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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, June 28, 2011

QUICKIE GROTH POST

Mostly because I'd rather have it here for my own reference than to go looking up what I said on THE BEAT:

Robert Boyd said:

“The funny thing is that back in the 1980s, I think Gary felt it was the duty of The Comics Journal to cover mainstream comics, and that put him in a very adversarial position. Now the worlds of mainstream/superhero comics and alternative/art/indy comics seem almost utterly divorced. I suspect Gary isn’t writing scathing editorials about the powers that be at Marvel and DC because that world seems kind of irrelevant to him. As someone who worked for Fantagraphics back in the 90s, I’d say Gary has mellowed a LOT, primarily by becoming more indifferent.”

Robert, without disputing your characterization of Gary as such– since I think it likely that you have known the man better than I– I find it hard to believe that “duty” *alone* motivated the JOURNAL to cover. From the late 70s to the early 80s, I can’t imagine the JOURNAL garnering any readership at all without covering the mainstream and genre-comics. I know that the sales may have been meager even then, but who would have bought the JOURNAL in that time period had it avoided genre comics? Leftover EC fans and head shop patrons?

Now, I’d certainly admit that by the late 80s the JOURNAL had started to avoid emphasizing the mainstream, even though the mainstream/indie scene had not fragmented as much as it has today. That’s the period when covers started featuring people like Ralph Steadman rather than Wolfman and Perez. But even at that time, I’m skeptical that “duty” alone informed the JOURNAL’s increasingly oppositional coverage of the comics mainstream.

****

One quick addition that wasn't relevant to the topic under discussion: that period of the late 80s is precisely the period where I began to lose interest in submitting to the JOURNAL, which I may chronicle for my own amusement sometime.

Monday, June 27, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #16: POLICE COMICS #20 (1943)




PLOT-SUMMARY for [“Woozy Winks Detective Agency”]: Plastic Man, battling two criminal magicians named Abba and Dabba, is knocked for a loop when they trigger a TNT explosion. While the hero recovers in the hospital, his sidekick Woozy Winks begins a bumbling search for the crooks. Given their description, Woozy enlists Jack Cole (famed artist of the PLASTIC MAN comics) to sketch the malefactors. Cole ends up following Woozy as the sidekick chases after Abba and Dabba, who seem to possess real magical powers, conjuring a wall out of nothing to frustrate Woozy. Woozy is even more frustrated when Cole postpones the search by knocking off for the day. The next morning Woozy and Cole somehow find the crooks, but Abba and Dabba subdue the would-be detectives. The crooks allow Woozy and Cole a last meal while explaining that their powers aren’t real; that they only manipulate their subjects’ imaginations. Woozy refuses to believe that the imagination is that powerful, at which Dabba tells Woozy and Cole that their meal included human meat. Sidekick and artist faint dead away, after which Dabba says he was just joking to prove a point. The villains leave their hideout with Woozy and Cole tied up. Cole’s publisher pops up out of nowhere and drags Cole back to his drawing-board. Woozy, still tied up, finds a magician’s wand and uses it to burst his bonds. Woozy overtakes Abba and Dabba and tries to use the wand against them. Abba performs a counterspell and Woozy’s magic goes berserk. Inanimate objects like cars and buildings come alive and pursue Woozy. Woozy screams for Plastic Man and runs to the hospital. Plastic Man wakes up, and realizes that he dreamed “Woozy’s” adventure himself, for the real Woozy is at his side, telling him that Abba and Dabba were apprehended after the explosion. Plastic Man laughs uproariously.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: In A.B. Cook’s ZEUS the mythographer observes that the archaic Greeks often conceived certain deities in terms of a dyad in which one figure is “stronger” and the other “weaker.” Such dyads might link immortality with mortality (Castor and Polyxenes) or even male and female (Apollo and Artemis).


Whatever this dyadic archetype signified to the Greeks, in popular entertainment such pairings originated in part as a method to enhance melodramatic tension. Thus a tough hero like Batman or Hawkman is paired with a weaker sidekick, such as a boy (Robin) or a woman (Hawkgirl). The sidekick may be above-average given his or her physical limitations, but nevertheless he or she is usually the first hero to get captured by the bad guys: ergo, tension. A comic sidekick such as Woozy Winks dwells on an even lower level of competence, and usually only aids the hero out of sheer dumb luck.


In “Agency” (my faux-title for an untitled Plastic Man story), creator Jack Cole (as opposed to the story-character Jack Cole) upends the usual pattern of the typical Plastic Man adventure, in which the stretchable sleuth battles nefarious villains and usually triumphs in spite of Woozy’s help. The initial splash-page--not a part of the main story-- suggests that the usual dynamic will obtain, since the panel shows Plastic Man laughing uproariously at Woozy, standing in front of a sign labeled “Woozy Winks Detective Agency,” while Woozy demands to know what’s so funny.


In the actual story, Woozy and Plastic Man change places through the device of dream, which extends the familiar axiom that every creator of fiction *is* all of his characters. Underlining this axiom is the fact that “Agency” is the first Plastic Man story in which artist Cole literally puts himself in the story, descending to the same downgraded level as any other character. In fact, the most competent characters in the story are Plastic Man’s re-imagined versions of his foes Abba and Dabba, who oscillate between being portrayed as clever fakers and as supreme magical adepts. Plastic Man himself, who is usually the super-competent one in typical stories, begins the story by making an atypical blunder, allowing the TNT to hit the ground. It’s the sort of blunder one would expect of Woozy Winks, so it’s no small wonder that for the length of the dream the hero imagines himself as the blundering sidekick.


It’s also significant that the Jack Cole in the story seems even more downgraded than Woozy. In his first appearance Cole is bragging about earning millions as a comics-artist, but when Woozy offers him “a buck-- cash” to do the sketching, Cole rushes to do Woozy’s bidding. However, even though the sketch is the exact image of Abba and Dabba, Woozy is too dim to recognize them and refuses to pay Cole. Thus Cole ends up following Woozy around in the hope of getting a good comics-story out of Woozy’s shenanigans. Cole’s only moment of backbone appears when he delays the action because it’s the end of the “eight-hour day.” But Cole can’t fight crooks the way his hero can, and ends up being tyrannized by his publisher, a figure whose face is never seen.


It’s also interesting that Cole (the artist) pitted the team of “dream-Woozy” and “dream-Cole” against a pair of magicians, since there’s no intrinsic reason that the story couldn’t have been about one villain rather than two. Abba and Dabba, like Plastic Man and Woozy, are a physical mismatch, for Dabba is a big lantern-jawed oaf while Abba is a scrawny guy in a tuxedo (after the fashion of a stage magician, one assumes). Their names plainly derive from the twentieth-century slang-expression “abbadabba.” I've seen various arguments as to the origins of this phrase, meaning "a person or thing of no importance," but it seems likely that Cole is also punning on the use of the much older phrase "abracadabra," which has associations with both archaic ritual magic and modern stage magic.


Whether they practice real or fake magic, though, Abba and Dabba correctly boast to Woozy that they’re “a team you can’t beat,” and by the time the dream ends they’ve definitely thrown Woozy into a tizzy. One suspects, though, that the real versions of Abba and Dabba are far from capable of bringing about even the illusion that an entire city has gone berserk. The real Abba and Dabba are seen for five panels on the story’s second page, and artist Cole significantly avoids letting the reader see their faces. It seems that not showing the face of the publisher within Plastic Man’s dream conveys a sense of potency to that character, while the villains’ lack of faces in the “real world” suggests that Plastic Man’s dreamed versions of the villains are much more formidable than the real ones.


Perhaps the oddest moment in “Agency” is its flirtation with the taboo of cannibalism. Many of Cole’s PLASTIC MAN stories employ sadism and grisly violence, but “Agency” only depicts simple slapstick, except for the weird moment when Plastic Man dreams that his powerful enemies sucker Woozy and Cole into thinking they’ve eaten human flesh. This is certainly a grotesque way to go about proving the power of the imagination, and probably says less about the mental processes of Cole’s character than of Cole himself. Cannibalism, the act of incorporating someone else’s flesh into one’s own flesh, may be the ultimate act of sadism possible, since one has to annihilate another being to do so. Critics should be wary of over-allegorizing such visual stunts, but there’s a loose parallel in “Agency,” since as noted before Plastic Man has made a Woozy-like error and so stands in danger, throughout his dream, of being “absorbed” by the identity of a bumbling sidekick. It’s surely no coincidence that at the conclusion of this identity-bending adventure, the narrator (a talking microphone) steps in to reassure readers that “Plastic Man will be back on his feet next month with a serious story"--or at very least, a story that doesn’t threaten the hero’s own identity so greatly.

Friday, June 24, 2011

SNAKES AND SNAILS AND PUPPY-DOG TAILS

Pornography and art are inseparable, because there is voyeurism and voracity in all our sensations as seeing, feeling beings."-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 35.


I noted in THE SHE-RA MAN-HATERS CLUB that during the BEAT's discussion of the Great Feminist Postcard Mystery, hardly anyone said anything about Ladydrawers' WAP-like denunciation of "rape and abuse" at DC and Vertigo Comics. In my essay I disagreed with Ladydrawers' unsubstantiated accusations as well as with Trina Robbins's counter-reaction: that female creators ought to "let the boys have their superheroes."

I've gone on record here as agreeing with Johanna Draper Carlson that the superhero genre is what Carlson called a "gender-identified genre." At the same time I added that the genre might benefit from some input from the less dominant gender:

To some extent I can respect the attempt of a minority audience to make its voice heard, to make an impression on a genre dominated by the opposite gender. But when the demands seem determined to leech away those absurd or larger-than-life aspects that characterize the genre itself, that comes down to a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.


And at the end of MAN-HATERS I reiterated this:

The fact that I find Robbins' statement without logical basis does not in itself mean that I necessarily defend the idea that either mainstream comics or artcomics publishers should be a "boys' club." I do think that female creators can bring a lot to the table. But I don't believe they can do so in the mainstream without a clear vision of how modern genre-comics work, no matter what success they have in the greater world of graphic novels.


What element most obstructs the vision of most female (and some male) creators with regard to "how modern genre-comics work?"

The beam in the eye of such creators has a familiar name: "objectification." For such creators, it does not matter that the superhero genre is one heavily dependent on what Paglia calls "voyeurism and voracity." Depending on who one asks, such creators are either (1) foursquare against all depictions that suggest objectification, or (2) deeply offended that there should be any inequity in depictions of sexual objectification, as per Ladydrawers' complaint that "829 women were depicted naked or partially nude, compared to only 486 men."

I should repeat, as in the previous essay, that Ladydrawers does extend its complaint to such non-superhero publishers as Fantagraphics and Last Gasp, so said complaint isn't confined to the superhero genre, despite attempts by BEAT-posters Trina Robbins and Kim Thompson to make it All About the Supah-Heroes. Still, when Ladydrawers complains of "rape and abuse" from DC-- which does concentrate most of its efforts within the superhero idiom-- I have to wonder what idealized notions of the genre the protesters must have formed.

Paglia isn't correct to conflate all art and pornography, but her extreme statement is a good counterforce to the overintellectualization of the arts. Thus her avowed project-- to identity the "amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism, and pornography in great art"-- is a worthy goal. Finding these elements in popular art is no less worthy, whether said elements appear openly or in veiled form. In both " high" and "low" art, one cannot have only the crystalline intellectualism of *themis;* one must also have the more earthy world of *moira,* the world that appears to be one of bodies and objects, no matter how distorted or absurd they may seem from a realistic stance.

Or as Kant said in PURE REASON, albeit from a different vantage: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind."

Are there bad iterations of the rape, abuse and violence that has sometimes been styled "superhero decadence?" Of course there are. But there have been times when "decadent" elements have been necessary to well-crafted superhero stories-- not least Gail Simone's impressive series BIRDS OF PREY, which explored the avenues of objectification with a distinctly feminine outlook.

Given the aesthetic success of Simone's BIRDS (and the relative popular success of the original series), I'd say that any female creator who shies away from using sex and/or violence in a "gender-identified" genre may be doing nothing more than covering up her own inadequacies. Further, to insist that a male-identified genre should surrender its particular appeal to male sensations is merely a new form of gender-marginalization, and one not guaranteed to bring in the supposed hordes of "new readers" who are, like one of the BEAT posters, less offended by nudity than by Power Girl's big hooters. Admittedly, I suppose that if the superhero genre were to be as de-objectified as some female readers wish it, some male creators, who for one reason or another reject their snake-n'-snail origins, would probably also be on board with the neutering.

But I would rather they could all just get on board with the notion that human art always depends on "objectification" of some sort. Paglia takes feminists, and women as a whole, to task for this inability to see past pure self-interest:

“Let us stop being small-minded about men and freely acknowledge what treasures their obsessiveness has poured into culture."

In other words, give us puppy-dog devils our due, already.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THE SHE-RA MAN-HATERS CLUB

In EXILED AT LAST I said:

But I'm sure Heidi will still provide me with lots of material for my blog even if I can't get into abortive arguments with Tom Spurgeon over there. She's just that kind of girl.


Old habits die hard, and in the last week I did succumb to the temptation (BAD posting finger!) to post a couple of nuggets at THE BEAT. But even without my having made those posts, Heidi has now given me material for a new post these three months later-- albeit rather indirectly.

In this thread Heidi reported on an apparent publicity stunt by Ladydrawers, "an organization based at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago." Said stunt took the form of postcards mailed out to various comics companies and comics professionals, which took the comics industry to task for massive gender inequity. Ladydrawers' web-address was on at least one postcard, but when I checked out the site I couldn't find info on just how the participants compiled their evidence for claims like "75% of DC/Vertigo titles contain rape and abuse."

Though the source of these dubious statistics may be veiled in mystery, this sort of broad ultrafeminist statement has at least one clear political predecessor: the venerable WOMEN AGAINST PORNOGRAPHY, whose history I briefly explored in WAPSTERS VS. FACTSTERS. A repetition of the Susan Brownmiller quote seems appropriate:

We are unalterably opposed to the presentation of the female body being stripped, bound, raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in the name of commercial entertainment and free speech.


Surprisingly, posters on the BEAT thread said very little about the accusation that DC/Vertigo was a haven for "rape and abuse." Instead, most of the posters, including Heidi, became more exercised over Ladydrawers' corollary accusation: that the comics-industry (which in Ladydrawers' estimation included not just the "Big Two" but also "non-mainstream" publishers like Last Gasp and Fantagraphics) were underrepresented in terms of hiring female personnel.

Other posters did point out the obvious flaw in Ladydrawers' second accusation: that one cannot be sure (1) that a disproportionate number of women applied for work with these companies, and were turned away, (2) that a signficant majority of the women turned away had professional-level talent but were turned away because all of the companies were "boys' clubs." Possibly Ladydrawers had access to such data and simply couldn't fit it on their postcards, but I tend to doubt it.

I said "indirectly" earlier, because Heidi herself didn't anything say I found worth quoting here. However, poster Trina Robbins more than made up for the lack.

No, I don’t believe that the mainstream comics publishers are rejecting women because they are women –they are rejecting women because their comics, which are still aimed at a predominantly male readership, tend not to be the kind of comics that women read, write, or draw. This sorry state of affairs will continue as long as mainstream comics continues to aim their product at guys. So forget about the mainstream! Where you’ll find women is in the indies, the self-published comics, and the graphic novels, lots of graphic novels by women out there! Let the boys have their superheroes.


OK, so I'd support Robbins' supposition that it's possible that the Disproportionate Number may have been rejected because the comics these women were doing weren't in tune with the "mainstream comics" that are "aimed at a predominantly male readership." However, Ladydrawers didn't accuse only the mainstream comics-makers. Indeed, L. Rigby, one of the Lady-drawers herself, responded to that inaccurate summation:

And as far as the Indie environment being the only place ladies can truly excel I’m going to call bullshit. Our numbers show that Top Shelf, an Indie publisher of some very good books, had the lowest amount of female contributers at 8%, even Image had higher at 10% and Image is notorious for publishing some very, hmmmm interesting titles.


But Robbins' inaccuracy interests me less than this statement:

This sorry state of affairs will continue as long as mainstream comics continues to aim their product at guys.


So on one hand, Robbins is saying that there is some evidence that each sex tends to write comics with different interests-- but OTOH, it's a "sorry state of affairs" that Marvel and DC concentrate so heavily on male readership, which leads to the aforesaid gender inequity.

The argument hinges on the possibility that mainstream comic books could rope in more female readers if there were more female creators and other personnel. This remains only a possibility, however, which might need a helluva lot of other factors to converge, beyond just more female personnel.

The success of manga TPB's with female readers is perhaps one of the few solid indicators that such a transformation might be feasible. But one might keep in mind that the success of the TPB's was preceded by a long, hard process in which anime fans stumped for VHS and laserdisc copies of their favorite cartoons, or pestered TV stations with requests for more ROBOTECH, et al. For all the artistry of the better mangas, and the inexpensiveness of the TPB format, I wonder if the TPBs would have enjoyed any long-term success had the American market not been "seeded," as it were, by mass-market television translations of the anime.

Moreover, one cannot help but notice that a majority of the translated TPBs were authored by-- men. It would seem that the female manga-readers of the 1990s were drawn in the comics with little or no influence as to whether men or women authored them-- though I'm sure that the prominence of female artists like CLAMP and Takahashi encouraged many female readers to aspire to making their own manga.

Ironically, this setup resembles the state of affairs of Golden Age comics. In those days, even those comics aimed explicitly at female readers were dominantly written by men. Often McDonald and Robbins have praised this period in terms of offering a wider stratum of "comics for girls" than does the current mainstream. But it would seem that in both time-periods, the dominance of male creators does not seem to have dissuaded female readers from partaking of whatever genre-comics they desired.

The fact that I find Robbins' statement without logical basis does not in itself mean that I necessarily defend the idea that either mainstream comics or artcomics publishers should be a "boys' club." I do think that female creators can bring a lot to the table. But I don't believe they can do so in the mainstream without a clear vision of how modern genre-comics work, no matter what success they have in the greater world of graphic novels. And I've very leery of Ladydrawers' unsupported and underdefined accusations of "rape and abuse at DC Comics," because that sort of overly-politicized reasoning is anathema to good genre.

More on this in a forthcoming essay, "Snakes and Snails and Puppy-Dog Tails."

Monday, June 20, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #15: ONE POUND GOSPEL



PLOT-SUMMARY for “The Lamb Resurrected”: Boxing-trainer Mukaida has a vexing problem. His most promising young fighter, Kosaku Hatanaka, loves boxing and has a killer punch. But Kosaku also loves to eat like a pig, so that he constantly breaks his weight-training. On a side-note, Kosaku also has a passion for Angela, a young female nun. But this plotline isn’t explored in “Resurrected.”

A flashback starts the story: four years previous to the main action, amateur boxer Kosaku is matched against a professional boxer in an exhibition. Pro Taro Matsuzaka is so confident that he doesn’t bother wearing his headgear. Kosaku, after wheedling a promise of a steak dinner from Mukaida, kayos Taro with one blow. Four years later, Kosaku, still trying to make it as a pro boxer, is challenged to a bout by Taro. This puzzles Mukaida, for Taro should be in a different weight-class than Kosaku. It’s revealed that because Taro lost all his teeth thanks to Kosaku’s punch, he’s been plotting for years to challenge Kosaku and beat him to a pulp. But because Kosaku kept getting heavier, Taro had to keep putting on weight. Mukaida becomes torqued at Kosaku’s overeating and assigns the young boxer’s training to a subordinate. During the final match, Kosaku wins only after the coach returns to his corner, and Taro is convinced that Kosaku’s first win wasn’t a fluke.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: Whereas many American boxing-stories are informed by the Protestant ethic of making money, Japanese tales in the genre focus somewhat more on a modern-day reading of samurai battle ethics. Admittedly, since author Rumiko Takahashi specializes in comedy, the high seriousness of the samurai may be seem undermined by a young boxer too dim to know that nuns don’t date. Nevertheless, Takahashi is one of the few female comics-artists who shows a Kirbyesque attention to the mechanics of combat (magical swordplay in INU-YASHA, martial arts in RANMA ½). This demonstrates a fascination with the archetype of the noble fighter in spite of all the comedic elements.


Kosaku’s mentor/sensei Mukaida is in the position of attempting to rein in Kosaku’s uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) impulses. Other stories establish that Mukaida has no life outside his gym, so that his protégé Kosaku is in essence a surrogate son. Were the character rendered realistically one might view them as comprising a co-dependent relationship, wherein Mukaida gets as much satisfaction reining in Kosaku as Kosaku does from breaking training. However, in “Resurrected” the story emphasizes a more mythic father-son relationship, in which Mukaida deserts Kosaku at a critical moment in order to force the boxer to honor the severity of his training. But because Takashi’s brand of comedy favors the humor of endless repetition, Kosaku’s “resurrection,” his “doing the will of the Father,” makes no permanent impression on future storylines, wherein Kosaku simply goes right back to overeating. In fact, near the conclusion of the climactic battle, Kosaku once again makes Mukaida promise him a steak dinner if Kosaku wins the match-- insuring that the characters are essentially back where they started, albeit having entertained readers with a spectacle of samurai intensity.


Taro is more interesting than many of Kosaku’s opponents in that he’s clearly a polar opposite of the young hero. Where Kosaku has to labor not to eat, Taro has to exert himself to put on weight, which poundage hampers him during the climactic match. Unlike Kosaku, Taro doesn’t initially care about boxing as a sport; he enters it casually and only stays in the game to get revenge on Kosaku. However, the injury to his mouth is clearly placed on his own shoulders by his own inattention to the sport; moments before he enters the ring the first time he meets Kosaku, he’s busy listening to his cheering section and says that Kosaku “doesn’t know his place.” Like many a maimed supervillain Taro constantly flaunts his Mark of Shame, often pulling a set of false teeth from his toothless mouth to shock or disgust onlookers. Yet Mukaida observes that Taro may have more of an appreciation for boxing than he overtly professes. The conclusion validates this insight: Taro’s kayo by Kosaku proves to him that Kosaku’s the superior fighter, after which Taro considers continuing in the game he claimed not to love. He does get in one last jab at Kosaku, popping out his teeth to show how easily he can lose weight.


All of the ONE POUND story-arcs appear (at least in English) with the word “lamb” in the title, which is clearly meant to signify Kosaku. Kosaku’s only interest in Christianity seems to be Sister Angela, so he presents a dubious target for Christian symbolism, even one filtered through Japanese pop culture. Sister Angela’s main purpose in this story is to justify the title, for during a confessional she terms Kosaku a “lamb led easily astray.” Takahashi doesn’t evince any encyclopedic knowledge of Christianity generally or Catholicism specifically, but assuming that the Viz Comics translation accurately reproduces her text, she seems to have made some connection between the Christian motif of the wayward lamb and her samurai-with-no-impulse-control. Both images suggest a devotee who can be brought to a state of excellence once he transcends earthly limitations—though, since Takahashi has not as yet concluded the series, it seems unlikely that she will ever bestow on Kosaku any permanent “resurrection.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

THREE INTO TWO WILL GO, SOMETIMES (part 2)

In Part 3 of the INCEST WE TRUST series, I said:

In Part I I went to some pains to explain why Georges Bataille was right to say that no particular transgressive form of sexuality was any more important to human development than any other (in contradistinction to Freud and Levi-Strauss). That distinction made, I will note that the phenomenon of incest is probably the best possible metaphor FOR transgressive sexuality as a whole. Unlike homosexuality and bestiality (for two), incest in its most popular conception-- that is, its heterosexual form-- can give rise to living progeny whose proper relationships will thus be confused...



In Jung’s essay, "Concerning the archetypes, with special reference to the anima concept," Jung faults Freud for claiming that all psychological problems could be reduced to “physiological concepts.” He further suggests that the “superordinate ideas,” ideas found most often in religion (though in other human arenas as well, like politics), are a better measure of the psyche’s true nature. To illustrate his point, he cites an example of a patient with a “castration-complex,” but pursues a methodology opposite to Freud’s. Where Freud would view all patients as implicated in the Oedipus complex, and would seek the roots in the patient’s problem in “physiological concepts,” Jung asserts that the patient’s complex came about not because of his sexual fantasies, but because he possessed an almost religious concept of his mother’s goodness—a concept which the parent herself, being a mere mortal, could not satisfy.


In IMAGO-GO I took issue with Jung’s extreme rejection of “physiological concepts.” I believe such concepts do inform all manner of human fantasies, whether they take place within an individual’s personal psyche or in a narrative designed to provoke an affective response in an audience. A sound pluralist conception of literature must deal with the fact that fantasies evolve from both aspects of human corporeal life (“physiological concepts”) and aspects of incorporeal experience (“superordinate ideas.”) And this includes the fantasy, literary or otherwise, of incest.

Part 1 of this series showed how my three categories of literary phenomality could be rated either (a) dominantly corporeal, (b) dominantly incorporeal, or (c) midway between the two. The same schema applies to my rewriting of both Freud and Jung.


Now, throughout literary history “incest” is a word that has been used in a wide variety of denotative or connotative ways. Still, for many individuals, it has its deepest roots in its most corporeal conception: incest is sex between two individuals who share a genetic heritage. This shared heritage usually motivates society to taboo such unions, though many societies attenuate the importance of this or that familial relation. For instance, Levi-Strauss cites assorted tribal societies which permit the marriage of one group of cousins but forbid it to other cousin-groupings not any more removed in time or circumstance.

Freud grounds his theory of incest in the developmental processes of juvenile sexuality, positing that children model their concept of sexual attractiveness upon one of the parents. Thus sexual development for Freud is rooted entirely in the domain of the cognitive order of cause-and-effect, e.g., “the corporeal.” It follows, then, that within the domain of literary criticism, any depiction of sex between biological relations is “corporeal incest,” irrespective of any culture-specific standards as to what group can marry what group of near-relations.


Jung, however, asserts in the example above that a “superordinate idea”—what I deem an icon of “the incorporeal”—can influence an individual’s incest-fantasy more than the individual’s particular developmental history. In literature this takes many shapes. One might be called the “counter-Oedipus complex,” in which a male character never sees his birth-mother but somehow gravitates toward her identical twin in later life, rather than modeling his concept of sexual attractiveness on a foster mother. This is, incidentally, a complex that has appeared in works ranging from Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST to Siegel and Shuster’s SUPERMAN. Another manifestation would be the superordinate idea that all persons roughly 15-20 years older than a given character symbolize the character’s mother or father even when no questions of dubious paternity are raised. When people voice the familiar cliché, “X is old enough to be your [parental unit],” it’s not because they literally fear that every May-September liaison will result in corporeal incest. Rather, aversion to such liaisons seems more rooted in a quasi-religious sense of the proper order of life: young with young, old with old. These are just two examples of what I term “incorporeal incest.”



This brings me to my “amphibian” category, which might be termed “legal incest.” Characters in such liaisons—step-relations, for one example-- share no biological connection. However, their liaisons are still marked by a corporeal element in that they are often, though not without exception, forced into familial closeness: sharing the same house, the same dinner-table-- and the same aura of sexual propinquity that Freud finds so pervasive within the old homestead. Yet the thing that forces the unrelated individuals into this sphere of influence is a legal abstraction that says, “X and Y are related by marriage,” or, alternately, “A and B are related through adoption/foster-care/wardship.”


I’ve also noted in fictional narratives a difference in intensity of the taboo on “legal incest” based on the presence or absence of the legalism. If two brothers vie for the same girl, and one wins, then she will become the loser’s sister-in-law after the fact. Most societies would not label this phenomenon incest, though my literary theory would include it within the sphere of the “incorporeal” variety. However, if one brother already has a legal relationship to the woman in question—even if only at the level of “fiancée”—then the other brother’s violation of that legal contract would carry a deeper sense of societal transgression.


I mentioned earlier that I needed a schema regarding this particular transgression to avoid any over-identification with Sigmund Freud’s theory (though it also keeps me clear of a few Jungian pitfalls as well). I’ve mentioned that such a schema will have relevance when my “1001 myths” takes on the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, but I may be able to provide a short example of the schema’s utility sooner than that.

THREE INTO TWO WILL GO, SOMETIMES (part 1)

The body/nonbody opposition advanced by Octavio Paz provides an elegant simplication of the many unwieldly dichotomies that have haunted Western philosophy: body/mind, body/spirit, etc. One can, if one chooses, follow Sigmund Freud in believing that in the world of common experience, “nonbody” is merely an epiphenomenon to the fundamental reality of “body.” But in literary studies one cannot say this. As Frye observed, all literary narratives have a centrifugal and a centripetal aspect.

A narrative is centrifugal in that its author cannot help but reference the world extrinsic to the narrative, the primary world of bodily experience for himself and his audience. Whether the author writes of New York or Narnia, he will reference the "body" of the corporeal world.

However, narratives also possess a centripetal aspect, for they turn inward, connecting their serries internal elements to produce a symbolic discourse, a "nonbody" that is entirely conceptual in basis, since no can prove that anything similar exists in common experience. This dual nature clearly separates literary representations from those of experience, where the degree to which mind and body interpenetrate is infinitely arguable.

In my literary theory, then, “body” represent the totality of aspects in a work that appear governed by the cognitive order of cause-and-effect, while “nonbody” represents the totality of aspects in a work that seem outside the cognitive order of cause-and-effect. In addition, some aspects are amphibian, managing to dwell in both worlds at once.


I demonstrated in my examination of Tzvetan Todorov’s THE FANTASTIC that Todorov’s theory of fantasy (for which I henceforth use my term, “the metaphenomenal”) is overly indebted to cognitively-oriented Freudian conceptions of “reality” and “fantasy.” This duality, however, resulted in a trinity of categories for Todorov, to wit:


The category of “the marvelous” concerns narratives that openly transgress the cognitive order of cause-and-effect.


The category of “the uncanny” contains narratives that seem to transgress the cognitive order but ultimately prove to be governed by cause-and-effect.


The category of “the fantastic” contains narratives in which either the reader, the viewpoint character or both aren’t sure whether or not the order has been transgressed.


Todorov is very clear that the affective aspect of fantasy is beyond the pale of his theory. This restates the Freudian position aptly. Affectivity, like Paz’s concept of “nonbody,” is essentially the tail wagged by the cognitive dog.


In contrast, my AUM theory argues that the “non-body” aspects of a narrative are as real within the narrative as those aspects that are directly derived from the physical experience of author and/or audience. My theory essentially agrees with Todorov that a given narrative presents an “equilibrium” that is meant to be transgressed in such a way that a new equilibrium is established, but my theory of transgression includes both cognitive and affective aspects equally.


I reworked Todorov’s trinity so as to include all so-called “realistic” works. In all three of my categorizations, the narrative functions by virtue of an “anomaly” that creates the above-mentioned disequilibrium.


If the anomaly takes place within a world where the cognitive order rules, and where affectivity is indeed the tail wagged by the dog, then the narrative’s phenomenality is “atypical.”


If it takes place within a world that breaks with the cognitive order, in which causs-and-effect is in some way suspended, then the phenomality is “marvelous,” and the affectivity produced is one that also strives to go beyond the cognitive order.


If the work seems to suggest that the cognitive order is violated, when in fact it is not, its phenomenality will be “uncanny” as long as the work succeeds in evoking an affectivity that symbolically exceeds the cognitive order.


“The uncanny” is my “amphibian” category. “Atypical” narratives depict worlds where cause-and-effect rules absolutely, so it would be dominantly ruled by “body,” or corporeality. “Marvelous” narratives present worlds where cognitivity and affectivity merge, signifying the dominance of “nonbody,” incorporeality. “Uncanny” narratives occupy a space between, for though cognitive cause-and-effect rules their phenomenal nature, the narratives carry associations that, so to speak, allow the tail-phenomenon to wag the dog-phenomeon. These associations manifest in the world of common experience in the form of fantasy-film guides that include “uncanny” films like PSYCHO chock-a-block with “marvelous” films like CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.


My earlier repetition of the word “transgress” is not accidental, for Bataille’s theory of “literature as transgression” informs some aspects of my rewriting of Todorov. In the second part of THREE INTO TWO WILL GO, SOMETIMES, I’ll offer another tripartite schema, also informed by Bataille’s philosophy, but this time I’ll be rewriting Freud’s concept of the transgression he thought fundamental to the human psyche: that famed “vice” that was not merely “nice,” but the “best” of all.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

REFINING THE DEFINING

I recently reread one of my 2009 posts, AGON IN SIXTY SECONDS, and found I no longer agreed with this statement, made when comparing Rider Haggard's SHE to his KING SOLOMON'S MINES:

though there is no definitive battle in SHE, the efforts of the protagonists to survive in her world, as well as to avoid becoming the chattel of Ayesha, still mark SHE as belonging to the mythos of adventure, albeit in a subcombative mode.


The term "subcombative" is one I tossed aside a while back, as mentioned elsewhere. But as I reflect back upon the writing of that essay, I recall thinking that it made good sense to rate both SHE and KSM as belonging to the adventure-mythos, since in many ways SHE recapitulates many of the story-motifs of the earlier novel, even to the nature of the viewpoint character. For instance, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill to the contrary, in Haggard's novel Allen Quatermain is not a strapping square-jawed type, but a dinky, homely fellow very much like the viewpoint character of SHE.

By making that statement, though, I was allowing myself to focus on the events of the respective novels' plots rather than how those plots articulated one of the four Fryean mythoi. It was somewhat later that I would reread Theodor Gaster's THESPIS, which work was immensely helpful in remembering that each of the *mythoi* is not simply a concatenation of plot-motifs, but is aimed at (at least in my adaptation of Gaster and Frye together) at putting across a distinct emotional tenor. Rehearsing these once again:

ADVENTURE conveys the INVIGORATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon how protagonists who defend life and/or goodness from whatever forces are inimical to them. The protagonists' power of action is at its highest here.

COMEDY conveys the JUBILATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon how the heroes seek happiness/contentment in a world that has some element of craziness to it (what I've termed the "incognitive" myth-radical), yet does not deny the heroes some power of action.

IRONY conveys the MORTIFICATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon characters in a world where the "power of action" is fundamentally lacking.

DRAMA conveys the PURGATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon "individuals who find themselves in some way cast out from the main society." Power of action here is more ambivalent than that of the adventure-mythos but seems more crucial to the individual's problem than it does for that of the comic hero.

Although in KSM Allen Quatermain is not quite the superman that later adaptions have made him, he is both the viewpoint character and what I have termed "the focal presence." That is, his battles with death channel the invigorative mood crucial to the adventure-mythos; the opponents he encounters, principally the lost African tribe he and his allies come across, are distinctly secondary.

In AGON I was playing with the notion that SHE was in the adventure-mythos even though it clearly did not end with a combat in which Horace Holly and his allies proved triumphant. The novel was merely an "irregular" example of adventure because the heroes got out of their predicament by dumb luck-- which seems closer to the comedic mythos than anything else.

However, one reason that SHE does not offer readers a triumph of its viewpoint charactes is because the viewpoint characters are not the stars. Clearly the star is She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and the arc of her story is that of purgation, of the dramatic mythos. Admittedly SHE's viewpoint characters are much more developed than many of the non-focal viewpoint characters seen in such works as ODD JOHN, cited in this essay as an example where a barely characterized narrator tells the reader about the astounding focal presence-character.

Not all dramas (or melodramas) must end with complete purgation, even though both SHE and ODD JOHN do. It's just as possible to bring the focal presence close to total purgation, and then to pull him back from the brink of destruction, as in, to cite a couple of random examples, Shakespeare's PERICLES and noir films like the 1945 LOST WEEKEND.

The drama and the adventure, often perceived as two "serious" types of entertainment, are easy to confound, even as are the two types of "unserious" entertainment, comedy and irony. Since as I see it even Northrop Frye, who conceived the four mythoi, made what I deem a few misassignments, such classificatory problems seem almost inevitable.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

WAKE ME UP BEFORE I IMAGO-GO

"We must therefore assume that, over and above the incest-fantasy, highly emotional contents are still bound up with the parental images and need to be made conscious. They are obviously more difficult to make conscious than the incest-fantasies, which are supposed to have been repressed through violent resistance and to be unconscious for that reason. Supposing this view is correct, we are driven to the conclusion that besides the incest-fantasy there must be contents which are repressed through a still greater resistance. Since it is difficult to imagine anything more repellent than incest, we find ourselves rather at a loss to answer this question."-- Jung,
Concerning the archetypes, with special reference to the anima concept.


In this 1936 essay Carl Jung offered a counterstroke to the emphasis his former mentor Freud had placed upon a purely empirical (i.e., referencing only physical patterns and processes) interpretation of human psychological problems. Early in the essay Jung takes issue with Freud's emphasis with physiological processes alone:

"All the same, it was Freud who cleared the ground for the investigation of complex phenomena, at least in the field of neurosis. But the ground he cleared extended only so far as certain basic physiological concepts permitted, so that it looked almost as if psychology were an offshoot of the physiology of the instincts."

By the time Jung reaches the point of the later quote, he asks rhetorically whether or not Freud was really correct in thinking that "physiological concepts" were really the base of the psyche's "highly emotional contents," which he asserts are more elusive, and therefore more repressed, than the incest-fantasies which Freud viewed as the sine qua non of psychology.

Jung's answer to his own question is that what he calls "religious ideas" are actually far more subterranean material than one's sex fantasies. After observing that people are sometimes more leery of talking about religion than sex, and noting that the Freudian concept of "resistance" may be overrated, Jung speaks of religious ideas as taking any sort of "superordinate idea" that suggests the subsumptive power of religion.

Now religious ideas, as history shows, are charged with an extremely suggestive, emotional power. Among them I naturally reckon all "representations collectives," everything that we learn from the history of religion, and anything that has an "ism" attached to it. The latter is only a modern variant of the denominational religions. A man may be convinced in all good faith that he has no religious ideas, but no one can fall so far away from humanity that he no longer has any dominating "representation collective." His very materialism, atheism, communism, socialism, liberalism, intellectualism, existentialism, or what not, testifies against his innocence. Somewhere or other, overtly or covertly, he is possessed by a supraordinate idea.


Thus Jung attempted to trump Freud by stating that collective representations are in fact more repressed, and more indicative of true psychological processes, than "physiological concepts."

For an amateur literary theorist such as myself, I find the argument between Freud and Jung brings me back to a dichotomy formulated by the poet Octavio Paz, which I explored in the OUR BODIES, OUR NONBODIES essay-series.

I take the phrases "body" and "non-body" from an essay by Octavio Paz in CONJUNCTIONS AND DISJUNCTIONS. Paz was mindful of the fact that a lot of the words used by human beings in opposition to the physical body (as well as physical phenomena generally) are highly speculative, such as "soul" and "spirit." For that matter, even words like "mind" and "the unconscious," while more commonly used by materialists, are still "iffy."

"Non-body," then, was Paz's portmanteau term for all that intangible shit. I believe he meant it not as a viable category in itself but just as a means of spotlighting how human beings regard everything that informs their symbolic universe (that's Cassirer, again, BTW), be it tangible or intangible, corporeal or incorporeal, body or "non-body." It appeals to me as a means to subsume aspects of humanity that are sometimes ascribed to "mind," sometimes to "spirit."


I believe, contrary to both Freud and Jung (at least as Jung expresses himself in the above essay), that both human psychology and human literature recapitulate what I'll term corporeal and incorporeal concepts. Just as the soundest possible psychology might take from both Freud and Jung, the soundest possible literary theory might be the offspring of, say, Northrop Frye and Leslie Fiedler.

As example, take my recent essay on THE NEW MUTANTS story "To Build a Fire," by Simonson and Muth.

In analyzing this tale of Young Mutants in Love, I tended to emphasize the incorporeal aspects of the characters' relationship, as in this sentence:

Amara's self-identification with the rainforest, though not stressed, follows the mythic motif by which femininity is equated with the earth and growing things.


This "imago" (what Jung called "the image of the subjective relation of the object") would certainly stand as one of his "representations collectives," since it stems from a cultural history in which one gender's characteristics are abstractly related to a nonhuman phenomenon.

However, I can see how one could analyze "Build a Fire" purely from the standpoint of "physiological processes." One could build, with some logic, a Freudian scenario in which Amara is afraid of a domineering father, who threatens her sense of integrity not by direct sexual contact but through a proxy whom he chooses for her. Manuel, despite having less pure power than Amara does, as well as less experience in the savage jungle, could be figured as a displacement of the threat of rape through a proxy, which is itself further displaced by using psychic rather than physical rape.

I don't think a purely Freudian reading is adequate to take in the complexity of the Simonson-Muth story. I indulge in one here to illustrate that there are times when corporeally-derived concepts may dominate a particular literary narrative. I touched on this fact in my comparison of the use of violence in two Golden Age comics, PLASTIC MAN and WONDER WOMAN, and I imagine that there will be other works that invite the same preponderance of one set of concepts over the other.

Monday, June 13, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #14: NEW MUTANTS #62 (1988)



PLOT-SUMMARY of "To Build a Fire" (story: Louise Simonson; art: Jon J. Muth) : The team known as "the New Mutants" is only seen for a few panels before the beginning of the story proper, essentially a tale of two characters playing off one another. One is Amara (super-name "Magma"), a refugee from said group who has recently joined forces with the Hellions, another collection of superpowered teens who are rivals to the New Mutants. The other main character is one of the Hellions, Manuel (super-name "Empath"), whose importance in the story is highlighted by an opening fight-scene. In a battle-training session all six Hellions pit their powers against those of Amara. Her volcanic-fire powers prove superior to all of them, until Manuel enters the fight, using his empathic powers to make Amara profess love for him. She breaks his spell and starts to flee the room, only to be stopped by the White Queen, leader of the Hellions. White Queen gives Amara a letter from her father, which states that Amara must return to her home in Nova Roma, a Roman colony situated in the Amazon rainforests. Since White Queen wants Amara to return to the States, she sends along Manuel, instructing the empath to use his powers on Amara's father so that he'll allow Amara to return. A storm forces the plane carrying Amara and Manuel to crash in the rainforest, where they must make their way to civilization. Manuel encourages Amara to create a volcanic fire to serve as a beacon to rescue-parties; Amara refuses (ostensibly) because the fire might devastate the jungle. The vicissitudes of jungle survival and the teenagers' passionate feelings toward each other eventually lead Amara to unleash her power. Her father's search-party finds the two of them, but not before a bond has formed between the super-teens.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: It would be easy to mistake "To Build a Fire" (a title beholden to that of a Jack London short story about survival) as no more than one among dozens of Tortured Teen Romance stories produced for Marvel Comics' prolific line of mutant-superhero features. What elevates the Simonson-Muth story from simple melodrama to myth is its emphasis upon the psychological power-plays that make up "the war between men and women."

Some of the traditional roles of men and women in this kind of survival-story are reversed. Often in stories dealing with a man and woman striving to survive against nature, the man possesses both raw power and experience in dealing with the elements, while the woman, usually an overcivilized female, must be educated in the ways of savage nature-- often prefiguring her initiation into sexuality as well.

Here, Amara's mutant power is far more forceful than that of Manuel, whose persuasive power over emotions is stereotypically "female." In addition, Manuel is a city-boy who is revulsed by the dangers of the jungle, while Amara has had ample experience with the jungle's ways. She is even identified with the Amazon jungle, saying that at one point she lived in the wild "as an Amazon," apart from her residence in civilized Nova Roma. During their trek toward civilization, she's the one who finds edible food and fights off two wild beasts that attack Manuel, so that she assumes the "male" role in the relationship.

Nonetheless, the possibility that Manuel might dominate Amara psychically-- even if he cannot do so physically-- remains an ever-present threat, even if it's ambiguous as to whether he ever does really try to do so. After the initial battle-scene, White Queen tells Manuel that she's aware that Amara broke Manuel's spell because he didn't go "all out." At the same time, the Queen also tells Manuel that she's detected him exerting some "subtle influence" over Amara, though Manuel never admits doing so, nor states his reasons for so doing.

Later, in the scene when the plane is about to crash, Amara starts to panic. Manuel threatens her with domination: "Will I have to take you over, to make you calm?" She screams "no" even as the plane crashes into a lake, but despite her moment of defiance Manuel then takes on the role of the male rescuer, hauling her out of the lake to safe ground.

However, after that Manuel's male ego takes a beating. He proposes that she create a fiery volcano in the earth to serve as a beacon, but she refuses, wary of starting a runaway fire. He disparages the "trackless wastes" of the jungle and its "screaming monkeys," and Amara defends the jungle as her home. He threatens for a second time to dominate her to make her do his bidding, and her response is perversely fascinating:

"Go on! Try! Coward! Afraid of little monkeys! I should let you do it-- and leave you to burn up in the conflagration!"

By 1988 it has become a common Marvel-Comics trope-- perhaps pioneered by Chris Claremont-- to equate psychic-power dominance with the act of physical rape. Thus we have Amara apparently goading Manuel to commit an act of psychic rape on her, for which he would then be punished by the unleashing of her power. Not surprisingly, Manuel doesn't accept the challenge.

They bed down in the jungle, and "several silent, angry hours later," Amara again gets to assume a male role. While thinking angry thoughts about Manuel, she hears him moan, thinks him a coward again, and then chastises herself for forgetting that he rescued her from the plane. She turns to see a vampire bat sucking Manuel's blood and chases it away. He resents her superiority over him but she does use her power to make a bigger campfire to keep away other animals-- a partial concession to his earlier demand.

She gathers fruit for his breakfast the next day and tells him to watch out for animals when he goes to use the jungle john. Manuel sees a flower and fantasizes himself in the more traditional male role: "Tarzan pay for breakfast! Bring Jane pretty flower for her pretty hair!" But he arouses a jaguar, and again Amara comes to rescue, driving it away with a spear (and curiously declining to use her fire-powers against the beast). However, Amara takes a deep leg-wound from the creature.

At this point the psychological power-plays come out in full force. Manuel, though clearly worried about Amara's wound, tries again to manipulate her into doing his will, first indirectly, by observing that "it's almost as if you don't want us to be rescued." Amara drops the bomb that she really doesn't want to go home because her father plans to marry her to a stranger. Manuel naturally doesn't accept that as a good reason for hanging out in the jungle. Again the threat of mind-rape arises, complete with Manuel looming over Amara in the attitude of a genuine rapist: "Signal our need willingly... or I'll make you!" She responds with a backhand punch, but he tackles her and this time seems to exert his full power over her. However, she not only does create a mini-volcano, but also does something he doesn't demand: kissing him full on the mouth. Amusingly, he shouts "No" when she kisses him, mirroring the "No" she cries out in earlier scenes. The volcano does set the forest ablaze and the two teens flee to the river, Amara apparently forgetting her earlier threat to let him burn. A short time later Amara's father and his soldiers, responding to the earth-tremors, find the castaways.

Simonson and Muth never spell out Amara's motives for the Big Smooch. That the two teenagers have some passion for one another, perhaps encouraged by Manuel's mental influence, goes without saying. But the significance of the kiss goes beond that, for Amara's osculatory addition suggests that her apparent submission may actually be an empowering act. Possibly she makes the volcano not because he forces her, but because he's genuinely concerned for her welfare, not just his own, as he was when he made the threat earlier.

In addition, Amara's self-identification with the rainforest, though not stressed, follows the mythic motif by which femininity is equated with the earth and growing things. If Amara's character and the forest are one, then Manuel's casual demand that she should risk burning down her home, her other self, would be closer to an act of rape than any of his often faltering attempts at psychic dominance. And certainly there's more than a little female empowerment in the exchange they have just before the smooch:

MANUEL: "I want to save you! I can feel how afraid you are!"

AMARA: "How I feel is my business! How I handle what I feel-- is my responsibility."

It's not exactly as ringing as "with great power there comes great responsibility," but it's pretty damn resonant just the same.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

RE: THE REBOOT

Despite DC Comics' attempt to get fans to regard the post-FLASHPOINT makeover as a "relaunch," which carries the connotation of advancement, the name "reboot" seems to have stuck. Certainly there has been no shortage of comics-fans who regard the coming event with trepidation. The so-called "soft reboot" of 1994, ZERO HOUR, is often invoked with particular attention to how little effect that event had on DC Comics continuity and/or creative directions.

One element, though, seems to have changed, since September 2009.

The above link is certainly not the first nor foremost to speculate on what it means for "DC Comics" to be restructured as "DC Entertainment," but the GEEKS OF DOOM writer puts it succinctly enough:

The announcement describes the newly formed DC Entertainment Inc as “a new company founded to fully realize the power and value of the DC Comics brand.” The rest of the press release tends to go on in a lot of corporate double speak, but what it means is that Warner Brothers and DC have seen what Marvel has done with its studio and realized that they desperately need to catch up.


It's no less obvious that FLASHPOINT is making a sustained (some would say desperate) appeal to a new readership by renumbering their books, dispensing with much of the hardcore-fan's beloved continuity, and an emphasis on digital media.

And here we come to one of the crucial differences between ZERO HOUR and FLASHPOINT: Paul Levitz stepped down from his offices as DC's Publisher and President, ceding that authority to Diane Nelson, best known for her merchandising of the HARRY POTTER property. This remains the most outwardly visible sign of the restructuring. To be sure, it's been asserted that the basic idea of FLASHPOINT was circulating at DC even before Levitz stepped down, as Bleeding Cool reported here.

The "reboots" of DC Comics that followed 1985's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, then, have all taken place on Paul Levitz's watch. With Levitz no longer in authority, a "hard reboot" is at least conceivable, and perhaps even probable. DC Comics is now being run by an administator who, at very least, wants to improve the saleability and merchandiseablity of DC Comics on her watch.

Now, does that mean that the "relaunch comics" will be good comics? Not at all.

However, human creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum. Sometimes it flourishes when the creative talent is entirely left alone to do as it will, as with the cartoonists of Warner Brothers' "Termite Terrace."

However, sometimes creativity can be spurred on by the knowledge of a managerial shakeup. Such a shakeup always means that some if not all of the old regime's favorites will be on the way out, prompting new proposals by both experienced hands and the young-and-hungry. As example, some might justifiably cite the success of EC Comics to hinge on the replacement of MC Gaines by his son William.

My old opponent Tom Spurgeon was considerably less than enamored of this development, concluding in this essay that:

I've thought in recent years that publishing entities companies like Marvel and DC should be concentrating on core readerships rather than mass ones, that growing their existing audience by 200 percent was a lot more reasonable a goal than somehow matching the heat and flash and cultural buzz that comes with something like that last Batman movie.


I'm not sure I follow why the relaunch can't grow the core audience, since Spurgeon seems patently skeptical of its ability to reach a mass one. Given that Spurgeon also says that he doesn't think DC has the "horses," I take it that he's skeptical about the actual ability of DC creators to pull it off.

And yet, a little over a year ago, Spurgeon also said, as I quoted in this essay:

Some characters also embody abstract principles that are frequently betrayed by the soap opera elements of twist, turn, shock and surprise. When characters that extol the virtues of great responsibility act in an irresponsible fashion and are rewarded in some way, that can confuse the effectiveness of an idea you're foisting on people as a core strength of said character. If you really think your characters have cultural power, or even iconic status, switching up what makes them that way for some sort of temporary oomph in this year's mega-crossover just weakens your ability to communicate those primary ideas over the long term.


It seems to me that, lack of confidence in DC's creators aside, Spurgeon ought to be singing praises for any development that gets the company away from randomly "switching up" the appeal of iconic characters just to goose sales. If I'm correct in believing that Diane Nelson's regime will pursue this marketing strategy more rigorously than Levitz pursued ZERO HOUR, then FLASHPOINT could indeed be the flashpoint for a DC less governed by "the soap opera elements of twist, turn, shock and surprise," and more governed by what Spurgeon called the "core strength" of its characters.

Monday, June 6, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #13: MAD #19 (1955)



...though we are repelled by the sight of man turned beast... we revel to see beast turned man!"











PLOT-SYNOPSIS FOR "Mickey Rodent!" (writing: Kurtzman; art: Elder): As Mickey Rodent walks down a typical "Walt Dizzy" street, looking for Darnold Duck, passersby watch as cops cart away Horace Horseneck for the offense of not wearing white gloves. Meanwhile, Darnold Duck gets repeatedly beaned by projectiles because when people yell at him to "duck," he doesn't know if they're denoting his name or an action. When told that Mickey's looking for him, Darnold tells the readers that Mickey is only fit for "the old actor's home" and that Mickey never gets featured roles any more. Mickey finds Darnold but instead of saying why he wanted him, simply offers to drive Darnold into town. They pass a swimming-hole, and Mickey suggests that they take a swim to cool off. While they cavort, someone steals their clothes (except for Mickey's white gloves, which are "tattooed" on). The beasts-turned-men follow the thief's trail, but it's all a setup so that Mickey, who hates the duck for outperforming him, can lock Darnold in a duck-pen. Since Darnold is naked, the regular (non-"Walt Dizzy") humans who own the pen decide that Darnold must be a "mutated freak" and speculate about having him stuffed.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: Most of the classic MAD satires remain at the monosignative level in that they simply reverse the game plan of whatever's being satirized. Thus, if Superman is a noble hero, Superduperman is a superficial, sex-obsessed creep. But "Mickey Rodent" shows the authors playing a bit more liberally with the theme set forth in the introductory caption: that of "beasts turned men."

(Actually I really DON'T think readers are all that repelled at seeing human beings act like beasts. But that's another essay.)

The modus operandi of satire is to reveal the base reality beneath the figments and fantasies in which human beings immerse themselves. The first one we encounter is that the creator of the animated animals, "Walt Dizzy," decrees that all his creations must wear white gloves (four-fingered, in keeping with the way most characters have been drawn in the history of animated cartoons). Thus Kurtzman and Elder quickly communicate that the fun-loving cartoon characters of the Disney world are actually just as much under the thumb of a controlling Big Brother as any wage-slave.

The story doesn't waste any time letting the readers see the arbitrariness of this social sign. Moments after Darnold gets beaned by a baseball from "Goony," Goony points out that Darnold is walking around with no pants, causing the duck to rush home and don trousers, which he wears for most of the rest of the tale. Thus clothing, one element traditionally used by cartoons to transform "beasts" into "men," is shown by Kurtzman and Elder to be an arbitrary social construct. Aside from Darnold wearing pants, almost all the other characters-- versions of Goofy, Pluto, and Minnie Mouse-- comport themselves just as the originals do in terms of garments, though Darnold stands in for Kurtzman's ideal reader in that Darnold gets nauseated at the thought of Minnie, a giant rat, wearing eyelashes and high heels. Mickey Rodent is the only other exception: he dresses normally enough but throughout the story artist Elder draws Mickey with unsightly beard-stubble. (He also seems to be missing some teeth in a later scene.) But in Kurtzman's world a dissolute-looking Mickey is fit to take a clever revenge on his rival.

The other arbitrary social construct Kurtzman tears apart here seems more vital to the history of "beasts turning men" than clothing was: the construct of language. I won't over-analyze the running gag of Darnold constantly being unsure whether people are calling his name or telling him to duck. But I'll note that it's just one element in Kurtzman's script that points out the absurd nature of language. Perhaps more telling is that Darnold is first seen talking in the incomprehensible quacking voice of the animated cartoons. Then the editors inform the readers that they will translate the duck's voice into readable text, paralleling the transformation that Disney's duck had to pass through when he was adapted to comic strips and books. But it's important to Kurtzman's plot-- as it isn't for the legit Donald Duck comics-- that Darnold should "quack like a duck" at the story's end, so that the regular humans will mistake him for a freakish version of a real duck.







Clothing and language, then, are the twin pillars of the arbitrary civilization Kurtzman gives his Disney characters, and like Samson Kurtzman is more than happy to pull down both pillars. But even when Kurtzman seems to be protesting the injustice of such civilized forms-- "Pluted Pup" has a Shylock-moment where he protests, via signboards, the injustice that he of all the animals isn't allowed to talk-- Kurtzman also implies that without those arbitrary signs of civilization, one's only option is--

To get stuffed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

FINDING SIGMUND PART 3

“For the imagination… is very mighty when it creates, as it were, another nature out of the material that actual nature gives it… We may even restructure experience; and though in doing so we continue to follow analogical laws, yet we also follow principles which reside higher up, namely, in reason (and which are just as natural to us as those which the understanding follows in apprehending empirical nature. In this process we feel our freedom from the law of association…”—Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, Section 314, tr. Pluhar).

In Part 2 I stated that Laurence Olivier’s Freud-influenced HAMLET was largely under the sway of Kant’s “reproductive imagination,” in that the film accepted, rather routinely, the Oedipal associations of Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of the Shakespeare play.

Nevertheless, as stated in Part 1, the Oedipus complex is a legitimate archetype, which need not be represented in art as an empirical construction, but can become a vehicle for “productive imagination” when used with the sort of imaginative “free play” Kant recommends.


To prove this, I suggested that I would give an example of the hybridization of productive and reproductive imagination. Shakespeare’s original HAMLET would certainly qualify, for the play certainly contains more archetypes than just the Oedipal one. However, I decided that the best possible counter-example to Olivier's HAMLET should share that film's major attributes, i.e.: (1) that it too was produced some time after Freud’s ideas were popularized, (2) that it made clear use of some Freudian paradigms, and (3) that it adapted a work whose origins predated Freudianism.


My ideal counter-example is the 1931 film DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, adapted by director Rouben Mamoulian and his scripters from the 1886 Stevenson novella. To be sure, the Mamoulian film also adapts some story-motifs that were not in Stevenson. A JEKYLL play by Thomas Russell Sullivan was one of the first adaptations to inject a level of sexual conflict not overtly present in the original story, and Mamoulian certainly took advantage of that sexuality for his Freudianized reading. But even here the parallel to the Olivier film seems sound, for Olivier’s film, appearing in 1948, may well have borrowed some of its conceits from earlier Freudianized iterations in film or theater.


As I have not yet reviewed the Mamoulian film on my own site, one can read a detailed summation and analysis on the site CLASSIC HORROR.COM. One of reviewer Eric Miller’s best insights in this review-- and one germane to my Kantian project--is his comment on the Freudian paradigm of “repression”-- a paradigm of questionable applicability to the original story. Because Mamoulian expanded on this typical Freudian concept, Mamoulian’s Doctor Jekyll bears no resemblance to the paradigm of the neurosis-riddled individual that so informed Freud’s view of HAMLET.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s other main theme is the consequence of repression, making this film much more than your standard “good versus evil” morality tale. Jekyll is portrayed as a curious, open young man. Mamoulian resists the temptation to portray Dr. Jekyll as a hedonistic libertine, instead giving us a decent, honest man wanting to explore perfectly natural and healthy desires. As a forward thinking scientist, Jekyll wants to learn about the world, and is not afraid of what he might find. The representatives of public opinion, however, do not share these views. One by one, we see all of Jekyll’s desires and goals thwarted by “proper” society.






In addition, I'd add that while Freud believed that repression was a necessary evil to maintain society, Mamoulian’s movie is not so resigned. The final images of the film --which show Jekyll looking beatific in death, followed by the sight of a pot boiling over on a stove-- indicate not that repression is necessary, but that it will inevitably create more monsters like Mister Hyde. Mamoulian may not exactly be Herbert Marcuse, but he doesn’t seem to be saying that sexual neurosis must be man’s fate.


But even apart from matters of theme, the more important examples of “free play” in the Mamoulian film are those which embody a new myth for both Jekyll and his alter ego. Mamoulian was not the first to present Hyde as an ape-like creature, but some of his scenarios are as indelible to the modern image of Hyde as anything in Stevenson, much less the best-known silent version, the 1920 John Barrymore version.


Most often praised is the scene where Hyde, in one of his earliest transformations, stands laughing in a downpour. One can, if one likes, read this scene as symbolic of Freud’s “ego.” But it’s an image that goes beyond any simple illustration of a conscious theme. As such it incarnates the kind of “free play” that Kant sees as the result of the “productive imagination.”


Of course, there’s the chance that some forgotten theatrical director was actually the first to use the scenario. I recently read Susan Hitchcock's book, FRANKENSTEIN: A CULTURAL HISTORY, and thus learned that many of the cinematic fates meted out to the Frankenstein monster-- being burned, falling through the Arctic ice-- had actually appeared in earlier theatre-adaptations. Still, even if Mamoulian or his scripters copied their scene from someone else’s, that “someone else” was using his “productive imagination” to conceive “another nature” out of the materials given by “actual nature,” even as Robert Louis Stevenson had.


My principal reason for advancing this somewhat schematic examination of two famous Freud-influenced films is a simple one. I’ve not dealt extensively with Oedipal archetypes on this site, but I’ve always been aware that some creators are more drawn to them than others. One of the most noteworthy—and one that I’ll eventually cover in my “1001 myths” essay-series-- is the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, which follows some Freudian patterns but (shall we say) “disavows” others. Given that I have frequently disparaged the reductive psychology of Freud and such followers as Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman, I wish to make clear that I see the patterns Freud identified as enfolded within a larger conceptual structure, one informed by my own particular influences: Jung, Frye, Campbell and Cassirer. My opposition of Olivier and Mamoulian, then, is my way of showing that there are good ways and bad ways to “find Sigmund” in modern works of art.

A few more Sigmundoscopies may be forthcoming...