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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...

Saturday, February 16, 2019

STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 3

In SUBS AND COES PT. 1  I wrote:

Within serial narratives, the ongoing composition of the centric will may change over time.  However, each change takes place within either a new story or a new story-arc. In the first few exploits of Batman, he alone incarnates the centric will of the feature. After Robin enters, the Batman and Robin team becomes an ensemble of two, still incarnating much the same centric will. Twenty years later, Batman plays a lone hand again, and then, if Robin only occasionally appears, his status is that of an “eccentric” guest-star. However, when a new story presents a new Robin, the ensemble-of-two is reborn as if it never left.

To anyone concerned with the subject of narrative centricity-- in other words, just me-- it can prove vexing to seek a coherent definition of stature that can encompass all of the variations possible in serial narratives focused on ensembles.

The most familiar examples of ensemble-narratives are those focused on teams. However, the mere existence of a team does not prove that everyone on the team is part of an ensemble of coordinated, autonomous characters. In STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 2 I mentioned one example, that of the 1960s teleseries IRONSIDE, noting that Ironside was the focus of the series while his helpers were clearly subordinate types. Yet in another sixties series like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, it's evident to me that the team's leader is simply a "first among equals."

These differing dynamics seem to evolve without reference to the author's conscious intent. For my money, Joss Whedon's BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1997-2003) follows the IRONSIDE model. Buffy Summers is the star of the show and remains so from start to finish, even though there's a lot of narrative time lavished on the support-characters-- Xander, Willow, Angel, and former adversary Spike-- and even though one of them, Willow, arguably becomes more powerful than Buffy.



Conversely, ANGEL (1999-2004), from the same producer, begins its first season by focusing principally upon its "noir vampire" character Angel, who receives aid from two assistants,  Doyle and Cordelia. However, for reasons I've never bothered to learn, Doyle's character was killed off and his sole talent, that of prognostication, was transferred to Cordelia. In the tenth episode of ANGEL, however, a subordinate character who'd appeared on the BUFFY show shifted the balance away from Angel as the superordinate focus. Wesley Wyndham-Price, though initially played for comedy, soon emerged as a coordinated character alongside Angel, and Cordelia followed suit. Other new characters joined the ANGEL cast and projected the sense of being autonomous allies to the vampiric hero, rather than his subordinates. There were some characters I would still deem to be of subordinate stature, like "Lorne the Empathy Demon" and the ditzy vampire Harmony. And naturally, whenever Buffy or any of that character's support-cast appeared on ANGEL, they had the status I mentioned above: that of "eccentric guest-stars."



Complicated though these parsings may seem, they've like a walk in the spring rain next to the convolutions on finds in comic books-- which I'll address in Part 4.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "AM I MARO, ROMA, OR RAEM?" (PACIFIC PRESENTS #3, 1984)

This, then, is the most certain of all principles, since it answers to the definition given above. For it is impossible for any one to believe the same thing to be and not to be, as some think Heraclitus says. For what a man says, he does not necessarily believe; and if (1) it is impossible that contrary attributes should belong at the same time to the same subject (the usual qualifications must be presupposed in this premise too), and if (2) an opinion which contradicts another is contrary to it, then obviously (3) it is impossible for the same man at the same time to believe the same thing to be and not to be; for if a man were mistaken on this point he would have contrary opinions at the same time.... -- Aristotle, METAPHYSICS, BOOK 4, Part 3 (trans. W.D. Ross)

To modern ears the proposition "A=A" -- often credited solely to Aristotle-- sounds no more profound that the proposition, "If it quacks like a duck, it's a duck."

However, the above citation from the METAPHYSICS indicates that, Aristotle's philosophy arose at a time when Greek philosophers still had to fight against the mythic idea that a thing might be more than one thing. Archaic myths, obviously, had no problem with depicting such metamorphoses as giants' bones morphing into mountain ranges and the like. Probably Aristotle was not personally influenced by whatever remained of the Greek religious tradition in his time. Yet the passage shows that he still considered pre-Socratics like Heraclitus worth refuting. Thus he furthered Plato's conception of the "law of identity" and elaborated his own "law of non-contradiction."

I don't know how much Aristotle Steve Ditko read, but I suspect he got most of his knowledge of the law of identity from its re-formulations within Ayn Rand's Objectivist writings. Though from his early professional years to his demise, Ditko remained, to the best of my knowledge, a devout Randian, frequently quoting the formula "A=A" and even incarnating his idea of that principle in the comic-book crusader "Mister A." Yet, because Ditko was an artist-- arguably a more consequential one than Ayn Rand-- his idea on identity and non-contradiction are imbued with his own take on the matters, which focuses on the moral compass one must have to choose between rational and irrational modes of consciousness.



One could even see this choice reflected in Ditko's interpretation of the established superhero-trope, "the scary crimefighter." For Ditko, criminals were, to paraphrase Bruce Wayne, "an irrational and impressionable lot," and, being irrational, they were wont to be terrified by heroes who projected irrational fears-- Spider'-Man's pupil-less eyes, the Question's featureless visage, and even the Creeper's clown-like riot of primary colors. That said, some Ditko heroes are more odd than scary, and this is true of the Missing Man, the hero of the story under examination (which I'll henceforth abbreviate as "Raem"). No origin is ever cited for the character, who enjoyed only three adventures. All the reader knows is that in his civilian identity, the hero is Syd Mane, computer tech-consultant. When trouble arises, the hero dons a pair of glasses, and he's transformed into what looks like an incomplete sketch of a human being, consisting of the magic glasses on his eyes, ears, a mouth, a head of hair, and very cartoony arms and legs, all of which are colored green-- while his hips and torso are entirely missing. (Insert Freudian joke here.) Further, as in his other stories, the Missing One is mostly a prop through which Ditko interrogates the failings of irrational malcontents.


Syd Mane is working to fix computer glitches at "WRDS Processing," which is apparently Ditko's loose idea of what a 1984 software-firm might be like. (I should note here that the story is entirely Ditko's, though the credit-box attributes the dialogue to Robin Snyder.) A maniac, appearing to be all-human on his left side and all-robot on his right, invades the work-space and tries' to slay Syd's employer, the grey-haired owner of the firm, "Mister Wrds." No one knows who this cyborg is precisely, though an employee named Eva thinks he looks something like a fully-human former employee, Raem Lanet, who had been her fiancee some time ago. Syd transforms into the Missing Man and keeps Raem from killing Mister Wrds. Before security can arrive, Raem escapes, one of two times that this half-metal man will vanish from sight despite his eye-catching appearance.

Though the Missing Man and the other witnesses to the crime can see Raem's divided nature in an outward sense, the reader gets a pipeline to the cyborg's thoughts, where the division is even more pronounced. In a reversal of certain genre-tropes, the robot-half of Raem is the reasonable part of his consciousness, urging against violence and revenge, while the human half lusts to kill Wrds and anyone who gets in the way. Later the reader will learn that Raem left the employment of WRDS of his own free will, and that the villain is retroactively placing the blame for his decision on the shoulders of his former boss.

Ironically, though Raem's human half seems the messed-up part, Syd testifies in his clinical way to the fact that mechanisms too can suffer trauma: "The program is in a loop. Like a short circuit. Like a contradiction that will destroy the integrating function of the unit and kill the whole system." He makes this observation about a damaged computer, but it's clearly Ditko warning the reader as to the contradictions in the mind of the would-be killer. But just so that Mane doesn't have to do all the lecturing, Mister Wrds--  whose office is  filled with "alphabet-soup" arrangements of assorted letters-- boasts about his project to "define language:"

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.



This is without a doubt Ditko at his most Randian, though he and Snyder may not have realized that they contradicted themselves here, since it is the "inhuman" part of Raem's cyborg nature that is the rational part, the part that knows Mister Wrds did Raem no harm. Later Wrds will blame Raem's insanity on "the interface with [Raem's] robotic half and his human half," but this tossed-off rationale doesn't dispel the conceptual dissonance.

Ex-fiancee Eva, instead of doing the rational thing and telling the police about her suspicions, seeks Raem out at a lonely cabin. In her presence the cyborg starts ranting about having alternate identities with the names of "Maro" (apparently "Man-Robot") and of "Roma" ("Robot-Man") which presumably illustrate his internal struggle. He conceives that Eva betrayed him, and despite the protests of his good side, strangles her. Since by the next day the police have found Eva's body-- though, in a bizarre touch, they rule her death "an accident"-- the reader must assume that Raem discarded the corpse somewhere far from the murder-scene.



Eva's death serves to center the Missing Man's investigation on her missing fiancee, so that he interviews Barker, another of Raem's employers, who (surprise, surprise) also talks like an Objectivist, and who says that Raem would "rather choose prestige over value." Raem eventually works himself to attack Wrds again, with the result that a lot of Ditko's alphabet-soup collages fall off the wall, or something like that. Fortunately the Missing Man shows up as well. With a clever trick the hero causes the demented cyborg to think Wrds is dead, and so again the half-robot manages to shamble away and not be seen by security. However, Wrds finally has a moment of clarity and recognizes Raem, which makes it possible for the software-maker to direct the superhero to the isolated cabin.



Missing Man finds the cabin deserted, but thanks to his other research, the hero's able to track the pitiable creature down to the laboratory where Raem was transformed into a half-robot. Then, for the story's final six pages, Ditko focuses not on a pitched hero-villain battle but on Raem managing at last to override his murderous irrational impulses, even though the effort results in his death. Standing over the dead cyborg, the Missing Man muses, "he died not as Roma or Maro-- but as a man-- as Raem!"

Not many comics-critics sympathize with Ditko's black-and-white morality, though I view the moralizing as a necessary evil that made it psychologically possible for Ditko to unleash his vivid if erratic creativity. This creativity was also accompanied by some definite quirks, like the artist's oddball affection for names that are usually awkward conglomerations of vowels and consonants. (Apparently Ditko never met a consonant blend he didn't dislike.) But 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 more passionate defense of Randism-- and as such, may also be a back-door admission of the significance of emotional value.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

INVESTMENT VS. FASCINATION PT. 1

In my 2011 essay NEGATIVE I.D, I cited some comments by Curt Purcell on the topic of reader identification with fictional characters, or other entities/presences:

 I certainly wouldn't say there's any encouragement to identify with the villains in the movies I discussed, if only because they tended to be repellently nonhuman--sometimes little more than a writhing mass of tentacles. How does one identify with that?

One of my responses went as follows:

 Identification need not always connote one's sense of participation in a given character's bodily reality, although when speaking of erotica, that would be the natural assumption.  It's equally possible to identify with a nonhuman creature, or even an inanimate phenomenon, by identifying it as an expression of a particular will to do something within the sphere of a narrative.

Most of my response in the essay dealt with the reader's potential for identification with various negative narrative presences, ranging from tentacled demons to dead girlfriends to "phenomena that don't really have benign or malign intent." Their effects within a narrative are all different from one another, but they would seem to share one factor: that it's difficult to imagine the reader investing any personal emotion in them-- which seems to have been Curt Purcell's yardstick for identification.

My current insights regarding identification, as well its consequences for gauging a narrative's centric will, don't invalidate anything I've written on these subjects to date. However, the revelation that identification has two distinct and often complementary aspects may serve to clarify the gulf between what Curt thinks (or thought) about identification and what I think about it.

The two complementary aspects I'll now label *investment* and *fascination.*

In a sense I've indirectly addressed these aspects of identification when I began writing about the centric will in two manifestaitons: the exothelic and the endothelic:


...I defined the philosopher's idea of "Will" as "the radical root of all literary activity." This means that, no matter what sort of viewpoint character the author may choose, he may focus as easily upon the "will" within the viewpoint character (or on some figure allied to him, or an ensemble of such characters), OR upon things, people, or phenomena that are perceived as "the other" to the viewpoint character's will.
*Investment* is the form of identification that the reader experiences when the author has organized his narrative around some focal presence that the intended reader can engage with in a generally sympathetic manner. This does not necessarily mean that the reader endorses everything that the focal presence may think or do-- Humbert Humbert comes to mind here-- but nevertheless, the reader invests himself by participating in the focal presence's way of relating to the world.

*Fascination* better describes the form of identification the reader experiences when the focal presence is perceived as "the other" to the viewpoint character's will. This narrative strategy-- for which I cited EVIL DEAD as an example-- does not ask the viweer to invest any sympathies, critical or otherwise, with the entity that embodies the centric will of the film. Indeed, the film's demonic entities evoke fear because the viewer does not what to make of them or what they will do next. However, as the film progresses, and the viewer gets scraps of new information about the Evil Dead, the viewer becomes somewhat more fascinated with their alien nature, for all that he never really participates in it. This process of fascination becomes so pronounced that the characters in whom the viewer can invest sympathetic emotion, the victims of the Evil Dead, are soon subordinated to the film's monstrous entities. Patently, this is the reverse of what happens in many "investment' narratives, where the reader rejects everything about the protagonist's enemies and their will proves subordinate to that of the main focal presence or presences.

However, a crucial further insight is that investment and fascination can work together in coordinated harmony. In my review of EVIL DEAD II, I noted how Ash Williams, who in the first film is the  last human survivor of the Deadites, becomes a force to be reckoned with:

EVIL DEAD 2 is certainly a much better film than its precursor, and a lot of that can be credited to Raimi's decision to give Ash a more slapsticky vibe, up to and including quotes from Three Stooges routines. Still, the improvement in Ash didn't extend to any of the other characters, who were just as much throwaway cannon-fodder... The film's highlight is Ash's decision to fit a chainsaw onto his missing hand, which is almost as much of a grabber as his final confrontation with the main demon. 
The viewer hypothetically starts out the film investing some emotion in Ash as a sympathetic character, who seems to have no advantages that will keep him from becoming "cannon fodder." However, his maniacally comical struggle against his own demon-possessed hand-- which he lops off to keep it from infecting his whole body-- moves the viewer's identification in another direction. Suddenly, it is Ash, not the malignant demons, who takes center stage, and his later feat of suturing a chainsaw to his arm makes his will even more fascinating. Thus the process of fascination becomes coordinated with the process of identification, so that Ash becomes the embodiment of the film's centric will and the Deadites become subordinate presences.

 To be sure, most serial narratives don't change their centric will so suddenly from one installment to the next. Superman and Batman inspire both investment and fascination from their first adventures to their last. Fu Manchu never allows for full sympathy but the fascination of his character overrides the investment process represented by his goodguy enemies. And, as I've often noted on this blog, Frankenstein and his creation sometimes coordinate with one another in terms of the level of fascination they inspire, and sometimes one is subordinate to the other, usually in the same pattern as Fu Manchu: where "the other" proves more interesting that the familiar.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: BATTLE ANGEL ALITA/IRON MAIDEN (1990?)


Like many adventure-oriented manga, BATTLE ANGEL ALITA is composed largely of “long arcs.”

The first long arc sketches out a futuristic Earth that provides the obverse to Russ Manning’s beneficent “cloud in the sky” civilization, as seen in the MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER story “Cloud Cloddie Go Home.” Yukito Kishiro’s world is dominated by an aerial city named Tiphares (named for the central sephiroth of the Kaballah’s “Tree of Life”), a city linked to the Earth’s surface by a long shaft and assorted cables. Yet for the first two arcs the reader does not see how life is lived by the citizens of the clouds. Rather, Kishiro focuses on the lives of the ground-bound humans whose domain, “the Scrapyard,” coalesces around the aerial shaft. The reader’s first image of this environment is that of a mammoth junkyard, reinforcing the idea that the people, too, are castoffs from legitimate society. Earthbound commerce centers around Tiphares as well. The only businesses Kishiro shows are METROPOLIS-style factories, whose main function is to process food and other commodities and send the goods up to the sky-city via the central shaft. The inhabitants of the Scrapyard, however, live a hand-to-mouth existence, and many of their bodies have become modified through grafting or through the addition of cyborg parts—which seems to debase rather than enhance most of them.



I’ll pass quickly over the set-up established in the first arc. A technician named Ido happens to be rooted around in a junkyard for spare parts when he finds an intact cyborg-head from three hundred years previous. He joins the head to a new body and gives her a new name, Alita, but the diminutive cyborg has no memory of her old life. She does cherish her new “papa,” though, and because Ido does a side-busniess as a “hunter-warrior”—hunting fugitives on the outs with the authorities-- Alita begins imitating Ido’s bounty-hunting profession. But the robotic body Ido’s given her possesses phenomenal powers that even Ido barely understands—and this is where the first arc ends.



Since Alita is functionally “born adolescent,” IRON MAIDEN commences with her first love, as well as giving her a reason to be at odds with the dominion of Tiphares. While fighting with some cyber-enhanced bounties, Alita gets kayoed, and wakes up to see a teenaged boy, one Hugo, looking at her. Alita and Hugo become friends, and he, unlike Alita, feels a great passion to transcend his earthbound status by emigrating, legally or illegally, to the sky-city. 



At this time Alita has next to no interest in Tiphares, but she falls in love with Hugo right away, and is not a little jealous of Hugo’s passion for the city. Later Kishiro reveals that the dream isn’t original with Hugo, for Hugo’s older brother cherished the same impossible dream. However, Tiphares takes extreme measures to dissuade immigration. Possibly thanks the betrayal of his wife, the brother of Hugo is slain by a cyborg hunter-warrior. Thus Hugo’s passion for Tiphares is entangled with filial affection and survivor-guilt.



Hugo’s far from a starry-eyed innocent, though. Alita is aghast when she learns that his side-business is stealing spinal columns from corpses to sell on the black market. Vector, Hugo’s black-market contact, has promised to smuggle Hugo into the sky-city if the boy can amass a huge number of credits. Alita eventually starts helping Hugo gather credits, hoping to go along with him. The cyborg-girl does not know that Hugo sometimes breaks the law in his dream-quest, attacking cyborg-citizens to remove their spines. (Because the victims are cyborgs, this attack doesn’t kill them, though Hugo’s buddy Vector is not nearly as scrupulous about not killing.) Soon Hugo is a wanted man for his crimes, and one of Alita’s many enemies manipulates things so that Alita may have to bring Hugo to justice. Alita tries to help Hugo escape to Tiphaes, but before they can do anything, another hunter-warrior—indeed, the same one who slew Hugo’s brother—deals Hugo a fatal wound. Alita arrives in time to destroy the hunter, and then is able to save Hugo only by taking his head—in the same way Ido salvaged her head—to Ido’s laboratory, where the good doctor attaches it to another robot body.



At this point Ido drops a bombshell on the young couple. Ido himself is an exile from Tiphares, and he knows that they’ll never allow the entry of people from the Scrapyard. Hugo is more than a little disturbed to learn that he’s lost his humanity in pursuit of a chimera, and when he and Alita confront Vector, they learn that the only way he ever sends “people” to Tiphares is as preserved body-parts. The two cyborgs wreck Vector’s office but spare his life, for Alita has more pressing concerns.  Hugo, almost mad from his sufferings, scales one of the cables anchoring the city to the earth. Alita almost manages to talk Hugo down, to convince him that the dream of their future together is better than the dream of Tiphares. Tragic fate intervenes, and Alita loses her first love. Over time, though, she will inherit Hugo’s mission: that of penetrating the mysteries of the city in the sky.



Tuesday, February 5, 2019

EMANICIPATION VS. FREEDOM PT. 4


I had hoped that I had said all I needed to say about the politicization of the CW superhero universe in the previous essay in this series. Unfortunately, thanks to the BLACK LIGHTNING episode "Just and Unjust," broadcast on 2-5-19,  I’m returning to the CW well once more.

I don’t watch BLACK LIGHTNING for entertainment, since I don’t generally get entertainment out of any sort of art that puts politics ahead of poetry. Despite my having been accused in some benighted bailiwicks of being an arch-conservative, I find conservative soapboxes just as flimsy as liberal ones. But in the 2010s there's not nearly as many venues where conservatives can may fools of themselves as the ultraliberals like to pretend.

I won’t attempt to analyze the complicated plot-lines of BLACK LIGHTNING's two seasons here. The show's posture was made clear from the first episode. Racist white cops gratuitously pull over school principal Jefferson Pierce and humiliate him for “driving while black”—and in front of his teenaged daughters Anissa and Jennifer, no less. This incident looms large in Pierce’s return to his earlier role as the vigilante superhero Black Lightning, and when his daughters also develop powers, they too become equally involved in fighting against “the Man,” as an earlier generation called it. To be sure, most of the hero’s opponents are the minions of the albino-black gang-boss Tobias Whale, against whom Black Lightning nurtures an old grudge. But even the presence of black cops in Pierce's mostly-black community of Freeland doesn’t anneal the general sense that all Black Americans live in a state of constant victimization. Even the predatory actions of black gangstas, by implication, are ultimately the responsibility of America’s system of “institutionalized racism.”

Nothing signals this unrelenting depiction of constant victimization more than what I’ll term “the Khalil plotline.” Khalil, a fellow student with Jennifer and Anissa at Freeland’s fairly upscale high school, is an up-and-coming track star with a bright future ahead of him, the more so when he and Jennifer fall in love. But Khalil's dreams come to an end when one of Tobias Whale's minions tries to kill a local organizer, resulting in Khalil being crippled by a stray bullet. 

Tobias Whale, though indirectly the author of Khalil's predicament, then plays the role of the Tempter. Using cyborg-like technology, Tobias gives Khalil the power to walk again, as well as super-powers, so that Khalil will function as Whale’s enforcer. Khalil makes this devil’s bargain in full possession of his faculties, and one of Whale’s plots involves Khalil storming his former high school and creating havoc. The students, most of whom are black, flee in panic from Khalili’s powers, though, conveniently for later plotlines, he doesn’t kill any of them.

Jennifer Pierce believes in her beloved and turns him away from serving Whale. So far as this goes, this is pretty standard for the CW, having a sympathetic character commit criminal offenses but finding some way to redeem him so that he never goes to jail for them. However, in season two, Khalil meets his reward for rebelling against the gangsta life, and he dies by the order of Whale.

As “Just and Unjust” begins, the mourning Jennifer returns to her school, where incidentally, Jefferson Pierce has been demoted to vice-principal due to his mysterious absences (caused by his superhero sideline), and an unfeeling white guy takes Pierce’s former job. This of course is one of the nightmares of Afro-American culture: the fear that at any moment even those with rewarding, respectable community positions will simply have their advancements ripped away by the white hierarchy. Since Unfeeling White Guy is not a developed character, I’ll just call him UWG for short.

On Jennifer’s first day back at school, she’s pleased that many of the students have evidently forgiven (or forgotten) Khalil’s rampage, for they’ve created memorials for the former track star. However, UWG has the memorials taken down.

Jennifer doesn’t make any attempt to meet with the principal or anyone else to contest this dictate. Instead, she assembles her own memorial in one of the school hallways. UWG quotes the school handbook, calling the display “inappropriate student art.” Though I don’t recall UWG having done or said anything racist in previous episodes, Jennifer immediately tasks him with bigotry.

“You can hide behind the handbook and all your rules. But the fact of the matter is, you just don’t like [Khalil]—or any of us, do you?” She also inducts Khalil into the ranks of “black lives that matter,” and outright calls UWG a racist. All of the student witnessing the exchange—not just some of them, but ALL of them—completely agree with Jennifer and apparently don’t care that Khalil’s rampage might’ve killed or injured some of them. Once a white guy’s in charge, he can be nothing but a representative of the white hierarchy, even though I believe most principals in a similar situation would have a lot of problems with honoring a gangster’s enforcer. Somehow, Khalil’s injury becomes the injury that all black people suffer at the hands of white people, for Jennifer, before being removed by security, preaches that “every person standing here is just one step away from becoming something they never meant to be.” And it’s totally the fault of the hierarchy: black people are  “trapped by a system, that doesn’t give a damn about us-- run by people like you.”

UWG then has a student rebellion on his hands, and his vice-principal’s only concern is his daughter’s welfare. When Pierce is told that finds his daughter called UWG a racist in front of other students, Pierce re-interprets this direct insult into liberal-speak:

“Jennifer is just questioning whether you have the perspective or the sensitivity for this community.”

Uh, not quite. She wanted to have a memorial to her gangsta-boyfriend on school property, and thought she could get it by picturing him as a victim of institutionalized racism.  The script, not willing to recognize Pierce’s bullshit, then loads the dice further by having UWG express resentment for the fact that he believes he’s had a harder life than Jefferson Pierce. Pierce’s response is practically boilerplate Leftism:

“you get the benefit of the doubt that even a rich black man will not get.  That’s what these kids are facing.”

If Khalil had been framed by the cops or the KKK, this “benefit of the doubt” argument might hold some relevance. But there is no “doubt” that Khalil committed criminal acts, and it would be a peculiar principal of any race who would think it a great idea to memorialize a gangsta in a high school. The idea that Khalil is instantly forgiven all of his sins because he’s had a hard row to hoe, being black in America, summarizes BLACK LIGHTNING’s total investment in victimization politics, and makes clear that the show endorses only the credo of “justice for the oppressed alone.”

Saturday, February 2, 2019

STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 2

I introduced the term "stature" into my ongoing investigations of focal presences in SUBS AND COES PT. 1.  I doubt that I or anyone can provide a systematic description as to how stature works in narrative, and how it operates in some cases to bring about the coordination of some presences with one another, while in other cases it brings about the subordination of some presences to others. A simple, non-systematic description would simply consist of my re-stating my conviction that stature correlates with the "narrative emphasis" that the author(s) use to structure the narrative. However, being non-systematic is not one of my strengths.

One way to approach a literary process that is not defined by discourse-- where the property under discussion is a given once the narrative is complete-- is by process of elimination. In other words, what qualities do NOT define stature?

In SUBS AND COES PART 1, I indicated that in the BATMAN feature, Robin was coordinated with Batman, while in the DICK TRACY feature, Junior Tracy was subordinated to Dick Tracy. But this might not have been the most balanced comparison. After all, both the original Robin and various later iterations appear regularly in the Batman-mythos over many decades, whereas Junior largely disappears from TRACY once the artist ran out of things to do with him.

Therefore, a better side-by-side comparison would be one between Robin and Doctor Watson of the Sherlock Holmes mythos. I'll concentrate here on the canonical Holmes series of Conan Doyle, though I think it's inarguable that nearly every other later iteration of Sherlock Holmes brings in some version of Watson as well. By this standard, one might argue that the character of Watson is actually more thoroughly imbricated with the character of Holmes, whereas there have been many more Batman stories in which Batman has no partner at his side. So longevity within a serial narrative *might* be seen as a possible quality relevant to stature.




However, two characters in a serial narrative are not necessarily coordinated even if they appear together in every story. In order to be coordinated, each character in such an ensemble must have an independent, autonomous existence, just as, to reiterate my previous metaphor, two coordinate clauses in the same sentence must be able to stand alone.



In contrast, a subordinate clause cannot stand apart from the structure to which it's attached, which is, ideally speaking, a sentence that can stand alone without the clause. Going by these two definitions, longevity is irrelevant.

The question then arises: does dynamicity bear any relation to the stature of characters as being either coordinated or subordinated? When one sees that there have been one or two features devoted to Robin or one of his later epigoni, while to my knowledge Doctor Watson has no ongoing serials devoted to his exploits, one might think it had something to do with the fact that Watson, while courageous, doesn't usually bring much to the table in terms of his ability to trounce evildoers, while Robin's acrobatic abilities give him the ability to take on a variety of enemies without any help from his senior partner.

However, though megadynamicity insures that a given character doesn't need someone else to handle fights, it doesn't necessarily mean that said character and his partner are coordinated. The woods are full of superheroes who have tough sidekicks who are plainly subordinated to the stars of the features, with two prominent examples being "Doiby Dickles" from the Golden Age GREEN LANTERN and "Stretch Skinner" from the Golden Age WILDCAT.






Further, since most incarnations of the Sherlock Holmes concept are more about detection than fisticuffs, the fighting-ability of either Holmes or Watson has little significance in the Doyle stories. It's not impossible to imagine a take on the canonical Doyle stories in which Holmes and Watson are two detectives whose different strengths complement one another, along the lines, say, of the teleseries BONES. But to my knowledge Watson is always both intellectually and physically secondary to Holmes, with the exception of the spoof-tale seen above, WITHOUT A CLUE. There are even some serial concepts in which there's a starring detective who handles all the mental work while he has some legman do his heavy lifting, as per Nero Wolfe and his aide Archie Goodwin, or Ironside and his little coterie. But in these cases, the super-thinker is superordinate to his stooges.



Thus dynamicity, going by these disparate examples, would also seem inapplicable to the concept of stature. The only guide would seem to be that of pure functionality. Robin is coordinated to Batman because the reader expects a hero's sidekick to be able to operate on his own from time to time. In contrast, Watson's main function in the Holmes mythos is to be "the cat who looks at a king," and nothing more. His main status is to be a "subordinate clause" that adds important information to the main sentence-- if only that of making Holmes's feats of detection emotionally relatable-- but he's not important in and of himself.

More to come.



Thursday, January 31, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1912) PT. 2



The e-book image shown above depicts Fu Manchu (for once, depicted as he is in the novel, with no mustache) alongside a female character. Though this character is not Fu's famous daughter, I referenced Fu's association with his offspring in my study of the 1971 Bat-story "The Demon Lives Again:"

In his early adventures Fu Manchu has no daughter. That said, the first story-arc introduces a femme fatale, Karameneh, and when Doctor Petrie asks who she might be, Fu’s perpetual opponent Nayland Smith speculates that she might be the arch-fiend’s own spawn.
Whereas some authors, such as Conan Doyle, wrote a lot of stories without significant female characters, Rohmer usually did include women in his tales, albeit almost exclusively as romantic interests for male heroes. In INSIDIOUS, viewpoint character Doctor Petrie follows his old friend Nayland Smith during a murder investigation. Petrie happens upon a mysterious Asian-looking woman who is later revealed to be the unwilling slave of Fu Manchu. Karameneh, whose name means "slave" in her native Arabic, falls immediately in love with Petrie and he with her. In Petrie's case, he seems enthralled by her combination of both "white" and "non-white" aspects, for she has "the skin of a perfect blonde" yet also "had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole's." Throughout the novel Karameneh, though superficially loyal to her Chinese master, stealthily works to keep Petrie (and, incidentally, Nayland Smith) from being killed by the devil-doctor's devices. Early in the novel, Petrie questions his friend about Karameneh's status, and Nayland Smith says:

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.

By "certain instance" the policeman means that Karameneh has acquired some will as a result of her amour fou with Petrie. Nayland Smith underestimates Karameneh's resourcefulness, though, as she saves the two Englishmen time and time again, and in one case she even anticipates Fu Manchu's famed skills for disguises, making herself up as a male Chinese hunchback (!) It may be argued that Rohmer simply wanted to give his heroes an inside ally, given that they were so heavily overmatched in their encounters with the malevolent mastermind. The idea that she 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. (Shakespeare's MERCHANT OF VENICE is perhaps the best known use of the trope.) Rohmer gets a little humor out of a scene in which the slave-woman outright tells Petrie that she will betray her master if only Petrie would "master" her and force her to talk, and Nayland Smith wryly dubs this one of the mysteries of the Oriental mind:

... she would adore you [Petrie] for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!
In a late section of the novel, Karameneh is further redeemed when it's revealed that she has a brother, also one of Fu's slaves, and that Fu holds his life hostage against the woman's good behavior. Petrie provides some minor aid in liberating the brother (who I believe is not seen again in the novel-series), and thus Karameneh is free to desert her master. In a later novel she marries Petrie and is only seen sporadically thereafter, which may be the main reason she appears rarely if at all in film or TV adaptations of the Fu Manchu stories.

Though the character's resourcefulness is her most appealing trait, in the book's first chapter she too is briefly caricatured with the trope of "Oriental death." The first case investigated by the English heroes is one in which a man dies, and Petrie discerns on the victim's hand "a faint red mark, not unlike the imprint of painted lips." A few pages later, when he meets Karameneh, he wonders if the "bloom of her red lips" bears any relation to the red mark on the murdered man. Yet this association with a poisonous insect is as close as Rohmer comes to demonizing this particular Asian, and for the rest of the novel Karameneh remains eminently sympathetic. Rohmer may have been a little more comfortable with Asians from the Middle East than the Far East, although it's my recollection that when the author does introduce Fah Lo Suee, Fu's genuine half-Chinese daughter, she too remains sympathetic despite her inability to win free from her "heavy father."