Wednesday, March 23, 2016

MENACE OF THE MANDRILL!

Weirdest stump speech ever.

It is, for better or worse, election season once again in America. And, as we frequently do, we find in pop culture some symbolic element which holds peculiar symmetry to the machinery of contemporary political theater.

In this specific case, as a for-example, who does this remind you of: a yipping supremacist megalomaniac with weird hair who nonetheless commands a rabid follower base who hang off his every self-aggrandizing word, and who's already overrun every property he's ever owned with tacky statuary.

If your answer was Marvel's one-time repeat-offending world-beater The Mandrill then, cousin, are you ready for that commentator slot on CNN!

Sporting a monkey head and an array of outre fashions that would make him the talk of any of your upper-class invitation-only zoos (A fur vest and booty shorts? A diaphanous blouse and saggy blue diaper? Why, don't mind if I do!), the Mandrill was a villain who'd occasionally take on assorted superheroes within the orbit of Steve Gerber's influence (this includes the David Anthony Kraft gravity well on the edge of known space).

He continues to periodically pop up in Marvel's current slate and, lord knows, he'll probably be the main bad guy in the sixteenth Captain America movie or forty-fifth episode of the West Coast Avengers ongoing Netflix series. Anything's possible, unfortunately.

Still, the difference in the modern-day Mandrill is distinct -- perhaps it's the aftermath of his multiple defeats, but the Mandrill wasn't always just a lackey or some other villain's sap. No sir, one time ... he was the president!

A postcard from cloud cuckoo land ...
Steve Gerber's inclinations ran more towards satire and symbolism than straight-laced superheroics, when push came to shove, Still, when he debuted the Mandrill (and his nearly-constant companion Nekra, the High Priestess of Hate) in the pages of Shanna the She-Devil vol.1 No.4, his goals were fairly modest; conquer a few African nations and establish the Mandrill empire in the midst of humanity's cradle - a nation devoid of the hypocrisies of his native United States!

The context for Mandrill's world-conquering desires didn't become clear until an adventure which began in Marvel Two-In-One vol.1 No.3 and ran through Daredevil vol.1 Nos 110 through 112 -- which, back in those days, was the equivalent of a seven-picture franchise. Born a brown-skinned mutant to a pair of white parents, young Mandrill Esteban Mortensen Jr. faced limitless discrimination from his fellow white kids in an America which -- at the time -- was still segregated as a matter of law. For his skin color alone ... and also because he had a monkey head, but that really isn't mentioned much when he recounts his origin ... he's an outcast among his own people.

His story sort-of mirrors that of his partner, Nekra, born an albino mutant to black parents and shunned by her black community. This seems like one of those wishy-washy, agnostic "If you think about it, both sides are equally bad!" kind of commiserative arguments used by people who want to have a say in things but have nothing of value to say. (Sorry Steve! I still like Howard the Duck!) Still, it's worth remembering that, even if Nekra were being taunted and ostracized by her peers, she was also still subject to segregation and all the related laws and institutions, so she really had it worse than the Mandrill. I mean, it wasn't like she was born with white skin and *bam* they admit her to a country club.
"Perhaps you've heard of my sisters ..."

Mandrill's treatment at the hands of the white community awakens him to the injustices of the American system, which is great and everything but he wouldn't have been complaining if he'd been born without the monkey features and allowed to hang out with the half what eats. Who's the real hypocrite here, Mandrill? Whatever the case, furious that he got the genetic short shrift -- although buoyed slightly by the realization that he possesses the mutant power to command women via his pheromones  -- Mandrill begins a series of attempts to conquer the world.

I like to imagine a Marvel Universe where the Mandrill got up to the status of Dr.Doom, Magneto and the Red Skull. Maybe even Klaw. He certainly started out on the same path, but the lack of a consistent nemesis probably put a real dent in his efforts. The closest he came was repeated clashes with The Defenders, a team which barely even had a roster much less a rogues gallery.

When the Mandrill finally crosses paths with Daredevil (and the Black Widow), he's formed an entity called Black Spectre and loaded it with a female army of devoted ...ahem ... "love slaves," a "femforce" of ardent, armed admirers. The matter of whether a supervillainous mutant whose origin is that he was repeatedly mistaken for a black man possessing the ability to enslave women with his musky aroma might be a little unintentionally racist, I leave to you. But the answer is "yes it is."

Still, the Mandrill's big plan is to conquer the United States by, effectively, turning the female half of its population into his supporters, against their will if necessary. I think that makes him a "BernieBro," I'm not sure.

Ultimately, the Mandrill succeeds, conquering an evacuated White House and, by way of showing off his tremendous power, erecting a sacrificial fire-fountain in the middle of the rose garden.

The Mandrill's quest for power is obviously a bit of social commentary on Gerber's part; you take a white man with the expectation that he would possess, by dint of birth, a level of privilege and authority endemic to his class and, instead, invert his ethnicity so that he appears to be a representative of a segregated class, and you'd get a very angry brown-colored white (monkey) man, indeed. Add to that an emotionally adolescent figure tormented for her resemblance to her people's oppressors and throw in a suddenly-militarized contingent of lady libbers and you have much of what Gerber sees as the state of race, gender and power in the United States.

Where the metaphor works is the notion of a united front made up of people from historically oppressed social and economic underclasses combining their strength to overthrow the cultural institutions which have always held them down. Where the metaphor doesn't work is that the guy leading the movement is described as effectively african-american but is actually a white guy, is only black because he's a mutant, actually isn't black at all but is some kind of monkey, and also all the woman involved are brainwashed and the black women get monkey tattoos on their face. But with all of that being said, they have interesting taste in sacrificial altars.

During a final confrontation with Shanna, Daredevil and the Black Widow, the Mandrill gets kicked out of a window in the Oval Office, which is - surprisingly - the official means by which most presidents leave office in the U.S.. You learn something every day. He does survive to launch one more world-conquering scheme on the planet, only to be defeated by Daredevil and the Defenders, but that marks pretty much the end of his efforts.

When he does appear nowadays, it's low-level henchmanning and such. He's largely become one of those old villains who only gets re-used as third- or fourth-tier supporting characters so that the reader can point and say "I remember that guy, I think ... whatsisname, you know? Anyway ...funny!" Which is exactly the fate I hope we can visit on most presidential candidates in the end ...

The Mandrill also supported guerrilla theater, evidently.

3 comments:

Anony*Mouse said...

"MENACE OF THE MANDRILL!"?

That first panel makes it seem more like "ENTER THE EXPOSITOR!"

As to the man(drill) himself, I have to admire his moxy. If I had the power to control women with my pheromones and was immoral enough to use that power, I very much doubt that I'd ever get to the "take over the White House" stage.

Daniel Ludwig said...

The Nekra thing may be a clumsy attempt at "wishy-washy" equivalency, but it isn't horribly off-base. Albinism is not historically well-recieved.

Hell, in parts of Africa (primarily Tanzania), albinos are still in danger of having their limbs hacked off for use in traditional witchcraft.

I can give Nekra a slight pass, if only for that. That said, she's completely disconnected from the right context.

Daniel Ludwig said...

The Nekra thing may be a clumsy attempt at "wishy-washy" equivalency, but it isn't horribly off-base. Albinism is not historically well-recieved.

Hell, in parts of Africa (primarily Tanzania), albinos are still in danger of having their limbs hacked off for use in traditional witchcraft.

I can give Nekra a slight pass, if only for that. That said, she's completely disconnected from the right context.

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