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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


When we left off last week, we were talking about the work of the King of Comics, Jack Kirby, with a particular focus on one of his greatest creations, Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, and the ways he has been depicted, correctly and otherwise. To start off this post, I was going to talk about some of the things that have been done with another of Jack’s iconic creations, the uniform of the Fantastic Four. As I got into that, I realized that that really should be the topic of a separate post, as I have more than a little to say about it. So you’re just going to have to look forward to that for the time being. For this post, then, we stick with the subject matter originally intended for it: namely, the only two times that, in my opinion, anyone ever changed Jack’s work in a way that was either as good as what the King originally did, or actually improved on what Jack established. For your entertainment this week: the origin of Galactus according to John Byrne, and The Eternals as reimagined by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.

Now, for the origin of Galactus: It has been established in places like The Jack Kirby Collector magazine that Galactus’s origin was initially intended to be a part of his and the Silver Surfer’s intro story in Fantastic Four #48-50. It seems the part of that story that would have told us where the planet slayer came from was cut from those issues, but Jack saved the pages against the possible need for them later on. The occasion arose in The Mighty Thor #169. This issue came at a time when Jack was winding down his Marvel work. He was mostly not creating any new, major characters and concepts for Marvel because Stan Lee had more control over what Jack created than Jack did. So from about 1968 to 1970, Jack was concentrating more on reuses of material he had created in the prior seven or eight years, with varying degrees of cleverness. And in the case of his last work on Thor, that meant using some characters imported from The Fantastic Four; namely Him (the character we call Adam Warlock today) and Galactus.

The origin of Galactus, as Galactus himself revealed to Thor, concerned an ancient planet called Taa, which had the most advanced, enlightened, and wondrous civilization ever to have existed in the universe. But Taa, and its whole sector of space, were dying of some plague that somehow confounded the Taa’s attempts to cure it. So one Taa scientist, for obscure reasons, decided to mount a final space expedition into the heart of a star, to go out in a last blaze of glory, as it were. The radiation of the star killed everyone aboard the craft except for that one scientist, who somehow survived and evolved into a new form of life. Incubating for eons (during which a Watcher could have destroyed the nascent being, but obeyed his oath of non-participation in the universe and let it live), it finally emerged as the godlike and hungry Galactus we know today.

In retrospect, this origin story is really not Stan and Jack’s best work, and doesn’t really do justice to one of their greatest and most important creations. What was this plague, and why couldn’t the all-achieving people of Taa cure it? Why would members of a race facing extinction decide to commit suicide by diving into a star? If there were some cultural reason for it, or some facet of their race’s psychology to account for it, the story didn’t provide one. I would ask why the radiation of the star did what it did to this scientist character, but then this is the Marvel Universe, where cosmic rays turn astronauts into super-people, gamma ray bombs turn nuclear physicists into Hulks, and irradiated spiders bite teenagers and endow them with great power (and great responsibility). Still and all, Galactus should have gotten a better origin than that. Why didn’t he? I think it was because it was 1969, Jack was fed up with Marvel and about to jump ship to DC (taking with him a whole universe worth of new characters and concepts he had evidently been withholding from Marvel since about 1966!), and like a Rhett Butler with a pencil, he frankly didn’t give a damn. It’s pure speculation on my part, of course, but as speculations go, I think it’s reasonable.

Apparently, artist/writer John Byrne thought Galactus should have had a better origin too, because back in the 1980s he took what Stan and Jack laid down in Thor #169 and refined it into a more pleasing story.

In a one-shot special called Galactus: The Origin, we learned that Taa was not a planet of the Marvel Universe we know. Taa, in fact, existed in the universe prior to the present Marvel Universe. Byrne invoked the cosmological theory of “the oscillating universe,” the idea that a Big Bang is followed by eons of cosmic expansion, and then a collapse into a “Big Crunch,” from which another Big Bang follows, in an endlessly repeating cycle. (The “oscillating universe” theory is starting to lose favor today, supplanted by the idea of infinite expansion to the point of galaxies and solar systems flying apart and all matter being torn into nothingness; this is called “the Big Rip”.) The plague against which Taa and everything in its cosmos was helpless was, in fact, the physical force of entropy--the final decay of the universe. The onset of the Big Crunch was collapsing the universe into a singularity, and the noble scientist Galen decided to defy the Big Crunch by captaining a spaceship right into it. The singularity killed all hands aboard except Galen himself, who was protected by the living consciousness of the universe, selected out of all living creatures to survive through the next Big Bang. But the creature that had once been Galen would be changed in the process, born into this universe as Galactus, the embodiment of the balance of nature on a cosmic scale.

This rather more logical account of Galactus’s origin, derived from what were state-of-the-art theories of physics at the time, has become the official origin, repeated in The Fantastic Four and elsewhere. It overcomes the problem of (what I speculate as being) Jack Kirby’s final apathy about the Marvel Universe that he did so much to build, and handily fixes a story that I believe he just tossed off on his way out the door.

During his final stint with Marvel in the late 1970s, Jack made his final pass at the theme of what happens “When Gods Walk the Earth!” Jack meant The Eternals to take place in its own world, not the world of the familiar Marvel Universe. Marvel, however, insisted on weaving it into the tapestry that Jack had woven a decade earlier with the Fantastic Four, Thor, et al. You could tell from Jack’s other Marvel work during that period that he really wasn’t interested in going over all that old ground again; his revisits with Captain America and The Black Panther weren’t picking up on any continuity from his earlier work or that of other writers and artists. Jack just wanted to keep telling fresh stories, and those just happened to be the characters with which he was working. The Eternals, the original series, was dropped after 19 issues and an Annual. But these characters, like everything else Jack created, made other people want to play with them, so the Eternals cast continues to be a presence in the Marvel Universe in various ways, including a new series that started last year. That new series peels off from the story of what has become one of my favorite miniseries, The Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.

The Eternals is the story of the ongoing conflict between the different breeds of man, overshadowed by the creatures who experimented with prehistoric ape-men and created them. In Earth’s prehistory, the armored alien Celestials, who were big enough to spank Galactus, came to Earth and used proto-humans to bring forth two other species: the Eternals, who were generally beautiful, immune to natural death, and possessed superhuman powers; and the Deviants, whose inability to breed in a consistent form produced generations of endlessly varied, grotesque monsters. The Eternals became the basis for human myths about gods and angels; the Deviants gave rise to myths about devils and demons. Looming over all was the eventual judgement of the Celestials as to whether they would let their experiments--and the Earth on which they lived--survive. Derived in part from the writings of pop archaeologist Erich Von Daniken and his theories about “ancient astronauts,” The Eternals was otherwise pure, classic Jack Kirby storytelling of the most entertaining kind.

A few years ago, Marvel decided that it wanted to “bring the Eternals fully into the Marvel Universe.” This had been accomplished already with various stories in various books, including Thor, where the original Kirby storylines were concluded and integrated with established Marvel mythology (and Earth passed the Celestials' judgement), and The Avengers, where Eternal character Sersi became a member. The reasoning was a bit dubious. The opportunity to work with Jack’s last major Marvel creation went to writer Neil Gaiman and artist John Romita Jr., who proceeded to put their own stamp on Jack’s work. Unlike many other reinterpretations and makeovers of the work of the King, what Gaiman and Romita ended up doing was a truly wonderful seven issues’ worth of work.

The story for this 2006 miniseries hinged on the mysterious reason why all of the Eternals had been transformed into humans, their memories wiped, and other humans’ memories and records of them expunged. What was gradually revealed was one of the most truly ingenious, brilliant, and poignant motivations for an antagonist ever to see print in comics. It turned out that the enemy was one of their own, the Eternal known as Sprite, who had been mythologized in the writings of William Shakespeare and J.M. Barrie, among others. Sprite, unique among the Eternals, had been created as an eleven-year-old boy, and as the Celestials had made the Eternals unable to age and die, Sprite could never grow up! For all the eons of his Celestial-given lifespan, Sprite could never pass through adolescence and become physically, sexually a man! And he hated it! So he had clandestinely used the Eternals’ physical and mental gestalt, the Uni-Mind, to access the power of the Dreaming Celestial, a non-Kirby character that other talents (I think it was Walter Simonson) had left hidden on Earth.

With the Dreaming Celestial’s power, it was Sprite who had rendered all the Eternals human, including himself, so that Sprite could grow to maturity and experience a mature life! Restoring the Eternals to their true godlike selves would mean waking up the Dreaming Celestial, and resuming hostilities with the Deviants. You see, the Deviants worshipped the Dreaming Celestial as the only one who stood up against the rest of his kind for harvesting Deviants as food; that was why he was put to sleep! The Eternals was my first and so far only exposure to the writings of Neil Gaiman, but with his utterly brilliant use of Sprite and the Deviants he won my respect as a storyteller.

All of this was rendered in the luxuriously beautiful, awesomely powerful, and super-sexy style of John Romita Jr., who since the 1990s has risen to a position second only to George Perez on my list of favorite comic book artists. (I keep Jack Kirby in a class by himself; the King has no successor.) John Jr.’s revised character designs for the book hold as much of a place of honor with me as Gaiman’s story. I usually feel a knee-jerk hostility against people redesigning Kirby characters, but I absolutely love the things that John Jr. did with Ikaris, Makarri, Sersi, Zuras, and the rest of the Eternals cast. While the current Eternals book has restored Jack’s versions of the characters, I can pay no higher compliment to John Jr.’s work than to say I would happily have accepted his versions being made permanent and official. With artwork that made me want to linger and mentally drool over it (every so often I have to take out the hardbound collection of it just to admire it) and a story to make the brain cells do an intellectual tango, the Eternals miniseries of 2006 ranks with the 1980s Fantastic Four of John Byrne as one of the very best non-Kirby renderings of a Jack Kirby creation. It is sheer magnificence.

So, while as a rule I object to people rewriting or redesigning Jack Kirby (which is one my main reasons for not buying Fantastic Four books any more), it is possible, however unlikely, to make over the work of the King of Comics in a way that I’ll accept. It just has to be beautiful enough and inventive enough to match what Jack did (as in The Eternals), or an exercise of imagination that takes what Jack did and makes it better (as in Byrne’s origin of Galactus). It remains to be seen whether anyone will ever accomplish such a feat again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Did you ever see the recent film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? There is a reason I bring this up. That is, there’s a reason besides the fact that I think the film suffered from a problem that afflicts a lot of comic-book movies: it tried to take on too much story in the too brief time allotted to it. (And really, it should have been about half an hour longer than it was.) I mean, they took three of the most influential stories in comics history--the wedding of Susan Storm and Reed Richards, the coming of the Silver Surfer and Galactus, and Dr. Doom’s thirst for the Power Cosmic--and crammed them all into one movie. By rights, that should have been two films at least. However, the reason I wanted to talk about this is that there is a detail of this film that has been a recurring subject of debate on a Listserv that I belong to; namely, the portrayal of Galactus. Or, as the case may be, the non-portrayal of him.

By way of explanation for those of you who may be strangers to comics (in which case you must be reading this Blog just because you like the sound of my words, for which I can fault neither your taste nor your patience for long-windedness), Galactus, a character introduced to us by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the end of Fantastic Four #48, is a creature of infinite power, older than the universe. He feeds himself by converting the elements of life-bearing planets to energy and assimilating them. He generally employs a being called a Herald who scouts ahead for planets suitable for his consumption. The first and most famous of the Heralds is the Silver Surfer, who rebelled against Galactus and threw in with the human race and the Fantastic Four.

Now, it bears mentioning exactly how Galactus and the Surfer came about. As Stan and Jack were approaching the 50th issue of The Fantastic Four, they thought they had pitted the world’s greatest heroes against every pulp-science-fictional threat imaginable and were hard-pressed to come up with the Four’s next challenge. The story has it that the Lennon and McCartney of comics decided there was nothing left for the FF to face but God himself. So they came up with a comic-book plot that would be an allegory about the nature of God. Representing the “benevolent, loving higher power” aspect of God would be an already established character, the Watcher from FF #13. For the “wrathful, punishing destroyer” of the Old Testament, they invented Galactus, who would come to consume the Earth and destroy all terrestrial life in the process. The Silver Surfer would represent an angel, rebelling against his master and taking the fall for it. (The Surfer is stranded on Earth for standing up for humanity, a reversal of the story of Lucifer, who so loved God that he refused to serve mortals and was cast out for it. I learned this from Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.)

Anyway, for a further understanding of this story, we must look at the way Stan and Jack worked. Such was Jack’s skill, power, and inventiveness as a storyteller and creator of characters that Stan didn’t have to give Jack a script from which to work. They would simply discuss what was going to happen next in The Fantastic Four or Thor or whatever, and one of them would tell the other where the story was going, then Jack would go home and draw twenty pages of story for the next issue with notes in the margins. It was from these notes that Stan would write the dialogue and captions. So, as Jack was drawing Fantastic Four #48, which built up to a last-page reveal of Galactus, he came up with the idea of the Herald who would presage Galactus’s arrival, and made this character a near-featureless being like a silver Oscar statue, riding through space on a surfboard. Stan saw Jack’s unilateral creation and fell in love with him, and voila, the Silver Surfer was born.

(In some other posting, we’re going to have to discuss Stan and Jack’s storytelling methods a little more, and go into the pitfalls of working that way when Jack had no control over what was done with the things that came off his drawing board. Stan, as Marvel’s Editor in Chief and head writer, had--and used--the power to do things with the Silver Surfer that Jack never intended. This contributed to Jack’s departure from Marvel Comics at the beginning of the 1970s, an event that continues to send aftershocks through comics to this day.)

All of the foregoing was by way of background. What we really need to understand about Galactus is that the character was Jack Kirby’s solution to a particular design problem. Galactus was meant to represent all the things in the universe that are bigger, more powerful, more awesome and mysterious and scary than humankind. He was also Jack’s answer to the question, “If you express ultimate cosmic power as an anthropomorphic being, what does it look like”? For Jack, the answer took the form of a space giant in elaborate armor, with a high-tech helmet that made him look like some mighty elk from the forest of the universe, morphed into a cosmic predator. One reader, in a letter printed on the Fantastic Four Fan Page, took one look at Galactus’s first appearance and said the title of the book ought to be changed to “Oh Earth! Poor Earth!” This was exactly the effect that Jack had in mind. Galactus, who also seemed to express our anxieties about the increasing power of technology (this was 1966; the Cold War was on) was power and death descended from the sky.

To get back to the recurring discussion on the Listserv with some of my comic-book-reading peers, we roll forward to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the second FF movie. (And the last one for now, though I understand that the FF movie franchise is going to be rebooted with a more dead-on-serious tone. That should be interesting.) In this cinematic depiction of the Galactus story, the Surfer comes and sends for his master, and what arrives to feed on the Earth is not so much a cosmic colossus of technology as it is...a cloud. An immense, planet-sucking parasitic nebula. Now I’ll grant you that, like V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the cloud that comes to devour our planet appears to have an intelligent life form at its center. At the climax of the picture, if we look fast and carefully, we see the Silver Surfer flying up into the cloud and facing the silhouette of Jack Kirby’s Galactus, rendered in crackling energy such as Jack himself might have drawn. (“Kirby Krackle” hits the big screen!) And that is all we get to see of the character that Jack created, which is hardly a “character” at all. As someone who has immersed himself in Jack’s work in general and his Fantastic Four work in particular, I was offended at the whole thing. To me, it changed one of Jack’s most important creations from a character to a Rorschach test. I thought it was wrong.

Now there were some people--including some of my Listserv mates--who had no problem with this, ah, “reinterpretation” of Jack’s work. To some people, there was nothing wrong about it. There were a number of arguments for it. Some things work better in a comic book than they do on film, they said, or Galactus is not so much a being as a force. My response to this is that the actual Kirby concept wasn’t even attempted beyond that crackling energy silhouette. They didn’t even try to do the actual character; they just assumed it wouldn’t work. To me, this spoke of a distrust of the material, which is one of my overall complaints about both FF movies. “We’re working with the best material ever created for any comic book, which influenced all the comic book storytelling that would follow it, and we’re not even going to attempt to represent it for what it is. We can’t trust it, and we can’t trust the audience to buy it.” I found it all a little insulting.

Not, however, as insulting as I found some of the other arguments. There were people who actually characterized Galactus as, I’m paraphrasing, “a silly-looking character in a goofy-looking helmet”! One gentleman recently went so far as to refer to Jack Kirby’s design for the character as “tacky”. TACKY, if you please! A profound and powerful concept from the drawing board of the single most influential creator and storyteller ever to work in comic books, and this person describes it as TACKY! I didn’t even bother to respond to that post, for it would surely have resulted in a flame war to rival the upheaval of Galactus’s feeding. No good would have come of it. “TACKY...” I’m frowning at my computer just writing about it.

And do you know how my Listserv mate who thinks Kirby’s classic Galactus is “tacky” would have solved the design problem of “ultimate cosmic power as an anthropomorphic being”? Oh, I really love this: He would have made it some Neil Gaiman-type image of a black-clad Goth girl. Right: An alien being of infinite power and infinite hunger, older than the universe, comes to Earth to feed on the energy of our planet, destroying all life it harbors, and it comes looking like some pasty-faced, body-pierced New York City nightclub crawler with a vampire fetish, a nihilistic attitude, and a taste for bad music. If I had ever seen the Fantastic Four pitted against such a thing (led to Earth by the elegantly angelic Silver Surfer, no less), I might well have thought it was the most monumentally stupid thing I had ever read. And yet, the real Galactus is supposedly “tacky”.

What this comes down to is another of my “Pet Peeves,” the first one we’ve had here in quite some time, and this one specifically about comics. As an overwhelming rule I don’t like people taking it on themselves to redesign and reinvent the creations of Jack Kirby in just any way they see fit. Jack’s work is the history and heritage of comics, and the foundation of everything that is Marvel in particular. I don’t mind people coming up with new things to do with those creations (e.g. the work of Mark Waid on The FF a few years ago), but I do have a problem with people just tossing out the concepts and replacing them with new things for the sake of newness alone. This is especially true of Jack’s Fantastic Four creations. I think the new Thor is truly beautiful, but that’s just what it is: the “new” Thor. When I think of the God of Thunder who is a part of what made me love comics, the imagery that flies across my mind is Kirby imagery. And the Fantastic Four all means, come up with new applications for the old ideas and don’t be a slave to the 1960s in terms of sheer story, but the aesthetics of it need to be based on the work of the King of Comics and the design standards present in the classic first decade. (Remember what I told you about the current work of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch.) John Byrne understood that, and found ways of playing with it that didn’t violate it. So did Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. People these, they don’t quite seem to get it.

I say the above, however, with just one caveat. Even Stan the Man and his collaborator the King didn’t get everything absolutely right. Not quite everything. (Look at their first pass at Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four #5.) In a future post, we’re going to have a serious talk about Sue Richards, the former Invisible Girl, as she was in the original stories. And next week, I’m going to go into what I think may be the only two exceptions to the “Don’t Muck Around with Kirby” rule. One of them goes back to the character that one of my online mates called “tacky”. The other one deals with Jack’s last great creation for Marvel. On just two occasions--just two--someone managed to do Kirby as well as or perhaps better than the King. That’s because the changes weren’t just gratuitous revisions or changes for the sake of change alone. They weren’t difference just for the sake of difference, and didn’t callously discard what Jack laid down. They were thoughtful and purposeful changes that honored and evolved what Jack created. The first time it was John Byrne. The second time it was the aforementioned Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. Come back for the next Quantum Blog and we’ll chat them up.

Monday, April 6, 2009


It’s always at this time of year, with Passover (which is what Bob Hope used to say Oscar time was at his house), Good Friday, and Easter, I find myself thinking of Mel Brooks.

Yes, Mel Brooks. I’ve always loved his work. Even before I knew who he was, I loved Get Smart starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. What an inventive, funny show! Did you know that before Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Brooks did another sendup of the Sherwood Forest legend? It’s true. It was called When Things Were Rotten. It’s another of those shows that should have run for much longer than they did; it was on ABC for half a season, and it starred Dick Gautier (Hymie the Robot) and Bernie Kopell (Siegfried, Maxwell Smart’s KAOS rival) from Get Smart! Gautier was Robin (natch), with Misty Rowe (later of Hee Haw) as his Maid Marian. Kopell was Alan-a-Dale. The theme song was pure Mel Brooks: “They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank/They jumped a lot of fences./They robbed the rich, gave to the poor,/Except what they kept for expenses!” My favorite bit in Men in Tights (other than the Sherwood Forest rappers, who made a proper mockery of the whole hip-hop/rap sensibility) is when Cary Elwes says smugly to the camera, “...unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent!” This was a deliberate dig at Kevin Costner, whose film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had been released a short time earlier.

Anyway, yes, I love Brooks’s work for much the same reason I love the movie Airplane! and the films that it paved the way for: it’s a stupid, sophomoric, but at the same time very knowing kind of parody. I remember when I was in high school, my Jewish friend Richard Frank tried to explain The Producers to me. I had never seen The Producers at that time, and the things Richard was describing didn’t really register with me when he was talking about them. It wasn’t until about three years later, when I was in college, that I got to see the film because it was starting to appear on television. I saw that it was going to be on and I thought, Oh, let me watch this and see what the heck Richard was talking about. And of course, when it came to THAT scene, not having comprehended what Richard was saying, I found myself watching with my lower jaw in my lap, just like the theatre audience in the movie. Now, of course, “Springtime for Hitler” cracks me up, but on first viewing I was horrified! “Springtime for Hitler and Germany./Deutschland is happy and gay./We’re marching to a faster pace./Look out, here comes the Master Race!” And someone actually filmed that? How could they? It’s one of those jokes that takes a little time to sink in.

I love Blazing Saddles. (It is the reason I laugh at the song “I Get a Kick Out of You,” among other things.) Any time I get together with my comic book artist friend John Dennis--which is far too seldom--we will inevitably go into lines from Young Frankenstein. (“Put...ze candle...back!”) I liked the ones that no one ever talks about: Silent Movie, High Anxiety. I was offended when a cable station once cut a critical--and hysterical--gag from the Brooks version of To Be or Not to Be. (It’s when Tim Matheson’s description of flying a fighter plane inadvertently becomes a metaphor for something else, and when he asks Anne Bancroft, “Would you like to see my bomber?” her effeminate friend shrieks, “YES!” The end of that gag was actually cut from a cable TV airing once, and I felt like throwing something at the TV. I hate censorship.) And you know, I actually like Spaceballs. By this time, Brooks’s sense of parody was starting to wear thin (as witness the later Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but it was still funny.

Anyway, the reason I think about Mel Brooks during what people not as secular as I am call “Holy Week” is that this is the time of year when TV usually trots out the movie The Ten Commandments. And The Ten Commandments reminds me of a scene from Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1.

Now, History of the World is not necessarily Brooks’s best work. In fact, the real fun of it, mostly, is picking out which gags in it are variations on things from other Brooks movies. (For instance, the musical number about the Spanish Inquisition clearly harks back to “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers--another tyrannical atrocity set to music.) But there’s one scene that always makes me smile. You know the scene I’m talking about: Moses coming down from the mountain with what the Lord has given him for the benefit of mankind: the Fifteen Commandments!

That’s right, there were supposed to be fifteen of them! But Moses turns out to have been a bit of a butterfingers, for directly he’s off the mountain he drops one of the three tablets on which the Lord has burned the rules for human civilization, shattering one-third of the laws from on high. So we’re left with ten. Whenever I think about the state of the world, I think about that moment in the film. The world that humanity has created for itself is a place of greed, hatred, stupidity, injustice, greed, bigotry, violence, war, oppression, greed, ignorance, inequality, poverty, cruelty, corruption, pollution, greed, and environmental near-collapse. And did I mention greed? It seems to me that there may be something to Mel Brooks’s joke about Moses. While I am a strictly secular person and not given to attributing anything to the will or actions of mythical, supernatural beings, much of the world purports to take its moral cues from some external, supernatural authority. Can it be that for these thousands of years, humanity has not been playing by the complete set of rules?

If so, judging by the world the way human beings have made it, I have my own educated guess about what was on that tablet that Moses dropped. My guess is that the Eleventh through Fifteenth Commandments went something like this.

11. Thou shalt not hate.
12. Thou shalt not make war.
13. Thou shalt not worship avarice.
14. Thou shalt esteem woman equally with man.
15. Thou shalt not bring extinction unto the beasts, nor despoil the land, the air, and the water.

Now of course, those are just my own guesses, and I am admittedly no theologian. As I think of my Commandments 11 through 15, I’m also reminded of some things that the late Professor Joseph Campbell once spoke about. Professor Campbell, if you didn’t know (even though you should), was the renowned authority on the mythologies and religions of the world (his books include The Hero with a Thousand Faces) who helped George Lucas create Star Wars. In the book and PBS miniseries The Power of Myth, Professor Campbell discussed with journalist Bill Moyers how the Judeo-Christian system unseated the former, ancient religion of the Goddess; demonized the portrayal of God as a woman and made a woman’s supposed error in judgement the root of all human suffering; put God (a male authority figure) outside and above nature and cast nature and anything natural as corrupt; and charged man with dominion over the Earth and, not incidentally, woman. I suspect that if the (male) inventors of Christianity had actually received Commandment 14, they would have suppressed it! (And there are people today in Washington and on Wall Street, among other places, who I expect wouldn’t mind the expurgation of Commandments 13 and 15 as well!)

However, I very much doubt Mel Brooks thought about any of this in those terms, or meant any of it to go as deeply as that. Mel Brooks has always made it his job, first and foremost, to make us laugh. The Moses bit in History of the World is certainly a joke and not to be taken as anything else. It’s just that, as an old saying goes, many a truth is revealed in jest.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Not long ago, the world of comics lost one of its very best and most inventive artists: the man who designed the “new” X-Men, Dave Cockrum.
When the original class of X-Men disbanded in 1975, to be replaced with an all-new, international team, the artist on board was Cockrum, who created one of the most beautifully designed groups of heroes ever seen in comic books. For the X-Men, Cockrum created the looks of four brand-new characters, Storm from Africa, Nightcrawler from Germany, Colossus from Russia, and the Apache Indian Thunderbird.
I immediately grew to love and admire Cockrum’s design sense, which has been a lasting influence on my own work. He brought a style and panache, and dare I say it, a sense of fashion, to the ensembles of super-heroes that I don’t think anyone after him has ever truly matched. I especially loved what he did with his female characters. His “masterpiece” heroines were Storm, Phoenix (who had originally been Marvel Girl), and Ms. Marvel.The designs for these three were variations on a particular set of themes: Long gloves, hip boots with high heels, and sashes at the waist. (No one before Cockrum, to the best of my knowledge, had ever done heroines with waist sashes instead of belts.) His great innovation with Storm was her combination poncho/cape, which, when she was in flight or when she cut loose with her powers, would billow and float out into the shape of butterfly wings. She was incredible to look at. They all were! Most artists these days don’t really do that cape justice. To see the way that cape ought to look, you have to look at Cockrum’s own work or that or John Byrne or George Perez.
It’s been argued that these ensembles were a bit sexist, especially where the boots are concerned. It’s a predilection of straight men, including straight male comic book artists, to like to see women in high-heeled shoes and boots. This is, of course, highly impractical. A real woman in high heels who routinely did the kinds of things that super-heroines are called upon to do would surely put herself in traction or worse. I get that, especially since Marvel Comics coined the idea of super-heroes as real people in a real world. These days, when people draw the Storm, Phoenix, and Ms. Marvel ensembles that Cockrum created, there is a tendency to leave off the heels. (Well, George Perez still gives Ms. Marvel her heels. But George is like that, always respecting the details and the integrity of the design.) The women’s boots on these characters today tend to be flats. And I respect the reasons for this. But you know...they don’t look right. Leaving off the heels of these particular designs leaves them looking somehow...unfinished, incomplete.I consider myself a feminist sympathizer (if you’re a gay man and don’t sympathize with feminism, they’ll suspend or revoke your card, ha-ha), but in my opinion the Cockrum designs for these three characters ought to be an exception to enlightenment. If you really want these costumes to look the way they ought to look on the characters, you’ve got to give them the heels. Check out the shots of them, by both Cockrum and Byrne, accompanying this post and see if I’m right. I think I am!


Greetings to all aficionados of art and oddness, all devotees of the demonic. I’m deliberately channeling the spirit of the great Rod Serling to welcome you to what will prove to be the most artistic entry--in the most disturbing way--of this, The Quantum Blog. And for this I must gratefully acknowledge a lad named Danny B. in Corinth, NY, for a particular photograph, and the curator of the Website for the paintings and the TV Guide Closeups you’ll be viewing on this visit, this ghoulish guided tour, this sortie into the supernatural, through Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

The episodes on our tour come from the first two seasons of the series. It’s my understanding that a complete DVD collection of all three seasons has lately been released, but to acquire the third season I’d have to purchase the first two again as part of the set. This is because the merchandisers of television’s past are what would in the vernacular be called a pack of greedy bastards; they’ve done the same thing with the entirety of Mary Tyler Moore after previously releasing only the first four seasons as discrete sets. To obtain all seven seasons I would have to buy seasons 1-4 a second time. For that reason alone, they should all be permanent exhibits in the Night Gallery, if you take my meaning, but I digress. Now, on with the tour.

I’ll go back to being myself for the rest of this.


”Eyes” by Rod Serling. In the Night Gallery pilot, a young director named Steven Spielberg who never amounted to much (ahem) directed Joan Crawford for his first professional job in a story about a callous, selfish, mean-spirited, but very wealthy woman who buys a destitute man’s eyes for temporary sight, and gets what’s coming to her in proper Serling fashion.

”The Dead Man” by Douglas Heyes. This one sports one of Night Gallery’s most chilling endings. A doctor, through hypnosis, is able to induce his hunky young test subject to simulate any illness, or even death itself. But his suspicions about the hottie and the doctor’s wife get the better of him when he causes the lad to “die” and for some reason can’t bring him back--until the wife figures out what he did wrong. The result will stay with you long after you’ve seen it.

”Make Me Laugh” by Rod Serling stars Godfrey Cambridge and Jackie Vernon (the voice of Frosty the Snowman in the perennial holiday cartoon) in the story of a pitifully unfunny comedian and an incompetent genie. When the genie grants the comic the ability to make anyone crack up any time he opens his mouth, it’s a lesson in being careful what you wish for.

”They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is an Emmy-nominated classic in the best Rod Serling style. A middle-aged widower on the brink of being discarded at work has more of a life in his memories of former happy times at a closed-up old tavern than in reality. When the demolition crews come for Tim Riley’s bar, they’re tearing down our sad man’s world.


”The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” by Rod Serling has another of those heart-stopping endings. A young boy has precognitive powers that make him a TV star--until one day he doesn’t want to do the show any more. Why? The reason is one you won’t soon forget.

”Class of ’99” is another Serling shocker that he would never have been able to to on The Twilight Zone just a few years earlier. Honestly, when I watched this again on the DVD after not having seen it in years, I couldn’t believe it! It stars Vincent Price as the professor of a graduating college class, giving a final oral exam that will have your jaws dropping to a student body that will startle you. This detour into science fiction one is among Rod’s most profoundly troubling works.

”A Fear of Spiders” by Rod Serling. I must admit I personally relate to this episode. If I see anything with eight legs, it had better be on stage singing harmony or broiled on my plate with melted butter! An insensitive writer who keeps brushing off his infatuated lady neighbor wishes he had treated her better when he finds an uninvited eight-legged visitor in his apartment--one that not only won’t go away, but keeps growing bigger and bigger! You’ll be shuddering.

”Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” by Gene Kearney from the story by Conrad Aiken, has the customary Serling intro and an internal narration by Orson Welles. It tells of a young boy being engulfed by schizophrenia as the snow becomes a living entity, calling him into its world and freezing him out of this one until no one can reach him. The boy, incidentally, is played by Radames Pera, a child star best remembered as young Grasshopper in the original Kung Fu series.

”Brenda” by Matthew Howard. Even by Night Gallery standards, this one is just plain weird. A little girl who doesn’t play well with other kids finds an unlikely friend in a mossy, hulking monster that lives in the forest. What ends up happening to a girl who can’t relate to anything human?

”Pickman’s Model,” by Alvin Sapinsley from the story by H.P. Lovecraft, is a perfect story for a series arranged around paintings. A young painter teaches art to society girls by day and does canvases of grotesque monsters by night--but where is he finding his subjects, and what happens to the pupil who’s falling for him? Rod may not have cared for monster stories, but this is one of the more entertaining exhibits in the Gallery.

”The Messiah on Mott Street” is everything you love about the work of Rod Serling, and a story that I’ll be adding to my annual Christmas Eve viewing tradition from now on. An impoverished, dying old Jewish man doesn’t fear death so much as leaving his sweet young grandson to foster care. The little boy goes desperately seeking the Messiah to save his grandfather, and thinks he’s found him--but has he? As an old show tune had it, "And tell me what street compares with Mott Street!" This Emmy nominee is the perfect bookend to The Twilight Zone’s “Night of the Meek”. (1960s or 1980s version.)

”The Different Ones” by Rod Serling. And speaking of bookends, this science fiction piece is the thematic twin of The Twilight Zone’s “The Eye of the Beholder”. Standing the premise of that story on its head, this one has a heartsick father sending his grotesquely deformed son to live on another planet. What awaits him there will remind you of what happened to Donna Douglas in the Zone classic.

”Lindenmann’s Catch” by Rod Serling tells of a fisherman who hauls up a mermaid in his net. He wants to care for the creature, but this yarn is nothing like that of Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah in Splash! In fact, it comes to a truly bizarre and stomach-churning end.

”You Can’t Get Help Like That Any More,” starring Cloris Leachman (moonlighting from Mary Tyler Moore, where she was playing Phyllis at the time) is another Serling companion to one of his Twilight Zone tales, this one harking back to “A Thing About Machines”. In a world of lifelike android servants, the help is more human than you’d expect--especially for a decadent rich couple that abuses the mechanical maid. This one strikes a blow for good relations with workers--literally!

”The Caterpillar” by Rod Serling is the first story in the last episode of Season 2, and takes the prize for the all-time most horrifying ending in the entire series. For the record, the idea that the earwig, a type of insect, actually crawls into the human ear and eats into the brain is an urban myth. It is not real; it does not happen. Someone made it up. Really. But what happens to the lecherous would-be seducer of another man’s beautiful wife when he tries to eliminate the husband with an earwig and takes the insect up the ear himself comes to an ending that will leave you squirming for life. I kid you not; this is one that I never forgot!

Night Gallery ironically saw its ratings spike in its third season--this, after NBC cut it back to half an hour and one story a week and dumped it in a time slot after the Mystery Movie on Sunday nights, but NBC cancelled it anyway. Go figure. The workings of TV network minds can be more spooky than anything hanging on the walls of the Night Gallery, as Rod would have attested. At some point I’ll rent the Netflix disks for the third season, so I expect we’ll be visiting Rod Serling’s Night Gallery here on The Quantum Blog again some time in the future.

Now we’ve finished our tour, I encourage you again to surf over to The official Night Gallery site contains most of the paintings from the series. These are the work of an amazing artist named Tom Wright, who somehow managed to vary his styles and techniques so much that it seems that the works were created by dozens of different artists. You’ll also find lots of background info on the series, some reviews of the show, and even some actual Night Gallery scripts including Rod’s teleplays for “Class of 99” and “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar!” I hope you’ve enjoyed--and survived--your visit to the Night Gallery. As dawn approaches, the exhibit is now closed. And...pleasant dreams!