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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...

Friday, April 7, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE THREAT OF THE HORRIBLE HEX" (HOUSE OF SECRETS #64, 1964)


I've devoted space to a number of Silver Age stories that are remembered principally by those who lived during said age. Some of the characters, like Archie's Jaguar, have at least been revived in later years, to the extent that knowledgeable fans know that a 1960s Jaguar existed, even if they have never read that version's adventures. However, the DC character Mark Merlin-- whose history is covered in this Don Markstein article-- has been effectively erased from DC history, and for that reason he may be the most obscure serial character I've covered so far.

In comics there have generally been two broad types of magician-heroes. The first is the type that can conjure up a multitude of spells and effects, and this type's distant ancestor is probably Lee Falk's comic-strip character Mandrake. The second is "the supernatural sleuth," who may or may not possess special powers, but at least has keen insight into the nature of supernatural menaces. The strongest contender for an ancestor for this type is probably the 1908 "John Silence," a creation of Algernon Blackwood.

There are some memorable magical sleuths in prose, but most of those in the comics medium have been unremarakble. DC's Mark Merlin, whose creation is attributed solely to artist Mort Meskin, is no exception. He debuted in HOUSE OF SECRETS #23 (1959) and lasted until #73 (1965), in he was replaced by another character, a Doctor Strange-wannabe named Prince Ra-Man. Though Merlin lasted longer in the SECRETS berth than Ra-Man did, it seems likely that the former only lasted because the editors had no high expectations of him. I have yet to read more than scattered adventures of the character; and the one I reference here may be the best-known outing for Merlin, since it was reprinted in a 1970s issue of PHANTOM STRANGER. My inexpert impression is that even in his early years, DC didn't have any real interest in delving into the horrific potential of the truly supernatural, for Merlin spent a lot of time fighting aliens and monsters, like most DC heroes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Here's the cover to Merlin's third appearance:




So no one should come away from this essay thinking that Mark Merlin's oeuvre offers some treasure-trove of neglected excellence. The most interesting thing about "Horrible Hex" is that the script-- attributed to Arnold Drake-- seems to be one of the few times this staid DC-hero actually went up against genuine supernatural menaces, tied into not only the New England witch-hunts but also to the custom of Pennsylvania hex-signs.




Since I don't have a scanner and there are few images to swipe, I'll keep my comments brief. Merlin finds himself embroiled in stopping a curse that has repeatedly slain the offspring of a Pennsylvania family.  Merlin finds out that the source of the curse are the spirits of three long-dead wizards from Puritan times. The hero takes the curse upon himself, faces the spirits in a mystic battle, and defeats their curse, saving the life of a modern-day innocent.





The point I find most interesting about Drake's story is not its metaphysical content-- which is only of marginal quality-- but the fact that the three wizards all represent three types of "otherness" with which the early Puritans contended. One-- the one on the cover with the peaked hat-- is a "central casting" sort of witch, Caucasian in racial heritage but loosely representing the Puritan horror of the independent female. Significantly, the witch's name is "Spinster Toten," her unmarried status connoting that she is not under male control, and her personal name, in addition to resembling the word "totem," may also reference one of the best known figures of the real witch-craze, Tituba. The other two wizards may derive from Tituba's alleged knowledge of extra-Christian magical systems. "Black Moon" is a standard comic-book picture of an Amerindian medicine-man, so that he represents the Puritans' long-standing antipathy for Native American culture. Finally, the last wizard is Peter Stalb (seen on the cover in a Puritan-style hat). Though Caucasian, Stalb is also a man who has studied the occult arts in Asia and Africa, and since his main weapon is the use of a voodoo-doll, it's fair to assume that he's a stand-in for the Puritan fear of both black people and their black magic.
The story itself is nothing special, but I found it interesting that even one story in a generally mediocre series managed to tap into the mindset of America's most notorious encounter with the occult.


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