Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Triumphant Resurgence: Shin Godzilla

I saw Shin Godzilla last night. I enjoyed it a great deal.

Shin Godzilla!

I like my Godzilla grim, so the reversion to the 1954 film which treats Godzilla as a force of nature, a natural disaster, is a welcome reversion to me. There's also a direct line between this and I enjoy watching monsters battling each other, but I didn't miss it here. The drama is the conflict between Godzilla, the government response team, and the government trying to get out of its own way.

Like all disaster films, the nature of the situation has to unfold, grow deeper. And in this case, Godzilla changes, thus altering the situation. I'm not going to spoil much of the film, but this is a forward-looking Godzilla, one that has new tricks up its sleeve. Like the 1954 Godzilla, it isn't until the second encounter that Godzilla uses its atomic breath. Like the original film, it's a big reveal. And then things change, and continue to change. I liked that.

With these two paragraphs behind me, I will say that there isn't much new in the formula, but it's handled very well. There are a lot of people running around getting things done. Previous installments of the franchise often involved the government figuring out what to do, but this really steps it up. Like The Return of Godzilla, there is a lot of international attention given to the problem of Godzilla, and the government is put under considerable pressure to stop Godzilla or have another nuke dropped on Japan. However, where that film portrays a static government confident of its control of the forces at its command, Shin Godzilla shows us a government in chaos, overlapping priorities, wrong guesses, and This leaves us with a ticking time bomb against which the scientists must race, similar to Invasion of Astro-Monster. Also, the technology to stop Godzilla is a combination of Godzilla vs Space Godzilla and Godzilla vs Destroyah. So the film is well aware of its roots, drawing on the more successful and popular entries from the franchise.

The devastation of Godzilla's second rampage is astonishing. The tension is ratcheted up, the amount of damage Godzilla does seems to escalate exponentially. It's awesome. And I like the looks of the new Godzilla. It has staged growth, like Hedorah, although there's some unfortunate similarities to the evolution of a Pokemon. But this multi-stage development has been present in the franchise for longer than Pokemon have been around.

I and others before me have written about the increased militarization of Godzilla films. The Japanese military doesn't get a lot of play because of the restrictions placed on it by the US at teh end of World War II. So Godzilla films have traditionally been something for the Japanese audience to enjoy military display, since Japan is being invaded. Ishiro Honda almost always portrayed the military as for display only, it never solved the problem of the monster movie plot. Part of the difficulty with the 1998 American remake was the portrayal of the military was the solution to the problem, but they had to be incompetent because otherwise the film would last as long as it took to deploy the appropriate firepower. But the military shines here, and I don't think the directors were entirely honest about it. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces is very careful, not attacking Godzilla when there are even two civilians who might get hurt. The film graces them with near-perfect certainty as to the location of civilians. And then, when the military takes it in the chin, casualties are glossed over. The big G hammers the military with its atomic ray, but the losses are never mentioned, as they are in the more nuanced Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. The boom pumps (called 'cranes' in the film) used on Godzilla are similar to those used to cool down the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant during the nuclear disaster. That said, the first wave of boom operators, don't walk away. They are not mentioned again, but the likely future Prime Minister Rando Yaguchi is praised. Not the people who did the actual work. This ties into my old post about strong leaders. Rando sacrifices his military men, who are not mourned for their sacrifice. The camera and script lionize him for his leadership. Which, given its invocation of the Fukushima 50, seems disingenuous at best, blindly deceptive at worst. This is exactly the sort of wishful thinking Monsters: Dark Continent addresses.

But that's pretty much all by implication, things the camera doesn't show. I found it a very good film, and seems likely to become one of my favorites in the Godzilla canon. Long live the franchise.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Strange Fruit: O Morto do Pântano

With translation assistance from David Ribeiro

Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono I had the good fortune to stumble on a lesser-known literary descendant of the Heap. As far as I know, O Morto do Pântono (“The Dead Man from the Swamp”) has never been formally translated into English. It is a Brazillian comic, the creation of Eugênio Colonnese, a multitalented and prolific artist who wrote and illustrated movie posters, World War Two comics, created several superheroes, and was partially responsible for the widespread use of comics in Brazilian education to engage and motivate students. His most famous creation, however, is Mirza, mulher vampire (Mirza, the Vampire Woman). Mirza should be familiar to anyone who knows Warren Publishing’s Vampirella; aristocratic, voluptuous, and scantily-clad. It should be said, however, that while Vampirella’s first issue came out in September 1969, Mirza arrived in 1967.

As a backup to Mirza, Colonnese created O Morto do Pântono. This swamp creature, which I’ll refer to as O Morto, “the dead man” has enough similarities to imply that it was inspired by the Heap. Although I cannot make a direct connection, O Morto is a human-derived, but dead creature of the swamp. In the same way that the Heap’s later stories were structured, O Morto is a vessel of narrative justice via retribution, although O Morto’s methods aren’t quite as varied as the Heap’s. It seems to have inhuman strength despite the spindly nature of its limbs and short, hunched torso. Like the Heap and most swamp creatures that follow it, O Morto is immune to bullets.

At the same time, the character has enough dissimilarities to give O Morto his own flavor. Unlike most comic book swamp monsters, and again ahead of later muck men like Swamp Thing and Sludge, O Morto can reason and even talk. Although its skin is heavily textured, where that of regular people is undecorated, it retains a more human shape than the Heap or Man-Thing, even with a halo of hair with a balding pattern. In another departure, O Morto does not wander far from his swamp. The Heap’s stories were set in locations across the globe; Africa, China, the Middle East, American and Europe. O Morto remains where he is, and waits for the evildoers to come to him. And come they do. Blackmailers, marijuana smokers, and other bad men. Uniquely among the muck monsters of comics, O Morto always carries an enormous single-bit axe.

Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono As the name implies, O Morto regards himself a dead person. His immunity to bullets seems to back this up. It isn’t until 1985, nearly two decades after O Morto’s first appearance, that his origin his even hinted at. In "Bodies Without Heads Do Not Speak," a legend is recounted that O Morto was once a judge who was dragged to the wetlands and killed with an ax. His subsequent resurrection is left as a mystery, but this explains some of the moral yet harsh nature of his justice, and his territoriality. Despite this new understanding of the character's background, he solves his problems in the the same way, an axe-blow to someone's head.

Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono Unlike Dr. Ted Sallis who became the Man-Thing, Dr. Alec Holland who became the Swamp Thing, or Baron von Immelmann, O Morto does not seem to be highly educated. Judges of this period in Brazil were not required to have a law background, merely to pass a test on the local laws. He’s a bit more down to earth than the previous lives of other of the Heap’s literary descendants. In this way, O Morto seems to presage such slasher fare such as Jason Voorhees. But where Jason varied his implements and tended to merely start with the immoral youths and move on to their friends, O Morto just goes after the bad people. With a huge axe. He occasionally meets people who are not reprehensible, Sílvia in “Little Sílvia” as well as Bernardo in ”Bad Smell.” He does not kill indiscriminately. Only those he believes are bad. As such, his stories tend to follow the mid to late Heap style of story. A bad person goes into the swamp, only to be violently foiled. O Morto is also the only supernatural element in the these stories. Everything else is strictly noir or crime.

Another interesting quirk that sets O Morto apart from other swamp monsters is its tendency to speak directly to the reader, likely reflecting the hosts of EC’s fifties anthologies, the Vault-Keeper, the Crypt-Keeper, and the Old Witch. O Morto does double-duty, however, serving both as character as well as narrator. In the earlier stories, he has a splash image taking up the majority of the page, usually delivering a ghoulish or misanthropic message. In “The Gnats” he doesn’t actually appear in the story, serving instead as an outside observer of human wickedness and cruelty.

O Morto definitely has a personality. He is misanthropic, several times referring to humanity as muck or slime, happy when the mulch of humanity returns to the muck of the swamp. And he is more than willing to refer to the reader in such terms. But at the end of “Damn Herbs” he lets us know that this is not the only side to him:

Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono "A coisa melhor do mundo e o lodo. Lodo e o podridao como estes dois! Ervas malditas, Mosquitos, pernilongos, oh! Que sinfonia harmoniosa! Tudo isso enche sde satisfacao minha sensibilidade de poeta, bem no fundo de minha alma! Ah Ah Ah! Embora eu nao tenha "fundo" E muito menos alma!"

Loosely translated: "The best thing in the world and the mud. Slime and rot like these two [people he’s just killed]! Damn herbs, mosquitoes, gnats, oh! That symphony! All this fulfills my poet's sensitivity, deep in my soul! Ah ah ah! Although I do not have "background" and much less soul!’

With ten, or possibly eleven, published stories between 1967 and 1968, Morto went dormant in the seventies, with the exception of a single story published in O Vampiro in 1974. But like Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, O Morto do Pântono was revived in the early eighties. Eight new stories were written for the Brazilian comics Spektro, Calafrio ("Chill"), and Mestres do Terror. One final story, “The Night 0f the Kidnappers” was created, for the Mirza, A Vampira, collection from Opera Graphica in 2002, with a script by Franco de Rosa. The final story of Morto, and the one in which Mirza and O Morto finally meet.

Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono What makes these black and white stories stand out so much is the life, if you’ll pardon me, and energy that Eugênio Colonnese imparts to his creation. The swamp is lit like a noir film, dark and white, with no grey tones. Although I suspect this is a necessity of the printing process originally used, Colonnese’s art makes fantastic use of the medium. The line work is reminiscent of both Bernie Wrightson and Steve Bissette, fine and frenetic in places, other times using broad gestures to suggest more than is actually present on the page. Colonnese has a fine eye for the grotesque, and constantly creates memorable images.

I could only get my hands on the 2005 release, O Morto do Pântono, which contains seven of the twenty stories, and I’m a bit sad that I have been unable to locate any more of the stories. But pursuing this would involve a search for forty-year old comics in a country I’m more than twenty-seven hundred miles away from, and in a language I don’t understand. Additionally, there seems to be a contradiction in the introduction: three of the stories, “Hellish Herb” “The Gants” “The Red Jalopy” all bear the by-line of Luis Meri, but the history section claims they were written by Luis Quevedo. For all I know Mali is a pseudonym for Quevedo, or vice-versa, but it’s not something I have been able find any information on. I would send queries to the publisher, but Opera Graphica ceased operations in 2009.

It has been suggested by Amazon reviewer Lawrance Bernabo in his review of Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis that Swamp Thing was inspired by O Morto do Pântano, but it seems very unlikely. Though O Morto was created in 1967, I can’t find any evidence that it was ever translated into English. Further, I have not been able to find any reference to Len Wein or Bernie Wrightson, (the same for Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Grey Morrow, creators of Man-Thing which famously and contentiously debuted months before Swamp-Thing did) mentioning O Morto when they recount the origins of their muck monster. And given what an exhaustive job Jon Cooke did interviewing those creators for the monumental and extremely thorough Swamp Men book from Twomorrows publishing, I find it very unlikely that they wouldn’t have mentioned it.

Eugênio Colonneses' O Morto do Pantono I was extraordinarily pleased to come across O Morto do Pântono, because I love the all the permutations of Hillman’s The Heap. O Morto is another very entertaining, unique offshoot from the Heap’s fecund trunk. There’s a charm to the stories, and Colonnese’s art is stunning. Hopefully, and perhaps this article will help, the character will get more of the exposure that it deserves. I would love to read the rest of O Morto’s stories.

O Morto appeared in twenty different stories, spread out over thirty-five years. Only seven appeared in the eponymous collection which was published by in 2005. I won’t include a list of the illustrations that appear in various magazines, although the Opera Graphica editors note a number them for their complete history of O Morto. All stories were illustrated by Colonnese. Stories in bold appear in the Opera Graphica collection.

“Sou: O Morto do Pântano”, “I am The Dead Man of the Swamp” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #1, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
•“Orquídea Vermelha… Cor do Sangue” “Red Orchid… the Color of Blood” Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #2 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
•“Prisão Macabra” Macabre Prison, in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #4, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
•“Capturem… O Morto do Pântano” “Capture… The Dead Man of the Swamp” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #5, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
“Erva Maldita!” “Hellish Herb!” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #6, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
“Os Pernilogos!” “The Gnats” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #7, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
“O Calhambeque Vermelho” “The Red Jalopy” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #8, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
•“Sem Titulo” “Untitled” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #9, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
•“Um Amigo!” “A Friend!” in Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #10, 1967. Script by Luis Quevedo
•“O Peso do Ouro” The Weight of the Gold” O Vampiro # 13, 1974 (possibly a reprint from Mirza, Mulher Vampiro #11, but the editors at Opera Graphica weren’t able to lay hands on a copy). Script by Eugênio Colonnese
•“De Volta ao Mundo do Terror!” “Back to the World of Terror) Spektro #23, 1981. Script by Basilio Almeida
•“Sem Titulo“ “Untitled” in Mestres do Terror #1, 1982. Script by Décio Miranda Júnior
•“O Crime Perfeito” “The Perfect Crime” in Mestres do Terror #2, 1982. Script by Eugênio Colonnese
“A Pequena Silvia” “Little Sílvia” in Mestres do Terror #7, 1982. Script by Osvalo Talo
•“Fuga Para o Amor we a Morte!” ‘Escape to Love and Death!” in Mestres do Terror #8, 1982. Script by Octacilio D’Assunção
•“Noite de Luar… no Pântano!” “Night Moonlight… in the Swamp!” in Mestres do Terror #9, 1982. Script by Osvalo Talo
•“Uma História de Amor!” “A Love Story!“ in Mestres do Terror #18, 1983. Script by Osvalo Talo
“Corpos Sem Cabeças Não Falam…” “Bodies Without Heads Don’t Speak…” in Mestres do Terror #29, 1985. Script by Osvalo Talo
“Mau Cheiro” “Bad Smell” in Mestres do Terror #36, 1986. Script by Osvalo Talo and Reinaldo do Oliveira
•“A Noite dos Seqüestradores” “The Night 0f the Kidnappers” Mirza, A Vampira, 2002. Script by Franco de Rosa

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Classic: Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing

Sometimes I wonder what was in the air, or perhaps the water in 1971. Three swamp creature crawled their way into comics in a single year. Skywald’s Heap was the first, published in March, Marvel’s Man-Thing followed in May, and DC’s Swamp Thing followed in July. Accusations of copying have flown ever since, both professionally and in the respective fan communities. But that’s not a knot I'm prepared to detangle. Looking past the similarities of the swamp monsters allows us to perceive their great differences. As a character-driven media, comics depend very heavily on the character for the type and style of story that can be told. Swamp monsters are not, generally, interchangeable. One of Steve Gerber’s Man-Thing stories would not work if the Man-Thing was swapped out for the Swamp Thing, or even the Skywald Heap.

Bias alert here, Swamp Thing was the comic that got me into comics, and for a long time, kept me buying. Like a lot of kids, I got a big stack of hand-me-down comics at a young age, including Swamp Thing issues 9 and 10. They were unlike anything I had ever read anywhere else, and still have a special place in my heart. They had such an effect on me that the second volume of Swamp Thing, starting in 1982, was the first comic series I followed regularly. I stopped at issue #10, and then returned four years later with Swamp Thing 48. Swamp Thing and I have history.

House of Secrets 92, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
House of Secrets 92, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Swamp Thing’s initial story appeared in House of Secrets #92, cover date July, 1971, a collaboration between Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. A one-shot Victorian Gothic tale of Alex Olsen, who is murdered and left to die in the swamp. He returns to find the murderer making the moves on his wife. Smashing through a window, he murders the man who murdered him. However, he cannot reconcile with his wife, she cannot recognize him in his new mucky form. He then returns to the swamp, forever. Len Wein’s wordsmithing in this story is excellent and moody, and Bernie Wrightson’s art is magnificent. What makes keeps it from being yet another "back from the dead to take revenge on the murderer" story is the heartfelt love story that underlies it. The images from the story, with the red eyes and the outstreteched hand, the image of the Swamp Thing peering at the house where it once had a normal life, have become iconic. From this story sprang so much of the non-superhero comics of the nineties and the first decade of the two thousands, two films, a cartoon, a live-action TV series, and more than four hundred stories featuring the character. Although the seminal partnership between Wein and Wrightson only lasted eleven stories, those classic stories have left an indelible mark on comics.

The Swamp Thing, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson One year after House of Secrets 92, Wein and Wrightson brought the concept back, this time in a modern setting. They had been reluctant to do so, but were encouraged to do so by DC editor-in-chief Carmine Infanto, who had once been the illustrator for Hillman's Heap. As the new Swamp Thing (#1 cover date November 1972) this was an ongoing series, the background is better fleshed out, and Alec Holland is a more fully realized character than Alex Olsen was. And the Hollands are working on a biorestorative formula, a catalyst added to the swamp to make the transformation of the protagonist into a grotesque more credible. Interestingly, between the House of Secrets story and the first issue of Swamp Thing, Len Wein wrote the second Man-Thing story for Marvel. The story was shelved when Savage Tales #2 was postponed, but brought back by Roy Thomas, and saw print in Astonishing Tales, in June, 1972.

As a character, the Swamp Thing is very different from the Hillman Heap, and Man-Thing. Not only does the creature retain the intellect of Dr. Alec Holland, it also retains some ability to speak. This also separates it from the Skywald Heap, which could think, but wasn’t a scientist, and couldn’t speak. As the decades have passed, speech has gotten easier for the Swamp Thing, but in the initial Wein and Wrightson stage, it’s pretty limited. Instead of being shaggy, as Man-Thing and the Hillman Heap are, the Swamp Thing is mossy, its surface (skin?) is smooth, although shot through with roots. It has the shape of a larger, more muscular man than Alec Holland was, as opposed to the shapeless goopiness of the Skywald Heap. Being able to reason and even sometimes speak allows the character a more active role in its stories. It need not be reactive, but can interpret what it sees without the need of an intermediary. Despite this, the Swamp Thing manages to get a supporting cast of humans, allowing for some complex stories told from different points of view.

Swamp Thing #3, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson The Swamp Thing’s background cast is filled out with two people initially. Matt Cable was assigned to protect Alec Holland and now chases the Swamp Thing here and there across the globe. Cable is a bit generic, a down-on-his-luck government agent who hunts the monster that has ruined (in his opinion) his career. While on a trip to the Balkans, he picks up Abby Arcane, niece of recurring villain Anton Arcane. The two make a good team, although Abigail doesn’t have a lot of agency. They duo becomes a trio with Jefferson Bolt, a black man who was being held by the worms in issue eleven. Wein doesn't develop Bolt all that much, really only having two issues to do so. Bolt seems like he is there to provide conflict, or at least a different perspective that Abbey is unable to provide. The two (and then three) often provide a more human counterpoint to the Swamp Thing's stories, although occasionally (Issue 5 "Last of the Ravenwind Witches", and issue 10 "The Man Who Would Not Die") they don't show up at all. The supporting cast allowed Wein and Wrightson to approach stories from different perspectives. Issue 9, "The Stalker From Beyond" is an excellent example, switching perspective from Cable and the Abbey back to the Swamp Thing, moving the story forward through each character's perspective.

Swamp Thing #5 the legendary werewolf, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
The initial story of Swamp Thing is strangely unlike like the rest of the book. It’s a modern revenge thriller, an expansion of the original story. Later stories are almost entirely Gothic. Sorcerers dreaming of immortality, werewolves, New England witches, creepy robot human replacements, a Lovecraftian horror down a mine shaft, and an alien all populate the pages. Only issues 1 “Dark Genesis” and 7 “Night of the Bat" are without supernatural of science-fiction trappings. Wein crammed a lot of story into the twenty-four pages, and while they are nods of homages to films like Freaks, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein, they are not imitative. The werewolf story happens on the moors of Scotland, the alien story takes place in the swamps of Louisiana, giving each a unique setting and flavor. The book fell into a "monster of the week" format almost by default. Multi-issue story arcs were not the norm in the seventies, so this could be viewed as an extended horror anthology series, like House of Secrets, but sharing a protagonist. The stories often present a familiar trope, but they are always given a unique twist. And this is Wein's genius, and half the reason these stories have held up.

Swamp Thing #7 Swamp Thing vs the Batman, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Swamp Thing interacts with the rest of the DC Universe only once during Wein and Wrightson’s time on the book. Swamp Thing comes to Gotham City, the home of Batman. The Batman concept is flexible enough that it doesn't break the Gothic horror atmosphere that Wein and Wrightson carefully cultivated. The story itself stretches the concept of the Swamp Thing himself. For the first time, he is in a city. And the plot is again not a horror one, but an investigation, but starring Batman and the Swamp Thing conducting parallel lines of inquiry, arriving at he same conclusion at the same time. It works as both a Batman mystery and a Swamp Thing horror story, and sets in motion an association between the Batman and Swamp Thing that would be fruitful for years to come.

Hello, old enemy. Anton Arcane, back from the dead the first time in Swamp Thing #10, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Issue 10 also deserves some special mention, since it’s the only issue with Wrightson as the plotter. It's a ghost story, as well as the return of Anton Arcane, who becomes the Swamp Thing's longest-lasting recurrine villain. His appearance here is quite memorable for its pure grotesqueness. Wrightson says the climax came from Ray Bradbury’s “The Handler” (adapted in Tales from the Crypt 36) and the parallel is easy to see. The image with the tombstones is very close to the Tales of the Crypt story. The story itself is radically different from the original Bradbury. It's a wonderfully dark story, and for once, the Swamp Thing is more a passive observer of the action rather than a participant. It’s a wonderfully dark story, very well told, and remains a personal favorite of mine. One point about "The Man Who Would Not Die" which I have never seen addressed, is the change of the old woman’s name from “Auntie De Luvian” to Auntie Bellum” in virtually every reprint I’ve seen. I’ve always wondered why tiny touch has been changed in the reprints.

The original Auntie De Luvian from Swamp Thing #10, by Len Wein and Bernie WrightsonAuntie Bellum, from the reprinted Swamp Thing #10, by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson

Although I have written mostly about Wein's writing, I have to note that Wrightson's art is the perfect match to Wein's storytelling. He often adds strange or disconcerting angles to his art which makes it more powerful. He also ads subtle layers to stories that are not in Wein's scripts. For example, there is a sequence in "The Stalker From Beyond", a stack of page-wide panels in which the army squad is setting up camp. From the apparent chaos of the first panel, the men have resolved themselves into their respective sides concerning the fate of the alien. Those that want to kill it stand to the right, those that do not stand at the left. It’s a very subtle piece of art, but one that ads texture to the story. When Nestor Redondo took over the art chores with issue eleven, this layer of artistic nuance was lost. Which is not to say that Redondo was a bad artist. He isn't. He's an exceptional artist. But he was more of a superhero artist, so his choices of point of view tended to be more conventional.

Swamp Thing #11 The Conqueror Worms, by Len Wein and Nestor Redondo Swamp Thing #13 Len Wein's farewell to the series, by Len Wein and Nestor Redondo Wein wrote another three issues with artist Nestor Redondo made the comic his, and gave us very strong art. Unfortunately, virtually anything would have seemed pale after the masterwork Wrightson did. That said, Redondo's art is sharp and very well defined, although not as detailed or chaiscuro as Wrightson. Len Wein’s stories remained solid, addressing more novel concepts such as alien worms that wanted to keep humanity for food stock, time travel, allowing some wonderful illustrations of strange worms, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and lions from the Roman arena. But the stories were pitched and broken differently. They were were no longer a collaboration, but fully scripted by Wein before being sent to Redondo. So they have a different feel. They're still good, but they lack the sense of the Gothic and the grotesque that was present in first ten issues. The only thing I can say is that they feel more like a standard comic-book. A little more 'gonzo' and a bit less personal. They're still worth reading, but it seems clear that Wein was winding down his time on the book. As a lovely farewell, Wein ended the series with the same line that ended the short story: “... And if tears could come, they would.”

More than Man-Thing, which in its heyday was Steve Gerber's personal pulpit, the Wein and Wrightson Swamp Thing is foundational in the development of modern comics. Both of these comics sold well, outstripping popular superhero comics of their day. But Man-Thing doesn't seem to have acquired another writer who understood how to write compelling stories for the character, and Man-Thing has not managed to recapture its popularity under Gerber. Swamp Thing, on the other hand, managed to attract other authors and artists who would re-create the character, changing it from a simple "mucky human" into something larger and even more unique. Swamp Thing would eventually become the springboard from which DC Comics launched Vertigo, its successful line of horror comics in the early nineties. Swamp Thing is and remains a reminder that comics are not the exclusive domain of superheroes, that horror comics have and continue to be viable titles that, when well-written, sell well.

I hope I haven’t simply sung the praises of the Wein/Wrightson issues of Swamp Thing, but given the reader an idea of why I consider these to be some of the best comics ever produced. When it was going strong, Swamp Thing was one of DC Comics’ best sellers, and the stories have been endlessly reprinted. While the character has changed, especially after Alan Moore’s reinterpretation of the character in the eighties, these stories continue to be the firm foundation on which this extraordinarily popular character is based. The moody, beautiful art of Bernie Wrightson (and later, Nestor Redondo) combines with the carefully-chosen words of Len Wein to create a modern masterpiece, a book that i have read and re-read many times since I discovered it more than thirty-five years ago.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Giallo Meets Kaiju: Cozzilla

Luigi Cozzi, an Italian film maker, wanted to bring Godzilla to Italian theaters in 1977. Seeing the success of the 1976, version of King Kong, Cozzi pursued a re-release of Godzilla. Unable to secure the original Toho film, he did manage to get the rights to the American edit, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Told that theaters would be wary of a black and white film, he hired Armando Valcauda to convert the film from black and white to color. In three weeks. He also added 70's era electronic music and stock footage increase the run time. The result is a a film based on the American edit of the original Japanese, with the English dubbing redubbed into Italian, and bearing the indelible stamp of Luigi Cozzi.

Luigi Cozzi's Godzilla in all its weird sherbet glory

The shots of this film will be watery and grainy. Like Attack of the Giant Moussaka, it has never been released on home media in America. In fact, I don't believe it has been released on home media anywhere in the world. The copy I was able to find on Youtube is just ninety minutes, apparently because it was taped from a cut-down version broadcast on Italian television. Watching it brings back all those memories of the fragility of videotape. Of course the destruction of Tokyo is the most watched part, and therefore the part that cuts out the most. It's strange to me that this version is only available in such bad shape. Even Pulgasari is available in better condition.

Man, I want some ice cream now.

Cozzilla opens with scenes of daily life in Tokyo. People walking, going about their daily lives. There's even some footage of people using a bridge that Godzilla will later destroy. And then there is footage of a nuclear detonation. The effect is quite shocking, especially afterwards when we are shown images of charred bodies from the nuclear attacks. Cozzi's film differs from the Raymond Burr version primarily in its use of stock footage. So there are inserts here and there, usually clustered around the action scenes. I believe, and it's difficult to be sure because of the quality of the reproduction, that there's at least one shot of a person being hit with a flamethrower during Godzilla's rampage in Tokyo. There's even a small bit taken from Godzilla Raids Again. The stock footage leads to the occasional absurdity, such as watching propellers rev up and then seeing jets on the attack. It also cuts directly across the anti-military stance of the Ishiro Honda's original film. When Godzilla is being killed by the Oxygen Destroyer, it surfaces. Then we are given stock images of battleships blasting their guns, implying that they are assisting with the death of Godzilla.

And we helped!.

The stock footage used in the aftermath of the attack is particularly jarring. As Ifukube's beautiful hymn of peace soars, we get stock footage of charred bodies, corpses floating in the tide. This strips away the fantasy aspect of the film. We are looking at images of the dead, who were not killed by the metaphorical and nonexistent Godzilla, but by wars, bombs, and fire. What's the point of Godzilla as metaphor if the film will break through that metaphor and shows us the ugly reality behind it? Especially as the film revels in virtually every other aspect of militarism, with added planes, more explosions, more gunfire. But the Some things, I feel, are best left suggested in film, and if these added scenes had been actors in makeup, I would be less creeped out. But all that was added was stock footage. These are real people. And that makes it very difficult for me to watch this part of the film.

OK, that's a bit much.

One thing that this version of the film does make very clear is how streamlined the original Godzilla is. There's little fat on the film, everything is there for a purpose, and serves it well. It is well paced. Terry Morse's re-edit of the film is a bit looser, making room for another character who is there to explain what happens on the screen. Cozzilla lacks Moore's more deft touch, partially because of the time and money constraints. But the footage added to Cozzilla often feels forced. Dr. Serizawa's descent to confront Godzilla at the end of the film is interrupted by a shark and an octopus fighting. Which doesn't add anything but motion. It's not even action.

Cozzilla is a product of a specific time and place, and a reflection of its creator, Luigi Cozzi. The seventies were a time of experimentation, and even established franchises like Godzilla, underwent transformations. Overall, it reminds me of Godzilla vs Hedorah, as an radical departure from conventional film making. I find it rather busy, especially in the foley department. During the attacks on Godzilla especially, the sheer chaos of the added bombs, machine-gun fire, and swooping airplane noises. Cozzilla was popular in Italy, and was definitely influenced by the giallo school of film-making. It's a little too lurid for me, but I can see that I'm becoming conservative in my taste in kaiju film: gore practiced with restraint, orchestral score.

It's kind of psychadelic, man.

Ultimately, Cozzilla is a chore for me to watch. The narrative of the original film has been stretched and torn by two edits. There's an unfortunate amount of dramatic dead space, and the addition of authentic dead bodies gives me the creeps. It's a strange film, from a very different aesthetic than I'm used to in kaiju. Cozzilla is very much a product of its own time and space, as well as its creator, Luigi Cozzi. You can view the watery, multi-generation copy on on Youtube.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Palimpsest: Godzilla King of the Monsters

Shin Godzilla will be coming out on the 29th. And I thought it was time to return to My Year of Monsters.

I didn't write up the Terry Morse edit of Godzilla because I had the feeling it was beneath my notice. Just a bastardization of a classic I love. Raymond Burr as Steve Martin inserted into the already-existing film. Many people refer to it as the insulting, butchered, heavy-handed attempt to dumb down a movie to the point where it's easily digestible for American audiences. As if someone let Michael Bay add sequences to an Akira Kurosawa film. But again, David Kalat provides some much-needed perspective. Dubbing was the only way that a Japanese film was going to get any sort of audience in America in 1956. The film industry hadn't been around that long, and American audiences weren't prepared for something as complex as reading words and listening to the the intonation of the delivery in a different language. It's a developed skill. So dubbing a foreign film into English was in fact a huge act of faith by the distributor, since few films had been dubbed from Japanese, a nation that only eleven years before the US had been at war with. Acquiring the film only cost $2,500. The redub and reshoot cost $200,000.

That said, there is nothing as indicative of what this film is as the Transworld Pictures logo places over the Toho starburst. the lower part of the screen is blacked out so the Japanese characters aren't visible.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters: A Palimpsest Of the Film By Ishiro Honda

Very notable is the movement of the destruction of Tokyo to the very beginning of the film. Rather than build the tension in a documentary fashion, as the original did, King of the Monsters shows us the stakes right off. Tokyo has been devastated, and the majority of the film is flashback, narrated by Steve Martin (Burr). The new dub also makes a point of saying that the menace, not yet identified as Godzilla, is a global concern.

yes I'm cheating by using pictures I've already used before.

The impression that the anti-nuclear testing theme of the story has been completely removed is, under close scrutiny, incorrect. Dr. Yamane says "It is my belief that Godzilla was resurrected due to the repeated experiments of H-bombs." The shot of the little boy being scanned with a scintillation counter remains. The end doesn't bring up the dangers of nuclear testing again. So the topic is mentioned, but not emphasized.

Morse's insert shots aren't bad. Anyone who has seen the original several times can tell where most of the new scenes are, but they are not glaringly obvious. Thanks to back shots and dubbing, it's possible for Martin to interact with Emiko Yamane, the protagonist of the Japanese film. Even Dr. Yamane, briefly. Several times, Morse uses the sound of the Japanese film to link the transition from original footage to new, which works well. Additionally, Ishiro Honda's documentary style was a good canvas on which to overlay Burr's explanatory voice over.

Steve Martin, our narrator.

In an interesting mix of dubbing and inserts. Only the main characters are dubbed, Emiko, Professor Yamane, Serizawa. Virtually everything else is untranslated. Other scenes of untranslated Japanese are used, and then Martin's Japanese translator, Tomo Iwanaga, who will sometimes translate an ongoing scene. Poor Tomo apparently dies in Godzilla's attack in Tokyo, and is not mentioned or mourned. Fortunately, the scenes of Godzilla destroying Tokyo are primarily wordless, so these need virtually no treatment or adaptation. Dubbing, as a process is complex and more removed from the original than subtitling, for example. The speech has to be in a language with different rules of grammar, and yet the length of the line must match the amount of time the actor's lips move. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has mediocre dubbing at best, and there are some egregious parts, such as when Professor Yamane's dub actor, Sammee Tong, apparently could not pronounce “phenomenon” properly.

Our Heroic Translator.

Martin plays a part that is later echoed in many Godzilla films, that of the reporter. Beginning with Goro in Mothra, the reporter, the professional seeking truth, becomes a standard character of Godzilla films and the genre generally.

Another change is the reputed height of Godzilla. Here, Martin reports that he is four hundred feet tall, a height not even achieved by the massive Legendary Godzilla, or even Shin Godzlla. Whether this was done to impress American audiences, or because everything in America is bigger, or just to sound cool for the trailer, I don't know. None of the footage has changed, so Godzilla doesn't look four hundred feet tall. Likewise, the electrical wires that are set up now carry three hundred thousand volts, rather than fifty thousand.

Big. Not 400 feet big, bit still sizeable.

David Kalat writes that Steve Martin's narrative during the destruction of Tokyo improves the tension of the scene, and this is one of the few times that I disagree with him. In horror, a select few writers who will only show what is happening without commenting on it. Many feel it necessary to tell us how terrible the thing the audience is being shown is. Honda's original scene is presented without commentary, without feeling the need to tell the audience how bad the destruction is. It trusts the viewer to make that conclusion. And we do. The sequence is filmed so well that it presents something of a platonic ideal of city-wide destruction. In later years this sequence would come to symbolize utter destruction. Martin's commentary is therefore gilding the lily, telling us how to feel about things that already sufficiently conveyed on screen.

Steve tells us all about it.

The part that probably inspired the character of Steve Martin, the radio reporter speaking as Godzilla approaches, is left intact. Further, Terry Morse left in one of the most powerful scenes, that of a woman hugging her children to her amid a shower of sparks. The impact is somewhat blunted, because we do not know what she is saying to them.

Will I get residuals for originating the character?

The film stops being a flashback sixty minutes into the eighty-two minute run time. To give Martin more plot significance, he is the one that convinces Emiko to tell Dr. Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla. To do so requires a very on-the-nose back and forth between Emiko and Martin, in which Emmiko says she can stop the destruction, but she promised Dr. Serizawa she wouldn't tell. It's a clumsy piece of writing, glaring because the rest of the translation isn't bad.

There's another subtle difference in Serizawa's attitude that s also very telling. Here, he doesn't want the Oxygen Destroyer to fall into the wrong hands. In the Japanese version, any hands are in the wrong ones. This represents, among other things, the difference in the experience of Japan and America during World War II.

What's particularly strange about the ending is not that Dr. Yamane doesn't talk about the dangers of nuclear testing. But the rest of that removed speech conjured the possibility of a second Godzilla. Godzilla Raids Again had already been made when Godzilla: King of the Monsters appeared in the US. But film producers didn't often think of foreign franchises back then.

Big. Not 400 feet big, bit still sizeable.

Whatever I think of the modification of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Raymond Burr was proud to have played the character, and returned to play the same character again in the American version of The Return of Godzilla. Ultimately, however, the film's greatest failing is the voice-over. Rather than trusting the audience to draw their own conclusion about what was happening on-screen, Martin spells everything out, at length, sometimes repeating himself. That said, without the dub, the markets would not have sprung up to watch Godzilla in subtitled form. We first caught dubbed versions of Godzilla films flipping through the move channels. Without Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Godzilla likely would not have caught on in America, as I think world culture would have been poorer for it. I likely won't watch it again for fun, since the unadulterated version is easily available to me, and I have no nostalgic memory of this version.

Why suddenly write this? Because next up is the 1977 Luigi Cozzi Godzilla, which is derived from Godzilla: King of the Monsters. And it'll be impossible to understand one without understanding the other.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Slinging Swamp Mud at Icons: Steve Gerber’s Man-Thing

Although Man-Thing was not invented by Steve Gerber, but it did attained its popularity because of his brilliant and unconventional writing. So although this article will examine the early Man-Thing stories by other writers, the main thrust will be on the man who brought it to prominence. Man-Thing was originally conceived by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. As discussed in the Skywald Heap entry, this likely came about after the lunch Sol Brodsky and Thomas had in which Thomas suggested resurrecting the Hillman Heap. That Heap came out in March 1971, Man-Thing in May of the same year, the first Swamp Thing story in July.

The initial Man-Thing story could have been taken from the pages of Skywald’s Psycho. Savage Tales 1 was a black and white magazine, thus avoiding the Comics Code Authority. Like Psycho, it had a titillation factor that would not have been acceptable in a mainstream Marvel comic. The story also has a heavy narration, setting a creepy, Gothic mood. Wonderfully atmospheric Gray Morrow art cements the tone.

Physically, Man-Thing looks the most like the Heap out of all its vegetable spawn. The Heap's distinctive carrot-nose flanked by three root-like tentacles. It changes between being shaggy and gloopy, depending on the artist involved, although it it generally described as being shaggy. Aside from that, it is huge and muscular, generally human-shaped, although sometimes the head juts out from the chest in a distinctly inhuman way.

The initial story can be seen as an origin, or as a complete and self-contained story like Sturgeon’s “It”. Scientist Ted Sallis is working on reformulating the super-soldier serum. Unable to deal with working in a government lab, he moves to an isolated lab in the Everglades. Violating security, he brings his girlfriend, Ellen. She doesn’t seem to have packed enough clothing. Ellen, it turns out, is looking for a better lifestyle, and intends to sell Sallis’s newly-developed formula. He breaks away from her thugs, and races away. To keep the formula from falling into their hands, he injects himself with it, and crashes his car into the swamp. The combination of super-soldier catalyst and the swamp turn him into the Man-Thing. Subsequently empowered, he takes his revenge on the thugs. He spares Ellen’s life, but his touch causes her to burn. Only in the last panel, with a tribute to HP Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” does Man-Thing realize he has been transformed into a grotesque.

If the origin story sounds familiar, it’s likely because it is similar to that of Swamp Thing. But it’s also very close to Roy Thomas’s Glob origin. The protagonist dies in the swamp with a chemical catalyst which does not kill but transmutes the character into an aberration. This is also the origin of many swamp creatures that come after. Sludge, Swamp-Thing, Garbage Man, and The Lurker in the Swamp all share this origin, with a few tonal variations.

Len Wein wrote a follow-up to the Savage Tales story, possibly in between his original Swamp Thing story and Swamp Thing 1, but Savage Tales was shelved until 1973. Roy Thomas, either on his own initiative or at someone else’s prompting, decided to drop the story, art and all, into an Astonishing Tales storyline involving Ka-Zar. Wein’s writing makes it clear that the Man-Thing is not sentient, but rather close to mindless. It is, however, Thomas' wrap-around story that comes up with the specific statement that the Man-Thing hates fear, that its touch burns only in response to fear. This allows Ka-Zar to interact with the Man-Thing without paying a price. At the end of the second story, like the Frankenstein creature in Bride of Frankenstein, Man-Thing pulls a lever and destroys a lab, himself in it.

It’s impossible to keep a good monster down. Only two months after its ostensible death, the Man-Thing emerges again in Fear 10, cover date October 1972, again with writer Gerry Conway, and edited by Roy Thomas. It’s a domestic issue, involving the troubles of swamp-dwelling a man and a woman, well written without any magic or super-science that is not the Man-Thing itself. Like the initial story, it could be self-contained, in case it failed. It’s a good, creepy story that again shows the versatility of the Man-Thing character and the possibilities nonstandard story structures featuring it. Like the Heap before it, stories aren't about the Man-Thing. They happen around it.

The very next issue of Fear, December, Steve Gerber begins writing. As had been established by Conway, Gerber knew to let other characters and elements carry the Man-Thing story. Things happen that the Man-Thing is not directly involved in. This requires a lot of creativity, since stories have to grow out of elements other than the character. The Man-Thing can’t even acknowledge his supporting cast. The sentient Skywald Heap had a goal: restoring itself to human form. Although Man-Thing does occasionally get returned to human form, it’s not something he pursues.

Gerber was surprisingly comfortable with the multiple genres that the Marvel universe offered. He began with a tale of occultism, a summoning gone wrong. The Man-Thing intervenes, and the devil is banished. It’s a pretty conventional story, but when Gerber gets the book firing on all cylinders, the story structures are similar to the better Heap stories. Man-Thing is not as much a character as a vehicle for justice. And Steve Gerber saw a lot of injustice in the world.

With his second issue, the second issue, Feb 1973’s “No Choice of Colors” that Gerber established that he was not going to be an ordinary comic. The Man-Thing encounters Jackson, a black man on the run from racist sheriff Corlee. Jackson claims he is being set up because he is romantically attached to a white woman, once Corlee has eyes for. When they run into Corlee, however, it turns out that Jackson murdered the deputy who came to arrest him. The two shout at each other, fervent in their hatreds. Ultimately, the Man-Thing sees no difference between them. And rather than act, he walks away. But when Corlee is murdered, there is only one source of hatred. What follows is the first full iteration of what will become the Man-Thing’s tag line: “Whatever knows fear burns at he touch of the Man-Thing.”

This is a story about very gray justice. Both men are guilty, both men hate and fear the other. The difference is that Corlee is armed, and when the Man-Thing withdraws his protection, Corlee shoots Jackson. Justice is not served. Each man is guilty, Corlee is clearly a racist of the worst stripe, and Jackson may be more justified in his loathing of Corlee, but that doesn’t justify his murder of the deputy. Both are consumed by hate, and rather than dictate a moral high ground, Gerber condemns both.

One of the major themes that develops in Gerber’s work with Man-Thing was morality, often condemning unthinking allegiance to traditional icons (religion, parents, community) which leaves no room for mercy or compassion. Standing against these rigid icons are dissidents and loners, free-thinkers who are able to see that he traditional authorities have lost heir way, and make the mistake of speaking truth to power. The Man-Thing is the defender of such people, protecting them when they do not have the skills or resources to do so themselves. Which is not to say that every loner he wrote was the moral authority of the story. His villains include the Cult of Nihilism, and other very strange fringe groups. But

Another unusual aspect of his work is his smooth movement from genre to genre. In Fear 14, Gerber begins to mine a rich vein of Moorcockian fantasy, transporting the Man-Thing and Jennifer Kale to a strange world of wizards and gladiatorial combat. The Man-Thing’s swamp, as coincidence would have it, is the Nexus of All Realities, a weak point where it is easier to contact different planes of existence. This simple device allows Gerber to explore multiple secondary world fantasy settings. But he never settled down to explore just one of these options. After a Superman parody, Gerber wrote “Question of Survival” an entirely human-centric story in Fear 18. After a bus crash, radically different characters, a nihilist, a nurse, a soldier, and a construction foreman attempt to work together in order to get themselves, and a wounded child, to civilization. But the personalities clash, each ideology so precious that they cannot get along, even to save themselves. Only the nurse survives. And again, Gerber isn’t interested who is right, he’s interested in who is less wrong than the others.

It does, however, bring out another theme in his work. Whenever there are conflicting points of view, as there often are, generally speaking it’s the voice of business that turns out to be murderous. Overall his anti-capitalist stance is subtle. Everyone associated with the construction project are irredeemably evil. A construction worker shoots a native American in the back. Foreman Ralph Sorrell murders two men to keep his drunk driving, which killed others, a secret. Without the intervention of the Man-Thing, he would have murdered a nurse. Perhaps the most prominent businessman is the subtly-named F. A Schist, the developer with deep pockets who is planning on bulldozing part of the everglades near Citriusville in order to put in an airport. It's difficult to say if Gerber is saying that evil breeds, or at least employs similar evil, or if he wanted to tie all these villains together.

Which is not to say that industrialists were the only villains in his work. Gerber is also scornful when it comes to power. The Netherspawn speechifies about its power, but Gerber says in the narration that the Man-Thing is unimpressed, because it doesn’t understand the word. When shifty motorcycle gang leader Snake attacks the Man-Thing leaving his chain stuck in its mucky body. When it casually discards it, the chain strikes Snake in the head, possibly killing him. Ruth, a former associate of Snake’s, says that he used to call the chain his ‘power.’ “You envy my success, the wealth I’ve amassed!” says F. A. Schist in Man-Thing 8 “The Gift of Death.” “That’s why you want to destroy me!” The weird Cult of Entropy, a group of villains who pay lip service to living without illusion, but will kill anyone who lives in a way they don't approve of. Their leader, Yagzan, bears a suspicious, jowly resemblance to an aged Richard Nixon.

Man-Thing became popular enough to warrant its own title. After Fear issue 19, Marvel put the Man-Thing in its own book, and Morbius, the Living Vampire was the headliner for Fear until it ceased with issue 31.

Gerber also wrote with a sly sense of humor that is tremendously appealing. In the very first issue of Man-Thing, Daredevil and Black Widow swing through a very chaotic scene. They don’t impact the story at all. But it’s quite funny to see the famous characters, who Gerber wrote, pop through in a time when most crossovers were serious affairs. Which isn’t to say that Man-Thing didn’t interact in a meaningful way with the rest of the marvel Universe. Just as Man-Thing was getting its own title, the swamp creature appeared in the Gerber-scripted Marvel Two In One 1, ‘Vengeance of the Molecule Man” in which Ben Grimm, the Thing, decides that the Man-Thing is stealing his moniker. The later team up to Molecule Man, who reverts both Thing and Man-Thing to Ben Grimm and Ted Sallis, respectively. Ultimately, the story is a clever retelling of the origin of the Man-Thing, available to those who might not have been reading Fear, and an attempt to hook in the Thing fans who might not have been aware of the Man-Thing.

Gerber created many memorable characters, and trusted his creativity enough to discard them when their characters no longer fit his stories. The Foolkiller is a villain who is a parody of a superhero. Essentially the same as the Punisher, who emerged a few moths after the Foolkiller’s debut. The Foolkiller is unhinged, and and believes he knows who should live and who should die, and takes a more active hand in the process than most. He is a fanatic, and more importantly, a religious fanatic, believing he is guided by God. And although he has his targets, there are others who he doesn’t seem to mind killing. For defying him. Or merely scoffing at him. Gerber’s depiction of narcissistic megalomania is spot on, as the self-justifying Foolkiller murders victim after victim, assured of his own righteousness.

Gerber's breakout character was Howard the Duck. A humanoid, four-foot duck who could speak, Howard was a non-superhuman character in a superheroic world, and became popular enough to warrant his own title. He started out as a refugee in the Nexus of All Realities, and never really fit into the Marvel universe. As a duck among humans, he's perpetually out of his element, constanly baffled by the intricacies and insanities of modern American culture, Howard was a way for Gerber to share his point of view with the audience. Howard's own magazine sold well, but only as long as Gerber wrote it. Others have tried, but no one has really managed to match Gerber's writing. The same holds true with Man-Thing. Other writers have written the series, but it has never proved as popular as it did in Gerber's hands. Relaunches of Man-Thing have not been successful. A 1979 relaunch didn't even last twelve issues. The next attempt didn’t even last nine. This may be the result of writers attempting to place Man-Thing into more standard, central role to which the character is not suited

Gerber’s most acclaimed Man-Thing story is probably “Night of the Laughing Dead,” a psychodrama enacted by the ghost of a clown who has just committed suicide. It is one of the best depictions of depression that I have ever run across. The ghost of Darrell, the clown, forces the mortal around him to re-enact scenes from his life. Because he is a sad clown, all of these involve the systematic destruction of his happiness. A father who neglected him favor of his financing work, an unhelpful psychiatrist, and finally, the circus owner who used him for his money. These have conspired to poison the clown’s creative well, to render him capable of fulfillment, and making his comedy a failure. Only when the aerialist admits that she loves him does his soul bound free, released from the constraints of self-doubt and the feeling of a life wasted.

Symbolically, the Man-Thing attacks one of the self-doubt demons, and I can’t help wonder if this is symbolic of Gerber’s sense of fulfillment from writing Man-Thing. Clearly, the project was personal, and at this point, he had not engaged in the lawsuit against Marvel in regards to his intellectual property. But with Gerber gone, there’s no way to verify this. Still, the portrayal of the struggling artist is a fascinating and clearly a deeply personal one, and it clearly resonated with readers. The story was popular enough that Marvel made a heavily-modified version of the story into a power record, a combination of comic book and 45 RPM record, available here.

Giant-sized Man-Thing 2 (November, 1974) involves the capture of the Man-Thing, which is interesting because Swamp Thing 14, released only a month after, also involves the capture and imprisonment of the main character.

Man-Thing 12 contains another one of Gerber’s unconventional stories. “Song-Cry of The Living Dead Man.” In some ways similar to “Night of the Laughing Dead” a writer has come to an abandoned asylum in order to write in peace, but his fears and daily turmoil pursue him, in a real rather than a metaphorical way. Again, the monsters are defeated when someone tells the writer Brian that she loves him. This piece, so clearly personal to Gerber, would be followed up in 2012, four years after Gerber’s death, with the Infernal Man-Thing miniseries.

Again demonstrating his versatility, Man-Thing next encounters a ship of pirates, commanded by Captain Fate. Now, Skywald’s Heap had also encountered pirates, after stowing away on board a cargo ship, in issue 11, March of 1973, nearly two years before. Coincidence? Was Steve Gerber reading Psycho magazine, or was there something that both writers had read or seen that made them think classic Caribbean pirates would be a good antagonist for their swamp creature? But where the Psycho pirates turn out to be inspired by 18th century pirates, Gerber’s story instead involves a hundred year-old pact, reincarnation, a floating tower, and a sympathetic satyr. It may not have been his best story, but it certainly wasn’t a predictable one.

Man-Thing 15, "A Candle for Saint Cloud" is daring in that the Man-Thing doesn’t technically appear in it at all. Instead, we have a candle (and a fair amount of urban fantasy) of the Man0Thing, which causes all who breathe its fumes to dream of the Man-Thing. But the story, a love triangle with perky blonde hippy Sainte-Cloud as the hypotenuse. She purchases a candle of the Man-Thing, and its theoretically-drugged wick provokes visions of the Man-Thing. In the vision, shared by Sainte-Cloud and her blind boyfriend, is disrupted when her other suitor kicks down the door. Fortunately, the drug is potent, and the vision Man-Thing stops the violence before anyone who doesn’t deserve it gets hurt. This stands a bit opposed to some of Gerber’s previous endings, for example, “No Choice of Colors” where he doesn’t allow the virtuous to triumph, but allows the tragedy to unspool. Again, Gerber has radically shifted gears, with a story of a flying pirate ship one month, and a small, domestic, human story the next.

"Decay Meets the Mad Viking” in Man-Thing 16 again touches on some of Gerber’s favorite subjects. The establishment gone mad and inhuman. Josefsen is strong and able at sixty-five, and considers that men who are not strong are all weak, hippies, and wussies. Compared to his own remarkable self, of course. His loathing of weakness extends to far that he chases Astrid, his granddaughter, into the Man-Thing’s swamp, swinging a battle axe, screaming that she’s a traitor. He destroys the encampment of a nihilistic rock star, who had set up shop where Sallis was murdered, seeking inspiration from tragedy. Gerber writes some of his most truly nihilistic words in the end of the episode: "Then, the last traces of hope must be wiped out. The jaded young pale into insignificance while something unsoiled endures. Only the mad must be left to inherit the Earth.”

Gerber's stories could be daringly topical, also. He tackled high school suicide in Giant Sized Man-Thing 4, a controversial topic, but not one specifically banned by the Comics Code Authority, It is strange reading the comic so many years later and realizing how long it has taken for phrases like ‘fat-shaming’ and ‘toxic masculinity’ to come into our culture. He also takes on a moral panic, with a woman standing on the public stage waving a book about sexual hygiene screaming “Communism, atheism, sex – is that what we want out children taught? If we’re to control what out children think – we have to decide what they learn!” How little America has changed since 1974. I will also note that there is no supernatural ignition for the panic. Humanity cannot dodge responsibility, the villainy presented are all too human.

Giant-Sized Man-Thing 5 brought a new story from Gerber, but also a new editor at Marvel, Len Wein. Wein took over from fellow Swamp Monster scribe Roy Thomas in issue 15. Wein’s story is rich with language, as are all his Swamp Thing stories. Wein had finished with Swamp Thing at the end of 1974, and took over editing Man-thing pretty quickly, starting with the March 1975 issue of Man-Thing. Wein had clearly picked up a thing or two from Man-Thing. His short Romeo and Juliet story concerns two kids in love despite their parents’ antagonism, both to each other and the romance. The parents (their fathers, truth be told) were business partners, but they ended up angry at each other, and literally come to blows once they find their children, who have run off into the swamp. The only thing that stops their fighting is when their daughter begins sinking into quicksand. Unable to rescue her, and even Man-Thing cannot, they watch helplessly as she drowns. Her boyfriend then shoots himself, and we end up with a perfectly Romeo and Juliet ending. But the last frame makes it clear that this does not spell the end of the parents’ argument.

All things must come to an end. With sales dwindling, the decision was made to close down the Man-Thing book with issue 22. But Gerber knew that this was the end, and was able to write one of the most unusual endings to a comic.

"Pop Goes the Cosmos" takes place at the end of a superhero plot involving mind-control, as well as the fantasy characters he had created. But the issue is framed as a letter from Steve Gerber to Len Wein, his editor. Illustrated, as Gerber and Wein are now parts of the story. Dakimh, the mage introduced in the fantasy issue Fear14, has been telling Gerber the stories Gerber has been writing as comics. In a delightfully weird piece of metafiction that was at least thirty years before its time, Gerber stands back and writes the climax of his Man-Thing series with heavy narration, as if it were a confession letter to his editor, including himself in the narrative. "Pop Goes the Cosmos" is one of the weirdest, and at the same time the best sendoffs any comics has received. And it is yet another unexpected story from Gerber, who still had tricks up his sleeve after writing Man-Thing and Giant-Sized Man-Thing as well as various other comics, for four years.

But as with many personal projects, Gerber would return to write Man-Thing after he departed the book. Man-Thing would pop up in Gerber's Howard the Duck book on occasion. He also wrote a Man-Thing story in the black and white Rampaging Hulk 7 in 1978. Again, the story is a throwback to the Skywald and Warren magazines. Man-Thing encounters a wild woman, Andrea, who wears a home-made bikini that seems on constant danger of falling off. Titillation factor achieved. The story is another one of Gerber's interesting psycvhodramas, with exterior factors acting in concert with Andrea's inner division.

Gerber will show up a few more times as I move the timeline forward. Most notably, he had an indelible impact on the future of the Man-Thing, but he also wrote Sludge, a mucky character with a similar origin for Malibu comics during the early 90’s indie explosion. Most poignantly, he also left behind his final Man-Thing script, which later became the Infernal Man-Thing. And, of course, other writers used the Man-Thing in their stories, with some degree of success. The Man-Thing showed up in a lot of books, from Thor to the Micronauts, Strange Tales, She-Hulk, X-Men, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Deadpool, and even reformed villain book Thunderbolts. Gerber's legacy of the flexibility of the character lives on.

Gerber demonstrated that like the Heap, Man-Thing as a nonthinking swamp monster character was viable, and in the correct hands, an almost infinitely plastic concept. Man-Thing worked well in superhero comics, stand-alone weird tales, as well as a vehicle for character exploration. His time on Man-Thing serves to demonstrate how versatile he was as a writer, and how adaptable the concept of the swamp man is. Where Swamp Thing under Wein stuck to Gothic horror and weird tales tropes, Man-Thing leapt from fantasy to quiet horror to domestic drama. And they remain interesting and poignant reads today. Particularly trenchant is Gerber’s use of the moral panic in issue Man-Thing 17 and 18, and his treatment of teen suicide. These remain relevant some forty years after he wrote them. As always, comic stories vary in quality, but the Gerber Man-Thing remains consistently good at its lowest, and stellar when he’s making social observations. More than almost any other comic writer, Gerber made his Man-Thing stories personal. His stories took on the issues he saw in the world, and with enough skill that they entertained. A common failing of didactic entertainment is that it emphasizes the didactic and fails to be entertaining. Although Gerber shows us villains and heroes, he does not make his stories black and white morality tales. They may not be particularly subtle, but Gerber’s writing makes them entertaining, and seldom end in the easily-anticipated way. All of Gerber’s work on Man-Thing, by turns acerbic, funny, horrifying, and touching, shows a man struggling to express himself or go mad.

All images used in this article are copyright by Marvel Comics.

Special shout-out to Brian Keene. He told me to go back and re-read the Gerber Man-Thing after I had dismissed it. You were right, Brian. This stuff is amazing.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Whence the Hornet?

I enjoy the few WWI flight films I can get my hands on. There aren't a lot of them, so I tend to cycle through the same films on a regular basis. After about the eighth time, I start to notice the finer details of the films. While watching Flyboys the other morning, I was struck by this moment as the pilots are painting their planes. Look at the logo this gut has painted on his plane.

That hornet. I'd seen it before. Seen it recently. That's right, on the side of Scotto's plane in Dawn Patrol:

They aren't exactly the same, but the hornet... didn't I remember the hornet insignia from somewhere else? Yes. In the Old Days, one method of copy protection on video games was to ask the user to refer to the manual. Identify a word or an illustration, because digital copying is easy, but it would take time to cop[y the entire, say, hundred page manual. But the hornet logo tickled something in my memory, and I went digging through my old manuals. Sure enough, there it was, on page 67 of the manual for Knights of the Sky, the hornet logo, identified as Escadrille N. 89. So I looked them up. There it was, closer to the two-legged hornet from Flyboys than cartoon one from Dawn Patrol, to my surprise. Escadrille N. 89 was a French unit, they even have their own web page. Escadrille n. 89 still exists and here you can find the hornet logo on Mirage jets.

Friday, May 27, 2016

It's Goopy and Thoroughly Disgusting: The Skywald Recrudescence of the Heap

Skywald's Heap, illustrated by Ross Andru When most people talk about swamp monsters in the comics, they think of Man Thing and Swamp Thing. Both of these mucky derivatives of Hillman's the Heap came out within months of each other in 1971, and then morphed into ongoing series. Because they came out so close together (initially Savage Tales #1, May 1971 for Man-Thing, House of Secrets #92, July, 1971 for Swamp Thing), and because the creators Gerry Conway and Len Wein were room mates, makes it rather confusing as to whose idea was first and therefore the 'original.' The answer is neither. Months before either of them came out, Skywald resurrected the Heap.

Roy Thomas, in his introduction to the first Heap anthology, writes about sitting down with Sol Brodsky, who was looking for ideas for his new venture, Skywald Publishing. Thomas suggested that Brodsky revive the Hillman Heap. Roy Thomas will come up repeatedly as I work through the various generations of Heap-inspired muck men. His love of the character, combined with this productivity and the quality of his writing are very much behind the recrudescence of the Heap and similar swamp characters. Perhaps that lunch stirred more than just Sol Brodsky, because afterward, Thomas, who had already created the Glob, helped co-create Marvel’s Man-Thing.

Skywald was a small comics publisher that established itself in 1970. The brainchild of former Marvel Production Manager Sol Brodsky and Israel Waldman, Skywald was looking to move into the niche that Warren Publications was currently filling. Printing primarily in black and white, Skywald avoided the scrutiny of the Comics Code Authority, allowing them more freedom to develop what they called horror-mood, and a certain amount of titillation. They produces a few color comics, mostly Westerns. But it was magazines like Psycho and Nightmare that really earned Skywald its reputation.

Skywald's Heap, illustrated by Ross Andru

In Psycho #2 (March 1971), the Heap was reborn. Like the previous Heap, it was once human, a pilot. Jim Roberts was a crop duster, one of the few biplane pilots left. Instead of being shot down into the Wasau swamp, Roberts crashes into a vat of chemicals, carrying on the catalyst trope, which began all the way back with Mad’s Outer Sanctum and came back with Roy Thomas’s Glob. In the seventies atmosphere of of anti-militarism, the chemicals are there for the army. Roberts’ death is the result of collusion between his girlfriend and Bill Ryan in order to collect a life insurance policy. The femme fatale will also show up in the origin story of Marvel's Man-Thing.

More goopy than shaggy, the Heap retains the mind of Jim Roberts, although it cannot speak. So the book tends to center on the character, and his quest for redemption, which was a radical departure from the Hillman Heap. The new Heap is more a character than a plot device. But that doesn’t stop the stories from being wildly diverse, in the same way the original Heap stories were. Although shorter-lived, this Heap was involved in a broad range of plots. Central to the stories is Jim’s self-pity, but also his flashes of compassion. And although the Hillman's dietary habits were quickly shuffled to the wayside, the Skywald Heap seems to glory in the Heap slurping down rats.

Skywald's Heap, illustrated by Roo Andru

The Jim Roberts Heap is really the first muck monster that has retained its own mind, and there is a unique pathos to the human transformed into something hideous. Unlike Swamp Thing, who can speak with difficulty, the Skywalkd Heap cannot talk at all. And while it cannot hold a pen to write, it discovers that it is able to communicate by scratching words in the dirt. Like so many sentient muck monsters, Roberts spends a lot of his time trying to regain his human form, and an ongoing storyline allows him to partially succeed. This particular configuration, with the Heap able to think but not speak, allows for a lot of thought balloons, which have not been used to explore the thoughts of a muck monster before. And of course, these thoughts usually add to the pathos of the character.

Skywald's Heap, illustrated by Ross Andru

Many of these Heap stories presage ones that would later appear in Swamp Thing or Man-Thing. Psycho 11, for example, puts the Heap and apparently 18th century pirates together, something Steve Gerber will do in his later, legendary work on Man-Thing. In the same issue, the Heap battles a werewolf, which Swamp Thing will do in Swamp Thing #3, and Garbageman will do the same thing. Strangely, it’s not until the Pasko Swamp Thing that a muck monster will face off against a vampire.

I'm not using these examples of repetition to imply that there is anything less than creative. But the way th3ese stories intertwine with each other, feeding off previous stories to come up with new ideas that are different because of both the characters and the creators. Part of the reason I'm going through the interesting parts of swamp monsters in comics is that it represents a microcosm of creativity. Unlike mummies, vampires, or werewolves, it's possible to trace much of the swamp monster's origins and the origins of the ideas for many of the subsequent stories. Because "It" was published in the twentieth century. There aren't many myths or legends of dead men coming back from the swamp... at least not before the Heap made its debut. So it's possible to look at the way ideas are transmitted, reinterpreted, and made fresh by writers who were inspired by the original work. Which I suppose is trope-based discussion, but this really isn't for an audience. It's mostly for me to understand

The Heap was a bit of an odd fit for Psycho magazine, but it proved popular. The magazines had other characters with multiple issue story arcs. The Frankenstein creature and the Mummy both had several stories, although the majority of the magazines were one-shots, usually with a nonfiction article or review on a horror-related topic in the middle.

The initial story, with the Heap’s new origin, was written by Chuck McNaughton, who wrote the stories in Psycho 2 and 3. Psycho 4’s story, “Night of Evil,” was written by Ross Andru. Robert Kangher, later famous for such war comics as Sgt. Rock and WWI flyer Enemy Ace, wrote the single issue color comic. After Psycho6, Andru handed the writing chores off to Al Hewitson, who apparently hated it. The Heap wasn’t in issues 8 and 9, but with reader demand and no one else to fill the void, Hewitson continued to write the character. Psycho 10 and 11 feature outre stories of animated fossils, pirates, and a werewolf. Beginning in Psycho 12, Hewitson lost all love for the Heap. Somehow, the Heap lost its ability to speak, or reason, the Heap becomes an evil, horrible creature, killing without reason. But again, these are ideas that are used later by Len Wein. In fact, the idea of a second, monstrous Swamp Thing was used in later issues of the original Swamp Thing. The Heap is hauled into the air by a helicopter with a claw, which will happen in Swamp Thing 6 (October 73) "Clockwork Horror" just five months later. The Heap is dropped down an elevator shaft, then smashed by a subway train. In Psycho 13, The Heap kills a child (off-screen, but still). Following an increasingly improbable series of events, the Heap finds itself on his parents' farm, and able to speak for the first time. Hewitson was clearly done with the character.

Skywald's Heap, illustrated by Roo Andru

According to the Swamp Men article, Hewitson was doing his best to make sure the Heap was disliked. Psycho continued to sell until Skywald folded, but this was the end of the Skywald Heap. There's a mention that they are trying to get it back on track in the letter column of Scream #11 (Winter, 1975) but that never came to fruition.

Apparently, the Skywald version of the Heap was resurrected by a UK semi-pro zine called Bedlam magazine, which is very obscure. The only serious reference I can find for it is On the Wayback Machine, but the scripts apparently are by Skywald Heap scribe/artist Ross Andru. I’ve spend a fair amount of time searching for any copies of the magazine, and I am unable to find any at reasonable prices. Or even which of the six issues contain Heap stories.

If this article has given you a taste for Skywald's Heap, you're in luck. The majority of Skywald's output is available from the Internet Archive. the Internet Archive. The only issue missing is Psycho #6. Unfortunately, Psycho 12 has been mislabeled, so it appears Psycho 6 is available, but it is not.

Skywald’s Heap is something of a trailblazer in the field of the swamp monster. It si clearly influential with the individuals, Len Wein and Steve Gerber, who would make their Man-Thing and Swamp Things so famous. It is also the first swamp monster that retains its mind, and therefore is an actual protagonist.

It seems there was something in the air in early 1971. After decades of fitful sputtering, three swamp monsters rose from the mud, two becoming regular characters in their relative superhero universes. Muck men would cross the paths of such prominent characters as Batman, Spider-Man, and Ka-Zar. Next up, I’ll be looking at first of these now-legendary writer/creator combinations. Steve Gerber writes the Man-Thing.