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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: PHOENIX: A TALE OF THE FUTURE (1967-68)



I have not read all twelve of the translated arcs in Osamu Tezuka's mammoth PHOENIX story-cycle, but they're meant to stand alone, and in fact Tezuka passed away in 1989 without having finished everything he wanted to say on the theme. Possibly, since he viewed the cycle as his life's work, he never would have finished it, even if he'd been given the impossibly long life of certain characters in this 1967-68 arc, which I'll henceforth refer to as FUTURE. Though FUTURE was one of the first arcs that the "God of Manga" completed, it was also chronologically the end of the cycle, in which Tezuka put the earth of 3404 AD through the mill of a great apocalypse, only to deliver on the promise of renewed life afterward.

The author's distant techno-future is a visual feast, though sometimes skimpy on the logical details. Although humankind has mastered space-travel-- two characters are "space patrolmen" and Earth has played host to at least one alien species-- it's not clear whether or not humans have been able to colonize the stars. Regardless, Earth itself has become a desolate place of cold temperatures and windblown terrain. No one can live on Earth's surface, but what remains of the human populace has been crammed into five colossal underground cities. In the city named Yamato-- presumably pioneered by Tezuka's ancestors-- a conflict evolves between three of the narrative's main characters: heroic Masato, his "negative mirror-image" Roc, and the female alien Tamami.

Tamami belongs to the aforementioned alien species, an amoeba-like organism able to (a) transform into any other organic form, and (b) able to beguile humans with hypnotic dreams, so that they can flee their hectic, crowded lives into the idyllic worlds of Earth's past history. But after the shapechangers became popular in Yamato as both pets and lovers, the autocratic computer that rules Yamato commands that all Moopies must be exterminated. Space patrolman Masato is one of those who was obliged to carry out such executions, but somehow he managed to hide Tamami in his own apartment, with the alien using its powers to appear like a normal human relative of the patrolman. However, Masato's superior officer Roc-- who came up with Masato in the ranks, and is therefore about the same age as the hero-- finds out about Tamami, and gives Masato the chance to finish off the last Moopie on Earth. Masato, aware of the penalties in Yamato's rigid society, tries to kill his companion but cannot. The two of them flee to the hostile surface of Earth, with Roc's forces in pursuit.

All that saves Masato and Tamami is that the image of the Phoenix appears to them, leading them to the shelter of eminent scientist Doctor Saruta, one of the few men able to maintain a domed refuge on Earth's surface. In addition, the Phoenix appears to Saruta. The creature represents itself as the living spirit of Earth itself, and urges the doctor to let the fugitives into his home, asserting that they will be necessary to renew the failing life-forces of the Earth.

I won't recount all of the involved plot-developments, except to note that after Roc's expeditionary forces fail, he himself seeks out Saruta's redoubt, because two of the great city-computers have declared war on each other. Soon the three men and the alien woman (the only major female character in FUTURE) are the only intelligent creatures left on Earth. Masato butts heads with both Roc, who covets Tamami's beauty, and Saruta, who wants to use her in his experiments to bring forth new life.

Though Tezuka's cosmological and metaphysical myth-motifs are of great scope in FUTURE, conceptutually they too butt heads. Most of the time Tezuka portrays the rise of new life in strictly materialistic biological terms, reminding one of the "Rite of Spring" sequence in Disney's FANTASIA. The Phoenix, however, claims that both stars and planets are alive in some metaphysical fashion. This would be acceptable if Tezuka were advocating panpsychism. However, the Phoenix can actually pull off a few miracles, like transforming Masato into a nearly immortal man, who oversees the return of life to Earth long after all the other characters have died. Yet, when the ancient Masato beholds a new race of primitive cavemen worshiping their gods, he thinks they're morons for so doing. What?

Tezuka is perhaps at his best with psychological themes, but he's ambivalent here as well. He sides with lovers Masato and Tamami, and their harmless dream-diversion, against the dictates of the city-computer. However, Tezuka seems to be on the side of "the reality factor" when he reveals that Saruta attempted to find emotional comfort with female robots. His arguments here aren't especially consistent, though one can hardly doubt Tezuka's abilities to put over any sentiment with affecting (if often fevered) dramatics.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

NEAR-MYTHS: ["HUMAN TORCH'S ORIGIN"] (MARVEL COMICS #1. 1939)



In a couple of essays like this one, I've established that I don't think Carl Burgos' Human Torch feature ever lived up to its potential. While no one would expect an early Golden Age superhero to excel into didactic or dramatic terms, some of them are quite good in the mythopoeic department. The Torch, unfortunately, generates more heat than light.

There was a lot of potential for mythic "light" in Burgos' reworking of Mary Shelley's novel FRANKENSTEIN. Was Burgos aware of the book's subtitle, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS, and that the subtitle referenced a Roman modification of the Greek Titan's history, one that gave Prometheus the ability to make men out of clay? If so, that might have provided the association between Prometheus the fire-thief and Prometheus the maker of artificial men-- resulting in the idea of a fiery android.

Or maybe the inspiration came from Universal's Frankenstein films, three of which had come to the big screen by the time of the Torch's first appearance (cover dated October 1939, meaning that it came out a few months previous). The cinematic monster had a legendary fear of fire, and so its possible that this eventuated in the idea of an artificial man who incarnated fire-- though personally, this seems to me more of a leap than the previous associational chain.

In any case, the first half of the origin is a masterpiece of potential myth. For no well defined reason, Professor Horton creates his flammable android, and is almost immediately convinced to seal him away, not unlike a guilty mind concealing a forbidden sin.




For a moment, Burgos gets some of the emotional sense of what it might be like, to be a man whose very body caused conspicuous destruction. 

However, the moment Burgos injects a common crook for the Torch's first real enemy, the story devolves into mediocrity.



I've read only a smattering of the original Human Torch's adventures, and though they display some interesting moments of grotesquerie, the feature never developed beyond a very basic pulp-action concept. Its strength depended almost entirely on the kinetic appeal of a man made of fire, flying through the air, tossing fireballs, and absorbing the flames of random fires. Even in his crossovers with the Sub-Mariner, the android comes off like a penny-ante hero, with no strong character of his own.

Given that the second Human Torch also didn't do too well in his own feature, it may be that the true myth of this "Promethean Frankenstein" has yet to be told.

Monday, July 18, 2016

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 correspondent who wondered whether I might devote some time to showing how the NUM theory applied to comic books. I responded, in part:

it's a lot easier for any medium dealing with "drawn" characters-- and that includes comic strips and animated cartoons-- to invoke the marvelous, that level of phenomenality that allows for absolute freedom. Media that communicate via living actors will of necessity always be more limited, though the process of CGI-- which could be said to "draw" images real enough to mingle with live actors-- has leveled that playing field somewhat.

All that said, though, it occurred to me recently that it could be interesting to assign my categories to the "mythcomics" I've thus far surveyed, just as I've been doing regularly with all the movies reviewed at NATURALISTIC! UNCANNY! MARVELOUS! So, one afternoon, I devoted a few hours to making such entries.

It should surprise no one that of the ninety mythcomics thus far surveyed, the vast majority were indeed "marvelous," while there were only seven "naturalistic" comics and nine "uncanny" comics.
Even this determination requires a little explanation, though.

For instance, when speaking of the DICK TRACY comic strip as a whole, I would tend to assign it to the "uncanny" phenomenality, even though the series had its share of naturalistic adventures (like [JUNIOR TRACY FINDS A DAD] and marvelous exploits (the 1960s period when Tracy went to the moon, encountered Moon Maid, etc.) Still, following the logic of the "active share" theory, Dick Tracy falls into the uncanny domain because the detective's encounters with weird, non-marvelous villains-- Prunfeface, FlatTop, B.B. Eyes-- is the centric aspect of his mythos.



Similarly, as a whole the adventures of Batman fall into the domain of the marvelous, partly because of all the high-tech crooks like Mister Freeze and the SF-freaks like Killer Croc, partly because of the Bat's own penchant for technological wonders. But in two of the Bat-adventures surveyed here, no such marvels are extant, and so both "Laugh, Town, Laugh" and "Beware of Poison Ivy" fall into into the uncanny domain when considered apart from the series as a whole.

Whether this categorization proves useful in future, only time will tell.

MYTHCOMICS: "ACT ONE" (GIRLS BRAVO, 2000)



In this near-myth essay I observed that although manga-artist Rumiko Takahashi possessed a genius for character-creation, often she settled for putting her characters through fairly formulaic paces. Such stories are, without a doubt, greatly entertaining, but usually they don't have the symbolic complexity of a mythcomic. Her signature series URUSEI YATSURA is notable in that the opening story shows great myth-potential which is never explored.

I found a similar missed opportunity in the setup for Mario Kaneda's GIRLS BRAVO. Kaneda is nowhere near Takahashi's equal in terms of creating memorable characters, although he's almost as good in terms of drawing voluptuous females. On that basis, it's understandable that a lot of manga-readers have dismissed GIRLS BRAVO as a lukewarm, if well-drawn, harem comedy with little beyond fanservice to recommend it. And in truth, most of the series is that and nothing more.  The opening episode, "Act One," outlines a psychological myth that could have been fascinating, had it been fully realized.

Most harem comedies focus on a protagonist, usually male, who's either exceptionally ordinary or exceptionally dorky (though in both cases he tends to be moderately attractive, rather than a real "uggo").  Yukinari Sasaki is the dork-kind, and he attends a Japanese high school where-- in defiance of the usual pattern-- all of his bullies are girls, who look down on him literally and figuratively. Even the one female teacher seen in Act One gives him crap, as if he's a magnet for female sadism. He's so disenchanted with the XX gender that he develops hives when a female touches him.



Yukinari is an only child, apparently living with his mother, who appears very briefly in early installments of BRAVO but who is quickly written out so that the youth can have a place where his "harem" regularly convenes.  However, in place of a domineering sister, he has a domineering neighbor-girl, Kirie, who seems to have a problem with locking the bathroom door.


This is a familiar pattern in the majority of harem comedies: the male gets to indulge in his scopophilic desire to ogle the female-- however much the male may protest his innocence-- and the female gets to indulge in violent retaliation.



This time, a punchout from one woman hurls the ineffectual Yukinari into the bath-waters of another. For no real reason, the youth finds himself in another world called "Seiren," and in the company of a young woman named Miharu, who shares none of the aggressive tendencies of Kirie and most other females in Yukinari's life. Miharu not only doesn't attack Yukinari for accidentally seeing her naked, she cares for his wounds as well. She's the very epitome of the nurturing woman, and the only thing excessive about her is that she always wants something to eat, though in keeping with the male fantasy she never gains weight from all of her gustatory activities.

However, the spectre of female aggression isn't absent on Seiren, though it manifests for a different reason: only ten percent of the world's population is male-- and so even a wimp like Yukinari is a pearl beyond price, especially to Miharu's overbearing sister Maharu.




Eventually, Yukinari's been convinced that Seiren's no better than Earth, except for Miharu. The young woman reveals that Yukinari may be able to cross back to his own plane, for no reason except that Miharu's bath-water shows the reflection of Kirie, and has apparently done so on earlier occasions.




There's no logic given as to why the bathtub in Seiren ought to be attuned to Kirie, nor is it explained how either Miharu or Yukinari can figure out that Kirie is having sentimental thoughts about her wimp-neighbor, since neither of them is a telepath. The symbolic reason is that on some level Kirie regrets being so "butch" around Yukinari-- though she clearly likes dominating him as well-- and that her feminine side puts her in tune with the ultra-feminine Miharu, her mythic opposite. However, Kaneda isn't skillful enough to suggest this equivalence.

Yukinari evidently has some submerged feelings for Kirie as well, since he elects to cross back to his own world. However, the genie is out of the bottle, and Miharu ends up back on Earth with him-- specifically, in Kirie's bath. Kirie is so happy to see her feckless buddy back that she doesn't even clobber him for having seen her naked again-- though she does as soon as she notices another woman in the bath with the two of them.

A few more episodes center upon the unspoken competition between Kirie and Miharu for their wimpy prize, but it's not much of a competition, since Miharu isn't inclined to initiate romantic moves (too busy wanting to chow down all the time) and Yukinari's too shy to make a move. Kaneda then proceeds to introduce a couple of other cute girls to the mix, just to justify the "harem" aspect, and also decides to take most of the pressure off Yukinari by introducing another student, the hyper-sexual Fukuyama. Fukuyama is everything Yukinari is not, being tall, handsome, and rich, and he soon drives most of the stories with his passion for finding ingenious ways to grope all the series-females. The "triangle" relationship of Yukinari, Miharu and Kirie is largely dumped, and with it, any interesting psychological permutations of the series-- in marked contrast to Ken Akamatsu's LOVE HINA, which managed to maintain some mythic touches no matter how much goofy fanservice was ladled into it.

Tokyopop printed an English translation of all volumes of GIRLS BRAVO, but this online version probably comes closer to the phrasing of the Japanese original.







Saturday, July 16, 2016

COMMENT PRESERVATION NUMBER UMPTY-SOMETHING

I won't bother to link to the CBR post where I said this, because it went from a minor inquiry to the usual ideological wrangling. Still, I think my last shot at my adversary is worth preserving. I'll probably find myself using it again.

I swear, some of you guys are as addicted to the ego-boosting effects of your righteousness as the AA guys who lecture other people for drinking. In the case of this post, you're not even like the obnoxious AA guy who barges into a bar. You're more like a guy who invades a teetotalers' party, gets frustrated that he can't get his usual righteous "high," and so starts complaining about the people drinking "near beer."

Friday, July 15, 2016

RADICAL CONFLICTS PT. 2

I've been reading a few online resources on the subject of the myth-ritual school (sometimes called the Cambridge Ritualists). I've mentioned before that I'm aware that these theories, which had a strong effect on Northrop Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, are not much in favor today. The most common complaint from recent books is that the ritualists let their enthusiasm for their subject undermine the classicist's need for absolutely scrupulous scholarship.

I can understand why academics would put consistency first. Any academic discipline is highly dependent on an accretion of both fact and opinion, wherein the facts are theoretically unassailable and the opinions are those that best accord with those facts. Careful scholarship is essential, especially when dealing with the fragmentary records of ancient cultures, be it ancient Greece or one with even less extant evidence.

At the same time, I find fatuous the much lauded logic of Occam's Razor: that whatever seems to be the simplest explanation must also be the best. If the real life of modern times proves incredibly complicated, how could the culture of bygone times be any less so? The desire for scientific simplicity that I find in the anti-ritualist books puts me in mind of a quote from Walter Cerf, first cited here:

It is typical of reflective philosophy... that it relies on arguments, proofs, and the whole apparatus of logic... that it tries to solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole; that it sticks to the natural sciences as the source of the only reliable knowledge of nature, thus committing itself... to a concept of experience reduced to sense perception, and to a concept of sense perception reduced to some causal chain...

Modern academics reject the highly speculative theories of ritualism because the Ritualists were not able to provide a "causal chain" as sturdy as the Darwinian insight that linked apes and humans. However, "the concept of experience" germane to literary production does not follow one razor-straight path. It may be overreaching to claim that all dramatic productions descend from rituals originally intended to bless the community or to expel noxious influences, but it's no less foolish to dismiss any connections at all, just to expel the "noxious influence" of careless scholarship.

Though Frye based his concept of the myth-radicals on the older Cambridge ritualists, I've never been moved to read most of them, except for a little of A,B. Cook and Jane Ellen Harrison's PROLOGOMENA. I was never married to the ritualist idea that archaic Greek drama descended literally from magico-religious rituals, and so it doesn't affect me that much if some scholars find this "causal chain" dubious. The radicals, like the "mythic moods" analyzed by Theodor Gaster, function as metaphors to organize the multifarious potential of the human mind.

At the end of the first RADICAL CONFLICTS I said:

I myself would rate the familiarity of commonplace experiences as no more than a "mild enjoyment," while the familiarity of shared myths would line up better with "intense pleasure"-- and this is the reason that I've chosen to write thousands of words on the topics of myths and myth-radicals. While as a pluralist I affirm the equal importance of all four radicals, I've clearly chosen to devote myself to the radical of the *agon,* even to the extent of analyzing its presence in narratives not aligned to the adventure-mythos best known for it. 

The blanket assertion of the anti-ritualists is that the Cambridge School was too devoted to fitting the entire world of drama (and, by extension, literature) into pigeonholes derived from Classical Greek terms. It's a familiar argument, showing the reflective critic's aversion to anything that ventures beyond the realm of causality as defined by the natural sciences. Noah Berlasky's pig-ignorant dismissal of Joseph Campbell, refuted here, is based in his commitment to a criticism founded entirely in ideological politics.

But because a pluralist is free to think in broad speculative terms, he can see outside the box of ideological means and ends. For instance, I've refined the idea of the *agon* radical as one that harnessed sort of "centric" will, one that invokes a ritualized invigorative mood,  as opposed to the less ambiious forms that characterize the same radical in its stage of "diffuse" will. The same logic extends to the other three radicals: the *pathos,* the *sparagmos* and the *incognitio*: they too much have their "centric and diffuse" (or possibly "sacred and profane") Possibly I'll explore a few of these as they occur to me, but since I'm writing a blog, and not a book to compete with ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, it's unlikely that I'll spend as much time on the other three radicals as I have upon the invigorative one.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: APOLLO'S SONG (1970)



APOLLO'S SONG will probably never be on anyone's list of favorite works from Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka. Indeed, one online resource claims that Tezuka himself didn't like it, partly because it came from his so-called "dark period." Many of the manga from this period reputedly have a nihilistic edge, far from the boundless optimism one finds in his early, often-juvenile works like TETSUWAN ATOM (aka Astro Boy) and RIBON NO KISHI (aka Princess Knight).

SONG is far from a perfect, or even disciplined, work. It's comprised of several disjointed episodes in the life of a 20th-century Japanese delinquent named Shogo Chikashi. Aside from the opening scenes, in which Shogo goes to an asylum and suffers shock therapy to straighten him out, the reader can't be entirely sure that any of the episodes actually occur. In addition, the work is informed by the author's desire to descant on the subject of sex education-- although Tezuka's vision of heterosexual relations seems fraught with a sense of devastating irony, in which all human aspirations are frustrated.

A prequel to Shogo's adventures takes the form of a sex-ed comic. Tezuka projects his imagination into the human female's Fallopian tube, where a few thousand sperm-- drawn as identical male humanoids-- gather to make their race for the personified egg, with whom one lucky sperm will successfully merge. It's one of the few un-ironic moments in the novel.

Shogo, however, isn't exactly the finest exemplar of the human species. He's a confused young man who's been committed on the grounds of his having assaulted small animals, and it soon comes out that he's the result of a slutty mother who gamboled about with many men while barely giving Shogo any maternal attention, beyond beating him from time to time. 



Tezuka's scenario is almost textbook Freud: lack of a positive father-figure and a concupiscent mother mold Shogo into a person almost divorced from feelings. However, instead of a "talking cure," in Tezuka's world the delinquent merits only punishment from a strange goddess-figure with a vaguely Greek appearance; one who appears in his dreams after his first encounter with electro-shock.



Despite the use of the name "Apollo" in the title, and in the story's only direct reference to Greek mythology, Shogo's fate seems modeled after that of a Greek tragic figure like Hippolytus. In the surviving play by Euripides, the titular character is minding his own business, worshiping the chaste goddess Artemis, when the love-goddess Aphrodite decides to make his life miserable by causing his stepmother Phaedra to pursue the young man.

By comparison Hippolytus was lucky: he only suffered one doom, while Shogo undergoes several-- and even by the novel's conclusion, it's stated that his sufferings will go on forever, with no expectation that he can ever break the cycle. To some readers this may seem pretty excessive for a youth whose aberrations are largely the result of adult irresponsibility. However, such a sense of universal injustice would accord perfectly with a masochistic outlook. As I'm not a Tezuka expert, I can't say if such an outlook appears consistently in his work. But in SONG, he certainly seems to be taking pleasure in his protagonist's sufferings.

The first episode, taking place after Shogo is cursed by the goddess, is one of the weakest. Shogo finds himself living in the body of a WWII German soldier, with no real memory beyond the fact that his name is still the very un-German Shogo. He meets a cute young Jewess and tries to set her free from captivity, but both of them are killed by the war's violence.

The next episode takes place after a hospital psychiatrist has hypnotized him. This time Shogo imagines being a Japanese pilot who's stranded on a remote island with a rather uppity Japanese female. The island is also inhabited by an assortment of animals who have formed a community in which none of them devour one another, although they will eat fish from the neighboring sea. Presumably the psychiatrist suggests this scenario because he's trying to force Shogo to relate to the animals that he's come to hate, largely because he can't stand their unconflicted attitude toward sexual fertilization. That said, it's odd that the doctor ends his tale with more death and tragedy.




Then, in a sequence which may or may not be part of the story's base reality, Shogo escapes the hospital. He's spirited away to a secluded mountain resort by a slightly older woman, Hiromi, who isn't interested in seducing him but wants to train him as a long-distance runner. The improbability of this setup is rendered slightly more palatable when it's revealed that Hiromi is also a psychiatrist, who took it upon herself to attempt cuing Shogo with this strange athletic program. At the same time, she's not above tempting Shogo with her feminine charms in order to manage him, and it's strongly suggested that she falls in love with him in the process of trying to heal him. 



This sequence is possibly the most successful in an aesthetic sense: Hiromi incarnates some of the motherly traits that Shogo's actual mother did not have. Yet she's also had a former lover, a fiancee who comes nosing around when he learns about the young man's presence, and this character may represent a deflection of the many fathers that tormented Shogo's life. In addition, she even slaps him a few times, giving her yet another resemblance to Shogo's unnamed female parent.

The interlude with Shogo and Hiromi is interrupted when he's injured, thus precipitating the story's last story. Shogo dreams that he's transported into the far future, at a time when human civilization has been marginalized by artificial, non-reproducing humanoids called "Synthans." Future-Shogo is talked into making an assassination-attempt on Queen Sigma, ruler of the Synthans. To his dismay, this requires him to become a servant in her palace, and this leads her to become intrigued with the human practice of lovemaking. Over the course of time, Sigma and Shogo fall in love for real, amid many SF-tropes involving cloning, artificial body-parts and robotics. Only in this section is there something closer to the passion of drama rather than the futility of irony.



The dream ends, and Shogo is back with Hiromi, though not for long. He soon finds out how he's been played by both Hiromi and the psychiatrist from the asylum.






The psychiatrist's idea of deferring sexual passion through Greek myth bears a moderate resemblance to Hippolytus' rejection of his own amorous potential. Yet it doesn't do either Hiromi or Shogo any good. They both die, and the spirit of Shogo is hauled before the goddess once more. Even though he's experienced genuine love for Hiromi, the goddess tells him that because he has "no faith in love," he will continue to experience "the trials of love" for the rest of existence.

It's possible that the English translation of APOLLO'S SONG misses some of the nuances of the Japanese original. Still, even if the narrative may not be entirely satisfying in any language, I must admit that it's one of the most pervasively pessimistic myths ever committed to a comics-page.


Monday, July 11, 2016

PRIEST, PRAYER AND PREDESTINATION



I've be re-reading Hyung Min-woo's manhwa PRIEST to determine whether or not it meets my criteria for a mythcomic. I haven't yet finished, but my general impression is that the series is too episodic to qualify. Neverthless, it does display some interesting myth-motifs. The story takes place in an alternate-world version of Earth, in which a Catholic priest named Ivan Isaacs loses his faith when his personal life is destroyed by one of God's archangels. In order to obtain vengeance, Isaacs gives up his soul to the demon Belial, who transforms the ex-priest into an undead scourge.

Now, one interesting thing about the above exchange is that it takes place in a fantasy-world where the reality of angels and demons is constantly attested. God, creator of both supernatural races and of mankind, is by implication just as real, though as in many such fantasies the creator-god has removed himself from the battle for reasons unknown.

In the above confrontation, Isaacs, who is no longer a believer in God's mercy, quotes one of the Christian Psalms to his demonic opponent. The demon derides the quote and asks Isaacs if the ex-priest really believes that such 'drivel is the word of God." Isaacs replies, "Not really. But I take consolation in the strength of men's words."

Of course, this reverses the intention behind Christian scripture, or, for that matter, the majority of religious teachings. Whether holy sayings take the form of direct instructions or poetic meditations, they are supposed to derive their authority from being handed down from a deity or deities. A more overtly anti-religions author, such as Philip Pullman, would probably amplify Isaacs' pro-humanity stance into an overt theme. However, the author of PRIEST doesn't seem harp on the evils of godhood often enough for me to think this exchange is anything more than a minor motif; something along the lines of an aside to show Isaac's alienated character.

Now, though I'm not a Christian, I used to be, over forty years ago, so I'm aware of some of the dynamics that inform this particular realm of worship. On this forum-thread, I responded to a poster who asserted that as he understood things, prayer could not influence the Christian god. I responded:

There is no single belief about the efficacy of prayer in the varied world of Judeo-Christian sects-- to say nothing of other religions that resort to praying--so you've oversimplified the question. Some worshipers do believe that in predestination, that everything that's ever happened or going to happen is fixed. For those believers, prayer, like deeds, can make no difference to God's verdict. Other believers favor a more open-ended view of destiny, in which it's possible for a god to intervene if he so chooses. For such believers, there's no guarantee that prayer will work but as the saying goes, "it can't hurt."

Now, while I don't believe in the specific Christian God, the concept of predestination suggests some fascinating philosophical avenues.

I recently argued to one acquaintance, a Catholic believer, that the idea of predesintation conflicts with the doctrine of free choice. In my mind, if God created the universe and knows ahead of time everything that's going to happen until the Last Days, then there's absolutely no point to the process of creation. My friend, not unexpectedly, resorted to the old chestnut that God's creations can't know His Mind and that human beings cannot know what God finds significant.

To my mind, this is a circular argument. The Bible, ostensibly the Word of God as transmitted to mortals, God is constantly described as evincing human-like emotions or sentiments. Additionally, his actions are frequently described in terms of means and ends: "God did X to achieve Y." Believers frequently have no problem in describing God's actions as representing a higher form of reason, and they de-emphasize any implications of a God of capricious and unreasonable moods (like the version in the Book of Job, who decides to ruin Job's life in order to test his mettle).

Admittedly, the Christian Bible does not cite a definitive reason as to why God chose to create all of Existence, which is one reason that narratives of predestination can exist alongside those of free choice. I frankly do not think that the God of the Old Testament is meant to be as omniscient as Christian representations tend to portray him, but even if there was absolute agreement between all texts, the conflict would still be implicit.

The only possible motivation for a god to imbue mortal beings with "free choice" is if Existence is open-ended; if God does not know exactly what mortals are going to do with that choice. If a  believer should insist on God's omniscience within such a scenario, I might imagine a situation where God blocked his own potential vision of a predestined future, in order to let himself be surprised by and engaged with the choices human beings made.

Now, in contrast to the world of PRIEST, the human beings of the "real world" cannot see constant evidence of God's reality: they can only deduce that reality through perceived signs and symbols. To persons of a materialist / positivist cast, signs and symbols have no reality in themselves. However, even though I do not pray to the Christian God, and can consider a reality in which none of mankind's deities are objectively real, I can view the activity of prayer as sometimes possessing a "strength," even if the prayers are hurled into an unresponsive void, with no validating response from the deity being addressed.

Of course, anything that can be a strength can also be a weakness, depending on how it is done, and for what reasons, as I've explored in last year's essay ADLER PATED PT. 2.


Friday, July 8, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: "THE ORIGIN OF THE MANDARIN" (TALES OF SUSPENSE #62. 1965)



In my previous essay I mentioned that of all the early Iron Man foes, only the Mandarin attained "epic status." This status was entirely built upon the type of racial-- not necessarily racist-- myth-motifs that editor/writer Stan Lee and artist Don Heck brought together for the character's early Silver Age appearances. None of the early Mandarin stories are mythcomics, as they tend to be structured as fast-paced thrill-rides, usually forcing the armored avenger to plumb the depths of his Oriental opponent's gadget-filled hideouts.

The principal myth-motif Lee borrowed stems from the late books in Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu series. When the series began in 1912, the author modeled his Asian villain on the upheavals of the Boxer Rebellion, and Fu's desire was to restore China to its former power, while implicitly keeping its culture and social stratifications unchanged. Over time, it became clear that Chinese Communism had destroyed "Old China" more thoroughly than any colonial invaders ever could have, and thus in the late Rohmer books, Fu Manchu was just as often in conflict with the Chinese Communists as with Nayland Smith.

This racial /political myth of a conflict between Old and New China appeared next in Atlas Comics' 4-issue YELLOW CLAW series. Neither Lee nor Heck was creatively involved with the unsuccessful series. However, since Lee did edit the title, it's probable that he remembered how the titular villain frequently embarrassed the Chinese Communists, showing New China to be thoroughly inferior to his scientific wizardry. The Mandarin's first appearance in TALES OF SUSPENSE #50 reflects the same pleasure at seeing modern Communists terrified by the spectre of aristocratic China.




The villain's first appearance doesn't have much else to offer, except that, as the above scene shows, Iron Man's initial encounter with the Mandarin comes about not because the masked menace has done anything, well, menacing, but because the U.S. government is nervous about what he MIGHT do. For superhero comics of the period, which usually asserted that only the bad guy struck first, this was a very atypical "pre-emptive strike."

The story from SUSPENSE #62 is actually the second of two parts, the first part ending when the Mandarin captures his armor-clad enemy, and the only part of the story that shows a strong mythic consciousness is the Mandarin's origin, which he narrates to his helpless foe.

I mentioned before that the Mandarin, like earlier models, incarnated "aristocratic China," and nowhere is that more apparent than in "Origin." The villain doesn't disclose his original given name, but claims that his father was descended from Genghis Khan. In addition, the Asian villain also states that his mother was "a high born Englishwoman." Both parents perish on the day of the Mandarin's birth, and he claims that the displeasure of the Chinese gods caused his father to perish beneath a fallen idol, while his mother then passed of a "broken heart." The infant is then raised by his sole living relative, his father's sister-- but she wants her brother's fortune for herself. She considers leaving the child in the care of poor parents, so that the aunt can have the inheritance and the future Mandarin will be raised "as a peasant." Yet, the moment she thinks of doing this, a chandelier almost hits her-- and so she decides to raise her nephew with an eye to making him hate all humankind, the way she does. Admittedly, Lee's script suggests a characterization of the Chinese people as overly superstitious-- and yet, the overall effect of the story is to agree; that the Mandarin has been marked as having a special destiny.

Most of the family fortune goes to schooling the young nobleman in "the sciences of the world, the arts of warfare, and the subtle crafts of villainy." But the proto-Mandarin and his aunt neglect to pay their taxes to the new regime, and so they're turned out into the street. The aunt immediately pops off, and the nobleman wanders from place to place, refusing to toil for his food like a low-born citizen. To his good fortune, before he can starve, he trespasses on the fearsome "Valley of the Spirits," showing a lordly, fearless attitude toward the spirits.

What he meets isn't precisely a spirit, though it does have the semblance of a dragon, long the symbol of Chinese imperial power.




He learns that the "dragon" is actually the remains of a dead alien, and he taps the long-dead creature's machines to master a level of super-science beyond the level of humankind. Thus he rises to his position as having sovereignty over his own little kingdom in China. The origin-story ends, and so does the overall story's claim to mythic status.




Neither Lee nor Heck ascribe any symbolic import to the villain's most recognizable feature: the ten rings from which he projects an array of super-forces. Additionally, the Mandarin's hands are not as "claw-like" as one sees in most "Yellow Peril" comics. In this essay I advanced a hypothesis as to why Asian claw-fingers became so prevalent in American imagery of these villains.

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 icon.

By the mid-60's, I believe editor Lee was trying where he could to eliminate imagery that seemed overtly racist. For instance, though one online reference claims that the Mandarin was drawn with "buck teeth," the Mandarin suffers from an overbite in only two panels of his first appearance, and never again. Yet the visual idea of the rings does call attention to the fingers-- even though they're neither claw-like nor long-nailed-- so that the rings' presence may owe something to an earlier and no longer acceptable image.



Thursday, July 7, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "SUSPECTED OF MURDER" (TALES OF SUSPENSE #60, 1964)



The Iron Man of the film-world helped spawn the cinematic Superhero Revolution. But when I look back upon Marvel's Iron Man of the Silver Age, I get the sense of a character who just missed being a flop, like Doctor Droom and the many incarnations of Henry Pym.

There had been a few armored Golden Age heroes, but Iron Man boasted a superior concept from the outset: a noble scientist-hero who had invented his armor to save his own life, and then began using it to save other lives and fight crime. In addition, whereas Reed Richards' version of 'science" in FANTASTIC FOUR only rarely suggested the hard labor of engineering, in IRON MAN Tony Stark, despite being a genius, really worked at his profession. I'm not saying that the feature didn't utilize phony technology for the sake of entertainment-- anyone remember the hero's short-lived "reflecting mists?"-- but even fake science can take on mythopoeic status. 

The psychological angle was strong, too, strongly resembling the pattern of Doctor Strange's 1963 origin, in that Tony Stark starts off as "the man who has everything," and has to cope with being a wounded warrior-- though his form of coping would surely reinforce Alfred Adler's notion of "positive compensation." The origin-story itself isn't all that interesting, offering little more than polemics in its opposition of nasty Communists and saintly pro-democracy forces. These political views, not objectionable from a mythopoeic standpoint, never became anything more than knee-jerk postures. Similarly, for the hero's first six adventures, he's largely indistinguishable from any number of Golden Age heroes, in marked contrast to the soap-operatic elements that appear in SPIDER-MAN and FANTASTIC FOUR from the get-go.

The seventh tale, appearing  in TALES OF SUSPENSE #45 (1963) finally got around to giving the feature a couple of supporting characters, secretary Pepper Potts and chauffeur Happy Hogan. By introducing,Pepper and Happy, the feature's editor and writers succeeded in endowing the fabulously rich, fabulously handsome billionaire Stark with a "common touch." The tycoon patently has no friends aside from his two co-workers, and there's no indication that any of his many dates with jet-setting beauties ever came close to being an actual romance.

Despite this improvement, there was the sense that editor Stan Lee-- who also wrote most of the early scripts-- was flailing for a direction for the Golden Avenger (who started out as grey for one issue). In addition, Iron Man didn't boast one of the most stellar rogues' galleries in those days. Although the Mandarin would take on epic status and would remain a world-beater for many years, characters like Jack Frost, the Scarecrow and Mister Doll were somewhat less than stirring. Of the Communist villains, two were slightly better than average: the Crimson Dynamo, who turned on his evil masters and died in defense of democracy, and the Black Widow, originally a road-show Mata Hari who proved popular only after both another reform and a substantial retooling.

The first time Lee seems aware of the dramatic potential of his damaged character appears in TALES OF SUSPENSE #56, which starts out with Iron Man flying into a belated rage at the fact that he can "never lead a normal life."



However, though the story presents a memorable moment of a hero being thoroughly self-centered, Lee chose not to pursue this line of thought as he and Ditko had been doing in the SPIDER-MAN title. Stark gets religion and everything goes back to normal.

The next issue introduces a foeman who might be considered a very loose mirror-image of Stark: the archer Hawkeye. A lot of Iron Man villains were "negative compensation" types who envied Stark's millions and sought to destroy his company or reputation. Hawkeye, a carnival archer whose name is not initially revealed, gets in a snit when Iron Man takes attention away from his act. His solution is to become a superhero himself.



Typical Marvel complications ensue: the newly minted crusader becomes suspected of criminal activity right out of the box. Then, by the wildest of coincidences, he's recruited by the Black Widow, who just happens to be looking for a super-pawn to use against Iron Man. Though the Widow had vamped Stark a few times-- though with no indication that she really cared about him, or vice versa-- Hawkeye fell hard for her charms, and in due time, she reciprocated, once Lee decided to put her on the reformation road. Thus, despite being a loyal American, Hawkeye became a "Commie dupe."



I mention both characters here because they are Iron Man's physical adversaries in issue #60's "Suspected for Murder."  Yet the story's main emphasis is upon Stark's feeling of being trapped in his armor-- which is to say his own compensation-creaton-- a mood aptly reflected by the splash page, which shows Stark imprisoned in a bottle by his alter ego.



This tale was the closest Lee got to exploring in detail Stark's ambivalence toward his double identity. To be sure, it wasn't as impressive as the better Spider-Man stories on the same theme. But since throughout Tony Stark's history the hero had been forced to wear one piece of his armor at all times-- his heart-stimulating chest-plate-- Lee evidently decided that the best way to put the hero through the mill was to make it impossible for him to remove the armor as a whole. He suffers a major heart attack in issue #59, and then finds that he can't take off the armor without risking a fatal incident. In keeping with real incapacitated human beings, Stark is chained to the device that keeps him allive. He even has an existential moment, saying that, "I'm a prisoner of Iron Man-- of my own creation!"

He's also a prisoner of the set-up he's created, in which Iron Man is seen as Stark's hired hand. Tony Stark must disappear to protect his double identity, but when he does so, Pepper and Happy immediately become suspicious of the flunky who seems to know more than he's telling about the boss's disappearance. Pepper and Happy also find the hero in compromising circumstances, and the police interrogate him, though without a corpus delicti, Iron Man can only be "suspected of murder," not formally charged. His Avenger-buddies seem to turn a cold shoulder, since he can't explain things to them either. And even after Hawkeye attacks Stark's factory and after Iron Man drives him off, one of the security guards comes at the hero with Stark's own "anti-armor gun," another case of employee-loyalty that almost kills the employer.

Unfortunately, this installment is the only one that gets the utmost myth-potential out of this double-identity peril. In the ensuing issues Stark does figure a way to get out of his armor without killing himself, not to mention resolving another plot-line in which everyone thinks Stark is dead. I suspect that Lee just didn't feel the impetus to pursue as many tangents as he did in other features, and I can't dismiss the possibility that the feature might've benefited from a different artist than Don Heck. In the Silver Age, Iron Man, despite great potential in many areas, never managed to "upgrade" itself beyond the level of decent formula.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

TRANSITIVE MONSTERS

This week I finally got around to finishing the last of my reviews for the "canonical" FRIDAY THE 13TH films-- that is, all the ones made before the first remake-- I may as well venture some thoughts on the way in which the Jason saga compares with the "Freddy Krueger saga." For purposes of clarity,. I regard both of these sagas as standing independent of the "monster mash" crossover between the two, 2003's FREDDY VS. JASON, which was in essence the swan song for both of their fiendish careers.

Both characters, it should be obvious, are the respective stars of their serials, and so both serials are defined by what I term the "monster-persona." In COMBAT PLAY PT. 4 I gave a quick comparative definition as opposed to the monster's statistically opposite number, the hero, in these terms:


In contrast to the hero, the monster often appears as the sole megadynamic entity in his universe, and his opponents, usually demiheroes, are not usually able to stand against him. 

This description applies for the most part to the saga of Jason. There are only two exceptions. One is the seventh installment of the saga, in which Jason is defeated by a telekinetic female opponent. The other is installment number ten, in which the Hockey-Mask Horror encounters the denizens of a futuristic world, including a martial android who manages to blow Jason to pieces. However, the actual honor of "the kill"-- the last one within the sphere of the canon-- goes to a space marine who manages to hurl Jason into Earth's atmosphere, incinerating both of them-- though with the usual caveat that the scion of Voorhees may be back some day.

In contrast, although the first two installments of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET started out in the same subcombative mode, with Freddy Krueger preying on teens in their dreams, the third installment took a different tack, as I noted in my review of NIGHTMARE #3:

Wes Craven, billed as one of four scripters on ELM 3, is probably responsible for elaborating the idea of "dream-fighting" suggested in ELM 1, but with greater attention to empowering the film's heroes in the dreams. 

Ironically, even though Craven was probably responsible for giving his demiheroes the ability to fight Freddy on his own terms, he himself repudiated the combative mode in 1994's WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE, which stood outside the "continuity" of the other six Freddy-films

So, of the ten films that comprise the loose "Jason saga," only two are combative, while of the six films that comprise the "Freddy saga," only two are subcombative. Thus, by the logic I introduced in ACTIVE SHARE, PASSIVE SHARE, the entire "Freddy saga" is combative and the entire "Jason saga" is subcombative. This parallels my judgment that the entire saga of Marvel Comics' "Rawhide Kid" had to be judged metaphenomenal while that of the same company's "Ringo Kid" was isophenomenal.

As should be apparent from the above essay, I've almost entirely abandoned the theory that an objective percentage of a given serial's stories can determine the serial's status in terms of phenomenality, of the combative mode, or of any other domain I've generally addressed.

In that essay, the only criterion I supplied for the above judgment was that I said Rawhide's encounters with the metaphenomenal, unlike those of Ringo, comprised "a vital part of his mythos." Obviously this is in part a subjective judgment by a reader who's read the entirety of both features in their original runs-- but it's also an objective judgment on the extent to which the authors of the "Rawhide" feature felt a certain "affective freedom" in mixing their phenomenalities. And the same argument applies to the way in which the "Freddy saga" allows the monster's demihero opponents great latitude in terms of their empowerment; certainly more than the opponents of Jason receive.

Further, by the "transitive effect" that I first described in this essay, even the subcombative films in Freddy's oeuvre become, though said effect, part of a combative mythos, just as any subcombative Superman stories-- a major example being "Superman's Return to Krypton"-- are still subsumed by the combative mythos of the Man of Steel. And the reverse applies: a sort of "negative transitive effect" means that even the two Jason films in the combative mode are subsumed by the overall subcombative mode of the mythos.

On a related note, I have not yet finished re-screening all of the Hammer DRACULA films. However, even if I never get around to SCARS OF DRACULA, I tend to believe that the combative mode in the key films of the series-- notably HORROR OF DRACULA and BRIDES OF DRACULA-- that all films within the series will be subsumed by the combative mode, even those that I've judged to be individually subcombative, like TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.