I’ve written up a number of DC’s “mature readers” sci-fi and fantasy offerings from the late 1980s over the course of this feature. That class of funnybooks — to my mind, read more at least — reflects the core essence of “nobody’s favorite” more than any Silver Age also-ran or art-directed 1990s travesty ever could.
These works were attempts to capitalize upon the creative freedoms opened up by the direct market and the sense of exuberance following the stratospheric successes of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Marvel may have gotten there first with its Epic imprint, generic but DC had the advantage of timing and momentum and a barrage of house ads which ensured that Sonic Disruptors would be remembered even as Bozz Chronicles fell into utter obscurity.
More than any rejiggering of the publisher’s superhero stuff, purchase these titles embodied DC’s new, post-Crisis status quo — slickly packaged, (arguably) forward-thinking, and put forth by a stellar assortment of both up-and-coming and veteran talent.
In theory, it should have been a formula for success. In practice, in turned into object lesson about the perils of misplaced faith and giddy overconfidence. Signing someone like Jim Starlin to a prestige project only really works if said project is able to live up to the “prestige” part of the equation…
…which was not the case with 1989′s Gilgamesh II.
This four-issue, squarebound wonder (as in, “I wonder who signed off on this project”) was Starlin’s attempt to update ancient Sumerian myth for the pseudo-sophisticated contemporary fanboy demographic. Though the concept was not without merit, its execution was a trainwreck of epic proportions.
A dying alien race sends a pair of its infants to late 1980s Earth. Thanks to a sitcomical screw-up, both the pods contain male specimens of the species.
One lands in the middle of a pot farm run by a husband-wife pair of post-dated acid casualties, who adopt the child and name him Gilgamesh. The other lands in a remote part of the Amazonian jungle, where the extraterrestrial naif is left to fend for himself.
Gilgamesh rises to prominence as the leader of a post-WW3 corporate semi-dystopia. Gil conceals his alien features hidden behind a latex mask (making him resemble an uber-ripped George Wendt) which is secured with a choker embroidered with symbols of “all the world’s major religions.”
Gil’s rockstar life of orgies and board meetings is disrupted by reports of the “Other,” a shadowy figure who has been sabotaging the megacorp’s plans for bulldozing the South American rainforest in pursuit of profit. Gil dispatches Secret Agent Bambi to sex the Other (dubbed “Otto”) into a discussion of the issues.
Otto agrees to see Gil. Gil freaks out at seeing another member of his race. Otto and Gil slug it out for a few pages. Gil’s adopted mom brokers a truce. Gil and Otto become inseparable besties and team up to fight a barely explained alien “dragon.” Otto gets sorta-fatally wounded by the creature and really-fatally wounded by a cyborg ninja sent by a rival power bloc to assassinate Gil.
An inconsolable Gil hits the bong hard in search of a way to bring his bro back to life. He dons a suit of power armor and explores a dimensional rift caused by a disastrous Soviet experiment with teleporation technology. Gil finds one of the Soviet scientists inside the rift, and the scientist shows Gil how to use the rift’s power to resurrect Otto. Gil returns to Earth, but finds that centuries have passed and humanity is but a distant memory. A crestfallen Gil hurls himself into the void.
Those of you familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh might have noticed some similaries between Gil and Otto’s Excellent Adventure and the ancient trials of Gilgamesh and Enkidu — particularly the cyborg ninja, which Nebuchadnezzar himself described as “teh awesomesauce” — yet Starlin’s read of the original text are superfical at best, with only the haziest thematic connection to the source material.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the foundational works of Western literature — if not “the” foundational work. Its ripples and echoes have informed and influenced everything from the Bible to Classical myth to two-fisted pulp adventure tales. Without getting into literary “canon” nonsense, it is a singularly important work of literature.
If you’re going to homage or reference Gilgamesh, then you ought to have something to say about it. It doesn’t have to be particularly deep or substantive, but it ought to add some sliver of substance to the ongoing cultural conversation. In Starlin’s hands, the allusions to the source material became Chekhov’s metaphorical gun — introduced without any any eye for effective use.
It’s only purpose is as a pretext for the most insufferable type of pseudoreferential wankery — late 1980s superhero revisionism, tailings left over from Starlin’s other bouts of “cosmic” storytelling, and incoherent social commentary sprinkled with enough sex ‘n’ drugs references to convince the fanboy sophisticates that they’ve graduated from mainstream funnybook silliness. It conveyed no meaning except the notion that it was supposed to be meaningful, the laziest kind of “head movie” in soporifically static form.
(Seriously, “what if…Jonathan and Martha Kent were weed farmers” is the type of premise-slash-punchline which typifies the chemically-crutched banalities of “stoner humor” where a heady buzz and “with drugs” are comedy Acapulco gold.)
How anyone expected folks to shell out $3.95 a “prestige format” issue for Gilgamesh II is anyone’s guess. (Besides “Starlin’s art,” and he’s done far better work that what was on display here.)