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“You’re Wrong. I’m Not STRONG.” COMICS! Sometimes Legends Are Involved!

John Kane

Merciful Minerva! It’s a content-pocalypse here at The Savage Critics! Below this there’s Amazing Abhay taking a comic by the throat in his talented teeth and shaking it until its neck snaps. Beneath that there’s Gentle Jeff Lester using duct tape, tact and sheer pluck to bring you, via technology, not only the cheapest comics…but the best comics! Beneath that there’s Bewildered Brian Hibbs vs. online journalism! Bang-on Brian Hibbs cracking the heads of several  cape comics together was also a thing that occurred! As ever, earlier in the week the best Commenters in any seven dimensions you care to mention took on the Shipping List and, of course, Gentle Jeff and Garrulous Graeme’s audio bliss in Podcast form remains in geosynchronous orbit with all our ears!

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And then there’s me talking about a comic Howard Victor Chaykin and Russ Heath did in 2005 that no one read. The Savage Critics: For people who ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time because it don’t get better than this! (Everybody loves Poison! Except people with taste!)

LEGEND #1 to 4
Written By Howard Victor Chaykin
Illustrated by Russ Heath
Inked by Russ Heath & Al Vey
Lettered by Rob Leigh
Coloured by Darlene Royer & David Rodriguez for Wildstorm FX
Wildstorm, $5.99 each (2005)
Inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel GLADIATOR

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One of the totally bizarre things about comics in the 21st Century is the continued expectation broad based multi media content providers and dispersal merchants (formerly known as: writers) have that they will shock the living shit out of us all with the concept of superheroes but in the real world. It’s utterly nutty because none of them seem (seem) aware that that’s how this whole crazy capes mess started up in the first place. It had to really. You start with the real world and you put your superhero in it. All the rest, all the goofiness, all the magic all the “silliness” that is popularly taken to define the Cape genre comes after and from that initial starting point. Not being in the real world isn’t inherent in the capes genre. Well, no more than any other genre. Opening myself up to a cascade of corrections, but in the interests of getting somewhere before you start catching flies, I’m taking Superman as the first superhero. Stay with me here, because LEGEND is “inspired by Philip Wylie’s Novel GLADIATOR”.

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And so too is Superman inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel GLADIATOR(1930), certainly to the extent that Wylie threatened to sue Jerry Siegel in 1940. There are a remarkable number of similarities between the two works but there are also a number of significant differences, that’s how “inspiration” works, I guess. If memory serves, the only really totally outlandishly fanciful element in the first published Superman story is…Superman; he is a superhero but in the real world. Similarly GLADIATOR, Superman’s inspiration, involves a super-powered individual but in the real world. You see what I’m saying here though? The very genesis of the capes genre is in actual fact superheroes but in the real world. You might think this is just a tiresomely roundabout way of telling modern comics creators to knock it the fuck off but it isn’t just that. No, it’s also a tiresomely roundabout way of introducing LEGEND by Howard Victor Chaykin (HVC) and Russ Heath.

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LEGEND is a comics adaptation of Wylie’s book and was published by Wildstorm Comics in 2005. It isn’t the first adaptation as the novel was made into a feature film in 1938. Since this flick starred Joe E. Hill Brown the flexibly faced funnyman familiar to fans of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and apparently revolves around wrestling it’s probably less than faithful in its adaptive duties. Probably more faithful was the abortive adaptation by Rascally Roy Thomas and Tony DeZuniga titled Man-God in MARVEL PREVIEW #9 (1976). I have used ‘probably’ there because I’ve seen neither of them. Nor have I read the original novel. I have, however, read LEGEND by HVC and Russ Heath. A lot of people haven’t read LEGEND as it was published in 2005 by Wildstorm Comics which, at that point in history, was the publishing equivalent of being buried alive.

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By all accounts this one’s a pretty accurate adaptation, with just a few necessary changes to update it to the 50’s thru the ‘70s. Vietnam is swapped in for WWI for example. Chaykin and Heath’s’ book consequently is light on the heroics and high on the super. After all, Siegel and Shuster brought the cape but Wylie brought the super-man. Wylie’s creation at no time battles for Truth, Justice or any Way be it American or not. His book takes the case of an extremely gifted individual called Hugo Danner and examines how someone so special could ever fit into the moribund world of us normal dreary folks.

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It’s the kind of book people who feel they are themselves gifted tend to write. By all accounts (i.e. Wikipedia) Wylie was quite gifted, or at least a very thoughtful individual who used his writing as a device for disseminating his thoughts rather than primarily for producing entertainments. He probably felt a greater sense of achievement in having popularized the raising of orchids than being midwife to genre informed by wonder and imagination. A genre into which his book was adapted by HVC and Gil Kane, except,that’s right, it wasn’t. I’m glad you are still awake. But it almost was…

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Like many comics LEGEND isn’t perfect because Gil Kane didn’t draw it. But at least LEGEND had a fighting chance of being drawn by Kane. HVC developed LEGEND with Kane in mind. His hope seems to have been to nudge Kane more towards work in the hard-boiled pulp vein of Kane’s self-published HIS NAME IS…SAVAGE (1968). Kane seemed to naturally gravitate towards fantasy, a direction HVC felt worked against Kane’s desire to tell more socially relevant tales. When Kane, with Rascally Roy Thomas, took on the monumental task of adapting Wagner’s Ring Trilogy into comics HVC’s reaction was a big fat,“So?”. Unfortunately the fantasy genre was entirely simpatico to Kane’s desire to avoid research. LEGEND with its broad backdrop of several decades and visual dependence on verisimilitude would require, oh yeah, research and so Gil Kane declined. This is of course a colossal loss to comics and me personally but I try not to be too bitter. After all the project would eventually be drawn by Russ Heath. I like Russ Heath but what did HVC make of his work? If only there were a pricey collection of interviews with him I could plunder. Oh, Wait…

Costello: Was there anything you changed in the text of your adaptation to account for the difference in Kane’s and Heath’s styles?

Chaykin: No. It is what it is, and Russ just took it and ran with it. At the time Russ and I were neighbours…He would come over to the house and show me pages. I was delighted, particularly because I’d assumed for a number of years that Russ had lost it because the work he’d been doing for most of that era was shit, and it turns out he was phoning it in because he was lazy. He was capable of doing great stuff and just wasn’t bothering. Russ is really old. He dated Fred Flintstone’s sister. He’s still a very vital and incredibly talented guy, one of my heroes. And he’s got carrot coloured hair. He looks like he was molested by a carrot.

(Extract from an interview with Brannon Costello on pp.270-271 of HOWARD CHAYKIN: CONVERSATIONS Edited by Brannon Costello (University Press of Mississippi, 2011))

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While I’m not as enamoured of Heath’s work here as HVC is, it is pretty good stuff that serves the material well. His grounded and reality-sourced work gives the whole thing a necessary level of detachment. A warmer, more intuitive style would risk the reader being swamped by viscera. Heath’s style may be the equivalent of a man in a lab-coat pointing at genitals while declaiming their Latin nomenclature but this is entirely necessary. The earthily robust script by HVC is so ripe with a raunchy lust for life that even Heath’s distanced work ends up crossing its legs and dabbing sweat from its top lip. If Gil “Sugar Lips” Kane had drawn this the thing would have had to be printed on asbestos and available only to blinded castrati. Yes, Chaykin’s script obviously brings to the fore things better left to the aft in Wylie’s day.

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Despite the almost absurdly heated erotic activity, profane humour and offhandedly extreme violence the book seems to embody all the things Wylie initially intended. It remains the tale one gifted man’s progress through the various layers of his society in search of a place in which to fit. A fruitless search as it turns out. Chaykin remains true to the spirit of the thing even if the execution is totally Chaykin-esque. By Chaykin-esque we are of course talking the Chaykin of popular perception (the urbanely disillusioned priapic satyr with the gift for page design and filthy wit) rather than the Chaykin of reality (the respected professional, loving partner and twinkly grandfather noted for not suing people who write about him on the Internet. Cough.)

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Initially, I admit, I wasted quite some time by typing several thousand words in a jocular journey through each of the four issues highlighting particularly preposterous points but then I went and binned that.  Sacrifice. In order for the books to still retain plenty of surprises  I have instead written around the work while (hopefully) letting the work speak for itself through the selection of images scattered about this dreary chuff. I think they say far more, far better than anything I could ever conjure about the very particular, very (very) melodramatic pleasures of Howard Victor Chaykin and Russ Heath’s LEGEND. It’s highly unlikely that you’ve ever read a comic like LEGEND but it’s highly recommended that you do. Seriously, this comic should be available on the NHS as treatment for depression. For all its sincerity and intelligence LEGEND is some pretty funny stuff and it’s never funnier than on the last page. You can probably find these comics for cheap and that’s probably worth doing because LEGEND is VERY GOOD! C’mon, when was the last time you read a comic about a man with a cock as big as a cat…but in the real world! Exactly.

Have a jolly splendid weekend and remember to read some COMICS!!!

8 Responses to “ “You’re Wrong. I’m Not STRONG.” COMICS! Sometimes Legends Are Involved! ”

  1. If you want something about a powerful hero in the real-world that doesn’t involve capes or such, “A God Somewhere” by John Arcudi is the way to go. Of course, he isn’t much of a hero by the end of the book…

  2. Don’t forget Rick Veitch’s Maximortal when citing Gladiator descendants…

  3. I think you mean Joe E. Brown. You haven’t confused him with Benny Hill, I hope.

  4. @David Bitterbaum: Hey, thanks for that! I did intend to read that and forgot, I’ll get on that now I have the name and creator back at the front of my brain.

    @Johnny Bacardi: Yeah, good call there. I’ll have to gird my loins before I do MAXIMORTAL, no one makes me as queasily uneasy as Rick Veitch at full tilt.

    @William Burns: Brown – Hill – it’s practically the same! Nah, thanks for the correction! I appreciate you offering me an out but, no, I didn’t confuse him with Benny Hill. I’m just a cretin. At least I didn’t confuse him with Mighty Joe Young or ‘60s Brit pop sensation Joe Brown. Small mercies. Sigh!

    Thanks to all as ever!

  5. Yeah, the Joe E. Brown version may not have been wholly faithful but well, nobody’s perfect! C’mon I had to make a Some Like It Hot reference, right?!
    I don’t know which is funnier “He looks like he was molested by a carrot” (and I write that as a redhead) or “by the fourth day Iris was semi-conscious”! That Mr Chaykin, whatta Guy!

  6. @Hal: Your spoor runs out here, I think I’ve tracked you to your lair! Your joke is very good, I was going to put it in my article and delete your comment and then reap the rewards of your talent for humour all for myself. But someone would know. Someone always knows. That “fourth day” is funny and creepy skeevy. What a combo!

    Cheers!

  7. Another great installment, and thanks for putting Howard Chaykin: Conversations to good use!

  8. @Brannon Costello: I put it to the best use there is – I read it cover to cover. Hope it was okay quoting a chunk. Thanks for a great read, well done you! Cheers!

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