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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...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

FINDING SIGMUND PART 2

These days Freudianism is not given great credence in many psychological circles. Still, one still finds a number of literary academics building theories on Freudian concepts or those of Freud's followers, i.e., Lacan. Most of them do not seem to be evoking it as I do here: as one particular archetypal complex out of many in humankind's expressive cosmology, or as a concept of the "reproductive imagination" that takes on archetypal resonance when hybridized with concepts of the "productive imagination." Rather, these academics seem to wish to validate Freudian concepts as if they were sufficient in themselves to describe the literary cosmos.

To be sure, there have been trailblazing critics who used such concepts brilliantly, like Leslie Fiedler. Others, like Roland Barthes, shed less light but at least attempted to locate Freud within a cultural cosmos of greater scope, such as crossbreeding Freud's concepts with those of Marx. But the question remains: what is the appeal of Freud for moderns?

The appeal comes down to that of security: the security of a Newtonian materialism. Though Freud was certainly not the first "psychologist," his concept of latent sexuality offered a new gloss on the theories of empiricist philosophers like Hume and Burke. By theorizing that the elements of a given psyche's sexual proclivities were set for that individual in the latent, non-sexual stage of his life, Freud promoted a Newtonian physics of the mind. As noted in Part 1, everyone had an Oedipus complex because everyone went through the stages of pre-sexual attachment to a parent (usually though not exclusively the individual's opposite-sex parent), which in turn led to the processes of sublimating one's early sexual influences:

It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.-- Sigmund Freud, "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love."


This universality offers the benefits of security; all roads lead to Magna Mater, and the roads always follow the orderly processes of Newtonian physics. Man A is, say, a cross-dresser not, as Plato's PHILEBUS would suggest, because Man A's soul resonated with the idea of cross-dressing while Man B's did not. Rather, pure historical contingency led Man A to cross-dressing, and under the right circumstances Man B could have found himself responding with the same patterns of disavowal/sublimation.

Now, though Freud's schema does not hold water for real-world psychology, it can work well as a literary myth-pattern not because the pattern itself is universal but because it arouses the strong expressive emotion a literary work, high or low, most needs. However, sometimes the patterns are simple, sometimes complex. When they remain simple, they best fit Kant's concept of the "reproductive imagination."

For instance, Freud's analysis of Shakespeare's HAMLET reduced all of the complex motives of the play's characters to the Oedipus complex. As I noted in this review of Laurence Olivier's HAMLET (1948), the film largely follows Freud's interpretation and thus compromises some of the deeper ethical issues of the play. I assign it "fair" in its mythicity simply because Freud's concepts have become quasi-myths in their own right, and thus Olivier does realize this symbolism, albeit excluding a more expansive reading of Shakespeare.

As noted above Freud's empiricist concept can take on greater symbolic resonance when hybridized, as I said above, with concepts of the "productive imagination." In Part 3 of FINDING SIGMUND, I'll cite an example of this "productive-reproductive" hybridization.

MYTHCOMICS #12: LADY SNOWBLOOD (1972)




PLOT-SUMMARY of “Rokumeikan Murder Panorama” (wr) Koike, (ar) Kamimura, (1972). In Japan of the the late 1800s Lady Snowblood uses both womanly wiles (including frequent disrobings) and sword-skills to serve at times as assassin, at other times as an agent provocateur. In “Rokumiekan,” she serves more as the latter, working for statesman Ishizaka. Ishizaka, a proponent of traditional Japanese values, abhors the extreme pro-Western voices in Japanese government and wants Snowblood to destroy the “international social hall” Rokumeikan, where Japanese officials entertain Western visitors with all manner of debauched activities. As part of her plot against Rokumeikan, Snowblood spends a month learning the skill of picking pockets. She waylays a coach bound for Rokumeikan and murders its female passenger. Then she forces the coachman to help her impersonate the dead woman. While she dances with the officials who run Rokumeikan, she picks their pockets of assorted items. Then she lures a Western official out of the hall with the promise of sex, kills both him and her coachman-accomplice, and leaves their bodies in a heap with the dead woman. The owners of Rokumeikan finds the bodies, and then Snowblood turns up, accusing them of the murders and claiming that she has proof, in the form of the telltale items she picked from their pockets. The officials sic their guards on Snowblood, and she kills a few (while wearing no clothes, incidentally) before Ishizaka shows up, asserting that he’ll expose the controversy to the public unless the officials close Rokumeikan. The officials capitulate, and Snowblood departs for her next mission.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: As with CEREBUS, Koike and Kamimura’s LADY SNOWBLOOD is a complex tapestry in which it’s difficult to analyze any single sequence without making at least passing reference to others. “Rokumeikan” is one of the earliest Snowblood adventures, however, so that prior to it are only two debut stories showing the protagonist as a mystery woman, and then some stories that reveal at least part of her origin. The first two “mystery woman” stories have considerable bearing on this story, in that the two earlier tales put Snowblood in the position of defending an orthodoxy, just as she essentially does in “Rokumeikan.” In both, the owners of criminal or shady enterprises hire Snowblood to get rid of their rivals, who have gained economic ascendancy through some new innovation. For example, in the first Snowblood story the assassin is sent to kill a gambler who has attracted greater custom than his rivals through offering prostitute-services aboard “entertainment boats.”


Now in “Rokumeikan,” the orthodoxy is a good deal more sympathetic than a bunch of aggrieved gamblers. Koike’s script makes clear that the social hall is simply a means for unworthy men to advance politically by pimping out their daughters to both Japanese and Western officials. In addition, Ishizaka is appalled that the pro-Westerners, in their desire to equal the Western imperialists, consider such extreme measures as abandoning the Japanese language for English and sponsoring massive interbreeding with Caucasians in order to spawn a new, less “inferior” race. Both measures--which Koike says were genuinely considered in 1880s Japan--are clearly assaults on Japanese culture in favor of assuming a Westernized façade for profit motives. Thus in “Rokumeikan” Snowblood becomes a mythic defender of her culture against Western barbarism, represented by both institutionalized racism and sexual license.


Of course, the relationship of the SNOWBLOOD series to sex is a double-edged sword, both in the diegetic and extra-diegetic senses. In the diegesis Snowblood uses her beauty both to beguile men into compromising themselves, and when she fights, her nudity implicitly serves to distract them, making them vulnerable to her blade. Extra-diegetically, though, her displays of nudity appeal to mostly male readers, who on some level are “getting their rocks off.” Amusingly, this makes them closer in spirit to the story’s villains, like the dissolute officials of the Rokumeikan.


George Bataille, a philosopher strongly influenced by Marx but not enslaved to his narrow economic dictums, attempted in his fiction to go beyond what he called “libinal economy,” to devise sexual scenarios so outrageous that they would no longer serve the purpose of simple economic exchange, be it that of a john buying real sex from a prositute or a customer buying sexy fiction for a sexual thrill. In fact, the exchange of a “cash nexus” for an object or a service parallels the most disinterested form of sexual exchange, which is in its turn comparable to Buber’s “I-it” relationship.


Does LADY SNOWBLOOD also exceed “libinal economy?” Not in the same manner as Bataille’s fiction, to be sure. The SNOWBLOOD manga-customer in the real world expects to see a lot of sex-action for his money, just as do the inhabitants of the SNOWBLOOD world do for their money. However, in the extra-diegetic world, the customer also expects to see the lady assassin slice and dice assorted villains, so the extra-diegetic customer is also getting the thrill of action. One can imagine a slavish Marxist interpreter believing that Snowblood’s attacks are an attack on capitalist economy, and thus implicitly a validation of Marx’s anti-capitalist wish-dream.


I called Snowblood a “mythic defender” of her culture earlier because she falls in with a long line of Japanese heroes whose raison d’etre concerns committing brutal actions with a near-mystical detachment. Though “Rokumeikan” opposes her to Western imperial control and sexual license, Koike and Kamimura show that traditional Japanese culture is no less given to economic abuse than the West. Indeed, in the story of Snowblood’s origin, her samurai path is determined, prior to her birth, by the murder of her father and the rape of her mother by individuals attempting a moneymaking scheme no less crass than that of “Rokumeikan.”


SNOWBLOOD thus avoids the ratiocentrist conceits of Marxist fictions, for the story is concerned, first and foremost, with the elemental conflicts of human life and thought. At the conclusion of “Rokumeikan,” Snowblood, having brought down the social hall, takes her leave. Though she’s naked, she’s utterly unaffected by the gazes of the men around her, and some of them lower their eyes deferentially, after the fashion of the “Lady Godiva” legend. Ishizaka defines, as best he can, the mystery of Lady Snowblood, using the Japanese concept of "syura" (Hell):

“What purifies the turbid state of this world isn’t white snow, but the scarlet, fierce snow of syura.”

MYTHCOMICS #11: KAMANDI #30



PLOT-SUMMARY for “UFO: the Wildest Trip Ever”: On Kamandi’s future-Earth, most humans have devolved to animal status while intelligent, humanoid animals now rule the world. Kamandi and his older male friend, mutant Ben Boxer, seek shelter one night in a structure they mistake for an abandoned bunker. In truth it’s a flying saucer, which takes the two Earthmen on a “wild trip” many miles away, to an island that’s little more than a great sand-pit. The saucer’s owner, a humanoid whose features are hidden by his helmet and flight-gear, never communicates with the humans but turns Kamandi and Ben loose on the island. They find that it’s the alien’s repository for assorted objects representing the lost glories of humanity—mostly large sculptures and ancient vehicles, one of which is an airliner full of dead, quick-frozen passengers. Ben deduces that the two of them are to be living “samples” in the alien’s collection. As soon as he hazards that speculation, it’s confirmed as an enormous circular space-warp materializes in the sky and begins sucking the alien’s collection into the sky and swallowing buildings, ocean liners, et al. The humans see no escape but fortunately their investigation of the airliner turns up an “atomic satchel bomb,” which they accidentally activate. The bomb stays aboard the airliner as the warp draws it up, and detonates so as to close off the sky-door. The alien, cut off from his passage home, tries to ray-blast Ben and Kamandi. In the ensuing battle Kamandi ruptures the alien’s suit, and bolts of energy blast out of it, for it turns out that the alien was “living cohesive energy.” Without his suit the alien is out of commission for the time being, but his suit’s explosion exposes Ben to massive amounts of radiation. The story ends on a cliffhanger, as Kamandi finds that Ben has become a giant.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: KAMANDI #30 is the first part of a multi-issue continuity that takes place on the island. This rather rambling storyline involves various adventures for Kamandi and Ben—Ben eventually having his gigantic condition reversed, an invasion by competing animal armies, and Kamandi’s discovery that the nameless alien can become his ally once “he” regains a body—which, as it happens, turns out to be female. Kirby’s assorted plotlines are enjoyable enough but only this first section—almost a stand-alone tale save for the cliffhanger--carries the symbolic resonance of myth.


The story’s first panel includes a caption stating that “an invader stalks the dreams of Kamandi,” and by extension, those of his buddy Ben as well. But though Kirby leaves no doubt that their adventure is not a dream, the entire story has a more dreamlike tone than most KAMANDI stories. Possibly this is because the story is clearly patterned on the various “UFO narratives” that were receiving considerable media-exposure in the 1970s, and skeptics derided these stories as hallucinations or dreams, if not outright lies. In fact, while aboard the saucer Kamandi and Ben are even “probed.” Naturally, given Jack Kirby’s propensities for “G-rated” work, this brief incident carries none of the quasi-sexual content of the UFO-narratives; rather, for two brief panels thin wires extend from the saucer’s walls and attach themselves to the heroes, with one closeup of the wires attaching to their faces.


The opening caption also mentions that Kamandi’s post-disaster Earth “has violently buried the past and created new and terrifying mysteries.” To be sure, the nameless alien and his space-warp aren’t created by the future-Earth’s disaster, but their agency is certainly drawn to Earth out of some unexplained curiosity about mankind’s vanished glories. Many stories in the KAMANDI series, following the pattern suggested by the PLANET OF THE APES films, mediate on such transitory glories, but KAMANDI #30 is the only Kirby tale that takes the APES theme a little further. The image of buried vehicles and statuary in the island’s “sand-pit” is certainly derived from the conclusion of the 1968 film, in which the remnants of Lady Liberty lie half-buried on a sandy beach. However, though PLANET OF THE APES has nightmarish moments, it never seems dreamlike, as KAMANDI #30 does. Kirby’s story could be read in Jungian terms as an “anamnesis,” in which the ego of the viewing subject finds itself hurled into a “collective unconsciousness” consisting of images and icons from mankind’s past.


The space-warp also carries a symbolic resonance that goes beyond its base functionality in the story. Kirby’s captions imply that the warp is the means by which the alien traverses “the vastness of space,” but its principal purpose in the story is to transport the glories of mankind to some undiscovered country. Since Kirby never has the alien explain his purpose, the alien’s enterprise takes on an eerie ambiguity, and the warp seems less like a standard SF-device and more like a numinous presence—a gateway not to an alien world, but to some celestial firmament, into which the detritus of the phenomenal world is being converted back into the nothingness of the originary world. Kirby largely eschews direct religious references in KAMANDI #30, but on page 6 he does describe the saucer in flight as pouring forth “gobbets of angel fire.” Even the fact that the alien has no real body suggests the Judeo-Christian concept of angels that can assume or discard human form at will.





Against such supernormal visitors, Kirby’s humans must rely on dogged perserverance. Throughout the KAMANDI series Kirby alludes to (but does not state outright) the possibility than nuclear weapons contributed to the disaster. Yet the one nuclear knickknack that appears in this story plays an ambivalent role. Though originally intended for the “horrible crime” of slaughtering an airplane full of people, the satchel-bomb saves two humans from being captured or destroyed by alien technology, and so represents a positive aspect of human inventiveness. On page 16 two Kirby-captions suggest the thought processes of the inscrutable alien as he tries to kill Ben and Kamandi: “To deal with ‘men’ is a classic error. They accept nothing—not even death.” Significantly, Ben Boxer—who in other stories displays the power to change into a metallic colossus—uses no more super-power than does Kamandi in wrestling with this intergalactic “angel.” Thus the alien’s incomprehensible designs are defeated by the complementary factors of human insight and human determination.


I mentioned in the first paragraph that in later issues the energy-alien takes on the form of a human female, albeit one with bright crimson skin and able to shoot bolts of cosmic flame. Despite gaining the name “Pretty Pyra” and the ability to speak, Pyra never tells the readers the purpose of her enterprise; only after Jack Kirby left the feature did a later writer venture a full explanation of her mission. This suggests that Kirby didn’t really want to reduce the “UFO” adventure to the level of standard science fiction tropes, though in earlier features, such as GREEN ARROW and CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, he had used such tropes in purely functional fashion. Unfortunately Pyra’s embodiment robs her of her mythic identity. With the help of another Kamandi-ally, the scientist Doctor Canus, Pyra takes on human form by using Kamandi’s own body as a template. However, though this cosmic take on the Frankenstein myth had great potential, Kirby doesn’t establish any meaningful connection between the “Last Boy on Earth” and his fiery “offspring.” Kirby probably meant Pyra to be another iteration of the “cosmic innocent” type so well realized with his Silver Surfer. But Pyra never fits the scope of Kamandi’s earthbound adventures, and her assumption of feminine form seems merely an idle fancy, as her femininity has no impact on future Kirby stories.


Having invoked Jung, I suppose I should note that the “hole in the sky” could in Freudian terms be read as a “cosmic vagina,” devouring instead of giving birth. The fact that the owner of the “hole” turns out to have feminine aspects might partly support such a reading. However, in most of his oeuvre Jack Kirby’s fantasies tended more toward Jungian abstraction than to Freudian concrete physicality. In a 1972 interview republished in THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #52, Kirby’s questioners, in apparent seriousness, state: “Maybe we have dirty minds but the Mother Box means one thing to us and we just wondered if you had that in mind.” Kirby replies that he only noticed the association only when he “really began to think about the label I put on it.” Later in the same interview he doesn’t rule out Freudian interpretations but claims that his main thought was that, “I saw it as gaining simple strength from the mystic. I feel that man has the capacity to gain strength from the mystic, something outside himself, something beyond his body.” This remark makes an excellent gloss on this KAMANDI continuity, for though the hero’s initial encounter with a “mystic ET” is a negative one, in the long run that ET becomes an ally in the adventures of the Last Boy on Earth.

TWO IF BY TUESDAY

New rule:

If I miss posting something new on "1001 comics" between one Mythic Monday and the next, as I recently did, I have to do two posts by Tuesday.

That's it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

FINDING SIGMUND PART 1

"Insofar as imagination is spontaneity, I also sometimes entitle it productive imagination, to distinguish it from reproductive imagination,whose synthesis is entirely subject to empirical laws, namely, of association, and which therefore contributes nothing to the explanation of the possibility of an *a priori* cognition."-- Immanuel Kant.

Sigmund Freud was, as I've noted elsewhere, a foursquare empiricist in both his psychological theories and his personal philosophy. He considered his Oedipus complex to be a universal experience of all mankind because every human psyche, like every human organism, was designed (at least under optimal conditions) to pass through a series of developmental phases of which the complex was the foundation. When proper development did not take place, the psyche, just like the physical organism, could become deformed. (Deleuze points out Freud's early concerns with and influence by the science of teratology.) For Freud, there was no such thing as a "productive imagination" able to perceive the "pure representations of space and time": all imagination was the product of associations based in a given subject's experience.

Kant clearly opposed the Empiricists of his time, who viewed all imagination as experience-based, as well as the Rationalists who attempted to conceive it as fundamentally transcending experience. But as Kant's dichotomy shows, he does not deny the existence of a "reproductive imagination," an imagination based in pure experience; rather, Kant demonstrates that its existence does not rule out a dichotomous form of the imagination which does reach beyond individual experience.

Kant's formulation of two complementary forms of imagination proves useful for the critic seeking to suss out why Freud's schema applies well to some literary works, both canonical and popular, but not to others. For every ROSMERSHOLM that seems to validate the Oedipus complex, in part because the Ibsen play appeared prior to Freud's seminal INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, there are dozens of works, from MOBY DICK to BATMAN, where Freudian analysis has been fallaciously, and often comically, misapplied.

Alternately, because in contemporary times Freud is not really considered to be that good an empiricist in terms of using experimental evidence, academics will often employ the "old wine in new bottles" trick, applying to literary works the doctrines of intellectuals strongly influenced by Freud, whether they actually styled themselves as Freudians (like Lacan) or not.

As a critical idealist myself, I reject any doctrine that reduces all facets of imagination to random associations, or to cognitively-reasoned associations (i.e., allegory), or any combinations thereof.

However, I can't deny the likelihood that there must something to the Oedipus complex if Henrik Ibsen wrote a play that seems to reproduce the fundamentals of that schema (specifically in its feminine iteration) long before Freud had made the complex famous enough to be liberally referenced in literature, as by writers as diverse as Eugene O'Neill and Robert Bloch.

In short, it's my contention that Freud's Oedipal fantasy is a real archetype, though obviously not as univerally pervasive as he liked to think. But it is an archetype that springs from the "reproductive imagination" in that it's an archetype concerned more with experience than essence in the critical-idealist sense. The archetype's central message is always the blending of *eros* with all other forms of love-- *agape, caritas,* et al-- and in that sense it is dominantly associational. There are a few exceptions to this general rule, in that the base Oedipal can be crossbred as it were with images of the productive imagination.

In future installments of this series I'll deal with some of the right and wrong ways to impose Freud's "reproductive imaginings" upon fictional works.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #10: JAR OF FOOLS
























"It ain't a magician's world anymore."


PLOT-SUMMARY: Ernie Weiss is a professional magician. At the story's opening he's become a penniless drunk, traumatized by the death of his brother Howard, who perished in a bungled escape-artist stunt, possibly committing suicide. Ernie has also split from Esther, his girlfriend, but he dreams about her and she finds herself unable to bond to a new boyfriend. Ernie is then forced out of his torpor when Al Flosso, the elderly magician who taught him his trade, escapes a senior-care institution and takes refuge with Ernie. To dodge the institution's orderlies who come looking for Flosso, Ernie throws in with confidence-man Nathan Lender, who allows Ernie and Flosso to live with him and his little daughter Claire in Nathan's car, which is hidden under the pilings of a major bridge. In exchange Lender requires Ernie and Al to teach Claire the magician's trade. Lender says that he wants her to learn a "legitimate" trade. However, he ends up using Claire's talents to rip off a cafeteria cash-register. By this time Esther has by chance happened across the quartet's hiding-place, which works out well for Ernie; his obsession with his brother's death boil over and only Esther manages to stop him from fatally imitating Howard's deadly stunt. Then Ernie and Esther see a police patrol about to descend on Lender and Claire. To distract the cops Lender lets the cops catch him with the cash register, and pleads with Esther to take Claire back to her mother. As she does so, Ernie and Al head toward an uncertain future, though Al seems strangely confident about their fate.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: As Flosso's quote above suggests, there is no magic, not even "magic-realism," in Jason Lutes' world, and yet the vibe of JAR is much like that of the magic realists. Visually this impression is supported by the leitmotif seen in the above illustration: grids of power-lines suspended over the cityscape, which Flosso compares to "some kind of spider's nest-- and I don't wanna be here when the owner comes home." Despite the fact that the wires are never anything but the tools with which human beings communicate, Lutes uses the power-grid as a symbol for the failures of communication, which haunt the characters like so many bad dreams.

All of the characters are to some extent haunted by the past. Ernie is the most obvious, in that his obsession with his dead brother almost costs him his life, but Esther is haunted by the failure of her relationship with Ernie, Al by the memories of his vanished youth, and both Lender and Claire by the breakup of Lender's marriage. Yet Lutes does allow for the possibility of communicative breakthroughs, though none of them take place over the phonelines, except for an early scene when Flosso calls Ernie for the first time.

Not covered in the above summation are some other details: Lender, who just wants to make it easier for Ernie to teach Claire tricks, happens across a pawn-shop where he obtains, to Ernie's horror, the very strait-jacket in which Howard perished. Briefly the story takes on a Pyncheonesque air as Ernie tries to find out who pawned Howard's jacket; the trail leads to an electrician's union whose company logo resembles one seen later in the scene where Flosso ruminates about the spidery nature of the power-lines. However, given that Lutes wants his characters to triumph over their obsessions and failures-- a rare attitude in artcomics-- Ernie never learns the secret behind the jacket's pawning and ceases to pursue the matter once Esther saves him from self-immolation.

Lender's backstory isn't pursued in as much detail as Ernie's, but he's no less poignant. Lender insists to Flosso that his confidence-games are illusions that make people feel good, even as the illusions of magic do-- though both professions are being marginalized by the world of technological advancement. It's certainly no coincidence that Lutes names him "Lender" when in truth he lives by "borrowing" on human needs. But he does manage a moderate triumph by sacrificing himself to save Claire and returning her to a normal life.

Esther, Claire and Flosso don't face turnabouts quite as vivid as those of Ernie and Lender. But Lutes gives attention to the negative forces in their lives as well-- Flosso by seeing his world pass away, Claire by the uncertainty of her parental breakup. As for Esther, Lender also indirectly spurs her out of her lethargy in what would ordinarily seem a negative influence. He swindles her with a con-game and flees her wrath, which she then vents on a loudmouth who makes remarks about Esther's resemblance to a "brick shithouse." This gets a warrant declared against Esther, but this bit of bad luck forces her to flee her old life so that she stumbles across Lender's camp and providentially saves Ernie from his fatal obsession. It's also fitting that although Ernie and Esther do to some extent recover some of their love, JAR ends with them separating, muting the relative triumph and allowing the reader to realize that all the characters still have a long road to travel.

Friday, May 20, 2011

THE NARROWING GYRE

When I posted the part of my essay on Matena which dealt with the current state of artcomics, I had a board-poster ask me:

What falls under "capital L" literature or "little l" literature according to you?


I replied:

"Small-l" literature means the totality of literary productions as we know them: popular fiction, "Art" fiction, and some forms of nonfiction that may be relevant to literary understanding, like deQuincey's CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER.

"Capital-L" literature means the Good Stuff that cultural critics decide is important enough to write about and to preserve as examples of fine writing or great literary insight.


Now, that was simply a broad working definition. I wanted to make clear that even though (as my earlier essay should indicate) that I don't personally *like* the more ultra-realistic works celebrated in artcomics circles, as against works that make more sustained use of literary concepts and symbolic discourse, there's no doubt that the former works, even when they may claim not to be fiction at all (ranging from deQuincey's CONFESSIONS to Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR), can occupy a real place in the cosmos of "Capital-L literature."

Now, I've quoted Northrop Frye before on the subject of literature's spectrum of literary concerns:

As Frye notes in the ANATOMY, verisimilitude is only one pole in a spectrum of literary concerns, with "myth"-- which I'll define as the totality of symbolic potential in literature-- occupying the other pole.


However, of late I've perceived that Philip Wheelwright's works may prove a better guide than Frye for understanding how literature itself mirrors the variability of language.

For instance, it's hard to say that a fictional work that appears true to "realistic" concerns possesses more intrinsic verisimilitude than an artful nonfiction work like Capote's IN COLD BLOOD, even though one is only figuratively "real" and the other is "really real," albeit filtered through an interpreter. However, Wheelwright introduces his concept of "steno-language," which applies to purely denotative representation. Such language communicates:

…meanings that can be shared in exactly the same way by a very large number of persons—in general, by all persons using the same language or the same group of inter-translatable languages. Examples are so obvious that they may be mentioned without explanation. Common words like child, parent, dog, tree, sky, etc., are steno-symbols, and their accepted meanings are steno-meanings, because what each of the words indicates is a set of definable experiences (whether actual or only possible) which are, in certain recognizable respects, the same for all who use the word correctly. (Metaphor and Reality, p. 33.)


This idea of "steno-language" would be potentially more useful in addressing the differences between that which represents a real event and that which simply puts forth the expectations of realism in fictional terms.

Against this type of language Wheelwright views expressive language, or "poeto-language," as one that is plurisignative, potentially carrying many meanings. Yet at the beginning of Chapter 5 of THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, Wheelwright makes explicit that he's not endorsing the "unnatural dichotomy 'science vs. poetry.' promoted by [S.T.] Colerdige and [I.A.] Richards." Rather:

"...the distinction between the two modes of linguistic procedure should be conceived not as a dichotomy, not as a frontier between two equal armies, but rather on the model of variables approaching a limit."

Naturally, as I've also built a fair amount of my theory around Frye's definition of the symbol as a "complex variable," I find the two systems complementary, even though Wheelwright has an advantage in that his books are focusing primarily on language as such, rather than language in the form of literary genres.

It's possible, then, to see such works as AMERICAN SPLENDOR or Chester Brown's PAYING FOR IT as a steno-linguistic procedure, in that the works seek to reproduce "a set of defineable experiences" with some degree of artfulness, but always privileging the reported experience over the aesthetic presentation. A work like Lutes' JAR OF FOOLS, by contrast, does not pretend to be any sort of reportage, and though responsive to realistic representation is freer to verge into a wider range of expressive literary strategies. Further from realism still we would have Brown's YUMMY FUR and a small handful of comics-works that embrace fantasy but are also responsive to the themes and symbols common to "Capital-L" literature in other media.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

TOP 20 LIVE-ACTION SUPERHERO FILMS

To be sure, some of my "top 20" won't be recognized as films with superheroes in them, though I certainly could justify the featured heroes as belonging to what I call the "superhero idiom."

MARK OF ZORRO, THE (1920)-- The first cinematic adaptation of Zorro, as well as the film that elevated Douglas Fairbanks Sr to adventure superstardom

SEIGFRIED (1924)-- Fritz Lang's ambitious adaptation of the Seigfried legend

MASK OF FU MANCHU, THE (1932)-- *Not* the first film adaptation of classic "super-villain" Fu Manchu but still an over-the-top delirious delight

TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932)-- The first Johnny Weismuller Tarzan, and still the definitive jungle-hero.

ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941)-- The best chapter-serial adaptation of a comic-book superhero.

7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, THE (1958)-- The best venture by Ray Harryhausen pitting heroic swains against stop-motion monsters

GOLDFINGER (1964)-- The best of the '60s superspy films.

DIABOLICAL AXE, THE (1965)-- Mexico made dozens of wrestler-superhero films, but this one, which gives Santo an origin uncannily like that of Captain Marvel, is excellent escapism.

THE FIRST STAR WARS TRILOGY (1977/1980/1983)-- Well, it really is one long continuity spread out over three films, so I'm counting it as one big film.

SUPERMAN II (1980)-- Once the origin was outta the way, the sequel was free to be a little less portentous.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1980)-- Valentine to the adventure-serials of yore, albeit with a supernatural angle they usually didn't attempt.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)-- Not always true to Robert E. Howard, but closer than any other live-action or animated version.

ROBOCOP (1987)-- Best of the "future-Earth" superheroes

BATMAN (1989)-- Whether you think modern superhero movies are a good thing or not, Tim Burton gets the credit for making them viable as adult entertainment.

HEROIC TRIO, THE (1993)-- Hong Kong's best take on the superhero genre

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2003)-- Wire-fu *wuxia* superheroics.

X2: XMEN UNITED (2003)-- Another #2 sequel that outdoes the original.

SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)-- And yet another #2 that outdoes #1.

IRON MAN (2008)-- Robert Downey, jacked up on armor.

INCREDIBLE HULK, THE (2008)-- Still not the absolute best take on the Hulk, but the closest so far.

It'll be interesting to see if any of 2011's offerings force me to drop one or more favorites. GREEN LANTERN certainly seems a contender-- but I thought that about THOR, too.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

SYMBOLIC VICTORIES

In my MYTHCOMICS #8 post I wrote:

I’ve stated in the past that I don’t think all literary stories must have complex symbolism simply to be “capital-L” literature. Joyce’s DUBLINERS stories have a simpler artistic aim than his ULYSSES, but both are Literature. But when I see how well Dick Matena puts across a complex meaning using a thoroughgoing knowledge of symbolism, I’m all the more disappointed in the bulk of both European and American artcomics. The artists behind them continually trumpet the inferiority of popular comic books to their artistic strivings, but few of them have shown the ambition to attempt even something as complex as this 8-page Matena story, much less a ULYSSES. It’s as if most practitioners of Western artcomics took as their “Bible” Zola’s fulminations on behalf of naturalism, but never actually read the actual Zola novels to see how much symbolism the author himself used.


The problem, however, isn't limited to artcomics-culture. In THE SPHERE OF LONGINUS, I agreed with the verdict of M.A.R. Habib to the effect that Longinus seems to be the first extant literary theoretician to oppose Aristotle's notion that "universality and typicality" (Habib's words) were to be valued over those literary elements that incited wonder and emotional transport.

To double-check Habib's conclusions, I recently reread Aristotle's POETICS to see whether or not I could find in it any validation of "wonder" for its own sake, as opposed to functioning as part of some rhetorical or persuasive scheme. The closest I found was this statement about *dianoia,* which is Aristotle's word for not just the dialectical arguments presented by a work's characters but also for all forms of "thought" in a given work:

Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being,--proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite.


However, the very next sentences establish that all of these elements are subsumed to their role in dialectical argument:

Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. The only difference is, that the incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while the effects aimed at in speech should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech. For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed quite apart from what he says?


Thus, though I can find no passage in the POETICS where Aristotle meditates on symbols as such, this suggests that he saw them as essentially vehicles of dialectic, as against Longinus, who considers the elements of "the sublime" to go beyond the limits of mere "persuasion."

Aristotle does devote a chapter of the POETICS to the subject of metaphor, and acknowledges its central importance:

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.


However, this too does not address the ways in which metaphor works in an affective sense, only in a (somewhat) cognitive manner. Philip Wheelwright remarks:

"...our ways of thinking about [metaphor] need to be rescued from misleading habits and particularly from the long tyranny of the grammarians. The familiar textbook definition, descended from Aristotle and Quintillian, is based upon syntactical, not semantic considerations."-- THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, "Metaphoric Tension," p. 102.

Wheelwright then pursues a detailed analysis of the different ways in which both simile and metaphor carry differing levels of "semantic energy-tension." In other words, Wheelwright's theory, as with that of Longinus, is intimately concerned with the ways in which one may cognitively appreciate the affective dimensions of symbolic communication, rather than committing the logical fallacy of seeing the affectivity as just another cognitive function.

I suspect that most artcomics critics are of an Aristotelian mind. They appreciate works that seem to function as instances of well-wrought *dianoia,* because they as critics can then interpret such thoughts in terms of either ethical or aesthetic criticism-- neither of which is adequate to take in the whole of artistic endeavor, as I explained here.

But in fairness, this mistake is one that much of Western criticism pursued over many centuries. So if nothing else, they come by it honestly.

Monday, May 16, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #9: INCREDIBLE HULK #1



"But there is a Hulk! And don't you ever forget it!"-- Hulk to Betty, HULK #1.






PLOT-SUMMARY: At a U.S. military installation, Dr. Bruce Banner supervises the Army’s test of his new weapon, the gamma bomb, but two specters haunt his endeavor. One is General Ross, an old-school officer who expresses contempt for technological warfare and who disapproves of his daughter Betty’s interest in Banner. The other is Banner’s subordinate Igor, first seen attempting to bully Banner due to Igor’s greater size. Banner, spotting a teen boy’s car parked on the test site, tells Igor to delay the test. Igor then displays the true colors suggested by his Russian name, allowing the test to go through in order to knock off a prominent American scientist. Banner gets teenager Rick Jones to safety but is himself bombarded by gamma radiation. Banner seems unharmed but that night Jones is the sole witness when Banner changed into the monstrous Hulk. The monster fights with a handful of base soldiers and then makes a beeline for Banner’s lab, with Jones following. The Hulk finds Igor ransacking Banner’s lab for secrets and knocks him out. Moments later the sun rises and Jones sees the Hulk change back to Banner, just moments before soldiers break in.


Igor is jailed for espionage but still sends a message to his master behind the Iron Curtain: the Gargoyle, formerly an ordinary man but mutated by radiation into a big-brained, hideous-faced super-genius. The Gargoyle journeys to the U.S. to capture the Hulk, hoping to use him as a template for an army of super-warriors. He arrives on the second night Banner transforms, somehow finding his way to the Hulk just as the monster (tailed by Jones as always) encounters Betty Ross, who duly faints at the sight of the creature. The Gargoyle subdues both the Hulk and Jones and transports them back to the USSR. However, once there the monster has reverted to Banner, and suddenly the Gargoyle becomes torn, remembering the human being he used to be. Banner uses his scientific knowledge to cure the Gargoyle’s deformity, transforming him back to an ordinary man. In gratitude the Gargoyle gives the two Americans a plane to take them back home, and then, eager to revenge himself on the Communists who mutated him, he blows up the Russian installation.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: The basic schema for the HULK concept is best framed as “Jekyll and Hyde for the Atomic Age.” However, the Jekyll-story upon which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby base their myth is not that of originator Robert Louis Stevenson, but of adaptations produced for stage and screen. In some of these, Jekyll’s reason for unleashing his Hyde-id is sexual: he has a fiancée but can’t marry her until he receives consent from her disapproving father. Obviously the Banner-Betty relationship is not that far along, but it’s significant that General Ross’s main reason for disliking Banner is that Banner is not a tough military man as Ross himself is.


This constellation—damsel, damsel’s suitor and damsel’s father—is rife with Freudian potential, though only one scene touches on such currents. As noted above, on the occasion of Banner’s second transformation, the Hulk realizes he’s near the house of Betty and her father, and he goes there, though one never knows just why. Betty, who has not seen the Hulk before, is musing out loud that she hopes there is no such creature, and when he appears before her, the Hulk may be seen as the recrudescent Hyde-id, asserting his supremacy. Moreover, though the Hulk and Jones are taken away by the Gargoyle before General Ross finds his daughter, his rage at the monster’s encroachment becomes personal. Betty, for her part, has an ambivalent reaction, feeling terrified by the Hulk’s appearance but able to intuit the “sadness” in his face.


Still, power, not sex, is the subject of the Hulk myth, particularly as it reflects the pissing contests between America and the USSR during the early “Atomic Age.” It’s no coincidence that even though Ross denigrates Banner for being less than a red-blooded he-man, Banner’s science confers on him insuperable strength, with which he can routinely humiliate Ross by defeating his forces. Yet HULK #1 doesn’t glory in these victories as much as do later stories. The first version of the Hulk lusts after power: “With my strength, my power—the world is mine!” He contemplates killing Jones to silence the boy, and scorns Betty for her weakness when she faints. This Hulk is a funhouse-mirror reflection of both military “he-man” Ross and bullying Igor.


A ratiocentrist interpretation of HULK #1 might jump to the conclusion that because the Hulk fights the American military, he might be some sort of Sartrean “other” that criticizes the accepted order. That’s only partly true. Ross’s simplistic chauvinism is not presented favorably, but the Hulk is no beleaguered innocent here. To a reader of anti-Communist comic books of the period, the Hulk’s aspirations for conquest sound much like the mission statement of Communism. The Gargoyle himself speaks of conquest in the same avaricious terms, and even speaks of his subordinates as “weaklings” the same way the Hulk despises weakness.


Plainly in this story, Lee and Kirby are not glorying in the “rule of the strong,” and that may explain the unusual twist in the story’s last quarter, where the day is saved not by the title character, but by his alter ego Bruce Banner. The Hulk and the Gargoyle seem set up for a mythic conflict between Brawn and Brain, but the Hulk is subdued rather easily and doesn’t appear thereafter. Instead, once the Gargoyle learns Banner’s secret, the conflict becomes that of two “brains,” one guided by soulless Communism and one by soulful democracy. Banner wins against Communism by making it possible for the Gargoyle to regain his humanity, and thus gains not only his own freedom but converts one of Communism’s adherents. It’s rather convenient that the very first thing the Gargoyle wants to do with his regained humanity is to sacrifice his life in a Pyrrhic victory over his government (represented by a picture of Kruschev on the wall). As the former villain’s base explodes, Banner wonders if the Gargoyle’s conversion may signal “the beginning of the end of the Red tyranny.” But since the Reds are not responsible for Banner’s transformation, it may be that the real symbolic kernel of HULK #1 is the renunciation of power itself—though that theme naturally did not survive future adventures of a green-skinned muscleman superhero.

Friday, May 13, 2011

ARGH, THAT AWFUL ASGARD!



("and above we see that the true influence on lost Norse architecture actually arose from the makers of pipe organs..."


I’m writing this review two weeks after the profitable opening of Marvel Studios' adaptation of the THOR comic book. As with Iron Man, Thor is one of those perennial features which, outside the bubble of comics-fandom, hasn’t been a name with which to conjure. But the cinematic THOR propels the character to a new level of widespread recognition, as did the first IRON MAN film, by tapping into the pre-summer blockbuster anticipation. To be sure, this isn’t the sole reason that THOR THE MOVIE is doing well, for it does present an attractive if mixed-bag package. But good points aside, the thunder-god film doesn’t earn its new fame quite as honestly as did the armored avenger.


In my reviews I generally try to explore whatever literary myth underlies a given work. THOR, however, is a “movie of many parts,” in which the different aspects, good and bad, mitigate against the film’s having any sound structure. Thus, I’m reduced to the old bullet-point approach. Readers who already saw and enjoyed the film--which seems the dominant response--may prefer just to stick with the good points.


GOOD STUFF:

The actors, without a doubt, are THOR’s greatest asset. Chris Hemsworth makes a fine Thor for the slimmed-down, post-Schwarzenegger generation of heroes. The romance between his “god-brought-down-to-earth” and lady scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is easily the strongest element of the movie. Despite pedestrian dialogue Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba put across the gravitas of powerful gods, and Tom Hiddleston puts emotional depth into villainous Loki--too often portrayed as a road-company Shakespearean schemer, even by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-- though the script makes his motivations murky at best. In contrast to the “serious” gods, the film does an admirable job translating Thor’s buddy-deities, who all have good presence even when they’re not given much to do. Non-fans will probably be puzzled to hear the three guy-warriors--Hogun, Fandral and Volstaag--refer to themselves as “the Warriors Three” even though they’re never seen apart from their unofficial fourth member, tough warrior-woman Sif. In the comic Sif became Thor’s inamorata after Lee and Kirby phased out their version of Jane Foster, but naturally this film allows for no romantic sparks between Sif and the thunder-god.


The costumes are excellent, even if the filmmakers ditch Thor’s iconic helmet for most of the film, probably because it would have been a hassle to deal with in fight-scenes. Loki and Heimdall are particular standouts.


Of the three big fight-scenes, two of them-- Thor and his buddies battling a stunning version of The Destroyer, and Thor versus Loki--are very good. Only the opening salvo, in which Thor and his allies fight a gang of CGI frost-giants, disappoints, as it follows the current trend toward hyperkinetic fast-cuts that (intentionally?) make the action hard to follow.


Finally, two of the strongest plot-elements are derived from the Lee-Kirby comic. Loki’s villainy in the film stems from the insecurity of learning that he’s an adoptive son, which plot-point riffs on a TALES OF ASGARD story in which Odin adopts the son of a slain enemy. And though Odin’s reason for exiling Thor to Earth is very different from the one given by the comic book in the seminal THOR #159, the purpose is still that of imparting humility to an arrogant warrior-god.


However, mentioning the matter of war-gods brings me to the first item of the BAD STUFF.


I don’t expect the cinematic THOR to be a perfect translation of the comic book, any more than the comic accurately adapted the complexities of Norse mythology. Yet no matter how freeform the Lee-Kirby comic book was, the creators always understood the elemental appeal of the Thor myth: the pageantry and sacral violence of a warrior ethic. Movie-THOR clumsily rewrites this key value into a nancy-boy renunciation of the glories of violence. I have only contempt for critics who analyze films as if they were direct allegories of current events. Yet, when Odin dresses down Thor for hauling ass on the frost-giants, I heard in the tedious dialogue some scriptwriter’s fantasy of George H.W. Bush reaming out Dubya for his martial misadventures.


The film pretty much craps on the “high-fantasy” aspects of the Thor comic. The Asgard of Lee and Kirby is a pop-culture mélange where magical menaces are often repelled by weapons that look like Tolkienized versions of howitzers. But even with intrusions of SF-imagery, Lee and Kirby’s Asgard is an endless vista of wonders, and thus fits Tolkien’s chief criterion for a good secondary world: “enchantment.” The Asgard of Kenneth Branagh and his writers is a dreary SF-rationalization of mythology. True, when “science fantasy” does its semi-rational versions of archaic on mythology, such stories have their own aesthetic and can’t be judged on the same terms as pure fantasies. But THOR’s visualizations of the only two otherworldly realms of the film--Asgard and Jotunheim--are so bland, so devoid of wonder or even functional design, that I found myself waxing nostalgic for 1987’s MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.


I said earlier that the character of Loki takes on greater solidity thanks to the film’s adaptation of the “adopted evil son” motif from the comic book. However, in the comics-story the adoption takes place because Odin has slain Loki’s natural father Laufey. But the film bollixes up this plot-thread. In the film’s past, Odin finds baby Loki and believes at the time that the kid's parents are dead. But by present time both he and the audience know that Laufey is quite alive, as he’s the film’s secondary villain. One never knows at what point Odin makes this discovery, but once the audience learns it, Odin’s action of keeping Loki ignorant of his heritage begins to look less like beneficence and more like child-stealing. Loki’s “adoption” also parallels the Agardians’ theft of a mysterious “casket” from their frosty foes, which is some sort of power-source that the Jotuns want back, but this plot-device only exists to set up initial hostilities and fades out of the narrative quickly. At the eleventh hour of the film, in order to give viewers an FX-heavy finale, Loki suddenly unleashes a world-sundering menace that the film never sets up properly. Given how much effort the writers lavish on building the Thor-Jane relationship, it would have been nice if one didn’t get the feeling that they thought they could jerk the other characters around like so many chess-pieces.


Finally, I understand that the rationalization of the Thor-cosmos is an expedient way to get around whatever narrative difficulties the filmmakers had with making the Asgardians “real gods.” Aside from heading off protests from repressive religious forces, the SF-motif emanicipates (word-play intentional) the plot from the idea that these gods must be exclusively Caucasian Nordics. Thus Asgard can be multicultural, with a black Heimdall and an Asian Hogun. (In fairness, Jack Kirby did impart a vague Mongolian design to his Hogun). Yet this nod to multi-culti creates a logical problem. If the Asgardians are extradimensional aliens who enjoyed some independent existence before Earthpeople started worshipping them as gods, why have they become subsumed by Nordic culture? Prose science fantasies usually hypothesize that some advanced culture, whose representatives came to Earth sporting such names as “Apollo” or “Osiris,” come to Earth and that Earthmen copy both their mythology and their archaic culture from the alien gods. But THOR doesn’t veer into that Von Daniken-esque territory, though that may have been the intention. There’s just one scene of archaic Earth-times, in which invading frost-giants attack Earth and the gods come to humanity’s rescue. The implication I got from the scene was that the Scandinavians bestowed Nordic names on the aliens. If my memory’s accurate, then why do the multi-culti aliens keep exclusively Nordic names, instead of having a host of mythological identities? Did no one but the Scandinavians encounter these alien gods?


It’s clear to me that the original comics-idea—that the Nordic gods, whatever their origins, simply existed in some fairy-tale world—is less difficult to put across both logically and aesthetically. I’m aware that the cinematic THOR is also compromised by a grand scheme that will unite Thor and other Marvel heroes in a live-action AVENGERS movie, but I don’t think Asgard had to be purged of all of its wonderment just so that Thor wouldn’t (theoretically) outshine his more mundane colleagues. I didn’t expect Branagh’s alien gods to speak King James English, but a little grandeur in the language department would have gone a long way, as against Thor talking like a well-spoken yuppie with an extreme-sports jones.


I don’t know if other comics-fans yearned to see a cinematic THOR that translated the power and exoticism of the Lee-Kirby Asgard, which would have been fit to stand alongside the best magical fantasies of the cinema. Maybe most fans are just pleased that this Thor doesn’t look like a doofus, as did his previous live-action iteration in 1988’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS. But when I see such potential wasted, I’d rather watch a popcorn film—again, like the aforementioned He-Man film-- that never had any potential from the get-go.

Parting thought: the 3-D version sucks. Two dimensions are enough for this two-dimensional flick.

OF MAD SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS

Back in my essay OCD ON A HOTPLATE I found it strange that even though Jerry Siegel’s early SUPERMAN stories possesses strong mythicity in relation to the hero’s character, most of his opponents, whether they were mad scientists or abusive orphanages, had little mythic quality. I expressed surprise that SUPERMAN, despite the marvelous nature of its protagonist, seemed unable to sustain a pulpish level of myth-symbolism I such as I found in the BATMAN stories of that period, analyzed here.


I’ve also mentioned the “inconvenient truth” that a decade after Superman’s creators Siegel and Shuster lost control of their character, the franchise took on greater complexity during the early years of the Silver Age. To be sure, Jerry Siegel, working as a freelance scripter, was instrumental to creating some of that mythology during that, but he was entirely answerable to the authority of Mort Weisinger, who enjoyed editorial control of the SUPERMAN titles. Now, thanks to some of the articles and interviews in THE KRYPTON COMPANION, a 2006 TwoMorrows compendium of articles and interviews related to Superman, one can trace some of the diverse ways in which that mythology evolved.

One aspect that enhanced the symbolic complexity of the feature was the increased use of science-fiction elements. In fannish circles it’s often been said that the early Silver Age was the first time the series boasted such elements, whereas the stories from the previous ten years were dominantly more mundane in content, like episodes of the popular 1950s television show. Until recently, I tended to believe this, having only fragmentary knowledge of SUPERMAN comics of the late Golden Age. However, in one COMPANION essay, tellingly titled “The Superman Mythology,” author Eddy Zeno established that there was an increasing use of science-fictional concepts as early as 1952, mostly from writer Edmond Hamilton. “By 1952,” Zeno relates, “nearly every issue [of SUPERMAN or ACTION COMICS] had at least one of [Hamilton’s] tales of [exploring Kryptonian culture”]. Thus it would seem that, even though Hamilton is credited with just roughly 250 Superman stories, his skill with science-fiction scenarios may have convinced Weisinger to use more SF-concepts than one saw from Jerry Siegel in the Golden Age.





That said, Zeno admits that this relative increase of SF-stories “slowed to a trickle” in the Superman books over the next few years. This makes an interesting contrast with the fact that in 1950 DC launched STRANGE ADVENTURES, the first of a very long-running line of SF-comics. This would indicate that the company's management believed that there was a juvenile audience hungry for SF-tropes. But despite the fact that Weisinger had been a science fiction fan before he became a professional editor, he chose not to continue emphasizing science-fiction elements generally, or Kryptonian mythology in particular, for more than a year or two. Not until roughly 1958 did Weisinger and his stable of writers began emphasizing a consistent mythology for both Superman’s homeworld and his cast of characters. In all likelihood comics-fans will never know why Weisinger’s editorial prerogatives changed, so that a mere flirtation with SF-mythology in 1952 became a more sustained effort six years later.


Such was the background against which Superman’s Silver Age stories were forged. But what of the Superman stories of the next “age?”


By 1970—which is the year I personally consider to be the beginning of the “Bronze Age”-- Mort Weisinger had retired from DC, and the “Superman Family” books had been farmed out to an assortment of different editors. Julie Schwartz assumed custody of SUPERMAN and ACTION, but though Schwartz had been celebrated in fan-circles for his Silver Age titles, such as THE FLASH and GREEN LANTERN, Schwartz’s editorship on SUPERMAN was not quite as renowned. The SUPERMAN stories of the Bronze Age used as much science-fictional gimmickery as the tales from Schwartz’s Silver Age titles, or those of Weisinger’s SUPERMAN. But Schwartz’s Silver Age writers—principally John Broome and Gardner Fox—were able to impart symbolic resonance to the gimmicks, most of Schwartz’s Bronze-Age writers were not so accomplished. After enduring most of the wacky but one-note villains Superman faced in the 1970s—Terra-Man, Vartox, Karb-Brak—one might prefer the one-note Siegel villains of the 1940s.


However, there was IMO one major exception in the work of writer Marty Pasko, one of many interviewed in THE KRYPTON CHRONICLE. Ironically, Pasko’s remarks on the Superman concept make it sound like he would be the least likely writer to do anything insightful with the character:


“Most superhero characterization… is non-existent. Or so preposterous that a truly sophisticated, naturalistic, character-driven story is virtually impossible to achieve unless you ignore most of the ill-conceived backstory and reimagine it…”


I do not think superhero fiction works well when conceived primarily in naturalistic terms; at best, naturalism should be used as a leitmotif, to consistently play off the fantastic pheonomena of the stories, as best exemplified by the scripts of Stan Lee. And yet, despite his bias toward naturalism, Pasko demonstrated a more adventurous attitude toward at least one aspect of Superman’s mythology: his super-powered “rogues’ gallery.” Michael Eury, interviewing Pasko in THE KRYPTON CHRONICLE, observed that Pasko build up the formidability of several old-time Superman menaces--Toyman, Metallo, Bizarro. Pasko responded:


“…my goal was to take the old villains that Julie disdained and give them an edge, in hopes of attracting new, older readers. I seem to have succeeded in doing that, since the numbers on SUPERMAN went up while ACTION’s sales plateaued, and the only difference in the creative teams on the two books was the writer.”


Clearly, unlike his contemporaries Cary Bates and Elliott Maggin, whose stories reflected Julie Schwartz’s preference for gimmickery, Pasko was interested in refurbishing the established mythology of the older SUPERMAN books.


That’s not to say Pasko always succeeded in his goal. The original Metallo story by Robert Bernstein remains a strong evocation of the mythic trope of “the evil Superman,” even though the Metallo character dies at the end of the story. Pasko’s rebooting of the character resulted in a Metallo that was merely another good sparring-partner, though prior to Pasko the character had no more than minor status in the overall Superman mythos. However, Pasko succeeded in giving Toyman what the writer called “the creepy incongruity of a criminal mind lurking behind that avuncular, Ed Wynn exterior,” and Pasko’s Bizarro becomes once more the tragic Frankensteinian outcast seen in that character’s first few appearances.





Moreover, Pasko’s story for SUPERMAN #318—which takes a novel approach to Superman’s vow to preserve life—remains one of the best experiments with deepening Superman’s emotional resonance.

Thus one may observe the capaciousness of the SUPERMAN mythos, in that it was able to take fire from the diametrically opposed works of an Edmond Hamilton, a writer steeped in boyish SF-gimmickery, and of a Marty Pasko, a writer disdainful of those very elements.


ADDENDUM: I should note that it's entirely possible that Weisinger was ordered to tamp down the SF-motifs because the TV adaptation of the hero, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, debuted in 1952. Perhaps Weisinger's boss ordered him to make the comic look as much as possible like the low-budget teleseries, but because Weisinger had already bought a number of SF-themed scripts, it took a year or so for the comics to finish off that spate of SF-stories and assume complete fidelity with the TV show.

Monday, May 9, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #8: HEAVY METAL (September 1981)













PLOT-SUMMARY for “Judgment Day:” A man who looks like Adolf Hitler, but who is referred to as “Judas Priest,” is hawking copies of the Jehovah’s Witness publication THE WATCHTOWER in a surrealistic bathhouse. Judas spouts hyperbole about all the sinners who will face “eternal shame and tears” when the Son of God returns, but while doing so he peeks at the bathing women. Judas is mocked for his hypocrisy by a young male bather, Frankie Lee, identified as a “carpenter whose father is deceased.” Frankie tempts Judas by telling the roué that Frankie’s father left him a house full of prostitutes. Judas gives Frankie money but an (apparently) female bather approaches Judas and shocks him by showing off “her” dick. Retreating, Judas falls into the swimming pool. He sinks so deep that a submarine, commanded by a “Monsieur C,” spots him. Judas returns to the pool’s surface but now the bathhouse is almost empty, save for a youth with a guitar on his back. He claims to be “the son of my father,” who is “here to separate the good from the bad.” Judas follows the stranger to “the place from where everybody will leave to stand trial.” Judas witnesses half-naked guards in Nazi costumes attacking people at the place of trials. Then the “son” guides Judas to a train with a cattle-car containing “some of my father’s favorites.” When Judas gets in, he sees that the car is full of dead bodies. The son shuts Judas in, telling him that the corpses are alive now, because “I just woke them.” Story ends with Hitler/Judas about to get his reward.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: If one wishes to reduce Dutch artist Dick Matena’s 8-page story to its most basic level, then it’s a “Kill That Nazi One More Time” story. Given the real-world death of Adolf Hitler, more realistic stories in this vein, such as Krigstein’s celebrated “Master Race,” can only vent their wrath on Nazi subordinates who escaped war crimes trials. However, tales with greater fantasy-content can bring back the Fuhrer himself in one form or another, either by the SF-device of saving his brain or even telling an alternate history where Hitler gets killed in a more satisfying fashion (i.e., Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS).

By the title alone, it’s clear that Matena is frying up larger fish. The Christian religion’s emphasis upon sorting out “the good from the bad” in preparation for the Day of Judgment is conflated with the Nazi policy of sorting out the various undesirables that supposedly polluted German purity. Race and religion were the pollutants most often cited, but Nazism also reviled things having nothing to do with heritage, such as mental retardation and sexual deviance. Signficantly, though the corpses in the cattle-car reference the fate of prisoners shipped to concentration camps, Matena’s Judas does not inveigh against race or religion: only against the things considered sinful by Christian religion. Despite the specific reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses I don’t think Matena is singling out that particular sect: all Christians who base their ethics in the sorting-out of a “Final Time” are implicated in Matena’s comparison between Christianity and Nazism.


To be sure, it’s an implication steeped in comic irony. The image of Hitler selling copies of the WATCHTOWER is a very funny image, even before one knows where Matena’s going with the idea. Still, Matena does develop the idea, in contrast to occasional bits of toss-off surrealism, like the three-panels with the submarine in the swimming pool. One assumes that the “Monsieur C” running the submarine is a doppelganger for Jacques Cousteau, but he’s probably not in the story for any reason beyond brief amusement.


Other images are more provocative. Charlie Chaplin, who portrayed a version of Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR, stands in the background of the first panel. A nun’s habit hangs outside one bath-stall, into which Judas tries to peek: we later find out that the habit’s owner is the hermaphrodite, who shocks Judas by being something not easily classified in binary terms. A seeing-eye dog and a blind man’s cane (but not the man owning either) are seen at the top of page five, potentially evoking the story of Jesus bringing back the sight of a blind man—though the only mention of a “laying-on of hands” appears when Judas tells Frankie how Frankie’s father “turned black all over” when Judas touched him.


Clearly Frankie, Judas, and “the Son” all incarnate cracked-mirror aspects of the Savior who, in Christianity, redeems the sinfulness of the world, even though a sorting-out at the End of Time proves necessary despite the redemption. Clearly Frankie is called a “carpenter” purely as a reference to the Nazarene, and though Judas accuses him of being a tempter (“Always trying to seduce to weak!”), Frankie’s association with prostitutes is also more suggestive of Jesus than of the Biblical Satan.


The name of Judas is even more symbolically rich. Biblical Judas, who betrays Christ to the Romans, dies for his sin in the Gospels. And yet in medieval folklore Judas takes on literal new life, being cast as one version of “the Wandering Jew,” cursed to endure immortal life until Jesus returns, thus linking the mythology of Judas to that of the Last Days. Further, long before “Judas Priest” became the name of a rock band, it began as an epithet. Clearly Christians came to curse in the name of “Judas Priest” simply as a strategy to avoid the direct, blasphemous use of the name “Jesus Christ” for everyday curses,” much as “heck” was contrived as a substitute for “hell.” But what Matena’s Judas Priest does is a betrayal of a different kind: he pretends to a high moral code so that he can condemn sin in others while indulging in it himself.


At first glance the nameless “Son” might seem to be the agent of a superior moral code, since his whole purpose in the story is to give Hitler whatfor. But the Son isn’t without his unappealing aspects. Alluding the six-day creation of the world in Genesis, he complains that “I got only one day to bring it down.” For that reason, even though he will be punishing Judas/Hitler for Hitler’s crimes, the Son is also employs the quasi-Nazi soldiers to take care of the business of the trials:
“I despise those guys! But sometimes they’re very useful, so I just close my eyes!”
One could imagine that perhaps the only people getting this Nazi-like treatment are the ones who, in life, dealt it out to others. But Matena is clearly not interested in saying that the “sorting out” process can be good when one picks the right targets, so the Son is not much less a hypocrite than Judas Priest, and his unseen Father is also reduced to the ungodly level of being “chairman of the biggest multinational that ever was.” And of course, Matena’s comic inversion of the Christian theme of resurrection, using it to bring back dead bodies to kill Adolf Hitler a la EC Comics, is about as cheerily blasphemous as one can get.

Happily, unlike many of the stories I'll be recommending, "Judgment Day" can be read online, at this location on the Grantbridge Street blog.

I’ve stated in the past that I don’t think all literary stories must have complex symbolism simply to be “capital-L” literature. Joyce’s DUBLINERS stories have a simpler artistic aim than his ULYSSES, but both are Literature. But when I see how well Dick Matena puts across a complex meaning using a thoroughgoing knowledge of symbolism, I’m all the more disappointed in the bulk of both European and American artcomics. The artists behind them continually trumpet the inferiority of popular comic books to their artistic strivings, but few of them have shown the ambition to attempt even something as complex as this 8-page Matena story, much less a ULYSSES. It’s as if most practitioners of Western artcomics took as their “Bible” Zola’s fulminations on behalf of naturalism, but never actually read the actual Zola novels to see how much symbolism the author himself used.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

MADNESS TO OUR METHODS

This essay on HOODED UTILITARIAN brought me back to a subject that I raised back in 2008 in a series titled MERIT RAISED. The series detailed three distinct critical approaches, modeled on Northrop Frye's explication of them in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, and in the concluding essay I summed them up this way:

I further stated that while I felt that the focus of ethical criticism was upon moral *content,* and that of aesthetic criticism was upon *style,* the focus of archetypal criticism was upon *literary form,* upon the type of story the author was trying to communicate, which attempt largely predestines the symbolic discourse of a given work.


The UTILITARIAN post is a response to both Tom Spurgeon's review of the new Chester Brown graphic novel PAYING FOR IT-- which I have not read-- and to responses by Berlatsky and Jeet Heer to that review. Of PAYING's main topic-- Brown's experiences as a john paying prostitutes for sex-- Spurgeon says:

I felt myself at a disadvantage throughout the entire process of reading Paying For It, Chester Brown's long-awaited graphic novel about his becoming a john and how that part of his life developed over a lengthy period of time. I have no interest in prostitutes, less interest than that in the issue of prostitution and sex work, and can muster only the tiniest bit of prurient intrigue for watching how a cartoonist of whom I'm a fan orients himself to the aforementioned.


In the remainder of the review, Spurgeon principally focused on what I termed above "aesthetic criticism," a focus upon style, as seen in this excerpt:

Brown is a master of quiet insistence. Much of his work is about orienting the body, frequently depicted as full figures rather than partial or suggested ones, to oppressive outdoor spaces, insidious interior blacks and, no less dramatically, other people in the room. No cartoonist draws odder images that so quickly register as normal, and no one in the narrative arts makes such routinely inexplicable story decisions that one accepts for the authority with which they're introduced.


He does address PAYING's polemical content, but even then, that's framed in terms of the emotive identification Brown succeeds in putting across to readers:

When Paying For It functions as a comics-format documentary about how Brown's way of moving through the world is improved by his employing prostitutes, it accrues effectiveness in a variety of ways. We like Brown, or at least come to respect the unadorned honesty with which he describes his personal journey, the way his worries and fears are resolved. As much as he seems to have benefited from his current choices, we celebrate that he was able to secure these things in his life.


The review provoked a response from Jeet Heer, which said in part:

Given the nature of the work, I think its important to be upfront about one’s response to Brown’s arguments/opinions, although of course it’s possible to like the book and think that the legal and cultural changes he’s advocating are completely out to lunch.


And Berlatsky himself said:

I do agree with Jeet’s first comment, that works of art, especially polemical works of art like, say, James Baldwin’s essays, really seem to be demanding an engagement with their ideas. If you refuse to grant them that engagement — if you insist, I will not talk about racism, I will only talk about Baldwin’s prose style and the moments of personal revelation of universal human insights — you are in fact missing the point in a fairly profound manner.


Both Heer and Berlatsky do modify these somewhat militant statements, which interested readers may read for themselves, in addition to Spurgeon's responses. None of these "dyspeptic" volleys concern me here. All that interests me is the question as to whether there really are good and bad ways to address a given work.

If as I suggest Spurgeon's review is in essence an aesthetic one, then one may conveniently label the type of criticism Heer and Berlatsky stump for to be "ethical criticism." Based on descriptions of PAYING's subject matter, and on my acquaintance with earlier Brown work, I can see some validity in either approach. However, given that the work's content is both biographical and hortatory, in all likelihood the third-named critical orientation, that of "archetypal criticism," would probably be a bad way to analyze PAYING in that such narratives tend to put forth a very low level of symbolic discourse.

That said, if PAYING is indeed amenable to both ethical and aesthetic criticism, not all such works, even by Chester Brown, are so well-balanced.

For instance, one might enjoy Brown's 1992 work THE PLAYBOY-- a detailed autobiographical study of his experiences with PLAYBOY magazine-- in aesthetic terms like those laid out by Spurgeon. The work has no strong ethical content, no pronouncements on whether or not Brown as a horny young PLAYBOY-reader felt himself at odds with his culture's ethos about sex, or anything of that sort.

In contrast, Brown's historical work on the Canadian political figure Louis Riel-- which allegedly coincided with Brown's turn toward Libertarianism-- seems entirely informed by Brown's ethical proscriptions. One could survey it from a purely aesthetic sense more easily than one could glean any ethical content from PLAYBOY. But in the end ethical criticism would be the more appropriate analytical tool.

And though neither of these works possesses a strong enough symbolic discourse to make archetypal criticism worthwhile, such an approach would be the most rewarding one for Brown's early YUMMY FUR stories. These stories, which will definitely comprise my first "Y"-letter mythcomics-selection, are best understood as exercises in pure form, as opposed to being concerned with conscious meditations on ethics or aesthetic arrangement.

Naturally, this opinion ties in to my conviction that both ethical and aesthetic approaches are inferior, if not entirely nugatory, with respect to superhero genre-works. But that's a subject for yet another essay.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

QUICK TAKE ON 'THE BEAT' BIN-LADIN POST

I haven't tried to post to THE BEAT in a while, though one post was accepted without the dreaded "awaiting moderation" signal. However, today I got it again, though it may be only in relation to the touchiness of the topic. I shall see.

In case the comment is disallowed (which would be strange as so far, Heidi's allowed one poster to tell another to fuck himself), I preserved my comment just for grins:


I could be wrong but I think Brian J was being wary of the possibility of battling with monsters and so becoming a monster (to twist Nietzsche into knots), not an across-the-board equivalence.

A very minor correction to Heidi's statement above: NPR is now broadcasting that Osama was not armed when shot but that he did resist, so her statement is still essentially correct.

He did us something of a favor there. A long trial would have been an enormous waste of time and money for a man who convicted himself out of his own mouth, IMO, and when it was all over America's enemies would still be no less antagonistic.

Monday, May 2, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #7: GREEN LANTERN #16 (1962)
























PLOT-SUMMARY for “The Secret Life of Star Sapphire” (Broome/Kane): Carol Ferris, boss of the aircraft company for which Hal Jordan (aka Green Lantern) works, is flying solo for sport. Her plane is brought down in a desert by a group of aliens, all females dressed in Greek-looking armor, calling themselves the “Zamarons.” The aliens explain that although they have an advanced civilization, made up entirely of immortal women, their tradition requires them to seek a mortal queen. They want Carol to become that queen, who takes on the hereditary name “Star Sapphire.”

However, Carol doesn’t want to leave Earth, and her greatest tie to it is her love for Green Lantern. To make Carol realize that all men are weaklings in comparison to Zamarons, the aliens transform Carol into Star Sapphire, who can use the sapphire in her tiara to summon formidable energies. The Zamarons use mind-control to force Star Sapphire to fight Green Lantern. She wins the first contest, but loses the second. The Zamarons then consider Carol unworthy to be their queen, so they take away her power and her memory. However, when Green Lantern finds Carol and her plane in the desert, she still has the star sapphire with her (an inconsistency explained in a later story) and the hero wonders whether some connection exists between the two women.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: In a general sense the relationship of Hal and Carol follows the seminal Clark-and-Lois pattern, in which a woman prefers the hero to his humbler, more normal alter ego. Now, since Green Lantern’s secret identity is that of a daring test pilot, Carol doesn’t reject Hal for being cowardly, as Lois originally does Clark. But though Carol does have strong feelings for Hal, they’re overshadowed by the powerful image of the hero. Also, where Lois and Clark are equals in the workplace, Carol is Hal’s boss. This may not reflect feminist proclivities on the part of scripter John Broome. Since Carol is “minding” the company for her parents while they’re vacationing, she may be more comparable to the lady ranch-owner of B-westerns, who inherits land from her father and then must be protected from evil by a young hero.


However, the “evil” here springs from conflicting emotions in the heroine’s own soul. “I seem to be two people,” she muses during her first combat with the hero, “one wanting to conquer Green Lantern—the other at the same time wanting him to defeat me!” The first “person” is the part of Carol that likes being a woman in charge of a corporation, which may be the closest one gets to being a “queen” in American society, and clearly likes taking chances as a man would. (Green Lantern thinks of Carol as “pretty nervy” for taking a plane out on a solo flight.) The second “person” in the equation, however, wants the hero to defeat her so that she can be a normal woman who can be married, whether she chooses Hal or Green Lantern. In the future appearances of Star Sapphire in the Silver Age, this Jekyll-Hyde disparity takes on its own life without further tampering by the Zamarons.


John Broome’s concept of the Zamarons illustrates how easily a purely functional narrative device can accrue enough symbolic resonance so as to become what I have termed “super-functional.” Broome does not relate what event caused the Zamarons to regard all men as “a distinctly inferior species,” but their history is presumably a SF-take on the Greek legend of the Amazons, even as the Zamarons’ name plays on “amazons.” Artist Gil Kane, whether acting on his own or on editorial instruction, followed through on the association by garbing the technologically-advanced aliens in anachronistic Greek armor.


Some influence from William Moulton Marston’s WONDER WOMAN is likely. Both Marston and Broome make their female warriors immortal as a means of explaining how they can perpetuate their single-gender societies over time without recourse to sexual reproduction. However, the Zamarons are thoroughgoing “female chauvinists,” and their low opinion of men inverts the “male chauvinism” of the real world’s two-sexed society. It’s a chauvinism that the character of Carol Ferris has apparently internalized, since she’s more attracted to Green Lantern than to Hal Jordan precisely because the former is more powerful, and therefore more manly. Following Star Sapphire’s first victory over Green Lantern, Carol argues with the Zamarons for a second battle: “I feel sure Green Lantern can defeat me!” And her faith in her hero is justified in the second fight, where he does indeed overcome her. Were the two characters fighting with hands and feet rather than abstract energy-forces, Carol’s desire to be defeated would seem overtly masochistic.


The Zamaron “tradition” in which the immortals must have a mortal queen is also another functional device that takes on deeper symbolic complexity. Since the character of Carol is mortal, Broome’s script has to give the Zamarons some reason to want a mortal queen. In addition, they must have some reason to pick Carol over all the other women on Earth. Broome chooses to say that the Zamarons search throughout the galaxy to find “a perfect replica of their former queen,” a story-motif that resembles the reincarnation-scenarios of works ranging from Rider Haggard’s SHE to Gardner Fox’s original HAWKMAN. One might make something of the notation that the name of the aliens’ planet, “Zamaron,” means “Land of Lovely Women”—connoting perhaps that even among warrior-women, looks count for a lot. Notably, this process of selection inverts the way Hal Jordan is chosen to be Green Lantern, in that Jordan is affirmed for his intestinal fortitude.


One must note that Star Sapphire is meant to mirror Green Lantern in that both summon their power through similar devices: a ring housing a jewel and a jewel set in a tiara. For Star Sapphire, though, the jewel becomes a token of her double identity, one that can and does re-activate her alternate persona. At times Green Lantern may seem a little schizophrenic in his desire that Carol should want his alter ego more than his heroic identity, but essentially he is in control. But exposure to power does Carol Ferris no good, and over time Star Sapphire does become the “Hyde” to Carol’s “Jekyll.” It’s ironic that the SUPERMAN franchise eventually foreswears the gender-triangle of Clark-Lois-Superman, GREEN LANTERN—which appears more progressive at first glance—ends up turning the triangle into a quadrangle, one that eventually breaks into pieces.