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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...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: CAPTAIN MARVEL #1 (1966)

From the sublime to the ridiculous-- what could provide a better contrast than comparing the 1966 Captain Marvel (briefly published by Myron Fass Enterprises) to the classic Fawcett character?




Of the many bad superheroes spotlighted on the Internet, '66 Cap Marvel may have received the most attention to date. As the cover shows, the titular hero's distinction is that his power seems so counter-intuitive for a superhero. Instead of being able to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous villains with the brio of Billy Batson's alter ego, '66 Cap can separate the sections of his body-- hands, arms, feet, legs, head, and torso-- so that they're able to go flying around on their own. It's not impossible to confer power upon particular body-parts when they're separated from their proper form-- one thinks of "killer hand" movies like 1946's BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, and "hideous head" flicks like THE THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE. But all parts are not equal, and the idea of a superhero's torso or legs-- or even his disembodied head-- zooming around the sky has proven endlessly risible. 

There are three stories in Cap's first issue, and they're all pretty dismal, though not totally without interest from a psychological standpoint. 

The first tale falls back on the old "hero can't remember who he is" in order to give the readers the lowdown on his true nature. An unnamed blonde man finds himself in a house in some American city, and can 't remember who he is. However, with only minimal effort, he recalls that he is an android named Captain Marvel, created on an unnamed planet torn apart by warfare. His creators, a group of unnamed humanoids, know that their world is doomed, so they want him to personify "the knowledge of our people" and to "use it to help others." 

As for the "splitting" power-- this is almost the only idea in the story that's given a degree of logic. The head scientist tells Marvel that the purpose of this power is "to prevent an attack by more than one person," after which they demonstrate how said power can be used:



I suppose the intent was that this power might seem appealing to a person who's ever had more than one opponent "gang up" on him. Yet I tend to think even the most naive young reader still would've preferred the idea behind the original Captain Marvel: that you could both assume a bigger, better version of your own body *and * gain a multitude of powers that allowed you to beat up any quantity of enemies.

After a few panels of training, Captain Marvel dons a pair of astro-boots that will allow him to traverse space, and flies away from the only home he's known, watching as it explodes behind him. 



His memory breaks off at this point, but for the last three pages, a young boy named Billy Baxton shows up to fill in the rest of the gaps about how the android happened across Earth, and how Billy helped the Captain acclimate and take on an Earth-identity.

The idea-- but not the actual execution-- of this Captain Marvel is credited to Carl Burgos, who's best known for the Golden Age Human Torch. Like most Burgos superheroes, the Torch was an android, and off the top of my head I'd say he was the only artificial hero of the Golden Age who enjoyed enough popularity to headline his own title. Fans will never know why the editors of the new title, having decided to co-opt the name "Captain Marvel" on the assumption that it had fallen into public domain, also decided to go with the idea of the new hero being an android. Maybe the editors weren't sure about their legal position and wanted something that wasn't too close to the original.

Ironically, aside from the hero's use of "magic words" to activate his powers-- he says "Split" to separate his body-parts, and "Xam" to bring them back together-- the '66 hero seems to swipe more from Superman. Not only does he rocket to Earth from a doomed planet, he's also the repository of his alien culture-- though technically, this idea didn't become popular in Superman comics until the late 1950s and early 1960s. '66 Cap also shared the Man of Steel's tendency to whistle up new powers whenever he needed them: laser-beam eyes, thermal waves, and so on.

The other two stories, both of which feature Marvel taking on alien invaders, aren't worth analysis, but the last one in the book is amusing in one respect. For eight pages, the tale is a cut-rate version of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," as it starts with aliens coming to Earth to remonstrate with Earthlings for their warlike ways. Then for the last eight pages, the aliens are relegated to back-seat status, for the story suddenly becomes all about the weird character in their ship, who gets loose and causes trouble on Earth-- a character named... "Plastic-Man!"



According to some fannish speculations, MF Enterprises's attempt to pilfer the name of yet another Golden Age character may have alerted DC Comics to the fact that they actually owned the right to publish Plastic Man since purchasing an assortment of Quality Comics properties in the mid-1950s. As a result, DC Comics quickly rushed an ersatz verison of the classic Plastic Man into the "Dial H for Hero" feature, about three months after CAPTAIN MARVEL #1 had appeared on newstands, and then launched a series proper toward the end of 1966.

I rate the MF Captain Marvel a "psychological myth" because I think its creators had some notion that their peculiar idea of a "body-in-pieces" hero should actually have been empowering to young readers. Since it was not, that alone would qualify the android as an inconsummate null-myth.








Tuesday, September 29, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: WHIZ COMICS #2 ("CAPTAIN MARVEL," 1940)

“For … various offenses Tantalus was punished in Tartarus.   For he was kept perpetually famished and parched, standing chin-deep in water and with laden boughs of fruit just above his head … Alternatively (or additionally) a great stone hung over his head, suspended by a thread, so that he lived in everlasting terror.”—Grant and Hazel, Who’s Who in Classical Mythology, p. 309.



By way of following up on my assertions in STRIP NO-SHOW, I find that the origin story of Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel provides the best-known example of a comic book story which conjures up a wild set of mythopoeic images to support a fairly simple story.

The earlier success of DC's Superman was the proximate cause for Captain Marvel to come into existence. However, as chronicled in Jim Steranko's HISTORY OF COMICS, writer Bill Parker's original idea was to present a team of characters with powers derived from the Greek gods. Thanks to Superman, this idea was converted into the notion of a single superhuman who could draw on an assortment of powers from mythic personages.  Yet this particular Superman-imitator-- which in its genesis at least, seems mostly the creation of scriptwriter Parker rather than artist C.C. Beck-- ventured more deeply into what I've called "the realm of intuition and its mythic images."

Consider the opening, in which homeless preteen Billy Batson is approached by a dark stranger.



In the hands of most uninspired imitators, the stranger would have quickly doffed his hat and coat and revealed that he was X of the planet Y, and that he planned to give Billy fabulous new powers. Instead, Parker troubles to imply that Billy's descent into the subway is also a descent into a figurative underworld, with a weird subway train taking the place of Charon's boat. Parker's description of the car having headlights "like a dragon's eyes" inevitably suggests that Billy is traveling within an analogue of a living creature. It's significant that one of the figures from whom Billy will derive power, Hercules, survived passing through the belly of a giant beast.



The journey, though short by comparison with Dante's subterranean tour, brings Billy into contact with devil-like figures: the "Seven Deadly Enemies of Man," who are in essence a reshuffling of the Seven Deadly Sins of early Christianity.




Billy then finds himself in the company of the beneficent-looking old wizard, while his shadow-guardian-- possibly patterned on the Greek notion of the *psychopompos*-- simply isn't around any more. The old wizard Shazam shows Billy the personages from his name is derived, and then informs the boy that he knows how the boy was flung out into the cruel elements by his nasty uncle following the death of his parents.



Immediately following the scene of the evil uncle counting his ill-gotten gains, the story reveals that Shazam is standing under a stone block, suspended by a thread close to breaking. Shazam's only explanation of this extraordinary circumstance is to say that his time  is almost up, which is the reason he's summoned Billy to his domain, so that Billy will take Shazam's place as a fighter against evil-- in essence, replacing Shazam as the younger generation inevitably replaces the older. By pronouncing the wizard's name, Billy can become Captain Marvel:




After a quick demonstration that this transformation is reversible, the wizard asks Billy to transform into Captain Marvel a second time-- and just as the youngster does so, the stone block drops down. Shazam's implicit death is concealed by decorous thunderclouds. In addition, as soon as Shazam dies, Billy finds himself back on the city-street, where he remarks that his experience seems like a dream.
However, by the end of the story, Billy finds that he can bring the power of Captain Marvel into the real world as well.


Not only does Billy use his new power to thwart the designs of the mad scientist Sivana-- who bears a slight resemblance to Billy's evil uncle-- the hero's altruism is rewarded when he's given a job as a radio-reporter, a job which to my knowledge the character keeps for the entirety of the feature's run. It's interesting that though the main narrative function of Billy's job is the same as that of Clark Kent, being a means of keeping the hero on the scene for various troubles-- it also alleviates the boy's poverty-stricken condition. In essence, the much later origin of Spider-Man recapitulates the same pattern, in which the path of heroic altruism also rewards the hero with a source of remuneration for his efforts. Unlike Captain Marvel, Spider-Man even contemplates finding a job that will pay him for his exploits, but that somewhat non-heroic notion was quickly squelched.

I haven't come close to reading all of the fantasy-oriented comic strips of the early 20th century, but I have sampled most of them, and I've not come close to finding any strip-- "Little Nemo," "Popeye," or the overrated "Krazy Kat"-- that displays this density of mythopoeic images for a given sequence.
Admittedly, those three strips are probably on the whole better than Captain Marvel in a formal artistic sense. But by my lights none of these three really commit to their fantastic concepts in a manner that Parker and Beck do here.

Further, though most stories headed by either the Captain or his "Marvel Family" relations are not this dense in their imagery, there always seems to be a total commitment to whatever fantastic entities, events or objects come into the heroes' purview. This may have been the key to the long success of the Fawcett "Marvel Family" line. If so, it was a strategy that DC's Superman titles did not manage to pursue with any regular success, as noted in this essay on the Weisinger-era titles. Though Fawcett closed its doors in 1953, it seems it took roughly five years for the DC editor to feel that he had the freedom to bite the Fawcett style.






Saturday, September 26, 2015

STRIP NO-SHOW

I addressed some of the problems with finding strong mythic discourses in comic strips in the three essays of the series THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, beginning here.  In addition to the LITTLE NEMO analysis that I posted this week, I have a couple more comic-strip candidates in mind for future installments. However, there won't be a "Bizarro version" of the NEMO strip this week. Since NEMO managed to pull off a consummate myth while remaining within the restrictions of the form, I felt that any "bad example" ought to be another comic-strip, but one that failed to consummate its discourse. But though I could find a lot of strips that were inconsummate in other ways, it was tough to find anything that worked for me. (If I was looking for comic strips that were inconsummate with regard to the thinking function, I could pick pretty much any MALLARD FILMORE strip.)

Since I believe that I have a pretty fair knowledge of the best-known comic strips, I find myself asking the question, "Is it possible that I'm not finding much because the restrictions of the comic strip form actively mitigate against the functions of thought and poetic intuition?"

In Part 3 of REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE I posited that these functions are secondary in a developmental sense to those of sensation and feeling. I won't get into the frightfully complicated schema Carl Jung provided for the four functions in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES. I've mentioned that he even subdivided his functions into "concrete" and "abstract" aspects, and that's further than I want to go at this time. I suppose I'll just say that all of the functions I address probably fall into the abstract aspect and leave it at that.

As every comic-reader knows, American comic books developed out of comic strips. The best known comic strips were syndicated in nationally distributed newspapers and were often used as attractions with which to sell the paper as a whole to a predominantly adult audience. A number of the strips were overtly aimed at children, but the only way that the kids could get them was if their parents, or some similar authority, either bought every paper every day or subscribed.

In contrast, American comic books were largely aimed at kids from the first, since individual comics were so cheap that they could be purchased with pocket money. In the early days some features aped the "continued next time" structure of comic strips, which would in theory force the buyer to purchase the next issue as well. For the most part, however, comic books of the Golden Age soon evolved away from the newspaper model-- suggesting to me that although subscriptions was possible with some titles, the majority of the juvenile readers wanted their comics "done in one" so that they wouldn't have to worry about purchasing the next issue.

Based on that quick comparison, one might think that the comic-strip form, being aimed at the adults, would be the more "advanced" medium, if one accepted the priorities of elitist criticism. Comic strips were allied to formidable syndication organizations, so they generally attracted the most formally accomplished artists. Throughout the run of the COMICS JOURNAL print magazines, its editors and raconteurs almost never ceased the sing the praises of the great comic-strip artists-- Caniff, Foster, Raymond-- and to devalue most comic-book artists, aside from a favored few like Eisner, Cole, and most of those associated with EC Comics.

What the elitists missed, however, was that comic strips, even at their greatest levels of excellence, were always hampered by the factors of serial progression. Certainly Sunday pages like NEMO and PRINCE VALIANT could get away with a somewhat "painterly" approach to comics-narrative, but they were the exceptions. Most story-strips, whether they appeared only on weekdays, on Sundays, or in a combined form, chose to pursue a straightforward linear narrative-- again, one designed to seduce the readers into regularly partaking of the newspaper that carried the comic. Caniff may have been the paradigmatic figure here, in part because one can see him channeling the "invisible style" of most Hollywood films of his time.

This linear narrative, in essence, followed the same association I've outlined for the sensation and feeling functions. The visual part of a given strip communicates what kinds of sensations that the characters are experiencing, and the verbal part gives it feeling-context: whether the reader is supposed to be happy or sad when a given character is killed.

Because this was the most efficient means of communicating narratives in a medium that was serial by nature and truncated by form, even the best artists tended to follow the "invisible style."

The comic book medium largely began by reprinting re-arranged comic strips, but as soon as it was evident that an original feature could make big money-- one guess which feature provided that proof-- most comic books began to rely on original material.

But this eventuated in a change in narrative strategies. The comic-creators might have a limited space to tell his story in each comic. But even a 4-page story allowed the creators to expand on narrative aspects that a comic strip could rarely indulge. It's true that the great majority of comic book features in the Golden Age were formulaic-- but they, unlike the best comic strips, possesses the power to expand into the realms I've called "thinking" and "intuition." On the whole most Golden Age comics did not encourage a lot of thinking, with the obvious exception of the EC books. But they could venture more deeply into the realm of intuition and its mythic images-- and they did so, though often only on a sporadic basis. I've commented that a lot of PLASTIC MAN stories aren't well written in terms of any function, but then, there's the one from POLICE #43 that I analyzed here.  I suggest that because Cole felt free to slap down any kind of wild fantasy that occurred to him-- a freedom denied to the Fosters and Raymonds of the "big time"-- he was sometimes able to come up with a fascinating psychological myth like this one.

Possibly next week I'll work on some of the other fascinating myths of the Golden Age, since most of these stories are utterly ignored by current comics criticism.





Wednesday, September 23, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "LITTLE NEMO IN THE PALACE OF ICE" (1907)

In Part 3 of THE LONG AND SHORT OF MYTH, I discussed in some detail the circumstances under which I would currently rate gag comic strips as having or not having symbolic complexity. One of my examples was Winsor McCay's DREAMS OF THE RAREBIT FIEND, in part because I'd listed that strip in my 2008 ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY. As LONG AND SHORT should clarify, I've changed my mind on this matter. My current view is because most if not all FIEND-strips are no more than short gags, that structure keeps it from demonstrating true plurisignativity.

But thus the queston arises: what about McCay's subsequent and more famous strip, LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND-- an admitted classic, though I didn't mention it in my 2008 LIBRARY.  Since NEMO unlike FIEND did allow for story-arcs, that means it had the capacity for mythic complication, whether or not it took advantage of that capacity.

Though I admire LITTLE NEMO in terms of its artistic accomplishment, it's never been a favorite of mine. I esteem it more than a lot of its comic-strip contemporaries, but the repetitive structure never grabbed me, dealing as it does with a child-protagonist who wanders through assorted dream-world wonders until he wakes to prosaic reality. Thus I don't have a lot of NEMO stuff in my collection. However, I do have Dover's 1976 album, LITTLE NEMO AND THE PALACE AND ICE AND FURTHER ADVENTURES. Fortuitously enough, the "Palace of Ice" adventure does meet my criteria for a "mythcomic."

This story-arc lasts eight installments, which appeared initially as full-page strips. As I've established, brevity in itself doesn't absolutely prevent a comic from displaying mythicity; it just stacks the odds against it.

Dover begins their reprint with nine-year-old Nemo and his female friend, the daughter of King Morpheus, about to be admitted to the ice-bound palace of Jack Frost. However,Nemo and the Princess are pursued by another recurring character, the troublemaking Flip, son of the dawn-god. Though he's visually reminiscent of Negro stereotypes of the period, one source says that Flip is supposed to be an "ill-tempered Irishman."




Not only does Flip intrude upon Nemo and the Princess' visit to the palace, in the first strip he has a malign witch pursuing him, presumably a carry-over from a prevous continuity. Fortunately, the guards of the palace grounds bar the witch, and so she plays no real part in the arc. Flip himself becomes the source of conflict in the arc, which seems to have been the role he played throughout the strip. Nemo and Flip become companions in many adventures, though in this arc Nemo seems diffident toward Flip's presence-- probably because Nemo wants to see Jack Frost and his icy wonders, while Flip keeps disrupting things. He constantly demands to have his whims satisfied by threatening to summon his sun-god uncle to vaporize Jack Frost's world.

Though it's a short sequence, "Palace of Ice" does an exemplary job of potraying a world in which one sees an array of fantastic sights associated with cold phenomena. It is of course a child's version of the metaphysics of ice and snow, taking in from juvenile pleasures like toboggan-riding and snowball-fights as well as the more profound wonders of the Northern Lights and the mysterious North Pole, from which all the winds of the world originate. Every episode necessarily ends with Nemo's dreamland-journey being interrupted by some accident, be it one of Flip's antics or something native to Jack Frost's realm, like a snowball-fight by brainless snow-people.



The big meeting with Jack Frost is also a visual wonder, though actually nothing much happens as a consequence of the ice-ruler greeting Nemo and the Princess.



Sharp-eyed readers will note that Flip isn't present in Jack Frost's courtroom, and this turns out to be a set-up for the arc's resolution. Flip, almost always seen with a cigar in his mouth, resents being told that he can't smoke in the throne room. He disappears, and two strips later, he shows up with a series of ice-trucks in his wake. The truck-drivers then proceed to dismantle Jack Frost's fabulous ice-palace, breaking it up into square ice-blocks of the type used in household ice-boxes prior to the refinement of artificial refrigeration.  It's not explicitly stated that Flip summoned the trucks, and in one dialogue-balloon he claims that Jack Frost's people are forced to allow their palace's destruction "'cause they need the money, I guess"-- though given that Flip has been repeatedly threatening to destroy the realm, he seems more than a little implicated.

The decimation of the ice palace might tie into sociological myths on the evils of consumption, in which the beautiful art-objects of a declining aristocracy are broken up and turned into raw material for the use of the average consumer. He need not have been a Marxist to think of this; after all, he himself was creating beautiful art that was being used to sell periodical newspapers. In addition, the breakup of the palace mirrors the dominant narrative trope of LITTLE NEMO: that all the beautiful conjurings of the artist's pen are doomed to be dispelled by "cold" reality.

Another sociological motif would be the fact that while Nemo generally seems demure and respectful to everyone he meets, whether or not they are in positions of authority, his "shadow" Flip is irreverent and a frequent troublemaker.As others before me have suggested, Flip may be the "shadow" of Nemo's conscious mind, always more interested in strutting his own stuff than in anything else.

Since I have a deep interest in the history of fantasy literature, I suppose NEMO also leaves me less than enthusiastic because its type of fantasy depends entirely upon the vagaries of dream-- not unlike Carroll's Alice books, which may have influenced McCay somewhat. Five years before NEMO, L. Frank Baum created Oz, which some deem to be the first fantasy-cosmos created by an American author. Unlike Slumberland, Oz was supposed to be a real place with its own rules and culture-- though it's a further irony that the best-known cinematic adaptation of Baum chose to banish to the same gates of dream that contained Slumberland.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

INCORRECTLY CORRECT

Reader A. Sherman Barros brought to my attention a comment that HU columnist Robert Stanley Martin made about Milt Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES: After linking to Digital Comics Museum's copy of TERRY AND THE PIRATES #7, Martin wrote: "Those who click to read the online scan should be aware the stories feature racist caricatures." He wrote some other stuff in the comments-section as well, but first I'll deal with the actual comic book itself, which reprints a selection of Caniff's famous comic strip. What exactly happens in the issue to merit the caution about racist caricature?

Well, as far as I can tell, the only "racist caricature" in the story is that of recurring character Connie. Here's a representative scene:





As far as I can tell, Connie's offenses are twofold: he speaks in a comic dialect, and he's as homely as sin, with big ears and buck teeth.

Now, I'm not at all a fan of Caniff's character. I think Caniff writes his dialect in an ootsy-cutesy manner I find abominable. However, he's far from the only character who speaks in an affected or stilted manner, and that includes the titular Terry's nominal guardian Pat Ryan. What I take away from Connie's fractured dialect is not that he's part of some racist conspiracy to make Chinese people look stupid, but that Caniff wasn't especially good at rendering English in dialect-form. 


As for his ugliness-- well, yes, Connie's not pleasant to look at, but I for one would look for other evidence that proved him to be a racist construct. For instance, Connie would definitely be racist if all other Asians in the strip were similarly depicted. If they're not-- and I think Martin would admit that they are not-- then Connie may be more in the vein of the "funny looking sidekick" than of the "racist caricature."


Most of the funny looking sidekicks of comic strips are forgotten now, but superhero comic books gave the form a new lease on life-- and a fair number of them are Caucasians.


One of the most famous is Doiby Dickles from GREEN LANTERN:






And here's Stretch Skinner from WILDCAT:




Notice the common factors: both sidekicks talk funny, and both are homely.  Both function, in essence, to make the main hero look and sound even better than he ordinarily would.


Now, I'm not denying that it's possible for an artist to create a racial caricature that does communicate ill will toward the race depicted, and to do so subtly . It's even possible that an artist might depict most of the characters in his story as relatively normal, yet choose to single one character out to make him the butt of racist jokes. Certainly Connie is the target for sidekick-humor. But is it racist humor?


Here's an interesting scene from TERRY #7:





To fill in some blank spaces: the fellow getting hung up on the dragon by Big Stoop-- a Swedish character very improbably disguised as a Chinese laborer-- is a rich white guy named Sandhurst. Not long after some of the locals disparage him for being an American who puts on airs by talking Brit-style, Sandhurst orders his car's driver to run Connie down. Stoop pulls Connie out of the way. Sandhurst orders the car to stop. Then he attacks Connie, hitting him with his cane-- at which point Stoop introduces him to the dragon. So the sequence ends with Connie the racist caricature having the laugh on the rich WASP. Moreover, when the story was first published readers did not yet know that the silent strongman was not Chinese, and so the original effect is that of two Asians having the laugh on a nasty white guy.

All of which raises two questions:


(1) Is it possible to have a POC sidekick without having him look at least nominally handsome, as with the reboot of THE SPIRIT?





(2) If the only ugly, dialect-using sidekicks out there are white guys like Doiby and Stretch-- does that not constitute a subtle form of racism in itself?

Monday, September 21, 2015

WORKING DEFINITION FOR THE TERM "SUPERHERO"

Abjuring, as I always do, the ideological definition of anything, here's my shortest possible definition of the superhero figure in terms of its being both "super" and "heroic:"

"The superhero is a hybrid figure, in which the reader's feelings of awe and admiration for the spectacle of heroic endeavor are melded with those feelings typically called "the sense of wonder" by science fiction, fantasy and related genres."

In short, this may be the closest I can get, in a project I'm contemplating, to describing the two forms of the sublime I've detailed here-- the dynamic sublime and the combinatory sublime-- without invoking Kant and thus immediately causing the casual reader to check out.  The same thing for my specialized terms of "awe," "admiration," and others that I've used in more complicated contexts.

I may ring in some alterations here or there, but I'll probably hew closely to this basic formulation from now on.

GOALS, OR ROLES?

In 2012's THE NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE PT. 2  I ended the essay thusly:

As a closing clarification, I am not saying that concrete goal-affects do not appear in hero-villain narratives.  Maybe the Joker sends Batman a mocking note so that Batman will come chase him, but clearly the Penguin would rather get away with the loot rather than tilt with the Caped Crusader again.  But the act of reading about Batman's struggles with both types of villains is in itself an example of an "abstract goal-affect," since the pleasures we derive from reading fiction cannot be said to promote either gain or safety in a direct relationship.
I have the general habit of recalling fragments of stuff I've written and wondering whether or not it fits into the overall schema-- which, I have no doubt, is the same way synoptic critics like Frye and Fiedler also work, since no system springs out of anyone's head a la Athena. I became concerned as to whether this statement had overemphasized the role of "goals" within the diegesis of a given story-- say, a Batman vs. Penguin story-- and had thus come into conflict with the principles stated in HERE COMES DAREDEVIL, THE MAN W/O IDENTITY:


 Daredevil is not a phenomenon with a real existence (at least not in materialistic/positivistic terms), but a fictional construct.
Ergo, neither Daredevil nor any other PURELY fictional character is subject to the "law of identity."
By that principle, the Penguin too is a fictional construct, and though he's been constructed so that he does possess what I called "concrete goal-affects" within his own diegesis, he's defined more by his "role" as a fictional construct than by his "goal" as an actual willing subject, since he isn't one. Unless one of the raconteurs working on him re-defines his roal, the Penguin is defined by the abstract affects of villainous glory than by getting gold, jewels, etc.

Parenthetically, something like this did happen at one point with the Riddler. In some Bat-universe stories-- I can only attest to a story-arc in GOTHAM CITY SIRENS-- the Riddler reforms and becomes a private detective. For all I know the character may have turned back to crime by now, but during that arc he ceased to be a villain as such, though it's debatable as to whether he then assumed the role of "hero" or "demihero."

Fortunately, a quick survey of some of my writings on "persona-types" and the forms of will they incarnate don't seem to place undue emphasis upon the diegetic motives of characters, and I see that in ESTRANGED SPORTS STORIES I did stress "role" over "goal:"

 ...it's the intent behind the narrative, not the conscious intent of the protagonist, that denotes the nature of his persona.

This observation helps me out with a related problem I've been considerering recently. I've defined the monster-persona against the hero-persona as one relating to whether or not their primary role emphasized the "idealizing will" or "the existential will"-- two terms I devised after I wrote this passage in MONSTERS, DEMIHEROES AND OTHER WILLING BEASTS, and which I've interpolated in place of the original, now outdated terms:

King Kong, Gamera and Godzilla may follow the plots of heroes in these assorted works, but I assert that in terms of fundamental character they still represent "existential will," while the not much more intelligent Hulk represents "idealizing will."
But the concept of "existential will" is harder to sell when the monsters are clearly intelligent human beings, like my sometime examples of Doctor Moreau and Victor Frankenstein. Still, I've argued that their obsessions, even if they are motivated by a desire for glory, are subsumed by the "intent behind the narrative." Unlike a genuine glory-oriented villain like Fu Manchu, the two monstrous mad scientists embody the quality of "negative persistence" as much as do big hulking monsters like Kong and Godzilla.

Similarly, because of my tendency to identity Sadean activity as examples of Bataillean expenditure rather than acquisition-- probably best summarized here-- I find myself thinking twice regarding two monsters who are very popular for their overt Sadean qualities.

The first is Freddy Kreuger of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST series. He's become popular, I'm convinced, not because he's a nasty child molester (if indeed that was the intention in the original series) but because he stalks and slays his victims with an imaginative panache atypical of the average slasher-monster.




The second is Pinhead of the HELLRAISER film-series. He doesn't warp his infernal domain quite as flamboyantly as Freddy does with his dream-worlds. But he incarnates the idea of suffering as Sadean glory, and so he does have a highly imaginative "ideal" behind his depradations that is foreign to most monsters.




But in both cases, the narrative's intent supersedes Freddy's snarky cleverness and Pinhead's cerebral viciousness. Their obsessions imprison them far more than do those of the great villains like the aforementioned Fu Manchu, and so I can still align them more with the quality of persistence than with glory.

Perhaps a useful distinction also arises from the concept of "paired opposites' I've formulated: to wit, "hero is to villain as monster is to victim (or, more formally, 'demihero.'"  The monster is designed to prey on a victim who is usually weaker than he, although in many cases the demihero may "step up" and conquer the monster through strength, guile, or a combination thereof. The villain may be just as obsessed as the monster, but characters like the Joker and Lex Luthor-- who make rather good comic-book parallels to Freddy and Pinhead-- are always oriented on challenging heroes, often despite having been beaten by said heroes on many, many occasions. That kind of glory may have only negative consequences, but it's still the same glory we descry in Milton's fallen Lucifer.

On a closing note, I've read that Pinhead has recently been executed by his creator Clive Barker in the world of prose. Pinhead did not appear in the last HELLRAISER film, which I have not seen, and it seems unlikely that Doug Bradley will essay the role again, any more than Robert Englund will again play Freddy, after publicly claiming that he would not do so. I personally won't mind if the characters never appear in film again--

But the crossover-loving part of me wishes that someone could engineer a comic-book meeting between Freddy and Pinhead, one worthy of their respective forms of sadistic nastiness. True, one such comic-book crossover I reviewed here  turned out awful. But the idea of a good writer managing to do justice to both Freddy's American wisecracks and Pinhead's dry Brit humor is a tempting one indeed-- though admittedly, not tempting enough to make any Faustian bargains.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "THE EGO-PRIME SAGA" (THOR #201-203)

Since I just wrote a really long exegesis on the Mangog saga in THOR #154-157, I'm not going to spend a helluva lot of time on this null-myth selection, one of the many craptacular pseudo-epics that appeared in the pages of THOR after both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee departed the feature.




In keeping with my criteria for null-myths, though, my only reason for pointing to the mostly forgotten "Ego Prime saga" is to show how a good idea can go wrong in terms of its symbolic content.

The tale of Ego-Prime technically begins before #201, for it's a "B-story" that starts in issue #198 as  a counterpoint to the main tale--one of many unimaginative takes on Ragnarok that followed the first, and arguably best, version by Lee and Kirby. In the B-story, Odin sends two Asgardian goddesses-- Hildegarde and Thor's gal-pal Sif-- to a planet called Blackworld. He doesn't exactly tell them what they're supposed to be looking for there, but eventually Sif and Hildegarde find out that the whole world is going through a rapid course of evolution from one phase of Earth-history to another. That is to say, one minute the goddesses are seeing a culture of knights in armor, and in the next, it becomes the culture of America in the 1920s. Though writer Gerry Conway had published some prose SF and supposedly knew the genre well, this is the sort of "magical SF" that makes juvenile Superman-stories of the Golden Age seem like Isaac Asimov by comparison.

Eventually the goddesses find out that the person responsible for the weird accelerated progress is an old friend: Tana Nile, one of the aliens called "Colonizers" who had appeared during the Lee-Kirby tenure. Tana Nile, under orders to find more habitable planets for her people, got the idea to travel to the surface of another Lee-Kirby creation, "Ego the Living Planet." Sans any scientific data or investigation, Tana slices off a chunk of Ego's "skin," takes it to Blackworld, and implants it in the planet's soil. Though the word "terraforming" is never used, apparently this was Tana Nile's intention. Because Conway didn't care to make her actions internally consistent, the alien does absolutely nothing to curb the effects of the planetary chunk, which takes on its own intelligence and a gigantic form that she dubs "Ego-Prime."

Then, just as Thor has returned to Earth, the creature for some reason teleports itself, the goddesses and their allies to the real Earth, since Ego-Prime plans to create a sentient "bioverse" and for some reason can't do it from Blackworld. There follows a lot of standard Marvel fight-scenes while Ego-Prime unleashes various menaces (mutated humans, giant ants) on the Asgardians.

So far, all of this is merely routine bad comics, taking innovative concepts introduced by better creators and dumbing them down. But while all the chaos is going on, the new A-story now gets a B-story, as Odin sends other agents to Earth to seek out mortals who share some mysterious common factor that Conway never bothers to expain. Then, just as Ego-Prime is about to destroy the world, Odin reaches down from Asgard and somehow transforms the giant into energy that he infuses into the three humans-- who then become three young gods. Odin sends the young gods off into some remote heaven to serve some obscure purpose that does not come to fruition for many years, when Roy Thomas enlisted Conway's "God Squad" (as some clever fan dubbed them) to play a role in his multi-issue "Eternals" plotline.

Lee and Kirby's "Mangog saga" is rife with dozens of inconsistencies and authorial manipulations, true. But as I hope I demonstrated, there's a genuine creative urge underlying all the faults of the Lee-Kirby epic-- while Conway's faux-epic is just a junk-pile composed of used furniture.

MYTHCOMICS: THOR #154-157 ("THE MANGOG SAGA," 1968)

In contrast to Lee and Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR, which enjoyed a number of mythopoeically strong issues from its inception, the duo's MIGHTY THOR got off to a rockier start. I've cited the first "Enchantress and  Executioner" story  as one of the few Thor-tales of the early 1960s that displayed some symbolic complexity. But there were an awful lot of ho-hum tales that pitted the Asgardian powerhouse against the Cobra, Mister Hyde, the Super-Skrull, and so on. In contrast to the "straight superhero" treatment of Thor in the featured tales, many fans preferred the backup strip "Tales of Asgard," which offered simplified versions of old Norse myth-tales.

For whatever reason, Asgard began playing a more substantial role in Thor's adventures in the year 1965. One might speculate that Lee allowed Kirby to build up the Asgardian cast-- Sif, Balder, the Warriors Three-- because epic fantasy had just turned into a bestselling genre that year, as Ballatine issued the authorized paperback edition of Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS. That said, Lee in his capacity as editor apparently made sure that the action never stayed in Asgard for a protracted period. The episodic continuity I mentioned in COMBAT PLAY PT 2 constantly oscillates between adventures in Asgard and on Earth, as if Lee still wasn't too sure about straying too far from the Marvel formula.



Issues #154-157, which some fans have dubbed "the Mangog saga," begins with Thor and his evil brother Loki on Earth, where their battle has just been broken up by Odin. In #153 Odin has some presentiments of approaching danger, but he doesn't confide any of these foreshadowings to either of his sons, nor does he summon them back to Asgard. At the beginning of #154 Loki skulks off and Thor waxes philosophic at Marvel's version of "the silence of God," who is also a literal "God the Father" to the noble but very confused star of the story. Little does Thor suspect that he's about to experience his first real-time encounter with Ragnarok.

Ragnarok had been referenced in the "Tales of Asgard" feature, but the "Mangog saga" doesn't attempt to reproduce the details of the cosmic conflict as we have them from Christian redactors of the Norse mythology. Rather, Lee and Kirby took the essence of the Ragnarok-tale--  that Asgard was imperilled by all the evils that had been kept down for eons-- and the two creators chose to give birth to a single monstrous figure who embodied a less traditional form of evil.




The Mangog-- a huge bulky fellow with a vaguely cow-like face-- is the danger that Odin has foreseen, though apparently not clearly enough to stop his advent. Ulik the Troll, left over from a plotline in the previous continuity, stumbles across the hidden prison where Odin has imprisoned the monster. Hoping to gain an ally against Asgard, the troll breaks down the prison-door (not one of Odin's sturdiest constructs, it seems). The savage almost immediately regrets freeing the Mangog, for not only does the horned wonder refuse to team up with Ulik, he states explicitly that his sole reason for being is to tromp all the way to Asgard, unsheathe the magical artifact known as the Odinsword, and to bring about Ragnarok, the destruction of the known universe. Ulik understandably exits the premises, as well as the story proper.

In the archaic tales of Ragnarok, the agents of the world's demise are a motley crew of malcontents-- giants, trolls, Loki himself-- who have been opposed to Odin's reign since forevcr. But Mangog is a more original take on the embodiment of evil, for he is only one being, though possessed of seemingly limitless strength and invulnerability. His nature is not immediately clear, however, and Lee's dialogue initially gives conflicting pictures:

In #154, when Mangog emerges from his prison, he wants vengeance on Odin, who "crushed the invasion of my race." Ulik affirms that he knows of the story-- and that's all we get on Mangog that issue. These lines convey the impression that Mangog is the last living survivor of a race that attacked Odin and Asgard-- and indeed, in #155, Loki-- who makes his way to Asgard ahead of Thor, refers to Mangog as the "sole survivor of a long-dead race." Possibly when Lee wrote these lines, he wasn't entirely clear on Kirby's concept for the character-- or it may be that he simply didn't want to get into the more involved aspects. For it's also in #155 that Mangog-- relentlessly stomping his way to Asgard, thrashing storm giants and Asgardian outposts-- finally clarifies his origins. Odin destroyed Mangog's race, but Mangog was not precisely an ordinary member of said community. "Before [the invaders[ fell," Mangog yells to anyone listening in the midst of his carnage, "they created mighty Mangog!" A couple of pages later, Mangog finally holds forth on his full origins: "When my race was dying-- they took the limitless strength of all-- the billions whom Odin had doomed-- and they found a way to store that matchless power within one living being!" Thus, Mangog is (or believes himself to be) essentially an artificial construct; a living concaternation of a "billion billion beings."

For his part, though, Odin does not comment on these allegations. Despite his forebodings, at the beginning of #154 the All-Father somewhat arbitrarily decides to enter "the Odinsleep," a deep sleep designed to preserve his immortality-- and one from which no one can disturb him, lest it cost Odin his life. Obviously, since Odin is supposed to be all-powerful, the story's creators had to find some way to keep him out of the action-- though this plot-device may not be purely a device for authorial convenience. More on this later.)



What makes Mangog a radical metaphysical concept is that in essence, the monster is the spirit of a slaughtered people, unified in death as they could not be in life. It's questionable whether or not the original Norse worshippers of Thor would have worried about whether or not they might be haunted by the ghosts of their vanquished enemies. But denizens of the more rational (or maybe rationalized) twentieth century had been subjected to a number of such haunting spectres, Obviously a comic-book cow-monster doesn't have the gravitas of real slaughtered tribes, and Kirby and Lee aren't asking anyone to sympathize with the Mangog. In visual terms Kirby wants readers to fear his presence, since he seems proof against every force that Asgard, Thor, and Thor's companions can hurl against him, and Lee is careful to keep reminding readers that Mangog's people were not innocent victims.
In #156, Thor himself confronts the unstoppable monster, and responds to the charge of murder Mangog makes against his father:



"My father did but end a living cancer" is apparently the view shared not only by denizens of Asgard, like Thor and Loki, but also by Asgard's enemy Ulik. By such remarks it should be clear that we're not dealing with the incarnation of a maltreated people here (though I imagine current ultraliberals could read this passage in no other way). Finally, even Mangog himself admits to his people's ineluctable evil, claiming in #156: "Though none who lived were more truly evil-- more deserving of our fate than we-- since death hath been decreed us-- then let the cosmos perish!" What Lee and Kirby have produced is not some facile justification for racial slaughter, but an insight into the nature of evil. Milton's Satan makes it his mission to mar Creation with the excuse that "misery loves company," but the Mangog, infused with the idea that his "people" died, can desire nothing but to see the rest of the cosmos die, Possibly, then, the Mangog speaks less to the fears of racial holocaust than species-holocaust, as represented by the Shadow of the Bomb.



In the concluding issue, the rough beast slouches all the way through the defenses of Asgard and tries to draw the Odinsword-- which is, in a visual that should delight Freudians, a massive sword far too big for any regular-sized Asgardian to draw it. Though neither the thunder-god nor any of his companions can best the beast by force, Thor manages to defeat the monster by creating a massive storm. This ruckus allows Odin to awaken of his own accord. Why this is less intrusive on the Odinsleep than a simple shake on the shoulder is not explored, but Odin does awake, and then lowers the boom by revealing that everything the Asgardians knew was wrong. Under Odin's power Mangog dissolves into nothingness, and the All-Father reveals that his people neither died nor created Mangog. Instead, the body of Mangog was a "living prison" for all those who had dared invade the Realm Eternal-- and then, in a further show of clemency, Odin separates out all the still-living alien invaders (seen only at a distance, and signified as "alien" by their possession of Spock-ears). Then the All-Father sends them back home, claiming that their "penance" is over.

Now, from the standpoint of dramatic verisimilitude, this solution is a complete mess. This time, I think probably both Lee and Kirby were to blame, for throughout their careers, both creators showed a depressing tendency to indulge in "surprise endings" that they didn't properly set up, I've already mentioned the inconsistency of Odin's actions, in that he gets worried about some coming catastrophe and separates his quarreling sons because he expects them to be available for Asgard's defense. But does he transport them to Asgard to keep them on the lookout for the unknown menace? No, even though this would be a totally logical action, particularly since he suddenly feels the need to descend into the Odinsleep. One would like to think, at least, that he goes to sleep without knowing that Mangog is the source of his misgivings, but one might have expected him to check on the cells of all known malefactors before, so to speak, checking out. Because Odin does not do so, an indeterminate number of Asgardian spear-carriers get killed--  though admittedly, these are the sort of nonentities who get killed whenever the forces of chaos come knocking.

Of course, all these logical actions would have deprived the story of at least some of its suspense. It's a mark of superior artists that, even when they act in expedient fashion, they're still capable of rendering interesting effects, as when Thor wanders around Earth, observing "signs and portents" of a coming apocalypse before he ever hears the name "Mangog."

In addition, it must also be admitted that even though Odin's clemency for Mangog's people doesn't make much sense, it does provide an attractive "eucatastrophe," to use Tolkien's term for a miraculously favorable turn of events. It vindicates Odin as a fount of mercy, rather than as a monarch capable of committing mass slaughter, which is hard to reconcile even under the most vexing circumstances.  And I would not be a good Jungian if I didn't mention the possibility that in a sense Mangog may not be just the avatar of a group of aggressive aliens. He may even be the "shadow" of Odin himself, the part of Odin that is unleashed when his conscious mind goes to sleep, and breeds chaos for the realm he's supposed to shelter. Certainly the "Mangog saga" doesn't represent the first time in the THOR mythos that Odin's power or one of his constructs gets turned to evil purpose-- though never before had Lee and Kirby exerted quite so much effort, to bring to the purchasers of twelve-cent comics a spectacle of Wagnerian proportions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

COMBAT PLAY PT. 2

In Part 1 I said:

There's a key irony here. I'm fully aware that one of the very things I like about the "combat myth" is that it doesn't resemble the way real life arranges its various conflicts-- say, with courts and governments and insurance companies. That's one of my main reasons for liking it, whether one cares to believe that's "negative compensation" or not. In contrast, the ideologues want fictional narrative to conform perfectly not to reality as it is lived, but to one that clearly marks out who are the good people and the bad people-- yet not in any escapist terms, but in terms that are supposedly responsive to "reality."

I also said that I would talk about the personal associations of the combat myth for me. In my high school years I didn't know Alfred Adler from a hole in the ground. Still, through whatever processes formed my cultural values, I did believe in the "courage" by which Adler differentiates between positive and negative compensation. Like every kid ever born, I learned early on that "Life Was Not Fair" from an assortment of people, both peers and social superiors. My pedagogical upbringing might best be described as a white suburban kid's version of "Fight the Power."

Was I actually courageous or just hard-headed? I can't judge, but I wouldn't cede any power of judgment to anyone else I knew in those days, either. Early on it became evident to me that the world was full of confused individuals who were all out for themselves, regardless of the ideals they might expouse. It should go without saying that I never bought into the idea that one could simply talk out differences, though I wasn't raised in the "let's communicate" era. In other words, by the criteria of my self-analysis, the combat myth appealed to me because I believed in the fundamental inevitability of conflict.

At the same time, I absorbed some notion of the idea of "fair play" from society. Boxing will never be venerated as a wellspring of honor or honesty, but the sport articulated the ideal of a system of rules for fighting, with the result that the expression "Marquis of Queensbury" has come to signify a system of fair sport, whatever said system actually may have been in lived history. The idea that fighters should fight within weight-classes also promotes at least some notion of fair play, though I don't doubt that this system too came in for its share of real-life abuses.

Though anti-violence pundits like Dr. Wertham could only look at comic books and see unbridled sadism, I as a young reader saw a modern mythology in which honor and fairness-- usually, though not exclusively, represented by the hero-- were valued over the desire to win despite any other considerations.

Take as example a comic book of my long-vanished youth, THOR #152.



When this issue appeared in 1966, there was nothing overly special about Thor tearing up the terrain fighting another super-powerhouse, and the one with whom he's seen grappling, Ulik the Troll, had already appeared in a previous three-issue arc. The plot of #152 doesn't boil down to anything very coherent, for it belongs to a very rambling arc in which Thor and his Asgardian buddies find themselves embroiled in various conflicts, mostly brought about the thunder-god's troublemaking brother Loki.

What does keep #152 from being just another big battle-tale, though, is that Thor and Ulik are arranged to represent philosophical postures. Thor, son of Odin and scion of Asgard, is heir to a philosophy of noblesse oblige, while Ulik describes himself as "lowly-born-- with naught to lose-- and a world to gain."

As soon as Thor and Ulik meet, they go at each other, Thor using his hammer and Ulik wielding a big mace. Thor smashes the mace, and then nobly holsters his hammer to fight the troll on equal terms.




Ulik responds with such ungentlemanly tactics as banging Thor on the ears (clearly a violation of Asgard's version of Queensbury) and grabbing a hunk of sharp rock, which he proceeds to use as a makeshift weapon, mere moments after claiming that he didn't need a weapon to settle Thor's hash.




It's interesting to note that Lee's dialogue-- which seems to match well with the intentions of Kirby's dramatic art-- does not characterize Ulik as a coward. In THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD OF VIOLENCE I noted:

If there are many Wild West sagas in which a Colt .45 or a Winchester rifle are invested with positive significance, there are also many instances in which weapons register as negative markers. Whenever a narrative wants to show a character as villainous, one of the easiest ways is to have him resort to using a weapon, often-- though not always-- when his sympathetic opponent is unarmed. When the sympathetic character is a hero, rather than a victim, he usually wins out over the armed villain by the demonstration of such a high level of hand-to-hand skill that it negates the supposed advantage of the weapon.

But though the reader of this comic is clearly supposed to admire Thor for drawing on his courage and honor to defeat the armed troll, Ulik isn't the usual cowardly weapon-user. Rather, he's a savage unable to think in any terms save immediate personal advantage.  "Honor is an empty vessel," says the troll, "and none but weaklings do sup of it!" Thor responds that "Courage be the steed-- and honor the spur" and subsequently kicks the troll's ass. I have a sneaking suspicion that Stan Lee might have cadged this metaphor from another writer, since it sounded familiar to me even in 1966-- but it's still a strong image. Fittingly, while Ulik chooses his metaphors from an appetitive activity, in that he compares honor to a vessel that should contain food and/or drink, Thor goes for a equestrian metaphor, as befitting his aristocratic status.

To repeat my observation from Part 1, I have to assume that this version of a "combat myth," and its simple but striking philosophical argument, would mean nothing to an ultraliberal critic. For such a critic, the idea that issues might be worked out through a violent conflict would be anathema, even when enacted by characters of patently fantastic nature. Perhaps Ulik, despite being the sort of fellow who would probably eat ultraliberals for breakfast, would be read as a downtrodden victim of Asgardian aristocracy. I can't imagine how ultraliberals sympathetic to Ulik's oppression would work to liberate his people from Asgard-- sit back and wait for dialectical materialism to bring about the downfall of Odin and company?

For my part, since I know as a reader that both Thor and Ulik are fictional characters, I can learn whatever lessons I choose to learn from their conflict, rather than being subjected to some form of automatic programming by the brainwashing effects of violence.  Violence in the real world is not usually "play," but in fiction it primarily aligns with such elements; largely represented by the Jungian functions of sensation and intuition.

Come to think of it, there is one form of violence that ultraliberals always enjoy, though it's one that doesn't involve direct conflict, violence as such, or even sound.

As the Zen koan doesn't say:

"What is the sound of one knee, jerking?"








Friday, September 11, 2015

REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE, PT. 3

But despite all this difference between the agreeable and the good, they do agree in this: they are always connected with an interest in their object."-- Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, sec. 209.

Given all the times I've run down the ideological critics for "overthimking the underthought," I must admit that I'm in a not dissimilar position whenever I try to thump the tub for the mythopoeic expressivity of Jung, Frye, and Cassirer.  In essence, most readers of any popular fiction are principally occupied with neither "thinking" nor "intuition." Rather, most of these readers are moved principally by the irrational function of sensation and the rational function of feeling.

Drawing on Jung's comment about the purpose of each function, reprinted here, in literature "sensation" refers to the readers' identification with the physical sensations of fictional characters, while "feeling" refers to the extrinsic value that the readers place upon the characters' actions. This schema compares, albeit very loosely, with the two categories of "interest" that Kant deduces in his aesthetic theory. In my essay WOLK HARD  I critiqued Douglas Wolk for oversimplifying Kant's argument and underestimating the extent to which his favored "artcomics" practitioners were able to emulate "disinterest," Kant's prerequisite for a person to make a good taste-judgment regarding art.

Obviously Kant and Jung don't offer an exact parallel. Kant sees "the agreeable" as stemming from the audience feeling "stimuli" from a given work, which is a good analogue to Jung's assessment that the sensation-function is purely governed by physical perception, though Jung allows that sensation has both its "concrete" and "abstract" manifestations. However, what Kant means by "the good" ties in to his complicated meditations on moral law, which don't concern me here. Jung is perhaps less trammeled than Kant in his observations on what he Jung terms the "feeling-function." While the psychologist considers "feeling" a function of judgment rather than simple perception, Jung specifies that feeling's purpose is "not to establish conceptual relations but to set up a subjective criterion of acceptance or rejection."

I can't speak directly to the experience of any other human being with respect to how one's mind processes fiction; I only have my own experience for a guide. However, I can remember the state of my mentality when I was younger, and not as oriented on reading with an eye to specific potentialities. When I remember my younger self, I picture my identification as being almost entirely focused upon imagining the sensations, good or bad, experienced by the fictional characters, and then either interrogating the characters on whether they ought to be "accepted or rejected"-- or, to use my own terminology, whether they were "sympathetic" or 'antipathetic."

In A PAUSE FOR POTENTIALITIES I cited a Jung passage in which he spoke of the intuition's "mythological images" as "the precursors of ideas." Given Jung's love of symmetry, he probably contemplated a similar indebtedness between the other two functions, given that the base input of sensations-- as to whether they were agreeable or disagreeable-- can be easily seen as the basis of the feeling-function's more sophisticated decisions about what people and things ought to be accepted or rejected.



The "fight-scene" provides one of the most elemental means by which a reader dovetails the sensation and feeling functions. If I were to read FANTASTIC FOUR #16 without knowing anything about the characters, I might not have any feeling-reaction at the sight of the story's heroes being thrashed, though in all likelihood I would have some notion that the big green guy was "antipathetic" to my interests while his mostly-human opponents were meant to be "sympathetic." Yet I would be, in all likelihood, able to imagine the characters' fictional sensations even without placing any rational value upon them.

Now Jung calls intuition an "irrational, perceiving function" while thinking is a "rational function of judgment." Despite this difference, both of them seem to be secondary processes for purposes of literary identification. Perhaps this is because neither is as immediate as its counterpart. Jung says that intuition "mediates perceptions of ideational connections," connections which have more to do with the past and future than with the present. And of course thinking can only take place once the subject has learned to accept and internalize the logical patterns of discursive mental activity.

So it's not likely that most readers of popular fiction will ever give many props either to the myth-critics or the ideological critics. Both are dealing with "secondary levels" of criteria by which one evaluates the material perceived. It's a shame that so many ideological critics have allowed themselves to believe that their ideational constructs are objectively real, rather than being rooted in a matrix of expressive and pre-discursive "myths." Jung provided the most even-handed evaluation of the virtues of the two secondary (my word) functions:

The primordial image has one great advantage over the clarity of the idea, and that is its vitality. It is a self-activating organism, endowed with generative power. The primordial image is an inherited organization of psychic energy, an integrated system, which not only gives expression to the energic process but facilitates its operation.''-- Jung, PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, p.. 447.

REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE PT. 2

In Part 1 I grappled with the problem of establishing "standards" for Golden Age comics, even with the knowledge that most of them were produced without formal standards in mind. Many creators simply cranked out features as quickly as they could, of course. And even artists and writers who showed conscious care in their work-- Reed Crandall and Fred Guardineer for the first, William Woolkfolk and Bill Finger for the second-- may have been primarily motivated by creating a reputation for being able to produce quality work so as to earn sustained employment.


Yet even with this in mind, I still disagree with the tendency of the bloody comic book elitists to value only the Golden Age work that simply suggests greater sophistication; i.e., the sophistication found in "good literature." This leads to a tendency to lionize, say, PLASTIC MAN, as a sophisticated satire-- which it is not-- and to ignore talents who were formally Jack Cole's equal, but simply didn't come up with a famous character like Plastic Man.

Using Jung's "four functions" as a guide, it's possible to validate Golden Age comics along any of the axes Jung provides: sensation, feeling, thinking, or intuition. Comic book elitists are usually impressed only by works that show evidence of rational activity: hence their general enthusiasm for EC comics, which is strong in both the thinking and feeling departments. In Part 1 I mentioned in passing two Golden Age stories that I found noteworthy from a historical crossover-standpoint: an AIRBOY issue from Hillman and a DAREDEVIL story from Lev-Gleason. No reader could accuse either story of being heavy in terms of thinking or feeling, but both are extremely strong in producing sensational effects. However, though they both boast some interesting myth-motifs, neither one would quite come up to my personal standards for a really complex symbolic discourse, unlike this recent Golden Age selection.

Even with the most pluralistic will in the world, it's likely that one could find within the corpus of Golden Age comics a cornucopia of works that emphasize either the didactic, dramatic or mythopoeic potentialities. So if I were to attempt a list of "the hundred best Golden Age comics," and wanted to keep faith with my system of four potentialities, I'd probably have to list 25 comics that provided the best sensations, the best thoughts, and so on-- much as I did back in 2009, when I decided to list a series of "best movies derived from comics," but wanted to arrange it in line with Frye's theory of the four mythoi, the better to test out that particular line of thought.

However, the fact that I might have search pretty hard through the Golden Age for examples of good symbolic discourse-- far more than I would in the Silver Age-- suggests to me a reigning principle about the priorities of comics-readers in that period-- and perhaps those of all readers of popular fiction in general-- more on which in Part 3.



On a side-note: I'm tempted to mention the high quality of Quality's early BLACKHAWK title to the fellow doing the survey of important Golden Age comics. I will predict here that if I do so, the fellow will either be non-committal on the subject of that Quality title, since so few elitists have investigated it, or disdainful for some non-aesthetic reason-- like, say, because the Blackhawks' uniforms are reminiscent of certain Nazi outfits.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: JIHAD #1-2 (1991)




I've provided a brief sketch of the concept of JIHAD's status as one of pop culture's best crossovers in this post on my blog OUROBOROS DREAMS, which is more or less my "stuff I've been reading" blog.  This neglected graphic novel consists of a pair of squarebound 48-page books issued by Epic Comics during their creative roundelay with Clive Barker. I detailed my personal acquaintance with the Hellraiser and Nightbreed franchises on the OUROBOROS post so that I wouldn't have to explain all that here.

I'm also not going to spend a lot of time on the complicated plot and the extremely crowded cast of characters in JIHAD. As noted in the other essay, the base goal of JIHAD's plotline, as scripted by D.G. Chicester and painted by Paul Johnson, is to meld the loose mythologies of the Hellraiser and Nightbreed franchises. However, there's quite a bit more going on in JIHAD's theme than the customary cross-franchise meet-and-greet.

For one thing, JIHAD offers one of the few complex meditations on the metaphysical theme of "order and chaos." In Greek creation-myths these contrary forces are more often styled as "kosmos and chaos." The English rendition has been used by many authors, but may be most familiar to fantasy-fiction readers in its utlization by author Michael Moorcock in some of his sword-and-sorcery works, notably the "Elric" series. Though I haven't read every Moorcock work, I've found his handling of the dichotomy to be routine at best, and the same applies to similar adaptations in DC Comics' "Doctor Fate" franchise.

In contrast, JIHAD begins with a syncopated juxtaposition of images that contrast the worlds of the Nightbreed and the Cenobites as emblematic of "chaos" and "order." Yet. instead of picturing chaos as simply some sort of nasty world-conquerors opposed to the reigning hegemony, the Nightbreed embody the messy chaos of the unbridled life-force. It's violent, but also sexy in a visceral fashion.

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In contrast, the Cenobites, who practice a form of extremely violent mortification that surpasses anything that the flagellants of medieval times could have imagined, seek to impose a ruthless form of order upon their bodies and of all those within the hell of their god Leviathan. In keeping with the HELLBOUND film, the Lord of Hell is an abstract polygon-shape whose precision the Cenobites seek to emulate. Chichester takes screenwriter Atkins' conceit-- probably borrowed from similar motifs in the horror stories of Arthur Machen-- and expands upon the conceit, satirizing the attempt of all religions to impose an artificial orderliness and to restrain the chaos of life.



The force that brings the two factions into conflict is a group of inferior Cenobites who aren't satisfied to suffer under the banner of Leviathan, as is the nameless leader known as "Pinhead." These Cenobites are led by an accursed couple, Alastor and Chalkis, who urge Leviathan to allow them to declare a jihad against the resurgent Nightbreed. The true aim of this purgatorial power couple, however, is to elevate themselves to become deities in their own right and take over Hell. Pinhead opposes their ambitions, not least because such desires possess "the stench of chaos," but his many-faceted deity overrules the Cenobite leader and allows Alastor and Chalkis to make war on the monstrous Nightbreed. The villains' plans involve a blasphemous parody of the Christian host and the suborning of a Knight Templar (based on the historical Jacques de Molay). The Nightbreed fight back with both bestial fury and subtle alchemies. One of these involves bringing back a dead man to be the vessel of their long-absent deity Baphomet, who is more or less the deific opposite of Leviathan. In the Johnson-Chichester cosmos, the order represented by the Christian mythology is every bit as inverted as that of Christianity's versions of sin and suffering. Indeed, I strongly suspect that one of the creators had read his Bataille, for on page 19 of Book 1, one of the Cenobites recites an injunction from hell's holy books that is an almost verbatim reprise of a phrase from Bataille's EROTISM: "And do not deny the taboo, but rather transcend it and complete it."

I've discussed various aspects of Bataille's taboo-and-transgression formula in essays like LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION and HOLY NUMINOSITY PART 4, so I won't comment further on this theme here. Suffice to say that whereas a lot of horror-writers, both in prose and comics, merely play at transgression, Johnson and Chichester display a predilection for physical distortions worthy of the celebrated Hieronymous Bosch.

To be sure, JIHAD is as as dense as-- well, hell. Not all readers will catch its learned references, but I'll note that my favorite is the Thomas Malory FAUSTUS quote on the last page, which offers a tragic perspective on the dedicated diabolist Pinhead; one that the extremely uneven film-series certainly never managed to articulate.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A PAUSE FOR POTENTIALITIES

At the end of Part 1 of REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE, I said that Part 2 would deal with grounding my myth-critical approach within "a sound understanding of the way popular art works." But before I do that, I have to investigate the nature of the potentiality with which I'm dealing with a myth-critic: the potentiality of the mythopoeic.

In FOUR BY FOUR I formulated the four potentialities in response to Jung's four functions. I didn't go into great detail as to how Jung deduced his four functions, but chose to reread the relevant sections of PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES in preparation for Part 2 of the MERCURIAL essay. 
At one point Jung provides his simplest breakdown of the operations of the four functions:

The essential function of sensation is to establish that something exists, thinking tells us what it means, feeling what its value is, and intuition surmises whence it comes and whither it goes. 

In this and related passages, Jung characterizes the intuition as the complement to sensation: sensation perceives things in the present, while intuition senses the ways in which present-day sensations relate to the past and/or the future. I suppose that for some readers this might seem like a rather radical extension of the colloquial use of the word "intuition"-- assuming, of course, that the culture of the Swiss psychologist also used the term in colloquial ways cognate with the English-language idea of "women's intuition." Jung escapes any accusations of over-amplification by specifying that there are two forms of intuition: a concrete type, which "mediates perceptions concerned with the actuality of things," and an abstract type, which "mediates perceptions of ideational connnections." The latter aspect of intuition is the one that relates to the art of literary narrative, and indeed in a few remarks Jung credits intuition with making the "connections" necessary for poetry, though he never develops these observations into a general "Jungian poetics."
Now, Jung being Jung, his concept of the archetypes was never far from his mind.



like sensation, intuition is a characteristic of infantile and primitive psychology. It counterbalances the powerful sense impressions of the child and the primitive by mediating perceptions of mythological images, the precursors of ideas


Now, I agree with Jung's comment that "ideas" are developed out of what might as well be called "images" (Kant called these lesser elements "notions.") However, I want to specify that one need not buy into Jung's specific concept of inherited mythological images in order to validate his basic schema. Jung's predecessor-and-influence Cassirer said much the same thing, sans the inherited images. From the 2012 essay MYTH MATTERS:


Once it is evident that the dividing-line between religious myths and literary myths is real only insofar as individuals “believe” in the distinction, one may be open to an interdisciplinary approach like that of Ernst Cassirer, who devoted his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT to the proposition that “mythical thinking” was a fundamental proclivity of humankind that was not confined those narratives which nominalists choose to call “myths.”  In essence “mythical thinking” is the counterpoint to what Cassirer calls variously “empirical” or “theoretical” thought.
Later, Susanne Langer, who took no small influence from Cassirer, advocated a similar position, which I discussed in GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 2:


What we should look for is the first indication of symbolic behavior [in man's predecessors the anthropoids], which is not likely to be anything as specialized, conscious, or rational as the use of semantic. Language is a very high form of symbolism; presentational forms are much lower than discursive, and the appreciation of meaning probably earlier than its expression... It is absurd to suppose that the earliest symbols could be *invented;* they are merely *Gestalten* furnished to the senses of a creature ready to give them some diffuse meaning."-- NEW KEY, p. 110.

Therefore, when I interrogate the role that the mythopoeic potentiality plays within my system, it should be understood that it doesn't constitute complete alliance with Jung's explanation of inherited images. For the purpose of literary analysis, it doesn't matter whether mythological images are programmed into our beings, or whether they simply re-occur as necessary structual precursors to the rational activity Jung calls "thinking."