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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...

Friday, May 27, 2016

FANTASIES OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE

In my review of Wally Wood's THE KING OF THE WORLD, I had to give some thought as to what Fryean mythos it fit. I alluded to the differences between Wood's work and the work of Tolkien, whose Middle-Earth tales had some degree of influence upon KING.

Tolkien's good characters are largely good all-through, except when unduly influenced by the corruption of the One Ring. But not only is Odkin a natural born deceiver himself, he clearly lives in a world where deceit lurks around every corner. This aligns KING OF THE WORLD with Frye's concept of the "irony-mythos," which I'll discuss in a separate essay.
When Northrop Frye used the term "irony" as a category for a type of storytelling, he was of course aware that the word originally connoted a sort of intentional deceit, as per Merriam-Webster; "the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny."

But the nature of irony is elusive, and is often confused with comedy. I've discussed the difference in various essays and won't repeat it here. But it's far more rare to see the "mortificative" effects of the irony-mythos strongly associated with the "invigorating" effects of the adventure-mythos. The majority of ironic jests at the expense of heroes and heroic fantasy are usually too emotionally distanced to allow for invigoration, a pattern seen in such films as 1967's FEARLESS FRANK and 2013's THE LONE RANGER. In my essay SOMETIMES THEY WIN, SOMETIMES THEY LOSE I noted the opposed dynamic of the two mythoi:

...the function of *adventure* is "to impart to the audience the "invigorating" thrill of victory, with little if any "agony of defeat," while in contrast "the heroes of ironic narratives usually don't win, but when they do, it's usually a victory in which the audience can place no conviction."

And yet, though I hold to the belief that every coherent story is dominated by one myth-radical, it's not impossible to juggle the fundamental appeals of two or more mythoi so that they *seem* almost inextricable-- one prominent example being the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries. In A WHIFF OF BAT-IRONY  I wrote:

It's often been observed that the teleseries-producers pursued a two-tier approach with BATMAN.  They knew that children and some adolescents would take the adventure-elements seriously, while the adults would be entertained by the ironic distancing conveyed by the dialogue and some of the more overtly absurd situations (e.g., Batgirl almost fails to rescue Batman and Robin from a death-trap because she's careful to obey local traffic laws).  Yet, because of the two-tiered approach, Dozier and Co. couldn't avoid validating-- rather than subverting-- the most representative element of the adventure-genre: the *agon*, the fight-scene in which good wins out over evil.

My initial difficulties in determining the myth-radical of KING OF THE WORLD may have stemmed from the fact that Wood also pursued something of a two-tier approach. As I stated in the review, Wood's original idea for his fantasy was formed in his childhood, and so the adult Wood surely wanted to call to mind his youthful, "innocent" love of fantasy-tropes in the course of KING. Thus KING shows invigorative elements as the young, somewhat cynical hero encounters simple wonders like an eye in the door of Alcazar's sanctum--



Or when Odkin finds himself caught up in the fury of large-scale battles, as if he had wandered into the world of Hal Foster's PRINCE VALIANT (reputedly one of Wood's early loves).





But note that even on the page depicting pitched battle, there's an element of deceitfulness that would have been foreign to Foster's classical-art approach. Odkin's people "the Immi" ally themselves to human soldiers against the Un-Men, and they battle with a "two-tiered approach," the Immi striking low while the soldiers strike high. The page even ends with the main character appearing to flee the battle. As it turns out, Odkin has fled to enlist the help of the giants called "the Earthmen," which became the cover-image of the original release.



But despite all these moments of exciting adventure, the reader loses some conviction in the significance of the victory for assorted reasons-- the main one being the final page, wherein Odkin realizes that the sword's influence is making him uncharacteristically heroic. He tries, and fails, to fling the sword away, and so the installment ends with the picture of him being obliged to pursue the role of stalwart hero.

There's nothing comparable to this will-lessness in William Dozier's BATMAN. Dozier's hero may be corny and square as hell, but no one forces him to dress up in a bat-suit. Dozier mocked a lot of the heroic fantasies associated with superheroes, but as I said above, the *agon,* the fight-scene, still carries its invigorating charge, even with the POWs and BAMs inserted-- largely because Dozier guessed that the younger part of his audience would not accept Batman being turned into a comic stumblebum.

In contrast, Wood's long association with the fantasy-genre gave him an almost peerless ability to conjure forth spectacles of exciting, enthralling strangeness. However, perhaps because the domain of comic books was a cutthroat business, or perhaps because he gained signal fame through his association with EC Comics, Wood chose to undercut the fantasies of heroism with Odkin-- whose wits and survival skills become the tools of a manipulative, if benign, controller.

What's interesting is that while Dozier's creative choices may have been informed by his reading of television audiences, Wood was seeking to create an audience for his own work. He could have done a "fantasy of innocence" that was barely influenced by the "fantasies of experience:" a work fully in the tradition of Tolkien, if not Foster. Yet KING OF THE WORLD, when read attentively, is a deeply ironic narrative that would seem to reflect Wood's own acerbic personality, at least far more than a straight Tolkien knock-off would have.

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