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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...

Monday, December 29, 2014

OBJECTS, GIVEN LUSTER

I've never asserted that it's unilaterally easy to identify the focal presence of a given story. I've stated before that I think Dracula is the focus of his eponymous novel. Yet I understand what an author like Marv Wolfman means when he states-- as he did in ALTER EGO #113-- that the human protagonists are the real stars of the book. I presume that Wolfman strove to write his renowned TOMB OF DRACULA along the same lines, emphasizing the vampire's various foes more than the vamp himself. Yet, though I respect this POV, I'd still argue that DRACULA is an "object-oriented" novel, in that the narrative is far more concerned with mapping out the villain's nature than any of the heroes. It's certainly possible to revise the Stoker narrative so that the revision focuses on one or more of the vampire-hunters, as with the 2004 film VAN HELSING. However, I wouldn't say that the TOMB OF DRACULA feature accomplishes this shift in emphasis.







One can scarcely argue against a narrative's "object-oriented" status, though, when that narrative's only viewpoint character is the abstracted mass of all humanity. Case in point: "The Destruction of the Earth," from EC Comics' WEIRD SCIENCE #14. "Earth" is one of many Al Feldstein stories of the period that preached against the destructive capabilities of hydrogen bomb technology.

The story begins in  a standard manner. A scientist named Holman meets with two government officials in Washington, trying to convince them not to execute a new hydrogen-bomb test. He shows them copious proofs to indicate that the bomb can trigger a chain reaction that will destroy the Earth. The politicians, concerned only with their own political advancement, ignore Holman's warnings and conduct the test. But Holman doesn't get to come back on stage for an "I told you so," nor does either politician get any chances at a mea culpa. Once the chain reaction begins on page five, the rest of the story is devoted to showing the spectacle of Earth's devastation and the extinction of humanity.

So, in such a story, what is the story's focal presence? The chain reaction? It causes chaos on a global scale, just as Rene Clair's THE CRAZY RAY causes all humanity to become frozen. But the story really isn't concerned with the abstractions of physics. The focus would seem to be the Earth itself, albeit in the status as a planet whose violent destruction illustrates mankind's hubris. Further, it doesn't stand in the relationship of "monster to victim," as Wonderland does to Alice. Rather, the Destroyed Earth itself is a victim, and therefore aligns more closely with the concept of the demihero.


Elsewhere I've written that it's almost impossible for a place to be a heroic entity, but the closest I've been able to find-- albeit without readily-available illustrations-- is a Gardner Fox story from STRANGE ADVENTURES #109 (1959), more easily found in reprint form in FROM BEYOND THE UNKNOWN #24 (1973) . Whereas the Feldstein story is rife with moral preachment, the Fox story-- "Secret of the Tick-Tock World"--  is an almost ludicrous example of the sort of "gimmick-oriented" story published by DC Comics in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"Tick-Tock" is the second in a series called "Space Museum." Each story, to the best of my knowledge, began with a father and his young son visiting their local museum in a generic space-opera future. The boy would inquire about some relic, and the father would tell a stirring story associated with the relic.

In this case, the relic is a simple, regularly-ticking Earth-watch. (It will surprise no one that Fox did not anticipate the digital revolution.) The watch was worn by an Earth-astronaut as he departed home in a spaceship equipped with a faster-than-light drive. The astronaut makes it to another solar system, where he finds a succession of planets that reproduce exactly different time-periods that parallel those on the single planet Earth--an idea probably borrowed from E.R. Burroughs' Caspak trilogy, in which a prehistoric land reproduced different evolutionary eras within the same terrain.

Once the Earthman reaches a planet that approximates the Earth of his time, he descends to talk turkey with the natives. He learns that the planet is threatened by an energy-burst that has already destroyed other worlds in the system. The Earthman, showing boundless faith in exact historical parallelism, jumps to the conclusion that the same destructive phenomenon once menaced Earth, but some mysterious something kept said phenomenon from dooming Earth.

Without regurgitating the story in depth, the Earthman figures out that the "something" were Earth's watches, whose regular ticking somehow drove the destruction away. Therefore, on the Earthman's advice, the planet's population mass-produces Earth-style watches-- and so they transform their planet into a "tick-tock world" that banishes the evil energy-phenomenon.

From the viewpoint of verisimilitude. "Tick-Tock" is a very silly story. However, despite its overarching silliness, it is in one sense more deeply mythical than "Destruction of Earth." Fox knew a great deal about primitive traditions, and surely knew that in some cultures a mundane activity is given soteriological status-- a trope also seen in the mythic tale trope that declares that Nordic peoples should always be careful paring their nails, lest the toss-offs be used in constructing the doom-ship Naglfar.

Again, though one might argue that the Earth-astronaut plays an active role in the story, he really is not the story's focus. Its focus is the spectacle of an entire world resounding with titanic "tick-tock" sounds, by which planetary doom is averted. This trope loosely aligns the "Tick-Tock World" with the agon of the heroic figure, though I would hesitate to classify this particular focal presence as a "hero."



EGO, MEET OBJECT

In this June 2013 essay I ruminated for a while on the way in which the focal presences of various works might be considered "ego-oriented" or "affect-oriented," using two Rider Haggard novels as my examples. I derived these terms from Carl Jung, but I've only used them a few times on my various blogs-- in contrast to my other principal use of the term "affect."  Also in 2013 I formulated the concept of "sympathetic affects" and "antipathetic affects" as a logical extension of Rudolf Otto's incomplete (in my opinion) schema.


Thus I'm retiring the term "affect-oriented."  The Jung quotes cited in the above essay don't consistently use "affect" as the only counterpoint, but also provide use the words "ego" and "object" as the consuming passions, respectively, of the introvert and the extrovert.


the idea of the ego [for the introvert] is the continuous and dominant note of consciousness, and its antithesis for him is relatedness or proneness to affect.
For the extravert, on the contrary, the accent lies more on the continuity of his relation to the object and less on the idea of the ego.


My substitute term, "object-oriented," is a little dicey simply because the focal presence it describes may be, more often than not, not a thing but a character: a "Dracula" rather than a "Wonderland." But it should signify only the basic fact behind object relations theory: that everything that is outside the intrapsychic world of the ego is experienced as an "object," regardless of its level of intentionality.

I've re-styled this terminology for the next essay in line. In passing I'll note that Stephen King has some inkling of the same distinction in his 1982 book DANSE MACABRE, where he distinguishes between "inside horror" and "outside horror."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THE BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY PT. 3

Regarding the first three ages that I assigned to the Batman franchise here, modern fandom knows little or nothing about what concerns attended the transitions from one phase to the other, be it on the part of the producers or the readers. Since the BATMAN titles did not start carrying regular letters-pages until 1959, fans today cannot know what was on the mind of the fans in the 1940s as they saw Batman's adventures change from the weird horror of the first period to the Gould-like sophistication of the second one. Nor did the producers of the Batman comics call attention to the changes when they started having Batman encounter more aliens and magic imps in the hero's "Warm and Fuzzy Age," though a few fan-writers recorded their (generally negative) impressions in the burgeoning world of fanzines.

In the letters-page of the BATMAN features, we do have some clues as to how both comics makers sought to portray the transition from "Warm and Fuzzy" to "the New Look," as well as contemporary reactions by readers. It's a subject that might reward an exhaustive study, were I writing an essay on the topic for academic publication. But I'm only writing this blog largely for my own amusement, I'll confine myself to just a few representative quotes.



The first "New Look" Batman comic to appear on U.S. news-stands was DETECTIVE COMICS #327 (May 1964).  The letters-page does not print any responses to the preceding issue by Jack Schiff, substituting instead half a page to the plans Julie Schwartz (who is, however, not mentioned in the text) has for the title. The page's other half is allotted to a letter from Big Name Fan Tom Fagan talking about the fourth annual Halloween parade in Rutland, Vermont, in which he mentions that the parade included several members of the Batman Family-- including newly dumped semi-regular characters Batwoman and Bat-Mite. Schwartz, or whoever may have written his copy for him, does not precisely denigrate the works of the previous era, but the copy does extol the "New Look" over its predecessor in subtle ways.

There's a "new look" about the BATMAN art (the handiwork of the peerless pencil-and-pen pair, Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella)-- and there's a slicker, more dramatic style of storytelling (from the "talented" typewriter of John Broome).
The ensuing paragraph further informs the readers that a new backup feature, that of the Elongated Man, has ousted the Martian Manhunter from the pages of DETECTIVE COMICS; this section does not specifically champion the qualities of the new feature except to mention-- evidently playing to the hardcore fans in the audience-- that its writer and artist, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, are both winners of awards from the Academy of Comic Books Arts and Sciences. Schwartz's announcements conclude with obliquely informing the readers of the "big event" to come in the next issue of DETECTIVE-- which, as all good Bat-fans should know, was the death of Alfred, a "big event" subsequently reversed when the producers of the teleseries wanted to keep the Bat-cave's butler around on the show.



The art of the "New Look" Batman is not compared to that of the previous raconteurs, largely Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff, because all of this art was billed as having been produced by Bat-creator Bob Kane. Some fans were certainly deceived: a letter from BATMAN #172 credits the improvements on the art to the inking of artists like Giella and Sid Greene on "Kane."  But the letters-page's comment on the writing of John Broome is without a doubt an attempt to persuade readers that the "New Look" would offer improvements on the previous period's writing, calling Broome's style "slicker" and "more dramatic."



One cannot always be sure that all the letters in Silver Age lettercols were genuine, save those that were written by "Big Name Fans" whose frequent appearances insure that the editors were not likely to have used their names flagrantly.  The letters-page of BATMAN #168 leads off with a representative comment by a known letter-hack of the period, Leonard Tirado, and this reader makes no bones about unfavorable comparisons to the previous Schiff regime as he comments on a story from BATMAN #165:

"As all of us in fandom know, the new look policy in BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS will mean newer and better stories like those featured in the current BATMAN. All previous attempts at faked-up science-fiction have been wiped off the somewhat depreciated slate of the dynamic duo. "The Man Who Quit the Human Race" was different than all others in that the science element was just used for what it was intended... to make the tale plausible, and not serve as a cover-up for "A monster is on the loose, boys" type plot."




Since one of the more vocal fan-complaints in later years concerned the inappropriate injection of science-fiction motifs into the Batman stories, Tirado's 1964 comment suggests that some readers didn't mind such motifs in Batman; they just didn't approve of seeing these elements dumbed down for the purpose of simplistic monster-stories, as Tirado implies was the case during the Schiff regime. For Tirado at least, Schwartz and his stable of raconteurs succeeded in bringing a "slicker, more dramatic" feel to the Batman franchise. Modern fans might not see that much difference between the Gardner Fox story in BATMAN #165 and previous alien-happy offerings from the Warm and Fuzzy Era. But there can be little question that some readers not only found Schwartz's editorship more pleasing, and that they found his version of Batman more "legitimate" even though Schiff's version, having been authorized by DC Comics, was just as legitimate. For many years, most fans echoed Tirado's verdict in respect to "Schiff vs. Schwartz," though in recent years Schiff's legacy has received a bit more critical attention.




The issue of legitimacy, however, was raised with far greater force with the debut of the BATMAN teleseries in 1966. Again, while one cannot be 100% sure of the authenticity of Silver Age letters-pages, I tend to consider genuine letters expressing grievances about how the teleseries was adversely affecting the comic books. My representative example is from another BNF, Peter Sanderson. from BATMAN #194:

"... it seems to me that you [editors] think, 'If the readers want campiness, let's give some to them-- if we don't, we won't sell as many mags,' Now, look. Your magazine will NOT drop in sales if you get rid of the 'batbrellas,' the 'holy ____.' If you think that your sales will be crippled without campiness, remove the camp stuff from BATMAN and DETECTIVE and have those two mags for people like me, and for the Camp-ers, put Batman in another mag wherein he teams up with the Inferior Five, because to readers who won't read an 'Uncamp Batman,' he's just a bundle of laughs."
I see one implied element held in common by all three of the quotes cited. Schwartz (or his spokesman) emphasizes "slickness" in a non-pejorative manner, meaning something like "streamlined," and claims that the work will be "more dramatic," which connotes a better appreciation of how to make stories work in dramatic terms. Many fans of the period would agree that the stories from Jack Schiff's editorship had become too ritualized, too formulaic, with rare exceptions like the fan-favorite story "Robin Dies at Dawn." Schwartz was no less invested in delivering formulaic stories-- certainly, in later comments the editor cantankerously disparaged his Silver Age readership.  At the time, though, Schwartz understood that one way to boost the readership of the Bat-books might be to appeal to the hardcore fans, who didn't want to see their favored genre as routine and repetitive, and enjoyed seeing genre-works that paid closer attention to matters of drama and verisimilitude.

Oddly, what the BATMAN teleseries delivered was closer in spirit to Schiff than to Schwartz. Whereas Schiff invoked formulaic elements simply in the belief that this was what the readers ought to want, the TV producers invoked those elements for purposes of spoofing and/or satirizing. Both were, for very different reasons, invoking the Langerian concept of *the gesture,* but in a very ostentatious manner, calling attention to the gestural nature of the fantasy so much that I'm tempted to consider it a sub-division of the gesture, which I will provisionally label "artifice." Thus Sanderson dismisses the camp teleseries as irrelevant to what he wants, since it's just "a bundle of laughs."

In conclusion, this brief overview shows that the original statements of Noah Berlatsky, cited here, were flawed in presuming that all comics-fans ought to have embraced the teleseries if they wanted legitimacy. I don't think most fans of any period wanted legitimacy if it meant trashing the original stories that they enjoyed; it's my impression that fans wanted Batman to be loved for the very escapism he incarnated, not as an ironic commentary on some in human society or psychology. And even the considerations of legitimacy were secondary, just to wanting better Batman stories.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

FOUR AGES OF THE DARK KNIGHT

Before proceeding to more questions regarding percevied issues of "legitimacy" within the BATMAN comics franchise, a quick sketch of the first four "ages of the Dark Knight" seems appropriate, to show in capsule-fashion how the franchise changed over the years in creative terms.

I'll christen the ages as follows:

(1) THE FEVER-DREAM AGE: The first year of Batman's adventures in his initial two titles may have started out with a swipe from a SHADOW pulp-tale, but most of the stories read more like THE SPIDER than THE SHADOW. During this short-lived, pre-Robin period, the artists favored lots of chiaroscuro effects and physical grotesquerie, and the plots leaped madly from one weird subject to another, from killer clowns to vampires to mad scientists to devil-men who turn people into flowers.



(2) THE DICK TRACY AGE.  In or around the introduction of Robin, stories took a more ratiocinative, procedural feel. Grotesquerie still appeared, notably with the 1942 introduction of Two-Face, but now it was subsumed by plots that were more nominally more logical, rather than simply lurching from one wild battle to another. Artist Dick Sprang did not work on Batman until 1943, but for fans of the feature Sprang's design-sense has become synonymous with this age.




(3) THE WARM AND FUZZY AGE.  In 1955, the producers of the Batman franchise, headed by editor Jack Schiff, took the first step in imitating the more successful Superman franchise captained by editor Mort Weisinger. In June 1955 Batman and Robin acquired the recurring character of "Ace the Bat-Hound," very possible in response to the introduction of Krypto in ADVENTURE COMICS #210 that March.

Some further additions to the "Batman Family" of the period actually predated any one-on-one comparable figures in the Superman Family, in that 1956's "Batwoman" predated the introduction of recurring character Supergirl in 1959.




However, it should be pointed out that Superman had encounter distaff versions of himself prior to 1956; they simply had never been intended as recurring or series-based characters, as with this 1951 super-powered version of Lois Lane.



Though Dick Sprang continued to contribute to the Batman features into the early 1960s, the artist most associated with the franchise in the early Silver Age was Sheldon Moldoff. Even in 1955, Moldoff can be seen trying to retain the hard edge of Sprang's line. However, by 1956 one can see Moldoff's line becoming more "warm and fuzzy" in that characters have a more rounded aspect. Indeed Big Name Fan Mike Tiefenbacher, former editor of THE COMIC READER, once commented that in this period Batman began to look rather chubby-cheeked, like the Legion's Bouncing Boy

Stories from this period became somewhat more antic, as Schiff endeavored to build up Batman's repertoire of costumed villains. However, the period has become better known among Batman fans for the introduction of the impish Bat-Mite, a clear derivation from Superman's spritely villain Mxyzptlk, and for the introduction of many contrived alien menaces. Possibly the editor had some idea of taking advantage of a moderate science fiction in comics of the late 1950s, but it should be said-- as I pointed out here-- that Mort Weisinger was also pursuing a similar strategy at the time.





(4) THE NEW LOOK AGE: Imps, aliens and the old members of the Batman Family all got the heave-ho in 1964, when editor Julius Scwhartz took over the Batman features and instituted the first overtly heralded change in the Batman family: what the cover of DETECTIVE COMICS #327 called "the New Look."  In BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY PT. 3 I'll deal with the ways in which the changeover was announced and some ways in which readers reacted, but for now I'll conclude by referencing, for anyone interested, this essay as to what was different about the "New Look."

Friday, December 12, 2014

THE BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY PT. 2

Once more I return to the quote that started these meditations on legitimizing pop fiction:

In part it seems like Batman comic book fans have been wary of the show precisely because it situates superhero comics not in the relatively sober tradition of gritty pulp noir, but in the (often comic) tradition of serial melodrama. Yet, as this episode is well aware, that melodramatic tradition is in some ways actually more high-brow, or more accepted as high-brow, than those supposedly more validating pulp sources. 


In Part 1 I've demonstrated that the tradition of serial melodrama was not particularly comic, and that if any counter-tradition did exist, it was in the form of spoofs and satires of the original form. In my one comment on Berlatsky's original thread, I asked him if he meant to imply that the serial melodramas of the silent era-- PERILS OF PAULINE and the like-- were meant to be comic, and he admitted that he did not mean that. To the best of my knowledge, the counter-tradition of spoofs and satires did not arise in the form of actual serials, but in short features like the 1917 short film TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE, a Mack Sennett comedy starring Gloria Swanson as a girl who gets tied to a train-track and is rescued by her faithful dog.




Why does it matter, whether or not the serials were dominantly comic? It's a point of simple logic. It's logical that serials should be "serious"--  not in the sense of being highbrow art but in the sense that their producers want audiences to be invested in the fates of the characters-- because the entire strategy of dividing a purportedly whole story into parts is to make audiences experience suspense about whether characters will survive myriad life-threatening perils.



Having established that what Berlatsky's talking about is actually a counter-tradition-- one that is no more or less valid that the original melodramatic design-- what does he mean when he says that "Batman comic book fans" have rejected the supposedly comic pattern of serial melodrama for "the relatively sober tradition of gritty pulp noir?" I pointed out in Part 1 that most pulp fiction was just as melodramatic in nature as anything in cinema, silent or otherwise. But I will admit that there's one factor that separates popular films from popular pulp fiction: the latter does not have a counter-tradition of irony and comedy, at least not one comparale to the cinema's, that arises in response to the "serious" mythoi of adventure and drama.


I'm not saying no funny stories ever appeared in any pulps; science fiction magazines certainly made space for humor. Yet I don't believe humor had a strong presence in the two pulp-genres that most influenced the Golden Age Batman: that of the detective/mystery genre (subsumed by the mythos of "drama") and that of the urban crimefighter (subsumed by the mythos of "adventure.")  The only way any of this could be termed "noir" would be in terms of dark and forbidding settings, so it's probably best to set that misplaced term aside here.




"Gritty" is an interesting word for Berlatsky to have used. It's possible to regard some pulp-works, like the Dashiell Hammett works of BLACK MASK, as "gritty," but a lot of detective-fiction of the period avoids any sort of grit and grime. Street & Smith's SHADOW magazines, which provided a fairly strong influence on Kane and Finger's Batman, tended to avoid both sexuality and extreme violence, usually focusing on fairly pedestrian ratiocinative mysteries in the tradition of S.S. Van Dine.  Since not all pulps-- or even all pulps that influenced Batman-- were gritty, I must assume that Berlatsky is opposing a tendency of Batman fans to devalue the "often comic" tone of the BATMAN show in favor of whatever tropes in the pulps can be considered both "sober" and "gritty"-- tropes which Berlatsky deems only "supposedly more validating" than the counter-tradition of the "humor-medlodrama."



I don't agree with Noah that modern fans are very much opposed to the 1966 teleseries these days. For many modern fans, it was the first televised version of the character they saw, and many if not all of them see it as a step toward whatever legitimacy one might see in having the character adapted for expensive Hollywood movies, starting with the 1989 BATMAN. I also don't know how many fans really worry about validating the BATMAN comic in terms of its pulp influences. It may be enjoyable to think about the Caped Crusader as part of a pulp-tradition that includes Dashiell Hammett and the Shadow, but I've met very few Bat-fans who worry about having Batman vetted by highbrow critics.  Indeed, if Batman has gained legitimacy from making the transition to expensive Hollywood films, it would seem that it did so not by emulating the campy approach of the teleseries, but by emphasizing the "gritty" aspects of Batman's childhood trauma, be it in the carnivalesque style of Tim Burton or with the quasi-Marxist focus of Christopher Nolan.  So in terms of Hollywood success, "the serious" served Batman better than "the comic"-- even if the partly-comic 1966 series deserves some credit for making the Gotham Guardian and his villains into household words.

Part 3 will concentrate on the First Big Battle for Bat-Legitimacy, which dates back to a time before the Bat-teleseries was even a gleam in William Dozier's eye.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

TOO ILLEGIT TO QUIT PT. 2

The remarks in this essay dealt with the ways in which popular art is or is not viewed as legitimate. Of course "is not" proves far common than "is," despite those infrequent works that receive both great critical and commercial success. The cinema, even in its formative years, proved subject to the same elitist critical attitude that dominated other, older media.

In BATTLE PT. 1, I asserted that "serial melodrama" was not granted any particular legitimacy by critics of the silent-film era, and that the only ways in which it ever come close to such legitimacy was when the serious works of the period were being parodied:

If Berlatsky is correct that at some point "highbrow" critics venerated any sort of melodramas, it would only be through this arguably distorting lens, as ironic or comic takes on material that was originally meant to be taken seriously, at least in terms of rousing strong emotional involvement.

I will admit that I'm no expert on the era of silent films. However, I do know where to find experts, and I found three in the 2004 collection of academic essays ACTION AND ADVENTURE CINEMA, edited by Yvonne Tasker.

First up we have Jennifer M. Bean, whose essay "Trauma Thrills" examines in part the use of shock tactics in early action cinema, which the trade papers of the period labelled "sensational melodrama" or "thriller melodrama." Bean's express interest in "hysteria, or shock, or astonishment as a key aesthetic effect of early film" is rooted in her "dissatisfaction with the way that both traditional and revisionist historians have told the story of cinema's turn to a predominantly narrative form." She examines, among other things, the series THE HAZARDS OF HELEN, and concludes that "far from a homeostatic model that "aims at... the regulated order of the spectacle," this narrative machine is calibrated for spectacular excess"-- a remark that I find to be in line with my own observations about the relevance of Bataille's concept of "expenditure" to popular fiction.  She also notes that the highbrow film-maker Sergei Eisenstein is known to have studied HAZARDS OF HELEN for the purpose of "his experiments with shock-like montage techniques."


Second, Richard Abel examines "The Culture War of Sensational Melodrama," asserting that according to the trade papers of the period, most of the audience for "sensational melodramas," whether in serial form or not, was "the ordinary moving picture audience," as opposed to the more well educated upper classes. He mentions, too, how cinematic melodramas usurped the popularity that had once belonged to stage melodramas of the late 1800s and early 1900s, though his chief concern is to point out how American audiences had an early flirtation with melodramatic movies from France. However, the audience's interest in exotica waned in deference to home-made products, and Abel notes that the audiences of the time rejected what is probably the only silent French film that's anything to conjure with these days, 1913's FANTOMAS.


Finally, Ben Singer offers the most complete picture of "serial melodramas" within the greater context of general film melodramas. Today one of the greatest short-hands for silent-film thrills is that of the feminine beauty tied to the train-track-- winsomely spoofed in the cartoon DUDLEY DO-RIGHT-- but Singer mentions a male character, a "tenderfoot," who gets tied to a train-track in 1907's THE BAD MAN, and is for good measure rescued by his girlfriend.

More importantly, Singer points out that D.W. Griffith, "the finest director of melodramas in the feature-film era," learned his craft while working on "blood and thunder melodrama" with his short films for the company Biograph, roughly from 1908-09. Many of these have not survived, but Singer, drawing on trade journals, presents a panoply of effects that are not especially comic in tone: "extreme moral polarity, abduction, brawling, brutality, binding and gagging, murder, and 'infernal machines' (intricate death-dealing contraptions used to prolong suspense.)"  In keeping with Bean's remarks on the transition from early sensational melodramas to films with a "predominant narrative form," there's something satisfying about knowing that Griffith, often lauded as the Father of Film-as-Art, once did a melodrama, THE FATAL HOUR, in which a detective was doomed to be killed by a pistol tied to a ticking clock.

Singer provides a summing-up that ought to put paid to any notion that sensational melodramas were regarded, by audiences or contemporary critics, as comic in tone. Rather, "they epitomized a new, or at least newly accentuated, cultural appetite for powerful stimulus." It was an appetite that did not conveniently disappear once the relatively more sophisticated works of the feature-film era, for even the more restrained dramas never entirely got away from the need to stimulate and thus direct its audience with the allure of the forbidden and the illegitimate.


TOO ILLEGIT TO QUIT PT. 1

Before delving more into the question of "Bat-legitimacy," I want to lay down some background as to what ways, if any, characters relevant to the "superhero idiom" have or have not been perceived as legitimate art-forms.

What I'm printing in this section is a slightly rewritten response to a letter. Suffice to say, I wrote a piece for my apa talking about the fact that of all superheroic types, only Tarzan enjoyed long-running serial success as a cinematic hero. A correspondent pointed out that Tarzan wasn't perceived as an "A-list" character. What I wrote in response may not be entirely easy to follow without the correspondent's words, but some of the commentary does bear on the question of legitimacy in pop culture.

___________________________


Re: my remarks on Tarzan—I wasn’t speaking of the studios’ attitude toward Tarzan, as to whether he was viewed as “A-list” or lower, but merely that audiences in the Classic Hollywood era were willing to accept him as a hero despite his lack of naturalistic normality.  It would be fair to regard Tarzan as one of many well-made B-film serial franchises, including Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan. Yet, while some series-franchises flirted with metaphenomenal antagonists, the heroes themselves were ordinary if exceptional-in-some-way human beings. Other attempts to feature extraordinary protagonists in cheap feature films—the Shadow, Chandu the Magician—didn’t last long for whatever reasons, and for twenty-something years the only consistent cinematic source for “superheroes” was what I choose to call the “C-list”—that is, the serials, firmly aimed at kids.  Only there did Hollywood choose to address the popularity of comic-book superheroes, whether they were adapting comic-book characters or coming up with their own versions, like “the Masked Marvel.”

But the American A-list actors only rarely went near extraordinary protagonists, with the exception of Douglas Fairbanks Sr,, who created one of the first in American cinema, the Thief of Baghdad, and provided the first film-adaptation of  Zorro, which alone probably kept that hero from falling into obscurity along with other Johnson McCulley characters. John Wayne, whom you mention, did in his early years perform in three serials, one of which, THE HURRICANE EXPRESS, might qualify for meta-status, though of course Wayne wasn’t an A-lister at the time. Once an actor moved into the A-list, he or she might appear in any number of realistic adventure-stories, in the genres of westerns, war, or mysteries—but not often science fiction or fantasy. Horror-films were something of an exception: they offered such opportunities for barnstorming performances that you could get an A-lister to do one, like Claude Rains in THE INVISIBLE MAN or Charles Laughton in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. But then, these were also adaptations of novels that had some strong critical repute, which is more than one could say for TARZAN OF THE APES or most other novels featuring metaphenomenal heroes.


         BTW, to support the A-list distinction even more—in a TCM interview William Wellman said that he was brought in to provide uncredited direction on a Tarzan picture-- specifically, TARZAN ESCAPES--  because the studio was short-handed. He didn’t want to do it, but was surprised when he enjoyed the experience. Supposedly he asked the studio heads to let him do another, and was told, “Are you crazy? You’re an A-lister, bringing in the big money; we can’t have you waste your talents on Tarzan!”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THE BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY

Once again, a commentary on the 1966 BATMAN  show by Noah Berlatsky provides me with more grist for my mills, which, as the saying goes, grind exceeding slow. I'm not debating his take on the particular Bat-episode he cites, but I will respond to this passage in terms of the fannish history involved.

In part it seems like Batman comic book fans have been wary of the show precisely because it situates superhero comics not in the relatively sober tradition of gritty pulp noir, but in the (often comic) tradition of serial melodrama. Yet, as this episode is well aware, that melodramatic tradition is in some ways actually more high-brow, or more accepted as high-brow, than those supposedly more validating pulp sources. 

First, I have to take issue with the implied distinction between "gritty pulp noir" and "serial melodrama." Melodrama itself is a capacious category that takes in any work, in any medium, that makes an appeal to sensation rather than Aristotelian *dianoia.* Merriam-Webster's primary definition is relevant even though I don't agree with its comment re: "characterization":

a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization



One may think of "pulp noir" as connoting the arty detective stories of BLACK MASK, or the highly regarded films noirs of the 1940s and beyond. However, to the extent that they depend on extravagance and the emphasis on plot over character and/or theme, all of them are melodrama.  As far as the Golden Age Batman is concerned, though, his main influence from the pulp magazines stems from the even more outrageously melodramatic pulp-hero tradition.  It's common knowledge in fan-circles today that the very first Batman story in DETECTIVE #27 was a swipe from a SHADOW story.




I'm not sure that I would call even the more respectable forms of pulp melodrama entirely "sober," whether one is talking about the Continental Op or DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but the term can be fairly used in a comparative sense. The most famous pulp melodramas are "serious" rather than "comical;" ergo, they are more "sober" than a work than seeks to spoof those tropes, as the teleseries BATMAN does.

Admittedly, Berlatsky isn't talking about all melodramas, but the sort of "serial melodramas" that BATMAN frequently imitates, particularly in the Riddler episode cited. But if one is speaking of the sort of serials that commenced in the silent years of American filmmaking-- that is, films that purport to tell a story broken up into short chapters-- then it's questionable as to whether the majority of these were comic in nature.

I'll cover the matter of silent serials in a separate post, but for the time being, I'll put forth the generalization that most of them were not comic in tone. Comic send-ups of adventure-stories have a long history, though, and silent film had its share, notably Buster Keaton's SHERLOCK JR. I suggest that when modern fans think of silent melodrama films at all, they're seeing them through the lens of their spoofs. This is understandable but inaccurate; a little like assuming that medieval epics were all funny because Cervantes is better-remembered than the epics he was satirizing in DON QUIXOTE.



If Berlatsky is correct that at some point "highbrow" critics venerated any sort of melodramas, it would only be through this arguably distorting lens, as ironic or comic takes on material that was originally meant to be taken seriously, at least in terms of rousing strong emotional involvement.By this logic, William Dozier's BATMAN might find himself in the same category as Douglas Sirk's witty inversions of women's melodramas.

But what should this mean, if anything, to those readers who wanted emotional involvement from their BATMAN stories?

For the answer, Stay Tuned Till Tomorrow, Same Bat-essay, Same Comics-Blog.

Monday, December 8, 2014

IRONY OF IRONIES

It's a two-part irony this time:

(1) DC Comics was launched principally by two men, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who had a well-documented history in producing sexy pulps ("the kind men like," as some old slogan put it). Getting into kids' comics was their way of becoming respectable, and throughout the Golden Age the company usually advocated a squeaky-clean approach to juvenile pulp entertainment.  Aside from the Marston WONDER WOMAN, most DC features allowed only for minimal sex appeal, though one can see artists "letting themselves go" to some extent with certain characters-- Catwoman in BATMAN, Hawkgirl in HAWKMAN, and a handful of others. Yet Frederic Wertham persuaded many middle-Americans that all comics-- with DC books getting many of the citations-- were crammed with salaciousness.



(2) In contrast to comics, which retained a bad reputation even after the institution of the Comics Code, television quickly became known as a "safe harbor" for middle America. That's not to say that various individual programs didn't get criticized for sexy stuff-- though I've the impression that violence was the more frequent target-- but the major TV stations successfully "sold" themselves as purveyors of respectable entertainment. Yet in 1966, the BATMAN teleseries brought about a sea-change in DC's BATMAN feature-- and it did so by playing up the very salacious qualities that were almost invisible at DC Comics during its Golden Age.




For its first twenty-something years, the Catwoman was pretty much the only "femme fatale" in the Batman features that ran in BATMAN, DETECTIVE COMICS, and WORLD'S FINEST.  There were a smattering of one-shot molls or "damsels in distress," and a handful of recurring leading ladies, of whom 1948's Vicki Vale remains the most famous. Given what I've seen of DC's editorial tendencies during the Golden Age, I hypothesize that the editors only kept Catwoman as a recurring villainess (1) because she had appeared in the first few years of the Batman feature, before the editorial routines became set in stone, and (2) because the editors thought she was popular with readers, probably as a result of enthusiastic fans writing the DC offices (though I don't think any Golden Age DC Comics maintained a letters page). Only with the advent of the Silver Age-- which I date as beginning in 1954, with the Comics Code's advent-- did the Batman feature accumulate a few more crucial female presences in Batwoman and Bat-Girl. It's been alleged-- though never decisively proven-- that both characters were introduced to defuse Wertham's accusations that the Batman feature presented a "homosexual wish dream." In any case, both characters disappeared in 1963, with the feature was revamped in tune with Julie Schwartz's "New Look." In addition, Catwoman made no appearances in any DC comic from 1954 to 1965, finally showing up in a 1966 issue of LOIS LANE.



However, even though the BATMAN comic wasn't overflowing with femininity when William Dozier decided to launch his Bat-series,  Dozier clearly meant to pump up the pulchritude from the first episode, with Jill St. John getting special billing as the Riddler's gang-moll. There's also a scene in which a gaggle of young girls are seen screeching over their sighting of Robin, as if he were a superheroic version of a Beatle.  [Correction: this scene was in the third episode.] Later in the series' first season, Catwoman, exiled from kids' comics by conservative DC, made her triumphant return in a medium aimed firmly at a general, middle-class audience, and arguably became as popular with the show's fans as the main heroes. This, according to interviews with DC artist/editor Carmine Infantino, led DC to create two new female figures for the Bat-mythos, for possible use on the teleseries: Poison Ivy and the 1967 Batgirl-- though only one of the two made an appearance on the BATMAN show.



I lived through that period, and while I imagine some Wertham-like figures may have critiqued the BATMAN teleseries, I don't remember anyone being torqued at the series' mild salaciousness. But the 1960s was a very different decade from the 1950s. It's possible that Frederic Wertham's screed may have owed its success largely to a "perfect storm" of contingent factors that only came together in the fifties-- the government investigations of organized crime, postwar malaise, fear of rising juvenile delinquency. 

A third irony: though Wertham would never have credited it, he and DC's editors were close to being on the same page. The good doctor looked askance at almost every sexy and/or violent image he saw in comics, all a-twitter that it might cause some poor child to lose his innocence. DC's publishers, in contrast, had made their early fortunes in part from selling sex to whoever could pay for it-- in theory, usually older customers-- and then decided, once they struck juvenile-pulp gold, that they would play it safe for the majority of the 1940s and 1950s. WONDER WOMAN was one of the few features where they gave its creator some leeway in the depiction of sexuality, possibly because their contract with Marston gave him some limited control of the franchise: other Golden Age female-centric features, such as BLACK CANARY, LIBERTY BELLE and MERRY, GIRL OF A 1000 GIMMICKS, aren't much sexier than ROBOTMAN or THE STAR-SPANGLED KID. 



A fourth irony: the Comics Code effectively exiled the genres that had garnered the most public acrimony: i.e., horror and crime, which tended to surpass many though not all adventure-related genres-- superheroes, westerns-- in terms of sexy and visceral imagery.  But the Comics Code apparently had a stultifying effect on comics-sales: according to Amy Nyberg's SEAL OF APPROVAL, DC Comics returned to a heavy emphasis on superheroes specifically because none of their other genres were selling very impressively. Yet though the Batman franchise remained fairly conservative in its use of sex-appeal-- as was generally the case with the other "big two," Superman and Wonder Woman-- one can see some loosening-up in the newer features.

For instance, here's a shot of Dream Girl from ADVENTURE COMICS #317 (Feb 1964), doing a "Marilyn Monroe" turn on superhero sexiness:




A year or so prior to the LEGION comic, DC debuted the Metal Men in SHOWCASE #37, and in the succeeding series creators Kanigher, Andru and Esposito rarely if ever failed to emphasize the romantic travails of the Platinum robot who plays Galatea to her Pygmalion-creator.



So some liberalization was bound to take place, if only for purely economic motives. But as far as transforming the BATMAN series so that it would eventually spawn a number of "Bat-babe" features-- three different Batgirls, a new Batwoman, a couple of Huntresses and a many-times-revised Catwoman-- the credit would seem to belong to William Dozier more than to Carmine Infantino and Julie Schwartz, much less those little old sex-mag makers, Donenfeld and Liebowitz. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA BATSEX!, PT. 2

In A WHIFF OF BAT-IRONY I wrote:

It's often been observed that the teleseries-producers pursued a two-tier approach with BATMAN.  They knew that children and some adolescents would take the adventure-elements seriously, while the adults would be entertained by the ironic distancing conveyed by the dialogue and some of the more overtly absurd situations (e.g., Batgirl almost fails to rescue Batman and Robin from a death-trap because she's careful to obey local traffic laws).  Yet, because of the two-tiered approach, Dozier and Co. couldn't avoid validating-- rather than subverting-- the most representative element of the adventure-genre: the *agon*, the fight-scene in which good wins out over evil.
Since I'm critiquing popular fiction from a Fryean viewpoint, it's natural that I should have emphasized the *agon* as against other elements of the adventure-mythos.  But the Berlatsky mini-essay referenced here  touches on what I called "the structural functions of sexuality in the adventure-mythos." For all the ironic and comic content in the 1966 BATMAN series, sex as much as violence validates adventure.

There are a lot of ways in which a predominantly ironic or comic mythos can invalidate the hero's sexual nature for the sake of enhancing what Schopenhauer calls "the ludicrous." The ironic film FEARLESS FRANK, clearly picking up on the short-lived success of the Bat-series, puts its Candide-esque innocent through the sexual wringer, propelling him Frank into a heroic role due to a fundamentally stupid encounter with a gangster's moll and later having him sexually polluted by a character-type who's usually framed as a virginal innocent.   The same year gave fans a psychedelic comic take on James Bond, the chaotic mess CASINO ROYALE, but instead of making Bond a randy young seducer, the film's script made the hero into "an older man, a retired spy with a far-flung reputation for celibacy, which state is motivated (to the extent that any motivation exists in this farrago) by the fact that he had to sacrifice his one true love, the historical Mata Hari, to the firing-squad."

The latter description might sound a bit like my summation of Batman's heroic code in the earlier essay, that Dozier's Batman is "an Adonis who's trying to be a chaste Hippolytus, trying to put aside lust and devote himself to crime-fighting even as the aforementioned son of Theseus tries to focus all his energies on being a chaste worshiper of Artemis." But there's a crucial difference. The only extrinsic reason Sir James Bond repudiates sex to promote more tension as the script continually keeps throwing voluptuous women in his path. Just as Fearless Frank's sexual nature is rendered ludicrous because he has too much, Sir James' nature is ludicrous because he has too little. Both situations are intended to amuse because, however sincere the motivations of the protagonists may be in taking their respective stances, they're meant to seem incongruous.

Dozier-Batman also gets numerous voluptuousities flung in his face. Yet, because Dozier wanted to play the Batman-mythos just straight enough that young fans could enjoy it, Batman doesn't have too little sex even though he, like Sir James, routinely rejects the entanglements of both rescued maidens and rapacious henchwomen. His purpose in rejecting those entanglements is repeatedly validated through his accomplishments.  One may choose to view Batman's essential celibacy as your basic Weberian "deferred gratification," but that sort of over-simple allegory doesn't banish the appeal of the heroic code. Even young fans know that Batman is only "real" insofar as he promotes the kind of adventures that they want to see. A Batman who gets married and has kids is no longer Batman.

I said "essential celibacy" because in BATMAN's comic/ironic moments it clearly means to poke fun at the hero's monkish, do-gooder image. Yet when the Caped Crusader does evince healthy lust, as I have argued that he does in PART 1, it doesn't invalidate his code, which would result in humorous incongruity.  Sir James Bond is comically tempted; if he wavers when faced when a comely young girl in his bathtub, it's because his bodily lusts are overpowering his conscious intentions. Batman may be tempted when Catwoman tries to talk him into marriage, but Dozier wants at least young viewers to admire the hero for being able to resist temptation, even if the adult viewers might think Batman's crazy for not tapping that ass.  Thus Batman's cognitive intentions win out over his baser instincts-- and it's only a victory because he does have said instincts.



 The earlier-cited episode "King Tut's Coup" is one of the few times when it's strongly suggested that the Bat-dude takes a small vacation from his mission.  Bruce Wayne, who as Batman has rescued Lisa (Lee Meriwether) from King Tut, sees Lisa home and receives from her an invitation to dally within her dwelling, so to speak. Bruce apparently succumbs, muttering to himself (or the viewer) that "man cannot live by crime-fighting alone." Yet even if this is the only time when the hero allows himself some non-deferred gratification, it doesn't derail his stated mission, and things are back to normal for the remainder of the series.

Next Up: Sex in the BATMAN comic.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA BATSEX!

Ah, time for a break from heavy stuff. I'm once more indebted to Noah Berlatsky, for making these silly statements about the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries.

Batman isn’t only an object of desire on the 60s television show; he’s actually the only object of desire. The show includes gratuitously scantily clad lovelies...But the lovelies are never identified within the dialogue as objects of erotic interest; Batman and Robin are impervious to their charms... 

Never identified? Berlatsky starts out his observations by noting that when King Tut's consort/henchwoman Nefertiti drools over Batman, the evil Egyptologist is filled with "ire." Should one assume from this that Berlatsky believes that the villain has no "erotic interest" in his beauteous queen? How about in the episode "King Tut's Coup," where Tut kidnaps Lisa (Lee Meriwether, later one of the show's three "Catwomen") because he's convinced that she's Queen Cleopatra?  I thought I  saw some pretty good flaring of the nostrils there. For that matter, it isn't all one-way: in this episode Tut's handmaiden Neila (Grace Lee Whitney) sets Robin free from bondage. Why?

Frankly, Robin, I don't give a darn about you, but I want her outta here. King Tut may be fat, lazy and extremely lewd, but he's all I have. And with her here, I don't even have that.

Further, the Phony Pharoah is not unique in this wise. The majority of male villains have glamorous molls hanging around, and though one rarely sees the villains becoming romantic, the molls certainly aren't being kept around for their brains.  These "lovelies" aren't just floating around like empty signifiers: they're being kept around because they're hot babes. There's even a extra-diegetic marker that frequently shows up whenever a voluptuous woman struts her stuff: one of those woodwind-sounding tunes (la la la la LA la) that's meant to be marginally classier than the brassy notes one associated with strippers (wah wah wah WAH wah).

Berlatsky also says:

This is the case with virtually all the other leading ladies as well; Julie Newmar as Catwoman wears a skin-tight, jaw-dropping outfit, but no one’s jaw drops; the Moth, one of Riddler’s associates, wears a skin-tight, eye-raising outfit, but no one’s eyes are raised. The only sex object which is acknowledged as a sex object is the Batman himself. In this show, it’s women, not men, who visibly lust. 

What Berlatsky seems to want is some sort of comic overreaction: some scene in which men are show with their tongues hanging out like a Tex Avery wolf.  A close reading of BATMAN the series, of course, would show several instances in which both of the central heroes are at least moved by feminine charms, though they rarely if ever give in to them. But this is a long way from saying that only the women "visibly lust."

The romantic reticence of the Dynamic Duo may have had something to do with the producers' attempt to captivate a juvenile audience as well as an adult one.  Still, in structural terms BATMAN wasn't really all that different from other adventure-oriented shows of the period, be they westerns like BAT MASTERSON or SF-shows like STAR TREK. Gene Barry in the former and William Shatner in the latter are both positioned as smooth operators who can't help but inflame the loins of almost every female guest-star who shows up.  Dozier's Batman is only different in his psychological outlook: he's an Adonis who's trying to be a chaste Hippolytus, trying to put aside lust and devote himself to crimefighting even as the aforementioned son of Theseus tries to focus all his energies on being a chaste worshipper of Artemis. This archetype is probably just as widely dispersed throughout pop culture as the archetype of the smooth seducer: off the top of my head, most of the adventures of Doc Savage position the pulp-hero as being desired by many "lovelies" but never (well, hardly ever) succumbing to temptation.

Still, though Berlatsky's wrong on this matter, his observations do open up another line of thought as to the structural functions of sexuality in the adventure-mythos, which I'll address in Part 2.