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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, July 20, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "TOWER OF THE SATYR" (MAN-THING #13-14, 1975)

In my essay PERFECT STORMS OF SEX AND VIOLENCE I asserted that, contrary to the opinion of my sometime opponent Noah Berlatsky, I did not automatically validate every manifestation of the kinetic effects in fiction, a.k.a. "fictional sex and violence." My validation of these, I stated, depends on the way in which they are used. Any ideological critic might make the same claim, of course. However, an ideological critic would assign merit only when the use of the kinetic effect reaffirmed some aspect of said critic's ideology-- an example being Berlatsky's validation of violence in the Marston WONDER WOMAN comic because he believes that these stories supports his ideology, while denying any such validation to the contemporaneous adventures of Superman and Batman.

In contrast, a pluralistic myth-critic validates inventiveness in any fictional cosmos, whether or not he agrees with the ideology of the author or not. Rather than expecting every creative artist to be a source of moral pronouncements that encourage the audience to "go thou and do likewise," the pluralist can also value the author taking a "vacation from morals," and indulging in outbursts of fictional sex and violence for purely expressive ends.



In comics-circles, Steve Gerber's initial tenure on the Marvel Comics feature MAN-THING-- a tenure extending across various titles from roughly 1972 to 1975-- remains one of the premiere works of the so-called "Bronze Age of Comics." The feature-- not originated by Gerber-- concerned the events in the life of a scientist who becomes transformed into the Man-Thing, a near-mindless monster made of mud and swamp-plants. The Man-Thing wandered the Florida swamps getting into various forms of trouble, and was particularly celebrated by fans when Gerber used him to reflect on the evils of human society. I enjoyed these stories as much as any Gerber fan, but most of them don't speak to the mythopoeic potentiality. One of the few Gerber MAN-THING stories that does possess a significant mythopoeic density is a two-part story in issues #13 and 14, which I'll denote using the title of its second part, "Tower of the Satyr"-- but for reasons of perhaps misplaced moralism, this story occasioned a hostile reaction from many fans.

Issue #18's letter column printed some of the responses to the second part of "Satyr." One letter expressed disapporval of "the breakdown in Steve's even-handed approach to male-female situations," and the author boiled down the story to a dicey theme statement: "Give a old goat a young woman and see a miraculous change of life and restored magical power." The Marvel employee answering the letters asserted that "several readers wrote to chastise us about the male-chauvinist elements" of the story and assured the readership that Gerber would not in future "let his baser instincts get the best of him." Like the uncredited respondent, I don't deny the presence of "male-chauvinist elements." But I do think that they are mitigated by their context.

In summarizing the story as simply as is possible, I'll state that the monstrous star of the feature takes something of a back seat to the "guest stars" of the tale. Principally, he serves two functions: that of catalyst or catspaw (occasionally both). The Man-Thing is accidentally taken aboard a cargo ship, and when the ship departs on a scientific expedition, the monster goes along for the ride. The ship has been hired by a lady scientist, Doctor Maura Spinner, a somewhat prickly lady who professes a strange attraction for the area she's going to investigate' the legendary Bermuda Triangle.



After this initial set-up-- which includes the crew's discovery of the muck-monster's presence aboard ship-- the narrative of the story's first half shifts into overdrive. A magical biigantine appears in the skies above the cargo vessel, and from it descend 18th-century pirates, who proceed to abduct both Doctor Spinner and the Man-Thing. (The ship's captain and crew continue to appear in the story's second half as well, but play such minor roles that I'm leaving them out of this summary.)



The minor conflict of male and female in the first half is also amplified in Part Two. Doctor Spinner meets the leader of the pirates, who styles himself "Captain Fate." Fate tells her that she is the modern reincarnation of Maura, the Pirate Queen, who was formerly the captain of a pirate ship, and commanded both Fate and the rest of the crew. Back in the 18th century, the original Maura commanded her minions to help her investigate a small island in the Bermuda Triangle, to search for treasure in its only man-made structure, a single tower with neither doors nor windows. Given the structure's phallic shape, it's significant that Maura is the only one who can break into the tower, making it possible for her rowdy crewmates to follow her in.

They find a treasure, all right, but they also find the tower's sole occupant: Khordes, a master sorcerer who is also one of the last satyrs of the ancient world. Satyrs, as the story acknowledges, are almost always symbols of unrestrained lust, but Khordes has become a withered old goat-man over the centuries. He proposes a bargain: he'll allow the pirates to take his treasure, if they will leave him Maura: "a woman with whom to mate-- one whose charms will replenish my youth and virility."

The pirates accept the bargain and leave Maura behind. Gerber's captions are a little ambivalent about how much of a victim she is, suggesting that she anticipates killing the satyr-- which she does-- and rejoining her men, However, by the time she manages to get out of the tower, the ship has departed the island, leaving her behind for real. Maura curses the pirates to never enjoy their booty, and the dying satyr reinforces her curse with his own power. The pirates and their ship are thrown into a limbo, where they remain for the next 180 years. The tower does what its organic model does when in danger: it retreats-- specifically, sinking beneath the ocean-waves. Presumably the treacherous Maura drowns when the tower and its magical island sink, though Gerber does not say so. Before Khordes dies he specifies that Maura's spirit will live through three generations "e're you return to the sea-- three lives to learn the meaning of love-- e're we meet again."

After Fate has detailed this story to Doctor Spinner, she pretty much seems to lose all connection with her modern-day self, and her scientist persona fades into the persona of a piratical hellion for the rest of the story. Fate, having awakened her old self, commands his magical ship to descend once more to the waters of the Triangle. Obligingly, the tower-island of Khordes rises from the sea to meet the pirates, who want Maura to persuade the satyr to remove the limbo-curse. Khordes too has returned to life, still frail and wrinkled, and he still wants Maura to accept "the love you callously destroyed three lifetimes ago." Maura sics her piratical catspaws on the satyr, but Khordes sics his own catspaw, the Man-Thing, on them. The outcome doesn't go well for the buccaneers, thus clearing the decks, so to speak, for a talk-fest between the satyr and the pirate queen.



In SACRED AND PROFANE VIOLENCE, PART 3 I described some of the ways in which the dominant gender-roles of men and women might undergo a *bouleversement,* resulting in male characters who were predominatly lovers and female characters who were predominantly fighters. Khordes and Maura are both examples of these reverse-archetypes. Khordes now claims that he didn't just want Maura for her body, but because he loved her "spirit." Being a wizard, he foresaw that the other pirates, who were entirely dominated by standard male aggression, planned to kill her at some future time anyway. Maura, though still less than admiring of male attributes, is somewhat impressed by the satyr's chivalry and decides to stay with him in his tower. The cargo ship leaves, the magical tower sinks beneath the waves, and eventually the Man-Thing makes his way back to his swampy home.

Some of the reaction against "Tower" is understandable: certainly there's a power discrepancy between Khordes and Maura that inevitably reminds one of real-world parallels between "old goats" and "sweet young things." That said, Maura isn't really all that sweet, her central persona is a murderous, plundering pirate, and Gerber suggests that she even co-operates with Khordes' bargain with the idea of betraying him later. One may be fairly skeptical about Gerber's other formula: the "female who's so competitive with men that she's closed herself off to love." Certainly he doesn't manage to make either of Maura's personas come alive; she remains symbol first and person second. Nevertheless, what Gerber does with the symbols is still interesting. Richard Wagner formulated the mythic idea of the "love-death," in which a man and woman were united either in death or after death. "Satyr" has it both ways: Khordes and Maura die together when the tower first descends into the waves, but on the second descent, it's suggested that they will enjoy some immortal life together-- which might have some appeal for Maura, if the magical satyr literally recovers a youthful body thanks to the pirate-lady's "charms." It's not likely a coincidence that the first name of the doctor-turned-pirate resembles the Latin "mare," meaning "sea," so the tower's descent into the ocean is patently a sexual action. There's no strong connection between the surname "Spinner" and any action the character takes in either persona, though Gerber may have been thinking of "spinster," since this is the fate often assigned to man-haters in fiction. Even so, the "spinster" persona is the one that essentially disappears, in favor of a persona that becomes "married" after a fashion, though without losing all agency, as some irate Marvel readers claimed that she did.

As I've noted here, the confounding of boundaries between the relatively young and the relatively old can lead to a sense of transgression that forms parallels with, but is not identical to, the transgression of incest. It's understandable that the confounding of boundaries makes some readers squeamish, but that in itself is not any sort of barrier to the realm of the mythopoeic.




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