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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...

Friday, September 30, 2011

TERM LIMITATIONS

I've changed the name of my movie blog and my AUM theory for a couple of reasons.


One is that I've become aware that there's actually another "AUM Theory" out there, some psychological dingus called "Anxiety/Uncertainty Management." I'm sure there would never be a literal conflict between them and me in the best/worst of worlds, but I just don't want the duplication, even if I never publish my theory anywhere else.

Two is that about a year after I formulated the basic parameters of my theory, I found myself displeased with the term "atypical" that I explained in TALES OF THE ATYPICAL, UNCANNY AND MARVELOUS. I specified that the concept of "the atypical" could well apply to the type of narrative disequilibrium that pertained within what might loosely be called a "realistic" or "naturalistic" discourse, for which my first-chosen example was the novel THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. I felt the need for a particular term to denote what Tzvetan Todorov called "the real" in his book THE FANTASTIC, but one which would not privilege consensual accounts of "the real" as did Todorov's book.


Recently, however, I tried to see if the term "atypical" applied very well to elements of stories aside from the movement of disequlibrium that Frank Cioffi called "the anomaly." "Uncanny" and "marvelous" (which I swiped from Todorov, though I know he took the first one from Freud and think it likely he picked up the latter from other fantasy-critics) worked fine. But "atypical" didn't work across the board. When I look back at one of my few reviews of an "atypical" film like HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS, I don't think "atypical" aptly describes what narrative forces make the film closer in spirit to realistic fiction than its "uncanny" near-cousin, TARZAN OF THE APES.


I'm not going back to change the text of old essays here or on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, though I will change the labels for "the atypical" to "the naturalistic."


From now on, my specialized use of "naturalistic" will connote those things that are, as the earlier essay says, "not fantastic" in any way. Moreover, since some of my cited definitions of fantasy stress how the natural order is broken or compromised within fictions of the uncanny or marvelous, it seems appropriate to have one category that remains "naturalistic" in all respects.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

WALLER NOISE

A week or so ago I first read of DC Comics' "Amanda Waller Weight Loss Program" on THE BEAT.  I was initially torqued.

However, then I saw that Tom Spurgeon was against it, so I was tempted to be in favor of the de-fattinization.

I can't quite go that far, unfortunately. However, I will say that my reasons for being against the transformation are different from his (and, of course, better).

  Tom said:

...there’s an interesting phenomenon in funnybooks in that the latest version of the character matters more than the majority of their appearances — so while super-hot Amanda Waller doesn’t mean all those issues of Suicide Squad burst into flame, the way fans and company create meaning out of these non-realities this is the version that in many ways matters. It’s not as easy for comics fans, for whatever reason, to go back to a previous iteration of a character the way it was for say, James Bond fans underwhelmed by Pierce Brosnan to fire up the Sean Connery flicks. Not sure why that is, especially since in comics those old books are probably way cheaper.
I find it "interesting" that he manages to spend less time focusing on the identity politics involved in DC's decision and more time sniping at the conservatism of mainstream fans : "this is the version that in many ways matters."  I find it fascinating that Spurgeon emphasizes their conservatism rather than their moral dudgeon.  He does admit that some alt-comics fans didn't like it when Maggie Chascarillo gained weight, for what that's worth.

However, I don't agree with his conclusion: "People are fucked up."  If anything mainstream fans are more justified in wanting images of hottitude in their entertainment than alt-readers of LOVE AND ROCKETS, in that the genre of adventure comics is centered around the idea of enjoying mass quantities of sex and violence.

To that end, standard images of hottitude are entirely justified to pursue that kind of narrative, as I addressed more fully in my essay THAT OBSCURE OBJECTIVIZATION.

Thus it's not wrong to de-fattinize Amanda Waller because it encroaches upon false ideas of diversity in an escapist genre.

It's wrong simply because Amanda was so much more awesome as a fattie.



Saturday, September 24, 2011

KIRBY KONCLUSIONS

As I've been writing a lot about Jack Kirby's work in both CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN and FANTASTIC FOUR of late, it seemed appropriate to wrap up with a general overview.  Here's how I rate what I deem four loosely-designated "periods" of Kirby work in terms of aesthetic successfulness.

(1) Kirby's collaborations at Marvel, mostly with Stan Lee. 
(2) The "Fourth World" books, which remain in a class by themselves due to the ambitiousness of Kirby's theme and content.
(3) The Simon-Kirby years, roughly from 1939 or 1940 to 1955.
(4) Pretty much everything after the "Fourth World."
(5) Kirby in the late 1950s, excluding his Marvel work.

At the end of CONSUMMATELY CHALLENGED I reflected:

None of the Kirby CHALLENGERS stories, whatever their behind-the-scenes origins, ever score very high on the mythicity scale. That's why it's equally puzzling that he should have experienced such a comparative creative ferment for the early Marvel stories. But that's another essay.


There's no way that this essay can prove that Kirby experienced a "comparative creative ferment" at Marvel, in comparison to his level of activity at DC and other companies in the late 1950s, which, as readers will note, I find to be Kirby at his creative low point.  All one can do is to draw comparisons at the comparative levels of complexity in Kirby works produced within a few years of each other, as I did in CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FOURSOMES PART 3.  At the end of that essay I asserted the possibility that on some level Stan Lee had "challenged" Kirby, perhaps not so much in terms of providing Kirby with raw ideas (of which the artist never seemed to run short) but in terms of shaping them for maximum dramatic impact. In dramatic terms Kirby's Marvel work bears more resemblance to his collaborations with Joe Simon, particularly in the 1940s more than the downsliding 1950s, than it does to most of the work he'd been producing in the 1950s.
 
And although I give the "Fourth World" books a high rating, I think it significant that these were the books Kirby produced immediately after his last collaborations with Stan Lee (disincluding their one reunion later); the books in which Kirby may've been riffing on ideas and techniques he'd developed with Lee and, at the same time, trying to distance himself from Lee's ideas and techniques to prove himself to assembled fandom.
 
Even while keeping in mind that my ratings are in no way universally representative-- though I think there are many fans who would feel roughly the same way-- I think the general high opinion of the Marvel work says something interesting about the nature of creativity.
 
In my essay on Jerry Siegel, OCD ON A HOTPLATE, I wrote:
 
Interestingly, of all the Siegel stories I've read, the ones with the greatest mythicity are the ones he did for the 1960s SUPERMAN titles under legendary tough-editor Mort Weisinger. A story like "Superman's Return to Krypton" shows a far greater organization of story elements-- including symbolism-- than anything Siegel had done in earlier eras. Yet it doesn't seem that this was Siegel's normal mode of operation, for after he severed relations with DC in the mid-60s, his scripts became pretty wild-and-woolly once more, as one can observe from his output at the Archie imprint Mighty Comics.

This apparent process, by which Siegel wrote with greater restraint under the strong editorship of Mort Weisinger, yet went back to a "wild-and-woolly" mode of scripting, seems no less applicable to the development of Kirby after he determined that he would no longer work with other writers. 

What I suspect happened both times is that Kirby and Siegel-- both of whom had been in the comics-business many years-- benefitted from strong editors Mort Weisinger and Stan Lee in a *creative* sense, in spite of all indications that both editors probably abused their authority to differing extents.  This is not a logical development, but I believe there's some truth, even if it's only that Kirby and Siegel did some of their best work for exigent business-reasons; because they knew they'd lose valuable time and money if they didn't do their best each time out, or at least what those editors deemed to be their best.

One might imagine Lee and Weisinger functioning in the two creators' heads as little representations of the "ego," attempting to dominate and control the "id" of wild creativity that stemmed from Kirby and Siegel respectively.

Can I prove that Jack Kirby designed more organized, aesthetically-pleasing scenarios for THOR and FANTASTIC FOUR than he did in THE ETERNALS because in the former he had a little "Stan Lee" in his head?  Of course not; no more than I can prove my above ratings to be objective truth.

But for me personally, it goes a long way for explaining how Kirby went from his DC work to his Marvel work with a "zero to sixty" rapidity.


QUICK BAT-HISTORY POST

I started commenting on a CBR forum about the alleged near-cancellation of the Batman comic book in the early 1960s, and it turned into a mini-essay on Bat-history.  Hence, with some adjustments, I'm printing it here too.

______


There's a big problem with a lot of the out-of-context quotes we as fans encounter. I can believe someone may've told Bob Kane that DC was considering cancelling Batman, but was it someone making an accurate appraisal? Since we don't know who it was, maybe it was some DC employee trying to bring Bob Kane down a peg ("Hah, you think you're all that but your character's sales are in the toilet").


This page from the COMICS CHRONICLES demonstrates the fact that the sales weren't all that bad, and even if they were, it seems unlikely that even in '62 DC would have dumped a character with any potential for licensing. Note on the same site that WONDER WOMAN's sales are lower than either Bat-book. These days it's axiomatic that WW has often been kept around for her merchandising potential-- and Batman, unlike WW, had had two serials spun off from his comic (though I don't know how much merchandise either character generated in 1962).

I find it probable that though sales of the Bat-books weren't that good, DC editors probably focused first on discussions as to how to make them better, before anyone seriously considered dumping the titles.  Such cancellation *might* have allowed Bob Kane to take the property elsewhere, depending on the terms of his contract at the time.

I don't remember if Julie Schwartz ever said that he actively campaigned for the Batman assignment or not, but I can imagine him going after it, maybe not so much because he liked the character (JS often exhibited veiled contempt for comics-characters in later years) but simply to solidify his position in the company. Previous editor Jack Schiff probably didn't care one way or another about editing Batman, though he's been quoted as claiming that the aliens and such were forced on him and that he would rather have done more Earth-style villains. Interestingly, Schwartz, who was more of a SF-guy personally than Schiff, is the one who ends up doing what Schiff wanted to do; getting rid of (most) of the aliens and concentrating on villains, often reviving characters from earlier times as Schiff had (Schiff did new versions of Mad Hatter and Clayface; Schwartz updated the Scarecrow and the Riddler).



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

AN ODD JOHN

In MADNESS TO OUR METHODS I addressed some of the questions about the applicability of different types of criticism to different types of works, even by the same author.  Since the essay was inspired by critical debtate over the proper way to approach Chester Brown's graphic novel PAYING FOR IT, I showed how Brown himself had produced works that had strongest affiliations to three critical persuasions-- YUMMY FUR to archetypal criticism, THE PLAYBOY to aesthetic criticism, and LOUIS RIEL to ethical criticism.  At the time I wrote the essay, I hadn't read PAYING FOR IT, whose descriptive subtitle, for anyone who's not heard, proclaims the work "a comic-strip memoir about being a john."

Now that I've read PFI, this essay will follow up some of the ideas expressed there.  I wrote:

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

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

Back then I was giving PFI the benefit of the doubt in saying that it might be equally amenable to both forms of criticism, though given that it was one of Brown's autobiographical efforts, I doubted that the archetypal form would be espeically applicable.  Now that I've read it, I think the aesthetic approach advocated by Tom Spurgeon has nearly no application whatever. I've certainly seen examples of Chester Brown work which possess the quality Spurgeon calls "quiet insistence."  But I don't see any of that in PFI.  It's possible that Spurgeon sees something there that I don't.  It's also possible that he's allowing for some "carry-over" from other Brown works to affect his judgment.  Neither verdict matters all that much, to be sure.

My reason for not seeing this "quiet insistence" is chiefly due to Brown's choice of format, in which all or most panels in PFI are about 1 1/2 inches by 1 inch.  I found this to be an effective size for communicating the discursive ideas of his topic but not for communicating anything pertaining to mood or tonality.  I've only read one Brown interview given to MOTHER JONES on the subject of PFI, which doesn't comment on his format-choice.  However, the interviewer does ask:

MJ: Why did you choose to depict the sex instead of fading to black or doing one of any other artistic sleights of hand?


And Brown responds:

CB: I suppose I could have. There were a couple of instances where what I'm thinking during sex was relevant, so I might as well show myself having sex. I could have gone from a shot of the bed to just showing the ceiling and my thought bubble. Or maybe just show the feet. It just seemed, sex was taking place—why drag the camera someplace else in the room?

The thought struck me that in a sense, by choosing such tiny panels for PFI, Brown had not so much dragged the camera to another part of the room as he had changed the lens-size.  I can't be sure until I come across Brown commenting on the matter, but the tiny size strikes me as an ideal way to literally "reduce" the subject matter so that it becomes ipso facto less prurient in presentation.  (Brown does comment that while it wasn't odd for him to draw himself having sexual encounters, he does get some interesting reactions showing the pages blown-up for slideshow displays.)

Now, while I think PFI proves fruitless to analyze from both archetypal and aesthetic approaches, the ethical approach is a different animal.  As far as I can tell, most of the critical reactions to PFI do take the ethical approach, frequently slamming Brown's ideas as unworkable and the like.  Brown has anticipated all or most of these reactions, for the appendices to his memoir assails most if not all of the familiar arguments against the decrimininalization of prostitution.  For the record, Brown, a libertarian, is also against the legalization of prositution, arguing that this would simply create a "black market" for sex workers, which would in turn maintain the associations between prostitution and criminality.

I'm not going to debate any of Brown's theories of decriminalized prostitution here.  As a critic I defend Brown's intellectual discourse on the same terms that I defend Dave Sim's.  Whether or not an artist succeeds in proposing an ethical schema that has real application to society or not-- a goal which more noted authors, such as Ezra Pound, failed to do-- the work may remain significant purely in terms of the technique the artist uses to make his salient points.  As a pluralist I can condemn any number of ethical opinions on an individual basis, while maintaining the POV that even bad ethics can make for great storytelling.

I wouldn't precisely call PFI "great," even within the confines of autobiographical comic books. But even recognizing some of the default errors of libertarianism, it's still a work that demands one's full attention in debating/refuting it.

ADDENDA:  I will note in passing that according to Brown's memoirs his encounters with prostitutes in Canada were amazingly restraind and-- to resort to that old Canadian stereotype-- unfailingly *polite.*

And on the purely practical side of things, that's probably why, even if decriminalized prostitution *could* work in Canada, it would probably never work that well in the United States of America-- for one simple reason:

Americans are thoroughly addicted to the art of screwing each other over for a buck.







Monday, September 19, 2011

CONSUMMATELY CHALLENGED

In CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FOURSOMES PART 3 I said:

There is one mythopoeic element that may have some significance in the story as a whole—an element I’ll treat in a separate essay—but within the origin-sequence, it carries no plurisignative value.


The page, from SHOWCASE #6 (1957), shows that element:

 
 
 
 
 
One might be forgiven for thinking that the element I reference is the lead splash-panel, in which the four uniformed heroes are seen against a backdrop of flames and a devilish-looking figure-- who, incidentally, bears no strong resemblance to anyone in the story.
 
But no, the element to which I refer is the puzzling way that collaborators Jack Kirby and Dave Wood chose to characterize the "Heroes" radio program on which the future Challengers plan to guest.  At a time when female adventurers were rare birds in American media, the radio program chooses to focus not on one, but *four* nameless women who, the announcer claims, "have earned the right to the title 'hero!'"  The women are not named and never appear in the Kirby CHALLENGERS again.  So why four women, rather than, say, a big-game hunter along the lines of Clyde Beatty?
 
It's at this point I return to my earlier-expressed notion, in CONSUMMATING PASSIONS, of an "inconsummate symbolic discourse."  This is functionally the same as my notion of "presentational incoherence" as expressed in GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 3, but the former term skirts around the necessity of going into Langer's complex definitions of the "presentational" and the "discursive" to explain the terminology.
 
To this sort of peculiar creative quirk, the default response of the Bloody Comic Book Elitists is usually that if something in the story isn't well done, it can't be important.  Obviously I don't agree, and do agree with Suzanne Langer that such works can possess "diffuse meaning" at the very least.  Four unnamed heroic females are used to introduce four starring heroic males.  If the story as a whole had something to do with the roles of masculinity and femininity, the unnamed females might at least function as a counterpoint to whatever discursive point the author sought to make.
 
But though one could view the book-length story of SHOWCASE #6 as something of a weighing of the nature of masculinity, the only other appearances of femininity are also inconsummate.
 
The story in brief: some time after the Challengers have become established as a four-man team of daredevils, they receive an offer to do a job for one million dollars: "a job for men who fear neither devil nor death."  This is interesting wording given the devilish figure in the splash panel, though it too doesn't lead to any plurisignative pay-off.
 
The Challengers fly to Canada to meet their new employer, a mystic named Morelian.  Morelian wants the four men to be his "guinea pigs" by opening the four chambers of a giant box "constructed in an age long forgotten."  Twice Morelian references the most dominant feminine myth-reference, "Pandora's Box."  Sure enough, each time the heroes open one of the first three chambers of the box, that chamber releases some incredible menace.  Whereas Pandora's Box famously releases various incarnate evils to plague mankind evermore, the sorcerer's box is a grab-bag that releases entities with no obvious connection.  One is a remote-controlled machine.  Another seems to be a living entity, called a "freezing sun." And the last (actually first in presentation) is a big egg which hatches a titanic Greek-looking stone warrior.  This menace, unlike the others, actually gets a second mythological reference, as an inscription on the box calls the egg a "dragon seed," prompting Red Ryan to remember the legend of Cadmus, "the guy who planed a field of seeds and grew a crop of fighting men."  The bulk of the story deals with the heroes finding ways to quell each menace, though the defeat of the giant warrior is the most like a cop-out: after the Challengers see him survive an atomic explosion, they figure out that he's just a mental projection, and they "think" him out of existence.
 
When the three menaces have all been neutralized, the Challengers get back to the box, only to find that Morelian has opened the box's fourth and last chamber.  Morelian wanted the heroes to deal with the creatures so that by process of elimination he would find the treasure in the last chamber: a ring whose inscription seems to promise immortality.  The Challengers, despite having gone into the deal with their eyes open, scorn Morelian's "selfish reason" for exploring the box, but Morelian simply shrugs and leaves in his private plane.  The plane summarily crashes, destroying the box in its fall, and Morelian dies, leading the heroes to deduce that he misread the inscription: that it was the box containing the ring that promised immortality, not the ring itself.  The Challengers then depart with the observation that "we're still living on borrowed time-- which is more than you can say about Morelian!"
 
 
 
 
Many later CHALLENGERS stories, by Kirby and others, follow this basic pattern: the heroes find some strange artifact which unleashes various fantastic menaces that they the heroes must then fight or corral.  But this version of Pandora's Box doesn't attain any great mythicity simply by referring to the Greek myth, or even by invoking a few other images with feminine subtext (both the egg that hatches the giant warrior and the mythic "dragon seeds" to which it's compared).  Therefore, because it seems that Kirby was playing around with mythic elements but not really bringing them into any sort of narrative control, the feminine elements-- the four women, the egg (which also appears on the book's cover) and the two Greek myths-- are of an inconsummate nature.  One can imagine an interesting narrative that used them all with greater intensity, but "Secrets" is not such a story.
 
Similarly, the "villain" of the story, whose name so obviously references "Merlin," is a rather half-assed version of the Faustian over-reacher.  I noted earlier that the story does touch upon the nature of masculinity, and it does, in the sense of evoking pleasure in the heroic acts of the Challengers.  But the story doesn't work well as far as positing Morelian as the obverse of the heroes, simply because he pays them to do a dangerous job.  Is Morelian in some sense "anti-masculine" for having done so?  This is a possibility, but Kirby's story (and Dave Wood's dialogue) offer little to explain why the heroes suddenly take a dislike to Morelian at the end.  An extrinsic reason, not actually alluded to in the text, might be that Morelian's quest to escape death is morally dubious; that opening the box to gain immortality is tantamount to making a deal with the devil.  In Morelian, Kirby presents an inconsummate symbol of Faustian ambition, which is puzzling since it was the sort of story he'd done well in earlier venues, as in his collaborations with Joe Simon for features like SANDMAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA.
 
None of the Kirby CHALLENGERS stories, whatever their behind-the-scenes origins, ever score very high on the mythicity scale.  That's why it's equally puzzling that he should have experienced such a comparative creative ferment for the early Marvel stories.  But that's another essay.
    
 
 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FOURSOMES PART 3

I’ve stated in Part 1 of this essay-series that I concede the *possibility* that the FANTASTIC FOUR may have come about, as fervent Kirby-supporters claim, as having been mostly conceived by Jack Kirby, aside from perhaps the addition of a new Human Torch to the mix (as Kirby would have been unlikely to have revived that particular character). However, I’ve been comparing the type of narratives found in the Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR against the prior Kirby work most often compared with the FF: the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, originated by Kirby and writer Dave Wood. Based on those comparisons, I think it’s more likely that Stan Lee gave Kirby much more substantial storytelling input than had Dave Wood. I don’t credit Lee’s courtroom claim to have originated nearly everything in the Lee-Kirby collaboration. But I also don’t believe a similar claim from Kirby, nor do I favor the opinions of fans who believe Stan’s greatest contribution was stepping back to let Kirby “do his thing.”


The twelve Kirby issues of COTU are perhaps close to equaling the first 12 issues of FANTASTIC FOUR in respect to the kinetic qualities of both: both are high-energy juvenile adventures with a lot of sensational action. Yet in my Jungian-influenced literary system I recognize three other aspects of literature beyond the kinetic: the thematic (dealing with discursive concepts), the dramatic (dealing with character interactions), and the mythopoeic (dealing with symbolic complexity). And in all of these, COTU is as night to the FF’s bright sunshiny day.

It is, again, possible that *if* Jack Kirby solely originated FANTASTIC FOUR in 1961, he simply experienced a quantum leap in creativity as he went from COTU and SKY MASTERS to FANTASTIC FOUR, INCREDIBLE HULK, et al. After all, many authors vacillate, for any number of reasons, in terms of their quality over the course of years. However, during the years between 1957 and 1961, during which Jack Kirby began getting most of his work from Stan Lee’s company, he collaborated most often with Lee, either directly or with the additional collaboration of Larry Lieber as dialogue-writer to the Lee-Kirby plots. I think it’s likely that as the two collaborators learned one another’s skills, they played off one another in creative ways that were not possible with earlier collaborators like Dave Wood, leading to a gestalt of complementary creativity.

We have few relics of the Lee-Kirby collaborative process, and fans tend to interpret what we have according to their respective prejudices. Therefore, critics can only compare the narrative themselves. And since FANTASTIC FOUR is most often compared to the CHALLENGERS because the two features have roughly similar origins, a comparison of those origin-sequences is necessary.

The COTU origin is two-and-a-half pages, not counting an unrelated first-page splash-panel. It begins as an announcer for a radio program called “Heroes” tells his listeners that next week the program will feature four men “famous in their own fields.” These four all have their own adventurous specialties: Ace Morgan is a pilot, Prof Haley a diver, Red Ryan a mountain-climber, and Rocky Davis a wrestler. At the same time the announcer is speaking, Ace Morgan is flying the other three to wherever the radio program is scheduled for broadcast (even though it’s not to take place until “next week.”) A storm hits the plane, and when Ace tries to steer the plane out of the storm, the plane’s controls jam. The plane crashes but all four men survive, though it seems like a miracle to them given the plane’s devastation. They decide that they are now living on “borrowed time” and that their destiny is to form a team of daredevils willing to “challenge the unknown.”





The FF origin is five pages, beginning as scientist Reed Richards, his fiancĂ©e Sue and her brother Johnny seek to persuade Ben Grimm to pilot a ship, constructed by Reed, into outer space. Ben objects that the cosmic rays surrounding Earth “might kill us all out in space.” Sue accuses Ben of cowardice, and he angrily takes her implicit dare. Later the foursome (none of whom seem to need astronaut training) blast off in Reed’s ship. Just as Ben predicts, cosmic rays strike the ship, affecting all those aboard and causing the ship to crash. The four would-be astronauts survive, but Ben becomes irate with Reed once they see that Sue has gained the power of invisibility. As Ben tries to attack Reed (his words suggesting a hidden desire for Reed’s girlfriend), both exhibit super-powers as they fight, as does Johnny. Reed persuades his companions to use their powers for the good of humanity as the Fantastic Four.




Since the purpose of both stories is to assemble a heroic team, neither can be judged on pure verisimilitude, on whether the characters are likely to become altruistic teams in response to their traumas. But in the case of COTU, everything in the brief origin is purely functional. The motive for bringing the heroes together is a mundane radio program, and there are no significant aspects to the plane the heroes fly in or the storm that causes them to crash. Even the metaphor of “borrowed time” isn’t particularly compelling. There are no discursive elements introduced, and the characters are too similar to generate any interpersonal drama. There is one mythopoeic element that may have some significance in the story as a whole—an element I’ll treat in a separate essay—but within the origin-sequence, it carries no plurisignative value.

In the FF origin-sequence, however, Lee and Kirby provide what I’ve called a “super-functional” narrative. Through the central character of Reed Richards, the creators channel the early sixties’ fascination with the wonder of space-flight in all its thematic, dramatic, and mythopoeic aspects. Richards is given just one dominant character-aspect—a devotion to exploring the frontier of space that borders on the fanatical (“We had to be first!” he cries as the ship leaves Earth). In most SF-movies of the time this would make Reed the over-reacher doomed to suffer the consequences of risk-taking. Here, Ben Grimm, who in an archaic Greek drama would be the warning-voice of the chorus, is the one to suffer the doom of the over-reacher, becoming a monster outside humanity. The bare suggestion of his concealed feelings for Sue would have rich implications for later stories, especially once the team developed into more of a quarreling family than a businesslike team. The seeds of all the thematic, dramatic and mythopoeic elements of the ensuing series are found in this five-page sequence, and even though Lee and Kirby often rewrote specifics of the origin, the FF origin-sequence established a super-functional mythos for the feature’s characters, whereas the origin of the Challengers is merely a set-up that has little if any future impact on stories.

There is no knowing which if any specific ideas Stan Lee contributed to the collaboration. But at the very least I think that Lee did more than simply “let Kirby loose.” I believe that on some level Lee “challenged the unknown” limits of what comic-book superheroes could do, and by example encouraged Kirby to do the same. And therefore, no matter how much work Stan Lee did in the collaboration, the work they produced was more than Jack Kirby ever could have done, unaided.











I





Friday, September 16, 2011

CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FOURSOMES PT. 2

In PART 1 of CHALLENGE I said:

The Kirby COTU stories-- some or all of which may've started from full scripts by other writers, though Mark Evanier asserts that Kirby usually rewrote any scripts he was given-- resemble the kind of stuff Kirby did in his mid-to-late 1970s Marvel works. The narratives usually begin with the Challengers being summoned to investigate or eludicate some mystery, usually one with strong SF-aspects, and thereafter the heroes fights aliens or robots or whatever in fast-action stories with no great emotional resonance.


Expanding on this somewhat:

Starting in 1957, Jack Kirby worked on the feature CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN over the course of four appearances in SHOWCASE (issues #6, 7, 11, and 12) and eight issues of the heroes' own feature.  In all of these issues the Challengers shared no space with any co-features, though on occasion a given issue might have two short COTU stories rather than a full-length tale.  In the recent b&w reprint of the early issues credit for writing issues is given either to Dave Wood or to Kirby himself, though there's no preface to explain by what process DC Comics allocated these credits.

COTU can be fairly regarded as Kirby's first solid-selling series following the end of his business partnership with Joe Simon in 1955.  But as I noted above, most of the COTU stories are pretty formulaic despite the Kirby touch.  In the shorter stories, Kirby's works seems constrained by what may have been attempts to fit a conservative DC "house style" (which Gil Kane asserted to be most influenced by the example of comic-strip artist Dan Barry).  The full-length stories-- in particular a wild time-travel story in COTU #4-- often show Kirby returning to a style of "epic" storytelling that recalls his most successful Golden Age work.  However, the plotting of these stories lacks the relatively-strong characterization seen in the Golden Age work Kirby produced in partnership with Simon.  The four heroes-- Ace, Prof, Rocky, and Red-- are largely interchangeable aside from their particular talents (diving, piloting, etc.)  Often the plots, while reasonably efficient for this type of helter-skelter adventure, have a "fly-by-the-seat-of-one's-pants" quality; one that reminds me of the pace Kirby employed on most if not all of his solo works of the 1970s and thereafter.  The dialogue is never as eccentric as one finds in the 1970s solo works, but one presumes that credited co-writers like Wood were responsible in some instances, while in others Kirby himself kept to the then-current writing-standards of his employers.

To be sure, about a year after the debut of COTU Kirby collaborated with both Dave Wood and his brother Dick on the comic strip SKY MASTERS, which prefigures a return to more nuanced characterizations than one sees in COTU; again, more in tune with the Simon/Kirby level of storytelling.  The SKY MASTERS strips I've seen have a rather Caniff-like quality in respect to characterization; nevertheless, the short-lived strip (58-61) is at best an interesting experiment.

One of the oddest aspects of the COTU is that while Kirby was working on the title, the characterization of the main heroes had none of the individual development of even some of the one-shot characters Kirby portrayed in his anthology monster-stories in the adjoining years, for such "Marvel" magazines as TALES OF SUSPENSE and TALES TO ASTONISH.  However, almost immediately after Kirby left COTU, two stories by one DC writer, France Herron, suddenly played around with the notion that two of the Challengers, Rocky and Red, quarreled a lot.  The two stories-- "The Cave-Man Beast" and "Creatures of the Forbidden World"-- aren't especially well characterized beyond this schtick, probably borrowed from a similar one in the DOC SAVAGE pulps.    But it's interesting that as soon as Kirby left the title, someone started a "meme" which Kirby and Lee would realize more fully in FANTASTIC FOUR's constant quarrels between the Torch and the Thing.





QUICK TAKE ON MICKEY MARX

I posted this today on THE EDUCATED IMAGINATION:


I have a simple motto as regards all political systems:

"Any political system will work if its people do."

By which I mean not every single person in a society but those responsible for shaping it.



I disagree with Marx's claim that capitalism is inherently flawed. Like any system it works well as long as it gets proper maintenance. Our financial troubles result from an oligarchy within capitalism, not capitalism itself. The oligarchy has campaigned for the last thirty years to remove all regulatory controls in the short-sighted belief that they could keep all their capital to themselves because they were "job creators," i.e. the new aristocracy.



Did they plunder the middle class? Yes, without a doubt. But in a capitalistic democracy it was at least theoretically possible that the oligarchy could have been defeated. That they were not speaks to the lack of will on the part of that perhaps overly-comfortable middle class (to which, sadly, I'm no exception).



I understand why Northrop Frye would recognize Marx's sterling ability to see new mythic shapes in socioeconomic developments, but I would think he'd be put off by Marx's extreme utilitarianism.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

CONSUMMATING PASSIONS

"[Music] is a limited idiom, like an artificial language, only even less successful; for music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an unconsummated symbol.  Articulation is its life, but not assertion; expressiveness, not expression.  The actual function of meaning, which calls for permanent contents, is not fulfilled; for the assignment of one rather than another possible meaning to each form is never explicitly made."-- Susanne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 240.

Definition of CONSUMMATE


1: complete in every detail : perfect

2: extremely skilled and accomplished
3: of the highest degree

-- Merriam Webster online.

 In order to talk further about the question I've raised re: the nature of Jack Kirby's creativity, I find myself drawn back to Langer's use of this term, "unconsummated symbol," in order to suss out some of the different levels of expressive power found in his work.

My first approach with the brilliant philosopher Langer is, unfortunately, to correct her terminology.  On a minor note first, I would not call music itself a "symbolic form."  The philospher most associated with that term, under whom Langer studied in the 1930s, was Ernst Cassirer, and he tended to use the term "form" only for those large-scale phenomena of human culture that could not profitably reduce into one another, such as Art, Science, and Philosophy.  "Music," being a subdivision of Art, would be better considered as a "symbolic discourse."

Langer is entirely correct, however, that pure music, unalloyed with lyrics or other forms of artistic expression, has no "permanent contents," and that it expresses emotion but cannot assert thought as such, even to the extent that a wordless comics sequence may.  Yet her use of the term "unconsummated" is badly chosen because it suggests transience, as if music had not yet reached its consummation (devoutly to be wished, surely!) but that it might do so at some future date.

There is no official dictionary term for a state in which it is impossible for a person or thing to become "complete in every detail."  However, I experimented with the neologism "inconsummatable," and found that a few Internet sites had also used it to mean pretty much what I meant.  Thus it is proper to say that music is an "inconsummatable symbolic discourse," in that, *if* one accepts that Art should be capable of both articulation and assertion, expressiveness and expression, then music can never be "complete" in the sense that other art-forms can.  This takes absolutely nothing away from music, for it's a judgment that can only be made within the cited definition of art's completeness.  Viewing art as having this dual capacity for assertion and expressiveness makes for a convenient heuristic tool in terms of judging other forms of symbolic discourse which *do* have the capacity for consummation on both levels.

Now, dictionaries do recognize that the opposite of the adjectival "consummate" is "inconsummate," which means precisely the same as "unconsummated."  Both mean that a given object has not reached a state of completeness.

In earlier essays I've spoken in symbolic discourse in terms of *mythicity,* through which concept it's possible to detect differing degrees of symbolic complexity within a range of literary works.  This remains the cornerstone of my theory, but Langer's terms are useful for determining the processes behind the articulation of complexity. In this essay I formulated the term "null-myth" for a given element in a narrative that did not happen to be complex in a particular iteration, with the explicit statement that no such element was beyond a high-mythic transformation elsewhere. In yet another essay I conjoined my Frye-influenced theories of symbolic complexity with those of Philip Wheelwright, who employed the terms *plurisignative* and *monosignative* for differing levels of symbolic expression.



In a future essay I plan to develop distinctions between a *consummate* symbolic discourse and an *inconsummate* one, probably with reference to the work of Jack Kirby.



Monday, September 12, 2011

DISTANCED RELATIONS

"So they had bargained, he and Sabul, bargained like profiteers. It had not been a battle, but a sale. You give me this and I'll give you that. Refuse me and I'll refuse you. Sold? Sold! Shevek's career, like the existence of his society,depended on the continuance of a fundamental, unadmitted profit contract. Not a relationship of mutual aid and solidarity, but an exploitative relationship; not organic, but mechanical. Can true function arise from basic dysfunction?"-- the character of Shevek in Ursula K. LeGuin's THE DISPOSSESSED.


I've not quite finished my rereading of the LeGuin book, in which the author posits two cultures that substantially reproduce the ideological oppositions of capitalism (represented by the planet "Urras") and socialism (embodied by "Anarres.")  The latter planet is the homeworld to Shevek, and in the quote above he meditates on the incongruity that on his world, despite its ideals of "mutual aid and solidarity," the "exploitative relationships" characteristic of capitalism pervade his society in camoflagued form, as per the one he shares with his academic superior Sabul.  Later, when Shevek journeys to Urras, he's often surprised as how well the society functions despite the "basic dysfunction" of its capitalistic orientation.  LeGuin carefully structures her two worlds so that no thinking critic could accuse her of simply finding one system superior to the other; rather, it's evident that each society has its weaknesses, and that those weaknesses are an expression of the weakness in human nature rather than in the systems as such.

Nevertheless, the answer to Shevek's puzzled question-- particularly with regard to the subject of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaboration of the 1960s-- would seem to be "yes," with very few qualifiers.  Over and over Lee's editorial control over Jack Kirby's art and story has been critiqued as inequitable, unfair, injurious to the superior artistic talents of Kirby, etc.

And yet, out of this dysfunctional relationship, we have "true function" in the form of a host of comic-book features that even most bloody comic book elitists validate.  There are a number of Kirby fans who believe that his non-collaborative work exceeds any work he did with Stan Lee or anyone else.  Such is their privilege, but I've rarely seen a critical defense that went beyond the Kantian level of "the agreeable" (i.e., I like this and no one can tell me differently).

As I noted in INVADERS FROM MARX PT. 2, Marguerite Van Cook quoted Louis Althusser:

Ideologies are perceived-accepted–suffered cultural objects, which work fundamentally on men through a process they do not understand. What men express in their ideologies is not their true relation to their conditions of existence, but how they react to their conditions of existence; which presupposes a real relationship and an imaginary relationship.

Van Cook follows Althusser's Marxmallow logic by asserting again and again that in producing professional comic books for their audience, Lee and Kirby did not have a "true relation to their conditions of existence."  Rather, they merely "reacted" to the ideological underpinnings of their society.

The first objection to Van Cook's restatement of Althusser is that while Althusser may or may not have given an example of an author with such a "true relation" somewhere in his writings, Van Cook merely accepts his statement as a given and does not choose to present her take on such a "true relation."  But without such a positive counter-example, Van Cook's negative analyses of Lee and Kirby are utterly meaningless.

How might Van Cook had chosen an example of a "true relation?" Given the rigidity of Marxmallow dialectic, the only possible "true relation" to an artist's "conditions of existence" will inevitably reflect Marxmallow views of truth.  Thus an artist who references, or seems to reference, such concepts as "commodification"-- Daniel Clowes, perhaps-- would be assumed to have such a "true relation" while Lee and Kirby were mere cogs in the ideological machine.

Even with a positive counter-example, however, Lee and Kirby make poor examples of the monolith-like nature of American mass culture, with which Van Cook implicitly agrees as she quotes Terry Eagleton on the subject:

‘Mass’ culture is not the inevitable product of ‘industrial’ society, but the offspring of a particular form of industrialism which organizes production for profit rather than for use, which concerns itself with what will sell rather than with what is valuable.

In PART 2 I pointed out that Lee and Kirby were responsible for originating one of the first black featured heroes in a commercial American comic book.  I do not know if either Eagleton, Althusser or Van Cook would find this a "valuable" contribution to society.  However, even if they all considered American pop cultrue to be insignificant by virtue of its inadherence to Marxist truth, I should imagine that the debut of a character such as Gabriel Jones would have to be considered marginally more progressive than the many times both Lee and Kirby attacked Communist societies as "evil" in the early 1960s.

One might agree that anti-Communist rhetoric, especially as simplistic as it appeared in such Lee-Kirby comic books as FANTASTIC FOUR #13, may have been put there to sell the books:








And yet-- was it "true" or not, that in some Communist countries, citizens were "enslaved" by their leaders?  As in LeGuin's novel, the real sins of capitalism don't negate the real sins of socialism; both spring from human weakness.  Moreover, can one be certain that Lee and Kirby merely "reacted" in making this negative characterization of 1960s Communism?  That neither man ever read anything about real abuses in real places, and that therefore they characterized Commies as the enemy just to make a buck?

Conversely, there is one thing about the "progressive" introduction of a black character like Lee & Kirby's Gabe Jones that is manifestly "untrue:" American troops in World War II were segregated.  Thus Lee and Kirby distorted real history for the purpose of making a progressive point: that loyal black Americans *should* have been able to serve their country without having to observe the "color line."  And yet, this willful distortion might have backfired on the company's ability to "make a buck" had there been some conservative backlash against the Gabe Jones character.

I've pursued this line of reasoning purely to expose the superficiality of Van Cook's adherence to Marxist views of monolithic mass culture.  I don't want to give the impression that I personally would define any narrative work as having a "true relation" to an author's "conditions of existence" purely in terms of whether or not it contains progressive concepts, or even a mix of progressive and conservative concepts.  Literary truth cannot be defined by politics, for no form of literature, no matter how "high" or "low," is ever purely about politics.  All art, as Suzanne Langer observed, is inherently "gestural:" it reminds us of things in our real lives but is quite obviously not "real life," even in the most "kitchen-sink" types of art.  

LeGuin's hero Shevek has to grant the capitalist devil his due by admitting that "mechanical"
contracts may lead to "true function" as readily as do "organic ones."  However, in art the oppositions of "organic" and "mechanical" become much more multifaceted than they can ever be in sociopolitical discourse.  The fact that Marxists remain so unaware of the plurisignative nature of literature remains one of the great marvels of the last century, given that said Marxists are so sedulous about ferreting out Other People's Myths.

 







Thursday, September 8, 2011

A PAGE RIGHT OUT OF PREHISTORY

At the end of INVADERS FROM MARX PT. 2 I said:



Next essay: why the bourgeoise productions of Lee and Kirby do indeed contain "a true relation to the conditions of their existence," albeit not one of which Althusser would approve.
The more I thought about this, the more daunting the project seemed. How could one hope to make clear to any Marxist the terms of my argument, when so many Marxists lack any broad historical perspective with regard to the many-faceted nature of human language and literature? After all, to this day Roland Barthes is still a name to conjure with, with barely anyone pointing out that l'empereur is missing his vetements:





"...myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language."-- Barthes, "Myth Today."



Marguerite Van Cook's essay, which prompted the INVADERS series from me, never mentions Barthes, but whether she's read him or not her own Marxist argument reproduces the same hegemonic argument with respect to how the "signifying" diction of Stan Lee establishes authority over the "raw material" of Jack Kirby's art. These are Barthes' terms, not Van Cook's, but a similarity of theme can be observed in Van Cook's essay:



Implicitly, art is produced in a strangely abased position in the social hierarchy of production. Art appears to be the tool of the intuitive, untamed mind, while writing evidences intellectual precision and authority.
Later in INVADERS PT. 3 I pointed out that if Stan Lee had "abased" the "intuitive" and "untamed" mind of Jack Kirby with his "elevated diction," then it was an abasement to which Kirby also submitted himself, by conferring "elevated diction" upon characters like Orion and Darkseid.

There are, it happens, various correctives to this Marxist overemphasis on hegemonic oppression in the world of literary narrative. One is Philip Wheelwright, who points out that language is not merely one unitary phenomenon, and that it can be productively separated into two broad "complementary uses:"



"...to designate clearly for the sake of efficient and widespread comunication, and to express with humanly significant fullness."-- Wheelwright, THE BURNING FOUNTAIN.

Where Barthes imagines a conflict between denotation and connotation (though he manages to bollix up his concept of denotation). Wheelwright sees the two "strategeies" of language as not only complementary, but necessarily intertwined throughout history. "Steno-language" (the language of plain sense) is, he tells us, the "negative limit" of language in its more expansive form, "expressive" or "poeto-language."

Ernst Cassirer, in books like his MYTHICAL THOUGHT, goes so far as to figure his version of "expressive language" as the means by which early man formulated his first abstract thoughts, in the forms of myth, folklore and religion. Of course, it should be said that even early man surely had his own version of "steno-language," in which one caveperson might tell another, "Go fetch me that rock," or "Watch out for that woolly mammoth." It's a leap of poor logic to imagine that one came before the other, and Cassirer does not, unlike Barthes, make the mistake of asserting one linguistic form's primacy over the other.

Through what remnants we have of early literature we can see the two strategies being carried out, even in the earliest civilizations. Take as example the myth sometimes called "Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld." This is a great example of mythic discourse at its most expressive in that, even putting aside specific terms for which we moderns don't know the meanings, the story's logic is entirely governed by such mysterious cosmic presences as Inanna, the huluppu-tree, the Anzu-bird, and of course Gilgamesh and Enkidu themselves. In contrast, although the better-known EPIC OF GILGAMESH is replete with such presences, they have been made somewhat less mysterious in that the epic places greater realistic emphasis on understanding why Gilgamesh takes this or that action. Though the Gilgamesh Epic is certainly not an example of Wheelwright's "steno-language," one may imagine its composer-- almost certainly some anonymous court poet working with raw mythic materials as did the better-known Homer-- using the type of "plain sense" reasoning found in steno-language to figure out, for example,why Gilgamesh might decide to reject Ishtar's offer of love, which would then lead dramatically to the death of Enkidu.

The contrast between these two mythic stories is but one of many I might use to portrary the interweavings of Wheelwright's two linguistic strategies, one which, I must repeat, depends more upon the nature of what is being communicated than on some imagined hegemonic incursion of a "signifier" over a "sign," or a wordy editor over an "intuitive" artist.

With this linguistic schema as a propositional aesthetic foundation, my next essay on this subject should at last address the matter of how the works of Lee and Kirby could indeed have a "true relation to the conditions of their existence," whether that relation is anything a Marxist could relate to or not.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FOURSOMES

Recently I had the chance to read DC's SHOWCASE reprints of the earliest issues of CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, which includes all of the issues on which Jack Kirby worked.  COTU, as the heroic team's name is often abbreviated, is often considered by many Kirby fans to be evidence that Jack Kirby probably brought some work very like the Challengers to Marvel in the early 60s, and that this was eventually altered to become the company's flagship superhero title, 1961's THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

The proposition  is certainly a fair one.  All artists tend to recycle work that either interests them or their audience (in terms of selling well), so it's logical to assume that one heroic team might beget another.
In addition, for many fans the most salient similarity between the two hero-teams is that they bond after a crash landing.  In the origin of the Challengers from 1957's SHOWCASE #6, the four heroes are unrelated adventure-seekers who happen to share a plane on the way to a mutual rendezvous.  When all four men survive their plane's crash, they decide that they now live on "borrowed time" and to band together in order to perform feats of derring-do.

As most fans know, this has some resemblance to the origin of the Fantastic Four as told in the premiere issue of their magazine (though details were often changed in later retellings).  The most salient difference is that all four of the heroes in FF #1 know one another quite well when they agree to Reed Richards' idea that they should steal the rocket he worked on from the government and use it to fly to the moon.  In addition, whereas the crash in SHOWCASE #6 happens by sheer chance, the cause of the FF's rocket-crash stems from a peril that Reed and his allies foresee: a barrier of cosmic radiation on the outskirts of Earth's atmosphere.  All four would-be astronauts find themselves transformed into cosmically-powered beings, with the result that, even though one of them has become a rock-skinned monster as a result, all four agree to start using their powers to defend the world from evil.

I can well believe that Jack Kirby might have used COTU as a base idea from which to propose some concept that became the Fantastic Four.  Perhaps he did this on his own, perhaps it came together in response to the now-legendary order from Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, in which he allegedly commanded Stan Lee to come up with a book like DC's JUSTICE LEAGUE.  Other fans have noted the fact that Marvel had no individual superhero features in 1961, so that at that time a duplication of DC's JUSTICE LEAGUE scheme could not have worked.  Logically, an original hero-team along the lines of COTU-- and its two or three DC-imitators, like SEA DEVILS and CAVE CARSON-- probably seemed the ideal solution to the problem.

However, there's one big problem with seeing the FANTASTIC FOUR as entirely the spawn of Kirby's CHALLENGERS work: in terms of mythicity, of symbolic resonance, COTU is like an artist's sketch of a fully formed idea, while even in the early, somewhat crude FANTASTIC FOUR stories, the idea has been developed.

The Kirby COTU stories-- some or all of which may've started from full scripts by other writers, though Mark Evanier asserts that Kirby usually rewrote any scripts he was given-- resemble the kind of stuff Kirby did in his mid-to-late 1970s Marvel works.  The narratives usually begin with the Challengers being summoned to investigate or eludicate some mystery, usually one with strong SF-aspects, and thereafter the heroes fights aliens or robots or whatever in fast-action stories with no great emotional resonance.

In contrast, even the weakest of the early FANTASTIC FOUR stories show a concern for dramatic storytelling, in which the individual characters have distinct personalities and relationships with one another.  Because of such distinctions, the first ten FF stories sustain a mythology of characters, each with his or her archetypal nature: even a pallid villain like the Miracle Man from FF #3 carries some of the resonance of the Faustian deceiver.  In contrast, one Kirby robot or alien is pretty much like every other Kirby robot or alien in COTU.

I can't say with certainty that Stan Lee made all the difference.  It's certainly possible that Kirby simply had a creative breakthrough with FANTASTIC FOUR like nothing since his 1940s work, and that Stan simply abetted that breakthrough.

But something about that partnership changed the stakes for comic books from then on.  I hope in future essays to say something more about it. 

  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

MYTHIC MONDAY'S MOVING DAY

In JUST THE FIRST MYTHIC MONDAY I announced my "1001 myths" project, which I hoped to do on a weekly basis.

I've decided to cut back from weekly installments to "whenever I feel so moved."

One reason is that in addition to other projects I don't choose to mention here, I'm submitting weekly essays to the SEQUART site, and that cuts into my time for this project.  Two essays are online at the time of this posting:

"The Future of a Re-Fusion": this essay endeavors to place the current division between "mainstream" and "artcomics" in historical context.

"The Linking Myth:" this one concerns the dominant meanings of "myth" in contemporary fan-culture and chooses the best meaning as most relevant to the criticism of fiction/literature.

I still like the idea of doing 1001 myth-adventures, of course, but I must admit that if my 26 alphabetically-chosen entries don't convince a given reader of the viability of archetypal criticism, then 975 more won't move said reader any closer to conversion.

Though I'm not precisely wrapping up the project now, a quick look back seems justified.  One thing is certain: that I will never again do this in alphabetical arrangement.  Some letters, like "S," offer an embarassment of riches ranging from SUPERMAN and THE SPIRIT to STINZ and SIN CITY.  Others, like "K" and "V," are pain-in-the-ass letters; letters few people in comics-publishing liked, to judge from the dearth of such books listed in Overstreet.

I specified that I'd try to meliorate an inevitable emphasis on superhero myths by providing at least one "non-superhero" myth for each super-myth.  However, if I examine my selections according to how they fall into Northrop Frye's four literary mythoi, there's still a related but not identical emphasis:

ADVENTURE-- ACTION COMICS, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, ELFQUEST, FANTASTIC FOUR, GREEN LANTERN, INCREDIBLE HULK, KAMANDI, LADY SNOWBLOOD, NEW MUTANTS, PLASTIC MAN, QUESTION, RED SONJA, SPIRIT, VOID INDIGO, WONDER WOMAN, XENOZOIC TALES, ZATANNA

DRAMA-- JAR OF FOOLS

IRONY-- CEREBUS, HEAVY METAL, MAD, YUMMY FUR

COMEDY-- BLONDIE, ONE POUND GOSPEL, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, URUSEI YATSURA


Some judgment calls here: ELFQUEST is a work I'd term an "adventure-drama" in that its dramatic elements are very strong even though I feel that the mythos of adventure dominates, in contrast to, say, a related work of otherworldly fantasy like C.S. Lewis' NARNIA series.  Most EC horror stories I would regard as essentially dramatic, so that had I made a different selection, there would be one more entry in the "drama" category.  As it happened, I chose "Lower Berth," in which the love story between two corpses is clearly a comic jape, but not one with the ironic tone of Kurtzman's Walt Disney satire from the same general EC milieu.

Will I ever search out more examples of plurisignative comic-book drama to keep JAR OF FOOLS from getting lonely?  Will I ever explain my arcane reference to a possible incest-motif in Lee and Ditko's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN?

Once again-- stay following.