When I was nine years old, I fell in love with a superheroine whose unlikely name — a name that still brings a wince of lust and embarrassment to my face when I say it — was Barda. Big Barda. I have never recovered, thank God, from my first sight of her, in Mister Miracle #8 (September 1972). — Michael Chabon, “A Woman of Valor”, 2004.
Your humble blogger’s own first meeting with Big Barda came four issues earlier than did that of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; and I was fourteen years old at the time, not nine. Nevertheless, I can definitely relate.
There were a number of things that set Big Barda apart as special, even unique, when she made her debut in 1971 — but perhaps the most important was that she was, in truth, Big. According to Mark Evanier, who worked for Jack Kirby as an assistant in the early ’70s, the writer-artist’s creation of the heroine was inspired by the growing visibility of women bodybuilders in American media and popular culture:
Barda was a character that Jack put in because he thought it was a great idea, one that was not being done in super-hero comics at that time. There had never been a really strong woman character who looked strong, except maybe for Little Lotta. Jack noted that female bodybuilders were starting to catch on in the mass media. He saw these pageants on ABC Wide World of Sports, and in other places, and he said, “That’s a great idea for comics.” He was also inspired by [singer] Lainie Kazan being in [the October, 1970 issue of] Playboy. [laughter] …But ultimately, the personality of Big Barda was pretty much Roz, and Jack was pretty much Scott Free.*
“Roz” in the above quote refers to Rosalind Goldstein Kirby, the woman Jack Kirby wed in 1942 and remained married to for the rest of his life. But while Evanier credits Ms. Kirby with providing the basis for Barda’s personality, and Ms. Kazan with inspiring her physical appearance, a quote from a 1990 radio interview with the “King” suggests that Roz Kirby may have had some influence on the character’s corporeal aspect, as well:
I happen to like big girls and Big Barda was a natural type of girl for me to draw. If you’ll dig into this a little deeper, in a psychological way, you’ll find that short men like large women. If you’ll notice my wife, she’s maybe an inch or two taller than I am.**
Whatever the inspirations that went into the creation of Big Barda may have been, it seems evident that she (as well as her fellow Female Furies) were originally conceived independently of Kirby’s Fourth World — his ongoing chronicle of the war between the god-worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips. In addition to the cover sketch shown above, there’s another existing piece of pencilled artwork (shown at right) that seems to have been produced as a “pitch page” for a never realized Big Barda comic, the barely decipherable notes of which give some indication of Kirby’s original concept. Big Barda was apparently intended to be the leader of an all-women team of spies (the Furies), who operated out of an island headquarters called “Beauty Rock”, and opposed the sinister, world-threatening plots of the “Institute”. Other planned characters included the Institute’s leader, the Head; an Institute agent named Apollo; and an inhuman ally of Barda and the Furies called the Lump. When his proposed Big Barda and the Female Furies series didn’t pan out, for whatever reasons, Kirby didn’t abandon his ideas; rather, he repurposed the characters, who’d all eventually appear in other books — beginning with Big Barda herself.
But even if Big Barda wasn’t originally created to be part of the Fourth World, there can be little doubt that, in July of 1971, the Fourth World needed her. Since launching his interconnected epic almost a year previously in Jimmy Olsen #133, Jack Kirby had given us a whole cavalcade of exciting new characters. But thus far, very few of those characters had been female.
Four issues in on New Gods — arguably the core title of the tetralogy — we’d yet to meet a single New Goddess (at least, not one with a name). Jimmy Olsen was almost exclusively a (News)boys’ club. Forever People had done a little better, featuring a female among the five young gods of Supertown who were the book’s stars. But Beautiful Dreamer was clearly made in the mold of the subordinate, supportive heroines Kirby had co-created with Stan Lee over at Marvel — the Invisible Girl, Marvel Girl, the Scarlet Witch, and others — women whose powers, though actually pretty formidable when you considered them closely, were generally depicted as being useful primarily for defense, deflection, and subterfuge.
As of the summer of ’71, the single most memorable female character yet to appear in a Fourth World comic book was a villain — Granny Goodness — whose first and only appearance to date had come in the second issue of the tetralogy’s fourth title, Mister Miracle. Perhaps coincidentally — and perhaps not, considering how closely the two characters would prove to be linked — it would be in the fourth issue of that same series that Kirby would finally introduce readers to the woman destined to be the Fourth World’s most fully realized, and popular, heroine.
But before we can take a look at Big Barda’s breakout debut in Mister Miracle #4, we’ll need to set the stage with a quick recap of the preceding issue, which had come out in May.
“The Paranoid Pill!” was, like every other Mister Miracle adventure, written, pencilled, and edited by Jack Kirby; it was inked by Vince Colletta (as would be MM #4, the two jobs representing Colletta’s final contributions to the series).
(What’s that? You’re wondering why our hero is colored in stark black and white on the cover? Well, your guess is as good as mine. And probably even as good as Mark Evanier’s.)
The story introduces one of Kirby’s most interesting Apokolips villains (at least from a conceptual standpoint), who makes his entrance via a highly effective “cold open”:
If I had been a more widely read comic-book fan in 1971, Doctor Bedlam’s propensity for moving his disembodied consciousness in and out of identical android bodies might have put me in mind of NoMan, from Tower Comics’ T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. But I wasn’t, so this seemed like an entirely new, as well as very cool, concept to my younger self.
Doc Bedlam proceeds to ring up Mister Miracle, aka Scott Free (how did he get Scott’s number, you wonder? “Nothing can be hidden from one such as I,” the villain informs us. OK, good to know.). But our escapologist hero is in the middle of practicing his latest death-defying stunt (thereby providing a good opportunity for Kirby to finally drop in a standard opening splash page, with titles and credits), so his assistant and friend Oberon has to answer the phone instead. Eventually, however, Scott does get on the line:
Evidently, even though he’s fled Apokolips for Earth, Scott still seems to feel honor-bound to abide by certain rules of engagement when dealing with his enemies from that planet. And vice versa.
Flying to the location Bedlam provided him over the phone, Mister Miracle finds his foe waiting for him in an ordinary-looking office in the Chandler Towers building:
Bedlam shows Scott what’s in the little green box on his desk — a pill — and our hero concludes that his opponent intends to flout the rules of their contest by attempting to tranquilize him. Not so, says Bedlam; in fact, the pill isn’t meant for Mister Miracle at all: “It’s merely the spark that activates the trap!”
You gotta admit, that guy really knows how to make an exit, as well as an entrance.
Mister Miracle first attempts to leave the way he came, by the window — there’s noting in his deal with Doc Bedlam that stipulates he can’t descend to the building’s lobby level from the outside, after all — but, predictably, the villain has closed off that avenue of escape by charging the windows with “cosmi-current“. Nope, it looks like MM is going to have to do this the hard way…
Our hero manages to elude the maddened horde for a couple of floors (and pages), but ultimately, he falls into their (literal) clutches:
The trunk is securely roped and chained, and then…
It looks like a long way down for Mister Miracle — and in May, 1971, it probably also looked like a long wait for the next issue of his bi-monthly series, at least for its most eager readers. But July did come, eventually; and so there came the day when my younger self was at last able to pick up Mister Miracle #4, and turn past its intriguing cover (a medieval torture chamber? What’s up with that?) to find on the first page… well, not Scott Free, for sure.
From here, the story jumps to Mister Miracle — who’s exactly where we last saw him, imprisoned in a trunk and plummeting down the Chandler Towers stairwell towards his doom. But once the narrative has established that fact, it’s back to Barda:
Our hero has indeed escaped the trunk in mid-plunge, though Kirby cagily doesn’t tell us how — at least not yet. For the moment, he’s too focused on showing us every moment of the non-stop action as Mister Miracle continues his attempt to descend the rest of the way to the lobby without getting killed — something that he still has to do all by himself, he warns Barda, or else break his pact with Doctor Bedlam.
“Galaxy Broadcasting” is, of course, the media company run by Morgan Edge (secretly a servant of Darkseid), which since its recent acquisition of the Daily Planet newspaper has been the employer of such dedicated journalists as Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Perry White, and Clark (Superman) Kent.
Kirby rarely if ever names the city or cities in which the Fourth World stories take place (with the exception of those in Jimmy Olsen) — but contextual clues like the one provided here, scattered across various issues of all the titles, strongly suggest that the main stomping ground of Mister Miracle, as well as of the Forever People and the New Gods’ Orion, is nowhere other than Superman’s own home city of Metropolis. (Which makes a lot of sense when you consider that Kirby arrived at DC fresh from spending ten years co-creating and chronicling the Marvel Universe, where virtually every costumed superhero lives in New York.)
Gosh, Mister Miracle sounds pretty anxious in that next to last panel, doesn’t he? But I’m sure that’s just theatrics, you know? All part of the act. He’s got this. Right?
Just in case you thought Kirby had forgotten about Big Barda… nope!
Again, Kirby’s not about to slow things down here by explaining how Scott got out of the Iron Maiden. There’ll be time for that kind of thing later on (probably).
In the panels above, Kirby efficiently gives us just enough information about Scott and Barda’s shared history to satisfy our immediate curiosity — and then it’s back to the business at hand, as the reunited duo realizes that the subsiding of the chaos around them must signify the reaction of the building’s fear-maddened denizens to the advent of something — or someone — even more terrifying:
Bedlam declares that he is about to drive every other mind within the building’s confines into utter panic, sending them against Barda and Scott in a human stampede — and then, bis visage dissolves. Barda immediately tries to convince Scott to let her teleport both of them out of there via her Mega-Rod, but Mister Miracle refuses: “No, Barda! You must leave — alone! I must make this last play — even as Bedlam makes his!” And then…
Oberon still isn’t sure just what to make of Barda, and the wariness is mutual. But any further conflict is deferred for now; and the story skips ahead to later in the evening, where we find Scott and Oberon in the kitchen. Scott is working hard to prepare a large and hearty dinner (“Big Barda didn’t get that strong from eating cookies!”), while his friend pumps him for information on how he managed to escape Doc Bedlam’s various traps. Scott is initially reluctant to divulge his “trade secrets”, even to his trusted assistant — however…
As for the Iron Maiden? Scott allows that “that could have been a bad scene… but that multi-cube could’ve been just the thing for that problem, too!” “Who’d have thought it?” responds Oberon.
Gee, if the multi-cube was capable of putting everyone else in the building into a comatose state (temporarily, I presume), maybe Mister Miracle should have led with that, back when this whole mess started in MM #3, huh? Ummm, welll… OK, maybe the little device took a while to warm up before it was capable of sending such “a strong electro-sonic signal”? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Is Kirby being exploitative here, parading Big Barda around in what amounts to a red bikini (quick note: and not for the last time, either)? Maybe a little, sure. But I’d argue that the scene mostly avoids being offensive, by virtue of the fact that Barda is so obviously completely indifferent to the effect that she’s having on the two men she’s presently sharing space with. She’s only interested in being comfortable (and in having dinner), and any discomfiture (or other response) Scott and Oberon experience is their problem, not hers. It’s not that Barda is sexless — as we’ll eventually come to learn, that’s not true in the least — but rather that when and if she chooses to express her sexuality, it’ll be in her own time, and on her own terms.
And with that, we’re done with Mister Miracle for this issue. With the introduction of Big Barda, our main cast is now complete — and the title’s overarching storyline is set to take off for the stratosphere (or for the fire-pits of Apokolips, take your pick). So strap on your aero-discs, friends; it’s going to be quite a ride.
But even if we’re done with Mister Miracle for this post, we’re not quite finished with Mister Miracle — because issue #4 is the first of the series to be published in DC Comics’ new 25-cent “bigger & better” format. Which means that Jack Kirby, editor, still has fifteen pages to fill with comic-book content.
As with his other two brand-new titles, Forever People and New Gods, Kirby was at something of a disadvantage in comparison with his fellow DC editors, in that there was no archival material involving these characters available to reprint. (He manged to avoid this problem in Jimmy Olsen, where the Golden Age adventures of the original Newsboy Legion and the Guardian — the successors of whom were appearing regularly in Kirby’s new Olsen stories — were a natural for re-presentation.) And, also as with those titles, the solution arrived at was to reprint some of the little-seen work Kirby had done during his first stint working for DC back in the Forties, mostly in tandem with his creative and business partner at the time, Joe Simon.
In the case of Mister Miracle, the decision was made to run reprints of Simon and Kirby’s “Boy Commandos” feature — a strip which had combined the “kid gang” concept the team had previously used to create the Newsboy Legion with the war comics genre. The Boy Commandos consisted of an international group of four underage orphans, who were led on their missions by a U.S. Army captain named Rip Carter. (Yes, kids in combat. Hey, it had already worked for Simon and Kirby with Bucky Barnes.) Originally introduced in Detective Comics #64 (Jun., 1942), the BCs soon gained a berth in World Finest Comics as well, before graduating to their own eponymous title (cover of #1 shown at left); the latter ran for 36 issues, not ending until 1949 (outlasting the actual war that inspired it by four years).
But a single Boy Commandos adventure didn’t quite fill the quota of pages needed for Mister Miracle #4. Kirby had tossed in a few new pin-ups for the initial 25-cent editions of both Forever People and New Gods, but didn’t do that here; perhaps time didn’t allow for it. In any event, this issue’s Boy Commandos reprint was preceded by another, shorter piece produced by Kirby in the 1940s — a four-pager chronicling the career of the historical pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte, as originally presented in the first issue of DC’s Real Fact Comics:
Did Kirby perhaps take a few artistic liberties in his depiction of Lafitte’s colorful life? I can’t claim to have actually fact-checked the strip in preparation for this post, but I would be disinclined to bet against such a supposition.
Anyway, on to the Boy Commandos story. Interestingly, it’s not the very first adventure of the team — rather, it’s a tale from some eighteen issues into their Detective run:
Wait — “Rosalind K“? It’s probably just a coincidence that this particular Boy Commandos story was the one chosen to run in the same issue of Mister Miracle as the debut of Big Barda — then again, maybe it wasn’t. In any event, it should be interesting to compare the character Roz Kirby partially inspired her husband to create in 1971 with the “sleek, well turned, gracefully curved” namesake he and Joe Simon gave the world twenty-eight years earlier…
… or maybe it would be, if “Rosalind K” weren’t the name of an airplane.
Oh, well. I’m sure — pretty sure, anyway — that Ms. Kirby must have been flattered in both instances. (Although I do wonder if anybody ever told her about Lainie Kazan…)
*Jon B. Cooke, “The Unknown Kirby”, Comic Book Artist Special Edition #1 (TwoMorrows, 2013), p. 14.
**John Morrow, with Jon B. Cooke, Old Gods & New: A Companion to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (The Jack Kirby Collector #80) (TwoMorrows, 2021), p. 70.