Alfredo Castelli and Lucio Filippucci’s Elaborate Steampunk Parody: True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere

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A few weeks ago, while perusing through the used comics section at Amoeba Records, I picked up Alfredo Castelli and Lucio Filippucci’s True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere, No. 1: The Mysteries of Milan on a complete whim. With its science fiction, steampunk style, on a quick flip through the pages, the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere appeared like something outside of my normal taste, but something about it intrigued me, and despite my usual genre and style preferences, I decided to give it a closer look.

This sense of undefinable instinctive allure I felt while deciding on purchasing this comic book continued as I delved into the early pages of The Mysteries of Milan.

A dragon, mob of Chinese warriors, cathedral, damsel in distress, and silver train, all on the cover of The Mysteries of Milan

Docteur Mystere may be the most interesting and capable man in the world. He has a stupendous wealth of knowledge and skills gained from his extensive travels and interactions with every martial arts, monastic, criminal, and dark arts group in the world. Docteur Mystere almost possesses too many skills and knows almost too many people. He excessively fits his character as a Jules Verne-esque, savvy, and worldly hero.

Similarly, all of the other characters in The Mysteries of Milan fit their archetypes to excess. Lady B***, the truest damsel in distress and the woman who calls on Docteur Mystere to help find her husband who disappeared after completing his top secret pneumatic subway, cries out, “Virgin Mother,”and faints anytime she sees anything shocking. Chin, Docteur Mystere’s long-time friend and his accomplice and aid for the mission to find Lady B***’s husband, looks and speaks like he stepped out of a hybrid production between Flower Drum Song and a C grade knock-off of Enter the Dragon that you would see on cable in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning. Lastly, Cigale plays the all too ignorant and naive sidekick/assistant to Docteur Mystere, constantly making you ask, “Why in the world would such a great man as Mystere have such a nimrod for a sidekick?”

This question of Cigale’s existence exposes the intention of Castelli and Filippucci’s Docteur Mystere series, since the ridiculousness of his behavior and Mystere’s patronizing remarks to him hearken back to many comedic sidekicks we’ve seen before, especially Igor from Young Frankenstein and Cato from The Pink Panther. After Mystere’s third insult to Cigale, Lady B**’s fourth faint, and Chin’s fifth line in broken Chin-glish, you realize the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere parodies the science fiction set in Victorian times fueling the steampunk movement. And when that elucidating moment of realization arrives, The Mysteries of Milan transforms into a rollicking, hilarious, and over-the-top adventure.

Beyond jests at the the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, The Mysteries of Milan also takes a stab at conspiracy theory fiction, particularly the works of Dan Brown. Released in 2004 at the height of the world’s obsession with Dan Brown’s novels about conspiracy in the Catholic Church, The Mysteries of Milan pokes fun at conspiracies churning in the catacombs of Italy and unveiled by what seems like an unrelated, isolated event. The entirety of this first issue of the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere focuses on the search for Lady B***’s husband, but in the process, the search takes a step back from the foreground to give more importance to a mission to save the world from the sorcerer Fu Manchu. Lady B***’s husband may have accidentally gotten mixed up with Fu and his minions attempting world domination, so in order to find him, Mystere and Chin will need to figure out how to first defeat Fu, the ethnic caricature of Asians seen in literature in the early to mid 1900s.

Indicative of the sense of humor of Castelli and Filippucci, Chin and Fu have a history together, and Chin has been carrying around his own pinky fingers laced with magic powers for the day that he and Fu cross paths again. Fu cut off Chin’s pinky fingers, and Chin wants these severed digits to be his humiliating weapon of choice to destroy Fu. Consequently, the climax of The Mysteries of Milan contains outrageously funny illustrations of pinky fingers flying from an ornamented box toward Fu Manchu’s eyes. This battle scene, more than any other in the book, conveys the humor in the utter abandon of any sense of reality and the exaggeration of character and plot archetypes in True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere.  

Without revealing too much of the end, all of the hullaballoo to find Lady B***’s husband occurs in complete futility, completing the entire parody of science and conspiracy fiction that had transpired with a single punchline. The Mysteries of Milan ends without inspiring any sense of catharsis for the reader or any satisfaction of the answer to the primary mystery; it simply ends by provoking one giant, hearty laugh.

Clever and awakening in its humor, True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere: The Mysteries of Milan, points out the silliness of fiction set in complete fantasy where the characters are not represented as fellow humans. Admittedly, I loved Matt Fraction’s Five Fists of Science, the work I would consider to most resemble the type of story Castelli and Filippucci scorn with the True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere, but I do understand that there’s an absurdly ridiculous amount of suspension of disbelief required to read a steampunk type work like Five Fists of Science. In sum, Castelli and Filippucci mock the fiction that utilizes characters less as empathetic humans and more as devices to fuel an extravagant plot and to establish and perpetuate a mood and setting, which could apply to multiple genres, but unfortunately, science fiction of the steampunk variety is the major culprit of this style and, in turn, makes itself most susceptible to their parody.

Sadly, the wittiness of Castelli and Filippucci and their True Memoirs of Docteur Mystere only lasted for two issues. It must have turned off science fiction fans, and fans of more realistic fiction must have completely bypassed it. I still do not entirely know what lured me in based on just the cover and a few cursory page flips, but I’m so glad my instinct picked up on the gem hiding inside the overwhelmingly busy, action-packed, and insane cover.

Apocalypse by Trees: Warren Ellis’s Trees

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Given the revival of zombies and other forms of apocalypse in modern media and culture, perhaps today’s media creators are all honing in on a general instability hiding under our technology age where the future seems bright but something rotten lurks underneath.

Warren Ellis’s Trees capitalizes on the concept and the fear of the apocalypse in the modern age with alien tree-like creatures falling from space and landing on Earth. However, unlike the zombies and any active attacking force galvanizing the end of the world, the trees rule and stand with a nearly silent presence, growing and oozing a mysterious green acidic liquid. In a way, the trees do not intentionally inflict malevolence on the humans and communities of Earth. They simply grow and live, but as they flourish, they interrupt human life, landscapes, natural resources, and societies, leaving humans to adapt in the wake.

Cover for Warren Ellis’s Trees Volume One

Given the indifference of the trees, they really cannot serve as villains in the series. Consequently, as seen in the wake of most natural disasters, the enemies and the heroes rise from humans as they try to live in a new world from the rubble of the past. And though the non-sentient trees now control the world without communicating their intentions (or really even having the facilities to do so), evil rises in varying degrees from different people futilely grasping for control, and good rises from people understanding the triviality of life given the inexplicable damage of the trees and have thus tried to adapt and life as freely and happily as possible.

The first volume of Trees compiles the starting eight issues and covers the reactions and survival strategies of people across different classes and countries across the world. In this first volume, we see how politicians, dictators, scientists, farmers, painters, lower level gangsters, police, and everyday, regular people live in the shadows of the trees. Each group of focus brings a radically different perspective to the circumstances, and given the direness of the world of the trees, each group’s intentions are truer to their characters and personas than ever.

In this first volume, a scientist studies in isolation in Norway, unrelentlessly and irresponsibly committing everything to understanding the tree’s expansion. An uncommonly wealthy man in Rio de Janeiro contemplates on his political career and his desire to change the current regime of law enforcement. In the city of Shu, a former farmer crosses barricaded gates to enter an artist and freak community centered and thriving around a tree and separated from everyone else by concrete walls and military guard. In Somalia, a dictator plans on using a tree as an object of military strategy. And, in Cefalu, small time mobsters reign over the mostly abandoned wasteland caused by the arrival and permanent residence of a tree.

Despite the presence of these uncaring and unrelenting trees in these people’s lives, the world has really not changed too much. Power struggles still exist. Kindness still exists. Brutality still exists. Greed still exists. Vices and virtues all remain the same but each has been magnified, and the territory between has become even more unclear in this world. And, this grey area is what makes Trees a fascinating read because this amplified ambiguity between good and evil parallels the same territory in our globalized, technology linked world.

Undoubtedly, the fiction of the trees linger in the background of the narrative, but they exist exactly the way they do in the world of the series as silent, domineering giants, ready to make a move that could dissolve an entire community at any moment. Consequently, a sense of transience runs throughout every branch and arc of Trees. Unlike in most fiction, a character or setting can disappear from the narrative at anytime due to the unpredictability of the trees and the administrations of the various people who attempt to run the world, making the fictional world detailed in Trees far less different than our own transient real world.

Absolutely an exercise in existentialism, as expected from most post-apocalyptic works, Trees asks plenty of hard questions about human motivations and purpose. Each character in the series approaches the question in a different way in light of the mercurial and death-inducing trees, and in turn, Ellis asks us to think about our own existence in reality where life is just as fragile and temporary. Despite the heavy topic, the combination of Ellis’s prose-like narration with fluid dialog and Jason Howard’s semi-realist artwork makes Trees emerge as more of a naturalist rather than allegorical work. Though it may border the line between insightfully powerful and heavy-handedly pretentious, Trees has the potential to capture and interpret all of the struggles, conflicts, and moments of hope seen in modern times around the world, preparing it to become one of the most comprehensive series offering commentary on the experience of living as a human being on Earth in the 21st century.

Trees Volume One is written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Jason Howard. This first volume collects issues 1-8, and issue 9 will be available in May.

Marco Ferreri’s 1978 Film, “Bye Bye Monkey,” Says So Long To Masculinity

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bye-bye-monkey french poster

French Poster for “Bye Bye Monkey”

Surprisingly, as an excessively sexual and carnivorous Italian man, I had been ignorant of Ferreri’s work until my soon to be roommate Doug ranted to me about a 1973 Ferreri film entitled, “The Grande Bouffe.” A film whose plot is centered around four middle-aged men who lock themselves into a villa and then proceed to fatalistically gorge on food and wine while screwing until they die. A kind of stay-at-home, non-violent, Italian version of “The Wild Bunch,” with these four men, who have become tired of their lives, end it all without firing a shot, which if you think about it, was more in line with the softening seventies male. If the passing of masculinity into the sensitive seventies had not been metaphorically shot down there, Ferreri’s next film, 1976’s “The Perfect Woman,” went so far with this new emasculation that our director would make hunky French film star, Gerard Depardieu, cut off his own manhood with an electric kitchen knife after another deflating argument with his wife.

For his first U.S. film, the dystopian “Bye Bye Monkey,” Ferreri would keep up this same trend of metaphorically depicting the downward spiral of masculinity, and why wouldn’t he? After all, wasn’t the United States responsible for setting the world standard in that decade for helping the loafer clad males get in touch with their feelings through overpriced weekend sensitivity training classes? For this film, Ferreri reenlists the beefy Depardieu to play the down and out New York electrician, Lafayette (sarcastically named for the gallant French General who would help American revolutionaries win the war of independence) who works two jobs: one, as an electrician at a Roman Empire wax museum and another as the lighting technician for an all female feminist acting troupe. While men in hazmat suits roam the streets hunting down rats during an epidemic, our feminist theater group laments the fact that they have not experienced any of the real hardships that modern women have faced, so when they come up blank for a theme for what their next performance should be, they sheepishly select rape. The “bad” news is that none of them have been victims of rape, so they decide to rape their electrician, Lafayette, after a member of the company knocks him out.

The next day Lafayette is angered by the events of the previous evening and takes a walk with his older friend Mr. Luigi (Marcello Mastroianni) on the beach near the World Trade Center where they discover a life-sized King Kong lying on the beach dead, with Kong, of course, as the ultimate symbol of a tough guy from a distant place who hit NYC and got the prettiest girl in town. Clutched in Kong’s hand though would not be scantily clad Fay Wray but instead a tiny monkey baby whom Mr. Luigi refuses to take care of due to his advanced age, so Lafayette takes the job and plays mother to the orphaned baby, raising it like a human child. Once home and domesticated, Lafayette becomes the target of admiration for Angelica (Gail Lawrence, better known as Abigail Clayton during her porn star years), one of the theater troupe who originally spurned Lafayette’s advances but is now interested due to what I can determine is Lafayette’s new found maternal instinct. This is where we really see Ferreri, drawing the hard line between men and women. Not during the female on male rape but here as a faux mother is where Lafayette succumbs to his sensitive side and becomes more accessible to the women around him.

On several occasions in the film, Lafayette seeks out the advice of his boss at the wax museum, Mr. Flaxman (James Coco), so when Lafayette arrives with his new monkey to work, Mr. Flaxman tells Lafayette that the monkey will eventually lead to his downfall (loss of masculinity for those following in the cheap seats). Lafayette heeds his boss’s advice and tries to abandon the monkey, the soon be named Cornelius (Planet of the Apes anyone?) But when Lafayette tries to leave Cornelius in the park, Cornelius cries and runs to Lafayette who just cannot leave his new baby, so his motherhood is now complete. Lafayette tries to go about his life, but with Cornelius with him, the prophecy of Mr. Flaxman comes true and everything goes south for Lafayette. In fact his friend Mr. Luigi, a clear symbol of the masculinity of the past, sees his penchant for non-vegetarian eating and his inability to find love in the new land as a harbinger for his eventual checking out of this world. Even Mr. Flaxman sees the writing on the wall when he is blackmailed into changing the faces of his wax sculptures Julius Caesar and Nero into Nixon and Kennedy.

1996 Interview With Marco Ferreri About “Bye Bye Monkey”

Ferreri cleverly uses Depardieu and Mastroianni as examples of two generations of actors from Europe, which was still going through an ultra machismo period, behaving here like they would in a contemporary film from their home countries. As outsiders, it is then up to their characters to decide in “Bye Bye Monkey” on whether they will acquiesce to the way of the seventies male or just stop living all together. What is made clear then by Ferreri with his “punch you in the head but you still find it uneasily interesting” symbolism, is that empires will always fall, and it is the rats who come out of every civilization that expires. Of course Marco Ferreri is not a soothsayer like his Mr. Flaxman, but the now eerie image of the former World Trade Centers looming in the background during many of “Bye Bye Monkey’s” key moments, somewhat bear out Marco Ferreri’s prediction of an American empire, once lead by strong men, fading out in the not too distant future.