Friday, March 27, 2009
I agree with Sean that there are cultural limits on how far most superhero comics will allow themselves to get from the ideal of "costumed hero appears in a reality just like ours." I don't think it's entirely a function of the way the companies of Marvel and DC want to keep their universes a certain way, for during the flowering of the 1980s alternatives most superhero or superhero-like comics did stay within the "reality like to our own" formula. I think all of these companies also saw the superhero genre as basically concerned with a basic fantasy of "fantastic beings in unfantastic surroundings" that goes counter to the more otherworldly SF/fantasy conceptions, not so much out of "various business considerations and weird historical quirks."
Here's the niggling part:
"DC has a set hierarchy in terms of which superheroes are the biggest deals, so you can't have a godlike supervillain like Black Adam just walk up to Batman and pull his head off"
But is it because of a hierarchy, or is it just a storytelling pattern that dictates, "Even when faced with an opponent far more powerful than he is, the hero will somehow dodge being automatically crushed long enough for him to turn the tables."
In the Campbell book I just mentioned, there's an Amerindian "fire-bringer" story in which Bear has the only fire-stone. The other animals conspire to get it from him, and they succeed, but since Bear is the strongest, the most innocuous animal, Swallow, has to approach Bear and pretend he only wants in Bear's tepee to get shelter from the cold.
Bear could, of course, squish Swallow as easily as Black Adam could de-cowl Batman the hard way.
But in both cases, if that "logical conclusion" were not excluded--
Then the story would be over in such a way that would please only Berthold Brecht.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The above sentence is the first line, and possibly even the "theme statement," of this early Campbell work. Obviously, by privileging the "artist's eye," Campbell is parting company with countless anthropologists and mythographers who privileged the viewpoint of the scientist. Campbell finds this viewpoint useful only in a secondary sense, for "the gods and demons are not conceived in the way of hard and fast, positive realities" (p. 21) and so he declares that we can only understand myth through art: "mythology was historically the mother of the arts and yet, like so many mythological mothers, the daughter, equally, of her own birth" (p. 42). A full re-reading of Campbell might show him at times too quick to promote this myth-art equivalence, without exploring the differences between these complementary yet divergent forms. Perhaps that's one reason why academic literary criticism has shown scant interest in Campbell's insights, often preferring to promote a reductive psuedo-science of the sort that takes seriously chimerae like "commodity fetishes."
As I've commented here I find that Campbell's four functions of myth could be advantageously applied to all forms of literary as a means of understanding its ontological and phenomenological functions. But Campbell's myth-art equivalence deserves comment in its own right, though I'll confine my comments to PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY as it's the only book I've recently reread.
Much of PM is devoted to Campbell's Kant-like endeavor to discern what aspects of myth are (to borrow the terms of his predecessor Adolf Bastian) "elementary" (and therefore universal to human culture) and what aspects are "ethnic" (particular to the way a given culture expresses its myths; the local coloring, as it were). Campbell admits that the question probably does not admit of a definitive answer, but suggests that though mythology cannot be rationally understood, it may be "viewed in the light of biological psychology as a function of the human nervous system, precisely homologous to the innate and learned sign stimuli that release and direct the energies of nature." Campbell, building largely on the ethological researches of Lorenz and Tinbergen, calls this psychobiological system "the supernormal sign stimulus," and implies that it is through such stimuli that both myth and art work their wiles on audiences.
As one can see in this, my first blogpost here, I'm certainly not hostile to the notion that some signs are "more equal" than others:
'At this point I won’t go into talking about what Frye calls “signs,” which is a term he loosely derived from early writings on semiology. The essential thought here is that there is a hierarchy between simple and complex manifestations of the units of communication—whatever one chooses to call them—that make up a narrative. Frye doesn’t go into great depth in terms of using “complex variables” as a means of evaluating how well a narrative communicates, but it’s a centerpiece of my theory. Often, in the critique of popular artforms, I have seen any number of complex symbolic formations show up in narratives that are, on the surface, apparently simple, as are most of the myth-stories in the handed-down forms that we have them. This appearance of the complex within the apparently-simple convinces me that even these variables that we call “archetypes” have a propensity to generate themselves, at times without the conscious intent of the author.'
For the purpose of this argument I'll assume that though Campbell's "supernormal sign stimuli" don't share the same philosophical etiology as Frye's "complex variables," the two writers are essentially talking about the same thing: the power of certain signs to evoke far stronger responses-- affective and perhaps cognitive as well-- than do their opposite numbers: "normal sign stimuli" and "simple variables." Both Campbell and Frye frequently addressed the interpenetration of art and myth, though naturally each man hewed to his specialty.
Then the question arises: are there aspects of Campbell's work that are better applied to myth than to art?
I find on rereading PM that though Campbell undoubtedly knew the differences between the two forms, he was primarily focused on arguing for the existence of "elementary ideas" in the form of his "supernormal signs," and so his argument is dominantly about how such ideas appear in myth, and not so much in all forms of art. While trying to make his point that myth cannot be rationally understood, Campbell quotes poet A.E. Houseman, who asserts that:
"the intellect is not the fount of poetry....; it may actually hinder its production... and .... it cannot even be trusted to recognize poetry when produced..... Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual..." (THE NAME AND NATURE OF POETRY, 1961).
Here Campbell's equivalence of myth and art is altered to that of myth and poetry. This is a revealing change, for the literary form of poetry could be viewed as much more emotionally expressive than, say, its cousin prose. I would allow that all art begins with a desire to express emotion, and that intellect can be a stifling influence on the artist's vision, but still Houseman's assertion gives scant credit to the shaping influence of the intellect on art-- including, I imagine, his own.
With myth this seems less of a problem. True, the genesis of both prehistoric myth and prehistoric art-- as well as how prehistoric people came to separate the two forms-- can only be imagined as so many heuristic speculations. But it seems safe to speculate that even in primitive societies some people were better at telling stories than others, and that this became their calling in tribal life, whether strongly or weakly associated with the tribe's religion. Religious concepts, like concepts of art, surely evolved through a process of trial and error, in which the storyteller perceived patterns of meaning and managed to communicate them to his audience. But as Frye observed, religion's purpose is to say "this is so," while art's purpose is to say, "what if such-and-such were so."
Though I reject the simplistic notion that myth, as myth, was unchanging, or even universally intended by its makers to be unchanging, obviously art (at whatever point it became definitively separated from myth) could change to meet the needs of the community much more quickly. This would lead to a greater emphasis on the use of the individual intellect to use symbolic tableaux for didactic purposes-- one of the earliest being the Gilgamesh Epic, where the hero, derived from older and cruder-seeming myth-tales, becomes an object lesson on the meaning of man's mortality.
Intellect was surely used by those who framed the earliest myths that Campbell imputes to prehistoric man-- the tearing of the shaman's body, the human sacrifice that engenders a new staple of food. But in myth the intellectual function is in a subordinate position to the expressive function. In art, intellect and emotion constantly struggle for supremacy, like two boys playing king-of-the-mountain.
The differing status of the intellectual function is one reason why one must resist a total identification of myth and art, even though both are indebted to man's expressive function and could not exist without it. However, a theory of art that tries to privilege the intellectual function, as one might see in Shaw's twitting Shakespeare for not being progressive enough, is a worthless and barren theory.
Therefore, any poetics that tries (as mine does) to wed aspects of Frye and Campbell will tend to let Frye be "king-of-the-mountain," at least most of the time, because Frye has a superior cognizance as to how both mythworks and artworks are made.
My next (planned) post will touch on how Campbell's emphasis on the expressive function has caused his work to be grossly misunderstood by at least one member of the comic-book community.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Curt mentions that when Rick Veitch outlined his ambitions for BRAT PACK he spoke of "destroying the superhero." Frank Miller and Alan Moore have made similar allusions to undermining the genre with DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN respectively, and more recently Zack Snyder, following in their deconstructive footsteps, claimed that his WATCHMEN adaptation would be the last word on superhero films.
Such declarations suggest that the speaker is extremely naive, though I've also considered the possibility that they're made with an eye to garnering media-attention. Certainly being the person who has the "last word" is an enormous boost to the ego, rather like the belief of the apocalyptic Christian who rejoices that even if his generation can't have the privilege of being the first, at least they can be the last.
Certainly this sort of hubris was not born with the "grim and gritty" era of comics in the 1980s (which really got started in the 1970s, but that's another story). The earliest practitioner of genre-hubris was probably the fellow whom Alan Moore feted as his favorite comics-creator: Harvey Kurtzman, best known for his satires of superheroes and other pop-entertainments in MAD MAGAZINE.
There's a Kurtzman quote in his longest COMICS JOURNAL interview that I haven't time to look up just now, to the effect that he felt that he had accomplished some great breakthrough when he took the dominant image of the superhero (courageous and supremely competent) and inverted it, so that the superhero (as seen in the classic 1953 "Superduperman") was a loser and a goof.
In the larger historical sense this was, of course, no more a breakthrough when Kurtzman did it than when similar heroic skewerings were undertaken by Cervantes and Voltaire. Both satire and its close cousin comedy depend on the inversion of desired expectations, but this inversion is simply another expectation, not a liberation from expectation, be it that of genre or dominant ideology or whatever.
Kurtzman's MAD satires were, of course, supremely funny, but they didn't disclose any reality but the narrative reality of the satiric mode. And though Kurtzman might have desired to see his "Superduperman" expose the implied banality of its model, his satire probably had no measurable effect on the prosperity of SUPERMAN. Indeed, within three or four years of the satire, the feature became far more inventive, possibly in response to the growing appeal of science-fiction in various media of that decade.
Kurtzman's satires, though, might be deemed as more straightforward than those of Veitch and Moore (Miller is an exception in that he was doing a romance-adventure with satiric elements). Because Veitch and Moore did essay ironic superhero stories with adventure-elements, both had some influence (however good or bad in the long run) on the development of mainstream superheroes. All artists are magpies: they swipe from the creative "nests" of other artists anything that they think will work for them and/or their audience, and any artist who denies this is either a fool or a liar.
Kurtzman would probably have been pleased that the mainstream heroic comics of his time did not derive much (if anything) from his satires (the various spoofy imitations of MAD being outside the frame of that mode/genre). Thus he could go to his grave believing that he had "subverted the dominant" or some such ideological fantasy, and without giving any aid and comfort to the enemy.
Others, however, could not say the same-- the least being any so-called "destroyers of superheroes."
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Consider two genuinely-comical comic strips, both with some degree of critical fame, BARNABY, first published in 1942, and POPEYE, "born" in 1929 in the strip THIMBLE THEATRE, which had kicked around about ten years before the one-eyed sailor took it over.
I don't think that anyone would have a problem labelling these two comic strips as "comedies." One might have to do a lot of tweaking to Northrop Frye's theory of mythoi in order to see them both as pursuing the theme of anagnorisis, but that's a theoretical problem for another time. Both strips are certainly dominated by the narrative aim of being funny, just as THE SPIRIT and BATMAN are arguably dominated by the narrative aim of being exciting.
Now, let us assume that all right-minded people agree that both BARNABY and POPEYE fully deserve their reputations for being good comedies, however different the types of humor may be. One may like BARNABY's gentle spoofery more than Popeye's slapstick violence, or vice versa, but in theory one can agree that each fulfills its comic mythos admirably.
Now, because POPEYE does use slapstick violence, it does have a narrative element in common with SPIRIT and BATMAN that might cause one to associate the former with the latter two in terms of its *mythos.* POPEYE does sometimes incorporate elements of the adventure-mythos, with emphasis on the agon, which can take the form of Popeye's many battles with big ugly brutes (of which his cartoon nemesis Bluto was just one minor example) or his duels with menaces like the Sea Hag. Despite these elements, by my calculation the strip was never dominantly about adventure, but it could be termed correctly a "comedy with adventure elements."
Now, it's my stated position that to the extent that the Golden Age BATMAN ever attempted any dramatic stories (which wasn't often), they were probably never as well executed as those of Eisner's SPIRIT. But saying that doesn't eliminate the accomplishments of both features as adventure-mythoi.
However, if one were to say "superior pathos makes THE SPIRIT the better work," then by the same token one would have to say that POPEYE is better than BARNABY because POPEYE had better agon-fights.
I've only read one collection of BARNABY, and I don't think it had any fights in it whatsoever. But if in BARNABY's ten years anything like a fight ever happened in the strip, and if the quality of that one fight was inferior to those in POPEYE, then POPEYE would be the superior work because it didn't realize that narrative element as well as POPEYE did.
Unless, of course, one takes the position that the narrative elements of the agon simply don't matter.
And in the world of unsupportable beliefs, I suppose anything is possible.
Friday, March 13, 2009
I hesitate to invoke the Theory of Modes so soon after writing BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER, which essay, to those not versed in Fryean categories may, seem a little like walking in on the part of HAMLET where Polonius says:
"The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. (Hamlet, II, 2: 392-396)"
I could well understand it, then, if a reader found it difficult to follow both the four narrative *mythoi* I derived (with only slight changes) from Frye (comedy, drama, adventure/romance, and irony) plus the four underlying myth-themes (my word), anagnorisis, pathos, agon, and sparagmos). I can perhaps best explain them by saying that they are all phases through which writers conceive the "power of action" given to fictional characters within their fictional world, and that though a writer may borrow storytelling elements from any of the categories the telos (narrative purpose) of each story generally hews to one division more than to any others. Each category has validity in itself and none is inherently inferior to another (contrary to an opinion expressed by Theodor Adorno, to the effect that great literature was defined by "negativity": in Fryean terms, irony a la Kafka).
In the BUFFY essay I mentioned that it wouldn't be hard to conceive of the show as a "drama with adventure-elements," though I demonstrated why I felt that there was a better case for the opposite: "adventure-with-drama-elements." In comparing BATMAN and THE SPIRIT, though, I am dealing with two works that I deem both fall dominantly into the category of the adventure-mythos. Also, I consider both of them to be "superheroes" (though I'm currently working on a better critical term for the narrative typologies they share).
It is certainly possible, within the exemplars of a given mode, to say "X is great but Y sucks." The modal theory is not made to excuse incompetence, but to spell out how different creative modes succeed in different ways. Thus, if a work falls dominantly into the adventure-genre, then it stands or falls as to how good a job the creators do in evoking the thrill of the agon. In that respect I find the two subjects on equal ground, even when comparing Eisner's SPIRIT (which pretty much lasted the length of the Golden Age before its cancellation) only to BATMAN comics of the corresponding time period.
HOWEVER, one *can* fairly argue, though, that purely in their evocation of certain *subsidiary* elements, SPIRIT was better than BATMAN or BATMAN than SPIRIT.
For instance, of the two SPIRIT is far better than BATMAN in evoking elements of pathos. On the whole BATMAN scripts of the Golden Age are better-constructed melodramas than most other costumed-crusader stories of the time (see my remarks about Jerry Siegel's writing here), but Eisner and his collaborators are clearly better dramatists than any of the Bat-creators. Some, though not all, of the credit goes to the visual style Will Eisner pioneered for the strip, which could be used as easily for serious drama as for rough-and-ready action. By contrast, though BATMAN of the Golden Age had its share of moody visuals, those visuals generally served only the purpose of heightening the action-sequences.
On the other hand, because BATMAN is more of a "pure adventure" concept, and so is more divorced from consensual reality, BATMAN is much stronger than the SPIRIT in terms of evoking mythopoeic fantasies. As much as I am attracted to the pathetic elements of SPIRIT, I find relatively few of the stories possess the element of mythicity. That's why, when I made up my "Library of Mythopoeic Comics," I only selected a particular exemplar of symbolic complexity, the "Jimson Weed" tale, rather than including the whole gamut of SPIRIT-stories.
And while it's true that there are many BATMAN-tales that don't reach that level of complexity either, dominantly the BATMAN feature became a place where popular myths could thrive and grow. Some of them became widely famous through adaptation into other media, like Joker and Catwoman, and some remained confined to obscurer parts of the Bat-mythos, but the process that allowed such characters to grow symbolically was not duplicated by Will Eisner, whose focus was more upon "ordinary people" rather than extraordinary supercriminals.
(I've noted here that "ordinary people" can in theory be as "symbolically complex" as the more outrageous creations of fantasy, but one still has to bring to those ordinary people a sheen of the extraordinary within the ordinary--which I don't think Eisner did.)
Naturally, for anyone minded to judge Eisner's SPIRIT to be a pure drama, there would be no point in comparing it to an adventure-opus like BATMAN, as the primary myth-themes of each would be too divergent.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
When I referenced these four mythoi in essays like NOTES TOWARD AN IDIOM OF THE SUPERHERO, I wrote:
“By contrast, a work that purports to put aside the element of adventure for other elements is by Frye’s definition deviating from the mode of romance.”
For “other elements” I probably should have said “the elements of other myth-themes.” A given work may share elements of all four myth-themes in varying proportions—may include elements suggestive of conflict, of catastrophe, of abjection, and of rebirth—and yet still have be more strongly oriented toward one theme rather than to any of the other three. I would revise Frye’s terminology here with regard to one of his themes, however. Though he says that pathos can be present in a work whether or not the protagonist is a victim or a victor, the word “tragedy” inescapably suggests that he must be a victim. Therefore for tragedy I will substitute “drama.” Colloquially Americans understand “drama” as applying to works that are more “serious” than either romance or comedy, though such “drama” is still a good deal more accessible to most audiences than is the continuum Frye calls irony/satire.
(I should add that Frye’s definition of comedy proper is strongly predicated on the model of Greek New Comedy, which dominantly centered about the idea of young lovers successfully being joined despite some opposing force. It may be possible to see the theme of anagnoris, or “discovery,” even in comedies that are not about overt romantic themes, but that would be a project for another time.)
For an example of a work that shares elements that might support all four themes, I’ll cite BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. For instance, in contrast to many “normative” superhero works, the BUFFY teleseries could easily viewed as a drama with action-elements, given the show’s focus on the agonies and ecstasies of teens confronting both the horrors of adult life as well as real monsters. Yet to solve the question of which narrative elements predominate—those of action or of drama—one might compare BUFFY to the book-series HARRY POTTER. Though different in medium, POTTER also pursues the subject material of young people balancing the demands of school and of supernatural menaces. But elements of pathos in POTTER are often, unlike most conflicts in BUFFY, resolved without a single punch in anyone’s face. If it is demonstrable that BUFFY’s problems are usually solved or even tempered by violent action, then BUFFY is dominated by the agon of the romance.
One could also make a case for BUFFY as an irony. Often the show’s the characters are reduced, physically and emotionally, to an extent that parallels similar developments in the Moore-Gibbons WATCHMEN, which I’ve already cited here as an ironic take on the superhero romance. Additionally, BUFFY’s universe is, like that of WATCHMEN, a world without transcendence, where the Powers of Evil basically control the universe and can only be beat back a little at a time. But despite these moments of sparagmos (i.e, “tearing apart”), the characters of BUFFY are never quite as thoroughly humiliated by events as are the Watchmen. Despite the fact that WATCHMEN’s Doctor Manhattan possesses more raw power than any of the BUFFY heroes, the former is powerless to take meaningful action, at least on the planet of his birth. The “power of action” for the BUFFY protagonists is far more expansive.
The narrative structure of BUFFY also succeeds in part as a New Comedy, beyond the surface elements of the witty repartee for which the series is well known. Admittedly, when the teleseries concludes Buffy Summers is not married or even “with anyone.” But it could be argued that even without a marriage she has not only preserved the nucleus of her own “Scooby family” despite all opposition, and ends up “propagating” a new family by activating all the women who have dormant “Slayer potential.” This would parallel the theme of anagnorisis insofar as her “discovery” of a new way to combat evil births a new society. Yet the “Slayer society” is a warrior clan, which by its nature cannot suggest the sort of stable social order in which real children can be nurtured. A better example of the superhero put forth as pure comedy might be Rumiko Takahashi’s RANMA ½. Though the adventures of Ranma Saotome vary between high adventure and low sitcom goofiness, the constant focus of the series is the how Ranma and his reluctant betrothal Akane “discover” the depths of their feelings for one another and become reconciled to them. These characters are no more married at the conclusion of the series than Buffy is, but the final story does at least feature an attempt to get them married, even if it descends into comic chaos. More, it’s implicit that these two teenagers are destined, by their creator’s fiat, to have the New Comic “happy ending” at some undisclosed point in their futures.
(Yes, I know some people wouldn’t deem Ranma Saotome comparable with costumed superheroes, even though Ranma can punch through stone walls and triumph over any number of super-powered adversaries. But despite the sitcom-feel of many RANMA-stories, Ranma may be closer in spirit to Buffy—or Batman, for that matter-- than either Harry Potter or any of the Watchmen, since comedies and romance-adventures both tend toward the upbeat rather than the downbeat.)
It seems clear to me that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s narrative emphasizes most prominently the elements of the romance-adventure. Comic repartee and familial bonding help Buffy triumph over both the agonies of personal pathos and the perhaps-darker aspects of an ironic universe, but neither repartee nor bonding overshadow the elements of the agon, of the combative hero’s ability to kick evil in the teeth. Buffy’s triumph doesn’t eradicate evil, but she deals the Powers of Evil a substantial setback. And whereas constant vigilance against future threats would not be the sort of “triumph” most comedies could sustain, for a romance/adventure it’s satisfying, for the hero is identified with his (or her) endless struggles than his (or her) social role.
And thus, despite possessing elements germane to the other three mythoi, BUFFY belongs most to the romance-adventure category. From this we can deduce that an ambitious superhero work does not necessarily need to renounce the elements proper to the romance-adventure mythos simply to appear more “sophisticated,” despite elitist critical cant to that effect.
Monday, March 9, 2009
"Suffice to say that the days of female badasses like Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, and Lucy Lawless are long over in the movies."
Putting aside the quibble that Lawless was only a big star on the small screen, "bigness" of the physical kind seems to be the reason Heidi makes this claim, with reference to WATCHMEN's only female hero, Silk Spectre.
"And then there’s Silk Spectre. Malin Ackerman wasn’t quite as bad as I had been warned but casting yet another willowy ex-model instead of a potential tough guy makes her character more a refugee from America’s Next Top Model than a crimefighter."
That Ackerman is indeed willowy cannot be denied. She's also not especially tough-looking though the cinematic character does get a lot more kickass-scenes than the GN original received. But still, I wouldn't be so quick to proclaim the demise of the badass babe.
True, as others beside myself have pointed out, they do somewhat better as lead or at least co-lead characters on the small screen than the big one. Still, regarding the two actresses Heidi names who made their bones in multiplexes, I'm not sure that Sigourney "ALIENS" Weaver and Linda "T2" Hamilton are a dying breed.
Granted, I haven't yet found any action-actresses who are quite as tall as Weaver and Lawless (both 5'11''), but on television CHUCK's Yvonne Strahovski comes close at 5'9", and though she's a glamorpuss she's not by any means "willowy." Indeed, though the action on CHUCK can be supplied by one of two agents guarding the titular character-- Strahovski and Adam Baldwin-- Strahovski clearly gets the lion's share of fight-scenes on the show, both against men and other women.
Similar caveats abound for current actresses like Kate Beckinsale (5'7"), who originated the kickass Selene role on two UNDERWORLD films, and for Rhona Mitra (same height), who took over Selene in the last film in that series. I can't comment on said last film as I've not seen it but Mitra was a good badass babe in the earlier DOOMSDAY-- as believable, I'd say, as Linda Hamilton in T2 (who is one inch shorter).
Yes, today's badass babe does have to live down CATWOMAN. But even in the 90s heyday of Weaver and Hamilton, they had to put up with the ignominy of this guy's films.
Compared to these, even CATWOMAN starts to look a little better.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
"Alan Moore is only the best writer of superheroes within an ironic literary mode"
And it later occured to me that this was a little misleading, inasmuch as it might sound as if I were saying that Moore had never written in any mode than the ironic for superheroes. This is not the case, but I do think that as yet no one else has managed to do superheroes in that mode better, though it's a short list from which to choose. The Mills-Nowlan MARSHAL LAW is probably the closest rival to WATCHMEN, though naturally WATCHMEN is more sophisticated in its satire and darker in its implications. I suppose Kurtzman would be a close analogue except that all of his satires of superheroes are one-offs, which suggests a differing form even if the mode is the same.
In the essay I'm printing next, I'll analyze a particular superhero-like work to see if I can make clear what elements privilege a work to being in one mode or another.
By the way, saw the movie, and my prediction was half-right. Even to someone who knows the story, it doesn't succeed in the mode of an irony. Snyder tries to let viewers like the characters too much, even the Comedian, so his universe isn't sufficiently nihilistic. But I was incorrect in predicting that it might be retooled to something along the lines of a high-mimetic drama, a la Moore's own high-mimetic comic THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. Instead, Snyder's take on the WATCHMEN material is closer to the low-mimetic mode, which is the mode to which Northrop Frye assigns not only comedy but "realistic fiction" in general.
By the way, Moore may have the ironic mode almost all to himself, but he's not the best writer of high-mimetic superheroes. He has too much competition in that realm.
As far as ending the cinematic world's flirtation with superheroes, as Snyder claimed it would, I feel sure WATCHMEN will neither particularly hurt nor harm the romance. But it's an interesting translation on some levels, particularly for coming up with a better end-threat than Moore himself did.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
I'm not going to deal at length with Moore's numerous attacks in the WIRED interview on both modern FX-cinema and on all film-adaptations of his comics-work. I think his justifications for why comics shouldn't be adapted into films make no more sense than saying that literary characters not explicitly created to "cross over" with one another are inherently damaged by such antics, which I've refuted here. Obviously the art of pastiche is the whole raison d'etre of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, moments of social satire notwithstanding.
I've stated here the simple maxim that anything that can be done well is worth doing. From this notion follows the pluralist principle that there's no inherent superiority between, say, the act of creating a good action-adventure story and that of creating a good satire of that story. Elsewhere, as an example of this principle, I elaborated that although Frank Miller's film THE SPIRIT was a poor film, Miller's approach to his adaptation of Eisner, which approach involved switching from one mode to another, was not inherently a bad thing, any more than Robert Aldrich's travesty of the KISS ME DEADLY source novel was inherently bad. In certain iterations the movement from the subtle to the gross can be as interesting as the reverse, though elitists will of course privilege the latter.
Now, about that WATCHMEN film--
Just to indulge in a little advance hypothesizing, I think that whatever emerges from the directorial lens of Zack Snyder will also probably result in a change of modes. In MERIT RAISED IV I analyzed the Moore/Gibbons WATCHMEN as being characteristic of the ironic mode due to the way it portrays the consequences of seeking power, so that:
"the mythological universe of Moore and Gibbons seems like one of those visions from Gnostic theology: a world of pure suffering and alienation"
I predict that Snyder will go all-out to make a faithful adaptation of Moore and Gibbons, but that it won't present such a world, for all that a recent sneak peek seemed to be faithfully rendering Rorschach's "descent into the abyss." In making this hypothesis I partially agree with Alan Moore's assertion that the nature of the medium (at least in its Hollywood manifestation) will mitigate against presenting the graphic novel in its original mode. I think in all likelihood it will come closer to Frye's mode of the "high mimetic:" that is, it will be either epic in tone, tragic in tone, or a little of both. This is pretty much what Snyder's 300 was in modal terms, though neither it nor its source material were particularly good examples of the high mimetic mode.
Amusingly, in this LA TIMES piece, Snyder sounds at least as authoritarian as Moore on the subject of how unique his work is:
"We're killing the comic-book movie, we're ending it," Snyder said. "This movie is the last comic-book movie, for good or bad."
In other words, if it succeeds, Snyder can claim he exceeded all previous accomplishments (though it's doubtful it'll top DARK KNIGHT's receipts). And if it flops-- "I meant to do that."