Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Man and Superman Vs. Nature

The Nature of Balance by Tim Lebbon (2000): An early novel from the prolific Tim Lebbon pits a small group of people against nature gone mad. Or at least intensely angry at human beings. 

There are elements of Arthur Machen's work throughout the novel, as one reviewer points out in a blurb on the back cover. Of course, Lebbon has a character talk about an Arthur Machen story early in the text, so there's a signpost here, brightly illuminated. It's Machen's "The Terror," in which animals launch an attack on humanity, that's referenced in the novel. 

However, there are other Machanesque touches as well that recall other works, especially a discussion of what true natural evil would look like ("The White People") and Machen's ideas of reality being perhaps too horrible to contemplate without some mediation ("The White People" and "The Great God Pan," among others).

Lebbon doesn't attempt to write like Machen. The Nature of Balance is more like SplatterMachen, with all the explicit blood and guts and gore and sexual ramifications shown where they were only (strongly) implied in Machen's early 20th-century work. It works because of Lebbon's strong hand at characterization more than anything else. 

The litany of horrors can get a bit repetitive after awhile (never have so many things smelled so "rich" and "meaty" -- the line between gross-out and dog-food commercial can be a thin one). But Lebbon also exhibits a great deal of creativity in depicting Nature gone mad at warp-speed. There's actually something Miltonic in some of the descriptions of what is, I suppose, a post-post-lapsarian landscape, a world in which once again everything has changed, changed utterly. But there's also hope, and hopeful characters amidst the rubble and the crawling tentacles of malevolent trees. Recommended.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 10, containing Superman stories from Action Comics 53-55, Superman 18-19, and World's Finest 7 (published 1942/collection 2012): written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Jack Burnley, George Roussos, and Ed Dobrotka.

Minor, unpowered villains that include The Snake, The Night-Owl, and Captain Ironfist appear in this chronological collection of Superman stories, all of them originally published in 1942. You can tell America has entered WWII from the covers alone, which feature Superman vs. the Axis powers in various locales (though none of the stories deal with the war directly).

Lex Luthor makes another of his early appearances in "The Heat Horror," this time threatening humanity from his new headquarters inside an artificial asteroid. Jerry Siegel loved his science fiction. There are a few more mundane tales involving mining and racketeers. The three oddities of the volume are also the stand-outs.

In "The Case of the Funny Paper Crimes," Superman battles gigantic comic-strip characters who've come to life and started committing crimes. All the characters and strips we see in the course of the story are riffs on popular comic strips of the time that include Prince Valiant and Dick Tracy. It's one of the most fun and metafictional of all early Superman stories.

But we're not done with metafiction and the super-roman a clef just yet!  In "A Goof Named Tiny Rufe," Superman deals with a very, very thinly disguised parody/homage of popular comic strip Li'l Abner and its creator Al Capp. And there are (unnamed) cameos in this story from various Superman editors and writers. Superman writer/creator Jerry Siegel is certainly having fun, as are his artists on this one, doing awfully good approximations of the style and characters of Li'l Abner.

But wait! There's more metafiction! In "Superman, Matinee Idol!," Clark Kent and Lois Lane visit a movie theatre that's showing a Superman cartoon. Indeed, it's a sequel to the first Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon, "Superman vs. The Mechanical Monsters." The story of this fictional cartoon occupies the bulk of the story. Interpolated throughout are scenes in which Clark prevents Lois from learning his secrets (including his secret identity) from the cartoon itself. This story is all play and all meta, a jolly and fairly sophisticated piece of fantasy writing.

These three fantastical, metafictional Superman stories make me wonder if Jerry Siegel had been reading Captain Marvel comics, which were generally more fantastical than the adventures of Superman, and by 1942 almost as popular if not moreso for a brief time. 

In any case, they're a delight. Siegel's artists do fine work, especially John Sikela, who approximates both Joe Shuster's style and Al Capp's style in the course of a volume. And I haven't even mentioned one of the greatest scenes in Superman history. See, The Night-Owl has a trained owl with claws dipped in deadly poison. He sends it after Lois Lane. But Superman arrives just in the nick of time... and punches the owl so hard it explodes in a flurry of feathers and claws. That is awesome. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Cool. Another one (Lebbon) that I enjoy. Meant to read this title.