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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...

Monday, July 16, 2018

CONNECTING THE DOGMAS

At the end of ROBINSON, CRUSADER OF MEDIOCRITY PT. 1, I explained my reason for considering Defoe's protagonist a representation of a mediocre nature:

I’ve often disagreed with the Mickey Marxists who want to see imperialism in every story that stars a straight white male, or fails to portray people of color as they want to see themselves. But I must admit that the CRUSOE novels exhibit a chauvinism so extreme that authors like Haggard, Doyle and Kipling look like models of liberalism by comparison. Defoe allows Crusoe a few moments of cultural relativism—he admits that the Spanish committed many atrocities against the natives of the New World—but at base, the author wants to give his audience a picture of the world as one where nothing, not even a mass slaughter, seriously challenges any preconceptions.

It's Crusoe's inability to be changed by his experience that informs my perception of him as something akin to one of Nietzsche's bugaboos in THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA.

Zarathustra, speaking largely in a series of quasi-poetic, incantatory aphorisms, rails against all sorts of metaphorical evils that represented the mediocrity of Europeans, calling them things like "the small men," "the Ultimate Man," "the fleas," and "the tarantulas."-- COURAGE OVER FEAR.
So, even though I criticized Crusoe for his un-knightly behavior and his excessive piety, his inability to change is his least attractive aspect. Other demiheroes of the same era, such as Fielding's Tom Jones, still do not strike me as being as "flea-like" as Robinson Crusoe.

And yet, I must admit that even though there are no "free spirits," no Ubermenschen, in the world of ROBINSON CRUSOE, it's arguable that a liberal interpretation of Nietzchean philosophy might find a place where knights and fleas reinforce one another.

In my philosophical examination of the 2004 cartoon-film THE INCREDIBLES, I said:

...the question remains: why would it have been bad, to have a world in which everyone had artificial super-powers? The answer may lie in the philosophical ruminations of Nietzsche, even if Bird never read him. Nietzsche's ideal of his Ubermensch is not covalent with any version of the superhero, with one exception. the motivation of magnanimity. The Nietzschean "superman" is magnanimous because he has so much more "spirit" than common people. Superheroes generally don't show as much contempt for the rabble as Nietzsche did, but there's still a sense that superheroes are frequently magnanimous for similar reasons. But even here, there's a crucial difference. Mister Incredible enjoys getting praise and plaudits for his super-deeds, but his deeds primarily spring from empathy: from the realization that ordinary people need his help. Syndrome has no motivation beyond lionization, and so it's easy for him to restructure the world so that it reflects his own mediocrity. Once everyone has access to artificially-enhanced superpowers, will anyone feel any need to feel empathy for those weaker than themselves?

I provided an "ethic of the combative" in COURAGE OVER FEAR, which took a quasi-Hegelian view of the process by which humankind comes to judge life by the value of courage rather than that of fear. Nevertheless, the combative hero, whether he wears a knight's armor or a super-crusader's  leotards, needs the "common people." The hero's spirit is greater than that of the flea, and in many respects the hero can only be challenged by an enemy of some sort, while the flea can do nothing but seek to undermine the ideals of the hero, which is the initial setup for THE INCREDIBLES. However, in ZARATHUSTRA Nietzsche adjures the "warrior" to "be proud of your enemies," for the enemy makes it possible for the warrior to exert his full strength. The "fleas" cannot be a part of such a struggle. However, they are in modern terms the "lesser selves" from which the "greater selves" are constructed, and this means that they are factors which the hero must overcome in himself. Mister Incredible, in order to show true magnanimity and truly forgive the "fleas," must continue saving the common people even when they seek to outlaw his activities.

Nietzsche's critique of "slave morality" is flawed by his attempt to reject every aspect of that morality, rather than merely its most extreme manifestations. Much of that morality is informed by self-interest, like that of the citizens who sue Mister Incredible for false damages, but self-interest appears in a more benign form, as when Bob and Helen Parr attempt to give up being superheroes to raise their children in peace. Nietzsche's ability to set down his philosophy in his leisure, rather than being forced to work for his daily bread, was only possible because he received a pension from the University of Basel, which was, like any business concern, primarily concerned with perpetuating its own existence. Thus, since even Nietzsche had a "lesser self"-- for instance, the early part of him that aspired to religious service-- his system is flawed in failing to realize how the ethics of the "fleas" supplies a challenge to the hero, even if it is not the same sort of challenge supplied by an "enemy."

The 17th and 18th centuries supplied Daniel Defoe with his intellectual formative influences, and these periods were aligned with the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." Literature had by and large turned away from stories of epic heroism, though there were hearkenings of another revolution in the late 18th century, with the development of Gothic fiction and re-interpretations of pagan fantasy, as seen in James McPherson's "Ossian" poems, which became widely popular in Europe before readers learned that the poems were not genuine Gaelic myth-tales.

Defoe's Crusoe is never able to be a "hero" in the Nietzschean sense. But I deem that his contribution to the history of the popular adventure-story is not unlike the contribution that the "lesser man" makes to the evolution of the "greater man:" a necessary step, rather than an end in itself.




Friday, July 13, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE SUMMONING" (IMAGINE #4, 1978)

The Lee-Ditko collaborations on DOCTOR STRANGE are justly celebrated as one of the comics-medium's best renditions of a "magician-hero." However, with the exception of the hero's origin, most of the stories are not complex enough to qualify as mythcomics. Aside from the creators' use of a few occult practices like that of astral travel and a few camouflaged deity-names ("Oshtur" in place of "Ishtar"), Lee and Ditko seem largely innocent of occult traditions.



Whatever the genesis of the Levitz-Ditko collaboration in IMAGINE #4, Ditko's "Doctor Strange" reputation surely contributed to the story's evolution. However, whereas the Marvel concept is principally an adventure-series with metaphysical content, "The Summoning" is right in a tradition I'll term "the metaphysical riddle." While the visuals of "Summoning" are as replete as the "Doctor Strange" feature with weird magical designs, Levitz's dialogue and captions reflect a transparent familiarity with the enigmatic language found in sections of the Old and New Testament.



The tale begins by focusing on a solitary male character in some abstract dimension. He stands within a room "that exists, or doesn't." The captions establish that he has a name, though within the scope of the story, that name is never divulged. I will style him as "the First," since one of Levitz's first lines states that "It is enough that he was the first, and will ever be the last," which seems to be the author's reworking of Revelation 22:13, in which Jesus says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." The First then leaves his room, having apparently received a summons, even though the captions are ambivalent about whether or not he can be summoned.

In contrast to the First's abstract cosmos, the remainder of the story takes place on an alien but "real" world. On that unnamed planet, three wizards descend to a lonely glade. None of these characters-- who also appear on Ditko's cover to IMAGINE #4-- are named, so I can only distinguish them by appearance: as "Old Male Wizard," "Young Male Wizard," and "Female Wizard."

The three have come to the planet-- their homeworld, now no more than a "desolate sphere"-- in order to summon the First. However, though they agree to pool their powers in summoning the First, each wizard has a different wish that he or she wishes the First to fulfill. Their dialogue establishes that they are all concerned with doing something to correct the status of their homeworld, which has fallen into chaos thanks to the magic used by the now-vanished populace to make "this world into our image" (presumably an act of hubris, given the phrase's resemblance to God's creation of man). Old Male Wizard wants the dead planet to be turned into a monument to the folly of its inhabitants. Young Male Wizard wants the First to rekindle life upon the world. Female Wizard does not want a race identical to her own to thrive once more, since her race destroyed itself, but she does want to make it possible for the "children of the stars," i.e., alien visitors, to colonize the world. Having stated their purposes and their disagreements, the wizards depart the glade to replenish their energies, leaving behind a solitary tree, somewhat scorched by their magical incantation.

The First shows up in their absence, and begins examining the world through his mystic senses. The Young Male Wizard shows up, and the First tells him that he plans to "see what gifts this world can bear." Beyond that, the First will not explain himself, or even reveal whether or not he was truly summoned by any of the fractious wizards. Young Male Wizard attacks the First with his magic, trying to compel the otherworldy being into obedience. The First easily repels the wizard's attack with a weapon that looks like a shepherd's crook, and then he disintegrates the wizard, whose "demolished cells" continue to drift about the glade like fairy-dust.



The Female Wizard appears, and again, the First will not disclose whether or not he will fulfill her desires, giving her more double-talk like, "All things are possible, and that is all that matters," The lady sorcerer immolates herself, and in so doing creates a beacon of light, though it's unclear as to whether she did so purposefully.

The Old Male Wizard then arrives, and confidently observes that since the First has not fulfilled the requests of the other two, the First must have manifested in order to fulfill the old man's desire for a planetary monument. The wizard considers the failure of the other two as proof that "I was indeed te mightiest of the triad." The wizard barely acknowledges the First's circumlocutive speech, but almost immediately changes himself into a huge escarpment of rock, in effect becoming the "monument" he desired.

The First then comments on the "presumption" of the three dead wizards, and reveals-- to the reader alone-- that he responded to another summons: that of the almost leafless tree in the glade. By indirectly causing the deaths of the three wizards, the First has annihilated the last of the world's human natives, and so the world is returned to the non-sentient flora and fauna. The First speculates that the three wizards' transformations may accomplish the goals they set for the world, but also says that he doubts that these possibilities will come to pass.

In conclusion, this is a fairly extreme look at the human sin of presumption, going much farther than any Judeo-Christian tradition. In effect, it's as if the First doesn't just "mark the sparrow's fall," but actively prefers the humble creature of nature-- a tree, rather than a bird-- over the vaulting ambitions of human beings.

ROBINSON, CRUSADER OF MEDIOCRITY PT. 2


Until recently, all of my remarks on ROBINSON CRUSOE have been based on summations and adaptations, for I had not read either Defoe’s famous novel or its four-months-later sequel. In July 2009 I corrected myself on the question as to whether there could be a subcombative (I used the term "noncombative" then) form of the adventure-mythos. From ADDENDA EST:

...on further consideration I did think of a type of adventure-story that could take place in a "noncombative mode:" namely, the so-called "Robinsonade," the subgenre of lost-on-a-desert-island stories that were spawned by the considerable influence of Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE.

I also wrote that there was some "man vs. man" conflict in the first novel, which was correct, though the combat-scenes are rather niggling compared to the novel's emphasis upon Crusoe's efforts to survive and make a comfortable haven on his deserted isle. Today I would still say that it is a novel that aligns largely with the invigorative mode of the adventure-mythos, though the invigorative elements spring from the protagonist's struggles to survive rather than his fairly brief conflicts with cannibals and mutineers.

In 2013's A SHORT HISTORY OF HEROIC FANTASY-ADVENTURE, I touched upon another Defoe work-- which I still have not read today-- as an example of naturalistic adventure.

Examples of such naturalistic adventures include Defoe's 1720 novel CAPTAIN SINGLETON, Walter Scott's breakthrough 1814 historical epic WAVERLY and Schiller's 1781 play THE ROBBERS.  Even some poets began to emulate these more or less naturalistic "swashbuckling" themes, discernible in some of Byron's long poems of the early 19th century, like CHILDE HAROLD (1812) and THE CORSAIR (1814).  And undoubtedly there were many forgotten novels that trod the same basic territory, particularly the anonymously written "highwayman stories" popular in the 1700s. 

In 2014's ADDRESSING DISTRESS PT. 3, I advanced this hypothesis:

....I think 1719 brings a far more credible progenitor for pop culture: Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE.  In contrast to many of the novels aimed at more educated readers-- those of Swift, Fielding, and Voltaire, for three-- CRUSOE can be read for nothing more than visceral entertainment.  True, the novel has its deeper themes, but I don't think that its perennial popularity rests on them.
To date I have not found a better example of a "progenitor for pop culture" than ROBINSON CRUSOE. It's a little harder, though, to suss out its place in the history of adventure-fiction.

In SHORT HISTORY I cited a Wiki-quote to the effect that the genre of the chivalric romance had fallen out of fashion by 1600. I've heard it said that Edmund Spenser's 1590-96 poetic epic THE FAERIE QUEENE was not popular with contemporaneous reviewers, and this stands in strong contrast to the overwhelming success of Cervantes's DON QUIXOTE in 1605, a work often credited with demolishing the reputation of the chivalric romance. As I look at this list of 17th-century works of repute, I see nothing that does not shout "elite culture," even if certain works, such as the plays of Shakespeare, were apparently popular with the masses. Most of these works, IMO, would align with the other three Fryean mythoi-- drama, irony, or comedy-- but not with adventure. Even Milton's SAMSON AGONISTES, which like the Biblical story ends with Samson exacting a pyrrhic victory over the Philistines, aligns more with drama than with adventure.

 So is ROBINSON CRUSOE not only the first pop-culture novel with broad appeal to the increasingly literate masses, but also the 18th-century's first articulations of the adventure-mythos? It would seem so at present, though both the first book and its sequel are clearly subcombative works, in which some violence takes place but is not arranged to center upon the act of combat. From what I can tell, the 18th century's intellectual currents-- often represented as the "Age of Enlightenment" (1715-89)-- were still too allied to elite culture in order to allow for the invigorative mood of the fully combative adventure.

ROBINSON CRUSOE, in contrast, presents its contemporaneous readers with a picture of a European who has many lesser adventures in which he largely wins out over cannibals, mutineers, and Tartar raiders with his superior firepower, as I attempted to show in the first part of this two-part essay. Based on the way Defoe arranges his scenes of violence, I would say they are characterized more by "struggle" than by "combat." I''m not sure that any single literary work, whether of elite or popular culture, captures the attractions of the combative mode until Walter Scott makes his great breakthrough in the early 19th century with novels like ROB ROY and IVANHOE.

In the first part of CRUSADER I've detailed my problems with Crusoe's character: his priggish piety, his mental isolation from both his pets and fellow humans like Xury and Friday, and his questionable courage. But many of these traits are somewhat more forgivable in a character more defined by "persistence" than by "glory:" that is, a demihero rather than a hero.

In one of my early essays on the distinctions between these personas, I wrote this of the characters of the LOST IN SPACE series, which was perhaps only indirectly modeled on ROBINSON CRUSOE, through the later work SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON:


Despite the family's original purpose of space-exploration, the majority of the castaways-- mother Maureen Robinson, children Judy, Penny, and Will, and the cowardly stowaway Doctor Sniith-- are presented as being far from inclined to fight under most circumstances.  Only two of the male protagonists-- "alpha male" John Robinson and "beta male" Major Don West-- show much competence in the combat department, and even then, Major West only rarely shines as being more than just a "good" fighter.  John Robinson-- played by Guy Williams, the former TV "Zorro"-- is more frequently positioned as an above-average combatant, occasionally even displaying Zorro-style swordfighting skills. Though the Robinsons are portrayed as being willing to go to the wall to save persecuted or put-upon victims from aggressors, they only do so as a last resort, which makes them very different from the concept of the hero as a more active defender of right.
As discussed elsewhere, there is no reason a demihero cannot be a competent combatant, as was certainly the case with John Robinson. But this indirect namesake of Defoe's character is closer in spirit to Crusoe, in that both of them are largely concerned with day-to-day survival rather than with remaking the world.







Thursday, July 12, 2018

ROBINSON, CRUSADER OF MEDIOCRITY PT. 1

I've finally read ROBINSON CRUSOE and its lesser-known follow-up, THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE.

I noted in A SHORT HISTORY OF FANTASY-ADVENTURE how the days of the epic romance were followed by a dearth of adventure in fantasy literature, and that even those novels that had adventure-elements, such as Defoe's CAPTAIN SINGLETON, tended to lack fantastic elements. 
Defoe's best-known novel, ROBINSON CRUSOE, is another novel following in the cultural wake of the epic romances with their “knights of old.” Perhaps appropriately, given the way Defoe's century had turned against the ideals of the aristocracy, Defoe comes up with a protagonist who could not be further from the ideal of the knight. 

Crusoe has some dim ideas of glory when he defies the wishes of her merchant-father and goes to sea. Yet for the rest of the novels, he expresses nothing but pious regrets for his act of defiance, even though in the long run he becomes a rich man as the result of his travels. His first tour of duty at sea doesn’t exactly cover him with glory, and his captain frankly tells Crusoe that he was never meant to sail the seas. Nevertheless, he tries again. But everyone aboard his ship is taken prisoner by Ottoman pirates, and Crusoe becomes a slave. Though he’s treated reasonably well at a lord’s home in Morocco-- indeed, there are no badly-treated slaves depicted in the novels—Crusoe does show some guts by figuring out a way to escape his captors. A young boy named Xury—apparently also a slave, though Defoe does not say so outright—elects to go with Crusoe. Xury is only with the protagonist long enough to show the increase of Crusoe’s fortunes in two ways. The first is that, once Crusoe gets hold of a modern rifle, he uses it to flagrantly kill a lion minding its own business on the coast of Africa—one of many cavalier slayings by the Englishman. The second is that when Crusoe and Xury encounter a Portuguese captain, Crusoe actually sells Xury as a slave to the captain—and Xury is totally fine with it, accepting the provision that he’ll be freed in two years if he serves the captain well.

Since the captain’s port of call is Brazil, Crusoe uses his newfound wealth to buy a plantation there. Defoe doesn’t want this part of Crusoe’s life to become important, so despite being on the plantation for years, Crusoe does not marry or make any friends, and is in a sense almost as isolated as he will be following the third nautical voyage. This one, of course, goes down with all hands except for stranding Robinson Crusoe on a deserted Caribbean island.

This is of course the part of the novel that everyone knows by heart. Crusoe scavenges what he can from the wrecked ship, bewails his isolation for a time, and then slowly makes the island over into his own personal resort. The ship gives him ample firearms and ammunition, as well as a dog and some cats for minor companionship (none of whom he ever names). He soon finds that with patience, he can make by hand anything he really needs. He has any number of “Job moments,” where he wonders what he did to bring his creator’s wrath down upon him. But because he’s pious, eventually he decides to agree with Job, that the creator can do anything he likes with his creation.

Crusoe spends eighteen years on the island before he comes across the famous “footprint in the sand.” He’s freaked out by the lone footprint, surmising—correctly—that it was left by a Caribbean Indian, whose tribe is likely to practice the despicable rite of cannibalism. Some time later, some of the Indians begin landing their canoes on the island, explicitly to devour their captives, and Crusoe finds the gory remains. He entertains fantasies about using his guns to devastate their ranks, though prudence—the realization that some might get away and alert their fellow tribesmen—puts the brake on this resolve. (Again, he frames his prudence in religious terms: it’s not for him to punish the godless tribesmen if God doesn’t. etc.) But he does build up his ego by imagining his puissance—“I was a formidable fellow to look at when I went abroad”—though it’s significant that his ego depends principally on his many weapons.

Shortly before encountering the other best-known character in the novel, Crusoe presciently dreams of befriending one of the natives for a companion. He makes the dream come true days later, rescuing a native from his cannibal captors and killing them before they know what’s happening. He dubs the native Friday after the day on which he was rescued, and proceeds to instruct the willing native in the superiority of a Christian, non-cannibalistic outlook. Friday proves an easy convert, despite wondering why God doesn’t just kill the troublemaking Satan. After a short period of convivial life with Friday, Defoe gives Crusoe an almost anti-climactic out. Mutineers come to the island to get rid of the ship’s loyal sailors, but Crusoe prevents the murder of the crewmen. However, he also takes pity on the mutineers and leaves them on the island with assorted supplies, in lieu of their being hanged for mutiny. Then Cruose and Friday journey back to civilization. The rest of the novel is then devoted to sorting out Crusoe’s finances—his holdings have made him a rich man, even in his long absence—except for one last sortie with Friday.

While Crusoe is blissfully careless about wiping out any life-form that gets in his way, Defoe does play fair in showing Friday’s people to be just as anti-PETA. In the novel’s last chapter, Crusoe, Friday, and some companions have gone out into the wild, where they encounter various animals, including a bear. The bear seems willing to leave the humans alone, but Friday goes out of his way to antagonize the creature, and then shoot it through the head. Friday then justifies his actions by stating that his people killed bears in similar fashion back on their island, which would suggest that Defoe considered it a mark of manhood to slaughter animals, whether one worshipped the True God or not.

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE picks up with Crusoe when he’s a comfortable sixty years old, married and settled in England. Yet he can’t let go of adventure, and leaves his wife behind to go to sea on a ship captained by his (never-named) nephew. Crusoe returns to his old island, and many chapters are devoted to conflicts between the lowlife English mutineers and industrious Spanish colonizers. There are also some more attempts at conversion, as one of the mutineers tries to explain Christianity to his Carib Indian wife. There’s a big fight when several canoes invade the island to attack the new arrivals, and the cannibals are outgunned and defeated. Crusoe then leaves the island for good.

However, the fate of the cannibals is a light one, compared to what happens to the natives of Madagascar when Crusoe’s ship makes landfall there. One of the sailors kidnaps a local woman, and while the word “rape” is never voiced, it’s fairly evident that this is what happens. The culprit is captured by the tribesmen, and Crusoe joins a party of sailors to investigate what happened to him. (FWIW, an innocent member of the crew is slain when the natives take the offender.) When the sailors find the rapist dead and mutilated, they lose all control and slaughter at least a hundred of the natives, though supposedly leaving most of the women and children unharmed. Crusoe himself does not take part in the killings, though he doesn’t endanger himself to stop them either. Back on the ship, he often voices his condemnation of the slaughter, to the extent that the sailors demand that the captain leave Crusoe behind in the port of Bengal. This is the closest Crusoe comes to being isolated again, though this time he has money and is able to link up with a trade-caravan on its way to China. The caravan suffers a few attacks by Tartar bandits, who are again vanquished by European weaponry. However, the remainder of the novel emphasizes Crusoe’s righteous scorn for the pagan Chines. There's an extremely chauvinistic chapter in which Crusoe leads a group in destroying a village idol that for some reason irritates the hell out of the pious Englishman. He again returns to England, richer than before, but resolved never to travel forth again, except for the ultimate voyage to meet his Maker.

I’ve often disagreed with the Mickey Marxists who want to see imperialism in every story that stars a straight white male, or fails to portray people of color as they want to see themselves. But I must admit that the CRUSOE novels exhibit a chauvinism so extreme that authors like Haggard, Doyle and Kipling look like models of liberalism by comparison. Defoe allows Crusoe a few moments of cultural relativism—he admits that the Spanish committed many atrocities against the natives of the New World—but at base, the author wants to give his audience a picture of the world as one where nothing, not even a mass slaughter, seriously challenges any preconceptions.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

ENSEMBLES DISASSEMBLED

In TRANSITIVE AND INTRANSITIVE ENSEMBLES, I explored some of the ways in which various characters did or did not belong to ensembles occupying a work's narrative center. For instance, I regarded Captain America to be the only centric star of CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR. while the Avengers and other superheroes were all "guest stars." Yet in AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS, it's not just the Avengers, but most of the heroes, including Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy, who provide the ensemble. Only a smattering of goodguy protagonists, like Wong and Nick Fury, don't qualify as members of the centric ensemble,  because they function largely as support-cast

This line of thought was designed to cope with the extended casts of multi-character smorgashbords, such as the Jim Starlin mashups that influenced INFINITY WAR. Generally speaking, I think most of these mashups follow the same pattern as INFINITY WAR, with one big exception: CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. 

I scanned through the twelve-issue series recently, and found that it was not structured quite the same as the usual superhero smorgasbord. Marvel's competing project of the time, SECRET WARS, included a huge ensemble-cast, most of whom were Marvel's most popular heroes. though as I commented in TRANSITIVE, one of the participants in the "Wars," Lockheed the Dragon, still rated no more than support-cast status.

CRISIS, however, was much more ambitious than SECRET WARS, given that it was a sendoff to DC Comics' complicated continuity. Whether for reasons of sentiment or marketing, Wolfman, Perez and whoever else worked behind the scenes attempted to work in not only all the DC heroes being published at the time, but dozens of characters without a current berth, ranging from Rip Hunter Time Master to Detective Chimp. I didn't even attempt to count all of the heroes who participated in the battle against the Anti-Monitor, but it seems obvious that, in order to function as part of the ensemble, a given character would have to "stand out" from the madding crowd.

Some characters are clearly front-and-center. like Superman and his dead cousin.




And the Flash, who also bites the big one here.



But when Wolfman and Perez kill off an almost forgotten western hero, the Nighthawk, within one page, I would have to say that the late, not-great Nighthawk is no more than a guest-star.



Ditto more celebrated heroes who just participate for a panel or two, like the Metal Men.



Even getting a few pages to themselves, as happens with this motley crew (one of whom is the Atomic Knight, an unsuccessful reboot of a John Broome concept), doesn't serve to make the likes of Dolphin and Captain Comet part of the centric ensemble. I seem to remember that Animal-Man (seen there behind Atomic Knight) plays a little more central role in another section, but this raises the question: what criterion here does separate the assembled from the disassembled?


In features with regular characters-- like, say, the MCU's Captain America series-- guest-stars are narratively subordinate to the starring characters. I've made similar arguments in regard to horror-stories, arguing that Doctor Moreau, not his animal-people, is the star of Wells' ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU , while Stevenson's Edward Hyde assumes more narrative importance than his alter ego Henry Jekyll. So clearly, if I were ever moved to list exactly which characters in the compendious CRISIS belonged to the ensemble, I would probably include only those that had a very strong influence upon the outcome of the overall plot.

Not that I anticipate doing so at any near point in the future, though.





QUICK THOUGHTS ON DITKO'S DEMISE

I've already devoted essays to some of Ditko's major stories, but I'll be culling through his other works looking for further illuminating Ditkoisms. At present I still feel that his Blue Beetle story "The Destroyer of Heroes" is the best statement of his philosophy, but there's definitely more worth investigating.

In lieu of a real Ditko overview, here are some cool but obscure moments of Ditko greatness:

Here's a lively scene from the adaptation of the movie GORGO, in Charlton's GORGO #1:



Here's his tantalizingly weird "The Missing Man" (paging Doctor Freud?)


Ditko's short-lived CREEPER magazine had some great art, but I even liked the character's later outing as a backup feature in WORLD'S FINEST, where Ditko sought to be more self-consciously looney. (It's also one of the few times Ditko came back to a character after some years, which the artist did not typically do.)



The even more short-lived KILLJOY was one of Ditko's few overt satirical works.



And it's been argued that his work with Stan Lee on the second HULK feature was far more important to making the character popular with readers, in contrast to the five-issue, somewhat scattershot Lee-Kirby effort.



And I should make a tip of the hat to Ditko's seemingly numberless anthology stories. An online blog carried this weirdly designed page from a story I've not read, from MANY GHOSTS OF DOCTOR GRAVES #24. Only Steve Ditko could tell a romance-story like this!


Friday, July 6, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "SCARLET OHARA," "CHARLES BONAPARTE," FREEZING (2011?)

In last week's mythcomics survey of a particular LOVE HINA arc, I wrote:

More often than not, manga-serials are written with a definite conclusion in the author's mind. This doesn't always mean that they qualify as having a "unity of action," however. I did regard the completed story of HELLSING to comprise one big myth, and though DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND is still a "work in progress," I judged that the most recent addition to its storyline suggests the high amplitude of a mythcomic.

I went on to state that LOVE HINA's entire story did not embody an entire myth, but that at least one story and one long arc could be taken as mythcomics, making them parts of the story that had a higher value than the whole, so to speak. I suspect that this week's entry, FREEZING by writer Dall-Young Lim and artist Kwang-Yun Kim, will be the same, but like VAMPIRE BUND the entire story has not appeared yet. I've now read 12 of the 29 extant collected volumes, and I would judge that FREEZING doesn't have BUND's level of complexity. Within the twelve volumes I've read, I've encountered no single stories or arcs worth analyzing, as I found in LOVE HINA, but I did take note of two vignettes.

Vignettes, as I've noted here, are never as fully developed as short stories, though the former can still have the semblance of a "beginning, middle, and end." The essay references the origin of Batman, which is a vignette within the context of a more cohesive story. In FREEZING, however, the vignettes I examine take the form of short flashbacks in the heads of characters undergoing long story-arcs. The flashbacks are meant to give the reader greater insight into both the characters and the world they inhabit.



FREEZING follows a pattern made popular by 1994's NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. In the older manga/anime, Earth is invaded by giant aliens, and the only Earth-people who can stop them are a handful of high-school students with special abilities. FREEZING follows the same pattern, but employs a much larger coterie of characters, possibly in imitation of 2001's BLEACH. There are two principal characters, Japanese Kazuya Aoi and his partner-in-peril, the bizarrely named "Satellizer El Bridget," but neither of them is directly involved in the two flashback-vignettes I'm considering.

Both Kazuya and Satellizer belong to the military forces ranged against the mysterious "Nova" invaders. All males in these special forces are, like Kazuya, called "Limiters," while all females, like Satellizer, are called "Pandoras." The female characters of FREEZING are the more formidable fighters, in that their bodies are able to play host to quasi-organic implants called "stigmata." The implants make the women stronger and more resilient than ordinary humans, as well as giving them the power to manifest "volt weapons" out of empty air. Most of the storylines are devoted to the experiences of the Pandoras, who, despite having received their powers through genetic manipulation, are also implicated in a variety of quasi-Christian references, which narrative strategy may also owe something to EVANGELION.



The first vignette is named for the female scientific genius responsible for the implants. I have no idea why the creators named her after Margaret Mitchell's Civil War heroine, although the "Seven Seas" English translation uses the surname "Oohara," possibly to deflect lawsuits from the Mitchell estate. Scarlet's flashback establishes that she's the consummate scientific overreeacher, who plans to create a new species of Pandoras. She finds herself in conflict with her superior Doctor Aoi, father of Kazuya, because Aoi believes "the survival of humankind will be granted to us by the heavens." While Ohara believes that all of their scientific techniques are totally the creation of human culture, Aoi believes that they can only enhance what God has given them, and believes that Maria Lancelot (note the Christian choice of names), the earliest Pandora, "is involved with God somehow." The irreconcilable differences of believer and non-believer only last seven pages, but they're meant to underscore Ohara's future actions, as she takes the Pandora experiment into new and dangerous territory-- thus confirming Aoi's reservations, if not his religious interpretation of life.



The focus of the second flashback displays an equally puzzling name; despite being one of the female Pandoras, she's called Charles Bonaparte, apparently named for the father of Napoleon I. But whereas the original Bonaparte was a minor nobleman, Charles-- who chooses to go into a flashback after beating down a fellow Pandora, rich girl Elizabeth Mably-- was originally a poor girl abandoned by her family. She's taken in by Director Spenser, a politician involved with the Pandora project. Spenser adopts Charles, who turns out to have Pandora potential herself. Spenser, however, displays an almost Nietzschean contempt for the lower classes. He first meets Charles when she's being bullied by a nasty gang of urchins, and he tells them, "Entitled trash heaps like you confuse the goodwill of others with god-given rights." Later he expatiates further on his quasi-aristocratic views: "Less powerful people shun responsibility and make no attempt to become strong. They demand equality, all the while doing nothing but caring for themselves."



In contrast to the first flashback when the female Bonaparte ends her sojourn into memory, her point-of-view is somewhat refuted. Her opponent Elizabeth rises despite having been beaten and overpowers Charles in their second fight, making the ironic comment that "true victory belongs only to the righteous" and "that is why your strength will fall to my weakness."

If these two flashbacks were integrated into stand-alone stories, I probably would regard them only as "near myths." However, because the two vignettes occur as roughly independent sections of very long, complicated arcs, I regard them as having the status of mythic vignettes, in the same way that I regarded the Origin of Batman as having its own amplitude apart from the larger story in which it appeared.