How Would You Fix…?

(With apologies to Nate, who…still hasn’t put up the geektastic “Kryptonian Exceptionalism” post I worked so hard on for him?  COME ON, MAN!)

(Uh…unless it sucked, and you’re saving me from public embarrassment…in which case, keep on doing what you’re doing…)

So I put the question to you, Comics Bloggers…and there is no prize for this one, but I’ve just got to know…

WHY IS MARVEL COMICS’ ARTHURIAN STUFF SO GODDAMN LAME?

And what could be done to change it from lame to not-lame?

I mean, the Matter Of Britain has obsessed the Western imagination for eight hundred years:  we can’t get enough of it.  We’d eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if we could.  And so it’s real fertile ground for a “superheroic past” in the Mighty Marvel Mode…and yet…

It seems extraordinarily out of place, in it.

Well, it seemed a bit out of place in the DC universe also, until Seven Soldiers came along and rebooted the Arthurian connections with monohydrazine (okay, ONE prize…for the person who can identify that reference.  And a bit more on the matter of prizes is just to come)…

But MAN, Marvel’s Arthurian stuff is tired and boring and stupid.  Isn’t it?

So how would you fix it?

Tell me;  unless you’re such a coward you’d let the Commies fix it first, Ben Grimm!

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23 responses to “How Would You Fix…?

  1. I’ll take myself out of the running for id’ing the monohydrazine reference, because I have no freaking clue.

    But as to the question at hand, might it have something to do with the general philosophies of the respective companies? DC is much more yesteryear-looking, to the point of regression. Batman hearkens back to the pulps. Superman, for all his sci-fi trappings, also has pulp antecedents, not to mention Biblical ones with the Moses analogies. And then there’s the legacies, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Women/Girls and so on. DC mines the past like that’s its job.

    Marvel, born at a different time, oriented itself more toward the future and things that had never been done before. The FF and the space race, Iron Man and the modern arms race, Spidey/Hulk and the inadvertant effects of radioactivity, ditto the X-Men plus their constant elements of social upheaval.

    Of the two companies, where would you expect Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur etc. to be best utilized? Probably not Marvel.

    The exception to not-mining-the-past-quite-as-obviously has been the occasional mythological standout like Thor or Hercules. So I guess to fix Marvel’s Arthurian fail, you’d either give the Black Knight a solo series written by Fred Van Lente, or turn Dane into an Ebony Sword-wielding frog for a while.

    DG

  2. I don’t know. But it seems like someone who knows their rocket fuels and believes, poor devil, that quoting a real one will add verisimilitude and that there’s an audience who cares.

    I’ll take a punt it’s Space 1999.

  3. NOPE! Space: 1999 was rigid about some things, and boring viewers with the names of different kinds of fuel was one of them.

    Only an American show could make the fuel the star.

    And, DWG, my God those are some cogent words! But if you’ll just excuse me for a moment I have to collapse into the bed…

    Engagement with text to come!

  4. Hm. When has dipping into mythology paid off for Marvel? When has it worked? The Norse myths, clearly, with Thor. The Greek myths have worked pretty darn well, especially lately, with Hercules. I’m drawing a blank on other successful importations.

    Marvel’s work with Arthurian myths has been primarily the Black Knight and Captain Britain. I have a great fondness for both characters, but yeah, neither one is really all that great.

    Notice the difference in treatment.

    The successful mythological imports bring in whole characters and worlds. The unsuccessful ones bring in “related” characters and drop them into the Marvel Universe. The Arthurian characters in Marvel aren’t really “Arthurian.” They’re superheroes with a whiff of Malory in their backstory.

    Part of the challenge too is that the world of Arthur is gone. Thor can go back to Asgard; Hercules to Olympus. An Arthurian hero cannot “go home.”

    The solution…

    COMING SOON from THE HOUSE OF IDEAS:

    GAWAIN THE BRAVE — The Raven King has breached the barriers between Faerie and Earth and claims our world as his fief! From distant Avalon, Arthur saw and ordered that the Raven King be stopped.

    Merlin could send only one warrior through the Gate of Avalon, lest ancient magical treaties be broken and the entire kingdom of New Camelot collapse into hell. The Knights of the Round Table knew who had to be chosen.

    The bravest of Arthur’s knights walks the Earth once more! Sir Gawain, now walking upon an Earth far different from what he knew, brings a strong arm, an unbending will, and a noble heart into our world of internet memes, reality television, and microwave burritos!

    Leading the Raven King’s charge to invade the world is the Fair Unknown, Sir Gingalain — Gawain’s own son!

    And why is it that Dagonet, Arthur’s court jester, is able to walk so easily between the worlds?

    The series would draw in as much Arthurian mythology as possible. Thor always worked best when it focused on Norse mythology, and I’d suspect Gawain would be the same. Hercules doesn’t need his Greek ties as strongly, but that’s because his character is intrinsically amusing. Thor and Gawain are too gol-durn noble for that. We need to be able to stretch our legs and really walk around New Camelot in Avalon. Arthurian hoo-hah will penetrate heavily into Modern Marvel Earth as well. Not just Morgan le Fay and Modred, but all sorts of crap.

    Not great, but a start.

    • I missed replying to this directly before, so here’s my comment now, though I generally find the “Reply” thing confusing on a comment thread…

      You know what I really like about this? It’s the same thing that used to make Thor so insane — interaction of the mythological figure with the modern world. Once upon a time it wouldn’t even need saying, it was so very automatically Marvel a species of wackiness.

      And: remember Gawain had that “strength waxing with the Sun” thing going on? And also he used to be Gwalchmei…

      …Whoops, maybe got it, going down to the bottom of the thread now!

  5. I tend to think that Arthurian stuff is best when kept to itself. It doesn’t mix well with other genres or stories. (This is where Guy Gavriel Kay fell down in the Fionavar Tapestry.) So it’s not surprising to me that Marvel’s Arthurian stuff wouldn’t work well (not that I’ve ever read any of it, unless you count the first couple dozen issues of Excalibur).

  6. “Team up Conan and Luke Cage for a cattle drive through Texas” was how one letter-of-comment snarked some of the lazier ’70s Marvel plotting. I.e. now that Marvel is gaining some interest and respect, can’t we let the new story premises grow according to their strengths on their own? Does everything have to be blended into the MU with a blender?

    I feel that Marvel is still its own thing, inherently modernist as DWG says. Where Marvel gets interesting just doesn’t fit with where Arthurian romance gets interesting.

    Despite this, Harvey’s Gawain is a temptation.

  7. Come on, I still remember the demo of how monohydrazine worked. I only watched a couple of episodes but I always loved the premise of the series. The show failed because…well, the main reason was that it was totally dorky and lame and uncool, but also it showed up at the wrong historical moment. Twelve years earlier, twelve years later, it could have worked…but that year, all anyone wanted was pure space fantasy. Even cursory lip service to scientific plausibility was frowned upon. This was way too Rocket Ship Galileo for the zeitgeist, you know?

  8. Giving it a little more thought, I’m not sure that Arthurian mythology translates to superhero comics particularly well, at least compared to the more popular mythologies.

    Classical and Norse mythology are loaded with amazing images and bizarre creatures, a wide range of characters, and all sorts of crazy-ass situations. The conflicts are pretty super-heroic all by themselves: Thor beats the giants with a hammer; Hercules has twelve labors; etc.

    Arthurian mythology is much less large-scale, obviously, and it’s also less visually striking. Once you get past the idea of knights with swords, you’ve tapped the core visuals. Most of the magic is subtle, and it’s not overflowing with inhuman monsters. The only really whacked out part of Arthur, the part that lends itself to comic book style madness, is Merlin. He’s turned up quite a bit in comics, too.

    When you think of the mythology of Arthur, what do you think of? Soap operatics. Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristan and Isolde; the foundling boy squire who proves himself to be the true king; stories not of Big Dudes Smashing Things, but stories of betrayal and loyalty. And lord knows, Marvel Comics does that sort of thing. (Well, they used to.) But the bread and butter of Marvel, the Stan-and-Jack style, never based itself in those things.

    I read an interview with Alex Toth, where he spoke about a swashbuckling story he’d drawn. The interviewer asked him if he ever wanted to do more of those, or have a series like that. Toth’s response waa telling: there’s only so many ways to draw a swordfight in comics. That may be why sword-based adventure genres and sub-genres (pirates, swashbucklers, Zorro, etc.) have never succeeded as comics.

    Thinking about it, I have no idea how to make Gawain the Brave actually work. The fish-out-of-water angle is weak and would be tiresome quickly. Gawain’s intrinsic purity would grate. And the visuals just aren’t there. I’d probably resort to pulling in half the cast of Welsh and Celtic mythology. (Those are different, right? Not sure.) Plus dragons. Lots of dragons.

  9. “But the bread and butter of Marvel, the Stan-and-Jack style, never based itself in those things.”

    Beg to differ. Well before Claremont or even Thomas, the Lee-Kirby X-Men were just that sort of Arthurian soap operatics.

  10. But the soapiness was never the driver of even the Claremont X-Men. While Logan pined for Jean and Piotr wrestled with his urges for Kitty, what made the series go was attacking sentinels, or the Shi’ar getting frisky, or time-traveling counterparts warning about dire futures, or Canadians. In the Arthurian stories, the soap was the core.

    An Arthurian Marvel Comic would have to fold together the soapiness into the action in a Claremontian fashion. The trick would be setting up the driving action. The invasion from Faerie could work, I suppose.

  11. Hmm, well I like the Arthurian stuff best when the soap stuff isn’t foregrounded, myself…I kind of resent the Lancelot/Guinevere Tristan/Isolde stuff, actually, although I do think the wrestling with passion, ennobling unrequited love stuff…that’s a rich vein, but the tales of Edenic adultery I always thought were contaminating influences, needing reconstruction at least and excision at worst…but then I’m an old fogey. Having said that, my God, it actually never occurred to me…the X-men are a great funhouse-mirror Arthurian riff, the enduring fascination with the costumes and the looks, the concentration on the individual uniqueness of the superpowers. Soapy or not, now that I’m alert to it I can see it driving things around a whole lot, pretty much up to the time of Claremont/Byrne…

    …Which is when I think Claremont’s own ambitions for it start taking it in a different direction. My little pet theory: consciously or unconsciously, he intended to make the All-New All-Differents into a new FF for the Eighties, not a new X-Men for the Eighties. By which I mean: the idea of the multicultural ensemble cast, the chosen or foster family, is a more “modern” variation of the FF ur-idea?

    Hmm, gotta ponder this all a minute or two again…just about to start talking about the really cool old Welsh stuff, which is of course the root of the Arthurian stuff too…the lukewarm whiteness and utter conventionality of Marvel’s directly-referenced Arthur stuff surprises me a little when I look more closely at it…where’s the Mighty Marvel Manner, the twists, the “this isn’t your daddy’s supercomic” stuff? For the most part it doesn’t read like it had any particular enthusiasm put behind it. Captain Britain made a start, but…

    You know, at least it could be sort of ethnic or something, right? If nothing else?

    Hmm…

  12. Harvey! Absolutely! Our first demand is dragons.

    Secondly, there must be a lot of kingdoms, typically at war. Or in reluctant alliance against greater threats, at Arthur’s urging. Or joining fortunes by arranged marriages (bad), or by Lochinvar/Romeo-and-Juliet marriages which win out against all odds to the people’s acclaim (good). The blood of ancient Witch-Queens must run in royal veins. There must be enough knights of good and bad persuasion that the soap opera never fucking stops.

    Thirdly, historical verisimilitude must be burnt out with brands of fire. Despite anything you might dig up today, these kingdoms’ level of craft and artistry must be such as to leave the Plantagents and the Merovingians gaping in the dust. There must be a whole lot of blacksmiths, and they must compete ferociously to create the sharpest swords and the shiningest armour in all legend. Likewise, the weavers of the day must have looms and dyes which would be the envy of the Renaissance; and masons must be able to do prodigies with teetering piles of block-and-tackle.

    Hadrian’s Wall needs to be about forty feet high and at that just high enough to keep out the waves of hairy Scots. Red-handed Danes must sail up the lochs, and their dragon-headed longships must be thunderheads of oncoming dread. No writer may touch finger to key until they’ve read several volumes of Robert E. Howard.

    And even so we’ve got trouble. We can’t be too fond of the Arthurian story from the Mab to Mallory, because it is a narrative of decline and fall; a fairy tale with no happily ever afters. We have really got to do something about that.

    Two things, I think. We have to aim the story at a Ragnarok where the last defenders will fall and what remains will be honest folk picking up the threads of what will eventually be Merrie England if not historical Britain. Our saga has to be what their great stories will remember.

    The other thing is, if the Arthurian thing has no future, it does have a past which is deep and unknown. What’s that you say, little historian? Britain was a relatively well-run semi-independent province of Rome, and a base from which legionary commanders mounted attempted usurpations of the Imperial throne? Thank you, little historian. Be off with you now.

    The past we demand is one which stopped the Legions in their tracks! And then corrupted them! So they went back to the Roman Empire and fucked it up even worse! What has to lurk behind our beleagured kingdoms must be the Dark Ages Incarnate. With the aforesaid Witch-Queens brooding over them. And Druids! My god! Druids, tell me you aren’t sick of being Essene monks in white robes and Ancient Astronomers and thin New Age gruel! Time you were sorcerors again, of good and bad persuasions. Ghost cermonies! Lycanthropies! Human sacrifice! At perpetual war among yourselves, and you summoning the Prehistoric Terrors for your secret weapons. See Demand One.

    Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman

    Yeah, that’ll do it. Starts off like Ivanhoe, but it’s The Demon in the end.

  13. Sweet stuff, Jonathan! But it’s proving tougher than I thought to warp even good stuff like that into a Marvelized form. Marvel’s pretty rough on its pantheistic mythologies these days, they always need some way to hook them onto what they’ve already got…and unfortunately what they’ve already got is mostly garbage. LOVE the Morrisonization you’re doing with the isolated, triumphant British culture, but he had the advantage of not having to cram them into a genuine time-period — he went to Mythic Time with them. Somehow I’m sensing Marvel’s Camelot has gotta be pretty much where they’ve put it, whether they’ve been going 6th century or what I don’t know, but…

    …For not seeming to care about it much, they sure have managed to use up its space, and I guess the problem with Marvel’s Matter Of Britain for me is that it just smells so damn fake. Is that it? Kirby would’ve imbued it all with weirdness and menace, but instead we’ve got Merlin with the wand and starry pointed hat, Morgan Le Fay’s uncomplicated villainy, castles in the sunshine, we never even see Arthur, presumably because that would only reveal the paucity of imagination at work: reveal that it really is all very off-the-rack stuff, very un-Marvel. Red faces and shit-eating “whatta ya gonna do about it?” grins all around. So…maybe that’s where the answer lies, in what we don’t see? What we do see is cute, trite, generic…if someone used Marvel’s exact Merlin and Morgan Le Fay (barring the Moore stuff), they couldn’t even manage to get sued. It’s that dollar-store.

    But maybe it’s all a trick!

    Merlin with the magic wand and pointy starry hat. It’s so familiar it seems like a joke, easy to ignore and discount. Merlin, Excalibur, Lancelot, everybody’s got a simplistic LCD mental picture of these things, and the Marvel versions of ’em match up with that a little too perfectly. So maybe Merlin’s smart, and he’s just giving us what we expect to see…or maybe we’re just too close to it all to realize that in Arthur’s day if you were to see somebody in such a thing as a pointy starry hat you would run for your life, because that’s code for something terrifying, even if we mistakenly think it’s innocuous. Is that Druidic garb Merlin’s wearing? Hey; I don’t know if it is or not, but I think an argument could be made that such a hat speaks more of the Eastern mysteries than the Western ones.

    And the genuine Welsh myths have a lot of peculiar analogical communication between East and West in them…well, like the Grail itself, right? Not to mention how Magnus Maximus’ story gets turned on its head as the tale of Macsen Wledig. Jonathan proposes that Britain was not held by Rome…but maybe, okay, it was…but our history books lie about how it was held. We’ve already seen Kirby do Arthur, in the Forever People, when the Romans pull out…but what was going on before they pulled out, why they pulled out, that’s got room for embroidery in it. Britain was tough enough, in historical terms, to take…maybe in terms of Superheroland it was even harder to hold. We already have Macsen, the implication of the heart of darkness, the bewitching power that creates a Celtic Kurtz, a Celtic Tarzan, for the convenience of folktales…so the Romans come, and conquer, but are subject to subversion. Maybe Rome infected its limbs but never its heart, spine, brain, even lungs. Maybe with the addition of the fantasy elements it was a much more uneasy conquest than history would tell Reed Richards. factions warring with one another, but making common cause to expel the Romans and bring the Dark Ages — the obscured times. In some early Christianized versions of Merlin’s story, he charges the priest to write down Arthur’s history, but also requires him to “keep some parts of the story dark, as I myself am”. Well, okay; let’s go with that. This story’s not written into Marvel Time yet. In Marvel Time, everybody believes the story of the history books, but there’s a “real” story they just haven’t encountered yet. Dane Whitman might know it. Dr. Strange might know it. But how come Dr. Doom’s first idea was to collect Merlin’s magic jewels — huh? what magic jewels? — from Blackbeard, instead of sending the FF to Camelot? Or going himself?

    Gonna get geeky, here: it was all he could do. He didn’t study with Cagliostro by his time machine’s kind offices just so he could cross Cagliostro off on his list before moving on to Morgan Le Fay in Iron Man #149. No. He studied with Cagliostro in order to gain the ability to pierce the mesmeric veil that prevented him (or anybody else!) from being able to hold the notion of visiting Arthurian Britain in his mind for long enough to do it. In FF #5 he could not form the intention of visiting Camelot; he had to rely on being able to visit some other known time when Merlin’s magic jewels (wtf?) were located in historical knowledge. He never wanted to study other people’s magic. Doom’s a dropout, people! But he just wanted those jewels.

    Gonna have to get back to the business of those jewels…!

    But let’s try this on for size: if it had just been Doom busting the spell of Merlin that prevents people from looking too closely at the Arthurian Age, that would’ve been fine. He was using some elevated magic to do it. Strange could always do it. Dane Whitman’s part of the spell, so it doesn’t matter if he does it. But Merlin’s spell even binds the more idle conceptions of immortals on Earth: why that weird alter-dimension where the Enchantress created the Valkyrie? Morgan Le Fay does not want the Enchantress anywhere near her…sho owes Merlin a solid for his great spell of secrecy, in that issue! Not that she’ll pay it…

    …And the spell still holds for the immortals on Earth, even Loki, but…

    …Since Iron Man followed Doom to that forbidden era, not using elevated magic…for human beings, the spell is broken. What was meant to be “kept dark” forever, is now capable of having a light held up to it. What really happened, Merlin’s conflict with the Witch-Queens in which Morgan Le Fay finally betrayed them for him…the submergence of the Druidic sect that anointed the last in a long line of ceremonial “Arthurs”…the conflict between the clever human tribes and their stubbornly insistent Gods, that could only end with them being banished along with the Romans…

    …And, don’t we all know what happens to banished Gods in the Marvel Universe?

    That’s right: their followers survive though they were supposed to be long dead, and try to bring them back in the time of the superheroes.

    So here’s my idea:

    Let’s say that Doom couldn’t’ve learned anything from Morgan or Merlin even if he’d tried: because their magic is fairy magic, and it only works when and where the dimensional barriers between Faerie and the normal world are thin. But those barriers got thick as hell a really long time ago, and outside of standing in the middle of Stonehenge on a certain day at a certain time, access to Faerie is never coming back.

    UNLESS.

    Let’s simplify and uglify like crazy, and say that Faerie has two territories in the Marvel world…one is Annwyn, the Underworld. That’s where the old Gods were put in the Roman crisis that established our distorted folktales. Then there’s Avalon, the space they were made to vacate…where the Arthurian heroes went after it all got done. And the thing about this sub-dimension of Earth’s is that no one visits it, no one even knows it’s there, but it’s close…it is to Earth like the moon is to the sun, it’s tidally-locked, they’re part of an enclosed and particpatory system. But Merlin shut the door. So what is “fairy magic”? It’s earth-magic, the same magic now basically entirely controlled by the Earth-Spirit who’s been a significant player in the MU since the 70s. An overwhelming magical source…and yet a thoroughly independent one, now that the other Earth-Spirits are so thoroughly exiled. No alien power can call on Her; every Earthly sorceror can use Her power without even asking, but she exerts a rigid copyright control over it. There are no more “wild” co-participants in Earth Magic — they’re all gone, and the door is locked. Man, but those particular “Gods” were a pain in the butt! Thank the One Above All that they’re gone for good!

    EXCEPT.

    As a necessary cost of the spell, Merlin’s magic jewels were left in this world. Non-resonant now, of course…but who knows, if some tradition continued (against all odds!) to hold the magical key to them…then Merlin’s spell could be undone.

    Heck, let’s say these jewels used to be kept in a human adornment, protected by material power. Arthur’s crown, or chain of judicial office, perhaps?

    Or could they have been the gems embedded in the hilt of Excalibur?

    Okay. It’s the easiest imaginable route to magical supremacy: to hold those jewels and control the flow of “wild” Earth-Magic into our universe.

    And this is why the Black Knight exists. HE knows Merlin isn’t some cute plushy of a friendly magician…and the Black Sword, not being of the Earth, serves as a great focus for the duty of the One Knight Left Behind, to guard the secret, and the aperture. Where are Merlin’s jewels now? You guys have never really seen Dane Whitman in ACTION. He’s Marvel’s version of AZTEK. He’s the magical version of QUASAR. Captain Britain was created when Dane Whitman had been turned to a stone statue…and only Dr. Strange knew how serious a deal for the multiverse that was. These Britons, after the Romans left, did them one better at metallurgy…these fairy folk guys did the Ancestral Magic Embodiments of the MU one better at MAGIC. Which is the only reason they remain locked in the Celtic Underworld by the Dark Age heroes who did one better than them at magic. merlin: he was like the first mutant. He was the first place the plan of the Celestials went terribly wrong. He was the first place the fairy bloodlines hybridized with human beings, and he made sure he was the last.

    EXCEPT…Morgan Le Fay.

    The problem was never beating the Romans. The problem was always managing the magico-genetic fallout. These things go down through lineages now.

    Which is another thing the Black Knight is there for. Yes! The Black Knight. Sometimes he has to be Death to those who have the wrong background, if they turn bad. Heavy-duty responsibility: he’s the last guardian of Camelot, the last one who knows it wasn’t so pretty as pointy starry hats.

    Except Dr. Strange. Well, but the high priests of the Order of Agamotto see EVERYTHING, that’s what they’re all ABOUT…

    …And now I need a nightcap, I think.

  14. You’re setting yourself a near-impossible task, but there are bits in there that work.

    When you see a pointy hat with stars you’re being conned. You only know this if you’ve done your Celtic sorceries up to graduate level. But the Avengers haven’t, obviously.

    (I think we might, just possibly, be able to trace the pointy hat back to mediaeval paintings of the Magi at the Manger, who would be the Persian Magi, i.e. the star-venerating Zoroastrians.)

    Among planetary intelligences our Gaia has a sleazy reputation. She does it with gods. She’s Thor’s mama, you’ll remember.

    It’s too much for me just now. The Marvel cosmology is so crufted up, you can’t fix just one bit, you have to take the whole gorilla. But it’s a worthy effort.

    Hey, you know what my favourite What If is, that nobody has thought of doing?

    What if Ben Grimm stayed on in the 17th Century as Blackbeard? Yo ho ho!

      • Thanks, RAB.

        I never did get around to saying that I liked your Tarzan reconception best of all. It had so much historical density, I felt I could just pick the concept up and write a story in it. Must have taken a mule’s month of work.

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