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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 22, 2015


Though I've often asserted that I think that the comic-book medium has lost out on the juvenile market for a host of reasons-- the economics of the business, the influence of the fan-subculture-- I can sympathize somewhat with those fans who associate comic books exclusively with children's entertainment. Even allowing for these fans' tendency to remember only to the outstanding kids' comics and to gloss over the many mediocre efforts, one can't help but be a little nostaglic for the days when childish whimsy was a viable commodity.

I've never made a detailed study of the Golden Age era of American Comics Group. During that era the company is best known for producing the first ongoing horror-tale comic book, ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN, but though I believe I've read one or two reprints from this period, I don't get the impression that this was a "golden age" for the company in particular. Editor Richard Hughes is known for having both edited and scripted a wide range of material in many genres, but he probably attained his greatest following in comic-book fandom for his Silver Age titles: his two superhero books NEMESIS and MAGICMAN, and the supernatural-comedy series HERBIE, which also became a sort-of-superhero feature at one point. In my review of MAGICMAN I commented that the feature NEMESIS had a little more "heft" than MAGICMAN, even though in both titles the superheroes maintained the wacky, whimsical tone of HERBIE and the various one-off stories.

There was a good economic reason for this: ACQ had managed to survive the institution of the Comics Code by eschewing the visceral horror that had earned the medium such opprobrium. In place of chills and thrills, ACG pursued supernatural comedy as its dominant aesthetic. As Hughes was never interviewed in his lifetime, there's no way of knowing whether or not Hughes took any personal satisfaction in this alteration, though naturally he defended his company's approach in the Silver Age lettercols. But I will note that an awful lot of his stories, both in one-off stories and within regular features, dwell upon the separation of persons in love in life and their consoling reconciliation in the afterlife.

NEMESIS was essentially DC's Golden Age Spectre (note the slight resemblance of the cowled costume) filtered through the whimsy of Fawcett's Captain Marvel. Like the Spectre, Nemesis was the ghost of a murdered crime-fighting mortal who was allowed to return to Earth and fight all forms of evil. He had a wealth of supernatural powers but despite being a ghost was more vulnerable to injury than either the Spectre or Captain Marvel: he could be knocked out by gas or have his power reduced if he saw his own reflection. Nemesis had two routine crime-fighting adventures before Hughes decided to emulate one other aspect of the Spectre's Golden Age adventures: the hero's attempts to maintain a relationship with a living, mortal woman.

I did a quick re-read of the other Nemesis adventures and found that none of them, except for "The Ghost That Loved a Girl," were anything but pleasant but superficial exercises in whimsy. Thus I'm not claiming that the series as a whole is any neglected treasure-trove; only the story in #156 displays an interesting take on a metaphysical myth-motif.

The first two Nemesis stories involve Nemesis battling the Mafia gangster who was responsible for the death of the hero's mortal incarnation, detective Steve Flint. Just as Nemesis received power from heaven, the Mafioso received power from his master Satan (surely one of the Devil's few literal appearances in commercial comics of the early 1960s). In #156 Nemesis finally puts paid to his murderer by descending into Hell and consigning the thug's "ectoplasm" to destruction in ghost-destroying hellfire. Satan, irritated at the loss of a promising henchman, grapples with Nemesis. The hero, despite his godlike powers, finds that he's no match for the Lord of Evil, the only being in the universe who possesses "devil essence." Nemesis barely manages to escape back to the living world. However, he's fearful that Satan will come looking for him, so he starts researching ways to "beat the Devil."

Hughes promptly makes up a tradition of "devil kryptonite." Nemesis learns that Satan once fell in love in bygone centuries, and that though the mortal woman spurned him, the Devil lost much of his power. Hughes' primary consideration here was surely finding a way to cause the ghost-hero to encounter a contemporary lady-love,but it's nevertheless interesting that Hughes doesn't provide any metaphysical rationale as to why the Devil should lose power as a result of feeling love. In the absence of any such rationale, it seems likely that Hughes accidentally evoked a common trope of folklore: that men "lose power" in the presence of women, whether they actually make love to them or not.

By sheer dumb luck Nemesis stumbles across Lita Craig, the modern-day descendant of the woman Satan loved, so the hero assumes the appearance of his former living identity Steve Flint in order to meet Lita. He promptly saves the young woman from some marauding thugs, who shoot at him without having any effect. Despite this incident, Lita doesn't immediately tip to the fact that Steve's a ghost until she researches his name and finds out that he's dead. By that time, they're both hopelessly in love, but Lita agrees to let Steve/Nemesis take her to Hell so that he can use her in his anti-Satan campaign. Down to Hell the lovers go, and sure enough, Satan goes soft as soon as he sees Lita. Nemesis then beats up the source of all evil and forces him to behave himself from then on, or at least not to go beyond his usual devilish pursuits.  For the remainder of the series, Nemesis and Lita continue to date one another, defying heaven's rules about non-fraternization between the living and the dead.

I've detailed my numerous disagreements with Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex on this blog, but I would say that this tale is one of the few that conforms to the complex in a naive manner-- that is, without any suggestion that Hughes himself drew Freudian parallels. Satan isn't just the master of Hell evil here; he's also an evil authority-figure whose power utterly dwarfs that of the young hero. I find it interesting that while Nemesis can't defeat the Devil one-on-one, he can do so when he enlists a female presence against the "older man"-- a female whose earlier incarnation Satan could not seduce, and whose mere presence saps him of his infernal mojo.

On a side-note: I will note that Hughes' minimal "superhero line" at ACG-- launched in early 1964-- seems not to have been influenced by news of ABC's BATMAN teleseries. News of this impending series did spark a fair number of comic-book companies-- Harvey, Dell, etc-- to launch superhero-lines in order to coat-tail on the TV-show. Some sources assert that some TV producers were trying to make a deal for the rights to Batman as early as 1963, and perhaps Hughes, who had a business-relationship with DC Comics, knew about these dealings. But since no show had been announced in early 1964, it seems more likely that Hughes, even though he didn't show any affinity for the superhero genre, was seeking to emulate the genre's popularity on newstands.

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