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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...

Friday, December 18, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "SHADOW PEOPLE OF THE ECLIPSE" (MYSTERY IN SPACE #78, 1962)




Silver Age DC Comics, particularly during the company’s most creative period (roughly 1959-1966), have gained the cachet of easy recognition to later generations of fans. Younger fans probably can't put themselves into the mindset that looked forward to seeing heroic characters in bizarre situations, as with the example of the Flash being turned into a living puppet, to cite one of the best-known. But the younger generations of fans may be able to recognize the general look of Silver Age DC covers, especially those from the editorial stable of Julius Schwartz. Often these covers focus on wild visual gimmicks, aimed at the impulse-buyer—but only a close reading can tell one whether the gimmick is all there is to the story, or whether its apparent absurdity functions as a door into the mythopoeic dimension.

The “Adam Strange” series is one Schwartz title no longer much celebrated even by the older generation of fans, in part because the title character was not a superhero as such. Adam Strange became DC’s most prestigious space-opera hero of the period when Schwartz  came up with a “thinking man’s” version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. In Burroughs’ Martian cycle of stories, Carter and other Earth-heroes not infrequently found themselves transported to the exotic world of Mars, where they would immediately get involved in assorted feats of derring-do. In similar wise, a device called a “Zeta-beam” regularly transported Strange, an archaeologist on the planet Earth, to the planet Rann in the Alpha Centauri system—a planet that was repeatedly menaced by alien invaders and extraterrestrial creatures. Though Strange promptly outfitted himself with a fancy uniform and some of Rann’s superior technology—a jet-pack and a ray-pistol—the essential appeal of the stories was that the hero always used logical thinking and good old American know-how to defeat the exotic incursions. The series also provided Strange with a little more erotic reward for his efforts than most superheroes got. A beautiful Rannian girl, Alanna, fell in love with him—but most of the time their union couldn’t prosper, for the Zeta-radiation in Strange’s body would wear off and he’d cycle back to Earth, condemned to wait for another beam to take him back to the world of his lady love.

Even the most ardent sentimentalist would not deny that many of Strange’s adventures-- dominantly written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Carmine Infantino-- were a little too gimmicky. Indeed, in MYSTERY IN SPACE #63—which introduces characters that are important to the story under consideration here—Gardner Fox may have been inspired by the common vacuum cleaner. In this tale the invading aliens, “the Vantors,” are armed with weapons called “vacuumizers.” With these devices, the Vantors could dissolve their opponents into their component atoms, which the Vantors promptly stored in the tanks they carried on their backs. 




This story is engagingly silly but not much more. The tale considered here, though--“Shadow People of the Eclipse”-- both follows up on the Vantors and demonstrates how well the Adam Strange feature functioned when Fox and Infantino collaborated on an idea with deeper mythopoeic resonance.

Often the hero’s stories began with him waiting to intercept the Zeta-beam, which usually struck Earth in some out-of-the-way location. As an added touch, Strange would often encounter phenomenon on Earth that would prefigure his predicament on Rann. In “Shadow,” Strange is jet-packing above the Matto Grosso to intercept the beam, just as a solar eclipse occurs. Natives of the jungle start shooting fire-arrows at the moon for obscuring the sun, and Strange grabs a couple of fire-arrows to take with him as the Zeta-beam zaps him to Rann.



To his surprise, Rann too is suffering a daytime eclipse during the day, but this one has lasted an entire day. It’s  also created an oppressive heat that drives the Rannian natives out of their advanced cities and into the wilds. (Almost every story starts out with the invading force having neutralized Rann’s superior technology somehow.) Alanna brings Strange up to speed on the weird eclipse-phenomenon, but it’s not until the next day, when the darkness has vanished, that the villains—those vacuumizer-happy Vantors—show up with the real threat: a giant black globe able to eclipse the light of Alpha Centauri. Instead of just creating more darkness, the giant globe shoots shadowy rays down to the planet’s surface. Whenever the rays strike the Rannian people, they’re turned into living shadows.

The purpose of the shadow-effect is soon revealed, for Strange, Alanna and several anonymous Rannians find themselves on another alien planet. The planet is ruled by a tall, one-eyed alien billed as “Llyrr, the Cyclops of Space.” Llyrr, the last of his race, endures a solitary life on his barren world, and can only break the monotony by consuming the mental experiences of other creatures, thus killing them. Strange and Alanna learn that Llyrr empowered the Vantors with the black globe so that they could function as his hunstmen, sending back specimens from many extraterrestrial races.



I won’t give a blow-by-blow of Strange’s method for defeating the space-cyclops-- except to say that it depends on basic Earth-science-- nor will I detail the manner in which the hero manages to expel the Vantors back to Llyrr’s world while returning the Rannians and other alien captives to their rightful places. The story’s significance lies in its skillful manipulation of mythopoeic presences.

First, not even the most skeptical elitist could doubt that Fox based Llyrr upon literature’s famous cyclops, Polyphemus of the Odyssey. Admittedly, in some cases, Fox reflected the indebtedness through inversion. Llyrr doesn’t eat people—which would’ve been too visceral for commercial comics of the period—but the alien consumes their experiences, with the same fatal results. Where Polyphemus is savage, Llyrr is urbane, mocking his unwilling guests by saying things like, “You’re making my formerly lonely life an exciting one!”  But the alien’s most interesting similitude with the Greek monster is in his name, for Polyphemus is the child of the sea-god Poseidon, who will later curse Odysseus with an exile at sea for the wounding of the cyclops. This situation is also inverted for heroic purposes: Llyrr—most probably named for the Celtic sea-god Llyr—exiles the people of Rann and of other worlds to his “island universe” first, and only thanks to Strange’s heroic endeavors is that exile ended. And though Llyrr isn’t defeated the way Odysseys wounds Polyphemus—that is, with a fire-hardened spear that some critics compared to a “fire-making drill”—it’s of more than passing interest that Strange first comes to the darkness-cursed Rann with a couple of fire-arrows in hand; arrows that duplicate the essential appearance of the Greek hero’s cyclops-wounding weapon.

So what’s the connection between sea-deities and eclipses? In archaic mythology, both have been interpreted as harbingers of death: of forces that threaten the order of the living world where life and light reign. The sea is a chthonic realm, and so is the moon, whether in the form of an actual sun-obscuring lunar body—as Strange encounters on Earth—or in an artificial form: that of the black sphere that creates the shadow-rays. Even the idea of transforming human beings into “shadows” carries the associations of death, given that “shade” is a common term for the spirit of a deceased person.

In contrast to the religious myths of archaic times, where Death’s power is absolute, the Adam Strange world has more in common with the fairy tale, where death can be overturned when it’s convenient to the story, and even the Huntsmen of Death can be consigned back to their own realm. But fairy tales are replete with myth-elements even if they may at times be “writ small” as it were—and DC’s “Adam Strange” feature, despite its gimmickry, stands within that same mythopoeic tradition.  

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