Tofte’s Comic Pronks No. 2: Corus (MU Press)
Waverly Pierre III (story) and Christina “Smudge” Hanson (art), with Ed Garcia (art, backgrounds, and inking), Mike Oxley (inking), Baron Engel (cover art), Charles Gray (lettering), Chuck Melville (editing). 1997. Corus. MU Press. 4 issues.
When an alien object threatens to destroy the Giemad, a pre-industrial island civilization of anthropomorphic mongooses, an interstellar constable and his companion cybernetic suit pretend to be the Giemad’s god of light, Corus (likely from the Latin coruscare, “to shine”?), in order to evacuate them without revealing that others from outside their planet are watching. He dies in the process of neutralizing the threat, leaving behind not only a legacy in the tales of the Giemad, but also pieces of advanced technology that lay hidden for more than a century on the devastated island. That is, until archaeologists show up…
Part science fiction, part superhero story, Waverly Pierre III’s and Christina “Smudge” Hanson’s Corus (1997) centers on a vixen grad student named Erica Young, who is working at an excavation sponsored by her university on the site of the former Giemad village associated with the Corus legend. While she and a local Giemad named Pini are digging and talking, they discover a jar that belonged to Shar, the pulo (an indigenous historian and storyteller) who witnessed the ersatz Corus’ battle. It contains texts that guide Pini and Erica to the final resting place of “Corus,” but the two women become separated before Erica comes upon the god’s body — or rather, his damaged but still functional (and talking) cybernetic suit. In the meantime, a deadly typhoon has moved in and is threatening Pini and the entire excavation team. As they talk, the suit reveals to Erica that the others are in danger, and so she puts it on to save the others and soften the storm’s fury. The subsequent issues of the series continue to explore the relationship between Erica and the cybernetic suit’s AI, its proposal that she become the new interstellar constable, and their efforts to stop the alien object (a rogue planet-destroying mining drone) that the earlier “Corus” deactivated but that the excavation has accidentally brought back to life.
On the whole, Corus isn’t the most innovative comic. It even acknowledges that it’s following a well-trodden path from the very start (in the prologue on the inside cover of issue 1, the interstellar constable Kwon calls his plan to pretend to be Corus “the old impersonate-a-god trick”). Bad guys try to steal precious archaeological cargo? Check. An alien piece of technology threatens the world? Check. Nosy professors unleash unspeakable danger? Check. But it handles the well-worn tropes well, and the art and story are consistently enjoyable, and the covers to issues 3 and 4 by Baron Engel and Mike Oxley, respectively, are striking, gorgeous pieces that call back to earlier examples of sci-fi pulp fiction. And there are a number of fun easter eggs and references to look out for. In issue 2, page 11, a ship in the background is named the Princess Karanam, a nod to Pauli Kidd’s, Chuck Melville’s, and Mike Raabe’s 1993 comic Princess Karanam and the Djinn of the Green Jug, also published by MU Press, as well as Sandhri the bat storyteller from Kidd’s Fangs of K’aath, from which the Princess Karanam story originates (and whose advertisements feature on the back of Corus issues 2 and 3).
And there’s a cute moment in issue 3, page 21 where Erica tries to change into her suit in a phone booth only to be nudged aside by a square-jawed, bespectacled reporter named Clark, who then watches her zoom off and wishes he had her powers. No room for Superman here!
What stands out to me most about this series, though, is how it represents archaeology, indigenous culture, and the interplay between pre-industrial peoples and spacefaring aliens. This last topic of ancient alien architects has long been an embarrassing and racist legacy of early science fiction: in its typical form, younger (primarily non-white) cultures are represented as backwards and incapable of progress until aliens come to lift them out of their benighted state and share technology that enables them to produce culture that would otherwise have been out of their reach. Think Stargate, Ancient Aliens, etc. In these narratives, it’s only through the gift of a colonizer (often represented as benevolent, but a colonizer nonetheless) that the civilization becomes valuable and worthy of memory, reverence, and study.
Corus definitely plays in the same sandbox, but it mostly avoids the pitfalls that ancient alien narratives fall into. The Giemad don’t create their mythology as a result of Kwon’s actions and then begin to worship him as a god; instead, Kwon chooses to impersonate a pre-existing figure from Giemad myth in order to be minimally intrusive, and his battle becomes what seems to be just another moment consistent with the pre-existing stories that the Giemad tell about their pantheon. Kwon’s intervention is also motivated by, and limited to, preventing the detrimental effects of another alien colonizer in the form of the mining robot. And later in the story, when Erica wants to show her cybernetic suit companion to a professor at her university, the suit expresses its desire not to let its technology meaningfully advance or alter the course of other civilizations on her planet — and sticks with that stance throughout, following a modified version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, such as in this conversation in issue 3, page 3:
The other sensitive topic that Corus explores is how archaeologists interact with people who are part of the indigenous cultures that they are studying. As a field, archaeology has a long and toxic history of colonialism: the artifacts of other cultures have time and again been treated as plunder for museums, American and European institutions have used excavations to promote white supremacy, indigenous knowledge and indigenous epistemologies have been dismissed as unscientific and worthless, and so forth. At the same time, the field has spent decades grappling with its unseemly and harmful past, and scholars have been advocating for greater inclusion of indigenous peoples and indigenous agency in archaeological work, not least by accepting that traditional Western norms of “evidence” aren’t the only valuable means by which we can reconstruct the history and experiences of the past: for instance, indigenous peoples’ oral histories are increasingly being accepted as fundamental to archaeological projects.
It’s fascinating, therefore, that this basic issue plays out in the first issue of Corus in meaningful ways. When we see first the excavation in issue 1, page 2, we find Erica not only studying physical remains from the dig, but also asking Pini for her people’s account of the destruction of the village, valuing the latter just as much as the former.
We also see Erica fighting with her supervisor, Dr. Kohler, arguing that the explanation for the village’s destruction that discounts the Giemad’s tales and asserts that it was just a meteorite.
This isn’t a rigorous debate, of course, but to find even an inkling of it in a furry comic book from the 1990s is more than a little surprising. And while Dr. Kohler is a hardheaded traditionalist in some ways, he’s also refreshingly respectful of the people whose land he’s excavating. When Erica and Pini uncover Shar’s jar, it’s still sealed, and he consults with Ja, a religious expert of the Giemad, and seeks her permission before opening it. Again, this is a remarkable gesture of sensitivity and acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous peoples over their heritage for a comic book from this period to make.
Unfortunately, this promising series came to an abrupt end after only four issues. If you look at the text that appears in newspapers and books throughout the series, you can find some of Smudge’s seemingly rambling thoughts about the process of making this comic. In issue 4, page 1, for example, a book on Dr. Yu’s desk reads, “Sometimes I have to wonder about my sanity at working on this book at 5:00 o’clock in the morning.” Indeed, Smudge discusses in her editorial on the inside front cover of issue 2 how difficult it was to complete and how much help it took from the whole team. And on the closing panel of issue 4, Erica groans that quitting this whole business might be more appealing, and I wonder if this was something of an authorial insert.
While the final words of this issue promise that this is “Most definitely not the end” (p.32), that turned out not to be true. Smudge does mention in that issue 2 editorial that she had a trove of studies, designs, scribbles, and other material that she hoped to release in a scrapbook. Maybe one day she’ll find time to put that together (and if you ever happen to read this, Smudge, reach out to one of us at Fang, Feather, and Fin — we’d love to help that material see the light of day!).