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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...

Monday, March 4, 2013

EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 4


In Part 3 I contrasted two teleseries—LOST IN SPACE and THE LOST WORLD-- which shared the same base concept—a group of castaways journeying through strange worlds, often obliged to help others in keeping with a dominant moral outlook of Good Samaritanism.  I did so to clarify that the differences between the personas of “heroes” and “demiheroes” are not determined by what they do, but how they do it.

The emphasis on "what they do" is one I've started calling “the recipe mentality.”  Vladimir Propp’s folktale-morphology, which I’ve admired hugely, is one example of this mentality.  For Propp the difference between his two types of protagonist, the “seeker” and the “victimized hero,” is a difference based in their orientation in terms of folkloric plot: one is largely active, the other is largely passive.

I admire Propp’s intent, to focus on the bare rudiments of narrative as closely as possible, presumably to avoid imposing some heuristic vision of his own upon the original materials. However, some time ago I realized that in popular fiction at least, there was no clear division between such plot-based actions, and I doubt that one exists in folktales either.  LOST IN SPACE and LOST WORLD are two serials with essentially the same premise, but their respective protagonist-ensembles combine, in varying proportions, the actions of Propp’s “seekers” as well as his “victimized heroes.”  In terms of dominant plotlines, I would have to say that more often than not the ensembles are placed in the position of the “victimized heroes,” in that trouble usually seeks them out rather than the other way round. Still, the Proppian distinction doesn’t capture the difference in character-attitude, which might be fairly deemed a failure of Propp’s analysis (one attacked in general terms by J.R.R. Tolkien, as mentioned here).

A parallel difference in character-attitude must also be the determining factor between the personas of the villain and the monster.  I’ve observed in past essays that some critics have tried to see the persona of “the monster” as applying only to creatures that seem without “motives, ambitions, or soul.”  In CREATED AND CREATOR ENSEMBLED HE THEM I gave evidence as to why even a very intellectual type of character, such as Wells’ Doctor Moreau, could still be a “monster.”  This reasoning also applies as to what qualities would separate Moreau’s monstrous nature from the nature of a “villain” who might employ the same modus operandi, that of making animals from men.  At some point I may try to make a direct comparison between Wells’ Moreau and some more villainous version of his type.  For the time being I’ll illustrate my “villain/monster” divide with reference to two of the most famous “mad scientists” in popular literature, Victor Frankenstein and Doctor Fu Manchu.

When this opposition occurred to me, I realized that it might have been awkward to compare the original novel-characters.  Mary Shelley’s mad scientist (who technically never becomes a licensed doctor) begins and ends within the scope of one novel.  Sax Rohmer’s “devil-doctor” seems to have been intended as a serial character from the beginning.  To keep the parallels closer, I decided to examine how each character was constructed in terms of works that were both intended as ongoing serial works.

I’ve now reviewed only the first entries of the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN series and the Harry Alan Towers-produced FU MANCHU series.  Both serials starred British actors and focused upon characters created by British authors.  The Hammer series debuted in the late 1950s and lasted sporadically until the early 1970s.  The Towers series debuted in the middle 1960s and lasted only about five more years, and arguably it coattailed on the success of the Hammer horror-films, since the Fu Manchu series starred an actor made internationally famous by his assocation with Hammer.  The Hammer Frankenstein series is well regarded in some critical circles, while Towers’ Fu Manchu films are generally beneath any critical radar.  But for my purposes, the serials’ most important point of comparison is how each uses the “mad scientist” trope.

The Shelley novel devotes considerable time to Frankenstein’s backstory, and Rohmer’s novels build up a complex if indirect portrait of Fu Manchu’s character.  Neither THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN nor THEFACE OF FU MANCHU delves into motivation, however.  As I remarked in my CURSE review, the only motivation Victor Frankenstein has for his experiments is that he is a “precocious child of privilege” who also happens to be a genius and wishes to prove it.  Towers’ Fu Manchu doesn’t even get this much.  Nayland Smith describes the devil-doctor as “the most dangerous and evil man in the world,” and that’s the only motive needed, with Towers eschewing even the minimal political motivations of the novels (i.e., Fu Manchu may have been a product of China’s Boxer Rebellion).

Nevertheless, even with spotty depictions of character, it can be demonstrated that of the two characters—both devoted to a consciensce-less pursuit of science for personal gain-- one of the two conforms to the persona of the monster, and the other to that of the villain.

I indicated in EXPENDITURE PT. 3 that LOST IN SPACE’s characters were characterized by the value of “persistence.”  The characters in that series comprised a family whose primary concern was one of homeostasis; the ability to survive from day to day while allowing the children to mature under the best achievable circumstances. In the Shelley novel Victor Frankenstein—whom I would view as the demihero counterpart of his monstrous creation—also seeks a homeostasis, but in a thoroughly negative sense. Threatened by the agency of other people, Frankenstein subconsciously wants to be a community of one, and so allows his monster-doppelganger to kill all those that threaten his solitary hegemony.



The Victor Frankenstein of CURSE extends this scientific preoccupation to Sadean proportions.  Like his novelistic forbear, Hammer-Frankenstein becomes the prisoner of his own idée fixee, but the Hammer version is much more calculatingly cruel than Shelley’s original.  Whereas the novel version agonizes over his love for his cousin Elizabeth, Frankenstein barely wants his beauteous cousin in his life. At most he consents to marry her for societal convenience, though he may also be aware that his tutor Paul loves her, and so wants to keep Elizabeth around in order to manipulate Paul.  Sex for Frankenstein is an itch that he scratches with his convenient maid Justine.  When Justine has the temerity to get pregnant, Frankenstein has no interest in the fact that she carries his child, and he sets up the mother of his child—and his child—to be killed by his captive creature.  As I pointed out with regard to Doctor Moreau, the negative manifestations of the demihero—dominantly a positive persona-- are never as extreme as those of the monster, a persona statistically dominated by a negative nature.  Like Moreau, Frankenstein prates about having his genius recognized by others, but neither of them really cares about fame.  They exist to unleash the dark forces of their respective obsessions, and their genius-intellects are merely the vehicle for those obsessions.  The voice of a more humanistic side of genius is heard early in the film, before Baron Frankenstein harvests the genius’ brain for his obscene creation:   


“… we [scientists] quickly tire of our discoveries.  We hand them over to people who are not ready for them—while we go off again into the darkness of ignorance—searching for other discoveries, which will be mishandled in just the same way.”—Doctor Bernstein, courtesty of CURSE scribe Jimmy Sangster.


I don’t think it’s coincidence that scribe Sangster associates the productions of science with the delving into “the darkness of ignorance.” Normally one imagines science as a light that dispels ignorance, but Sangster’s Bernstein sees it as unleashing dark forces in a human community ill-prepared for such revelations, while those doing the unleashing are no less prisoners of their own obsessed psyches.  Thus science, rather than dispelling darkness, merely allowes it to propagate new forms, like Frankenstein’s monster.  Thus the intelligent genius of a Frankenstein conveys the same value of a “negative persistence” that we see in unthinking monsters like Leatherface or the Blob.


I said earlier that Hammer-Frankenstein’s obsession had been extended to Sadean proportions.  By that I meant that his cruelty is more deliberate than that of the demihero-protagonist of the Shelley novel.  However, it’s a cruelty that is largely reactive to circumstances, like the threat Justine poses to Frankenstein’s operations.  True Sadean sentiments are proactive; they seek cruelty for its own sake, not simply to achieve homeostasis.


The Towers Fu Manchu, as I noted earlier, shows no political motivations in his desire for world domination.  The Fu Manchu of the Rohmer novels dreams an impossible dream, seeking the return of the hegemony of ancient China in the face of European dominance and (in the later novels) in opposition to Chinese Communism.  True, since Towers’ Fu Manchu is served mostly by Asian aides—his Chinese daughter, his dacoits, who strangle people with their “Tibetan prayer scarves”—one presumes that if Fu Manchu achieved world conquest, the result would be a world with Asians on top. So the threat of the “Yellow Peril” is still one of Asian hegemony, even though Towers tries to stay away from real-world politics.   

       

Whereas Frankenstein’s senseless ambition merely stems from the “negative persistence” of his own ego, Fu Manchu’s mad science is informed by “negative glory.”  Admittedly, the Towers Fu Manchu doesn’t seem to defy history quite as much as the Rohmer character does with his passion to revive dynastic China.  Still, Fu’s central plan might be deemed a pre-technological take on nuclear brinkmanship.  He eschews dirtying his hands with modern technology; Fu wants to destroy Western hegemony with a natural weapon born in the remote wilds of the East, specifically Tibet. Today modern audiences would never place credence in a death-drug brewed from some rare Eastern flower.  These audiences have too much belief that the next source of chemical warfare will come from some terrorists’ laboratory.  Such weapons, even if conceived by Eastern enemies of the West, would still be a continuation of Western science, but would not be the exclusive properties of the mysterious East.


Because of this primitivist urge, Towers’ Fu Manchu still carries the aura of Satanic defiance, of purposefully transgressing the norms of society, as all good villains must. Monsters, in contrast, usually transgress norms without as much conscious intention, or else by using some false rationale, as do mad doctors like Moreau and Hammer-Frankenstein.  Thus Fu Manchu is also a Sadean in the true sense of the word, in that he desires power for its own sake—though in FACE it is his daughter, rather than the devil-doctor, who shows a desire to take erotic pleasure in cruelty.  


I must note in closing that in the first Towers Fu Manchu film, the devil-doctor isn’t seen showing off his own scientific genius as Victor Frankenstein does in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  In FACE OF FU MANCHU the evil genius allows other experts to brew the death-drug of the Black Lotus, and one never sees his own perfidious inventions.  However, later Towers entries do show Fu Manchu conceiving weird weapons of his own, so I would say that the Black Lotus peril of FACE is still evidence of Fu’s scientific aegis, even if he has others doing the work for him.  Certainly he comes across as more of a wonder-worker in FACE than he does in MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, where he just knows a few exotic poisons. 


Even the endings of the respective films differ in their presentations of “persistence” and “glory.”  CURSE ends with Frankenstein about to go to the guilloutine, but since the film proved successful, Hammer’s producers found a way to show that the baron escaped execution so that there could be further appearances of Peter Cushing’s obsessed scientist.  FACE OF FU MANCHU starts from the other extreme: Fu Manchu appears to die in the film’s first scene, but his nemesis Nayland Smith still imagines that he lives despite being beheaded.  Nayland Smith eventually figures out how the evil doctor pulled off the trick, and attempts to kill Fu Manchu in the film’s final scene.  But Fu Manchu implicitly survives any and all devastating dooms levied upon him, due to the villainous glory attaching to him.  Hammer’s Victor Frankenstein also persists from film to film, destined to come up with a new monster each time.  But Frankenstein never becomes a glorious figure.  No matter how many innocents die for his experiments, he, the wandering monster, is arguably more pathetic than any of them—as I hope to show with further examinations of the Hammer series.

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