Monday, October 22, 2012

BAB Frightfest: Supernatural Thrillers 5 -- The Living Mummy

Supernatural Thrillers #5 (August 1973)
"The Living Mummy!"
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artist: Rich Buckler
Inker: Frank Chiaramonte

Karen: We've come to the final review in our four 'classic' monsters. The Mummy offers many opportunities for stories, with its rich background in Egyptian history and legend. Marvel chose to place this series in modern times, and surprisingly (considering what was going on in 1973) in Egypt and Israel! I guess you can tell already that this is going to be a different comic, but with Steve Gerber at the helm, that shouldn't be unexpected.

Doug:  I'll echo that this is certainly just a bit off from our three previous reviews.  I'll go as far as to say that the presence of Rich Buckler is a part of that.  He holds his own -- the pictures are certainly pretty.  But there's just a bit too much of a superhero feel to this that in my mind separates this book from our previous three.

Karen: You know, you're right, it does have a more super-hero flair, doesn't it?  There's nothing at all macabre here, although there's nothing wrong with Buckler's art either. Our story opens with a couple, two Israeli soldiers (male and female in case you're wondering) enjoying a moonlit night on the Gaza Strip as they sit next to their tank. Romantic, huh? As they sit and ponder their role in war, they see a shadow from behind and swiftly turn and discover a huge figure  wrapped in bandages, towering over them.The woman, Davida, looks at the creature's eyes and cries out that it is insane.The man, Avram, fires his gun at the creature but the bullets have no effect upon it. The Mummy slams Avram to the ground with a single blow and then turns on Davida, apparently ready to strike her too, but then stops. He calms, and then turns away, into the desert.

Doug:  Steve Gerber was just about to launch into a morality play when that dang Mummy showed up!  As I had just maligned Buckler (again -- his work is fine here, but Ploog, Brunner, Colan, etc. just give off the mood that seems right in these sorts of tales) above, I will say that the splash of the Mummy's appearance is pretty awesome.  And as we'll see a bit later on, the dude is huge!

Karen: In Cairo, an archaeologist with the incredibly hokey name of Doctor Skarab is looking over a scrap of paper when he's joined by two young anthropologists, Ron and Janice. The three clearly all know each other and my impression is they have been working together for some time.  The doctor tells the two that the papyrus he's found has solved both their mysteries: what happened to their missing African tribe and his missing pharaoh. He then describes how, during a 'lost period' of Egyptian history, Pharaoh Arem-Set captured and enslaved an entire nation of African people known as the Swarilis. The Swarilis were forced to build monuments to the Pharaoh. It was back-breaking labor. The warrior-king of the tribe, N'Kantu, a huge man, was forced to bear more than most.But N'Kantu refused to be broken in spirit, and at night he plotted rebellion. This news reached the Pharaoh's ears via his priest, Nephrus. The Pharaoh and the priest decided that when the temple was completed, the slaves should all be killed and buried inside.

Doug:  I find the making-up of cities, nations, lands, peoples... irritating.  Hey, the Marvel Universe is set in New York City!  Why in the world can't all of their stories be set in the "real world".  Marvel was never as annoying as DC at this, but that Marvel even did it once seems dumb.  I suppose setting Dr. Doom up in Latveria is necessary, as the enormous number of readers in Lichtenstein probably wouldn't have liked being under some fictitious dictator.  Jeez, I'm getting curmudgeonly.  Anyway, the historical aspect of the story was well done, as it played like something you might have expected to see Charlton Heston in -- sort of hard to screw that up -- but I had a coloring question:  Why in the present is Dr. Skarab depicted as having that Mediterranean olive-toned skin, while the Egyptians of yore are as white as the next European?

Karen: He had that weird 'grey' skin tone that I never know how to interpret. The ancient Egyptians here were apparently descended from Yul Brynner. On the day that the slaves were led inside the temple to be slaughtered, N'Kantu grabbed a guard and killed him, and then freed his people and led them out and on to the Pharaoh's palace. One well-aimed spear took care of the pharaoh, and then N'Kantu went in search of the priest.Unfortunately, Nephrus was prepared. He tossed some drops of a strange potion in N'Kantu's face, and the African King was paralyzed. The sadistic Nephrus had N'Kantu placed spread-eagled on a platform  and replaced his blood with a special elixir that would make him immortal, yet unable to move. He wrapped him in bandages and put him in a sarcophagus. Nephrus then planned to claim the throne for himself, but in an act of the gods, or nature, a violent earthquake struck, and the city of the pharaoh was reduced to ruins, with Nephrus barely escaping.

Doug:  Nephrus' "punishment" for N'Kantu truly was horrible, wasn't it?  We'd see this "eternal living really stinks" motif again with the Sphinx in the pages of Nova.  In regard to N'Kantu in bondage, Buckler did a very similar image in his Deathlok series, didn't he?  I know you'll know...  I also saw a panel like this in a Marvel Treasury Edition Conan story I read -- I think it was a colorized reprint from a Savage Sword story.  Since Gerber was about to get all political with us at the top of the story, can we read that he is going all religious on us here?  Maybe it's just me, but the sudden earthquake reminded me of the verses in the synoptic gospels when the Temple veil was torn in two and an earthquake commenced, in and around the death of Jesus (depends on if you're reading Matthew and Mark, or Luke, as to when the signs happened). 

Karen: Yup, that cross or X that N'Kantu was tied to was just like the one Deathlok would be strapped to on the cover of Astonishing Tales # 25 a year later! Good eye, Doug. Ron and Janice both think that the story Skarab has told them seems pretty ridiculous, but they are even more incredulous when Skarab goes on to claim that Nephrus was his ancestor! And of course, if you look at how the two characters are drawn, they are very similar. Skarab then goes on to say that he wants to find N'Kantu and discover the secret of immortality. At this Ron really balks. "Doc, you've been working too hard," he says. 

Doug:  Similar indeed!  However, as I began reading this, I kept seeing Jafar from Disney's Aladdin!  I'm with Ron.  Hey, do you ever wonder why in storytelling the audience can just smell evil, but the cast just sleepwalks through the signs and aura of it all?

Karen: They're just much more naive, I suppose... sure, that's it. Meanwhile, in another part of Cairo, N'Kantu furtively moves through alleys and darkened streets. Of course, the 20th century is a shock to him -- literally, when he is hit by a car! However, the potions used on him seem to have made his body much more resilient, and he is unharmed by the impact. He begins to rampage, like all good monsters do, and winds up on TV. This brings him to the attention of Skarab, who comes running to find Ron and Janice. He tells them that the three of them must find a way to calm him down and stop him, so they head off to find him. But in a strange plotting twist, just as they leave, N'Kantu arrives at the building and enters! He's looking for Nephrus, apparently not realizing how much time has passed. He stumbles around and soon passes out, finally overcome by fatigue. 

Doug:  Are we to assume that the spot where Skarab has been working is the site of the palace those thousands of years ago?  The Mummy seemed to be running on instinct, but as you said, the surroundings must have really thrown him off.  Did you think that the collapse of the creature due to exhaustion was weird?  Obviously we're dealing in the supernatural here, so I would have expected a bit more of an out-there explanation/plot twist.      

Karen: I am surprised that he would get exhausted or run out of energy at all, but obviously Gerber felt the need to put him in a weakened state. Our three heroes return and see the door torn off its hinges and realize something's amiss. Then they see the 8-foot tall Mummy on the floor. Ron yells, "Christmas!" and I wondered for a second if I was reading a Luke Cage comic. Are he and Janice supposed to be American? It's not clear to me but I am assuming they are. Anyway, they examine N'Kantu and discover he's still alive, a situation Skarab plans to rectify by shooting the poor Mummy. Ron objects but before he can do anything Skarab fires off a bullet, proclaiming that  the Mummy must die for the good of all Egyptians! The bullets only wake N'Kantu up, and he looks at Skarab and calls him 'Nephrus' and asks him to save him.  Skarab understands what he's saying and tells Ron and Janice. They all run out of the building, where the police have gathered. The cops fire tear gas on the Mummy, and as he struggles through it, Janice feels sorry for him. The cops fire on him and N'Kantu grabs a power pole, tears it from the ground, and prepares to use it as a club. But the power lines snap and Janice, realizing what will come next, wants to save N'Kantu before it's too late. But tragically, the lines hit the chemicals on the ground and the towering Mummy is zapped by electricity. He crumbles to the ground. As the police approach him, Skarab warns that the Mummy may not be dead, and asks that they give him the body so that he might study it.

Doug:  Skarab's behavior in these last two scenes is erratic at best.  Does he just know more than Ron and Janice and is seeking to dupe them by putting a slug in N'Kantu?  Was he really out of his gourd?  And why the "sudden" change of heart once outside, asking the police to give him custody of the Mummy?  Gerber's script, offbeat as usual, has me wanting some answers.  And I agree with you about Ron and Janice probably being Americans.  What did you think of N'Kantu being 8-feet tall?  Wouldn't 7-feet have been a bit more practical?  I know Egypt isn't in T'Challa's neck of the woods, but given Buckler's artwork this would have felt almost better as a Black Panther story rather than a "monster book".

Karen: The story in itself was all right, if fairly typical "berserk monster" stuff.  The origin of the Mummy was sort of a version of Moses and the Israelites combined with theclassical mummy story, only substitute in the Swarilis for Israelites. Maybe it was just me, but I had the feeling Gerber was headed for some political commentary with this series, setting up the African Mummy and the two African (American?) supporting characters, versus what appeared to be a villainous Caucasian character, and the whole Egypt/Israel setting was rife for political commentary.  But I did some poking around and found that Gerber only wrote two issues, and the supporting characters apparently were not seen again, as the Mummy was whisked off to New York in his next appearance! So unless there's an interview with Gerber floating around somewhere, we'll never know  what he planned for the Mummy (if anything).


Edo Bosnar said...

Ah, it's nice having the Essential Marvel Horror volume that collects the entire run of Living Mummy stories - I read about halfway through it over the weekend. It's tempting to give a rundown of what happens next, but I won't spoil it in case anybody else wants to get that Essentials book or track down the back issues of Supernatural Thrillers. I will say this, though: Val Mayerik took over the art chores, and it's a real improvement. You guys are right that Buckler made this look too much like a superhero story. Mayerik has a style perfectly suited to horror, magic and monsters, and his Mummy looks imposing yet also a bit misshapen and tragic. Also, one improvement that Gerber immediately made in the next issue was restoring the Mummy's sanity, so he's not just an enraged rampaging monster; and to me it seems like Gerber may have told Tony Isabella, who took over as writer, where he intended to go with this, because story goes on what seems to me a really Gerberesque tangent.
As to this issue itself, it's really a mixed bag. There are some great ideas here, the Mummy's origin first and foremost, as well as Gerber's injection of some contemporary politics, but the whole thing seemed a bit rushed and disjointed. And you guys are right about the skin coloring choices - really weird, and something that goes completely unnoticed when you read a b&w reprint.
By the way, I love the hyperbole on the cover: "One of the greatest Fear-Fests of all time!" Hmmmm....

Doug said...

Thanks, Edo!

And you make a great observation about the Essentials as reprints of four-color comics. Opposed to this would be the Essentials-format reprints of the B&W magazines, where the wash would take care of some of those skin tone (in this case) issues.


Inkstained Wretch said...

Always impressed by how totally most mummy stories diverge from the original 1932 Boris Karloff film. In that one, he is an ancient sorcerer, who, once he is revived, sheds the bandages and takes on modern Arabic dress including a fez and blends in - more or less - with the locals.

It wasn't until the 40s sequels beginning with the Mummy's Hand that we got the shambling Frankenstein-monster-like brute in bandages. Most revivals like this comic are based on that film.

Chuck Wells said...

I miss the bronze age Marvel "horrors" like Living Mummy quite a bit. Those books were lots of fun! I've got most of these original issues in high grade, but maybe it is past time to seek out that last couple on eBay.

Fred W. Hill said...

I entirely missed this series and didn't even know Gerber wrote the first couple of issues. I do recall glancing through one of the later issues, featuring some villainous types based on the ancient notion of elements (earth, wind, fire & water) and if I'd had extra money I might've gotten it, but as it was I put it back to get one of my usual favorites.

Fred W. Hill said...

As an aside, in November 1996, while stationed on the island of Crete, I took a trip to Egypt and got to see the big pyramids and the Sphinx as well as enter an underground tomb. Strikingly, Egyptian art of 3,000+ years ago typically depicted men with red skin and women with white, something their near contemporaries in Crete, the Minoans, picked up -- while there are significant differences in the poses, etc., the skin tones are the same in the ancient Minoan art as well. Crete, btw, is about equidistant between mainland Greece, Egypt and Turkey. I seriously doubt the ancient Egyptians or Cretans were gray-skinned, probably more of a light brown. The gray coloring was one of the ridiculous tones to signify people of a particular race (Egyptian in this case), such as the sickly pale yellow used for east Asians. I recall a Chinese-American named Bill Wu who pestered Marvel about that in several letters pages in the mid-70s and may have even gotten them to mostly change that. And Wu was right, it was offensive.

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