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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...

Thursday, September 29, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: ALL-STAR COMICS #4 (1941)

In the first part of STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY, I wrote:

Comic books used to be "weak continuity" in practice, and for the same reason: no publisher could be sure that his juvenile audience would buy even two Superman comics in a row (though there were some early experiments that used continued stories, often in the "cliffhanger" format from movie-serials). But I'd maintain that "strong continuity" was their *in posse* storytelling strategy, simply because they were in a mode that combined pictures with words that had to be read and absorbed.

I also wrote yesterday that I'd been trying to think of a mythcomic for my 100th post that was at least indicative of the superhero genre's "deeper potential," but that I didn't want to focus on FANTASTIC FOUR #1, even though I believe that first issue did the most to open that potential. Thus I found myself casting about for, so to speak, gateways that led to the "gateway drug."

It thus occurred to me that there would have been no FANTASTIC FOUR if there had been no JUSTICE LEAGUE-- and equally, that JUSTICE LEAGUE was in essence a recapitulation of the 1940s JUSTICE SOCIETY title. Maybe on some level I just wanted to descant on a fresh topic for post #100, but in any case, I found myself drawn to the first official "superhero team" in comic books.

The story in ALL-STAR COMICS #4-- "For America and Democracy," written by Gardner Fox and penciled by a small horde of artists-- is not a mythcomic, but a near myth. Nevertheless, even a near myth can open new possibilities.

As superhero historians all know, the ALL-STAR COMICS title began as just another anthology title, and the stories in the first two issues are completely unconnected to one another, following the "weak continuity" paradigm of most published comic books as described in the quote above. The third issue convenes the Justice Society of America, possibly the brain-child of editor Sheldon Mayer, but the setup just barely promotes the idea of a continuity between several of the features published by DC Comics (or, to be specific, one department of DC Comics, though I won't get into that now). There's only minimal interaction between the heroes, except for comic business provided by Johnny Thunder, and the main idea is to have all the heroes tell stories about their completely separate adventures, as if they were spinning tall tales at a meeting of the Elks Club.



ALL-STAR COMICS #4, however, takes full advantage of the Justice Society's potential as a "gathering of great heroes" myth.  A mysterious personage billed only as "the FBI chief" summons all of the heroes to Washington, where he charges them all with a mission: to unearth the many spies and fifth columnists taking advantage of American social freedoms.

Now, I can't say that any of these missions are, in themselves, deeply symbolic. "For America and Democracy," published in April 1941, is a propaganda comic book. It's primarily aimed at juveniles who were aware of the perilous state of the European and Asian war-fronts, and of the possibility-- realized in December of that same year-- that America might be drawn into that conflict. The story thus pursues a very straightforward course in terms of having the eight Society members, seen on the cover above, root out a variety of ilicit espionage activities, entirely associated with people who sound German but are not explicitly identified as Germans.




Propaganda comics can of course be mythic, but usually only if a particular artist channels his imagination into an obsessive demonization of a particular phenomenon. Jack Cole's 1947 story "A Match for Satan," myth-analyzed here, shows how an artist could demonize such a phenomenon, in this case that of "crime," and make it seem positively Satanic. But while Fox possessed one of the greatest imaginations in the history of the American Golden Age of comics, here he's just resorting to the most obvious cliches about manipulative German Bund operatives.

What makes the story a "near myth" is that it does focus upon the "gathering of heroes" as a mythic act. The superheroes are summoned to a mysterious rendezvous by an unnamed mentor. True, his assignments are just penny-ante investigations of espionage and sabotage. Yet, prior to "For America and Democracy," the occasional crossovers of superheroes lacked a sense of sharing a great mission, and even the next major crossover of this type, "Daredevil Battles Hitler" (July 1941), is no more than an assortment of separate stories in which the various featured characters of DAREDEVIL COMICS took shots at the Fuhrer's dignity. There was in "DBH" a shared sense of purpose, but not a shared sense of greatness.

Only once or twice does Fox really get beyond simple rhetoric, and portray something with symbolic potential. After the almighty Spectre finishes his task, he is arbitrarily attacked by "vampire globes" from another dimension that have absolutely nothing to do with his mission. However, what saves the Ghostly Guardian from extinction-- which he himself longs to embrace-- is his sense of patriotic duty.



When your cause is just enough not only to cause the living to sacrifice their lives, but also the dead to sacrifice eternal peace, you know you're dealing with something pretty damn special.

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