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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...

Thursday, October 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: “THE PERIL OF PAINGLOSS” (GIANT-SIZE WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #5, 1975)






Marvel’’s 1970s title WEREWOLF BY NIGHT proved to be the company’s second most long-lived “horror-hero” title of the decade, excelled only by TOMB OF DRACULA, one arc of which I discussed here. The WEREWOLF series was far more uneven in quality than that of the vampire count. As a result, neither fans nor critics paid a great deal of attention to the stories of Jack Russell, a modern American man laboring under a curse that changed him into a wolf-man on full-moon nights. However, on occasion the feature did yield some unique mythopoeic gems.

At the time of this story—one of two stories in the series drawn by Filipino artist Yong Montano—writer Doug Moench had been associated with the title for some time. Normally, the Werewolf stayed close to the soil of Marvel-Earth, having fights with other freakish denizens of that world—hunchbacks, vampires, other werewolves, and the occasional evil magician. But in Moench’s last long story for the feature— a story of almost forty pages, appearing in the last issue of the feature's annual edition—the writer decided to transport Jack Russell into a world like himself: alternately ruled by day and by night.

The first thirteen pages take place in Jack’s normal domain of Marvel-Earth. His friend Buck Cowan, who knows all about Jack’s unwanted transformations, suggests that they visit a renowned occultist, one with the colorful name of Joaquin Zairre. However, not only does Zairre give the duo no help in their quest for a werewolf cure, the Satanist decides to use Jack as a sacrifice to his unholy master. When the first full-moon night draws near, Zairre kidnaps both Jack and Buck and takes them to a subterranean cavern. There Zaiire plans to shoot Jack with a silver bullet as soon as he transforms into a werewolf. Apparently the sacrifice of a guy who turns hairy is just not good enough. The setup, consciously or not, emulates a pattern seen in  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars," in that the hero is placed in a life-or-death situation just before he symbolically “dies” and is translated to another plane of  being.


To be sure, the other world in “Paingloss” comes looking for Jack rather than waiting for him to show up. Jack becomes the Werewolf, but before Zairre can fire his silver bullet, another silver device intrdues: a magical silver lasso that springs out of an underground pool and drags the hirsute hero into the water.

It’s no less typical to see scenarios in which a feature’s hero is transported to another world for the purpose of drafting him to help the “good guys” against the “bad guys.” Since Jack’s alter ego is a ravening monster who’s not particularly altruistic, Moench solves this problem by revealing, in due time, that the Werewolf's abductors actually want to put him a menagerie owned by the queen who rules the otherworld. This otherworld is named "Biphasia," and as I mentioned earlier, is explicitly identified with Jack’s own plight, conveyed through Jack’s narration: 

Like my soul, it was a place torn in two—light and darkness, intelligence and savagery.


To an extent Moench follows a pattern seen in many high-fantasy novels of the time, in which “light” is equated with goodness and “darkness” with evil. However, even in Jack’s narration, Moench qualifies this equivalence, having Jack wonder if Searland, the eternally bright half of the world of Biphasia, is truly “a place of innocence,” or if it’s really just a “mirror” to the evil of “Shadow-Realm.”


One of the two beings who abduct the werewolf is just a slightly comical mage, but the other is the “Paingloss” of the story’s title. He is an inhabitant of Shadow-Realm, which means that he looks like a negative-image of a Caucasian human, garbed more or less like a fantasy-version of a knight: his flesh, hair and clothes ebon-black and outlined in white. 


Paingloss and his mage-buddy are located in Shadow-Realm when they put the snatch on Jack, and so he remains in werewolf form while he occupies the dark side of Biphasis. However, when Paingloss tries to take his prize to Biphasia’s ruler Delandra—who lives in Searland—the Werewolf changes back into Jack Russell, just as he would in the daylight of Earth. Delandra-- who is half like a Searland denizen, half like a Shadow-Realm inhabitant-- is then pissed at her knight Paingloss for having brought back an ordinary man for her managerie. Moench states that there's a brooding love affair between Delandra and Paingloss, and that, for reasons that remain obscure, Delandra could not give Paingloss her favors until she achieved the task of bringing back a rare beast. Privately, Jack finds the queen a spoiled brat, since it's evident that she cares more about her private zoo than about an impending invasion by the Shadow-Realm. 



Though the story is a long one compared to the average Werewolf tale, there really isn’t time for more than a Cook’s Tour of Biphasia. No sooner is Jack rejected than he’s shanghaied into helping Paingloss fight his former master Sardanus. In order to give Jack a more heroic role, Paingloss asserts that Sardanus also plans to invade Earth after he gains control of Searland. 



In an oddly short climax, Paingloss and the Werewolf defeat Sardanus, after which Paingloss’ wizard sends Jack home. Jack manifests in the cavern just in time to see his friend Buck deck Zairre, who then falls into the underground pool; implicitly becoming a death-substitute for Jack Russell, much as Alcestis descended to Hades to take the place of her husband. When Zairre doesn’t come up, Buck assumes he’s drowned, but Jack privately suspects that the Satanist was sucked into the world of Biphasis. The story ends with the hapless Jack taking cold comfort in the fact that he saved the world, even though no one else will ever credit the story.


Moench’s story is far from perfect. The relatively fresh idea of having the story’s hero being abducted for a menagerie—all to serve the ego of a spoiled queen—is dropped too quickly in favor of the catchpenny menace of Sardanus. One of the more interesting visuals of Moench and Montano is that Delandra’s palace is actually a huge ark stuck in the side of a mountain, but the pace of the story won’t allow for any explanations of this, nor of the imaginative creatures called “lustrums,” albino dwarves who ride the backs of big white snails. I imagine a better story would have ensued had Moench just left out the standard “dark lord” schtick and had focused on the story on Paingloss, Delandra and her menagerie. Maybe he might have even suggested some textual reason why he chose to name his big strapping knight-warrior after Voltaire’s “Pangloss,” who becomes famous in CANDIDE from claiming to everyone that listens that they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”  Still,even though Biphasis lacks the intellectual rigor found in Middle-Earth, there is a mythopoeic level of imagination at work in this largely forgotten story-- far more, in fact, than Moench showed in his better known WEIRDWORLD stories, which I found derivative and lacking in symbolic vigor.

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