The Black Monk: Gothic Wanderers and the Early Comic Book Superhero

When I saw that Valancourt Books had republished The Black Monk, or The Secret of the Grey Turret (serialized 1844-1845), I had to read it. I had previously read James Malcolm Rymer’s best-known works, Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (serialized 1845-1847), the first full-length vampire novel in English and the precursor to Dracula (1897), and also The String of Pearls (serialized 1846-1947), which introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street into English literature, so surely, I thought, The Black Monk would be an exciting Gothic novel.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer's first penny dreadful serials.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer’s first penny dreadful serials.

Written as a penny dreadful like Rymer’s other works, this work predates Rymer’s two more famous novels, if we can truly call them novels. Certainly, the plot is tighter in The Black Monk than in Varney, but it also tends to be quite wordy, a sign that Rymer continually tried to drag out the story because it was popular with Victorian readers. For the modern reader, who reads it as a novel rather than a weekly serial, it feels overly long and many of the scenes and plots feel repetitive, but that aside, it is a fascinating book in many ways.

To try to summarize the novel’s plot would make it feel ridiculous, but there are some key elements about the novel and this edition particularly that make it stand out. First of all, I have long believed that the Gothic novel with its supernatural characters is the grandfather of the modern-day comic book superhero. In my book, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I traced how Gothic wanderer elements, such as extended life and other supernatural powers, eventually culminated in characters like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and Batman. There is much about The Black Monk that feels cartoonish. This edition has a back cover with little cameo drawing of the main characters which makes them look like cartoon or comic book characters. The original woodcut illustrations are included in the book, but these are far less detailed illustrations than those in Varney the Vampyre, which look like book illustrations. The Black Monk’s illustrations look in many ways more akin to comic book drawings. Finally, this edition has an introduction by Curt Herr, Ph.D. The introduction is not so much about Rymer or the novel as it is about how penny dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books in terms of being thought to have a bad influence on youths. Both were also very cost affordable publications and were produced quickly and for the lower classes. Herr even mentions comic book burnings that were held by communities in the mid-twentieth century, and while most of the comic books he mentions as being burned are of the horror and crime variety, Superman is included among them.

It surprises me that, as Herr asserts, and which I believe, despite the surprise, that comic books and especially penny dreadfuls, were seen as immoral and glamorizing crime and evil. This is probably largely due to the people who condemned them not actually reading them. I am not a reader of comic books myself, although what little knowledge I have of the ones produced in this century makes me think there may be some merit to these charges, but the penny dreadfuls like the earlier Gothic novels, despite depicting criminals and sinners, always held a highly moral tone in which those who committed crimes were ultimately punished, and usually, the virtuous were also rewarded. Certainly, a great deal of subversive behavior and undertones exist in these books, but as Herr points out, the social problems that exist in society are not from reading fiction but from the poverty that causes people to break the law, often just to survive. I would add to that a lack of education. Those who act in an immoral manner, even if influenced to do so by reading such works, do so because they lack the intelligence to understand the messages in these works or to understand simply that crime doesn’t pay. This is the same kind of lack of intelligence that causes some children to jump off roofs because they think they can fly like Superman. It is not the literature but faulty thinking and poor judgment that are to be blamed.

As for The Black Monk, I think a good argument can be made that it has within it the seeds of the modern day superhero.

I won’t go into the novel’s full plot, but in brief, it begins when Sir Rupert Brandon, owner of Brandon Castle, leaves the castle after being grief-stricken over the untimely death of his wife, Lady Alicia. He leaves the castle in the hands of Alicia’s sister and brother, Agatha and Eldred, as well as his trusty knight Hugh Wingrove and the neighboring abbot. While Sir Rupert is away, Agatha plots with Morgatani, an evil monk, to get her revenge on Sir Rupert for spurning her love and marrying her sister instead. While there is a large cast of other characters in the book, there are only four who are really of great interest in terms of understanding the development of Gothic literature and the modern-day superhero. They are:

  • Agatha
  • Morgatani
  • Nemoni
  • The Crusader

Let us look briefly at each one.

Agatha: There is nothing superhero-like about Agatha, but there is plenty that makes her an interesting Gothic wanderer. Female Gothic wanderer figures are few in number in Gothic fiction. Women tend more often to be the moral compass of the novels while the men are transgressors and guilt-ridden, a few notable exceptions being Fanny Burney’s Juliet in The Wanderer (1814) and Alice Nutter in William Ainsworth Harrison’s The Lancashire Witches (1849). Agatha is a very vile woman and intent on getting revenge on Sir Rupert because he chose her sister over her for his wife. Agatha plots to take the castle from him, and to do so, she falls into a romantic and sexual relationship with the evil monk Morgatani. However, she has moments where she feels remorse and regrets her evil deeds, but she is continually egged on by Morgatani, who displays disdain for her weaknesses and makes her false promises that he will be her lover and take her away from the castle once the revenge is completed. Agatha, unlike other Gothic wanderers of this period who show remorse, ultimately meets a bad end when she collapses in guilt and terror over her crimes.

Morgatani: Morgatani is a true Gothic villain. He has Gothic wanderer elements in terms of his supernatural abilities, but he never presents himself as in any way sympathetic to the reader. He is firmly in the Gothic tradition, his Italian background making him reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni in The Italian (1797). He is also an anachronism because the novel is set in the twelfth century but he is a Jesuit, and the Jesuits did not exist until the sixteenth century. The novel itself is somewhat anachronistic, beginning in 1204 in the time of King John, but then later telling us it is the time of King Richard I (1189-1199) and that Richard is a prisoner on the continent during the Crusades so John is trying to take his throne. This plot has some similarities to the Robin Hood legend and also causes Herr, in his introduction to the novel, to suggest it is a revision of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). I would not go so far as to call it a revision of that novel, but it certainly does share some similar elements and themes. The Jesuits are frequently depicted as villains in Gothic novels, most famously perhaps in The Wandering Jew (1846) by Eugene Sue; they are considered highly knowledgeable and know secrets or are involved in conspiracies, using their knowledge to manipulate society and political events. Repeatedly in the novel, Morgatani suggests that he knows things most people don’t because he is a Jesuit. Despite his religious connections (or perhaps because of them since the Gothic is notoriously anti-Catholic), he denies the existence of God, and while his origins are never made clear, he tells Agatha he is not immortal, but neither is he human. When he finally dies, the mystery of his origins remain unclear. That said, he clearly has supernatural abilities, at the very least, he possesses superhuman strength. This is significant because characters like the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) also have great strength, making them able to rip up trees. However, strength is also something that will later be associated with superheroes. The mid-nineteenth century is transitional in how Gothic wanderers are morphing into heroes. For example, Jean Valjean has superhuman strength in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), a novel that is not supernatural but still has many Gothic elements in it, including that Valjean is a wanderer, and a transgressor, a fugitive from the law; he is a villain/criminal in the eyes of society, yet the novel’s hero. Morgatani also leads a charmed life—an arrow fails to kill him early in the novel. He will only die as a result of his own alchemy when the turret explodes and crumbles; alchemy is another activity Gothic wanderers tend to indulge in—a transgression because it is against God’s natural laws to try to change the elements.

Nemoni: Nemoni is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. He is considered a madman, and he lives like a wild man in the forest; others believe him to be a wizard. This suggests that he is also supernatural in some way, although there is no evidence in the novel that he has any supernatural abilities. He is mostly insane with only a few lucid moments. His insanity comes from his desire for revenge upon Morgatani after having seen Morgatani cause the woman Nemoni loved (or his sister; the novel contradicts itself) to be destroyed. This woman was in a convent in Italy, and Morgatani tried to seduce her sexually. When she refused, he accused her of immoral behavior, resulting in her being buried alive in a wall of the convent. Nemoni is also a nod to the Arthurian tradition. Sir Lancelot becomes an insane wild man who lives in the forest, his love for Guinevere driving him to madness. Merlin also has a period in early life of being a madman in the forest, which is a parallel to Nemoni being called a wizard. Eventually, Nemoni does get his revenge, though he dies in the end, but not before he gives Sir Rupert the information that he has two children he didn’t know existed, which thereby restores the social order for the novel. No matter how scary a Gothic novel might be, the social order is always restored in the end.

The Crusader: This last character is the real superhero of the novel. He arrives at the castle while Sir Rupert is away and attempts to put things to rights. All the while, his identity is kept hidden because he wears a velvet mask. He is described by Eldred as “a whopper,” meaning he is large and strong, true heroic elements, yet his mask is more reminiscent of the Gothic. It is interesting that his name in the book is “The crusader”—he is the masked crusader, but that is not such a far cry from the “caped crusader,” Batman. In the end, it amounts to the same thing—he is fighting crime to see the castle saved and returned to its rightful owner. The astute reader will guess his identity before the novel is over—he is King Richard, and his return restores the social order to not only the castle but also to England.

The Black Monk is a curious blend of Gothic and medieval pseudo-history, as well as a blend of heroes and villains. It shows early comic book elements in its pictures and its action adventure style plot. While I would not call it a seminal Gothic text, it certainly shows how the Gothic was evolving in the nineteenth century, showing us both a repentant Gothic wanderer in Agatha, not yet ready to be redeemed—I would argue that Varney the Vampire is probably the first true Gothic wanderer to be allowed redemption—and heroes who disguise their identity to fight crime—something that will eventually lead to characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and yes, Batman.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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2 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

2 responses to “The Black Monk: Gothic Wanderers and the Early Comic Book Superhero

  1. And I feel french Popular Fiction is a vital translation in how we get from the Gothic Novel to the Pulp Superhero.

    Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris was initially basically an attempting to tell a Gothic Novel kind of story but in a contemporary Urban setting rather then an old of exotic one. While be heavily stylistically influenced by the convention of stage Melodrama and the early Romantic Novels of Victor Hugo. And in the process he basically invented all modern Urban Crime genre, including Detective fiction, Gangster fiction and the Film Noir. The School Master face being scarred with Acid anticipates Dick Tracy villains as well as Two-Face. Much what Feval, Ponson, and occasionally Dumas would do latter in imitation Sue I feel over all improved and refined the new genre Sue created.

    Have you talked in depth about Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew anywhere? And have you read the last two novels of the Les Mysteries du people series which brings back character from both Mysteries of Paris and the Wandering Jew?

    • Yes, I’m sure you’re right about the French influence. No, I haven’t written about Sue’s The Wandering Jew. It’s been a long time since I read that novel – since before I started blogging. I’m hoping to get the Mysteries of Paris read someday soon and then I can go on to the other series you mentioned and hopefully reread The Wandering Jew also.

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