Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Classics Illustrated: The Man in the Iron Mask

Classics Illustrated: The Man in the Iron Mask

Promoting heath and safety centuries before its time

Published 1948, Reprint 1964 and 1969 

Hoping everyone is well and healthy in these coronavirus times, I thought we would dip the Crapbox into controversy and make everyone’s day.

Currently as the United States is gripped in the tightly clenched fist of the ravages of CV-19, an invisible threat that preys on old and young alike, I knew the Crapbox had to deal with the topic at some point.

To put an end to any speculation about our stance here, I will state emphatically for the record: 

Wear the Damn MASK!

Before the more belligerent of you start trying to curb stomp me for curtailing your “Free-dums!” hold up a minute and let me attempt to engage your gray matter on this subject. I’ll do it in three simple points.

Point one: mask wearing protects those around you. You can pull up all the counter sites you want to, but it doesn’t change the fact that putting something in front of your face prevents the spread of germs. That’s why your Mom used to clout you over the head when you would sneeze without covering your mouth and nose. I’m not going into scientific specifics here. I could, but no one wants that from me. Look it up. EVERY reputable journal of medicine or science shows that wearing a mask PROPERLY can stop the spread of germ particles. Thus you should wear a mask whenever in public TO PROTECT OTHERS. If you aren't doing this, you're kind of a dick.

Point two: mask wearing makes you look cooler. Not just from the superhero aspect, which should have broad appeal with my audience, but in general. Want a new way to fly your geek flag? Pick up a mask made with your favorite character on it. Want to look stylish? Try buying some color or pattern coordinated masks that match your outfit and makes you look more babe-o-lishous or studly. Want to look like yourself? Well, there are now mask makers who will print your face out on the mask so wearing it makes you look like “you.” In short, wear the mask whenever in public so you look cool.

Point three: wearing the mask is  one of the only compassionate, actionable things you CAN do to stop the spread. Washing your hands is the second and staying at home the third, of course. But mask wearing is clearly the thing you will have to do more of if we are ever going to get this under control. It takes no effort to throw one on your face. It will NOT impair breathing in 99.9% of the population. I’ve seen many people make this argument yet would still wear a full ski mask in winter. And if it does cause breathing issues, then you definitely don’t need to be out shopping in a global pandemic. One where catching the virus puts you at the highest, DEFCON-6 level of health risk for the specific issue your body has. As everyone says, "If the mask is uncomfortable, just try being on the ventilator." Intubation is no day at the beach. Can't mask? Then get used to ordering your stuff online and contact-less pickup. Only way to be sure. Stop trying to wander around Wal-mart with your chin (or nose, you stupidly sly jerkwads) waggling out. Wear the mask and show everyone that you care about them AND your own health.

I’m going to add a fourth point to my three-point scale above: wear it instead of being an asshole. Even if you don’t think it does anything or it impinges on your freedoms or whatever the fuck your tiny little mind wants to drum up as an excuse…wear it ANYWAY. Life isn’t about just YOU! It’s about all of us together. If you don’t want to be a part of society, then you shouldn’t be in Target picking up Pringles. Go live off nuts, berries, and squirrel jerky in the un-platted area outside of town. The rest of us who have endured no shirt, no shoes – no service for decades…who have been forced to take our bad habit outside so we don’t fill others’ lungs with second-hand smoke…who have had to remove our shoes, toss our water bottles, and submit ourselves to cavity searches just so we can fly to Vegas for weekend hedonism…WE DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR MOMENTARY INCONVENIENCE!

Being a part of a functioning society has a price. The hill you die on shouldn’t be one that affects so little of your freedom as a barely registered annoyance. This isn’t the equivalent of branding you like cattle or tracking your every movement or putting you on a death train to Auschwitz. You won’t DIE if you wear a fucking mask! And if you would die, stay the fuck at home. You don’t need to be out in this because you are so high risk you will likely die if you catch it.


Rant over.

But speaking of other dumbasses…er, uh…I mean Dumas. Speaking of another Dumas, specifically Alexandre Dumas, the famous French novelist, the Crapbox delivered unto me this Classics Illustrated “adaptation” of his final cap to the saga began in his famous The Three Musketeers (1844). And there is just a ton of ground to cover with this title that the Crapbox drops off, which I should mention is Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask.

We’ll begin with a quick look at Dumas, then cover the rumor and speculation around the ACTUAL MitIM guy (yes, there was one) according to historical records, talk a bit about the Classics Illustrated line and then somewhere near the end I’ll review a comic book. That is if I don’t die first because someone without a mask breathed all over me during my last shopping trip.

Alexandre Dumas was born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie in 1802. Not certain why you would keep what is unarguably the worst word in your name when changing it, but do as you will, good sir. Speaking of that part of his name, maybe I do see why. It came from his grandmother, a black slave named Marie-Cessette Dumas who was "romanced" by her owner, Alexandre’s grandfather. Before we go off on another huge tangent here, yeah, that is totally an unconscionable act no matter how you slice it. 

Alexandre’s father was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and he was born into slavery but set free by his father through the act of taking the boy with him to France from Saint-Domingue. France had a strict "no slaves" policy at the time. The grandfather jerkwad assisted Thomas-Alexandre in joining the French military, where T.A. was promoted to general in the French army by the age of 31, a first for someone of his mixed heritage. This gave his son Alexandre an advantage, using his father’s military success to acquire writing work with Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans. Alexandre had been formally trained with a classical education and he turned that knowledge into a career as a successful writer.

Alexandre Dumas’s first work was a play called Henry II and His Courts that he finished when he was 27 and was met with critical and commercial acclaim. Over the course of his life Dumas’s writing spanned plays, magazine articles, travel books, essays, and novels, many of which were published through newspapers in serial format. His most famous works include The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Prince of Thieves (a novel of Robin Hood), and The Count of Monte Cristo.

I haven’t read any of those books, but I have eaten the sandwich adaptation of that last one. It's pretty tasty. I’ve also seen a couple of the nearly 200 film adaptions of Dumas’s works, although none of them cost both my parent’s lives (look at me sneaking a Batman joke in here). I think my favorite was the one where Michael York was d’Artagnan and Raquel Welch … something-somethinged and I forget what happened because she looks AMAZING!


Um…where were we?

The inspiration of much of Dumas’s literature were real-life accounts by past historical authors which Dumas embellished to create his fictional narratives. Many times he would borrow character names from these accounts to lend a degree of authenticity to his stories. But with The Man in the Iron Mask, he lifted and embellished a whole lot more.

That’s because there actually was a man in the iron mask: an unidentified prisoner arrested sometime around 1670 and then held in a number of French prisons, including the Bastille and the Fortress of Pigneroi, until he died in 1703. For the entirety of his incarceration his face was hidden by a mask of black velvet cloth. To this day, no one knows who he was. Current research suggests he was involved in several political scandals of the late 17th century, but nothing has been proven.

Dumas allowed his speculation to run wild and the result was his final musketeers tale.

The Man in the Iron Mask makes up ONE part of the THIRD novel of the Three Musketeers. That last book, called the Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, is 269 chapters with The Man in the Iron Mask story starting at chapter 181 and running to the end. It is the finale of the d’Artagan saga, and I’d say Dumas didn’t really stick the landing on this one. For those of you looking forward to reading the actual novel I’ll save you the listing of where it leaves our heroes. Believe me when I say it isn’t in the land of sunshine and rainbows.

And the entire saga is only a staggering 3,680 pages.

Yeah, give me a 46 page comic of all that any day.

It’s fitting that I start looking at the Classics Illustrated line here given that the title’s first adaption of a classic novel in “graphical storytelling” format was Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. This debut issue was published in 1941 under the banner of Classic Comics. The original issues were offered at a 10-cent cover price. Around their 35th adaption, the brand got a makeover and the series name was changed to Classics Illustrated. Increases in cost lead to a lower page count, with stories now ringing in at the 48-page mark. As paper costs went up, the books saw prices go to 15-cents and finally to 25-cents. The good news to all of this is that prior stories could be recycled with new covers showcasing those higher price points. Thus there are 9 verified printings of books like The Man in the Iron Mask. 

Classics Illustrated did feature some great artists, but could just as easily end up with someone forgettable doing a story. Jack Kirby, Jack Abel, Gray Morrow, Joe Orlando, John Severin, and Joe Sinnott all graced the title’s pages at some point. At 169 issues, that’s still makes finding something you will LOVE in a Classics Illustrated by randomly picking one pretty much the definition of a crap shoot.

And so it goes with this issue.

Gamespot’s Comic Vine website ID’s the artist as August Froehlich, which I have to go with as the book is too coy to let his name slip. Froehlich appears to have done work in books like The Shadow, Captain Marvel Jr, The Black Terror, and a few lesser known and remembered books of the golden age. He got five shots at working for Classics Illustrated: Adventures of Cellini (38), Mysteries by Edgar Allen Poe (40), The Man in the Iron Mask(54), The Toilers of the Sea (56), and Black Beauty (60). I found his art unremarkable in this issue and as much as I would welcome a comic of Poe stories, don’t feel inclined to seek it out knowing he was behind the pencil.

And I guess that’s my segue into an actual comic review. Not quite as soft a landing as I like to make, but here we go…

We begin with the only splash page we get in this overly talky, action-lacking mess. A splash page with an exposition scroll, if you can believe that. This highly exciting trudge takes place in the courtyard of the French Bastille, one of the most famous prisons in all of France. And who do we have here…

Why bless my soul! Literally even! (why am I Snagglepuss all of a sudden?) That priest is none other than Aramis of the three musketeers fame. Now made good down the religious career path, having been promoted by his boss (God) to the high rank of the Bishop of Vannes. His two companions winding their way through the dungeons of the prison are the governor of the Bastille (I take it he’s like the warden) and the night guard. Aramis apparently came to take a prisoner’s confession, but he doesn’t let anyone accompany him in to see the young man detained within. The lad seems to not know what he has done nor why he is being held.

But Aramis does. *cue flashback*

Seems the young man grew up in the most EXTREME quarantine conditions ever imagined: he was placed in a walled estate, alone, with only monthly visits from Aramis and a woman who tutored him. This went on for FIFTEEN YEARS.  Dude! We were ready to pull our hair out at less than three months of "super" self-isolation, and here this young man spent his entire childhood trapped inside a walled estate. Feeling a little wimpy by comparison?

When the lad turns fifteen though, something happens that changes all of that. Aramis screws up and drops a letter from the Queen with some instructions (possibly about the boy) and it blows down a nearby well, as most dropped mail is wont to do. I can’t tell you how many credit card offers I’ve lost in this exact same way. Also it turns out the tutor the boy has been seeing monthly IS the QUEEN! And it appears there is some other woman who lives there with him, which accounts for him not looking like a feral squirrel or devolving into some half-man/half-beast the way I do when I take a week of vacation and spend it alone in my house. She must be the one enforcing the "dress in puffy shirts" code.

As Aramis and the housefrau run off, the boy climbs down the well and retrieves the letter. Relish these panels!! This is the ONLY action in the entire book. No sword fights. No chases. NO ACTION OF ANY KIND!! Who would have thought swashbuckling musketeer adventures could be so gawdawful BORING!

It is from this letter that the lad learns he must be high-born, but he quickly hides the missive. Sadly, his dunking gets him sick, as every time a child encounters being submerged in water for more than two minutes they invariably become sick and feverish. Who is writing this trash again? Anyway, his poor health leads to the letter being discovered in his bed sheets, which means he knows the secret of his sequester or at least a portion of it…and all this leads to him being moved to the Bastille. "For his own protection." *End Flashback*

Then we get a full page of Aramis being vague to the poor incarcerated chap before he reveals….

This wild story about the Queen secretly giving birth to TWIN SONS. 

An event that causes the King to decide to hide the second child away to be raised in seclusion. His fear that by publicly announcing the birth of TWO heirs to the throne would cause the kingdom to be split in two at some point. I used to give people more credit than that, but in light of our current political situation…King is right. Sadly he does what Mike Ehmantraut would call a “half measure”. The truer solution would be to murder the second infant for the good of the country. (jeebus! When did I get so dark?)

Infanticide does not happen, and our future shut-in is hustled off in an awaiting carriage.

So of course this lad is the second child, twin brother to the current King of France, but Aramis has to do his reveal his way…which is by providing the lad with a locket containing a picture of the King and then a mirror so he may compare it to his own face.

And now comes the big temptation: Aramis offers the young man the throne of France. Our forced introvert still has a very human concern for the brother he has never known and who possibly doesn’t even know of his existence. He still has a good moral center and it is here that Dumas’s tale begins to unravel. Is Aramis the “good” guy? Is the hapless twin? Who are our loyalties supposed to lay with? Who are we rooting for in this mess?

Now maybe the book makes this a little more clear. The Classics Illustrated edition doesn’t, however. The twin is truly in a desperate situation. Aramis isn’t offering to free him no matter what. Aramis is offering a very narrow road out of his incarceration. “Do my bidding, take over France, and I will get you out of permanent, and potentially lifelong, imprisonment.” You can feel there will be a payout forthcoming. Not to mention the fact that Aramis foments hard feelings where none should naturally exist and uses them to justify placing the King in the jail instead of his twin. When did our musketeer friend get so power-hungry and cruel?

But to hatch this little plan, Aramis has to call in some favors. Luckily he knows whose back needs scratching. Monsieur Fouquet, France’s Superintendent of Finances and a discount-rate Littlefinger, isn’t doing so well money-wise. Easily coerced into writing a letter to get out a petty criminal from the Bastille under promises of mucha lucre coming his way later, Aramis hatches his plan.

To establish plausible deniability, Aramis has Fouguet ask for a different prisoner to be released from the King’s justice…

…then has a late supper with the Governor of the Bastille and shows him the original, asking him to release the man immediately. As the Governor summons his guards to do just that,…

Aramis switch the real request for a fake one requesting that “Marchiali” be released. “Marchiali is of course the name the King’s twin is being held under.

And if you thought that bit was exciting, wait until you see this part where Aramis reveals the he is sufficiently priestly to issue an order overriding the Kings allowing “Marchiali” to go free. I’m stunned by all this action and have to take a lie down.

Okay, I’m back up now. The lad, now going by the name Philippe is set free and ends up in Aramis’s charge. Probably Phil would like to just plain leave, but Aramis has other notions.

Aramis is still pushing his “imprison the king and take his place” plan. Phil however starts putting up arguments. It is almost like he doesn’t want ultimate power and such. 

Or it’s that good ole Phil has a moral conundrum when it comes to doing unto others as has been done to him. Aramis even offers him a way out…but after a short walk…

…he’s all in on putting the King in chains for personal gains. This is purely a plot contrivance to allow the author to discredit Phil's superior moral ground. Phil could have been a reluctant participant, but that would make his ultimate fate seem unearned. Instead the author gives him a chance to walk away but Phil takes the vindictive path instead. And so his education on who does what begins.

Which ends with giving Phil the skinny on the King’s captain of the musketeers, none other than d’Artagnan. We also find out that Aramis is not doing this for altruistic reasons. He wants the King-to-be to promise to promote him, propelling our priestly ex-musketeer right into spitting distance of being the next pope. All of this rides on Aramis’s friend Fouquet, however…

Who unknowingly is one of the cogs in Aramis plot to unseat the Queen’s first born. For the King is coming to Fouquet’s huge palatial estate, a mansion so large that even Fouquet has no idea everything it contains. Why I state that will soon become apparent. But first we learn that Aramis has taken the room above the King’s own for his quarters.

And a couple of things happen simultaneously that evening. One, Fouquet’s banquet that he has put himself in hock up to his French eyeballs to put on left a definite impression on the King. Just not the way he expects it. Two, the reunion of d’Artagnan with comrades Porthos and Aramis does not seem so chummy. D’Artagnan as much as admits he suspects Aramis of plotting something. 

And hell if our fourth musketeer isn’t so spot on the money that Aramis has to use word play trickery to swear that isn’t the case. And while d’Artagnan is helping lumbering Porthos to bed…

…Phil starts getting cold feet. While a floor below him, the King calls in his finance minister to complain about how well off Fouquet has set his table this evening. Phil and Aramis catch wind of this through a hole in the flooring.

And what they watch is finance minister Colbert, who is undoubtedly taking some off the top throwing Fouquet under the bus by lying and making it appear their host is stealing from the King. Which causes the King to get in a snit.

He has Colbert send in d’Artagnan and asks his captain of the guard to place Fouquet under house arrest for stealing…in the man’s own house! Which d’Artagnan balks at, but still performs…and I just gotta say EVERYONE in this story is pretty much a dick. The King’s an entitled dick, Aramis is a scheming dick, Colbert is a lying thief and a dick, even to a lesser extent Phil is a dick for choosing to allow his brother to be locked up in his place when it hadn’t even been proved that his brother knew of his existence. The only person with moral integrity is d’Artagnan. He’s just a guy doing his job to the best of his ability. Which around all these dicks, seems like a pretty na├»ve way to be. Wise up, d’Artagnan before you get Ned Stark’ed.

And while the King gets some shut-eye, Aramis unveils his plot. He hasn’t stopped at figuring out how to make floor-ceiling holes in his friend Fouquet’s mansion. Oh, no. He has also designed and installed a complicated bed-lowering system of gears and pullies that run through three floors in the EXACT ROOMs where the King and Phil are staying. Uh…wait! What?

Now raise your hand if you think this novel in a series of swashbuckling tales has finally driven straight over the shark ramp and failed to clear Jaws. This is SUCH a huge plot convenience that it isn’t jumping the shark so much as leaping directly into his mouth. Who in their right mind would find this remotely believable…?

And get while I’m asking this that I also am remembering these were begun as serialized adventures in newspapers that possibly came off as the “Dexter” of their time period. Because that right there is some lumberjack-shit if I ever heard anything.

But yeah…this happens:

And the King is spirited away by a masked Aramis and Porthos.

He is delivered to the Bastille, where Aramis pretends the King is actually Phil and explains he shouldn’t have been let go. He also tells the Governor that Phil has been pretending to be the King to discredit the prisoner should anyone listen to his pleadings.

And indeed, it works. The King is incarcerated in Phil’s old cell.

While Aramis returns to Fouquet’s mansion, the King begins to realize just how dire is predicament is. 

While things are looking worse and worse for the King, Phil avoids a narrow miss with the sharp-witted d’Artagnan due to Aramis’s timely arrival.

But while Aramis is able to throw off his old friend and to save his unknowing co-conspirator Fouquet from a cell next to the King’s, it comes at the price of raising d’Artagnan’s suspicions.

The same with Fouquet, who doesn’t know why d’Artagnan is no longer keeping him under house arrest. He knows Aramis is behind it though, and it has something to do with how much power Aramis can wield over the King.

So Aramis tells him everything. To say that Fouquet is unhappy to have the King’s trust betrayed while a guest in his home is to put it kindly. He’s furious! Even though that very same King was about to have Fouquet tossed out on the street because Fouquet hocked his children’s harpsichord in an attempt at providing for his royal feast. Aramis ends up tossed out on his ear.

And to make matters worse, he vows to Aramis that he’s going to the prison to free the true King. Aramis and his unwitting accomplice ride out before Fouquet spills the beans.

And bean spill he does. Right to the King still imprisoned. To which his majesty’s reply is that his brother must die. Kinda sad actually. Dude is your flesh and blood. While what he did was pretty crummy, he had been locked up for years by your mother and, he might assume, with your knowledge, perhaps.

Fouquet proves he’s also one of the heroes right here, counseling the imprisoned King wisely that a public execution of Phil would end up making his mom, the Queen look heartless. Also Fouquet shows himself a true patriot in all this as well. Here is where the comic book leaves him. He did a good deed, stayed true to his morals and . In the novel, the King decides to have him arrested anyway. That’s right! King Louis is such a dick that he arrests the guy that saved him from permanent residence in the Bastille.

But that isn’t shown here. Possibly because it involves an epic chase and this book can’t have anything in it like some action to keep us awake. Instead we get a page of Phil trying to figure out how all these intricate relationships will work now that he is King. Specifically, but not limited to, living beside his mother who has had him locked away for so many years.

And while Phil notices that Aramis is missing…

…it isn’t until the King appears that he realizes the jig is almost up. Almost… if someone could only tell the two of them apart.

Which Louis figures out how to show the world who has been in a prison cell for the past …wait! Phil was living in an exclusive walled estate until just recently. How the heck does he look any paler than Louis. Face facts, Dumas. You wrote yourself into a corner here. There was no way to tell these two apart. I’m chalking the love of this one up to it being the end of a successful series and a “based on true events” story. Otherwise it is very, very lame.

And just look at what a downer this ending is…

Phil is consigned to prison forever and has to wear heavy metal headgear that covers his face forever, Fouquet realizes Phil is just as much a prince as King Louis and perhaps regrets foiling the plot by Aramis, d'Atagnan has lost two of his dearest friends in the world and now knows he works for a guy that would consign his own brother to a hellish fate that, let's be frank here, is not completely his own making. Phil got served a horrible plate. He didn't make great choices, but come on! Guy wasn't allowed to play with other kids or have guests or go anyplace for years. It's a wonder he is socialized at ALL. Cut him a break, King. But nope. Everybody loses!

Screw you, Dumas!

Terrible story. The guy isn’t even put in the iron mask until the last page of the story. And in the comic, the iron mask doesn’t even make a single appearance outside of the cover. RIPOFF!

Speaking of masks you should see, please remember to wear yours. Yeah, it ain’t 100% foolproof buttercup. Neither are seatbelts nor airbags, yet you still use both of those. Mask up so we can get this bitch under control. It is the only way we are going to get back to normal. Not having a 9/11 worth of Covid deaths every three days. Or worse.

The Crapbox has spoken. Until next time... 
Mask up, heroes! Make it count!