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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, July 31, 2015

THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH PT. 3

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.



THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, PT. 2

Before making any further observations on the effect of structural length to the symbolic discourses of comic books and comic strips, I should mention that even those stories that anyone would validate as genuine myths-- that is, those archaic cultural tales that usually possess some religious dimension-- are also affected by "long and short" considerations.

When I first began discussing literary myths on this blog, I related the word to its original Greek context. Since *muthos* has usually been translated as "utterance" and/or "story," I deemed that in both archaic and in modern times a myth had to be a coherent story in form, while its main attribute would be its high symbolic complexity. Conventionally, this means a story with a "beginning, middle, and end," though Aristotle invoked only two literary terms to describe narrative progression:

clearly [Cioffi's] structural summation of how anomalous presences impact on "conventional social reality" is of a piece with Aristotle's concept of the "Complication" (literally "Desis"= "tying or binding"), while the way in which the viewpoint characters (my term) respond to the anomaly comprises the "Resolution" ("Lusis"= "untying.") -- ANOMALOUS ENCOUNTERS: RESOURCE.

Yet, though I still consider this valid, I must admit that constituent parts of stories can be mythic, if not actual myths as such. Jung's best name for these story-parts was "motifs," and in his psychological investigations he often treated each motif as if it possessed its own symbolic validity, apart from its function within a narrative. Similarly, the Cambridge myth-and-ritual school, which was probably a greater influence than Jung on Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, regarded the structural elements of classical Greek drama-- such as agon, pathos, and sparagmos, to name the three referenced in Aristotle's POETICS-- as having ritual importance in and of themselves, not simply as parts of the narrative.

Thus it could be said that the motifs are the "short forms" of myths, which carry a special valence even though they are quasi-dependent on other motifs in order to form narratives. One might say, in line with Aristotle, that the myth-motifs of a given narrative must be "tied" together to provide the narrative's "long form" structure, even though Aristotle would assume that the pleasure of the text comes from its resolution, or the "untying" of all the narrative's knotty complications.

At the end of Part 1 I contended with Aristotle's term "complication" somewhat, saying:

I'm currently considering the proposition that mythopoeic scenarios, much like those of the other potentialities, need to be formulated to allow for *complication*-- though this need not be entirely identical with the Aristotelian term given that translation...
I've decided that what I was seeking in the term "complication" is better described by Wheelwright when he speaks of *amplitude* in this passage:

"Certain particulars have more of an archetypal content than others; that is to say, they are 'eminent instances' which stand forth in a characteristic amplitude as representatives of many others; they enclose in themselves a certain totality, arranged in a certain way, stirring in the soul something at once familiar and strange, and thus outwardly as well as inwardly they lay claim to a certain unity and generality."-- FOUNTAIN, p. 54.
In Part 3 I'll show how the concept of amplitude might apply in symbolic discourses hemmed in the structural limitations of the comic-strip medium.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, PT. 1

I've been contemplating the place of comic strips with respect to the "1001 comics myths" project.

I've always thought that comic books have proven themselves a more fertile ground for the  mythopoeic potentiality than comic strips.  I further believe that comic books' greater capacity for myth has nothing to do with the profligacy of superheroes within the American medium; it's a capacity rooted in the comic-book medium's ability to make a more nuanced use of words than the comic-strip medium can. If one could disinclude all of the superhero or superhero-like features from both media, I believe that one would still find that comic books are superior at producing the discourses of myth, which elsewhere I've related to Philip Wheelwright's concept of "poeto-language."

That doesn't mean that I don't find worthwhile "poeto-language" discourses in comic strips. In my essay AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY, I mentioned the following strips: Chic Young's BLONDIE, Harold Gould's DICK TRACY, Windsor McCay's DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND, Gary Larson's FAR SIDE, Herriman's KRAZY KAT, and Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES.

However, it may be a mark of the difficulty with critiquing such serial comic strips that I didn't write myth-analyses of any of these, though in the first year of this blog I did devote some attention to a particular PEANUTS conitnuity, which I entitled LINUS THE RAIN KING.  I've latterly decided that this too belongs within the corpus of the 1001 comics-myths, and I'll probably retrofit the original essay slightly for this series at a later date.

Of course PEANUTS may have benefited from the fact that its author Charles Schulz was a lay preacher, so he had a working knowledge of the "poeto-language" of the Bible.




Nevertheless, as a Jungian pluralist I don't believe that one has to have special education to tap into the potentiality of the mythopoeic.

I considered the possiblity that the rather truncated form of the comic strip might tend to force it into a verbal straightjacket, so that it became the dominant practice to use words only in a denotative manner, rarely tapping their connotative associations.  This is certainly a possibility, although Schulz's example shows that one can find ways to use the medium's limitations to produce mythic effects.

Of the six comic strips I mentioned above, the most mundane is Young's BLONDIE, which was certainly not a haven for metaphysical musings. Nevertheless, though I've never devoted any space to the Chic Young strip, in my "Mythic Monday" project I gave a mention to one short tale, "Shaved and Clipped," from a 1962 issue of Harvey Comics' licensed BLONDIE comic-book title. The tale is only two pages long, yet it is more plurisignative than most BLONDIE comic-book stories, to say nothing of many of the comic strips. From this I conclude that the actual length of the narrative doesn't always mitigate against symbolic complexity.

I'm currently considering the proposition that mythopoeic scenarios, much like those of the other potentialities, need to be formulated to allow for *complication*-- though this need not be entirely identical with the Aristotelian term given that translation, as seen in this essay.

I should weigh in on these weighty matters further, in at least one more essay.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "CHASING YHWH" (CEREBUS #282-289, 2002-03)

At the end of the previous essay, I said:

When I do a corresponding "null-myth" for this entry next week, I'll endeavor to choose a story that relies on purely didactic elements, to its detriment.
Whenever I think of comics-artists who are capable of producing mythic material, but have let their didactic tendencies overrule their symbolic discourses, my short list comes down to three names: Steve Ditko, Alan Moore, and Dave Sim. After due consideration, I decided I should give pride of place to Sim in the didactic department. And nowhere does Sim go further down this particular rabbit hole (inside joke: "maybe it should be "RABBI-hole?") than he does in the sequence "Chasing YHWH," close to the final issues of CEREBUS THE AARDVARK. Among CEREBUS cognoscenti this sequence is sometimes referred to as "the Cerebexegesis," since it largely consists of the main character performing an exegesis on various books of the Hebrew Old Testament. On the whole most of the issues in this sequence consisted of a few pages of "normative" comics-panels, various stand-alone illustrations, and solid pages of small-type text in which Cerebus dissected the Old Testament, sometimes with minor rejoinders to his interlocutor Konigsberg (a spoof of Woody Allen).




This null-myth occupies a unique place in my personal cosmos of badness. In general I believe in re-reading works before writing about them, but I simply can't stand to expend any more minutes of my life in putting the critical microscope to "Chasing YHWH"-- to say nothing of having to use a magnifying-glass to discern all that tiny, tiny type.  So I'll confine myself to some general remarks.

For many CEREBUS-readers, Dave Sim's decision to embrace his personal vision of Christianity-- a little past the midpoint of his 300-issue magnum opus-- proved problematic for the literary values of his work. I was one of the few critics who did not reject all aspects of that sea-change, and I specifically praised the conclusion of this comics-epic here, calling it "a stunning mythopoeic creation." That said, one thing remained constant: both before and after the sea-change, Dave Sim liked to burn up a lot of issues with "much ado about nothing." Because Sim was, and still remains, one of the few artists intelligent to be interesting even when he's essentially running off at the mouth, there's no doubt that one could find interesting concepts and motifs within the corpus of CHASING YWHW. However, since one can find Sim using the same concepts and motifs in more felicitious forms in the "regular" CEREBUS stories, there's not much to be gained from sussing them out in a form designed to be nearly impenetrable.

The title of the sequence is a chimerical one, for Sim's "YHWH" is not the four-letter "God of the Fathers" worshipped by the ancient Hebrews. Rather, Cerebus is chasing "Yoohwooh," an inferior copy of the One True God. As Sim doubtlessly knew, the Gnostics of the early Christian Era were famous (or infamous) for splitting off various manifestations of the Godhead: for instance, the entity that actually created the heavens and the earth might be viewed as a "demiurge," while the entity that was the true source of all things-- including the demiurge-- would be far above the cosmos of profane matter. In a similar manner, Yoohwooh is described as a female spirit with "bright ideas." In addition to using Yoohwooh to critique modern-day feminism and its "bright ideas," Sim can also use Yoohwooh as a hermeneutical tool, albeit within a literary context, as opposed to writing actual religious hermeneutics-- and show how anything that he finds vexing in the Old Testament can be laid at the door of Yoohwooh.

Issue #286 sticks out in my mind, because it's an attempt to re-write the findings of non-religious interpretations, such as the narrative of Genesis 32 that is commonly called "Jacob wrestling with the Angel." A religionist of Sim's absolutist mold cannot hold with the proposals of modern folklore-studies: that the unnamed Angel is literally a representative of God the Father. Sim's solution is to claim that the angel, or "cherubim" as Sim calls it, is actually "Yoohwooh's cherubim, who guards Yoohwooh's garden and who, ordinarily, would make quick work of any one of Adam's descendants. But what's [the cherubim] going to do against Jacob? Jacob is Yoohwooh, who stole away the blessing and birthright of the elder Esau. It's also a reference to the fact that just as God judges Yoohwooh's 'wrestling' with all of her bright ideas... the men wrestle with her bright ideas, and with Yoohwooh." (I left out a phrase or two, hopefully without distorting the essence of the idea.)

As I'm a pluralistic myth-interpreter myself, it's possible that I was on some level offended by Sim forcing his tortured, anti-feminist metaphors upon the original material. Still, if his only aim had been to satirize myth-hunters like Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves, Sim could have accomplished that in a much more condensed form. In some sense the Cerebexegesis exists not because Sim literally believes in Yoohwooh, the way that a Gnostic might've actually believed in the Demiurge, but because Sim wanted to create a means of re-interpreting many problematic texts in the Old Testament so that they would line up with his own vision of the true deity-- though, again, I emphasize that this method has relevance only within the literary cosmos of CEREBUS.

Many null-myths are created when the artists involved merely toss out random ideas that possess little or no symbolic resonance. But in works that emphasize the didactic potentiality, the ideas are not random but rather over-determined, after the fashion of allegory, which Northrop Frye correctly defines as "forced metaphor."

ADDENDA: I should note that in CEREBUS #288, the aardvark has a long conversation with an interlocutor-- whose identity is a Big Surprise, and about the only thing fun in CHASING YHWH-- and that in that discourse, Cerebus reveals that he sometimes made shit up if he couldn't figure out a particular scriptural passage. I believe Sim did this in part out of concern for verisimilitude: his aardvark character was semi-educated at best, and in some ways his scholarly fuffering about Biblical hermeneutics broke from his usual character. Nevertheless, I don't think that the artist Sim, who put all those tiny-type words into Cerebus' mouth, in any way compromised his message by admitting that Cerebus was an unreliable interpreter. Even if the interlocutor points out problems with the "angel-wrestling" interpretation-- though not the same ones I've identified-- none of the discrepancies take away from Sim's essential message: that all the "bright ideas" of Yoohwooh are stupid because they foolishly attempt to supplant the wisdom of the True God. So even though Sim probably does not believe in Yoohwooh as a literal entity, she remains a potent literary symbol of the artist's animadversion to a host of modern-day "bright ideas."


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "THE RED GHOST" (FANTASTIC FOUR #13, 1963)

In 1001 COMIC BOOK NIGHTS: A RESOURCE, I cited this 2011 essay as an example of an inconsummate null-myth. In the same resource I did not cite, as one of my consummate myth-comics, what I wrote in this 2012 essay, which was something of a counterpart to the 2011 one. As I recall I left it off the list because parts of the essay were focused primarily upon a discussion of Jung's concept of archetypes.  But certainly FANTASTIC FOUR #13 rates as one of the best of the myth-comics from this period.

I also wanted to bring what I wrote in the FF-essay in line with the concept of the "four potentialities," as detailed here. This expansion seems necessary because most critics make the facile assumption that the only creative faculty that informs art is what I've termed "the didactic," the intent to Make a Point. Most of the critics I've assailed here therefore define "good art" as something that supports their ideology, while "bad art" is anything that opposes that ideology.

In the 2012 essay, I did not deny the story in FANTASTIC FOUR #13-- in full, "The Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes"-- had its aspects of didacticism, to wit:

The story, appearing during the first few years of the feature's successful launch onto newstands, deals with Reed Richards and his superhero pals launching themselves on a private mission to claim the moon for the democratic powers of planet Earth. By chance, a near-identical mission takes off from Russia to claim the same sphere for the powers of Communism. Now, based on this bare description, one might think that the archetype at work here would be the simplistic one of "good vs. evil," with democracy standing in for the former and Communism for the latter. Marvel Comics did a lot of these simple allegorial tales during this period, and I would imagine that a lot of modern fans are embarassed by this simplication of complex political issues, to save nothing of a possible jingoism associated with them. Indeed, a number of critics would not dignify such stories with any sort of archetypal reading, for they would assume, in line with Marxist hermeneutics, that the story is simply propaganda for the American way of life. And there certainly is an allegorical tone underlying the scenario in which the Russian villain Ivan Kragoff trains apes to serve as his fellow moon-vovagers...
The bulk of my argument was that "Red Ghost" escaped the narrow "good vs. evil" dichotomy characteristic of many other Marvel "anti-Commie" stories by virtue of emphasizing "the imaginative, archetypal essence of the story." However, I didn't devote sufficient space to saying why I felt that archetypal essence predominated over didactic political considerations.

One factor is that, even though there is no "God" as such in the narrative, both the "good" and "evil" representatives of mankind receive identical gifts, as from a beneficent creator-god, The first gift is that both of the rivals' respective countries receive a fuel-source from the heavens, which will allow both Reed Richards' group and Ivan Kragoff's team to reach the moon.



The second "gift" relates to this story's extrapolation of the "cosmic ray" concept introduced in FANTASTIC FOUR #1. As any comics-fan should know, the heroes of the story attempt to reach the moon, but are irradiated by cosmic rays, causing them to crash back on Earth but mutating them and so creating the Fantastic Four. By the time of issue #13, the cosmic rays around Earth seem to have been formulated as something resembling the real-life Van Allen radiation belt. Kragoff knows how the rays affected the Americans, and so he aspires to intentionally snatch the Promethean fire that Richards and Company only stole "by accident."


These two organizing incidents share the purpose of giving the representatives of Communist Russia the same advantages as the Americans. A narrative concerned only with teaching young readers about the evils of Communism would not bother to worry about the factor of "fair play," of giving the bad guys weapons equal to those of the good guys. Indeed, the cosmic rays play some interesting jokes: Kragoff's mindless gorilla becomes even stronger than the Thing, and the Red Ghost gains the ability of becoming immaterial, which arguably makes him more elusive than either Mister Fantastic or the Invisible Girl.

However, the determining factor proves not to be brawn, but brain, as Mister Fantastic is able to utilize one of the weapons on the moon to immobilize the Ghost. Once the heroes have won, they receive approbation from the Watcher, who may viewed as consubstantial with the "god" who made it possible for the two groups to meet on the moon and fight on equal terms.



American comics-readers of the period certainly took some pleasure from seeing their own ingroup validated. Nevertheless, the archetypal essence of the story could be just as easily adapted to a narrative that validated some other ingroup, though of course various particulars would change. In contrast, the didactic elements could not be so easily translated into an opposing arrangement.

When I do a corresponding "null-myth" for this entry next week, I'll endeavor to choose a story that relies on purely didactic elements, to its detriment.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "NIGHT OF THE SPIDER" (THE ZOMBIE #2, 1973)



The year after Steve Gerber began scripting duties on MAN-THING, he initiated the ZOMBIE strip in Marvel's black-and-white magazine TALES OF THE ZOMBIE. The concept was initiated by editor Roy Thomas, who apparently decided that Marvel's line of monster/horror titles needed a zombie. To this end, Thomas picked out a 1953 stand-alone horror tale entitled "Zombie," which dealt with a dead man named Simon Garth rebelling against the man who brought him back from the dead. The story was then incorporated by Gerber into a slightly more involved backstory. Garth, a coffee-plantation magnate with business dealings in Haiti, was selected to be zombified in a voodoo ceremony. Once he'd been killed and revived, Garth was a living dead man, largely invulnerable to pain or to physical harm. However, he had almost no emotions, and craved, to the extent that he could want anything, to return to the grave. As in the short story, he had one living relative: Donna, a teenaged daughter. He was protective toward her, though there was always the danger that he might slay her. A magic charm, the Amulet of Damballah, floated around through several stories, and anyone who obtained it could command the Zombie to commit any act of destruction.

Though Gerber scored in fannish annals with MAN-THING, as I showed here, the ZOMBIE strip did not prove rewarding. The Zombie, unlike the Man-Thing, had a meager power of speech, but Gerber usually handled Garth in the same way as his mick-monster: using narrator-captions to describe whatever was going on in the protagonist's head.

Unfortunately, whereas the Man-Thing was interesting precisely because the monster was vulnerable to other people's emotions, the Zombie suffered from a lack of affect. Being dead, he usually didn't care about much of anything, even enemies who tried to destroy him. And the experiences Garth did remember from his former life often put the entrepreneur in a bad light, as a manipulative SOB who alienated his ex-wife, daughter, and many if not all of his employees. This didn't exactly make the average reader sympathize with Garth's plight.

Most of the stories are just middling zombie-tales, but on one occasion, in issue #2, Gerber penned a story, "Night of the Spider." that had mythopoeic potential. Like the Man-Thing tale I analyzed in my previous post, this story included some dicey psychological motifs. However, Gerber didn't explore these motifs in depth as he did in the Man-Thing story, so "Spider" falls into the domain of the inconsummate "null-myths."

For reasons too involved to go into, both the undead Garth and his daughter Donna wind up in Haiti; the zombie seeking death while his daughter seeks the reasons for his disappearance. It just so happens that Donna falls into the hands of a mad scientist who's even madder than the usual comic-book stereotype. This fellow has made it his project to change human beings into giant spiders for no particular reason. He kidnaps Donna, changes her into a giant spider, and she kills him. Spider-Donna wanders into the Haitian jungle, kills another local, and then comes across her wandering zombie-dad. She jumps on him and bites him, but neither her fangs nor her venom can kill an undead man. For his part, Garth doesn't fight back; he just endures her attack and then walks off. To Donna's extreme good fortune, injecting her venom into her dad's body reverses the transformation. She changes back to normal, with no memory of her experience and without further repercussions in the remainder of the series.She wonders vaguely if someone abducted and raped her, and though she doesn't really believe that this happened, little does she know that she's the one who's committed an act that I termed "feminine rapine" in this essay.

Gerber's narrator-captions reinforce this. He's already established that Simon and Donna have an acrimonious relationship, in which she's criticized him for his exploitative practices, so his next symbolic step is to compare the figurative "venom" spilled by the women in Simon's life, in the form of constant nagging, to the real venom the spider-thing injects into Simon Garth.

'Women did this to you [Simon]-- tried to kill you with their venom, called "love..." a poison fully as real to you as the one this creature now spews into your veins... they clawed at you, ripped at you, rent your psychic flesh, made you feel impotent-- and you let them-- for in the end, it was they who withered and died."

In potential this is an almost Faulknerian concept: that Simon Garth, even when alive, protected his potency by simply failing to react to female importunities-- that he essentially "played dead" and allowed them to "spend" themselves, much as a rape-victim would simply endure an attack and wait for it to be over. But though this is an interesting concept, Gerber does not go anywhere with it, either in this story or in any future zombie-adventures. And thus this sequence remains an inconsummate one, a path that runs only to a dead end-- much like the exploits of Simon Garth, Zombie.

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.




Saturday, July 18, 2015

CLINAMEN BEGIN AGAIN

While Lucretius is fresh in my mind, I'll make a few observations regarding his Epicurus-derived doctrine of the *clinamen,* sometimes referred to as the "Epicurean swerve."  Rather than quoting from Lucretius' verse, which may prove difficult to follow in the course of an essay, I'll quote this prose-ified version from the Wikipedia essay "Free Will in Antiquity:"

Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this freedom (libera) in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will (voluntas) wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? For undoubtedly it is his own will in each that begins these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs.

The essay quotes numerous modern commentators regarding the fact that both Lucretius and his philosophical mentor Epicurus refuted Democritus' idea that the doctrine of atomism implied absolute determinism. Particularly puzzling to modern minds is the idea that the ultimate source of "voluntas," Lucretius' word for free will, is to be located in the movements of infinitesimal atoms. Both men, in trying to explain what physical forces caused atoms to combine with one another, spoke of a "swerve" (Latin clinamen) that had to take place for such combinatory action.

I'm not enough of a classicist to judge the complexities of archaic Greco-Roman culture; I can only say that of the comments cited in the Wikipedia essay, those of Don Paul Fowler seem most accurate in representing the way philosophers of this period framed their conceptual conundrums.

Lucretius is arguing from the existence of voluntas to the existence of the clinamen; nothing comes to be out of nothing, therefore voluntas must have a cause at the atomic level, viz. the clinamen. The most natural interpretation of this is that every act of voluntasis caused by a swerve in the atoms of the animal's mind....There is a close causal, physical relationship between the macroscopic and the atomic. 

I don't believe any reputable philosopher today would subscribe to the idea that non-sentient atoms can display "will" of any kind. However, the Epicurean swerve may still be a useful metaphor for the nature of human agency, and it does resemble one of the models constructed by theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman. I examined Kauffman's concept of "quantum coherence" in my essay LET FREEDOM RIDE PT. 1: 


There is a possible objection to Kauffman's philosophy.  In REINVENTING THE SACRED he does not manage to show in what way his principal of "quantum coherence"-- proposed as a principle that may have contributed to the formation of the "open thermodynamic systems" of living organisms -- makes the subject's will an "uncaused mental cause."  In the view of most reductivists, if quantum-energy factors did influence the formation of life on our planet, those factors would just be another set of contingent influences, as much as the sun's radiation or the presence of oxygen. Kauffman repeatedly explains his title by saying that humans do not need supernatural forces to explain life any more, but that humans should regard their own "agency" as sacred.

Kauffman's insistence on validating the "sacred" human world of culture strongly resembles the attitude of the Epicureans, though he doesn't cite any of them in REINVENTING THE SACRED. Persons of a reductive viewpoint will of course dismiss "quantum coherence" as quickly as they will dismiss the "Epicurean swerve," but as I've stated many times on this blog, I don't believe philosophy should be determined by the data of experimental science. Metaphors for the way the human mind works-- or even discrete parts of the mind, such as "the heart" or "the imagination"-- will always be not only necessary, but entirely preferable to reams of dubious data.

In closing I'll note that because Lucretius shares the Epicurean belief that "nothing can come from nothing," he takes a rather "atomistic" approach to the human imagination as well. He asserts that although there is no hell, humans have extrapolated their experiences of earthly pain into the torments of Avernus. Similarly, though centaurs and "the spectres of people who are dead" have never existed, these are imaginary composites formed from humans' tendencies to combine the forms of nature, be it hybridizing humans and horses to produce centaurs, or simply imagining formerly-living people taking on a quasi-physical existence in the form of ghosts. I gave some thought to the possibility that I might view Lucretius as early advocate of that form of sublimity I've named the "combinatory-sublime."  But though Lucretius may be writing about roughly the same creative process that Tolkien described as a "refracted light" that is "endlessly combined in many shapes that move from mind to mind," Lucretius doesn't share Tolkien's fascination with the process. Lucretius is a poet in the tradition described by Chesterton: "one who is in love with the finite." ON NATURE is full of colorful descriptions of erupting volcanos and burgeoning fields of grain, but all of these images are for Lucretius mere evidence of the world's conformity to physical law. For Burke and Kant, a volcano might be something that evoked in human beings the feeling of the sublime-- but I suspect such a volcanic emotion would have run contrary to the equanimity endorsed by Lucretius and his fellow Epicureans. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

MYTHS TO THRIVE BY

It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed.-- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.

Now that I've launched my current project to suss out "1001 myths" from the millions of comics I've read, I may as well talk a little about the value I place upon such a project.

In THE MIGHTY MARVEL COLLECTIVE SUBCONSCIOUS, I wrote:

One of Northrop Frye's most trenchant observations on popular literature was that it provided a "window" through which one could view Jung's archetypes in pure form, as opposed to seeing those archetypes reflected covertly in the scenarios of fine literature. In this "pure" archetypal sense (one might also say "primitive"), Marvel comics of this period were no better or worse than the contemporary works of DC, Dell or Charlton. But Marvel found a way to persuade older readers that there was some dramatic heft to be derived from stories of spider-men, thunder gods, and giant green-skinned monsters.  

From the standpoint of the mythopoeic imagination, Fox and Sekowsky's JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA might actually reflect just as many "archetypes in pure form" as Lee and Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR. However, FANTASTIC FOUR was easily the superior of JLA in regard to the dramatic potentiality, and so older readers could enjoy Marvel Comics' "gods" far more than DC's, by virtue of the slightly greater sophistication Marvel brought to its myth-figures.

One reading of this historical situation might be that, for many if not the majority of readers, the archetypes alone are not enough: that they must be presented in a way that the audience-members find pleasing. With that in mind, one might ask what value there is in the project of trying to suss out the symbolic discourses of individual comics-stories, and trying to separate the elements of the mythopoeic out from the elements that I would file under "other potentialities." I believe that these symbolic discourses are crucial in understanding why anyone finds entertainment in stories of bizarre metaphenomenal entities like monsters and thunder gods. At the same time, I have no illusions that the average hardcore fan of any metaphenomenal collections of works-- be they in a particular genre, like horror, or in discrete media, like films or comic books-- is a myth-hound like myself.  If I were a populist-- that is, someone who validates only that which is popular-- then I would have to concede that myth-criticism cannot be important, because it has not been, and may never be, generally popular.  Fortunately, I'm a pluralist, which means that I can value all elements of a given work, regardless of whether one element may be more popular than the other.

And that's where Epicurus comes in.

I read the extant works of Epicurus a few years ago. Although "Epicurean," the word derived from the philosopher's name, has been unfairly linked with the idea of hedonism, Epicurus and his followers stressed not heedless pleasure for its own sake, but the cultivation of a philosophical equanimity that would make one capable of enjoying life without becoming enmeshed in the desperate pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.  More recently, the Greek philosopher was brought back to my mind when I finally read ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, the definitive work of Epicurus' foremost Roman disciple, the poet Lucretius.  Lucretius, like his master, was heavily influenced by the materalistic atomism of Democritus. However, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius can be considered as thoroughgoing materialists. Both abjured the idea that the gods controlled mankind, or that human spirits survived death to face either reward or punishment. Yet as the beginning quote shows, Epicurus believed that "the legends of the gods," for all their absurdities, were preferable to the "yoke of destiny," the doleful determinism, represented by the advocates of pure materialism.
In Book V of ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, Lucretius asks how it has come to pass that mankind has become so invested in the "legends of the gods." Rather than taking the standard dismissal of the materialists, Lucretius says:

Because, in sooth,
     Even in those days would the race of man
     Be seeing excelling visages of gods
     With mind awake; and in his sleeps, yet more—
     Bodies of wondrous growth. And, thus, to these
     Would men attribute sense, because they seemed
     To move their limbs and speak pronouncements high,
     Befitting glorious visage and vast powers.
     And men would give them an eternal life,
     Because their visages forevermore
     Were there before them, and their shapes remained,
     And chiefly, however, because men would not think
     Beings augmented with such mighty powers
     Could well by any force o'ermastered be.
     And men would think them in their happiness
     Excelling far, because the fear of death
     Vexed no one of them at all, and since
     At same time in men's sleeps men saw them do
     So many wonders, and yet feel therefrom
     Themselves no weariness. 


So Lucretius is saying that the gods, even though they were above humanity and did nothing to overtly affect humanity, did appear to human beings in their dreams-- and from humankind's misunderstanding of the gods' nature, superstition arose.

The obvious question arises: why did Lucretius want to keep the gods as part of his philosophical system, while he dismissed superstitions about the afterlife-- particularly the punishing domain of "Avernus"--as nonsense created by priests to manipulate mankind? In modern Jungian terms, one might venture that Lucretius wants to keep the positive image of the gods as dispassionate beings, because their image of serenity mirrors the goal of the Epicurean philosopher. Lucretius does not suggest that mortals can imitate the powers of the gods, for the gods enjoy a state of perfection beyond the mortal realm-- but he believes that the gods' equanimity is a quality mortals should emulate. And though the Roman poet does not examine the beliefs of the materialists in detail, it seems likely that he would share Epicurus' opinion that those beliefs-- which would define all human action as being determined by contingency-- are inimical to the Epicurean project, to promote pleasurable equanimity. The materialists, being invested in pure contingency, can offer mankind no particular model of behavior to follow. The images of the gods, however much they've been polluted by superstitions, do offer such a model.

In modern Jungian terms, the gods represent for both Epicurus and Lucretius archetypes of a desired form of behavior. A Jungian, of course, would reject these philosophers' attempts to dismiss images of darkness or ugliness as unimportant, and so do I: the "shadows" of darkness and evil informs what we are and what we do as much as the dispassionate potency of deities.

Both philosophers practice a very simple form of myth-analysis, usually seeking to reduce myths of satyrs and "scyllas" into morbid imagination. But by their adulation of the gods, they recognize that humans gravitate toward models of behavior, even when there may be no actual interaction between themselves and those ephemeral models.

It should be plain that for me, the Epicurean gods hold much the same place as the archetypal figures of fiction. No matter what forms of drama appear in our lives, our lives will never be dramatic in the same *structured* manner as are the lives of fictional characters-- and this is true whether one is speaking of Raskolnikov or Superman. But the dramatic potentiality can only give a sense of verisimilitude to those characters. For a sense of the characters' essential meaning-- one must turn to the potentiality I call *mythopoeic.*

And that, if it clarifies nothing else, may at least describe why I have devoted myself to the project of sniffing out myths wherever I can find them-- even despite all the critics who would like to think nothing matters except their ability to "model behavior" of a narrow and ideological nature.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: SUPER GREEN BERET #1 (1967)

In this week's analysis of a BLACKHAWK myth-comic, I admitted that there wasn't much doubt that it included racial symbolism. Ideological critics would automatically condemn the story as irredeemably racist, because the stigmatization of the villains-- who are small and dark-skinned-- is an automatic taboo. In contrast, I find that any racist content exists only *in esse,* as defined in this essay.

That essay, POSSE COMIC-TATUS, was devoted to showing that despite the ideological critic's tendency to cry "fascism" at the drop of a cowl, there may be some situations where the cry of fascism is justified. The same holds true for racism, and so this essay concerns a comic book that represents one of the worst *in posse* examples of both fascism and racism.



TOD HOLTON, SUPER GREEN BERET appeared in two 25-cent comics in 1967, from a short-lived publisher, Lightning Comics. Although the Beret's creators included two illustrious comics-figures-- writer Otto Binder and artist Carl Pfeufer-- neither man is well-served through association with this jingoistic enterprise. There are no deeper symbols underlying the first issue's cover image: it really is all about a big, strong Caucasian guy slamming around goony-looking Asian opponents. (I'm not sure their strange orange skin-hue is much of an improvement over the "canary-yellow" more frequently used to depict Asians.)

Clearly the publishers wanted to capitalize on the popularization of the Green Berets as a specialized fighting-force in the Vietnamese conflict. The popular 1966 song "Ballad of the Green Berets" could have easily inspired Tod Holton's genesis, although the greatest structural influence is clearly the origin-story of the Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL, to which feature Binder frequently contributed.

Following the lead of Billy Batson in CAPTAIN MARVEL, BERET's protagonist Tod Holton is a boy of high-school age who can magically transform into a super-powerful adult. However, since the creators had no half-reasonable way to place Tod himself in Vietnam, the vehicle through which Tod gains his method of transformation-- a magical green beret-- is his uncle, currently serving in the field.




The uncle-- whom Tod clearly idolizes-- returns to the U.S, on furlough and tells Tod a story of how he saved a South Vietnamese monk from the depredations of the "Vietcong." The monk then placed a supernatural blessing on the uncle's beret, telling him that it would imbue its wearer with great power if the wearer was "young and noble by nature." The uncle doesn't believe in the monk's hoodoo, but as soon as juvenile Tod dons the beret, both he and his uncle behold that it gives Tod fantastic powers, whenever he touches his hand to the beret in a salute.  The uncle thinks this is a great opportunity for Tod to become a military-themed superhero. The uncle promptly disappears from the remainder of the story and never appears in the rest of the stories.

None of the charm of the Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL is evident in this rinky-dink imitation. The Vietnamese wizard, who does occasionally tune in to Tod's heroic adventures, is never called anything but "the Jungle Wizard," and it's interesting that he's colored with pink, rather than orange, skin. Perhaps this signaled his true sympathies, since on reading the origin one is likely to wonder, "What, the Wizard couldn't find anyone in all of Vietnam who was both 'young and noble by nature?''"

The idea of Tod activating his near-infinite powers by performing a military salute was meant to imbue the gesture with heroic stature; instead, it just looks stupid. Super Green Beret can perform any number of genie-like tricks-- making himself super-strong and bulletproof, or changing grenades into real pineapples. However, he has to be concentrating to make anything supernatural happen, so he can be knocked out from behind, and if the superhero loses his beret, he reverts to plain Tod Holton.

Apparently the publishers weren't engaged in a particular political agenda, for Super Green Beret doesn't spend much time in Vietnam, but also squashes a rebellion in South America and forces the tyrannical ruler of an African country to give power to his people. To add variety, the hero also travels in time, fighting German soldiers during WWII and English soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Still, the book's very simplicity-- lacking even the florid, one-sided rhetoric of Marvel's contemporary anti-Commie comics-- makes it even more of a fascist comic *in posse.*

As for racism, aside from the visual depiction of Asians, there aren't any overt racial tropes. However, Binder comes close in the Beret's first adventure. In WWII it wouldn't have been unusual to see Japanese soldiers mocked as being "sawed-off monkeys," thus derogating both their stature and their supposed resemblance to apes. But in one scene, the Beret sees a few Vietcong snipers climbing up a tree to take pot-shots at American soldiers. His solution? He manifests a giant saw, saws through the tree-branches, and sends the snipers plunging to the ground-- after which he adds the quip, "Seems your limbs are being sawed off, you sawed off monkeys!"  The cleverness with which Binder manages to re-work a racist trope is almost admirable. Were he called upon to defend it, he could have said, "Well, they're climbing trees like monkeys, and they've been literally 'sawed off' because the hero cut through the tree's limbs!" I doubt that anyone would have credited such a defense. But even ingenuity used for a bad end is still ingenuity.



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "KARLOVNA UNDERWORLD" (BLACKHAWK #14, 1946)



Years ago I named the above story-- a shortened form for the untitled tale's first line, "Karlovna Had a True Underworld"-- in my 2008 post AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY. I've often thought about expanding on those brief remarks: 'Another weirdo racial myth about a modern-day country being subverted from beneath by a horde of dusky "dragon dwarves." This one was reprinted in the original edition of Les Daniels' COMIX.' There's no surviving record of the story's writer, but the artist has been pegged as Bill Ward, and any attributions I make in this essay will be treat Ward as the author, purely for narrative convenience.

Quality's Blackhawks were seven daredevil, freedom-loving pilots who roamed the world fighting evil-- though in the early days their comedy-relief Chinese member Chop-Chop wasn't consistently depicted as being able to pilot a plane. They principally battled the forces of the Axis during their genesis during World War Two, and after the war's conclusion they continued to battle any evil that seemed to threaten what they generally called "the democracies."



In this story, the Blackhawks are summoned to Karlovna-- an East European country that sounds like it took its name from a certain horror-film actor--  when a policeman colleague of Blackhawk's has been murdered, along with two other supporters of democratic rule. To keep Blackhawk from straining his brain with mundane detective work, one of the assassins-- a dark-skinned dwarf-- shows up on the scene, tried to knife the policeman's pretty blonde daughter Vereen, and then kills himself to escape interrogation.

While Vereen takes Blackhawk to confer on the problem with a respected banker-friend, one Rambin, the other Blackhawks stumble upon a whole race of dwarf-people, who live in the sewers beneath the city. The little people, later called "dragon dwarves," capture all of the Blackhawks except Hendrickson, who summons Blackhawk. At the same time Blackhawk and Hendrickson investigate the sewers in seatch of their comrades, the banker Rambin lures Vereen to the same location-- which should be enough for even the least skilled mystery-solver to figure out his role in the story.

Vereen and Rambin are captured without a fight, while Blackhawk and Hendrickson are overpowered. The dwarves are now accompanied by their two leaders: a fellow named Grotesko (whom Andre calls "ze biggest dwarf in all ze world") and a costumed woman named the Dragon Queen, The leaders explain to their captive audience that the dwarves "once owned Karlovna, until the weak civilized people took it from them! For generations, these rightful owners of the land have hidden underground, venturing forth only at night!" Thanks to the influence of the Dragon Queen-- who is secretly partnered with Rambin the banker-- the dwarves are using terrorist tactics to frighten the populace into submission.



With their usual aplomb, the heroes break out of their prison in double-quick time, and the dwarves scatter. Blackhawk, being the leader, figures out the conspiracy and accuses both Rambin and his female assistant Wilna, who is of course the real face behind the Dragon Queen. Rambin reveals that he was using the "stupid underground dwarves" to block his country's alliance with the democracies, since such an alliance would cost him money. He has no loyalty toward the "wild claims" of the dragon dwarves, but tries to use them in a last-ditch battle with the heroes. When that gambit fails, Rambin tries to put the blame on Wilna, She kills him and then herself, and the Blackhawks fly off, ready for their next foray against tyranny.

What makes Ward's story more mythic than many similar tales is its emphasis on symbols of what the Greeks called "the chthonic," defined by Dictionary.com as being:

"of or relating to the deities, spirits, and other beings dwelling under the earth."

Any beings, mortal or spiritual, that dwell beneath the ground can't help but be associated with the bodies and spirits of the dead as well. Snakes are one example of living animals that frequently take on chthonic associations, as do dragons, who take their name from the Greek word for snake. Thus, when Ward styles his little people "dragon dwarves," he's combining two figures that share chthonic properties, given the fact that folkloric dwarves, unlike real little people, are often pictured as living beneath the earth.

In the Celtic tradition dwarves have come to be viewed as one of the many divisions of "faerie," meaning, in essence, any supernatural creature that's less than a god yet more than a mortal. The medieval, psuedo-historical myths of Ireland describe successions of mortal peoples who come to settle Ireland-- Fomorians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha-- only to be crowded out by new arrivals. The psuedo-histories, rather than simply saying that the earlier tribes were wiped out, often picture them as retiring to underground "barrows" and similar retreats.

I'm not imputing to Ward or any collaborator a great knowledge of Celtic tradition, but most persons of the period were aware of the basic notion of tribal displacement. The story, by inserting a "giant dwarf' named Grotesko, also suggests some authorial familiarity with the Nordic tradition of opposing the light-skinned Aesir with two principal foes: "giants" and "dwarves." Grotesko's name is transparently a pun on the word "grotesque," but the origins of this word take us further down into the chthonic as well, since "grotesque" evolves from the Italian word for "cave."  European art critics labeled certain Roman artworks "grotesque" because the artworks reminded the critics of art that appeared in grotto-like settings, and the word later came to connote anything bizarre and unsettling.
Finally, as anyone well read in Robert E Howard knows, some European tales suggest the idea of "dark precursors" that inhabited parts of Europe before being ousted by light-skinned invaders.

Clearly, even though Karlovna is a phony-baloney country, Ward wanted to draw on the nightmarish implications of a "normal" (i.e. white and civilized) country with a "dark underbelly." At the same time, it should be noted that the dragon dwarves' claims to being the original inhabitants of the land aren't validated-- Vereen, for instance, doesn't suddenly start talking about dwarf-legends even when she sees the dead body of her attacker. So although Ward's story might suggest a degree of civilized guilt about the marginalization of an earlier people, the story as written leaves open the possibility that the dwarves' claims are deluded; an attempt to rewrite history to their own advantage.

A writer living in the era right after WWII probably wasn't deeply concerned with the actual existence of "dark little people" in European prehistory. But as figures of the chthonic, the dragon dwarves may symbolize the forces of irrationality that continually threaten to overwhelm the rational rule of democracy-- so that even though the dwarves are dark and stunted, they may well symbolize the Nazi veneration of the irrational, for all that the Nazis venerated idols of blonde Aryan health.

A final complication is that there are no indications as to how the all-male dwarves have perpetuated themselves over the years, since no female dwarves are in evidence. One can easily imagine them stealing women to act as breeders, but again, one would think that their doing so would give them a folkloric presence in Karlovna-- and, as I said, the story's only reliable Karlovnan doesn't have the first idea as to who or what the dwarves may be. Since they venerate a Dragon Queen who is actually a light-skinned, normal-sized woman, I tend to wonder if the most appropriate reading might not be one in which the Queen is actually a queen of hell, whose progeny are these hideously deformed creatures, as seen in Milton's memorable description of Hell's queen Sin:

These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv'd
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw
My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth 
A fresh with conscious terrours vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.


NOTE: The entire story can be read on this site.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "THE TERRIBLE TINKERER" (SPIDER-MAN #2)

Although the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN corpus remains one of the most respected superhero serials in the comics medium, the feature's creators were men who could lose their way like any other mortal beings. Spider-Man's first four appearances-- the intro tale in AMAZING FANTASY #15, the two stories in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, and "Duel to the Death with the Vulture" in ASM #2-- are all remarkable for their wit and intelligence in transforming the then-staid conception of the superhero-- all the more remarkable, given that the creators probably believed that their only audience were kids under 12, Not every story in the Lee-Ditko corpus was superb, but even in the merely adequate stories, it's easy to imagine the two comics-creators taking a fierce professional joy in working out the brave new world of their unique take on the superhero.

Except once; in the second Spider-Man story to appear in ASM #2. It's not just that "the Terrible Tinkerer" is a blah story, though it is. It's also not just that it feels like some idea Lee and Ditko might've planned for one of their penny-ante "weird tales," and which they turned into a Spider-Man story in order to meet a deadline. It's that the story seems to invert the mythic concept of Spider-Man. This series-concept includes not just the hero, but all of the "mythology" that accrued about him-- developed in a steady and logical manner during the first four appearances-- and although Peter Parker does appear in the "Tinkerer" story, he seems less like himself and more like another alter-ego with an alliterative name: Billy Batson. Given that issue #2 was the last time that the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN title featured two short stories-- and that the Spider-Man concept was steadily developed from then on in "full-length" stoies-- the "Tinkerer" tale seems a strange hiccup indeed; almost a failure of nerve.


The tale opens on Parker in his science class, getting dumped on by his classmates for his devotion to the sciences. (Regular character Flash Thompson is among the mockers, but has not yet taken on a developed character, while his girlfriend Liz hasn't even acquired a first name yet.) This sequence. with the noble hero being ridiculed by his ignoble peers, is the only part of the story that doesn't feel like it belongs in a simpler superhero story along the model of the Fawcett Captain Marvel.

Parker's teacher introduces him to the city's foremost "electronics expert," Doctor Cobbwell, who has apparently come to the high school to look for a free assistant. Parker immediately volunteers, and it's not clear if it's he's being paid with money or just the honor of working for the esteemed scientist. Cobbwell has Parker run an errand for him, that of picking up a radio from an electronics repair store. While in the store, Parker's "spider sense" is triggered by the shop and its strange old owner, who calls himself "the Tinkerer." Parker leaves without divining what caused him to feel sensations of danger, but the reader sees that in the Tinkerer's basement, he's conspiring to place special monitoring devices in the radios he works on-- all to serve the world-conquering plans of a gang of green space-aliens.

Just as I said in my critique of this JIMMY OLSEN story, I'm not criticizing "Terrible Tinkerer" for putting forth an outlandish idea; that of a small-time radio-repairman acting as a spy for an alien invasion. Rather, I'm criticizing the story because it doesn't enhance the mythic themes that had been articulated in the previous four adventures. The issue of Parker's conflicts with his peers, which would continue to resonate in future adventures, is barely touched upon here, much less the "conflicts of money and fame" that I elucidated in my earlier meditations on Spider-Man.

There's no great suspense to the story, either. When Parker's hyper-senses allow him to detect the monitoring-device in Cobbwell's radio, he goes back to the radio-ship, as Spider-Man. He falls afoul of the Tinkerer and his alien allies, is captured, and then escapes a death-trap. The aliens flee the planet in their space-ship, while the Tinkerer escapes the hero, leaving behind a human face-mask that suggests that he too was an alien.

I remarked that there's almost nothing in this story that couldn't have happened to the Fawcett Captain Marvel-- who was, prior to the conception of Spider-Man, one of the most famous "teen heroes" in comic books, even if only the Captain's alter-ego was a teen boy. As this blogpost shows in great detail, the archetype of Captain Marvel had an incidental influence upon Spider-Man's creation, for Captain Marvel was the model for a superhero named the "Silver Spider"-- a concept which did not sell to any publisher, but whose basic concept was recycled twice: first into Archie Comics' THE FLY, and later, into SPIDER-MAN.

The DIAL B FOR BLOG post mentions that when Steve Ditko saw some of the pages of Jack Kirby's first-- and presumably unfinished-- SPIDER-MAN story, the adventure showed the Kirby Spider-Man-- who transformed with the help of a magic ring, just like Archie's FLY-- in the process of getting involved with an old scientist performing some experiment. Did Ditko take what he remembered of the uncompleted story, and transform into the "Tinkerer" tale? This might explain why the story seems to be so little like any other Lee-Ditko spider-story before or after it.

Fortunately, though this story may represent a slight "failure of nerve" in that it revolves back to an earlier superhero-model-- a model which SPIDER-MAN parodies-- the back-step did not hinder the progress of the Spider-Man mythos. (Happily, though later raconteurs chose to bring the Tinkerer out of mothballs, he never became a major player in that mythos, and would in my opinion be better off being forgotten.)


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: AMAZING FANTASY #15/ SPIDER-MAN #1-2 (1962-63)

(Note: I wrote the original version of this essay years ago, and have updated it for this series.)   

The psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud are no longer central to the practive of modern psychological treatment. Yet in literary criticism, it’s nearly impossible to speak of the psychosexual concepts underlying fictional characters wthout addressing Freud, if only to refute him.   The early Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN is an ambivalent example in this case, conforming to Freudian patterns in some respects but not in others.

The centerpiece of Freudian theory is the concept that the son’s dawning sexual desires become centered on the mother and inculcate in him a murderous jealousy of the father. Freud named this concatenation of love and resentment after Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX, not because the play depicts such a relationship but because (Freud believed) Oedipus unknowingly performed the actions that such a jealous son would like to perform: killing his father and marrying his mother.   Freud also claimed that this wish-fulfillment pattern could be displaced in devious ways, such as the son’s displacing his animosity onto some third party.  Freud asserts that this occurs in HAMLET, where Hamlet’s uncle kills Hamlet’s father and sleeps with Hamlet’s mother, thus incurring Hamlet’s anger because these are supposedly things Hamlet wants to do. 

In broad outline the early adventures of SPIDER-MAN conform to the displacement angle of Freud's theory, particularly in the classic origin tale in AMAZING FANTASY.  High school student Peter Parker is valued by his teachers and by his elderly surrogate parents, Aunt May and Uncle Ben for being a “clean-cut, hard-working honor student.” 



But the accomplishments of a "professional wallflower" count for nothing in the eyes of Parker's fellow students, particularly the female ones.  Parker is embittered by his ill-treatment-- not unlike protagonists of many standalone horror-stories on which creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko collaborated prior to SPIDER-MAN. He dramatically swears that “someday they’ll be sorry!—sorry that they laughed at me!”  In horror-stories, embittered protagonists usually sought to take revenge by appealing to supernatural forces.  If the horror-protagonist devoted himself entirely to an unjust revenge, the narrative often levied upon him some terribly ironic punishment.  If the protagonist came to his senses at the eleventh hour, he might be pulled back from the abyss with a new-found sense of guilt and responsibility. 


Parker never makes any literal pact with the devil for supernatural powers. But from the point in the origin-story where he desires to make his peers “sorry,” the narrative evolves as if he had done so.  His preoccupation with science leads him to a radiation exhibition, and, as most comics-fans know, an irradiated spider bites Parker and infuses the teen with spider-powers. Though he's initially bewildered as to what to do with these powers, he gets the idea of testing them against an opponent in the wrestling-ring. This is the story's first meaningful mention of Parker's desire for money, as opposed to sexual favors. His success in the bout brings Parker into contact with a promoter, and so Parker adopts the identity of Spider-Man not to pursue a destiny of selfless heroism, but to enrich himself and his surrogate parents. He declines to act the part of a good citizen by helping a policeman catch an unarmed robber, explaining to the frustrated cop that, "From now on, I just look out for Number One-- that means me!" A few panels later at his dwelling-place, one of Parker's thought-balloons makes clear that he will protect his aunt and uncle as well: "I'll see to it they're always happy, but the rest of the world can go hand for all I care."



But fate will demand its ironic pound of flesh. Because Parker ignores his societal obligations in the pursuit of filthy lucre, his Uncle Ben dies at the hand of the same burglar whom Parker allowed to escape days earlier.  While the protagonist of an episodic horror-tale would simply be humbled by the experience of being hauled back from the hellmouth, Parker must assume a never-ending responsibility as payback for having “murdered” his uncle through neglect. For Parker, the costume of the superhero often becomes a hair-shirt, though not surprisingly, subsequent stories manage to find many ways for Spider-Man to have fun being a superhero, to say nothing of occasionally being able to humiliate old enemies.  From then on both the triumphs and tribulations of being a superhero become so merged that one cannot say if Parker's fate is punishment or reward.



A doctrinaire Freudian reading of the origin-story might end up accusing Parker of having murdered his uncle through an "act of omission" in order to be closer to his surrogate mother, Aunt May.  And this might be a reasonable suspicion if Parker’s aunt were given any aura of sexuality.  Instead, Aunt May is always an icon of aged, sexless virtue.  Rather than being a source of sexual temptation, she becomes the objective correlative of Parker’s implacable new sense of responsibility. Further, though she's in a position of relative authority over him, she functions in the series more like a child whose health and peace of mind Parker worries over.  So a doctrinaire Freudian reading does not apply, particularly since Parker's sexual needs are still turned outward, toward women more or less his own age. One might make something of the fact that the character's first major girlfriend is a little older than he is: Betty Brant is a working woman, roughly of college-age, when she starts dating the high-schooler. Few stories treat the Betty character as significantly older than Parker, though. So despite the occasional reference to her age-- in one story, her rival Liz Allan makes Betty feel "a hundred years old" simply by addressing Betty as "Miss Brant"-- she doesn't work as a mother-substitute any better than does Aunt May.

However, Uncle Ben does continue to throw his shadow over Spider-Man's destiny, in a manner analogous to both Laius in the Sophocles play and Hamlet's father in Shakespeare. But Hamlet, according to Freud, is plagued not only with desire for the forbidden mother but also with a new "older male rival," in the form of his uncle Claudius. SPIDER-MAN #1 not only features the hero's debut in his own title, but also appearance of a "bad father" in the hero's life.  There’s no causal relationship between the death of Uncle Ben and the “birth” of newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, but from issue #1 on, Jameson becomes a second shadow in the hero's life. Whereas the spectre of Uncle Ben continues to chastise Parker for his sin of omission, Jameson comes at the hero from the other direction: publicly castigating the figure of Spider-Man, deeming the hero a vigilante who "takes the law into his own hands" and accusing him of being a bad role model for children. (It's not hard to imagine that aspects of the comics-critic Frederic Wertham found their way into the figure of Jameson the irresponsible pundit.)  Further, it's clear from Jameson"s first appearance in issue #1's lead story that the publisher's real grievance is that the real heroism of his own son, astronaut John Jameson, may be overshadowed by the superhero’s deeds. 




Usually supporting characters in superhero comics-features were one-dimensional in their opposition or their advocacy of the hero's goals, but Jameson was something of a breakthrough: a character who "knew himself but slenderly." By the end of this story Spider-Man saves the life of John Jameson during his space-capsule's malfunction. Despite this, the publisher regards the hero as a menace, accusing him of causing the malfunction. Because Lee and Ditko did not choose to keep the character of John Jameson as a regular-- though the astronaut did return much later, after Ditko's departure from the feature-- Jonah Jameson's motivation was soon re-interpreted as the jealousy of an older, essentially selfish man for the courage and fearlessness of a young hero.




So if there is an Oedipal conflict in the early SPIDER-MAN of Lee and Ditko, it might be glossed less by Freud than by Leslie Fiedler’s remarks about the father/son conflict of DON JUAN: that “[Don Juan’s] legend projects the naked encounter of father and son (the women mere occasions), of the alienated individual and the society he defies.” By these terms SPIDER-MAN might be an even more “naked” encounter, insofar as there are no women at all standing between Parker and Jameson. It's true that since Betty Brant works as a secretary at Jameson’s newspaper, she could have taken on the connotations of a "daughter-figure" to a "heavy father," which would conform not only to DON JUAN but also to ARCHIE comics. But no such relationship develops: Jameson does not care whether or not Parker dates his secretary

The Parker-Jameson relationship is defined by the conflicts of money and fame.  Jameson has some degree of public prominence because of his wealth, and uses his position to suppress the superhero’s growing popularity with the public.  But Spider-Man’s selfless actions in themselves don't put any money in Parker's bank account. Though Parker frets over money all through SPIDER-MAN #1, only in the first tale of SPIDER-MAN #2 does he find a way of making heroics pay, without neglecting the mantle of responsibility. He elects to start using his powers to go around town taking photographs that no ordinary journalist could get-- in particular, photos of a new super-criminal, the Vulture. In fact, nowhere in "Duel to the Death with the Vulture" does Parker assert that he plans to round up the super-crook for the benefit of the law. When some classmate tosses Parker a copy of a magazine Jameson publishes, this gives the hero the idea of photographing the Vulture-- and when the flying villain next appears, all Spider-Man does is to follow him, snapping pictures. The Vulture tries to kill his pesky shadow, fails, and on their next encounter Spidey beats him and delivers the Vulture to the cops-- although not before the hero gets more pictures to sell to the new "parental authority" in his life.



From then on, this becomes the new status quo: to make money Parker must continue selling photos to an older man who hates Parker's alter ego, while Jameson, who hates Spider-Man, must continue feeding the fame of "the menace" or face losing the interest of the paper-buying public. (One later tale even asserts that the paper's newsstand sales go down whenever Jameson writes another of his many anti-Spider-Man editorials.) For the young hero, there's no final duel with the older authority. The alienated individual simply goes on jousting against the older man and the conservative society he represents-- on and on, world without end.