Featured Post

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, March 24, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: BROTHERS OFTHE SPEAR ARCHIVES #1 (1951-55)



I grew up with the BROTHERS OF THE SPEAR characters as a backup feature in the Dell (later Gold Key) TARZAN comic book. The titular siblings were foster brothers: one being Natongo, a native Zulu prince, the other Dan-El, his foster brother, a white youth adopted by Natongo's father upon the death of Dan-El's natural father. At the time I read the feature, black characters were just beginning to show up in comics-genres other than the jungle-adventure story, so I didn't attach any special importance to the fact that BOTS was an "Ebony and Ivory" partnership. Only much later did I learn that the feature had been in the Tarzan comic for a really long time, since 1951; about fourteen years before ABC-TV made history by devoting a serious adventure-series to the exploits of a salt-and-pepper team played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. In 1951, the comic-book medium wasn't displaying nearly as many of the negative Black stereotypes that had been evident throughout the 1940s, but one didn't see many positive images of Blacks either. BROTHERS is one of the few exceptions, though indubitably it was only possible because Tarzan was the character selling the book. I'd be surprised if any of the 1950s covers even referenced the feature's existence.

I've only read the first of Dark Horse's three reprints of BROTHERS, but I feel fairly sure in labeling the entire series to be a "near myth," based on my knowledge of the 1960s feature and its short run as a stand-alone comic book in the early 1970s. BROTHERS was intended by all those involved in its creation-- writer Gaylord DuBois and artists Jesse Marsh and (later) Russ Manning-- as juvenile, episodic adventure. As a backup feature, Dan-El and Natongo usually had only six pages for each installment. Thus there weren't a lot of reflections or ruminations, the brothers went from one jungle-peril to another without much down-time.



The motive force for the plot was that once Dan-El became old enough, he wanted to seek out the culture from which his late father came. Natongo, roughly the same age, didn't need to know who he was, but such was their sibling devotion that the Zulu prince joined the search, attempting to follow the very minimal clues they had. For about the first ten issues-- all drawn by Marsh-- the series seems entirely naturalistic: just two young men, one of whom happens to be white, having adventures in the wilds of Africa. Then, after Manning takes over the strip, the heroes begin encountering uncanny phenomena. In fact, Dan-El's lost people are one such phenomenon, being a race of Caucasians living apart from the blacks in Africa. This tribe, going by the name of "Aba-Zulu," is also controlled by a breed of sinister witch-doctors who use various "fake magic" tricks to enslave the populace, at least until the advent of Natongo and Dan-El-- the latter just happening to be a prince of the tribe, destined to inherit the authority of his dead father.

The time is never faithfully nailed down: Dan-El and Natongo encounter some white men who use handguns and are dressed in line with 20th-century fashion, but most of the adventures seem to take place in an Africa wherein Europeans have made few incursions. One assumes that writer DuBois meant for Dan-El's people to be the result of a very early incursion. However, whereas Edgar Rice Burroughs usually based his "lost white people" on some well-defined group, like ancient Romans, DuBois tells the reader nothing about the denizens of Aba-Zulu except that they worship the "One True God"-- albeit without any specifications. I'd guess that even in the adventures I've not read, DuBois chose to keep the culture of Aba-Zulu fairly vague. These "African Caucasians," though, dress like Black Africans for the most part, even though the only cross-cultural influence one sees are the witch-doctors, who are implicit doppelgangers for their Black kindred-in-spirit. This implied conflict between a very primitive form of religion and a more advanced one is the most mythic aspect of BROTHERS, but since the essence of the conflict remains off-stage as it were, it can only be a "near myth."

The same thing applies to the seamless brotherhood between Dan-El and Natongo. I'm sure that some modern readers would object to the early storyline's emphasis on Dan-El's journey, though with the benefit of "foresight" I know that eventually stories will show the development of Natongo as a king in his own right. Similarly, just as Dan-El meets Tavane, the woman destined to be his queen, Natongo will also meet his future queen Zulena-- and that both women are destined to be martial presences in their own right, veritable "Sisters of the Spear." That said, BROTHERS is very much a boys' adventure, with no time for romance, though there is an unusual moment in one of the first adventures, when a formidable Black African warrior-queen, Liloma, takes an interest in Dan-El. It was certainly unusual to even allude to the notion that a Black female might fancy a Caucasian, particularly in a juvenile-targeted comic book. Still, nothing comes of Liloma's affection thanks to a timely invasion from a hostile tribe.

The relationship of Dan-El and Natongo has some mythic potential; just the image of the two of them working together as equals cannot fail to communicate the resonance of an important sociological myth. Yet, because the brothers are so unfailingly loyal to one another, they don't have any individuality. Late in this archive's continuity, Natongo swears by the One True God of Dan-El's people. There is of course no space devoted to the Zulu prince's religious conversion: he's simply taken on the same faith as his cherished sibling, without explanation. I imagine that the kids at whom the feature was directed-- most likely white kids-- this unexplained character-touch would have meant nothing more than that Natongo was on the side of the "good guys." But it does make me realize that, even with the best intentions, some period chauvinism still managed to sneak in.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

DWELLING ON DURGNAT

I've mentioned Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002) in passing a few times on this blog, but in the coming days I plan to analyze one of his pieces in depth, the better to amplify some of the aspects of my own theory.

The details of Durgnat's significance as a film-critic can be found on this Wikipedia page. As the bibliography shows, the majority of his works focused on particular film-makers or particular films, but there are some general-theory works. I assume that most of these tomes were, as is traditional in the world of academic publishing, cobbled together from separate essays written for magazines like FILM COMMENT or SIGHT AND SOUND. The Wikipedia page mentions at least one essay that he worked into the book that most resembles a "general theory of film aesthetics," the 1967 FILMS AND FEELINGS. I can well believe it that this book originated as an assortment of essays on related themes, for most if not all chapters are just a few pages long.

Doing a variety of searches on the web for Durgnat and related topics, I don't get the sense that the legacy of this once influential critic has had much impact on current Internet film-writings. Nor did I get any sense that the worlds of elitist comics-criticism were even slightly acquainted with the man; combined searches of Durgnat's name with those of THE COMICS JOURNAL or THE HOODED UTILITARIAN yielded nothing of substance. (As I opined in an earlier piece, I was surprised when I learned that some HUddite even knew who Northrop Frye was.)

There are probably more differences than similarities between the myth-critic Frye and Durgnat the "radical populist" (as the Wiki essay calls him). Still, they share a concern with the idea that popular art is not radically estranged from "high art." On the first page of FILMS AND FEELINGS, Durgnat asks rhetorically:

To what extent does criticism habitually dismiss as "bad art" films which are "coarse-grained"-- but authentic and rewarding-- and so falsify its view of the medium?

Durgnat does not quite explain what he means by "coarse-grained," but I think it likely that he was contrasting "coarse arts" with "fine arts." Chapters in the book defend such "coarse art" as 1945's THE WICKED LADY (about a female highwayman) and 1955's THIS ISLAND EARTH (Earthmen dealing with alien imperialism). The first film Durgnat mentions in the book is Nicholas Ray's 1954 western JOHNNY GUITAR, and though he freely admits that he doesn't claim that the film "is a masterpiece," but he does say that it "typifies the interesting dramatic and moral points, and 'resonance,' of a competently made film." His aestheticized populism is also displayed in the first chapter, where he emphasizes his ambition to "find not only some 'lowest common denominators,' but also some 'highest common factors' of taste, and to do so, less by theory, than by exploring specific films."

As the previous sentence attests, FILMS AND FEELINGS does not dwell on pure theory. I imagine that like most writers of the period, Dirrgnat took some influence from the Marxists film-theorists of the day, though he seems to me far less agenda-driven than a contemporary like Robin Wood. It may be that his type of criticism has been pushed off the stage by the extreme ideologues, though I imagine that some modern readers may still yearn, as I do, to see what the critic called "the wedding of poetry and pulp."

More on Durgnat anon.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE APPROPRIATION HUSTLE PT. 2

In Part 1, I focused my attention on the ways in which the concept of "appropriation" was falsely applied to Marvel Comics' IRON FIST property. I pointed out that the idea of a fictional white Westerner "appropriating" a cultural product like "martial arts skills" from the East was not significantly different from the real-life instance of a martial artist like Bruce Lee borrowing Western fighting-style for his own martial system. "Appropriation," in fact, has become a new buzz-word for people who don't know Roland Barthes from a hole in the ground. (Granted, the two are almost equally empty, but still.)



The word recently appeared in the statements of black artist Hannah Black as she argued that "Open Casket," a painting of 1955 murder-victim Emmett Till, ought to be removed from public display and destroyed, because it represented "the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people" (full remarks here). This artist certainly takes a Barthesian position in that Black conceives of Black culture as being something that only other Blacks can comment upon, while if whites do so-- like Dana Schutz, the artist who painted "Open Casket"-- their only motive can be to "transmute Black suffering into profit and fun." Ms. Black was slightly hypocritical on this matter. In the body of the protest she makes clear that she will not accept white attempts to empathize with Black suffering. Underneath it she's quoted as saying that she chose to delete names of "non-Black" posters who agreed with her, yet she was OK with said non-Blacks helping "in other ways" to have the offending painting expunged from human history.



This is such an extreme view of the idea of appropriation that even the ladies of the ABC-TV talkfest THE VIEW agreed that Black simply didn't understand what real appropriation was. And given that this talk show skews very liberal, I think it significant that Whoopi Goldberg equated Ms. Black's attempt to destroy a piece of art with the repressive tactics of Nazi Germany.

Black's uncompromising view holds much in common with the "We Must Have an Asian Iron Fist" argument, in that all such proponents have formed an exaggerated idea of the extent to which a given culture can "own" anything, be it a cultural practice or a history of suffering and marginalization. There certainly have been examples of white artists putting forth bad art with respect to the race problem: Stanley Kramer's movie "The Defiant Ones" comes to mind. But I don't want to see the movie eradicated from history, and even if Schutz's painting were as bad as the movie, I don't think it's ethical to call for its marginalization and/or destruction.



When it comes right down to it, the protest over both the painting and the Netflix series (for which I've now posted an incomplete review) comes down to certain individuals feeling marginalized by something they don't like to see in art. For Black and her supporters, it's the image of Black people suffering, at least when depicted by non-Blacks; for the Iron Fist ideologues, it's the unfair prevalence of Caucasians in popular entertainment. In both cases I think the proponents have devoted themselves to both bad logic and bad ethics. But at least they're not actually distorting historical fact, like the 2015 film SELMA, whose factual inaccuracies have been widely exposed in essays like this TIME article.   In one interview, director Ava DuVeray defends the accuracy of her portraits of both Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, but somehow both she and her host fail to mention that she imputed Johnson as having colluded with Hoover in attacking King, which is pure fiction.



In an essay I can no longer find online, one writer asserted that SELMA's appeal for Black audiences was to rewrite history so that it seemed that only Black People got the Civil Rights Act passed, without any help from an ofay like Johnson, much less from Jewish rabbis.  Clearly, when things get to a point where a filmmaker like DuVeray falsifies history for her agenda, or an artist like Hannah Black calls for the destruction of a fine-arts painting, one can no longer excuse such bad behavior based on the egregious offenses of white culture, ranging from BIRTH OF A NATION to MISSISSIPPI BURNING.

And where does a commercial property like IRON FIST rate in this cultural equation? Well, if the comic book had ended with its fifteenth issue and the character had never been seen again (unlikely though that would be at Marvel Comics), then he would have remained a big fat zero in the matrices of culture. But Marvel didn't just cancel IRON FIST: they teamed him with the also struggling character POWER MAN, transforming the latter's book into POWER MAN AND IRON FIST with the title's forty-eighth issue.



For the remainder of the magazine's original run, the series remained fairly lightweight with respect to race issues or anything else. Nevertheless, I think that even if the feature didn't change any hearts and minds in and of itself, I have always believed that its implied "Ebony and Ivory" theme meant something within the world of comic books. It signified a basic faith, like the 1960s teleseries I SPY, that blacks and whites could overcome their differences.

I don't know what long-term plan the producers of the IRON FIST show have in mind, beyond the public announcement that at some point, Luke Cage and Iron Fist will be teamed once again, albeit in a larger team using the rubric "The Defenders." (Apparently the original idea was to revive the "Heroes for Hire" brand, but someone thought "Defenders" more salable). I think it likely that the series-producers wanted to duplicate some of the "Ebony/Ivory" theme from the comics, and that this is one big reason why "Asian Iron Fist" ran counter to the producers' long-term plans. There may well be important social statements one could make in the teamup of an Asian-American hero and an African-American hero. But I think the pairing of white and black still has a greater resonance within American culture, and that even flawed works like Kramer's "Defiant Ones" don't diminish that resonance. Any attempts to erase or efface the truth of that symbolism must be viewed as mere political power-jockeying.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE MAN WHO WOULD NOT DIE" (SWAMP THING #10, 1974)

This week artist Bernie Wrightson, best known as the co-creator (with writer Len Wein) of DC's Swamp Thing, passed away. This prompted me to re-read the first ten issues of the comic, to see if any of those issues had a strong enough symbolic discourse to merit the label of "mythcomic."

I wasn't optimistic in my search. Though Wrightson's masterful draftmanship was evident in every issue, and though the Swamp Thing is one of DC's better-known horror-heroes thanks to his media-exposure, most of the Wein-Wrightson stories are enjoyable "near myths," but not quite complex enough.

Except, happily, the last such collaboration.



In contrast to many of the writer-artist collaborations at DC in the 1970s, I imagine Wrightson exerted considerable influence over what went into the issues. In one old interview. for example, he mentioned that the magazine gave him the chance to draw all or most of his favorite movie-monsters. That said, "The Man Who Would Not Die" is the only story in which Wrightson is credited with the plot. So it may be that, as he was perhaps winding down his association with the series, Wrightson may have tried to do something a little more ambitious than "monster of the month."

Some backstory: in issue #1, we see how scientist Alec Holland becomes transformed into a monstrous swamp-creature, and how he yearns for the chance to reverse the transformation. In issue #2 he gets the chance at a Faustian bargain when he meets another scientist, Anton Arcane. Arcane  offers the muck-monster a chance at liberation: using a special device, Arcane can separate the "Swamp Thing body" from that of the man it transformed, by transferring the former to himself, which transformation Arcane welcomes, in order to escape his status as a decrepit old man, doomed to die soon. Swamp Thing accepts and becomes Alec Holland once more. However, he learns that Arcane hopes to use the near-invulnerable plant-body to wreak havoc on innocent people. Thus Alec does the right thing, reversing the transformation and re-assuming his monstrous nature. Arcane dies and Swamp Thing goes on to other adventures. However, Arcane is "the man who would not die"-- or at any rate, one of them.

In the previous issue, Swamp Thing managed to make his way back to the Louisiana swampland where (in this iteration) he was "born." While wandering in the fens, he comes across an escaped convict about to kill an old black woman:



The convict, who goes by the punny name "Hunk" Dorry, squares off against the monster as Swamp Thing comes toward him-- but all is not hunky-dory for Hunk, for he topples over dead, having taken several bullets during his escape. The old woman, not the least bit frightened by the swamp creature, introduces herself with a no less punning name.



Though "Auntie De Luvian" would make a great name for a horror-story hostess, I assume that whoever coined this name was making a veiled reference to the woman's age-- although one has to wonder about said age, since she soon starts relating a story from Louisiana's slavery years, apparently prior to the Civil War, as if she witnessed it all.

Auntie tells Swamp Thing that a great cotton plantation once abided on or near the swamplands, and that even for a slave life there might have been pleasant-- except that the slave-owner, Samson Parminter, was exceptionally sadistic. Parminter seems to have a liking for the European custom of "drawing and quartering:" when a young slave-woman named Elsbeth resists Parminter's overtures, he commands for her to be torn apart. A burly male slave named "Black Jubal." protests, because Elsbeth is his promised bride. A dry caption tells the reader that since Parimnter had already removed one of Jubal's arms long ago, so instead of having him quartered, Jubal meets a fate explicitly compared to that of a Christian martyr.




However, despite being one-armed, Jubal manages to reach his enemy from beyond the grave, for at some later point-- presumably after Elsbeth too has been murdered-- Parminter is "torn limb-from-limb" and his remains scattered throughout the manor. Auntie De Luvian then concludes the story, saying that the slaves "run away" that the plantation fell into ruin, and that she, Auntie, stayed in the swamp because she had nowhere else to go. At that point, she then warns Swamp Thing about the presence of "unholy things."





The "things" happen to be Arcane and his synthetic monsters, his "un-men." It seems that though Arcane's original body did perish, the un-men managed to resurrect him in a synthetic body-- albeit one not very well constructed. Arcane and his servants have tracked the monster-hero to these lands, and the villain still has his same agenda in mind: to take over the Swamp Thing body while expunging the persona of Alec Holland. So they fight--




Then the fight-- which Swamp Thing is losing-- is interrupted by some unquiet spirits. It seems that during the battle Arcane makes several verbal references to making modern humans his "slaves"-- and this is enough to offend the ghosts of the slaves who died in the swamp.




Swamp Thing does not witness what the ghosts do to Arcane and his minions, for Black Jubal himself bids the swamp-monster to fall asleep. When he awakens, he finds that in the graveyard dedicated to the deceased slaves, some new gravestones have been erected for the evildoers. In addition, when the hero goes looking for Auntie, he finds only another gravestone, proving that the woman to whom he spoke was also a ghost-- specifically, that of "Elsbeth de Luvian."

While this can be seen as a fairly traditional horror-story in which the dead come back to avenge past crimes, I find that there's a little more attention to detail than in the average ghost-story. Samson Parimnter of course has no resemblance to the Biblical Samson, though the first name is similar to that of literature's archetypal evil slaver, Simon Legree. Similarly, the Biblical character of Jubal from Genesis bears no resemblance to the hulking, one-armed slave-- but the name sounds not dissimilar from the Hebrew festival of Jubilee in which, Wikipedia relates, "slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest."

In conclusion I can't resist observing that an ideological critic would probably be offended by the story's association between a "real-world" evil like American slavery and a "made-up" evil like a mad scientist. However, it's clear to me that even if Arcane is a fantasy-figure, he's a more than accurate analogue to the evil of world conquerors generally-- and thus, the ghosts have ample reason to despise anyone who proclaims a desire to bring back slavery of any kind.




Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE COMPLICATIONS OF COMEDY PT. 3

In this essay I summed up the "theme statement" from one of my key essays on "focal presences," ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE:


ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE established simply that it is possible for a work to possess two or more "focal presences," who may work as a team (the two alleged vampires in 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, various superhero groups) or may be utterly opposed (1934's THE BLACK CAT, 1968's WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS).  The latter is an important point in that the concept of "mortal enemies" pervades most if not all literary genres in one way or another. Usually either a "hero" or a "villain" alone is the focal presence, just as one sees with the examples from Haggard: the "heroic" Allen Quatermain and the "villainous" She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. 
On some occasions, the "centric will" may seem to emphasize the protagonist's opponent more than the protagonist-- as with the Batman tale "Laugh, Town, Laugh"-- and yet, in terms of the way the story is presented, it's still a Batman story, not a Joker story. But then, most if not all Batman stories follow the exothelic pattern. while all three of the horror-movies referenced above are endothelic: they seek to represent the nature of willing subjects that seem to be partly or fully negative with respect to the community within each narrative. All of the focal characters in these movies are "monsters," even though the "two alleged vampires" of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE are at the film's end are revealed to be actors in costume, merely acting out the dark fantasies of the story's actual villain.

Such last-minute transitions of the main character's persona are usually not the case. but there are some famous examples. Katniss Everdeen is in essence a demihero who finds herself forced to take the role of a hero, but by the end of the book-trilogy, she essentially reverts to the status of the demihero. However, I recently reviewed here a work of far less consequence than any iteration of THE HUNGER GAMES. It's interesting only in that it offers a more radical transition than one usually sees in works relating to the "superspy" genre, even in the subgenre of the "spy spoof."

The 2004 film D.E.B.S. is, as I said in the review, essentially "the glorification of the film's amour fou," which happens to be a lesbian hookup between Amy, a woman who initially dedicates her life to the persona of a hero, and Lucy, who has for some time prior to meeting Amy accepted the destiny of a villain-persona. By the end of the film, though, both women have decided that "Love is All There Is," and they flee the roles of both heroism and villainy. The lightweight tone and content of D.E.B.S. implies that they will live lesbianically ever after-- which is interesting to me, in my study of personas and focal presences, because it's more typical to see demiheroes transform into heroes, villains, or monsters-- but not the other way round. It's also more frequent to see demiheroes remain demiheroes from start to finish, particularly when they are found in ensembles, as I argued in THE COMPLICATIONS OF COMEDY PART 2, with the focal characters of TOPPER and I MARRIED A WITCH as my main examples.

IRRELEVANT ASIDE: I've argued that one can find "glory" as the essential-- if not overtly expressed-- motivation of most villains. I found this opinion echoed when I re-screened Michael Cimino's 1974 ironic heist-film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. Wounded unto death, the character of Lightfoot sums up his criminal career with Thunderbolt with these dying words:

You know... you know somethin'? I don't think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero.


MYTHCOMICS: "THE BULL" (STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES #141, 1968)

I'm no expert on war-stories. In my formative years I rarely sampled read the genre in comics, and have only sampled a few classics, like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and its sequel. However, while any genre has the potential to acquire the complexity of myth, I would tend to say that the odds are a little more in the favor of aviation-related war stories. The very idea of human beings propelling themselves into the skies to do battle suggests the aerial adventures of Greek Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus, and so far I've cited two mythcomics in this series that relate to pilot-characters, here and here. (I've cited a second Blackhawk story as well, but it doesn't stress their status as flyboys.)

DC Comics' ENEMY ACE has long been a fan-favorite of the Silver Age, probably more for the excellent Joe Kubert art than for Robert Kanigher's writing. Some evidence would suggest that Kanigher was the dominant partner in the collaboration, since Kanigher was editor on the feature when it began in OUR ARMY AT WAR, even though Kubert edited all or most of their collaborations in the feature's longest run in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES. The feature started out as a co-feature in the first title and got a run as a solo title in DC's SHOWCASE title, but presumably did not sell well enough to earn its own title: instead taking over STAR-SPANGLED.

Kanigher had a tendency to treat his comics-work in a careless manner, as I've shown in reviews like this one on his METAL MEN and this one on his WONDER WOMAN.  And a lot of his war-genre comics are no better: one day I'll have to decide which is the most atrocious of his HAUNTED TANK stories. Yet neither his carelessness nor his antic humor shows up in ENEMY ACE. I tend to think he may considered the milieu worthy of a sort of "high seriousness," or what might pass for as much in commercial Silver Age comic books. The majority of Kanigher's stories about Hans Von Hammer-- a German flying ace scoring a record number of "kills" during World War One, when fighter-planes seemed not much less risky than the wings of Icarus-- are not complex enough to produce mythcomics, but almost all are at least "near myths." The one exception is the story entitled "The Bull."



It's entirely appropriate that the cover of SSWS #141 should feature an impending duel between the hero-- Hans Von Hammer, "Rittmeister" of his own fighter-squadron-- and the story's titular villain, a ruthless pilot under his command. The pistol-duel is, as much the aerial dogfights of WWI, drenched in the romance of honorable combat. Indeed, this is the main reason that the cover of SHOWCASE #57 boasts that "only DC dares reveal the ENEMY side of the war:" because the Germans of World War One could be viewed through the lens of romance, in sharp contrast to those of World War Two.
This is the first time in the series that Von Hammer-- nicknamed "the Hammer of Hell" for his many men he's sent to a fiery death-- takes arms against one of his people, but the struggle has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with individual honor.

The lines are clearly drawn from the first. Von Hammer returns from a mission to his squadron, and is told that one of his men has "murdered" a fellow member of the Jagdstaffel. To be sure, it's a sin of omission more than commission:




The flyer known only as "the Bull" is so busy attacking a particular enemy-plane-- Kanigher cleverly relates the repeated attacks to the chargings of a mad bull-- that he fails to come to the aid of another flyer from his own side. Note that the story is related by Ernst, the brother of the slain man, and Ernst is drawn to be the exact physical opposite of the hulking Bull: a weak-chinned shrimp.

Being an old-school officer who does things for himself, Von Hammer seeks out the Bull, who's busy celebrating his kill in a tavern and knocking around smaller men. The drunken flyer attacks Von Hammer, who blithely warns him not to do so ("I do not wish to see you court-martialed for striking a superior officer.") Von Hammer easily outmaneuvers the Bull's wild swings and finally demonstrates his superior fighting-ability by lifting the bigger man and hurling him against the wall ("I felt like the giant Atlas holding up the sky," he thinks). Kanigher overdoes his share of bull-references, ranging from Von Hammer feeling like a "matador" as he dodges his opponent, to comparing the man to "a bull in a china shop." (It's not hard to imagine the writer penning similar asides in some Batman story.) Kanigher does better as the sequence concludes. Von Hammer drives back to camp with his unconscious burden in his car, punning on the English word "ringmaster" as he thinks, "I am the Rittmeister of a flying circus-- complete with wild animals."

Even after the lout's egregious attack, Von Hammer declines to punish the Bull, except to ground him for one week, and to lecture him: "Even in war, we are still men-- NOT ANIMALS!" Yet the Bull will not accept the verdict, and challenges the Rittmeister to the duel seen on the cover.

Von Hammer meets the Bull for their duel-- at dawn, naturally-- and Von Hammer, who has just finished a night-patrol, leaves his Fokker plane running as the prize of the contest: to be claimed by whoever survives. But Ernst demands the right to challenge the Bull on behalf of the dead flyer, Ernst's brother. Ernst is slain and Von Hammer is consumed by ungentlemanly rage, so that he attacks the Bull with his fists. Without consciously meaning to do so, the Enemy Ace knocks his animal-like foe straight into the whirling propeller of the Fokker. "My ship-- executed the Bull," he thinks, and Kanigher misses the opportunity to make some allusion to the fate of real bulls at the hands of the butcher. Yet that might have been over-thinking the matter, in comparison to the terse simplicity of the story's final lines:

"The guilty one had paid the penalty-- but in reality-- weren't we all guilty?"

Note: this particular story is, like most ENEMY ACE stories, naturalistic in phenomenality. However, some stories in the original series enter the realm of the uncanny, as when Von Hammer meets a quasi-costumed pilot called the Hangman, and when he encounters a mysterious black wolf in the forest, one that may or may not be real, but at any rate mirrors Von Hammer's own talent for dealing death.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

THE APPROPRIATION HUSTLE

On this BEAT post, I corrected Heidi for referencing "whitewashing" on the Netflix IRON FIST series, which I have not yet seen. Then I added a slight amendment of my position:

I will note that I've seen the IRON FIST show accused of "whitewashing Asian themes" to get around the fact that the central character was always white, and maybe that's what Heidi referenced. Still, it's dubious as to how much the trope of the "lost Asian land where people learn great secrets" is an actual creation of Asians.  I assume the trope existed in Asian culture, whether it was rooted in fiction or in legend, but was James Hilton referencing any of these when he wrote LOST HORIZON in 1933? Or was he just making up his lost land out of whole cloth, and grafting it onto Tibet because Tibet was conveniently out of the way?

Since this thread may get closed any moment as did the one I referenced here, I don't expect to discuss cultural appropriation there, so I'll give it a stab here.

It's been some time since I attacked the inadequacies of Roland Barthes, but the linked essay ought to outline my general problems with his oversimplification, particularly the idea of appropriation, which he touted in paragraphs like this one:

Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self- indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.
I critiqued Barthes' narrow notion of "consumption" as an attempt "to reflect a doctrinaire Marxist imperative," one depending upon a supposed pure experience and one that has been tainted by "consumption." Elsewhere in MYTHOLOGIES, though, Barthes contradicts his words above by treating the products of a given culture-- specifically, the architecture favored by the Basque people-- as if they were "pure" in their original state but were "tainted" by the evil of modern Parisian appropriation.

Of course, as I've mentioned elsewhere, one can't assume that the Basque architectural style was conceived by Basques and Basques alone: they may have borrowed some or all of their design-motifs from other contiguous peoples. But I don't for a moment believe that Barthes cared about real-world influence: only about castigating French bourgeoisie for the sin of appropriation. This is essentially the argument advanced by the proponents of the "White Privilege" theory: it doesn't matter if Asian creators borrow motifs from so-called "western culture," like the well-documented fact that Bruce Lee "appropriated" western boxing-styles for his martial art-- it's only a bad thing when White People do it, even if the general idea of "mysterious Asian lands" was probably primarily the creation of White Creators, at least as we have them in Euro-American culture.

In addition to my Hilton remark above, the pulp Shadow probably started the "heroes' Asian journeys" during the 1930s. Here's the 1939 Bill Everett character who inspired the Thomas-Kane "Iron Fist:" Amazing-Man.




Here's a much less celebrated Tibetan "white crusader," Thundohr:



And, just to show that the same hustle can be applied in other circumstances, here's a page from Jaime Hernandez's LOCAS, in which the artist has a character lecture the audience about the inappropriateness of modern white people affecting Native American hair-styles.



ADDENDUM from the BEAT thread:

Since no one's going to speak to the question of "Who If Anyone Owns the Tropes," I'll confine my remarks to saying, contra Seth, that I don't think I'm worried about whites being underrepresented.

I worry more about creators being told what they have to do by the Diversity Police.

SECOND ADDENDUM:

I'd heard of the K'un Lun legend, and I assume that Thomas and Kane knew it as well. But that doesn't get to the heart of the matter about whether these tropes belong to just one culture or not.

Same thing with the system of kung fu. If it's inauthentic for Caucasians to be martial arts masters, why isn't it inauthentic for every non-East Asian to be one? Is this a rule that applies only to Caucasians as payback for imperialism and related sins? Well, OK, if an artist feels that way, it's his right to reflect that in his work.

But if an artist doesn't feel that way-- what then?