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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, July 31, 2015


Returning to the subject of comic strips:

I stated in Part 1 that I had in past found mythic material in such comic strips as Windsor McCay's DREAMS OF THE RAREBIT FIEND and Gary Larson's THE FAR SIDE. However, both of these were "gag-strips" rather than 'story-strips." Given my contention that a "literary myth" should be an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end, it behooves me to consider to what extent a "gag" is or isn't an actual story. Certainly a gag can at least convey a "myth-motif," but even so, not all "short myths" are equal-- hence, the possible use of Wheelwright's concept of *amplitude* (see Part 2) to sort out the mythic from the not-very-mythic.

I've not read all of McCay's FIEND strips, but I have the strong impression that they all follow the same structure. They all begin within someone's psychedelic dream, which runs its course until the dreamer awakens and groans about the folly of having eaten a Welsh rarebit. The strip depended on fulfilling this base function, regardless of whether the dream had or did not have "more to say." Thus, by the rules of *functionality* that I defined here, the strip would be "stereotypical" or monosignative when it did no more than fulfill its base function, yet "archetypal" or plurisignative if it went beyond the base function, and became in some way "super-functional." (The Campbellian part of me sees this "going beyond" as encoding one of Campbell's four functions, but others' mileage will vary.)

For my first example, here's one McCay strip that I consider merely monosignative:

The idea of a dreamer being chased and/or devoured by dream-monsters is fairly typical, and the motif of a dreamer extrapolating his bath into a river with a devouring hippopotamus seems to lack any special characteristic. Thus the cartoon also lacks what Wheelwright calls *amplitude.*

On the other hand, here's another strip:

This is a little more psychologically interesting because it deals with two older persons taking in a small dog that grows to monstrous size, to the point that they try, without success, to destroy the canine. Even though the overall situation satisfies the same base function as we see in the "hippo cartoon," McCay has invested more imagination to this cartoon-- not least because the monster dog never responds to the couple's attempted executions, but simply endures them stoically. Within the cartoon there are no diegetic parallels drawn between the dog and a human child. And yet this McCay scenario cannot help but beg such parallels. Because the second cartoon can call forth deeper associations, it possesses a greater amplitude, defined in physics as "the maximum extent of a vibration or oscillation, measured from the position of equilibrium."

Now here's a monosignative FAR SIDE cartoon:

The cartoon is amusing enough, but it depends entirely on the reader's recognition of the story-trope, "wolf in sheep's clothing."  Beyond that, there doesn't seem to be anything else going on.

This Larson gag also plays upon a reversal of biological norms:

However, this is the sort of cartoon I considered when I assigned symbolic complexity to the FAR SIDE strip. Larson is known to be a nerd about matters biological, and here he's having fun with the notion that a given biological adaptation-- in this case, sharks' dorsal fins-- might be more of a stumbling-block than an advantage within the shark's environmental niche. It's perhaps even more amusing when one considers the situation of real creatures who are victims of their own biologies, such as the peacock.

Larson's cartoons were always one panel, though on occasion he subdivided that space for the sake of telling a joke with some sort of progression. In contrast, the McCay FIENDs were usually either a quarter-page or a half-page, so McCay could do as many panels as he could fit into the designated space given him. Nevertheless, I would not consider either "McCay's dog" or "Larson's shark" to be mythic narratives simply because they possess an amplitude beyond the merely functional. They tell gags that can reduced down to simple motifs, rather than having the "tying-untying" progression of a genuine narrative.

Chic Young's BLONDIE, although its Sunday pages had as much space to work in as did McCay's FIEND entries, tended to construct mini-stories that conform more to Aristotle's narratology. I've observed in earlier posts that the "base function" of BLONDIE was generally to show Dagwood as "the Goat of the World," constantly being victimized by his wife, his kids, his boss, his neighbors, and almost everyone else. But again, some cartoons merely fulfill the function, and others go beyond it.  Here's a stereotypical example:

The "complication" is that Dagwood proposes that he might grow a beard, and everyone in his family goes postal in exaggerated reaction: the resolution comes when he gives in and promises not to become a "beatnik." This is typical "family-comedy" schtick, but nothing more.

On the other hand, there's this Sunday page:

Again, the base goal is realized; Dagwood is made the Goat. But there's a deeper psychological angle here. Alone, Dagwood tries to relax in the bathtub, but "his master's voice" intrudes even the privacy of his home. Rushing to answer the phone, he trips and injures himself-- all for nothing, because it's just Blondie calling for no particular reason. As a final irony, Blondie's friend avers that Blondie's gesture is the sort of thing that that makes for good marriages. I've argued that the comic-book BLONDIE story that I analyzed here shares a similar idea of inflicting pain on Dagwood through the supposedly "innocent" acts of Blondie, resulting in something of a "domme-sub" relationship-- although the camouflage of slapstick comedy concealed this from the strip's mass audience.

As I said, the two BLONDIE strips are closer to real stories than the other strips, regardless of the presence or absence of plurisignificance. Still, they would best be labeled "sketches" or "vignettes," which means that even when they do possess super-functionality, it's used for very restricted purposes. For this reason, I doubt that I'll include many of these type of "gag strips" within the corpus of the "1001 myths project:" at present the aforementioned "Linus the Rain King" continuity is the only one that seems worthy.Ideally, the stories chosen for this project show the mythopoeic potentiality at its highest possible potential. And just as we judge the best dramas as being those that convince us that we're seeing simulacra of real people talk believably to one another, the best myth-stories are those that establish a believable "dialogue" between a variety of symbolic representations.

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