Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gashouse, Gacy, and Gay Awareness -- My Evolution

I learned the facts of life, so to speak, the way most people my age did back in the ‘70s. When we were in fifth grade, the school system scheduled a once-a-week, four-session “Family Living” class with a professional sex-ed teacher. Girls were separated from boys for the Big Lesson, and within the safe confines of our own gender we ultimately learned what goes where to create the miracle of life.

I must confess that I already had a pretty good idea about the birds and the bees before Family Living class. No one told me formally. I just picked it up via intellectual osmosis (mostly from reading Greek myths) combined with some good old-fashioned guess work. Family Living class simply confirmed what I already suspected. By the time I was twelve years old, then, I was operating with a pretty good early-adolescent understanding of human sexuality. At least as far as heterosexuality goes…

As I’ve written previously, I watched A LOT of TV when I was young. In fact, I still do. Back in the ‘70s, if kids wanted to watch TV they had to be content with their parents’ viewing tastes. Typical households only had one television, which was duly controlled by mom and dad. Back then, it wouldn’t have mattered if the kids had their own set anyway. All television programming in primetime was aimed at adults. Remember, the 1970s was long before the advent of cable television and myriad TV channels devoted solely to kids’ programming. Up until the 1990s, children themselves were not even considered a viable marketing demographic during the evening primetime viewing hours.

Thus, as a kid, I regularly watched shows that today’s tweens and teens would never even deign to try, e.g. Medical Center, Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Barnaby Jones. Two such dramas, Marcus Welby, M.D. and Kojak, were regular episodic staples in the Kozak household. In the space of one year, circa 1975-76, both these programs aired controversial episodes concerning human sexuality that dovetailed almost precisely with my formal sex education in Family Living class.

In 1975, Marcus Welby, M.D. got the ball rolling with an episode called “The Outrage.” In this story, a high school teacher, played by Edward Winter, is caught molesting a male student. The abuse comes to light because the student’s injuries from the encounter require surgery, which is where Dr. Welby and his team enter the story. Needless to say, I had a hundred questions after the episode concluded, questions my parents deflected with a hasty “It’s a very complicated matter. You’ll learn all about it in Family Living.” Of course, I knew what Family Living was because my older siblings had gone through the course years before. So I kept my questions to myself and filed them away for future reference.

Before being enlightened in Family Living, however, Kojak aired a similarly themed episode, “A Need to Know,” that further confused my nascent, naive understanding of human sexuality. In this episode, Telly Savalas & Co. hunted down a foreign diplomat accused of molesting boys and then hiding behind his diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution. Once again, questions poured forth at the episode’s end. And once more, my parents deflected those questions with the promise that all would be explained in Family Living.

Well, it wasn’t. Nothing was explained regarding homosexuality or pedophilia whatsoever. I even tried asking questions based upon what I’d seen on Welby and Kojak. No go. The sex-ed teacher, a very nice, patient woman named Mary Ward, explained that I really needed to discuss such matters with my parents. She did offer some advice, however, which was the same advice we heard every year during the North Olmsted Police Department’s annual visit to Coe School, i.e. “Don’t Take Candy from Strangers.”

I never did return to my parents with questions regarding what I’d seen on Marcus Welby and Kojak. Instead, I turned back to the first place I’d learned about human sexuality, Greek myths. In the space of a few short years, I suddenly grasped the truer, deeper meanings of mythic relationships such as Ganymede and Zeus, Hyacinth and Apollo, Heracles and Hylas, and even Achilles and Patroclus. Given my rudimentary knowledge of coital mechanics, I quickly realized that two males could easily approximate heterosexual coupling.

With my sudden epiphany regarding homosexuality, I quickly answered my own nagging questions regarding the plots I’d seen portrayed on TV. Alongside the heterosexual world existed a homosexual world. Bad people existed in this homosexual world, and they committed sex crimes against innocent, unsuspecting males. I was scared to death, just as most kids my age must be when first encountering the reality of homosexuality devoid of any rational perspective or societal context.

My burgeoning homophobia remained fairly dormant for the next few years. In fact, I repressed my fears to such a point that I barely even allowed myself to ruminate on the existence of homosexuals. Unlike every other troubling teenage neurosis over which I obsessed, my issues with same-sex molestation and rape never entered into the stories I created for the Trademark Universe. All that changed, however, when I learned about John Wayne Gacy.

1980 found me in high school. In a previous blog, “Todd Harper, a.k.a. the Battling Buckshot,” I discussed rebooting and retconning the character Buckshot. I also mentioned the character of Don McHale, a child-killer befriended by teenaged Todd Harper while both were serving time in prison for murder. It was this same Don McHale that recruited Harper into Darius Kilhausen’s experimental inmate “rehabilitation” program. Kilhausen’s “treatment,” as it turns out, was actually the beginning of Götterdämmerung, the army of genetically re-engineered sociopaths and murderers commonly known in the Trademark Universe as “hybrids.”

Among these hybrids, Don McHale took the name Gashouse. Through Kilhausen’s biomechanical re-engineering, McHale acquired the ability to generate and control all manner of gasses, from plain old oxygen to deadly sarin. Needless to say, Gashouse’s abilities, combined with his sadistic lust for death, made him one of Götterdämmerung’s most deadly soldiers. Readers of Worlds Apart see evidence of McHale’s horrific propensity for mass murder in the opening pages, as he gleefully kills hundreds of innocent bystanders during the Trishy Tanaka hostage crisis.

So what does all this have to do with serial killer John Wayne Gacy?

Well, when I first created Don McHale in the early ‘80s, stories of John Wayne Gacy’s savage murders had already run their course through the morning papers and evening newscasts. Viewing the stories with a teenager’s penchant for the perverse, Gacy’s grisly crimes of homosexual rape, torture, and murder reignited the dormant homophobia I’d been submerging for several years. The fact that his victims were predominantly teenaged males like myself only further convinced me that homosexual serial killers like Gacy posed a very real threat to boys my age and myself personally.

The character of Don McHale, as I first imagined him, represented my adolescent attempt to understand not only the character of killers like Gacy, but perhaps even more importantly their motives. I read everything I could find on Gacy in addition to numerous other “boy killers” chronicled in the criminology and true-crime books I found at the Cleveland Public Library. One particularly graphic article in a sociology journal related the experiences of convicted child molesters being victimized by other inmates while in prison. In this study, I first learned of the hierarchy among prisoners that exists on the Inside. In a few short weeks, I considered myself an expert on such deviants. Finally willing to confront my fears of homosexuality and same-sex rape, I plunged headlong into incorporating a Gacy-like criminal into the Trademark Universe.

Enter Don McHale, a.k.a. Gashouse. Like Gacy, McHale was an upstanding family man in his community, the “last guy anyone would ever think” could be a sexual sadist, sodomizer, and serial killer. In prison, however, McHale lived the life of a constant target, continually being victimized by fellow inmates incensed with a self-righteous sense of prison justice. As McHale’s relationship with Todd Harper grew, I explicitly referred to his homosexual lust for the teenager. When I added the character of Robby Prentice (later to become Buzzcock), I made it quite clear that McHale and Prentice were engaged in a homosexual relationship, a situation which both disturbed and disgusted Todd Harper.

When the inmates in Kilhausen’s program escaped from confinement and formed Götterdämmerung, Gashouse went back to serial-killing young men in his spare time. Now working with superpowers, Gashouse’s grisly crimes became even more ghastly. Whenever heroes like the Protectors, Vendetta, or Wolf faced Gashouse, the stories had a tendency to visit the darkest corners of my teenaged mind.

Years later, as I met, socialized with, and befriended gay men at OU, I actually became ashamed of my immature, ignorant, hysterical depiction of Gashouse as a representative of all homosexual males. During my “Buckshot, the College Years” stories, I made a conscious effort to realistically and positively portray the gay men and gay culture I regularly encountered. In one story arc, Buckshot met and teamed up with an openly gay superhero named Bulwark, who despite the slings and arrows of American society went on to lead the reformed superteam United Front.

Of course, Gashouse made numerous appearances during Buckshot’s collegiate career. Enlightened or not, I wasn’t about to kill off one of my best super-baddies, especially when he figured so prominently in Buckshot’s backstory. Gashouse’s villainy changed, however.

No longer was Don McHale’s evil a product of his homosexual lust. Rather, he existed -- like John Wayne Gacy -- as an evil man who simply happened to be homosexual. My new portrayal focused on Gashouse’s pathological self-hatred caused by society’s virulent homophobia, a self-loathing he then turned outward on his young male victims. Years later, when another homosexual serial killer emerged -- Jeffrey Dahmer -- elements of Dahmer’s personality and crimes also worked their way into Gashouse’s character.

To this day, I still rank Gashouse as one of my most complicated and original creations. When I first conceived of Worlds Apart lo those many years ago, Gashouse’s opening foray against Flurry and Hellfield became the first small scene crafted in my original draft. In many respects, the growth of Gashouse’s character mirrors the growth of my own.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What the 'ell is an Elemental? or, FAQ: Flurry & Hellfield

Prelude -- My wife, Jennifer, reads these blogs. I think she enjoys them. She tells me she does. She also tells me she doesn’t understand a lot of my more esoteric references. So she just skips over them. She insists this doesn’t detract from her enjoyment. I can’t help but wonder if this is true, however.

In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to introduce two pretty arcane concepts: Elementals and Byronic Heroes. I apologize ahead of time for the way my mind works. I wish I could simplify my writing and make references to Stephen King and
The Sopranos instead of Lord Byron and De Occulta Philosophia. That being said, let’s get on with it.

When I first created the Trademark Universe circa 1975, I knew I needed “gods.” Normal superfolk just aren’t enough if you really want to tell epic tales. The only way to test the mettle of mere “mortal” superdoers is to set them alongside beings vastly more powerful, and then see how they fare.

Marvel Comics invented this formula with Thor. Thor being an Avenger allowed thoroughly-human heroes like Captain America, Wasp, and Hawkeye to strive for justice on the cosmic level. By the 1970s, Marvel titles boasted a plethora of immortals from both the Asgardian and Olympian traditions, not to mention the Eternals. Likewise, DC Comics utilized gods of their own. Marquee characters such as Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (Shazam!) were rooted in classical mythology. Once Jack Kirby introduced his New Gods in the early 1970s, the DC universe finally possessed its own pantheon to rival Marvel.

So where did that leave ten-year-old Mark Kozak as he was creating the Trademark Universe? What was I supposed to do when all the good gods -- old and new -- had already been taken?

At first, I thought of going into Egyptian mythology. Problem is, I just couldn’t dig the characters of Ra, Osiris, Horus, and their ilk. I think watching the live-action show Isis on Saturday mornings may have had something to do with my reservations. Needless to say, I continued looking elsewhere.

Somewhere at this time, I came across an issue of Marvel’s Supernatural Thrillers. Although I can’t be certain thirty-five years later, I believe my next-door neighbors had the issue in their comic book drawer. Supernatural Thrillers introduced me to another kind of “god,” namely creatures called Elementals.

Basically, Elementals are creatures akin to spirits that control one of the four classical elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Back in the olden days, magicians and alchemists believed they could perform spells and transmute base metals to gold by subjugating and harnessing the powers of these elementals. Elementals, then, were godlike creatures with powers on the cosmic scale. Marvel’s versions -- Zephyr, Hellfire, Hydron, and Magnum -- vied for control of the universe on several occasions.

Being a kid, I knew a great idea when I saw one. Since Marvel was only using their elementals in a two-bit “horror” comic, I had no qualms about borrowing the concept and tailoring it to my own needs. My Elementals would be the gods of my new superhero universe. Thus, I birthed Flurry (Air), Hellfield (Fire), Torrent (Water), and Landslide (Earth). But I wasn’t done yet.

Besides their status as gods, my Elementals allowed me to explore another avenue of story-telling I found compelling -- sibling relationships and rivalry. As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog, The Worst Trade Ever, much of my childhood was spent interrelating with my three older siblings. We fought each other, schemed together, and relied upon one another. In comic books, I saw these same kinds of relationships personified in Sue and Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four, as well as evil-mutants-turned-Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Using Johnny, Sue, Wanda, and Pietro as templates, I fashioned my own dysfunctional brood of sibling gods. Naturally, my characterizations relied heavily upon normal brother-sister conflicts as reflected in the natural struggle and balance among all four elements. Water douses Fire, yet Fire boils Water. Earth imprisons Air, yet Air erodes Earth. You get the idea. In the Trademark Universe, my Elementals played out their family alliances and rivalries with global consequences.

Foremost among my four Elementals, Flurry and Hellfield saw most of the cosmic action. Thus, I tended to predominantly concentrate on their interactions with each other and towards the super-community as a whole. Personality-wise, they (and their two siblings) shared some similar characteristics, arrogance and hubris being the most noticeable. Aside from their innate presumptuousness, however, Flurry and Hellfield couldn’t have been more different.

As originally conceived, Flurry stood as the most rational and sympathetic of her brood. In my imagining, Flurry was literally the wind. Thus, she could either be a calm, cool breeze on a torrid summer day or a cataclysmic wind storm such as the tornado that leveled Xenia, Ohio when I was nine years old. Within the ranks of the Protectors, Flurry functioned as a kind of first lieutenant under the dual leadership of Silver Streak and Hangman. Later, when those senior heroes took leaves of absence, she assumed leadership of the group. Along the way, she fell in love with and wed the Spring, a retired hero later placed in charge of S-1, the U.S. government agency devoted to policing superheroes.

In complete contrast, Hellfield never fit in anywhere or with anyone. First written as Flurry’s hot-headed petulant brother, Hellfield was admittedly based on Stan Lee’s early characterization of teenage Johnny Storm. Put bluntly, he hated humans, or “blood bags” as he referred to them. Most of his early appearances occurred in the role of villain, laying waste to cities and countries like some kind of polysyllabic Hulk before being pacified by sister Flurry and the Protectors. As I developed Hellfield, though, I began shading his personality to make his motives more interesting and complex.

Once again borrowing from Marvel comics, I decided to “humanize” Hellfield by redrawing the dynamic of his relationship to Flurry. Like Stan Lee’s Quicksilver, Hellfield, too, possessed a jealous, overprotective devotion to his sister, Flurry, that bordered on a kind of incestuous obsession. Later plots found him reluctantly allying himself with the blood bags he so passionately despised merely to keep a “watchful eye” on his sister. Of course, his tenure with the Protectors was rocky and short-lived to say the least. As years went on and the Trademark Universe developed, he popped up sporadically until finally drifting into the ranks of Wolf’s Irregulars right around the time I entered college.

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, my time in college spurred an intense creative outburst within the Trademark Universe. The new concepts and theories I encountered harkened a renewal -- no, make that a rebirth for the heroes and villains I’d been living with for over a decade. I re-conceptualized a large portion of the Trademark Universe, bringing long-standing characters and plots into line with the self-consciously literate, post-modern sensibilities I ingested on a daily basis. During this period, no Trademark character underwent a more drastic overhaul than Hellfield.

My sophomore year at OU found me deeply immersed in the Romantic Period of English Literature. Not surprisingly, when I encountered the life and writings of George Gordon, Lord Byron, I was drawn to the self-torturing darkness of his world view immediately. His concept of the anti-hero, or Byronic Hero as it came to be known, struck me instantly as something tailor-made for exploitation in the Trademark Universe. For those of you not familiar with the Byronic Hero, he can be quickly defined as an idealized but flawed character who is, in the words of Byron’s ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Wikipedia provides a further list of characteristics exhibited by the Byronic Hero:

-- high level of intelligence and perception
-- cunning and able to adapt
-- sophisticated and educated
-- self-critical and introspective
-- mysterious, magnetic, and charismatic
-- struggling with integrity
-- power of seduction and sexual attraction
-- social and sexual dominance
-- emotional conflicts, bipolar tendencies, or moodiness
-- a distaste for social institutions and norms
-- being an exile, an outcast, or an outlaw
-- “dark” attributes not normally associated with a hero
-- disrespect of rank and privilege
-- a troubled past
-- cynicism
-- arrogance
-- self-destructive behavior

The further I explored the ideal of the Byronic Hero, the more I realized I had unwittingly created my own rendition in the personage of Hellfield. Suddenly, one of my longest-standing creations finally and truly came to life in my mind. In honor of Hellfield’s rebirth, I crafted an entire story-arc in my mind that once and for all addressed the origins and nature of Hellfield, Flurry, and their brethren.

Until this point in my life, I had never tackled the issue of who or what the Elementals really were. To be honest, I don’t think I possessed the literary or intellectual chops to explain their existence. Flurry and her siblings had been around since the dawn of time living as physical embodiments of the four classical elements. No other information provided nor necessary.

Re-imagining Hellfield, though, opened up my mind to the possibility of re-imagining the entire brood of Elementals. They were the gods of the Trademark Universe, damn it, and it was high time I gave them the attention and respect they deserved. So finally, more than a decade since their creation, I wrestled with the overwhelming question surrounding their existence: who are they, and where did they come from?

My story began in The Protectors and ended in The Irregulars. Along the way, I travelled through eons of history beginning with the Big Bang and ending with the present-day. The four Elementals sprang into existence in our universe the moment of the Big Bang. Before then, they had existed each in their own separate elemental universe. Flurry lived in the Air Universe, Hellfield the Fire Universe, Torrent the Water Universe, and Landslide the Earth Universe. When the Big Bang happened, the cataclysm tore each of them from their respective universe and birthed them together in our universe.

Existing in corporeal form, their physical bodies act as tangible portals or valves connecting their respective elemental universes to our own universe. In order to manifest their powers in our universe, they simply “fold” a portion of their physical bodies back inside themselves, thereby opening the portal/valve and unleashing a part of their original universe. Theoretically, their powers are as infinite as their respective universes. However, since they inhabit physical forms in our physical universe, they are governed by the same physical laws governing everything else. In other words, they get “tired” when manifesting their powers for prolonged times over great distances, thereby becoming physically exhausted. So they can be beaten if forced to over-exertion, an outcome Hellfield knows only too well.

Historically, they lived through the physical and metaphysical events which occurred at the birth of our universe. They saw the galaxies and planets being formed. They sensed the war between God and the fallen angels as it transpired in the Heaven Dimension. They never interacted with the Supreme Deity, however, nor have they ever seen true angels or demons. They gravitated to Earth because they sensed consciousness here with which they could interact and communicate. At first, they had to be content with animal life. Then, however, humans evolved, and they were finally able to intelligently communicate with others separate from themselves.

The first men worshipped them as the first gods. The Elementals alternated between accepting this worship and ignoring humans altogether. Sometime later, beings crossed over to our universe from other universes. These beings were powerful, but not as powerful as Elementals. These beings, unlike the Elementals, purposefully set themselves up as gods among men. Their power actually grew as man worshipped them. In time, these gods actually rivaled the Elementals. Occasionally, these “gods” would vie with the Elementals, but for the most part both groups kept their distance. Eventually, as man’s worship lessened and their powers dwindled, these gods left our planet for greener galaxies.

For the last two millennia, then, the Elementals have been the sole “gods” on Earth. Flurry, unlike her siblings, has chosen to reside almost exclusively with humans, taking on human form and marrying a succession of human men over the centuries. Torrent and Landslide, on the other hand, remain almost completely divorced from humanity. Hellfield, forever the wild card, finds himself drawn to life with humans while simultaneously longing to be rid of them.

So now you have it, Trademarkers. The Elementals in a nutshell. Next up, Clarion and Hangman!