Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Alex Toth and the Pie

In 1977, Alex Toth illustrated "Daddy and the Pie," from a Bill DuBay script. It appeared in Warren Publications' UFO and Alien Comix #1, dated January 1978. People were going crazy for all this space alien stuff about that time. Probably had something to do with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind setting box office records. Or maybe it was because Zontarr, ambassador from the planet Horvis VII, was all over TV in the mid-70s during his futile campaign to convince the people of earth to give up their dangerous nuclear weapons programs-- which threatened galactic civilization-- and his more successful efforts to popularize John Travolta via the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter and disco music. Poor Ambassador Zontarr. Today he teaches political science at a community college and smokes way too much pot.

"Daddy and the Pie" hearkens back to those message stories EC used to run where they'd sucker you in with gloriously drawn gore and freaky octopus-like creatures then teach you some kind of life lesson, like in that one tale about the little mutant girl who was so misunderstood. "Daddy and the Pie" also has a distinct Ray Bradbury feel in its mix of small town nostalgia, the melancholy truth of just how crappy we humans can be to each other and science fiction. The moralizing doesn't overwhelm the plot, thanks in no small part to Toth's beautiful drawings. He evokes a sense of mystery and wonder on each page, and the heavy use of blacks along with ink washes make this one of his finest pieces. I was all set to write enthusiatically about how brilliant DuBay is for having the boy narrate the story in a kind of naive voice and how that contrasts with the action to give us a more complete understanding of what really happened with Daddy and the Pie-- then I re-read it and realized the narration is pretty spot-on, with Toth's images merely amplifying DuBay's script.

Oh well. DuBay does tell the story from the boy's limited perspective and it's a script worthy of Toth's best efforts. The kid learns that heroism isn't beating up bad guys the way the two-fisted ruffians in the movie serials and radio adventures do. It's also quietly helping others and accepting them for who they are. Just doing the right thing and asking nothing in return.

He learns this not only because of the Pie's influence on his life, but also because the example his father sets. As DuBay has him tell us, "I was lucky to have two heroes all my own... ...Two of the biggest, bravest legends ever to walk God's green earth. Daddy and the Pie." Children need parents they can look up to in the absence of saintly blue aliens. When kids inevitably encounter various forms of hate and prejudice they need strong role models within their own families to teach them open-mindedness and acceptance of differences.

Ultimately, however, "Daddy and the Pie" also reminds me of that Kenny Rogers song, "The Coward of the County." Some people-- and blue giants from other worlds-- can only be pushed so far before they have to give up pacifism and counter aggression with mysterious glowing orbs that focus mental power to wreak retribution. DuBay and Toth wisely keep the action offscreen, making us imagine its horrors, rather than fully depicting and and possibly glorifying it in the way comics and films frequently do. The Pie is fully benign but he, like the less evolved people who finally drive him to reaction, is capable of destructive acts. In some ways his sacrifice and victory in the town is the most human moment in the story. By not showing it-- by confining it to a couple of small, dark panels with flame on the horizon and ominous "BOOM! BLAAMM! KA-BAAMMM! BOOM!" sound effects, DuBay and Toth tell us this is also the least heroic thing the Pie does. This capacity for meeting violence with violence-- even when justified-- is perhaps a universal failing of all sentient beings. That we even bother to try and overcome this is a much more heroic act than burning down a town, even if it is full of bigots.

This story is also similar thematically and in plot to the 1953 Western classic Shane, starring Alan Ladd.


wymanbrantley said...

Thanks for posting this. I had the issue when I was 10 or 11. I was so disturbed by the graphic violence in the story that I crumpled the magazine and almost threw it away. It would probably seem maudlin to me if I read it today, but it had a powerful emotional punch for my tween self.

Joel Bryan said...

You're very welcome, and thank you for the comment! Maudlin is probably a good word for it. And I remember having similar reactions to a lot of stories back in the day.