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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...

Monday, November 29, 2010


Happily Curt Purcell has now responded to my two-part essay over at Groovy Age of Horror.

First off, by way of picking up the discussion where I left it, here's how I concluded part two:

Even before children can talk, before they've ever heard the theme-song to THE FACTS OF LIFE, they know that they live in an imperfect world where you pretty much have to take the good with the bad. If a person never read a single story by Stan Lee, Henry James or anyone else, that person would still have to live with that phenomenological state of affairs.

I think that's the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis." More on that later, though first I may give Curt Purcell a chance to tell me if he thinks I've misinterpreted his essay.

My first objection was that the argument of the "smart filter" (as worded in the essay) presupposed that the subject is himself "smart" enough to know it when he perceives "flaws" in a narrative that his nonconscious filter must filter out. Curt acknowledges this as a "fair point" but maintains that the theory of the filter can apply under certain conditions. I've no objection to that, for it's a position I've maintained myself for some of the concepts I've expoused. For instance, Jungian archetypal concepts may not have universal appeal for all readers, but they still explain particular responses for a significant number of readers.

My second objection was 'that Purcell's idea of a reader being "immersed" in a text and thus blind to its failings in other departments could be applied just as easily to those readers who ARE supposedly reading works of formal excellence.' Curt replies:

Maybe, with this talk of recognizing flaws and such, I've made it sound too much like I think the smart filter is doing literary criticism. In fact, I think it's basically following an algorithm. Does this element support or enhance the rewarding experience? If semantic memory says yes, then allocate it more attention. If semantic memory says no, then does this element detract from the rewarding experience? If semantic memory says yes (perhaps because the element meets the definition of a flaw), then allocate it no attention.

I like that formulation better than the earlier one, but feel constrained to point out that it's not only Curt's use of the word "flaws" that suggests the Critic as Cerebral Filter. It's also the title of the essay itself, "Why Fans Love Crap." At the first of the two essays I specified that though the essay-title sounded a touch on the elitist side I didn't believe Curt was taking the standard elitist position, but that he was trying to suss out a coherent meaning for what might be called the "cognitive dissonance" of popular fiction. I merely pointed out that a reader's narrarive "immersion" in "crap" is essentially homologous with that of a reader's narrative "immersion" in "good stuff." As example I posed an imaginary conflict between a reader enamored of Henry James and one who was less so, but I could have also used certain real-life conflicts between readers arguing about "the good stuff." Who's right about the quality of LOVE AND ROCKETS, Gary Groth or Noah Berlatsky? Or do all aesthetic choices come down to what each reader chooses to "filter out" and "filter in?" There's probably a broad truth to that assertion, though even if we admit this, it leaves us, to the extent that we remain social animals in a social matrix, continually seeking common aesthetic grounds.

Finally, to my last objection Curt says:

Similarly, I think we have simple, nonconscious, "passive" filtering mechanisms of the sort Phillips denies, and that from them have evolved more complex mechanisms, up to and including our capacity to intentionally ignore things in the way Phillips advocates for.

Actually, I don't necessarily deny the existence of nonconscious mechanisms (though I'm not crazy about the word "mechanism" in this discussion). My position in bringing up my more conscious experiences re FANTASTIC FOUR #2 were more in line with Curt's counter to my first objection:

But even if the process I described isn't operative in such cases, that wouldn't necessarily mean it never is.

And of course the reverse is true. I can easily think of elements in FANTASTIC FOUR #2 that I willfully ignored because to acknowledge them would have spoiled the narrative experience. An easy example is your basic "suspension of disbelief," without which it would be impossible to place credence (as I noted in Part 2 of my essay) in heroes endowed with cosmic ray powers. And I think one could credibly argue that this willing suspension may descend from a more rudimentary "mechanism" of basic play-concepts lodged somewhere in the brain.

However, I think we might be dealing with a different department of cognitive experience when I recognize that an element in the tale doesn't track when compared to the logical set of expectations established by the story, as with my reaction to the "unbelievable twist" of FF #2. But to address that perceived difference, I'll need another essay.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


In this post Tom Spurgeon asked "Where are all the great superhero comic book fight scenes?"

Though I can come up with about forty or fifty without half trying, I suspect my criteria for greatness in that arena differ substantially from Spurgeon's. I'm determined not to spend a lot of time citing those scenes, even though I've played with the question on other occasions (though not solely with the superhero genre: I recall making a list for both comic books and strips of all genres).

But I've just finished making a list of 50 fight-scenes (within a more restrictive category) on my AMAZONS ASCENDANT blog, so another list is just not gonna happen.

I will state, for my own satisfaction, the criteria I would use.

I would select no fight before its time (there's an archaic catchphrase-pun in there somewhere)-- that is, before its time took up at least three pages of a comic book or three daily comic strips. (I'd allow some adjustment for action that included a Sunday strip, but great fights in comic strips occur so rarely that it's hardly worth thinking about.)

I'd allow any permutation of adversarial lineups-- one versus one, one versus several, several versus one, several versus several.

I would allow running battles between, say, two groups of combatants, as seen in the concluding issue of the "Dark Phoenix" storyline. But if two fight-scenes have a sizeable interim between them, then they're two separate battles, not one big one.

The fight would not be something that could be included simply because it was thematically significant in some way, which was a criterion I allowed in the AMAZONS list. Said fight would have to be not only pretty long but also pretty strong in the department of kinetics. It's a lot harder for comics to pull off the kinetic effect using static comics-pictures than it is for film to do it with moving pictures. Nevertheless, though comic book fights aren't as famous as those of film, I feel sure that I could match any quantity of good cinematic conflicts with a corresponding number of comics-combats.

Though I'm not making a list per se, I do have some examples to toss out. This saves me the effort of looking up issue numbers and checking to make sure that the battles transpire for as long as I think they do.

Memorable nominees include:

Thor's 2nd fight with Ulik
Thing's 2nd fight with Hulk
Spider-Man's first battle with the Circus of Crime
Knockout's 1st with Superboy
Superman vs.the Four Elements (1960s)
Doc Strange vs. Dormammu (Ditko)
Doc Strange vs.Baron Mordo (Rogers)
Black Canary vs.Rabbit
Flash vs. Captain Cold
Green Lantern vs. Sonar
Uncle Sam vs. King Killer (40s)
X-Men vs. Imperial Guard
Stinz vs. another big centaur
Cutter vs. Rayek
Cerebus vs. Cirin
Daredevil vs. Bullseye
Storm vs. Cyclops
Judge Dredd vs. Mean Machine
Captain Easy vs. Bull Dawson
Shang-Chi vs. Zaran
The Doom Patrol vs. Mr. 103
Red Sonja vs. Conan
Mammy Yokum vs. Mother Ratfield
Iron Man vs. the Demolisher
Capt. America vs. the Living Laser, Swordsman, and Batroc
Goku vs. Vegeta
Monkey D. Luffy vs. Arlong Park
Batman vs. Superman (DARK KNIGHT RETURNS)
Sub-Mariner vs. Triton
Battle Angel Alita vs. her rollerball-style opponent whose name I forget

And yes, I could go on before getting down to Daredevil's first battle with the Leap-Frog. (Which was actually not too bad...)

Saturday, November 20, 2010


In Part 1 I asserted that I didn't think Curt Purcell's concept of the human brain's "filtering mechanisms" were an adequate explanation as to the way readers/audiences process narrative information, including information that doesn't track well with the reader's personal knowledge and/or experience. I said that I found it too "passive," and as counterevidence, I present my own regurgitated impressions of my first reading of FANTASTIC FOUR #2.

Necessary Biographical Stuff: I can date the beginnings of my superhero fandom days fairly precisely because I didn't start seriously collecting superheroes until after the 1966 debut of the BATMAN teleseries, when I was ten. I can't date precisely when I read FF #2 because I first read it as a reprint, and a reprint purchased at a second-hand store, no less. (I still have the store's ten-cent sticker on the cover of said reprint.) But I probably read FF #2 in this form no later than age twelve. I can't say how many FF stories I'd read before encountering the reprint of #2, but by that time I probably had a pretty basic knowledge of the FF's overall concept and the type of stories I as a juvenile reader could expect.

Now, the FANTASTIC FOUR title as a whole is not one that most comics-critics would consider to be (as per my title and Curt's) "crap." At the very least, that bastion of taste THE COMICS JOURNAL put FF on their list of all-time best English-language comics, a selection with which I'd agree, if not for the same reasons I liked the title as a kid. Of course neither they nor I would have nominated the title if all of the stories were like FF #2, which is a pretty simple alien-invasion tale with a very unbelievable twist at the end.

Now, Curt Purcell puts forth the hypothesis that a reader may become so immersed in a reading-experience that he becomes inattentive not only to his physical surroundings, but also to inadequacies in the text. This certainly does happen, but I don't think this paradigm describes the many vagaries of reading.

To the best of my recollection, I enjoyed FF #2 as a 12-year-old-- except for that unbelievable twist. Following a confrontation in which the heroes overcome the shapeshifting alien Skrulls who have blackened the supergroup's name, Mister Fantastic decides to trick the tricksters. He and his comrades meet with the Skrull space-fleet, orbiting above Earth and waiting to invade, and pretend that they are the Skrull agents. To persuade the Skrull general that Earth is too powerful to invade, Mister Fantastic shows the general evidence of Earth's might. This "evidence" consists of cut-out panels from some of Marvel's science-fiction comics-titles, showing that Earth has mighty weapons and fearsome monsters at the ready to repel invaders.

Now-- did I, the juvenile reader, believe that malarkey for an instant? Well, if I had, you can be sure that I'd lie about it now.

Now, going by Purcell's thesis, my inability to let pass this particular absurdity pass-- say, in the way that I allowed my reading-self to believe in Skrulls and heroes mutated by cosmic rays-- stemmed from the fallibility of my brain's "smart filter." If this "smart filter" had been working at full capacity, it could have overpowered my realization of that flaw and kept me from being propelled, if only momentarily, out of the story.

However, I tend to believe my response was more active, less passive. Certainly by age 12 I'd had many experiences with stories that didn't meet with my approval for one reason or another, and so by that time I certainly knew that the fault did not lie in the stars, but in the story-tellers. I'm sure I thought that Lee and Kirby were a little on the lame side for having tossed out such a silly solution to the problem.

And yet, I was, as I said, only momentarily thrown out of the experience. I finished the story, and did miss noticing any number of other flaws in the tale that I did notice later as an adult reader. But the lameness of the resolution did not take away my perception that there were some very good things about the story, even if it was not one of the best of the series. Kirby's action-scenes in the story were good if not great, and the coda, in which the Skrull agents are hypnotized to change into cows, is memorable for more than just its absurdity.

Now, when I praise separate elements of the story, is that also my "smart filter" in operation, trying to make excuses for one lame element that, if dwelled upon, would spoil the experience overall?

Possibly, but I remain skeptical. My perception that Kirby drew vital action-scenes is constant whether the story is seemingly perfect or obviously flawed, so it isn't something my brain whips up out of nothing to compensate for a story-flaw.

Even before children can talk, before they've ever heard the theme-song to THE FACTS OF LIFE, they know that they live in an imperfect world where you pretty much have to take the good with the bad. If a person never read a single story by Stan Lee, Henry James or anyone else, that person would still have to live with that phenomenological state of affairs.

I think that's the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis." More on that later, though first I may give Curt Purcell a chance to tell me if he thinks I've misinterpreted his essay.


Now that I've wrapped another project, I can get round to writing a friendly (one hopes) rebuttal of this Curt Purcell essay, "Why Fans Love Crap."

Despite the elitist sound of the title, Purcell isn't writing to denigrate the phenomenon of fans loving crap, which is a familiar elitist position expoused by writers like Tucker Stone (whose negative reviews of UNCANNY X-MEN are mentioned in WFLC). Purcell's purpose is to explain, in terms of the brain's cognitive functions, why fans might be able to overlook faults in something they love; faults such as these:

a poor writing style goes unnoticed, technical mistakes are ignored, awkward plot developments are accepted, embarrassment and self-consciousness aren't provoked by one's enjoyment of story elements that might otherwise seem silly or childish, etc.

Purcell's explanation centers around the concept that the brain must use "filtering mechanisms" to sort out what is and isn't necessary to a given activity. He quotes Daniel Goleman:

In scanning incoming information, semantic memory need not go into every detail; it need only sort out what is and is not relevant to the concern of the moment. Irrelevant information is only partly analyzed, if just to the point of recognizing its irrelevancy. What is relevant gets fuller processing.

Purcell adds the caveat that:

Naturally, the "smart filter" that makes all this possible is neither infallible nor unlimited. Sometimes it lets something through that it should screen out. Sometimes a flaw crosses the threshold of being too bad or obvious to be ignored. If an experience is rewarding enough, though, backup mechanisms can come into play to continue protecting and pursuing it, even when the filter fails. Thus, for example, a flaw obtrusive enough to break through into awareness isn't permitted to ruin the experience, but is instead interpreted in a more positive light, as a distinguishing element or stylistic touch that actually enhances it.

This might not be a bad explanation for the entire "so bad it's good" meme, in which the audience-member enjoys something despite its obvious faults. However, I believe Purcell's theory fails to cover a number of objections.

First, when he speaks of some of the objectional elements that the brain is screening out, this presupposes that the perceiver has full cognizance as to how the formal narrative elements actually SHOULD be executed. This is dubious with regard to juvenile readers, such as the majority of the TWILIGHT fans. For most juveniles, a good style is one that doesn't distract from telling the story. You can tell them that Joseph Conrad or even Peter Straub are superior in style to Stephanie Whatshername of TWILIGHT, but the abstract appeal of fine style will often be lost on them. The same distinction applies to matters of formal excellence relating to the believability of plot or the perception that certain elements might be thought "childish." If a reader actually is a child, or not far from being a child, a reader might not feel that a work's appeal to "childishness" was any demerit. It's true that as children grow older they begin to develop a pecking-order, and some young people yearn to read, if not adult works, then the things the older kids are reading. But even there, the appeal is not that the books of the older kids are necessarily more finely-wrought: often it's simply that they're more transgressive in one way or another.

My second is that Purcell's idea of a reader being "immersed" in a text and thus blind to its failings in other departments could be applied just as easily to those readers who ARE supposedly reading works of formal excellence. Reader A, captivated by a fine verbal writing-style, may get his groove on with Henry James, but when he tries to get Reader B to enjoy a James book, Reader B may attempt the tome with very different expectations as to what an entertaining book should communicate. Reader B may well tell Reader A that he doesn't like "stories where nothing happens," or words to that effect. The point is not that Reader B is an ignoramus, though he may be: it's that he has an expectation that any text will entertain him in a certain way. If Reader A claims that the James book *is* entertaining, then Reader B could easily assert that it's because Reader A let himself become "immersed" in the work; that he's excluding everything that "is not relevant to the concern of the moment"-- that concern being, for Reader A, a finely-wrought writing-style.

Finally, I don't agree that the process of "filtering" takes place in the passive manner Purcell describes. But to delve into that disagreement, I'll need to move on to a Part II.

Monday, November 15, 2010


One of the most intellectually stimulating online essays I've encountered in the last year is CRWM's 5-24-10 essay, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Uncanny," which excerpts passages from C.S. Lewis' 1940 book THE PROBLEM OF PAIN and applies said passages to modern concerns about the conceptualization of horror-fiction.

Here's the relevant passage that deals with three possible situations in which a subject experiences the emotions, respectively, of fear, dread, and awe:

"Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’, and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked’. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous."

To recap: Lewis provides three possible entities that might excite these related emotional states. The idea of a tiger provokes fear in the subject. The idea of a ghost provokes dread, which lies upon "the fringes of the Numinous." And the idea of a "mighty spirit" provokes awe, awe of "the Numinous." Lewis' use of this term is derived from Rudolf Otto-- who is quoted in a later passage-- who popularized the term in his 1917 book THE IDEA OF THE HOLY. Otto's "Numinous" is meant to convey a sense by the subject of experiencing some divine-seeming spirit before which one feels fearful, and yet at the same time fascinated. I've quoted Otto myself in relation to making a distinction between horror-stories and suspense-thrillers:

The "suspense" genre, I said in a related post, was oriented not on seeking to scare the audience, but to "startle and disorient." In my own conception the pure horror film doesn't necessarily need the element of the supernatural, but it does need the element of the *mysterium,* which is my shortened form for the two Latin phrases invoked by Rudolf Otto is his classic IDEA OF THE HOLY, where he explains the numinous experience in terms of the *mysterium tremendum,* the overwhelming mystery that compels fear and trembling in the viewer, and the *mysterium fascinans,* which compels the viewer to be attracted to the fascinating mystery.

I've known about Otto's work since my college years, but I may've started thinking about ways to approach his insights in the last year or so thanks to other bloggers, such as Curt Purcell, who also cited Otto in relation to the horror-genre, like in this 12-11-08 essay. I wouldn't mind crediting CRWM in this respect as well, since I've been meaning to link to his Lewis essay all year given the right circumstances, but as it happens THRILLER KILLING was written a little before CRWM's piece.

"The right circumstances," in this case, relate to my own trinity of concerns as to establishing the phenomenal nature of narratives: the A*U*M* formula of "Atypical," "Uncanny," and "Marvelous," as derived in part from the writings of Tzvetan Todorov. I find it quite pleasing that my trinity lines up with Lewis', whether I was subconsciously thinking about his insights or not.

Lewis' "tiger," being that it is unquestionably an entity of the real, causal world, signifies the narrative world of The Atypical. Of course not all Atypical narratives are about physical danger. It is merely that within Atypical narratives, the source of the narrative disequilibrium is something that is easy to understand within the realm of what Todorov calls "the rational."

Lewis' "ghost" is an entity that hovers, as Lewis says, on "the fringes of the Numinous." In other sections of his essay Lewis is careful to avoid the reductive view of ghosts: he rejects the notion that they must be spectres conjured up purely via the subject's wishful thinking or some similar delusion. At the same time, Lewis admits that for primitive man ghosts may have simply been viewed as a mundane source of danger:

It is therefore theoretically possible that there was a time when men regarded these spirits simply as dangerous and felt towards them just as they felt towards tigers.

For me, then, this ambivalence as to the ghost being mundane or quasi-Numinous lines up well with my adaptation of Todorov's category of "the uncanny." Todorov believes that once a narrative reveals that the Hooded Phantom is really just Mr. Hawkins using his handy-dandy slide projector (now known far and wide as the Scooby Doo Ending), the narrative was thus reclaimed for "the category of the real." But as earlier essays should make clear, I don't agree. For me, even narratives in which the metaphenomenon of, say, a ghost is proved to have no cognitive truth, the fear of the spectre renders the narrative *affectively* metaphenomenal, as against, say, a more mundane thriller where ghosts are not even worthy of consideration.

Finally, Lewis' concept of his "mighty spirit" unquestionably compares well with the category of "the marvelous." Far more than in his consideration of the ghost, Lewis, though not a Kantian, takes a quasi-Kantian view as to whether reductionism explains the Numinous experieces of "the mighty spirit":

Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous.

One need not conceive of the "mighty spirit" in precisely the same way Christian-apologist Lewis may have, in order to see its relevance to the narratological category of "the marvelous." Where "uncanny" aspects stand on the borderline between the real and the unreal (if only affectively), "marvelous" aspects are all about invoking the sense of the sublime; of things that unquestionably go beyond the boundaries of time, space, and causality in one way or another. In horror the "mighty spirit" might be a vampire; in fantasy it might be a wizard; in science fiction it might be Jules Verne's Center of the Earth. All are narratologically similar even if the precise nature of the phenomena described take different forms.

In closing I'll note that many, many concordances on "fantastic film" have fallen victim to a tendency to lump all sorts of films that invoke "fear" of the distinctly mundane type with films of the uncanny and the marvelous. One of the worst offenders is R.G. Young's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASTIC FILM, which is valuable in terms of chronicling many obscure British fantasy-shorts but muddies its concept by including all sorts of genres peripheral to fantastic film, such as film noir, swashbucklers like CUTTHROAT ISLAND, and what a back-cover blurb calls "heavy melodramas." I sympathize with the desire to reference all these lesser evocations of fear and danger-- but one ought to draw the line SOMEWHERE.

Friday, November 12, 2010


“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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Q: “Why isn’t Batman a superhero?”—many many comic-book message-boards
As a pluralist critic, I value any form of criticism—naïve as much as sophisticated—that contains or at least leads to a greater insight. Sophistication itself is no guarantor of insight. This should be obvious to anyone capable of following the logic of this blog’s previous demolitions of such highbrow low-downers as
Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, and, most recently, Tzvetan Todorov.

Like the Todorov book I’ve recently critiqued, the naïve critic’s assertion, “Batman isn’t a superhero because he doesn’t have superpowers,” contains a fundamental insight despite being essentially wrong. The latter also takes a lot less time to refute. The naïve critic has chosen to view the adjective “super” in “superhero” as meaning one thing and one thing only: the possession of powers, giving one the ability to perform “super” feats that human heroes cannot perform. However, “super” clearly does not connote this, either in dictionaries or in the opinions of many readers who do consider Batman a superhero—usually for an equally simple reason, because he wears a costume.

One message-board refinement [see ENDNOTE], with which I partially agree, stated that a simple athlete-type hero like Batman should be deemed a superhero if he demonstrated the capacity to take down super-powered menaces, as Batman does regularly in JUSTICE LEAGUE if not so much in his own feature. However, the same poster didn’t think that a costumed, non-powered hero who fought nothing but common crooks would be a superhero. I see the logic of this distinction but I can’t dismiss the fact that most fans would put the label “superhero” to pretty much any figure in long underwear. As an additional complication, I’ve also seen the term applied to quite a few characters not clad in leotards, such as Flash Gordon and Doc Savage.

I toyed with the idea that one might look upon the costume as an indicator of metaphenomenal status. One approach might be the degree to which the costume makes the wearer look suprahuman. Even though Batman is just a skilled man armed with various weapons, the costume makes him look like a bat-human hybrid. However, many costumed heroes don’t look like anything but costumed humans. Zorro, one of Batman’s ancestors, doesn’t look the least like a fox, Spy Smasher just looks like a man wearing flight togs and goggles, and so on. Therefore if the costume is a signifier of metaphenomenality, it can’t be simply in terms of what it makes the hero look like.

Todorov, however, helped me out with his categories of the Uncanny and the Marvelous.
As noted in earlier essays, Todorov’s ruminations on fantastic literature are confined almost entirely to stories in a horrific mode. In Chapter 3 Todorov says:
“…we generally distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the “uncanny”), as it appears in the novels of Clara Reeves and Ann Radcliffe; and that of the supernatural accepted (the “marvelous”), which is characteristic of the works of Horace Walpole, M.G. Lewis, and Mathurin.”

A parallel to the first naïve classification seen above suggests itself. The fan that disallows Batman as a superhero is insisting upon a narrow definition of the superhero as one that has “marvelous” powers, like Lewis’ devils and Mathurin’s immortal wanderer Melmoth. Going by Todorov's original schema, Batman, who merely gives the impression of something marvelous, is explicable by rational laws of nature and would then be “uncanny,” like the fake Gothic horrors of Ann Radcliffe. (The particular example of Batman is however complicated by diverse factors, as I've already touched in on here.)

Now, for Todorov, once a spooky story decreed that there were no real ghosts, that story fell into the domain of the merely rational. But if that’s not logically true—if uncanny stories don’t belong to the realm of the rational—then the same should be true for “uncanny heroes.”

Again returning to naïve systems of classification, it’s evident that a popular reference-work on horror films, such as Phil Hardy’s OVERLOOK HORROR ENCYCLOPEDIA, certainly doesn’t bother separating “uncanny” films from “marvelous” films. A movie about a real vampire, like the 1931 DRACULA, is as much a horror film as a film with a fake vampire, like 1936’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. This may sound identical to Todorov’s willingness to identify both “rational” and “irrational” tendencies within the greater category of the Gothic, but the difference is that Todorov continually inveighs against using the emotional frisson of the horror-story as a common ground. He does so because he’s exclusively concerned with the cognitive side of fantasy-fiction: “is the supernatural explained or accepted?” This provides a neat parallel to the naïve critic who insists that “superhero” must be defined in a similar cognitive manner, in terms of whether the hero has powers or not.
But Todorov’s emphasis was an error, just like that of the naïve critic. In my category of the metaphenomenal, the affective holds as much significance as the cognitive. If the reader gets the frisson of horror from a “phony vampire” story, then the story is on the same affective plane as the “real vampire” story, however different their cognitive aspects.

The same holds true, then, for stories of fictional heroism, “super” or otherwise. All heroic stories appeal to the emotional dynamization I’ve termed “invigoration,” which I borrowed from the myth-ritualist Theodore Gaster. But some heroic stories are clearly meant to take place wholly in a “realistic” world, and the heroes of those stories offer only that invigorative feeling one gets from seeing a “common man” with some degree of pluck and fighting-skill succeed. This would be in contrast to the dominant image of the superhero like Superman or the Human Torch, for whom invigoration resides in the demonstration of “marvelous” powers.

However, in between these two extremes lies the domain of my version of “the Uncanny,” and unlike Todorov I don’t think it belongs to the domain of pure natural law, even when both the hero and the hero’s combatants are mere mortals. Within this metaphenomenal domain I situate the hero who is only one step removed from the “common man” in that he wears a costume. Batman is not truly uncanny in this sense, given that he not infrequently battles super-gorillas and madmen with freeze-rays. But the aforementioned Zorro fits quite well. Possibly no one would deem Zorro or any similar masked swashbucklers as superheroes per se, nor would I try to convince them of it. But I do think that Zorro’s uncanny appearance puts himself within the realm of the metaphenomenal, and thus within the superhero idiom as well.
I’ll be covering other applications of my “Uncanny and Marvelous” categories in future essays.


The following is just a quick sketch of a formula I'll expound on later in more detail.

We have here three characters who all belong to the Fryean adventure *mythos.* Their main distinction from one another here depends on their phenomenal nature.

As presented here, they boil down thusly:


The phenomenality of ZORRO is UNCANNY.

The phenomenality of BATMAN is MARVELOUS.

Hence, I label this for future reference the AUM formula.

More later.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I don't remember to look at the blogstats provided by Google very often, probably in part because I don't expect them to be very high (and indeed, they aren't). But I have to wonder what causes some of my pages to get viewed (assuming that Google's stats are accurate).

NON NON SHAENON PART 1 has the second highest stats in the last month. That makes sense since I posted about Garrity on THE BEAT, though it's kind of odd that the pageviews for the second part are only half of Part 1. Still, I can put that down to the fact that a lot of BEAT readers probably looked up Part 1 when the BEATpost was fresh in their minds and didn't remember/trouble to tune in for Part 2.

The top first, third, and fourth, though, are all older essays, to wit:


Well, I think, two of those deal with sex and the last deals with race, so probably some like-minded browsers just jumped on some of the subject headings and ended up in the same places. Still, I'm surprised that one of the new "superhero idiom" essays tied for fifth place with KNOWING THE DYNAMIS FROM THE DYNAMIC, whose title isn't exactly the most enthralling I've ever conceived. Maybe it's the Doctor Who-Stargate comparison that drew some interest?

Curious and (probably to become) curiouser.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Perhaps the most revealing mistake Tzvetan Todorov makes in THE FANTASTIC is seen both in his book’s subtitle and in his book’s first sentence:

“’The Fantastic’ is a name given to a kind of literature, to a literary genre.”
This is a conspicuous terminological error. The presence or absence of fantasy in a narrative may give rise to specific genres, such as horror and science fiction. But that presence or absence is not itself a genre, or even a super-genre. It is an indicator of phenomenological content within the narrative. Such content can cross genres without changing the common view of them, as with horror, which encompasses both “realistic” and “fantastic” horror-narratives.

But even if Todorov’s assertion were supportable, then given the common opposition of “realistic” literature to “fantastic” literature in modern culture—an opposition which Todorov validates continually throughout his tome—then one would have to deem “The Realistic” to be a literary genre as well. One might respect the audacity of such a formulation, but Todorov is not quite that daring, and though he attacks what he calls “theoretical” notions of genre, he fails to say what precise aspects make a work conform to “reality as it exists in the common opinion.”

I suggest that this position leaves him open to having his motives deconstructed as Todorov’s old mentor Barthes chose to deconstruct a Balzac story in S/Z. My deconstruction of Todorov’s work will much simpler and more direct than Barthes’ rambling dissection of Balzac, however.

I begin by asserting, as did Northrop Frye, that within the sphere of literature no “fantastic” element is any more “real” than elements we deep “realistic.” Within that sphere one element may be more realistic or fantastic than another, but seen from outside they are all the same: literary constructs. Moreover, the “fantastic” elements within a work of a certain type—for instance, Milton’s PARADISE LOST—are not meant to connote a divergence from “reality as it exists in the common opinion” in the same way that some horror-story spectre diverges from consensual reality. Rather, the fantastic elements in PARADISE LOST are meant to transcend the reader’s sense of his consensual reality, depicting Milton’s version of his Christianity’s “true reality,” a reality that underlies the merely apparent world of the consensual. Clearly both Milton and his ideal readers are not going to “hesitate” in guessing whether or not the story of Eden should be taken as “real” or not.

I suggest further that Todorov seeks (perhaps subconsciously) to marginalize the fantastic by seeing it as a generic adjunct to the larger sphere of Realistic Literature, which, as I noted earlier, was the sort of literature that dominated the academic canon in 1970. Throughout THE FANTASTIC that which is “real” is also that which is “rational.” Todorov’s brand of structuralism is certainly of a “little-R” rationalist stripe, so it’s logical that he validates any and all perceptions that support this form of rational cognition. In addition, I suspect that his heavy concentration upon the literary element of “hesitation” is not because it is actually central to the dynamics of what I call the metaphenomenal. Rather, it’s because the struggle between “rational” and “irrational” worlds is what’s important to him.

Only at one point in THE FANTASTIC does Todorov make an assertion that seems to put “the Fantastic” and “the Realistic” on the same plane as literary constructs, and it’s the only point where I can entirely agree with him, though probably not with any of his extrapolations from it. This appears in his final summing-up chapter:

“…we must inquire into the very nature of narrative. Let us begin by constructing an image of the minimum narrative, not the kind we usually find in contemporary texts, but that nucleus without which we cannot say there is any narrative at all. The image will be as follows: All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.”

This is an apt restatement, in valid structuralist terms, of the narrative progress that Aristotle calls “complication and resolution” and that Frank Cioffi explores in terms of science-fiction “anomalies.” Todorov then gives two story-examples, one of which is a made-up sketch of a realistic story while the other is a particular Arabian Nights tale that contains a modicum of supernatural content. However, instead of continuing to see the two narratives as equal, Todorov soon bounces back to his concern with the greater significance of stories within the category of “the fantastic,” stories that oscillate between the real and the unreal. On page 167 he finally makes explicit that this oscillation fascinates him precisely because it indirectly privileges elements of “reality:”

“It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.”

But in regards to what the literary “category of the real” contains, Todorov is either silent or incoherent. I’ll just note in passing that Northrop Frye, whom Todorov disdains as merely “theoretical,” is far Todorov’s superior in describing his vision of this category. However, useless though Todorov’s theory is for describing anything but a very narrow range of high-literary horror stories, he did create a valid dichotomy between “the Uncanny” and “the Marvelous” which, with some modifications, can be used to describe both all manner of fantasies without regard for their literary pedigrees.


I’ve now finished reading Tzvetan Todorov’s THE FANTASTIC: A STRUCTURAL APPROACH TO A LITERARY GENRE (1970). Contrary to what I wrote elsewhere, I now believe I probably read not just an excerpt, but the whole book some thirty years ago. I noted in Part 2 that Todorov’s emphasis throughout his book is on highbrow fantastic literature, particularly within the genre of horror, with only the most niggling mentions of popular fiction.

That’s probably why I didn’t remember much of the work apart from broad characterizations repeated by other fantasy-critics.

While I’ve always been interested in all forms of literature, there’s no question that from my earliest years my main interest, as a child of the 20th century U.S.A., was in the popular iterations of fantastic literature. If one had only THE FANTASTIC on which to base one’s view of Todorov, it would suggest a person who either never liked the popular arts (unlike, say, Umberto Eco, who validates both popular and canonical art) or one who may have liked them but regarded them as irrelevant to his academic purpose. Todorov’s pronouncements on popular art in Chapter 1 of THE FANTASTIC suggest that the first judgment is the more applicable. Such an outlook is his personal privilege, but its exclusionary nature reduces the applicability of his theory to a small quantity of highbrow literary works. In addition, not only does it fail to address popular iterations of fantasy, Todorov’s theory is also has only loose applicability to many highbrow works of fantasy. Stanislaw Lem mentions Verne, Wells, and Borges, and I would add not only modern canonical fantasists like Lewis and Tolkien (to whom Lem alludes) but also the whole corpus of medieval/Renaissance fantasies ranging from L’Morte d’Arthur to the Faerie Queene.

I made copious notes on Todorov’s work, but I’ll refrain from recapitulating most of them on this blog. However, as I’m affiliated to the myth-critical methodology of Northrop Frye, I have to make a quick response to Todorov’s attempted demolition of Frye’s ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. In essence, it’s a hatchet job, but an amusing one, since it’s evident that Todorov is principally attacking Frye for Frye’s opposition to structuralist literary analysis. Todorov puts forth a few valid points—more than one finds in a similar broadside from Marxist Frederic Jameson—but those valid points are lost in a welter of strained logic and outright hypocrisies.
For instance, Todorov attacks Frye’s classic tome THE ANATOMY OF CRITICISM for relying upon the insights of “extra-literary” authorities such as Carl Jung. Having made that accusation, THE FANTASTIC then goes on to cite either Sigmund Freud or standard Freudian paradigms over a dozen times. This “applies to thee but not to me” double standard does Todorov little credit, though at least he has a pleasing and direct style that makes it pleasurable to refute him. This quality arouses my own “sense of wonder” given that the incredibly obfuscative Roland Barthes was one of Todorov’s mentors. Perhaps Todorov and Barthes had a falling-out after Barthes deserted structuralism: Todorov even goes so far as to claim Frye and Barthes occupy an identical literary tradition, which is like saying that pagans and Christians are the same because they both use the word “myth” at times.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of Todorov’s book is that although it’s standard academic practice to use his term, “the fantastic,” none of the lit-crit books I’ve encountered use the term as he does. Todorov’s main concern throughout THE FANTASTIC is with works that “hesitate” between giving the reader a clear view as to whether or not the events described are “uncanny” (peculiar but not violating rational explanation) or “marvelous” (clearly violating rational paradigms). But in my opinion most modern critics of fantastic literature simply ignore Todorov’s insistence on “the fantastic” as an “evanescent” genre:

“The fantastic, we have seen, lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and [viewpoint] character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from ‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion” (p. 41).

It’s my impression, rather, that later critics use “the fantastic” much as I use “metaphenomenal:” as a portmanteau term for everything uncanny and marvelous, irrespective of whether there is any “hesitation” within the text. I said earlier that I’d “destroy hesitation with all dispatch,” but now I find the best way to do so is to ignore it to death. What Todorov finds so central to the experience of the literary fantastic, I consider a minor side-note at best. In Part 4 I’ll enlarge on what should be central to a good theory of literary fantasy, with particular emphasis on the Todorovian notion of “genre.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010


"Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful."-- Andre Breton, the first Surrealist Manifesto, 1924.

"Nonfictional narrative is always about the typical; fictional narrative is always about the atypical."-- Gene Phillips, here, just now.

Though a full reading of Todorov's THE FANTASTIC is still pending, I do credit his two principal categories of "the fantastic"-- "the Uncanny" and "the Marvelous"-- with spurring me to make further progress with my own Phenomenologial Pairing: the metaphenomenal and the isophenomenal.

Now, while I explained elsewhere the genesis of the first term, I neglected to justify the second one. But first I have to say that both of my terms were influenced by Kant's categories of the "noumenal" and the "phenomenal," with the latter comprising that aspect of reality revealed to humankind through the senses while the former was revealed through purely mental apprehension (the Greek "nous," meaning "mind," gave rise to Kant's term "noumenon").

However, within a fictional narrative, everything, no matter how "realistic" or "fantastic," is equally a product of an author's mind, whatever one wants to say about how that material got into his mind. The narrative world, Plato's "shadow of a shadow," recapitulates at the very least that experiential world that Kant calls "phenomena," the world as known through the author's own senses. Whether or not the author may *also* tap into things knowable only through pure mind (ye olde Jungian archetypes, for example) is a question for another essay, as that consideration doesn't bear on the subject of sussing out the nature of phenomena (in the generic, not the Kantian, sense of the word) within the world of narrative.

Within the sphere of fiction, there must always be what Caillois calls an "acknowledged order." Without that order, it's impossible to tell a story, at least in the accepted form of normative narrative. This order within the narrative may be termed the "isophenomenal." Greek "iso" means "equal" or "alike." Thus in my system the isophenomenal elements of a narrative are those which most approximate what the readers deem the consensual reality to which their senses attest. This neologism is necessary to distinguish this type of "phenomena" from Kant's nonliterary use of that word.

"Metaphenomenal" is not meant to be any way coeval with Kant's "noumenal" except in terms of opposition. The metaphenomenal is that which does not conform to the isophenomenal order. It may be perceived as a disruption of that order, as per Caillois' earlier-cited definition, or it may be seen as a Transcendent Truth for which consensual reality is only a veil, as per the LEFT BEHIND books I mentioned earlier, not to mention many more worthy works ranging from the METAMORPHOSIS of Apuleius to the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. A theory of "the fantastic" that does not subsume both conceptions is constitutionally deficient, as I perceive will be the case with Todorov's book based on partial online readings.

In addition, the metaphenomenal theory can easily subsume any fantasy no matter how extravagant the mode, ranging from fantastic material explained discursively or presented as a "given." See this article on Suzanne Langer and others in that vein.

From my advance samplings it seems obvious to me that Todorov's study is skewed toward works in which the metaphenomenal is a barely explicable disruption of the isophenomenal order, with particular emphasis on horror stories. Stanislaw Lem condemns the limits of Todorov's fantasy-examples in no uncertain terms:

...Todorov's "sample," as displayed in his bibliography, is astonishing. Among its twenty-seven titles we find no Borges, no Verne, no Wells, nothing from modern fantasy, and all of SF is represented by two short stories; we get, instead, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Potocki, Balzac, Poe, Gogol, Kafka—and that is about all. In addition, there are two crime-story authors.

I suspect Todorov's emphasis on horror-story authors stems from literary elitism. In 1970, names like Poe and Hoffman were still accepted in the Land of the Literary Canon, but Wells and Verne had barely established a foothold in academia, much less modern authors of SF (including Lem himself), or any authors of fantasy except for perhaps Carroll. By the mid-to-late 70s this would change, but clearly Todorov's theory is geared to highbrow tastes only. Arguably the horror genre is privileged by Todorov not because it possesses the best or more fulfilling examples of "the fantastic," but because artists known for their more naturalistic works, such as Balzac and Dostoyevsky (also briefly mentioned in TF), dabbled in it.

I'll explore some of the consequences of Todorov's bias in Part 3, and use it in part as a springboard to discuss my conceptualiztion mentioned above: "the atypical."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


In this essay defining my term "metaphenomenal" I gave my rationale for introducing the new term, then compared it to the dominant use (in academic studies) of "the fantastic," a term propagated largely by Tzvetan Todorov in his book of the same name:

I consider [the metaphenomenal] a better catch-all for all things that owe their existence to mankind's imagination than the usual catch-all employed in academic studies: "the fantastic." There's both logic and tradition to using the latter term, yet it seems at times cumbersome when dealing with phenomenon that go beyond phenomenal limits within a given universe, and yet are not supposed to be regarded as "fantastic" within that universe even though they may be to the majority of readers. "Metaphenomenal," to my mind, efficiently takes in both the viewpoints of readers and of the characters designed for the story as to whether a given element is within the sphere of ordinary phenomena or not.

As I mentioned earlier I first encountered Todorov's definiton in my college years, and though I didn't write any essays on Todorov back then I'm pretty sure my contemporary version recapitulates my negative feeling toward Todorov, with particular reference to his overblown, quasi-Aristotelian emphasis on the quality of "hesitation" as it applies to "the fantastic." In a future essay I plan to shred hesitation with all dispatch.

In the Caillois resource I mentioned that Todorov had quoted one of Caillois' definitions of "the fantastic," and that I could not judge the original intent of Caillois since the book apparently has not been translated to English. Todorov also quoted another of Caillois' definitions from the same book:

“The fantastic is always a break in the acknowl­edged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality.”

I might venture that if the first definition is a little too much on the "affective" side, saying only that the fantastic work conveys a "sense of strangeness," this one compensates in that one can imagine the "break" as being either an objective phenomenon (or "anomaly," to employ Frank Cioffi's term again) or a subjective one (the madness of a Poe narrator, for instance).

That's not to say that Caillois' definition is perfect. For instance, whatever one thinks of the LEFT BEHIND books, they are depicting a metaphenomenal reality where the Rapture actually takes place, but that "irruption" is hardly "inadmissible" within the sphere of Christian belief. One presumes that this contrarian view of the metaphenomenal stems from Caillois' affiliation with the Surrealists-- an improvement on the Marxists, but still not without definitional problems.

More on the metaphenomenal and its opposing number next time.

Monday, November 1, 2010


While waiting to get ahold of Todorov's THE FANTASTIQUE I did some online research on Roger Caillois, the French surrealist and "social theorist" (sez Wiki) from whom Todorov quotes as follows:

Caillois, too, proposes as a “touchstone of the fantastic ... the impression of irreducible strangeness.”

As I'm quoting from an online excerpt I can't tell whether or not Todorov's book quotes the source of this definition (which will be important in evaluating Todorov's own theory). I did find that source elsewhere online, though:


Apparently the quote comes from a Caillois book named AU COEUR DU FANTASTIQUE, which as far as I can tell has not been readily translated to English. Todorov is apparently rejecting Caillois' definition(s) as too limited, however.

More on these matters later.