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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...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A MOVABLE HELLFEAST

'If I cannot bend the will of Heaven, I shall move Hell.'-- Virgil's AENEID.

In this 2014 essay I wrote:

I do not render any final verdict here as to whether "the causality human beings experience in life" is entirely naturalistic or not.  But it is certainly of a different order than anything we experience through fiction, and so the two are not homologous.  That said, when I think of the historical figure of Jack the Ripper, I opt for the default characterization that almost everyone does: that he was a real human being who killed out of some lunacy and eluded the law.
That said, because the Ripper was never identified, he presents an ontological problem that comparable "psychos" do not.  Even without being able to identify the Ripper as authorities were able to identify Ed Gein, practically no one doubts that the Ripper was a real human being, unlike the many fictional renditions modeled after him. As a real human being, he cannot be "uncanny" the way a fictional re-creation can be.

But can one say that even though he was subject to all the laws of the naturalistic universe we all share, that Jack the Ripper does not share in any way with the concept I've entitled "affective freedom" in this essay?

While a human being cannot be "uncanny" in the same way that a fictional character would be, any human being-- no matter how debased-- has the freedom to imagine himself within a fictionalized posture. This self-theatricalization would not change the actual phenomenality of the real human being. Nevertheless, the capacity for such a mental attitude, even in a negative moral state of being, still impacts on the general concept of freedom nonetheless.

For sake of this argument, assume that the historical Ripper is the same person who wrote this infamous "letter from hell," which I copied from this site:

From hell
Mr Lusk
Sor
I send you half the
Kidne I took from one women
prasarved it for you tother pirce
I fried and ate it was very nise I
may send you the bloody knif that
took it out if you only wate a whil
longer.
signed
Catch me when
you Can
Mishter Lusk. [sic]


The individual who wrote this letter was, without doubt, attempting to "fictionalize" himself in terms of the Ripper-persona, to become a figure of "dread" through the reference to the Ripper's psychotic violence and to the domain of hell itself.

How this impacts upon the general concept of freedom will be explored further in Part 2.


Friday, October 30, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE (1988)

For a null-mythic version of the Joker, I strongly considered the 2012 storyline "Death in the Family," which extended over an arc of 23 parts, spread out over several DC features. I did read the TPB that concluded the series. In this story, apparently the conception of Scott Snyder, the Joker has watched the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE a few too many times., since he's started wearing his own flayed face-flesh as if he were the love-child of Leatherface and Jame Gumm. 



At length I decided that (a) it wouldn't be fair to review just one section of this involved arc, and (b) I didn't have any burning desire to read the rest. I will note that while I can understand why Snyder and his DC co-workers might have wanted to "re-estrange" the Joker with this grotesque makeover, given that the familiarity of the Joker's iconic visage may have bred a certain degree of audience-contempt. Reputedly the series sold well, so in one sense there's no arguing with success. Nevertheless, I'd venture that Snyder et al seem to guilty of mixing their monstrous metaphors. The Joker, insane though he is, isn't insane in the same fictionalized way as Leatherface and Jame Gumm. They wear skin-masks to efface their real, overly fragile identities. But why would the Joker resort to such a device? Everything that makes the Joker one of the medium's most popular villains suggests that he's loved because he's become a living archetype. In the comics, at least, the Joker has totally subsumed whoever he was before his transformation--

Except in the world of Alan Moore.

I wrote this essay, THE KILLING BLOKE, some four years ago. I wasn't using the "null-myth" terminology then, but the Moore-Bolland "Killing Joke" story seemed perfect as an illustration of what I called (after Philip Wheelwright) "monosignative" rather than "plurisignative."  I hadn't then elaborated the four potentialities, but now I'd view what I wrote then as an anticipation of that doctrine. KILLING JOKE is, in essence, a story in which writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland decided to tell the story of the Joker's lost humanity.





I wrote, in part:

There's no question that Alan Moore was aware of the symbolic status that Batman and the Joker had assumed over the years. To be sure, though, Moore's Batman gets short shrift in that department, coming off most of the time like a weary costumed cop, the "straight man" of the comic duo, saying things like, "How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?" In contrast, the Joker gets so many good lines describing how he embraces a world of inescapeable nihilism that Moore might've done better to title the work "Sympathy for the Joker." Moore's own expression of sympathy for the philosophy of nihilism, then, results in a work that demonstrates what happens when, as noted above, the explanation of the myth becomes what the myth "means." Frye defines allegory as "forced metaphor," and in many respects the two opponents have been forced into metaphorical roles that do more to spell out Alan Moore's philosophical views than to emulate the free play of myth. 
"It's all a joke!" declares the villain, trying to lure Batman over to the dark side, "Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for... it's all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can't you see the funny side? Why aren't you laughing?" The Joker gets much better lines than Batman, but I'm not sure his myth is any better served than Batman's by being bound in a philosophical strait-jacket. Moore's revisionist origin for the Joker posits that he was once just an ordinary schlump, a would-be stand-up comedian, who lost everything in a manner analogous to the way his bat-garbed enemy did. This take on the Joker's history didn't become accepted canon for the various ongoing Bat-serials, and it's not hard to see why: the origin gives the Joker a humanity that's at odds with his more traditional blackhat-villainy. In fairness Moore crafts his story so as to apply that the Joker's memory of his "origin" may not be true in all details, so Moore gets points for realizing that others might not care to follow his lead in playing with DC Comics' "toys."

Reviewing these remarks once more, I would even follow up my "straight man" remark to say that Batman and the Joker, instead of fulfilling their roles as archetypal crimefighter and criminal, have become something like a jaundiced pair of performers, sort of a superheroic version of the "Sunshine Boys."



Aside from the story's purely fortuitious effect on the career of Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon, the story has none of the deeper symbolism of which Moore is capable. Here we have an excellent master of his writing-craft indulging in an exercise, that of trying to graft realistic personalities onto fantasy-figures. It's a credit to Moore's dramaturgic talents that JOKE can still be read on that level. Certainly it's superior to DEATH IN THE FAMILY in that regard.

Returning to the subject of Batgirl--





Within the world of comics-fans, this may be the best-known scene in which Moore depicted a well-known female icon not of his own creation-- and given that he once wrote an essay complaining about the marginalization of superheroines in commercial comics, it's a delicious irony that it's a "Women in Refrigerators" scene all the way. I don't have quite the same knee-jerk animus toward such scenes as do others in the fan-community, but last year I was greatly amused to see that Liberal Moore found himself being pilloried for Writing Rapey Comics, mostly by Ultraliberals whose solution to the problem of evil is to avoid depicting it.

In a subsequent interview, Moore said that he didn't expect the crippling of Barbara Gordon to last: he was sure she'd get magically healed by one of the many DC miracle-devices. Kim Yale and John Ostrander are generally credited with realizing that the tossed-off mutilation of a long-time DC heroine-- albeit one at a rather low ebb of popularity in 1988-- could serve as a means of exploring the dramatic consequences of a differently abled superheroine. I wouldn't say that "Wheelchair Batgirl" was precisely much more mythic than her predecessor. I enjoyed those stories-- particularly those of Gail Simone-- on a purely dramatic level. But the fact that Original Batgirl finally did come back may say something about the sovereign function of fantasy within the context of fiction that has always been "play for play's sake." 

Ironically, though Alan Moore's tune throughout KILLING JOKE starts out as "Sympathy for the Devil," he says very little of importance about the Joker-- and instead supplies a leitmotif through which other raconteurs could compose their own version of "the Batgirl Song."

Whose baby is she, indeed?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "LAUGH, TOWN, LAUGH" (DETECTIVE COMICS #62 (1942)

In REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE PT. 1 I wrote:

...are only the "big events" worth considering in a pluralist "best of" list? Further, to extrapolate from a point Martin makes: are the first appearances of Batman's iconic villains their best "aesthetic" moments? Is the first Joker story the one every comics-fan ought to read? Will it tell the non-hardcore reader everything he wants to know about the Joker? Or would the reader be better off reading a less Gothic but arguably more "aesthetically pleasing' story like "The Joker's Millions" from DETECTIVE COMICS #180 (1952)?
Having uttered this challenge, I'm obliged to answer it more fully than I did above. Obviously I've given a partial answer by indicating that the first Joker story might not be the most representative of the character. As it happens, the Joker-tale from BATMAN #1 is a good rousing story. It appeals most to the kinetic potentiality. particularly because it features the Joker's first use of his smile-inducing "Joker venom" (horribly overused in current BATMAN comics, by the bye). But the story doesn't really tap into the mythopoeic potentiality of a clown-like villain.

What myth does the Joker incarnate? There's nothing new in my observing that one of the Joker's principal appeals is that he, like all clowns and harlequin-figures, provides a distorted "funhouse mirror" reflection of both normative society and human psychology. The tale in BATMAN #1 doesn't do this.

An untitled Bill Finger story in BATMAN #7 comes closer. In this narrative, the Joker invites a bunch of commonplace pranksters into his lair and encourages them to "up the ante" on their pranks, forcing them to fall in with his criminal activities. This is an unusual, interesting twist on the Joker, giving him some of the motifs of the Satanic tempter. However, Finger's story doesn't dwell very long on the role of the pranksters, and it devolves into another enjoyable, but hardly mythopoeic, Batman-Joker chase scene.

Similarly, some stories explore the dramatic potentiality more than the kinetic one. The aforementioned "Joker's Millions," which GCD hypothetically credits to David Vern, is one of these, as is another from the same year, also by Vern: "The Joker's Utility Belt," which earned some fannish fame when it was broadly adapted for the third episode of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries. But neither of these 1952 stories really gives the reader a "funhouse mirror" view of the world.

For my money, the earliest Joker story that succeeds as a myth hails from 1942, written by Bill Finger and executed by Kane, Robinson, and Roussos. As this splash page makes clear, it involves the Joker providing his own ghoulish takes on the familiar jokes found in the legendary "Joe Miller's Joke Book:"




Nothing could seem less fraught with horror than such cornball humor as the riddle of why the fireman wore red suspenders-- until the Joker performs his take on the story:



To be sure, there's an important aspect of profit in the story. It wasn't enough for the 1940s Joker to murder a lot of people: the villain clearly measured his success by his ability to rip off money and expensive items. Not long before the Joker makes his latest escape from prison, a famous comedian shuffles off from this mortal coil. After he's died, he leaves clues to five other comedians (all parodies of famous 1940s funnymen), alleging that if they can manage to read the puzzle behind the clues, they can find their way to a fabulous treasure. For some reason, when rich people make weird bequests like this one, it apparently never occurs to them that some uninvited party might trespass on this little game, and start killing the clue-holders to get their clues.  The clue-trope was an old idea even in 1942, but the Joker isn't solely motivated by gain. He's also offended at having been excluded from the bequest to the great comedians, a rationalization that has some precedence in the folkloric story of Sleeping Beauty

"They dare hold a contest of this nature without inviting me! Hah! I'll invite myself! Ha ha ha!"

The intervention of Batman and Robin prevents the villain from knocking off more than two of his intended five victims, but Finger provides another twist here: Robin is obliged to save one man by providing artificial respiration, but his life-saving duties prevent him from saving Batman from capture by the villain. The Joker takes the bound Bat-hero to his private lair, and it leads to an exchange in which the Joker states outright his personal involvement in their running battles.

For a moment, he seems to revert to his original status, as a macabre criminal who simply wants Batman dead and gone:



And then, in an inspired Finger-outburst, the Joker rationalizes his desire to keep the hero alive for the sake of the game they play:




And so the Joker carries out his super-villainous project in one of the better death-traps of the period: a variation on the "lady or the tiger" scheme-- and even this fits loosely with the story's overall pattern, in which the villain comes up with new, more macabre takes on familiar situations. Batman wins out, of course, and Finger even provides an ironic touch near the close. The Joker gets hold of the treasure-- a set of priceless pearls-- and then flings them away, believing that they're worthless because they've lost their luster. Not only does the hero arrive to beat the villain into submission, he also provides a know-it-all lecture, informing the Joker that the pearls are still valuable and that their luster has only temporarily faded due to not being in contact with human flesh for a time.

Incidentally, this is one of the last Golden Age stories in which DC Comics allowed the Joker to kill victims. In the same year, he was executed for his crimes in "The Joker Walks the Last Mile" (DETECTIVE #64). However, the Joker has his henchmen utilize a special potion to jolt him back to life-- and then the judge rules that the super-crook can't be tried for any previous crimes, due to double jeopardy. From then on, DC was generally careful not to have him commit any new murders for which he could again be executed-- and so things remained until 1973, when Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams conceived of the idea that since the evildoer was criminally insane, he couldn't be executed-- not even for a never-ending series of murders that would soon make Hannibal Lecter seem like a piker by comparison.

Monday, October 26, 2015

MY OWN PRIVATE COMPOSITE BIZARRO

Many many years ago I read a book by the Orientalist Lafcadio Hearn. It seems like it might have been GLIMPSES OF UNFAMILIAR JAPAN, but the only part I'm referencing is the ending. As I recall, Hearn narrates a final scene when he's attending a dinner party. He glances down at the bowl of soup before him, and sees his own face reflected. In a moment of clarity, he realizes that everything he's ever written is also a reflection of his inner self, which, if it could take on material form, would look something like the image of his own face.

Whether I'm remembering this narrative trope correctly or not, every writer, whether of fiction, non-fiction, or both, does the same thing Hearn was doing. No matter how adeptly one seeks to represent the reality in which one lives, one always comes back to depicting that reality through the prejudices and sentiments of his own inner self.

Now, last month I provided this working definition of the term "superhero":

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.

I glossed this by asserting unequivocably that this was my attempt to boil down my theories of sublimity-- of "the dynamic-sublime," which is heavily influenced by Kant, and of the "combinatory-sublime," which derives variously from Burke and Tolkien-- into a simplified formula that focuses on the "sense of wonder." It should go without saying that even though I consider these sublimities to be as universal as any affects can be, they don't necessarily have across-the-board appeal for every sentient human being ever. Nor could I say that the way I perceive the two sublimities is in every respect identical with the way others perceive them. I can only say that the writings of Kant, Burke and Tolkien persuade me that they experienced something akin to what I Gene Phillips experience in the department of the sublime.

Therefore, if I want to emulate Hearn's epiphany, then I would have to say that my definition of superhero, in which I find it a confluence of two distinct but complementary affects, necessarily reflects that my inner self has a particular liking for both the affect associated with dynamicity-- with special though not exclusive reference to the dynamicity of combat-- and with the affect associated with the free symbolic interplay of everything in existence.

As I said, these are only "universal" in the sense that a lot of people register the appeal of these affects-- though not always in combination with one another. Some readers only like to view scenes of dynamicity when they take place in naturalistic worlds which those readers can find credible: for instance, prior to the success of STAR WARS, many film-goers scorned any form of fantasy-fiction-- whether it was violent or not-- as "that Buck Rogers stuff," while fully investing themselves in violently-heroic films about cowboys or detectives.  At the same time, some enthusiasts of particular types of fantasy-fiction scorned violent entertainment of all types, and only liked fantasy-fiction when it was full of "deep thoughts," so to speak.

So if my inner self is "guy who likes both fights and fantasy of all kinds," then who would be my Bizarro-opposite?



I've complained a lot on this blog about ideological critics on the web, but most of them are not iconic enough (or interesting enough) to use for drawing comparisons.

At length I decided that my perfect Bizarro would have to be a composite of two iconic figures, a la DC Comics' The Composite Superman:




On one side, my Composite Bizarro would look like Frederic Wertham:



HOODED UTILITARIAN is currently a go-to for all manner of kooky types who share a righteous revulsion toward violence, glossed by an omnipresent fear that somehow, somewhere, even fictional violence can be used against well-meaning Lefties. A little while back I critiqued J. Lamb, here and here, for blatantly misrepresenting the theme and plot of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. I almost thought, "Wow, that's such an egregious misreading that it's worthy of Frederic Wertham himself." But though Lamb is every bit as incoherent as Wertham, he lacks Wertham's studied vitroil against even the most minor acts of violence-- slapstick, vanilla fistfights-- and so Wertham represents the ideal icon of one who takes pleasure in rejecting the affect of dynamic sublimity.


Wertham occasionally tossed in a few brickbats against the fantasy-elements of comic books, too: he didn't like an issue of SUPERBOY that misrepresented history by showing the young hero helping out George Washington at Valley Forge.  But the arch-foe of all forms of fantasy really has to be Wertham's fellow traveler Sigmund Freud.





Many other intellectuals had preceded Freud in attempting to reduce human fantasy-constructs down into simple formulas of negative compensation: not least Voltaire and Marx. But Freud more than anyone succeeded in tapping into the righteousness of "reality thinking," and he did so by tying his version of "reality thinking" to the ontogeny of the individual human being, forever ensnarled in the web of the "family romance." Fantasy could never be anything but an escape from the prison of reality, made up of one's erotic fixations-- or lack of same-- upon one's parental units.

In COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS PT. 4 I mused that some readers only enjoyed the manifestations of the "combinatory mode" and the "dynamicity mode" when they were, in essence, recapitulated in "non-sublime forms:" as, essentially, lions whose fangs had been drawn. The Freuds and Werthams of this world are also somewhat devoted to "non-sublime" versions of the affects that enthrall the vast majority of readers, but they are "non-sublime" for a different reason: for the purpose of illustrating some ratiocentric theory of reality, rather than as a way of engaging with a less overwhelming version of fictive "reality."




HEY, HEY, DON'T SAY WE'RE GAY

On COMICS MAKE NO SENSE I'm engaged in a civil argument (what a change!) about the extent to which Silver Age comic-book publishers tried to shield themselves from being accused of featuring gay characters. I'd guess that by 1960 no one was especially afraid of Frederic Wertham making a comeback, as it seemed that the Comics Code had largely served the purpose of mollifying the public concern over comic book sex-'n'-violence.

For my own future use if nothing else, here are my comments on the matter:


I'm not saying DC might not promote more romance in a given hero's life if he was accused of being gay or homoerotic. There's a fair chance that's why Batwoman started showing up in the post-Code Batman stories. But since Wertham didn't impute homoeroticism to Superman-- just plain old fascism-- I tend to think DC was just indulging in giving their hero a more active romantic life, as long as they could be sure that the female involved would die, lose her memory, etc.

And:
I wouldn't put it beyond the realm of possibility that the Wertham publicity might have made DC hyper-aware of their image for a while, though I'm not sure that they would have remained vigilant about everything for so long. OTOH, DC Comics effectively wrote Catwoman out of existence for about the first 12 years of the Code, so certainly some things twisted their knickers.
A caveat, though, is that sometimes superhero comic publishers also used girl characters both to titillate some of the boys-- the ones who didn't find girls entirely icky-- and to appeal to a potential female readership. So while I don't dismiss entirely the "hey, hey, don't say we're gay" stratagem, it's just one thread in the overall design, methinks. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "THE SURREALIST IMP" (CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #84, 1948)

Though I've labeled some features as "null-myths" because of their failure to emulate the better aspects of the Fawcett Captain Marvel, I should note that the Big Red Cheese had his share of blah stories.



While the titular character in the story "The Surrealist Imp" sounds a bit like an attempt to give Captain Marvel a pesky imp-foe along the lines of Mr. Mxyzptlk. the Imp never makes another appearance. He seems to have been created by writer Bill Woolfolk and artist C.C. Beck just to kick at the Surrealist Movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The story starts off by depicting a world where artistic works gestate before being "delivered" to their earthly creators, roughly along the same lines as storks taking charge of unborn babies before depositing them within earthly wombs.



As the Imp's dialogue makes clear, he's not going to be content for long simply delivering artistic conceptions to their mortal makers. He decides that it's tedious for artists to simply paint what they see, so he decides to make the "real world" reflect the non-representational world seen in surrealistic artworks.




I'm honestly not faulting this story for its failure to provide an even-handed treatment of non-representational art. It's almost axiomatic that a comic book story of this period would not be able to handle such arcane aesthetic questons. But I do rate it as an inconsummate story because Woolfolk and Beck don't follow through on the logic of their own fantasy.

I suspect that the story mainly reflects Beck's preferences for utilitarian art; preferences the artist used to express in vitriolic essays of the 1970s, some of which saw print in the COMICS JOURNAL of that era. After the Imp runs riot in the real world for a few pages, Captain Marvel settles his hash with a quick bop on the noggin.




I would probably have preferred it if Woolfolk and Beck had simply forced the Imp to undo his magical distortions, rather than suggesting that his aberrant attitude could be "fixed" with a concussion. Moreover, while I don't expect two comics-makers in 1948 to know beans about aesthetic theory, they're the ones who claim that all of the artworks from the "ultra-dimensional world" are "masterworks"-- and then turn around and try to imply that there's something deficient in the surrealist viewpoint, with its "horrible garishness."

The full story can be read at this address.



MYTHCOMICS: "THE GHOST WHO LOVED A GIRL!" (ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN #156, 1964)

Though I've often asserted that I think that the comic-book medium has lost out on the juvenile market for a host of reasons-- the economics of the business, the influence of the fan-subculture-- I can sympathize somewhat with those fans who associate comic books exclusively with children's entertainment. Even allowing for these fans' tendency to remember only to the outstanding kids' comics and to gloss over the many mediocre efforts, one can't help but be a little nostaglic for the days when childish whimsy was a viable commodity.

I've never made a detailed study of the Golden Age era of American Comics Group. During that era the company is best known for producing the first ongoing horror-tale comic book, ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN, but though I believe I've read one or two reprints from this period, I don't get the impression that this was a "golden age" for the company in particular. Editor Richard Hughes is known for having both edited and scripted a wide range of material in many genres, but he probably attained his greatest following in comic-book fandom for his Silver Age titles: his two superhero books NEMESIS and MAGICMAN, and the supernatural-comedy series HERBIE, which also became a sort-of-superhero feature at one point. In my review of MAGICMAN I commented that the feature NEMESIS had a little more "heft" than MAGICMAN, even though in both titles the superheroes maintained the wacky, whimsical tone of HERBIE and the various one-off stories.

There was a good economic reason for this: ACQ had managed to survive the institution of the Comics Code by eschewing the visceral horror that had earned the medium such opprobrium. In place of chills and thrills, ACG pursued supernatural comedy as its dominant aesthetic. As Hughes was never interviewed in his lifetime, there's no way of knowing whether or not Hughes took any personal satisfaction in this alteration, though naturally he defended his company's approach in the Silver Age lettercols. But I will note that an awful lot of his stories, both in one-off stories and within regular features, dwell upon the separation of persons in love in life and their consoling reconciliation in the afterlife.




NEMESIS was essentially DC's Golden Age Spectre (note the slight resemblance of the cowled costume) filtered through the whimsy of Fawcett's Captain Marvel. Like the Spectre, Nemesis was the ghost of a murdered crime-fighting mortal who was allowed to return to Earth and fight all forms of evil. He had a wealth of supernatural powers but despite being a ghost was more vulnerable to injury than either the Spectre or Captain Marvel: he could be knocked out by gas or have his power reduced if he saw his own reflection. Nemesis had two routine crime-fighting adventures before Hughes decided to emulate one other aspect of the Spectre's Golden Age adventures: the hero's attempts to maintain a relationship with a living, mortal woman.

I did a quick re-read of the other Nemesis adventures and found that none of them, except for "The Ghost That Loved a Girl," were anything but pleasant but superficial exercises in whimsy. Thus I'm not claiming that the series as a whole is any neglected treasure-trove; only the story in #156 displays an interesting take on a metaphysical myth-motif.

The first two Nemesis stories involve Nemesis battling the Mafia gangster who was responsible for the death of the hero's mortal incarnation, detective Steve Flint. Just as Nemesis received power from heaven, the Mafioso received power from his master Satan (surely one of the Devil's few literal appearances in commercial comics of the early 1960s). In #156 Nemesis finally puts paid to his murderer by descending into Hell and consigning the thug's "ectoplasm" to destruction in ghost-destroying hellfire. Satan, irritated at the loss of a promising henchman, grapples with Nemesis. The hero, despite his godlike powers, finds that he's no match for the Lord of Evil, the only being in the universe who possesses "devil essence." Nemesis barely manages to escape back to the living world. However, he's fearful that Satan will come looking for him, so he starts researching ways to "beat the Devil."

Hughes promptly makes up a tradition of "devil kryptonite." Nemesis learns that Satan once fell in love in bygone centuries, and that though the mortal woman spurned him, the Devil lost much of his power. Hughes' primary consideration here was surely finding a way to cause the ghost-hero to encounter a contemporary lady-love,but it's nevertheless interesting that Hughes doesn't provide any metaphysical rationale as to why the Devil should lose power as a result of feeling love. In the absence of any such rationale, it seems likely that Hughes accidentally evoked a common trope of folklore: that men "lose power" in the presence of women, whether they actually make love to them or not.

By sheer dumb luck Nemesis stumbles across Lita Craig, the modern-day descendant of the woman Satan loved, so the hero assumes the appearance of his former living identity Steve Flint in order to meet Lita. He promptly saves the young woman from some marauding thugs, who shoot at him without having any effect. Despite this incident, Lita doesn't immediately tip to the fact that Steve's a ghost until she researches his name and finds out that he's dead. By that time, they're both hopelessly in love, but Lita agrees to let Steve/Nemesis take her to Hell so that he can use her in his anti-Satan campaign. Down to Hell the lovers go, and sure enough, Satan goes soft as soon as he sees Lita. Nemesis then beats up the source of all evil and forces him to behave himself from then on, or at least not to go beyond his usual devilish pursuits.  For the remainder of the series, Nemesis and Lita continue to date one another, defying heaven's rules about non-fraternization between the living and the dead.

I've detailed my numerous disagreements with Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex on this blog, but I would say that this tale is one of the few that conforms to the complex in a naive manner-- that is, without any suggestion that Hughes himself drew Freudian parallels. Satan isn't just the master of Hell evil here; he's also an evil authority-figure whose power utterly dwarfs that of the young hero. I find it interesting that while Nemesis can't defeat the Devil one-on-one, he can do so when he enlists a female presence against the "older man"-- a female whose earlier incarnation Satan could not seduce, and whose mere presence saps him of his infernal mojo.

On a side-note: I will note that Hughes' minimal "superhero line" at ACG-- launched in early 1964-- seems not to have been influenced by news of ABC's BATMAN teleseries. News of this impending series did spark a fair number of comic-book companies-- Harvey, Dell, etc-- to launch superhero-lines in order to coat-tail on the TV-show. Some sources assert that some TV producers were trying to make a deal for the rights to Batman as early as 1963, and perhaps Hughes, who had a business-relationship with DC Comics, knew about these dealings. But since no show had been announced in early 1964, it seems more likely that Hughes, even though he didn't show any affinity for the superhero genre, was seeking to emulate the genre's popularity on newstands.





Friday, October 16, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "THE PLAGUE THAT STRUCK THE JUSTICE LEAGUE" (JUSTICE LEAGUE #44, 1966)



By some chance I seem to have fallen into a pattern of dealing with comic-book "contagions" of one kind or another, since my last three analyses have dealt with one kind of sickness or another, in stories respectively from LOVE AND ROCKETS, BINKY BROWN, and AQUAMAN. In the comic under consideration now, four members of the Justice League-- the Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, and the Atom (not shown on this cover) contract an alien disease that makes them grow to giant-size and threatens them with, as Batman says, an eventual "king-size death."

Before getting into the question of why this is an inconsummate tale, I have to note that one panel in the story has received more attention in the past ten years than perhaps any other JLA story of the period.



Yes, ha ha yuk yuk. I'll concede that this unintentional parallelism-- in which three of the heroes worry about their wives or girlfriends while Batman worries about Robin-- is a little bit funny. At least it's not placing a straight-jacket of "queer theory" upon Batman stories as a whole, as was the case with an essay I critiqued here.

Anyway, I must admit that there's a good reason that even fans of Silver Age DC comics don't reference this story much: it shows a paucity of the imagination that writer Gardner Fox tended to bring to the Justice League. Of course Fox wrote comic books pretty regularly from the late 1930s into the early 1970s, and so he, like anyone else, produced a lot of merely functional stories. Fox was probably at his best in devising weird threats whose nature his heroes-- whether Earth-bound like Batman or transmundane like Adam Strange-- had to figure out in order to beat said threat. He wasn't IMO nearly as good with DC's company-wide schtick of "heroes undergo weird transformations." JLA editor Julius Schwartz showed a penchant for this trope in most of the titles he edited, and I'd like to think that maybe this goofy idea-- four DC heroes become afflicted with gigantism-- might have been Schwartz's idea. The cover-image, showing three of the four bursting through their costumes, was surely meant to be arresting to readers. Instead, it merely looks stupid, and I seem to remember thinking much the same as a juvenile reader of the comic.

"Plague" is a follow-up to JUSTICE LEAGUE #42. This was no great prize of a story either, but it did have a certain wonky charm. Just as the Justice League approaches Metamorpho with the offer of membership-- which the newbie hero rejects out of hand-- an alien who calls himself "the Unimaginable" jumps up and demands that the Justice Leaguers unanimously vote him into membership. The alien has no specific reason for wanting to join the League; Fox is merely indulging in a vague parallelism-- hero unexpectedly doesn't want to join the hero-group, villain unexpectedly does want to join and jealously attacks both Metamorpho and the League. At the end of the adventure all of the heroes defeat the Unimaginable-- whose outer form is never seen, like one of Lovecraft's more arcane monster-gods-- by entering the alien's bloodstream and irritating him until he flees.

"Plague" is the follow-up to that tale, and the only other Silver Age appearance of the Unimaginable-- who perhaps should've been named "the Unmemorable," given how rarely later raconteurs chose to revive him. Having been within the alien's bloodstream has infected four of the heroes from the previous story with gigantism. While searching for clues about their condition, the heroes stumble across a red-skinned alien with the very Earth-y sounding name of "Doctor Bendorion." (This inspires Green Lantern-- whom Fox must have decided to make a repository of all bad puns-- to refer to the red guy as "Bendorion Casey.")

The heroes take Bendorion to Earth because he claims he can synthesize a cure for their fatal condition, as well as the infection that the heroes have passed on to their loved ones. But while the alien physician labors, weird phenomena-- thieves with strange super-powers, a rogue aurora borealis-- break forth, forcing all available heroes to battle them. After these Herculean labors are done, the Leaguers return to their redoubt-- and learn that Bendorion's body has been inhabited by the Unimaginable since they met him. The alien still wants to be a member of the League that almost destroyed him, and not only will he withhold a cure if the heroes don't obey, he'll also destroy all of Earth. However, the heroes have seen through his disguise, and defeat the villain-- having learned also that they don't even need a cure; all they had to do was to rest-- and then they can revert back to normality, and normal-sized costumes. Presumably Robin and the womenfolk are apprised of the rest-cure as well.

In my critique of a 1950s WONDER WOMAN tale here, I said:

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.
Without question Gardner Fox' was far more accomplished in bringing forth the sense of wonder than was Robert Kanigher. But "Plague" is not one of Fox's best stories: here he's just moving the symbolic furniture around, without any sense of artful design.

Happily, Fox wrote better JLA stories, some of which will in future make the mythcomics list.

MORE NULL-MYTHS NOODLINGS

Enlarging on what I last wrote on the subject here:

It occurred to me that I should expound a little on the fact that when I originally started using the term "null-myth" here, I was primarily applying it to story-elements whose mythic content was negligible in their execution (albeit not potential):

No narrative element is literally empty, of course, any more than "zero" exists as more than an abstraction in this our macroverse. But it's certainly possible for a narrative element to be "negligible in some sense," and it is in that sense that henceforth I'll be using the term "null-myth."
Though I did not link this notion to that of "functionality and super-functionality," I think it's implicit that the null-myth applies to any element that is no more than barely functional in the story.  I recall that in one early essay I noted that even an author like Joyce, who sought to invest one day in Dublin with arcane mythic symbolism, had to sometimes use a door as nothing but something through which "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" might enter, if he Joyce didn't happen to have any reason to emphasize the mythicity of that particular door.

The trouble with establishing the term to mean "bare functionality" is that once you've established it, there's nothing much left to say about it. In my last post, I cited an Aquaman story as a "super-functional" mythcomic. I considered citing the following Aquaman comic as a "null-myth."



This is an infamously bad comic book, in which the raconteurs decided to kill off Aquaman's infant son just to give the hero a reason to go full-bore after the villain responsible. But there's no point in stating that its symbolism falls into the level of "bare functionality." Clearly the creators weren't trying to invoke anything from their readers but a very low level of "feeling."

But because of my realization that on occasions a given work may have symbolic potential, and yet does not use it because of some flaw in the execution, I've started utilizing "null-myth" as a label for all examples of "frustrated mythicity." Thus far all of the null-myths I've identified thus far have frustrated their potential due to one of two reasons:

Either they UNDERTHINK the UNDERTHOUGHT-- that is, the authors show some realization of the power of myth-symbols on their own, but said authors use the symbols as if they were static functions, like Joyce's door-- which is the case with my first example of an "inconsummate" myth-comic, Jack Kirby's first CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN story--




Or they OVERTHINK the OVERTHOUGHT, in that they impose some mental straight-jacket around the potentially free-flowing images and symbols. This might include phenomena as intellectually disparate as the over-intellectualizations of figures like Sim and Ditko, as well as instances where some editorial consideration overrides the free flow. Thus, though the first null-myth in the current series-- "The Wedding of Jimmy Olsen"-- is not in any way "intellectual," the transgressive potential of the set-up is nullified, since someone behind the scenes apparently decided that Jimmy Olsen could not evince lust for Superman's girlfriend Lois. Thus the creators self-consciously "edited" the Jimmy character so that in the finished story Jimmy acts more like a child than a nearly adult man.

Both conditions are undesirable, but at the same time inevitable, the equivalent of the "Apple of Knowledge" whose taste propels us out of Eden, and yet for all that makes the memory of Paradise all the sweeter.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "WHEN THE SEA DIES" (AQUAMAN #37, 1968)



At the end of RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT I mentioned that some of the comics I enjoyed for their "lateral meaning," such as the Drake-Premiani DOOM PATROL, were not noteworthy for a lot of abstract meanings.  The Silver Age AQUAMAN was much in the same vein. Though the character lasted throughout the early Golden Age, not until the early 1960s did DC Comics try to build him up in his own comic book. The stories of this period range from the ephemeral to the mildly enjoyable. Though the 1968 animated cartoon gave the Sea King a media-boost like nothing he'd ever seen before, the stories of the late 1960s comic book by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy became slightly more ambitious than the cartoon. During the decade the hero had slowly accrued a substantial supporting cast-- sidekick Aqualad, girlfriend-cum-wife Mera, son Aquababy-- which helped maintain the series' light-hearted tone. Yet Haney and Cardy added a note of seriousness by giving Aquaman a new recurring villain, the Ocean Master, who was in truth (though he didn't know it) the Sea King's half-brother. This gave the hero various melodramatic whim-whams whenever he was forced to battle Ocean Master's perfidious plans for world conquest.

"When the Sea Dies" is one of the few stories in the period to get the most out of Nick Cardy's superlative draftsmanship. The story opens with Aquaman and his extended family running into Ocean Master once more, but he's not the main villain this time. The primary foe, the Scavenger, announces himself by infecting Aquaman's oceans with a weird "rotting" disease, so that the water is replaced by discolored pockets of air. Scavenger's purpose: he wants Aquaman to find an alien artifact, the Time Decelerator. Aquaman doesn't know where it is, so he tries to fight Scavenger and his "scorpion-ship."  However, the ship is strong enough to withstand a whale's headbutt, and for that matter it becomes difficult for Aquaman and his coterie to fight in a seascape with no sea in it.



As I've said before, cosmological myths are not governed by actual science. The Haney-Cardy concept is nonsense by the actual definition of rotting, which deals with the decomposition of organic matter. Water, not being organic matter, cannot "rot"-- to say nothing of the fact that Haney never explains why the "hollowed-out" parts of the sea simply don't get filled by the rest of the ocean rushing into the empty spaces.  Yet visually, it's an inspired notion. The Aqua-family's life beneath the sea isn't really governed by the laws of marine biology anyway. Within the space of the story, the ocean functions not so much as a real-world body of water as like the cytoplasm within a cell. Neither Haney nor Cardy make this explicit comparison-- it's entirely my own interpolation. I simply find it interesting to imagine Aquaman, Mera and the rest as being self-aware occupants of a decomposing cell, aghast to find the very substrate in which they exist falling apart.

And why does Scavenger want the Time Decelerator? Why, to become immortal, so that he won't age and his body won't break down-- the same doom that he assigns to Aquaman's seas. Aquaman and Ocean Master are forced to team up against the common enemy, and as it happens Ocean Master is the one who actually locates the immortality-bestowing device. Aquaman has to slug Ocean Master to keep him from blowing up Scavenger's ship (because Mera and her kid are held hostage inside), and he battles Scavenger once the villain has charged himself up with immortality-juice. However, as an ironic touch that hadn't been done to death in 1968, Scavenger's immortality ends up devolving him to the level of protoplasm. He vanishes and the seas go back to normal, thus concluding the aqua-hero's one Silver Age adventure into apocalyptic destruction.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

NIETZSCHE VS. THE NEOPURITAN NANNIES

The first thing I thought after reading the section "On Science" in Nietzsche's THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA, as mentioned here, was that it described not only the attitude of science toward human motivation, but that of ideological critics as well. Such critics, like the "conscientious man" of ZARATHUSTRA, represent humankind as being in a perpetual state of insecurity. Rather than seeing the struggle of "temporary master" and "temporary slave" as inherent to the nature of man, the ideologue constantly rails against the struggle, as if it should never have existed in a just world.

Such extreme rectitude might be admirable, except that the ideologue is willing to lie for his alleged cause. Nietzsche wrote that "no one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant," and in my June essay ULTRALIBERAL LYNCH LAW I took exception with Noah Berlatsky choosing to scold Joss Whedon for the high crime of showing a fictional black man shot with tranquilizer darts, as if this was a tacit endorsement of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

I had planned to explore this fear-based attitude in general terms. But by a wild coincidence, I stumbled across a recent HU post, in which NB and his followers were complaining about superhero movies in their usual manner. Bored, I happened to follow a link therein-- and lo and behold, it led me to another HU post in which another Berlatsky was willing to tell an all too familiar lie:

It is worth recalling, in this regard, that the superhero idea is a variation on the notion of the ├╝bermensch, popularized by Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 

This was followed by a lot of typical twaddle about the eugenics movement and the Ku Klux Klan, all of which were fatuously linked to superheroes, but I didn't bother to read that part. I've read so much of this drivel that I could probably write my own version that would round up all the usual suspects-- patriarchy, whiteness, both vigilante law and duly constituted authority. But I decided to see whether or not Berlatsky II could in any way justify his calumny against Nietzsche:

Can you list even one characteristic that Nietzsche’s ubermensch– as he represents it in the book, not in popular distortions of the philosopher’s idea– holds in common with the superhero, aside from loose similarities in terminology? 


Of course he didn't bother to do so, so I responded once more:

The really funny thing is, you don’t even need to defame Nietzsche– whose opposition to tyranny and anti-Semitism is right there, in his books– to report accurately that a lot of people, including the philosopher’s sister, took over his work and used it as a justification of tyranny and anti-Semitism.
But then elitists, as much as regular comics-fans, like their “origin stories.” You must have someone to castigate as the origin of all the troubles. By so doing, of course, you subscribe to the same logic as your perceived enemies, but hey, it’s never stopped you guys before…

I've said before that I know this sort of Internet wrangling is tedious to most if not all readers. Still, the synchronicity amuses me, that I'd just finished re-reading ZARATHUSTRA and then happened across an essay written months ago, in which the author spun forth a lie that was old when Frederic Wertham popularized it. 

I should add that when I read ZARATHUSTRA again, I naturally studied the ways in which the book defines not just the *ubermensch,* but all topics that might relate in any way to the superhero concept that has so often been conflated with Nietzsche. Had I found any one-to-one correspondences, readers can be sure that I would have been ecstatic to find Nietzsche to be one of the ancestors of the 20th-century version of "the superman"-- though I'm sure I would never have been foolish enough to believe Nietzsche to be the primary originator of the trope.

In the end, though, Zarathustra does not define his "overman" in terms of a fictional hero's willingness to fight evil or protect the vulnerable, although he does evoke those tropes in a very minor way. The definition of the overman is "self-overcoming:" though he is born into a society in which most of the people subsume their wills to the greater good-- sometimes called "the Spirit of Gravity"-- the overman is one who can smash the society's "table of values," which is the only way anything new can be created from the old and outworn. Nietzsche does not speak of using actual violence to overthrow society-- which is more than either the Left or the Right can claim-- though he does speak of war in praiseworthy terms:

Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars—and the short peace more than the long.
You I advise not to work, but to fight. You I advise not to peace, but to victory. Let your work be a fight, let your peace be a victory!
One can only be silent and sit peacefully when one hath arrow and bow; otherwise one prateth and quarrelleth. Let your peace be a victory!
Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause.
War and courage have done more great things than charity. Not your sympathy, but your bravery hath hitherto saved the victims.


At the same time, Nietzsche makes clear that the virtue of heroes is not an end in itself. and is likely to end catastrophically for the virtuous man:

I love him who loveth his virtue: for virtue is the will to down-going, and an arrow of longing.
Not only is this not the language one uses to extol a Superman, it's not even appropriate to describe Superman's real ancestors; characters like Samson, Heracles, and King Arthur. Nietzsche is interested in war and violence only as forces within humankind that must be overcome by the overman-- not indulged in, like the Nazis to whom Frederic Wertham compared the philosopher. The overman was Nietzsche's solution to the vagaries of rule by the mob or by the tyrant:

Therefore, O my brethren, a NEW NOBILITY is needed, which shall be the adversary of all populace and potentate rule, and shall inscribe anew the word "noble" on new tables.

The only thing that moves the "Neopuritan nannies," as I'm now calling them, to dislike Nietzsche is that he doesn't join with them in defining the world in terms of "the good and the just," while the nannies can define things in no other way-- when they can be bothered to define them at all.


_________________

ADDENDUM: Just in case this newest volley goes, uh, missing-- I just posted this on the thread referenced earlier:

Who said Nietzsche was pure of heart and could do no wrong? Not me. But I believe that what he actually wrote is more important than what latter-day ideologues have chosen to make of it.
"Ranting" in your world= asking an essayist to back up his statement. Good to know.
Nietzsche didn't defend the common herd and I never said he did. I'm the one defending "the common herd of superhero fans" from the allegation of elitists who won't let anyone, not even Joss Whedon, into their social justice sewing-circle unless he demonstrates lockstep conformity with their set of values.
Now that kind of elitism, Nietzsche scorned even more than he did the common herd.


SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST:

"I mention Nietzsche exactly once above, so it’s worth saying that this piece was not meant as a critique of Nietzsche or a deep investigation of his philosophy. The specific reference above is about how the ubermensch concept is linked to Eugenics."
Originally I asked for one thing: a justification of this statement:
"It is worth recalling, in this regard, that the superhero idea is a variation on the notion of the ├╝bermensch, popularized by Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra.” 
This was indeed a brief mention of Nietzsche. But I couldn't address the main body of the essay, all the rhetoric about white patriarchy etc., or I'd be here the rest of the year, and neither of us wants that. HOODED UTILITARIAN is like a bag of spicy potato chips that I know in advance will disagree with me, so I've resolved to try to minimize any comment to matters of fact-- as in, is there any strong factual linkage between "the superhero idea" and "the notion of the ubermensch" as it was "popularized" by Nietzsche? 
I also stated my belief, in the original CT and elsewhere, that Nietzsche's notion had been bastardized. I didn't think I'd convince anyone of this, but I wanted to see whether or not anyone would acknowledge at least the bare statement of fact that not everyone agrees that Nietzsche's ubermensch is coterminous with the beliefs of eugenics movements, the Nazis and whoever else. You've kinda-sorta done that, so I consider that a miniscule victory, and so won't bother further interrogating the still dubious connection between eugenics and pop-fictional superheroes.
Thanks (equally sarcastically) for listing Gershon Legman as an authority whom you credence. 



COURAGE OVER FEAR

Suddenly, might is not an overwhelming force that exists outside the human subject, imposing fear as the lord does to the bondsman.  Might is something that can be summoned from within oneself, and is thus available to all human subjects who manifest the necessary will.  In addition, might is plural in nature: it has many faces, and in folktales and fairytales this many-sidedness often appears when a beleaguered viewpoint character receives supernatural help from some benign donor to "even the odds" against a powerful enemy.Thus, within stories that emphasize "might vs. might"-- which is to say, combative stories-- the plurality of might implies that no lord is ever so mighty that a bondsman cannot assume his power and knock him from his lofty position. -- THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE, PART 2.

Despite my liking for Nietzsche's concept of the *ubermensch*, I can't say that THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA is my favorite book on the subject. The philosopher's alter ego Zarathustra uses the concept to illustrate his ideal of "self-overcoming," a point which was resolutely ignored by later pundits in favor of the calumny that Nietzsche was a worshiper of violence, an anti-Semite, and a proto-Nazi. Though Nietzsche is clear enough on his core philosophy to anyone willing to read closely, it's not always pellucid as to what he's opposing. Zarathustra, speaking largely in a series of quasi-poetic, incantatory aphorisms, rails against all sorts of metaphorical evils that represented the mediocrity of European, calling them things like "the small men," "the Ultimate Man," "the fleas," and "the tarantulas."

Keeping this criticism in mind, in the section "On Science" Nietzsche is extremely clear when he advances a doctrine about "fear" and "courage." Since ZARATHUSTRA was not one of my favorite Nietzsche-reads, I think it's unlikely that this particular section influenced my "ethic of the combative," which as I've noted began from the seeds spread by Hegel and tended by Kojeve and Fukuyama. It's possible that Nietzsche, who's known to have read at least some Hegel (whom he did not overly like), may have absorbed some aspects of Hegel's "master-slave" dialectic. If so, he clarified some of the aspects of the dialectic that I found too obscure in Hegel.

"On Science" (translation here by Thomas Common) carries over from earlier sections in which Zarathustra has been convening with several disciples ("higher men," as Nietzsche calls them). One of the disciples, whom is described as "the conscientious man," advances a doctrine that defines humankind as the product of fear.

"Thou praisest me," replied the conscientious one, "in that thou
separatest me from thyself; very well! But, ye others, what do I see? Ye
still sit there, all of you, with lusting eyes--:

Ye free spirits, whither hath your freedom gone! Ye almost seem to me
to resemble those who have long looked at bad girls dancing naked: your
souls themselves dance!

In you, ye higher men, there must be more of that which the magician
calleth his evil spirit of magic and deceit:--we must indeed be
different.

And verily, we spake and thought long enough together ere Zarathustra
came home to his cave, for me not to be unaware that we ARE different.

We SEEK different things even here aloft, ye and I. For I seek more
SECURITY; on that account have I come to Zarathustra. For he is still
the most steadfast tower and will--

--To-day, when everything tottereth, when all the earth quaketh. Ye,
however, when I see what eyes ye make, it almost seemeth to me that ye
seek MORE INSECURITY,

--More horror, more danger, more earthquake. Ye long (it almost seemeth
so to me--forgive my presumption, ye higher men)--

--Ye long for the worst and dangerousest life, which frighteneth ME
most,--for the life of wild beasts, for forests, caves, steep mountains
and labyrinthine gorges.

And it is not those who lead OUT OF danger that please you best, but
those who lead you away from all paths, the misleaders. But if
such longing in you be ACTUAL, it seemeth to me nevertheless to be
IMPOSSIBLE.

For fear--that is man's original and fundamental feeling; through fear
everything is explained, original sin and original virtue. Through fear
there grew also MY virtue, that is to say: Science.

For fear of wild animals--that hath been longest fostered in
man, inclusive of the animal which he concealeth and feareth in
himself:--Zarathustra calleth it 'the beast inside.'

Such prolonged ancient fear, at last become subtle, spiritual and
intellectual--at present, me thinketh, it is called SCIENCE."--


Zarathustra counters with an argument that defines humanity in completely opposite terms.

Thus spake the conscientious one; but Zarathustra, who had just come
back into his cave and had heard and divined the last discourse, threw a
handful of roses to the conscientious one, and laughed on account of
his "truths." "Why!" he exclaimed, "what did I hear just now? Verily, it
seemeth to me, thou art a fool, or else I myself am one: and quietly and
quickly will I put thy 'truth' upside down.

For FEAR--is an exception with us. Courage, however, and adventure, and
delight in the uncertain, in the unattempted--COURAGE seemeth to me the
entire primitive history of man.

The wildest and most courageous animals hath he envied and robbed of all
their virtues: thus only did he become--man.


I'd love to know what scientists of his period Nietzsche believed to be guilty of defining humankind predominantly in terms of fear. Regardless, I believe that he was fundamentally correct. Adherents of empirical science validate the logic of "cause and effect" above all other principles, with "Occam's Razor" wagging its tail behind. Thus if the simplest explanation seems to be that humankind developed out of a need for security, to reduce fear's sway, then that would also be the correct explanation. It's surely no coincidence that H.P. Lovecraft, whose early flirtations with religion were dispelled by his conviction in the empirical sciences, penned the following:

THE OLDEST and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Nietzsche was no less influenced than Lovecraft by the empirical science of his time. However, to judge from the words Nietzsche places in the mouth of his prophet, the philosopher believed that "courage" was "the entire primitive history of man"-- and that's keeping in mind that he's speaking of the "man" who is not even close to becoming the transcendent "superman:" the superman that, by his own attestation, Zarathustra believes in but has not actually seen. Whereas Lovecraft, who loved horror stories, defined humankind in terms of a negative reaction to "fear of the unknown," Nietzsche founds his vision of humanity in terms of "delight in the uncertain." I'll mention that these opposing viewpoints may also be glossed by Adler's notions of positive and negative compensation, on which I expatiated here.

I'll explore some of the ramifications of Nietzsche's viewpoint in future essays, but this essay is constructed largely as a resource for the viewpoint as such.





Thursday, October 8, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: BINKY BROWN MEETS THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY (1972)

                                       


Cited as one of THE COMICS JOURNAL’s top 100 English-language comics, Justin Green’s “Binky Brown” story—originally published as a stand-alone comic of 44 pages—remains one of the representative works of the “underground comix” movement. I never read the work in its original form, but only in Last Gasp’s 1995 reprint, which also included sundry other related short works and a fulsome foreword by Art Spiegelman. In said foreword, Spiegelman credits Green with launching the subgenre of “confessional autobiographical comix.” This may well be true—I’m far from an expert on the underground movement—but I don’t know how much I’d trust the acumen of someone who credits the Bronte sisters with inventing “Gothic romance” and Tolkien with inventing “sword and sorcery.” 

Over-ambitious compliments aside, Spiegelnan makes clear that he considers Green a genius from whom he Spiegelman took no small inspiration in his own confessional work. He also scorns the many inferior autobio comics that implicitly don’t do credit to the subgenre. I, however, find that Green’s BINKY BROWN is guilty of many of the sins of the underground movement as a whole: both a lack of free-flowing imagination and a lack of ordered intellectual discourse.

The story of Binky Brown—an alter ego for Green himself— follows Binky from grade-school to adulthood with emphasis upon one aspect of his life: the conflict between the Catholic faith in which he is reared and his natural, budding sexuality. There’s a minor reference to Binky’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but on the whole it’s all about Binky’s problems with the strictures of the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary isn’t so much a character in Binky’s dreams and fantasies as a leitmotif. She pops in and out of Binky’s fevered consciousness, sometimes tasking him with his sins, sometimes becoming the subject of his tormented sexual imaginings.

Given that I subscribe to Bataille’s idea that all transgressions are capable of completing-- rather than simply contravening-- the taboos that they violate, I don’t have any moral qualms against Green’s blasphemous fantasies. My qualms are aesthetic, for on the whole I find most of Green;s fantasies superficial and dull. Through grade school and high school, Binky seems a pretty ordinary kid. Once or twice he questions his religious preceptors, the nuns who teach the classes and the priests who take confession, but his questions are routine ones: “What happens to people outside the Church who live moral lives,” and so on. The religious authorities don’t come off well in these encounters, but Binky doesn’t seem like sharpest tack in the drawer either.

I don’t deny that BINKY BROWN is a lot livelier than most autobio comics; certainly I’d rather reread his work than the pretentious “just the facts, ma’am” works of Harvey Pekar. His fantasies about nuns and the Virgin Mary may be par for the course among tormented adolescents, but how many confessional comics show a young boy achieving his first orgasm by accidentally “scalping” a toy rubber pig? Later, Binky starts seeing penises in everything around him, and finally he’s shooting “penis-rays” out of various areas of his body. Finally, as a young man he leaves the Catholic Church, trying a variety of distractions to drive away his early religious influences, including drugs, the novels of Herman Hesse, and “gambolling.” But nothing works until he walks by the status of a Spanish Madonna and manages to avoid his syndromic feelings of guilt by singing “Lady of Spain.”  This fires him up enough to exorcise the Virgin from his soul by buying a dozen cheap replicas of Mary and smashing almost all of them. One of  the statues accidentally survives, but because the icon no longer holds power over Binky, he places it in his window and remarks, “Guess I’ll build up some new associations around you now.”



As with most if not all of the works that I’ve judged to be inconsummate, BINKY BROWN has a lot of potential, but it’s underdeveloped and sometimes incoherent. Prior to his icon-smashing ritual, he castigates Mary for making the birth process a big mystery (“It doesn’t matter—it’s only matter!”)  He also reels forth a knee-jerk Freudian interpretation of Mary’s appeal: “What I did was to transfer a healthy dread of incest onto you—until every step I take is a perverse act.” But there’s not a lot of evidence of incestuous urges in the chronicle of Binky’s life. As a reader I don’t care whether or not the real-life Green experienced such urges, but incest here is the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: if you bring it on stage, you should be ready to use it. Perhaps Green’s reticence on the subject indicates a weakness in the confessional form, in that actual fiction may allow the author more freedom than the inevitable self-editing of the confessional.


There’s also a distinct limitation in Green’c conception of the “well-meaning institution” of the Catholic Church. Binky never tries to sort out what’s good and what’s bad about his religion, or about religion generally: all he knows is that its strictures make him crazy about sex. Still, since nearly every adolescent gets hormone-crazy at some point, it’s difficult to imagine Binky’s life being all that different had he been raised without religion. At least when Robert Crumb wrote his confessional essays, he was unflinching in admitting that his quirks came from his own messed-up psychology. Binky’s religious journey verges on solipsism—which in a sense made it perfect for the underground comix movement. Religion, like government, was The Great Satan to iconoclasts, and readers of underground comix certainly would not have faulted BINKY BROWN for talking more about his own neuroses than about any Big Picture. But this is the sort of purblind oppositional thinking that has kept the majority of so-called "art-comics" from rating alongside the best "thematic realism" art, and relegates the imagination to nothing more than a hormone-addled consciousness.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "DUCK FEET" (LOVE AND ROCKETS #17-18, 1986)



The serial narratives by the duo known as “Los Bros,” Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, have a better claim to the status of “art” than most of the works that get labeled "art-comics." I have to specify, though, that this is the type of art I call “the art of thematic realism,” a.k.a “play for work’s sake.” In this argument I cited Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST as a narrative primarily defined by work, but with many imaginative elements of play that gave it depth and balance. Today I'd say that the elements of play supplied the story with an underthought that served as a counterpoint to Faulkner’s overthought; i.e. his “serious theme.”

Not all of Gilbert Hernandez’s stories about Palomar—a small Mexican town inhabited by a host of bizarre, often tragicomic characters—are equally meritorious. However, the two-part story “Duck Feet”—originally serialized in two issues of the LOVE AND ROCKETS magazine—was widely hailed as an exemplary work, even by critics who had never worked for Hernandez’s publisher Fantagraphics.

For a story whose title references supernatural folklore—the widely distributed idea that magical beings, particularly witches, have animal-feet instead of human appendages—“Duck Feet” begins in a thoroughly mundane manner. Chelo, sheriff of  Palomar, rousts the local whorehouse in search of fugitive Roberto, who has recently killed his irritating grandfather. In three short pages Roberto clubs Chelo and flees to the rooftops of Palomar (a trope that seems borrowed from big-city chases, where it makes much more sense than in a small town). As a result of Chelo’s pursuit, Roberto falls to his death, but an odd detail intrudes: he dies with his head turned completely around.

Thus the story begins with violence perpetrated in defense of the community, and Roberto’s death has future consequences for Chelo and other characters, though it’s not the literal source of the ORESTES-like contagion that soon dominates Palomar. Though many of Hernandez’s regular characters make appearances in the story, the narrative revolves principally around three characters: Sheriff Chelo, local “loose girl” Tonantzin, and Guadalupe, the grade-school daughter of Luba. Luba herself, who's often a main character in the Palomar stories, is conspicuously sidelined in a sitcom-like situation worthy of Lucille Ball (I LOVE LUBA?). This places the narrative’s focus more upon Guadalupe as she tries to deal with situations brought on by irresponsible children and adults alike.

Shortly after the death of Roberto, a dark-clad woman enters Palomar. Some of the local kids believe that she’s a *bruja,* whose inhuman nature can be disclosed if one gets a look at her pedal extremities, her "duck feet." The unnamed woman’s feet are never seen, though when she has her feet washed by Chelo—who formerly held the occupation of a *banadora,*  or professional body-washer—Chelo shows no unusual reaction to what she sees. The “duck feet”  rumor, however, inspires one of the kids to steal a pouch set aside by the alleged bruja. The pouch contains a skull-- apparently that of a human baby, though one of the kids isn't entirely sure about that identification. The first chapter ends as the old woman misses her property and turns her evil eye upon Chelo.

At the beginning of Part Two, Chelo has fallen ill, as have various other citizens of Palomar, as the bruja—whose nature is no longer seriously in doubt—wanders the streets wailing for the skull of “mi hijo.” Thus does Hernandez creatively interbreed the widespread cultural trope of the contagion-bringer with that of the specifically Hispanic folktale of La Llorona, the Wailing Ghost. That said, the contagion is erratic in its effects. Guadalupe gets the sickness, even though she was only a witness when one of her play-mates stole the skull. The illness does not strike Tonantzin, and though she and Chelo have an adversarial relationship—the sheriff frequently chastising the young hottie for wearing revealing garments—Chelo deputizes the leggy beauty, which makes for some nice comic byplay.



I won’t detail all of the humorous and/ or horrific incidents that transpire while the bruja’s spectre haunts Palomar, but as noted before, Roberto’s death has consequences, inspiring his brother Gerlado to seek vengeance on Chelo. Guadalupe’s illness causes her to have weird fantasies about her mother, suggesting that Luba has something of a witchy aspect. Possibly Hernandez had this similarity in mind when he made Luba the inadvertent means by which the bruja gets back her prized skull.

If I should boil down the underthought of “Duck Feet” to an ersatz theme-statement, it might be to say that the community’s effort to remain cohesive by violence ends up bringing it close to total dissolution.  Palomar is spared the abyss, though, because once the bruja gets back her baby's skull, the contagion simply disappears and she takes her leave. The only permanent result of the witch’s visit, oddly, is that happy-go-lucky Tonantzin loses an innocence not connected with her sexuality. Tonantzin becomes politically radicalized by her contact with the cop-hating revolutionary Geraldo—an event which plants the seed for a future plotline of a tragic nature.

If the process of contagion-by-violence is the story’s underthought, what is the overthought? “Duck Feet” is not a political story, but other stories by Hernandez focus explicitly on his characters’ political beliefs. Hernandez plays it for laughs when Tonantzin fantasizes about shooting down invading U.S. soldiers. Yet her later rant against having her destiny controlled by “Libya and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R” captures a strong sense as to how denizens of the Third World feel about the cold-blooded machinations of the Great Powers.


Gilbert Hernandez’s work as a whole may not be strongest in terms of its political commentary. However, I credit him with finding an artistically resonant way of seeing political belief within the spectrum of ordinary—and even extraordinary—life-events—which is a compliment I can’t pay the next target in my line of fire.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT PT. 2

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.

I'm printing this Jung-quote less than a month after my previous use of it, because I think Jung hit on exactly the distinctions between what I'm now calling the "underthought" (the domain of image and metaphor) and "overthought" (the domain of dialectical ideation). The two are distinct in their operations, and yet, as Jung and others have asserted, they tend to be interdependent as well. It's possible to create a somewhat engaging narrative in which one of the four potentialities reaches consummation-- Ditko's "Static" serial, examined here, is my best example of a story which tries to be about nothing but ideas-- but I believe that Ditko's "overthought" in that case would have been much improved had he allowed his imagination to range a little further, as I think it did in the story "Destroyer of Heroes," which still pursued similar dialectical themes of personal responsibility,

Jung implies that overthought and underthought (as I'm calling these abstract operations) are mutually dependent. That's an attractive notion, but I prefer just to say that they TEND to be interdependent, and then only in narrative. Certainly artists can produce phantasmagorical images that are entrancing for their own sake, without any input of conscious ideas, as one derives from surrealists like Yves Tanguy--




-- though many art-critics will generally prefer their images interlaced with idea-content, as in this Picasso.




In narrative, the tendency is that ideas need a free flux of metaphorical images to give the ideational figures the semblance of life. At the same time, without the structuring principle of discursive ideas, a lot of metaphors tend to disperse into meaninglessness; an "inconsummate paegant faded," so to speak.

Of the various myth-comics I've cited so far, some are like fever-dreams that suggest yet do not fully elaborate some dialectical theme, such as Steve Gerber's "Tower of the Satyr."  The ideational content is slightly overwhelmed by the flux of metaphor, but it isn't non-existent, and can be teased out into the light of day with a little myth-critical amplification. In contrast, a few works, like the Ditko BLUE BEETLE tale cited above, seem to have highly intellectualized the flux of images. The Chichester-Johnson JIHAD is as rich in images as the Gerber work, but admittedly some were created by other authors (just as Marvel's Man-Thing was not created by Gerber), and even the ones original to the opus, like villains Alastor and Chalkis, have been subjected to a great deal of rational thought, in order to distinguish them from the other principal players of the Hellraiser-Nightbreed crossover.




The processes I've called "fever-dream" and "intellectualization" correspond to Jung's dual concepts of "directed thinking" and "fantasy thinking," which I discussed in more detail here. Too often, however, literary critics are, as Northrop Frye pointed out, overly attached to those forms of literature that present them with "imaginative allegories" about life, the universe and everything-- and the majority of comics-critics have followed this line of thinking as well.  Thus in the world of elitist criticism, a work with even a mediocre intellectual approach will win approval.

In my choice of myth-comic and null-myth this week, then, I'll pick examples of comics that have been esteemed across the board for their intellectual content. One of them, according to my lights, succeeds in finding a balance between overthought and underthought, while the other puts across only the most mediocre level of intellectual ideation as a result of the author's inability to consummate his potential for image and metaphor.