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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...

Friday, August 14, 2015

MEETINGS WITH RECOGNIZABLE PRESENCES


Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

What Kipling describes in this quatrain is a sentiment akin to Francis Fukuyama's concept of recognition, as he extrapolated it from both Hegel and Hegel-commentator Kojeve. Kipling describes what Fukuyama might term a variety of *megalothymia,* in that it describes "two strong men" taking one another's measure. The quatrain is part of a longer poem, but by itself the final phrase does not specify whether or not the strong men standing "face to face" are allies or opponents. As I view the lines, the recognition of a commonality that derives from similar levels of strength is not dependent on whether the two strong men are allies or enemies. Further, this sort of recognition would be opposed in spirit to that of Fukuyama's countervailing tendency, *isothymia,* for this mode of consciousness specifies that all human beings share the same innate rights, regardless of their strength.

As I peruse the handful of "1001 myth" entries I've done since restarting the series in July, I see a common thread evolving, though I didn't consciously plan it. All of the entries for which I've recently claimed mythic status posit an opposition between two strong presences. In contrast to Kipling's wording, these presences are just as capable of being female as being male, and in keeping with my writings on focal presences, such presences would not even necessarily need to be human, or even sentient. In contrast, the opposing "null-myths" usually fail to exploit the nature of the conflict. I esteemed as mythic the final three issues of Dave Sim's CEREBUS in part because the author provided the protagonist with an opponent-- his own son Sheshep-- who symbolized all of Sim's animadversions to pagan culture, feminism, and (apparently) any sort of hybridization process. But I viewed the preceding CEREBUS sequence "Chasing YHWH" as "null-mythic" because it was no more than a barely-coherent diatribe against celebrity figures ranging from Carl Jung to Woody Allen (who in Sim's universe somehow became a Jungian, even though little if anything in the real Allen's ouevre reflects a Jungian outlook).

Now, at the end of my essay on Ditko's mythcomic "The Destroyer of Heroes," I quoted myself from the ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE essay-series:

The shaman deriving power from his numinous presences, the warrior gaining supernatural presents or guidance from his patron god, the bondsman studying the ways of the mortal lord in order to overthrow him-- all of these participate in the ethical dimensions of the combative mode.  Thus "might" exists to continually challenge others to partake of its nature...This potency, to challenge one's own will to greater acts of agency, is the essence of the ethic that springs from the combative mode.

Having raised the topic of the combative ethic, I want to make clear that the trope of an author opposing "two strong presences" against one another is not solely associated with the actual combative mode. Certainly real combat-myths ranging from "Hercules vs. Antaeus" to "Batman vs. the Joker" derive their narrative tension from a physical, life-and-death struggle between hero and villain. Yet clearly it's possible to evoke the *megalothymia* of two opposed strengths without actually manifesting the combative mode, given that the totality of CEREBUS is a subcombative work.

Most of the other stories recently cited are stories that fit the combative mode without much elaboration: the aforementioned Blue Beetle tale, the Flash-Mister Element story, the FF-Red Ghost story, the Man-Thing/ ghost pirates story, and the Blackhawk "Dragon Dwarves" story. The two exceptions are instructive, though.

I surveyed the first three SPIDER-MAN stories together because they tied together in terms of the psychological myth evoked. The conflict of the first story is a mixed bag, for it's more "man vs. himself" than "man vs. man." By the story's conclusion Spider-Man has met and defeated a common burglar with the greatest of ease, which doesn't make for much of a combative situation, unless one chooses to view the burglar as a symbol for all criminals, as I discussed in a related topic here. The second story is more or less "man vs. nature" in that the hero must save Jonah Jameson's astronaut son from a malfunctioning space capsule, though it sets up an ongoing conflict by making Jonah Jameson a recurring thorn in the superhero's posterior. Only the third and last story surveyed pits Spider-Man against a villain who has his own special strength-- and of course, the Vulture was the first in a line of extremely durable super-villains, each of whom had an individual style and a great capacity for what I've termed "acts of agency,"

The first new entry in the current series, "Superman's Super-Courtship," features two characters who are dominantly combative types, Superman and Supergirl, but the story under consideration is not combative. As I demonstrated in the essay, the story's conflict pertains to Supergirl playing matchmaker for her older cousin, but in such a way as to reinforce her own ego, particularly by finding him a mate who looks like an adult version of herself. The conflict then is a comic one in which Supergirl more or less moves her cousin around like a chess-piece, much like the relationship discussed here between Cosmo Topper and the Kirbys in the 1930s film TOPPER. In the original film Topper's recently deceased buddies use their ghost-powers to force the fuddy-duddy to have fun, whether he likes it or not. Arguably Topper's ghosts do him more good than Supergirl does her cousin.

So here we have three subcombative stories that manage to create a tension between strong presences-- Cerebus and Sheshep, Spider-Man and Jonah Jameson, and Superman and Supergirl-- without actually entering the combative mode. Still, two of the stories appear in series that are meant to be dominantly combative, while the CEREBUS conclusion is a religious irony fashioned in part upon the model of Robert E. Howard's barbarian-fantasy.  So my conclusion here is that even if the combative mode is not strictly necessary to create a symbolic discourse between two or more "strong presences," its narrative pattern may influence even those narratives, like CEREBUS, that eschew the ritual of violence.

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