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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...

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE COURTSHIP OF BIZARRO" (1958)

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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





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

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


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEAR-MYTHS: THE PHANTOM (1936-37)



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

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



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



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

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



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



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


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




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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

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

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




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

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

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


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



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

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



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

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

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



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


Sunday, July 9, 2017

HOW TO HANDLE A TOXIC MALE

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

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


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

WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS????

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

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

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



Friday, July 7, 2017

JUSTICE LAG

This brief comment just appeared on my post: SO-- PRESIDENT TRUMP.

SJWs can be annoying. But anyone who says anti Sjws don't have issues is kidding themselves. Many of them ARE racist and pall around with literal nazis
SJWs are annoying
Anti SJWs are monsters


Since this was a generalized comment on the opposition of "social justice warriors" and their opposites, I decided to use it as an excuse to address not so much the opposition itself, but the practical aspects of accomplishing some sort of rapprochement.

As I've reiterated on this blog numerous times, I don't have a problem with the quest for social justice itself. In the TRUMP essay I evinced my opinion that Dorian Johnson was more of an exploiter of a situation than any sort of warrior for social justice. Yet I certainly don't think that of Sandra Bland, whose case recently returned to cyber-headlines again, when the man responsible for harassing her-- albeit not directly killing her-- was released from the charge of perjury simply by promising not to work in law enforcement any more.

Problems arise when SJWs get hold of both cases and submit them to the test of "identity politics." Bland's mistreatment by cops was to my mind much worse than anything that happened to Michael Brown, given that I'm of the opinion that Brown was either partly or wholly responsible for his own death. Yet Brown, for various reasons, became the poster child for Black Lives Matter. I noted in this essay that some good might come of having put the national spotlight on Ferguson. Does such a statement keep me out of the company of the "anti-SJWs?" Probably not to a hardcore SJW, if my past contentions with same are any indicator.

So who can be fairly termed an "anti-SJW," one who's pretty much always opposed to any sort of liberal movement? Well, since I don't regularly seek them out, I can only cite old-timer Rush Limbaugh. I don't listen to Limbaugh either, but he has an impressive record for having made generally thick-headed, arch-conservative comments over the past thirty years, which earns him some sort of cachet, if only for longevity.

Now, there's not much one can do about the extremes of either Limbaugh or Black Lives Matter. But because even ultraliberals come out of a tradition of reasoned thought, it may on some occasions be possible to demonstrate the flaws in their extremism-- not to those who surrendered their hearts and soles to a given Movement, but to those who might be swayed into a more centrist position.

That said, I confess I haven't had much luck in opening such dialogues, as I mentioned in A TINY TORRENT OF CENSORSHIP. But hope endures, though without much of a "spring" in her eternal step.






Wednesday, July 5, 2017

X-POLITICS PT. 2

The "mutants-and-other-fantasy-critters-ain't-diverse" argument, which I've analyzed in X-POLITICS continues abate on a lot of forums, in particular a "Minorities" thread on CBR. I tossed out this point about fantasy diversity vs. representational diversity on that thread, but I'm sure it'll have no impact on the ideologues. To the statement, "AIs and extraterrestrials are sci-fi concepts," I replied:



It's more accurate to say that they are thought-experiments. They exist to mirror what people might think or feel when faced with beings that either have never existed, except in the imagination, or beings that might be proven to be real entities at some future point in time.
Within the fictional worlds where aliens and intelligent androids are real, they can serve as markers of diegetical diversity. In that fictional world the rights of androids or aliens to fair treatment under the law are as "real" as anything else.
What the fantasy-beings don't have is extra-diegetical diversity; aliens and androids and super-powered mutants cannot "stand in" for POC because the former don't to our best knowledge exist. But that's not the same as saying that the attitudes toward diversity within the context of the science-fictional story are irrelevant, simply because those attitudes are predicated on thought experiments. If that were true, then the whole of fantastic literature would be completely irrelevant when compared to the whole of representational literature. Not that there aren't people who believe just that, but it's surprising to encounter even loosely similar convictions on a board devoted largely to superhero comic books.
I've noticed, however, that often detractors of "mutant diversity" only make their arguments one-way. I'm familiar with one online jackass who loudly complained that "the X-Men are not an allegory for racial tolerance." He wanted to take away whatever "credit" that fans might have allotted to Lee and Kirby and Claremont et al on the basis that mutants did represent a form of diversity. In the place of that credit, he wanted a "debit" to show that the X-Men actually represented the Evil White Social Order. So it's OK to consider fictional thought experiments as having relevance to diversity, as long as it's a negative relevance.


Monday, July 3, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: CARAVAN KIDD (1986-89)

Before the refinement of the small-size TPB of the 1990s, regular comic book editions were very nearly the only game in town for the American manga-lover. I would imagine that many of the books that were popular in that period have been eclipsed by the works of the last thirty years. For what it's worth, though, Johji Manabe's CARAVAN KIDD is still being sold on Amazon.


On the face of things, CARAVAN, like its predecessor OUTLANDERS, might be taken as no more than another "babes with blades" fantasy. Certainly the book's covers sell the narrative in that way, and the interiors dole out copious quantities of high-octane action. Manabe follows the same basic formula of Lucas's STAR WARS, setting his story in a far-future space-federation with no explicit ties to our world, full of both Earth-type humans and exotic alien life-forms. Lucas in his turn probably owed something to Edgar Rice Burroughs, who hit upon the popular formula of mixing swordplay with ray-guns in his "Mars" books. But Manabe centers his story upon a female sword-slinger: a super-powerful android with a sword that cuts through tanks, so clearly Manabe was more invested in the image of the "femme formidable" than either Burroughs or Lucas.



The title word "caravan" has nothing to do with the formal meaning of the English word, being employed more in the sense of a quest. Like a lot of medieval quests the structure is merely an excuse for the characters to wander around having a lot of adventures not strictly related by a plot. As with the knights of old, Mian takes up with sidekicks whose shortcomings make her look even more heroic. One is a human teenager, Wataru, whose main characteristics are lechery and dopiness, though he's eventually ennobled to some extent by his contact with the heroine. The other is a blob-shaped alien named Babo, who wears a pair of goggles on his head but never over his eyes, giving him a certain resemblance to "Rocket J. Squirrel" of THE BULLWINKLE SHOW. Babo, who belongs to a race known as "the Akogi," is devoted to the concept of making money any way he can, usually by swindling customers or betraying his sometime partner Wataru.



Once the reader looks past all the action-scenes, slapstick and fan-service, CARAVAN does have an interesting sociological myth at its core. In the initial issues Mian appears to be a standard revolutionary figure, for when Wataru and Babo encounter her, she's wanted by the imperial forces that rule the planet, and even has some mysterious connection with Shion, the empress whose power seems to be absolute.




Ten years after CARAVAN was completed, George Lucas wrote THE PHANTOM MENACE, which toyed with the idea that the fates of the Republic and the Empire might be somehow manipulated by microscopic beings called "midi-chlorians." But in a sense Manabe got there first, by invoking the trope that "big fish always eat little fish." Shion is, like Mian, an android created by "the Ra Imperium," a shadowy conspiracy beyond the continuum of the local galactic federation. LIke many empires before it, this one's purpose is to insert itself into the economy of a primitive society, and build it up to a level of greater technology, so that it can serve the ends of the empire. In the 1800s Japan had its own memorable encounter with "gunboat diplomacy," but the Imperium doesn't send a gunboat to force a country to enter into trade agreements. Rather, Ra sends androids like Shion to undeveloped planets in order to make the locals ramp up their level of technological achievement-- and after that, Imperium ships will periodically visit the developed planets and drain off some of their power. It might be seen as a futuristic version of archaic tribute, except that the local yokels never have a clue as to their standing as the "little fish" in the equation.

Mian belongs to a class of android designed to monitor the deportment of the ruling-android; to make certain that the ruler serves the purposes of the Imperium. When Shion takes actions calculated to rebel against Ra, Mian comes to life. Her original reason for keeping company with Wataru and Babo is simply part of her programming. but as one might expect, she's humanized by contact with Wataru, who constantly tries to sneak peeks at her but eventually falls in love with her. This romantic routine is made more palatable than usual by the presence of Babo. Whereas many writers might choose to give Babo some sentimental arc to undermine his avarice, the Akogi never changes during the story, remaining totally devoted to ruthless capitalism. In a sense he is the Ra Imperium writ small, but Babo is funny because his cons are all small-time.

The concluding battle between Mian and Shion is indirectly indebted to the Japanese ethos of the samurai. Both androids are the tools of their distant masters, as samurai live to serve their feudal lords, and their conflict is to some extent pre-ordained because of it. However, Shion's desire for self-determination benefits only her own ego. In contrast, Mian, through her contact with Wataru, comes to value organic life, and at the end she's willing to sacrifice her life in order to destroy Shion's power, because the Imperium will retaliate against the planet if Shion remains in the driver's seat.



Despite the heavy drama introduced in the latter half of CARAVAN, it provides a happy ending for its main characters, and there's even the suggestion-- though not exactly the guarantee-- that the Ra Imperium may back off on its aggression because the failure of its androids has become too costly.
So CARAVAN comes to its conclusion on a jollier note than one gets from a lot of Japanese sci-fi dramas-- and with a lot less mega-death than Manabe doled in OUTLANDERS.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

ONE PART ARTIFICE, TWO PARTS AFFECT

In my most recent film-review I wrote:

From time to time I've debated, like many others on the web, the question as to whether or not all works in the tradition of the "alternate history" fall into the domain of what many call"fantasy and science fiction"-- or, as I term said domain, "the metaphenomenal." I plan to write another essay for my theory-blog soon about the reasons why INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is an example of a purely isophenomenal "alternate history" film, so I'll dispense with any detailed theoretical justifications in this review. However, like some of the naturalistic films I've reviewed here, BASTERDS is relevant in that it uses many of the same tropes one would find in an "uncanny" version of an alternate-world narrative, such as (to cite a quick example) Philip Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.

I've written next to nothing thus far on the formal considerations of the "alternate world" concept-- from which, I should say, I'm excluding any narrative that involves overt marvelous phenomena, such as time-travel or even futuristic extrapolation. For example, Orwell's 1984 is such an extrapolation, in that its developments are predicated on what has already happened in historical time. Ward Moore's BRING THE JUBILEE, often considered a pivotal "alternate history" novel, would also be inapplicable since the protagonist does travel in time.  For that matter, now that I've read a summation of HIGH CASTLE-- which I had not re-read in some time-- it too would not qualify, given that the alternate-world Nazis have colonized other planets, so that book also uses a "marvelous" trope. A truly "uncanny" version of an alternate-world scenario could have no broaches in causal coherence, only in intelligibility.

At the end of the BASTERDS review, I gave one example of such an anti-intelligible film, RED DAWN.  DAWN is not commonly regarded as an "alternate world" story, but I view it as such because the script portrays a world in which nuclear war does not ensue as a result of Soviet forces invading the United States. Rather, DAWN chooses to focus on only one aspect of the conflict: that of American teens, nicknamed "Wolverines," who battle the Soviets using the tactics of aboriginal Americans and of so-called "mountain men." Their struggle parallels that of the "Basterds" in the Tarantino film, but the approach is radically different in terms of phenomenality.

As I've said in numerous previous essays, what determines the nature of the phenomenality of a given narrative is the type of affect that the narrative dominantly evokes. Rudolf Otto and C.S. Lewis have been my primary guides in formulating my most current schema for both the sympathetic and antipathetic affects appropriate to each phenomenality:

THE NATURALISTIC-- antipathetic aspect FEAR, sympathetic aspect ADMIRATION

THE UNCANNY-- antipathetic aspect DREAD, sympathetic aspect FASCINATION

THE MARVELOUS-- antipathetic aspect TERROR, sympathetic aspect WONDER.


In recent essays like PENALTY FOR THRESHOLDING, I centered my argument upon the idea that works of "the uncanny" had a greater effect of "strangeness" than those of "the naturalistic" because the former were more allied to the literary principle of artifice than the corresponding principle of verisimilitude. This describes adequately the way in which narratives can take on the semblance of being "larger than life" but artifice alone is not enough to explain the process, which must be grounded in the pluralist conception that art and literature are primarily expressive in nature.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS contains a great deal of artifice in the ways that its plot continually references film-history. However, even though the writer rewrites real-world history, that rewriting comes about due to factors that broach neither coherence nor intelligibility. The Basterds are the closest thing to an anti-intelligible element in the movie, and yet the emotions they inspire-- physical fear to their enemies (best embodied in the figure of the "Bear Jew"), and admiration to the viewers who identify with their history-changing exploits.



In contrast, the Wolverines, while they have no greater resources than the Basterds, achieve the sense of bringing dread to their enemies and inciting fascination from the audience. I would say that this is because Tarantino's heroes are firmly rooted in the here-and-now, while those of John Milius are an attempt to recapitulate the warrior-feats of early American history,  both "white" and "red."



I've subsumed the subgenre of the "alternate world" under the trope I've named "exotic worlds and customs." It might not prove to be the most elegant fit over time. Usually this trope has been used for exoticism found in cultures far from modern post-industrial society. However, on occasion I've also detected the use of exoticism in contemporary societies, as seen in my reviews of such naturalistic films as THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN  and THE SPIDERS, and certainly there have been times when the "exotic custom" has stemmed from a person or persons who comes from an exotic land as he, she, or they encounter the contemporary world.

This may not be all I have to write on the subject of "artifice and the affects," but for now I'll close by stating that in one sense the "alternate world with no marvelous elements" bears a certain resemblance to the narrative world conjured forth in the "delirious dreams and fallacious figments" trope. Certainly, the viewer of BASTERDS is always aware of the "real world's" dissimiliarity from the film's world, just as Alice retains her memory of the Way the World Ought to Be even while meandering through the uncanny terrain of Wonderland. "Fallcious figments" are even closer in structural nature to the idea of the alternate world. Most "figments" are meant to appear briefly and to be ignored as irrelevant to a narrative's diegesis, though occasionally one encounters a comic world in which everything is thoroughly distanced from reality, the best example (from films thus far reviewed) being LITTLE RITA OF THE WEST.  A uncanny use of the figment-trope, but one which profits from drawing upon ludicrous versions of dread and fascination, would be MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.