Continued from here:
One way of showing how little attention Michael Fleisher chose to pay to the post-Marvel Revolution norms of action/adventure storytelling is to compare 1975’s The Grey Ghost #1 with 1940’s first appearance of the Golden Age Black Widow. The latter, by writer George Kapitan and artist Harry Sahle, has long been a favourite of mine, and part of that lies in its strange similarities to The Grey Ghost’s debut. (Much of it, however, stems from the fantastically unhewn nature of the older tale, which, in its gleeful ambition and unheeding absence of logic, reads like an amateur’s comic-strip record of a particularly vivid and sleazy nightmare.) Despite 24 years separating the two, they clearly share a considerable body of the same narrative DNA. Whether Fleisher consciously tapped into the older story, and if so, whether it was a conscious or unconscious matter, is beyond my ability to say. Perhaps the one and the other have nothing beyond sub-genre to do with each other. Regardless, there are a considerable number of correlations between the two. At the very least, they insist that the traditions Fleisher was tapping into for The Grim Ghost were, in form and content, far older than those that most of his colleagues of the time would have considered using. Roy Thomas, for example, had frequently delved back into Marvel’s Golden Age roots in order to update the material in line with the benchmarks of the period. As such, 1975 would see Thomas launch The Invaders, a WW2-set super-team of Forties superheroes, and pilot, to a generally unenthusiastic audience, the Home front second-string Liberty Legion set in the same period. Neither was a book that it’s likely Fleisher would have welcomed writing for anything beyond instrumental reasons.
So, today and tomorrow, I’ll try to draw out the key similarities between the Golden Age Black Widow’s debut and The Grim Ghost’s first issue. In doing so, I’m fully aware that the super-adventurer comic has always recycled old material. Similarly, the relatively narrow bounds of the genre do of course mean that likenesses of types and plot and design are relatively easy to draw. Yet my suspicion is that the matter is hand is more than an issue of a common store of stories and characters. Here, I’m pretty much convinced, is a specific group of influences that cast, if only in an impossible-to-prove way, a light on Fleisher’s working approach.
1. The Leading Character As Sinful, Attractive, and Executed Antagonist.
Both tales feature fiendish leads. The Black Widow is introduced to us, with shameless risibility, as one “Clare Voyant – Spirit Medium”. Although Kapitan and Sahle never actually explain whether she’s a brazen fraud or a despicably predatory witch, events in the story insist that she is, at the very least, a very bad person indeed. After all, how would Satan be able to claim her soul immediately after her death if she hadn’t been an unrepentant sinner of some considerable measure? Humourless, severe and vengeful, Voyant casts “the curse of Satan” upon a matriarch who doubts her mediumistic powers. The result is a fatal car crash which claims both Widow’s sceptical denouncer and her sweetly agreeable daughter Pat. (With a carelessness that’s as cruel as it is perversely hilarious, the story ignores the tragedy of the mother’s murder entirely and focuses solely on the passing of the beautiful young woman.)
The degree to which Voyant is to blame for the malignant efficacy of the curse and its outcome is unclear: Satan is at the very least elbowing her in the direction of absolute sinfulness. But she is, we’re led to believe, at least in large part, an unchristian woman. Upon being fatally shot by the son and brother of her victims, Voyant swears to her killer that she will one day return to life. No hint of sympathy, mercy or repentance here. The implication is that her promised revisitation to the mortal plane won’t just involve the stealing of a set or two of house keys and some mysterious noises in the dead of night.
And nor will it.
A match and more for Clare Voyant in sinfulness, Matthew Dusianane is a gentleman highwayman plying his demeritorious trade under the alias of The Grim Ghost in “Colonial America in the year 1743”. Not only a thief, but a cold-blooded murderer, Dusianane yet has a few reader-winning qualities. Like Voyant, he’s skilled, formidable, superficially charming, attractive and independent, with little time for fools and an overriding concern for his own self-interest. (Dusianane, however, displays not even the slight trace of self-examination that Voyant evidences.) But an excess of greed and arrogance does for him, leading him into a trap set by the beautiful, flirtatious and wily Lady Braddock. The result, as with Voyant’s ultimate mortal fate, is execution. Hung in a public square a mere three weeks after his capture, Dunsinane meets his end not with the threat of revenge, but with mockery for the assembled spectators, whose “pretty wives”, he declares, “will be love-starved with me!”
Whether salted with charm and laughter or not, there’s a distinct coldness to both Voyant and Dusianane. To be told that each was marked by a considerable degree of psycopathy would in no way be a surprise. Neither, as has been typical for leading characters from Eel O’Brien to Peter Parker and far beyond, appears to be a likely candidate for the role of repentent, guilt-ridden sinner.
2. The Immediate Appearance Of Satan
The murder of Clare Voyant in The Black Widow immediately brings Satan into the mortal realm. Against expectation, it isn’t the soul of Voyant that he harvests, but her body, immediately transporting it, and presumably her soul alongwith, to “Hades”.
In The Grim Ghost, Dunsinane’s post-death encounter with Satan takes a few extra moments, with the executed highwayman believing for a second or two that he’s somehow escaped the noose. But that brief delay is merely the time it takes his soul to travel downwards to the underworld, where Satan himself is waiting.
3. The Torment of Damned Souls
What would a visit to Hell be without the pleasures of watching the suffering of others? In The Black Widow, Satan takes a moment to show Voyant the souls of those who “were once full of greed, lust and thievery”. Quite why he’s displaying these scenes is never explained. Perhaps he just enjoys sharing his work. For Voyant doesn’t need any convincing to become a post-death agent of the Devil. From the moment of her last breath, she’s shown as a fully-committed agent of evil. From that comes the suspicion that she was already, whether in part or whole, a follower of Satan while still alive.
For if not, then the rules about who gets to where in the after-life, and what occurs after their arrival, are very much not that depicted in mainstream Christian culture.
Satan seems even more enthusiastic about his role of humankind’s tormentor in The Grim Ghost, where Dunsinane’s orientation tour of the infernal regions involves the Devil displaying a hands-on love of his work. This is much a threat as it is a promise, in that Satan apparently needs Hell’s newest citizen to agree to a mission back on planet Earth. As with The Black Widow, it’s impossible what the rules of the afterlife are. If the once-and-future Grim Ghost is damned and sentenced, then why does he have to give Satan his assent? In both stories, little attention is given to story-logic and implausibility. One thing happens, and then another, and if the two appear to have any kind of rational relationship, then so much the better.
Regardless, the scenes of the torture of miscreants are the most visually compelling in each story. Sahle’s primitively sincere portrayal of hell relies on design to catch the eye in the absence of any more polished skills, and it achieves exactly that. His flat, literal-minded depictions – especially with the strip’s garish colours – have all the directness and sincerity of a child’s drawings after a particularly apocalyptic session of Sunday School. Far more accomplished and experienced as an artist, Colon’s portrayal of the Inferno is exuberant and uproarious: there’s very much a sense transmitted that the artist enjoyed the heck out of his work here.
31 days Of Atlas continues tomorrow with the concluding comparison of these two comics tales…
8 thoughts on “The Black Widow & The Grim Ghost: 31 Days Of Atlas #8”
Hello again Colin!
When I first read the Black Widow`s origin, I took her inherent wickedness to be part of her vocation – she performed seances, ergo she was already a servant of Satan. You do make an interesting point about her sexuality (it seems like that was the only aspect JMS found worth commenting on in The Twelve); she does have a very pre-code Jean Harlow-ness about her. Heck, the morality on display in her adventures matches pre-code Hollywood rather well.
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Hello Mike – your point about TBW’s involvement with seances – hence, it’s to be assummed that she’s a sinner – is a good one, and one I was thinking of returning to when this whole question of “how do we recognise a bad ‘un in comics?” comes up. (Jean Harlow was the name I was looking for in my mind when I wrote the above and it just refused to come to me, working at a pace as I was: thank you!!) What I most like about TBW is the fact that Voyant’s sinfullness is so oddly and confusingly signalled. She’s hardly shown to be a caring spiritualist, but there’s no evidence she’s anything other than sincere or well-meaning. We’re not told she’s taking money for her services, and the Devil twice imposes himself on her freedom of action, meaning that she could be seen as an innocent. Yet what does that say about this take on the Devil? Does he get to control anyone he wants, or those who involve themselves in seances, or just those running seances, or does it take a prior commitment to Satan to give him a way in? Similarly, was Satan’s ability to just whisk off Voyant after her murder, body and soul, related to previous sins on her part? Or was it her final vengeanceful thoughts that damned her?
It’s such a wonderful mess, which is something else I’d like to blog about soon 🙂 We live in an age where more and more creators are mastering the control of their material to the degree that text makes sense and sits carefully with the meaning of the sub-text. (I wouldn’t say the habit is commonplace, but it’s often far better done than even a short time ago.) And that’s wonderful, of course. But the loss of confusion means the loss of unanswered questions. And, as long as the story is interesting enough in itself, nothing is so intriguing as a pocketful of baffling questions. It’s what the No-Prize was invented for!
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By the time of the Black Widow’s first appearance there was a long tradition of seancers depicted as villains – it’s just, normally they were fraudsters & conmen who had no actual supernatural powers. On the one hand, Claire wasn’t a fraud. On the other… oops! Servant of Satan!
(Archie Comics even had Madam Satan, who was virtually the same being as the Black Widow.)
The contrast between characters like the Spectre and Black Widow is interesting to ponder. The first has the authority of Heaven behind him, so that justifies the cruel and unusual ways he punishes evildoers. The Black Widow has the authority of Hell behind her, so that *likewise* justifies her actions as she’s simply treating with those whom Satan has already claimed.
“Only the good die young.”
Tom Servo: “Most of us are morally ambiguous, which explains our random dying patterns.”
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Hi Michael – it’s often in that “taken-for-granted” part of a story that the really interesting part of the tale occur, isn’t it? Yes, I wouldn’t ever seek to deny the association in fiction, and beyond, between mediums and cheating. Which I find fascinating given that Spiritualism as a substantial social movement was still, if quite evidently in serious decline, in existence. There were evidently many, many people who drew a line between the fake and the supposedly real, evil and virtue being perceived in all kinds of measures, with of course Conan-Doyle being the most prominent pro-Spiritualist I can think of in the inter-War years. Yet the seance is far more associated in popular culture with ill events.
It does however make me smile to note how many Golden Age characters were billed, and ‘proved’ to be, masters of magic, and in being so, showing themselves doing the most otherwise disreputable things 🙂 The Spectre, Dr Fate and so on. Why, Kid Eternity was in effect a one-man medium-cum-seance. He really could tell you where your granny left her will, or what your beloved uncle thought of your new fiancee. I guess the very air of menace that hung over the broad span of ‘magic’, from spiritualism to the hard occult, lent, for a while, the glamour pf the dark to the likes of Fate and our other players from the other side. But obviously not enough glamour, given how swiftly most of the magic characters disappeared.
Now I’m trying to think of ‘good’ mediums in popular culture. There’s Madame Arcati from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which was first seen on stage a year after the Black Widow debuted. And, er…
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How could I have forgotten Blithe Spirit? We watched the 1945 movie just the other month, with the incomparable Margaret Rutherford playing Madame Arcati. But beyond that, re: classic movies, I’m struggling too. Which is odd, because you’d think it would have been a perfect tradition for comedy to tap into.
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