Featured Post

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, March 9, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "WILD RICE" (THE SPIRIT, 1948)

This down-side of the "myth of money" appears the year after the more jovial P"Gell story, and this time Eisner is concerned with tragedy, not comedy.




The titular character's real name is Rice Wilder, though she garners the nickname "Wild Rice" because she rebels against her privileged life. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Rice-- whose image Eisner specifically modeled upon that of upper-crust film star Katharine Hepburn-- experiences a feeling of being "trapped in a world of gold and jewels that made an invisible cell around her." She runs away from her overprotective family a few times, and when she commits a few petty thefts, her family's wealth protects her from the consequences of these actions. She allows herself to participate in a "business-merger" type of marriage, but rejects her husband's embrace at the wedding reception. The unnamed husband is only seen in one panel and so does not stand as a character in his own right; he's merely another manifestation of the world of privilege that imprisons Rice.

However, as Rice flees to her room, she discovers a petty thief attempting to loot the place. He slaps her down before she can alert the partygoers, but the pain actually intrigues her. Presumably Eisner didn't wish to suggest that Rice was any sort of masochist, merely that the experience of being struck provided a huge contrast to the sterility of her rich girl's life.  Her very next words are to ask the thief is his life is "exciting," but he's only concerned with getting his loot and leaving, though he does evince a small attraction for the "society dame." This niggling validation inspires Rice to force him to take her away from her cloistered existence, particularly when she tells him that she recognizes him from wanted posters as "Mike Caliban."

Caliban reluctantly takes her along, but romance isn't on his mind; by the next day he's sent a ransom note to Mister Wilder (like the unnamed husband, barely a character at all). The Spirit promptly gets on the case, and his task is made easier by the fact that Rice decides to take up the role of a gun-moll for real, holding up a bank on her own. It's not clear whether or not Caliban allows her to do this. When Rice returns to Caliban's hideout, she hears him conversing with a confederate about the ransom-scheme. Rice rebels, and Caliban beats her down-- this time, with no suggestion of any sexy turn-ons. The Spirit, having traced Rice's path thanks to her careless clue-leaving, intrudes on the scene, and informs Rice and the two thugs that a squad of cops are waiting outside.

Caliban's crook-buddy tries to rush out of the hideout, and is shot down, though not killed. The Spirit tries to persuade Caliban to give up without violence, but he's concerned with being tried for ransom. He pathetically asks Rice to intercede; to admit that she went along of her own free will-- and though she's seen him for what he is, she agrees to testify to the truth. After Caliban gives up-- though his buddy remains wounded and defensive-- Rice tries to make a break for it herself, less because she fears prison than because she's never been able to attain the freedom she's desired. She bursts out of the hideout, only to be shot dead by the wounded hoodlum. Yet she dies with a smile on her lips, regarding death as the freedom she's always sought.

I don't want to over-interpret Eisner's unquestionable Shakespearean reference, but I don't think it's sheer chance that he appropriates the name "Caliban." The Bard's character is a brute whom the play's leading-lady rejects outright, and his sexual attempt on Miranda is a classic example of "lower class" trying to infringe on an "upper class" specimen of femininity. Though Eisner provides no other references to "The Tempest," it seems probable that the comics artist is reversing the playwright's meaning: this time it's the privileged upper-class female who foolishly seeks freedom with a brutish lower-class crook. Given the limitations of story-length, Eisner provides no details as to why Rice felt so restricted by upper-class life, but her unhappy fate may be glossed by the more eventful lives of characters like P'Gell and Silk Satin. The "femmes fatales" of the Spirit don't depend on men or other women to give them what they need; they learn how to employ womanly wiles to achieve their ends. Rice, for all of her rebelliousness, still wants someone to extend to her the "silver spoon" of happiness-- and in Eisner's world, total dependence on others, even if it doesn't lead to actual death, comprises an ineluctable dead end.


No comments: