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Comics And Science Fiction

Dr. Paul Shackley

Stories can be narrated, enacted or depicted. Adding extra speakers and actions transformed narrative into drama. Sequential art story telling, like the Bayeux Tapestry, the Stations of the Cross, the willow pattern, scrimshaw bracelets and comic strips, developed from static representational art. All religions have canonical texts – scriptures - but one, Manichaeanism, also had canonical pictures, in the “Book of Images”.

Comic strips, like opera, are a composite art form. The former combine pictures with words as the latter combines drama with music. Comics are no longer only comical as novels are no longer new. Comic strips can address any age group and can mediate any genre although they are most closely associated with the one genre that originated in this medium, superheroes. Superman is the transitional character between science fiction (sf) and superheroes as Frankenstein is transitional between Gothic fiction and sf.

Superheroes is a hybrid genre, combining elements of sf, fantasy and action-adventure. Thus, superheroes, powered either scientifically or supernaturally, can meet non-super powered masked avengers or costumed adventurers. Special effects now enable films to present superheroes adequately. Superhero prose fiction has to emphasise characterisation rather than fantastic feats.

Mr Hyde and the Invisible Man were pre-comics super-villains. The latter forced a tramp called Thomas Marvel into the non-super-powered sidekick role. Later, Marvel, as the landlord of an inn called "The Invisible Man", secretly possesses but cannot understand the title character's notebooks containing "...the subtle secret of invisibility and a dozen other strange secrets..." 1 Ironically, much later, superheroes included Captain Marvel and Invisible Girl, the latter published by Marvel Comics. No doubt, Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, already incorporating Griffin (the Invisible Man), Cavor, the Time Traveller, Dr Moreau, Wellsian and other Martians, Hyde, Dupin, Holmes, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, John Carter etc, would be able to link Wells' Marvel to the later Marvels. Are the "...dozen other strange secrets..." other super powers? Griffin says that his formula involves four dimensions (as, in other Wells stories, do the Time Machine, Davidson's eyes and Plattner's reversal) and that:

"In the books - the books that Tramp has hidden - there are marvels, miracles!" 2

After Marvel's death, when someone else can read and interpret the notebooks, a new superhero team, atoning for Griffin's crimes, might meet in the cellar of "the Invisible Man".

Gladiator (1930) by Philip Wylie was a possible source for Superman (1938). Like the earliest published version of Superman, Wylie's Hugo Danner was strong, fast and invulnerable but could neither fly nor see through walls. Like Danner, Superman intimidated a corrupt lobbyist. 3, 4 Danner imagines becoming either a powerful bank robber and murderer or a super-detective dispensing summary justice. 5 His confidante suggests a super-powered group called "The New Titans". 6

Both Gladiator and the first Superman episode refer to weight-lifting ants and high-jumping grasshoppers. Danner's father says of ants:

"Strength a hundred times our own." 7

Siegel writes:

"The lowly ant can support weights a hundred times its own." 8

Siegel seems to have read Wylie. Superman, definitely descended from the Hebrew Judge, Samson, the Greek Hero, Hercules, and the philosophical concept, the Superman, may also be descended from the hero of an American novel, Hugo Danner. The progression from Superman, via Captain Marvel and Mick Anglo's Marvelman to Alan Moore's Marvelman, re-named Miracleman, is a Samsonian-Herculean apotheosis. Moore's Michael Moran (Marvel/Miracleman) neither despairs like Danner nor conforms like Superman but rules like the Messiah, with weapons destroyed, money abolished, the environment saved, energy abundant, necessities free, politicians redundant, super powers shared, Fundamentalists in hiding, civilisation interstellar, physical resurrections and Moran worshipped. Thus, Moore's graphic but superheroes-transcending work restores Biblical, mythical themes but in futuristic, technological settings.

James Blish’s earliest sf, published in the same period as the original Superman stories, contains the kind of fantastic elements that came to be refined into a separate genre. Thus, a secret society uses mental powers against extra-solar invaders in “Citadel of Thought”.9 Poul Anderson’s first future history contains the Un-Men and “The Sensitive Man”.10 Julian May and Larry Niven incorporate superhero motifs into sf novels.11, 12

Thus, the link between prose sf and comic strip superheroes may be closer than those who read only prose fiction realise. Also, several works by Alan Moore, including the pre-comics characters crossover and the superheroics climax mentioned here, are culminating moments of the comics medium.

1. H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), 150.
2. ibid, p. 89.
3. Philip Wylie, Gladiator (New York: Lancer Books, 1965), pp. 169-170.
4. Jerome Siegel & Joe Schuster, Superman in Action Comics (New York: DC Comics, 1938, 1988), pp. 12-13.
5. Wylie, op. cit., p. 129.
6. ibid, p. 188.
7. Wylie, op., cit., p. 6.
8. Siegel and Schuster, op., cit., p. 1.
9. James Blish, “Citadel of Thought” in Stirring Science Stories (Albing Publications, February 1940), reprinted in Blish, The Best Of James Blish (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979.
10. Poul Anderson, The Psychotechnic League (New York: TOR, 1981), pp. 31-198.
11. Julian May, Diamond Mask (London: Pan Books, 1995).
12. Larry Niven, Protector (London: Futura Publications Ltd, 1974).

 

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Email address: paulshackley@gmail.com