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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...

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "STAMPEDE OF THE COMETS" (WONDER WOMAN #99, 1958)




In my essay on "Master of the Elements" I commented that even at the start of the so-called "Silver Age," one could still see a fair deal of "carry-over" from the practices of the Golden Age, and nothing shows that better than the work of Robert Kanigher. Kanigher's work, throughout the three "ages" he covered in his career, epitomizes what I called the "hit-or-miss approach of the Golden Age." Because of this, it remains a point of great irony that he scripted the first adventure of the hero most associated with the advent of the Silver Age. When reading the kind of work Kanigher turned out for WONDER WOMAN throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the mind boggles as to whether the Silver Age would even have got off the ground, had he, rather than John Broome, become the principal scripter for the FLASH title.

The story under consideration here, "Stampede of the Comets," appeared in WONDER WOMAN #99. Issue #98 occupies a small place in the history of Wonder Woman, for #97 was the last one to have featured the work of the Amazon's artistic midwife H.G. Peter. For roughly the next ten years, Kanigher's version of Wonder Woman was illustrated almost exclusively by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, whom I suspect were Kanigher's personal choices over Peter. Issue #98 is something of a null-myth itself, in that it rewrites, to poor effect, William Marston's (admittedly inconsistent) origin for the heroine. But #98 doesn't show an author mucking up a cosmological myth, and since that's my subject here, I choose the "Comets" tale from #99.

Again, I reiterate that I don't hold stories to be good only if they're correct according to the rules of science. Still, most of Kanigher's scripts for WONDER WOMAN have the feel of an author quickly tossing together whatever ideas happen to occur to him, and then running with them. Occasionally this resulted in some interesting myth-tales in the author's METAL MEN title, but it almost never paid off in the WONDER WOMAN title.

"Comets" opens on a somewhat quixotic idea. The US government is going to send a rocket into the stratosphere, and Lt. Steve Trevor-- a.k.a., Wonder Woman's significant other-- is going to follow the rocket in his slower "rocket-plane" to monitor the rocket's progress, before the rocket eventually leaves the plane behind. This doesn't sound like a very effective way to garner scientific info. When Trevor's plane goes missing, Wonder Woman then utilizes the resources of the Amazons-- who just happen to have their own space-program in operation-- to duplicate the circumstances of Trevor's flight. (I suspect Kanigher believed that the primary appeal of kids' lit was that of being repetitive, since so many of his stories involve repetitive elements.)

Because it might hurt some of Wonder Woman's appeal if she spent most of the adventure in bulky astronaut's garb, the heroine first undergoes a special treatment to make it possible for her to survive in deep space. Then the Amazons launch a rocket-- presumably one following the trajectory of the U.S. rocket-- and Wonder Woman follows the rocket it in her own rocket-plane. The same fate that befell Trevor's plane befalls her: some mysterious force grabs her plane and whips it through the solar system, faster than the rocket can travel.

Somewhere out past Mars, the heroine sees the wreckage of Trevor's plane, and Trevor himself afloat in space, protected only by his spacesuit. (One wonders how long he survived in these straits./) She deserts her own rocket-plane to rescue Trevor, and then the two of them are struck by a weird comet whose tail doesn't bend away from the rays of the sun. They escape the comet, but it hits and destroys Earth-- or what the two voyagers believe to be Earth, until Wonder Woman realizes that it didn't have a moon, like the real planet. WW and Trevor then manage to board her wandering rocket-plane, and proceed into "the Milky Way"-- which is quite an accomplishment, since Earth's solar system is already a part of the Milky Way. They quickly come across a planet surrounded by comets, which turn out to be artificial weapons controlled by a race called "Silicons." The castaways overhear the telepathic thoughts of the Silicons, conveniently explaining that they took hold of both rocket-planes to get hold of some "specimens," before they chose to destroy the real Earth (the simulacrum was just for practice) and then to "use the planet fragments to replenish our food supply." But before the Silicons can strike at the nearby Earthlings, Wonder Woman detects magnetic radiation on their planet. She dives down, carves out a giant magnet, and uses it to divert the deadly comets aimed at Earth, so that they rebound upon the Silicons instead. Finally, though the heroine tells Trevor that since they no longer have the Silicons to warp them through space, they'll probably perish in the void-- but to their good luck, a mysterious meteor comes along and whisks them through yet another space-warp, depositing them happily back on Earth's doorstep.   

Though the plot abounds with improbabilities and happy coincidences, I don't attack it as a null-myth for those deficiencies. What makes "Comets" an inconsummate story is that unlike the best juvenile SF from DC's writers, it fails to create a *sustained* sense of wonder. It tosses around many of the standard elements of space-opera-- silicon-based aliens, artificial comet-weapons, space-warps. Yet though Kanigher tosses in a few cursory science-factoids-- like the one about it being normative for comet's-tails to bend away from the sun due to solar "winds"-- he neglects to give his evil aliens any believable motive for acting as they do. Why do they want to blow up Earth, rather than an uninhabited planet, if all they want are the dead fragments? Why bother with making a copy of Earth for a practice target, when again, there are ready-made planets to use? And why should they choose to gather a couple of Earth-specimens in the haphazard manner of choosing whoever happens to leave the stratosphere at a particular time?

Certainly Kanigher never expected any adult to read this story and critique it. But John Broome had no such expectations for his FLASH stories, either-- and it would seem that he devoted some effort to fleshing out his symbolic universe, while Kanigher chose to do as little as he could get away with.

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