Featured Post

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, March 26, 2010

AN UNPOPULAR (YET EXEMPLARY) MYTH

I've sometimes thought about writing more essays here in which I analyze this or that story (whether in comics or another medium) along my chosen myth-critical lines. With comics, however, visuals are so much a part of the story that one almost has to invest in the time, trouble and expense of using a scanner. That's not going to happen just now. For the present I'll probably continue scavenging fair-use pictures from the web, like the one I found recently in this entry for THE MASKED MAYHEM.

But before getting to the scavenged subject, here's more theoretical stuff.

Though I define the quality of mythicity in narrative as that of symbolic complexity, not everyone uses the word "myth" this way. Often when the average person describes Superman or Batman as a "myth," they simply mean that they are extremely popular with many people, as some myths in the archaic world undoubtedly were. However, since not all archaic religious myths had widespread popularity-- some being confined to this or that isolated tribe of "fanboy" worshippers-- it follows that not all literary myths are going to be world-beaters either. On some old messboard I wrote:

'As I said on a recent thread that didn't go anywhere, "Unpopular Myths," I don't deem it necessary that a myth be widely known to have mythic qualities. Even in archaic times, there were "real myths" that were confined to small enclaves or sub-societies, so widespread popularity is not my base criterion.'

I do consider that even a little-known myth, religious or literary, can be exemplary to its audience and to those scholars who study such things long after the original audience is either gone or fading.

And so here we come to Archie Comics' character The Jaguar.

This series had been cancelled for a few years by the time I started collecting comics in the late 1960s. It was far from being a favorite, though occasionally I thought the base concept-- hero with the powers of the animal kingdom-- has some potential. I mention this to assert that The Jaguar wasn't something for which I had particular nostalgic affection. Aside from the aspect MM mentions in his blogpost-- that the feature had a high ratio of female cast-members-- The Jaguar was pretty unexceptional, though not bad in a "hold-your-nose-as-you-bag-it" way.

What I did find exemplary was one story in the Jaguar's 15-issue series, "The Sea Circe from Space," which Masked Mayhem referred to on his blog.

Now, a simple reference to an archaic myth, like the one to "Circe" in the title, doesn't make a modern narrative mythic, any more than its popularity or lack of same. What makes such a narrative mythic is its ability to tap into one of the four Campbellian functions that I expounded upon here.

"Circe," cover-featured on JAGUAR #3, scripted by SUPERMAN writer Robert Bernstein and drawn by John Rosenberger, doesn't remain confined to the Circe motif it references, which involves a sea-witch with a propensity for changing human beings into animals. Instead, the character of Kree-Nal (yes, the name does sound like them Kirby alien dudes) positively hates humans for their "imperfection and ugliness."
But as the story's ending reveals, Kree-Nal's rage against ugliness is your basic Jungian projection: Jaguar finds out that when she and her people are underwater, they become bestially ugly. If this wasn't a comic book one might wonder why they don't consider their natural selves beautiful, but the upshot is that Kree-Nal ceases her campaign against humans once Jaguar learns her secret.

(On a side-note, Kree-Nal makes repeated appearances in the series attempting to romance the Jaguar. Whether she ever bags him is lost to the mists of time but one can be sure they never go on dates underwater.)

The psychological symbolism incarnated in "Sea Circe of Space" might owe less to the specific myth of Circe than to the mytholgies involving Medusa, Hera, and even the medieval "Loathly Lady." All of these myths turn upon the notion of an offense, or possible offense, to female vanity (while the myth of Circe doesn't). Hera is best known for persecuting her rivals for Zeus' affections, whom she, as Circe Writ Large, usually changes into animals. According to one version of Medusa's origins, she's a mortal woman cursed to become hideously ugly by Athena, and her ugly snake-heads give her powers of transformation, though of a different order than the powers of Circe. And here's handy Wikipedia on the Loathly Lady:

"The theme became a staple of Arthurian literature; the best known treatment is in the Wife of Bath's Tale, in which a knight, told that he can choose whether his bride is to be ugly yet faithful, or beautiful yet false, frees the lady from the form entirely by allowing her to choose for herself."

While I won't go into great detail about the symbolic significance behind these archetypes entwining feminine vanity and transformational power, I regard that "Sea Circe" is the sort of story which, despite being targeted at an audience of kids, does tap into those archetypes in an exemplary fashion-- though obviously not (even when the comic itself was on newsstands) one that was particularly popular.

No comments: