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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, January 1, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: "THE MAN WHO MURDERED EVIL" (SUPERMAN #419, 1986)







In contrast to the last Superman null-myth I examined, this story of the Man of Steel is probably barely remembered by fandom. Published in 1986, “The Man Who Murdered Evil” was one of the last stories prior to the John Byrne reboot. Thus it was also one of the last under editor Julie Scwhartz’s long aegis, as well as one of the last Superman stories from frequent contributor Elliot S. Maggin.


Like the “good” myth-comic I examined this week, Maggin’s story is also about the provenance of evil, at least in Superman’s version of the real world. Said story (“Evil” for short) largely draws upon Judeo-Christian notions of sin and temptation. Yet “Evil” takes the essential plot of one of the most famous Old Testament texts—that of Job—and inverts the story, more or less asking, “what if a blameless man, upon being stricken with evil fortune, ceases cleaving to goodness and becomes a literal avatar of evil?”


Readers of the Biblical Job will recall that this is the devil’s argument to God: that Job will abandon the righteous life once it’s clear to him that the universe won’t allot him good fortune in exchange for his good behavior. Something like this happens to the story’s narrator, who introduces himself by a myriad of Satanic names, such as “Old Scratch” and “Sammael,” but for most of the story settles on the Shakespearean cognomen of Iago (perhaps because the playwright calls his Iago a “demi-devil.”)




Iago, who wears a Dracula-esque outfit and boasts reptilian skin and a widow’s peak suggestive of horns, regales the reader with his story. He was once a humble fellow named Arnie Allport, who did nothing but good deeds and who looked like a shorter-haired version of Jesus. He worked tirelessly and thanklessly at senior centers and soup kitchens (what he actually did for a living, Maggin does not mention). While disposing of trash behind the alley of a soup-kitchen, Alport clashed with a costumed figure, whom Iago gives the name “Greeneyes.” Alport struck Greeneyes with a trash-can lid, and then both of them disappeared. Superman, who had been pursuing Greeneyes for reasons that won’t be elaborated until two pages later, gaped in confusion at the vanishing act.


Iago then fills in the blanks for the reader. Though at the story’s opening the narrator implies that he himself was Satan (though that name is not actually used), Iago reveals that he has a master, never named or seen except as a Satanic silhouette. This “master of all masters of evil” is the power behind Greeneyes, who is the Master’s emissary in the mortal world. It’s the Master who spirits away Alport, and implicitly destroys Greeneyes, leaving only the emissary’s cloak. The Master brings Alport down to his stygian domain and appoints him the new representative of evil on Earth.


Maggin is maddeningly vague about what’s going on. Is it a possession? Not precisely, though, with a possible eye to the Rape of Persephone, Iago remembers how he, as Alport, was “as virginal as the fresh-blown snow.” Is it a satanic contract? Well, no contracts are signed, though as a result of the Master thrusting Greeneyes’ cape upon Alport, the beleaguered human apparently gives up his soul to the lure of power. The narration of Alport’s experience-- “I was won over to the scents of brimstone, the voices of fire, the ethic of darkness”—again seems to suggest a literal seduction by evil, albeit related in very bad poetry.

Perhaps because the corrupted human has had a glancing encounter with DC’s avatar of true goodness, Iago decides he’ll try to corrupt Superman. One of the villain’s pointless actions is to visit the Daily Planet and to bring forth a few negative aspects of Clark Kent’s personality. Both aspects are banal: Clark berates Perry White for the latter’s forgetfulness and gripes to himself about having to share an elevator with some sweaty fat chicks. Iago’s long con isn’t much more ambitious. He zooms over to the local women’s prison and brings about a jailbreak. Among the female convicts is an obscure character from an earlier Superman tale: Alice Herman, a specialist in plant science. She uses her “yeast cultures” to help the other lady crooks break free. Iago waits until Superman shows up, and then causes Herman to get transformed into a plant-monster with one of her own potions. Iago hopes—for some reason never revealed—that Superman will break his code against killing and slay the plant-woman. Despite Iago’s claim that he’s researched Superman in great depth, this seems like a particularly boneheaded species of wishful thinking. The Man of Steel doesn’t fall into the trap, and Herman reverts to normal. Iago reports his failure to the Master, but remains optimistic that someday he’ll be able to destroy the hero. Given that Iago never appears again, one can fairly imagine that Iago’s master disagreed with the villain’s optimism and simply consigned Iago to the Circle of Deservedly Forgotten Characters.


“Evil” is easily one of the most brain-fried Superman stories, in part because the author is attempting a serious theme but doesn’t give any evidence that he knows what he wants to say. I would think that by the time Maggin submitted the story, he would have known that the Schwartz stable was on its way out, so why attempt to create a new nemesis for the hero; one whom subsequent writers proceeded to ignore? My best guess is that Iago was an inventory idea that Maggin conceived long before he knew his days on the feature were numbered.


Did Maggin have some notion of exploring the way in which pure evil might be born from pure goodness? That too is my best guess, and it’s slightly supported by a line on page five. Superman’s computer tells him that there’s been an “abnormal proliferation of villainy and disaster since Earthfall of the unit Kal-El.” Since this oracular pronouncement puts Superman on the trail of Greeneyes, the conclusion might be that Greeneyes stepped up his game to compensate for the goodness of Superman—but the phrasing almost implicates Superman himself in the evil. Certainly Arnie Alport is, like the Man of Steel, a “blameless man.” And that in itself doesn’t prevent the seduction by evil—though Maggin never really specifies the nature of the evil to which Alport succumbs. Even one moment in which Alport showed some “green-eyed jealousy” of another person—which would have justified the puzzling Shakespeare-citation—would have lent a little more coherence to this disjointed mess. 

And don't even ask me what the heck the title means. Maybe it's a reference to the fact that Greeneyes apparently "dies" as the result of Alport's clash with him-- though the Evil One is the real murderer, so Iago's claim to  being evil's murderer is, to say the least, overstated.


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