22 Sep 2009

The Ballad Of Patsy Walker (Part 2)

Part 2 : Gidget Goes To Hell

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The first verse of our ballad followed Patsy from her origin in 1942, to her reinvention as a costumed hero in 1973. The second will cover her strange career up until 1982, when her life starts down a disturbing path that runs straight to Hell - literally.

Once again, Pats' career shift coincided with a change in the comic book market. That bizarre, extended drug hangover called the 70's was underway, and the innocently cheesy era that was the Silver Age had ended. (Those sepia-toned lurid maniac years which comprised that decade were also, not coincidentally, the period I was born).

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Superhero comics were experiencing the cyclic drop in popularity that occurs every other decade or so. (You'll recall it was Patsy's comics that got Marvel through the lean years of the 50's). Consequently, Marvel and other publishers rushed to adjust. This was the era of blaxploitation and the first African-American characters (Luke Cage, Misty Knight), kung-fupolitation and Asian-American characters (Shang Chi), drugs/gangs/streetcrime (the Punisher, Moon Knight) and mostly importantly, the occult.

The 1970's was a boom time for satanic fascinations. I've seen a seven-foot bookshelf crammed with hundreds of pulpy, tabloid books from that era, all gushing about Satanism, devils, and the darker aspects of the occult. It really was a fascination then. Consider firstly, that it was the greatest decade for horror films ever, then reflect upon some specific titles : The Exorcist and The Omen especially. They were all focused on Satanism, and in particular reflected fears about children getting out of control - the hideous backwash of all that 60's idealism. Also an obsession with cults - fueled by events such as Jonestown. Eventually it would grow into an irrational moral panic, and prompt the weird and horrifying excesses of the "ritual abuse cult" witch hunts; even reaching all the way to New Zealand.

But Marvel knew where their money was coming from, and cashed in big on horror. It was during the 70's that vampires (and their hunters, like Blade) became big in the MU: it also saw the advent of characters such as Ghost Rider and the Son of Satan; the latter will become quite important a little later in our story. Patsy fits in with all this as an essentially "arcane" character. Her powers have always had a magical base; something inexplicable, but definitely mystical. She has an individual link to the nature of the occult. This becomes more manifest as her superhero career goes on.

If there's one thing this Bronze Age is notable for, it is a preponderance of utterly insane ideas, art and characters by the TRUCKLOAD. The word "psychedelic" pops up a lot when discussing this period of Marvel Comics. The following are a few scenes Patsy would witness during her adventures across worlds and galaxies during this trippy decade:

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So how would Pats find herself here? When we left her at the end of the last verse, she had just been invited to join Marvel's A-list heroes, the Avengers, at the behest of none other than Captain America himself. But she doubts her abilities - despite the gifts she seems to possess - and instead decides to trip out completely and go to Titan (as in the moon) with a freaky bald goddess called Moondragon (again, it's the 70s) and earn some mad skillz.

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But in a Luke-on-Dagobah kinda way she learns of trouble on Earth, and promptly returns to do her bit. Her very first outing as a superheroine is arm-in-arm with the Avengers as they take on yet another group of madmen trying to conquer the world. It turns out Pats' latent psychic/magic abilities allow her to break the mind control these villains establish over the heroes. Or maybe, it is Patsy's anger and disgust at seeing her old ex-husband, Buzz, now a sleazy thug for a gang of criminals. The result is a classic battle:

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It's later established that, off-stage, Buzz managed to get away. Patsy frees the other Avengers and he escapes in the chaos. He would return to ruin things for Pats later; this time he had gone the costume route himself and become a supervillain; capitalizing on his crappy temper - and spiting the 'Cat - by calling himself "Mad Dog" and wearing a ridiculous outfit.

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Rawwr!

When the dust settled, Hellcat had truly emerged as her own character. But her unusual background and weird talents didn't really suit the more old-fashioned Avengers style of adventuring. Always one to put convention on its nose, Patsy joined up with a peculiar outfit called the Defenders. Celebrating their status as a "non-team" - like a punk Avengers, if you will - their roster comprised characters who lived for weirdness and the warping of worlds. So Patsy fit right in. (The founder-members were Doctor Strange and Clea, the two most powerful magicians in the MU; original outcasts like Namor and the Silver Surfer also accounted themselves life members).

Along with Hellcat there were three other main 'members' (it's a non-team, remember) at this time. Although nominally the group's leader, Nighthawk was a jerk, and his 70's incarnation has been a running joke for many years. His powers only worked at night, and his costume was ridiculous. His two main plotlines during this period are (1) being hounded by the IRS and (2) being left crippled and brain-dead in a coma. Poor bastard. Welcoming Patsy to the group, he's even lame enough to miss her flirting, and blithely references Howard the Duck, the biggest joke (and worst movie) Marvel ever made - and that is really saying something:

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The real leader, most of the time, was Valkyrie. Originally a normal college girl called Barbara, she became possessed with the spirit of Brunhilde; turning into an amazing warrior woman with a flying horse (called Aragorn) and some killer braids.

The final member of this iteration of the Defenders was the Hulk. At this stage the jolly green giant was enjoying a huge burst of popularity, as the classic TV series about him was Marvel's first real success in that field. As a result, the Hulk starts turning up in every Marvel comic in the 70's. But he did kind of suit the Defenders ethos; being an oddball character who didn't fit in to more conventional teams. His continual "Hulking-out" also provided regular fodder for storylines; but Patsy could certainly hold her own.

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She really filled the role of comic relief, on a team which already had a pretty ironic slant to it. She did establish strong friendships with Valkyrie and Clea, two of the best female characters of their time, and fought alongside the team against demon invasions and even into Valhalla. But Pats was usually nothing more than a bunch of one-liners, or as "patsy" (hur hur) for a gag, such as her continual battle with the coffeemaker in the Defender's flat.

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Sometimes she got some good (as in passably average) lines, but she was still considered the weakest character (in all senses) on the team by fans. The regular complaint was that she needed development beyond being just the "hell-raisin' Hellcat"!

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But...yeah.

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And at least it was shown that she had wit, and could wisecrack with the best of them, in the ancient art of superhero banter.

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Not to mention she flirted in every panel she could - she was the Hunk-lovin' Hellcat too.

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She got to meet Marvel's ultimate wisecracker - mind you, everyone has met Spidey - and together they went up against a freak called Lunatik - think Marvel's version of the Joker, except obsessed with music - and exchange some truly dire dialogue:

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Although her truly great moment with the Lunatik is a real doozie:

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One time in '78, it got really meta. The Defenders were all hanging out, indulging that hip new fad Friz-bee:

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...when a whole bunch of third-raters, inspired by a recent media piece on the team, decide to show up and try to join. Patsy promptly sets out to make the best of it:

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...and the whole thing plays out like a costumed version of her old romance comics from thirty years earlier. You're playing the field, and we're the game!

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(Personally I note this is not a great moment for either Paladin or Jack-of-Hearts, two characters I like. But at least they've officially met Patsy in continuity!)

As the decade wore on, Patsy finally did get some development. Her background - all those old comics - would come back to haunt her. Seeing as the whole "dark-and-gritty" tone was beginning to appear in comics (yes, it did exist before Frank Miller) her "perfect past" provided a fertile ground for revision. One of the first signs of this was Patsy catching up with her old friend Millicent Collins, aka Millie the Model; the MU's leading supermodel and another survivor from that past.

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Pats starts to find her legacy is something she has to confront; it all really begins with her mother Dorothy, who authored all the comics that made Pats "the girl who could be you". Over the course of her later run in the Defenders, the plotlines slowly start to tip Patsy's story towards her complicated past.

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It was all about dreams not bearing out in reality. I think Patsy's story, at this stage, reminds me a little of a song (written in '79) by Springsteen, "The River" - 'is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?". A lot of disillusion - the falseness of a happy ending - was creeping into her life. This was abruptly bought home with the sudden death of her mother.

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Funnily enough, Pats' old family home - bequeathed to her by her mother - now becomes the Defender's new base, after their previous one gets trashed in some demonic invasion or another. She and Nighthawk ("Kyle") go exploring through the attic, and rummaging through the skeletons Pats has left sleeping for so long.

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So all that running from the past has just bought her right back to it - and, to her surprise, it doesn't seem all that bad.

A brief interlude occurs when the Defenders get attacked by one of the strangest villains Marvel ever adapted - the Mandrill. He's a mutant monkey with the power to emit female-enslaving pheromones. Oh yeah, you can tell this was the era of second-wave feminism. We'll pass over his dodgier aspects and note that it ends up in Valkyrie and Hellcat being forced to fight, but coming out stronger friends for the experience.

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At this point, a new - and for Patsy, very significant - character joins the Defenders. This is Daimon Hellstrom, aka the Son of Satan. He was Marvel's biggest cash-in on the Satanism fad. In the case of his title, it's "exactly what it says on the tin"; he is locked in a battle between his better self, and his father - also the latter is insistent his son come home to succeed him.

He's instantly attracted to Pats, but it has more to do initially with the sinister forces he claims are coalescing around her. Together, they set off to India, and confront a series of cults that put the racism of "Temple of Doom" to shame. The real crime here though is Hellstorm's outfit, which makes me cringe every time.

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They even get to battle a demonic version of Hanuman, thus successfully insulting hell-only-knows how many people:

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But it turns out having Satan's son hot for you can have some nasty consequences - a lesson Patsy would be learning a lot in years to come. One night, a particularly demonic chicken finally comes home to roost:

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We suddenly learn - in what must count as one of the strangest things to ever take place in a comic book - that old Dorothy Walker had, long ago, promised her daughter to a satanic cult! That crazy lady with her all stage mothering turns out to be a devil-worshipper from way back...and our Patsy gets a classic 70's bondage scene in consequence.

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With the Satanists - and in particular a demon-of-the-week called Avarrish - doing their thing, they turn Patsy - in a case of stunning literal-mindedness - into a real Hellcat. The only reason for these insane shenanigans seems to be (a) demons are cool and (b) we wanna see Patsy fight the Defenders.

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But mind-control - even of the demonic kind - is pretty old-hat to superheroes, and it isn't long before Pats is released - albeit feeling pretty traumatized by the experience.

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This is where is pays to have the Son of Satan as a therapist. Patsy and Hellstrom grow a lot closer during this ordeal - despite the fact his demonic nature helped play a part in the affair. She - and we - even get some sort of apologetic insight into her mother's actions - although I still feel the whole thing was very forced by the writers.

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The folks at Marvel were actually pretty leery about having Satan as a character in their comics - after all, only lunatic types like Jack Chick can get away with that. That rising backlash at satanic imagery in comics, movies and TV forced Marvel to eventually replace the Big S with their surrogate stand-in, Mephisto. But while it was still acceptable, they made Satan a big player in his son's stories.

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(Very "Night On Bald Mountain", don't you think?)

In fact, Satan's final, serious appearance in a Marvel comic would involve Pats getting done-over demonically yet again (and not for the last time). In another daft move - although this one would be later retconned away - Satan taunts his son by claiming Patsy is the Daughter of Satan, and hence Hellstorm's sister.

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It's all a big demonic lie, of course. But Satan's point is to get at his son where it hurts - but making him reveal his human feelings for Pats.

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As a result of all these mindgames - and with some warped, desperate desire to remain linked to his father - Hellstrom admits to these feelings (and hence, in Satan's eyes, his "weakness"). This brings Patsy back to normal - indeed, "in some ways improved" - if only in terms of mystic power.

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Naturally, having lost her mother, discovering said mother had actually sold her to Satan, then being demonically possessed two times in as many months has taken it's toll on Pats. For the first time, we really get the glimpse of a three-dimensional character, who has traveled quite an arc.

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There is this one crowning moment of awesome on Patsy's part at this time; it's also an example of how superhero comics were beginning to deal with more day-to-day tragedies. After a checkup, Pats finds herself struggling to cope, before meeting a girl who reminds her of everything Patsy Walker was always about.

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I just liked that; that's my Pats.

But this all marked the close of a chapter in Patsy's life. She left the Defenders and headed out into a darker world and an ominous future. She was heading into the 80's; the Dark Ages of comics, and her ordeals thusfar were nothing compared to what was to come.

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