January 02, 2011

Review of Dark Horse's TUROK

I recently read Jim Shooter's new comic book starring Turok, Son of Stone. It was about what I expected from the comments in Shooter on Dark Horse's TUROK.

Turok himself is a generic Indian. His appearance, almost identical to his look in his 1954 debut, is fine. As Shooter said, he's a "warrior wise and strong. He's not particularly interesting.

His background, such as it is, is also generic. He's traveled across the American continent. He knows a few Indian words, including one in Ojibwe. He has a steel knife and axe he got from a Viking. He had no other tribal or cultural markers--nothing except generic talk of spirits and shamans.

His initial adventure is also generic. He saves the boy Andar from the evil Aztecs. Turok and Andar flee down a mystical tunnel to the Land of the Lost with the bad guys in hot pursuit. After a couple of attacks and escapes, Turok comes face to face with--wait, you've probably never heard this one before--a scantily-clad high priestess and her dark-skinned minions.

Those evil Aztecs

The big problem here isn't Turok, it's the evil Lord Maxtla and his men. They're portrayed as renegades, too cruel and barbaric even for the Aztecs. But since they're the only Aztecs I think we'll see, it's fair to treat them as representative.

Naturally, the comic portrays these Indians with the usual indicators of evil: bones, piercings, warpaint, earrings, necklaces, claws, plates, and the ever-popular shaved heads. No evil Indian ever goes unadorned. It's important to look like a scary demon or skeleton 24/7, even when no one else is around. Imagine going to the mess hall with your fellow evildoers and not looking like a vision from hell!

Maxtla is the evillest of the evil because he wears a dinosaur or crocodile skull over his head. Never mind that this headgear occurs only in bad comic books and jungle movies, or that it would interfere with his peripheral vision and hearing during combat. Scary people wear scary skulls...case closed!

There's plenty wrong with this portrayal of Aztecs, but most readers won't notice the flaws. Among them:

  • Aztec emperors usually didn't lead military expeditions. Rather, they sat in magnificent palaces and tended to administrative affairs while lackeys and slaves pampered them. Generals lead soldiers, not monarchs.

  • Maxtla and his small band of followers are supposedly seeking Aztláan--i.e., "paradise." What will they do when they find it? Meekly join it as common laborers until they prove their worth?

    When they find themselves in dinosaur land, they decide they'll conquer that too. Right, because a few dozen Aztecs can do pretty much anything. They could conquer Europe if they happened to wind up there.

    In reality, they might be able to conquer a small tribe or two, but any substantial civilization would quickly crush them. It's ridiculous to portray them as sticking to their psychotic goals no matter where they go or what they do. It means they're cardboard, cartoon villains, not worthy adversaries.

  • The sacrifice issue

  • The Aztecs wouldn't perform a ritual sacrifice on the ground in the middle of nowhere. These sacrifices occurred in ceremonial plazas on top of pyramids for a host of religious, geographical, and astronomical reasons. A few Wikipedia quotes hint at how complex the matter was:

    Human sacrifice in Aztec cultureA strong sense of indebtedness was connected with this worldview. Indeed, nextlahualli (debt-payment) was a commonly used metaphor for human sacrifice, and, as Bernardino de Sahagún reported, it was said that the victim was someone who "gave his service."

    Human sacrifice was in this sense the highest level of an entire panoply of offerings through which the Aztecs sought to repay their debt to the gods. Both Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente (also called "Motolinía") observed that the Aztecs gladly parted with everything: burying, smashing, sinking, slaying vast quantities of quail, rabbits, dogs, feathers, flowers, insects, beans, grains, paper, rubber and treasures as sacrifices.
    And:A great deal of cosmological thought seems to have underlain each of the Aztec sacrificial rites. The most common form of human sacrifice was heart-extraction. The Aztec believed that the heart (tona) was both the seat of the individual and a fragment of the Sun's heat (istli). To this day, the Nahua consider the Sun to be a heart-soul (tona-tiuh): "round, hot, pulsating."And:[T]he strong emphasis given to human sacrifice may have stemmed from the great honour Mesoamerican society bestowed on those who became an ixiptla--that is, a god's representative, image or idol. Ixiptla was the same term used for wooden, stone and dough images of gods.And:Most of the sacrificial rituals took more than two people to perform. In the usual procedure of the ritual, the sacrifice would be taken to the top of the temple. The sacrifice would then be laid on a stone slab by four priests, and his/her abdomen would be sliced open by a fifth priest with a ceremonial knife made of flint. The cut was made in the abdomen and went through the diaphragm. The priest would grab the heart and tear it out, still beating. It would be placed in a bowl held by a statue of the honored god, and the body thrown down the temple's stairs.

    Before and during the killing, priests and audience (who gathered in the plaza below) stabbed, pierced and bled themselves as autosacrifice (Sahagun, Bk. 2: 3: 8, 20: 49, 21: 47). Hymns, whistles, spectacular costumed dances and percussive music marked different phases of the rite.

    Exactly none of this appears in Shooter's TUROK. None of this complex cosmology is equivalent to: "Butcher the innocent victim because we're evil and our evil gods demand blood!" This is why people think Indians were uncivilized: because the media fails to show the civilization.


    Alas, TUROK gives us little but stupid stereotyping. Turok the noble savage is the exception to the rule: that most Indians are savage beast-men with no goal except fighting and killing. Shooter and company have "successfully" reinforced a century-plus of Native stereotypes.

    Ironically, the reprint of Turok's 1954 debut shows the original series was less stereotypical. Here Turok's and Andar's speech is somewhat stilted, and Andar sometimes grunts "ugh." But there are no huge swaths of savagery on display--just a man with good hunting and survival skills.

    For more on human sacrifice, see Human Sacrifice in Aztec Pantheon and Human Sacrifice "Prevalent" Among Indians?
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