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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

GOOD WILL QUANTUMS

I preface the discussion referenced in the last post with another citation of my definition of the four potentialities:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of sensations.
The DRAMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of discrete personalities.
The DIDACTIC (formerly "thematic") is a potentiality that describes the relationships of abstract ideas.
The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbols.

Merriam-Webster defines "potentiality" as "the ability to develop or to come into existence," and I chose it in accordance with my belief that all human creators of art are capable to drawing upon these potential matrices of relationships. Not all creators will use all four equally, for reasons I've already detailed, but all are potentially capable of invoking such intra-literary relationships because such relationships are the essence of all discourse. Naturally, I'm only interested in discourse that either falls within the rubric of "fiction" or has an ambiguous relationship to it (see my review of ED GEIN, which I termed a work of "fictionalized reality.")

Now, by certain criteria everything fictional is "unreal," as I demonstrated in my essay HERE COMES DAREDEVIL  THE MAN WITHOUT IDENTITY. Still, even though fictional characters exist only for readers to identity with them in some manner, characters may take on the appearance of reality because they repeatedly reproduce the relationships we as readers/audiences expect of them. This illusion of reality is primarily sustained by the readers' sense of what Raymond Durgnat called "density of specification." This was a slight misquote of a tossed-off term from Henry James, and in Durgnat's original essay he seems to apply it largely to the potentiality that I have called The Dramatic:

English masters instructed us all in the necessity for realistic and deep characterization, logically consistent behavior, penetrating studies of motive, and that proliferation of vivid detail suggested by Henry James' phrase, "density of specification." 

In certain circumstances one might argue that the last of Durgnat's phrases, "the proliferation of vivid detail," could signify the world of The Kinetic, but it's impossible to know what Durgnat had in mind, and I would speculate that in the type of realistic fiction he referenced, such "vivid detail" usually serves more as backdrop from dramatic developments than as a source of varied sensations. But in this one germ from Durgnat's essay, I perceive a general principle: that density is the means by which the reader subconsciously rates one creator above another: because the reader believes that Creator A can better describe a set of relationships so "densely" that it takes on the quality of "lived experience." Thus, using comics-creators as shorthand for these positions: abstract ideas take on great density in Dave Sim, sensations take on great density in Frank Miller, "discrete personalities" take on great density in (say) Gilbert Hernandez, and symbols take on great density in (say) Grant Morrison.

Such shorthand assignments are, of course, entirely unfair: Miller, Sim, Hernandez, and Morrison have all earned places in my mythcomics assessments, which indicates that all four possess some ability to work with the matrix of The Mythopoeic. But I would say that the dominant works by each artist show that one particular potentiality has what Jung called "sovereignty" over the others, as I detailed in JUNG AND CENTRICITY:

Jung does not invoke "sovereignty" as a specific term, in contrast to the way Bataille uses it to mean what I'd translate as "megalothymotic dominance."  What Jung is really addressing is the proposition that though a subject's psychological makeup may include influences from all four functions-- once again, sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking-- only one can be dominant.

Yet the question of centricity and/or "megalothymotic dominance" is not a vital one for me at this time. I'm more interested in exploring the consistency of unreality: the various types of non-existent fictional items that exist in assorted relationships within each respective potentiality. All of these items-- sensations, discrete personalities, symbols and ideas-- derive from things that people feel and/or do in the real world. But in fiction, they have their own reality, one that I have called, following Susanne Langer, gestural.

And in the next essay I'll finally draw, as promised, upon my essay THE QUANTUM THEORY OF DYNAMICITY, if only to come up with a better term than "items" for these intangible whatyacallems.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

MERCURIAL RISINGS

My current contemplation of the four potentialities leads me to return to the 2015 essay-series REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE. I wrote this series one month before I started using the terms "overthought," "underthought" and "lateral meaning" to describe my conception of the literary process.  In Part 3 I drew some general comparisons between Jung's ideas about his "four functions" and what parallels these did or did not have with said literary process.

Drawing on Jung's comment about the purpose of each function... in literature [I consider that]"sensation" refers to the readers' identification with the physical sensations of fictional characters, while "feeling" refers to the extrinsic value that the readers place upon the characters' actions.

By contrast, in the previous passage, I said that these were the functions through which the majority of audiences interact with fictional narrative, as opposed to the functions that concern either images and symbols (intuition) or discursive ideas (thinking). This prioritization is at odds with the ontogenesis Jung presents in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, where the two irrational /perceptual functions, sensation and intuition, develop first in the human organism, and are only later followed by the rational / judgment-making functions, thinking and feeling.

In REFLECTIONS I did not so much dispute Jung's prioritization as declare it irrelevant to the literary process:

Now Jung calls intuition an "irrational, perceiving function" while thinking is a "rational function of judgment." Despite this difference, both of them seem to be secondary processes for purposes of literary identification.

The obvious reason for this-- though I didn't state it at the time-- is that while the human organism may have one ontogenetic order, a given literary narrative has another. In fact, it must have a different ontogenetic order, given that while humans are born as children and progress to adulthood, literary works are presented to their audiences in "adult" form. That is, not only are they supposed to have refined away all the confusions of their early conceptions, they are by and large produced by adults who have lived with all four functions since their own childhoods. It is for this fundamental reason that the functions of sensation and feeling are primary in both the artist's creation of his works and his audience's interactions with them, while the functions of thinking and intuition become secondary, requiring a great deal of education before one can navigate their more abstract depths.

In Part 3 I also said:

...I cited a Jung passage in which he spoke of the intuition's "mythological images" as "the precursors of ideas." Given Jung's love of symmetry, he probably contemplated a similar indebtedness between the other two functions, given that the base input of sensations-- as to whether they were agreeable or disagreeable-- can be easily seen as the basis of the feeling-function's more sophisticated decisions about what people and things ought to be accepted or rejected.

Leaving Jung's love of symmetry out of the matter, my own similar love prompts me to observe that I can see how narrative in its most elementary states-- say, stories in Golden Age comic books-- often seem to have nothing on their respective minds than establishing (1) the range of sensations possible and (2) basic (i.e., not "more sophisticated") judgments on whether people or things thus perceived should be accepted or rejected. Thus sensation retains its status as being a function both irrational and perceptual, and feeling keeps its nature as being a function both rational and judgment-oriented.

In my recent meditations on "complexity" and "density," I've come to the conclusion that all four functions, as they manifest in literature, must depend on complexity as a measure of merit. In COMPLEXITY, MEET DENSITY PT. 1  I rejected Raymond Durgnat's 'aesthetic of simplicity," in part because I think his notion of symmetry-- i.e., elementary myth-motifs must be opposed to more finely rendered renditions of verisimilitude-- was, ironically enough, too simple. Certainly I don't think of the free flow of images and symbols, as expressed by the function of intuition, is in any way less complex than any mimesis produced by any representative of realism, be it Henry James or Ben Katchor. Maybe if Durgnat had read more of Jung than of Levi-Strauss, he might have modified his stance.

I've already devoted many words to the ways in which the products of the human intuition provide the groundwork for the conceptualizations of the thinking-function. But only in this essay, THE QUANTUM THEORY OF DYNAMICITY, did I come close to verbalizing the potential connections between the sensation-function and the feeling-function as seen through my lit-crit lens. More on this in a separate essay.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

XX, MARKING THE SPOT FOR-- FEMALE MYTHS?

The month devoted to "Women's History" is almost over, but I decided to assemble a shortlist-- aided by various Trina Robbins works--  as to some of the early (up to 1980) landmark comics-creations of female creators, whether alone or in collaboration with male creators: This is not an all-inclusive list: just a snapshot of the more notable accomplishments.

1909-- Rose O'Neill creates a somewhat intermittent series of cartoons and/or comic strips called THE KEWPIES, which become a marketing sensation in the early 20th century.

1934-- Martha Orr creates a soap-opera strip, APPLE MARY, that is revamped into the better known MARY WORTH by other hands later on.

1935-- "Marge" creates LITTLE LULU as a one-panel strip, though the character becomes more famous through cartoons and comic book incarnations.

1940-- Dale Messick creates the comic strip BRENDA STARR

1941-- Tarpe Mills creates a female superheroine in MISS FURY.

1965-- Ramona Fradon collaborates on DC's METAMORPHO

1972-- Marie Severin and Linda Fite collaborate briefly on the short-lived THE CLAWS OF THE CAT from Marvel Comics.

also in 1972, Trina Robbins edited and contributed to the underground WIMMEN'S COMICS

1978-- Wendy Pini's co-creation ELFQUEST debuts.

also 1978-- Rumiko Takahashi debuts her break-out comic URUSEI YATSURA

Now, one of the reasons I compiled this list was because I was trying to see whether early female creators had at any time equaled their male compeers in terms of creating literary myths in comic strips and books. I think I can dismiss a lot of the earliest works, like those of Rose O'Neill, as being either too focused upon either kid-cuteness or upon girly glamour at the expense of any more involved storylines. Orr's APPLE MARY-- which as R,C. Harvey speculates, was probably influenced by the 1933 Frank Capra film LADY FOR A DAY-- sounds like it might have more potential, especially since Orr worked on it for about five years. But there don't appear to be any readily available collections of MARY WORTH's precursor. It does have mythic potential in that Apple Mary was supposed to be a once rich woman reduced to poverty by the Depression, which means that the strip as a whole might have incarnated a sociological myth, as do many of Capra's contemporaneous films. But there's no way I can tell for the present.



As a one-panel strip, LITTLE LULU is probably not too mythic, though it would be interesting to see how John Stanley's later comic-book work stands up to the mythopoesis test. I also confess general ignorance of BRENDA STARR, but it doesn't seem to have the symbolic richness of contemporary strips like DICK TRACY, which was taking on deeper symbolic intonations in the early 1940s.



I have read the early years of MISS FURY, and those adventures don't seem to be more than passable thrillers, though I applaud Mills' ability to do action-scenes and take chances with risque material. I actually see more potential in an earlier series Mills did for comic books, MANN OF INDIA, but I wouldn't term this as more than a "near myth."



I liked at least "The Origin of Metamorpho" well enough to put it on my mythcomics list, but I tend to think that the dominant creative partner on that series was writer Bob Haney, stylish though Fradon's artwork might be.


As for Marvel's CAT series, only the first issue, chronicling the heroine's feminist origins, succeeds as even a "near myth," The next three issues in the series' short run for some reason focused on pitting the Cat against Marvel villains with animal-names: the Owl, the Man-Bull, and Commander Kraken. Happily the Cat was revamped as the character of Tigra, and her costume was assigned to one of Marvel's early teen-humor characters, Patsy Walker. All very interesting, but none of that came about due to female creators.



I admit that I don't have a thorough grasp of European or Asian comics from the early 20 century, so there may be some literary comics-myths promulgated from female creators in those domains, But at this point it begins to look like the first verifiable comics-myths unequivocally marked by "XX" creators both appear in 1978: ELFQUEST and URUSEI YATSURA. 






Monday, March 27, 2017

COMPLEXITY, MEET DENSITY PT. 2

For the most part, whenever I've used the term "complexity" on this blog since its beginning in 2007, I've been referring to "symbolic complexity," a.k.a. "mythicity." As I recall my earlier writings for THE JOURNAL and AMAZING HEROES on myth-criticism didn't define the potential of literature to be "myth-like" in terms of a level of symbolic activity, or, if I did, I may have followed the lead of Joseph Campbell in declaring narratives to be "myth-like" if they closely followed a template derived from authentic myth. Over time, though, I've tended to view narratives in terms of Jung's idea of phenomenology, which emphasized the multifarious nature of the human personality. This was the type of "complexity" with which Jung dealt, and of his many dissections of the human soul, the one that I find most persuasive is his concept of the four functions, which he boils down thusly:



The essential function of sensation is to establish that something exists, thinking tells us what it means, feeling what its value is, and intuition surmises whence it comes and whither it goes. 

Jung did not apply the functions to literature at all so far as I know, so I did so, extrapolating from the four psychological functions four potentialities, as described in FOUR BY FOUR. The potentialities don't follow the same ontogeny as the functions, because the former apply not to general perception but to the application of the functions in human art, which result in four potential modes of literary action:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of sensations.

The DRAMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of discrete personalities.

The DIDACTIC (formerly "thematic") is a potentiality that describes the relationships of abstract ideas.

The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbols.

In Jung's schema every human psyche must include all four functions, though inevitably individuals will favor one over all the others. However, not every work of art is designed to reflect all four potentialities. An artwork can favor one potentiality and display no direct reference to any other, as I also said in FOUR BY FOUR:

I might attempt to use Jung's function-terms to assert that Dave Sim's cerebral CEREBUS privileges the function of "thinking" more than any other, and that Frank Miller's SIN CITY privileges the function of "sensation." 

Naturally, even authors who may be fixated upon a particular function always have the potential, so to speak, to try their hands at the other three.

Now, throughout this blog I've largely been analyzing works from the standpoint of the mythopoeic potentiality. This concentration stems from my rejection of ideological criticism, which centers principally upon the the didactic. I've distinguished between "functional" and "super-functional" uses of symbolism, in which "super-functional" implies largely the same as "high symbolic complexity," as well as Wheelwright's notion of "the plurisignative." But in previous essays I had not evolved a symmetrical approach to the other three functions, which is what I seek to do at this point.

For instance, here's Dave Sim, with his focus on "thinking," providing a complex (though not irrefutable) take on the philosophy of one particular character:




In contrast, Miller doesn't tend to give his character particularly complex didactic outlooks:



I could muster other examples of "complex vs. simple" applications of the other two potentialities as well, perhaps one that would be more to Miller's advantage than to Sim's. But the point is that any excellence within a particular potentiality stems from a given author's mastery of the narrative complexity relative to that potentiality. Raymond Durgnat's term "density" has some application as well, for it is through the density of details that even sensational fictional effects have the greatest impact upon readers.

For instance, these three DAREDEVIL action-panels by Miller--



Are innately more complex than these two rather static DAREDEVIL panels from Bob Brown.



I don't plan to continue tracing the different forms of complexity/density within each of the four potentialities: the mythopoeic is still my particular obsession. However, I have a bit more to say in future essays on the general theory of the four potentialities.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

QUICK "WHITE GODDESS" COMMENT

An example of a jungle-hero who does conform to [so-and-so's] description [of a jungle hero who excels the natives at their own arts], rather than Tarzan or Phantom, would be Sheena of the Jungle. She's a white woman brought up in the jungle, and in her introductory stories at least, there's no particular reason why she's as good a fighter as any of her Afro-Tartar people. (Yes, for some reason not evident to me, the writer decided that Sheena ruled over a lost people made of a Tartar expedition that made its way down to Africa, staked out a colony, and intermarried with the natives.) Later she stops being a queen as such and just hangs out in the jungle with her "mate," waiting for trouble to strike the local tribes-- all Black Africans by this time-- whom she then saves with her extraordinary skills.

There had been white jungle-queens before Sheena, like the one from 1931's TRADER HORN, but they seem to rule by some implied "white authority" principle. Sheena is at least an exceptional fighter, which could explain why she awes people-- and she does have a vague perceptor, a witch-doctor named Koba who raises Sheena after he (maybe) kills her real father with magic. He sets her up as a goddess and then fades from the picture for the most part, so I guess he had taken his "white goddess" lessons from watching TRADER HORN or reading the Tarzan comic strip.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

COMPLEXITY, MEET DENSITY PT. 1

In order to explain why I'm choosing to devote a lot of space to one essay in Raymond Durgnat's 1967 collection in FILMS AND FEELINGS, as I said that I would in this essay, some personal reflections by an amateur literary theorist may provide some context.

I'm not certain as to when I read the Durgnat book, but since I was exposed to a lot of esoteric materials while working for a college library in the early 1980s, that's as likely a time as ever. I already had quite a bit of grounding in Jung and Campbell, and I probably discovered Frye around the same time as Durgnat. Durgnat didn't offer a lot of heavy theory in his essays, but in one essay, "Tales Versus Novels," he propounded a theory with which I both agreed and disagreed.

I lacked a certain amount of context to Durgnat's argument when I first read it, for the essay was in part a response to a type of literary elitism the writer found in a 1884 Henry James essay, "The Art of Fiction."  To my consternation Durgnat did not cite the source of James' remarks, which I later tracked down thanks to the wonders of the Internet. "Art of Fiction" itself was written in response to a diatribe by a more obscure writer of James' time, whom I chose not to seek out. In brief, James sought to set forth his parameters for excellence in literary fiction, and in the excerpt from "Tales Versus Novels" I'll print below, it should be evident that Durgnat is arguing that James' standards are based purely upon the art of the novel, not of fiction generally. Thus, Durgnat contrasts the virtues of "tales," meaning not only bonafide folktales but also pop-fictional creations like "Li'l Abner and James Bond," with the more celebrated virtues of largely naturalistic novels.

To the aesthetic of the "tale" academic culture has, by and large, turned a blind eye. As recently as my grammar school days, English masters instructed us all in the necessity for realistic and deep characterization, logically consistent behavior, penetrating studies of motive, and that proliferation of vivid detail suggested by Henry James' phrase, "density of specification." We were besought to insist upon the "texture of lived experience," and many of the exegeses we studied had strained to detect such "density" in such improbable places as folk ballads, or Chaucer's tale of Patient Griselda. Yet it was curious that, rich and complex as was the showpiece of the "complexity" school, HAMLET, each critic struggled to isolate its hero's "real" motives, to simplify, to synopsize, him into a figure almost as systematic and simple as another famous procrastinator, Li'l Abner. For, as Erich Auerbach remarked in his study of the development of European literary realism, "To write history is so difficult that most historians are forced to make concessions to the technique of legend."

A minor point first: in the essay to which I linked, James actually speaks of "solidity of specification" when he extols the ability of modern fiction to bring forth that texture of lived experience.  However, Durgnat's inaccurate memory is more inspired than the original, for the ideal of literary realism is based not so much in how "solid" things are-- which is "not at all" since fiction is not real-- but rather, in how "densely" an author provides all the details that produce the illusion of reality.

Now to a more substantial point: Durgnat is suggesting is that academic culture ought to appreciate not just the aesthetic of complex specification, but also the aesthetic of simplicity that one finds in folktales and popular fiction, and even in "high art" (like HAMLET), whose complexities ultimately reduce down into many of the same simple oppositions one finds in "low art." Here's Durgnat celebrating the symbolic oppositions one finds in Mary Shelley's famous creation:

The Frankenstein Monster is brutal but pathetic; he's a creature who masters his creator; he's brute material capable of a lofty idealism that, turning sour, makes him a devil-- but a sympathetic one.

I agree with Durgnat's readings of folk-lit and pop-lit in general, but the "disagreement" I mentioned above comes in when he tries to make these rather Levi-Straussian oppositions emblematic of his "aesthetic of simplicity." I don't think that, say, his Frankensteinian oppositions are simple; I think that they're just as "dense" as all the verisimilitude that Henry James ladles into his novels. I think I understand fairly well why Durgnat sought to create a contrast between his notion of tale-like simplicity versus academia's received opinion that "proliferation of vivid detail" was the defining virtue of all fiction, with the prose novel standing in as the best representation of that aesthetic. But I also think it was a mistake, because the academic community flourishes on the demonstration of hidden complexity beneath the surface of any narrative. As far as I can tell, Durgnat's aesthetic of simplicity had little effect on academia, be it concerned with the critique of prose or of cinema. In contrast, while the influence of Carl Jung's analytical psychology proves less popular than the pseudo-scientific formulations of Freud and Marx, there are still assorted critics who advocate the exploration of symbols through a Jungian lens-- in large part because Jung, like literary critics, was all about finding complexity amid apparent simplicity.

In future essays within this series, "density" will prove useful in further identifying the virtues of what I've termed, with due reference to Jung, the four potentialities.

Friday, March 24, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: BROTHERS OFTHE SPEAR ARCHIVES #1 (1951-55)



I grew up with the BROTHERS OF THE SPEAR characters as a backup feature in the Dell (later Gold Key) TARZAN comic book. The titular siblings were foster brothers: one being Natongo, a native Zulu prince, the other Dan-El, his foster brother, a white youth adopted by Natongo's father upon the death of Dan-El's natural father. At the time I read the feature, black characters were just beginning to show up in comics-genres other than the jungle-adventure story, so I didn't attach any special importance to the fact that BOTS was an "Ebony and Ivory" partnership. Only much later did I learn that the feature had been in the Tarzan comic for a really long time, since 1951; about fourteen years before ABC-TV made history by devoting a serious adventure-series to the exploits of a salt-and-pepper team played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. In 1951, the comic-book medium wasn't displaying nearly as many of the negative Black stereotypes that had been evident throughout the 1940s, but one didn't see many positive images of Blacks either. BROTHERS is one of the few exceptions, though indubitably it was only possible because Tarzan was the character selling the book. I'd be surprised if any of the 1950s covers even referenced the feature's existence.

I've only read the first of Dark Horse's three reprints of BROTHERS, but I feel fairly sure in labeling the entire series to be a "near myth," based on my knowledge of the 1960s feature and its short run as a stand-alone comic book in the early 1970s. BROTHERS was intended by all those involved in its creation-- writer Gaylord DuBois and artists Jesse Marsh and (later) Russ Manning-- as juvenile, episodic adventure. As a backup feature, Dan-El and Natongo usually had only six pages for each installment. Thus there weren't a lot of reflections or ruminations, the brothers went from one jungle-peril to another without much down-time.



The motive force for the plot was that once Dan-El became old enough, he wanted to seek out the culture from which his late father came. Natongo, roughly the same age, didn't need to know who he was, but such was their sibling devotion that the Zulu prince joined the search, attempting to follow the very minimal clues they had. For about the first ten issues-- all drawn by Marsh-- the series seems entirely naturalistic: just two young men, one of whom happens to be white, having adventures in the wilds of Africa. Then, after Manning takes over the strip, the heroes begin encountering uncanny phenomena. In fact, Dan-El's lost people are one such phenomenon, being a race of Caucasians living apart from the blacks in Africa. This tribe, going by the name of "Aba-Zulu," is also controlled by a breed of sinister witch-doctors who use various "fake magic" tricks to enslave the populace, at least until the advent of Natongo and Dan-El-- the latter just happening to be a prince of the tribe, destined to inherit the authority of his dead father.

The time is never faithfully nailed down: Dan-El and Natongo encounter some white men who use handguns and are dressed in line with 20th-century fashion, but most of the adventures seem to take place in an Africa wherein Europeans have made few incursions. One assumes that writer DuBois meant for Dan-El's people to be the result of a very early incursion. However, whereas Edgar Rice Burroughs usually based his "lost white people" on some well-defined group, like ancient Romans, DuBois tells the reader nothing about the denizens of Aba-Zulu except that they worship the "One True God"-- albeit without any specifications. I'd guess that even in the adventures I've not read, DuBois chose to keep the culture of Aba-Zulu fairly vague. These "African Caucasians," though, dress like Black Africans for the most part, even though the only cross-cultural influence one sees are the witch-doctors, who are implicit doppelgangers for their Black kindred-in-spirit. This implied conflict between a very primitive form of religion and a more advanced one is the most mythic aspect of BROTHERS, but since the essence of the conflict remains off-stage as it were, it can only be a "near myth."

The same thing applies to the seamless brotherhood between Dan-El and Natongo. I'm sure that some modern readers would object to the early storyline's emphasis on Dan-El's journey, though with the benefit of "foresight" I know that eventually stories will show the development of Natongo as a king in his own right. Similarly, just as Dan-El meets Tavane, the woman destined to be his queen, Natongo will also meet his future queen Zulena-- and that both women are destined to be martial presences in their own right, veritable "Sisters of the Spear." That said, BROTHERS is very much a boys' adventure, with no time for romance, though there is an unusual moment in one of the first adventures, when a formidable Black African warrior-queen, Liloma, takes an interest in Dan-El. It was certainly unusual to even allude to the notion that a Black female might fancy a Caucasian, particularly in a juvenile-targeted comic book. Still, nothing comes of Liloma's affection thanks to a timely invasion from a hostile tribe.

The relationship of Dan-El and Natongo has some mythic potential; just the image of the two of them working together as equals cannot fail to communicate the resonance of an important sociological myth. Yet, because the brothers are so unfailingly loyal to one another, they don't have any individuality. Late in this archive's continuity, Natongo swears by the One True God of Dan-El's people. There is of course no space devoted to the Zulu prince's religious conversion: he's simply taken on the same faith as his cherished sibling, without explanation. I imagine that the kids at whom the feature was directed-- most likely white kids-- this unexplained character-touch would have meant nothing more than that Natongo was on the side of the "good guys." But it does make me realize that, even with the best intentions, some period chauvinism still managed to sneak in.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

DWELLING ON DURGNAT

I've mentioned Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002) in passing a few times on this blog, but in the coming days I plan to analyze one of his pieces in depth, the better to amplify some of the aspects of my own theory.

The details of Durgnat's significance as a film-critic can be found on this Wikipedia page. As the bibliography shows, the majority of his works focused on particular film-makers or particular films, but there are some general-theory works. I assume that most of these tomes were, as is traditional in the world of academic publishing, cobbled together from separate essays written for magazines like FILM COMMENT or SIGHT AND SOUND. The Wikipedia page mentions at least one essay that he worked into the book that most resembles a "general theory of film aesthetics," the 1967 FILMS AND FEELINGS. I can well believe it that this book originated as an assortment of essays on related themes, for most if not all chapters are just a few pages long.

Doing a variety of searches on the web for Durgnat and related topics, I don't get the sense that the legacy of this once influential critic has had much impact on current Internet film-writings. Nor did I get any sense that the worlds of elitist comics-criticism were even slightly acquainted with the man; combined searches of Durgnat's name with those of THE COMICS JOURNAL or THE HOODED UTILITARIAN yielded nothing of substance. (As I opined in an earlier piece, I was surprised when I learned that some HUddite even knew who Northrop Frye was.)

There are probably more differences than similarities between the myth-critic Frye and Durgnat the "radical populist" (as the Wiki essay calls him). Still, they share a concern with the idea that popular art is not radically estranged from "high art." On the first page of FILMS AND FEELINGS, Durgnat asks rhetorically:

To what extent does criticism habitually dismiss as "bad art" films which are "coarse-grained"-- but authentic and rewarding-- and so falsify its view of the medium?

Durgnat does not quite explain what he means by "coarse-grained," but I think it likely that he was contrasting "coarse arts" with "fine arts." Chapters in the book defend such "coarse art" as 1945's THE WICKED LADY (about a female highwayman) and 1955's THIS ISLAND EARTH (Earthmen dealing with alien imperialism). The first film Durgnat mentions in the book is Nicholas Ray's 1954 western JOHNNY GUITAR, and though he freely admits that he doesn't claim that the film "is a masterpiece," but he does say that it "typifies the interesting dramatic and moral points, and 'resonance,' of a competently made film." His aestheticized populism is also displayed in the first chapter, where he emphasizes his ambition to "find not only some 'lowest common denominators,' but also some 'highest common factors' of taste, and to do so, less by theory, than by exploring specific films."

As the previous sentence attests, FILMS AND FEELINGS does not dwell on pure theory. I imagine that like most writers of the period, Dirrgnat took some influence from the Marxists film-theorists of the day, though he seems to me far less agenda-driven than a contemporary like Robin Wood. It may be that his type of criticism has been pushed off the stage by the extreme ideologues, though I imagine that some modern readers may still yearn, as I do, to see what the critic called "the wedding of poetry and pulp."

More on Durgnat anon.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE APPROPRIATION HUSTLE PT. 2

In Part 1, I focused my attention on the ways in which the concept of "appropriation" was falsely applied to Marvel Comics' IRON FIST property. I pointed out that the idea of a fictional white Westerner "appropriating" a cultural product like "martial arts skills" from the East was not significantly different from the real-life instance of a martial artist like Bruce Lee borrowing Western fighting-style for his own martial system. "Appropriation," in fact, has become a new buzz-word for people who don't know Roland Barthes from a hole in the ground. (Granted, the two are almost equally empty, but still.)



The word recently appeared in the statements of black artist Hannah Black as she argued that "Open Casket," a painting of 1955 murder-victim Emmett Till, ought to be removed from public display and destroyed, because it represented "the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people" (full remarks here). This artist certainly takes a Barthesian position in that Black conceives of Black culture as being something that only other Blacks can comment upon, while if whites do so-- like Dana Schutz, the artist who painted "Open Casket"-- their only motive can be to "transmute Black suffering into profit and fun." Ms. Black was slightly hypocritical on this matter. In the body of the protest she makes clear that she will not accept white attempts to empathize with Black suffering. Underneath it she's quoted as saying that she chose to delete names of "non-Black" posters who agreed with her, yet she was OK with said non-Blacks helping "in other ways" to have the offending painting expunged from human history.



This is such an extreme view of the idea of appropriation that even the ladies of the ABC-TV talkfest THE VIEW agreed that Black simply didn't understand what real appropriation was. And given that this talk show skews very liberal, I think it significant that Whoopi Goldberg equated Ms. Black's attempt to destroy a piece of art with the repressive tactics of Nazi Germany.

Black's uncompromising view holds much in common with the "We Must Have an Asian Iron Fist" argument, in that all such proponents have formed an exaggerated idea of the extent to which a given culture can "own" anything, be it a cultural practice or a history of suffering and marginalization. There certainly have been examples of white artists putting forth bad art with respect to the race problem: Stanley Kramer's movie "The Defiant Ones" comes to mind. But I don't want to see the movie eradicated from history, and even if Schutz's painting were as bad as the movie, I don't think it's ethical to call for its marginalization and/or destruction.



When it comes right down to it, the protest over both the painting and the Netflix series (for which I've now posted an incomplete review) comes down to certain individuals feeling marginalized by something they don't like to see in art. For Black and her supporters, it's the image of Black people suffering, at least when depicted by non-Blacks; for the Iron Fist ideologues, it's the unfair prevalence of Caucasians in popular entertainment. In both cases I think the proponents have devoted themselves to both bad logic and bad ethics. But at least they're not actually distorting historical fact, like the 2015 film SELMA, whose factual inaccuracies have been widely exposed in essays like this TIME article.   In one interview, director Ava DuVeray defends the accuracy of her portraits of both Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, but somehow both she and her host fail to mention that she imputed Johnson as having colluded with Hoover in attacking King, which is pure fiction.



In an essay I can no longer find online, one writer asserted that SELMA's appeal for Black audiences was to rewrite history so that it seemed that only Black People got the Civil Rights Act passed, without any help from an ofay like Johnson, much less from Jewish rabbis.  Clearly, when things get to a point where a filmmaker like DuVeray falsifies history for her agenda, or an artist like Hannah Black calls for the destruction of a fine-arts painting, one can no longer blame such bad behavior purely on the offenses of white culture, ranging from the really egregious (BIRTH OF A NATION) to works that supposedly marginalize minorities by doing the same thing SELMA did (MISSISSIPPI BURNING).

And where does a commercial property like IRON FIST rate in this cultural equation? Well, if the comic book had ended with its fifteenth issue and the character had never been seen again (unlikely though that would be at Marvel Comics), then he would have remained a big fat zero in the matrices of culture. But Marvel didn't just cancel IRON FIST: they teamed him with the also struggling character POWER MAN, transforming the latter's book into POWER MAN AND IRON FIST with the title's forty-eighth issue.



For the remainder of the magazine's original run, the series remained fairly lightweight with respect to race issues or anything else. Nevertheless, I think that even if the feature didn't change any hearts and minds in and of itself, I have always believed that its implied "Ebony and Ivory" theme meant something within the world of comic books. It signified a basic faith, like the 1960s teleseries I SPY, that blacks and whites could overcome their differences.

I don't know what long-term plan the producers of the IRON FIST show have in mind, beyond the public announcement that at some point, Luke Cage and Iron Fist will be teamed once again, albeit in a larger team using the rubric "The Defenders." (Apparently the original idea was to revive the "Heroes for Hire" brand, but someone thought "Defenders" more salable). I think it likely that the series-producers wanted to duplicate some of the "Ebony/Ivory" theme from the comics, and that this is one big reason why "Asian Iron Fist" ran counter to the producers' long-term plans. There may well be important social statements one could make in the teamup of an Asian-American hero and an African-American hero. But I think the pairing of white and black still has a greater resonance within American culture, and that even flawed works like Kramer's "Defiant Ones" don't diminish that resonance. Any attempts to erase or efface the truth of that symbolism must be viewed as mere political power-jockeying.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE MAN WHO WOULD NOT DIE" (SWAMP THING #10, 1974)

This week artist Bernie Wrightson, best known as the co-creator (with writer Len Wein) of DC's Swamp Thing, passed away. This prompted me to re-read the first ten issues of the comic, to see if any of those issues had a strong enough symbolic discourse to merit the label of "mythcomic."

I wasn't optimistic in my search. Though Wrightson's masterful draftmanship was evident in every issue, and though the Swamp Thing is one of DC's better-known horror-heroes thanks to his media-exposure, most of the Wein-Wrightson stories are enjoyable "near myths," but not quite complex enough.

Except, happily, the last such collaboration.



In contrast to many of the writer-artist collaborations at DC in the 1970s, I imagine Wrightson exerted considerable influence over what went into the issues. In one old interview. for example, he mentioned that the magazine gave him the chance to draw all or most of his favorite movie-monsters. That said, "The Man Who Would Not Die" is the only story in which Wrightson is credited with the plot. So it may be that, as he was perhaps winding down his association with the series, Wrightson may have tried to do something a little more ambitious than "monster of the month."

Some backstory: in issue #1, we see how scientist Alec Holland becomes transformed into a monstrous swamp-creature, and how he yearns for the chance to reverse the transformation. In issue #2 he gets the chance at a Faustian bargain when he meets another scientist, Anton Arcane. Arcane  offers the muck-monster a chance at liberation: using a special device, Arcane can separate the "Swamp Thing body" from that of the man it transformed, by transferring the former to himself, which transformation Arcane welcomes, in order to escape his status as a decrepit old man, doomed to die soon. Swamp Thing accepts and becomes Alec Holland once more. However, he learns that Arcane hopes to use the near-invulnerable plant-body to wreak havoc on innocent people. Thus Alec does the right thing, reversing the transformation and re-assuming his monstrous nature. Arcane dies and Swamp Thing goes on to other adventures. However, Arcane is "the man who would not die"-- or at any rate, one of them.

In the previous issue, Swamp Thing managed to make his way back to the Louisiana swampland where (in this iteration) he was "born." While wandering in the fens, he comes across an escaped convict about to kill an old black woman:



The convict, who goes by the punny name "Hunk" Dorry, squares off against the monster as Swamp Thing comes toward him-- but all is not hunky-dory for Hunk, for he topples over dead, having taken several bullets during his escape. The old woman, not the least bit frightened by the swamp creature, introduces herself with a no less punning name.



Though "Auntie De Luvian" would make a great name for a horror-story hostess, I assume that whoever coined this name was making a veiled reference to the woman's age-- although one has to wonder about said age, since she soon starts relating a story from Louisiana's slavery years, apparently prior to the Civil War, as if she witnessed it all.

Auntie tells Swamp Thing that a great cotton plantation once abided on or near the swamplands, and that even for a slave life there might have been pleasant-- except that the slave-owner, Samson Parminter, was exceptionally sadistic. Parminter seems to have a liking for the European custom of "drawing and quartering:" when a young slave-woman named Elsbeth resists Parminter's overtures, he commands for her to be torn apart. A burly male slave named "Black Jubal." protests, because Elsbeth is his promised bride. A dry caption tells the reader that since Parimnter had already removed one of Jubal's arms long ago, so instead of having him quartered, Jubal meets a fate explicitly compared to that of a Christian martyr.




However, despite being one-armed, Jubal manages to reach his enemy from beyond the grave, for at some later point-- presumably after Elsbeth too has been murdered-- Parminter is "torn limb-from-limb" and his remains scattered throughout the manor. Auntie De Luvian then concludes the story, saying that the slaves "run away" that the plantation fell into ruin, and that she, Auntie, stayed in the swamp because she had nowhere else to go. At that point, she then warns Swamp Thing about the presence of "unholy things."





The "things" happen to be Arcane and his synthetic monsters, his "un-men." It seems that though Arcane's original body did perish, the un-men managed to resurrect him in a synthetic body-- albeit one not very well constructed. Arcane and his servants have tracked the monster-hero to these lands, and the villain still has his same agenda in mind: to take over the Swamp Thing body while expunging the persona of Alec Holland. So they fight--




Then the fight-- which Swamp Thing is losing-- is interrupted by some unquiet spirits. It seems that during the battle Arcane makes several verbal references to making modern humans his "slaves"-- and this is enough to offend the ghosts of the slaves who died in the swamp.




Swamp Thing does not witness what the ghosts do to Arcane and his minions, for Black Jubal himself bids the swamp-monster to fall asleep. When he awakens, he finds that in the graveyard dedicated to the deceased slaves, some new gravestones have been erected for the evildoers. In addition, when the hero goes looking for Auntie, he finds only another gravestone, proving that the woman to whom he spoke was also a ghost-- specifically, that of "Elsbeth de Luvian."

While this can be seen as a fairly traditional horror-story in which the dead come back to avenge past crimes, I find that there's a little more attention to detail than in the average ghost-story. Samson Parimnter of course has no resemblance to the Biblical Samson, though the first name is similar to that of literature's archetypal evil slaver, Simon Legree. Similarly, the Biblical character of Jubal from Genesis bears no resemblance to the hulking, one-armed slave-- but the name sounds not dissimilar from the Hebrew festival of Jubilee in which, Wikipedia relates, "slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest."

In conclusion I can't resist observing that an ideological critic would probably be offended by the story's association between a "real-world" evil like American slavery and a "made-up" evil like a mad scientist. However, it's clear to me that even if Arcane is a fantasy-figure, he's a more than accurate analogue to the evil of world conquerors generally-- and thus, the ghosts have ample reason to despise anyone who proclaims a desire to bring back slavery of any kind.




Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE COMPLICATIONS OF COMEDY PT. 3

In this essay I summed up the "theme statement" from one of my key essays on "focal presences," ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE:


ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE established simply that it is possible for a work to possess two or more "focal presences," who may work as a team (the two alleged vampires in 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, various superhero groups) or may be utterly opposed (1934's THE BLACK CAT, 1968's WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS).  The latter is an important point in that the concept of "mortal enemies" pervades most if not all literary genres in one way or another. Usually either a "hero" or a "villain" alone is the focal presence, just as one sees with the examples from Haggard: the "heroic" Allen Quatermain and the "villainous" She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. 
On some occasions, the "centric will" may seem to emphasize the protagonist's opponent more than the protagonist-- as with the Batman tale "Laugh, Town, Laugh"-- and yet, in terms of the way the story is presented, it's still a Batman story, not a Joker story. But then, most if not all Batman stories follow the exothelic pattern. while all three of the horror-movies referenced above are endothelic: they seek to represent the nature of willing subjects that seem to be partly or fully negative with respect to the community within each narrative. All of the focal characters in these movies are "monsters," even though the "two alleged vampires" of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE are at the film's end are revealed to be actors in costume, merely acting out the dark fantasies of the story's actual villain.

Such last-minute transitions of the main character's persona are usually not the case. but there are some famous examples. Katniss Everdeen is in essence a demihero who finds herself forced to take the role of a hero, but by the end of the book-trilogy, she essentially reverts to the status of the demihero. However, I recently reviewed here a work of far less consequence than any iteration of THE HUNGER GAMES. It's interesting only in that it offers a more radical transition than one usually sees in works relating to the "superspy" genre, even in the subgenre of the "spy spoof."

The 2004 film D.E.B.S. is, as I said in the review, essentially "the glorification of the film's amour fou," which happens to be a lesbian hookup between Amy, a woman who initially dedicates her life to the persona of a hero, and Lucy, who has for some time prior to meeting Amy accepted the destiny of a villain-persona. By the end of the film, though, both women have decided that "Love is All There Is," and they flee the roles of both heroism and villainy. The lightweight tone and content of D.E.B.S. implies that they will live lesbianically ever after-- which is interesting to me, in my study of personas and focal presences, because it's more typical to see demiheroes transform into heroes, villains, or monsters-- but not the other way round. It's also more frequent to see demiheroes remain demiheroes from start to finish, particularly when they are found in ensembles, as I argued in THE COMPLICATIONS OF COMEDY PART 2, with the focal characters of TOPPER and I MARRIED A WITCH as my main examples.

IRRELEVANT ASIDE: I've argued that one can find "glory" as the essential-- if not overtly expressed-- motivation of most villains. I found this opinion echoed when I re-screened Michael Cimino's 1974 ironic heist-film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. Wounded unto death, the character of Lightfoot sums up his criminal career with Thunderbolt with these dying words:

You know... you know somethin'? I don't think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero.


MYTHCOMICS: "THE BULL" (STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES #141, 1968)

I'm no expert on war-stories. In my formative years I rarely sampled read the genre in comics, and have only sampled a few classics, like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and its sequel. However, while any genre has the potential to acquire the complexity of myth, I would tend to say that the odds are a little more in the favor of aviation-related war stories. The very idea of human beings propelling themselves into the skies to do battle suggests the aerial adventures of Greek Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus, and so far I've cited two mythcomics in this series that relate to pilot-characters, here and here. (I've cited a second Blackhawk story as well, but it doesn't stress their status as flyboys.)

DC Comics' ENEMY ACE has long been a fan-favorite of the Silver Age, probably more for the excellent Joe Kubert art than for Robert Kanigher's writing. Some evidence would suggest that Kanigher was the dominant partner in the collaboration, since Kanigher was editor on the feature when it began in OUR ARMY AT WAR, even though Kubert edited all or most of their collaborations in the feature's longest run in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES. The feature started out as a co-feature in the first title and got a run as a solo title in DC's SHOWCASE title, but presumably did not sell well enough to earn its own title: instead taking over STAR-SPANGLED.

Kanigher had a tendency to treat his comics-work in a careless manner, as I've shown in reviews like this one on his METAL MEN and this one on his WONDER WOMAN.  And a lot of his war-genre comics are no better: one day I'll have to decide which is the most atrocious of his HAUNTED TANK stories. Yet neither his carelessness nor his antic humor shows up in ENEMY ACE. I tend to think he may considered the milieu worthy of a sort of "high seriousness," or what might pass for as much in commercial Silver Age comic books. The majority of Kanigher's stories about Hans Von Hammer-- a German flying ace scoring a record number of "kills" during World War One, when fighter-planes seemed not much less risky than the wings of Icarus-- are not complex enough to produce mythcomics, but almost all are at least "near myths." The one exception is the story entitled "The Bull."



It's entirely appropriate that the cover of SSWS #141 should feature an impending duel between the hero-- Hans Von Hammer, "Rittmeister" of his own fighter-squadron-- and the story's titular villain, a ruthless pilot under his command. The pistol-duel is, as much the aerial dogfights of WWI, drenched in the romance of honorable combat. Indeed, this is the main reason that the cover of SHOWCASE #57 boasts that "only DC dares reveal the ENEMY side of the war:" because the Germans of World War One could be viewed through the lens of romance, in sharp contrast to those of World War Two.
This is the first time in the series that Von Hammer-- nicknamed "the Hammer of Hell" for his many men he's sent to a fiery death-- takes arms against one of his people, but the struggle has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with individual honor.

The lines are clearly drawn from the first. Von Hammer returns from a mission to his squadron, and is told that one of his men has "murdered" a fellow member of the Jagdstaffel. To be sure, it's a sin of omission more than commission:




The flyer known only as "the Bull" is so busy attacking a particular enemy-plane-- Kanigher cleverly relates the repeated attacks to the chargings of a mad bull-- that he fails to come to the aid of another flyer from his own side. Note that the story is related by Ernst, the brother of the slain man, and Ernst is drawn to be the exact physical opposite of the hulking Bull: a weak-chinned shrimp.

Being an old-school officer who does things for himself, Von Hammer seeks out the Bull, who's busy celebrating his kill in a tavern and knocking around smaller men. The drunken flyer attacks Von Hammer, who blithely warns him not to do so ("I do not wish to see you court-martialed for striking a superior officer.") Von Hammer easily outmaneuvers the Bull's wild swings and finally demonstrates his superior fighting-ability by lifting the bigger man and hurling him against the wall ("I felt like the giant Atlas holding up the sky," he thinks). Kanigher overdoes his share of bull-references, ranging from Von Hammer feeling like a "matador" as he dodges his opponent, to comparing the man to "a bull in a china shop." (It's not hard to imagine the writer penning similar asides in some Batman story.) Kanigher does better as the sequence concludes. Von Hammer drives back to camp with his unconscious burden in his car, punning on the English word "ringmaster" as he thinks, "I am the Rittmeister of a flying circus-- complete with wild animals."

Even after the lout's egregious attack, Von Hammer declines to punish the Bull, except to ground him for one week, and to lecture him: "Even in war, we are still men-- NOT ANIMALS!" Yet the Bull will not accept the verdict, and challenges the Rittmeister to the duel seen on the cover.

Von Hammer meets the Bull for their duel-- at dawn, naturally-- and Von Hammer, who has just finished a night-patrol, leaves his Fokker plane running as the prize of the contest: to be claimed by whoever survives. But Ernst demands the right to challenge the Bull on behalf of the dead flyer, Ernst's brother. Ernst is slain and Von Hammer is consumed by ungentlemanly rage, so that he attacks the Bull with his fists. Without consciously meaning to do so, the Enemy Ace knocks his animal-like foe straight into the whirling propeller of the Fokker. "My ship-- executed the Bull," he thinks, and Kanigher misses the opportunity to make some allusion to the fate of real bulls at the hands of the butcher. Yet that might have been over-thinking the matter, in comparison to the terse simplicity of the story's final lines:

"The guilty one had paid the penalty-- but in reality-- weren't we all guilty?"

Note: this particular story is, like most ENEMY ACE stories, naturalistic in phenomenality. However, some stories in the original series enter the realm of the uncanny, as when Von Hammer meets a quasi-costumed pilot called the Hangman, and when he encounters a mysterious black wolf in the forest, one that may or may not be real, but at any rate mirrors Von Hammer's own talent for dealing death.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

THE APPROPRIATION HUSTLE

On this BEAT post, I corrected Heidi for referencing "whitewashing" on the Netflix IRON FIST series, which I have not yet seen. Then I added a slight amendment of my position:

I will note that I've seen the IRON FIST show accused of "whitewashing Asian themes" to get around the fact that the central character was always white, and maybe that's what Heidi referenced. Still, it's dubious as to how much the trope of the "lost Asian land where people learn great secrets" is an actual creation of Asians.  I assume the trope existed in Asian culture, whether it was rooted in fiction or in legend, but was James Hilton referencing any of these when he wrote LOST HORIZON in 1933? Or was he just making up his lost land out of whole cloth, and grafting it onto Tibet because Tibet was conveniently out of the way?

Since this thread may get closed any moment as did the one I referenced here, I don't expect to discuss cultural appropriation there, so I'll give it a stab here.

It's been some time since I attacked the inadequacies of Roland Barthes, but the linked essay ought to outline my general problems with his oversimplification, particularly the idea of appropriation, which he touted in paragraphs like this one:

Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self- indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.
I critiqued Barthes' narrow notion of "consumption" as an attempt "to reflect a doctrinaire Marxist imperative," one depending upon a supposed pure experience and one that has been tainted by "consumption." Elsewhere in MYTHOLOGIES, though, Barthes contradicts his words above by treating the products of a given culture-- specifically, the architecture favored by the Basque people-- as if they were "pure" in their original state but were "tainted" by the evil of modern Parisian appropriation.

Of course, as I've mentioned elsewhere, one can't assume that the Basque architectural style was conceived by Basques and Basques alone: they may have borrowed some or all of their design-motifs from other contiguous peoples. But I don't for a moment believe that Barthes cared about real-world influence: only about castigating French bourgeoisie for the sin of appropriation. This is essentially the argument advanced by the proponents of the "White Privilege" theory: it doesn't matter if Asian creators borrow motifs from so-called "western culture," like the well-documented fact that Bruce Lee "appropriated" western boxing-styles for his martial art-- it's only a bad thing when White People do it, even if the general idea of "mysterious Asian lands" was probably primarily the creation of White Creators, at least as we have them in Euro-American culture.

In addition to my Hilton remark above, the pulp Shadow probably started the "heroes' Asian journeys" during the 1930s. Here's the 1939 Bill Everett character who inspired the Thomas-Kane "Iron Fist:" Amazing-Man.




Here's a much less celebrated Tibetan "white crusader," Thundohr:



And, just to show that the same hustle can be applied in other circumstances, here's a page from Jaime Hernandez's LOCAS, in which the artist has a character lecture the audience about the inappropriateness of modern white people affecting Native American hair-styles.



ADDENDUM from the BEAT thread:

Since no one's going to speak to the question of "Who If Anyone Owns the Tropes," I'll confine my remarks to saying, contra Seth, that I don't think I'm worried about whites being underrepresented.

I worry more about creators being told what they have to do by the Diversity Police.

SECOND ADDENDUM:

I'd heard of the K'un Lun legend, and I assume that Thomas and Kane knew it as well. But that doesn't get to the heart of the matter about whether these tropes belong to just one culture or not.

Same thing with the system of kung fu. If it's inauthentic for Caucasians to be martial arts masters, why isn't it inauthentic for every non-East Asian to be one? Is this a rule that applies only to Caucasians as payback for imperialism and related sins? Well, OK, if an artist feels that way, it's his right to reflect that in his work.

But if an artist doesn't feel that way-- what then?






Friday, March 10, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: ["THE WOLF GAL"], LI'L ABNER (1946)

Since I gave an example of a LI'L ABNER mythcomic this week, I decided to recycle a portion of an earlier FEMMES FORMIDABLES essay as a means of clarifying why Capp's "Wolf Gal" wasn't nearly as mythic as his Shmoos, despite possessing equal potential.



Here's the relevant excerpt from the original essay:


In 1946 Al Capp created a feral female with no such convenient inhibitions: the Wolf Gal, who lived in one of the forested areas neighboring Dogpatch with a pack of wolves.  She and her human-eating pack perpetually prey on any humans who venture too close to their territory, and though Wolf Gal could speak as well as any Dogpatch hillbilly-- which isn't saying much-- she thinks of herself as another wolf and considers all other humans her enemies.
Up to this point Capp had created many predatory females, but their mode of predation concerned attempting to seduce Li'l Abner Yokum before his true love Daisy Mae could link him to her in marriage.  Wolf Gal has some leanings in that direction, but the thing that gets her on Abner's trail was somewhat more involved.  When Wolf Gal turns eighteen, she and her pack manage to corner an old crone in her secluded cabin.  Bargaining for her life, the crone reveals that she knows Wolf Gal's nature: that at birth she was born with a "wolf's heart" despite the otherwise normal natures of her hillfolk parents.  A nearby wolf-pack senses that the child is a kindred spirit, so the pack attacks and devours her parents-- much to the delight of the infant child.  In addition to revealing Wolf Gal's origins to the lupine Amazon, the crone also makes a prediction: that Wolf Gal will only know the meaning of "love" under certain circumstances.  Wolf Gal, stung by curiosity, begins to study human mating rituals, as well as catching her first sight of Abner.  She interprets the prophecy to mean that she must kill Abner to learn what love is.
There follows one of the quickest transformations from "nature" to "culture" ever shown in fiction.  Wolf Gal decides that the only way she can get close to Abner in his Dogpatch milieu is to educate herself in the ways of women-- and not hillbilly women, but "sassiety ladies."  She journeys to some big city, locates a finishing-school, and by threatening the teacher's life forces the woman to give Wolf Gal the appearance of a well-bred woman. 

There are three strong myth-kernels here: (1) the continuing opposition of "nature" and "culture," (2) the association of hillfolk with all manner of deviant practices, including cannibalism, and (3) the association between love and death. Yet, there's something blandly functional about Capp's treatment of Wolf Gal's initial arc. It's as though he couldn't quite deal with the blatantly transgressive aspects of the wolf-child myth, and so he reduced it to just another of his many plotlines involving either the romantic seduction or attempted murder of Li'l Abner. I've found this to be an almost syndromic fault among classic American comic strips, in that they so often focus only upon "lateral meaning" as opposed to either "overthought" or "underthought:"

...  my verdict on the narrative story-strips of the classic era is that though they had greater potential for complication-- which I've elsewhere called "amplitude"-- because they could run at great lengths, they often did not use it  because they were so concerned with "straightforward linear narrative." -- STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY, PT. 2.
Thus, following the line of thought I've established in the LINE BETWEEN FAIR AND GOOD essays, the "Wolf Gal" sequence is only "fair" because it too is akin to "a disorganized essay with a strong theme statement."

Thursday, March 9, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: ["THE MUSIC OF THE SHMOOS"], LI'L ABNER (1948)

In STRONG CONTINUITY, WEAK CONTINUITY PT. 2, I wrote:

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



I have not yet tracked down what Shmoo-strip I'd read when I made this comment, but it's now clear to me that I had not read the original sequence from 1948. My source for the original story-- the 1998 Kitchen Sink reprint-- mentions in passing that creator Al Capp returned to his Shmoo-theme a few other times, so I assume I saw some later Shmoo-outing.

I also mentioned in the cited essay that a lot of Capp's storylines were too haphazard to generate "significant mythicity." The storyline I'm calling "Music of the Shmoos"-- a bad pun I consider worthy of Capp's own bad puns in the sequence-- is no less haphazard than the average Capp continuity. However, in giving birth to the Shmoos, Capp came up with a concept strong enough to unify all of his humorous schticks.

The reason I thought that the Shmoo-sequence might boast nothing more than an over-intellectualized overthought was because I'd seen much commentary about the political reactions to the concept. According to Dave Schreiner, whose essay on Shmoo-history appears in the Kitchen Sink volume, Capp got complaints from factions identified with both "the Right" and "the Left." The objections of the Right seem more immediately justified, for the Shmoo-- a creature who looks much like a walking penis with a cartoon-walrus face-- directly threatens the forces of capitalism. The Shmoos, who have existed "since the dawn of time," inhabit a lonely valley near Dogpatch. Li'l Abner Yokum seeks out the valley, guided by some strange music he alone hears. Once he gets into the valley, he meets a hairy old man, who tells him that the Shmoos are unique, self-sacrificing creatures who can provide for all the creature comforts human beings desire.




This means, of course, that anyone who makes money off providing such comforts is out of luck.




There are no explicit barbs at the Left in the sequence. Still, it's not hard to see why persons of any strong political persuasion would resent the idea of the Shmoos. In my analysis IDEOLOGY VS. MYTH, I extrapolated the position taken by Northrop Frye: that all ideologies are rooted in their ability to deliver the Good Things in Life:

Name any ideology out there and at base it's just another way for its adherents to maximize their chances of getting those things that make life pleasurable and fulfilling.
I suggest that this is the reason the Left didn't like the Shmoo any more than the Right did. If you've got magical creatures who can provide for your every need, why do you need socialism any more than you need capitalism?

Schreiner covers two of the great appeals of the Shmoo for postwar audiences: that the creature spoke to Americans who had been forced to do without many creature comforts during World War II, and the fact that the Shmoos look like living penises, making them intrinsic symbols of plenitude. (That said, we learn late in the sequence that there are both male and female Shmoos, though elsewhere Capp himself says they're asexual.) Schreiner also points out that Capp the consummate businessman almost certainly planned to make the Shmoos into a multi-level merchandising property even before the August 1948 sequence appeared. That said, the fact that Shmoo merchandise did become phenomenally popular for the next few years suggests that Capp knew the temper of his audience, knew that the American people would respond favorably to this image of living "Horns of Plenty." At the same time, Capp is enough of a satirist-- even though the sequence as a whole is more comedy than satire-- to paint human beings almost in the light of cannibals, despite the invariable willingness of the Shmoos to be eaten.




Capp clearly knew that he, as much as the businessmen in the strip, needed to put an end to the Shmoos so that his comic strip could return to what passed for "normal." Thus the artist has a squad of hitmen descend upon the hillbillies and use high-powered guns to wipe out all known Shmoos in Dogpatch. However, two Shmoos-- one male and one female-- remain.

At this point, most sane artists would have the couple speed back to their hidden valley to repopulate, never to be seen again. Instead, in one of his daffiest sequences, Capp decided to intermingle the successful Shmoo-myth with the other famous trope of the ABNER strip: the Sadie Hawkins Day Race.

As some readers of the blog may know, this annual competition featured a literal "manhunt. " Dogpatch bachelors are given a head start, after which they're chased down by the unmarried women of Dogpatch-- who range from the ghastly to the gorgeous-- and any man who gets caught has to marry his captor. From the genesis of the strip, this provided Capp with an excuse to have incorrigible bachelor Abner chased down by assorted women, particularly the smitten Daisy Mae, who alone truly loved the big hillbilly lout.

This time, Abner is chased not only by Daisy, but also by an unnamed woman  who looks almost exactly like Abner, though she's apparently not related to him.To complicate Abner's predicament, he has charge of the male Shmoo, while Daisy has custody of the female one-- and while Abner doesn't want (consciously) to be caught by Daisy, the male Shmoo certainly wants to be caught by his opposite number. Many slapstick antics ensue, and Capp almost seems to be competing with himself by wedging in pleasant but irrelevant appearances by two of his most buxom female creations: Moonbeam McSwine and The Wolf Gal, Finally the two surviving Shmoos are united and sent off to breed, while Abner escapes marriage by the usual hairsbreadth.

I've saved the best for last, even though it's actually the first part of "Music." When Abner hears the mysterious, never-explained music, he draws near a place called the "Valley of the Schmoon." Later in the story Capp uses the same plural for "Shmoo" that I've been using here, apparently he used "Schmoon" as a plural in the first few strips just so he could make a couple of goofy puns with the made-up word (like talking about"the light of the silvery schmoon.") I neglected to mention that before entering the Valley, Abner encounters a threshold guardian who tries to keep him from entering.

"She's a big one!! Fire is a-flashin' fum her eyes, an' she's a-flexin' her (gulp) MUSCLES."

The guardian-- whom Abner addresses as "Large Gal"-- forbids Abner to enter the Valley. When Abner insists on entering, the statuesque woman-- clad for the most part like the usual hillbilly-- attacks him. Abner won't fight a woman and so gets knocked out. Daisy Mae comes running up, trying to save her beloved, but the valkyrie tosses Abner into the valley, apparently assuming that the fall will kill him, Abner survives, and goes on to find his way to the Shmoos, and that's the last anyone sees of "Large Gal."

So why did Capp bother to introduce Large Gal at all? She only extends the sequence about three strips, and her sole plot-function is to make Abner's quest a little more suspenseful by offering brief opposition. It's not impossible that Capp simply wanted an excuse to introduce yet another buxom female into the strip: throughout the run of LI'L ABNER Capp rarely ever missed an excuse to perform his version of Raymond Chandler's famous advice, though in Capp's case the advice was more like, "When in doubt, have a hot girl come through the door."

And yet, there are three interesting psychosexual touches to Large Gal's appearance. The first, in line with the above quote, is that Abner is initially intimated by her "muscles"-- which would not be that unusual in the modern days of women's bodybuilding, but which was a pretty rare sight in 1948. The second is that even as Large Gal prepares to execute Abner by tossing him off a cliff, she praises his manhood, calling him "a fine young specimen," and the third is that Daisy Mae associates Large Gal's aggression with romance: "Ef yo' don't want him-- toss him mah way!" Further, given that Abner's near-murder results in him leading a swarm of ambulatory penises out of a vaginal valley, I think I'm justified in saying that Capp distilled some uniquely weird underthoughts into his most pervasive comic myth: that of animals who ceaselessly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of humankind, and who must be slaughtered to prevent their interference in human commerce.

Monday, March 6, 2017

QUICKIE BEAT-COMMENT #7799

I hope to write more fully about the asinine concept of "cultural appropriation" at some future time, but for now, here's a quickie BEAT-comment that may get deleted from this thread soon:

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Anyone want to "educate" me as to how Haron can claim that Asian martial arts originated in Africa? I mean, with a straight face?

But of course "appropriation" is perfectly OK when it's done by anyone but a Caucasoid.

If I were Asian, I'd be a lot more irate to think that the origins of a major part of my culture was being cavalierly ripped off, just for the sake of making common cause against non-POC. But I suppose a lot of people will buy into anything.

ADDENDUM: To her credit, Heidi did not delete my comment or that of anyone else who objected to P.C. thinking; she merely closed the thread. I love that one of the posters labeled any protests against the PC mentality  as "false outrage" and associated all such outrage with Donald Trump. Way to have an open conversation, all right-- and in the same spirit, Heidi said that all anti-PC posters ought to "check their privilege." Once again I'm reminded of more than one guest who appeared on the happily defunct Larry Wilmore show, claiming that they wanted to "have a conversation" about race. The tenor of their remarks, like those of Heidi, reveal that they didn't want to "have a conversation" any more than Heidi does: they wanted, and she wants, purely to "win the argument."

Still not as vapid and as prone to prevarication as Berlatsky, though...

Saturday, March 4, 2017

DEMIHERO RALLIES

I've been giving a little thought recently to the concepts of "monster rallies" and "villain rallies," and how often these have been featured in various media, as opposed to the more frequent "hero rallies," better known simply as "team-ups."

However, since I'm the only one that uses the neologism "demihero," denoting thereby a fourth essential literary persona there are of course no "demihero rallies" as such. They do exist, but audiences merely think of them as plain old "character crossovers."

From the 61 entries I completed on my possibly abortive 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME, here are the ones featuring demiheroes. I'll add a comment only when the demihero persona is mixed with of the other three personae.

DYNASTY AND THE COLBYS

STEVEN UNIVERSE (hero) AND UNCLE GRANDPA (demihero)

THE MAN WHO HATED LAUGHTER (mostly demiheroes, though some of King Features' heroes, like Mandrake and the Phantom, make brief appearances)

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (Non-toon Eddie Valliant is a hero, all the rest, from Roger to all the cartoon revivals, are demiheroes)

FONZIE AND MORK

SIMPSONS AND FUTURAMA

DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH (mingles demiheroic protagonists and monstrous entities and settings)

ARCHIE BUNKER AND MAUDE

More on this subject later, possibly.