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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

MYTHIC MANGA

Though contemporary Japanese manga (and its various Asian cousins) can be episodic, they're best known today for their sprawling, multi-chapter story-arcs. I don't have an in-depth knowledge of the development of comics in Japan, though I'm aware that the medium's best-known early exemplar, Osamu Tezuka, varied his approach between generally episodic works (ASTRO BOY) and longer, more involved storylines (PRINCESS KNIGHT). Many manga-serials of the past twenty years have gone even further than Tezuka. Eiichiro Oda's ONE PIECE, initiated in 1997, depicts a fantasy-world replete with enough characters and character-arcs to rival (in quantity at least) the novels of Dickens.



Very few American comic books sought to go beyond purely episodic stories until the mid-1960s, when Marvel began making its storytelling mark. Some of the "long arcs" at Marvel resemble simple film-serial cliffhangers, but others may have been more influenced by the narrative example of American comic strips. This online essay asserts that post-WWII Japan was definitely affected by the importation of newspaper strips, though of course there may a host of other factors that influenced the country's fascination with long, involved story-arcs. It's possible that, while the American comic book remained strongly wedded to the short story, Japan made greater strides in the realization of the "novel in graphic form," simply because they had no preconceptions against the idea.

Now, in earlier essays like this one, I've asserted that narratives have 'had their greatest capacity for mythicity when they possessed the traditional "beginning, middle and end," which worked to maximize a given story's potential for "connotative associations."' However, the majority of "long melodrama" comic strips of the classic period lack the scope of the novel in terms of such associations, because "each of these story-lines is just one narrative arc, without a lot of complementary development," 

I certainly wouldn't say that all of the long multi-chapter arcs in manga are necessarily better developed than those of the best classic American comic strips, but the potential has generally been better realized, perhaps because some Japanese authors have emulated the intricacies of the prose novel. At present ONE PIECE has not yet concluded, so it can't be judged in its entirety, but Oda has often laid down involved plot-threads in one sequence that would not culminate until a much later sequence. Whether or not Oda's execution of those plot-lines proves felicitous or not is a separate matter; he's using novel-like narrative devices that were only very rarely utilized in "long melodrama" comics, with an occasional exception like this DICK TRACY sequence.

This week's mythcomic will be DANCERS IN THE VAMPIRE BUND, which boasts a heady complexity of plot and character. However, the original 14-book sequence of BUND, completed in 2012, was something of a novel-fragment. Two years later, the author came forth with SCARLET ORDER, a four-volume follow-up, which might be loosely regarded as the "end of the novel" (although some plot-threads were not resolved, and were certainly intended as lead-ins to further tales). Despite its heavy fantasy-content, BUND is written largely like a political thriller, and this raised the danger that the author might have created too many characters and story-arcs to allow for a reasonably clear "beginning, middle, and end." However, I'm pleased to see that there is a sense of resolution in SCARLET ORDER, so that I can finally put the series on my list, after having alluded to its potential excellence back in this 2011 quasi-review.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

X-POLITICS

"The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have..., intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice."-- Chris Claremont, 1982 quote.

Ever since I analyzed GOD LOVES MAN KILLS a few weeks ago, I've been intending to blog something about the politicization of the X-Men.

In a post entitled QUICK NON-POLITICS POST, I wrote that, "...one can believe that, in the real world, nothing is free from political associations. However, in fiction that freedom does exist, even if it's only a freedom of the imagination."  I also said that those critics who would equate everything in art with "political rectitude" are in effect saying that "Man really is made for the Sabbath, not the other way round."

Yet many artists, like Claremont, draw attention to their political allegiances, and one cannot know if a given artist does so out of a sincere desire to change the world or merely to cash in on a particular social trend.

The downside of doing this, of course, is that as soon as one declares a political position as representative of one's art, some critics will begin circling like sharks. Most shark-critics care nothing about what the author intended; their passion is to subject the work to a moralistic purity test. I can't count the number of times I've seen forum-posters complain that X-MEN is no good because it doesn't reflect their political perceptions. Some even go so far as to assert that reading about mutant prejudice is just a dodge for not talking about real-life forms of prejudice. And then there are critics whose heads are so far up their butts that they can't even organize a coherent thought.

In The X-Men as racial allegory, blacks are indeed a serious threat to the white social order. And let us make no mistake: it is the white social order. No blacks appear in that first issue. The soldiers on the base are entirely comprised of good Aryans. Moreover, The X-Men offers us a racial allegory (of black and white) in black and white: “evil” mutants or blacks who want to take over America and “bad” mutants or blacks who will put their lives where their mouths are andfight their rebellious brothers for the very social order that cannot accept them.-- Julian Darius, X-MEN IS NOT AN ALLEGORY FOR RACIAL TOLERANCE.


I found this old 2002 essay while looking for an example of the "politics above everything" attitude, but the essay's fervid, Werthamite rhetoric exceeded all of my expectations. It anticipates the worst of Noah Berlatsky, using ridiculous hot-button words :like "good Aryans" and ignoring basic facts of comic book publishing. Even if one could tentatively agree with the idea of a one-to-one equivalence between "mutants" and "blacks," the author conveniently sidesteps the fact that comic books of this period, the first half of the 1960s, rarely depicted blacks at all. I suspect this state of affairs came about largely because one of the assaults made by Original Wertham was the stigmatization of race in Golden Age comics. Thus, by the late 1950s: allusions to non-whites, like allusions to sexuality, were elided because the publishers sought to placate the Comics Code organization (which, admittedly, they themselves founded to avoid governmental controls). Saladin Ahmed comments in this 2014 essay:

The Code also contained the surprising provision that “ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.” Given the countless depictions of monkey-like Japanese and minstrel-show black people in Golden Age comics, one might think this provision a good thing. But Murphy soon made it clear that this provision really meant that black people in comic books would no longer be tolerated, in any form. When EC Comics reprinted the science fiction story “Judgment Day” by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando (which had originally been printed to little controversy before the Code), Murphy claimed the story violated the Code, and that the black astronaut had to be made white in order for the story to run.


Given that the "purity tests" of ideological critics are worthless for evaluating art, the pluralist critic should be aware that even an author who calls attention to his own politics may not be entirely truthful. I don't doubt that Claremont consciously evoked racial and political themes, but he did so in the context of an escapist action-adventure. It should go without saying that one of the primary functions of "racial difference" in Claremont's X-Men is not to lecture (implicitly white) readers about their political shortcomings, but to evoke strong individual characters about whom the readers can give a damn. 

This basic fact of fiction-making makes absurd the sort of readers who fault a given X-title for not being diverse enough, or for distracting readers from the "real world" and its problems. Such readers are not interested in the art of fiction, but the artifice of non-fictional diatribes.

Monday, November 21, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: ["PERIL IN PARIS"], DETECTIVE COMICS #34 (1939)



In this essay I cited Haney's "Origin of Metamorpho" as an example of a narrative dominated by its symbolic underthought. Another comics-story that I've praised for its "symbolic amplitude" is Gardner Fox's 1940 "Origin of Hawkman," but prior to Hawkman Fox was also a key player in the forging of the mythos of the  Batman. In the two months preceding this week's selection, Fox gave the Caped Crusader his first encounter with the world of the supernatural, forcing Batman to deal with a master vampire, The Monk. The ensuing story, entitled "Peril in Paris"on GCD, is not as well known, but it better illustrates my concept as to how the "unity of the underthought" can appear even in the most delirious of pulp-tales.

A little while after his vampiric encounter, Bruce Wayne decides to stay in Europe for a time. Strolling through the streets of Paris, he mistakes a stranger for an old acquaintance-- apparently by the man's build, since there's no other point of similarity.



The blank-faced man disappears into the crowd, and Wayne doesn't immediately seek to investigate. Then, by the sort of coincidence beloved by pulp authors, Wayne encounters a young woman menaced by knife-wielding Parisian thugs known as "Apaches." The young woman, Karel by name, just happens to be the sister of Charles Maire, the blank-faced man, who regales Wayne with the story of his tragedy. At a bal masque (masked ball) the siblings encountered a strange man, the royally-named "Duc D'Orterre," who courted Karel with an eye to gaining her money. When Charles interfered, the Duc summoned his Apache agents and had Charles taken to his subterranean lair in the Parisian sewers, where Charles' features were burned off with a strange ray. (It goes without saying that the story does not bother with any niceties of verisimilitude, like explaining how Charles can talk without a mouth.)

Wayne volunteers the services of the Batman to investigate the Duc's perfidy, but the hero finds that the villain has ample weapons and devices of torment ready and waiting.



It's interesting that the Duc calls his torture-instrument a "wheel of chance," for this is a common synonym for the roulette wheel or its many analogues-- not to mention the medieval idea of the "wheel of fortune," which would lift mortals to victory at times before dashing them to death. Nothing in the 10-page story specifies that the Duc is a gambler, but his attire comes closer to suggesting that profession than it does that of a mad scientist or a crime-boss living in the sewers. The cane that projects a blinding ray adds something to the total effect, though to be sure the Duc's dominant image is that of a pointy-eared Satan, complete with a dolicocephalic skull that gives him an inhuman appearance. (Were it not for the various marvelous aspects of the story, the Duc's eerie physiognomy would be enough to place him in the uncanny trope of "freakish flesh.")

Batman gets free of the wheel, though it's not one of his more clever escapes: he simply breaks his bonds by main strength. However, the Duc manages to propel the hero into a "flower garden," in which all of the blooms have female faces.



The human-faced flowers are never explained, though one is tempted to suppose that the same ray the Duc used to erase faces could transpose other faces onto any medium he desired. The Duc then leaves Batman in his new prison and has his Apaches kidnap Karel and Charles, bringing them to his lair. However, the villain apparently does not know that his flower-women can speak to the crusader telepathically. They guide Batman out of the garden, just in time for him to rescue Charles from the wheel of chance. The Duc tries to escape with Karel in a car, and Batman pursues in his Bat-gyro. The hero manages to descend to the car, battle with the Duc, and then to leave the villain to a fiery death as he leaps free with the young woman in tow. The story concludes with Bruce Wayne bidding farewell to Karel and her still faceless brother.

Both the Duc's appearance and his subterranean location align him with Satan, and the idea of stealing faces, or placing them in some incongruous situation, aligns with the idea of the Devil tricking men into surrendering their souls and then consigning them to various punishments of Hell. Dante's "Wood of Suicides" would be the best known example of transposing human souls into plant-life. However, the Devil usually doesn't confine himself to one gender or the other, so the Duc's garden of female flowers may also owe something to Bluebeard, who kept the bodies of his previous wives in an abbatoir. It may also be no coincidence that Fox had Batman battling a Satan-like entity so soon after vanquishing a vampire. Fox doesn't invoke any images of Christianity in the "Monk" story, but that two-parter does borrow heavily from Stoker's DRACULA-- and Stoker associates his bloodsucker with the Christian devil fairly early in the book. For that reason, I consider "Peril in Paris" to be a metaphysical myth, in which the hero defeats either Satan or an agent of the devil, though the villain's metaphysical evil is displaced through such genre-tropes as "the mad scientist" and "the Parisian crime boss."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS

In RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT, I took Frye's concept of "overthought" and "underthought," which he took from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and refurbished both terms to my Jungian preferences. By my scheme, the "underthought" is a given work's discourse of "images and metaphors," toward which the audience feels sympathy or antipathy, and the "overthought" is a given work's discourse of abstract, didactic ideas. The first I posit as identical to Jung's "function of intuition," and the second to the "function of thinking," while the other two functions comprise the "lateral meaning" of the work, the audience's basic sense of what happened to the story's characters ("sensation") and how it affected them emotionally ("feeling.")

As I continue to meditate on various comics-works to see if they qualify as mythcomics, I'm finding that whether a given work is more dominated by its overthought or by its underthought, it works best when it follows Aristotle's dictum for the "unity of action."

The Unity of a Plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action. . . . The truth is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.

This is one reason why, even though I stated long ago that I considered the X-MEN's "Dark Phoenix": storyline to be a mythic work, I would now consider it more of a "near myth." Like many serial comic books of the period-- DEATHLOK and BLACK PANTHER, for example-- the writers often plotted the stories in episodic, helter-skelter fashion. This can be potentially more fun to read than a rigidly plotted opus, but it doesn't produce the desired "unity of action."

I don't have plans as yet to create a category for "overthought-dominated works," but if I did, I might include a 1953 sequence from Walt Kelly's POGO comic strip. The sequence, in which Kelly heaps satirical barbs upon the still formidable public figure of Joseph P. McCarthy, has been lauded by many comics-critics. I respect both Kelly's craft and his intent, but the sequence is most interesting to me in that any free flow of symbolic content has been tamped down, so to speak, to serve the primary purpose of elucidating Kelly's ideas about McCarthy, demagoguery, and American commercialism.



By way of contrast, an "underthought-dominated work"-- one which happens to be as complex in terms of symbolic discourse as Kelly's work is in terms of didactic discourse-- is examined in my essay on the Origin of Metamorpho. The main purpose of Bob Haney was not focused upon ideas, but upon the symbols attendant to his newly crafted superhero. This includes both (1) the Oedipal quadrangle of hero, hero's girlfriend, girlfriend's rich father and the father's brutish stooge, (2) assorted references to Egypt and vaguely alchemical symbols ("the rose stone.')



While it would be impossible for an ideological critic to admit any sort of equivalence between a high-minded political satire and a wildly escapist superhero tale, both works do display a necessary unity of action. One merely have to be tuned to hear and/or see.



Thursday, November 17, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "AND ONCE REMOVED FROM NEVER" (ASTONISHING TALES #35, 1976)



Creative talents at Marvel Comics in the first half of the 1970s displayed a level of experimentation that in some ways dwarfs the seminal work of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko in the 1960s. Possibly because superhero comics weren't selling as well as they had in the previous decade, Marvel editors allowed for far more off-the-wall projects than the company had ever published before, and arguably, since.

That's not to say that every experiment worked out, as seen with the case of Deathlok. Marvel's badass cyborg enjoyed less than a dozen issues of ASTOUNDING TALES, a title which was cancelled just as the titular hero was about to start a new plotline (later concluded elsewhere). The character was conceived by writer Doug Moench and writer-artist Rich Buckler, but like the Black Panther series I've touched on elsewhere, Deathlok's saga was somewhat compromised by the use of "fill-in" talents. Buckler had involvement in all of the issues, but ironically, the best single story of this run was scripted by Bill Mantlo-- though probably with some input from Buckler.

The concept was a nightmare version of ABC's teleseries THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, whose first TV-film aired the year before Deathlok appeared. Whereas astronaut Steve Austin was given a squeaky-clean reconstruction by his benevolent military/espionage bosses, soldier Luther Manning-- inhabiting a future-America that had suffered some vague military catastrophe-- found himself rebuilt into a mechanically enhanced Frankenstein by his less than avuncular commander Major Ryker. Manning was dead at the time the military decided to work on his corpse, giving it metal limbs, various weapons and a computer-brain. Unfortunately for Manning, his human mind survived the transition, so that he found himself literally "tied to a dying animal," as Yeats put it. Manning was not happy about having been transformed into Deathlok a conglomeration of metal and dead flesh, and his peripateric adventures-- mostly confined to New York of the future-- varied between the cyborg trying to kill himself (which the computer-brain overruled) and trying to kill Ryker.

Most of the stories, while affecting on the emotional level, lack the density of symbolic discourse that gives rise to a mythcomic; most of the time, it seems like Buckler and Moench are channeling a new version of THE OMEGA MAN. (Why did the war create roving bands of cannibalistic humans? Maybe because it was neat when OMEGA MAN did something similar--?)  Only issue #35 comes closest to realizing the complexity of myth, because Buckler and pinch-hitter Mantlo devote some special intensity to the final confrontation between Deathlok and Major Ryker.




Following a setup from the previous issue, Deathlok invades Ryker's sanctum and learns that Ryker has a new scheme. Instead of fooling around with building corpse-soldiers to fight in the war-- which may not even exist at all, after the fashion of Orwell's "1984"-- Ryker has downloaded his brain into the "Omni-Computer" that controls civilized life. The computer hasn't really been a big part of the narrative up to this point, but Deathlok is informed by computer-technicians that Ryker can endanger the whole world with this attempt at cybernetic godhood. So Deathlok downloads his own consciousness into the computer for a showdown, giving comics-readers an early taste-- though probably not the earliest-- of the many "virtual reality" conflicts that would appear in later science-fictional works.

The most interesting aspect of the script is that though earlier plots emphasized Ryker as simply a ruthless military man, here he's transformed into the representative of an idea of order so repressive that it's as dangerous as any external enemy. (America's involvement in Vietnam had ended the year before Deathlok appeared, but it's not hard to envision the alienated cyborg as a response to the U.S. using soldiers as pawns in a war of attrition.) During the VR-conversation of Deathlok and Ryker, the latter reveals that his people never knew what caused the explosions that led to the mobilization of forces, and the imposition of a military dictatorship. Deathlok, the low-level "grunt" who has been the pawn of authority, speaks on behalf of the ordinary citizens who are also Ryker's pawns:

"There was no enemy, Ryker! You just wanted order-- total, complete order! And the only way to get it was to get rid of the causes of disorder. People, Ryker! People cause disorder! So you got rid of the people!"

Ryker and Deathlok have a short conflict in the VR-world-- probably one of the shortest in the days when every Marvel comic had a fight-scene-- and then one of the scientists in the real world pulls the plug on the experiment. It's never quite clear what was preventing the technicians from forcing Ryker out of the computer and back into his own body earlier, but suddenly they are able to bring both hero and villain back to the real world--

But not-- to their own bodies--





In the series' most interesting trope, Deathlok is mistakenly placed in the body of his enemy, and the Major in the body of a half-rotted cyborg. The technicians correct the mistake within seconds, but in the seconds in which Ryker is forced to walk in the shoes of a cyborg, Ryker goes mad, and continues to rant madly even after being returned to his proper body-- thus ending him as a threat for the very short remainder of the original series.

This denouement is much more satisfying than Ryker's death would have been. The order-obsessed officer had no intention of reviving Luther Manning in the body of Deathlok, but the fact that Manning resurfaced speaks to the essential toughness of the common American infantryman. But though Deathlok tries to kill himself early in the series, he continues to perservere despite his unenviable lot. Further, the fact that Ryker can't handle even a few seconds of the hell to which he subjected his former subordinate suggests that despite Ryker's greater rank he's not nearly as much "man" as Manning.

Following the interruption of the original series, Deathlok went through various reboots, but none of them had the potential-- however unrealized-- of the original ASTONISHING run.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

NEAR ACQUAINTANCE, NEARLY FORGOT PT. 2

While quick-reading one of Dirk Deppey's antique hotlinks the other day, I saw the following phrase out of context:

To argue that cheesecake imagery is inherently harmful to women is to argue that male desire itself is inherently harmful to women. Thankfully, this isn't a majority viewpoint among feminists, otherwise the nation would be awash in hijabs, and American beaches would be far less entertaining.

After scanning that sentence-- with which I fundamentally agreed-- I wondered the "Two-Minute Hate" series of blogposts from 2007 had anything of philosophical merit to it-- or at least more than Deppey's "superhero decadence" had possessed, back in the day.

In a word, the answer was no. While I agreed with his assessment of entitled fangirl feminists, and their influence from similarly overheated mainstream figures like Andrea Dworkin, Deppey showed no propensity to analyze the role of sexuality in popular art. At one point he may make a basically sound statement like this one:

The same sexual imagination and visual imagery found in hetero porn for men also occurs in its queer variant. And why shouldn't they be similar? After all, they both have the same goal: Getting the male viewer in the mood. There's nothing wrong with this. Whether you like it or not, we're monkeys, and male monkeys are fascinated by the sexy things that they see. 

But then, like someone afraid of losing their Net-cred, he takes back the "nothing wrong with this" with the usual Journalista sneers at the superhero fans' taste for "pervert suits."

Even then, the pervert-suit aesthetic isn't going to go away. Mainline publishers will be far more willing to buy into the concept if it supplements the current cashflow, rather than taking its place. That means sensible heroines and lipstick lesbians and half-naked lolitas fighting crime — otherwise, you're simply asking publishers to replace a surefire money machine with one that might grow and thrive, if only someone is willing to throw the dice. I'm sorry, but that's just not going to happen. Where large companies with fiduciary obligations to stockholders and/or corporate owners are concerned, the money always comes first.
While I agree in part with his analysis of the economic bottom line, Deppey-- who, I presume. still stands by these 2007 words-- advises the protesting fangirls to get busy and make their own comics to counter the male aesthetic. I'll admit that this sounds more constructive than the fangirls sitting around and griping about Stephanie Brown not being the New Robin. Still, it's a shame that after having made a sensible comment about the nature of the male aesthetic, he backtracks by implying that it might be superseded by a more female-friendly aesthetic.



Arguably, such a FFA does appear in a character like Kamala Khan. Nevertheless, Kamala Khan is not good because she wears modest attire and appeals to female fans, any more Supergirl IV is bad because she wears a belly-shirt and appeals to male fans.



Still, I'll say this for Deppey's 2007 comments: even if they're infused with too much ideological content for my taste, he doesn't shriek and piss and moan like most present-day ideologues. And as little as I care for the Mary Sue contributors, they've been far excelled in general pissiness by both the Huddites and the Seekfarts, despite the fact that most of these contributors are male (or reasonable approximations thereof).




Monday, November 14, 2016

NEAR ACQUAINTANCE, NEARLY FORGOT

I was a bit surprised to find among my recent stats a link to this address, which turned out to be the recrudescent web-presence of Dirk Deppey. This individual enjoyed a sizable rep in the comics-blogosphere through his online zine JOURNALISTA, which he terminated in 2010. As soon as I saw the stat-link, I was 99% sure what it referenced, since Deppey and I only had one web-encounter, and that one was fairly minor for both of us. Nevertheless, since he linked to me, even if it was only to footnote one encounter in his varied career, I'm more or less obliged to return the favor here. Later I may even be able to build an essay from one of his archived posts. if time permits.

As I expected, he linked to this essay, in which I disagreed with his definition of "superhero decadence," which was in turn a rethinking of a phrase popularized by comics-artist Bill Willingham. To the best of my knowledge, Deppey never responded to my critique in any way except to link to it with words like, "Gene Phillips really, really disagrees with my take on superhero decadence."

The response wasn't precisely satisfying, but since neither of us was likely to change one another's mind, it was probably the best response. I disagreed with Deppey's statement of the aesthetic problem involved in any sort of "decadence," but it wasn't an overheated misrepresentation / outright lie of the type I've been fighting here for years, whether propounded by Noah Berlatsky or the even less impressive Colin Liar.

This also may lead to some meditations on my past experiences with the Comics Journal, though again, only if time permits.






INDIVIDUAL VS. COLLECTIVE AMPLITUDE

In MORE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE I wrote the following of Robert Kanigher's original take on the Injustice Society of America.

Kanigher favors almost schematic arrangements of his plots and the characters caught up in them, and thus I think most though not all of his stories follow the process of "the overthought" rather than that of "the underthought." As a result, even the individual villains in the Injustice Society story leave something to be desired in the mythicity department; they only take on mythic status through their association. This also stands in contradistinction to Fox's creativity in giving each of his "Sinister Sorcerers" a distinct mythic persona.



It occured to me to rethink this a bit. If a creator has no intention of giving a "mythic persona" to each individual characters within a collective entity, does that in itself compromise the amplitude of the mythic content? Obviously there are various movie-monsters who retain a collective mythic persona despite their lack of individuality, such as the Aliens and the Predators. Every time an Alien or a Predator appears, each monster is virtually indistinguishable from all the others, except for a few defined by their biological functions (the Alien Queen Mother in ALIENS, obviously).



Of course, the comic-book villains of the Injustice Society originally appeared as solo players, even if their potential as mythic figures in their solo stories was more potential than actual. It's entirely possible that the Golden Age villains accrued more mythicity in the Kanigher tale than any of them ever had in their individual appearances.

Now, last week's mythcomic, GOD LOVES MAN KILLS, offers an interesting contrast with regard to the heroes.

The heroes of the 1960s X-Men feature, like the aforementioned Golden Age villains, displayed more mythic potential than mythic actuality. Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel and Marvel Girl had some interesting symbolic moments, but neither their individual heroic personalities nor their collective identity as "the representative of good mutantkind" ever quite caught fire. In the stories analyzed in these two recent essays, here and here, the main players were given far less attention than their foes (the Sentinels and the Juggernaut) and their mentor Professor X.

Though Chris Claremont did not originate the "New X-Men" feature of 1975. during his long tenure he gave much more attention to the individual personas of the group-- both in terms of the dramatic and mythopoeic potentialities-- and to the group's identity as "outsiders by virtue of their freakish births." That said, in GOD LOVES MAN KILLS, the main players once again are not very distinctive from one another in the symbolic department. Part of this may be because the graphic novel was conceived a stand-alone work, one that was not given canonical continuity-status for several years. However, the main reason is surely that since the X-heroes must present a united front against the pernicious menace of the main villain, they sacrifice their individual mythic identities in favor of a collective one.

There are some differences. of course. Cyclops, being the leader, is also the fount of the ideals of the mutant fight for self-determination, but in line with an "accomdational" posture.




Wolverine, in contrast, is more about the practicality of the situation, while Kitty Pryde is the standard Angry Adolescent.






But aside from Professor X-- whose role is entirely passive, becoming a Sacrificial Victim whose torments are meant to condemn the unholy rather than redeeming the fallible-- Magneto, the defender of a vision of separatist mutantkind, assumes more mythic resonance than any of the regular heroes, despite allying himself with their anti-Stryker program.


In fact, it's arguable that Magneto has more mythicity than Stryker. I pointed out that the religious symbolism of Stryker's crusade was not nearly as well evoked as it might have been. Similarly, Claremont also muffs a potential relationship between Stryker's military background and his implicit endorsement of a "muscular Christianity." In contrast, Magneto's mythicity carries an undiluted power. By this time he had been remodeled as a Holocaust survivor, so the sometime-villain's goal of forming his own bailiwick for a persecuted minority has far deeper sociocultural meaning. Even the collective accomodation-myth embodied by the X-Men has far less effectiveness in this story than the separatism-myth embodied by Magneto, even though his role is more or less that of a "guest star."

Nevertheless, the collective form of mythic amplitude has his strengths, though it may channel more emotive force when it's represented by characters who are, like the Aliens and the Predators, very close to being identical.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "GOD LOVES MAN KILLS" (MGN #5, 1982)



From the debut of the "All-New, All-Different" X-MEN, I've always regarded it as the serendipitous creation that made possible not only a "second wave" of Marvel superhero comics, but also the very idea of "cool mainstream comics" that non-hardcore readers might "get." It took the "mutants as minorities" concept that had been circulated-- but not with great aesthetic or financial success-- by the 1963 X-MEN, and gave it far more verve and relevance. Crisp visuals by artists like Cockrum and Byrne sold the book, but writer Chris Claremont provided the intense blend of action and soap-opera that made the book a solid success.

Glancing over the early issues of the Claremont tenure, I found a lot of rousing action and strong melodrama. Yet the central sociological myth-- that of the marginalization of minorities, even those with superpowers-- wasn't any better developed in those early issues than it was in the 1960s. Claremont consistently touched on the myth, particularly with his first Sentinels continuity, but 1982's GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS was his first sustained meditation on the cause of persecution.

In contrast to Bolivar Trask, the scientist who invented the Sentinels out of the fear that they might dominate mankind, the villain of GOD LOVES views mutants as a personal encroachment upon his view of what is "natural." Reverend William Stryker is an Christian evangelist whose ministry conceals a secret society, the "Purifiers," whose goal is the total eradication of mutants from humanity. The Purifiers' absolute villainy is graphically portrayed on the first pages, when Stryker's goons kill a pair of children, whom they have targeted as mutants. An adult arrives too late to help, but it's not one of the X-Men, but their sworn enemy Magneto, who aspires a separatist goal for mutant-kind. Magneto's first use of his magnetic powers is to liberate the young corpses from the humiliating position in which the killers left the bodies.



Though the X-Men as a whole aren't initially aware of the threat, Stryker's public denunciations of mutants have apparently become widespread, causing the youngest X-Man, Kitty Pryde, to get into a fistfight with one of her classmates. However, after a few pages devoted to character interactions, three of the X-Men-- Cyclops, Storm, and Professor X-- apparently perish in a flaming car-wreck. The announcement hits the heroes hard, but by the next day, they begin to figure out that the deaths were faked. This leads them into a battle with the Purifiers, and an alliance with Magneto against the common enemy. Though Wolverine initially tries to persuade one of the thugs to talk with a death-threat, Magneto gets to show his stuff by torturing the man to reveal all.


While the heroes mount their plan of attack, Claremont shifts the POV to the inner sanctum of Stryker. There it's confirmed that the three "dead" people are all alive, but are being subjected to torture, with the long-range goal of breaking the Professor. Stryker's plan is to brainwash the mentally-powered mutant so that he can use his far-ranging powers to exterminate all of mutant-kind (essentially the plot borrowed for the second X-Men movie). The Professor's sufferings are, perhaps inevitably, given a quasi-Christian resonance.



The X-Men stop the plot, of course, and I won't go into the specifics of the resolution. But the story's most mythic aspect is that it concretizes all of the author's trepidations about evangelical Christianity into the figure of Stryker, who considered mutation a pollution of "natural" man. As the following scene shows, when his wife gave birth to a misshapen child, he assumed it was a mutant, and killed both the child and his wife. This grim origin is the key concept of GOD LOVES, depicting a "man of God" who justifies a program of genoice to salve his own fears and sense of inadequacy. 

In addition to the clear sociological motifs, I believe the story also comments on the metaphysical motifs of Christianity, which have in some (though not all) versions depended on lockstep conformity. Not to mention its own history in looking for scapegoats of a devilish form.


ADDENDUM: I'll add that when I first read GOD LOVES, it was one of the few times I felt irate against a fictional comics-character. I haven't had any Christian sentiments since age 13, but I found it abominable that an alleged servant of God could actually look at another living creature-- something spawned within the matrix of his alleged God's creation-- and deem it "unclean." In contrast to the attitude of Job, who comes to realize that God is beyond any mortal expectations, Stryker believes that his definition of humanity is the same as God's.

In addition, Claremont gives Stryker a motive of sexual and generative inadequacy. This is a fair call given the hostility of the Christians against sex-for-fun, though Claremont doesn't succeed in making this greater connection.

 It might have made more religious sense had if Stryker believed that mutants were direct creations of Satan, for then it would make sense, from a religious standpoint, to "exorcise" them. Such an exorcism appears in James Blish's novel A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. And Stryker also doesn't resort to the usual reasons for considering living creatures "unclean," for he's not speaking of his followers either eating or intermarrying with mutants.

Claremont wasn't trying for an in-depth treatment of any religion, Christian or otherwise, of course, and ultimately Stryker isn't entirely convincing as a three-dimensional human being. But he does convey one basic myth-theme: that of the religious overreacher.

SO-- PRESIDENT TRUMP.

Since this is not a political blog, I'll keep short my remarks on the Great Upset this week.

Last Tuesday I shared the shock of many Americans when Donald Trump won the presidency by virtue of having the most electoral college votes. A day or so later, a pundit on the tube claimed that the election results were the result of "whitelash," a white backlash against progressive policies.

My take is, yes and no.

Yes, there's not much question that exit polls indicated a large white vote for Trump, particularly among whites with less than a full college education. This causes me to wonder where those "stealth voters" were when Barack Obama ran against both John McCain and Mitt Romney. The reigning interpretation seems to be that these Caucasians did not vote Republican or Democrat in the previous two elections, but did so for Trump because he was "an outsider." Here's one current essay that takes this view, and finds the reason for Trump-support in the desire of white voters to hearken back to a simpler time.

But a lot of white voters in rural communities aren’t convinced. They see images on their television screens that are frightening. The face of the new America looks strange. The music is different, the accents are wrong, the sexual and racial politics confusing.

This is certainly a possible motivation, but it may not be the only one. The author goes on:

Another reason for this breakdown is money. Our national shift toward true equality occurred at a time when the economic status of rural whites was eroding fast. It’s not black America’s fault that many of our small towns are basket cases, with soaring unemployment, a deadly drug epidemic, and generational poverty. But to a lot of rural folks it feels that way. They feel like they’ve been cheated, duped, and disrespected.

This is the point where the "no" comes in. I agree that money is probably an issue, and probably much more of one than race itself is. It's certainly no coincidence that in his victory speech Trump claimed that he would remember "the forgotten man and woman." However, it may not be a given, as per the ultraliberal narrative, that these uneducated whites are simply reacting with fear of the unknown. Rather, it may be fear of the known.

The Left's dominant "racial myth" is that People of Color simply want parity, and nothing more. I would like to see parity, but I think a lot of "Colored Americans" use racial stigmatization to their advantage. without any sense of perspective-- and that's not even mentioning celebrities like Larry Wilmore, whose entire deck of 52 is filled with nothing but "race cards."

Most Black Activist pundits, like the one I cited in the first paragraph, agree spontaneously that no one could oppose their policies for any reason but fear and ignorance. However, I don't think a lot of whites look at the Ferguson riots and see humble protesters. I think they see people out for their own interests. Certainly I personally believe that was the case with Dorian Johnson. And when those whites see a lot of riots over police shootings, even after those shootings are ruled as justified, whites are more likely to want to be sure the next president supports the Second Amendment, in case of an out-and-out race war.

None of these observations should be taken as conferring approval on Trump or his noxious campaign. But I think our Clown-in-Chief put his finger on a lot of ways that poor whites feel marginalized-- and it's not all about either money or the fear of liberal policies.








Tuesday, November 8, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: "WHO STOLE THE U.S.A?" (METAMORPHO #3, 1965)



Not long after Metamorpho's debut in BRAVE AND BOLD, covered here, the Element Man got his own series, but it avoided the heavy angst of the first tale and emphasized zany humor up until the last few issues, where the creators made a last-ditch attempt to return to "serious stuff." Just as a hunch, I imagine that most fans of the Silver Age preferred the zany approach.

I had to give some thought to whether "U.S.A" qualified as a "near myth" or a "null myth." In some ways it seems like writer Bob Haney was guilty of "underthinking the underthought" of the story, which by the criteria of this essay would make the tale a "null-myth." On the other hand, though "U.S.A" is certainly not organized enough to be a myth-comic, there are some intriguing uses of symbolism throughout, so that my "near-myth" category becomes the default.

One amusing aspect of the story's title is that if one posed it as a question to many people today-- as opposed to the year in which the story appeared-- the answer would almost certainly be, "white Europeans." Haney and his artist-collaborator Ramona Fradon certainly did not compose a story that consciously evoked the tribulations of Native Americans, though there is a minor N.A. character in "U.S.A.," and the robot bird menacing the hero above is said to be patterned upon a Native American myth, the Thunderbird. It all feels like a soup that didn't quite come to a boil, so that some parts are tasty, others not.

The story commences when Metamorpho's prospective father-in-law Simon Stagg takes his daughter, his servant Java, and the hero to meet a young woman he Stagg intends to marry: the adult daughter of a famous promoter. Daughter Sapphire is more than a little concerned:



More on this later. The Stagg group journeys to the Grand Canyon. There, the promoter Trumbull-- who constantly calls things "colossal" and "magnificent," like a movie-maker parody-- has built a "science-center." Trumbull, not being a scientist, presumably has hired a crew of technicians, though only one or two hirelings are ever seen in the artificial city; in any case, the science-city is supposed to work on methods for defending the country. Simon Stagg woos young-enough-to-be-his-daughter Zelda-- who looks a little like Morticia Addams, and keeps a pet raven on her shoulder. In the background stands a tuxedo-clad Native American whom I'll call "O.;" short for the zany name Haney gives him ("Geronimo" spelled backwards, to see how many kids might get the joke). Trumbull mentions that O. is hanging around because he claims the Grand Canyon belongs to him, and then changes the subject. (And well he might, since the last I checked the Canyon was federally owned.)

Trumbull then unveils a discovery to the group: a meteorite containing a brand new element, which Trumbull has named "Staggium" in honor of his guest. When Metamorpho comes into the proximity of this element, he almost faints: Staggium acts on his element-body like kryptonite on Superman. The promoter leads the group away from the element-display, to another display. To the hero's misfortune, the second display contains the monstrous bird-robot from the cover. Trumbull calls it "the Thunderbird Robot," and as Metamorpho starts to collapse, the villain adds that the robot's wings contain enough "staggium" to destroy the Element Man. The hero's destruction will insure that he doesn't interfere with Trumbull's plot to "steal the U.S.A.": he wants the country to surrender to his authority, or he'll use all of his hyper-advanced technology to destroy America's missile defense system.

The rest of the story is largely a big chase-scene, as Metamorpho keeps changing shapes to escape the lethal "Laughing Boy" (as he calls the robot on the cover), while Trumbull keeps the rest of the Stagg party prisoner. Finally Metamorpho manages to destroy the robot indirectly. O. gets the drop on Trumbull and his daughter, complaining that they've stolen his ancestral lands, and this helps both Simon and Sapphire overcome the evildoers. Metamorpho gets a commendation from the back of Lyndon Johnson's head, the government takes over the science-station, and nothing further is said about O.'s claim to the land.

In my myth-comic essay of "The Origin of Metamorpho" I pointed out the resemblances between the dramatis personae of Haney's story and those of Shakespeare's play THE TEMPEST, with particular reference to the reading of Prospero as nurturing incestuous feelings for his own daughter. "U.S,A." recapitulates the same motif, only with Stagg romancing a woman who is not onlyyoung enough to be his daughter, but is also the offspring of a rich mogul, as Stagg himself is. Thus Zelda resembles Sapphire both in terms of her age and her lineage. Since Haney died in 2004, no one today can ask him if he read THE TEMPEST. But even if it could be demonstrated that he didn't know the work, his use of Stagg as "heavy father" still parallels some aspects of Prospero, except that with both Stagg and his rival Turnbull, wealth takes the place of magical power.

The specifically "white father" is also loosely implicated in the dispossession of the Native American from his ancestral lands. I don't suggest that Bob Haney consciously sought to tell a story dealing with Native American travails: I think he worked in the character of O. the Aggrieved Redskin because such images were part and parcel of his cultural mythology. Certainly he wanted a story that had enough adventurous fun as to please young readers, and so O. might simply have worked his way into the story because Haney set it in the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon suggested to him the Noble Red Man. The setting might also be responsible for the use of a robot patterned after the mythic Thunderbird, who was a widespread Native American icon. The artist Fradon gives the robot a quasi-Indian image, so that on a symbolic level, Trumbull is stealing the original American's myths as well as his land. Finally, though the TEMPEST connection can't be proven, it's interesting that the Shakespeare play is associated with what little the playwright knew of New World denizens-- as shown in essays like this one.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

NULL-MYTHS: TIMESPIRITS 1-8 (1984)



I don't imagine a feature as quirky as this one ever could have been a resounding commercial success in any era. In any case, it register with me as a null-myth because writer Steve Perry played his idea a little too quirkily.

The basic concept smacks not a little of the "Doctor Who" teleseries, but with two Native Americans filling in the role of the know-it-all savant and his befuddled assistant, In addition, though the art by Tom Yeates is excellent in its painterly Harold Foster style-- perhaps looking forward to the day when Yeates would be drawing Foster's famed creation PRINCE VALIANT-- it's also rather static at times, and doesn't contribute to audience investment in the characters.

The first issue establishes the basic setup. In pre-Revolutionary America, the native tribes of the eastern coast are just beginning to have serious run-ins with the white settlers. Doot, a young man of the Wawenoc tribe, tries to befriend one of the whites, but his brother is devoted to war. The two of them meet a strange fellow from another tribe, "Cusick of the Tuscarora," who claims that he travels through time, peddling arcane knowledge to those who can pay for it. He sells such knowledge to Doot's brother, and the brother becomes a warlike spirit. Doot doesn't buy anything, but when Cusick discovers that the young man has great spiritual potency, he gives him a freebie, making it possible for Doot to exorcise his brother. After that inauspicious beginning, Cusick invites Doot to join him in traipsing through time, and off they go, having various peripatetic adventures with dinosaurs, floods, and Jimi Hendrix.



Perry's scripts are admirable in that they don't follow the then-reigning Marvel tendency to over-explain everything, but he plays things a little too close to the vest regarding Cusick's origins and his goals. The result is that some readers probably didn't get too invested in the characters, despite the sumptuous art.



Additionally, the stories are a little too ironic for their own good. In one story the two Timespirits journey to an ancient Celtic civilization. There the Timespirits encounter a demonic flood-beast called the "Spurtyn Duyvil" (a pun on the Bronx neighborhood Spuyten Duyvil) and an inept magician named "Tubal Carrin" (a pun on the Old Testament figure Tubal Cain).

As someone heavily invested in myth-symbolism, I don't mind a little goofiness, like the first reference. But damn it, if an author invokes a famous myth-name like Tubal Cain, he ought to be willing to do something with it-- and Perry doesn't. I suspect that he just thought the name sounded neat. Most of the Timespirits' adventures have this offhand quality to them: they lack the conviction to make good adventure (though technically that's the *mythos* the series best fits) and they're not funny enough to provide good comedy.

At best TIMESPIRITS was an interesting misfire, in addition to being one of the few serials from Marvel's EPIC imprint that didn't sound just like the regular Marvel titles.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

EFFICACY, MEET MYTH

Once more, I return to Cassirer's statement on the subject of efficacy, last cited here:



…the world of mythical ideas… appears closely bound up with the world of efficacy. Here lies the core of the magical worldview… which is indeed nothing more than a translation and transposition of the world of subjective emotions and drives into a sensuous, objective existence.

Cassirer was speaking purely in an anthropological sense, speculating that the tribal culture of early humankind possessed a "magical worldview" in which everything they felt subjectively was also reflected in the physical universe around them. In this essay I also quoted him as having stated that myth "appears closely bound up with the world of efficacy," which was also a purely anthropological observation. Cassirer never devised a poetics of literature, though he influenced others who did, notably Northrop Frye, known for his arguments for a continuity between archaic myth and all later forms of literature.

Now, if myth is imbricated with this view of a non-causal causality-- that is, one not predicated entirely upon material forces-- and if myth is essentially covalent with literature-- then in what sense can one say that efficacy inheres in the world of literature? It's not enough to draw partial comparisons between mythic efficacy and the more marvelous forms of metaphenomenal literature: efficacy would have to apply as much to "realistic" works as to "romantic" ones.

I find my own linkage here, in my 2009 essay SEVEN WAYS FROM SCHOPENHAUER,

Was Schopenhauer was right about “Will” inhering in every aspect of our reality? We do not know. However, we CAN be sure that “Will” inheres in every aspect of the various LITERARY realities we as humans create, for we KNOW for a fact that they are all “willed” into existence by their creators (and sometimes, however indirectly, by audiences as well).

Every author-- whether he adheres as closely as possible to the ideal of "cognitive restraint," or to the opposing ideal of "affective freedom"-- creates a world that he wills into existence. As such, it reflects his priorities, his "subjective emotions and drives," as absolutes within the cosmos of the literary work. Admittedly, the cosmos can go from a "monotheistic creation" to a "polytheistic creation" if more than one author contributes to it. But the essence of the literary work is that it expresses the will of its creator or creators.

Now, in the afore-cited INTERSUBJECTIVITY INTERLUDE, I also drew a parallel between Cassirer's two forms of causality and the two poles of literature asserted by Frye:

I've mentioned in other essays Frye's conception of literature as a spectrum with naturalistic "verisimilitude" at one extreme and what Frye termed "myth" at the other-- by which, of course, Frye did mean a form of myth-like complexity present in formal literature.  This parallels Cassirer's opposition between the world of causality, over which science comes to hold dominion, and the world of internal expressivity, which is first communicated among humans through myth and mythic rituals.
But what did Frye mean by myth in the ANATOMY OF CRITICISM section I've paraphrased? Despite his influence by Cassirer, I don't believe he was overtly thinking about myth as a principle of "non-causal causality." Rather, as a literary critic his concern was for the function of myth in literature, and I believe that in this section from the ANATOMY, Frye was primarily thinking of myth as a repository of potential literary archetypes.

Why contrast such a repository to the principle of verisimilitude? Frye emphasizes that the two poles have a tendency to merge, as "myths of gods merge into legends of heroes" and so on, and he defines the most mythic characters as those who "can do anything." I've disagreed with this statement elsewhere, objecting that even powerful gods like Zeus can't literally "do anything." However, it's eminently possible to see Frye's emphasis on "more than human power" as an expression of what I'm calling "affective freedom." It's not that the gods of myth can DO anything; it's that their more-than-human abilities express affective freedom: the human author's ability to IMAGINE anything. The individual author is still restrained, not only by verisimilitude (aka "cognitive restraint"), but also by considerations of what makes a good story.

In the same paragraph that Frye lays out his "two poles," he cites as his first example of his literary scheme a variety of "birth-mystery plots:


Myths of gods merge into legends of heroes; legends of heroes merge into plots of tragedies and comedies; plots of tragedies and comedies merge into plots of more or less realistic fiction. But these are change of social context rather than of literary form, and the constructive principles of story-telling remain constant through them, though of course they adapt to them. Tom Jones and Oliver Twist are typical enough as low mimetic characters, but the birth-mystery plots in which they are involved are plausible adaptations of fictional for mulas that go back to Menander, and from Menander to Euripides' Ion, and from Euripides to legends like those of Perseus and Moses.

The objection occurs to me: if myth is really defined by the transhuman powers of deities, then what is being transmitted from the clearly mythic story of "Euripides' Ion" (where the protagonist is the offspring of a god) to the verisimilitudinous story of Oliver Twist? It seems likely to me that the way myth interacts with "the constructive principles of story-telling" is that myth supplies archetypes that have an expressive, emotive appeal irrespective of their phenomenal context. Thus, Frye is much nearer to the truth later in the ANATOMY, when he defines archetypes as "complex variables." I believe that though the literary critic distanced himself from the psychological views of Jung, Frye may have been exposed to Jung's argument about the archetypes as a structuring principle.

The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori. The representations themselves are not inherited , only the forms, and in that respect they correspond in every way to the instincts.

Thus "the hero with unknown origins" is a mythic archetype because it possesses extraordinary power to engage the emotions and sympathies of an audience, regardless of whether that hero lives in a world of gods or a world of mortals.

Now, the author who uses such a hero has some particular purpose when he sets out (whether or not he keeps to that purpose to the story's end). Even if he chooses to use the birth-mystery plot in some deliberately ironic manner, he's still making use on the essential *artifice* of such a plot and its attendant characters to make his adversarial points, even as an un-ironic author uses that artifice in a more straightforward manner.

In contradistinction to the material world in which all authors live, the author's world obeys not only his subjective emotions and drives, but also his personal taste. Even though all myths belong to the collective unconscious, Alan Moore's myths are not Frank Miller's, and vice versa. But no matter how well those myths may be brought in line with some real-world political ideology, they are still essentially products of *literary artifice.*

On a side-note, I'll note that years ago, I went down an analytical street that had no exit: the concept of *probability," as cited in this essay, when I was trying to reconcile statements of Aristotle and C.C. Lewis:

As noted in the GESTURE series, there's no verisimilitude to be found in the trope of a hero's villains setting him up to be killed in some death-trap.  Still, the trope possesses "presentational coherence" when it's done with enough cleverness to serve its mythopoeic purpose: to display the hero's superior escape-abilities.  Lack of verisimilitude is not an error within that context, while within a structure that purports to show superior discursive mentality, lack of verisimilitude simply shows a lack of mental rigor.
Now, while I would still support this basic construction, I would not emphasize the fact that the "death-trap" is "improbable," but that it is an extreme example of "literary artifice." That artifice would exist even in a story where a given trap was justified in some quasi-realistic context, and does exist even in Dickens' naturalistic version of a "birth-mystery plot." But even within the context of "myth as artifice," the concept of a "mythopoeic purpose" lying behind said artifice is still applicable, even after the concept of probability has gone down the tubes.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: METAL MEN #21: "THE METAL MEN VS. THE PLASTIC PERILS" (1966)



In this essay I noted that DC writer-editor Robert Kanigher tended to toss off super-science concepts with little or no consistency, in contrast to contemporaries like John Broome and Gardner Fox. That said, Kanigher wasn't incapable of emulating some aspects of the "science-nerd" comics-schtick, so that he did sometimes produce moderately complex cosmological myths. METAL MEN, which was his own creation, sometimes benefited from a bit more creativity than, say, WONDER WOMAN, which was almost certainly nothing but a job to him.

The Metal Men concept, for those who may not know, concerned a team of robots, whom genius "Doc" Magnus invented for the purpose of their fighting crime. Each of the original six robots was supposedly constructed of just one metal-- respectively, Lead, Gold, Iron, Mercury, Gold, and Tin-- although at one point Kanigher introduced a second Tin robot into the mix, about whom the less said, the better. All of the robots, instead of being obedient automatons as their creator desired, had human personalities, albeit rather one-note ones. Gold was a "noble" leader, Iron was a tough guy, Lead was slow-witted, Tin was bashful, Mercury was conceited, and Platinum-- the only one to merit a human-like nickname, "Tina"-- was eternally in love with her own creator: a situation that Kanigher never tired of comparing to the Pygmalion/Galatea myth. The stories sometimes incorporated scientific or pseudo-scientific trivia into the stories, though Kanigher never let science stop him from spinning wild yarns about giant centaurs or balloon men.

This 1966 story, "The Metal men vs. the Plastic Perils" is one of the few times Kanigher stuck fairly close to a given myth-theme. In this case it was the basic idea of opposing the hero's power against something with opposing characteristics. Thus, when the heroes meet the "Plastic Perils"-- a bunch of mindless plastic androids who do the bidding of criminal scientist Professor Bravo-- the android-maker boasts that, "The age of metals has passed! You haven't a chance against plastics!"




Some plastics can multiply under pressure, says Bravo, which sounds like pretty dubious pseudo-science, even for a kid's comic. But at least there's some indication that Kanigher might have done a little research, as when he traps Tin and his female partner in a plexiglass prison, a.k.a. methacrylate:



Not surprisingly, after Bravo taunts the robot-heroes for most of the comic about their lack of scientific knowledge, they get some book-larnin' and decide that their strength as metals is that they can resist heat a lot better than plastics can. They melt the plastic perils and give Bravo a butt-scalding for good measure.



In addition to the cosmological myths in the forefront, there's a minor metaphysical one that Kanigher had used in many comics prior to this one. He liked to pretend that the Metal Men were real characters who just happened to see their adventures published in comic books, so in #21 the writer even has the heroes read fan mail, telling them to fight fewer robot-menaces. Kanigher has fun with the Metal Men being self-conscious about being "in a rut," to the extent that they visit other cities looking for human crooks, only to see other DC crusaders going their crimefighting thing: Flash, Batman, and Wonder Woman (all character whom Kanigher had scripted). In addition to subverting fans' demands with this story, Kanigher also subverts-- though not with much wit-- the idea of the mad scientist, as the plastic-making professor claims, "I'm not even a real professor! I gave myself the name out of a book! I learned everything I know out of science books!" Not unlike a writer, rushing to brush up on his basic science-factoids...