Monday, September 18, 2017
MYTHCOMICS: "WHEN THE EARTH BLACKED OUT" (STRANGE ADVENTURES #144, 1962)
DC Comics' ATOMIC KNIGHTS series-- a short-lived one, lasting only 15 installments from 1960 to 1964-- was a little more sophisticated than many of the one-shot stories that usually made up the contents of STRANGE ADVENTURES, a DC anthology mag that had been running since 1950. Celebrated editor Julius Schwartz edited the bulk of the issues, and they probably represented his own taste for gimmick-oriented science fiction.
In this series, atomic war broke out in 1986, obliterating the majority of human, animal, and plant life. Nevertheless, Old Earth made a pretty quick recovery, for by 1992 small enclaves of humanity have begun eking out a living from the rare farmlands not poisoned by radiation. Later critics complained that ATOMIC KNIGHTS trivialized the damage that a real atomic war would wreak upon the planet, but writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson were just following a fairly standard SF-scenario, wherein some cataclysm forces a new generation to remake civilization after the Apocalypse.
For the task of restoring order, Broome created a character named "Gardner Grayle." Half of his name was taken from that of Broome's writer friend Gardner Fox, while the other half was a play upon the "Holy Grail" of Arthurian legend. However, this particular knight wasn't seeking any holy object, but rather a return to relative normalcy. In fact, Broome advances the rather peculiar notion that Grayle is "exactly average:"
Since Grayle's supposed "average" status never influences any of the stories, I tend to see it as emblematic of the normalcy the hero and his friends sought-- although only in an intrinsic sense. In an extrinsic sense, the series was designed to be novel and exciting, rather than "normal." Grayle, seeking a way to protect humanity from the perils of fascist bosses and mutant species, joins with four other men (and eventually a young woman) to become a fighting-force. They chance across a handful of archaic armor-suits, which have become super-hard thanks to nuclear radiation, and so they become the Atomic Knights. For their "noble steeds," the Knights acquire mutated dalmatians that are now as big as horses. (If there's any element of ATOMIC KNIGHTS I've heard Silver Age enthusiasts enthuse about, it's those big spotted fire-dogs.
In the early issues of the series, neither Grayle nor anyone else knows which of the eight nuclear countries brought about the chaos. In "When the Earth Blacked Out," the Knights learn that none of them deliberately caused nuclear war. Rather, long before the war, a race of mole-people-- whose origins are never explained-- used their advanced technology to trigger the war. The mole-men, who have been around "for decades," waited a few years for the radiation to die down, and then made their move.
Having existed under the earth so long that they have only vestigial vision, the mole-men plant a strange plant, presumably of their own cultivation, which is capable of exuding so much black vapor that, given time, the vapor will form a perpetual cloud to block out the sun's rays. Once the Earth falls into total darkness, the mole-men will conquer Earth.
The Knights seek to destroy the darkness-plant, but the mole-men have formidable weapons, and though they can't see, they can sense the approach of other living things through their heat-signatures. One of the knights comes up with the salient solution: defeat them with cold light-- the light of fireflies-- which will hurt the mole-men's eyes but not give them any advance warning. Appropriately, the Knights choose to use a familiar Halloween talisman to banish creatures of darkness: jack-o-lanterns with fireflies inside. (Not sure what keeps the insects from simply flying out.)
Naturally, the gambit works. The Knights defeat the mole-people and send them back to their underworld domain.
An interesting moral point is advanced at story's end. Though the mole-people caused the destruction of Earth, one Knight, Douglas Herald, stipulates that humans "cannot escape responsibility," for "we made the surface of the earth an armed camp-- a global tinder box. The mole-creatures provided only the spark that set off the dreadful holocaust."
This was one of the few ethical statements in what was ultimately a lightweight adventure-series. But Broome's mythopoeic talents are far more interesting than his moralizing, and the idea of using jack-o-lantern's to drive off creatures of darkness is one of his best concepts.