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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, November 10, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "A THING IS BORN" ( BROTHER POWER #1-2, 1968)

What a difference an issue makes.



Back in February, I devoted two essays-- here and here-- to stories in which DC raconteurs revived Joe Simon's 1968 character "Brother Power the Geek." I preceded these formal analyses with the essay SIMON SESSION, which provided an informal overview of Simon's post-Kirby career. I stated that I'd only read the first of BROTHER POWER's two issues, and that, though I found "a few interesting mythopoeic touches" in the first issue, I didn't think I was missing much in not having read the second one.



However, I recently acquired the second and last issue of BROTHER POWER, and upon giving both issues a more intensive reading, I've decided that, inconclusive though the story is, it sustains enough complication to rank as a mythically satisfying story-arc. In a similar vein, I rated Wally Wood's THE KING OF THE WORLD as a mythcomic, even though the second part of Wood's serial didn't provide the same quality.

Nothing can be said about Simon's "Geek-out" project without stating that it was one of various attempts by DC Comics to court the so-called "youth culture" of the late Silver Age. Earlier I summed up these attempts by saying, 'I did not read BROTHER POWER back in the day, and what little I initially heard about it made it sound like another misguided attempt by way-over-30 comics-makers to appeal to young readers by trying to sound “hip.”'

There's no question that Joe Simon was a middle-aged man at the time he created Brother Power, and moreover, since he identified himself as a Republican, it might seem incongruous for him to attempt a heartfelt evocation of the hippie ethos. Indeed, the cover-copy for issue #1 tries to suggest that the story will give the readers a titillating look at the "dangers in hippie-land." This ballyhoo was an outright lie, but it sort of fits the serial's often carnivalesque mood. Though I've never read any of the issues of SICK that Simon edited during the 1960s, I'd hypothesize that by 1968 he'd already touched on counterculture topics in his "magazine of sick humor," and that in BROTHER POWER he was trying to meld his taste for such humor with the requirements of a superhero title.  At the same time, BROTHER POWER labored under a lot of restrictions, for the Comics Code couldn't allow depictions of the sex and drugs associated with the hippie movement. Yet it seems unlikely that Simon would have taken advantage of the freedom of the "underground comics movement" had he been given it. Indeed, whereas most DC raconteurs merely pasted a few "hip" phrases or motifs over completely traditional stories, Simon's GEEK is interesting in that he understood at least a few aspects of the counterculture, but chose, for the most part, to subvert that ethos with his own conservative outlook.

Here's a bullet-point breakdown of events in the two issues, which I've conflated under the first chapter-heading in issue 1, "A Thing is Born:"

(1) In 1968 San Francisco, a small community of "peace and love" hippies find themselves continually bullied by a gang of nasty bikers. (Cops, who probably persecuted hippies far more than bikers, are at most an incidental threat in "Thing.") The battered longhairs retreat to an abandoned tailor shop-- specifically abandoned because of the hippies' "unkempt" presence-- and try to clean their blood-soiled garments. One hippie, Brother Max. has soaked his clothes so much that he's afraid they'll shrink, so he puts them on a life-size tailor's dummy. Then, for the next three seasons, all of the hippies apparently forget about both the clothes and the dummy, which just sits in the tailor shop, soaking up various substances-- blood, dust, rain and machine oil. (This bit of forgetfulness, as well as some of the other things the youths do, might suggest that there was indeed some drug-consumption going on, and that Simon just didn't show it.) Once three seasons have gone by, a providential lightning bolt strikes the dummy, and brings it to life. 




Moments later, the bikers conveniently decide-- a whole nine months later-- to take over the hippies' "pad." Brother Power, converted by the lightning into a super-strong golem (my term), routs the mean motorcyclists. The hippies, who call one another "brother" (no sisters are around at the time), dub the living dummy "Brother Power." One of the less generous youths also calls him a "geek," though this was probably meant to follow from an earlier line in which a biker calls the dummy a "freak." But the connection was lost when editors forbade Simon from using the term "freak" for his protagonist, forcing the less logical substitution of "geek."




(2) Brother Power, initially mute, learns to talk, and though he's not very attractive at the start, the hippies accept him as one of their own. However, the Geek's presence amid the hippies attracts the attention of a group of evil circus-people, who run "the Psychedelic Circus."





The Circus-People kidnap Power so that they can exhibit him in a full-fledged freakshow. The addled hippies want Power back, but somehow get sidetracked when they decide that their enemies, the bikers, must be the real culprits behind the kidnapping. This inspires one of the daffier scenes in the story, in which the hippies dress up in superhero costumes and confront the bikers with a "comic book hero happening." Of course the bikers again beat up the hippies, after which they protest that they're innocent of this particular crime. Only by pure chance do two hippies stumble across the current location of the Psychedelic Circus. Then, by dint of uncharacteristic bravery, they save Brother Power from a freakshow that looks strongly influenced by the artwork of "Big Daddy' Roth.




(3) Cindy, the first hippie-girl with an actual name-- as well as the only female character of consequence--  stitches the somewhat damaged dummy together, and also pretties him up a little. This inspires romantic inclinations in Power. However, instead of trying for some of that "free love," Brother Power seeks to impress his lady-love the old-fashioned way: by Getting Ahead in Life. With some support from his fellow freaks, Power runs for president, on a platform of "love, peace... flower power." Unfortunately, the only thing the campaign accomplishes is that it makes the Circus-People aware of Power's whereabouts. The poor losers trump up charges against Power and set the cops on his tail. The distressed dummy goes on the run, and then does a "King Kong" off the Golden Gate Bridge, disappearing into the bay-- for the time being.




(4) Issue #2 picks up with Power, temporarily "dead" from his immersion, being fished from the bay and set up in what seems a patently Christ-like posture. Power's rescuers are a bunch of "urchins" called "the Clinkers," who look somewhat like a gang from a 1950s "jay-dee" film. The Clinkers, like the hippies before them, are oppressed by another group of goofballs: "the Berlin Airplanes," young guys who dress like World War One fighter-pilots and even pilot their own glider. During an Airplane-attack, Power comes back to life and trounces the intruders with a none-too-peaceful outburst of violence. However, despite being made part of the Clinker community, the dummy doesn't care for their do-nothing ways any more than he did for the hippies' inactivity. Power seeks employment at a grocery store, sounding like a character out of Horatio Alger when he states that he doesn't "mind starting at the bottom." Predictably, he doesn't remain in the position of a simple grocery stock-boy for long. 




(5) Diligence at the grocery-store leads Power to a new job at a plant that makes missiles for space exploration, but, as will later be established, has no connection with munitions. At the same time that the Geek goes to work on the factory's assembly-line, the owners are worried that they may soon go bankrupt if they don't solve their current production problems. They've opted to bring in a supposed mathematical genius, Lord Sliderule, who dresses in Renaissance clothes and is accompanied by tumbling dwarfs (!)  Sliderule only accepts the job so that he can eventually sell the factory's secrets to foreign powers, but before he can even make a phony pronouncement, Brother Power figures out a solution to the problem. Power is promoted to plant foreman but he naively allows the dethroned Sliderule and his flunkies to remain employed on the assembly-line.





(6) Though he's forbidden from using sex or drugs, Simon does manage to work in a hippie-protest. Power's old longhaired chums show up, under the impression that the factory is making missiles for wartime use. (This is as close as the stories dare come to a countercultural take on the conflict in Vietnam.) Power soon sets them straight, and even gets them to give up their lotus-eater lives and become productive citizens.




However, vengeful Sliderule sabotages a test-missile and makes it look like the Geek done it. It comes out that Power is still wanted from last issue, so the Governor of California-- an unnamed but very recognizable Ronald Reagan-- calls for Power's arrest. Again the misunderstood mannequin flees, this time hiding in one of the factory's missiles. Sliderule sets off the missile, and Brother Power is sent into orbit. The villains are arrested, and the story ends as the hippies wonder if they'll ever see their Geek again.




It's probably just as well that Simon never let the completed third issue be seen, for the two-issue arc, though very episodic, probably represents everything Simon had to say about the counterculture. I don't for a moment think that he was as personally fascinated with the subject as he claims in a promotional text-piece. I believe he saw, as much as any artist of the time could, that the counterculture represented a potential shift in values. As a professional creator, he wanted to see if he could make a living from his take on it-- even though, as I said, he frequently undercuts most of the most cherished images of the ethos. His hippies are good-hearted but generally foolish, and even their rejection of what Simon calls the "grey flannel, split-level world" is cast aside when their charismatic leader convinces them of the value of good hard work. Brother Power talks a lot about peace, but both of his stories display roughly the same amount of fighting as a Captain America tale. Only in one area does Simon hold something in common with the hippie ethos. A lot of male hippies were accused of being no less chauvinistic than the majority culture, and in the short-lived world of Brother Power, females exist only as sources of "romantic inspiration"-- making quite a marked contrast to the gynocentric bias of Rachel Pollak's above-mentioned GEEK reboot.

In closing I should address Simon's claim to sole authorship. He receives sole credit on the title-pages of both issues, but it was eventually revealed that the pencils were actually provided by Al Bare, a Golden Age comics-artist who had worked with Simon at SICK MAGAZINE. However, since Simon made assorted claims about having stage-managed many of the artists with whom he worked-- including Jack Kirby-- it doesn't seem unlikely that Bare may have worked from breakdowns or even just thumbnails provided by Simon, so that in essence Bare may have been drawing things exactly as Simon wanted them, even right down to the "Big Daddy" Roth visual quote. Originally I didn't care for Bare's mix of frivolity and sombre freakishness. However, now I find that at times the art communicates a lyrical charm, one not entirely at odds with the counterculture's emphasis on visual intensity. 





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