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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, January 20, 2017

SO-- PRESIDENT TRUMP PT. 2

There's not much to write about Trump's uneventful inauguration today. I did notice an awful lot of religious rhetoric being used to sanctify the proceedings, which I found unusual given that Trump did not run an overly religious campaign as compared to George Dubya, or even Jimmy Carter.

Earlier in the week, however, there was this rather interesting revelation on Tuesday's episode of the VIEW. In short, singer Jennifer Holliday had accepted the president-elect's invitation to perform at the inauguration, and she backed out because, in her words:

“I was receiving death threats at this point,” Holliday said. “I was receiving death threats from black people, the N-word from black people. They were saying they were going to kill me.”

Holliday also said that she backed out because many of her gay fans apprised her of their opinion that Trump was going to endanger their hard-won status, but she did not say that the gays called her offensive names or threatened to kill her.

I plan to bring up this lapse in liberal etiquette on a certain forum, where, in the past year, it's been a regular thing to castigate the Right through the bad example of an event known as "Gamergate," though it would have been better called "Dumb-or-Dumbergate" (i.e., both the original criticism and the reactions to it were extremely dumb). The dominant trend of the forum's remarks has been to imply that only Conservative White Males ever sink to the low depths of making threats against public figures.

The Holliday Event also demonstrates that no people, including black people, have any intrinsic "right" to use the Big Nasty Taboo Word, and that the epithet doesn't smell any better being used for an ultraliberal purpose than for an ultraconservative one.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "EYE EYE SIR" (WITCHES' TALES #24, 1954)

Though the word "mythic" is sometimes used as shorthand for seriousness and importance, there's no reason mythic works can't be humorous. Indeed, Northrop Frye's four "mythoi" cover both two "serious" forms and two "unserious" forms, and I've already included a number of comedic or ironic works in my attempt at a canon of mythcomics.

However, the stories selected for this canon do have to sustain a level of symbolic complexity, and even many of the classic MAD stories of the early 1950s don't reach that level. An exception is "Mickey Rodent," which sustains a sociological myth relating to the human use of language and custom. 

This week's mythcomic falls more into the psychological department. EC influenced more than a few comics-companies of the early 1950s, and according to this Bhob Stewart essay, Harvey Comics was one of the main disciples. In fact, by 1954 each Harvey title became oriented on a particular theme, with that of WITCHES' TALES being (as Stewart puts it) "funny horror." The story "Eye Eye Sir" could have appeared in any of the many imitators of MAD, and in its five short pages it outdoes a lot of MAD tales in giving the reader a winsome spoof of both horror and hardboiled detective fiction a la Mickey Spillane. As the only creator-attribution in GCD is that of artist Sid Check, I have to refer to him here as if he was the sole author.

I imagine many modern readers would find it difficult to understand how much the Mickey Spillane books changed 1940s pop culture. His work would probably be excoriated by the sort of ideological critics who worship at the feet of Laura Mulvey, who liked to conflate "the male gaze" with both sadism and scopophilia. Sadly, even a broken clock will be right a couple of times each day, and there's not much doubt that Spillane's work is all about males gazing at hot women-- to whom the Spillane heroes seek to make love, even if they must kill the women later-- and killing lots of male criminals along the way, often in explicitly sadistic fashion.




The image of the tough private dick cleaning his gun at his desk is immediately spoofed by Check in a very MAD-esque sequence; catching his finger in the cartridge. But more than the gag, I like the backstory provided by the voiceover of narrator/hero Rudy Crane, who mentions first that he got kicked out of college for trying show his female teacher "a couple of laughs-- after school." He's also established to be, not a street-smart guy living by his wits, but a counterfeit shamus who's been set up in the private dick business by a rich daddy.

No less archetypal is the entrance of the gorgeous female client into the detective's seedy office, but Check puts a spin on it: the lady doth wear heavy blue-lensed glasses. Every male in the story will remark upon the glasses, offering un-subtle confirmation that "guys don't make passes at girls that wear glasses." Even if one had never seen this sort of humorous repetition in a MAD comic, a reader could hardly fail to draw the conclusion that there's something special about these glasses.



Client "Lucy Latour" hires Crane to find her husband, who left her three years ago when he went out for a loaf of bread. Crane then escorts her to various places to interview witnesses about her husband, and when Crane isn't pawing at Latour-- apparently not much dissuaded by her married status-- he's roughing up the interviewees with barely concealed sadistic glee ("I grabbed him by the collar. I wished it was his throat.") 

Then on page five, we finally see what's behind the glasses.



Though "Eye Eye Sir" is a jape, I strongly suspect that the author(s) knew about the notorious ending of Spillane's 1952 KISS ME DEADLY. In this essay I examined some of the symbolic complexities of both the book and, to a lesser extent, the 1955 film adaptation. In the novel, Mike Hammer's femme fatale projects the illusion of beauty through her face alone, and conceals what Spillane calls "a picture of gruesome freakishness" beneath her clothes, "from her knees to her neck." Given that "Eye" must conclude with a joke, albeit a very creepy one, there's no explanation of why Latour has, in place of eyes, "two big sockets with candles inside them," as if she were some sort of humanoid jack-o-lantern. But like the ending of KISS ME DEADLY, it's a great joke on a concupiscent male. Here's Rudy Crane, whose only reason for wanting to see the gorgeous dame's eyes is to imagine them shining with love for him, and all he gets-- assuming, by the narration, that he survives-- is a look of utter and complete emptiness.

The entire story can be read here.



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

THE LINE BETWEEN "FAIR" AND "GOOD"

I recently ran through all of the film-reviews I'd rated for "mythicity" on my film-blog for the past six years, and as I did I noted how many of them had received the rating of either "good" or "superior." Not surprisingly, there weren't a lot of these, and though I didn't amass totals for either "fair" or "poor," my overall impression is that the vast majority of my reviews got a "fair" rating.

When I started the "1001 myths" project in June 2015-- which took in a smattering of earlier blog-reviews-- the only specific statement I made regarding the level of mythicity in the stories selected was this paragraph:

Starting the week of June 28-July 4, I will start posting at least one review of a comic book that meets my criteria for being "mythic." I would like to do two, but that may not be realistic. It's also occurred to me that it might be instructive to post not only an analysis of a consummate "myth-comic," but also one of an *inconsummate* story. Such stories make good counter-examples, in that they will possess myth-elements-- as do all narratives, by virtue of being narratives-- but the story uses them poorly or not to their greatest potential. It might also serve to make clearer that I don't regard "mythic complexity" as some sort of rapture that descends upon the writer as from heaven. Some raptures result only in babbling, while others culminate in a poetry that transcends all the Babel-like confusions of language. 
There's clearly no "rating" associated with my idea of the "consummate 'myth-comic,'" so it's more than a little likely that on some level I associated it even with comics that were either "good" or "superior." I didn't stick with analyzing "null-myths" for very long, but clearly they compare pretty well with the rating of "poor mythicity," partly in line with my remark about "babbling" and partly in line with my formulation of why potentially mythic texts end up as mere null-myths.

...because of my realization that on occasions a given work may have symbolic potential, and yet does not use it because of some flaw in the execution, I've started utilizing "null-myth" as a label for all examples of "frustrated mythicity." Thus far all of the null-myths I've identified thus far have frustrated their potential due to one of two reasons. Either their authors UNDERTHINK the UNDERTHOUGHT-- that is, the authors show some realization of the power of myth-symbols on their own, but said authors use the symbols as if they were static functions, like Joyce's door... Or they OVERTHINK the OVERTHOUGHT, in that they impose some mental straight-jacket around the potentially free-flowing images and symbols. This might include phenomena as intellectually disparate as the over-intellectualizations of figures like Sim and Ditko, as well as instances where some editorial consideration overrides the free flow.-- MORE NULL-MYTH NOODLINGS.
 
So "null-myths" are works in which the mythic potential is "poor"-- but what works are merely "fair" (without yet even getting to the question of what "fair" itself means)? The simplest answer is that these would be the "near-myths" that I started formally identifying in this May 2016 essay, where I wrote:
I've defined a "null-myth" as a narrative that shows potential for mythicity / symbolic discourse but fails to articulate that potential to its best effect. In contrast, "a near-myth" is a part of a narrative that sustains a mythic kernel of meaning, but does not become unified into a fully-developed "underthought" throughout the narrative.
So, to answer my question as to what provides the line between "fair" and "good," it would seem to be the "unity of action" I described in THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS.

I may use this line of thought to a lead-in to another question, regarding whether it's most beneficial to have a "unity" of idea between a work's overthought and underthought, or whether the two exist on essentially separate but intersecting mental planes, not unlike the interdependence of harmony and melody in music.

Friday, January 13, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE SHAMAN" (SHOWCASE #87, 1969)



"The Shaman" was the third and last story in SHOWCASE to feature the "white Indian" teen Firehair. All of the stories were both written and drawn by the character's creator Joe Kubert, but whereas the first two stories fall into a purely naturalistic domain, this one, as the cover clearly shows, seems to depict magical phenomena. I'll give the game away from the start, however: most of the young hero's mystic experiences take place within a fever-dream, so that the story falls into the domain of the uncanny through its use of the "delirious dreams" trope.

It's established in the two previous entries that Firehair doesn't fit into either the white or the Indian world, and thus he begins "The Shaman" alone, riding his pinto into a "strange land" that seems to be "scarred with a terrible wound" (the Grand Canyon). Firehair ponders that any tribe that might live here "must be as strange as the land on which they live." He's then immediately attacked by a hungry mountain-lion, which knocks him off his horse. As Firehair's mount flees, the young man tries to fight off the big cat. He and the creature fall off a cliff, but Firehair saves himself by grabbing a root and hauling himself back to solid ground. He's been badly clawed though, and he's forced to wander on foot, looking for someone who can help him. At some point in the real world he collapses into a dream, and the dream begins with him encountering the "strange" tribe he imagined before.




As the above section shows, the tribe immediately accuses Firehair of being guarded by an evil spirit, and the tribal shaman claims that he sent the mountain cat to kill him. The witch-doctor also demonstrates his supernatural power upon the youth, but refrains from killing him because "the death of evil should be a lesson for all." Firehair is then placed on upon a pedestal-like rock in the center of a pit filled with rattlesnakes: "the Circle of Venom." This pointless punishment takes the form of an initiatory ordeal, given that the hero must then strive to keep from falling asleep, lest he tumble into the snake-pit. Firehair blacks out briefly, but though he doesn't fall off the pedestal, he does behold that the tribal grounds have become enswathed by a "colorless sky mist." Then the tribesmen remove him from the pedestal with a bridge, and the shaman leads Firehair and a small party of braves to their next rendezvous. The Shaman goes in front, and the hero thinks of him as "the poisonous head of a writhing serpent."

The group ends up in one of the canyons-- referred to as "the earth's bowels"-- and Firehair sees the cave "drenched in a red light." The Shaman positions himself in front of a "bottomless abyss," calls out to a "spirit of the nether-world." Out of the abyss, filled with red smoke, rises a colossal man with the head of a coyote, and this spirit-figure declares that he cannot take Firehair into his domain until he faces the "supreme trial," facing "He-That-Holds-the-World."




This means that the group must now seek out the site of "the Black Pool," another cave where all of the lighting is blue and everything is cold and overgrown with ice-shapes. The Indians arrive at the shore of the forbidding Black Pool and tie their human sacrifice to a nearby "stone shaft." Then out of the pool comes He-That-Holds-the-World, a gigantic prehistoric-looking turtle, intent on gobbling down its victim. Faced with a creature too huge to fight, the hero takes his first decisive action in the dream: screaming the Blackfoot "cry of battle." This somehow results not only in the splintering of the shaft holding the hero, but also the collapse of the ceiling above. Firehair's last thought, as the dream ends, is that "all was darkness-- the end of life."




However, the next moment he awakens from his fever-fantasy in the care of a friendly tribe of Navajos. He meets in real life the same shaman he met in his dream, who informs Firehair that he's been unconscious for three days, because his wounds had become "poisonous" (by which Kubert certainly means "infected"). He even uttered his war-cry while in his delirium, and now that he's awake, he sees a kachina doll that some tribal child made to help him through his illness.




There's nothing startlingly original about Kubert's main concept: of a character who sees aspects of reality reflected in a fever-dream, but there are a lot of good touches here: that the "evil" that the dream-shaman wishes to cast out is actually the real-life infection that the good shaman seeks to defeat. The Circle of Venom is also a further elaboration of the poison-effect. The chilling effect of the second cave is probably meant to connote the hero's bodily chills, and something similar is probably true of the red cave, even though it's not specifically said to be hot. It's possible to interpret Firehair's prescient visualizations of both the shaman and his doll as dream-interpretations of things he sees in his delirium, though the possibility of some psychic intuition is also left open.

In addition, Kubert has loosely evoked familiar Native American myth-figures here for his dream-journey. Since these figures have different names in different languages, many texts simply use generalizing English names like "Coyote" and "Turtle."  However, I think Kubert might have been less inspired by actual Native American myths than by the "weighing of the heart" ritual in Egyptian myth, wherein jackal-headed Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased-- and if the dead soul is found wanting, he's devoured by the monster Ammit. Additionally, the "sky is falling" myth-theme is a vital one in general world mythology. There's a fascinating parallel between the tuirtle-creature that "holds the world," which is defeated when Firehair more or less breaks a pillar, also a common symbol for whatever-supports-the-sky-- though here the destruction of both turtle and pillar result in the end of the dream, rather than of the real world. It's a shame that Joe Kubert didn't turn his superb artistic tales to this sort of mythopoeic story more often during his nonetheless impressive career.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4

The long-term applicability of the concept of the artifice-mode is that it finally allows me to formulate a solid rationale for all of my declarations that such-and-such a character was "larger than life," like this one from my review of EYES OF A STRANGER:

EYES debuted in theaters at a time when psycho-slasher films were still in ascendance, but this film's killer has little in common with the more colorful fiends of the period: he isn't deformed, wears no distinctive mask or clothing, and uses no special gimmicks or bizarre methods to commit his murders-- all in spite of the fact that one of the writers credited with the EYES screenplay also worked on the seminal 1980 FRIDAY THE 13TH.  Nevertheless, for all the naturalistic touches here, the script does give the villain a larger-than-life quality that confers a sense of dread to the proceedings.

I later contrasted this psycho-film with NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, where I said of the killer-- who does have a minor "gimmick" in his ability to disguise himself--

Gill proves a far more more consummate actor than Kate, for his gimmick is to assume various disguises in order to get the older women to let him into their apartments, whereupon he kills them. Yet, despite this disguise-skill, Gill never inspires the "dread" that I look for in uncanny psychos, even of the mundane sort that appears in EYES OF A STRANGER. Everything about Gill, as well as his functional double Brummer, is easily explained by Freud's emphasis upon "physiological concepts," as Jung termed them.

But "physiological concepts" are just a specific example of the 1968 film's adherence to pure verisimilitude, of its attempt to minimize the role of "artifice" in fictionalizing the real story of the Boston Strangler. I described this tendency in Part 1:

an author's focus upon verisimilitude means that he automatically seeks to limit the potential "affective freedom" of his work, in favor of a "cognitive restraint" based in his own acceptance, and that of his potential audience, of all the rules of consensual reality.

I may have on occasion connected "affective freedom" with the author's ability to generate discourses of symbolic complexity, but if I have done so, this would be a mistake. "Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence of worldly verisimilitude, and that freedom can be found in any uncanny or marvelous work, regardless of its symbolic complexity, a.k.a. "mythicity." Indeed, I have rated both EYES OF A STRANGER and NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY as "poor" in terms of their mythicity, but the former is uncanny specifically because its author(s) show a greater appreciation for the inherited tropes of slasher-fiction, while the authors of LADY do not.

Sometimes that appreciation does not even take the form of any single trope that can be definitely nailed down. I recently labeled the 1987 film THE STEPFATHER as uncanny, and this psycho in this movie is, like the one in LADY, a chameleon who changes his appearance in order to ingratiate himself with his future victims. I also rated STEPFATHER as poor in relation to mythicity, but although there's a little more of an attempt to psycho-analyze the killer than one sees in EYES OF A STRANGER, there's also a sense that the Stepfather's madness is something outside the boundaries of a reasonable world. Neither Christopher Gill nor Jerry Blake wear any truly bizarre disguises a la Norman Bates, and their methods of murder are fairly mundane. But Blake's madness is "larger than life" because his creators, unlike those of Gill, seem far less preoccupied with proving that the killer's madness is typical for madmen of his type-- which means, in short, privileging "cognitive restraint" over"affective freedom."

In short, when in future I use the term "larger-than-life," it will be applied to narrative entities and situations that *seem like* (see POWER AND POTENCY 2) they are greater than life, even though they are not greater in a cognitive sense. Such things become "anti-intelligible" because at the core they are more aligned with the domain of artifice--the home of both stereotypes and archetypes-- than with the domain of verisimilitude.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 3

So far the only thing I've written about any linkage between archetypes and the concept of artifice-- which should properly be considered a "mode" given that it, like verisimilitude, deals with ways that authors create their stuff-- is this section from EFFICACY, MEET MYTH:

if myth [NOTE: as Frye is using the term] is really defined by the transhuman powers of deities, then what is being transmitted from the clearly mythic story of "Euripides' Ion" (where the protagonist is the offspring of a god) to the verisimilitudinous story of Oliver Twist? It seems likely to me that the way myth [NOTE: by which *I* mean "archaic mythology"] interacts with "the constructive principles of story-telling" is that myth supplies archetypes that have an expressive, emotive appeal irrespective of their phenomenal context. Thus, Frye is much nearer to the truth later in the ANATOMY, when he defines archetypes as "complex variables." I believe that though the literary critic distanced himself from the psychological views of Jung, Frye may have been exposed to Jung's argument about the archetypes as a structuring principle.
So what Frye calls "the constructive principles of story-telling" should take in both "verisimilitude" and what I have renamed "artifice," since in the same section where he introduces his two terms, he states that, "Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other."   

Now, though Frye elsewhere defined archetypes as "complex variables," I don't think he's always consistent in emphasizing their complexity, be it potential or actual. For instance, I don't deem the use of the "birth-mystery plot" in OLIVER TWIST to be particularly complex, although the archetype by itself *can* be turned to more complex ends. Though I believe Frye had been exposed to some modern semiotic theory, such as I invoke in my differentiation between simple and complex variables, he sometimes uses the word "archetype" to describe any trope in a modern story that resembles a story from archaic myth.

I, however, favor the Segal definition of the archetype cited earlier, since I think it best coheres with Jung's writings on the subject:

An archetypal experience is not any emotional event but only an overwhelming one, the extraordinariness of which stems exactly from the power of the archetype encountered through projection.

What makes archetypes "overwhelming?" I would say that it is the same complexity of associations that I have elsewhere termed "the combinatory sublime." Simpler associations characterize simple variables, and I would say that the "birth-mystery" aspect of OLIVER TWIST is pretty simple, even compared to its use in, say, GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

We can easily imagine that Dickens, in composing both works, draws upon his knowledge of "birth-mystery" plots in earlier myths and literary works. But if OLIVER is a simple version of such plots, and EXPECTATIONS is a complex one, then it stands to reason that artifice as a mode embraces both simple variables ("stereotypes") and complex variables ("archetypes.")

More to come in Part 4.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 2

At the end of PART 1 I stated that I would investigate a particular archetypal trope, that of the "birth-mystery plot," across the three phenomenalities of the NUM theory. The two examples more or less introduced by Frye in the earlier quoted section from his ANATOMY were Oliver Twist (my selection of a Dickens "mystery orphan") and Ion (from the Euripides play of the same name). Within the domain of "the uncanny," the most famous example of this trope is almost inevitably Tarzan. whose origin-tale may be more widely known than that of the other two.

I'll backtrack here just enough to reference my 2013 statement here as how the uncanny differs from the purely naturalistic, both in terms of the principle of "strangeness" and in terms of a potential for combinatory power:

What Todorov fails to comprehend here is that the "quite rational explanations" in USHER do not dispel the sense of something bizarre taking place, as is seen when the "statue" in WINTER'S TALE seems, ever so briefly, to have come to life.  The slight nods to possible rational explanations in USHER do not the banish the strangeness of the House, with its face-like facade, its doomed occupants and its cataclysmic descent into the tarn.  This is the common element of all of my ten uncanny-tropes.  In each case the uncanny-author plays a game that resembles the game of the advocate of naturalism, in that he does not violate causality.  But he does so not to reify "the real," as Todorov suggests.  He does so to create a "supra-real world," one in which there is a far greater potential for combinatory sublimity than in any naturalistic work. 

Now, in PART 1 I made a brief comparison between the narrative strategies of Oliver's creator and the dramatist of ION:

the author [Dickens] will seek to emphasize that, say, Oliver Twist is the product of an unjust social system, rather than the obvious spawn of either a fiction-writer or of any mythological entities that might stand in for the author. (Again following Frye's example, the god Apollo exists to "explain" the provenance of his mortal son Ion, in more or less parallel fashion to the sacrificed giant whose death "explains" the origins of the universe.)
Now, the caveat must be made that Euripides did not "invent" Ion as the other two invented their respective characters. Nevertheless, an author who follows the basic outlines of a traditional myth-tale about a traditional character tacitly accepts the phenomenality implied in that material, and anyone who attempts to produce a mythology out of whole cloth, as Tolkien did, is likely to pursue roughly the same narrative strategies as the archaic authors, as far as how the gods function with relation both to mortals and to godly kindred.

Again I return to the definition I formulated of the three phenomenalities in response to my reading of Roy Bhaskar: 

In the NATURALISTIC category, all phenomena are both "coherent" and "intelligible."
In the UNCANNY category, all phenomena are "coherent" in that they do not exceed the cognitive//physical nature of causality, but some phenomena are not "intelligible" given that they may prove unintelligible by the standards of the NATURALISTIC.
In the MARVELOUS category, some phenomena may be neither "coherent" nor "intelligible."

(Note:my current term "coherent" substitutes for the discontinued one "regular.")

Everything in Oliver Twist's world is both coherent and intelligible, just as certain things in Ion's world are neither coherent nor intelligible. In the world that Burroughs created for Tarzan, however, he pursues some of the same goals as the naturalistic author as described in Part 1:

an author's focus upon verisimilitude means that he automatically seeks to limit the potential "affective freedom" of his work, in favor of a "cognitive restraint" based in his audience's acceptance of the rules of consensual reality. 

But Tarzan is not strictly intelligible as is Oliver Twist. I'm not speaking of incidents in the first book that strain credulity, like the ape-man teaching himself to read, because Burroughs wants his readers to believe that this miracle falls within the bounds of naturalistic possibility. Rather, it's that the author allows his character an "affective freedom" that exceeds the type of affectivity normally possible for characters in naturalistic worlds. Burroughs isn't being literal when he styles Tarzan a "forest god," but the impression of godhood is conveyed by the hero's strength, which on one hand is entirely human in its scope, and yet on the other hand has been developed to an extent most men never experience, including jungle-dwelling tribesmen who haven't been raised by apes.

Marvelous works by their nature must privilege the world of literary artifice, whether they are creating a whole world of marvelous things (Tolkien again) or just one marvelous thing in an otherwise natural-seeming world (Verne, and, in a narrative sense, Euripides). Naturalistic works privilege the perceptions, by the author and his culture, as to the restrictions of verisimilitude. The uncanny author utilizes strategies from both domains. Poe in Todorov's example of "House of Usher" allows his reader to pursue a naturalistic interpretation if he really wants it, but the author doesn't buttress that interpretation with assorted facts about the tendency of houses to sink into tarns at the least provocation.

In Part 3, I'll get back to the matter of how archetypes and artifice go together.