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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, August 20, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "BOY MEETS GIRL" (URUSEI YATSURA, 1987)

For my 100th mythcomics post, I chose a story that had some major resonance, and the same holds true for #200.

In my analysis of a particular arc of URUSEI YATSURA stories, I observed that despite the great creativity of manga-creator Rumiko Takahashi, she often didn't go much further than create wacky comic situations.

However, in subsequent stories Takahashi doesn't truly examine the Lum-Ataru relationship in mythic depth. It becomes just a comic routine; Ataru refuses to acknowledge his "marriage" to Lum (or for that matter, whatever genuine feelings he eventually has for her), runs around futilely trying to date other women, and gets punished for it by Lum's demonic powers. 
Still, like most manga-makers, at some point Takahashi decided to wrap the series, which obligated her to give her readers a finale. However, though the author had suggested the possibility of the two hyper-aggressives being permanently married, she chose not to have them wed at the feature's conclusion. It may be that she wanted to keep the situation open-ended for the purpose of independent anime productions (though only one such production came out in 1991, following the anime-adaptation of BOY MEETS GIRL).

In any case, BOY starts out typically enough. Lum has a minatory dream of impending darkness, but Ataru won't listen as he goes girl-chasing, resulting in the usual chaos.



However, Lum's dreams anticipate a long-buried family secret: that her great-great-great grandfather promised her hand in marriage to a scion of the "World of Darkness."  This is a sunless world inhabited by dark-skinned humanoids in Arab-looking attire. The Darkworlders are sustained by mushroom, given that fungi don't need sunlight to grow. Lum's intended, Prince Rupa, shows up on Earth, driving a flying chariot pulled by flying pigs (apparently a reference to porkers and their love of truffles), and asserts that he is to be married to Lum. He slips a ring on her finger, but not just as a promise of his intentions.



Rupa's ring is designed to accelerate Lum's aging process just enough that she loses her horns and her powers, making it easy to do a Hades-routine with Lum as Persephone.


Ataru, belying his usual indifference to Lum, organizes a pursuit party made up of Lum's circle of friends, but as soon as they arrive in the Darkworld, their spaceship crashes into another one. The friends are all captured except for Ataru, who encounters a Darkworld native, Lady Carla, who was the pilot of the other spaceship. She finds Araru and wants him to marry her-- or, rather, to fake a marriage so that Carla can prevent Lum from marrying Rupa, who was at one point Carla's intended.



Without going into all of Takahashi's fine points of comic confusion, Lum doesn't marry Rupa-- not least because she gets back her powers-- but both she and Ataru become estranged, having respectively been convinced that the other has cheated with one of the Darkworlders. Takahashi gives the quarrel an epic connotation, however, in that Lum has finally had enough of Ataru's constant attempts to woo other women. Rupa and Carla are perhaps more substantive threats because they are loose mirror-images of Ataru and Lum, though Rupa is not as lustful as Ataru and Carla is more casually violent than Lum. Rupa returns to Earth with Ataru and the other rescuers, while Lum remains in the Darkworld with Rupa.

Through more comic complications, the Earth gets overrun by Carla's giant mushrooms.



This gives Lum an inspiration. Though she's pursued her "darling" for years, it's always been out of an instinct that he loved her, rather than any outright confession on his part. So Lum makes a deal with Rupa. The two of them will send Rupa's mushroom-eating pigs to devour the offending fungi, if Ataru can win a race against Lum, essentially a replay of the contest that brought them together in the first URUSEI episode, A GOOD CATCH. Lum stipulates that he can only win one of two ways, by grabbing her horns against her will, or by capitulating by admitting his true love for her. (This would seem to be Lum's way of forcing Ataru to make a commitment less equivocal than his apparent marriage-proposal in CATCH.)





Araru defies Lum, believing that he can catch her as he did before, though on another level, he doesn't want her to hear a confession that's been coerced.




To up the stakes even more, Lum unleashes an "amnesia device" that will, if Ataru loses the contest, erase the memories of all Earth-people about their alien visitors. Lum's mix of alien and human friends don't want to forget one another, and try, with slapstick results, to stop the device. As for Ataru, he's determined not to forget Lum, even though he has no chance to capture her against her will.

Takahashi does formulate a way to give Lum her victory without forcing Ataru to make a direct commitment, which, as I said before, allows the author to restore the status quo. Yet on the final page, Takahashi gives her final comment on the "war between men and women." Lum pledges to spend the rest of her life trying to make Ataru confess his love, and he answers that "I'll say it on my death-bed." It's a conclusion that allows Ataru to hold onto his stubborn masculine reticence, and yet also gives Lum a confession more implicit than explicit, thus binding them not to a marriage contract, such as the one Lum's relative negotiated, but a social contract appropriate to their equally bull-headed natures.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "HOW WILL WE KEEP WARM WHEN THE LAST FLAME DIES?" (G-S MAN-THING #1, 1974)

In my mythcomics-review of a HOWARD THE DUCK issue, I commented: "While Gerber's preoccupations on the Man-Thing-- one story analyzed here-- tend toward the kinetic and the mythopoeic, most of the HOWARD stories focus on elements of the dramatic and the didactic."

I've always thought that MAN-THING was a much mythopoeic series than its contemporaneous competitor, DC's SWAMP THING. Nevertheless, after doing a quick re-read of Gerber's tenure on the feature, I must admit that Gerber may have been a little too preoccupied with making rational "overthoughts" than with giving free reign to his mythical "underthoughts." That's not to say that Gerber wasn't an imaginative writer. Indeed, back in The Day he was probably esteemed for his ability to spin wild fantasy-sequences not only in "edgy" books like MAN-THING and HOWARD but also in "mainstream" titles like THE DEFENDERS and MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE. Regrettably, though, even though MAN-THING might have held the greatest potential capacity for the mythopoeic, too often Gerber seems concerned with making moral statements. "Decay and the Mad Viking" (MT #16) arranges a promising *enantiodromia* between the Viking's murderous masculinity and the implied quasi-femininity of his degenerate victims, but the story doesn't quite make either side come alive in a mythic sense. "Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man" (MT #12) records the mental breakdown of an ad-agency writer besieged by the phantoms of everyone who ever wanted a piece of him, but the focus only upon financial threats to the "dead man's" peace of mind keeps the story from delving into the essence of the Buberian "I-it" relationship.



"How Will We Keep Warm," which sounds a little like the title of a MOD SQUAD episode, enhances some of the ongoing environmental tropes of the feature. Often Man-Thing, a man transformed into a swamp-monster, mindlessly defends his domain against intruders, but most stories failed to realize the tragic disconnect between nature and culture. "Warm," however, dovetails the Man-Thing concept with the prevailing American fears of survival brought on by the 1973 fuel crisis.

As in most stories, the mindless swamp creature simply wanders about until he encounters the more active characters in his story, composed here of two factions. One faction is a group of scientists who have decided that the Florida swamp is the best possible place to build a self-sustaining alternative-power community, given the rather downbeat name of Omegaville, because it's "man's last chance." ("Alphaville" would have been more upbeat, but it had already been used.) The other faction is a group of modern cultists called "Entropists," since they worship the concept that the universe is governed by entropy, the tendency toward decay. The Entropists want to prevent Omegaville from re-igniting human possibilities, so one of the cultists unleashes the power of the Golden Brain. This disembodied organ projects an energy-demon that looks suspiciously like an old monster-enemy of Marvel's Hulk-- though Man-Thing is provoked enough to destroy the energy-creature.




The violence causes the lead cultist to lose his grip on the brain, which falls into the swamp. The scientists get clear and the cultists return to their base, allowing for Gerber to relate the history of the brain. Thus he recapitulates the last two appearances of "the Glob," a man who got turned into a muck-thing years before Man-Thing came into being. During the creature's second encounter with the Incredible Hulk, the Glob's muck-body was destroyed, except for its brain. (Gerber gives no reason for the brain to be gold-hued, though personally it reminded me of the so-called "golden egg" of Hindu theology.) The brain is picked up by a fellow named Yagzan, the leader of the Entropy Cult, and he's first seen killing off the cultist who bungled the attack on the Omegaville scientists.

While Yagzan-- drawn by Mike Ploog to look much like Richard Nixon-- lays plans for another attack on Omegaville, the Glob-brain doesn't just sit on the bog's bottom. Though not precisely sentient, the brain assembles a new body for itself out of the swamp's elements, though as a Gerber caption comments, the brain's new body doesn't look like the original body of its owner, but looks as if "sculptured by Michelangelo." However, the new body is also a tabula rasa, in that its owner no longer remembers its previous existence, or even how to speak. Naked as Adam-- to whom he's later compared-- the former monster wanders into the haven of Omegaville, where the scientists take him in and name him Joe, calling him "Omegaville's first native-- Adam created from clay to live in the garden, and all that." Joe takes basic pleasure in serving the community, while the mindless Man-Thing looks on from the sidelines, anticipating trouble.



The Entropists show up, and Yagzan recognizes his former pawn in the speechless Joe. Yagzan tries to force the brain to devolve, but it can only go so far, at which point the cult-leader orders the reborn Glob to attack "man's last hope." The Glob manages to destroy most of the community until Man-Thing intrudes, eventuating in what may be the world's first "battle of the muck-monsters."




Since it's Man-Thing's book, he manages to vanquish the Glob, who takes cult-leader Yagzan down with him. Despite this triumph, the story ends on a note of pessimism, since Omegaville has been destroyed, and never again shows up in the Marvel Universe, to my knowledge. True, American fears about the fuel crisis waned once the country made trade concessions. But Gerber delivers a vision of doom that goes beyond newspaper headlines, with his Entropists incarnating the human tendency to lust after ultimate destruction.

THE FOUR AGES OF DYNAMIS

“Look at the four-spaced year
That imitates four seasons of our lives;
First Spring, that delicate season, bright with flowers,
Quickening, yet shy, and like a milk-fed child,
Its way unsteady while the countryman
Delights in promise of another year.
Green meadows wake to bloom, frail shoots and grasses,
And then Spring turns to Summer's hardiness,
The boy to manhood. There's no time of year
Of greater richness, warmth, and love of living,
New strength untried. And after Summer, Autumn,
First flushes gone, the temperate season here
Midway between quick youth and growing age,
And grey hair glinting when the head turns toward us, 
Then senile Winter, bald or with white hair,
Terror in palsy as he walks alone.” -- Ovid, METAMORPHOSES

...in future uses, I'll define *dynamis* only as a significant value, in that the character "power of action" in the story is pre-ordained by the type of story in which he finds himself, be it adventure, comedy, irony or drama.-- DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY.

My thoughts recently turned to Frye's application of the four seasons to his four mythoi, which I've frequently glossed with the four "moods" cited by Theodor H. Gaster in his THESPIS, as seen in REFINING THE DEFINING:

ADVENTURE conveys the INVIGORATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon how protagonists who defend life and/or goodness from whatever forces are inimical to them. The protagonists' power of action is at its highest here.
COMEDY conveys the JUBILATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon how the heroes seek happiness/contentment in a world that has some element of craziness to it (what I've termed the "incognitive" myth-radical), yet does not deny the heroes some power of action.
IRONY conveys the MORTIFICATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon characters in a world where the "power of action" is fundamentally lacking.
DRAMA conveys the PURGATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon "individuals who find themselves in some way cast out from the main society." Power of action here is more ambivalent than that of the adventure-mythos but seems more crucial to the individual's problem than it does for that of the comic hero.

It then occurred to me that these different forms of dynamis, of the power-of-action, might line up rather well with the so-called "four ages of man." I read through Frye's original formulation of the mythoi in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, and could not see that he'd made any Ovidian comparisons between the seasons  and the ages of man, though it's not impossible that I saw someone else make such a correlation. Neither does Theodor Gaster, but in THESPIS he provided examples of the dominant characteristics of each religious ritual that summoned the four Gasterian moods. The invigorative ritual, according to Gaster, always revolves around acts of combat. The purgative ritual centers upon the expulsion of the scapegoat. The mortificative ritual emphasizes ceremonies of abjection, such as fasting and lamentation for vanished communal energy. Lastly, Gaster addresses the jubilative ritual, but does not go into nearly as much detail as he does with the others, merely stating that there's already a wealth of data on such jubilative rituals, most of which accord with the idea of harvest-celebrations. Curiously, I've criticized Frye in past essays for not quite being able to get a handle on the radical of the comedy mythos, so that I had to come up with my own, "the incognitive," which may or may not accord with the formulations of the ancient world.

So which mood/mythos aligns with which "age of man?" In this I'm guided by Frye's remarks on comedy, which he asserts to be guided by a passage from "law" to "liberty," as when the protagonist starts out being constrained by some seemingly arbitrary restriction-- as in Greek New Comedy, it's the young man being denied access to his lady-love by a "heavy father." But although this familiar trope suggests the activities of the adolescent, I find that the dynamis involved in moving from a state of restriction to one of liberty most resembles the struggle of EveryChild. All kids are born into cultures whose values must be accepted as given, and though no child escapes being influenced by his or her culture, the child also defines him/herself in terms of struggling against that matrix. The comic mood arises from the incongruity of the child's struggle to "delight in promise of another year," to find his/her place in the culture of one's birth, even while rejecting some aspect of the culture.

The real star of "Summer's hardiness" is therefore the protagonist of the adventure-story, who exists to invigorate the audience by showing a desirable outcome to the war between Good and Evil, Summer and Winter, etc. This is a state of affairs where, following Frye's pattern, "law" in the sense of onerous restrictions ceases to exist, and the hero has almost untrammeled "liberty" to remake the world in line with his heroic ideals. Even heroes who perish at the end of their stories, like Beowulf, leave the reader with this sense of societal transformation.

Following close on the dynamis-heels of the adventure-story is the drama, whose protagonist is often a figure with some claim to heroic status, but who has become dangerous to his society in some way. The dynamis of the dramatic hero reverses that of the comic hero, for the protagonist is first seen in some condition of relative "liberty," at which point he begins to succumb to some arbitrary "law." Ovid's phrase, "quick youth and growing age," catches the sense that the dramatic protagonist is succumbing just as the person in his middle years, the "temperate season," is slowly losing his hold on the "first flushes" of youthful energy.

Finally, it should be obvious that the domain of the irony-mythos is one that is almost entirely dominated by that of arbitrary "law," with precious little "liberty" to speak of. This is the world of the last age, wherein the protagonist displays "terror in palsy as he walks alone"-- knowing, of course, that the society cannot rescue him from being conquered by the law of death, when there is no "promise of another year."

I may investigate these four age-oriented radicals in terms of some specific examples in a future essay.


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

COGNITIVE CHAINS

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.-- Rousseau.

I don't have any interest in visiting Rousseau's antiquated explanation of the disparity between freedom and its lack, but his aphorism does throw a little light on the acquaintance/discursive duality I've been investigating lately.

I re-read the relevant sections of Langer's PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, and her division of "presentational symbolism" and "discursive symbolism" are definitely structured in a similar fashion to the dualities propounded by James and Russell. The main difference between Langer's formula and earlier "a/d" formulations is that Langer has been heavily influenced by Cassirer's distinction between "mythical thinking" and "theoretical/discursive thinking." Thus, rather than conceiving of "acquaintance" in a generalized sense, Langer substitutes presentational symbolism as a way of conceiving how human beings separate the data of the senses into discrete, meaningful symbols that do not "describe" anything, but simply "present" themselves to the subject in terms of their emotional values.

I favor Langer's alteration, but as I noted in FOUNTS OF KNOWLEDGE PT. 3, the two forms of symbolism interpenetrate one another, possibly more than Langer credited:

Thus, it would seem that even when humans are seeking to plumb the depths of presentational symbolism in order to employ tropes that transmit deep emotional states of mind, the same humans cannot help but reproduce aspects of discursive symbolism characteristic of the theoretical mind...

Earlier I expressed these two tendencies in a more opposed fashion in AFFECTIVE FREEDOM, COGNITIVE RESTRAINT:


One mythical idea to which Cassirer refers occasionally is myth’s view of the origins of the world. Some mythical tales hold the world comes into being only because some giant being—Ymir in Norse stories, Purusha in Hindu stories—is torn apart, so that the different parts of the giant’s body become the earth, the seas, the moon, etc. Within the scope of these narratives, there is no attempt to provide a rationale as to why the world had to made from the flesh and bones of a giant. It is true purely because it confers the aura of human associations upon the whole of creation, even those aspects of creation that may seem entirely alien to human experience. This is what I’ve called “affective freedom,” humankind’s ability to imagine almost anything, whether it accords with experience or not... Rational conceptions of causal relations, of course, could not care less about the aura of subjective emotions and drives: the desire is to extrapolate a closed system of relations that depend entirely on physical force: CAUSE A exerts FORCE B upon OBJECT C, resulting in RESULT Z. This tendency to rely exclusively upon material experience is one that I’m now terming “cognitive restraint.” Just as in psychology “the affective” and “the cognitive” describe complementary aspects of human mentality, “cognitive restraint” exists in a complementary relationship with “affective freedom.” In other words, human beings are entirely defined by neither: we need both the ability to imagine what seems impossible and to discourse about what we believe to be immediately possible.

This is where Rousseau becomes relevant. For me, man is "free" only in the sense that he can imagine any number of situations that may (or may not) contribute to his real freedom. The same man is "in chains" because he will always be faced with circumstances arising from simply being a corporeal entity subject to all sorts of realistic limitations.

More later.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "FRANK'S REAL PA" (1995)

I've never found much mythic content in the majority of "pantomime comics," that is, comics wherein stories make no use, or nearly no use, of words, either in captions or speech balloons. I'm largely familiar with American works like Carl Anderson's HENRY, Otto Soglow's THE LITTLE KING, and various Sergio Aragones features, as well as a few similar efforts from Moebius. Even at their best, pantomime comics's lack of words seems to rob them of depth, in a manner parallel to the findings of Susanne Langer re: music:

 "[Music] is a limited idiom, like an artificial language, only even less successful; for music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an unconsummated symbol.  Articulation is its life, but not assertion; expressiveness, not expression.  The actual function of meaning, which calls for permanent contents, is not fulfilled; for the assignment of one rather than another possible meaning to each form is never explicitly made."-- Susanne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 240.

However, wordless pictures are not nearly as bereft of "permanent contents" as wordless musical compositions. Though I've never agreed with comics-critics who privilege the art over the words in every respect, art by itself can convey particularized forms of expression, rather than just "expressiveness." However, I tend to think that pantomime comics with overt fantasy-content are more likely to avoid the representational simplicity that I've found in, say, the works of Anderson and Soglow.



In the 1990s Fantagraphics published four issues of FRANK, featuring the titular "generic anthropomorph," to use Woodring's  term for him. Since there are no words in the stories, one can only know the main character's name from the cover, and the same is true for other regular cast-members, whose roles in the stories are fluid and vary from story to story: "Whim," a devil-like figure with a thin body and a crescent-moon face, the Manhog, a conflation of man and hog, Frank's faithful pet Pupshaw, who looks like a sofa-cushion with features, legs and a tail, and "the Jersey Chickens," various intelligent chickens. FRANK'S REAL PA was also published by Fantagraphics in a one-shot comic, after having first appeared in segments in THE MILLENNIUM WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.



Though the title suggests that the titular character may at some time go looking for his "real pa," Frank doesn't show much interest in such parent-quests in the early pages of the story. Frank's first seen looking at various sights in what turns out to be an enclosed city. As he looks through a particular window, he sees a well lined with eye-motifs (or maybe real eyes). Frank experiences a vivid dream in which he imagines himself falling into the well and being transformed into a weird geometrical shape. He awakes from the dream and leaves the city, whereupon he encounters one of the Jersey Chickens selling a rug that looks like the eye-well. Frank buys the rug and takes it home.

\

At home Frank's greeted by Pupshaw, but the pet doesn't like the rug and tries to throw it out. Frank retrieves the rug, but he's so fascinated by the eye-motifs that he falls asleep on it rather than sleeping in his bed. He dreams of walking around with his father-- who looks largely like Frank, but walks around on all fours like Pupshaw. He sees another well and experiences more bizarre things in his dream. Pupshaw sees his master suffering amid nightmares and destroys the rug.

However, horrific dreams notwithstanding, Frank is well and truly hooked on, well, the well. He wanders into the wilderness, and happens upon yet another real well in a cave-dwelling. This well is tended by another of Woodring's regulars, Lucky, a fellow with an absurdly elongated face. Frank can''t reach this well any more than he could get to the first one, but he sees Lucky take some water out of the well. The reader-- though not Frank, who gets left behind-- watches as Lucky takes a long, water-filled jar through his caves, invites the crescent-faced Whim to jump into the jar, and then ties the Manhog so that he'll drag the jar outside the cave. Once outside, the pig-man gets loose of his traces and leaves the jar behind. Frank claims it. However, a giant spectre pours out of the jar and resolves itself into Whim.



Whim takes Frank into the caverns but shuts him up in a room that has a few random objects in it: a pistol, a bicycle, and a ladder leading down into a hole in the floor. Lucky brings in the disobedient Mamhog and sticks him in the room with Frank. For no reason I could see, the pig-man threatens to shoot Frank, who takes the gun away. He dumps the gun into the hole and then climbs down the ladder.

In an otherwise dark chamber below, Frank meets two identical versions of his father. He apparently feels he has to choose between them, and does so, though Woodring gives no input as to whether Frank has made the correct choice or not.



Finally, accompanied by his maybe-real pa, Frank finally comes across the eye-well, and jumps into its waters. He almost drowns, but faithful Pupshaw has tracked his mater to the cave and rescues him. Frank has been weirdly transformed even as he was in the dream, so Pupshaw manages to pester Whim into reversing the transformation. The maybe-real pa escorts Frank and his pet to the exit, but stays behind while Frank and Pupshaw implicitly go home.

So what does it all mean? Normal textual analysis is obviously impossible, but if I were to reduce the symbolic complexity FRANK'S REAL PA to a Levi-Straussian binary, I'd probably say that Frank is an "ordinary guy" who becomes so captivated by the allure of an extra-ordinary experience that he risks his life to obtain it. It's interesting that Woodring joins Frank's obsessive quest for a horrific experience with the more universally accepted motif of "the quest for the lost father." Given that the reader never knows whether or not Frank's made the right choice re: the two fathers, FRANK'S  REAL PA qualifies for the Fryean mode of the irony, in which the reader never knows as to the certainty of the characters' experiences.

Monday, August 6, 2018

OSCAR-BAIT AND ULTRALIBERAL POWER FANTASIES

On a political thread, I wrote (at least partly with reference to the activities of Antifa):


The other day I got round to seeing Oscar nominee THREE BILLBOARDS, ETC. I knew only bits and pieces about the film going in, but now I see that the movie, however unintentionally, delivers a great metaphor for the current confusion of liberals, ultraliberals, and whatever most of the posters here call themselves. It's a movie that shows how the descendants of liberals have become the thing they profess to hate: advocating senseless violence and vigilantism-- I highlight "senseless" as opposed to efficacious activity-- willing to do anything so that they, the quasi-liberals, no longer feel weak and disempowered.

Some SPOILERS now, since I want to touch on some pertinent details on this weird, thoroughly unfocused piece of Oscar-bait:

(1) In Ebbing, Missouri, middle-aged Mildred Hayes puts up three billboards to castigate the local lawmen for failing to solve the rape and murder and Mildred's teenaged daughter. The lawmen can't legally force her to take down the uncomplimentary billboards, but most of the Ebbing people are against Mildred. Much of the resistance stems from "the old boy's network," though some locals sympathize with police chief Willoughby-- who is named in a billboard that reads, "How come, Chief Willoughby?"--  because he's dying of cancer.

(2) Willoughby's principal deputy, Dixon, is said to be a racist because he supposedly hassles Ebbing's black citizens, though only one incident takes place during the main story. Dixon supposedly regards the older Willoughby as some sort of father-figure, though the early part of the film doesn't really make this case. Yet one has to assume something along these lines, because when Willoughby commits suicide, Dixon goes berserk and beats up the guy who owns the billboards. This gets him fired from the police force.

(3) An unknown vandal burns down Mildred's billboards. Mildred assumes that one of the cops did it and bombards the police station with Molotov cocktails. Dixon, who happens to be inside the closed station after hours, gets severely burned. However, because Dixon has received a letter from the dead Willoughby, Dixon feels a belated desire to be a real cop rather than the town bully-boy.

(4) Mildred finds out that the billboard vandal was none other than her ex-husband, whose reasons for the arson make no sense at all.

(5) Dixon, by dumb luck (if that's the word for it), goes to a bar and overhears a conversation between two men, one of whom references a rape not unlike that of Mildred's daughter. Through an involved process Dixon manages to get a DNA sample from the big-talker. He prematurely tells Mildred that he may've located the rapist-murderer. However, the sample avails Dixon nothing, for the sample doesn't match that of the uncaught rapist of Mildred's daughter, and for good measure the big-talker wasn't even in the country at the time.

(6) Nevertheless, Mildred and Dixon are so frustrated by not receiving their share of justice that they decide to hunt down the big-talker, assuming that he must have raped someone. The film ends without revealing whether or not the allies go through with their resolution to visit vigilante justice.

NOW-- I've seen a lot of art-films in which a skillful scenarist creates valid ambivalence about what a protagonist will or should do. But Martin McDonagh-- producer, director, and co-writer of THREE BILLBOARDS-- has produced the worst "fake ambivalence" I've ever seen. His characters are alternately shrill and stupid, righteous and unprincipled, and, as I said in the post, driven to exorcise their own pain through violence, even AFTER they've made blunders of mistaken identity.

I've been often contemptuous of current Oscar nominees, for their sheer lack of talent and originality. But I'd dedicate a billboard with the words, "How come, Martin McDonagh"-- with the added phrase, "--you don't get into a career more suited to you, like selling life insurance, since all you can do is push people's fear-buttons?"

Saturday, August 4, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: THAT YELLOW BASTARD (1996)

In crime fiction, crime is often compared to a disease of the body politic. Some crimefighters prove immune to crime's allure, such as Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, but often crime can infect anyone. Sometimes the victims are only relatively innocent, as with the feckless booze-purchasers in Faulkner's SANCTUARY. Yet even hardened professionals can succumb. In Hammett's RED HARVEST, the otherwise unnamed "Continental Op" becomes so obsessed with destroying the crime-ridden hierarchy of the city Poisonville that he goes, in his own words, "blood simple."



John Hartigan, protagonist of  THAT YELLOW BASTARD, starts the story free of any criminal taint. Most cops in Sin City are on the payroll to Roark, the boss of crime bosses, whose evil is so pervasive that he holds the position of State Senator (in what is implicitly a version of California). Hartigan, though, is so straight-arrow that in one scene Roark remarks that he wanted to hold a party when he heard the almost-sixty-year-old Hartigan would be forcibly retired due to an angina condition. Yet on the eve of Hartigan's retirement, the aging cop-- married for many years, but significantly childless-- decides not to go gentle into the night. It's common knowledge among Sin City cops that Senator Roark's sole son, known only as "Junior," is a serial murderer of underage girls. When Hartigan hears that Junior has captured a new victim, eleven-year-old Nancy Callahan, the cop goes after the child-killer.



After much gunplay with Junior's thugs, Hartigan rescues little Nancy and removes the source of Junior's personal joy, castrating the pervert with a well-placed shot. Hartigan's own partner betrays him and shoots him, but Hartigan is satisfied to die if he's saved an innocent.





What dies, though, is not Hartigan but his good name. Senator Roark himself shows up at the cop's bedside and informs Hartigan that he will now be charged with Junior's crimes, and that if Hartigan raises any objection, Roark's people will kill anyone to whom Hartigan confesses.



Nancy Callahan, however, has not forgotten her rescuer. She appears at Hartigan's bedside and rails at her parents for not letting her tell the truth. Unable to keep her savior from prison, she takes a page from Victorian literature and promises to write Hartigan every week-- real paper letters, no e-mails or (God forbid) tweets.



Hartigan is condemned as a child molester, and since he won't defend himself, his wife divorces him. He's sentenced to solitary confinement. He doesn't take little Nancy's promise seriously, but every week, her letters come, giving the old cop his only life-line to the outside world. She becomes, in his mind, "the daughter I never had." However, Hartigan's enemies aren't satisfied to put him into jail for eight years; they want to twist the knife even more. In a surreal moment, Hartigan finds a man in his cell with him: a man with yellow flesh and a horrible smell.



After meeting the "yellow bastard," Hartigan is manipulated into believing that Roark's organization has located the innocent Nancy once more. The ex-cop debases his last principles to obtain an early release, and goes looking for a girl whom he still imagines as eleven years old. However, when he finds her dancing at a strip club, his paternal illusions are shattered.


Realizing that he's been used as a Judas goat to help Roark's people locate Nancy, Hartigan tries to elude his mustard-hued tail. More gun-violence ensues:



Escaping his tail briefly, Hartigan then faces a new problem. Despite not having been in contact with her savior for eight years, the young woman has made him her only true passion.




Despite a long absence from the fair sex, Hartigan forces himself not to succumb, but his antagonist re-appears, and reveals that he's none other than a hideously reconstructed Junior Roarke.




Junior thus gets the chance to shaft his old enemy both by killing him and letting him go out knowing that his beloved will endure hideous torture. Naturally things don't go the villain's way, but Hartigan still doesn't end up with the nubile Nancy, for reasons I won't go into.




To return to my opening point, some crime stories compromise the hero by causing him to succumb to evil in order to undermine the reader's sense of moral compass. Miller doesn't go that far. Junior's crimes are unremittingly evil, and none of Hartigan's vigilante actions palliate Roark's crimes. Yet Miller was surely aware of an uncomfortable parallel between Junior's despicable taste in pre-pubescent girls-- which is portrayed as being wrong apart from his larger crimes of torture and murder-- and Hartigan's burgeoning lust for his "imaginary daughter." Miller pens a revealing line for Hartigan, when he tells Nancy, "There's right and there's wrong, and then-- there's *this.*" Both Hartigan and Nancy are past the age of consent, and so their union is theoretically permissible-- hence not quite "wrong"-- and yet the age-gap is so great that it can't be "right" either.

Miller's not on the level of William Faulkner in terms of crafting crime-fiction with heavy ironic/tragic overtones. But there is in THAT YELLOW BASTARD a sense of tragic dimension far in excess of his other major SIN CITY work, THE HARD GOODBYE.