Tuesday, July 14, 2015
MYTHCOMICS: "KARLOVNA UNDERWORLD" (BLACKHAWK #14, 1946)
Years ago I named the above story-- a shortened form for the untitled tale's first line, "Karlovna Had a True Underworld"-- in my 2008 post AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY. I've often thought about expanding on those brief remarks: 'Another weirdo racial myth about a modern-day country being subverted from beneath by a horde of dusky "dragon dwarves." This one was reprinted in the original edition of Les Daniels' COMIX.' There's no surviving record of the story's writer, but the artist has been pegged as Bill Ward, and any attributions I make in this essay will be treat Ward as the author, purely for narrative convenience.
Quality's Blackhawks were seven daredevil, freedom-loving pilots who roamed the world fighting evil-- though in the early days their comedy-relief Chinese member Chop-Chop wasn't consistently depicted as being able to pilot a plane. They principally battled the forces of the Axis during their genesis during World War Two, and after the war's conclusion they continued to battle any evil that seemed to threaten what they generally called "the democracies."
In this story, the Blackhawks are summoned to Karlovna-- an East European country that sounds like it took its name from a certain horror-film actor-- when a policeman colleague of Blackhawk's has been murdered, along with two other supporters of democratic rule. To keep Blackhawk from straining his brain with mundane detective work, one of the assassins-- a dark-skinned dwarf-- shows up on the scene, tried to knife the policeman's pretty blonde daughter Vereen, and then kills himself to escape interrogation.
While Vereen takes Blackhawk to confer on the problem with a respected banker-friend, one Rambin, the other Blackhawks stumble upon a whole race of dwarf-people, who live in the sewers beneath the city. The little people, later called "dragon dwarves," capture all of the Blackhawks except Hendrickson, who summons Blackhawk. At the same time Blackhawk and Hendrickson investigate the sewers in seatch of their comrades, the banker Rambin lures Vereen to the same location-- which should be enough for even the least skilled mystery-solver to figure out his role in the story.
Vereen and Rambin are captured without a fight, while Blackhawk and Hendrickson are overpowered. The dwarves are now accompanied by their two leaders: a fellow named Grotesko (whom Andre calls "ze biggest dwarf in all ze world") and a costumed woman named the Dragon Queen, The leaders explain to their captive audience that the dwarves "once owned Karlovna, until the weak civilized people took it from them! For generations, these rightful owners of the land have hidden underground, venturing forth only at night!" Thanks to the influence of the Dragon Queen-- who is secretly partnered with Rambin the banker-- the dwarves are using terrorist tactics to frighten the populace into submission.
With their usual aplomb, the heroes break out of their prison in double-quick time, and the dwarves scatter. Blackhawk, being the leader, figures out the conspiracy and accuses both Rambin and his female assistant Wilna, who is of course the real face behind the Dragon Queen. Rambin reveals that he was using the "stupid underground dwarves" to block his country's alliance with the democracies, since such an alliance would cost him money. He has no loyalty toward the "wild claims" of the dragon dwarves, but tries to use them in a last-ditch battle with the heroes. When that gambit fails, Rambin tries to put the blame on Wilna, She kills him and then herself, and the Blackhawks fly off, ready for their next foray against tyranny.
What makes Ward's story more mythic than many similar tales is its emphasis on symbols of what the Greeks called "the chthonic," defined by Dictionary.com as being:
" the earth."
Any beings, mortal or spiritual, that dwell beneath the ground can't help but be associated with the bodies and spirits of the dead as well. Snakes are one example of living animals that frequently take on chthonic associations, as do dragons, who take their name from the Greek word for snake. Thus, when Ward styles his little people "dragon dwarves," he's combining two figures that share chthonic properties, given the fact that folkloric dwarves, unlike real little people, are often pictured as living beneath the earth.
In the Celtic tradition dwarves have come to be viewed as one of the many divisions of "faerie," meaning, in essence, any supernatural creature that's less than a god yet more than a mortal. The medieval, psuedo-historical myths of Ireland describe successions of mortal peoples who come to settle Ireland-- Fomorians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha-- only to be crowded out by new arrivals. The psuedo-histories, rather than simply saying that the earlier tribes were wiped out, often picture them as retiring to underground "barrows" and similar retreats.
I'm not imputing to Ward or any collaborator a great knowledge of Celtic tradition, but most persons of the period were aware of the basic notion of tribal displacement. The story, by inserting a "giant dwarf' named Grotesko, also suggests some authorial familiarity with the Nordic tradition of opposing the light-skinned Aesir with two principal foes: "giants" and "dwarves." Grotesko's name is transparently a pun on the word "grotesque," but the origins of this word take us further down into the chthonic as well, since "grotesque" evolves from the Italian word for "cave." European art critics labeled certain Roman artworks "grotesque" because the artworks reminded the critics of art that appeared in grotto-like settings, and the word later came to connote anything bizarre and unsettling.
Finally, as anyone well read in Robert E Howard knows, some European tales suggest the idea of "dark precursors" that inhabited parts of Europe before being ousted by light-skinned invaders.
Clearly, even though Karlovna is a phony-baloney country, Ward wanted to draw on the nightmarish implications of a "normal" (i.e. white and civilized) country with a "dark underbelly." At the same time, it should be noted that the dragon dwarves' claims to being the original inhabitants of the land aren't validated-- Vereen, for instance, doesn't suddenly start talking about dwarf-legends even when she sees the dead body of her attacker. So although Ward's story might suggest a degree of civilized guilt about the marginalization of an earlier people, the story as written leaves open the possibility that the dwarves' claims are deluded; an attempt to rewrite history to their own advantage.
A writer living in the era right after WWII probably wasn't deeply concerned with the actual existence of "dark little people" in European prehistory. But as figures of the chthonic, the dragon dwarves may symbolize the forces of irrationality that continually threaten to overwhelm the rational rule of democracy-- so that even though the dwarves are dark and stunted, they may well symbolize the Nazi veneration of the irrational, for all that the Nazis venerated idols of blonde Aryan health.
A final complication is that there are no indications as to how the all-male dwarves have perpetuated themselves over the years, since no female dwarves are in evidence. One can easily imagine them stealing women to act as breeders, but again, one would think that their doing so would give them a folkloric presence in Karlovna-- and, as I said, the story's only reliable Karlovnan doesn't have the first idea as to who or what the dwarves may be. Since they venerate a Dragon Queen who is actually a light-skinned, normal-sized woman, I tend to wonder if the most appropriate reading might not be one in which the Queen is actually a queen of hell, whose progeny are these hideously deformed creatures, as seen in Milton's memorable description of Hell's queen Sin:
These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv'd
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw
My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth
A fresh with conscious terrours vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.
NOTE: The entire story can be read on this site.