Next time you read a thoughtful article in a broadsheet newspaper about how ‘graphic novels’ are now serious literature, take a look at the American comic books of the fifties and sixties and remind yourself how far we, as a civilization, have come.
Pitiful four-colour daubs picture infantile, underwear clad simpletons, barely capable of reasoned thought, in battle with absurd aliens, deranged versions of their future selves, and cackling pantomime villains. It seemed as if these comics were written solely for the amusement of children, and it’s impossible to imagine that within a few decades comics would have evolved to offer us the sophisticated geo-political travelogues of Joe Sacco (Safe Area Gorazde, Palestine, Walking With Israelis) the brutal scatological and religious satires of Garth Ennis (Preacher, The Boys, God’s Cunts) and the erotic mysticism of Alan Moore (Promethea, Lost Girls, Perfumed Emissions).
But they did. How?
The Super Moby Dick of Space, actually a cumbersome astro-fish and not a cetacean at all, appeared only once in the comics universe, in a May 1965 edition of DC’s Adventure Comics Featuring Superboy and The Legion Of Super-heroes (issue 332), and was clearly written in the not insignificant shadow of Herman Melville’s definitive American novel, Moby Dick.
In The Super Moby Dick Of Space, a small fish is accidentally enlarged by one Dr Lampier, whereupon it flies into space to feast indiscriminately on metal ores. After The Super Moby Dick of Space gobbles up a space freighter, Lightning Lad battles it unsuccessfully, his injuries resulting in the amputation of his right arm. Dr Lampier gives Lighting Lad a new metal arm, (“This should give me the power to handle the Super Moby Dick”, the Lad says.)
Then, like some kind of mad one-armed Captain Ahab in green tights, Lightning Lad vows secretly to destroy the Dick and leads the unwitting Legion Of Superheroes in its pursuit. A psychedelic, venom-induced vision stops the blood-crazed Lightning Lad slaying the Space Dick and eventually the innocent fish is shrunk back to its normal size.
From this précis, The Super Moby Dick of Space seems a typical example of the kind of accidentally surreal comic book landfill of the era (1).
But it is more than that. So much more. For The Super Moby Dick of Space is perhaps a key, if rarely acknowledged, element in the process by which comics have evolved from the pathetic scribbles of the post-war era, once consumed, as explained earlier, only by infants and those with poor reading skills, to the sophisticated graphic literature of today, stocked in best bookshops, and discussed in broadsheet newspapers, usually under the heading ‘Comics Have Grown Up!’
And the seismic tremors that The Super Moby Dick of Space’s writer Edmond Hamilton set in motion, when he first mixed the highbrow world of literature, in the form of his own fantastic re-imagining of Herman Melville’s enormous sea-dwelling metaphor for human hubris, with the clanking world of dimbo comic book idiocy, are still being felt today.
However simplistic its depiction, Lightning Lad’s obsessive, one-armed quest for the Dick chimed with the same philosophical truisms that Melville coaxed from Ahab’s obsession. How many of Hamilton’s previously passive readers must suddenly have felt themselves stirred by thoughts of the Super Dick into a quiet contemplation of what it meant to be human?
Hamilton’s The Super Moby Dick Of Space began the process of saving comics from themselves. Hamilton taught the genre ambition. He taught the comics scribes of the future to chase their own white whales. But who was he?
Born in 1904, Hamilton’s golden era was the twenties and thirties when he wrote, prolifically, for Farnsworth Wright’s seminal Weird Tales magazine, alongside other favorites like HP Lovecraft, Jack Williamson and Robert E Howard.
By the forties, as Science Fiction became more sophisticated, Hamilton’s Flash Gordon style space operas seemed dated, and in 1946 he began a twenty year stint penning stories for DC comics, then as now a publisher known for its charitable acceptance of once ambitious writers who had failed in more highbrow areas of literature.
But lest we should dismiss Hamilton as a hack, and the genius of The Super Moby Dick Of Space as a mere fluke, bear in mind these three key points in his defence.
1) After a few years writing the adventures of Lightning Lad, Captain Future and such like, Hamilton’s own prose work was, according to sci-fi experts, showing increasing signs of sophistication, culminating in 1960’s philosophically inclined novel, The Haunted Stars, still highly regarded today.
2) Like many male comic book writers, Hamilton was romantically entwined with a more talented female partner, whom one must assume had influenced his work. In 1946, Hamilton married the acclaimed, snow obsessed, science fiction author Leigh Brackett, eventually to become the screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back, conspicuously the only one of the original Star Wars trilogy in which the dialogue is anything more than just the phrase “I’ve got bad feeling about this” repeated over and over again.
Stan Lee says it was his wife that urged him to give his crazy Spider-man and Fantastic Four ideas a shot.
It’s a reasonable presumption that Brackett’s encouragement might have given Hamilton the confidence to act on his ambitious The Super Moby Dick Of Space vision, despite the apparent restrictions of the comics genre.
3) In his essay Herman Melville : Space Opera Virtuoso , the Nebula award winning Science Fiction writer John Kessell describes how the young, would-be pulp magazine contributor Herman Melville corresponded with contemporaries like Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester and Edmond Hamilton. Edmond Hamilton! Stumbling across this essay on the internet, everything suddenly made sense. Perhaps Hamilton and Melville had cooked up Moby Dick together, Melville using the idea as the basis for the great American novel, Hamilton using it as the basis for the comic book that changed everything. Except of course the dates don’t work.
Moby Dick was published in 1851, Melville died before Hamilton was born, and on closer inspection Kessell’s piece is a delightful alternate history fantasy in which Melville invents modern science fiction in 1920s New York with his novel The Wail.
Kessell posits this Melville’s Ahab as the captain of the Independent Research Ship Peascod, and he is able, “through alien symbiosis, to detect the forces that move behind the “pasteboard mask” of matter.”
But behind the pasteboard mask of Kessell’s temporarily misleading fiction, behind the fact that Melville and Hamilton did not know each other at all, and could not have done, lies a strange coincidence, which suggests Hamilton was the natural inheritor of Melville’s visionary innovations, whether he knew it or not. When Melville wrote Moby Dick, the sea was the unknown, the limit of man’s understanding of the physical world, the perfect location upon which to float the gigantic symbol that is the unknowable white whale. For Hamilton’s generation it was space.
But maybe Melville saw this shift of focus coming, a shift eventually accelerated by Lightning Lad’s grapple with a Dick of his own.
Melville’s last novel was 1957’s The Confidence Man. His prose was largely unappreciated during his lifetime and he lived out the rest of his days as a customs officer, and occasional poet, dying uncelebrated in 1891. But Melville’s notebooks show that he was still at work on unfinished ideas, and that he was also a great reader of contemporary writers. An 1866 journal shows Melville clearly spellbound by Jules Verne’s recently published From The Earth To The Moon, making notes comparing the sea to space itself, the frustrated and forgotten writer envisioning ‘dark waves of black air’, ‘a white surf of starlight’, and ‘a voyage to the unknown suns, destined to remain unending’.
And, perhaps aware of Francis Godwin’s 1599 proto-sf fantasy, The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage thither, in which basket-harnessed geese carry a passenger into space, Melville had begun to make some very strange sketches; – pencil drawings of a whale, borne to the stars by vast flocks of birds tied to its fins, its jaws snapping at manned, pencil-shaped cylinders.
But why? What was Melville trying to say? Was this space-borne Dick an attempt to extend the metaphor of the white whale in a medium Melville knew would soon be universally appropriate? And was this an attempt that Edmond Hamilton eventually and intuitively completed, one hundred years later?
Melville’s Moby Dick gave the Great American Novel vast and unprecedented depths. Hamilton’s The Super Moby Dick Of Space began the same process for the Great American Comic Book. Neither writer was given any credit for what he had done in his lifetime.
During his second and final attempt to slay the Super Dick, Lightning Lad is pictured in a wild-eyed visionary state, Dick venom from the wound that severed his arm finally having made its way through his bloodstream to his brain.
He pictures the Dick at the centre of a vast cosmos of interrelated beings, and realises that his intended vengeance is an offence to nature. “Everything that lives is holy,” he observes, trembling, “energy is eternal delight.” With these words, quoted presumably deliberately by Hamilton from William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, Hamilton not only assimilates the lessons of Melville’s Moby Dick, but arguably improves upon them, plugging the novel into a wider consciousness of ecstatic moral relativism that Melville only hinted at.
And, on a perhaps less profound note, he showed those who were watching – Alan Moore included, I should imagine – just what comics might one day be capable of.
(1) To be fair, there are other moments of incidental brilliance in the story, such as ‘The World Of Dead Robots’ that Lightning Lad briefly flies over in his spaceship. “Those huge mechanical giants, created to serve humans, revolted and drove their masters away.
Then, unable to repair themselves, they gradually stopped running and ‘died’.”, the lad observes of the rotting robots, depicted by the artist John Forte as resembling the denizens of some now abandoned Soviet era sculpture park.