Friday, April 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS "A WALTZ OF SCREAMS" (VERTIGO VISIONS: DR. OCCULT, 1994)

Thus far in my reviews of mythcomics and null-myths, I’ve barely touched upon the attempts made by DC, and, to a lesser extent Marvel, to render “adult” versions of their own “superhero universes.” While this has led to a fair number of bad comics, I tend to think that the experiment has resulted in more good comics, mythic or otherwise, than the influence of confessional dramas upon the so-called “artcomics.”

Not all of the comic books in DC’s VERTIGO line are based on characters once aimed at the general juvenile audience that once purchased comic books from mainstream newsstands. The refurbished SWAMP THING remains the jewel in the Vertigo crown, albeit more in terms of prestige than sales: Gaiman’s SANDMAN possibly came closer to winning “pride of place” in that department, if I may be allowed a mixed metaphor. Gaiman also launched the mini-series BOOKS OF MAGIC, which comprised a sort of “occult history of DC Comics.” The mini-series spawned a fairly long-lived regular series, as well as a curious one-shot—the latter being my chosen subject. 

The 1994 “Doctor Occult” one-shot probably never had a fair shot at generating a series at the time, even though the titular character had been revived in the course of the 1991 BOOKS OF MAGIC mini-series. To this date DC has never reprinted the adventures of the character, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in 1935, a few years prior to the publication of the creators’ signature character Superman. (This blogzine reprints a short "Occult" story from an ostensible ashcan issue DC published in the 1930s.)

If hardcore fans remember Doctor Occult, they will remember him as (1) having been patterned on Seabury Quinn's popular ghost-hunter “Jules de Grandin” from many issues of WEIRD TALES during the 1930s, and (2) from excerpted scenes that showed Occult temporarily donning a Superman-like costume, in a tale published before Superman himself saw print. Even more hardcore fans may know that in some stories Occult had a “power” most uncharacteristic of manly males of the time-period  Like fabled Tiresias, Doctor Occult was a man who could change into a woman.


“A Waltz of Screams,” written by Dave Louapre and rendered by Dan Sweetman, focuses on Doctor Occult and his female alter ego Rose, two identities locked in the same body. Louapre spends no time telling the reader how this state of affairs came about, and only a one-page text prelude establishes Occult’s mythos. In keeping with various details from the Siegel-Shuster stories, as well as some retconned material, Occult is a mystic seeker who is allied to a beneficent group of magicians, “the Seven,” and is opposed to malign magi ruled by a villain named “Koth.” But Louapre’s concern is not with mystic battles, but with Occult’s “dark night of two souls.” In the course of the tale, Occult becomes separated from his feminine alter ego, and must seek through assorted mystic realms to achieve re-integration.

Whatever the merits of the “gender politics” of the LGBT community, those politics have resulted in a fair number of the bad comics mentioned. Louapre’s script for DOCTOR OCCULT shows an awareness of the evanescent nature of sexual characteristics, but by page 6 he at least shows that he has a sense of humor about the matter. The first five pages of the story deal with Occult being brought into a case dealing with a hysterical rape-victim, during which Occult repeatedly shifts into his alter ego of Rose, and vice versa. But this portentous opening is followed by a scene in the doctor's office, where his secretary Marly is watching a TV talk-show with the following line of dialogue: 

“It’s my right as a man to be a woman if I want. This is America!”



I won’t dwell on Louapre’s plot at length. It's a fairly standard one, being little more than an excuse to separate the male and female sides of the hero and then put both spirits through various phantasmagorical ordeals. Eventually they are able to discover the fiend manipulating them, the aforementioned Koth, and hero and heroine regain their unity. What elevates Louapre’s script is not his plot but his poetic exploration of the theme of seduction. In the first five pages, when Occult/Rose enter the dream-consciousness of the rape-victim Rachel, the sex-shifting hero(ine) has the sensation of falling. He/she thinks:

“Not a fall from grace—grace is for the uninitiated. But a fall toward the waiting arms of awakening—and the alluring caress of sexual chaos."

In these two sentences, Loupare puts across three distinct thoughts:

  1. He distances his characters from the Christian idea of “grace” as a beneficent gift from an all-knowing father-god, asserting that humans who have undergone mystic initiation have learned some deeper truth.
  2. He associated the act of falling with awakening rather than succumbing to sleep.
  3. He raises the notion that sex itself is alluring precisely because it is chaotic.
I’ll admit that one’s tolerance for Louapre’s poetic effusions might have been strained by a longer continuity. But “Waltz” is just long enough to put across the politically incorrect notion that “everyone wants to be taken at some point.” This is not of course a validation of the Rachel-character’s violation, but is rather an acknowledgment that human beings are, even under the best circumstances, fascinated by power and pain. 

Following the inevitable defeat of Koth, Occult meditates on Rachel’s recovery by thinking, “It hurts to abandon the beautiful lies, but then pain is a natural component of healing.” Rachel’s innocence is taken from her, but her attempt to hold onto it, to deem it a “treasure” in its own right, is the psychic malady that the psychic detective must heal, in part by reuniting his/her own sexual nature.

Over the years Doctor Occult and his feminine alter ego have remained minor players in the DC universe. The Louapre-Sweetman story does indicate a deeper, I might even say Bataillean potential in the revised character-- though if BOOKS OF MAGIC didn't jump-start the character's career as a "Vertigo Vision," I doubt he'll catch fire from any of his various guest-starring gigs in JUSTICE LEAGUE storylines.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: [JUNIOR TRACY FINDS A DAD], DICK TRACY STRIP (1932-33)




When I listed the entirety of the DICK TRACY comic strip in my ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY, I asserted that "this list will mix together whole runs of continuing titles with particular stories or sequences that best exemplify the nature of the mythopoeic." From that brief sentence, some readers could have taken the broad implication that I deemed everything in the "whole runs of continuing titles" to be exemplary in terms of utilizing the mythopoeic potentiality-- as opposed to the specific stories or sequences from other serials that didn't measure up. In truth, whenever I cited whole runs, I just meant that they had a statistically better chance to trade in mythopoeic symbols, often because of a creators' unique outlook, as with Marston on WONDER WOMAN, Morrison on DOOM PATROL, or Chester Gould on DICK TRACY.

I must admit, though, that even though the TRACY strip displays great potential thanks to Gould's harsh, black-and-white morality and his genius for devising weird villains, I've found it hard to isolate particular sequences that I consider symbolically complex. In a lot of these sequences Gould relies heavily on standard melodramatic tropes-- Tracy goes on a manhunt for 88 Keys, B-B Eyes sets a trap for Tracy. Kinetically stimulating, yes. Mythic, no.

Ironically, from my re-reading it seems to me now that Gould's greatest mythopoeic work-- and a major contender for my idea of the "graphic romance"-- takes place after the strip had only been running for about two years. This was long before Gould began evolving his famous rogues' gallery of villains, which Jay Maeder perceptively called "the Grotesques" in his superlative DICK TRACY: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY. In the first years, Gould patterned his cop's adventures closely after real-life crime-stories like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. In addition, Gould had to answer to the editorializing input of his publisher, "Chicago Tribune" bigwig Joseph Patterson. According to Maeder, Patterson saddled Gould with an "origin" in which Tracy only vowed to devote his life to crime-fighting after he witnessed some hoods heartlessly gun down an old man, who also happened to be the father of Tracy's fiancee. The old man was scarcely if ever referenced again, but the girlfriend stuck around, though there would be suggestions in the involved story to come that Gould didn't have much use for her. Not only did she sport the name "Tess Trueheart"-- a name so blatantly melodramatic that Charles Dickens would have scorned to use it-- but Gould began dropping hints that her name didn't particularly fit her character.

In the title to this blogpost I've made up a name-- "Junior Tracy Finds a Dad"-- for the set of interrelated arcs I'm analyzing here. I based this title roughly on that of the 1939 film TARZAN FINDS A SON, largely because this set of arcs focuses on the same problem as the film: how to give a popular adult male character a male offspring without actually getting into the messy matter of conception. My faux-title is partly necessary because the four arcs of the story aren't continuous: when necessary, Gould put one storyline aside to concentrate on something else.



ARC ONE: Gould almost certainly channels Dickens' OLIVER TWIST when he begins the "Junior Tracy" continuity. In the Dickens novel, orphan Oliver suffers great deprivations until he falls in with a juvenile gang of pickpockets, but he accidentally encounters a future benefactor when Oliver is implicated in the activities of his cronies. Gould begins by having "the Kid"-- the only name given to the nine-year-old urchin who will become Junior Tracy-- lift a watch from Dick's comical colleague Pat Patton. Before Tracy ever meets the Kid, the reader sees that the boy has been forced into his criminal endeavors by an adult hobo-- an individual who is clearly not the Kid's father, even though he's the only person the Kid has ever known since infanthood. The hobo's last name is almost never cited; he's almost always called "Steve the Tramp." While he's not exactly a Grotesque, Steve does incarnate a sociological myth. Since the Tramp appears at the height of the Depression, when many out-of-work men wandered throughout the States looking for work, Gould may have used Steve to play upon square citizens' fears of these homeless wanderers. Gould portrays Steve as a shiftless, heartless lowlife who uses the Kid as a pawn and barely feeds the boy for his efforts. Tracy eventually comes across Steve trying to kill his charge, trounces the hobo and jails him, after which the detective takes the boy under his wing. The Kid immediately admires the "Good Tough Father" who has defeated his "Bad Tough Father" and declares that he wants to take the name "Dick Tracy Junior."

In the very next strip after the newly-dubbed Junior says this, he meets Tess Trueheart-- and though she's personable enough, it's clear that he definitely does not want a new mother to go with his new father. ("Chee, I hate dames.") He also rejects the old "father," for when Steve gets out of jail, the Tramp makes a couple of attempts to liberate Junior from Tracy's informal custody. These efforts fail and Steve leaves town for a "vacation"-- the better to give Gould time to decide whether he would use the Tramp again, one may hazard.

(I note in passing that though later strips establish that at some point Tracy adopts Junior, the two males are not generally depicted as a father-and-son family; rather, they are a young boy's idea of a "crimefighting family," where all the youngster has to do is help his mentor catch crooks-- much like the Batman and Robin relationship that evolved eight years later.)

 ARC TWO: This arc, beginning on Jan 2, 1933, begins after two other intervening arcs concerning Tracy's pursuit of other crooks. Neither arc involves the subject of Junior's paternity, though the youngster manages to further prove his loyalty to his new mentor.


This arc introduces Stooge Viller, whom was among the TRACY villains to be adapted on the 1961 animated cartoon. Viller, a dead ringer for Edward G. Robinson during the height of the actor's gangster-roles, was the epitome of the Smooth Operator, and thus the antithesis of the brutish Steve the Tramp. Viller had one interesting resemblance to Junior, in that the adult crook was a practiced pickpocket. Paid to ruin Tracy's career, Stooge plants counterfeit money in Tracy's home and on the detective's person. From a modern point of view this sounds like a child's idea of a criminal frame-up, but it works, and the department fires Tracy. Even more devastating than this, Tess-- to whom Tracy has just become engaged-- shows herself a "false heart," refusing to believe the cop's protests of innocence. Gould spends no time showing things from her viewpoint: she merely refuses to believe him because she, like the male police, can't even imagine such an extensive frame-job.



She finds out differently thanks to the instigator himself. During Viller's surveillance of Tracy, the gangster has seen her and taken  a shine to her. Viller manages to approach Tess and even make a date with her. She finds out his true nature through that favorite melodramatic device, the Letter That Tells All. Viller shoots her, albeit nonfatally. Tess does manage to get the word out, but it's Junior who helps Tracy pinpoint Viller as a suspect, because the sharp-eyed boy sees the crook at a train-station and belatedly remembers seeing the pickpocket hanging around the detective. Viller is jailed, while Tracy is exonerated and returned to his former status. Tracy more or less forgives the recovering Tess' transgressions, though a line of dialogue suggests that he's affronted at her fling with a black-hearted villain.

There are no more interruptions at this point: Gould was clearly warming to his theme of Junior's paternity, Having forged a bond of loyalty between faux-father and faux-son, what better drama, than to break that bond?



ARC 3 brings back Steve the Tramp, who's somehow wandered from the vaguely Chicago-like city of Dick Tracy to the mountains of Colorado. Happening across a lonely cabin, the hungry hobo gets a job with a blind old miner named Hank Steele. Hank tells the tramp his story: once married to a woman much younger than himself, Hank sired an infant son by her. The wife, weary of the demanding life of a miner's camp, deserted Hank when she met a "city feller," and she took her son with her. Hank mentions that he spent a lot of money trying to locate his lost son, who would be nine years old now. Not surprisingly, Steve thinks of nine-year-old Junior to be his pawn in a scam.

Though Steve flubbed his early attempts at kidnapping, he's fantastically successful this time. Not only does Steve grab Junior almost as soon as he returns to "Tracy-city," the virulent vagrant manages to take Junior all the way back to Colorado. However, Tracy, a demon clue-finder, manages to reach Hank's house first, and he warns the old blind man of the deception. However, Tracy allows Steve to attempt his hoax, so that the detective can witness the crime and add yet another charge against the horrid hobo.

This doesn't turn out so well. Because Tracy doesn't simply arrest Steve right away, the Tramp escapes (though only temporarily) and an old mammy-style maid dies-- more on which in a separate essay, if I get the time. But Gould has a Melodrama 101 reason for allowing the hoax to play out, for it serves to reveal that Junior really is Hank Steele's lost son. Much later, Gould will assert that Steve the Tramp was the "city feller" who stole away Hank's wife, and then left her behind while keeping her young son to be his accomplice. There's no evidence Gould had this improbable scenario in mind during ARC 3, but it has an admirable symbolic symmetry: "Bad Tough Father" steals the Kid from "Good Weak Father," only to bring the youngster by accident into contact with the "Good Tough Father," who will be the worthiest parent possible. However, once Junior's paternity is proven, duty requires that he stay with his natural father, and be tearfully separated from the dad of his heart.



Not for long, though. ARC 4 commences with one of the first "villain team-ups" of pop culture, when Steve gets jugged in the same prison as Stooge Viller. United by a hatred of Tracy, the brainy crook and the brawny thug break out of prison. Hoping to get an advantage over their foe, they decide to kidnap Junior and use him to bait a trap for the policeman. However, Tracy anticipates their strategy. He travels back to Colorado, where he's ecstatically greeted by Junior. Tracy forces the old man to leave his home to preserve his safety and that of Junior, so that when the two felons arrive, they only find a deserted cabin. After further encounters with straight citizens, the crooks travel back to Tracy-city, where Viller and Steve take shelter with his equally crooked sister Maxine.

At this point Gould must've decided that Steve was no longer useful, for the Tramp is sent on a minor errand by Maxine, and promptly gets caught by Tracy. Viller drops his plans for revenge after another encounter with the super-cop. He and his sis flee to Halifax, hoping to leave the continent for a while.

The web of coincidence stretches particularly widely, for though Tracy has sent Blind Hank Steele and his son on an ocean-voyage to keep them safe. Hank decides to abort the voyage and take a new ship back to the States, because Junior is so mopey without his ideal father. The new ship founders in a storm, but Hank and Junior are among those rescued in a lifeboat that ends up in-- Halifax.



Without knowing it, Viller accidentally commits an act that serves Junior's heartfelt needs-- though to Gould, it was just another fateful coincidence. Viller spots Junior and wants to use him to get at Tracy, so he waylays the boy, his father and their protector, the invariably bungling Pat Patton. Hank tries to protect the boy and gets shot dead-- an act of such transgression that even Viller is shocked at having done it, so that he and his sister flee without Junior.

Another arc then commences, involving Tracy's long manhunt for Viller. Inevitably the Smooth Operator is jailed again, resulting in a less than tearful reunion of the Stooge and the Tramp. But the story of Junior Tracy being liberated from two unsatisfactory fathers, and being reunited with his true role-model, ends here. Tracy and Junior solemnly attend the old man's funeral, and after that, Tracy's role as paterfamilias is unchallenged, even when later sequences introduce Junior's lost mother.

Six years later Gould belatedly terminated the crime careers of both of these seminal villains.

Arguably Steve the Tramp gets the worst fate, for when he gets out of prison, he's become a utterly reformed man, and he fades from the strip as a pious reminder of the futility of crime.

Viller, in contrast, remains dedicated to killing Tracy when he gets out of stir. However, he suddenly remembers that he has a grade-school daughter, and he makes a futile attempt to win her heart, though she despises him for his criminality. The man who made possible the reunion of Junior and Tracy gets one last chance at killing his foe, but he's accidentally shot to death by his daughter-- though it's Viller's own fault, for trying to kick her gun from her hand. He dies somewhat nobly, asking Tracy to keep his death secret, so that his daughter won't know that she partly caused his death.

Gould had many "long melodrama" sequences ahead of him, consisting of dozens of traps, manhunts, and mayhem. But though I've yet to read everything in the series, I suspect that this first great sequence is his greatest "graphic romance," if only for its perverse psychological acuity.

Friday, April 22, 2016

GRAPHICALLY ROMANTIC PT. 2

So, for ease of reference, here's a boiled down version of my conclusions last essay:

(1) The literary genre called "the romance" roughly descends from that of the verse epic. Either one can manifest examples that are tightly plotted, but they tend to take "the long view," allowing for a cosmic scope of things. Both possess what Northrop Frye termed a "subjective intensity" (though he was speaking only of literary romances of the post-industrial age).

(2) The idea of "the novel," which *may* have originally connoted a short prose work, expanded to include any sort of prose work. Thus even long, rambling works of great scope-- I'd cite as examples MOBY DICK and LES MISERABLES-- were termed novels.

(3) As literary novels became increasingly associated with verisimilitude, arguably the so-called "subliterary" works of popular culture began to explore much of the material that once dominated the literary genre of the romance. Enthusiasts of one emerging genre of popular fiction, which  we now call science fiction, even co-opted the term "romance," referring to many works of Verne and Wells as "scientific romances."

(4) Just as genre fiction began to expand its horizons in the early 20th century, new media, such as the comic-strip medium, followed suit. Thus the gag strips that dominated most of the early 20th century gave way to "story-strips," many of which were dominated by one kind of melodrama or another, be it the social melodrama of 1924's LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE or the freewheeling adventures of WASH TUBBS (which began in 1924 as a gag-strip but altered its course to that of adventure in 1929).

More tomorrow.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

GRAPHICALLY ROMANTIC

As a prelude to this week's mythcomic  I have to comment somewhat on the ideas behind the so-called "graphic novel."

The term was coined by Richard Kyle in a 1964 contribution to the apa-zine Capa-Alpha (of which I, by coincidence, am a current member). However, the term didn't catch fire until after the 1978 publication of Will Eisner's A CONTRACT WITH GOD.  Clearly, given that the word "novel" carried far more gravitas than "comic book," the use of the term was an attempt to separate ambitious graphic narratives from pamphlets aimed dominantly at a juvenile audience.

I'm going from memory here for the time being, but as I recall Dave Sim was one of those who took issue with using the term "novel" in this sense, arguing that most of the candidates for the term simply lacked the scope to justify the term-- as opposed to his then-ongoing work on CEREBUS, which when finished in 2004 displayed an impressive length (6000+ pages) and covered more than a fair share of intellectual topics.

This raises the question, though, of whether scope is the proper way to define the novel. Wikipedia mentions that in the 17th century "romance" was sometimes used to denote a narrative of epic length, while "novel" was applied to shorter works. Nevertheless, though the term "romance" had a venerable history, having been applied to prose works from the Hellenistic period, the term "novel" superseded "romance" in the 20th century. In the mid-1950s Northrop Frye made a perhaps futile effort to restore the term "romance" to respectability, asserting that it was a better description for those 19th-century works, such as MOBY DICK and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, that included a "subjective intensity" not present in more down-to-earth works. But to date the culture as a whole still deems these works "novels" no less than much shorter works, such as John Barth's END OF THE ROAD.

A further complication is that "romance" as a literary term also has ties with the rambling type of stories from medieval and Renaissance times, the so-called "chivalric romance." Arguably these romances replicated the scope of the verse epics in which much of our current knowledge of archaic myths is preserved. Some verse epics are as thematically coherent as many modern novels, such as the EPIC OF GILGAMESH. In contrast, although Aristotle praises Homer for centering the ILIAD upon the retreat of Achilles, this particular verse epic is not nearly as unified as the Sumerian epic, given that many chapters are devoted to spinning forth numerous traditional tales of the Trojan War that don't technically have much to do with Achilles. By the late 19th century verse epics had perished-- one of the last, THE SONG OF HIAWATHA, showing some rather "superheroic" aspects-- and the epic poem's killer was none other than the prose novel.

Many of the best-known novels of this century-- DAVID COPPERFIELD, LES MISERABLES-- tended toward an "epic" scope, and authors like Trollope and Balzac sometimes wrote interrelated novels set in the same fictional "universes." The early 20th century continued in the use of the term "novel" for both relatively short works, like the books of London and Hemingway, and very long works like Dos Passos' "USA trilogy. But though there were some minor experiments in the "graphic novel" during this period, none of them set any trends, and for the first thirty-eight years of the twentieth century, Americans largely experienced the comics-medium only through the newspaper comic strip.

In my essay-series THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, I came to the conclusion that gag-oriented comic strips were as a rule too short to allow for Aristotelian "complication." I further asserted that narratives had their greatest capacity for mythicity when they possessed the traditional "beginning, middle and end," which worked to maximize a given story's potential for "connotative associations." However, in this essay-series I did not deal with the "long form" of the comic strip, the "story-strip," which usually focused on one dominant narrative arc, usually with no more than one subplot, usually a setup for a future main plot.

Some forgotten comics-critic once opined that Dave Sim's scope-oriented definition of the novel was his means of giving CEREBUS a unique position in the history of comic books. The same critic suggested that many manga artists had already produced works that were at least as long as CEREBUS, though one may doubt that these stories were quite as intellectually provocative as Sim's massive work. Still, that critic might have mentioned a precursor "closer to home" than any manga-epic, and that is the type of "long melodrama" that flourished in newspaper comics from the late 1920s until roughly the 1950s-- which is about the time when "story-strips" faded from prominence in newspapers.

I want to be very careful in evaluating what if any ways that the "long melodrama" strips of the classic comic-strip era-- PRINCE VALIANT, TARZAN, FLASH GORDON, WASH TUBBS-- have to being any sort of "graphic novels." While the individual story-lines of these strips do have greater potential for complication in the sense of being mythic, they don't have much of the "scope" often applied to the general idea of the novel. Since each of these storylines is just one narrative arc, without a lot of complementary development, such arcs might be better compared to the novella than the novel proper.

However, I have come across one anomaly among the comics strips of the classic period-- one in which the author managed to combine an "epic" quantity of plot-developments over a period much longer than the usual three months assigned to most narrative arcs in this medium. More on this anomaly tomorrow.




Saturday, April 16, 2016

BAD WILL ON TOP

One of the great curiosities of comic-book mythography is that even though the heroes-- and occasionally, the demiheroes-- are the protagonists with whose will the audience identifies, often much of the mythicity resides within the villains and/or monsters who are in the position of supporting players.

This week's mythcomic is a rare exception: the villains of the story do no more than provide base functions in the story, and the focus is upon the heroine Wonder Woman and the cultural matrix of Paradise Island in which she originates.

In contrast, as I detailed here, Will Eisner's feature THE SPIRIT was such a genre-chameleon that it's arguable that the titular hero had little myth to call his own, and most of his villains were no better.

By contrast, a character like Batman could also try on a number of "genre-hats," but there seemed to be a greater conviction about keeping an "essential Batman" in most of the character's iterations-- though this didn't necessarily mean that he was always the mythopoeic center of the story.

In 1942's "Laugh, Town, Laugh," Batman remains the *endothelic* center of the story, but one may well argue that the story is much more about exploring the manic nature of his enemy, the Joker. The celebrated "Killing Joke" barely concerns Batman at all, except in the "everycop" role so often enacted by Eisner's Spirit. Only that slight focus on the fact that the Joker is part of Batman's mythos, and not the other way round, keeps "Killing Joke" from being a Joker story.

Arguably the sidekick-figures are even more relegated to functional roles: Robin just performs his usual routines in the 1942 story, while Barbara Gordon doesn't even take on her Batgirl identity in Alan Moore's tale, though one might argue that her maiming has an extra level of irony simply because she's a superheroine caught by surprise and taken out, like any ordinary mortal.

There's a bit more parity in 1966's "Beware of Poison Ivy." Since this was the debut of the titular villainess, it's understandable that the bulk of the story is devoted to Ivy's allure. Nevertheless, both the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder have substantial myth-roles in the story, although Kanigher plays with those roles a bit by having Batman, the sage dispenser of advice to his young ward, be the one pole-axed by Ivy's erotic charms, while Robin has to be the adult in the relationship, trying to rein in his mentor. Even the three one-note arthropod-villainesses of "Poison" contribute a certain amount of mythicity.

Another interesting variation is that of the "newbie hero," as seen in "The Menace of Dream Girl." Although the magazine is focused on the adventures of the Legion, most of the characters in the story are quite flat, although as I noted in the essay, Star Boy gets a very slight boost from "nothing character" to "character defined by romantic interest." Clearly Dream Girl-- who is given an ambivalent portrait, allowing the new reader to wonder whether or not she is a villain-- is the mythopoeoic focus of the story, half Cassandra and half Marilyn Monroe.

More to follow in a future Part 2.

MYTHCOMICS: "A SPY ON PARADISE ISLAND" (WONDER WOMAN #3, 1943)




Since I referred to the mythic content of Wonder Woman that barely saw light of day in BATMAN VS, SUPERMAN, I ought to allude here to some of that content, though not purely for that reason. As I've detailed in many posts, most recently here, Wonder Woman's mythic qualities are not defined by her ideological correctness. Creator William Moulton Marston is particularly vulnerable to this sort of misreading, given that he did his best to promote his superheroine as the harbinger of a gynocentric "loving authority" that would someday transform the world.

Fortunately, since Marston was an inspired creator, his Amazon alter-ego often indulged in a great deal of free-form fantasy, rather than mere ideological posturing. Thus even when he was trying to stick to an ideological point, he sometimes included material that diverged from his ostensible program, as will be seen in my examination of a 1943 story from WONDER WOMAN #3, retroactively entitled "A Spy on Paradise Island." I should note that all of the stories in this magazine are loosely related in that spy-mistress Paula Von Gunther is the main villain throughout (that's her disembodied head in the upper right section of the magazine's cover). Fortunately, "Spy" stands on its own.

The cover by itself requires a little comment, as it shows a scene nowhere in the comic: Wonder Woman assumes the role of the god Helios, who in the archaic mythology of the Greeks drove the chariot of the sun across the sky, the "quick-fix" explanation for the sun's seemingly daily revolutions. In later Hellenistic periods Helios was sometimes conflated with Apollo, brother to the hunter-goddess Artemis the Huntress (a.k.a. "Diana" in Roman myths). The mythology of Diana influenced not only this particular Wonder Woman story but arguably the author's ideal of Amazon society in general, not to mention providing the birth-name for the superheroine star of the story.

The retroactive title emphasizes the main conflict of the story: Paula escapes the custody of American justice and then undertakes an ambitious program to attack Paradise Island. Paula instructs a female underling, Keela, to stow away in Wonder Woman's plane before the heroine returns to her Amazon homeland. Once Keela arrives, she sends out a radio-beam designed to lead a Japanese submarine to the hidden island. In addition, Keela manages one or two other misdeeds to be covered later. However, the villains-- Paula, Keela and the Japanese sailors-- are mere functional cogs in the story, and even the heroine of the story herself doesn't receive that much attention compared to the culture and mythology of Paradise Island.

Wonder Woman's motive for returning to her homeland is to take part in a celebration known as "Diana's Day," explained in the opening caption as "the Amazon Christmas, when the mighty sun-god returns to Earth." By the 1940s it had become common in intellectual circles to view Christmas as having developed from the winter solstice festivals of pagan Europe, so in this regard Marston was on firm mythico-religious ground. On Page 3 Wonder Woman approaches Steve Trevor prior to her leave-taking. She tells him cryptically that she is "the moon goddess Diana," and that during Diana's Day some Amazons are appointed to impersonate the goddess, "just as you men play Santa Claus at Christmas." Marston then expands on the role of the daily sun-chariot by claiming that Apollo also drives the sun further away from the Earth in winter, only to start his return during the winter solstice (there's no attempt to deviate from the geocentric universe of the Greeks). Despite the opening caption's mention of the "mighty sun-god," Apollo's role in the ritual ends when he simply brings his Male Principle back to the mortal world, thus occasioning the celebratory rites of his sister Diana. Keeping symmetry with Wonder Woman's comparison of the Diana-ritual and "men playing Santa Claus," it's later related-- though not by Wonder Woman-- that Diana dispenses gifts "to all" on Diana's Day, seated in a silver chariot in place of Santa's sleigh, which chariot is pulled not by reindeer but by "wood nymphs."



The reader never sees the goddess Diana in the story proper, but Wonder Woman stands in for her, loading her invisible robot plane with presents to be dispensed to her fellow Amazons. She also takes her gal-pal Etta Candy along for the ride (and for comedy relief), but remains unaware of the spy Keela, who has stowed away on the flight back to the Amazon refuge.

Pages 6-10 then introduce new mythic elements taken largely from the mythology of Diana the Huntress. Wonder Woman dons a silver mask, which stands as a challenge to all other Amazons to unmask her. This was possibly Marston's fetish-y take on the rites of Diana Nemorensis, which involved a ritual combat, though not quite for the same stakes. No one manages to unmask Wonder Woman, but her own formidability-- particularly in staving off one of Keela's attacks-- discloses the heroine's identity.



At this point Marston finally comes to "the meat" of his story, which involves the second and last reference to a male myth-figure. Etta sees a group of Amazons dressed in deer-costumes, and Wonder Woman explains that this custom grew out of the Goddess Diana's passion for hunting deer, another major ritual associated with Diana's Day. Marston re-interprets the myth of Actaeon for his young audience, so that this time the male hunter is simply a "peeping tom" who spies on Diana during one of her forest-hunts. Understandably, since Marston doesn't want to portray his heroine's gods as being as bloody-minded as the originals, this Diana changes Actaeon into a deer, but nothing is said about the hunter having seen her naked or being killed by his own hunting-dogs.

However, though Marston elides the bloody ending of Actaeon, he can hardly avoid making reference to the bloody nature of hunting. Cleverly, though, the author finds a way around this difficulty. First some Amazons hunt their own kindred, who are clad in the costumes of does. The "doe-girls" then undergo a ritual of "mock death," being "shot with arrows," hung from a pole, and then "baked in a doe pie." However, the "slain" Amazons are allowed to return to life if they can perform a lively dance for the approval of the huntresses. At this point, however, the genuine menace of Keela intrudes on the rituals of Diana's Day, and the lesson in Amazon mythology is almost over-- though the contention between the villainess and the Amazon Princess does involve a wrestling-struggle, roughly akin to the ones Wonder Woman has with her kindred.



While searching for illustrative images on the Web, I noted that a certain HUddite had weighed in on this Marston story. I did not read the essay, but I suspect that the author was happy to read the story in line with Marston's own philosophy: to accept that all of the re-writings of Helios/Apollo and of Santa Claus into feminine mythoi was meant to enshrine the superiority of femininity. But even though Marston probably harbored some such thought when he crafted the story, I find it significant that the story is more dependent than most upon sacral male presences.

It may be that Marston knew that his readers, though not scholars of myth, would only accept so much rewriting. Thus he does follow the common trope of a male sun-god, and one whose return is necessary before Diana's celebration can begin. Thus in this story Marston emphasizes an uncharacteristic parity between male and female. Similarly, although I can imagine that the more ideological critics might view Actaeon's transformation as a negation of male power, Marston has actually maintained the familiar archetype of the male sacrificial victim also observed in (to cite the usual suspects) Balder, Attis, and Adonis. It's been theorized that whether or not any real archaic sacrifices took place to propitiate the gods and so on, at some point the sacrifices became "mock deaths" just as they are in the Marston story. But I find it most interesting that the deer-Amazons must identify, not with the deer-slayer Diana, but with the slain male-- though of course Marston doesn't explore this theme in depth.  So even though Marston had his ideological moments, as a creator he had less in common with the HUddites than with the "Brahma" of Emerson's poem (which also concerned the identity of the slayers and the slain):

The strong gods pine for my abode,
      And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
      Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "HOW LUTHOR MET SUPERBOY" (ADVENTURE COMICS #271, 1960)

Now that a new version of Luthor has made it into film-theaters, it seems appropriate to discuss the first time Superman's arch-villain achieved mythic status.

In some ways it's surprising that the original character caught on so well with 1940s readers of Superman comic, for in his first appearance he seems like just another garden-variety mad scientist, out to conquer the world.



In the second appearance of Luthor-- who had yet to acquire a first name, or even a backstory-- Jerry Siegel gives him one mythic motif: Luthor is a "brain" who perpetually seeks to prove himself the superior of Superman's "brawn." Given that Siegel's first version of Superman, appearing in a prose fanzine, was actually a super-brain with no fabulous physical powers, one might consider this a case of an early version of Superman seeking vengeance on his successor. But this minor motif is as far as Siegel takes it, and it seems to me that the only thing that made Luthor popular with audiences-- enough that he was featured as the main villain in the 1950 ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN film-serial-- was that his bald head made him eminently recognizable.




"How Luthor Met Superboy"-- drawn by Al Plastino and written by Jerry Siegel at a time when he had returned to DC Comics as a simple wage-slave-- was an overt attempt to give Superman's most prominent enemy his own myth-- and, as most comics-fans know, it was a myth founded in his lack of head-hair.

The 1960 story-- reprinted in full on this site-- begins with Superboy hearing that a new resident, a teenger, has moved to Smallville. Though the Boy of Steel doesn't typically go around serving as Smallville's welcome-wagon, he shows up at the new boy's farm. At the same a kryptonite meteor crashes to the ground, and Superboy falls victim to its rays. The new boy saves Superboy by pushing the meteor into a nearby lake, after which the young man introduces himself as Lex Luthor, budding boy scientist, and informs the superhero that he Luthor is Superboy's biggest fan-- which was meant to be just as ironic then as when Annie Wilkes spoke similar lines in Stephen King's MISERY.

Grateful for his life, Superboy uses his powers to build the farm-boy-- who's currently living without adult supervision, for reasons loosely explained later-- a brand-new laboratory. Luthor isn't entirely forthcoming about the direction of his experiments, resulting in a clever scene wherein the conflict of the prideful young boy and the somewhat nosy superhero is foreshadowed.



Luthor's attempt to create protoplasmic life may also carry something of a Frankenstein-vibe, though the headless foam-creature seen above never fully comes to life. Luthor is so happy about his breakthrough that he instantly decides to find a new way to reward his super-buddy: by discovering a potion that will immunize Superboy from kryptonite radiation. Since the lab was payback for Luthor saving Superboy's life, one might almost think that on one level Luthor was seeking to use his scientific skills to "one-up" his hero, albeit in a beneficent manner. Luthor's own exultation causes him to start an accidental fire, and Superboy's attempt to save his friend results in a permanent rift between the two:



To be sure, Luthor briefly pretends to set aside his maniacal obsession, but only so that he can taunt Superboy by withholding the kryptonite antidote. "Superboy will regret the day he decided to steal the glory of Luthor," the nascent super-villain rants to himself, which is Siegel elaborating the simple early motif of "brain vs. brawn." Luthor doesn't immediately turn criminal, though, but instead tries to steal from the superhero the regard of the local Smallville residents. Luthor's streak of juvenile carelessness causes the project to turn sour, and Superboy s obliged destroy it.



Luthor tries a second time to ingratiate himself with Superboy's 'worshippers," and he fails again, thus enduring yet more humiliation from an enemy who doesn't regard Luthor as anything but a wayward youth who hasn't received enough parental attention from his "traveling salesman" father. (Nothing whatever is said of Luthor's mother, but one assumes that she's no longer among the living.) Luthor finally crosses the line and tries to kill Superboy, but the young superhero manages to take advantage of the scientist's desire to twist the knife, and save himself.




Still generous to a fault, the Boy of Steel refuses to arrest Luthor for his crime, claiming that Luthor's attempt to take Superboy's life nullifies the scientist's having saved it earlier. This is the only time in the story Superboy shows himself to be something more than a goody-goody, as if he were a juvenile version of a western sheriff, deferring justice from an old friend gone bad.

Many later comics-readers-- and comics-professionals, some of whom worked on later Superman comics-- were affronted by the perceived banality of this motivation; of Luthor becoming a super-villain simply because he lost his hair. In an essay I wrote long ago for AMAZING HEROES, I pointed out that Luthor's baldness was simply an objective correlative for his feeling marginalized and overshadowed by Superboy's prowess. I pointed out that in myths the loss of vitality was sometimes indicated by a character's loss of hair, most famously in the story of Samson, though the Greeks had a not dissimilar character in Nisos, King of Megara. Many later versions of Luthor would minimize the baldness-motif in favor of a Luthor who hated Superman for some other reason, most prominently because of the latter's alien nature.

But regardless of whatever new motive is indicated, that hair-denuded head keeps popping up in every iteration; the 20th-century superhero equivalent of the Fisher King with the Wounded Thigh.