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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...

Friday, June 27, 2008

ANYTHING THAT CAN BE DONE WELL, PART II

"This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"

"Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic."



In PART I of ANYTHING, I said:



"The high/low prejudices [of elitist critics] can be much more virulent when dealing with works in differing modes that do not have humor as their aim."



Historically, nothing displays this fact better than the above-quoted 1954 exchange between Senator Estes Kefauver and William C. Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, during a congressional committee's investigation of what Senator Robert Hendrickson called "the problem of horror and crime comics," which he defined as "pamphlets illustrating stories depicting crimes or dealing with horror or sadism." Ostensibly such comics were a concern for the committee (and for the legions of offended parents whom the congressmen represented) because comics stood accused of facillitating juvenile delinquency. But given the slanted nature of the committee's inquiries, one could be justified in finding a different motive for the investigation, as does David Hadju in THE TEN CENT PLAGUE:



"The issue at stake... was not really juvenile crime... but the idea of taste-- the proposition that aesthetic values are relative." (p. 272)



But while I agree with Hadju's interpretation as a whole, in one small matter he's not quite correct, for Gaines doesn't argue for the overall relativity of taste. Gaines' argument that a gory comics-cover is perfectly proper to a horror comic book is promptly mitigated in his next response, where Gaines seeks to elevate his personal taste above that of some hypothetical competitor's rendition of the same material:



"A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen to be dripping blood--"



Let it be said that even though I'm going to critique Gaines' argument on my own terms, I acknowledge that nothing Gaines could have said would have made any difference to Kefauver or the rest of the committee. The "someone else's taste is worse" argument certainly did nothing to deter the governmental guardian, for Kefauver simply pointed out that there was blood on the axe and coming from the head's mouth, and stated that most adults would be "shocked" by such explicitness. Given that mindset, Gaines' argument of being less explicit than he could have been counted for nothing.



But the "someone else's taste" argument is also a mistake in terms of anyone seeking to defend a mode of expression, since it comes down to backpedaling. Gaines was correct to assert that there was a defensible aesthetic to a horror comic-- particularly a horror-comic in a particular mode of expression-- but was not correct to backpedal and assert that his taste as to crafting and presenting a good horror-comic was essentially more restrained than that of some hypothetical other editor.



I argued on the differing modes in ANYTHING PART I that two examples of them from the genre of comedy would be the "sophisticated comedy" and the "grossout comedy." Not surprisingly, fans of horror-narratives have also at times divided off different types of horror, sometimes with direct reference as to how viscerally horrible they may be. "Gross horror" is one name for the type/mode that emphasizes viscerality and the violation of the body, while "subtle horror" is one name for horror-works that suggest more than show horrific events. A synoptic view of horror-narratives would have to say that both have the possibility for merit-- but should one judge the virtue of a "gross horror" narrative according to the degree of *restraint* practiced by its creators?

Maybe one could appreciate a display of restraint in a particular instance-- like using a particular cover-illustration to sell a mass medium magazine-- but surely if a mode like "gross horror" has any merit, that merit would have to line up with the mode's tendency to shock and horrify with in-your-face viscerality. Viscerality isn't the only virtue that critics of a later day have found in the same "horror and sadism" magazines Hendrickson disparaged, but that virtue would be likely be among the top three.

Naturally, it was politic for Gaines to have defended himself as a publisher with a degree of restraint. Had he come out defending the virtues of gross horror in the unrepentant tones of a latter-day Marquis de Sade, as logic says he should have, he probably would have been ridden out of town on the proverbial rail.

As it is, there's some irony that Gaines' business survived thanks to the translation of the MAD comic book into MAD magazine-- thus indirectly demonstrating my contention above: that many aspects of narrative reality will get no free pass in "serious" stories, but can squeak by with comparative impunity when shielded by the power of humor.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

DARN CLEVER, THAT BART!

Just finished the introduction of FREDRIC WERTHAM AND THE CRITIQUE OF MASS CULTURE-- and no, I don't plan to blog on every chapter this minutely, but the opening does a superlative job of making clear author Bart Beaty's set of biases.

I should note that prior to this I did a long thread on Comicon.com in which I *did* expatiate at length on the many inaccuracies and half-truths of Wertham's signature work, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. (I may copy them to this blog some day.) When I first heard that Beaty's work constituted some sort of defense of Dr. W, my first thought was, "How could anyone hope to rehabilitate W.'s reputation, given his long catalogue of un-scientific errors, which mitigate against taking SOTI seriously as a tool of research?"

Bart Beaty gives me his answer in this introduction.

Up to page 14 Beaty does a creditable job establishing the intellectual climate in which W. lived and worked, and the various schools of popular culture research, divided into "the critical school" (Wertham's) and "the empirical school" (which, unlike W.'s school, became dominant in the fields of academe). Beaty also tells us that the former school concerned itself with "macrolevel studies of media ownership and control" while the later concentrated on "working with the broadcasting industry" in order to "direct social change through microlevel investigations concerned with effects." I like that subtle jab at the latter school, "working with the industry." It will be interesting to see if Beaty documents real-world examples of empirical-types "working for The Man" for these "microlevel effects."

Then Beaty marshals the opinion of one J.D. Peters to argue that "the media-effects paradigm developed in a scientific culture that emphasized the cleavage of facts and values," and he suggests that W. became marginalized because his critiques of mass culture were too passionate about the "urgent need for progressive social change." Such passion tainted his observations for those who wanted this absolute separation of "facts and values."

Beaty then concludes that "popular culture researchers whose interest remained tied to traditional notions of scientific validity and authority generally degraded Wertham's work."

Uh-huh. So it wasn't that W. did BAD research to prove his point. It was that he was just too, too passionate for words, and therefore the mean old scientific authorities denied him "the possibility of emerging as a critical voice."

I'm not optimistic about where this introduction seems to be leading, but am trying to keep an open mind. Onward...

UH-OH! FRANKFURTER-OHS!

Today I just started reading the Bart Beaty book on Wertham, which contains the ominous phrase "critique of mass culture."

W/o going into detail I will just say that I find all permutations of the Marxist-influenced Frankfurt School theory of popular culture to be intellectually worthless. So I suspect Bart Beaty and I will be on pages so far apart we won't even be in the same library, much less the same book.

But I had to laugh at Beaty's opening sentences:

"A ghostlike figure haunts the history of postwar debates on American popular culture. That ghost is Frederic Wertham..."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Cue that unfunny Marx Brother Karl:

"A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre..."

Evidently Marx's famous opening line so impressed Beaty that though he uses "ghost" for his own opening line, he manages to use the word "specter" on his second page.

Why do I get the feeling that Jerry Siegel's SPECTRE is going to seem profound next to all of this?

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 23, 2008

CASSIRER VS. THE GREAT DIVIDE

In "Mythicity Threat or Menace" I cited the following quotation from Eric Gould, the fellow who came up with the term "mythicity:"

"The fact that classical and totemistic myths have to refer to some translinguistic fact-- to the Gods and Nature-- proves not that there are Gods, but that our talents for interpreting our place in the world may be distinctly limited by the nature of language."

Clearly for Gould, language and linguistic narratives (like myths) are mediating forces that can strive to capture the nature of reality, but they will be always be limited by the nature of the interpreter who makes the language. Here Gould is very Kantian, keeping the unknowable noumenon strictly apart from the phenomenal reality in which we all participate.

However, Cassirer-- something of a re-interpreter of Kant-- offers another perspective. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, summarizing some of the points from Cassirer's LOGIC OF THE CULTURAL SCIENCES, says:

'whereas the natural sciences take their evidential base from the sphere of thing perception, the cultural sciences take theirs from the sphere of expressive perception, and, more specifically, from the fundamental experience of other human beings as fellow selves sharing a common intersubjective world of “cultural meanings.”'

And later:

"In the end, it is only such a never to be fully completed process of historical-philosophical interpretation of symbolic meanings that confers objectivity on both the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften — and thereby reunites the two distinct sides of Kant's original synthesis."

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cassirer/

Whether or not Cassirer successfully grounds this "objectivity" in LOGIC (which is one of his few works I've not read) I can't say for certain. But I expect that even his attempt to do so, buttressed by his concept of "symbolic forms," will prove more interesting to me in seeking a ground for mythicity than does Eric Gould's self-imposed limitations.

More on this later, probably when I get round to talking more about JUNG AND PHENOMENOLOGY.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

MONSTER-CHILD IN THE CIVILIZED LAND

A number of reviewers have tagged 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK (henceforth HULK ‘08) as “average” or “by the numbers.” This verdict bespeaks the inability of most critics to discern meaning in superhero films unless the film all but drives those meanings into the critic’s skull with a balpeen hammer.

HULK ‘08 is admittedly not a work of cinematic genius (whatever form that might take for the greatest of all possible Hulk movies). But for all of its flaws, it’s far from average—especially in that it’s a sequel to a previous attempt to bring the character of the Hulk to the big screen. Usually sequels are pale attempts to recreate the success of the original, but as directed by Louis Letterier, HULK ’08 is about as far as one could get from Ang Lee’s 2003 HULK. The latter shares the faults of many similar Hollywood renditions of comic-book properties: a tendency to borrow scenarios from comic-book properties without understanding their expressive potentials. In contrast, HULK ’08 captures the emotional core of the Lee-Kirby Hulk concept, as well as some of the later riffs on the concept, such as the Kenneth Johnson teleseries.

The TV show is the source of another wrong-minded critical broadside: that HULK ’08 is a virtual recreation of the series. Such critics have allowed themselves to focus on a few trees to the exclusion of the forest—here, a joke on the “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line; there, snatches of the show’s theme music. But HULK ’08 has little in common with Kenneth Johnson’s conversion of the Hulk concept into a good-Samaritan wanderer, modeled on the classic FUGITIVE teleseries. The raison d’etre of Johnson’s “David Banner” was that his curse forced him to hike around getting mixed up in ordinary people’s lives, with the Hulk serving as an eleventh-hour reprieve from danger. But ordinary people barely exist in HULK ’08 except as background. Only once does Letterier’s Bruce Banner intervene in a common person’s life, acting to protect a female co-worker from a masher, but she immediately disappears, having served only to set up Banner’s later violent encounter with the bully-boy and his friends. No, this Hulk is not a wandering teleChrist, any more than he is Ang Lee’s bundle of twitchy anxieties. The ‘08 Hulk incarnates the same myth that Lee and Kirby spawned from their knowledge of one of the most basic themes of monster-tales: the theme of the savage rebelling against the repressions of civilization.

This is the theme of HULK ‘08 that many have overlooked, even those who have approved of Letterier’s greater focus on “Hulk Smash” action as against Ang Lee’s more lackadaisical effort. Some critics have noted that the screenplay credited to Zac Penn (but ostensibly rewritten by actor Edward Norton) has minimized its references to the Lee film, particularly with regard to the Hulk’s confused origin therein (Lee’s nanotech-thingies are happily forgotten). Instead, Letterier’s one flashback to events from the previous film arranges things so as to excise references to Ang Lee’s bad-dad villain. Instead the main adversary is General Ross, who both here and in the original comic-series symbolizes the Hulk’s most primal enemy: civilization, as incarnated by the military, the guardians of society’s boundaries.

I should quickly add that when I speak of the conflict of “savage vs. civilization,” I don’t want to fall in with the critical camp that thinks in terms of “subverting the dominant.” The guardians of society don’t represent some superficial icon to be knocked down by the rise of benevolent Marxism; they are a force that arises in every society, under every political philosophy—and they always present the danger of tyrannizing those whom they are theoretically supposed to protect. That’s why a monster-hero like the Hulk, raging like a child against all constraints, contains such a primal appeal for audiences, even though the soldiers he kicks around (and maybe kills—the film’s careful not to shoot that) are fundamentally “our boys.”

A full analysis of INCREDIBLE HULK #1—the Lee-Kirby opus that birthed the characters of the Hulk and his ensemble—is beyond the bounds of this article. But the first half of the story, setting up the Hulk’s origin, remains one of the most mythically-complex sequences ever to appear in the comic-book medium. Ang Lee’s film did at least bring forth a portion of the comic-book ensemble ignored by the teleseries: Bruce Banner’s girlfriend Betty and her “heavy father” General Ross, who disapproves of his daughter’s dalliance with a weakling scientist and who becomes, as I said, the Hulk’s most enduring foe for a couple of decades’ worth of comics-adventures. But Ang Lee’s Ross shows little of the comics-character’s bellicose temperament, which is a trait that Letterier brings back in full force. In addition, HULK ’08 gives Ross the status—albeit subtly implied— as the emissary of a military run amuck. In HULK #1, Ross represents the U.S. military that wants civilian scientist Banner to unleash the gamma bomb’s Promethean fire, which fire ends up consuming Banner. In HULK ’08, General Ross, not Banner’s wacky mad-scientist dad, is made ultimately responsible for the Hulk’s mutation, and he chases the Hulk for an even more forbidding reason than the comics-character does: not just to kill the monster, but to dissect him for use in creating a breed of super-soldiers.

It should be said that in the comics Ross is not as dislikeable as he is in HULK ’08. HULK #1 was written during the full bloom of the Red Scare of the early 60s, and so General Ross’ bellicosity doesn’t exist in isolation: certainly his creators see him as preferable to any agent of the Communist regime. Indeed, one could see the Hulk as the spawn of the conflict between the two superpowers, for the U.S. military funds the creation of the gamma bomb, but the aggressiveness of Russia makes it necessary, and one Communist agent is even directly responsible for Banner’s mutation. Again, without going into great detail about HULK #1’s story, the first two pages of the story introduce not only Banner, Betty and the General, but also Banner’s lab assistant Igor, who is also a Russian double agent. One wonders where Igor got his espionage-training, since he not only fails to change his name to something like “John Jones,” he also aggressively antagonizes Banner (towering over the shrimpy scientist at one point in a threatening manner). His hostility to Banner, arguably, doubles and reinforces that of General Ross, which makes Banner’s transformation into the mountainous Hulk even more resonant. When Banner rushes to prevent teenager Rick Jones from falling victim to the gamma-bomb test, he tells Igor to stop the test, and Igor, acting on behalf of his Communist masters, allows the bomb to go off, hoping Banner will die in the blast. Ironically this act spawns the creation of a monster that continually assails the military forces of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As I’ve said, this shows that the Hulk’s creators saw him as a savage at odds with all of society’s guardians.

Now, Igor was merely a spear-carrier sort of character. After his act of malicious neglect, the newly-born Hulk comes across Igor and thrashes him, inadvertently serving the forces of democracy by exposing the lab-assistant as a spy. After that, Stan Lee never wrote another story with Igor, but he uses the same type of character (“Covert Soviet Operative #677) to create another Hulk-villain, the Abomination. In TALES TO ASTONISH #90, writer Stan Lee and artist Gil Kane had spy Emil Blonsky gain access to a gamma-ray machine created by Bruce Banner, and with said machine Blonsky deliberately changes himself into a “second Hulk,” albeit with more dinosaur-like features and full intelligence. He was not initially allied to General Ross, as they stood on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but after Blonsky deserted the Communist cause, he sometimes found himself working for Ross as a living weapon to take on their common green-skinned adversary. In all likelihood the HULK ’08 script is influenced by some of those later Ross/Abomination alliances.

Just as the Hulk of the comics cannot attack his real foe Ross without ending the conflict immediately, Letterier’s monster-hero can only fight Ross’ catspaws, be it big machines (like the film’s excellent sonic cannon) or villains like the Abomination. Arguably the sections of the film that build toward creating a super-powered opponent for the heroic monster might be fairly criticized as “average.” In the film the character of Emil Blonsky is a former Soviet commando now working hand-in-glove with the American military, who is enlisted by Ross to go after Banner with a squad of operatives. (The squad’s flagrant pursuit of Banner across international lines into Brazil perfectly summarizes contemporary Bush-era military attitudes.) When Banner does his Hulk thing, Blonsky—whose character seems to be that of a danger-junkie—avidly desires the Hulk’s power, and Ross endeavors to give it to him, though the first application seems to make Blonksy into something more on the level of Captain America. (In all likelihood the revision of the Hulk’s origin as being the result of a “super-soldier formula” will probably tie in with a Captain America film down the cinematic road.) This is where the film does lose its way slightly. Whereas Ross is never less than the total incarnation of the military mind, willing to do almost anything to anybody to insure the army’s superior firepower, Blonsky is never quite credible as someone who would be willing to risk becoming a hideous monster to attain superior power (which would have made him like an even darker version of Ross, who is ruthless but not utterly villainous inasmuch as he sees himself as serving his country). In my view Blonsky would’ve been better served had he been played not by modestly-sized Tim Roth, but by some would-be Schwarzenegger-type who had attained the biggest biceps possible to man, but felt himself outclassed by the Hulk’s boulder-shoulders and so desired his power.

Nevertheless, even if the film’s Abomination isn’t that deep a villain (any more than he was in the comics), Letterier’s military serves that purpose. Ang Lee’s HULK gave audiences some acceptable Hulk-rampages, recreating such comics-scenes as Hulk ripping the tops off of tanks—but these conflicts were superficial, since the central conflict evolved out of the bad-daddy concept (also loosely derived from comics-continuity, albeit not that of Lee and Kirby). This time, though Letterier doesn’t venture into Kent State territory—i.e., showing innocents actually shot down by the military in their obsessive quest for power—he still gets damn close when he has army jeeps and copters besiege a peaceful college campus when Banner goes there to contact Betty during his search for a cure. But I’m glad Letterier didn’t go the obvious route of trying to make the soldiers into obnoxious villains. Like the pilots who shoot down King Kong, the soldiers are just ordinary grunts trying to rein in what they think is a creature dangerous to society. (And since this time the monster has been created by the military, the military itself is ultimately more responsible for any deaths or injuries caused by the Hulk than the Hulk is.) As in the original KING KONG, only the audience has perspective enough to see the beauty at the heart of the beast. Indeed, when the Hulk flees the college with Betty Ross, and takes refuge in a cave with her, the scene recalls a similar scenario between Kong and his female prisoner in the 1933 film. This scene alone does more to establish a personality for the Hulk than did the Ang Lee film or the entire run of the Kenneth Johnson teleseries. In addition, the CGI that creates the Hulk seems much improved this time around. When the Hulk stands next to Betty, he seems to possess enough weight to crush her with one finger, and many of his facial grimaces recall those used by such comics-raconteurs like Jack Kirby and Bill Everett.

If Tim Roth was not the perfect choice for his role, I favor Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt for Banner, Betty and Ross over the actors chosen for the Ang Lee outing. Hurt’s Ross is, as I said before, marked by a single-minded obsession with his military duty, while Banner has more of the incisive quality one might expect of a genius-scientist and Betty is simply more feisty. (Of course, some of Tyler’s scenes-- trying to make love to Bruce, helping Banner restrain the Hulk-persona-- are better material than anything Jennifer Connelly had to work with.) The savagery vs. civilization theme could have been exploited a bit more, but since it’s been said that a lot of scenes didn’t make the final theater cut, it may be that a HULK ’08 DVD will reveal further depths—which, of course, won’t be appreciated by most critics any more than the theatrical release was.

Monday, June 16, 2008

ANYTHING THAT CAN BE DONE WELL IS WORTH DOING






The above title is a riposte to the famous third question of Goethe, to which I alluded in my essay “Two and a Half Questions.” The first two questions are, as I said, valid. What was the artist trying to do?” and “How well did he do it?” speak to what the artist intends to create and to the level of craft he brings to his endeavor, which are both questions on which one can expatiate logically. The third question, however—“Was what he did worth doing?”—is a worthless question as phrased, for no matter what set of standards any given critic may put forth, there can never be any consensual agreement as to what forms of art are or are not worth doing. Nothing affirms this better than the great line formulated by some unknown critic to cover forms of art for which he has no feeling: “For the people who like this type of thing, this is the type of thing those people will like.”

Buried in this flip line is the nugget of a good insight that can reform Goethe’s question, if in place of “type” one substitutes “mode,” and with that term alter the question, “How well does the finished work fulfill the potential of the work’s mode?” This may seem like a rephrasing of the second question, but it is not, since there’s nothing in the second question that pertains to assigning value. Even the most elitist critic-- the sort who believes that, say, “bad Daniel Clowes work” is always worth more than “good Jack Kirby work”—is usually capable of discerning the pure skill evident in the work of both artists. But the third question of Goethe allows him to dismiss the Kirby work for not being as “serious” or as “refined” as the work of Clowes. This intellectual laziness is no longer possible if one follows the logic of a theory of literary modes.

(And lest anyone ask as to whether such elitists actually exist, I strongly recall—though I don’t have to hand—how one Houston artist did a strip eulogizing Kirby after the artist’s death, which still managed to complain about the “boyishness” of Kirby’s oeuvre. So yes, Virginia, elitists do exist.)

So what’s a mode? In literary terms, a “mode” is simply the method by which a literary effect is accomplished. One can analyze modes (as Northrop Frye does in the “Theory of Modes” section of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM) in much the same way one analyzes genres. Genres, though, are patterns of convention and invention that form “families” of literary works given names like “tragedy” and “comedy,” or “westerns” and “mysteries.” Modes, in contrast, cross such familial patterns. THE WRITER’S WEB definition for “mode” supports this:

“MODE: an unspecific critical term usually identifying a broad but identifiable literary method, mood or manner that is not tied exclusively to a particular form of genre.”

Among the examples listed is a “comic mode,” which might sound like a contradiction if “comedy” is also, as I said in the previous paragraph, is also a “genre.” But the contradiction is more apparent than real.

If there are “comic modes” defined by the moods, methods, or manners of communication used by an artist, while a “comedy genre” is defined by “story-patterns,” it should be possible to see how these manifest in any two comedies with some similar elements. For instance, we recognize that Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING and Mike Myers’ WAYNE’S WORLD both belong to the genre of comedy because both works are designed to make audiences laugh, and that both use a similar strategy in centering the comic action around the plot-device of two men competing for the affections of one woman. But the modes by which they accomplish their comedic goals are very different. The Coward play is urbane and witty; the Mike Myers film is gross and bawdy (though not without a measure of wit for all that). It is common to speak of their differences as if they were subgenres within the greater genre of comedy, to use terms like “sophisticated comedy” and “grossout comedy.” But I don’t think that these terms should be considered subgenres, after the fashion of genuine subgenres like “horror comedies” or “western comedies.” Rather, “sophisticated comedies” and “grossout comedies” represent concatenations of methods rather than story-patterns.

Now, since the earliest days of criticism—that is, the days of Aristotle, since his POETICS is our earliest extant example of literary criticism—there has always been the tendency to value what is considered “high” over what is considered “low.” Early in the POETICS (going by the translation by S.H Butcher) Aristotle tells us that following a period of “improvisations” in which the rules of art were still being worked out, these “rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry,” and then:

“Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.”

Taken just by itself—and I’m sure an expert on Aristotle would be more aware than I of the many permutations of Aristotelian thought in other essays that bear upon one’s full understanding of the philosopher’s opinion—there can be little question that Aristotle’s valuation is fairly elitist in nature. He sounds much like any contemporary critic valuing a “serious” work over a “trivial” one. However, even though Aristotle is esteeming “high” forms over “low” ones, he is, unlike many contemporary critics, presenting a synoptic view in which even the “low” forms have meaning within the totality he calls “poetry.” This stands in contradistinction to those critics who feel that only the higher forms have any relevance. Even a middlebrow event like the Oscar Awards show reflects this highbrow prejudice, consistently ignoring comedies in favor of “serious” dramas—though, as an ironic commentary on changing tastes, our own highbrow culture rates the genre of satires much higher on the artistic scale than Aristotle did for the satires of his time.

Now the original third question by Goethe—“Is what the artist did worth doing?”—is a more baldly elitist statement than Aristotle’s, not least objectionable because it’s implied that there is some unitary set of standards by which one can instantly judge the worth of a given work, apart from the skill with which it was crafted. At base, such statements go against the grain of Aristotle’s synoptic theories. I do not know if Goethe himself declared critical war against all things escapist and trivial in favor of things grave and serious, but I’m certain there has been no shortage of critics who imply that the world would be better off if most comedies were of the higher, sophisticated mode and few (if any) were of the low, grossout mode. More often than not, this sort of opinion is informed by the notion that “low” forms have no value in themselves, and that the “high” ones contain all that the low forms offer and more.

However, this doctrine—called by some the “more good things” doctrine—is proved incorrect the more one understands the functioning of modes. It’s possible for a lover of comedy to convince himself that DESIGN FOR LIVING is superior to WAYNE’S WORLD because the former may have intellectual elements that the latter does not. However, it is just as demonstrable that the Coward play (as well as the movie adapted from it) are lacking in the visceral elements found in WAYNE’S WORLD. Both the “sophisticated mode” and the “grossout mode” contain a range of narrative possibilities and are not comparable except in statements of pure personal taste. Thus DESIGN FOR LIVING is superior only to comedies in its own mode, and the same is true of WAYNE’S WORLD.

I don’t expect that anyone well-rounded enough to know the oeuvres of both Noel Coward and Mike Myers will seriously demur that both works were “worth doing,” but even if I’m correct in this supposition, it may only be because critics can be more forgiving toward comedies, which after all are not largely expected to be “grave” or “serious,” even if some can be more sophisticated than others. The high/low prejudices can be much more virulent when dealing with works in differing modes that do not have humor as their aim, leading to (for instance) the tendency to reject modes dealing with adventure or melodrama in favor of those dealing with “serious drama”—on which I’ll expatiate further in a future essay.
 

Monday, June 9, 2008

A PLAGUE ON ONLY ONE OF THEIR HOUSES

On one of my listserves I recently wrote the following re: David Hadju's TEN CENT PLAGUE and Bart Beaty's comments thereon, cached at the Comics Reporter:

"My feeling toward Hadju's book is still largely positive even after Beaty pointed out some inaccuracies. Some of the things Beaty lists, though, aren't necessarily bad omissions. While the responses of Caniff and Kelly at the hearings makes for a good sidebar, it's not, strictly speaking, necessary to the book's theme, nor does the absence of those testimonies compromise the theme. I also didn't care about the factors that allowed Dell to steer clear of the Code, in part because I've read about them before. I was much more interested about Hadju's mini-history of St. John Publishing and its romance titles, since I thought that was an aspect of the history that hadn't been covered much, to my knowledge.

I think Beaty's utterly wrong about Hadju making the struggle between Gaines and Wertham a hero/villain battle. I think Gaines comes across as entirely human, as someone who had his own demons and foibles, but who in the end did believe that what he created was good essentially- innocent entertainment. Wertham's motivations are not delved into as much, but I don't think Hadju goes over the line in criticizing what the good doctor did as repressive and prudish. I've read all of Wertham's justifications for his crusade and while I believe that he believed them, I think W. was a very educated fellow who nevertheless "knew himself but slenderly." Since Gaines' position is the more morally defensible to me, and since Hadju pretty well elucidates that defense in a more-or-less Bettleheimish way, I don't have any problem with seeing Wertham come off as, if not a villain, the more morally questionable of the two."



A listserver then asked me why I found Gaines' position to be more morally defensible, and this got me thinking about government's overall role in society.



We're very used to thinking of government as, first and foremost, an organ that serves to police and control all the other organs in the "body" of the State. There can be no denying that this is a principal role, and in some societies (Stalinist Russia, the early Calvinist colonies spawned by Oliver Cromwell) it arguably became the only role.

Still, even before the New World was more than a vague concept bandied about by European intellectuals (see Fiedler's RETURN OF THE VANISHING AMERICA for details), medieval societies included a role for the government not just as a rule-maker, but a rule-breaker. One may speak of public displays of license like the Saturnalia and All Fools' Day as societal customs that imposed themselves on the government simply because the people wanted them, but once the government did interact to "structure the chaos," as it were, this too became one of its important functions.

Now, within the "free speech" ideals promulgated in the United States of America, all literature was deemed worthy of protection under the law, even if the concept we now call "trash literature" had probably never given pause to the framers of the First Amendment. Obscenity laws did exist at the state level, such as the notorious Comstock Act of 1873, but it appears that prior to the 20th century custom more than law kept the United States from spawning the American equivalent of novels like JUSTINE or THE MONK. When trash literature did begin to grow to industrial-strength proportions in the 20th century, it seems to have done through a condition of largely-benign neglect. (Hadju does assert that certain guardians of society had as many problems with the dime novels of the late 1800s as their later kindred did with comic books.) The anti-comics panic of the late 40s and early 50s stands as symptomatic of the U.S. culture's belated realization that a particular species of trash-literature might prove threatening to the culture as such, in being uniquely targeted toward the youth of that culture-- that it was, in essence, a chaos that could not be structured, only eliminated.

Almost thirty years later, Bruno Bettleheim would stress the need of young readers for dark fantasies within the context of fairy tales, as a process of making one's own sense of meaning, but though Hadju recounts a few instances where individuals during the "plague" made similar arguments, it would seem none of them were taken seriously, and only the institution of the Code, despite not being immediately palliative, quieted the fears of parents.

It can be argued that many of the publishers of the trashier comics were just in it for the money; that few if any had any notion of changing hearts or minds with their tales of horror or crime or romance. But the publisher's motives for me are irrelevant. All that matters to me is the motives of the readers, and what I consider their fundamental right to make meaning wherever they please, even out of trash.

And this is why I find Frederic Wertham less morally defensible than Charles Biro or William Gaines or any other publisher of junk. Wertham had inflated, overly-idealistic notions of child development, comparing them throughout SEDUCTION to plants in a garden. This idea may have grown from a sincere concern for children's welfare, but the idea means nothing in that it does not address the way real children grow and form their own values-- very unlike garden plants, in my opinion.

I regard the role of the various state governments as being shameful as well, since Hadju's book makes clear that a good portion of the anti-comics panic arose without any input from Wertham. I suspect that most politicians, including the formidable Estes Kefauver, simply latched on to the anti-comics crusade with no great thought as to what if any function, if any, trash literature should have in a liberal modern society. What quotes Hadju provides seem to indicate that they had no tolerance whatsoever, damning the excellent along with the mediocre just as Wertham did.

Still, as disproportionate as the entire tsuami of public opinion seems to us now, it's fortunate that the public's anti-comics obsession apparently burned itself out after the most egregious examples of rule-breaking were off the stands. (This is one failing of Hadju's book: having told readers that the Code did not immediately soothe all concerns, he never says why the anti-comics bandwagon finally ground to a halt.) Though the government may not have made the society better able to stand short bouts of "structured chaos," at least it didn't enforce a more draconian version of the Code that might have been much harder to shake than the one the comics-industry itself formulated.

A small favor indeed, but one for which I suppose we must be thankful.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

KNIGHT MOVES






As I come to the third iteration of the Valkyrie concept, I find myself forced to divert into yet another tangled skein of the Marvel Universe, because of that skein’s entanglement with the Valkyrie’s “mother” the Enchantress. Thus, here’s a short summation, then, of Marvel’s superheroic Black Knight (also the third iteration of a much looser concept):

The first version of this concept appeared in the early 1950s. This Black Knight was a medieval hero who had no relation to any Marvel superheroes until being retroactively linked to them in the 1960s. The second Knight was an Iron Man villain who became a member of that group of Avengers-adversaries known as the Masters of Evil. (As such this made him a loose associate of the Enchantress, though I don’t believe the characters ever interacted in any story). This villain’s modus operandi included using medieval-style weapons with advanced-tech gimmicks, and riding into battle on the back of an ebon-hued, genetically-engineered winged horse—at least until the villain died of injuries taken during a battle. But in AVENGERS #48 (January 1968) he bequeathed his gimmicks to his nephew Dane Whitman, who decided to use them to become a superhero. As a stereotypic device to signal the change from bad to good, writer Roy Thomas had Whitman breed a new winged steed; one that was lily-white instead of black like the previous horse. Thomas also gave this new aerial equine the heroic name of Aragorn, in an odd derivation from a human character in Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS.

Following a few appearances this good Knight abandoned his uncle’s high-tech gizmos, and began to sport a magical “black blade” inherited from the original Knight of medieval times, who now became Whitman’s ancestor. Retroactive though the relationship was, this made Whitman the figurative spawn of two ancestors, much as the Valkyrie enjoyed an immaculate descent from a love-goddess mama and death-god papa.

In AVENGERS #84 (January 1971), Thomas decided that this “Black Blade” should become sort of a road-show version of the cursed blade “Stormbringer” from Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Suddenly, the Knight finds that his own sword is urging him to kill his enemies. The hero consults with his ancestor’s ghost, who tells him to journey to another dimension to dispose of the sword in a magical well (another LORD OF THE RINGS borrowing for the Knight’s mythos). But this realm happened to be ruled by a sometime foe of the Avengers named Arkon, who took the Knight prisoner. And just to heap on the coincidences, it was also the place where the Enchantress was transported when her spell backfired at the end of AVENGERS #83. The goddess, having wormed her way into Arkon’s confidence, works her seduction-mojo on the Knight to get his story out of him, and then accuses him of being a pawn sent by the Avengers—all of which leads to the usual dust-up between Arkon and the good guys. In the end the Black Blade ends up in the well and the Enchantress escapes.

However, the events of AVENGERS #98-100 (April-June 1972) prove that the spirit of the original Black Knight wasn’t so good in the department of destroying cursed blades, though he was great at giving comics-writers new plot-complications. The Black Blade isn’t destroyed, but ends up in Olympus, home of Marvel’s version of the Greek gods, where its power is co-opted by another Avengers foe, Ares the war-god. The Enchantress, despite having shown no interest in the Blade back in AVENGERS #84, chooses to follow in the Blade’s wake and promptly joins forces with Ares. It’s arguable that Ares, like Arkon before him, takes the place of her long-time partner the Executioner, though the character says nothing to corroborate this. During this three-part tale the Enchantress seems to have forgotten her original goal of getting back to Asgard, and now decides to help Ares wreak destruction on both Earth and her own home-realm. The Avengers thwart the villains’ plot, with the aid of short-lived former member the Hulk (who, by coincidence, had also come into conflict with the Enchantress twice in his solo feature) and of the Black Knight, who reclaimed his cursed blade.

During the same year this seasoned super-group defeated the Enchantress’ plan, leaving her imprisoned in Olympus, Roy Thomas made a new team, the Defenders, out of the three characters he’d intertwined in his “Undying Ones” saga. For three issues of MARVEL FEATURE written by Thomas, Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk battled evil, and then, two months after the conclusion of AVENGERS #100, the Defenders got their own book, with Steve Englehart writing. Englehart promptly returned the heroes to fighting emissaries of the Undying Ones for their first three issues, as well as inducting the Silver Surfer into the group, though that hero departs at the end of issue #3. In #3 the four heroes are spirited into the Undying Ones’ dimension and immediate behold Barbara Norris in her magical cage. With the aid of the Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange breaks her free, but Barbara has in some sense returned to her status of “traitorous female” seen at the outset of HULK #126, for it’s revealed that out of maddened loneliness she became the “mate” of the demons’ leader, the Nameless One, even merging her body with that of the two-headed monster so as to become his “third head.” The heroes manage to stymie the demon-lord and Doctor Strange frees Barbara from the creature’s influence, but Barbara goes screaming-mad from the separation. The heroes return to Earth and the Surfer deserts their company.

With DEFENDERS #4 (February 1973), Englehart puts aside the Undying Ones thread in favor of a new wrinkle on another Thomas-created thread: the interlinking of the Enchantress, the Black Knight and the Black Blade. The Defenders just happen to materialize outside Dane Whitman’s ancestral castle, which for no clear reason is linked to the dimension where the Enchantress and Executioner were imprisoned by Odin, and where a nameless sorceress stole the demi-god from the side of the demi-goddess. The Defenders, along with Barbara, are taken prisoner by the sorceress (now named Casiolena) and by her consort the Executioner. In their dungeon the Defenders then meet the Enchantress and the Black Knight. It seems that the Enchantress escaped Olympus and suddenly decided to go back to Casiolena’s dimension and fight for her man. To this end Enchantress decides to engage the services of the Black Knight—a peculiar choices, as even with his sword the Knight was no powerhouse— but in any case she uses her magical smooching-power to bend him to her will. (Narratively, she becomes identical with the Black Blade: a force that seduces Dane Whitman to serve evil, so that he becomes morally “grey” if not actually “black.”) The Enchantress and Whitman are beaten and imprisoned, but though the goddess doesn’t have the power to break out by herself, the Defenders have brought her a vessel that Enchantress can transform. Over the heroes’ objections, Enchantress transforms mad Barbara into the Valkyrie, who breaks them all free. The heroes, joined by Enchantress and her more-or-less willing servant the Knight, summarily trounce the Executioner, Casiolena and all of the queen’s men. Interestingly, when the Valkyrie appears, she’s carrying a war-spear identical to the one in her earlier appearances, though after she uses it to disarm the Executioner this weapon, like its sister in HULK #142, simply disappears from the ongoing Valkyrie narrative.

But though the spear’s absence isn’t accounted for, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for it to disappear; it goes away so that the Valkyrie has a reason to appropriate the sword of the Black Knight.

After the dust-up is finished, Enchantress decides to “forgive” Executioner for his waywardness, with the clear implication that she’s once more in the driver’s seat while he must return to being her lapdog. Dane Whitman, having become totally besotted with the goddess, protests and threatens the axe-man, but Enchantress shows her preferences by turning the mortal hero to stone, and then fleeing with her immortal lover. This development has the effect of leaving Whitman’s sword and winged horse up for grabs, and Valkyrie duly takes possession of them. It may be that writer Englehart and editor Thomas thought that a sword would prove less cumbersome than a spear, and better able to deal out non-lethal force when desired (in later issues Valkyrie swats her merely-human opponents with “the flat of the blade.”) Valkyrie doesn’t keep the Black Blade, though, for in Englehart’s final DEFENDERS issue, #11 (December 1973), it’s revealed that the Black Knight’s spirit has manifested in another body back in the days of the Crusades, and so the Blade is returned to Dane Whitman once more. But in the succeeding issue, writer Len Wein gives Valkyrie a new super-sword called Dragonfang, which she keeps for the remainder of the super-team’s first run, just as she keeps custody of winged horse Aragorn.

In some sense Valkyrie soon becomes, far more than the group’s technical leader Doc Strange, the glue that holds future incarnations of the super-team together. Given that she appears as a tabula rasa, with no conscious memories of being Barbara Norris, she might even be considered the “child” that unites a troubled family. As noted before she is the first Marvel superheroine to register as a “powerhouse,” able to exchange blows with the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, but even at the start there’s some mitigation of her power—what one might call a “curse,” given that it’s predicated on her gender-kinship with other women. I’ll discuss this more fully in what should be my cumulative essay on the nature of Marvel’s Scandinavian superheroine.