Comic Book Babylon

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Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and its subsequent spawn contained several nods to “Hollywood Babylon” and its lurid tales of “Old Hollywood”

As a child of about 8 or 9 years old, one of my favorite books from the library was Kenneth Anger’s classic “Hollywood Babylon.” Anger, a former child-star-turned-occultist-filmmaker, retold a number of grand lurid rumors floating around Tinsel Town since the dawn of cinema. And how else was a precocious Eighties kid to find out about Fatty Arbuckle?

The core idea of Anger’s book was that Hollywood, the land of wonder and fantasy, was built on very lurid foundations indeed; filled with what another occultist, Aleister Crowley, would refer to as “the cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed sexual lunatics.” And Crowley, of course, would know. As did Anger.

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About (lucky) 13 years ago, I was approached by a major literary agency to develop a “tell all” about the comic book industry. What they were looking for, in the words of my agent, was “Comic Book Babylon.”

But my manuscript failed to produce the desired narrative. Part of that was because I failed to take a “black-and-white” approach to the story, separating everyone out into (appropriately enough, I suppose, given the subject matter) heroes and villains. Another part of that was specific feedback from some editors, who commented that “it did not read like something written by a woman.” (It was supposed to be a tender tale spun by a scandalized female victim, you see; something to both mobilize the #MeToo crowd a decade before #MeToo, but also provide some titillating tales to enjoy second-hand.)

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the sad fate of Hollis Mason in “Watchmen” seems to quite explicitly reference that of reel-life actor Ramon Novarro in “Hollywood Babylon”

And yet another part of the failure of my own “Comic Book Babylon” was that, frankly, I think I wanted to write something a bit more esoteric & philosophical. Even for all the sensationalistic grotesquerie of Anger’s book, he worked in an ample overarching sense of a greater metaphysical “energy” overseeing the proceedings. It reminds me of that Bela Lugosi quote later in his life, when he was older and resigned to his fate: “Dracula…never ends.” To Anger, Hollywood—or rather, that at-times darker energy Hollywood generated—never ended.

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I write this all now because of a fleeting thought I had as I woke up this morning, about how all three of the core DC Comics characters—the “sacred trinity,” if you will—all have rather “tainted” backstories of how they were created.

You have Superman, whose creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were infamously cut out of the rights to their character by the publisher. This led to decades of misery for these two men, many legal maneuvers to retain the rights (or at least gain some recompense), and, in the case of Siegel, even a public “curse.” (The efficacy of said curse would no doubt be one of the cornerstones of any true “Comic Book Babylon” I could ever write.) All this misery and bad feelings over a character who literally symbolized “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”

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Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel with their creation.

Then there’s Batman, co-created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. “Bill Who?,” you might ask unless you are a hard-core comic fan. Well, the (perhaps too) humble Finger—who also co-created Robin the Boy Wonder and other key bits of the superhero’s mythos—was pushed out of the spotlight (and subsequent mega bat-bucks) by Kane. Kane presented himself as the sole creator of Batman for most of his life—though he was generous enough to say in 1989, “Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved.” What a nice person Kane was. Finger died in 1974 of a heart-attack.

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Bob Kane and Bill Finger

And then there is Wonder Woman, a female empowerment figure created by proud fetish enthusiast William Moulton Marston. Out of the three “creation stories” presented here, at least this sounds the most ethically wholesome (though there is still the question of how much uncredited contributions Marston’s wife Elizabeth and polyamorous life partner Olive contributed to the character). Simply put, the man loved BDSM scenarios and not only liberally sprinkled them within the Wonder Woman comic book but placed them in a foundational role within her core mythology/philosophy.

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William Moulton Marston and Wonder Woman
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a sample of the type of philosophy prevalent in classic Wonder Woman stories

Which brings me to the backstories of some of the key Marvel Comics characters. Of course, Jack Kirby’s mega-screwing-over by Stan Lee and Marvel itself is legendary. But what of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and his working relationship with prolific fetish artist Eric Stanton. They shared a studio for many years…and actually, their art styles are so similar, you can easily get the two confused with each other. Stanton in later years would claim not only that he assisted Ditko uncredited on some of those early Spider-Man stories, but that he actually created certain key aspects of the character. For example, the sticky white secretions that emanate from Spidey’s hands and are used to bind bad guys. I just think there is at least a funky Netflix movie here to be mined; cast Nick Kroll as Stanton and John Mulaney as Ditko.

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The work of studio-mates Steve Ditko and Eric Stanton.

At any rate…this is all of what I thought about as I woke up this morning. And I did thumb through my dog-eared old copy of “Hollywood Babylon,” just to reawaken my memory on the subject. That Anger. What a card. And what an appropriate last name, too.

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Anyway. If you would like to support the pop-CULTure writing of a woman who apparently doesn’t write like a woman, feel free to support my Patreon. You will gain the happy glow of knowing you are contributing to the cause of Females In Media. Of which I am. A female in media.

Signing off,

Val

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