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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...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

COMBINATORY CONSIDERATIONS

"[The Flash's] villains were rogue personifications of scientific forces: thermodynamic (Heat Wave, Captain Cold), optical (Mirror Master), meteorological (Weather Wizard), sonic (the Pied Piper), gyroscopic (the Top), chemical (Mr. Element)... Chemical reactions wrre acted out as drama, while physics lessons could become dreams of velocity and romance."-- Grant Morrison, SUPERGODS, p. 83. 

This is one of the better insights to appear in Morrison's sprawling, somewhat repetitive defense of the superhero genre.  While I approve of his goals, I don't think he goes quite far enough.  Given that I seem to be comics' only "myth critic," one might anticipate that I would find the lack of attention to that subject rather glaring.  Morrison's evocation of myth-related tropes like the one above lacks the sort of critical underpinnings one can discover in a mythographer like Joseph Campbell when he points out parallel themes in archaic myth. In Chapter 2 of the book MYTHS TO LIVE BY, Campbell asserts that two factors that promote the "shaping of mythologies" are the individual subject's consciousness of death and his concomitant realization that the society into which he is born is relatively "immortal" by comparison.  He then observes:

... there is a third factor, furthermore, which has everywhere exerted a pervasive influence on the shaping of mythologies, a third range and context of specifically human experience, of which the developing individual becomes inevitably aware as his powers of thought and observation mature, the spectacle, namely, of the universe, the natural world in which he finds himself, and the enigma of its relation to his own existence: its magnitude, its changing forms, and yet, through these, an appearance of regularity. Mankind's understanding of the universe has greatly altered in the course of the millenniums -- particularly most recently, as our instruments of research have improved. But there were great changes also in the past: for example, in the time of the rise of the early Sumerian city-states, with their priestly observers of the heavenly courses; or in that of the Alexandrian physicists and astronomers, with their concept of an earthly globe enclosed within seven revolving celestial spheres.

Nowhere in the book does Campbell invoke any intellectually-formed concept of the "sublime."  A quick Google search affirms that he did use it as a formal term elsewhere, but I'd venture to say that he never made this concept central to his hermeneutic project.  He does address Kant elsewhere in MYTHS TO LIVE BY, so when he speaks of existence having "magnitude," Campbell may have had some notion of Kant's "mathematical sublime" in the back of his mind.  But I don't believe Kant's CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT addresses the sublimity of nature in terms of "its changing forms." The only time something like this phrase appears is in Kant's discussion of "the beautiful," the opposite of "the sublime," and he does loosely associate it with a type of "regularity" that isn't stifling or tedious:

All stiff regularity (such as borders on mathematical regularity) is inherently repugnant to taste, in that the contemplation of it affords us no lasting entertainment. Indeed, where it has neither cognition nor some definite practical end expressly in view, we get heartily tired of it. On the other hand, anything that gives the imagination scope for unstudied and final play is always fresh to us.


And later in the same paragraph:

It is just as when we watch the changing shapes of the fire or of a rippling brook: neither of which are things of beauty, but they convey a charm to the imagination, because they sustain its free play.
Campbell speaks of a more "cosmic" form of regularity, as with the "heavenly courses," though I would assume that it applies to other forms of somewhat predictable earthly phenomena, which he views as belonging to his "cosmological" function.  But as I'm concerned not just with archaic myth but also with all common factors between myth and literature, I've chosen to exclude Kant's "mathematical sublime," which principally applies to natural phenomena in the JUDGMENT, in favor of a "combinatory sublime," first put forth in this essay.  a sublime affect brought about by the potentially dazzling array of "changing forms."

In my last essay I commented how baffling I find it that many fans and critics like to pretend that they exist back in the 1930s, when many perceived the existence of an illimitable gulf between Great Art and mere trash.  Similarly, I'm amazed that Morrison seems to be one of the few practitioners of superhero comics who can appreciate that one of the genre's main strengths is its ability to transmute simple cosmological facts of existence into "dreams of velocity and romance."  More often most critics only focus upon the genre's use-- and abuse-- of the appeal of "might."  But of course they have no clue as to its effects in terms of the Kantian sublime; they're only interested in critiquing the genre in terms of being about nothing but "two bozos hitting each other."  Morrison at least is aware that the genre has other aspects beyond that of combative violence, though it will take a better organized book than SUPERGODS to address those aspects.


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