Midnight In The Garden Of The Antiquities Wing

Or:  “Recalled To Life:  The Long Weird History Of A Cover Illustration”

Hey…

How about a magic trick?

This one’s called “Pop Art Comics”. Notice that at no point do my fingers ever leave my hands…

So what’s the difference between a statue and a mannequin, I ask you?  Between a museum, and a department store window?  Between commercial art, and “modern mythology”…well one thing’s for sure, you won’t get much mythology if you’re not doing any mythologizing, am I right?  So the real question is…

How?

How do you do your mythologizing, what is it that you zero in on, why do you zero in on it, and how do you turn it from one thing into another.  Look at this cover for Avengers #9, and notice along with me that it’s a fascinating illustration in more ways than one:  enclosure walls as grey as stone, but they’re really metal…carved with the modern hieroglyphs of circuitry, but they’re hieroglyphs you touch and manipulate, instead of reading passively.  This isn’t just an intellectual puzzle, it’s a physical one — the symbols are active, and the meanings aren’t recorded but in the process of being made.  There stands Wonder Man in the position of a marble statue, posed for effect…but the pose is a thing in time, as the statue is brought to life.  Maybe this could’ve been Hercules, once, but it’s not now…because Wonder Man never was a thing, and never had a name, before now…before now, there was no hint of his existence whatsoever, and so it’s as though he’s a product of some kind of spirit archaeology, a new past unfolding vital as a blossom…and they say the Greeks used to paint the hell out of their statues, they used to make ’em gaudy and colourful, well so do we!  Just look at that dude:  he’s a flower.  In the background, the Enchantress, the Executioner, and Baron Zemo skulk around like Hallowe’en costumes gone bad, like ghosts in a laboratory, that also is a showroom, causing particle emitters to flare like display lights, and an efflorescence of another world there replaces the ceiling.  That, as you’ll see when Andrew releases my big ugly treatise on the invention of the camera, becomes “horizonal” therefore;  the mighty Avengers’ corpuscular heads floating in the aether, floating in the future, floating someplace else…floating in the space of the story, where Wonder Man will soon be too.  Pretty good, as well, to have ol’ Wondy cross the plane between the heroes and the villains, the tropism of the man-between colour-scheme…not red-and-blue nor green-and-purple but red-and-green…hell, you know this was one of those comics stories I only ever heard of as a kid, that seemed to be referenced constantly in the comics I was reading, but that I never could manage to clap eyes on?  A seminal event in Marvel history, a bit of a universe-maker…sometimes, you’ve got to think, it’s better to keep these things dark, or lost, or unrecoverable:  origins.  There’s more than one type of origin here, as there’s more than one kind of illustration.

But more on that in a minute.  First, you want to check out Wondy’s actual pose, here?  This is reconcentration, reflexivity, this is how you make mythological symbols:  the big “W” on his chest is echoed by the bigger “W” of his heroically-posed arms, invigorated by his transformation.  Invigorated by his ego?  Invigorated by his destiny, too, as well as his dreams.  It’s just a slice out of time, but it’s this slice of time that’s (according to the artist) the one to watch.  Everyone in this picture is dead, which is why they’re in the crypt — analogically speaking — whether they’re washed-up Nazi geniuses with curses where their faces should be, or outdated legendary figures that never even really existed in the first place, that can’t move with the times enough to acquire any new dimensionality.  Dead impulses and reflexes:  revenge yourself on Odin, get even with the man who won the Second World War, who was supposed to have died but came back to life.  Pathological twitches, myoclonic motivations…totally irrelevant now, in the age of superheroes and supervillains.  Whatever, you know, that means.  What the hell are all these superheroes and supervillains, what is this weird cladistic change that’s come over the world?  It used to be so simple, back when we were Nazi scientists and displaced deities.  All the motifs were on our side!  Now all the good guys are so modern, these slick commercial surfaces and crazy cut-up contrasts — a man alternately the size of an ant or a giant has lost all the symbolic or mythological referents normally associated with these sizes:  I mean what kind of symbolism is that?  Except symbolism that’s come unstuck.  What does it mean, to shrink a socialite into a fairy queen as soon as she gains a purpose in life?  What does it mean for a woman to be reborn to men, over and over, if the men never want her anyway.  That’s not exactly feminism, surely?  And yet it doesn’t exactly seem, as though it’s anything else.  Every kind of adhesive peels away here, finally:  one day soon, hammer-jockey Thor will catch a cab uptown.  Iron Man already fights out a conflict between economic ideologies, just as though they were things.  That poster-boy for conscience Captain America pits himself against the slipperiness of heroic value itself, for the love of God it’s all he ever does anymore.  It’s not like the old days.  These people aren’t embodiments anymore, they’re advertisements;  and so how do you fight that?

Well, you grow one of your own!

Because you certainly will never lack for soil.  A lot of Marvel’s most resonant superhero stuff is about rising from the dead, if you think about it…and maybe that’s why they started to have it all over DC, once they got rolling?  Of course DC had a lot of that stuff too, and there’s good reason to think they got it from antiquity, from history or religion or any old kind of folklore.  It’s far from a new symbolic pattern.  But in Marvel, death is the motivator of the costumed identity, to the point where it can come into the picture several times in a single character’s story — like origins that really go on for years, and keep doubling back on themselves to make the point more clear.  A little Jungian for you?  Well, but anything that collides mythology with psychology is bound to seem Jungian, you know…and anything with the electric sizzle of a dream is going to partake of that stuff, because let’s face it that’s where those psychological ideas come from.  Pop Art Comics, especially, these are little fictional spaces where dream-logic is most consistently (if not always most aggressively) invoked — the boundaries playfully thickened and then thinned, the topologies all twisted.  Fashion, perspective, the zany adaptation of technological tools…the dashing of lurid paint on old icons.  A Green World on the rooftops, an eerie clamour in the necropolis;  nothing is passive anymore.  An invisible brush reaches down and blots everything with colour, here and there.  You never know what’s bound to come to life.

And here:  here’s Wonder Man, another Superman, but he’s a poor superman in (sing along, if you like) more than one way.  Simon Williams, utterly ruined, then utterly empowered, then doomed…all in the plan of Fate, a Corn God if ever there was one, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing.  They rush to see the magificence of his fallen body, to save something of it.  Another man born dead, brought back to life in the reconcentrating instant, now dead again.

Now watch what happens after!

They take a clipping.  His “brain patterns” go into the Vision, as an injection of soul into machine…all the plan of another “dead” thing, the ghost of technology itself, the consciousness-eater:  that’d be Ultron, and that’s another escapee from the antiquities wing we can be sure we’ve seen before, another statue (“modern”, this time, not Greek) come jarringly to life…or pseudo-life.  Kirby’s long gone by this point, but his cover for Avengers #9 lives on, and keeps shaping things.  The Vision is Wonder Man’s zombie, brought mysteriously back to a realer life than his creator anticipated — a ghost, that walks through walls!  An artificial man!  But something about being a man is bigger than mere life and death, right?  In superhero comics it is, anyway, because the touch of death can bring out the heroic aspect in anything.  And what flower was ever so exotic that it screamed out “touch of death” more than the Vision?  Red pollen head locked in a yellow petal, cloaked in green leaf.  Oh, and then you’ve got the Grim Reaper, dude with “electro-scythe”…and what’s he an ad for?  What kind of flower is he?  Revenge, revenge, repetition and revenge:  he’s Wonder Man’s brother, of course.  Well of course!  How could he be anything but…?

You see how it goes.  For God’s sake, what isn’t that cover emblematic of, about this whole Pop Art effort?  The pieces are more than merely “in place”, they arrange themselves into shapes before us just as we arrive to see them.  Wonder Man is born as the updated, opposite form of Captain America, animated by the mystic letter on his chest…do you guys have A&W restaurants where you live?  They used to have these ads for them, tall and skinny Mr. A, short and fat Mr. W…and I can’t remember which of them made the famous root beer, and partook of the bouquet of the mystery brew.

It doesn’t matter now.

Years later, Steve Englehart brings back Wonder Man actually as a zombie…that points at the Vision and declares “he…he is the one who stole my mind!”  That cover keeps going, keeps reconcentrating…everything is falling into the “W” pose.  Simon Williams is no longer human, Simon Williams is no longer alive…twenty years later he is himself an “ionic” ghost, Marvel’s own Dr. Manhattan;  only he can’t see the strings.  Corn god.  Born dead.  Look again at that cover:  it’s a funeral, as of course it must be.  Wasn’t someone just saying that ghosts are partial to futurity?  Like the future’s discovered implications always press in upon the specific and innocent past, that has to bear them.  It isn’t fair, really.

But then everything has to start somewhere.  Every universe needs its own Big Bang.

And life is for the living…

…Right?

Look carefully at that light;  it isn’t taking him to pieces.

It’s putting the pieces back together, instead.

Just:  in a new arrangement.

POP!

It certainly pops out at one, doesn’t it?

But then seeds always do;  and you can’t get fruit without ’em.

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6 responses to “Midnight In The Garden Of The Antiquities Wing

  1. The Vision as the ghost of Wonder Man…a way more interesting way to look at him than all the Even an Android Can Cry! stuff. Funny that he and Scarlet Witch get together, then – both with the appearance of the supernatural, but via comic book science. He’s not a ghost, he’s an android with a dead man’s brain patters who can become intangible. She’s not a witch, her mutant brain just affects probabilities. But they SEEM like a ghost and a witch…

    That cover copy’s a wonderful fakeout too. Wonder Man’s name is almost as big as the Avengers logo! No reason you’d ever expect he’ll die (or “die”) at the end of the story instead of joining the team and getting spun off into Tales to Astonish…

  2. A synthezoid, Justin, please! It doesn’t matter what we call them in private, but the walls have ears, here…!

    Sorry, channelling John Byrne for a second there…

    Reading back over the early Avengers comics, there is just something so…so slapdash about them, isn’t there? Stan’s barely paying attention, it’s amazing. And yet if the contents and confines of the Marvel Universe are growing and expanding like mad over in FF, here something different is happening: the change in the Avengers from cheap JLA imitation to weird thing-of-its-own, not just another add-on but the centre space of the MU, starts getting going right here in issue #9. Prior to this, what have we got? The Hulk leaves, and Cap shows up — I mean, that’s pretty incredible symbolism as I said way back when: the monstrous aspect of Marvel is expelled, and the heroic takes its place. That’s a lot of texture in a hurry! And then it kind of dawdles along until Kang makes the scene, the first really Avengers-specific villain, their Lex Luthor. What a crap villain he’d make for the FF! Gosh, it’d be awful. But still there’s a piece missing from that “once an Avenger always an Avenger” fol-de-rol, the pomp and pageantry of the little clubhouse. One wonderful thing they had in FOOM (yes, I’m old) was an interview with Jarvis, still the greatest pure-fannish thing I’ve ever seen, and what all creators of fannish “what’s Wolverine’s favourite colour” efforts should be striving for…

    (Don’t worry; I do that stuff too)

    …In which Jarvis describes all these little butler-only details about the Avengers and it is just! so! bloody! feudal! of him that you see right away, yes…it’s important that their headquarters is in this stupid mansion! It’s important that they all have their own suites of rooms! Because symbolically there’s something more devious going on there than you can find in the Baxter Building (although how cool is it that the FF live in the Baxter Building, come on that is CRAZY) or in Professor Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, because the sense of partitioning is really pretty over the top, and it needs some kind of…oh, ballast, I guess. Because up until issue #9, we really don’t have a lot of reason to care about this partitioning, the Avengers don’t have enough history for it to actually mean anything, they’re still just a jumble of characters. Hmm, I wonder if Alan Moore ever read that issue of FOOM, the Minutemen’s first official meeting is such a cutting parody of the Avengers…I mean it really all is something of a joke, something of a sketch, up until Wonder Man shows up to lend the thing some weight. Finally, something happens that affects the Avengers! And then it’s possible for everybody to pretend that this all counts for something, to blink and see a gold-paved street instead of a muddy lane strewn with straw.

    (Uh…is that redundant, actually? Did the word “strewn” actually come from the spreading of straw, maybe?)

    (TOO LAZY TO LOOK IT UP!)

    So from then on: “The Avengers”. That’s how I read it, anyway. Pretty amazing for Lee and Kirby to get there so quick, isn’t it? To see that’s what it needed: history, as fast as you can make it. You almost don’t need to read anything before Cap’s Kooky Quartet, and in fact when I was a young comics fan you couldn’t read anything that came before that. I like to think that’s because when they were re-issuing Avengers stuff they realized “shit, this early stuff really isn’t much good”, so they just left it out…and, very fortunately, left out the two actual good bits that it had in it, the bits where the Avengers have their real origin…from Mr. B to Mr. A to Mr. W.

    I still look at that cover and forget for a second that Wonder Man’s fated to die! It’s wild. Just love the thing. I wasn’t even going to write this until I saw the cover upside-down…when you look at it that way, the art in it really comes out, I totally recommend it. Heck, what isn’t “upside-down” in the Avengers? The Vision and the Scarlet Witch sure are!

    Hmm…note to self…idea for post…

  3. We’ll never see anything like this again.

    This is the point where Stan Lee finds out how much weight his new kind of storytelling will bear. To this point he has let himself play around a little with the comics figures of the previous generation, which Jack Kirby is so eager to press on him. But can he really set these puppets in opposition, so as to invent new stories? Just at this point, he’s not quite sure.

  4. Yeah, Jonathan…the more I think of it the more I think this is the watershed, at least the Marvel Super-Hero watershed…most of the other books are already beyond the idea of superheroes qua superheroes, their primary focus is already on the way they mix-and-match other genres, or even veer away into completely new concentrations…but the Avengers are still much more bound by an existing convention, and this is the point where the question of how to add drama to it gets answered for the first time. Nowadays the idea of the Avengers having a tradition and a history and an ethos — your genuine generational super-team — is so set in stone it’s almost too dull to do anything with, but at this point…

    It’s that “generational” thing, I think, that finally clicks down the missing puzzle-piece between Kirby’s mythological interests and Stan’s “what if YOU were a superhero?” soap-opera stuff. After all if the fertility god is about anything he’s about generation, eh? So, ha Marc! A one-shot character is what he was, for the longest time…but a character that exerts such a deforming power over a franchise could probably never lay fallow forever…and in fact he didn’t, in a way he was continuously present in the narrative in a way Jason Todd and Ferro Lad (to name just a couple other major sacrifices to historicity) could only dream of…but you know, for me the most successful Wonder Man “riff” (I may be stretching a point to call it that) is probably Swamp Thing…

    Don’t you think?

    Wonder Man’s story has gotten rather full of anatomy lessons, after all, but I think his status as a vegetable deity gets occluded in the same way the monster-comic origins of the Marvel superheroes gets occluded — Alan Moore’s maybe the first person to take that symbolism and run off with it in a self-aware way. I mean, really it only occurred to me when I happened to see that Avengers #9 cover upside-down every day for a month, and finally recognized Zemo’s South American lab as a low stone wall enclosing the transformative tableau. And what do we build low stone walls around, mostly? Gardens and cemetaries, I think…or root cellars, maybe. But give any of ’em enough time and they’ll look like archaeological digs, ruined temples and the like. This kind of layering of meaning’s amazingly suited to Kirby’s art style, isn’t it? Like Mike Royer said about his pictures acquiring a 3D thickness: the Thing goes to hit somebody and his back foot’s two seconds into the past, his body’s one second into the past, the punch is arriving NOW…and in another second it’ll connect with you. Well, just the same thing’s happening here with all that symbolism, Zemo and the Executioner and the Enchantress lie in the past, Wonder Man’s transformation is happening NOW, and the Avengers’ disembodied heads are the ghosts of future time, drawn back to their inciting incident.

    It sort of makes you wonder about how Kirby’s interests shaped his style, doesn’t it? Did he perfect this stuff because it just worked so well with what he wanted to talk about, was he attracted in the direction of Big Kirbyism because the closer he got to it the more…uh, articulate he thought it was? Or was it more that Nature abhors a juxtapositional vacuum, so if you’re drawing like this anyway then you’d better find a good message to slip inside that envelope?

    Sorry, still working through the day’s first coffee…I may need to find a way to be more articulate…

  5. Pingback: Principia Comicbookia: APPENDIX I | A Trout In The Milk·

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