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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, January 30, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: HICKSVILLE (1998)

I'm going to try really hard this time not to address anything but the mythopoeic potentiality here, but it's going to be hard because Dylan Horrocks' graphic novel HICKSVILLE is almost as bad as the work I've called "practically inconsummate in every way." It might even be worse, given that it's plain that whereas Millar has no talent beyond conceiving graphic scenarios of violence, Horrocks occasionally shows some mythopoeic capacity, particularly in respect to his idea of a perfect comics-reading community-- even if it is in his homeland of New Zealand, and thus not overly accessible to most.




It's hard to avoid the didactic potentiality, though. The basic myth-idea of Hicksville-- a town where everyone appreciates the medium of comics-- is over-determined by Horrocks' confused historical perspective of the medium. This perspective is in turn employed for the same end seen in Clowes' DAVID BORING: as a diatribe "designed to please dull-witted elitists." However, at least Clowes can draw assorted characters who can be distinguished from one another, even when they are supposed to share some similar physical qualities. Horrocks' two viewpoint characters-- New Zealand-born comics-artist Sam Zabel and Canadian-born comics critic Leonard Batts-- aren't supposed to look alike, but they and other characters look like they were copied from the same artistic template, as do the characters of "villain" Dick Burger (representative of evil commercial comics) and the principal female character of Grace, who seems to be the only resident of Hicksville who doesn't give a crap about comics.

At base, Horrocks' invention of a comics-happy town reflects the optimism of the late 1990s, during which graphic novels were beginning to get distributed by bookstore chains-- admittedly, along with a lot of stuff elitists prefer not to acknowledge. The company Image Comics-- whose success had a noteworthy impact on the mainstream acceptance of comics-- is never mentioned by name. However, when Horrocks chooses to show images from the absurdly successful superhero comics of Dick Burger, Horrocks draws them in the overheated style of Rob Liefeld, and his artist Zabel complains about their lack of anatomical accuracy-- probably the most familiar condemnation of Image's books.

Dick Burger is, in essence, a fictional re-creation of the trope "the comics-artist-as-movie-star," another phenomenon seen for the first time in that decade, thanks to the media-presence of Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. But Burger is also a man with a secret, for his success is the result of violating one of the taboos of Hicksville, his former home. Horrocks attempted satire of the media-star is thoroughly derivative and lacking in nuance. Burger is simply everything about modern superhero comics that Horrocks dislikes, and not even as much a character as the other three-- though their claim to three-dimensional status isn't much better.

There is a sort of simple wonder to be found in Horrocks' idea of a community where all of the residents know Tintin and Popeye as well as they know modern superheroes like Batgirl. But Horrocks goes further, positing that Hicksville's library is a haven to which comics-artists all over the globe send their dream-projects for posterity.




Obviously in the real world, where professional artists have to use their skills to put food on the table, the idea of Wally Wood devoting countless hours to a never-to-be-published fantasy-epic is a pipe dream at best. But I can forgive deviations from reality when they serve an artistic purpose. At the same time, willful distortions to serve an pretentious theme are another matter. For instance, Horrocks tries to assert that his comics-critic Batts is an authority on comics. It's not exactly clear when Batts grew up, but he references having read both Spider-Man and the X-Men as a kid, so he's obviously from the sixties or later. And yet, Horrocks has Batts claim that the superheroes he loved as a child "spoke in preschool vocabularies." Since on the contrary both the Marvel and DC books were known for their heavy textual qualities-- not least Stan Lee's sesquipedalian floridness-- this comes down to Horrocks telling a lie to please his indie-loving readers. It's made more objectionable in that HICKSVILLE itself isn't particularly well-written, much less being exceptional in terms of the artist's vocabulary.

One of the leitmotifs of HICKSVILLE is that Sam Zabel keeps encountering isolated segments of an uncredited comics-story, as if the God of Comics were sending them to him to make sure that Horrocks can express his admiration for Moore's "Tales of the Black Freighter." These segments come closest to the true mythopoeic, for they deal with the encounter between New Zealand's early Maori occupants and two representatives of English colonialism, Captain James Cook, who first circumnavigated the island and Charles Henphy, a cartographer who charted what he saw. Here's a segment in which the Englishmen explain their motives to a Maori guide, who understandably suspects that their advent won't bode well for the Maori people.




I won't go so far as to say that Horrocks precisely exculpates these historical figures from their part in the colonization of New Zealand, but at least his view is not determined by a narrow ideological outlook; it recognizes that people may do things, even bad things, for complex reasons. Yet though Horrocks can extend this broad-mindedness to his colonial ancestors, he can't do the same to the American comic book industry. I'm not saying that he should gloss over its real abuses, but by creating Burger, a flat representative of acquisitiveness, Horrocks betrays his own theme. In addition, Horrocks's imitations of the Image style show no understanding of what made the books popular, even through the lens of parody. Worse, the story that supposedly vaults Burger to international fame is atrocious even by the standards of superhero comics. It may be that Horrocks views even the most venerated story-lines of commercial comics-- say, the Galactus trilogy-- to be as awful as any Image comic. But that would be beside the point. Horrocks, like many indie-comics artists trumpeting their superior creativity, often relies on straw-men opponents. His example thus shows that there may be sound creative reasons why a lot of these artists do not win wide acclaim.




Friday, January 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "QUACK-UP!" (HOWARD THE DUCK #11, 1976)

Since in this post  I devoted some space to asserting how poorly Bill Mantlo did with a particular HOWARD THE DUCK story, it seems only fair to address the question of mythicity in Steve Gerber's original run on the franchise he co-created.



A quick scan of the first 27 issues of the HTD comic book suggests that Gerber's stories-- and they seem to be principally his creation, with only minimal creative input from artists like Gene Colan and Val Mayerik-- are not generally intended to evoke the mythopoeic potentiality. While Gerber's preoccupations on the Man-Thing-- one story analyzed here-- tend toward the kinetic and the mythopoeic, most of the HOWARD stories focus on elements of the dramatic and the didactic. This seems to have been a logical development, given that Gerber's protagonist was a classic misanthrope, his animus toward society accentuated by the fact that, as a talking duck, he wasn't even an "anthrope." Gerber sometimes wrote HOWARD into situations that required him to play the part of a "hero," in keeping with 1970s Marvel's emphasis upon having a fight-scene in every issue. However, Howard was what I've termed a *demihero,* more concerned with survival than with the glories of the heroic life. It's arguable that the HOWARD series is the first mainstream Marvel series that seriously called into question the glory-seeking ethic of the Marvel superhero line.

The story in question here is actually one segment on an arc concerning Howard's inability to tolerare the heroic ethic. At the end of issue #9, Howard refused to meet the challenge of a villain called "Le Beaver," even though said villain was threatening Howard's quasi-romantic "hairless ape" companion, Beverly Switzler. By sheer dumb luck, Le Beaver is killed and Beverly's life is preserved. However, the duck is tormented by his psychological conflicts. Even during his dreams, he reflects that "There's really nothin' glamorous or honorable about gettin' killed to perpetuate [other people's] masculine stereotype." Yet the refusal of heroic action generates enough mental stress that Howard experiences something akin to a nervous breakdown, leading to a surrealistic dream-sequence that lasts throughout issue #10. Issues #11 through #14 deal with Howard being sentenced to a mental health ward for observation-- but overall the arc is still largely concerned with the dramatic and didactic sides of Howard's conflict, not the mythopoeic. In the end Howard receives help from a Marvel guest-star whose adventures Gerber had been writing the previous year-- Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan-- but at best the arc of Howard's "quack-up" was a mixed bag.

The story of HOWARD #11, though, is strong enough that it can read without much reference to the other issues, particularly because Gerber conceived a means to place his protagonist in a situation absurd enough to generate its own ironic mythos. Howard awakens from his dream-- literally a bedeviling nightmare, since it ends with him being tormented in hell by a comic-looking devil-- yet the duck remains haunted by quasi-schizophrenic voices that only he hears. He happens to see Beverly apparently making up to a handsome "hairless ape," and his jealousy provokes him to seek out the local bus-station and take the first bus out of town. The duck is so aggravated that he doesn't even notice that the bus is going to Cleveland, a hairless-ape city Howard has encountered before and for which he has no pleasant associations.

The idea of being stuck on a long bus-ride with a bunch of strangers would ordinarily connote only mundane experience. However, Gerber makes Howard's experience in the consensual world almost as surrealistic as anything in his dreams. Gerber's probable inspiration here is the Firesign Theater's 1971 comedy album I THINK WE'RE ALL BOZOS ON THIS BUS, but Howard's bus is overrun not with clowns but with religious frauds.

The duck, who styles himself a "pragmatist," would be among the last to ever seek religious counseling for his mental difficulties. So of course in an ironic universe he boards a bus replete with wackos who seem to sense his psychic upheaval and try to sell him their wares-- a book on "Gnosticology" (a spoof on Scientology), a neo-Christian text called "Martyrdom for the Millions" (hawked by a guy dressed up like Jesus), and others. Howard does make one marginal ally-- a cheerful, lisp-voiced innocent named "Winda," who will continue as a supporting character for the rest of Gerber's run.




However, the inevitable fight-scene occurs when Howard encounters an old nemesis from his part: the Kidney Lady (seen from behind on the cover), who is convinced that Howard is part of an "international kidney-poisoning conspiracy."




A fracas ensures, in which the Kidney Lady demonstrates her religious tolerance.





Gerber's at the top of his form here. He delivers a lot of silly puns that read better in a comic than they would if I put them in a blogpost. Many writers (*koff* Mantlo) would not be able to think of Howard as anything but a repository of MAD-like puns and simplistically moral storylines, Gerber's strength, in contrast, lies in his ability to merge the banal and the surrealistic in a manner that goes beyond mere frivolity. And while none of the religious goofballs on the bus are, properly speaking, representatives of genuine religions (even within the context of the Marvel Universe), it's surely not coincidence that Howard, though greatly in need of counseling, can only find religious elements intermixed with crass commercialism and verbal malapropisms ("You should love thy neighbor and be true to thy school.")

There are assorted myth-motifs throughout the "breakdown-arc," but only in "Quack-Up" do they assume a high level of mythicity.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

OUT WITH THE BAD WILL, IN WITH THE GOOD PT. 2

A few refinements to what I wrote in Part 1:

I stated that "...no matter what sort of viewpoint character the author may choose, he may focus as easily upon the "will" within the viewpoint character (or on some figure allied to him, or an ensemble of such characters), OR upon things, people, or phenomena that are perceived as "the other" to the viewpoint character's will." I should have noted, however, that the will of the viewpoint character is a construction of the author, since no fictional character is a willing entity. Thus the viewpoint character's will-construct may subsume even things that seem opposed to that character's personal interests.

In CREATOR AND CREATOR ENSEMBLED HE THEM, I stated that I considered that both Victor Frankenstein and his monster constituted an "ensemble," in that both characters were central to the concerns of Shelley's novel. Some iterations of the Frankenstein concept have chosen to center upon just one of the two. The 1931 FRANKENSTEIN film is *exothelic,* in that it emphasizes the monstrous "other" of the Monster, but the 1957 CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN centers upon the megalomaniacal monster-maker, and is thus *endothelic.*

The novel FRANKENSTEIN is told from the POV of Victor Frankenstein, but this in itself does not make it *endothelic,* given that the 1931 film also follows Frankenstein's POV. But unlike either of the films, the Shelley novel explores the psyche of Frankenstein as a divided will. I'm far from the first to suggest that Shelley's work owes something to the German folklore of the doppelganger. The Monster is certainly not Victor's physical double in accordance to most folklore and literature about doppelgangers (notably Poe's WILLIAM WILSON). However, the Monster stalks Victor relentlessly after the former's unfortunate creation, and, more importantly, the creature may be acting upon Victor's suppressed desires and hostilities, visiting horrible deaths upon people Victor supposedly cares about. Thus, even though Victor and the Monster are opposed on the literal, "lateral" level of the novel's action, in terms of the story's *underthought* the two are one.

However, it's not impossible for characters linked via some sort of shared psyche to become distinct. In the ENSEMBLED essay, I argued that even though Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde were literally two sides of the same man, Stevenson devotes far more attention to Hyde than to Jekyll, so that Hyde is the focal presence of the story-- as he is in most adaptations-- while Jekyll is reduced to something of a "supporting character" to Hyde, much as the beast-men of Wells' DOCTOR MOREAU are subsidiary to the titular scientist. Of course, both the Stevenson and Wells novels are told from the POV of a largely uninteresting narrator, so there's no question that both of these are *exothelic.* The matter becomes a little more complicated in that most Jekyll-and-Hyde film adaptations take Jekyll's POV, but these tend to be *exothelic* as well, like the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN film. In many respects "Jekyll the support guy" conjures forth a more dynamic "alter ego" a la both Clark Kent and Billy Batson-- and so all three would be examples of the theory of exteriorization discussed here, though the latter two examples are *endothelic* in that the alter ego is not an "other" to the viewpoint "support-character."

In (temporary) conclusion, I'm meditating on also devising adjectivial forms for "the idealizing will" and "the existential will." The appropriate Greek words would seem to yield *ideothelic* and *physiothelic,* but I'm not in love with these terms at present.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

OUT WITH THE BAD WILL, IN WITH THE GOOD

On this blog I've written a good deal about the theories of "will" expoused by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and have formulated a literary "theory of two wills," influenced by Schopenhauer, in which literary characters are dominated either by the "idealizing will" or the "existential will." However, the English word "will" doesn't adapt well to the adjectival form, which is what I need in reconsidering the arguments stated in 2014's EGO, MEET OBJECT.

In that essay, I meditated on Jung's distinctions between "extrovert and introvert" in his book PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, also classified as "object-oriented" and "ego-oriented." I've sometimes considered applying the former set of terms to the two different ways focal presences resolve themselves in fiction. However, the informal meanings of "extrovert and introvert" are far too limiting, while the terms "ego-oriented" and "object-oriented," while closer to my needs, are cumbersome.

Now, in 2009's SEVEN WAYS FROM SCHOPENHAUER, I defined the philosopher's idea of "Will" as "the radical root of all literary activity." This means that, no matter what sort of viewpoint character the author may choose, he may focus as easily upon the "will" within the viewpoint character (or on some figure allied to him, or an ensemble of such characters), OR upon things, people, or phenomena that are perceived as "the other" to the viewpoint character's will.

The Greek word for will is (more or less) *thel.* Thanks to the wonders of search-engines, I've discovered that one author has coined the term "thelic" as an adjective for will, and also that he's using that term for a purpose quite unlike my own. Therefore I will appropriate the term for fiction only, and apply it only to the orientation of the focal presence in narrative.

In place of "ego-oriented," I'll speak of the *endothelic,* meaning that the narrative is focused upon the will of the viewpoint character or of someone or something that shares that character's interests.

In place of "object-oriented," I'll speak of the *exothelic,* meaning that the narrative is focused upon the will of "the other," something outside the interests of the viewpoint character, though not necessarily opposed to them.

This adjectival terminology solves the clumsiness I mentioned in EGO, MEET OBJECT in that a term like "exothelic" applies as well to a place like Wonderland or a character like Dracula. In addition, since I allow for the association between the ego of the viewpoint character and any representative affiliated figure within the same "endothelic" constellation, that not only subsumes narratives like Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" prose tales-- where the star of the show only rarely becomes the viewpoint character-- but also for examples of *exteriorization,* as seen in the essay DJINN WITH SUMMONER. By this logic, the non-sentient Gigantor-- the star of the teleseries and of (presumably) the manga series as well-- is *endothelic* even though he has no diegetic "will" of his own, because Gigantor is associated with a sentient will through his controller Jimmy Sparks. In contrast, a cognate robot-hero like Astro Boy displays sentience, and therefore does not actually need an interaction with humans to be his "summoners," although the associations don't hurt the robot-boy's claims to human sympathy.

I mentioned Wonderland above, which is clearly the focus of Lewis Carroll's books, which would be *exothelic,* as are most film-adaptations, with the exception of the 2010 Tim Burton film, which becomes *endothelic* by virtue of emphasizing the will of Alice rather than of Wonderland.

Keeping to the context of environments, in OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER. I used the example of the 1950 WEIRD SCIENCE story "The Destruction of the Earth" in order to demonstrate that the narrative's focus was not upon any of the niggling human characters, but upon the Destroyed Earth itself, whose death-throes are given the most attention. I called it "object-oriented" before, but now it is *exothelic.*

In contrast, there are hundreds of stories dealing with the world's destruction that focus upon the aggrieved reactions of the viewpoint characters, all of which would be *endothelic.* Yet aggrieved reactions are not necessary, as I noted in my examinations of Ray Bradbury's short story "The Last Night of the World." In my first consideration of the story, I averred that the viewpoint characters' sanguinity about the world's end might be viewed as a form of negative will, akin to Nietzsche's "will to nothingness." But in my revised outlook here, I decided that even though the nameless viewpoint characters do nothing to bring about the cataclysm, they are stand-ins for the author's POV.

Thus Bradbury's strategy for giving "new life and force" to the overly familiar threat of nuclear war was to undercut its power by invoking a greater power, one that simply chooses to end the story of mankind in the manner of "the closing of a book"-- an apt metaphor for a writer frustrated with the follies of mankind.
Therefore in this case, although the narrative still concerns the world's end, the focal presences are the two nearly anonymous "husband and wife" who calmly observe that ending with a dignity that the author finds appropriate-- while the nature of the world's end is at best a subsidiary phenomenon.

NULLMYTHS: "THE TORCH GOES WILD" (STRANGE TALES #119. 1964)



I'm hardly going out on a limb by asserting that the "Human Torch" series that began in STRANGE TALES #101 (1962) was one of the weakest features to appear during the era of "Classic Marvel." While editor Stan Lee seemed to have a firm grasp on the direction for most of the Marvel productions, the Torch feature consistently suffered from weak, inconsistent stories all the way to the feature's final appearance in ST #134, after which it was replaced by the NICK FURY strip. Even the issues drawn by Jack Kirby, while nice to look at, are generally tepid as stories.

I suspect that one problem was that Stan Lee had been around back when the original Human Torch was a best-seller in the Golden Age, so that he was trying to see if the character's name and power could garner similar success-- while at the same time, drawing upon the successful associations of the FANTASTIC FOUR title. But because Johnny Storm was so thoroughly tied into the FF-continuity, all the various raconteurs on the series-- whether they were "fan-favorites" like Lee and Kirby, or less heralded laborers like Larry Leiber and Dick Ayers-- were equally straight-jacketed in their approach to the adventures of this "flaming youth." Only one story in the Torch's 33 solo exploits turned out above-average, and that tale-- the first one-on-one combat between the teen hero and the new version of the Sub-Mariner (ST #107, 1963)-- may have excelled because of it hearkened back to the Golden Age duels between the original Torch and his seagoing opponent.

Most of the Torch-stories are merely mediocre, but "The Torch Goes Wild" is interesting in a symbolic sense because it reproduces a sociological theme not unlike this week's mythcomic. The excellence of the early DOCTOR STRANGE feature, which shared space in the "split-book" title of STRANGE TALES, often pointed out the puerility of many Torch stories-- and never more than in issue #119.

Aside from the formal failings of "Wild"-- with drab and awkward art by Ayers, and a lacklustre concept from Stan Lee-- "Wild" is also essentially a recycling of a better Lee-Kirby story from FANTASTIC FOUR #21, published the previous year. In that story the creators introduced the Hate-Monger, who came to New York, inflamed a few crowds into unreasoning prejudice with his hate-ray, and then fled to a Caribbean island to facilitate a Communist revolution. Not only does the main villain of "Wild" borrow the Hate-Monger's hostility-motif and Commie sympathies, the Rouser even uses a subterranean mole-machine explicitly derived from the earlier villain's vehicle. Lee might not have written a good story here, but at least he has more or less admitted that he was "one-offing" an earlier story in the Marvel canon.



The Rabble Rouser's ethnicity is not stated, though his garments seem to have a quasi-Hispanic look, as does his prominent mustache. In his words, he chooses to pose as a "street corner soap box fanatic"
while using a "mesmerizer wand" to sway any crowds who listen to fall in with his evil scheme-- to get the Human Torch's fiery power outlawed by law.

What makes this a significant "null-myth" is not the silliness of the villain's plan, which includes kidnapping a foreign dignitary simply to cause an "international incident." Rather, it's the idea that a disreputable-looking individual-- who even uses "rabble rouser" as his only name-- could somehow come to influence right-thinking Americans with a combination of ranting rhetoric and hypnotic technology. The Torch-- repeatedly portrayed as a good-hearted but bad-tempered adolescent, and not much more-- is the picture of the misunderstood teen. Early Marvel stories often managed to do a fair job of playing on young readers' fears of not being taken seriously, but in "Wild" the motif is used in a tedious and transparent fashion.

Naturally, by story's end, the illicit law against the Torch's fiery flights has been rescinded, and Lee has the very minor joke of putting the villain under his own spell, forcing him to say that he loves America. But it's a pretty paltry role-reversal.




Oddly, though the villain is made to state that "the Rabble Rouser is no more," other Marvel creators actually found some reason to bring this oddball back in some altered form. I haven't read these revival stories, but I tend to think that this is one early Marvel character who should have been left to gather dust on the shelves.

MYTHCOMICS: "THE ORIGIN OF DOCTOR STRANGE" (STRANGE TALES #115, 1963)



"I must be the best--the greatest! Or else--nothing!"

Whenever the origin of Doctor Strange is retold, most raconteurs emphasize how the master of the mystic arts "gets religion," so to speak. What's often overlooked in the character's setup is the fact that the sorcerer's early selfishness is the factor that leads him to greatness, albeit of a self-sacrificing kind.

The story begins in media res, with a scraggly looking fellow confronting an Asian mystic with his importunate demands, but it quickly moves into flashback territory:




A car accident strips the arrogant surgeon Doctor Stephen Strange of his surgical prowess. Given the assertion that surgeons often display a god-complex, this might be construed as an anti-theophany, and Strange himself can't accept being reduced to the level of a mere untalented human being:



Thus Strange journeys to the temple of the Ancient One in India, not to lose his ego like most pilgrims, but to buttress his ego by uncovering the secret of the mystic's legendary "healing power." The Ancient One refuses to give him any handouts, but seems interested in the brash westerner, at which point a snowstorm springs up out of nowhere and forces Strange to remain in the temple until he can travel again. He's introduced to the temple's only other resident, Mordo, whom regular readers of the feature knew to be one of Strange's future enemies. Stuck in the company of two men who believe in the mystic arts, and thus refute the dominant worldview of Strange's western world, the doctor soon finds himself involved in a struggle between good and evil.




Mordo, instead of simply killing Strange, places a spell on Strange to keep him from telling the Ancient One about Mordo's perfidy. Mordo taunts the former physician, calling him "the witless blunderer from the far western continent," and telling the Ancient One to "send [Strange] back to the new world." For his part, Strange has become protective of the old mystic and even fears what Mordo may do if his power is unleashed upon the world-- yet his altruism is somewhat mitigated by his animus toward the arrogant mystic: ""Never have I hated anyone so much!" Strange finally figures out how to perform an end run around the stipulations of Mordo's spell, by selflessly asking for the Ancient One to train him in the arts of magic-- which is naturally just what the Ancient One is waiting for.



Prior to DOCTOR STRANGE there had been many superheroes who got their powers from Indian or Tibetan lore. Yet Strange seems to be one of the first, if not the first, to explore the ethos of magic, even though it seems unlikely that either Lee or Ditko researched Asian mysticism to any great extent. There's some irony that prior to becoming a selfless sorcerer, Doctor Strange expouses a sort of egoistic exceptionalism with a nodding resemblance to the doctrines of Ayn Rand-- with which Steve Ditko would later become more than a little occupied. As far as the origin-story goes, the western world is largely associated with greed and the eastern with wisdom and enlightenment. Thus Strange, though an American himself, effectively turns his back on many if not all of the ethical priorities of his people, in contrast to such "typical American" Marvel heroes like Peter Parker and Tony Stark-- who, despite the difference in their social attainments, are both strongly oriented around the ethos of "making a buck."

Interesting, though in the first few episodes of the DOCTOR STRANGE series, Ditko sometimes draws the hero with ambivalent features, as if to suggest that he might possess the distinct epicanthic fold of an Asian.



Yet Mordo, who calls Strange a westerner, is not given an Asian appearance. Much later, Marvel raconteurs will cite his ethnic background as Transylvanian, and though neither Lee nor Ditko ever comments on Mordo's provenance, it seems likely that Mordo-- styled a "baron" in his first appearance in STRANGE TALES #111-- was conceived as some form of East European villain. Thus beneath the overt metaphysical content of the series, one may descry a minor sociological myth as well: in which the power of the exotic East is coveted by representatives of both "the new world" and Old Europe, incarnated by a part of Europe that some writers, not least Bram Stoker, considered alien to the Europe of more western climes.

Friday, January 15, 2016

NULL MYTHS: SECRET WARS #1-12 (1984-85)

While a relatively recent re-read of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS disclosed some mythic diamonds amid the multi-crossover dross, there's not even the glitter of fool's gold in the abominable awfulness that is Jim Shooter's SECRET WARS.



I reviewed SECRET WARS for the Comics Journal back in the day, and I don't mind saying that the review contains one of my favorite insights for that period of my critical writing. In essence, I said that because Jim Shooter had written for several years about the Legion of Super-Heroes-- characters who ranged from the one-dimensional to the no-dimensional-- he was simply incapable of adjusting himself to the demands of Marvel characters, who tended to be at least two-dimensional.

I still believe this to some extent. And yet, now that I've reread SECRET WARS straight through for the first time since that review, I wonder if my original verdict was a bit glib. After all, Shooter's LEGION work showed that he understood the basics of good storytelling. With a little bit of studious endeavor, is there any reason that Shooter could not have adapted to the Marvel standard of characterization at least as well as average scripters of the period?

And the verdict is: of course he could have; he just didn't care whether he got characters right or not. To judge from this Wikipedia entry-- and from his spotty record as a scripter on Marvel titles like AVENGERS-- Shooter cared primarily about making deals with companies like Mattel and about protecting Marvel's company image. Stan Lee tried to make Marvel's characters as distinct as possible from one another, despite their two-dimensionality. The SECRET WARS script shows no evidence that its writer studied any of the regular titles to get a sense of how the characters sounded at the time. Wolverine's snarliness can't be distinguished from the Hulk's grouchiness. This shorthand approach to characterization allowed Shooter to give the fans the appearance of character-moments, even though his approach contradicted even the bare rudiments of the Marvel style.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture overburdened with what *seems* like a thousand words should be even better to clarify how bad Shooter's writing is:




This scorecard approach to introducing characters easily rates as some of the worst writing ever to appear in comic books. Beside it, even stories that are nearly incoherent are preferable, like Gerry Conway's clumsy "Ego-Prime" storyline.

I won't dwell too much on the mismanaged characterizations, given that these are failures within the dramatic potentiality, not the mythopoeic one. But as I move away from this topic, I can't resist mentioning one of the worst: a B-story in which Colossus and the Human Torch both fall in love with the same alien girl. Suddenly, because Shooter wants a hyper-melodramatic moment in issue #10, he has the Torch-- a character with his share of faults, but hardly a diehard chauvinist-- disparage the girl as a "chippie," causing Colossus a lot of emotional turmoil-- though it comes to nothing, since the X-Man doesn't even try to knock the FF-member's block off.

There is *potential,* but completely unrealized, mythopeoic content in the rambling mess that is SECRET WARS, but at that, it's entirely derivative of the "Galactus mythology" I examined here  this week. However, Shooter seems to have been less impressed by the original "Galactus trilogy" than by one of Lee and Kirby's follow-ups: FF #57-60, in which Doctor Doom manages to steal the Power Cosmic from the exiled Silver Surfer, so that the monomaniacal villain obtains something close to omnipotent power.



While every other Marvel character in SECRET WARS is treated with a mechanical disinterest, Shooter seems preternaturally concerned with Doctor Doom, who apparently has not forgotten his brief stint as a demigod. Doom seems less concerned with the immediate situation he shares with the other characters-- that of having been dumped on an alien world by an unseen entity called "the Beyonder"-- than in figuring out how he can once more attain godhood: this time by tapping into the power of the Silver Surfer's former master, Galactus himself, who is one of those abducted by the Beyonder. Galactus hovers on the periphery of the action for most of the story, a potential threat to the Earth-heroes as both he and they seek to escape the Beyonder-- but once Doom does manage to siphon off Galactus' power, the planet-eater is summarily dismissed from the storyline, and it focuses almost entirely upon Doom's attempt to act the part of a living god.

While Shooter's exploration of Doom's godhood is mediocre at best, I must admit that he's the only character whose characterization seems relatively in line with his previous Marvel incarnations. Here's a short excerpt:



Whereas the other characters in this scene are all Johnny One-Notes, Doom comes off with an imperious dignity and an obnoxious belief in his own superiority. This at least makes him interesting, while all of the other characters are simply being put through predictable paces.

I've sometimes come across fans who evince an affection for SECRET WARS because it was the first of its kind: a limited series whose influence spilled over into several ongoing titles. This marketing strategy became a standard practice by both of the "Big Two," and generally the crossovers that followed SECRET WARS were never better than "adequate." But even the worst of these descendants of SECRET WARS doesn't evince the original's utter contempt for good characterization and good plotting-- to say nothing of good mythopoesis.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: FANTASTIC FOUR #48-50 (1966)



The so-called "Galactus Trilogy" appeared about a year after John Broome's "Secret Origin of the Guardians." Both FANTASTIC FOUR and GREEN LANTERN had featured numerous stories about aliens and extradimensional entities, but fans esteemed both of these mid-sixties stories in particular because they revealed greater depths to the Marvel and DC universes than one got from the average SF-tale. However, it would take many years for professionals spawned from comics-fandom to celebrate some of the qualities of the Guardians' origin-tale. Within the decade of the sixties, the Guardians tale had no palpable effect. In contrast, Marvel, thanks in part to being a smaller operation, was positioned to sing its own praises for having redefined what kiddie comics could do.

I won't go into great detail here about the plot of the Galactus Trilogy. In contrast to that other famous '60s trilogy, these three issues of FANTASTIC FOUR are not a unified story, since #48 starts off by resolving the Inhumans saga from the previous issues, and #50 concludes by introducing a new menace and playing catch-up on the heroes' mundane activities. In truth, the heroes come close to playing second fiddle to the "coming of Galactus" and his surfboard-riding herald.

As a concept Galactus wasn't stunningly original. The 1957 film KRONOS dealt with a gigantic alien mechanism sent to Earth to plunder it of its resources, and just one year before Galactus appeared, DC created an almost forgotten beastie, "The World-Destroyer Creature," who menaced Adam Strange in MYSTERY IN SPACE #99.

Lee and Kirby, however, presented Galactus and the Silver Surfer with far more pomp and circumstance than they'd allowed, say, to super-powerful aliens like 1964's Infant Terrible (FF #24). When the relevant plot begins, the heroes are bemused to see weird aerial phenomena like floating rocks and curtains of flame in the sky. The local New Yorkers, despite having seen weird phenomena on a regular basis, react to these displays as if they're the "signs and wonders" of the Apocalypse itself. The FF's cosmic buddy The Watcher shows up, revealing that he created the sky-marvels in an effort to distract the Silver Surfer, herald of the insuperable destroyer of worlds, Galactus.



The Surfer is not fooled by the Watcher's deceptions; having determined that the Earth is a viable planet for his master to devour, the Surfer sends his master a signal. The Thing punches out the shiny alien, sending him flying off the Baxter Building, though we don't learn until issue #49 that he lands near the apartment of the Thing's girlfriend Alicia.

Galactus descends, and Kirby frames his stature against that of the Watcher. Kirby offers a strong visual contrast between the Watcher's usual garb-- a free-flowing toga-like garment-- with the high-tech armor of Galactus. Both are described as aliens with the powers of gods, but whereas the Watcher is an "angel"-like presence forbidden to intervene in any direct manner, Galactus is given the gravitas of an otherworldly deity. Lee frequently describes him in terms resonant of the King James Bible: the Watcher's first description of Galactus-- "He is what he wishes to be-- He is Galactus"-- is patently a borrowing from the phrase "I am that I am" in Exodus 3:14.




After the Fantastic Four fail to make any real impression on the super-alien, the Watcher enlarges on the threat he presents: that Galactus plans to use his machines to drain Earth of its "elemental force," which is the only substance on which Galactus can feed. By making Galactus's depredations a matter of survival, Lee and Kirby render him as beyond the scope of comic-book villainy.

While all this transpires, Alicia befriends the Silver Surfer. Strangely, given that the Surfer's existence is devoted to making sure his master is fed, it strikes him as strange that other entities feed by consuming organic matter. Lee and Kirby do not provide any background for the Galactus-Surfer relationship, but I'd hypothesize that Kirby's original intent was that the Surfer would have been, not an alien being in his own right, but an emanation from Galactus's own being, in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian God created his angels, according to non-canonical speculations.

The Surfer's lofty indifference soon yields-- perhaps a little too quickly to be credible-- when\Alicia pleads on behalf of the human species. The Surfer's soulful rebellion against his master remains one of the best-known moments in the history of Silver Age Marvel.



However, in point of fact, his rebellion only provides a delay to Galactus, just as do the efforts of the Thing and Mister Fantastic. The solution to the problem of an almighty planet-eater is provided by the efforts of the Human Torch, who, acting with the Watcher's direction, gets hold of a miniscule weapon capable of cutting off Galactus from future meals, by destroying the entire universe.



It's impossible to resist comparisons between the Ultimate Nullifier and the Bomb, and there's a good chance the storytellers saw the likeness themselves. When Galactus swears to leave Earth alone, he takes his leave, but not before speaking for the authors themselves: advising the barely emerged race of human beings to "be ever mindful of your promise of greatness," which has the equal potential to take humans to the stars or bury them "within the ruins of war." At the same time, the narrative doesn't dwell much on other moral issues-- such as the fact that if Mr. Fantastic used the Nullifier, it would not only provide a pyrrhic victory, since Earth would perish with the rest of the cosmos, but it would involve dooming a host of other alien worlds if Galactus chose to let everything go to hell.

For all that the Surfer is not integral to the conflict's resolution, he combines some fascinating Judeo-Christian motifs. It's hard to say whether or not either Lee or Kirby drew any conscious parallels between the Surfer and the Christian Son of God, not least because the latter does not rebel against his heavenly father. Rebellion is more the department of Satan/Lucifer, who is generally characterized as being opposed to the good fortune of humanity. Nevertheless, I think it possible that Lee and Kirby's collaboration brought a fortuitous confluence of ideas, possibly one that neither creator could have pulled off alone. In the Surfer's later appearances, the character became more visibly an Imitatio Christi, though Kirby still tended to emphasize his inability to comprehend human mores. Kirby's idea for the Surfer's origins did not appear in the canonical Marvel universe, though arguably the 1978 SILVER SURFER graphic novel may recapitulate the original idea in altered form. Lee, of course, co-opted the character and gave him a more "relatable" origin-- but that's a story for another essay.

Monday, January 11, 2016

THE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE

Back in 2009, I wrote one of my earliest essays on the nature of functionality in symbolic discourse, DON'T FEAR THE FURNITURE (and an addendum, Part 2). These distinctions about "simple and complex variables," an idea developed from one of Frye's definitions, eventually became subsumed by the language-terms introduced by Philip Wheelwright's THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, last cited here.  While I don't dismiss the algebraic metaphors of Frye. Wheelwright's physics-influenced metaphor has proven more useful in trying to map out just what literary process separates the simple from the complex.

As a roundabout way of refining this question through example, let me say that while I still view all of the "mythcomics" I've cited as worthy of being called "symbolically complex," I've observed that sometimes even characters who possess that potential, that amplitude, have been treated like furniture: i.e., as merely functional.

"Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers," analyzed here, shows this tendency.





All of the heroic characters on display in this page have sustained, at one time or another, strong symbolic discourses in their own features. One might argue, in line with Wheelwright, that at that time Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter weren't "eminent instances" on the same level of the other heroes, perhaps because the two heroes had spent so much of their respective careers as short back-up strips. But in "Sorcerers," they're all on the same plane, for author Fox isn't mining any of the heroes' myths to any great extent. In terms of symbolic complexity, the three villains have the greatest amplitude of associations, while the heroes simply run through their functional paces: Green Lantern's ring can't battle a yellow manticore directly, so he has to defeat the creature indirectly, etc.

More often than not, though, mythcomics tend to imbue super-functional characteristics to both protagonist and antagonist. This is certainly the case in GREEN LANTERN #40, where the titular hero, the mentors he represents, and the villain Krona get a great deal of myth-attention-- though one might argue that the Green Lantern of Earth-II isn't much more interesting than your average piece of used furniture.



This is a general tendency evinced by many "sidekick" figures. Lightray of THE NEW GODS is not without some symbolic associations of his own, but he's primarily important as the friend of the book's hero Orion. Because Orion likes Lightray, so does the reader, and thus does the reader become more invested in the hero's struggle on behalf of New Genesis.  Lightray isn't as "eminent" an "instance" as Orion, but he's eminent enough for Kirby's overall purpose.



As I observed back in the FURNITURE essays, story-elements that are merely functional-- like the "stairhead" allows "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" to enter a room in ULYSSES's first line-- are both inevitable and desirable. The same principle applies to characters whose complexity varies from story to story, according to the needs of the author. It's especially interesting, at least for a project like mine, when the mythic complexity inheres more in the opponents of the hero than in the heroes who are the putative stars of the story, as in "Sinister Sorcerers."


Saturday, January 9, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: SQUADRON SUPREME (1985)

Since I'm a little behind this week-- and since I never claimed I would necessarily present a new "null-myth" every week-- I've decided to recycle some material I wrote in an earlier post. It occurred to me that Gruenwald's meditations on erring superheroes make for a good example of "overthinking the overthought," as well as offering a contrast to the JUSTICE LEAGUE story examined earlier, which seems to be simple kid-fare but proves more symbolically complex than many tedious attempts at superhero-satire. Ironically, Alan Moore's WATCHMEN, a meditation on the same theme of "realistic superheroes," came out the next year after SQUADRON, but though Moore had a philosophy of sorts to express, he didn't go overboard in his philosophical asides. Gruenwald may be less like the artist seeking to express a particular outlook than the editor seeking to express forbidden thoughts-- the forbidden thought here being, the viability of superheroes as dictators.

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In my post on ethical criticism, I criticized three of the heroes as being inadequate vessels of moral agency, and I still believe that Gruenwald did not manage to use his high mimetic superheroes as well on the ethical plane as did, say, Frank Miller in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Still, there are some promising elements that suggest certain mythopoeic intuitions that might have been better-developed. Of the three character-related plotlines I castigated for being facile moral agents, the one involving the Golden Archer-- who brainwashes his superhero girlfriend into loving him-- doesn't succeed any better in the mythopoeic department than in the ethical one.

The plotline with Hyperion (pastiche of DC's Superman) comes a little closer to a successful symbolic discourse. True, there's nothing exactly new about a goodguy hero fighting a malefic counterpart who embodies many of his self-oriented desires, which is what happens when the goodguy-Hyperion is displaced by such a counterpart, who promptly forms a romantic liason with Power Princess (pastiche of DC's Wonder Woman). But at the conclusion of the inevitable "duel of duplicates," Gruenwald shows an interesting ambivalence toward how the "good" hero destroys his duplicate. On one hand Gruenwald exonates "good Hyperion" from the charge of willful murder by rationalizing that "bad Hyperion" is just made of "psuedo-matter," and thus is apparently not any more alive than the Superman villain Bizarro. On the other, Gruenwald borrows a little from the Greek myth of Orion as far as punishing an overreaching hero, so that "good Hyperion" is struck blind (albeit temporarily) as a result of the duel. Thus as in many archaic myths the hero is allowed the pleasure of destroying a foe and subsequently chastised for going beyond the normal limits of social existence to do so.

Lastly, though I caviled at one of the specific plotlines involving the character of Tom Thumb-- who, as I noted, is a little too goody-good in being conflicted about stealing a vital serum from a despotic overlord-- this dwarfish hero is probably the most interesting figure in SQUADRON in a mythopoeic sense. Once or twice Gruenwald makes references to Thumb seeking to make a "deal with the devil," but this Faustian metaphor goes nowhere and isn't even exclusive to the character (Nighthawk uses the same phrase). Thumb is no Faust, but a Hephaestus amid the traditionally-gorgeous superhero "gods." Tom Thumb is the nearest structural parallel to the character of Rorshach in WATCHMEN, in that both are outsider-heroes whose existence adds a dark counterpoint to the fantasies of beauty and power embodied by superheroes, just as maimed Hephaestus did for the Greek gods.

Of course, as should be obvious, I still think WATCHMEN succeeds in terms of its use of symbolism than does SQUADRON, but the archetypal view demonstrates that the Gruenwald work is not entirely worthless because it does not attain to the same level of significant literary merit. If nothing else, SQUADRON is certainly significant in historical terms as one of the first works to begin expanding the normative superhero work into divergent literary modes, and making those modes more a part of the "mainstream."

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On a side-note, I can't resist adding that Gruenwald had no problem in believing that his cosmos' version of Wonder Woman, the aforesaid Power Princess, would have no problem with fascism-- which puts the writer in the same company with my old sparring-partner Charles Reece.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "SECRET OF THE SINISTER SORCERERS" (JUSTICE LEAGUE #2, 1961)

(Note to followers: the following essay was written a few years ago, so the style and presentation is a little different from my current habits.)

Quick Summary: Simon Magus, the Troll King, and Saturna, Lord of Misrule, are three evil sorcerers who desire to rule their native dimension, Magic-Land, a realm where the laws of magic, not science, hold sway.   When they learn of the dimension of Earth, where scientific law rules instead of magic, they cause the respective laws of each dimension to become transposed, so that the sorcerers can use scientific weapons to dominate the now-powerless inhabitants of Magic-Land.   The Justice League travels to Magic-Land, breaks into three teams in order to combat each of the sorcerers on one of Magic-Land’s three continents; when the heroes triumph, the spell is reversed and both dimensions return to normal. 




This story—the fifth Justice League tale, preceded by three appearances of DC’s premiere Silver Age superhero team and one issue of the regular magazine—is noteworthy on three counts (appropriate, since so much of the story is dominated by groups of three).  It is the first to have the League travel, not to the usual alien planet for their usual exotic adventures, but to a parallel dimension whose laws are different from those of Earth’s continuum.  Parallel Earths would later become extremely important during the entire Earth I/Earth II conception.   

It’s also the first Justice League story in which the heroes face a team of villains, rather than a single malefactor who hurls various weapons or catspaws against them.   But most importantly in my eyes, it’s the first time writer Gardner Fox, the Silver Age’s most mythologically-skilled writer, managed to use a Justice League story as a playground in which to let an assortment of mythic and folkloric figures hold sway.   Yet, despite the playful quality of the story, there’s a sense that, consciously or otherwise, Gardner Fox imposed an interesting mythopoeic order upon what might look, at first glance, like the usual grab-bag approach to mythology.

The most profitable way to mythologically critique comic books is first to draw general comparisons between the concepts used in a modern pop-fiction story like this one-- henceforth abbreviated as “SotSS”-- and similar concepts from archaic myth.   For instance, one would not ordinarily think that stories from archaic myth had much in common with Fox’s tale of parallel worlds exchanging their very natures.   But archaic tales have similar ideas; they simply aren’t expressed in terminology drawn from science-fiction.   For instance, if mythic tale-tellers want to show the world physically suffering from some usurping power, then such suffering shows up in the form of drought or bad harvests.  And in some cases, one can even find such thought-processes not just in stories, but also in festive rituals like Halloween and the Roman Saturnalia— two festivals that are obliquely referred to in the course of “SotSS.”

For instance, given that Halloween is traditionally a time that calls up otherworldly spirits-- which is to say, speaking broadly, spirits of the deceased-- it’s probably significant that the three sorcerers discover the Earth-dimension on All-Hallows Eve.   The other festival I mentioned, the Saturnalia, can be discerned more by clues than by overt mention, but as I see it, Saturnalia—the late-December Roman festival from which Christmas more or less inherited its time of celebration—is implicit in Fox’s story.   For Saturnalia was a time in which the celebrants themselves overturned the usual order of things, with slaves being treated like lords and vice versa, and where a commoner was often elected to be a temporary king (perhaps being slain in the end).   Further, the celebration took its name from the Roman harvest-god Saturn, whose legend was loosely grafted onto the myth of Greek Cronos, the Titan who was defeated by Zeus when he attempted to usurp the natural progression of the generations by swallowing his children.   The specific celebration of Saturnalia died out once Christianity held sway, but it seems that the same basic idea informed medieval Europe’s “Feast of Fools,” which carried on Saturnalia’s custom of electing a commoner to be a king, and giving him the rather-significant name of “the Lord of Misrule.”
  



With some of these concepts in mind, let us look at the three sorcerers who cause the dimensional usurpation in “SotSS”:

SATURNA THE LORD OF MISRULE:  The name of this character provides the central clue to the mythic concepts underlying “SotSS,” since that name includes references to both the Saturnalia and to the medieval “Lord of Misrule;” he is also foregrounded as being is the first villain to be encountered and defeated by two of the heroes (Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter).   Interestingly, though nothing in the story explicitly mentions the villain’s godly namesake, or any of the attributes of Saturn (god of the harvest, god of time), Saturna does hurl against the heroes two hybrid creatures—a manticore and a griffin.  It’s of passing interest that some analysts deem hybrid creatures in general to signify transitions of the calendar in archaic times, which might ally the character even more strongly with the notion of cyclical changes during the calendar year; an important element in many archaic myths.   Aside from this association, Saturna’s most important aspect—and one to be compared with the other two villains— lies in the elemental nature of his Magic-Land continental-domain.   This continent is called “Asgard,” though strangely artist Mike Sekowsky draws the villain as a Middle Eastern potentate, but all we see of this Asgard is Saturna’ hideout, which is in (to borrow from Green Lantern’s exposition-heavy dialogue) “the heart of this mighty rock cavern.” 





THE TROLL KING: whereas the other two sorcerers are given Middle Eastern apparel, the Troll King is a bushy-bearded Viking-type whose main resources, as heroes Flash and Wonder Woman discover, are trolls: some of which are giants, while others are dwarfs.   In Scandinavian mythology, of course, trolls are seen as the enemies of both men and gods, and mythologically represent man’s dark, inferior side, but they take on specific “Saturnalia” aspects when one knows that the word “troll” may be derived from Nordic “thrall,” meaning “slave.”   Thus “Troll King” might be deemed another way of saying “king of the slaves,” which gives the name much the same resonance as the title “lord of misrule.”   And while the name of the Scandinavian “home of the gods” was perhaps-whimsically bestowed on Saturna rather than on a fellow who would look more at home in a THOR comic, Fox gives the Troll King’s realm a name borrowed from yet another culture, calling it “Olympia” after the Mount Olympus of the Greek gods.   This “Olympia” is the conceptual opposite of Asgard. for while Saturna made his home in a cave, the castle of the Troll King is located, like Olympus, at the top of a mountain.
  



SIMON MAGUS:  Unlike his two partners, this sorcerer’s name has no strong connection with Saturnalia or its analogue rituals, but it does connote the same general concept of an evil entity that threatens to usurp the natural order.   Just as Saturn is a tyrannical ruler overthrown by Zeus, and trolls are the perennial enemies of the gods, Simon Magus is a semi-historical figure who may have opposed the orthodox Christian church on a number of narrative occasions.   In history, Simon Magus is said to have founded a rival sect of Christians called the Simonians, some of whom worshiped the magus himself as an avatar of Zeus.   In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus attempts to buy supernatural powers from Simon Peter, but his most spectacular challenge to orthodoxy takes place in the apocryphal “Acts of Peter,” where Simon levitates before the Emperor of Rome to prove his power, yet loses out when Peter directs a prayer against Simon, causing the magician to fall to his death.


Fox’s Simon Magus contains no direct references to any of these stories; the most obvious reason for Fox to choose the name was that Simon Magus was the archetypal “evil magician” of Biblical times.  And yet, though there’s no way to know whether or not Fox knew that Simon had been worshipped as an incarnation of Zeus, the odd thing is that Simon is given a Zeus-like aspect.   Some may remember, for instance, that when Zeus deposes Saturn (in Greek, Cronos), Zeus then divides the world between himself and his brothers Hades and Poseidon: Hades gets the underworld (which essentially allies him to the earth beneath which his realm lies), Poseidon gets the sea, and Zeus takes the airy regions of the heavens.   And yet, some authorities also believe that the three brother-gods are all just aspects of Zeus himself (since Zeus was sometimes given unheavenly-sounding titles, like “Zeus Chthonios,” Zeus of the Earth).   


Certainly that is the case with Fox’s Simon, anyway. The three heroes sent to round him up—Superman, Batman, and Aquaman— find that Simon is “ruler of the air, land, and sea,” and that they must combat Simon separately in three different regions of his continent.   Superman challenges him in “his floating air-castle” (the heavens), Batman pursues him in a forest (the earth), and Aquaman, of course, battles him in “the depths of the Magic-Land oceans” (the sea).   However, there is only one Simon: he is able to disappear from the clutches of Superman and Batman when each of them bests him, but when Aquaman bests him in the ocean, he can no longer flee and must capitulate.   And to put the mythic icing on the cake, even though the Magic-Land continent ruled by Simon is seen to have elements of air, sea, and earth about it, its name refers to only one of those elements, for the continent’s name is—“Oceana.”  (The true mythic-nitpicker will know that, while there was no “Oceana” in myth as there was an “Asgard” and an “Olympia”-- sort of-- but that the name sounds a lot like "Oceanus." This figure was a Titan, like Zeus’ oppressive father Saturn/Cronos, and was thus one of the generation Zeus confined to Tartarus. In addition, the name was sometimes used to designate a gigantic “ocean-stream” that encompassed the Earth.




And what should one make of all these mythic details?  To be sure, none of them occurred to me when I first read and enjoyed “SotSS” as a young adolescent.   But now, even though I know they were not necessary to my enjoyment as a child, these details suggest to me that the story’s author was able, if only unconsciously, to encode a simple-seeming boy’s story with some of the deeper resonances one can find in archaic myth.  Such resonances may not mean a great deal to many readers, especially in a time when most authors and readers would not know Simon Magus from Simon Templar. Still, I enjoy seeing that at least one comics-writer read mythology deeply enough, poetically enough, to “overturn” one’s expectations on what a boy’s comic should be about.                   

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

STORMING THE THRESHOLD PT. 2

In Part 1 I referenced a trio of scenarios that I'll henceforth call the "Anti-heroic Trio," with reference to this 1992 Hong Kong superhero film. The Anti-Heroic Trio lists the three most common scenarios by which a given work might appear to be combative when it is not, using as examples plays from the pen of the Bard of Violence.

If I belabor these matters, it's because I myself have so frequently found myself re-thinking my categorizations. I chronicled here some of the difficulties I've had in isolating the special character of the combative mode from other modes that are proved conflictive in nature. Aside from the difficulties mentioned in this essay and its links, I'll note that sometimes I've looked back at certain reviews on my film-blog and realized that I incorrectly categorized them. When I originally typed my 2011 review for DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and my 2012 review for DOCTOR GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, I classed both of them as combative simply because there was some sort of "fight-scene" at the conclusion. I amended both reviews later on, but the lesson is clear. If I, the person attempting to promote the concept of the combative mode, could get misled by the presence of a fight-scene, then it would be all the harder for anyone else to see the difference between a subcombative fight and a combative one. This is a concern to me not so much for what I write on this blog, which as I've said is principally pure theory, but for what I might write in future. I'm meditating how I might,  if I so chose, approach these subjects in the form of a book, but without invoking the heavy-duty philosophical thinkers that would scare away not only the average reader of superhero comics, but also the critics, so many of whom flatter themselves as educated but are content to dismiss thinkers like Nietzsche as irrelevant.

My November essay ACTIVE SHARE, PASSIVE SHARE contributed to my recent attempt to imagine domains as having thresholds, principally as a way of characterizing the different ways that megadynamicity can manifest in the "dynamic-sublime domains." I said in STORMING PART 1 that "HAMLET does not cross [the threshold] at all, while TITUS and CORIOLANUS do" -- reason being the way in which the latter two create at least one megadynamic presence of a naturalistic nature. An example of a Shakespeare work that "storms" across the threshold because it does possess all the aspects of the combative mode would be HENRY IV PART 1, given that the playwright fudges with history in order to give the audience a stimulating confrontation between Henry IV and his rival Hotspur.

Without resorting to this sort of conceptual illustration, I can see why even a fair-minded skeptic might have a difficulty with my reasons for saying that the 1976 KING KONG is subcombative even though it utilizes some though not all of the narrative tropes that make the 1933 classic combative. I could well understand such a skeptic saying, "So what if the later film only uses copters to attack Kong, while the earlier one uses biplanes? So what if '76 Kong doesn't fight as many big beasties as the '33 original? It still has roughly the same type of fights, so why isn't it 'combative?'"

Similarly, the same skeptical argument could be raised with regard to the giant-monster films of Eugene Lourie, both his BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH. As much as their cinematic progenitor, the 1933 King Kong, both depend on giant critters wreaking havoc in big cities and then being defeated by whatever forces human beings can muster against them. In the end, no matter what specific arguments I put forth, they boil down to the subjective feeling that BEAST only tromps its way over the megadynamicity threshold, while BEHEMOTH "storms" across, in part because it shows a greater propensity toward the "dynamic-sublime."

On a less monumental level, most of the "invisible man" films I've reviewed merely step across the threshhold, such as the 1933 INVISIBLE MAN, its first sequel, and the franchise's one distaff iteration.  Only one film in the Universal series, INVISIBLE AGENT, conveys a sense that the invisible individual is truly challenged by the "might" of his adversaries, and so I can only picture that film as making the threshold-passage a "stormy" one.

Only time will tell if this tempestuous line of thought proves useful in my attempts at simplifying my formulations for a more general audience.

Monday, January 4, 2016

STORMING THE THRESHOLD PT. 1

Recently I've been making a number of attempts to illustrate my various conceptual principles as "domains," in posts like this one and this one. This returned me to a line of thought dealing with the idea of "threshold experiences." I haven't dealt with the topic on this blog very often, the most pertinent post being my meditations on Philip Wheelwright's theories in the 2011 essay FOUNTAIN, FOUNTAIN, BURNING BRIGHT.

Another significant theme Wheelwright explores throughout FOUNTAIN is what he calls "the intrinsically threshold character of experience"... in a sense a tremendous amount of my theory involves movements from one phenomenolgical threshold to another.
In that essay, I addressed the ways the concepts of the NUM theory shade into one another, but I could also have spoken of the three dynamicities I formed in this 2012 essay. During this period I drew heavily upon Kant's concepts of "might" and "dominance" to describe two opposed types of narrative use of power/ dynamicity:


"Might," as situated in Kant's argument, is simply a superior force amid inferior ones.  This would parallel the type of story in which there exists an anomalous force (say, the vampire Dracula) with which a group of ordinary people must contend.
"Dominance" generates a very different type of plotline, in which at least two superior forces are arrayed against one another.  
During the following year I invoked this Kantian opposition in THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS, but I gave it a Nietzchean spin with regard to its ethical significance (with the usual caveat that unlike me, neither philosopher was writing primarily about art/literature):

(1) Megadynamicity, the level of extraordinary strength, is the narrative "proof of strength" in that its very excessiveness suggests a propensity to transcend ordinary limits.
(2) Mesodynamicity and microdynamicity, the levels of "good" and "poor" strength, cannot be used in narrative to prove the nature of strength because by their respective natures they are determined by limitation.

The above statement regarding "might" focuses upon the disparity of dynamicites: "a superior force amid inferior ones," while the statement regarding "dominance" posits "at least two superior forces." Both of these forms of literature can be indicative of what I called "the proof of strength," as opposed to those types in which no forms of superior strength are seen, as with, say, JANE EYRE-- to my mind a fair comparison to DRACULA, given that it mentions the superstition of vampires but there is no invocation of any form of megadynamic presence, not even in the novel's "madwoman in the attic" character. Thus whereas any reasonably faithful iteration of DRACULA can be explored for its relevance to Nietzsche's concept of the "proof of strength through excessiveness," no form of JANE EYRE can be, unless an unfaithful adaptation chose to upgrade one or more of the characters to such a status.

Thus any work of art which depicts even one megadynamic presence has crossed a threshold that separates one from the experience of limitation.

Keeping in mind this extrapolation from the aforementioned "narrative rule of excess," I'll now examine the three examples of subcombative manifestations I listed in MYTHOS AND MODE PART 3. All of my chosen examples-- CORIOLANUS, TITUS ANDRONICUS, and HAMLET-- contain scenes of violence, for as I've stated before, Shakespeare was a playwright with a particular penchant for such scenes. But do they any of them, even given that they are subcombative works, cross out of the threshold of limited violence, where only the "mesodynamic" and the "microdynamic" reign?

CORIOLANUS creates two superior (albeit entirely naturalistic) forces, embodied by its martial title hero and his frequent battle-opponent Aufidius. Thus it does passes the imagined threshold. Because these two superior forces do not extend their initial contention through to the climax, I don't find that the play satisfies my criteria for the combative mode. But it does at least pass the threshold by virtue of showing two such superior forces to have a real existence.

TITUS ANDRONICUS is similar in that the opponents, Titus and Tamora, are masters of the trope I call the "bizarre crime," though the execution of the trope falls into the naturalistic domain.  There's something closer to a "fight" in the way that Titus manages to trump Tamora's abomination with his own Sadean sortie, though again I judged their conflict to be subcombative. Still, even if Titus were purely a Sadean schemer rather than a physically proficient general, that ability to imagine and execute excessive scenarios of slaughter would still cross the threshold, for the idea of dynamicity doesn't connote only physical strength, but also what I've called "potency."

HAMLET, on the other hand, does not really satisfy either criterion. Hamlet and Laertes have a fight at the play's climax, but it's difficult to say for certain whether or not either combatant displays "superior force," which is my reason for deeming it subcombative.

So HAMLET does not cross at all, while TITUS and CORIOLANUS do. How then is their crossing any different from the way a fully combative work makes the transition?

I've chosen the metaphor "storming the threshold"-- as in "storming the heavens"-- to describe the difference. Any subcombative work that creates a megadynamic presence simply steps across the threshold, but a combative work cascades over the threshold like a wind-driven thunderhead. It's because the combative mode gives megadynamic violence this quality that I claimed it has the greatest capacity to evoke the feeling of the dynamic-sublime in this essay:

...what I've called the "combative mode" is an academic way of speaking about an archetypal construct, one that, in my view, is capable of stirring from at least some readers the response of a "hard, gemlike flame" of ecstasy. 

More later.

Friday, January 1, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: "THE MAN WHO MURDERED EVIL" (SUPERMAN #419, 1986)







In contrast to the last Superman null-myth I examined, this story of the Man of Steel is probably barely remembered by fandom. Published in 1986, “The Man Who Murdered Evil” was one of the last stories prior to the John Byrne reboot. Thus it was also one of the last under editor Julie Scwhartz’s long aegis, as well as one of the last Superman stories from frequent contributor Elliot S. Maggin.


Like the “good” myth-comic I examined this week, Maggin’s story is also about the provenance of evil, at least in Superman’s version of the real world. Said story (“Evil” for short) largely draws upon Judeo-Christian notions of sin and temptation. Yet “Evil” takes the essential plot of one of the most famous Old Testament texts—that of Job—and inverts the story, more or less asking, “what if a blameless man, upon being stricken with evil fortune, ceases cleaving to goodness and becomes a literal avatar of evil?”


Readers of the Biblical Job will recall that this is the devil’s argument to God: that Job will abandon the righteous life once it’s clear to him that the universe won’t allot him good fortune in exchange for his good behavior. Something like this happens to the story’s narrator, who introduces himself by a myriad of Satanic names, such as “Old Scratch” and “Sammael,” but for most of the story settles on the Shakespearean cognomen of Iago (perhaps because the playwright calls his Iago a “demi-devil.”)




Iago, who wears a Dracula-esque outfit and boasts reptilian skin and a widow’s peak suggestive of horns, regales the reader with his story. He was once a humble fellow named Arnie Allport, who did nothing but good deeds and who looked like a shorter-haired version of Jesus. He worked tirelessly and thanklessly at senior centers and soup kitchens (what he actually did for a living, Maggin does not mention). While disposing of trash behind the alley of a soup-kitchen, Alport clashed with a costumed figure, whom Iago gives the name “Greeneyes.” Alport struck Greeneyes with a trash-can lid, and then both of them disappeared. Superman, who had been pursuing Greeneyes for reasons that won’t be elaborated until two pages later, gaped in confusion at the vanishing act.


Iago then fills in the blanks for the reader. Though at the story’s opening the narrator implies that he himself was Satan (though that name is not actually used), Iago reveals that he has a master, never named or seen except as a Satanic silhouette. This “master of all masters of evil” is the power behind Greeneyes, who is the Master’s emissary in the mortal world. It’s the Master who spirits away Alport, and implicitly destroys Greeneyes, leaving only the emissary’s cloak. The Master brings Alport down to his stygian domain and appoints him the new representative of evil on Earth.


Maggin is maddeningly vague about what’s going on. Is it a possession? Not precisely, though, with a possible eye to the Rape of Persephone, Iago remembers how he, as Alport, was “as virginal as the fresh-blown snow.” Is it a satanic contract? Well, no contracts are signed, though as a result of the Master thrusting Greeneyes’ cape upon Alport, the beleaguered human apparently gives up his soul to the lure of power. The narration of Alport’s experience-- “I was won over to the scents of brimstone, the voices of fire, the ethic of darkness”—again seems to suggest a literal seduction by evil, albeit related in very bad poetry.

Perhaps because the corrupted human has had a glancing encounter with DC’s avatar of true goodness, Iago decides he’ll try to corrupt Superman. One of the villain’s pointless actions is to visit the Daily Planet and to bring forth a few negative aspects of Clark Kent’s personality. Both aspects are banal: Clark berates Perry White for the latter’s forgetfulness and gripes to himself about having to share an elevator with some sweaty fat chicks. Iago’s long con isn’t much more ambitious. He zooms over to the local women’s prison and brings about a jailbreak. Among the female convicts is an obscure character from an earlier Superman tale: Alice Herman, a specialist in plant science. She uses her “yeast cultures” to help the other lady crooks break free. Iago waits until Superman shows up, and then causes Herman to get transformed into a plant-monster with one of her own potions. Iago hopes—for some reason never revealed—that Superman will break his code against killing and slay the plant-woman. Despite Iago’s claim that he’s researched Superman in great depth, this seems like a particularly boneheaded species of wishful thinking. The Man of Steel doesn’t fall into the trap, and Herman reverts to normal. Iago reports his failure to the Master, but remains optimistic that someday he’ll be able to destroy the hero. Given that Iago never appears again, one can fairly imagine that Iago’s master disagreed with the villain’s optimism and simply consigned Iago to the Circle of Deservedly Forgotten Characters.


“Evil” is easily one of the most brain-fried Superman stories, in part because the author is attempting a serious theme but doesn’t give any evidence that he knows what he wants to say. I would think that by the time Maggin submitted the story, he would have known that the Schwartz stable was on its way out, so why attempt to create a new nemesis for the hero; one whom subsequent writers proceeded to ignore? My best guess is that Iago was an inventory idea that Maggin conceived long before he knew his days on the feature were numbered.


Did Maggin have some notion of exploring the way in which pure evil might be born from pure goodness? That too is my best guess, and it’s slightly supported by a line on page five. Superman’s computer tells him that there’s been an “abnormal proliferation of villainy and disaster since Earthfall of the unit Kal-El.” Since this oracular pronouncement puts Superman on the trail of Greeneyes, the conclusion might be that Greeneyes stepped up his game to compensate for the goodness of Superman—but the phrasing almost implicates Superman himself in the evil. Certainly Arnie Alport is, like the Man of Steel, a “blameless man.” And that in itself doesn’t prevent the seduction by evil—though Maggin never really specifies the nature of the evil to which Alport succumbs. Even one moment in which Alport showed some “green-eyed jealousy” of another person—which would have justified the puzzling Shakespeare-citation—would have lent a little more coherence to this disjointed mess. 

And don't even ask me what the heck the title means. Maybe it's a reference to the fact that Greeneyes apparently "dies" as the result of Alport's clash with him-- though the Evil One is the real murderer, so Iago's claim to  being evil's murderer is, to say the least, overstated.