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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, December 30, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "SECRET ORIGIN OF THE GUARDIANS" (GREEN LANTERN #40, 1965)

In my discussion of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, I observed that the series was greatly indebted to the use of parallel universes in the Silver Age DC titles FLASH and GREEN LANTERN, both written by John Broome and edited by Julie Schwartz. I didn't note that CRISIS also derived much of its continuity-shaping concepts to a single Broome/Schwartz issue of GREEN LANTERN-- illustrated by Gil Kane-- which not only gave, as the title suggests, an origin to the title hero's Guardian mentors, but also touched on the origins of the DC Universe and the provenance of evil in that universe.




Though this sounds like the stuff of comic-book epics, "Secret Origin of the Guardians" is wrapped up in one issue, and for good measure throws in the first meeting of the Golden and Silver Age Lanterns, outside the pages of their initial Justice League encounter. A bare summation of the plot also sounds like par-for-the-course with DC story-lines:

"An evil alien, imprisoned as an energy-form inside a meteor for his crimes, enters Earth's atmosphere and suborns one of Earth's heroes to carry out new crimes. The alien even makes one Earth-hero fight another one until they join forces and overcome the evildoer." True, in "Origin" the two heroes come from different versions of the Earth, but the parallel applies nonetheless. The cover seen above is also extremely familiar, as even by 1965 DC Comics had published innumerable covers in which a featured hero found himself about to be marginalized or replaced by a rival. However, the quality of the mythopoeic is much like the saying about the Devil: "it's in the details."

The first four pages of the story proper deal with Alan Scott, the Green Lantern of Earth-Two, coming into contact with the meteor. The object's radiation temporarily nullifies the weakness of Scott's power-ring-- a vulnerability to wood. Immediately thereafter, rather than testing the meteor's properties, Scott decides to go to Earth-One and see what the Hal Jordan Green Lantern thinks about it, in case the meteor might be able to banish the weakness of Jordan's Guardian-given ring. 

As soon as the two Lanterns meet, Jordan reminds Scott (in a totally nice way) that Scott could have verbally asked his ring to analyze the meteor, since the ring can do almost anything, including communicating info like a miniature computer. The ring then informs the crusaders that within the meteor was the imprisoned villain Krona, who hails from a time from the race of Oa, the race that later involved into the Guardians-- thus allowing author Broome a quick way to communicate said history. 

"Ten billion years" ago, the Oans were a race of blue-skinned super-scientists, who were immortal and did not need food or rest. They lived an untroubled, pre-lapsarian existence, not yet evolved into a coterie of aged blue dwarves (they even have women and childbirth at this point, which would lead to a complicated set of retcons in later GREEN LANTERN stories). But one among them, Krona, aspires to "probe the beginning of all things," despite a legend that claims that the universe will end if the Guardians learn their origins. 




As the excerpt shows, Krona does get a peek at the cosmic beginnings, and sees what one must presume to be the Hand of God Himself, shaping the cosmos. However, this peek isn't enough to wipe out the whole universe; it unleashes "cosmic lightnings" that zap Krona but don't kill him. The non-immortals of the cosmos pay the real price, for "evil was loosed on the universe," which presumably had existed in some sort of Edenic state up to that point. Because the Oans feel guilty over Krona's actions, they imprison in the aforesaid meteor and hurl him into outer space-- after which they decide to organize the Green Lanterns in order to quell the evil in the universe. 

Scott's ring also informs him that the only reason that it gained immunity to wood was because Krona wanted Scott to have a reason to cross into the Earth-One universe, because only in that universe can Krona continue his forbidden researches once more. Once the ring finishes its story, one of Jordan's Guardian-mentors shows up on Earth-One, informing the two heroes that Krona's activities will soon cause an outbreak of disasters, even before he finds out the Big Secret. The Lanterns spend a few pages fighting natural cataclysms, and are then summoned to the base the Guardians have made on Earth-- where the Guardians suddenly justify the cover and announce Alan Scott to be Hal Jordan's replacement.

The solution of the cover-conundrum is weak at best: for some reason Krona decided to steal a march on the heroes before they came after him, by possessing the body of Scott and mentally manipulating the Guardians. This questionable strategy leads to a battle of the Lanterns, which Krona easily wins. Krona then transports the paralyzed Guardians to his hidden lair, boasting that he will make them watch their own "secret origins" on a viewscreen, and then use "a duplicate of Alan Scott's power ring" to flee to Earth-Two with his forbidden knowledge, while the Earth-One universe is annihilated. However, the two Green Lanterns team up and defeat Krona, who is once more consigned to the outer depths of space.

As noted earlier, the base plot is nothing special; what's impressive is the way Broome had merged several myth-motifs into one cohesive story. 

At the time of the story's publication, Broome surely knew that most of his readers would stem from a Judeo-Christian tradition, so that he also knew that he would not rock any boats by suggesting that the Hand of God had shaped the universe. To my knowledge there are no canonical stories in that tradition in which God punishes mortals for looking upon him or his works, though a few stories, particularly that of Noah, loosely suggest such transgressive tropes. In the other myth-tradition best known to American audiences-- the interwoven threads of Greek and Roman mythology-- mortals are also never in a position to look upon the creation of the universe. However, since the Greco-Roman gods are anthropomorphic, mortals are able to invade the gods' privacy in other ways; not least being the tale in which the mortal Actaeon intrudes upon Artemis while the goddess is bathing.

However, the one relevant myth shared by both traditions is the origin of evil, and in both cases, a female did the dirty deed. I've already referenced mankind's fall from Edenic peace, which was laid upon Eve, but the Greek myth of Pandora is morphologically closer to the Green Lantern story, in that evil is actually released as a miasma that infects the cosmos, if not as specific demons. And yet, the first metaphor Broome uses to typify the polluted universe resonates with one of the prime narratives that befalls Adam and Eve; that of "brother killing brother" (page 8). 

No less mythologically intriguing is the name Broome confers upon his villain. Krona is almost certainly derived from the Greek god Cronus, whom the Romans later conflated with their deity Saturn. 

In Greek myth, Cronus can be compared in some particulars with God-the-Creator. Cronus doesn't spawn the cosmos, but he makes the ordered cosmos possible through the slaying of his father Uranus, who refuses to let Cronus and the other Titans come forth from their mother Gaea (at least in one version of the myth). After Uranus is deposed, Cronus and his sister Rhea rule the world of the Titans and maintain a Golden Age for a while-- another pre-lapsarian period, which appears in Broome's story as the "ten billion years ago" era of the Oan people, who apparently start out as immortals and live in a universe free of evil. Broome even furthers the comparison to the Greek Titans by saying on page 7 that "[The Oans] strode [their] planet like giants," though there's no suggestion that any of them are literal colossi.

The end of Cronus' Golden Age comes when he hears a prophecy that one of his offspring will overcome him, at which point he more or less emulates his father-- this time, not confining his offspring to their womb but devouring them as soon as they come out. Thanks to some trickery by Cronus' wife Rhea, Cronus' destined usurper, his son Zeus, survives, kills Cronus, and frees his siblings from Cronus' stomach.

So Cronus' transgression against the orderly cosmos is that he, like his father, tries to cut off the next generation. In one sense, this seems a very "male" thing to do, on a par with alpha-male gorillas who take over a tribe and slay any children born by alphas other than him. Certainly it seems to be opposite to the sins of Eve and Pandora, which both boil down to feminine over-curiosity. And yet, though Broome's Krona has no interest in spawning children, or even ruling anything, he does seek to destroy the entire cosmos in a manner analogous to Cronus' suppression of the newborn gods-- and he does it for the same sin evinced by Eve and Pandora: that of curiosity. Yet in many ways Krona is also in the tradition of the curious male-- not so much bumbling swains like Actaeon, but more along the lines of Victor Frankenstein, whose name has become synonymous with that of a science that trespasses on the precincts of God.

I should note also that Zeus does not slay Cronus right away as Cronus implicitly slays Uranus: once the other gods are freed from Cronus' gullet, Zeus leads them against the Titans. This results in the cataclysmic war of the Titanomachy, from which the gods emerge as the new rulers while the Titans are consigned to Tartarus-- once again, imprisoned within a womblike Earth. The cataclysmic battle between "the favored gods" and "the gods no longer in favor" is arguably translated into an ongoing battle of "good" and "evil" in popular fiction, not least the "Lensmen" novels of E.E. Smith, alleged to have been a strong influence on the Hal Jordan corner of the DC cosmos. It's almost surprising that Broome, who had created Qward, a "universe of evil" in GREEN LANTERN #2, did not reference that universe in "Origins." And yet it's not truly surprising, given that comic-book creators avoided overly complicated scenarios, since they were writing so as to catch the vagrant attention of kid-readers. Later writers would inflate the opposition of the Oans and the Qwardians to the point that the two groups became the structural kindred of E.E. Smith's warring alien races. But to his credit, Broome, unlike many later comics-writers, had some intrinsic understanding of the myths he evoked. A lot of comics-writers have conjured up disasters for their heroes to fight, but few, aside from Broome and maybe Stan Lee, have been able to give them mythic resonance:

"Wracked by invisible waves of evil, spreading from Krona's presence on Earth-One, the planet itself goes berserk, seeking in fury and hatred to destroy the humanity that has spawned on its surface."

And this line of thought takes us back to tales of world-wide cataclysm, whether spawned by God or by Zeus-- but that's probably enough myth for now.















Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A SUPER-SUBCOMBATIVE PSYCHO

I've recently finished reading Thomas Harris' 1981 novel RED DRAGON, destined to be remembered evermore as "the book that birthed Hannibal Lecter"-- even though Lecter's role in the book is in my opinion far more marginal than it is in the first film adaptation, 1986's MANHUNTER



I don't intend to discuss RED DRAGON in detail here: only its ending. So-- obviously big-time SPOILERS for anyone who doesn't miss to have said ending spoiled.

In my review of MANHUNTER, I gave consideration to the possibility that it might be a combative film based on the movie's final showdown between Will Graham and the serial killer Dollarhyde. Ultimatelly, I decided that the "brevity" of their match did not represent a conflict between two megadynamic forces.

But in the conclusion of the RED DRAGON novel, Graham is far less prepossessing than in the film. As in the film, Dollarhyde fakes his death so that he can ambush Graham later, though in the book the killer goes after Graham's family as well. Dollarhyde catches Graham, his wife Molly and his stepson while they're fishing at the beach. Graham manages one quasi-heroic action--kicking a gun out of Dollarhyde's hand-- but when they fight, Graham is wounded in the face by the killer's knife. Not only is he so wounded, the trauma causes him to run off in a panic-- an action for which author Harris does not condemn Will, though an earlier generation surely would have done so. Dollarhyde is shot down like a dog, but the gun is wielded by Molly. In the novel's coda,Graham is seen recovering in the hospital, and it's suggested that he's been permanently scarred by the attack. According to Wikipedia, Graham is never again appears in any of Harris' Hannibal novels, though SILENCE OF THE LAMBS adds one minor detail: by the time Clarice Starling hears of Graham's fate, he's become a drunk who lives in disfigured solitude, and his family is not referenced.

Presumably Michael Mann, writer-director of the 1986 film, vetoed Harris' scenario to allow for the moviegoer to allow for a little more catharsis. I plan to screen the 2002 adaptation of RED DRAGON in the near future to see how close this film comes to the Harris novel-- and whether it and subsequent Harris adaptations possess any combative characterisitics.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "A CHRISTMAS FOR CAROL" (HOWARD THE DUCK #3, 1979)

Since the theme of this week's reviews was "Christmas stories in comics," this presented me with a dilemma. The medium plays host to many simple, sentimental Xmas-stories, but few of them have any symbolic depth. I'm not aware of any pro-Christian comics that have the symbolic depth of, say, C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and the satirical, anti-Christian comics are usually superficial, along the lines of Justin Green's BINKY BROWN.

Most of the aforementioned Xmas-stories are about candy canes rather than crosses, but they don't do much more than rehearse the usual routines. Superman meets Santa. Wonder Woman meets Santa. The (Golden Age) Sandman gets a hoodlum to play Santa and change his ways. The Spirit won't fight crime on Christmas Eve because "the spirit of Christmas" takes care of it for him. (I wonder if that worked for Jewish people, like Will Eisner himself?) Many of these provide simple pleasures, but no complex ones. The "myth-comic" selected this week is an adventure-oriented parody of Christian themes, but for a comic to be a null-myth, it has to demonstrate at least the potential for symbolic complexity, but done badly.




Oddly, Bill Mantlo-- the same writer who wrote the "Son of Satan" story extolled this week-- also wrote the perfect "bad Santa" story-- or at least, perfect for my purposes.

I'll pass quickly over the business conflicts that caused the expulsion of Howard the Duck's creator, Steve Gerber, from the title. Bill Mantlo inherited the feature because of these behind-the-scenes occurrences, but my only concern here is whether or not Mantlo did a good job in presenting the character of Howard and his generally ironic universe. Even putting aside the resentment of readers who might've championed Gerber over Mantlo, it seems evident that Mantlo's version did not win any hearts and minds, for when the HOWARD feature was switched to Marvel's black-and-white line, theoretically to reach a more adult audience, the magazine only lasted a paltry nine issues, after which Howard's publication at Marvel became increasingly checkered.

Though artist Gene Colan continued to draw Howard's adventures in several of the b&w stories, Mantlo's version of the character undercut Colan's art in that his stories were neither funny, nor satirical, not even touchingly sentimental. The cover above is by Jack Davis more or less captures the lameness of Howard-the-magazine. What's all that funny about an angry duck sitting on a store-Santa's lap while presumably reading from his Xmas want-list? It might have been a little funny if Howard had been fawning, or if someone had caught him in such an embarrassing posture.

The story is essentially another "disbelieving-protagonist-meets-the-real-Santa" tale, and the "Carol" of the title is a little girl who's become disillusioned in Christmas because of her family troubles. The duck is pulled into Carol's orbit in a fairly hackneyed manner, after which both of them are almost flattened by a crashing sky-sleigh. Occupying the sleigh are the Big Claus himself and one of his elves, who is, like most elves, a sardonic type to balance Santa's jollity.

Howard reluctantly helps Santa gas up his sleigh, but then both he and the girl must take a ride to the North Pole workshop for reasons I won't bother detailing. Once there, Mantlo decides that the perfect way to celebrate the Christmas spirit is to-- launch a screed against nuclear power? Yes, Santa was a dope who let himself be talked into using nuclear power in his workshop, by a reptilian fellow called "the Pinball Lizard"-- though the Lizard is only the story's subsidiary villain; a henchman of a nuclear madman named "Greedy Killerwatt." 



I won't dwell on the obvious awfulness of these pun-names, except to say that Harvey Kurtzman at his worst would never have deigned to use either one-- particularly since the reference to the "Pinball Wizard" of the 1975 film TOMMY was about four years out of date. Worst than that, though, is that Mantlo's anti-nuclear screed isn't even true to the scientific knowledge of the time. Santa's elf claims that he tried to talk Santa into using clean solar power. Where was this completely problem-free solar power in 1979? Maybe on Marvel-Earth it existed, but even there, I doubt how much efficacy solar power would have had at the freaking North Pole.

As seen in many other null-myths, real symbolic play takes a backseat to speechifyin' and preachifyin'. There's no spirit, Christmas or otherwise, to be found in such pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness.

Monday, December 21, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, MY RED-EYED SON" (SON OF SATAN #8. 1977)

“Son of Satan” may well be the oddest comic-book title to host any sort of Christmas story, much less one with an impressive level of mythicity.



To be sure, the  “Son of Satan” feature was always centered upon the creation of a pop-cultural Satan-mythology, as opposed to delving into purely Christian tropes. A fannish anecdote claimed that once Marvel Comics began to pursue horror-themed features in the early 1970s, Stan Lee noticed all the “Satan” films in the movie-houses and suggested the idea of a series about the Big Bad Devil himself. Though comics had sometimes dealt with Satanic emissaries as main characters—notably, Timely Comics’ original “Black Widow”—a title starring Satan himself probably would have proved an epic fail.  The follow-up idea-- that of a “son of Satan”-- at least allowed for the main character to maintain some reader-sympathy. To be sure, the origin-story for Daimon Hellstrom—the offspring of the Devil and a mortal woman—was badly drawn and badly written. Yet this ignoble beginning didn’t keep “Rosemary’s Superhero Exorcist” from developing a fairly intelligent hero-mythos of his own, particularly through the efforts of writers Steve Gerber and John Warner. Marvel’s editorship didn’t allow the use of many Judeo-Christian concepts beyond the name of the Devil himself, so the writers tended to employ names and images taken from paganism or ceremonial magick. The one major exception is the last issue of the original “Son of Satan” title, ”Dance with the Devil.” This is a Christmas story only in that it takes place on Christmas Eve—“the night Lord Satan sleeps,” as one of the Devil’s minions helpfully informs us.

“Dance,” the letters-page of SOS #8 tells us, was a stand-alone inventory story assembled over a year before its publication, against the possibility that someone would miss a deadline in the ongoing continuity. At a 1990s convention I asked Russ Heath for any memories of the story, but he didn’t seem to remember much; not even the way he had artfully emulated, for his portrait of Marvel’s hell, the paintings of the 16th-century artist Hieoronymus Bosch. Based on that conversation, I speculate that the main plot for “Dance” came from writer Bill Mantlo. Of course, since the two of them would almost certainly have been working “Marvel-style,” Heath was probably responsible for all of the layouts and dramatic pacing.

One advantage of “Dance” is that because it stands independent of any ongoing storylines. There’s an indirect reference to Daimon’s then-current love-interest, probably inserted by an editor. But aside from that reference, the story concerns nothing but Daimon’s relationship with his devilish dad, and with the image, though not the reality, of his mother, who was deceased and “out of the picture” when the series began. Daimon’s “daddy issues” are a major aspect of the ongoing series, but “Dance” is the only 1970s story that deals with the character’s “mommy issues.”

The entire adventure takes place within the dream of sleeping Satan, though apparently his trident-toting son is physically drawn into it, and into a dream-version of Hell itself. At times Daimon himself is swept along from one setting to another, as if he is the dreamer, thus suggesting a similitude between the hero and the father he rejects. However, the first entity Daimon encounters is a robed figure, the one who has summoned him into the dream. Daimon gets pissed and zaps the summoner with “soulfire” from his trident-weapon. The robed individual removes her cowl and shows herself to be his mother, whom Daimon has never seen, in any form, since her passing from the mortal coil. The cowled woman-- who is never called by the name given her in the hero's origin--accuses her son of having sinned by “aspiring to humanity,” and alludes to her own sin—the sin of lust—for having cohabited with the Devil. Daimon promptly faints—a fairly typical response to the association of the ideas “mother” and “lust.”

Waking, Daimon finds himself in the Boschian version of Hell, which horrifies him far more profoundly than any of the cut-rate Dante-scapes that he’s beheld in other Marvel visits to the inferno. An unnamed young beauty appears as his guide, and tries to persuade Daimon that he ought to take over Hell while his father sleeps, and become a more merciful overlord to Hell’s residents. (Whether dreaming-Satan himself is manipulating the female guide is never made clear.) Of the many demons Daimon sees, he’s only introduced to two of them: the witch-queen Morgane Le Fay and her son Mordred. These characters are indubitably the most famous mother-and-son pairing in Arthurian narratives, and thus provide an implicit analogue to Daimon and his own mother. Mordred, of all the condemned in hell, is not in any way malformed, but Morgane is, having been stripped of her beauty by Satan (whom Morgane curiously calls “Lucifer”). Morgane evinces some off the guide-woman’s hostility to Satan as well, and then the guide persuades Daimon to dance with her (hence the title). She kisses him and tries to make him pledge himself to them—but he holds off long enough to see her beauty dissolve into the face of a skull. Daimon flings her away and all of the demons attack him, trying to defeat him with carnage once cajolery has failed (as Stan Lee more or less said elsewhere).

A blow on the head allows for another dream-transition, and Daimon winds up in a vaguely Middle Eastern world. Joining a pilgrimage of robed people, he enters a city, where a guide tells him that “events are enacted in endless repeat.”  Inside the city, Daimon sees a man wearing a crown of thorns, being rousted by Roman-looking soldiers, but this man has Daimon’s own face. While the real Daimon watches, the crowned figure breaks his bonds, becomes a tailed red demon and assails the people with fiery chaos.

Daimon faints again, and wakes in a chamber with a medieval tapestry. Though he never comments on his birth having been a parody of the Immaculate Conception, he’s shaken to have seen “himself” cast in a demonic parody of the Passion. At this moment, he notices the figure of a unicorn in the tapestry—and sees that the unicorn has the face of a woman, with her tongue lolling lustfully out—and that it’s the face of his mother. Then two more figures appear in the chamber: Daimon’s devil-father, and his unnamed mother, lustfully caressing her demon lover. Daimon’s spirit almost succumbs to the notion that if his mother was as purely evil as his father, then he too must be purely evil. But with the eleventh hour he throws off the deceptions of Satan’s dream, and he sets the dreamworld on fire. This action apparently “exorcises” Daimon himself back to the real world, while in the “real Hell,” Satan awakes from his dream. A minion tells Satan that “Christmas Eve is past,” ending what the female guide has called “the madness above.” One might think that Christmas Day, rather than Christmas Eve, would be the last moment before “humanity is returned to its normal posture of petty evils and greed.” But maybe Mantlo just liked the image of Satan’s enforced sleep ending with the coming of the day, which is certainly a common enough trope elsewhere.

I deem this a metaphysical myth in part because it dwells upon such Judeo-Christian concepts as sin and damnation. But it can also be read as a psychological myth with heavy indebtedness to Oedipal wreckage. True, the main conflict throughout the story is still centered on Satan’s attempt, whether conscious or subconscious, to suborn his rebellious son. Still, the Devil’s dream centers not upon male posturing, but upon the idea of female desire, which is made synonymous with the corruptions of the flesh. It doesn’t matter whether Heath or Mantlo had the idea of inverting the traditional association between the unicorn and the Christian virtue of virginity. What matters is that even though the Son of Satan rejects the attempt to recast his “saintly mother” as a slut, the reader is given the chance to meditate on the truth-value of one of the aphorisms from Satan’s dream:

“Purity, Daimon, may exist both in its light—and dark forms.” 

IN THE EIGHTH YEAR OF ARCHE-MASS

Since formulating the idea of domains as a more viable term for all of the varied principles I've been exploring for the last eight years, I thought of compiling a list of these domains for easy reference. I decided to put it in more seasonal terms, though not quite everything I've listed here is a domain.

And so it was, that in the eight year of Arche-Mass, my theory gave to me:


ELEVEN PLAYFUL PARADIGMS

[(1) validation /dynamization, (2-5) work and play, and their dual functions in "adult" and "juvenile" art, (6-7) the resulting principles of thematic realism and thematic escapism, (8-11) the four potentalities, which sort out Jung's four functions in terms of their application to "work and play."]


NINE AWESOME AFFECTS.

[(1) the concept of will, (2-5) the abstract goal-affect of "glory" and the concrete goal-affect of "persistence," and their relation to the types of will described by "acquisition" and "expenditure," and (6-9) the four persona-types.]

EIGHT FUN FUNCTIONS


SEVEN THYMOTIC THRILLERS

[(1) Plato's theory of *thymos,* (2-3) Fukuyama's concept of *megalothymia* and *isothymia,* and (4-7) the four forms in which thymotic validation manifests through either the activities of pure violence, of pure sexuality, or two possible combinations of both activities.]


FIVE CAUSAL CONUNDRUMS.

[(1-2) The two aspects of causality, "coherence" and "intelligibility," and (3-5) the three combinations possible from these causal aspects.]







Saturday, December 19, 2015

COMBAT PLAY PT. 4

As the Nietzsche citation in Part 3 should make clear, the philosopher believed in the principle of mastery, or "overcoming" (German *uberwindung*) as a necessary aspect of the human spirit. At the same time, he believed more profoundly that the possessor of a "master morality" should also practice *selbstuberwindung,* usually translated as "self-overcoming." As I observed here, Nietzsche expressed a marginal preference for the corrupt, real-life Cesare Borgia over the simon-pure fictional character Parsifal, essentially because Parsifal had no real "self" to be overcome. For similar reasons, Nietzsche expressed disgust at those whom he deemed adherents of "slave morality" because he felt that they weren't really any more free from the impulse of aggression than the representatives of "master morality." Rather, adherents of "slave morality" merely projected the illusion of self-mastery. Only those who consciously admitted the allure of mastery, of wielding power over others, had any true capacity for self-overcoming.

In other segments of COMBAT PLAY I've sought to provide somewhat more personal motives for advocating the importance of combat-fantasies, and for arguing that they can represent "positive compensation" when dealing with the travails of ordinary life. I would add-- without bringing in all the Hegelian arguments about the nature of freedom-- that it's psychically necessary for any individual human to feel as if he or she can, as the occasion demands, fight back against oppression of any kind. At the same time, the notion of "fair play" becomes important within the sphere of fiction and fantasy, possibly more important than it can ever be in the real world of political negotiation and compulsion. In my own lit-critic cosmos, the ideal of "fair play" assumes the role of "self-limitation" that is, in Nietzsche's philosophy, occupied by "self-overcoming." Clearly the importance of this concept has led me to author essays like this one, where my main concern is to account for certain pop-culture figures, such as the Golden Age Spectre, who seem to know little if any "self-limitation." In the original series, whose tone was set by scripter Jerry Siegel, there's no question that the Spectre is positioned as a hero-- and yet only occasionally does this hero encounter opponents able to wield forces equal to his own.

In the aforesaid essay DECIDEDLY SEEKING SYMMETRY, I argued that occasional heroes who worked without the limitations of the "fair play" were a "natural, and probably inevitable, counterpoint" to the statistically dominant type of hero who tends to meet his foes on a level playing-field. I say that it's inevitable because it's the nature of affective freedom that individual authors can diverge from any statistically dominant model of a given concept, be it "the hero" or anything else. The model I've established is one in which heroes and villains alike align themselves with *glory* by championing either the positive or the negative forms of the "idealizing will," while monsters and demiheroes align themselves with *persistence* by pursuing the negative or positive forms of the "existential will."  But the existence of this model, while statistically dominant, does not prevent individual creators from diverging from it. For whatever reasons, Jerry Siegel conceptualized the Spectre as having such near-omnipotence that he could "overcome" most of his villains without the limitations of fair play. I wasn't entirely serious in SYMMETRY when I labeled such heroes as "sadists," for a true sadist would not possess the Spectre's empathy toward ordinary humans oppressed by mortal evildoers. That empathy, as well as the determination to better the world through the positive form of the idealizing will, still qualifies the Spectre as a hero. Later versions of the Spectre conformed to the dominant model, giving the Ghostly Guardian more high-energy foes to combat. But had the character never appeared anywhere but in his Golden Age adventures, I might have to view him as a "subcombative superhero," in that only rarely did the original Spectre combat megadynamic entities like himself.




By the same parallel, the nature of affective freedom also makes it possible for individual authors to diverge from the statistically dominant model of "the monster." In contrast to the hero, the monster often appears as the sole megadynamic entity in his universe, and his opponents, usually demiheroes, are not usually able to stand against him. In SYMMETRY I mentioned Freddy Krueger as an exception to this rule, in that the majority of his films end when another megadynamic entity-- usually the so-called "final girl"-- manages to defeat the dastardly dream-creature with her own display of dynamicity.




However, a better-known example would probably the combative relationship between the starring monsters of the original ALIENS film-franchise and their most "persistent" demihero-enemy, Ellen Ripley. Ripley starts out as a typical demihero, and in her first appearance she only manages to stave off the assault of one monstrous extraterrestrial by getting him in the right place for his elimination, rather than beating him one-and-one.



In the second film, however, Ripley resorts to mechanical aid to fight a Queen Alien on its own terms, and even though Ripley loses that battle and must once more trick the creature into defeat, the narrative places far more emphasis on Ripley as a megadynamic figure.





Though the character also does not directly defeat any Aliens in the last two films in the original franchise either, Ripley continues to display a megadynamic formidability, so that she is, unlike most monster-victims, a combative demihero. The fact that the Aliens' most prominent human foe can fight them back doesn't alter their persona as monsters, but their divergence sets them slightly to one side of the dominant model for monsters, just as Original Spectre's divergence sets him slightly to one side of the dominant hero-model.





Friday, December 18, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: THE RETURN OF SUPERMAN (1993)



In the Christian tradition this time celebrates the birth of a redeemer, but in some pagan traditions the birth of the “new year” is immediately preceded by the death of the old one. Since the “Adam Strange” story dealt with a “consummate myth” about death-and-rebirth, it’s incumbent on me now to survey an inconsummate myth on the same topic.

I stated here that there were two ways for mythic discourses to be inconsummate. “The Return of Superman”—a narrative that didn’t receive nearly as much fannish attention as the “Death of Superman—is inconsummate in that it deals with a mythic topic but represses the free-flow of symbolic associations in order to “overthink the overthought.” This time it’s not for the purpose of promoting some abstruse philosophy, as seen in my commentaries on Sim, Moore and Ditko. Rather, "Return of Superman" is similar to the story-example cited in the above essay-- "The Wedding of Jimmy Olsen"-- in which symbolic potential is nullified by editorial considerations. For the "Return" narrative, the main concern seems to have been that of keeping the train of "overthought" running on time; an overthought concerned only with the bland maintenance of a soap-opera continuity.

This blandness dominated the creative tone of DC’s Superman titles since the beginnings of the “post-Crisis” Superman. Most of the stories, whether produced by wunderkind writer-artist John Byrne or by those who followed in his creative wake, were depressingly sterile in terms of any symbolic depth. Editor Mike Carlin may deserve most of the blame for continually keeping the Superman titles oriented on a particularly dreary version of superhero soap-opera, and many fans were particularly cheesed at the ham-handed handling of Superman’s death at the hands of the monstrous Doomsday.

“The Return of Superman” story-arc offered a little more potential for mythic storytelling. Superman’s return from death was inevitable, but it was probably beyond Carlin’s abilities to emulate the Jesus-parallels seen in the Richard Donner films, even if Carlin had wanted to pursue that line of discourse. It’s often been suggested that the follow-up to Superman’s death was modeled less on Christ than on Elvis, for as soon as the Man of Steel has been declared deceased, four “Superman-imitators” show up in Metropolis. All four assert some claim to either being a reborn Superman or a hero capable of carrying on the Kryptonian's tradition.




Two of the four had detailed backstories as to why they wanted to carry on the tradition, making it plain that they were designed to be spin-offs-- and indeed both got their own independent features. One was “Superboy,” a teenaged clone grown from the original Kryptonian’s DNA. Superboy was not a particularly complex character but he did enjoy a longer career as a featured hero than the other spin-off, “Steel.” Steel, an Afro-American who patterned his heroic persona both upon Superman and upon the legendary “John Henry the steel-drivin’man,” had more symbolic potential than Superboy. As I’ve not read Steel’s spin-off title, I can’t judge how successful he was in his own feature. But within the sphere of the “Return” narrative, Steel’s symbolic persona is generally underwhelming.

The other two Superman-imitators—one garbed in a futuristic visor and the other looking like a half-cyborg—claimed to be the Man of Steel reborn, but altered by that rebirth. Both had evil or at least undesirable aspects. They were eventually exposed as previous adversaries of the real Man of Steel, but before that happened, they offered the most potential for drama in the narrative, to wit: what if the DC Universe’s ultimate symbol of goodness came back from death, but damaged in some way, either physically or ethically?

Not surprisingly, DC chose not to open that can of worms. What’s surprising in retrospect, though, is how little buildup the narrative—constructed by a small coterie of writers and artists—gives to the rebirth of DC’s linchpin hero. There’s no attempt to invest the Big Event with deep symbolic resonance. After a few cagey references to some mystery personage being nurtured by robots in a secluded refuge, it’s soon revealed that it’s a fifth Superman, and that he’s the Real Deal. His life has been restored by a set of unique circumstances that in theory could never be repeated, and I’m certainly not going to repeat them, as they comprise one of the most tedious explanations in the history of superhero comics.



There is, to be sure, a lot of action in the narrative, but most of it—even when executed by formidable talents like Jon Bogdanove— resembles the artless fight-choreography of the then-popular Image Comics line. Only Tom Grummett, working on the “Superboy” sections of the narrative, brings anything like class or style to his contributions—and, sad to say, none of the writers, even the talented Louise Simonson, distinguish themselves.

Given the possible inspiration of Elvis to this storyline, I’d sum up the whole mess with one slight alteration of a classic Presley song:

“Return It to Sender.”

MYTHCOMICS: "SHADOW PEOPLE OF THE ECLIPSE" (MYSTERY IN SPACE #78, 1962)




Silver Age DC Comics, particularly during the company’s most creative period (roughly 1959-1966), have gained the cachet of easy recognition to later generations of fans. Younger fans probably can't put themselves into the mindset that looked forward to seeing heroic characters in bizarre situations, as with the example of the Flash being turned into a living puppet, to cite one of the best-known. But the younger generations of fans may be able to recognize the general look of Silver Age DC covers, especially those from the editorial stable of Julius Schwartz. Often these covers focus on wild visual gimmicks, aimed at the impulse-buyer—but only a close reading can tell one whether the gimmick is all there is to the story, or whether its apparent absurdity functions as a door into the mythopoeic dimension.

The “Adam Strange” series is one Schwartz title no longer much celebrated even by the older generation of fans, in part because the title character was not a superhero as such. Adam Strange became DC’s most prestigious space-opera hero of the period when Schwartz  came up with a “thinking man’s” version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. In Burroughs’ Martian cycle of stories, Carter and other Earth-heroes not infrequently found themselves transported to the exotic world of Mars, where they would immediately get involved in assorted feats of derring-do. In similar wise, a device called a “Zeta-beam” regularly transported Strange, an archaeologist on the planet Earth, to the planet Rann in the Alpha Centauri system—a planet that was repeatedly menaced by alien invaders and extraterrestrial creatures. Though Strange promptly outfitted himself with a fancy uniform and some of Rann’s superior technology—a jet-pack and a ray-pistol—the essential appeal of the stories was that the hero always used logical thinking and good old American know-how to defeat the exotic incursions. The series also provided Strange with a little more erotic reward for his efforts than most superheroes got. A beautiful Rannian girl, Alanna, fell in love with him—but most of the time their union couldn’t prosper, for the Zeta-radiation in Strange’s body would wear off and he’d cycle back to Earth, condemned to wait for another beam to take him back to the world of his lady love.

Even the most ardent sentimentalist would not deny that many of Strange’s adventures-- dominantly written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Carmine Infantino-- were a little too gimmicky. Indeed, in MYSTERY IN SPACE #63—which introduces characters that are important to the story under consideration here—Gardner Fox may have been inspired by the common vacuum cleaner. In this tale the invading aliens, “the Vantors,” are armed with weapons called “vacuumizers.” With these devices, the Vantors could dissolve their opponents into their component atoms, which the Vantors promptly stored in the tanks they carried on their backs. 




This story is engagingly silly but not much more. The tale considered here, though--“Shadow People of the Eclipse”-- both follows up on the Vantors and demonstrates how well the Adam Strange feature functioned when Fox and Infantino collaborated on an idea with deeper mythopoeic resonance.

Often the hero’s stories began with him waiting to intercept the Zeta-beam, which usually struck Earth in some out-of-the-way location. As an added touch, Strange would often encounter phenomenon on Earth that would prefigure his predicament on Rann. In “Shadow,” Strange is jet-packing above the Matto Grosso to intercept the beam, just as a solar eclipse occurs. Natives of the jungle start shooting fire-arrows at the moon for obscuring the sun, and Strange grabs a couple of fire-arrows to take with him as the Zeta-beam zaps him to Rann.



To his surprise, Rann too is suffering a daytime eclipse during the day, but this one has lasted an entire day. It’s  also created an oppressive heat that drives the Rannian natives out of their advanced cities and into the wilds. (Almost every story starts out with the invading force having neutralized Rann’s superior technology somehow.) Alanna brings Strange up to speed on the weird eclipse-phenomenon, but it’s not until the next day, when the darkness has vanished, that the villains—those vacuumizer-happy Vantors—show up with the real threat: a giant black globe able to eclipse the light of Alpha Centauri. Instead of just creating more darkness, the giant globe shoots shadowy rays down to the planet’s surface. Whenever the rays strike the Rannian people, they’re turned into living shadows.

The purpose of the shadow-effect is soon revealed, for Strange, Alanna and several anonymous Rannians find themselves on another alien planet. The planet is ruled by a tall, one-eyed alien billed as “Llyrr, the Cyclops of Space.” Llyrr, the last of his race, endures a solitary life on his barren world, and can only break the monotony by consuming the mental experiences of other creatures, thus killing them. Strange and Alanna learn that Llyrr empowered the Vantors with the black globe so that they could function as his hunstmen, sending back specimens from many extraterrestrial races.



I won’t give a blow-by-blow of Strange’s method for defeating the space-cyclops-- except to say that it depends on basic Earth-science-- nor will I detail the manner in which the hero manages to expel the Vantors back to Llyrr’s world while returning the Rannians and other alien captives to their rightful places. The story’s significance lies in its skillful manipulation of mythopoeic presences.

First, not even the most skeptical elitist could doubt that Fox based Llyrr upon literature’s famous cyclops, Polyphemus of the Odyssey. Admittedly, in some cases, Fox reflected the indebtedness through inversion. Llyrr doesn’t eat people—which would’ve been too visceral for commercial comics of the period—but the alien consumes their experiences, with the same fatal results. Where Polyphemus is savage, Llyrr is urbane, mocking his unwilling guests by saying things like, “You’re making my formerly lonely life an exciting one!”  But the alien’s most interesting similitude with the Greek monster is in his name, for Polyphemus is the child of the sea-god Poseidon, who will later curse Odysseus with an exile at sea for the wounding of the cyclops. This situation is also inverted for heroic purposes: Llyrr—most probably named for the Celtic sea-god Llyr—exiles the people of Rann and of other worlds to his “island universe” first, and only thanks to Strange’s heroic endeavors is that exile ended. And though Llyrr isn’t defeated the way Odysseys wounds Polyphemus—that is, with a fire-hardened spear that some critics compared to a “fire-making drill”—it’s of more than passing interest that Strange first comes to the darkness-cursed Rann with a couple of fire-arrows in hand; arrows that duplicate the essential appearance of the Greek hero’s cyclops-wounding weapon.

So what’s the connection between sea-deities and eclipses? In archaic mythology, both have been interpreted as harbingers of death: of forces that threaten the order of the living world where life and light reign. The sea is a chthonic realm, and so is the moon, whether in the form of an actual sun-obscuring lunar body—as Strange encounters on Earth—or in an artificial form: that of the black sphere that creates the shadow-rays. Even the idea of transforming human beings into “shadows” carries the associations of death, given that “shade” is a common term for the spirit of a deceased person.

In contrast to the religious myths of archaic times, where Death’s power is absolute, the Adam Strange world has more in common with the fairy tale, where death can be overturned when it’s convenient to the story, and even the Huntsmen of Death can be consigned back to their own realm. But fairy tales are replete with myth-elements even if they may at times be “writ small” as it were—and DC’s “Adam Strange” feature, despite its gimmickry, stands within that same mythopoeic tradition.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

COMBAT PLAY PT. 3

To demand of strength that it should not express itself, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.-- ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS.
 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.-- COMBAT PLAY PT. 2, September 2013.

As seen in a pair of recent essays here and here, I've extolled Nietzsche's philosophy as generally superior to the "nanny-ish" attitude of H.G, Wells, at least at a particular point in Wells' life. But I must admit that in one respect the vision of THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA is almost as unsatisfying as that of THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. Whereas Wells gives us a vision of society that is too restrictive, Nietzsche gives us one in which society barely seems to exist as a viable proposition. Again and again Friedrich N. tells us about how necessary it is that the ubermensch-- or perhaps ubermenschen?-- will prove capable of overthrowing "the tables of morality" and of creating new, life-affirming values. Nietzsche may have had strong notions as to what those values might be
and how they might benefit society, though he would have to admit that he, like his spokesman Zarathustra, had never actually met an ubermensch.

But Nietzsche never pursued his concept in any elaborated ethical terms. If one assumes that more than one ubermensch can come into existence at some future point of time-- what keeps them from being in conflict with one another, just as ordinary humans are? In other words, while Wells doesn't propose any valid reason for his highly stratified society to hold together, Nietzsche seems largely uninterested in envisioning how society would manage to function without its "morality tables."

The first quote shows that Nietzsche, in part due to his reading of the archaic Greeks, appreciated the dynamic of strength. But because he wants to envision a world where contemporary standards-- which he often equated with so-called "slave morality"-- would no longer apply, his vision of the future, unlike that of Wells, remains inchoate. I can imagine an alternate-world scenario in which Nietzsche never became associated with the many other authors (Sade) or movements (the Nazis, eugenics) with which he was associated by careless later writers. However, even in this best of all possible Nietzsche-worlds, it would have been impossible for anyone to imagine the philosopher producing a credible vision of man's future development. And though Nietzsche writes about strength and conflict in many different contexts, he does not seem to hold forth on the very virtue I as a young reader saw in "superman narratives:" that of sorting out philosophical disagreements by having their equally powered representatives battle for supremacy.

There are a few enigmatic remarks about the interdependence of warriors and their foes in THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA, such as these from the section: "War and Warriors:"

Ye shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised. Ye must be proud of your enemies; then, the successes of your enemies are also your successes.

By our best enemies we do not want to be spared, nor by those either whom we love from the very heart.

Let your love to life be love to your highest hope; and let your highest hope be the highest thought of life!
Your highest thought, however, ye shall have it commanded unto you by me—and it is this: man is something that is to be surpassed.
So live your life of obedience and of war! What matter about long life! What warrior wisheth to be spared!





All of these pronouncements are far too fragmentary to give insight into the philosopher's concept of fairness, and whether it would have had any role to play in a future world where ubermenschen of differing opinions about excellence might come into conflict.

More in Part 4.

Friday, December 11, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "DAVID BORING" (EIGHTBALL #19-21, 1998)



At some point in his career, Woody Allen made the public claim that he suffered from a condition he called *anhedonia,* which signified an inability to feel pleasure. Allen made indirect reference to the psychological term in the title of his 1977 film ANNIE HALL, wherein the two romantic leads are unable to reach any sort of "happily ever after" rapprochement in their relationship, and so are forced to part. Despite all of the characters' neurotic quirks, they are still recognizable as human beings with many different emotions.

Dan Clowes never references anhedonia in his incredibly overrated opus DAVID BORING, but the graphic novel is permeated with a staggering lack of affect: far more than any section of ANNIE HALL. For amusement's sake I went through each page to see how often in the GN's hundred-plus pages any of the characters smiled. If I include smiles that appeared in the comic book that protagonist Boring obsessively re-reads, I counted about seven. If I included ironic half-smiles, it might go up to ten.

I'm not faulting Clowes for failing to provide the reader with tons of sweetness and light. I'm sure he chose to downplay the normal range of affect in his characters for what he considered sound intellectual reasons. I deduce the same ironizing strategy in his giving his protagonist the name "Boring," perhaps anticipating that many comics-readers would find the GN "boring" if they read it at all. But the perpetual gloom of the story-line calls so much attention to itself that, in contrast to the no less pretentious ANNIE HALL, the work as a whole loses all claim to mimetic fidelity. Given that most of the narrative is assorted sexual encounters-- protagonist Boring is an experienced, if not especially credible, pick-up artist-- I find it counter-intuitive that nobody is seen experiencing so much as a balmy afterglow.

But it may be fairly asked, should BORING be judged as a failure of mythopoeic art, given that it focuses so much on intellectual tropes? Many of the ones in BORING don't rate as anything but leftovers from French New Wave cinema-- inexplicable doppelgangers, ambivalent doomsday-scenarios. The one exception, however, is a leitmotif involving an ironic reading of commercial comic books-- a reading that lacks any of the wit or ingenuity found in this week's ironic myth-comic.

Presumably Clowes wants us to believe Boring to be an unreliable narrator, given that he tells readers on page eight that "I'm not the least bit nostalgic and my aesthetics are up-to-date"-- yet throughout the narrative, he continually mulls over the pages of a scanty number of comic books drawn by his absentee father (a character never seen "on-panel," and who is said to die during the course of the story). The comics panels comprise the aforementioned leitmotif, in that they repeatedly interrupt the very serious main narrative with moments of childish whimsy.










I don't know what Dan Clowes actually believes regarding the content of mainstream comic books. He may or may not be as obsessive as his character about comics, particularly DC's Superman comic books of the Silver Age (the author patently names the protagonist after Superman-artist Wayne Boring), or he may simply be exploiting their supposed lack of content to please his main audience, the bloody comic book elitists, who want to believe that there's nothing but whimsy to stupid superhero comics. However, in addition to Clowes' verdict on the topic being extremely derivative and unimaginative, this too violates any claim the character might have to mimetic fidelity. A real human being, seeking to make some imagined connection with a parent he'd never known through the medium of that parent's art, would be obsessively seeking meaning in even bad commercial-art, and in all likelihood would project meaning even if nothing could be credibly proven to "be there." In contrast, because Clowes wants to reproduce the appearance of a fetishistic obsession without giving it any emotional heft, he has to elide any imaginative response Boring might have to the comics he reads. As a further, and thoroughly artificial, elaboration of this distanciation-formula, late in the story Boring's mother tears his comics into pieces, so that all that Boring can reflect on are isolated panels, disconnected from any linking narrative. This too is no more than a play to the prejudices of readers who can't tell art from artsty-fartsy.


I may as well add that the only reason this superficial pseudo-artist has become so celebrated is that he possesses a formidable skill at staging visual scenes in comics narrative. For elitists who have been brought up to venerate Alfred Hitchcock's mastery of cinematic storytelling, Clowes offers the closest parallel within the medium of comic books. But in his chosen material Clowes resembles Hitchcock less than Woody Allen at his most insular and indulgent-- making him the perfect choice for the face of elitist comics-art.

ADDENDUM: I may as well add that Clowes' entire orientation, here and elsewhere, depends upon the process of "overthinking the overthought," as I explained here-- to the extent that his ironic renditions misrepresent even the simple narratives of commerical comics. This stands in marked contrast to my "good myth" counter-example of Kurtzman's 'Superduperman," which seeks to read beneath the surface of a particular text and then critique it-- but in an imaginative way, rather than in a manner designed to please dull-witted elitists.

MYTHCOMICS: "SUPERDUPERMAN" (MAD #4, 1953)

Looking through the seminal early MAD issues, one often finds a lot of clever puns and inversions of pop-culture tropes. However, the famous "Superduperman" story goes a little further into the realm of psychological myth than its contemporaneous fellows, like "Plastic Sam" and "Batboy and Rubin." At a time when the superhero genre was at its arguably at its lowest ebb in the history of American comic books-- when said genre certainly was nowhere near dominating the medium as would be the case from the 1980s onward-- Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood crafted a story that embodied the anti-mainstream arguments of Adorno and Wertham: the argument that I summarized thusly:

In elitist criticism, it's a given that all escapist fiction is by its nature a "negative compensation" that insulates the audience from reality, as I've noted with respect to Theodor Adorno in particular. "Positive compensation," if one could put the elitists' convictions into Adler's terms, would presumably be the sort of "high literature" that validates the intellectual's struggle for personal meaning.
Kurtman and Wood, being concerned with gonzo slapstick and puns, don't put forth any grand schemes of meaning in "Superduperman," but by making their spoof-hero a real nebbish instead of a pretend-one, they cast a critical eye upon the idea of superheroes as compensation for one's failures in life-- a fair enough subject for satire, given that creator Jerry Siegel himself framed Superman's appeal in such terms:



Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe Shuster's. As a high school student, I thought that someday I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed.-- Jerry Siegel.
In addition, over ten years before Julies Feiffer suggested that Superman might be a "secret masochist," Kurtzman and Wood present their nebbishy ne'er-do-well "Clark Bent" as the helpless thrall of "Lois Pain's" charms.




Shortly after this encounter, Bent changes into Superduperman and goes looking for the story's mystery thief, "the unknown monster."  The heist artist obligingly reveals himself to be a fellow superhero, Captain Marbles, who has decided to quit fighting crime and to begin looking out for number one. Countless critics have mentioned that the year of this story's publication was the same year Fawcett Comics quit publishing Captain Marvel features as well as discontinuing their comics-line, largely in response to the expensive plagiarism suit DC Comics had filed against Fawcett. It's hard to tell whether or not the outcome of the super-dudes' battle is a comment upon the legal battle, but it's at least significant that Superduperman must resort to a dirty trick in order to win.



Lastly, Kurtzman and Wood undermine the wish-fantasy implicit in the Superman mythos, and in many-- though certainly not all-- superhero narratives. Instead of responding to Superduperman's bulging muscles, Lois rejects the hero and knocks him on his ass just as she did when he was Clark Bent, averring that his super-bod doesn't obviate him still being "a creep."


 I might argue that no single comics-story of the period-- not Kurtzman's war-stories, not Barks' duck-stories-- had more effect on the intellectual development of comics-fandom than "Superduperman." I can't say that it was always the *best* effect. But "genre politics" aside, it's no less a masterful story of its kind.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

THE DOMAIN GAME PT. 2

As stated in Part 1, the term "domains" can apply to any number of the multifarious principles, or groups of principles, that I've introduced on this blog since its inception. Obviously I could have continued to call them "principles," "rules," or "laws" just as easily. The word "domain," however, communicates a potential image of home and hearth, for all that in recent years that meaning may have been shoved aside for its connotation of "an address on the Internet," which is not much less abstract than a "principle."

Nevertheless, even the modern Internet usage is not without its "homey" associations. I compared my pluralist theory of art and literature to a "house with many mansions," where the separate rooms could contain such separable concepts as "Gene Phillips' version of Northrop Frye's generally accurate idea of the comedy-mythos" and "Gene Phillips' take on Todorov's thoroughly misguided idea of 'the uncanny.'" Since it's my house, it's inevitable that all of the rooms will reflect the owner's priorities.

But of course, just because I have priorities in my views of art and life does not mean that they have relevance only to me. Every philosophical posture is a open challenge to readers: it seeks to invite those who can agree with that posture, if only in part, and to downplay the priorities of those who disagree. A positivist would view all of these interactions from an atomistic standpoint: people agree and disagree purely according to their own interests.

Jung's concept of the "collective unconscious" was the psychologist's solution to science's tendency to view all psychological activity as belonging purely to what Jung called the "personal unconscious." From an entirely personal vantage, there can be no points of meaningful commonality between figures as removed in time as, say, Arthur Schopenhauer and Theodore Gaster. Yet, by seeing these philosophers' priorities through an archetypal lens, it may be possible to see what conceptual "mansions" they hold in common, rather than assuming that they just experienced similar patterns of toilet-training or the like.

Artists are not quite as focused on issuing conceptual challenges as philosophers. Sir Philip Sidney argued that "the poet never affirmeth." Surely "never" is certainly too strong given all the poets who trumpet their political affiliations to the world-- yet Sidney has correctly identified the archetypal nature of the artist far better than the ideologues who want to have their beliefs, be they ultraliberal or ultraconservative, supported by the artist's persuasive powers. The artist is one who potentially can see all things from all perspectives, even perspectives that may be alien to him. Thus, though most critics, including me, would judge Frank Miller's HOLY TERROR an artistic failure, it remains significant that he attempted, despite his limitations, to place some human face upon the political movement he wished to vilify.





On a related note, I spent a fair amount of time recently analyzing Frank Miller's SIN CITY in terms of my phenomenological NUM-project. SIN CITY is strongly indebted to the genre sometimes called "hard-boiled crime," and the shadow of Mickey Spillane's work looms long over Miller's crime-cosmos. Given Miller's status with his readership at the time SIN CITY began, he could have chosen to pursue the domain of a naturalistic phenomenality and left all the signs of the uncanny and the marvelous behind, as Mickey Spillane largely did when he moved out of comic-book writing and into the world of crime paperbacks.  But despite all the ways in which Miller chose to emulate Spillane's style and content, he did not set SIN CITY in the same sort of naturalistic domain as the majority of the Mike Hammer books. As my study shows, a large though not totally dominant proportion of Miller's SIN-works fall into the domain of the uncanny-- and though none of the comic-book works flirt with the marvelous, one story in the film SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR does allow for the presence of a literal, if nearly impotent, ghost.

The three phenomenal domains of my NUM-theory operate in what I deem an archetypal sense. Different artists are drawn toward images and tropes that promise, or at least suggest, different types of freedom. What Joseph Conrad deems to be artistic freedom relates to the perceived rigor of the naturalistic, while J.R.R. Tolkien associates freedom with marvelous creations like green suns. Yet both, as much as "heavy thinkers" like Gaster and Schopenhauer, are alike in searching for the formula that gives them a sense of transpersonal fulfillment-- which, in the last analysis, is what all persons, of all races and creeds, desire when they speak of their need for freedom. Yet it is a freedom that is only possible in terms of perspectivism and pluralism-- and any creed that takes a different stance is merely seeking the fulfillment of some favored group or groups.

DON'T BRING ME THE HEAD OF H.P. LOVECRAFT!

... is what over 2,500 petitioners said regarding the World Fantasy Award's use of HPL's image for their award. As a result the administrators of said award have decided to abolish the use of H.P. Lovecraft as an image for said award. 




But though they won't have HPL's head to kick around any more at WFA, in a symbolic sense Lovecraft has been "beheaded" in terms of his reputation. All of the writers who are cited in the linked article-- none of whom I have read, incidentally-- are of one mind in showing righteous horror at Lovecraft's opinions of persons he deemed inferior. (This, by the way, was not confined purely to all those who fall under the rubric "People of Color," for HPL expressed dislike of certain nationalities generally regarded as "dominantly Caucasian," such as Poles and Italians.)

While some of the writers who petitioned for the award-change doled out a few piddling accolades as to HPL's importance in the scheme of things, all of them were united in stating that he should no longer be allowed to represent the face, or one of the faces, of a prestigious fantasy award. In his place, a more current writer, Octavia Butler, has been announced as a substitution. Significantly, Butler is not only female, as her first name indicates, but a black SF-writer whose work also deals with race, albeit in ways that are much more acceptable to current readers-- more on which later.

As I've never paid any attention to the World Fantasy Awards in the past, I have no burning desire to see HPL remain its image now and forevermore. I do think that the reasons cited in the article are all extremely banal, bearing a strong resemblance to the arguments of the Huddites, in that both groups would like to think that art correlates with the artist's adherence to progressive politics.

I posted this on CBR Community:

the critic Barton Levi St. Armand... doesn't excuse HPL's racism, but he observes-- unlike the smugly righteous [Noah] Berlatsky [given a link at the thread's outset]-- that HPL's racism was tied in to his horror about any kind of broken boundaries-- between life and death, human and alien, and so on.

I may give St. Armand's book a re-read in future to be sure I've done it justice, but I feel some relief to see that at least some of the posters on CBR are able to consider the possibility that HPL's inarguable ethnicity-revulsion may have played a role in the unique, hyper-alienated consciousness that gave rise to the Cthulhu mythos.


On a related matter, I pointed out that the petitioners undermined their own conviction in the superiority of Butler's work by bringing race into the matter:

I haven't accused Butler of trying to pass as anything but herself; my accusation is directed at the anti-HPL campaigners. Joshi mentions Ellen Datlow and Daniel Jose Older as two of the more influential figures, but I've not been able to find any online statements by Datlow. Older, however, has had no hesitation about linking his critique of HPL's craft and his criticism of HPL's racism.
It would be interesting to see whether or not Older's criticism of HPL's craft would have gained quite so much traction had he Older not "played the race card," but now we'll never know. Because Older (among others) insisted that HPL's racism tainted all of his accomplishments, I think it very likely that the WFA representatives chose Butler in order to take the spotlight off themselves.

Are there other POSSIBLE readings? Sure. It's POSSIBLE that the complaints of Older and others simply made the WFA reps sincerely guilty for the abuses of white privilege, and they rushed to correct the abuse by giving belated attention to someone whose gender and race *might* have marginalized her more in other time-periods. One can certainly read things that way, and I can't prove otherwise. But I can *suspect* that the motivations may not have quite so noble.
I suppose Older considers it a win no matter how he got it.


More on these matters later, perhaps.

Friday, December 4, 2015

THE DOMAIN GAME PT. 1

DOMAIN—“the territory over which dominion is exerted; hence, sphere of influence, hence, sphere of action, thought, influence, etc.”—secondary definition from Webster’s College Dictionary.
 In my father's house there are many mansions.—John 14.2, King James Version.

In this essay I specified my use of the term “domains” as my concrete approximation for such abstractions as my “three phenomenalities.” I may not have been clear in stating that the term could be equally efficacious for most, if not all, of the various dualities, trinities, and quaternities I’ve explored on this blog, which is part of the subject of this post.

Since I was focused only on the visual applications of the word, I didn’t give much thought as to its etymology. But the above definition indicates, even to a non-etymologist like myself, that the root-concept connoted not just places where people might live—not just “domain,” but also “domicile”—but also where certain persons, particularly the lord of the domain, can exert “dominion,” or even “dominance.” A close reading of certain of my blog-posts—particularly DOMINANCE, SUBMISSION and JUNG AND SOVEREIGNTY—should make clear that from the blog’s inception I’ve been engaged in sussing out, largely with relation to literature, what principles in literary works have “dominance” over other principles, whether those principles function *in posse * or *in esse. *

This dominance-identification does not serve the same purpose in the hands of a pluralist critic as in those of an elitist one. Though not all elitists venerate the same literary principles, they subscribe to the same agenda: to demonstrate that some set of principles are inherently “better” than any others. In each of their respective domains, there can only be one lord, one ruling set of principles, one mansion— and when they find some work that celebrates that lord, they use it to perform a “superiority dance” over their rivals, A recent example can be found in this idiotic JOURNAL essay, whose author's purpose is not just to extol the supposed virtues of Dan Clowes, but also Clowes' idea of:a “reality principle” that supersedes the “pleasure principle” of superhero fight-scenes.

This attitude stands in contrast to that of the pluralist, who dwells in a house of many mansions. In such a dwelling, every mansion has its own ruler, or ruling principle if one likes. Yet, perversely enough, the walls of the mansions are as permeable as the walls of living cells, so that influences from other mansions are continually “crossing over” to their own sphere of influence to others. That’s why, for instance, it’s not impossible to find valid aspects of “reality thinking” within works of a metaphenomenal nature—but that does not mean that the realistic content determines everything about the fantastic content.


More on these matters in Part 2.

NULL-MYTHS: THE PRICE (1981)



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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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




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

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