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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, June 7, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "WHO HAS BEEN LYING IN MY GRAVE?" (STRANGE ADVENTURES #206. 1967)

"[Jack} Miller said he had a book that was in trouble, and would I come up with some kind of a superhero. I was tuned in to what was happening around us at that time. One of the things was a movement of young people toward Asian philosophies, Asian rituals, etc. So here I was in the middle of a Zen-Buddhist movement and I thought, "Maybe I can use that for my main character," and I came up with this notion: the Deadman, who is able to enter other people's bodies. I introduced the idea that some power somewhere made it possible for him to do this. My intention was to get much more involved in that aspect of it and get some concept of what this power was like, and the structure of the machine that the power used around the world. What I had in mind was comparing two civilizations, our world, and that other world, and to indicate that I thought they were probably pretty much alike. There were baddies in heaven just as there were on earth. That was the way I wanted to go with it, but I never got a chance to. We had a disagreement. I was to have received a major page-rate increase, and the boss man reneged on that deal. So I walked away."-- Arnold Drake, SEQUENTIAL TART interview.


In one of my early essays on adult pulp, I cited a particular scene from Neal Adams' run on DC Comics' "Deadman" feature as a example of how even color comics began to push the envelope into the vein of hard-boiled violence. The entire 1960s "Deadman" series deserves to be analyzed in terms of its contribution of envelope-pushing, but here I'm only addressing the very first issue of the series. As noted in the interview-excerpt above, writer Arnold Drake asserted that he was the principal source of the concept. Initial artist Carmine Infantino may have had some creative input as well, but given that most DC comics-features were prepared from a full script, it seems likely that Drake largely formulated this unusual approach to a spectral superhero.

For most of DC Comics' history, the company had generally steered clear of such subgenres as hard-boiled crime and visceral horror. Thus, it was far beyond the company's "comfort zone" to feature a cover like this one.




Or a scene in which the main hero-- not a crimefighter, but a simple costume-garbed trapeze artist named Boston Brand-- dresses down a nasty cop and gets him to lay off the fortune-teller who works at Boston's circus.




Disrespect for the law was one of the verboten tropes in the Comics Code, as was any reference to illegal drugs. As if Drake wanted to combine two forbidden tropes in one, later in the story the nasty cop is seen dealing in drugs-- though it's suggested that he might be a phony cop, which was probably a concession to the dwindling influence of the Code. But even with that caveat, this scene alone depicted a world far beyond the safe juvenile havens of DC's regular superheroes.

Drake's first DEADMAN story is also unique in proposing a view of life that I find comparable to that of Martin Buber's conception of the "I-it" and "I-thou" relationships, which I last addressed here. In most DC Comics, the paradigm was the "cops and robbers" trope, in which the robber related to the greater community as an "it" to be exploited, while the cop existed in a "thou" relationship to said community, protecting it from various depredations.

From the beginning of the opening story, though-- whose title is a peculiar echo of a line from the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"-- Drake creates a seedy sub-cosmos that anticipates the later transformations of Gotham City. The carnival-cosmos of Boston Brand, soon to become Deadman, is just a business that's just barely holding on: "Movies killed the circus, and TV buried it." Brand is the top dog at the circus-- of which he owns a percentage-- because he constantly risks his life doing a trapeze-act without a net. His dialogue with co-owner Lorna shows that he refuses her attempts to see heroism in him, and that he regards most of his circus-colleagues as "sick,dangerous children."




In contrast to traditional "cops and robbers" comics, the reader of this sequence is drawn in two different directions: perhaps wanting to believe that the lead character is a tough guy with a heart of gold, while also seeing that he demonstrates contempt not only for his colleagues, but also for his audience, telling Lorna that "the dumb johns pay their money to see one thing-- they're here to see me DIE!" This is patently his way of keeping any and affection at a distance, either from Lorna-- whose relationship to Brand seems more intense than that of a simple partner-- or from the simple-minded strongman Tiny. However, the diminutive Hindu mystic Vashnu asserts that his goddess Rama Kushna, who permeates the entire universe, intends to reward Brand with 'some special gift, waiting for you alone."



The gift is, to say the least, ambivalent: Brand, who has perhaps tempted fate by billing himself as "Deadman," is shot during his high-wire act by an unknown assailant. Deadman lives on as an impalpable ghost, but Rama Kushna herself intervenes to inform him of the gift she's given him, the power to possess other bodies.







There's a rich, implicit irony in this cosmic joke: the man who wanted to keep everyone at a distance, regardless of his true feelings for them, finds himself reduced to a spirit who can only have agency in the world by invading the bodies of others. In a sense he must use the bodies of the living in an "I-it" relationship, since he takes over their bodies without their consent. Yet he must relate to them in the "I-thou" constellation as well, since he puts them in danger by using them in his personal quest to find his killer. Indeed, in "Grave" he briefly considers ignoring the crimes of the drug-dealing cop and his circus-contact, since that crime has nothing to do with finding his killer. But he proves himself a hero, albeit a reluctant one, by taking down the two dealers before pursuing his own destiny.

Neal Adams took over the art-chores in STRANGE ADVENTURES #206, while Drake contributed his last Deadman script, the Biblically titled "Eye for an Eye," before severing relations with DC. It's inarguable that Adams' dynamic art made the feature popular with fans. Adams and his collaborators, notably editor Jack Miller, put forth their own conceptions of the Eastern mysticism underlying the first story. Readers will never know how Drake might have explored "the structure of the machine that the power used around the world," which I take to be the author's metaphor for the pantheistic presence of Rama Kushna. I feel safe in venturing, however, that in some way Drake would probably have explored the connectedness between all human beings in this melodramatic mystery-context. Perhaps the only answer to the titular question of "who's been lying in my grave" would be nothing less than--

Everyone.

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me that I may have oversold what Drake might have done with the series had he remained, so I read issue #207 for comparison's sake. Said story was a pretty routine story about Lorna's "bad biker-brother" showing up and making trouble for the circus, as well as becoming the first-- but not the last-- suspect in Boston Brand's murder.

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