The subject of today’s blog post is probably the best known issue of writer-artist-editor Jack Kirby’s DC Comics title Mister Miracle — or, if not that, at least the most referenced. Its contents are mentioned in most comprehensive histories of American comic books, as well as in the majority of biographies not only of Kirby himself, but also of Stan Lee, Kirby’s primary collaborator at DC’s main rival, Marvel Comics. Most of you out there reading this probably know the reason why; it’s all down to a certain character who, while he doesn’t actually appear on the comic’s cover by Kirby and inker Mike Royer, does have his debut heralded there: “Introducing.. Funky Flashman! Villain or Hero — You Decide!”
And why was — why is — Funky Flashman such a big deal? Because, as Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon so aptly put it in their 2004 book, Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, Funky represented Kirby’s “considered vivisection of his old creative partner.”
But, here’s the thing — back in November, 1971, my fourteen-year-old self didn’t get that. At all.
To be completely honest with you, I’m not at all sure when I did apprehend the Flashman/Lee connection. Or whether, when I finally did — most likely after an interval of several years — it was by way of a “eureka” moment of realization I had all on my own, or if a friend explained it to me, or if I read it in a fanzine. (Probably one of the latter two.) But, in any event, the gulf between how I first responded to this comic book a half century ago, and how I feel and think about it now, is greater than it usually is in these posts. Just something for us all to keep in mind as we proceed.
But first, a bit of recap, and some setup. The last issue of Mister Miracle we discussed here, #4, saw a new character added to the series’ cast: Big Barda, who, like our protagonist Scott Free, had grown up in Granny Goodness’ orphanage on Apokolips — but, unlike him, had chosen to remain to become an elite trooper in Darkseid’s army. Issue #5 found Barda becoming further integrated into the lives of Scott and his Earth-born friend/assistant Oberon, even as the enemies of the young “super escape artist” attempted to use his affection for Barda against him — on this occasion, by kidnapping her to draw Mister Miracle (Scott) into a trap. The particular enemy who’s after our hero this time, the Prussian military-emulating Virman Vundabar, is successful in that specific aim — but our hero ultimately escapes his trap (of course), and rescues Barda.
The story also included the following sequence, which occurs early in the narrative; after Scott and Oberon’s successful rehearsal of a new stunt, the former declares that if things keep going well, they’re going to have “a sensational act!!”
Kirby is responding here to criticisms of the naming conventions he’s used for many of his Fourth World characters — more specifically., the complaint that monikers like “Granny Goodness” and “Virrman Vundabar” are too humorous, as well as less than credible when applied to visitors from a dystopian alien god-world. I’m not certain that the “in-universe” explanation Scott offers Oberon for some denizens of Apokolips having Dickensian names is completely convincing; nevertheless, it’s a clever bit that gives Kirby the opportunity to tip his hat to one of his more significant literary influences.
Of course, the character whose name provides the title to Mister Miracle’s next adventure has a Dickensian handle without benefit of being raised in Granny Goodness’ orphanage. (Hey, I won’t tell if you won’t.)
And on that note, let us proceed to make that individual’s acquaintance…
This opening scene of Funky Flashman and his servitor Houseroy “in the decaying ante-bellum grandeur of the Mockingbird Estates” was completely baffling to my benighted younger self in 1971 — and even a contemporary reader who knows that Funky and Houseroy are based on Stan Lee and Roy Thomas (Lee’s associate editor at Marvel during this era) may need, or at least appreciate, some decoding of it.
The late Colonel Mockingbird is evidently intended to represent Marvel’s founder and publisher, Martin Goodman; Lee was related to Goodman by marriage, and had first gone to work for him when still a teenager. Kirby is implying here that Lee is completely dependent on Goodman for his financial security, as well as that his position has nothing to do with the quality of his work, or, indeed, with whether he works at all (“At least I don’t have to work for it, dope!!“). The Colonel’s having “passed away” is probably an allusion to Goodman having sold his company to the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation in 1968, a move which put Lee’s own future at Marvel in some doubt. Why “Mockingbird”? That’s been construed as an allusion to Goodman’s well-known penchant for having Marvel jump on existing market trends, rather than innovating (prior to 1961, at least) — for copying other comics publishers, in other words, in the same way that a mockingbird mimics other birds’ songs.
Intriguingly, according to Mark Evanier, who worked as an assistant to Kirby at the time, Funky Flashman wasn’t originally supposed to be a parody of Stan Lee at all; rather, the original target was Don Wallace, the head of the company that ran the short-lived Marvelmania International fan club:
…Steve [Sherman, Kirby’s other assistant] and I had worked for Marvelmania International, a Marvel mail order firm. The guy who ran it was… well, let’s just say that a lot of kids never got the Silver Surfer posters they ordered and a lot of artists and folks who worked for him never got paid. When Jack asked us to come up with ideas for stories, we suggested, “Hey, let’s do him.” Funky Flashman was originally conceived as our version of that guy we’d worked for at Marvelmania. When Jack started doing it, the character started turning into Stan Lee. I don’t think Jack consciously decided, “I’m going to parody Stan.” I think he just sat down to draw this character who was going to be sweet-talking Mister Miracle into working with him and his personal reference points for that kind of relationship led him to start drawing Stan. (The Jack Kirby Collector #6 [Jul., 1995], p.24)
Funky Flashman may have had his genesis in Don Wallace — Kirby himself was one of those “artists and folks who worked for him never got paid”, as Evanier related on his blog in 2002, and thus had his own axe to grind as well as his assistants’ — but it certainly seems that by the time the creator was ready to start drawing Funky, or putting words in his mouth, the identification in his mind between the character and Stan Lee was quite clear. In any event, the story-opening “Mockingbird Estates” business clearly indicates that Kirby had given a lot of thought to working out the details of the parody by the time he composed these pages.
We should probably note here that although it’s common knowledge that Stan Lee wore a hairpiece, the beard that he sported for a few years in the late ’60s-early ’70s was his own.
In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper, 2013), Sean Howe makes the observation that while Lee didn’t comment publicly on Kirby’s unflattering parody of him in Mister Miracle, he did shave off his beard not long after it appeared. (Though, as we all know, he kept the mustache.)
While, to the best of my knowledge, Lee never did directly address “Funky Flashman!”, Roy Thomas has spoken to the topic on several occasions over the last several decades. Here’s some of what he had to say in a 1998 interview for Comic Book Artist:
Most satires have some accuracy to them. If you’re going to satirize a relationship, at the core is something real and it may get distorted to the point that it doesn’t depict the true relationship. Jack was living out of Manhattan and rarely coming in—the last few years all the way out in California—so he wasn’t seeing us from close at hand. What he saw was me (or somebody else if I wasn’t there) as a flunkie, and what the hell, I was, and anybody in that job would have been one too…
I didn’t see it as particularly personal because the relationship between me and Stan wasn’t totally unlike that, but that’s only to the extent that you consider Jack’s picture of Stan accurate. My character, Houseroy, was only there as a cipher, somebody to talk to, to be a toadie, and eventually abandoned by Flashman. It was kind of mean-spirited and warped out of recognition. I did love the name Houseroy, which was cute, but it hurt to some degree. But I realized that Jack didn’t know what he was talking about and was just putting me in to fit the role…
How did Scott and Oberon manage to score a “NASA Proving Ground” rocket sled, d’you suppose? Was the federal space agency running a surplus goods operation on the side in 1971? Inquiring minds…
Despite his worrying, Oberon follows Scott’s instructions (as he always inevitably does), setting the timer and then scrambling for the bunker. Ignition follows, and then the sled is rocketing along its narrow track…
Not to worry, Oberon — your boss added an ejection-seat setup to the sled when you weren’t looking, just so he could see your honest reaction to his apparent explosive demise. (Wotta guy.) And he’s pleased with what he saw, declaring: “I think the crowds will respond with equal excitement!!” The crowds? That’s correct — Mister Miracle is planning to take their show on the road: “Touring means being constantly on the move, Oberon!! That’s what’s important! We must become mobile!!”
Upon seeing Barda’s strength, Funky immediately dials down the leering condescension; she’s wryly amused, though not at all surprised. After dismissing him as “Ego — ignorance — and hostility!! A real powerhouse!!”, she excuses herself to go take a bath.
Scott and Oberon show up a moment later; and then, while Oberon makes coffee, Funky goes into his pitch:
Interestingly, the preceding scene — which I’m pretty sure my fourteen-year-old self enjoyed more than any of the scenes featuring Funky Flashman — wasn’t part of Kirby’s original plan for the issue. As Mark Evanier explained to interviewer Jon B. Cooke in 1999:
Well, I wrote that page — that’s the one page in the history of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics that Jack didn’t write. He gave it to me to do because he was a page short. Jack was wonderful at many things, but calculating was not one of them. [laughter] … Jack had penciled that issue of Mr. Miracle. He handed it to me for a read-through before he sent it off to Royer, and I said, “Jack, you’re a page short.” He didn’t believe me, but sure enough, he had misnumbered. He’d somehow jumped from page 9 to page 11 or something like that, so he said to me, “Find a place to put a page in. You write it, and I’ll draw it.” … Jack had written a line in the issue wherein Barda said, “I’m going to go take a bath,” but he had not drawn that scene. So, I figured everyone would be disappointed and I found a place where, with a few minor dialogue changes on other pages, the bathtub scene could be inserted. I wrote that page, and Jack drew it, making some changes in the dialogue. I was trying to sound like him as much as I could, because my writing style, I felt, was drastically different.
And now you know.
Sure, Mister Miracle #6 is the “Funky Flashman” issue. But it’s also the issue in which Kirby introduced Big Barda’s once and future sisters-in-arms, the Female Furies. And as far as significance to Kirby’s overarching Fourth World epic goes, these women have it all over Funky; I think so, anyway.
Scott reiterates what he’d said earlier to Oberon, telling Barda: “We’re going to move — and keep moving!!” He’s agreed to let Funky manage their tour (“He’s a transparent second-rater — but he’ll have to do!!”); perhaps they can lose themselves in “hamlets — cities — continents”, at least until their Apokoliptican pursuers give up the chase. Barda isn’t completely convinced — especially about Flashman, whom she considers a megalomaniac — but consents to the plan.
The next day, Mister Miracle puts on a private show for Funky in a rented rehearsal studio. It goes well, leaving the act’s newly-appointed manager duly impressed:
It’s interesting that Lashina make a big noise to alert her prey, when it seems that she could just ambush our hero unawares. A matter of honor, perhaps…
This little biographical nugget also implies some interesting things about how hierarchy works on Apokolips. We might logically expect that the other members of Barda’s “battle unit” would all be more or less her social equals. But Barda, as we know, was raised in an orphanage, while Burnadeth (talk about your great Kirby names!) presumably comes from the more elite echelon of the Apokoliptican populace. Hmm…
Kirby appears to have had a real-life incident in mind when he introduced the detail of Funky’s listening to tapes of himself on a recording machine. In an interview conducted by Leonard Pitts in 1986 or 1987, when asked why he’d left Marvel in 1970; the creator responded:
Because I could see things changing and I could see that Stan Lee was going in directions that I couldn’t. I came in one night and there was Stan Lee talking into a recording machine, sitting in the dark there. It was strange to me and I felt that we were going in different directions.
A more detailed version of this story comes by way of Steve Sherman, as reported by Abraham Riesman in his book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee (Crown, 2021):
“The guy was sitting in the dark in his office, all the lights were out, he had a tape recorder, and he was talking into the tape recorder,” Sherman says. “Jack sat down and Stan said, ‘Now listen to this, this is great!’ ” Stan hit PLAY on the device. “And it was just Stan talking: phrases and speeches and ‘Excelsior!’ and this and that,” Sherman recalls. Jack asked what this was all about. Stan smiled his Cheshire-cat smile and said, “I’m going to run for governor.” All Kirby could think to say was “Good for you.”
One aspect of the “Mockingbird Estate” setting we didn’t discuss in detail earlier was the reference to its “decaying ante-bellum grandeur” (emphasis mine). Kirby expands on that idea with Funky’s dialogue in the third panel above, most pointedly with the line, “Happy slaves singing for the family!!” In the context, it’s almost impossible to interpret the line as anything other than Kirby making a comparison between the historical enslavement of Black Americans and the working conditions at Marvel under the Goodman-Lee “family”‘s management. (The insensitivity of this analogy makes us wince today, but probably raised few eyebrows in 1971 — well, few white folks’ eyebrows, at any rate.) Just to underscore the point, the last spoken line Kirby gives Funky is: “A marvel of contrast!”
So endeth “Funky Flashman!” — probably the most baffling installment of Kirby’s Fourth World tetralogy my younger self had yet to read, back in November, 1971. At the time, while I got that Funky and Houseroy were supposed to be funny, they weren’t very funny to me; understandable, as the characters represented the sort of parody that tends to land flat if you don’t recognize the object of said parody, and I didn’t. Per the cover’s blurbed question, I wasn’t sure if Funky Flashman was a villain (though I was damned sure he wasn’t a hero), but I wasn’t the least bit interested in ever seeing him again, in any case. As far as fourteen-year-old me was concerned, virtually all of this story’s interest came from the introduction of the Female Furies. (OK, and from Big Barda’s bathtub scene.)
As for sixty-four-year-old me? Well, it’s complicated. I don’t believe that Funky Flashman represents a completely fair portrayal of Stan Lee, and thus I get a little annoyed with those extreme anti-Lee comics fans who embrace the character as the “real” Lee. But, from another perspective, whether the portrayal is fair is beside the point; this story is satire, and “fairness” isn’t really in satire’s job description. Knowing what I do today, I understand the reasons why Kirby felt such bitter anger towards his former collaborator and editor; I also recognize the skill with which he conducted his “considered vivisection”. Sure, Stan Lee may have survived the cuts of Kirby’s wicked scalpel; that doesn’t mean he didn’t lose a lot of blood in the process. Whatever else “Funky Flashman!” may be, it’s a fascinating spectacle.
I have no way of knowing if Jack Kirby ever regretted having produced this story, but there’s no question that it made things awkward for him within a few years’ time, after his relationship with DC Comics had soured. As related by Roy Thomas in an interview for The Jack Kirby Collector #18 (Jan., 1998):
Despite Funky Flashman, Houseroy, and the whole thing in-between, when I was out there [in California] in the summer of 1974 for the San Diego convention, several people — Jack and their son Neal and probably [Kirby’s wife] Roz and maybe someone else — got together with me to my surprise to talk about the possibility of Jack coming back to Marvel then, about a year before he actually did… And all I could say to Jack was, “The only thing between you really is that Stan was a little hurt about the way you left, but that’s not a big deal. And the Funky Flashman stuff bothered him a little bit, because it seemed, to Stan at least, somewhat mean-spirited.” I said to Jack, “I don’t take the Houseroy stuff that personally, because you don’t know me… And the name ‘Houseroy’ is clever as hell, and I kinda like it.” I’m even a sympathetic character because I got tossed to the wolves. (laughter) But I said, “We can get past that. Stan would love to have you back; he never wanted you to leave.”
Later, in the same interview, Thomas added:
Jack of course said, “Well, y’know, I was just making stories” when I talked to him that time, but we all knew it was a little more than that. But we all do things like that; sometimes we regret them later, sometimes we don’t. I have no idea how Jack came to feel about it later. Stan said he never let it bother him, but the relationship was never quite the same…
That meeting between Thomas and Kirby was in 1974; and while the King’s actual return to Marvel wouldn’t happen for another couple of years, it would come soon enough. Would the Jack Kirby of 1976 have counseled the Jack Kirby of 1971 to take a somewhat different tack with Mister Miracle #6, given the opportunity? If he had, would the ’71 Kirby have listened? We’ll never know.
As with his other DC titles during the 25-cent/48-page format era, Kirby used a few of the pages available to him in Mister Miracle for new content to run a short backup series related to the lead feature. “Young Scott Free” would prove to be the most substantial of these backups, providing readers with valuable insight into our hero’s formative years on Apokolips, and ultimately leading into MM #9’s “Himon”, one of the high points of the entire Fourth World epic.
The initial installment ran in issue #5, and featured Vince Colletta’s last inking job for Mister Miracle. Kirby starts things off with a forthright acknowledgement of his debt to Charles Dickens, echoing the reference in the issue’s lead story that we noted earlier…
“On Apokolips — to disobey a master indoctrinator is close to capital crime!” the next caption informs us. “But Granny chooses to be merciful!!” Said “mercy” is for Scott to be made to run through a gauntlet of his peers — three times:
Afterwards, a battered Scott is tossed into a “contemplation cell” by two guards shouting, “Death to the enemy!” and “Death to New Genesis!” (which, if I’m not mistaken, is the first inkling we’ve been given in Mister Miracle that New Genesis even exists)…
The story continues in issue #6, as Kirby is joined by Mike Royer on inks; some time has passed since the conclusion of the first chapter, obviously, though not much…
As brief as they are, these short pieces not only give us the most substantial look we’ve had yet at what life on Apokolips is really like, but also help us begin to understand why Scott turned out differently from the other orphanage alumni we’ve met, such as Big Barda and Virman Vundabar. What we don’t know yet, of course, is why Metron of the New Gods would have singled out Scott Free for special attention among all the other “deadly little darlings” housed in Granny’s institution.
But that answer would be forthcoming soon — in a little more than a month, in fact — in the pages of New Gods #7, which just so happens to be your humble blogger’s favorite comic book of all time. I hope you’ll come back in December for our discussion of that one.
Bringing up the rear of this issue of Mister Miracle was yet another reprinted story of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “Boy Commandos”. This one’s kind of special — at least for its first few pages — and so we’re going to spend a little more time with it than we’ve been doing with most of the reprints from this era of DC Comics:
You all recognize the (original) Newsboy Legion, I’m sure. The three “Detective Comics” management-types losing their shit in the bottom tier of panels? According to the Grand Comics Database, that’s Boy Commandos’ fledgling editor Jack Schiff, DC’s co-owner Jack Liebowitz, and editor-of-record Whitney Ellsworth.
Did Kirby, as Mister Miracle‘s editor, pull this particular Boy Commandos story for reprinting in this issue as a way of subtly contrasting his relationship with his original creative partner, Joe Simon, to his later one with Stan Lee? It’s intriguing to speculate.
With the appearance of Sandman, all of Simon & Kirby’s early ’40s features for DC have now been represented in this strip, with the notable exception of Manhunter.
And with that sign-off from “The Authors”, we reach the end of the metafictional component of this 12-page thriller, which becomes a more standard sort of Boy Commandos story henceforth — and thus a lot less interesting, at least to your humble blogger. But just so you don’t wonder about the solution to this mystery for the rest of your life, here’s the short version of “what really happened”: a “wealthy midget” named Milton Small, frustrated by his inability to enlist in the U.S. Army so that he can fight the Axis personally, puts together a team of similarly short-statured rich guys who, accompanied by Small’s (tall) butler Jameson, launch their own military expedition into Germany. They ultimately take out the master spy Agent Axis (coincidentally, the object of a concurrent mission by the real Boy Commandos and their adult leader, Capt. Rip Carter) — at least, they appear to — but are killed by an explosion in the process. It’s their deaths that are reported to the world by the Nazis as those of the Boy Commandos. A sad ending, but in its original wartime context, probably a stirring one, as well.
Here’s one more interesting thing about this story. The villain of the piece, Agent Axis, never reveals their actual face on-panel; we’re shown only a portion of their robed form, as well as their shadow…
… and in the follow-up story, “The Return of Agent Axis” (yeah, Milton Small and company didn’t quite finish the job, unfortunately), the villain is seen covered up in a black hat and cloak — for most of the tale’s running length, anyway. (As the story was reprinted in Mister Miracle #7, we’ll save its big reveal for our post on that comic, coming in January, 2021.)
I point this out because I suspect it may have been the relative anonymity of Agent Axis’ visual that facilitated the character’s suddenly jumping publishers in 1966, via a Captain America story in Marvel Comics’ Tales of Suspense #82 (text by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia):
Today it seems to be widely assumed that Kirby, forgetting which publisher he and Joe Simon had created Agent Axis for back in the ’40s, drew the cloaked-and-hatted apparition into this sequence and then let Lee know who it was supposed to be, most likely by way of a margin note on the art. But it’s at least possible that Lee came up with the moniker all on his own, or so it seems to me; I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure, one way or another.
In any event, Roy Thomas picked up on the character some years later, fleshing him out with a new origin and pitting him against Cap and his World War II-era teammates in the Forties-set Invaders Annual #1 (1977). Thomas has been quoted as saying of this act of re-creation, “I don’t know that I’d ever even seen the original story with Agent Axis’ first appearance in BOY COMMANDOS #1…” But while it’s entirely reasonable to believe that Thomas had never seen that vintage issue, it’s a little harder to credit that he wouldn’t be aware of the story’s reprinting in Mister Miracle #6 — though, on the other hand, it’s not that difficult to see how the lead story in that issue could have taken up most or all of his attention as a reader in 1971.
And so we come to the end of our post… still talking about Stan Lee and Roy Thomas. But I guess that’s Mister Miracle #6 for you, all over.