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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, December 4, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: THE PRICE (1981)



When I attempted to come up with a "Bizarro version" of this week's "mythcomic," I wanted a work that tried to do something akin to what Jack Kirby began in 1971 with his "Fourth World" series-- a work that sought to deal with the metaphysical concepts of good and evil, but did a really horrible job of it. Sadly, I was forced to choose THE PRICE, which is the second section of Jim Starlin's bloated space-and-sorcery opera, THE METAMORPHOSIS ODYSSEY. I didn't reread any other sections of this unholy mess-- which by its title alone offends the memories of both Ovid and Homer-- but I may review some or all of these sections for future null-myth essays, since I remember disliking every part of the opus in its original publication.

Why do I say "sadly?" Well, the ODYSSEY's lack of overall quality rivals that of Mark Millar's WANTED, which I panned in this review, following which I further critiqued it as being "practically inconsummate in every way."  But Millar never showed any real talent, while Starlin had showed himself a superior superhero artist in such Marvel Comics works as CAPTAIN MARVEL and WARLOCK. However, the direct market's boom in the 1980s made it possible for many graduates of the Big Two to attempt their own creator-owned works. In Starlin's case, the first part of his ODYSSEY appeared in EPIC ILLUSTRATED, while THE PRICE was published by Eclipse Comics. But some raconteurs also made themselves "independent" of good storytelling practices, and so THE PRICE, like WANTED, fails in terms of all four of the potentialities. Since I'm trying to focus here upon the work's failure as symbolic discourse, I'll get the other failures out of the way quickly:

DRAMATIC-- though the story's set in a far-flung cosmos, it begins like a murder mystery, as master magician Syzygy Darklock, a priest in the service of a religious order called the Instrumentality, tries to find out how his brother was slain by a demon assassin, and why. The story fails as drama because at the beginning Starlin barely devotes any time to establishing the nature of Darklock's character, or that of his confidante Sister Marian, but he does dump a lot of character-backstory at the story's conclusion, almost as an afterthought. When Darklock does find the man behind the assassination, he finds that the villain did it so as to force Darklock to become a kind of super-magician, the better to deal with a major cosmic crisis that will evolve in a future narrative.

THEMATIC-- his work on WARLOCK established that Starlin had an animus against organized religion, particularly Christianity. But whereas the argument against religion is moderately well presented in WARLOCK, here Starlin "coasts" on the same theme and doesn't really analyze what makes the Instrumentality evil-- except that it kills people, which Darklock himself does too.

KINETIC-- whereas Starlin could draw excellent superhero action, THE PRICE is mostly a conglomeration of talking heads, usually reciting tedious exposition. I would also rate an artist's ability to name his characters as an appeal to the kinetic, in that a good name rings well in the ears and a bad name has an irritating sound. And while "Syzygy Darklock" may sport one of the worst hero-names ever, the name of the villain-- "Taurus Killgaren"-- is even worse, especially when one suspects that Starlin unconsciously modeled the awkward name on that of a real-life celebrity: "Dorothy Killgalen," a reporter/game-show guest of the 1940s and 1950s.

With all those failures, how does Starlin also manage to fail in the realm of the mythopoeic?  Well, putting aside all of the artist's phony-baloney attempts to reproduce the effects of ceremonial magic, the core of the story is seen below:




See, after Taurus explains everything he's done to make Darklock into a super-magus for this future crisis, the villain reveals that Darklock can only obtain his super-magic if he sacrifices the thing he loves most, which happens to be Sister Marian. 

Given the numerous indirect references to Christianity throughout the story, it's impossible not to read Marian's death as a reference to Christ's Passion-- except that this time, it's the Serpent who gets the upper hand:




Now, if Starlin's protagonist had asked Marian to sacrifice herself, and she had agreed, then that might have worked in one fashion or another, be it as a serious *imitatio Dei* or as a satirical version of same. But because Darklock does not give Marian a choice-- and yet he isn't abrogating to himself any superior freedom to act with cruelty, as one might argue of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia-- Starlin's murder of "what he loves most" comes off as shallow in its self-aggrandizement. I've critiqued on various occasions the thin-skinned gender-complaints summed up by the trope "women in refrigerators." But even if I'd cross off the names of a lot of female characters on the "WIR" list, Sister Marian would probably remain on it-- and maybe even move to number-one position.

The real price of THE PRICE was the one this work levied on Starlin's capacity as an artist, since I'd argue that he never subsequently lived up to his initial potential.

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