The History of Nightmaster
by John Wells
"I feel like a character from Howard or Tolkein. Pretty soon, though, I'm gonna wake up and find this is a spaced-out dream. And I'm gonna swear off reading sword-and-sorcery sagas!" -- Jim Rook, 1969 (SHOWCASE # 82).
The circumstances that would transform Jim Rook into the Nightmaster began nearly a millennium before his birth in the other-dimensional land of Myrra. The world was full of strange sights, from the benevolent Zelks (grasshopper-like steeds that the natives rode: SHOWCASE # 82) to Hackies (animated suits of armor "filled with vile souls of dead Warlocks": # 83) to Smoke Spiders (giant arachnids that materialized in unlimited numbers from magic vapors: # 84) to Arivegs (monstrous flying plants that "devour anything that falls within their grasp: # 84).
In a kingdom of Myrra, a monarch had once commanded the court magician, the blue-skinned Farben, to provide two renowned warriors with weapons that they would use in defense of the realm. The blue-fleshed barbarian Brom was given the enchanted Mace of Mists. The pink-skinned Nacht, a goateed man clad in a blue hood, blue body suit and a red cape, was bequeathed with the Sword of Night.
Corrupted by power, Brom and Farben conspired to murder their sovereign and the loyal Nacht. The two warriors fought "for a full day" but ultimately the Sword of Night was victorious. Before Nacht could react, Farben cast a spell to exile the hero to "a separate spiritual plane" that overlapped with Myrra -- Earth.
The Sword of Night was stuck fast, Excalibur-like, in a stone column in the royal chamber. With the disappearance of Nacht, the balance of power shifted in the favor of Brom and his descendants. The faction known as the Warlocks reserved a special fate for the kingdom that their patriarch had coveted. Its "magnificent buildings crumbled" and its "people shriveled under the mystic onslaught," reduced to short, withered blue-skinned creatures.
On Earth, Nacht, using his family name of Roke (inferred from SHOWCASE # 83 & 84), had no choice but to adapt to the strange new world of 10th Century Earth. He took a mate and began a family that would extend for centuries to come. His legacy would ultimately fall on the shoulders of a child born in 1942, a kid from the slums of New York City named Jim Rook.
It seemed that Jim had to fight for everything in his life, rising up from poverty, defying society to court a daughter of privilege named Janet Jones, and carving out a career as the lead singer of a rock band called the Electrics. A lifetime of struggles had left the young man full of rage. Jim's speech often seethed with bitter sarcasm and his violent temper was the central obstacle in Janet's parents' refusal to approve their marriage plans.
After beating three hecklers into semi-consciousness ("You think because I don't look like a bank manager I'm weak -- because, I favor peace, I'm a coward fair prey for bullies?"), Jim was pulled away by Janet. Walking through the streets of lower Manhattan, Jim spotted a store called Oblivion, Inc. and, convinced that a vacant lot was supposed to be on the spot, felt compelled to try the door. He and Janet immediately realized that they'd made a mistake. The door locked behind them, the temperature began to plummet, and a spiral of golden energy tore them away to the land of Myrra.
With Janet nowhere in sight, Jim was brought before the wizened King Zolto. The monarch admitted that he'd taken advantage of a fracture in the barrier that had long separated Earth and Myrra and summoned a descendant of Nacht before the opportunity passed. Jim kept his cool but insisted that he and the missing Janet be sent home at once.
The conversation was disrupted by the humming of the Sword of Night, still sheathed in the pillar. The song of the sword was a warning of approaching Warlocks and Zolto pleaded with Jim to release the blade. Despite Rook's insistence that "from swords I know zero," Zolto assured him that "the weapon will guide your arm."
As predicted, the heir to Nacht could draw the weapon and he instantly felt "some sort of weird strength surging through my arm -- through my whole body. The blade seems ALIVE to KNOW what it wants to do. I didn't even see that Warlock bolt coming. The sword pulled my hand to parry. Since this obviously isn't my show -- I'll follow the sword's lead -- and hope for the best!"
It was a strange scene, the Earthman with the turtleneck, Nehru jacket, and striped pants fighting otherworldly magicians in green robes. Though Zolto had to bail out his young defender in the end, he pronounced Jim Rook's first battle a success.
"Look -- will you DITCH that warrior bit? Like I said before, my scene is SOUND -- NOT derring-do! It's been grins playing Prince Valiant, but I've had enough. So show me where Jan is, and point me in the direction of home!"
That, unfortunately, was a problem. Janet had been pulled away by Warlocks during the transference spell. "If you would see Janet alive again," Zolto informed him. "You must enter the Warlock fortress."
Accompanying Jim on his quest was Boz, a man whose clothes and skin were snow white. Rook himself was dressed in the costume of his ancestor, whose thermal qualities were more appropriate for the frigid Myrran atmosphere (and, Zolto must have secretly thought, furthered Jim's acceptance of the role of hero). "From this moment forward," the king proclaimed. "Throughout Myrra, you shall be known as -- Nightmaster!"
"Hooray for me."
As his travels progressed, Jim learned of other properties of the Sword of Night. Its touch would compel anyone to speak honestly ("This thing have truth-juice on the point?"), something that Rook learned accidentally when the weapon grazed a woman he thought was Janet. The enchantment instantly revealed her as the Ice Witch, who had no choice but to reveal the spell that would grant them access to the Warlock's fortress (SHOWCASE # 82, by Denny O'Neil, Jerry Grandenetti and Dick Giordano).
As the journey progressed, Rook found more allies in the form of a barbarian named Tark (short for Tickeytarkapolis Trootrust) from the mountainous terrain of Szasz and Doe and Rae (no word on Mi or Fa), a pair of mute Sirens. They defied the Warlocks, and as punishment, the fiends stole their voices and locked their song in a crystal casket.
Thanks to Tark, the band of warriors learned that Janet was a captive of the Warlock known as Duke Spearo and invaded his castle. Therein, Spearo explained to Janet that she was a critical component in the Warlock king's plan to breech the dimensional barrier and invade Earth. "King wants to make you queen unsound idea, I think -- making foreigner queen. Queen will lead invading forces only for magic to operate, she must be conscious and willing. We're taking you to King. He will PERSUADE you to
help conquer your foreign home."
Within the castle, Rae found the casket that held the voices of the Sirens and carried it along as they pursued Spearo and company aboard the Moonship, a flying vessel that traveled only at night. When Jim and company fell from the ship during a battle with the spectral Hackies, Rae opened the box and her sweet song filled the air -- and created a cascading solid bridge of sound to catch their fall. By chance, Tark explained, the Moonship had been passing over "Melody Chasm an enchanted spot where Siren sound becomes substance."
Rook, of course, didn't believe it for a minute, but he couldn't argue with the results. "Too freaky on Earth, when I was a rock musician, I used to say music was my life. That was just rapping but HERE, in this nightmare, music really IS my life" (SHOWCASE # 83, by O'Neil and Berni Wrightson).
And, much as Jim might have wished otherwise, his reputation was growing. The Warlocks had begun to refer to their adversary by Zolto's chosen name, the Nightmaster.
The tide began to turn when Jim, Tark and Boz met a decrepit sorcerer named Mar-Grouch the Mystic, who'd been born prior to the exile of Nacht and was sympathetic to humans. The mage cast a spell to transport Jim's fiancée to his chambers but Spearo and his wizard had anticipated the development and transformed Janet mentally and physically into a barmaid named Mizzi.
Eventually, Jim was captured and mocked by the Warlocks for defending a world that wasn't his own. "I COULD give you a big routine about how any tyranny anywhere must be fought because so long as ONE PERSON's enslaved, we're ALL in danger of losing liberty. Or I could tell you that I believe in doing whatever I've GOT to do as well as I can, no matter how distasteful it is. Both answers are PARTIALLY true -- but the REAL answer is that you took someone precious from me. And once I decided I love someone, I'm committed I'll do anything for him or her. It so happens that I love Jan."
And somewhere within the mind of Mizzi, Janet began to reemerge, discreetly cutting her lover's bonds and returning to her normal form. The desperate Warlocks plunged through a portal to Earth, followed by Jim and Janet. Tark's last words rang in their ears as the gateway closed: "Farewell, Nightmaster. You were a good warrior -- and a good friend!"
In the vacant office of Oblivion, Inc., the Nightmaster pointed his blade at the Warlocks and gave them their options. "Either go back to Myrra -- or stay here and try your luck against the Nightsword." The mages retreated and the Sword of Night "rends the black portal to Myrra -- rends and destroys it." Embracing on the vacant lot where Oblivion, Inc. had once stood, the young lovers consoled themselves with the likelihood that they'd just experienced a joint hallucination. Still in Jim's hand, however, was the Sword of Night (SHOWCASE # 84, by O'Neil and Wrightson).
In SHOWCASE # 82's text page, Denny O'Neil had predicted that "Jim Rook may vanish into the limbo reserved for 3-D movies, Edsel autos and other ideas that tried to grab a piece of popularity, but missed." He was, unfortunately, correct. Regardless, Nightmaster had opened a new door at DC and, like the portal to Myrra, it would never quite be sealed. The early to mid-1970s saw a plethora of fantasy and sword-and-sorcery titles, from classics like Beowulf and Burroughs' John Carter and Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser to original series such as Claw the Unconquered and Stalker and Starfire and the only real success, Mike Grell's Warlord.
DC made a nod towards Jim Rook himself in a Charles Vess-illustrated entry in 1986's WHO'S WHO # 16. Nightmaster also popped up in comic book limbo in 1990's ANIMAL MAN # 25 and as a prisoner in the gulag in 1996's KINGDOM COME # 3 and 4. Charles Vess depicted Nightmaster again on a single page in issue # 3 of 1991's BOOKS OF MAGIC mini-series (scripted by Neil Gaiman). The story found Doctor Occult taking Timothy Hunter on a tour of magical dimensions adjacent to Earth. Of Nightmaster, Occult had this to say:
"The worlds beyond can be refuges, Timothy. Perhaps EACH of us creates his fantasy world -- a place to which we can retreat. HERE a country named Myrra, THERE the land of Pytharia, and at the EDGE of every map, 'Here there be dragons.'
"In your world, Jim Rook sang songs of enlightenment and love -- until he was seized by a kingdom of blood and enchantment where companions to heroes are forever brave and true where evil wizards forever brood on dusty parchment spells to raise their armies of the dead, and then forever flee, their schemes in ruins where giants Feefifofum until their heads are severed by heroes' swords -- each blade named and magical. In THIS place, men have sobriquets like Claw the Unconquered, or Stalker the Soulless; Rook became Nightmaster and will fight to save the world, or to destroy it. In worlds such as this the terms become synonymous, I am afraid."
Nightmaster didn't make a full-fledged return to action until back-to-back guest appearances in 1995. A far more mellow Jim Rook resurfaced in PRIMAL FORCE # 8 as the proprietor of an occult book store based out of Oblivion, Inc. William Twotrees, a member of the Leymen, had been a regular visitor to the shop even though Rook cautioned against "dabbling in the dark arts." Rook clearly still had the magic touch, recognizing "the Power" in Will's teammate Liam McHugh when they shook hands.
When Will and most of the team were captured by the occult body known as the August, it was the Nightmaster (summoned by the Black Condor) who rushed to the rescue, ending his long retirement (PF # 11). The Sword of Night was as capable as ever and severed the mystic bonds that held the Leymen as if they were butter (PF # 12, by Steven Seagle, Nicholas Choles, and Barbara Kaalberg).
One month later, Nightmaster could be found in the pages of SWAMP THING # 160. Unlike the man in PRIMAL FORCE, this version of Jim Rook was a good Samaritan who'd given away most of the money he made as a singer to help others and now spent his days working in a tavern (while avoiding alcohol himself). He seemed genuinely surprised when Oblivion, Inc. rematerialized across the street. "I thought I hallucinated the whole building," he explained, as part of a 1969 drug overdose. His short-lived marriage to Janet had survived barely two hundred days before their divorce in 1971.
Now, though, his other life came rushing back to haunt him. Myrra, it seemed, had been razed by the Warlocks, who now planned to cross the threshold to Earth. Tark and a pink-fleshed Boz made a desperate flight to Earth (with the aid of the mystic Traveller) to summon the Nightmaster. Tark died a tragic death at the hands of a semi-trailer but Boz managed to find an incredulous Rook. Jim insisted that Boz was a hallucination but Nightmaster's one-time servant refused to give up, pulling the dormant Sword of Night from a cupboard and telling Rook that "you're the only hope we got left." Against his better judgment, Jim entered Oblivion, Inc. with Boz and took his blade in hand. The Sword of Night blazed back to life and the Nightmaster was reborn (SWAMP THING # 160, by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester, and Kim DeMulder).
Elsewhere, the Swamp Thing fought and killed a druid who planned to establish the Warlocks' first foothold on Earth (SWAMP THING # 161-162). At that point, the Swamp Thing was being subjected to a series of trials by various elemental Parliaments and, weary of the testing and fearful for his humanity, he refused to participate in pushing back the invasion of the Warlocks.
The Traveller, working with another mystic known as El Senor Blake, summoned Janet Jones to guarantee that Jim Rook would not back out. Though happily married to an accountant named Maurice and the mother of a boy named Patrick, Janet was compelled to drive from Florida to Manhattan.
In New York, Nightmaster stood guard at the portal within Oblivion, Inc. even as other defenders like Claw, Stalker, and Starfire fled (SWAMP THING # 163). Ironically, the arrival of Janet that was meant to bolster his resolve caused him to weaken. Her words were so obviously scripted ("I don't CARE about the life I've carved out for myself in Florida or my marriage to that idiot accountant. I just want to be with you again, Jim, until death do us part.") that he began to waver.
The resolution of the crisis seemed to take its cue from Gaiman's BOOKS OF MAGIC passage, which had lumped together DC's sword-and-sorcery characters and dismissed them as being part of a "fantasy world." Indeed, when the paranormal outbreaks throughout the country finally drew the Swamp Thing to the epicenter of the crisis, he confirmed that the threat of the Warlocks and the "intersection of worlds" was being created by Jim Rook.
Entering Oblivion, Inc., the elemental found it filled with books of fantasy that Jim Rook had read as a child. "Oblivion, Inc. itself is nothing more than a physical manifestation of a desire to retreat back into a simpler age, filled with books."
Confronting Rook, the Swamp Thing explained that "Myrra and its fairytale people and nothing more than your retreat from the real world brought to life by the scale of your misery. SEARCH your feelings, Rook What happened in your past which now causes you such terrible pain ? Why does your subconscious seek to destroy the world ?"
In an instant, all of the supernatural manifestations were gone and the destruction they caused was soon erased. "They're gone Boz, Tark, Janet. All those people who meant so much to me. All gone forever." Asked whether Janet had been created as part of his fantasy, Jim responded, "Are you kidding? She was my WIFE. Breaking up with Janet was probably the main reason I lost my grip on the real world, man. Realizing she didn't really WANT me anymore is what gave me the STRENGTH to let go."
Questions remained, of course. "How come I was able to build this WHOLE shop with my subconscious mind and fill it with all these dumb, old books I lost when I was a kid ? Who's behind this, man? What's going down here?"
Jim Rook never got his answers but the Swamp Thing did. Summoned before the elemental Parliament of Vapors, he was informed that "the Nightmaster was chosen as the catalyst for your elevation because the sword symbolizes not only air but also intelligence and reason. These qualities were needed to halt the migration from Rook's personal dreamworld." Elsewhere, an unwitting Rook sold the former Sword of Night to El Senor Blake, who placed the weapon with other objects of power, including Sargon's Ruby of Life (SWAMP THING # 164).
Was this truly the end of Nightmaster ? Was the Jim Rook who ran a bookstore out of Oblivion, Inc. the same man who claimed he hadn't seen the building or acted as Nightmaster in a quarter century ? And if Claw, Stalker, and company were truly the creations of Rook, how does one account for their involvement elsewhere in the DC Universe ? Those lingering questions suggest that Nightmaster's final battle has yet to be fought.
John "Mikishawm" Wells, the pride of Batavia, Iowa, is a lifelong comics fan, working his way forward from Disneys in 1969 to newspaper strips in 1973 to SHAZAM! and the rest of the DC Universe in 1974. During the 1980s, he began compiling a lists of DC character appearances, a massive database that he's tapped into when writing articles for publications such as the DC Index series, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comic Effect, Comic Book Marketplace, It’s A Fanzine, The O‘Neil Observer and, of course, Fanzing. He is Kurt Busiek's unofficial reference guide, as the keen-eyed may have noticed in Power Company #2.
This article is © 2001 by John Wells.
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