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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, April 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS "A WALTZ OF SCREAMS" (VERTIGO VISIONS: DR. OCCULT, 1994)

Thus far in my reviews of mythcomics and null-myths, I’ve barely touched upon the attempts made by DC, and, to a lesser extent Marvel, to render “adult” versions of their own “superhero universes.” While this has led to a fair number of bad comics, I tend to think that the experiment has resulted in more good comics, mythic or otherwise, than the influence of confessional dramas upon the so-called “artcomics.”

Not all of the comic books in DC’s VERTIGO line are based on characters once aimed at the general juvenile audience that once purchased comic books from mainstream newsstands. The refurbished SWAMP THING remains the jewel in the Vertigo crown, albeit more in terms of prestige than sales: Gaiman’s SANDMAN possibly came closer to winning “pride of place” in that department, if I may be allowed a mixed metaphor. Gaiman also launched the mini-series BOOKS OF MAGIC, which comprised a sort of “occult history of DC Comics.” The mini-series spawned a fairly long-lived regular series, as well as a curious one-shot—the latter being my chosen subject. 

The 1994 “Doctor Occult” one-shot probably never had a fair shot at generating a series at the time, even though the titular character had been revived in the course of the 1991 BOOKS OF MAGIC mini-series. To this date DC has never reprinted the adventures of the character, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in 1935, a few years prior to the publication of the creators’ signature character Superman. (This blogzine reprints a short "Occult" story from an ostensible ashcan issue DC published in the 1930s.)

If hardcore fans remember Doctor Occult, they will remember him as (1) having been patterned on Seabury Quinn's popular ghost-hunter “Jules de Grandin” from many issues of WEIRD TALES during the 1930s, and (2) from excerpted scenes that showed Occult temporarily donning a Superman-like costume, in a tale published before Superman himself saw print. Even more hardcore fans may know that in some stories Occult had a “power” most uncharacteristic of manly males of the time-period  Like fabled Tiresias, Doctor Occult was a man who could change into a woman.


“A Waltz of Screams,” written by Dave Louapre and rendered by Dan Sweetman, focuses on Doctor Occult and his female alter ego Rose, two identities locked in the same body. Louapre spends no time telling the reader how this state of affairs came about, and only a one-page text prelude establishes Occult’s mythos. In keeping with various details from the Siegel-Shuster stories, as well as some retconned material, Occult is a mystic seeker who is allied to a beneficent group of magicians, “the Seven,” and is opposed to malign magi ruled by a villain named “Koth.” But Louapre’s concern is not with mystic battles, but with Occult’s “dark night of two souls.” In the course of the tale, Occult becomes separated from his feminine alter ego, and must seek through assorted mystic realms to achieve re-integration.

Whatever the merits of the “gender politics” of the LGBT community, those politics have resulted in a fair number of the bad comics mentioned. Louapre’s script for DOCTOR OCCULT shows an awareness of the evanescent nature of sexual characteristics, but by page 6 he at least shows that he has a sense of humor about the matter. The first five pages of the story deal with Occult being brought into a case dealing with a hysterical rape-victim, during which Occult repeatedly shifts into his alter ego of Rose, and vice versa. But this portentous opening is followed by a scene in the doctor's office, where his secretary Marly is watching a TV talk-show with the following line of dialogue: 

“It’s my right as a man to be a woman if I want. This is America!”



I won’t dwell on Louapre’s plot at length. It's a fairly standard one, being little more than an excuse to separate the male and female sides of the hero and then put both spirits through various phantasmagorical ordeals. Eventually they are able to discover the fiend manipulating them, the aforementioned Koth, and hero and heroine regain their unity. What elevates Louapre’s script is not his plot but his poetic exploration of the theme of seduction. In the first five pages, when Occult/Rose enter the dream-consciousness of the rape-victim Rachel, the sex-shifting hero(ine) has the sensation of falling. He/she thinks:

“Not a fall from grace—grace is for the uninitiated. But a fall toward the waiting arms of awakening—and the alluring caress of sexual chaos."

In these two sentences, Loupare puts across three distinct thoughts:

  1. He distances his characters from the Christian idea of “grace” as a beneficent gift from an all-knowing father-god, asserting that humans who have undergone mystic initiation have learned some deeper truth.
  2. He associated the act of falling with awakening rather than succumbing to sleep.
  3. He raises the notion that sex itself is alluring precisely because it is chaotic.
I’ll admit that one’s tolerance for Louapre’s poetic effusions might have been strained by a longer continuity. But “Waltz” is just long enough to put across the politically incorrect notion that “everyone wants to be taken at some point.” This is not of course a validation of the Rachel-character’s violation, but is rather an acknowledgment that human beings are, even under the best circumstances, fascinated by power and pain. 

Following the inevitable defeat of Koth, Occult meditates on Rachel’s recovery by thinking, “It hurts to abandon the beautiful lies, but then pain is a natural component of healing.” Rachel’s innocence is taken from her, but her attempt to hold onto it, to deem it a “treasure” in its own right, is the psychic malady that the psychic detective must heal, in part by reuniting his/her own sexual nature.

Over the years Doctor Occult and his feminine alter ego have remained minor players in the DC universe. The Louapre-Sweetman story does indicate a deeper, I might even say Bataillean potential in the revised character-- though if BOOKS OF MAGIC didn't jump-start the character's career as a "Vertigo Vision," I doubt he'll catch fire from any of his various guest-starring gigs in JUSTICE LEAGUE storylines.  

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