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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...

Monday, August 31, 2015

FRYE UNDER FIRE

I have strayed into the fields of the Hubristic Underminers once more, but in this essay at least, I'll confine myself to reflecting on some of the blog's recent comments on my favorite critic, Northrop Frye.

Actually, I was a little surprised to see any mentions of Frye on HU at all. I had seen one of their contributors dismiss Frye as "old-fashioned"-- albeit on a forum, not on HU itself. Thus I thought it unlikely that any of HU's pundits would display an interest in the late Canadian myth-critic-- if only because his synoptic orientation, relating to seeing all literature as part of a vast pattern, would mean little in terms of HU's vaunted ideological aims.

Frye did get mentioned, albeit in passing, in Chris Gavaler's THE PHYSICS OF FICTION. After I read this essay, I googled Frye's name alongside that of HU, and saw a handful of essays that cited Frye, though none did so in a more substantive manner than Gavaler's piece. While I'm still surprised that the HU crew is even aware of Frye, the paucity of substantive writing suggests that he's merely a name to conjure with for these essayists, not someone that they trouble to research with the same intensity that they pursue the tortuous tautologies of Marx and Freud.

Gavaler's primary reference to Frye appears only because Frye is quoted by a critic with whom Gavaler disagrees:

Rothman resurrects Northrop Frye to fill the vacuum left by the collapsing genre system, but the Frye model’s four-part structure (novel, romance, anatomy, confession) is more likely to spread chaos (“novel” is a kind of novel?). 

Now, I myself expressed some ambivalence about Rothman's citation, to wit:

As for Rothman, I see where he’s going with the invocation of Frye, but the four forms Rothman cites are not especially relevant to current literature. However, in the ANATOMY Frye also elucidated four *mythoi”– which he termed the romance, the comedy, the tragedy, and the irony– that are far more applicable.
For instance, some critics might say that WATCHMEN is good because it skewers the traditions of the adventure-oriented superhero narrative, which in Fryean terms would be “romance.” But that view is simplistic. WATCHMEN is a good work within its own mythos, that of the “irony,” whose nature is to satirize and downgrade all forms of human experience, not just types of disreputable pop-fiction. If adventure-oriented superheroes are good, they are either good or bad according to the romantic parameters they follow– but not because they don’t have enough satirical shit in them.

So I can give Gavaler a pass regarding his ambivalence on the "novel category" thing, since I myself don't think it's currently useful. However, later Gavaler once again assails Frye on his supposed lack of consistency:

Literary fiction is another problematic term. It traditionally denotes narrative realism, fiction that appears to take place here on Earth, but it’s also been used as shorthand for works of artistic worth. With the second half of the definition provisionally struck, we’re left with realism. Its solar center is mimesis, the mirror that works of literature are held against to test their ability to reflect our world. Northrop Frye declared mimesis one of the two defining poles of literature, though he had trouble naming its opposite. Frye located romance—a category that includes romance as well as all other popular genres (and so another conceptual strike against the Frye model)—in the idealized world, so Harlequin romances are part fantasy too (real guys just aren’t that gorgeous and wonderful). 

In my own adaptation of Frye, I foreswore his term "romance" in favor of "adventure," in part because currently the word "romance" does have this modern connotation. However, I pointed out that Gavaler had falsified Frye's supposed "trouble" in naming the literary mode opposed to verisimilitude. I commented:

[The center’s] more like a binary star, and the people facing the other “sun” are the ones who like Borges more than Trollope.
I don’t think Frye had any difficulty naming the opposite of mimetic realism. In the ANATOMY he contrasts “versimilitude”– which is the reigning principle of the mimetic– with “myth.” And I quote:
“Our survey of fictional modes has also shown us that the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story.”
There have been defenders of “literary myth” in the humanities long before Frye, such as Andrew Lang. Their voices just weren’t as loud– hence, Gavaler’s description of modern criticism as being totally oriented upon verisimilitude/ mimeticism.
Interested parties may check out Gavaler's response for themselves, but I found it superficial at best. I suggest that Gavaler dismissed Frye's image of a spectrum with two opposed modes because he's thoroughly in love with his "mimetic solar center" image, and Frye's continuum simply doesn't allow for such centrality.

Gavaler's confidence in the centrality of "the mimetic" extends to describing a experiment that supposedly demonstrates the pre-eminence of the mimetic mode. I won't spend any time describing it-- again, interested parties can check it out for themselves-- but I view it as a stunningly useless pseudo-experiment, one which doesn't even begin to answer my implied question, "If mimeticism is so on top of it all, how did Jose Luis Borges become a Literary Light?"

No big changes here, so no surprise that everything at HU stays the same.





Thursday, August 27, 2015

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 2

Part One appeared way back in 2012, but it's once more relevant as I've been giving thought once more to the question of "illusory focal presences."  This means that I'll be revealing the endings of various narratives under discussion, so-- SPOILERS.

Literature is rife with stoties in which a narrator seems to interact with another human being, who may be his literal double, as with Poe's short story "William Wilson," or an ego-projection with its own apparently identity, as seen in Conrad's "Secret Sharer" and Palahniuk's FIGHT CLUB. The latter, dealing with projections that come to seem more real than the viewpoint character, may be seen as modern-day iterations of the Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship-- not least because, as I noted in this essay, Hyde is usually much more interesting than Jekyll.

Two more involved variations of this trope can be found in a pair of 1960s films I've reviewed on my cinema-review blog.

In its first hour, Mario Bava's 1963 work THE WHIP AND THE BODY seems like a set-up for a ghost story, particularly since Kurt, the black-sheep aristocrat who projects the greatest evil-- played by horror-icon Christopher Lee-- dies early in the story, and then seems to come back and prey upon the members of his family. It eventually comes out that Nevenka-- Kurt's former lover, who was married to his brother in Kurt's absence-- is guilty not only of killing Kurt but of committing murders as the persona of Kurt. She finally kills herself in the belief that she's killing Kurt.

But who's the focal presence? As I noted in the review, I've seen only the American release, which may have eliminated some key info about Nevenka's personality. However, though Nevenka follows a pattern that had been popularized three years previous by Hitchcock's PSYCHO, she's no Norman Bates. Hitchcock at least gives the viewer broad hints about how Norman became a monster, but I suspect that Bava didn't supply much for Nevenka. If the Italian version isn't any more elaborate than the American release, it may be that the true focal presence of the movie is not the confused masochist Nevenka, but her illusion of Kurt-- much as was the case with the two narratives discussed in Part One: 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and Irving's "Headless Horseman."

So WHIP would be another example where "Hyde," the forceful ego-image, is more real than the Jekyll-persona that creates him. On the other hand, 1964's THE BLACK TORMENT provides a rare example of the reverse tendency.

The viewpoint character of TORMENT is a "new wife" in the tradition of REBECCA and similar narratives, but it's the new wife's husband who seems to be the star of the show-- for TORMENT's conflict revolves around another Hyde-like problem-- is Sir Richard Fordyke, the lord of the manor, committing random murders, as witnesses attest?

The mere fact that I label the film's dominant trope to be that of the "phantasmal figuration" should be enough to signal that Sir Richard happens to be innocent. None of the plotters-- not even the "menacing doppelganger" who impersonates Sir Richard-- are very impressive, and though I mentioned that Sir Richard himself isn't very deep, the question of whether he is or is not sane seems to be the film's most central question. Thus, BLACK TORMENT would be, in essence, one of the few times that "Jekyll" doesn't just outshine "Hyde," his character-arc is, like that of REBECCA's saturnine husband, more significant to the narrative than either the viewpoint character or any of those who oppose him.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: RAGNAROK BOOKS 1-10 (2002-04)



Since the theme of the "null-myths" essays is to focus upon narratives that I deem "inconsummate"-- that is, showing a mythic potential that goes unrealized-- I suppose it might seem inappropriate to cite a work that has gone literally unfinished for the last ten years. Still, artist-writer Lee Myung-Jin did complete ten volumes of the comic before he allegedly started devoting his full attention to an online RPG based on RAGNAROK. I suppose I'm of the opinion that if the fellow had possessed any ability to imbue his jumble of borrowings from Nordic stories with genuine mythic resonance, that ability surely would have showed up after 10 volumes, no matter how many story-arcs remained up in the air.

Though Lee's work was conceived as a manhwa first and became a role-playing game afterward, RAGNAROK has a sketchy feel, as if its invocations of mythic characters and situations was never meant to be more than minor set-ups for a game's action. Nevertheless, though I'm not a player of RPGs, I have occasionally seen such simple set-ups turned into competent if not especially complex narratives: 2012's DRAGON AGE: DAWN OF THE SEEKER being one example. The Dragon Age scenario at least plays out its simple conflict of knights and wizards with some attention to the consistency of its mythos.

In contrast, Lee merely treats Norse myth as a grab-bag from which he can swipe names such as Balder, Loki, and-- most laughably-- "Fenris Fenrir." Fenrir, according to current wisdom, was the name of a Nordic wolf-god, which was apparently mistranslated as "Fenris" in early renditions. For Lee to use both names, the correct and the incorrect, for the name of a female character who doesn't even possess any lupine characteristics attests to his disinterest in the connotations of the stories.

I suppose as dopey "dungeons and dragons" fantasies go, RAGNAROK is no better or worse than a lot of them, and it may be that I'm including it here to justify the effort of having plowed through all ten volumes. But given that Lee Myung-Jin projected finishing this superficial opus within no less than thirty-three volumes, the fact that it's literally incomplete may be the best thing about it.


Monday, August 24, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: BECAUSE I'M THE GODDESS, BOOKS 1-3 (2003-04)



No one will mistake Shamneko's BECAUSE I'M THE GODDESS,  a short comedy-manga comprised of three collected books, as one of the seminal works of Japanese comics. However, it does illustrate a point I want to make about the overt adaptation of tropes from archaic myth into narratives that may not have much resemblance to the original subject matter.

In a pair of back-to-back essays from May2009, I cited two usages of the Greek myth-character Icarus. I validated this one, because the writer had a sound symbolic purpose in using a variation on the name-- "Icy Harris"-- as a touchstone for the same type of psychological myth seen in the Greek tale: showing the consequences of unbridled ambition. On the other hand, I invalidated this one,
because the creator simply took the name "Icarus," changed the spelling a little, and used it to connote nothing more complex than a hero who could fly around. Thus "Icy Harris" is a more mythic character than "Ikaris" even though the latter has a more mythic appearance, and is tied into a world of gods who are also mostly named after Greek personages. On that logic, it's less important to keep faith with the actual situations of myth-figures than to show insight into their symbolic essence.

GODDESS is one of many manga-tales that borrows freely-- some might say "wildly"-- from the corpus of Greek myth. One of its two main characters is named Pandora, but she's not the rather passive figure of the traditional tales. On one hand, she's being used as a figure of light, T&A themed comedy. On the other, she represents a meditation on the nature of the "eternal female" as the "giver of all things" (which is more or less the way the name "Pandora" renders in English).

In the Greek tale, Zeus sends the beautiful mortal girl Pandora to Earth to bring trouble to mankind. In some renditions of the story, the Titan Prometheus has just given fire to mankind, and Zeus wants to keep mankind in line by allowing Pandora, the eternally curious female, to open the forbidden box (also a jar in some versions) and unleash many evils upon mankind. The manga does include its own versions of both Zeus and Prometheus, and they play roles not too far removed from their Greek counterparts, though both are essentially supporting characters.

Pandora, in many respects a stereotypical busty blonde ditz, is created by Zeus and sent to modern-day Earth to corral mysterious objects called "gifts." It will be later revealed that these gifts were dispersed upon Earth by another goddess-figure, symbolically linked to the new Pandora and in some sense an "evil twin" of the younger character. Pandora, unlike the mortal character of the tale, possesses the power to do almost anything with a magical gesture, and she demonstrates her godly capacity to a befuddled young Japanese student, Aoi Ibara. However, she soon finds that every time she uses the power, she "deflates" to a shadow of herself; a ten-year-old girl. Pandora also discovers a solution to this dilemma: she can recharge her power by kissing Aoi, the young man with whom she shares a supernatural destiny.




Obviously, the author was having fun with-- and maybe at the expense of-- the well-known Japanese tradition of the Lolicon, or "Lolita fantasy." Aoi feels a mild paternal protectiveness toward the juvenile Pandora, but he doesn't want to kiss her. At the same time, he's also upset by the boobalicious-ness of Pandora's adult form. Whereas many male protagonists of comedy-manga are unrepentant horndogs, Aoi is portrayed as a righteous young fellow who's a little phobic about females, possibly due to the circumstances of his upbringing.  The mere fact that Shamneko can expect his audience to laugh when an underage girl kisses an adolescent male illustrates the gulf that still separates Japanese humor from what mainstream America will tolerate.

However, it may go deeper than that. I've puzzled for some time over Japanese culture's pre-occupation with the "Lolicon" theme. Even "harem manga," in which a fortunate male has four or more cute girls living with him, frequently include a female character who's underaged. Without trying to delve too deeply into these waters, I'll just say here that I think Japanese culture is fascinated with the inevitability of the transition between pre-pubescent innocence and increasing maturation-- which in itself is NOT something real Lolita-fanciers care about, if one cares to believe Humbert Humbert.

Aoi is somewhat dragged into his role as Pandora's protector and manservant, a running joke about female dominance that is mirrored in less flattering terms by the manifestation of the "gifts." The "gifts" are actually small god-entities-- some resembling Cupid-- who possess only mortal women and cause them to enslave men to do their bidding. Obviously Shamneko was also playing with another common Japanese sexual trope, that of female-over-male domination. I don't think he manages to illuminate this trope quite as insightfully as he does with the one about the "Lolita complex." Still, the comedy situations are never less than entertaining, and they consistently play into Aoi's aforementioned "bad upbringing" as well.

This being a Japanese manga, it will be no surprise that one of the characters endures a heroic death, but Shamneko still finds a way to end on a upbeat comic note. In the end Pandora appears in a form that is neither the immature juvenile nor the over-endowed sex-doll, but merely than of an ordinary woman. I'm tempted to say that Shamneko is showing that real femininity, as opposed to the fetishes thereof, is the most profound "gift" of heaven. But I'll freely admit that this is only my own conclusion, for the author doesn't try to draw any such morals himself.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "LOVING THE ALIEN" (SWAMP THING #60, 1987)



I dropped a passing remark about SWAMP THING #60 in this essay, which concerns the subject of "rapey-ness" far more than does the WATCHMEN. Therefore I'll justify my remark in a little more depth here, since "Loving the Alien" also happens to involve a "clockwork rape."

In the earlier essay I dismissed "Loving" as a story which addressed rape as an Important Issue. I still believe that there's an element of preachiness in the storyline, an element that keeps it from realizing its mythic / plurisignative potential. Yet, though the project was apparently conceived by Alan Moore's frequent SWAMP THING collaborator John Totleben, the story certainly does emphasize many of Moore's favorite tropes.

In short, the issue takes place following a sequence back on Planet Earth. Swamp Thing's spirit is exiled from his native planet, and he's sent hurtling into outer space.  Since Swamp Thing has the power to incarnate his spirit into any body in the vegetable kingdom, the hapless monster's first reaction is to try to stop his flight by forming a new body on the first promising planet.

Enter a planet-sized "motherworld," belonging to a species that is a combination of organic and technological elements. The entire story is told from the POV of the motherworld-- which has no name as such-- as it tells the story of how the discarnate spirit of Swamp Thing-- "a ghost that swam through clockwork"-- came to her. just when she needed a mate. She uses her technology to subdue the monster-hero and strip him of the genetic material to make new offspring-- after which she turns him loose, to continue his journey.

I can't deny that artist Totleben puts an ungodly amount of work into realizing the clockwork world's interaction with the discomfited monster-hero. Yet I'm clearly not the audience for it, being that I've never liked the use of collage in comic books.

I don't think that Moore's writing is at his best here, given that so much of the narration is forced to describe the functioning of the motherworld, Often he resorts to human metaphors simply in order to make the alien creature's meditations accessible, as when he writes, "Upon my hide, a hundred geysers were silenced and a thousand streams ran dry as I held my breath."



Still, though "Loving" is not Moore's best writing, I could live with it if I didn't feel that he was attempting to pound in a message about the evils of rape:

"I drank the wine of his intelligence, drank his body, the pattern of his cells. I ate his fear, I ate his agony, I ate his love, his love, his love-- The rest I threw away."

I don't object in any way to the role-reversal involved, in which a character with a male outlook is raped by a monstrous female. But the setup seems overly preachy, as if to echo the fatuous political point, "If rape could happen to men as often as it happens to women, then it would be a capital crime."

It's arguable that Moore does make a parallel point in WATCHMEN, through the dispiriting interaction of Walter Kovacs and his nasty mother. But whatever shortcomings the Rorschach sequences of WATCHMEN may have, preachiness is not one of them.

This is essentially a cosmological myth, given its attempt to realize an alien species of life, though it may also be deemed psychological in its attempt to project the horror rape upon a male subject.





Tuesday, August 18, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: WATCHMEN #1-12 (1986-87)

I said here that I planned to comment upon Alan Moore's tendency to let his didactic tendencies overwhelm his symbolic discourse. However, when I did the same with Dave Sim and Steve Ditko, I first gave examples of works in which they managed to keep their didacticism under control. So I'll do the same with respect to Alan Moore.

I fleetingly mentioned WATCHMEN in THE ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY, and I've mentioned various aspects of the graphic novel in other essays. Obviously I'm not going to try to analyze the entire novel in a single blogpost. What I will address is a theme in Moore's work that I might call (with a tip of the hat to Anthony Burgess) "the clockwork rape."

Of course, everyone knows that Alan Moore writes rapey comics. Few if any critics have commented on what part the trope of rape might play within the greater patterns of Moore's work, because most critics today are only concerned with a smug political correctness. But I'll advance the notion that in WATCHMEN at least, rape is one of many ways in which Moore-- in concert with his collaborator Dave Gibbons, naturally-- depicts the clockwork patterning of human lives.

One can hardly read WATCHMEN without having the image of the clock, in one form or another, shoved in one's face.



The workings of clocks become a primary metaphor in the life of one of the story's ensemble characters: Doctor Manhattan, who's given a watch to study as a young boy and as a superhero even builds a clockwork city on Mars. 



The image of the two hands coming into conjunction, however, is far more pervasive than its use only in clocks or clock-like objects. For instance, two human bodies can be brought into such a conjunction, in a manner that mingles Eros and Thanatos.



For the purposes of this essay I'll term all such conjunctions as "syzygies." The syzygy is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a "pair of connected or corresponding things." To my knowledge the term's never been applied to the hour hand and minute hand of a clock, but it's a fair statement to say that the two items are connected: that the clock would be close to useless without the interaction of both pieces of the clock.

Now, the above scene from issue #7 focuses on the syzygy of two humans making love. Yet nothing in this image of "love-death" contradicts the possibility of a syzygy in which one being seeks to dominate the other.  Here's the "rapey scenario" that everyone who's read the comic remembers:



Of course, the attempted rape doesn't transpire, which may a reason that the sequence doesn't merit its own syzygy-image. But such a syzygy-image does appear when Walter Kovacs, a.k.a. "Rorschach," views an ink-blot during a psychologist's "Rorschach test." 


Walter has projected his own memory of this unpleasant incident onto the ink-blot, whose corresponding shapes remind him of being abused by his mother. Moore and Gibbons are clearly being ambiguous about what the woman does to her male offspring. But if one chooses to hew to the logic used by many feminists in the comics-world-- i.e., that any use of violence by a male upon a female must constitute a displaced form of rape-- then the reverse must be true, as I demonstrated here, even if Mrs. Kovacs doesn't dispense anything but pure violence.

Even more significantly, the text of WATCHMEN makes clear that Walter Kovacs never forgives his mother for whatever she did to him. By contrast, the Comedian approaches Silk Spectre for unambiguous sexual favors, hinting that she's been sending him signals. When she doesn't give in, he beats her down, and she's saved from rape only by the intrusion of a third party. Yet at some later date she does apparently have consensual sex with the Comedian, resulting in the birth of their daughter Laurie-- though apparently the ex-superheroine forbids the Comedian from divulging the fact of his parenthood to his grown offspring. It's entirely possible that Silk Spectre's implied forgiveness irks some ultraliberals far more than the sight of the attempted rape itself.

Throughout WATCHMEN the ticking clock is conspicuously used to emphasize how time is running out-- possibly for humanity as a whole, not just the fictional characters in their character-arcs. For the characters as for the readers, the syzygies depict moments frozen in time, different from other comics-panels only in the degree of their abstraction. 

Moore, as a modernist author, wants to use his art as a bully pulpit, to warn others of the limitations of their real lives. That's why it's so ironic that he should be assailed for "rapey comics," since he's clearly calling attention to rape's moral consequences. Neither I nor anyone else can be sure that this is his only reason for employing the situation. But in my personal estimation, if there's any author who seems gets less joy, displaced or otherwise, from the rape-spectacle than Alan Moore, I don't know who it would be.



Friday, August 14, 2015

MEETINGS WITH RECOGNIZABLE PRESENCES


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: STATIC episodes 1-3 (ECLIPSE COMICS #1-3, 1983)

As I suggested in my previous essay, one wouldn't have to look hard through the Steve Ditko oeuvre to find examples where he let his didactic tendencies overwhelm his imagination.  The three short stories about the hero Static-- who, yes, had the name before the better known Milestone hero-- are a case in point.

A young scientist, name of Stac Rae, works in a laboratory alongside his mentor Ed Serch, and is apparently dating Serch's daughter Fera. though it's sometimes hard to tell, given Ditko's disinterest in melodrama. For once, Ditko's peculiar choices of contemporary names make a degree of sense. "Stac" is probably a short form for the hero's costumed identity, while "Rae" speaks to the hero's energy-related nature; "Serch" is a symbol of the ceaseless inquiry of scientific inquiry and "Fera" is just an anagram for "fear," since of the three central characters she's the one most dominated by subjective emotions.

Stac and Serch are testing a new form of armor, which Stac is currently wearing. A couple of crooks break into the lab, hoping to loot it for their mysterious master. The hoods cause the armor-clad scientist to be bombarded by radiation, and this in turn causes the suit to assume new properties. When Stac wears the suit, he finds that he can project energy-blasts and magnetic flux; the latter power allows him to latch on to moving cars or to climb walls, not unlike a certain web-spinner with whom Ditko was associated. The new hero's radiations also interfere with radio broadcasts, so that whenever he approaches criminals using their radios, they say something like "I hear static"-- though this makes less of a joke than it should, since no one actually calls the armor-clad scientist "Static."



In contrast to "Destroyer of Heroes," Ditko devotes only desultory attention to the villains of the three short stories. One is a crooked scientist, another is a hitman working for a crooked scientist, and the third is an evil general. All three have some sort of super-weapons, so that they are able to fight Static on his own super-powered terms, but the fights are clearly secondary to tedious philosophical arguments, like this one.



Despite Ditko's tone-deafness to the way real human beings speak, some of the issues he raises could have had genuine appeal. Twice in the short-lived series, characters argue, as Fera does above, that science does not promote universal values: that "you can't go from facts to values; to unscientific truths." But though Ditko raises the question, he doesn't really grapple with it, either in the didactic or the mythopoeic mode. Stac's answer-- "I see no dichotomy between 'is' and 'ought'"-- is a childish attempt to put aside the famous dichotomy of David Hume. apparently with the intention of asserting an absolute identity between Objectivist truth and scientific findings. Both Fera and, to a lesser extent, Serch raise objections to Stac's missionary zeal about using the super-suit for the purpose of justice, but Stac simply overrides them with fatuous appeals to the importance of "choice." I too believe in the importance of free will, even within a scientific cosmos that many deem deterministic. But I don't think free will inheres in simply ignoring any questions that make one's decision seem in any way murky. Though scientific gimmickery is on display, the short series does not deal with the content of science, which could promote a cosmological myth. Instead, the emphasis is on the individual's duty to use the "principles of creation" to the benefit of society, aligning the series with myths of a sociological nature.

MYTHCOMICS: "THE DESTROYER OF HEROES" (BLUE BEETLE #5, 1968)



A few years back I did an overview on all of the Charlton BLUE BEETLE stories created by Steve Ditko for the fan-magazine CHARLTON SPOTLIGHT #5, which one can order here. While all of these stories were of interest with regard to Ditko history, only issue #5-- whose full title is closer to "Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes"-- meets my criteria for being a "mythcomic." Specifically, "Destroyer" is a sociological myth, in that it's devoted to Ditko's attempt to analyze humanity's social contract in terms of his Objectivist philosophy.  "Destroyer" has the distinction of being one of the first comic book stories devoted more to the elucidation of a philosophy than to the more basic "good vs. evil" scenario, even if Ditko's philosophy has its problematic aspects.

As I did with my essay on FANTASTIC FOUR #13, I'm going to recycle parts of the SPOTLIGHT essay for this "mythcomics" series, albeit not without some contemporary tweaks and expansion.

I should note first that "Destroyer" is so focused upon its polemic that a contemporary reader who'd never read the BLUE BEETLE title before would just barely get any sense of the hero's identity or raison d'etre, and might not perceive that the story's guest-star Vic Sage was actually the star of BLUE BEETLE's back-up strip-- not up for discussion in this essay-- and that this may go down in history as one of the world's most low-key crossovers of all time.  The more mythic aspect of "Destroyer," though, is that it opposes its blue-clad superhero to-- the Menace of Modern Art!


On a visit to a museum with [girl Friday] Tracey, Kord [aka the Blue Beetle] listens impatiently to a snotty art-critic extolling the virtues of all modern art “symbolizing man’s inability to solve or control the illusion we call existence.”  Kord and Tracey dislike this critical cant, and so does radio-announcer Vic Sage, who is the secret ID of the Beetle’s backup strip, the Question.   Although Sage appears in the Beetle story, and certain elements of that story appear in the Question backup, neither of the costumed heroes appears in the other hero’s story, making it appear as if Ditko were determined to frustrate fannish expectations of the usual costumed-hero crossover.   Certainly the “meeting of heroes” is less important to Ditko than the theme of this story, in which Ditko examines what heroism is.

The anti-heroic stance of the art-critic has its admirers: a bunch of scruffy beatniks who patently favor the idea that man is incapable of meaningful action because they themselves are lazy no-goods.   In particular, one beatnik named Hugo, himself an artist, identifies with the centerpiece of the modern-art exhibit, a lumpy, ill-proportioned human figure titled “Our Man.”  One presumes that the name signifies for Ditko the evils of collectivism, of failing to be a self-sufficient individual.   Tracey, Kord and Sage all turn their backs on the self-conscious hideousness of modern art and its demeaning message regarding human achievement, and move to the part of the museum which displays proper art: dominantly, heroic Greek sculpture, incarnating man’s ability to achieve great goals.  



Predictably, the beats abhor “this pretty stuff,” and Hugo makes an abortive attempt to destroy one of the statues, because “anything that shows [man] being better than he really is—is evil!”   Hugo then becomes obsessed with the “Our Man” statue, goes home to his own art-studio (naturally filled with grotesques), and constructs for himself an armored costume based on the “Our Man” image, in which he will attempt again to destroy the life-affirming art.  




Unlike most super-villains, Hugo cares nothing about looting banks or conquering the world.   He is in essence a reverse-image of the hero, single-mindedly dedicated to overthrowing what he perceives as “evil.”   This is not to say that Ditko approves of Hugo. For Ditko the beatnik’s belief in the purposelessness of life proceeds from a failure of nerve and an acceptance of mediocrity. Even so, these are comparatively “idealistic” motives compared to the common venality of most Ditko villains.
Kord, having briefly skirmished with Hugo when the beatnik tried to destroy a statue, intuits that the museum will be in danger that night. The Beetle happens across “Our Man” and fights him. The villain’s armor gives him a slight edge, but he’s still forced to flee to the neighboring park, where he comes across another heroic statue, and tries to destroy it.   The Beetle thwarts him again, though Hugo escapes.  But now his act of attempted destruction has been witnessed by his beatnik buddies, who immediately turn the grotesque vandal into their personal hero.  This clash of fundamental principles represented by hero and villain sparks a citywide debate on the virtues of life-affirmation versus life-denial.   Ditko certainly loads the dice toward his viewpoint, making most of the pessimists sound rather stupid, and at least one comment—“I dig a guy that makes mistakes; you know he’s human”—sounds like a dig at Marvel’s conception of “heroes with feet of clay.”


One final time Our Man appears, making another attempt on the museum.   Vic Sage is on the scene and makes an attempt to stop Hugo even before the Beetle arrives; later, when the Beetle is battling Our Man, Sage prevents a demented beatnik from shooting the Beetle (which is the closest one gets to a “teamup” here).   Our Man’s lack of belief in achievement works against him, for he quickly loses heart against the hero’s dogged opposition.    Only the gunfire from the beatnik saves Hugo’s hide, allowing him to escape once more, and this time he divests himself of the armor and leaves it behind.   It’s surprising on one level that Ditko allows Hugo to escape justice. But this was probably for the purpose of having one last laugh on the decadent beats, for they find the armor and fetishize it, looking forward to the day when Our Man will return to lead them.   Hugo, for his part, privately swears that he will never reclaim the armor, and the issue ends with what might be called a re-affirmation of affirmation.

In comparison to many similar Objectivist tracts in the Ditko oeuvre, the artist displays genuine imagination in his symbolic representation of collectivism, pessimism, and life-denial. I said in this essay that Ditko was one of the first three artists I think of who was guilty of letting his didactic tendencies overwhelm his art, but "Destroyer" is not one of those cases. While I doubt that many people would want to actually live in a world governed by Ditko's super-righteous Objectivist principles, the artist does strike a chord when he champions the desire to excel over the tendency toward mediocrity. At the same time "Our Man" remains one of the best villains Ditko ever created sans collaborators, precisely because even though Hugo is dominated by Nietzsche's "will to nothingness," even a negative form of will throws light on what Ditko considers will's positive form. Most of the Beetle's villains are simply unabashed self-seekers, but Hugo is a believer, devoted to his obsessive pessimism.

I would also note that the author's determination to create an "opposite number" for his heroic protagonist, much as Dave Sim did with his villain Cirin speaks to what I have called "the ethic of the combative." I won't attempt to summarize the full argument of the two ETHIC essays, seen here and here, but I will reprint a selected section of the concluding paragraph as an attempt to draw some possibly useful parallels.

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




Thursday, August 6, 2015

TWO QUICK SIM COMMENTS

After reading the news of this future Dave Sim project on THE BEAT, I made these two observations:

I loved the “history of comic art” segments of GLAMOURPUSS. I have no idea if they will be in any way reworked or supplemented when republished as STRANGE DEATH, but I can’t imagine any hardcore comics-fan not giving it a fair try.
I almost started to disagree with Brian H about whether Sim himself always brings up the anti-feminism thing. Then I remembered that one of the best things about STRANGE DEATH will be that one can read all that goodness without interacting with the not-goodness of Sim’s satires of fashion models, et al. Yes, he did himself no favors there…

And:


It’s pretty problematic to attempt analyzing an author’s foibles based on such fragmentary info [re: Sim's stay in a mental hospital of some sort]. Dave’s not Sylvia Plath, you know. And if you’re going to blame his extreme philosophy on drugs, are you going to blame drugs for Dick Cheney and Donald Trump too? It’s too an easy an out, IMO.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "STAMPEDE OF THE COMETS" (WONDER WOMAN #99, 1958)




In my essay on "Master of the Elements" I commented that even at the start of the so-called "Silver Age," one could still see a fair deal of "carry-over" from the practices of the Golden Age, and nothing shows that better than the work of Robert Kanigher. Kanigher's work, throughout the three "ages" he covered in his career, epitomizes what I called the "hit-or-miss approach of the Golden Age." Because of this, it remains a point of great irony that he scripted the first adventure of the hero most associated with the advent of the Silver Age. When reading the kind of work Kanigher turned out for WONDER WOMAN throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the mind boggles as to whether the Silver Age would even have got off the ground, had he, rather than John Broome, become the principal scripter for the FLASH title.

The story under consideration here, "Stampede of the Comets," appeared in WONDER WOMAN #99. Issue #98 occupies a small place in the history of Wonder Woman, for #97 was the last one to have featured the work of the Amazon's artistic midwife H.G. Peter. For roughly the next ten years, Kanigher's version of Wonder Woman was illustrated almost exclusively by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, whom I suspect were Kanigher's personal choices over Peter. Issue #98 is something of a null-myth itself, in that it rewrites, to poor effect, William Marston's (admittedly inconsistent) origin for the heroine. But #98 doesn't show an author mucking up a cosmological myth, and since that's my subject here, I choose the "Comets" tale from #99.

Again, I reiterate that I don't hold stories to be good only if they're correct according to the rules of science. Still, most of Kanigher's scripts for WONDER WOMAN have the feel of an author quickly tossing together whatever ideas happen to occur to him, and then running with them. Occasionally this resulted in some interesting myth-tales in the author's METAL MEN title, but it almost never paid off in the WONDER WOMAN title.

"Comets" opens on a somewhat quixotic idea. The US government is going to send a rocket into the stratosphere, and Lt. Steve Trevor-- a.k.a., Wonder Woman's significant other-- is going to follow the rocket in his slower "rocket-plane" to monitor the rocket's progress, before the rocket eventually leaves the plane behind. This doesn't sound like a very effective way to garner scientific info. When Trevor's plane goes missing, Wonder Woman then utilizes the resources of the Amazons-- who just happen to have their own space-program in operation-- to duplicate the circumstances of Trevor's flight. (I suspect Kanigher believed that the primary appeal of kids' lit was that of being repetitive, since so many of his stories involve repetitive elements.)

Because it might hurt some of Wonder Woman's appeal if she spent most of the adventure in bulky astronaut's garb, the heroine first undergoes a special treatment to make it possible for her to survive in deep space. Then the Amazons launch a rocket-- presumably one following the trajectory of the U.S. rocket-- and Wonder Woman follows the rocket it in her own rocket-plane. The same fate that befell Trevor's plane befalls her: some mysterious force grabs her plane and whips it through the solar system, faster than the rocket can travel.

Somewhere out past Mars, the heroine sees the wreckage of Trevor's plane, and Trevor himself afloat in space, protected only by his spacesuit. (One wonders how long he survived in these straits./) She deserts her own rocket-plane to rescue Trevor, and then the two of them are struck by a weird comet whose tail doesn't bend away from the rays of the sun. They escape the comet, but it hits and destroys Earth-- or what the two voyagers believe to be Earth, until Wonder Woman realizes that it didn't have a moon, like the real planet. WW and Trevor then manage to board her wandering rocket-plane, and proceed into "the Milky Way"-- which is quite an accomplishment, since Earth's solar system is already a part of the Milky Way. They quickly come across a planet surrounded by comets, which turn out to be artificial weapons controlled by a race called "Silicons." The castaways overhear the telepathic thoughts of the Silicons, conveniently explaining that they took hold of both rocket-planes to get hold of some "specimens," before they chose to destroy the real Earth (the simulacrum was just for practice) and then to "use the planet fragments to replenish our food supply." But before the Silicons can strike at the nearby Earthlings, Wonder Woman detects magnetic radiation on their planet. She dives down, carves out a giant magnet, and uses it to divert the deadly comets aimed at Earth, so that they rebound upon the Silicons instead. Finally, though the heroine tells Trevor that since they no longer have the Silicons to warp them through space, they'll probably perish in the void-- but to their good luck, a mysterious meteor comes along and whisks them through yet another space-warp, depositing them happily back on Earth's doorstep.   

Though the plot abounds with improbabilities and happy coincidences, I don't attack it as a null-myth for those deficiencies. What makes "Comets" an inconsummate story is that unlike the best juvenile SF from DC's writers, it fails to create a *sustained* sense of wonder. It tosses around many of the standard elements of space-opera-- silicon-based aliens, artificial comet-weapons, space-warps. Yet though Kanigher tosses in a few cursory science-factoids-- like the one about it being normative for comet's-tails to bend away from the sun due to solar "winds"-- he neglects to give his evil aliens any believable motive for acting as they do. Why do they want to blow up Earth, rather than an uninhabited planet, if all they want are the dead fragments? Why bother with making a copy of Earth for a practice target, when again, there are ready-made planets to use? And why should they choose to gather a couple of Earth-specimens in the haphazard manner of choosing whoever happens to leave the stratosphere at a particular time?

Certainly Kanigher never expected any adult to read this story and critique it. But John Broome had no such expectations for his FLASH stories, either-- and it would seem that he devoted some effort to fleshing out his symbolic universe, while Kanigher chose to do as little as he could get away with.

Monday, August 3, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "MASTER OF THE ELEMENTS" (SHOWCASE #13, 1958)

Votaries of Silver Age Comics almost always pay particular respect to THE FLASH feature. In part this is because many fans consider that the introduction of this hero also served as the starting-point for the Silver Age itself. Certainly, even though one can see a certain amount of carry-over from the "previous age" that ran from 1938-1956, the FLASH displayed elegant illustration from Carmine Infantino and intelligent scripts from John Broome, in such a combination that fans of the period began to expect this level of quality on a regular basis, as opposed to the hit-and-miss approach of the Golden Age.

Though Flash's first few appearances in the SHOWCASE try-out title are enjoyable tales, only in "Master of the Elements"-- Broome's third story with the character-- do all the mythic "elements" come together. There had certainly been dozens of "theme villains" in comic books before Mister Element, but Broome was especially good about conferring a "sense of wonder" upon the various science-factoids associated with a given villain.

The villain makes a standard enough first appearance, though it's amusing that he works in a reference to an obscure element while he robs the Palladium Jewelry Store, presumably named not for the obscure element but for this classic mythological reference.




The Flash shows up during the robbery but is stymied because the far-sighted villain has strung up a series of gold wires to block the hero. On a subsequent occasion, he stuns Flash with the use of sodium;




I won't detail every "element" of the super-criminal's first outing, but suffice to say that Broome manages to work in all the references to the properties of elements in such a way as to invoke a juvenile "sense of wonder." Interestingly enough, this puts the reader in the position of identifying with the villain, since when he narrates his backstory, Element merely says that he became fascinated with the nature of the chemical elements as a young boy.

To be sure, at the story's end Broome wants a spectacular death-trap for Flash, so he magicks up an element that never existed in the real world, and which I strongly doubt ever made a second appearance in Flash's fictional world.




But as I said in the previous essay, this falls into the realm of an extrapolation that is permissible within the boundaries of a story-- even though even I don't know how a "form of magnetic light" could be deemed a chemical element. But since it's the first FLASH story to consistently evoke the cosmological sense of wonder, I've give Broome a pass in that respect.

COSMOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

In the first month of posts devoted to "1001 comics myths" and to their Bizarro counterparts the "null-myths," I've covered three of the four types of Campbellian function: "the psychological," "the sociological," and "the metaphysical." The next two will focus on the last of Campbell's functions, "the cosmological," which I also explored in some depth in the essay COMBINATORY CONSIDERATIONS. However, I need to expand still further on the status of the functions with respect to real-world knowledge.

In the aforesaid essay I emphasized the fact that the "regularity" of certain phenomena led to their being encoded in both archaic myths and modern literature. However, whereas regularity (aka "causal coherence," as explained here) is a paramount consideration in the domain of science, it's a secondary consideration in art and literature. In the domain of art, one can choose to adhere absolutely to the demands of a naturalistic cosmos, or one can explore the realms of the uncanny or the marvelous, without any loss of mental rigor.

Though this principle applies equally well to all four Campbellian functions, I stress it with respect to the cosmological-- the function that deals with all the various "science-based" data-- because it's become tediously routine for many fans to sneer at various comics-stories-- usually though not only superhero tales-- because they offend against the Great God Science.

This isn't to say that there aren't a lot of dopey, careless mistakes with regard to violations of physical law, and I've mocked a lot of these myself. In the circles of Marvel fandom, one of the most egregious appeared in the pages of MARVEL TEAM-UP, and was spotlighted in the MARVEL NO-PRIZE BOOK, as follows:





But the sort of tedious sneering I'm thinking of is more on the level of, "Ha ha, Peter Parker would never have received spider-powers from the bite of a radioactive spider; he would've caught CANCER and DIED." Rather than showing either wit or perspicacity, the mocker who comes up with this sort of nonsense is closer to the child playing "shoot-'em-up" who refuses to lie dead when he's shot. It shows an inability to recognize that within the sphere of a given game, the rules as established supersede the considerations of reality.

Thus it should be seen that the forms of knowledge within a fictional universe should not be downgraded because they do not align with what is deemed "scientific knowledge" in the real world. All forms of knowledge in a fictional universe should be deemed *simulacra of knowledge.*  The same holds true for the other functions. Audiences need not believe in Jung's psychological concepts to regard Fellini's Jung-influenced films as illuminating the human condition; need not validate the socialist fallacy of "the rise of the proletariat" in order to derive pleasure from Jack London's IRON HEEL, nor even credit Dave Sim's fusion of Judaism, Islam and Christianity to get insights out of CEREBUS THE AARDVARK.

I should add in closing that while many SF novels and comics have used "science-factoids" as minor gimmicks within narratives, these in themselves are no better than *motifs;* their presence does not necessarily confer high mythicity upon the story as a whole. When considering the first new cosmological myth for this series, I looked at the early stories of the Silver Age FLASH. I might have liked to have included, under "1001 myths," the first Captain Cold story. However, though the villain's origin-tale does dole out a few references to "the phenomena of cold," those references don't eventuate in a high level of cosmological mythicity.