Tuesday, November 8, 2016
NEAR MYTHS: "WHO STOLE THE U.S.A?" (METAMORPHO #3, 1965)
Not long after Metamorpho's debut in BRAVE AND BOLD, covered here, the Element Man got his own series, but it avoided the heavy angst of the first tale and emphasized zany humor up until the last few issues, where the creators made a last-ditch attempt to return to "serious stuff." Just as a hunch, I imagine that most fans of the Silver Age preferred the zany approach.
I had to give some thought to whether "U.S.A" qualified as a "near myth" or a "null myth." In some ways it seems like writer Bob Haney was guilty of "underthinking the underthought" of the story, which by the criteria of this essay would make the tale a "null-myth." On the other hand, though "U.S.A" is certainly not organized enough to be a myth-comic, there are some intriguing uses of symbolism throughout, so that my "near-myth" category becomes the default.
One amusing aspect of the story's title is that if one posed it as a question to many people today-- as opposed to the year in which the story appeared-- the answer would almost certainly be, "white Europeans." Haney and his artist-collaborator Ramona Fradon certainly did not compose a story that consciously evoked the tribulations of Native Americans, though there is a minor N.A. character in "U.S.A.," and the robot bird menacing the hero above is said to be patterned upon a Native American myth, the Thunderbird. It all feels like a soup that didn't quite come to a boil, so that some parts are tasty, others not.
The story commences when Metamorpho's prospective father-in-law Simon Stagg takes his daughter, his servant Java, and the hero to meet a young woman he Stagg intends to marry: the adult daughter of a famous promoter. Daughter Sapphire is more than a little concerned:
More on this later. The Stagg group journeys to the Grand Canyon. There, the promoter Trumbull-- who constantly calls things "colossal" and "magnificent," like a movie-maker parody-- has built a "science-center." Trumbull, not being a scientist, presumably has hired a crew of technicians, though only one or two hirelings are ever seen in the artificial city; in any case, the science-city is supposed to work on methods for defending the country. Simon Stagg woos young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Zelda-- who looks a little like Morticia Addams, and keeps a pet raven on her shoulder. In the background stands a tuxedo-clad Native American whom I'll call "O.;" short for the zany name Haney gives him ("Geronimo" spelled backwards, to see how many kids might get the joke). Trumbull mentions that O. is hanging around because he claims the Grand Canyon belongs to him, and then changes the subject. (And well he might, since the last I checked the Canyon was federally owned.)
Trumbull then unveils a discovery to the group: a meteorite containing a brand new element, which Trumbull has named "Staggium" in honor of his guest. When Metamorpho comes into the proximity of this element, he almost faints: Staggium acts on his element-body like kryptonite on Superman. The promoter leads the group away from the element-display, to another display. To the hero's misfortune, the second display contains the monstrous bird-robot from the cover. Trumbull calls it "the Thunderbird Robot," and as Metamorpho starts to collapse, the villain adds that the robot's wings contain enough "staggium" to destroy the Element Man. The hero's destruction will insure that he doesn't interfere with Trumbull's plot to "steal the U.S.A.": he wants the country to surrender to his authority, or he'll use all of his hyper-advanced technology to destroy America's missile defense system.
The rest of the story is largely a big chase-scene, as Metamorpho keeps changing shapes to escape the lethal "Laughing Boy" (as he calls the robot on the cover), while Trumbull keeps the rest of the Stagg party prisoner. Finally Metamorpho manages to destroy the robot indirectly. O. gets the drop on Trumbull and his daughter, complaining that they've stolen his ancestral lands, and this helps both Simon and Sapphire overcome the evildoers. Metamorpho gets a commendation from the back of Lyndon Johnson's head, the government takes over the science-station, and nothing further is said about O.'s claim to the land.
In my myth-comic essay of "The Origin of Metamorpho" I pointed out the resemblances between the dramatis personae of Haney's story and those of Shakespeare's play THE TEMPEST, with particular reference to the reading of Prospero as nurturing incestuous feelings for his own daughter. "U.S,A." recapitulates the same motif, only with Stagg romancing a woman who is not onlyyoung enough to be his daughter, but is also the offspring of a rich mogul, as Stagg himself is. Thus Zelda resembles Sapphire both in terms of her age and her lineage. Since Haney died in 2004, no one today can ask him if he read THE TEMPEST. But even if it could be demonstrated that he didn't know the work, his use of Stagg as "heavy father" still parallels some aspects of Prospero, except that with both Stagg and his rival Turnbull, wealth takes the place of magical power.
The specifically "white father" is also loosely implicated in the dispossession of the Native American from his ancestral lands. I don't suggest that Bob Haney consciously sought to tell a story dealing with Native American travails: I think he worked in the character of O. the Aggrieved Redskin because such images were part and parcel of his cultural mythology. Certainly he wanted a story that had enough adventurous fun as to please young readers, and so O. might simply have worked his way into the story because Haney set it in the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon suggested to him the Noble Red Man. The setting might also be responsible for the use of a robot patterned after the mythic Thunderbird, who was a widespread Native American icon. The artist Fradon gives the robot a quasi-Indian image, so that on a symbolic level, Trumbull is stealing the original American's myths as well as his land. Finally, though the TEMPEST connection can't be proven, it's interesting that the Shakespeare play is associated with what little the playwright knew of New World denizens-- as shown in essays like this one.