Friday, January 13, 2017
MYTHCOMICS: "THE SHAMAN" (SHOWCASE #87, 1969)
"The Shaman" was the third and last story in SHOWCASE to feature the "white Indian" teen Firehair. All of the stories were both written and drawn by the character's creator Joe Kubert, but whereas the first two stories fall into a purely naturalistic domain, this one, as the cover clearly shows, seems to depict magical phenomena. I'll give the game away from the start, however: most of the young hero's mystic experiences take place within a fever-dream, so that the story falls into the domain of the uncanny through its use of the "delirious dreams" trope.
It's established in the two previous entries that Firehair doesn't fit into either the white or the Indian world, and thus he begins "The Shaman" alone, riding his pinto into a "strange land" that seems to be "scarred with a terrible wound" (the Grand Canyon). Firehair ponders that any tribe that might live here "must be as strange as the land on which they live." He's then immediately attacked by a hungry mountain-lion, which knocks him off his horse. As Firehair's mount flees, the young man tries to fight off the big cat. He and the creature fall off a cliff, but Firehair saves himself by grabbing a root and hauling himself back to solid ground. He's been badly clawed though, and he's forced to wander on foot, looking for someone who can help him. At some point in the real world he collapses into a dream, and the dream begins with him encountering the "strange" tribe he imagined before.
As the above section shows, the tribe immediately accuses Firehair of being guarded by an evil spirit, and the tribal shaman claims that he sent the mountain cat to kill him. The witch-doctor also demonstrates his supernatural power upon the youth, but refrains from killing him because "the death of evil should be a lesson for all." Firehair is then placed on upon a pedestal-like rock in the center of a pit filled with rattlesnakes: "the Circle of Venom." This pointless punishment takes the form of an initiatory ordeal, given that the hero must then strive to keep from falling asleep, lest he tumble into the snake-pit. Firehair blacks out briefly, but though he doesn't fall off the pedestal, he does behold that the tribal grounds have become enswathed by a "colorless sky mist." Then the tribesmen remove him from the pedestal with a bridge, and the shaman leads Firehair and a small party of braves to their next rendezvous. The Shaman goes in front, and the hero thinks of him as "the poisonous head of a writhing serpent."
The group ends up in one of the canyons-- referred to as "the earth's bowels"-- and Firehair sees the cave "drenched in a red light." The Shaman positions himself in front of a "bottomless abyss," calls out to a "spirit of the nether-world." Out of the abyss, filled with red smoke, rises a colossal man with the head of a coyote, and this spirit-figure declares that he cannot take Firehair into his domain until he faces the "supreme trial," facing "He-That-Holds-the-World."
This means that the group must now seek out the site of "the Black Pool," another cave where all of the lighting is blue and everything is cold and overgrown with ice-shapes. The Indians arrive at the shore of the forbidding Black Pool and tie their human sacrifice to a nearby "stone shaft." Then out of the pool comes He-That-Holds-the-World, a gigantic prehistoric-looking turtle, intent on gobbling down its victim. Faced with a creature too huge to fight, the hero takes his first decisive action in the dream: screaming the Blackfoot "cry of battle." This somehow results not only in the splintering of the shaft holding the hero, but also the collapse of the ceiling above. Firehair's last thought, as the dream ends, is that "all was darkness-- the end of life."
However, the next moment he awakens from his fever-fantasy in the care of a friendly tribe of Navajos. He meets in real life the same shaman he met in his dream, who informs Firehair that he's been unconscious for three days, because his wounds had become "poisonous" (by which Kubert certainly means "infected"). He even uttered his war-cry while in his delirium, and now that he's awake, he sees a kachina doll that some tribal child made to help him through his illness.
There's nothing startlingly original about Kubert's main concept: of a character who sees aspects of reality reflected in a fever-dream, but there are a lot of good touches here: that the "evil" that the dream-shaman wishes to cast out is actually the real-life infection that the good shaman seeks to defeat. The Circle of Venom is also a further elaboration of the poison-effect. The chilling effect of the second cave is probably meant to connote the hero's bodily chills, and something similar is probably true of the red cave, even though it's not specifically said to be hot. It's possible to interpret Firehair's prescient visualizations of both the shaman and his doll as dream-interpretations of things he sees in his delirium, though the possibility of some psychic intuition is also left open.
In addition, Kubert has loosely evoked familiar Native American myth-figures here for his dream-journey. Since these figures have different names in different languages, many texts simply use generalizing English names like "Coyote" and "Turtle." However, I think Kubert might have been less inspired by actual Native American myths than by the "weighing of the heart" ritual in Egyptian myth, wherein jackal-headed Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased-- and if the dead soul is found wanting, he's devoured by the monster Ammit. Additionally, the "sky is falling" myth-theme is a vital one in general world mythology. There's a fascinating parallel between the tuirtle-creature that "holds the world," which is defeated when Firehair more or less breaks a pillar, also a common symbol for whatever-supports-the-sky-- though here the destruction of both turtle and pillar result in the end of the dream, rather than of the real world. It's a shame that Joe Kubert didn't turn his superb artistic tales to this sort of mythopoeic story more often during his nonetheless impressive career.