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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, February 17, 2018

WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS PT. 2

One of the most famous tropes of the superhero idiom is that of "strength concealed by weakness," or, alternately, "strength evolving from weakness." -- DJINN WITH SUMMONER, PT. 1.

The two  DJINN essays focused largely on characters who make use of "genie-like" entities to do their fighting for them. In some cases, like that of Ahmad from the 1924 THIEF OF BAGDAD and the eponymous star of Disney's ALADDIN, the main character demonstrates high dynamicity, at least for an ordinary human with no special powers. This dynamicity does not depend primarily on having a great weapon, like the aforementioned Richard Mayhew, but on a mastery of otherwise ordinary weapons.

There are a handful of exceptions. One is Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery hero Elric. Born an albino, Elric is only able to fight normal human opponents thanks to sorcery. As  the panels from CONAN #13 show, Elric can only match Conan's formidable strength by the use of his sword Stormbringer, which gives him  both physical power and fighting-skill.





Despite his dependence on his sword, Elric is still a megadynamic hero in a way that, say, Hubert Hawkins of THE COURT JESTER is not. Elric may not be able to fight without his sword,  but he must exert his own will to battle his enemies. Hubert's talents are thrust upon him by an outside manipulator, and so he remains at base a weakling even with a weapon. Stormbringer qualifies as a method of *interiorization,* which I defined as a situation in which "the hero's true, powerful self is concealed within him, and must be summoned from within." Magic potions are far more often used than magical weapons, ranging from the lotion that makes the classical Jason temporarily invulnerable to Popeye's spinach and Hourman's Miraclo pills.

Charms are even dicier than weapons. I've stated on other occasions that I consider Bram Stoker's DRACULA to be a combative novel, which implies that the starring vampire is opposed by other megadynamic forces, the vampire-hunters organized by Van Helsing-- or more specifically, the more physically prepossessing members of the coterie, mainly Jonathan Harker and Quincy Morris. Van Helsing, though not an active figure in the battles with Dracula, is the only member of the group who understands the undead's true nature, and so he's able to marshal such weapons as crosses and holy water against the Count. However, the power of these charms-- implicitly stemming from the power of Stoker's Catholic deity-- are not powers inherent in Van Helsing or any of his aides. The charms cannot be used without human hands guiding them, but the charms' power is not tied to the *will* of Dracula's antagonists.

Thus, when the Van Helsing of the 1931 DRACULA wields a cross against his opponent, Dracula must yield, but he yields to the power of God, not to the power of Van Helsing.



Nevertheless, a vampire-hunter's *amplitude* may get boosted quite a bit by his daring or unconventional use of charms or similar devices, just as I demonstrated in WEAKLINGS Pt. 1 with respect to the Jack Burton character. In the 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA, As played by Peter Cushing, Van Helsing becomes a younger, more active man, who first stuns the Count by running along a table in spectacular swashbuckler-style in order to escape the vampire and expose him to the sun.



Moments later, Cushing uses a mundane object to make a cross. I'm fairly certain that Stoker never shows anyone stymie Dracula with a near approximation of a cross; I've always believed that the original Count was affected only by genuine religious icons. So Van Helsing is perhaps inventing an "allergy theory;" that vampries aren't affected by Christian supernatural forces but by their (the vampires') own allergic reaction to anything that even looks like a cross. Thus, even though Van Helsing neither receives power from a cross, nor channels any of his own through it, he does gain megadynamic status from his inventive handling of an otherwise mundane weapon.


Throughout the various works of supernatural horror, there are many other situations where a potential victim repels a monster with the help of supernatural forces that they summon through some charm or other medium, and once again, one can only determine megadynamicity on a case by case basis. For instance, at the conclusion of the 1932 MUMMY, the evil sorcerer Imhotep is foiled when a bolt of fire from the statue of Isis burns up the Scroll of Thoth and returns the mummy to the dust of his origins.


Isis, or whatever force is left of the once-popular deity,only intervenes in answer to the call of her former priestess Anck-es-en-Amon, currently occupying the body of a modern woman, whom Imhotep plans to kill. But there's no implication that either the priestess or her modern descendant have any power of their own; they only call up greater power that is not intimately associated with them, summoners who have no real contact with their djinns.

However, on occasion charms may be used as channels for inner power, rather than for external force. The obscure 1981 film JAWS OF SATAN looks, from this VHS art, much like the first image of Van Helsing seen above: a priest wielding the power of God through the instrument of the cross.



However, the script is more ambivalent about where the main character, Father Tom Farrow, gets his ability to fight demons. In this review I wrote:


Farrow certainly doesn't believe he's worthy of a visit from the Dark Lord himself, but in time, he finds out that he shares a special heritage. Back in the days when St. Patrick allegedly cast all serpents out of Ireland, one of Patrick's followers-- not the saint himself-- attracted the ire of the local druids. They cursed him and all his progeny to be slain by snakes, which were to be commanded by Satan himself in the form of a cobra-- or something like that.  
Though it's a ridiculous premise, I have to give the filmmakers props for the audacity of invoking ancient Irish curses to explain a bunch of hostile snakes. In the end, Farrow gets his Catholic moxie together, confronts the King Cobra with his cross, and exorcises it in a flash of flame. It's a poverty-row version of the EXORCIST exorcism, but I found that it does imply a greater conflict of supernatural forces, so that this cheapjack horror-film does become a combative drama. It helps that Farrow also isn't just any old priest, but someone with a special destiny and ancestors to avenge.

That "special destiny" is suggested in the climactic scene, where in my view Farrow seems to be pulling power out of himself, rather than down from heaven, in order to set his Satanic opponent on fire. So, like the Peter Cushing Van Helsing, Father Tom joins the company of the megadynamic elite for the way he combines his own strength with the charms of his faith.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: GHITA OF ALIZARR (1979)

The most famous sword-and-sorcery heroine was launched in the pages of Marvel Comics' CONAN THE BARBARIAN in 1973, but for the next three years no one at the company managed to find a proper venue to exploit her popularity with fans. She received an origin in 1975, one whose approach to the subject matter of rape has long been a bane to feminists, and later that year she finally received a berth in the second volume of MARVEL FEATURE, followed by her own comic. During this period artist Frank Thorne became inextricably associated with the character, not only drawing her adventures but also appearing at conventions in "wizard's garb" alongside models in Sonja-costume.
Thorne's tenure with Marvel's "she-devil with a sword" ended in 1978. Roughly a year later, the artist began a new swordswoman series, GHITA OF ALIZARR,  in the pages of Warren's 1984 black-and-white magazine, producing enough material that in the 1980s Catalan published two albums of the character's adventures. The first collected adventure is the only one I'll address here.



Ghita exists in the same sort of feudal fantasy-world as that of Red Sonja; one where the author has built his universe out of an assortment of archaic cognomens and/or nonsense-words. Ghita's name, as the artist cheerfully admits in his afterword to the first volume, is taken from the Hindu religious tome "The Bhagavad-Gita," the name of her city Alizarr appears to be a random nonsense-word, and the city's principal deity is named Tammuz, but has no resemblance to the Mesopotamian god. An additional Mesopotamian name, Nergal, appears as well, but again Thorne's version of this myth-figure is in no way beholden to the archaic myth.

Though Alizarr, the city of Tammuz, is currently beseiged by savage, Nergal-worshiping trolls, Ghita-- a dead-ringer for Sonja, aside from being blonde-- has no interest in participating in the war. She's been a whore for many years, and is currently the favorite of Alizarr's king, Khalia, though she seems to sleep with whoever she pleases. At the start of the adventure, she's just finished doing the two-backed beast with her old friend Thenef, who's drawn to look like Frank Thorne's wizard-persona. Thenef, sixteen years the senior to Ghita, has been something of a mentor to the young woman, which has apparently led to his becoming the court magician, even though Thenef is a fake with barely any real grasp of magic. Ghita's only comment on the impending invasion is to wonder if the leather-skinned trolls might prove tolerable lovers.

Then Ghita and Thenef are ordered to attend the bedside of King Khalia, severely wounded in a battle with the trolls. Khalia anticipates that he will soon die of his wounds, but he's come up with a solution to the troll problem. Khalia orders his favorite, his court wizard and some courtiers to descend into the royal mausoleum, where Thenef is expected to use the mystic "Eye of Tammuz" to revive Alizarr's long-dead warrior-king, the mummified Khan-Dagon. (In Philistine mythology, Dagon was sometimes given fertility-associations.) Thenef has no clue as to how to revive a dead man, and so he stands in danger of being revealed as a fraud. To save Thenef's life, Ghita takes hold of the Eye of Tammuz and crams into the gut of the dead mummy.

The gem works. Khan-Dagon returns to life, all signs of physical corruption erased. However, as soon as he sees Ghita, the former king has no ear for Khalia's purpose. The revenant kills Khalia, whose courtiers flee. Khan-Dagon throws Ghita down and proceeds to rape her. Only Thenef remains, but though he's not courageous enough to fight the rapist, he passes Ghita a dagger. She stabs Khan-Dagon back to death, possibly by dislodging the magical jewel in his gut, which Ghita keeps thereafter.



It's not clear from the narrative whether or not Ghita's been raped before, though one assumes that her profession forced her to deal with intemperate male attentions. She is, not as ultraliberal critics would wish, traumatized by the experience, but she is changed, for it appears that some of Khan-Dagon's personality has been transferred into Ghita's soul. As she and Thenef seek to flee not only the mausoleum but the beseiged city, Ghita takes along Khan-Dagon's sword and tries to wear his armor as well. The duo encounter Dahib, a half-troll conceived from the union of a human and a troll, and he uses his trollish talents to alter the armor so that Ghita can wear it (though, as with Red Sonja, not a lot of the swordswoman's charms get concealed). Then Ghita undergoes her heroic baptism of fire, when the trio encounter a small party of trolls. Ghita slaughters them all with Khan-Dagon's sword, and she escapes the city in the company of the false wizard and the devoted half-troll (who thinks the former whore to be the incarnation of the goddess Tammuz).



The remainder of Ghita's first adventure then focuses on her masculine desire to force the trolls out of Alizarr, rather than simply fleeing to the nearest possible refuge. This isn't to say that the former concubine accepts her unwanted transformation. Shortly after killing the trolls, Ghita muses, "Khan-Dagon. You are within me, and I loathe your presence." If an ultraliberal encountered this line out of context, he might assume that it was an automatic condemnation of "toxic masculinity." But in time it becomes clear that Thorne doesn't view Ghita as a victim. In his afterword he ventures that he would like to think of Ghita as being kin with the works of Rabelais. Be that as it may, Thorne's softcore sword-and-sorcery also has much in common with George Bataille's concept of the interpenetration of sex and violence./ On page 64 of the 1983 Catalan edition, there's a scene in which Ghita and Thenef have riotous intercourse after taking refuge with Dahib's tribe of fellow half-trolls. The caption, which seems to combine the POVs of both Thenef and Thorne, reads in part:

The seedy delirium of bordello life would mold Ghita. The implicit violence of whorish sex would breed explicit violence in the sword of Khan-Dagon. 
But despite the implied equivalence of To be sure, Ghita does not forget her old nature easily. At first she lays plans to re-take Alizarr with the help of the half-trolls and a giant monster right out of a Japanese "tentacle porn" comic.



But later she has her own monologue, renouncing Khan-Dagon's "mad schemes"-- even though he doesn't seem to be literally possessing her-- and swears that she will again become a true woman. A strange child appears to Ghita, as if to reflect back on an earlier statement that Ghita is infertile, but the child turns out to be none other than the goddess Tammuz, claiming that she somehow stage-managed Ghita's destiny. Ghita and her forces succeed in driving the trolls and killing their leader, but afterward she returns Khan-Dagon's sword to the sepulcher, in order to forswear the dead man's influence upon her feminine nature. However, since this story ends
with Ghita swearing to rule Alizarr with Dahib and Thenef-- and since there was at least one more adventure in her future-- it seems axiomatic that Ghita probably picked up that sword again.

Thorne's surging lines are true to the Rabelaisian spirit he invokes, but I must note that he doesn't delve as deeply into fantasy-imagery as he did in the RED SONJA title, one of which I analyzed here. As if to acknowledge the absence of wild fantasy, an incident in GHITA shows a forest-unicorn seeking out the swordswoman in the belief that she's a virgin fitting of his attention. It's probably not complete coincidence that RED SONJA #1 dilates on the same theme, portraying a more fulfilling-- and less explicit-- union between a girl and her horse.

Monday, February 12, 2018

WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS PT. 1

In MESSING WITH MISTER INBETWEEN PT 2 I explained my reasons for not deeming Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE star Mayhew to be a less than combative protagonist.

Mayhew may kill a monster with a great weapon, but the weapon's just given to him, with no sense of his having mastered it. 

The sense of mastery-- which I also referenced as a form of Nietzschean "self-overcoming" in COMBAT PLAY PT. 4-- can be a factor that plays a vital role in determining whether or not a given character can be seen as possessing at least "exemplary dynamicity." of the type described in DYNAMICITY DUOS PT. 1.

Jack Burton, my earlier example, might be styled a "weakling with a weapon," just as Gaiman's Mayhew character is. Burton's weapon isn't even as special as the one Mayhew inherits-- it's just a common throwing-knife-- but Burton uses a common object in an uncommon way, while Mayhew uses an uncommon object in a common way. The former places a positive light on Burton's self-overcoming, while a negative light is cast upon the short heroic career of Mayhew.



Another example appears in the British SF-film THE TERRORNAUTS, which I reviewed in August 2013. Main character Joe Burke and his tiny coterie of allies are roughly on the same level of "ordinariness" that I find in the Gaiman character. However, for what it's worth, the characters do have to pass some tests before they can get hold of the super-weapons with which they repel a horde of alien invaders.

Suffice to say that the humans pass all the tests, despite getting no help from the comedy-reliefs.  This accomplishment proves that they've capable of rational thought, and they receive presents, such as a ray-gun weapon, as rewards from the automated test-givers.  They soon learn that there had been a living caretaker of the asteroid facility, but he has died, which may explain why they never get a proper briefing on their reason for being here.  Fortunately, they stumble across the answers through various accidents, one of which teleports Sandy to the very planet of which Joe Burke dreamed.  After a violent encounter with some savage natives, the scientists learn that an interstellar space-fleet, which previously caused the destruction of the asteroid's makers (I think), is now headed for Earth.  Burke and his fellows then activate long-dead weapons and manage to blast the interstellar fleet into dust (hence my LAST STARFIGHTER comparison). 

True, the everyman heroes get some help from electronic skull-caps that instruct them on the use of the space-station weapons.



However, they, like the main character of LAST STARFIGHTER, have to figure out how to use the weapons in combat. so that the film slightly anticipates the 1970s vogue for video games like SPACE INVADERS.





I mentioned in my review of TERRORNAUTS that I hadn't re-read the source-novel, Murray Leinster's THE WAILING ASTEROID, at the time that I reviewed the film. However, I eventually did reread the Leinster novel, and found that the film followed the novel fairly closely-- except for the one scene that makes TERRORNAUTS a combative film for me. Leinster's characters pass more or less the same tests and don the skull-caps-- but they don't get to play "first-person shooters" with alien invaders. Instead, the Earth-people simply unleash what might be termed a "Maginot line" of explosive asteroids, and the enemy ships simply blunder into them.

Leinster's conclusion, though it has the same narrative value in terms of destroying the alien threat, lacks the significant value of combative sublimity, and so his everypeople don't quite ascend to even the "exemplary" level of megadynamicity I observe in the movie's characters.

More on this subject anon.




Saturday, February 10, 2018

I GOT THE BEAT (POST) AGAIN

Responding to this BEAT-thread:

Heidi and I will certainly never be on the same page re: the quality of the MCU movies, since for me RAGNAROK is the "self-indulgent mess" and GOTG2 at least has a coherent story and better than average set design. In fact, the design of Ego's world, with all its faux-Hindu imagery, proves Heidi's point about the benefits of loosening the purse strings far more than any of the visuals in TR. 
I don't think that even with continued success MCU movies are ever going to permit a wide number of "individual directorial visions" or whatever one calls it. There's just too much damn money at stake. You want individual visions of Ant-Man; keep watching his latest comic-book outings. Maybe Edgar Wright will guest-author an Ant Man comic and we'll all finally see just what he might've done with a movie.
Moving to BLACK PANTHER, i'm going to play prophet and predict that, no matter how good or bad the film is, it will be one of the ten films nominated for "Best Picture" next year at the Oscars. I'm hypothesizing that the Academy will look upon the film as an opportunity to disprove the brain-dead accusations of the #OscarSoWhite crowd, and that the voters will see PANTHER as a superhero flick they can nominate, in the sure and certain knowledge that it, like DJANGO UNCHAINED, will have no chance to win.

While I don't really want to devote a lot of space to justifying my comment on the #OscarSoWhite mess, I'll toss out a few extra bon mots.

I'm constitutionally against the idea of using art primarily for the purpose of political issues, and that's why I deem #OscarSoWhite to be "brain dead."

Here's the tweet that started the Net-meme in 2015:

they asked to touch my hair.

OK, the author says that this was meant as a "cheeky" putdown of a mostly white nomination list. I suppose that this is an aspect of Afro-American humor that communicates best to other Afro-Americans. Maybe it's meant to imply that persons of The Unnameable Phenotype are always going to be nothing but curiosities to white people, that white people just want to touch the hair of black people, maybe in line with the old superstition-- that IMO no one is keeping alive by people like Reign-- that touching kinky hair brings good luck.

But I've read nothing in any of Reign's online interviews that suggests that she cares about the quality of films or any other artistic medium. She cares, first and foremost, about representation of racial and sexual coteries, as if this representation is a good in itself. Clearly it would never occur to her that maybe the 2015 list of nominated films might have omitted POC nominees simply because the year had been bereft of outstanding POC works. No, in any such situation, the only solution must be a racist conspiracy.

And that, in my considered opinion, is brain-dead hyper-politicized thinking.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE KREE-SKRULL WAR" (AVENGERS #89-97, 1971-72)

Not a few critics have chosen to see the superhero genre as something apart from the confluence of tropes that are called "the SF genre." It's a dubious separation in a critical sense, but it makes sense in terms of marketing. Genres are formed more from reader-expectations than anything else, and it can be fairly said that, say, a character like Superman raises different expectations from a character like Adam Strange.

Marvel's FANTASTIC FOUR blurred the marketing distinction between the genres more than any prior superhero title. Though the heroes spent some time fighting super-crooks like the Frightful Four, they're better known for the many SF-concepts elaborated by Lee and Kirby-- the extradimensional Negative Zone, the "lost race" of genetically modified Inhumans, and the alien race, the Kree, who fostered the Inhumans' advancements, to name the three that have the greatest impact on Roy Thomas's "Kree-Skrull War."

By contrast, though the Avengers had their share of encounters with aliens and lost races, the feature always seemed squarely in the superheroic domain. Further, during the long tenure of writer Roy Thomas on the title, it sometimes seemed like "Fantastic Four West," in that Thomas borrowed a considerable number of villains from the FF: Diablo, the Thinker, and so on. Not until the Kree-Skrull continuity, though, did Thomas make a concerted effort to bring a "sci-fi" flavor to the series.



That said, AVENGERS #89 wasn't precisely Thomas's first effort to blend superheroes with SF. Marvel Comics's version of Captain Marvel debuted in a 1967 Stan Lee story, after which Thomas wrote five more stories before ceding the character to other hands. Thomas's first, very short run with the character-- a soldier of the Kree race, posing as a superhero on Earth-- is noteworthy for revealing a long-standing animus between the Kree and an earlier group of Lee-Kirby aliens, the Skrulls, whom Stan and Jack had mostly ignored for the latter part of the 1960s. Over a year later, Thomas returned to the hero's adventures, and attempted a reboot of the character with Gil Kane art and a new costume (seen in the illo above). Even this reboot was somewhat indebted to the FF feature, since it involved placing Marvel in the Negative Zone, which he could only escape by "trading atoms" with Earth-juvenile Rick Jones.

Thomas wasn't writing the CAPTAIN MARVEL feature at the time he began the Kree-Skrull continuity, but the character is the linchpin that brings the Avengers into a greater SF-tapestry. Issue #89 is largely concerned with revealing to the title heroes the relationship of Marvel and Jones, though it also informs the reader that there's been a power-shift on the Kree homeworld. The Supreme Intelligence, ruler of that world, is deposed by his former underling Ronan (both, incidentally, also FF creations). As soon as Ronan takes power, he sends a robotic Sentry to take Marvel prisoner, while Ronan himself speedily travels all the way to Earth to bring about the total devolution of the human race.


This plot, which lasts over the next two issues, is along the line of "what the Kree giveth, they can also take away." As mentioned above, an earlier generation of the Kree visited the Earth eons ago, and chose to foster the isolated race of modified beings, the Inhumans (whose adventures in their own title Thomas also wrote at one point). The Avengers pursue the abducted Captain Marvel and his captors, and prevent the Earth from returning to Bedrock-status.

Often in comic books, the defeat of an alien invasion had no repercussions on Earth's society. However, the three active Avengers in #89 all belong to groups that weren't quite human: the android Vision and two mutants, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Moreover, by the early 1970s Marvel writers tended, more often than not, to play up their heroes' sense of disaffection from their communities. Thomas goes so far as to have the Vision assert that "superheroes are, by definition, misfits"-- which observation foregrounds the result of the invasion: a massive anti-alien hysteria, at least in the U.S. (Other parts of Marvel-Earth do not weigh in.) Issue #92 is particularly prescient in having two Avengers argue the "government security vs. civil liberaties" question that later informed the CIVIL WAR arc of the 2000s. 

Meanwhile, for no cited reason, the Skrulls declare war on the Kree, forcing Ronan to hurry back to his homeworld. However, now the Skrulls, seeing Earth as a possible resource for their enemies, infiltrate the planet as well. The formidable Super-Skrull tries to destroy the city of the Inhumans, simply so that the Kree cannot enlist their super-powers. The villain also tries to subvert Captain Marvel, so that the Kree officer will reveal a special weapon that can turn the tide in the war. Some of the Avengers, as well as the captain, are abducted, forcing the other heroes to voyage into space to rescue their comrades, while simultaneously trying to keep the two alien races from wrecking the cosmos with their conflict.




The specific breakdown of the back-and-forth battles isn't mythically significant. However, it's interesting to see how Thomas developed of the "Chariots of the Gods" concept put forth by Lee and Kirby in their Kree stories.



By 1971, there was nothing new-- at least in prose science fiction-- about the idea that whole races of aliens and/or Earthmen had evolutionary pathways, or that some of those races still held advancement potential while others had stagnated. The aforementioned Rick Jones, the "ordinary guy" amidst the costumed champions, is Thomas's means of demonstrating this heritage. In order to quell hostilities, the Supreme Intelligence stimulates some deep psychic talent in Jones. His enhanced power literally stops the war. and, for good measure, conjures up a bunch of 1940s superheroes, as a way of celebrating the Golden Age's simpler images of super-humanity.



Thomas's script has a handful of plot-holes, but his basic SF-indebted conception passes the test for a fairly complex symbolic discourse. The narrarive of Kree-Skrull War is somewhat compromised by its noodlings about matters of continuity. This includes not just Thomas finishing up old plotlines (like the status of Black Bolt during Thomas's INHUMANS run) but also creating new narratives irrelevant to the war-story. It's in issue #93 that Thomas lays groundwork for further complications about the Vision character, with a derivative-- but still fun-- reprise of the 1966 FANTASTIC VOYAGE movie, replete with some gorgeous Neal Adams art. 


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

MESSING WITH MISTER IN-BETWEEN PT. 2

Not long after finishing IVANHOE, I also completed Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE, a 1996 novelization of a British teleseries on which Gaiman collaborated. I didn't care for the book, but I must admit that its lack of imaginative scope is probably due to the fact that all elements had to be kept within the bounds of an inexpensive live-action series.




In keeping with what I wrote earlier about the Scott work, I'm only interested whether or not NEVERWHERE qualifies as a combative work, and if not, why not. (SPOILERS ahead.)


In the tradition of Carroll's Alice, modern-day British businessman Richard Mayhew falls down the wrong rabbit-hole. He ends up in London Below, a perhaps extradimensional domain that has a separate but sometimes parallel culture to that of the real world. Mayhew, who possesses no physical skills, becomes involved with a small coterie of freedom-fighters as they're pursued by assassins sent by a corrupt angel. The novel concludes when one member of the team, named Door, manages to propel the assassins and their master into another dimensional plane.

In my view, though Gaiman devotes a lot of space to Door and the other allies, NEVERWHERE's focal presence is not an ensemble of connected characters, but Mayhew alone. Thus, by the transitive principles I've advanced, the novel can't be combative unless Mayhew has some claim to being a combative hero.

Now, whereas Ivanhoe is a protagonist with a lot of battle-skill who doesn't get a final combat-scene, Gaiman does put the microdynamic Mayhew in the position of a hero. Without getting into the plot heavily, one of the coterie, Hunter, seeks to destroy a fabulous beast, a sort of oversized wart-hog. Hunter, who is a masterful fighter, attempts to spear the beast, but she's gored fatally. She gives the spear to Mayhew, and then Hunter distracts the animal's attention. When the beast attacks Hunter, Mayhew spears it to death. For the remainder of the novel, Mayhew is credited with the monster's death, and is even called "the Warrior," even though he has no illusions about his capacity in that respect.

There have been some occasions where I've judged a work to be combative even if the principal protagonist was not the most powerful person around. In Part 1 of MEGA, MESO, MICRO,  I discussed the breakdown of dynamicities in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, as represented by main hero Jack Burton and two of his allies, reporter Gracie and tough kung-fu practitioner Wang.

Burton, like Mayhew, is the focal presence of the story, and just as Mayhew's ally Hunter is far more powerful than he, the same applies to Burton vis-a-vis his ally Wang. However, I considered Burton a combative protagonist because he's like Aristotle's hedgehog, possessed of one really good trick. Mayhew may kill a monster with a great weapon, but the weapon's just given to him, with no sense of his having mastered it. Further, the fact that he can only kill the beast because Hunter distracts it defuses his claim to combative status.

Thus, even though Ivanhoe doesn't get a final fight-scene, everything else in the novel makes clear that he has the capacity for such a battle. Mayhew is the opposite: he does participate in a final fight-scene, but he never really has the capacity even to touch the boundaries of the *megadynamic* combatant, as does Jack Burton of BIG TROUBLE.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE FANTASTIC ORIGIN OF THE RED SKULL" (TALES OF SUSPENSE #66, 1966)

In this essay, I cited the two-page origin of Batman as a mythcomic, deeming that its discourse could be separated from the main story it prefaces, the unremarkable "The Batman Wars on the Dirigible of Doom." The story "The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull" requires more mental gymnastics.



Lee and Kirby revived Captain America in AVENGERS #4 (March 1964), and a modern-day series for the Captain appeared in November of that year. However, after four Cap adventures in modern times, the creative team began retelling stories from the hero's appearances during the Golden Age. I'd speculate that Lee and Kirby had not yet decided what to do with the displaced patriotic fighter, and that they were testing his appeal as a wartime feature while keeping him active with the Avengers. However, after eight WWII issues, Captain America returned to modern-day adventures. Still, the Great War was still part of the story, since in TALES OF SUSPENSE #72 Cap faces off against the Three Sleepers, Nazi-created robots who had been created by the Red Skull as a much-delayed measure against the Allies.

One possible reason for Cap's visit to the past may have been that Lee and Kirby had decided to revive the Red Skull for the 1960s. Such a revival had happened before, when a version of the Red Skull had also appeared in the non-canonical stories of the Commie-busting Cap of the 1950s, but Lee and Kirby naturally ignored that iteration. Issue #66 seems clearly designed to impress Silver Age readers with the WWII record of Cap's greatest villain-- which suggests that by 1966 Lee was planning to have the Skull revived for Silver Age adventures. In keeping with Marvel's attempt to design dramatically strong origins for villains, such as the Mandarin and Doctor Doom, Lee and Kirby did the same thing for the Nazi fiend, who had never had a distinct backstory during the Golden Age.

The "fantastic origin" of the title, though, is not a self-contained vignette like Batman's: it's a narrative of roughly five pages that the villain relates to a captive Captain America. The frame-story, like "Dirigible of Doom," is nothing special: as a result of the Skull's capture of the flag-garbed fighter, Captain America is brainwashed and sent to kill the Allied commander, and this in turn leads to yet more involved plot-developments. None of the main story is mythic, only the five pages in which the Skull tells his story-- even though said narrative is occasionally interrupted by Captain America trying to assault his enemy.

The narrative owes much to the origin of the hero. Captain America starts out as a nobody, a spindly weakling defined only by his desire to fight for his country. The Skull doesn't even get a name, calling himself a "nameless orphan." Later stories, though, give the villain the proper name "Johann Schmidt"-- almost certainly a German-ization of the commonplace English name "John Smith." And though the origin of the Skull doesn't directly reference the economic depression of Germany that preceded the rise of the Nazis, there's at least a prevailing consciousness in Kirby's visuals that the nameless orphan lived in a time of hardship and privation.


The hero interrupts to tell the villain that "my early years were no bed of roses," which is probably an even more indirect reference to the American Depression. Lee and Kirby don't choose to press the parallel further, but simply concentrate on showing how the young orphan grows up as a virtual nobody. Then the Nazis rise to power by openly terrorizing the citizens to compliance, and Orphan-Skull admires not only their forcefulness, but that of the man who inspired them. The orphan-- whose face is never shown-- is working as a bellboy when Adolf Hitler himself comes to the hotel where the future villain works. Apparently the young man's sense of self is so meager that he doesn't even consider joining the Nazi ranks as a soldier, for he reflects, "[Hitler] has power-- and I am nothing."

Then the bellboy takes refreshments to his idol, and this changes his life.




One may fairly fault Lee for his purple prose here, with his Fuhrer stating that he, like the maltreated nobody, nurtures hatred "for all mankind." But then again, this is the myth of Hitler as a absolute devotee of evil, rather than an attempt to portray the flesh-and-blood chancellor of Germany. Thus in the not-yet-molded clay of the bellboy, Hitler sees his chance to give birth to "evil personified."




At this point, the bellboy-- who has received at least basic storm trooper training-- accepts the skull-mask given him, and totally incarnates the role his mentor created. Modern fans, examining the last two panels of the page above, have speculated that Kirby's original idea for the sequence was simply that the Red Skull took another soldier's gun and shot his former trainer to death. This would explain the surprised look on Hitler's face. However, Lee chose to emphasize the Skull's penchant for psychological terror, for in Lee's script, Hitler gives the order for the trainer to die, and the Skull spares the man's life by shooting the buttons from his jacket. I for one think that the revision makes the Skull more vicious: he doesn't just want to kill, he wants to degrade-- hence, he spares the man just so that he'll be a "slave" who will "obey your every whim."

Going by the Aristotelian model I used earlier, the early part of the bellboy's life was the "beginning," while his meeting with Hitler and his ascension to supreme villainy forms the "middle." If there is an end as such, though, it can only be the Skull's revelation that he did not content himself with being Hitler's loyal second in command. In addition to fighting the Allies, the Skull has started preying on Hitler's trusted advisers, undoubtedly because he plans to turn on his former master-- which was probably designed to serve as an obvious contrast to Captain America's altruism.



I should add in closing that at this point in Marvel's history, the creators might not have been ready to broach the subject of the Holocaust in a comic book meant for entertainment. Lee's script does work in the term "Aryan" twice. The first time, a storm trooper accosts a man on the street, saying "You are not a true Aryan." One page later, Hitler rants at a subordinate, "Must I create my own race of perfect Aryans?" In both cases, Lee's context is not explicitly racial, but seems to be shorthand for the concept that Nazis-- as opposed to the race of "Nordics" to which Germans supposedly belonged-- considered themselves "supermen."

Though the frame-story of "Origin" is not that interesting mythically, it ends with the Skull using a chemical treatment to brainwash Captain America into thinking he's a Nazi. If only Stan Lee had realized how much attention he could received back then, if he'd omitted the rationalization and just shown Cap turning Nazi, as was done in this overblown modern production.