Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #19

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
by Professor Matthew Bradley

You’ve heard the old expression about getting worse before it gets better?  That perfectly sums up the situation when our undergraduate curriculum ended with Defenders #78, as Ed “Kudzu” Hannigan—who poked his first tendril into this mag as penciler of #58, and has been strangling it as a writer and/or artist ever since—began his longest stint as scripter.  “Better” is defined here as his successor, J.M. DeMatteis, the only new writing talent by whom I readily recall being impressed in my waning Marvel days, with Chris Claremont remaining the late-Bronze standard-bearer; “worse” is Ed’s last 13 issues, and while too anal-retentive to skip them outright, I will, as an academic completist, fast-forward through these five as quickly and succinctly as possible.

Aptly, Defenders #79 (January 1980) finds invasive species Hannigan both writing and sharing penciling duties with Herb Trimpe, who since #68 has consistently proven himself a poor match with this series.  The lettercol provides us with some context, enumerating horrors past, present, and future:  “Ed is back, love it or like it, and he’d like to take this opportunity to thank fellow stalwart Steven Grant for the fantastic job he did wrapping up the Omega storyline….[Dave] the Dude was up from Georgia recently, and Ye Olde Scripter and he had a few chances to go out and…hammer out a plot idea or two!  [They share plotting credit on #89]…For a while [the book is] gonna be like two comics in one as we flash back and forth between Earth and Tunnelworld.”

The latter nonsense, which drags on until #83, finds wing-headed Aeroika guiding Doc, Hulk, and Namor to slumber safely in a valley protected by benevolent spirits, the Nya; “is there no end to this aimless tramping about?” asks an oddly self-aware Subby.  “Dreamspeech” fosters four ponderous pages of exposition, three devoted to local lore—“the narrative, the dream, and the prophecy”—about the slave-built citadel Ogeon and vulture-headed villain Ytitnedion (as usual, read ’em backwards), and one to explaining who the hell these original Defenders are.  Enslaved like the Sputs and Ixhoohxi, the flightless winged ones were created by Ytitnedion, the Nilffim-King and servant of the Unnamed, as “a symbol of good to degrade, freedom to cage…”

So it’s something of a relief to turn from this sub-Tolkien tedium to the Colorado town where Hellcat, Valkyrie, and Defender du jour Wasp try to free Jan’s hubby from the Women Warriors, who raided a nearby airbase, and their ever-dull male colleagues, the Mutant Force.  But they soon join Hank in captivity, with Val hampered by her Enchantress-imposed prohibition against fighting women, and outraged by the betrayal of Omega-refugees Ruth, Amber, and Dian, which is easily explained.  In case anybody was actually paying attention, I’d observed of #78 that “the match-up between the Distaff-enders and the ‘surprise villain’ is way too coincidental,” because this, shall we say, all-girl action is in opposition to—the Mandrill, whom “all women must love.”

Yep, he’s back, female-enslaving pheromones and all, ready to recoup his losses from Daredevil #112 with financing from the “gold raid”; it’s implied that the WW keep Burner, Slither, Peeper, Shocker, and Lifter—who at least warrant an expository footnote now—in line with more than just grapes and fawning.  But a pubescent Dian, immune to the Mandrill’s irresistible musk, has protected Jan from its effect by blocking the airholes in her jar, so they recapture the Quinjet and flee, calling Kyle for help.  As he prepares to defy the I.R.S. and S.E.C.’s court order by going back into action with Nighthawk’s “new aggressive weapons package,” the Mandrill realizes that the escapees’ destination must be the base and launches another raid, this time led by…Valkyrie.

A holdover from #78, Esposito epitomizes the ruin’s—er, run’s—musical inkers, none exceeding two consecutive issues until #88; ever the pro, Espo gives the proceedings a fairly uniform look among the fantasy folderol, while the Mandrill’s dramatic full-page reveal is perhaps better than the relatively minor villain deserves.  Mighty Mike is followed by Dan Green on #80 (February 1980), with Herb back to soloing on pencils, since it appears Ed handled the Tunnelworld jazz last time.  Alas, even Dan can’t keep Kyle’s new and improved duds, with laser cannon making him “the most heavily armed super hero around—with the possible exception of Iron Man,” from looking anything but stupid, yet at least this Mandrill arc is resolved, so there are compensations.

As Val, Hellcat, and the WW/MF box up the Las Animus contingent in a hangar—sealed off by Shocker with an electric field—and Mandy taunts his prisoner, a bored Clea takes Aragorn for a joyride back in New York.  Following a limited test flight over southwestern Kansas, Kyle wings to the rescue; quickly deducing the source of the field, he drops Val and Patsy into it, knocking it out while shocking them to their senses.  His forces routed, the Mandrill heads for his “Central American enclave,” diverting attention with an escape rocket that proves to contain a chained YJ, after which the reunited Pyms, Defenders, and Omega women head for home in the Quinjet, and hope to honor Amber’s request:  “Uh—could we not stop to fight anyone else on the way back?”

Meanwhile, back in Tunnelworld (Sigh™), Aeroika is puzzled when a dozing Hulk awakens as Banner—less so than the latter, whose memory is unusually clear due to the Dreamspeech—and posits that something is blocking his mind-meld.  Bruce wonders if Greenskin’s encounter with a Shmoo, er, “silvery glob” in #76 may be involved, but their discussion is tabled as a member of Ytitnedion’s vulture-headed royal family leads his archers in an attack on the “protected” valley.  “Hulk smash” is the order of the day, yet while he scatters the opposition, Ytitnedion gloats that, “though they fight the Unnameable, the dreaded Name is implanted in the brutish one’s brain—and only I…have the power to bring it to the fore—when the time is right!”  Bwuhahahahahaha!

Longtime Trimpe-inker Jack Abel draws the short straw in #81 (March 1980), and their reunion with the Hulk dominates the issue, excepting a two-page interlude where Kyle’s immediate arrest by the F.B.I. for “contempt of court and interstate flight [har] to avoid prosecution” mars the NYC homecoming.  The other 15 are devoted to the assault on Ogeon by “the four Defenders” (Aeroika evidently having become a non-teammate), who enter via the time-honored method of hiding in the back of a merchants’ wagon.  They see a captive ally, the wizard Xhoohx, paraded through the streets with his Orb of Ommennon, but their cover is blown and their planned rescue postponed when soldiers spot escaped slave Aeroika and a typically hotheaded Subby runs amok.

Facing the Crusher, a gigantic war machine, the Hulk is felled and captured, his subconscious knowledge having been activated, while Aeroika foments rebellion among his race.  Ytitnedion intends to dangle the possibility that the prophecy is coming true, as it appears to be when the winged slave wields a weapon, and then cruelly snatch it away, killing Xhoohx and shattering the orb.  The covers (like this one by Buckler/Milgrom) continue to be intensely forgettable, with the interior artwork a mixed bag—we rarely get a good look at Doc, and when we do in page 14, panel 1, he seems to be impersonated by Ronald Colman; Namor looks like he fell off Mount Rushmore in page 2, panel 1, yet is portrayed in realistic and excellent detail in page 22, panel 6.

In #82 (April 1980), Ghost Rider limpet Don Perlin succeeds Herb with a rarely interrupted run of nearly five years, his layout here and in #83 finished by my all-time favorite, Joe Sinnott, who will return in #93. So if we must endure two more issues of Tunnelworld—this one lacking even an Earth Interlude (EI)—at least the visuals take a quantum leap, with a Buckler/Milgrom cover that is, dare I say it, Brunneresque.  As a teen, less sensitive to the intricate dance between artist and inker, I had a favorably skewed impression of Don that I now attribute to the Perlin/Sinnott Defenders, especially with J.M. at the typewriter; Joltin’ Joe has been known to obscure as much as enhance a penciler’s style, yet while no great loss, Don is vastly more suitable here than Herb.

With its storybook-style border, the splash bodes well, surrounding Ytitnedion’s captives with all manner of lackeys and odd critters; in his gloat/recap, “Yt” complains that Xhoohx’s “pattern of speech is near incomprehensible,” yet tempting as it is to blame Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back won’t be released for four more months.  Having transferred most of his power into the orb, and used the rest to stave off hearing the Name, Big X has some invisible Nya goad the Hulk awake, but Yt sees through and squelches this attempted disruption.  Now enthralled, Greenskin is slated to crush Aeroika’s rebellion, although I feel compelled to ask—as I do whenever I watch Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—whether it’s really in Yt’s best interest to wipe out his own labor/slave class.

As the Hulk is decked out in Nilffim-Rider regalia recalling his days on K’ai, Yt turns to the orb, discovering by chance that it was shielded from magical but not physical attack, and shatters it.  Namor, Aeroika et alia hit sewer tunnels leading to the Citadel so that Doc, rightly suspicious of being manipulated, can do astral-form recon with his physical body safe; Subby spots a “wretch” who, despite the language barrier, clearly bears Yt a grudge, guiding them in via the dungeon.  Yt busts in on Doc and Xhoohx, fulfilling his threat to slay Big X for unleashing the Nya again, yet Doc, vexingly visible to the bird-borne Nillfim he seeks to outmaneuver, uses Xhoohx’s spell to re-form the orb, trapping the Hulk inside, and a slave knocks out Yt with the flat of his sword.

Making up for lost time, the EI in #83 (May 1980) comprises three subplots in as many pages:  in California, the Feds offer the MF a break in return for unspecified services; in New York, Patsy reflexively foils a bank robbery with Val while in her civvies, realizing that her abilities do not in fact depend on her costume; and Kyle’s counsel wonders if the media blackout re: the gold theft suggests a desire for secrecy sufficient for the S.E.C./I.R.S./F.B.I to let him off.  As for the main event, two things on the splash page instill confidence, the first being “At last: the cataclysmic conclusion of the Tunnelworld saga!”  The second is the sure and steady hand of Joe Sinnott as Strange reunites his astral and physical forms amid web-footed, multi-tailed, red-eyed sewer rats.

Doc rejoins Namor and Aeroika, bearing Xhoohx’s body, and they report the wizard’s death to a populace singularly unmoved by news of Yt’s downfall, fearing that the winged ones may only supplant the buzzard king as their oppressor.  Strange is forced to agree that victory remains elusive with the Unnameable still threatening multiple worlds, including our own; I was going to give Ed grudging points for the smoothly expository dialogue of the opening scenes when he bludgeoned me with this:  Ytitnedion “had no identity [Get it?  GET IT?] of his own, therefore, it did little good to defeat him!”  So it’s off to “the end of the world,” as the tunnel tapers to the unknown, to bury Xhoohx in the frozen wasteland and confront the foe where he is the strongest.

After a sudden blizzard helps the captive Yt break free, Strange shelters them from the storm by expanding the orb to encompass them all, completing the prophecy as Aeroika discovers he can fly.  The Unnameable draws all his power inside, creating a huge visage of the Hulk—who has flown Yt to safety—so Doc, Subby, and Winghead make an ocular ingress to his consciousness, battling “memory-images” of his foes (e.g., Rhino, Absorbing Man, Harpie [sic]), Leader).  Doc sweeps away the “hoarde” with a deluge and, as they face Greenskin and Yt directly, realizes that Namor was on the right track when asking, “If we are inside the Hulk’s consciousness, how can the Hulk himself be present?”; they must “see things as they are, deny the faulty premise!”

The bad news is that the strobe-light effect used in Doc’s mystic battle is applied to the lettering, which gave me, as Professor Tom would say, a headache in my eyes.  The good news (other than “Finis”) is that it’s a rare case where he combines his sorcerous and surgical skills, locating and sealing off the exact portion of the Hulk’s memory that contains the Name, withdrawn from the minds of all other victims in a last-ditch tactic.  Although Strange passes out from exhaustion, his unconscious mind conveniently supplies the spell to bring them out of Greenskin’s gray matter and shatter the orb again; unable to call on the now-forgotten Name, Yt plunges off the edge into the vacuum, so, quoth Subby, “The tyranny is ended, and the time for new dreams has arrived!”

Unsurprisingly, Joltin’ Joe helps Don wind this up on a visually respectable note; a nice touch is the contrast between Doc in the first panels of pages 26 (above), typically well-coiffed, and 27 (right), tousled after the battle, while the people of Ogeon on page 6 are a Mos Eisley-style mélange of shapes and hues.  And that’s it from Tunnelworld, bringing blessed closure to one of the most overlong and unlamented arcs in Marvel history, in which sentiment I know I am far from alone.  At the moment, my seemingly endless sojourn in Relocation Hell, as Mrs. Professor Matthew and I struggle to transition between our houses in Bethel and Newtown, makes the likelihood of any future post-graduate studies from this quarter uncertain, but maybe someday, if the stars realign...

Bradley out.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #18

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
The Trail of...
¡C O N Á N  el  C I M E R I A N O!: 

An Interview with
Mexican Conan Comic Collector
and Savage Sword of Conan Contributor
by Professor Gilbert Colon

The Beginning of Happenings

In 1958, a dozen years before Marvel’s official foray into the Hyborian world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, and eight years before Lancer’s paperback editions, an unauthorized issue of a series called by Savage Sword of Conan “the Mexican Conan comics” hit stands in Mexico.  From south of the border it migrated northwards at least as far as Los Angeles, where it fell into the hands of Douglas Menville (a man seen briefly as a policeman in one scene of the 1958 cult film The Hideous Sun Demon, among his other varied movie credits).  The unofficial adaptation, La Reina de la Costa Negra (Queen of the Black Coast), was a 32-page four-color weekly “in the form of a long-running serial” that lasted till 1965, when a letter from L. Sprague de Camp, owner of the Conan rights, scared off the unlicensed publisher.  

The series’ title is taken directly from the May 1934 Weird Tales short story “Queen of the Black Coast,” but its “writers paid little attention to the original Howard material.”  This begs the amusing question, why rip off REH, only to not use REH?  (One notable difference, no doubt a selling point – several commentators have remarked how the Mexican adaptation is considerably bloodier than anything put out in the States.)  In Menville’s words, it had “primitive black-and-white artwork [and] a blond (!) Conan and his warrior-lady Belit, sporting what looks like a Spanish conquistador’s helmet!”

These seeming disparate elements are best embodied by the image of their fair-haired “conquistador Conan” wearing a horned Viking helmet, which makes its own kind of sense when one factors in Menville’s comparison of the art, all of it the work of one Salvador H. Lavelle, to the style of “Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Joe Kubert’s 1950’s comicbook Viking Prince.”  And as Marvel itself has pointed out, the visual comes directly from Howard’s own text in “Queen of the Black Coast”: “His horned helmet was such as was worn by the golden-haired Æsir of Nordheim.”  Irrespective of the blond hair, Viking helmet, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Teutonic accent in Conan the Barbarian, it remains true that Conan was a black-maned Cimmerian, those ancient ancestors of the Celts.  But Aquilonia, Nemedia, Cimmerians, Picts – the Hyborian Age is hybrid history anyway.  Considering that Conan creator Howard hailed from Cross Plains, Texas, this so-named “Conan the Conquistador” could even be called a “Tex-Mex” concoction.  

“They had passed the southern borders…”

Around that time, Menville was in the editorial business of reviving neglected landmarks of genre fiction with fellow editor Robert Reginald, first through the magazine Forgotten Fantasy: Classics of Science Fiction, then through the publishing imprint Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library.  In possession of La Reina #2, he wrote to “The Hyborian Page,” a forum for reader mail, though the “letter was never printed [and Menville] assumed that La Reina was simply not of sufficient interest to anyone.”  Another reason for not pursuing the matter was presumably because he was busy with his own mainly nonfiction writing career, later in life venturing into fiction of his own with the novel Under Egypt from Wildside Press (publisher of many REH titles), which he co-authored with Rae Odell.     

Not long after Menville’s unpublished letter, Marvel’s resident REH scholar, Fred Blosser, independently brought the bootleg Conan in question to the attention of Savage Sword of Conan readers in his issue #26 article “The Other Queen of the Black Coast,” but there was even more to the story than that particular piece contained.  This motivated Menville, in issue #44, to expand upon Blosser’s research, turning in an extra definitive piece on the subject, “Conan the Conquistador.”  

In Professor Flynn’s coverage of Savage Sword of Conan #44, at Marvel University, he limited his “Conan the Conquistador” comments to this: “Now Mr. Menville has gone on to become quite the email pals with both Professor Matthew and Gilbert — so I’ll cut this short since I’m sure that the latter will chime in.”  Almost four decades later, Marvel University followed the not-quite-cold trail to the door of Mr. Menville – once extensively interviewed by Professor Matthew, in VideoScope #51 (Summer 2004) – in an attempt to get to the bottom of this Mexi-Conan mystery…

The Voice of the Man Who Almost Arrested the Hideous Sun Demon

It all began when Menville, browsing a downtown Los Angeles bookshop, pulled La Reina de la Costa Negra #2 from that long-gone rack or bin and plunked down coin for it.  What was the initial impulse that prompted him to pull it?  “I’m sure I bought the magazine because of my love of all things (well, most things) Howard, which began when I first discovered his work in the pulps, and also because it was such an oddity.  What?  A Conan comic book from Mexico?  You’re kidding!  I gotta have that!  That was pretty much my train of thought there, I believe.”  

Even the assembled sleuths did not have a complete run of La Reina.  “I remember finding #2 and #16 and eventually two or three others, but I don’t recall which ones,” Menville recounts.  “I found all of the issues I had in various used bookstores, most of which now no longer exist.  Roy Thomas lent me copies of #3 and #4.”  

Menville, in turn, lent his issues to Thomas…who apparently still has them!  “Roy never returned them, but he did pay me for the article.  He’s welcome to keep them, which is little enough thanks to a man who made a lifetime dream come true by reprinting in handsome hardcover volumes the entire run of my all-time favorite comic book, Planet Comics.”

Blosser himself only owned one issue at the time of his article (in which, according to Menville’s piece, he “made a few false assumptions”).  Asked if Blosser ever commented on his own more extensive follow-up work, Doug said, “No, I never heard anything from Fred.”

Also unclear, even today, is exactly how long La Reina lasted, with #16 being the last issue whose existence was substantiated by Team Menville.  “Since #2 was dated October 8, 1958, and the magazine was published weekly, I assumed that the first issue had to be dated October 1,” Doug reasoned. “I never made a special attempt to collect the whole run, but 1965 seems to be the last date any of us saw.  I don’t think anyone knows how many issues in total there were.”  (Glenn Lord, in his bibliographic The Last Celt, puts the number at 45 between the years 1965-66.)  [Dean's Note: The fabulously helpful GCD has cover scans for most of the 53 issues published between 1965-1966]

In his article, Menville wrote, “anyone with further information is encouraged to contact editor Roy Thomas or this writer…”  Alas, he recollects today, “No one ever contacted me about the comic; they may have contacted Roy.”  Thomas, in his “EDITOR’S NOTE,” also petitioned readers to provide the same information, expanding his plea for anything about “the 1950’s Avon creation ‘Crom the Barbarian’ which appeared in a couple of issues of a mag called Out of This World.”

“I had both issues of Out of This World Adventures (I think only two issues were published),” Doug notes, “and both had color comic inserts with two stories.  One was ‘Crom the Barbarian,’ with (I think) art by John Giunta, and the other was an SF tale called ‘Kenton of the Star Patrol,’ with art by Joe Kubert.  The Crom stories were standard sword-and-sorcery tales featuring a hero much like Conan, but further details escape me.  It was a daring attempt to attract younger readers to an otherwise average SF pulp, an echo of several pulps from the 1930s that ran comic inserts, although never in color.  Sadly, this experiment didn’t succeed.”

From the site, "An Age Undreamed Of"

Twilight of the Vikings and Conquistadors

Case closed.  Or is it?  Just as Menville built on Blosser’s initial research, others have built on Menville’s.  At the Cimmerian blog An Age Undreamed Of, Jeffrey Shanks (contributor to the McFarland book Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian) posted his own May 2013 follow-up, the Robert E. Howard Foundation’s nominee for Outstanding Achievement for Online Essay, “La Reina de la Costa Negra: The Mystery of the Mexican Conan Comics.”  It was the third update of something he wrote for REHupa #237 (October 2012) and revised for Comic Book Quarterly #11 (Spring 2013), and in it he cited Menville in both the body of his article and its bibliography, as well as Paul Herman’s 2006 book The Neverending Hunt: A Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, in order to trace “La Reina de la Costa Negra” back even earlier to 1952 when it had an 18-issue run “as a feature in an anthology series called Cuentos de Abuelito (Grandpa’s Stories).”  

Hunting for issues of this time-lost comic from down Mexico way is nowadays either a costly prospect or a dead end.  However in his essay, Shanks offers glimpses of “Mexican Conan” artwork beyond what Savage Sword of Conan displayed, along with links to many more scans (from Jungle Frolics and CROM!) discovered and collected subsequent to Menville’s eye-opening article.  In addition, threads with images can be viewed at CGC and Comic Book Collecting Association.  There is also an issue-by-issue breakdown site called Conan [MEX] and even a Facebook page dedicated to “La Reina de la Costa Negra.”  The Swords of Robert E. Howard, another internet REH forum, posts scans not only of cover art, but both Blosser’s original article and Menville’s.  The actual issue of Foreign Comic Collector (Issue 2/Dec. 2002) reprinting Shanks’ article “The Mystery of the Mexican Conan Comics” can be found online as a PDF.  

All of this owes a debt to Menville and his pioneering quest.  What began with Blosser almost ended with Blosser, had it not been for the dogged detective work of Doug Menville.  Thanks to his article, which built upon Blosser’s and took it to new heights, Menville laid a foundation that others have been building on to this present day.  In light of that fact, Shanks’ La Reina de la Costa Negra article could have arguably (and alliteratively) been subtitled “The Menville Mystery of the Mexican Conan Comics,” owing to the fact that “Conan the Conquistador” (Savage Sword of Conan #44) was the place where the first truly hands-on research and in-depth scholarship appeared 38 years ago.  


The Final Issue?