Lord Byron: Vampire?

Was Lord Byron the First English Vampire?
A Halloween Essay

Lord Byron, the quintessential rake, was renowned for his outrageous sex life, and inspired equal parts fascination and disgust in the minds of men and women alike. In 1812, he became obsessed with Lady Caroline Lamb, a wife and mother, and tried to break up her marriage that he might possess her completely. Smitten with the dashing poet, Lady Caroline engaged in a well-publicized affair with him. Soon, however, Byron became bored with his conquest and abandoned her. Lady Caroline was devastated.

Her heartbreak evolved into a bitter hatred in the subsequent years, as Byron fathered a child with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and then married Lady Caroline’s cousin, Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke. Their marriage proved to be an unhappy one, due in large part to Byron’s incessant philandering.

Portentously, in April 1815, the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora erupted, blanketing Europe in a thick cloud of volcanic ash. Global weather patterns would be seriously disrupted for several years, leading to famine, riots, and bizarre weather phenomena.

The following January, Lord Byron’s wife left him immediately after the birth of their daughter. Depressed, Byron eased his pain with Claire Claremont, the step-sister of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. A month or two later, his divorce was finalized, and Byron decided to leave for the continent.

At that same time, Lady Caroline Lamb finally got a measure of revenge against her former lover with the May 1816 publication of her novel Glenarvon. The title character, “Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon,” was a thinly-disguised satire of Byron, and proved to be the villain of the piece, leading the female protagonist into a tragic love-affair and paying the ultimate price for his treachery. The novel, understood to be a “kiss-and-tell” fictionalization of her relationship with Byron, immediately sold out and went into multiple reprintings and revised editions.

As the scandalous novel came out, Byron hired a 20-year-old doctor, John W. Polidori, as his personal physician and secretary, and they left England to tour Europe. Within a month, they settled in Switzerland, where Byron received some visitors in what may be the most famous vacation in the annals of English literature: Percy Bysshe Shelley, his fiancée Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her step-sister Claire Claremont (Byron’s erstwhile lover).

As the weather was unusually miserable, due to the after-effects of the recent volcanic eruption, the group was forced to remain indoors, and they struggled to find ways to entertain themselves. (One of Byron’s pastimes involved getting Claire Claremont pregnant.) One night, after reading aloud from a book of horror stories, Byron suggested that they all come up with ghost stories and have a contest to see whose was the scariest. Mary invented the basis of the story of Frankenstein, and Byron produced a fragment of a story that he would never finish. Dr. Polidori, who was clearly out of his league, came up with a tale of a skull-headed woman, whose uncanny appearance was a supernatural punishment for peeping through keyholes. His contribution was cruelly derided and mocked.

Polidori’s relationship with Byron soured for various reasons, and he was soon dismissed from his job. The doctor returned to his father’s native Italy, and there decided to get his own form of literary revenge on Lord Byron. Inspired by Lady Caroline Lamb, Polidori created a character called “Lord Ruthven” (pronounced riven, by the way), drawing the name from her own version of Byron. Polidori’s Lord Ruthven was a vampire, but unlike the vampires of traditional folklore, this one was a suave aristocrat who preyed on the young women of the British upper class, destroying their lives with his evil. The character was, again, a thinly-veiled satire on Byron and his hijinks. To rub salt in the wound, Polidori plagiarized Byron’s ghost story and created a novel called The Vampyre.

The following year, after marrying Percy, Mary Shelly turned her ghost story into the novel Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, which was first published in January 1818 and quickly became a popular success. Over a year later, in April 1819, Polidori’s novel was published, without his permission, in a British magazine. To make matters worse, the tale was attributed to Lord Byron, which infuriated both men and set off a bitter public feud. Meanwhile, The Vampyre became a smash hit in France.

The Vampyre is credited as the first work of the vampire genre in English, and also the first anywhere to portray the undead creature as an aristocratic sex-fiend rather than a gruesome monster. It served as one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the end of the century, though its authorship was in dispute for a long time, which prevented Polidori from cashing in on Lord Ruthven’s popularity.

In 1821, Dr. John W. Polidori committed suicide. (Interestingly, some years after his death, his sister, Frances Polidori Rossetti, gave birth to Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and their siblings.)

For his part, Lord Byron died in 1824 from an illness which was exacerbated, ironically, by having blood drained from his body by his doctors.


Zigi and Zagi

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest Superman story ever told is found in the pages of Action Comics # 315 (August 1964), in which the Man of Steel must contend with Zigi and Zagi… the Juvenile Delinquents from Outer Space!

The story opens at Joe’s Restaurant on Main Street in Metropolis. Just the sort of place that juvenile delinquents might hang out. Joe doesn’t look too pleased when he sees trouble coming through the door.

Sure enough, after scarfing down hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut, the two young toughs tell Joe they’ve no money to pay the check (one whole dollar!). Joe’s used to dealing with freeloaders, so he puts Zigi and Zagi to work washing dishes in the kitchen.

Yep, like typical delinquents, Zigi and Zagi don’t even know the meaning of the word “work.” And so, exactly eight seconds later, they leave, and poor Joe is dumbfounded by the stacks of spotless dishes in the kitchen. Wandering aimlessly around the city, the alien pair stumbles upon the Rocket Boys of America National Convention at the Metropolis Arena. It just so happens that Superman is appearing at the convention, and so Lois Lane is on hand to cover the event. Here she talks to the “Grand Commander” of the club, an overweight, balding middle-aged man who likes to dress up as a spaceman and hang around lots of young boys. Sure, it’s all good, clean fun.

Zigi and Zagi crash the event, since they don’t have any money to buy a ticket, with the help of the anti-gravity motors on their belts. What a couple of delinquents! They quickly join in with the other kids, making a sign for their own world -- or at least the star it orbits around. They give Superman the business, but he doesn’t believe their story for a minute. Note his concern for their emotional well-being.

However, when Superman fashions a cylinder of stainless steel into a model of a rocket, Zigi and Zagi insist they can make it fly. Using one of their “power pellets,” the boys launch Superman’s rocket into space. He flies after it, intercepting it out by the moon, apparently. Not wanting to catch hell when Superman returns, Zigi and Zagi turn invisible and hit the road.

Instead of traveling the back roads of America to see what life on earth is all about, though, the boys only make it as far as Centerville before running into trouble again. Passing by the Centerville Jail, they encounter the wily con Duke Bragger. Locked in an “escape-proof cell” (as opposed to the other kind) on suspicion of murder, Bragger cleverly convinces Zigi and Zagi to free him, by saying “Hey, get me outta here!”

Luckily, Superman catches up to them at this point and returns Duke Bragger to custody. Convinced that the boys really are from another planet, Superman takes them out to a remote hilltop where they can explain what they’re doing on earth. It turns out Zigi and Zagi were just messing around in their dad’s new “space runabout” when they accidentally activated the warp drive engines, and before they knew it they were in earth’s solar system. Since “every kid on our planet has mastered the Terran languages,” they decided to check out the planet earth before heading home. Superman is concerned that their parents will be worried, but Zigi and Zagi claim their folks are away on a space trip. Then they “blackmail” Superman into showing them the sights of earth. Naturally, he’s glad to do it, as it gives him a chance to keep an eye on them.

First up, Superman takes them to the New York World’s Fair to show off the famous Unisphere (it is 1964, remember!). However, the lads are not impressed, as it can’t compare to the Intergalactic Fair they attended last year. Typical teen-agers! Superman’s plan gets derailed, though, when they happen upon a truant officer.

Discounting their stories of “talking pillows” and sleep-learning, the truant officer tells them to go to school or go back where they came from. Bound by the law, Superman resigns himself to registering Zigi and Zagi in school back in Metropolis. Naturally, chaos ensues as Zigi and Zagi use their alien technology to create visual aids in class.

The school principal tells Superman to remove the disruptive boys from school, and Superman knows he’s in the soup if he can’t convince Zigi and Zagi to go home. Taking them to a pleasant isolated spot outside the city, Superman gives the boys a long-winded lecture until they fall asleep. Then he leaps into action. Using his x-ray vision, Superman discovers where the boys hid their spaceship, and then rummages through their personal belongings until he finds some of their family snapshots (“glowing transparent images” that are “Alpha Centaurian photographs” -- sound like holograms to me). He plans to build a replica of the boys’ home around them at super-speed, hoping it will make them homesick. Thus, with his bare hands, Superman knocks down some hardwood trees, cuts them up into building blocks, and carves some boulders into columns. He builds an entire section of Centauri City around the boys -- apparently doing it so quietly that they do not wake up from their afternoon nap. When they do awaken, Superman’s scheme bears fruit.

Meanwhile, a dangerous criminal named “Slash” Sabre has busted out of Metropolis Prison by crawling through an old storm drain. He comes upon the phony alien city and assumes it must be a movie set or something. As fate would have it, he decides to hide out inside the big red spaceship to get some shuteye. Occupied with the boys, Superman is oblivious to this menace in their midst. Zigi and Zagi are now eager to get home, and after checking their instruments, they bid an emotional farewell to their new friend. So much for being a couple of young toughs! Superman, too, has developed a soft spot for the precocious youngsters. Who says there’s a generation gap? After all, we’re all extraterrestrials here!

The boys blast off and head for interstellar space. Just then, the warden of Metropolis Prison appears on the scene with his bloodhounds. When the dogs stop and stare into the sky, Superman realizes that “Slash” Sabre must have stowed away on the spaceship. Because bloodhounds are just that good. Sure enough, Zigi and Zagi are unaware of their mortal peril and Superman races into space to save them.

Will Superman be in time, or will the boys’ little daytrip turn deadly? Find out in the next issue of Action Comics!

This story was written by Leo Dorfman and illustrated by Jim Mooney.

Curiously, Zigi and Zagi were not the troubled teens seen in juvenile-delinquency films like Rebel Without a Cause, but were actually about as “delinquent” as Beaver Cleaver and Larry Mondello. They were not in the least bit disaffected, were not looking for trouble, and were, in fact, very polite to their elders. They arrived on earth pretty much by accident and blundered into their misadventures due to their innocence and naiveté. They hardly seem to deserve the label “mischievous imps,” let alone “juvenile delinquents.” And at no point does Superman really seem ready to “blow his stack.” I think Zigi and Zagi really get a bum rap in this story.

Zigi and Zagi definitely need to make a comeback to current DC continuity in a major way. These characters are too good to let languish in obscurity. Two alien teen-age brothers wandering the earth looking for thrills and unjustly labeled “juvenile delinquents?” The story potential is almost limitless! I hope the next major DC Universe “Event” centers around the return of Zigi and Zagi, as they prove to be the only beings in the universe able to outfox Superboy-Prime.


Thor Redux

Although Marvel is currently hyping the return of Thor to their modern continuity, I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to look at a peculiarity from Thor’s earliest adventures in the anthology comic Journey Into Mystery, which I noticed while reading the first volume of Essential Thor.

After getting Thor off to a good start, artist Jack Kirby left the book towards the end of 1962, due to his heavy workload on other Marvel titles. In his penultimate issue, Kirby drew this unremarkable image of the thundergod carrying Loki back to Asgard in a net. The drawing was then inked by Dick Ayers.

Following an abysmal fill-in issue by veteran comic artist Al Hartley, the reins were handed over to Joe Sinnott to pencil and ink Thor’s adventures. Sinnott is perhaps best known as Jack Kirby’s primary inker on Fantastic Four, and he continued to do inking chores for Marvel through the following two decades. Early in his career, however, Joe Sinnott did a fair amount of penciling jobs as well.

On the first page of his first issue, Journey Into Mystery # 91, Joe Sinnott drew this image of Thor, which looks surprisingly familiar. Note the odd placement of Thor’s right arm.

In Sinnott’s third issue, JIM # 94 (Kirby and Ayers had returned for one issue to introduce a major villain), the same pose appears again, with the cape even closer to Kirby’s original version.

This is what’s known in comic book parlance as a “swipe,” when an artist appropriates a drawing done by someone else and incorporates it into his own work without meaning to reference the original. Often done as a time-saving measure by artists facing a deadline crunch, the “swipe” is a venerable tradition that goes back to the Golden Age. Identifying swipes has long been a favorite pastime of comic book geeks, but here Sinnott makes it way too obvious.

For, in fact, he used the same swipe again in each of his next two issues!

From Journey Into Mystery # 95:

And from Journey Into Mystery # 96:

At this point, Joe Sinnott was taken off the book and the art chores were handed over to Don Heck, until Kirby’s return a few months later. As it is, Sinnott used this one obvious swipe in four of his five issues. That’s a bit of overkill. We may never know if his abuse of the swipe technique was a factor in Sinnott losing the Thor assignment, but even swipe-master Dan Adkins, nicknamed “The Human Xerox Machine,” knew better than to use the same swipe in three consecutive issues!