Featured Post

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...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: 'MY WORD" (BIG APPLE COMIX, 1975)

Last month Flo Steinberg passed away, and as I read the obits, I was surprised to learn that she'd had a very brief career in underground publishing once she left her job with Marvel. For over twenty years I'd owned a copy of her one-shot, BIG APPLE COMIX, and I was more than a little familiar with all of the artist-contributors, such as Neal Adams, Archie Goodwin, and Wally Wood. However, I'd never troubled to look at the magazine's indicia, where Steinberg's name was clearly displayed.



I've not come across any online recollections as to how the project came about, but it's likely that it was done by a bunch of artists who knew one another. The idea shows a "let's put on a show" mentality, as opposed to the demands of working for the Big Two. Steinberg, who had observed Marvel's production methods during her tenure at the company, possibly volunteered her services in that regard, with added help from both Linda Fite and John Verpoorten.

BIG APPLE was, even by 1975 standards, not an especially marketable idea, given that all of its contributions shared one  theme: life in New York City, "the Big Apple." The stories in BIG APPLE run the gamut of underground humor from farce to satire, but only one tale, Wally Wood's "My Word," uses layered symbolic imagery to create a demonic vision of the city. In addition, the three-page story recapitulates. in ironic form, some of the visual setups found in a longer Wood presentation, "My World," published in WEIRD SCIENCE #22 (1953). Scripted by Al Feldstein, the earlier sequence was not really a story as such, but more of an adoring meditation on the wonder-inducing tropes of science fiction. On the last page, the narrator speaks of his world as being "what I choose to make it," and in the last panel he reveals himself to be Wood poised over his drawing-board, identifying himself as "a science fiction artist."

"My Word," however, depicts a world over which the artist has no control, except in the sense that he can exaggerate the already dire reputation of New York City in the 1970s. In the far left of the splash panel, for example, one sees not only a demented version of Batman's villain The Penguin exposing himself to a little girl, while the Shadow stands to one side, apparently willing to let the Penguin do as he wants since the two of them belong to the Cyrano de Bergerac "huge schnozz" club.



But "My Word" is more than a few MAD-style in-jokes; it's a vision of a "sin city" in which sin has lost its ability to titillate. Wood calls New York many things-- "Bagdad on the Hudson," "Sodom on the Gomorrah,"  and "sin capital of the Western world." But by the third panel one of his character's remarks-- playing on the opening of the 1960-63 teleseries THE NAKED CITY-- that "there are ten million stories in the Naked City, and they're all BORING." The artist follows this up with a parody of the religious homily "where there is creation, there must be a creator" by attributing the thought to a pile of dogshit, recently "created" by a passing canine.

For the remainder of the piece, nameless characters are seen gratifying themselves in one way or another, always with the implication that sexual congress is barely distinguishable from any other form of mundane activity. Page two shows a couple locked in copulation, but the woman's also reading a book while the man's reading his newspaper.

"You must love yourself before you can love anyone else, but how many people really can?" This pessimistic appraisal is immediately followed by the old joke about the guy trying to give himself oral sex, but even in the context of satire, the narrator's line suggests that he finds himself not much less tedious than the quotidian nature of New York City, where getting mugged is the most exciting experience one can have. Most fascinating is the image in the fifth panel of Page 3:



Here, amid many other images of soul-dead sex, Wood gives the reader the ultimate recursive fantasy: a bird-like humanoid laying an egg which the creature drops into its own mouth, presumably to be devoured. (Despite this and a couple of other fantasy-images, the dominant phenomenality of the vignette is naturalistic in tone.) The main point of burlesquing the "My World" vignette seems to provide a reversal of the earlier work's boundless enthusiasm for wonder-producing tropes, one in which both professional comics-artists and their fans have no more immunity to the soul-killing influence of modern life than any other modern-day persons, whether they reside in New York City or not.

I mentioned that this is a vignette, but it does, like the examples of short mythcomics covered here and here, possess a clear progression of ideas that roughly parallel a normal-length story's "beginning, middle, and end." And of course, it is an irony in terms of its mythos, one far more acidulous than Wood's ambivalent KING OF THE WORLD.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 3

The other two FINAGLING essays, here and here, have concerned the ways in which focal presences may include illusory phantasms that have been conjured up out of a character's mind, whether for the purpose of deceiving someone else, as with Washington Irving's story SLEEPY HOLLOW, or as a by-product of the character's strong identification with someone else, as with Mario Bava's film THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Some qualifications of this general rule are necessary, though.

In Part Two I mentioned that the character of Nevenka had become subsumed in her idea of her ex-lover Kurt, to the extent that she believed she had become Kurt and was killing as he would have killed people-- though he was already dead by Nevenka's hand before her serial-killing career begins. I also remarked that Nevenka was "no Norman Bates," by which I meant that Norman was a more well-rounded character, both in the novel and the 1960 film. But it also applies to the degree to which Norman's character is subsumed by the character of his mother, Norma Bates. The pattern may be the same, but Norma does not take over the narrative of PSYCHO the way Kurt takes over the narrative of WHIP & BODY. Not until 2013, with the premiere of the BATES MOTEL teleseries, did some raconteur develop the Norma character. Yet although Norma overrides Norman's character in the story proper, extrinsically Norman is still more important than Norma, even in BATES MOTEL.

Something similar to Norman Bates's transcendence of his role model appears in the 1964 film STRAIT-JACKET As I state in the review, this film was a case of scripter Bloch aping his own PSYCHO-success. This time, however, the situation is somewhere between that of SLEEPY HOLLOW and WHIP AND BODY. Years before the main story, Lucy Harbin has committed the axe-murder of her husband and her husband's lover, but though her legend gives her a repute along the lines of Lizzie Borden, Lucy doesn't get away with giving her victims "forty whacks," and she goes away to an asylum for twenty years. The main story opens as Lucy, rehabilitated at last, is released to rejoin normal society, and to re-connect with her daughter Carol. Carol, three years old at the time of the murders, witnessed the killings but now, twenty years later, seems entirely normal-- which ought to suggest to any viewers the most likely suspect when some new axe-murders commence.

Carol commits the new murders to frame her mother, whom she despises, and so in many regards she's doing the same Brom Bones (probably) did in SLEEPY HOLLOW: creating the illusion of a mad killer. At the same time, the film's conclusion suggests that she's more than a little nuts, which allies her more with Nevenka of WHIP AND BODY. Still, the focal presence of STRAIT-JACKET is not the illusion of Lucy Harbin Axe-Murderer. Rather, Carol is the imaginative center of the movie; the new psycho-bitch in town.

Age plays a role in this shift in the film's focal presence, for although Lucy briefly tries to camouflage her true age-- star Joan Crawford was roughly sixty-four at the time-- it's plain to the viewer that she no longer possesses the "mojo" to be an axe-murderer.

And yet, age can also lend a given character more gravity. The Classic Trek episode "The Conscience of the King" is, like all such episodes, focused on the adventures of Captain Kirk and his ensemble. However, it occurred to me to ask: if the story had focused only upon the opposition-characters, who would have been the focal presence? The actor Karidian, like Lucy Harbin, is guilty of murders committed long ago under the name "Kodos the Executioner." However, within the sphere of the existing narrative Kodos as a character has ceased to exist, subsumed by the regrets of Karidian. However, although Karidian's daughter Lenore has lost her mind due to finding out about her father's past, and has sought to kill off all witnesses to Kodos' crime, I would say that Lenore, unlike Carol Harbin, never has a shot at being the focal presence. She exists to provide Karidian with yet another torment in his life of regrets, and so a retelling of the story, sans the Trek-regulars, would have been focused upon the tragic figure of the aged criminal.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

PATTERN COGNITION

In THE DOMAIN GAME PT. 2 I wrote:

The three phenomenal domains of my NUM-theory operate in what I deem an archetypal sense. Different artists are drawn toward images and tropes that promise, or at least suggest, different types of freedom. What Joseph Conrad deems to be artistic freedom relates to the perceived rigor of the naturalistic, while J.R.R. Tolkien associates freedom with marvelous creations like green suns. Yet both, as much as "heavy thinkers" like Gaster and Schopenhauer, are alike in searching for the formula that gives them a sense of transpersonal fulfillment-- which, in the last analysis, is what all persons, of all races and creeds, desire when they speak of their need for freedom. Yet it is a freedom that is only possible in terms of perspectivism and pluralism-- and any creed that takes a different stance is merely seeking the fulfillment of some favored group or groups.

The same "sense of transpersonal fulfillment" applies not just to "phenomenal domains," but also to any conceivable pattern of human belief or behavior.

For instance, I gain a sense of fulfillment from the patterns discussed by Northrop Frye in his critical work ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, wherein he schematized the whole of literature in terms of four mythoi, which he in turn based on the four seasons. My fascination for the wide applicability of this system does not necessarily make me think that it can necessarily explain everything, but for a critic of my implications, it's a damned good starting-point. Ditto the above-referenced insights of Theodor Gaster, a strong influence upon Frye, who also favored a quaternary pattern, though he was oriented on understanding the different emotional affects brought forth by different religious rituals:


First the rites of mortification, symbolizing the temporary eclipse of the community. Next the rites of purgation, by which all noxious elements that might impair the community's future welfare are eliminated. Then the rites of invigoration, aimed at stimulating the growth of crops, the fecundity of humans and beasts, and the supply of needed sunshine and rainfall throughout the year. Finally, when the new lease is assured, come the rites of jubilation; there is a communal meal at which the members of the community recement their bonds of kinship by breaking bread together, and at which their gods are present.

I've been wondering whether or not modern-day critics are even capable of thinking in these terms, however; of seeing emotional expression at the heart of all literature. As I'm sure I've said on many occasions, the only patterns recognized by most pop-culture critics is one of political ideology. Marx is the primary instigator of this pattern, and indirectly led to most of the common tropes of Marxist thought: appropriation, "the culture industry," and so on. These are, in contrast to the pluralism I advocate, positions of elitism, in part because they favor a view of art that depends on ideological correctness, and that such a view is dispensed by an educated elite that seeks to control the emotional expressivity of human beings.

Nevertheless, I don't doubt that the elitists have currently won the day, for most pop-culture criticism is unable to think outside the box of ideology. While one can find online references that give popular characters the status of "myths," there's no serious conversation about the intersection of religious myth and any kind of fiction. I can easily imagine that, for an ideological elitist, the elegant patterns observed by Frye and Gaster would seem mere arbitrary categories. I freely admit that my appreciation of the myth-critical patterns stems from my own subjective preferences, though I think that in the long run myth-criticism offers a broader perspective of art than ideological criticism. Yet I can't deny that the ideologues are also motivated by a "sense of transpersonal fulfillment" when they get the chance to point the finger at the latest sinner against ultraliberal politics. Most recently I discussed this pattern in SKINNY BUTTS AND ALL, where I observed how the cited critic's response to perceived racism was to do noting more than indulge in racist slights against the supposed oppressors.

At the same time, it may be that the ideologue's sense of fulfillment is confined to what Aldous Huxley called "horizontal transcendence," as I discussed in TRANSECENDENCE WHAT AIN'T SUBLIME. Here's Huxley on defining this pattern of transcendence:

In order to escape from the horrors of insulated selfhood most men and women choose, most of the time, to go neither up nor down, but sideways. They identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values. This horizontal, or nearly horizontal, self- transcendence may be into something as trivial as a hobby, or as precious as married love. It can be brought about through self-identification with any human activity, from running a business to research in nuclear physics, from composing music to collecting stamps, from campaigning for political office to educating children or studying the mating habits of birds.
Huxley only mentions political activities as one example, but I think it's inarguable that all such activities represent a "cause wider than [one's] immediate interests." Marxist critics would of course have little interest in Huxley's concepts of "upward transcendence" and "downward transcendence," since these would, like the works of Frye and Gaster, involve some validation of religion as an essential aspect of humankind's expressivity. It would be interesting, then, to explore the works of an ideologue like Noah Berlatsky, or one of his myrmidons, for the purpose of seeing how they represent proper human fulfillment as it's represented in fiction, since those expressed ideals would probably present a mirror-image of their own ideas of transcendent fulfillment.  Maybe in a Part 2--  






Monday, August 7, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE MYSTERY OF BROWNSTONE HALL" (THIMBLE THEATER, 1930)



If this sequence of THIMBLE THEATER hadn't been given a title in this collection of Popeye's first adventures, I might have called it "the Beginning of the End for Castor Oyl."

As many comics-devotees know, Popeye was a late-comer to E,C. Segar's 1919 strip. The earliest incarnation of THIMBLE THEATER starred Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Ham Gravy, whose comical adventures included burlesques of stage "mellerdramas," including a villain who was something of a mustache-twiddling "Snidely Whiplash" type. Castor Oyl, Olive's enterprising but none too swift brother, was introduced in 1920 and seems to have become the strip's principal star until that fateful day in 1929 when Castor needed a sailor for one of his enterprises, and met a 40-year old gob with one eye and swollen-looking forearms.



The 1929 introduction of Popeye works both as a straight adventure and a burlesque thereof, and Segar gets a lot of mileage from the relationship of wheeler-dealer Castor to the plain-spoken sailor. Though Segar originally had no plans to keep Popeye around, allegedly readers protested Popeye's leavetaking at the end of the first story, so Segar brought him back and the sailor-man never left again. Eventually it was Castor Oyl who was edged out of the strip, though it may be that his "con artist" persona was channeled into J.Wellington Wimpy, who joined the strip in 1934.

THIMBLE THEATER's first few Popeye sequences make for good "near myths," especially a storyline featuring the first appearance of the sailor's recurring foe, the Sea Hag. This one starts with an excellent sense of creepiness when Popeye and Castor are obliged to seek sanctuary on the forbidding Black Barnacle, the ship of the Sea Hag. However, the story turns into a simple piracy yarn, with the villainess attempting to get hold of a cache of diamonds. However, the tale is the first time Popeye goes toe-to-toe with a bruiser twice his size. the Sea Hag's henchman Jabbo. For the next eight years of his life, Segar never tired of pitting the sailor-man against big overconfident brutes, whom Popeye would usually demolish with small effort-- all without any overt reliance on the consumption of spinach.


Segar probably realized that he had a hit in Popeye, but he wasn't quick to dump Castor after some nine years. He may have even realized that his team-up between a tall fellow and a runt had a nodding resemblance to Bud Fisher's MUTT AND JEFF, an insanely popular comic strip in the 1920s, though the order of appearance in that strip had been the opposite to Segar's: Mutt came first, and Jeff came following after. But Segar showed a greater psychological acuity than Fisher for playing his disparate characters off one another. Popeye was a hardened brawler, quick to fight at a moment's notice, but not too smart. Castor was usually a born coward, but he had enough wit to play on Popeye's insecurities and lack of sophistication. Popeye often complains about the "insulks" he receives from Castor, but he hardly ever responds with violence against the shorter man. Though I've not yet read the ensuing Fantagraphics collections of THIMBLE THEATER, it looks to me as if Segar was painting the duo as a partnership between "Brawn" and "Brain."



This is most evident in the most mythic tale in the first collection, "Mystery of Brownstone Hall." For the first time Segar places the duo in the position of mystery-solvers, when the owner of Brownstone Hall wants them to find out what's going on at his house. The owner rented the house out to a scientist, Doc Wattley, but a mysterious "dead circle" manifested around the house, making it impossible for anyone to come near it. All of this took place fifteen years ago, and Wattley has never emerged from the house. One spectator-- in the employ of the story's villain-- has kept tabs on the house with a telescope all that time, and reveals to Castor and Popeye that Wattley is still in the house, but that he mysteriously has not moved from a fixed position for all those years.

Popeye is very much at a loss to deal with these abstruse matters. His only response to the "dead circle," which kills plants and ennervates humans who approach the house, is to blame "evil spiriks." Castor is the real hero, who deduces a way to enter the forbidding domicile, while Popeye provides comedy relief with his superstitious fears. Not surprisingly, since a scientist is involved, there's a scientific rather than a supernatural resolution to the mystery, involving not only suspended animation but spirits switching bodies, as well. I'd be curious to know what if any pre-1930 SF-stories might have influenced Segar in these inventive uses of science-fiction tropes-- though to be sure, Segar doesn't really ground his story in the known technology of the time.



"Mystery" would never be a high-resonance mythcomic based on its cosmological content. However, the psychological interplay of Popeye and Castor is a different story. Even before this sequence begins, Segar has forged a strong friendship between the mismatched pair. The artist makes it clear that they need one another. Castor's original need for Popeye's skills and fighting-abilities evolves into a loyalty toward the language-mangling gob, while Popeye, despite his tendency to beat up people who offend him, likes Castor enough to tolerate Castor's insults and bossiness. That said, the sailor isn't too moral to tell the occasional fib, for he tries to take credit for solving the mystery of the Hall, though he's little more than a stooge to Castor throughout the sequence. Future readings of the collections may bear out my suspicion that the duo's detective career didn't last much longer. This sort of Castor-centric story wouldn't have satisfied the readers who wanted to see Popeye haul off and slug bullies, and in time Olive Oyl and the aforementioned Wimpy became the sailor's partners in his comical misadventures.

Still, "Mystery" is one of the few stories that makes Segar's original protagonist more than just a catchpenny fall guy-- proving that there were times that Castor Oyl wasn't at all hard to take.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "CITY OF GHOULS" (FIGHTING AMERICAN #2, 1954)



Only one FIGHTING AMERICAN story in the Simon and Kirby corpus presents the Communist menace as an apocalyptic menace rather than as a bunch of sad-sack subversives. The story "City of Ghouls" is featured on the cover of issue #2, though it diverges from the story inside. It's true that in the narrative, the main hero and his kid sidekick Speedboy are threatened by being hurled into a "sky well." However, the hurlers in the story are just an ugly gang of humans, whereas the cover depicts them as inhuman creatures. Though the Judeo-Christian idea of hell is not directly referenced on the cover, the fact that the bad guys in the story are devil-worshipers gives Fighting American's peril the resonance of a man being hurled into a lower circle of hell by demons.

The story begins with the news that the Communists' "general staff in America" has mysteriously gone off the surveillance grid. Simon and Kirby, in one of their last "serious" treatments of the Communist menace, were reaching into their Axis bag-of-tricks, for in the early 1950s there was nothing comparable to a "general staff" for American-based Communists. Since by page three Johnny Flagg mentions the so-called "Bavarian Redoubt" of Hitler, it's obvious that the artists were trying to give the Commies some of the heft of Nazi villainy. Fighting American and Speedboy don their ordinary attire to investigate the rumors that the missing Commies may be hanging around Mount Shasta in California. As happens only in comics, the investigators find their quarry first time out, and the two heroes are captured by a city of Communists, who are planning a massive assault from within America's borders.


Had the heroes merely destroyed a Communist base of operations, "Ghouls" would be no more memorable than dozens of other base-destroying missions. But by page five, it's become clear that the Commies didn't build the city on Mount Shasta. Johnny and his partner are captured by the original inhabitants of the city. Their spokesman claims that they are all "devil worshipers" who have secretly lived on the mountain for two hundred years, and they're happy that the Commies have shown up, since it means that they have new victims to sacrifice to their "dark master." (There's even an aside about how the cultists have been sacrificing their own members when they couldn't get outsiders, which makes one wonder how they've kept up their numbers for two hundred years-- especially since there's no evidence of any women in their group.)



The devil-worshipers typically sacrifice victims by dropping them out of a hole in the mountain, so that they will "fall into the sky." Why they don't simply strike the side of the mountain is not explained, but the good guys change into their hero-costumes and start kicking ass. Then the Communist forces get into the act, and a caption reads, "It's now devil against devil, evil against evil, with Fighting American and Speedboy doing battle with both." The heroes manage to escape the mountain, along with the cultists' hostage, Johnny's almost-girlfriend Mary (whose role in the story is a subplot that never quite comes together). Then Johnny phones the FBI and essentially tells them to "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out," by launching an aerial attack on Mount Shasta,. The story ends with the sight of flames "sweeping clean the last signs of invasion from our soil."




Critics who like to see superheroes as fascist would surely eat this story up, since both the devilish and the godless are wiped out like an infestation. In fact, Johnny even uses metaphors that compare the two groups of villains to "insects," while the planes dropping the bombs are compared to crop-dusters. Yet "City of Ghouls," for all of its obvious inconsistencies, is a fascinating look at the lengths two comics-creators went to, to try to make Commies into villains worthy of the name.

ASSORTED NEAR MYTHS AND ONE NULL MYTH: FIGHTING AMERICAN (1954-55)

In the short run of Simon and Kirby's FIGHTING AMERICAN-- seven issues, published from 1954-55-- one can find a rich harvest of near myths. Only one story in this corpus-- to which I'll devote a separate essay-- brought together its mythic elements with sufficient density to create a mythcomic.

In interviews given long after this run, Joe Simon talked as if the feature came about when he and Kirby sought to show comics-makers of the period how to do an action-packed superhero comic in the tradition of their Captain America, the classic WWII champion whose rights were owned outright by Timely Comics. However, it may have been more of a desperation ploy on their parts, of trying to find something, anything, that would catch on with audiences of the period. The superhero genre had declined in popularity since the post-war years, and not until 1958-- when DC Comics began emphasizing the genre in their line-- did the genre catch fire again.

In addition, Simon and Kirby sought to apply all the rock-em, sock-em storytelling strategies they'd used in the 1940s. But Captain America and other Simon/Kirby productions benefited from existing in an apocalyptic world, where it seemed like the battle between good and evil was taking place as a part of everyday life. The real-life Axis powers provided an enemy of unbridled aggression, and any fictional characters modeled on them could be just as pulpishly violent. And even when Captain America chose to fight other forms of evil, such as vampires and mad scientists, these too could take on the stature of larger-than-life villainy.


Fighting American was positioned to be a Commie-smasher in the same way Captain America was a Nazi-smasher-- but even I suspect that even had the feature premiered at a boom time for superheroes, it simply didn't work to substitute Commies for Nazis. Even allowing for the fact that Simon and Kirby were drawing on superficial images of real Communists for their stories, the years of the Cold War didn't present Russian Communists as great symbols of aggression. (Chinese Communists are not very important in the FIGHTING AMERICAN stories.) Rather, the average American knew Communists primarily as spies and subversives, and so that was how Simon and Kirby treated them. But because of this, Fighting American's villains lacked the formidable qualities of even the lesser villains of Captain America. As if the artists were dimly aware of the problem of making Commies into great villains, by the third issue of the comic, Simon and Kirby began portraying the Commies as goofy ne'er-do-wells, with names like Poison Ivan and Hotsky Trotsky.



Additionally, Simon and Kirby were probably somewhat influenced by the example of Harvey Kurtzman's MAD, one of the few indubitable sales-successes of the early 1950s. The influence isn't so much in content-- Kurtzman was a master satirist, while Simon and Kirby depended more on goony comedy-- as in style. American comics were often produced by Jewish-Americans, including these three artists. But while a few American comics-characters might have oddball accents, like those of Brooklyn or the Wild West, a reader almost never encountered a character who sounded like a New York City Jew. Kurtzman changed that, slipping in yiddische words like "goniff" and "meshugenah" for MAD's largely goyim audience, and occasionally having characters speak in the elliptical fashion favored by many New York Jews of the time. Rarely if ever had Simon and Kirby reproduced the Jewish cadence of speech, but it came to the fore in remarks like this one:

'Get this guy! A real "eager beaver!" If I suddenly yelled "Fighting American," he'd hide under a bed!'-- FIGHTING AMERICAN #7.

To my ears, at least, this is the same mode of speech Jack Kirby used in his problematic scripting for his 1970s work, which gives FIGHTING AMERICAN a certain cachet in terms of Kirby-history.

Yet despite his wearing a gaudy,, star-spangled costume, Fighting American was a very colorless character, and so was his kid-partner, who had so little background that he didn't even any other name than "Speedboy." In the 1940s both Captain America and Bucky were at best two-dimensional characters. Yet their creators infused both of them with a passionate hatred toward evil, whether it took the form of a Nazi Bund or a guy dressed in a buttefly-costume. Fighting American and Speedboy were just bland, though the former boasts an origin that had great psychological potential-- only to drop the ball on developing it, so that it became no more than a null-myth.

Captain America was a weakling whom the U.S. government transformed into a muscular superman with a special serum. Simon and Kirby kept the basic idea of the government creating a superman, but threw in a strange, barely acknowledged sibling complex.

Though the story initially focuses on Johnny Flagg, a radio celebrity renowned for attacking American Communists, the real star is Johnny's brother Nelson. Johnny is the typical Simon-Kirby he-man: square-jawed and broad-shouldered, though he was injured during his stint in the armed services, so that he has to walk on crutches. Johnny's radio-colleague Mary, your basic "Lois Lane" figure, openly admires Johnny, and so does his less impressive brother Nelson, though what Nelson doesn't say about his brother is as important as what he does say:

"Johnny was always the pride of the family-- a brilliant student, a prize athlete, and a war hero."


Nelson doesn't say what it means to him to dwell in the shadow of his brother, but he does touch on the irony that his crippled sibling can no longer be a man of action, "depending on his weak little brother to do his leg work." Later Nelson tries to stand up to a bad guy and gets beat down, living the reality of Clark Kent-- until evil Communists kill Johnny, making it possible for Nelson to banish his sibling envy in a macabre manner.

After Johnny is killed, the government, without so much as a by-your-leave, takes possession of his body, and somehow rebuilds the corpse to be "the agent of the future." But they can only bring this super-agent to life by transferring Nelson's mentality into the body of his late brother-- and Nelson, grieving for the brother he loved (even with resentment), quickly agrees.



Thus the weak body of Nelson dies, erased as the weak Steve Rogers was erased-- and yet Nelson lives on, to enjoy the skills and muscular powers of his brother's body. (Mary doesn't stick around much longer, but from then on, she seems to dote less on her co-worker than on his superheroic alter ego) For the remainder of the hero's short career, there's no further acknowledgement that the person everyone sees is not Johnny, but Nelson. As far as Simon and Kirby were concerned, Nelson existed only to bring about a magic-like transformation of weakness into strength. Still, this strategy didn't do a lot for making Fighting American work, even as a two-dimensional character.

However, though in FIGHTING AMERICAN Simon and Kirby never got any further than opening a door leading to dark psychological corridors, later Kirby, in partnership with Lee, would return to the theme with better results. Another weakling-- Bruce Banner, whom Nelson slightly resembles-- would not need to get his power from an envied sibling, but from his own "id," the wellspring of his desire for power and violence. True, early issues of THE INCREDIBLE HULK are all-over-the-place, in which the hero-monster varies between being a brutish villain to a muscular "genie" manipulated by his youthful buddy. But even so, Kirby seems to have grasped, in partnership with Lee, that Bruce Banner's problem had to be front-and-center this time. instead of being swept under the proverbial rug.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

EXCESSIVE COMBINATORY FORCE

Having recently referenced the "excess" theory expressed in 2013's  THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS, I began wondering to myself if, having applied this standard to the mode of dynamicity, whether I had sufficiently examined it with respect to the combinatory mode as well.

I did find that I had at least mentioned the topic in THE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE PART 3, however:

Wheelwright's term "amplitude," which he applies to differing levels of poetic resonance, suggested itself as a substitute-- partly because the word connotes the quality of being ample, and thus coheres with my formulation of THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS. 
So I have at least made the essential statement that for the combinatory mode as for the dynamicity-mode, "excess of strength is proof of strength," as Nietzsche aptly said.

Tis formulation might be further glossed with reference to Bataille's Nietzchean notions of "acquisition" and "expenditure," particularly since I haven't  returned to Bataille-land since QUICK CANTER ON A HOBBESIAN HORSE, written about four months previous to NARRATIVE RULE.

Time will tell if I get round to such an expansion.

NOTHING NEW HERE: MORE COMMENT-PRESERVATION

A response to the usual cant on THE SUPERHERO HYPE FORUM.

______________________

You say "white patriarchal SYSTEM" and my response is that the cultural response of POC has been to propound yet another SYSTEM, one in which both whiteness and patriarchy are eternally demonized. Marxist thinkers like Sartre and Barthes are arguably two of the main proponents of this outlook, and they produced this idea of a system with no intention of suggesting any way to bring about a rapprochement between white culture and the various forms of POC culture. They wanted a demon that could be ceaselessly attacked on all fronts, and in this they are unconsciously aping the ways in which white cultures of the 1800s demonized blacks, Asians, and even unacceptable Caucasians like Slavs, for the crime of not being Anglo-Saxon.

Your idea of "benefit" casts too wide and tries to take in too many forms of injustice. There is no immediate "benefit" to me or any other white person if a black guy is chary about coming in contact with a white child {note: my opponent cited an episode of BLACK-ISH featuring this scenario].. It can only be a benefit to specific groups who like to feel like they still hold a club over the heads of colored peoples.

It *would* be a benefit to me if I was seeking the same job that a black person was, and I got the job because the employer had some racially based reason for hiring me over the other guy. I would get the benefit, but I would still not be responsible for the employer's motivations, nor do I necessarily agree that those motivations would be systemic in nature.

Suppose then that the reverse were true, and the black guy got the job in order to fill a quota, or even because the employer personally felt that black people deserved a break. That would be a benefit to the black guy, but he too would not be responsible for the employer's motivations. The other way either of us would bear responsibility is if either had threatened the employer with repercussions for not hiring one of us-- sort of like the way the "Oscar So White" people decided that the only reason more black people weren't getting nominated for the awards was racism. That was a club held over the heads of the Academy, aimed at making the industry fear a possible monetary boycott. Thus so everyone who sought to force diversity upon the Academy is culpable in a form of extortion, just as *I* would be, *if* I had told the employer that he'd get in trouble with the Klan if he hired a black guy.

The idea that all POC are just helpless individuals constantly being preyed upon by the Big Bad System is also a favorite theme in Barthes, BTW.

Friday, July 28, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: KABUKI: CIRCLE OF BLOOD (1994-95)



(This will be one of those rare posts in which the density of the mythic material is such that I can only sketch it out in the space of a single blogpost.)

The format of Kabuki drama embodies a favorite motif in the art of Japan: the expression of intense emotion behind a facade of apparent affectless implacability. I'll skip the usual speculations as to why this motif should be popular in Japanese culture, but it makes some of its most notable manifestations in fiction based upon the ethos of Japan's historical samurai class. I've touched on this motif in essays about three prominent samurai-manga: LADY SNOWBLOOD, LONE WOLF AND CUB, and RUROUNIN KENSHIN.

All three manga-serials were authored by native Japanese artists, and all three serials are heavily rooted in Japanese history. This fact of cultural heritage does not make it impossible for a non-Japanese artist to produce quality work on the theme of the samurai, or, for that matter, related genres that focus on assassins, ninja heroes, or combinations of all three. Still, it may be harder for a non-Japanese to ground his narrative in the complexities of Japanese history. Possibly for that reason, though David Mack's KABUKI does have some grounding hi a specific period, it's not a work of historical fiction like the three cited manga. Rather, Mack begins the story of Kabuki-- a heroic assassin who wears a "sexy ninja" outfit and a Kabuki mask-- in a slightly futuristic version of Japan. This allows Mack to give Kabuki a background involving the specific era of World War Two, while having his twenty-something heroine grow to adulthood in a culture that has more in common with Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER than with the Japan of the 1960s.

The initial collection of Kabuki stories is subtitled "Circle of Blood," and Mack spares no effort in pervading his narrative with circular images, far too many for me to explore in detail. Yet the emphasis upon circularity is part of the story proper, not just a visual motif. Kabuki's life-path begins in a bloody conflict, and ends in the same manner. For the same reason, Mack also makes extensive use of images involving mirrors, reflections, or copies, in order to impart a sense of infinite regress to the proceedings.



The modern-day sequences, when Kabuki is an adult, concern her role as an assassin for a secret government organization, ":the Noh" (another stylized form of drama). She and her fellow assassins-- all female, with specialized code-names-- are charged with assassinating criminals who threaten Japanese security. However, a master criminal manages to use the Noh against his competitors. This puts Kabuki in line to battle the villain, who happens to be tied in to her very involved backstory.

In truth, the World War Two backstory is the main source of Kabuki's mythos, so that everything that happens to the heroine in the present is merely a reflection of her turbulent history, as well as forming her predestined end, to borrow a phrase from THE WOLF MAN. Japan's war years, in fact, lend Mack's narrative the source for his subtitle, for the primary meaning of "circle of blood" is the blood-red sun featured on the Japanese national flag.

Western comics usually lack the necessary perspective to examine Japanese imperialism's effect upon other cultures and nations in Asia proper.  Mack's "bloody sun" lacks any of the feminine qualities the solar orb acquires in the Japanese mythology of the sun-goddess Amaterasu; it is in the backstory an emblem of male aggression, representing Japan's self-aggrandizing desire to conquer the rest of Asia. Because armies of men have needs, this leads Japanese soldiers to abduct women from non-Japanese tribes to serve as "comfort women." Kabuki is the offspring of a union between one of the Japanese conquerors-- a Japanese soldier named Ryuchi Kai-- and a woman named Tsukiyo, a native of the Ainu of Hokkaido, a marginalized collection of tribes who descend from a different Asian genetic strain than the normative Japanese.

Further complicating this origin story is that Tsukiko, whose Ainu name means "moon child," anticipates her daughter's destiny when she performs kabuki-dances for a particular Japanese troop-- but this comes about because the troop's commander, a man known only as "the General," takes a fancy to Tsukiko and places her in this honored position, rather than letting her be raped by his men, like other "comfort women." In Kabuki's reminiscences she thinks of the General as "Father Sun," as if he was the logical mate to a woman named for the moon. But the commander is not the true embodiment of Japan's penchant for militarism. The true "Sun" is also the General's real son Ryuchi, who impregnates Tsukiko. By so doing, he too creates his own deadly destiny, since the daughter he creates with a woman he deems less than human will destroy him.



I don't think that in saying this I'm revealing an ending that will at all surprise the reader: Mack pretty much telegraphs the conclusion, while layering the narrative with enough evocative imagery to make the expected trip fascinating. For instance, Kabuki's chosen weapons-- a pair of sickles, once used for cutting grain on Ainu farmlands-- clearly reference the crescent-shape of the real moon, and thus also serve to connect the heroine with the fount of feminine values represented by her moon-mother. In contrast to many "masculine/feminine" conflicts in comic books, Mack's narrative is never marked by the shrill notes of righteousness. The artist's labors are meant to mine the deeper vein of tragedy, even though-- to give away yet another aspect of the conclusion-- Kabuki doesn't exactly experience the final fate meted out to most tragic heroes. In this she's similar to Lady Snowblood-- not in her manga version, but in the cinematic iteration, in which Snowblood dies at the end of her first film but "gets better" for the sequel.



Perhaps more than any other Western practitioner of comics, Mack succeeds in tapping into many, though certainly not all, of the major motifs of Japanese art. The relationship between Kabuki and her evil father suggests the culture's enduring fascination with the many forms of incestuous relationship, arguably dating back to the mythology of Izanami and Izanagi. There's also a sequence in which Mack depicts a handful of artful assassinations committed by Kabuki's sisterhood of killers, but although such quasi-Sadean tableaus can also be found in a lot of Japanese fiction, Mack doesn't quite manage to integrate these with his principal narrative, so that these sections "stick out" from the rest.

The phenomenality of Kabuki is a debatable subject. Most of the things that Kabuki, her sisters and her opponents can do fall into the realm of the uncanny, although Kabuki herself has an optical chip in her eye (yet another source of circle-imagery). I finally decided that though I sometimes view alternate timelines to be merely uncanny if they do no more than reshuffle the historical specifications, there's just enough "future-city" imagery here to ally KABUKI with SF-texts like BLADE RUNNER, to say nothing of a text to which Mack directly refers: George Orwell's 1984.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

ETHICS AMONG THE SUBCOMBATIVES

In THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS-- posted a little after I wrote THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE  and around the same time as the SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES series-- I defined the ethical significance of excessive strength in Nietzschean terms.

(1) Megadynamicity, the level of extraordinary strength, is the narrative "proof of strength" in that its very excessiveness suggests a propensity to transcend ordinary limits.
(2) Mesodynamicity and microdynamicity, the levels of "good" and "poor" strength, cannot be used in narrative to prove the nature of strength because by their respective natures they are determined by limitation.

In the conclusion of EXCESS I allowed that some readers' tastes naturally inclined toward "humbler manifestations of strength," and this preference shows up in two of the films I recently reviewed for NATURALISTIC, etc.

In my review of 1963's JUDEX, I expressed a philosophical puzzlement as to why anyone would deem the title character a "superhero," merely because he has "a funny name and a double identity." There are, after all, dozens upon dozens of criminal characters who have both, and this certainly does not make them "heroes." I compared Judex's career-- at least in the two films that I've seen, the original silent film by Louis Feuillade and the sound remake by George Franju--- to the obsessional mission of the Count of Monte Cristo, because Judex is motivated by revenge on a man who wronged him. Yet the character was created as a "good" counterpoint to a villainous character Fantomas, whose serial by Feuillade had been a success financially but not without being criticized for the sin of putting a villain center-stage.

But in my own terms, is Judex a "hero," a representative of glorious ideals rather than basic persistence? For the first half of the film, he really seems more like a demihero, meting out justice to an enemy. I believe Franju, who had to condense the rambling continuity of the serial into a feature film, meant to show an arc of redemption for Judex, in which he feels empathy for his enemy's innocent daughter and comes to her rescue when she's been kidnapped. But the latter half, while visually stunning, fails to redeem Judex as a character.



In earlier essays, I talked about such "subcombative superheroes" as the Masked Man and Captain Klutz, who at least wore outfits that resembled those of certain superheroes. But Judex doesn't have an outfit that's especially arresting: it's just a slouch hat and a long cape that anyone might wear to ward off the rain. This Judex could pass others in the street and no one would think twice about him. I have also seen characters that I deem to belong to the "superhero idiom" even if they're garbed in street clothes, but they at least do something that normative superheroes do-- they have weird gimmicks or powers, or they fight freaky criminals or mad scientists. Judex-- really doesn't do all that much. He drugs one villain and tracks down the kidnapper, who falls off a roof without any intervention from the protagonist. Big deal. I haven't re-watched Feuillade's original serial for years, but I believe that Franju's main interest here was to emulate the serial's dreamlike, surrealistic aspects. Thus the level of violence is "determined by limitation" in the sense that Franju wants no frenetic activity that would break his story's mood.

In passing, I'll note that Judex does some masked helpers, though they too don't do much of anything. This gives the Franju film a nominal similarity to 1937's DOCTOR SYN, in which the main character never wears anything but ordinary clothes. The only metaphenomenality in the film is supplied by Syn's henchmen, who dress up like marshland spectres. However, Syn can and does show that he can fight, and so in his case his own megadynamicity and his henchmen's uncanny phenomenality complement one another.



I also reviewed last year's MOANA, and this one proves a little more complicated. Here the ensemble consists of two characters who, although they have no resemblance to normative superheroes, both possess actual super-powers. The titular heroine, for some reason I've forgotten, possesses a limited ability to summon the waves of the ocean to do her bidding. Her companion, the demigod Maui, is also somewhat defined by his limits, for he can only exercise his super-powers-- mostly shapechanging-- when he has possession of his magical fishbook. Yet even when Maui gets full use of his powers, the film's creators chose not to create a major battle between the demigod and his opponent, a gigantic fire-demon. Instead Maui merely stings the giant with gnat-like blows. Yet, just as Franju had his reasons for de-emphasizing action in JUDEX, so did the Disney collaborative team behind MOANA. Because Moana is even less capable of fighting the giant than Maui, she's given the job of securing the magical whatsit that they've quested after for the whole film, which, when used against the giant, transforms "him" back into a beneficent goddess-figure.

MOANA's story would probably impress kids who'd never before seen a fantasy-film with a strong heroine, but I found it somewhat trite, and a little too predictable in its routine of the "mismatched partners." Still, I have no problem considering Moana and Maui to be heroes, albeit of a subcombative mode. They are, more than Judex at least, more committed to the ideals of heroism, and even Maui, who plays "the shirker" to Moana's "cheerleader for the cause," is revealed to have stolen the magical whatsit in order to benefit humankind. Of course, these stature of these high ideals is somewhat mitigated by the fact that MOANA is a comedy-adventure-- which in my terms means that the elements of the comedy take precedence over those of the adventure mythos.

Still, even for a comic heroine, whose mission is seen to be right even though she's got a standard "stick up her butt," Moana's confrontation with the fire-giant is certainly a more courageous act than anything seen in JUDEX. In COURAGE OVER FEAR, I reprinted several phrases from Nietzsche's THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA, but these seem most apposite:

For FEAR--is an exception with us. Courage, however, and adventure, anddelight in the uncertain, in the unattempted--COURAGE seemeth to me theentire primitive history of man.
The wildest and most courageous animals hath he envied and robbed of alltheir virtues: thus only did he become--man.

So, while I would say that MOANA's disinterest in any sort of megadynamic strength makes it just as subcombative as JUDEX, the storyline of the former at least emphasizes the virtue of courage. Thus MOANA participates somewhat in the "significant values" seen in combative works, even if it lacks the "narrative value" of megadynamicity-- while JUDEX lacks both.










Tuesday, July 25, 2017

SKINNY BUTTS AND ALL

CBR's "Minorities Bitching All the Time" thread (not the real name, of course) gave me another reason to waste time with my own bitching about SJWs. Specifically, Sergio Mims, author of this online essay, takes great pleasure in the box-office success of the currently released black-themed comedy GIRLS TRIP. OK, I wouldn't begrudge anyone, whatever their own race, the privilege of celebrating when a movie that represents a marginalized group-- that of black women, in this case-- enjoys hefty profits.

However, I have an ethical problem when the same writer use his bully pulpit not only to display schadenfreude at the failure of other films simply because they don't feature POC actors, but also displays a sizable amount of reverse racism. Here's Sims on VALERIAN:

It didn't help to make a confusing, visually tedious (despite all the special effects) film based on a mid-1960s French comic book that no one heard of in the United States with two charisma challenged, skinny white leads that no one ever heard of before 

There are three or four things that are stupid or at least dubious about this statement, but I'll confine myself to the one I mentioned on the CBR thread. I took issue with the idiocy of Sims claiming that the supposed physical qualities of lead actors had some relevance to the film supposedly being bad, and wondered rhetorically if it would have been a better film if the leads would have still been "charisma challenged." but "fat and black" rather than "skinny and white." Naturally, I didn't get any substantive debate, but I decided to elaborate my position anyway, saying in part:


The point is that the writer of the article thinks it's OK to use both "skinny" and "white" as pejoratives, which they should not be, any more than "fat" and "black."
Yet try to imagine the reaction if a professional reviewer claimed he hated seeing a Queen Latifah movie because he didn't personally enjoy watching a "fat black woman." All three words are completely descriptive of Queen Latifah, but the bare assertion would be deemed racist because it's automatically racist to criticize black people.  The logic of the accusation, such as it is, is rooted in the idea that any criticism of marginalized people is also an attempt to further marginalize them. This is a fallacy, as is the idea that you can make white people want to see more POC in the cinema by fostering a negative visual image of white people. Hence the lunkheaded remark of the reviewer, who's OK with racist body-shaming as long as it's directed at white actors.

I also remarked that within the ten to twenty years it's become a common thing in pop culture to have black characters piss on white characters by remarking on their "skinny butts" or "narrow behinds." I assume that this is some sort of negative compensation, in which said characters represent that part of real black culture that isn't content to glorify "big butts" (paging Sir Mix-a-lot) but has to try to shame anyone who doesn't have a particularly protuberant posterior. There is also, in black pop culture, a lot of anxiety about the fate of "acting too white." So why is it not 'acting white" to attempt to assign negative qualities to another race due to their physical qualities?

Here, by the way, are the actors who are supposedly too "skinny" for Mister Sims, and I'd have to say that they look pretty normally proportioned to me.



By the way, male lead Dane DeHaan seems to be a fairly experienced American actor, appearing in the second AMAZING SPIDER-MAN film, and while female lead Cara Delevingne started as a model, she showed up in the box office success SUICIDE SQUAD. It's true that neither actor is well-known enough to carry a film. But would Sims be protesting the leads' lack of box-office clout if they weren't white? Suppose the characters Valerian and Laureline-- who have always been Caucasians of implied French ancestry-- had been played by two other SQUAD actors, Viola Davis and Jay Hernandez. Would we hear protests about the foolishness of casting them, since neither has proved capable of carrying a film-- or would that be DIFFERENT?



Wednesday, July 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE COURTSHIP OF BIZARRO" (1958)

This week's mythcomic is a little different from others, in that I'm working for an incomplete story, though I believe that I have enough of the narrative to fill in the blanks as needed.

"The Courtship of Bizarro" is the title given to a sequence of the SUPERMAN comic strip by my late friend and pen-pal Rich Morrissey. He reprinted the first appearance of the "Bizarro" character in the apa-zine kapa-Alpha, but he only had access to roughly the middle and end of the sequence, lasting from October to December of 1958. Thus the sequence does not show the actual creation of Superman's "imperfect duplicate," ostensibly by some "alien device," though the event is referred to elsewhere in the sequence. A different Bizarro appeared in an Otto Binder SUPERBOY story almost concurrently with the comic strip sequence by Alvin Scwhartz and Wayne Boring, but I tend to validate Schwartz's claim that he originated Bizarro for the strip. Since it was a regular practice for Mort Weisinger, editor of the SUPERMAN comic titles, to recycle ideas, it's not unlikely that Weisinger simply assigned Binder to do his take on the same basic idea. Ironically, though Schwartz's story is more sophisticated than the comic-book stories with the character in the early 1960s, Bizarro probably would have been forgotten by all but a tiny number of comic-strip enthusiasts, had the character not been given a second lease on life in the funnybooks.

The story as I have it implies that Bizarro has been on the loose for a while. Superman is aware of the trouble that his artificial duplicate can create, since Bizarro possesses all of Superman's powers but little intellect or restraint. Bizarro has also caught sight of Lois Lane and fallen in love with her, though as yet he has not revealed his feelings to her, fearing that he will be rejected because of his inhuman, chalk-white features. (At least I presume that the black-and-white strip intended for Bizarro to possess  the same white flesh that he did in the comic books.)

In the first reprinted strip, Bizarro casually decides to take a nap on a park bench. Naturally he attracts the attention of the authorities, and they summon Superman. But because Bizarro is not truly alive, but a creation of unliving matter-- a point Schwartz returns to again and again-- Superman mistakes the creature's deep sleep for death. Nor does Bizarro wake up when he's transported to a laboratory and sealed into a chamber for future study. However, he does wake up when no one's around to see it, and, hearing people talk about his supposed death, decides to "stay dead" so that he can continue his clandestine pursuit of Lois Lane.

The "Thing of Steel," as he was later called, sends Lois flowers and a diamond necklace. Because the world thinks Bizarro is dead, Lois believes Superman sent the gifts. This annoys the Man of Steel, whose dominant characterizaton in the late 1950s was that of extreme emotional reticence. The hero's resentment may stem in part from Bizarro's being free to express emotions Superman might like to express, were he less devoted to his superheroic duty. In addition, Bizarro's other courtship-plans include retrofitting a distant asteroid to serve as a "honeymoon hideaway" for himself and Lois. Bizarro's efforts to make this new haven include things like uprooting trees from the Metropolis parks, and since no one sees him perform these feats, Superman gets blamed for the transgressions-- though the hero soon suspects that Bizarro is still alive.




Bizarro reveals himself to Lois and whisks her away to his asteroid, still without confessing his amorous passion. Only when he reveals to her a ramshackle house and an ersatz garden does Lois react at the enormity: "Did you bring me to this horrible place just to propose to me?" Bizarro is frustrated that she deems his work ugly, and he destroys his own creations in a tantrum. However, Lois mollifies the creature, and. long before Superman shows up at the asteroid, she manages to talk Bizarro into taking her back to Earth, thus effecting her own rescue. But once back on Earth, Lois overreaches her influence by trying to make Bizarro perform some minor chores. Bizarro causes chaos as usual-- the only time in the abbreviated sequence that he's really played for laughs.

Bizarro butts heads with Superman again, resulting in another stalemate. However, the hero has gained some insight about a way to destroy Bizarro with a radioactive element that will affect the creature the way kryptonite affects Kryptonians. Superman wants Lois to lure Bizarro into a trap. Why the superhero himself can't simply approach the creature with the fatal element is never adequately explained, and Lois rightly objects to being used as a "judas goat." But Superman guilts her into cooperating by lecturing her about all the harm Bizarro might cause to innocent people through his tantrums. Neither Superman or Lois are aware, however, that Bizarro is listening in to their conversation.

Lois does obey Superman's plans up to a point, but she reneges, trying to warn the hapless artificial being. Bizarro, anxious to help Lois despite her planned betrayal, encounters the rays of the element, and falls into a cistern. Lois begs Superman to save Bizarro, but the superhero reveals that Bizarro, who was never truly alive, has dissolved into nothingness. Though Lois is angry at Superman for his callousness, the sequence ends with her wondering if Bizarro's feelings for her reveal the true emotions of the Man of Steel.

Certainly a modern reader is more likely to share Lois's opinion of Bizarro-- that he was real because he "had courage and real feeling"-- over Superman's dismissal of the creature as "only a kind of shadow of myself that somehow materialized." Schwartz's dialogue does not allow Superman to show anything but superficial pique at Bizarro's activities, but the superhero's actions are consonant with those of an attitude of personal affront at a being who infringes on Superman's own sense of identity. The "shadow" comment recalls a likely source for Schwartz's creation: the Mary Shelley FRANKENSTEIN. In the original novel, the monster created by the titular scientist then haunts Frankenstein's tracks, and acts like an evil doppelganger, devoted to destroying the creator's family and friends. Bizarro's ridged-looking skin was certainly modeled on that of the classic Universal version of the monster, and even Bizarro's stringy hair resembles that of the Universal menace more than it does the spit-curl of Superman.





Bizarro's fractured speech is also probably borrowed from the Universal film BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Schwartz doesn't indulge in the famous "language reversal logic" of later Bizarros-- like saying "hello" in place of "goodbye," a trope given pop-culture immortality in an episode of SEINFELD-- but this Bizarro's substitution of "me" in place of "I" may have given rise to the trope in the first place. Most importantly, Bizarro, like most versions of the Monster, captures the pathos of being a "thing" that looks somewhat human but is too distorted to associate with humanity.
Though the comic-book Bizarro became little more than a goofus in the 1960s, some later versions, from creators as different as Marty Pasko and Grant Morrison, have tapped into that pathos to good effect.

There are some reproductions of this sequence online, but as most of them are not very legible in reprint form, interested parties should check out Paul Kupperburg's site for readable copies.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEAR-MYTHS: THE PHANTOM (1936-37)



Thanks to the 2010 Hermes Press collection of the first PHANTOM dailies, I've finally had the chance to read the first adventures of the "Ghost Who Walks."

The volume reprints three hefty sequences by writer/creator Lee Falk and artist Ray Moore: "The Singh Brotherhood," "The Sky Band," and "The Diamond Hunters." "Brotherhood" is interesting in that the original version of the Phantom was set up to be a big-city, modern-day crimefighter, possibly along the lines of 1914's "The Gray Seal." Then at some point Falk decided to change his hero's origin, possibly because his main villains, the Singhs, were based in Asia. The Phantom then became a mystery-man who was reputed to have lived for hundreds of years, haunting the evil like an unkillable ghost. The truth, as was revealed to the hero's romantic interest Diana Palmer, was that there was a whole family line of Phantoms, who had opposed evil since their ancestor had escaped death at the hands of Singh pirates in the 1500s.



The Phantom origin strikes me as a melding of at least two major popular narratives. One is that of ROBINSON CRUSOE. I don't think it's a coincidence that Christopher Standish, the first Phantom, gains the help of the so-called "pygmy people" because he washes up on Bangalla-- originally an island-- and becomes an object of veneration because the natives have never seen a white man. The idea of white men becoming gods to darker peoples was common throughout popular fiction, and also appears, albeit less crucially, in Rider Haggard's 1885 KING SOLOMON'S MINES. Haggard may have also influenced Falk in terms of the Phantom's "undying" schtick. One of the villains in the Haggard book is the witch-finder Gagool, who claims to belong to an unbroken line of identically named witch-finders-- although she also bedevils the white explorers by suggesting that maybe she herself is the only Gagool, kept immortal through evil arts. About a year later, Haggard recapitulated the same idea unambiguously in 1886's SHE.



The idea of the "white savior" won't be welcome to most readers today, so the most one can say is that Falk doesn't make either the Phantom's pygmy allies or his Oriental villains egregiously stupid or evil. The Singhs are evil because they kill people, not because they're Asians (say) lusting after white women. Later versions of THE PHANTOM made the pygmies less backward, but in the original strips, they are unquestionably prisoners of their superstitions. In fact, in one sequence the Phantom escapes an underwater Singh base and makes it to Bangalla's shores. However, he's struck with "the bends" and falls unconscious. The pygmy witch-doctor-- later named Guran, who will forever be recognizable for his trademark thatched hat-- thinks that the only thing capable of felling the immortal Phantom is a demon. So Guran tries to burn the demon out. Providentially the Phantom wakes up before he can be subjected to what he calls "rather unscientific medical care."

The opening "Singh" sequence makes clear that the hero's romantic interest is no pushover in her own right--



And the second sequence, "Sky Band," pits the Phantom against a all-female gang of airborne pirates. One of the members, Sala, is first seen in the Singh sequence, working for the Brotherhood, but Falk decided to keep her around as a member of the Sky Band.



There's not a lot of explanation as to why these lady pilots have formed a sorority of the skies, but this arc comes closest to the level of mythopoesis, with the Sky Band acting as a modern-day Amazon tribe. And just as many pop-culture heroes find themselves venturing into Amazon territory so that they can conquer female hearts, both Sala and the group's leader, the Baroness, fall in love with the masked crimefighter. Epic fail for the "Bechdel test!"


To be sure, the Phantom remains loyal to his true love, and doesn't seduce any of these women a la James Bond. Further, since these were G-rated strips, there's not even a strong implication that the gals take advantage of the hero when they hold him captive. The story ends-- as shown above-- when Phantom successfully bluffs the Baroness into thinking he's shrugged off her gunfire, when in fact he's severely wounded. Pretty ballsy even in 2017, much less 1936!




"The Diamond Hunters" is the least interesting story. It resembles dozens of jungle-stories in which the white hero administrates jungle-law for all of the natives, not only adjudicating over their quarrels but also keeping out the incursions of white fortune-hunters. In order to gain access to forbidden diamond mines, two such adventurers bring about a war between two native tribes. The most interesting things about this sequence are that (1) as shown above, the Phantom doesn't report to white colonial authorities, and is actually scornful of their efficacy, and (2) though one of the troublemakers dies accidentally, the Phantom personally draws down on the second guy and kills him. I always thought the movie Tarzan was often a little too easy on the white interlopers, letting them get killed off by quicksand or the local fauna.

In conclusion, the original PHANTOM stories, while they have great mythic potential, don't quite succeed in that arena. But, political incorrectness or not, they are for the most part bracing, well-paced adventure tales.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: ["THE JIN-E ARC"] RUROUNI KENSHIN, 1994

The popular samurai manga RUROUNI KENSHIN ran from 1994 to 1999. Like other samurai adventure-stories, the series varies in mythopoeic quality from one story-sequence to another. In terms of structure, this manga, by artist-writer Nobuhito Watsuki, is a little more ambitious than some of the others I've addressed here, as it tends to use long arcs rather than episodes.




There's another aspect to this manga that seems ambitious to my mind, though I can't be sure how innovative RUROUNI was in its day, since I'm not an expert on the samurai manga-genre, or even on the subgenre that might be called "the samurai assassin." In two previous mythcomics-essays I've examined a few other assassin-stories-- respectively, LADY SNOWBLOOD and LONE WOLF AND CUB-- and both stories feature ambivalent heroes who have taken up the profession of assassin with an unbending, almost inhuman sense of dedication. Indeed, the Lone Wolf's most frequent metaphor for his life-path is meifumado, a Japanese word translated as "the road to hell." However, RUROUNI focuses upon a former samurai assassin who is seeking some form of social redemption-- a way out of his personal hell, as it were.

RUROUNI's central character, Kenshin Himura, arrives in Tokyo in 1878, during the early years of the Meiji Restoration. He promptly becomes something akin to the "stranger with a past" who shows up in some city Out West, for though Kenshin wields a sword specially designed not to take lives, he constantly uses his skills to defend the innocent.  It eventually comes out, though, that thirty years ago Kenshin was a Hitokiri, an assassin who serves rebellious, anti-Shogunate forces. Appalled by his own actions, the former samurai becomes a wanderer. When he settles in Tokyo he draws to him a small coterie of oddball friends, one of whom, the lady Kaoru, is certainly the main reason he stays, as a constant romantic "will-they-won't-they" vibe exists throughout the series. Kaoru runs a dojo devoted to the mastery of the *bokken* (wooden sword), and expouses the idea that someday the relative non-violence of the wooden sword will replace the deadly violence of the metal one. As a killer himself, Kenshin never believes that this is a real possibility, but he admires her naive idealism, her innocence in contrast to his own brutal experience.

Naturally, Kenshin's skills couldn't be tested if he simply mucked about Tokyo fighting wife-beaters and the like. I won't endeavor to detail the very complicated political struggle that enmeshes the samurai, but what I call the "Jin-E Arc" begins when another Hitokiri, name of Udo Jin-E, shows up in Tokyo to perform a "hit."


As is usually the case in heroic adventure stories, the villain represents all the things that the hero hates or rejects. Jin-E is not only an assassin, but one who revels in carnage and death. Moreover, much like Batman's Joker, he feels challenged by the hero's rectitude. Once Jin-E has become aware of Kenshin's presence, he not only wants to beat him in a sword-fight, he also wants to force Kenshin into a situation where Kenshin revives his own "will to kill." This he does by capturing Kaoru in what seems a standard "damsel in distress" scenario.



Jin-E is also the first of many villains who have martial-arts powers that belong to the realm of the uncanny rather than the marvelous. In particular, Jin-E can overwhelm the will of other persons with his own mental strength, more or less after the fashion of a super-hypnotist. He binds Kaoru to his will, and then tells Kenshin that Kaoru, under his hypnotic control, will suffocate if Kenshin does not fight Jin-E with the full will to kill.

Naturally, threatening the hero's woman is a time-honored method for getting the hero to lose his cool.



Still, as the ferocious sword-battle erupts, Kenshin still does not go to the desired extremes, though he comes close to treading the way of hell once again. Kenshin is saved, however, by the "damsel in distress.

Though Kaoru is not a peerless warrior like the two assassins, she demonstrates a unique willpower of her own once she realized that Kenshin may be seduced into killing again. Once she breaks the hypnotic spell endangering her life, Kenshin can disable Jin-E without killing him.

However, Jin-R is entirely devoted to the cause of death, even if it's his own.



While the relationship of Kenshin and Kaoru is still not quite romantic love as such, implicitly the potential for love is clearly the 'secular redemption" that Watsuki offers his main character. I'm not claiming that Watsuki invented any wheels here, for manga-stories are rife with tales about heroes whose lovers and friends provide them with stabilizing, or even salvific, influences. But given the predominant pessimism seen in many of the popular samurai-dramas, it seems to me that Watsuki is rather radical in offering his readers a story of a bloody-handed killer who is able to renounce his past by focusing on performing "good deeds" in the present.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

HOW TO HANDLE A TOXIC MALE

I already trashed DICK GRAYSON VS. TOXIC MASCULINITY in this essay,  but thought I ought to examine this particular absurdity in greater depth:

Even as Dick aged out of the Robin role, these elements remained: youth, feminization, subtextual queerness and campiness, passivity in romantic relationships. 


Author Plummer is by no means unusual in pursuing the idea that male characters can be "feminized" by being threatened (he calls Robin a "damsel in distress"), by being inferior to a stronger woman (Robin's relationship to super-powered girlfriend Starfire), or even by being killed. I'm not sure when this trope became popular, but I would assume it grew with the proliferation of "queer studies." While I myself have devoted no small amount of time to analyzing the overlaps between the fictional phenomena of sex and of violence, devotees of queer studies play a one-sided game. They don't mind seeing the image of masculinity torn down, but what happens when feminine characters are subjected to humiliation, violence, and death? Are any of these characters "feminized," or are they just--

WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS????

Since Kraft-Ebing codified the phenomena of sadism and masochism in the late 1800s, it's been impossible to doubt that certain men and women have mentally translated violence-- whether real or imagined-- into sexual stimulation. What modern ideologues want, however, is not a careful consideration of the ways both men and women think and feel. They want to find ways to ennoble marginalized women by placing them outside the bounds of violence, while degrading that horror of horrors, the straight white male, by "feminizing" him.

Those titans of tedium, Gershom Legman and Frederic Wertham, represent early attitudes of the "Freudian Marxist" to the threat of the macho male, whose epitome was that of the costumed superhero. Even though organized fascism had been defeated on the stage of world affairs by the time both men wrote their respective screeds, both men evinced extreme fear that Neo-Nazis lurked behind every fictional depiction of violence. Yet the closest that either one came to suggesting a feminized male appears in Legman's LOVE AND DEATH. The author suggested that in comic strips like BLONDIE and THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS, "father and husband can be thoroughly beaten up, harassed, humiliated, and degraded daily." However, I don't think he was suggesting that this was a way of "queering" the paternal targets of this degradation. It was simply a means of allowing female and juvenile readers of the strips to indulge in fantasies of hostility. It's a limited rebellion, though, since Legman specifies that paternal authority will remain despite these escapist notions-- which just shows that he didn't read BLONDIE very carefully. While "the Captain," the main male antagonist of "the Kids," usually re-asserted his power by paddling the Kids' butts, Dagwood is rarely if ever able to reclaim any dignity, especially not against his quietly domineering wife.

Finally, I find it odd that Plummer is arguing that queerness should be associated with passivity.
I think most gays would find that rather offensive, not to mention impractical, as it would force them all to be "bottoms with no tops."