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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...

Friday, August 30, 2013


I'll have to put off further analysis of modern critics for now, but want to touch on Chapter 12 of Kauffman's book, in which Kauffman engages with the concepts of cognitive science.

Given Kauffman's opposition to reductionist paradigms, it's a given that he opposes the paradigm of cognitive science, though not without admitting that it has had some successes in the experimental realm.  In my few meditations on the paradigm, I've also admitted that cognitive science-- the science that investigates the human brain on the model of a "problem-solving computer"-- has had some limited applicability.  In LURKERS ON THE THRESHOLDS I said:

Ideological critics, by their nature, must depend on the narrow reductionism of Marxist aesthetics or of so-called "cognitive science." These tools are not without proper use within the total sphere of literary criticism, but they are useful only in limited sociohistorical circumstances, and are useless for understanding what Jung called the constructive or amplificative abilities of the human mind.

My distrust for cognitive science comes down to a simple philosophical disagreement rather than from an experimental stance.  To me, though there may be limited insights that may be gained from the brain-as-computer model, one cannot get around the fact that the brain is not a computer.  Any attempt to treat this paradigm as reality rather than as a limited model are based in the ideology surrounding materialism/positivism.

As one might expect, Kauffman's objections to cognitive science are more technically complex than this.  Again, I must admit that I do not have the expertise to accept or reject Kauffman's arguments, but I'll record some of them here for future comparison.

According to Kauffman, there are two "strands" of cognitive theory that have developed since Alan Turing's invention of the "Turing machine" in 1936.  One strand involves "attempts to understand symbol processing by the human mind" in terms of algorithms, while the second-- distantly derived from the 19th-century movement "associationism"-- is called "connectionism" and deals with the idea the "trajectories of states that flow through one another in sequence"-- that is, the progression of information along the body's neural paths-- are governed by "basins of attraction and attractors."  Kauffman then asserts that while both of these hypotheses are vital to cognitive science, they do not mesh:

The symbol-processing first strand... does not readily carry out the pattern recognition... that is natural to the connectionist view.  Conversely, the connectionist picture of basins of attraction and attractors has a difficult time accomodating the symbolc processing properties of the first computational strand.
It's possible that these competing paradigms are, as the saying goes, just different parts of the same elephant, whose entirety is difficult to descry through the dark glasses of reductionism.  In any case Kauffman's main purpose is to defend the complexity of the human mind, less in the terms of Jung-- whom I invoke above-- than of Wittgenstein. 

The end of this chapter looks forward to a new schema meant to incorporate quantum theory, as opposed to a schema based in the reductionist physics of Galileo and Company:

But must conscious mind be classical [i.e., "related only to classical physics"], rather than quantum or a mixture of classical and quantum?

When I finish the book, it may be interesting to mount a comparison between Kauffman's two models, "classical" and "quantum," and Kant's two species of imagination, "productive" and "reproductive." We-- or maybe just I-- shall see.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


First, though it has nothing to do with the main point of this essay, I want to acknowledge that the site NEWFRONTIERSNERD has recapitulated my DEAD-ALIVE HAND essays for readers of Portuguese.  My thanks for the acknowledgment.

Back to Stuart A. Kauffman's concept of a biology which is "partially beyond natural law," first addressed here.  Kauffman says:

How could the physicist 'deduce' the evolution of the biosphere?  One approach would be, following Newton, to write down the equations for the evolution of the biosphere and solve them.  This cannot be done.  We cannot say ahead of time what novel functionalities will arise in the biosphere.  Thus  we do not know what variables-- lungs, wings, etc.-- to put into our equations.  The Newtonian scientific framework where we can prestate the variables, the laws among the variables, and the initial and boundary conditions, and then compute the forward behavior of the system, cannot help us predict future states of the biosphere.  You may wish to consider this an epistemological problem, i.e., if only we had a sufficiently powerful computer and the right terms to enter into the right equations, we could make such predictions.  Later, when we get to Darwinian preadaptations, I will show that the problem is much more than epistemological; it is ontological emergence, partially lawless, and ceaselessly creative.  This shall be the heart of the new scientific worldview I wish to discuss.

I confess that though I've now finished the first eleven chapters of REINVENTING THE SACRED, quite a lot of Kauffman's arguments are technically over my head.  That is to say, I can grasp easily enough the rudiments of his arguments about the role of "autocatalytic processes" in the advancement of evolution, and why that seems to him a better explanation for evolutionary progress than, say, microbiology's search for "information genes."  However, I'm not qualified to judge the highly technical subject matter, so I have no idea as to what a microbiologist would say in defense of the information gene-search.  I will say that Kauffman's tone in debating is one of moderation; that he ceaselessly praises the extent to which reductionist science has uncovered valid scientific data, but always qualifies that praise by urging that he feels that there is relevant data that has been passed over due to the limitations of the reductionist viewpoint.  Kauffman's simple reasonableness is certainly to be preferred over the militant reductionism of a Richard Dawkins or a Karl Popper (and I was quite pleased to see Kauffman state his non-enthusiasm for Popper after I felt both Dawkins and Popper got off a little too easily in Michael Ruse's MYSTERY OF MYSTERIES, examined here.)

But even without my being a wizard of (mathematical) odds, I can state that one way in which Kauffman's "new scientific worldview" impacts on my literary project is that many if not all elitist critics show some degree of investment in the old reductionist schemas.

Indeed, all of the critics I surveyed in the DEAD-ALIVE series-- one of whom is admittedly not alive to defend himself-- show a reductionist orientation in the ways they relate to the creativity they find in popular fiction.  Noah Berlatsky likes WONDER WOMAN for its lesbian wingdings and its kanga-riding Amazons, but he sneers at mere pulp adventure.  Julian Darius likes thoughtful superhero sagas but turns up his nose at "simple escapism."  At base they still view the world of escapism, as Tolkien famously noted, as an avoidance of social and/or intellectual responsibilities.  This, I believe, is rooted in the idea that devotees of popular fiction are indulging in a simple "instant gratification" process, one that implies a reductionist view of the very experience of literary narrative.

More to come in Part 3.

Monday, August 26, 2013



Having finished my reread of Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS and judged it subcombative in terms of its narrative values, I promptly launched into a reread of Philip K. Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, which like the Heinlein book had been adapted into a film very much in the combative mode. Going on memories of previous readings I suspected that the Dick book would also prove to be subcombative, and I was correct, but for the opposite reason.

I probably will continue to use "subcombative" for any kind of conflictive mode that fails to execute both the narrative and significant aspects of the combative mode.  Yet, purely as an aside, I will note that technically "semicombative" would best describe works that actually contain combat in some form-- as with STARSHIP TROOPERS, ELECTRIC SHEEP, and others I've referenced in the past year-- both novel and film versions of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS,  the 1959 space-flick THE ANGRY RED PLANET.  "Subcombative" would probably best suit those whose conflict does not eventuate in combat of any kind, as with Shakespeare's MEASURE FOR MEASURE, or in which combat takes place "off stage,"as we see in Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE. 

I should expand here on my theme in PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX in this regard. In that essay I said:

Though it's possible that I'll encounter some exceptions, there seems no way to demonstrate the persistence of the narrative combative value unless there is some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax.
And a little later:

But as long as there has been some narrative plot-thread that leads inevitably to some sort of spectacular combat, it doesn't matter if the combat follows the dominant pattern is that of the hero overcoming the villain. In fact, though it's rare for a combative film to end in the defeat of the hero, it does happen, most memorably in 1982's BLADE RUNNER.

Since I believe that narratological principles must take in even the most wretched narrative works as well as the most exemplary, I applied the idea of the narrative combative value to the Paul Naschy horror-film THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI, and concluded:

On a closing note relating to my Theory of the Combative Mode, THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI would not conform to this mode, for though it does contain two monsters going at each other, the story presents their battle almost as an afterthought, rather than centering upon the encounter as would a combative story like 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.
I contrasted YETI to an even more terrible film in my review of 1971's DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN:

I had to think about whether or not to consider this a "combative drama," since I had dismissed THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI simply because there's no real build to the conflict between the two creatures in that film. But at last I decided that there is at least the suggestion of an escalating conflict between the vampire and the heir of Frankenstein, so "combative" it is.

Though I would freely admit that DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN doesn't do a very good job of providing a "narrative plot-thread that leads ineveitably to some sort of spectacular combat," it does a better job that YETI, whose title suggests some association between the titular beasts but, as I said in my review, spends most of the time focused on the depradations of a group of Tibetan bandits.  At least in the Adamson film the vampire and the manmade monster spend a fair amount of time in one another's company, thus leading to their combat-- and to be sure, the motives that bring about a fight between the Wolf Man and the Monster in the far better 1943 "monster-rally" film aren't overly complex either.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


I read USES [OF ENCHANTMENT] many years ago and thought it was a fair premise, albeit marked by a certain utilitarianism. While I would never deny that readers may internalize the subject matter of fiction so as to give the subject some personally-proactive theme, it's certainly not the principal quality of fiction, nor do I think most readers, children or adults, are thinking to themselves, even unconsciously, "How can I 'use' this?" Much of the charm of fiction, be it 'fantastic' or 'realistic,' resides in the way those elements most similar to everyday experience can be inverted, transvalued, or reinterpreted in assorted ways.-- me, BETTLEHEIM, BETTELHEIM, BETTELHEIM!

Mark Millar's remarks about rape, superficial though they were, stirred up what amounted to a pretty small hornet's nest, given that the swarm already seems to be settling down, to judge from the one or two comics news-sites I visit. 

Regarding Millar's original remarks, the only thing I had to add is that while he was correct to say that the act of rape could be used in fiction simply to denote "badness," he was incorrect to say that the act had no difference from (to use his example) a bad guy's decapitating a victim.  Various online critics, such as the one I cited in Part One, attacked Millar for not privileging the use of rape to connote the need for social and cultural reform.  This misses the point as to the universal-- i.e., non-political-- ways in which sex and violence overlap and yet remain distinct.  My own view, not reducible to pure utilitarian terms yet not irrelevant to those concerns, was expressed in the essays entitled VIOLENCE *AIN'T* NUTHIN' BUT SEX MISSPELLED:

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other, though in rare cases fighters may simply spar with no intent of proving thymotic superiority.
I want to make clear, too, that my objections to a utilitarian reading of violence are not confined to the arguments of those who don't like violence in certain contexts.  My quotation re: Bettleheim  shows that I'm equally opposed to the views of an author who saw violence in a positive light, because he too professed a narrow utilitarianism that overlooked the broader context of fiction: 

Much of the charm of fiction, be it 'fantastic' or 'realistic,' resides in the way those elements most similar to everyday experience can be inverted, transvalued, or reinterpreted in assorted ways.

The battle of these two equally utilitarian viewpoints is highlighted in THE BEAT's new cause celebre, two posts-- one closed to comments, one designed to exclude them from the first-- on the subject of Avatar Comics' use of torture-porn comic book covers.

Here's the first, in which author Heidi McDonald vents her spleen against Avatar for marketing "torture porn."  From her opening remarks she's apparently not the first to do so, but her politicized views are made clear at the conclusion of what is a pretty civil thread overall, replete with many thoughtful remarks about the nature of the horror genre:

...I’ll leave you with this: why does so much “horror” involve sadistic misogyny against women? And are you okay with that?

I've already refuted similar McDonald views here, so I'll confine myself to mentioning that she never responds to one poster's claim that Avatar tortures quite a few male characters as well.  Heidi then offers a summation of the controversy on her newsblog and elsewhere, with a pertinent link to an essay by Warren Ellis.

Ellis' defense of violent stories frames its argument in equally utilitarian principles, not unlike Bruno Bettelheim's defense of violent fairy tales. 

The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence. My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.

I don't disagree that violence in fiction CAN be used for this "conversation on violence."  My objection is that Ellis-- and the book editor he quotes-- are extending this potential use of violence further than it deserves to be extended.  Basically, Ellis simply attempts to turn the "desensitization" view of violence on its head: instead of making readers/viewers less sensitive to violence, violent fiction makes them more empathetic.

The truth is that violence can have either effect, and that the effect on the audience can be totally at odds with respect to the intent of the author.   In the terminology of Hume, the only "is" one can state with certainty is that most if not all human cultures are fascinated with fictional violence.  To impose any "ought" upon it, as Ellis does above, is mere wishful thinking, as is his claim toward the essay's conclusion that "fiction is how we both study and de-fang our monsters."  Camille Paglia is more forthright in this famous quote from SEXUAL PERSONAE, which grounds human behavior as a ongoing struggle between a fantasy principle and a reality principle:

We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


To believe that literature should mirror a desired form of experience, an "ought" rather than an "is," is Werthamism in its most obtuse manifestation.-- THE MYSTERY OF MASTERY PT. 4.

I've avoided the work of Mark Millar since my encounter with the fatuity of his graphic novel WANTED, but I can't help but be drawn into the firestorm of argumentation birthed by this remark from a New Republic essay about his influence:

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”

Up to now my only response to Millar's remark was on this ROBOT 6 post, wherein writer Corey Blake provides his take on the failure of the Big Two's efforts to expand their demographic:

And all of it, those remarks and the repeated embarrassments and failures at making comics for a different demographic, to me it has the subtext of “protect my superheroes.” As if making some superhero comics that might opt to not casually use rape as a villain’s character trait will take away the superheroes I grew up with.

Blake provides no justification for this "subtext," so I attempted-- without success-- to provide a different attitude toward the use of ultraviolence like Millar's that was not at all predicated on the idea of saving one's superheroes:

I for one don’t defend the presence of ultraviolence (whether in the context of rape or in other contexts) because I’m defending just “my” superheroes. I defend it on the same principle I defend both the Marquis deSade and Mickey Spillane, among others. I won’t defend Millar’s use of ultraviolence, because it sucks. But there are people who do it well, and some of them work outside Marvel and DC.  The undergrounds used to be far more physically transgressive than the mainstream. Maybe the modern inheritors of that tradition have got a little too “artsy” for their own good (if one defines “good” in terms of gaining publicity from transgressing boundaries).

Blake's confused commentary falls into one of two categories of responses to problems regarding the Humean dichotomy of "ought" and "is." This category, "Response #1," is one in which the subject merely ignores the fact of an existing situation-- what Hume calls an "is"-- in order to promote his vision of how things should be, his "ought."

Little as I like to defend Millar, there can be no doubt that rape *can* be used by a fiction-writer as a "horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy." Blake puts Millar's factual statement-- that rape can be used for a given narrative function-- in an unjustifiable context, as part of his (Blake's) suggeston that all such "rear-guard" (my word) statements by Millar and others somehow prove  that many Big Two creators are seeking to protect the "superheroes [they] grew up with."  And it's not just any superheroes, it seems, but a particular violent-- and violative-- phylum of superheroes that is presumably oriented only upon older readers.  I *think* Blake is saying that such ultraviolent superheroes are the type which creators like Millar and McFarlane experienced in their youth, but the point is unclear. To be fair, Millar in the New Republic article does indeed speak of being attracted to the "outrageous" quality of certain comics from his youth.

The second category, "Response #2," is more practical in that it tends to admit the existence of the "is" but to insist that it should be transformed into an "ought."  This response appears in the comments-section of this Heidi McDonald BEAT post, from commenter Mariah Heuhner, who takes interviewee John Romita Jr to task for having said that a certain scene in KICK ASS 2 was not a "rape scene:"

My issue with the answers here for the scene in Kick Ass is that it’s a quite a bit of a cop out to act like the direct implication of that scene, which is clearly that rape is about to happen, is automatically less or not problematic because the actual rape wasn’t shown explicitly. This is true, but we know it’s going to and it’s still being used, quite obviously, to show the villains are bad and not much else.

So Heuhner essentially agrees with Millar; rape can be used to serve this bare function. However, she evaluates the KICK ASS scene as a "lazy way to make someone evil," which is characteristic of "Response #2," which is to say, "Yes, this is the current status of the 'is' in question, but it 'ought' to be otherwise."  I have not read KICK ASS 2, or the earlier GN, though I did see the film adaptation of the latter.  I suspect I would agree with Heuhner in her evaluation of Millar's use of a rape-scene for "shock value."

I agree somewhat less with the statement she makes when she compares KICK ASS 2's use of rape with that of the Steig Larssen novel THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:

Further, the example of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo is interesting because yes, that scene is much more explicit in the book and film. But. It’s also not used merely to shock, it deeply informs Lisbeth’s character, but unlike a lot of rape scenes…does not define her and everything she is. Nor does it function to motivate a male character or just to establish her rapist as evil. Especially in the context of the series, it’s about much more than that, about entrenched misogyny, about a system that is deeply messed up, about rape culture, and about how Lisbeth’s navigates the world and deals with the things that happen to her.

I have absolutely no problem with Heuhner saying that she finds the latter use of rape to be more to her tastes.  However, though I have thus far found Mark Millar's work to be both lazy and clumsy, there are ways to use "shock value" correctly; ways that have nothing to do with examining "entrenched misogyny."  It's true that many creators use male-over-female rape-- which is of course only one possible permutation of that assaultive phenomenon-- as a device to motivate a hero, though there's no intrinsic reason that it can only be a male hero who is so motivated.  But as I've mentioned in other essays, even "shock value" can be used to establish basic moral values.  If Batman rescues a lone woman from a gang about to rape her, and beats the gang into putty, is this scenario ONLY about making Batman look heroic, as many would claim?  I can't speak for anyone else, but for me such scenes validate a moral imperative: that people who violate others should be punished.  I know that there is no Batman able to visit such punishments, but the scene works as a cathartic fantasy.  Structurally it's no different if it's Catwoman who comes to the victim's rescue, as one version of the character does in 1992's BATMAN RETURNS, though I can understand why a female reader *might* prefer the latter scenario as being more empowering.

On a related note, here's a rather famous excerpt from a scenario in which a male character avenges the quasi-sexual abuse-- though not one of actual rape-- of a female character by another male.  Is this scene nothing more than "shock value" alone, as Millar's may be?  Or does the quasi-rape of Mina Murray "define her and everything she is?"  I would say no to both rhetorical questions, but other readers' mileage may vary.

In summation, I remain suspicious of any intellectualized attempts to view a situation purely in politicized terms, no matter how well expressed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


In the physicist Murray Gell-Mann's definition, a "natural law" is a compact description beforehand of the regularities of a process.  But if we cannot even prestate the possibilities then no compact descriptions of these processes beforehand can exist.  These phenomena, then, appear to be partially beyond law itself.-- Stuart A. Kauffman, REINVENTING THE SACRED, p. 5.

I've only finished the first four chapters of Kauffman's book, but already I see some felicitious overlap between his school of theoretical (and philosophically elaborated) biology with (1) Ernst Cassirer's concept of separate "forms" that are not reducible to one another, and (2) my own literary theories regarding (a) the interstitital category of "the uncanny" and (b) the idea of "super-functionality," which in my system aligns with Philip Wheelwright's concept of "plurisignative" language.

One of Kauffman's theme statements, expressed in the introduction, deals with his refutation of the over-reductive tendencies of modern scientist, which Kauffman represents through a frequently referenced quote from Nobel prizewining physicist Stephen Weinberg:

All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.  

Kauffman dissents:

I shall show that biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right... Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe.  With agency came values, meaning and doing; all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. 

Since I have not finished the book, I won't recount Kauffman's logical proofs as to why the processes of biology, principally though not exclusively evolution, are not reducible to physics.  A quick summation would be that physics, stressing the randomness of particle motion, is incapable of explaining the development of what Kauffman calls "nonequilibrium physical chemical systems," that is, systems that maintain themselves in an active "doing" manner by taking in matter to function and grow.  Though this may sound to some readers like an endorsement of "intelligent design," Kauffman consistently denies the need for a supernatural creative force and advocates the concept of emergence, all elaborated through concepts of hard science. When the author starts explaining an obscure-to-non-scientists scientific principle like "chirality," I think it's a given that he doesn't belong in the New Age book section.

I won't dwell on the comparisons to Cassirer, except to say that Cassirer is noteworthy for having insisted that a form such as "myth" could not be reduced down to the concepts of theoretical, discursive knowledge.  What I find interesting is the phrase from the first quote, to the effect that the phenomena he describes-- by which he means a phenomenon like "natural selection," which "cannot be reduced to any necessary and sufficient set of statements about this or that set of atoms or molecules." 

In my essays on the NUM formula I've stressed the inadequacy of Tzvetan Todorov's system, which in effect recognizes only the world of "the real" and the world of "the marvelous," which is an imaginary offshoot/subset of "the real," in that the marvelous sets aside causality. Though Todorov uses the term "uncanny" to signify merely those works in which one does not know for a time whether marvels are real or not, I asserted that it should be used rather to denote those works that bend, rather than break, the rules of causality.  Works of "the marvelous" break with causality and works of "the naturalistic" remain within the causal domain, but "the uncanny" is a category "partially beyond law itself," in which "the law" regardling "the regularities of a process" is covalent with the laws of causality that impart a sense of regular phenomena to a reader.

The phrase "beyond law" does not connote for Kauffman-- any more than it does for me-- an escape from physical law, but rather from overly reductive concepts of physical law.  In a roughly similar manner, I find myself constantly defending the presence of "mythic" or "plurisignative" elements in popular fiction because the alternative philosophy -- that creativity matters only when it comes from the Right Side of the Tracks, i.e., Canonical-- or Would-Be Canonical-- Literature-- is a philosophy that seeks to reduce literature to a unitary set of formulas.  The self-serving viewpoint of a Clement Greenberg is a model that too many comics-critics choose to follow as a means of creating their own cloistered canons.  For myself, reading the work of Northrop Frye approximates the vision of a biologist like Kauffman, who is clearly fascinated the illimitable plenitude of biological possibilities; a plenitude that also compares well with Rudolf Otto's understanding of religion as containing an "overplus" that goes beyond emotions of fear and animal desire.

It's possible that as I read further in the book, Kauffman may disappoint me on some level.  However, I believe that my appreciation for the first four chapters will not be easily dimmed.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

This famous quote from Robert Browning's ANDREA DEL SARTO applies reasonably well to the distinctions I've been elaborating with regard to DYNAMIS VS. DYNAMICITY.

In a literary world the idea of a character possessing a certain capacity to "reach" for goals and, in theory, to bring them into one's compass compares with the narrative value of *dynamicity.*

"Grasp," however, is a limitation imposed upon the capacity to reach for goals, implicitly from "outside" the subject's compass. In my critical system this aligns with the significant value of the *dynamis* applied to either a narrative's plot or its central character(s).  This significant value, quantified via the term "stature," is assessed by means of determining the Fryean mythos with which the plot and characters align, while characters alone are further determined by what I called "persona-stature" in this essay.

"Reach," in contrast, I quantify in terms of the dynamicity-ratings, which I examined last in this essay. In that essay I dealt with the problem that even all characters rated as "x-types" could not be equal.  Obviously "Dream Girl" is not as powerful in a physical sense as most of the other Legionnaires.  Yet because her predictive power can be used strategically, to extend the "reach" of the Legion's adventures and their control over circumstances, her "reach" is equal to theirs, and so has the same narrative function.

In comic narratives, the adventures are meant to have comic stature, and so a hero's ability to display power may have the same "reach" as that of an adventure-hero, but his "grasp" will be very different.  Sometimes powerful heroes win conflicts largely by luck, as is usually the case with the Inferior Five.  Sometimes they win purely through superior dynamicity, even as adventure-heroes do, as we see with Popeye or Ranma Saotome.  Yet in comedies the means by which the hero triumphs are less important than they are in adventure-narratives, because for comedies the essential point is to be amusing in some way, rather than to provoke excitement.

In various essays on this blog I've cited other ways in which the narrative's mythos-affiliation affects a focal character's *dynamis.*  I haven't used *dynamis* as much to apply to the four personas, but as I've established that they are governed by the "outside expectations" of the audience, the term applies no less to the personas than to the nexus of plot and character described by Frye's mythoi.

In the EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS series I devoted considerable space to outlining the ways in which various personas differed from one another in terms of the types of "will" they incarnated: first contrasting positive hero-figures with positive demihero-figures in PT. 3 and then a negative villain-figure with a negative monster-figure in PT. 4.  But I didn't explore any of them in terms of dynamicity or dynamis.

The term "monster" is almost as ambiguous as "hero," since the former can applied to characters who fully incarnate the stature of the hero-persona, as with the Thing.

In this sense, the Thing "monster" status does not speak to the type of will he incarnates: only to his physical appearance.  However, the Man-Thing can be deemed a monster in terms of both physical appearance and his persona.  The Man-Thing acts as one generally expects a monster to act, perpetrating acts of self-preservation, leavened with bursts of unreasoning hostility.  Within his own title, his combative adventures belong to the mythos of drama, while the Thing's belong to the mythos of adventure.

When the two are joined in a team-up, it is the Thing's adventure-mythos that dominates, though this is in no way an inevitable development.

Their differing mythoi determines one aspect of each character's "grasp," even though, as their clash makes clear, they share the same *reach* of their dynamicity.  But their personas are a separate factor in terms of their *dynamis-statute.*  Swamp Thing, for instance, might be claimed by the Man-Thing's mythos of drama as well. But despite being another species of muck-monster, he bears closer relation to the Thing in being a generally "heroic monster," rather than a monster who does good due to contingent circumstances.  He has the grasp of a hero within the mythos of drama, while Man-Thing has the grasp appropriate to a monster in that same mythos-- so that the latter swamp-creature has less in common with Swamp Thing than with Doctor Frankenstein.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


At the end of the previous essay in this series I said:

In Part 2 I'll examine the demonization of the popular arts in more general terms, and the reasons why the elitists' vision of a heaven of artistic angels is just hell under another name.
First off I should qualify this by saying that their heaven would be a hell to me, and I suspect to many others.  This speaks to the nature of intersubjective realities, discussed here.  Thus my saying of Harvey Pekar's vision of "comics potential" would be a hell of suckitude does not in itself make his vision a hell of suckitude.  However, no relativism comes into play when discussing the bad logic of Pekar, or more recent examples of elitism like Berlatsky and Darius.

Of course, a hostile reader could always dismiss my logic because it contradicts some icon that he holds dear.  In PRIDE OF PREJUDICE 2 I pointed out that elitists' overvaluing of heavy thematics stemmed from their pride in their ability to discern such organizing patterns.

At base, the two have in common a particular kind of "pride": a pride in one's own ability to discern what aspects of literature are best-- aspects which are almost always oriented upon some intellect-based comprehension of some given subject matter. It could be argued that in so doing those guilty of this form of "pride" are guilty of Kant's pronouncement upon Leibniz, that of "intellectualizing phenomena."

Now, even though I find my own theory to be a perfect "marriage of heaven and hell"-- that is, an appreciation of the "angels" of thematic realism and the "demons" of thematic escapism-- it's quite possible that an opponent could turn my armchair analysis against me.  Indeed, somewhere or other Charles Reece asserted that the only reason one could have to equate myth with popular fiction would be to elevate the latter beyond its station; to make it more significant than it really is-- which one could interpret (though Reece did not say so) as another species of "pride."

I would not dispute this.  Everyone takes pride in his or her accomplishments, and everyone becomes defensive if the importance of said accomplishments are questioned.  At base, though, I'm not asserting that there's no value in seeking what I called earlier "the Big Important Themes."  In this recent essay I devoted a little time to specifying why I thought that filmmaker John Huston screwed the pooch on adapting the deeper themes of a Tennessee Williams play.  But I am asserting that escapist fictions, even when they lack the Big Important Themes, are a valid part of art.

Searching for mythic tropes in escapist fiction like SUPERMAN or THE SHE CREATURE, however, is a little more involved than just asserting, as Julius Darius does, that the hot new graphic novel has Deep Literary Themes.  If I'm dealing with a work whose creators were never substantially interviewed, then everything I assert about the symbolic discourse within the work must be framed in propositional terms, as with my examination of the aforementioned "creature feature:"

SHE CREATURE bears a perhaps coincidental resemblance to the legend of Simon Magus and Helen, as I recounted in my review of THE SILVER CHALICE. Lombardi is, like Simon Magus, a figure who combines aspects of the bonafide magician and the charlatan. In CHALICE as in some versions of the Simon legend, the magician travels with Helen, a “holy prostitute,” and Andrea’s presence at the carnival is explained early on when the barker says she was a “carnival-follower”— which is certainly just a new take on the traditional “camp-follower,” meaning a prostitute who followed army camps. Yet if Andrea was a prostitute, she’s still capable of falling in love and rebelling against the influence of Lombardi, and of using the violence of the “She Creature” to vanquish her personal demon.

Here I was dealing with a mythic trope that began in early folkloric stories of Simon Magus, which stories in turn begat both literal translations into fiction (the bestseller novel SILVER CHALICE) and hypothetical transformations into works having nothing to do with literally recounting the story of the archaic characters.

Does it imbue me with any degree of pride, if I feel that I've correctly identified a parricular archetypal trope?  Probably, but I feel that my approach is tempered by intellectual inquiry, as opposed to beating the drum for highbrow artistic respectability.  I know that even if I convinced a sizeable number of readers that SHE CREATURE possesses the mythicity I find in it, this would not lead anyone to regard the film as something other an escapist horror-story-- which, of course, it is.  This is, I believe, very different from Harvey Pekar trying to claim Jack Cole for the Angels of Art, when in fact, only Cole's level of skill separates him from a fellow practitioner of escapist fiction like, say, Joe Shuster.

Pride, whether intellectual or not, is fundamental to human experience, being, as William Blake says, "the glory of God."  But those full of intellectual pride ought to remember the next phrase in Blake's aphorism:

The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


In OPPOSING GHOSTS I cited one particular PLASTIC MAN story as an exemplar of what I considered to be artist Jack Cole's raison d'etre.  I did so because the late Harvey Pekar's COMICS JOURNAL essay "The Potential of Comics" misrepresented Cole's ouevre by claiming that it was only worthy of notice because it "satirized the costumed-hero idiom."

To those words Pekar added a qualifying phrase, "to some extent." That was a wise move, because if questioned over the matter he could have claimed that only some PLASTIC MAN stories had the satirical elements he deemed laudable.  There may indeed be isolated PM stories that would qualify as satire: indeed, in this essay I myself analyzed a particular PM story to show how it elaborated psychological anxieties into a wild fever-dream of clashing identities.  This story was not satirical or even particularly funny, but I'll admit that it showed an approach not typical of most superhero stories of that period.  All that admitted, I would still say that whatever "satirical" elements Pekar might have discerned in PM are well outnumbered by those that abide by many of the standards of the genre. 

In any case, being that I'm a pluralist, I must object to the critical implication that a superhero story is only praiseworthy when it's on the side of elitism's "angels"-- that is, tipping its hat respectfully to highbrow tropes or attitudes-- and that if it doesn't have these, it deserves to be consigned to the outer darkness of the "demons."

By way of further examining the case of the elitists, I'll look at another of Pekar's examples, one with a bit better grounding than his assessment of Jack Cole.  Of Frank King's GASOLINE ALLEY comic strip, Pekar praises his synthesis of "contemporary fine art and cartooning techniques."  And here Pekar is on stronger ground, for there were a handful of GASOLINE ALLEY strips where King is unquestionably emulating fine art, as in this 1931 Sunday page:

However, as far as his essay is concerned-- whose main rhetorical purpose is to prove that comics can fulfill Pekar's personal vision of creativity-- there's no relevance to the fact that GASOLINE ALLEY's long career is indebted not to a few experiments with fine-art techniques, but to King's mastery of the comparatively lowbrow "family comedy" genre, as seen in this 1933 page.

Possibly Harvey Pekar enjoyed these antics as much as other readers, but one can't tell from his essay.  Throughout this essay Pekar finds nothing to praise in any comics that is not some borrowing from or imitation of highbrow art or literature.  I'm still amazed that he twitted comic book writers for not being well-read in authors like Proust, given that I find it hard to imagine most of Pekar's favored comic-strip authors sitting around flipping through Flaubert.  We don't know why Frank King chose to play around with fine-art techniques for a few Sunday strips.  We do know that it doesn't seem to have been more than a short-lived flirtation, since he didn't continue doing so throughout his association with the strip.  The sitcom-like antics of the intertwined "Gasoline Alley" families seem to have been the thing that earned King his daily bread, but this was apparently too ordinary, too lowbrow, for Pekar to deem it of any importance in his lofty screed on comic-book potential. 

This would seem to be anomalous given that Pekar himself wrote about commonplace events in his own life and in the lives of people he interviewed-- though not that all such events were commonplace, as with Pekar's appearances on the David Letterman show.  But throughout the "Potential" essay Pekar privileges the element of "realism" in comics, and it may be that he regarded "sitcom-antics" as fundamentally "unreal," as formulaic.  One could argue that Walt Wallet and Skeezix experiencing a hallucinatory phastasmagoria isn't "realistic" either, but perhaps Pekar gave Frank King a pass on anything that purported to evoke highbrow artwork.

In Part 2 I'll examine the demonization of the popular arts in more general terms, and the reasons why the elitists' vision of a heaven of artistic angels is just hell under another name.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I hadn't seen the 1964 film THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA for over 20 years.  I had not read the Tennessee Williams play at the time, nor did I read it until very recently.  Having done so, I re-screened the film, directed and co-scripted by the famed John Huston.

What a difference a play makes.

Williams' play is a modern psychologized meditation on the same theme medieval poets called "the decision between Virtue and Vice."  In the medieval configurations, a man usually had to choose between feminine incarnations of Virtue, who offered heavenly redemption, and Vice, who offered sex, sex, and more sex.

The 1961Williams play-- not the last of his works, though probably the last one that became famous -- poises its central character, former Episcopalian priest Larry Shannon, between a feminine devil of sexuality and a "deep blue sea" of virginal forbearance which may or may not signify redemption.  Shannon gravitates toward Maxine the Loose Woman, but wonders whether or not Hannah the Virginal Woman, who devotes herself to a higher cause than family and propagation, could bring him peace.  Where another author might present these archetypes baldly, Williams provides a psychological grounding for Shannon's crisis of faith, in that he wants to believe in the "god of thunder" but despises the god of his parishioners, who in turn despise him for being a little more lusty than a priest ought to be.

The Huston film, however, totally deep-sixes the critique of religion that Tennessee Williams makes through Shannon.  By doing so, Huston's Shannon, played with loud brio by Richard Burton, is reduced to a guy who just can't dig why anyone would object to a priest having lots of sex with young women.

The film also splits the clarity of the "flesh vs. spirit" by building up Charlotte, one of Shannon's minor conquests from the play into a full-fledged character, in competition with Hannah and Maxine for the questionable prize of Shannon's soul.  To be sure, Charlotte-- essayed by Sue Lyon shortly after she gained fame in LOLITA-- has a more organic role in the film than the other two women, perhaps because Huston essentially makes her over.  In contrast, Williams' Maxine is made into a less formidable character than the Maxine of the play, and is made to fall in love with Shannon so as to provide the film with a happy ending.  Hannah becomes a figurative nun who is far more assured as to her mission in life than she is in the play: indeed, the ending to Williams' play is far more devastating not just for her but for Shannon as well.

Without going into greater detail than I want to here, I suppose one of Huston's problems was dealing with the demands of Hollywood filmmaking.  On the stage, even stars must in theory submerge their talents to the needs of the playwright's characters.  But in a Hollywood film, a big-name actress like Ava Gardner molds the character according to the expectations of the cinematic audience.

Allegedly Williams fought with Huston over the change in the ending in 1964, and when he met Huston again years later, told him once again, "You're still wrong."

Saturday, August 10, 2013


A follow-up post to DEAD-ALIVE HAND OF THE PAST PT. 3.  I posted an early version of that essay elsewhere; this is my response to another party's response.

I've certainly had the same experience you cite: you go back and reread something that held a lot of magic for you as a kid or a young teen, and as an adult you can't see it in the same light.

OTOH, I've also had the experience in which I go back to an early favorite like a Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR, and even though as an adult I'm aware of more flaws, I'm also aware of subtleties that the younger me missed. So I would say that while the youngster and the adult don't always see the same story, there are some important points of overlap. And those points IMO exist because youngsters and oldsters still desire a lot of the same things out of their fiction: they just desire them in different ways.

I stated it before, but let me emphasize that I don't expect younger critics to idolize earlier work. However, if they have a sincere idea to understand the roots of a genre like the superhero, IMO they need to adopt a methodology like that of the anthropologist: to understand something like THUNDER AGENTS in terms of how it tried to push "entertainment buttons" in its own time. This is hard to do without being reductive and condescending, but I think that it can be done.

Even if Grant Morrison isn't totally successful in translating a juvenile sense of wonder into adult terms-- and that lack of success itself is arguable-- to call it simply "reconstructionist" is the sort of thing that oversimplifies what's being done. The same thing applies to the use of "revisionist' as a mental shorthand for a view critical of genre conventions,. There's already a word for that: it's called "satire." The Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, however, doesn't really criticize genre conventions: it bends certain conventions in order to convince the reader that he's seeing a brand new realistic take on those conventions.

The idea of "revisionism," in other words, cannot exist without an appeal to verisimilitude. "In real life a superhero couldn't cash a check at a bank because he couldn't show his ID." "In real life a superhero would get his fancy cape stuck in a door and half kill himself." However, verisimilitude can exist quite easily without a revisionist attitude. The Silver Age GREEN LANTERN structures its hero's acquisition of powers with far greater attention to logic and motivation than one sees in the Golden Age GREEN LANTERN, where the hero just gets hold of a barely explained magic lamp and ring and then goes to town.

I can understand critics using specialized terms for periods of creativity. Maybe one could speak of a "reconstructionist" period in comics as academics speak of a "Romantic period" in poetry, even though none of the Romantic poets used such a name for themselves. But I felt Darius was taking his specialized terms too far, transporting them into the realm of abstract concepts rather than historical denotations.

Friday, August 9, 2013


I want to explore in greater depth my assertion in THE DEAD-ALIVE HAND OF THE PAST PT 4 that the late Harvey Pekar was guilty of, among other things, "rhetorical distortions."  Having re-encountered Pekar's simplistic take on Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN and Will Eisner's SPIRIT, I choose to demonstrate that Pekar had, at best, read carelessly when he claimed that these works were good because they "satirized the costumed-hero idiom to some extent."

On one comics-forum I elaborated:

Take the notion that the best way to do superheroes is to be "unserious" about them. Pekar wasn't the first to claim that Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN was a parody, or even a satire, of superheroes. Since I've read the first five ARCHIVES collections of the Quality PLASTIC MAN, I beg to differ. Cole and a handful of other raconteurs used a lot more humor in PLASTIC MAN than you might find in certain superhero features. But one can find a fair amount of humor in 1940s BATMAN and SUPERMAN stories too, which were after all dominantly aimed at kids. Now, if Pekar et al wanted to say that the humor in PM was better and more sophisticated, that would be a subjective judgment, but it wouldn't distort the facts. But Cole's PLASTIC MAN is not some MAD sendup of superheroes. Some of the villains are goofy or peculiar, but Cole is serious about the hero's need to bring them to heel, in a way that Kurtzman never could be. There's nothing funny or satirical about the scenes where villains commit cold-blooded murders; IMO Cole wants the reader to see PM deliver justice, just as the writers of BATMAN played to the same theme.

I think it sounds more "respectable" to say that Cole was being "unserious:" then guys like Pekar can claim Cole as one of their own.

On one level it's impossible to disprove Pekar's assertion because it's so spongy and insubstantial.  We don't know what elements of SPIRIT or PLASTIC MAN he considered "satirical," so it's impossible to demonstrate that he misinterpreted those elements.  All I can do is look at what I deem a representative Cole story with the character and show that, while it may possess humor, its primary purpose is not to satirize superheroes.

In the essay RAPT IN PLASTIC, I observed that Cole seemed "fascinated by violent and transgressive materials."  On a superficial level this may sound a great deal like the dominant attitude of the undergrounds that Pekar praises so fulsomely.  However, unlike most underground comics, Cole usually channels this transgressivity into his villains, which is by and large one of the most prominent tropes in "the costumed-hero idiom." 

Take the example of the villain Kra Vashnu, whose one story has been reprinted here by Cole-fan Paul Tumey on his blog Cole's Comics.  There's a certain amount of humor in the story of this mad mentalist, given that he can anticipate Plastic Man's attempts to capture him.  However, I would defy anyone to find satirical intent in this page:

There's not a lot of subtext here.  Kra Vashnu is a mean little twerp, who gruesomely finishes strangling his cheating wife in the first panel of the next page (rendered in shadow to reduce the grue).  EC stories of spousal murder sometimes cracked wise at the American ideals of the happy family and the Gospel of Getting Ahead, but there's only one level to the crime involved here: a murderer must be caught.  Plastic Man investigates, giving Kra the benefit of the doubt up to a point.  When the hero finally has the evidence he needs, he attacks Kra.  Again, there is comedy in the way the villain makes a monkey of the elastic avenger-- but no satire.

Most memorably, Plastic Man turns the tables on the escaping murderer by using his plastic powers to publicize the villain's distinctive face.  He then lures Kra into a second encounter, finds a way around his mental powers, and sends him to jail.  The story ends with a sort of gallows-humor, as Kra foresees the death-sentence, and the hero smugly remarks, "And that's positively the last time Kra Vashnu will perform in public."

As I noted above, it's my finding that Pekar has attempted to see the stretchable superhero story as something more than mere pulp entertainment, the better to claim the excellent work of the artist for the side of the angels.  In my next essay, I'll show why it's much better to find ways of seeing both the angels and the demons in all creators.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


It happened that I got into an argument about my low opinion of Harvey Pekar on a forum, so I hauled out a copy of COMICS JOURNAL #123 to peruse his essay "The Potential of Comics" for ammunition.  The essay appeared in 1988, which is, FWIW, about a year before I grew frustrated with the JOURNAL's intransigent elitism and quit submitting anything to the magazine.  In my view, Pekar's essay marked a lot about what was wrong with the JOURNAL: sloppy reasoning, self-aggrandizing elitism, and rhetorical distortions.  I wrote a LOC refuting Pekar's essay back in the day, but I have purposefully avoided rereading it, to keep this analysis from being determined by whatever response I made in 1988.

Before I address the Pekar essay, though, I will say that I've made this part of the "DEAD-ALIVE" essay-series because the other two subjects of my analysis, Noah Berlatsky and Julian Darius, make an interesting contrast to Pekar.  I've argued that both of these critics are overly invested in ideological readings of texts, but both show some appreciation for genre-comics if those works display some desirable content.  In the critical terms that I advanced here, this makes both of them what I've termed "content elitists." Pekar, however, is a "form elitist," in that he can only praise a genre-comic if it meets some criterion that he associates with the forms of highbrow art/literature.

Pekar's essay, a call for greater variety in the comics-medium, begins by assailing a quote by Charles Schultz.  In an interview Schultz pushed Pekar's buttons by saying, "Our medium will always hold us back.  The same way as a burlesque comedian can never be Hamlet."

Now, if Schultz's somewhat muddled argument was that the comics medium could approach no heights greater than those of a "burlesque comedian," then I would agree that the creator of PEANUTS was wrong about that.  Nevertheless Pekar attacks Schultz like a pit-bull, claiming that Schultz should have blamed his own limitations and that Schultz "trivializes his own insights" by incarnating real-life problems in the forms of "cute little kids who are drawn extremely simply."

I'll pass over the fatuity of this judgment, which was answered by various critics back in the day. Pekar then attempts to disprove Schultz's offhanded dismissal of the comics medium by presenting his own mini-history of the comics-medium, starting with "fine art" figures like Peter Breughel and William Hogarth and eventually working his way to the early comic strip-medium.  In keeping with his rhetoric, Pekar finds early comic strips typified by works that show the overall potential of the medium.  Pekar does not mention those extremely popular strips whose appeal lay the kind of simplicity Pekar dislikes in PEANUTS: there's no MUTT AND JEFF or BLONDIE in this mini-history.  Instead Pekar mentions only those strips that he believes "were aesthetically successful even judged by pretty rigorous standards."  Pekar does not expand on these "standards," but the strips he cites include most of the darlings of the form elitists: POPEYE, LI'L ABNER, GASOLINE ALLEY, and LITTLE NEMO, with a few dark-horse entries like ALLEY OOP and MOON MULLINS.

Now, many of these praiseworthy strips clearly owe their legacy to popular idioms, particularly LI'L ABNER, which was spawned by the hillbilly-humor subgenre, and POPEYE, a comedy-adventure strongly indebted to the burgeoning adventure-strips of the period, particularly WASH TUBBS.  But what Pekar is praising is those strips' apparent aspirations toward minority art, as when Pekar praises Frank King for his synthesis of "contemporary fine art and cartooning techniques."  Without such tony appeals to highbrow form, though, a comics-work holds no importance in Pekar's ledger.  This priority shows itself clearly in Pekar's overall dismissal of early comic books, because they did not follow such literary luminaries as "Melville, Dostoevski, Proust and Joyce," but pursued rather pulp authors like "Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Dashiell Hammett and Sax Rohmer."  Frankly I rather doubt that most of the comic-strip creators whom Pekar lauds knew Proust from a hole in the ground, any more than did the average comic-book creator. But comic strips gave the superficial appearance of being in tune with the highbrow arts, and so such comics serve as a rhetorical device for Pekar's views on the potential of the medium.  Notably, the only Golden Age superheroes Pekar praises are Plastic Man and the Spirit, because "both Cole and Eisner satirized the costumed-hero idiom to some extent."

To be sure, Pekar does trounce some of the sacred cows beloved of elitists, as when he finds the EC writers inferior to some of his favorites-- Elzie Segar, for one-- though he does not choose to cite any specific reasons for the latter group's superiority.  From the 1950s Pekar leapfrogs to the "mid-60s," focusing purely on the growth of underground comics.  It's not surprising that he has nothing to say about any developments in the popular idioms during that period, whether the innovations come from Jack Kirby or from John Stanley.  It may be a bit more surprising that he has nothing further to say about comic strips after the 1950s innovations of Schultz, Walt Kelly and Jules Feiffer.  Did comic strips somehow lose their "pride of place?"  It would seem so, for as soon as underground comics are mentioned, their catalogue of their glories takes up most of the rest of the essay, not without a mention of Pekar's own AMERICAN SPLENDOR, of course.

 Pekar does not really supply any logical arguments as to why any of the artists he names are superior, and his essay's rhetoric might have been better served by a focus on the work of one or two creators. At every turn he validates creators in terms of their highbrow credentials, as when he claims that "[David] Boswell is far more well read and better educated than the average comic book writer."  Finally, after spreading this cornucopia of quality before his readers, Pekar more or less winds up by discerning some "hopeful" signs in then-current mainstream publishers, thanks to their publications of the works of such authors as J.M. DeMatteis (when in concert with artists like Jay Muth and Mark Badger), Val Mayerick (a frequent collaborator with Pekar in the day), and Bill Sienkiewicz.

It was certainly Pekar's privilege not to like anything but works that either seemed to aspire to highbrow status or that mocked the inferiorities of mere popular idioms.  But like many other comic book elitists, he merely lists a catalogue of things that he likes and makes only a desultory effort to unify them under any sort of theoretical umbrella.  In the highbrow world Pekar so esteems, this would be a ridiculous way for any critic to practice criticism.

And, no matter what limitations the comics medium may or may not have, it's ridiculous in this sphere as well. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Upon closer examination of the dynamicity-ratings I explored in MEGA, MESO, MICRO PT. 2, I feel I should explore the differing phenomenalities of a given character's personal dynamicity and the dynamicity of the weapons he may control.

In the case of one example cited in the above essay, the heroic characters of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA-- Admiral Nelson being the foremost figure-- exist in a naturalistic continnum.  Although the show's time-period was set a few years in the future, the setting was not distinctly distanced from the real time in which the show was filmed.  Nelson, like the rest of the Seaview crew, was just an ordinary man, perhaps better trained in self defense than an average citizen.  This military training, however, did not eventuate in the sort of spectacular fight-scenes characteristic of combative narratives, so that I rate Nelson as "mesodynamic."  The weapons controlled by Nelson-- simple handguns on the personal level, the nuclear submarine Seaview itself-- are all of a naturalistic phenomenality.  The employment of these weapons on the teleseries is similarly subcombative in nature; most of the time the various menaces covet the submarine's nuclear weapons, but rarely are they employed to produce spectacular effects.

The representative character of Captain Kirk from the 1960s STAR TREK is a more mixed example. In the essay I rated him as "megadynamic" both in terms of his fighting-skills and his weapons.  However, Kirk's personal fighting-skills by themselves are also as naturalistic in phenomenality as those of the Nelson character. In contrast, the weapons Kirk controls, the weapons typical of Federation technology, are thoroughly marvelous in nature, as is his overall environment.

His costarring character Mister Spock is a pure marvelous type.  Not only does Spock have access to the same marvelous technology appropriate to his environment, but he himself possesses attributes that go beyond the limits of the naturalistic: primarily greater-than-human physical strength and his famous "mind-melding" power.

This raises an interesting question, however.  If a given alien character is constructed so that his bodily resources are no greater than those of a standard human being, then logically he should be deemed "naturalistic" in terms of personal dynamicity, even if his environment is a marvelous one, simply because he inhabits a marvelous universe.

I'd enlarge on some of these concerns as I follow up on some of the implications of my essays on causality and efficacy here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


In DEAD-ALIVE PT. 2 I came to this conclusion regarding Noah Berlatsky's championing of the Marston WONDER WOMAN over "pulp action heroes" like Superman and Batman:

I suspect what Noah likes is the "ideological" side of WONDER WOMAN, not the imaginative elements as such.
And in this June 2013 essay, Julian Darius makes his ideological priorities far clearer:

Marvels, Astro City, Supreme, JLA, Planetary, and The Authority — all of these were bright and unrealistic works that still demonstrated sometimes titanic literary merit, as well as asking meaningful questions. They were about something, rather than being the simple escapism that had generally preceded revisionism.

Toward the end of the essay Darius makes a minor qualification to his express view on "simple escapism:"

There’s nothing wrong with escapism per se. But there are times when escapism is part of the problem. When the gap between reality and our fictions is so great that it strains the conscience.

For the time being I'll pass over the obvious question as to who decides when "escapism is part of the problem," since I've already suggested my opinion of Darius' discriminatory powers here. My main concern with Darius' "Dark Realism" essay is that it advances quasi-literary terms that take in only fairly recent developments in the comics medium; terms that only make sense as a reaction against the so-called "escapism" of commercial comic books.  One, "revisionism," connotes the reaction against the status quo-- more or less what Darius calls "the State of Grace"-- in genre comics:

Revisionism opposed the concept of the State of Grace as something hostile to literary values and good stories. Revisionism embraced lasting change, whether it was replacing Flash, making Green Lantern a villain, marrying Superman, or letting characters like the Legion of Super-Heroes grow up.

This attitude, Darius claims, " effectively ended in the mid-1990s," and was replaced by a movement called "reconstructionism," a term which Darius credits to Kurt Busiek, at least in this particular context.  This term is a good deal fuzzier, but seems to be characterized by a "movement away from revisionism and its realism."

The obvious problem with such terms is that they are of limited application.  They can't be applied to anything that doesn't conform to the period when commerical comic books began to court a particular type of realism.

For instance, here's a key scene from AMAZING FANTASY #15.

Even before the reader knows that the main character is destined to become a superhero-- though he probably will suspect something of the kind-- the reader knows that this is a more "realistic" treatment of the situations faced by a nerd than one would have ever seen in the high-school adventures of Clark "Superboy" Kent.

So, if this and other Spider-Man stories of the period provide a comparatively "realistic" take on the contemporaneous expectations of the superhero genre, then by the bare bones of Darius's terminological definitions this should be a "revisionist" work.

On the other hand, there are certainly, even in this short tale, scenes that are meant to play to the contemporaneous notion of superhero comics as fun and escapist.  Surely the idea of a high-schooler being able to whip up spider-web weapons in the blink of an eye doesn't play to "realism." 


Therefore, if one agrees that the story is somewhat more than typical "escapism," yet it doesn't subject the fun-loving elements of the superhero tale to the relentless gaze of "revisionism," does that make it a "reconstructionist" work?

Some individuals don't like my tendency to take the wide view, as with, say, arguing that so-called "sexism" can only be seen as part of a spectrum of the forms of "sensationalism."  But Darius' narrow view is far more harmful, for like Berlatsky's screed it privileges as meaningful only those works that seem to make outright thematic statements; works that noisily proclaim that they are "about something."

This is a cardinal error in the modern criticism of genre fiction, and it strongly resembles the attempts of those artcomics fans I call the "bloody comic book elitists" to deem as literary anything, from George Herriman to Robert Crumb, that has even a vestigial claim to being "about something."  I suspect that even though the majority of the comics-reading public has evinced no more interest in "artcomics" than they did in the 1980s.  But many comics-critics of this period feel that they can only appreciate even the lowly superhero when he appears to address important sociopolitical issues. In the same essay, Darius shows the same preferences in justifying his liking for the film IRON MAN 3:

...because it didn’t completely betray all the issues it evoked, such as the problematic relationship between corporate weapons manufacturers and the state, the moment they got in the way of glitzy super-hero fight scenes. That’s become a very odd thing, in super-hero movies, which are as hostile to realism as their comic-book counterparts.

This strikes me as a form of "status-seeking" more than a desire to formulate accurate criticism, and I'll probably return to the topic in greater detail in a future essay.