Category Archives: Superheroes

Nada the Lily, Black Panther, & the colonial adventure

EVER SINCE READING, as a teenager, H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novels She and King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, I’d been hungry to find more from Haggard. It wasn’t until, as an adult, I was gifted a Kindle and found an ebook of his complete works that I was able to: aside from the well-known titles already mentioned, hardly anything remains in print from an author who was once one of the English-speaking world’s most popular.

This likely has to do with much of Haggard’s work’s status as colonial fiction, which has had a hard time attracting any readers since around the advent of post-colonial literature. Kipling, one of the most prominent writers of his own time, is nowadays hardly read, save for the odd academic defence or condemnation. Heart of Darkness remains on syllabi, likely aided by being so deconstructionary and generally difficult, but the rest of Conrad’s colonial fiction is obscure.

Haggard himself inaugurated the genre with King Solomon’s Mines, but his full oeuvre of more than fifty novels spans almost half a century and an array of genres including early examples of science fiction and the historical novel, and settings ranging across Africa, Europe, Asia and North and South America as well as throughout human history. Popular sales and enthusiastic reviews sustained his career well into the twentieth century, and dozens of film adaptations appeared, from Georges Méliès’ 1899 “The Pillar of Fire”, based on She, to Hammer’s 1965 treatment of the same material, while the last thirty years has seen Haggard’s only screen representation come from the 2008 Asylum mockbuster Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, taking more cues from the successful (and Haggard-influenced) Indiana Jones films than the text it purportedly adapts. To this day, echoes of Haggard’s work are evident in all kinds of stories of adventure and fantasy, exploration and colonisation – the recent success of Marvel’s Black Panther film, set in a Haggard-like hidden African kingdom, attests to this – but his novels themselves remain little-read and overdue for re-interpretation.

The books in question, it must be said, range in quality as well as content – though the very roughest still make for stirring yarns – but the most remarkable among them is Nada the Lily, an early example of the spin-off prequel for a successful series, exploring the younger days of Umslopogaas who, in Allan Quatermain, had played a formidable variation on the Man Friday noble savage part.

Already the ambition of Nada the Lily is evident, for it is hard to imagine the original Man Friday, nor any of his literary descendants, meriting their own derivative work – particularly not one in which the narrative is at no point driven by their relationship to white European characters. In fact, the entire cast of Nada the Lily are black Africans, and many of them are real historical figures, or closely based on them: while the “Lost World” literary genre began with the imaginary Kukuanaland of King Solomon’s Mines, and was more fully explored in the hidden Zu-Vendis kingdom of white Africans in Allan Quatermain, Nada the Lily’s action takes place in the very real Zululand, and in what was then the fairly recent past. We would not, either, expect the prequel to a fantastical adventure story to fall more into historical fiction, then still a relatively young genre having been codified by Sir Walter Scott in the first half of the century. No prior attempts appear to have been made at a novel of African history, and Nada holds the distinction of being the first ever novel with an entirely black cast. In fact, given the paucity of African written records, such a novel could probably only have come from a colonial adventurer such as Haggard, who relied heavily on the oral histories he picked up from natives as well as the partial reconstructions attempted by some of his contemporaries, such as the missionary Henry Callaway.

In a favourite technique of Haggard’s, the narrative is presented as a genuine artefact, with occasional interjections by its “editor”. In the frame narrative, a white explorer becomes stranded in a sudden and mysterious snowdrift, whereupon he gets caught up hearing the main story, which is recounted to him by the elderly Mopo, who was once witch-doctor to the great king Chaka (better known to modern readers as Shaka Zulu), and father of the beautiful Nada who is the object of the young Umslopogaas’ love. Umslopogaas has been raised as Nada’s brother but is in actuality the son of Chaka, kept secret by Mopo due to Chaka’s policy of having all his sons killed lest one should rise against him.

Following Chaka’s assassination by his half-brother Dingaan, Nada is forced to flee, taking refuge on the great Ghost Mountain, with “a grey peak rudely shaped like the head of an aged woman” in a manner recalling the twin peaks nicknamed Sheba’s Breasts, in King Solomon’s Mines. Unlike Sheba’s Breasts, however, the Ghost Mountain really exists, though Haggard never visited and took some dramatic licence in its depiction. Here his carefully-researched historical epic takes a turn into the phantasmagorical territory which made his name, with Umslopogaas’ introduction to the mountain’s unique resident, Galazi the Wolf, who has been raised by the mountain’s resident wolf-pack (Kipling acknowledged in a letter to Haggard that the concept for The Jungle Book grew from reading Nada the Lily), though presumably the “wolves” are hyenas. Galazi acts as the pack’s leader and the wolves do his bidding, making for an unforgettable Haggard set-piece as he makes his last stand on the Ghost Mountain.

Haggard’s blending of fantastical elements with historical narrative makes Nada the Lily one of his most appealing works; his books have always been sold on his great imaginative power, while the lofty tone of his prose, informed by Homer and the King James Bible, is often undercut by a lack of polish and an occasional clumsiness. He himself seems to have been aware of this, but preferred to leave his manuscripts unrevised, asserting in his autobiography The Days of My Life that “wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass”. The energy and roughshod nature of his earlier adventure novels is less evident in the latter half of his body of work, which is dominated by melodramas and further historical tales. Indeed, the narrative of Nada the Lily itself is revisited and continued in a trilogy of novels – Marie, Child of Storm and Finished – which fully integrate Allan Quatermain and his wife Marie into the action, covering a number of key historical events such as the Great Trek, the Weenen Massacre and finally the Anglo-Zulu War with the detail of an amateur historian and, in some cases, an eyewitness. All are captivating, but Nada the Lily stands as the ultimate Haggard work. The tone is set in the very opening lines of the “Introduction”, as detailed documentary narrative begins to give way to the spellbinding voice of folk-tale or oral history:

 

Some years since–it was during the winter before the Zulu War–a White Man was travelling through Natal. His name does not matter, for he plays no part in this story. With him were two wagons laden with goods, which he was transporting to Pretoria. The weather was cold and there was little or no grass for the oxen, which made the journey difficult; but he had been tempted to it by the high rates of transport that prevailed at that season of the year, which would remunerate him for any probable loss he might suffer in cattle. So he pushed along on his journey, and all went well until he had passed the little town of Stanger, once the site of Duguza, the kraal of Chaka, the first Zulu king and the uncle of Cetywayo. The night after he left Stanger the air turned bitterly cold, heavy grey clouds filled the sky, and hid the light of the stars.

 

The synthesis of styles is sufficiently convincing to allow for a premonition much later in the book, and spelling out its underlying theme, not to spoil the narrative immersion:

 

Thou canst not kill this white men, for they are not of one race, but of many races, and the sea is their home; they rise out of the black water. Destroy those that are here, and others shall come to avenge them, more and more and more! Now thou hast smitten in thy hour; in theirs they shall smite in turn. Now they lie low in blood at thy hand; in a day to come, O King, thou shalt lie low in blood at theirs.

 

So prophesies Mopo to Dingaan, elaborating on a prophesy made earlier by Chaka with his dying breath. The Shakespearean wrangling for the Zulu throne which has driven the novel’s tragic events is given a deeply ironic weight by the reader’s sure knowledge that all of this contending for power is in vain, and the alienating effect on the European reader shown himself as Other, as relentless monster, is increased by the richly immersive detail with which the novel portrays the Zulu way of life. The cultural destruction wrought by colonialism has never been more vividly made plain, though Chinua Achebe’s novel of immediately pre-colonial Nigerian life, Things Fall Apart, does make use of a similar effect.

Both are novels which make no attempt at “whitewashing” pre-Christian African values; Nada the Lily’s heroes and villains alike are recognisably Zulu in culture, with their multiple wives, pragmatic attitudes toward death, and glorification of war and conquest. Haggard’s treatment of Chaka, in particular, is spectacular. His cruelty and paranoia, and the sheer arbitrariness with which so many of his acts are conceived and carried out, is chillingly similar to the tyrants that came before and after him: Genghis Khan, Caligula, Idi Amin. Yet Chaka is also a visionary, terrible but great, and fits in with popular conceptions of tragic conquerors like Caesar or Napoleon.

Like every one of Nada the Lily’s characters, in short, his actions play out on a grand, larger-than-life scale, something Haggard was unique among Victorian authors – and even early-to-mid 20th-Century writers – in acknowledging could be afforded to native African affairs. The aforementioned superhero film Black Panther has broken a number of box-office records, and won much critical acclaim for its images of a bold, vibrant, and epic black African adventure directed at mainstream audiences. Yet it has an antecedent, more than a century old, in Nada the Lily and the rest of the series.

H Rider Haggard

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Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, & Walter White the super-villain

Breaking BadIF YOU HAVEN’T been watching Better Call Saul then, you know, you should really get on that. With Season 3 it seems Netflix have finally taken heed of what I’m always saying in idle conversation, which is that rather than release new seasons of their shows in giant, intimidating chunks, they ought to release them one episode per week: all the flexibility and convenience of streaming, without losing the water-cooler “What did you think of this week’s? What’ll happen next week?” that comes with traditionally broadcast television.

But if you haven’t already watched Breaking Bad then you might miss out a little bit with Better Call Saul; that said, who hasn’t watched Breaking Bad, right? Well, I hadn’t until last year, which I’m sure would shock many on the Internet but, look, there’s just too much good TV, OK? Rather edgily of me, I didn’t find Breaking Bad to be the very greatest TV show ever made; more of a very tight soap opera for people who would turn up their nose at soap opera. Far from the devastating, multilayered understanding of socioeconomic forces at every level demonstrated by The Wire, Breaking Bad rather lazily concludes that Albequerque’s drug problem is the result of a handful of bad eggs and a comic-book supervillain.

Of late plenty of shows have existed in the middle of the Venn diagram between the superhero-movie boom and the gritty drama boom: Heroes, Arrow, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, Daredevil, Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage et cetera, all take the opposite approach to their larger-than-life big-screen counterparts and seemingly do their damnedest to convince us we’re not really watching a show about superheroes (or supervillains) at all. And Breaking Bad does it so successfully that you’re more likely to see it compared to The Sopranos and The Wire than any of those superhero shows.

But really, when you break it down, here’s what you have: a character named Walter White who is, by day, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher but, following a freak diagnosis of lung cancer likely caused by exposure to deadly lab chemicals he becomes a supervillain by night, using his exaggerated scientific supergenius to craft elaborately implausible plans that nevertheless almost always go off without a hitch. For this second life, he adopts a new persona, taking on the thematically-appropriate name “Heisenberg” and assuming a (rather lazy) supervillain costume for the purpose. He has a younger, comic-relief sidekick in Jesse who, lacking book-smarts, is forever being scolded and lectured by Walter like they’re Pinky and the Brain. All this while, by the way, “Heisenberg” is being tracked by the closest thing Breaking Bad has to a superhero: the DEA’s Hank Schrader who is, unbeknownst to him, Heisenberg’s brother-in-law.

Along the way, Walter/Heisenberg acquires a Lex Luthor-esque Bald of Evil and, later, a Beard of Evil to go with it.

Later on, Heisenberg will even get to have his own evil lair in the form of a super-sophisticated meth lab hidden under an industrial laundromat. It’s granted to him by another villain, one who is even higher up the Sorting Algorithm of Evil. However, just like the frequent Enemy Civil Wars among Batman’s Rogues Gallery, Heisenberg can’t take being No. 2 in town for long and hatches a plan to blow that other supervillain up, which coincidentally leaves him looking exactly like Two-Face, albeit only for moments before he dies.

And, after clearing a few initial moral hurdles, Heisenberg has a great time ruling Albequerque (another point about comic-book supervillains their ambitions rarely stretch outside of their home turf, be it Gotham City, Metropolis, Hell’s Kitchen or, in this case, ABQ) but, whether the bad guy gets to rule for five minutes, two weeks, or a thousand years, they’re always defeated in the end, and so it is with Heisenberg, defeated by that humblest of all God’s creations, the common cancer. Thus ended his reign of terror…until we find out he was using Lazarus Pits, or was a Doombot all along, or something.

Logan, the X-Men, & the beauty of data

THE LAST FILM I went to see at the cinema was Logan and, I implore you, definitely go see it if you can find a place still showing it. But don’t do like I did and get lost contemplating the various intricacies of the inconsistent X-Men film series. Instead, just make use of this handy series of charts I’ve created and compiled for you!

Look, it’s got everything you might possibly need to know, charting which of the X-Men films…

  1. Are actually about the X-Men

are about the X-Men

2. Take place in which timeline…which timeline

3. Take place in the future…

past or future

4. Posit a Bad Future

posited futures

5. Feature Wolverine…

featuring Wolverine

6. Feature Wolverine fighting his double…

Wolverine fights his double

7. Feature Storm…

featuring Storm

8. Have a plot centred on human-mutant relations…

human-mutant relations

9. Introduce mutants via an underground fighting ring…

mutants introduced via fight ring

10. And sorted by score on Rotten Tomatoes.

sorted by RT score

X-Men: Days of Future Past, a Continuity Snarl, & the origins of Wolverine

days of future past

IN X-Men: Days of Future Past, a mutant must use Kitty Pryde’s power in order to take the Bad Future from X-Men: The Last Stand & The Wolverine & turn it into – guess what – a Good Future. Well, duh. Anyone familiar with the Days of Future Past storyline in Ucanny X-Men could have told you that. But rather than it being Kitty Pryde using her own power to travel back to the Austin Powers 1970s – like in the comics – or even it being Bishop – who took the Kitty Pryde rôle when the animated series X-Men adapted Days of Future Past, & whom  this movie even introduces, then gives nothing to do – Wolverine is the mutant who goes.

Apparently that’s because his mutant healing factor, the Swiss Army Knife of superpowers, makes him the only mutant capable of such a large leap without being torn apart by the timestream, or something. It seems odd that Kitty Pryde isn’t suited to using her own powers, but I suppose mutation will always be a bit of a genetic lottery. Anyway, despite his lack of people skills, his weirdly dim memory of his own life in the 1970s, & his having been rude to Professor X the only previous time they met, Wolverine manages to save the day, & in so doing, provide 20th Century Fox with everything they’ve ever wanted in an X-Men film: managing to retcon the rather shitty X-Men Origins: Wolverine out of existence; retcon the rather good X-Men: First Class into existence (despite its many inconsistencies with the rest of the series); &, as far as I can tell, provide themselves with opportunities for two new Wolverine-led pictures: one new prequel/remake of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, about how the Weapon X programme happened in this continuity; & one sequel about how the Wolverine who still remembers the old timeline copes with living in the body of a Wolverine who, until they merged, only remembered the old timeline. He’s sort of a different person now, & that must surely be difficult to cope with.

But never mind! X-Men: Days of Future Past was really quite a stroke of brilliance, untangling one of cinema’s more terrible non-Highlander Continuity Snarls, bringing the best but least canonical movie into continuity, bringing back characters who needlessly died in X-Men: The Last Stand, & of course, providing viewers with way more Wolverine, in the present & into the future. There have been three X-Men films which have come off more as Wolverine and the X-Men; two solo Wolverine spinoffs, & one X-Men with only a crowdpleasing cameo. Despite the success of X-Men: First Class, it feels like the producers & writers still feel the need to force Wolverine into being the hero of a non-Wolverine-centric storyline.

It’s a shame. In the comics, you could say Wolverine was a Break-Out Character, slowly proving himself popular & durable, rising through the ranks of Marvel Comics until achieving such rare distinctions as a solo series & membership of Avengers. He never got to be a Breakout Character in the films, because as early as the first film, Fox essentially told audiences they loved this character. & I suppose they weren’t wrong; his popularity has been sufficient to hold up two solo films, after all. But the films are reimaginings of the characters, & maybe Film!Storm or Film!Nightcrawler could be cool & popular characters, too. It doesn’t feel like we’ll ever find out, because we’ve never got to know them. & it’s funny, besides, all of this fuss over a throwaway Hulk enemy who was only saved from cancellation by being Canadian while a Canadian was in charge of X-Men; a short, smelly, gruff, hairy & unpleasant sort who has become increasingly tall, handsome & noble as a result of his popularity. Now, it seems executives have the idea that it’s impossible to sell X-Men media without the character. Say, do you know what TVTropes calls that sort of thing? Wolverine Publicity.