People who’ve known me for a while are likely to know that as much as I love comic books, they’re not the only thing I geek out over. Another of my abiding passions, going back more than forty years, is the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, in all its cultural manifestations — classic literature, modern prose fiction, art, films, music, and — of course — comics. Over the last few decades I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several opportunities to combine my interests in Arthuriana and comics in ways I can share with others — beginning with an article in the late, lamented fanzine Amazing Heroes in 1984, continuing with contributions to academic (!) works such as The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, and more-or-less culminating in my web site, “Camelot in Four Colors: A Survey of the Arthurian Legend in Comics” — est. 2000, and looking every day of its age (still, you should check it out, OK?).
I got the Arthurian bug in a big way around 1973 or thereabouts. It was sparked by a number of factors, among the most significant being T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King (as well as its stage and movie musical adaptation, Camelot), Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels, and C. S. Lewis’ contemporary science fantasy That Hideous Strength. Those were all manifestations of the Arthurian legend that I encountered as an adolescent in the early Seventies — but, of course, like many if not most other English-speaking people of the modern world, I was first exposed to King Arthur and his mythos during the earlier period of my childhood. And what was probably one of the first truly significant exposures came along in September, 1966, in the form of World’s Finest #162 — in which the ranks of the Round Table knights were joined by none other than my two favorite heroes, Superman and Batman.
The cover of this issue, by the classic team of Curt Swan and George Klein, doesn’t depict or even mention Arthur, Camelot, or the Round Table — but it does have a fully armored knight on it. (Was I already into knights, as a nine-year-old? Probably at least a little — I mean, armor, swords, horses, and that cool visor which could provide what amounted to a secret identity in the Middle Ages — what’s not to like?) That, and the fact that this mysterious fellow was able to take down both Batman and Superman with apparent ease, seems to have been enough to get me to pick the book up out of the spinner rack and buy it. (The ludicrous notion that Batman wears Bruce Wayne’s clothes, including a necktie, under his skin-tight Bat-costume probably should have been a deal-breaker, but wasn’t.)
Though the story bears no published credits, the Grand Comics Database tells us that “Pawns of the Jousting Master” was illustrated by the same two gentlemen who contributed the cover, Swan and Klein, while the script was by one Jim Shooter. While I was quite familiar with the work of those two artists by the fall of ’66, this was the first story I’d ever read by Shooter — not too surprising, when you consider that the young writer, who’d one day become the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, was only fourteen years old, and had been selling stories to editor Mort Weisinger for only a few months, at the time this comic was published.
Shooter’s story opens with Batman and Superman hanging out in the Batcave after a successful case. Suddenly a strange mist appears, and from it emerges the mysterious knight depicted on the cover, the self-described “Jousting Master”:
As it turns out, this “mere knight” is more formidable than he looks:
Superman soon succumbs to the Jousting Master’s mace; luckily, Batman, who’s been keenly observing the battle, thinks he’s come up with a strategy against that weapon — however, the knight now switches to fighting with a sword instead. Damn. (How exactly would Batman have countered the mace? Shooter doesn’t tell us, so we’ll never know.) Switching tacks, the Caped Crusader attempts to gain advantage by use of the Japanese martial art of judo, but…
Batman, too, quickly falls; and in acknowledgment of their defeat, Superman and Batman obey the Jousting Master’s command and follow him out of the Batcave the same way he arrived, through the “Time Mists”:
The introduction of the various Round Table knights’ magical gear not only helps explain how the incognito Sir Lancelot was able to defeat Superman (oh, all right — and Batman), but also establishes their legendary order as a sort of “Justice League” of the medieval period — and here’s where the story becomes really interesting, at least from the point of view of an (ahem) Arthurian enthusiast.
Most representations of the Arthurian legend in American popular culture (at least through the 1970’s, and arguably beyond) — especially those directed at a youthful audience — have been heavily influenced by Sir Thomas Malory’s late 15th century masterwork, Le Morte d’Arthur. If you had a book of King Arthur stories as a kid, it was likely an adaptation of Malory’s text, very much abridged and with some of the most interesting bits (i.e., the sex) removed. Malory’s version is the one that would be most familiar to comic book readers in 1966, and, one expects, most comic book writers, as well. But here’s the thing — with the exception of Arthur’s sword Excalibur, and Sir Gawain’s strength which waxes from dawn to noon, you won’t find the “magical power(s) and weapon(s)” described by Lancelot in the sequence above in Malory — at least not in the possession of these particular knights.
You can, of course, find invisibility cloaks and speed-conferring boots turning up all through the body of international legend, myth, and folktale — and, more to the point, you can find accounts of Arthur’s warriors possessing uncanny powers as well. But to do the latter, you have to go much further back than Malory, to material that’s closer in spirit to the Arthurian legend’s alleged roots in 6th century British history — to sources like the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales compiled in the 12th and 13th centuries from earlier, orally transmitted material.
Here’s an example from the story Culhwch and Olwen — sometimes described as the oldest Arthurian tale — as translated into English in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest (and available in its entirety online, if you’re interested). These are excerpts from a long, descriptive list of the men of Arthur’s court:
…as to Sgilti Yscawndroed, when he intended to go upon a message for his Lord, he never sought to find a path, but knowing whither he was to go, if his way lay through a wood he went along the tops of the trees…
Gwadyn Odyeith, the soles of his feet emitted sparks of fire when they struck upon things hard, like the heated mass when drawn out of the forge. He cleared the way for Arthur when he came to any stoppage…
Sugyn the son of Sugnedydd (who would suck up the sea on which were three hundred ships so as to leave nothing but a dry strand…)…
I don’t know about you, but those warriors’ abilities sure sound like superpowers to me.
Did Jim Shooter have access to the Mabinogion? Or, at least, to some collection of stories based on it? I don’t know the answer, but it seems extremely likely that he had some source for his version of Arthur’s court beyond the usual Malory-derived material. We’ll return to this topic a bit later — but for now, let’s return to our time-traveling heroes, and the reason they’ve been summoned (OK, tricked into coming) to the aid of the king and his knights:
Arthur explains how, just after he’d welcomed the “weird heathens” within the walls of of his castle, they’d suddenly turned themselves into duplicates of the king, Merlin, and six of the knights, and then driven them all from Camelot:
Yes, on to Camelot! (Where, when they finally arrive, you might expect Supes and Bats to act like they’re already familiar with the place. After all, Batman visited with Robin back in Batman #36 (Aug.-Sept., 1946), while Superman traveled there in his Sunday newspaper comic strip in 1949. But, if you did expect that, you’d be disappointed. It’s pretty unlikely the young Shooter was even aware of these earlier stories, which were published before he was born — and if editor Weisinger remembered them, he didn’t care. That kind of interest in long-term, cross-line continuity barely existed in 1966, and thus you were no more likely to see Batman or Superman reminiscing about their previous exploits in Camelot in the current tale than you were to find DC’s Silent or Shining Knights turning up to play a role.)
The attack on Camelot is soon well underway, and — no surprise here — standard castle defenses are proved to be not much help against a Superman:
Batman has a bit less to offer, obviously, but still makes himself useful:
(As an interesting aside — a much later graphic novel, 1999’s Batman: The Chalice, strongly suggested that Sir Gawain was actually Bruce Wayne’s distant ancestor!)
Batman ultimately manages to defeat Gawain, while Superman vanquishes Merlin (not as easy as it might sound, since the Man of Steel is vulnerable to magic), and King Arthur and their other allies take care of the other impostors. All seems to be ending well:
Yeah, let’s get ’em!
Sir Superman and Sir Batman, Knights of the Round Table! Wow, how cool! It’s just too bad that this event would never be referenced again in any future stories involving our heroes with the figures of Arthurian legend — of which there would be plenty, believe me. (DC would eventually return to the theme of “King Arthur versus Space Invaders”, however — and the aliens would be a lot harder to get rid of on that later occasion.)
Before leaving this last story page, and moving on to some more general closing remarks, let’s take a closer look at the first couple of panels. In the first, Sir Kay demonstrates a previously unseen power, the ability to grow to giant size. Neither Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, nor any of its adaptations (to the best of my knowledge) describe this particular knight as having such a remarkable talent — but here’s what our earlier-referenced Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen has to say about Kay (or, as the medieval Welsh usually called him, Cei):
When it pleased him he could render himself as tall as the highest tree in the forest.
Here we have another indication — the strongest one yet — than Jim Shooter might have had some familiarity with this old, relatively obscure Welsh material when he penned this story for World’s Finest.
Something perhaps even more interesting occurs in the second panel, as Arthur refers to the fleet-footed knight Bohart as his son. Most readers, if they’re aware of Arthur having a son at all, will only be familiar with the treacherous Mordred, who helps bring about Camelot’s tragic end — but, in fact, various sources do give Arthur several other sons (or, perhaps, just one other son with different names, since no two of them appear together in the same work). Is Bohart supposed to be one of these? The name is close to “Bohort”, which is a variant of Bors — but we already have a Sir Bors in our story, and besides, Bors is traditionally portrayed as one of Lancelot’s cousins. However, in Morte D’Arthur, an illegitimate son of King Arthur is given the name “Borre” — and in the French romances that Malory used as his source material, that same son is named “Lohot”. If you run those names together, they could kind of look like “Bohart”. On the other hand, Shooter may have known just the name Borre, and was trying to differentiate that character from the knight Sir Bors by slightly altering his name. In any case, since the dalliances of Arthur that produced such bastard offspring weren’t generally dealt with in the adaptations of Malory’s work that were produced for young readers in the 1960s and earlier, it seems extremely likely that Shooter had access to at least some Arthurian sources beyond such books — perhaps a complete, unexpurgated Morte, perhaps a translation or adaptation of the Mabinogion; perhaps even more besides those.
Or, of course, he could have just made it all up.
And now, to at last conclude our discussion of “Pawns of the Jousting Master!”, just another thought or two. It struck me as notable, while re-reading the story for this blog post, that the tale has absolutely no female presence in it whatsoever. Not only do such legendary mainstays as Morgan Le Fay or even Queen Guinevere fail to appear, but there aren’t any women or girls on view. Not a one. The story might as well take place in some alternate reality where human males reproduce by binary fission. I’m not sure what this fact says about the story’s creators or their intended audience, or about the time in which the story was published; it probably says something about me, at the least, that I didn’t take notice of this aspect of the story until fifty years after I first read it.
The absence of women in the story, however, does provide a segue into my last rumination — the question of why comic books like this one, and “real” books like the edition of Sidney Lanier’s Malory adaptation pictured at right (that’s the one I had growing up, by the way, rather than the one with the great N. C. Wyeth illustrations… damn it. Sorry, Florian.), didn’t turn me into an Arthurian enthusiast (cough, fanboy) years before I actually became one. I think it’s because a great part of what makes the Arthurian legend compelling is the heartbreaking tragedy with which it concludes — a tragedy that results when the noblest human aspirations are inevitably undermined by human limitations. That undermining is best typified by (though not at all confined to) the illicit love between the king’s wife, Guinevere, and the king’s best knight, Lancelot — which is the kind of thing that tends not to make it into the versions of the legend written for kids, at least not the ones available fifty years ago. Speaking for myself, I had to see the 1967 movie Camelot (in its 1973 re-release) before I truly “got it”. Of course, once I did get it, I thought the armor and swords and jousting and castles and magic and battles and all that stuff was pretty great, too. (Not to mention, a little later, the business with the weird Welsh guys walking on the tops of trees.)
Obviously, I still think it’s all pretty great.
World’s Finest #162 also featured a backup story — a reprint, as had been the case since Mort Weisinger assumed editorial duties in 1964 — this one featuring Tommy Tomorrow, a DC science fiction hero originally introduced in 1947:
“What danger can there be at a gay, happy circus?” Well, Tommy, what about — earless tigermen?!
Oh, no! Luckily, Tommy eventually works out that the weird smoke coming out of the tigermen’s mouths is a form of language (actually a pretty neat idea), and…
Personally, I think Tommy and his pal Brent are pretty lucky that the words their smoke signals make “by accident” aren’t incredibly insulting or profane, but maybe that’s just me. At least Tommy doesn’t wear those short pants from the splash panel throughout the whole story.
This wasn’t the very first Tommy Tomorrow story I ever read — that one was actually a reprint in an earlier issue of World’s Finest that I didn’t cover on this blog, #156. But, as the fact that I didn’t remember that before I looked it up may indicate, Tommy didn’t make much of an impression on me back in the day. Two decades later, when the last issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths revealed that the young blonde boy who would have become Jack Kirby’s “Last Boy on Earth”, Kamandi, would instead grow up to be Tommy Tomorrow in DC’s new, unified timeline, I couldn’t muster much of a reaction beyond a “huh”. And when Howard Chaykin and José Luis García-López presented a dark, authoritarian version of Tommy a few years later in their Twilight miniseries (1990), I was neither particularly impressed nor upset.
No, I never really took to Tommy Tomorrow. When it came to DC’s futuristic space-faring heroes, I preferred — the Knights of the Galaxy!
Hmm. I wonder why?