Monday, April 30, 2012


Though I'm often not in agreement with many of the more extreme feminists in the comics-blogosphere, I may be on the same page with some of them in endorsing the existence of a good general study of the expression of female heroes and villains in popular culture.

Prior to the 2010 book I'm going to review here, the best-circulated study may be the 2006 work THE MODERN AMAZONS: WARRIOR WOMEN ON SCREEN by Dominique Mainon and James Ursini.  However, to call it a "study" is probably over-ambitious.  The work takes the basic approach of the "coffee-table" book, being extremely weak in terms of discussing the first half of the 20th century, not even making a token mention of the two NYOKA serials.  There's scant discussion of the historical background of "warrior woman" films or of feminist theories about the topic.

Better in terms of detail, but concerned only with comic book superheroines, is Trina Robbins' 1996 THE GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES.  Robbins' work is excellent on the Golden Age heroines, analyzing a number of obscure characters, but she's weak on other eras, particularly that of the Silver Age (1955-1970 in my opinion), barely acknowledging the advances of DC Comics in that period.

Now, as of 2010-- though I only discovered the work this year-- we have Jennifer K. Stuller's highly readable academic study, INK-STAINED AMAZONS AND CINEMATIC WARRIORS-- the "ink-stained" figures being those of comic books and strips, while the second group needs no explanation. Academic Roz Kaveney provides an introduction explaining that it is a "study of Buffy, Xena, Ripley, and the other most-studied female superheroes with a historical and cultural context"-- which does signify one limitation in that it is only about the "most-studied" figures.  But that's not a serious drawback. In essence I do recommend it to those with an interest in the topic, but it does have some more substantive comments, which I choose to annotate here.

* On page 3 Stuller remarks that "myths can be fantasy and they can be real," which almost sounded like a re-statement of Kant's attempt to find a "middle way" between Rationalism and Empiricism.  I suspect I'm the only one who had that reaction, though.

*On page 5 Stuller states that "superwomen narratives" are identifiable, in part, by the way the "narrative borrows from, or resonates with, classical themes and/or elements of world mythology."  This sounds like a lead-in to a general Campbellian theory.  However, Stuller doesn't explore mythic themes in detail, and the statement seems to serve the purpose of distinguishing "superwomen" protagonists from more mundane figures.

*Page 13 strikes the first discordant note, as Stuller repeats a rather oversimplified criticism (also seen in Robbins) to the way in which the word "girl" is supposedly an automatic downgrade as it occurs in the names of heroines like "Hawkgirl" or in descriptions like "Lois Lane, Girl Reporter."
*Stuller's first chapter focuses upon the two best known comic-book heroines: Wonder Woman and Lois Lane.  While Stuller's description of William Marston's WONDER WOMAN is quite good, she does put down the subsequent adventures written for the Amazon by Robert Kanigher following Marston's death.  While it's true that Kanigher's stories are not as good as Marston's, Stuller oversimplifies them as simple "infantile adventures," and skews the facts to imply that Wonder Woman herself became less powerful.  Kanigher didn't share Marston's female-liberation theme, but in my view he usually continued to portrary Wonder Woman as dynamic and capable.

*Stuller's survey of Silver Age comics is condescending, implying that every heroine in the 1960s was simply a "token female" like Invisible Girl or Marvel Girl-- neither of whom is examined in detail.  Stuller devotes more time to the late 1960s 'depowered' version of Wonder Woman, which Stuller automatically condemns as a falling-away from Marston's character.  Here too, though I agree that Marston's original is superior, Stuller dismisses the "Modesty-Blaise-d" version of the character too simplistically.  She also touches on Marvel's "Cat" character, apparently because she was the first superheroine whose origins were explicitly rooted in Second Wave feminism.

*Stuller's most egregious blunder takes place when she attempts to recount the plot of the Russ Meyer film FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!   Strangely, she only describes one scene of PUSSYCAT, and gets it entirely wrong in order to give it a feminist spin.  It's true that PUSSYCAT revolves around the karate-chopping figure of Varla (Tura Satana), and it's true that the plot gets going because Varla and her fellow go-go dancers encounter two suburban members of a car-club, Tommy and Linda, running timing-trials in the desert.  But Stuller describes Tommy as "cocky," when in truth he's so straight-edge he barely understands Varla's challenge, and he initially refuses that challenge until Linda, not Varla, encourages him to race Varla.  Varla does not, as Stuller states, win the race-- she cheats by cutting across the marking-pylons and causes Tommy's car to spin out.  And Tommy does not attack Varla because she wins, but because Varla steals Linda's stopwatch.  The only nasty thing he does is that after being beaten down by Varla's karate, he pretends to give in and then sucker-punches Varla-- but he doesn't profit thereby, for she then kills him-- all of which sends Varla and her crew on the run for the remainder of the story.

In later chapters Stuller doesn't make so many mistakes or simplifications when dealing with the warrior-women of film and television, so it would seem that this was her main interest (Kaveney notes that parts of the book began as essays for SLAYAGE).  There are some good, though never outstanding, analyses of feminist politics in XENA, BUFFY et al, so INK-STAINED does work as a primer for such commentary


Perhaps even more than those famed taboo subjects, religion and politics, the topic of sex is one that almost immediately generates radically opposed, basically inarguable positions. In the comics-blogosphere, it may even top the fabled "Stan vs. Jack" arguments. 

For my last couple of essays for the Sequart site, seen here and here, I critiqued a COMIC BOOK RESOURCES essay from Kelly Thompson entitled "No, It's Not Equal," which is probably representative of this tendency.  The essay garnered (as of today) a more than respectable number of comments, a whopping 473 in all.  By my incomplete perusal, the reply-thread was marked by an awful lot of people declaiming their beliefs on one side or the other in the most strident of tones.  Possibly a better title for the thread itself would've been the one Heidi McDonald used for a BEAT topic on Dave Sim: "The One With All the Comments."

I won't comment on the substance of those two essays here for the time being, but I'll be printing two or three more that extrapolate from points raised by Ms. Thompson in the next few days.

My attacks on Ms. Thompson will have to wait, however.  Next up, I'll be looking at a book subtitled "Superwomen in Modern Mythology."

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Mark me down as another one who doesn’t get what the reporter involved here thought he was accomplishing by trying to get Stan to attack the AVENGERS movie.

I think it’s legitimate, if not particularly productive, to ask Stan questions about the credit Jack Kirby was given when they worked together at Marvel. But why would Stan even have an opinion as to the supposed injustice of Kirby not being credited in the AVENGERS movie?

Though Stan may not have argued his case very well, it’s abundantly clear that he believes that the person with authority over the way a given serial work develops is the “creator” of the work. No matter how many arguments are made as to the contributions of an artist like Kirby– and I’ve seen many good arguments– Stan’s not going to change his mind about this in terms of the work he and Kirby did together. To him it would be like (using a made-up example here) Frank Frazetta arguing that if he created Moonbeam McSwine under the aegis of Al Capp’s LIL ABNER, then Frazetta should own a piece of Moonbeam McSwine, even though Frazetta agreed to work under Capp’s aegis, knowing that Capp would own everything.

So, by all means, continue to ask Stan all the questions you want about why Kirby doesn’t own a piece of Marvel. You’ll get the same answer every time, but you’re within your rights to ask.

But asking him about the crediting in a movie that he doesn’t control is a fool's endeavor.

Friday, April 27, 2012


In MORE GENRE-FENCES I took Peter Coogan to task for his practice of "exclusion by genre definition."  But does that mean that I am opposed to "exclusion" in principle?

Anyone who's read my own analyses of genre and mythos would certainly find that I've used the principle many times myself.  In this essay, I asserted that despite the presence of elements relevant to the adventure-mythos in both DOCTOR WHO and STARGATE, I thought that other elements dominated the tonal quality of each serial, so I did not define either series as falling within the "adventure mythos."

My method is not appreciably different from Coogan's.  In various essays I've stated my takes upon the Fryean mythoi, described those ways in which I differ from Frye, and assembled the dominant traits of each mythos just as Coogan puts forth what he deems the dominant traits of the superhero genre.  Then, just as Coogan does, I suss out whether or not a given work matches a given mythos.  Unquestionably a lot of this sussing-out process for both of us has a subjective aspect.  Another author, hip to the basic terminology of genres and mythoi, might demur from my conclusion and conclude that STARGATE is indeed a work of adventure.

My own "superhero idiom" list depends on this exclusionary process as well.  When I listed my 20 best "superhero idiom" films, I did list the initial STAR WARS trilogy as one of them, and got a complaint from one poster for calling STAR WARS a "superhero film," which was not quite the point.  I also got this response, which believe it or not I just noticed today:

If Star Wars is a superhero film, then so is Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or any movie where a character has fantastic powers, which are half the movies in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Basically, your defining the superhero genre so widely as to make it near meaningness. You also forgot BATMAN BEGINS, the best live-action superhero movie in the past decade or two.

The poster obviously had not read anything else I wrote, since I think I've been clear as to why I don't consider "any movie where a character has fantastic powers" to be within the superhero idiom.  I'm not offended by that, but I find it interesting that I was accused of being too inclusionary.  In point of fact, in the above cited essay and elsewhere, I've excluded all sorts of works from being within said idiom, yet have included many works within it in which characters don't have "powers" but merely something like a costume, a special weapon, etc.

Yet I'm heartened by the poster's comment, because in my reading it may means that I'm not being too hidebound in assigning arbitrary boundaries to my conceptions of the mythoi.  Though I've met Peter Coogan and admire his work for comics scholarship, I do think that he's tried to hard to make it seem as if genre-constructions are objective facts, which is why he can so roundly dismiss Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a "superhero," not to mention many of the characters of the pulp-magazine era, regardless of whether or not they wore costumes or had powers.

In my view the advantage of the Fryean mythoi is that they are focused not upon narrative tropes, as are many discussions of genre, but on the emotive and expressive appeal underlying those tropes.  Too often in critical history this or that emotional tenor is ignored or set aside for being too "childish" or too "fascistic," with the result that, say, only the most ironic of ironies are esteemed by some critics.

So though I do use exclusion in my own way, I believe I balance it out with a pluralist's inclusive tendencies.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


“Superhero... a heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission... who is generically distinct, i.e., can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions..."-- definition of "superhero" from Peter Coogan's SUPERHERO: THE SECRET ORIGIN OF A GENRE (2006), p. 30.

Coogan's book may be the first formal attempt to define the superhero in terms of its narrative construction, as opposed to fans' informal definitions: that the hero needs or does not need a costume, needs to exist in contemporary times or not, and so on.  Plainly Coogan's definition rests entirely upon the divisions made possible by "generic conventions", as did Scipio's attempt, scrutinized here, to confine characters like Batman or Superman within genre-rubrics like "detective fiction" or "science fiction."

(Minor point: given the prior associations given the word "generic," I would prefer "genre-conventions," though as I noted here, I don't like the word "conventions" at the best of times.)

I have no problem with mapping out the functions of genres in terms of their general practice, but I'm leery of seeing them used as "fences" that artificially divide works A, B and C from works X, Y and Z even though all of them share the expressive and tonal qualities one can find in the Fryean *mythoi.*  It's interesting that Coogan cites Northrop Frye in SUPERHERO, though only on one page, referencing Frye's "theory of modes."  Otherwise Coogan's approach seems closer to that of the structuralists, whom Frye did not endorse, as I recall, because they insisted only upon breaking genres down into their component parts and paid little attention to the "total vision" of a work.

Take, as an illustrative example of Coogan's book, his take on Joss Whedon's BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (p. 48), whom Coogan considers "a leading candidate" for "exclusion by genre distinction."  Coogan's reasons are summed up in this essay by Peter Sanderson, which disagrees with Coogan's specific conclusions but not with his concentration on "genre-conventions."  Sanderson does a good job summarizing the ways in which Coogan finds Buffy lacking as a "superhero," as well as registering his own objections to Coogan's substitute term "super hero."  However, the greatest problem I have with Coogan's Buffy-exclusion occurs here:

"...the Slayer is a hero-type that predates the superhero, fitting firmly within the larger horror-genre ... [Buffy's] hero-type descends from actual vampire hunters, including the dhampir... Thus, though the writers of BUFFY draw on superhero conventions, the stories are generically distinct from the superhero genre."
Coogan's literalist interpretation of genre is precisely in the mode of Scipio.  If Buffy's "hero-type" predates the superhero, then she cannot be a superhero, just as Superman cannot be an "actual superhero" because he inherits his dominant tropes from science fiction.

Sanderson also draws attention to many examples in which BUFFY's television scripts do suggest her identity as a "superhero," but his solution to the categorizational dilemna is not much better than Coogan's, as Sanderson terms Buffy a "displaced superhero" simply because she borrows conventions from other genres.

One reason that I choose to emphasize Frye's remarks on his four mythoi  is precisely because I believe it makes it possible to talk about the constitutive nature of popular fiction without getting quite so hamstrung as to what trope belongs to what genre.  For instance, Coogan would have his readers believe that there is a "horror genre" that is so constituted that it is fiercely indepedent of any other genre, be it that of the superhero or (presumably) any other.

And yet, what happens whenever the equally capacious genre of science fiction chooses to do its take on the horror-genre's vampire myths?  Be it Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND, Curtis Harrington's 1966 QUEEN OF BLOOD, or the "Space Vampire" episode of the teleseries BUCK ROGERS, do these remain within the horror-genre, because they're about vampires?  If so, does that mean that of BUCK ROGERS' 32 episodes, only one is horror, leaving the other 31 to be "actual" science fiction?

This seems to me a messy and arbitrary approach to categorization.  I imagine that others may find my application of the Fryean mythos to pop fiction no more winsome.  But at least an emphasis upon the emotional and expressive core of any given work can avoid some of this tendency to "fence in" tropes that were "born free."

Monday, April 16, 2012


From time to time I've written essays taking issue with other online comics-critics.  Sometimes a lively if short cyber-argument ensues, as seen here. On one or two occasions, someone may give an essay of mine a respectful nod, as here.  And as little as I like the writings of Tom Spurgeon and Dirk Deppey, I must give both men props that they at least gave me a link apiece on their respective blogs, in spite of the fact that I'd publicly critiqued them-- which is more than good ol' Heidi McDonald has ever done on THE BEAT, though I've no idea if she was even aware of my critique of her.

However, to the best of my recollection Heidi still allow me to post links to my essays on THE BEAT (though I guess that could change if she reads this).  In general, most bloggers follow the same pattern: having said what they wanted to say, they usually allow dissenters to post links but don't care anything about getting into a prolonged argument. 

Scipio of THE ABSORBASCON is my first encounter with someone who apparently doesn't allow such links, however.  I didn't really expect him to engage the argument I expressed in GENRE-FENCES MAKE BAD THEORY.  I posted on his blog last week, simply notifying him of my disagreement and inviting him to respond if he chose, but I didn't really think that he would.

I did think, however, that he would allow the post to stand as written. But it would seem, half a week later now, that Scipio did not wish my notification to stand. 

Is it possible that it was simply a cyber-hiccup?  Maybe, but I'd never had problems posting there before.  Of course, I was never critiquing one of his essays in detail before, either.

Is it possible that Scipio has some rule against such links, that I never came across?  This too is possible, but again-- the fact that I was critiquing him in my link looms largely.

The world will little note or long remember extremely minor violations of blog-etiquette, of course.  I'm deleting my link to THE ABSORBASCON as a matter of course, but I'm sure that will have zero effect on his numbers.

Puzzled shrug.

Move on to the next victim.

ADDENDA TO THE ADDENDA: Just to define "blog-etiquette" a bit more neatly, I think it proper etiquette to let a post expressing polite disagreement stand.  No one is literally obligated to do so.  But I consider it good manners.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


"In the beginning was the word"-- John 1.1

"In the beginning was the act"-- Goethe, FAUST.


I'm aware of no list that seeks to list any protagonists, superheroic or otherwise, according to the Fryean mythos to which they belong.
The lack of such a list isn't surprising; a list-maker has to be highly motivated to delve into the Fryean categories, particularly those of the mythoi Frye may or may not have derived from Theodor Gaster. 

What one usually gets, to extend the above parallel somewhat, is not meditations on "the word"-- the immense and imponderable potential principle that theoretically unites all manifestations of literature-- but on "the act," or rather the "acts" of individual genre-boundaries; the things that distinguish one hypothetical genre from another.  "Genre" is, as I also noted in the above essay, much "more limited" than the Fryean mythos.  To think upon genre is to meditate on limitations, on the fences that keep one genre apart from another, as will be the case with the online essay I'll be critiquing here.

First, though, what is genre?  Merriam-Webster says:
a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content
This is perfectly adequate, though when dealing with modern popular culture-- my sole concern in this essay-- I like my own definition best: "genre" is any category in which works are included on the basis of similarities in terms of (1) character, (2) setting, or (3) plot.

For instance, the "mystery-genre" is often spoken of as a thing separate from the "detective-genre."  The principal reason for this separation is that the former genre is based on a type of plot, but it can include the solution of a mystery even if there is no character who is a detective.  Thus any number of old-dark-house stories, in which protagonists merely stumble over the mystery's solution, are mysteries but not detective stories. By contrast, to be in the "detective genre" the story must have an actual detective.

Portmanteau genres present similar category-hopping opportunities.  If a work is labeled a "western," it has been principally characterized by its setting.  However, a "horror-western" merges the concern for setting with that of a horror-based plot.  It is of course possible to reverse the emphasis: perhaps transferring story-tropes of the western into some non-western setting and still using them for horrific plot-purposes-- but then no one would call said work a "horror-western."

As far as combining aspects of genres, that of the superhero-- which I view as not a thing in itself, but as one potential genre amid other related types-- is certainly marked by this kind of trope-transference. 

In an essay entitled "Flash is the only DC superhero," Scipio of the blog ABSORBASCON argues this assertion largely on the purity of Flash's generic nature:

"The Flash is an actual superhero. An otherwise regular guy who gains superpowers and fights crime with them. He fights villains who are mostly normal people with superpowers or the technological equivalent thereof. It’s cops and robbers but on the superheroic level."

In contrast, other DC heroes are defined by their alliances to other genres:

"Batman is a detective in a detective genre."

"Superman is a science fiction character."

"Wonder Woman is a fantasy character."

Scipio notes that the Flash, like Superman, has numerous "sci-fi elements," but argues that "... they aren’t the core of his world; they are just the added elements that take him and his world from the mundane to the “super.”

In keeping with my newly announced "51 percent rule," I decided that the only way to determine if Scipio was right in his determination that Flash's "sci-fi elements" weren't "the core of his world" would be to demonstrate this statistically.  So I used the first issue of SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE FLASH as a starting-point. I made two columns: one for all Flash-adventures in which the hero faced any sort of "sci-fi" menace, ranging from aliens, cloud-monsters and talking gorillas (Grodd knows why), while the other column only included relatively mundane adventures, whether it was the hero fighting car thieves or costumed super-villains who only used science-fiction as a quick gimmick, rather than borrowing from the tropes of science-fiction in other media.

As it happens, Scipio's observation is borne out by the statistical method. In the first column, out of a total of 38 stories (including those of the backup "Kid Flash"), only fifteen are strongly determined by the tropes of science fiction, while twenty-three lack these or any other generic elements.  Thus it seems to be true that Flash's adventures, in this volume at least, are dominated by the sense of the hero as "an otherwise regular guy who gains superpowers and fights crime with them."

Nevertheless, while Scipio is right in this one specific respect, I don't take seriously the notion that "superhero" is defined by a lack of tropes from other genres, which seems Scipio's implicit definition.

Returning to my simplified definition of genre, "superhero" would seem to be a genre defined first and foremost by "character."  I have seen attempts (not Scipio's) in which a given fan tries to confine superheroes to modern-day cities, thus making it impossible for costumed cowboys like the Two-Gun Kid or the Black Rider to qualify. I reject these as mere fannish preference, not logical deduction, for the irrelevance of setting should be confirmed simply by the existence of a superhero feature set in the future, as evidenced by DC's "Legion of Super-Heroes."

Similarly, "plot" cannot be the determining factor, if only by Scipio's own reasoning, where he claims that Flash uses "sci-fi elements" but is not determined by them.  Scipio does not cite compelling evidence as to why, say, Superman is defined by such elements, and I believe that at differing periods, Superman's feature could be just as light on "sci-fi elements" as Flash's.

Therefore "character" would seem to be the determining factor in the superhero genre.  From this affiliation it would follow that a superhero is no less a superhero for having plot-elements borrowed from science fiction, detective stories or even westerns.  Scipio actually does argue that Aquaman is "a western character in a frontier setting," though I respond that no one is any more likely to term Aquaman a genuine western than, say, the sci-fi film OUTLAND.  On  a tangential note, I think a case could be made that Silver Age Aquaman was every bit as much of a "fantasy" as Wonder Woman in its Golden/Silver Age manifestations, though over time both of them became closer to being "regular superheroes."

The superhero genre, then, is a character-determined genre like that of the detective-genre mentioned above.  I note in passing that many fans think of "the detective" as a modern-day figure, going back in history no further than Sherlock Holmes but more often represented by Philip Marlowe and Miss Marple, a conception which parallels Scipio's conception of the regular-guy superhero.  However, detective prose fiction of recent years has undergone a positive mania for transferring the concept of the detective to a wide variety of historical periods: ancient Rome, medieval Europe, etc.  Thus for me, even a superhero in a different period-- whether an uncanny type like the original GHOST RIDER or marvelous types like the Ditko STARMAN-- still belongs to the superhero idiom no matter how many other genre-tropes may intrude.  Thus I certainly don't think modern-day superheroes with SF or fantasy tropes, like Superman or Wonder Woman, are any less "true" superheroes than the Flash.

ADDENDA: One of my correspondents seemed unclear on the applicability ot the Legion to this definition, so I wrote the following:

"To clarify a bit more, one of my points is that, given that "Legion of Super-Heroes" actually has the word "superhero" in its title. This suggests to me that, in a colloquial sense at least, DC Comics felt confident that their readership would recognize the feature as being about superheroes in the future, rather than thinking (along with my target Scipio) that the Legion's sci-fi aspects would detract from readers thiniking of it as a "superhero book.

Thus I deduce that from a marketing standpoint (whatever one thinks of the theoretical standpoint) a character's status as a "superhero" trumps the time-period or trappings of that character."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I recently wrote this mini-essay in response to a rather oversimplified meme lately, in which it's claimed that the superhero idiom as it manifested in comics' Goklen Age was somehow particularly Jewish.  To say the least, I disagree.


Without downplaying the role of Jewish Americans in the history of super heroes, I don't think that the concept is "particularly Jewish."

I might agree to that if the super heroes had really appeared out of nowhere, like Athena from the head of Zeus. But they have very clear linkages to the heroes of crime and SF-adventure pulps that had been circulating for almost ten years previous (I say "almost" because although pulps had been around for a while, the publication of the SHADOW magazine in 1931 really kicked off a new spurt of pulps centered on particular heroes).

I've no great information on the ethnic background of the major writers of popular characters like the Shadow, Doc Savage, G-8 et al. Probably some were Jewish, but I tend to doubt that Jewish writers were as highly represented there (if only because I think someone would drawn attention to it by now!) Chances are that these pulp-creators were heavily Gentile, and they were formulating or re-formulating many of the basic storytelling tropes that comic books would use-- not least that of the super-powered hero seen in Burroughs' JOHN CARTER and Fearn's GOLDEN AMAZON. If you remember that the total number of super-powered heroes in the Golden Age is far smaller than that of the "costumed athletes" who follow the model of the Shadow and the Spider-- not least because the latter type was easier to conceive-- the indebtedness of the costumed-hero comics to the hero-pulps seems to me beyond question.

It's not that the heroic concept is intrinsically Jewish, or even especially influenced by then-contemporary Jewish history. It's more likely that Will Eisner's hypothesis is at the root of things: a lot of talented artists in New York suffered ethnic discrimination from the Gentile hierarchy that worked in advertising art and similar venues. Thus you had a lot of talented but hungry artists drawn toward comic books, that asked no questions about your family and background, but only wanted you to turn out lots and lots of work, albeit at meager rates-- and most of them imitated the then-reigning source of cheap fiction, the pulps. Similar things occured with Gentile creators as well, like Gardner Fox and Martin Nodell.

You can factor in some other things, like the fact that four-color comics were ideally suited for brightly colored heroes. But as far as the basic concept goes, no particular ethnicity has a lock on it, in my opinion.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Having arrived at a deductive conclusion as to the progression of the affect of identificatory conviction throughout the four mythoi, I should add that the same degrees of conviction apply to the *dynamis* of the characters typical of these mythoi.

I've seen a fair number of superhero lists over the years.  Mikel Midnight  still maintains a page that correlates many of them, though unfortunately the most inclusive known to me, THE COMICS INTERNATIONAL WEBSITE, seems to have gone the way of the dodo.  Jess Nevins still maintains a list called the GOLDEN AGE HERO DIRECTORY, but this list aims at collating all adventure-heroes in Golden Age comic books.  But the most problematic aspect of most such lists is that they're generally focused purely on external points of similarity.  I'm aware of no list that seeks to list any protagonists, superheroic or otherwise, according to the Fryean mythos to which they belong.

I've compiled a provisional list for my own use, but I admit that when I first began it, I focused, as most comics-fans do, upon external resemblances.  Thus I would list, say, THE INFERIOR FIVE within the superheroic idiom simply because the characters did their thing in costumes. 

Now, as a result of investigations such as this one, however, I've determined that the Inferior Five would be appropriate only in a list of superhero-idiom types within the comedy-mythos.  Considered in terms of the level of conviction aroused by the Inferior Five, they have more in common with "non-costumed" types like Johnny Thunder or Ranma Saotome than with even the most tongue-in-cheek version of Batman or Plastic Man.

This formulation doesn't merely help distinguish between types of superheroes, of course.  Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are both magically-powered teen heroes, which would move some critics to dump them both in a vague category called "young adult fantasy."  But, if I can judge Percy Jackson by his one film adaptation, that character is far more oriented toward adventure than toward the *purgative* aspect of drama seen in J.K. Rowling's famous character.

I will note in passing that it is possible for different iterations to change a given character in terms of his mythic alignment.  An example appears here on You Tube, a 5-minute Wonder Woman pilot commissioned by producer William Dozier after the success of the BATMAN teleseries.  IMDB describes it thusly:

'At the height of the popularity of "Batman" (1966), producer William Dozier produced this short film in hopes of getting approval from Warner Brothers to produce a pilot episode for a "Wonder Woman" series, based on the comic book. Unlike "Batman," which was campy adventure, "Wonder Woman" was going to be a straight comedy series, along the lines of "Captain Nice." The resulting short written by several writers on the Batman series failed to win Dozier that approval.'

It's interesting that the synopsis-writer makes the same distinction I did above, to the effect that an adventure with comedic touches is not the same as a "straight comedy," oxymoronic though that phrase may sound.

There are perhaps more impressive examples of mythos-shifting than this unsold pilot, of course.  The late Don Markstein's TOONOPEDIA chronicles one example in Dick Briefer's Golden Age FRANKENSTEIN feature, noting how Briefer's version of the famous monsters started out with serious undertones (what I'd probably label "drama"), then shifted to comedy for a time, and then back to a serious theme before the feature perished.  This degree of change might encourage some critics to scoff at any attempts to schematize such a character, precisely because he and his author could shift in approach that much from year to year.  But I reject that as a know-nothing approach to the problems of categorization.

I term my solution to this problem the "51 Per Cent Solution."  In business dealings we're accustomed to hearing that a stockholder with 51% of a company's stocks has the greatest advantage, though not an unqualified dominion.  Thus, if one wished to determine the dominant mythos of the Briefer work, one would count up the total number of stories and determine which mythos-type was statistically dominant.  Only an unqualified 50/50 split between mythoi would make such a determination useless, but the paucity of these exceptions proves the rule: most creators start with a given mythos, make only token shifts to other mythoi, usually proving "loyal" to a particular emotional *dynamis.*

The same rule can be adapted for use in determination of the more limited categorizations that we call "genre," and my next essay will explore such genre-divisions in response to another online fan's genre-dicing endeavors.

CORRECTION TO EARLIER STATEMENT: Apparently it was only the link I tried that was bad:

Monday, April 9, 2012



Taking the two statements together, it seems not unreasonable to hypothesize that in narrative fiction "the perfect agreement of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality" accords with the idea of a reader's investment in the narrative's events as if they arouse straightforward "concern or sympathy." However, if events in the narrative undermines the reader's investment because they seem incongruous, then the reader, while not necessarily losing all "concern and sympathy," is moved to a humorous reaction, which may vary along a wide spectrum of affects from the deep belly-laugh to the more intellectualized "I laugh that I might not weep" response.
By the conclusion of this essay-series I hope I've made clear that my term for the "agreement" of readers' concerns with the concerns of fictional characters can be subsumed under the term "conviction." 

Correspondingly, I need to clarify that the degree of conviction of readers toward a given mythos does not imply any superiority or inferiority of that mythos to others.  Though I do believe that the adventure mythos involves the greatest such degree-- perhaps because it is, as Frye observes, the closest in structure to a "wish fulfillment dream"-- this does not make that mythos superior to drama, irony or comedy (though there have been no shortage of false critics willing to place adventure at the bottom of the artistic totem-pole).  The entire concept of dynamization, which underlies the emotive context derived from conviction, is posited on a pluralistic ethos:

"Dynamization," however, does work as a term for what the reader of a given work perceives to be happening within him, whether he seeks for unearned or earned gratification.

This perceived dichotomy as to what types of dynamization are or are not approved in society and culture-- with some being viewed as "earned" and others as "unearned"-- is well glossed by Frye's essay "Mouldy Tales," which I covered in this essay.

Frye goes on to point out that because the more "realistic" forms of literature foreground what he terms (following Freud) "the reality principle." Thus even though tragedies like MACBETH and ironies like THE CASTLE (my examples) have a certain storytelling verve to them as well, there's a sort of proto-critical experience one generally has while experiencing them.
This "proto-critical experience" Frye describes doubtlessly influences my conviction about conviction: that, for instance, the same subject matter in an adventure-story, which may be accepted in terms of the *invigorative* emotion it conjures, may be examined more critically in terms of a drama, where the dynamizing emotion is *purgative* in nature.  Thus the original Hamlet stories of the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, taking an adventurous approach, present the hero as cleverly pretending madness as a ruse to deceive his enemies.  Shakespeare transforms this notion into a critique of Hamlet's own rational mind and of his responses to his father's murder-- and in so doing, signals that the reader must be more critical toward Hamlet than Hamlet is.  Whereas in the adventure-themed folklore story of Hamlet the evil can be cast out without harm to the society, in a drama the hero is implicated in the evil and is "purged" no less than the villain.

Following the Gasterian scheme outlined here, in the next artistic/expressive stage, that of irony, becomes critical of all experience in the world itself, and thus we enter a *mortificative* stage, in which the reader realizes that he must pull back from identification with a world " in which all human efficacy is missing, and all passion spent."  And yet, precisely because one cannot remain in this spiritual darkness indefinitely, the next cyclical stage is that of the *jubilative* emotion, which dominates the comedy-mythos and puts the reader back on the track of identification, though I argue that the degree of conviction is at its "lightest" simply because there remains a sizeable gulf between "the reality principle" and "the fantasy principle"-- one that is efficiently eradicated when the cycle goes back to the adventure-mythos, in that the protagonist's desires are made real not by dumb luck but by skill and hard battle.

Frye believes that the "proto-critical experience" critics derive from the drama and the irony explains much about why they are more respected in works canonical criticism than either comedy or adventure.  I disagree with this slightly. It's true that the comedy is often rated as less respectable than the irony or the drama, BUT it still gets better critical plaudits overall than adventure.  Indeed, I'm aware of no critics who have accused comedies of being advertisements for fascism, as one regularly reads from critics as diverse as Frederic Wertham and Frederic Jameson.  (Hmm, is there something about the name "Frederic" that encourages this tedious trope?)

I've invoked Theodor Gaster already, and I'll do so again in respect to the "less critical" and "more critical" aspects of literature:

...Gaster introduces two Greek terms that identify how the respective rites work. Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.
I believe that the drama and the irony are more popular with canonical lit-critics (or those who aspire to be like them) not just because they offer a supposed opportunity for critical thought, but because the process of *kenosis* is one that seems to be more "tough-minded," because it puts the reader in the position of being increasingly divorced from the fictional heroes' interests.  Consequently, adventure and comedy smack of that other William James-ian term, the "tender-minded," simply because it's popularly assumed that the readers of such works are identifying outright with the interests of the protagonists.  There's some justice in this; however, I maintain that the level of conviction in the comedy is still in its "lightest" phase, and for that reason the comedy still appeals more to the canon-minded critic than the heavy investment of the adventure-mythos.

Now, I'm not contradicting the earlier-expressed notion that the comedy is characterized by *plerosis,* the feeling that new life is filling the imaginal community.  But it does so precisely by appealing to a different species of "wish fulfillment" than that which underlies its plerotic kindred: the adventure-mythos.

By exploring the possible reasons as to why different types of dynamization are accepted or rejected by non-pluralistic critics, it becomes possible to transcend these elitist tendencies.  To some extent this transcendence has manifested in contemporary critical sites like SLAYAGE, wherein critical investigation of an outstanding adventure-themed work, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, receives as much treatment as any dramatic or ironic work.  Of course BUFFY may be an exception in that, as I noted here, it manages to tap into the dominant dynamizations of the other three mythoi in varying degrees.  But it's a hopeful sign nonetheless.