The moment there is imagination, there is myth. We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 39
The dichotomy Paglia describes between what human beings do to one another in society and what they do within their literary creations has no small application to my own contrast between "thematic escapism" and "thematic realism." To be sure, though Paglia is an insightful commentator on popular art and culture, she applies her statement above not to popular works but to highbrow canonical literature, interpreted though the fairly unique Freudian/Frazerian aesthetics of SEXUAL PERSONAE. Paglia's project in this work is to examine canonical works of literature as imaginative works in terms of their use of sex and violence, rather than in terms of moral prescriptions, the latter mode having been the dominant literary approach from Aristotle to Wayne C. Booth. By eliding many if not all references to the ethical-symbolic world of literature-- what I referred to as "non-body" matters in this essay invoking Octavio Paz-- she throws new light on old classics. I suppose I could fault her for saying too little about "non-body" matters, since for me canonical literature divides itself off from the bulk of popular literature by virtue of the former's strong (though not exclusive) emphasis upon matters of morality and ethics. Still, Paglia admirably shows that literature is more than just a lot of characters standing around having moral debates.
Popular literature is dominantly the literature of thematic escapism, even as canonical literature is dominantly the literature of thematic realism. No matter how "realistic" a given work may seem to be in terms of the type of phenomena described, the content in no way determines the realistic or escapist thrust of the chosen theme, be it explicit or implicit. And if there is indeed an "ethical cleavage" within the canonical literary works Paglia surveys, ranging from Shakespeare to Balzac to Emily Dickinson-- a cleavage that allows such authors to get away with "horrors, rapes and mutilations," all for the greater aesthetic good-- then one might suspect that with works of thematic escapism the cleavage would resemble less the space between two female breasts than the space between the sides of the Grand Canyon.
As it happens, yes and no. Ethical matters, which I termed *themis* in this essay, don't shape the escapist work as they shape the realistic work. Escapist works function at their best as a pure (or nearly pure) invocation of *moira,* which is more or less covalent with what Paglia calls "nature," though I'd advocate a more Jungian than Freudian view of that nature. But given that even the worst popular art has to appeal to human beings who have ethical interests of one kind or another (even if it's just "what's good is what's good for me"), *themis* certainly does retain some relevance, though perhaps more as a leitmotif than a structuring influence.
For example, let's go back to the ethical questions raised regarding the death of the Ryan Choi Atom.
The character's feature incorporated aspects of both *moira* and *themis* in terms of how he was presented to the audience. *Themis* clearly governs the notion of DC presenting for consumption the image of an Asian-American hero, because even in an escapist popular culture images of racial diversification can be deemed good things in themselves, irrespective as to how good other aspects of the character may be. But as a superhero clearly within the agonistic mythos, the main focus of the character's adventures belonged to *moira,* which is the category appropriate to the sensation-oriented aspects of the stories (as well as those aspects in the realm of Jungian intuition, if any-- see GATE OF THE GODS 4 for details).
However, as I argued in the previous essay, a character rooted in sensationalistic adventures was also vulnerable to receiving a sensationalistic demise. The aesthetic execution of Ryan Choi's death sound pretty nugatory, but even bad sensationalistic deaths belong to the aforementioned category of *moira.*
Without my endorsing the execution of the execution itself, the death of Ryan Choi may be take on greater significance over time. Killing a character is a time-honored method (in both popular and canonical literatures) of gauging how much an audience cares about a character. Additionally, given the track record of the Ray Palmer ATOM who will be resuming the role for a time, it's quite possible that Palmer could be eclipsed by a future Choi series.
For now, though, given the failure of the Simone-written series, DC's proper logical course from a business sense is to bring back Ray Palmer, despite his meager track record. I don't regard this as an "ethical cleavage" as certain fans have, however. DC's only ethical requirement was to put Choi out there and see whether or not he sold. When he didn't, he became vulnerable to the mills of the writer-gods, which grind exceedingly painfully most times.
Admittedly Choi's popularity might have been increased over time had he been written into the Justice League. Allegedly Firestorm may have benefitted from League exposure, since his feature didn't start off strong but became more popular over time. However, I'd point out that League association hasn't boosted a lot of other characters into profitable franchises, so that strategy isn't necessarily any more a guarantee of success than the attention-getting ploy of running the character through the mills of death and/or mutilation.
Perhaps the foremost example of such a renascence would be Barbara Gordon, whose "refrigeated" transformation from athletic Batgirl to paraplegic Oracle arguably (in the opinions of many fans besides myself) improved the original character.
Morality does have a justifiable bearing upon even the most escapist stories. However, it's demonstrably not the ruling power for either the producers of said stories or their consumers. Escapism is primarly about coming into contact, with *moira*/nature/myth. Jung and Paglia would concur that myth is sometimes a place of seeming triviality, but also a place where a crappy little shadow (like Guess Who's death) can sometimes grow into a shape of sublime darkness.