Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Appendix: You wouldn't like me when I'm angry

Peter David wrote a spirited defence of Stan Lee (before the current wave of biographies, and while Lee was still alive) in which he says that it had become "stylish to trash Stan Lee". 

He makes the following interesting comment: 

I’ll never forget when Jack Kirby stated in Comics Journal that he had gotten the idea for the Hulk by watching a news report about a frantic mother who, because she was so upset, had enough strength to lift a car that was pinning her struggling child to the ground. And Jack thought, “What if we did a hero who, when he got really angry, changed into a super strong monster!” Great idea…except in the Hulk’s origin the transition was brought about by the rise of the moon, like a werewolf. Anger had nothing to do with it and wasn’t established until years later. I’m not saying Kirby knowingly lied. I’m just saying memories can be problematic and claiming that all credit should be taken away after the fact based on differing memories is a slippery slope. 

Indeed. 

In the original comic book (May 1962) Banner's transformation into the Hulk was triggered by the fall of night; by a machine which gives him a dose of radiation; and by body-swapping with Rick Jones. The idea that the transformation is triggered by stress only comes in when the character is rebooted in October 1964.  (This is twenty seven months after the comic's original launch, which arguably qualifies as "years".) At that point stress would turn Banner to Hulk, but stress would also turn Hulk back to Banner. The reboot was drawn and therefore plotted by Steve Ditko without Kirby's direct involvement. When Lee talks about how he made up the Hulk out of his head without any help from anyone else, he says that he wanted to create a follow up to the Thing, and that he wanted to create a sympathetic monster in the mould of Karloff's Frankenstein. I am not sure when "the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets" first became a slogan: but "don't make me angry" became the unique selling point in the Bill Bixby TV series -- a reworking of the Fugitive which had very little in common with any of the comic book versions of the character. 

So: Kirby is guilty of the same thing which Stan Lee is often accused of: looking at what the character eventually evolved into, and claiming that that was how it was always inevitably going to turn out. 

Except, if we turn up Kirby's infamous Comics Journal interview, we find that what he actually said was as follows: 

The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that — we can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do. You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk. I inserted him in a lot of the stories I was doing. Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident. A character to me can’t be contrived. I don’t like to contrive characters. They have to have an element of truth. This woman proved to me that the ordinary person in desperate circumstances can transcend himself and do things that he wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’ve done it myself. I’ve bent steel....The child wasn’t caught. He was playing under the running board in the gutter. His head was sticking out, and then he decided he wanted to get back on the sidewalk again. But being under the car frightened his mother. He was having difficulty crawling out from under the running board, so his mother looked like she was going to scream, and she looked very desperate. She didn’t scream, but she ran over to the car and, very determined, she lifted up the entire rear of that car. I’m not saying she was a slender woman. She was a short, firm, well-built woman — and the Hulk was there. I didn’t know what it was. It began to form. 

This is rather different from Peter David's quote. Kirby says that the woman's burst of strength was brought on by desperation. He says that desperation could make anyone that strong. He adds that in desperate circumstances people can transcend their normal limits, and that the woman looked very desperate when the child was trapped. To back up this claim, he says that people can also perform feats of strength when they are beserk or in a rage. 

It would have been unreasonable for Kirby (or, indeed, Lee) to claim that the foresaw, at the time of Incredible Hulk #1, what the character would turn into in Tales to Astonish #60. It would be much less unreasonable to say that the original Hulk was about a weak person turning into a strong person, or even that the character had a strong element of the beserker in him.

But in fact, in this case, Lee's pitch, as described in Origins of Marvel Comics, pretty much covers the first run of the Incredible Hulk. It boils down to: "I thought we could do a rip-off of the Frankenstien movies, and maybe chuck in some Jekyll and Hyde for good measure."

If we accept Stan Lee's "divine spark" theory of creation, then it is understandable that Kirby would want to create an origin myth for the Hulk that establishes that the singular flash of inspiration was his, and not Stan's. But we don't need an origin myth to explain why a company that was already producing monster comics would have come up with the idea of a scientist who gets turned into a monster by radiation and fights the commies. 

But there is surely a bigger problem with Kirby's story which neither Peter David nor Abrahan Reisman points out. 

Kirby's Comic's Journal interview was given in 1989 and published in 1990. The story of the mother drawing on unknown reserves of strength to rescue her trapped child is part of the origin of the Hulk in the TV series. Which debuted in 1977 -- 15 years after Kirby co-created the Hulk, but 22 years before he gave this interview. 





Tuesday, March 02, 2021

This blog, this biography


True Believer
Abraham Riesman

A Marvellous Life
Danny Fingeroth






















I read two Stan Lee biographies back to back.

Danny Fingeroth's is the more laudatory book -- he knew and worked with Stan and was head of the burgeoning line of Spider-Man comics in the 1980s. Abraham Riesman's is much more critical, and has already been denounced by all the people you would have expected it to be denounced by. And the funny thing is this -- there is hardly a substantive fact on which the two books differ.

Fingeroth concedes that Stan Lee did not, in any straightforward sense "create" Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four: a very large proportion of the creative impetus came from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Riesman equally acknowledges that the voice of Marvel comics, the brand identity, the intermingling of the characters into a universe -- everything that made Marvel Comics the publishing phenomenon which it became -- depended on Stan Lee. Sure, he calls him a "bullshitter" while others have merely called him a spinner-of-yarns. Sure, he counters the silly hype about Stan Lee being the modern equivalent of Homer with an equally shrill assertion that he "pulled off one of the most daring facts of artistic theft in modern history". But as devoted a Lee-booster as Roy Thomas agrees that Kirby and Lee co-created the Fantastic Four. As vehement a Kirby acolyte as Mark Evanier takes it for granted that the Fantastic Four were the products of a creative synergy between Lee and Kirby. The disputed area is more theological than biographical.

In some places, Fingeroth is less inclined than Riesman to full-on-Stanolatory. He admits --what anyone can see -- that the Fantastic Four issue #1 isn't particularly ground-breaking. Kirby was already producing that quirky, rough-hewn artwork in the Timely monster comics; and Lee was already adding cynical, wise-cracking speech bubbles to it.

"To say the issue was feeling its way is an understatement. The story is choppy, internally inconsistent, lackadaisically drawn, and indifferently plotted, whether by Lee or Kirby or a combination of the two. The other stories the team did that were on sale that same month, such as those in Rawhide Kid and Strange Tales, were, as far as craft and readability, far superior, far more polished."

Riesman is rather more inclined to take Stan on his own terms -- to say that yes, Fantastic Four # 1 was ground breaking, and then to try to work out whether it was Lee or Kirby who broke that ground. Lee says he came up with the characters and told Kirby to draw them. Kirby says he found Stan Lee crying in the Marvel offices one day, and took it on himself to create a bunch of new characters to save the company. Riesman correctly says it's a fallacy to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: either man could be lying. Or both could. 

To be sure, there is extant a typed synopsis of Fantastic Four #1, and of course the provenance of that synopsis is worth pondering. Did Lee write it himself, from cold, without input from anyone? Did he write the synopsis after a brain storming session with Jack in the Marvel offices — putting on paper ideas they had together? Was he merely providing a narrative treatment for ideas of which Kirby was the onlie begetter? Or did he, perchance, write the synopsis after F.F #1 had seen print, to dishonestly make it look as if he had more input into the comic than was really the case.

The faithful Roy spends fully two thirds of his rebuttal of the book asserting the authenticity of the synopsis. But the truth is that is doesn’t make much difference one way or the other.

Fantastic Four issue #50, and Amazing Spider-Man issue #33 are immeasurably superior to anything Marvel had published in the 1940s or 1950s, and utterly different from anything that any one else was doing in the 1960s. It may very well be true that five years earlier it had been Stan Lee who said to Jack Kirby "Let's do a comic about a strong guy, a stretchy guy, a firey kid, and an invisible lady". It may equally be that Jack Kirby presented that idea to Stan as a fait accompli. But nothing in the Origin of the Fantastic Four leads inexorably to This Man, This Monster.

It is true that Alan Moore recalls, even as a child, feeling that the Fantastic Four was a bolt from the blue that changed his whole relationship with comics. ("This comic was utterly stark-raving foaming-at-the-mouth stupendous") But he found the F.F strange and different compared with the DC comics of the day and compared with the British children's comics he was familiar with. It wasn’t radically different from what the Stan/Jack synergy had produced the previous month. The Fantastic Four is a better strip than Doctor Droom (and certainly a less racist one). But it's part of a series of incremental changes, not a singular creative burst.

The saddest thing that comes through in both books is how little Stan Lee liked, or cared about comic books: how rarely he read them. This may be why his own comics were so different from anything that had come before and everything which came after. A clever man, a talented wordsmith, was doing his very best in a genre with which he was always going to be at crossed purposes. Kirby and Ditko's fantasy characters were ventriloquized by a man who would much rather be adding risque jokes to photographs of celebrities or (this was new to me) chairing a talk show about Vietnam and the generation gap. 

Riesman and Fingeroth rehearse the basic facts -- Spider-Man is neurotic, the Fantastic Four quarrel, Thor talks like the King James Bible -- but otherwise they have relatively little to say about the actual comics that had Stan's name on them. One never gets the sense of a committed chronicler or world builder -- you don't hear Stan saying "I don't think Reed would react like that" or "No, Iron-Man couldn't get from Avengers Mansion to Forest Hills High School that quickly”. The stories about the later Stan Lee, acting as executive producer on an X-Men cartoon without knowing the names of any of the characters, or slipping out of premiers because he doesn't actually enjoy superhero movies -- are hard for any born and bred Marvelite to read. But that disjuncture -- that gap between the myth of the grey, smokey bullpen and the brightly coloured world of the superheroes -- is surely a big part of the unique ambience of Marvel Comics. Fingeroth refers more than once to the Wizard of Oz: part of the magic of Marvel was that Lee was always drawing our attention to the man behind the curtain.

It's worth having another listen to the spoken word record that was sent out to members of Marvel's first fan club. We aren't asked to imagine Stan and Steve and Flo talking about bank robbers and aliens and cosmic radiation; we are listening in on them wise cracking about deadlines and paychecks and days off. ("How come I don't get my name plastered all over the mags like you?" "Because I can't spell it, that's why...") The club song -- a parody of every club song that has ever been written -- doesn't mention superheroes. We are fans of Marvel because we are fans of Marvel. It could be a breakfast cereal or a duck hunting lodge for all you would know.

If you growl, if you groan with a down and sour outlook,
if you howl, if you moan, you can lose your sour grout
by keeping trim and in step with the vim and the pep
of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

This is also true, incidentally, of the theme songs to the first wave of Marvel Cartoons, which seem to have been written by someone who hasn't read the actual comics:

Wreckin' the town with the power of a bull
Ain't no monster clown
Who is as lovable
As ever lovin' Hulk!

So there is not much point in having the who-did-what argument all over again. No-one who has bothered to look into the background believes that Steve Ditko was simply Stan Lee's illustrator, in the way that E.H Shepard drew pictures to go with A.A Milne's stories or Tenniel added illustrations to to Lewis Carol's text. And no-one apart from a very small number of fan activists think that Lee was simply annotating comics into which he had no-other input. Jack Kirby, or rather his wife, Roz, may have claimed that once, in one very acrimonious interview, but no-one at this point in time believes that Lee was functionally illiterate, as she seems to come very close to claiming. Everyone who has heard of the Marvel Method thinks in terms of co-creation.

But there are two questions which it is still worth asking. One is about taste. The other is philosophical.

The question of taste is simple. When I read the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, how much importance do I attach to the words, and how much importance do I attach to the pictures. There is an extreme position which says that Stan Lee was, at best, adding extraneous verbiage to stories he had nothing to do with. Lee is no more a comic book creator than the man who scrawls graffiti on the Mona Lisa is renaissance painter. Marvel Comics would have been much better if Lee's bombast could have been deleted and replaced with bland, Silver Age exposition. Ignore the words and look at the pictures.

At the other extreme, a few people have said that the words are what you are reading: you could delete the artwork and replace it with stickmen and the comic would be much the same. This is a much more problematic claim; since it smuggles in the idea that Kirby and Ditko were mainly illustrators. As a matter of fact if you erased the pictures, you would still be left with their breakdowns, their pacing, their narrative structure. That is why John Romita’s Spider-Man and John Buscema’s Fantastic Four are so much poorer than the Ditko and Kirby versions of those characters. They are arguably better draftsmen; but they are immeasurably worse story tellers. (This is also why Kirby’s brilliance shines through even when he is poorly served by inkers, mentioning no Vince Colletta’s in particular.)

There may be a wider question about how the text of a comic book is constituted. Is "Spider-Man" twenty two pages of superhero adventure; or does the text include the letters pages, Stan's soapbox, the adverts for FOOM membership packs and value-stamps, all the endless plugs for other titles? Should we indeed stop talking about Spider-Man and see Stan Lee as the author of an intertextual creation, extending across multiple titles and into T-shirts and TV cartoons? Certainly, when I transitioned from being a Beano reader to a Marvelite at the age of eight, the face of Lee and the cryptic references to mysterious people with outlandish names like Steranko and Forbush were a major component of my epiphany. Fingeroth is particularly good on this: Marvel Comics as a single interlocking text, pulled together by Stan Lee's voice, despite the undoubted contribution of superior creative talents to the collage.

"I was totally immersed in the inside news, gossip, and wisecracks found in the comics’ letters page responses and Bullpen Bulletins that Lee wrote. And I loved visiting with—or was it being visited by?—the literary creation, found in those pages, known as “Stan Lee.” Sure, I worshipped Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but it was clear that Stan Lee was the one whose supervision held it all together. Some combination of the Lee-overseen comics’ words and pictures and colors—and even the ads—made up an imaginary world that I loved."

But the theological question is this: what is creativity? How do we bottle an idea? Did Spider-Man come into being in a single moment in the mind of a single creator, or can many people be said to have contributed to an emergent idea? George Lucas can be said to be the auteur of Star Wars, because he had an overall vision which he was striving towards. He hired artists and model makers and script writers to realise that vision. It is much harder to say that Sydney Newman (for example) created Doctor Who, although he unquestionably created a template from which the show could develop.

It seems to me to be overwhelming unlikely that the totality of Spider-Man can be contained in a singular moment of up-dreaming. But perhaps you do believe in inspiration. Perhaps you still have faith that "we could do a comic book about a teenager who sticks to walls" represents a promethean spark that no-one but Stan Lee could possibly have ignited. Then it must follow that the Silver Surfer, equally, emerged fully-formed from the mind of Jack Kirby and what was added afterwards by Stan is no part of the initial creation. Is the Silver Surfer without Shalla Bal, without Zenn La, without Mephisto, and without his particular mode of self-aggrandising dialogue still the Silver Surfer? But then in what way is Spider-Man, absent Ditko, still Spider-Man? 

And this, it is clear from both books, is why the third act of Stan Lee's life is so pathetic.

"He never sold himself as comics’ greatest editor" writes Riesman "but rather as its greatest ideas man. One can argue that that was a core tragedy of Stan’s existence and legacy: He was never able to put his most inarguable achievements front and center and instead opted for the ones that were most debatable."

He'd spent the 40s and the 50s beavering away at disposable monster comics which were often slightly better than they needed to be. He spent the 60s editing and dialog-ing a new series of superhero comics which became, if not best sellers, then certainly a cult. But he spent the the last two decades of the last century and the first two decades of this one trapped in the belief that he had a unique superpower — which no-one else believed in. He had the unique capacity to come up with ideas which could be instantly transformed — by someone else— into sure fire lucrative comic books and movies. "What if the hero is a milksop scientist by day and a terrifying monster by night — maybe he could turn green?" or "What if the hero is a lame doctor who can transform into the literal god of thunder -- maybe his walking cane turns into the hammer?" Either he convinced his business partners at Stan Lee Media and POW to believe in power or else they convinced their investors to do so. 

If you read comics you have heard of Mr A and the Question: you have certainly heard of Darksied and the Celestials. Ditko and Kirby continued to produce comics until an enviably old age. Parenex the Fighting Fetus was not Galactus, but he was unquestionably Kirby-esque. The old magic was still there. But as for Lee -- he scripted a decent Silver Surfer story for John Byrne, and a more than decent one for Mobius. And he came up with heaps of ideas: what if an exotic dancer led a double life as a secret agent? What if a crippled lawyer’s wheelchair turned into robot armour? What if Ringo Starr, or the Backstreet Boys, or Barak Obama were gifted superpowers by aliens? Not one of these ideas went anywhere. A writer could have written a story based on those premises — a writer could write a story based on any premise — but Stan Lee's infallible idea well had run dry. If, indeed, it had ever existed.

Stan Lee's end is no sadder than that of many other very rich and very old men. Either you die before your friends and miss out on a lot of life; or you die after them and end up all alone with your money and your sledge. It is sad to contemplate Lee being made to sign autographs for a hundred dollars a go when he could barely remember how to spell his own name; but the final YouTube videos suggest that he was very much Stan Lee right up to the end. I suppose most of us would chose to have been Charles M Schulz, turning in the final episode of your most beloved strip in your eightieth year and politely falling off the perch shortly afterwards. Dying all alone in your art-studio still working on idiosyncratic texts read by a few thousand die-hard admirers, knowing you never compromised, is not a bad way to go either. 

I hope that the next generation of comic book fans can dispense with the idea that Stan "dreamed up" Wolverine or has anything very much to do with Wandavision: but I hope they will still go back and read the comics he worked on, the only place where his words and his voice still live. So funny; so full of innovation; so very much of their time.



Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Doctor Who 14.2 (1976)




Hand of Fear is a messy hybrid. It is two different stories. Worse, it is two different types of story; and they never quite manage to match or make sense. 

Story One is bog-standard science-horror. Our heroes peel the layers off an extraterrestrial onion, discover the horror lurking beneath and make it go away—Nigel Kneale rather than H.P Lovecraft. 

Story Two is a risible space opera involving corridors, obliteration, barely audible dialogue and characters with far too many Zs in their names. 

If I wanted to be kind, I would say that Story One looks back at Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks; while Story Two looks forward to Graham Williams and Douglas Adams. But that attributes to the story a thematic coherence that it doesn’t really have. 

Like Masque of Mandragora, Hand of Fear begins with the Doctor and Sarah doing nothing in particular. They had hoped to go to South Croydon (a suburb on edge of the London Conurbation, a by-word for commuter-belt dullness) but have ended up in a quarry instead. An actual quarry, not a quarry standing in for an alien planet. They aren’t bright enough to work out that a siren and a man shouting at them might indicate danger, and Sarah gets buried alive when a cliff face is dynamited. 

The Doctor and Sarah no longer go looking for adventures: adventures are interruptions to the nothing in particular they would prefer to be doing. 

The explosion uncovers a stone hand; very probably the kind of hand that might inspire fear. It takes possession of Sarah-Jane, who spends the rest of the episode chanting “Eldrad must live”; “Eldrad must live” and “Eldrad must live”. The Doctor works out that it predates the human race; has a DNA like structure and is very probably the remnant of a silicon-based life-form. 

It can also absorb radiation. Happily, there happens to be a nuclear power station in the immediate vicinity, and Sarah takes the hand to the main reactor room. In a lunch-box. By the end of Episode 1 it has come to life, and by Episode 3 it has absorbed enough radiation to grow a full body. (Strangely, the first appearance of the full-grown alien, and the pay-off line “Eldrad lives” is not used as a cliff-hanger.) The body is that of a humanoid female because Sarah is the only human the hand has been in contact with. Eldrad is surprised by this shape, and later in the story, resumes her original form of, er, a humanoid male. Fortunately, it remains the policy of this blog never to talk about transgender issues. Or football. 

It is very procedural. Characters exist primarily to discover information about the Hand and convey it to the Doctor. Warnings are sounded; anti-radiation suits are put on; orders are barked and nuclear strikes are called in; but none of it makes much difference. We are marking time until the Hand is ready to reveal its hand. 

The background characters are nicely drawn. In a season which is going to become notorious for racial stereotyping, the doctor treating Sarah at the hospital is of Indian heritage. It isn’t a plot point; he just is. (He hasn’t heard of Gallifrey and thinks it must be in Ireland.) Prof Watson, who runs the nuclear power station, is introduced as a standard-issue obstructive bureaucrat, and then gets a touching little character moment, saying goodbye to his wife and kids when he’s expecting to get killed by the radiation leak. 

At the best of times, we would not have been very surprised to find out that the Hand is the remains of a silicon based alien. But for some reason the story begins with a distinctly un-special special effects sequence which shows how the remains of Eldrad came to be in the quarry. It seems that he came from a planet so cold that everyone had to have duvets wrapped round themselves all the time. Granted, it was 1976 and duvets—still known as Continental Quilts—were as exotic and pretentious as bidets and spaghetti, but the aliens look more than usually absurd. It is very hard to make out the dialogue: but the first lines spoken seem to be “Eldrad, destroyer of the barriers, sentenced to obliteration.” 

Yes, it’s another capital punishment themed story. The duvet people put their criminals in spaceships and blow them up rather than chop their heads off. They call this Obliteration. (There is another four syllable synonym for “kill”, but the Daleks are using it.) It seems that the Barriers are going to fall, and that when this happens, life on the surface of the planet will no longer be possible. So they Obliterate Eldrad nearer earth than they meant to, meaning that he has a one in three million chance of survival. 

When Eldrad finally appears in humanoid form she tells the Doctor that she invented barriers to keep her people from the howling wind. The barriers were destroyed when the planet was invaded by another race, and the invaders caused her people to unfairly blame her. This is why she was sentenced to ob-blit-ter- ray-shun. She wants to go home and make things right. 

It may be that Bob Baker and Dave Martin intend the audience to say “Ha ha, no, radioactive pants on fire, we heard one of the Duvet People saying that you yourself destroyed the barriers in episode one.” But I think you would be doing well to understand what was being said in the prologue, let alone remember it three weeks later. And Doctor Who isn’t the kind of text which generally deals in unreliable narrators. The revelation that Eldrad destroyed the barriers herself doesn’t feel like a surprising plot twist: it feels like a big cop-out, as if the writers had changed their mind at the last minute. 

In any case, He-Eldrad is less interesting than She-Eldrad. She is a quite interesting alien who has been mistreated by her own people. He is a generic Doctor Who baddie who wants to brush aside miserable creatures and go forth and conquer the YOU-NEE-VERSE. 

Once again, the baddies identify the Doctor as a Time Lord. This time, it turns out that Time Lords are supposed to take a rather active role in universal affairs: the Doctor is pledged to “prevent alien aggression” when such aggression is “deemed to threaten the indigenous population.” (So far from violating the Time Lords’ non-intervention policy, when the Doctor stops Yetis and Zygons from invading the earth he is upholding his Time Lord vows.) He’s prepared to take She-Eldrad back to her own planet (because he believes her when she says it was invaded by aliens) but he is not prepared to take her back to her own time (because that would break the First Law of Time.) This week, the Doctor is not a former Time Lord or an exiled Time Lord; he’s simply a Time Lord. He does what he does because it’s the kind of thing Time Lords do. 

It turns out that after obliterating him, Eldrad’s people decided to commit auto-genocide, just to spite her . They didn’t fancy spending a hundred and fifty million years wrapped in duvets; and they didn’t think there was much chance that anyone would invent thermal barriers or central heating, so they destroyed their archive of genetic material, and allowed their species to die out. But not before leaving a snarky note for Eldrad, on the one in three million chance of him returning home a hundred and fifty million years hence. “I salute you from the dead” it says “Hail, Eldrad, King of nothing.” 

The Doctor trips him up with a scarf and he falls down a hole. Everyone lives happily ever after. Oh dear. 

And then there is an epilogue. 

Getting rid of Sarah-Jane was always going to be a problem: with the removal of UNIT from the picture, she has become simply the Doctor’s best friend, who travels with him because she thinks it is fun. She has had multiple opportunities to stay behind on earth, but up to now has chosen not to. 

For no particular reason, Sarah becomes petulant and announces that she is going to leave. The Doctor is preoccupied by some TARDIS DIY and doesn’t pay any attention to her. By coincidence, at that exact moment, he gets a telepathic message instructing him to return to Gallifrey (“as a Time Lord I must obey”). He then pulls out of thin air the idea that humans are not allowed on Gallifrey. So poor Sarah is left behind on earth. 

It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of what we know of the characters, but Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are sufficiently good actors that they sell the scene to us. 

When Jo Grant left the TARDIS, long ago in Season 10, it was presented as something inevitable: part of a natural process. Jo had grown up. The Doctor said that the fledgling was leaving the nest. He was a bit jealous because she was marrying the wet scientist who resembles a younger version of himself; but there is no sense that Jo was going to stay around forever. Dad may cry at his daughter’s wedding; but he doesn’t really mean it. 

Sarah’s departure feels like a farewell between two adults. They can’t quite admit that they are parting, and they can’t quite admit how sad it makes them. They promise not to forget each other; the Doctor says they’ll meet again, even though both of them know how unlikely that is. He says he’s going to drop her off in South Croydon, her home, which is where they were headed at the beginning of the story. In a very nice bit of scripting, the TARDIS misfires and leaves her in an entirely different place. So we are left smiling at the Doctor’s expense, not sad because Sarah has gone. 

She has only been with us for three and a bit seasons; but “the Doctor and Sarah” have become a part of the furniture, in a way that “the Doctor and Jo” were and “the Doctor and Liz” definitely were not. 

Oh where will we find another. 



Hand of Fear came out in October 1976: my last year in primary school. (Before Star Wars; before the Eternals; before Tolkien; before Dungeons & Dragons.) My teacher was Miss Griffiths. “My name is not Miss Griffus; it is Miss Griff-ith-the-sa.” I suppose she is long dead by now. 

There was a magazine that was sold on Railway Stations and seemingly nowhere else: a glossy, weirdly loose leaf thing, called TV Sci Fi Monthly. It contained features about Star Trek and Doctor Who and the Six Million Dollar Man and an editorial by a proto-Thargian alien called The Wanderer. It was mostly just fannish summaries of stories and back stories: few behind the scenes features or interviews. Just the kind of thing you want when you are ten. There was a feature about Spock’s back-story (“torn between two species he grew to manhood on a world without emotion”) and a feature explaining the Totally Real Science behind the Six Million Dollar Man. I remember arguing about that one vociferously with my mother who felt that the idea of artificial limbs which worked better than real ones was slightly sacrilegious. TV Sci-Fi Monthly printed the address of the putative Doctor Who Appreciation Society and I must have sent them my 50p. 

So: from this story onwards, I see Doctor Who with a strange double-vision. I remember watching the story, just about. I remember reading reviews in the DWAS fanzine (imaginatively called TARDIS) written by people much older than me, who had been Doctor Who fans since 1963. Tim Dollin of Salop thought the scenes on Eldrad’s planet looked like something out of a pantomime and that the last minute gender change was stupid. Caroline Grainger from Cleveland thought that the ending had been cut short and that the story should have run to six parts. Richard Leaver of Blackpool thought that “the ultimate in special effects” had been achieved when the petrified hand came to life. 

But I also remember playing Doctor Who in the playground at playtime (“bagsie be the monster”) and chatting about it with my little friends over school-dinners. Quietly. You could still be smacked for being noisy in the dinner-hall. 

One of my friends—I think he was called Michael—had a highly original take which, once heard, can never be unheard. There is, indeed, something deliciously creepy about the end of Episode 1, in which the petrified hand comes to life and starts finger walking across the room. Disembodied body parts are weird. It may not have proved to be the ultimate special effect, but the BBC were starting to get the hang of blue-screen. 

But my little friend Michael went right to the heart of the matter. 

“It would have been better if it had been The Willy of Fear” he remarked. 

And it would have been.




Friday, February 19, 2021

Doctor Who 14.1 (1976)



We left the Doctor and Sarah at the South Pole. They had just spent six weeks running around one of the Stately Homes of England, trying very hard not to get eaten by a gigantic plant. When we rejoin them they are having a stroll through the corridors of the TARDIS and chatting about infinity.

Last season, the Doctor was still working for UNIT—complaining about working for UNIT; threatening to resign from UNIT, but nevertheless calling in UNIT when he wanted to nuke the giant carnivorous daffodil from orbit. But as this season opens, he is a free agent with no particular place to go. The idea that the Doctor had a job title and a boss and a home-base was one that the series seemed reluctant to let go: but now the apron strings have been well and truly cut. It will be six years before we hear from the Brigadier.

Seasons 12 and 13 had a very loose narrative arc. Robot followed on from Planet of the Spiders; Revenge of the Cybermen led directly into Terror of the Zygons. Season 14 begins in media res. The Doctor and Sarah are not coming from anywhere or going anywhere. They are wandering in space and time. That’s what they do. That’s who they are.

It is jarring to see the Doctor and Sarah, casually taking a walk, inside, as it were, the spaceship. With a single black and white exception “TARDIS interior” has always meant “a white room containing a cybernetic mushroom control tower which goes up and down”. And yet here we are, talking about boot-rooms and finding Wellsian control rooms we had forgotten all about. (Discovering a room in your house that you didn’t know was there is a pretty common anxiety dream, right up there with turning up to work with no clothes on.)

“You humans have got such limited little minds” says the Doctor. “I don’t know why I like you so much.”

“Because you have such good taste.” replies Sarah-Jane.

“That’s true, that’s very true” says the Doctor. The Doctor’s alien-ness, his otherness, is being foregrounded as never before. But he remains avuncular. Everyone’s favourite alien.

Change is incremental: but Doctor Who is becoming a new and different thing. We could say that the original series is dying. We could say that the Doctor Who we know and love is finally coming into being. We could say that Doctor Who has always been in a perpetual state of re-invention. Nearly twenty stories will have come and gone before one of the Classic Monsters makes re-appearance.

There is a threat: a threat that the Doctor understands and never quite gets around to explaining to us. He calls it the Helix, although I think he really means Vortex. For a force of ultimate evil it sure does look a lot like an extreme close up of milk being poured into black coffee. It is a great big red glowing lump of Plot.

There are some woods. There are some baddies. They are chasing some peasants. It is the olden days. We could easily imagine that we were in Sherwood Forest, but we turn out to be in Italy.

There are some characters, and a plot. The Duke has died. The Wicked Uncle is going to take the Dukedom from the Duke’s Good Son, with the help of a Fraudulent and Wicked Astrologer. It’s like Hamlet, or at any rate the Lion King. No-one has told the thespians that they are in Doctor Who. They think they are in a BBC costume drama. They do cod Shakespearean readings of cod Shakespearean lines. Giuliano (the nice prince) thinks that astrology is bunkum, writes letters to Galileo and wonders if perchance the earth goes round the sun. Hieronymus (the nasty astrologer) uses the stars to exert power over the credulous. Marco, Giuliano’s wet friend, is inclined to believe in astrology. Very possibly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy.

It feels like we have switched channels: from a space-opera, full of black voids and corridors and evil helixes to one of those classic historical dramas that the BBC still showed on Sunday night. If we hadn’t started with the Doctor and Sarah and the crazy sci-fi stuff, we might not have recognized this as Doctor Who and switched channels for real. (Although since BBC2 was showing cricket and ITV was showing an hour long Guys n’Dolls special, probably not.) The Doctor hasn’t been anywhere near an historical story in six seasons.

Five minutes after our heroes arrive in the Olden Days, Sarah is kidnapped by sinister Men in Cowls. They seem to have wandered in from a Dennis Wheatley adaptation, or more specifically, from the Daemons. They are going to sacrifice Sarah to someone called Demnos because she is a lady, and pretty, and because she is a heroine, and they are the baddies.

To have two plots may be regarded as dramatic: to have three seems like overkill. Some of the blurry red Plot Energy from the science fiction story hitched a lift on the TARDIS, and it is now going to use the Men in Cowls to do Very Bad Things to the inhabitants of the costume drama.

But instead of letting him help, Hieronymus sends the Doctor to the headmaster’s office for a jolly good beheading.


Episode 2

“With one leap, our hero was free...”

We all knew that the Doctor wasn’t really going to have his head chopped off. He was only sentenced to death because we were coming to the end of an episode, and the Doctor has to be in terrible danger before the credits are allowed to roll. And because kids enjoy nothing better than some light capital punishment with their marmite crumpets.

The Doctor knows it too. He politely says “excuse me” to the man with the axe, lassos him with the end of his scarf, jumps on a horse and over a bridge and rides away. He jumps into the tunnel which leads to the underground temple where Sarah is having an interesting meeting with an evil monk and a pointy sword. She lies on the alter in her night dress while a man in a mask he presumably borrowed from the National Theatre’s Orestia holds a dagger above her chest...and somehow the Doctor tiptoes in and pulls her out of the way before anyone notices.

The Doctor is the Doctor. The rules don’t apply to him. The danger is the point. How he escaped from the danger, not so much.

Demnos bathes the chief of the Men in Cowls in a golden  god light and says he is going to give him  POWERS UNDREAMED OF in order to make him SUPREME RULER OF THE EARTH. And when he takes his mask of he turns out to be...

...Hieronymus the Evil Astronomer!!!

Pretty good plot devising, I call that. Giuliano (the nice prince) is a big fan of science. Hieronymus believes that Demnos is magic; but the Doctor can see it is really just the swirly red helix vortex. But when the Doctor talks about balls of alien fire, the olden days people naturally assume that he is talking about magic. Federico (the evil duke) doesn’t believe in astrology any more than Giuliano does, but is happy to use Hieronymus to further his own political ambitions.

We critics love to stalk sub-texts. But the story is not really very much concerned with philosophical questions about magic and science and superstition and the Enlightenment. It is much more interested in the conflict between good guys and bad guys and how many times our heroes can get captured and escape in one twenty five minute segment.

There are some Very Good Moments. The Doctor and Sarah are sitting in the tunnels explaining the plot to each other. (“Sub-thermal recombination of ionised plasma”. “Oh, simple. I should have thought of that.”) Two men with pikes creep up behind them. But it turns out that they are being rescued, not captured, and the pikeman deliver them to Giuliano and Marcos. Giuliano identifies the Doctor as a fellow scientist (“oh, I dabble”) and explains to Sarah his wacky theory that the earth is a sphere. Federico and Hieronymus leave no piece of scenery unchewed.

When we first met the Fourth Doctor, he was the Shakespearian One, the one who made speeches about how Homo Sapiens are indomitable and how he doesn't want to commit genocide if he can possibly help it. But he has become the Grim, Arrogant, mostly Dislikable One. He asks Hieronymus if the moon is made of cheese; he pretends to Giuliano that he is going to move on without helping him. He talks technobabble and refuses to explain things: only Sarah can sometimes prick his pomposity. Serious, grim and knowledgeable: he is not afraid of the Helix (in the way that he was arguably afraid of Sutekh) nor does he respect it (in the way that he probably respected Davros). But he treats it as a serious threat. He is not playing games. Hiding from Federico’s men in the market place, he bites into an orange and grins: the pre-Whovian face of Baker lights up the room. He is a benevolent alien: very benevolent, and very, very alien. Any eccentricity come from the mis-match between his personality and his appearance.

Remember the quote—attributed to Mae West—about the prisoner who is asked by the judge if she is trying to show her contempt for the court? “On the contrary, your honour” she replies “I am doing my very best to conceal it.” That’s the Doctor’s attitude to the whole universe. I am afraid that a lot of naughty boys in nasty schools thought that this was a cool way of dealing with authority, with people who are not as clever as you, and indeed with your friends and your family. Probably, Doctor Who was a not unhealthy fantasy safety valve for us: one day we too would deliver the perfect put-down to that P.E teacher who threatened to chop our head off if we forgot our kit. But it also made many of us bigger outsiders than we needed to be. The stereotype of the Doctor Who nerd is tiresome. But was Doctor Who popular with social pariahs because it validated their nerdish behaviour? Or were they pariahs because they kept on trying to be as arrogant as their hero?

Sarcasm. Yeah. That’s a really high form of wit.

The Doctor goes back into the tunnels to work out what Hieronymus and the Red Energy can possibly be up to. Sarah Jane gets captured again and led off to be a human sacrifice. We end the episode on the same cliff we were hanging off at the beginning.

Episode 3

Cliches 

Last year we ran through all the cliches that could possibly arise from alien invaders in Scotland: bagpipes, oil-rigs, haggis, lake-monsters. This time, we go through everything that could possibly happen in olden days Italy. Torture, sword fights, beheadings, sorcery, catacombs, astrology, science... 

Why is Marco being tortured and what does it matter to the plot? I am not entirely sure. But I am sure that Marco is noble and blonde and brave and that Federico is filthy and disgusting and sadistic and above all foreign and you totally need a scene in a dungeon in this kind of adventure.

Metalanguage

Hieronymus hypnotises Sarah and sends her to murder the Doctor. The Doctor realizes that Sarah has been hypnotized because she starts to question the basic premises of the programme. How, she wonders, can she understand what Giuliano is saying, given that she doesn’t speak Italian? “Because them’s the rules of the show” explains the Doctor “If my companions couldn’t communicate with cave men and Daleks and Romans and Aztecs it would all become very boring very quickly.” (Well: what he actually says is “I’ll explain later” and “It’s a Time Lord gift, I share it with you”, which comes to much the same thing.) But he knows that the real Sarah would never have asked such a sensible question.

Very boringly indeed, the “Time Lord Gift” became an actual plot-point, as opposed to a plot device, in the rebooted series.

Scarf Ace

The Doctor wears his scarf at all times. He no longer bothers to tie it round his neck: it just hangs there, like a sash. (Sashes will shortly become very important.) Do you have any idea how hot he must have been in Italy? (The episode was actually filmed in Portmerion. Everything is filmed in Portmerion.)

Swashbuckling

Giuliano takes on Federico’s men. He parries four swords at once and pushes them away.

“You craven gutted curs” says Federico to his goons “He is but one man”. And then Doctor Tom appears, sword in hand, and says “You can’t count, Count.” (There is a nice little fanfare in the incidental music, just to underline the point.) It is the kind of thing that might have been said in any Wurwitanian Womance.

We are sometimes told that in Old Who, the Doctor was a man of science, not a man of action: that David Tennant, in particular, turned him into a British Indiana Jones. And yet, here he is, buckling every swash in Errol Flynn's Book. He holds a sword to a bad-guy’s throat and pushes him away. Several times he jumps in the air as a bad guy goes for his legs. He grins right through the fight, and at one point licks his lips with enjoyment. Spoilsport grown ups may notice that the Doctor’s hair gets longer in fight scenes (at any rate, when filmed from behind). The same thing happens when he jumps on a horse. But the director manages to disguise this pretty successfully: back shots of stunt men are inter-cut very swiftly with close ups of the Doctor’s face.

Toilets

Don’t you think that, by the standards of 1970s children’s TV, there are a rather a lot of lavatorial references in this episode? Which is fine: kids like toilet jokes almost as much as they like executions. The Captain Of The Guard tells Federico that there are places in the Catacombs where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man: Federico calls the Captain of the Guard a shit-head. (Well, dung-head.) He also calls his nephew a sewer rat and says that Hieronymus can no more read the stars than he can read “my chamberpot”. If you discard one very prominent and unfortunately unremovable bit of signage in the Faceless Ones, I think this is the first suggestion that anyone in the Doctor Who universe ever needs to go.

Torture

We have had a beheading and a human sacrifice, so of course we have to have a nice bit of torture. It is the most conventional, archetypal torture scene you ever saw. Federico wants Marco to say that Giuliano is part of the Cult of Demnos. Which he isn’t, obviously. Marco whispers “Never!” Evil Duke says that the torturer can be over-zealous and that “not everyone survives his attentions”. Marco snarls “You devils!” Federico appeals to his intelligence and leans in close for his answer. Marco spits in his face. One half-expects him to say “No, no, not the comfy chair” while Federico blows up the planet Alderaan.


Episode 4

The Doctor works out what the audience has already guessed: the Mandragora Helix hijacked the TARDIS to bring it to this specific point in history because there was already an appropriately Helix worshiping body available for it to snatch.

The Doctor makes a temporary pact with Federico and gate-crashes the Demnos worshipers revival meeting in the catacombs.

Federico rips the mask off the leader of the cult and reveals...nothing underneath. Whereupon the cult leader unceremoniously disintegrates Federico. It recalls the iconic ending of Pyramids of Mars Episode 1. Federico is great fun as a pantomime villain, but he has to be eliminated before the big finish.

The final episode is Quintessentially Splendid. Once Federico is dead everyone agrees to accept that Giuliano is boss and not chop Sarah and Marcus’s heads off after all. Giuliano holds a big party—indeed, a Masque—to which Leonardo and all the other Turtles are invited. If the Helix kills everyone at the party, the Renaissance will not happen in Italy. (Or if it does, it will have no importance.) This will in turn prevent the human race establishing a galactic empire in the far future. There is a brief hand-wave about how if Mandragora conquers the earth it will kind of make astrology true because it will take away human free will.

The Doctor spends some time cobbling together a Plot Device: a suit of armour with wire in it which will enable him to drain the Mandragora Energy from Hieronymus when he tries to zap him. In New Who, he would presumably have discovered some Anti-Mandragora spray in his pocket; or made all the people hold hands and think beautiful lovely thoughts. I grant that defeating an ancient cosmic evil with some cleverly wired fifteenth century armour is not a lot more logical; but it is a good deal more narratively satisfying. It says “The Doctor beat Mandragora because he is clever and brave and ingenious” not “The Doctor beat Mandragora because he’s the Doctor”

There is a sense of gathering doom. The Doctor admits to Sarah that everything is going very badly: but he continues to joke about it. The masque itself looks sumptuous, but it is Tom and Liz who carry the day. Sarah does not get quite as far as breaking the fourth wall: but she is so aware of the Doctor’s quirks and mannerisms that she effectively lampshades the excesses of Tom Baker’s performance. She tells the Doctor off for being flippant. She tells him off for being obscure. The Doctor admits that if he has guessed wrongly, he will be killed, but asks “When have my guesses ever been wrong?” leaving Sarah to say “Lots of times...” to the audience. You couldn’t imagine Sarah undercutting the Third Doctor in quite that way: come to that you couldn’t imagine Elisabeth Sladen taking the wind out Jon Pertwee’s grand old sails. Sarah wasn’t the first companion to answer the Doctor back. Jamie and to an extent Steven could see right through him. That kind of thing can easily degenerate into series undermining camp. But Sarah challenges the Doctor, not because she wants to undermine him, but because she cares about him. She is the perfect dramatic foil. Oh, where will we find another?

The Doctor confronts Hieronymus and is suitably flippant and sarcastic to him. He claims that it is part of “a Time Lord’s job” to insist on justice for all species, which is a far cry from “I renounced the society of Time Lords” and indeed from “We pride ourselves that we seldom interfere with the affairs of others”.

The plan works. Everyone thinks it has failed, and a lot of minor guests at the Masque gets zapped; but in a way I can’t quite follow the Doctor has swapped places with Hieronymus. So when the Mandragora energy is ready to flood the earth (which has to be during an eclipse, obviously) it floods the Doctor instead and is reflected back on itself. Because it isn’t bright enough to know that the man in the mask isn’t Hieronymus, because the Doctor is doing a jolly good impersonation of his voice.

The Doctor grandstands. Having saved the universe, with a silly grin on his face, he demands a round of applause and a salami sandwich. He does, in fact, leave with large sausage under his arm, a farewell gift from Giuliano. (Salami making, like the cult of Demnos, can be traced back to ancient Rome. I looked it up.)

Not a jelly baby. A salami sandwich. This is not an ad lib; this is not a serious line said in a silly voice (or even a silly line said in a serious voice.) It’s just a very silly line which must have been in the script.

The Shakespearean Doctor has gone. The Arrogant Doctor is going. Soon, the Silly Doctor will have taken over.



Tuesday, February 16, 2021

When I wrote this weeks piece, I wasn't aware that there was a Kickstarter project going on to support Mr Katz in his old age and get some of his lessor known artwork into print. I just ordered a print to go on the wall of my new flat, and it would be cool is some of you nice people backed it as well. 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sharpy/the-unseen-jack-katz?ref=discovery&term=jack%20katz

Friday, February 12, 2021

The First Kingdom



Before Christmas I read Jack Katz's The First Kingdom right the way through. 

I didn't really understand it, so I read it again. 

Wow. 

Or at any rate "a qualified wow". 

I re-read most things, but I don't generally read then twice in a row. I tackled Mr James Joyce during Lockdown I, and understood enough of him that I am going to re-read him at the end of 2021. The First Kingdom was fascinating enough, and baffling enough, that I read it, and then read it again, and am going to pencil in reading it a third time while I still have some of the details in my head. 

I have been aware of The First Kingdom for as long as I have been a comic book guy. When I first started to look away from the Marvel shelves in Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, there it was, sharing space with Heavy Metal and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. 

I was old enough to know that sex and drugs existed. D.T.W.A.G.E displayed fliers for the Legalize Cannabis Picnic and shared Soho frontage with a cinema which promised Actual Copulation. But forbidden fruit made me feel uncomfortable: I certainly had no wish to taste it at that point. A glance inside The First Kingdom made me think that it was a dirty book and not suitable for me. There were copies of Elfquest on the same stand: quite different in style, but identical in presentation: thin, flimsy, magazine style booklets; colour covers and 30 pages of cheaply printed black and white artwork; a single storyline that unrolled over many years. One issue of Elfquest had an orgy in it, although only from the waist up.

C.S. Lewis talked about falling in love with the title of The Well at the World's End before he knew anything about the story. I think The First Kingdom stayed in my mind because of that title. It was clear from the covers that it was about space gods and swords and sorcery. I think it merged in my head with a totally forgotten Marvel comic called Space Gods From Beyond the Stars. These were the years when Jack Kirby was disrupting the Marvel Universe with his Celestials and totally misunderstanding 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

So now I have read it. Twenty four issues, reprinted in four volumes, the lettering redone so you have some chance of actually deciphering it: plus two stand alone sequels. A final, seventh volume is on the way, inshallah. Jack Katz is 93. 

In 1974 the Fantastic Four had already been and gone, and the Fourth World was nearly over. The First Kingdom must already have looked terribly old-fashioned. It feels like a newspaper strip from an era before anyone had quite worked out how newspaper strips were supposed to work. 

There is a lot of third person narration: one sometimes feels one is reading a lavishly illustrated novel; or else a series of pictures with a commentary, rather than a comic book. Speech is printed in captions (like Prince Valiant) not as balloons. Characters talk a lot -- a lot! -- but you have to work out what is speech and what is narration from context. (Everyone talks in the same way: there is nothing that you could call dialogue.) There is no guttering between panels. Some issues consist almost entirely of full page illustrations. 

It feels like Flash Gordon: or perhaps more like the yarns of Barsoom and Pellucidar that Alex Raymond was drawing on. Impossibly handsome men and impossibly beautiful women strike impossibly heroic poses. They are cast into arenas to battle beasts which are part dragon and part dinosaur. But the action and the drama is held at arms length: you feel you are looking at a series of pulp magazine covers depicting hunts, battles and space wars, but you are never inside the action, experiencing the fight or wondering about an outcome.

No-one wears any clothes. Even the futuristic characters keep their chests and bottoms proudly on display, although they usually -- but by no-means always -- keep their willies in uncomfortable looking pouches. The women are less modest than the men and the kids are less modest than the grown ups. There is some sex; or at any rate, some scenes of beautiful ladies and beautiful men entwined in diaphanous daybeds on idyllic islands. I don't think it is especially pornographic; and I don't think Katz is pushing a naturist philosophy. He's an artist; artists paint nudes. If Stan Lee wanted to be Shakespeare, Jack Katz wanted to be Michelangelo. He taught anatomy at art college. Maybe he just wasn't very good at doing clothes. 

But this isn't swords and sorcery. This isn't even really deep, adult swords and sorcery with politics and philosophy and penises. This is an epic. The original series ran to exactly 24 books. 

Star Wars has been called a comic strip which thinks it's an opera. Mostly by me, admittedly. Lucas's early scripts seemed to be struggling towards a world where characters who looked liked they came from Mongo engaged in strategy, intrigue and councils of war. Like Dune, but with swashbuckling. The First Kingdom is Conan the Barbarian on the outside, but under the bonnet it's two fifths Game of Thrones and three fifths the Silmarillion. What it felt most like to me is that Indian language Maharbarat which we all watched on late night BBC2 in the 80s: strange language; complicated dynasties; portentous narration; mysticism that you can't understand and more characters than you could possibly keep track of; but a sense that at any given moment you have walked in in the middle of something monumental and heartbreaking and evocative. Maharbarat was a TV version of a sacred text of one of the great world religion; Jack Katz is having a damn good shot at faking it.  

There has been a nuclear war. The human race has relapsed to the stone age. There are mutants and monsters. People are forming war-bands and hunting tribes. One guy, Darkenmoor, founds a kingdom and raises mighty cities and palaces and temples. The story is called The First Kingdom, but it's the kind of book in which kings are referred to as "Kenmores" and kingdoms are called "Gans". After 750 pages, this gets a little tiresome. 

Darkenmoor marries Nedlaya, and they have a baby boy, Tundran. But Nedlaya's evil brother kills them and seizes the throne. Baby Tundran is taken away to an island, ignorant of his heritage, while priests train him to reclaim his father's kingdom. Sixteen or so books later, he is on the point of doing so, but at the last moment, some aliens appear and suggest that he would be much better off going with them and learning the secrets of the universe. (They are particularly interested in finding out why human beings spend so much of their time and effort killing each other.) So he does. 

So far so mainstream. Katz draws beautifully; huge full page illustrations chocked to the brim with human figures and impressive architecture, far more than you can take in at a glance. It isn't always clear how you are supposed to read it: the full page pictures demand to be lingered over like a portfolio of art; but that removes any sense of narrative flow. He has a marked tendency to show and tell simultaneously: a caption which tells us that Tundra and his lover Fara have been imprisoned on the only projecting rock in the middle of a perpetually raging sea is illustrated by a beautiful line drawing of Tundra and Fara standing on the only projecting rock in the middle of a perpetually raging sea. There are moments where the static, arms-length, distanced narrative comes within striking distance of Wagnerian intensity. Towards the end of the first volume the goddess Selowan comes to Darkenmoor in his chamber, while he is thinking kingly thoughts about politics. "Can you look into my eyes and tell me you don't love me?" she asks. Apparently he can't; and while they are in each other's arms, his wife, Nedlaya, enters stage right. Thinking that he no longer loves her, she does the descent thing and throws herself off a cliff, leaving Darkenmoor howling "I love you, no, gods of Helea Voran, no!" in a suitably statuesque pose. Selowan asks him to "come into my arms and fill my body with happiness", and just as he is about to do so, she vanishes. She has been taken back to the realm of the gods where her father, top-god Dranok, is most put-out. "The taking of the life of a mortal by the direct intervention of a goddess for the sole purpose of possessing the love of another mortal" is punishable by extinction, apparently. 

Nedlaya survives the fall and the lovers are back together within a few pages.

Yes, there are gods in the First Kingdom as well. They don't wear many clothes either. They make their first appearance on page 3 of the very first episode, and everyone takes them for granted, although they seem and odd fit for the post-holocaust backstory. 

It isn't until the end of the first volume that Katz starts to explain what is going on. Darkenmoor has two councillors, Terrog and Hiemmet. They appear to be dwarves or goblins: mutants, at any rate. On page 110, Terrog catches a glimpse of his reflection in a pool, remembers the days before he was mutated, and breaks out in an extended flashback. It seems that he and Hiemmet are not natives of Earth: they were part of the crew of a Galactic Hunter, a vast star ship from a very high-tech space civilisation: more Doc Smith than Star Trek. They travelled around the universe trying to stop other planets destroying themselves in nuclear wars: their mission to earth wasn't one of the more successful ones. 

This brings on the structural device which makes the First Kingdom so impressive and so very nearly impenetrable. We leap into Hiemmet and Terrog's narrative: about the mission of the Galactic Hunter, and how it failed, and how they came to be mutants. This is interleaved with the doings of several different sets of humans and several different factions of gods. Not infrequently, characters in the flashback narrative narrate their own back stories; several times we find ourselves three levels deep, a story teller telling a story in which someone tells a story about how someone once told them a story. It transpires that Galactic Hunters are partially crewed by very advanced automatons. Katz refers to them as Cyborgs, but I think they are what would more normally be called Androids: synthetic life forms, not augmented humans. And -- are you ready for this? -- when it became clear that the Galactic Hunter's mission to save the earth was going to fail, some of the Cyborgs were reprogrammed so that they believed themselves to be gods. Except that one of the gods, Aquare, has retained his memories and is aware of the ruse, and spends a very large number of episodes trying to decide whether to reveal the secret or not. 

There is also Ceer, an oracle, who lives on the tops of mountains and prophecies Darkenmoor and Tundran's destiny in the first issue. He turns out to be from another hugely advanced alien civilisation where no-one bothers with clothes, and to have had all the knowledge in the universe downloaded into him. And towards the end of the saga, it turns out that there are survivors of the Galactic Hunter's original mission, running around the swords and sorcery mileu with ray guns. They get an embedded backstory as well. 

And I haven't even got to the weird part yet. In nearly every panel featuring the human cast, we can see tiny, elfin figures -- often winged, sometimes interacting with tiny dinosaurs or hunting tiny animals. No-one talks to them or interacts with them; they don't affect the story in any way. They are just there: like grotesques in the margin of a medieval Bible. Eventually, two thirds of the way through the narrative, we are told that when the Galactic Hunter crashed on earth, the serum which contains the androids memories got out into the ecosystem, and along with the space fuel and other Science Stuff it brought these new creatures into being. 

The best way of conveying the density and complexity of the comic is to try to summarise a single issue. I picked book 16, at random. Tundran and his lover Fara (who is actually the goddess Selowan in mortal form) have been enslaved and held in an arena. He has won his freedom by defeating the local King's son in a battle. He sails off in a boat, with the prince as hostage, but being a decent chap sets him free when they are out of range of their pursuers.

Meanwhile, Alandon and Dami, friends of Tundran and Fara, who have also recently been freed from slavery, bump into a pirate, who comes originally from their homeland, Mooregan. When they mention Tundran, the pirate asks if by any chance he had a luminous wrist band, and when they admit that he does, the pirate reveals that this identifies him as the true king. 

Meanwhile, Aquare -- the god who knows he is really a Cyborg -- comes across the camp of the survivors from the original Galactic Hunter spaceship, and destroys their salvaged high-tech supplies. 

This naturally upsets Tarvu, one of the survivors, so she decides to explain to her boyfriend how she came to join the mission in the first place. She tells him what her grandfather told her about her heritage. (This takes fifteen pages.) It seems that many thousands of years ago, there was a terrible war between a stupendously advanced civilisation which built galaxies (this was during the fifth regeneration of the universe, obviously) and the Anti-Life-Legions who are compelled by their deviant perspective to wreak incredible destruction on all life and space plasma. (I am not making this up.) Her ancestor, Volrood, had had a nice idea about declaring one particular area of space a conservation zone which they wouldn't interfere with, but this annoyed the merchant class, who had to take the long way round. This results in a thousand years of civil war: only at the end of it does it turn out that the Merchants are being manipulated by the Anti-Life-Legions who are planning to take over the universe after the war has devastated it. It's too late to prevent the destruction, but some of the goodies sign up to the caucus of Volrood and disperse through the universe in search of places where humans are prepared to fight against oppression. As a descendent of Volrood, Tarvu is part of this noble calling. 

Meanwhile, back in Mooregan the priests, who are loyal to Tundran, plan to assassinate the usurper Vargran. There is an annual solemn ceremony in which he has to drink from the "bowl of supplication": the Priests are going to poison it. But Vargran is warned in advance by Tedra (Tedra? who the hell is Tedra?) and, at the last moment, he forces the high priest to drink from the bowl, revealing the conspiracy. 

Meanwhile Tundran and Fara harbour their ship on an island, where they take off all their clothes and snog for a bit. They go hunting, and meet up with Alandon and the pirate, who immediately kneel to him and announce that he is Thane of Cawdor Kenmoor of Mooregan. Tundran wanders off into the forest and bumps into the Oracle, who tells him not to be too single-minded in his revenge. Fara says that now Tundran is a king he probably won't want to marry a mere huntress like herself, but Tundran says his parents were hunters before they were kings and queens. They snog a bit more, and everyone salute Tundran and Fara and Kenmoor as Kenmar of Mooregan. To be continued.

I often use Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld as my touchstone for peculiar comic book experiences. It's a comic book which operates according to its own rules; which releases those rules to your gradually and acclimatises you to them: it starts to make intuitive sense that something bad is going to happen if you put a mystery pod next to a twink. When you put the comic down, you feel as if you were emerging from one of those dreams in which Miss Bell who taught you French at lower school is part of the text of the Anglo Irish Agreement. There was a point, about twenty books into the First Kingdom, where I felt that I had all the trans-gods and cyborgs and mortalised gods straight in my head. I think there was a baroque beauty to it. Elisabath Sandifer, who writes so brilliantly about Doctor Who, shows signs of knowing what William Blake's mythological poems are all about. I've never been able to make head nor tail of them myself. People have compared the First Kingdom with William Blake. Blake imagined Newton thrashing out the laws of motion with no clothes on. 

Jack Kirby says that Jack Katz is doing the kind of thing he wanted to do with New Gods. It's an interesting point of comparison. Both are trying very hard to be cosmic; with talk of the forces of life and anti-life and the infiniverse and the beyond and beyond the beyond. But Kirby's gods seem godlike. Those of us who grew up in Stan Lee's head expect gods to be blonde and muscular and clad in primary coloured spandex. The First Kingdom is heroic as hell, and conceived of on a massive scale, but it never really achieves a sense of wonder. However high up the chain of the cosmos you go, the hierophants and the guardians always seem to be just like folks: playing catch, eating picnics, frolicking in various states of undress in the grounds of citadels that looks suspiciously like mid-western campus universities. 

First Kingdom can't really be said to have had any influence or impact. Admired by all the right people, but hardly ever read. The last hurrah of a style of illustration which was obsolescent before it started. A magnificent folly; a testimony to a bizarrely individualistic vision; impossible to grasp, but cumulatively breathtaking; and with an awful lot of boobies.