Imaginary Gods in Real Gardens

Promethea Volume 2, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by J.H. Williams III, Jose Villarubbia, and Mick Gray (2000-2001): Moore’s loopy, brain-twisting, gorgeously illustrated metasuperheroine series continues, as fictional god Promethea and her human host Sophie Bangs learn more about how magic works, and what the nebulous realm of the Immateria really is in relation to the material world.

The whole thing basically plays like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman on magic mushrooms…or maybe peyote…as written by someone who really does believe in, and practice, magic. After we finish our tour of Promethea’s past incarnations, Moore takes us on a jaunt through the history and theory of magic, and the history and theory of Everything as represented by the 22 face cards of the Tarot deck. You don’t have to believe this stuff to enjoy it.

Moore’s probably the only comic-book writer alive who can make what amounts to a crazy-ass essay about the Tarot deck both enthralling and dramatically satisfying. Magician Jack the Faust gets fleshed out more (somewhat literally), looking for all the world like an extremely weathered Harvey Pekar. We also find out that the private parts of a goddess have sparkly stars floating around them. Good to know. You never can tell when knowledge like that can come in handy. Are those stars around your vagina or are you happy to see me? Boom! Highly recommended.

Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Volume 1, written by Gardner F. Fox, illustrated by Howard Sherman and others (originally published 1940-44): Muscly superheroes and supervillains are often captains; magical superheroes and supervillains are often doctors: so goes the unwritten code of the Golden and Silver Age superhero comic book, with the necessary caveat that there are exceptions (Flash villain Captain Cold being one of those exceptions that prove the rule).

Doctor Fate has one of the great Golden Age, four-colour superhero costumes, all blue and yellow with the yellow standing in (we assume if we’re grounded in representational four-colour coding) for gold. He begins life as a sort of science magician, using “lost secrets of the Chaldeans and Egyptians” that are really super-science to battle an array of quasi-supernatural foes.

Fate’s golden, full-head helmet stays exclusively on for the first year-and-a-half of his adventures, only coming off when he finally reveals his secret origin to oddly named gal-pal Inza Carmer. The removal of the helmet does not bode well, as Fate quickly gains a new half-helmet (the top half, btw) and a much less interesting career as a two-fisted crime fighter whose primary opponents are gangster types who wouldn’t be out of place in a Batman and Robin story from the same era.

Then Fate (real name: Kent Nelson) becomes a ‘real’ doctor, by which we mean medical doctor and not Ph.D., loses his cape somewhere, and slouches towards a 17-year hiatus from superheroing. The first third of the book, in which Fox exhibits his love of 1930’s science fiction and horror, is terrifically entertaining; after that, only the appearances of Professor Hugo Strange-like Mr. Who are really interesting beyond a historical sense. One of the oddest things about early Fate is that nowhere in these stories is there much support for later characterizations of Doctor Fate as a sentient, god-like helmet with a person pretty much just along for the ride. There’s the real mystery. Recommended.

Golden Age Plastic Man Archives Volume 2, written and illustrated by Jack Cole (1943-44): With all due respect to Will Eisner and company’s The Spirit, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is the greatest superhero comic of the 1940’s, and one of the ten best of all time. Maybe five best. Cole’s talent was only matched by his life-long dissatisfaction with being a comic-book writer/artist, and once he made the “big time” of slick magazine cartoons and a syndicated comic strip, he would try to minimize his comic-book days in his CV.

But more than fifty years after his somewhat mysterious death, Cole’s enduring legacy is that comic-book work on Plastic Man. It burns with the hard, gem-like, crazy-ass flame that denotes real art, absolutely serious in its committment to anarchy, hilarity, thrills, and the often untapped potential of the comic-book panel and comic-book page.

‘Plastic’ in this case comes from its original meaning — fluid, changeable, protean — and not how we understand the word now; Cole was originally going to go with ‘India Rubber Man’ until someone pointed out that this was the stupidest superhero name ever. Unlike later stretchable heroes that include the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic and DC’s risibly named Elongated Man, Plastic Man stretched and compacted to almost absurdist degrees — he could compact himself to the size of a rubber ball, or alter his appearance.

Somewhat presciently, he was also the first superhero that I know of to work for a government agency (in this case, the FBI). His adventures had serious consequences, with murder and mayhem abounding, and yet it was all delivered with an anarchic, light-hearted flair: it’s almost like one is looking at the model for much later pop culture confections such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which comedy and melodrama co-exist productively.

In any case, this is serious fun: it zips by, effortless to read, overstuffed with strange and comic images, a work of unduplicated genius from a genius who seemed to actually despise what he had created. As real-world Frankenstein stories go, it’s a doozy. Highest recommendation.

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