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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, March 23, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE METAL CONQUEROR OF RANN" (MYSTERY IN SPACE #79, 1962)

I devoted a good deal of space to the setup for the Silver Age "Adam Strange" feature in my essay on the story "Shadow People of the Eclipse," but for clarity's sake, I'll repeat a little of it here:

Adam Strange became DC’s most prestigious space-opera hero of the period when Schwartz  came up with a “thinking man’s” version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. In Burroughs’ Martian cycle of stories, Carter and other Earth-heroes not infrequently found themselves transported to the exotic world of Mars, where they would immediately get involved in assorted feats of derring-do. In similar wise, a device called a “Zeta-beam” regularly transported Strange, an archaeologist on the planet Earth, to the planet Rann in the Alpha Centauri system—a planet that was repeatedly menaced by alien invaders and extraterrestrial creatures. Though Strange promptly outfitted himself with a fancy uniform and some of Rann’s superior technology—a jet-pack and a ray-pistol—the essential appeal of the stories was that the hero always used logical thinking and good old American know-how to defeat the exotic incursions. The series also provided Strange with a little more erotic reward for his efforts than most superheroes got. A beautiful Rannian girl, Alanna, fell in love with him—but most of the time their union couldn’t prosper, for the Zeta-radiation in Strange’s body would wear off and he’d cycle back to Earth, condemned to wait for another beam to take him back to the world of his lady love.
I also mentioned in that essay that many of the stories were gimmick-driven, often based in the editor's attempt to catch the eye of the impulse-buyer, and that only occasionally did the stories-- usually collaborations by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino-- ascend into the realm of the mythopoeic. However, perhaps Fox, the primary architect of the stories, was on something of a roll in 1962, for the story considered here-- "Conqueror" for short-- appeared just one issue after "Shadow People."

"Conqueror" also led me to realize just how often the series structured its perils around the idea of disappearance and what we now call "alien abduction." "Shadow People" reads a bit like a cross between THE ODYSSEY and an alien abduction yarn, but only a handful of people, including Adam Strange, are kidnapped by the alien Llyrr. However, a lot of stories deal with Planet Rann's whole population being abducted or transformed somehow, or even with the planet switching its place in the cosmos with some other planet. In the Burroughs "Mars" books, there's little if any explanation of the force that transports John Carter and other heroes to Mars. But because it was a regular recurring element in the Adam Strange stories-- a device by which the creators sought to make readers continue to purchase the series-- its presence may have encouraged Fox to place "cosmic checkers" with planets and their populations in similar fashion.

"Conqueror" is not quite that cosmically oriented, but the cover does show Fox's penchant for exploiting images suggestive of Frazer's "sympathetic magic," wherein an image of a person can influence what happens to the person.



The visual element of the lightning striking the statue may have been a suggestion from editor Julie Schwartz, for in truth the bolt from the heavens plays only a very minor role in the story.  But it does begin with both a re-appearance and a disappearance, for as soon as Strange manifests on Rann, he sees his sweetheart Alanna waiting for him-- only to behold her vanish before he reaches her, seeming to dissolve into smoke. Strange's reaction is muted by modern standards, due to DC's tendency to downplay strong emotion, but Infantino's body language does suggest that Strange is wracked with doubt about Alanna's fate. He promptly seeks out Alanna's father Sardath in the capital city, but the scientist has no clue about the disappearance. For once, Rann seems free of alien intrustions, and the only thing going on in the city is that its citizens have recently set up a statue of Adam Strange, commemorating his past accomplishments.



Fox's script doesn't overtly touch on the usual connotation of such statues-- that they usually commemorate the heroic dead. However, the equation is suggested when the force behind Alanna's disappearance manifests in the statue. The energy-display from the sky causes Strange to fade away just as Alanna did. Then the entity inside Strange's image projects a telepathic voice to Rann's citizens, explaining that he is "Ikhar the Undying, master of the mineral world." He proclaims that he now rules the planet, and that he sent both Strange and Alanna offworld to eliminate Strange as a threat. (He never says why he chose to include Alanna in his plans, since she didn't usually play an active role in helping Strange repel alien invaders.) While the statue of Adam comes alive and struts around as if alive, the mineral-being inside it further informs the citizens of other details. Both Strange and Alanna have been turned into petrified versions of their living selves, and left to wander in space inside a spaceship far off in uncharted space-- in fact, the same ship by which Ikhar came to Rann. The mineral-creature can transport his intelligence into any inorganic object, but he needed the ship to cross space-- and now he's using it as a prison in which the "inert, lifeless bodies" of Strange and Alanna are to be "carried eternally onward through an interstellar emptiness."

What Fox has done here is to re-arrange tropes common to the ideas about the afterlife, so that lifeless bodies, rather than free spirits, are hurled into a void of "emptiness." However, even though Strange has been outmaneuvered, his body contains residual zeta-radiation, and so once he's in the ship, he transforms back to a living human being. (The cynic in me wonders why Ikhar has a working atmosphere in the spaceship, since he, being a mineral entity, shouldn't need to breathe-- and he certainly had no reason to supply Strange and Alanna with breathable air.) Alannah remains in the petrified state Ikhar wrought upon her, but Strange manages to figure out a way to take her with him when the zeta-beam effect causes him to jaunt back to Planet Earth.



Though the trip to Earth doesn't undo Alanna's petrifaction, the interval gives Strange time to devise a tnethod to defeat Ikhar. Suffice to say that when the zeta-effect transports Strange to Rann once more, he's worked out a clever way to take advantage of Ikhar's boast that he can project his being into any mineral substance. Strange tricks the alien into entering an organic object that simply looks inorganic, and, mirabile dictu, the effect is just like trapping a genie in a bottle. (There are quite a few genie-in-a-bottle tropes in Fox's work overall, but that's another essay.) Ikhar is obliged to reverse all of his "spells," including that of enchanting Alanna, and then is released once he swears not to be bad again, more or less like the genie in the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.

It's an engaging story, with a bit more sense than most of the heroes' nearness to real death. Like all of their real-life readers, even heroes must eventually be transformed from the "quick" world of the living to the "dead" world of inorganic inactivity-- though "Conqueror" gives Strange and Alanna the respite of reversing that entropic trope, and of enjoying impermanent life a little longer.

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