Tuesday, September 29, 2009


"I have no chance
"To sing or dance
"'Cause work and play don't mix."

--The Pig with All the Bricks, from Disney's "3 Little Pigs" cartoon

My literary answer to the uptight little pig is that though he's right that the two operations don't precisely "mix," they do complement each other more than he might suppose, and not only in the sense of the old Puritan "first work then play" ethic.

I asked earlier what constitutes, within the continuum of art and literature, the difference between "the adult" and "the juvenile."Clearly, following some of those earlier arguments, the dividing line isn't simply the presence or absence of material labelled as taboo for children: what Sean Collins called "stuff that could get a comic an R-rating." I noted here that "clean" works like Owen Wister's VIRGINIAN and George Lucas' STAR WARS appeal to adult concerns despite their lack of overtly taboo-breaking material (though such material may indeed be there, sub rosa as it were). Both works are equally accessible to both adults and juveniles, but the fact that a large quantity of adults do not dismiss either work as "exclusively for children" demonstrates that the work satisfies them on some adult level.

In this essay on "thematic realism" and "thematic escapism," I compared my categories loosely with the "reality principle" and "pleasure principle" of Freud. I did not advocate Freud's psychology generally, which isn't too far removed from the "work you shirkers" psychology of the Third Little Pig. But there's a more fundamental dichotomy than "pleasure and reality" that suggests to me the phenomenological difference between juvenile and adult: that one is oriented upon "play" and the other upon "work."

I don't see much need to define what "work" is, but because both Freud and the Bricolage Pig didn't define "play" as being more than pointless frivolity, an alternate definition seems worthwhile. And who better to give one than Johann Huizinga, one of the earliest analysts of the human concept of play in his 1938 book HOMO LUDENS:

"Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means."

Additionally I would note that though I stressed the "human concept of play," it's significant that the activity is not confined to humans, and that in other species there is some evidence to suggest that for those creatures "play" serves to duplicate some if not all of these functionless functions. It's been theorized that the activity of play helps the juvenile players improve their motor skills and perceptions, though to say that this was the only reason play evolved in animals would be to subscribe to a teleology like unto that of Richard Dawkins.

In any case other play-acting creatures, just like humans, begin as entities with no ability to work, even if other animals aren't helpless for as long a period as humans. Both animals and humans can, however, play even if they can't work, at least in the most exploratory and unstructured manner. And though humans have a longer development period than other animals, humans don't remain isolated from the concept of work all that much longer than our fellow beasts: if their "vacation" ends with the onset of adulthood in about a year or so, the human freedom to do nothing but play ends not with adulthood but with a protracted period of learning which, because it has a discrete purpose, must be considered as "work."

So human children become intimately acquainted with the dialectic of work and play early on. But because most adults prioritize the need for play in children's development, one may symbolically identify juveniles with the activity of play.

Conversely, though adults too exist within a continuum in which they balance work and play, the essence of being adult is that an adult must work to make it possible for children to grow, develop, and play-- at least until said adult is old enough to retire from work (at least in theory) and to devote the remainder of his life to "play," if he so wishes.

As go the actual adults and juveniles, so too their entertainments. Earlier I wrote about how the foundations of adult pulp began with two dichotomous titles becoming oriented toward older juveniles at the beginning of the Bronze Age:

'The "Bronze Age" doesn't change this dominant [juvenile orientation]. By my reckoning [the Age] starts around 1970, when CONAN THE BARBARIAN and GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW debuted. The latter, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempted to retrofit the ongoing GREEN LANTERN in order to explore social problems in terms of relevance melodramas, which marked it as addressing "adult concerns" in terms of ethical development. Adult concerns in CONAN, were in the context of "stuff that you have a license to see because you're an adult."'

Now both of these magazines dealt heavily with subject matter not commonly associated back then with the juvenile target audience of comic books. I find both features to be dominantly juvenile in tone, though thematically the Thomas/Smith CONAN is closer to pure escapism while the O'Neil/Adams GREEN LANTERN is closer to realism. And the nature of each feature's subject matter underlies this thematic commitment. To borrow some of Frye's terms referenced earlier, CONAN focused on narrative values, in that most if not all adventures were concerned with delivering to the reader a certain quantity of sex and violence. In contrast, GREEN LANTERN was concerned with significant values, in that most if not all adventures were concerned with giving the reader his daily "food for thought" in the form of socially-conscious melodramas.
And yet, both sets of values are relevant to the juvenile/adult divide in that they are ordinarily taboo to the juvenile for like reasons: they are viewed as impediments to the maturational process. Only when one is adult, or nearly so, is one culturally poised to withstand the impact of witnessing what Linda Williams called the "body horror" of sex and violence. Similarly, although children are given some significant values appropriate to their level of development, the culture does not act as if children should grow up, say, knowing that most politicians are corrupt, even though this may be a common belief among adults. This is why both of these diametrical-seeming sets of values may be described as existing under a taboo with regard to their extreme manifestations. The taboo exists so that children can develop themselves within the sphere of play for a time until succumbing the Necessity of Work.

Perhaps the most well-known fellow who allegedly grew up without a proper childhood would be this recently-deceased obscurity.

I've spoken before of a juvenile "tone" in works like CONAN, GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, OMEGA MEN and VIGILANTE that in my consideration do not qualify as "adult pulp," as opposed to Miller's DAREDEVIL and Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG, for two. (Side-note: I might view the Thomas/Smith CONAN as at least a transtional work between the two states.) This tone I evaluate based not on the presence or absence of taboo material but on the degree to which, even in an escapist work, the story's content is influenced by the adult concept of "work" rather than "play." The adult's consciousness not only of "work" as a profession but as an insight to the way the world and all its elements "work" is what provides the dividing-line between "juvenile" and "adult." Across this Maginot line of maturation, both the narrative aspects of extreme sex-and-violence and the significant aspects of deeper and more portentous cognitions are united to create all manner of adult entertainments, both "escapist" and "realistic."
If I were to boil down the conceptual nature of this perception of "work" within a literary continuum, I would choose to call it "rigor." "Rigor" can be found as easily in Mickey Spillane as in William Faulkner if one knows how to look for it, and even in works that are bad exemplars of escapism and realism respectively. For instance, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I consider Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN a bad exemplar of adult pulp-- but it isn't bad because it's escapist or juvenile: it's bad because Miller knows how to "work" new transformations on familiar tropes but fails to organize his notions (hard to call them "ideas") into a meaningful whole. There are notions that look as if they could have become ideas with a little rigorous effort, but in the end they remain little more than pictures in an artist's sketchbook.

I may explore the notion of "rigor" more in later essays as I slowly compile my list of "adult pulp" comic books. But here lies the end of the dividing line.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I made this general response on a board to the usual fannish complaint about readers not being able to "jump in" on current comics. I sympathize, but I posted the following:

"Re: diving into superhero comics with little or no backstory-- I don't think it's possible, any more than one can pick up a late ANITA BLAKE novel and not expect to be deluged with all sorts of history. Of course such novels have an advantage over comics in that you can usually pick up back issues in a series with a lot less trouble than learning the whole DC Universe to read BLACKEST NIGHT, but the principal is the same.

I think the days of "done in one" are dead and gone. Various companies have tried to promote a return to non-continuity-heavy comics and even if the companies didn't SPECIFICALLY fail because their comics didn't sell, none of those attempts managed to change the Marvel Continuity Paradigm Alan Moore's line apparently sold reasonably well, but I see no indications that readers want more of the same from other authors: they're just willing to support whatever Moore chooses to write.

If Moore actually did hope to change the Paradigm as some of his early hype implied, then I'd have to say he failed spectacularly."

Now the above wasn't a direct response to his interview on mania.com. However, I do relate the above opinion to some of the things he does say about the Bronze Age, aka "the mud age:"

"Well, actually, Marvelman was never meant as a rebellion against the Silver Age. The Silver Age, as far as I’m concerned was over by 1969, as I remember it. I was talking to Kevin O’Neill about this the other day. The ‘70s was kind of the mud age. In the early ‘70s, there were still some experiments being tried, but I remember it as a very grim period. There were perhaps a couple of books that I was interested in, but everything else seemed to be a mess. I was mostly reading underground comics during that period, or 2000 AD. But, the American comics of that period seemed very dull and seemed to have lost their way."

Now, as I mentioned in the previous essay, I do think one can fairly critique 70s comics for a number of failings, though I would not take very seriously the opinion of someone who wasn't reading a sizeable sampling of the comics on a regular basis.

Yet, perhaps more by instinct than sustained analysis, Moore's criticism is at least partly on point. I was one of the hardcore readers who followed dozens of titles, even if I purchased a fair number of them from quarter bins, and in addition to my personal experience with the 70s spate of fans-turned-pros, I know that it was an oft-voiced criticism by fellow hardcore fans that a lot of them were dull, tending to repeat ideas spawned by Marvel or DC pros from the Silver Age. Still, I have two problems with Moore's declarations:

The first objection is that many of the ideas spawned during the Silver Age were not brand-new. Some were simply elaborations of earlier trends from Golden Age comics. What Moore calls the "smiley uncle" period of BATMAN under editor Jack Schiff clearly hearkens back to the more formalized Batman comics of the late 40s, many of which Schiff edited back in the day. Other ideas were derived from prose SF and adapted to superhero tales, as is the case with a great many of the John Broome/Gardner Fox tales. So even then, there was nothing new under the sun.

The second objection is that I think Moore underestimates how much some of his lesser work resembles the lesser lights of the "mud age." I would be on his side if he decried (not that he would ever be this specific) the MARVEL TEAM-UP story in which Bill Mantlo seemingly exhumed two minor villains from the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, the Big Man and the Crime-Master. There's no question in my mind that this was a dull and lazy story that tried to skate by on the associations of older, better stories.

At the same time, I think Moore "homages" to the Silver Age are in many cases not much more complex than similar evocations by Bronze Age fans-turned-creators. I've found his emulations of the Superman and Wonder Woman mythoi in SUPREME and GLORY to be exercises in nostalgia rather than insight, and the homages in TOM STRONG, while better in terms of technique, frequently do little more than copy externals, such as the TS story that more or less rewrites Lee and Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR #4, substituting an arrogant lava-man suitor for Tesla Strong in place of Namor the Sub-Mariner.

Every creator does his/her share of lazy stories, and Moore certainly has a better track record than the average 70s comics-creator. But at times the adulation for Moore overlooks the fact that he often uses the exact same tools used by every working professional, and for the same basic effect, as opposed to writing some brilliant satire on the original stories.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


...but Alan Moore wants more, more, more credit for destroying comic books than any single human being should ever be forced (or allowed) to assume.

In this interview at mania.com, interviewer Kurt Amacker sets the agenda right off:

"...it seems like almost all heroes follow the model you created with MARVELMAN and WATCHMEN."

And Alan Moore is pleased to agree in all particulars:

"And can I just say I'm sorry? That was never my intention for every book to be like that."

Yes, Mister Moore, I think you should say twelve Hail Marys (whether you're Catholic or not) and beat yourself with a scourge until your back bleeds for the horrible, horrible things you've done to the superhero comics industry. You did it all; before you, no one had ever had the notion of making mainstream superheroes and their kindred engage in dark or disturbing storylines.

Except, oh, maybe-- let's see, which ones did I cite here? Neal Adams, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Barry Smith, Michael Fleischer, Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont, Ross Andru, and Frank Miller were in there, and I may have missed some. I even noted that Miller began to influence the dominant trends in comics some time before Americans knew Alan Moore from a hole in Blackburn, Lancaster. (I still like that line, but no one appreciated it. Sigh.)

Most of the creators I cited in the above essay did their takes on the dark and disturbing (aka the "grim and the gritty") during the early part of the Bronze Age. Alan Moore is at least *aware* of this time-period. For him it is the "mud age," in which mainstream comics "seemed to have lost their way." He claims that MARVELMAN was "rebelling against" this "tepid" period.

I have a different interpretation. Though 1970s mainstream comics can be fairly criticized on a lot of levels, many of them aren't substantially different from Moore's early work stuff except in terms of how far they were willing to go in quest of "grim and gritty" thrills. Indeed, given that most of the attempts at "dark and disturbing superheroes" even predate the appearance of Frank Miller, I imagine that even if neither gentleman ever worked in comics, comics would probably have pursued the same journey into the Superheroic Heart of Darkness, if only in quest of new and older readers.

Alan Moore's endless hand-wringing is beginning to sound like the egoistic moan of the reformed sinner who wants to buttonhole you, Ancient-Mariner style, and tell you over and over about his monumental sin.

Note to Mr. Moore: When even your interviewers begin to echo your estimations of your vast and terrible crime, it might be time to start talking about something-- anything!-- else.

It shouldn't be difficult, Mr. Moore being so bountifully full of ideas and all.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


The "wasp" of my title is none other than the character of Janet Van Dyne, best known from Marvel's AVENGERS feature. I gather she's not in the book any more as she recently died, though I feel sure she's neither really nor sincerely dead.

Now a title like "Wasp Wasted" could be a bitch-fit about how modern comics waste all their characters in pointless deaths. But true though that is, my use of 'wasted' is more in tune with its connotation of a threat, as in "You're gonna get wasted!" (At least that's how the word is used in superhero comics: I never heard the expression in real life.)

But who's wasting the Wasp? Brian Bendis may have killed the character, but fans have been consigning the character to the garbage-heap for years before the character's current eradication.

Some of the critics of the character have been guys, like Adam Barnett of COMICS MAKE NO SENSE, which has been known to take unreserved glee at seeing Janet Van Dyne proven to be among the lamest of lame superheroes, which is OK with me since he's so funny doing it. Yet a fair number of female fans, as well fans-turned-pros Trina Robbins and Gail Simone, do their share of the dumping, complaining that the character (a) isn't exactly a powerhouse, and (b) constantly tosses around girly-girl dialogue about going shopping and getting married, etc. The Wasp is usually lumped in with all other Silver Age Marvel heroines as proof that Marvel marginalized their heroines by giving them wimpy powers and making them faint all the time.
I'd have to analyze all the heroines of 60's Marvel in order to answer this generalization, so I'm not going to do so. However, I will note that most of the fans who complain about the Silver Age Wasp do so in the context of her role in THE AVENGERS-- where she was unquestionably out of her league next to heavy-hitters like Thor and Iron Man-- and ignore the features for which she was created-- originally the ANT-MAN feature in TALES TO ASTONISH, which over time was transformed into GIANT-MAN.
There are good reasons why most fans think of the Wasp character in terms of her role in the super-team, though. First, though one feature concentrated on Henry Pym getting small and the other on him getting big, readers didn't want him or his female sidekick either way: the Pym-Van Dyne feature was one of Marvel's few outright flops of the 60s. Most of the TTA tales weren't reprinted until they recently came out in the ANT-MAN ESSENTIALS, so most fans didn't grow up with them. And lastly, they really are among the worst stories in Silver Age Marvel, bereft of much in the way of hidden mythic gems or even plain good craft. Even most of the Kirby stories are stinkers.

Quality aside, though, these stories don't precisely show Janet Van Dyne as being as much of a millstone as many later commentators have claimed. Therefore I went through the ESSENTIALS volume to see just how often the Wasp was relegated to the role of helpless femme, and how often she had showed effective use of her powers-- which in the early ANT-MAN feature, weren't all that much less impressive than the male hero's. (I trust most fans remember the classic SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch that has fun at the expense of a hero with the power to keep his normal human strength at ant-size.)

Of course, this means skipping over a lot of the loonier moments of the stories, such as the time the evil Egghead threatens Ant-Man with that terrifying enemy of the ant world--

But some sacrifices must be made.

TTA #44-- Wasp, seeking vengeance for her slain father, becomes Ant-Man's sidekick. He does have to rescue her once from the Creature of Kosmos. No effective Waspaction.

TTA #45-- though Egghead does trap Wasp to lead Ant-Man into the anteater trap, she escapes with his help and attacks the villain and his thugs, using a simple pin for her "sting." The two heroes defeat the bad guys together.

TTA #46-- Wasp leads real wasps against alien guards, but does have to be rescued by Ant-Man

TTA #47-- Both heroes get trapped by "Trago." Wasp stings hell out of the villain's henchmen while Ant-Man overcomes Trago.

TTA #48-- Wasp, stricken with fever, stays out of Ant-Man's first fight with the pernicious Porcupine. However, later she saves him from drowning and they defeat the querulous quillster (?) together.

TTA #49-- Ant becomes Gi(ant), but gets captured by the Living Eraser. Wasp rescues him by bringing him his growth capsules (one of the silliest dependencies ever foisted on a superhero, BTW). Giant-Man gets most of the ensuing fight.

TTA #50-- Human Top eludes both Giant-Man and Wasp; no effective action by either

TTA #51-- conclusion of Human Top tale; Giant-Man does it all; no effective Waspaction

TTA #52-- Giant-Man battles the Black Knight and gets rescued from a fall by Wasp. During a struggle between G-M and BK on BK's winged horse, Wasp manages to give G-M the advantage by unhorsing them both, though moments later Giant-Man has to rescue Wasp and let the villain go free.

TTA #53-- Porcupine sticks his quills in again, capturing Wasp to lead the hero into a trap. The two heroes briefly team up, but Wasp gets immobilized and Giant-Man finishes the fight. No effective Waspaction.

TTA #54-- El Toro captures Wasp, who is rescued by Giant-Man; no effective Waspaction.

TTA #55-- Human Top captures Wasp at one point. After Giant-Man releases her, she summons termites that contribute to the villain's defeat. It may be dopey action, but it's action.

TTA #56-- the Magician captures Wasp. After freeing her Giant-Man fights the villain aboard the Magician's blimp. The hero's almost beaten when Wasp, acting on her partner's instructions, lets the air out of the blimp. Dumb Magician is defeated and G-M is almost killed in the crash, but one must admit that the crash is his own idea.

TTA #57-- after over ten issues Giant-Man finally gets the idea to give his partner a "sting" not derived from a hairpin. Egghead maneuvers the two of them into fighting Spider-Man, with Giant-Man getting the lion's share of the action, though Wasp does eventually break up their battle and later takes on Egghead's thugs for her longest solo action-sequence.

On a related note, Wasp has here one of two backup tales where she overcomes an adversary on her own, though in this one she resorts to a trick to do so.

TTA #58--Giant-Man tussles with the alien Colossus while Wasp renders minor aid.

Wasp's second solo backup shows Wasp defeat the Magician.

TTA #59-- Giant-Man fights the Hulk with minor help from Wasp

TTA #60-- Wasp remains on sidelines as G-M fights the Beasts of Berlin; no Waspaction

TTA #61-- Egghead sics a robot on Giant-Man; Wasp renders minor aid

TTA #62-- a thief knocks out Henry Pym and uses the costume/powers of Giant-Man for felonious purposes. The Wasp defeats him in hand-to-hand combat while Giant-Man has to contain a runaway monster plant.

TTA #63-- Pym and Van Dyne masquerade as a couple running a store to lure out the Wrecker, a villain with a protection racket. The two heroes beat up the Wrecker's two hoods w/o use of super-powers. During the final dust-up the villain immobilizes Wasp and Giant-Man finishes the battle.

TTA #64-- Attuma's newest villainy includes taking hostage a plane on which Wasp is a passenger. The two of them end up battling the villain's soldiers although Wasp is immobilized and Giant-Man finishes the fight.

TTA #65-- Giant-Man and Wasp fight a giant spider, with each alternately saving the other from dire peril

TTA #66-- Madame Macabre kidnaps Wasp to lure Giant-Man into a trap. He frees her but gets trapped himself, at which point she returns the favor and they overcome the villainess together.
TTA #67-- Wasp and Giant-Man are attacked by the Hidden Man, but Wasp isn't present for the big fight between hero and villain. No effective Waspaction.

TTA #68-- Wasp helps keep Giant-Man from taking a long fall. Later the Human Top shows upn spoiling for a fight and Giant-Man almost takes another high dive; when Wasp tries to save him the villain kidnaps her.

TTA #69-- concluding the Human Top tale from #68, Wasp is once again used to lure Giant-Man into a trap. No effective Waspaction.

Now, if one judges the number of issues that have any Waspaction at all vs. those that have none, clearly the "ayes" have it, 19 to 7. I also tried a three-way categorization of "no action" vs. "minor action" (Wasp saving her partner from a fall or distracting the bad guy) vs. "major action," really mixing it up with an opponent. This yields more of an even division: 7 for the first, 9 for the second, 10 for the third.

Still, while these statistics may not make anyone like the Wasp character any better, they do show that she wasn't especially wimpy in the title for which she was designed-- where, as I noted earlier, her male partner wasn't origially much of a hot-shot either. Both were originally "tricky" types of heroes, designed to outthink rather than overpower villains, and although it's perfectly fine to make fun of either of them (especially given how much one of them resembles Tinkerbelle), I find it odd that the Wasp tends to get far MORE of a bum rap than her partner, whether he's giant-sized or not.

I have to assume the proximate cause for all the Wasp-emnity is the girly-girl dialogue that was the character's main schtick. To be sure, some of it is ladeled on pretty thickly. But it deserves mention that whereas such dialogue makes the character sound like a flighty (heh) goof in THE AVENGERS, it's not nearly so out of place in the GI(ANT)-MAN feature. Here the goofy-girl dialogue of the Wasp not only functioned to give some humor to a very staid feature, but also underscored her continuing efforts to sway Henry Pym romantically. In other words, her constant girl-isms are not reactive, but proactive: attempts to get Your Basic Dumb Male to wake up and smell the hottie.

There's no question that the Wasp was a minor character in the history of superhero comics, and will probably still be so when she's inevitably revived. But even with minor characters, they should be dissed for good reasons, not lame, ill-considered ones. One could say much the same of all works of popular fiction, whether or not one considers them to be "minor arts" (a la Gilbert Seldes) or not.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


"There must be ephemera. Let us see to it that they are good."-- Gilbert Seldes, THE SEVEN LIVELY ARTS.

"...the pulps began to feature more action stories, some of them wildly implausible-- a selling point for the pulp audience. The slicks, on the other hand, were reality bound. Their stories didn't stray far from home and hearth, while pulp stories frequently ventured from the Wild West to darkest Africa, or voyaged to the moon or Mars."-- Frank M. Robinson, "The Story Behind the Original All-Story," online publication ZOETROPE ALL-STORY.

When I first began using the terms "adult pulp" and "juvenile pulp" as a way of placing a new context on Dirk Deppey's view of superhero comics as inherently juvenile, I assumed that any readers would pretty much get what I meant by "pulp." But as a means of illustrating some of my general points about popular literature and the history of comic books, I'll belabor the definition a bit.

The only literary definition of "pulp" given by American Heritage (the one quoted at the beginning of Tarantino's PULP FICTION) refers to a publication, such as a book or magazine, containing lurid subject matter. But clearly the word "pulp" has taken on wider colloquial meaning, since the term is being used to Tarantino to refer to the subject matter of a theatrical film, which is not a "publication" as such. Thus there should be no difficulty in applying the term "pulp" to a medium such as comic books, which are not actual pulp magazines no matter how much influence comics took from the pulps.

Similarly, one may extend the synechdoche backwards as well as forwards. Lee Server's history of pulp magazines, DANGER IS MY BUSINESS, makes abundantly clear that though pulp magazines themselves didn't come into existence in the United States until the 1880s, what one might call the "pulp tradition" of sensationalistic fiction goes back to what he calls "story weeklies," which were printed on newspaper, and to the better-known "dime novels" that gave us fictional heroes like Nick Carter and fictionalized heroes like Ned Buntline's Buffalo Bill. Server demonstrates that tradition by noting that 'One weekly boasted of its contents as containing "sensational fiction with no philosophy."'

(Side-note: there are parallel "pulp traditions" in Europe and other nations as well, such as the so-called "shilling shocker" of the Victorians, but for my purposes here I can only deal with the history of U.S. popular culture as if it was a thing unto itself, even though it wasn't.)

Of course the notion that any coherent narrative can be utterly without "philosophy" is a misapprehension, as I discussed here. But it's a pleasant enough misapprehension for one to entertain, and to be entertained by, as when one is told that one can only enjoy a given film by "leaving your brain at the door." To indulge in works of thematic escapism is to free up the mind to what Gilbert Seldes calls the "high levity" of the "minor arts," which he opposes to the "high seriousness" of the major arts-- a point I'll be touching on again in my next DIVIDING LINE essay, concerning the differentiation of adult and juvenile fictions.

Of course, even if the "pulp tradition" had literally started with the first pulp magazines, it's clear that the comic books of the Golden Age primarily patterned their presentation after the pulps (an imitation so sincere that it helped "flatter" the pulps right out of existence), despite the fact that the medium of comic books descended more directly from comic strips. Frank Robinson's quote illustrates a difference in tone and subject matter that separated the disreputable pulps from the high-quality "slick" magazines, to say nothing of real books, and a similar "high class/low class" relationship evolved between comic strips (mentioned approvingly by Seldes in his 1924 book) and comic books. Of course comic strips weren't strangers to sensationalism by any means. However, just as Robinson notes the preference of the "slicks" for "home and hearth," comic strips too showed a marked tendency to emphasize domestic constancy over wild extravagance. In SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT Frederic Wertham largely gives comic strips a free pass from the seduction-accusation, for he assumes that newspaper editors were more conscientious than comic-book editors about keeping their illustrated fictions safe for all ages. And even if "home and hearth" were challenged for a while by the growth of the adventure-strips in the late 20s and early30s, modern newspaper comics have almost entirely returned to domestic themes, though it's anyone's guess as to whether Gilbert Seldes would find "high levity" in any of them.

In their respective comic-book commentaries both Jules Feiffer and Jim Steranko found the Golden Age comic books of the pre-Superman years to be poor imitations of the newspaper comics, Steranko diagnosing said imitations as being afflicted with "conceptual anemia." For Steranko "comic heroes were outweighed, outnumbered and outclassed by the newspaper characters that spawned them," but comic books would soon take new vitality by going back to the "source" that gave comic strips such characters as Tarzan and Buck Rogers-- that source being "the pulps," albeit more those that emphasized featured heroes than those that were primarily anthologies of unconnected stories.

It should be added that in doing so, however, comic books went pulps one better. The majority of the pulp-heroes were ordinary humans who supplemented their physical skills with bizarre weapons and minor mental powers, but post-Superman comic books are famed for giving their readers ordinary humans with the powers of gods. Admittedly, there are probably a lot more "Batman-type" heroes in comic books of the Golden Age than "Superman-types," as it would seem to be much easier to think up new variations on the former than on the latter-- particularly variations that wouldn't get one sued by DC Comics. But even if the super-types didn't outnumber the bat-types, the former would come to dominate the medium, both within the particular genre of the costumed hero and in terms of the genre's dominance of the marketplace. What was a minor iteration in the pulps, sometimes giving rise to rare first-rate stars like John Carter but more often to obscurities like Aarn Munro and the Golden Amazon, became the defining idiom of the comic book medium.

As others before me have speculated, such a departure into outright fantasy may have only been possible because early comic books concentrated on juvenile audiences, rather than allowing adult sensibilities to hold any sway, as they did in comic strips and pulps. In theory both strips and pulps were written to "all ages" and could be read by either adults or juveniles, but clearly each of them had particular items that skewed more juvenile than adult, and vice versa. Comic books, even if they occasionally allowed for moments of "juvenile decadence" of which Grandma and Fredric Wertham wouldn't approve, remained skewed toward juveniles for some forty years before the fan-base became entrenched enough to demand works with some "adult" connotations, whether those of high art or "adult pulp."

Having come to that crossroads, I close by asserting once more that the next DIVIDING LINE will deal with more of the theory behind the adult/juvenile divide, though I'll probably postpone the promised comparison of Owen Wister and George Lucas as I don't have time to read THE VIRGINIAN just now.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Recently I had the opportunity to re-watch, for the first time in over 20 years, Robert Aldrich's DIRTY DOZEN (1967), in part because a friend wanted to compare it to recent derivative INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009).

Given that DOZEN came out the same year as Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE, I expected that DOZEN would fall into my "dirty and spectacular" category of violence, as defined here. But whether in comparison with the Penn flick or with Aldrich's own 1955 KISS ME DEADLY, DOZEN was unexpectedly "clean," in the sense that in DOZEN a lot of people got shot or blown up but there were very few signs of bleeding or mangled bodies.

In addition, I was surprised as to how much of the film is devoted to (a) putting forth the preposterous initiating premise re: using convicted soldiers to wipe out a nest of Nazi officers, and (b) jumping through a variety of hoops to make the execution of the premise seem as probable as Aldrich and his scripters can humanly manage. In other words, there is no attempt, as in Tarantino's IB, to simply "go with the flow" of the wild concept: Aldrich and his collaborators must have thought they had to make the premise seem as logical as possible in order for the audience to invest themselves in the film.

In addition, all the violence that transpires in DOZEN is there for strictly functional reasons. There are several set-pieces, both during the training of the antiheroic soldiers and during their climactic battle with German forces. But at no time does Aldrich make the violence look deliberately staged or even ritualistic. In DOZEN the traditionally "dirty" job of killing the enemy is simply necessary, and Aldrich's treatment of the violence is similarly functional, lacking any of the stylistic flourishes seen in films of spectacular violence-- though he did explore such tendencies in later works like 1973's EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE and 1974's THE LONGEST YARD.

So DIRTY DOZEN is a film I classify as "clean and functional," as against INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, which is "dirty and spectacular." IB may not be as spectacular in its treatment of violence as other Tarantino works have been, but blood flows and bones conspicuously break, thus making IB closer in its approach to Penn's BONNIE even though plotwise IB recycles the basic motifs of Aldrich's DOZEN.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


In this post Sean Collins critiqued Curt Purcell's use of the term "superhero decadence thusly:

'One thing I think's a little odd about Curt's superhero blogging so far is that he primarily cites The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in terms of their use of bloody/realistic violence and its influence on later comics. But neither of those comics is particularly gruesome in that regard (indeed one of the big complaints about Zack Snyder's Watchmen was that it was bloody all the way up to the end, at which point it became bloodless, as opposed to the comic which more or less worked the other way around). I actually think the increased use of graphic violence in superhero comics is the least direct of their legacies. I also think he's slightly misreading Dirk Deppey's "superhero decadence" concept by using it synonymously with "stuff that would get these comics an R-rating," when I think the more crucial element is the debauched nature of contemporary superhero comics as art primarily concerned with itself, its own continuity and conventions--an increasingly artificial edifice built on shaky foundations and displayed for an audience with no interest in ever looking at anything else.'

Dirk Deppey approved of Collins' re-definition of his "s.d.," but over in the comments section of Curt's response here I said that I felt Deppey's original use of the term "decadence" wasn't so purely focused on the superhero genre being "an increasingly artificial edifice." I objected that while Collins' re-definition could be applied as easily to "clean" superhero comics like Roy Thomas' various continuity-fests (or, as some would call them, fanwanks), that wasn't true of what Deppey originally wrote, since he was specifically taking issue not with involuted continuity but with the fact that the superhero genre, one "created for children,"was being infused with adult tropes, so that the resultant stories seemed like faux-SOPRANOS.

The item most common to both the Deppey and Collins definitions is the Good Ol' Pedagogical Paradigm: Deppey critiques the decadence-fans' inability to "move on," while Collins says the "decadence-edifice" is "displayed for an audience with no interest in ever looking at anything else."

Plainly it's impossible for Collins or anyone else to know how wide-ranging the tastes of superhero-fans may be, which is why the "movin' on" paradigm remains empty rhetoric. By the same token, no one's fannish interest in any genre, medium or author proves anything about how widely-read they may be. If one is a Hemingway fan, that doesn't demonstrate that one has wide-ranging tastes that include everything from Conrad to Calvino.

Further, while Hemingway may be a stabler "edifice" than JUSTICE LEAGUE, there's not a damned thing in Hemingway that automatically leads one to explore Fitzgerald. Just as JUSTICE LEAGUE is focused about getting readers to read more JUSTICE LEAGUE, every Hemingway work is purely an attempt to get readers to read more Hemingway. A JUSTICE LEAGUE fan may feel moved to read GREEN LANTERN because he wants to know more about how their paths cross (particularly in the context of a mega-crossover), or a Hemingway fan may want to know more about Fitzgerald when he learns the two authors crossed their "continuities" in such and such a way. I am emphatically NOT saying that there are no important differences between JUSTICE LEAGUE and Hemingway: I am saying that every fiction is primarily about creating its own "symbolic universe," to reiterate a useful term from Cassirer.

Now, when Mario Praz analyzes the art and literature of the Decadent Era in THE ROMANTIC AGONY, he does describe the work of a Decadent like Gustave Moreau as being more involuted, more self-involved, than that of a fierce extrovert like the Romantic Delacroix. But he emphasizes that Moreau's work is involuted precisely because it's turned inward to focus purely upon the theme of "erotic sensibility," which is no less present in Delacroix than in Moreau. Thus, though I disagree with Dirk Deppey's partisan use of the literary term "decadence," I agree with his original post more than with Collins' newer one, in that I consider transgressive eroticism to be the dominant connotation of the word "decadence." On a related note, that's why I have no hesitation in judging relatively-extreme portraits of sex and violence in kiddie-comics (say, Golden Age CAPTAIN AMERICA) to be "juvenile decadence," as against the sort of "decadence" directed at adult audiences.

And this question of "adult vs. juvenile" gets me back to the question of the dividing line between the two. Clearly there must be one, even if the category of adolescent entertainments sometimes forms a bridge between the two.

As memory serves, Gary Groth's dividing line privileged the notion of adults being capable of greater sophistication than juveniles, which was in essence just another statement of the Pedagogical Paradigm. This notion fails to take into account the fact that functioning adults dominantly read a lot of unsophisticated fictions. Thus a love for sophisticated canonical literature, a la Hemingway, certainly cannot be the dividing line between adult and juvenile. And yet it does seem that there is some qualitative difference between (to borrow from Blake) the "innocence" of juveniles vs. the "experience" of adults. It also can't simply be "stuff that would [earn] an R-rating," for I've argued elsewhere that while a "dirty" work like DC's OMEGA MEN lacks the so-far-undefined qualities that would make it adult, a "clean" work like Owen Wister's VIRGINIAN *is* of adult concern, is "adult pulp," even though it's certainly not "decadent."

In the second of my Superhero Decadence posts, I asserted that STAR WARS was another example of "adult pulp" in that it was an entertainment that appealed to adults as much as to juveniles, even if adult desire went thr0ugh certain modifications not present in the juvenile:

"the continued appeal of the original STAR WARS trilogy for drivers'-license-carrying *adults* is obvious proof that the human desire for wonder, childlike or otherwise, does not die out with puberty, however much maturation modifies the desire."

Now, I specified the trilogy above, but since the 1977 STAR WARS had generated its appeal for adults long before any of them had seen its darker aspects, the first film has to be seen as having some innate qualities on its own that (however unintentionally) brought about the mainstream-ization of SF-FX films for an adult audience, as earlier standout films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and PLANET OF THE APES had not managed.

I considered the possibility that Lucas' breakthrough special effects had been solely responsible for the mainstreaming process. producing a sort of "genre-gentrification." But if spectacular effects were all that were needed, then the films of Ray Harryhausen would've made the breakthrough that Lucasfilms made.

I believe that, inasmuch as STAR WARS is a "clean" work not unlike Wister's VIRGINIAN, the dividing line is to be found in understanding what adult concerns each one addresses, irrespective of how much spectacle the two do or do not feature. So in DIVIDING LINE Part 2, I'll be exploring parallels between the most famous works of Wister and Lucas.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Earlier I did a series of essays on DC's Comics chronological presentation of the early Superman stories, in which I observed that while that feature wasn't quite a null-myth, it came close to that status because so many of the situations and characters were rendered very unimaginatively.

In contrast, the first year or so of Batman tales-- ranging from "May 1939" to "Spring 1940"-- starts off much more felicitously.

The first two tales are pretty run-of-the-mill crime-stories aside from establishing some of the Batman's basic myth-elements: Comissioner Gordon and the Batrope, for two. DETECTIVE #27's Bat-tale is just a whodunnit that verges into mad-scientist territory (a chamber of poison gas, a well-placed vat of acid), but DETECTIVE #28 proves a little more interesting, for it features the first time Batman uses inquisitorial torture on a perp. In contrast to a slightly-similar scene in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, referenced in this essay, here Batman deliberately ties dandified thief Frenchy Blake with his Batrope and then "tosses him out into space," i.e., an apartment window. Then the crimefighter threatens to cut the rope unless Frenchy signs a full confession, which Frenchy does in order to survive. The sequence makes an interesting contrast to Superman's interrogation of a prisoner in ACTION #1, for though the Man of Tomorrow seems to endanger his captive's life, the hero's attitude is so playful that the audience never really thinks him willing to kill for information. With this early version of Batman, one's never quite sure what he might do.

Well-dressed, monocled Frenchy seems a template for a lot of the villains in the Bat's first year. DETECTIVE #29 and #30 introduces Batman's first "super" villain, mad scientist Doctor Death, who has a European-sounding real name and wears, like Frenchy, a monocle, which automatically connotes European aristocracy and its pretensions. Issues #31 and #32 deal with the Monk, apparently a Hungarian vampire, #33 gives readers a faux Napoleon named "Kruger," and #34 has Batman encounter a New Orleans villain called "Duc d'Orterre," who seems a dandified devil-figure right down to his oval head and pointed ears. Issue #35 breaks with the European theme for a little Asian action including both Hindu and Chinese foes, and then #36 gives us the first villain since #27 who isn't stereotypically "foreign" in some way, for all that Hugo Strange wears well-tailored clothes and substitutes coke-bottle glasses in place of a European monocle. But the monocle surfaces again in #37, perched on the nose of "Count Grutt," a "foreign agent," and only with #38, with the introduction of Robin, do we see nothing but plain old homegrown crooks. But the last set of tales-- all from BATMAN #1--stresses "weirdie" villains, giving readers a two-part introduction to the Joker and another go-round with Hugo Strange, who unleashes against the hero a horde of hulking monster-men, a concept probably borrowed from Lester Dent's 1934 Doc Savage novel, THE MONSTERS. And even the most mundane story in BATMAN #1 features a villainess named "the Cat," whose conversion into a costumed "weirdie" was just around the bend.

Now, given that I favor Jungian amplification over Freudian reductiveness, I think that all these European, Asian or Gothic-horror exoticisms *mean* something beyond just Bob Kane and Bill Finger copying every pulp device they could find. Clearly the creators thought there was some advantage of emphasizing so much exotica, or readers would have seen more tales in the DICK TRACY-like mold. DETECTIVE #38 proves that Kane and Finger could do such "mean streets" stories when they pleased (though admittedly #38 contains an extra "bizarre" touch in that it focuses on the intro of Batman's costumed partner).

Another comparison with Superman may be fruitful. Every recitation of Batman's behind-the-scenes origins starts with Bob Kane being informed of the breakaway success of Siegel and Schuster's SUPERMAN, which impelled Kane to come up with some appeal to the same market. Whether from personal penchant or fear of legal action, he didn't attempt to make a super-powered protagonist, but chose to focus on a non-powered costumed hero closer to the model of the Shadow and the Spider than Superman, and got his high-school friend Bill Finger to collaborate on the character.

I said in one of the Superman essays that although the S&S Superman was fairly described as a "personality," no one else in the early tales, except for Lois Lane, possessed much individuality, and even settings and situations seemed pretty threadbare. One almost suspects that Superman's creators wanted nothing to detract from the singular wonderfulness of their star.

Though Kane and Finger surely never thought about the matter in great detail, it does seem that they conceived the Batman as being at least a stylistic opposite to Superman, if not a "polar opposite" as so many current fans delight in declaring. (Just how opposite can they be, when their early versions both have little compunction about performing acts of inquisitorial torture?) Kane and Finger, evidently impressed with some of the style of Expressionist Cinema, chose to put their hero in a world where everything might have "personality."

That's not to say that they were always successful. Doctor Death, Batman's first "supervillain," is just about as dull as Superman's first fantastic opponent, the "Ultra-Humanite." Oddly, Death's successor in the mad-science department, Professor Hugo Strange, isn't any more complex than Death, but Strange's visual appearance is more kinetically arresting, while his mastery of "weird science" is a good deal more impressive, as well as allowing for more Expressionist visual tropes (particularly the city-blanketing fog he conjures forth in DETECTIVE #36). Yet his early appearances, rather like those of SUPERMAN's Luthor, don't quite succeed in reaching the status of myth, but while Luthor's symbolic personality became amplified over time, Strange went into mothballs after two stories and had to wait until the 1970s to take on greater mythopoeic status.

Of the villains that followed Strange prior to BATMAN #1, only the Monk and the Duc D'Orterre have any mythic status, though both appear in stories of surrealistic horror that didn't present any opportunities for follow-ups, even if the creators had wanted to bring either villain back from their comic-book deaths. With the introduction of the Joker, however, Kane and his collaborators arguably figured out a way to present a general mood of weirdness in the BATMAN feature in the form of criminals who were freakish rather than exotic. Or perhaps they simply stumbled across the solution, since it's said that editor Vin Sullivan advised them not to kill off the Joker at the end of the introductory two-parter, because he was just too good a villain to lose. Within the next two years the feature shed most of its Expressionist tropes as it became more "rational" in its presentation, but it may be that the Joker supplied the creators with the model for a freakish continuing villain who summed up the grotesquerie of the feature's first year, but who also fit the genre of crime-stories without needing his grotesquerie explained by references to such exotica as Hindu idols or Hungarian castles.

And once the Joker had appeared, so went the Cat(woman), the Penguin and a host of other weirdies. One might even venture that BATMAN's narrative example influenced far more of its contemporaries than did the Siegel SUPERMAN, at least in the 1940s-- but any proof for that would be far beyond the boundaries of this post.