I’ve been thinking about disreputable art more than usual lately, between the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey coming out and Jonathan Franzen franzenating about women mucking up the whole respectable novel business. I can’t help but think of the history of the novel in Europe and North America. A tawdry form that was consumed by women, often written pseudonynmously by women and wholly damaging to one’s character, virtue and imagination. Art that makes us unsafe and disreputable has been around for a long time. Plato had concerns about the Mixolydian Mode’s effect on impressionable youths. And it’s made me think about my own reading that might be considered disreputable in the comics’ world. Sometimes it’s good to get back to our roots here at the Gutter. Continue reading…
Posted February 2, 2012
Over the holidays, I participated in the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit‘s Secret Santa Exchange. I sent Tars Tarkas, Apocalypse IV: Judgment. And Permission To Kill‘s David Foster sent me two comics : Vampire! Featuring Fire Fang and Vampire! #2: The Brothers of Fire Fang (Meteor Comics, 1995). Together they reprint five of Australian comic creator Gerald Carr’s vampire stories from 1976-8 focusing on his yellow peril vampire, Fire Fang.
I’ve had trouble writing about these comics because there is so much packed into them: Fire Fang and all that yellow peril implies, which I’ve discussed a little here; Carr’s importance in Australian comics; and an artistic style so diverse that I checked twice that Carr was sole artist for both issues.
So I had two books and not much context beyond my own knowledge of Chinese yellow peril villains, 1970s adult comics like Heavy Metal and Vampirella (known colloquially in these parts as, “booby comics”), and a little Chinese history. But as I read, I noticed that the stories all bear the mark of Hammer Studios’ 1970s vampire films when Hammer shifted to the sexy end of the vampire spectrum and horror gave way to, continuing a trope: boobs, if boobs are a synecdoche for the eroticism/sexploitation of The Vampire Lovers (1970); Countess Dracula (1971); Dracula, AD 1972 (1972); and Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). Unlike two of those films, the Vampire! stories are mostly period pieces set in the 1880s/90s or the1930s. But all the women’s breasts remind me of Hammer’s Horror Queen, Ingrid Pitt
For his part, Fire Fang is the total yellow peril package. He has the long nails, the Ming the Merciless collar, and if he were in color, he would be, as Jules Feiffer says, “the color of ripe lemons.”* Lemon yellow or no, he continues the tradition of villains such as Fu Manchu or Li H’sen Chang from the Doctor Who episode, “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” Mostly, Fire Fang is not so much a Chinese vampire as a Chinese vampire played by Christopher Lee. It’s not a stretch for Lee since he has played Fu Manchu.
In “The Exile of Fire Fang,”a “Mandarin of the Second Class” uses a beautiful concubine as bait to trap the vampire. The official tells the captive Fire Fang, “It is written by the Great Shih Chioo in the Ancient Chronicles of Ghouls and Devourers ‘that he who preserves the vampire’s supernatural life shall have the vampire’s services for two years.’” (1)
I like to think that there’s a book called, The Ancient Chronicles of Ghouls and Devourers, and that it contains instructions on building vampire traps.
As part of what is surely an inscrutably villainous scheme, Fire Fang is sent to Australia at the height of the Gold Rush with four “coolies” sworn to serve him. The men quickly tire of supplying Fire Fang with buxom white women and impale him with a pickaxe as he sleeps the sleep of the undead in an abandoned mine. The coolies then become bandits. Unfortunately, they’re caught pretty quick. So we never get their tale of derring-do, one in which they use racist stereotypes to throw the white devils off their trail.
In “Who Freed Fire Fang?” a young couple discover the crate containing the staked Fire Fang and foolishly remove the pickaxe waking Fire Fang, as others have foolishly woken Dracula, in the 1970s. According to Comics Down Under there’s one more uncollected story, “Fire Fang’s Circus.” I wonder how much it would recall “The Talons of Weng Chiang,” in which the villain is a stage magician reminding us that while we should be on the lookout for all Chinese men, we should also never trust traveling entertainers or circus folk.
But if villains like Fire Fang lead me to wonder, “What makes a white man look in the mirror and think, ‘Yes, I do have a faintly Oriental cast?” Dr. “Chinese” Patterson is the very man who thinks that. Patterson’s the protagonist of “The Brothers of Fire Fang,” in Vampire! #2. He plans “a walking Odyssey” from Shanghai to Rangoon and decides to pass, wearing Chinese clothing and “a pigtail pinned under his cap” to avoid the notice of “Chinese who hadn’t seen a white man before.” But while perfectly at home in China, Patterson never forgets who he is as he demonstrates while fighting bandits, shouting, “Advance Australia! And damn your kind!”
It’s okay to damn their kind, because Patterson is pals with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who he dismissively refers to as, “a local rebel.” Dr. Sun has arranged for a boatman to deliver Patterson to a village beset by the Brothers of Fire Fang: “Fang Cheng the Destroyer. He rode with Genghis Khan. In a far off country he was the first to be inflected….The deep breathing Lungki, the most chilling of the brothers. But known not to like European blood.” And, “Taka the Missionary Killer—bent on thwarting Christianity in China. His score of murders was high.”
Patterson has come to help a man named, Yun Chuwan. Frankly, I’m not sure why Yun needs help fighting vampires because he’s already hung three vampire heads from the town gates as a warning to others. Maybe on the other side of this Hammer horror story there’s a Cantonese hopping vampire one, like Mr. Vampire, and Patterson is the idiot who only makes things worse by not listening to Yun. But in Vampire!, Patterson gets right down to business—sleeping with Yun’s daughter Yee and explaining toYun that opium will not just be a blight, but a medical boon, establishing him as both Imperially virile and a visionary who foresees the Great War.
Like the Mandarin of the Second Degree before him, Patterson might also have been visionary enough to use Yee as bait. She slips out at night to bathe–at least I think that’s why she dips her breasts into a creek. After her bath, Yee is attacked by the three vampire brothers with such ferocity that she has no time to close her shirt. Patterson mans rockets he has already set up and waits for the vampires to cross the line of fire he has prepared. After dispatching the vampires, Patterson salaciously notes in a faux gentlemanly way that stayed he “longer than he planned” but left her, “a brave girl with the ashes of our adventure.”
Incidentally, the non-Fire Fang collected in these two comics stories feel pretty Hammer as well. In “The Unholy Relic,” a be-nightgowned woman** is menaced by a vampire, saved and attacked later by a bust of the very same vampire’s head. In “Home is the Specter, Home from the Haunt,” the double D starlets of Australia’s Mammoth Studios are set upon by a vampire during the filming of a Dracula knock-off starring the Bela Lugosian, Roberto Verio. Incidentally, that story has my favorite line of any in the comics: “I discovered long ago, a defence against a vampire’s great strength… Judo!”
*Jules Feiffer. The Great Comic Book Heroes. (New York, Bonanza Books: 1965). 16.
**There was a time when every lady kept a diaphanous robe or nightgown in her trousseau in case of trance or mesmerism.
Wearing a diaphanous nightgown, Carol Borden has spent long nights studying Judo and the Great Shih Chioo’s Ancient Chronicles of Ghouls and Devourers.