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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...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

AFFECTIVE FREEDOM AND THE UNCANNY PT. 3

At the end of THREE PROBABILITIES  I said:

Some specific examples of the different intersections of probability and sublimity seems called for. I'll be drawing on my examples from TEN DYNAMIC DEMONS, since that's one of the essays in which I invoked the now untenable, Aristotle-derived association of "the impossible and improbable."
For the time being I'll supply just one of the ten: the trope I labeled "perilous pyschos."  For this trope I chose the literary-and-cinematic figure of Norman Bates.

I considered drawing a comparison between the fictional character of Norman-- whose film I reviewed here -- and a film based on the principal real-life model for Norman, ED GEIN.  I do find GEIN to be a film bereft of the subtler types of antipathetic effect, of dread and awe: it is first and foremost a film about fear, where physical peril is the dominant threat.  Though GEIN tells the true story of the real psycho's misdeeds, it takes the form of "fictionalized reality" rather than a pure documentary. The film begins with a few quotes from persons who knew Gein or persons involved in his murders, but following this preface-like section, the film depicts all real-life events in a fictionalized manner, portraying events that a pure documentary could not legitimately represent, as with a scene where Gein traipses around his yard in his "woman-suit." Yet, even though GEIN pursues the tropes of fiction, it seems inappropriate to draw comparisons between even a fictionalized version of a real person and a completely fictional figure.

But it is appropriate to compare one version of Norman with another.  Here's the Anthony Perkins version, whom I view as "uncanny" due to the nature of his madness.


And here's another version, from the recent A&E teleseries BATES MOTEL.




MOTEL shuffles a few of the basic configurations of the original PSYCHO-- the nervous young man (still in high school here), his domineering mother, and the titular motel.  However, MOTEL shows none of the intensity of the madness depicted either by Bloch or by Hitchcock.   The ten episodes thus far aired have dealt with assorted mundane menaces-- a crooked sheriff, a white-slavery ring, a rapist-- who makes the mistake of raping Norman's mother, who retaliates by knife-murdering him-- and Norma Bates herself, who may be narcissistically devoted to her son but falls very short of the sort of dreadful madness one sees in Bloch and Hitchcock.  If the teleseries lasts long enough to develop the character of Norman-- who is depicted as nothing more than a slightly geeky, but not repulsive, young fellow who captivates some of the local girls-- BATES will certainly have him doing some of the same sort of things that the Bloch-Hitchcock character does.  But in the predominantly naturalistic atmosphere of the series, it seems unlikely that it will conjure forth any of the uncanny atmosphere utilized by either Bloch or Hitchcock.

A side-point: at the end of AFFECTIVE FREEDOM AND THE UNCANNY PT 1 I demonstrated the conditions under which a particular film-- in this case, the serial ACE DRUMMOND-- could have been naturalistic, uncanny or marvelous, depending on whether or not certain elements were present in the diegesis.  I viewed ACE as being dominated by the antipathetic affect of "awe" because I felt that this affect "trumped" those of "fear" and "dread," even though the other two were present and could have been dominant given the aforesaid alterations.  I want to add that it is feasible in some cases for the "subtler" affects to be "trumped" as well.  Hitchcock's suspense-drama SHADOW OF A DOUBT possesses a naturalistic phenomenality, for the monstrous "Merry Widow Killer" is principally a physical threat to anyone who discovers his identity, including his niece, "Young Charlie."  Yet though fear is the controlling affect, there are instances in which the film does depict moments of dread, a dread that stems from Young Charlie's anitpathy to her very relatedness to her insane relative.  This antipathy, at base a fear of psychological absorption by a threatening "Other," is not dwelled upon in SHADOW.  But roughly seventeen years later Hitchcock returned to a far more intense meditation upon that theme, thanks to his encounter with Robert Bloch's work.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE GOLDEN AGE SUPERHERO: TWO TYPES IN ONE

Before commencing with more analyses of the superheroine, it's necessary to make a few basic statements about the nature of the superhero, irrespective of gender, as the figure took shape in the late 1930s.

While I've gone on record as stating that I think many types of genre-creations belong to what I term "the superhero idiom," it's obvious that "superheroes" constitute their own independent genre.  This genre is determined the same way as any other, on the presence of repeated, recognizable tropes that fit certain expectations of the audience.

Steranko's 2-volume HISTORY OF THE COMICS remains one of the best resources in terms of exploring the multitude of influences upon early comic books, including then-contemporary films, radio shows, prose-stories in books and magazines (particularly the pulps), and of course comic strips.  But of all the generic hero-types that influenced the normative superhero, two types seem particularly influential.

The first I term the "miracle hero." The term "hero" here connotes only "protagonist," for many of these characters-- who without exception possess some sort of super-ability or talent-- are not heroic in the moral sense of the word. Wells' INVISIBLE MAN remains one of the earliest of the "miracle heroes," though in terms of his persona he conforms to what I term "the monster."  Another, whose persona-type is also less than heroic, is the super-strong Hugo Danner of Philip Wylie's GLADIATOR, which may or may not have been an influence on Siegel and Shuster's SUPERMAN.

The second I term the "urban avenger."  This type need not have any uncanny or marvelous propensities whatever; it can include masked types like the Green Hornet, but also all manner of cops, detectives, spies, or general troubleshooters, as long as their main beat is the city.  One may generalize that when the "avenger" type is transported to other climes-- ranging from the Lone Ranger's "Old West" to the Phantom's "Bengali jungle"-- that these might be termed "exotic avengers" insofar as they contrast with the environment of the urban centers from which most popular culture is promulgated.

While there are a handful of other contributing genres, these two genre-types influence the early superhero-- and superheroine-- more than any other.  That said, even characters who had super-powers-- Superman, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner-- do not tend to explore their own miraculous natures in depth.  They are quickly dragooned into the pattern of the "urban avenger," of patrolling a given city in search of injustices to avenge.

This early pattern will be seen to have particular impact on the ways in which early superheroines were first constituted, and how this would change in the Silver Age.

Monday, October 21, 2013

PBS: "PRETTY BAD (with) SUPERHEROINES"

I didn't expect a general-interest documentary like PBS' SUPERHEROES: A NEVER-ENDING BATTLE to touch on a lot of fine textual points about comic book superheroes.  However, I did think that if the doc's creators brought up a given subject, they would pursue it to some sort of logical conclusion.

Understandably, the first of the doc's three parts dealt with the Golden Age of superhero comics.  The script, which aimed to be an upbeat examination of the history of American superheroes, quite logically did not dwell overlong on the lack of strong nonwhite heroes, though the issue of racism was addressed.  However, the script-- which included commentary from "Wonder Woman" actress Lynda Carter and from one of the comics' writers--  seemed to be building to a point about the history of female characters in a genre aimed-- at least by some of its proponents-- at male customers.  But though the first part provides strong coverage of the background of the most successful comics superheroine of the period-- as well as her eccentric creator-- the other two sections of the doc seem indifferent to most other developments in the arena of superheroine-creation.  Many well-known male heroes are covered in detail during those two sections-- Spider-Man, the Punisher, Spawn-- and even a few nonwhite male heroes, like Luke Cage and the Black Panther, are referenced.  But by the end of the doc, though one sees various "sisters in spandex" in passing, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that the superheroine domain begins and ends with Wonder Woman.



I know that a general-interest documentary could not have expatiated on the significance of the plethora of other Golden Age Amazons.  Today it means nothing to say that Harvey Comics' "Black Cat" (1941-1951) stayed in print for almost the entire duration of the Golden Age itself.  It also would have meant little to celebrate feminine crimefighters whose names-- Black Canary, Liberty Belle, Blonde Phantom-- did not become, any more than Black Cat's, figures with which non-fans might conjure.  But were none of the heroines of the later "Ages" as worthy of mention as Wonder Woman?




I think that there have been many, but their prevalence is qualified by a "sea-change" in the history of superhero comics.  Since the 1960s, many of the most famous female crimefighrers have not been solo combatants, but have flourished within superhero groups.  Indeed, the idea of the "team book" became far more significant in post-Silver Age comics-history, apart from the role of female heroes in those teams.  Most of these fighting-femmes came to prominence in teams, as with the Invisible Girl/Woman, Marvel Girl, the Wasp, Elasti-Girl, and Scarlet Witch.  A few characters introduced as team-members went on to star in independent features of some note-- such as Power Girl-- yet it's arguable that they remained more celebrated as members of teams.  Similarly, heroines who started in their own features and failed to sell adequately-- as with the She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel-- often ended up being recycled into team-situations.  To be sure, this recycling often took place with male heroes as well.



Another issue inadequately raised is that of the "one-off" superheroine, who owes her existence to a male hero's mythos.  This category would include not only sidekick-types of the sort that commentator Trina Robbins sneered at in the doc, as with "Batgirl" and "Hawkgirl," but also characters like reformed Bat-villainess Catwoman.  That said, I could make the case that Catwoman, whose feature has now been published almost continously since the early 1990s, has proven a more substantial figure than the Punisher, a spin-off from the Spider-Man feature.  And I say that as one who did enjoy the PBS doc putting the Punisher's first exploits into contemporary sociological perspective.



Invisible (Girl) Woman, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Elasti-Girl, Marvel Girl, Storm, Shadowcat, Power Girl, the (Helena Wayne) Huntress-- these are not figures of no importance in the history of superheroes, nor are they necessarily (contra Robbins) figures overshadowed by their male compeers.  It's a shame that the scripters of the PBS doc couldn't figure out some way to address their relative importance, whether or not they'd appeared in big-screen films or not. 

In my next essay I'll offer some thoughts as to why the most important female characters of the Silver and Bronze Ages were so "team-centric."

Friday, October 18, 2013

AFFECTIVE FREEDOM AND THE UNCANNY, PT. 2

Before preceding on to a detailed example of uncanny affectivity such as I proposed at the end of THREE PROBABILITIES, I want to emphasize a point that came up in my recent film-blog review of a trio of uncanny films: all B-westerns starring the masked hero "the Durango Kid."

Prior to that review, I had examined just one other Durango Kid film-- the 1952 KID FROM BROKEN GUN, the last in the long-running series. I pointed out that BROKEN GUN had only one uncanny aspect, which is also the case with the other three films:

In almost all ways GUN is a naturalistic western like hundreds churned out by the studios of the time. Nothing except the "outre outfit" of the Durango Kid moves it into the domain of the uncanny-metaphenomenal. But as I've noted elsewhere, particularly my review of this "Lone Ranger" film, the hero's mask in this sort of film becomes more than just a mundane device, as it is for some of the villain's hirelings, who also go about masked with bandannas for a few minutes. Though I doubt that I'll ever see the majority of these outlaw-chasing oaters, I'd tend to classify them all as metaphenomenal works. The scene in which the black-clad masked man threatens the villain with execution gives that scene a touch of the uncanny that one would never get from a similar threat made by Gene Autry.


However, even though I insist on this same formalism in my interpretation of other "oaters" in this series, when I reviewed the other three I had to admit they made less impressive use of their metaphenomenal potential.


By saying that [the statement re: Durango as executioner], I didn't mean to suggest that a given Durango Kid would not fit my category of "the uncanny" unless it conveyed such an emotion. The only reason to regard these films as metaphenomenal is based on the POTENTIAL to create such emotions, not in the actual execution. Though the masked western-hero of this series never became a name to conjure with, along the lines of the Lone Ranger-- or even Marvel's "Two-Gun Kid"-- his masked persona removes him from the rank and file of oater-heroes like Roy Rogers and the rest, irrespective as to whether the filmmakers do anything with the potential.

As I emphasized above, a naturalistic western hero, such as Roy Rogers could have played, could have threatened a villain with death, and in that situation such a scene in this hypothetical Autry-film would be dominated by the affect of fear.  The scene in BROKEN GUN is dominated by the affect of dread because the Durango Kid's masked persona, even though he's making the same physical threat, carries a symbolic valence that a commonplace cowpoke does not.  The other three "Durango films" that I reviewed did not USE the symbolic potential of the masked persona, but it was potentially within the grasp of the scripters, regardless of what they chose to do with it.


Given that I've set up a hypothetical Roy Rogers flick to represent the dominant affect of fear, and a particular Durango Kid film to represent the dominant affect of dread, for symmetry's sake I'll show what kind of awe-inspiring affect is possible when the hero can use a plurality of marvelous powers in order to manipulate the ungodly.






AFFECTIVE FREEDOM AND THE UNCANNY, PT. 1

In THREE INTO TWO WILL GO, SOMETIMES PT. 1  I described the NUM formula-- although when I wrote the essay the category of " the naturalistic" was "the atypical"-- in the following terms:

If the anomaly takes place within a world where the cognitive order rules, and where affectivity is indeed the tail wagged by the dog, then the narrative’s phenomenality is “atypical.”


If it takes place within a world that breaks with the cognitive order, in which causs-and-effect is in some way suspended, then the phenomality is “marvelous,” and the affectivity produced is one that also strives to go beyond the cognitive order.


If the work seems to suggest that the cognitive order is violated, when in fact it is not, its phenomenality will be “uncanny” as long as the work succeeds in evoking an affectivity that symbolically exceeds the cognitive order.
I now intend to bring this in line with Cassirer's observations re: the distinctions of the "causality" concepts characteristic of empirical thought versus the "multicausal" concepts characteristic of mythical thought, especially as conveyed through what Cassirer calls the opposing conception of causality, "magical efficacy."


Thus a Cassirer-based reconfiguration reads thus:

NATURALISTIC-- cognitivity and affectivity are defined by the causal order; i.e. "one definite cause yields one definite effect"

UNCANNY-- cognitivity is defined by the causal order, but affectivity exceeds causal order and participates in the multicausal nature of "efficacy"

MARVELOUS-- both cognitivity and affectivity exceed the causal order and participate in the multicausal nature of "efficacy"

The nature of affectivity in each phenomenality is logically glossed by the antipathetic and sympathetic affects I've detailed on the blog, each of which form a triunity.  The negative affects-- fear, dread, and awe-- were formulated by Rudolf Otto in THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, schematized by C.S. Lewis in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN,  and first examined on this blog in this essay.

Because I felt neither Otto nor Lewis had adequately defined a set of corresponding positive affects, I supplied a corresponding triunity in this essay.  Shortly later,  I revised one of the three terms in this essay, so that my corresponding set of sympathetic affects now sport the names of "admiration" (the counterpart to "fear"), "fascination" (the counterpart to "dread"), and "exaltation" (the counterpart to "awe" of the abysmal type described by Otto).

Therefore affectivity in the three phenomenalities can be aligned thusly:

In a fictive world where affectivity is defined by the causal order, the dominant sympathetic affect is "admiration" of things characteristic of the causal order, particularly what Jung called Freud's "physiological factors," while the dominant antipathetic affect is "fear" of aspects of the causal/physical order.

Where affectivity exceeds the causal order in accordance with the multicausal nature of the world's cognitivity, the dominant sympathetic affect is "exaltation" toward the multicausal, and the dominant antipathetic affect is "awe" toward it.

It's easy to descry affects of admiration and fear in naturalistic works, or affects of exalatation and awe in marvelous works.  The uncanny, however, is harder to demonstrate, precisely because the causal order rules the cognitive aspect of the uncanny work, causing many viewers-- like Todorov-- to mistake it for the purely naturalistic.  Instead, the uncanny flourishes precisely in the contrast between the monocausal nature of cognitive reality in a given work, while affectivity "symbolically exceeds the cognitive order," taking the dominant forms of "fascination" for the sympathetic affect and "dread" for the antipathetic affect.

None of this means that affects most characteristic of one phenomenality cannot occur in another phenomenality, but those affects are not characteristic.  As a quick example, the little remembered adventure-serial ACE DRUMMOND-- reviewed here-- imperils its hero with threats that are, at varying times, naturalistic, uncanny, or marvelous, and all controlled by the serial's villain, "the Dragon."

If the villain had only been able to threaten Drummond with mundane guards, then the phenomenality of the serial would have been naturalistic, and its dominant antipathetic affect would be fear.



If the villain had been able to threaten Drummond with both his mundane guards and his "Room-with-Crushing-Walls," then the presence of the latter threat would trump the naturalistic elements and change the phenomenality to the uncanny, so that even though the affect of 'fear" still existed with respect to Drummond's battle with mundane guards, "dread" of a villain able to control a weird weapon like a '"crushing room" would make "dread" the dominant antipathetic affect.



However, as things stand, the evil Dragon could menace Drummond and his buddies with the previously cited threats and a marvelous death-ray device as well-- and indeed, the death ray gets the most narrative attention in this particular serial.  Thus the dominant antipathetic affect, overruling those of  "fear" and "dread," is one of "awe" before the villain's marvelous resources.

I will enlarge on these observations in Part 2.



Thursday, October 17, 2013

TERMINOLOGICAL TRACKDOWN PT. 2


THREE INTO TWO WILL GO, SOMETIMES PT 1 was my first schematized assertion that asserted that the cognitive and affective aspects of a given work were equally important in determining its overall effect.  I stated this in contradistinction to Tzvetan Todorov, who advocated an approach based only in the cognitivity—specificially a cognitively heavily invested in Freudian hermeneutics. 

      The work of Ernst Cassirer was not a proximate influence on this division of "the cognitive" and "the affective."  The division was a routine one seen in psychological studies, often phrased roughly along the lines of Freud’s famous “reality principle” (for the cognitive) and “pleasure principle” (for the affective).  On occasion I allowed a few of my essays to repeat this dichotomy without examining it in greater depth, though in general my readings of Cassirer, as seen in my earliest posts, have helped preserve me against the errors of na├»ve positivism.  I always appreciated Cassirer’s advocacy of expressivity in literature, as opposed to Todorov’s all-cognitive-all-the-time orientation.  Still, not until Oct 12, 2011 did I investigate any aspect of Cassirer’s main argument re: his “concept of force” as expounded in MYTHICAL THINKING.  Cassirer affirmed that there was a justifiable approach to the “concept of force” that paralleled that of Freud’s “reality principle,” one that depended upon analyzing physical forces in an empirical/theoretical manner.  However, Cassirer certainly did not dismiss the contrary mode as some sort of fatuous “pleasure principle,” as Freud did.  Thus he designated “causality” was the domain of empirical/theoretical thinking, while he used the term “efficacy” to denote the domain of mythical thinking, which focused upon a “free selection of causes.” 

       Eventually I discerned that the “free selection of causes” Cassirer identified in archaic mythologies was identical in mode to the “fudge factors” writers use whenever they describe all manner of marvelous beings and devices.  In AFFECTIVE EFFECTS PT 2 I said:
...I would say that the "strangeness" of the metaphenomenal assumes qualities covalent with those of Cassirer's "magical efficacy." 
     Yet it's a little harder to demonstrate that writers who invoked “the uncanny” were making the same “free selection.”  Because uncanny works do not violate the causal order, many readers will not view them as being allied to the marvelous, which does violate that order. 

       Nevertheless, in the first of a possible series of essays to which I alluded at the conclusion of THREE PROBABILITIES,  I will offer a proof that "the uncanny" does indeed participate in the quality of Cassirer's "magical efficacy," even though it does so in a different manner than "the marvelous" does.  I’ve repeatedly asserted that the uncanny is that category in which causality is not broken, as in works of the marvelous, but merely bent.  This “bending” is, like any similar physical alteration, must be the result of an application of force.  But in works of the uncanny, that force only appears to accede to the iron law of causality. In truth such works are dominated by a countervailing law: the law of what I have termed the “combinatory-sublime.” 

TERMINOLOGICAL TRACKDOWN PT. 1


Since I’ve stated in STALKING THE PERFECT TERM: THE THREE PROBABILITIES that it was a mistake to invoke the concept of coherence in respect to probability, I should hold forth on the original context of the concept.
 

         I articulated the concept in response to Susanne Langer’s useful distinction between “discursive symbolism” and “presentational symbolism” in her 1942 book PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY. Langer did not say anything about judging particular literary manifestations of these two forms of symbolism.  In contrast, I wanted to expound on ways in which these very different symbolic discourses could be used competently or not so competently.  So the argument came down to two interdependent parts:
 

         (1) A well-known trope, like Batman- villains placing the Crusader in a death-trap rather than simply shooting him, was not a worthless endeavor simply because it flew in the face of logical, discursive symbolism.  Patently the death-trap had a function even if it was one that couldn’t be justified discursively: the device served to test the ability of Batman—or a similar hero in similar dire straits—for the enjoyment of the reader.  Hence it was justifiable in terms of Langer’s “presentational symbolism,” having no more connection with logical discourse than a symphonic piece.
 

         (2) The second part was my own idea: that even though the trope of the death-trap could not be critiqued on the basic of logic, it could be critiqued aesthetically: as to whether it communicated a certain effect.  In GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 3 I showed why one death-trap was coherent and expressive while another one was not. 

The corresponding essay PART 4 argued that the same principle of coherence should apply to tropes that were intended to be discursively meaningful, and I gave examples of, respectively, coherent and incoherent manifestations of discursive symbolism. 

I now perceive that by I linked the concept of coherence to the NUM formula  because I formed an unconscious link between the very different ways in which Langer and C.S. Lewis spoke of “presentation.” 
 
In NEW KEY Langer used the term to distinguish an aspect of human perception: to underscore that when humans were presented with sense-experiences, they did not ipso facto interpret them with respect to discursive symbolic models. 
 
In THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, though, C.S. Lewis spoke of “realism of presentation” as a socially constructed discourse, which is to say one that *was * informed by a given reader’s expectations as to what or was not believable in a logical and discursive sense.   

        I now surmise that when Lewis spoke of “realism of content,” I lined up this conceptualization with that of Tzvetan Todorov’s idea of "the marvelous," that category of all fictions that represented something “unreal” as being “real,” rather like Aristotle’s “probable impossibility.”

      Similarly, I’ve repeatedly claimed, in my rewrite of Todorov, that the differences between “the naturalistic” and “the uncanny” depend not on the reader’s perceptions of the narrative, as Todorov had it, but on the way in which an author “presents” a trope like, say, “psychotic madman on the rampage.” 

      Todorov wished to assert that whatever was not cognitively unreal was perforce “real.” I assert that the category of “the uncanny” depended on an affective factor—the presence of “strangeness”—that allied that category with that of the marvelous, so that both were categories of the metaphenomenal.   

From there, I unfortunately tried to bring in the other half of Aristotle’s famous dictum, the “possible improbability,” and judge it not by “possibility” but by coherence—hence the “coherent probability” (for the uncanny) and the “incoherent probability” for the naturalistic.  But the use of probability and/or possibility, whether invoked by Lewis or by Aristotle, are not determinative, because they depend on socially constructed criteria as to what is possible or probable. As I noted in PROBABILITY SHIFTS, the nature of probability depends on the ground rules of a given fictional cosmos, and those ground rules are created not by expectations external to the work but by the way in which the work’s author constructs the cognitive and affective aspects of the work—to which I will turn next.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

STALKING THE PERFECT TERM: THE THREE PROBABILITIES

The wonders of Google allow me to quickly search out the places where I used the term "coherent improbabilities," here, here, here, and here.  All of these terminological usages are now, though not entirely irrelevant, have been superseded, as are any mentions of "incoherent improbabilities."

The linked ideas of coherence and incoherence, which I introduced here in my essays on Susanne Langer, now strike me as immaterial to the subject of probability in fiction.  I've mentioned that the degree of personal conviction that an audience-member brings to a work is highly personal, and so the matters of coherence and incoherence properly belong to the domain of the intersubjective. I have not used them in any organized way to apply to the phenomenalities of the NUM formula, though I'm aware of having tossed a few indications in that direction, which, had I elaborated them, would have come out to something like:

NATURALISTIC-- "incoherent improbability"
UNCANNY-- "coherent improbability"
MARVELOUS-- "impossibility"

This was a mistake, for manifestations of coherence and incoherence appear in all three phenomenalities.  For instance, I've mentioned that many comedy films toss out "impossible" occurences for the sake of humor, but that they are not "marvelous" because the impossible elements are not meant to be taken seriously.  An easy example of an unserious impossibility is the "automatic pilot" joke in AIRPLANE, who comes to life and smiles for a moment or two for the sake of a joke anyone reading this blog ought to know.



However, I do continue to believe, as stated in PROBABILITY SHIFTS, that each phenomenality is determined by the nature of probability:

All three phenomenalities-- naturalistic, uncanny, and marvelous-- are established by the ways in which the authors of works in each division choose to present "evidence" for the nature of their worlds.  For a critic like Tzvetan Todorov, this means establishing whether or not a "fantastic" event is "real" or "unreal."  But as I've demonstrated in my formulation of the NUM theory, even the most 'realistic' narrative merely reproduces gestures suggestive of a reality dominated by causality.

My very next sentence, however, privileges an association of the naturalistic with probability itself:


I've also noted that within this context, everything is by definition "probable," and any narrative element suggestive of improbability is "incoherent."
Were I writing this now, I would eliminate the second half of the sentence and would specify that everything in a naturalistic continuum is by definition "probable in respect to a rigid cognitive/affective causality."  The breakdowns I've mentioned in respect to the cognitive'affective spheres in the three phenomenalities, cited here, remain unaltered.


However, in that essay, I attempted for the first time to schematize the nature of the sublime in each phenomenality with terms "devised...to reflect the causality-relationship of each phenomenality."  Thus:

In NATURALISTIC works the affect of sublimity was ISO-REAL.

In UNCANNY works the affect of sublimity was SUPRA-REAL.

In MARVELOUS works the affect of sublimity was ANTI-REAL.

I believe that I was following C.S. Lewis' lead, attempting to see "probability" as something determined by its socially determined degree within a given context.  Yet, as I noted in Part II of THE TWO VERISIMILITUDES, Lewis is not especially concerned with defining probability in terms of causal reality, while I am, drawing in part on Cassirer, Caillois, and Tolkien.

Since I have clearly stated that the affect of sublimity is different in each phenomenality because of "the causality-relationship of each phenomenality," it now seems obvious to me that the nature of probability is also affected by the relationship of the causal boundaries and the sublimities by which those boundaries are broken.

Therefore, probability too breaks down the same way as the sublime: "ISO-REAL" for the naturalistic, "SUPRA-REAL" for the uncanny, and "ANTI-REAL" for the marvelous. 

Some specific examples of the different intersections of probability and sublimity seems called for.  I'll be drawing on my examples from TEN DYNAMIC DEMONS, since that's one of the essays in which I invoked the now untenable, Aristotle-derived association of "the impossible and improbable."



Monday, October 14, 2013

RUNNING ON ABOUT BLADE RUNNER

In the essay TO THE POWER OF XYZ I said:

In contrast, when I review the 1982 BLADE RUNNER I don't doubt that I will judge it to be a combative work, wherein such characters as Rick Deckard, Pris and Roy Batty take on the aura of spectacular violence.

I have finally reviewed the "Final Cut" edition of the film, but noted in the course of the review that there were many aspects of this multidimensional work that I knew I could not analyze in one review.  One of those is the film's relation to spectacular violence.

Of the Dick novel I wrote earlier:


...in Dick's ANDROIDS, the violence is purely in the functional mode, even if the combatants are dueling with laser tubes.  It's rare to find megadynamic forces handled in a humdrum functional manner, though Dick's motive for so doing may somewhat akin to Heinlein's reason for not winding up STARSHIP TROOPERS with a big colorful battle.  In both cases, however different their themes, the authors sought to make their protagonists seem more "ordinary" despite their marvelous surroundings and/or resources. 

Of course, prose-authors can be as "humdrum" as they like with regard to potentially spectacular effects.  Authors attempting to craft dramatic works frequently eschew spectacular violence in order to communicate to readers the "seriousness" of their efforts. 

The same strategy appears in the medium of film, but it's rare in those films aimed at a mainstream audience. There can be little doubt that director Ridley Scott's aims in 1982's BLADE RUNNER were no less serious than Dick's.  But since Scott sought to please a mainstream audience of filmgoers, he surely knew that he had to give them spectacle to keep them interested.  The picayune scene of Dick's novel, in which Deckard and Batty shoot at each other with laser tubes, is therefore replaced by a long chase scene in which Batty injures Deckard's gun-hand, and then pursues the armed-but-awkward policeman, continually mocking Deckard's inability to kill him.  In one scene Deckard does get in a couple of good blows with a pipe, but in my system his ability is no better than "exemplary."  In my review I pointed out that Deckard is similarly enabled by darn good luck in his encounters with other replicants, in three scenes that resemble nothing in Philip Dick's book.


Scott's use of action-adventure motifs is certainly ironic. Deckard's supervisor calls Deckard a "one-man slaughterhouse," but in all four of the blade runner's encounters with the replicants, they all beat him down and are capable of easily killing him, and Deckard is saved only by contingent circumstances, not by his own skills or powers.

When I first viewed the film, I was particularly perturbed by the scene in which Deckard is almost killed by the acrobatic Pris.  In this scene she seems close to breaking the blade runner's neck, but for no clear reason she lets him go, retreats a few paces, and then tries another acrobatic attack.  This allows Deckard the chance to kill Pris.  The film gives no good reason as to why she breaks off her attack, so that I can only assume the writers did this to "save" the hero so that he would be alive to face off with Batty a bit later.



Nevertheless, even though Deckard's formidability never reaches the higher regions of megadynamicity, as with Harrison Ford's two most famous heroic roles, I would still regard BLADE RUNNER's demihero-protagonist to be a combative one.  I've stressed in other essays that it's not strictly necessary that the protagonist should win all of his battles in order to qualify the work as one in the combative mode, and Deckard's record in this regard may be one of the least successful ever seen in a mainstream-oriented film.  Nevertheless, the violence does go beyond the limits of the functional mode seen in the novel, and so even Scott's slight ironizing does not remove BLADE RUNNER from the mode of the combative.

Monday, October 7, 2013

SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES PT. 3

In Part 2 I demonstrated proofs as to why the Spirit was a combative hero and his imitator The Masked Man was subcombative.  I did not elaborate on their natures vis-a-vis my concepts of "Reach vs. Grasp" because I felt it implicit that the "reach" of both characters was radically different due to their unequal dynamicities.  The "grasp" concept is a little more complicated, given that The Masked Man in its short run remains always within the mythos of drama, while the long-running Spirit, as I mentioned before, dipped its wick into all four mythoi at one time or another.  However, at this point in my analysis I would say that differences in grasp, a.k.a. "dynamis-stature," do not have any effect on whether or not a given feature does or does not utilize the combative mode.  Even if the majority of the Spirit's adventures had been comedies or adventures rather than dramas, as I've suggested earlier, the different "dynamis-stature" would have no effect on whether or not it was a combative work.  The primary determinants for the combative mode are, as I formulated in MYTHOS VS. MODE PART 2, the interdependent factors of a narrative combative value and a significant combative value.

This time I'll again deal with features within the same mythos, that of comedy, but will give reasons as to why only the first one is combative, while the other two are subcombative due to their lacking either a narrative or significant value.


DC Comics' original version of INFERIOR FIVE appeared in a total of thirteen full-length stories, which I'll analyze as a unit, factoring no revivals-- if any-- into my equations.  Not all of these stories had both a narrative and significant value; some had neither.  But only four of the issues were subcombative for either reason, and the other nine were clearly combative.  To be sure, since INFERIOR FIVE was an extremely broad comedy, most of the goofy heroes' triumphs were comically constructed.


In addition to their winning by accident, they also won by the intervention of guest-stars, as when Superman himself drops in to save the day. But, as I've established in this essay, the narrative combative value is not disrupted if some character other than the featured hero(es) is responsible for the final blow, so this issue remains combative. Statistically speaking, this series satisfies the "narrrative value" of the mode because the overall adventurers are dominantly combative in accordance with my "51 percent rule." Additionally, because the heroes demonstrate high dynamicity-- even if it is altered by its manifestation within a comic mythos-- the INFERIOR FIVE satisfies the "significant value" of the mode.


The significant mode is entirely lacking in Don Martin's equally broad comic take on superheroes, in the handful of adventures he devoted to his 1960s creation Captain Klutz.


Like the Inferior Five, Captain Klutz escaped perils from his equally silly group of supervillains through comic maneuvers.  In one adventure his enemy "Sissyman" traps him in a giant pile of ice cream.



Naturally, he eats his way out.  But Klutz not only had no super-powers, he had no discernible physical skills and only occasionally used mundane weapons.  Facing off the villainous "Granny," he admits that he dares not strike a woman, but that he has no problem shooting one.  In any case, though one might argue that the Klutz adventures satisfy the narrative value, in that there is a clear opposition between the hero and his enemies, there is no significant value because Klutz himself possesses no dynamicity.  He wins-- if he does at all-- through luck and/or trickery.



Finally, the current animated teleseries TEEN TITANS GO! looks for all the world like it's simply going to be a comic take on the 2003-06 adventure-series.  Being humorous, as I've showed with THE INFERIOR FIVE, does not mean that a work cannot be combative. 

In truth, the more direct influence on the teleseries was a comic book series of the same name, which I have not read.  The teleseries, however, though it features characters with roughly the same set of powers and abilities, does not often center its stories about the plot-element of combat.  The model for the teleseries seems to borrow more from the model of the American TV sitcom, in which there is some problem to be solved but not necessarily a battle to be won, as had been the case with most episodes of the 2003-06 show.  The earlier TITANS show made heavy use of humor, roughly following the example of some of the more raucous anime TV cartoons, but comedy was always subdominant to adventure.  Here, comedy is the main attraction, and the mode of the combative is often at best a side-attraction.  A recent episode, "Colors of Raven," begins with the Titans defeating frequent opponent Doctor Light, but Light's defeat is only important because it brings the heroes into contact with a magical prism.  The prism then splits heroine Raven into color-themed duplicates of herself. The remaining Titans must then corral the disparate Ravens in order to re-combine them into one entity, but little of their activities are focused on combat, even in the spoofy manner of INFERIOR FIVE.  Thus TITANS GO has the significant value of the mode, but not the narrative one.

On a non-related note, I'll add that one TITANS GO episode-- entitled "Books"-- does satisfy the narrative combative value.  However, the episode's primary focus is to make fun of the sort of thing critics like me do all the time: taking the primal experience of fictive enjoyment and making it "boring" through analysis and commentary.  It's a fair point, though it's not one that will dissuade me in any way.





Friday, October 4, 2013

THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS

My essay IN REMEMBRANCE YET GRIMM puts forth this proposition re: the narrative function of the three dynamicities:

While I have stated that characters in any given story will fall into three possible dynamicity-levels-- the microdynamic, the mesodynamic, and the megadynamic-- in terms of the way dynamicity operates in plot-narratives, the first two are practically identical. Whether a given character's dynamicity-level is "poor-to-adequate" or "good-to-fair," he is unable to reach the exceptional level of dynamicity that Kant calls "might." 

This point reinforces my conclusion from THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE PART 2:

Thus "might" exists to continually challenge others to partake of its nature, rather than being utterly inaccessible...



Though I haven't invoked Nietzsche much in this regard, he does have quite a lot to say about what may be considered a parallel phenomenon, which English translations generally call "strength:"



"To demand of strength that it should not express itself, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength."-- ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS.

And again:


"Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part. Only excess of strength is proof of strength."-- TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS.

With Nietzsche in mind, then, I'll elaborate the basic proposition above into a narrative rule: a "rule of excess" based in Nietzsche's logic, one that can be expressed in two parts:

(1) Megadynamicity, the level of extraordinary strength, is the narrative "proof of strength" in that its very excessiveness suggests a propensity to transcend ordinary limits.

(2) Mesodynamicity and microdynamicity, the levels of "good" and "poor" strength, cannot be used in narrative to prove the nature of strength because by their respective natures they are determined by limitation.

My two examples from SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES PT. 2 also illustrate how characters of differing dynamicities conjure forth different narrative effects, though the characters share a superficial similarity in that both are superheroes but neither is possessed of any metaphenomenal powers or weapons.  Though B.C. Boyer's MASKED MAN is clearly patterned after Will Eisner's SPIRIT, Boyer clearly does not seek to show him as extraordinary, given how often he fails to perform the standard "superhero" task of beating up at least four guys at once.  He cannot symbolize strength, because his strength is determined by consistently functioning on the level perceived appropriate for an ordinary human being.

The Spirit, as I mentioned earlier, is certainly capable of being overwhelmed too.  Eisner is replete with scenes in which he is pathetically defeated for a time:



Nevertheless, Eisner rarely has him truly reduced to the level of ordinariness for very long. 





Indeed, even when deprived of sight in one story-arc, the Spirit, recuperating in a hospital, still manages to overcome a group of thugs sent to kill him.

Now, readers who prefer their heroes "life-sized" may not be charmed by the notion that the proof of strength is one of excessive demonstration.  Some might even prefer to think of strength as defined by its humbler manifestations.  Nevertheless, such readers cannot deny the obvious appeal of excess for other readers, or blame it on "mass culture," without succumbing to total fatuity.






Thursday, October 3, 2013

SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES PT. 2

At the end of Part 1 I said:

...even when one encounters subcombative superheroes, their nature must be seen as a reaction against the audience's expectations of the "combative mode" one normally finds in anything that looks like a superhero story.
My first example of a subcombative hero is an 1980s character who's been out of print since 1988, B.C. Boyer's THE MASKED MAN, last seen in the final issue of his own magazine.  Though he's not well remembered today, he makes an instructive example of the sort of "reaction against the audience's expectations" I described.


Wikipedia states, "The character and series was very similar to Will Eisner's The Spirit character." This is true only in a superficial manner, though the lines of influence are clear.  Even if one did not know that Boyer did a story in which the Masked Man encounters an aged version of his inspiration-- "Phantom Man," drawn substantially to look like Eisner's Spirit-- one need only look at the standard depiction of the Spirit, "costumed" only with the use of a face-mask and compare it with Boyer's hero.






Yet though both heroes go clad largely in street-clothes, the earlier hero alone conforms to the superhero idiom, being of a combative nature, while the later character is subcombative.

THE SPIRIT is instructive because the character's earliest exploits were clearly raucous adventure-tales, in which the hero bounded about battling crooks, spies, mad scientists, voodoo gangsters and a gorilla or two.  Like the comic-book superheroes whose model Eisner initially followed, the Spirit was a skilled brawler who could take on a mass of thugs and win.  He might be defeated at times, but the basic expectation was that he would triumph.  Later versions of THE SPIRIT moved more toward the other three mythoi, and though Eisner never totally abandoned adventure-stories, many individual tales conformed better to drama, comedy, and even (rarely) irony.  Just as an educated guess I would say that overall most of the first-run Spirit stories-- including assorted non-Eisner works-- would fall into the dramatic category, and thus the total work would be a "combative drama."



On the surface, Boyer's Masked Man appeared to be from the same mold: a non-powered fellow in shirt-sleeves who decided to fight crime while wearing a mask.  Some of his magazine's covers make it look as if the Masked Man is just as formidable as the Spirit:



However, now that I've surveyed the Masked Man stories in my collection-- and I'm missing only a handful of the character's final 12-issue series-- I see no indications that Boyer portrays his hero as an exceptional fighter.  He's big and brawny, and he wades into bank-robbers much the same way the Spirit did.  But Boyer, attempting a more realistic take, rarely has the Masked Man do anything very impressive, even to the extent of kicking in a door. 

Thus, even though both characters are constructed along parallel lines-- "ordinary" guys on the brawny side-- the Spirit is consistently portrayed as possessing exceptional dynamicity, while the Masked Man is at best a "good" fighter.  The latter is a reaction against the trope of the ordinary guy who can fight like twenty demons, a scaling-down as it were.

I'll pass on making any comment about other ways in which Boyer failed to emulate Eisner, except to say that while the main focus on the SPIRIT feature was breezy adventure and/or melodrama, with occasional touches of pathos, MASKED MAN is like a cross between a film noir and a "True Confessions" love story, replete with many tedious scenes of characters confessing their true feelings about one another.  If MASKED MAN wasn't such a good example of how a superhero-- and Boyer does call his character a superhero-- could fall outside the normative superhero idiom, I'd rather not have thought about the feature ever again.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES PT. 1

The question for the day is:

Do all superheroes belong to the superhero idiom?

Since I'm the one who formally declared that there was such an idiom-- though I built, ironically, on comments by noted superhero-hater Gary Groth-- I could just say "no" and be done with it.  But justifications are my blessing and my curse.

I did not define "the superhero idiom" in my first blog-essay on the subject, NOTES TOWARD A SUPERHERO IDIOM.  I did state, however, that what I called the "normative superhero" lined up best with the Fryean mythos that Frye himself called "romance," though for my purpose I use the term "adventure."

Now, in determining the nature of literary works within the superhero idiom, the second mode, that of romance, is the most applicable for what one might call the "normative superhero." Superhero stories may include characters with powers like those of gods (Superman) or who are represented as being gods within their fictive worlds (Thor), but for all the many motifs of myth that appear in such pop-cultural stories, they do not share the *form* of myths and so don’t belong to that mode. It remains correct to speak of superhero tales as “literary myths” to suggest that they can have the content and/or tonality of myths cast within a literary format, but this is no more or less true of SUPERMAN than of HEART OF DARKNESS. However, SUPERMAN does not belong to the same mode as the Conrad work, but to the mode of the literary romance, like L’MORTE D’ARTHUR.

Frye, in fact, uses the term "adventure" as an "element" in his romance-category, though he does not detail how (if at all) the element of adventure might appear his other three mythoi, presumably in "non-essential" ways.  He does mention that often ironic works are parodies of romance-works, though.  It may be that Frye, who had clearly read Theodor Gaster's THESPIS, conceived "adventure" as an assemblage of all possible story-motifs that suggested an adventurous mood-- a mood that Gaster characterized so well as "invigorative."  At the time that I wrote NOTES, I still tended to regard narratives that included fight-scenes as the best representation of that invigorative mood, though I didn't state that outright.


“The essential element of plot in romance is adventure,” Frye tells us. For me, though this does not preclude the appearance of other elements of storytelling, it does imply that what Steve Gerber called the “obligatory fight-scene” was not just a crutch for lazy writers, but just such an essential element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t a lot of lazy writers and artists who produced very tedious and/or meretricious fight-scenes. Indeed, some comics-creators seemed unable to do anything but that. But the fight-scenes were entirely appropriate to the romance-genre in which they worked, irrespective of how well they were done.

Today I would have no problem with calling a novel like THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER an "adventure."  The book does not have a culminating fight-scene, but it does deal with young Tom's life being imperilled by the killer Injun Joe, and certainly does sustain an invigorative mood in the novel's latter half, even though the first half is comic in tone, concerning Tom's bucolic experiences in his small-town life, some of which deal with nothing more than boyish impostures of life-and-death battle.
SAWYER would still be a subcombative adventure, however. for Tom only "wins" his struggle against Injun Joe by dumb luck, not "might."

From the vantage of my later Kantian studies, I believe that even back then I was seeking to put into Fryean terms the distinct emotional appeal of the superhero, rather than resorting to simple-minded reductions like "the superhero is a compensatory wish-dream" and so on.  I spoke of the "normative superhero" as being the one whose fight-scenes were valid within the context of the adventure-mythos, but thanks to Kant I now realize that the invigorative appeal of fight-scenes appears in all four mythoi, and that the mode takes on its own distinct character in each.  The "superhero idiom" I was seeking then is not identical with the "combative mode." However, the two interpenetrate in that even when one encounters subcombative superheroes, their nature must be seen as a reaction against the audience's expectations of the "combative mode" one normally finds in anything that looks like a superhero story.

In Part 2 I'll deal with specific examples of "subcombative superheroes."






CUTEY UNFUNNY

In this essay, I expatiated at length on the association of the affect of  "cuteness" as it applied to, among other things, children's acceptance of cute versions of dangerous monsters or natural creatures.  I noted that "cuteness" could carry the connotation of "weakness," but that this needed to be seen in a broader spectrum.

In affects relating to sexual attractiveness, “weakness” translates into something closer to “that which is appealing,” overlapping with Kantian “agreeability.” For a “cute hat,” the question of weakness doesn’t apply, except in the roundabout sense that its appeal may “weaken” an onlooker to its owner’s charms. If a teenage girl considers a bulky football player “cute,” she certainly doesn’t cognize him as “weak” the way a baby is, but rather that he is, in her mind, both agreeable and approachable. By contrast beauty, as a sexually related affect, connotes “difficulty of approach,” along the lines of Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian.
Kant's idea of "agreeability," which I've expanded into the state of an object's being both agreeable and approachable, serves to show how some types of characters may have an "approachable" outward appearance, but this appearance conceals considerable strength, as with the football-player example.

In this essay I cited some reasons why I disagreed with those critics who have tried to claim Quality Comics' PLASTIC MAN as a comedy.  For me, comedy-elements are certainly present in the feature, though I find them less determinative than the adventure-elements.  Certainly many PLASTIC MAN covers sought to project the hero as playful:



However, there were a fair number of covers which also stressed Plastic Man as a crime-buster, as Jack Cole's interior stories usually did:



This is not to claim that the character was not rethought to become dominantly comedic in later renditions-- in fact, quite possibly all later renditions.


An even more uncharacteristic usage of "agreeability" visual motifs are seen in the 1964 television cartoon UNDERDOG.  Certainly the visual design of the character suggests a superhero spoof.



For that matter, the first "pilot" episode of the UNDERDOG show was completely comic in tone, dealing with the canine superhero screwing up royally in his attempt to save a young boy from perishing in a bank vault.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the cartoon's makers soon shifted to an approach structually like that of Cole's PLASTIC MAN.  The majority of the episodes were designed to be "cliffhangers," in which Underdog's city would be placed in peril by the villain of the week.  And though there was still a liberal use of humor, particularly stemming from the unheroic sound of Underdog's voice by actor Wally Cox, the UNDERDOG series usually played the menaces straight, no matter how quirky their looks or names might be.  A prominent example is that of the episode called "the Witch of Pikyoon" sequence.  A summary from IMDB encapsulates the essence of the conflict:

After Polly's plane gets caught in a freak storm, she calls for Underdog. He comes after it crash-lands in a strange uncharted land of the Pickyoon. Magically shielded from the rest of the world by a despotic witch that rules it. The Witch becomes aware of Underdog's great powers, which rival hers. Devising a plan in which to exploit that power, she captures Polly and places her under a spell. Ransoming Polly in order to force Underdog to perform Herculean labors. The last labor causes Underdog to forsake Polly and he battles with the witch. To the Death!   

The sequence is, once again, not bereft of humor, but the fight between Underdog and the Witch is played straight, rather than being resolved in some comic fashion.  Perservering readers may recall that I identified this invigorative attitude in the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries earlier.


Because the heroes seem genuinely threatened by bizarre villains and death-traps, both plot and character validate the power of the adventure-mythos even while managing to keep the comic elements in play. This is why, even for later generations of kids not yet jaded enough to laugh at Batman, the series can still excite and fascinate them, precisely because even with the giant OOFS and WHAPS, the invigorating thrill of the agon still predominates.

Therefore it should be noted that having a "cute" or "funny" appearance-- as is the case with Underdog, Plastic Man, and the Adam West Batman-- does not necessarily denote that the character's adventures must fall into any of the "funny" categories.