Saturday, January 14, 2012

Selling Secrets: The Deadliest Man Alive

The comic books of my childhood scratched a lot of itches.  They provided an escape from the humdrum world I felt I existed in (rarely a damsel in distress, never a dinosaur attack), and showed idealized, almost mythological characters struggling to bring about justice.  Some of these characters, like Spider-Man and Superman, did this with the aid of spectacular powers and abilities, while others, like Batman or Green Arrow, through the application of will and skill alone.

I think I had a typical childhood insofar as there were ebbs and flows in the number and quality of friends I had and the popularity or infamy or anonymity I enjoyed.  There were times I was picked on, especially in elementary school, and bigger or meaner kids that I took care to avoid, but never to the point where I would consider myself bullied.  I could see others who were, though, and this was never a pleasant experience, even as a spectator; this is the price for an excess of empathy, a condition I am certain I have passed on to my daughters.  What better medium than comics to teach a young person to hunger for justice, and to present this notion that fairness requires dedication and work and sacrifice from everyone, not just those with capes or utility belts.

Still, comics taught a lot of us to wish; to wish for the things that might give us the means to put these playground oppressors in their place, and not just in the stories and art, but in the advertisements as well.  Everyone is familiar with the legendary Charles Atlas ad "The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac!", wherein our protagonist, tired of having sand literally kicked into his face, "gambles a stamp" for a book on body-building, and some time later ends up at the beach with the body of Adonis and the ability to apply some bare-knuckle comeuppance to his persecutor.  (And as glad as I am to see that lout get his just desserts, I hope Mac ended up with someone more supportive than that snide cow who says  "Don't let it bother you little boy", but that's a whole other issue.)

Not nearly as prolific or carrying the same pop-cultural heft of the ubiquitous Atlas ad are the infamous "Deadliest Man Alive" ads of Count Dante's 'Black Dragon Fighting Society':

Sure, it's corny now, but when I was 9 years old, seeing the exotic name of the Chinese 'Death Touch' written in that chop suey typeface was like stepping into another world.

I'm not sure how legible it is in this photo, but the ad luridly discusses maiming, mutilating, disfiguring, paralyzing and crippling techniques, and how one can not only learn these once-forbidden 77 poison finger techniques, but that Count Dante was backing this claim up with a $10,000 guarantee!

Now, my 4th grade worldview in no way prepared me to question these claims, but even I thought it was a little questionable for this kind of knowledge to be thrown about hither and yon through the medium of comic-book advertising.  I remember thinking, A poison finger?  How would you control that?  Can you turn it off?  What if you used it by accident?  What if I couldn't touch my mom and dad any more, like King Midas?  What if bad guys learn it?  Can you defend against it?  Who the heck teaches that course?

In the end, I declined the responsibility and didn't order the book, or join the Black Dragon Fighting Society, despite the fact that I was fairly certain that very few people at Willow Park Elementary would mess with anyone who had that cool patch on their jacket.  I continued to see Count Dante in my comic books from time to time, apparently after a significant image consult, makeover and hairstyle change, but I remained confident I had made the right choice, and feel that way still.  Dim mak sounds like a real burden to me.

Martial arts and warrior culture in comics, books and films have always held a fascination for me, from Bruce Lee to Iron Fist to Remo Williams and through to the Jedi I discovered just before 5th grade, and on to Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro in the Lone Wolf & Cub manga series from Japan.  It turns out that 1970s North America turned out something almost as intriguing in real life, though, and the infamous Count Dante was a part of it.

Prior to Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon really bringing the oriental fighting arts into the mainstream of western culture, the early adopters were desperate to display the supremacy of their school or style.  One way of doing this was to publicly challenge those who made similar claims to public or private combat, or failing that, to damage the gym or dojo (for karate schools) where rival classes were taught.  One thing led to another, and once the media got wind of this, the term "Dojo Wars" was coined.

I mostly know of the Dojo Wars through a (Canadian-made, of all things) board game I played in high school called  "The Original Bruce Lee Martial Arts Game", wherein you worked to prove the superiority of your system by taking on all comers, including not only your fellow players, but Bruce Lee himself.  Although the Dojo Wars are never mentioned by name, cards like "Street Fight", and "Go to Nearest Enemy Dojo" made the comparison easy to draw.  In the end, the greatest enemy turned out to be the hospital, where injured players had to wait for a favorable roll of the dice in order to re-enter the game.

The Wikipedia entry on Count Dante is a fascinating read that includes a number of revelations, such as the fact that he is actually an Irish-American who claimed to be descended from Spanish aristocracy (despite his assuming an Italian surname), and that in addition to being a legitimate martial artist, was also an occasional hairstylist (Aha! That explains the later picture...)  In 1965 he was arrested while attaching dynamite caps to a rival dojo in Chicago, and in 1970, he and some of his students rumbled with members of the Green Dragon dojo, an altercation which actually resulted in the death of one of his friends.  There is a film by Floyd Webb called The Search for Count Dante that I believe I will have to track down one of these days.  On the other hand, there are a couple of perfectly good film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo, and they both have a Count Edmund Dantés in them, so that might be better.  (Plus Webb's film is still a work in progress he is trying to get funding for.)

At any rate, stumbling across the original advertisement while reading "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" (featuring not only Shang Chi and Iron Fist, but also multi-racial martial arts super-team The Sons of the Tiger), brought a vivid rush of memories about the big kids avoided at recess, and the quest for some sort of equalizer.  In the intervening years, I've tried to be conciliatory when I can and courageous when I have to be, and hope that enough other bystanders will recognize the legitimacy of my position to keep me from getting sand kicked into my face.  A poison finger?  What if I scratch myself?

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