Wednesday, August 24, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: ["HAWKMAN'S ORIGIN'], FLASH COMICS #1 (1940)
The most elaborately mythic superhero origin of the Golden Age appeared in FLASH COMICS #1, scripted by Gardner Fox and drawn by one Dennis Neville. More than any single origin, in fact, it illustrates Suzanne Langer's concept of the "diffuse meaning" originating from symbolism in its presentational, non-discursive mode. Indeed, if one reads the origin in its original, helter-skelter form-- rather than one of the many rationalized versions that followed it-- one sees something in the nature of a fever dream from the mind of someone who fell asleep while reading Wallis Budge's 1904 tome THE GODS OF THE EGYPTIANS.
The metaphysical key to the Hawkman mystery is not, as many later stories have had it, merely the bare idea of reincarnation, or even reincarnation in the service of romantic reunion. While many superheroes of the period played around with mythic symbols, Hawkman's existence crystallized Fox's enduring wish-dream: to see the exciting past take on continuity with the dull present-- which is IMO the main reason the author continually harped on having his winged hero fighting "the evil of the present with the weapons of the past."
Fox introduces his reader to modern-day Carter Hall, "wealthy collector of weapons and research scientist." Upon opening a package from Egypt, Hall beholds a "glass knife-- to offer ancient sacrifices," and the sight hurls him into a immediate dream.
In his dream Hall experiences a previous life as an Egyptian noble named Khufu (albeit not identical with Khufu / Cheops, famed pharaoh of the 26h century BC). Khufu is being tortured by the lackey of another Egyptian, Hath-Set, who wants to know the location of a woman, "Shiera, betrayed by the Hawk-God Anubis." Khufu breaks free and escapes the building, later revealed to be the temple of Anubis in the city of Abydos. Khufu grabs a handy chariot and seeks out Shiera herself, which in retrospect doesn't seem like the smartest idea, since Hath-Set's men simply follow Khufu to his destination, capture him and Shiera, and take them both back to Abydos.
There Hath-Set vaguely refers to both of his captives as "you who would have stopped me from becoming master of the globe." Khufu taunts the villain, saying that the "false priest" will never gain that power, because Khufu-- and presumably Shiera as well-- have access to "the older sciences" and will not surrender that knowledge to Hath-Set. The irate priest promptly slays Khufu with a glass knife, promising to dole out the same fate to Shiera as well. Before Khufu dies, he promises to see Hath-Set in a future life.
Carter Hall's vision then ends, and he wakes in his study, confident that he has seen one of his past lives, brought back to him by encountering the same weapon that once killed him. Hall puts the knife away and goes for a walk. Immediately a modern form of danger looms, as a nearby subway is afflicted with strange electrical discharges that kill many passengers. However, Hall recognizes one woman fleeing from the chaos, and calls out the name of Shiera. Providentially enough, this is also the name of the modern reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian priestess. As they converse, Shiera confesses that she has had dreams of her distant past, even without a glass knife to prompt them. Hall leaves the young woman at his laboratory while he dons the garb of Hawkman, which he's apparently been working on long before learning the tale of his spiritual transmigration.
Like later versions of Hawkman, this one uses both modern technology-- a "dynamo detector" and the "ninth metal" that makes it possible for him to defy gravity-- and ancient weapons, here represented by a crossbow and a quarterstaff. His detector leads the newly costumed hero to "the home of Doctor Hastor, electrician extraordinary." Hastor himself is inside, plotting to unleash more electrical chaos for extortion purposes, but when he sees Hawkman, he instantly mistakes him for "the hawk-god Anubis." Hawkman thwarts Hastor's attack on him, but the villain escapes.
Hastor, unlike Hawkman, already seems to remember everything about his past existence, deciding that the hero is "Khufu reincarnated," and that therefore "Shiera must live also." He sends forth a magical vapor, "the attar of myrrh," that will summon Shiera to him. The young woman, upon catching scent of the pervasive odor, is hypnotically enthralled and proceeds to seek out Hastor, again at the same laboratory, while Hawkman returns to his own domicile and finds her missing. Hastor attempts to duplicate the sacrifice of Hath-Set in times past, using electricity in place of a knife, but Hawkman bursts in and kills Hastor with a crossbow bolt. Hastor, like Khufu before him, predicts that he will return again to menace his enemy at some future time (though in truth Hath-Set/Hastor did not pop up again within the span of the original Hawkman feature).
I've focused here only a bare retelling of the basic plot-events, but "Hawkman's Origin" is so rich in its symbolic amplitude that it is the first essay I will have to annotate-- as I hope to do in another post this week.