Written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Al Milgrom, the Lost in Space-Time saga ran from West Coast Avengers #17 to 24. The real meat is between 18-23, with the others serving as a prologue and an epilogue. Now, before we go any further, keep in mind that this was published in 1987. For modern readers, mainstream superhero comics from the eighties, with very few exceptions (Moore, Miller, Morrison) are old-fashioned and childish with terrible writing (exclamation points, thought balloons, tons of exposition, obvious plots, unrealistic dialogue) and crude, ugly, lazy art. Vanilla heroes fighting cardboard villains, with no depth or subtlety. They are silly, I get it, that’s exactly how we felt back in the eighties about Silver Age comics and that’s how readers in 2046 will feel about today’s comics. But, whenever they come from, if we accept them on their terms we can often find incredible beauty in execution and ideas.
Accepting them on their own terms doesn’t mean accepting them unconditionally. Lost in Space-Time has many flaws, and I won’t enumerate them all. Suffice to say that the first issue (17) is pretty bad, even for its time. The text clashes with the art more than once, one of the villains is Cactus (“he causes fear in every other living thing”) and the main plot is basically filling till the last three pages, when the real story actually begins.
But, before we move forward, we must provide some context. The West Coast Avengers, lovingly called Whackos, consisted of newlyweds Hawkeye (the group’s chairman) and Mockingbird, plus Iron Man, Tigra and Wonder Man. Hank Pym, looking for redemption after the Trial of Yellowjacket storyline, didn’t join the team, but lived in the compound in civilian capacity, doing scientific research and some house-keeping. The Thing and Espirita (then still called Firebird) were candidates for the sixth slot, but neither joined the team.
What is missing from the first 16 issues is the big concept. It is a good read, but the fights against uneventful villains like Ultron, Master Pandemonium and Graviton are not that exciting. Still, Englehart and Milgrom do wonders with their characters, particularly Wonder Man, Tigra and Hank Pym. Wonder Man finds the confidence to be a real hero when he overcomes his fear of death; Tigra finds confidence and a tail as her personalities are merged and she regains control of herself; and Hank sees no other choice but to kill himself. And then it’s time for the big concept.
Deep down, the plot is very simple. The Whackos are sent to the Old West. They can’t return to the present because their time machine is broken: it can only go back in time. So they decide to go to Rama Tut’s Egypt and ask the pharaoh (also a time traveller) to fix their machine. First, to test it, they decide to go back 100 years but, as the process begins, former ally Phantom Rider kidnaps Mockingbird. The others can’t save her and are sent to the 18th century. Hawkeye is seriously injured, but they meet one Carlotta Valdez (a name cinephiles recognize, even if it’s misspelled) and Hawkeye knows that Espirita had visions with Carlotta way back in WCA #8. Believing that they are connected, he writes a letter to Espirita asking her to send the Fantastic Four to rescue them in old Egypt. 100 years later, Mockingbird is drugged and believes she loves the Phantom Rider. She eventually regains her mind and hunts him down. In the fight, he dies after she refuses to save him.
The main team goes to Rama-Tut’s Egypt. But the good old pharaoh is useless. So they need to go back a couple of decades, to 2940 BC, and are quickly captured by bad young Rama-Tut. They escape, see an unconscious Dr. Strange (who got here in Doctor Strange 53, by Roger Stern and Marshall Rogers), see an image of a younger version of the Fantastic Four (who got here in Fantastic Four 19, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) but don’t actually meet the other heroes. Rama-Tut escapes and Dr. Strange and the Fantastic Four return to their eras.
And, in the present, Hank is ready to put a bullet in his brain when La Espirita appears, knowing nothing about the letter. She helps him through his depression and he starts inventing again, to become Dr. Pym, scientific adventurer, using his miniaturized weapons when needed. He is ready to rejoin the team and then Moon Knight arrives to show the letter that Espirita carries in her family bible. The three go to New York, get the Fantastic Four’s time machine and save their friends, rescuing Mockingbird on their way back. In the epilogue, they fight the villain that started it all (Dominus, whose silly goals are expressed in his name) and Hank and Moon Knight join the team. All is well again.
So… we’re supposed to believe that a message written on a piece of petticoat, in English, remained inside a Spanish bible for 200 years? We know that this bible was property of a church in Mexico for 71 years. We also know that Espirita is a devout catholic who has studied that bible all her life. And yet… the message survived for her to read at the right time (not a few weeks before, when she already knew the Whackos). How is that possible?
Well… It’s a miracle. I’m serious, it is. You’re smart, you’ve read the title of this essay, you know where I’m going. Moon Knight explains it: “I suppose you can call it a miracle… from one god or another…!” (Yup, ellipsis followed by an exclamation point. We were all very deep and angry back in the eighties.) So, the letter survived 200 years because god wanted to.
In another story, this would be a lame justification for a stupid plot hole. But Lost in Space-Time is filled with words like god, goddess, spirit, lord, faith, etc. And they’re not used in vain. We first realize that the lord will be a presence here when Espirita arrives to bring a suicidal Hank some “hope from god”. She is not only saving Hank’s life and giving him a new purpose; it is explicitly expressed that she’s here to save his soul. So get your disbelief properly suspended, because god will appear in every plot. Espirita believes in the biblical god. Phantom Rider believes in “the spirits”, the Comanche gods. And Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon (and time and, being Egyptian, pretty much anything you can throw at him) is the one who saves the Whackos in old Egypt and who uses his Moon Knight in the present.
But Englehart is not interested in the particularities of each god. His goal is not to compare different faiths. It’s all very vague. La Espirita (for the record, the Spanish word for “spirit” is masculine-only) and her family are Catholics but, other than an extreme unction, nothing of the Catholic doctrine gets here. She calls herself a Christian, but the words Jesus and Christ are never used (we see statues of Jesus in churches, but that’s just part of the décor). The native spirits are usually used in the plural, but they seem a very tight unit because there are no individual names, no personalities and we never really see how they work. We can take them as one central superior force. Khonshu, on the other hand, is just one of many, but here he seems to be alone. No other Egyptian god is even mentioned. It makes sense; the main focus is in the adventure and the Whackos. Every kid, regardless of familiarity or interest in comparative religion studies should be able to follow this. Englehart was not interested in educating anyone, and he would probably be more respected if he had, because intellectuals love to see good research in action.
But, thanks to its vagueness, Englehart accomplishes a sense of unity. Are we seeing three gods (or groups of gods), or just three takes on the same god? It is up for interpretation, but all plots seem to be playing the same riffs and there are so many connections between them all that one wonders if god, like the moon, has many faces. In real life, there are enough similarities between different religions and the differences are less important than the points in common. It’s the old story of the blind men and the elephant, with fanatics stubbornly insisting that god is a snake. Here, even the splash pages are split, to reflect time splitting (and each part of the saga, so part 2 is split in two, part 6 split in six, etc.) but also serving to reminds us that an unity can be divided and appear to be many, yet still remaining one (one page, one story, one god).
Khonshu, the taker of vengeance (gee, isn’t there a better word for that?), is the god we see and hear here (and even he wears a mask). His champion is Moon Knight who, to reflect the many faces of the moon, has multiple personalities (and that’s how he will defeat Dominus). His name was Marc Spector, mercenary, but sometimes he is playboy Steven Grant and sometimes he’s driving a cab as Jake Lockley. He’s not the only one. Hank Pym was Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket. We saw him as a tiny man who talked to ants and we saw him as the Avengers’ strong man. Sometimes he’s the world’s leading biochemist and sometimes he builds robots. And yet, he’s still the same man. Hawkeye introduces the Phantom Rider as “the Night Rider, or whatever he’s called this week!” Indeed, he was originally called Ghost Rider. And pharaoh Rama-Tut, of course, sometimes wants to kill the Avengers as Kang the Conqueror and sometimes he joins Avengers in matrimony as Immortus. It doesn’t matter what you call these characters any given day, it doesn’t matter what you see them doing, it’s only by being on the outside and taking the whole picture in that we can see them as one.
Isabel (the link between Carlotta and Espirita) calls her god “the glorious father who lives through all time and space.” As previously mentioned, Khonshu is the god of time. He can talk to Hawkeye in Old Egypt and to Moon Knight in modern New York simultaneously (and, it is implied, touch Isabel in Mexico, 1847). Plus, he knows who the Avengers are and knows about the letter Hawkeye wrote in 1776. He works in subtlety and shadow, and the biblical god works in mysterious ways. Needless to say, he’s not the only god famous for taking people out of Egypt and slavery. When Isabel has her revelation, all we see from her vision is some generic cosmic background. In the next page, Hawkeye meets Khonshu and we have a different but equally generic cosmic background. The origins of Moon Knight and the Phantom Rider are incredibly similar: a dying white man in the desert, rescued by the natives of this land and given a purpose, a faith and a white uniform. A light coming from the heavens link Phantom Rider and Espirita’s origins, and of course her new name reflects the word he uses for god. White is also present in her new uniform. All three champions seem to share the same basic morality and the same disconnect with the material world.
Hawkeye and the main group are looking for a fake god (a pharaoh) and their quest is a failure. It’s only when Hawkeye meets and pleases Khonshu that they can find success. But it’s not that simple. Throughout the saga, they keep going from pointless fight to pointless fight, going through the motions of an empty life. This reaches its perfect metaphor in the climax, as they run around Rama-Tut’s temple and sphinx like rats in a maze. They are in a room, go somewhere else, fight for no reason, then decide to go back to where they came from, and when they stop is not to question the point of all this, but just so Hawkeye can catch his breath before going back to running and fighting. They are always late, they don’t really know where they’re going or what they’re doing, they never reach Rama-Tut or the other heroes, they simply run and fight. And somehow, unbeknownst to them, they had already succeeded in their mission, which was to delay, for a few seconds, the robots carrying Dr. Strange. That’s all they accomplish and all that they were supposed to do, but Khonshu didn’t tell them that. Mysterious ways indeed.
But the pharaoh is not the only fake god here. If we have three facets of god (or three gods) in the story, the villains are three corruptions of the concept. Rama-Tut is not a god; he’s only a regular man from the distant future armed with incredible technology. His power made the Egyptians abandon the old gods. He used his technology to rob the Fantastic Four of their will and make them serve him. Dominus is one step forward, he comes from outer space and he’s no longer a man, he became a computer, and both aliens and computers are common oppositions to god. Dominus creates life (lame villains, but they are alive and humanoid), and he wants to strip humanity of our free will. He also makes the heroes his captives. Both Rama-Tut and Dominus will be defeated when one of the heroes becomes someone else (The Thing turns into Ben Grimm, Moon Knight lets first Steven then Jake to surface). Their escapes are also similar (part of their gigantic structure is the real ship/ time machine and flies away).
But, of course, the most interesting corruption of religion here (and the most interesting villain) is Phantom Rider. The modern reader may see him as a freak who got cuckoo after smelling Mockingbird’s hair and feeling her hard, athletic body pressed against his as they rode together for more than an hour. A weirdo with a boner. Like Moon Knight, he senses he’s losing the man behind the mask. He gave himself to the spirits and felt the man was gone until Mockingbird aroused him. He’s so gone that he sees her as a goddess and, to make it even better, he sees her bringing down The Living Totem (a minor villain, also liked to religion). When his potions work and make her love him, he feels he’s saved. Of course, Rama-Tut wanted to marry the Invisible Girl, and he wants to do the same to Mockingbird, he just can’t wait for the wedding night. That’s all fine, but it misses a big point: Phantom Rider is a cult leader. Which may be surprising since he doesn’t have followers.
That’s one of those things that were once “topical” but are now dated. In the eighties, cults (not necessarily satanic) were seen as a national menace. In comics, both Cyborg and Spider-Man had former girlfriends joining crazy cults and Batman himself ended up in Deacon Blackfire’s clutches. There was this feeling that anytime someone you knew could join a cult. And what did cults do? Well, they broke up families and made sure that their followers (sometimes through kidnapping) lost all contact with their loved ones. They often used illusions to perform their “miracles” and, if that wasn’t enough, they drugged their followers (with or without their knowledge). Brainwashing was a must and, in many cases, yes, there was sex involved (again, with or without consent). Phantom Rider does all that. Still… That’s not enough to consider him a cult leader. The detail that really puts him there is religion. Because, moral panic aside, there has to be a spiritual message. Without god, it’s Spring Break. And, sure enough, a brainwashed Mockingbird says: “it’s as if a whole new world has opened up before me! The world of the spirit!” She becomes known as the daughter of darkness, which relates here less with the idea of evil and more in terms of night and the moon. But when she regains her mind and faces him, she’s no longer a goddess. He calls her “woman” now. Hanging from the edge of a cliff, he says he had to do it because the spirits commanded him. When that doesn’t work, his final attempt is: “Woman, you WILL pull me up! The Phantom Rider COMMANDS it.” Her answer is a well-deserved “drop dead”, and so he does. Who is commanding whom now? After his death, there is a mysterious light in the sky. Is it the moon? The sun, finally rising? A sign from god? It’s up to you.
Sex and spirituality are connected. While we see a married Mockingbird going through hell, a divorced Hank Pym gets his mojo back. The Phantom Rider talks a lot about the spirits, but above all he is raping the “goddess” he claims to love. In the present, Espirita talks a lot about god, and indeed she saves Pym, but he is only interested in her as a woman and she does take him as a man. Sex can be both fall and salvation. And yet, it can provide only a temporary relief. Mockingbird will put the spiritual message behind her as part of the trauma and Hank is not a believer and won’t become one (as Englehart and Milgrom would explicitly estate in WCA #25).
Hank also embodies some of the worst aspects of the idea of god. When he’s planning to kill himself, he makes this long list of chores to be performed by his Mexican employees, detailing exactly what he foresees and the exact order he wants it done. Does it remind you of anything? Later, when he starts creating again, he takes a second shot of artificial intelligence but, this time, he won’t repeat the mistake he made with Ultron (“I gave it too much consciousness”). The new creation, Rover, is designed to serve him. “Rover’s mind will remain at the level of a faithful dog’s!” (For those who haven’t read it, that’s one of the main plots in the Old Testament.) Hawkeye creates weapons for Khonshu, but Hank creates weapons only for himself. And yet, Hank never falls into Wonder Man’s pride. In previous arcs, Wonder Man found his confidence, but he is too proud now. His Icarian fall from heavens results in Dominus’ escape. It is his plan to look for the pharaoh. His carelessness results in Hawkeye’s injuries. And he is the one who says that the time machine is beyond repair. On the other hand, Hank will not be dragged down by issue 22′s perfect cliffhanger: the FF machine, the last hope our heroes have, was destroyed. Well, in the next issue Hank simply goes to New York and, with Mr. Fantastic, fixes it. Simple. After facing the abyss, nothing looks like such a big problem anymore. The main difference is that Hank collaborates with Reed, and they’re two of the greatest scientific minds in the Marvel Universe. The other greatest mind in the Marvel Universe belongs to Iron Man, but Wonder Man rejects his help. Yet even he will have to bow to a superior power: market research. The public hates his new uniform, and he has to change it.
One must not have self-doubts, but must still be humble before Khonshu. Okay, that’s easy. What else can we learn from this? Well, stealing is clearly allowed, since it happens twice, and they’re both justified (Wonder Man and Iron Man steal some clothes in 1776, in order to find a doctor for Hawkeye, and Isabel steals her family bible after the revelation). But don’t touch someone else’s wife! Worse than the punishment of the criminal is the pain the couple suffers. Together, Hawkeye and Mockingbird happily fight ridiculous villains like Butte and Doctor Danger (“He’s got a horseshoe magnet … Magneto would laugh himself silly!”). Apart, she’s raped and he dies (don’t worry, Khonshu promptly resurrects him – I guess her fate truly was worse than death).
But killing is okay, on certain terms. The fist of Khonshu, after all, was a mercenary. More importantly, Englehart clearly takes Mockingbird’s side. Although in a future storyline her actions here will result in divorce and the splitting of the team, she did nothing wrong in Khonshu’s eyes, even if it is against the Avenger’s code. And Hawkeye does the exact same thing. Neither of them commits murder, but they both allow someone to die. Hawkeye knows that Carlotta will be killed in California, that was Espirita’s vision, and yet he doesn’t warn her. All he can manage is an ambiguous “watch your back!” Of course, she’s shot in the back, the ultimate symbol of betrayal. Who kills Carlotta? We’ll never know. Less than an answered question, this definitely puts her blood in Hawkeye’s hands. And god’s, of course. She’s unceremoniously killed after fulfilling her mission (in life, in this story), just like Isabel will suffer a heart attack right after passing the bible to a new generation and making sure that the family will be fruitful and multiply. Tigra accuses Hawkeye of using Carlotta and she has a point. His answer is that they don’t dare to change the past. There are forces that must go unchallenged.
Suicide, however, is a big no-no. Not only Espirita arrives to save Hank’s soul but, when Hawkeye asks Mockingbird about the Phantom Rider, she lies: “He killed himself!” Hawkeye is not surprised that “a psycho like that” would commit suicide. But, as the song says, death is not the end. Carlotta and Isabel, in some way, live in Espirita. It may not be pure reincarnation, but there is a sense of continuation. Hawkeye experiences resurrection. And of course there’s the Phantom Rider. The Whackos had already met his “ghost” back in WCA #8, and would meet him again after the saga. As the Comanches give him a hero’s funeral, the shaman explains the ritual: “We shall dance for his spirit for three days and three nights! Then he shall ride his funeral pyre! We shall place his ashes in a sacred urn, to seal away until he returns to us! A mortal’s death cannot affect he who rides the night winds! His spirit lives forever!” It should sound familiar.
Also, blessed are the passive. You see, our Phantom Rider was not the original; that was his brother, who was chosen by the spirits and made criminals repent. Our Rider saw his brother dying and took his costume and learned his tricks but it was only later that “the spirits have come to” him. God comes to you, you can’t reach him. The whole thing starts with the Whackos looking for Espirita, but they should have spent the day by the pool because she would come to them anyway. Dominus’ minions find them, Phantom Rider finds them, Carlotta finds them, bad Rama-Tut finds them and they are taken to Khonshu’s temple, from where they will be rescued. Espirita and Moon Knight were chosen.
Okay, but what’s the point of all this? How does this adventure affect the Whackos? Well, Mockingbird was raped and violated the Avenger’s code. For her actions here, she will divorce her husband and leave the team. Hank gets back on his feet and rejoins the team. They get another new member, Moon Knight. So there is change. But, come on, all this talk about god and that’s all that’s accomplished?
Well, yes. You see, I lied to you in the title (Oh, I work in subtlety and shadows). They don’t find god. The believers keep believing and the others keep on with their lives. The only non-believer who gets a direct one-on-one with Khonshu is Hawkeye, and he certainly won’t become a follower. He got his miracle, but he finds it “hard to believe”. It makes sense. Believers see the hand of god everywhere, but guys like Hawkeye and Hank are not that easily impressed. They simply don’t see the blessings they receive as miracles. It’s luck, or their own merit. It happens in real life all the time and it is a way for Englehart to keep the toys intact. As Hawkeye would later say in WCA #29 (also by Englehart & Milgrom), “This is the Avengers, not the God Squad!”
Of course, the reader can do just like Hank Pym and shrug it off. There is no god, just a ridiculous amount of coincidences and delusional characters. Espirita didn’t come for Hank, she came to see the Whackos. Phantom Rider is just a creep. Hawkeye didn’t really die in Egypt, he just got delirious, then got better. Carlotta found them because, well, why not? The letter survived because “a family bible is filled with hundreds of keepsakes” and Espirita didn’t study them, only the text. How did Moon Knight know about it? Well, as skeptics have said in thousands of horror movies: “I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for this!” But we know what happens to skeptics in horror movies. In Lost in Space-Time, people fly, they travel through time, repulsor rays are viable weapons, guys dig hairy chicks with tails and god exists. The story is better if we accept it.
This sounds intriguing. I really only read Byrne’s run on West Coast Avengers (or was it called Avengers West Coast at that time?) and while I thoroughly enjoyed it I never stuck with the book or hunted back issues of it. I’ll be on the lookout for this now, though.
On another note, it’s depressing talking about bronze age or early modern age comics to the current generation of comics fans. With notable exceptions, most of them do tend to sneer at ’80s comics. It’s a shame because there’s clearly a lot of metaphorical and thoughtful work going on in the pages of those books, but filtered through the sensibilities of the era. You have to take yourself out of the current comics mindset in order to discover the pleasure in those older comics. But you’re right–we used to sneer at the simplicity and silliness of silver age comics back in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a cycle that seems to repeat itself endlessly.