf with a missile from his chopper. Turpin returns to the ground to help in any way he can, whether it's leaping into danger to help save lives or clocking Parademons with a patented Kirby punch.

The next scene is a quintessential Superman moment as he uses his spinning body to create holes in the Earth to dissipate the energies of the plant. The action would feel appropriate in the old Fleischer cartoon and in the Christopher Reeve movie series despite the fact that it's scientifically implausible (alas, so is Superman). Weakened by the days events, he takes a moment to rest on a mountain outside the city. It's at this opportune time, however, that Darkseid once again meets him Kal-El face to face. Keeping Superman at bay with his Omega beams, he offers Superman one last chance to rule with him rather than be destroyed. It's akin to the Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker climatic scene from The Empire Strikes Back and reminiscent of Lucifer tempting Jesus on the mountain. Superman naturally refuses and the results..... well my writing can't to it justice: CLICK HERE TO VIEW

A truly shocking moment, especially on a Saturday morning cartoon. After being physically humbled several times by Darkseid, Superman is then humiliated in front of Metropolis and decimated emotionally. Turpin would never return to the series and after recently losing Kirby himself, the loss reverberated on multiple levels. The scene had always filled me with emotion, but after reading the source material, there's a new moment of excitement to see Barda, Mister Miracle, Light Ray, Orion, The Black Racer, Metron, and Forager all united as the guardians of New Genesis. The murder of Dan Turpin gave the battle consequence and cemented Darkseid's character as a loathsome being and a credible threat. Join me one last time, for as the credits indicated this was...


- Many of the locations in the last episode (including the Sinnot Air Force Base) are named after Kirby inkers
- The writing credits for Tools of the Trade and Father's day are attributed to Mark Evanier, longtime friend to Kirby and writer of the afterwords in the Omnibus' (Omnibi?)
- Ma and Pa Kent were originally intended to be the victims of Darkseid, but the network demanded their resurrection by the series’ end. Besides, the Turpin death ads so much more weight to the Fourth World story.
-This next bit of trivia, I'm just gonna yank from Wikipedia:
This two-parter was later altered from it original airing. The funeral at the episode's end, in an homage to late New Gods creator Jack Kirby, featured several of his comic creations as attendees, including Nick Fury, Peter Parker (Spider-Man's civilian identity), Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm (the Fantastic Four), Big Barda, Scott Free, Orion and others, alongside Kirby's friends and fans Mark Evanier, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alex Ross and Stan Lee. These characters and persons were removed and the scene and soundtrack re-edited for subsequent airings and its release on DVD. The original sketches for this scene can be found at Michael Eury's book The Krypton Companion book published by TwoMorrow's Publishing (ISBN 1-893905-61-6).

I have this book, but it's no substitute for a digital copy of the original ending. I'd be in anyone's debt who could locate it.

-The main ship from the New Genesis cavalry is a dead ringer for the warhead Orion and Lightray ride in New Gods #6, The Glory Boat!

*Timm’s abbreviated crew: Curt Geda. Dan Riba, Paul Dini, Rich Fogel, Alan Burnett, Bob Goodman, Glen Murakami, Andrea Romano, Shirley Walker
** Timm interview taken from The Jack Kirby Collector #21 from ToMorrows Publishing


Gene Phillips said...

I got some mild kicks out of the Timm-Dini version of SUPERMAN but importing the New Gods mythology to be the Man of Steel's new mythos was IMO the easy way out.

I would've loved to see Timm and co. take the somewhat goofy and almost pathetic Superman villains and forge them into a cadre of interesting villains. If they did it for the Clock King and the Terrible Trio they could've done it for Terra-Man and the Kryptonite Kid/Man.

A more fundamental problem, though, was that I don't think they "got" the character of Superman as they did Batman's.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the Superman series, while pretty good, pales in comparison to the 1990s animated Batman.

I'm not sure what the problem was. (Or if you'd even call it a "problem", exactly. Because the Timiverse Superman wasn't /bad/ by any stretch.) Weak villains... I dunno. I liked what they did with Luthor; Brainiac and Metallo were also pretty good. LiveWire was fun, and had one of the best voices of any animated character ever... hm, come to think of it, she was more like a Batman villain. But anyway, they weren't all lame.

That said, yeah, Darkseid was handled well.

But! He came back, of course, in Justice League (twice) and Justice League Unlimited; Apokolips characters also popped up as villains a couple of times during the run (i.e., Mantis showing up late in JLU Season 1 to fight Superman and Captain Atom) I found his final appearance underwhelming, but the Darkseid-and-Brainiac teamup? That was rock solid. I'd love to see your review of it.

Doug M.