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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Thursday, January 16, 2020

PATTERNS AND POTENTIALITIES

...I agree with Jung's comment that "ideas" are developed out of what might as well be called "images" (Kant called these lesser elements "notions.") However, I want to specify that one need not buy into Jung's specific concept of inherited mythological images in order to validate his basic schema. Jung's predecessor-and-influence Cassirer said much the same thing, sans the inherited images.-- A PAUSE FOR POTENTIALITIES, 2015.

In WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, Schopenhauer distinguishes between "intuitive" and "abstract" representations: humans share "intuitive representations" with other animals, in that they are based in the body's "percepts."  But humans alone have the power to conceive "abstract representations," for humans alone can base representations in "concepts."  I will use this basic opposition here, though I'll substitute "intellectual" for "abstract" purely for euphony.-- HERO VS. VILLAIN, MONSTER VS. VICTIM PART 3, 2012.

The first quote lists some of the predecessors that influenced me in my formulation of the four potentialities, though only two of them concern me in this essay:

The DIDACTIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of abstract ideas.
The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbols.

I've also lined up these potentialities with my terms "overthought" (for the didactic) and "underthought" (for the the mythopoeic). The primary function of these terms is illustrative, to show how these discourses were functionally separated from the discourses spawned by the other potentialities, "the kinetic" and "the dramatic." I've lumped these two discourses together as "the lateral meaning," because I believe this represents the base experience that all audiences experience fictional constructs. And while I derived this line of thought largely from one of Frye's essays, there's also a possible influence from Schopenhauer. The discourses of "the kinetic" and "the dramatic" are theoretically comparable to the "intuitive representations" available not only to humans but also to the lower animals, since those discourses, whether simple or complex, may be reduced down to "does this 'other' cause me pain or pleasure," and "does this 'other' give help or hindrance?" Similarly, the didactic and the mythopoeic line up with what Schopenhauer called "abstract representations," because their subject matter is not concrete but abstract. Arguably, though, the very abstraction of the abstract potentialities may cause them to overlap much more than the "intuitive" pair.

In last year's essay AND THE HALF-TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE PART 2 I wrote:


Both "symbols" and "ideas" are abstract constructions, but symbols offer the artist "a free selection of causes"-- which I have aligned with my concept of "affective freedom"-- while ideas depend more upon establishing a chain of cause and effect, which I have aligned with "cognitive restraint." But both abstract constructions depend upon the use of fictive epistemology.

It was in my two HALF-TRUTH essays that I introduced the term "epistemological patterns." Though the term was new, I'd been writing about this particular abstract concept since the blog's beginnings, probably the first time I brought up Joseph Campbell. But because so much of the blog's content is devoted to sussing out the nature of mythopoeic discourse, I've neglected to give specific examples of the very different way in which the didactic phenomenality makes use of epistemological patterns.

The word "didactic" is derived from a Greek term meaning "apt at teaching." Thus any use of the didactic phenomenality must rely upon using rhetoric to teach audiences something. I suspect most if not all of the ancient Greeks would have viewed a literary's work meaning as one that was both rhetorical and discursive, and the later notions regarding "poetic intuition" would have been outside their wheelhouse. For me, writing in the shadow of Jung and others, I see that the didactic and the mythopoeic sometimes reinforce one another, sometimes conflict with one another, and at other times barely seem to exist in the same narrative-- as one can see in the 1984 Steve Ditko story ""AM I MARO, ROMA, OR RAEM?"

Because the philosophy of Ayn Rand has such a profound effect on Ditko, his greatest passion seems to have been to codify his Aristotelian/Randian beliefs into narrative entertainment. Ditko certainly knew that he could not make a living thumping this particular tub, and so many of his works don't overtly address his didactic concerns. Ditko also had considerable skill in rendering the discourses of the kinetic, the dramatic and the mythopoeic, but a story like "Raem" shows how intensely Ditko sought his version of epistemological patterns in the world of abstract ideas. One character in this story, featuring Ditko's short-lived hero "the Missing Man," voices Ditko's theme as explicitly as possible:

We're starting with reality and the law of identity, Syd. A is what it is, A. We intend to establish definition by essentials, root out false axioms, invalid anti-concepts and all the fallacies that permit the irrational to be treated as anything other than what it is: the inhuman.

The story's embodiment of "the irrational" is the villain of Raem Lanet, the Missing Man's opponent. This scientist, out of a desire for "prestige," transforms himself into a half-man, half-robot creature, in which form he attacks employers who have actually done him no wrong. Despite this overriding purpose, Raem experiences a conflict between his human half and his robot half, and this stands not as a mythopoeic discourse but a didactic one, since Ditko is trying to "teach" his readers that one side of Raem's personality is flawed and irrational, while the other is somewhat more rational and thus closer to the Randian truth. The "epistemological pattern" in this narrative would be predominantly psychological in nature, probably more than a little beholden to Freud's :"ego"  and "id" conceptions.

Now, though Ditko's principle discourse is didactic in nature, the ego-id pattern has a mythopoeic potential as well, and can be found in literary works that precede Freud's rise to prominence, such as Stevenson's 1886 DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE. A given artist might be able to utterly ignore that potential, for the sake of making a rhetorical point, and something like this transpires in STAR TREK's version of the Stevenson story, "The Enemy Within."

"Raem," however, shows instances where Ditko's instinct for the mythopoeic interferes with his rhetorical purpose, as I pointed out in the review:


...in "Raem," Ditko is close to invalidating his own philosophy. If the irrational is "inhuman," as Wrds says, than why isn't it incarnate in Raem's robot half? There have been any number of SF-stories in which a robotized human regained his humanity through empathizing with other humans, but though Ditko' does use the same basic trope, his focus is squarely upon the Randian choice between the true and the untrue. Ditko may have intuited that there was no way to attribute irrational bitterness and violent intent to the robot half, so he ends up with a final scenario in which the rational renunciation of such "anti-concepts" comes from either the robot half alone, or from some belated interface of human and robot. Either way, "Raem" may be Ditko's most passionate defense of Randism-- and as such, may also be a back-door admission of the significance of emotional value.
To enlarge on this a little more, the same psychological patterns that Ditko uses in a didactic way, to get across a certain message, also have symbolic values, wherein "robot" usually connotes the antithesis of human empathy. Ditko doesn't want to default to that symbolic value, because he wants to critique the selfishness of human beings, so he tries-- with equivocal success-- to make Raem's robot-half more empathetic than his human half. The idea of human feelings arising from an inhuman imitation of humanity is at least as old as Collodi's "Pinocchio," and as Ditko uses the trope it's more of a mythic than a didactic concept given that Ditko doesn't succeed in giving Raem's robot half in a rational cause-and-effect origin.

So in "Raem," we see Ditko drawing upon psychological patterns for both the didactic and mythopoeic potentialities, even though his usages of each may contradict one another.



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: TYPHOID #1-4 (1995-96)

If Stanley Kubrick's film A CLOCKWORK ORANGE had married a 1990s Freudian treatise on the inter-relation of sex and violence, their baby would probably have looked like the four-issue miniseries TYPHOID by writer Ann Nocenti and artist John Van Fleet.




In an earlier review of another Nocenti story, I mentioned that my reading of the author's run on Marvel's DAREDEVIL comic title had been somewhat inconsistent. That said, even during my incomplete reading, I had some appreciation for Nocenti's original addition to the blind hero's mythos, a schizophrenic character who was essentially three personas in one body. Born Mary Walker, a shy and introverted artist, various circumstances cause her to manifest a second personality, the sexy and assertive Typhoid Mary, and then a third one, an ultraviolent man-hater named Bloody Mary. One character in the mini-series styles the trio as "virgin, whore and killer," thus separating off Mary's propensity for bloody violence from her enthusiasm for sex-play.

I didn't read enough of Nocenti's DAREDEVIL to know what the author last did with Typhoid in that feature, though according to Wiki the vixenish villain continued to make appearances in other Marvel features. In 1995, however, Nocenti had the deranged quasi-dominatrix escape an asylum, after which Mary Walker attempted to live an ordinary life despite her intrusive extra personalities. She even has a boyfriend named John (as in "John and Mary," maybe), but he only has a minor role in TYPHOID. The mini-series is far more concerned with what feminists now call "toxic masculinity," though Nocenti's skilled enough that the narrative isn't a pure paean to wonderful womanhood. Mary's first solo adventure is devoted to portraying her as a "schizophrenic private detective,"  though to my knowledge this was her only series.



Each of the four parts is given a subtitle derived from a famous fairy-tale female, respectively Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood. In addition, issue one also sports an additional title, "A Fairytale of Violence," though none of the other issues have such this add-on. Nocenti explicitly links all of these famed females together in terms of their suffering at the hands of males, and though the add-on title suggests that there's some disconnect between the linked ideas of "fairy-tales" and "violence," Nocenti almost certainly knows that both original folktales and their literary imitators utilized quite a bit of violence, not always directed purely at women. In any case, the TYPHOID narrative extends the split between innocent Mary and her demonic other selves to society in general, where innocence is continually victimized by violent acts, largely though not exclusively associated with masculinity.



Two plotlines dominate TYPHOID. The more overt plot deals with a serial killer preying on New York prostitutes. The local cops are unable to solve the case, whether they're corrupt male cops like Detective Richards, or dedicated rookies like sincere policewoman Clair Dodge, so Mary decides to track down the murderer. In the second plot, two loopy film-students, Quince and Trent, get the idea to capture the schizophrenic quasi-heroine and make a movie about her psychological aberrations. (This includes fixing her eyelids so that she has to look at a series of assaultive videos, a clear homage to a scene in Kubrick's movie.) Nocenti more or less brings the two plots together in the last issue, but no one should read TYPHOID looking for a well-wrought mystery. Nocenti has followed the pattern of hardboiled detectives, in which the sleuth solves the case not by ratiocination but by being enough of a nuisance to attract violent attraction from guilty parties.



I won't claim that Nocenti's basic idea is any more original than it is well-crafted. However, even if the overall intellectual heft of the story proves somewhat weak, Nocenti brings a rough-hewn poetry to her interactions of sex and violence. The murders are committed by a killer (or killers?) who force hookers to suck on the barrel of a gun before firing, and it's impossible to read this without thinking of Freud's concept of oral fixation. But the opening page gives readers a pun that goes beyond Freud's reductivism, as an unseen person asks Typhoid why she kills, and she responds (in part) that she does so "to lighten the load." The element of humor makes Nocenti's "fairy-tale of violence" a far more evocative realm than most of the Neopuritan screeds that followed in the next twenty years.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: THE HAND OF DR. FU MANCHU (1917)



While Karameneh is unquestionably the most significant female character in the first two Fu Manchu books, she takes a back seat in HAND to the daughter of Fu Manchu, even though the character is not named and only makes sporadic appearances in the story. Indeed, though Karameneh recovers her memory of Petrie and Smith near the end of the second book, in HAND Rohmer marginalizes her by packing her off to Egypt for her supposed safety. This provides no protection whatever, as the recrudescent Fu Manchu easily abducts her and uses her as a pawn against his enemies. Her signal accomplishment at the end of RETURN-- where she shoots her former master and almost kills him-- is nullified by a life-saving surgical operation, and though Fu evinces a desire for vengeance upon his erstwhile slave, he sets this aside in order to use her as a bargaining-chip with Petrie.

While RETURN pictures Fu Manchu becoming the world's emperor, in HAND the advent of Fah Lo Suee as a female ruler is foreshadowed by Nayland Smith. For the first time, he bestows a name upon Fu Manchu's network of spies and assassins, the Si-Fan. Though the name is said to refer commonly to a community in Tibet, Smith claims that it actually represents an organization that advocates the rule of the world by an empress. Smith's description of this legendary empress sounds quite a bit like Rider Haggard's "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed," in that this empress is said to be "incalculably ancient." To be sure, the empress renews herself through a "continuous series of reincarnations," and though Smith does not believe the legend literally, he suspects that Fu Manchu plans to manipulate the Si-Fan's desire for such a goddess-like figure by using his own daughter to that end.

Petrie meets the future Fah Lo Suee early in the novel, but has no idea as to her significance, since she creates the illusion that she's simply an ordinary servant-woman. In truth she's operating in London to help her ailing father obtain surgical help for the wound Karameneh dealt him, and Petrie finds himself and another surgeon forced to save the great enemy of the Western world, in part to save Karameneh's life. Fah does not appear in this scene, for Rohmer is focused on building up the uncanny mentality of the devil-doctor, who's able to coerce the doctors to do his will despite still having a bullet lodged in his skull.

Since Karameneh is largely passive in HAND, and Fu's daughter is usually offstage, Rohmwer makes up for the loss of resourceful women by introducing Zarmi, a Eurasian woman serving the devil-doctor's entourage. In contrast to Karameneh's feminine modesty, Zarmi is an ostentatious flirt, though she's entirely loyal to Fu's schemes. Since Fu is implicitly compared to the Satanic serpent from the Bible, Rohmer follows through by giving Zarmi an equally snaky aspect.

She was lithe as a serpent, graceful as a young panther, another Lamia come to damn the souls of men with those arts denounced in a long dead age by Apolloinus of Tyana.

Despite this mythic assocation, Zarmi remains a stock villain and nothing more. For several chapters, Rohmer puts aside menacing women and introduces a new subsidary male villain, the mandarin Ki-Ming. This worthy actually tries to convince Petrie that he represents a faction of the Si-Fan that has turned against Fu Manchu, but Smith places no faith in this claim. Sure enough, Ki-Ming only approaches Petrie in order to use Tibetan psychic practices-- which Rohmer refers to as "animal magnetism"-- in order to bewitch Petrie into killing Smith.

Petrie's second encounter with the future Fah takes place by sheer accident, when he boards a train and seeks a compartment. He ends up sharing one with the elegant daughter of his arch-enemy, though he never realizes that he's seen her before. He's unable to determine her national origins, and only later will Rohmer specify that Fah is half-Russian.

Finally, Petrie spies on a convocation of Orientals who are being invited to witness the advent of "the Lady of the Si-Fan," who is of course Fah masquerading as the legendary empress. Yet it's not until after this event-- wherein Fu buys his freedom from Petrie by giving up Karameneh-- that Rohmer specifies, over two-thirds of the way in the novel, that the Lady of the Si-Fan is Fu's daughter. Smith does not specify whether or not he's ever had any personal acquaintance with this personage. However, the same passage in which Petrie admits how he freed the master villain for the sake of love, Smith makes an oblique confession: "I understand, old man. That day came in my life long years ago."

The novel then winds up with the return of support-character Lionel Barton, the poor man's Richard Francis Burton, and once again, he serves the purpose of being the "Asianized European." (That said, Barton does utter the first racial slang-epithet to appear in the series, calling a minor character a "dago.") Barton also leads the intrepid heroes to Fu's current hideaway, which happens to be in a defunct devil-worship sanctuary, which in turn was built on the ruins of an ancient Phoenician site. This sequence is one of Rohmer's most suspenseful passages, and although Fu and Fah escape in a Chinese yacht, the novel concludes by implying that the wrath of heaven itself rises up against them. A massive storm wreaks havoc upon the seas near England, and the novel ends when Petrie and Smith behold some of the wreckage of the yacht, implying that once again the devil-doctor may have finally met his final fate.

And for nearly fourteen years, Fu remained dead. Ostensibly Rohmer brought back his Chinese villain simply because nothing the author wrote in the intervening years sold better than the doctor. The revival may have also stemmed from Hollywood's renewed interest in the character, beginning with THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU in 1929. Though the film owed little to any of Rohmer's original work, it probably deserves some credit for encouraging the author to expand on his most memorable character, whose series would continue into the late 1950s.


THE READING RHEUM: THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU (1916) PT. 2

Upon reflection the first part of my review of the second Fu Manchu book omitted one significant development. Whereas the first one is concerned solely with chronicling the romantic course of narrator Petrie's life, RETURN offers the first glimpse of romance in the life of Petrie's hard-driving mentor in the life of adventure, Sir Denis Nayland Smith.

Readers of the original Rohmer books are probably few in number these days, but the Marvel comic book MASTER OF KUNG FU gave a modicum of literary immortality to Smith's romantic life with Fah Lo Suee, the daughter of his Oriental adversary. There's no intimation that Fu has any offspring at all in the first book, but after Petrie's initial encounter with Karameneh, Smith, though he's never met the woman, speculates on her origins.

She is either Fu-Manchu's daughter, his wife, or his slave. I am inclined to believe the last, for she has no will but his will, except-- in a certain instance.

In my review I expanded on this conceit:

The idea that [Karameneh] may be Fu's daughter is never seriously entertained, given that there's no resemblance between the two characters. Yet Karameneh's constant interference with the plans of her master bears some similarity to standard tropes in which a lovelorn damsel aids her romantic swain against her overly domineering father. 

The Smith quote proves only one thing: that Rohmer had at least considered the possibility that his Asian evildoer might have progeny. It's impossible to know whether or not Rohmer had considered giving Fu a daughter at the time he wrote RETURN, and it seems unlikely that he'd decided at that point to make Smith and that daughter lovers in some future story. But since Smith was of more than marriageable age, Rohmer may have wanted to account for his single status, and thus he chose to do simply by suggesting some failed love affair in the past. Oddly, Smith's love-life comes up on the novel's third page, in conversation between Petrie and a minor character, but not until a few chapters later does Smith himself hold forth on the subject. This quasi-confession comes about because Petrie meets Karameneh, still doing Fu's will but brainwashed to forget her former allies. Petrie lets her escape custody, and Smith becomes irate with his physician-friend:

A woman made a fool of me once, but I learned my lesson; you have failed to learn yours. If you are determined to go to pieces on the rock that broke up Adam, do so! But don't involve me in the wreck, Petrie-- for that might mean a yellow emperor of the world, and you know it!

While a lot of Rohmer's prose proves pedestrian, this passage shows that he could embody poetic conceits when sufficiently inspired to do so. Granted, it's a little odd to witness Smith mixing nautical metaphors with Eve's betrayal of the First Man, particularly since both ideas seem to come out of nowhere. Since neither man has yet figured out that Karameneh has been brainwashed, Smith leaps to the conclusion that she's simply faithless, and that she's betrayed Petrie and the cause of England because of her loyalty to the man who wants to become the world's "yellow emperor." Both of Rohmer's novels repeatedly associate Fu Manchu with Satan, but here he's being further associated with the tempting serpent who persuades Eve to betray Adam, though with no reference to Eve having been deceived through the serpent's manipulation of her good intentions.

It's also possible to read Smith's fulmination as motivated by envy: a woman made a fool of him, and therefore on some level he's somewhat satisfied, in a "misery loves company" manner, to see his boon companion betrayed the same way. Naturally this psychological point isn't explored any further, since Rohmer is writing fast-paced adventure, not serious drama. The third novel, however, will include more references to Smith's failed romance, and though the novel does introduce Fu's daughter for the first time, albeit without naming her, there are slight indications that the two  of them might have some history.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

TERRY GILLIAM AND THE TOTAL FAIL

I'm only a modest fan of Terry Gilliam's cinematic writing and directing, and the only Gilliam film I sometimes want to rewatch is THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. But despite my merely middling regard for Gilliam's creative work, I found his December screed against the movies of the MCU worth analyzing.

Gilliam's comments for the online magazine Indiewire had some resemblances to earlier complaints by both Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, in that all three rants attacked superhero films for devouring the lion's share of the box office dinner. By itself, this is sophistry. Gilliam says:


“I don’t like the fact they’re dominating the place so much,” he said. “They’re taking all the money that should be available for a greater variety of films. Technically, they’re brilliant. I can’t fault them because the technical skills involved in making them are incredible.”


There are two major problems with this attitude. First, for anyone else to concur with Gilliam, that person would have to believe that the cinematic marketplace can support whatever ideal of "variety" that Gilliam advocates, if there were no MCU or any similar cinematic trend to dominate the market. But let us suppose that "fellow travelers" might come to some accord about an overall range of "good variety" while differing on particulars. Gilliam's statement still represents a leap in logic in that it assumes that Result B will take place from Cause A, even though it's arguable that Cause A has never actually been observed to take place in the arena specified, cf. the American film market.

Second, it's demonstrable that the "superhero trend" is far from unique in the American film industry, which has been for the most part driven by genre films that had wide appeal to audiences, and so encouraged producers to keep pumping out more films in those genres. Gilliam does not accuse the MCU of being a unique phenomenon, but the long history of genre films in Hollywood renders his complaint problematic.

Only on one point does Gilliam attack the superhero genre in a specific manner:

“What I don’t like is that we all have to be superheroes do anything worthwhile. That’s what makes me crazy. That’s what these movies are saying to young people. And to me it’s not confronting the reality of, you know, the quote-unquote human condition. You know what it is like to be a normal human being in difficult situations and resolving them surviving,” he said. “I can’t fault them for the sheer spectacle, except it’s repetitive. You still have to blow up another city.”

Now, Gilliam does not cite any specific instance from either MCU or from other superhero films to bolster his interpretation, aside from one offhand comment that makes it sound like it's too easy for Iron Man to replace his armor when it burns up. I've had my problems with some of the films in this series, but I certainly would not concur with Gilliam. At the very least, the three Iron Man films continually call attention to the difficulties that the genius in the armor has with interacting with the ordinary world.

Gilliam supplies even less support for the statement that "we" (meaning the audience) "have ot be superheroes to do anything worthwhile." Perhaps the former PYTHON performer overvalues the idea of deconstructing genre icons, as he and the Python troup did in their HOLY GRAIL film. It's only in a comic/ironic context that one can make, say, a film about knights in which the activity of the knights is not the center of the narrative, but exists to point the way toward something else in society. So it really makes no sense to critique superhero narratives for making superheroes the most important figures in the stories, just as cowboy-heroes are the most important figures in the majority of westerns.

I have a lot of personal reservations about MCU films, though I don't really think Gilliam's comments are MCU-centric; as he phrases them  I think that they could be applied just as easily to the Sony company's series of SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN films.

Ironically, the part of Gilliam's screed that I most agree with on aesthetic grounds is one with which I disagree on logical grounds. Of the 2018 BLACK PANTHER film, which I reviewed here, Gilliam said:

“I hated ‘Black Panther.’ It makes me crazy. It gives young black kids the idea that this is something to believe in. Bullshit. It’s utter bullshit. I think the people who made it have never been to Africa,” he said. “They went and got some stylist for some African pattern fabrics and things. But I just I hated that movie, partly because the media were going on about the importance of bullshit.”

While I didn't hate BLACK PANTHER, I too thought that much of its hype was bullshit, and that the film's characterization of Africa was politically correct nonsense. However, I don't entirely fault the film for not being realistic, which Gilliam does. I critiqued the film for not finding a middle ground, weaving real-world politics into an evocative fantasy, and as a result, the film is weak both in terms of its reality-elements and its fantasy-elements. Given that Gilliam has become best known for fantasy-films, I would think that the lack of a balance between these respective sets of perceived elements would be more important than the film's failings to mirror reality precisely.

It's strange that these admonitions from Scorcese, Coppola and Gilliam have come at this late date. While perhaps an old-time Hollywood director might've looked back at the 1990s and viewed the BATMAN and TEENAGE TURTLES films as a transitory phenomenon, by the early 2000s it should've been obvious that big-budget films in this genre were making big, big money, and that they weren't going away, even before the 2008 success of IRON MAN. Perhaps some of the hostility stems not just from the superheroes ruling the box office, but also because they're getting critical approbation, which has usually been directed at films of perceived "variety" as opposed to more generic forms of cinema. I didn't think BLACK PANTHER deserved an Oscar nomination, though ironically it was much better than two other more "mainstream" nominees. But I believe Gilliam, even though he certainly has greater knowledge of fantasy than the other two directors, simply doesn't engage with the particular nature of the superhero fantasy, and for that reason makes a superficial judgment about this particular genre.





Thursday, January 2, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: "DESIGN FOR DEATH" (CAPT AMERICA #67, 1948)

In the late forties, the crime and horror genres rose as the superhero books fell out of favor. As a reaction to this trend, the last dozen or so issues of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS largely eschewed stories of hard-hitting pulp action in favor of moralistic stories of youths gone wrong or peculiar terror-tales. (One of the last Golden Age "Captain America" stories featured the Red Skull, who's died and gone to hell, trying to suck his star-spangled enemy down into perdition with him.) Most of these stories are not memorable. Yet "Design for Death," nominally a Human Torch story. shows some anonymous scripter (and an artist whose GCD provisionally identifies as Bob Oskner) playing out a "funny crime" story owing something to Thorne Smith.




The Torch and his flaming partner Toro get to play a part akin to Eisner's "The Spirit," in that the two heroes play a rather minimal role in someone else's story. For some reason, the crusaders pay crime-writer Ted Sparks a visit, and find that he's left a weird note on his door about blood being all over the floors. Apparently the note was just the writer's way of getting the heroes in the door with a modicum of suspense, for Sparks is present in his apartment, using a fishing-pole to haul in his mail and rambling about "a beautiful woman's blood." Then this bookish, bespectacled fellow starts talking about how he thinks he's been thrown over by Peggy, "the woman who captured my gentle heart," because he committed the sin of asking her to darn his socks. Somehow, Sparks turns his rage against Peggy onto himself in a classic statement of negative compensation: "What she needs is a brute! A powerful, ruthless and clever brute is the only kind of man a woman should have!"



Though on page two Sparks said that he "can't write" because of his mental turmoil, his rant inspires him to try putting his "masterful brute of crime fiction on paper." The heroes leave, remarking on his "negative inspiration" and considering the possibility of seeking out Peggy, since they've nothing better to do but play Miss Lonelyhearts. An hour passes, and the irate writer falls asleep, apparently conjuring "civilization's most ruthless male," a handsome, semi-clad figure who takes the devilish name of "Mephisto." This Mephisto proceeds to act on Sparks' submerged desires by conquering the heart of a society beauty attending some sort of charity benefit. The Torch and Toro happen to be there, but Mephisto douses both of them with water. However, the handsome "brute" meets defeat anyway, for the society-woman, though initially thrilled by Mephisto's caveman approach, spurns him for not being in the social register.




Nothing daunted, the would-be seducer dashes off to the opera, where he comes on two separate hotties. One repulses him because he sings like a  foghorn, and another one refuses him because he admits to being penniless. Then the Torch and Toro show up and encircle Mephisto with flames-- at which point it's revealed that Mephisto never existed except in Ted Sparks' dream-- which ends when he realizes that his sleeve has caught fire from a nearby candle.



To cap things off, the Torch and Toro return with Peggy in tow. Peggy reveals that the only reason she didn't have time for Sparks was because she realized that his old socks weren't worth darning, and that she proceeded to knit him some new ones. Sparks is deeply impressed with her feminine devotion and contrasts this with his own male aggression: "She knits while I kill and kidnap!" The tale ends on a comfy reconciliation, though it's rather different from dozens of other comic-book tales in which men who doubt their manhood get to prove themselves. Instead, "Design" shows a neurotic crime-story writer becomes tortured by his lack of masculinity, and by story's end he never really proves anything. Indeed, given that even in his imagination fantasy-women won't yield to him, it seems possible that Peggy's submissive nature may just be a matter of her "stooping to conquer." So, even if Sparks does keep his devilish imagination under control, he may find that she has her own "designs" about who'll wear the pants in the family.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

STAR WARS, NOTHING BUT STAR WARS

For my last ARCHIVE essay of the year, I thought I might put together something a little more accessible to the casual reader (if any) than the previous "Concrescence and the Kinetic Potentiality." And since this year I devoted several essays on my movie-blog to reviewing most of the as-yet-unreviewed-by-me live-action films in the STAR WARS series-- concluding with an analysis of the current RISE OF SKYWALKER-- I'll make the Lucasverse my last ARCHIVE subject for 2019.

In 1978, when Bill Murray sang the lyric in my title for an episode of SNL, he was playing the part of a lounge-singer making up lame lyrics to please an audience of barflies. The main focus of the schtick was to make fun of the way commercial performers tended to latch onto items of popular culture in order to sell themselves. In a different era, Murray might've constructed the same idea around, say, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

And yet, though the comedian couldn't have known that the original 1977 film would be anything more than a flash in the pan, he could well have been aware that STAR WARS had garnered an adult audience far beyond anything seen in past SF-successes. I find it unlikely that the same schtick, done in 1968, could've sold the idea that a lounge-singer would've tried to appeal to a bunch of adult drinkers with insider references to any other fantasy-film, even a popular one like PLANET OF THE APES.

There had been a handful of fantasy-works in various media that somewhat escaped the "fantasy is for kids" cultural judgment. DUNE and THE LORD OF THE RINGS attracted an audience outside the world of hardcore SF-readers. The James Bond book-series and its attendant movie-adaptations trafficked in sci-fi gimmickery and villains that resembled the freakish fiends of the DICK TRACY comic strip. The fifties generated a handful of SF-films that enjoyed some qualified support from adult audiences, such as Howard Hawks' THE THING, and the late sixties mirrored that development with the first of the APES films (though later ones became more kiddified) and Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Comic books remained a marginal medium despite adults' brief flirtation with the irony-drenched world of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries. Yet Marvel Comics changed up the game by introducing the formula of "heroes with problems," and while Marvel's penetration of "the real world" was minimal during its strongest creative era, its long-term influence on American culture would make possible the current hegemony of "superhero movies for all ages."

Yet, for all of these influences, the eventual validation of metaphenomenal entertainment for adults all comes down to "nothing but STAR WARS." In my review of the original film, I wrote:

...the religion of the Force works well in the first film because it's become the underdog in the galactic empire. Whenever the materialistic minions of the Empire mention the Jedi, it's only to sneer at the absurdities of their beliefs. To them Darth Vader's continued existence is little more than an indicator of the foolishness of having faith in anything but machines-- and the fact that Vader himself had taken on the semblance of a machine is merely a further confirmation of their world-view.
Luke Skywalker's existence defies the Empire's passion for "technological terrors," and whether or not Lucas meant him to be Vader's son at the time hardly matters. By inheriting Obi-Wan's mantle as the new embodiment of Jedi spirituality, he supplants Vader in the cosmos as Jacob supplanted Esau. This is the unlikely turnabout that Lucas teaches his audience to hunger for, and it plays as much a role in the franchise's success as the aforementioned love of pulpish extravagance. Indeed, without Lucas having crossbred the magic of fairy tales with the machines of SF, the furor over STAR WARS might have petered out over time like many other fannish enthusiasms, no matter how hard big corporations labored to keep them stoked.

George Lucas's scattershot research into fairy tales, archaic shamanism, and mythology clearly touched a cord in the American psyche, not mention the psyches of a great many other world cultures. And its popularity with adults was reflected in one of America's earliest instances of "political correctness," on which I reflected in my essay TRIBAL IN PARADISE:

STAR WARS was the test-case for racial representation. Not long after the film came out, I recall hearing a black comedian say something like, "Tell the truth, white people; you like STAR WARS because it means ya'll gonna leave alla us behind!" There may be more truth than humor in that statement, and Lucasfilms was quick to remedy the lack of POC in the SW universe by introducing Lando Calrissian in the second movie.

This wasn't pure tokenism, though. The Lucasverse as we now know it recapitulated a number of political attitudes, not least Lucas's favored trope of "lots of little good guys can beat a big bad guy." This is best illustrated in the first film in the Rebels' triumph over the Death Star. In addition, an early draft for STAR WARS would've also included a primitive tribe of Wookies beating a contingent of Storm Troopers, even though the story-idea didn't show up on celluloid until Lucas reworked the Wookies into RETURN OF THE JEDI's Ewoks. Reportedly Lucas was not entirely pleased that the only well-known black actor in the cast was "off-camera" in the form of Darth Vader's voice, but the appeal of James Earl Jones' baritone overcame those reservations. Thus I would surmise that Lucas probably didn't engineer the role of Lando Calrissian merely to profit from tokenism. He probably sincerely believed in a judicious forms of racial representation, much like that similarly-liberal toiler-in-fantasy-fields Gene Roddenberry. However, Lucas he didn't virtue-signal quite enough to head off his critics in 1999, when the buffoonish Jar Jar Binks was assailed for being a modern reincarnation of Stepin Fetchit.

The prequel series displeased a lot of viewers for a lot of reasons, but on the whole the series proved a success-- not just in terms of box office, but also in showing how thoroughly the viewing public had become enthralled with the Lucasverse cosmology. That said, even in the sixteen years between RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE, countless film producers sought to pursue the grail of the "Big Lucas Pay-Off," seeking to subject the once marginal genres of science fiction, magical fantasy and superheroes to the big-budget treatment. Television showed a similar transformation, though obviously Hollywood's Veblen-esque investment in conspicuous consumption didn't play so well on the small screen. Still, serials like XENA, HERCULES and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER demonstrated methods of bringing in big ratings on a small budget. For all anyone knows, the increasing profitability of sci-fi and superheroes may have played a role in encouraging George Lucas to return to his long-neglected franchise.

There's not much doubt that the "Rise of the Box-Office Profits" motivated Disney to purchase the Lucasverse, but here too, it's hard to say if pure profiteering explained the whole megilla. In my essay FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PART 4, I called attention to the way Disney strategists re-wrote Lucas's "Clonetroopers" scenario from the prequels in order to start off the new series with an appeal to racial priorities. Thus the first promo for FORCE AWAKENS opens with the sight of a Storm Ttrooper unmasking and revealing the face of a black man (or at least, a face whose ethnicity is less ambiguous than that of actor Temeura Morrison, who played the mercenary from whose cells all Storm Troopers were supposedly derived).




Now, with the Disney trilogy is complete, it's possible to state categorically that the company's vaunted commitment to diversity did not extend to making Finn a halfway interesting character. In my review of FORCE AWAKENS, I pointed out that this revelation could be seen as a war to replay what I called "the African Diaspora," insofar as Disney's white-clad troopers were abducted from their worlds and forced to serve the Empire/First Order. However, even if the persons responsible for crafting the Finn character had some such intention-- and the idea is re-emphasized anew in RISE OF SKYWALKER-- the producers failed utterly at making Finn even as compelling as a Lucas toss-off like Boba Fett. That said, other new characters in the Disneyverse-- Poe, Rose Tiko, Holdo-- were no better characterized, so Finn certainly wasn't singled out for half-assed treatment. The one decent new character, Rey, got most of her mojo from being tied to one of Lucas's legacy characters in a literal sense, and with others in a more symbolic sense.

It may be a measure of Disney's perceptions about the adult audience's investment in the Lucasverse that the company chose to virtue-signal the company's commitment to diversity. However, it should be noted that, even if Lucas and his collaborators might have been influenced by tokenism in crafting Lando Calrissian, they still managed to make Lando an interesting character despite the creators' possibly-monetary motivations.

Even before SKYWALKER appeared in theaters, the first two films in the Disney trilogy were excoriated for their virtue signaling, though this criticism tended to focus less on people-of-color than on a perceived overemphasis of female characters. I feel that this criticism is partly justified in the cases of Holdo and Rose Tiko, who were such ciphers that I find them unlikely vessels of female empowerment. However, I will defend Rey against that charge. I don't think that Lucas's STAR WARS cosmos was ever directed exclusively to the male gender, and I think that Princess Leia stands as a major femme formidable, even if it's true that Carrie Fisher was less than entranced with her role. Rey has been accused by some critics of being a "Mary Sue" in terms of how easily she attains power and formidability. But while I might share some critics' concerns about the depiction of her path to power, I felt all three Disneyverse films succeeded in making her a vital character, one not defined by the gender wars. Thus, when Rey takes the name "Skywalker" at the end of SKYWALKER, I for one embraced that conceit. For me, the gesture demonstrated that, even when the new-verse was compromised by venal virtue-signaling, and dull diversity-concerns, it still was possible for people who weren't George Lucas to create at least one character that escaped such banal politicization.