Monday, May 9, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #8: HEAVY METAL (September 1981)
PLOT-SUMMARY for “Judgment Day:” A man who looks like Adolf Hitler, but who is referred to as “Judas Priest,” is hawking copies of the Jehovah’s Witness publication THE WATCHTOWER in a surrealistic bathhouse. Judas spouts hyperbole about all the sinners who will face “eternal shame and tears” when the Son of God returns, but while doing so he peeks at the bathing women. Judas is mocked for his hypocrisy by a young male bather, Frankie Lee, identified as a “carpenter whose father is deceased.” Frankie tempts Judas by telling the roué that Frankie’s father left him a house full of prostitutes. Judas gives Frankie money but an (apparently) female bather approaches Judas and shocks him by showing off “her” dick. Retreating, Judas falls into the swimming pool. He sinks so deep that a submarine, commanded by a “Monsieur C,” spots him. Judas returns to the pool’s surface but now the bathhouse is almost empty, save for a youth with a guitar on his back. He claims to be “the son of my father,” who is “here to separate the good from the bad.” Judas follows the stranger to “the place from where everybody will leave to stand trial.” Judas witnesses half-naked guards in Nazi costumes attacking people at the place of trials. Then the “son” guides Judas to a train with a cattle-car containing “some of my father’s favorites.” When Judas gets in, he sees that the car is full of dead bodies. The son shuts Judas in, telling him that the corpses are alive now, because “I just woke them.” Story ends with Hitler/Judas about to get his reward.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: If one wishes to reduce Dutch artist Dick Matena’s 8-page story to its most basic level, then it’s a “Kill That Nazi One More Time” story. Given the real-world death of Adolf Hitler, more realistic stories in this vein, such as Krigstein’s celebrated “Master Race,” can only vent their wrath on Nazi subordinates who escaped war crimes trials. However, tales with greater fantasy-content can bring back the Fuhrer himself in one form or another, either by the SF-device of saving his brain or even telling an alternate history where Hitler gets killed in a more satisfying fashion (i.e., Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS).
By the title alone, it’s clear that Matena is frying up larger fish. The Christian religion’s emphasis upon sorting out “the good from the bad” in preparation for the Day of Judgment is conflated with the Nazi policy of sorting out the various undesirables that supposedly polluted German purity. Race and religion were the pollutants most often cited, but Nazism also reviled things having nothing to do with heritage, such as mental retardation and sexual deviance. Signficantly, though the corpses in the cattle-car reference the fate of prisoners shipped to concentration camps, Matena’s Judas does not inveigh against race or religion: only against the things considered sinful by Christian religion. Despite the specific reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses I don’t think Matena is singling out that particular sect: all Christians who base their ethics in the sorting-out of a “Final Time” are implicated in Matena’s comparison between Christianity and Nazism.
To be sure, it’s an implication steeped in comic irony. The image of Hitler selling copies of the WATCHTOWER is a very funny image, even before one knows where Matena’s going with the idea. Still, Matena does develop the idea, in contrast to occasional bits of toss-off surrealism, like the three-panels with the submarine in the swimming pool. One assumes that the “Monsieur C” running the submarine is a doppelganger for Jacques Cousteau, but he’s probably not in the story for any reason beyond brief amusement.
Other images are more provocative. Charlie Chaplin, who portrayed a version of Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR, stands in the background of the first panel. A nun’s habit hangs outside one bath-stall, into which Judas tries to peek: we later find out that the habit’s owner is the hermaphrodite, who shocks Judas by being something not easily classified in binary terms. A seeing-eye dog and a blind man’s cane (but not the man owning either) are seen at the top of page five, potentially evoking the story of Jesus bringing back the sight of a blind man—though the only mention of a “laying-on of hands” appears when Judas tells Frankie how Frankie’s father “turned black all over” when Judas touched him.
Clearly Frankie, Judas, and “the Son” all incarnate cracked-mirror aspects of the Savior who, in Christianity, redeems the sinfulness of the world, even though a sorting-out at the End of Time proves necessary despite the redemption. Clearly Frankie is called a “carpenter” purely as a reference to the Nazarene, and though Judas accuses him of being a tempter (“Always trying to seduce to weak!”), Frankie’s association with prostitutes is also more suggestive of Jesus than of the Biblical Satan.
The name of Judas is even more symbolically rich. Biblical Judas, who betrays Christ to the Romans, dies for his sin in the Gospels. And yet in medieval folklore Judas takes on literal new life, being cast as one version of “the Wandering Jew,” cursed to endure immortal life until Jesus returns, thus linking the mythology of Judas to that of the Last Days. Further, long before “Judas Priest” became the name of a rock band, it began as an epithet. Clearly Christians came to curse in the name of “Judas Priest” simply as a strategy to avoid the direct, blasphemous use of the name “Jesus Christ” for everyday curses,” much as “heck” was contrived as a substitute for “hell.” But what Matena’s Judas Priest does is a betrayal of a different kind: he pretends to a high moral code so that he can condemn sin in others while indulging in it himself.
At first glance the nameless “Son” might seem to be the agent of a superior moral code, since his whole purpose in the story is to give Hitler whatfor. But the Son isn’t without his unappealing aspects. Alluding the six-day creation of the world in Genesis, he complains that “I got only one day to bring it down.” For that reason, even though he will be punishing Judas/Hitler for Hitler’s crimes, the Son is also employs the quasi-Nazi soldiers to take care of the business of the trials:
“I despise those guys! But sometimes they’re very useful, so I just close my eyes!”
One could imagine that perhaps the only people getting this Nazi-like treatment are the ones who, in life, dealt it out to others. But Matena is clearly not interested in saying that the “sorting out” process can be good when one picks the right targets, so the Son is not much less a hypocrite than Judas Priest, and his unseen Father is also reduced to the ungodly level of being “chairman of the biggest multinational that ever was.” And of course, Matena’s comic inversion of the Christian theme of resurrection, using it to bring back dead bodies to kill Adolf Hitler a la EC Comics, is about as cheerily blasphemous as one can get.
Happily, unlike many of the stories I'll be recommending, "Judgment Day" can be read online, at this location on the Grantbridge Street blog.
I’ve stated in the past that I don’t think all literary stories must have complex symbolism simply to be “capital-L” literature. Joyce’s DUBLINERS stories have a simpler artistic aim than his ULYSSES, but both are Literature. But when I see how well Dick Matena puts across a complex meaning using a thoroughgoing knowledge of symbolism, I’m all the more disappointed in the bulk of both European and American artcomics. The artists behind them continually trumpet the inferiority of popular comic books to their artistic strivings, but few of them have shown the ambition to attempt even something as complex as this 8-page Matena story, much less a ULYSSES. It’s as if most practitioners of Western artcomics took as their “Bible” Zola’s fulminations on behalf of naturalism, but never actually read the actual Zola novels to see how much symbolism the author himself used.