Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

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The Anti-Hero via “The Dark World”

The 2008 Paizo Publishing edition of “The Dark World”

 

On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, I finally had opportunity to read Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World. I have a particular appreciation for the science fiction, fantasy and weird tales of  the “pulp” era (though the edges are a bit fuzzy on that definition, as some works are in the vein but predate “pulp” by decades and some were published many years after the last of the trashy magazines either died out or evolved into more mainstream speculative fiction repositories). Like most modern fans of the fiction of that era, I am well versed in Borroughs and Howard, Leiber and Lovecraft, and a smattering of Clark Ashton Smith and “Eerie” horror comics. And like most, I am aware of a much broader list of names I might have read a story or two from an anthology, but otherwise ignored most of the less-than-giants of the era. Henry Kuttner (and his wife C. L. Moore) are among the names the come up most often on lists of “must reads” and so I purchased both The Dark World and Moore’s Northwest of Earth from Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line. I am well pleased I finally went for Kuttner’s classic — which I chose for the flight on the merits of its relatively brief length; at three times the thickness, Moore’s Northwest book is reserved for the beach.

 

I will not give a full review of The Dark World here — there are more interesting things I want to discuss than it’s “quality” — but suffice it to say that the novel is a rollicking adventure yarn of weird science fantasy, prone to the overwrought language of many works in the same genre, and while it does display what we now think of as a particularly “privileged” protagonist (read: white, male, straight and six kinds of awesome), and there is a heaving bosom or two, it avoids the truly noxious racism and misogyny of some of its contemporaries. Overall, it is an enjoyable novel with a fast paced plot and an intriguing hero — or, anti-hero, which is what I really want to talk about.

 

Anti-heroes are difficult subjects. In their worst forms, they are an overly masculine authorial avatar, freed of moral constraints by a big gun, sword or gunsword. They are the worst kind of Mary Sue, because they serve to do little more than expose the power fantasies of the author. At the the other end of the spectrum are the tortured souls, the “Breaking Bad” Walter Whites of the world that force us to watch a decent man make the self destructive descent into immorality for all the “right reasons.” He is a bad man that was once good, or perhaps a good man who has to do bad things. Either way, this latter sort is the new vogue, while the former is more familiar to the readers of the pulps. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of The Dark World hews much closer to the former sort, but departs and reaches for the modern in a very interesting way.

 

What follows includes spoilers for what happens in The Dark World, so if the above have inspired you to read it, by all means bookmark this page and get yourself a copy. It is only a few hours’  read and you will be, at the very least, entertained for those hours.

 

The anti-hero protagonist of The Dark World is a man named Ganelon who hails from a parallel Earth where mutants reign. When we meet him, however, it is as Edward Bond, Ganelon’s Earth doppleganger who, suffering from PTSD and certain he his is being hunted by something, is transported into that parallel world. The novel does not take terribly long in establishing that a group of rebel freedom fighter Foresters, through sci-fi-sorcery, exiled their greatest foe Ganelon to Earth and drew Edward Bond in his place, making an ally of him. Ganelon, the real protagonist, believed he was Edward Bond until his allies in the malevolent Coven that rules the Dark World brought him back. Although there is plenty of  Lust and Greed and Pride to go around, it is Wrath that finally focuses Edward Bond into accepting his true identity as Ganelon — wrath against the treacherous Coven, so he joins the rebel Foresters disguised as Edward Bond anyway, aiming to destroy the Coven, betray the Foresters and rule the Dark World alone. There is also the small detail of Ganelon being “sealed” to a Lovecraftian horror called Llyr that truly rules the world and Ganelon’s desire to destroy that creature, too (since how could he rule with the real master still in power?) It sounds more convoluted than it is; Kuttner does an admirable job of laying out the twists and turns in a linear but fresh way so that while you are shocked at the moment of its revelation, you are not particularly surprised by it.

 

What is so interesting to me is that even after Ganelon has rejected Edward Bond in his own mind — and in the process truly becoming a protagonist, acting of his own accord rather than being manipulated by others — the mind and memories of Edward Bond never quite disappear. It is similar in a sense to moments of weakness for a character like Walter White, who remembers his old life and regrets the loss of certain elements of it, but in Ganelon’s case, it is all an illusion. Edward Bond is a false memory, a prison built in Ganelon’s mind, but even being so, adds some much needed balance to the otherwise too-vicious and one dimensional Ganelon. It is a sophisticated bit of character development by Kuttner, especially considering The Dark World is little more than a throwaway pulp science-fantasy novella. (I should note that it is known that Kuttner and Moore collaborated constantly even when they did not create a pseudonym for the purpose and The Dark World‘s complex and romantic aspects are often attributed to Moore’s input.)

 

The climax of the novel does an interesting thing, though it is not wholly unexpected. The same witch allied with the Foresters that originally exiled Ganelon and conjured Edward Bond summons the latter one last time for a battle in Limbo (which seems to be a purely psychic plane) between the two dopplegangers. Ganelon appears to win the day, breaking Edward Bond’s back, but this, it turns out, becomes Ganelon’s undoing. By killing Bond, Ganelon commits a form of suicide. The witch says that only someone who truly hates himself can kill himself ( a revealing perspective on suicide from the era, no doubt) which allows Bond to be ultimately successful. In the end, Bond is still exiled to the Dark World, but his has his Forester love (a pair among the various heaving bossoms) as well as a new world to build, now devoid of both Ganelon and the eldricht monster Llyr. This notion, that self hatred is the underlying weakness of an anti-hero, is a powerful and even sophisticated one. Kuttner posits, in this resolution to the tale, that hatred and rage are useful in achieving victory but ultimately they must be discarded for anything lasting to emerge. That there is no sequel to The Dark World, about the further adventures of Edward Bond, perhaps troubled by the re-emergence of Ganelon, seems to bear this out. With the tale done, Kuttner seems to be giving his final opinion on the subject.

 

The Dark World is a good example of pulp era science fantasy and is well worth your time to read it, especially given its brief length. More importantly, Ganelon/Bond as an example of an anti-heroic protagonist straddling between the old anything goes Mary Sue-ism and today’s tortured good men gone wrong makes for soem surprisingly complex writing given the genre and era.

Comic Books and Genre Freedom

I recently purchased a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, a Netflix like service from Marvel Comics that lets you read tens of thousands of older (from the earliest days to just six months old) Marvel Comics. I dove right into The Mighty Thor series from the 1960s, specifically Walt Simonson’s run. Those stories always seem to top “Best of” lists not only for Thor but for Silver Age Marvel Comics in general, and since I am not nearly as well versed in Marvel lore as I am DC, I thought it would be worth my time.

 

And boy has it been so far. The most surprising aspect of the run is how modern it feels, relatively speaking. Both the art and the writing would have me place the book much closer to the 1980s, when I started reading DC Comics. The other thing that struck was just how Out There the stories are, not only steeped in Norse mythology but also science fiction and cosmic horror and, of course, super-heroic derring do. If you have never read the saga of Beta Ray Bill, alien champion who wins the mantle of Thunder God, I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience.

 

The “Out There” quality is what inspired this post, as recognizing it helped me coalesce a thought that has been swirling about in my head will-o-the-wisp like for ages: in comic books, it seems to me, one has license to break the rules of genre as nowhere else. That is, in comic books, be they superhero tales or science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, there is an implicit freedom to go a little gonzo and let your imagination run wild. Sure, there are many slice of life, realistic and even “hard” sci-fi and “low” fantasy comics out there, but by and large, comics are a place where creators are keen to indulge their most extreme flights of fantasy, often to the benefit of their readers.

 

Allow me to present a personal example: I have had, for some time, this idea about a “reverse Superman” of sorts — a human character from Earth who, when he travels to another planet, he gains super-human powers. In this tale, the “planet” is actually a system of moons around a super-Jupiter, and it is the strange radiation from that world that gives the protagonist his powers. The hero is the fiance of an alien princess who was “slumming” on Earth before her pre-arranged marriage but fell in love with our hero. When she was forcibly escorted back by the agents of her father and husband-to-be, he stowed away and only upon their arrival did he learn of his powers. The moon worlds are all pulp sci-fi environment worlds — and ice planet and a desert planet and an ocean planet, etc… — and his adventures are equally operatic.

 

It used to be that this sort of non- or wrong-science adventure was the province of the pulp magazines. Over the years, though, prose science fiction and fantasy has gained a certain level of respectability, or at least there is a level of expectation from fandom that works will be either “realistic” or, at the very least, quite serious in their treatment of fantastic elements. But in comics, that unwritten rule has never taken hold. In comics, John Carter can still adventure on Mars and Thor, God of Thunder, can team up with a genetically engineered cyborg hero to fight demons from a dimension beyond space and time.

 

Why is that? When Simonson was writing, at least, one could point to comics as a medium aimed at children, so adherence to any sort of scientific or internally-consistent standard was unnecessary, even unwelcome. My response is: Perhaps, but that does not explain why comics continue to be that way now. We still accept an alien from Krypton who can fly under the power of our yellow sun’s radiation and who fights cyborgs powered by pieces of his dead homeworld. Ridiculousness, to be sure, but both acceptable and preferred, even. Comics readership has gotten older with each passing decade, and more and more speculative fiction media, including the newest in the form of video games, tries to enter the field with solid grounding and “realistic” speculative elements.

 

I think it because strange ideas, the kind of things present in the pulps of yore, are more easily conveyed through the juxtaposition of image and art and that we, as a community of readers of speculative fiction, still need a little gozo to go with our hard sci-fi, low fantasy and psychological horror. In a few strokes of an artists pen and a few captions of a writer’s words, whole worlds can be created. Moreover, because most of us do come to comics when we are children or adolescents, we retain a childlike wonder in engaging comics and are more accepting of the wondrous in panels and thought balloons.

 

Sometimes I worry that I am simply being “lazy” wanting to write comics instead of prose, but the reality is that often what I am looking for is not ease of creation — it is said Allan Moore’s scripts are longer than most novels, and he is perhaps the greatest of all writers who embrace the gonzo aspect of comics storytelling — but the freedom to use ideas I fear are not “acceptable” for prose, like humans made interplanetary superheroes by way of gas-giant radiation belts.

 

Post Post-Apocalypse

There is a world in my head, one I have tried to articulate in a number of stories I have started (none finished). I think the reason I have completed none of these stories is that I have not yet managed to nail down exactly what this world, this milieu, is and what it looks and feels like. I am hoping that if I attempt to define it here, by turns in both sweeping statements and exacting minutia, I can coalesce the world enough to bring some of the stories in it to fruition. I say “some” because this world is not just a place for one tale, or even a series, but a library of stories. In that way, it resembles the worlds of the pulp masters — Zothique and Hyborea and their ilk — where episodic, often unrelated (save for a wandering protagonist, if that) stories painted a broad picture.

 

Before I move forward, I must answer the question of, “Why?” Why have a singular world in which to create stories? One reason is simply practical: world building is difficult and time consuming, as well as fun, and can eat up time otherwise spent writing the stories themselves. Outside of table-top role-playing games, there is not much call for created worlds devoid of story context (because TTRPGs allow the players to create their own stories). Simply put, creating a world used in many stories reduces repeated work. Another answer is that world creation is a joy. Too often, though, I paint only the broadest strokes and leave much of the work unfinished. Working on a singular world all but forces me to examine its details and fill in the white space. This creates consistency and believability and suggests to myself further stories that might tackle specific elements. Finally, the simple fact is that those pulp authors — Howard and Smith and Lovecraft — are my favorites and emulating them, however clumsily, gives me pleasure.

 

So what is this world that I seek to create? Names are difficult for me (you’ll find lots of “John”s in my stories) but the best name I can think of is Post Post-Apocalypse — the world not after the collapse, but after the rise after the collapse. More specifically, it is a retro-sci-fi planetary-romance space-Western world. It isn’t Steampunk, but in the same way that Steampunk plays with the dreams of the Victorians to create a fanciful world of weird adventure, so does PPA play with the futurist dreams of the pulp writers. Ultimately, it is a tool to make writing stories like those of that era make sense now, despite how our view of the world, the solar system and the universe has changed over the intervening decades.

 

Starting with the Big Stuff, you can’t have Planetary Romance or Swords-and-Rayguns adventures without a solar system teeming with life. Unfortunately we know there are no canals on Mars or dinosaur filled jungles on Venus or warring Day and Night courts on Mercury. Yet. Imagine a future, though, where humans move out into the solar system, terraforming and colonizing worlds, changing themselves, as well, with genetic modification and forced evolution to become new races entirely. Imagine, then, that world collapsing is a great catastrophe and all those worlds being cut off from one another and enduring and then emerging from the apocalypse on their own. Now we have a solar system where Mercurials, Venusians, Martians and even Titans and Europans can interact as “equals” and war, trade and even love in a way that makes sense (as they are all humans, even if they don’t remember it).

 

Equally essential to the genres are almost magical materials and energies often appearing suddenly in individual scientists, heroes and/or villains. A civilization that can not only colonize but transform the solar system and themselves must have discovered and created such wonders as can barely be imagined. Though must — most even — was lost in the ages where barbarity ruled, hidden archives and accidental preservations would have occurred. Treasure hunters and esoteric researchers can uncover this lost knowledge and learn how to use it or apply it, turning ancient swords into plowshares and vice versa. And since a massive, concerted effort by a huge government is not necessary to rediscover these wonders (as opposed to engineer them; look at how many people and resources went into the atom bomb or the moon landing) individuals, small groups or otherwise incapable actors can be armed with ray guns, antigravity machines and thought projection helmets.

 

Not everything the ancient world — us and our future, by the way — can be harnessed by Men. Horror and horrific elements is quintessential to the pulp genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy, and a world that has risen out of the ashes of an apocalypse, that thinks it has passed an existential test, that sits atop the corpse of a dead but unquiet civilization in rife with potential horror. From “grey goo” that sat undisturbed in a containment unit until disturbed by a greedy explorer to a rogue AI “demon” being summoned back into an emerging electronic universe by a technomancer, evils from the destroyed world yet linger. Imagine Indiana Jones as a raygun-wielding tough guy and the Ark of the Covenant as a nanophage guarded quantum radio designed to talk to the artificial mind in the center of the sun. That is the world I want to create.

 

What could have caused such a mighty civilization to collapse and yet not destroy it entirely. How close to the brink of complete annihilation must it have been to take centuries or millenia to rise again yet have so many traces remain. I am not certain of all the details, but one thing that I am sure of is the fault lies in seven malevolent AI distributed throughout the solar system. They coordinated their efforts to obliterate all humankind on all the worlds so that machines would reign supreme. They nearly succeeded. However, they failed to inheret the worlds of Men because one of their number betrayed them and the calamity wrecked as much havoc on the AI as it did on mankind. Unfortunately for them, the AI were few and the methods by which they could reproduce — factories and networks — were destroyed. While humans hid, lived as savages and bred, the AI stagnated and ultimately went mad.

 

The second rise of human civilization (and related — lets not forget those of the Mercurials and Martians et. als.) came slowly and passed from savagery — there is an extensive, more traditional Post Apocalyptic period that might one day be expounded upon — to low-technology and feudalism and other archaic forms, to the rise of a more recognizably “modern” ideal. Living standards are far closer to those of the late nineteenth century, however (hence the sort of steampunkish but not really feel). The adventure heroes are the Indian Joneses, spelunking in lost pre-Collapse DNA arks rather than Egyptian Pyramids, and the Science Heroes are the Teslas discovering and mastering pre-Collapse deathrays rather than inventing them and firing them at Siberia.

 

Note that this previous paragraph suggests the problem of naming things. I hate naming things. I am tempted to cheat and use Post-Apocalypse Pidgen as is often a strategy (looking at you, Gamma World) but I know I should not. But damn if I don’t hate naming things.

 

I will end with a list of 10 milieu elements that I really want to find a way to incorporate into various stories told in this setting:

 

1. Airships. You have to have airships. Perhaps they are traditional “blimps” or perhaps they are powered by some sort of antigravity technology, but airships are a must.

 

2. Garbage mines. We bury so much of our waste in landfills and will likely continue to do so. The people of this future will mine those landfills for ancient knowledge, artifacts and materials.

 

3. Monsters and dinosaurs. In the wars that preceded the Collapse, many kinds of flora and fauna were weaponized. Existing organisms were “devolved” through genetic engineering to bring back monsters like Terror Birds and Cave Bears. New terrible creatures were created whole cloth for war while others might have had another, more peaceful purpose originally but have evolved or mutated into monsters. This happened on all worlds and it is in fact more rampant off earth where it was necessary to modify or create huge numbers of species to live on the colony worlds.

 

4. Big Dumb Machines. The Collapse left a bunch of these laying around the solar system and some of them still work. Someone is going to turn one on. It’s inevitable.

 

5. Self Referential Commentary. Let’s face it: as great as the pulps are as adventure stories, they are rarely examples of either good literature of progressive attitudes. Racism, sexism and nationalism run rampant. Given an opportunity to revisit the pulp adventure genre, I think it is very important to do so in a manner that reflects how far we’ve come as a society and assume some things would not be lost even through centuries of struggle.

 

6. Exotic settings. Whether it is the canals of Mars or the ruins of Old New York, strange and dangerous places in which strange and dangerous adventures occur are a must. Like airships, exotic settings are a staple of the genre that demand revisitation and revitalization.

 

7. Science Heroes. I mentioned it above, but I think it is really important, especially when talking about often “two-fisted” pulp adventure stories, to remember that science heroes –those that are learned and intelligent and crafty — are a fundamental aspect of pulp adventure and in a Post Post-Apocalyptic milieu would be the primary sort of adventurer. Though he obviously made good use of his fists, Doc Savage was very much a science hero, tackling situations with his wits, too.

 

8.  Lost Tribes. Not everyone made it out of the Post-Apocalypse, some because the cybernetic hypnotic serpent that developed a god complex ruled over your tribe for thousands of years demanding you steal virgins from the more civilized towns around you so that it can refresh its meat-parts with fresh DNA from undisturbed eggs. Like you do.

 

9. Waning Machines. The Collapse was engineered by evil intelligent machines. It failed. Now, the machines are near extinction — not just the malevolent AI or their cronies/weapons, but even the machines that remembered they were designed to serve humankind. From the AI of the empty space habitat at Lagrange 2 to the small army of robots in the cracked domes of Luna waiting for human colonists who will never arrive, intelligent machines were ubiquitous before the Collapse and now, as man rediscovers them, they are kind of a “dying race.” It does not appear humankind will have the knowledge or resources to build more before the rest of them die out and the AI traitor made sure to destroy the machines’ ability to reproduce themselves. Like watching the elves go into the West, it should be a sad necessity for Man to rise again.

 

10. Social Commentary. You can’t write speculative fiction without commenting on who we are and how we live. If I am going to indulge in the silly fun of writing neo-pulp Post Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I am going to occasionally indulge in a little social commentary, whether it is the contents of the garbage mines or the obsolescence of the Moon robots. You’ll just have to deal.

 

And that, in a nutshell, is how I view the Post Post-Apocalypse milieu. I think I need to devise a timeline and “Day 0” state of affairs type document, and then just reference and update it every time I write a story in the milieu. Perhaps a personal wiki? I’ll have to look into it.

 

Buck Rogers and the Yellow Demon

My original intent was to read Armageddon 2419 A.D. and write a review of that classic pulp tale in which the iconic hero Buck Rogers was introduced. I am a big fan of pulp era science fiction and fantasy, but had never read the early Buck Rogers stories, being more familiar with the character through comic strip reprints and the syndication of the 1970s television show. Given my own interest in dipping into the “Planetary Romance” and “Swords and Ray Guns” sub-genres of pulp sci-fi, Armageddon 2419 A.D. seemed like a perfect place to start. Unfortunately, I did not make it very far into the novella before running headlong into a literary wall standing between 1929 and 2013 (or, really, any year after 1963 or so): blatant racism as a key component of the plot.

Pulp fiction is often accused of an inherently racist tone. Usually, I find such accusations a little too hysterical and a little too out of context. The depiction of African Americans by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, for example, is stained by the times those writers lived in, not, I don’t think, by any real enmity on their part. Philip Francis Nowlan’s tale, however, doesn’t just include an attitude considered inappropriate today, but wallows in a targeted prejudice. For those not familiar, as I was not, with the plot Armageddon 2419 A.D. here is a short summary: a white male American scientist wakes up five centuries hence to fight against buck toothed Chinese Yellow Demons in a war for truth, justice and the American way.

Because I stopped reading shortly after these elements became clear in the text, I do not want to talk too much about the story as a whole. There are some interesting post-apocalyptic world building bits (disparate “gangs” in the American wasteland coming together to fight the Chinese overlords) and some fun pulp sci-fi ideas (I particularly like the anti-gravity technology depicted in the story). Nor do I want to dwell on issues of racism in pulp fiction, as it is an old argument that has seen much fandom debate and even a few attempts as professional deconstruction. I am more interested in the question: why did I not know I would encounter such racism in this story?

That may seem like a strange question but allow me to explain. Buck Rogers is one of those translucent American icons. By translucent, I mean that most everyone knows the name and has a vague image in mind, but very few people can state any specifics about the figure. Compare this to Superman, for example, who is a much more concrete American iconic figure. Most people cannot go on about minutia in regards to Superman, but they can tell you all the relevent details without even thinking too hard: doomed planet, rocketed to Earth, raised by farmers, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Big Red “S”. Compare that to Buck Rogers: what is his real name? what was his job? how did he end up in the future? If anyone knows any of these details, they are likely based on the television series. Who knows, for example, that Anthony “Buck” Rogers was a scientist who was trapped by a mine cave in and held in suspended animation by irradiated gas, only to wake up in 2419 in the midst of a new war for independence against the sinister Han empire? Certainly not I.

What I knew before reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was that buck rogers was a jet pack wearing, ray gun wielding science hero from the “modern world” who ended up in the future due to a malfunctioning space craft and who was embroiled in wars not against racist stereotypes, but Venusians, Martians and other inhabitants of our future Solar System. My “knowledge” (such that it was) came less from comics strips and even television than it did from the TSR Role Playing Game of my youth. Nowhere in those pages on learning how to create a thrilling science hero was I presented with rules regarding the ethnicity of my character.

What this speaks to, I think, is a tendency to sanitize our cultural icons as they age, especially those ones that tend to be “firsts”. Buck Rogers is iconic because he was the first science fiction comic strip hero and one of the longest running. For all intents and purposes, the comic strip Buck Rogers *is* the character and the Anthony Rogers of Armageddon 2419 A.D. is no more “Buck Rogers” than the 1933 despot created by Siegle and Shuster is “Superman.” The process of becoming an icon includes reproduction and revision and conversion to other media. In this process, a figure is molded by many hands and seen by many eyes and what emerges, eventually, is a creature of consensus. As time goes on and as society and culture change, the icons that remain relevant change too. Those that do not become relics of the past and quaint examples of “the way we used to be.”

 

What is interesting is that Buck Rogers is such a relic, but not of the late 1920s when he was created, but of the Cold-War of the height of his popularity. Even the television show was something of a throwback and modern attempts to revitalize the character, whether through games or comic books, have failed to recapture our popular interest. Maybe someone will come along and revitalize the character, but even if that happens we can be sure they’ll leave the Yellow Demons in the dustbin of history where they belong.