David Avallone has a Writer's Commentary on Bettie Page: Unbound #4, out from Dynamite now… he wtites,
Tinkerbell vs. Cthulhu… the pop-culture fantasy grudge match you never imagined you'd see! Well, me neither. Have you read the issue yet? No? Go read it and come back. You'll be glad you did.
As always… acknowledgement up top to Kevin Ketner for his full-service editing, and Joe Rybandt and Nick Barrucci for letting me play in their sandbox.
Covers: So this whole issue exists because of John Royle's cover. Maybe you know, maybe you don't… but a LOT of times covers are done well in advance of the writer even knowing what's going on in the issue. This series was different, in that our "A" covers by John all had to carry the concept of the story: Bettie transformed into different heroes. Dynamite told me they wanted Bettie as these three: Red Sonja, Vampirella and Dejah Thoris. That left an opening for issue four. Well, before the last volume of Bettie Page had been fully planned out, John had done a cover for issue six of "The Princess and the Pinup," but instead of issue six of that series, we rebooted with Bettie Page Unbound #1. John's cover was delightful: Bettie as Tinkerbell, with a scowling Captain Hook in the background. And when I was considering what do to in issue four of Unbound… it struck me that "Bettie as Tinkerbell" was the perfect climax to the saga. She'd been a powerful warrior, a fierce vampire, a feisty space princess… here she would be going up against the Great Old Ones, and the most enormous and terrifying villain in the universe – Cthulhu – while she was at her smallest. The whole issue was born from that inspiration, and that all came from John's beautiful cover (with color by Mohan.)
The other covers for this issue are equally amazing. Julius wanted to draw Tinkerbell as well, and had some great ideas. I wanted to see her as a pissed-off and well-armed little faerie… and he delivered with the fantastic "Tinkerbell with a chaingun" cover. David Williams flipped the script and let Bettie be the world's prettiest pirate instead. Scott Chantler, always hilarious, did a classic movie riff, with Bettie re-enacting the most famous scene in Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL. My favorite thing? Check out "Death's" socks. And if all that's not enough, the photo cover has Bettie indicating that yes, this is the "end" of the story. (Though the series WILL continue next month with an epilogue, followed by a new arc thereafter.)
Page 1: As in previous issues, we begin on a new world (or new dimension), with Bettie figured out who she is this time, and what she can and cannot do. I submit to you that Julius Ohta's Bettie Page is one of the great all-time comics characters. Forget the writing. Her range of emotions, always believable, always human, is some of the best character work I've ever seen. You heard it here first. And what else is Julius amazing at? Glad you asked. Turn the page.
Pages 2 & 3: I should always remember to give Julius two-page splashes to draw. Look at this thing. Four of the Great Old Ones (Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, if you were wondering) rumbling (thanks to the excellent lettering work of Taylor Esposito) their way across a jungle landscape. Epic stuff, and I knew in Julius' hands it would be mind-blowing.
The title of this issue "A R'lyeh Big Show" is a play on two things: "R'lyeh" is the name of the island (and maybe the pocket dimension) where Cthulhu and some of his minions are imprisoned. It is also something TV personality Ed Sullivan used to say: "Tonight we've got a really big show…" He said it every week. And in 1952, when this story is taking place, his show was one of the biggest on TV. It may be a silly pun, but it's a period accurate silly pun.
Cthulhu's line about "as the poet foresaw" refers to the poem:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die."
This is from the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Nameless City" and is repeated in the later story "The Call of Cthulhu." It's supposed to be a quote – about Cthulhu — from the famous suppressed text of The Necronomicon, by Abdul Alhazarad, if you believe in that sort of thing (imagine I said that last part in my best Harrison Ford professor voice). Bettie recognizes Cthulhu from the briefing Rick Chaplain gave her in issue one, after he'd had some time to read the Necronomicon.
Page 4: Even before I knew Tinkerbell would be our final "hero," I knew that the final location had to be the mythical island of R'lyeh. So what if R'lyeh is Neverland? And also Skull Island (ala KING KONG) and Monster Island (ala DESTROY ALL MONSTERS and other Toho Kaiju movies). It all kind of fit together in my mind, and you'll see how that plays out throughout the issue.
Page 5: Now who are these fellows? Pirates? But one of them isn't quite a pirate. Bettie first says they're out of Robert Lewis Stevenson (famous writer of popular pirate adventures, like TREASURE ISLAND) but then corrects herself. The Disney movie is still a full year in Bettie's future… but she would have grown up with J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan books and plays. There also was a silent movie when Bettie was a kid. So it's rattling around in her subconscious somewhere… along with a very famous line from the story. The voice "like wind chimes" in her head, is, of course, the fairy whose place she's taken… just as she felt Vampirella's personality try to assert itself. Note that the ship is The Venture, like Captain Englehorn's ship in KONG. Also, the young lad on deck in the lower right hand corner of panel five might look familiar to fans of Spielberg's take on the material… if only from his hairstyle.
Pages 6 & 7: In previous issues, the characters were pastiches and I wanted to maintain that in this chapter. Echoes and shadows, not quite who they seem to be, along with echoes and shadows of characters from Bettie's own world and life. Here, the Captain might be named "Hook," but we'll never know for sure. He seems to have a trident rather than a hook, in place of his left hand. His face, however, is that of Lord Harling, our villain from The Princess and the Pin-Up, (the previous volume of Bettie Page adventures). I like the way he pronounces Cthulhu's name phonetically. (Personal aside: before he passed away in the 90s, I was friends with Lovecraft Mythos writer – and author of Psycho – Robert Bloch, and he told me that's how the name is pronounced.)
The Captain's first mate is named "Driscoll," a rare and magical piece of coincidence. Bobby Driscoll is the name of the voice actor who portrayed Peter Pan in the Disney movie from 1953. But also… Jack Driscoll is the name of the first mate of The Venture, from KING KONG. Small world. This character is a little bit of both. Apparently, when the pirates and the Lost Boys (or here, the Forest Boys) realized they were trapped together on an island of monsters, they formed a strategic allegiance.
Pages 8 & 9: It's Lyssa! But not entirely Lyssa. It's a mermaid riding a crocodile. I have to admit, when I wrote these characters into the script… I had my concerns. In spite of some outlandish sci-fi stuff in this comic, we've stayed away from a certain kind of wildly fantastical element. I was worried that a mermaid riding a crocodile would cross the line, but I also had faith that Julius would make it work. And seriously… look at that magnificent crocodile. He's as real as anything else in the book. I put some care into the Captain's dialogue in this issue. On the one hand, I didn't want him to be a cliché pirate… on the other, well, he's a pirate captain from a fantasy story and he should talk like one. So… "rapacious reptilian retainer." "Duke" means "hand," like the old-school "put up your dukes" when you're challenging someone to box you.
If you don't know why the crocodile is ticking… shame on you.
Pages 10 & 11: I told Julius I wanted R'lyeh/Neverland/Skull Island to be bright and sunny, and he suggested that there should be a perpetual storm over Cthulhu's citadel. I liked that. Note that The Venture's armaments aren't entirely from the 18/19th century. My idea was that this dimension collects "lost ships" and, pirate that he is, the Captain has been scrounging more advanced weapons from them, like the howitzers seen on these two pages, swinging into action. The "flying battleship" thing wasn't intended as a tribute to Space Battleship Yamato, but looking at the final pages it feels a little that way. The idea that fairy dust requires belief to work is from the original J.M. Barrie, of course.
Page 12: Driscoll (aka Peter Pan) and Bettie (aka Tinkerbell) launch their commando raid on the Great Old Ones. If you told me I'd get paid for this kind of thing when I grew up, twelve year old me would have been VERY pleased. Driscoll has a Lewis gun, and he's not afraid to use it. "To die would be an awfully big adventure" is something he's said before, under VERY different circumstances.
Page 13: The crocodile with his "hands" over his ears was in my original script, and is the thing I was most worried would look too ridiculous, even for this comic. But as drawn by Julius, I couldn't love it more. The key is the total photo-realistic depiction of the cartoon crocodile. I kinda want to write a whole series about the relationship between Mermaid Lyssa and her best friend, the Croc. So much fun.
Page 14: "Up in the air, Junior Birdman!" was the often-mocked theme song of an organization called the Junior Birdmen, which was for boys and girls interested in aviation, model airplane building, stuff like that. It existed between 1934 and 1939, but the memory of the goofy song outlived the organization. My father, born in 1924, used to sing it for a laugh when I was a kid… so Bettie Page (a year older than my dad) would make the same joke reference, even if Peter Pan has no idea what she's talking about. But Bettie hasn't seen HOOK, so she has no idea what Driscoll means when he yells "Bangarang!" Fair trade.
Page 15: The Great Gildersleeve is another 1940s/1950s pop culture reference from Bettie. He was a fictional character in a radio sitcom of the same name. Kind of a pompous ass. Apparently Bettie believes – correctly – that Cthulhu is kind of full of himself.
Page 16: This is probably a good page to mention the amazing color work of Ellie Wright, who's been doing colors on the Bettie comics since the first issue of The Princess and the Pinup. Her colors throughout this issue are great, but she really carries the narrative weight on this page, with the blue spinning portal… aided by Taylor Esposito's epic "THOOMS", always a bit of a tribute to John Workman's amazing lettering work for Walt Simonson's run on Thor.
Pages 17 & 18: A last "KRAAAAAAAKKKKKTHOOOOOM" and we're back in Kansas. Or rather… the Upper West Side. Wanna know how great Julius Ohta is at his job? Clock the many moods of Bettie on Page 18. In panel one she's relieved that the world hasn't ended. In panel two, she's moved to tears of joy. In panels three and four, she's surprised and confused by the state of the Eternal Keys. In panel five, she's trying to express that confusion to Rick. And in panel six, she's ready to tell what she knows is a CRAZY story, but she's gonna do it anyway. A master class in character, by Julius.
Pages 19 & 20: The team is brought up to speed, and the adventure comes to a close. Originally, at the bottom of page 18, one of McKnight's agents came in and told them all they were needed down by the river, and the conversation on page 19 happened in a speeding car… then page twenty was The Venture in the Hudson River. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a little convenient for the ship to land in water a half mile away when Bettie had been standing on the deck just a few minutes earlier. Also, the visual of the pirate ship crashed in the middle of Central Park West seemed like more fun.
That wraps up the epic adventure of the Crisis On Infinite Betties… but next month, she deals with the repercussions, both personal and professional, of her wild odyssey, and goes to the smartest man in the world for a little advice. Be there. Aloha!