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Sunday 20 December 2015

Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars

Earlier this year I came across a cover scan of Marvel Preview #1, which was clearly inspired by the “ancient aliens” concept. It came to mind again when I wrote my recent post about Space-Gods and Venusians, so I sought out a low-priced copy on eBay and bought it (or rather “won it”, in an auction in which I was the only bidder). The magazine dates from 1975 – a period when I was buying a lot of Marvel colour comics, but not many of these black and white magazines. So buying it now is a kind of “faux nostalgia” for something I might have read 40 years ago but didn’t.

Text items in comic magazines are often highly skippable, but in this case they’re arguably the best bit. The longest of them is a ten-page article by Ed Summer which is surprisingly well-informed and well-balanced. He makes it clear that “In Europe, von Daniken’s book was one of many others on the same topic”, and devotes half a page to the work of Charles Fort. He points out that von Daniken often has a cavalier attitude to facts (such as the weight of pyramid blocks) and to established scholarship (such as Thor Heyerdahl’s work on the Easter Island statues). He also raises an interesting question: What would future archaeologists think if they unearthed a buried hoard of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comics? Would they imagine they portrayed real events, or “determine that it is a symbolic code for some mystic achievement that mankind as a whole must strive for?”

As well as that main article, there are a couple of biographical pages about Erich von Daniken and – perhaps best of all – a four-page bibliography of “The Books of the Gods” … by von Daniken, Charles Fort, Robert Charroux, W. Raymond Drake, Andrew Tomas, Brinsley LePoer Trench and many others.

Coming back to the cover, which is what led me to buy the magazine in the first place – “Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars” is the main, 37-page comic feature. That striking cover image is by Neal Adams, but the interior art is by Alex Nino, whose style is a little too impressionistic for my taste. The script, by Doug Moench, is also something of a struggle due to his excessive fondness for Big Words (“The cybernetic deciphering of their language into terms perceivable by us does not dictate reciprocating translation of our speech to them”).

I found the story disappointing for another reason too. For me, one of the big attractions of the Ancient Alien hypothesis (regardless of its validity) is the prevalence of exotic settings, such as the Egypt of the Pharaohs, the middle-east of Biblical times, or the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. But “Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars” misses out on all that by going for a much earlier time period, in which humans dressed in animal skins co-exist with woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth cats. The result isn’t a bad story, but it’s not an especially memorable one either.

Having said that, the story does contain a couple of thought-provoking ideas. First, there’s a conflict between one of the aliens, who enjoys being treated like a god, and the rest of the crew who want to adhere to a Star Trek style “prime directive” of non-interference. That raises the interesting prospect that if our ancestors did interact with alien visitors, then maybe the ones they interacted with weren’t at the top of the ethical scale!

The story’s other provocative idea doesn’t hold water scientifically, but it’s a clever piece of post-Vietnam political satire. It turns out that von Daniken was right when he suggested that homo sapiens resulted from alien genetic engineering – but it took place on a distant planet, for the purpose of creating an army of semi-mindless soldiers to serve as cannon fodder in an interplanetary war. When the war was over, the leftover soldiers were no longer needed so they were quietly dumped on Earth.

The magazine contains a second story, just ten pages long (possibly a last-minute filler, because it doesn’t appear on the contents page). It’s called “Good Lord!”, and it’s written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Dave Cockrum. Personally I found both the script and the artwork a lot more enjoyable than the main feature. This one is set in the future, following a group of space travellers as they search alien planets for “God” … with disastrous consequences. The story is outrageously over the top, and about as dark as dark humour gets.

I can’t really talk about comic books and Ancient Aliens without at least a brief mention of Jack Kirby’s The Eternals. The series premiered in 1976, a year after “Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars”. By that time, at the urbane and sophisticated age of 18, I’m afraid that Kirby’s style (both artwork and dialogue) struck me as embarrassingly old-fashioned and childish, so I never read The Eternals at the time. However, in another example of “faux-nostalgia” I bought second-hand copies of the first few issues in the 1990s. Here are the covers of the first, featuring “The Tomb of the Space Gods!” and the second, “More Fantastic than Chariots of the Gods!”


Kid said...

I've got a complete run of The Eternals, but it never quite takes off, in my opinion. Kirby was just fulfilling his page quota by this time, and his art had become a little too abstract. Vince Colletta would've been better suited to inking it, I think, in order to dilute some of Kirby's 'squiggles'.

It goes to show, I'd say, how unsophisticated many comicbook readers were, in that they found Kirby's concepts ('though not always their execution) so fascinating, when, in fact, he was merely 'borrowing' what he'd read in books and magazines. Things like DNA, cloning, alien visitations, etc., were not 'Kirby Koncepts' - he'd simply 'nicked' and adapted them for his own purpose.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid. Kirby is a touchy subject to criticize, because of those hardcore fans who just won't have a negative word said about him (or a positive word about any of his co-workers). He was the first artist whose style I learned to recognize and look forward to, but that was in the 1960s, and with inkers like Colletta and Joe Sinnott who weren't afraid to add humanizing touches to his pencils. By the 70s I found his style too cartoony, although in retrospect I find it a lot more appealing than I used to.

As for his reliance on popular themes of the time, that's all part of the nostalgia as far as I'm concerned!

Anonymous said...

Man Gods From Beyond The Stars was also printed in Marvel's Planet Of The Apes weekly No.55-57 - the Hunter's POTA website features all the ape strips from the comic but not the back-up stories unfortunately. I don't know how the aliens managed to come from "beyond the stars" - they must have come from a planet in orbit round a star :D By the way, Andrew - merry Christmas !

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - Happy Christmas to you too! I think "from beyond the stars" is meant to conjure up a pre-scientific world-view in which the stars are tiny little dots of light on a black sphere about ten miles up in the sky! But yes, the aliens in the story do come from a planetary system around another star!

Kid said...

Or perhaps it simply meant that they came from a planet beyond the stars visible from earth. As there'll be stars (and planets) we can't see with the naked eye, then the description isn't inaccurate.

Kid said...

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Andrew.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - hope you enjoyed your Christmas and a Happy New Year to you too!