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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...

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "THE ADVENTURES OF PHOEBE ZEIT-GEIST" (1965-66)


Somewhere in Leslie Fiedler's voluminous writings, he asserts-- and I obviously must paraphrase-- that even though Western literature is replete with dozens of images of women suffering cruel fates at the hands of men, this does not necessarily make the women into mere victims. On the contrary, in some cases-- such as the classic English novel CLARISSA, written by one of the founders of modern prose literature-- woman's ability to survive the perils that ought to break her spirit provides proof of her *perdurability.*

"Perdurability," though not exactly a commonplace word, would almost do as well for me as "persistence," one of the two literary goal-affects I first categorized amidst these Hobbesian-Bataillean meditations. Persistence is certainly not a quality confined to females, but I'd argue that from one point of view it's possible to assert a logical-- though not to say "necessary"-- correlation between "femaleness" and "persistence," as well as a concomitant correlation between "maleness" and the other goal-affect, "glory."



I don't imagine that Michael O'Donoghue, the writer who created Phoebe Zeit-Geist, was thinking in quite these terms. My reading of PHOEBE is that it was meant as an extreme satire of all the "women in peril" stories that had permeated popular culture for decades. O'Donoghue might not have known Richardson's Clarissa from a hole in the ground (so to speak), but he almost certainly knew of the long tradition of melodramas that placed women in peril, perhaps epitomized by the 1914 film-serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Some of these melodramas put the woman in peril so that she could rescue herself; sometimes she is set up to be rescued by a more dynamic male character. Since O'Donoghue consistently places his heroine in situations where she cannot rescue herself, clearly he expected the audience to default to the latter formula-- for throughout the episodic storyline, Phoebe is almost never rescued in "the nick of time," or if she is, it is only to subject her to some even more terrible danger and/or humiliation.




This isn't to say that O'Donoghue was totally unaware of the more capable heroines of fiction. Indeed, according to an essay on THE COMICS JOURNAL site, the editors of the literary magazine EVERGREEN REVIEW asked O'Donoghue to do something along the lines of Barbarella, the saucy siren of French comics. Barbarella had debuted in 1962 and, according to Wikipedia, had three of her adventures translated for EVERGREEN in the same year that PHOEBE began. Barbarella wasn't exactly a tower of strength in the comics I've read, but she was sometimes capable of extricating herself from trouble, and so, assuming that O'Donoghue even looked at the translations, I'd assume that he decisively rejected that approach. If anything, O'Donoghue's approach with PHOEBE has strong affiliations with the ouevre of Sade, who liked nothing better than images of degraded women, though on occasion he does torture his fictional men as well.



So is PHOEBE ZEIT-GEIST a Sadean work? Well, sort of. Once Phoebe loses her clothes in the opening chapter, her lithe feminine charms remain on constant display throughout the narrative; not even at the conclusion, with its ironic "victory," is she allowed to put on any clothes. So O'Donoghue, whether or not he personally enjoyed his heroine's humiliation, played to the "sexploitational" tastes of some potential readers. Of course, the fact that PHOEBE appeared in a literary magazine meant that it wasn't overtly directed at pure porn-lovers-- not even to the extent that the original BARBARELLA was-- and in theory, one could interpret the trope of continuous exposure as hypothetically ironic. And although Phoebe is subjected to loads and loads of sadistic punishment-- including being killed outright-- O'Donoghue treats these torments in a much more cartoonish fashion than Sade. Sade would certainly never conjure up an Eskimo magical ceremony to restore one of his deceased victims, and if he had one of those victims beat to a pulp by a huge lesbian (O'Donoghue's cunningly named "Blob Princess"), Sade would have savored every wound. But when Phoebe endures this fate, she somehow suffers pain without having any wounds to mar her flesh, at least as rendered by Frank Springer's luscious, Caniff-style artwork.

I called the work episodic, and therefore there's no point in summarizing the faux-plot. What makes the work mythic, however, is the over-the-top inventiveness with which O'Donoghue tortures his bizarrely named heroine. He also takes a number of shots at other contemporary forms of pop culture. At one point the author teases the reader into thinking that Phoebe may be rescued by a super-competent Bond-like agent, only to have him killed out of hand before he even begins the case.

Strangely, though the satirist's intention may have been to lampoon popular fiction-formulas-- like having Phoebe facing the prospect of rape by a Komodo lizard-- there's a sense in which he reveals his own dependence on those formulas. O'Donoghue sets things up so that the reader never sees what happens to his imperiled heroine, thus making fun of the reader's desire to see the narrative played out. And yet, not fulfilling the narrative expectations is just as much a storytelling trope as fulfilling them. I would say that when O'Donoghue simply shows Phoebe surviving the ordeal without explanation, he's simply tapped into tropes like those of the animated cartoon, where the characters can survive insane violence for no reason but because the author says that they can. By conjuring up so many stock villains to menace Phoebe-- Nazis, poncey gays, lesbians, foot fetishists-- O'Donoghue gives them new life in this ironic form, rather than undermining their influence by creating new and more viable menaces. In any case, Phoebe may not really be a *femme formidable,* but she is at least a *femme perdurable.*

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