Monday, October 31, 2011

Born on a Monday: Exploring Solomon Grundy

 Earlier this month, I thought of doing my Halloween post on my favorite horror comics stories, or being really pretentious and compiling a list of what I (considering the opinions of others) considered to be the 100 greatest horror comics stories of all time. I gave up for a number of reasons, not because of lack of material but because of boredom and not having the time (though there’s always Walpurgis night and next Halloween, I suppose). My main reason, however, was because Halloween fell on a Monday this year, and we all know who was born on a Monday…
Thus I couldn’t resist devoting my Halloween post to Solomon Grundy. The big guy isn’t my favorite comic book villain, but he’s one of my favorites. I decided to think about why Grundy has been such an enduring character all of these years.
 One of the things that fascinates me about Solomon Grundy is that he’s both one of the most unique and most derivative of all comic book characters. A monster composed of swamp matter that becomes a mob leader and whose brief life parallels a nursery rhyme; could you think of a more uniquely comic book-ish concept than that? At the same time, Grundy also owes a clear debt to two famous movie monsters; one obviously being the Universal Frankenstein Monster, and the other not-so-obviously being, well, I’ll get to that shortly.
 Grundy’s origin is also quite similar to that of the titular creature in Theodore Sturgeon’s short-story “It”, and with Grundy’s creator being the noted science fiction writer Alfred Bester, was almost certainly inspired by that story. “It” already had spawned an imitator in Hillman publishing’s character The Heap, and would be ripped off for countless horror comics stories in the 50s, so much so that Mad parodied the whole concept in its fifth issue. And of course, we also have Marvel’s Man-Thing, Hulk villain The Glob, and most famously, DC's own Swamp Thing. What is it that’s so intriguing about a dead body returning to life composed of swamp matter? I don’t know, but clearly comic book writers do.
 So with so many similar characters wandering around the pages of comics, and not just other swamp monsters, but “brute” characters like The Hulk (whom Grundy is often used as an analogue of and vice versa), why is Grundy such a memorable figure? Why hasn’t he been eclipsed? His entire gimmick; that his life paralleled the nursery rhyme, was used up at the end of the first story. What left was there for him to do except be endlessly resurrected and killed, or used as a henchman for other villains, each time becoming less and less threatening? What makes him so memorable? I think I may have an answer. Like many comics characters, Grundy has been through a lot of changes, becoming an at times sympathetic figure, but mostly he remains a villain. His two most recent changes have had him becoming intelligent and dressing in power suits, but also being far more evil and calculating. His other change was becoming a Hulk-like figure, switching back and forth from Cyrus Gold. Some people have decried these two changes as too radical, but I think they work, and support my theory.
 Going all the way back to Grundy’s first appearance, one notices some odd things about him compared to how he is depicted by artists today. One is that he is less hulking and muscular, looking gangly, emaciated and posessing mismatched joints; a Frankenstein monster created by nature. Green Lantern even compares him to a scarecrow.  But more importantly, Grundy is much more grotesque facially, with huge jagged, rotting teeth, ape-like jaws and nostrils, and a tall cone-shaped head. He is that rarity; a comic book villain who has gotten less grotesque-looking over the years.
Putting aside the obvious Frankenstein-connection, I can’t help but notice a resemblance to another famous movie monster; the Fredric March version of Mr. Hyde.
There’s one of the keys to my argument, Grundy isn’t as much Frankenstein’s Monster as he is Mr. Hyde.
 Both in the book and film, Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde to escape the boundaries put upon him by the upper classes, and thus makes his milieu in the poorer areas of London, yet, he can’t quite doff his upper class roots and still walks around dressed at the height of Victorian fashion. In the novel, Hyde is described as not being deformed or monstrous, but giving off a feeling of evil, of not being quite right no matter how polite or impeccably dressed he is. He is also described in the book as being very short, looking slightly ridiculous by wearing clothes too large for him. In the 1931 film, Hyde resembles a Neanderthal, creating a striking contrast with his impeccable clothing. In either case, both depictions of Hyde are effective because he subconsciously represents a fear of the upper class; that the lower class has risen up and assimilated itself amongst them. He is a living embodiment of poverty and brutality, a grotesque caricature of both rich and poor.
 In the film though, what is most terrifying to the upper class characters, particularly Jekyll’s obnoxious colleague Lanyon, is the realization that Hyde is really one of them. They can’t handle the fact that one of their own has sunk to such a level, possibly because they subconsciously realize that their own snobbery towards Jekyll and their own hypocrisies are partially what created Hyde. They don’t want to accept that Hyde is something they too could become, which is why Lanyon, showing no sympathy towards Jekyll, exposes him and orders him shot on sight. It is true that Hyde brutalizes people of the lower class, but that clearly isn’t what’s motivating Lanyon to have Jekyll shot, indeed, earlier in the film Lanyon is shown mocking Jekyll’s charity work and says the poor don’t deserve it, and chastises Jekyll when Jekyll saves a prostitute from a mugger. Lanyon clearly is not acting out of any sense of justice or sympathy for Hyde’s victims.
  Much like Hyde, Grundy is a nightmarish vision of a revolting lower class, literally born out of death and conceived in filth. One notices in his first appearance that the first people he meets are two escaped convicts, whom he kills and then steals their clothing to wear. He then meets up with a group of hoboes who take advantage of Grundy’s strength and ignorance. But what separates Grundy from Hyde is that whereas Hyde is terrifying to the rich because he represents what they could become, Grundy is terrifying to the working class because he represents what they have tried to escape and avoid. In 1944, most people had grown up during the great depression, and when the depression ended, tried desperately to escape their poverty-stricken past. The war gave many a sense of unity, helping them to think they were on the same footing with everyone else.
 So here’s Solomon Grundy, a filthy, starved-looking creature dressed in rags with awful teeth, striking out not just at the rich, but the poor. He’s everything they are afraid of and are afraid of becoming. How fitting that Grundy’s enemies are The Green Lantern and his sidekick Doiby; Alan Scott, the Green Lantern, was an impoverished train engineer who managed to become a successful broadcaster. Doiby is a poor cab driver who acts as a champion of the oppressed. Alan and Doiby are living the American Dream, while Grundy is everything they have tried to escape from; poverty, famine and death. Grundy is the American Nightmare; a Mr. Hyde for the common man.
 And yet, Grundy is not meant to prey upon reader prejudices, or to imply that all poor people are like that, or to foster class resentment, for he is also portrayed as somewhat innocent, like the Frankenstein Monster. His first two murders are in self-defense, and the only people he has to guide him are a bunch of criminals. In the most chilling and touching moment in his first story, he apparently kills Green Lantern, which creates a bright flash, Grundy likes the flash, and then starts killing members of his own mob because he thinks killing anyone will bring out the same flash. That, my friends, is how you create a sympathetic but simultaneously scary monster.
 Am I reading way too much into it? (Yeah, I am) Is my supposed connection of Grundy to the March Mr. Hyde based only in superficial evidence? (Yes, it is) Still, I’d like to think that’s why Grundy has been such a memorable villain through all these decades; he plays on the fears of us, the working class readers, on a subconscious level.
 And the thing is, other writers have picked up on this connection, intentionally or not. In Shadow of The Bat #39, Cyrus Gold, the man whose corpse became Solomon Grundy is shown, like Dr. Jekyll, to have been a wealthy man.
 And just like the March Mr. Hyde, the recent Grundy who wears power suits is supposed to be a walking contradiction; the brutish monster who dresses impeccably.
 And the other recent change, having Grundy switch back and forth from Cyrus Gold, is also a throwback to Jekyll & Hyde.
 One of the great missed opportunities of Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween was when he had Grundy become Two-Face’s stooge. Two-Face, well everyone knows he’s a Jekyll and Hyde figure, but ironically, his first appearances had him acting as a Robin Hood figure who gave his loot to charity.

 Had Loeb explored both of these characterizations, we could have truly had something, especially since it all culminated in taking down the wealthy Falcone family. Hell, Scarecrow, who was also part of Two-Face’s gang in TLH, also considered himself a symbol of “poverty and fear” in his debut, so there’s another missed opportunity.
 Oh well, whether he’s a walking symbol of class struggle or just a really cool, scary-looking villain, Solomon Grundy is a character you don’t easily forget. Here’s Wanted #4, a reprint of his first appearance from All American Comics #61. All © DC comics. I’ve cropped the “Wanted” logo that appeared at the top of the pages so you can imagine you’re reading the real thing from the 40s. Enjoy!
 Bonus! Here's some scenes from Shadow of The Bat #39 which show that Alan Grant really did his homework:

Happy Halloween!

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