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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...

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SELF-MASTERY MEDITATIONS PT. 3


My application of the “killing stroke” trope to the combative mode may serve me in formulating an answer to one long and nagging theoretical problem: that of combative characters who are not overtly challenged by most of their opponents.

In THE SAD STORY OF SUPERHERO SADISM I mentioned that during the Golden Age characters like Superman and the Spectre (both, as all sagacious fans know, linked by the authorship of Jerry Siegel) only occasionally encountered opponents who could fight them in terms of “give-and-take” combat. Even other powerhouses of the period were given convenient vulnerabilities so that they could be placed into peril—said vulnerabilities ranging from a special weakness, like Green Lantern’s inability to influence wood, or something more generic, wherein a super-strong character like Wonder Woman could be downed by a blow to the back of her skull. At the time, my main rationale for still deeming Golden Age Superman and Spectre as combative heroes was that, even though their individual gangland-foes were no challenge, Crime as a Whole was a constant menace not to the heroes but to law-abiding innocents.

Now, as per my Cyclopean example, the “killing stroke” usually represents a weaker character’s attempt to marshal both skill and strength to overcome a more powerful enemy, usually in some appropriate way (a one-eyed monster is made to lose his only means of seeing his prey). But it’s occurred to me that if one reverses the valences of power in the killing-stroke paradigm, what one has is akin to “the curse of the gods.” Greek mythology in particular is replete with numerous stories of gods who strike impious mortals with curses that fit those mortals’ impieties. Lycurgus the reaper is made to reap his own kindred, Pentheus the foe of Dionysus ends up meeting being ripped apart by Dionysian maidens, and so on.


Again, while both of Siegel’s co-creations would have many fully combative adventures during and after the Silver Age, it’s important to point out that their combative status in the Golden Age doesn’t depend on the trope of the “back-and-forth” fight. Instead, Superman and the Spectre depend on a trope I choose to term “the reverse killing stroke.” In contrast to a relatively weak character who slays a more powerful entity via strategy, the practitioner of the “reverse killing stroke” is, like a Greek god, far more powerful than any of the mortals he blights. But, for the extrinsic sake of the story, this godlike hero can’t just destroy his criminal targets any old way. The superhero-god must use his power strategically, for the sake of imposing a divine irony upon the victim.

The second part of Superman’s debut story, retitled “the Coming ofSuperman,” shows the hero acting the part of a trickster-god. Once Superman ferrets out the identity of a nasty munitions-maker, obviously the Kryptonian could destroy or imprison the villain in any number of ways. But in order to make a good story, Superman badgers the fellow into joining the U.S, armed forces—at which point he’s forced to face the real-life conditions of the wars he’s fostered. To be sure, the hero allows this villain the chance to reform, but in other contemporaneous stories, the Man of Steel uses his power judiciously, in order to make the enemies of law and order destroy themselves.




The Spectre presents a more bald-faced evocation of the “wrath of God” motif, which may be one reason the character wasn’t especially popular in the Golden Age (nor have any subsequent treatments scored that well, with or without the emphasis on said wrath). Siegel didn’t seem to exploit the idea of the “reverse killing stroke” quite as artfully as he did in Superman, but there’s a little use of irony in the origin-story. After Jim Corrigan is slain by gangster Gat Benson and his two cronies, the heroic cop rises from the dead, empowered by the power of Heaven to war on crime. Not yet donning his crimefighting togs, Corrigan overtakes his murderers, and the first one to meet Corrigan’s gaze instantly dies. Not much irony there. Yet the second death is more accomplished. When the second thug fails to kill Corrigan with bullets, he unwisely tries to grapple with the dead policeman. He pays for this “impiety,” since touching Corrigan causes the thug’s flesh to dissolve, making him into a living skeleton for a few macabre seconds, before Corrigan decisively slays him. Curiously, the gang-leader Benson is spared, as Corrigan merely allows him to fall unconscious and to be arrested. In subsequent stories, some of the Spectre’s killing strokes had an ironic appeal, and others were nothing special. Arguably the Bronze Age series by Fleischer and Aparo exploited the gruesome potential of the concept to greater effect, in that the Ghostly Guardian consistently devised dooms for dastardly villains that would have fit the EC horror-anthologies.



So, can one call any aspect of these godlike punishments “self-mastery?” Certainly such “reverse killing strokes” don’t engage one’s sympathies in the same way as the normative killing-stroke. Nevertheless, Superman and the Spectre must be judicious in order to destroy evildoers in an ironically meaningful way, and this ties in with my general concept that self-mastery entails a form of self-limitation. Thus the killing strokes used by these heroes to deter criminals can be deemed a special form of strategy-combat, and thus qualify for the combative mode even without a lot of back-and-forth battles.

SELF-MASTERY MEDITATIONS PT. 2

I’ve only devoted three essays to the concepts of interiorization and exteriorization, but it seems to me that the concept of self-mastery is implicit within those essays. Here I’ll attempt to extend those nations into greater elaboration.

Interiorization is a narrative pattern in which a character literally or figuratively draws upon his inner resources or character in order to become a more imposing figure, be it Doctor Jekyll unleashing his evil side or Billy Batson summoning up an idealized adult persona. As should be evident from these two examples, this pattern can be subcombative as well as combative, and even the combative example, that of Captain Marvel, requires a little further analysis. Golden Age CAPTAIN MARVEL stories don’t overtly posit that the hero is the adult form of Billy Batson, but the Captain seems to enjoy no existence independent from that of Billy. Although Billy’s ability to summon his adult self needs to be jump-started by the “Shazam-lightning,” which confer the power of legendary characters upon the Captain, Billy’s own self is strongly implicated in the formation of the hero, and therefore this qualifies as a form of self-mastery.



In contrast, I’ve cites a number of examples in which great power is thrust upon this or that character, in such a way that no self-mastery can be adduced. My review of SCOOBY DOO AND THE SAMURAI SCHOOL provides a pertinent. The characters of Shaggy and Scooby Doo are meant to be much more ludicrous in nature than Billy Batson, but all three are roughly on the same level of dynamicity. It would not be impossible to imagine a situation in which Scooby and Shaggy gained great martial-arts skills through the use of some improbable crash-course. If Howard the Duck could do it, why not Scooby and Shaggy? But the writers of SAMURAI SCHOOL may not have wanted to diverge that far from the duo’s default characterization as lovable goof-ups. Thus the duo get samurai-powers thrust upon them by an outside agent, with no indication of self-mastery.



THE COURT JESTER is another film in which the release of interiorized energies is somewhat undermined by the principal thread of the narrative. While a spoof of the swashbuckler genre does not have to be subcombative, JESTER sets up its main character Hubert Hawkins to undermine that aspect of the genre. In the early scene Hawkins wants very much to be fighting on the front lines with the courageous resistance, headed by the vaguely paternal Black Fox. Instead, Hawkins is relegated to protecting the infant heir to England’s throne. Yet in a roundabout way this “maternal” activity puts him in the position to take the identity of jester to the evil king’s court, giving him the inside track by which the king’s forces are eventually defeated. Hawkins’s only deeds of physical valor come about when a witch puts a hypnosis-like spell on the jester, making him into a wizard with a sword. Now, though this sounds like the same process described in SAMURAI SCHOOL, the setup allows for an “out” in terms of self-mastery. Since at the outset Hawkins admires the heroism of the Black Fox, it’s not impossible to imagine that he has watched sword-duels even if he never personally achieved mastery with the blade. The witch’s spell could be seen as a jump-starting process like that of Shazam’s lightning, unleashing hidden in the hero abilities that he always possessed in utero. However, the script doesn’t shoot for an integration between Hawkins’s external and internal personas, for he loses his sword-skill when he’s snapped out of his trance, and when Hawkins does defeat his main opponent, it’s done through a stratagem that undercuts the swashbuckler genre’s trope of the dazzling climactic duel.



Possibly the most improbable representative of combative interiorization can be found in the deservedly obscure Italian comedy BLONDE IN BLACK LEATHER. In this very rough precursor to THELMA AND LOUISE, Claudia Cardinale plays an abused housewife who meets a motorcycle-riding free spirit, played by Monica Vitti. Vitti encourages the na├»ve Cardinale to desert her heavy-handed husband and to embark on a series of rambunctious adventures. During one exploit, a gang of seven or eight gangsters surrounds the two young women, intending to commit mayhem. Neither female has displayed any skill at fighting, but Vitti performs a sort of “hypnosis” on Cardinale, saying (more or less):

Your husband beat you, didn’t he? So do what your husband did, and beat them up!

The resulting fight shows Cardinale, with barely any help from Vitti, clobbering all the gangsters with basic fisticuffs. The farcical mood is very close to that of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where the rabbit can pull any weapon or contrivance he wants out of thin air. BLACK LEATHER is very close to being this type of fantasy-farce. Yet the basic intent still seems to be that of validating the ability of “helpless” women to kick ass if they really want to, in contrast to JESTER, which seeks to undercut the appeal of extravagant ass-kicking.

The pattern of exteriorization occurs when a character creates or empowers some other entity, or entities, to do his fighting for him. Most robot-protagonists, ranging from Gigantor to Bozo the Iron Man, are obvious combative manifestations of this pattern. However, in TO BREAK OR NOT TO BREAK PT. 2 I devoted a great deal of space to showing why a big fight at the end of 1934’s BABES IN TOYLAND, between king-sized toy soldiers and some nasty boogiemen, did not result in a combative work of art. I did not invoke the idea of self-mastery in the essay, but I emphasized the notion that there was no purposive connection between the soldiers and their dimwitted creator Stannie Dum. He builds the toy soldiers, but his achievement comes about through dumb luck, not as a means of exteriorizing his own buried passions and/or talents.



I’ve remarked that in the earliest extant telling of the story of Aladdin, there’s no combat between the lazy youth and the evil lamp-swiping magician. Disney’s version of the story gives Aladdin more swashbuckler-like abilities, though much of the film emphasizes romance more than action, and the conclusion depends largely on Aladdin undoing Jafar through strategy rather than direct combat. A more inventive, albeit forgotten, iteration was offered by 1952’s ALADDIN AND HIS LAMP.  Here as well, Aladdin is a tough sword-fighter, so he doesn’t entirely need the genie to do all of his fighting for him. Indeed, the script works in the idea of both “obedient genie” and “disobedient genie.” Though the genie will grant his new master’s wishes, the genie will also try to kill Aladdin in order to win free from his service. Since Aladdin must be vigilant to counter the genie’s attempts at assassination, this supernatural creature is more like Mister Hyde than like the traditional obedient servant of the lamp-bearer. That said, the genie ends up serving his master through Aladdin’s self-mastery strategy. The film’s villain manages to steal Aladdin’s lamp, but doesn’t keep his guard up against the rebellious spirit and thus meets the doom that could have befallen the hero.



SELF MASTERY MEDITATIONS PT. 1

GIVE-AND-TAKE VS. THE KILLING STROKE proposed that these two tropes provided the principal narrative strategies through which authors have created the combative mode. In my earliest mediations upon the subject, I tended toward the view that the key manifestations of the mode were those narratives in which some clash of equal dynamicities transpired, usually at the story’s climax (as noted in PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX). But to some extent this view was a consequence of my over-emphasis on the mode of dynamicity, since it was 2013 that I formulated the complementary combinatory mode. That said, I still devoted considerable space on my blogs to narratives in which a concluding conflict failed to convey the dynamic-sublime, ranging from canonical artworks like MACBETH to pop-art creations like WORLD WITHOUT END.




I did allow for a major exception to the “combat-climax” proposition, and this was what I originally called the use of strategy. For instance, I viewed FORBIDDEN PLANET as a combative film even though its major dynamicity-clash takes place in the film’s middle. Rather, the Id Monster is defeated by a strategic move on the part of the heroic space-soldiers. I hadn’t coined the term “self-mastery” in this period, but it seems clear to me that this is what I was aiming for, in valuing this movie’s conclusion as combative even though the soldiers use “brain” more than “brawn.” That said, I would not have deemed comparable characters, like those of THE ANGRY RED PLANET, to be combative figures, given that they didn’t show any real penchant for “brawn.” And within the same period, I viewed that the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS film was not in the combative mode. There’s a major clash of dynamicities in the middle of that film as there is in FORBIDDEN PLANET. But the Martians aren’t defeated by either the brain or brawn of the Earthpeople, but by sheer dumb luck.



The trope of “the killing stroke,” as exemplified by Odysseus’ blinding of the Cyclops, still depends on a clash of dynamicities, but it’s one characterized less by an exchange of powerful blows than by one principal thrust, often at a more powerful opponent’s weak point. Arguably self-mastery, with the attendant idea of “digging deep,” takes a more concentrated form in this trope. In the GIVE-AND-TAKE essay, I pursued a similar logical path in my comparison of the protagonists of two works: the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD and Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE. The denouements of both works involve the protagonist using a magical weapon to strike down a more powerful menace: Abu shoots the wizard Jaffar with a magic arrow and Mayhew stabs a big monster with a magic sword. But Mayhew exhibits no self-mastery, while Abu does so prior to shooting Jaffar, particularly in the young thief’s battle with a giant spider.



However, such distinctions become a little harder to make when the “star of the show” is the monster. For a monster-centric film to be combative, the monster’s opponents, while often forgettable as characters, must evince the quality of self-mastery in order for the work to qualify as combative. Two such examples, from very different periods of filmmaking, are 1955’s IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 2010’s SHARKTOPUS. Yet it’s difficult to quantify what separates the climaxes of these films from those of, say, 1975’s JAWS and 1994’s TREMORS. It’s my conviction that even though these films have very violent climaxes, I don’t find either the trope of contending dynamicities or strategy informed by self-mastery. The triumphs of the monster-slayers in the latter two films are impressive—but just not “super-impressive.” And I make this judgment in spite of all the other literary factors that make TREMORS a better film than IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, and JAWS (pretty much without question) a better film than any latter-day shark-opus.

Next up: considerations of self-mastery’s effects on the patterns of exteriorization and interiorization.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: THE SHADOW OF FU MANCHU (1948)


                                        


My Pyramid copy of ISLAND OF FU MANCHU attests that the copyright date was 1940, though other sources claim the book came out in 1941. Thus, depending on whose facts are correct, either seven or eight years passed before Sax Rohmer wrote a new Fu Manchu novel. Up to that point, this was exceeded only by the gap between HAND OF FU MANCHU in 1917 and DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU in 1931.

It’s been said that in the earlier case, Rohmer came back to Fu because nothing else he did in the intervening years sold all that much better. Additionally, sound cinema initiated a new phase of Fu Manchu adaptations in the late twenties and early thirties, which could not have failed to make the property valuable to the author. However, Fu-adaptations fell out of favor in most media during Rohmer’s most prolific work on the series, excepting only the DRUMS OF FU MANCHU serial and DETECTIVE COMICS’ 1939 reprints of a Fu comic-strip, circa 1931-33.

I’ve heard it said that in the early thirties saw some protests as to the villain’s status as a symbol of anti-Chinese sentiment. The devil-doctor may have become even more problematic during WWII, when real-life Chinese suffered under the yoke of the Japanese, and so became potential allies to the anti-Axis effort. In ISLAND Rohmer labors mightily to keep Fu’s deviltry separated from real-world horrors, with only spotty acknowledgements of a World War in the background. Rohmer clearly wants the readers to think of Fu Manchu as a world-beater, rather than as a relic of another generation’s fears.

By 1948, when SHADOW OF FU MANCHU appeared, the war was long over, though the novel includes some significant touchstones of the great conflict. Indeed, when Fu first appears in the story, he’s assumed an identity like none seen before: that of a consulting physician in Manhattan: “Professor Hoffmeyer, the celebrated Viennese psychiatrist.” Given the doctor’s skill with disguises, it’s not surprising that he might assume a non-Chinese identity with such facility, using Hoffmeyer’s sufferings in Nazi prison camps as an excuse to camoflague his supposedly injured eyes and hands. It is surprising that such a genius would force himself to play head-shrinker to the Manhattan elite for any reason. Still, it’s interesting that Fu’s first post-war role is that of a concentration camp survivor. Rohmer never goes so far to state that the fictional Hoffmeyer is supposed to be Jewish, but for an educated reader of the period, “Viennese psychiatrist” would almost certainly put one in mind of Austria’s most famous Jewish son, Sigmund Freud. (To be sure, the Hollmeyer guise never plays a large role in the story.)

Again Fu appears in somewhat reduced circumstances following the destruction of a super-scientific redoubt. He certainly doesn’t have recourse to any invisibility fields or disintegrator rays as he and his allies skulk around Manhattan. He has no scheme of world-domination this time, but rather seeks to forestall a real-world threat to the world, that of the Communist movement. Though Rohmer avoided saying much about Nazism-- again, possibly because the armed conflict was a little too real next to Fu’s mad plots—the author makes no bones about Communism’s iniquity. As in real life, the precise nature of the Communist threat in SHADOW is fairly obscure, but it seems to come down to the doctor’s wish to keep the Russians from gaining access to a unique atom-bomb defense, being formulated by New York physicist Morris Craig.

Though Craig is the romantic focus of the story—he’s being watched by his sexy secretary Camille Navarre, who is both a British undercover agent and an unwitting tool of the devil-doctor—he’s barely involved in the action scenes. Instead, Nayland Smith takes the foreground, and though the reader is never really “in his head,” his is the main POV throughout SHADOW. There’s no “Doctor Watson” figure herein.

I commented in TRAIL that Fleurette was the first woman to get her own POV chapter, but Camille gets quite a few of them, and certainly she’s a more compelling character than the rather vague (if conventionally young and handsome) physicist. Fu Manchu uses his considerable hypnotic talents—though apparently no drugs—to make Camille serve him in his attempt to spirit away Craig’s plans. If not for Smih’s doggedness, Fu would probably work his will in jig-time—but the protracted plot-action does give Camille a lot more space. She’s one of the few characters who manages to defy Fu’s hypnosis to a small extent, and, as with Moya in PRESIDENT, the doctor makes a mild attempt to convert her to his cause of her own volition.

Aside from evincing some of his hypnotic and mind-reading propensities, Fu’s most fantastic weapon this time is an obedient humanoid, M’goyna. Given that Fu says this apish being was created in part rhrough “vivisection,” the doctor seems to be borrowing from his readings of FRANKENSTEIN here, since the only other time he was seen making humanoids was one experiment in BRIDE.

SHADOW is not one of Rohmer’s more exciting novels in the series. Perhaps Rohmer was seeking to adjust to the demands of the postwar scene by writing something closer to the espionage genre. Still, as always Fu Manchu remains infinitely fascinating even in this quasi-realistic milieu, and at the novel’s conclusion, even Smith mourns when he thinks (erroneously) that the doctor has been fatally shot:

“This was no end for the greatest brain in the world!”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: THE ISLAND OF FU MANCHU (1940)


For the first hundred pages or so, ISLAND OF FU MANCHU reads much like its predecessor, in that it seems a throwback to the early episodic novels. Many thirties Fu novels give the readers strong intimations of the doctor’s newest dastardly scheme, but all one gets from Nayland Smith this time out is a mention of “strange incidents in the Caribbean.” Not coincidentally, Smith’s dubious ally Lionel Barton also happens to have involved himself in the affairs of a particular Caribbean dominion, the storied island of Haiti. This may seem rather unlikely terrain for an archaeologist to be investigating, but then again, a late chapter calls Haiti “an African island in the Caribbean,” and so in a sense Haiti, with its legends of voodoo and zombies, suggests the ways in which primitive beliefs still survive in the technological twentieth century (even though Rohmer favors a quasi-scientific explanation for zombies, who are merely victims of chemical catalepsy). On the thematic level, this may have provided contemporaneous readers with an escape from the realities of armed conflict—for though ISLAND must have been written after England’s declaration of war with Germany, references to the real-life armed conflict are sporadic at best.

Once again Rohmer’s viewpoint character is the bluff reporter Bart Kerrigan, and for most of the novel, he’s by turns irate and mopey, since his beloved Ardatha has been summoned back into the service of Fu Manchu. For the first time, it’s mentioned that Ardatha belongs to an “almost extinct white race” that dwelled in Abyssinia, which makes her sound a bit like an escapee from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. This minor theme becomes consequential in that one of Rohmer’s few positive “colored” characters, a Negro named Hassan, comes to the aid of both Ardatha and Kerrigan because of unspecified ties between his people and Ardatha’s. Because of Ardatha’s divided loyalties, Fu subjects Ardatha to the same memory-alterations he once used on Karameneh. This stratagem proves just as unsuccessful her as it did in RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU, in that the young woman’s loss of memory doesn’t prevent her from falling in love with her young man all over again.

While the reader awaits some hint as to the devil-doctor’s specific project, he may notice a peculiar emphasis on characters whose skin-color has been altered. As a side effect of Fu’s current researches, Hassan has been bleached white, and another of the doctor’s aides, who is apparently not Asian despite his “Eastern”-sounding name of Oster, is said to be “as yellow as a lemon.” Perhaps this was Rohmer extending the metaphor of mixed heritage that appears in most of his female characrers, who are usually some mixture of Europe and the Middle East. That said, the subject of race does not seem as consequential here as it did in PRESIDENT FU MANCHU.

Smith and Kerrigan jaunt around from England to Panama and New York before they make their way to Haiti. They’re menaced by a ghostly “green hand” whose nature is not revealed until the later chapters, and for a time Ardatha is abducted by a sleazy fellow named Cabot, thus making Kerrigan even more distracted. Since Cabot is said to be allied to a faction in the Si-Fan opposed to Fu Manchu’s rule, this allows Rohmer to pick up the “Si-Fan schism” plot-thread he mentioned in DRUMS. For once Fu himself does not exterminate one of his opponents; Cabot’s reputation for sleaze leads his former mistress to kill him before he has his way with Ardatha.

Fah Lo Suee is similarly employed to illustrate the Si-Fan schism. Despite the fact that she remains in her newly brainwashed identity of Koreani, Fu tells Kerrigan that once again his daughter has allied herself with Fu’s enemies. This suggests that the brainwashing technique has no more power over deep animosity than it does over love.

To be sure, Fah Lo Suee plays only a small role here. She has no lines and does not interact with Smith as seen in DRUMS, but instead once again plays the role of “goddess on Earth.” In Haiti Smith and Kerrigan witness her assume the persona of the voodoo queen Mamaloi, while Fu himself uses a sort of “invisibility cloak” to impersonate the serpent-god Damballah.

These attempts by the Chinese doctor and his Eurasian daughter to manipulate the natives of Haiti may sound like another use of the “disaffected races” plot-thread, last seen to strong effect in MASK OF FU MANCHU. But though “Damballah” speaks at one point of “the glory of the African races” to a horde of voodoo-worshippers, there’s really no suggestion of a race-war in the offing. (Amusingly, during the voodoo ceremony Rohmer uses the effect of maddening drums far more than he did in the book with “drums” in its title.) Indeed, while the heroes are trying to dope out Fu’s interest in Barton’s researches, Rohmer becomes positively panegyrical about Haiti’s first king, that “Negro genius” Henri Christophe. In contrast to the dismal portrait of Haiti’s independence painted by Rohmer’s contemporary Dennis Wheatley, Rohmer shows no real animus toward the self-rule of Negroes in the New World. Indeed, the real-world figure of Christophe may be something of a model for the attempt of the fictional devil-doctor to gain a foothold in the midst of all the warring nations.

In the last eighty pages Fu’s project is finally clear. Instead of seeking to decimate mankind as he did in BRIDE, or to control the fate of nations through assassinations as in DRUMS, this time Fu wants recognition as a sovereign power, and he’s using Haiti for the base of his operations. I won’t detail how Fu’s ambitions tie in with Barton’s revelations about Henri Christophe—though Rohmer gives the archaeological mystery a few twists worthy of Edgar Allan Poe—but for the first time since BRIDE, Fu Manchu is back in “full supervillain mode.” Thanks to the James Bond movies, it’s become commonplace to imagine villains who set up shop inside dormant volcanoes, but Rohmer may have originated that particular trope. Once again, with Kerrigan playing unwilling witness, Rohmer shows the brilliance and magnanimity of his master schemer, showing how the volcano-base has been used to construct a small fleet of airplanes that fly via a Wellsian anti-gravity mineral—just more wonders to add alongside Fu’s arsenal of invisibility cloaks and disintegrator force-fields.

Though Kerrigan is too dull a character to be impressed by the doctor’s sagacity, Rohmer comes very close to making the reader want to see Fu succeed. Though Smith once more heads off the doctor’s plans, the final triumph seems to be in the hands of Heaven, in a manner not dissimilar to the conclusion of HAND OF FU MANCHU. The official explanation is that Fu’s diabolical energy-devices attract bolts of lightning that destroy his hidden base. But even if the thunderstorm doesn’t come from Heaven, it certainly works out to the benefit of Smith and Kerrigan, who seem outmatched from the get-go. Once again, dull leading man and dull leading lady are united, and the master villain seems to have met his demise—though his rationale remains unassailable:

“I am no more a criminal than Napoleon, no more a criminal than Caesar.”

Sunday, April 19, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: SHADOW LADY (1995-96)





I’ll make a slight addition to the structural categories I introducedhere. specifying that novellas take the same two forms as do novels; the compact and the episodic. This week’s mythcomic belongs to the “episodic novella” category, but has Just as much unity as any other form I’ve examined in this essay-series.


When I first read the English reprint of Masakazu Katsura’s SHADOW LADY in the early 2000s, I don’t imagine that I perceived the unity in the narrative’s use of psychological and sociological motifs. Now I regard the series' unity as all the more impressive in that I've learned how the series’ run in WEEKLY SHONEN JUMP came to a premature end. This development forced Katsura to truncate one of his storylines, and yet the primary narrative thread remains whole. SHADOW LADY also keeps its own identity despite borrowing tropes from both Eastern concepts (SAILOR MOON, CUTIE HONEY) and their Western kindred (BATMAN, DR. JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, and maybe a little Harlan Ellison on the side).

The series transpires in the fictional Gray City. The first page alludes to a vague class struggle between poor people, who “eke out a miserable existence” in the metropolis, and rich people, who “live in a beautiful city with the decadent architecture of a glorious past.” But Katsura never directly returns to this theme, for the reader never sees even the sentimentalized poor people one could witness in Golden Age BATMAN comics. 





For that matter, Katsura doesn’t show very many of the filthy rich, for most of Gray City seems inhabited by middle-class laborers. Presumably Katsura only introduced the idea of wealth-inequity to make his imaginary city seem a little more real. But in keeping with its name, Gray City is a midpoint between the extremities of black and white, and thus it incarnates the more abstract aspects of Batman’s Gotham, with its sprawling towers and its displays of conspicuous consumption. Yet, despite some visual tropes lifted from the Bat-series—Shadow Lady has batwings on her costume and her sidekick De-Mo looks like Bat-Mite—the starring character's modus operandi resembles that of Catwoman, who is seemingly addicted to the thrill of theft. But unlike Catwoman, Shadow Lady is more purely devoted to the thrills, in that she neither keeps her loot nor gives it away to the poor a la Robin Hood. She merely wants to continually tweak the noses of the Gray City police. The thief-heroine doesn’t even have any particular animus for cops; she’s just being faithful to her nocturnal nature, ever seeing to undermine the orderly processes of daytime consciousness.






The Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the narrative is best seen in Shadow Lady’s own daytime identity: shy twenty-something Aimi Komori. Aimi lives alone and works at a job that apparently allows her a middle-class level of comfort, so she has no real beef with the moneyed classes. But whereas Jekyll’s attempts at nobility are subverted by Hyde’s brutality, Aimi’s painful reticence finds its counterpart in the flamboyant femininity of Shadow Lady. True, the powers of her other identity—fantastic strength, leaping tall buildings with the proverbial single bound—make it possible for Shadow Lady to flaunt her body, particularly with a boob-window in the chest of her costume. (She can also morph into three other costumed forms, but they play only minor roles in the overall narrative and were probably just tips of the hat to CUTIE HONEY.)




SAILOR MOON, who transforms thanks to her “moon prism makeup,” is probably a more fundamental influence. Katsura makes his readers wait through two separate arcs before getting to Shadow Lady’s origin, which come down to “Batman being created by Bat-Mite.” De-Mo, like the other inhabitants of his extradimensional Demon World, apparently exists just to bestow occult powers on anyone who summons them. De-Mo’s only power, though, is his “magical eye shadow,” and no one in the mortal realm has ever requested that power. So De-Mo crosses into the mortal plane, picks out Aimi Komori, and gives her a “super-makeover” with the eye-shadow applicator. A roughly similar setup in SAILOR MOON leads the heroine to fight for cosmic justice, but this particular magical girl is mostly in the game for kicks, even if she does have a quasi-heroic arc.







Boy-girl romance, though, is as important in SHADOW LADY as in SAILOR MOON, right down to having a hunky guy who’s friendly to the magical girl’s regular self but really grooves to her secret identity. Here the romantic interest is a gadget-making policeman, Bright Honda, who plays the moral role that Batman plays to Catwoman: ceaselessly trying to make her give up a life of crime and become a square citizen. On some level, capturing the Shadow Lady would also constitute a sexual conquest, and thus the heroine prefers to prolong the courtship as long as possible. Shadow Lady even gets a costumed romantic rival, good-girl vigilante Spark Girl, who plays “light” to Shadow Lady’s “darkness” and hopes to bring the thief-girl down in order to end her allure for policeman Bright.



Though Shadow Lady can easily frustrate real-world cops, she encounters more forceful opponents in the Demon World Police. These otherworldly enforcers initially claim that their purpose is to slay De-Mo for crossing into the human world and to expunge Aimi’s memory of him. Aimi, who’s come to think of De-Mo as her mischievous little brother, tries to make a deal with the demon-cops, only to find that these cops have manipulated the whole encounter in order to obtain the services of Shadow Lady. Now the lady thief must use her purloining powers to seek out five demon-stones, which if brought together can doom both mortal and demon worlds.



Presumably Katsura would have devoted five separate arcs to each of the stones, but for the news that his narrative had to be cut short. The overall result is that Shadow Lady contends first with one demon named Medu, then finds three other stones without contending with any supernatural opponents, after which the final arc pits her against the fifth and last demon, Zera. Non-Japanese readers will probably never know what other ideas Katsura would have fleshed out. That said, the artist manages to create a crucial balance between the two demons encountered by the heroine. Zera is just a standard ugly-ass monster, out to foment destruction for its own sake (much as Shadow Lady steals for the sake of thrills). In contrast, though Medu turns women into stone statues (making him a sex-reversed version of Medusa), he’s also a demon who, like Honda, plays by the rules, and isn’t ready to destroy the world unless humanity has reached the necessary level of iniquity. Thus Medu the “Square Demon” comes to Shadow Lady’s aid in such a way that she can save the two worlds from destruction.





To be sure, none of the heavy “light vs. darkness” tropes should obscure the fact that SHADOW LADY has a lot of silly comedy in it, particularly with respect to T&A humor more befitting CUTIE HONEY than SAILOR MOON. Still, Katsura resists the temptation to let his heroine “get religion” and to become a crimefighter after having saved the world. Instead, the heroine mysteriously disappears, and Gray City returns to a dull normalcy. Katsura’s last few pages, sans dialogue or sound-effects, shows how even the cops have become bored with ordinary crime—until the news comes that their playful nemesis is back in business. The final panel shows Shadow Lady leaping over the high towers of Gray City, a clear reference to the visual trope of Batman gliding over the city he protects. But Shadow Lady exists not to protect people against crime, but against dullness, not unlike the prankster-figure of Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which is also concerned with opposing the forces of daytime repression wherever possible.


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (1939)


Following the quixotic brilliance of PRESIDENT FU MANCHU, DRUMS proves less ambitious, but still adds up to a more pleasing potboiler than some previous works in the series. Though the doctor has just missed out on his chance to become a Head of State, he’s decided this time out to intimidate actual politicians into doing his bidding. If they don’t heed the warnings of the Si-Fan’s Council of Seven (missing in the action for a while, though mentioned a few times in PRESIDENT), then Fu engineers their assassinations. Though this seems like a return to the pattern of the early three books, the devil-doctor makes greater use of SF-weapons, such as a new contagion, the Green Death, and a disintegrator ray the size of a fountain pen.

Sax Rohmer debuts yet another earnest young viewpoint character. This time it’s Bart Kerrigan, a fighting reporter who drops everything to join Nayland Smith’s cause. In line with the usual pattern, Kerrigan’s peregrinations bring him into contact with a young woman who seems a recent convert to the Si-Fan, Ardatha. Like Karameneh and Fleurette, Ardatha has partial “Eastern” heritage, though Rohmer never specifies her background, except that she was given a religious education in an Egyptian Coptic Church. Both characters are unremarkable, with the exception of an early exchange between them, when Ardatha decries the ways of modern warfare:

And your Christian rules, your rulers of the West—yes? What do they do? If the Si-Fan kills a man, that man is an active enemy. But when your Western murderers kill they kill men, women and children—hundreds—thousands who never harmed them—

Kerrigan tries to dismiss Ardatha’s animus as “sophistry,” but Rohmer must’ve been aware that he was entering somewhat uncharted territory. Most of Fu Manchu’s pawns do not seek to justify their actions, and even though MASK OF FU MANCHU imagines a Near Eastern uprising like that of the Mahdi Rebellion, the author does not address any sociopolitical grievances. To an extent Ardatha is repeating anti-modernity arguments Fu himself voiced in PRESIDENT, but her protests are rendered nugatory when she allows her amour for Kerrigan to sweep aside her commitment to the cause.

Though Fu’s attempt to control world affairs sounds like a logical development from the previous novel, the various assassination-gambits are fairly dull, since Rohmer neglects to develop any of the political figures. Two of Fu’s prospective targets, Rudolf Adlon and Pietro Monaghani, have names minimally similar to real-life tyrants Hitler and Mussolini, though Rohmer does not make any one-on-one comparisons. The author even disassociates Adlon from the Nazi cause, and portrays the character as courageous as he faces down the devil-doctor in a brief scene. Nayland Smith and Kerrigan manage to foil enough of Fu’s schemes that there’s some suggestion that the Council may depose the doctor as the President of the Si-Fan, but Rohmer only raises this intriguing possibility to dismiss it too easily.

The novel’s primary source of interest—aside from an amusing scene in which Fu dismisses Western techniques of torture as “primitive and clumsy”-- is the revival of Fah Lo Suee. When during this case Smith first hears descriptions of a green-eyed beauty, he tells Kerrigan that she’s both a “zombie” and a “vampire,” even though he knows that she’s nothing of the kind. Later, when Smith and Kerrigan are captives of Fu Manchu, the doctor explains during the events of TRAIL he faked his daughter’s death and brainwashed her, giving her the new identity of “Koreani.” The villain also claims that, prior to Smith’s daring escape, he intended to follow the same pattern with Smith, though Fu doesn’t mention whether or not he would have resurrected his other British captives. Aside from executing Fu’s less important enemies, the entire climax of TRAIL now appears to have been a dumb-show, but one for no particular person’s benefit, given that the only other witnesses to the spectacle would have been the doctor’s utterly slavish subordinates. In any case, after her brainwashing Koreani executes the same functions she did in earlier stories—mostly that of beguiling men-- but with no ambitions of her own. However, when Fu Manchu captures both Kerrigan and Smith, Koreani vaguely recognizes Smith. She’s not intrigued enough with him to intentionally aid his escape, but thanks to her interest Smith manages to secure a device that makes liberation possible. That said, Rohmer still does not choose to let Smith make any comments on the fact that Fu Manchu’s daughter pledged her love to him two novels back.

Fu’s scheme to control the world powers just sort of peters out at the novel’s end, which is probably a consequence of the author returning to his episodic format. Even the title signals the book’s fragmented status, for it’s only in the early chapters that some of Fu’s victims are bedeviled by the sound of mysterious drums. These sounds are the only thing the novel has in common with the 1940 serial, which is essentially a remake of 1932’s MASK OF FU MANCHU. One presumes that the studio only used the title of the book because DRUMS was published the year previous, so that in theory the title might bring in the Rohmer-reading contingent into theaters. For that matter, the serial is more faithful to the drum-motif than Rohmer was, for most if not all episodes have Fu’s deviltry heralded by the sinister music—which is just one of many touches that made the DRUMS serial the best adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s premiere creation.

THE READING RHEUM: GATEWAY TO HELL (1970)


About fifty pages from the end of GATEWAY, the character of Rex makes this pronouncement on his friend the Duc de Richleau:

I know that on many questions you’re a real old-fashioned die-hard. You’d like to see Britishers still running a third of the world, and playing polo in their off-time, with a Two-Power Navy to back them up. But you’ve liberal views where human relations are concerned.

After one reads GATEWAY TO HELL, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that author Dennis Wheatley was intentionally projecting his own sociological outlook upon the leader of his “Four Musketeers. Appearing in 1970, GATEWAY was the last-published in Wheatley’s “Musketeers” series, and though Wheatley claims that the action of the novel begins in 1953, it’s obvious that he wrote it during the 1960s. He mentions a “Doctor Luther King,” even though MLK wasn’t on the political map until 1955, when he lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Further, the heroes’ Satanic adversaries this time round have organized a movement called “Black Power,” which group advocates the violent overthrow of White Culture as did the more extreme movements of the sixties—none of which were seriously active in the 1950s. Even the name “Black Power” is clearly indebted to a political slogan that didn’t gain general acceptance until the decade of the sixties (though Richard Wright did author a book titled “Black Power” in 1954). Clearly, Wheatley took material from events of the 1960s and back-dated it so that he could show his heroes fighting Satanic evil when they were still relatively hale and hearty—unlike the author, who passed seven years after GATEWAY’s publication.

The “Musketeers” series consisted of eleven books, and only the three I’ve reviewed on this blog were outright occult adventures, the rest falling under the “espionage” rubric. I’ve still read no biographical material on the series’ author, though I’d encountered one or two assertions of his conservative politics even before beginning this review-project. Initially I tried to give Wheatley the benefit of the doubt in my review of THE DEVIL RIDESOUT, choosing to read the book’s multi-cultural villains as being an indicator of the author’s cosmopolitan sentiments. However, STRANGE CONFLICT  made this interpretation untenable, and in GATEWAY Wheatley apparently takes great pleasure in depicting his multinational cabal of Satanists to represent almost every culture on the map except those from France, Britain and the U.S. To be sure, some of the villains are Caucasian—particular a leftover German Nazi, who still nurses grudges against the Allies. Still, Wheatley seems a little too pre-occupied with how many of his walk-on villains are of mixed race.

In DEVIL, three of the musketeers have to rescue one of their number when he’s seduced into Satanism. In GATEWAY the author basically repeats this trope. American Rex Van Rijn apparently embezzles funds from the family bank and flees to join a Satanist group in South America. This supposedly explains the alliance of the leftover Nazi with the Satanists, though it’s a little off-putting that the author expects readers to accept a Nazi who allies himself to a “Black Power” movement. To be sure, the aim of the Satanist leader is to incite massive anti-white riots around the world purely to foment suffering, not to empower people of color, and thus it’s implicit that all of the “colored people” in the evil group are basically selling their kindred down the river.

Before exploring the novel’s politics further, I’ll note that there are some decent thrill-sequences here, though far less than STRANGE CONFLICT, which also showed Wheatley emphasizing politics over metaphysics. The pace is much slower, as the heroes make slow progress tracking down their law-breaking buddy, and Wheatley lets the action bog down several times, particularly in a time-wasting sequence where two of the good guys have to go on trial for murder. Where occult theory is concerned, Wheatley does try to be cosmopolitan, as there are a number of arguments set to prove the existence of both ‘good pagans” and “good witches.” But often the author interrupts the action so that his well-educated characters can descant about this or that topic for pages at a time. Like the voodoo-villain of STRANGE CONFLICT, the villains here are one-dimensional blackhearts. I suspect the reason that DEVIL’s bad guy was so persuasive was that Wheatley based Mocata in part on the real-life occultist Aleister Crowley.

In contrast to STRANGE CONFLICT, there are no attempts here to justify negative racial characterizations; all the evildoers, light or dark, are defined by their resentment of the people who are currently in charge. As one sees in the above quote, Wheatley assures his readers that the book’s heroes are basically respectful toward people of all religions and ethnicities. Still, though the author takes pains to acknowledge the many ways that people-of-color have suffered in White Culture, he’s never passionate about those injustices, as he is about his fears of a massive race-war.

I certainly do not disagree with the logic of Wheatley’s assessment about the wasteful stupidity of any sort of race-war, and the concomitant stupidity of anyone who advocates such a position, be it Stokely Carmichael or the morons who greenlighted the script of BLACK PANTHER. Yet, because Wheatley conflates this particular extremist position with the bugaboo of Satanism, it’s impossible to believe that he’s made a genuinely moral assessment of the subject. In the final analysis, despite his attempts to ameliorate his conservative sentiments, he’s just as much of a clumsy manipulator as his political opposite Spike Lee. But in contrast to Lee, at least Wheatley can address more than just one monotonous subject.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: PRESIDENT FU MANCHU (1936)


                                                     

PRESIDENT FU MANCHU, the eighth work in the Fu Manchu series, shows author Sax Rohmer continuing his project to make the doctor’s schemes more global in nature—and you don’t get much more global than the villain trying to become the de facto President of the United States. Naturally, this goal can only be accomplished through a political pawn. Still, throughout the novel Fu’s subordinates call him “president,” and since they did not use that title in earlier novels, the clear implication that Fu Manchu’s candidate will reshape the world according to the doctor’s will, by harnessing the resources of the most powerful country on the planet.

As BRIDE takes place entirely in France, all of PRESIDENT’s action takes place in the U.S., though it takes Rohmer about thirty pages to establish that the specific locale is New York. Smith is the only native of Great Britain involved, as he’s given some special dispensation to command various American agents. Most of the novel is told through the POV of young agent Mark Hepburn, though some scenes are told from the viewpoints of Fu’s agents. These include Moya Adair, a young Irish widow (and the novel’s obligatory romantic interest for the leading man), and a mysterious genius known as “the Memory Man.” Neither character has been subjected to the irreversible brainwashing chemicals seen in BRIDE, though Fu does make use of more limited mind-wiping techniques. Fu and his subordinates acknowledge that their resources are limited, in part because of Nayland Smith’s dogged pursuit. At some point, however, Fu must have managed to set up a gold-making operation like the one destroyed in TRAIL, for he’s got enough money to fund a populist organization, “the League of Good Americans,” to the end of creating a political puppet to assume the Presidency.

The apparent candidate of the League is an uncouth but charismatic speaker named Harvey “Bluebeard” Bragg. The name by itself bears slight resemblance to real-life populist demagogue Huey Long, and it’s not impossible that Rohmer may have read another fictional treatment of Long in Sinclair Lewis’s IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, published the year before PRESIDENT. Rohmer, however, does not devote much time to Bragg’s character, for Fu’s long con involves using the quasi-fascist demagogue to promote a different candidate, one Salvaletti. This means that PRESIDENT beat out the main plot of Richard Condon’s MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE by over twenty years. And in addition to sorting out Fu’s primary plot, Nayland Snith must also figure out why the doctor seeks to silence a priest, the Abbott Donegal, who poses some obscure threat to the League of Good Americans.

But though PRESIDENT fully reporesents Rohmer’s commitment to more extensive ploys, in one sense it feels more like the first three novels, with their trope of “there’s a yellow or brown boogieman under every English bed.” Rohmer’s novels of the 1930s ease off this trope somewhat, and even allowed a couple of (very minor) characters of color who didn’t turn out to be minions of the Si-Fan. But early in the novel Smith meets one of Donegal’s functionaries, James Richet, and later makes the following extraordinary (even for 1936) pronouncement:

There’s color somewhere. I can’t place its exact shade.

And, as it happens, Smith’s instincts are correct, for Rohmer tells the reader that one of Richet’s ancestors was a “Kanaka” (i.e., Hawaiian-derived), as well as mentioning that Richet’s racial heritage barred him from success in white society, leading him to work for both criminal societies and eventually for the Si-Fan. Rohmer wastes little time on this minor pawn, whom the devil-doctor exterminates in the course of things. However, it wouldn’t be hard to read the novel as a racist diatribe. The first three novels often excoriated Asians by calling them “yellow,” but rarely used epithets (with the exception ot the word “dago” in RETURN). I counted six uses of the word “chink” in PRESIDENT, though I note that all of these epithets are spoken by white Americans. This may signify that Rohmer simply believed that Americans were more openly impolite than his own people.

There are, to be sure, some moments in which Rohmer seeks to stress that Fu Manchu and his people do not represent all Asians, as when one monologue asserts that “the Chinaman is a law-abiding citizen.” And then there’s PRESIDENT’s “shady lady” Lola Dumas, who’s attached to the retinues of both Bragg and Salvaletti. Lola is apparently a major player in New York society, together with her father Emmanuel, who “claimed… to be descended from the brilliant quadroon who created the Three Musketeers” (i..e., Alexandre Dumas). Unacceptable though the word “quadroon” may be today, Rohmer seems to mean it only as a descriptive term, not least because he’s extolling the writer’s genius. Later, Fu Manchu himself seemingly confirms the legacy of these latter-day Dumas descendants, when he meditates on Lola’s fitness to serve him:

She is amorous and she is compassionate—it is the Negroid strain…

Again, these will sound like left-handed compliments to a modern ear, as does Moya’s curious opinion that Lola reminds her of “a beautiful, evil priestess of voodoo.” As it happens, it’s not clear whether or not either Lola’s amorousness or compassion renders her unfit for service to Fu Manchu, but he does choose to replace her for a time with Moya Adair. Lola doesn’t play a big role in the story. Her ultimate destiny is that she’s intended to be First Lady to the puppet-President. One wonders if Rohmer may have given American culture too much credit, to assume that voters of the thirties would be okay with a First Lady who acknowledged Negroid heritage.

Fu has a more complicated relationship with Moya Adair. He suborns her by kidnapping her young son Robbie and returning him to his mother on the condition of her continued service. Yet when he visits Moya’s home to give her orders, he’s friendly enough to the boy that the child calls him “Yellow Uncle.” (Fu’s opinion of the name is not recorded.) Yet, despite having every reason to despise the doctor, she tells Hepburn that Fu Manchu “thinks on a plane which we simply can’t understand.”

Because Moya discharges her duties to the doctor without turning on him as do many of his other female pawns, Fu Manchu actually confesses a certain human failing on his part, as well as taking her into his confidence in a minor way:

I do not trust you—no woman is to be trusted in a world of men. Yet because I am a man too, and very lonely in this my last battle to crush what the West calls civilization—I will advance you one step further into my plans.

This scene mirrors an earlier one in which Fu confers with his aged comrade Sam Pak, who serves the doctor implicitly, but declines the master’s invitation to join Fu in the state of agelessness. Without overestimating Fu’s relationship with either Sam Pak or Moya, both scenes depict Fu Manchu with a tragic air, a Tamerlane born in an era that regards him as only a common felon. This may well explain why he does not seek to impose brainwashing upon either his rebellious daughter Fah Lo Suee or his runaway bride Fleurette: he wants willing companions in his quest for a new world order. He knows that Moya is not such a companion; that she only serves him under coercion. Yet, in the novel’s most extraordinary scene, he personally utilizes his great medical skills to save Moya’s young son from a diphtheria infection, even though this deed of noblesse oblige places him in danger of capture. Of course, being Fu Manchu, he escapes the law with ridiculous ease, though in the final chapter he suffers yet another equivocal death, this time being swept over Niagara Falls while under attack by his more rebellious servant, the Memory Man.

As for Fu’s master plan to co-opr the U.S. Presidency, the Abbot Donegal, who disappears for most of the book, re-appears at the end to reveal to the multitudes the true backer of the League of Good Americans. Yet Donegal’s most telling strike may be his sabotage of the celebrity marriage of Lola and Salvaletti, for in his big speech the Abbot reveals that Salvaletti is both a de-frocked priest and a man with a previous wife. Salvaletti then commits suicide, leaving this reader with the impression that he’s the one who should’ve been nicknamed “Bluebeard.”

PRESIDENT FU MANCHU, though not one of Rohmer’s more engrossing thrillers, may well be the closest he ever came to elaborating his beliefs about race and culture. I don’t think it would have occurred to the author to ameliorate readers hostile to his character via tokenism: say, by giving Nayland Smith a brilliant young Chinese aide. Rather, Rohmer’s overall view seems to be that of a later author’s idea of an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” if one may extrapolate from a passage in the next-to-last chapter:

…[the sound] rose weirdly on the night, as though long-dead gods of the red man, returning, lamented the conquest of the white.”

MYTHCOMICS: "AND THERE WILL BE WORLDS ANEW" (DOCTOR STRANGE ANNUAL #1, 1976)


Since its inception, Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE has been such a triumph of visual design that a fair number of quality artists—Colan, Rogers, Starlin, and a host of others—sought to play baroque games of form and shape in the Sanctum That Ditko Drew. That said, though Ditko’s visual rendition of the doctor’s very strange worlds remains unsurpassed, the feature’s scripting was usually not quite as distinguished. Thus, though I’ve argued for the mythic depth of many tales from both of STRANGE’s co-creators Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, I’ve found little complexity in the Lee-Ditko stoiies of the “master of the mystic arts.” It’s been suggested that one of the two creators took some inspiration from the sixties bestsellers of alleged Tibetan monk T. Lobsang Rampa, insofar as those books introduced Western readers to complex concepts (however borrowed) of Tibetan sorcery. But if Rampa was the proximate source for DOCTOR STRANGE, neither Ditko nor Lee pursued any other aspects of esoteric tradition, Eastern or Western. While I would not have wanted to see the creativity of the feature straight-jacketed by adherence to occult doctrine—a failing of Steve Englehart’s version of the character— some metaphysical motifs might have kept the feature from having been so dominated by two principal plots: either Doc Strange goes to some alien dimension to fight tyrannical rulers there, or he defends Earth from being invaded by such extradimensional forces.



“And There Will be Worlds Anew” was ostensibly the sole creation of artist P. Craig Russell (more on that matter later), and there’s no more esoteric tradition in either his art or script than in most other adventures of Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme. However, Russell does pattern his stand-alone story on a metaphysical motif common to Western art: the close association of Beauty and Death. Many Russell works make no bones about his narrative inspirations, often adapted from or patterned after famous (and public-domain) operas like PELLEAS AND MELISANDE and Wagner’s RING continuity. In re-reading ‘Worlds,” I didn’t pin down any specific narratives on which Russell might have modeled his tale, though I did think of Poe’s little-known story “The Island of the Fay,” in which the main character fantasizes seeing the same scene from two viewpoints: a beautiful faerie-bower and a desolate wasteland.



For the first eight pages, “Worlds” isn’t much different from the average Doctor Strange story. Brooding in his domicile after a quarrel with his lover Clea, the magician receives tidings that she’s been kidnapped by an unknown entity. The hero seeks out “the Temple of Man,” which is apparently mainly a big old occult library. Strange’s characterization carries more currents of self-doubt than is usual, but it’s not significantly different from the Strange of more formulaic stories. And after the magician’s quest takes him to a never-visited dimension called Phaseworld, his first action is to engage in battle with the dimension’s ruler Lectra, much as the doctor would in many previous adventures. Lectra only wins the conflict by a standard villain-trope: she shows the hero an image of his beloved in captivity, and he’s forced to surrender to preserve Clea’s life.



However, with the standard Marvel pyrotechnics out of the way, Russell then devotes the remainder of “Worlds” to portraying the beauties of Phaseworld. The two mages set out for Lectra’s home city, Allandra, transported across “the currents of space” (and a relatively mundane-looking ocean) in a mystical ship. On the way a sea serpent attacks, and Strange wounds the creature before Lectra can explain that the beast is meant to guide them through stormy seas. Lectra thus gets to strut her stuff by forcing the storms to cease, conjuring up the Biblical motif. Once the seas are calm, the complex golden city of Allandra rises from the depths.





Russell makes Allandra a true faery-dwelling, all spires and minarets, with no indication that it was ever meant to be lived in. Up to this point Strange has seen no sentient beings except Lectra and a ship-crew of undead sailors. But the city has even fewer signs of life, causing Strange to think, “It is magnificence itself, a city of floating form and sculpture. And yet, beneath the fascination, I sense death.”

Once the two sorcerers arrive at the palace, Lectra outlines her plan to make Strange her consort. She doesn’t have the usual motive of wanting to spawn offspring, though, for her purpose is to meld her sorcerous powers with those of the hero in order to preserve Allandra from doom. She attributes the decay of her world to her sister Phaydra, who then makes an appearance, and the latter remains silent in contrast to Lectra’s volubility. 



However, the silent woman keeps company with a type of bird almost iconic in ballet and opera: a lovely white swan. The swan, name of Tempus, is able to speak for Phaydra, accusing Lectra of beginning their world’s doom by usurping the throne for “vainglorious lusts.” The two sisters battle magically. Strange interrupts the fight, wanting nothing but his missing beloved. The swan metamorphoses into an angel-winged man, and reveals that Clea was never Lectra’s prisoner. The revelation causes Lectra to hurl a spell at Tempus, but when he deflects, her magic destroys a “soul mirror,” leading to the deaths of both sisters and the world of Allandra. Strange alone escapes and returns to his own world.



The conjoined but opposing natures of the sisters is the dominant theme here, though only once does Russell gloss those natures, having the hunky swan-stud state that Lectra “possesses the evil of the mind” while Phaydra “holds the truth and good of the heart.” I’d like to say that this interpretation is supported by the Classical Greek names Russell invokes, but his characters don’t parallel in any meaningful way the stories told, respectively, of Classical Electra and Classical Phaedra. My best guess is that in the story of Electra, she represents Thanatos, since she’s willing to sacrifice Orestes so that their mutual father is avenged, while Phaedra is Eros, given that her passion for her stepson would’ve harmed no one had it not been forestalled by the priggishness of Hippolytus. But again—just a guess.

The original story appears with both scripting and co-plotting credits for Marv Wolfman, but in a COMICS JOURNAL interview Russell denied that Wolfman had done anything but provide dialogue. Many years later Russell persuaded Marvel to re-publish the story with his revisions to the art and the script, and as I have not read this version I cannot comment. Still, Russell’s art nouveau approach to the master magician was at least an improvement on the character’s generally-neglected metaphysical potential.