Tuesday, April 29, 2008


As was the case with TERRY AND THE PIRATES, most of the material in Checker Books' 2003 collection of early FLASH GORDON (Jan '34 to Apr '35) is stuff I've read before in other editions. This early work is sometimes critically derided in favor of the more monumentalist-looking art produced by Alex Raymond in later years, but it's doubtful that the strip would have survived in its early stages without its rapid-fire offerings of serial-style danger and sexual titillation.

One thing that becomes clear from reading the early work of Raymond and writer-collaborator Don Moore is how much it stands in the shadow of Hal Foster's TARZAN. It wouldn't be impossible to view the early months as a sort of dumbed-down Tarzan, in which wild animals frequently pop up in the most absurd places (and with the most absurd anatomies, as per the "Tigrons," tigers with unicorn-horns). Now, without making a side-by-side comparison I can't say how well Foster's did in HIS first year as far as realizing the mythic quality of the Tarzan books, but he admittedly he had more to work with. Even though Edgar Rice Burroughs produced many a potboiler with both Tarzan and his own otherworldly superman John Carter, the early adventures of both prose-heroes start off with a high degree of symbolic complexity (in addition to also having lots of serial-style dangers and sexual titillations).

But FLASH GORDON doesn't come off as having much complexity in its early year. The strip's closest claim to any complexity comes out of what modern readers would find its most egregious absurdity: transplanting Earth's concept of "the Yellow Peril" to Mongo, the alien planet visited by Flash and his two-person chorus, ingenue Dale Arden and mad scientist Zarkov.

Raymond and Moore may have borrowed this notion from Burroughs, who had his John Carter butting heads with various adversaries, all pretty much humanoid but with yellow, white or black skins (though the black Martians are literally black, not just dark-brown). Another possible influence might be either the original novellas or the comic strip that gave readers Buck Rogers (1928 for the novellas, 1929 for the strip). The action of the novellas takes place entirely on a future-Earth conquered by the descendants of the "Mongolian" race, and the strip begins the same way. Toward the end of the second novella there appears a backtracking rationalization to the effect that the rapacious "Mongols" may have actually been alien-human hybrids, which serves to distance them from the ranks of real-life Asians. The strip takes a similar tack around 1930 or so, replacing the Mongolian opponents with clearly-alien "tiger-men." (This idea is tossed into the 1979 BUCK ROGERS teleseries, where an Asian-looking henchman named "Tiger-Man" serves the needs of villainous invader Princess Ardala.)

However, FG contains a Yellow Peril motif more typical of Burroughs than BUCK ROGERS: the motif of the tyrant who desires the white hero's woman (who, as in JOHN CARTER, may not actually be white herself) and the tyrant's sexy daughter who desires the white hero. This is a racial myth unquestionably directed at flattering the egos of a mostly-white American readership. Emperor Ming wants Dale, but she doesn't want him, only Flash. Flash fights Ming to save Dale, and usually rejects Ming's daughter Aura, though given her general sexiness there are naturally moments where the hero seems a trifle more conflicted in his refusal than Dale does. The manhood of the yellow-skinned Mongo-men is somewhat propped up when Aura is given a consolation prize in the form of Barin, a man of her own race, leaving old Ming odd man out.

However, despite the great fame of FLASH GORDON and the admirable skill with which it's drawn, on the basis of this first year I would not find the strip to have much mythic complexity compared to either the early Burroughs books or even the BUCK ROGERS novellas. Most of the "alien races," whether they look like humans or human-animal hybrids (Lionmen, Hawkmen), are much flatter than Burroughs' peculiar cultures, and even Buck's quasi-Mongols occasionally have something like a culture, however wrongheaded it may be. Thun, the Lionman who becomes Flash's first real alien buddy (making him a stand-in for JOHN CARTER's Tars Tarkas) actually befriends Flash after Flash shoots him down. But it's okay with Thun, 'cause Flash did it to protect Dale Arden. ????

Going by this estimation, FLASH GORDON may not be as low on the scale of complexity as, say, the original VALKYRIE tale in AVENGERS (which see), but it's pretty close.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Just a short note to myself this time:

I've just started reading one of Husserl's early essays, "Philosophy as Rigorous Science," as a means of trying to get into his concept of phenomenology. It seems to me at this stage that Husserl's idealist philosophy-- a strong refutation of the empirical philosophies of his time-- may prove useful in valorizing the content of myths, be they religious or literary.

In "Mythicity, Threat or Menace," I wrote:

'Doty's summarization of Gould troubles me: "We live within a world where symbolic meanings may help-- do help-- yet are never fully able to bridge the ontological gap." In other words, primtives who don't know what a storm is, but who simply formulate a storm-god as a relational aid to the unknown phenomenon, have made an ontological myth, but one which is bound to collapse.'

This formula is clearly empiricist at base: it is taken for granted that the story of a storm-god has no ontological reality beside the reality of the storm. At the conclusion of that essay I wondered whether or not Hegel's idea of "conceptual grasping" might have some relevance-- after all, the attempt of a sentient creature to grasp his environment conceptually might be regarded as an ontological fact in itself, apart from the validity of the story in which he places those concepts. I further noted in "Gore and Allegory" that I regarded the patterns found in myths to be ontologically valid, particularly as exemplified by Campbell (though I suspect Husserl wouldn't have much use for Campbell, even as he did differ with Hegel). On the matter of Husserl's attitude toward "constancy" (which approximates my use of the term "pattern'), editor Quentin Lauer says:

"Husserl attempts to solve a Humean difficulty by invoking a new notion of objective validity. For Hume there is nothing in the constancy of a multiplicity of experiences that guarantees their objectivity. For Husserl this is precisely what objective validity means: the constant identity of content in experiences-- without existential implications."

One might well wonder whether or not Jung's concept of a collective unconscious would constitute such "constancy," if one could statistically demonstrate its ubiquity via its appearance in the least likely places--

Such as the popular culture which, from an empiricist standpoint, should never be any better than it had to be...

Friday, April 18, 2008


It occured to me that, before analyzing anything else, I should expatiate on the way I interpret Campbell's so-called "four functions" in terms of literary analysis, which I mentioned in "Gore and Allegory." This is partly because I interpret one of Campbell's functions a little more broadly than Campbell does.

Here are Campbell's original descriptions of the four, from 1964's OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY:

"First is the metaphysical function. Myth awakens and supports a sense of awe before the mystery of being. It reconciles consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence. Myth induces a realization that behind the surface phenomenology of the world, there is a transcendent mystery source. Through this vitalizing mystical function, the universe becomes a holy picture. "

(Since the title of this essay contains a Fantastic Four pun, I may as well call this the "Human Torch" function. More on why later.)

"The second is a cosmological dimension deals with the image of the world that is the focus of science. This function shows the shape of the universe, but in such a way that the mystery still comes through. The cosmology should correspond to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture. This interpretive function changes radically over time. It presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it."

This is of course the "Mr. Fantastic" function.

"Third is the sociological function. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Particular life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, evolve dramatically. This function, and the rites by which it is rendered, establishes in members of the group concerned a system of sentiments that can be depended upon to link that person spontaneously to its ends."

This I call the "Invisible Girl" or "Invisible Woman" function.

"The fourth function of myth is psychological. The myths show how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. It is this pedagogical function of mythology that carries the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. It helps people grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. It initiates individuals into the order of realities in their own psyches, guiding them toward enrichment and realization."

And this grimm-sounding one goes to the Thing.

My main difference in approach to Campbell's summations is that his description of the "metaphysical" function doesn't take in enough territory. I would not confine the metaphysical just to the emotive sense of the mystical, as the quote here suggests. (I have not gone back and compared Campbell's later versions of the functions theory to this first enunciation.) Whenever I use "the metaphysical," I also include all notions common to a mystical view of the universe-- for instance, the notion that ideas possess essential natures, and can be opposed to one another, as is seen in the JUSTICE LEAGUE critique on this blog. "The metaphysical" would also include Mircea Eliade's concept of "techniques of ecstacy," which are the means by which a shaman purports to journey to heaven, change into an animal and so forth.

For the other three-- cosmological, psychological and sociological-- their application to critiquing aspects of a given fiction should be obvious, even though it's rare for the "cosmological" one to be invoked in most literary fiction, where the nature of science and the regular phenomenal world is usually taken for granted. Every once in a while, though, a work like MOBY DICK does hinge in part on the narrator's semi-educated investigations into the brute material world.

Now, how serious I am about comparing Campbell's functions to the members of the Fantastic Four? Not very, since in an outstanding feature like the classic Lee-Kirby FF all four myth-interpretation functions can be found to some extent in assorted stories with varying degrees. But if one focuses only upon the characters, there are some middling parallels.

Mr. Fantastic, the scientist-leader of the group, is obviously the figure who continually provides insight into "the shape of the universe."

The Invisible Girl/Woman is, of the four of them, the one most responsible for drawing them all into a social bond, often acting like a "den-mother" to juvenile-acting adults Ben and Johnny and somehow getting the reticent Reed to propose and form an extension of their extended family.

The Thing's character is the one most explored by Lee and Kirby for psychological depth (as much as is appropriate to a superhero comic) as to his petty grudges, insecurities, and fundamental good-heartedness. Of the four he's the only one likely to yell at a villain, "You're gonna give me a complex!" From my POV, he already has (or is) one.

However, I confess I can't find even a middling parallel between Johnny Storm and the metaphysical function. He doesn't have a mystical temperament and doesn't even function as a conceptual embodiment of something, at least no more than the others do. And none of the others fit with it either, though arguably a number of the feature's support-characters do, principally the Watcher and the Silver Surfer.

So the parallels aren't perfect, which is why I'm not that serious about them. But I am still serious about why I think Campbell's functions are a good method for seeking out mythic content in literature of any type. I wrote earlier:

'In a previous essay I noted that there might be a way to counter the interpretation of Eric Gould, of viewing myth as a failure to bridge an ontological gap between the world we live in and what our minds make of it. I would suggest that Campbell’s categorical approach—as long as it is restrained from pure allegorizing by a Cassirer-like understanding of myth’s indeterminate conceptualizing nature—does bridge the ontological gap, as much as humanity can expect to. Campbell’s categories are, at their base, attempts to discern patterns in reality, whether one is dealing with external realities (what Sallustius calls “material objects”) or internal ones (“souls and intellects.”)'

In my VALKYRIE/DEFENDERS analyses I've been trying to show how a figure like the Valkyrie-- who barely incarnates any of these functions very well (the sociological one perhaps coming closest, since she starts as a parody of women's lib)-- can grow and change in terms of that figure's symbolic complexity. The next VALKYRIE post will show how the character's crude sociological design takes on greater complexity within a matrix more properly belonging to the psychological function.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe directed that Three Questions be asked about any work of art. They must be answered in order.1. What was the artist trying to do?2. How well did he do it?3. Was it worth the doing?

I've heard this Goethe-nugget tossed out many times, at least once by comics-critic Gary Groth, and you can be sure what kind of comics he would consider not "worth the doing." However, the last question has always struck me as really half a question. The other two are complete in themselves, for the first involves the critic summing up the artist's intentions as the critic understands them, while the second is the critic's opinion as to the skill with which the intention was executed. Both are questions that a given critic might judge inaccurately, but one can easily see that there is some degree of objectivity involved in each query: the artist is likely to have intended some things more than others (no matter what Roland Barthes might think), and since there is a definite difference in skill between authors, that fact makes it possible to judge failures in executing one's intentions.

However, with the third question, "worth the doing" takes for granted that worthiness is a constant, which of course it is not. At the beginning of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM Northrop Frye pretty much demolishes the usual arguments for valuing this author over another author for superficially "sophisticated" reasons, and shows, with an almost Nietzschean perspectivism, how such valuations depend on what factors the critic chooses to find worthy.

This ineluctable fact does not mean that no one should ever attempt to place value about what works are or are not worthy. As Nietzsche also observed, man is an animal who must create meaning. The danger of regarding artistic worthiness as a constant is that it makes the critic unable to judge anything that is outside his personal realm of preferences.

Therefore, if I praise a JUSTICE LEAGUE adventure for its mythic qualities, I am saying that it compares favorably in artistic execution with others of its type. And if I say that I consider Dan Clowes' DAVID BORING a failure in terms of worthiness, despite the fact that it executes exactly what its artist intended, then it is because I have compared it to other works of the same basic type and found BORING-- er-- wanting.

More about comparing type to type later.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I had read the 1934-36 stories from Milton Caniff's classic TERRY AND THE PIRATES in various arrangements before this, but IDW's big 2007 collection of all the strips for these three years makes for heady reading. Although a couple of indie comics-authors have chosen to view the blossoming of the adventurous comic-strip as a decided comedown for the comics medium, it's clear to me that the early adventure-strips-- exemplified by TERRY, PRINCE VALIANT, TARZAN and DICK TRACY-- represent an elaboration and deepening of that medium's storytelling potential. The adventure-strips may have been born of cultural myths that became less and less believable by the 1950s, so that thereafter the themes of the adventure-genre could only find expression in the related medium of the comic book (however mixed the results). But even knowing that newspaper comics could never have sustained such myths, even knowing that the medium would eventually revert back to the gag-strips of its beginnings (YELLOW KID, meet DILBERT), I can't comprehend any critic with half a brain not appreciating the high adventure of Caniff's TERRY.

Most of Caniff's sequences follow a pretty basic pattern. Footloose adventurer Pat Ryan and his boy sidekick Terry go gallivanting in some part of a post-dynastic China controlled by various warlords (the "pirates" of the title). They get caught by some warlord and then have to resort to assorted strategies, both comic and daring, to keep themselves alive before making a Great Escape. This pattern allowed Caniff to toss in lots of jokes to keep the overall mood light, which may be viewed as Caniff's way of keeping some appeal with the audience that still mostly liked their funnies for the gags. Anyone looking for the sometimes heavy-handed political ideology of Caniff's later STEVE CANYON will look in vain: though the navies of Britain and the U.S. are around, hovering like emissaries of a more rational world-order, here Caniff generally uses the forces of the West as little more than cavalry. An exception here is a 1936 sequence that has Ryan venturing into Steve Canyon's regular territory when Ryan elects to play spy for the British government. This sequence was the harbinger of the less footloose paths the strip would take during the years of WWII, but most of the stories here are still focused on glamorous, sublimely-nonsensical adventure.

There are fair criticisms one can make of Caniff's opus. The racial stereotyping must be acknowledged, though it's always qualified by the fact that Caniff's most mythic character-- far more so than his two American protagonists-- is a woman usually identified as Chinese (though possibly intended to be Eurasian in origin, like Fu Manchu's half-Chinese, half-Russian daughter). I refer to the Dragon Lady, who is one of the more formidable femmes in any of the popular media of the 1930s. Aside from having her speak less than perfect English in her first appearance, Caniff thereafter always characterizes as courageous and possessed of a razor-sharp intellect. The character deserves to inspire much more allegiance from comic-book feminists & fangirls than she does presently-- more so than Caniff's rather routine heroines (Normandie Drake and a couple of other forgettables in this volume) and his trademark "shady lady" Burma. Arguably Caniff did far more versions of Burma throughout his many years on both TERRY and STEVE CANYON, but to my knowledge he never did another female character as formidable as the Dragon Lady.

As a "realistic" adventure-author, Caniff does not evoke mythology very seriously, but he does use a myth to suggest how the Dragon Lady, despite her gender, might have advanced to the position of leading a band of male pirates. In a 12-15-35 strip, comic relief "China-boy" Connie asks the imprisoned villainess as to why she's called "the Dragon Lady." In answer she relates that "when the last actual dragons were killed their evil spirits were preserved in other living things," and then seriously asserts that she is a dragon in truth. The last panels then provide a comic set-up at Connie's expense, where Connie's pet goat contrives to drink gasoline and eat matches, resulting in its "fire-breathing." It's not much of a joke, and I doubt that the story was ever referenced again, but it seems feasible that Caniff had some notion of the Dragon Lady using such a myth-tale to manipulate her superstitious underlings.

BATMAN fans may enjoy some of the similarity between the first Dragon Lady tale and the first few stories where Batman and Robin encounter Catwoman. Both stories have a stalwart mature hero and his preteen sidekick encountering a formidable female who makes no bones about wanting to jump the bones of said mature hero. The kid-hero then becomes a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his mentor, advising him to steer clear of such dangerous shores, or even interrupting a potential lovemaking scene (as in TERRY's 1-6-35 strip). As a character, DC's Catwoman is originally closer to the mold of TERRY's other shady lady, Burma, in being an independent adventuress without a pocket-army at her command, but after a while Catwoman also attracts a coterie of the usual hero-fighting henchmen, though she never quite attains the Dragon Lady's reputation for ruthlessness.

While the campy interpretation of these goings-on might suggest sexual jealousy on the part of Terry and/or Robin, it seems a lot more likely, given the targeted readers, that the only love Terry and/or Robin feared losing was the love of adventure, if their mature mentors got themselves entrapped by the coils of Venus. Notably, though, Terry doesn't seem to have a problem with Pat hooking up with a less "fatale" femme like the aforementioned Normandie Drake, whereas Robin always seemed threatened by any feminine incursion. But maybe this had something to do with the comic books heroes existing in a hermetic isolation, where no one ever aged, while some comic strips did allow for advancing years. Some commentaries (on strips I have not read) even assert that Terry eventually "takes over" from Ryan in the department of romancing the dangerous Dragon Lady-- which, if true, would be a lot more Oedipal than I would expect of a Caniff comic strip.