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, July 11, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #19: THE SPIRIT (1949)
PLOT-SUMMARY: “The Curse” (10-16-49) begins with a framing-story. One evening in some unidentified hill-country (implicitly close to the Spirit’s “Central City”), three hillbillies relax by a campfire, where they plan to slaughter a white-feathered, red-combed hen for their dinner. Local balladeer Pete Bog wanders into their camp, clearly looking for a handout. Although the threesome initially deny him a share of their dinner, the singer’s doleful song of the “lost love” of Jimson Weede and Cider Sue beguiles them into listening.
Cider Sue, a maiden who wears a red comb in her white hair, is deemed a “hex gal” by the hillfolk, and is outcast even from her own family. Only young swain Jimson Weede loves her, pledging his troth with a “snake ring.” One day Cider notices that she casts no reflection in water. Some hostile hillmen notice it too, and try to hang her. Jimson shoots one of the men and flees with Cider. He hides Cider in a mountain-cave but seems to think they can’t get away from the hill-country unless he first goes to the big city and makes a lot of money. He falls in with a boxing-trainer, Doc Ringer, and for the next three months, Jimson wins all of his fights. The Spirit and Commissioner Dolan discern crookedness in Ringer’s game, though even Jimson doesn’t know that Ringer is using hypnosis to control whether Jimson wins or loses. After rigging Jimson’s final fight so that the young hillbilly loses, Ringer runs off with the boxer’s money, and his picture of Cider Sue. Because Ringer took the picture, the vengeful Jimson goes looking for him at the mountain where he concealed Cider, while the Spirit and Dolan trail Jimson, hoping to bust Ringer. Jimson finds Cider cuddled up with Ringer and curses them both for betraying him. Cider suddenly disavows her love for Jimson: “I’m a witch gal--I’m not fer you!” Ringer affirms that he and Cider are both “hex people” just before Jimson attacks him. Ringer shoots Jimson before Jimson throttles the “doc,” who in dying predicts that Jimson will die and Cider Sue will be “a hen a-cluckin’ on your grave!” The Spirit and Dolan enter the cave, and find Jimson wounded, Ringer dead, and a white hen.
Pete Bog’s story ends. Suddenly one of the hillbillies notices that the very hen they intend to kill and fry has a ring on one of its “fingers.” The campers all flee, and Pete Bog congratulates himself for being “the mos’ powerful liar in these hills.” But before he can kill and eat the hen himself, Dolan and the Spirit (who carries Jimson slung over one shoulder) arrive and ask Pete if he’s seen “a girl… white hair… red comb… wears a snake ring on her finger…” And off into the night Pete Bog flees.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: Will Eisner’s SPIRIT stories fall into one of two broad categories: those that follow a rigorous, almost “lock-box” plot and those that focus on a more expressionistic use of the artist’s visual storytelling style. Most comic-book criticism of THE SPIRIT have emphasized the latter category, analyzing visual standouts such as “Showdown” and “Ten Minutes.”
I pointed out in AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY that most of Eisner’s SPIRIT stories don’t rate very highly on my mythicity scale. I asserted: 'THE SPIRIT is a particularly challenging title where, if one is searching for symbolic values, one has to avoid being drawn into the formal elements of storytelling as such. This story, focusing on the doomed love of the quixotically-named couple of Jimson Weed and Cider Sue, is not one of the best-known Spirit tales but has, like the Cole story mentioned below, a deeper symbolic resonance than most of the "famous" stories.'
If “The Curse” has such a resonance, I would tend to credit it to the artist's plot-intensive structure.
As with many postwar SPIRIT stories, the Spirit and his cast of regulars play second-fiddle to the one-shot “guest stars” of this tale. Further, though city-boy Eisner did many stories outside the environs of his character’s faux-New York locale, “The Curse” is interesting in that the characters shuttle back and forth between the mundane city and an exotic locale where magic and mystery are part of daily life. Eisner clearly took pride in his ability to capture a polyglot of cultural types in his SPIRIT stories, which teem with Germans, Russians, Hispanics, Jews (albeit only implicitly), Italians, and (most notoriously) American blacks. However, “The Curse” is also one of the few times Eisner’s depiction of an exotic culture taps into deeper cultural archetypes.
If one puts aside the plot-complications of the fight-fixing racket (which exists largely to bring the Spirit into the tale) and the jokey metafictional ending, the essence of “The Curse’ channels a theme common to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and related types-- to wit, the insoluble conflict between civilized man, demonic nature, and semi-civilized-but-ambivalent womankind.
The transhuman world of nature is implied in Eisner’s name for Cider Sue, given that it’s Eisner’s pun on the name of the famous Scandinavian body of water, the Zuider Zee. Eisner plays her transhuman nature straight, however, by specifying that Cider’s own family won’t deal with her and that “she never once did smile.” Judging from Cider’s reaction to her lack of a reflection, the girl must have had one at some point. The best one can surmise is that her witchy nature has arisen at that point in the story. Certainly the hill-folk assume that a person with no reflection is not only a witch, but an evil witch automatically guilty of hexing their cattle and the like. Cider never shows any propensity for witchcraft, except for forging a strange relationship with Doc Ringer. But she’s still something that doesn’t conform to human categories. In contrast, even though Jimson Weede also has a punny name, referencing a type of plant found in nature-- a hallucinogen, no less-- there’s nothing in the story to suggest that Jimson conforms to any archetype but that of The Sucker.
The name of the story is suggestive as well, for the plot-action doesn’t actually revolve around a curse as such. At the end of the story Jimson curses both Cider and Ringer, but these are just empty words. One might deem Ringer’s final words to be a curse, though if so it’s questionable as to whether it works; Cider Sue may indeed turn into a hen but it’s not clear whether or not Jimson dies from his gunshot-wound. I would guess that Eisner meant Jimson to survive; otherwise, the Spirit hardly has any justification for lugging his body around—though on the other hand he and Dolan don’t seem to be in any hurry to get Jimson to a doctor. The only time the word “curse” really seems to apply to the story’s main plot-action is when one of the lynchers, out to execute Cider, yells, “Hang her! Free us from her curse!” The nature of women in this superstitious world is that they, unlike men, always possess the power to hex and curse, precisely because they’re at once allied to nature and also to something beyond nature. The intersection of myths about both witches and a particular feminine phenomenon, also called “the curse,” should need no great elaboration.
Cider’s white hair, red comb and snake ring are clearly the visual elements that link her with the hen. No other character is given such visual emphasis, but it’s significant that Eisner depicts Ringer with the sort of Van Dyke beard usually sported by pop-fiction versions of The Devil. It’s at this point that Eisner’s story most resonates with the mythic intent of authors like Hawthorne, who saw the hand of Satan implicit in the attractions of the fallen natural world.
Ringer, unlike Cider, has mastered some sort of “hex people” arts. Eisner—who often showed no compunctions against having the Spirit encounter such fantastic figures as aliens or talking apes—does not reveal whether or not Ringer really can change Cider into a hen. The only “magic” we see Ringer perform is one explicable by rational standards, that of hypnotism. Still, even though Ringer doesn’t make a deal for either Jimson or Cider’s soul, it’s arguable that using hypnotism he does subvert Jimson’s soul, as does as a devilish character in Hawthorne’s BLITHEDALE ROMANCE. In sports-competitions, a “ringer” is a skilled performer who pretends to be less than he is. In “The Curse,” Doc Ringer first makes Jimson fight better than he ordinarily can, and then makes him lose; a setup that recalls that of Faust, who enjoys success and prominence until his deal with the devil goes south.
Why does Cider, who professes fervent love for Jimson, fall so easily, so quickly, for a man she’s never met? The archetypal answer would be that because her witchy nature has come to fruition, she’s drawn to someone who shares that nature. She tells Jimson: “I’m a witch gal—I’m not fer you!” This is tantamount to saying that she’s signed and sealed with this particular devilish lookalike, though one wonders if Cider Sue ever had a soul to sell, since the lack of a reflection usually connotes the lack of that attribute. In the end, though Ringer dies, he metaphorically takes Cider with him, a hen to service his rooster’s coop, while her former lover is left hovering between life and death.
And what of the metafictional framing-story? Pete Bog (whose last name recollects “bogie” and “boogieman”) doesn’t believe the story of Cider Sue when he sings it, but he’s positively “boggled” to meet the agents of a higher authorial power. The Spirit and Dolan imply that Bog’s fake story was the real deal, but they don’t get the cosmic joke any more than Pete does. Dolan’s last line is telling: “This is the fourth hillbilly we’ve met tonight who’s run off howlin’ when we asked him that question!” Presumably the other three are just the ones that fled the camp earlier, but the effect of Dolan’s statement suggests that whether or not Cider Sue has become a little white hen-- one who seems to be gazing at the slumped body of Jimson Weede in the final panel-- her legend will supply a new story to haunt the hill-country with the spectre of ambivalent femininity.