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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...

Saturday, May 28, 2016

THOU ART THE WONDER WOMAN


Black people aren't too fond of bondage. We think that it's redundant.-- Anthony from DESIGNING WOMEN episode "Of Human Bondage."

After writing this essay and making a couple of posts on HU like this one, I quickly gave up debating the foam-mouthed Mr. Berlatsky on the subject of Marston's racism, so I have no idea what if any reply he made after my final post there. I think I can predict that it will fail utterly to address any of the points I brought up: as I've mentioned before, Bertlatsky and his fellow travelers can weave sprawling tapestries of victimization but they pay little or no attention to the details.Thus most if not all of them are thoroughly incapable of answering arguments on a point-by-point basis.

In the course of writing the aforesaid essay, I came across a year-old post from the still active Tumblr site HONORING THE ECCENTRIC DR, WILLIAM MOULTON MARSTON, posted by one "FyeahWilliamMoultonMarston." Fyeah, as I'll call him for short, was more liberal than Berlatsky in providing context for the Wonder Woman story that the latter excoriated in his usual hyperbolic style, without making any sort of apologies for the racist content of Marston's story. Only once did I disagree with Fyeah's argument, at this point:

All that being said, there are some things to appreciate in this issue. Marston’s chain and slavery kinks are still around in spite of the horrendously inappropriate setting, and they give us this bondage gem:




The obvious question comes to mind: Why is it "horrendously inappropriate" for Marston to bring his "chain and slavery kinks" into this setting? Fyeah does not enlarge upon this train of thought, but I have to assume the train departs from the station known as "the Great White Guilt." The poster obviously is not knocking the idea of Marston's "chain and slavery kinks" in themselves, if the other posts on the blog are any indication. The kinks are only objectionable in any context involving Black Africans and, presumably, their descendants in other lands as well. Hence, I surmise that while it would be OK with Fyeah if Wonder Woman asked for her dog collar in any setting that didn't involve Black Africans, even this largely non-serious reference to slave-tropes immediately activates the appropriate taboo of the Great White Guilt. Like the "Designing Women" character quoted above, one cannot imagine said tropes without calling to mind the real-life torments of Black African slaves and their descendants.

Though I don't believe in a form of guilt that has a color, I have encountered any number of online pundits, including Noah Berlatsky, who advocate White Guilt as a response to just about any depiction of Blacks by Whites. Possibly they believe that promoting such a race-specific taboo can be used to curb the excesses of Evil White Culture. Further, some such pundits try to promote the notion that no one but White People bore any responsibility for the organized slave trade, like this online essay,  which argues that the only times in which blacks sold blacks to whites came about because of some base deception. If so then it was a really long-term deception. This Wiki-essay asserts that "Historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood have provided an estimate that Africans captured and then sold to Europeans around 90% of those who were shipped in the Atlantic slave trade."

So, if it's true that Black Africans were somewhat less than starry-eyed innocents with regard to profiting from the Trans-Saharan slave trade, it's not clear what is "inappropriate" about mentioning chains and slavery in connection with a group of (completely fictional) Black Africans-- unless one believes in guilt that only comes in one color.

None of this exculpates the genuinely racist aspects of Marston's story. But the story has nothing to do with slavery-tropes relating to real-world injustice, and everything to do with tropes rooted in psychological mythology.

In my 2010 essay SLASHIN' MARX, I cited this quote from Martin Buber:

Every Thou in the world is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually re-enter into the condition of things. In objective speech it would be said that every thing in the world, either before or after becoming a thing, is able to appear to an I as its Thou. But objective speech snatches only at a fringe of real life.

It would seem obvious to me that the real-world injustice of slavery is all about what Buber calls the "I-it" relationship, of an "I" (the slaver or slaveholder) reducing a sentient being (the slave) to the status of an object.

Now, does Marston make his fictional Africans into objects? Yes, he does-- but only in terms of resorting to stereotypical depictions, like having the tribesmen being subject to "voodoo" superstitions. If Wonder Woman really did engage in bondage-play with the African tribesmen, it would be to both restrain them and to liberate them, as I wrote here:

Bondage itself is a sexual practice which has nothing to do with actual sex as such.  Without eliding the "bodily" aspects of bondage, it should be evident that Marston, through his frequent emphases on the subject of "will," was aware that bondage also pertained to the "nonbody" aspect of the human entity, as bondage is paradoxically a restraint and a liberation of the will. 
In other words, in Marston's cosmology, to bind and otherwise overcome someone is to bring them into the circle of Amazon "loving-kindness,"which, as I read Buber, is the same as making the someone as a "thou." To be sure, Marston doesn't extend this privilege to the tribesmen; from the sections I've read, it would seem that he depicted them as simple savages who needed to be brought back into the protective aegis of European/American authority. But to follow the implications of the "chains and slavery kink" as Fyeah experessed them, she would have been honoring the tribesmen as "thous" had she bound them, or even transported them to Transformation Island, because in Marston's world this would have been tantamount to bringing them into the sphere of loving-kindness.



In closing I'll point out that unlike Berlatsky, I'm not excoriating Marston because he didn't follow my ideal imaginary scenario. In a practical sense, I can't imagine DC Comics publishing scenes of their foremost female franchise wrestling in quasi-erotic fashion with one or more black guys. So in that practical sense, I know-- as NB did not-- that it would have been unfair to critique Marston for not being as revolutionary as NB thought he ought to be. Marston should be critiqued for what he actually wrote, not for what he failed to write.

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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: ODKIN SON OF ODKIN (1981)

To elaborate on his definition of mythical thought, Levi-Strauss drew an analogy to "bricolage": "Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual 'bricolage'" (p. 17). The French verb, "bricoler," has no English equivalent, but refers to the kind of activities that are performed by a handy-man. The "bricoleur" performs his tasks with materials and tools that are at hand, from "odds and ends." He draws from the already existent while the engineer or scientist, according to Levi-Strauss, seeks to exceed the boundaries imposed by society. "The scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the 'bricoleur' creating structures by means of events" (p. 22).-- Janine Mileaf.

As I said in my previous essay, Wally Wood's second installment of his "Wizard King" concept-- completed at a time when Wood was seriously ill, with considerable fill-in work from his assistants-- was by no means as successful as 1978's THE KING OF THE WORLD.



For my purposes, though, ODKIN is the perfect illustration of the virtues of the "near-myth." Levi-Strauss' view of the process of "bricolage"-- which other sources compare to the idea of a "brick-layer"-- was articulated only with regard to "mythical thought," but in truth it compares to any creative thought, and therefore to the whole of literature. When Aristotle perceives the genesis of the great tragedies in the ritual dramas of the so-called "goat songs," he affirms that simple components can be used to construct larger, more ambitious structures.

Wood, who never found a long-term hospitable berth at any comics company, paid most of his bills by taking on diverse assignments. This may have inclined him to a sort of "handyman" approach to his art. KING OF THE WORLD shows Wood extending himself to emulate the classical rigor of Hal Foster's PRINCE VALIANT, but even in KING there are some rambling, episodic sequences, and a few concepts that don't fit the faux-medieval fantasy-world (more on which shortly). ODKIN, however, really is a work of "odds and ends," comprised of three chapters that have no more rigor than a "Dungeons and Dragons" scenario. In fact, the first chapter-- which barely relates to the other two chapters-- is titled "Table Top Land," and is named for a miniature table-game that a wizard uses against his enemies.

The latter chapters explain the meaning of the title, for Odkin literally dies in chapter two, and is resurrected in chapter three through the technological magic of the wizard Alcazar. So the second Odkin is "odd kin" indeed: Alcazar tells Second Odkin: "in a sense you are your own father and mother." In KING Wood flirted with incest-tropes by claiming that Odkin and his father shared the same mother. In addition, the lost King Atlan was preserved from death in the same way as Odkin: whenever the evil Anark managed to slay the King, the monarch simply came to life in another identical body, also implicitly the creation of Alcazar. This element was the only time I felt one of Wood's "bricks" had been badly laid, for the idea of extra bodies seems purely science-fictional, and was an idea he recycled from the "Noman" feature in 1965's THUNDER AGENTS.






In addition, the big conclusion of Odkin's quest lacks the dramatic heft that Wood set up in the first book. Odkin has been manipulated, albeit out of necessity, into infiltrating the crypt in which Atlan has been placed in an eternal sleep, much like a medieval Arthur waiting for rebirth. However, the only way Odkin can free Atlan is to chop off the head of his sleeping body, so that Atlan's spirit will re-incarnate in one of the bodies controlled by Alcazar. Since Odkin is under the wizard's control when he does the deed, this removes any potential drama from the situation-- and even First Odkin's subsequent death lacks much in the way of pathos. Later, Second Odkin must return to the site of the first one's death, in order to reclaim the magical Sword of Atlan, much as Noman often had to seek out one of his dead android bodies in order to reclaim the irreplaceable invisibility cloak.  Odkin beholds his own dead body-- but Wood can only give the scene a strange detachment. Then the story moves move on to a short-term quest, sending Odkin after a mystic jewel that's been stolen by a dragon, which seems to be little more than an unsatisfying analogue to Bilbo Baggins' encounter with Smaug. Wood also tosses out the names of two opposed gods, "IAM" and "AMNOT," but though these sound like principles of affirmation and negation, Wood refuses to invest any attention to the metaphysical symbolism he himself suggests.



In short, ODKIN SON OF ODKIN is an assortment of odds and ends, lacking the relative unity of KING OF THE WORLD. But certainly many of those conceptual "bricks" possess considerable mythic power by themselves, even if they aren't assembled into a satisfying structure. In contrast to the works I've labeled inconsummate, the symbolic value of the building-blocks has not been distorted. The value merely "lies in state," like one of Atlan's bodies, and fails to come alive.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: THE KING OF THE WORLD (1978)

I stated in my review of HICKSVILLE that it consisted of nothing but elitist pie-in-the-sky, stating that "...n the real world, where professional artists have to use their skills to put food on the table, the idea of Wally Wood devoting countless hours to a never-to-be-published fantasy-epic is a pipe dream at best."



And yet, I could wish for a Gaiman-esque dream-library in which Wally Wood's ambitious "Wizard King" trilogy had not only been completed, but had been realized in its fullest artistic potential. Currently, one can go on Amazon and see sellers marketing "the Wizard King Trilogy," but only two parts of the series were completed, making it more of a "duology." In addition, the second part, entitled ODKIN SON OF ODKIN, is considerably less successful, so much so that I'll deal with it in a separate post as a "near-myth."

Wood, born in 1927. claimed to have conceived of the Wizard King story when he was 10. The artist, despite his fame for his work at EC and Marvel Comics, didn't leave (to my knowledge) any more detailed descriptions as to how the project might have changed in his mind over the next forty years, but I strongly suspect that he, like other artists around that time, saw in the success of THE LORD OF THE RINGS a possible way to court fantasy-fans and also escape the repetitious mill of serial comic-magazines. At least one quote suggests that Wood had read Tolkien before undertaking KING OF THE WORLD, and in my opinion KING recycles many of the same tropes used by Tolkien, though seen "through an EC-vision darkly," as it were. It probably didn't hurt that the "Dungeons and Dragons" game, first marketed in 1974, became successful precisely through mining similar tropes.

Yet in the first installment at least, Wood is doing far more than simply replicating simplified versions of Tolkien. Whereas the English author wanted a firmly traditional "long story," Wood is more concerned with using the fantasy-tropes to exercise his mordant wit and his love of raunch.

(SPOILERS FOLLOW)

Just as Tolkien's protagonist Frodo inhabited the Shire, a remote gathering of hobbits, Wood's protagonist Odkin inhabits the remote village of "the Immi," a short-statured, pointy-eared people who value prudence above all else. When a mysterious shadow haunts the village, someone must go forth to seek the counsel of the wizard Alcazar, but Odkin doesn't sally forth from his small village in quest of adventure or to fulfill duty, but because he draws the short end of a stick. The Immi do, however, like a good shag, and before Odkin sets out on his quest he gets a sexy sendoff from several of the village maidens, which is at least more generous than anything the Shire did for Frodo. While Frodo must leave to protect the Shire from the agents of Sauron, it will eventually come out that the haunting shadow is actually sent by Alcazar, because the manipulative wizard needed one of the crafty Immi to serve his designs. I choose to reveal this plot-thread because it seems to me the most representative of the difference between Tolkien and Wood. 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.

Alcazar's first lie is to tell Odkin that to dispel the shadows haunting his village, the dwarvish Immi must get hold of a magic sword imbedded in a tree (a clear borrowing from one of the many variations of the Excalibur myth). Throughout the KING continuity, the sword of Atlan (once the possession of an exalted Arthur-like ruler) takes the role served by the One Ring in Tolkien: the magic whatzit over which both good guys and bad guys contend. On his way to find the sword, Odkin encounters "Iron Aron,"a hulking, not-too-bright warrior, who is also seeking the blade, and whom Odkin cleverly sends in the wrong direction. Aron overtakes the Immi at the tree-site, and, failing to pull the sword free for lack of a "pure heart," snaps it in two. The interference with the sword sparks the appearance of a player Alcazar failed to mention: the Wizard King Anark, who covets the sword now that it's been freed. The giant spectre does nothing more than loom over the Immi, but Odkin chooses to flee with the larger half of the broken sword, leaving Aron to take frustrated custody of the other half. (Later it will also be revealed that Alcazar projected the illusion of Anark to propel Odkin into activity.)



Like Gandalf, Alcazar does have a long-term beneficent design: he knows that Anark is plotting to make war on all civilized kingdoms with his army of bestial "Un-Men." For reasons too complicated to explore in this blog-post, the only defense against Anark is to release the spirit of the living-dead ancient ruler Atlan from an enduring sleep brought about by the Wizard King. Again, Alcazar chooses Odkin to do his dirty work, and again Odkin must wade through assorted supernatural menaces, including a battle to save his people from the Un-Men. This battle culminates in Odkin releasing a horde of rock-monsters to help his side, although Alcazar perishes-- or appears to do so-- at the hands of Anark's demon patron.


Though Odkin did go on to accomplish his task for the most part in the second and last volume, KING ends on a note that seems a deliberate satire of Tolkien. While Frodo had to worry about being corrupted by the One Ring's Faustian influence, in the last two pages Odkin worries that the sword is "poisoning his mind" by forcing him to act altruistically. But he's unable to fling the sword away thanks to the influence of the maybe-deceased wizard. The volume ends as one of Alcazar's minions descends in a winged flying boat in order to help Odkin on his quest. The minion's words are the last in the story: "Let us be off! Adventure awaits us!" Yet the last image-- of Odkin and the minion flying into the sky-- is not just poetically evocative of the liberating spirit of fantasy, but also a subversion of it, imparting a sense of the forlorn to Odkin's quest.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS PT. 2

This is not so much a follow-up to the first ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS essay as to my recent myth-analysis of LOVE IN HELL-- reason being that this is the first mythcomic I've examined in which one might argue that the locale is just as important to the story as the two principal characters.

Environment varies in its amplitude throughout the mythcomics, just as that of any presence, even a focal character. In one of my earliest essays on focal presences, I mentioned that in Arthur Conan Doyle's original novel THE LOST WORLD, Doyle's heroes were the focal presences, but that the Lost World itself became the focus in the 1925 film.

There's great precedence for this sort of "man vs. nature" opposition, but this formula has never been nearly as popular as "man vs. man." It's not uncommon, even in the most strongly mythic narratives, for the environment to fade into the background, even if that environment is sometimes a major generator of mythic content. Thus, even though many THOR stories describe the power of the Lee-Kirby Asgard to generate all manner of Nordic strangeness, in "The Mangog Saga" Asgard might as well be the Pyrenees for all the impact that the locale has upon the struggle between main character Thor, his various allies, and the seemingly invulnerable Mangog.

In some situations, the environment retains its mythic nature within a given narrative, but its myth-power stems from a particular character. In the SON OF SATAN story "Dance with the Devil, My Red-Eyed Son," the soul of Daimon Hellstrom is apparently drawn down into Hell, with whose denizens he must battle. Only by story's end does the reader learn that this particular version of Hell is not one that exists independently of its satanic master, for it's actually Satan's own dream.

In a less direct manner, some environments can be seen as being more metaphorical expressions of a character's good or evil: thus in Kirby's NEW GODS saga, New Genesis embodies the creative empathy of its patriarch Highfather and Apokolips is the expression of the corruption of its master Darkseid-- though admittedly both worlds already show those predilections, long before either of the respective "New Gods" comes into existence.

 There's also a sort of ambiguous middle ground. as seen with"the Palace of Ice," In this extended dream, Nemo experiences what I termed "a child's version of the metaphysics of ice and snow, taking in from juvenile pleasures like toboggan-riding and snowball-fights as well as the more profound wonders of the Northern Lights and the mysterious North Pole." McCay probably does not mean to assert that either Jack Frost or his realm possess any reality independent of Little Nemo's imagination. Nevertheless, this ice-world possesses far more amplitude than most real dreams.

In contrast, the Hell of LOVE IN HELL does not seem to be an expression of any character's imagination or personality. Hell does have its ruler, Japan's traditional hell-lord King Enma (who according to some references is actually female), but Enma only makes one appearance in the narrative, and then only toward the very end, where the ruler's gigantic foot intrudes upon the inferno to mete out justice. Rintaro, the "new fish-soul" in Hell, is not especially mythic in himself, any more than any other "everyman" character, given that most such characters are meant to heighten the significance of other characters by their ordinariness. The demoness Koyori serves to explain the ways of Hell to Rintaro, but she's new to the job of being a soul-torturing demon, so she's not a pure representative of Hell, in the same way Darkseid is a pure representative of the ethos of Apokolips.

All this said, though much of LOVE IN HELL's narrative is devoted to describing the infernal domain, I would not go so far as to say that Hell is the"main character" of the story, in the manner that I've said that Wonderland is the "main character" of Carroll's Alice books. In this essay I said that the Alice books were *exothelic,* meaning that 'the narrative is focused upon the will of "the other," something outside the interests of the viewpoint character, though not necessarily opposed to them.' LOVE IN HELL comes very close to this, but in the final analysis it's still more focused upon the evolving relationship of Rintaro and Koyori as they interact both with each other and the strange requirements of their domain-- so that LOVE IN HELL is as *endothelic,* wherein "the narrative is focused upon the will of the viewpoint character or of someone or something that shares that character's interests."


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

ALMOST GOT IT: TWO-FISTED ZOMBIES (1973)

Though most of the undergrounds lacked the polish of the mainstream comics, some of them were noteworthy for throwing out weird nuggets of symbolism-- in other words, "near myths," like the ones in Rick Veitch's first published comic book, TWO FISTED ZOMBIES, from Last Gasp Comics.



The title sounds like an unholy union between Harvey Kurtzman's well respected war comic TWO FISTED TALES and a George Romero movie, but in his COMICS JOURNAL interview Veitch describes it as "sort of influenced by Kirby and CREEPY"-- the Warren magazine being the primary place where the artist first encountered artists who achieved some measure of fannish renown at EC Comics. Veitch mentions Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Roy Krenkel, and if I had to guess at what art-styles he was meshing together for ZOMBIES, I'd say it looks a lot like Kirby married to Krenkel. 

Though there had been other post-apocalyptic films with zombie-like mutants, notably 1964's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and 1971's THE OMEGA MAN,  there certainly weren't the embarrassment of zombie-riches seen in current pop culture. Following a six-page prologue in two goons murder a "Christian" in order to make him their undead slave, the reader encounters meets the tyrant Flogiston, who commands a vast realm in which he sacrifices the bodies of countless dead to a great pit, in the name of "Einstein, god of destruction." The backstory then tells us that this radical reconstruction of Earth came about due to the mutations spread by "radioactive death," which also led to the renaissance of "the black arts" and various forms of wizardry.

The grotesque protagonist Flogiston is the closest thing this heavily ironic tale has to a "hero," for the night after his latest sacrifice, he's attacked by an assassin sent by another tyrant, Drago. Some particularly Kirby-esque action follows, and one wonders if Veitch was reading THE NEW GODS at the time.



Drago shows himself a dirtier villain than Flogiston by booby-trapping the latter, throwing his body into the death-pit, and then trying to rape Flogiston's wife. However, in a conclusion more in line with Al Feldstein than Jack Kirby, Flogiston and the other dead people resurrect for no stated reason, crawl out of the pit, and destroy Drago and his men, essentially tearing down the remnants of this empire of death, which is compared early on to that of the "Pharaohs of old."



Though TWO FISTED ZOMBIES is anything but deep, it does show a free-flowing pleasure in grotesquerie; in a world dominated by death. It isn't complex enough to be a mythcomic, but because it does have the makings of one, I choose to label it a "near myth."


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: LOVE IN HELL (2011-13)

In this mythcomics essay I hypothesized that Japanese popular culture's enthusiasm for the incest-kink (in fiction only, I specified) might have stemmed from the role played by an incestuous couple in their mythology. I stated clearly that this was an hypothesis that no one can prove one way or another. In the same spirit I advance the idea that the culture's similar enthusiasm for the interlinked concepts of sadism and masochism might have partial roots in another aspect of their mythology: the Japanese concept of hell.

Some mythological hells, like that of Sumeria, are merely dull places where shades drift about without passion or feeling, but the Greeks, the medieval Christians, and the Japanese exert great inventiveness in devising tortures for the souls of the dead, who must pay for the misdeeds of their mortal lives.



Reiji Suzumaru's series LOVE IN HELL is in many ways a predictable seinen (adolescent boys') manga. There's not as much fighting as in the more adventure-oriented stories, but there's lots of violence, and strong sexual content, though no actual on-panel copulation. Some of the stories of this episodic 18-part series (collected and released by Seven Seas Entertainment) play with extremely familiar seinen tropes, such as a schtick in which the protagonist and his buddy play peeping-tom inside a women's bath. That said, Suzumaru comes up with one wrinkle on infernal torments that strikes me as wholly original.

Protagonist Rintaro is a Japanese guy in his late twenties who's kicked around most of his life doing very little of anything, and who kicks the bucket in a spectacularly stupid manner. When he dies, he's surprised to find that he's been sentenced to hell, since he's not aware of having done anything particularly evil. He also finds out that as a "sinner," he's been assigned to a particular demon charged with meting out his punishments: a deceptively gentle female demon named Koyori, who looks like a 17-year-old Japanese girl, except for having a pair of horns and being dressed in black fetish-wear.

Rintaro soon learns that hell isn't run in quite the same way as depicted in traditional tales. For one thing, though he doesn't remember what sin he committed, and though Koyori won't reveal his sin to him, he learns that hell has many levels, and that he and other souls are minor sinners, allowed to inhabit a somewhat desolate city and pursue daily routines that approximate their mortal lives. On the lowest level, "the Abyss," the truly abominable sinners, like rapists and murderers, endure extreme suffering closer to the traditional torments of hell.



Here appears the seemingly original notion: the sinners in the hell-city are obliged to participate in the city's economy because they still experience bodily needs like hunger and the need for shelter, even though they're not literally alive. Koyori informs Rintaro that the base currency of hell is pain: that a sinner can amass infernal money the more he volunteers for suffering. This clearly runs counter to the traditional idea that demons just continually torment sinners for the fun of it. Still, the story-concept jibes roughly with a Buddhist notion that souls guilty of lesser sins may be able to expiate their sins and thus graduate to heaven, rather than simply staying in perdition forever, as in the dominant Christian version. In addition, the idea of paying for your food and shelter with pain might seem to many wage-slaves like a faithful reproduction of the real dynamic of the workplace.

Rintaro does encounter a sinner who's been able to amass a fortune in hell-currency because he's a masochist who loves pain, but the protagonist himself doesn't take to the idea of having his flesh cut off or having to sit in baths of boiling lava. Koyori, though she is in many ways a standard manga "cute girl," is fully able to administer punishments to Rintaro, like bashing his head in with a spiked bat, but for her part she usually carries out her duties in a businesslike manner. Thus just as Rintaro shows no real masochistic traits, Koyori is neither an outright sadist nor one of the "innocent sadists" scattered throughout manga, who somehow manage to cause another character pain without even consciously trying to do so.



It will come as no surprise that Rintaro and his infernal punisher form a "love connection," and it may be that Suzumaru wanted to avoid characterizing that affection with the familiar "sadist/masochist" psychological myth. But the de-emphasis of S&M agrees with the Buddhist ideal of atonement. At one point in the narrative, Rintaro thinks that he can make money in hell by doing "odd jobs" in the city, but he learns to his dismay that hell's rules won't allow the lesser sinners to keep jobs indefintely. Their only real "job" in hell is to suffer, to pay for their sins. The illusions of life in a human city are just there to get the sinners acclimatized, but the sinners are supposed to suffer in order to graduate to a higher level, assuming that they're capable of that transformation.

At another point in the narrative, Rintaro meets a demon who's something of a wimp about torturing sinners, and who almost seems to embody the idea of forgiveness. This demon's badass sister disagrees with her brother's gentler sentiments:

Hell isn't about people changing their ways. It's about being punished-- and paying for your sins.
In other words, this is a rejection of the "inner transformation" concepts of religion: one can only pay one's way out of hell with physical sacrifice. Without giving away the story's ending, I can say that Rintaro does have to risk his soul-existence in order to win clemency, The conclusion also involves Rintaro recollecting the particular life-sin that landed him in hell, and how he chooses to atone for the sin in a more personal, less cosmic manner.

The one false note is that although Rintaro's sacrifice involves the romantic feelings he and Koyori clearly share, the wrap-it-up-quickly denouement neglects to tell the interested reader the status of the demon-sinner relationship at story's end. Perhaps Suzumaru wanted to keep the "will-they/won't they" schtick going indefinitely, much as manga-fans saw when Rumiko Takahashi concluded her two signature works URUSEI YATSURA and RANNA 1/2.


Friday, May 13, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "ORIGIN OF PROFESSOR X" (X-MEN #12-13, 1965)

My stated personal feelings that the Lee-Kirby X-Men were underdeveloped by Lee and Kirby may well influence my opinion that their most mythic moment was not about the teen mutants, but about their mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (aka "Professor X.")





Prior to this two-part story, Lee and Kirby had dropped a few hints as to provenance of the good professor, particularly his mysterious involvement with a Biblically-named villain, Lucifer, first seen in X-MEN #9. Lucifer doesn't figure into "Origin" directly, though when Xavier mentions having been the victim of a car-crash to the students hearing his story, one of them wonders if the crash led to Xavier's loss of his legs, and at this point Xavier first reveals that Lucifer was involved in that injury. In itself this reference was just foreshadowing for the story of Xavier's first encounter with that villain, revealed in issue #20. Yet the mention of Lucifer, the symbol of devilish pride, is appropriate to the story in which Xavier first speaks of his evil stepbrother, whose very name, Cain Marko, refers to a specific motif of Biblical myth.

What did the two comics-makers know or remember of the Bible's use of this motif? No one today can be sure, not even the still-living Stan Lee. I will guess that one of the creators vaguely remembered just one connotation of the "Mark of Cain:" that it was supposed to tell onlookers that Cain, slayer of his brother, should remain inviolate. This vague recollection probably became refracted through the superhero idiom to become a story about a man who possessed no mark as such, but who is invulnerable to harm-- and who has tried, on a previous occasion, to kill his brother.

The story proper begins as Xavier's mutant detector Cerebro issues a fateful warning of an impending menace approaching the school for mutants. He marshals his five young charges to set up defensive traps around the school, to slow down the attacker-- at which point Xavier tells the youngsters his origin-story, much as an old soldier, huddled in a bunker with young greenhorns, might reveal his personal tale in case of his death.

In contrast to the fairly flat origin-stories given to the five main heroes, Professor X gets a tale replete with a Freudian family romance, with the American "romance with the atom" tossed in. Xavier relates that when he was still a young boy, his scientist-father perished in a nuclear accident near the historically significant city of Alamagordo, New Mexico. Xavier's father, never seen and little more than a haunting presence of 'the good father," is mourned by the boy and his grief-stricken mother. However, one of the deceased scientist's colleagues, Doctor Marko, survived the accident that took the life of the young boy's father-- and right at the gravesite of Xavier's father, Marko takes the first steps toward courting the wealthy widow-- and he soon becomes Xavier's "bad father." Marko soon reveals himself as a fortune-hunter, but he visits no personal cruelties upon either Xavier or his mother-- except insofar as he brings his son Cain into the family. Cain introduces himself to young Xavier as the consummate bully.



Xavier's mother soon passes, leaving young Xavier stuck with two unwanted step-relations. However, the not-quite-thieves fall out when Cain tries to blackmail his own father, accusing him of having arranged for his colleague's death. Xavier intrudes on their argument, resulting in a fiery denouement that gives Marko one moment as a "good father."





The two youngsters remain chained together throughout college, during which time Cain becomes as invidious toward Xavier as his father was toward Xavier's father-- but Charles Xavier now possesses the skills of a psychic mutant, implicitly due to his father's exposure to atomic radiation, and this time, he easily trounces the piggish bully.

Cain's unreasoning hatred leads him to try to intimidate Xavier by recklessly driving the car they both occupy along a dangerous road at high speed-- which ends up being a displaced murder-attempt, when the car goes off the road. Good son Xavier saves both of them, though not without a great deal of painful trauma from his own injuries.

Finally, though the two stepbrothers separate as adults, they've brought together again, improbably serving in the same unit in the Korean War. Cain flees battle into a cave, and Xavier (whose name means "savior) tries to save him from himself. Cain comes across, and tampers with, a sacred ruby in the hidden temple of the god Cytorrak-- and this is what transforms him into the menace that is approaching the school in real-time.



Once Cain has become transformed into the unstoppable Juggernaut, a cave-in buries him, while Xavier escapes. Over a decade later, the Juggernaut tracks down Xavier, at last possessed of enough power to destroy his mutant brother.

The most mythic part of the Juggernaut story ends when Xavier finishes his Freudian backstory, and the rest of the story is largely one long fight-scene, as the X-Men repeatedly seek to beat down the nearly invulnerable villain. Only one last myth-motif appears in the end, for once the Angel deprives the villain of his protective helmet-- functionally, his Achilles heel-- brain once more defeats brawn, in a trope seen throughout the works of Lee and Kirby.




I would hardly be a devotee of Marvel not to mention the provenance of the name of the temple-god Cytorrak, for this was one of the many figures whose names had already appeared in the annals of Doctor Strange's adventures. Professor X's only comment on Cytorrak accords with a supernatural explanation for the deity:

Cytorrak is the most mysterious of all the deities of black magic! When he was finally driven from our own world, he left behind him the curse of the Juggernaut!
While there's no knowing who came up with the name Cytorrak, I find it interesting that the deity's backstory-- which was never referenced in the Doctor Strange tales-- resembles the scenarios from some of H.P. Lovecraft's srories. Indeed, Lovecraft's alien divinity Cthulhu-- whose name slightly resembles that of Cytorrak-- also suffered a sort of exile from the world of men, though he presented the threat of returning, not leaving behind a curse. It's possible that the general motif of a deity's curse upon mankind was merged with that of God's protection of the sinner Cain.

Finally, I would be remiss to mention that in my opinion the name Cytorrak most resembles not Cthulhu, but *Sycorax* of Shakespeare's TEMPEST-- which just happens to include a brutish lout-villain and a struggle between rival brothers. But it's a theory that I'm sure cannot be validated or disproven...


ALMOST GOT IT: :THE SENTINELS TRILOGY (X-MEN #14-16, 1965/66)

I've defined a "null-myth" as a narrative that shows potential for mythicity / symbolic discourse but fails to articulate that potential to its best effect. In contrast, "a near-myth" is a part of a narrative that sustains a mythic kernel of meaning, but does not become unified into a fully-developed "underthought" throughout the narrative.

In essence, a near- myth is identical with what I called a "motif" in this essay:

...I must admit that constituent parts of stories can be mythic, if not actual myths as such. Jung's best name for these story-parts was "motifs," and in his psychological investigations he often treated each motif as if it possessed its own symbolic validity, apart from its function within a narrative. 
An example of a near-myth that never gets beyond the level of a solid motif is the idea of the Sentinels, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for X-MEN #14-16. Given that these mutant-hunting robots have been one of the more distinctive antagonists for Lee and Kirby's team of beneficent mutants, I wondered if their original appearance constituted a mythcomic.



On rereading the "trilogy," I found that it advanced a fairly strong central concept, but that the story-- like most of those in the early X-Men history-- amounts to a lot of chase-scenes and fight-scenes, rather than a sustained myth. For me this simply means that the creators were more focused on giving their audience kinetic thrills, with a few touches of melodrama. (For instance, one issue features the Beast being put into trance by the villainous robots, wherein he reveals how he became isolated from his peers when they suspected him of being a mutant.)  Arguably Lee and Kirby also tend to show their Sentinels acting and speaking too much like other stock Marvel villains, while later portrayals, notably by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams, are more careful to have the robots act and speak like robots.

The basic idea for the Sentinels may have come from Jack Williamson's much-celebrated prose tale "With Folded Hands," in which an inventor perfects a breed of robots whose prime directive is to protect humans at all times-- which the robots interpret as giving them the freedom to enslave humanity, in order to better protect their charges. In the Sentinels tale, the controlling robots are created by Doctor Bolivar Trask, whose name suspiciously evokes that of South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who ousted the Spanish from many regions but arguably became a dictator in his own right. Trask also wants to expel a foreign element from his sphere, for he possesses an unexplained animus toward mutant-kind, deeming them a menace to the less empowered human race.




However, as soon as Trask unveils his mutant-hunters to the America public, the robots decide that "the only way we can protect mankind is by conquering it," and they turn, Frankenstein-style, upon their creator, seeking to force him to create more Sentinels. Professor X calls in his X-pupils to attack the Sentinels and there follow many scenes of battle, pursuit and more battle, as well as Professor X's attempt to dope out the Sentinels' Achilles heel.

There are a few moments where Lee and Kirby manage to use the Sentinels as a medium to critique unthinking obedience to orders, as when the robots prove unable to make decisions without prior approval from a superior. It's easy to see this as a shot at the wartime sentiment of "I was only following orders." But such elements remain fairly isolated, perhaps because the X-Men themselves never became strong mythic presences under the hands of their creators. Too often, the heroes seem to be nothing more than Lee and Kirby recycling the tropes of the WWII "kid-gang" genre, with a soupcon of SF-tropes about super-powered mutants. At story's end the man who unleashed the Sentinels realizes the injustice he's done to mutant-kind, and sacrifices his own life to stop his creations-- though of course, they come back for many more X-battles.



The three-part tale concludes with an anti-zealotry moral by Lee:

“Beware the fanatic! Too often his cure is deadlier by far than the evil he denounces.” (XM#16)
As far as superhero morality-tales go, this one presents a decent enough stab at the didactic potentiality. In terms of the mythopoeic potentiality, though, neither the tropes of the irrational zealot nor the demons he unleashes are given the sort of symbolic complexity necessary to sustain a true myth. This may be in part because when Lee and Kirby started the Sentinels story, they'd just finished one of the early X-Men's few mythopoeic tales-- which I'll examine in my next post.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

THE PRESERVATION SYNDROME

Just another little snippet I put on HU:

____________


The consistency with which you've been critiquing the handling of Wonder Woman and the liberal themes she embodies (or that you believe she embodies) led me to create a post-title as a pun on a Freud-phrase with which I imagine you've familiar. Whether you like or hate my pun, that's the context of my use of the word.

My complaint is not that you said Marston was racist: I made the same conclusion in my post. What I will never understand, though, is why you find it necessary to indulge in hyperbolic attacks.

This time I can keep the complaints down to just two:

"To present black Africans as Nazis both whitewashes Hitler and suggests that black people were implicated in an evil regime which called for their genocide."

What genocide? Is there a little moment when Wonder Woman or Steve Trevor yells, "Exterminate all the brutes?" I have not read the full story, but other blogposts lead me to suspect that nothing of the kind is in the actual story.

(2)"Marston’s belief in female superiority and his belief in black inferiority are incompatible. He cannot imagine black women, and therefore, for the one and only time in the Wonder Woman series, is unable to imagine feminist revolution. Racism undermined Marston’s progressive vision. "

If you want to believe that Marston ought to have anticipated bell hooks in 1946, that's your privilege. But I would like to see you supply the names of any liberal intellectuals of the time who managed that bit of fore-sightedness.

Better yet, can you cite even one MALE progressive of the time who descanted on the importance of liberating the females of either local minorities or Third World cultures?

If you can, I'll admit that that intellectual's anticipation of hooksian liberation was way ahead of anything Marston did.

But it probably still won't support your conclusions about what Marston ought to have known or done.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

TRIBAL IN PARADISE

As a quick follow-up to my last essay, I'll expand upon some of the reasons that I don't think it would be a big crisis if all the Amazons of Paradise Island were white, or why previous depictions of this status, whether in comic books or the 1970s teleseries, are not implicated in some sort of racist conspiracy.

In my refutation of Berlatsky, I mentioned that even if WW's creator Marston had wanted to do a liberation-fantasy directed at "the women of either local minorities or of Third World countries," no comics-publisher would have touched it. That calls for two different expansions:

(1) Some ideologues have criticized the early feminist movement for being too centered on the plight of white women, and not of their darker-skinned sisters. This is clearly putting the cart before the horse, in that there was no practical way that the women who had been marginalized by majority culture could have assumed a dominant role in the framing of feminism-- not for lack of ability, but for lack of resources. Simply put, 'POC women" of the 1940s had far less leisure time to spend on politics. I strongly doubt that even progressive males of the period. whether white or non-white, would have agreed to raise the children while their wives went out to raise their consciousness a la bell hooks. The greatest gains of Black Americans in the 1940s related almost entirely to the liberation of black men in the workplace, as seen with 1941's establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

(2) I characterized DC Comics-- and by extension, all of the comic-book publishers of the period-- as businessmen who "played to the prejudices of the dominant white majority most of the time, while allowing for occasional breakthroughs with particular characters." This means that just as there were vaguely pro-imperialist fantasies circling around, like Marston's African tale in WW #19, there were also a fair number of progressive stories, such as a couple of postwar GREEN LAMA stories that critiqued the poison of racism. But both the progressive and regressive stories were occasional in nature; they existed to entertain the readers of the white majority in one way or the other, not to reform society as such.

No blogpost of mine (and certainly not of Berlatsky's) can do justice to the complex social and economic history that led to the marginalization of POC in the United States, in contrast to the avowed ideals by which many white Americans believed that they lived. Nevertheless, while the tastes of the white majority determined that early comics focused almost on Caucasian protagonists, it's still arguable as to whether a given work, be it a comic book or a movie based on one, is implicated in historical racism simply for the crime of omitting POC characters from its narrative.




STAR WARS was the test-case for racial representation. Not long after the film came out, I recall hearing a black comedian say something like, "Tell the truth, white people; you like STAR WARS because it means ya'll gonna leave alla us behind!" There may be more truth than humor in that statement, and Lucasfilms was quick to remedy the lack of POC in the SW universe by introducing Lando Calrissian in the second movie.

And this was the right decision. In the case of STAR WARS, there was no reason not to have all sorts of POC human beings represented, since it was a fantasy of humans and aliens existing in a universe devoid of any connection to the history of Earth-humans.

Fast-forward 36 years, though, and we have Noah Berlatsky foaming at the mouth because he thinks all of the Amazons of Paradise Island will be white. In contrast to STAR WARS, his righteous resolution does present some narrative problems with the 2017 WONDER WOMAN film, depending on how the Amazons come into existence.

Putting aside the question as to whether all Greeks of the Classical period were "white" as we now understand the denotation-- a discussion best fitted to the adherents and detractors of BLACK ATHENA-- Marston's original idea is that all of the Amazons who come to Paradise Island are descended from Greeks. Quite probably Marston would never have cared to depict any Classical Greeks as non-white, even if he had been apprised of alternative interpretations. But was he racist to default to the common idea that all Greeks were white?

In a word, no. The Greeks of Classical times were, by my reading, an extremely xenophobic race. I'm sure that they, like every other culture on the planet, mingled with other human *clines* when they were so "in-clined." But that likelihood doesn't mean that there wasn't a dominant phenotype in Greek culture-- and that was the logic that Marston and other contributors to the Wonder Woman mythos have followed. It's an ineluctable part of history, as I detailed in this essay, that the people of any given tribe become psychologically attuned to the dominant phenotype, and it becomes an expression of their social identity-- not, as the ideologues would have it, as a means of exerting social control. It can *become* a means of social control, as it was in 20th-century America, but there too it started as an expression of social identity.

The reader should note that when George Perez introduces Philippus to the Amazon mythology, he does through a *deus ex machina,* according to Wikipedia:

3,000 years ago a select few of the Olympian gods, which included ArtemisAthenaHestiaDemeter andAphrodite, took the souls of women slain throughout time by the hands of men and sent them to the bottom of theAegean Sea. The souls then began to form bodies with the clay on the sea bed. Once they reached the surface the clay bodies became living flesh and blood Amazons. Philippus was one of these new race of women.

I suspect that the makers of the 2017 film will probably find some way to inject "diverse" Amazons. Certainly they would be ill-advised to follow Perez's creation-story, which is well suited to an ongoing comic book but not to a stand-alone movie. The interpolation of, say, Middle Eastern Amazons would make a great deal more sense than a character from Black Africa, since the historical Greeks had a lot more contact with the former than with the latter.

But should the filmmakers have to do so? Is it moral to insist that some POC character be injected into every narrative, just so that the filmmakers can avoid the taint of being called racist? I know that the Social Justice Warriors like to think of this sort of kibitzing as righting the wrongs of history. Yet if this passionate call for justice depends so substantially on fear-mongering, then it's not different from the tyranny of the old white majority-- except in terms of whose ox is gored.

Monday, May 9, 2016

SOMEWHERE, WONDER WOMAN IS BEING MISTREATED

The heavens must have wanted me to tilt with Noah Berlasky again. I glanced at HU a couple of times in the last month, and found nothing worth commenting upon. But a chance citation on a CBR thread led me to yet another NB venture into social justice, THE ENDURING RACISM OF WONDER WOMAN.

This essay starts out a lot like one NB wrote in December, and to which I responded with a two-part essay in February, here and here.  In the earlier essay, NB decided that he could judge the reactionary politics of BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN on the basis of a four-minute trailer. In this April essay, he started out by attacking publicity photos released from the in-production 2017 WONDER WOMAN film, because "all the Amazons in the images are white." 

Yet, in contrast to the December film, NB isn't browbeating the movie people because they didn't hew closely enough to the Wonder Woman canon, as articulated by creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. Instead, he was righteously condemning the filmmakers for not following a more recent addition to the canon: George Perez's interpolation of a black Amazon, one Philippus, who was introduced into the mythos in 1987. As one who read the series back in the day, I don't think that Philippus ever became much more than a token black character, but given that NB isn't the only online pundit bewailing her absence, clearly she made some impact-- at least as an example of ideologically-approved race-bending, if not as a character in her own right.



However, after NB has fussed a little about the failure of the filmmakers to instantaneously live up to his lofty standards, he drops that bone and goes after an even more chimerical one: to prove that Marston and Peter were themselves racists.

I wasn't entirely surprised by this apparent volte-face. Although NB has repeatedly praised the liberal sexuality and gender-consciousness of the Marston-Peter canon, on occasion I've seen him lament the ways in which the two creators failed his purity test regarding racial depictions. To be sure Marston gets the lion's share of condemnation, since he, unlike Peter, had much more to do with the direction of the Amazon's adventures. I concur with this de-emphasis on Peter, since one cannot be sure to what extent he simply drew whatever the scripts told him to draw.

I would concur, also, that there's no question that Marston used images that qualify as "racist" rather than simply "racial"-- though it should be noted that he sometimes employed positive images of Asians, Middle Easterners, and Native Americans when it served the purpose of a particular story. But as if offering a reverse-image of NB's emphasis on the Importance of Keeping Philippus, Marston doesn't seem to have anything comparable with respect to sub-Saharan Africans and what are now called (sometimes) Afro-Americans. Here's one of the earliest depiction of a Black American in the series, from SENSATION COMICS #10 (1942).



Though there are a few exceptions to this pattern, I think it's axiomatic to say that Marston had no problem with depicting American Blacks as complete doofuses, and in that respect, he is as much a racist as all the other comics-creators who did the same thing.

However, the admission that many Golden Age creators had a nasty sense of humor is not enough for NB. He has to find ways to use Marston, the man he respects for his liberal sexual views, as a paradigm of Evil White Culture.

Taking his oversimplifications in order of occurrence:

The absolute low point of racism in the Wonder Woman comics was in Wonder Woman #19. This issue was set in some unspecified African nation, giving Peter the opportunity to draw African people as subhuman animalistic blackface monsters. For his part, Marston wrote a script in which the Africans were allied with the Nazis; they actually had swastikas on their loincloths. Hitler, of course, loathed black people. To present black Africans as Nazis both whitewashes Hitler and suggests that black people were implicated in an evil regime which called for their genocide. In short, even by the very racist standards of American wartime pulp, Wonder Woman #19 is a shameful exercise in ignorance and hate.


I confess I have not read the story in question, but-- genocide? According to this blog-writeup of the same story, it looks to me like WW and her buddies manage to win back the Africans from the Nazis, who were "threatening [the natives] with their [the Nazis'] death-ray." It's true that WW and her buddies win out by playing upon the foolish superstitions of the natives, and their natural sense of rhythm, etc. But of what relevance is it that "Hitler loathed black people?" The story in question was dated September/October 1946, so it's long after the conclusion of WWII, and Hitler's presumptive death. The die-hard goose-steppers of this story have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by attempting to persuade the natives that they can become part of the coming regime. I don't imagine Marston bothered to work out this scenario very carefully, but WW#19 is certainly of a piece with many wartime stories in which Axis agents are seen suborning or subverting established Third World cultures. Indeed, WONDER WOMAN #1 (1942) features one story, "Wonder Woman Goes to the Circus," in which a Japanese spy infiltrates a group of Burmese mahouts in order to sabotage American interests. Frankly, IMO the Burmese get much worse treatment than the Africans in the post-war story, though I suppose it's a measured choice at best. In any case, there doesn't seem to be any attempt in the WONDER WOMAN #19 story to justify genocide, though the narrative holds much in common with a number of post-war stories that sought to validate the return of imperialism.




Up to this point NB is critiquing only what Marston put on the page, even if he's brought in some skewed interpretations. But he does have an earlier line about how "only white women were awesome," and NB justifies it here:

You could argue that Marston’s racism is inconsistent with his feminism and with Wonder Woman’s true principles. Marston generally wrote stories in which Wonder Woman would discover a patriarchal society of Mole Men or Seal Men, help the women find their true moral, physical, and erotic strength, and then depart with a happy matriarchy in place. In Wonder Woman #19, though, Marston’s racism interferes with the feminist narrative. Wonder Woman does not help black women to find strength and sisterhood; in fact, for all practical purposes, black women are not represented at all in the comic. Marston’s belief in female superiority and his belief in black inferiority are incompatible. He cannot imagine black women, and therefore, for the one and only time in the Wonder Woman series, is unable to imagine feminist revolution. Racism undermined Marston’s progressive vision. 

Certainly one can say that Marston's racial attitudes interfere with what NB conceives to be a true "progressive vision," but if Marston's ideas are in any way progressive, then those ideas stand on their own, whether or not he was progressive in every other regard. I can well believe that Marston used the African story, like the Burmese story before it, to make fun of peoples he considered amusing, or knew that his readers would find amusing. He may or may not have considered all black people inferior to white people, but there's another point NB has failed to consider--

If Marston had wanted to publish a story showing black women finding strength and sisterhood-- who would have published it?

My view of Marston is that, crank or not, he had his pragmatist side. He does occasionally show individual women of color getting it together, as with the cinnamon-skinned Pepita, also from WONDER WOMAN #1.



But in the years of 1942-1947, during which Marston wrote the Amazon, no comic book company-- indeed, no medium in the U.S. (if anywhere)-- would have published a story about empowering the women of either local minorities or of Third World countries. DC Comics was obviously OK with the Amazon liberation-fantasy as long as it was applied to archaic cultures that somehow survived into the 20th century (like Atlantis from WONDER WOMAN #8, 1944) or to alien worlds replete with winged fairy-women (like Venus, from ALL-STAR #13, 1942). But DC Comics' record on both feminism and minority relations was much the same as Marston's: they played to the prejudices of the dominant white majority most of the time, while allowing for occasional breakthroughs with particular characters. Indeed, the dialectics of feminism in the 1940s had not yet assimilated the modern era's much-touted conceptualization of "racial difference." It makes no sense to bludgeon Marston for not being able to articulate a vision of racial-and-sexual justice that few persons of his time could even imagine, and he's not a racist for not following through on implications that Noah Berlatsky deems inevitably linked. 

I made no bones about saying that there was a "dominant white majority" at the time, one that certainly reinforced the racist stereotypes in Marston's work. But this statement is very different from NB harping on every example of Caucasian identity as an extension of Evil White Culture, which is what NB does when he insists that the Amazons must not be all-white; that they must have their black token no matter what logical hoops the writers must be jump through to get Philippus to Themiscrya-- 

Even if those hoops aren't nearly as narrow as the ones that got Idris Elba into Asgard.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "A MEXICAN ODYSSEY" (FREAK BROTHERS #4, 1975)

Since I commented here that I didn't think that "the influence of confessional dramas" had been salutary for the development of artcomics, it behooves me now to state that I have sometimes wished that Gilbert Shelton had been more influential on the underground than Robert Crumb.

Back in some 1990s CEREBUS letters-page I commented that I deemed Shelton the "comic book version of Mark Twain," or words to that effect. Effusive though this might be, I still believe that Shelton's freewheeling mastery of both comic and ironic modes far exceeds that of his more ideologically minded contemporaries, such as Crumb, Jaxon, Skip Williamson, and, of course, the hyper-confessional Justin Green. Some of these artists attempted to work with the character-type called the "American naif," as represented by self-portraits like Binky Brown or fictional types like Flakey Foont and Snappy Sammy Smoot, but on the whole I found their attempts on this score superficial and phony.

The non-siblings known as the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers"-- intellectual Phineas, practical Franklin and chronic chowhound Fat Freddy-- were not deep characters, nor were they intended to be so. They had nearly no desires to do anything in life except to stay high on one set of drugs or another, but precisely because they were almost all "id," they became perfect mirrors to the many ways in which the "straight" members of  American society told lies to themselves, whether they were cops, revolutionaries, politicians or other "freaks" and fellow members of the "hippie" community.

Over the years I've seen a fair number of references to Carl Barks in the FREAK BROTHERS oeuvre. Without oversimplifying the matter of influences, I'm tempted to believe that Shelton simply inverted the pattern of Barks' duck-adventures, wherein Barks, like Twain before him, sent naive Americans out into a weird and mysterious world-- though, to be sure, neither Twain nor Shelton creates a regular character comparable to Uncle Scrooge, that daring yet comical imperialist.



Except-- sort of-- in 1975's "Mexican Odyssey," credited to Gilbert Shelton and Dave Sheridan. In one of the Freaks' usual no-brainer inspirations, the three goofballs decide to emigrate to Mexico to avoid their landlady, Franklin knows the way already, though he makes a weird Verne-ian reference at the start of the jaunt, telling Phineas and Freddy that they're driving "directly above the center of the Earth."

In contrast to some of the Freaks' adventures that follow the format of comic books, "Odyssey" is constructed like a series of Sunday comic-strip pages, even with the addition of a separate one-tier feature about  "Fat Freddy's Cat." This means that the story is set up as a series of joke-setups, many of which concern the three gringos encountering such south-of-the-border menaces as corrupt cops, Montezuma's revenge, and "the dreaded Mexican bus." That said, their main enemy is home-grown: a transplanted U.S. military man, Douglas D. Zaster, who initially pursues the threesome simply because he hates hippies. Later, it's revealed that Zaster is busily engaged in growing a crop of poppies for the opium market, and that he's working hand in glove with the American government in the heroin trade.

However, the three Americanos are befriended by the closest Shelton ever comes to an Uncle Scrooge figure: a mysterious shaman named Don Longjuan:



There's no question that the name is a spoof of the shaman Don Juan from the contemporaneous Carlos Castaneda books, but for once, the character is more than just a MAD-style play on words (though I confess that I did find myself wondering if Shelton was thinking of either Long John Silver or the "longjohns" worn by superheroes).  While most comics-farces would simply make Longjuan some sort of contemporary charlatan-- say, having him trying to sell the Freaks his books on shamanic enlightenment-- Shelton's magician remains an "enigma wrapped in a mystery." His penchant for helping the Freaks out of trouble and then leaving them to get into more is played for humor, as when he enchants Freddy to think that he's a pig.



And yet, the humor is not unleavened with mystery. During one sequence, when the Freaks have been unjustly condemned to the hell of Mexico's jails, Longjuan frees the hippies by taking them into vast subterranean caverns far beneath the modern city, making references to past civilizations of "giants" and "small people." Much like the better adventures of Barks' duck-heroes, Shelton achieves a maximum degree of mythic suggestion via minimal suggestion.

The entire "Odyssey" consists of just one splash page and 23 story-pages, not counting the minimally related accompanying strip about Fat Freddy's Cat. I would guess that the pages were meant to be serialized in underground newspapers before they were collected into comic-book format. But the sequence is much tighter than anything one finds in most of the commercial newspaper-strips of the "Classic Era." This is another aspect of Shelton's work that I could wish artcomics had assimilated to better effect-- the ability to tell linear stories, no matter how far afield they might choose to go thereafter. Perhaps linear stories reminded most of the underground cartoonists of the "sellouts" of mainstream comics, and so they tended to focus less on art and more upon the effects of "the arty."