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.
Despite the fact that Scott’s initial trip through Chandler Towers reminds me more than a little bit of my second marriage, filled with “hostile, dangerous, raving maniacs,” I enjoyed this story. Simple and straight forward, the internal logic “mostly” held up and the introduction of Big Barda was mysterious and interesting. I would have hoped that the first appearance of such a new and influential character would have included more for her to do, other than simply watching Scott defeat the evil machinations of Doc Bedlam, but there’s undoubtedly more to come, so we’ll cut her some slack.
The one thing I didn’t get was, if the animates were “manipulated by the power of a single mind,” why did they feel the need to talk to one another and explain what they were doing? Why could they even talk at all? I understand the need to educate the reader as to what’s happening, but it seems Jack could have come up with a better method that made more sense given his explanation of what the animates are. The other thing I didn’t get was why a “paranoid pill” made the TV actors think they were really the characters they were portraying…or, at least I think that’s what they thought, though assuring the director that he’ll get his Emmy doesn’t really support that. Truthfully, I dunno what those guys were up to, but it sure didn’t look like paranoia.
Regardless, this issue was a lot tighter and made a lot more sense than many of the stories we’ve been discussing lately, so we’ll just call it a win and look forward to seeing Barda get more involved in the action next time. Nice job.
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Much enjoyed both yours and the Michael Chabon discussions on Big Barda, Alan! My dad regularly collected Playboy in the ’60s & ’70s and at some point in the early ’70s I took to perusing through his collection — actually reading the articles, essays, and interviews, along ogling at the photos and laughing at the cartoons. Among the pictorials that stuck in my mind was the one featuring Lanai Kazan — outside of that pictorial I wasn’t familiar with her at all, but those pictures certainly aroused my younger self (and, ok, my older self as well!). Anyhow, I somehow suspect that one big reason that DC nixed the idea of giving BB her own series is that the basic concept was a bit too similar to that of Wonder Woman, except that BB had a lot more personality. Whether or not Marvel may have given it a go if Kirby had still been there is hard to say, but if so she may have had more staying power than the various women Marvel did try in solo series in 1972. Also, Thundra, whose intro in the FF I got when that was new, certainly bore a strong resemblance to Big Barda, particularly as drawn by Rick Buckler, although I have no idea if that was intentional or not.
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Roy Thomas is quoted in “Old Gods & New” as saying: “Thundra was, I suppose, a sort of response to (though not a copy of) Big Barda, a character I both liked and didn’t like.” Hmmm…
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“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….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 Lainie Kazan…But ultimately, the personality of Big Barda was pretty much Roz, and Jack was pretty much Scott Free.”
This was probably from interviews with Kirby in the 1980’s or later, probably with a lot of prompting from the interviewer.
A point of information. Women’s bodybuilding did not come to the attention of the mass media until the end of the 1970’s, years after Kirby introduced Big Barda to the world in the October, 1971 issue of Mr. Miracle that hit the newsstands on July 13, 1971. There were no “pageants” on Television until 1979 at the earliest because there were none being held. The International Federation of Bodybuilders didn’t hold the first “Ms Olympia” contest until 1980. It resembled a bikini beauty contest more than anything else. However, that would change as time went on…
In 1971, with the exception of Tennis and Golf, professional women’s sports were nonexistent in the United States. The U.S. Women’s Olympic Team was not competitive with the women athletes from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and would not be competitive until the 1980’s or later. Title 9, that mandated women’s sports in schools, was not passed until 1974.
Big Barda, however, was contemporaneous with the rise of the feminist movement in the United States at the beginning of the 1970’s. I think feminism was Kirby’s inspiration for Big Barda, as well as his wife, probably. It would make sense that his physical model for Big Barda was Lainie Kazan.
When I saw Big Barda for the first time in that issue of Mr. Miracle, I thought she was the most “rad” thing Kirby had done since moving to DC and also the most “rad” thing he had done in a long time and maybe the last truly lasting “rad” thing he would do as comics creator. Next to Darkseid, Big Barda, IMO, was the best creation of Kirby in the Fourth World.
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Joshua, I don’t think there’s any need to speculate about “interviews with Kirby in the 1980’s or later” with or without “a lot of prompting from the interviewer”. As I think I made clear in the post, the comment about the influence of female bodybuilders on the creation of Big Barda comes from Mark Evanier, who worked with Kirby in the early ’70s and was “present at the creation”, as they say.
That said, based on the information you’ve shared, Mr. Evanier’s memories do seem to have gone a bit awry on this matter, so I appreciate your clarification.
Also, I agree; Big Barda is indeed very rad.
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Alan, I have no doubt that Mark Evanier once mentioned female bodybuilders as an inspiration for Big Barda in an interview that you read. However, today I read two blog entries from Evanier that only mention Lainie Kazan as the influence for the character. Here is one of them, https://www.newsfromme.com/2012/01/23/the-lovely-ms-barda/ As Evanier himself noted in his Kirby FAQs, it was very common for Kirby (Lee and others) to say different things at different times. It certainly does seem that the Kazan part is consistent and accurate. https://www.newsfromme.com/articles-such/the-jack-faq/ (see page 1 and 2).
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It’s certainly interesting that Evanier’s blog posts about Barda’s origins don’t bring up the bodybuilder angle. Unfortunately, not only is the original interview where he made the assertion still out there, but it was just quoted in TwoMorrows’ brand new “Old Gods & New” book, which is likely to be the definitive reference for the Fourth World for some time to come. Alas, that neither the original interviewer (Jon Cooke), or the new book’s editor (John Morrow) appear to have known any more about the actual history of female bodybuilding than I did (prior to Joshua’s comment, that is 🙂 ).
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Now for my general comments on the issues and your blog post: I must confess that I didn’t much care for Big Barda when she made her debut in 1971. I was too much brought up with and affected by the traditional viewpoint of feminity in women. I much preferred the Sue Richards and Jean Grey type (although even I drew the line with Janet Van Dyne, no rhyme intended). I certainly took my lumps on that viewpoint when I was dating in the 1980s.
However, enough about me :), I noticed two things on the last page of the story in Mister Miracle No. 4 regarding Big Barda. First, she’s drawn without a belly button. While that’s probably a Comic’s Code consideration, I guess being from Apokolips instead of Earth, she doesn’t have to have one. More importantly, notice that not only does Barda turn the female stereotype on its head with her muscularity and personality, but on the last page it is Scott Free who is making the dinner and Barda who says “What’s for chow boys?. . . It looks great! Let’s eat.” Clearly the woman isn’t expected to make the meals where she comes from!
As usual, I appreciated your recounting and analysis of Mister Miracle #3 and 4. I reread No. 3 last month on my own at D.C. Universe because I knew that you were not going to review it and remembered how much I loved “The Paranoid Pill” issue. Not that I didn’t like Issue No. 4 mind you. I loved every issue of “Mr. Miracle” to my memory (probably in part because Kirby didn’t drop any real life comedians into the story). I’m even in a good enough mood to defend Kirby about why Scott didn’t use the multi-cube in the beginning. Scott was facing a general threat and challenge in the beginning so he didn’t think to use the multi-cube (which he didn’t use in the first two issue so it obviously wasn’t formost in his mind). It was only when faced with a specifc danger of the falling trunk that his mind focused on multi-cube and after he used it once, he realized that he should keep using it.
I remembered re-reading this that at at the time I read this first in 1971, my thought was not “how convenient!”, which I admit thinking now, but “WOW! I wish I had one of those things!” 😀 No sense of irony or snarkiness, just the sincerity of a ten year old. Looking forward to Professor Vunderbar and His Murder Machine, another villain/concept I haven’t heard of for nearly 50 years but still remember.
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Stu, I hate to (again) be the bearer of bad tidings, but I’m not currently planning to write a full blog post about MM #5. I’m sure I’ll touch on it when I write about #6, but you should probably go ahead and plan to read it on DC Universe in September. 🙂
Will do. I take it that you are skipping New Gods and Forever People issues as well that I need to read on my own.
At present, it looks like the only New Gods I’ll be skipping is #4. Assuming I don’t change my mind 🙂 , I’ll also be skipping Forever People #5 and #8, and Jimmy Olsen #142, #143, and #145. (You didn’t ask about J.O., I realize, but I figured what the hey.)
Thanks for the update Alan. I’ll adjust my reading schedule accordingly (btw, I’ll be reading ASM #101 on Marvel Unlimited as part of my own personal 50 year review later this week and will read your blog post afterwards). I didn’t mention Jimmy Olsen because I was annoyed with Don Rickles but I’m sure that I read on after that. 😀
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