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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...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF DEATH

In ESCALATION PROCLAMATION I wrote:

Though I specified in NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE PT 2 that narrative conflict did not require literal violence, narrative violence does have a potential, beyond that of any other literary device, for escalating the immediacy of the conflict...To be sure, narrative violence only has this potential when it is repeated within the narrative. A single violent act, such the sort of unsolved killing that initiates most murder-mysteries—including two of Poe’s three efforts in that genre—merely serves to incite the average reader’s curiosity. What incites that reader’s deeper identification is the repetition of violence. Through repetition of violence, the reader’s potential fears for the story’s characters are escalated. Which character may die next? Can the hero save the next victim from the villain’s machinations?

 
Having meditated for some time on the many ways in which violence escalates reader-tension through repetition, I've formulated two repetition-modes which are not confined to violence as such.  The two modes also apply to the other best-known principle whose main appeal to the kinetic senses, that of sex, and they might also apply to other facets of narrative storytelling: the dramatic interaction of characters, the thematic association of various thoughtful analyses, and others to be named later.  These two repetition-modes I term the VARIED and the UNVARIED.

I should add that this blogpost also touches on the theme raised with regard to the "goal-affects" of persona-types at the end of NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE 2:


...I am not saying that concrete goal-affects do not appear in hero-villain narratives. Maybe the Joker sends Batman a mocking note so that Batman will come chase him, but clearly the Penguin would rather get away with the loot rather than tilt with the Caped Crusader again.
 
Just as it's possible for heroes or villains to be consciously motivated by concrete goal-affects, even though their basic nature suggests the abstract quality I term "glory," it's just as possible for a monster or a demihero to appeal consciously to abstract goal-affects such as fame, even though their basic nature inclines toward the quality of "persistence."  In EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS 4  the Baron Frankenstein of Hammer Studios' CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN appears to want the "glory" of scientific fame, but analysis of the narrative shows that his character reflects rather the "instinctive will" of the monster-persona. Thus it will be seen that even though the two examples here use some of the same strategies for working evil, those strategies do not make them equivalent personae.

The earlier of my two examples appears in BATMAN #1 (1940).  In the first appearance of the Joker, the villain's modus operandi deals with him constantly dealing out death to many victims, whether they are rich men who possess priceless gems or authorities who have harried the Joker in the past.


Throughout this story the Joker only uses one UNVARIED weapon for his ritualized murders: a drug that causes its victims to perish with a rictus-smile on their lips (currently called "Joker-Venom" in the DC canon).  True, when chased by lawmen the villain may resort to a gun or a knife, and he does distribute the death-drug in a variety of ways: a poisoned dart, a cloud of gas.  But in this introductory story, the Joker is almost a one-trick pony, making his mode of repetition an UNVARIED one.

In contrast, consider the monstrous Doctor Phibes of two Vincent Price films of the early 1970s.




In these two films, Phibes uses a VARIED number of traps and device to execute his victims, some based on the "Ten Plagues of Egypt."  In the photo above he's using a device to drain all the blood from one victim, but his methods are diverse, including crushing a man's head with a mechanical mask, stabbing another with the horn of a (sculpted) unicorn, exposing another to scorpions, and so on.

Now the distinction I want to make is that even though the initial Joker-outing and the two Phibes films all intrigue the reader with escalating levels of violence, one does so by simply repeating essentially the same murder-method, while the other gives extra "spice" to death by introducing variety.  Thus in the PHIBES films the audience's intrigue may also be escalated by wondering what new death-device Phibes will introduce next.

Of course the Joker didn't remain a one-trick pony in later iterations.  I haven't tried to trace his development into a user of diverse gimmicks for battling justice.  However, the 1952 story "The Joker's Utility Belt" almost certainly takes pride of place.



From the 1960s on, the Joker would continue to be defined by his gimmicks, which either dealt out death or could incapacitate enemies so that he could kill them if he chose-- though usually, being the Joker, he had to try the old death-trap schtick, which also qualifies as a VARIED mode of repetition.

 

 More later.

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