Sunday, September 07, 2008

Cove West on Marvel and Lovecraft (Comment Pull Quote))

[In the comments to Jason's post on Uncanny X-Men 160, Cove West wrote -- in three parts -- about the Lovecraft mythos as it appears in Marvel Comics. Comment pull quote? Comment pull essay.]

HP Lovecraft and the N'Garai.

Jason, you asked way back in #150 about the gist of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Essentially, it's that there were these "Great Old Ones" (GOO) who were the original inhabitants of Earth, became dormant during the Age of Man, and were always on the verge of reawakening and destroying us all. The GOO were pure evil, but in a mindless force-of-nature way (they didn't cackle or plot or anything); it was usually their TAINT of evil, not the Old Ones specifically, that appeared in the stories. The villainy often came from humans who either had GOO-tainted ancestry (and sometimes were physically mutated) or who came into contact with a relic of the Old Ones that drove them mad. For Marvel Universe analogues, the Celestials are the most prominent (though they were more sci-fi oriented and tended to be more amoral than evil), and demon gods like Shuma-Gorath are almost direct pastiches.

But the more specific Cthulhuan beings in the MU are the Elder Gods -- Chthon, Set, Gaea, Oshtur, and Atum the Demogorge. The Elder Gods are more humanized than Lovecraft's creations, and Gaea and Oshtur (and Atum, sometimes) are benevolent (the GOO were always malevolent). Still, Chthon and Set are pretty close to what Lovecraft was doing -- Set got the tentacled, aquatic-themed aspects; Chthon got the demonic, mythic-mystical aspects. When it comes to the X-Men, however, Chthon is the important one.

The development of the ideas behind the Elder Gods is extremely convoluted. It begins with Roy Thomas on DR. STRANGE, who created a bunch of Lovecraftian demons with vaguely GOO-ish origins. Then Thomas brought Conan into the MU and things got askew: Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator, was a colleague of Lovecraft's, and Conan's mythos includes some ACTUAL Old Ones, so Thomas began distingiushed his analogues from the real things with the term "Elder Gods." But around the same time, other Marvel writers started on a Marvel-unique eschatology, a mish-mash of Classical myth (Gaea, Atum) and the Cthulhuan-inspired (Chthon). However, Thomas's Conan mythos remained just as relevant -- it figures prominently into the creation of Atlantis and the Savage Land, and the Hyborean Era is a major part of both Earth's and Asgard's past. Over time, Conan's major foe, Set, was included in the modern Marvel tales, and eventually the hierarchy settled into the powerful Elder Gods -- Set, Chthon, Gaea, and later, Atum and Oshtur -- and the secondary Primal (or Hyborean Elder) Gods -- Crom, Mitra, Ymir (the Asgardian Frost Giant), Shuma-Gorath, and others (Set is also in this, uh, set). The GOO used by Thomas in CONAN probably should be included as Primal Gods in the MU, but by the time the rules were established, Marvel had stopped using them. And to further confuse things, there are also the Elder RACE -- long-lived humans of the Hyborean Era such as Thulsa Doom (the guy James Earl Jones played in the Conan movie) -- and ElderSPAWN (who are ALSO sometimes referred to as Elder Races), who are now established to be human-like species created by the Elder Gods -- Set's Serpent Men, Oshtur's Bird Men, and maybe even a few of the Savage Land creatures. Hell, there's even a HyPERborean Era, which borrows from the tales of Clark Ashton Smith (who was also a friend of Howard's and Lovecraft's) and includes both Cthulhuan and Hyborean stuff.

Confusing, isn't it? The online Marvel Appendix helps sort some of it out, but even then, it can make your head explode. So just think how Claremont felt when he was trying to navigate it in the anything-goes stage of 1982!

Claremont's part in this begins in GIANT-SIZE DRACULA #2 (Sept 74), where he introduces a demon, Y'Garon, who is trying to use a "Sa'arpool" to summon the "Elder Gods" and "the Triad" (I don't have this issue, so I'm going by the Handbooks for this). Fairly generic demon story, but the reference to "Elder Gods" is important; at the time, I'm pretty sure "Elder Gods" referred specifically to what Roy Thomas was doing in CONAN -- thus, they were actually the Primal Gods. The next event comes in UNCANNY #96 (Dec 75), where Claremont and Cockrum create Kierrok and the N'Garai, whom Kierrok says are the "Elder Gods" who used to rule the Earth, a pretty explicit Lovecraft reference. But the pivotal event comes in MARVEL TEAM-UP #79 (Mar 79), a Claremont/Byrne tale featuring Spidey and Red Sonja. Here, the Hyborean sorceror Kulan Gath makes his first modern-day appearance, declares himself a priest of the N'Garai and a Sorcerer Supreme, and attempts to summon the "Elder Gods" through another Sa'arpool.

The clues are scattered, but Claremont seems to be saying that the N'Garai are the same as the Primal Gods of the Hyborean Era, that Y'Garon was trying to summon Kierrok in G-S DRACULA #2, and that the N'Garai are equivalent to Dr. Strange's Vishanti. He's putting forth the N'Garai as the Marvel's GOO analogues.

However, Marv Wolfman, Mark Gruenwald, and others were concurrently building Chthon up as the Big Bad Evil, especially in AVENGERS #185-87 (July-Sept 79). At some point, they tied Chthon to Gaea -- who, as Thor's mother in Marvel canon, was firmly established as a supreme goddess -- and developed the actual Elder Gods concept. As Set had already been making modern-day appearances since 1969, it made sense to tie him to the Elder Gods as well, and in effect tying the entire Thomas-Conan mythos to them. But over in UNCANNY, Claremont was still calling the N'Garai "Elder Gods" and treating them as though they were the GOO-analogous Primal Gods of the Hyborean Era, neither of which was Marvel canon anymore.

And then things came to a head with Belasco. As created by Bruce Jones in KA-ZAR #11 (Feb 82), Belasco SHOULD have been a servant of the Primal Gods of Conan's time, that every reference to "Elder Gods" should be in the same vein as Roy Thomas's CONAN "Elder Gods" (ie, guys like Shuma-Gorath or Crom) -- especially considering that Jones was writing for CONAN and SAVAGE SWORD at the time. But Claremont either thought Jones was referring to his "Elder Gods" or decided it didn't matter, so when Belasco shows up in UNCANNY #160 (Aug 82), Claremont never makes a distinction. In any event, Claremont intends that Belasco's masters are the N'Garai, and that should Belasco succeed, the N'Garai's return would be tantamount to instant end-of-the-world-ness (per the Lovecraft homage).

Which brings me to the reason for this long-as-all-get-out post: to reconstruct exactly how monumental #160 was supposed to be, the purpose of Limbo, and how dangerous Magik was intended.

UNCANNY #150 had multiple references to the actual Great Old One Cthulhu, who in the MU was a Primal God but carries the more-powerful connotation of Lovecraft's version. #159 is Dracula, who as Lord of Vampires in the MU, is the ostensible "high priest" of Chthon. Belasco completes the triumvirate, but also acts as a kind of videogame "end boss" -- defeating Belasco is the ultimate triumph over evil. Or to use BUFFY parlance: Belasco's the Big Bad who makes Magneto (as the Cthulhu priest) and Dracula (as the Chthon priest) the Little Bads. It's more thematic than explicit (Magneto wasn't actually a priest of Cthulhu, of course), and Claremont never makes Belasco quite as Big Badly as he seems to think he is, but Claremont's clearly in the mindset of trying to put the X-Men in a Lovecraft story.

Looking at Belasco, it seems clear that Claremont intends him as the heir to Kulan Gath's mantle as N'Garai high priest. Making Magik the inheritor of Belasco's mantle, then, is a HUGE deal. UNCANNY #190-191 is a nice indicator of Illyana's potential in that regard, but remember that Kulan Gath was a Sorcerer Supreme (at least, in Claremont's stories; I think everyone else ignored that); Illyana taking down the Enchantress in Asgard is simply a mild display of the power of her inheritance.

But I think her magic was only a part of the danger. The other part (and thanks Jason for reminding me that I forgot to mention it before) is that it seems, from the general flow of the N'Garai stories from G-S DRACULA #2 and MTU #79, is that the final sa'arpool to free the N'Garai... is Illyana herself (if it'd been Kierrok's cairn, Gath surely would have known about it if he knew about Y'Garon's sa'arpool, which he mentions). Sorcerer Y'Garon uses Sa'arpool #1, is defeated by Dracula; sorcerer Kulan Gath uses Sa'arpool #2, is defeated by Spidey and Red Sonja; so what is it that sorcerer Belasco uses in #160? Illyana. It seems like Claremont is indicating that Illyana's mutant power to control the Stepping Discs is itself the sa'arpool, that she wasn't yet strong enough to fully use it, and that the Bloodstones would somehow allow Belasco to tap that power when she was. But in the MAGIK mini, the N'Garai decide to cut out middle-man Belasco and back Illyana, content that she will be their creature by the time she can fully use her inner sa'arpool. So the more Illyana uses her power, the more she'll corrupt, and the closer she'll get to opening the forbidden door and destroying all life (because if the N'Garai return, like Lovecraft's Great Old Ones, they can't be stopped).

Sound familiar? Claremont DID refer to both Magik and Phoenix as Darkchild.

I should mention Limbo, too. If the N'Garai's dimension represents the Hell of Claremont's theology, then Limbo isn't just a convenient name, it's what the place actually is: the place between Earth and Hell. And in that regard, I wonder what that means for S'ym and N'astirh and the rest -- were they actual N'Garai, somehow stuck in the limbo of Limbo? Anyway, Claremont was using it mainly metaphorically: when Illyana had lost two-fifths of her soul, she was able to use her sa'arpool power to go to the dimension two-fifths of the way between Earth and Hell; had she lost all her soul, she could go all the way. The difference between Jean and Illyana, I think he was going for, was that Illyana would actually have a choice -- power itself corrupted Jean, but it's the abuse of the power that corrupts Illyana.

So yeah, I think Claremont's progressive shift from the Lovecraftian to the Dantean really kneecapped a lot of the story he'd built. And I wonder why that happened. Did he flinch from rehashing Dark Phoenix? Did the overall decision to ignore his "Elder Gods" for Chthon and Set, thereby demoting the N'Garai to simple demons, deflate his interest in the story? Or did the Lovecraftian angle simply lose its appeal as he got older? SOMETHING happened to make him give up Illyana's fate to Weezie in "Inferno" and change the original intent of the N'Garai Saga that "Inferno" ostensibly completed. Maybe I'll spot something once we get to #190-91 -- because, yes, there's parts of this story still to come!


Streebo said...

Somewhere in the distance - whilst reading this - a fanboy's head quietly imploded.

Fantastic essay, Cove. I'm glad this made the comment pull quote as I didn't read the X-Men review due to never reading the original story. As a reader familiar with the Lovecraftian Mythos and a large bulk of the stories discussed in this essay - there is much information to be gleaned from this essay. Thank you very much for posting - as I foresee this as being a handy reference in the future.

jrnewto said...
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Dougie said...

A very enjoyable article for this Friend of Ol' Marvel. Chris didn't create Excalibur's Meggan however; Alan Moore and Alan Davis did in the b/w Capt. Britain series of the very early 80s. Davis then refined her appearance from bat/wolf to angel/Sidhe in the mid-80s Capt.Britain Monthly. I don't see any connection with Lady Daemon but I do recall that Claremont alluded to a possible appearance of Megan Daemon with the X-men. That may have been in Amazing Heroes?

Geoff Klock said...

Nathan Adler had this to say: