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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: THE BOOKS OF MAGIC (1990-91)



Most of the material in the four-issue BOOKS OF MAGIC relates to the "metaphysical myths" propounded by DC Comics. Still, the other three functions-- sociological, psychological, and cosmological-- enter the mix as well.

According to Wikipedia, the project originally had American writer J.M. deMatteis associated with it. While deMatteis might have done passably well in depicting the metaphysical history of the DC Universe, I doubt he'd have shown much facility with the other three functions. For instance, Gaiman doesn't just meditate on the metaphysical appeal of magic for the many characters depicted, but also the psychology of those attracted to "The Art." The cosmological strictures of science also contribute to the whole, particularly in Book 4, which depicts the entropy-death of the universe, complete with an "indigo shift" to replace the "red shift" with which the universe supposedly began. And almost certainly the American deMatteis certainly would not have been able to seed the BOOKS OF MAGIC narrative with its many trenchant observations on the differences between the world of American-made superheroes and the "universe" of the Comic-Book "British Invasion." 

For instance, of the four DC heroes who oversee the narrative of MAGIC, two (Doctor Occult, Mister E) are American characters created by American authors, one (the Phantom Stranger) was created by an American author but had indeterminate cultural origins, and the last, John Constantine, was created by one of the leading scions of the British invasion.




Constantine offers a British perspective on the wild and woolly world of American superheroes:

I prefer to live in a country that's small, and old, and where no one would ever have the NERVE to wear a cape in public, whether they could leap tall buildings in a single bound or not.
And yet, for all that, BOOKS OF MAGIC also offers Gaiman the chance to create yet another British-born character who has the potential to be a "super-magus." Teenaged Tim Hunter, according to the four magical masters, is destined to become either a great good or a great evil. They appear to the bemused young man, offering to initiate him to the world of magic. The boy makes the choice to listen to them-- a decision fraught with later consequences-- and for the length of the mini-series, each of the occult teachers shows him some aspect of DC's magical universe.

The Stranger shows Tim the distant past of the universe, and gives him the first inklings of the price of magic.



Constantine, always the "cutting-edge" type, escorts the teen into the contemporary society of magicians, with some assistance from Zatanna.




Doctor Occult, a creation of Siegel and Shuster who predates Superman, takes Tim through the domain of faerie (a very British domain, despite the appearanc of the Russian horror Baba Yaga).



And Mister E, the most obscure character (who has only made ten appearances in a DC horror title), accompanies the boy to the very end of the DC universe, which combines aspects of H.G. Wells' TIME MACHINE and Gaiman's own "Sandman-subcosmos." 




A single blog-post can't suss out the many ways in which Gaiman approaches the multivalent topic of magic, in concert with four of the most "painterly" artists of the period. But I will note in closing that Gaiman is consistent throughout the narrative in seeing magic as not just superstition or madness, but as the fundamental image of human desire,  Or as Aleister Crowley said:

“Magic is the Science and Art of causing Change, on a material as well as a spiritual level, to occur in conformity with Will by altered states of consciousness. 

A given reader may care nothing about the actual practice of ritual magic. However, Gaiman and his collaborators have eminently shown that even if magic had no reality in the world, in the literary world it remains a potent means of "altering states of consciousness."


Saturday, August 27, 2016

ANNOTATIONS TO [HAWKMAN'S ORIGIN]

Proceeding page by page:

PAGE 1-- The reader is told that Carter Hall is a "collector of weapons and research scientist." This, as noted earlier, was Gardner Fox's conceit for uniting the magical charisma of the past and the scientific gimmickery of modernity. Although the time-frame of the story is very fragmented-- as I said, like a "fever dream," one must presume that by the opening of the story, Hall has already constructed his Hawkman outfit, prior to having the vision. Perhaps Fox's original intention was that he'd done so following his discovery of the "ninth metal," more on which later.

"a glass knife-- to offer ancient sacrifices"-- Fox may not have known anything about archaic Egyptian sacrificial customs, but I suspect he's crossbred another tradition here. The god Set, whose name appears later in the story, was sometimes represented as a stone knife, but of course early Egypt did not have glass. However, another culture with strong sacrificial traditions did: the Aztecs of Mexico, who reputedly used knives of volcanic glass for the purpose of slaying victims. No other Aztec-like references appear, and it's impossible to know if Fox knew anything of the Set-like deity most associated with ritual sacrifice: Tezcatlipoca, whose name means "smoking mirror."

PAGE 2-- "the hawk-god Anubis"-- it seems unlikely that a mythophile like Fox would not have known that Egypt's most consistent use of hawk-imagery appeared in the mythos of Horus. I suspect that Fox tinkered with the mythology because he wanted his villain allied to a darker deity than Horus, so that later in the story, he would become rattled by his enemy's assumption of the image of "Anubis." In the course of the story, Fox manages to pull together aspects of four Egyptian deities into his Anubis: (1) the actual jackal-god, who tended to rites in the afterlife, (2) Horus, for the hawk-image, (3) Set, whose name appears in that of the villain, and (4) Osiris, the judge of the dead, whose worship (in tandem with that of Isis) ruled over Abydos.

"Shiera, betrayed of the hawk god Anubis"-- the wording may have meant that Shiera was betrayed in the sense of being marked for sacrifice to Anubis, though the point is left vague.

"Hath-Set"-- This is an ingenious piece of phony etymology. Anyone reading extensively in Egyptian myth probably would have encountered the etymology of the goddess Hathor, translated as "House of Horus." Fox simply made his priest the "House of Set," for all that there are no other direct references to Set in the story.

PAGE 3-- "blackness at noon of day! More of Hath-Set's ancient magic!"-- since this eclipse-like blackness only appears in one panel, one must take for granted that Khufu is correct. It's an odd choice for Hath-Set's only literal act of magic, since it doesn't serve any purpose in the story. Usually "darkness at noon" signifies the triumph of evil over good-- which does transpire on the next page.

PAGE 4-- "Shiera shall die with me in my arms"-- it's not clear what fate Khufu thinks he's saving Shiera from, by charging at her with a sword, before an enemy arrow hits him in the shoulder. It may be that this was the closest Fox could come, in a kids' comic, to suggesting the "fate worse than death."

"the older sciences"-- aside from the darkness-spell, there are no direct references to what "sciences" Khufu had access to, or how they would have helped Hath-Set conquer the world.


"Then die, Khufu! And after you-- Shiera!"-- one wonders how long after. Fox does allow the reader to believe it's "immediately after" if he so pleases, but Shiera's death is not shown.

"I die-- but I shall like again"-- it was a common notion in the early 20th century that ancient Egypt was awash in traditions of reincarnation.

PAGE 5-- "We have been reincarnated"-- Like Shiera, Hall does not for a moment doubt the underlying truth of his vision.

"the rails-- they're turning blue"-- the villain's attack on the city's subway system loosely coheres with his alliance to a deity of the underworld.

PAGE 6-- "clad, as a grim jest, in the guise of the ancient hawk-god Anubis"-- more pertinently, it had been a tradition, at least since the 1936 "Phantom" comic strip, for heroes to assume aspects of whatever powers have harmed or threatened them.

"the ninth metal"-- probably taken from one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" novels, who in his turn may have taken such arcane references from the writings of Madame Blavatsky.

PAGE 7-- "the home of Doctor Hastor"-- while "Hastor" just barely sounds like "Hath-Set," Fox was probably just indulging in his affection for the H.P. Lovecraft pantheon, also seen in the contemporaneous "Doctor Fate" feature. "Hastur" is a vague deity-figure in Lovecraft, who borrowed the name either from Ambrose Bierce or from Robert W. Chambers.

"the lightnings of the heavens"-- like the composite deity Anubis, Hastor commands aspects of the heavens-- including the earlier "darkness at noon"-- as well as the underworld.

PAGE 8-- "It must be Anubis"-- Hastor mistakes Hawkman for his own god, whom he apparently remembers in modern times.

PAGE 9-- "t'is Khufu, reincarnated"-- explicit evidence that Hastor remembers his whole past history with Khufu and Shiera.

"the attar of myrrh, to call those of the ancient blood"-- there is no "attar of myrrh," so Fox was just riffing on the more familiar perfume "attar of roses." Myrrh, obviously had a strong underworld association, having been used in the embalming of mummies.  It's interesting that Hastor can summon persons of the "ancient blood" with a perfume. The "ancient blood" phrase appears in a different context in the 1932 horror-film "The Mummy." This film contains two scenes wherein the titular fiend calls his many-times-reincarnated female lover to him.

"Anubis calls the ancient blood"-- Shiera responds to the call in a way that suggests a prior familiarity with the "hawk-god."

PAGE 10-- "Hastor (Hath-Set) has her in his power"-- though Hastor is mostly identical to Hath-Set save for the former's red hair, Hawkman doesn't remark on the resemblance when he sees the electrical villain on page 8.

:"the altar of Anubis"-- not only does Hastor still know about Khufu and Shiera, he apparently still worships Anubis, keeping an altar to the ancient god in his laboratory.

"the betrayer comes"-- there's no knowing from the text who betrayed who. Here Hastor speaks of Shiera as a betrayer, while back on page 2 Khufu said that she was the one whom Anubis betrayed.

PAGE 11-- "the consummation of the sacrifice"-- interesting that Hastor tries to destroy Shiera with "lightning waves," in contrast to the mundane knife his earlier self used. This contrivance does give Hawkman the chance to use "ninth metal" in a different way, protecting Shiera with a "cloak" of the metal-- though there's no knowing how he guessed he would need this item.

PAGE 12-- "the Hawkman's arrow speeds to its mark"-- although Khufu dies by the knife, prior to that he takes an arrow from one of Hath-Set's soldiers, so this is definitely a case of transmigrational "tit for tat."

"this time, Anubis, god of evil, we won!"-- though "god of evil" may be mere rhetoric, of all the major Egyptian gods Set comes closest to fulfilling such an office.

"Follow the further adventures of the Hawkman against the powers of ancient evil"-- not all of Hawkman's subsequent exploits involve "ancient evil," but Fox did invoke such powers often enough that it can be considered a relevant trope.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: ["HAWKMAN'S ORIGIN'], FLASH COMICS #1 (1940)



The most elaborately mythic superhero origin of the Golden Age appeared in FLASH COMICS #1, scripted by Gardner Fox and drawn by one Dennis Neville. More than any single origin, in fact, it illustrates Suzanne Langer's concept of the "diffuse meaning" originating from symbolism in its presentational, non-discursive mode. Indeed, if one reads the origin in its original, helter-skelter form-- rather than one of the many rationalized versions that followed it-- one sees something in the nature of a fever dream from the mind of someone who fell asleep while reading Wallis Budge's 1904 tome THE GODS OF THE EGYPTIANS.

The metaphysical key to the Hawkman mystery is not, as many later stories have had it, merely the bare idea of reincarnation, or even reincarnation in the service of romantic reunion. While many superheroes of the period played around with mythic symbols, Hawkman's existence crystallized Fox's enduring wish-dream: to see the exciting past take on continuity with the dull present-- which is IMO the main reason the author continually harped on having his winged hero fighting "the evil of the present with the weapons of the past."

Fox introduces his reader to modern-day Carter Hall, "wealthy collector of weapons and research scientist." Upon opening a package from Egypt, Hall beholds a "glass knife-- to offer ancient sacrifices," and the sight hurls him into a immediate dream.




In his dream Hall experiences a previous life as an Egyptian noble named Khufu (albeit not identical with Khufu / Cheops, famed pharaoh of the 26h century BC).  Khufu is being tortured by the lackey of another Egyptian, Hath-Set, who wants to know the location of a woman, "Shiera, betrayed by the Hawk-God Anubis." Khufu breaks free and escapes the building, later revealed to be the temple of Anubis in the city of Abydos. Khufu grabs a handy chariot and seeks out Shiera herself, which in retrospect doesn't seem like the smartest idea, since Hath-Set's men simply follow Khufu to his destination, capture him and Shiera, and take them both back to Abydos.



There Hath-Set vaguely refers to both of his captives as "you who would have stopped me from becoming master of the globe." Khufu taunts the villain, saying that the "false priest" will never gain that power, because Khufu-- and presumably Shiera as well-- have access to "the older sciences" and will not surrender that knowledge to Hath-Set. The irate priest promptly slays Khufu with a glass knife, promising to dole out the same fate to Shiera as well. Before Khufu dies, he promises to see Hath-Set in a future life.

Carter Hall's vision then ends, and he wakes in his study, confident that he has seen one of his past lives, brought back to him by encountering the same weapon that once killed him. Hall puts the knife away and goes for a walk. Immediately a modern form of danger looms, as a nearby subway is afflicted with strange electrical discharges that kill many passengers. However, Hall recognizes one woman fleeing from the chaos, and calls out the name of Shiera. Providentially enough, this is also the name of the modern reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian priestess. As they converse, Shiera confesses that she has had dreams of her distant past, even without a glass knife to prompt them. Hall leaves the young woman at his laboratory while he dons the garb of Hawkman, which he's apparently been working on long before learning the tale of his spiritual transmigration.




Like later versions of Hawkman, this one uses both modern technology-- a "dynamo detector" and the "ninth metal" that makes it possible for him to defy gravity-- and ancient weapons, here represented by a crossbow and a quarterstaff. His detector leads the newly costumed hero to "the home of Doctor Hastor, electrician extraordinary." Hastor himself is inside, plotting to unleash more electrical chaos for extortion purposes, but when he sees Hawkman, he instantly mistakes him for "the hawk-god Anubis." Hawkman thwarts Hastor's attack on him, but the villain escapes.




Hastor, unlike Hawkman, already seems to remember everything about his past existence, deciding that the hero is "Khufu reincarnated," and that therefore "Shiera must live also." He sends forth a magical vapor, "the attar of myrrh," that will summon Shiera to him. The young woman, upon catching scent of the pervasive odor, is hypnotically enthralled and proceeds to seek out Hastor, again at the same laboratory, while Hawkman returns to his own domicile and finds her missing. Hastor attempts to duplicate the sacrifice of Hath-Set in times past, using electricity in place of a knife, but Hawkman bursts in and kills Hastor with a crossbow bolt. Hastor, like Khufu before him, predicts that he will return again to menace his enemy at some future time (though in truth Hath-Set/Hastor did not pop up again within the span of the original Hawkman feature).




I've focused here only a bare retelling of the basic plot-events, but "Hawkman's Origin" is so rich in its symbolic amplitude that it is the first essay I will have to annotate-- as I hope to do in another post this week.


Friday, August 19, 2016

HOOD OF DARKNESS

It's been almost a month since THE BEAT announced that Noah Berlatsky's HOODED UTILITARIAN would go on hiatus. 

I debated whether or not I had anything much to say about the matter. It's clear from NB's post on the matter that he's closed the blog simply to pursue other avenues, not because he's seen the error of his ultraliberal oversimplications. Nor is it likely that his future endeavors will change his tendency to rant and rave without consideration of even basic facts, a quality on which Heidi McDonald remarks, while giving him more intellectual credit than I ever would. 

What was Heidi's reward for this relative even-handedness, on the thread NB devoted to the hiatus? Why, NB himself referred to Heidi's write-up as a "last dig," while one of his commenters talked about Heidi "dancing on HU's grave" or words to that effect. 

In a way this is a better summation than anything I could come up with. While NB could assume the pose of the distanced intellectual up to a point, he did not take criticism well, and tended to act as if people who disagreed with him were attempting to persecute him. 

During the period when I used to argue with Charles Reece on a now-defunct messboard, I never read Berlatsky's blog, though other posters mentioned him as Someone to Watch. My first encounter with him was when he posted this HU essay in response to my intellectual disagreement with Dirk Deppey. Deppey, to the best of my knowledge, never sought to tilt with me in public, or to defend any of the points I attacked in my 2009 posts on the subject of "superhero decadence."  The fact that NB did not comprehend my critique was proven by his ad hominem attack:

Dirk Deppey insulted my friends by calling them little whining babymen. But everybody is a babyman, so it doesn’t matter. Our society and all its entertainment are great, so comics must be great too! And I can’t be a stupid snuffler of nostalgic babycrap, because…I use big words! And I don’t like elitists anyway, so there!

On top of that, while I've talked about the academic discipline of "cultural studies" here and there, there's nothing about in the AA essay to which NB linked. It showed me that NB had no scruples about responding to the actual words written by someone he perceived as a enemy, even when we had not (to the best of my recollection) crossed swords. It amused me at the time, that NB was so desperate to put a label on me, given that he would rage in a most incontinent fashion against other people using labels that he considered politically retrograde.

NB didn't respond to very many of my posts here, but I continued to post on HU, if only to see how far he and his colleagues would go in their campaign of willful distortion-- and it was pretty damn far. My refutations changed nothing, of course, but it did give me some lively moments.

I won't mourn for HU, of course, for I think that its "hooded" adjective, some sort of satire of superheroes perhaps, was revealing. From my POV, NB devoted his blog to pulling a hood of ideological darkness over the eyes of his readers. I'm sure he'll continue to do so in whatever forums will deign to print his work, and there's really nothing I can do about that.

ADDENDUM: I think it beyond question that NB will continue distorting texts for the foreseeable future, given that one of his more recent links pointed to an essay regarding how the movie SUICIDE SQUAD tells its audience that prisoners should "love their wardens."  Here's a movie that can be fairly critiqued from a dozen different angles, but NB pounces on it for some ridiculous quasi-Foucault-like offense. For the record, the movie is intellectually vapid, but to say that it wants prisoners to love their wardens, even in some metaphorical fashion, is sheer looney-tunes. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: BLACK DOSSIER (2007)



The first two volumes of the Moore/O'Neill LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN are easily the most entertaining entries of this series. In contrast, many fans were put off by DOSSIER, which was not originally intended to be a part of the series proper, only a "sourcebook." However, despite what DOSSIER lacks in straightforward narrative, it does succeed in generating more mythic value from its use of characters from both "high" and "low" forms of literature.

The original LEAGUE is an ingenious crossover/ mashup of several public domain concepts and characters, most of which originated in British fiction of the Victorian period, though some figures from French literature (Verne's Captain Nemo) and American literature (Poe's Dupin) make appearances. There are some important myth-motifs in the first two adventures, but though I liked them much better than, say, Kim Newman's mashup-novel ANNO DRACULA,  there's not a single overriding theme in either volume.

BLACK DOSSIER may be fairly called over-ambitious. The story brings the series into the 20th century, as the remnants of the 19th-century League-- rejuvenated versions of Mina (DRACULA) Murray and Allan (KING SOLOMON'S MINES) Quatermain-- infiltrate the British spy-agency MI-5 in the year 1958. However, this 1958 Britain is one whose history has been compromised by Moore's interpolation of fictional scenarios. One scenario is the "Big Brother" government from Orwell's 1984, that has only recently been overthrown. Another is the development of both manned and unmanned space-flight, which allows Moore and O'Neill to work in references to a variety of British SF-adventure serials ranging from DAN DARE to various Gerry Andersen puppet-shows.

Murray and Quatermain manage to escape MI-5 with the organization's "Black Dossier" on the League's activities, after having a violent encounter with an agent named "Jimmy," clearly a satire on Ian Fleming's James Bond.




I've already commented extensively on my disagreements with Moore's estimation of the Bond character, so I won't repeat myself on that score. Still, Fleming's Bond is just the tip of the spy-berg. Much of BLACK DOSSIER is devoted to sussing out the history of British spycraft as seen through the lens of its fictional incarnations, ranging from the novels of John Buchan to the Graham Greene-scripted film THE THIRD MAN. As a reader with only a moderate interest in spy-fiction, I am intrigued but not fascinated with Moore's espionage mashups, which include an attempt to ground English espionage in a lost work by William Shakespeare, which includes in its cast Prospero of TEMPEST fame.

I seriously doubt that if Moore and O'Neill's work had actually appeared as a sourcebook-- that is, with no narrative content-- that it would have clarified anything for either new or ongoing readers of the LEAGUE. First and foremost DOSSIER is concerned with Moore's passion for literary mimicry, as he provides readers with detailed imitations of diverse authors-- the aforementioned Shakespeare and George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, John Cleland (of FANNY HALL fame), P.G. Wodehouse and Jack Kerouac. I doubt that there's any theme linking all of these authors, but some of them at least may be have been perceived by Moore as allies in his quest for erotic self-expression. DOSSIER is not an erotic work per se, like Moore's LOST GIRLS, nor a polemic in defense of pornography, like his essay 25,000 YEARS OF EROTIC FREEDOM.  Nevertheless, there's a fair amount of nudity and allusions to shagging, which are clearly meant to provide a leitmotif to all of the "troubles with spies."

Also used more as a leitmotif than an outright theme is the authors' concern with a near-ecstatic love of stories. The loose implication of the narrative seems to be that while mundane spies like Bond and Harry ("Third Man") Lime are merely concerned with promulgating real-world power, Murray and Quatermain have become the defenders of the imaginal world of stories-- which is of course the matrix from which both characters were born, and which they visit near the conclusion.




I don't imagine Moore and O'Neill worried that much about whether they'd made a sound argument distinguishing the opposition between "matter's mudyards" and the "radiant synthesis" of this multi-story mashup. They are concerned with persuading the reader through allusion to all of his favorite myths-- as long as those myths don't include James Bond--and as a lover of crossovers, I confess that they've succeeded in the affective sense. My cognitive side would argue that Moore is not enough of a poet or a philosopher to pull off this multi-referential synthesis, but I still find BLACK DOSSIER persuasive, despite all of Alan Moore's personal quirks.

Though tempted to wrap up here, I can hardly pass over the subject of the Golliwog.




This site relates a brief history of the Golliwog's history as a literary creation, as an icon derived from minstrel show imagery, and as a racial denotation which still causes no small irritation in modern times. Of course, in the current political atmosphere it's impossible for an author to utilize any racial myth unless he uses it as an ideological condemnation of racist belief-systems. Moore does imply such a critique in DOSSIER, not least because the googly-eyed, thick-lipped Golliwog is seen defending Murray and Quatermain against three agents of the repressive British hierarchy: the caddish Bond-knockoff and his allies, Miss Night and Hugo Drummond. The former is a rather hollow imitation of Emma Peel of AVENGERS tele-fame-- Moore's talent for mimicry doesn't extend to giving Night any of Peel's characteristic wit-- and she proves irrelevant to any argument involving racial representations. However, Hugo Drummond does not. It's likely that only Moore and a handful of his readers would know that this character is transparently based on the once popular British prose-hero Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond. In contrast to the Hollywood films featuring the character, which made Drummond into a sort of handsome gentleman-adventurer like The Saint, the original British novels are masterpieces of racial invective. The original Bulldog sinks his teeth in all of the enemies of White Britain-- mostly Jews, Commies, and "wogs" of all types-- and Moore is dead-on in portraying Hugo Drummond as equally acidulous to the aliens in his midst. Shortly after the scene in which the supernatural Gollywog stuns the pursuers with a great yell, Drummond calls the Gollywog a "coon" and goes after him, only to be diverted later and turned against the Real Enemy: namely the faux-Bond and his secret American bosses.

I've purposely avoided looking about the web to see how Moore may have defended his use of the Gollywog. I've repeatedly defended even offensive racial myths on the basis of imaginative freedom, and despite Moore's defense of the importance of stories and story-telling, I'm not quite sure he's on that same page in a conscious, ideological sense. Nevertheless, he and O'Neill clearly didn't just roll out this minstrel-show icon for the purpose of insulting black people, nor for the debatable pleasure of indulging in "white privilege." Their precise motive doesn't interest me, but what I think they've achieved is akin to Jung's coincidentia oppositorum: in which two diametrically figures are brought into contact, so that those observing them can better suss out their natures. At the very least, the ideological critics might have made something of the fact that the real-life racist "hero" was the tool of evil, while the cartoonish racial caricature was indubitably a supporter of liberation. However, it's no surprise to me that nearly no one could read BLACK DOSSIER as anything but Moore failing to fall into line with the lofty precepts of political correctness-- which in the 21st century have in effect become The New Face of Big Brother.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: [D. YOKUM'S VISIT], LI'L ABNER (1952-53)



One of the biggest events in the history of Al Capp's LI'L ABNER appeared in 1952, when the titular bachelor hillbilly-- who had been fending off the marital advances of neighbor-girl Daisy Mae for eighteen years-- finally "got hitched." The actual marriage, however, was less of an occasion for mythic matters than what happened afterward, when Daisy Mae became, as the hill-folk called her, an "expectorant mother."

Throughout his comics-career Capp became famous-- and sometimes infamous-- for his depiction of incredibly voluptuous women, who were invariably well-coiffed even when they lived in the hillbilly domain of Dogpatch. At the same time, Capp allowed for some "female gazing" as well, depicting Abner Yokum and a few others as prodigious muscular swains. But just as Capp was a past master of using beauty to entice readers, he also knew that he could use ugliness to titillate readers in a very different manner. One such female horror appeared in 1939: Mother Ratfield, a woman so ugly she caused Mammy Yokum to faint at first sight. More famously, in 1946 Capp introduced into the strip a character named "Lena the Hyena," but he deliberately didn't show her features, challenging his readers to depict "the world's ugliest woman"-- a contest won by professional artist Basil Wolverton.

Shortly after Daisy Mae has become "expectorant," the Yokums receive a letter from a distant relative, "D. Yokum." Abner and Daisy have never seen the man, but Abner's parents have, and it's all they can do to avoid running out of the hills in fear of seeing the face of "Disgustin' Yokum." The young couple can't avoid D.'s visit, but they're fearful that if pregnant Daisy sees his revolting features, it will have an evil effect on the unborn infant. Or, as Abner puts it to the hideous fellow-- who considerately keeps his back turned to them-- "Ef Daisy Mae sees yore face, our baby might look like 'yo!"

Disgustin' has come to Dogpatch to warn the couple that a spectre from the past is on his way to kill them and their child. One hundred years ago, one of the Yokums, a judge by profession, condemned a Wild West outlaw, "Wild Bill Hiccup," to a century in prison. Hiccup-- a manic, wizened little man who has somehow survived in prison even after his cellblock was condemned and sealed off-- is duly released by the law. On his way to Dogpatch, the galloping geezer shoots up various banks and movie-theaters, but evades capture until reaching the home of the Yokums. At this point D. Yokum challenges Hiccup to a duel, pitting his hideous appearance against Hiccup's six-guns. Not only does D. Yokum win, he duplicates the feats of Medusa, turning Wild Bill Hiccup into a stone statue.

The Disgusting One leaves Dogpatch, but a local photographer manages to snap a photo of the forbidden face, planning to sell it to "sordid curiosity seekers." Mammy Yokum knows that even a photograph could have fatal consequences, so she clobbers the photographer and takes possession of the photo. However, Mammy can't simply throw the photo away; she's consumed by her own curiosity. She decides to bury the photo until the day she's on her death-bed, when it won't make any difference whether she dies of age or the forbidden sight. However, as she does so, Daisy Mae overhears her mother-in-law's ruminations, and she too is consumed by feminine curiosity.

That Capp means to address a specifically feminine curiosity is denoted by the strip immediately following this event, when a local fellow predicts that Abner's wife, now that she's pregnant, will "almost go out outa her mind wif nosiness!" Although the subject is still treated as a running joke, Capp is clearly teasing the reader with yet another threat to Daisy's unborn child, but this time it's a menace "from within," rather than a male menace "from without." Mammy and Daisy Mae go back and forth, digging up the forbidden photo, and then putting it back. Mammy goes so far as to starve herself, hoping to bring about her death-bed all the sooner, so that she can satisfy her morbid desire. Finally, when Daisy Mae is on the verge of seeing the sight, Mammy grabs the photo and leaps into "Bottomless Pit," intending to see the picture before she strikes the ground below. The superhuman hillbilly woman survives the fall, but never sees the phoro. In a typically melodramatic contrivance, somehow D. Yokum became aware of the photo's existence, dug it up, and left in its place a note informing both ladies of what he's done.

Beneath all of the standard jokes about female inquisitiveness, Capp is playing around with the essence of the *apotropaic effect,* which appeared when tribal cultures set up hideous icons or images designed to repel evil. The severed head of Medusa was one such image, and in one narrative Athena adapts the head to use as a weapon. It's interesting that whereas Capp does finally show female ugliness in my examples of Lena and Mother Ratfield, D. Yokum's face is never revealed, and most of the time, when he talks to his relations, he does so by bowing down and presenting his buttocks to them. This wasn't the last storyline Capp did to imperil the unborn Yokum baby: the very next tale involves the walking jinx Joe Btfsplk. performing the same narrative danger that D. Yokum did. But this story-line was not nearly as provocative as the D. Yokum tale, which may have benefited from its relative brevity.


STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY PT. 2

In GRAPHICALLY ROMANTIC I said:

I want to be very careful in evaluating what if any ways that the "long melodrama" strips of the classic comic-strip era-- PRINCE VALIANT, TARZAN, FLASH GORDON, WASH TUBBS-- have to being any sort of "graphic novels." While the individual story-lines of these strips do have greater potential for complication in the sense of being mythic, they don't have much of the "scope" often applied to the general idea of the novel. Since each of these storylines is just one narrative arc, without a lot of complementary development, such arcs might be better compared to the novella than the novel proper.

I also had some critical words for the narrative tendencies of the "long melodrama" strips in STRIP NO-SHOW:

What the elitists missed, however, was that comic strips, even at their greatest levels of excellence, were always hampered by the factors of serial progression. Certainly Sunday pages like NEMO and PRINCE VALIANT could get away with a somewhat "painterly" approach to comics-narrative, but they were the exceptions. Most story-strips, whether they appeared only on weekdays, on Sundays, or in a combined form, chose to pursue a straightforward linear narrative-- again, one designed to seduce the readers into regularly partaking of the newspaper that carried the comic.

Combining these observations, my verdict on the narrative story-strips of the classic era is that though they had greater potential for complication-- which I've elsewhere called "amplitude"-- because they could run at great lengths, they often did not use it  because they were so concerned with "straightforward linear narrative." Thus the long narratives of comic strips often lacked the conceptual "scope" present in long novels-- a scope that I tend to identify with (1) Jung's functions of thinking and poetic intuition, and (2) my modification of Gerard Manley Hopkins' concept of "overthought" and "underthought." The "straightforward linear narrative" characteristic of story-oriented comic strips approximates to what I called "lateral meaning" in the above essay.

Story-strips tend to generate stronger tendency toward continuity than their opposite number, the gag strips. That said, when I was seeking a long story in Chester Gould's DICK TRACY strip, I said that I "found it hard to isolate particular sequences that I consider[ed] symbolically complex." Gould tended to spin off his narratives in an eccentric manner, and critics have attested that he usually did not plan his stories out in detail. Gould seemed to favor the dictum of Dashiell Hammett: "when in doubt, have a man with a gun walk into the room." The sequence I labeled JUNIOR TRACY FINDS A DAD provides a marked exception to this tendency, for throughout the story Gould's narrative is informed by one psychological pattern: to join together a man and a boy who are father and son in spirit. Moreover, to do so, Gould reached back into his previous story-lines, melding together the separate careers of Stooge Viller and Steve the Tramp as major players in his melodrama.

I found a similar "eccentric manner" as I read through several sequences of Al Capp's LI'L ABNER, and thus for the same reason ABNER's long stories are marked by a plethora of melodramatic plot-incidents. These incidents serve to give the reader the sense of linear progress, but they're usually so haphazard that they don't generate any significant mythicity.



My re-reading of ABNER is by no means complete. However, in the upcoming "mythcomic of the week," the sequence I have chosen is not the sort of thing most comics-mavens would have chosen. Most would probably have selected one of Capp's overt satires, like those involving the Schmoos.
The Schmoo storyline is a pretty good example of a strong "overthought," but I don't think it displays the mythic "underthought" that I've been searching for.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY

It's been a month since I wrote TRANSITIVE MONSTERS, and on further reconsideration I'm going to reverse myself on some of the opinions expressed there, reason being that I don't think "the transitive effect" applies across the board to all forms of serial entertainment. The two main forms I'll adopt here are those with "strong continuity" and those with "weak continuity." I'll further stipulate that these distinctions are *in posse* rather than *in esse,* (see definition here) and that the distinctions grow from the ways in which different media use, or do not use, continuity to appeal to audiences.

In MONSTERS I said:

...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.

But, sticking with these two examples, I have to ask myself: does a series about a movie-character display the same level of continuity possible for a series about a comics-character?

It's always feasible for a movie-series to stress a strong continuity between each feature-- the Lucas STAR WARS films are significant in this respect-- but most of the time, the cinema doesn't approach the idea of a series in the same manner as any medium rooted in the activity of reading. In the days prior to Lucas' innovations-- from which the current "Marvelverse" marketing-strategy is one effect-- producers strove to keep entries in a given series distinct from one another. Their motive in so doing was practical: they could never be certain whether or not a significant portion of their audiences would have seen earlier episodes. Thus I would say that "weak continuity" is the *in posse* storytelling strategy of the cinematic medium, not because all films lack strong continuity, but because most of them do. The Freddy Kreuger series is emblematic of this tendency, given that Freddy is generally destroyed at the end of one film, only to pop up in the next one with no explanation of how he survived.

Comic books used to be "weak continuity" in practice, and for the same reason: no publisher could be sure that his juvenile audience would buy even two Superman comics in a row (though there were some early experiments that used continued stories, often in the "cliffhanger" format from movie-serials). But I'd maintain that "strong continuity" was their *in posse* storytelling strategy, simply because they were in a mode that combined pictures with words that had to be read and absorbed. The particular 1960 Superman story mentioned above appeared at a time when editor Mort Weisinger apparently felt he had the "affective freedom" to expand upon the mythology of Superman and his various interrelated features, as chronicled here. We will never know whether or not his sales-success with this strategy had any influence upon Stan Lee, but it seems likely, given that some of the early Marvel titles show strong similarity to the story-tropes from the Superman comics. (The panel below shows Thor's villain Loki in his early Mr. Mxyzptlk mode.)



I will expand further on other examples of strong and weak continuities in future essays, but for now I'll wrap up this essay by stating that:

(1) even subcombative stories in the Superman comics become part of his combative mythos because the strong continuity engenders a strong transitive effect,

BUT

(2) subcomnative stories in the Freddy Krueger movies may not really integrate with the dream-monster's combative mythos, since a weak continuity engenders a weak transitive effect.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "JUDGE DREDD BRINGS LAW TO THE CURSED EARTH" (2000 A.D, 1977-78)



For modern readers the Greek word “apccalypse” has become synonymous with the idea of a great cataclysm, usually one that lays waste to the advanced civilization of humankind and hurls humans into the clutches of a hardscrabble existence. But formally the word means “uncovering,” with the connotation of casting aside false illusions and revealing truth.

The British comic-book series JUDGE DREDD takes its inspiration from the SF-gente of post-apocalyptic literature. This subgenre doesn’t exclusively deal with a post-nuclear cataclysm, but DREDD, conceived in 1977, follows the well-worn path of an atomic aftermath. Although DREDD is British in origin, most of the character's stories take place in a futuristic version of the United States. The American “land of plenty” has been reduced to a radioactive wasteland, inhabited by scrounging human tribes and mutated lifeforms. Amid the wasteland known as the Cursed Earth, only three mega-cities abide, protected from radioactive menaces by great domes, and in all three teeming metropolis the citizens are controlled by armed lawgivers called  “Judges.” The titular Judge Dredd is one of the toughest of this tough breed, and his adventures in Mega-City One—a science-fictional version of New York City—are often tinged with  irony and satire. While some of Dredd’s antagonists include monsters and career criminals, often he’s in the position of a gun-toting babysitter, constantly curbing the irrational behavior of the citizens.

The five-part serial “Judge Dredd brings Law to the Cursed Earth” takes Dredd out of his city, where he’s so often employed in enforcing draconian rules, and into the land of no law. Though Dredd himself believes in the law as an absolute—and even speaks of himself as an incarnation of it, as in his catchphrase “I am the Law”—his mission “uncovers” some interesting aspects of humanity, at once ape and angel.

Dredd learns that Mega-City Two on the West Coast desperately needs a vaccine in order to stave off a plague that transforms its human victims into cannibal zombies who cry out for “forbidden fruit,” i..e., human flesh. Lacking flight-machines, Dredd and his fellow Judges can only traverse the distance overland, using in part a huge armored transport-vehicle called the Killdozer. Yet technology isn’t all the hero needs for his quest; he needs to fight chaos with one of its own lawless agents.

With his usual “gentle persuasion,” Dredd coerces a long-time petty criminal, Spikes Harvey Rotten, to go along on the mission-- reason being that Spikes is “the best biker in the business,” having honed his skills running guns to mutant tribes. Spikes’s last name is implicitly a tip of the hat to Britain’s punk movement, exemplified by singer Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and the artists on the Dredd serial draw Spikes to reflect the familiar image of the disrespectful punk. But even though Spikes hates judges as much as Dredd hates criminals, the two of them prove to be a good team as they cross the perilous badlands.

Religious tropes are a familiar aspect of post-apocalyptic stories.The name "Cursed Earth" may have been conceived with a mind to the Bible's association between the earth and the curse placed by God upon the murderer Cain, familiar from the King James translation of Genesis 4:10:

10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.

Cain is not specifically invoked in the saga, but the Cursed Earth is without question a land overrun by wandering tribes of malefactors, though to be sure the judge does encounter a few pockets of human goodness. References to Biblical and other mythic materials appear throughout this serial, Dredd and Spikes contend with  (1) a fanatical, Moses-like lawgiver who condemns transgressors in his tribe to be eaten by rats, (2) robots who suck blood from human victims in order to keep alive the last President of the United States, (3) a tribe of killer mutants, one of whom is significantly named “Brother Gomorrah,” and (4) a genetically engineered tyrannosaurus named Satanus. The malevolent dinosaur, in fact, proved so popular with readers that he became a recurring foe for the righteous judge. Arguably Satanus might have better named “Grendel,” for in his backstory the predacious dinosaurwas spawned by a “hag-mother” rather reminscent of the nameless mother of Beowulf's monstrous enemy. However, Satanus went further than Grendel, for in his original incarnation the tyrannosaurus attempts to murder his dam. She kills him instead, and he's only revived in his genetically engineered form by the folly of futuristic scientists.



As I said before, Spikes actually proves a decent partner to Dredd, choosing to support the judge at times when the punk might've run off and left Dredd to his own devices. There's never a sense that Spikes does so because his baser instincts have been ennobled by his mission, and his criminal nature comes forth when he and Dredd find themselves taking on a new ally, an anteater-like alien creature named “Tweak.” Tweak is an intelligent creature who sacrificed himself for his people, pretending to be a dumb animal in order to deceive space-faring humans and to prevent them from plundering his homeworld. Spikes hears Tweak relate his earns at least some of the Tweak’s tragic story, but when the punk learns of the riches of the alien’s world, he cares about nothing but finding some way to harvest those riches for himself. 




Tweak, both telepathic and precognitive, foresees that Spikes is doomed to die during the voyage, and allows the punk to think that he gains access to the planet’s mineral rights. As a result, Spikes dies in defense of the mission, though his true motivation is pecuniary, so he can prove that he’s “not just a punk.” It's a mark of the ambivalence of the Pat Mills/John Wagner that Spikes' death takes on a heroic aura, even though his ambition is to exploit a planet full of innocent creatures.




Only Dredd and Tweak make it all the way to Mega-City Two with the life-saving vaccine. Yet in the last stretch of the arduous journey, the Judge undergoes hallucinations in which he thinks he’s being attacked by all the denizens of the wasteland. He shoots at the mirage-figures, declaring that, “I’ve beaten all of you! I’ve beaten the Cursed Earth!” Still, though he succeeds in his mission, and even manages to send Tweak back to his planet, Dredd’s concluding thought is:

Return to Mega-City One and maybe a little peace and quiet. But whatever’s waiting for me there, it can’t be as bad as—the Cursed Earth!

It’s something of a reluctant salute to a worthy enemy, and perhaps an acknowledgement that the forces of law and order can never totally defeat the forces of chaos—much less, as the title declares, “bring law”  into the wasteland that mirrors the lawlessness of human ambition.