Ask Chris #274: The ‘Die Hard’ Of Comics
Q: What are the best Die Hard tributes or knockoffs in comics? — @chudleycannons
A: Considering how common it is for action movies to try to re-create the feeling of Die Hard, you’d probably be surprised at how little that actually happens in comics. I mean, it makes sense that it would be that way — despite starting out life as a novel with the amazing title of Nothing Lasts Forever, Die Hard is pretty inextricably tied to being an action movie, and it’s difficult to recreate what makes it work so well in another medium. The closest thing we’d have to that in comics is the massive number of characters that were created as homages or knockoffs of Superman.
But if you’re looking for a story that operates on those same principles — a single hero trapped in a confined space, dealing with limited resources and overwhelming odds — then there are definitely a few stories that fit the bill.
The first one that comes to mind is actually a reverse Die Hard: “Prometheus Unbound” from JLA #16-17, by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, and Arnie Jorgensen. The big difference is that instead of being about one good guy who has to go through a small army of terrorists and/or thieves, it’s the story of one bad guy who’s systematically taking out an entire team of superheroes.
Also, it takes place on the moon. But really, when you’re dealing with superhero comics, that’s actually something that can be classified as a minor change.
Still, I think it actually works as a comparison. A ton of similar elements are in play, from the presence of civilians being used as leverage to the fact that the JLA’s Watchtower, like Nakatomi Plaza, is still under construction when Prometheus stikes — the story was even used as an excuse to give readers one of those big ol’ cutaway maps of the entire complex. Admittedly, Prometheus’s swaggering ego is a little different from John McClane limping around a skyscraper with broken glass in his feet, but what really seals it is the idea that they both win. Prometheus actually does take out all the heroes, at least temporarily. It’s only when Catwoman shows up unexpectedly that his plans are truly foiled.
Incidentally, I think I just proved that Catwoman should definitely be played by Reginald VelJohnson the next time she shows up in a movie.
Aside from that, there are a few more stories that have a pretty similar setup, most of which involve Batman having to fight his way out of Arkham Asylum — the video game even has him crawling around in the vents, having trained for years to know what a TV dinner feels like.
If, however, you really want the story that embodies the phrase “the Die Hard of comics,” well, just hold onto your hackles, cats! Continue on, and see how King Kirby deals out 40 floors of sheer adventure!
First things first: Mister Miracle #3 and 4, “The Paranoid Pill” and “The Closing Jaws of Death,” were originally published in 1971, seventeen years before Die Hard made it to theaters — and eight before Roderick Thorp got Nothing Lasts Forever onto shelves — so obviously, it’s not a case of Jack Kirby riffing on the film. The story does, however, have all of those elements that you want: The skyscraper full of enemies, the hero who’s out of his element (“Take a Boom Tube to Earth, have a few laughs…“). It’s even got a little bit of the romance element thrown in as the first appearance of Big Barda. It’s all the same elements, it’s just that this time, Kirby’s the one putting them together.
And it’s as awesome as that sentence makes it sound.
It actually might be my favorite Fourth World story. It certainly doesn’t match the soaring, operatic mythology of something like “The Glory Boat” or “The Pact,” and it’s tough to beat Darkseid sauntering around Happyland or declaring himself to be “THE TIGER-FORCE AT THE CORE OF ALL THINGS,” but in terms of pure high concept action and excitement, it’s easily one of the best stories of Kirby’s career.
So here’s the setup: After Scott Free escapes to Earth, Darkseid sends the gods of Apokolips to bring him back, with varying degrees of success. This time, Scott’s opponent is Baron Bedlam, who, in his natural state, exists outside of any body as a free-floating collection of nightmares, capable of possessing robot bodies when he has to make phone calls.
What’s that? You want to know if this idea can be expressed in the most Jack Kirby way possible? Why, yes. Yes it can.
So Bedlam invites Scott to the penthouse office of a skyscraper, and once he’s up there, he tells him to return to Apokolips or face the deadliest challenge he can devise. The challenge? Walk out the front door, 45 stories below. Simple enough, right?
But there’s a catch: Bedlam deals in fear, and as part of his scheme, he’s concocted the Paranoid Pill, a chemical agent released into the skyscraper’s vents that turns everyone in the building into what the cover to #3 describes as “FIVE THOUSAND RAVING MANIACS!” Five thousand raving maniacs that now stand between Mister Miracle and the only way out of the building.
It’s one of the best setups in the history of superhero comics. As the world’s greatest escape artist, we’ve seen Mister Miracle escape from deathtraps before. It’s actually the big gimmick of the series; each story opens with Scott hanging out at his house, locked in some impossible Kirby deathtrap made up of crushing weights or knives that shoot out of a catapult, a performance that, weirdly enough, never seems to happen in front of an actual audience.
This, however, is different. The “trap” is composed of people, and they’re just as much Bedlam’s victims as Scott is himself. They’re opponents, people who want Mister Miracle dead and are doing everything within their power to make that happen, but they’re not the kind of enemies that Scott can really fight back against.
Plus, the office building setup allows for some great set pieces. Admittedly, there’s a point where you find out that one floor is devoted to a television studio that just happens to have a fully functional iron maiden on set, and while it’s pretty great, it’s a bit of a stretch even for Kirby. But the big cliffhanger of the first issue, when Scott is overwhelmed by sheer numbers and gets locked in a trunk that’s wrapped up in ropes and chains and thrown into the atrium for a long drop? That’s one of Mister Miracle’s defining moments.
The one big flaw in the story is that the actual escapes are pulled off in a way that’s a bit of a cheat: Scott just happens to have a “Multi-Cube” that’s a laser beam and a grappling hook and sprays acid and emits a sonic pulse that puts everyone into a coma so that Bedlam’s living nightmares can’t terrorize them, something that you would’ve thought he’d do at the beginning of the story rather than waiting for the climax. But then again, that’s actually part of the fun of having space gods running around on Earth, and if you’re willing to buy robot bodies being possessed by “Mind-Force,” then the Multi-Cube really shouldn’t be much of a problem.