Lobster Johnson: the Burning Hand #1
US: Jan 2012
By page three of Lobster Johnson: the Iron Prometheus, the Lobster’s first solo adventure (if you don’t count that 10-page backup story, “The Killer in my Skull”), the craziness was already well out of the bottle. It was only the first issue of but already a yeti trained for assassination had walked in the door of a reasonably comfortable 1937 Tribeca apartment. Not with all that manic, zany energy that Kramer usually burst into Jerry’s apartment as he did on almost every episode of Seinfeld. But with the casual calm the supporting cast of Mad About You might have entered the Bachmans’ when Paul and Jamie hosted a dinner at their apartment. There was something very ordinary about the scene. Of course a yeti would be trained to perform assassinations, this is 1937 after all. Of course pulp, costumed avenger the Lobster would be lurking in the shadows waiting to strike. Where else would he be?
The genius of the moment lay in Jim Sacks’ utter failure to suspend his disbelief, despite him wearing the Iron Prometheus suit that was powered by (not kidding here) the supernatural fire that the devil stole from Heaven. Sacks’ disbelief scanned as disingenuousness, and it was this disingenuousness that was so engaging. How could a man in the midst of a pulp-fictional existence even begin to deny other elements of that same existence. That was, as Tracy Morgan so elegantly puts it, just crazy. From page three on, Lobster Johnson: the Iron Prometheus was exactly the rip-roaring, rollicking adventure we knew it would be even before we bought the book. There were thrills, and spills, and derring-do by the bucketload. Pulp on every page.
This time around, by page three, we have Ghost Cherokee attacking. But that old, weird momentum that Mike built so steadily in the Iron Prometheus stops dead just after that scene. And a new kind of momentum builds. At the crime scene investigation, we discover a truth about the Ghost Warriors, through the eyes of Jillie Rizzo, intrepid investigative journalist. It’s really Jillie’s story that comes to dominate this first issue of the Burning Hand. And with her as central protagonist, we come to see perhaps the most interesting evolution in Mike’s writing since his creation of the Hellboy character.
It’s not there, not quite yet, but these are the first stirrings of a slide from pulp to noir. It’s the same literary evolution undertaken by Dashiell Hammett, by Raymond Chandler, by Nero Wolfe. It was this idea that somewhere deep inside the “BAM!‘s” and the “KA-POW!‘s” of pulp there lay an inner darkness, a psychological depth. The truth of the matter, at least the truth seen once pulp evolved into noir, was the inevitability of human frailty. It was this inner weakness that lead to both crime, and the abuse of power. Prohibition-era judges who most to convict persons arrested during speakeasy raids, as Chandler himself noted in The Simple Art of Murder, were often the same judges who kept whiskey in their basement by the crate. Noir was about the psychology of power much more than it was about the rip-roaring wonderhell of pulp.
To effect this evolution, Mike’s genius doesn’t lie in centralizing Jillie Rizzo and her intrepid journalism. It lies instead in pushing his own titular character, Lobster Johnson, the Lobster of urban legend, to the very edges of the book. In Lobster Johnson: the Burning Hand, Mike Mignola makes the genius move of introducing the Lobster as a supporting character.
It’s hard to put into words what a groundbreaking play this is. Not only because it frees up space for The Girl Detective, and The Everyman’s Gangster, and The Friendly Auto-Repair Guy to have their own psychological depth. Not only because it re-shifts the story’s focus to the world that the Burning Hand plays out in. But because the Lobster himself appears for the very first time as what any hero should be—mythic. Through the eyes of characters that have now become the central cast, evidence for the Lobster’s existence seems circumstantial at best. Like them we’re somewhat dubious as the story progresses (despite having read the Iron Prometheus, this is the game we get to play). And by the end of it, we already know our experience would be a richer one. By the end of it we get a hero, freed from the quandary Joe Casey so eloquently articulated in Iron Man: the Inevitable: a hero nothing more than “one side of a ‘vs’ marquee”.
If the weird, old pulp we know is still to come in Lobster Johnson: the Burning Hand has any meaning, it is because the noir world that Mike has built in this issue matters.