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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...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

WOMEN BEHAVING BADLY


The next two chapters of the Marvel Valkyrie-mythos appear over a year apart. The first tale (INCREDIBLE HULK #126, April 1970) introduces Barbara Norris, a one-shot support-character who would become integral to a later iteration of the warrior-woman, while the second (INCREDIBLE HULK #142, August 1971) gives the Valkyrie her first appearance as an entity clearly separate from her “mother” the Enchantress. The first tale is, like AVENGERS #83, just an enjoyable entertainment, but with the second attentive readers will begin to see a deeper symbolism shaping up, albeit one which is likely to strike the casual reader as rather risible.

Recapitulating HULK #126 is complicated by its being the third part of a tale that loosely associates the future charter members of the Defenders. Said tale begins in DOCTOR STRANGE #183 (November 1969), wherein the mystic hero learns of a breed of demons, the Undying Ones, who desire to cross into the Earth-domain for the usual nasty reasons. As #183 was also the final issue for that incarnation of DOCTOR STRANGE, writer Roy Thomas was constrained to continue the story in other titles, which next appeared in SUB-MARINER #22 (Feb 1970). This tale ended with the demons thwarted again, though Doctor Strange became a captive in their unholy realm—which is where HULK #126 picks up.

Barbara Norris, member of a cult of Earth-mystics that worships the Undying Ones, plays the part of both a betrayer and a savior. The cult’s leader gets the idea of using the Hulk as a catspaw to help the demons invade Earth., and pretty Barbara, despite expressing some reservations about “toying with a man’s life,” nevertheless helps her fellows drug Bruce Banner. Then the cultists hurl Banner into a dimension ruled over by a insectile tyrant called “the Night-Crawler.” This dimension is an “alternate pathway” which the Undying Ones can use to invade Earth once their old enemy the Night-Crawler is out of the way, and so the cultists hope that the Hulk will clear that path for their masters (who, incidentally, are still keeping Doctor Strange captive in a magical prison).

Banner throws a wrench in the gears: knowing that he’ll endanger the Earth by fighting the Night-Crawler, he represses the transformation. The frustrated cultists see all this via the usual crystal-gazing, but when Barbara develops a somewhat-tardy conscience, the cultists toss her in after Banner, hoping (correctly) that Banner will be forced to fight to save a damsel in distress. Sure enough, once the Night-Crawler menaces Barbara, Banner “hulks out” and monster battles mystic tyrant. In the end, the Hulk manages to both beat the Night-Crawler and foil the cultists’ plans as he unleashes a cataclysm that destroys the tyrant’s world, thus making it impossible for the Undying Ones to use it as a pathway. The Night-Crawler then teleports himself into the Undying Ones’ realm to fight them for their cosmos, and for some unexplained reason he pulls Barbara and the Hulk along with him instead of leaving them to die in the cataclysm. While demons go at each other, the Hulk and Barbara happen across the imprisoned Doctor Strange. Barbara, who learned from her fellow cultists of Strange’s self-sacrifice, somehow divines that she can free Strange by taking his place in the prison, thus making amends for her earlier misdeeds. This also helps writer Thomas solve the problem as to how to get both heroes out of this alien clime, for Strange then magicks them both back to Earth. The Hulk transforms back to Banner, and the two heroes exchange some pleasantries before parting (though no word is spoken of poor Barbara’s unenviable fate).

Compared to the earlier Hulk-tale, HULK #142 isn’t nearly as entertaining on the visceral level, being a labored satire that overtly references its inspiration, Tom Wolfe’s book RADICAL CHIC. But unlike AVENGERS #83 it does manage to put a more complex spin on the “war between men and women” myth-theme that AVENGERS #83 botched.

The story in short: during one of the Green Goliath’s jaunts into New York City, two rich social-climbers, the Parringtons, decide to advance their social status by persuading the man-monster to attend a benefit designed to raise money for his “cause:” i.e., not being hounded by human beings any more. The only reason this daffy plan works is because the Parrington’s cute young daughter Samantha goes along and talks the Hulk into going along with it all. However, the Enchantress is watching from her prison-dimension and transforms Samantha into the Valkyrie, the better to kill the Hulk for wrecking the villainess’ plans back in HULK #102.

Now, although the Enchantress’ motives have no more to do with “women’s lib” than they did in AVENGERS #83, Samantha is emotionally invested in the cause, though she’s never given even the most shallow reason for being a “libber.” She’s a cartoony sketch of a feminist, and Thomas makes her actions even more erratic than those of Barbara Norris. Samantha’s first seen complaining that her father ought to “throw a bash” for women’s lib, which he refuses to do since he’s got his more original “Hulk-benefit” idea. However, despite deeming the Hulk “the biggest male chauvinist pig this side of Norman Mailer,” Samantha goes along with her folks on their crusade to bring the Hulk to heel. She even uses judo to hurl an Army guard out of their way, and then, when her parents fail to persuade the Hulk of anything, manages to talk the monster into trusting her. (The female as betrayer again, sort of.) Then, after her father holds a press conference for his benefit—that is, doing exactly what he said he meant to do—she becomes irrationally irritated at him. Showing a dizzying blend of practicality and goofiness, she refuses to tell the Hulk of her parents’ superficial motives for fear of getting them hurt, but she organizes a women’s lib picket to protest the Hulk-benefit. (One could easily suspect her of piggybacking on the publicity generated by the benefit for her own cause, though Thomas doesn’t make this explicit.)

Now, this course of events is fairly silly, even in the context of a fantastic universe, but these plot-elements aren’t what give the story a mythic (if inadvertently funny) quality. This mythic element comes to the fore in the location where the Enchantress chooses to transform the wind-changing women’s-libber into “the vengeful Valkyrie”—said location being a skyscraper that bears a marked resemblance to (but is never identified as) the Empire State Building. It’s near the summit of this building that the transformation takes place—a building later described as symbolic of male hegemony, in that it was “built by the hands of males.”

So here we have a sorcerous female transforming a slightly-strident feminist into an Amazonian powerhouse, atop a big, tall building that symbolizes maleness.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But then other times, it isn’t. And sometimes the letters “p.e.” don’t stand for physical education.

Following Samantha’s transformation, she quickly beats a path to the Hulk-party, which is about to fall apart anyway, partly because the Hulk’s impatient to see Samantha again, as she’s the only one he trusts. The Valkyrie bursts in—ironically, only the Hulk recognizes her despite her costume—and attacks the man-monster, demonstrating that she’s strong enough to hurt him when she hits. Her battle-dialogue suggests that she’s fighting him largely for the pleasure of beating a representative of the stronger sex, and only a couple of pages later is it revealed that she’s under the Enchantress’ magical control. Sexual politics are further polarized by the Hulk, who refuses to hit a girl and is (for once) prepared to leap away rather than continue the fight. However, Valkyrie again resorts to womanly deceit, pretending to make peace with him so that she can Spock-pinch him into dreamland.

Then, still a couple of panels before we see that Valkyrie’s being controlled by the Enchantress, the warrior-woman seems quite prepared to murder the monster so that ‘every egocentric male” should “tremble” at the deed. For one panel she even drags the unconscious behemoth by his hair, reversing the old caveman-courtship joke. But when Valkyrie hauls the Hulk all the way to the top of the maybe-Empire ‘scraper, it’s evident that we’re not just dealing with a little penis-envy symbolism, but a reversal of a prominent cinematic myth, which also involved a monster and a girl going to the top of a towering building that maybe represented what the monster wanted to do to the girl—

This time, at least, beauty genuinely tries to kill the beast, and so the Hulk takes the high dive (though after the deed’s done, Sam-Valkyrie does suffer, like Barbara Norris, a tardy attack of conscience). Gamma rays being a greater source of potency than prehistoric evolution, the Hulk survives the fall, though it does irritate him enough to consider breaking his rule about hitting girls. However, at that fortuitous moment the Enchantress’ spell wears off, returning Samantha to humanity and somehow changing Hulk back to Banner as well. The two of them recover without recognizing each other from their one-night stand-off, and then go their separate ways. Samantha has no memory of being Valkyrie, but Thomas closes the tale with a literally-pointed suggestion that the Valkyrie may return— for the Valkyrie’s spear is seen laying in the rubble. By the logic of the story the spear should’ve vanished when the spell ended, but it comes to nothing in any case, for this phallic token of the first Valkyrie is (to the best of my knowledge) completely forgotten by everyone. When the Barbara Norris Valkyrie manifests in DEFENDERS #4, she possesses an all-new magic spear—more on which later.

I’ve stated that this whole Kong-lomeration of myth-motifs is amusing, at least to me, but I also stand by my notion that it’s also strongly mythic, possibly more so because Thomas doesn’t seem to have consciously drawn on the 1933 film for the story’s sexual content. I have nothing against the various websites that amuse themselves by seeing penises in every comic-book missile, but at the same time, I think I’m aiming a little higher than that. It’s damn near inevitable than any story presenting the fantasy of a strong woman is going to invoke a certain amount of sexual content, and I regard such content is entirely valid in a mythopoetic sense. Some archaic myths are solemn and portentous, like the Gilgamesh epic, and some are salacious and funny, like certain Thor-tales (in particular, the one which shows Thor being unable to outwrestle an old woman). HULK #142 isn’t consciously salacious, nor is it nearly as complex as its cinematic forbear. But, for a story that seems dimly hostile toward feminism, it takes an important step in the direction of articulating a new feminine myth-figure.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MORE PARADIGM ENVY

I suppose in large part my view that it's rare for SF novels to make good films takes some influence from the old canard that in Hollywood at least, only bad books make good movies. Obviously this is easy to disprove, and yet it does seem that an awful lot of minor works, from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT to THE GODFATHER, have yielded some above-average film adaptations.

IMO, though, this is partly because those less canonical novels are more amenable to filmwriters and directors playing with them, while the Big Important Novels come, so to speak, with Canons Fully Loaded. And this may relate to why it's hard to adapt some of the canonical classics of SF, while Philip Dick is relatively easy to play with.

Take Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END, for instance, which I re-read about a year ago. It's a fascinating novel of ideas, sort of like the SF equivalent to Maugham's THE RAZOR'S EDGE-- but it's not a very eventful novel. Any accurate adaptation to film would have to deal first with the bisected temporal structure of the novel-- starting first with how the alien Overlords approach mankind in contemporary times (not necessarily Clarke's 1953 era, but something in tune with the time of a given film-audience) and then moving forward one hundred years, to the time when the Overlords have brought peace to mankind for their own hidden purposes. That also means that no single human identification-figure can plausibly span that gulf of time, though in theory filmmakers could tinker with that detail, maybe granting an extra-long life to some character who will later do all the things Jan Rodricks does in the latter half of the novel. But then, he actually doesn't "do" much of anything but observe the Overlords' evolutionary agenda come to pass. In some ways, END would probably work less well as a full-fledged film than as a very condensed episode of an anthology TV-show like TWILIGHT ZONE.

It's certainly possible that someone could adapt certain SF novels not written by Philip Dick with success, but only with the knowledge that what works well on the page often doesn't translate that well on the screen. Again, part of this inheres in how much SF follows the example of the mimetic novel, and I imagine that anyone who manages a good adaptation of, say, CHILDHOOD'S END will have to use a good deal of visual inventiveness, as Anthony Minghella did in his not-entirely-like-the-book adaptation of THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

SCI-FI, FANTASY AND COMICS: PARADIGM ENVY

This week-- the week Arthur C. Clarke died at 90 years old-- I remarked that it was strange that so little of his work had been adapted to film or television. An acquaintance replied that he would rather see the adaptation of more classic SF and less "comic book crap."

I didn't ask him how he felt about the fact that more fantasy novels are also getting translated compared to SF novels, because I knew from past experience that he'd consider fantasy "crap" as well.

But then, as I thought about it a while, I answered my own question as to why Clarke-- and for that matter, most well-known SF authors-- don't get adapted more. And given that I've read hundreds of SF novels in my life-- probably more than I have fantasy-novels, though not single comics-issues-- I feel I speak with some authority when I say that even the best SF novels are crap-- cinematically speaking, that is.

Fantasy-fiction and comic books heroes aren't any better or worse off than SF when regarded through the Sturgeon "90% of everything is crap/crud" lens. But the fantasies nurtured in these respective genres are, without a doubt, cinematic. That means that at their best they have strong if simple plotlines that can be translated without much loss onto the screen, especially with the advent of CGI technology.

"Classic SF," however, comes out of a mimetic tradition that parallels the growth of the modern realistic novel. The content of your classic SF novel-- and here I'm focusing largely on the tradition that grew out of American magazines of the 1930s-- is no more realistic than that of a fantasy-novel, but in terms of presentation even the most excellent novels are not cinematic. Many of them are full of that peripatetic noodling called "world-building," which is pleasing within the framework of the SF-reader but which results in a lot of wordy passages that refuse to translate well to the cinematic screen.

Such a translation is possible, certainly. But where Tolkein is still Tolkien when a filmwriter leaves out some of fantasy's noodlings, and Spider-Man is arguably still Spider-Man even without Steve Ditko art, Asimov isn't Asimov without all that bookish noodling-- as should be apparent from the way the film I, ROBOT pretty much junks any fidelity to the short stories under which Asimov grouped his robot tales.

More on this later--

Saturday, March 15, 2008

WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY?

In terms of blogging, its not been great, because most of the topics I post on are fairly involved. At this point there's not a lot of traffic here, which is pretty much what I expected when I started it, conceiving of it as largely an archive for my own use.

However, on the chance that a few lurkers do come by from time to time, I'll say that I'm going to make an effort to make more frequent short posts on assorted topics-- at least on a weekly basis, which should fit with the habits of comics-readers at least.

Starting the week beginning March 16, then-- more short topics.

Friday, March 14, 2008

FEMALE TROUBLE

The previous tale discussed may not be a major comics-myth, but it fits my definition for complex symbolism. In contrast, the story to be discussed here—the Roy Thomas/John Buscema tale from AVENGERS #83 (December 1970)-- possesses only a rudimentary symbolic structure. Still, this story will help illustrate one of my earlier points as to how mighty mythic oaks can grow from nutty little null-myths.

The story—titled “Come on in—the Revolution’s Fine” (henceforth just “Revolution”)—is basically entertaining, despite its considerable lapses in logic. It’s not my intention to bag on a story tossed together over 30 years ago, but in my retelling it’ll be pretty obvious that those lapses are of Weisingerian proportions. (For the uninitiated in comicspeak, Mort Weisinger was known for having edited a number of wildly overcomplicated Superman tales, as well as being a onetime boss of Roy Thomas). Lack of logic never prevented a story from having strong mythicity, but “Revolution” is nothing more than an exercise in the sort of overinflated “relevance” that appeared in many pop-cultural works of the period—in this case, Superheroes Meet Feminism.

Since for this series of essays I’m mainly interested in the first appearance of the Valkyrie, I’ll summarize “Revolution” in reverse, pursuing it from the POV of the villainous Enchantress who stage-manages the plot as well as giving birth to her armor-breasted alter ego. Following the attempt of the Enchantress and Executioner to conquer Asgard in HULK #102, Odin exiles them both to a barren nether-world. The Enchantress (telling her story for an audience of captive heroes) relates that her exile with her demi-god partner was at least bearable thanks to their companionship. Were we dealing with modern “mature” superheroes, one would presume that the villainess, no longer able to call upon a host of other swains, may have finally let the Executioner “execute” an assault upon her holy of holies— which would be consonant with the Enchantress’ wrath when Executioner deserts her for another woman, an unnamed sorceress of that nether-dimension. In fact, as the villain takes his leave of Enchantress, he reminds her of how she once “pined for Hercules,” and sadistically hopes that she’ll pine for him as well—which suggests that for some time the axe-man has resented being kept at arm’s length, especially because of the sorceress’ affections for other men. The end of their idyll turns this Asgardian Ishtar into a man-hating termagant, which leads her to assume the guise of the Valkyrie, sort of a road-company Wagnerian Brunhilde.

Upon jumping to Earth from her dimensional prison, the Enchantress’s main goal is to return to Asgard, where her powers will be at their greatest. Writer Thomas doesn’t explain her reasons for wanting to do so, but to be charitable, I’ll assume that Thomas meant that once she returned to Asgard, she would somehow avoid getting kicked out again by Odin and would then use her powers to seek revenge on her ex-lover. Somehow Enchantress finds out about a scientist who’s invented a dimension-hopping device that she thinks can return her to Asgard, but it seems she can’t find a way to approach the scientist in private because he’s being guarded from kidnap-attempts by four of the Avengers—coincidentally, all males. In addition, four male villains—the Masters of Evil, with whom the Enchantress sometimes ran in her mundane supervillain years—are planning to kidnap the aforesaid scientist.

Needing some pawns to run interference against both all-male groups, the demi-goddess somehow hits on the idea of forming the Liberators, a sisterhood of superheroines, which she, as the Valkyrie, will lead into battle. By devices unknown she manages to assemble four heroines in Avengers Mansion. Of the four, two of them, the Wasp and Scarlet Witch, are already members of that super-group. The third, the Black Widow, was then something of a hanger-on with the group, and the fourth, Medusa of the Inhumans, had no substantive connections with either the Avengers or the Enchantress, and is apparently brought in just to give each of the three groups four players.

With a little bit of sophistry about how the male superheroes have always kept the women down, the villainess-in-valkyrie-garb convinces the heroines to join her. The official explanation is that the Enchantress also uses “subtle spells” to influence the ladies, but in order to make his climax work, Thomas claims that those spells depended on the heroines having some “trust” in the Valkyrie and her mission to liberate women. But the arguments that the Valkyrie uses to persuade the heroines are so thin, especially considering that they come from a completely unknown source, that the women look pretty stupid for having believed anything out of the Valkyrie’s mouth. By itself “Revolution” is probably not a fair representation of whatever Roy Thomas might think or have thought about feminism, but on the face of it the story bears strong resemblance to the “myth” (note the quotes) propounded by anti-feminists, viewing feminists as either deluded females or women resentful of not being able to get/keep a man.

The closest “Revolution” comes to the status of fully-realized myth is in aping the basic pattern of the “women-revolt-against-men” tale-type, less typified by the Valkyries of Norse myth than by the Greek Amazons. It’s marginally interesting that the real Valkyries were spirits of death—just as I’ve argued the Executioner is a sort of minor death-god—so that if any death-symbolism appeared in this early iteration of the Valkyrie, one could view the story as showing how easily an incarnation of Love becomes a representation of Death. But the general character of the Enchantress’ alter ego is more Amazon than Valkyrie, though her only martial act in the story is to blast a couple of heroes with rays from her spear. (Despite the resentment-of-males theme, this time a spear probably is only a spear.) Later iterations will stress those Amazonian aspects, and eventually the Valkyrie will be one of the first heroines at Marvel to rate as a “powerhouse” (to use one hero’s word for her in DEFENDERS #4). I’ll talk about some of her differences from other, earlier heroines in a future essay.

By the way, the captive Avengers all get loose and vanquish the villainess, just in case you wondered. And though at the end the Scarlet Witch calls Goliath a “male chauvinist pig” and implies that a real all-girl group is still a possibility, the Liberators never made a comeback, implying something of a “win” for the Y-chromosome set.

STALKING THE PERFECT TERM: "THE NULL- MYTH"

Before downloading my next essay dealing with the history of Marvel's Valkyrie character, I have to pause to introduce a new term to deal with the simple, as opposed to the complex, manifestations of mythicity.

In my introductory essay I said that there was "a hierarchy between simple and complex manifestations of the units of communication—whatever one chooses to call them—that make up a narrative." And inasmuch as I define "mythicity" in terms of its complexity, it follows that any time I speak of any narrative element as possessing full-fledged mythicity, I am imputing to that element a significant degree of symbolic complexity. But then, how should one speak of the simple manifestation of narrative elements?

In a messboard-argument some time back, one poster challenged me to show the difference between a mythic and a non-mythic element. The next essay, "Female Trouble," will provide an example of a narrative that possesses simple symbolism but not true mythicity. However, the lack of developed mythicity in a given element does not mean that the element is "non-mythic," for I view it as a given that nothing in narrative is incapable of taking on mythic dimension. Thus, to call any element "non-mythic" would be a terminological mistake. It would be like defining a sunlit sky as a "non-raining sky" simply because it doesn't happen to be raining at a particular moment in time. Roughly the same problems inhere with comparable terms like "un-myth" or, Thoth help me, Ursula LeGuin's dunderheaded conception, "the false myth," from the same Le Guin essay I reference in THEMATIC REALISM II.

I have settled on a new term, "the null-myth" as descriptive of an element that does not happen to be mythic in a particular iteration. Not unlike Frye's use of the mathematical term "complex variable" to define the literary archetype-- also noted in the intro essay-- "null-myth" is a derivation from a mathematical term, "the null set."

Here's Wikipedia's definition of the null set, which may not be exacting by the standards of mathematicians but is sufficient for the needs of a literary adaptation:

"In mathematics, a null set is a set that is negligible in some sense. For different applications, the meaning of "negligible" varies. In set theory, there is only one null set, and it is the empty set. In measure theory, any set of measure 0 is called a null set (or simply a zero measure set). More generally, whenever an ideal is taken as understood, then a null set is any element of that ideal."

No narrative element is literally empty, of course, any more than "zero" exists as more than an abstraction in this our macroverse. But it's certainly possible for a narrative element to be "negligible in some sense," and it is in that sense that henceforth I'll be using the term "null-myth."

Monday, March 3, 2008

READIN' AND WRITIN' AND THE REST

I read with great interest Katherine Elsewhere's blog-entry:



http://puritybrown.blogspot.com/2008/03/terminology-art-comics-mainstream.html



In this essay Ms. Elsewhere seeks to come to terms with some of the problems in the comics-medium's tendency to lump together everything that isn't a superhero feature under the heading of "art comics." In part, she mentions the absurdity of labelling things like BONE and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES as "art comics," and alludes to some of the difficulties inherent in determining what is or isn't intended to be "art" in its conception.



I will attempt to further complicate the matter by suggesting that a judicious application (and maybe re-interpretation) of Roland Barthes' terms, "the readerly" and "the writerly," might be better than the current terms, "mainstream comics" and "art comics."



Here's a web-accessible interpretation of Barthes' concept, from Judith Mayne's JUMP CUT article, "S/Z and Film Criticism," copyright JUMP CUT 2004 and found at:



http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/jc12-13folder/mayne.sz.html



'The type of analysis pursued in S/Z focuses on this difference as multiplicity and plurality. Barthes does not assume meaning but addresses himself rather to the possibilities of meanings. On this count he distinguishes between the “readerly” and the “writerly.” Barthes’ own point of reference, Balzac, in many ways serves as a casebook example of the “readerly.” Balzac’s writing style is discourse which does not seek really to challenge the reader but to rather present the reader with a world that is coherent, well-ordered, and already meaningful. The “writerly” text, however, does not assume the meaningfulness and coherence of discourse but rather challenges it. In so doing, the writerly text challenges the reader as well, shaking his or her assumptions and conventions about literature and about one’s very judgment of reality in the day-to-day world. Twentieth century literature abounds in examples of the “writerly.” For example, the new novel which took hold in France in the 1950s, presented readers not with well told, easily consumable events, but with fragments, flashes of perception, and treatises on the very possibility of writing. In fact, Barthes was one of the major critical defenders of this new art.
The “readerly” and the “writerly” in some ways then parallel the distinction between “classical” and “modernist” literature. Barthes, however, makes a special contribution to critical theory in that he is concerned not only with different types of texts, but also with different ways of reading. The “writerly” submerges itself in that difference of the text. It is discourse in dynamic flux, calling upon the reader to produce rather than to passively consume. In contrast to the fluidity of the writerly, the “readerly,” or classic text, plunges the reader
“into a kind of idleness—he [sic] is intransitive ... reading is nothing more than a referendum.” (p. 4) '

Now, I don't subscribe to all of Barthes' formulations, and in fact I could see the need for a kind of "middle ground" between these extremes. But as long as one keeps in mind that they *are* extremes, Barthes' terms could be helpful. As far as I can tell, BONE works pretty much on the same "readerly" level as FANTASTIC FOUR, if one is looking for a discourse that is "coherent, orderly and already meaningful," at least in contradistinction to the sort of work that qualifies (or appears to qualify) as "discourse in dynamic flux," where the work calls attention to the way it can be read on different levels. This is not to say that every work that attempts to take on these "writerly" characteristics is automatically fraught with meaning, or that the "readerly" works are necessarily as circumscribed as their usual readers expect them to be (remember, S/Z is about taking a "readerly" work by Balzac and transforming it according to "writerly" reading-strategies).

At a time when comics-fans can hardly go into a DM store without stepping on a superhero book, one should remember that In The Beginning superheroes were merely one genre among many-- and nearly all of these generic works of early comics, including those of comic strips, assumed a "readerly" strategy of entertainment. If superheroes ever did recede as they did in the late 40s, and were replaced by other genres, most of these would almost certainly take the "readerly" approach that Barthes condemns as largely passive. I don't agree with him in this condemnation, but I do agree that most literature will assume a readerly form because that's what most readers will purchase. "Writerly" texts are always in a minority, though on occasion a few of them may get boosted to prominence by extrinsic factors (Nabokov's LOLITA attaining best-seller status because a lot of buyers thought it would be a good dirty book instead of "literature.") There's also that "middle ground" of which I spoke earlier, where it's possible for a work to satisfy audiences that want some mixture of readerly and writerly strategies at once, as might be evident in some of the more outre Shakespeare plays.

I'll close with the observation that the above is largely a sketch of how these terms might be used, not a fully-developed schema