Friday, April 10, 2009

Bronze Age Spotlight: Hollow Victories: The Warlord's Burden

First Issue Special 8“It takes a special breed of man to stand in the face of overwhelming odds in a world where merely staying alive is the greatest challenge of all.”

  1. First Issue Special #8 (Nov. 1975)

So begins the longest running comic book sword-and-sorcery saga not based on a Robert E. Howard creation. It’s the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Travis Morgan, USAF, who is forced to ditch his SR-71 blackbird in the artic circle, but instead winds up in a tropical jungle under an eternal sun, and is soon saving sword-wielding, fur-wearing, princess with supermodel looks from a velociraptor.

Then things get really weird.

Over the course of thirteen plus years, 133 issues and 6 annuals, Travis Morgan wandered through the dream-logic geography of a collective pulp unconscious world—a mash-up of prehistoric adventure, sword and sorcery, comic book sci-fi, and Bullfinch’s mythology, seasoned with a little Tolkeinian epic. Damsels were saved a plenty, monsters were slain, spells were cast, and swashes were most assuredly buckled.

But there was also something else lurking a little deeper in the narrative foliage, something more than the usual standards from the Joseph Campbell sing-a-long songbook. Adventure was the requested tune, but did something else—backward-masked, perhaps—slip into the mix with all the sampling?

“From the sky he came, to a world of eternal sunlight and eternal savagery—Travis Morgan, and a man with lust for adventure and a passion for freedom!”

- Warlord

The man responsible was Mike Grell. The Warlord had its origins in a strip called Savage Empire which Grell had shown to DC when first looking for penciling work. They declined, but instead let him draw Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, wherein he exacted a terrible revenge by giving Cosmic Boy a really, really inappropriate costume (not really…maybe).

Eventually, Savage Empire was accepted, but in a drastically altered form. Its archeologist hero became a manly military man. Its setting moved from Atlantis to the interior of the hollow earth, given a name lifted from Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—Skartaris.

At The Earth's CoreThe portrayal of the hollow earth in both fiction and purported fact has a rich history going back to Sir Edmund Haley (of comet fame) and possibly before. The primary inspiration for Grell’s version seems to be Pellucidar, a savage land debuting in At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs, serialized (as “The Inner World”) over 4 issues in All-Story beginning on April 4, 1914. A novel version was published in 1922, and in 1976, there was a move adaptation with Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, and bond-girl-to-be Caroline Munro.

At the Earth’s Core tells the story of young businessman David Innes, and pious inventor Abner Perry, who take a test-drive of Perry’s mechanical prospector—the “iron mole”—and wind up in a subterranean world where people inhabit the concave surface of the crust and look “up” at the earth’s core which serves as a miniature sun. Though there are exotic creatures dwelling in Pellucidar which are unknown on the surface, for the most part it’s the land that time forgot (figuratively, though Burroughs literally wrote that book. too). Queue dinosaurs and babes in furs bikinis—at least in the minds of cover artists.

Innes winds up with the most beautiful cave girl this side of Raquel Welch to rescue, though first he and Perry must overcome numerous pulpy perils, including Pellucidar’s parthenogenetic, super-evolved, pteronadon overlords, the Mahars. It turns out that Innes and Perry are not content to be mere adventure heroes, as this exchange between the two reveals:

“Why Perry! You and I may reclaim a whole world! Together we can lead the races of men out of darkness and ignorance into the light of advancement and civilization. At one step we may carry them from the Age of Stone to the twentieth century.”

“David, I believe that God sent us here for just that purpose!”

“You are right, Perry. And while you are teaching them to pray I’ll be teaching them to fight, and between us we’ll make a race of men that will be an honor to us both.”

Teach those poor ignorant savages, so they’ll bring honor to their benevolent betters. My, but that’s good colonialism! Similar sort of rationales were used throughout the world in the nineteenth century, and these were probably the most altruistic of the lot. We’ve also got the hijinks of the filibusters like “gray-eyed man of destiny”, William Walker; and the man who put the Rhodes in Rhodesia--and the Rhodesia in Africa--Cecil Rhodes.

But right about now, you’re asking yourself, other than proving that Travis Morgan has some embarrassing forbearers, what exactly does colonialism have to do with The Warlord.

What indeed…

“Take up the White Man's burden—

The savage wars of peace—”

  1. Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899)

SkartarisSo Travis Morgan, escaping from the Russians, winds up in a world of savagery, swords, and sorcery, and starts adventuring. He proves to be adept at swordplay and at inspiring and leading men. But ever wonder why a second half of the 20th Century American would let folks continue to call him “warlord” given the connotations that that word has today? Well, sure, it sounded cool--but wasn’t Morgan troubled by the implications?

Now, in the real world, we may well assume Mike Grell had no hidden agenda with the creation of The Warlord, certainly not consciously. The name was likely suggested by the 1965 Charlton Heston film, The War Lord. If colonialism certainly isn’t in the text of Warlord, can we find it in the subtext? Is there another world hidden at the core, so to speak?

The first thing we discover about Travis Morgan is that he views Mutually Assured Destruction, and the modern Cold War as farcical, even as he fights it. He’s barely mused about how little it matters how which side’s nukes can destroy the world more times, than, as if fulfilling his unspoken wish, he’s parachuting into Skartaris. What could be seen as an indictment of the Cold War, can also be seen as merely an indictment of the way the Cold War is fought. Travis Morgan has the heart of an old-fashion warrior, crammed into the body of a modern spy aircraft pilot. He earns for something more direct, simpler.

So if Travis Morgan is a spectre of colonialism (or neocolonialism) what are his colonial aims? Certainly he’s no profiteer (at least in any direct sense), nor is he looking to exploit natural resources or labor. But some colonialist were about espousing ideology. Historically, this was religion but it need not be. Some Southern filibusters were looking to expand/defend slavery, after all. Any ideology might do. No sooner has Morgan freed himself after a stint as a gladiator, then he starts preaching one. Freedom.

Nothing wrong with that ideal of course, only that it mostly seems rhetorical. Or perhaps merely a means to an end. Morgan often simply deposes an evil autocrat for a more benevolent one—at times he draws a distinct between a “king” and a “tyrant” but in a world with no constitutional monarchies, one wonders what he sees as the difference. His own authority is strictly based on force of arms, charisma, and cultivated relationships to established power, not by any democratic process.

I should stress that the largely empty nature of Morgan’s Braveheart-style pep-talks isn’t only subtexts but specifically commented on in the text—particularly in Grell’s somewhat revisionist follow-up limited series of 1992. In the 5th issue, he gives a rousing speech to the massed troops to get them to follow him to confront Deimos. Grell ultimately has this degenerate into “blah blah blah” interspersed with the likes of “baseball” and “apple pie.” Following the speech, as he rides away with an army at his back, he confides in his friends: “Boy, I’d sure like to seel these guys some swampland.”

Nor is not all revisionism. In The Warlord #3 (Nov. 1976), his comrade Machiste challenges his reasons for leading the band of former gladiators, claiming he does it for selfish ends. Morgan, will still stressing his ideals, admits as much with a quote he read on “on a barracks wall in Saigon” (actually from a speech by Theordore Roosevelt, and the motto of the U.S. Special Operations Association):

You have never lived until you've almost died! For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.”

Warlord - I love thisMorgan’s bloody version of carpe diem. He follows up the above quote with: “God help me—I love this!” as he is pictured standing above a field strewn with corpses, a sword clenched in his fist.

Moving away from the man himself, we can look for more clues amid his supporting cast. The Warlord had a rich and varied one.

Morgan meets and woos a young swordswoman, who turns out to be a queen of shining Shamballah. The queen’s name is Tara—probably from the plantation in Gone with the Wind, but ultimately from the Hill of Tara in Ireland. The hill is also known as Teamhair na Rí (“The Hill of Kings”) because of it’s association with ancient kingship rituals. The Irish High Kings were inaugarated at Tara in a ceremony of symbolic marriage to the goddess Medb. Morgan’s ultimate marriage to Tara legitimizes his rule, literally as well as symbolically, and shores up his Skartaran power-base.

Morgan’s next companion is Machiste, whom he meets while both are slaves. He’s one of the few black characters appearing in the series. Machiste, it transpires, is another hidden monarchy, and after helping Morgan overthrow Deimos, he resumes his kingship of Kiro. Machiste is named for “Maciste,” a recurring character in Italian cinema who is a Hercules-type character. The name, I’m told, also means “male chauvinist” or “macho” in French. Machiste can be seen as the sort of strongman dictator familiar from Cold War Latin America or Africa—the “good” sort—that aids the imperialist Warlord.

Machiste later becomes romatically involved with the Russian Mariah Romanova, who he and Travis will later fight over. Is this a distorted mirror of the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. for the hearts and minds of the developing world?

Could the line in Kipling’s poem “go bind your sons to exile” apply to anyone more than Travis Morgan? Morgan’s abandoned daughter follows him into Skartaris. His neglect sees her flirt with dangerous forces, and be brainwashed Patty Hearst-style to serve the opposition. Only when she is able to put her considerable powers in her father’s service do they really resume a relationship. His half-native son, named Joshua but raised as Tinder, is ripped away from his family by political power-struggles. He grows up wholly native, and is just as susceptible to his father’s speechifying—and just as disappointed when the rhetoric proves hollow.

Warlord1Not convinced? Well, the material is richer than most would credit. There are other places we can go with this…

Maybe Travis Morgan with his eagle wing helm is a stand-in for the aging, American baby-boomer elite, trying to get by in a world in many ways alien to the one that birthed it, and doing the best that it can--which often is something less than its rhetoric promises. Maybe he’s a midlife crisis fantasy—the ultimate adult Peter Pan, complete with coolsville van Dyke, who blows off his responsibilities to gallivant around a violent and sensual Never-Never land with a mysterious beauty in black, fur ankle socks.

Whichever, this month DC Comics and Mike Grell brought The Warlord back from comics limbo. Like all good pulp icons, the character and his world bring just enough to the table that you can make of it almost as much—or as little—as you like.

I, for one, am as interested as ever in what Travis Morgan has been up to under that eternal, unblinking orb.

1 comment:

netherwerks said...

We've been reading Trey's always excellent Warlord Wednesday feature at his blog for a while now, but never knew about this insightful and well-done essay of his until now. This is great stuff and a lot of fun to read, especially foe fans of Mr. Grell's sword-wielding USAF colonel-with-a-goatee in a hollow world...


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