Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Citizen of the (Prehistoric) World

"And the road becomes my bride
I have stripped of all but pride

Only knowledge will I save

And my ties are severed clean
Less I have the more I gain
Off the beaten path I reign
Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond
Call me what you will"

Metallica - Wherever I May Roam

Spoiler alert:
The Earth is round like a fruit.
(You think I'm kidding? It's still news to some idiots.)


I leafed through my share of comedic comics and superhero comics growing up, but my indisputable favorite was a 1970s* French throwback to late 19th or early 20th century adventure stories - set in the stone age. Rahan distinguished itself by (aside from it's high loincloth quotient) its firm reliance on and promotion of rational inquiry. The villain of the week would more likely than not come in the form of a tyrannical mystic to be debunked by the hard light of reason. The monster of the week was often supplanted by the applied science/engineering problem of the week.

How the hell do you introduce a stone-age egalitarian scientist to your presumably tween audience? I mean, some origin stories make excellent comic book first issues. Superman? Exploding planet? Total boy scout bait. However, in cases where the origin story is either too complicated/multiplicative (X-Men) or ever so slightly esoteric (Sandman) you tend to encounter mysterious heroes already engaged in medias res, kicking names and taking ass and expositing as they go. Early Rahan comics don't bother much with backstory and just try to establish the essence of Rahan-ness. So, his first adventure The Secret of the Sun has Rahan chasing down a kangaroo and getting whanged over the noggin with a boomerang in the shade of a perpetually erupting range of volcanoes.

Time out.
First off, red kangaroos hit a top speed of 70 km/h; Usain Bolt set the latest human record at just under 45. Also, trying to sit on a kangaroo's hindquarters like he is in that last panel would likely just get you sprung into orbit, unless you're a comic book hero. Thus we've already established Rahan's superhuman (albeit entirely natural) abilities.
Batman in a leather diaper? Check.
Second, seems patently ludicrous to insert both a kangaroo and boomerangs within the first two pages of the first issue of the comic, seeing as it generally had little or nothing to do with Australia. Upon consideration, however, it made for a clever compromise between situating the comic's primitive setting and not blowing their entire wad by immediately overusing Mastodons and Smilodons. 1960s-'70s European pop culture was already saturated with adventure novels and movies set in such exotic, thrilling, primeval locales as the South Seas or the Hollow Earth or Darkest Africa or... ummm, Kansas. Well, they can't all be winners. Australia instantly established the comic's genre to its target audience without being too on the nose.
Third, yes, he is indeed interrogating the kangaroo... as to where the sun sleeps at night. Moving along.

That odd little segue leads into the main plot: the adolescent Rahan has set himself on a quest to find the lair of the sun god so as to persuade it to shine constantly because he's afraid of the dark.
That panel's either copycatting a very famous painting or Captain Morgan. Either way, good job re-iterating the romantic adventure setting.

One of the funnier facets of our pop culture expectation of prehistory holds that it was full, absolutely full of erupting volcanoes, and this comic didn't disappoint. Look at that: firestorm plus white birds. It's like a John Woo adaptation of the Paleolithic. Rahan's very origin story consists of losing his tribe to a volcanic eruption, and every few issues he'd run smack into another one just as it was a-splodin', nearly all of them inhabited by human tribes inexplicably building their homes almost atop the caldera. Big empty planet but when everyone picks a settlement spot they all want to sit their asses on the nearest fiery rockpile of doom.

Or maybe they didn't have a choice. I mean, look at that landscape, something out of the Hadean. You can't swing a dead pterodactyl without hitting a cindercone around here. Wait, weren't we in boomerang town? Y'know, the place not particularly known for volcanic activity? Tectonically, Australia's practically defined by being not_on_the_ring_of_fire, unlike its smaller northern neighbours. We know we're on the mainland because Lecureux went to some pains to establish young Rahan's unfamiliarity with large bodies of water. It's actually a point of character development that he learns to swim as a result of needing to cross large rivers in his mad crusade for the sun god's cave.

Constantly chasing the setting sun he at last dead-ends into the western shore, almost drowns trying to ride a giant tortoise across the ocean (tell me you haven't wanted to do that) and at last decides to seek out new worlds and new civilizations rather than a mirage. He mocks the sun god with impunity.

Lookie there, more eruptions.

What's that? You need a supply of fresh water for high seas adventures? Nonsense. He's Batman, remember? Surfing the (presumably Indian) ocean on his raft the size of a cafeteria tray, he lands on an inhabited island and witnesses a boat race. Seeing one boat lap the other around the island induces the epiphany of the sun circling the earth to rise at the opposite horizon every day, and the realization that the world is round. "Comme un fruit!" Suck it, Magellan!

Turns out the natives there are enlightened noble savages never fighting either amongst themselves or with other islands, venting their competitive instincts in harmless contests instead, like boat racing. Cue epiphany #2 "we don't have to kill each other" and Rahan sets off for the next exciting issue. Thenceforward his task is to explore the world, spreading wisdom as he goes.

Look, another erupting volcano! And another one! And - oh shit, you thought I was joking about the pterosaurs, didn't you? Bitchin'! Cue bare-chested hair band electric guitar solo. BbrrrraAAaaannNGG! BadabadabawannNGG! Check out the pecs, yo!
Heheh. As much as I have to laugh at seeing it now, twenty-five years worth of perspective and scientific knowledge after I first read these lovely picture-books, I still love them. The wolfy doth protest too much.

I'm not sure Cheret ever again drew Rahan quite so stubby and barrel-chested, and rarely gave him chest hair. In fact he's usually drawn and explicitly described as slim, youthful and agile compared to the musclebound, hairy, brutish tribal chiefs he opposes. Typical dashing young rebel. Here it's likely meant to show the passage of time, since the first issue of the comic covers several years' worth of prehistoric walkabout. Our hero is no longer the naive, slim youth of twenty gloriously colorized pages ago but has become A Man ready to take on the world. As with most serialized works, the earliest installments (for better or worse) read and look slightly differently from the rest.
The boomerang, though adopted in the first issue alongside his ivory knife and five-claw* necklace as though it's here to stay, is dropped with no fanfare from future installments. Just as well, as it was too culturally-specific for a globetrotter.
Graphically, Rahan himself would become more polished and consistent in his features and proportions and the backgrounds would grow more detailed than in the first few issues, etc. That badass windblown hair look gets used more sparingly later on.
The plots would become more nuanced as Lecureux settled into his groove of presenting Rahan with natural phenomena/mysteries from which he deduces a solution to the tribe of the week's current dilemma.

That the comic plays fast and loose with its geography, paleontology and biology is to be expected given its 1969 debut fast on the heels of the wildly successful Flintstones. Geographically misplaced or kaiju-sized versions of normal wildlife and anachronistic dinosaurs crop up with some regularity, and Rahan's body possesses a small trace of the usual implicit superhero healing factor and resilience to blunt trauma. However, compared to the other, more Conan-ish sword and sorcery takes on prehistory from preceding decades, Lecureux and Cheret kept things surprisingly down to Earth*. Compared to inventing and inserting racial memories into Neanderthals, the odd T-Rex here and there seems almost natural. By and large they stuck to real-world conflicts and technologies, and much of the comic's charm lay in reinventing such mundane objects as flutes, hard-boiled eggs, fishing poles and magnifying glasses through the wonder of a primitive mind.

Centering much of the comic on reinventing the wheel (at least from the reader's perspective) served Rahan as well as it always has Robinsonesque island adventures, with the added bonus that a young fan would not only share in knowledge of such simple technologies (I've heard of aqueducts, who says I haven't) but in the caveman's exultation in divining their operating principles (oh, one end has to be lower than the other?) It tiptoed the knife edge of "edutaiment" with rare grace. More importantly, it extended that same principle of rational inquiry to Rahan's own outlook on the world, right from the first issue. He's no declared atheist, quite willing to speak in terms of gods and spirits, but also skeptical of ever encountering one and always, always willing to pull Santa's beard.

Though arguably fitting the noble savage trope, Rahan's not born englightened. In the very first issue, he has to be told that:
1) kangaroos aren't people, dumbass
2) nobody's ever found the sun's sleeping cave, dumbass
3) not everyone kills each other on sight, dumbass

The moment of iconoclasm in that third image where he basically tells the sun "screw you, man, I'm outta here" in fact recapitulates in the very next panel a process very familiar to most atheists, the lingering irrational fear of divine retribution during the period of adjustment after ceasing to believe. Unlike most speculative pulp fiction, Rahan didn't stop at presenting discoveries, but gloried in the process of discovery. Observation, hypothesis, testing, theory. If the sun does not avenge insults, maybe the dark is not to fear either? You're blowing my mind, dude.

Perhaps most importantly, Rahan's intellectual freedom extends to his interpersonal relations. He never allows himself to be trapped in a long-term sexual relationship* and never swears fealty to some arbitrary in-group* and is frequently faced with the treachery hiding behind facetious niceness. The son of all clans, of all hordes, of the grand horde of humanity, bases his do-gooding not on instinctive sympathy and other emotional manipulation but on the general principle of a higher good. His gift to those-who-walk-upright is the dissemination of knowledge.

For the sake of human interest, each issue of the comic ladled on more than its share of monsters, violence, drama and cave-girl boobies, but true to its publishers' socialist/communist roots it presented a constant message of equality, the greater good and personal freedom which is far beyond even today's pop culture. Those same socialist roots also explain why American audiences have never seen so much as a single blond hair of the son of the savage age. So if you're looking for a creative gift for a ten-year-old, give Captain Ugly American a rest and try digging up some copies of the old original run of Rahan*. Bonus points if you get them in French and ensure the little bastard an easy A- in his foreign language courses.

("Minus" because he'll probably think all French is spoken in third person.)
(And a hard slap in the face from the first paleontologist he meets.)

* We do not speak of anything labeled Rahan after 1984.

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