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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, June 2, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: COYOTE #1-16 (1983-86)

In AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY I gave pride of place to the first two issues of Steve Englehart’s Epic-published COYOTE series. At the time I wrote that, I hadn’t given the rest of the Coyote-tales a close reading: either the seven installments that appeared in ECLIPSE MONTHLY magazine or the remaining fifteen in the Epic series. I only remembered that after the first two solo-feature issues, in which Englehart’s script was beautifully realized by artist Steve Leialoha, both story and artwork fell off drastically in quality. Yet, given that I’ve said it’s possible to have a significant symbolic discourse even when other qualities are lacking, I decided to re-examine the full Coyote series.

I found no reason to change my opinion of the ECLIPSE MONTHLY stories, which I touched on briefly in a review for COMICS JOURNAL #85 (1983). This sequence introduced Coyote, a hero named for the Native American trickster-god. He possessed shape-shifting and dimension-crossing powers, the heritage of a meandering and confusing backstory. With almost no motivation, the hero began clashing with his principal adversaries: a secret organization called the Shadow Cabinet. These assorted spy-jinks led me to label the Eclipse series as “American Werewolf gets a shave and plays James Bond.”  I also noted that collaborator Marshall Rogers was guilty of “cardboard figures and meticulously cluttered panels.” At best the Eclipse stories rate as near myths.

The sixteen Epic issues, however, do manage to realize a “density of discourse” that raises them to the level of “good myths.” Englehart had established in the earlier stories that Coyote got his supernatural powers as the result of being raised in a society of eldritch beings: a were-coyote foster-father and a vampire foster-mother. But in the Epic series, Englehart deepened the protagonist’s connection to Native American lore and culture. Though Coyote’s “origin-story” is laid out without a lot of attention to motives or consistency, it does establish that Coyote, a mortal man, was actually chosen by the Native American coyote-god to help drive out the Europeans who conquered the lands of the red men. This revised origin didn’t come to much in terms of plot, but it allowed Englehart to intermingle two forms of narrative: the modern-day, superspy-like adventures of his hero, and vignettes about the original coyote-god’s adventures in the world that existed before the Caucasian invasion. I don’t know to what extent Englehart’s vignettes derived from real Native American folklore, although some of the details are certainly provided by the writer himself. The significance of the vignettes is that Englehart emulates much of the earthy humor that characterizes authentic Amerindian folktales. One outstanding vignette, possibly the height of the Englehart-Leialoha collaboration, deals with Coyote’s creation of the Milky Way by his impulsiveness.

And what of the main story concerning the hero? Well, in 1983 I wrote that he was one of several contemporary heroes who were more concerned with “maintaining personal freedom” rather than expousing total altruism (I was big on the theme of altruism vs. selfhood back in the 1980s.) Coyote, having much of the nature of his trickster-god, is full of youthful self-confidence, contempt for those of lesser attainments, and just plain horniness. Indeed, whereas James Bond of the Movies often got to bone at least two women per film—albeit separately—Coyote is a true “harem fantasy,” in which he hooks up with two sisters (one white, one phenotypically black) and later with a third hottie, a female Russian assassin. Issue #16 concludes not only with Coyote’s victory over the Shadow Cabinet, but also his success with getting at least two of the hotties to remain in his personal seraglio. I’m not sure if any modern American comics-creator would even be able to pitch, much less have published, such a politically incorrect male fantasy.

Further, Englehart does manage to tie together Coyote’s current enemies with the mythic past of the folklore-Coyote, for the Shadow Cabinet is largely run by magical beings called:”Crows.” Native American folklore has its share of crow-gods, but it’s not clear if these are gods, though in one of the past vignettes the Crows are seen as the persistent adversaries of the coyote-god. At the very least, the presence of the Crows keeps the Shadow Cabinet from being just another globe-spanning secret organization.

Ironically, in 1983, I wrote just the opposite, stating that I thought the Cabinet was meant to be more than “SPECTRE or Hydra;” that it was a metaphor for Englehart’s view of the “grasping-and-taking aspect of American business.” I no longer think Englehart applied this metaphor to the Cabinet itself: now I think it really was just another SPECTRE, albeit with overcomplicated origins (including aliens!) Yet throughout the sixteen Epic issues, Englehart adroitly contrasts the anal-retentive tendencies of Anglo culture with the more freewheeling spontaneity of Amerindian ways. He also works in interesting commentaries on the three “Religions of the Book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all of whom appear as minor players in the pagan conflict of Coyote and the Crows.

On a side-note, Marvel’s publication of the Coyote series also gave Englehart a venue inn which to publish his four-part collaboration with Steve Ditko, “The Djinn.” Only one installment of the series had seen previous publication, but Marvel published the whole series, much to the delectation of Ditko enthusiasts, since the series featured some of the artist’s best eighties work. Englehart also worked the continuity of the “Djinn” story into Coyote’s mythos reasonably well, but over time the writer created too many wild subplots, so that the series came off as belonging to the “everything plus the kitchen sink” school.

Issue sixteen concludes with the words, “James Bond is problematical, but—Coyote will return!” it takes a special kind of nerve to claim that your comic-book character has a better chance to return than that internationally famous superspy 007. But in this Englehart proved a better writer than a prophet, for Coyote hasn’t turned any new tricks in the comics since 1986.

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