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Goldenrod's Universe (part 1)
  

If you’re a good person, and Marshall and I were both good people, what you are ultimately able to put into your world is pretty much what you got out of it. I got a good education, parents who loved me, a few close friends and a healthy appreciation for a well-told story. Marshall got a ticket out of a cow town in Oklahoma, a fear of the wrath of God but scant inkling of His love, and a job he did not do particularly well, but from which, out of pity or guilt, a succession of supervisors were unwilling to release him. Marshall also got, more than I did, the chance to live among his heroes.

One of the really keen things about civilization is that people can make their livings in ridiculous ways. For years I made mine writing stories for Goldenrod comic books. Marshall, with twenty years as an editorial assistant at Time Warp Comics, made his living just getting by. Marshall and I were comic book buddies. We shared a love for heroes and adventure and impossible premises and situations and especially for Goldenrod, the comic book hero who put me through graduate school and who generates enough income for the company Marshall and I both worked for to carry Marshall in a do-nothing job.

You know Goldenrod, of course, Man of Gold, Last Son of Aldebaran, defender of the weak and the helpless who, disguised as Ralston York, unassuming research scientist for a great university, fights a never-ending battle for ... well, you’ve heard it before. Goldenrod magazine has been selling hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of copies in every single month since the hero made his début before the Second World War. Battleships and fighter planes were named after him. He starred in a smash radio show in the Forties. There were two movie serials about him. The Adventures of Goldenrod on television was one of the biggest money-makers of that medium’s early years. Kids wear Goldenrod T-shirts, buy Goldenrod rings and live-action figures and Goldenrod orange marmalade as if they’re going out of style, but they never go out of style. He’s all over the place, a symbol of whatever America is supposed to symbolize at any given time, even more so since the series of Hollywood blockbusters started breaking box office records a few years ago. Everyone knows Goldenrod.

Well, if you look inside a Goldenrod comic book, any issue at all in a twenty-year period, on the first page not counting the cover you’ll see Marshall. His name is in the lower right hand corner, the tiny print where the magazine’s date and issue number are, along with the address of the editorial offices in New York. Toward the bottom of the list of publishers, editors, editorial directors, vice presidents and such is the name S. Marshall Uhlmann. For twenty-odd years that name was there while the people behind all the other names have moved on or moved up or moved out or retired or died. The list is not very stable, year to year, except for that one name, S. Marshall Uhlmann.

For months after I came to Time Warp Comics I wondered what the “S” in Marshall’s name stood for. I asked people around the office if they knew and nobody did. It stood for “Sprite,” somebody said. Finally I asked Marshall.

“Why, Samuel, of course,” Marshall told me and snorted in a friendly way.

“Of course,” I said and did not snort back.

Snorting was another thing. Marshall snorted a lot. It was some sort of respiratory problem but it drove people up a wall. Sometimes it sounded as though he was barking involuntarily. Almost nothing was right with his body. He had about a quarter of a stomach, he once told me, one kidney and one lung. His blood pressure was terribly high for a man in his mid-forties, but not for a man in his condition, he assured me. He was little, walked with a cane because his legs were too spindly to carry his belly by themselves. He had beaten off muggers with that cane.

“Well the first few times I just gave them my money,” Marshall explained, “but I needed that money because my rent went up, you see. So when these two muggers demanded my money the next time, why, I just couldn’t afford to give it to them.”

“What did you say to them?”

“Never again,” Marshall said.

“Never again? That’s all you said, and you hit them with your cane?”

“Well, my chest blew up too. It does that, you see, when I’m under stress.”

“Did they just run away?”

“No, they started punching me in the chest, but because of all the stress and my condition, blood rushed to my chest and it acted as a kind of armor. On a normal person that wouldn’t happen, but I was able to fight them off because they couldn’t hurt me.”

He actually did fight the muggers off. It was all over the office the next day when his doctor called to ask that he be excused from work for a few days. I’m still not sure what he was talking about when he referred to his chest turning into some kind of shield.

No one ever talked to Marshall on purpose. No one knew how to get out of a conversation he started up, either, which was the reason he and I got to know each other. I was in graduate school at the time, working on a paper comparing Hamlet to Goldenrod. Honest. That sort of thing worked every time. I didn’t like dry literary analysis a lot, but I did like Hamlet and, with the equivalent of a full-time job writing comic books, I had Goldenrod on the brain. My thesis was that Goldenrod always had to switch identities in order to correct some wrong, and that was analogous to Hamlet’s vaunted hesitancy to act against the murderer Claudius. I pulled down an “A” on the paper. It was not as though I supported the painfully contrived thesis very effectively, but the writing itself was competent enough and I think I got the “A” more on guts than on scholarship. When you write a thesis comparing Hamlet to a comic book hero you either get an “A” or an “F”; there’s no middle ground.

I was sitting in one of the editors’ offices after hours one night, writing up this groundbreaking chunk of Shkespearean scholarship, and Marshall noticed my dog-eared copy of Hamlet on the desk. I typed feverishly in order to look busy.

“You’re reading Hamlet, are you?”

“Yeah, I’ve got this paper due,” and I typed some more.

“I’ve always thought Hamlet was probably a direct ancestor of Lord Greystoke,” Marshall said and sat down.

“Lord Greystoke? You mean Tarzan?” I asked him, as my train of thought chugged out of the station without me.

“Yes. I have a theory about the inter-relations of various characters. For example, Margo Lane, the Shadow’s girlfriend, is clearly the grandmother of Lois Lane. James Bond is the illegitimate great-grandson of Rasputin on his mother’s side and of Sherlock Holmes on his father’s. Hephæstus, the Greek god of the forge, was, in later life, the same person as the Norse god Odin. That sort of thing.”

It was Marshall’s job at Time Warp Comics to keep track of continuity in the Time Warp Universe. He had to make sure that if Goldenrod was doing a job on Pluto one month as a guest character in one magazine, he was not fighting some multi-issue battle with some super-villain in the eighteenth dimension at the same time. He also had to see to it that relationships among all the characters of all the series that Time Warp published were internally consistent. For example, he would get livid (and his chest would start to expand, come to think of it) if a writer ever suggested a heresy like killing off a supporting character if, in some story published twelve years ago, Goldenrod had once traveled in time and met the character grown old. It could not really have happened that way, so we could not do it.

“Okay, I’ve got one for you,” I said as I looked up from my editor’s typewriter. “King Claudius is related to Lyndon Johnson because Lady Bird Johnson’s real name is Claudia Taylor.”

“I don’t think it works. Besides, Claudius is a descendent of Erik the Red and Lyndon Johnson is probably descended from Chief Crazy Horse, Dr. Samuel Johnson and Typhoid Mary. I have some documentation on that.”

“Oh,” I looked at my paper which was thus far devoid of sense or substance and wondered if Marshall had any ideas on Hamlet and Goldenrod. I told him the premise and he reacted as though I had tried to write a story where Ralston York eloped with Christine Keeler.

“Hamlet wasn’t hesitant,” Marshall said, fuming. “I don’t know where everyone gets the idea that Hamlet was hesitant. He was a genius and it took a genius to write about a genius. Hamlet was a moral man, the only man in the country who knew enough to be moral. Because he believed in justice doesn’t mean he hesitated. He got caught by fate. That’s what the story is about. Can’t you see?”

“I’m sorry.” There was no one else in the office and I was terrified that Marshall was going to have a cardiac incident right there in front of a bulletin board full of the covers of the last sixteen issues of Time Warp Team-Up.

What followed instead was something quite different. I got a lengthy, detailed, unorthodox and undeniably brilliant lecture on Hamlet, on the nature of Shakespeare’s character and intentions, on the role of fiction and fantasy in the human experience. I got the feeling with Marshall that I got from only the greatest of Shakespearean scholars: that not only was Shakespeare a real, flesh-and-blood human being with faults and inconsistencies and a peculiar wisdom of his own but, through him, so were his characters. Nowhere in the play, as Marshall showed me, did Hamlet hesitate. He acted on every opportunity there was to prove to himself beyond the shadow of a doubt that Claudius was guilty. When he proved it, and only then, did Hamlet begin to act to punish the usurper king. Therein was the analog with Goldenrod for my paper: not in hesitancy, but in the thirst for justice and for a civilized definition of justice. Hamlet was a hero – a super-hero, like Goldenrod – for his own time. Marshall sprinkled his lecture with citations, quotations, insights of all sorts.

I had a pretty good education at two major private universities. Marshall had none, other than that which he gleaned from what he saw and read. Nonetheless, I had never heard Hamlet picked apart like that.

“You should write this stuff down,” I told him. “This is scholarship. It should have an airing.”

“Oh, I will,” Marshall said, “sometime.”

“Sometime soon, right?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, what have you got to do that’s more important?”

Marshall always thought of something more important. That particular week he had to finish a freelance Captain Thunder story because he had heating bills to pay. Another time he was behind in proofreading the Society of Heroes Annual and had to take work home. Then he had to do some research into an old villain from the Fifties, Killer Mannix, whom I was using in a Goldenrod story. I’ll do the research, I told him. I can just make it all up anyway, I told him, since that’s my job.

Make it up? He looked at me as though I had offered to remove one of a young nun’s shoes.

Then Marshall started writing the book. It was not a book about Hamlet. This was Marshall’s book.

It was a book on who was who in popular culture. It consisted of Marshall’s extensive theories on the interrelations of fictional characters. Doc Savage was the father of Charles Townsend from “Charlie’s Angels,” the David Carradine character from the Kung Fu television show, Caine, eventually became disillusioned and turned to evil in his persona as the less than kindly Dr. Fu Manchu. Marshall was excited beyond all coherency when, as he had been insisting for more than a year, Darth Vader turned out to be the father of Luke Skywalker. He also had this odd notion that Luke and Princess Leia were twins. Marshall launched into a Star Wars jag, drawing up an entire family tree for Leia and the Emperor, tracing them back to Goldenrod in our own time and eventually King Arthur Pendragon of England.

“Wasn’t the Star Wars series supposed to have taken place a long time ago in another galaxy?” I asked him.

“Why, that’s just advertising promotion,” Marshall assured me. “Anyone can see that with so many humanoids in the galactic society it could only happen in our future sometime.”

Anyone can see that, of course. There were no more lame excuses about the Hamlet book from Marshall. As anyone could see, this was far more important and was taking up all his available time. After he began work on his opus, Marshall started engaging fewer people in unwanted conversation. In fact, he began to get positively disagreeable. He started coming in late in the morning, disappearing for hours at lunchtime, leaving early, falling asleep at his desk. Meanwhile, in the small and insulated subculture of comic book fans and professionals, against my better judgment, I was becoming a star.

You remember, of course, how King Aldebaran of the Polarian Empire appeared to Ralston York one day in the laboratory and told him of his hidden destiny, but there are aspects of the Goldenrod legend that you may have forgotten. It might be a good idea to give you a thumbnail sketch of the character’s origins.

It was in Hightstown, New Jersey in the summer of 1936 – this is in real life now, not fantasy – when a nineteen year old kid named Abe Herman spent the night dreaming up Goldenrod. He couldn’t get to sleep. He lived on his parents’ chicken farm and the old farmhouse was so hot he was boiling in his own sweat. So he got up and pulled a volume of an old King Arthur story from a shelf and didn’t put the book down until he finished it the following evening. This part is in the real world, our world. That chicken farm near Route 130 in New Jersey is a housing development now, but near the water tower that sits where the old farmhouse once stood you can see a plaque that says:

On this Site in 1939

ABRAHAM HERMAN

created

GOLDENROD, LAST PRINCE OF POLARIS

An American Legend

... along with the name of the neighborhood civic association and the dedication date of the plaque, November 16, 1963. It’s a pretty nice plaque. That was the reality part. Then came the fantasy.

* * *

Ralston York was a teacher, a brilliant but underappreciated assistant professor of physics, at Scupperton University. Scupperton was a rural Ivy League school a lot like Princeton, which was just five miles from where Abe Herman lived. At Scupperton was an ancient white-haired physicist, Professor Newstone, thought to be the world’s greatest scientist, whom Rally York idolized. Rally had little or no contact with Newstone. To have a job teaching physics at the same institution was enough to give Rally a jolt of self-esteem whenever he thought about it.

One day Professor Newstone appeared in Rally York’s little office with a smiley hello. Rally had never before gotten so much as a grunt from the great man. Now, however, here he was saying he had had his eye on Rally for a long time and now had a special assignment for him. What kind of special assignment, Rally wanted to know. Rally would find that out soon enough, according to Newstone. When he went home that night the first thing Rally did was turn on the radio to hear that the great Dr. Newstone had died in his sleep the previous night, that he did not show up at the university that day and Rally could not possibly have seen or spoken with him. Confused and dazed, Rally walked into his bedroom to think things out and found there, sitting on his bed, an object shaped like a three-foot-long golden pipe with a long wiry filament sticking out one end of it. He picked it up and the filament gave off a quietly hissing circular glow of golden energy. Bewildered and annoyed, Rally tossed the golden pipe down on the floor and took a nap.

He went to sleep right away, unusually quickly, and a dream as vivid as the unrolling reel of a film lit his mind. It involved Newstone, of course, but the old man was wearing a strange costume. It was not the ratty sweater and sneakers that Rally was accustomed to seeing on him, or even the white lab smock of a scientist. Newstone looked more like an Old World alchemist in a flowing blue robe and pointed helmet hat, decorated with stars, crescents, test tubes, flasks and other symbols Ralston York had never seen before.

“You can call me by my real name now,” Newstone said to Rally in his dream. “You have heard it before. I am Merlyn Emrys, Merlyn the sorcerer, and I have come to deliver your birthright from your true father, the king.”

“What are you talking about, Professor?” Sleep was no refuge. Rally was as confused in his dream as he had been awake.

“I am speaking of the guardianship of this small world on which I have lived these many centuries and which gave nurture and sustenance to your father the king when he was a fugitive from his enemies.”

“You are choosing me,” Rally said slowly, “to be guardian to the human race?”

“I am choosing you for nothing,” the old professor smiled, “you were chosen by your birth.”

“How could I be the son of King Arthur?”

“Oh no no no,” Newstone said. “He was a special boy, was Arthur Pendragon but he has nothing to do with you. Your father is Aldebaran, King of Polaris. I am merely his emissary on Earth.”

“Polaris. The star? Professor, are you playing some sort of joke on me?”

“I’ve never been more serious.”

“This is unbelieveable. I hardly even know you, except by reputation.

“I have gone by dozens of names. Homer, Solomon and Socrates. Lao-Tsu, Chaucer and Michelangelo. Mozart, Lincoln and finally Newstone.”

“Who are you really?”

“I am a person who is unspeakably old and I have waited for you my entire life. Please take the golden wand.”

“Golden wand?” and Rally remembered the pipe he had thrown off the bed. Then he remembered he was dreaming, which was something he could not remember ever having realized in a dream before. He decided to enjoy himself. “You must have been Shakespeare too,” Rally said.

“Fortunately not,” Merlyn said, “and I must say he was one of my most rambunctious students.”

“And Charlemagne?”

“I once carried that name.”

“And Benjamin Franklin?”

“Yes, and I taught Thomas Jefferson how to read and write.”

“Mark Twain?”

“I taught him how to pilot a riverboat.”

“Pythagoras?”

“I am he.”

“And what will your role be now?”

“Finally I am leaving this world. I need to report to my king, and I have work to do,” the great mage said, “as do you. The world needs a hero, you see. Rather, you will see soon enough. I envy all that you will see,” and the old man vanished from the dream and from the march of history.

Rally York drifted from this dream into deeper sleep, into more conventional dreams. When he woke up as dawn poked one red finger at a time over the eastern sky he had changed subtly, and so had the world.

It was the day for a mad dictator to invade a neighboring country. Rally knew that as soon as he woke up. He turned on the radio to hear the report, though, and all he heard was Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

* * *

This was 1939 when Abe Herman first wrote this comic book script, and for more than ten years the origin stayed the same except for one story where Rally York referred to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the radio rather than Bergen. Eventually, with the collection of continuing characters that grew to populate the Goldenrod series, and with all the other more mortal Time Warp super-heroes, the origin had to come up to date. If it hadn’t been, then we would have had twenty- or thirty-year-old characters claiming to remember World War II and the heyday of radio drama. So eventually, the origin had Rally York hearing big band and then rock music on the radio the morning he woke up. Eventually it was no longer Hitler invading Poland that he – and Abe Herman for that matter – foresaw, but Mao overrunning Korea, then Khruschev taking Cuba. Finally it was a nameless, faceless despot from some unnamed non-American country challenging the liberty of some hapless, freedom-loving people somewhere else.

One thing you’ve got to understand if you work with a legend like Goldenrod is that any active myth is an organic thing. It passes through many hands and minds and its external shape takes many forms, as many as there are times the story is told. The tales of Paul Bunyan got taller and longer the more times they traveled around the loggers’ campfires. Malory’s King Arthur is different from Tennyson’s, which is different from T.H. White’s, but each is a vital retelling. Aficionados will no doubt notice that even in this little origin sketch I take the liberty of jazzing up Goldenrod’s story a little bit. That is more than my privilege; it’s my job. There are at least half a dozen each of the story of the Maccabees, of the birth of Athena, of the death of Socrates, of the fall of Atlantis, of young George Washington’s cherry tree, of Superbaby’s voyage from lost Krypton. Pulp novels, television and movie adventures, and comic books like those I wrote for those years, are all lineal successors to the rich mythology of ancient Europe, Asia and Africa. Our mythology, appropriate for our own age and our own peculiar adventure, is fully as rich and as instructive.

Once, in graduate school, I wrote a paper that said all this. I pulled an “A.”

My friend Marshall never understood or accepted the passing of the myth through many hands and interpretations. To him, the world of the Time Warp Universe, of Goldenrod, had to be coherent and immutable. Even real life was not that logical, which is something Marshall would probably have noticed if he had paid much attention to real life.

* * *

In the story of the origin of Goldenrod, Rally York woke up knowing that this evil dictator was about to invade a neighboring country, but there was no word of it on the radio. As far as the world was concerned, there was nothing wrong. Then he heard a soft hissing sound from under his bed. He looked to see what it was and found the golden wand. Rally had assumed that it was just part of a strange dream, but it wasn’t, and it had just rolled underneath. He felt a hot flash to his stomach as he slowly reached under the bed to fish it out.

He sat on the bed thinking about the dream of Newstone – or Merlyn or whoever it was. He thought about his weird feeling of a crisis developing across the world. He spun the radio dial until he found a news report. It was still full of the death the previous day of Dr. Newstone. That part was true. He wondered whether the part about Merlyn was true as well. And what about this golden wand that pulsates with these bright yellow waves of some kind of energy?

He knew very little for certain today, but he was somehow sure of one thing: the world was on the edge of crisis and he had to avert it. He held the wand in his hand, looked at the circle of hissing golden light at its tip, and concentrated. Mysteriously, magically, the circle of pulsing energy grew, formed an ellipse large enough to contain a man. For the first of many times Ralston York held out his wand and stepped through the ellipse of golden energy.

Somewhere on the far side of the world, in a large, lavishly furnished chamber, a tiny pulse of golden energy hung in the air. In a matter of moments, the pulse grew to the shape of an ellipse large enough to contain a man. The only person in the chamber, a small, dark suited, wild-eyed man, screamed for a guard. Out of the pulsing egg of yellow light stepped the glowing figure of Ralston York holding a shining rod. The ellipse of gold disappeared.

“You are expecting to cause some trouble today, sir,” Rally told the evil dictator. “You will have to cancel your plans.”

“How did you get in here?” the dictator said with more malice than curiosity. “Get him out at once,” he ordered the three uniformed guards who burst in at that moment.

“I’m not finished with the job I came to do,” Rally said as he twirled the wand in the air at the guards like Tyrone Power facing down Basil Rathbone.

Immediately a circle of gold formed between Rally and the guards. Two of the three tumbled right in and vanished as they lunged at Rally. The third slid around the window in space like a base runner and Rally easily tripped him, grabbed the handgun he was slipping out of a holster and tossed the gun through a closed window.

“What did you do with them?” the dictator wanted to know.

“I’m not sure, but if my intuition is right, they will materialize in a prison camp of some sort in your country. You’ll probably hear from them soon enough.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to call off your invasion plans. I want you to tell me where your forces are massing.”

“Never.”

“Then don’t tell me. I have a feeling, though, that if you know, then I know as well.”

Rally poked another hole in space with his rod and this time yanked the dictator through the hole to a battleground near the border of his country. Tanks rolled toward them, dozens of tanks. Planes buzzed overhead. Footsoldiers were about to trample them. Just as a tank tread was about to flatten the dictator, Rally whisked him back to his chamber which the third guard had evidently vacated too quickly to close the door behind him.

Rally York scared the dictator into not carrying out his invasion plans that day, into calling off the entire operation. If Rally had not acted with his golden wand, the world would have plunged into war that very day. As it was the world was still at the edge of crisis, but if Rally had put off war for a year or a month or even a day, then there was still that much more time to avert it, or for the forces of freedom and reason to prepare.

Ralston York was an inquisitive, intelligent man, a scientist. From that day, he knew what he must do. He would learn more of the golden wand in his possession. He would learn what else it could help him to do besides transcend the barriers of time and dimension. He would learn more of the job with which Merlyn had left him. He would learn if he really was immortal.

Meanwhile, the world would have the hero that Merlyn told him the world needed. From some old scraps and blankets Rally York put together a blue-and-gold uniform that would make the world take notice. There was a deep blue shirt with stars sprinkled over it like the night sky. It joined a blue cowl mask that left the blond top of his head sticking through. His gold leggings reaching high over his chest ending in a golden arrow to symbolize the wand. He wore blue boots and golden gloves. Thus would the world see and know Goldenrod.

* * *

(concludes with the second installment)

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