Monday, July 28, 2014

ELLISON AND ELITISM PT. 2

"As John Gardner said in his book ON MORAL FICTION, there is room in the world for trivial art, but it is only because high art exists and is recognized and is worshiped and honored that the world is safe for triviality."-- Harlan Ellison,"The Harlan Ellison Interview," TCJ #53 (1980).

As I've not the Gardner book in many years, I can't say if Ellison has fairly summarized that author. I do seem to remember thinking that Gardner didn't offer much logical proof for his artistic judgments.

Judgment is a key factor here. Ellison is certainly not the person one would go to-- today or in 1980-- for a reflective analysis as to what makes one work good and another bad. What's interesting about this 1980 quote is that so little has changed after 30 years. To this day, would-be critics in any medium rail against trivial works as if they were direct threats to the survival of the "good stuff."  Few critics stop to ask whether or not the same audience that wants to lose itself in what Ellison chooses to call "shit" are likely to ever be attracted to what any elitist, be it Ellison or someone else, considers to be "high art."

One irony of Ellison's excoriation is that, in contrast to his interviewer Gary Groth, the author seems to cherish his memories of "trivial art." On one hand he sneers at mainstream comics for putting bad work out there just to fill pages and meet deadlines. Yet he speaks of his passion for the character of The Shadow, which was certainly framed by the same pulp-adventure aesthetic one sees in comic books. I doubt that I've read as many of the Shadow's adventures as Ellison, but what I have read strikes me as not only trivial art, but bad trivial art. The Shadow is IMO a classic character, but most of the actual pulp adventures strike me as dull mysteries that are just barely redeemed by the hero's supernal presence.

Later, following Howard Chaykin's less than reverential treatment of the Shadow for a 1986 DC Comics limited series, Ellison was irate with the artist for profaning the character. Suddenly, trivial art was important, because it was something Ellison liked. In a radio show for HOUR 25, Ellison commented, "At what point do we say, 'You're mucking with our myths?'"

It may be that for Ellison, calling the Shadow a myth is no more than empty rhetoric. Certainly it would seem to contradict his statement above. If trivial art is only redeemed by the existence of high art, then how can any example of trivial art stand on its own enough to be a "myth?"

In my Jungian-Campbellian view, of course, the Shadow is a myth not simply because I like it; it's a myth because it incorporates dimensions of Campbell's four functions: the psychological, the sociological, the cosmological and the metaphysical.  The depth with which a pulp-character comments on these aspects of life may be much more limited than that of whatever Harlan Ellison deems high art-- including a figure like Michael Moorcock, whose inclusion might have raised the eyebrows of John Gardner.  But the salient fact is that even "trivial art:" can sometimes incorporate serious content, just as some "high art" is capable of moments of extreme triviality-- petty roman a clef attacks on one's real-life enemies, for example, a few of which may have made it into the works of-- Harlan Ellison.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

ELLISON AND ELITISM PT. 1

A recent forum-post reminded me of the momentous 1980 Harlan Ellison interview in COMICS JOURNAL #53. I hadn't read it for a while, and my memory was that the first time Ellison slagged the work of artist Don Heck, he was doing so in the mistaken impression that Heck had done the art to the 1970s comic NOVA.

Instead, as I reread the interview, it turned out that the NOVA reference came second. In the course of the interview Ellison was ranging all over the place, holding forth on his personal gospel of artistic excellence vs. journeyman mediocrity. On page 76, Ellison has just finished exulting in his own escape from the hell of network TV: "...they get you to write this shit and they corrupt you and writers are turned into mere hacks. I won't do it any more but there are plenty who will..."

Slightly later he makes the caveat that in some cases the willing hacks don't even have talent to start with, which brings him to an excoriation of the total worthlessness of all mainstream comics then current. Ellison asks interviewer Gary Groth to name the "worst artist in the field," and Groth names Don Heck.  When Groth also mentions that a particular publisher once praised Heck, Groth assumes that the praise was for Heck's ability to turn the work in on time. For Ellison this is tantamount to compromising the integrity of the work for a paycheck. Somehow it never occurs to Ellison that this contradicts his earlier point: if Heck had no talent to begin with, then, one may reason, how can he compromise the work?  But then Ellison is off again, touting Neal Adams as a conscientious professional who respects the work over the demands of the industry. After opining that "five thousand Don Hecks are not worth one Neal Adams," THEN he remembers how much he disliked the art of NOVA. He wonders if Heck was the artist on that work; Groth agrees that it was terrible art (as do I, incidentally) but neither remembers that Sal Buscema committed the crime against great art.

Four JOURNAL issues later, the magazine's lettercol carried several responses to Ellison's tirade, one of which came from Steve Gerber. Gerber praised some of Heck's work, not coincidentally work on which Heck and Gerber had collaborated. Then Gerber asserted parenthetically that Heck had suffered some personal tragedy in his life. In his response Ellison did not retract his opinion on Heck's work, but he did admit that in some situations "one should watch one's mouth."

Strangely, I recall reading an interview with Heck-- who passed away in 1995-- in which he denied that he had experienced any personal tragedy that had interfered with the quality of his work. In fact, I recall that Heck claimed in said interview that the story had taken on "urban legend" status in his field, where dozens of fellow workers believed it but no one knew precisely what had supposedly happened to the artist. But since I cannot at present remember where I read this, readers are advised to take my recollections with a grain of salt.

Next up: examining the roots of an elitism from over thirty years ago.

Friday, July 25, 2014

FEELINGS, NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS

In my last essay I cited a recent article on Comic-con 2014 to substantiate the claim that bad real-life behavior does still occur at conventions. That, however, doesn't mean that I agree with every point writer Rebecca Keegan made in support of this thesis. Here's one I reject:


At a “Game of Thrones” panel at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, a mix of cheers and groans rose up in the audience when actor Jason Momoa said his favorite part of his role on the HBO show is that he gets to “rape beautiful women and have them fall in love with me.” 

Now, I would sympathize with the outrage here only in one respect: since Comic-con is not an "adults only" function, it was at the very least indecorous of the actor to make an adults-only statement in that venue.  But Keegan didn't object on the basis of grossing out juveniles. The thrust of the article is on the "harassment" of women at the convention.

Harassment, however, does not include "anything that annoys many or even all women," and within a context of speaking to adults about adult entertainment-- which GAME OF THRONES certainly is-- Momoa's remarks do not constitute harassment.

The kerfluffle resembles the one that arose in 2013 when Mark Millar had the audacity to assert that in a story-context the act of rape could be used for the narrative purpose of showing graphically that a villain was a Bad Guy. In my essay CONJUNCTION JUNCTION, MEET VIOLATION STATION, I observed that though I had no use for Millar's work, the writer was just stating a fact.  Much of the criticism directed against his remarks was based not on the nature of storytelling, but on an ideological desire to make sure that the activity of rape should never be used for any purpose but the condemnation of so-called "rape culture."

I haven't bothered to look up earlier responses to Momoa's remarks; though it's the first time I came across this particular issue.  I'm sure the original debate had largely run its course before Ms. Keegan brought it up.  I would imagine, though, that a lot of vitriol came about because of the linkage of rape and "falling in love."

But of course, as I mentioned in this essay, the linkage is not something Momoa made up out of whole cloth: it's a trope that has circulated throughout the genre of the "women's romance" since it erupted from the skull of Samuel Richardson.  I hazarded a few guesses at the reasons why the assocation of rape and love in these genre-works should prove so durable, especially in works aimed predominantly at a female readership. But though I freely admit that there could be many subtleties about the subject to which I, a male writer, am not privy, I don't believe that the trope is syndromic of "rape culture."  On one hand, I regard the trope, as phrased by Momoa, is absurd on the face of it: barring the rare occurrences of real-life Stockholm Syndrome, I don't think the average person believes this to be anything more than a fantasy.  On a second hand, I believe that the same trope pertains no less to the fantasy of female-on-male rape-- even if this is usually accomplished through roundabout means; i.e., drugs, etc.

While I don't agree with the moral opprobrium attached, TV Tropes helpfully provides a list of examples on this topic as it pertains to comics, ranging from Black Canary to Asterix,  

So tosum up::

Real threats of rape to someone, even if intended as stupid "humor"-- no good.

Dumb jokes about rape in a fictional context-- okay.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

BREASTS, BLOOD, AND JUSTICE PT. 4

In part 1 of this essay-series I said:

Whether anyone believes it or not, I can understand why a female viewer would be experience cognitive dissonance while watching a film like ANGELFIST. Let us suppose that the hypothetical female viewer can fully identify with the basic trope of an action-revenge film like this one, that this viewer can take pleasure in seeing the kickboxing-heroine slam around nasty crooks, mostly if not entirely of the male gender, using the same methods that a male action-hero would. That visual pleasure would probably be disrupted by seeing the heroine fight off those hoods while she's mostly naked.

Now, I should note that for some feminist critics the problem would not just be the fact of the woman's unveiling, but also the circumstances that led to it: that actresses like the star of ANGELFIST, the late Cat Sassoon, were victims of a "boys' club" mentality that put women on display in order to marginalize them.

In Part 3 I critiqued this attitude with respect to Camille Paglia's philosophy:

Camille Paglia famously argued that the ability of women to display themselves often had a profound, empowering aspect. One need not believe that it applies to all situations, as Paglia seemed to credence, but this view does supply a necessary corrective to the ultraliberal/WAPster notion that feminine sexual display can mean nothing but "coming across for The Man."
I still believe this. However, it has occurred to me that there's a smattering of logic in the WAPster association of "female display= control by males." In JUG BOND I hypothesized the evolution of the female breast in hominids as a somatic strategy born in part of the woman's desire to encourage and discourage the male, as needed. Yet as a Bataillean, I must admit that as soon as early Woman created a Taboo, it created the ineluctable potential for Transgression. 



So for Woman, there is no pure state of affairs in which the revelation of the breast is always under her control, signaling either her readiness for sex or her desire to titillate without consequence. The possibility for transgression is quite real, as has been seen in an unlikely site for transgressive activities: the comics convention.

Nevertheless, no fantasy-transgression has the same meaning as a real one. I can't claim that "Monkey See Monkey Do" never takes place, for there are some pretty monkey-minded people out there. Still, there's no dependable correlation between what people watch and what they do. Anyone who claims that adult fantasies must be curtailed to control the real behavior of adults is a bullshit artist.

I find it fascinating that in the earlier cited Heidi McDonald BEAT-essay, Seth MacFarlane is raked over the coals for having made certain actresses into "dehumanized objects" because he sang about the boobs they exposed in their upscale films. Not one word was spoken against the actresses, though.  Even if MacFarlane is a boob for having sung about boobs, he didn't make any of those actresses disrobe, whether for art or commerce.  Said disrobings were the choices of the actresses involved, and by violating the Taboo themselves, they did in a broad sense (heh) invite at least a verbal Transgression.

I suppose that it's probably easier for WAPsters to sneer at the lowbrow monetary motives of a Roger Corman. He would never claim to be Unveiling the Sacred Image of Womankind for Art, and if he was honest he'd probably admit that he was giving male viewers what they were willing to pay for, period. I can see why this might evoke in some feminists' minds the spectre of the Boys' Club. However, this limited perspective overlooks a deeper vein of symbolism that attends all hetero male-female relationships, and that deeper vein cannot be ignored in favor of a puerile political correctness.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

DJINN, WITH SUMMONER PT. 2

My recent meditations on the processes of "interiorization" and "exteriorization" with respect to the way that a character summons power into play-- whether it is his own power or that of another entity-- was quite intentionally reflected on the two films I chose to examine in this review from my film-blog.



The 1955 film THE COURT JESTER is yet another variation on the theme of interiorization. The comic hero Hubert is utterly unable to comport himself after the fashion of the martially skilled hero he admires. By lucky chance, a princess falls in love with him, and forces her "pet witch" to hypnotize Hubert into believing that he is "the greatest swordsman in the land."  Toward the end of the film this results in an outstanding duel between Hubert and the equally skilled villain of the piece. However, the duel never comes to a decisive conclusion, because the witch's spell can be undone whenever Hubert hears the sound of fingers snapping. After poor Hubert flashes back and forth a few times between being either a peerless fighter or an incompetent goof, he's finally helped out of his troubles by some of his allies. As I wrote in MYTHOS AND MODE PART TWO, the lack of a decisive combat between two megadynamic forces means that the narrative does not possess what I term a "significant combative value."




The other film in this review-essay, 1961's THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN, provides an example of exteriorization, but one which is also, like JESTER, not in the combative mode, though for a different reason. The doofus title character has some limited control of a genie, although this summoner-hero, much like DC Comics' Johnny Thunder-- discussed here-- takes some time to figure out how to invoke his djinn's powers. Unlike THE COURT JESTER, WONDERS does conclude with a fight between Donald O'Connor's Aladdin and the evil vizier (the fellow dressed in black at right in the photo above).  In this fight, Aladdin tells his genie not to interfere. When it becomes increasingly evident that Aladdin is no match for the vizier, the genie does perform a few distracting magical tricks, so that Aladdin is able to triumph.  Yet this film does not satisfy my other criterion for a combative narrative: the "narrative combative value," which speaks to whether or not the narrative's plot decisively builds toward a climactic combat between two or more exceptional forces. Unlike JESTER, WONDERS does have a decisive battle. However, where JESTER does feature two exceptional fighters, WONDERS does not, which means, going by the same logic expressed in MYTHOS AND MODE 2, the film lacks the "narrative combative value."

Now, I have to ask myself whether or not I am fudging my own definitions. I've stated that Johnny Thunder is merely a "good," not exceptional, hand-to-hand fighter, but that he becomes "exceptional" by dint of controlling the magical Thunderbolt-- all despite the fact that Thunder is a comic hero, and he frequently only invokes his djinn's powers in illogical or roundabout ways.

Yet, one major difference between the serial adventures of comic hero Johnny Thunder and the solo adventure of comic hero Aladdin is that the Thunderbolt is supposed to be a regular ally to the main character, while the genie only exists in Aladdin's world as a short-lived, contingent presence, one who will vanish as soon as he has given the hero his three wishes. This is not the first time I have disallowed a work to have combative status on these terms. In DYNAMICITY/ DEMIHERO DELIBERATIONS I faced a similar problem, in which the "summoners" of the 1934 film BABES IN TOYLAND did call up a group of "djinns," but djinns who were purely contingent on the contrivances of the plot, not as representations of the characters themselves:

I defined the problem first in this fashion:


 Both of these forces, the toy soldiers and the Boogeymen, can be seen as "genies" through which the heroes or the villain respectively seek to accomplish their ends.

However, I rejected both the djinn-characters and the summoner-characters of TOYLAND from having combative status for this stated reason:

But I find myself asking: though the soldiers and the Boogeymen are extensions of the will of heroes and villain, are they central to the struggle, or just supporting characters in the story?  ... By the logic of [cited examples from the teleserials DOCTOR WHO and MIGHTY MAX], then, the toy soldiers and the Boogeymen are support-characters, and their exceptional combat does not generate a narrative value.  They are not comparable to the "iron genies" I discussed here.

And so, unlike a lot of "combative comedy" characters I've discussed in my film-reviews, the protagonist of WONDERS OF ALADDIN lacks combative status because of the contingent nature of his allies; because he is not meaningfully tied to the powers he invokes.

DJINN, WITH SUMMONER PT. 1

One of the most famous tropes of the superhero idiom is that of "strength concealed by weakness," or, alternately, "strength evolving from weakness."

Obviously no credible study of the superhero can pass by the trope of the hero's "secret identity." There are of course a fair number of heroes who have no such double identities, or whose mundane origins are widely known to the public. Yet the image of the heroic figure who emerges from some unlikely source-- a meek, bespectacled reporter, a child, or an indolent playboy-- has become a major metaphor for the superhero genre. Johnston McCulley's "Zorro" was not the first character to conceal a dynamic nature beneath an unlikely facade. Still, Zorro may have been the character who most affected this trope of the superhero idiom, with obvious impact on such characters as the Shadow, the Spider, Batman, and Superman.



The Fawcett Captain Marvel is a slightly different wrinkle on the same trope. The hero's alter ego of Billy Batson is literally weak-- I'm not sure that the Fawcett version of Billy is ever seen "resorting to physical violence" as himself, even when faced with an opponent in his own weight-class. The weak alter ego doesn't just shuck off his clothes and reveal the powerful persona beneath; he must literally transform himself into a being of great power physically distinct from said alter ego.



Still, as different as these variations on a theme may be, I view both of them as examples of interiorization. That is, the hero's true, powerful self is concealed within him, and must be summoned from within.

A distinct trope, though, is that of the hero who calls up some other being to do his fighting for him.  Thus, while one can see Superman as an interior power that bursts forth from Clark Kent, and Captain Marvel as one that subsumes Billy Batson, the relationship in this trope-- what I will call the "djinn-and-summoner" trope-- is one of exteriorization.  That is, the character doing the summoning usually remains un-transformed, and the "djinn" that he calls up is a character in his or her own right.

The folktale "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp" is patently the most famous story about a person calling forth a djinn/genie. The story doesn't qualify for inclusion in the combative mode of the superhero idiom, as I noted in my essay MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE:

The original story of ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP would seem to be a subcombative form of adventure, in that there is no actual combat between Aladdin and his opponent the "Chinese Magician," nor does Aladdin fight any proxy servant of the Magician.  The conflict consists of either hero or villain swiping the lamp away from the other at this or that time, but never in a direct confrontation.  

There have been any number of takes on the Aladdin-tale in which the summoner-hero is much more dynamic than the djinn he summons, as with the 1939 POPEYE theatrical cartoon "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp." Though Popeye/Aladdin does call up a genie, his big duel with an evil magician at the cartoon's climax is wholly dependent on his ability to empower himself with spinach, another wrinkle on the interiorization trope; ingesting some substance to unleash one's "inner strength."



Another more active Aladdin is the one from the Disney cartoon, who, instead of being a lazy layabout as in the Arabic tale, is a swashbuckling swordsman. Thus, though this Aladdin does summon a djinn to fight various antagonists, he isn't entirely dependent on his magical helper.


Yet some modern superheroic works display summoners who are almost entirely dependent upon their djinns. In this essay I cited the example of GIGANTOR. As with Billy Batson, I don't remember any instances in which the boy-summoner was seen fighting on his own behalf. But even if there were isolated incidents in which Jimmy Sparks duked it out a few times with villains, the dominant trope of the teleseries was the summoning of its robotic djinn, who would proceed to give battle to some other kaiju-sized menace.


In Part 2 I'll discuss the ways in which these types of djinn/summoner relationships sort out in relation to dynamicity and the combative mode.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

ONLY AN ARCHETYPE CAN BEAT ANOTHER ARCHETYPE PT. 4

In this essay I defined stereotypes in terms of simple functionality and archetypes in terms of super-functionality. With that in mind I might re-state my title as "only super-functionality can beat super-functionality."

I won't say that the same is the case for stereotypes. It's more common for one stereotype to overcome another, but an archetype of sufficient power can eliminate, or at least mitigate, the power of stereotypes. In this essay I advanced the hypothesis that the archetype of "the African slave as demonic rebel" that permeates Melville's BENITO CERENO was essentially nullified by a more popular archetype, that of "the redeemed slave." In the Judeo-Christian tradition the first descends principally from literary takes on Satan, while the latter may be traced more directly from the Biblical Messiah-tradition.  Yet if Leslie Fiedler is correct in believing that UNCLE TOM'S CABIN is the first American novel that presents black characters as developed narrative presences, then CABIN's influence made it harder to promulgate that view. Wikipedia notes how the minstrel shows attempted to ameliorate the impact of the novel:


Tom acts largely came to replace other plantation narratives, particularly in the third act. These sketches sometimes supported Stowe's novel, but just as often they turned it on its head or attacked the author. Whatever the intended message, it was usually lost in the joyous, slapstick atmosphere of the piece. Characters such as Simon Legree sometimes disappeared, and the title was frequently changed to something more cheerful like "Happy Uncle Tom" or "Uncle Dad's Cabin."

In the 20th century minstrel shows passed out of favor, arguably as part of a very graduated response to the consciousness of "black people as human beings" that the novel promoted. Ironically, before the minstrel shows died, they left behind a reactionary legacy by making the name "Uncle Tom" into a stereotypical shorthand for a "cringing bootlicker to White Massa"-- which the character in the novel is not. But the fact that the character of Uncle Tom is a prophet not honored in his own hometown does not nullify the greater impact of the novel.

I said earlier that the franchise-character of Superman-- who of course is something of a palimpsest, changing his persona according to the proclivities of his authors-- combined both stereotypical and archetypal characteristics. All fictional characters possess the potential for both, from those of Willie Shakespeare to those of Mickey Spillane.  I'm sure that there are critics who choose to view the character's status in American culture to be independent of his archetypal nature; who see his success as purely the result of clever marketing. This pat explanation does not explain why the character became popular in his early ACTION COMICS appearances even though for the first eleven issues the character is only cover-featured three times (though his name is occasionally added in the background of some generic pulp-adventure scene). Earlier I have identified Superman's primary mythic appeal for Americans of the 1940s as a trope I termed CHRIST WITH MUSCLES-- a trope Superman certainly did not originate but one that he came to exemplify better than any previous pop-culture character.



This archetype, though, was to some extent conquered by an archetype closer in tone to the "suffering servant" archetype found in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Superman's appeal has never completely vanished, but it has been eclipsed in large part by Stan Lee's trope of the "suffering hero," who is best exemplified by the Amazing Spider-Man.

The first few appearances of the web-slinger are replete with references to the Superman mythos. Sometimes they are straightforward, in that Peter Parker wears glasses like Clark Kent, and at other times they are inverted, in that Parker really is a 98-pound weakling, rather than a strapping fellow who merely pretends to be a weakling.  In some cases the Superman tropes are a little of both: Parker continues to make his living in roughly the same way Kent does-- working for a big-city newspaper-- but Kent works for an editor who is a nice guy beneath his bluster, and Parker works for a conceited windbag with inferiority issues.



At a quick glance some fans might see the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man as a satirical jab at the Siegel-Shuster hero. And there are moments of satire present in early Spider-Man, particularly through the authors' focus on the character's money problems. Clearly, even though both heroes are fantasy-creations, Spider-Man's authors are claiming greater verisimilitude, showing that when their character becomes a costumed superhero, that transformation doesn't obviate all of his other problems.  At an equally quick glance, this might seem to be the same strategy pursued by Harvey Kurtzman in his full-blown satires, such as MAN AND SUPERMAN, discussed here.

Nevertheless, this particular Kurtzman short story is merely stereotypical in the simplicity with which Kurtzman addresses the lack of verisimilitude in comic-book superhero stories. Lee and Ditko's criticism of Superman's lack of "real-life problems" is only one aspect of Spider-Man's mythos, for Spider-Man as much as Superman must deal with such non-realistic worries as preventing mad scientists from creating Bizarro duplicates or turning themselves into giant lizards. Thus Spider-Man is not a satire of Superman, but an attempt to evolve a new ethic for the costumed hero; to show that Spider-Man is more of a hero precisely because he deals with both medical bills and lizard-men.  I don't claim that Lee and Ditko thought about their new approach to heroes in such lofty terms at the time. But I am claiming that both of them drew on a deep reservoir of narrative strategies from various genres-- superheroes, crime, horror, and science fiction-- rather than sticking too close to the superhero model as that had been defined prior to the Silver Age.  This openness to narrative strategies also made them open to the power of the archetype that most defines Spider-Man: the aforementioned "suffering hero."

Superman's emotionally imperturbable archetype once influenced dozens of epigoni. But in the wake of Spider-Man specifically and other Marvel characters generally, that archetype no longer inspires more than a handful of imitators-- and some of those make conscious appeal to nostalgia, rather than celebrating the archetype of "Christ with Muscles" in new forms.



 I won't say that it is impossible to conceive of a modern costumed hero who doesn't juggle both realistic and unrealistic problems, but it has become the "new norm," despite mitigating influences from Miller, Morrison, and others.

Of course, in the case of many Spider-Man imitators-- the 1970s character Nova, for one-- the archetype of the suffering hero has been dumbed down to an array of stereotypical devices, and any archetypal potential goes unrealized.  Even the new breed of cinematic superheroes have inclined toward "Marvel style" rather than "DC style," as shown by such films as SUPERMAN RETURNS and MAN OF STEEL, which failed to mount a persuasive cinema-archetype for the Man of Steel.