LOST CONT(in)ENT Part 1: The Call To Adventure

conan-header.jpgGreg O’Driscoll kicks off the first in a series of articles on the pulp heroes of yore. Forthcoming articles will explore such heavy hitters as Conan, Tarzan, and Flash Gordon, but for now, this introductory feature will serve as a roadmap to the fascinating new worlds to be explored.

 

 

Tired of comics that take place in that grim, gray world just outside your window? I am. Maybe all that realistic dialogue leaves you wondering why you stopped listening to everyone else in the room and tuned out to comic book land in the first place? In their rush to become more slick, more modern, more "believable" (whatever that means) comics have forgotten where they came from. In this brave new world of graphic art, no one seems to remember the old country, the homeland of the imagination. Paradise has been paved over. Back issues tower skyscraper-high. The origins of the species are a faded dot matrix on yellowed paper. So, go ahead, take Manhattan if you want. Wander the squalid streets of Gotham if you like. There are other places, however, for those who care to look.

 

Don’t believe me? Then it might interest you to know I have a map.

 

Really, it’s just a scrap of a map. Tattered and ancient, even the most learned scholar has only a small piece of the puzzle, but this one is mine. It leads to the Wild Places, the Forgotten Countries. Forget your mutant vigilantes in skintight spandex. Leave the borderline schizos behind in their hilltop mansions. The neurotic powerhouses working for major metropolitan newspapers will be sent home without pay. I’ve heard too much of Smallville and Latveria. Aquilonia, Opar, Valhalla, Mongo, Pellucidar, the Savage Land: these, my friends, are names to conjure with!

 

There was a time and place in comics when heroes required no more than a jetpack and atomic pistol for their costume. Sometimes they got by with as little as a loincloth and club or, if they were really lucky, a torn shirt and cutlass. His headquarters was the jungle and his kingdom the entire galaxy. His time was the distant past, the far-flung future, and those nebulous areas where either (and sometimes both!) intruded upon our fragile present. He was a wanderer, the explorer as hero. Time and again, we’ll meet him in many forms: Conan, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, the Phantom. Man of Science. Noble Savage. Savage Doctor. Lord of Space. Gladiator,  robot-fighter, consort of queens, and king by his own hand. Yes, we will follow him in all his names and guises, even jester incarnations such as Groo and Alley Oop.

 

We will march alongside the legions of his children and great-grandchildren: Korak, Ka’anga, Kazar, Kamandi, Killraven, and even laughable by-blows like B’wana Beast (what, you didn’t think they would all start with K did you?). Adam Warlock is their hyper-evolved descendant and Adam Strange still employs grandpa’s trusty ray guns. Namor is something of a distant cousin, closer kin to his ancestors’ spirit than poor Aquaman, who with his hook and beard mimicked their form without much success. Kubert’s Tor could be Tarzan’s long lost descendant or distant ancestor depending on which end of the timeline he’s from. Colonies as far flung as the Kree homeworld are populated by rocket-men decked out in finned helmets and solar chest insignias. Clearly the heroes of old got around.

 

But the way is fraught with space-operatic peril. There are hordes of evil arrayed against these legends. The blackest names to ever spread their tyranny across the ages will marshal the forces of darkness to battle. Ming the Merciless. The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. Thoth-Amon. Terra, Queen of post-apocalyptic Jerz. The Plunderer. Thulsa Doom. Maximus the Mad. And those are just the relatively human antagonists. Demon gods, mongoloid henchmen, and abominations of science and sorcery all await the call of their unholy masters. The final battle will be, in a word, glorious.

 

Best of all are the ample rewards for a hard won victory. Because there are always treasures, not least of which is beauty. With this map, we will steal over castle walls and into the eternal hero’s perfumed harems to sample alien concubines and jungle princesses. For the eternal hero keeps a veritable garden of exotic blossoms, as deadly as they are lovely. Princess Aura, Mysta of the Moon, Belit of the Black Coast, Red Sonja, Sheena, La, and especially the incomparable Dejah Thoris, all await us with baited breath. Just be careful you don’t let them fall in a river or get lost in the jungle. Girls like this attract crocodiles and monsters and sub-human suitors the way cheese brings cartoon mice out of the woodwork. Still, it makes for fun stories. I don’t want to read about Spider-Man’s marital problems; I want to read about Tarzan killing an ape for touching his wife. Those are marital problems!

 

What can I say? I love comics, especially comics that deal with areas off the map and particularly in that old-school pulp kind of way. You know, in the days when a comic’s plot was less concerned with the fate of the universe and more worried about someone going over a waterfall or getting eaten by a dinosaur. If that isn’t your particular skull-full of grog, maybe it will be by the time we’re done.

 

Rest assured, we’ll see all the major sights. The Hyborian Age of Conan is on our list of stops as is Mongo, the archetypal planet of adventure. Then we have the lands time forgot, little pockets of prehistory tucked neatly away in remote corners of our modern world. Even doomed Krypton with its firefalls and diamond mountains will be our guiding star for a short leg of the journey. Real life locales won’t be skipped either, though we’ll be visiting the more fabulous fictional counterparts of darkest Africa, mysterious Asia, even the moon above, the Blue Areas thereof, and the red planet of Mars.

 

And there are still mysteries to unravel! What does pulp-flavored adventure, full of machines and monsters, say about the human condition? How closely do modern superheroes cleave to their ancestors? You know, the big questions. Of the two Atlantises (Atlanti?), which is better, Marvel or DC? Why does everyone in the galaxy speak English? Did Hawkman really steal his wings from good ol’ Flash Gordon? Hawkman has some secrets, I can tell you that. In fact, now that it occurs to me, DC’s Flash wasn’t the first guy so named to have a fondness for red and yellow costumes. The real question is who borrowed the lightning bolt from whom? More on all this later.

 

For now I leave you with the promise of adventure. There are limitless worlds within the world of comics and I plan to thoroughly map out this particular sub-genre. I invite you to be the Lewis to my Clark, the Speke to my Burton, and we’ll see such sights as few modern comic readers have dared to guess even existed.

 

Pack your bags, boys and girls, we’re going on safari. | Greg O’Driscoll

Check back in the coming weeks for LOST CONT(in)ENT Part 2, exploring the world of the great space adventurer Flash Gordon. Flash! AH-AH!

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