Wednesday, December 23, 2015

30 Days of The Fade Out: The Esoteric and Erotic.

(Now we see what I happens when I plan to do this extended series of posts during the very busy month of December and then get hit with a cold that's worn me out and won't go away.  And I was hoping to be ahead of schedule by Christmas...)

Today sees the release of issue #53 of Chew, which serves as a twisted, hilarious counterpoint to the serious noir comics of Brubaker and Phillips, and in this issue we learn about the Bon Vivants, "a group of extremely devoted, and obscenely affluent, culinary enthusiasts wholly devoted to the epicurean exploration of plants and animals that are endangered or long extinct."

A secret society of super-rich hedonists:  it's an intriguing idea and even a bit of a trope in storytelling.  Chew's particular idea of a group gathering to sample super-exotic and illicit cuisine was the driving premise behind the entertaining 1990 comedy The Freshman.

And it's not surprising that we've seen secret societies before in the works of Brubaker and Phillips.  Earlier in our month-long review of The Fade Out, we pointed back to the pair's first significant collaboration as lead writer and lead artist -- 2001's Batman: Gotham Noir -- and now we are reminded of their first long-running comic, Sleeper, published through DC's WildStorm imprint between 2003 and 2005.

(In hindsight, the series is the bridge between the pair's work-for-hire with costumed superheroes and their creator-owned comics.  Sleeper is a self-contained and very original work set in the WildStorm universe, and it's a shame that Brubaker and Phillips don't own the rights to it.)

In issues #3 and #4, we're introduced to the "Secret Monarchy" of Earth, which evil mastermind TAO calls the "inner circle of humanity," and which our skeptical protagonist Holden Carver dismisses as "a bunch of slightly perverted stuffed shirts."  It is said that this group has been entangled in the very roots of civilization for millennia, and that their power lies in the fact that no one believes in their existence -- and the debauchery of their parties embodies the nihilism and amorality of their greeting, a creed attributed to an ancient order of assassins, that "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Each year, the Secret Monarchy met at a secluded resort called Imperial Grove, and was a likely allusion to the Bohemian Grove, which has hosted annual two-week gatherings of the Bohemian Club since 1893, and which has since attracted some of the world's most prominent and powerful men.  The Wikipedia article, linked above, includes the following photo, taken at the 1967 gathering and featuring two future U.S. presidents, one having a cameo in The Fade Out.

Secret societies were also rampant in Fatale, from the medieval White Brotherhood to the more modern-day cults ran by McVicar and the Bishop, and The Fade Out has its own secretive power structures in the Hollywood studio system, itself infiltrated by the FBI during the emerging Cold War.

And in issue #3, we are introduced to the Divine Order of the Great Eleven, a hedonistic cult run by priestesses and based in a camp called Harmony Grove.  In 1928, Al Kamp took Victor Thursby to one of the cult's ceremonies, and Thursby then abandoned his life in Hollywood to live in Harmony Grove -- at least, he did for a few weeks, until Phil Brodsky retrieved him.  The Feds subsequently raided the compounded, and Kamp and Thursby founded Victory Street Pictures.

In the few short months before his bugging out, Thursby couldn't get his mind off the cult and its promiscuous practices, not even when casting chorus girls.
"He had a life most men would kill for, but all he felt was trapped."
I wonder if the secret society's appeal is an extension and even a metastasizing of the urges that seem to drive the typical protagonist in noir:  the desire for meaning and connection in the face of alienation.

Maybe the idea is that, if one cannot find purpose in the mundane life of the middle class, maybe one can find it in the hidden knowledge of some inner circle, and if no traditional romance satisfies, maybe one should find a place where his every desire can be indulged.  It's Gnosticism and hedonism, the allure of hidden knowledge and forbidden pleasure.

I don't think that particular path leads to anything real and lasting, but it lets us see the middle-aged Thursby as a parallel character to Charlie Parish, going to different extremes to chase the same longings.

And since the Krazy Kids shorts were being produced as late as 1926 and 1928, it makes us wonder when Thursby and Val Sommers first connected.  What made Val so special in Thursby's eyes?

Even if theirs was a platonic and even paternal relationship, did Val kindle in Thursby the same sense of longing that was satisfied so briefly with the Divine Order?

Or did she reach a part of him that even that cult couldn't touch?

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