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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...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

ADVENTURE-COMEDY VS. COMEDY-ADVENTURE PT. 2

In the last installment of this series I wrote of the comedy-adventure INFERIOR FIVE:

The plots of INFERIOR FIVE, too, are clearly meant to stress incongruity over agonic action. I noted above that the heroes sometimes do win battles, but generally it's out of sheer dumb luck rather than through skill.


I don't mean by that to suggest that all comic superheroes-- or even all comic heroes generally-- must be inept at winning battles. Though it's almost a given that in the adventure-mythos the hero's fighting-skills are better than average, superior fighting-ability can be seen in the protagonists of many dramas (ranging from RICHARD III to STAR TREK), ironies (WATCHMEN, possibly Hammett's "Continental Op" stories), and comedies such as POPEYE and POWERHOUSE PEPPER.

This time, however, I want to compare a comedy-adventure and an adventure-comedy that possess many similar elements (including a hero of amazing abilities), and yet still manage to come down on opposite sides of the divide.

Of the two, my selection for comedy-adventure will be the better known: Rumiko Takahashi's RANMA 1/2.

In BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER I defined RANMA as a comedy thusly:

A better example of the superhero put forth as pure comedy might be Rumiko Takahashi’s RANMA ½ (1987-1996). Though the adventures of Ranma Saotome vary between high adventure and low sitcom goofiness, the constant focus of the series is the how Ranma and his reluctant betrothal Akane “discover” the depths of their feelings for one another and become reconciled to them. These characters are no more married at the conclusion of the series than Buffy is, but the final story does at least feature an attempt to get them married, even if it descends into comic chaos.







I noted in the next paragraph Ranma's superhero-like qualities: that he can punch through stone walls and defeat numerous adversaries with super-powers. He does this not through standard superhero powers but through an almost magical system of martial arts. Despite these extraordinary abilities, Ranma's normative activities are those of typical Japanese high-schoolers: sports, attending classes, et al. He and his father (seen in the illustration as a panda bear) permanently live with the Tendou family, and by agreement of the Tendous' father and Ranma's old man, Ranma and Akane are betrothed. Neither teenager accepts this declaration, though naturally both of them do actually like each other but won't admit it, etc. Akane, in fact, is very nearly the only character ever seen regularly beating Ranma up. This stems not from her equal possession of martial skills-- quite the opposite, in fact-- but because Ranma won't fight back against her. This ethic usually extends to all members of the feminine gender but on occasion Ranma makes exceptions when faced with truly skilled female opponents.



Ranma sometimes has extended fantasy-battles with supernatural creatures, like the winged bull-man seen here. Nevertheless, though Ranma always wins these altercations when it comes down to a test of strength and skill, the dominant theme of RANMA 1/2 is not the invigorative effect of the *agon* but the jubilative appeal of the incongruous. Most of the cast-members, like Ranma's part-time panda-bear father, undergo bizarre transformations of one kind or another. Takahashi often uses Ranma's fighting-skill as a means of ending the incongruity and returning to normality, but often Ranma is flummoxed or made foolish in some way even when he triumphs.

A very different aesthtic pervades Nobuhiro Watsuki's RUROUNI KENSHIN (1994-1999), however, even though many identical comedic elements appear throughout the series.





Watsuki presents the reader with a Mejii-era martial artist, Kenshin Himura, who is one of the great masters of the sword. His past is a great deal more haunted than Ranma's, in that Kenshin's duties to his former masters of the old Shogunate included using his sword for assassination. Dispirited by killing, he wanders into a small town and is taken in by Kaoru, a young female kendo artist. As with the Ranma-Akane relationship, Kaoru is nowhere near Kenshin's skill-level. Nevertheless, any time he pisses her off, she clobbers him soundly. It's not always clear whether Kenshin lets it happen because he won't fight women or because her audacity always takes him by surprise.



The series does have its share of comic misadventures, and like RANMA accumulates a large support-cast of characters, many of whom possess skills comparable to Kenshin's. However, humor is generally introduced to break the tension of the serious battles to come, even as RANMA uses adventure-tropes to briefly put its comic characters into what seems like serious situations before the story returns to the usual hijinks.

Moreover, Kenshin's battles are part of a larger plotline that develops over time, as to what forces will rule Japan during the Mejii era. The focus on large-scale conflict is the indubitable obverse of Takahashi's focus on RANMA, where the small-scale world of home and neighborhood take precedence over the world at large.

Both serials keep elements of adventure and comedy in play on a regular basis. But in each the respective authors clearly signal to their audiences that one mythos dominates all other potential rivals.

Monday, July 25, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #21: URUSEI YATSURA (1978)




PLOT-SUMMARY for “A Good Catch” (Rumiko Takahashi, 1978): High-school boy Ataru Moroboshi begins his first adventure by having a fight with his girlfriend Shinobu and a slapstick encounter with a demented Buddhist monk named Cherry. After Cherry prophecizes that Ataru is doomed, the teenager returns to his house and learns from his parents that he’s been selected for a unique destiny. An alien race, whose members resemble the horned Japanese demon called the “oni,” has announced that it plans to overwhelm Earth with its superior technology. However, Earth can avoid invasion if one human, selected at random by computer, can defeat the aliens’ combatant in a special game of “tag.” Ataru has been chosen for the task, which he accepts gladly once he sees that his opponent is Lum, a curvy young female oni dressed in a tigerskin bikini. However, as the contest begins—giving Ataru ten days to overtake Lum and “tag” her by grasping her horns—he learns to his chagrin that Lum can fly, and thus can easily elude him.


For seven days Ataru fails to catch Lum. The entire world reviles him for his failures, while Shinobu chastises him for his lustful inclinations. On the eighth day Ataru manages to leap high enough to grapple with Lum, but she knocks him off and he falls, albeit with a prize: her tigerskin bikini-top. That night Lum, still half-naked, shows up at Ataru’s house trying to get her top back, but even though they fight again she has to retreat without it. The ninth day’s contest begins. Though Lum has the disadvantage of still being half-naked and thus trying to conceal her breasts during the contest, she again avoids being tagged. Shinobu, hoping to give Ataru motivation, promises to marry him if he wins. The last phase of the contest begins, but Ataru conceives a trick. He pulls out Lum’s bikini-top, suckering her into coming close enough that he can pull her down and firmly grasp her horns.







Earth is saved, but Ataru makes the mistake of crying “I will marry her” while he’s contending with Lum. Lum thinks he proposed to her, and Shinobu, whom Ataru meant to marry, remarks archly that Ataru’s still holding onto Lum pretty good. The story ends with everyone but Ataru thinking that it’s a great idea for him to go off to the planet of the oni as Lum’s husband.



MYTH-ANALYSIS: First, a few points:
(1) This analysis is based upon the Gerald Jones translation of the Japanese original, published in 1989 by Viz Comics.

(2) The ending is little more than a joke with no impact on Ataru’s future adventures; indeed he and Shinobu appear in the next UY story with no reference to Lum at all, who only joins the feature’s cast as a regular presence in the third story.

(3) The third story is the first time in the manga where Takahashi gives Lum her famous electrical powers, which is why she only fights Ataru hand-to-hand in “A Good Catch.”

URUSEI YATSURA epitomizes the old saw, “A man chases a girl until she catches him.” Following Lum’s re-introduction in the third UY story, the bulk of the series charts Lum’s never-ending battle to bring Ataru to the marriage-altar, Takahashi’s feminine reversal of the pattern of masculine pursuit and conquest.
That said, there’s no evidence that Takahashi meant Lum to become a regular cast-member when the artist conceived “Catch.” Nevertheless, even had Lum never appeared again, “Catch” would stand as a solid comedic tale based on the mythology of sexual conflict.


The first action in the story consists of Shinobu slapping Ataru for looking at some other woman, which in his private reverie he admits having done. Ataru’s licentiousness, though not extraordinary for a high-school male, is the aspect of his character that marks him for his “doom,” as Cherry calls it. When he’s confronted with a sexy girl as his opponent, Ataru drools like a letch and gets clobbered by Shinobu. Later Shinobu upbraids him for having fallen into the aliens’ trap by letting Lum tantalize him. From a purely rational point of view, this seems unfair. No Earthman would have had any better chance against a flying opponent, no matter how pure his heart. But the comic purpose of the story is to dump on Ataru, and males generally, for their wandering eyes. It might be argued that Ataru does overcome whatever lustful feelings Lum arouses in him in order to get serious during the last days of the contest, but Takahashi doesn’t really emphasize any mental transformation on Ataru’s part.


Indeed, any conscious attraction Ataru feels for Lum seems to go south as soon as he realizes that she’s tricked him by concealing the fact of her flying-power. However, Takahashi was enough an entertainer to continue suggesting sexual titillation at every turn. When Ataru jumps onto Lum on the seventh day, she calls him a “pervert” even as she knocks him off of her, even though he shows no desire for anything but victory. That same evening Lum pays Ataru a visit in his room; an action that suggests a sexual rendezvous even though there is none in the offing. When Lum demands the return of her bikini, Ataru reveals that he’s got it stuffed under his tracksuit. Lum is offended that he’s apparently “wearing it,” but in context the motive seems less like transvetitism than an attempt to train while focusing on a trophy taken from the enemy. When Ataru challenges Lum to take back the bikini by force, and she accepts, neither one has sex on their minds. But readers are likely to think of sex as the two teenagers go at each other.


The bikini itself serves as a talisman of sexual displacement. Obviously the fragile logic of Takahashi’s story would’ve gone awry had Lum simply donned a different bikini-top, and the only explanation the text can give is that “She must not have a spare.” This contrived notion gives Takahashi an excuse to titillate her readers with a handful of boob-shots, but it should be noted that even though Lum is handicapped by trying to conceal her bosom with her arms, she still wins the ninth-day contest, kicking Ataru off of her while exclaiming, “Never underestimate a woman!”


The bikini-theft parallels a similar displacement of sexual conquest in the European cycle of “swan-maiden” tales. In this archetypal story-pattern, a male protagonist comes across a lake where swan-maidens in human form are bathing, having left on the shore the feather-suits that can transform them back to swans. The hero steals one of the suits, forcing one of the maidens to assume the status of a mortal woman, whom he then marries until such time as she gets her swan-suit back. In “Good Catch,” Ataru manages to steal Lum’s top, but Lum isn’t reduced to helplessness. Even when handicapped, she fights back savagely. It might be too Freudian to claim that either the swan-suits or Lum’s bikini-top represent the male’s “taking” of the female’s virginity. Nevertheless, Ataru’s theft does give him in the end a psychological advantage, and he uses her top to trick her in the same way that she used her looks to trick him.


After Ataru beats Lum—albeit with trickery—her fierce demeanor vanishes once she thinks he’s proposed marriage to her. Should one interpret this as a female’s being seduced by a male’s demonstration of superior strength and/or cunning? Or is it, as I noted at the start, a sort of subtle revenge? Perhaps Lum “stoops to conquer”—which is another way of saying that she conquers the conquering male by drawing him into her (literal) orbit, making him one of her demonic people. Of course this specific “doom” is set aside for the sake of future stories, since Ataru remains largely on Earth. But a lot of later stories end much the same as the first one, with Ataru and/or his male friends condemned to suffer some outrageous fate as a punishment for lustful desires. Perhaps there’s a sense in which, from the outset, Ataru is consigned to a comedic version of the Japanese hell—one where he will be the eternal victim of demonesses who constantly present alternating faces of feminine compassion and feminine sadism.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

ADVENTURE/COMEDY VS. COMEDY/ADVENTURE, PART 1





























Riddle me this:

Q: When is a superhero not a superhero?

A: When the *dynamis* expressed by either the plot-functions or character-functions within the corpus of a given superhero's exploits is not commensurate with those characteristic of the pure adventure mythos, aligning rather with another mythos, such as that of irony, drama or comedy.

So the riddle's answer isn't funny. Maybe it would sound better if one imagines Burt Ward reading it from a Batcomputer printout, though.

Back in this essay I stressed the problematic status of two similarly-themed television serials, DOCTOR WHO and STARGATE. Both serials made strong use of the *dynamis* typical of the adventure mythos, which in large part stresses the radical of the *agon,* a seriously-toned battle between good and evil whose outcome symbolically re-invigorates the society within the diegesis as well as the reader's simulated experience of that invigoration.

In that essay I concluded that neither DOCTOR WHO nor STARGATE fit the adventure-mythos, the one because it lacked the *dynamis* appropriate to the typical adventure-mythos character, and the other because it lacked the *dynamis*
appropriate to the typical adventure-mythos plot. As such they are outside the superhero idiom as such, one best filed under the portmanteau category "comedy-adventure" and the other under "drama-adventure."

Having said that, though, how much comedy can infiltrate an adventure-story before it ceases being an adventure?

It's true that DOCTOR WHO is not a comedy in the sense of constantly making viewers laugh. At times the situations in many episodes can seem extremely grim. However, I do find that dominantly WHO tends to present its audience with the incongruity of massive alien legions and monsters being undone by the waspish Doctor. Thus, I find WHO closer to the mythos of comedy, which stresses incongruity rather than the serious results of combat, in keeping with Northrop Frye's pronouncement that not every comedy need be funny. (I've noted some of my disagreements with Frye on this subject elsewhere, and I do think that comedies are dominantly defined by their humor, even though not every comedy approaches humor as intensively as the dominant type.)

Now, what should one make of the two 1960s artifacts above?

Clearly the specific images used above were meant to make audiences laugh. But did both share the *dynamis* of both plot and character characteristic of the pure comedy?

In the case of THE INFERIOR FIVE, E. Nelson Bridwell's borscht-belt paean to silly superheroes, I would say yes. Even though the five goofy heroes have power, and even sometimes manage to win battles, the characters are all defined by traits incongruous to the typical notion of the hero. The Blimp is slow, White Feather is cowardly, Merryman is weak, Awkwardman is awkward, and Dumb Bunny is so dumb (HOW DUMB IS SHE?) that she thinks a polar cap is something to keep her head warm.

(Joke stolen from Gardner Fox just for sake of variety)

The plots of INFERIOR FIVE, too, are clearly meant to stress incongruity over agonic action. I noted above that the heroes sometimes do win battles, but generally it's out of sheer dumb luck rather than through skill. At the end of one representative issue of INFERIOR FIVE, a villain hooks the captured heroes up to a machine designed to siphon off their powers and give them to one of the villain's henchmen. Instead the machine works in reverse, siphoning off the heroes' weaknesses so that, for two pages, they become super-capable at kicking the hell out of the villain and his henchmen. This scene pretty much defines how the elements of adventure are subordinated to those of comedy.

But can one make the same claim about the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries?

Adam West once defended the series against the attacks of comics-fans by claiming that the absurdities the show depicted weren't substantially different from those of the current comic-book adventures of Batman (who, in case anyone's wondering, DOES fit the criterion of pure adventure no matter how many times he had adventures with Bat-Mite).

West was both wrong and right. He was wrong in equating the two serials in that the camp-flavored teleseries couldn't switch gears as the comic book series could. There was no place in the teleseries for a story of ratiocinative detection or a "Robin Dies at Dawn."

However, West was right in a way I doubt he suspected. That is, no matter how many absurdities the BATMAN TV-series presented, the characters believed in them, as if being threatened by a giant Frostee-Freezee death-trap were the height of high seriousness. Indeed, the "Batusi" scene from the serial's first episode, while amusing, is one of the few times West's Batman broke character. In his biography West stated that at first he wanted to do the scene in a clownish manner, but that he was persuaded that he should affect a "straight" approach to the Batusi scene in keeping with the "camp" aesthetic. However, though the scene does avoid the level of the pure pratfall, it doesn't quite succeed, as did most later episodes, of keeping Batman serious while all about him was absurdity.

For this reason I consider the BATMAN teleseries, if not "pure adventure," to be a hybrid form in which the *dynamis* of adventure dominates over that of comedy, though clearly comedy's elements are in fuller play here than in most other iterations of BATMAN.

Because the heroes seem genuinely threatened by bizarre villains and death-traps, both plot and character validate the power of the adventure-mythos even while managing to keep the comic elements in play. This is why, even for later generations of kids not yet jaded enough to laugh at Batman, the series can still excite and fascinate them, precisely because even with the giant OOFS and WHAPS, the invigorating thrill of the agon still predominates.

FUNNY BONERS

"I had thought-I had been told-that a 'funny' thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn't. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok it is a bravery . . . and a sharing . . . against pain and sorrow and defeat."-- Valentine Michael Smith, from Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.


I recently reread Heinlein's STRANGER. I was probably in college when I first read it, and I recall being very impressed with it. I don't remember how long ago I gave the novel a second read-through, but I remember thinking that it wasn't nearly as philosophically deep as I'd thought in my earlier years. The third re-reading was no different: Heinlein's cracker-barrel philosophy doesn't stand up to strong analysis, as it's often structured as if Heinlein's version of Socrates, Jubal Harshaw, were doing a stand-up vaudeville act where he got all the punchlines.
"Say there Mister Bones, what you think should be the limits of personal responsibilty in a free society--?"

However, one scene that still works for me is the one where Smith, the Martian-educated Earthman, finally "groks" what it means when human beings laugh. Not merely "smile," though. Prior to the quote cited above, Smith makes very clear that his understanding of humor depends on the explosiveness of the belly laugh:

Perhaps I don't grok all its fullness yet. But find me something that really makes you laugh, sweetheart . . . a joke, or anything else-but something that gave you a real belly laugh, not a smile. Then we'll see if there isn't a wrongness in it somewhere and whether you would laugh if the wrongness wasn't there."


In essence Heinlein has presented, in fictional form, the so-called "relief theory of humor," pioneered by Freud, which argues that the human impulse toward comedy is a way of venting social and psychological pressure. In the novel Smith comes to his conclusion at a zoo, as he watches one monkey take out its frustrations on another monkey less able to fight back. This, rather improbably, leads to Smith's conclusion that humor is a coping strategy that helps one deal with injustice and "wrongness."

The problem of the relief theory, though, is that in order to work, it has to disinclude the phenomenon of the "smile" that may be best explained not by Freudian pressure-relief, but rather by Schopenhaurer's theory of incongruity.

Take as example this Jack Cole POLICE COMICS cover-- one of many he did which feature Plastic Man transforming himself into some playful object, with or without Woozy Winks, and often without any criminals to fight.



It's certainly not impossible that covers like these may have caused some members of their audience to laugh out loud. But it seems much more likely that the incongruity of a man turning himself into a boat or a sled or a ball is much more likely to have inculcated no more than an amused smile.

Now, Cole isnt' the best proponent of this type of humor overall, for as gentle as many PLASTIC MAN covers are, a lot of the stories inside *do* generate their humor from the sort of "wrongness" Heinlein considers the sum and substance of comedy. In my essay RAPT IN PLASTIC I noted how greatly Cole seemed dominated by "violent and transgressive materials."

Yet on another level PLASTIC MAN might serve as a better means to prove the superiority of the incongruity theory of humor over the relief theory. It's one thing to have a humor feature like BARNABY or FRED BASSETT that never ever conjures with anything stronger than the "gentle smile" brand of humor. However, the fact that Jack Cole had in him the capacity to produce both gentle and savage forms of humor demonstrates that as a professional artist he could master the demands of both disciplines.

And to do, he had to be able to imagine any number of incongruous situations in order to keep producing both the covers and the interior stories: to imagine Woozy harmlessly bouncing a Plastic Man-ball on the cover, and then to turn around and have him imperilled by some grotesque villain, to whom Woozy naturally reacts with the expected comic cowardice.

Both are fascinating aspects of Jack Cole. He wouldn't be the artist he was, without both sides.

Just as the human sense of humor can't be restricted to the desire to laugh alone. The simple smile at harmless incongruity, in fact, may be not as inconsequential as Heinlein imagines.

As the child is father to the man, might not the smile be father to the laugh?

Monday, July 18, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #20: TALES FROM THE CRYPT #33 (1952)


















PLOT-SUMMARY: The Crypt-Keeper introduces the story "Lower Berth" (story: Feldstein; art Davis), the tale of a traveling carnival/freakshow run by one Ernest Feeley. The star attraction of Feeley's freakfest is a female mummy, nicknamed "Myrna." Feeley acquired the mummy from a retired archaelogist, Zachary Cling, who travels with the show and tells audiences of the mummy's gruesome past: that she was taped up and buried alive for refusing the advances of a Pharaoh. When the carnival passes a "small Ozark town," Feeley gets a new attraction from a doctor named Jeb Sickles. Sickles relates that he was called to help the son of a mountain-woman, but was unable to save the man-- whose corpse Sickles saved, because the man had two heads. Feeley invites Sickles to join the show and share in the profits from exhibiting the two-headed corpse, named "Enoch." For many weeks thereafter, Myrna, upright in her coffin, and Enoch in a tank of formaldehyde, are exhibited in the same tent, and though both are dead they seem to stare at one another even as the gawkers stare at them. One day Feeley decides to move Myrna outside the tent to draw in crowds, promoting Enoch as the "star of the show." For the first time, Myrna and Enoch are separated-- so on that night, the two corpses come alive and steal away. Sickles and Cling both accuse one another of ripping off the exhibits, but soon Feeley figures out that the corpses left on their own (which he seems to accept rather easily). The three showmen track their wayward exhibits to a justice of the peace. The judge tells them that he just married two people who smelled very strangely, though that was the only odd this judge noticed, being that he's blind. No one can find Enoch and Myrna, so the carnival returns to its tour. A year later, it returns to the Ozark community where Feeley acquired Enoch. An old coot tells Feeley that there are stories of monsters living in the cave where Sickles encountered the old mountain-woman and her ailing son. Feeley, Sickles and Cling seek out the cave, and to their joy find the fugitive corpses, which they happily transport back to the carnival. As the story ends, the three showmen overlook the fruit of a monstrous union: a baby who will one day grow up to be-- the Crypt-Keeper himself.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: As the Crypt-Keeper's narration points out, this story was not the first EC tale to give an origin to one of the horror-tale hosts: the Old Witch was the first to receive that honor.

EC horror-tales routinely featured horrendous puns, and this story sports one of the worst at the end: "You might say, the mummy was my mommy!" Given that tendency, it's surprising that the pun in the title remains only implicit. There is no actual "lower berth" in the story: plainly "berth" means "birth." Apparently the 1950s societal taboos against references to sex and pregnancy were so ingrained that even EC wouldn't spell out that this was a story about a "birth" that resulted as a union of what have been called the "lower" organs.

EC's horror-tales were still popular in 1952 and had not yet suffered the worst of the societal backlash against them. Thus Feldstein's narration take an almost cocky pleasure in asserting that traveling carnivals with their freakshows comprised the "only entertainment" Americans had "about eighty years ago," prior to the rise of such mass-market media as "radio,movies, television and comic books." By so doing, Feldstein defines the human need for entertainment as essentially voyeuristic, perhaps in contrast to those pundits who claimed that only mass-market entertainments depended on sex and horror. Feeley's carnival depends entirely on the appeal to voyeurism, and for a time Myrna is Feeley's greatest attraction because Myrna presents a spectacle of the human form degraded by death. Other freak-attractions are mentioned but there's no allusions to the traditions of the hooch dancers or any other "sexy" attractions. But then, in the EC universe, there can be just as much salaciousness in gazing at Thanatos as at Eros.

Prior to the jokey "marriage" of Enoch and Myrna, only Myrna's backstory alludes to sex. According to Cling, in ancient Egypt the future mummy (actually named "Myranah," which presumably sounded more Mediterranean to Feldstein's ears) was a lady-in-waiting to the Pharaoh's wife. "Myrna" is so "faithful to her mistress" that she rather unwisely refuses the Pharaoh's attentions and so ends up suffering the same live-burial-in-mummy-bandages that befell Boris Karloff's Imhotep in that seminal mummy-film, 1932's THE MUMMY. Presumably Myrna dies a virgin, and one could probably assume the same of Enoch, in that prior to the doctor's discovery of him the double-domed fellow is living in a cave with his mother, even though Sickles puts Enoch's age at "twenny-two." Plainly Feldstein could've given Enoch's corpse any sort of deformity to make it eligible to the carnival. The fact that Enoch is two-headed sounds like another implicit pun, this time on the biological reason why only human males can be said to have two heads.

After those two crazy undead kids run off, Sickles and Cling each accuse each other of sabotage, as each have been shown to be jealous of their positions in the carnival pecking-order. The effect, though, is more like the fathers of an eloping bride and groom quarreling about which offspring is to blame for the indiscretion. The three showmen also seem to have been named to suggest sex and death, with Feeley and Cling representing the former and Sickles the latter (as in the notion of a sickle as a harvesting-device, like the Grim Reaper's scythe).

The device of the judge is no less drawn from formulaic stories of elopement. On one level the judge is blind just to lend a degree of credibility to the idea of his marrying a pair of reanimated corpses. On another level, it's significant that the judge is the only figure in the story (except perhaps Enoch's mother) who isn't defined by the desire to look, even in the judge's case his not looking isn't a matter of choice on his part. The notion that two corpses would not want to have sex outside the bounds of marriage pokes fun at the connubial institution, though from another angle it also suggests the power that the institution had for that society.

No reason is given as to why the two corpses conveniently drop dead when the three showmen arrive at the cave. One must logically assume that they've been quasi-alive for the year-long interim that Myrna carries her child by Enoch (since, as we all know, dead-alive women give birth the same way living women do). Probably the only reason Myrna and Enoch die again is in order to set up the Crypt-Keeper's final gag, where he appeals to EC readers to let him know if they ever hear of a traveling carnival that still shows off his "old man" and "old lady," so that he can drop them an anniversary card.

Monday, July 11, 2011

THE SHE-RA MAN-HATERS CLUB PT. 2

Ferdinand: And women like that part which, like the lamprey,
Hath never a bone in't.
Duchess: Fie, sir!
Ferdinand: Nay,
I mean the tongue; variety of courtship:
What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale
Make a woman believe?
The Duchess of Malfi, Act I, Scene ii.



So, when I impute the existence of a "She-Ra Man-Haters Club," who are the club's members in the comics world?

Though I disagreed with statements made by Trina Robbins in Part 1, I don't think her remarks put her anywhere near the company of Andrea Dworkin. I've seen a few remarks by Heidi McDonald that come a little nearer that territory, but still, I've no sense that she's set up shop in WAPville.

In essence, the comics-world members would be anyone who calls for the unconditional neutering of male fantasy-material in the name of an alleged benefit to female safety. Here's a remark I reprinted in THE GENRE-GENDER WARS that sounds pretty much like WAPster sentiments:

The hypersexualization/objectification of female superheroines makes female readers uncomfortable, and sexual violence as a plot point has got to stop.


One immediate problem with this sentiment, of course, is the old question, "Who decides what is objectification?" Probably the only true answer will be some variation on Ellen Willis' answer as to what constitutes pornography:

"What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic."

That said, and with all my objections to WAPster intolerance of the erotica they don't like, I stop short of saying that women are universally wrong when they, with the Duchess of Malfi, cry the modern variant of "Fie, sir!"

(Took me awhile, but I got back to it; didn't I?)

While I'd not endorse that biology is destiny, I certainly don't believe, as do some feminists, that gender roles are entirely sociological in nature. I have endorsed Friedrich Nietzsche's notion that men and women have the same emotions, albeit separated in their manifestation by what Nietzsche called "tempo." Nietzsche's idea of "tempo" might be glossed by Joseph Campbell's adaptation of the ethological idea of "supernormal sign stimuli," which I addressed somewhat more fully here.

Be that as it may, both biology and social conditioning insure that men dominantly prefer very extreme fantasies of sex and violence, and women dominantly decline from same.

This declination from the crude and rude world of boys' fantasies, however, is not necessarily an "Unconditional No" that declares that said world should not exist; that it should be legislated out of existence because It Contributes to the Victimization of Women. It is a "Conditional No," which might be framed more on the level of, "Keep This Crap Out of the Kids' Sight and Don't Scare the Horses Neither."

I don't agree in full with the theses of Leonard Shlain in SEX, TIME, AND POWER as to the rise of human culture. However, he does advance (or pass on) an interesting conception of "women's power to say no." In brief, following homo sapiens' evolution away from seasonal estrus-cycles, Shlain suggests that the female power to say no to the male's advances did in fact provide a primary motivation for the evolution of love specifically and culture generally. Culture, for Shlain, evolves from man's ceaseless efforts to figure out what the woman wants.

I don't believe that this was the only motivation for said evolution. But I do think it's a little more insightful than Camille Paglia's notion that culture evolved out of the human male's tendency to "project," which in turn evolved out of the fact that he, unlike the female, could write his name in the snow.

I will probably continue to be appalled by many of the exaggerated claims that feminists of both sexes level at mainstream comics. I will always believe that most of them misapprehend the extent to which sociology can trump biology.

But the woman's power to civilize has to be respected.

Otherwise we guys would never have come up with DVD players on which to play our favorite porno movies.

MYTHCOMICS #19: THE SPIRIT (1949)




PLOT-SUMMARY: “The Curse” (10-16-49) begins with a framing-story. One evening in some unidentified hill-country (implicitly close to the Spirit’s “Central City”), three hillbillies relax by a campfire, where they plan to slaughter a white-feathered, red-combed hen for their dinner. Local balladeer Pete Bog wanders into their camp, clearly looking for a handout. Although the threesome initially deny him a share of their dinner, the singer’s doleful song of the “lost love” of Jimson Weede and Cider Sue beguiles them into listening.


Cider Sue, a maiden who wears a red comb in her white hair, is deemed a “hex gal” by the hillfolk, and is outcast even from her own family. Only young swain Jimson Weede loves her, pledging his troth with a “snake ring.” One day Cider notices that she casts no reflection in water. Some hostile hillmen notice it too, and try to hang her. Jimson shoots one of the men and flees with Cider. He hides Cider in a mountain-cave but seems to think they can’t get away from the hill-country unless he first goes to the big city and makes a lot of money. He falls in with a boxing-trainer, Doc Ringer, and for the next three months, Jimson wins all of his fights. The Spirit and Commissioner Dolan discern crookedness in Ringer’s game, though even Jimson doesn’t know that Ringer is using hypnosis to control whether Jimson wins or loses. After rigging Jimson’s final fight so that the young hillbilly loses, Ringer runs off with the boxer’s money, and his picture of Cider Sue. Because Ringer took the picture, the vengeful Jimson goes looking for him at the mountain where he concealed Cider, while the Spirit and Dolan trail Jimson, hoping to bust Ringer. Jimson finds Cider cuddled up with Ringer and curses them both for betraying him. Cider suddenly disavows her love for Jimson: “I’m a witch gal--I’m not fer you!” Ringer affirms that he and Cider are both “hex people” just before Jimson attacks him. Ringer shoots Jimson before Jimson throttles the “doc,” who in dying predicts that Jimson will die and Cider Sue will be “a hen a-cluckin’ on your grave!” The Spirit and Dolan enter the cave, and find Jimson wounded, Ringer dead, and a white hen.


Pete Bog’s story ends. Suddenly one of the hillbillies notices that the very hen they intend to kill and fry has a ring on one of its “fingers.” The campers all flee, and Pete Bog congratulates himself for being “the mos’ powerful liar in these hills.” But before he can kill and eat the hen himself, Dolan and the Spirit (who carries Jimson slung over one shoulder) arrive and ask Pete if he’s seen “a girl… white hair… red comb… wears a snake ring on her finger…” And off into the night Pete Bog flees.



MYTH-ANALYSIS: Will Eisner’s SPIRIT stories fall into one of two broad categories: those that follow a rigorous, almost “lock-box” plot and those that focus on a more expressionistic use of the artist’s visual storytelling style. Most comic-book criticism of THE SPIRIT have emphasized the latter category, analyzing visual standouts such as “Showdown” and “Ten Minutes.”


I pointed out in AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY that most of Eisner’s SPIRIT stories don’t rate very highly on my mythicity scale. I asserted: 'THE SPIRIT is a particularly challenging title where, if one is searching for symbolic values, one has to avoid being drawn into the formal elements of storytelling as such. This story, focusing on the doomed love of the quixotically-named couple of Jimson Weed and Cider Sue, is not one of the best-known Spirit tales but has, like the Cole story mentioned below, a deeper symbolic resonance than most of the "famous" stories.'


If “The Curse” has such a resonance, I would tend to credit it to the artist's plot-intensive structure.


As with many postwar SPIRIT stories, the Spirit and his cast of regulars play second-fiddle to the one-shot “guest stars” of this tale. Further, though city-boy Eisner did many stories outside the environs of his character’s faux-New York locale, “The Curse” is interesting in that the characters shuttle back and forth between the mundane city and an exotic locale where magic and mystery are part of daily life. Eisner clearly took pride in his ability to capture a polyglot of cultural types in his SPIRIT stories, which teem with Germans, Russians, Hispanics, Jews (albeit only implicitly), Italians, and (most notoriously) American blacks. However, “The Curse” is also one of the few times Eisner’s depiction of an exotic culture taps into deeper cultural archetypes.


If one puts aside the plot-complications of the fight-fixing racket (which exists largely to bring the Spirit into the tale) and the jokey metafictional ending, the essence of “The Curse’ channels a theme common to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and related types-- to wit, the insoluble conflict between civilized man, demonic nature, and semi-civilized-but-ambivalent womankind.


The transhuman world of nature is implied in Eisner’s name for Cider Sue, given that it’s Eisner’s pun on the name of the famous Scandinavian body of water, the Zuider Zee. Eisner plays her transhuman nature straight, however, by specifying that Cider’s own family won’t deal with her and that “she never once did smile.” Judging from Cider’s reaction to her lack of a reflection, the girl must have had one at some point. The best one can surmise is that her witchy nature has arisen at that point in the story. Certainly the hill-folk assume that a person with no reflection is not only a witch, but an evil witch automatically guilty of hexing their cattle and the like. Cider never shows any propensity for witchcraft, except for forging a strange relationship with Doc Ringer. But she’s still something that doesn’t conform to human categories. In contrast, even though Jimson Weede also has a punny name, referencing a type of plant found in nature-- a hallucinogen, no less-- there’s nothing in the story to suggest that Jimson conforms to any archetype but that of The Sucker.


The name of the story is suggestive as well, for the plot-action doesn’t actually revolve around a curse as such. At the end of the story Jimson curses both Cider and Ringer, but these are just empty words. One might deem Ringer’s final words to be a curse, though if so it’s questionable as to whether it works; Cider Sue may indeed turn into a hen but it’s not clear whether or not Jimson dies from his gunshot-wound. I would guess that Eisner meant Jimson to survive; otherwise, the Spirit hardly has any justification for lugging his body around—though on the other hand he and Dolan don’t seem to be in any hurry to get Jimson to a doctor. The only time the word “curse” really seems to apply to the story’s main plot-action is when one of the lynchers, out to execute Cider, yells, “Hang her! Free us from her curse!” The nature of women in this superstitious world is that they, unlike men, always possess the power to hex and curse, precisely because they’re at once allied to nature and also to something beyond nature. The intersection of myths about both witches and a particular feminine phenomenon, also called “the curse,” should need no great elaboration.


Cider’s white hair, red comb and snake ring are clearly the visual elements that link her with the hen. No other character is given such visual emphasis, but it’s significant that Eisner depicts Ringer with the sort of Van Dyke beard usually sported by pop-fiction versions of The Devil. It’s at this point that Eisner’s story most resonates with the mythic intent of authors like Hawthorne, who saw the hand of Satan implicit in the attractions of the fallen natural world.



Ringer, unlike Cider, has mastered some sort of “hex people” arts. Eisner—who often showed no compunctions against having the Spirit encounter such fantastic figures as aliens or talking apes—does not reveal whether or not Ringer really can change Cider into a hen. The only “magic” we see Ringer perform is one explicable by rational standards, that of hypnotism. Still, even though Ringer doesn’t make a deal for either Jimson or Cider’s soul, it’s arguable that using hypnotism he does subvert Jimson’s soul, as does as a devilish character in Hawthorne’s BLITHEDALE ROMANCE. In sports-competitions, a “ringer” is a skilled performer who pretends to be less than he is. In “The Curse,” Doc Ringer first makes Jimson fight better than he ordinarily can, and then makes him lose; a setup that recalls that of Faust, who enjoys success and prominence until his deal with the devil goes south.


Why does Cider, who professes fervent love for Jimson, fall so easily, so quickly, for a man she’s never met? The archetypal answer would be that because her witchy nature has come to fruition, she’s drawn to someone who shares that nature. She tells Jimson: “I’m a witch gal—I’m not fer you!” This is tantamount to saying that she’s signed and sealed with this particular devilish lookalike, though one wonders if Cider Sue ever had a soul to sell, since the lack of a reflection usually connotes the lack of that attribute. In the end, though Ringer dies, he metaphorically takes Cider with him, a hen to service his rooster’s coop, while her former lover is left hovering between life and death.


And what of the metafictional framing-story? Pete Bog (whose last name recollects “bogie” and “boogieman”) doesn’t believe the story of Cider Sue when he sings it, but he’s positively “boggled” to meet the agents of a higher authorial power. The Spirit and Dolan imply that Bog’s fake story was the real deal, but they don’t get the cosmic joke any more than Pete does. Dolan’s last line is telling: “This is the fourth hillbilly we’ve met tonight who’s run off howlin’ when we asked him that question!” Presumably the other three are just the ones that fled the camp earlier, but the effect of Dolan’s statement suggests that whether or not Cider Sue has become a little white hen-- one who seems to be gazing at the slumped body of Jimson Weede in the final panel-- her legend will supply a new story to haunt the hill-country with the spectre of ambivalent femininity.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #18: RED SONJA #1




PLOT-SUMMARY for "The Blood of the Unicorn" (script Thomas & Noto; art Thorne): As a mounted Red Sonja approaches a forested area her horse stumbles in a hole and breaks its leg, so that she's forced to stab the animal to death with her sword. On foot, she comes across a band of men attempting to capture a wild unicorn. The unicorn tries to bolt but collides with a tree and breaks off its horn, which falls into the hands of the band's leader, a sorcerer named Andar. Sonja fights off the hunters and mounts the unicorn, which carries her away. Together the warrior-maid and the unicorn wander the forest, enjoying one another's company in a "nigh-mystic tie" while the unicorn's horn slowly grows back. Meanwhile Andar, who has returned to the village he rules with his men, uses the broken horn to compound an immortality serum, which he drinks (though it's not clear whether he thinks it makes him immune to being killed or simply able to live forever as long as he's not fatally attacked). Despite having accomplished his goal, Andar does not want anyone else to share his immortality, and is irate to hear that Sonja still travels in the company of the horned beast. He and his men attack Sonja and the beast, and Andar almost manages to kill Sonja, only to be killed instead when the unicorn impales the sorcerer on its horn. The other men scatter, but soon Sonja realizes that she cannot stay in the unicorn's forest forever and the two of them part, so that she can follow her "warrior's destiny" while the beast remains "riderless and free."

MYTH-ANALYSIS: One of the easiest type of stories to write-- and thus a type that rarely rises above the monosignative-- is one in which an obsessive personality pursues some idée fixe. Admittedly this may lead to something as plurisignative as MOBY DICK. However, in the sword-and-sorcery genre to which RED SONJA belongs, the story-type usually takes a simple form. Some tyrant wants the sexual favors of a maiden; the hero protects the maiden and kills the tyrant; the hero often if not always gets the sexual favors denied the tyrant.

"Blood" is interesting in that it seems more about an obsession over a rather abstract form of *libido.* The backstory for Andar specifies that as a boy he saw a "white colt" and that he became "enflamed" with the desire to touch it, but the creature frustrated his attempt by fleeing. The backstory does not precisely say that Andar saw a real unicorn, but he evidently thought that he did, for he later researched the creature's history and thus learned the story that its horn would grant one eternal life. However, even though Andar doesn't want to have sex with the unicorn, he's just as jealous as any rejected lover, becoming angry at "the mere thought of the warrior-woman and the unicorn together." Similarly, he wants the creature dead so that no one else can partake of its bounty of eternal life; he even kills one of his aides when the man tries unsuccessfully to take a sip of the immortality serum.

Sonja's role parallels that of the hero who does enjoy the freely-given favors of the "maiden," though here too, what passes between her and the unicorn is a communion that transcends and yet encompasses sexuality. Clearly her sojourn with the creature draws on medieval stories in which virgin maidens alone can draw unicorns out of hiding. Yet the medieval myth is somewhat overturned by the fact that Sonja is not a virgin, though "Blood" makes no reference to her standard backstory. Red Sonja's first appears as a Marvel character-- one very loosely patterned after a Robert E. Howard warrior-woman-- in CONAN THE BARBARIAN #23(1973). Here she suggests something of the "iron virgin" in that she swears no man will sleep with her unless he conquers her in battle. However, roughly two years later, a story in the KULL black-and-white magazine discloses that as a young woman Sonja suffered rape by a bandit-chieftain, and that she was empowered by a goddess who required Sonja never to sleep with anyone save a conqueror.

It's interesting, then, that the unicorn might also be viewed as something of a "rape survivor" in the most metaphorical sense, in that Andar wants to plunder the unicorn of its horn as a bandit took away Sonja's virginity. The unicorn is often referred to as an "it" but there are two or three telling moments when the script specifies that the beast is male, which is why the relationship between the girl and the stallion does seem quasi-sexual. In the first panel in which Sonja beholds the unicorn's horn, the Thomas-Noto caption reads that "His [the unicorn's] eyes move, as though aware of Sonja's presence." And in keeping with dozens of girl-and-horse stories from BLACK BEAUTY to Silver Age SUPERGIRL, Sonja is most impressed with the unicorn when she rides him. "Tarim's blood; what power!" she exclaims.

One could easily read Andar's fate as that of the biter bit, or, more specifically, the rapist raped-- and to be sure, just before the unicorn stabs Andar to death, Andar is about to plunge into "the supple flesh" of Red Sonja. But while the horn-as-penis motif is probably there in some sense-- Andar's name certainly references the Greek "andro-", meaning "man"-- both script and art place more emphasis on the irony of Andar's fate. Because Andar is killed by the very thing that was supposed to confer on him immortality, one cannot know whether he actually had immortality and lost it, or whether the legend of the serum was false from the start. But the script does confer on the fallen villain a dubious "immortality:"

"For we mortals will chase and dream of life eternal till both stars and unicorns are scattered dust...and Andar's ghostly voice will whisper for all time to bid others follow him down the doomed path where he led."

As for Sonja, the setup of her continuing adventures dictated that her idyll with her equine friend had to end. Nevertheless, the parting is given its own mythic resonance, suggesting that even mortals who respect magical critters can't remain long in their company, precisely because they are mortal. All of which would certainly put a different philosophical spin on the cover-copy of RED SONJA #1, where the heroine, flanked by various beasties as well as Andar and the unicorn, shouts at the reader:

"To the death!"

Monday, July 4, 2011

MYTHCOMICS #17: QUESTION #11




"Fairy tales have their uses, Charlie-- and some questions don't have answers."

PLOT-SUMMARY for "Transformation" (script: O'Neil; art: Cowan): The Question journeys to the island of Santa Prisca (named for a fictional saint of the non-DC real world), looking for his kidnapped mentor, Professor Rodor. Hector Gomez, whose father Rodrigo knew Rodor in college, wants Rodor to use his scientific knowledge in an experiment. Hector is the bloody-handed tyrant of Santa Prisca, yet he wants to attempt, using a particle accelerator, the alchemical transformation of common clay into gold. According to Hector, witnessing such a transformation will cleanse and purify the accumulated evil of his soul. The Question breaks into Hector's compound but is knocked unconscious by some guards, who bring him to the accelerator room. With Rodor's help the transformation takes place and Hector seems to become a Christlike figure after witnessing the alchemical transformation. The Question wakes up, and finds that everyone in the room has disappeared except Rodor, who has descended into a trancelike state as a result of witnessing the event. With some mysterious help the Question and his friend get back to the States. Several days go by, during which Rodor remains entranced. The Question feeds Rodor and tells him stories of a mysterious man in Santa Prisca who is performing many beneficent deeds. After Question finishes one story, Rodor suddenly snaps out of his trance and ends the narrative with the quoted "fairy tales" line.


MYTH-ANALYSIS: Most O'Neil/Cowan QUESTION stories are hard-edged stories of crime and corruption. "Transformation" was a departure from the hero's normal milieu; a vacation from evil as it were.

Hector Gomez never gives a specific reason as to why he wants to transform his soul. He never says that he regrets his deeds or that he's weary of the path of evil. Gomez tells Rodor that if the experiment fails, Gomez will torture Rodor for weeks and the thought of doing so "thrills" him. Gomez, a tall, commanding figure, expresses revulsion for his father Rodrigo, who suffers from a hunchback, and tells Rodor that he kept Rodrigo alive "because my greatest joy was making you suffer. I greatly enjoyed watching something so hideous writhe in pain."

What then is his motive for wanting to be cleansed? From what O'Neil gives the readers, it would seem to be pure intellectual curiosity about whether the operation can be performed or not. Just as the experiment begins, Gomez tells his listeners that they will either witness "the ultimate vindication of mankind's highest aspirations, proof that the things of the spirit exist-- or yet another of the dismal failures in our pathetic attempts to prove that we are more than mud." However, despite the story's invocation of Christian imagery, Gomez's "things of the spirit" arise not from contact with angelic hosts or obedience to Christian precepts. The alchemical transformation here has more in common with the Hindu/Buddist concept *paravritti,* which means "mind turning over" and connotes the concept that the mind is capable of finding its own way out of darkness. The clay's transformation into gold shows Gomez the way to effect such a transformation in himself: a transcendence of what the Question calls (in another context) the "world's way" of dog-eat-dog corruption.

As the Question makes his escape with his entranced friend, who has apparently had no more than a paralyzing brush with transcendence, the hero rambles about how Saint Prisca was a fictional saint who never really existed, but adds "that doesn't mean she was a bad person." Fiction, then, holds a transfomative power even as alchemy does, though the Question still asks the pertinent question, "Can something change a monster into a saint? Is just wanting that change enough to cause it?" To that question Rodor responds that some questions don't have answers, which is certainly the case with Hector Gomez, since O'Neil and Cowan never again return to the question of his transformation.

On a side-note, one of the stories the hero relates to Rodor mentions that the mysterious benefactor travels in the company of a hunchback. Within the narrative this suggests a continuing interdependence of health and deformity, beauty and ugliness, gold and clay. It might also connote "reconciliation with the father" in quasi-Christian terms, albeit a father who remains physically less attractive than the son, the "clay" that gives birth to the "gold."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

THE KILLING BLOKE



The allegorization of myth is hampered by the assumption that the explanation "is" what the myth "means."-- Northrop Frye, ANATOMY, p. 341.


"There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum..."-- first words in Alan Moore & Brian Bolland's KILLING JOKE.


The first line of the "two guys" joke, with which KILLING JOKE begins, is told in full at the end at story's end, in keeping with scripter Alan Moore's well-known love of symmetry. At said conclusion Batman and the Joker, having fought one of their many battles, atypically collapse into laughter. This isn't because the asylum-joke itself is especially funny, but because it has supposedly defined the characters' mutual absurdity. Hero and villain are just two guys arguing over the best way to break out of an asylum.

In the last twenty-plus years, there have been both plaudits and pans for Alan Moore's 1988 KILLING JOKE. For convenience's sake I'll refer to the work as Moore's alone; whatever influence artist Bolland may've had upon the finished work, the general structure is indubitably Alan Moore's conception. That structure, in which Moore ventures to explain the myths of Batman and the Joker in an allegorizing fashion, is the subject of this essay.

This essay came about because I had to consider whether or not JOKE qualified as a work of plurisignative mythicity, as do certain other comics-stories that pit the obsessed Caped Crusader against the chaos-loving Harlequin of Hate. My verdict that it is in fact monosignative, but in a different way than a Batman/Joker story that's simply mediocre, like the equally-famous Starlin/Aparo tale "A Death in the Family."

There's no question that Alan Moore was aware of the symbolic status that Batman and the Joker had assumed over the years. To be sure, though, Moore's Batman gets short shrift in that department, coming off most of the time like a weary costumed cop, the "straight man" of the comic duo, saying things like, "How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?" In contrast, the Joker gets so many good lines describing how he embraces a world of inescapeable nihilism that Moore might've done better to title the work "Sympathy for the Joker." Moore's own expression of sympathy for the philosophy of nihilism, then, results in a work that demonstrates what happens when, as noted above, the explanation of the myth becomes what the myth "means." Frye defines allegory as "forced metaphor," and in many respects the two opponents have been forced into metaphorical roles that do more to spell out Alan Moore's philosophical views than to emulate the free play of myth.

"It's all a joke!" declares the villain, trying to lure Batman over to the dark side, "Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?" The Joker gets much better lines than Batman, but I'm not sure his myth is any better served than Batman's by being bound in a philosophical strait-jacket. Moore's revisionist origin for the Joker posits that he was once just an ordinary schlump, a would-be stand-up comedian, who lost everything in a manner analogous to the way his bat-garbed enemy did. This take on the Joker's history didn't become accepted canon for the various ongoing Bat-serials, and it's not hard to see why: the origin gives the Joker a humanity that's at odds with his more traditional blackhat-villainy. In fairness Moore crafts his story so as to apply that the Joker's memory of his "origin" may not be true in all details, so Moore gets points for realizing that others might not care to follow his lead in playing with DC Comics' "toys."

Further, a single origin for the Joker reduces him to the level of a conventional villain, out to take out his grievances on a vulnerable world. Ironically, Moore earlier gave the Joker the presence of a mythic entity in SWAMP THING #29, in which a mystical plague causes worldwide distress. To illustrate the plague's pervasiveness, Moore's script has one Arkham Asylum attendant ask another if he wants to see something scary, to wit:

"The Joker's stopped laughing."

That one line has more mythic power than anything in THE KILLING JOKE.