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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, November 12, 2010

TALES OF THE ATYPICAL, UNCANNY, AND MARVELOUS

“All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.”-- Todorov, THE FANTASTIC, p. 163.

The unspoken corollary to this formula would be that between these two dissimilar equilibriums lies a disequilibrium, which I choose to call "the atypical" because it goes against one's expectations of typical life-routine. In TODOROV O TODOROV PART 2 I stated that “fictional narrative is always about the atypical.” By that I meant that readers derive pleasure from seeing some change in the status quo presented at the story’s beginning. One can even see some degree of this change in nonfictional narrative, though such narrative doesn’t hinge on the change in the characters. When Harvey Pekar presents a nonfictional narrative that allegedly reproduces a real-life conversation in which two black women chitchat about “okry,” that narrative isn’t dependent on the two real-life characters changing their “equilibrium.” It's possible that the reader’s perception of reality-- if only on the level of “how such-and-such people talk”-- may undergo an alteration, but even that alteration isn't as necessary in nonfiction as it is in fiction.

In my terms Todorov’s theory fails because it privileges his “category of the real” as a mimetic reproduction of reality, rather than focusing on the readers’ pleasure/pain in viewing the change that takes characters from one equilibrium to another. The readers' pleasures and pains of character identification are in no way altered by the phenomena within the story: by whether the story seems utterly fantastic, somewhat fantastic or not fantastic at all. However, other aesthetic perceptions *are* affected by their perception as to what phenomena are possible in the fictional world.

In this essay I bracketed three characters—the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and Batman—who are modeled upon the same fictional archetype: the merely-mortal ‘crusader for justice who has a secret identity.” Invested readers can identify with all three characters in terms of their personal quests for justice, but how the reader feels about the hero’s charisma changes according to their phenomenality.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, to the best of my knowledge, is never presented as anything but an ordinary man crusading for justice. Some cinematic adaptations may give the Pimpernel more swashbuckling fighting-skills than others, but to his enemies he is never more than a physical threat. Thus the Pimpernel represents what I call “base atypicality,” because there’s nothing in his world that suggests the metaphenomenal.

In the many iterations of Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, most take place in a world that is essentially like that of the Pimpernel: a world which seems to have no metaphenomenal aspects. Zorro, however, is the exception. Where “Scarlet Pimpernel” is simply a code-name for a mysterious figure, Zorro’s costume confers on him a charisma that provides him with greater narrative charisma. The Zorro narratives, while insisting that Zorro is merely a skilled human, emphasize his presence as a spectre of fear to his opponents, and it is this which gives the black-clad avenger the charisma of “the uncanny.”

However, Batman, though also merely mortal, qualifies for the category of "the marvelous" irrespective as to how many hyper-powered or costumed villains he may battle. Earlier I reprinted a panel in which Golden-Age Batman was first seen with his new inventions, the “Batarang” and the “Batgyro.” If tools like these remained in their simplest configurations perhaps Batman would fall into the “uncanny” category. But over time Batman’s arsenal was expanded beyond the level of conventional weapons. And while many Batman stories don’t play up his marvelous weapons, they remain a consistent aspect of his mythology. The 1966-68 teleseries took camp pleasure in depicting the many improbable gadgets that could spring from Batman’s “utility belt,” but that mockery contained a grain of truth, for comics-writers did at times use the Utility Belt as a sort of “Aladdin’s lamp” through which the hero could transcend normal limitations. Despite all the narrative attempts to convince readers that Batman was the opposite of Superman in being “merely mortal,” Batman’s belt and other paraphernalia boost him above the power available to a Zorro or a Scarlet Pimpernel. Thus he falls into the literary category of “the marvelous” just as much as Superman, and has just as much a claim as Superman on being a “superhero.” Zorro, in contrast, may not qualify for the appellation “superhero” as it is popularly used, but his uncanny aspects at least put him within the superhero idiom, while a figure who is merely “atypical,” like the Scarlet Pimpernel, remains on the outside looking in.

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