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...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: [WOLF-MAN JIMMY], (1960/1961)

In this post I wrote:

As a matter of critical process I want to specify that I'm not simply critiquing this story's presentation of Jimmy Olsen in terms of the character's verisimilitude. If it were simply a matter of the character acting atypically in different sections of the same story, that would be simply a failure of the dramatic potentiality, which deals with the interactions of conscious personalities. What I'm critiquing is the degree to which Olsen's character is put into a mythopoeic situation-- that of transgressing on the sexual hunting-grounds of a friend / father-figure-- and then fails to follow through on that mythic potential. 

I happened to re-read a couple of JIMMY OLSEN stories published about three years after "Wedding of Jimmy Olsen," and it seemed to me that these stories came closer to "following through" on what little potential one might find in the trope of a simple character like Jimmy Olsen macking on his best friend's girl (or girls).

To be sure, Jimmy-- in contrast to Lois Lane, whom I view as a character of greater mythicity-- displays a pretty low amplitude in this regard. Jimmy was introduced by name in the SUPERMAN radio show, whose basic pattern was largely imitated by the successful 1952-58 teleseries. Prior to the major film adaptations of Superman, American audiences largely knew Jimmy, if they knew him at all, from the TV show, except for kids who read the JIMMY OLSEN comic, which indubitably came about in reaction to the show.

It's important to note that the dominant image of Jimmy from the show was that of a lovable goof, and for the most part this is the image that has remained ingrained in the minds of comic-book fans. The first three issues of the character's solo feature actually started out making him fairly competent, but I would guess that some editor clamped down on that, declaring that Olsen of the comics must be just as dorky as Olsen on TV. For most of his run-- which I discussed in this essay-- Jimmy remained a lovable goof, although with an important difference from the TV version: the character had a lot more romantic encounters in his own comic book.

I don't plan to sit down and hash over Jimmy's assorted love-connections, but I do think that cumulatively they contributed to his overall personality as a story-character. Thus, by 1960, the same fellow who wrote "The Wedding of Jimmy Olsen," Otto Binder, puts Jimmy in the position of a junior-level lothario, albeit for humorous effects.



Thus in the first of the two stories, "The Wolf-Man of Metropolis," his girlfriend Lucy gives him static about his amorousness:



Later, yielding to his tendency to do stupid things like drink untested magic potions, Jimmy becomes afflicted by a curse, causing him to change into a wolf-man at night, though unlike most fictional lycanthropes, Jimmy possesses no beastly urges. In fact, he can't even take advantage of Lucy when she obligingly dresses up like Red Riding Hood.



The second Curt Swan panel is refreshingly grim given the overall light tone of the story, though of course it's very politically incorrect today for him to muse about the unattractiveness of any woman. He does have a particular reason for so doing, though, since the curse can only be reversed by the kiss of a pretty woman. (Binder was perhaps conflating his werewolf tale with both "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Frog Prince.") Still, humor takes precedence over potential tragedy, particularly when Wolf-Man Jimmy tries to proposition a hot number to kiss him-- in the park, of course.



Superman eventually solves his buddy's problem, arranging for the cursed reporter to meet an unnamed (but presumably comely) woman in a dark room and receive her kiss. The reader later learns the female is Superman's cousin Supergirl, who alone possesses enough intestinal fortitude to suck a hairy face. At this point in time, Supergirl is unknown to the public, still being kept under cover by her avunucular cousin. A few stories, particularly this one, suggest a buried incestuous vibe between the two Kryptonians. If so, then Superman is being extraordinarily generous in pimping out his cousin in this manner. As icing on the clansgressive cake, the cover above shows two women fleeing from the Wolf-Man, who are probably supposed to be Superman's regular romantic interests Lois Lane and Lana Lang: however, Lana isn't in the actual story and Lois, who is, never sees the Wolf-Boy, though she does aggravate Lucy's suspicions about Jimmy's secret shame.



The second and last story of the reporter's adventures in lycanthropy-- scripted this time by Jerry Siegel-- doesn't seem to be as popular as the first on the Internet. It's significant that again, Wolf-Jimmy is presented on the cover as scaring the bejeezus out of a group of female characters-- respectively, Lucy, Lois, and Lana-- who are all in the story this time.

This time, though, Jimmy's not to blame for his curse. Mischievous Mister Mxyzptlk pops into Metropolis, spots Jimmy squiring around Lucy, and promptly falls in love with Lucy, just as the imp had previously gone gaga over her sister. Lucy rejects Mxyzptlk's suit by protesting that she has a boyfriend. Mxyzptlk decides to get rid of the competition in the usual roudabout way of all Superman stories from this period: he inflicts the curse on Jimmy with his magic but makes him think that he's imbibed the magic potion again.

In some ways Siegel ratchets up the comic absurdity of the "Frog Prince" trope. Again Jimmy seeks his Kryptonian pal's help. But though Supergirl imparts to Jimmy the same secretive smooch she did before, the affliction doesn't go away. In short order nearly every female character of the Superman universe at the time finds out about Jimmy's hairy problem. The result that he not only gets liplocked by his girlfriend, but also by Superman's inamoratas Lois and Lana, AND by the hero's former squeeze, the mermaid Lori Lemaris. Mxyzptlk watches them all fail, confident that Lucy will desert Jimmy in due time.




Then a strange woman appears, kisses Jimmy, and instantly reverses the curse. It turns out to be Mxyptlk's own inamorata, Miss Gsptlsnz, another magical imp from the Fifth Dimension, making her first comic-book appearance. Jimmy, having been bussed by so many hot girls in the last few days, can't help thinking a rather uncomplimentary thought about his savior.



However, this touch is also a neat reversal of the original curse's parameters, since the reversal of the pesky imp's magic doesn't depend on matching the curse-victim up with a hot girl. Everything goes back to normal and the story ends with Lucy calling Jimmy a "wolf" again, this time because he got a lot of smooches from other women.

Again I'll repeat that I'm not endowing these stories with anything more than minor mythicity, the result of some clever mucking-about with fairy-tale tropes. But to the extent that Jimmy Olsen the Character possesses even a minor penchant for mythicity-- that of the young rival to his older buddy-- these stories come closer to the mark than "Wedding." I'll also observe that I wouldn't have a problem with the earlier story if I thought that the dominant character of Jimmy was that of an unromantic klutz, like say, Dilton Doiley of the ARCHIE universe, seen here in all his glory:




Monday, February 27, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: PRINCESS KNIGHT (1953/1963) and THE TWIN KNIGHTS (1958)



Though I'm obliged to judge certain stories to be relatively undeveloped in terms of their mythicity, that doesn't mean that they aren't necessarily of societal consequence.

Take as example Osamu Tezuka's PRINCESS KNIGHT series, which began in 1953, was reworked at least three times (the 1963 version is apparently the one translated by Vertical Inc.), and given one sequel, THE TWIN KNIGHTS, about the two children of the previous series' heroine. Fred Schodt attested that before PRINCESS KNIGHT-- as the manga-series became known in the U.S.-- Japanese shojo ("girls' comics) lacked the narrative drive of the boys' comics. The franchise's entry on Wikipedia is full of many other such accolades as to the series' importance to fans, and I included a short writeup on the character here.That said, the 1963 version is extremely episodic, and I suspect that the earliest version may have rambled about even more.

If PRINCESS KNIGHT is known at all to audiences outside of both Japan and the world of hardcore comics-devotees, it's only from the 1967 animated adaptation. However, despite running for 52 episodes, PRINCESS KNIGHT did not attain the cult fandom experienced by other anime shows of the period, such as SPEED RACER and Tezuka's own ASTRO BOY.

KNIGHT begins with a strong concept. A mixup in heaven-- a heaven right out of early animation shorts-- causes Princess Sapphire of Goldland to be born with two hearts. Normally every child, even before being born, has his or her gender determined by being given a "boy heart" or a "girl heart," which imbue the child with the fixed qualities of the gender. (In Tezuka's world, then, essence does precede existence, though it will be seen that existence can radically modify essence.) As it happens, Sapphire's dual nature comes in handy, for only a prince can inherit his parents' throne. The king and queen of Goldland agree to conceal Sapphire's physical femininity and pass her off to the kingdom as a boy-- which is easier than one might expect, since Sapphire's "boy heart" gives her a macho fortitude rarely seen in average females.


That said, Tezuka is writing to a largely female audience, so he doesn't entirely want to alienate them from their desires-- whether socially created or not-- to like "girly things." Thus Sapphire is constantly alienated by her inability to do girl-things like wearing pretty dresses-- suggesting that the "girl heart," the one in tune with her actual body, is the one in ascendance.



Yet the fantasy of being able to do "boy things" is ever-present. At one point, the bumbling angel Tink succeeds in removing Sapphire's "boy heart" from her body, which will enable her to live as a full-fledged female. However, Sapphire happens to be engaged in a deadly swordfight at the time, and losing her "boy heart" saps her of her fortitude. Tink has to return that heart to her so that she can win her battle. To be sure, this isn't pure gender essentialism at work. Later in the story Sapphire loses her "male nature" and seems to win her battles as easily without it as with it-- which is where the matter of existence modifying essence comes in.




The downside of this promising concept is that Tezuka has too many irons in the fire to allow for a strong symbolic discourse. It would be contrary to my task as a myth-critic to assert that any author ought to bulldoze over his expressivity in order to accommodate some didactic theme. But I suspect Tezuka plotted PRINCESS KNIGHT somewhat on the fly, without much thought as to what was going to happen overall. Throughout most of the early chapters of this version, Sapphire's most persistent foe-- aside from courtiers who want to dethrone her-- is a witch named Madame Hell. I couldn't find an image of what she looked like in the 1953 version. But given Tezuka's stories love for all things Disney, there's not much serious doubt that the 1963 version was modeled on "Maleficent" from the 1959 animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY. Not only does the Good Madame have the supernatural power to manifest huge thorned plants as did Maleficent, Hell even perishes in almost the same way: transforming herself into a huge beast-- this time a monstrous owl rather than a dragon-- only to be killed by a prince. Madame Hell is even more overtly affiliated with the Christian Devil, while Maleficent merely looks devilish and makes an oblique reference to "the powers of hell."



Unfortunately, Tezuka kills off Madame Hell too soon, so that for the remaining chapters he must introduce a new opponent out of the blue. Madame Hell was an indirect threat to Sapphire's relationship with her true love Prince Franz Charming, in that Hell wanted the prince to marry her daughter so that the latter would become a queen. However, this relatively mundane motivation hurt the Bad Madame's potential to be a superior villain, and once both she and her daughter perished, Tezuka had to introduce a new "Big Bad." For the final chapters of the series, the goddess Venus herself falls in love with Franz and wants to steal him from Sapphire-- thus making her the worst kind of "bad mother:" the kind that poaches on the younger generation.



I could imagine Tezuka having created a truly mythic story had he focused on one or the other of the two major villains, while continuing to use the lesser courtiers as comic foes. However, Sapphire's struggle is vitiated by the serials "and then this happened" approach. In some ways the problematic structure of PRINCESS KNIGHT and certain other Tezuka works, such as APOLLO'S SONG, may stem from the same "problem" one finds in the works of Jack Kirby: both artists were just so damn creative they sometimes overwhelmed their own narratives with "new stuff."

The irony is that a lot of real fairy-tales and romances may tend to ramble as much as PRINCESS KNIGHT does, but one can excuse that, since many of those stories descended from oral cultures.
Still, Tezuka certainly does create in Princess Sapphire a liminal figure with which many Japanese girls obviously did identify. The story is certainly not "ideological correct" enough to please many modern readers, but there are indications that Tezuka was willing to endorse feminist concerns-- at least, as long as they served the purpose of delivering an entertaining story.



TWIN KNIGHTS, on the other hand, is not nearly as wide in its scope. Years after Sapphire marries Franz, she bears twins, a son and daughter, both given flower-names (the boy is "Daisy," the girl "Violetta.") Thanks to the actions of two courtly conspirators-- whose motives are extremely hard to fathom-- the male child is exposed in the forest, only to be raised to adolescence by a magical deer. In Daisy's absence, the king and queen compel Violetta to pose as her brother so that she can take the throne, which means that she has to learn all the demands of being a boy without the advantage of a "boy heart." This is also a very rambling adventure and suffers from the lack of a strong villain. Additionally, Tezuka tosses out loads of flower-metaphors-- there are even two "flower-spirits," brothers who respectively love and hate Violetta-- but none of the symbolism comes together, and even the fated reunion of the siblings is fairly disappointing. KNIGHTS' only saving grace is Emerald, one of Tezuka's gamin-type characters, who exists to help Violetta through her exploits but is actually much more interesting than either sibling.



Thursday, February 23, 2017

JUST ANOTHER TOSS-OFF KIRBY KOMMENT

Fourth World is a good, if regrettably cut-off-too-soon,, body of work, but I don’t think of it as being “similar.” to the Marvel works. I think FW shows Kirby returning to the tropes he preferred in both his pre-Marvel and post-Marvel work: mostly balls-out pulp-action with occasional sentimental moments– nothing quite like the “epic soap opera” he worked on when collaborating with Stan Lee.
Yes, yes, Stan was no great shakes before JK and SD– although I don’t think anyone’s really fully evaluated all of his 50s work with Joe Maneely– but he was an editor first and a writer second, and Kirby’s talents were such that he needed some reining-in. I think the S&K studio provided some reins in the more realistic work– particularly the S&K romance stories, which might be the closest to Lee-Kirby Marvel in structure– but I’m just not seeing that JK could do it all alone, genius though he was.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "DADDY LOST HIS HEAD" (VAULT OF HORROR #19, 1951)

In one of my old articles I don't wish to look up right now, I cited EC's 1953 story "Foul Play" as a mythic story, purely because of its imaginative-- if extremely improbable-- gore-met conclusion. These days, though, I'd dismiss the tale as something of a one-trick pony, at least in symbolic terms.

These days I believe mythcomics ought to suggest a greater play with symbolism than many of the better-loved EC stories do, and thus I find that VAULT OF HORROR #19 yields one such story.



"Daddy Lost His Head" doesn't seem to have been one of the more lauded EC-tales, nor did it earn the opprobrium that Frederic Wertham devoted to similar stories in which nasty adults got their comeuppance. Possibly the story lacked a certain impact because a young child deals out the punishment in all innocence, rather than, say, plotting to do away with Mommy and Daddy. Yet, given that "Daddy" was created entirely by male authors in a mostly-male bullpen, it shows a certain pro-feminist outlook.

Kathy is a doe-eyed eight-year old whose real father is long deceased and whose sickly mother married what the opening caption calls a "mean old stepfather." Kathy is first seen weeping because her stepfather Martin Blackson had just given her a beating, though the story never directly depicts corporal violence.

In a rapid-fire exchange between Martin and his wife, he's given a motivation for his hatred of his stepchild: Kathy resembles her original father, and her presence constantly mocks Martin's status with his wife. "I know you never loved me-- that you only married me for security!" The sickly wife doesn't deny this state of affairs. Way to encourage his wrath against your daughter, Mom!

Fortunately the weakling wife isn't the only representation of femininity around. The Blacksons' next door neighbor is an elderly woman with the coy name of "Mrs. Thaumaturge" (Greek for "miracle worker.") Martin doesn't like his neighbor any more than he likes his wife or stepdaughter, and he's quick to accuse her of being a witch, if only to subject Kathy to greater psychological terror. Kathy is thus caught between being curious about the old woman and being scared that, as Martin says, "She'll bake you... in her oven..." Writer Al Feldstein probably didn't mean the reader to assume that Martin seriously believed that his neighbor was a witch. Still, the mean stepfather's evocation of the cannibal crone from "Hansel and Gretel" turns out to be the key to his undoing-- especially when one remembers that the crone of the old tale was also something of a kitchen-witch.

The mother has another attack of her unspecified illness, and passes from this world, leaving Kathy entirely in the hands of the man who hates her. But providentially Mrs. Thaumaturge reaches out to Kathy, and makes her a special doll, made out of some sort of candy, and given a slight resemblance to the mean stepfather. (The colorist makes it look like chocolate.) Because the lonely girl becomes engrossed in playing with her new toy, she fails to do her chores. Martin sends her to bed without supper-- and in so doing, sets himself up for his timely fate. Kathy is so hungry that she can't resist biting off her doll's hand-- at which point, Martin just happens to be using a wood-saw, and well--

And then comes the typical EC "just desserts"-- for once, using a real dessert.


I won't waste a lot of time with Freudian noodlings about the equivalence of beheadings and castrations, though I would venture that such equivalences were much in the cultural air around 1951. But I rather like the empowering wrap-up proffered by the Crypt-Keeper, where the ghoul tells the reader that Mrs. Thaumaturge adopted the girl, and is "giving Kathy flying lessons-- on a broom!"

Though there's some reference to fetish-doll magic here, there's no real metaphysical symbolism of any importance. But when you've got the psychological chutzhpah of a little girl biting off the head of her bad daddy-- who needs metaphysics?

Monday, February 20, 2017

LOST IN SPACEFIGHTS PT. 3

I last delved into sussing out the combative/subcombative episodes of LOST IN SPACE back in October, and here's my take on Season 2.

________________

"Blast Off into Space"-- a space miner imperils the planet on which the Jupiter 2 resides. By accident a statue comes to life, menaces Smith and Will, and is destroyed by John Robinson. (C)

"Wild Adventure"-- a green space-siren lures Smith out of the ship. (SC)

"Ghost Planet"-- Smith gets captured by a super-computer and the Robot must kick the asses of other robotic minions to save him. John Robinson gets to karate-chop a couple robots, too. (C)



"Forbidden World"-- Smith drinks an explosive liquid. (SC)

"Space Circus"-- the owner of a space-circus tries to enslave Will, There's a very lethargic tussle between John Robinson and an ape-creature, but the ringmaster interrupts it. (SC)

"Prisoners of Space"-- aliens put the Jupiter-2 crew on trial. (SC)

"The Android Machine"-- a machine from a galactic department store creates a female android, who then seeks to learn humanity from the Robinsons and avoid being captured by officials from the store. (SC)

"The Deadly Games of Gamma 6"-- an alien entrepreneur lands on the Robinsons' current planet of residence, and challenges the Earth-people to fight for their world. Dr. Robinson wins a match against a vanishing midget, but fails to beat a more muscular opponent, partly because the fight is interrupted. The issue is settled by a "Russian Roulette" test of courage. (SC)

"Thief of Outer Space"-- near the conclusion an Arabian-looking alien thief swordfights John Robinson, but Major West interrupts the fight. A genie-like being attacks the group and Will banishes him with a magic ring. (SC)

"Curse of Cousin Smith"-- Smith's equally sneaky cousin Jeremiah comes calling, and gets both of them embroiled in a deadly wager. Robinson gets them out of it with a clever hoax. (SC)

"West of Mars"-- Zeno, a wanted outlaw, looks just like Smith and seeks to switch places with him. Episode ends with no battle, Zeno fleeing the law and law-enforcer in hot pursuit. (SC)

"A Visit to Hades"-- an imprisoned alien who looks like the Devil tries to trick Smith into setting him free. Episode ends with a comic fight in which West tries to slug the Devil; not only can West not even hurt his opponent, he's accidentally knocked out by his girlfriend Judy. (SC)



"Wreck of the Robot"-- aliens capture the Robot and study him in order to make a super-computer capable of controlling Earth mechanisms, for the purpose of conquering Earth. At the climax the Robot seeks to destroy the computer. The computer defends itself with a gale-like force but the Robot wins through and smashes it. (C)



"The Dream Monster"-- a short but combative fight at the end, when a mad scientist's android tries to kill the Robinsons and is blasted by the Robot. (C)

"The Golden Man"-- two enemy aliens try to destroy each other, thus catching the Robinsons in the middle. The good alien is almost defeated, but the bad one throws a grenade. Smith accidentally catches it, flings it away from him, and slays the bad alien. (SC)

"The Girl from the Green Dimension"-- The green siren is back, and so is her brawny boyfriend, who challenges Smith to a duel. Smith spends most of the duel running away and the siren persuades her lover not to kill him. (SC)

"The Questing Beast"-- a not-too-bright knight has spent 40 years chasing a dragon through space. Penny learns that the dragon is both female and intelligent. The knight tries to kill the dragon, but the revelation of its nature puts the damper on the crusade. Then the dragon, for old times' sake, chooses to keep the chase going, and they depart. (SC)

"The Toymaker"-- a genius toymaker comes into conflict with the galactic department store that once employed him, but the conflict is resolved peacefully. (SC)

"Mutiny in Space"-- a crazy admiral abducts Smith and Will to serve on his ship, but eventually returns them home. (SC)

"Space Vikings"-- Smith gets mixed up with a doppelganger for Thor. At the conclusion Thor hurls his hammer and drives some barely seen Frost Giants, but it's not more than functional violence. (SC)

"Rocket to Earth"-- wizard Zalto tries to trap Smith into doing his dirty work. (SC)

"Cave of the Wizards"-- Smith is possesses by an alien supercomputer, but manages to break his re-progamming thanks to Will. (SC)

"Treasure of the Lost Planet'-- a good pirate and several bad pirates make trouble for the Robinsons. (SC)

"Revolt of the Androids"-- two powerful androids battle, and the less powerful one triumphs. (C)



"The Colonists"-- alien queen Niolani enslaves the Robinsons, but they manage to sabotage her transmitter-device before she can summon her people to their planet, (SC)

"Trip Through the Robot"-- the Robot becomes Fantastically large and the Robinsons must Voyage inside him to effect repairs, only he starts shrinking again. (SC)

"The Phantom Family"-- an alien mad scientist creates doubles of the Robinsons. There's a lively scuffle between the scientist and the two alpha males, but it doesn't affect the conclusion, where the Smith double sacrifices itself to save the real Smith. (SC)

"The Mechanical Men"-- a race of miniature mechanical men want the Robot to lead them, so they transfer Smith's devilish personality into the Robot, and the Robot's into Smith's body. There's a short battle in which the Robinsons exchange laser-fire with the robot horde. Then John Robinson disables the Robot with a laser-shot, which also reverses the mind-transfer and convinces the little robots to leave. (C)



"The Astral Traveler"-- a Scottish ghost tries to avenge himself for the wrongs of Smith's ancestor. (SC)

"The Galaxy Gift"-- an alien named Arcon entrusts Penny with a special amulet, and Arcon's enemies try to get it from her. The bad aliens create an Earth-like world to hoax Smith and Penny, but Arcon intervenes at the end, causing the fake Earth to fall apart. (SC)

Hmm, only about five-six combative episodes out of thirty. It's not likely Season 3 will make any difference...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

TREES, MEET FOREST (GOD)

I've written a few times about the difficulties of sussing out a focal presence when the narrative "will" seems to be focused upon a non-sentient environment. Carroll's Wonderland may be one of my earliest examples, since I don't believe that any character or group of characters stands out as the star of the show. In OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER I looked at two narratives in which entire planets, irrespective of their inhabitants, were the foci of the respective stories.

The same principle applies to matters of time rather than space. I don't consider "the Time Traveler" to be the star of Wells' TIME MACHINE, and from one standpoint I might teem "time itself" to be the star. However, the bulk of the narrative does center itself upon the Eloi/Morlocks period of future-history, and so it's possible to see that one period as the focal presence of the Wells narrative.

It's much less problematic in some of the film-works influenced by Wells: in both WORLD WITHOUT END  and THE TIME TRAVELERS, some very forgettable viewpoint characters travel to specific eras of future-history. In the first, the time-jumpers manage to remake the future-Earth to suit their 20th-century tastes, while in the second, the travelers make it possible for the dead-end survivors of humankind to be reborn in a figurative "new Eden." But in both movies, it's the future-Earth that is the focal presence.

Still, there are times when a given "godlike figure," or group of figures, stands as the representative of his environment and/or people. Exeter of THIS ISLAND EARTH both stands for, and somewhat apart from, his fellow Metalunans. In the 1972 eco-horror film FROGS, the titular batrachians don't actually do anything to the hapless victims of a hostile environment. In my review, I remarked:

Oddly, the frogs don't do anything directly to anyone, but this is possibly the film's best conceit.  The frogs just sit around croaking while the other animals do all the dirty work, as if the batrachians were the brains of the swamp.  

Spooky houses or territories can also go either way. In my opinion the Overlook, the haunted hotel of Stephen King's THE SHINING, is the exothelic star of the story, not the psychic kid or his deranged dad. On the other hand, in the considerably less celebrated GHOST TOWN, a whole passel of spectral outlaws haunt a deserted western site. But only the leader of the outlaws, the significantly named "Devlin," incarnates the exothelic will of the haunted terrain: his stooges and the town itself are of lesser significance.



ADDENDA: It surprises me that though I completed this essay on the same day that I completed my essay on a MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER story, I failed to note that the main villain of the Magnus tale-- who went by the odd name of "L'sier" (like the French chemist Lavoisier?) represented the opposite tendency seen in THIS ISLAND EARTH and GHOST TOWN. Although L'sier is clearly the leader of the wastrel Gophs, as well as the only one named, he doesn't really do or say anything to distinguish himself from the rest of his crew. Therefore, although the Magnus story is *endothelic*-- that is, the authorial will concentrates on the featured robot-busting hero-- L'sier is not his "opposite number." Rather, the Gophs as a whole represent the antagonistic"will that opposes the central will." In similar fashion no single character in the motley crew of humans knocked off in FROGS stands out as representative of humanity, though Ray Milland's patriarch has the distinction of being saved for the final course of eco-revenge.

MYTHCOMICS: "CLOUD-CLODDIE, GO HOME!" (MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER #16, 1966)



It's scarcely a coincidence that in my review of TRASHMAN LIVES I asserted that it was less symbolically complex than many contemporary kids' comics. This particular issue of Gold Key's MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER-- whose original stories ran mostly from 1963 to 1968-- is a case in point.

The setup, generally credited to artist-writer Russ Manning, had good mythic potential, drawing on the general science-fiction idea of the "supercity." In 4000 A.D. most of the North American continent has been covered by a single interwoven city, "North-Am," divided between the well-to-do people living in the high-rises and a barely seen lower class dwelling on the ground, in deserted buildings over two thousand years old. The idea may owe something to Wells' TIME MACHINE, but if so it's one in which the human underclass, the parallel to Wells' "Morlocks," barely exists in the stories. In place of Morlocks, Manning's effete "Eloi" of 4000 A.D. have constructed an underclass made of robots who act as servants, policemen, and so on. But there always exists the possibility that even a mechanical underclass may revolt, and to keep humankind from becoming too dependent on robots, an ordinary human named Magnus receives training in a sort of super-karate, giving him the power to smash metal with his bare hands. Not surprisingly, Magnus's skills are in constant need to put down rebellions of robots who have either attained self-awareness or (more frequently) are being used as pawns by tyrants and conquerors.

To be sure, most of the stories are very straightforward adventure, not bothering to delve much into the sociological matrix of North-Am. This issue is one of the few to explore said matrix, though I add the caveat that politically it's almost the opposite of the three-years-later "Cloud Minders" episode of STAR TREK, in which the separation of "high" and "low" is decried.

The assault of the lower classes upon the (literally) high-living citizens takes place through the venerable device of theft, when a North-Am store is robbed of various items by the weird team of a single robot and a talking dog. The reader sees the odd thieves joined by a little girl of six or seven years, and then the trio "disappear in the dark, dangerous lowest levels of [the] continent-spanning, mile-high city of North-Am." Magnus is called in to investigate the odd crime, and the appearance of the talking dog spurs him to consult a character seen in issue #13: Danae, a scientist who specializes in using futuristic science to endow ordinary animals with special, human-like skills.



Magnus, his girlfriend Leeja, and Danae descend to the lowest level of the city, where the reader is told that the only inhabitants are "criminals and anti-socials" called "Gophs" (short for "Gophers.")
Some of the Gophs hurl stones at the vehicle of the three upper-worlders, calling them "cloud-cloddies," but this doesn't stop Magnus and company from tracking down the thieves to an ancient junkyard. There they meet the robot Junko, the talking dog Sam, and the little girl who directed them in their theft, Pert Doner. Danae recognizes Pert from an earlier encounter, in that Danae gave the girl a "neo-dog" to help Pert recover from the loss of her parents in an accident.



Pert, despite being extremely intelligent, has been traumatized by the loss of her parents and has chosen to live among the Gophs in a rejection of the life of North-Am. However, she doesn't know that the Gophs, led by a tough fellow named L'sier, are simply stringing her along in order to get her to steal for them. Thus the remainder of the story takes the form of a struggle between the "uppers" and the "lowers" for Pert's soul.

While Manning spent many years on Tarzan-- a feature which often contrasted the visceral appeal of the jungle with the indulgences of modern civilization-- MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER upends that formula. In this story L'sier takes a position like that of Tarzan, sneering at the pampered "cloud-cloddies" and boasting about his toughness. There's some irony in the fact that his critique is much like that of Magnus in other stories, professing the need for "eternal vigilance" against the softening effects of civilization. Here, however, Magnus is the voice of futuristic reason, and though L'sier is one of the few humans able to go toe-to-toe with the Robot Fighter, there's no real doubt that the way of the Gophs is just meaningless anarchy.



Manning is certainly no Marxist, given this portrait of the underclass. Admittedly, he does include one redeemable Goph character: a young boy named Spikey, who helped Pert construct her makeshift robot. Still, Spikey is only redeemable because he, like Pert, really does want to be a "cloud-cloddie," and he's given no ties with his own people that might prevent his defection from the lower class-- which does indeed take place in a later issue. That said, Manning's approving portrait of a high-tech civilization, one physically removed from the land, forms a significant cosmological and sociological myth. The former TARZAN artist doesn't say a lot about the disposition of Earth's animal population in this super-science world, though his introduction of "neo-animals" may be an attempt to work them into his universe. albeit by making them the beneficiaries of super-science. It's interesting that real animals given special technological powers are able to become part of the technological paradise, while humans who don't fit in are compared to animals that burrow in the dirt. Danae's mythologically derived name puzzled me a bit, since the Perseus myth doesn't have any major relevance to the theme of animals in the wild. However, I think it feasible that Manning was really thinking of a goddess with strong ties to the forests primeval: the Roman Diana, more or less a recasting of the Greek huntress-deity Artemis. This interpretation may be supported by the fact that Pert-- who is bonded to just one animal, rather than several like Danae-- bears the surname "Doner," which may also have been suggested by the name of Diana. It's also interesting that in both of their appearances the Gophs wear heavy cowled grey garments, which make the characters look less like impoverished scroungers than like members of some arcane cult.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: TRASHMAN LIVES (1997)

I became re-acquainted with this old Gary Groth quote when I re-read my early essay POMO AND PLURALISM:

academic lintheads and popcult apologists display their usual confusion of values by mistaking something of social interest for something of artistic significance

Not long after, in my ceaseless quest to the Heart of the Collective Myth-Conscious, I happened to reread Fantagraphics' 1997 collection of what I assume to be all of the extant TRASHMAN stories of the late underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. I had read the collection years ago, and frankly didn't remember much about it, aside from the mildly enjoyable woodcut-like art-style and a lot of maundering Marxist politics.



But, upon re-reading the collection with an eye to seeing anything of symbolic depth-- wow, talk about something that has no "artistic significance" and is only relevant for "social interest!"

The TRASHMAN stories are little more than "men's adventure fiction" comics given a smattering of Marxist rhetoric about opposing oppression. Trashman, a revolutionary with a big gun and some inconsistent super-powers, fights the good fight against a vague assortment of bad guys who are supposed to represent the American political hierarchy. The first stories came out in 1968 and predicted a total social breakdown in the latter half of the 20th century, which allowed Trashman to motor around to different enclaves of tyranny and kick a lot of ass.

All of which would be fine, except that Trashman's adventures lack even the rudimentary imagination of the lesser kids' comics of the time. Trashman's opponents are largely faceless bureaucrats, whom readers of the 1960s and 1970s would see as representatives of "The Man." But Rodriguez shows no awareness of why these villains perpetrate their evil deeds-- including a little cannibalism-- except insofar as they are villains. Frankly, Mickey Spillane invested even his dime-a-dozen killers with more conviction.

There are brief touches of insight. In one story, two of Trashman's rebel-colleagues continuously insult each other in racial terms, but by story's end it's obvious that both of them are just using race to rag on each other, in typical "guy" fashion. In another tale, even more "socially significant" though no more "artistic," Trashman and another colleague are taken prisoner by a gang of female rebels: "Nasty Elaine and her She-Devils." This was at least not your typical guy-on-guy battle, though I've the impression that men's adventure mags frequently featured heroes getting captured by modern-day Amazons and the like.

It's a shame, because the minimalist design of Trashman bears some comparison with that of Gould's Dick Tracy, and it would have been interesting to see Gould's conservatism inverted by a charismatic "hero of the masses." But there's no flash in this trash, man.

Monday, February 13, 2017

HEROES AREN'T HARDBODIES TO FIND

Backing up a little: though I've stated that there out to be a "unity of action" between a work's overthought and underthought, that doesn't mean that the two have to agree in all respects. Given that they spring, respectively, from the didactic and from the mythopoeic potentialities of the creative mind, it would hard to imagine such perfect agreement.

After all, I established in THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS  that certain stories could be "underthought-dominated stories," my example being the "Origin of Metamorpho." In that story the symbolic discourse is very complex and the didactic discourse is very simple, which is entirely the reverse of the POGO sequence discussed in that essay. Since it's my project to suss out complex mythicity wherever I find it, whether accompanied by a strong didactic theme or not, I make no bones about including both (1) works that are "underthought-dominated" and (2) works where the two thoughts are equally strong: for instance, Morrison's FLEX MENTALLO.

An "overthought-dominated" work will align itself with the sphere of "thematic realism" as I've examined it in many earlier essays, while an "underthought-dominated" work will align more with the sphere of "thematic escapism." In works like MENTALLO, though, the artist has a foot in both worlds, so that the two potentialities interact to a greater extent, as I stated in Part 2 of THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE:

I have maintained, however, that the relationship between "realistic works" and "escapist works" is closer to that of conjoined siblings, dependent on one another for life.  
The course of said interaction, though, doesn't always run smooth. Note my comment in the FLEX MENTALLO review:

Wally observes that the Golden Age of superheroes was “pretty simple,” boiling down to the “Charles Atlas hard body homoerotic wish-fulfillment.”  (I disagree, but this one interpretation doesn’t undermine the general strength of Morrison’s theme.) Wally then observes that the Silver Age changed the paradigm. “Strange transformations, multiple realities, dreams, hoaxes… it was like the hard body began to turn soft...” I could carp that this description mostly applies to the line of Superman comics supervised by Mort Weisinger, with a little Julie Schwartz on the side, but it’s still a stimulating reading.

Now, Morrison has stated in interviews that sometimes he comes up with bizarre fantasies through a process akin to free association. However, there's nothing "free" about this association: it's a familiar opinion in a number of film studies I've encountered, and I feel reasonably sure that Morrison encountered some comparable opinions in his own reading. The notion of the hardbody as a homoerotic fantasy appears in Wertham's SEDUCTION, and it seems to come up almost any time a film-studies prof chooses to analyze any sort of action or adventure film. Case in point: here's a review-except describing Neal King's 1999 HEROES IN HARD TIMES, from this site:

"King's analysis remains valuable for the contribution it makes in taking seriously an oft derided and dismissed form of popular culture that speaks directly to issues of masculinity…. This book will be a useful resource for those interested in understanding how images of hyper-masculinity--the "hard man"--represent both the excess and the ordinary parts of masculinity in cinema. King's methodology is helpful in reading media texts, and his provocative interpretations of these films--particularly his readings of homosocial sadomasochism--will likely generate much discussion." 


Unlike the majority of the film-critics, Morrison isn't explicitly trying to put his heroes on the psychiatrist's couch so that he can find out what terrible traumas caused them to overcompensate by becoming superheroes. Unlike many if not all of the academic critics, Morrison doesn't seem to be indulging in a "nyah-nyah, you think you're manly when you're really GAY" sort of ressentiment. Still, Morrison is in the business of shocking his audience, so whether or not he really believes that Golden Age heroes were homoerotic wish fantasies, the appearance of such a statement in the voice of his viewpoint character suggests that it may hold at least a provisional truth for Morrison-- though to be sure, the character making the statement is a superhero fan who is not, in any obvious way, gay.

So here we have the overthought and the underthought, while definitely bound together by the narrative's unity of action, coming down on opposite sides of Adler's compensation theory. Underthought is saying that superheroes are a part of the collective unconscious, and that lines them up with the idea of "positive compensation," which benefits the organism. Overthought is saying that superheroes at least begin as homoerotic fantasies of "hard men," which seems to align with "negative compensation"-- although apparently the same fantasies can become soft and thus "feminized"-- which *might* be a type of positive compensation in Morrison's world.

The entire homosocial/homoerotic reading of adventure-fiction, of course, might be just as rooted in "negative compensation" as Dirty Harry's massive magnum or Clark Kent's blue undergarments: critics may like to feel like they've one-upped the hardbody. But in so doing, they overlook a basic principle of adventure-fiction: that characters, male and female alike, may simply get harder because the body gets harder when you exercise properly, eat all the right foods, and punch a super-villain in the mush twice a day.




Friday, February 10, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: THE GEEK #1 ("CORRUPTION OF THE INNOCENT," 1993)



Two notes to start. First, I’ve used the cover-title “Corruption of the Innocent”to denote the story of GEEK #1, because the title on the credits-page inside, “Homelands of the Dolls” is markedly inferior and not representative of the mythcomic’s theme. Second, when speaking of authorship I choose to  emphasize Rachel Pollack since the narrative seems more typical of her creative tendencies than those of artist Michael Allred—though of course I have no personal knowledge as to who contributed what precise elements.

Neither the original BROTHER POWER comic nor Neil Gaiman’s mini-revival of the character were that notable, mythically or otherwise. Thus it’s a small miracle that “Corruption”—apparently never intended to be anything but a one-shot—is as good as it is. And given that Pollack emphasized transgender concerns in her DOOM PATROL work, I think it likely that she originated the core symbolism of this work.

As noted in my review of SWAMP THING ANNUAL #5, writer Neil Gaiman simply tosses out the notion of “doll elementals” without any elaborations. In essence, he was reinventing Joe Simon’s Brother Power along the same lines that Alan Moore reinvented the Wein-Wrightson Swamp Thing: giving a character with a minimal origin-story a connection to deeper mystical forces. In the case of Swamp Thing, these forces became a part of the firmament of the DC Universe. It’s probably just as well that the “doll world” of Gaiman never became a regular feature of that universe, but it works quite well as a one-off concept, sort of DC’s version of the “Isle of Misfit Toys.”

Here as in certain other reviews in this series, the plot proves secondary to a series of symbolic encounters between the main character and his opponents. In this case, the naive living dummy Brother Power endures a series of ordeals by his chief enemy, Doctor Abuse. Brother Power, as in his earlier appearances, possesses a set of bizarre powers but has no aggressive will and usually seeks to flee rather than fight. In a manner analogous to the way Power’s old hippie-friends sought to run the dummy for president, Doctor Abuse stage-manages the dummy to become (a) a literal carnival-geek, (b) a corrupt businessman versed in junk bonds and insider trading, and (c) a modern member of the American Nazi Party. Invariably someone addresses Power as a “geek,” which enrages him, though not enough to incite him to real violence. In most of these situations, Simon’s original epithet  “freak” might have been more appropriate, though there’s something to be said for seeing a DC Comics character enact the traditional act of the carnival-geek: that of biting off a chicken’s head.

Though Brother Power has the general appearance of a man, only Doctor Abuse possesses the will to aggression so dominantly associated with the male of the species. In fact, good and evil here are fairly well divided in terms of gender, for on the opposing side battling for Power’s soul is his sole female friend, Cindy. Though she was an idealistic hippie twenty years previous, in the intervening years Cindy became a prostitute, wise in the ways of exploitative males. At the same time, she participates in a women’s goddess-worship ritual designed to sanctify her femininity, with a group that goes by the ironic name “PMS” (for “Pack Menstrual Savages.”) She’s also aware that Doctor Abuse has been stalking her for some time, though when the villain’s plot is revealed, it appears that he’s been keeping watch on her purely for the purpose of using her against Brother Power—which isn’t possible until the Geek returns to Earth.

Pollack expands on Gaiman’s sketch of a “doll elemental world” by picturing a cosmos in which various manikin-like beings exist, most of which look like commercial creations: a Barbie, an action-figure, a trio of chocolate animals. In one panel, however, Pollack and Allred include what looks like a shamanistic painting, which by itself suggests a deeper symbolism: that of seeing dolls as magical representations of human beings.

Pollack’s scenario never comes back to the shaman, but she includes a fascinating leitmotif throughout the narrative: that of dolls being hung from trees and set on fire. Pollack does not explain the motif but it may be a reference to European “poppet magic,” in which witches cast spells upon dolls meant to be represent human subjects, and then completed the magic by hanging the poppets from tree-branches and setting the dolls on fire. It’s a motif in no way beholden to anything in either Gaiman’s “Brother Power” revival or in the companion tale “Shaggy God Stories,” though Gaiman does make reference to two famous figures, Odin and Christ, who hung aloft, respectively on a tree and on a tree-like structure.

Another possible influence is that Pollack, in addition to emulating the general scheme of the Alan Moore Parliament-of-Trees Project, may have borrowed the Eden-myth of "two trees" from Gaiman's "Shaggy God Stories," though with substantial alterations if so. The narratives asserts the “doll world” is centered upon a “tree of innocence.” In some long-gone era the tree “fell asleep” and inadvertently spawned a shadow-version of itself, a “tree of corruption.” This setup resembles a number of archaic myths that pair up a spirit of goodness with a dark sibling. But the idea that the “tree of innocence” creates dolls as vessels of purity and innocence is as close to being original as any mythic idea can be. In any case, once this cosmic scenario has been spun, the reader finally learns the villain’s plot. Doctor Abuse has been flinging temptations into Brother Power’s path in order to use him for an act of sympathetic magic, aimed at destroying the Tree of Innocence.


Despite the dummy’s general passivity, he does manage a good trick in the end, hoaxing the evildoer and calling upon the power of femininity to overthrow an evil that seems dominantly masculine. The story ends with a happy if quixotic ending. After Abuse has been deceived and perhaps defeated, Cindy is finally re-united with her life-size doll-man. The story ends with the image of her embracing the limp Brother Power as she exclaims, “I’m your friend forever!” There’s a minor mythic motif here as well, in that even today little girls are better known than little boys for bonding with dolls. It might be argued that Pollack’s Cindy embracing a world of “innocence” that shields her from the “corruption” implicit in adult sexuality. Happily, Pollack does not overplay the allegorical possibilities of the story, and so the short saga of Brother Power the Geek comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, which as of this writing no later writers have mucked up.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

ONE NULL, ONE NEAR: SWAMP THING ANNUAL #5 (1989)

            

Since Neil Gaiman was never the regular writer on the SWAMP THING title, it may be that his stories for 1989’s SWAMP THING ANNUAL #5 were just fill-in works, or possibly audition-tales. Though I’ve labeled one story a “null-myth” and the other a “near myth,” both languish under the long shadow of Alan Moore’s tenure on the feature.

“Brothers” is the null-myth here: a good idea that never quite works, despite Neil Gaiman’s considerable talents. The living dummy known as Brother Power the Geek has remained out in space for roughly twenty years, only to suddenly crash to Earth. Brother Power not only survives, he has no understanding that any time has passed, and still speaks in hippie-talk. He has apparently gained a new power, though, in that he can now assemble new bodies for himself out of random junk, and expand said bodies to giant-size, so that he becomes an unwitting peril to the citizens of Tampa, Florida.

The “monster-menacing-city” structure of the story is strongly indebted to a two-part Alan Moore story in SWAMP THING #52-53, and Gaiman more or less admits the indebtedness by having two of Swamp Thing’s support-characters called in to consult on the matter of "The Flower-Child That Time Forgot." Swamp Thing himself is not present in either of the annual’s stories, due to events in the regular title. Still, Gaiman picks up on the character’s basic concept—at least as it was re-imagined by Moore, that of making the muck-monster into a plant-elemental—and declares that Brother Power was created by a process analogous to the one that created Swamp Thing. Abby Arcane, the Swamp Thing’s wife, receives an oracle that says Brother Power is “a doll god—a puppet elemental—like others before it.”



Gaiman does not choose to say more than this, however, and so the idea of what a “puppet elemental” might be is dropped. (Was Pinocchio one of the “Parliament of Puppets?”) Eventually the problem is solved when the other support-character, belated hippie Chester, gets Brother Power’s attention, talks with him a little, and then sends him on his way. Given that most of Gaiman’s observations on the generation of the Flower People are trite, it may be that the story’s main point was to bring Joe Simon’s most peculiar creation out of mothballs—though Gaiman does a decent job with his characterizations of Chester and Abby.



“Shaggy God Stories” might sound like a myth-nerd’s dream, though the tale fails to be more than the sum of its parts. The story focuses upon a character whom Moore adapted early in his run: Jason Woodrue, a super-villain so obsessed with plants that he mutated himself into a plant-human hybrid. Woodrue, more than a little crazy, wanders into the domain of the Parliament of Trees, the largely immobile plant-elementals who preceded Swamp Thing. For most of the tale, Woodrue meditates on the many ways in which trees and other plants have been intertwined with the lives of holy men and deities. He seeks out the Parliament, rambling about gods and trees, and finally reveals that, “I want to be a god too.” The representative of the Parliament gives Woodrue no satisfaction, though he gives the former super-villain a warning about a future danger. The deranged plant-man pays no attention and wanders away, and the story ends on the suggestion of a future menace, which eventually manifests in the Doug Wheeler SWAMP THING run.

Still, limited as the story’s scope is, it does toss out a few good myth-kernels, particularly at the opening, when Woodrue mediates on the “two trees” of the Bible’s Eden narrative. I find it particularly interesting that Gaiman has Woodrue harp on the existence of the “two trees” at the story’s  opening, because “two trees” also figure in the next and last major appearance (as of this writing) of Brother Power, the Geek.   

ADDENDA: On this forum a poster shared a part of a Gaiman interview from an online source that no longer seems extant. In the spirit of knowledge I share Gaiman's statement on the Annual here:

"I was going to bring [Woodrue] back as a villain. He was getting back to being Woodrue, the Rue of the Wood, and probably on a much bigger scale, a much nastier scale. It would have been fun, but again it didn't happen.
I probably would have brought back Black Orchid in there. I don't know, because as I said, it never got that far. Rick still had a few issues. I talked to Rick, we sort of co-plotted Rick's last few episodes, which never saw print."

SIMON SESSION

     


As I’m going to be devoting some essays to a Joe Simon creation—though not in a review per se—I decided to devote some space to Simon's career.

In this essay I argued that it’s hard to assess the authorship of anything Jack Kirby “wrote” in his two long-term collaborations with, respectively, Joe Simon and Stan Lee. But at least with Kirby, he was solely responsible for both art and script on a assortment of later works, and a critic can examine said works to garner some idea of Kirby’s creative tendencies. And though Lee never drew any of his comics-work, one can also gain some idea of his creative propensities from those works in which the artists largely followed his scripts without much personal input.

Following the dissolution of Joe Simon’s partnership with Kirby, though, almost nothing Simon authored has accrued a fan-base. I’ve argued that he may have provided “quality control” for Jack Kirby, whose wild creativity sometimes resulted in incoherent narratives. However, very little of the material Simon authored without Kirby shows even modest creativity.

I confess that I’ve no personal acquaintance with Simon’s work on SICK MAGAZINE in the 1960s—and I’ve the impression that few fans from the period paid close attention to what seemed like just another MAD imitator. The most one can say is that it must have had something going for it to have lasted as long as it did.

Considerably less successful was the superhero line Simon engineered for Harvey Comics in the mid-1960s. Most if not all of the features edited, and sometimes written, by Simon have a tedious, gimmicky quality to them. Some fans have speculated that the line only came out because someone at Harvey knew about ABC-TV’s impending adaptation of the Batman franchise. Most of the Harvey superheroes have a constipated 1950s look to them, and even the most formulaic of Jack Kirby’s DC work, during the actual 1950s, looks good by comparison.




Discounting the last collaboration of Simon and Kirby on DC’s 1970s SANDMAN title—which indirectly gave birth to the franchise associated with Neil Gaiman—only the two-issue wonder BROTHER POWER—THE GEEK seems to have earned a modest following in fandom.

I did not read BROTHER POWER back in the day, and what little I initially heard about it made it sound like another misguided attempt by way-over-30 comics-makers to appeal to young readers by trying to sound “hip.” Moreover, the covers of the two issues were both unusually dark and suggestive of horrific interiors. In actuality, the interior art, drawn by Simon’s SICK collaborator Al Bare, reflected more in the way of antic humor than of ghastly grue.




To this date, I have not read the second BROTHER POWER issue, and don’t have the first one close to hand. I recall a few interesting mythopoeic touches in the first issue, though. One is the protagonist’s origin. He—or rather, it-- starts out as a tailor’s dummy. A bolt of lightning brings the dummy to life in the tradition of the cinematic creation of the Frankenstein Monster, and upon gaining sentience the dummy acts much like the movie-monster: perpetually baffled by the customs and contrivances of humankind. The now-living dummy is adopted by a handful of lovably goofy hippies, who give him clothes and face-painting to make him one of them.

They also give him a name with a certain mythic resonance: Brother Power. Simon was certainly exposed to the catchphrase most often associated with hippie culture: that of “flower power.” The idea was slightly oxymoronic in that the hippies knew that flowers had no power as such: that they could only seduce people away from the paths of militancy and violence by inculcating a love of beauty and fellowship. Simon may have concocted the name “Brother Power” out of a partial understanding of this ideal, for the hippie-hero—never a superhero in the accepted sense of the word—tended to use his ill-defined powers mostly in a defensive manner.



Finally, in his initial outing Brother Power is called a “geek” by someone or other; hence the additional name in the comic book’s title. Originally Simon had wanted the character to be addressed as a “freak,” because he apparently realized that this was an early instance of insult-reclamation. Squares called hippies “freaks,” and the hippies reclaimed the epithet to connote their ingroup’s specialness, as seen in Gilbert Shelton’s FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS. The story goes that DC was afraid that the word “freak” would suggest the drug-culture to readers, even though drugs are not even referenced in the initial issue. Thus Simon was obliged to substitute the sound-alike “geek,” simply because it too could be used as a term of opprobrium. 

Simon completed a third issue of the comic book before the DC hierarchy shut the magazine down, but that issue remains inaccessible to most fans. The second issue ended with Brother Power being trapped inside a space-rocket and launched away from Earth by Ronald Reagan himself, who at the time had become a conservative icon during his stint as the governor of California.  

 And that is the point from which Neil Gaiman started, when he briefly brought the Geek back into the hallowed halls of DC.

Friday, February 3, 2017

THE LINE BETWEEN '"FAIR' AND "GOOD" PART II

In Part 1 I proposed that the narrative element that most made the difference between works of "fair mythicity" and "good mythicity" was that the latter sustained more of a "unity of action," so for Part 2, I decided to provide some examples based largely upon the work of one artist, Jack Kirby, either by himself or in collaborations.

To this date one of my preferred examples for an inconsummate null-myth is the debut tale of the Jack Kirby/Dave Wood collaboration, "The Sorcerer's Box" from 1957's SHOWCASE #6. I won't repeat the arguments presented here as to why the Kirby/Wood story proved inconsummate, but here's the closest I found to a "theme statement" for the story, which in turn would have provided it with any unity of action:

....the "villain" of the story, whose name so obviously references "Merlin," is a rather half-assed version of the Faustian over-reacher.  I noted earlier that the story does touch upon the nature of masculinity, and it does, in the sense of evoking pleasure in the heroic acts of the Challengers.  But the story doesn't work well as far as positing Morelian as the obverse of the heroes, simply because he pays them to do a dangerous job.  Is Morelian in some sense "anti-masculine" for having done so?  This is a possibility, but Kirby's story (and Dave Wood's dialogue) offer little to explain why the heroes suddenly take a dislike to Morelian at the end.  



Boiled down, the potential underthought-- for Kirby and Wood probably would never have become didactic enough to produce a complementary overthought-- might read something like, "The ways of manly daredevils are better than the ways of unmanly mystics." The story doesn't succeed in evoking even that simple a theme statement, though as I pointed out in the essay, Kirby had probably completed more unitary works prior to his CHALLENGERS outings.

Now, I did not label this THOR story a "near-myth" when I examined it in COMBAT PLAY PT. 2, but it does attain a clearer theme statement than the CHALLENGERS story, even though the Lee/Kirby collaboration is no more truly didactic in its main purpose.

What does keep #152 from being just another big battle-tale, though, is that Thor and Ulik are arranged to represent philosophical postures. Thor, son of Odin and scion of Asgard, is heir to a philosophy of noblesse oblige, while Ulik describes himself as "lowly-born-- with naught to lose-- and a world to gain."



Though the sociological myth here is much clearer and more deeply resonant, though, it's still just what I've called a "myth-kernel" in the midst of a "very rambling arc" that involved, not just Thor and Ulik, but also Balder, the Norn Queen, Loki, and various other Asgardian personnel, all with arcs that don't complement one another. So it's a near-myth possessed of only "fair" mythicity. It's sort of like a disorganized essay with a strong theme statement, while the CHALLENGERS story is disorganized all the way through.

Sociological myth once more takes the fore in another Lee/Kirby collaboration, this one from a few years previous to the Thor tale. The FANTASTIC FOUR tale titled "The Red Ghost" is included as one of my mythcomics,which should suggest to readers that I give it at least some level of good mythicity. My current line of thought about the necessity of a "unity of action" within the story, which in turn supports the creators' symbolic discourse, is borne out by my observations about the balance between what could have been flat elements in a purely didactic argument:

...in contrast to other, less complex allegories-- whether from Marvel Comics or elsewhere-- Lee and Kirby devote an inordinate amount of effort to contrast the exemplary behavior of the four American heroes versus the selfish and controlling behavior of Ivan Kragoff.  This elevates the argument beyond merely "good democracy vs. evil Communism," for it speaks to what is good in humankind generally as well as to what is evil in humankind generally.  I note, just for one possible example, a scene in which Reed announces his plan to fly to the moon alone.  His comrades set him straight with a little horseplay, which nevertheless underscores that though Reed Richards leads the group, he does so with "the consent of the governed."



At the same time, I'm moved to ask whether or not this "unity of action" can also apply to longer works. I find that one of Kirby's solo achievements, the original NEW GODS epic, resonates with Aristotle's pronouncement that Homer had managed to provide unity to THE ILIAD by focusing upon "the anger of Achilles," no matter how many other separate war-related plot-lines might have spun off from that.



Kirby's abbreviated epic, reviewed here, garnered some complaints for having gone in too many directions at once, but despite some admitted flaws, the artist does always keep a unity of action in the NEW GODS comic proper. Whatever particular plot Kirby might have followed in a given issue, the concern of the title was always about the relationship of heroic Orion to his devious father Darkseid-- a relationship that Orion only suspects at the start, and which reaches a thematic culmination in the 1984 graphic novel THE HUNGER DOGS.

I concluded Part 1 with this hypothesis:

I may use this line of thought to a lead-in to another question, regarding whether it's most beneficial to have a "unity" of idea between a work's overthought and underthought, or whether the two exist on essentially separate but intersecting mental planes, not unlike the interdependence of harmony and melody in music.

I think at least the two examples of "good" mythicity in this essay demonstrate that the mythopoeic underthought does intersect with the more didactic overthought: that the former supports the latter but that neither is defined by the other.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: FLEX MENTALLO (1996)

To repeat my criteria from POMO AND PLURALISM, I’m judging works as “modernist” or “post-modernist” based on the author’s attitude toward the nature of the universe on which the work is modeled. A modernist work starts with the proposition that the fictional world depicted is modeled on a single “realistic” world that can be largely explained by science and rationality. A post-modern work states or implies the possibility of a multiplicity of worlds in the story, which may imply a similar statement about the reader’s real world, if only in metaphorical terms. Alan Moore’s MIRACLEMAN stands as an example of the first type, reading various superhero tropes, mostly from franchises like “Superman” and the Golden Age “Captain Marvel,”as pointless escapes from a unitary, mundane realty.


Though the Internet is rife with various descriptions of a personal feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, there’s no reason to assume that Morrison’s commentary on superhero tropes, either in FLEX MENTALLO or elsewhere, is necessarily a response to Moore’s treatment of them.  That said, MENTALLO also gives a great deal of emphasis to tropes associated with Superman and Captain Marvel, as well as those of The Question, Steve Ditko’s most philosophically representative creation, whom Alan Moore parodied in WATCHMEN as “Rorshach.”

The character Flex Mentallo first appeared as a fully formed concept in issue #42 of Morrison’s DOOM PATROL. This was also an endorsement of the relativity of reality, in that Flex was a character created in an amateur comic book by a kid named Wally Sage. Sage’s latent psychic powers brought Flex to life in the “real world”—or at least, as real as the Earth of DC Comics could get. 

Flex was also “unreal” in that he was modeled on the once prevalent ‘Charles Atlas” bodybuilding ads that appeared in commercial comics for many decades. Yet instead of depending on physical strength as did the character in the ads, Flex’s power was to project waves of energy from his unified “bodymind.” Nowhere in the DOOM PATROL or in this mini-series does Flex actually hit anyone in the old-fashioned way. Morrison didn't even stress any continuity between the miniseries and Flex’s previous appearances. Flex seems to exist in a world that barely has any superheroes left, which means that it can’t be DC-Earth. He does seem to share the same world as his now-adult creator Wally Sage. The two of them never meet, though they both encounter some of the same supporting characters.

The plot of FLEX MENTALLO isn’t intended to be especially coherent, so I won’t spend time summarizing it. The story more or less begins with the musclebound protagonist looking for one of his long-vanished crime-fighter colleagues, the Fact (who is in part Morrison’s take on The Question). Flex wanders through his unnamed city, having mystifying encounters with the remnants of the native superhero world, or with super-people who seem to be emigrants of some disintegrating cosmos.


Counterpointing Flex Mentallo’s peripatetic quest are the largely verbal divagations of Wally Sage. He spends most of the mini-series talking on the phone with an unseen volunteer for a crisis hotline—said crisis being that the reality-hating Wally has taken pills in an attempt to commit suicide. True, Wally is so addled that he’s not sure whether he took barbiturates or M&Ms. In many respects he seems to be the epitome of the escapist superhero fan with his head up his ass, for all he can talk about is his juvenile love of superheroes:

“…when you think about it, they’re like archetypal… they come right up from the depths, those things—how can they that stuff’s stupid?”

The imputation that superheroes are juvenile escapism is the place where most elitist critiques of the genre both start and stop. But even though Wally’s pretty messed up, Morrison implies that the character's desire for visionary experience allows him to tap into a deeper level of reality. Wally has suppressed memories that initially seem to be recollections of sexual abuse, but turn out to be a childhood encounter with “the Legion of Legions,” who are some of those emigrant superheroes mentioned earlier, trying to manifest in a nearly superhero-less world.





There’s also one more subplot: Flex has an ally on the police force, name of Harry, and for some reason Harry enlists the help of an imprisoned super-villain to investigate the threat of world destruction. The villain’s name, The Hoaxer, is a patent reference to The Riddler, making him the only major reference to DC’s Bat-mythology.

Although Morrison’s main project is to demonstrate the reality of the superhero world, if only in archetypal terms, he doesn’t neglect to picture the limitations of ordinary reality. He devotes several pages to an unnamed junkie/ male prostitute who desires transcendence so badly that he takes a drug designed to make him feel like a superhero, but he dies in the attempt. Flex tries to save him by resorting to a magic word written on a piece of paper, but finds that he’s lost the paper. 




This absurdist subversion of a standard “life-saving” trope is also another standard trope of elitist critiques. Nevertheless, Wally survives while the “last boy on Earth” (as the junkie calls himself) perishes, even though Wally clearly knows his way around a pharmacy as well. It's possibly meaningful that Wally's insights go beyond his own personal welfare, as when he conceives that the emigrant superheroes “live in a factory where ideas are made.” Further, Wally’s visions are oriented not only on himself but upon humanity as a whole, saying of superheroes, “We can be them.”

To be sure, Morrison’s vision of what superheroes mean doesn’t resemble that of most critics, even though at one point Wally declares, “Frederic Wertham was fucking right!” Clearly Morrison isn’t thinking about sexual superheroes in the same way Wertham did: as seductive power-fantasies devised to seduce innocent children. Sexual realization is part of Morrison’s program of visionary fulfillment.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the author’s validation of the Silver Age of Comics, which is, as many fans know, the comics-age Morrison experienced as a young fan. Wally observes that the Golden Age of superheroes was “pretty simple,” boiling down to the “Charles Atlas hard body homoerotic wish-fulfillment.”  (I disagree, but this one interpretation doesn’t undermine the general strength of Morrison’s theme.) Wally then observes that the Silver Age changed the paradigm. “Strange transformations, multiple realities, dreams, hoaxes… it was like the hard body began to turn soft...” I could carp that this description mostly applies to the line of Superman comics supervised by Mort Weisinger, with a little Julie Schwartz on the side, but it’s still a stimulating reading.

The miniseries concludes on the implication that the emigrant superheroes will indeed break through to Wally’s fallen reality. I’m not quite prepared to term this a Jungian katabasis, given that I think Morrison is at best a dilettante Jungian. Nevertheless, when he has Wally speak of a “synchro-interaction with readers” of this “ultra-post-futurist comic,” I’d like to think that he, as much as Jung, is trying to show the favorable aspects of understanding more worlds than just the one in front of one’s nose every day.