Friday, March 24, 2017
NEAR MYTHS: BROTHERS OFTHE SPEAR ARCHIVES #1 (1951-55)
I grew up with the BROTHERS OF THE SPEAR characters as a backup feature in the Dell (later Gold Key) TARZAN comic book. The titular siblings were foster brothers: one being Natongo, a native Zulu prince, the other Dan-El, his foster brother, a white youth adopted by Natongo's father upon the death of Dan-El's natural father. At the time I read the feature, black characters were just beginning to show up in comics-genres other than the jungle-adventure story, so I didn't attach any special importance to the fact that BOTS was an "Ebony and Ivory" partnership. Only much later did I learn that the feature had been in the Tarzan comic for a really long time, since 1951; about fourteen years before ABC-TV made history by devoting a serious adventure-series to the exploits of a salt-and-pepper team played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. In 1951, the comic-book medium wasn't displaying nearly as many of the negative Black stereotypes that had been evident throughout the 1940s, but one didn't see many positive images of Blacks either. BROTHERS is one of the few exceptions, though indubitably it was only possible because Tarzan was the character selling the book. I'd be surprised if any of the 1950s covers even referenced the feature's existence.
I've only read the first of Dark Horse's three reprints of BROTHERS, but I feel fairly sure in labeling the entire series to be a "near myth," based on my knowledge of the 1960s feature and its short run as a stand-alone comic book in the early 1970s. BROTHERS was intended by all those involved in its creation-- writer Gaylord DuBois and artists Jesse Marsh and (later) Russ Manning-- as juvenile, episodic adventure. As a backup feature, Dan-El and Natongo usually had only six pages for each installment. Thus there weren't a lot of reflections or ruminations, the brothers went from one jungle-peril to another without much down-time.
The motive force for the plot was that once Dan-El became old enough, he wanted to seek out the culture from which his late father came. Natongo, roughly the same age, didn't need to know who he was, but such was their sibling devotion that the Zulu prince joined the search, attempting to follow the very minimal clues they had. For about the first ten issues-- all drawn by Marsh-- the series seems entirely naturalistic: just two young men, one of whom happens to be white, having adventures in the wilds of Africa. Then, after Manning takes over the strip, the heroes begin encountering uncanny phenomena. In fact, Dan-El's lost people are one such phenomenon, being a race of Caucasians living apart from the blacks in Africa. This tribe, going by the name of "Aba-Zulu," is also controlled by a breed of sinister witch-doctors who use various "fake magic" tricks to enslave the populace, at least until the advent of Natongo and Dan-El-- the latter just happening to be a prince of the tribe, destined to inherit the authority of his dead father.
The time is never faithfully nailed down: Dan-El and Natongo encounter some white men who use handguns and are dressed in line with 20th-century fashion, but most of the adventures seem to take place in an Africa wherein Europeans have made few incursions. One assumes that writer DuBois meant for Dan-El's people to be the result of a very early incursion. However, whereas Edgar Rice Burroughs usually based his "lost white people" on some well-defined group, like ancient Romans, DuBois tells the reader nothing about the denizens of Aba-Zulu except that they worship the "One True God"-- albeit without any specifications. I'd guess that even in the adventures I've not read, DuBois chose to keep the culture of Aba-Zulu fairly vague. These "African Caucasians," though, dress like Black Africans for the most part, even though the only cross-cultural influence one sees are the witch-doctors, who are implicit doppelgangers for their Black kindred-in-spirit. This implied conflict between a very primitive form of religion and a more advanced one is the most mythic aspect of BROTHERS, but since the essence of the conflict remains off-stage as it were, it can only be a "near myth."
The same thing applies to the seamless brotherhood between Dan-El and Natongo. I'm sure that some modern readers would object to the early storyline's emphasis on Dan-El's journey, though with the benefit of "foresight" I know that eventually stories will show the development of Natongo as a king in his own right. Similarly, just as Dan-El meets Tavane, the woman destined to be his queen, Natongo will also meet his future queen Zulena-- and that both women are destined to be martial presences in their own right, veritable "Sisters of the Spear." That said, BROTHERS is very much a boys' adventure, with no time for romance, though there is an unusual moment in one of the first adventures, when a formidable Black African warrior-queen, Liloma, takes an interest in Dan-El. It was certainly unusual to even allude to the notion that a Black female might fancy a Caucasian, particularly in a juvenile-targeted comic book. Still, nothing comes of Liloma's affection thanks to a timely invasion from a hostile tribe.
The relationship of Dan-El and Natongo has some mythic potential; just the image of the two of them working together as equals cannot fail to communicate the resonance of an important sociological myth. Yet, because the brothers are so unfailingly loyal to one another, they don't have any individuality. Late in this archive's continuity, Natongo swears by the One True God of Dan-El's people. There is of course no space devoted to the Zulu prince's religious conversion: he's simply taken on the same faith as his cherished sibling, without explanation. I imagine that the kids at whom the feature was directed-- most likely white kids-- this unexplained character-touch would have meant nothing more than that Natongo was on the side of the "good guys." But it does make me realize that, even with the best intentions, some period chauvinism still managed to sneak in.