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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY

In GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW PART 3 I pointed out a flaw in the schema of *dynamis* Northrop Frye outlined in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. In short, I pointed out that though Frye used the term interchangably for the physical power of characters and the "power of action" that they have in their stories (possibly influencing me to have done the same in some of my earlier essays), the two can't truly be considered identical.  I mentioned here that by the terms of Frye's original schema, one would have to think that metaphenomenal fantasies like THE TEMPEST and THE GOLDEN ASS were romances, but neither classical work truly fits the parameters Frye outlines for the romance.

So in future uses, I'll define *dynamis* only as a significant value, in that the character "power of action" in the story is pre-ordained by the type of story in which he finds himself, be it adventure, comedy, irony or drama.

*Dynamicity,* in contrast, denotes a "narrative value" in that the level or character of a protagonist (as well as that of his allies or antagonists) is a value *within* the sphere of the narrative.  To cite one of my earlier examples, Ranma Saotome doesn't know that he's in a comic universe. His level of power, as well as his struggles against the aforesaid antagonists, are no less dynamic than those of adventure-heroine Buffy Summers.

Now one interesting aspect of this division of functions-- one that tempted me to label this essay "FOUR INTO THREE WILL GO" (as per a similarly named essay) -- is that while *dynamis* manifests in four complementary narrative *mythoi,* dynamicity is best expressed by a division of three, paralleling Aristotle's trinity from the beginning of THE POETICS (S.H. Butcher translation):

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life.
In ANATOMY Frye jettisons Aristotle's moral judgments in order to speak of the "power of action" in different types of narrative, which he develops into his four mythoi.  But it occurs to me that while Frye's schema doesn't work as far as describing how "marvelous" forms of power supposedly die out as his *mythoi* become increasingly realistic, one may fairly say that the distinctions "better-than-norma/normal/less-than-normal" apply extremely well to the narrative value of *dynamicity,* of what kind of power the characters possess. 

"Better than normal" power applies to all four of the characters I've surveyed as pop-fiction exemplars of the Fryean mythoi-- Buffy, Ranma, Harry Potter and Marshal Law.  But this distinction isn't limited to those who possess marvelous powers: it's determined, rather, by the way the narrative portrays the central character as being in some way *exceptional.*  In this essay I used the "naturalistic" hero Dirty Harry and the "uncanny" hero Lee as examples of violent sublimity, but they possess this quality precisely because the narrative posits them as exceptional within whatever phenomenal sphere they inhabit.

The next level, which I have called "normal" and which corresponds to Aristotle's notion of "true life," denotes characters whose range of power I denote as "good-to-fair."  This category requires a "range" approach because characters who are simply "good" in terms of their personal dynamicity function almost exactly the same as those who are simply "fair."  To cite comics-examples once more, Commissioner Gordon, as a trained police officer, would possess a "good" dynamicity, if only because he can handle a gun skillfully.  In contrast, a character like Jimmy Olsen, while sometimes portrayed as being capable of defending himself with basic martial arts skills, should be classed as "fair" given that he may lose fights as often as he wins them.  Yet I'd argue that both Gordon and Olsen are treated identically in terms of the narrative function of their dynamicity: both are far inferior to, say, Batman, an exceptional combatant.

Very different, though, are characters on the last level, paralleling Aristotle's "less noble" category.  I characterize this category by yet another range: "fair-to-poor."  Most of these characters are meant to be comic in tone, so that they are either helpless in a combat situation or can just barely hold their own.  Borrowing again from Batman, a support-character like Vicky Vale represents this level, though some of the earliest versions of the aforementioned Jimmy Olsen treat him like an incompetent comic schlemiel.

Temporarily I will designate these dynamicity-levels as the X-type (for exceptional), the Y-type (for the merely good), and the Z-type (for less than good).

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