A Drawling Twang in a Forbidden Tongue (The Last War in Albion Part 84: Night Raven, Marvelman)

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This is the twelfth of fifteen parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Nine, focusing on Alan Moore's work on V for Vendetta for Warrior (in effect, Books One and Two of the DC Comics collection). An omnibus of all fifteen parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in a collected edition, along with the eventual completion of the story. UK-based readers can buy it here.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionOne of the most immediate antecedents of V for Vendetta was Night Raven, a noir strip from Dez Skinn's Hulk Comics originally created by Steve Parkhouse and David Lloyd, which later became a series of text features in Marvel Super-Heroes and The Daredevils written by Alan Moore, in which the character is infected with a virus created by his nemesis, Yi Yang, which has the effect of both rendering him immortal and causing him constant and excruciating pain.

"It was a voice of thunder that answered his question - a drawling twang in a forbidden tongue we'd only ever heard in banned movie reels." - Grant Morrison, Multiversity: Mastermen

Figure 644: Night Raven causes the antagonists to kill their
own man by putting a Night Raven mask on one of them.
 (Written by Steve Parkhouse, art by David Lloyd, from
Hulk Comic #1, 1979)
Over the course of Moore’s stories, Night Raven suffers from the disease until he finally obtains a cure, at which point he realizes that Yi Yang had only done all of this to give herself an enemy. (“How does an immortal kill herself,” he has Night Raven ponder in the story where he’s finally cured. “She sets about creating a weapon, perhaps unconsciously, responding to that barely audible voice inside her that pleads for extinction. She creates a weapon that might just be able to kill her.”) This also let Moore gradually move the setting up to the present day, which has obvious appeal to anyone seeking to use the character in future stories since it enables teaming him up with other characters in the Marvel stable. Having accomplished this, however, and with Moore backing away from Marvel UK work due to his dissatisfaction with Bernie Jaye’s dismissal, Moore, again characteristically, handed the text pieces over to Jamie Delano, giving him his first professional credit. 

Figure 645: V causes the antagonists to kill their own man
by putting a Guy Fawkes mask on one of them. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by David Lloyd, from "The Vacation," in
Warrior #18, 1984)
V for Vendetta, however, fell a long way from Night Raven, although certainly similarities were maintained, most obviously the faceless and implacable nature of the lead characters, although V eventually did get the origin story that Night Raven lacked. The most obvious of these is the change in setting from the 1930s to the present day - a change prompted by Lloyd’s request to not have to keep doing a bunch of historical reference. Moore proceeded to mull over the nature of the 30s noir setting, and concluded that the appeal “was rooted in the exotic and glamorous locations that the stories were set in…, seedy waterfront bars, plush penthouses dripping with girls, stuff like that. All the magic of a vanished age.” And, further, that “it might be possible to get the same effect by placing the story in the near future as opposed to the near past,” thus giving the story its futuristic setting, which Moore then combined with an abandoned idea he’d submitted to Starblazer publisher D.C. Thomson about a white-faced terrorist called the Doll fighting a near-future totalitarian dictatorship, which set Moore and Lloyd upon the path that would eventually lead to Moore’s aforementioned list of would-be influences and Lloyd’s Guy Fawkes idea.

This accounts for almost all of the conceptual genesis of V for Vendetta, save for one detail, namely how it is that Moore came to be the writer on it. The most obvious person to pair with Lloyd on a Night Raven clone, after all, would have been Steve Parkhouse, although Parkhouse was already employed writing and drawing The Spiral Path for Warrior. The explanation for this is relatively simple, however: David Lloyd wanted Moore. They had already worked together on some of Moore’s Doctor Who Weekly strips, and Lloyd clearly believed in Moore’s talent, having opted to interview him for the Society of Script Illustrators newsletter, despite his extreme greenness at the time. Skinn had no problem with Lloyd’s suggested writer, presumably in part because Skinn was already entertaining a pitch from Moore for the strip that Skinn intended to be the centerpiece of his new magazine, a revival of Mick Anglo’s 1950s character of Marvelman.

Where Moore got the V for Vendetta job due to Lloyd’s intercession, Marvelman he landed more or less entirely on the strength of his idea for it - an idea that, to be fair, he’d been working on and refining for sixteen years at that point. As Moore tells it, he was on holiday at the Seashore Caravan Camp in Yarmouth at the age of twelve and relishing the fact that the coastal regions of the UK had slightly different comics distribution than what was available in Northampton, and that there were thus a wealth of new comics to read. And on his 1966 holiday, this included both a Young Marvelman annual and The Mad Reader. The latter of these contained Kurtzman and Wood’s iconic “Superduperman." The former contained a selection of Mick Anglo’s Marvelman stories, published between 1954 and 1963.

Figure 646: Billy Batson and the mysterious man
journey down into a magical subway. (Written by Bill
Parker, art by C.C. Beck, from Whiz Comics #2, 1940)
The origin of Marvelman is legendarily complex. The story begins in the United States in 1940 with the publication of Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics #2 (which, unusually, was actually the first issue of the magazine, although it also had two issue threes, so in a sense it all worked out in the end), featuring the debut of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was fairly straightforwardly an attempt to capitalize on the success of DC’s Superman, to the point of having a cover in which the character hurls a car, much like Superman does on the cover of Action Comics #1. The story within, however, had a markedly different tone. It opens with a young boy trying to sell a newspaper to a mysterious figure in a trenchcoat and fedora, who asks him “Why aren’t you home in bed, son?” The boy explains that he’s homeless and sleeps in the subway, at which point the man exclaims, “Follow me!” The boy for some reason does, at which point “a strange subway car, with headlights gleaming like a dragon’s eyes, roars into the station and stops. No one is driving it!” The man reassures the boy, telling him that “everything has been arranged,” and so the boy gets on the train, which takes them to “a platform resembling the mouth of a weird, subterranean cavern.” At this point, the mysterious man vanishes from the narrative entirely, and the boy walks past statues representing the seven deadly enemies of man (in fact the seven sins) and meets “an old, old man, sitting on a marble throne.” He introduces himself as Shazam (and a bolt of lightning strikes as he does), explaining that this is an acronym for Solomon Hercules Atlas Zeus Achilles Mercury. Shazam has apparently been using (respectively) the wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage, and speed of these gods “to battle the forces of evil which every day threaten to extinguish man from the face of the Earth,” but who has grown too old to continue, and so who has decided that the boy, Billy Batson, will now have to fight evil in his place by speaking his name and transforming into Captain Marvel.  At this point Shazam is crushed by a massive block of granite, and Batson returns to the world aboveground, where he foils the evil plan of Doctor Sivana, who wants to destroy all radio stations. 

The character was a breakout success, at one point becoming the most popular superhero in the United States, outselling even Superman. This led DC to sue Fawcett on the grounds that Captain Marvel was simply a ripoff of Superman, a case that wound its way through the courts for twelve years until 1953, at which point Fawcett, bled dry by legal fees and the post-War decline of superhero comics, opted to settle the case and cease publishing Captain Marvel, at which point DC licensed and eventually bought the character. (This lawsuit, it should be reiterated, was what Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” was parodying.) The shutdown of Captain Marvel in 1953, however, gave the British comics publisher L. Miller & Son, who had bought the rights to publish black and white reprints of Captain Marvel in the UK, a significant problem, in that their most popular comic had abruptly ceased to exist.

Figuer 647: Marvelman in action in his debut.
(By Mick Anglo, from "Marveman and the
Atomic Bomber," in Marvelman #25, 1954)
To deal with this, L. Miller & Son paid one of their writer-artists, Mick Anglo, to create a replacement character. Anglo stuck pretty closely to the original material. Instead of Billy Batson there was Micky Moran. Instead of a wizard there was an atomic scientist. And instead of saying “Shazam” the character’s magic word was “Kimota,” which was of course “atomic” backwards. Other than that, however, the character was a near-exact lift of Captain Marvel, and when he made his debut in the newly retitled Marvelman #25, he didn’t even get an origin story beyond a caption box explaining that “A recluse Astro-Scientist discovers the key word to the Universe, one that can only be given to a Boy who is completely honest, studious, and of such integrity that he would only use it for the powers of good. He finds such a Boy in MICKY MORAN, a Newspaper Copy Boy, and treats him in a special machine which enables him to use the secret. Just before the Scientist dies he tells Micky the Key Word which is KIMOTA. MICKY MORAN remains as he ways, but when he says the Key Word KIMOTA he becomes MARVELMAN, a Man of such strength and powers that he is Invincible and Indestructible.”

It would be a gratuitous exaggeration to suggest that Marvelman was particularly good. Far from it - the strip never really developed beyond its origins as a Captain Marvel knockoff. Nevertheless, it was the one British-created superhero of any significance, and retained a certain nostalgic cachet as a result. And so when Moore happened upon a collection of Young Marvelman stories (Marvelman, like Captain Marvel, had a pair of child sidekicks/spinoffs) alongside “Superduperman,” he had an idea. He was aware that Marvelman had long since gone out of print, and found himself imagining what the character might be up to these days. This intersected with the idea of a superhero parody, and he found himself musing on the idea of a version of Marvelman who had forgotten his magic word.

This, in turn, intersected with Skinn’s developing plans for Warrior. He viewed his quiet revival of Captain Britain in Hulk Comic as one of its biggest successes, and furthermore wanted to make sure he had a superhero comic in the mix. As he put it, “I wanted one of the six strips to reflect Marvel, to gain a slice of their audience, with something uniquely British.” Given that, Marvelman was really the only character available. Skinn first offered the strip to Steve Parkhouse, and then, when he wasn’t interested, to Steve Moore, who also wasn’t interested, but who noted that he had a friend who would be hugely interested - Moore having just mentioned it in his Society of Strip Illustrators interview with Lloyd as a dream project. Skinn, however, was understandably cautious about giving what he intended to be one of the marquee strips in his magazine to an untested writer, and so Moore wrote up a pitch outlining his ideas for the character. 

Moore’s pitch begins with several paragraphs outlining his general philosophical take on the character and on how he could best “bring what was basically a silly-arsed strip into line with the Nineteen-Eighties.” This required grappling with the nostalgia involved in reviving the character. As Moore observed, “nostalgia, if handled wrong, can prove to be nothing better than sloppy and mawkish crap. In my opinion, the central appeal of nostalgia is that all this stuff in the past has gone. It’s finished. We’ll never see it again… and this is where the incredible poignance of nostalgia really comes from.” Moore’s solution was to juxtapose the nostalgia for Marvelman with the “cruel and cynical Eighties,” arguing that “the resultant tension will hopefully provide a real charge and poignance.” Further, Moore was eager to make the strip work as good science fiction, which, in his view, meant that the strip’s fantastic premise “should stem from one divergence from reality,” which, he explained, would be “the crashing of an alien spacecraft in 1948.” 

At this point, Moore begins a lengthy explanation of his revamped mythology for the strip. At the heart of it was the character of Emil Gargunza, Anglo’s transparent substitute for Doctor Sivana. In Moore’s conception, Gargunza was a Brazillian scientist who made his name with research into eugenics before contracting for the Third Reich and subsequently defecting to the UK at the end of the war. This led to him being put in charge of investigating the 1948 spaceship crash, in which he discovered alien bodies that appeared to be two bodies fused together. Gargunza figures out that these aliens have the ability to switch between two bodies, and thus to transform into beings of tremendous power, and commences figuring out how to do this with human bodies so as to create superheroes. He does so with three orphans associated with the Royal Air Force (his employer), keeping them under strict observation and testing their abilities by feeding them false memories of being silly cartoonish superheroes. In 1961, he terminates the experiment, detonating a nuclear weapon in their immediate proximity to kill them. 

Figure 648: Marvelman reborn. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Gary Leach, from
"A Dream of Flying" in Warrior #1, 1982)
Instead, however, his oldest subject, Mickey Moran, survives in his human form, having forgotten how to transform into a superhero. He grows up, gets married, gets a job, and at this point Moore proposes to pick up his story in an episode entitled “A Dream of Flying.” Moore outlines a plot that begins with Moran having a joyful dream of flying that turns ugly as he’s engulfed in some sort of fireball. Moran will awaken and head to work as a freelance journalist, covering the opening of a nuclear power station, but haunted by the dream. Terrorists will attack the power plant, attempting to steal plutonium so they can build their own hydrogen bomb. Moran, held hostage, sees the word “ATOMIC” reflected in a door, and reads it backwards, out loud, suddenly transforming into Marvelman. The terrorist next to him simply drops dead, burnt to death in the force of Marvelman’s transformation. Seven feet tall and blue, he trivially cleans up the terrorists and flies away, joyful at being a superhero again. [continued]

Comments

Theonlyspiral 2 years, 9 months ago

The wait for this felt particularly long for some reason.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 9 months ago

As in, the wait caused by me forgetting to queue it last night and having to do it when I woke up?

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Alan 2 years, 9 months ago

Seriously, has there ever been a mainstream iteration of Superman who was remotely as interesting as his most prominent copy-cats? Shazam. Miracleman. Hyperion from the 80's Squadron Supreme mini-series by Mark Gruenwald or the remake by J. Michael Straczinski. Even the Plutonian from Irredeemable. Even Apollo from The Authority at least had the cachet of being "Gay Superman who was gay married to Gay Batman."

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

I am so glad to have caught up in real-time with the Last War. I spent the last week binge reading all of the previous posts that I'd missed (which was quite an experience), so I could feel more involved in the overall narrative. Just gotta say that I'm loving it Phil, what brilliant work!

Great to see you reaching Marvelman, as I knew next to nothing about his convoluted origin. I picked up reprints in the mid 80's (?) after a comic book friend who was part of a small RPG group I was in (there was a trio of us) raved about it.

Interesting looking at Figure 646 above, as the mysterious man has shades of V for me, and he even has a train and a subway too.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

Seven feet tall and blue...' An image arguably recycled as Doctor Manhattan when Moore gets to Watchmen. My favourite elements of Moore's Marvelman backstory was the whole back engineered alien tech, the Qys, Firedrake, the Warpsmiths etc. Moore left the details tantalizingly sketchy, perhaps with a view to utilising them later, which made them all the more intriguing.

@Daru
Interesting looking at Figure 646 above, as the mysterious man has shades of V for me, and he even has a train and a subway too.
I thought the same thing. I'm not too familiar with the Shazam legacy. I wonder if anyone ever brought that character back or offered an explanation of who he was. He's clearly a version of the anonymous trenchcoat and fedora character trope epitomized by Ditko's The Question, Mr A etc. and later, of course to find an iteration in Moore's Rorschach. The train tunnel gate to another reality also reminds me of Dane's initiation by Tom a Bedlam in Morrison's The Invisibles

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Kit 2 years, 9 months ago

Seriously, has there ever been a mainstream iteration of Superman who was remotely as interesting as his most prominent copy-cats?

The fizzing bundle of neuroses and lying that was Weisinger's? The inherent loneliness of Siegel's iterations of Superboy? (nb: Siegel writing under Weisinger on the adult version clashes fascinatingly.) The remarkable inner poise of Quitely & Morrison's?

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 9 months ago

the Warpsmiths etc.

The Warpsmiths actually had their own feature in Warrior; whether or not it counts as a Marvelman spinoff, I don't know.

I wonder if anyone ever brought that character back or offered an explanation of who he was.

Jerry Ordway, in his The Power of Shazam! graphic novel, identifies him as the ghost of Billy Batson's father, solidified by the wizard's power.

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 9 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Neo Tuxedo 2 years, 9 months ago

(Reposted with the full highlighting and an added footnote.)

Two small corrections:

In Moore’s conception, Gargunza was a Brazillian scientist

He may have ended up in Brazil*, but he was actually from Mexico. Veracruz, to be specific.

In 1961, he terminates the experiment, detonating a nuclear weapon in their immediate proximity to kill them.

It was 1963, and it was the RAF, speaking in the clipped and measured phrases of Sir Dennis Archer, who took the decision to shut down Project Zarathustra.

* As I recall Andy #6's account, his pelvis ended up in Ecuador or Peru, but there's a lot of room for drift when somebody throws you at a planet.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

I still have all my copies of Warrior. I loved that Warpsmith feature but it had little exposition to explain them.Which is just how I like it.

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

@ Anton "I thought the same thing. I'm not too familiar with the Shazam legacy. I wonder if anyone ever brought that character back or offered an explanation of who he was."

Yes, I've never read anything of the Shazam period myself. I find it interesting as Phil says above that the Mystery man completely vanishes from the plot. There are certainly resonances of The Question, The Shadow and yeah Rorschach too. Nice link with the Invisibles and Morrison too - I still have to catch up on reading all of that. I wonder if we'll be seeing a further exploration of other versions (apart from V & Night Raven) of the mysterious trench-coated figure here by Phil?

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elvwood 2 years, 8 months ago

If you want to check out the originals, they're available free from the Digital Comics Museum - the Whiz comics issues are at this link here.

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Daru 2 years, 8 months ago

Brill, thanks for that elvwood - I certainly will check them out. Just looking at the pic above I see some loose connection with the quality of Lloyd's lines/textures. Thanks.

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encyclops 2 years, 8 months ago

Figure 646 is ridiculously gorgeous. It's all beautiful, but that train!

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encyclops 2 years, 8 months ago

the ghost of Billy Batson's father, solidified by the wizard's power.

This would be one of those instances where the conventional wisdom is actually correct: this solution to the mystery is much less interesting than leaving it alone.

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Daru 2 years, 8 months ago

It is wildly lovely isn't it? A really beautiful page, great colours and textures. And yeah what a train!

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

The story behind "Whiz Comics #2" is that the first issue featured a different title ("Flash" in some markets, "Thrill" in others) plus a different name for the hero ("Captain Thunder"), but all had to be changed for IP reasons. This was sort of an omen of the future of the character, whose history would be entangled in IP disputes from then on: DC vs. Fawcett, Marvelman vs. Miracleman, Shazam vs. Mar-vell, etc.

Incidentally, IIRC Capt. Marvel had the ability to fly when Superman was still merely leaping tall buildings with a single bound -- thus weakening DC's case for Captain Marvel's being a mere .

Also, a year after Capt. Marvel appeared, DC premiered a character, Johnny Thunder, who was essentially a copy of all those aspects of Capt. Marvel that weren't copied from Superman: young hero using magic word to summon magic lightning. (I suspect Johnny Thunder may also have borrowed from L. Frank Baum's Master Key.)

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BerserkRL 2 years, 8 months ago

Not sure what happened to the end of that sentence. Should be "thus weakening DC's case for Captain Marvel's being a mere copy of Superman."

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