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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...

Monday, November 21, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: ["PERIL IN PARIS"], DETECTIVE COMICS #34 (1939)



In this essay I cited Haney's "Origin of Metamorpho" as an example of a narrative dominated by its symbolic underthought. Another comics-story that I've praised for its "symbolic amplitude" is Gardner Fox's 1940 "Origin of Hawkman," but prior to Hawkman Fox was also a key player in the forging of the mythos of the  Batman. In the two months preceding this week's selection, Fox gave the Caped Crusader his first encounter with the world of the supernatural, forcing Batman to deal with a master vampire, The Monk. The ensuing story, entitled "Peril in Paris"on GCD, is not as well known, but it better illustrates my concept as to how the "unity of the underthought" can appear even in the most delirious of pulp-tales.

A little while after his vampiric encounter, Bruce Wayne decides to stay in Europe for a time. Strolling through the streets of Paris, he mistakes a stranger for an old acquaintance-- apparently by the man's build, since there's no other point of similarity.



The blank-faced man disappears into the crowd, and Wayne doesn't immediately seek to investigate. Then, by the sort of coincidence beloved by pulp authors, Wayne encounters a young woman menaced by knife-wielding Parisian thugs known as "Apaches." The young woman, Karel by name, just happens to be the sister of Charles Maire, the blank-faced man, who regales Wayne with the story of his tragedy. At a bal masque (masked ball) the siblings encountered a strange man, the royally-named "Duc D'Orterre," who courted Karel with an eye to gaining her money. When Charles interfered, the Duc summoned his Apache agents and had Charles taken to his subterranean lair in the Parisian sewers, where Charles' features were burned off with a strange ray. (It goes without saying that the story does not bother with any niceties of verisimilitude, like explaining how Charles can talk without a mouth.)

Wayne volunteers the services of the Batman to investigate the Duc's perfidy, but the hero finds that the villain has ample weapons and devices of torment ready and waiting.



It's interesting that the Duc calls his torture-instrument a "wheel of chance," for this is a common synonym for the roulette wheel or its many analogues-- not to mention the medieval idea of the "wheel of fortune," which would lift mortals to victory at times before dashing them to death. Nothing in the 10-page story specifies that the Duc is a gambler, but his attire comes closer to suggesting that profession than it does that of a mad scientist or a crime-boss living in the sewers. The cane that projects a blinding ray adds something to the total effect, though to be sure the Duc's dominant image is that of a pointy-eared Satan, complete with a dolicocephalic skull that gives him an inhuman appearance. (Were it not for the various marvelous aspects of the story, the Duc's eerie physiognomy would be enough to place him in the uncanny trope of "freakish flesh.")

Batman gets free of the wheel, though it's not one of his more clever escapes: he simply breaks his bonds by main strength. However, the Duc manages to propel the hero into a "flower garden," in which all of the blooms have female faces.



The human-faced flowers are never explained, though one is tempted to suppose that the same ray the Duc used to erase faces could transpose other faces onto any medium he desired. The Duc then leaves Batman in his new prison and has his Apaches kidnap Karel and Charles, bringing them to his lair. However, the villain apparently does not know that his flower-women can speak to the crusader telepathically. They guide Batman out of the garden, just in time for him to rescue Charles from the wheel of chance. The Duc tries to escape with Karel in a car, and Batman pursues in his Bat-gyro. The hero manages to descend to the car, battle with the Duc, and then to leave the villain to a fiery death as he leaps free with the young woman in tow. The story concludes with Bruce Wayne bidding farewell to Karel and her still faceless brother.

Both the Duc's appearance and his subterranean location align him with Satan, and the idea of stealing faces, or placing them in some incongruous situation, aligns with the idea of the Devil tricking men into surrendering their souls and then consigning them to various punishments of Hell. Dante's "Wood of Suicides" would be the best known example of transposing human souls into plant-life. However, the Devil usually doesn't confine himself to one gender or the other, so the Duc's garden of female flowers may also owe something to Bluebeard, who kept the bodies of his previous wives in an abbatoir. It may also be no coincidence that Fox had Batman battling a Satan-like entity so soon after vanquishing a vampire. Fox doesn't invoke any images of Christianity in the "Monk" story, but that two-parter does borrow heavily from Stoker's DRACULA-- and Stoker associates his bloodsucker with the Christian devil fairly early in the book. For that reason, I consider "Peril in Paris" to be a metaphysical myth, in which the hero defeats either Satan or an agent of the devil, though the villain's metaphysical evil is displaced through such genre-tropes as "the mad scientist" and "the Parisian crime boss."

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