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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

NULL-MYTHS: BLOOD AND JUDGMENT (1986)




I should preface my remarks on Howard Chaykin’s four-issue SHADOW series by stating that I was never (unlike the celebrated Harlan Ellison) a strong fan of the character prior to Chaykin’s take on him. Growing up in the sixties, I heard fragmentary references to the hero and his mythology, most of which probably stemmed from the popular radio show rather than from the pulp magazine series wherein the crusader originated. There were no paperback reprints of The Shadow until 1975, and the only comic book that took a shot at reviving the Master of Darkness was an insipid superhero title from Mighty (Archie) Comics in the mid-sixties. The short-lived DC Comics adaptation in the early seventies was my first real exposure to any accurate version of the character, and though I found the series enjoyable, it was not one of the high points of the period. Sadly, most revivals of the Shadow in comics since then have failed to last into the high numbers of the pulp magazine’s decades-long run, and the hero was scarcely served any better in the media of TV and movies. These days, I’m reasonably well acquainted with the mythology of the character, especially through copious reprints of the original pulp tales. But even now, I’m not a big Shadow fan.


I didn’t like the four-issue BLOOD AND JUDGMENT any better in 1986 than I do now, but I must admit, it stands as one of the few times a comic-book adaptation of the Shadow made good money for its publishers. To be sure, a lot of extrinsic factors played a part. In comic books the relative freedom of titles aimed at the “mature readers” in comic-book specialty stores made it possible to stretch the boundaries of what one could do in “masked avenger” narratives, resulting in what I’ve chosen to call “adult pulp” in contrast to the juvenile variety seen in most though not all actual pulp magazines. A lot of eighties comics were just the same puerile stories with greater sex and ultraviolence—THE OMEGA MEN comes to mind—but there were valid makers of adult pulp as well, talents who shone in the eighties as they never could have in the seventies. Miller and Moore were the top of the heap, but Chaykin, something less than a “fan-favorite” in the seventies, became a Big Name Creator with First Comics’s 1983 publication of AMERICAN FLAGG. Whatever FLAGG was, it wasn’t just warmed-over clichés with more violence ladled on top, and at least three (if not more) critics for the hero-hating COMICS JOURNAL reviewed the title in its heyday. (I was not one of them; despite initially liking the series, I just didn’t have much to say about the feature back then.)


By the middle eighties DC had fully embraced the aesthetic of adult pulp, with the four-issue SHADOW series appearing in May 1986, roughly three months after the debut of Frank Miller’s wildly successful THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Miller explicitly stated that at the time he thought of RETURNS as a “brass band funeral” for the superhero genre, even if Miller’s reborn bat ended up becoming more of a meal ticket in the long run. But what did The Shadow mean to Howard Chaykin?


As seen in the first link above, Harlan Ellison manifestly despised Chaykin’s take on the character. I expressed some doubts as to how “mythic” the original pulp character was, but on the whole, if a creator wanted to reduce a famous hero to a travesty of his (or her) original self, I thought said creator ought to have a really good reason, beyond putting money in his bank account.


Having reread BLOOD AND JUDGMENT, I don’t think Howard Chaykin gave a ripe fart about the Shadow or his mythology. He does take various elements of the pulp stories—principally, the ideas that the Shadow acquired his mental skills in some far-Eastern domain, and that Lamont Cranston, the hero’s supposed alter ego, was merely one of his many disguises. Since BLOOD AND JUDGMENT takes place contemporaneously, Chaykin gives the Shadow a straightforward hero-origin. After crash-landing in a Tibetan super-science enclave named “Shambala,” pilot Kent Allard is enlisted to become a “paladin” for the Shambalans, who for vague reasons want to have their own urban avenger fighting crime in big cities. Chaykin puts no more into this origin than he must to make the story work; he’s manifestly uninterested in the Shadow’s career and barely gives a reason for his retirement to Shambala for some 35 years. Super-science does allow this version of the Master of Darkness to remain young while all of his former aides have become doddering old men and women. Apparently Shambala gave Allard a nose-job as well, since by 1986 he’s become the spitting image of Reuben Flagg.


What interests Chaykin is presenting a raucous, ribald vision of the modern world. It’s never a vision of great depth, but it certainly has a personal vibe to it. There’s copious violence—a mystery villain, Preston Mayrock, starts killing the Shadow’s former aides in order to lure the hero out of hiding—but the real emphasis is kinky sexuality. This makes an odd fit with The Shadow, who was one of the least sexual of the pulp-magazine heroes. Chaykin’s ageless Shadow has already fathered two offspring—both fully-grown Asian men. In addition, he is served by an agent named Lorelei with a super-sexy voice (her word balloons are all hearts) and after he seduces a woman who hates him, she ends up calling him “master.” Preston Mayrock is even more of a fount of perversion, being a wheelchair-bound old man who’s married a ripe twenty-something chippie. He allows his wife to screw his clone-replica “son” because Preston plans to have his brain transplanted into Preston Junior’s body.


It’s all very racy, but not much better developed than one of the “saucy stories” from the pulp-magazine era. The prose stories of the original Shadow were naïve and juvenile, but they weren’t incapable of depicting shades of feeling and characterization. The only time Chaykin’s era doesn’t seem like a self-satisfied parody of a hero is a single scene in which the villain sics guard-dogs on the Shadow, and the hero spares the “innocent ones” by mastering them with mesmerism. Without characters to engage the reader, most of Chaykin’s visuals prove busy and ultimately off-putting.


For me the only positive aspect of this mini-series is that because it sold well, DC kept this SHADOW series going for nineteen more issues, usually scripted by Andy Helfer and penciled by such luminaries as Bill Sienkiecwicz and Kyle Baker. Most of these stories are not much deeper than Chaykin’s, but Helfer embraced a more genial, Miller-like comedic approach in adapting the adventures of this classic crimefighter, so they’re more fun to re-read than Chaykin’s smarmy sensationalism. His outlook worked better with a series of his own creation, though, on a side-note, I reread a handful of the AMERICAN FLAGG installments and found them also lacking in mythicity.   


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: “DHARMA,” GRIMJACK #33-34 (1987)

 



Grimjack, one of the more successful features from the long-defunct First Comics, wasn’t a particularly outstanding character, being little more than the standard Wolverine-style “tough guy.” The series’ main strength was its setting, in that Grimjack inhabited a weird city, Cynosure, which allowed the hero to easily access countless dimensions. Thus, if any of the creators wanted to have Grimjack jaunt into a world inhabited by demons, or one modeled on the American Old West, Cynosure made such possibilities realities.



Prior to the “Dharma” two-part story (written by John Ostrander and penciled by Tom Mandrake), Grimjack enjoyed a sexual interlude with a ghost able to take material form, given the slightly risible name of “Spook.” The hero goes looking for the reasons behind Spook’s death, but in the process he’s severely injured before he plunges into the dimension of the ghost’s origin. An elderly woman named Satyavati stumbles across Grimjack and transports him to “the palace of Lord Nara,” which is the only setting one sees in this domain, whose inhabitants bear names and attire modeled on the people of medieval India.



Satyavati is an exception, for Grimjack notices that she’s not of the same ethnicity as the other denizens, and she claims that her original name was the European “Jenvieve.” Satyavati also reveals that she knows that in life Spook bore the also-European-sounding cognomen “Gen-Marie.” But to keep the old woman from giving the hero too many clues, scripter Ostrander conveniently shunts her out of the action while Grimjack acquaints himself with his suspects: Lord Nara, his wife Lakshimi, their daughter Maya, their strongman retainer Hanuman, and their guest Lord Pandu, a prince from another realm who’s come to court Maya. Hanuman, a professional warrior after Grimjack’s own heart, expounds on “dharma,” the set of moral laws by which the world’s inhabitants live, which boil down to the idea that everyone has a destined role to play. Hanuman cannot understand Grimjack’s “lone wolf” status, claiming that “to be a masterless man is a terrible thing.”



At that point, Spook makes her advent, uttering dire but non-specific threats. Pandu drives the ghost away with the intensity of his attack, but she promises to return once more. She does not seem to recognize her former lover, and her visit leaves Grimjack no closer to the truth. Later, a scream in the night causes the hero to rise from his bed and investigate. The scream comes from a serving-maiden, for she discovers the dead body of Hanuman, oddly missing his head.



Grimjack quickly deduces that because the head was removed cleanly, Spook cannot have committed the murder. Satyavati belatedly identifies Spook as her deceased daughter but gives the detective/exorcist no further information. The next night Grimjack goes prowling the castle again, and witnesses a war of spirits, as the ghost of Hanuman engages in pitched battle with Spook. Grimjack tracks down the individual using Hanuman’s decapitated head to summon Hanuman’s ghost and finds Lord Nara. Grimjack puts an end to the ritual by destroying Hanuman’s head, so that his ghost vanishes. Spook retreats again, and Grimjack justifies his action by telling Nara of his love for the vengeful spirit: “I’ll see her at peace, whatever the cost.”



Nara then unravels the murder-mystery; that despite his marriage to Lakshimi he took up with Satyavati’s daughter Amba, who originally went by the “Gen-Marie” moniker. He was so besotted with the younger woman that he considered giving up his kingdom for her, and thus going against the social roles of his dharma. Lakshimi retaliates by contriving to bear her husband’s first child (presumably by tricking him into having sex, though Ostrander doesn’t say so). Nara then tries to give Amba a kiss-off, but when she threatens his unborn child, Nara strikes and accidentally kills his former lover. Nara buys some peace of mind by exiling the spirit of Amba, a.k.a. Spook, to another dimension. However, during Spook’s absence, she bonds with Grimjack, thus bringing the hero into the tangled business.


The resolution isn’t particularly winsome, in that Grimjack is perfectly willing to sacrifice both Nara and Lakshimi for their respective misdeeds, purely for the purpose of sending Spook to her “rest.” But the hero’s ruthless maneuver makes no difference, for the ghost is obsessed with killing the innocent Maya, thus forcing Grimjack to slay his former lover.


The story’s not overly impressive either as a character-piece or as a moral argument, but it does sustain some interest as a myth-comic due to its opposition of the hero’s ruthless individualism and the ideals of a predetermined moral nature. Ostrander borrows most of the Hindu names from characters in the Mahabharata epic, but there are no real parallels here, aside from the fact that the epic has its own share of “dharma-drama.”

Monday, April 5, 2021

VECTORS OF INTENTIONALITY PT. 2

Toward the end of the first VECTORS OF INTENTIONALITY, I mentioned the propositional nature of fiction, and this reminded me of some of my meditations regarding "strong and weak propositions," beginning with this 2018 essay.

Now, my use of "propositions" in the earlier essay was somewhat different in that I was speaking more of how fictional propositions affected audiences in terms of what might called "audience-will" rather than "authorial will." I asserted that for audiences, the lateral meaning of a text usually has greater propositional strength than its vertical meaning, simply because the lateral meaning of any single reader's life generally arouses stronger conviction than any set of principles by which that reader might seek to interpret his life.

Authors, on the other hand, follow slightly different patterns. A few authors are so devoted to their principles that they produce works that are devoted to those vertical meanings. John Bunyan, for instance, wrote his allegory A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS to illustrate his Christian beliefs, showing little or no penchant for depicting his fictional characters as beings with lives parallel to those of real readers. 

On average, most authors who literally sing for their suppers know that they need to please readers with fictions that feel like "life as people live it." This can sometimes inhibit the author's devotion to the vertical values, but it's not exclusively a failing of commercial fiction. In canonical fiction as well, many authors simply find it harder to elaborate the abstract vertical concepts, given that from one standpoint it may be seen as harder work than producing the illusion of lateral perceptions. 

While the metaphors of "strong propositions" and "weak propositions" were oriented on describing "audience-will," they might also be descriptive of the different levels of concrescence in the four possible forms of discourse.

Some readers, obviously, desire to read some particular set of tropes with complete indifference to any complexity; one thinks of the stereotypical pictures of the "romance reader" and the "superhero addict." Yet even in hardcore fandoms, the "better works' in the genre are almost always those distinguished by some concrescence of either the kinetic, dramatic, didactic or mythopoeic potentiality. or by some combination of such concrescences. So, from the standpoint of authorial will, a work may be extremely concrescent in a particular poentiality, and may for that reason earn the love of an audience. However, not every audience is equally primed for every concrescence. Thus, Melville's MOBY DICK failed to charm the author's contemporaries, but gained classic status with later generations. That said, usually extreme popularity of a work does depend on some perceived concrescence by some audience at some time.







Friday, April 2, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: MORE MARTIAN BOOKS

 



A hardcore devotee of Edgar Rice Burroughs might know how thoroughly the author plotted his books ahead of publication. Thus it’s only my opinion when I state that A PRINCESS OF MARS, reviewed here, feels rather made-up-on-the-run, with Burroughs devoting most of his story to John Carter’s “wild Indian” battles with both “redskinned” humanoid Martians and the monstrous four-armed green Tharks. In the two subsequent books, though, Burroughs seems to be giving more thought to the makeup of Mars and the role that Carter would play in the planet’s destiny—to say nothing of his providing some perhaps unintentional meditations on his notion of a hero who supposedly never ages.


PRINCESS concludes on what must be deemed one of the best cliffhangers in literary history. After Carter wins and weds his beloved princess Dejah Thoris, duty forces him to attempt saving Mars by re-activating the atmosphere plants that keep the planet’s denizens alive. Before Carter even knows whether or not he’s been successful, his sojourn on Mars comes to an end and he finds himself back on Earth. Twenty years pass, both on Earth and on Mars, before the hero is once more able to return to Mars through a process loosely modeled on (but never explained as) the concept of astral-body travel.


Providentially Carter’s second sojourn takes him to the very heart of both Martian biology and Martian religion: the Valley Dor. Many Martians believe that when they perish, they will float down the River Iss (clearly indebted to the mythos of Egyptian Isis and her association with her river-borne husband Orisis) and enjoy eternal paradise in the Valley. Carter, as both a new culture-hero and a debunker of myths, learns the truth: whether alive or dead, Martians who go to the Valley end up having their blood drunk by bizarre plant-men, and their flesh eaten by giant white apes. And if that’s not enough, the Valley also plays host to a contingent of white-skinned Martians, called Therns, who also drink the blood of wayfarers—and they are in turn preyed upon by a race of black-skinned pirates. (Carter, a Virginia-born veteran of the Civil War, passes the comment that it’s unusual for a Southerner such as himself to think that the Black Martians are all surprisingly handsome.)


The reality of Dor is one of religions deception, best represented by an elderly Thern woman who pretends to be the Goddess Issus. (Burroughs probably borrowed this image of an evil old witch-woman from Haggard’s character Gagool in KING SOLOMON’S MINES.) However, not all of Dor’s mysteries are so easily dispelled. One of the Black Martians tells Carter a fabulous story of the origin of all Martian races. There was in distant times a Great Tree that manifested buds attached to its branches, some of which became the mindless plant-men later, while others developed into the forms of the apes, the Tharks, and of the Black Martians (who deem themselves “the First Born” among humanoid Martians). Carter never proves or disproves this impressive myth, since the Great Tree is long gone, but Burroughs invites the reader to take this particular story “on faith,” as it were.


While sojourning with the Therns and the Black Martians, Carter encounters many avatars of War, just as he did in the first book. But only in GODS and the sequel does he find his faithfulness to Dejah Thoris—who is kept offstage for most of the book—challenged by two avatars of Love. Red Martian Thuvia and White Martian Phaidor—both implicitly of a later generation than that of Dejah, and thus symbolically “daughter-figures”—both throw themselves at Carter. For his part, he remains comically confused by this development, since he has absolutely no lady-killing abilities, except those that stem from his ability to slaughter enemies. GODS ends with a cliffhanger which sots out the young women in terms of morality: Phaidor is the “bad daughter” who tries to slay Dejah Thoris, while Thuvia, “the good daughter” who renounces her affection for a married older man, tries to save Dejah from Phaidor.




The mythic events of the first half of GODS are rather undercut by its second half, wherein Carter goes back to chasing around Mars getting into bloody fights. WARLORD, the final book in the “Carter trilogy,” reverses this tendency. Two of his enemies, the Thern Matai Shang and the First-Born Thurid, manage to capture Thuvia, Phaidor, and Dejah Thoris, forcing Carter to chase the villains hither and yon. Yet all this derring-do, impromptu though it is, makes him so prominent that he ends becoming the planetary “warlord” to the entire planet, thus allowing him to organize the strife-filled nations of Mars in a manner that later generations would condemn as imperialistic. Toward the end of the book Carter meditates, “Today, by the might of my sword and the loyalty of the friends that my sword has made for me, black man and white, red man and green, rubbed shoulders in peace and good fellowship.”


I won’t sneer, as might some critics, at Burroughs’ conception of his hero as an ultimate fantasy of martial competence. However, at times this focus keeps Burroughs from letting his hero relate to others in any other terms save martial ones. In one case, this is inadvertently amusing. Partway through WARLORD, Carter, absent from Mars for twenty years, fights at the side of a handsome twenty-something warrior who manages never to state to Carter his name or lineage, so that eventually Burroughs can spring the Big Surprise: he’s Carthoris, whose name combines the names of his father John Carter and that of his mother Dejah Thoris. Apart from being a little thrown by this development, Carter never relates to Carthoris as father to son; the younger man is just another boon battle-companion. Clearly the author didn’t want to clutter his martial fantasy with lots of emotional baggage, which may be another reason that Carthoris is a deadly dull character. The youth’s only other function in WARLORD is to serve as a consolation prize for Thuvia; if she can’t have the already married “father,” she can at least enjoy a romance with the age-appropriate “son.”




To be sure, romance doesn’t go that easily for the couple in the fourth book. Just as the Lord of the Jungle stepped back from the spotlight to let his son Korak shine in THE SON OF TARZAN, John Carter is conspicuously absent from THUVIA, MAID OF MARS. Carthoris and Thuvia remain in love as they were at the end of WARLORD, but Thuvia’s father affiances her to an older ruler to maintain a treaty. The young lovers seem doomed by the forces of societal commitment, but to their good fortune, a gang of schemers abscond with Thuvia to unexplored parts of Mars. This gives Carthoris an excuse to chase after them, even if he’s pledged to defend her engagement to a man she doesn’t love.


The potential for young-love angst would have been enhanced had either Carthoris or Thuvia been particularly memorable, but both are dull characters, far less lively than their counterparts in the Tarzan saga, Korak and Meriem. Carthoris, who has inherited some of his father’s fantastic abilities, gets almost all of the physical action rescuing the lady fair. That said, Thuvia gets a little more to do than a lot of Burroughs-heroines, and so I judge THUVIA to be one of the few novels in which hero and heroine deserve to share co-billing, in contrast to the status of Jane Porter and Dejah Thoris, who are both adjuncts to their respective paramours. In addition, Thuvia may be the only Burroughs-heroine who has her own “superpower.” When she’s introduced in GODS OF MARS, Thuvia manifests an unexplained ability to control animals, which may have been the author expanding upon Tarzan’s rapport with jungle creatures. Thuvia uses her power against some of Carter’s enemies in her first appearance, but in the novel named for her, she only employs her skill to stop lion-like “banths” from attacking their prey, be it her own self or one of her adversaries.


The most amusing section of THUVIA places Carthoris in the isolated city of “Lothar” (a possible influence on the name of Superman’s enemy, perhaps?) Lothar only has two occupants, both of whom can call up “phantom bowmen” via their fantastic mental powers. One Lotharian calls himself a “realist” and the other styles himself an “etherealist,” which philosophical stances are meant to parody some of the philosophies extant during Burroughs’s era. Both men prove eager to put aside their high-minded thoughts for the chance to copulate with the Maid of Mars, and both are ultimately routed by the masculine superiority of Carthoris.


I don’t judge THUVIA to share the deeper mythic resonances of the first three Martian novels, and as memory serves, most of the rest of the Martian novels share the fourth book’s relative lack of ambition.

THE READING RHEUM: THE SATANIC VERSES

 



Salman Rushdie’s mammoth 1996 “magical realism” fantasy is less well known for its actual content than for having enraged the fundamentalist Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini with the book’s supposed blasphemies. The cleric placed an assassination order on Rushdie, and though he was never attacked, other persons associated with the book’s publication met unpleasant fates.


Over twenty years after the controversy, SATANIC hardly seems like the sort of work capable of generating such friction. The title refers to a traditional narrative that asserts that during the period when the Prophet Mohammed was dictating the verses of the Koran, Satan—or, to use the more traditional rendering, Shaitan—attempted to interfere by corrupting the text with falsehoods. In Rushdie’s novel, two modern-day Pakistani Muslims, Gibreel and Saladin, find themselves caught up in an unexplained recapitulation of Islamic mythology. Gibreel sometimes morphs into an angelic being modeled on the traditional “Gabriel” of the Old Testament, while Saladin finds himself literally going to the Devil, taking on horns and hooves and a general goatish appearance. There’s no plot as such; just countless scenes of weird things happening to Gibreel, Saladin, their family members and various supporting characters. It may not be coincidence that both main characters are Bollywood actors, for often SATANIC seems like a bunch of barely connected scenes devised for a sprawling religious epic; a Mahabharata for the pop culture age.


I’ve not sought out any interviews in which Rushdie may have held forth on his aims in writing the novel. My own inexpert take is that the author hoped to do for Muslim culture what James Joyce did for Ireland: to create a long book stuffed to the gills with abstruse references from both canonical and popular culture. Late in the book, a character coins the phrase “I Sing the Body Eclectic,” punning on the title of a Walt Whitman poem, which in turn became better known as the title of a Ray Bradbury short story. Eclecticism is both the bane and the bounty of modern life to both Gibreel and Saladin, who in my view are barely distinguishable extensions of the author’s consciousness. In the modern world, there can be none of the cultural purity ascribed to the beginnings of Muslim culture (whether said purity actually existed or not). Thus, the modern world is not only one where Whitman rubs shoulders with Bradbury, but also one where one person is named for two Samuel Richardson characters while another’s name references Rider Haggard’s “She.” William Blake rubs conceptual shoulders with Superman and Wonder Woman; Bollywood Hindu epics share mind-space with that of Japanese arthouse-animator Yoji Kuri.


Beyond showing modern life to be an unrelenting Babel, I don’t think SATANIC accomplishes much in terms of its characters or plot-action. However, Rushdie’s foremost talent here is that of coming up with witty epigrams, even if they are all spoken by people who sound substantially the same. Rushdie often parodies the chauvinism of the Brits who once dominated India and much of the “Third World,” and he’s acutely aware of the history of American Civil Rights conflicts. That said, the author proves almost prescient in anticipating how the marginalized might seek to manipulate the dialogue about race in their favor:


What one hates in whites—love of brown sugar—one must hate when it turns up, inverted, in black. Bigotry is not only a function of power.


I don’t know what phenomena Rushdie might have beheld in the nineties that might have made him anticipate the eventual articulation of the “systemic racism” concept, which argues that only racism enforced by a majority counts as “real racism.” But I found epigrams like this one to be much more interesting than any of his attempts to describe the Joycean Babel of modern culture.


Friday, March 26, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: THE MEDUSA CHAIN (1983)

 




It’s now over forty years since the debut of Ridley Scott’s seminal film ALIEN, but to date there have been few attempts to follow up on the movie’s ironic transformation of the space opera. Most stories about galactic empires pursued the swashbuckling model of STAR WARS, to say nothing of distant ancestors from the prose pages of Hamilton, Brackett and Anderson. Ernie Colon’s one-shot graphic novel THE MEDUSA CHAIN appeared four years after ALIEN, but by design or accident, Colon emulated one major aspect of Scott’s work, that of using the space opera not for high adventure but to evoke tedium and tragedy.



The “chain” of the title refers to a cargo-chain, comprised of a ship, designated Medusa, that takes a full six years to trek from the colony world Homeland to the penal planet Annanda-Tor. By this trope alone, Colon establishes that this is not a universe where the heroes zoom through the immensities of outer space without any regard for physical limits. No one in the story comments as to why the ship sports the name “Medusa,” though it might have something to do with the origin of the mythic maiden, transformed against her will from a beauty to a monster—much as the genre of the space opera gets turned into a monstrous form by Colon. It may be just a coincidence that the ship, named for a being with snakes for hair, is voyaging to a world whose name slightly resembles that of the Hinda “Ananta Sesha,” a serpentine deity.


As we meet the story’s hero, he’s about to be sent to Annanda-Tor to serve a year-long sentence for “conspiracy and murder.” This doesn’t sound like a very severe penalty, except that the hero has to labor on the ship for six years to get to the penal planet, and then another six years in space when he returns to Homeland. But then, the crime of Chon Adams isn’t an ordinary murder case.




The hero’s name seems to be a slight exoticization of the mundane modern cognomen “John Adams,” and so is probably not a reference to anything along the lines of the second U.S. President. We know nothing of Chon’s background beyond the fact that he’s a skilled technician— “tec” for short. When cops bring him aboard the Medusa to begin his sentence, he sees a crew made up of grotesque mutants. (In MEDUSA mutants take the place of aliens, since this particular galactic empire doesn’t seem to include anyone but human beings and variations thereon.) As soon as Chon meets his new captain, the sinuous Commander Kilg-9, he makes a belated attempt to escape. Kilg-9 uses her special power (also a mutant skill?) to stun Chon, and then tells him to get to his berth for takeoff. Reaching his quarters, Chon takes out his ire on his new roomie, slugging the heavyset, unspeaking fellow designated Sixty-Six. Immediately afterward, Chon is obliged to demonstrate his buried good-guy nature by keeping his unconscious crewmate from being killed during the takeoff.


Chon’s essential heroism is then explicated by a long flashback. He and some friends sign on to a cargo run sponsored by an oily-looking rich guy named Messberg. While out in space, Chon and his buddies learn that they’ve been set up. The ship has been given inadequate rations so that everyone will starve in space and so that the ship will be lost, thus allowing Messberg to collect a hefty insurance payout. Chon immediately reverses the ship’s course, but the rations are still inadequate for everyone on board. The only solution to get around the “cold equations” of space is to dump all of the “unessential personnel,” allowing Chon and his friends to survive on their paltry rations long enough to reach Homeland and to expose Messberg’s perfidy. Chon shows himself to be the only kind of hero that can exist in this ironic existence: he takes sole responsibility for wiping out the other crewmembers, and he personally hunts down and kills Messberg to make certain the plutocrat can’t buy his way out of the charges. This may be the reason that Chon only gets a year-long sentence for his crime, though Colon does not say so.


Back in real time, Chon then endeavors to resign himself to his fate. The other crewmen, particularly the hulking Basenga, take a dislike to him and plan a dastardly fate for him. In addition, Chon finds out that the Medusa has a unique cargo: a chemical substance called TNC-00, which once destroyed the planet on which it was invented. Chon confronts Kilg-9, who admits that her real mission is to not to deliver him to Annanta-Tor, but to destroy their ancestral planet Earth. His response: “It’s about goddamn time, Madam.”



By this point in the story it’s obvious that the narrative isn’t going to follow the Medusa’s course for the next six years. Chon sorts out his nasty crewmen—only to find himself sympathizing with Basenga after the latter suffers an insidious punishment—and then Chon relates the story of Earth’s utter corruption. Though the planet was once the cradle of human evolution, an element called a “dioxinate” mutates into a virulent poison. The humans who escape to other worlds are the lucky ones. All who remain on Earth mutate into neotenous, sexless creatures called “Earthians,” encased in carapaces and wielding formidable psychic powers.


Kilg-9 hopes to get close enough to Earth to destroy the planet and its inhabitants with her cargo, but she has no more luck than anyone else in the story. The Earthians fly out into deep space to attack the Medusa, and it’s soon obvious that the crewmen have no chance. Kilg-9 is wounded, so that Chon is forced to take command, at which point he learns that the Earthians aren’t just defending themselves. Having been nurtured on one poison, the creatures desire to take possession of the TNC-00, believing that they can assimilate the element’s power in some way. Once again Chon, despite having a heroic mentality, is forced to act expediently: he lets the monsters have what they want. “What of those,” Kilg asks, “who will have to face that power in future?” Chon replies, “I don’t give a shit.” But he does know duty to the people in his own life. Kilg gets him to continue captaining the ship to its original destination, the penal planet. Chon’s last words in the story are “It’s a long, long way to Annanda-Tor.”


Colon mentioned in an AMAZING HEROES interview that he had plans for a sequel, but DC declined to contract for that work. In all likelihood, Chon would not have simply gone meekly to serve out his prison-term. Rather, Colon almost certainly would have had his hero butting heads with more assholes. Still, the notion that he honors his commitment to his captain (and romantic interest) even though it might mean imprisonment is a fitting ironic capper to Chon’s saga. The author does introduce one possible subplot in the last pages of MEDUSA CHAIN, when Sixty-Six reveals that he was always capable of speech but remained silent because he’s a priest who had been observing a “vow of silence” during a “pilgrimage.” Perhaps the nature of Sixty-Six’s pilgrimage would have been integral to Chon’s never-to-be-chronicled second adventure, and it’s intriguing to wonder how Colon would have portrayed any form of religion in a universe apparently dominated by ruthless contingency.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

CHALLENGER/AGGRESSOR VS. DEFENDER PT. 4

 The original series to which this essay belongs was called just “CHALLENGER VS. DEFENDER,” but I find that “aggressor” seems to capture better than “challenger” the nature of the conflict-analysis I’m attempting.

The BORIS KARLOFF story “Macgonikkle’s Monster,” already analyzed for its myth-content here, also illustrates a certain dynamic between aggressor and defender roles. Though there is a monster in the story, and an archaic knight named “the Macgonikkle” who fights the beast, both are supporting characters in the conflict taking place between focal character Reggie Belton and the people of the unnamed Scots village he occupies.



Building on the discourse in the previous essays, the villagers assume the narratological role of “defenders.” They incarnate a status quo devoted to the veneration of all the village’s Scots customs, including their (admittedly imperfect) knowledge of the history of their esteemed culture-hero the Macgonikkle, a knightly lord from medieval times.



Reggie Belton, also a Scot, purchases the crumbling castle of the long-vanished knight, but establishes right away that he cares nothing for the local culture. This by itself puts him in the narratological position I now call “the aggressor.” The unknown writer of the story also suggests a bit of class warfare, in that Reggie, instead of remaining a lower-class scion of Glasgow, worked hard enough to turn himself into “new money,” thus enabling him to buy the Macgonikkle castle.

The villagers are aghast at Reggie’s pecuniary motives for purchasing the castle. The young millionaire, whose precise business is never specified, believes that he can make back his investment by using the castle as a backdrop for photo-shoots, particularly because of the “local color” of the incredibly realistic statue showing the Macgonikkle fighting a fearsome dragon. Some dialogue suggests that Reggie also may have bought the castle in order to tweak the noses of the hidebound Scots. Implicitly, he feels that their traditions did nothing to alleviate his lowborn birth in the slums, forcing him to go to work at age thirteen—though, to be sure, this setup is not altogether at odds with the stereotypical image of the pinchpenny Scotsman. In some ways Reggie seems like a typical “new money” rich guy, but in one respect the villagers scorn him for riding around town on a noisy scooter, even though this is less ostentatious than the practice of the castle’s former lords. One villager expresses a preference for seeing the old lords ride around town in limousines, and this suggests that the village as a whole took pleasure in the old order’s display of conspicuous consumption.



Reggie’s contempt for Scottish superstitions about their beloved knight is the main source of his aggression toward the hidebound villagers. The castle’s former owner, who presumably is no longer rich enough to maintain the Macgonikkle’s ancient residence, can’t compete with Reggie and his new money, while the old owner’s daughter complains that Reggie’s photo-shoots will create “ugly pictures of our national hero.” In truth, the only photo shoot readers see is one in which a handful of models in fashionable frocks parade around the knight-and-dragon statue. So maybe the daughter’s real resentment is just that the statue is reduced to the stature of a backdrop for a profane advertisement of something-or-other. Reggie avers that he plans to feature the Macgonikkle’s backstory in some magazine, which in theory would disseminate the legend beyond Scottish shores, but it appears that the villagers care only about keeping their local legends free of outside profanation.


The photo-shoot ends up doing more for the Macgonikkle than just enhancing his reputation. The strobe lights used in the shoot inadvertently reverse the magical spell that turned both the knight and his beastly adversary into stone images, so that both are freed to continue their battle. Further, at a point where the knight comes close to losing the fight, Reggie intervenes to help the Macgonikkle, enabling the nobleman to slay his foe at last, so that the great Scots hero can pass on to whatever his eternal reward may be. (It’s not much compensation for having been deprived of a normal life by a wizard’s spell, but it’s still better than remaining a stone statue for countless more years.)




So, Reggie’s aggression against the Scottish status quo ends up benefiting the very figure whom the villagers revere. The villagers are briefly on Reggie’s side, until he announces that he still wants to use the castle for more photo-shoots, and that he plans to have a sculptor create a “New Macgonikkle, a futuristic work of stainless steel.” The story ends with the defenders of the status quo deriding Reggie once more for defying their sense of tradition with “the shock of the new.” But no reader of this nearly forgotten tale is likely to agree with the villagers. Reggie’s “aggression” is in every way rendered as more attractive than the conservative village. No change seems forthcoming, but the reader can share in the wry humor of story-host Boris Karloff as he muses upon “tradition-bound Scottish villagers” (while wearing a tam-o-shanter, no less).