Thursday, May 25, 2017

Solving the Merlyn Mystery

If you are like me, the Green Arrow villain "Merlyn" has always mystified you.  'Malcolm Merlyn' is, of course, a fixture on television's Arrow (and the second season of Legends of Tomorrow).  Mostly this seems to stem from some sort of Satanic pact made by actor John Barrowman that everyone (but me) will love him, no matter how bad at or inappropriate for a role he is.

CW asks a lot of me.  They ask me to believe Barry Allen could become so evil at some point that he wouldn't pompadour his hair.  They ask me to believe that Josh Segarra, who sounds like the illegitimate child of Ray Liotta and an Italian restaurant in Queens, is a genius litigator, deceiver, schemer, and supervillain.  They ask me to believe that Caity Lotz is awake.

But trying to make me believe THIS guy is a threat to, well, anyone is the hardest thing the CW asks of me:

EVERY time he says something like "I YAM the head of League of Ass-ass-ins, you know" in his Snitty Bank Manager Voice, I laugh.

His teeevee threat level aside, "Malcolm Merlyn" is, like most of the secondary characters in the CWverse shows, loosely based on one from the source comics: Merlyn the 'dark archer'.

It's still true: the best indicator of any character's lameness is their Who's Who illustration.

Merlyn debuted in November 1971 (JLA #94) in the stupidly named "Where Strikes Demonfang?" (titling stories in the Marvel-style of faux-Shakespearean/epic prose was a big thing in the '70s). A (painful) synopsis follows:

A sniper, M'Naku, has Aquaman, the Batman, and the Green Arrow in his sights. At the last second, the Green Arrow sees the sun glint off the barrel, and scatters the heroes. The Green Arrow disarms M'Naku, while the Batman attacks. Once M'Naku is subdued, Aquaman interrogates the would-be assassin. M'Naku reveals nothing. The Sensei, of the League of Assassins, angered at M'Naku's failure, tasks Merlyn with carrying out the assassination. 
Television anchorman, Clark Kent, is out on assignment, tasked with filming a news documentary on pollution. Kent asks the Atom to accompany him, as his assignment will take him near to Porttown, where Aquaman, the Batman, and the Green Arrow went missing. Merlyn disables Kent's news van. Kent confronts Merlyn, as Superman. Using specially designed arrowheads, Merlyn subdues both Superman and the Atom. Merlyn assassinates M'Naku. 
The trademark arrows, and distinctive laughter, tip off the Green Arrow to Merlyn's presence. Earlier in his career, the Green Arrow faced off against Merlyn, and lost. Aquaman, the Batman, and the Green Arrow track Merlyn to an abandoned house. Suddenly, Aquaman collapses from extreme dehydration. Using his size and weight control belt, the Atom disables the arrow immobilizing Superman. The Batman submerges Aquaman in a fountain, until the King of the Sea recovers. 
The Batman suspects that the Deadman has taken possession of Aquaman's body. The Green Arrow is caught inside a vacuum tube. The Batman hurls a batarang at the tube, to no effect. Still recovering his strength, Superman, and the Atom, hitchhike to Porttown. Spying the Green Arrow's dilemma, Superman hurls the Atom at the vacuum tube, shattering it. The Green Arrow squares off against Merlyn. This time, the Green Arrow is the victor. 
Having failed to assassinate the Batman, Merlyn flees, knowing that the League of Assassins will be coming after him for his failure.

The version of Merlyn always  In more than just a 'Stupid Bronze Age" way.  Why name a dark archer after a ...medieval wizard?  Why does he look like, well... a geek?

In fact he looks remarkably like another JLA villain, Headmaster Mind, who had debuted unspectacularly in 1964.

Sometimes you don't need a Who's Who page to tell how lame a character is.

You remember Headmaster Mind (whom I've written about here before); he was a 'professor of crime' who taught criminals how to be successful, even against such foes as the Justice League members.That's why he looks like a professorial stereotype. But why on earth would Merlyn look that way?

And then I discovered this:

More Fun Comics #75 (1941) , in case you were wondering.

And it all clicked into place.

The reason that Bronze Age Merlyn looks like a evil professorial type ... is because that's what he originally was.  That, kids, is "Professor Merlin" who runs a crime college in the third Green Arrow story.  

"Crime college/school" is one of those inevitable concepts that comics CANNOT let go of.  Given enough time, every hero will find and fight one.  Why? Who can say.  Perhaps it's the tension intrinsic between crime, usually though of as an occupation for the ignorant, and schooling, or society's fear that criminals, properly focused on self-improvement, could be unstoppable. Me? I think comic book writers just have some unresolved issues with their teachers.

When Professor Merlin does capture Green Arrow (which is almost immediately) he chooses to spend time tickling him.  Which isn't fey AT ALL.  Then he ask Ollie to throw in with him and be his partner and rule the world with him.  Then Ollie says no because Merlin's type can't last long enough. Then Merlin says, "I'm tired of playing with you!"

"What happened to Speedy? Usually Speedy is the one who ties me up and tickles me with a feather!"

Then, in a scene too embarrassing even for Green Arrow, Ollie is saved by a motorcycle cop who pulls Merlin over because his tail-light is busted.  "The law will get you soon," indeed.  

In Green Arrow's first story, his foe, Ezra Sampson, dies (as we saw).
In Green Arrow's second story his foe, The Voice, is caught.
In Green Arrow's third story his foe, Merlin, escapes.

And that is the key.  Merlin is Ollie's first villain that gets away. And then becomes the first villain to return.  Merlin was Green Arrow's first recurring villain in his rogues gallery (aka the Crime Carnival).  So when writers wanted to make a basic recurring archenemy for the newly-revised Bronze Age version of Green Arrow they took the most basic concept -- an anti-Green Arrow, an evil archer -- and simply lay it on top of Ollie's earlier recurring foe -- Merlin.  

It was a dumb thing and lazy thing to do, of course, and resulted in a character that doesn't make a lot of sense.  But at least now I understand WHY.


Anonymous said...

I get the allure of a crime school; it's the contrast between the mundane legitimacy of school and the violent illegality of crime. Plus it would make sense that criminals learn how to do crime right.

Speaking of contrasts, Green Arrow needs not an evil doppelganger, but a contrasting villain -- still would be range weapon vs range weapon, but contrasting weapons. Maybe Deadshot would have been a good Green Arrow archenemy, in that he would require Green Arrow to be at his best trick-shooting to get the edge on him.

Bryan L said...

I think the "crime school" concept also offers a veiled warning to the kids -- stay in legit school and learn a proper trade or you'll have to go to crime school. It's also a bit of inversion on the concept of "reform school" -- where bad kids learn to be good. I'm overthinking.

I always thought Captain Boomerang should be GA's archenemy. Ranged, archaic weapons, frequently involving gimmick versions. Boomer would be a whole lot less ludicrously overmatched against Arrow than he is against the Flash. Plus, they both wear goofy hats -- or at least they did. That's one thing that the CW's Arrow got right -- they brought Boomerang right in there as an enemy.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I had no idea that Merlin/Merlyn dated back to the '40s. Too bad Marshall Rogers wasn't available to fix Merlyn's look he did for Deadshot's. I know Male Supervillain-Pattern Widow's Peakness is a thing that happens in comics, but that look is Dr. Druid-ugly. Also, how does he run with those quivers all over his legs?

Green Arrow's Rogues Gallery has never been great, but he always does better with other heros' ridiculous cast-offs. I liked that Smallville made the Toyman a GA villain. Clock King makes more sense for Ollie, and I'm down with the Killer Moth and Captain Boomerang suggestions. Heck, give him the Monocle, Prankster, Cluemaster, Sportsmaster, Kite-Man, Javelin, Slipknot, The Fisherman, Bloodsport, The Mad Mod, The Duke of Oil, The Body Doubles, and Punch & Jewelee while you're at it. You could have J'Onn guest-star for the Human Flying Fish story. "Green Arrow vs. The Bad Guys We Don't Like to Talk About!" I'd read every issue.

- Mike Loughlin

Anonymous said...

"I always thought Captain Boomerang should be GA's archenemy. Ranged, archaic weapons, frequently involving gimmick versions. Boomer would be a whole lot less ludicrously overmatched against Arrow than he is against the Flash. Plus, they both wear goofy hats -- or at least they did. That's one thing that the CW's Arrow got right -- they brought Boomerang right in there as an enemy."

That's a very good call; Captain Boomerang would be a much better thematic fit against Green Arrow. And his boomerangs would have the edge of not being limited to straight line attacks the way arrows are.

Certainly more appropriate than fighting the Flash, seeing as the natural and obvious counterpart to a speedster is a talking gorilla.

Anonymous said...

Green Arrow vs. Jorg?

Bryan L said...

"Certainly more appropriate than fighting the Flash, seeing as the natural and obvious counterpart to a speedster is a talking gorilla."

Indeed. Why don't more people realize this?

Scipio said...

They already created the perfect foil for GA: Bullseye, aka Leapo the Clown.

cybrid said...

"Why name a dark archer after a...medieval wizard?"

Uh...why not? Maybe he just thought it sounded cool.

That's how the Avengers picked their name, y'know, because the Wasp thought it sounded cool (or at least "dramatic"), it's right there on the last page of the story in Avengers #1 (1963). The very method that countless people in real-life use to name their bands, clubs, corporations, et cetera, in keeping with Stan Lee's initial basic concept of making super-heroes behave more "realistically" (comparatively speaking, anyway). In contrast, "Justice League of America"? A "league"? AMERICA'S "league"? How pretentious and/or jingoistic can you get? Well, yes, quite a bit more, actually, but...

Anyway, per Wikipedia (so, you know...), "Merlyn" is the character's actual last name, which would mean it's not a codename at all. Just as is the case with Batroc the Leaper, who despite using his real name as his codename WEARS A MASK. Why? Because he thinks it looks cool. Whether or not it DOES look cool is beside the point. ;-)

Anonymous said...

For whatever it's worth, DC went with a justice "League" because baseball was popular then.

Speaking of Marvel, though, they've got a tech genius over there known as The Wizard; nobody thinks he's actually a sorcerer, but his technological marvels caused quite a buzz for a while. (Then Reed Richards came along and started making unstable molecules and such, and just like that The Wizard was out on his ass in the public eye. So he turned to crime.)

If I had to make an archer named "Merlyn" from scratch, I'd probably go the tech genius route: Green Arrow's got plastic cat arrows, but Merlyn's arrows can do really nutty stuff -- to the point where, if you don't know what to look for, you may not even realize that archery played a role. (If anything, the trick would be to come up with crimes where archery wouldn't just be getting in the way -- like maybe there would be a heist where the only way into the room would be a high window with iron bars.)

Scipio said...

Regardless of what Wikipedia says (probably it hews toward retcons as canon), Merlyn's real name was "Arthur King".

cybrid said...

Shrug. Pretty easy to get "Merlyn" from "Arthur King." Because who's got even more power than King Arthur than...Merlyn the Wizard?

So maybe it's like in his mind he was already the very best of the best as Arthur King and now as Merlyn he's EVEN BETTER than that. :-)

Just think how much ego it takes just to wear a beard without a mustache in the first place...

Anonymous said...

Arthur King vs. Oliver Queen. That has the stink of Bronze Age wit all over it.

Brian said...

"For whatever it's worth, DC went with a justice "League" because baseball was popular then."

Given how the word league operates, I think it would be interesting to see the Justice League not as a team itself, but rather the organized collection of multiple crimefighting teams across the country (including groups like the Titans and Outsiders), cooperating with each other but based out of different cities (something like how the Fifty State Initiative in Marvel was supposed to work). It even makes Batman's family of crimefighters more logical then – he refuses to let the League place a team in Gotham because he argues that his various sidekicks and allies already have that role covered.

cybrid said...

Was that just an example of your point or did the JLA actually want to place a team in Gotham? Who in the JLA could have been THAT ticked off at someone else in the JLA? Geez, just send 'em to the Suicide Squad while you're at it, at least they wouldn't have to talk to Batman every day...

The Justice SOCIETY of America (formed, of course, long before LBJ's "Great Society") was from an era where it was at least marginally more common to refer to private clubs as "societies," so there's that, anyway.

cybrid said...

In hindsight, "Queen" was a rather odd choice for a surname back then. I wonder what the story was there.

Spaceknight Rom said...

Merlyn had a son! The Evil Lancylot!

How to do Martian manhunter:
he's green when he's with his hero buddies
but sometimes he's black
and sometimes he's white
J'onn himself as M'gann, a few days each month.
His pet: chameleon boy.
He's from Mars 1,000 years ago!
Mars had visited Atlantis.
Earth had visited Mars, Vandal Savage re-cast as J'onn J'onzz' arch-enemy, killed T'omm, M'riah
Despero, J'onn's brother, not dead after all
Heat/Fire just cause him to lose shape, often in hilarious social situation
Mars may be a dead red planet TODAY, mystery, did they hide in 31st century?
Starro killed the Martian race?
Love interest, Element Woman
Best pal Rex Mason Metamorpho
Chased Vandal Savage into future, stranded here in our present
Only power is shape-shift.
Owns ice-cream shoppe, makes ice cream cones

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

That is great all around. Except shapeshifting is already J'onn's only power. His strength and invisibility is from shapeshifting. JLA:RockOfAges showed J'onn can shapeshift his brain to figure out Joker's mental maze. Therefore I think even Martian telepathy is from mental shapeshifting.

Also its possible all Martian city structures are camouflaged like M'Gann's ship in Young Justice.

Scipio said...

"Owns ice-cream shoppe, makes ice cream cones"

THAT made me laugh.

RomSpace said...

it would be like Bob's Burgers: J'onzz's C'ones
fear of fire rooted in fear that his ice cream might melt
I guess his pet would be Proty 3

RomSpace said...

oh and Merlyn's son Lancylot would be an expert in crossbows, or I dunno kung-fu