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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...

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Once more, I'll present the two images seen in Part 1:

In that essay I allowed that there was a partial truth in asserting that many works of fantasy, such as Superman, seem to be oriented upon fantasies of escape, i.e., "negative compensation." At the same time, I noted that many fantastic images, such as the one presented by the book-cover for the story-collection NIGHT'S YAWNING PEAL, display no overt appeal to any form of compensation, positive or negative.

The appeal of the scene on the cover of ACTION COMICS #1 is clearly one of physical confrontation and triumph. Thus some critics, particularly elitist ones, will assume that this connotes nothing more than the satisfactions of violence.  In my theory this also connotes a sublimity associated with Kantian might, but this consideration would not be relevant to an elitist, whose project is to stress the superiority of the mental to the physical.

I do not know how an elitist would explain the appeal of wolves-with-snakes-for-tongues for its target audience. I assume that they would think that the merging of two fearsome images would be a means of the threat of violence as well, even though no violence is shown, perhaps with the Freudian understanding that the genre of horror is usually "masochistic" whereas the genre of adventure is "sadistic."

I would say, though, that although both images contain aspects of the dynamic-sublime, their predominant appeal is that of the combinatory-sublime.

The wolves-with-snake-tongues is clearly a hybrid image. It creates a sense of supernormal terror, strongly associated with the antipathetic affect of awe.

However, because most critics are opposed to analyzing the nature of violence as a fictional construct-- preferring rather to make spurious conflations to real-world political ideology-- most such critics will not perceive that Superman, too, is a hybrid figure: that he looks like a man but is seen performing an act with a heavy car that only another heavy machine should be capable of performing.

Both images, then, appeal to the human imagination in terms of their ability to meld two or more things that do not generally go together. In isophenomenal fiction, such as my example of Conrad in Part 2, the author can only appeal to the imagination through simile: Conrad's sea is "like" a sheet of ice. In contrast, in the world of the marvelous metaphor takes precedence over simile. Superman is not like a machine; he has the same power of a machine, and the demon-wolves' tongues don't look like snakes; they are snakes.

I submit then, that even though elitist critics are not generally aware of Kant's concept of the dynamic-sublime, the general concept of "might" is one that they automatically associate with "escape," and therefore with "negative compensation." But the appeal of the combinatory-sublime is not so easily conflated with such an easily defined pleasure.  Given that this form of the sublime is more evident in all manifestations of the human imagination, regardless of phenomenality, I view its presence as a de facto demonstration of positive compensation. 


At the end of Part 1 I said:

In Part 2, I'll deal in more depth as to why such an image should be viewed as "positive compensation," as well as relating this theme further to my formulation of the two sublimities.
To do this, I must first reiterate my conviction that a basic identity exists between two familiar terms. I have argued that the term "sublimity," used with somewhat varying but not conflicting definitions by writers ranging from Longinus to Burke to Kant, is in essence identical to the affect that some fan of science fiction termed "the sense of wonder." According to this Wikipedia entry, I am not the first to make this equivalence, though I don't believe that prior to my first suggestions of this equivalence that I had encountered the writings of any of the authors cited in the entry:

The affinities of science fiction and Gothic literature also reveal a common quest for those varieties of pleasing terror induced by awe-inspiring events or settings that Edmund Burke and other eighteenth-century critics call the sublime. A looming problem for writers in the nineteenth century was how to achieve sublimity without recourse to the supernatural. ... The supernatural marvels that had been a staple of epic and lesser forms from Homeric times would no longer do as the best sources of sublimity. ... writers sought new forms that could better accommodate the impact of science.-- Paul K. Alkon, SCIENCE FICTION BEFORE 1900.

I would affirm that in the circles of science-fiction readers "sense of wonder" probably did connote something apart from other forms of the metaphenomenal, whether in Homeric epic, supernatural ghost stories or the "uncanny" forms of "Gothic literature." However, I don't affirm that this was a legitimate distinction. Those writers who have claimed that "the sense of wonder" must be rooted in a sense of partial scientific believability have simply failed to realize that this "causal coherence," as I now term it, is equally present in both stories which involve real ghosts and stories about Evil Uncle Cadbury dressing up like a spook.

As detailed here, my earliest uses of the term "sublimity" on this blog suffered from my preoccupation with Kant's arguments regarding the "dynamically sublime:"

...since I was primarily influenced by Kant's writings on the "dynamically sublime," at times I attempted to subsume all aspects of "infinitude" under the rubric of "might..."

At the same time, I was aware that it was possible to experience affects of sublimity in isophenomenal works.  An emphasis on "might," though, did not serve me for the example mentioned in the above essay-- "Superman's Return to Krypton"-- than it did in the essay ODDLY OR STRANGELY SUBLIME, where I tried to analyze this Conrad passage in terms of its sublimity-effects:

A marvellous stillness pervaded the world, and the stars, together with the serenity of their rays, seemed to shed upon the earth the assurance of everlasting security. The young moon recurved, and shining low in the west, was like a slender shaving thrown up from a bar of gold, and the Arabian Sea, smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice, extended its perfect level to the perfect circle of a dark horizon. The propeller turned without a check, as though its beat had been part of the scheme of a safe universe; and on each side of the Patna two deep folds of water, permanent and sombre on the unwrinkled shimmer, enclosed within their straight and diverging ridges a few white swirls of foam bursting in a low hiss, a few wavelets, a few ripples, a few undulations that, left behind, agitated the surface of the sea for an instant after the passage of the ship, subsided splashing gently, calmed down at last into the circular stillness of water and sky with the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.

The most I could do at that point was to compare this state of mind with one that Rudolf Otto called "the mysterium fascinans:"

This focus upon hostility, like Lewis' focus upon similar antagonistic states of mind, makes no allowance for the more "fascinated" state of sublimity

The "hostility" I referenced had to do with a specific comment by the philosopher Schopenhauer. However, my statement might just as easily have applied to the element of opposed energies found in Kant's "dynamic-sublime." That said, in an essay written the following year, I stated that I did not mean to suggest an equivalence between Rudolph Otto's two "mysteriums" and the nature of the energy, be it active or passive, in a given scene:

I'm not saying that scenes of "energy at rest" inevitably correlate with the affect of the *mysterium fascinans,* or that scenes of "violent energy" inevitably correlate with the affect of the *mysterium tremendum.*  On the contrary, it's possible to conceive of being "attracted to a fascinating mystery" that happens to be sublimely violent; the Conrad storm-scene simply is not one such because the audience is likely to feel fear on behalf of the storm's victims.  Similarly, the "marvelous stillness" from the LORD JIM passage could just as easily inspire "fear and trembling" if he were describing the stillness of a desert where a human victim could not perservere.  

Again, the above passage, written on 4-1-13, shows the influence of Kant's argument re: "might." But during the month of April, I finally managed to devote time to a prolonged reading of Otto, which I posted under the series-title HOLY NUMINOSITY. By the end of that month, I had decided that although Otto's dichotomy was useful for talking about sympathetic and antipathetic affects, since he was dealing with affects himself, that dichotomy wasn't so applicable to describing the psychological apparatus that nurtured the affects. Thus in the first of the TWO SUBLIMITIES essays, I went back to reread my previous observations regarding the sublime, and observed that I had been trying to "conflate two distinct aspects of the sublime."

So now I would not invoke Otto's "fascinans" as any sort of explanation for a "sense of wonder" in the Conrad scene above: rather, I would say that any wonder/sublimity in it is better explained by the combinatory-sublime. All the vivid effects of Conrad's description upon the mental "eye"-- the "serenity" of the stellar rays, the moon's resemblance to a bar of gold and the sea's resemblance to a sheet of ice-- combine to create the sense of isophenomenal wonder.

Wonder and sublimity, then, will prove of special relevance in Part 3, where I present a counter-argument to the assertion that fantasy is defined by negative compensation.



My reading of Bhaskar's REALIST THEORY OF SCIENCE led me to advocate a bifurcated conception of fictive causality, characterized by "regularity" and "intelligibility."

I used these two terms because Bhaskar had used them. However, every time I invoke the former term-- speaking, for instance, of "the regularity aspect of fictive causality"-- I find the term awkward.   I'm sure that part of my discomfort stems from certain risible associations with the word "regularity." In addition, the word doesn't seem to take in what I mean when I speak of how "the marvelous" intrudes upon the ordered world of normal causation.

I recalled a phrase from Northrop Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, in which he asserts that literary criticism should mirror the physical sciences in making "an assumption of total coherence." In science, this coherence implies that every physical law impacts upon and coheres with every other physical law. In science's domain at present, there are no fields of space where, as Lovecraft put it, the laws can be different than they are in the fields we know; no obtuse angles that can suddenly behave as if they were really acute.

So my solution to my discomfort is that from now on everything I denotes as "regularity" will be termed "causal coherence" in the labels and just plain "coherence" in text. The label differentiation is meant to distinguish it from my use of the term "coherence" as an indicator of a particular type of critical merit, as I explained in TERMINOLOGICAL TRACKDOWN PT. 1. 

 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.

Over the years since I first descanted on matters Langerian, though, I've hardly ever used "coherence" in this manner: to describe the qualitiative merit of a work's use of either "discursive" or "presentational" symbolism. So this becomes another term that is not incorrect, just inadequate for continued use. I will now speak of the "coherence aspect of causality" because the word "coherence" better describes what happens in a reader's consciousness when he sees a supposedly coherent world violated by the phenomenality of the marvelous; that is, when a world that seems in some ways like our own becomes at least partially incoherent by the presence of a numinous-seeming situation, object or presence, be it the entire fantasy-mythos of Tolkien or the "one gimme" of Jules Verne's Nautilus.

Therefore my "bifurcated conception of fictive causality" from now on will be characterized by two aspects, "coherence" and "intelligibility." For the three phenomenalities these terms sort out the same way the old ones did:

NATURALISTIC-- fictive causality is both coherent and intelligible
UNCANNY-- fictive causality is coherent but not entirely intelligible
MARVELOUS-- fictive causality is neither entirely coherent nor entirely intelligible

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


No anti-fantasy rhetoric had greater impact than the argument that "fantasy is compensation for the unpleasantness of reality." Professor Tolkien refers indirectly to this compensation theory in his objection to the notion that fantasy is merely "escape." Tolkien offers an ingenious re-reading of what it means to "escape"-- mentioning that escape from a prison may not be irresponsible, but entirely logical in the right circumstances.

Still, the spectre of compensation endures, usually being understood as an entirely negative phenomenon, despite the fact that Adler himself allowed for both positive and negative manifestations of the psychological phenomenon.  Sometimes negative compensation is even invoked by practitioners of fantasy themselves:

Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe Shuster's. As a high school student, I thought that someday I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed.-- Jerry Siegel.

And certain stories in the Superman canon certainly confirm that Superman was used to act out daydreams of supremacy, a fantasy evidenced by the first cover to feature the character:

No one, reading this or similar stories, can doubt that this particular story is all about a helpless fellow getting even with bullies-- i.e., negative compensation, at least in its narrowest definition.

Yet, not all fantasies are reducible to this easy formula.  Here's a cover from the 1971 short-story collection, NIGHT'S YAWNING PEAL:

For what lack of power, for what anxiety, does the image of wolves with snake-tongues "compensate?"

In Part 2, I'll deal in more depth as to why such an image should be viewed as "positive compensation," as well as relating this theme further to my formulation of the two sublimities.


I may develop this point at some future point; for now, it's just a response to the notion that "peer review" applies only to the symbolic form of science, and not to religion:


It's true that there's a pedagogical model instituted in many if not all religions, where the priest passes down a version of the accepted truth. But that model does not absolutely define religion, given that many religions change over time to meet the needs of a people. Religions must change to meet those social demands, even when they may assert that their truth is unchanging. Thus it could just as easily be said that religious practitioners who are too dogmatic and who resist all such change are bad practitioners. Someone mentioned that scientific findings are always validated by "peer review." But I suggest that religious viewpoints are also capable of societal peer review. The new Pope has advocated respect for LGBT in part because the ideal of that respect has been articulated by society, though naturally the Pope gives this ethical stance a spiritual reading as opposed to a purely secular one.


In GENDERIZATION GAP PT. 2 I observed that some, though not necessarily all, of the scathing responses directed at Janelle Asselin and others in comparable situations *might* have been justified as "a nasty species of humor."  That does not mean that such responses are *good* humor.  There are any number of bad comedians whose only idea of humor is that of degradation.  The appeal of Rudy Ray Moore's famous routine "Shine on the Titanic" is rooted in a fantasy of watching a bunch of foolish white people on the Titanic die while pleading with a gutsy black crewmen to save them.  There's nothing noble or satiric in this type of humor whether it's related by a dominant culture or a marginalized subculture; it exists just to vent nasty feelings of this type:

Shine said, "Bitch, Ya knocked up and gone have a kid,
but your ass got to hit this water
just like ol' Shine did."

A similar example of bad, degrading humor appears in this T-shirt:

This is a pretty stupid sentiment, but it's of the same species: it draws any power it has from its ability to infuriate people-- as it did with Greg Rucka.

I feel sympathy when I read the story Rucka relates about his daughter, who certainly deserves to enjoy being a fantasy-fan as much as any male fan.  But there's no point in getting mad at dumbasses who think that this sort of thing is funny.  I can't find the exact quote uttered by Alan Moore, but it was something like, "You can spend your time arguing when some drunken street-bum hassles you, or you can ignore him and do something constructive with your time."

It's a hard lesson, but everybody's kid has to learn to avoid letting the idiots get to him-- or her.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


While looking through my ARCHIVE's archives for something else, I found with some amusement that I had attempted to cross swords with Janelle Asselin back in February 2012. The link is now dead, but here's a refresher version.

Asselin's comments back then are pretty standard, what with her advocacy of "More product made for women, definitely. Product that’s made for men that’s less misogynistic. Product that is aimed at both genders." These type of sentiments amount to little more than a lot of "oughts" without any sense as to how to make any of them into an "is." I share none of Asselin's notion that "marketing" can make the difference, but I will make my own, possibly-no-more-helpful suggestion.

Comic books need a HARRY POTTER phenomenon.

Or at the very least, something along the lines of the Anita Blake books that popularized-- but did not create-- the relatively recent genre of the "paranormal romance."

These book-series, respectively by J.K. Rowling and by Laurell K. Hamilton, have proven noteworthy in finding ways to channel ideas that were long commonplace in fantasy-fiction, but which-- with rare exceptions-- scarcely ever tapped the "bestseller audience" in the United States.

I've frequently expressed skepticism as to whether it's possible to retrofit fantasies aimed at the male audience so that "one size will fit all." In THE GENRE-GENDER WARS I wrote:

Three years later, this simple but telling assertion has gone largely ignored, as both male and female fans continually act as if the cross-gender participants are not exceptions, and further, that any aspects of the genre enjoyed by the gender which dominantly buys the books-- in this case, the male-- should be corrected to fit the preferences of the minority gender, who is in this case happens to be the female of the species.

To some extent I can respect the attempt of a minority audience to make its voice heard, to make an impression on a genre dominated by the opposite gender. But when the demands seem determined to leech away those absurd or larger-than-life aspects that characterize the genre itself, that comes down to a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

I don't retract any of this. However, I do acknowledge the possibility of game-changers. The Rowling series is one such, in that it pleased both male and female readers more or less equally.  And paranormal romances, while they are probably dominated by a female readership, often have enough stereotypic "male" elements that many males do read them, thus overcoming the long-standing cultural prejudice that states that males will not read female-centric works.

Without endorsing what Heidi MacDonald called the "aggro" aspects of fantasy-fandom, I share Camille Paglia's skepticism about the possibility-- and the advisability-- of attempting to self-censor Those Things Men Like and Women Don't.  I don't believe that censorship, even with the best motives, provides any fruitful game-plans.

What would a "bestseller superhero" look like, one that crossed gender boundaries not because it was designed to do so, but because it was good?  Like WALKING DEAD? Like ONE PIECE?

Whatever the model, the time is right for such a breakthrough. Fantasy-fiction has attracted more female readers in part because the culture at large has admitted that fantasy can be cool, under just the right circumstances. I agree with Asselin, MacDonald and others that this is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

And if I knew how to make it happen, I wouldn't be writing this blog any more.

Monday, April 21, 2014


MAGGIE: "We are the masters of our own dreams and fantasies..."
PENNY: "Maggie's right. There is no such thing as the dream police. So you can think all the dirty, sick, evil thoughts you desire..."
HOPEY: "Acting on them is another aminal."
--- Jaime Hernandez, PENNY CENTURY #6  (1999) 

On 4/15/14, Heidi MacDonald posted a closed-to-comments essay on THE BEAT entitled, "What is it like to be a man in comics?"  The essay responded to the experiences of Janelle Asselin, who critiqued the cover art of the forthcoming TEEN TITANS #1, and who also received assorted rape-threats in response to her observations. In part 1 of my response I noted that Asselin made her points "cogently enough," though I disagreed with some of them. Though Asselin didn't address only matters pertaining to genderization, there's no question that she gives special attention to the representation of the female character Wonder Girl:

Let's start with the elephant in the room: Wonder Girl's rack. Perhaps I'm alone in having an issue with an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head (seriously, line that stuff up, each breast is the same size as her face) popping out of her top. Anatomy-wise, there are other issues -- her thigh is bigger around than her waist, for one -- but let's be real. The worst part of this image, by far, are her breasts. The problem is not that she's a teen girl with large breasts, because those certainly exist. The main problem is that this is not the natural chest of a large-breasted woman. Those are implants. On a teenaged superheroine. Natural breasts don't have that round shape (sorry, boys).

Asselin's deprecatory take on artist Rocafort's depiction of breasts resulted in the huge quantity of comments on her thread, getting close to 600 as I post this; it's plain even from a perfunctory look at those comments that next to no respondents cared about Asselin's observations about anything else about the cover.

Now, Asselin's comments about male breast-fantasies in comics are pretty much of a piece with hundreds of others before her column, so I have no clue as to why anyone would react so vehemently to them, as Heidi MacDonald details:

This is MEN’S PROBLEM. I know most internet trolls are teenaged boys who don’t know any better, but this is MAN’S THING. This is something you men need to figure out and condemn and deal with. There should be MAN RULES about it, like how you’re not supposed to go into the urinal next to another guy, that kind of thing. Belittling, embarrassing, threatening and shaming women should not be some kind of masculine rite of passage. It should be the opposite of being a real man.

 There's a partial truth in this, but keep in mind what MacDonald says a few paragraphs down:

In closing, I would like to salute the bravery and professionalism of Janelle Asselin. She put her opinions out there knowing what kind of response she would get and she still did it, in hopes of perhaps getting people to think and to shed light on matters that are not discussed enough. Just because these things are hidden does not mean that men do not have this problem.

I don't doubt that Janelle Asselin called things like she saw them. Yet the phrase "knowing what kind of response she would get" sticks in my mind.  I don't entirely concur with MacDonald's picture of Asselin as a selfless crusader, precisely because the paragraph I reprint above is set up to "poke the bear" as much as possible. Worse, it takes the position that fidelity to the real proportions of the human body is the only possible good in comic-book art, and that deviations from said proportions are ipso facto bad art.

I don't condone, any more than I understand, why even ignorant teenaged boys would use Asselin's comments-- which to me are nothing new-- as a excuse to attempt shaming a female writer. I also freely admit that this probably happens more when males object to writings attributed to females, though I have seen-- and experienced-- some instances in which male posters attempt to degrade their fellow males in terms of sexual references.

However, MacDonald's comment about "what it's like to be a man" seems rather self-serving, especially from the essayist who penned these golden words in 1-31-08, and cited here:

The question is how much the artwork resembles Superheroines Demise. Because if it looks like that, there may be some kind of ulterior motive....So next time you claim your interest in superheroes is completely innocent and devoid of fetishistic aspects, well…you’re going to have to PROVE it!

In my opinion, MacDonald takes a pretty long step to get from "dumb teenagers taking advantage of the Internet's anonymity" to a "masculine rite of passage."  Freud famously observed that men often told degrading jokes about women in all-male groups, but some studies suggest that this trait appears in both genders:

Mitchell's research and similar studies clearly show that men and women both know and appreciate jokes of an aggressive or sexual nature... but their jokes do not serve the same psychological or interpersonal functions.

Though the rape-threats printed by Asselin aren't jokes as such, I think it likely that if any of the threat-makers were called to account for those threats, those posters would probably justify their remarks as a nasty species of humor. I strongly doubt that any of them would defend their statements based on the right of men to rape women, whether as a right of passage or for any other reason. The exception to this generalization would in my opinion be anyone who had actually committed rape, which does invoke the sort of elaborate explanation MacDonald claims.

Let me return to the quote with which I opened this essay. It's a quote with which I agree; that stories in all media should be allowed, in the right circumstances, to indulge in "evil thoughts," be they stupid rape-jokes or Superheroines Demise.  In a curious reversal, though, Fantagraphics, the company that published PENNY CENTURY has never advocated overall freedom from the "dream police." The editors and writers of THE COMICS JOURNAL only advocated that freedom for an elite cadre of "quality authors," while all others were condemned as seducers of the innocent.

Janelle Asselin's complaints about "an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head" may be entirely sincere, but they are also in the JOURNAL's tradition of bear-poking. Unlike MacDonald, I don't think Asselin's comments "shed light on matters that are not discussed enough;" I think they're no more than preaching to the choir, though a bit more cogently than some of the critics I've assailed here.  No one but the members of that choir are going to care about Asselin's carping at unnatural breasts on a teenaged girl, and the result, as seen in the comments-thread, is a farrago of sniping and two-bit comments. Of the comments I read, many evinced a familiarity with the topic, so Asselin's original essay brings no fresh insights to the matter. It's just the same old song, and I don't think the tune would have been any different if Rochafort had been a more exacting artist.

The "evil thought" of picturing females with breasts bigger than their heads may well be a male thing that women will never get. But one answer to MacDonald's question about "what it's like to be a man in comics" might be not taking seriously the comments of those who make much of such petty evils. Dumbasses who make rape-threats, even those with no teeth in them, are, as MacDonald says, "fucked up." But the freedom to indulge in fantasies, even stupid ones, is a freedom that all men and all women deserve, in comics or in any other bailiwick.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Q: What time is it?

A: Time for another "gender politics" story!

The newest source of gender-related kerfluffle showed up on April 11, with this column by Janelle Asselin analyzing the cover of the newest incarnation of DC's TEEN TITANS:

I have to admit that Asselin makes her points cogently enough, and even though I disagree with some of them, I wouldn't have thought her essay particularly inflammatory. 

At the same time, I'm not as amazed as Heidi McDonald was a couple of days later:

Anyway the original column has racked up more than 500 comments. Which is crazy. I know there is mad hate for the Teen Titans Go! cartoon among DC comics fans, and, seemingly, frantic hostility in regard to anything that strays from the core demographic. I know I make fun of Bombshells and Giant Tits Teen and all that, but I guess playing to the base is what works in the DCU, no matter what the size of that base is.

First, I don't know why Heidi should be so surprised at the quantity of comments. It's clear to me that the sexual issues Asselin raised, rather than either the specific cover, the Teen Titans franchise or its "Go" spin-off are the things getting the CBR posters hot and bothered, so to speak. Yes, some posters didn't like TEEN TITANS GO, but I can't imagine why Heidi thought this was the dominating topic on this response-thread. Often the posters are talking about the same sort of issues Heidi raises all the time, as with, "Should a teenaged girl be shown as having huge boobs?"

A further note: Heidi automatically closed her own BEAT column on this subject to comments. Doesn't that argue that she was leery of having her thread explode into a firestorm of similar opinionated posts?

More later.

Monday, April 7, 2014


At the end of Part 2 I stated that the power to create illusions was a definite power, although one should deem it to be of a different order than the ability to directly affect physical objects or entities. 

The specific example cited in Part 2 were the assorted "specious spectres" of the cartoon teleseries SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU?  In my essay WHEN FUNNY ANIMALS ATTACK I went through some pains to specify that the basic concept of the series, in which some mystery-solving teens pal around with a talking dog, aligns the series with the domain of the marvelous.  The talking dog trumps the villains, who are aligned with the uncanny trope I termed "outrĂ© outfits skills and devices."  If there had been no talking dog in the series, then the show would have been uncanny, based on the dominant motif of said villains.

The studio Hanna Barbera produced many imitations of SCOOBY DOO's mystery-solving teens, and almost all of them also fall into the marvelous phenomenality. The well-remembered JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS (1970-71) went SCOOBY DOO one better in the department of marvel-making: borrowing more from H-B's own JONNY QUEST than from the "haunted house" comedy-mysteries of Hollywood, the globe-trotting Pussycats continually encountered evil masterminds (usually not masked) rather than schemers pretending to be spooks.  That said, JOSIE still kept up its quota for intelligent animals, as the cast included a devious feline, one Sebastian, who couldn't talk but did a number of un-cat-like things, like opening locks with his claws.

The closest thing Hanna-Barbera did to an series without marvels seems to be THE AMAZING CHAN AND THE CHAN CLAN (1972).  Perhaps because the series' main idea was to focus on the famed detective's large brood of offspring, there was just one comical animal, the dog Chu Chu. However, as memory serves he neither talked nor acted like a human being; he was closer to the model of Bandit in JONNY QUEST, in that he was for the most part a "real" dog.  As for the villains, they were cut from a more mundane cloth than SCOOBY's, but at least some of them did dress up in weird costumes and chase the kids around a little before ultimately getting caught in slapstick fashion.

None of these series register as "combative" in that there is no opposition between two exceptional types of power, as stated in THE NECESSITY OF SPECTACLE:

in the past year I've formulated the idea of "the combative mode" as one that exists exclusively where at least two exceptional-- or "megadynamic"-- forces come into conflict, thus producing Kantian dominance

The "specious spectres" of SCOOBY, CHAN CLAN, and various other ghost-chasing comedy-cartoons might not have a lot of power-- that is, they would be on the lower, "exemplary" level of the "x-type."  Ncvertheless, as long as their opponents were at least on that same level, then one would have a combative narrative.  However, because these cartoons were inspired by comedies in which the protagonists generally won out through luck rather than might or skill, the casts of SCOOBY DOO and that show's imitators were usually what I've denoted as "z-types," ranging from "poor" to "average' levels of dynamicity.

What would a combative version of the SCOOBY DOO template look like? If the heroes were exceptional naturalistic fighters, they would provide a megadynamic force able to contend directly with the uncanny menaces.  The 2002 SCOOBY DOO live-action film toyed with upgrading the characters of Fred and Daphne in this regard.  However, the sequel to that film did not emphasize this element, nor did any of the three Scooby Doo teleseries that followed the first film. 

The famous "Hardy Boys" book series might come closer to the mark, given that the main heroes were usually described as above-average combatants. However, I don't know whether or not the majority of the books-- which came out in many different editions-- would qualify as uncanny or as naturalistic.

Strangely, Hanna-Barbera produced a 1977 teleseries that had all the makings for a combative series in the SCOOBY mold, in that the show's uncanny spectres were caught by a marvelous being with a good deal more dynamicity than a talking dog.  This series, the incredibly inept CAPTAIN CAVEMAN AND THE TEEN ANGELS, featured a superhero caveman with real if erratic super-powers, who was constantly talked into solving crimes by his three hot-babe partners. However, there was no combat in the series between the goofball caveman and his adversaries. Rather, the villains were usually corralled through some slapstick device, just as in SCOOBY DOO. Thus this series-- which, I will note, wins my award for one of the most mind-numbingly awful American telecartoons of all time-- is no more combative than the series discussed in this essay, TEEN TITANS GO. The latter also substitutes goofy slapstick for even a comic version of martial combat, though happily, with far less excruciating effects.

Friday, April 4, 2014


In Part 1, I said, "the common purpose of both the "masterminds" and the "spectres" is to create narrative tension, which is generally resolved at each story's climax when the villain/ghost is unmasked."

Despite that similarity, there's a pertinent disconnect between the two figures. Unmasking removes the mastermind's power, while it removes the spectre's appearance of power.


Most masked criminal masterminds don't share the agility of the villainous Bat (seen sans mask above), but they do have power, usually mainifested through the agency of gangs of henchmen or super-weapons. 

The character of Fantomas from 1911 was one of the first of this breed to circulate in early 20th-century pop culture, and the type, as noted in the previous essay, was particularly popular in serial films.  Most of the figures from silent serials are unknown save to buffs, though one, the Clutching Hand, was translated to a 1936 chapterplay. Many sound serials are replete with dozens of colorful masterminds-- the Crimson Ghost, Captain Mephisto, Doctor Satan, the Spider-- many of whom are more interesting than the films' nominal heroes.

In contrast, the spectre who pretends to be a ghost, a vampire, a mummy or whatever usually has no real power but that of illusion.  In Part 1 I also opined that "I tend to doubt that the specific trope of plotters pretending to be ghosts sustains much popularity in the prose or the cinema of these days, with the exception of SCOOBY DOO cartoons."  And whatever one thinks of said cartoons, the original 25 episodes of SCOOBY DOO WHERE ARE YOU-- unlike many later incarnations, that brought in real ghosts, zombies, et al-- always kept faith with the same basic idea.

The Mystery Inc. teens investigate rumors of a monster.

The monster appears, scares them with its ferocious looks and tries to chase them away, usually twice in each episode.

The teens set some trap for the monster, which succeeds in spite of much slapstick hilarity, and the monster generally turns out to be a man or woman in a monster-suit.

Rarely if ever do the crusading teens-- who are heroic in their intentions, if not their dynamicity-- turn and try to overpower the monster by force of numbers.  Often when the malefactors are revealed, they look about as powerful as Grandma Moses. But the cartoon's entire raison d'etre was to offer mild thrills seasoned with slapstick comedy, so the show emphasized not "the fight" but "the chase," "the trap," and "the crime-solving summation."

One may dismiss the "specious spectres" as a worn-out contrivance, but to judge from their popularity in bygone days, they served a psychological purpose that contrasts with the pleasures of the more overt horror films of the sound era. In these comedy-Gothics, monsters were all puffed-up illusions, and no doubt the mature audiences that watched THE CAT AND THE CANARY or THE SMILING GHOST enjoyed that comforting thought as much as did any and all kids who enjoyed Scooby Doo.
But as I noted in THE PHENOMENALITY OF PSYCHOS, even illusion does have a power of sorts, which I'll discuss in Part 3.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Other serials like THE GRAY GHOST, WHO IS NUMBER ONE?, [etc.] and dozens of others all had either mysterious heroes or villains. Occasionally they had both.-- Jim Steranko, HISTORY OF COMICS, vol. 1.

At the end of GHOSTS AMERICAN STYLE I alluded to one such "mysterious villain," the character of the Bat, who first appeared in a 1920 play by Mary Robert Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. I reviewed the first two silent film-adaptations of the play here, noting that one, the other, or both may have had some impact upon the creation of the much more famous Batman. My interest in THE BAT concept is both historical and narratological.  The silent film versions follow the pattern Steranko sees in serial films of the same period, with their use of mystery-villains. Since I'm no expert on this period, I'd be curious to know the general nature of these figures. Were they, like the Bat, "masked masterminds" who are the ancestors of modern super-villains, whose motives are from the first clearly aimed at gaining money and/or power?  Or were any of them "specious spectres," who are initially ambivalent to the reader as to whether they're real spooks-- or at least, madmen, like the evildoer in the 1922 John Willard play THE CAT AND THE CANARY (whose 1939 adaptation I reviewed here.)

If the Bat is one of the ancestors of modern super-villains-- who admittedly graduated from the trivia of robbing Old Dark Houses-- the basic pattern of "the Cat" is derived from Gothic fiction.  Ann Radcliffe's 1791 novel THE ROMANCE OF THE FOREST is among the earliest Gothics to explain the supposedly supernatural events of the story, though I have not read it and its summaries do not allude to any "specious spectres." The earliest kindred of the Cat that I've personally read both hail from 1909: Gaston Leroux's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Bram Stoker's THE LADY OF THE SHROUD,.  Gothic fiction had a huge influence upon the history of horror fiction generally, but I tend to doubt that the specific trope of plotters pretending to be ghosts sustains much popularity in the prose or the cinema of these days, with the exception of SCOOBY DOO cartoons.

Regardless, the common purpose of both the "masterminds" and the "spectres" is to create narrative tension, which is generally resolved at each story's climax when the villain/ghost is unmasked.  The unmasking-angle may have lapsed as much in adventure-stories as in horror-fiction, and has probably become more confined to mystery-detective fiction as such.

In a future essay I'll deal with the impact of such figures upon my literary concept of dynamicity and its relation to the combative mode.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


At the conclusion of THE PHENOMENALITY OF PSYCHOS I wrote:

At present I have not found a necessary connection between the two forms of the sublime.  It does suggest to me how some figures of comparatively low dynamicity can suggest that they are more powerful than they really are. I conclude that it is because of the effect of the combinatory-sublime, which seems to invest such figures with a larger-than-life "mana."

To toss out a more concrete example, PSYCHO's Norman Bates and the Jason Voorhees who debuts in FRIDAY THE 13TH--PART II are both "perilous psychos" within the category of "the uncanny." They are not equals in terms of their dynamicity-- Norman is at best at the low end of the "x-type" level of dynamicity, while Jason, even when he's supposed to be no more than a deranged human being, clearly occupies the high end. But they may be deemed as equals in terms of their mythicity, a narrative value that has its roots in the affects I have termed the combinatory-sublime. 

I emphasize again that mythicity is not coeval with popularity.  The mad killer from 1983's CURTAINS is probably no more formidable than Norman Bates in terms of dynamicity, but she isn't anything to write home about in mythic terms. However, the psycho-killer in 1971's BLOOD AND LACE is barely known outside the halls of horror-fanatics, but I rated her mythicity as "good" in my review, if not quite as good as that of Norman and Jason.

One thought I'm toying with is that although I still believe that the mode of the combative is determined by the presence of both *dynamicity* (an exceptional level of power is expressed in the combat of at least two opposed entities) and *centricity* (their combat is central to the plot), the aspect of the combinatory-sublime may affect the way in which a given protagonist's *dynamis* is received.

For instance, I wrote in this essay that even though ordinary gangsters are not able to fight the Golden Age version of the Spectre, the author had to throw in complications so that the Spectre would have struggle on some level.  I would add to this observation that criminals in THE SPECTRE represent more than just ordinary crooks: collectively they are the evil that forces the undead avenger to keep up his crusade, rather than going to his eternal rest. On this admittedly limited level, then, even the most mundane crooks assume greater mythicity than they would in a less ambitious story.

A less ambitious story involving another undead avenger appears in the 1941 ghost-comedy film TOPPER RETURNS.

This engaging if simple comedy-- barely a TOPPER film at all, as the titular character has little to do in it-- is really about co-star Joan Blondell's character Gail Richards. While staying at a typical Hollywood "old dark house," Gail is murdered by an unknown assailant.  Gail rises again as a ghost who wants to bring her murderer to justice, and forces the twittery Topper to help her.  To be sure, though, like other ghosts in the TOPPER oeuvre, Gail is able to affect the physical world. In one scene the masked murderer attempts to kill again, and Gail, turning invisible, rains punches down on the confused killer until he flees. At the climax she does manage to ferret out her killer and cause his death too. 

The mere fact that the mystery killer is not exceptional in his dynamicity would keep this from being a "combative" film.  However, would things be different if the killer had a more prepossessing aspect, if he had some sort of bizarre identity like "the Bat?"

Such an added fillip might indeed make a difference, and in future essays I'll discuss some reasons why.