Saturday, February 04, 2006

Friday in the Wold Newton meteor crater

Okay, I know. It's really Saturday. I'm late again. But, you know, if you pick a motif then you should commit to it. It's a brand-name thing. "Hatcher's Friday Column" is more of a state of mind lately than anything else, but damn it, I do intend to get back on schedule here soon.

Anyway, I've been reading all sorts of old stuff this last week, and scoring more cool stuff on eBay. This last really is addictive, because each thing kind of leads to the next. I started hunting back issues of Marvel's black-and-white Conan books last year, because we had met Roy Thomas at a show and reminiscing with him had reminded me how much I used to enjoy his Savage Sword stories with John Buscema. And once I started with those I was reminded how much I'd dug Marvel Preview and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and so I started hunting those.

Well, as it turns out, you go after Marvel's Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and you will very often get it offered in tandem with its smaller color cousin, Master of Kung Fu.

Now, this is a new thing for me. I never got into the book when it was originally coming out in the 70's; I don't know why not, except probably that I was maxed out on budget and it never really caught my eye. I was more of a Dr. Strange/Defenders guy in the 70's. But the Deadly Hands stories with Shang-Chi were a lot of fun, and the last lot I got of the color books were a revelation. I fell swooningly in love with the adventures of the rebellious heir to Fu Manchu.

I also enjoy gloating. Where else can I brag about a score like this?

Once I got into these books I was kicking myself. How had I missed this? These books are terrific! The stories are great, the art is mostly great (the Gene Day stuff is breathtaking, and for the first time I'm seeing what other people were getting excited about with Paul Gulacy.)

Here is my shame, though. By themselves the books are just what I'd consider pretty good. What kicked them over the top into "these are SO COOL!!" territory and got me all wound up is a little embarrassing, to be honest. It means admitting I'm one of THOSE guys that so many comics columnists complain about. Hell, I've even complained about those guys myself once or twice. So this is a hard admission to make, that I might actually BE one of them.

Why do I love them so? Because I'm an enormous continuity geek.

There, I said it. I feel so cleansed.

Go ahead and point and laugh and get it out of your system. Because when you're done I want to present a defense.

Sax Rohmer would be so proud.

See, here's the thing. There's a kind of fun to be had in knitting together various fictional histories and rationalizing plot discrepancies that you can't find anywhere else. I think it started with the Baker Street Irregulars, the group of Sherlock Holmes fans who've been trying to figure out the chronology of Holmes and his adventures for around a century. Then there's the Robert E. Howard folks, L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter, who spent so much time working out the Hyborian Age histories of Kull and Conan. But the guy who made it an art form in and of itself, the spiritual godfather of every geeky fan who ever sat down and cudgeled his brain trying to come up with The Definitive Answer for a plot gaffe or a chronology screw-up, is Philip Jose Farmer.

Think of it as Tarzan: the True Hollywood Story.

He started it with his brilliant fictional biography, Tarzan Alive. Then Farmer followed that one up with Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, and both books were so thoroughly researched and written with such cool authority that they completely fooled me, when I first read them at the age of twelve. I spent the next couple of days after finishing them thinking and wondering about how much of the original Tarzan and Doc Savage novels were 'real.' I fell for Farmer's continuity game hook, line, and sinker.

I'm still a little embarrassed at how completely this book fooled me.

One of the coolest conceits of Farmer's fictional biographies wasthe idea that Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage were, in actuality, all related to one another.

No, really. Here's Win Scott Eckert on the subject: "According to Mr. Farmer, the Wold Newton Family originated when a radioactive meteor landed in Wold Newton, England, a village in the Yorkshire Wolds, on December 13, 1795. The meteor landing is a real historical event. The meteor’s ionized radiation caused a genetic mutation in those present, which endowed many of their descendants with extremely high intelligence and strength. In addition to Tarzan and Doc Savage, Farmer concluded that other characters from popular literature were part of the Wold Newton Family, including Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, A.J. Raffles, Fu Manchu, Arsène Lupin, G-8, The Shadow, Sam Spade, the Spider, Nero Wolfe, Mr. Moto, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Travis McGee, and many more."

Yeah, I know. It seems sort of demented. But it really is weirdly fun, reading all these essays and theories on how these various pulp classics fit together, and if you go to pjfarmer.com and click on the Wold Newton link, you'll see for yourself. Or you could just pick up Eckert's new collection of essays on the subject:
I heart this book so much.
And that's why I fell so hard for Shang-Chi. It's because as far as I know, it's the first Wold Newton comic book.

Seriously. Shang-Chi is so clearly smack in the middle of the whole Wold Newton thing that I have to wonder if Doug Moench read Farmer's books when he was originally writing the thing. I mean, Clive Reston being related to James Bond AND Sherlock Holmes? That's SO Wold Newton, effortlessly tying together Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu.

I'm perfectly aware that this kind of attention to dorky minutiae is what gives us things like Yellow Fear Monsters and six-issue miniseries explaining why Hal Jordan went gray at the temples. But! Let's not forget, it also gave us Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, another comic squarely in the Wold Newton continuity-geek tradition. For that matter, Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier has a whiff of Wold Newtonry about it, the way it attempts to integrate DC's Silver Age into a historical whole.

So what makes those efforts work where stuff like Green Lantern: Rebirth or Infinite Crisis mostly make you want to wince at the sheer OCD nerdiness of it all? I don't really know, except that I think it has to do with story coming first. I think there's a very strong through-line of plot and character with Shang-Chi or LOEG that just isn't there with some of the other, lesser efforts that set comics columnists howling about how continuity freaks are killing us. I think any time a writer sits down with a mission statement of "We need to fix this discrepancy," he's in trouble. No argument there.

But I also think that as long as you have a strong story, you can have some fun with continuity along the way. A little geekiness never hurt anybody. It's only when it becomes the point of the exercise that it gets painful.

See you next week.

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21 Comments:

Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

Cool title. My heart sings with joy.
On the other side, you can also see World Newtonry as a nice exercise in creative metaliterature.
Since most heroes or villains are patterned after others, the way World Newton functions - making similar characters related to each other, is also an analysis of archetypes. It can also become very stimulating: if you start to see the shifting and copying of themes (or memes) in literature, you start to become a very different view of genre. I think Alan Moores research in this direction was the basis for his constructivist line of characters in Americas Best Comics - League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was just the first fallout.
Plus, you can get a real kick out of realizing just in what way some characters are related.

2/05/2006 04:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can even try a superhero spin on the Wold Newton stuff, such as the stuff at Schroeder's Speculations where Hugo Danner of Philip Wylie's GLADIATOR is fused with Siegel and Shuster's Superman, set smack-dab in the Wold Newton universe. Done by the same guy who does MINDMISTRESS.

2/05/2006 07:17:00 AM  
Blogger Gordon said...

What makes the Wold Newtonverse (?) cool, in my opinion, is the fact that there's an attempt to work with continuity intelligently and creatively. Most superhero books operate on an "isn't-that-cool" premise, whereas the Newtonverse (and its heirs like League do so with great pains to do it right).

I still have my mega-worn copy of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, and the thing that draws me back is that Farmer goes beyond the text and infers many things, such as a romance between two Doc characters (that, quite frankly, I never saw in the pulps). It's continuity done right.

2/05/2006 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger Win Eckert said...

Thank you very much for picking up the new Wold Newton collection MYTHS FOR THE MODERN AGE. I and the other contributors appreciate the support.

You may or may not have been able to tell from my essay "Who's Going to Take Over the World When I'm Gone?" but I am a HUGE fan of the Shang Chi series. I loved how Moench dropped the hints that connected it to Doyle and Fleming, and how he was able to write it in a way that it can be seamlessly disconnected from the comic book universe.

There is actually a Shang Chi Chronology by Matthew Baugh on my Wold Newton website (http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Shangchi.htm) which can be read in conjunction with my Fu Manchu Chronology (http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Fumanchu.htm).

Being a “fictional genealogist,” it’s always nagged at me we never found out who Shang Chi’s mother was. Yes, she actually appeared late in the comic’s run, but we still never learned anything about her. And we never got the real scoop behind Clive Reston’s birth. How could he be James Bond’s son and also be Sherlock Holmes’ great nephew? Who was Clive’s mother, etc?

Perhaps some questions are better left unanswered, but what the heck, I’ve taken a shot at it. You can see the results in my story “The Vanishing Devil” (TALES OF THE SHADOWMEN Vol.: THE MODERN BABYLON, Black Coat Press, 2005) and “The Eye of Oran (TALES OF THE SHADOWMEN Vo2.: GENTLEMEN OF THE NIGHT, Black Coat Press, 2006) (both available directly from Black Coat Press as well as Amazon and B&N.com). Both stories are also heavily tied into the Doc Savage mythos.

I hope you’ll check them out.

Best regards,

Win

2/05/2006 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger David Campbell said...

Greg, have you ever read "A Feast Unknown" by Phillip Jose Farmer? Doc Savage and Tarzan - together! It's the goriest, most psychotic/erotic book I've ever read in my life. Seriously, it takes both characters in a direction that is just SHOCKING. There's a homoerotic face-off on a log bridge between the two that has to be read to be believed.

2/05/2006 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

David: yes, I own ALL Farmer's Wold Newton books, even the tangentially-related stuff like A Feast Unknown,, its straight, non-erotica sequel Lord Of the Trees/Mad Goblin, and other books that might or might not count like A Barnstormer in Oz. I'm just a big ol' Wold Newton geek. The only one I'm missing is the collection Mother Was A Lovely Beast, which is long out of print but it's on the short list of Books We Hunt For when we are prowling used bookshops. I suppose I could bowl it out online if I really tried but that's not nearly as much fun as doing the used-bookstore crawl.

2/05/2006 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Hoosier X said...

Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life is my favorite book ever!

Wold Newton rocks!

Pat Savage is Jonny Quest's mother.

William Harper Littlejohn is the great-uncle of Shaggy (of the Scooby-Doo series).

Scooby-Doo is a result of a later incarnation of the same project that produced Sirius, fictionalized by Olaf Stapledon in a book of the same name.

2/05/2006 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

By the way, I don't know if this came across in the piece, but I ADORED Myths For The Modern Age. It was enormous fun.

2/05/2006 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger Iagorune said...

Hi Greg.

All these years and I never knew that you were as big a Wold Newton geek as I am.

I first read Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life when I was about 11 years old and hadn’t actually read all that much “pulp” fiction at that point. But because I had read the Doc book and very shortly after that Tarzan Alive before I read most of the others, the Wold Newton version of things was always in the back of my mind whenever I would read a Fu Manchu or James Bond novel.

Because of Wold Newton, I’d wonder to myself why Denis Smith didn’t just get in touch with everyone from the Saint to Bulldog Drummond and team up and thump Si Fan butt. Or how come John Carter never ran into Tripods, although Alan Moore took care of that one for me a year or two back. It’s probably why I have always been such a big fan of team-ups.

Which is why when Clive Reston showed up in MOKF as a relative of both Bond and Holmes, I had no trouble completely excepting the character right from the start.

I’ve been visiting Win’s Wold Newton web site almost since the first time I went online. I can’t recommend it enough for those of us who are in love with this kind of speculative minutia, it’s just filled with fascinating histories. His book form Myths for the Modern Age is also great fun from start to finish and I highly recommend it.

- rick

2/05/2006 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

Very much fun, when done right, or as an understatement. Farmers "Adventure of the Peerless Peer" is of course over the top, with Holmes & Watson meeting The Spider, The Shadow and Lord Greystoke (or was it Mowgli).
When done stupidly, you have namedropping and character assassination like in the movie version of LOEG and that Helsing movie. Brrrr.
On the other hand, Comicverses (?) have a tendency to assimilate concepts and characters, and that's sometimes pretty dumb. Shang-Chi was pretty good, but what about all the Robert E. Howard-characters that were incorporated into Marcvel Universe History? Can that be done right? A Team-Up of Spider Man and King Kull? Uh, yeah.. "Throw thou that girlish acrobat to the lions, he hath webbed my imperial crown..."

2/05/2006 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger Apodaca said...

And don't forget that Godzilla, War of the Worlds, and 2001: A Space Odyssey all take place in the Marvel Universe.

2/05/2006 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger Derek B. Haas said...

Scooby-Doo is a result of a later incarnation of the same project that produced Sirius, fictionalized by Olaf Stapledon in a book of the same name.

Which ultimately led to the creation of the superintelligent dogs paired with soldiers in Starship Troopers.

2/06/2006 01:53:00 AM  
Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

What about Rex the Wonderdog?

2/06/2006 03:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The crossovers found in comics sometimes lend themselves well to the Wold Newton game, such as when Logan and Zanna fought the Si Fan, or Batman and Tarzan teaming up in an Elseworld 1930s. But I don't think the game is REALLY afoot until we have the deeper connections, such as you mentioned with Clive Reston's lineage and the wonderful genealogies Farmer and his followers have developed. That kind of geekery leaves those Marvel Zombies in the dust, still trying to figure where to place each of Spider-Man's 7 monthly appearences in relation to each other.

I love the idea that the Dick Grayson Batman and Bruce Wayne Jr Robin were the ones who actually rescued a frozen Captain America in the 1960s. I think it only natural that an inherent connection exists between Hugo Danner and Clark Kent, and I have to admit John Byrne's idea to have Galactus' attack on Apokolips spur Darseid into seeking the Anti-Life equation would have been the icing on that particular crossover cake.

2/06/2006 08:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Craig said...

Can that be done right? A Team-Up of Spider Man and King Kull?

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Poisoned by Snake-Men in search of a totem held by a statue of OMM THE SPIDER-GOD, Spider-Man's soul was sent back in time, in full costume, to King Kull's kingdom, in order to find the potion needed to save his life. Posessing a number of people, and able to bring his spider-powers with him, Spidey fought with a number of people, including Kull himself, before drinking his Kool-Aid, and finally making his way home.

//\Oo/\\

2/06/2006 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

I love Wold Newtonry as much as I hate continuity comics. Weird, I know.

2/06/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Win Eckert said...

Everyone,

Thanks for all the kind words about our Wold-Newtonry and MYTHS FOR THE MODERN AGE. I really appreciate it.

Regarding many of the crossovers discussed in this thread (including Tarzan/Batman, the wild Spidey/King Kull, etc.), you can see them on the "crossover chronology" on my website (~400 crossover entries).

Hopefully MYTHS will sell well enough to justify a MYTHS 2 (which, if it comes to fruition, would include the extra ~900 crossover entries that I have written up, but not yet published on my website).

Thanks again for the support,

Win

2/07/2006 12:14:00 AM  
Blogger Matt Brady said...

Jess Nevins (author of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen annotation books) has an interesting entry on this subject over at the Howling Curmudgeons site:

http://www.whiterose.org/howlingcurmudgeons/archives/008910.html

2/07/2006 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought Marilyn Monroe was Shang-Chi's mom. Dont they show her in the first issue? They dont SAY its her, naturally, but I thought the dialog sort of implied it.

Yer gonna make me dig for my copy now...

2/07/2006 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger Bret Taylor said...

Greg, I don't which strikes me as more odd: that you didn't read Shang-Chi back in the 70s, or that you didn't know he fit into the Wold Newton universe.

The first time I encountered Wold Newtonry was when you mentioned this family tree (on the CBR Books board):

http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/main_tree.gif

I spotted Shang-Chi's name right off the bat.

2/22/2006 11:22:00 PM  
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