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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Where the Wonder Women Are: #35 Big Barda

February 6th, 2013 at 21:58

Big barda YayWhen I first met Scott and Barda Free, they were living a life of domestic bliss, occasionally punctuated by explosions and the other side effects of having a superhero in the family. Scott went off to his day job as Mister Miracle, stage escapologist and member of the Justice League International, and Barda stayed home to do the housework.

The twist was, if she wanted to bench press the house, she pretty much could.

This era is often panned by Barda fans, and I can see why – she’s a mighty space warrior, acting out a slightly less sexist (but only slightly) version of Bewitched, with no apparent desires beyond a simple, gender essentialist life as a housewife. She’s often reduced to the role of Her Indoors, hosting a barbecue for Scott and his superhero friends, or nagging him about getting home in time.

When she finally does strap her space armour back on and go into battle, it’s to rescue her husband rather out of a general sense of identity or completion. It could certainly be argued that from a character point of view her, identity revolves entirely around rescuing her husband. Which is… both problematic and awesome? Problamatawesome?

Scott is certainly no Darrin or Ricky Ricardo or any of those other sitcom husbands who were seriously holding back their awesome wives. We never see Scott express anything but admiration for his wife’s skills. He enjoys being rescued by her, and while they play out the ‘woman knows best, bloke is a bit useless’ routine, it’s their routine and it is much closer to equality than most marriages we see in comics.

It’s actually REALLY rare that superhero marriages where both the parties are super-powered are allowed to last.

1676495153_17422aefea_oScott and Barda’s marriage is, if gender essentialist in its trappings, constantly subverting the idea of a sitcom marriage – and in the 1980’s sitcom marriages were still pretty much tied up in traditional gender roles. Sure, Alyse Keaton of Family Ties and Angela of Who’s the Boss had real jobs, but they were still being held to very old fashioned ideas in the home, having to overcome them on a daily basis.

So, Scott and Barda. A lovely couple. Did I mention she is taller than him? A minor detail perhaps, but how rarely does this happen in visual media? And there’s nothing minor about the fact that she is also physically stronger and more badass than her husband at every turn.

Sure, she isn’t seen as a main protagonist for most of this era, and rarely appears in the story except to further Scott’s storyline (apart from a brief subplot in which she is called in to help Fire control her explosive new powers) but Barda is still completely and utterly fantastic.

So where on earth did she come from? I picked up bits and pieces about the backstory of the New Gods from this very comic, but was never very clear on the big picture. Did I mention we didn’t have Wikipedia back in the 90’s? HOW WE SUFFERED.

big_barda_jack_kirby2Barda began life as a supporting character in the Mister Miracle comic back in 1970, created by Jack Kirby. This series and its “Fourth World” sequels before the late 80’s were all fairly short-lived, each delving into the intergalactic space opera of the diplomacy and wars between New Genesis (home of the New Gods), and the horrific, evil empire planet that is Apokolips, ruled by the tyrant Darkseid.

The true heir of New Genesis, Scott Free was swapped as a baby with Orion, Darkseid’s own son, in the name of diplomacy – but was raised in the charmingly named Terror Orphanage (take that, Harry Potter) run by Granny Goodness.

Basically, if Mom from Futurama decided to trade in orphans rather than robots, you’d get Granny Goodness. She’s a brilliant, awful villainess who should be used far more than she is, even if she does play on the rather uncomfortable trope of ‘lady in nurturing role is actually horrible, therefore Worst Person in the World’ – hard to argue with, but hardly original even in the 70’s.

Scott became a rebel on Apokolips, joining a secret group of revolutionaries, and met Big Barda, who was also looking for a better life than what Granny Goodness and Darkseid offered.

Barda was being groomed by Granny to lead her evil (everything on Apokolips is basically evil) Female Fury Battalion (as a classicist I do object to the apparent need to specify that the Furies are female), but instead chose love, helping Scott escape to Earth.

grannyfuries

This would actually be the pattern of their relationship – him needing help, her protecting him. He is her little sweeties and she wants to keep him safe. In short, he’s the damsel of the couple. It’s pretty great.

On Earth, Scott was adopted by a circus (of course) and was mentored by the original Mister Miracle, learning the skills greatest escapologist in the world. Which is actually a pretty good skill if you’re going to spend most of your adult life being captured on a hell planet, and rescued by your girlfriend/wife.

Eventually, Barda followed Scott to Earth with her Battalion, after he had taken on the name of Mister Miracle. She and the Furies helped him take his show on the road, and they were eventually married.

Scott and Barda Free tried retirement, from cosmic disasters as well as show business, settling down in the little town of Bailey, New Hampshire, along with (strangely) Scott’s best friend from the circus, a grumpy dwarf (I’m not making this up) called Oberon.

barda to the rescueWhich brings us to the years of Justice League domesticity. A new Mister Miracle title spun off from the successful JLI in 1989, and continued for some time, often crossing over into the group title – and while they had plenty of cosmic shenanigans, the premise of the comic was very much the real, everyday adventures of the two of them as a married super couple in suburbia. Much humour came from Barda’s alien ways and her not always getting the hang of basic human traditions, but desperately wanting to. In some ways, this felt a bit more like I Dream of Jeannie than I Love Lucy or Bewitched.

The main thing is choice. Barda wanted a domestic, peaceful life, and after her background that’s hardly surprising. She would strap on her warrior armour when necessary, but playing the housewife made her happy. And that’s okay, actually. Except, of course, that it never quite went right…

big barda 0003Let’s talk about Barda as a warrior. She’s a massive woman, and most artists respected that, drawing her with solid bulk, muscle and height. Not quite She-Hulk stature, but not far off. She was also usually drawn in physical contrast to her husband, as an essential character note for them both.

(Except in the cartoon Justice League Unlimited where she is weirdly tiny – and of course Li’l Barda in Tiny Titans, which is fair enough really)

She not only has super strength, endurance, reflexes and speed (and longevity) she’s also the master of several weapons, not least the Mega-Rod which is, well. MIGHTY. And allows her to teleport herself and others through the excellent sounding Boom Tubes. As well as her domestic life, she also used her skills to train others in self defence as well as the use of powers as she did with Fire.

My favourite thing about Barda, though, is the combination of her strength and power with humour. Her character was not just allowed to be witty and snarky, but also to take part in physical humour.

bardabop1061While Scott and Barda eventually left the Justice League – leaving Oberon to continue the role he had taken on as Maxwell Lord’s main sidekick – she later returned to super heroics more actively in her own right. Barda was not only a member of the more “serious” Justice League of the early 2000’s, but also joined the Birds of Prey after invited by Oracle to be their “heavy hitter.”

Oh, and then they killed her.

You knew this was coming, right?

To be fair, her death came as part of a mini-series called Death of the New Gods (2007-2008), so it’s not like Barda was being singled out. Right?

The writer/artist of the mini-series, Jim Starlin, admitted that he thought that it was important to bring an end to this particular branch of the DC universe, as it had been portrayed with “mixed results” since being created by Kirby and that he considered it a “mercy killing.” Which doesn’t sound to me like the most positive reason in the world to create a comic event, but hey don’t mind me, I’m still bitter and resentful about what happened to Blue Beetle, Maxwell Lord, and pretty much every character who ever featured in JLI and its spin off comics. Crimson Fox, anyone? Fire and Ice? Ralph and Sue Dibny? (Don’t worry, I’m getting to them)

In any case, Barda is killed by a New-God-specific serial killer. In her kitchen. “While her husband’s back was turned,” according to descriptions – I haven’t personally read these comics, nor am I particularly keen to.

I’m not quite sure why it’s significant that his back is turned, except of course that it’s clear Barda’s death was used to create excessive man pain in her husband, one of the main active characters in this series along with Orion (whose wife was also killed in this story arc) and Superman. The whole story sounds pretty messy and sordid, and ends up with Scott Free feeling devastated and betrayed by the Source of the New Gods (and cause of their deaths) requesting to join his dead friends and family, which is granted.

So, um. Cheerful story, then. VERY in the traditions of Jack Kirby, I don’t think. More and more I begin to think that the people who talk about a conspiracy to wipe out and do horrible things to all the ‘fun’ characters of the late 80’s and early 90’s in DC Comics might be on to something.

youneedme

This is where, of course, the DC reboot actually comes in handy. Big Barda has not shown up in the new continuity yet (unless I have missed something? I’m way behind on my reading) but the New Gods have started to make sneaky inroads into the excellent Cliff Chiang/Brian Azzarello Wonder Woman title, and so I’m hoping, hoping, HOPING that our girl gets a comeback.

Scott can come too, if he likes. But this time around he doesn’t have to be the headline attraction.

barda scott beyondMeanwhile, the Digital Only DC Comics (which all work on separate continuities) are making the most of getting to choose what universe they inhabit. This seems to be particularly good for fans of female characters who are being screwed over by the current continuity – many fans of Lois Lane, for instance, are finding more to like about the Smallville comic than any ‘real’ Superman title.

Big Barda is currently featuring in two separate digital continuities – she is a regular team member in Justice League Beyond (part of the futuristic Beyond universe where Terry McGinnis is the new Batman, with an elderly Bruce Wayne as his mentor) and recently had her own origin issue (Chapter 16) which explained how she ended up alone on Earth, exiled from her people and separated forever from Scott.

The fun and irreverent Ame-Comi Girls also recently featured a little standalone story (Chapter 22) which places Big Barda in the context of their just-the-super-ladies universe.

amecomibardaIn case you were wondering, Barda is of course a space pirate with a ship full of mostly loyal Female Furies, fighting not only Granny Goodness (and the disturbingly named Wombworld) but the sinister Lady Darkseid too.

Tantalisingly, Mr Miracle is in this universe too… except of course, she is Miss Miracle. OH HELL YEAH. If you want to know as badly as I do whether their love is as true and eternal in this continuity as in the others… I honestly can’t tell. There is one very friendly hug which could mean anything, but oh. I’m really hoping we see more of the Ame-Comi Barda and Miracle in the future, because if they are not in love I MIGHT HAVE TO WRITE OFFICIAL LETTERS OF COMPLAINT.

True fact: I had not realised how much I ship Barda and Scott until writing this essay.
Barda and Scott forever.

Or, if Ame-Comi Girls is the only one doing it right, Barda and Scottlene forever.

kermitscottpiggybarda

Where the Wonder Women Are:
0: Introduction
1: Black Canary
2: Rogue
3: Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
7: Vixen
8: Abigail Brand
9. Jubilee
10. Batwoman
11. Catwoman
12. Huntress
13. Robin
14. Batgirl
15. Jean Grey
16. Ice
17. Emma Frost
18. Fire
19. Lady Sif
20. Supergirl
21. The Wasp
22. Gypsy
23. Misty Knight (and Colleen Wing)
24. Mystek
25. Kitty Pryde
26. Crimson Fox
27. The Invisible Woman
28. Dr Light
29. Hawkeye
30. Maya
31. Nico Minoru
32. Karolina Dean
33. Gert Yorkes/Arsenic & Old Lace
34. Molly Hayes/Bruiser

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3 Responses to “Where the Wonder Women Are: #35 Big Barda”

  1. Grant Watson Says:

    Grant Morrison used Barda to great effect during his 1990s JLA run.

    I’ve been re-reading the 1989 Mister Miracle series, and its treatment of Barda does chafe somewhat.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    I should probably go back and read some of the Morrison JLA run, but the early issues made me so angry (because, you know, all my favourite characters were ditched for the revamp with the ‘Big Guns’) that I pouted for a decade or so.

    I mostly read Barda through JLI rather than their own series & I suspect that means I got a muted version of some of the sexism. But I also don’t think that it is a bad thing to have a character choose domesticity, so… complicated feelings!

    The issue/s in which she teaches Fire to control her powers are among my favourites. It was nice seeing Barda doing something other than shout at Scott’s workmates, and to see her get a chance to work with a fellow female superhero instead of being the ‘little’ woman at home.

  3. Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts Says:

    [...] Where the Wonder Woman Are, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, returns with a 35th installment featuring Big Barda. [...]

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