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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...

Monday, February 29, 2016

THE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE PT. 3

In the end, no matter what specific arguments I put forth, they boil down to the subjective feeling that BEAST [FROM 20,000 FATHOMS] only tromps its way over the megadynamicity threshold, while [THE GIANT] BEHEMOTH "storms" across, in part because it shows a greater propensity toward the "dynamic-sublime."-- STORMING THE THRESHOLD PART. 2.

I don't know how important yet another new term will prove to the ongoing evolution of my lit-crit theory, but I've been thinking about giving a name to this "greater propensity" since late last year. I reread THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA around that time, and so found myself meditating further on Nietzsche's complex theory of "self-overcoming," particularly in COMBAT PLAY PT. 4.

In this essay I wrote: "Only those who consciously admitted the allure of mastery, of wielding power over others, had any true capacity for self-overcoming." Since the German term for this process proves unwieldy, I considered coining a term along the lines of "the overcoming factor" that could applied not to human societies-- which is Nietzsche's focus-- but to literary creations as imagined representations of power relations. But "overcoming factor" would be something that might require re-explanation over time.

Wheelwright's term "amplitude," which he applies to differing levels of poetic resonance, suggested itself as a substitute-- partly because the word connotes the quality of being ample, and thus coheres with my formulation of THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS. But in addition, "amplitude" has a more physical connotation, one akin to the geometrical representations I used hereThis Wiki essay cites the use of the term in classical physics, and the amplitude-type that most coheres with my metaphor would seem to be that of "peak amplitude:"

If the reference is zero, [peak amplitude] is the maximum absolute value of the signal; if the reference is a mean value, the peak amplitude is the maximum absolute value of the difference from that reference.


Even a hypothetical "zero" would not really apply to either of my two modes: the combinatory mode or the dynamicity mode. With regard to the first, in past essays I've subscribed to Wheelwright's view that even the simplest form of symbolic discourse, the "monosignative," always has a potential to assume greater levels of symbolic complexity. With regard to the second, I've also noted that even characters that register as "microdynamic" may have some minor abilities in the realm of self-defense, as shown by the example of Vicky Vale in this essay. Therefore, the base level of both "monosignativity" and "microdynamicity" should be seen as a "mean value" of what is possible within a fictional universe.

"Peak amplitude," then, represents the artist's ability to go beyond the mean values of both modes, and to "storm" into the more rarified domains of the sublime. Of course the artist will always have some need of the mean values, what I've also called "the purely functional." But the term amplitude may serve better to bridge abstract concepts like "functional" and "super-functional," or any other such concepts I continue to explore here.



Friday, February 26, 2016

THE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE PT. 2

In Part 1 I pointed out that even in stories of high mythicity, not all characters are given super-functional treatment, and that indeed even the characters who are the stars of the show-- characters who may have garnered many archetypal associations in past stories-- may be given purely functional treatment. My opening example was JUSTICE LEAGUE #2, in which the starring heroes take a symbolic back seat to the villains.


On Dictionary.com, "amplitude's" primary defintion is as follows:

the state or quality of being ample, especially as to breadth or width;
largeness; greatness of extent.
Philip Wheelwright invokes the term as a metaphor for explaining why "certain particulars have a more archetypal quality than others." I've correlated this insight with my distinction between "functional" and "super-functional" modes, which appears early in this blog's history, before my acquaintance with Wheelwright, to the best of my recollection.

It occurs to me that in one previous essay, though I was not employing the term "amplitude" at all, I referred to something very similar, when I wrote that "the aspect of the combinatory-sublime may affect the way in which a given protagonist's *dynamis* is received." To illustrate this, I compared two stories in which a murder gave rise to an avenging spirit.

One was the origin story of the Spectre. As Jim Corrigan, he's murdered by mobster Gat Benson. Corrigan's spirit becomes the Spectre, who avenges his murder and then goes on to haunt other criminals as well.



The other was a stand-alone film, TOPPER RETURNS. An innocent woman, Gail Richards, is murdered by a masked man. Gail comes back as a ghost who wants to know who killed her, and so she enlists the aid of befuddled Cosmo Topper to do so. Gail's ghostly powers are much more modest than those of the Spectre, but she can turn invisible and hit people as if she were solid-- which she does in a scene where she fends off the masked murderer before he can kill again. In the end the killer is exposed as a schemer named Carrington, who didn't even mean to murder Gail, but rather her heiress friend.





In both films, the mundane murderer really has no chance to fight back against the ghostly avenger. This alone might mark both stories as subcombative going by the "Hamlet example" I cited here,though in contrast to Shakespeare's play it's the antagonist, not the protagonist, who isn't "sufficient to stand" against a superior force. If the SPECTRE story had appeared as a one-shot horror tale, I would have no problem in deeming it as just as subcombative as TOPPER RETURNS. But patently the murder of Corrigan is a setup for the Ghostly Guardian's continuing adventures, and Gail Richards' murder served no such purpose. Further, though the Spectre's mundane opponents in general aren't able to give the hero much of a fight, they still have something of a super-functional quality in that "criminals in THE SPECTRE represent more than just ordinary crooks: collectively they are the evil that forces the undead avenger to keep up his crusade, rather than going to his eternal rest."

I might have added that Gat Benson and his thugs also demonstrated greater dynamicity than Cartington, who did nothing more formidable than strangle an unskilled woman. By the principles I established here, Gat Benson and all similar mundane Spectre-opponents might be deemed as occupying the "lower level of megadynamicity," simply for having enough moxie to prove an impediment to a godlike opponent. This moxie gives all of the mundane gangsters in THE SPECTRE "the quality of being ample," for which Wheelwright's term "amplitude" may prove efficacious.

In the same essay I also wondered if the killer in TOPPER RETURNS might have registered as a more formidable opponent had he shown some "more prepossessing aspect." I neglected to mention that he does at least don a concealing hat, mask, and dark clothes to commit his murder, but I don't attribute any "quality of being ample" to these. The outfit Carrington wears is merely functional, in contrast to that of some of the other dark-clad uncanny types I've recently reviewed on my film-blog, such as 1932's THE NIGHT RIDER and 1933's THE SHADOW.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

ASSORTED STAN STUFF

From a current argument on THE BEAT:

First I wrote:

The point IMO is that Stan is there to communicate the fact of authorship at all, as opposed to the days when outsiders never gave a thought as to who created Superman and Batman. Even when Jerry Siegel tried to sue over ownership of Superman in the 70s, it took considerable time for wire services to even bother to cover the story, according to Larry Tye’s findings.
If you want to believe that Stan stole all the credit for the Marvel works, you’ve got a lot of company, because it’s a familiar knee-jerk response in fandom. But the question of authorship is one that anyone can investigate if they care to do so.I believe that while Lee’s claim to complete authorship is exaggerated, but I believe the claims of Ditko and Kirby are just as exaggerated. But why do fans only attack Lee for his exaggerated claims, but allow Ditko and Kirby to skate on by? (Reisman comes close to this as well; he just barely mentions any questionable aspects of these artists’ outsized claims.)
I know that mainstream audiences are not likely to investigate anyone’s claims in detail, just as they were willing for many years to think that Walt Disney created all the Disney projects. The important thing is not the masses, who will never remember such details. My concern is that at least some of the intelligentisa– genuine or would-be– can even grasp the fact of comics-book authorship. If THEY don’t do their bloody research, that’s not Lee’s fault.

And then I wrote:

Lee certainly can't be blamed for the media's indifference to the careers of the many people who didn't work with him in any significant way. Such names would include the aforementioned Jerry Siegel (who just barely contributed a few scripts to Marvel before he left, possibly with the intent of biting Lee's style with the Archie line of "Mighty Comics"), Joe Kubert, John Broome, Gardner Fox, Alex Toth. The media didn't care if any of them were doing great work or crappy work, because all comics were crappy by definition. You can blame Lee for his own crappy work, but he didn't create the dominant prejudice against comics of all kinds.

Lee was the only one the media paid attention to, and that's not because he kept all of his employees in obscurity. It was because he knew how to perform in public, how to give audiences what they wanted. He sold his comics as being different from everything that had come before. That was some truth and some falsehood to that, as there was in his claim to have originated everything. I don't believe that he originated everything, but I do believe that he gave Kirby, Ditko and everyone else who worked under him some degree of guidance, always oriented on what he felt would sell to the public. 


Finally,

I'm talking about authorship, and have been since I mentioned "the presence of real comics creators" in my first post. I'm sure his position on character-creation is influenced by legal considerations, so that it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Legally, an "honorary co-credit" is all that Lee had the power to bestow in terms of the matter of creation, at least as long as he was a Marvel employee. But because he wanted to sell the personalities behind Marvel Comics as much as he wanted to sell the characters, Lee frequently praised his collaborators to the heavens. That's one of the big reasons that I credit him with creating much of the debate we have today about authorship. Even the fact that Lee credited Kirby with inventing the Silver Surfer ironically abetted many of Kirby's later outsized claims that he Kirby did everything.

Monday, February 22, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "SCALP HUNTER" (TOMAHAWK #133, 1971)



Though Native Americans arguably got no better treatment from the white citizens of early America than did people from Africa and Asia, "Indians" excited the imagination of the European mind, both on the continent and in the U.S. Noble red men-- and sometimes equally noble red women-- appear in great profusion in most of the fiction we deem "westerns." Arguably one might rename the genre 'frontier stories," since many of the stories took place in the Eastern United States-- thus becoming "eastern westerns," as some wit styled them. One such example is DC Comics' original TOMAHAWK series, whose original adventures rarely strayed past Texas.

As this reproduction of the first Tomahawk story shows, Tomahawk's heroic path is thoroughly imbricated with that of the Red Man. Though he's already an adult when he receives tutelage from a kindly Indian tribe, he becomes an expert in woodcraft and even modifies his regular name, Tom Hawk, to one emblematic of Indian culture. In the first story he even has an Indian girlfriend-- Fenimore Cooper would never have approved!-- but I presume that she was never seen again.

However, the idea of white/red intermingling reappeared toward the end of the DC series. During the late 1960s the title was faltering under the aegis of talents like Ed Herron and Fred Ray, so there was an attempt in the last years of editor Murray Boltinoff's reign to give Tomahawk's frontier adventures a more realistic edge. TOMAHAWK #131, which began Joe Kubert's editorship, tried one last-ditch effort to revitalize the title, retitling the feature "Son of Tomahawk" (albeit only on the cover; the indicia-title stayed the same). In this reworking, a young Tomahawk met and married an Indian woman, settled down, and raised a family. Given that the original character's adventures always took place prior to the end of the Revolutionary War-- and given that Tomahawk and his wife were drawn to look like they were in their sixties in SON OF TOMAHAWK-- it would appear that it took a while for the couple to conceive, for "Hawk Son of Tomahawk" was portrayed as a tempestuous young man in his twenties. In any case, for the last ten issues of the title, the stories by Robert Kanigher and Frank Thorne depicted the lives of Hawk, his parents, and his little brother Small Eagle as they found themselves continually embroiled in violent conflict, often involving racial tensions (Hawk looked white while his brother looked Indian, but their community knew them both as "half-breeds.")

Most of the Kanigher-Thorne stories are good frontier adventure, but the story entitled "Scalp Hunter" is their most mythic evocation of the racial theme. Hawk finds himself targeted by a cyclopean enemy known only as "Bounty Hunter." (I suspect that the original intention was to call him "Scalp Hunter," since that's the name he's given on the cover; perhaps someone at DC wanted to soften the impact by changing the name inside the comic.) Hunter is a white man who carries around a "trophy pole" adorned with dozens of Indian scalps, but he's never been convicted for murder because he's claimed self-defense every time. The killer targets Hawk, calling him both "injun" and "half-breed," so the young man attempts to leave to protect his family. Hunter captures Hawk and tells him how he became obsessed with murdering every Indian he could find: an Indian raiding-party killed and scalped the man's family while he was away scouting for land on which they could all settle. The horror of his loss so unhinges the Hunter that after he buries his mutilated relatives, he swears at their gravesite to take enough Indian scalps to stretch from the graves to the top of nearby mountain "Snow Peak." For good measure, Hunter even explains the bear-claw necklace he wears; that he stole it from one of a medicine-man victim even as the Indian warned him that the amulet would bring Hunter bad luck.

Though Hunter has Hawk at his mercy, he decides not to shoot him outright-- "That'd be too easy! You're special!"-- but orders to strip off his shirt, gives Hawk a knife and a headstart, and begins to hunt him down. Hunter also strips down but remains armed with a pistol. Hawk, who's stated earlier that he has no Indian woodcraft, has to learn the hard way how to walk softly in the forest, but it doesn't help. Thus he strikes for high ground, scaling Snow Peak (which just happens to be in the area where Hunter took Hawk prisoner). Eventually Hunter triggers an avalanche to deluge the young hero. However, when the villain tries to claim the buried body-- boasting of the "good luck" his amulet has brought him-- Hawk stops playing possum. In the ensuing fight Hunter almost goes over a cliff but catches himself on the edge. Hawk reflects is tempted to let the killer die: "the weight of the scalps he took-- are draggin' him down!" The young hero reconsiders and tries to pull Hunter up, but Hunter refuses his charity and allows himself to fall: "If you wanna beat me, redskin-- you'll have to follow me plumb tuh hell!" Hawk watches the villain fall, laughing all the way. Then he returns home with a token of his adventure; the bear-claw necklace. When his father asks him if he found out "how much o' you is Indian, " Hawk replies, "as much as this claw is bear."

Between them, Hawk and Hunter form two responses to the mythic tension between white and red races. Hawk, of course, signifies the humanity that binds the races as being essentially identical. Hunter, despite his hatred of Indians, has taken up a life that most white people of the time would have deemed "savage," and thus not far from the life of real Indians. Not only has he taken up the practice of scalping, thus imitating the horror perpetrated by his family's killers, he even emulates an Indian-like ritual by hunting Hawk. Kanigher doesn't try to draw a deep portrait of Hunter's racism or his insanity. However, one may speculate that the only reason the character would consider Hawk "special" is because he Hawk is a product of two races, and so Hawk is a living testament that the separation Hunter cherishes can be abolished. Thus he prefers to die with the belief that if he takes his own life, Hawk has not managed to beat him, while to accept Hawk's charity would be to admit that a red man could best him.

I called Bounty Hunter "cyclopean" earlier, because I think Kanigher and Thorne have modeled him on the figure of the cannibalistic giant. though of course Hunter does not literally consume his victims. Even Hunter's insane scheme for vengeance-- to create a trail of scalps connecting his family gravesite to the top of a mountain-- bespeaks the ambition of a giant, rather than that of a merely mortal man.

In the flashback scene, the medicine-man predicts that Hunter will have bad luck if he steals the bear-claw necklace. The trope of the villain "hoist on his own petard" was one commonly used by Kanigher; about a year previous to this story, the author pitted the young Tomahawk against a fiend with a penchant for hangings, who is undone when his scarf gets entangled in a tree-branch, hanging him. However, the bear-claw necklace plays no role in Hunter's defeat. I'll speculate that because of the final parallel between "the claw that is all bear" and "the half-breed who is all Indian" suggests that Hawk himself is Hunter's "bad luck" personified; he masters the killer of red men in a rough parallel to the way men, particularly red men, can master animals. And while Hawk is a liminal figure connecting the worlds of red and white men, the character's final words indicate that the Indian way of existence, of blending with the environment to survive, may be more fundamental than the civilized mode of life-- which may be the very thing that has made Native Americans so popular in popular culture.




Saturday, February 20, 2016

THE BAD APPLE DEFENSE PT. 2

And now for something completely disconcerting-- a meditation on comic-book diversity that isn't based in ideological overthinking. Said meditation was written by Bryan Hill, a ROC (Reader of Color) who refers to DC Comics' Batman as his "personal totem," for reasons that I won't attempt to summarize here. Nevertheless, Hill, while making the upfront admission that "diversity is an uncomfortable conversation," asserts that the very ideal behind Batman runs counter to the lazy stereotyping of POC.

I never minded that Batman didn’t look like me; most old money billionaires didn’t. What began to bother me, over the years I continued reading Batman comics, was the only people who looked like me were the people Batman targeted. My face was never the grand villain with the Aristotelean tragedy. My face was never on the character that elicited both sympathy and fear. My face was on the thug. The people who looked like me sold drugs, mugged people, and they ended with an armored boot in the stomach and a hog-tie from a lamppost.

What's extraordinary about this essay is although this section sounds superficially like hundreds of other complaints about "lack of comic-book diversity," there is at least an attempt to understand that there may be reasons as to why the conversation about diversity might seem "threatening to the pure joy of reading stories." Most persons stumping for diversity cannot even recognize that there might be a conflict between the "entertaining" and the instructive.

In Part 1, I cited my own example of lazy racial caricatures, those of the many "good Indians" and "bad Indians" of American westerns, so I can hardly deny the possibility that most POC characterizations may be lazy as well-- though I read very little current DC. Based on the Batman stories that I do know-- which I consider reasonably thorough up through the 1990s-- I recall few black people at all, either grand villains or street-muggers.

Here's the closest thing the 1970s spawned to a grand Afro-American villain in the Bat-universe.




And here's a scene from DETECTIVE COMICS #421, which may come closer to capturing the undesirable characterizations Hill describes.






I'm not attempting to support or deny Hill's interpretation of what he's read, since a close study of modern Batman comics might indeed show a propensity toward lazy caricatures of POC. But in line with my current theme, I would guess that most if not all of DC writers would justify their use of negative characterizations with some version of the "bad apple defense." I consider this to be a bad defense when used applied to bad work.

Hill doesn't call for a moratorium on the appearance of low-life black crooks in comic books, or accuse writers who have used such characters as racists. He simply calls for more positive role models. And yet, Batman stories are about his encounters with crime, so he's just not going to encounter that many memorable citizens of color, except as victims. as recurring characters involved in Bruce Wayne's life, or-- as villains.

I don't have any solutions to Hill's concerns, but in line with my remarks on Fu Manchu earlier, I think the comic-book world would be improved by the creation of a "better breed" of POC villains. I would not say that racial caricature should play no role, but it should be intelligent caricature when used at all. For instance, I can imagine the political correctness crowd screaming bloody murder at this Luke Cage villain:




However, though I won't say the story is anything but a decent thrill-ride, the Black Mariah character rates as an intelligent use of a ruthless gang-leader, not least because the term "Black Mariah" is allegedly based on an actual black person from 19th-century America. 


That said, I would also like some race-neutral POC villains as well, my favorite being Jim Steranko's one-shot "Centurius" from NICK FURY #2.




In short, even if I might not agree with all of Hill's interpretations, his is a rare voice in asking for an open-ended conversation.

THE BAD APPLE DEFENSE PT. 1

It was [Sax] Rohmer's contention that he based Fu Manchu and other "Yellow Peril" mysteries, and real Chinese crime figures he met as a newspaper reporter covering Limehouse activities.-- Wikipedia essay on Fu Manchu.

I vaguely recall that during one of my arguments on HU, someone, possibly Berlatsky, attempted to distort my position on racial myths by saying something along the line of "well, of course it's OK to say denigrating things about other races, as long as they're *true.*" I add the asterisks to indicate the tone of sarcasm suggested, for clearly the speaker meant that it was not OK.

Thanks to the sanctimonious moralizing of many such Social Justice Warriors, it's impossible to show negative traits in any character of a non-WASP race or ethnicity without being accused of racism, as I've demonstrated in various essays, particularly INCORRECTLY CORRECT, which referred to the character Connie of TERRY AND THE PIRATES as a "racist caricature" without providing any justification for the accusation.

To attack the over-zealousness of the ultraliberal ideologues is not to state that there are no actual racist caricatures. In REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT 2  I expatiated on the ideological idea that all characterizations of outgroups by a dominant ingroup are rooted in the ingroup-subject's projecting onto the outgroup qualities that aren't really there-- irrespective as to whether the qualities are good ("the noble red man") or bad ("the lazy shiftless Negro.")

I am not saying that no projection takes place. Though it's become de rigueur to view the character of Fu Manchu as nothing but a projection of British fears of "the Yellow Peril," I certainly wouldn't deny that such projection is an element of Sax Rohmer's creation, particularly since according to his biography, Rohmer didn't really know much about Chinese culture when he created the character. At the same time, that doesn't mean that every observation Rohmer was automatically incorrect, even if he lacked in-depth knowledge. 

In other words, although Fu Manchu was a fictional creation, he is at last partly indebted to Rohmer's encounter with real-life Chinatown criminals in London-- particularly a man whom Rohmer identified as "Mister King," whose physical features the author ostensibly used as a model for the Master of the Si-Fan.

Now, though ultraliberal ideologues automatically assume that every negative characterization of an outgroup must be an attempt at social control, it's impossible to prove that most creators of fiction are significantly concerned keeping the minorities down, as opposed to those writers who wear their ultraconservative ideology openly, like Thomas Dixon, Jr.  The ultraliberals' solution to this difficulty is to resort to secondhand Freud, as recycled via Barthes: even creators who have no axe to grind subconsciously absorb racist stereotypes, viewing them as "natural" rather than as social constructs.

Sax Rohmer, as I've stated before, was certainly guilty of making racist statements at times. This 2011 blogpost  summarizes a scene from the second Fu Manchu novel in which Nayland Smith speaks of "the national childishness of the Chinese." That this is a racist caricature, there can be no doubt.




However, I mentioned in RACIAL OTHER 2 that at times Rohmer had characterized Fu Manchu as something of a torture-happy fiend, and this is not necessarily racist-- particularly as we see in a scene from THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, where the devil-doctor is lecturing Nayland Smith and a companion within a room filled with European torture-devices.

Slowly he extended a gaunt hand in the direction of the torture room:
"Medieval devices designed to stimulate reluctant memories."
He stepped aside and took up a pair of long-handled tongs.
"Forceps used to tear sinews."
He spoke softly, then dropped those instruments of agony. The clang of their fall made my soul sick.
"Primitive and clumsy. China has done better. No doubt you recall the Seven Gates? However, these forms of questions are no longer necessary. I can learn all that I wish to know by the mere exercise of that neglected implement, the human will. 

Though the subject matter might seem offensive to many, particularly to persons of Asian ancestry, it should be noted that there's a touch of sly humor here: of Fu Manchu calling attention to the Western world's own history of torture and then dismissing it as inferior to his people's mastery of the arts of pain. At the same time, the narrator adds a qualification to Fu Manchu's behavior that doesn't appear in the earlier scene referenced: that Fu "had the majesty which belongs to great genius, or, and there was a new horror in the afterthought, to insanity. He was perhaps a brilliant madman!"

Though it's been some time since I read all of the Fu Manchu prose novels, I would say that the devil-doctor is more often a racial caricature than a racist one-- in part because Rohmer makes his focal villain so much more interesting than any of the author's other characters. I assume a liberal ideologue would view the imputations of the doctor's "genius" and "majesty" as stereotypical positive qualities that are at base no better than stereotypical negative qualities.

Rohmer's "bad apple defense"-- that Chinese criminals are not representative of the Chinese people as a whole-- is the dominant strategy used by professional fiction-writers who choose to utilize negative characters from stigmatized or marginalized outgroups. Like anything else, the strategy can be used very well or very badly. In my review of the 1935 serial THE MIRACLE RIDER, I called attention to the political implications of the "Vanishing American" trope in that serial and other westerns. My sociological reading bears a slight resemblance to the ideological readings of the ultraliberals, but with the important difference that I, being a more centrist liberal, am not willing to view every portrait of a Native American, good or bad, as some absurd subconscious method of social dominance.

I'll address some other complications of the Bad Apple Defense in Part 2.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: 'SHANG-CHI, MASTER OF KUNG FU" (SPECIAL MARVEL ED. #15, 1973)

Both of the previous examples in "Racial Other Mythcomics Month" reflected both positive and negative aspects to racial heritage. In "The God Killer" the hero, the Black Panther, incarnates the good aspects, while Killmonger and his henchman Sombre incarnate the bad aspects. In contrast, in the "Black Talon" story Strangler Burns, the black murderer whose legacy empowers the Caucasian villain, was shown to embody both negative and positive traits, though Burns himself must be deemed more of a plot-device than a substantial character. The "origin story" for the feature MASTER OF KUNG FU roughly follows the pattern of the Black Panther story, but makes the connection between protagonist and antagonist more intimate, as well as centering their heroic and villainous natures in terms of time.




The cover for "Shang-Chi" is a small masterpiece of design, not just in terms of kinetic effects but also in terms of conjuring with Asian representations from differing eras. Even though this was the hero's first appearance, most if not all comics-purchasers in 1973 would have quickly recognized the iconography of the young Asian kung-fu fighter. This racial icon had by 1973 been popularized in part through English-dubbed martial arts films made in Hong Kong and distributed to the U.S. According to this site and to Wikipedia, the film known in the U.S. as THE CHINESE CONNECTION, released to the States in November 1972, jump-started the brief American kung-fu craze, though the TV pilot for ABC's KUNG FU teleseries contributed as well, airing in February of that year. Both of Shang-Chi's co-creators, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, have asserted in online interviews that the David Carradine TV show was their main source of inspiration, and this is reflected in the characterization of Shang-Chi as an earnest seeker of truth. Even the cover's design uses Chinese iconography to communicate this via the yin-yang symbol on the floor. Note that Shang-Chi's foot stands upon the white, "good" section and his bad sumo-opponent stands in the black, "evil" section-- although some colorist goofed and failed to darken the spot inside the "yang" section.

Looming over Shang-Chi on the cover is the gigantic figure of Fu Manchu, though his name does not appear until the first page of the interior story. Most viewers would automatically call Fu Manchu's image-- given both pointed ears and clawlike fingers-- to be unreservedly racist. I will write no apologias for the pointed ears, but I think it worth pointing out that the widespread icon of the Asian with Clawlike Fingers may have come about as a Western response to the Chinese custom of incredibly long fingernails. For the Chinese long fingernails signified an aristocrat's freedom from the necessities of manual labor, but many Westerners, whether actively racist or not, plainly found the image off-putting and so evolved their own reading of this image. To be sure, as the story reveals, Fu Manchu is an aristocrat in the sense that he hopes to restore the prominence of the Manchu dynasty-- though one cannot necessarily render the same reading for every Asian villain who had "claw" in his name.

Following a stunning action-scene by Starlin-- from back in the days when he could do stunning action-scenes-- Shang-Chi reveals his relationship to the "most infamous villain of all time:"



Having supplied a modicum of action for the impatient reader, Englehart and Starlin then produce in their hero's mind a flashback far longer than any seen on the KUNG FU series. Through dialogue between the son and his sire, it's established that from childhood Shang-Chi has been trained in the martial arts to become a "living weapon." Fu Manchu asserts that he labors ceaselessly for the betterment of the world, and that Shang-Chi's first mission on his father's behalf will be to go to London and assassinate an evildoer named Doctor Petrie. Shang-Chi goes where his father bids him, and though he vacillates when he stands by the bed of an ailing old man, he does slay Petrie with a single blow. However, the unwilling assassin is caught leaving by a gun-wielding old man in a wheelchair: Fu Manchu's long-time adversary Denis Nayland Smith. Shang-Chi disarms Smith, but the older man-- who will in later stories become a new father-figure to the martial artist-- reveals to Shang the truth about Fu Manchu's villainous nature-- in imagery, I should note, that reflects all of the prejudices of the era when both Fu and Nayland Smith were conceived. 




Today it might be almost impossible for audiences to credence this association of the Chinese villain and "spiders, rats, reptiles, and other loathsome vermin," much less extend their sympathies to a character, even an older one, who spoke of his Asian enemy as a "yellow devil."  Nevertheless, Englehart and Starlin are more careful than Fu Manchu's creator sometimes was, to keep the villain from being a representative of the Chinese people. 

The flashback ends with Shang-Chi's tortured realization of his father's duplicity, so he returns to Fu Manchu's stronghold for answers. He battles the gigantic sumo Tak, who was his father's tool in putting Nayland Smith in a wheelchair, and defeats him. He finds proof of Nayland Smith's accusations in his father's laboratory, where he is attacked by a huge gorilla. This battle lasts only two pages, but is less consequential for its action than for what the reader is told via captions about the gorilla: that Fu Manchu endowed the beast with a brain "capable of elementary reasoning," and then tormented the beast so that it would become savage enough to attack anyone trespassing on the laboratory. Though Shang-Chi is not privy to the information in the captions, he's horrified to see that his father's cruelty has resulted in "demons like this [creature]."

After the death of the guard-gorilla, Fu Manchu appears before his son, attempting to cajole his offspring back to the fold. However, Fu only reveals his own monomania by boasting of "an invisible, world-wide empire opposed to all governments." Shang-Chi, a peaceful pluralist at heart, renounces his father as a madman and swears to dedicate his life to preventing his evil schemes.

The series was so successful, albeit briefly, that the title in which the feature premiered, SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION, was quickly revised to MASTER OF KUNG FU, and remained under that title for the duration of its run. However, neither co-creator remained with their creation long: Starlin left with MOKF #17, and Englehart departed with #19. Curiously, neither man had planned to use Fu Manchu in their concept: this addition came about because Marvel had already licensed the "devil-doctor" but had been unable to find a way to make him salable.  Editor Roy Thomas reputedly injected Fu Manchu into the mix, but though his main motivation may have been economic-- that of justifying the license-- the combination proved more felicitous than might have been expected. Though Fu Manchu was not as popular in the second half of the 20th century as he'd been in the first half, his presence in the MOKF book forced creators to continually play the old, negative image of the Asian against the newer, positive one for as long as Marvel retained the license to Sax Rohmer's character.

To be sure, although writer Doug Moench and his many artist-collaborators produced some good mythcomics with Shang-Chi, none of them succeeded in portraying the Asian villain with as much dimension as did Englehart and Starlin. It's conceivable that their lack of enthusiasm was rooted in the dominant political view that Fu Manchu was only a racist artifact and nothing more-- or worse, that the prevalence of the many stereotypical Asian villains in pop culture signified that the most archetypal Asian villain should not be used by conscientious persons. It's a view with which I do not concur, as I will address in a future essay.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT. 3

In the second section of REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER, I made reference to my concept of racial markers, speaking of a given subject's "conscious or subconscious responses to persons who do or do not share the overt physical markers" of the people he considers to be his ingroup. I'll elaborate this first.

Not long ago, I had a long discussion with some relatives regarding the current concept that "race does not exist." Most of the rhetoric for this position is based in biological studies that demonstrate the genetic unity of humankind-- which I do not dispute--and the supposedly concomitant idea that therefore the only reason the concept of race came about was as a strategy to tout one or more races over others in a superior/inferior relationship. This online essay is an adequate summation of this position. The author asserts that "biologists have set a minimal threshold for the amount of genetic differentiation that is required to recognize subspecies." Because so-called human "races" do not possess this level of differentiation, race does not exist.

In my debate I argued that this is an oversimplification, devised to combat all intellectual justifications of racial superiority-- to which, incidentally, I am also opposed. In the debate I used the term "markers" as a makeshift term to describe the outward features by which members of ingroups define themselves, even in times and climes that predate the spread of institutionalized racism. Such physical manifestations of a tribe's shared history heritage are far from the only way in which human beings define those ingroups. Still, while those associations are socially constructed, this is not quite the same as deeming race to be nothing more than a social construct. More on that later.

The linked essay also quotes Ashley Montagu as stating that "there are no races, only clines." Since Montagu's term means the same thing as my own makeshift term, I will henceforth use the word "cline" in place of "marker," as defined here.

Now what do I mean by saying that those clines that can be recognized by any ingroup are socially constructed, yet are not social constructs as such? My argument is based in my position that any ingroup forms its own inevitable aesthetic preferences regarding facial and body types, but that these are not rooted in any mechanism of social control. If these preferences are are any sort of construct, they would be psychological in nature, and then only socially constructed after the fact of their existence. In the 19th century many anthropologists, particularly Durkheim. chose to view every facet of tribal life to be reducible to some function by which order and the status quo was maintained. Malinowski, who coined the term "functionalism," seems to have been among the few anthropologists who believed that society strove to accommodate the individual rather than making the individual fit society's needs, but I confess that I've not read Malinowski in the original.

In any case, I'd argue that the aesthetics of any ingroup "just grow, like Topsy," and that even any ingroup-members with a mind to social control are influenced by those aesthetics whether they wish to be or not. No scheming priest or dictatorial ruler created the desire of parents and grandparents to see their own physical characteristics reflected in the parents' offspring. Admittedly, most if not all societies require some degree of exogamy to avoid inbreeding-- but most societies will be chauvinistic toward outgroups that possess a pronounced difference with respect to the outgroup-member's outward physical clines. While a given tribe may have elaborated social rules to prevent outsiders from joining the tribe, I suggest that these rules reflect the aesthetic preferences of the ingroup, which values visual solidarity, much as do many members of the animal kingdom.

At the same time, though the initial reaction to "the other" may be one of competitiveness and/or fear, I believe Sartre was wrong to believe it dominated all affects. Curiosity about "the other" who looks like your people, but isn't one of them, is attested throughout both mythic and historical narratives. In addition, though two tribes may initially compete over resources even as animals do, animals do not, to the best of our knowledge, feel pleasure at having a good fight against an equal from another species. Human myth and history, however, attest to the excessive joy that humans take in seeing their "home team" come to grips with the representatives of an outgroup.

Nietzsche caught the uniquely human contradictions of this desire for validation in this quote:


Ye shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised. Ye must be proud of your enemies; then, the successes of your enemies are also your successes.

Keeping in mind this prioritizing of the aesthetics of physical clines, I shall next try to demonstrate that the apparent stigmatization of the outgroup's representative-- particularly in the form of the "racial other"-- does not necessarily signify only fear or conservatism, even when "the other" is given dominantly negative traits. Those negative traits also function less as a means of social control, as many many Marxists have averred, than as an excuse to mount a challenge between two groups. I do not deny that many of these fictional challenges result in simplistic "racist myths," but there also exists the distinct possibility that they may result in the more benign "racial myths," which reveal a more complex level of meaning-- as I will next demonstrate with one of the best-known racial myths, that of Fu Manchu.


Monday, February 15, 2016

POOR POOR PITIFUL WONDER WOMAN PT. 2

I know I'm giving this HU post more attention than it deserves, but I just feel filled with pity for people who don't even know what a good sexual fantasy is.

NB (whose initials offer a few interesting parallels, starting with the word "No") wrote:

don’t think the male fantasy aspect depends on Marston being a man. Steve Trevor ending up on an island full of women; that’s a pretty standard male fantasy (a thing men fantasize about, a thing presented to men as desirable). That doesn’t necessarily mean no men ever have it…but for instance, Darwyn Cooke in New Frontier I think has Superman stumble on the Amazons bathing each other. It’s very much framed through his gaze, and the pin up art tropes are hard to miss. That’s framed as a male fantasy — for a man watching, within the comic and outside the comic—though that doesn’t necessarily mean that only men would find it appealing (lots of women like pin up art.) 


I take for granted that NB meant to write that "no women ever have [the fantasy]. What's astounding is that anyone could take Steve Trevor's experience as a male fantasy.

It isn't a male sex fantasy just to be surrounded by a horde of beautiful women. Male fantasies are generally focused on action, so the dominant fantasy is to have sex with lots of women, with or without consequences. Occasionally one sees men being receiving non-sexual attentions of many women, such as having his whims catered to, being fed rich foods, etc.

Steve Trevor, however, is barely aware of being in the midst of many beautiful women, according to the way the origin is related in WONDER WOMAN #1. In this essay I summarized the action thusly:


Though Trevor is an intrusive presence, he sees nothing of the Amazon world for most of the story, and indeed his eyes seem to have been injured from his experience, since on page 12 he comments that “my eyes must be bad again” as he sees Diana in all her costumed finery, rather than as “the scientist who saved my life.” Rather than seeing, he is the one seen as Diana and her friend Mala rescue him from the waters. Yet only Diana, the one explicitly born on Paradise Island, falls in love with him and brings him back to life. Toward the tale’s end, when Hippolyte prepares to send Trevor back to his world in the company of Diana, the physician relates that she has removed Trevor’s “eye bandages.” Hippolyte orders that Trevor “must see nothing on Paradise Island,” and Diana retorts, “Nothing except me! I’ll bind him again--myself!” 

Hetero males (or lesbian women) may get a buzz from seeing a bunch of Amazon glamour-girls assembled in one place, but not *specifically* because they can put themselves in Trevor's place. The way he's totally taken into Diana's care is clearly a particular type of hetero female fantasy: that of getting a beloved off to one's self, away from any possible competition.

Oh, well, nothing new. NB can't do a close reading to save his life. But at least he performs the same slovenly interpretations on things he likes as on things he doesn't like.

-----------------

ADDENDA: I wasn't really expecting NB to allow the comment to stand, but he did, so once more I'm preserving a comment in case of deletion:

My “action” comment was simply extending what I said about assertive forms of male fantasy to passive forms. There are certainly all sorts of fantasies in which men are having things done to them rather than doing things themselves. But even in passivity fantasies– whether they are designed for men or for women– the subject is usually aware that something is being done to him or her.
Trevor really isn’t aware, in the origin-stories at least, that he’s in the midst of a community of women; neither Diana nor Hippolyta allows him to see that community. Later on, maybe he becomes an “honorary Amazon,” but that’s later. I’m not getting into the stuff about the virtues of feminization and so on; I’m just speaking to Christina W’s question as to whether the origin-story represents a male sex fantasy and to your response.

POOR, POOR PITIFUL WONDER WOMAN

In ROYSTERING IN THE CLOISTER I mentioned that I had considered investigating two of the longer recent HU threads, even though I could pretty much predict all the ultraliberal drivel that would be focused, respectively, on the James Bond franchise and on a "Batman vs. Superman" movie-trailer in which Wonder Woman appeared. I've now given both of them a once-over. The Bond thread is just the usual whining about how the evils of violence, but NB continues to be amusing with his fanboyish insistence that everyone who adapts the Wonder Woman franchise is doing a disservice to the character if they don't emulate the supposedly advanced sexual politics of the William Moulton Marston WONDER WOMAN.

The main focus of the initiating essay is that, on the basis of a four-minute trailer, NB can tell that poor old Wonder Woman just isn't getting the respect she deserves. When Wonder Woman first appears to the featured heroes in the trailer, their response upon seeing her in her superhero persona for the first time is to do the old "is she with you?" schtick. The fact that NB uses this piddling exchange as a reason to attack the project for its reactionary sexual politics has to be seen to be believed.



Further, even though NB has stated in at least one other essay that he doesn't care whether Hollywood ever does a Wonder Woman film, given that it won't be true to Marston, he seems to care to a ridiculous extent that Wonder Woman isn't the center of attention in a film where she's the equivalent of a guest-star.


The perspective, though, is inevitably wrong way round. Wonder Woman, the original comic, started out after all with Steve Trevor invading Paradise Island, and even in Man’s World, Diana was surrounded by sorority girls and fellow Amazons, so that Steve was always the lone dude in a female community. 

Gee, could that maybe be because the name of the feature wasn't WONDER WOMAN? The idea that BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN is getting things wrong because it doesn't follow the plot-line of the story that introduces Wonder Woman is hilariously insane. But although a couple of respondents challenge NB on other matters (to which he responds with his usual "polysemy" bushwah), no one thinks it odd that he should be imposing the Marston narrative on this film-- which, going by the other essay I mentioned, he ought to consider nugatory in any event.

NB also quarrels with the film giving WW a sword because "the sword's a phallic symbol designed to hit people," as opposed to using the lasso to enforce "erotic love leadership." I sometimes wonder if NB's ideal version of the Amazon Princess isn't really the one from the old SUPER FRIENDS cartoon. That was the only time I've ever seen WW doing nothing but grabbing villains with her lasso alone. The Marston Wonder Woman didn't usually employ a sword, but she didn't need to, because most of those stories involve Diana beating the crap out of villains with her fists. It's not as easy to claim phallocentrism when a heroine uses her fists rather than a sword, but it's ludicrous to assert that the heroine restrains her foes with "love leadership" when in fact she's simply hitting people, and THEN sending them off to get lessons in "loving submission" on Brainwash Island, or whatever it was called.



The fact that WW subdues her enemies with violence also doesn't make her much of a spokesperson for a non-violent matriarchy. But if NB thinks that it does, then that too is covered by "polysemy"-- as opposed, that is, to old-fashioned sloppy thinking.

Friday, February 12, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "THE CASE OF THE BLACK TALON" (CAPT. AMERICA #9, 1941)

Though the Golden Age Captain America was conceived as a protest against the advance of the Axis Powers, creators Simon and Kirby never confined the hero's adventures to wartime struggles. In part they might have been reluctant to deal with the war in more than vague generalities, given that real-life events might outstrip any imaginary exploits. Yet the same rules applied to most superheroes of the period, and many of the other masked adventurers contented themselves with simply fighting mundane crooks and Fifth Columnists.

The Golden Age CAPTAIN AMERICA, though, was full of a love of the grotesque, pitting the Captain and his young partner Bucky against mummies, vampires, artificial monsters, and almost every other horrific figure who'd ever been the subject of an American fright-flick. Most of these encounters with weirdness were thoroughly derivative, though still enjoyable on those terms. But one of the few that actually shows a touch of original thought-- written by Otto Binder and drawn by the Captain's co-creator Kirby-- is also strongly implicated in the racial myths of the time.

The adventure begins with an artistic foreshadowing of the thrills to come. The heroes, in their military attire as Private Steve Rogers and camp mascot Bucky Barnes, attend an art gallery and see a portrait of a "black hand," and Bucky observes that "it's a weird subject, but fine artwork." One panel later, as the two return to their barracks, Steve apparently help repeating the same opposition of "goodness" and "weirdness," with the statement, "A black hand! What a subject for a good painter!"

The two then hear a real murder being committed, so they change into their crimefighting outfits and ascend to an apartment. They find a strangled artist, and while they search the area, Bucky is attacked and almost strangled by an extraordinarily strong black hand. When the Captain rushes to his partner's aid, the strangler flees and escapes. The heroes then realize that the murdered man is an artist of some fame, and that the killer also slashed the artist's paintings as well as killing the man.



After a bit of comic byplay, the reader is introduced to a mad-looking Caucsian painter with one black hand and one white hand, who is now painting the agonies of his victim. With the help of two hired thugs, the unnamed villain ambushes yet another artist in his gallery and takes sadistic pleasure in personally knifing the man to death.



Captain America and Bucky once more manage to show up, but though they defeat the thugs, both heroes are defeated when the man uses his black hand to strangle them into unconsciousness. Only the arrival of the police keeps the two crusaders from being killed. The heroes then resign themselves to tedious "detective work," and it leads them to the studio of an artist named Pascal Horta-- whom the reader knows to be the murderous painter. Again the so-called "Black Talon" manages to knock out the crusaders, and while preparing to kill them he reveals how he came to possess one black hand and why he's been killing other artists and painting their agonies.






However, in the tradition of heroes over the ages, Captain America manages to free himself while the evildoer runs his mouth. Again hero and villain clash, and this time the Talon is hurled from a high window. However, the story ends atypically by showing that the Talon has not only survived, he begins making plans for his next vengeful plot-- which, as the final panel helpfully tells us, will appear in an upcoming issue of the YOUNG ALLIES comic book.

I return now to my distinction of "racial" and "racist" myths. Within my critical system, not every negative portrait of a member of a particular race is automatically racist. If there is some tenable logic in attributing negative elements to a character, then this is no more racist than attributing positive elements to another character of the same race.

Now, in the case of the donor of Horta's super-powerful hand, the reader sees little that would render "Strangler Burns" as even a two-dimensional character. One caption that calls him an "African," but if he is such then he's apparently taken an English-language name. He never speaks and the reader doesn't know why he committed whatever murders he committed. The doctor who proposes the operation claims that Burns volunteered the use of his hand claims that he's done so "as a final decent gesture," but this probably isn't anything more than a nod to American jurisprudence, whose legalities would make such consent necessary.

Now, let us consider Horta (whose surname bears an interesting relationship to the titular monster of Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Horla," also a story about an insidious influence possessing a formerly sane man). Horta is, to say the least, rather intense about his desire to paint no matter what, and though he's initially horrified at the thought of sporting a black man's hand, his passion to paint overcomes all resistance. "Black hand-- white hand-- what does it matter? I can paint again!" However, as soon as Horta tries to use his transplant-hand for painting, he finds himself rendering only portraits of horror. Further, he's inspired to become a strangler himself by killing off his rivals in the art-world, the better to render their deaths in oils.

Is there a possibility that Horta is merely imagining that the hand is forcing him to paint horror? The original 1920 novel about a deadly transplant-hand, Renard's LES MAINS D'ORLAC, was ambiguous as to whether any spirit-possession took place, as was the earlier De Maupassant story. The same was the case with the 1924 Austrian adaptation and 1935's MAD LOVE, the last being the most likely influence on collaborators Otto Binder and Jack Kirby. In contrast, "Black Talon" doesn't spend any time weighing the psychological considerations of Horta's plight.

Given that only Horta's artistic intensity might seem in any way unbalanced, it seems likely that Binder and Kirby meant the reader to accept the pseudo-science explanation for the hand's effects. One might question Horta's scientific acumen when he claims that "the corpuscles from the dead killer's hand invaded my bloodstream," but even the surgeon who performs the transplant tells Horta that "there is wild, new blood coursing through your veins." The doctor doesn't make a strict equivalence between this "wild blood" and Strangler's race, but it's likely that most readers of the period would have made that mental leap.

At the same time, toward the story's end Horta boasts to the heroes that "my black, taloned hand will have made me the world's greatest living artist," implicitly because all of his rivals will be dead. So though the murderer's corpuscles are pushing Horta to madness, the specific method of his madness has to do with becoming a great artist-- something one imagines that the Strangler cared nothing about. And the way that he accomplishes this mad aim is by becoming a hybrid between a white man, with his supposed propensity for "fine art," and a black man, whose brutish influence drives Horta to create horror instead of beauty-- though some of the sadism may be Horta's own. It's amusing to imagine that Kirby, a civilized commercial artist who apparently enjoyed drawing grotesquerie to some extent, may have taken some pleasure in humiliating a "fine artist" by subjecting him to sadism and madness.

So is "Black Talon" a racial or racist myth? I find that it recapitulates elements from both "benign chauvinism" and "malign chauvinism," much as I found when considering the Spirit's character Ebony, who was "racist" in his physical appearance but merely "racial" in other elements, such as his distinctive patois. The idea of a Negro having "wild blood" because he's a savage at heart qualifies as a "racist myth." However, there's a compensatory, merely racial fantasy in which a white artist attains superior strength by obtaining the the hand of a Hulking Black Guy. While early comics most often depicted black men as minstrel-show goofballs, one also comes across depictions of black men as hulking muscle-men. I deem such depictions to be racial myths because they are rooted in the observation of certain real racial body-types, as opposed to made-up caricatures like bulging eyes and liver-lips. Not that Strangler Burns is on the same level of formidability as MANDRAKE's Lothar-- but I'd speculate that the former is drawn from the same archetypal well as the latter.





Wednesday, February 10, 2016

QUICK NON-POLITICS POST

Posted this on a recent comics-forum about politics and superheroes:

____________________________

Before one says that everything is of a political nature, I think one must say, "Is politics the fundamental root of human society, or is it a secondary manifestation of that society?"

Maybe you can guess from my phrasing my own take, but I'd say that any political system comes about in order to manage human conflicts relating to what Americans generally call "life, liberty & pursuit of happiness." I'd simplify that to "Life." So politics is about the proper governance of life. There's a nice line in GAME OF THRONES in which one noble tells another that the "smallfolk" don't really care that much about who's on the throne; they just want a good crop and freedom from disease, and whatever ruler helps them to that end is the one they like.

Now, one can believe that, in the real world, nothing is free from political associations. However, in fiction that freedom does exist, even if it's only a freedom of the imagination. One poster brought up the famous example of GREEN LANTERN #76, in which Green Lantern's countless world-saving endeavors are viewed as nugatory next to his failure to address a particular social issue.




I've certainly encountered over-ideological critics who've made the claim that saving the universe doesn't amount to any positive political act; that it amounts, incredibly, to preserving the status quo. I view this as an absurd overstatement of the function of political rectitude; the equivalent of saying, in Judeo-Christian terms, that Man really is made for the Sabbath, not the other way round.

Whether it's saving the universe or catching a serial killer, the hero's deed is meant to signify the continuance, rather than the frustration. of life as it is lived. For some readers, "political life" takes the place of actual life, and so purely most political interpretations of heroic acts come off not as genuine inquiry but as "sentence first, evidence afterwards."


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT. 2

Now that I've investigated some of the basic components of Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of "the Other," I can speak more fully as to how I choose to redefine the term.

I've stated that the concept of "the Other," when applied to a human being of a different race than that of the subject, is a nominal one when compared to the near-total lack of congruity between human being and animal. 

I'll further specify that a given subject-- let's say the usual culprit, a White Male-- *may* be more estranged from the culture of a Black Male than he would from the culture of another White Male. Obviously anyone can think of real-world exceptions to this proposition, but for sake of argument I'll assert that this is a dominant tendency, brought on by the White Male's conscious or subconscious responses to persons who do or do not share the overt physical markers that he possesses.

The usual ideological extrapolation from this sort of set-up is to *presume* that because the subject is "shamed" or "repulsed" by the Other, that subject sets up a defensive perimeter around himself and tries to deny the Other any selfhood. The commonest result of this denial is usually termed "projection," and reams have been written about how White Males have projected their various fears upon other ethnicities, often though not always People of Color.

But there's a crucial element omitted by Sartre and all who follow in his wake: the possibility that the subject sees something in the Other that is literally there-- particularly some evil or at least undesirable trait-- because such traits common to both representatives of humanity.

I am not saying that no projection takes place. Though it's become de rigueur to view the character of Fu Manchu as nothing but a projection of British fears of "the Yellow Peril," I certainly wouldn't deny that such projection is an element of Sax Rohmer's creation, particularly since according to his biography, Rohmer didn't really know much about Chinese culture when he created the character. At the same time, that doesn't mean that every observation Rohmer was automatically incorrect, even if he lacked in-depth knowledge. What might it mean if a relatively modern Chinese citizen were to advance the same notion toward some members of his own culture that Rohmer does of Fu Manchu? Director Chang Cheh critiques one of his feudal-period characters for having the same torture-happy attitudes we see in Fu Manchu, as seen in my review of FIVE DEADLY VENOMS here-- and one certainly cannot suspect the Hong Kong director of "Yellow Peril" fears. This comparison raises the question as to whether Rohmer's creation was entirely rooted in facile "projection." 

As I said in Part 1, Sartre's concept of the Other is informed by a desire to rein in the forces of authority represented by European colonialism and capitalism. I suggest, however, that because of this ideological orientation, he could not see the same forms of evil as being either real or potential within the culture of the Other. To rewrite the injunction from the Gospel of Matthew, Sartre could see the beam in a Frenchman's eye, but none in the eye of an Algerian.

I've already discoursed here on what I consider the important difference between "a racial image" and "a racist image," and these distinctions can in turn be glossed by my meditations on "benign chauvinism" and "malign chauvinism," here. And with these distinctions in mind, I will proceed to cite an example of a "racial mythcomic" that would certainly never be honored by Black History Month.

REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT. 1

In the first essay I wrote for "Racial Other Mythcomics Month," I said of one Don McGregor Black Panther story:

In the McGregor mythos of the Panther, while the slaying of animals is necessary for survival, the beasts constitute an "other" beside which all human-centered "others" are nominal by comparison. 

This basic ethos-- that the cosmos that revolves around humankind still shows more internal congruity than is possible for humans and any other living creature-- would have been either anathema or an irrelevance to the man who most popularized the phrase of "the other," which now turns up with tedious regularity in hundreds of scholarly papers.  I'm not about to critique even a small part of BEING AND NOTHINGNESS on a blogpost, but as it happens Jean-Paul Sartre delivered a more succinct version of his opinions on his "other" concept, when talking about the famous-- and according to him, generally misunderstood-- quotation of a line from NO EXIT rendered as "Hell is other people."

. . .“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.

Even if I were not a Jungian, I would find it hard to credence Sartre's statement that "when we try to know ourselves, we use the knowledge of us which other people already have." In my experience few people would count it a great gift, as per Robert Burns, to "know ourselves as others know us." If I am seeking knowledge of myself, I may indeed make some use of "the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves," by which I assume Sartre means one's cultural code of ethics. I will, in addition, seek validation from other human beings in the hope that they will support my findings and/or my path. Yet at the same time there exists, even in children, an individual will that rejects the summary judgments of all those outside it, a will that thunders a Carlyle-esque "NO" to "the Other." The singer Britney recently co-opted the phrase "you don't know what it's like to be me," but the sentiment has existed since the infancy of humanity, and no matter how banal the phrase might sound, it has more to do with the establishment of an individual's identity than some overly dialectical mirroring process. To use the metaphor of the alchemists, the human self is constantly in a process of "breaking down" old patterns and "building up" new ones. The new patterns may turn out to be recapitulations of the old, but that possibility does not invalidate the self as simply being the product of cultural factors-- a point of view Sartre shared with Karl Marx.

 Yet to speak of this rich and variegated process of human interaction in such clumsy and moralistic dialectical terms shows the fundamental poverty of Sartre's intellect. Even Freud, with his image of the human psyche split between a raging id of desire and two spectres of egoistic control, came closer to the mark.

Sartre, like most ideological thinkers, has an agenda in reading human response in this manner. NO EXIT may be the story of a trio of petite-bourgeoisie malcontents who simply can't relate to one another as Sartre thinks that they should. However, when in the above section Sartre speaks of relationships that are "twisted" and "vitiated," he's assuredly thinking not just of individual people but also of cultural constructs that encourage such twisted relationships: colonialism, Mammonism, and all the other usual Marxist suspects. Thus it's not surprising that the term "racial other" has become a routine way of characterizing encounters between disparate cultures, even where they may not technically belong to different races. "Ethnicities" seems to have become a preferred term, since it can take things like the relationship of Europeanized Jews to European-descended WASPS, but I suspect "ethnic other" will not displace the older term any time soon.

More in Part 2.

Friday, February 5, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "THE GOD KILLER" (JUNGLE ACTION #13, 1975)

It would almost impossible to consider the question of racial myths in the comics medium without mentioning its "first black superhero," the Black Panther, a.ka. King T'Challa of Wakanda.

As I'm dealing only one specific story. I'm obliged to pass quickly over the character's genesis, except in one context. When the Panther appears in his two-part introductory story in FANTASTIC FOUR #52-53, authors Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are thoroughly upbeat about the African lord's success in importing Western technology into his kingdom of Wakanda. I would guess that Lee and Kirby envisioned Wakanda's advancement to be indicative of the potential of all human races to reach the level of attainment seen in the United States.

Don McGregor, writing his "Panther's Rage" saga" in the post-Vietnam era, took a different point of view. McGregor's initial arc began with T'Challa returning to his "Wakanda wonderland" and finding that an old enemy, calling himself Erik Killmonger, has organized a revolutionary force to usurp the Panther's kingship. For the first time the Wakandan ruler sees that during his absence from his homeland-- during which he devoted himself to the role of superhero amid the Avengers-- his kingdom has fallen into chaos. Although during this series Wakanda remains a fantasy-world, sporting prehistoric monsters and meteors able to change humans into super-menaces, McGregor and his artistic collaborators Billy Graham and Rich Buckler revealed that many of the natives were still traditional tribal Africans, ill at ease with the intrusions of Western devices and culture.

"Panther's Rage" is rambling and episodic, and though it's never boring, its myth-themes are not integrated enough to make me list the entire arc here, as I did with the Pini's ELFQUEST and Jack Kirby's NEW GODS. Instead I've chosen one story, McGregor and Graham's "The God Killer," to represent the saga at its best.



"God Killer" follows an episode in which Killmonger stranded T'Challa in a wintry wasteland, hoping that the Panther would be killed by a pack of wolves. Having overcome the wolf-pack-- and I should note here that most episodes dealt with the Panther proving his mastery over animals by reluctantly slaying a particular beast-- T'Challa trails Killmonger and his retinue. But the hero is blocked by one of the villain's bizarre henchmen-- Sombre, who wears what resembles a traditional African mask over his features, and dresses in priest's robes. Sombre is one of a handful of men whom Killmonger exposed to the aforementioned "super-power meteor," and he's been cultivating a relationship with a band of titanic white gorillas whose very existence T'Challa never suspected. Specificially, Sombre has been feeding the corpses of men who died of meteor-radiation to the gorillas, with the result that he's able to command them to go after a live victim, the Black Panther. The Panther manages to stay clear of the regular-sized gorillas, who stand a mere twelve feet tall, but is forced to fight the largest white ape, who looks to be about twenty feet in height. The Panther manages to kick the giant creature off a ledge, where it's fortuitously impaled by the sharp rib-bone of some long-dead prehistoric creature. The story ends with the Panther meditating on the consequences of his act, though by the next issue he's hot on the trail of Sombre and Killmonger once more.




This bare-bones account leaves out a couple of "B-stories"involving the Panther's support-cast, but though these also delve into the trope of "traditional ways threatened by modernity," they're largely unimportant to the "A-story." Though this was the first story in which the white gorillas were shown to be a reality, their image had appeared before in a 1969 AVENGERS story. In this tale writer Roy Thomas posited that the Black Panther's crusade to modernize Wakanda was opposed by another Wakandan, the Man-Ape, whose people worshiped the implicitly imaginary white gorilla and advocated a Wakandan version of an "anarcho-primitivist" stance. Thomas followed Lee and Kirby by unilaterally advocating progress over tradition.

In contrast, McGregor emphasizes that the cult of the white gorilla is as much of a valid religion as T'Challa's veneration of his sacred black panther totem. On one level, the white-gorilla tribe is a continuation of the 20th century boogeyman of the "carnivorous ape" that is best exemplified by the 1933 film KING KONG, and thus it's fitting that T'Challa squares off against one giant ape rather than the whole tribe, even if the king-ape isn't quite as big as Kong. However, McGregor also sees them as figurative gods, simply by virtue of having been the subject of human adulation:

It would be a terrible agony for a man to meet his gods-- especially gods that he never believed in!

Though in a diegetic sense the gorillas are just animals, not gods, the fact that they have been worshiped by human beings-- just as the original Kong was as well-- lifts them above the sphere of the mundane. The death of the king-ape is thus a tragic outcome in the eyes of both McGregor and his viewpoint character:

The Panther is consumed by a sense of his own mortality. He has killed a myth... and his life is lessened by the act. He has lost a part of his past without anything to replace it in the future. It would be a terrible agony for a man to meet his gods. It would be hell if that man had to slay those gods.
McGregor has been criticized, sometimes fairly, for his florid prose, but these lines rate as some of the most cogent sentiments written for a Marvel comic. The writer occasionally evinced a rather touchy-feely attitude toward human relationships, something that might seem at odds with the animal-slaying motif throughout "Panther's Rage." In most jungle-hero narratives-- a tiny number of which concern non-white heroes-- the hero's slaying of jungle-beasts indicates his immediate dominion over his terrain, as well as the more general dominion of humankind-- or alternately, of white humankind-- over the beasts.

In contrast, we have the Black Panther. who is not the first nonwhite jungle hero, but is ineluctably the most mythically significant one, partly but not exclusively because of his race. In the McGregor mythos of the Panther, while the slaying of animals is necessary for survival, the beasts constitute an "other" beside which all human-centered "others" are nominal by comparison. Indeed, in a later episode McGregor describes the Panther's encounter with a particular animal-- one that's not even a literal menace-- as "profoundly alien." Ergo, even though no real gods appear here, the white gorillas incarnate a true "metaphysical myth."

NOTE: I'm aware that apes can and do eat meat, but I wouldn't consider them carnivores since meat-eating is generally an occasional deviation from their vegetarian tendencies.