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Thursday, January 5, 2017


This week on my film-blog I looked at three episodes of STAR TREK-- all written by different writers-- because I felt that they were all riffs on an idea important to the show's producer, and because they seemed to complement one another, like images in a triptych-painting. Here I'm going to investigate three separate stories of the 1940s hero Airboy, even though they weren't published concurrently and may have been written by different authors. I've usually only considered stories that were unified continuities, but these three tales seem united by mythic theme rather than plot.

The first story appears in AIR FIGHTERS COMICS #12, less than a year after Airboy's debut in November 1942. GCD credits the first story to one Harry Stein, though the other two lack writer-attribution, but all three were drawn by artist Fred Kida. The story introduces a new villain, Misery, who looks like a walking skeleton and sometimes wields an axe. The weapon may have a stand-in for the scythe of the Grim Reaper, since Misery has been designed to be a "Grim Reaper of the skies." He's given an origin of sorts, though the script doesn't make the matter entirely explicit.

Duray-- whose reasons for being in India are not disclosed-- is a martyr to the science of unpowered flight, and the Airtomb, the stone structure that marks the place of his sacrifice.  Over the next two centuries, the Airtomb becomes a symbolic harbinger of death to fliers, but it only seems to show itself as a direct threat in 1943, moments after Airboy has shot down an Axis plane. As if in retaliation the Airtomb shoots down several RAF planes, but eludes the young hero. He finally seeks out the legendary location of the plane in Calcutta, and meets the craft's eerie pilot.

Eventually Misery overcomes Airboy and hurls him into a ravine styled "The Black Hole of Calcutta." The real "Black Hole" was a dungeon in which several British officers of the 1700s perished, and it somehow became a standard trope to describe a horrible place. Here it's become almost a gateway into some dismal underworld, full of "poisonous gases."

Airboy escapes the ravine, fights Misery again, and then, by weird coincidence, a volcanic eruption takes place. Airboy escapes while Misery is engulfed by lava. He defiantly claims that he'll live again, even though "the Earth has robbed me, Misery, of my victory."

Misery doesn't appear for a few years thereafter, but two issues later (labeled volume 2, #2), Airboy meets another foe whose name carries one similar connotation, in a story drawn by Kida but not credited to an identified author. The Valkyrie is a pilot for the German forces, and commands an all-female squadron, "the Aurmaidens." While she and her aides are purely mortal, her name is derived from the Nordic valkyries, who were also, as Misery professes to be, "collectors of brave men."

No sooner does Valkyrie perpetrate a successful attack on the RAF than Airboy follows her all the way to Germany and attacks her base. She takes to the air and the two of them square off, but Airboy loses because he's too much of a gentleman to shoot a woman.

An interesting psychological "split" than ensues during Airboy's captivity at the base. Valkyrie wants the secrets of Airboy's plane, and is more than willing to whip them out of him. As the scene shows, she shows the hero no mercy whatsover, being entirely committed to the German cause.

This torture-scene may be deemed a loose parallel to the hero's consignment to the Black Hole of Calcutta, in that he's totally within the power of evil. However, this time the softer side of femininity arises to his defense. The other Airmaidens are impressed with Airboy's bravery and good looks, so after he's stuck in a cell, they liberate him and hide him elsewhere. The base commandant sees through the girls' innocent act and orders them whipped. Valkyrie doesn't have any sentimental side where an enemy of her country is concerned, but she can't abide having her "friends" whipped even though they're guilty of traitorous activities. Valkyrie tries to save them while at the same time worming the hero's secrets out of him.

Airboy yields Valkyrie the secret of Birdie, and she fully intends to betray him. However, when Valkyrie tries to leverage her knowledge to save her friends, the arrogant commandant won't cut her a break. It would be tempting these days to wonder if Valkyrie enjoyed some deeper relationship than "friends" with her fellow lady-pilots-- something not unlike a later group of aviatrixes in Ian Fleming's GOLDFINGER. In any case, the commandant's intransigence costs him both his best pilots and the secrets of Birdie, for Valkyrie and her Airmaidens join Airboy and turn against the Nazi cause. In addition, though Valkyrie did not become a regular figure in the Airboy feature, she did become an off-and-on girlfriend-- an interesting breakthrough, since she's clearly an adult and he is, as the previous cover states, fifteen-year-old "jail bait."

Three years later, in another story with no author-ID but drawn by Kida, Airboy-- who has met Valkyrie once or twice in the ensuing years-- encounters both characters at once. The title of the comic has been changed to AIRBOY, but it's issue #12 within the same publishing-volume. Though Stein might have been the author on the first Valkyrie story given the continguity with the first Misery story, this one might have been by anyone seeking to bring together two evocative characters from the past-- the better to shore up the hero's appeal, since he'd been created for a war that had been concluded for roughly half a year (January 1946). The opening splash portrays Misery's domain, "the Black Hole of Calcutta," with some of the traditional iconography of Hell.

As the story opens, Airboy crosses paths with Valkyrie in Burma. He makes a somewhat indelicate reference to "the old Nazi days," and though a new reader wouldn't know what he's talking about, Valkyrie doesn't take offense and even gives him major lip-lock before leaving on her flight-assignment. For his part, Airboy learns why the base commander has summoned him. Not only have several British planes inexplicably disappeared, the commander has received a note from Misery, who claims to be flying the Airtomb once again. While Airboy goes off in quest of the villain, he also finds out that Valkyrie's plane has disappeared. Then, to his horror, he sees her plane attacking British crafts, and her "old Nazi days" seem to have come back once more.

It will surprise no one that Misery has placed Valkyrie in thrall. Once again Airboy is forced to fight and subdue her, after which he flies them both to the site of the Airtomb near the fabled Black Hole. Once he's there, Misery-- whose sole reason for enthralling Valkyrie was to use her as bait--offers the hero her freedom in exchange for his own. While most commonplace stories would have simply had the villain escort the sacrificial hero away, the story's author throws in this lovely bit of grotesquerie:

However, like most villains Misery underestimates the power of friendship; she comes to herself and pushes the villain into the ravine while saving the hero. However, the fall doesn't stop the fiend, who later manages to trap Airboy inside the Airtomb. The craft is, like the Black Hole, filled with deadly fumes, albeit those of helium, which apparently helps the incredible craft fly. Again, Valkyrie saves the hero from death-- more or less performing a function to that of her mythic namesake-- and the villain is left to gnash his teeth in frustration.

From what I can tell the characters came back again in later stories, but they entirely lost their engagement with the myth of the ultimate doomed "hero of the skies," who soars through heaven but is eternally fated to crash to earth with the rest of mortal beings.

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