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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: PHOENIX: A TALE OF THE FUTURE (1967-68)



I have not read all twelve of the translated arcs in Osamu Tezuka's mammoth PHOENIX story-cycle, but they're meant to stand alone, and in fact Tezuka passed away in 1989 without having finished everything he wanted to say on the theme. Possibly, since he viewed the cycle as his life's work, he never would have finished it, even if he'd been given the impossibly long life of certain characters in this 1967-68 arc, which I'll henceforth refer to as FUTURE. Though FUTURE was one of the first arcs that the "God of Manga" completed, it was also chronologically the end of the cycle, in which Tezuka put the earth of 3404 AD through the mill of a great apocalypse, only to deliver on the promise of renewed life afterward.

The author's distant techno-future is a visual feast, though sometimes skimpy on the logical details. Although humankind has mastered space-travel-- two characters are "space patrolmen" and Earth has played host to at least one alien species-- it's not clear whether or not humans have been able to colonize the stars. Regardless, Earth itself has become a desolate place of cold temperatures and windblown terrain. No one can live on Earth's surface, but what remains of the human populace has been crammed into five colossal underground cities. In the city named Yamato-- presumably pioneered by Tezuka's ancestors-- a conflict evolves between three of the narrative's main characters: heroic Masato, his "negative mirror-image" Roc, and the female alien Tamami.

Tamami belongs to the aforementioned alien species, an amoeba-like organism able to (a) transform into any other organic form, and (b) able to beguile humans with hypnotic dreams, so that they can flee their hectic, crowded lives into the idyllic worlds of Earth's past history. But after the shapechangers became popular in Yamato as both pets and lovers, the autocratic computer that rules Yamato commands that all Moopies must be exterminated. Space patrolman Masato is one of those who was obliged to carry out such executions, but somehow he managed to hide Tamami in his own apartment, with the alien using its powers to appear like a normal human relative of the patrolman. However, Masato's superior officer Roc-- who came up with Masato in the ranks, and is therefore about the same age as the hero-- finds out about Tamami, and gives Masato the chance to finish off the last Moopie on Earth. Masato, aware of the penalties in Yamato's rigid society, tries to kill his companion but cannot. The two of them flee to the hostile surface of Earth, with Roc's forces in pursuit.

All that saves Masato and Tamami is that the image of the Phoenix appears to them, leading them to the shelter of eminent scientist Doctor Saruta, one of the few men able to maintain a domed refuge on Earth's surface. In addition, the Phoenix appears to Saruta. The creature represents itself as the living spirit of Earth itself, and urges the doctor to let the fugitives into his home, asserting that they will be necessary to renew the failing life-forces of the Earth.

I won't recount all of the involved plot-developments, except to note that after Roc's expeditionary forces fail, he himself seeks out Saruta's redoubt, because two of the great city-computers have declared war on each other. Soon the three men and the alien woman (the only major female character in FUTURE) are the only intelligent creatures left on Earth. Masato butts heads with both Roc, who covets Tamami's beauty, and Saruta, who wants to use her in his experiments to bring forth new life.

Though Tezuka's cosmological and metaphysical myth-motifs are of great scope in FUTURE, conceptutually they too butt heads. Most of the time Tezuka portrays the rise of new life in strictly materialistic biological terms, reminding one of the "Rite of Spring" sequence in Disney's FANTASIA. The Phoenix, however, claims that both stars and planets are alive in some metaphysical fashion. This would be acceptable if Tezuka were advocating panpsychism. However, the Phoenix can actually pull off a few miracles, like transforming Masato into a nearly immortal man, who oversees the return of life to Earth long after all the other characters have died. Yet, when the ancient Masato beholds a new race of primitive cavemen worshiping their gods, he thinks they're morons for so doing. What?

Tezuka is perhaps at his best with psychological themes, but he's ambivalent here as well. He sides with lovers Masato and Tamami, and their harmless dream-diversion, against the dictates of the city-computer. However, Tezuka seems to be on the side of "the reality factor" when he reveals that Saruta attempted to find emotional comfort with female robots. His arguments here aren't especially consistent, though one can hardly doubt Tezuka's abilities to put over any sentiment with affecting (if often fevered) dramatics.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

NEAR-MYTHS: ["HUMAN TORCH'S ORIGIN"] (MARVEL COMICS #1. 1939)



In a couple of essays like this one, I've established that I don't think Carl Burgos' Human Torch feature ever lived up to its potential. While no one would expect an early Golden Age superhero to excel into didactic or dramatic terms, some of them are quite good in the mythopoeic department. The Torch, unfortunately, generates more heat than light.

There was a lot of potential for mythic "light" in Burgos' reworking of Mary Shelley's novel FRANKENSTEIN. Was Burgos aware of the book's subtitle, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS, and that the subtitle referenced a Roman modification of the Greek Titan's history, one that gave Prometheus the ability to make men out of clay? If so, that might have provided the association between Prometheus the fire-thief and Prometheus the maker of artificial men-- resulting in the idea of a fiery android.

Or maybe the inspiration came from Universal's Frankenstein films, three of which had come to the big screen by the time of the Torch's first appearance (cover dated October 1939, meaning that it came out a few months previous). The cinematic monster had a legendary fear of fire, and so its possible that this eventuated in the idea of an artificial man who incarnated fire-- though personally, this seems to me more of a leap than the previous associational chain.

In any case, the first half of the origin is a masterpiece of potential myth. For no well defined reason, Professor Horton creates his flammable android, and is almost immediately convinced to seal him away, not unlike a guilty mind concealing a forbidden sin.




For a moment, Burgos gets some of the emotional sense of what it might be like, to be a man whose very body caused conspicuous destruction. 

However, the moment Burgos injects a common crook for the Torch's first real enemy, the story devolves into mediocrity.



I've read only a smattering of the original Human Torch's adventures, and though they display some interesting moments of grotesquerie, the feature never developed beyond a very basic pulp-action concept. Its strength depended almost entirely on the kinetic appeal of a man made of fire, flying through the air, tossing fireballs, and absorbing the flames of random fires. Even in his crossovers with the Sub-Mariner, the android comes off like a penny-ante hero, with no strong character of his own.

Given that the second Human Torch also didn't do too well in his own feature, it may be that the true myth of this "Promethean Frankenstein" has yet to be told.

Monday, July 18, 2016

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 correspondent who wondered whether I might devote some time to showing how the NUM theory applied to comic books. I responded, in part:

it's a lot easier for any medium dealing with "drawn" characters-- and that includes comic strips and animated cartoons-- to invoke the marvelous, that level of phenomenality that allows for absolute freedom. Media that communicate via living actors will of necessity always be more limited, though the process of CGI-- which could be said to "draw" images real enough to mingle with live actors-- has leveled that playing field somewhat.

All that said, though, it occurred to me recently that it could be interesting to assign my categories to the "mythcomics" I've thus far surveyed, just as I've been doing regularly with all the movies reviewed at NATURALISTIC! UNCANNY! MARVELOUS! So, one afternoon, I devoted a few hours to making such entries.

It should surprise no one that of the ninety mythcomics thus far surveyed, the vast majority were indeed "marvelous," while there were only seven "naturalistic" comics and nine "uncanny" comics.
Even this determination requires a little explanation, though.

For instance, when speaking of the DICK TRACY comic strip as a whole, I would tend to assign it to the "uncanny" phenomenality, even though the series had its share of naturalistic adventures (like [JUNIOR TRACY FINDS A DAD] and marvelous exploits (the 1960s period when Tracy went to the moon, encountered Moon Maid, etc.) Still, following the logic of the "active share" theory, Dick Tracy falls into the uncanny domain because the detective's encounters with weird, non-marvelous villains-- Prunfeface, FlatTop, B.B. Eyes-- is the centric aspect of his mythos.



Similarly, as a whole the adventures of Batman fall into the domain of the marvelous, partly because of all the high-tech crooks like Mister Freeze and the SF-freaks like Killer Croc, partly because of the Bat's own penchant for technological wonders. But in two of the Bat-adventures surveyed here, no such marvels are extant, and so both "Laugh, Town, Laugh" and "Beware of Poison Ivy" fall into into the uncanny domain when considered apart from the series as a whole.

Whether this categorization proves useful in future, only time will tell.

MYTHCOMICS: "ACT ONE" (GIRLS BRAVO, 2000)



In this near-myth essay I observed that although manga-artist Rumiko Takahashi possessed a genius for character-creation, often she settled for putting her characters through fairly formulaic paces. Such stories are, without a doubt, greatly entertaining, but usually they don't have the symbolic complexity of a mythcomic. Her signature series URUSEI YATSURA is notable in that the opening story shows great myth-potential which is never explored.

I found a similar missed opportunity in the setup for Mario Kaneda's GIRLS BRAVO. Kaneda is nowhere near Takahashi's equal in terms of creating memorable characters, although he's almost as good in terms of drawing voluptuous females. On that basis, it's understandable that a lot of manga-readers have dismissed GIRLS BRAVO as a lukewarm, if well-drawn, harem comedy with little beyond fanservice to recommend it. And in truth, most of the series is that and nothing more.  The opening episode, "Act One," outlines a psychological myth that could have been fascinating, had it been fully realized.

Most harem comedies focus on a protagonist, usually male, who's either exceptionally ordinary or exceptionally dorky (though in both cases he tends to be moderately attractive, rather than a real "uggo").  Yukinari Sasaki is the dork-kind, and he attends a Japanese high school where-- in defiance of the usual pattern-- all of his bullies are girls, who look down on him literally and figuratively. Even the one female teacher seen in Act One gives him crap, as if he's a magnet for female sadism. He's so disenchanted with the XX gender that he develops hives when a female touches him.



Yukinari is an only child, apparently living with his mother, who appears very briefly in early installments of BRAVO but who is quickly written out so that the youth can have a place where his "harem" regularly convenes.  However, in place of a domineering sister, he has a domineering neighbor-girl, Kirie, who seems to have a problem with locking the bathroom door.


This is a familiar pattern in the majority of harem comedies: the male gets to indulge in his scopophilic desire to ogle the female-- however much the male may protest his innocence-- and the female gets to indulge in violent retaliation.



This time, a punchout from one woman hurls the ineffectual Yukinari into the bath-waters of another. For no real reason, the youth finds himself in another world called "Seiren," and in the company of a young woman named Miharu, who shares none of the aggressive tendencies of Kirie and most other females in Yukinari's life. Miharu not only doesn't attack Yukinari for accidentally seeing her naked, she cares for his wounds as well. She's the very epitome of the nurturing woman, and the only thing excessive about her is that she always wants something to eat, though in keeping with the male fantasy she never gains weight from all of her gustatory activities.

However, the spectre of female aggression isn't absent on Seiren, though it manifests for a different reason: only ten percent of the world's population is male-- and so even a wimp like Yukinari is a pearl beyond price, especially to Miharu's overbearing sister Maharu.




Eventually, Yukinari's been convinced that Seiren's no better than Earth, except for Miharu. The young woman reveals that Yukinari may be able to cross back to his own plane, for no reason except that Miharu's bath-water shows the reflection of Kirie, and has apparently done so on earlier occasions.




There's no logic given as to why the bathtub in Seiren ought to be attuned to Kirie, nor is it explained how either Miharu or Yukinari can figure out that Kirie is having sentimental thoughts about her wimp-neighbor, since neither of them is a telepath. The symbolic reason is that on some level Kirie regrets being so "butch" around Yukinari-- though she clearly likes dominating him as well-- and that her feminine side puts her in tune with the ultra-feminine Miharu, her mythic opposite. However, Kaneda isn't skillful enough to suggest this equivalence.

Yukinari evidently has some submerged feelings for Kirie as well, since he elects to cross back to his own world. However, the genie is out of the bottle, and Miharu ends up back on Earth with him-- specifically, in Kirie's bath. Kirie is so happy to see her feckless buddy back that she doesn't even clobber him for having seen her naked again-- though she does as soon as she notices another woman in the bath with the two of them.

A few more episodes center upon the unspoken competition between Kirie and Miharu for their wimpy prize, but it's not much of a competition, since Miharu isn't inclined to initiate romantic moves (too busy wanting to chow down all the time) and Yukinari's too shy to make a move. Kaneda then proceeds to introduce a couple of other cute girls to the mix, just to justify the "harem" aspect, and also decides to take most of the pressure off Yukinari by introducing another student, the hyper-sexual Fukuyama. Fukuyama is everything Yukinari is not, being tall, handsome, and rich, and he soon drives most of the stories with his passion for finding ingenious ways to grope all the series-females. The "triangle" relationship of Yukinari, Miharu and Kirie is largely dumped, and with it, any interesting psychological permutations of the series-- in marked contrast to Ken Akamatsu's LOVE HINA, which managed to maintain some mythic touches no matter how much goofy fanservice was ladled into it.

Tokyopop printed an English translation of all volumes of GIRLS BRAVO, but this online version probably comes closer to the phrasing of the Japanese original.







Saturday, July 16, 2016

COMMENT PRESERVATION NUMBER UMPTY-SOMETHING

I won't bother to link to the CBR post where I said this, because it went from a minor inquiry to the usual ideological wrangling. Still, I think my last shot at my adversary is worth preserving. I'll probably find myself using it again.

I swear, some of you guys are as addicted to the ego-boosting effects of your righteousness as the AA guys who lecture other people for drinking. In the case of this post, you're not even like the obnoxious AA guy who barges into a bar. You're more like a guy who invades a teetotalers' party, gets frustrated that he can't get his usual righteous "high," and so starts complaining about the people drinking "near beer."

Friday, July 15, 2016

RADICAL CONFLICTS PT. 2

I've been reading a few online resources on the subject of the myth-ritual school (sometimes called the Cambridge Ritualists). I've mentioned before that I'm aware that these theories, which had a strong effect on Northrop Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, are not much in favor today. The most common complaint from recent books is that the ritualists let their enthusiasm for their subject undermine the classicist's need for absolutely scrupulous scholarship.

I can understand why academics would put consistency first. Any academic discipline is highly dependent on an accretion of both fact and opinion, wherein the facts are theoretically unassailable and the opinions are those that best accord with those facts. Careful scholarship is essential, especially when dealing with the fragmentary records of ancient cultures, be it ancient Greece or one with even less extant evidence.

At the same time, I find fatuous the much lauded logic of Occam's Razor: that whatever seems to be the simplest explanation must also be the best. If real life is incredibly complicated, how could the culture of that life be any less so? The desire for scientific simplicity that I find in the anti-ritualist books puts me in mind of a quote from Walter Cerf, first cited here:

It is typical of reflective philosophy... that it relies on arguments, proofs, and the whole apparatus of logic... that it tries to solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole; that it sticks to the natural sciences as the source of the only reliable knowledge of nature, thus committing itself... to a concept of experience reduced to sense perception, and to a concept of sense perception reduced to some causal chain...

Modern academics reject the highly speculative theories of ritualism because the Ritualists were not able to provide a "causal chain" as sturdy as the Darwinian insight that linked apes and humans. However, "the concept of experience" germane to literary production does not follow one razor-straight path. It may be overreaching to claim that all dramatic productions descend from rituals originally intended to bless the community or to expel noxious influences, but it's no less foolish to dismiss any connections at all, just to expel the "noxious influence" of careless scholarship.

Though Frye based his concept of the myth-radicals on the older Cambridge ritualists, I've never been moved to read most of them, except for a little of A,B. Cook and Jane Ellen Harrison's PROLOGOMENA. I was never married to the ritualist idea that archaic Greek drama descended literally from magico-religious rituals, and so it doesn't affect me that much if some scholars find this "causal chain" dubious. The radicals, like the "mythic moods" analyzed by Theodor Gaster, function as metaphors to organize the multifarious potential of the human mind.

At the end of the first RADICAL CONFLICTS I said:

I myself would rate the familiarity of commonplace experiences as no more than a "mild enjoyment," while the familiarity of shared myths would line up better with "intense pleasure"-- and this is the reason that I've chosen to write thousands of words on the topics of myths and myth-radicals. While as a pluralist I affirm the equal importance of all four radicals, I've clearly chosen to devote myself to the radical of the *agon,* even to the extent of analyzing its presence in narratives not aligned to the adventure-mythos best known for it. 

The blanket assertion of the anti-ritualists is that the Cambridge School was too devoted to fitting the entire world of drama (and, by extension, literature) into pigeonholes derived from Classical Greek terms. It's a familiar argument, showing the reflective critic's aversion to anything that ventures beyond the realm of causality as defined by the natural sciences. Noah Berlasky's pig-ignorant dismissal of Joseph Campbell, refuted here, is based in his commitment to a criticism founded entirely in ideological politics.

But because a pluralist is free to think in broad speculative terms, he can see outside the box of ideological means and ends. For instance, I've refined the idea of the *agon* radical as one that harnessed sort of "centric" will, one that invokes a ritualized invigorative mood,  as opposed to the less ambiious forms that characterize the same radical in its stage of "diffuse" will. The same logic extends to the other three radicals: the *pathos,* the *sparagmos* and the *incognitio*: they too much have their "centric and diffuse" (or possibly "sacred and profane") Possibly I'll explore a few of these as they occur to me, but since I'm writing a blog, and not a book to compete with ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, it's unlikely that I'll spend as much time on the other three radicals as I have upon the invigorative one.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: APOLLO'S SONG (1970)



APOLLO'S SONG will probably never be on anyone's list of favorite works from Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka. Indeed, one online resource claims that Tezuka himself didn't like it, partly because it came from his so-called "dark period." Many of the manga from this period reputedly have a nihilistic edge, far from the boundless optimism one finds in his early, often-juvenile works like TETSUWAN ATOM (aka Astro Boy) and RIBON NO KISHI (aka Princess Knight).

SONG is far from a perfect, or even disciplined, work. It's comprised of several disjointed episodes in the life of a 20th-century Japanese delinquent named Shogo Chikashi. Aside from the opening scenes, in which Shogo goes to an asylum and suffers shock therapy to straighten him out, the reader can't be entirely sure that any of the episodes actually occur. In addition, the work is informed by the author's desire to descant on the subject of sex education-- although Tezuka's vision of heterosexual relations seems fraught with a sense of devastating irony, in which all human aspirations are frustrated.

A prequel to Shogo's adventures takes the form of a sex-ed comic. Tezuka projects his imagination into the human female's Fallopian tube, where a few thousand sperm-- drawn as identical male humanoids-- gather to make their race for the personified egg, with whom one lucky sperm will successfully merge. It's one of the few un-ironic moments in the novel.

Shogo, however, isn't exactly the finest exemplar of the human species. He's a confused young man who's been committed on the grounds of his having assaulted small animals, and it soon comes out that he's the result of a slutty mother who gamboled about with many men while barely giving Shogo any maternal attention, beyond beating him from time to time. 



Tezuka's scenario is almost textbook Freud: lack of a positive father-figure and a concupiscent mother mold Shogo into a person almost divorced from feelings. However, instead of a "talking cure," in Tezuka's world the delinquent merits only punishment from a strange goddess-figure with a vaguely Greek appearance; one who appears in his dreams after his first encounter with electro-shock.



Despite the use of the name "Apollo" in the title, and in the story's only direct reference to Greek mythology, Shogo's fate seems modeled after that of a Greek tragic figure like Hippolytus. In the surviving play by Euripides, the titular character is minding his own business, worshiping the chaste goddess Artemis, when the love-goddess Aphrodite decides to make his life miserable by causing his stepmother Phaedra to pursue the young man.

By comparison Hippolytus was lucky: he only suffered one doom, while Shogo undergoes several-- and even by the novel's conclusion, it's stated that his sufferings will go on forever, with no expectation that he can ever break the cycle. To some readers this may seem pretty excessive for a youth whose aberrations are largely the result of adult irresponsibility. However, such a sense of universal injustice would accord perfectly with a masochistic outlook. As I'm not a Tezuka expert, I can't say if such an outlook appears consistently in his work. But in SONG, he certainly seems to be taking pleasure in his protagonist's sufferings.

The first episode, taking place after Shogo is cursed by the goddess, is one of the weakest. Shogo finds himself living in the body of a WWII German soldier, with no real memory beyond the fact that his name is still the very un-German Shogo. He meets a cute young Jewess and tries to set her free from captivity, but both of them are killed by the war's violence.

The next episode takes place after a hospital psychiatrist has hypnotized him. This time Shogo imagines being a Japanese pilot who's stranded on a remote island with a rather uppity Japanese female. The island is also inhabited by an assortment of animals who have formed a community in which none of them devour one another, although they will eat fish from the neighboring sea. Presumably the psychiatrist suggests this scenario because he's trying to force Shogo to relate to the animals that he's come to hate, largely because he can't stand their unconflicted attitude toward sexual fertilization. That said, it's odd that the doctor ends his tale with more death and tragedy.




Then, in a sequence which may or may not be part of the story's base reality, Shogo escapes the hospital. He's spirited away to a secluded mountain resort by a slightly older woman, Hiromi, who isn't interested in seducing him but wants to train him as a long-distance runner. The improbability of this setup is rendered slightly more palatable when it's revealed that Hiromi is also a psychiatrist, who took it upon herself to attempt cuing Shogo with this strange athletic program. At the same time, she's not above tempting Shogo with her feminine charms in order to manage him, and it's strongly suggested that she falls in love with him in the process of trying to heal him. 



This sequence is possibly the most successful in an aesthetic sense: Hiromi incarnates some of the motherly traits that Shogo's actual mother did not have. Yet she's also had a former lover, a fiancee who comes nosing around when he learns about the young man's presence, and this character may represent a deflection of the many fathers that tormented Shogo's life. In addition, she even slaps him a few times, giving her yet another resemblance to Shogo's unnamed female parent.

The interlude with Shogo and Hiromi is interrupted when he's injured, thus precipitating the story's last story. Shogo dreams that he's transported into the far future, at a time when human civilization has been marginalized by artificial, non-reproducing humanoids called "Synthans." Future-Shogo is talked into making an assassination-attempt on Queen Sigma, ruler of the Synthans. To his dismay, this requires him to become a servant in her palace, and this leads her to become intrigued with the human practice of lovemaking. Over the course of time, Sigma and Shogo fall in love for real, amid many SF-tropes involving cloning, artificial body-parts and robotics. Only in this section is there something closer to the passion of drama rather than the futility of irony.



The dream ends, and Shogo is back with Hiromi, though not for long. He soon finds out how he's been played by both Hiromi and the psychiatrist from the asylum.






The psychiatrist's idea of deferring sexual passion through Greek myth bears a moderate resemblance to Hippolytus' rejection of his own amorous potential. Yet it doesn't do either Hiromi or Shogo any good. They both die, and the spirit of Shogo is hauled before the goddess once more. Even though he's experienced genuine love for Hiromi, the goddess tells him that because he has "no faith in love," he will continue to experience "the trials of love" for the rest of existence.

It's possible that the English translation of APOLLO'S SONG misses some of the nuances of the Japanese original. Still, even if the narrative may not be entirely satisfying in any language, I must admit that it's one of the most pervasively pessimistic myths ever committed to a comics-page.