by Patrick Ehlers and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
“Come now — what’s more believable? A teddy bear that talks? A ghost girl who doesn’t? Spontaneous resurrections? Infinite Realities? Or the simple fact that you’re dead?”
-Chagra, Bug! The Adventures of Forager 6
Patrick: Longtime readers of this site will know that I’ve got a limited amount of patience for stories that refuse to ground themselves. Often, this is literal — my favorite Green Lantern stories are those that tie back to Coast City, or Earth, or even just Hal Jordan. My attachment to the characters wane when they start to slip through time, space or even layers of reality. As such, I’ve always had something of a hard time with Fourth World stories and the whole cast of New Genesis characters. They’re fucking weirdos, in weird situations, somehow both a part of and separate from the multiverse. Lee, Michael and Laura Allred have been telling a story that leans into my biggest fears about Kirby’s opus, but wraps it all up by insisting on the purity of the simplest explanation: what you see is what you get. And they make “what you see” something truly worth the readers’ time.
The issue starts with in a setting that challenges the very idea that we’re engaging in the medium we’re holding in our hands. Bug and his companions are on a game board, something of a cross between Candy Land and The Game of Life (with a little Pop-O-Matic Trouble, thrown in for good measure).
Oh, and I guess Kuzuko is petting the dog from Monopoly, so there’s another reference we can toss on there. The banner at the top of the panel sets just about the strangest possible setting for the issue: “between the Star and Finish of what used to be New Genesis.” In the reality of our story, what are we seeing on the page here? It’s virtually impossible to say. Michael Allred gives us a weird little cue that something is amiss by putting a seven on one of those six-sided dice — hinting that even what we’re witnessing doesn’t obey internal lines of logic.
That’s partially because we’re in a world, and dealing with a set of characters, that are not bound by traditional comic book rules. The heroes and villains share the most virtuous and monstrous qualities, and even in the context of this story, our antagonist, who ends up maybe being the good guy (?) is a copy of Metron. It’s all so damn dizzying as to make most of the drama — as expressed by the language of the issue — meaningless.
Luckily, this creative team has a force beyond language to express themselves: the art of Michael and Laura Allred. Allred stages most of this action amongst empty backgrounds, filling the spaces between the characters with Kirby crackle and little else. This forces the reader to stay with the characters and their actions, dissuades any impulse to get ahead of the story. In fact, Lee Allred fills the speech balloons with enough crazy character names and confusing concepts as to make that a futile exercise anyway. Basically: there’s no way for the reader to think their way through this issue, you just have to experience it.
Metron summons The Black Racer to finally take Bug out once and for all, and that’s when Allred really leans into the impenetrable mythology. General Electric, Dr. Spider, Orichalcum, Omphalos — it’s all trotted out like it’s supposed to mean something. Maybe there’s a Kirby-freak out there that has all of this committed to their memory and their heart (and if so, I apologize for making fun of something you love), but my eyes glaze over. I’ll meet a work of fiction halfway, but goddamn, that’s a long drive, even for me. Then the Allreds actually draw the Black Racer/Bug encounter, and nothing outside that moment matters. We can tell because they focus in on the tip of Racer’s ski-pole/spear, before making the point of contact between tip and domino a visual centerpiece of the page it’s on.
This is my favorite kind of comic book spectacle, playing with our expectations for panels and the gutter. Bug later explains that he figured the Racer couldn’t harm innocents, but by that point I don’t really need to be sold on the fact that was I just saw was possible — I already saw it, and I already liked it.
That plays into the idea that the issue plays with after Bug crosses the source wall. Inside, there is some kind of patriarchal creator character literally building the wall with bricks and mortar. My favorite interaction between these characters is Bug asking why the Source doesn’t simply will the wall into existence and he answers:
“The mind is free to indulge in false logic, make the worse appear better, without instant exposure to its frauds. But for the hand to work falsely? That produces a misshapen useless thing, tool or machine — its very construction gives lie to its maker.”
Which, to me, says that a story is only as good as its execution. You have have all the most ambitious and strangest ideas in the world, and it’s still going to come down to how well Michael Allred draws it.
Drew, what do you think represents the divide between the hand and the head in this issue? Is it the difference between writing and art? Or perhaps the divide between mythology and storytelling? And in the end, is the relationship between Bug and this silent companion represent effort from the hand or the head? Was it false in its conception, but true upon its completion?
Drew: That question has me thinking about that classic Alan Moore quote: “Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” All fiction is false in its conception, but there is also some truth in there, though arguably the truth resides in the telling, rather than the story itself. At least, I think that’s the point the wizard behind the curtain (is he supposed to be Highfather? Maybe we can call him “Mr. Source”) is making here:
I definitely think he’s talking about writers and artists here, but as with that other series about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters we wrote about this week, I think the artist in question is Kirby himself. I suppose it’s not not about Michael Allred, but emphasizing the role of the artist (and disparaging those of the writer) feel like an odd choice if we’re talking about happy collaborators. To me, this feels a bit more targeted at a more fraught collaboration — one where the writer has made himself a household name while the artist languished in obscurity. Indeed, this feels specifically addressed to tear down the egotism of writing — something that lands much more forcefully if we understand that it’s talking about Stan Lee as opposed to Lee Allred.
And to be clear: there’s no acrimony in this issue’s attitude towards Lee. There’s nothing here that condemns writing or the success of writers — just an argument that writing is kind of trivial compared to making those stories come to life. Anyone can come up with an insane idea, but its the artists that actually have to make it work. Heck, the idea doesn’t even have to be all that insane — executing an idea is inherently more complicated than simply thinking it up. Let’s just take the very last image of this issue as an example:
I don’t have access to Lee Allred’s script, but we might reasonably guess the description for this panel as something like “Bug emerges from the source wall to be welcomed by his friends on New Genesis” (with maybe a list of who those friends are). But the actual execution requires drawing over a dozen characters, arranging them in a way that actually tells the story of this moment, and doing it quickly enough for this issue to hit its publishing date. And that doesn’t take into account all of the training that goes into allowing Michael Allred to layout and draw these pages, or the time that Kirby put into designing these characters in the first place.
Which is why building is such an ideal analogy for the point the Allreds are making here. It’s not that blueprints don’t require skill and effort to make, but a blueprint for an unbuildable (or simply unbuilt) building isn’t worth nearly as much as an actual finished building. It’s the construction that brings those plans to life, so the two necessarily need one another.
Of course, this is all complicated by Kirby’s work as a writer. Indeed, it would be profoundly myopic to flatten his career to being simply the yin to Lee’s yang. That facet of his life may always spring to mind for me, but it may be odd to apply that particular lens to his work at DC, which was notably Lee-free. Then again, this scene takes place behind the source wall, a piece of DC mythology that seems to always play an important role in Marvel/DC crossovers. Perhaps the moral here is bigger than either publisher — a story about creating (comics) art more generally.
But lets not forget the story itself! Whatever role Mr. Source may play here, we’ve still got to wrap up Bug’s story in some satisfying way. That may mostly mean returning him to New Genesis after this crazy adventure, but there’s also the story of Kuzuko. Turns out, she’s not a “ghost girl who doesn’t talk,” but the daughter of these two supreme beings who hadn’t spoken up until that point. But her adventures with Bug seemed to have helped her overcome some internal barrier, and her words come pouring out of her very suddenly:
We might understand this moment as a child overcoming shyness, but having worked with autistic children, I can’t help but see this as a much more profound moment of opening up. Kuzuko never spoke before, but now she does. Bug has changed her life in a real way, whether or not this adventure was false in its conception. I suspect that Kirby’s stories themselves may have had this effect on more than one kid over the years, which makes this moment all the more moving to me. There’s definitely truth here, no matter how unbelievable it may seem.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?