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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, November 28, 2018


LUCIFER RISING, one of the many short stories in Yukinobu Hoshino's science fiction anthology-series 2001 NIGHTS, bears some resemblance to James Blish's novel A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. Both works deal with the cultural relationship between science and religion-- which, in my literary system, are subsumed under the categories of "cosmological myths" and "meraphysical myths." To  be sure, Hoshino's conclusions regarding the struggle between these opposed concepts provide a counterpoint to Blish's. Yet like Blish, Hoshino homes in on one of the key disputes: that of science's advocacy of infinite knowledge-gathering versus Judeo-Christianity's reservations re: the hubris of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

LUCIFER begins in the far future, when Earth's space program has extended humankind's reach to the limits of the solar system. Astronauts from a space-station on Jupiter's moon Ganymede have the misfortune to encounter a mysterious ice-asteroid, which blows them into oblivion when they come in contact with it. Back on Ganymede, station commander Doctor Michael Cleaver expresses guilt over losing the astronauts and determination to learn what happened.

Some time after the news of  the explosion reaches Earth, Father Ramon Chavez, both a priest in the Catholic Church and a doctor of planetology, is summoned to the Vatican to speak with the reigning Pope. The pontiff has received information that the space program believes that the explosive meteor emanated from Lucifer, the once-hypothetical but now fully verified "tenth planet" of the solar system. The Pope, knowing that Chavez has unique scientific skills, wants the young priest to accompany Doctor Cleaver's mission to Lucifer.

Hoshino establishes an interesting dynamic between the priest and the pontiff. Initially, at least within the Pope's presence, Chavez expresses guilt over his non-priestly passion for science. The Pope seems somewhat more liberal, quoting Milton's Satan from PARADISE LOST: "Can it be sin to know? Can it be death?" (Later Chavez takes Milton's epic with him on the mission, and the story is replete with numerous quotations from the work.) Still, despite the Pope's flippancy, he wants Chavez to suss out Lucifer in terms of its religious significance. For the Pope, the solar system mirrors the greatness of God, who dispenses rays of life and love to both the humans on Earth and to the stars and planets, which are embodiments of the heavenly host. This vision suggests that the tenth planet, being furthest from God's glory, must also be equivalent to "that foul thing who led man astray with the fruit from the forbidden tree." Chavez's mission is to find some concrete evidence of Lucifer's evil, since the science-obsessed denizens of modern Earth will believe only the evidence of science.

Through the use of hibernation technology, Chavez traverses the vasty deep separating Earth from Ganymede without any perception of time passing. However, Chavcz's advent is marked by tragedy, since another hibernating astronaut perishes upon being revived. Further, one of Cleaver's scientists asserts that someone tampered with the technology, meaning that someone on the station is a murderer.

This threat does not deter Cleaver from mounting an expedition to investigate Lucifer. However, calamity strikes once more, during which a crewman is lost to the void. Moreover, Chavez tries but fails to save the man, and his failure inculcates in him a guilt far greater than any he felt over his scientific presumptuousness.

Cleaver too feels guilt over the men who died under his command, but whereas Chavez begins to wonder if Lucifer is the source of all his sufferings, Cleaver is determined to make his crewmen's deaths count for something. The tenth planet presents an assortment of scientific anomalies-- a retrograde orbit, an invisibility to radar due to its propensity to annihilate particles in its wake. Yet all of the anomalies are resolved by a revelation both cosmological and metaphysical. Lucifer, on the one hand appearing to be a former sun that has collapsed into a gas giant, is also composed of anti-matter, which means that any "positive matter" that touches its "negative matter" will explode.

Back on Earth, the Pope decides not to wait for Chavez's evidence, and he issues a condemnation of any explorations of the Satanic planet. This results in massive protests demanding the return of the astronauts, although the Earth governments are more concerned with exploiting Lucifer for their own purposes.

Chavez finally concludes that the antimatter planet is a leftover from the Big Bang. During this cosmic event, positive and negative matter contended for supremacy, "just like the battle among angels which was said to have happened before humankind was created." Yet, though his religious training tells Chavez to condemn Lucifer as the Pope wishes, his scientific side tells him that "Lucifer is a treasurehouse of wonders...It hides the puzzles behind which lie the secrets of the universe." In other words, this time an entire world, named for the Tempter, is the stand-in for religion's Tree of Knowledge.

Further complications ensue. The mystery assassin kills two more crewpersons. Additionally, though everyone aboard now knows that they dare not come in contact with the antimatter world, the ship's dotty biologist-- winsomely named "Karloff"-- swipes a shuttlecraft in order to observe Lucifer close up. This means that the other astronauts must seek to block him, for if Karloff encounters antimatter, the resultant explosion will decimate the ship.

Amid much drama-- including the prevention of said catastrophe-- the mystery killer is also revealed: Cleaver was, somewhat improbably, seeking to kill off Chavez because he feared that Chavez's report would dissuade Earth from exploiting Lucifer as a new source of power; power enough to open up humanity's  way to the stars. Further, Cleaver also believes that Lucifer's long-range effect has been beneficial on humanity; that its earlier emanations of antimatter, for instance, caused the prehistoric devastation of the dinosaurs. And even though Cleaver eventually perishes for his crimes, Chavez is "converted" to Cleaver's view of life, deciding that this time, the "original sin" of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a necessary temptation on humankind's destined path.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


CATWOMAN DEFIANT followed 1989's 4-issue mini-series as a further attempt to promote the character to starring status, probably because her popularity had been received something of a boost from Frank Miller's two BATMAN mini-series, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and BATMAN YEAR ONE. I haven't read the 1989 series, but the only thing CATWOMAN DEFIANT took from Miller's version of the semi-heroic villainess was the ugly grey costume.  However. CATWOMAN finally vaulted into a monetarily successful series the next year, which then lasted for ninety-odd issues until 2001.


DEFIANT isn't a great story by any means, but scripter Peter Milligan and artist Tom Grindberg pave the way for the ongoing series by painting Catwoman as a playfully immoral master burglar, sans Miller's prostitute angle. Further, Millgan's script emphasizes her as the embodiment of feline-- and feminine-- unpredictability.

In fact, Milligan attempts to inject this unpredictability into the story's big revelation. The narrative begins with Catwoman having a heist interrupted by a bunch of fashion-plate hirelings. They want to abduct her in the name of their crime-boss, Mister Handsome, who has a reputation of stealing valuable art-objects and destroying them.

Batman rescues Catwoman from the thugs, and then makes her an offer. Instead of busting her for her attempted burglary, he'll let her go if she'll help him catch the elusive Mister Handsome. Catwoman, who doesn't want to go to jail and would like to get the crime-boss out of her hair, agrees. It's not clear whether or not this adventure takes place around the same time as  Miller's YEAR ONE, but some of Batman's dialogue suggests that he has yet to get used to Catwoman's amoral attitude, or to the effect she has on him.

However, the plan fails. Batman gets decoyed, and Catwoman is knocked out and taken to the lair of Mister Handsome. He places her in an abandoned mine-shaft, chaining her to a stone statue of Venus, Roman goddess of love, and then speaks to her through a closed-circuit TV. He reiterates his desire to see all forms of beauty destroyed, ostensibly because of the death of his beautiful wife, and rants about the pleasure he'll take in seeing Catwoman's good looks destroyed by the "beast" he's also set loose in the mine-shaft. However, there's one other inhabitant down there with Catwoman: a time-ravaged old woman named Mary. Mary identifies herself as the supposedly dead wife of Mister Handsome, and says that when she began aging, her husband cast her down into the shaft, intending to let her die at the hands of "the Beast," a mindless freak of nature.

Mary promises to aid Catwoman's escape if the master thief will kill her husband for her. Catwoman demurs at the prospect of assassination but accepts the help. The two women manage to reach one of the upper levels, but Mary then falls back down into the shaft. Angry at the older woman's apparent death, Catwoman broaches Mister Handsome in his lair. There she finds him admiring his face in a hand-mirror, despite the fact that he's wearing a face-mask that merely makes him look handsome. Milligan has thus set up the reader to expect that the crime-boss is ugly beneath the mask, but when Catwoman whips off the mask, it's actually Mary, who faked her death in the shaft so that she could force Catwoman to kill her. She also reveals that she killed her betraying husband and took over his identity, seeking to use his crime-organization to castigate the beauty that Mary had lost. Catwoman refuses to kill Mary and even keeps her from being killed by the Beast, though she does so only by sending an unwitting Batman into danger-- thus punishing him for using her in his crimefighting schemes.

Milligan loads the script with numerous references to the "Beauty and the Beast" story, and the tale even ends with Catwoman looking into Handsome's hand-mirror, as if to invoke another fairy-tale mirror, one that could pronounce its holder "the fairest of them all." But what makes DEFIANT mythic is that, even though the script deals with such feminist issues as men tiring of women victimized by the ravages of age, the author plays off the issues of beauty and ugliness as symbolic entities, rather than as elements for some predetermined allegory.


The back cover copy for this week's mythcomic, CATWOMAN DEFIANT, correctly states, "Since Catwoman made her debut in BATMAN #1 in 1940, she has become one of comics' most popular villains." However, like other Bat-villains of the Golden Age, Catwoman's potential for symbolic discourse always remained somewhat restricted. I've mentioned some of this potential in other essays, as I did in LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION:

... because the established mythology at the time of this 1954 comic continually emphasized a romantic tension between Batman and Catwoman-- that's the narrative value-- the scene (which isn't in the story) takes on a significant value of "battle of the sexes," which is certainly one motif within the story proper (a reformed Catwoman returns to crime because she wants to challenge Batman again). We cannot know if the adult raconteurs who crafted the story (Edmond Hamilton and a "Bob Kane" ghost) were aware of the S&M associations of the whip, particularly when it's wielded by one gender against the other, but if they did they may've assumed that the scene would "tease" readers into buying the comic even though, being 1954 juveniles, they might not know consciously why the scene seemed appealing.

The one Golden Age story that comes close to realizing Catwoman's potential-- 1954's "Jungle Cat-Queen" from DETECTIVE COMICS #211-- was also her last appearance during that Age, after which she vanished from DC Comics for undisclosed reasons, only re-appearing in 1966.

The feline villainess, who had briefly reformed a few years earlier, came back to the criminal life with a vengeance, and makes one of her most potent appearances robbing a mail-plane with the help of a big black panther, and then escaping in her "Cat-Plane."

Batman and Robin are quick to pursue in their Batplane, and just as they're nearing her island hideout, Catwoman performs a "wing-ecdotomy" on the Dynamic Duo's vehicle.

The site of a giant cat-plane shredding the Batplane's wings is alone worth the price of the story, but there's more to come. The heroes bail out and land on the island. They come across a small coterie of white hunters, but the hunters trap the heroes, revealing that they're crooks working with Catwoman. When the villainess shows up, she's attended by a lion and a tiger, suggesting that she's somehow become a "mistress of animals," when before the biggest creature she ever controlled was a housecat. It'll later be revealed that all the big cats have been circus-trained-- implicitly brought into Catwoman's hands by the crooked hunters-- but for the time being, Catwoman plays her image as a "mistress of animals."

For no good reason, she forced the captive crusaders to don animal-skins a la Tarzan, and chases them through the island-jungle with the cats. She claims that she plans to unmask them when she catches them, but this may be a cover for preserving their lives against the other crooks, since she's seen luring her own beasts off the heroes' trail. Inevitably, Batman and Robin get the upper hand over the beasts and their trainers, but Catwoman gets a reward her for refusing to kill the good guys, in that the script allows her to get away at the end.

Given that one of the big attractions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' TARZAN mythology is sexual in nature, scripter Edmond Hamilton seems to be upping the sexual elements by having Batman (and, to a much lesser extent, Robin) turned into jungle-men. There's naturally no actual sex between Bat and Cat here, but their contention through the agency of controlling lower animals may be deemed a displacement of such sexual energies.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Responding to the comment-thread to this BEAT thread.


Kudos to Jackie Estrada for the mention of Stan's daughter. I would add that since he stayed married to the same woman until she passed in 2017, that too probably should constitute a "non-problematic" family relationship.

Though I appreciate Mr. Van Hise's attempt to meliorate Mr. Royer's extreme position, I really don't think Lee owed Kirby or Ditko any special treatment. It was a brutally unfair system, benefiting the publishers at the expense of the creators; of that there is no doubt. But it was also a business, and Lee's relationship to Kirby and Ditko was, first and foremost, a business relationship. If Goodman tendered any verbal contracts to Kirby and Ditko, they really should've known that said contracts wouldn't be worth the paper they were printed on. Why should Lee intercede? Why should he chance being fired by the temperamental Martin Goodman-- who, by all accounts, never appreciated what his creators had wrought-- if the artists could not sort out their business affairs themselves?

Does anyone, at this late date, seriously believe that Lee's intervention would have forced the penurious Goodman to make good on verbal promises? If so, are you a native of this planet, or are you an immigrant from Earth-616?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


"Witch Queen of Mongo" marks the first sequence in which Alex Raymond seeks to expand on the formulaic characters of FLASH GORDON. But it's not the central character who gets the attention, but his faithful inamorata Dale Arden.

As I pointed out in my previous Raymond essay, Dale Arden's role in the series is one of the strongest deviations from the strip's putative inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs' JOHN CARTER series. It may be that Raymond chose to give his hero a female "comrade-in-arms" in imitation of the science-fiction strip with which FLASH was competing, BUCK ROGERS. Dale Arden is, admittedly, not an experienced warrior-woman like BUCK's Wilma Deering. Yet Dale is much more gutsy than any of Burroughs' Martian princesses.

For example, in the second FLASH strip, Zarkov, having built a spaceship to combat the onrushing world of Mongo, forces Flash and Dale  to board the ship, after which he sends them all speeding toward the enemy planet. Flash fights with Zarkov, and though the hero slugs the older man unconscious in the next panel, Dale is seen grabbing a lug-wrench so as to crown Zarkov if necessary. And while Flash is always the main hero in the ensuing sequences, Dale frequently shows more than a little initiative. When Flash and Dale are held prisoner by the Hawkmen's king Vultan, Dale pretends to make up to the monarch in order to protect her beloved. Early in the "Witch Queen" sequence, Dale is seen ray-blasing Mongo-monsters as ably as her boyfriend could. However, since she is a woman, her priorities are not quite the same as the hero's, and on that the main plot of "Queen" hinges.

At the end of the sequence I termed "Tournament of Death," Ming awards Flash his own kingdom, but the hero has to tame it for himself. Flash, Dale and several Hawkmen provided by Vultan infiltrate this new domain, name of Kira. The first ten strips depict Flash's first efforts to extend his rule, in particular defeating a tribe of cannibalistic lizard-men. But at the end of the tenth strip, Dale takes issue with the male mode of continual conquest:

But Flash, if you keep finding new enemies, when can we hold our wedding?

This can't be dismissed as mere feminine pique, given that Dale was key to rescuing Flash from the lizard-men. Flash, being a man, gives Dale a sweetly reasonable answer that doesn't acknowledge her concerns (I suppose some today would call it "mansplaining"). Dale blows up: "I won't marry you now til you beg me to!"

As if summoned into being by this disavowal, Dale's next major romantic competitor, Azura the Witch Queen, enters the fray. Despite the slight similarity between the name of the queen and that of Ming's daughter, Princess Aura comes off as a poor second to Azura, an independent ruler with her own array of arcane weapons-that-look-like-magic. Azura appears before Flash's entourage, seeming to be such a "spectral figure" that the armed men are briefly cowed. Flash orders them to attack, but Azura has the situation in complete control. She uses explosives to trigger an avalanche, burying many though not all of the Hawkmen, while the queen uses sleep gas to take prisoner Flash, Dale and a Hawkman captain named Khan.

With the help of her soldiers, usually called "magic men" despite the fact that they too only use super-science weapons, Azura transports her captives to Syk, her "flame-guarded stronghold" (perhaps modeled on the folk-story of Venusberg). She seems to be unaware of Flash's intention to invade her territory, and is only interested in seducing him. Apparently her only reason for keeping Dale and Khan alive is to use them to keep Flash in line when he wakes up-- although it doesn't take long for Azura to take the next step: drugging the hero with a forgetfulness potion called "Lethium.."  Flash easily buys into the notion that this sexy witch-woman is his queen and lover.

Ar this point, Azura really has no reason to keep Dale and Khan alive, and Raymond doesn't even resort to the most logical excuse: that Azura takes sadistic glee in seeing Dale suffer when Flash no longer knows her. Both Dale and Khan are given servile jobs as servants, but aside from a scene in which a female servant lets Dale see Flash kissing Azura, there's no direct attempt to humiliate. However, though Flash doesn't know Dale as anything but a serving-girl, he objects to seeing a member of the weaker sex whipped for a minor infraction. This illustrates Flash's innate gallantry, given that he remembers nothing of his previous life.

Meanwhile, some of the Hawkmen under Flash's command weren't killed by the avalanche, and have sent for military aid to Vultan. Soon a small army of Hawkmen, accompanied by the peripatetic Doctor Zarkov, assault Azura's "magic-men."

The Hawkmen lose the contest, but Flash takes Zarkov prisoner and brings him into Syk. This proves costly for Azura, for with his super-science Zarkov slays several magic-men and cures Flash's amnesia. Flash feeds Azura her own potion, so that she forgets her evil ways-- temporarily at least-- and aligns herself with his rulership.

However, just to keep the pot boiling a little longer, Azura's generals stage a coup. Flash, Dale and Zarkov are forced to flee Syk, somehow leaving the Hawkman Khan behind in prison, and in the absence of the heroes, Azura's old identity returns. Zarkov then uses his science to give Flash a "super-power," turning him temporarily into an invisible man, even though Raymond draws him as a shadowy figure. Thus Flash invades Syk again, launching a "one-man war" on Azura and freeing Khan. However, Flash's invisibility begins to wear off. He takes Azura hostage and drags her into "the Tnnnel of Terror" to escape. This proves a mistake, for the tunnel is inhabited by "death dwarves."

Just as Flash and Azura stand on the edge of being overwhelmed by the dwarves, Dale and Zarkov show up in the Tunnel and drive away the nasty fiends. However, because Flash and Azura thought themselves on the verge of death, the queen begged the hero for a last kiss, and he obliged, just as Dale showed up. Thus the story comes full-circle, for although Dale has reclaimed her lover, he's displayed a certain amount of sexual infidelity before her eyes. At last Flash is able to smooth over the troubled waters by relating his transgression to his Manifest Destiny. When Dale asks Flash if he liked the kiss, "I liked it because it meant her friendship-- it meant that this bloody business was at an end-- that I had won my kingdom and the right to marry you."

However, Flash manages to find another new war that keeps him from getting married, which also brings the story back to Dale's original protest. When Flash announces the taming of his kingdom to Ming via radio, the Mongo emperor refuses to acknowledge Flash. In the following sequence, this begins Flash's first major martial assault on the empire of Ming, but "Witch Queen" in essence sets a pattern that would mitigate against marriage for the rest of the comic strip's history. In other words, Flash and Dale would perpetually have their virtue attempted by this or that powerful figure of Mongo. It's a virtual certainty that male readers enjoyed it whenever some beauteous ruler tried to seduce Flash, while female readers didn't get nearly the same vibe from Dale having to fend off unattractive seducers like Ming and Vultan. Still, there may have been some pleasure for women readers in seeing Flash prove his faithfulness again and again in spite of massive temptation, for, to my knowledge, Flash always remains devoted to one woman, despite not ever quite finding time to marry her.


I chose this title in reaction to this Slate obituary for Stan Lee:


The problem with Slate's essay is that it can't see the forest for the trees.

Yes, it's incorrect to call Stan Lee the creator of any single character, setting, or "tree" on which he collaborated with an artist. Even those artists who just drew whatever they were told to draw must be counted as co-creators.

But the guy who created the "forest" was Stan Lee.

Here's one version of Lee's off-told reminiscence about how he came to launch the Marvel style, from HOLLYWOOD REPORTER:

As the 1960s began, a discouraged Lee, nearing his 40th birthday, told his wife, Joan, that he was thinking about leaving his job. She told him that before he quits, why not try to write one story he really liked.

It's true that there's no way to prove that this conversation ever happened as Stan Lee said it did. However, in the 1960s Marvel editor Lee was the only person, aside from owner Martin Goodman, who had the authority to order a "new trend" of any kind.

In later interviews, Jack Kirby claimed creative credit for everything he worked on, which of course would include the first major Marvel title, FANTASTIC FOUR. However, Kirby had already been working for Marvel for about five years previous to the publication of the heroic quartet, and Kirby hadn't exactly burned up sales charts with his creations, even allowing for editorial interference.

In short, I think Lee had the seminal idea to experiment with superheroes in ways that hadn't been seen before-- like having money troubles, a trope seen in many of Stan Lee's teen comics-- and that the artists he employed either embraced this idea fully or just did whatever they were told to do to earn a paycheck.

And if I'm correct that Stan's was the seminal idea, then even though he didn't create a single "tree" by himself, he did indeed create the idea of the "forest."

Monday, November 12, 2018


In THE PLANET MONGO, Nostalgia Press's 1974 collection of the first two years of Alex Raymond's FLASH GORDON strip, the editors assigned titles to five sections of Raymond's work. I disagree with these assignments, for as I see it, these three years break down into three definable installments. I'm keeping their title, "The Witch Queen of Mongo," for the forthcoming essay, but the other two I've designated as "Marooned on Mongo," a title borrowed from the otherwise unmemorable 1996 TV-show, and "Tournament of Death," a title borrowed from one of the episodes of the 1936 serial. In all of the Raymond works I analyze here, I give Raymond sole credit for sake of brevity, though some if not all of the work was co-written by Don Moore.


The comic strip adaptations of two prose creations-- Edgar Rice Burroughs' TARZAN and Philip Francis Nowlan's BUCK ROGERS-- launched what many have called "the Golden Age of Adventure Comic Strips." The two strips even debuted in American newspapers on the same day in 1929.  About five years later, King Features Syndicate invited artist Alex Raymond to create two ongoing strips, often if not always appearing together on Sunday pages, and both seemed to be biting the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs. JUNGLE JIM, though it concerned a white hunter rather than a ape-man, at least sought to compete with Tarzan's jungle thrills, though at no point was the former capable of eclipsing the latter. However, if it's true that King originally thought of doing an adaptation of Burroughs' John Carter of Mars, then there's not much question that Raymond'FLASH GORDON did indeed surpass the reputation of the Burroughs creation. (Additionally, King was possibly seeking to compete with the popularity of BUCK ROGERS, whom FLASH also excelled in popularity and repute.)

The sequence I've dubbed "Marooned on Mongo" is a long picatesque adventure that acquaints Raymond's readers with many of the colorful races of Mongo, and in this Raymond follows the lead of Burroughs's Mars books for the most part. Burroughs' Carter was an Earthman transported to a savage Mars inhabited by humanoids, one of whom, the "incomparable Dejah Thoris," eventually becomes Carter's wife. Mars's humanoids were largely characterized by skin-color-- red, white, black, and yellow-- though there were two quasi-humanoid races, the Tharks and the Warhoons, who were four-armed green monsters. In contrast, Raymond's Flash Gordon and his love-interest Dale Arden are both abducted to Mongo by crazed Doctor Zarkov when the scientist takes the two youths aboard his ship and tries to ram the hurtling planet Mongo to keep it from crashing into Earth. (The peril of colliding worlds is summarily dismissed and nothing more is said about the havoc Mongo's presence might be wreaking on Earth's solar system.) Mongo has a few humanoid races characterized by color alone, though the strips are inconsistent about depicting Ming, Aura and their congeners as "yellow," while Ming is the only one given a "Chinese Mandarin" image. However, Raymond was far more interested in creating humanoids with overt or implied animal natures: lion-men, hawk-men, and shark-men. Mongo is also, like Mars, rife with both primitive sword-battles and advanced technical gadgetry, underscored by sneaky court intrigues and romantic entanglements.

In contrast to John Carter's wooing of Dejah Thoris, the romance of Flash and Dale takes place somewhat on the fly, and is swiftly challenged by the ardor of Aura, daughter of Ming. In the "Marooned" sequence none of these four characters are very strongly characterized, and the attitudes of Ming and Aura toward the two Earthpeople reverse one another: Ming desires Dale and wishes to kill Flash; Aura desires Flash and wishes to kill Dale. In an early essay here, I discerned this as a "racial myth," but today I tend to think that this was just a surface imitation of the BUCK ROGERS strip, and that Raymond had little real interest in such matters. "Marooned" is largely a Cook's Tour of Mongo. There's nearly no social commentary on the various exotic tribes met by the humans, except insofar as many of them have grievances against Emperor Ming, who implicitly rules the planet with an iron hand.

"Tournament of Death," however, marks a transition in Raymond's work. Toward the end of "Marooned," King Vultan of the Hawkmen has been trying to make Dale his bride, and even comes to blows with Flash. However, when the floating city of the Hawks is imperiled, Doctor Zarkov saves the city with his scientific knowledge, and so Vultan befriends the three Earth-people. Ming and Aura then show up with their troops to seize the humans. So Vultan invokes "the ancient laws of Mongo," calling for a "tournament of death," in which Flash can compete to rise to the rank of rulership-- but only if Flash is the "last man standing" in the midst of dozens of ambitious warlords from all over the planet. It's with "Tournament" that Raymond abandons most of the storytelling tropes favored by Burroughs. Palace intrigue and romantic complications remained, but "Tournament" begins to portray Mongo with a sense of the pagantry emblematic of photorealistic book illustrations. In addition, Raymond advances Barin-- one of the rebel warlords seen in "Marooned"-- as a consolation prize for Aura. Though Aura makes one attempt to kill Dale during this sequence, she's overcome by Barin's charm and for the most part forgets her ardor for Flash, as well as deserting the cause of her father.

Though Aura's character diminishes in this sequence, Ming becomes a more majestic figure of evil here. He allows the tournament because he hopes to see Flash humbled before all Mongo. Instead, Flash wins in such a way that he allows his fiercest competitor Barin to live. But even though Ming is forced to assign kingdoms to both Flash and Barin, the wily emperor gives both of them wild, untamed domains, so that the two warriors will have to exert themselves mightily in order to attain their goals. It's at this point that Flash goes forth to conquer the lands under the sway of Queen Azura, "the Witch Queen of Mongo"-- which I'll consider in the next essay.

STAN LEE R.I.P. (1922-2018)

I may have something more to say about Stan's legacy in future, but here's what I wrote on CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD.

A few weeks ago I had a strange presentiment that this would be the year Stan Lee might pass, if for no other reason than his personal life went through some thoroughly unnecessary drama. I wish he could have seen 100, but of course, everything he knew from his youth was pretty much gone. And hundreds of authors pass without ever knowing how well they were esteemed. No one can take that away from him.

When I got into comic book superheroes around age 11, I saw the prominent credits on the Marvel books, which did indeed foster the idea of a "comic-book family." I had no idea back then that artists created anything; and assumed that anything with Lee's name on it had been wholly created by him. Over the years I've learned how to distinguish the things Lee brought to the collaborations versus the things his artists brought, but there's a sense in which he, as editor, was responsible for encouraging the creativity and smoothing out the rough edges of artists who weren't always used to quality control.

Aside from a few panel-questions, I talked to him just once, and gave him a recent copy of COMICS JOURNAL in which I'd been published. He very well could have tossed in the wastebasket for all that I know-- and that certainly would've been his right-- but he was to my knowledge never less than personable with all of his admirers.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


EARTH-X is the first of three collected serials based on an “alternate history” version of the Marvel Universe. On all three, the story concept is credited to Alex Ross (whose fame had crested following his work on MARVELS and KINGDOM COME) and Jim Krueger. Ross’s hyper-realistic art, however, appears only on covers and in character sketches, with other artists tapped to perform the chores of visual storytelling, Jean Paul  Leon being credited with the entirety of EARTH-X. I have not yet re-read the two sequels, but my recollection is that neither felt as thematically unified as EARTH-X.

 To be sure, any unity in the Krueger-Leon series is rather akin to that of the Frankenstein Monster, being composed of many disparate parts. On one level—perhaps the most important in terms of marketing the series—is that EARTH X is, like MARVELS, a love letter to Silver Age Marvel. However, where MARVELS attempts to tell the story of the share continuity from the point of view of the common man, EARTH-X concerns itself with seeing the “gods” of the Marvelverse through a funhouse mirror, darkly.

This particular iteration-- which, for sake of conciseness, I’ll assign to Krueger, since he’s the one doing the heavy lifting—is most concerned with a particular aspect of Marvel: the grandiose apocalypse-scenarios given their fullest form by the team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. There had of course been earth-shattering events in comic books long before Lee and Kirby collaborated. However, features like FANTASTIC FOUR and THOR gave Kirby the imaginative canvasses on which he could unleash the full extent of his visual imagination, while Lee provided characterizational context for the contending forces. No other collaborations of the period—Fox/Sekowky, Thomas/Adams, or even Lee/Ditko—were as good at bringing the familiar world to the brink of chaos.

In any alternate-world story, the pleasurable distortion of the commonplace is one of the key appeals of the re-imagining.  Thus, EARTH-X posits a Marvel-world in which the boundaries between the human and the superhuman have been erased—or at least Krueger claims that they have. In practice, the reader doesn’t see that much of people who used to be rank-and-file humans. In keeping with works ranging from X-MEN’s “Days of Future Past” narrative to the aforementioned KINGDOM COME, EARTH-X is mostly about the weird, funhouse-mirror versions of Marvel’s heroes and villains. Some of the mutations have special resonance within the story, on in the context of Marvel’s storied history, while others seem to be the results of mere whimsy, along the line of Alex Ross saying, “I think I’ll make the new Captain America bald.”

Even though the title of EARTH-X sounds like a reference to Marvel’s inescapable mutant franchise, Krueger’s plot hinges on the Lee-Kirby backstory fot the Inhumans.  These FANTASTIC FOUR alumni were originally a race of genetically-advanced Earthpeople, though Lee and Kirby quickly retconned the characters into a experimental project by the alien Kree, a breeding-ground for super-warriors designed to serve the Kree’s martial endeavors. Without dwelling on assorted plot complications, the Inhumans’ capacity for self-mutation is at the root of the entire Earth’s big transformation—though this comes about as a response to yet other aspects of Marvelverse continuity.

I said earlier that Krueger’s opus was a love letter to Silver Age Marvel. The majority of the primary characters debuted in the 1960s: the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, Captain America (technically a reboot of the Timely version), the Hulk, the Inhumans, the X-Men, and the Black Panther— and most are Lee-Kirby characters. Krueger finds some space for such non-Kirby characters as Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Daredevil, though these are all relegated to lesser roles in what seems like a predominantly Kirbyesque catastrophe.  At the same time, EARTH-X is not “sixties retro” in the least, for the Inhumans-Kree core of the plot is folded into an even more cosmic scenario borrowed from the following decade: Jack Kirby’s 1970s ETERNALS series.  Kirby designed the short-lived series to stand apart from the regular Marvel universe, but a few years after the end of the series (and the end of Kirby’s contract with Marvel)  “continuity savant” Roy Thomas devoted several issues of THOR to blending “Eternals-Earth” with that of “mainstream Marvel.”

Certainly Kirby’s ETERNALS exceeded the Inhumans-Kree plotline in sheer scope. Mysterious extraterrestrial titans, the Celestials, arrive on Earth, standing as imperturbable sentinels that do not deign to interact with humankind. It soon comes out that the Celestials are responsible for engineering not only the human race, but two other races, the Eternals and the Deviants, whose special powers and weapons caused early humankind to regard the Eternals as gods and the Deviants as demons. Roy Thomas seemingly sweated blood, finding ways to make it possible co-existence between science-fiction gods like Kirby’s “Zuras” and the already established “magic-based god” known as Zeus. Since Krueger isn’t interested in the “magical gods” of Marvel—or for that matter, the mystical dimensions of Doctor Strange-- he simply explains away all of the Marvel gods as a race of metamorphic aliens. In Krueger’s cosmos, only science fiction can beat science fiction.

The transformation of Marvel-Earth is, in the long run, brought about to keep the Celestials from simply extinguishing Earth when they’re finished with it.  However, Krueger’s plot is far from linear, and the mystery of humanity’s transformation often takes a backseat to showing this or that Marvel character in a weird new situation. A few are “old favorites” in name only: Matt “Daredevil” Murdock is said to be dead, but a new Daredevil, who is “without fear” because he can’t be killed, has taken his place.  

Two-members of the Fantastic Four—the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch—have died, along with the super-group’s foremost enemy Doctor Doom; as a result, Mister Fantastic has become a recluse who lives in Doom’s castle, seeking for the solution to the transformation. 

In one of Alex Ross’s better re-conceptions, the Hulk, once a goliath with a tiny mind, has become separated into a truly mindless brute controlled by a juvenile version of Bruce Banner. If nothing else, this re-conception provides some nostalgia for a particular issue of the first INCREDIBLE HULK series, wherein young Rick Jones was temporarily able to control the mammoth man-monster. Children have become less common now that everyone has new powers, though oddly enough the aged-looking Captain America is forced to battle a new incarnation of the Red Skull: a mutant kid so young that he doesn’t even know who Hitler was.

Though there are some resonant moments regarding the various transformations of heroes and villains, Krueger is at his most philosophical when dealing with two onlookers, both of whom were Kirby creations. The older creation, co-authored by Stan Lee, is the alien Watcher, who provides a running commentary on Marvel’s history for the benefit of a less well-informed observer. This is Aaron Stack, a.k.a. Machine Man, whom Kirby solely created for a Marvel’s feature based on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey.” (Amusingly, Aaron is brought into the Watcher’s abode amid imagery that strongly references the imagery of the Kubrick film—to say nothing of the film’s relevance in terms of  “alien experiments.”)

The Watcher, who has been stricken blind by an unknown assailant, wants to make living robot Aaron into a new Watcher.To do so, the Watcher must try to convert Aaron to a disinterested viewpoint of humanity’s struggle. Here’s the Watcher trying to go all Nietzsche on Aaron Stack, explaning why human beings resented their superhuman saviors:

…to be saved is to be weak. And to be weak, one must acknowledge that one exists in a constant state of need. Thar, in his normal state, man is found to be lacking.
No less Nietzschean is the Watcher’s statement on eternal warfare:

Mankind cannot live in peace with [sic] himself.  His nature denies this.
While these philosophical ruminations have some broad applicability to the theme of EARTH-X, Krueger doesn’t succeed in making the Watcher’s credo fit into his easy acceptance of the Celestials’ ruthless agenda. Aaron Stack, as defender of humanity, is also not quite able to refute the Watcher’s vow of non-interference by the jejune statement:  “To do nothing in the face of need—that’s evil.”

Like many of the Marvel-DC multi-character epics, EARTH-X loses perspective by dint of concentrating only on superhuman protagonists. Even the script for 2004's INCREDIBLES, whose author ostensibly did not intend to invoke Nietzsche, hones in on more of the conflict between savior and saved more profoundly than does Krueger’s opus. Still, there is enough of a symbolic discourse here to rate EARTH-X as an interesting mythcomic.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Here's a short argument I presented on Classic Horror Film Board, in response to the news that the SIMPSONS character of Apu was going to be sidelined in future episodes of the cartoon show, partly in deference to the objections of activists like Hari Kondabolu and his "Problem with Apu" documentary.


Caricature isn't always designed as a mockery. Sometimes it's simply shorthand for something that the target audience sees every day.

Classic Hollywood films, for example, are filled to the brim with Irish cops. That's because, after long decades in which Irish-Americans were deemed the dregs of criminality, some of them began getting into the low-paying but more respectable business of crime prevention. I'm sure a lot of Irish-Americans in the early 20th would have preferred to do jobs other than walk a beat. But life is not fair, and we can't change the past; only understand how the past impacts on the present.

I recall hearing one Indian-American, whose name I did not note, speak on a radio show, saying that, in effect, Apu mirrored his own experience. As I recall, he said that his father immigrated to America as a scientist, but couldn't find work in that department. So he got into motel management, and today, this is still a burgeoning source of employment for Indian-Americans. Again, maybe it wasn't fair that the scientist had to go into motel management. Maybe it was the result of white privilege, maybe it wasn't. But it remains a fact that a lot of Indian-Americans found employment in the management of motels and convenience stores.

I agree that it sucks when Indian-American kids get called "Apu" or have to listen to "Thank you come again." I'm sure it sucked when Chinese-American kids had to listen to "Chinamen" songs and get mocked for being the sons of laundrymen. Yet I think it's unfeasible to say, "We don't like the image of this caricature, no matter whether it represents any aspect of real life or not." I think Hari Kondabolu may be guilty, at the very least, of using too broad a brush to paint his picture of anti-Asian racism.

Friday, November 2, 2018


Possibly the most iconic story to spring from EC's science fiction line was the 1953 "Judgment Day." "Day" was one of publisher Gaines' many "social message" stories, and has remained celebrated today, partly because of the behind-the-scenes drama about publisher Gaines's conflicts with the Code regarding the story. However, though Joe Orlando's art is impressive, Al Feldstein's script is a routine allegory about race-relations, using two differently-hued robots to perpetuate the conflicts of Earth ethnicities.

I've been surprised, however, to see very little online criticism of "The Inferiors," a Feldstein-Wally Wood story which conveys a similar club-the-reader-over-the-head message, yet actually grounds the morality in a deeper level of symbolism.

On the first page, the story's title seems to apply to a mysterious race of vanished aliens. Exploratory forces from planet Earth have found the ruins of the unnamed aliens' culture on many planets, but there remain no clues as to why these beings committed what one authority calls "race suicide." 

Functionally there are only two characters in the story: "spit-and-polish" young lieutenant Robert Saunders and his unnamed captain, whose baldness connotes greater age and experience. Both serve on a spaceship that has discovered another Earth-type world, but the monotony of the frequent discoveries causes one low-ranking space-navy soldier to remark, "Who cares why a bunch of hairy goons with tails committed suicide, anyway?" Lt. Saunders upbraids the underling, but in his conversation with his commander, it's evident that Saunders shares the opinion that the scientific advancement of the "hairy goons" doesn't matter, for they clearly were cowards who couldn't face life's demands, as Earth-people can. The captain is not quite as sure about things as his junior officer, and even admits to a little fear himself, when their expedition comes across one edifice that seems undamaged by the forces unleashed by the mass suicides.

Since "Inferiors" is only an eight-page story, it will surprise no reader to find that the Earthmen uncover the answer to their mystery on this planet, thanks to a recording in the form of a "three dimensional projection," wherein one of the aliens gives a lecture about the fate his people plan to undergo. Thanks to the use of an "automatic translator," the humans can listen to one of the "hairy goons" explain things-- though the captain first listens to the recording alone.

Later, having built the requisite suspense, the captain allows Saunders to hear the translated recording as well. Saunders, a confirmed xenophone, remarks on how "nauseating" the image of the alien is, though Wood draws it as a bipedal lizard-creature with a tail and none of the hair Feldstein's script specifies. Saunders also can't help expressing contempt once again for the aliens' cowardice: "and these are the things some people thought were superior to man!"

Naturally, this being an EC story, "Inferiors" has a "gotcha" ending. The recording reveals that the widespread lizard-people, having endured in peace for centuries, suddenly became aware that some of their people were using violence against one another. The aliens concluded that their race has evolved as much as was possible, and that now it is doomed to devolving into mere beasts. Almost all of the aliens choose mass suicide through the use of their advanced technology, except for a small contingent of creatures who don't care about their "moral decay," wanting only to live at all costs. The aliens use brain-draining machines to erase the mentalities of the decayed lizard-people, and allow them to survive as "brainless hulks" on an obscure planet. Saunders continues to heap scorn on the "hairy goons" until the alien lecturer just happens to add a warning to any listeners: showing what they think their decayed relations will turn out like. Surprise, surprise, the hairy goons with tails are the fathers of Man.

Like "Judgment Day," "The Inferiors" is all about shattering any illusions the readership may have about the innate superiority of their culture. However, even though the "Inferiors" ending was hoary even back in the 1950s-- "And the name of the planet was EARTH!"-- Feldstein's story is grounded in the twentieth century's intellectual debates over evolution. Since the Earthmen never say anything about their own evolution from lower creatures, the broad implication is that a terminally upright type like Saunders sees his entire race as having been given the Keys to Creation from the get-go, which approximates the position of the religonists who viewed human beings as separate from Darwin's apes. Or perhaps one should say "monkeys," since Darwin's theory was so often parodied by association not with the tail-less apes, but with the various tailed species of monkeys-- hence, the "Scopes Monkey Trial," not "Ape Trial." Artist Wally Wood didn't really translate Feldstein's scripted image of the Great Wise Race as "hairy goons with tails," but this is probably fortunate, since making them look in any way like primates would have given the game away too early. By using reptilian aliens, Wood and Feldstein also conjure, however briefly, with the associations of serpents and wisdom. This proves more than a little appropriate to the story, which rewrites the Garden of Eden, the foundation of man's special destiny, into a bucolic forest where a bunch of brainless, bipedal rejects got dumped.

Thursday, November 1, 2018


I made the following remark in my review of the two seasons of the anime ROSARIO + VAMPIRE:

The manga series was able to investigate these potential S&M aspects in much greater detail than the series can (though the closing montage works in a fair amount of nudity and chains). About the only episode which gets as wild as the manga is the first-season episode "Math and the Vampire." The story, in both manga and anime, suggests the pressure high-school students feel to excel in subjects like math, for Tsukune is briefly enslaved by evil teacher Ririko, who dresses in sexy outfits but apparently only gets turned on when her favored student mindlessly spouts mathematical theorems. Appropriately, Ririko's form is that of a Lamia, which in Greek mythology was a female creature that murdered children.
I wrote this without actually re-reading the original Akihisa Ikeda manga-story on which the anime "Math and the Vampire" was based. Now that I've reread it, I believe that the anime is actually a little wilder in its imagery than the original manga, though I stand by the overall judgment that the anime series avoids some of the S&M-themed humor that pervades the manga series as a whole.

As I thought about the two, it occurred to me that Ikeda missed a bet in his conception of a math-teacher who enspells students into endlessly reciting theorems. It's long been common knowledge that the Japanese school system places intense demands on adolescents to excel in subjects like math, since the better one's grades, the better will be the students' choices of learning institutions. Now, as I mentioned in the anime-review, the protagonist Tsukune drifts into a "high school for monsters" precisely because his middle-school grades didn't propel him to higher institutions, so the germ of pedagogical expectations appears in the series. Yet in "Teach Me," Ikeda doesn't really dovetail Tsukune's concerns for his grades with the older generation's insistence on excellence-- a demand which contemporary Americans see incarnated in the so-called "tiger moms," mothers who ruthlessly egg their children on to academic excellence.

Ikeda seems to have loosely linked this "drive to excel" with eroticism, since Ms. Ririko, a lamia (monster with a woman's body and serpent's tail), "trains" her students by using her tail to drain the pupils of emotions and instill math-formulas in them. Yet the anime makes this "projection downward" a lot more explicit than the original manga tale.

Neither story is dense enough to yield a myth-work, but as far as potential goes, this one rates as 'fair" rather than "poor."