Unnamable but Not Undrawable: The World of Lovecraftian Superheroes
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Three
In Part One of this series I set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to find aspects of optimism and heroism in H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. In Part Two I looked at how a number of other writers, and also filmmakers — including Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Joss Whedon — have themselves produced Lovecraftian fiction with some kind of optimistic or redemptive cast.
Lovecraftian influences have also made their way into superhero comics, and today I’ll be taking you with me on a whirlwind tour of the way Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-esque ideas and themes have been used to heroic effect in colorful alternate worlds of tights, capes, and tentacular interdimensional horror.
As early as the 1940s, Gardner Fox used Lovecraftian ideas when co-creating the mystical superhero Dr. Fate. Other comics featuring Lovecraftian elements include Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, both of which feature cults and cosmic beings and come across as “The Call of Cthulhu” with superheroes (which, let’s face it, is the one ingredient that’s really missing from that story).
Elsewhere, in Brave and the Bold #32 J. Michael Straczynski had Aquaman and the Demon Etrigan team up to tackle an unnamed monster that bears an uncanny resemblance to Cthulhu. When this Cthulhu-alike summons his fishmen minions to attack the two heroes, Aquaman responds by calling up all the marine life in the surrounding area: sharks, whales, swordfish, stingrays, giant squids — everything. The resulting armada looks tough enough to tackle any ancient god that’s senile enough to take it on. And that’s before you take into account the fact that they’re backed up by a hellfire-wielding demon and the King of the Seven Seas. There’s also a meme doing the rounds with a picture of Cthulhu rearing out of the ocean with Aquaman standing atop his head in a regal pose as he commands the Ancient One to do his bidding. “I’m useless, they said,” runs the caption. “I have stupid powers, they said.”
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy also contains something of a Lovecraftian vibe, something that Guillermo “After-all that-build-up-I’m-not-going-to-direct-At-the-Mountains-of-Madness-after-all” del Toro emphasized in his film adaptations.
In the “American Gothic” storyline from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, a mystical force called the Great Evil Beast threatens to destroy all of reality. Different characters have different interpretations of this upcoming apocalypse. Sister Anne-Marie views it as biblical Armageddon, while Benjamin Cox views it as the awakening of Cthulhu. He comes to a nasty end while the heroes of the book get to save the day. During the course of the same storyline, a mystical superhero named Zatara — who was a contemporary of Dr. Fate, and who was likewise created by Gardner Fox, and whose tales, I’m told, occasionally featured a Lovecraftian element — shows up and suffers a fate fit for any good Lovecraftian protagonist: when the energy sent by the Great Evil Beast during a séance threatens to burn his daughter Zatanna alive, Zatara saves her by drawing the energy into himself, which kills him. In more recent comics Zatanna, herself a mystical superhero, has been shown to have a wide range of influences in her practice of magic, including a copy of the Necronomicon.
Significantly, it’s not just Lovecraft’s ideas and creations that have been used from time to time in superhero comics. Several times Lovecraft himself has gotten in on the action by putting in a cameo appearance.
One notable instance of this occurs in Planetary/The Authority by Warren Ellis. After an extended writing session without food or sleep accidentally sends Lovecraft into a shamanic trance state that opens up a dimensional rift and allows eggs containing embryonic Lovecraftian monsters to come through, old H. P. lends a hand to help repair the damage. Although he is shown as being heroic, he’s still not particularly pleasant, as he mistakenly believes the eggs were laid by black people and takes great delight in blasting them to smithereens with a shotgun (a characterization and plot development inspired by Lovecraft’s real-life famous/notorious racism).
In the Necronauts comic by Gordon Rennie, Lovecraft teams up with Charles Fort, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Harry Houdini to fight cosmic horrors. He is portrayed as the least heroic of the group, although he’s not as limp as an unnamed aviator who is pretty obviously supposed to be Charles Lindbergh. But Lovecraft does end up helping to save the day, albeit reluctantly and at the expense of his own sanity. Elsewhere, a younger Lovecraft has an easier time of it when, in between earning a crust as a paperboy, he teams up with Charles Fort in Rennie’s Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained.
In “The Philadelphia Experiment” issue of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, two of the characters stumble across a church filled with Lovecraftian monstrosities as well as a toad that has been crucified in a ritual to Tsathoggua, Clark Ashton Smith’s famous addition to the Cthulhu Mythos. One of the characters is sucked into a hideous eldritch tableau of tentacles and insectoid carapaces, and the experience warps him into a main villain of the series. Yet this is only one of many transformations he undergoes, some more distressing than others, and the series ends on an optimistic note.
Coming soon, Part Four (final installment):
“It’s Only a Story!”