THAT TIME SUPERMAN WAS ALMOST FORCED TO MAKE A PORNO FILM…

A
Reading The Sensational She-Hulk graphic novel for the first time the other night reminded me of an even worse story from the pervy mind of John Byrne, and I thought I’d revisit that story today, as it once again illustrates the double-standard that female superheroes are subjected to in stories which involve sexuality. This will also be an image-heavy post, as I think it’s important to let people see for themselves exactly what I’m talking about, so they won’t think I’m just being biased when I describe the action.

Some background: When John Byrne was hired by DC to revamp Superman back in 1986, he also took over the Action Comics title, and made it a team-up book, where every issue Superman would team-up with (or against) some other DC superheroes or group. This was a two-part story (written and drawn by Byrne, with inks by Keith Williams) beginning in ACTION COMICS #592 (pictured above) featuring Big Barda and Mister Miracle. For those who don’t know those characters, they were part of Jack Kirby’s NEW GODS saga. This involved two alien worlds, New Genesis, run by the benevolent Highfather, and Apokolips, run by the malevolent Darkseid. Highfather and Darkseid once negotiated a peace treaty between their two worlds by giving each other one of their sons to raise. Highfather’s young son Scott was sent to Apokolips, and raised in a brutal orphanage by a taskmaster called Granny Goodness (who was anything but good). Barda was one of Granny Goodness’ elite soldiers, the Female Furies. She fell in love with Scott and helped him escape, the two of them fleeing to Earth, settling in Metropolis. There, they got married and each become superheroes (both serving as members of the Justice League for several years). Scott is Mister Miracle, an escape artist who also has several high-tech gadgets. Barda is basically like Wonder Woman (a fact which will come up later in this story), a tall super-strong woman, whose suit is made of indestructible body armor and who carries a mega-rod, a hand-held device that shoots powerful laser blasts.

Got it? Good.

So this story begins with Barda out for a walk one day, she takes a wrong turn and ends up in a bad section of Metropolis known as Suicide Slum. I guess this is like DC’s version of Skid Row. Barda is shocked by all the poverty and garbage she sees, and then is accosted by a Black male pimp, calling himself Fancy Man, who is dressed like a character straight out of a 1970’s blaxploitation film. Seriously, see for yourself:

ac_592_01

After tossing the pimp aside, some other dude grabs her purse and runs off, she chases after him, and he tries to ditch her by jumping down a manhole into the sewer. Where he is then grabbed by some unseen being with pink tentacles, who then hands the purse to SLEEZ (which would be a good title for this whole effed-up story), who is this little green creature:

sleez

It turns out (as we find out a little later in this issue) that Sleez just so happens to be a native of Apokolips, too. Centuries ago he was Darkseid’s counselor, but eventually his “petty cruelties” no longer amused Darkseid and so for some reason Darkseid banished Sleez to Earth, where Sleez has apparently been hanging out in the sewers beneath Suicide Slum. When he goes through Barda’s purse, he is shocked to find a mega-rod, which he recognizes as the weapon of the Female Furies, and surmises that one of them must be nearby. Sure enough, when Barda jumps down the manhole to look for the purse snatcher, Sleez sees her and blasts her directly with it, knocking her unconscious.

Two days later, Clark Kent is called to an old folks home in Suicide Slum to do a story on how all of the residents of this home are extremely old and sick (one lady is 120 years old), but they won’t die. The doctor in charge calls it a medical mystery, but Clark uses his X-ray vision to check their bodies and discovers that they’re all infected with some strange kind of radiation, which is what must be keeping them alive. He decides to investigate and and changes to Superman and flies around tracking the radiation, which he senses is coming from the sewers.

Yes, the implication here is that Sleez’ body just radiates some kind of alien energy that is keeping those old folks alive. That’s odd. No other New Gods characters before (or since) have ever been shown to have this effect on any humans. And why just those old people? Is this affecting anyone else in Suicide Slum? I don’t know, and that’s never addressed. We cut back to the sewers and see what Sleez has been up to since capturing Barda. Well, it turns out that Sleez also had mind-control powers (which probably makes you wonder why then he’s been hanging out in the sewers all this time, instead of living in a mansion or something, but nevermind). And how has he been using his mind-control powers on Barda?

By forcing her to put on a skimpy outfit and a bunch of makeup and then dance for him, of course.

 

D

Good grief. That has to be even more degrading than She-Hulk’s strip-search. Barda, a fierce warrior woman, forced to dance like a stripper in the sewer for this wretched little toad creature. And after some villainous boasting Sleez grabs her by the face and pulls her close to him. . .

 

E

Now Barda is pleading, in terror, “not again.” Not WHAT again?!? You tell me what we’re supposed to assume in this scene? What has Sleez been doing to Barda, besides making her dance for him, while he’s had her under his control, that she’s so terrified of being forced to do again?!? Byrne would argue that any negative assumption made here is on the readers, since he doesn’t actually say or show what happened in this story…but come on! It’s obvious. And it’s gross.

Thankfully, at that moment Superman shows up and grabs Sleez and tosses him aside. Then he helps Barda back up she thanks him, calling him by name. Then Superman says “You have me at a disadvantage miss. I don’t think I know you…unless you’re Wonder Woman under all that glop!”

First of all, why is Superman so surprised that she knows who he is, even though he doesn’t recognize her? He’s SUPERMAN! Of course everyone he meets, especially in Metropolis, is going to know who he is! Duh. And his statement, under all that glop? Keep in mind, he has no idea what’s been going on up to this point, just that she was obviously in danger. But for all he knows, that’s the make-up she normally wears. And he’s just insulting her appearance for no reason. Whatever. Barda then grabs her mega-rod and starts shooting at Sleez, shouting: “Now, Sleez, it is time for you to pay! Pay for the indignities which you heaped upon me in the past two days!”

Again, what are WE supposed to assume she means when she talks about “the indignities” he has put her through while controlling her mind for the past two days?

But Superman grabs her arm and stops her before she can hit Sleez, he doesn’t want her to kill him. We know it’s because Superman has tracked the life-saving radiation to Sleez, which is why he’s there in the first place. But Barda immediately assumes that this must mean that this isn’t the real Superman, and it’s just some trick of Sleez’s. So she blasts Superman with the mega-rod and knocks him out. And Sleez uses this distraction to pull some lever in a wall which opens a trap door underneath Superman and Barda so they both fall down a deep hole and Barda is knocked unconscious again along with Superman.

How (& why) the bloody heck did Sleez build a trap door in the sewer?!? And what a coincidence that Barda and Superman just happened to be standing directly on the trap door. Of course this whole story is built on a ton of coincidences, which just exemplifies how stupid it is. And that’s the cliffhanger ending, which leads into the next issue.
ACTION COMICS #593

F

Mister Miracle is arriving home, along with his assistant Oberon, and he calls out for Barda as he walks in the front door. No mention is made of how much time has passed since the previous issue. Remember, when we last saw Barda, she had been held captive by Sleez for two days. Perhaps Mister Miracle and Oberon were out of town on tour (in addition to being a superhero, he works as a professional escape artist, putting on show like Houdini used to), which would explain why he is unaware that his wife has been missing for however long this has been going on. Although you would think that even when out of town he’d call home at least every couple days, just to talk to his wife.  But this is never addressed in the story, so I don’t know.

Instead of Barda, Darkseid is in the house, sitting in a chair drinking wine. Mister Miracle and Oberon are shocked of course, and then Darkseid hands Mister Miracle a video tape, which Darkseid said his “agents” got for him from a small shop in Suicide Slum.

That’s right, Darkseid, an intergalactic dictator, has people checking out porn shops on Earth for him.

Although again I know Byrne would point out that it’s never expressively called a “porn shop.” Darkseid simply says it was in a small shop “which specializes in such fare.” Okay. Now what’s on the tape? That’s an interesting question. We don’t know exactly, because it’s never shown or said, but we do see Mister Miracle and Oberon’s reactions as they watch it…

G

They look mighty shocked, don’t they? So all we know is that the tape features Barda, and was shot in the sewer, where we know Sleez was keeping her. Could it have been just a video of her dancing in that stripper outfit, like we saw Sleez make her do last issue? Or was there more going on in that video? Well, as Byrne addresses in a FAQ section on his website, when asked if it was porn: “If you want it to be a porno flick, it was a porno flick. If you don’t, it wasn’t!”

Okay, whatever you say, Mr. Byrne. I call that a cop-out, he’s trying to deflect any criticism of the story by saying any assumptions that it involved porn are in the eyes of the reader. Well even if I accepted that B.S. (which I don’t), that still would mean that Byrne wrote a story where it was ambiguous enough that a reader could assume it was porn. But okay then, I don’t want it to be a porno flick. So I guess I could just assume that it’s a video of Barda dancing. Which is still humiliating enough to put this character through. Sleez forced her to put on a skimpy stripper outfit and dance in a sewer while he videotaped her, and then he put that video for sale in a store. That’s not something you’ll ever see a villain force Batman to do, so why is it okay for a female character like Big Barda?

But my theory of it just being a dancing videotape doesn’t really hold up as the story continues. We cut to the offices of Grossman Pictures, run by Mr. Grossman (get it? Gross-Man? Ha ha! So clever, Mr. Byrne!/sarcasm). He’s the one Sleez (calling himself Mr. Smith) gave the videotape of Barda to, to sell it. Grossman is happy to see Sleez who shows up in his office wearing a brown trenchcoat and fedora. Grossman tells Sleez that their videotape was terrific, and adds: “I’ve never hadda produce so many copies so fast, but it was worth it! Word of mouth is bringing in orders by the thousands!”

Okay, let’s back up a minute. Again, remember, this is 1987, long before the internet. Yet this one videotape, has already sold thousands of copies, just by word of mouth? Grossman predicts that they’re going to make “a million bucks” from it? And Sleez only had Barda captive for 2 days before Superman came along, so how fast could this tape have realistically spread, to become so popular in such a short time (and again, we don’t know how much time has passed since last issue, just that it wasn’t long enough for Mister Miracle to notice that his wife has been missing)? And even ignoring the logistics of this, this also makes it harder to believe that a tape this popular is just a tape of Barda dancing

Sleez beings Superman into Grossman’s office, and has him destroy Grossman’s desk to prove that it’s the real Superman and that he’s under Sleez’s control. He offers to let Grossman use Superman for his next video, knowing how popular THAT would be. And Sleez plans to use the money he makes to “forge my army!”

Yes, that’s Sleez’s big supervillain plan. To raise money by selling Superman porno tapes so he can hire a private army? Great plan. But why not just skip that part and go use his mind control powers on some rich person and make them give him all their money? Or better yet, skip the money part. Sleez already has Superman under his control! Superman is much more powerful than any army! He could just use Superman, and Big Barda, to do whatever it is he wants this army to do for him. You could take over a whole country with Superman as your puppet. Sheesh!

But Grossman complains that with Superman’s powers and strength, he can’t find a female co-star for him to use in a video. He says “there ain’t much market for solo acts.”

No solo acts? So then I ask again, what about that extremely popular video of Big Barda? That proves it couldn’t have just been a video of her dancing by herself since, according to Grossman, there’s not much market for that. So who was in the video with Big Barda?!? And what were they doing?!?

Anyway, Mister Miracle is in Suicide Slum, using his Mother Box (sort of a sentient mini-computer) to track Barda, and there’s a sequence where a bunch of bums (whom Sleez later refers to as his “army”) jump him and trap him in a dumpster and toss it in the river, but that’s just an excuse to show that he’s an escape artist, as he gets out of it easily. And he tracks Barda to this makeshift movie studio, where Grossman is filming Superman and Barda on a bed:

H

First, now what kind of movie are we supposed to assume that Grossman is making here? I suppose, instead of a porno film, it could be a regular movie, like a romantic comedy, and that Superman and Barda are just “acting” in a fake love scene (except remember, Grossman was worried about filming Superman with a regular female, because of Superman’s strength. That wouldn’t be an issue if they were just acting). And we see Superman is mentally resisting doing whatever this is. Which brings us to my second point. At no time in this story has Sleez expressed having any trouble mind-controlling Barda. He could make her dance for him at his will, and then do whatever else he’d been doing to her for two days, and all she could do was beg him not to. So I guess her “moral fibre” isn’t as strong as Superman’s?

But Sleez keeps trying, eager to “corrupt one as pure and noble as Superman,” which is when Mister Miracle arrives on the scene, just as Superman and Barda lock lips and embrace.

x

Sleez tries to use his mind control on Mister Miracle, who shrugs it off saying “Granny trained us cadets to resist any mind control less powerful than Darkseid’s own!”

Now I’ve seen some other reviewers of this issue use that line as an example of a sexist double-standard, pointing out that Barda, as I said, was one of Granny’s elite guards, so why does Byrne have her unable to resist Sleez’s mind control, when Mister Miracle can do it easily? But I’ll cut Byrne some slack on that one, since as we’ve seen so far Sleez was only able to take over Barda and Superman after each one had been knocked unconscious. So apparently that’s a limit to his power, his target has to be knocked out first, which is why it’s not working on Mister Miracle right now. Then we get a full look at the pink tentacled creature that has been teased since last issue, Mister Miracle recognizes it as an Ash-Crawler, a native creature from Apokolips (how they heck did it get to Earth?!? Did Darkseid send one with Sleez when he banished Sleez to Earth? Why would he do that?). Barda, who has snapped out of her mind control grabs and kills the creature, and then we see Superman chasing Sleez who is trying to run away through the sewers. But just as Superman has him corner, Sleez lights a match, igniting a gas pipe or something, and apparently blows himself up. Superman goes back to Barda and Miracle and has this awkward conversation:

I
Gotta love the look on Mister Miracle’s face as he watches this conversation. But what exactly is Superman referring to here? From this scene Mister Miracle stopped them before they could go any further than kissing. Did something else happen before that scene? Was there another video shot before this? Did Sleez have them doing stuff in the sewer that we don’t know about it? That’s never explained. But whatever it is, they’re both ashamed enough to agree to pretend that they don’t remember it, and and never talk about it again. They just go their separate ways. And then Superman changes back to Clark Kent and returns to the old folks home, expecting all the patients to be dead since Sleez blew up. But is shocked to see them still alive. And it’s left like that, with the implication that Sleez must have faked his death in the explosion.

Okay, so, as we saw last issue, Superman could trace Sleez’s body radiation. If he thinks Sleez is still alive, why doesn’t he try to track him again? No, that’s it, story is over. I guess Byrne wanted to leave it open for the possibility of bringing Sleez back in a future story, because he thought this was such a cool character? Well, Byrne quit the Superman books before he ever got the chance to do that, and I don’t know if any other writers ever used Sleez. But this story is pure garbage.

What the heck was John Byrne thinking (& which head was he thinking with) when he came up with this story?!? And why did DC let him get away with it? The very idea of Superman in a porno film is absurd…

J

Uh, nevermind.

  7 comments for “THAT TIME SUPERMAN WAS ALMOST FORCED TO MAKE A PORNO FILM…

  1. July 4, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    That…was…interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. December 7, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    I have heard that Jack Kirby absolutely HATED this story. A significant part of that had to do with the fact that Kirby based Big Barda’s personality upon that of his own wife Roz. So, not too surprisingly, Kirby was really angry that John Byrne did a story where Barda was hypnotized into making porno films.

    There seem to have been at least a couple of occasions in Byrne’s career when he was writing & drawing revamps of Kirby’s characters (this story was one instance, and the OMAC miniseries in 1991 was another) and, as he typically did, Byrne would state he was restoring the characters to the approach which their creator originally intended, yet Kirby hated what Byrne did, and Byrne either genuinely could not seem to fathom why, or he accused people of lying to him about how Kirby felt about his work.

    Like

    • December 7, 2014 at 3:30 PM

      I’ve also heard the story about Big Barda being based on Kirby’s wife, Roz. Someone mentioned that in another review of this story that I read somewhere, pointing out that it made what happened in it seem even worse. Whether Kirby ever actually heard of or read this story is hard to verify, since he never spoke publicly about it, as far as I know.

      But Byrne has admitted a particular love for Jack Kirby’s New Gods, they’ve turned up in a lot of his DC work even before he got the chance to do his own series about them.

      Like

      • December 7, 2014 at 4:06 PM

        I know that John Byrne has a definite fondness for the New Gods, and he’s created some good stories featuring the characters. But this is obviously not one of them.

        Liked by 1 person

What do YOU think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: