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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


I've commented numerous times on the positive effect of the "long arc" form of narrative on the potential mythicity of stories. However, as with everything else there are good and bad ways to pursue the structure of the long arc. It's for this reason that I've found it hard to discern a mythic underthought in many of the influential Claremont X-MEN stories. The potential is always there, but Claremont always seemed in a hurry to tick off plot-points, so that he often neglected to get the full mythopoeic potential out of his situations. However, I will admit that the bigger an author's ensemble gets, the greater will be his tendency to tick off plot-points.

The Marvel team THE DEFENDERS, launched in 1971, was a refreshing change from most of the Marvel titles of the period, with their heavy emphasis on a soap-operatic form of plotting. The project's initiator Roy Thomas had been as instrumental as any other writer, save Stan Lee, in the use of soap-opera plotting, as indicated by his long run on the AVENGERS title. In contrast, DEFENDERS seemed a comparative throwback to Marvel's Golden Age, in which powerhouses like the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner occasionally teamed up purely to beat up a lot of Axis opponents. DEFENDERS, which started out as a teamup of Doctor Strange, the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner, was similarly uncomplicated by subplots: the three powerhouses simply encountered the menace of the month and kicked its ass.

Continuing plot-lines did surface, of course, along with some melodramatic content, and many of these featured the ongoing character of The Valkyrie, who debuted in issue four and remained with the group for most of its run. However, subplots were not a major focus of the title in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, of course, Claremont's X-MEN had become the defining model for team-up books, and in the last few years of the DEFENDERS title the group become more like a standard Marvel ensemble-title. The three powerhouses of the original book had been sidelined as the creators chose to combine a motley crew of characters to become "The New Defenders." The new team was comprised of three characters from the original 1960s X-title (Angel, Beast, and Iceman), one from the AVENGERS of the 1970s (Moon Dragon), the perennial Valkyrie, and one team-member created explicitly for the title, The Gargoyle (about whom, the less said the better).

The last phase of the DEFENDERS title was written first by J.M. deMatteis and later by Peter B. Gillis, while most of the issues were drawn by Golden Age artist Don Perlin. None of them did their best work on the title, and Perlin's work, while competent, was not likely to win favor with eighties X-fans whose idea of good art started and ended with John Byrne. Most of the stories from this period are horribly complicated, and the characters rarely if ever have room to "breathe," strangled as they are by an overabundance of plot-threads.

One issue, however, managed to focus on a particular character's psychological struggle without neglecting the role of the other ensemble-members: "Hungry Like the Wolf." To be sure, it's not a stand-alone story as several preceding issues are devoted to examining the situation of Moon Dragon. The character's brief tenure as a superhero in AVENGERS did nothing to eradicate her long-standing "god complex," and in that title her former allies are forced to bring her to justice when Moon Dragon attempts to become a tyrannical deity on an alien world. Her fellow Avenger Thor hauls the would-be god before the Asgardian lord Odin, who once sentenced Thor himself to mortality as a means of promoting his humility. The Omnipotent One imposes a similar verdict on Moon Dragon. while on Earth, she must wear a metal headband to curtail her mental powers. She ends up in the company of the Defenders but keeps seeking ways to remove her imprisoning band, Finally, in issue #139, she has a sort of psychological meltdown, shown below:

The dominant plotline, though, is not directly about Moon Dragon. Angel gets wind of mysterious murders being committed on the reservation of the Jicarilla Apaches. While investigating, the group meets and joins with Native American hero Red Wolf (long without a regular berth since the cancellation of his title in the mid-1970s). When the heroes descend into a mine associated with the murders, they are translated into another world: the domain of Asgard's trolls. The trolls capture the heroes, and their leader reveals that he's crafting a new array of weapons for an assault on Odin. To this end, the trolls have been capturing Apache victims to drain them of their blood, that mortal fluid being necessary to temper the trolls' newly forged weapons.

Though Jack Kirby was the pre-eminent designer of many Marvel Comics characters, his trolls in the THOR title were just big hairy orange-skinned guys: they're nothing to conjure with. Perlin's consciously crude approach to the villains' rendering actually makes them look more imposing, like the hideous boogiemen they are in European folktales.

I must admit that there's nothing startlingly original about Gillis' plot: in some ways it's a standard Marvel situation, wherein a character with delusions of grandeur gets his or her ears pinned back. Indeed, one of Marvel's earliest continuing characters starts out as a guy getting a lesson in humility. But Gillis does strive, more than most mainstream authors of the time, to make Moon Dragon's struggle mythically resonant. I don't even need to get into the involved subplot about her association with an alien temptation-figure: the core of her personal struggle is that she wants to rebel against Odin's authority, and she gets the opportunity to do so when the trolls' leader offers her a Faustian bargain. With just a little help from her, he can take off the restricting headband, which he wants for his own purposes. Moon Dragon, still shaky from her earlier ordeal, is mightily tempted, but at the last moment she not only refuses the bargain, she manages to free her fellows from captivity, resulting in the defeat of the trolls' designs.

I can understand the priorities of those comics-fans who abjure the sort of involved plots in mainstream comics: they like a strong, organized story that shows respect for Aristotle's "unity of action." My take on said unity owes something to the Greek philosopher, but I part company from him in that I don't believe that the conscious "overthought" is the sole definition of a work's dianoia.
I'm influenced by philosophers like Cassirer and Langer, who averred that discursive thought is always preceded by what Cassirer called "mythical thought." A mythic "underthought" needs to be developed, just as a discursive overthought does, but each is developed according to its own dynamic-- and just as real myths are born from dozens of interlacing stories, so too are the mythic underthoughts of modern literature. I admit that some of my liking for "Hungry like the Wolf" may stem from the interaction of familiar Marvel characters like Odin and Red Wolf. Yet Gillis does try to give his pleasingly-vicious trolls some of the archaic diction of fairy tales, rather than the quasi-Shakespearean lingo seen in the Lee-Kirby title. Here's the troll leader, addressing Moon Dragon on the subject of the headband:

"He was ever most fond of rings, was nasty Odin! But we trolls are oldest of smiths-- older than dwarves, older than Aesir!"

And later:

"Odin is mickle (very) powerful, little mind-witch-- but trolls are clever!"

I admire Gillis for sneaking, into a superhero book, a quick reference to the role of rings in Norse literature, a role most popularized in the Niebelungeid (even if that work was more concerned with dwarves rather than trolls). It gives what would otherwise be a standard superhero melodrama a little added depth-- even if the remainder of the title's run unfortunately fell victim to the curse of overcomplication (to say nothing of being cancelled to make way for Jim Shooter's New Universe).

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