Monthly Archive: November 2014

Wild, Weird West – Part 3

The year is 2064 and the world is on the brink of apocalypse!  Sound familiar?  Except for the specific year mentioned, this tagline could be from a thousand bad and derivative B-movies that have come and gone over the years.

And derivative is just the word to describe East of West – and is just the word to describe just how good it is.  Somehow the creative team of Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Frank Martin seems to have taken elements from lots of sources in classical and popular forms of literature, put them all in a blender, and hit the frappe setting.  Out comes a comic that is compelling and archetypal in its story telling and beautiful in its line and color.

Perhaps taking inspiration from the Deadlands storyline (and indeed one of the locations is called by that name), they present a re-imagined future of the North American continent where the course of history is wrested from its familiar flow during the civil war.

This new history begins diverging in the year ‘eighteen hundred and sixty two,’ when Elijah Longstreet is caught up in the Third Great Awakening, abandons his position in the South’s army, and becomes a prophet. In 1863, all of the Native American tribes are united under Red Cloud to form the Endless Nation.  Confronted with war on two fronts, the Union reaches a kind of détente with the South and the Endless Nation.  This situation persists until about 1893 when a comet slams into the center of the continent at a place called Armistice.  This catastrophe stops hostilities on all fronts and an agreement, referred to as the Accords, recognizing the Seven Nations of America is signed on November 9, 1908, at the impact site.


As a backdrop to these all too physical events is the spiritual component of The Message, a prophesy in three parts.  The two largest components sprang from the pen of Elijah Longstreet and from the oral recitation of a ‘waking vision’ from Red Cloud.  The final piece falls into place a half century later, provided as an addendum to Mao Zedong II’s, ruler of the People’s Republic of America, little red book.

Fast forward about 100 years.  The wild frontier of the old west is now juxtaposed with and accentuated by the monolithic architecture and the ubiquitous flying cars of futuristic world reminiscent of Blade Runner.  And into a small frontier saloon, complete with swinging doors, walks a lanky cowboy all in white – white clothes, white boots, white hair, white eyes, and white skin.  Accompanying him are two Native American witches, a large, imposing man named Wolf, and a shapely, thin woman named Crow – each equally monochromatic as their companion.


Here then is the Pale Rider himself, Death, who leaves a wake of destruction.  But this embodiment of Death seems to be on a personal mission.  More on this in a bit.

At the same time, further removed, we see a set of standing stones sitting in the wasteland, surrounding a brick circle decorated with four glyphs.  Energy crackles, lights flash, and something seems about to happen.


Three figures then emerge from the ground, each sporting a single hue and a bizarre, childlike, appearance.


As they gather their senses, these three realize that one of their number is missing and, for that affront, they vow to kill him, followed by the world.  It seems that they are the remaining three Horsemen.  The red one is War, the one decked in green is Famine, while the blue-hued one is Conquest.

The Horsemen immediately set out to find their confederates in the human realm.  A secret cabal of select members of each nation is aligned with the Horsemen.  Known as the Chosen, these agents act secretly within their countries to hasten the end times.


Driven by the Message, each of them plays a pivotal role in bringing about the Apocalypse.  Their secret club house is a tower located in the heart of Armistice,


which is run by a ‘priest’ named Ezra Orion, who was groomed from infancy by Conquest to be the harbinger of the Message.


The main thrust of the drama comes from the tension between the Horsemen.  Sometime in the past, Death, who was almost entirely black in his previous incarnation, falls in love with Xiaolian, daughter of the Mao Zedong V, ruler of the PRA.  Xiaolian and Death set up house, have a baby, and try to live a cozy little life together, but Conquest, War, and Famine will have none of it.

In a narrative told through fractured glimpses of 10 or 15 years in the past, the Horsemen conspire to separate Death from his wife.  They then ambush Death


and attack Xiaolian and take her baby.


Death is now back, looking first for revenge, and then upon finding out that his wife and child are still alive, looking to re-unite his family. This may not be a very smart thing to do, since the son, now referred to as the Beast of the Apocalypse,


has been raised in a secret location where his mind and body have been trained to levels of fantastic mental and physical prowess, while any sense of moral awareness and compassion have atrophied.

And so begins a grand tale, epic in its scope, about love, betrayal, tragedy, and disappointment.  Whether the little family will finally be re-united and at what cost to them, the Horsemen, the Chosen, and the rest of the world remains to be seen.

Along the way, we are treated to excellent exposition (all too lacking in today’s comics), striking art, and more cultural allusions than I can count.

Hickman could easily lose the reader in his complicated set of interlocking motivations, ambitions, and occurrences, but he almost unerringly keeps the storyline easy to follow and the verisimilitude consistent.  Minor flaws are present in the timeline leading up to the signing of the Accords at Armistice and in the use of the word Apocrypha (which literally means disputed or in error and so doesn’t or shouldn’t apply to the Message) but these are hard to find and easily ignored.  The dialog orients us to the emotional states of the characters and their actions follow from these.  No attempt is made to overly explain ‘how’ these things are occurring and so the story can proceed unencumbered with it mythology.

Dragotta’s art is also excellent and, as I said above, striking.  It is very nicely complimented by Martin’s use of color – not only because the character colors are integral to the storyline, but also in conveying the raw intensity of a scene


or the stark horror of the events that bend many of these characters to the evil of the Horsemen.


There seems to be at least one homage to popular culture in every issue. Similarities to Deadlands, Blade Runner, Kill Bill, and other well-known stories abound. One of the most amusing is a parallel to the training that the Beast receives from a computerized system in his lair and the re-education of Spock at the beginning of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  In both cases, an emotionless computer is drilling an equally emotionless ‘man’ about the fine minutia of history, science, math, and logic.  In both cases, the final question is “how do you feel,” which is answered by both trainees with puzzlement.

Finally, it is worth noting that East of West is reminiscent of the mythological work of Roger Zelazny.  One of Zelazny’s favorite structures in writing a science fiction novel was creating a setting where the science of a world allows its practitioners to be regarded as figures pulled directly out of mythology.  While the most famous of these is his novel Lord of Light, in which the main characters parallel the gods of the Hindu pantheon, the mythic and narrative structure of Creatures of Light and Darkness is much closer in tone and style.  In Creatures of Light and Darkness, we find a fractured family trying to be re-united, an anachronistic world with ancient ideas mixed with modern technology, and a barely perceptible line between magic and science.  Whether these similarities are coincidence or by design only Hickman, Dragotta, and Martin can tell.

Wild, Weird West – Part 2

The Deadlands One Shots are single issue offerings that came out of Image in 2011-12 in conjunction with Visionary Comics, who holds the rights and have produced a few follow-on digital offerings and a graphic novel called Raven, which is collected from their webcomic of the same name.

All of the stories take place in the alternate timeline called the Weird West.  The history, rules, and structure are based on the Deadlands RPG created by Shane Lacey Hensley.  The key features of this world are that, on July 3, 1863, a group of Native Americans, led by the shaman Raven, perform a ritual designed to drive the Europeans out of North America.  Here the Deadlands timeline diverges from ours, with Raven unleashing a new and more dangerous hell to replace the one that they had been living under.

All sorts of supernatural and ghoulish things start taking place.  Monsters of all sorts, including werewolves and plant people, roam free.  A portion of California fractures and falls into the Pacific, leaving a labyrinth of canyons and cliffs called the Maze.  Wizards and demons ply their trade, and a mysterious substance called Ghost Rock fuels the new economy.

It is against this backdrop that the Deadlands comics set their story, and what excellent stories they are.  They manage to conjure a spooky atmosphere that blends wonderfully with the Old West setting.Badlands_Map

Each of the One Shots consists of a main story along with a short backup tale of about 4 pages in length.  Listed in chronological order, they are:

  • The Devil’s Six Gun & Dime Store Back-up, Part 1 of 4, Showdown (June 2011)
  • Massacre at Red Wing & Dime Store Back-up, Part 2 of 4, Hunted (July 2011)
  • Death was Silent & Dime Store Back-up, Part 3 of 4, Prey (August 2011)
  • Black Water & Dime Store Back-up, Part 4 of 4, Outlaw (January 2012)

Each of the issues has very nice, even beautiful art, clear exposition, tight dialog, and a seamless marrying of the horror and western themes.  They are a pleasure to read and re-read, having a special place in my collection, but the best of the pack are The Devil’s Six Gun and Death was Silent.

In the Devil’s Six Gun, we encounter the lead character, Copernicus Blackburne, who is clearly based on both the appearance and personal history on Nikola Tesla. Copernicus, an accomplished weapons inventor, is enticed from his native Prague to the US by the prominent American business man Samuel Tygian, who is, perhaps, intended to be an Edison knockoff. Mr. Tygian manipulates ‘Penny’ into improving the latter’s signature invention, the Protean Pistol, by juicing it up with Ghost Rock.

Badlands_devils_six_guns_Tesla_poseWhen, after years of labor in America, Copernicus grows homesick, Tygian arranges that they both take a visit back to the old country.  Perhaps sensing that they are an unwanted distraction, Tygian arranges for the Blackburne family to meet with a gruesome end, and then promptly disappears.  Grief-stricken and vengeful, Copernicus perfects the improved pistol and comes back to the US with the Devil’s Six Gun. Badlands_Devils_Six_Gun

He gets his revenge by shooting S. Tygian point blank with Ghost Rock bullets that cause his mansion to blow-up in the process.  Story closes with an interesting surprise found amongst the rubble.

In the Massacre at Red Wing, a European girl in Native American garb tracks a group of monsters as they move down along the banks of a river, killing every human as they go. Badlands_Girl_with_no_Name

She hopes to find a lead on the whereabouts of her ‘mix-breed’ mother, Mahala Two Suns, and by using some magic of her own, she forces them to give up the name of the man who owns her mother.  This man, who goes by the name Wizard Morphine, is an enterprising and very sleazy pimp and is unwilling to part with Mahala.  Taking a more hands-on approach, the Woman with No Name frees her mom from the grip of Morphine, only to have her die during the escape.

Death was Silent introduces us to Hoyt and Franklin.  Hoyt is a Texas Ranger with no tongue and Franklin is his dead but still shambling brother. As the story opens, Hoyt enters a dreary little town with Franklin slung over his saddle, posing as his dead bounty.  Stopping in the local saloon, Hoyt orders a drink

Badlands_Ranger_Hoytand matter-of-factly tells everyone there that he has come to kill them all.

Badlands_Hoyts_ThreatIt seems that the entire town has been replaced by plant people and Hoyt and Franklin clean up the mess.

In the final One Shot, Black Water, we follow the journey of a ruthless, back-stabbing schemer, one Harmon Rappaport, as he goes from New York City to Shan Fran, California deep in the heart of the Maze.  His goal is to find the woman who tended him after he was injured in the Civil War.  The memory of his brief time with her has haunted him since.  Arriving in California, he hires a boat and a guide to take him through the Maze.  Overcoming numerous dangers, Rappaport eventually is reunited with her, but not quite in the way he had hoped.


The Dime Store Back-up stories paint a tale of a young and very fast-on-the-draw Billy the Kid as he visits revenge on the Werewolves that killed his family.  Badlands_Billy_Bar_Fight

The narrative is cleverly written and, in the best traditions of the classic western, is equally about the protagonist’s cunning as it is about his skill.  My only complaint is that the tale suffers from being serialized over the four books, and my advice is either to read them all at one go, ignoring the main story,  or purchase the collected set.  To do otherwise is to blunt the force of the story.

Finally I would like to add a couple of notes about the graphic novel Raven.  The first is on its availability.  I purchased my copy of the 5 collected issues at the Baltimore Comic-Con, but it seems currently hard to come by.  There doesn’t seem to be a link to purchase directly from Visionary Comics, nor do third party vendors offer re-sales.  The remains of the kickstarter is still up, but of course it closed over a year ago.   The second is on the content.  By its very nature, this story is far more political and larger in scope than the others, and for that reason I think it lacks the charm of the One Shots.  It supplies the backstory that leads to the shaman Raven unleashing hell on Earth in the form of the Reckoners, the supernatural force behind all the weirdness.

Let me close by emphasizing how good the Deadlands comics are, and how I hope that Visionary continues to produce material for years and years to come.

Next week, I’ll  finish with the third installment on Wild, Weird West by covering East of West, an ongoing  effort from Image comics that uses the western/horror theme mixed with sci-fi and a touch of the Book of Revelation.

Wild, Weird West – Part 1

This post is the first installment of a three part series sampling some of the modern uses of the Wild, Weird West in comics.

Back in the nineties, when the Vertigo imprint was growing in popularity and influence, the creative team of Joe R. Lansdale, Timothy Thuman and Sam Glanzman crafted tales of the Old West laced with elements of horror and the supernatural, resulting in what I call tales of the Wild, Weird West. The protagonist of these tales was none other than that peculiar DC Comics anti-hero Jonah Hex.

The western-horror genre has long held a place in my heart since I first saw the Wild, Wild West episode “The Night of the Man-Eating House” in the mid-seventies.  That episode specifically and the series as a whole impressed on me the utility of the western as a vehicle for storytelling.  Later, TV episodes of the Night Gallery, namely “The Waiting Room”   and “Dr. Stringfellow’s Rejuvenator”, solidified my belief that the usual morality play of the classic western could be amplified and made much more enjoyable, and deliciously creepy, by a judicious use of the supernatural.

At the time the first of these stories was slated to appear, the Vertigo imprint had already established a firm reputation for adult fantasy and/or horror with a strong bent towards the supernatural.  Vertigo was tapping into the creative well from which came Swamp Thing, and Sandman, and the Watchmen (properly speaking, the Swamp Thing and Sandman titles only became Vertigo imprints well after they had started, and the Watchmen finished before Vertigo was conceived, but they all come from the same creative milieu), and the sky seemed the limit.

As a result, I was really excited about the prospects of these Jonah Hex series. Sadly, each of the mini-series, three of them in all, were a let-down.

All of the expected western tropes were used. Our leading man was paired with a small cast of supporting characters. Check!  All of them are thrust into situations where their survival depends on nothing more than their courage, skill, and cunning. Check! The action takes place in some remote, isolated town emphasizing that the characters are not only on the frontiers of geography but on the frontiers of society as well, existing outside of the protection of the law and the structure of civilization, Check!

All of the expected supernatural horror tropes were also there. Evil, selfish fellows stealing bodies and re-animating them back to some semblance of life as zombies. Check! Strange monsters from under the sea or from underground come to menace the surface dwellers, steal their women, and produce twisted mockeries of human children.  Check! Mysterious and unexplainable encounters with the spirit realm that leave a sense of wonder and fear. Check!

Somehow, to paraphrase The Producers, they picked the right setting, the right motifs, the right characters, and the right metaphors,…where did they go wrong?  I’ve puzzled over that question off and on (mostly off) over the years since the various mini-series came out but never quite put my finger on it until fairly recently.  In a few words, each of the series undercuts its own drama by being too flippant.

The first series, Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo (1993), finds Hex mixed up with a freak show run by a snake-oil salesman and sideshow boss by the name of Doc “Cross” Williams.  The twist here is that one of Doc’s snake-oils can actually bring the dead back to life as zombies under his control. Doc Williams, in a stroke of genius, has re-animated Wild Bill Hickok to be his enforcer.  The imagery here is pretty cool with a particularly striking panel showing Hickok fighting the Apache on behalf of his twisted boss.



However, the success of this concept is blunted by an overly glib hand in other areas.  For example, early on in the series Jonah kicks a chance companion called Slow Go Smith out of their room for snoring.  Smith gets attacked by Cross’s zombies and is fatally shot.  Here is the exchange as he lies dying


While I don’t expect hysterics and weeping from Hex, I do expect a quiet kind of outrage in keeping with his unique code of honor and justice.  Instead I feel like I’m witnessing an improvised moment at a high school play.  This kind of vulgar humor ebbs and flows through the five issues and each time it feels out of place.

The bar on vulgarity is raised even higher in the next series, Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such (1995). The basic premise here is that Hex falls in with a band of folks lead by an Englishman by the name of Graves.  Graves runs the Wilde West Ranch and Music and Culture Emporium, an institution designed to bring beauty to the rugged, unsophisticated cowboys around him. He was inspired to this calling by witnessing a talk, and subsequent brawl, involving Oscar Wilde one night, several years earlier, in Austin, Texas.  Graves’s plan to cast his pearls before swine would be going off without a hitch except for the unwelcome intrusion of worm-things from underground.


The situation is even more complicated by the fact that the worms have bred with human women and produced a set of albino half-worm, half-human gunmen that are attacking from above while the true worms come at “our heroes” from below.  Obviously inspired by Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, this tale lacks the potency of its inspiration. By making a humorous mockery of the albino gunmen with numerous scatological and sexual “shockers”, any chance we have a genuine horror it’s lost and all we are left with is revulsion of the kind we would have for disgusting slobs.

Even the end of the worm mother offends reason. Hex leads Graves’s men into the worm’s lair and, after a set of ridiculous occurrences worthy of Beavis and Butt Head, they come face-to-face with the large green worm mother.  One member of the team is scoped up in a tentacle and has his foot bitten off.  Even though it means his certain death, he nonchalantly decides to light his dynamite and the worm obligingly swallows him whole.  Her death comes soon after as the inevitable explosion rips her apart.


The final installment, Jonah Hex: Shadows West (1999), is arguable the best of the group, perhaps because it is also the shortest.  In this go-around, Hex falls in with a carnival.  Acting more true-to-form, he soundly beats one of the troupe for trying to cheat the carney’s whore of the money she earned. As Hex visits her a bit later to make up for her lost business, he inadvertently walks in on her nursing a baby with the head of a bear.  Through a variety events that are not particularly compelling, the responsibility of reuniting the baby with its people falls to Jonah.  In what is essentially the final scene, the spirit people are found and the baby makes it home.


Most of the poignancy in this last scene is sabotaged by the fact that most of baby’s first words are all of the four-letter variety.  Sigh…

Anyway, next week I’ll discuss the much better approach to the western-horror, one that keeps all the good parts of the Jonah Hex attempts but actually adds in compelling human motivations.  Stay tuned for my discussion of the Deadlands one-shots and how they approach the Wild, Weird West.

How to Screw Up a Comic

In his engaging book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses the form of comics as a visual medium, as an art form, and as a method of storytelling.  He explores the graphic construction of panels, the types of transitions between them, the use of negative space, and what happens in the gutters.  All this and more are brought to bear in his attempt to place ‘sequential art’ on a firm theoretical foundation. This is certainly all well and good, and I support it, and McCloud’s desire to lift both the medium and the human creators behind it to a respected position is laudable. His focus is on the visual component of the art form, the fun part of capturing emotion and action and drama in shape and line and color.

But there is something lacking when visuals are all that is being discussed.  There must also be a focus on the mental aspects of storytelling in addition to the physical and the emotional.  Words and images can be both artfully designed and incredibly evocative, and yet the underlying story can be pure nonsense when the situations stretch logic and when the character’s motivations and psychology are not genuine.  Too often this is the case in comics, as there is an emphasis on how to tell the story but not on what story is actually being told and why.  A comic, by its very nature, is ‘episodic storytelling’ in addition to being ‘sequential art’. Story chunks are produced one at a time and, much like in ongoing television series, there is a tendency to start publishing without necessarily having a full story to tell.

And even if there is a well thought-out plot guided by a single mind, the story can wander off, running the narrative aground if frequent sightings of the course aren’t taken.  The situation is exacerbated when the storytelling is also the creator’s livelihood and, of course, the situation becomes even more chaotic when there are multiple creative voices and competing agendas.  There is a reason why retcon and stetcon have entered into our vocabulary.

In this post, I am going to identify the three largest threats to keeping the story headed in the right direction from least dangerous to most.

In third place: Alternate realities

There are several ironies associated with alternate realities appearing on the list.  The first is that the notion of many worlds is a common concept in the foundations of quantum mechanics and in quantum cosmology.  It is a valid avenue of scientific research and speculation.  It is also a psychologically appealing concept where our imagined ‘what if’ thoughts can be played out.  So, on the surface, this concept seems to be logically legitimate and a fertile ground for good drama.  And I agree, …in principle.  In practice, it is almost always used incorrectly and indiscriminately.  Characters move effortlessly between worlds, get switched with each other or left behind as doppelgangers, and so on.  Eventually, much like multiple copies of the same file with slightly different edits and changes, the whole situation becomes hopelessly cluttered leading to crisis on as many earths as possible as the logical underpinning frays.

There are also deep psychological issues.  More often than not, the copy character is much flatter than the original.  Not only are the motivations of the copy not as carefully considered, but the mere presence of the copy undercuts our emotional involvement with the original.  The use of multiple versions cheapens each of them much like a common item like a penny is tossed aside without much regard whereas a rare item like a pearl is guarded.  It’s simply human nature that we value that which is rare more than that which is common, and that which is unique more than that which is rare.

One final note: all of the above applies to the use of clones as well.  Simply replace the phrases ‘many worlds’ with ‘many clones’ and ‘quantum mechanics’ with ‘modern medicine’ and the same applies.  And we all know how well things turned out for a clone story (or is it saga) involving a certain wall-crawling fellow.

In second place:  Magic

The dangers here are easily an order of magnitude higher than those associated with alternate realities.  Magic at its most pure form simply becomes a new method for introducing the old deus ex machina concept. When anything is possible all of the ingredients for good drama go out the window.  Without limitations and frustrations, there are no joys and no triumphs.  Accomplishments become simply one damn event after another.  As a result, most writers attempt to limit or cap magical ability.  But they rarely succeed.  The story lines in these comics become either stagnant or they result in an arms race.

As an example, consider a childhood favorite of mine: Doctor Strange.  Very few of the stories involving the good doctor during his long publication career have avoided these pitfalls.  Certainly the early days of Lee & Ditko were revolutionary and mind-blowing, but looked at dispassionately, the charm of their stories flowed from three sources – each with a limited shelf life.  The first was the incredibly surreal presentation of the magical landscape brought about by Steve Ditko’s eye for fluid forms, missing horizons, and colorful shapes. The second was the novel territory we were invited to explore where entities such as Watoomb, Agamotto, and Dormammu held sway.  The third was the tension that resulted from the escalation from small farcas with Baron Mordo to the final face-to-face meeting with Eternity.  But where do you go when the imagery becomes commonplace, the novelty of new, strange-sounding names wears off, and when one of your characters is the universe itself (or at least some modality of it)?  Into cancellation is where!

One final note: all of the above applies to the use of mutants and super-science as well.  Where does the vast amounts of energy that Storm yields or Rogue expends come from?  Do they really have any limits?  I don’t see them eating way more food than everyone else so I guess that when they dig down deep in a crisis it is into magicland.  Interestingly, this unexplained source of energy could actually be placed on a really interesting and physically sound footing that would really drive tension and drama but that is a topic for another day.

And the winner is:  Time Travel

If alternate realities correspond to a limited military intervention, and magic to a regional conflict, then time travel is the global thermonuclear war of this list.  No other fictional trope is used as often with such bad results as time travel.  Why do we tolerate it at all? Well, at the heart of our acceptance of this plague is either curiosity or regret.  Our curiosity drives our desire to see what the future holds or to experience vicariously what living in the past was like.  Our regret demands us to replay that one moment that we would like to have back asking what choice could have been made that would have made things turn out differently.  I get that, and I respect those fundamental human longings to relate to the people around us even if they are removed from us by years or by choice.

But time travel is not the way to explore that.  Far better to use the alternate realities concept (occasionally and with restraint) than to indulge in this abomination.  Alternate timelines and journeys to the past and future shred causality and our logic with it. They belittle our ability to think and solve problems because we can always reload a saved state and replay instead of figuring it out. They erode character motivation because choices no longer matter (things have to turn out all right; I’ve seen the future).

By now the astute (or patient) reader may be raising two objections.  First is that the medium of comics is entertainment and therefore it doesn’t need to make sense.  There is some truth in this perspective and, in fact, a form of time travel is employed every Sunday night on Fox in the form of the Simpsons.  This family has essentially relived the same year for the last quarter century with no scars due to their lack of continuity.  Each week the situation is reset, much like reloading a saved state, and new hijinks ensue, only to be canceled out in the next episode. There is nothing wrong with this and, in fact, I endorse it because as an audience we know the rules going in.  But modern comics try to be more, and so must be held to a higher standard.  The second objection is that a comic creator can’t pick and choose if he works for a large company.  Suppose he works for Marvel and the powers-that-be ask for a Kang story line.  He can’t just refuse and still keep his job.  I agree that in this case there is no escaping the need for time travel.  But its use can be limited, and a clever writer may be able to make it work one of two ways.  Either by actually diving in with a well-defined set of rules (with a well constructed exposition) and strictly sticking to it (something like the movie Primer but better contrived) or with a great deal of humor.  After all, the only time travel movie that actually gets it pretty much correctly is the highly comical (and intelligently written) ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’.



To Groot and Beyond

Before he became an international movie star, albeit a computer generated one, Groot, the ‘man-tree’ Guardian of the Galaxy had a much more sordid and humble past and a strange, unintended connection, with body building (and perhaps social commentary).

Groot was introduced to comic book fans by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers in a 7-page story entitled “I Challenged…Groot! The Monster from Planet X!”, which first appeared in Tales to Astonish #13 (not Astonishing Tales as stated in Wikipedia) published in 1960.

The basics outline of the story is simple. Our lead character, Leslie, a bookish scientist, is driving with his wife, Alice, late one night. Alice, none too impressed with her selection of a man, pines for a more rugged specimen.



On their way, they both witness a strange object lighting up the forest as it lands but Alice demands to be taken home rather than allow Leslie to investigate. Driven by curiosity, Leslie decides to return to the forest but not before Alice gets in a dig about his softness as a man for driving rather than walking.

Out in the forest, Leslie soon discovers the source of the light. Groot, the Monarch from Planet X, has landed on Earth. Groot intends to kidnap the residents of the nearby town for immediate transportation back to his world and subsequent experimentation.

Blockades are setup and the town’s men gather to repel Groot’s assault.



Groot’s wooden hide proves to powerful and he moves in to claim the town. At that moment, Leslie issues a challenge that he will stop Groot before the town falls. Leslie immediately runs from the skirmish, which earns him even more scorn, this time from Groot who calls him a coward.



We soon find Leslie in his lab working feverishly to stop Groot, while the alien’s tree servants close in around the town. As usual, Alice is not very supportive.



The bitter end does come quickly but for Groot, as the special termites that Leslie engineered in his lab make short work of the ‘menace from outer space’. We are left with a parting shot where the Sheriff is dumbfounded at Leslie’s cleverness while Alice embraces her hero.



I admit a feeling of déjà vu when I first read this story in Monster Masterworks sometime in the early nineties but I was never able to identify its root. Like so many of the little mysteries in life, the answer revealed itself at a time of its own choosing.

The revelation began when I returned from the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and pulled this story out to review. It suddenly hit me that it was structured very similarly to an old body building advertisement that used to run in the seventies.


Notice the similarities? Of course, the Groot story predates this ad by at least a decade. I don’t think that the earlier story of Groot influenced the later one of Mac. It is more likely the case that each is an instance of an archetypal story about a man proving himself worthy of a woman.

And before we pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for moving beyond such shallowness, I’d point out that that while the form this story takes changes with time the essential core remains with us. If you don’t believe me, watch Ghostbusters again for an example from the eighties.