O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Okay, I know. It’s really Saturday. I’m late again. But, you know, if you pick a motif then you should commit to it. It’s a brand-name thing. “Hatcher’s Friday Column” is more of a state of mind lately than anything else, but damn it, I do intend to get back on schedule here soon.
Anyway, I’ve been reading all sorts of old stuff this last week, and scoring more cool stuff on eBay. This last really is addictive, because each thing kind of leads to the next.I started hunting back issues of Marvel’s black-and-white Conan books last year, because we had met Roy Thomas at a show and reminiscing with him had reminded me how much I used to enjoy his Savage Sword stories with John Buscema. And once I started with those I was reminded how much I’d dug Marvel Preview and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and so I started hunting those.
Well, as it turns out, you go after Marvel’s Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and you will very often get it offered in tandem with its smaller color cousin, Master of Kung Fu.
Now, this is a new thing for me. I never got into the book when it was originally coming out in the 70’s; I don’t know why not, except probably that I was maxed out on budget and it never really caught my eye. I was more of a Dr. Strange/Defenders guy in the 70’s. But the Deadly Hands stories with Shang-Chi were a lot of fun, and the last lot I got of the color books were a revelation. I fell swooningly in love with the adventures of the rebellious heir to Fu Manchu.
Once I got into these books I was kicking myself. How had I missed this? These books are terrific! The stories are great, the art is mostly great (the Gene Day stuff is breathtaking, and for the first time I’m seeing what other people were getting excited about with Paul Gulacy.)
Here is my shame, though. By themselves the books are just what I’d consider pretty good. What kicked them over the top into “these are SO COOL!!” territory and got me all wound up is a little embarrassing, to be honest. It means admitting I’m one of THOSE guys that so many comics columnists complain about. Hell, I’ve even complained about those guys myself once or twice. So this is a hard admission to make, that I might actually BE one of them.
Why do I love them so? Because I’m an enormous continuity geek.
There, I said it. I feel so cleansed.
Go ahead and point and laugh and get it out of your system. Because when you’re done I want to present a defense.
See, here’s the thing. There’s a kind of fun to be had in knitting together various fictional histories and rationalizing plot discrepancies that you can’t find anywhere else. I think it started with the Baker Street Irregulars, the group of Sherlock Holmes fans who’ve been trying to figure out the chronology of Holmes and his adventures for around a century. Then there’s the Robert E. Howard folks, L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter, who spent so much time working out the Hyborian Age histories of Kull and Conan. But the guy who made it an art form in and of itself, the spiritual godfather of every geeky fan who ever sat down and cudgeled his brain trying to come up with The Definitive Answer for a plot gaffe or a chronology screw-up, is Philip Jose Farmer.
He started it with his brilliant fictional biography, Tarzan Alive. Then Farmer followed that one up with Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, and both books were so thoroughly researched and written with such cool authority that they completely fooled me, when I first read them at the age of twelve. I spent the next couple of days after finishing them thinking and wondering about how much of the original Tarzan and Doc Savage novels were ‘real.’ I fell for Farmer’s continuity game hook, line, and sinker.
One of the coolest conceits of Farmer’s fictional biographies wasthe idea that Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage were, in actuality, all related to one another.
No, really. Here’s Win Scott Eckert on the subject: “According to Mr. Farmer, the Wold Newton Family originated when a radioactive meteor landed in Wold Newton, England, a village in the Yorkshire Wolds, on December 13, 1795. The meteor landing is a real historical event. The meteor’s ionized radiation caused a genetic mutation in those present, which endowed many of their descendants with extremely high intelligence and strength. In addition to Tarzan and Doc Savage, Farmer concluded that other characters from popular literature were part of the Wold Newton Family, including Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, A.J. Raffles, Fu Manchu, Arsene Lupin, G-8, The Shadow, Sam Spade, the Spider, Nero Wolfe, Mr. Moto, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Travis McGee, and many more.”
Yeah, I know. It seems sort of demented. But it really is weirdly fun, reading all these essays and theories on how these various pulp classics fit together, and if you go to pjfarmer.com and click on the Wold Newton link, you’ll see for yourself. Or you could just pick up Eckert’s new collection of essays on the subject:
And that’s why I fell so hard for Shang-Chi. It’s because as far as I know, it’s the first Wold Newton comic book.
Seriously. Shang-Chi is so clearly smack in the middle of the whole Wold Newton thing that I have to wonder if Doug Moench read Farmer’s books when he was originally writing the thing. I mean, Clive Reston being related to James Bond AND Sherlock Holmes? That’s SO Wold Newton, effortlessly tying together Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.
I’m perfectly aware that this kind of attention to dorky minutiae is what gives us things like Yellow Fear Monsters and six-issue miniseries explaining why Hal Jordan went gray at the temples. But! Let’s not forget, it also gave us Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, another comic squarely in the Wold Newton continuity-geek tradition. For that matter, Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier has a whiff of Wold Newtonry about it, the way it attempts to integrate DC’s Silver Age into a historical whole.
So what makes those efforts work where stuff like Green Lantern: Rebirth or Infinite Crisis mostly make you want to wince at the sheer OCD nerdiness of it all? I don’t really know, except that I think it has to do with story coming first. I think there’s a very strong through-line of plot and character with Shang-Chi or LOEG that just isn’t there with some of the other, lesser efforts that set comics columnists howling about how continuity freaks are killing us. I think any time a writer sits down with a mission statement of “We need to fix this discrepancy,” he’s in trouble. No argument there.
But I also think that as long as you have a strong story, you can have some fun with continuity along the way. A little geekiness never hurt anybody. It’s only when it becomes the point of the exercise that it gets painful.
See you next week.
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