Thursday, February 21, 2008


In my previous post I stated that I could only evaluate the character of the Defenders character Valkyrie by exploring other narratives that contributed to her mythos. The first of these tales appears in the THOR story entitled “The Enchantress and the Executioner”, which appeared in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #103 (April, 1964). The story’s archetypal plot is that “the spurned and/or jealous goddess” that readers will know best from Greek myths, which is fitting since, despite sharing title-credit with her male partner, the Enchantress is the real star of the story. Arguably this witchy woman is also the first villainess of significant stature in the Marvel Universe, though this status didn’t keep her and her axe-wielding swain from enduring some distinctly un-mythic stories.

At the time of this story’s genesis, the continuity of the THOR feature still followed the founding premise that the character of Thor was no more than a superheroic identity assumed by Doctor Don Blake whenever he stamped his magically-endowed cane (which likewise transformed into Thor’s hammer). Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby probably derived their basic idea from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, to whose 1940s saga Kirby briefly contributed. However, in CAPTAIN MARVEL Billy Batson, the alter ego to the Captain, was clearly the “true identity” of the two, complete with mortal relatives, while Marvel was in essence a magical idealization of Billy’s self-image. In THOR, however, Blake had no ties with mortal life save his romantic interest in his nurse Jane Foster, who was alternately attracted to both Blake and his thunder-god alter ego. But the character of Thor did have an identity separate from the moments when Blake summoned him into being. The otherworldly realm of Asgard wasn’t just a place where Thor could go to hang his winged helmet, but a place where he had familial connections, such as Loki, the brother who hated him, and Odin, the father who wasn’t crazy about his son potentially hooking up with a mortal woman. Given that Thor was more “real” than Blake in the ongoing narrative, in later years Don Blake was downgraded to being a vessel magicked up by Odin, in which Thor’s spirit could sojourn for a time in order to be humbled by mortal experiences. Jane Foster’s role in the series lasted even less long than the Blake persona, but at the time of JIM #103, both Blake and his romantic interest in Jane were ongoing concerns of the narrative—and of Odin, who wanted to break them up. To this end Loki encourages the father-god to send a “bad woman” to break up their romantic attachment; i.e., the Enchantress, sort of a faux-Norse version of love-goddesses like Aphrodite and Ishtar.

Curiously, though most of Lee and Kirby’s Asgardians have regular names, either drawn from Norse mythology or created to sound vaguely Nordic, the Enchantress and the Executioner are always referred to by what one might call their “supervillain names,” and don’t acquire personal cognomens until the 1990s. The text calls them “demi-gods,” which may have been Lee’s rationalization as to why his readers wouldn’t find the two of them listed in any Norse mythology books. In any case, the Enchantress happily accepts Odin’s mission, her demeanor making it clear that she looks forward to conquering Thor’s heart for the sheer sport of it. She’s also a sorceress, which gives her name a dual meaning that equates feminine attractions with literal witchery.

The demi-goddess’ mission to break up Blake and Jane proves indirectly successful. Posing as a mortal woman, the Enchantress visits Blake’s office and tries to work on him with her womanly wiles. But Blake, who apparently knows everything Thor knows, recognizes her as an Asgardian, and knows something’s up. However, Jane barges in on Enchantress trying to get Blake in a lip-lock, and then flees the office, having been (a caption helpfully tells us) “heartbroken.” Blake ignores the goddess and pursues his mortal love, leaving the goddess mightily insulted. She still wants to win Thor’s heart, but now decides that she can only do so by getting rid of Jane Foster, to which end she returns to Asgard to pay a call on one of her many frustrated suitors, the Executioner.

The title of this essay evoked the images of “love and death,” and if the Enchantress fills the bill for the first, clearly the name of her partner by itself evokes the opposite. However, unlike the demi-goddess the Executioner seems more of a blending of many mythic motifs. He is kin to various gods of death in that, when he finds Jane Foster, he consigns her to “limbo,” which is one of the abodes of afterlife spirits in Catholic theology. However, in terms of his character as the goddess’ subordinate servant, he reminds one more of Aphrodite’s ugly husband Hephaestus, and though the villain isn’t expressly a craftsman-god he does embody a sort of weapons-fetish, as later events in the story show. And lastly, the scene in which Enchantress sends her servitor to eliminate Jane has strong resonances with similar scenes in the folktale SNOW WHITE—a euhmerized version of the “jealous goddess” tale-type-- where the evil queen sends a huntsman to dispose of a younger competitor. Indeed, Lee’s script even specifies that the Executioner seeks out his victim with “the eyes of a hunting falcon,” though in no other way does he resemble mythic huntsman-figures (one of whom includes the archaic version of Odin).

After the Executioner descends to Earth and sends Jane Foster into limbo, Thor shows up and battles the villain, battering him to his knees. At this point the reader might rightfully expect the hero to use force to make the Executioner return the mortal girl to life, but this possibility never occurs to either hero or villain. Instead, the Executioner asserts that “Slaying me will avail you nothing,” but that Thor can recover Jane by giving up his hammer, which the villain says he desires “more than anything on Earth or Asgard.” This is a curious turn in the tale, in which the Executioner seems to have forgotten that his original motive for exiling Jane Foster was to win the heart of a certain sultry sorceress. There’s nothing in the text to explain such a change of heart, but I don’t regard it as a simple mistake.

On one level, the villain’s mid-stream motivational change serves a “furniture-moving” purpose in the tale. Because Thor does surrender his hammer to the villain, Thor’s nobility is emphasized, because losing his hammer means that when he next reverts to Don Blake, he will “remain so for all time.” Thus with this development Lee and Kirby create more suspense than they would have by simply having Thor beat the malefactor into compliance, and the suspense is furthered when the Executioner brings back Jane and then is frustrated by his inability to actually wield the hammer, which can only be lifted by one who is worthy.

Though as I said there’s no textual explanation of the villain’s motives beyond what he says about having always desired the weapon, it’s possible to see some deeper motives at work. The Executioner never asks his witchy woman why she wants some mortal removed, but one can imagine that he puts two and two together, and knows that he’s basically paving the way for the Enchantress to become romantically entwined with the thunder-god. By taking Thor’s hammer the villain hopes to both eliminate a rival and obtain his power—perhaps with the idea of conquering the Enchantress’ heart in future, or just for the gratification of power in itself, embodied in the aforementioned “weapons-fetish.”

In any case, his independent actions are a clear affront to the goddess he claimed to serve, and the Enchantress, watching from afar, takes vengeance by turning the axe-wielder’s limbs into tree-branches. Her intrusion inadvertently saves Thor, for the Executioner, desperate to save his life, gives the hero back his hammer so that Thor will combat the villainess (thus putting the formidable Executioner in the position of the “damsel in distress.”) The combat between Thor and the demi-goddess is short: she tries to change his hammer into a “deadly serpent,” but the hammer is proof against enchantments due to its being forged by the supreme father-god Odin (ironically enough, since the Enchantress is serving as Odin’s catspaw here). With male power reasserted over that of the jealous goddess, Thor returns both demi-gods to Asgard. Later Don Blake finds Jane and makes up with her, returning their relationship to square one and further aggravating all-father Odin.

As remarked earlier, most 1960s uses of the Enchantress and the Executioner did not attain this level of mythic complexity. Often the two were treated as little more than standard super-villains, whether separately or together, though a few stories have the Enchantress become infatuated with another archaic myth-hero, Hercules, making her the ironic victim of unrequited love. The main exception to this comedown appears in INCREDIBLE HULK #102 (April 1968). In this tale by Gary Friedrich and Marie Severin, the titular green-skinned star travels to Asgard, where he becomes embroiled in the attempt of the Executioner and Enchantress to become major players by leading a troll army against Odin and Asgard. In doing so they go from being minor incarnations of “love” and “death” to attempting their own Titanomachy. However, their failure returns them to something of the status of also-rans in the hierarchy of Marvel villains, and over the course of the next two decades their ambitions rarely attain the grandeur of attacking Asgard. However, the villains’ punishment by Odin for the attack on Asgard, as chronicled in AVENGERS #83 (December 1970) has the more far-reaching effect in beginning the first action that will lead to the birthing of their symbolic daughter, the Valkyrie—which will be further addressed next post.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Following the death of Steve Gerber I did what I imagine many admirers did: I revisited some of his most-celebrated works, one of which was his stint on the superhero team-book THE DEFENDERS.

After hauling out that particular part of my collection and reading not only Gerber’s take on the group but that of other authors, I began to wonder: how much of the feature would stand up to myth-critical scrutiny? The concept of THE DEFENDERS—a loose coalition of several of Marvel’s “outsider-heroes”—had often received from fan-critics favorable comparison with Marvel’s AVENGERS, often considered to be more generic, and thus less creatively anarchic, than THE DEFENDERS. However, the appearance of creative anarchy is hardly a guarantor of a work’s possessing the complex symbolism I’ve dubbed mythicity.

To repeat what I said in “Myths Without Fantasy,” any kind of story may attain to the complexity of myth, and any element of narrative storytelling—a plot-event, a setting, a piece of dialogue, or a turn of characterization—can have the potential to go from a simple variable to a complex one. At the simple level, such elements are manipulated by the author to serve the ends of the story, which (as per this article’s title) I consider to be akin to the simple act of moving one’s furniture from one place to another. However, where one encounters the author bringing in extra levels of associational complexity, often not necessary as such for the story’s smooth functioning, one is dealing with another level of symbolic discourse, where the simple is “traded” for the complex, rather than simply being moved from one spot to another.

The first six adventures of THE DEFENDERS—three in issues of MARVEL FEATURE, and the first three issues of the super-team’s own magazine—are entertaining instances of “furnitute-moving,” which, for the superhero genre, means lots of lively fights. For Marvel superheroes in particular, it also means that the furniture one is moving has been passed down through many hands, as in theory every story in the so-called Marvel Universe may be viewed as part of an ongoing palimpsest, an endless series of texts which authors may add to, correct, or even erase. With that in mind, though I can say that I think DEFENDERS #4 is the first tale in the series to attain mythic complexity, it’s hard to speak of that story alone because it’s imbricated with so many other elements in past tales. Some of these elements possess mythicity, and others are just unadorned furniture, but before I can speak of the first mythic element that proves significant, I have to speak of all the others that contributed to the character of The Valkyrie. I’ll begin that next post.

On a side-note, I don’t want to give the impression that every single story in the Marvel corpus is referential in the extreme, but obviously, from the time of the company’s conceptual retooling in the early 1960s, the idea of rewriting other discourses, even by the same authors, became part of Marvel’s dominant narrative strategy. For instance, between issues 1 and 2 of the company’s flagship title FANTASTIC FOUR, one can see some changes that were simple mistakes: the trip to the moon in #1 is remembered as a trip to Mars in #2. However, Lee and Kirby also changed their original notion of the Fantastic Four from one issue to the next, with the first issue showing them as shadowy, freakish outcasts—not too unlike the much later Defenders, in fact—while the second, with no explanation, posits that the group-members are suddenly lionized celebrities, heirs to such heroic fame that even the alien Skrulls have heard of them. The latter change is not simply a “mistake,” but involves a shift from one discourse to another. This ability of discourses to shift from one level to another will be easy to observe as I begin surveying the textual history of the Valkyrie.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


As the novel progresses past the middle point, the mythology of *She* becomes more and more the novel's focus, as both Holly and Leo eventually fall in love with her. Clearly each of them represents half of her nature, with Leo equalling her in physical beauty while Holly is her intellectual equal. Later in the novel, *She* will even suggest making both of them as immortal as she is,which would certainly make for a literal "eternal triangle."

Pages 104-05 are interesting in suggesting the broadness of the immortal's intellect: as *She* apparently needed something to fill her time while waiting for Leo's reincarnation, she has apparently experimented on human beings like a later figure of literary myth, Wells' Dr. Moreau. Readers see only a collection of deaf-mutes who serve Ayesha, but she claims to have also bred a race that was so ugly she did away with it, and "giants" who were expunged not by her will but that of "Nature." A page or two later Holly compares her to Circe.

One thing about the literary *She* that I've never seen in other media-adaptations is that she is among the early figures of post-industrial literature who can project vital force from her body, in a manner roughly analogous to the millions of ray-blasting SF-aliens and superheroes that have crowded the pages of popular culture. *She* initially warns off Ustane, a rival for Leo, by striking Ustane so that parts of the girl's hair turn white. And when Ustane still won't give up Leo, *She* kills her outright with that vital force, and then hurls Leo (who attacks Ayesha in defense of Ustane) away with that force. *She* is careful to distinguish her powers from magic, however, and Etherington hypothesizes that Haggard was probably inspired by similar "vital force" theories in Bulwer Lytton's THE COMING RACE.

Most of the novel's other symbolic tropes are well-covered by Etherington, but I will say that I find it interesting that the mysterious cave where She gains her immortality from an equally-mysterius "Flame of Life" is called"the very womb of the Earth." Clearly, given the earlier comparisons of *She* to classical goddesses like Circe and Artemis, symbolically *She* is a goddess of the Earth. And even though this novel ends with her falling victim to mortality, one can easily view it as an ascension like that of Hercules, who dies mortally but ascends to Mount Olympus. And indeed, of the three later *She* books Haggard wrote-- two of which are prequels-- the last in temporal occurence,AYESHA:THE RETURN OF SHE, does grant this "goddess" a new form of life, albeit one as fraught with frustrations as the old immortal-seeming one.


Continuing with the chapter "The Feast, and After!"--

One comment Etherington makes here concerns a minor female character whose purpose is to provoke the cannibal feast as indirect revenge on Holly's party after she has been snubbed by Holly's comic manservant Job. Etherington comments that during the violent melee that results from the attempted hot-potting, it's surprising that the first person Holly shoots is not either of the men attempting the execution, but the unnamed female cannibal. Etherington comments on how unchivalrous it would be thought in Haggard's time for an Englishman to shoot any woman, even a cannibalistic one, but does not comment on the fact that prior to the attempted sacrifice, the lady cannibal tries to deceitfully sooth the sacrificial victim with sweet words and caresses. This, more than the victim's fate, is more likely what motivates Holly's death-dealing reaction: that the native woman has proven herself a Delilah-like temptress, not unlike the one love of Holly's life who callously rejected him with the "Beauty and Beast" comparison.

The violent melee contains a strange episode, as well. As Leo and Holly combat the rest of the cannibal band, Haggard has an interval where he needs Holly, his viewpoint-character, to be off to the side so that he can witness the splendor of Leo's Herculean battle against several foes. Most writers would have achieved this by simpling having Holly get clubbed and knocked to one side, so that he could get clear of the battle but still be a witness. Instead, Haggard has Holly grapple with not one but two men, hugging them both like the ape Holly resembles, albeit again off to the side in some way, so that none of the two cannibals' friends come to their aid. This strange stalemate, in which Holly keeps trying to crush the two men for fear that they will recover if he lets up, is certainly one of the stranger scenes in SHE. Eventually Leo is borne down, but is saved from slaughter by one of She's servants, at which point Holly collapses. Later, in recovery, Holly is told that he did indeed succeed in killing both men gorilla-style. It's hard to say why Haggard chose to construct his scene in this singular manner, but it probably relates to a desire to distinguish the fighting-style of Leo, who fights like a noble man, with that of Holly, who fights more like the beast of which he seems to be an atavism.

PAGE 83 has an interesting poetic motif: when Holly dives into a swampy pool to rescue the elderly Amahagger patriarch Billali-- whose sons ignore their father's plight -- Holly thinks to himself that the sodden patriarch looks like "a yellowish Bacchus with ivy leaves." Since Dionysus-Bacchus is usually one of the least patriarchal Greek gods, this might almost be seen as a regenerative image, though of course Billali is not literally made younger. Still, in a novel concerned with a woman who stays young for thousands of years, the comparison's hardly a stretch. Narratively speaking, Holly's rescue serves to bond him to the older man in a son-father relationship so that Billali's aid in later chapters seems well-motivated.

I stated earlier that Haggard's *She* doesn't actually rule any black Africans, as did the majority of her literary epigoni, but it's still pretty clear that Haggard does equate blackness with savagery in many instances. However, he saves his most overt attacks for the Jews on page 99, where Ayesha characterizes the Jews of her original pre-Christian era as followers of "many gods." It's true that many Old Testament books characterize the Jewish people of this or that time as fickle to the One God, but Haggard's presentation ignores any countervailing cultural tendencies. Oddly, much later, even after Holly has told her about how her modern-day descendants have become monotheistic Muslims (*She* is Arabic by heritage), Ayesha also speaks of her own people as innately polytheistic. Most likely this was in Haggard's mind another mark of unredeemable savagery, not much more evolved than the cannibalistic tendencies of Negroid (or part-Negroid) peoples.

Oddly, though, *She* also seems to have desired the high regard of the Jews for some unstated reason, and centuries later is still peeved at having been reviled as a witch by them for trying to show them her mystic secrets. Possibly this is because she recognized the Jews as a kindred people, though one would think that she would have valued her own Arab kindred more.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

STEVE GERBER, 1947-2008

Steve Gerber was seventies comics.

As that's a subjective opinion I'm not going to qualify it as being only mainstream comics, or only American comics, or what have you. In my view his significance cuts across those artificial borders, making him the best representative of the era in which he began his comics-career, the so-called "Bronze Age."

The designation of "Bronze Age," which largely connotes the mainstream comics of the 1970s (I've yet to see it applied to a later period), may have come about so that comics-merchants could sell their back issues more easily. However it came about, the designation proves appropriate, for even though one can see rumblings of change in the mainstream comics of the 1960s, 1970 is the year that the paradigm of commercial comics irrevocably shifted. Sixties comics, for all of their inventiveness, remained pretty well under the thumb of the Comics Code Authority (even if it was a thumb attached to the fingers of the comics-companies that underwrote the Authority). But as sales slumped toward decade's end, it's evident that mainstream publishers sought to reach wider audiences by goosing their traditional adventure-tales with more adult content-- and thus the Bronze Age paradigm was born, which still has a substantial influence on Comics In Whatever Age We're In Now.

The words "adult content," however, don't necessarily signify the same thing to all people, though both main meanings are legitimate. The first type of "adult content" is the type that is purely kinetic in effect: scenes of violence or intimations of sex that are considered too intense for Junior. For this type of content, Marvel's launching of CONAN THE BARBARIAN in 1970 is emblematic. The second type is thematic rather than kinetic, in that this type of content deals with that range of thoughts and emotions that are deemed beyond the reach of children. Here too 1970 provides a clear example of a mainstream making such a transition into deeper thematic territory with the Adams/O'Neil revision of GREEN LANTERN, beginning in issue #76 (April 1970). It can be fairly argued that these "adult-themed" books were still solidly aimed at a readership of not-yet-adult juveniles, but that doesn't alter how the paradigm altered to allow such content, irrespective as to how maturely it was rendered. As with the underground comics that in some sense paved the way for both types of adult content in the comic-book format, the majority of the "adult-themed" books were either bad or merely unimpressive, with only a few standouts in either camp.

Steve Gerber was one of the few makers of good adult-themed comics, and it could be said that he was somewhat in both camps, though he's best known for giving us comics with the second "thematic" type of adult content, such as his most-celebrated series, HOWARD THE DUCK and MAN-THING. At the same time, he was an advocate of showing scenes of intense violence in comics, as against the more pervasive trend toward "clean violence." Therefore, he had a foot in both camps, which by itself is one reason to say that Steve Gerber was seventies comics.

But in addition, just as seventies comics represent an uneasy alliance between adult themes and juvenile audiences, Gerber pulled off the best balancing-act between giving audiences adult content without sacrificing the child's delight in polymorphosity, in beholding the confusion and interpenetration of separate realities.

The delights of polymorphosity have long been the best-known aspect of comics, manifesting in the rogues' galleries of Batman and Dick Tracy, Alex Raymond's impossible animal-people, Superman's nutty red-kryptonite transformations and Jack Kirby's panoplies of gods and super-weapons. But Gerber manages to give us our polymorphous delights-- what Freud called "the pleasure principle"-- even as he questioned the nature of those delights with a covalent "reality principle." In the midst of an exciting heroes-vs-villains battle in an issue of DEFENDERS, a Gerber narrator-panel intrudes to tell us, "Sadly, it all comes down to a punch in the face." Other writers often said similar things, but Gerber made one feel both the pleasure of a wild genre like superheroes and its limitations in other idioms.

"All is not. Nothing is," says the nihilist villain Father Darklyte in MARVEL PREMIERE #23, showing Gerber's Heraclitean flair for playing with the many contrarities of existence. Not everything he created was gold, of course, but most of his creations (and re-creations) contain some trace of this contrarian take on life, the universe and everything: Daimon Hellstrom, Winda, the Headmen, Omega, Pop Syke, Charley Kweskill, Foolkiller, Doctor Bong. In Gerber's world everything was a mind-game in which arguably parts of his own consciousness vied with other parts, all to the benefit of the comics-reader.

Naturally, Gerber's legacy goes beyond his seventies work, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I think the 1970s will always be deemed his most creative period, as well as the one during which his works had their greatest influence, just as THE SPIRIT will always be seen as the pivotal work of Will Eisner.

Indeed, the image of the pivot isn't too bad to describe Gerber's influence. Certainly he didn't cause the paradigm to shift all by himself, just as the fabled lever of Archimedes wasn't supposed to move the world without some help.

Nevertheless, to paraphrase Galileo, it did move, and we as comics-readers are immeasurably better off for it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


I'm currently re-reading the 1885 Rider Haggard classic SHE, which will forevermore be known as the book that jumpstarted the literary idea of a mysterious white queen lording it over a tribe of black Africans.

To be sure, though I'm only on chapter 20 now, so far the titular queen *doesn't* rule any black Africans, since she and her people dwell in an isolated area where her tribe kills all strangers (except the English explorers who are the heroes of the book). Haggard describes the lost people of Kor, the Amahagger, as having more white than "Negroid" features, though the Amahagger also have varying shades of skin color and have therefore probably interbred at some past time with natives of Africa.

I'm reading the annotated Indiana University edition, which features an excellent introductory analysis by Norman Etherington, who also authored a 1984 book on Haggard and his work. In making some of my own notations on SHE, I'll attempt to distinguish those of my observations that build on Etherington's analysis and those original to me. My notes pretty much presume a familiarity with the story, hence the spoiler alert.

NOTE 1: The first page introduces the book's main two heroes, handsome Leo Vincey and simian-looking Horace Holly, and Haggard makes much of the contrast between the one's good looks and the other's apish appearance. However, though one might expect them to be instantly paired as "Beauty and the Beast," the first use of this phrase is in flashback, when a woman pursued by Holly rejects him, styling herself "Beauty" and then letting poor Holly figure out where he stands in the equation. Holly later becomes an adoptive father to Leo, which causes him to become take another form of Beauty (albeit male beauty) into his household, establishing with Beauty a rapprochement that resembles the psychological notion of "interjection." But introjection's usual partner "projection" is here as well, as psychologically Leo is an idealized self through which Holly can experience love with a beautiful woman, i.e, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.

It's also interesting that the two are opposites intellectually, with Holly an esteemed Classics professor and Leo a merely adequate student who often seems a trifle thick. As intellect doesn't play a role in the well-known tale of "Beauty and the Beast," one may find interesting a stronger parallel with an archaic tale of the Welsh goddess Cerridwen, who, having birthed a gorgeous daughter and an ugly son, tries to compensate for the son's fate by giving him mystical knowledge. (FTR, it doesn't work out any better for the ugly son than it does for Holly.) In more recent years this archetypal contrast was used for the purpose of low (but very funny) comedy in the dyad of Kelly and Bud in Fox's MARRIED WITH CHILDREN.

NOTE 2: Etherington comments on the recapitulation of *She* as the beauteous mother Leo never knows, since he never sees her after her death in childbirth. However, the sole female whom we see caring Leo is an unnamed elderly woman, who weeps bitterly at being forced to leave baby Leo in Holly's care. Arguably both the mother Leo never sees and the mother-substitute who (perhaps) rears him are recapitulated in *She*, the beautiful queen fated to age to death at the novel's conclusion.

NOTE 3: On page 63, Ustane, an Amahagger tribeswoman who becomes the rival of *She* for Leo, tells Leo and Holly that, though the Amahagger's queen is reputed to be immortal, Ustane has a theory: that *She* is really a succession of queens who have ruled throughout the ages, each taking a mate in secret until bearing a female child, who then assumes the role of *She.* This is of course not the truth in the story, though it may be based on stories about archaic rules of legend. But one wonders if the book SHE might have been read by Lee Falk prior to his use of a similar theme for the PHANTOM comic strip.

NOTE 4: The chapter "The Feast-- and After!" has one of Haggard's most brutal scenes, in which some cannibalistic Amahagger try to "hot-pot" Holly and Leo's Muslim servant: that is, kill him by fitting a white-hot pot over his head. At least, in the finished book, all they do is try; in the original MS, the poor Muslim guy does get offed in this grisly manner. Interestingly, the gory scene is re-inserted in the 1935 adaptation produced by Merian C. ("King Kong") Cooper.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


In her 2-5-08 essay “Acting Like You Have Nothing to Prove,” Jennifer de Guzman puts forth a good argument for the relevance of canons in literature (by which I assume she means print literature): “…works in the canon are generally part of a shared conversation for literary people; we see a literary ‘conversation’—one work giving rise to another, authors testing ideas, others developing them in different directions, others refuting them. I can feel like I’m part of something comprehensible and continuous when I’m engaged with literary works.”

She’s also correct in saying that comics, or at least comics striving for literary recognition, do not share this interconnectedness: “each work is solitary; it does not stand with its peers, working on similar themes with different nuances, adding to a conversation.” However, I disagree with her theory that “We don’t see more literary quality in comics being published today because too few critics treat comics a serious literature and art, critically reading and judging them without reference to non-literary works who (sic) happen to share the same format.”

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, I would say that the fault lies not with the critics, but with the creators.

I’ll take PERSEPOLIS as an example, since that’s the artcomic Ms. De Guzman invokes when she adjures readers to “stop acting as if PERSEPOLIS had anything at all to do with SPIDER-MAN.” So assume that a critic wants to compare PERSEPOLIS with a classic of print literature along roughly the same lines. Since PERSEPOLIS is a true story given literary treatment, maybe he’ll choose Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD—very different in content, but alike in form. Yet if I were drawing such a comparison-- and I say this as a reader not wildly taken with IN COLD BLOOD—the Capote book is far more a part of the literary “conversation” than PERSEPOLIS is, because Capote understands how to take the particularized events of a real-life situation and to give them universal resonance. Capote, unlike Satrapi, manages to attain this resonance by infusing his real-life material with ideas and concepts that go deeper than just the particular circumstances of the narrative. PERSEPOLIS has already had a fair amount of literary acclaim despite the medium’s association with SPIDER-MAN, but if it goes unread by future generations, it may be because Satrapi had the potential to join in the conversation but chose to remain silent.

To win the respect of many (though not all) critics, an artist needs more than formal skills and a commitment to realism, both of which one can observe in abundance with the usual gang of artcomics suspects: Spiegelman, Ware, Clowes, the Hernandezes. The artist aspiring for intellectual respectability has to show that he actually understands the world of intellectual ideas and how to organically bring it in line with his personal preoccupations, whether based on real-life incidents or totally fabricated.

Think. Outside of the pages of Dave Sim’s CEREBUS—admittedly a flawed example of artcomics for all its merits—how often have you seen an artcomic that showed a passion for a concept or set of concepts? I’ve read any number of literary essays which trace the influence of THE GOLDEN BOUGH on Hemingway or Faulkner, of DAS KAPITAL on London or Steinbeck. What concepts do the purveyors of artcomics choose to pursue? The warmed-over Freudianisms of Dan Clowes? Yeah, I’m sure Harold Bloom is just waiting for those insights with bated breath.

I shouldn’t have to add this, but plainly I’m not calling for simple-minded “quoting” of philosophers or other literary authors, just so that artcomics-practitioners can gain a patina of respectability. If they’ve got something vital to say about Frazer or Marx or Pinker or whoever, then they should learn how to merge those insights with their works, be they fictional or autobiographical.

For this reader, at least, it takes more than proclaiming your distance from SPIDER-MAN to prove that you’ve got the literary equivalent of the Right Stuff.