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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...

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

UNCANNY CITY

In this essay I cited the comic strips LI'L ABNER and DICK TRACY as examples of long-running serials that might or might not be metaphenomenal fantasies based on the considerations of my "51 percent rule." At the same time that I raised the question, though, I also dismissed it, in that I confessed my lack of interest in attempting to figure out just how many storylines in these features possessed metaphenomenal content. There are just too damn many of them.

Frank Miller's series of loosely related SIN CITY "yarns," however-- which this Wikipedia entry helpfully breaks down by plot-- proves much more useful as a test of the rule.

SIN CITY is a concept that does not, at first glance, appear to be metaphenomenal, unlike Miller's superhero books and his ventures into futuristic fiction, such as GIVE ME LIBERTY. Like Chester Gould's DICK TRACY, Miller's series centers its narrative in a supposedly "down to earth" setting: a modern metropolis overrun with crime and corruption. Whereas Gould grounded DICK TRACY in procedural crime-detection techniques, Miller evokes the downbeat story-tropes of noir fiction as his method of "keeping things real."

And yet, both Gould and Miller go out of their way to make things "unreal" as well, by evoking the sort of story-tropes I have termed "uncanny." TRACY isn't well known to younger fans any more, but I would argue that even the old farts who grew up with the Gould strip in one era or another remember the crime-solving sequences much less well than the artist's gallery of grotesque villains: Pruneface, the Brow, the Mole, et al.-- most of whom partake of the trope I call "freakish flesh." Usually Gould did not bother supplying an etiology for his deformed crooks: they're ugly because their bodies reflect the ugliness of their souls. (That said, I should note that most of Gould's heroes aren't much better looking: they're just not especially off-putting.)

Miller's SIN CITY universe has become well known to the public through film adaptations, and though the author's evocation of noir sentiments plays a big role in the serial's reception, I would say that Miller, like Gould, knows how to "grab" readers with intimations of the metaphenomenal.  Going in the order of the "yarns" as cited by Wikipedia, here's how they shake out.




THE HARD GOODBYE boasts four uncanny tropes. Marv himself is a bit like a cross between Dick Tracy and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, with features of flintlike angularity and a bulky, forbidding physique. He's not technically a "freak," but the narrative repeatedly emphasizes his ugliness beyond the realm of ordinary homeliness; so much so that any story in which Marv appears becomes uncanny by his presence. In addition, in his signature exploit Marv finds himself pursuing the murderers of a hooker. At least one of the two is what I term a "perilous psycho," since he becomes ecstatically aroused when he eats human flesh (implicitly, only the flesh of beautiful females). The psycho conspires with an "enabler" who is implicitly his lover, so that the two together comprise a "weird family." And though not every instance of cannibalism may qualify as a "bizarre crime," in this case the modern-day flesh-eaters keep "trophies" of their specimens, which in a less noir-ish setting would make most audiences think in terms of the horror genre.

A DAME TO KILL FOR, however, is naturalistic in its plot, focusing on viewpoint character Dwight as he gets sucked into the murderous schemes of his old girlfriend Eva.  However, Marv appears, lending his gargantuan presence to one of Dwight's schemes, and his presence alone gives the story uncanny content. There's also the questionable figure of the character Miho, arguably Miller's stand-in for his popular Marvel character Elektra. Yet Miho doesn't wear what I would deem a "costume" as with Elektra, or even an outfit that screams "ninja." During the story Miho is seen leaping around rooftops in a manner that seems beyond the capability of a naturalistic practitioner of the martial arts, and yet I don't see a specific skill or weapon in her repertoire that seems "uncanny," merely "exotic."



THE BABE WORE RED, a collection of SIN CITY, chalks up three entries for the naturalistic. One of the three stories is another Dwight tale, but the questionable Miho does not appear in it.

Miho does appear in THE BIG FAT KILL, and here she comes closer to performing an uncanny act of violence. When one of her charges is threatened by a gun-wielding cop, she hurls a swastika-shaped shuriken at his arm with such force that she severs his hand. While leaping around like a mountain-goat seems just barely possible in the realm of the naturalistic, severing a hand with a thrown weapon seems beyond the capabilities of a very small Japanese female. This might argue that by dint of some special training Miho is a "superwoman" in the uncanny mode. She's also seen slashing off heads with a samurai sword, which I might regard as merely naturalistic if it weren't being done by a very petite female. Thus the second Dwight story, even without Marv, roughly qualifies as "uncanny."



"SILENT NIGHT" is a story of Marv going up against a gang of child traffickers. he alone makes it uncanny.

THAT YELLOW BASTARD, featuring hard-bitten cop John Hartigan, creates Miller's most memorable villain, Junior Roarke. Though Roark starts out as a child-murdering psychotic at the story's opening, he is not precisely a psycho in the uncanny mode. However, after Hartigan maims him, he undergoes reconstructive surgery that makes him into a literally "yellow" bastard. Roark makes the story uncanny thanks to his "freakish flesh."



Four of the next six SIN CITY short stories are all naturalistic: "Blue Eyes" has Marv in it, even though he doesn't figure into the plot, while "The Rats" concerns a psycho-killer.

The two stories in SEX AND VIOLENCE are also naturalistic. Then, the last of the Marv-centered stories, "Just Another Saturday Night," is another one for the uncanny side.

Finally, the last two SIN CITY novels provide an even split. FAMILY VALUES is another Dwight story, and again Miho goes beyond the bounds of what the well-trained martial artist can do. However, the final novel, HELL AND BACK, falls into the naturalistic mode, even though main hero Wallace does experience a weird set of drug-induced hallucinations in which he talks to such figures as Hellboy, Hagar the Horrible and Lone Wolf and Cub.

Thus, going strictly on a story-by-story basis, ten of the nineteen stories fall into naturalistic mode, and nine into the uncanny mode. Still, the majority of the naturalistic yarns are very short, so it's not quite the same situation as we saw with DICK TRACY, where the creator of those yarns executed almost ten years' worth of naturalistic story-arcs before he finally brought in a significant number of uncanny grotesques. 

Other considerations abound. At present Miller's SIN CITY doesn't line up with the "51 percent rule" as an overall series, but it's debatable as to whether stories focused on non-continuing characters should be factored in with those featuring recurring figures. This is a problem that doesn't come up with a single-hero feature like DICK TRACY.  No doubt in future installments I'll have more to say about the nature of phenomenal attribution in "shared universes," to say nothing of anthology-projects-- such as the SIN CITY film-adaptations.

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