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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...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: RIBIT 1-4 (1989)

In GOOD WILL QUANTUMS PT.3, I summed up the "null-myth" thusly:

Nowadays, I would not associate my idea of the "null-myth" with this base denotative functionality: over time it's come to mean a work that had "super-functional" potential coded into the narrative but which became denatured by authorial confusion or misjudgment. 
In most of the examples I've analyzed so far, most of the time the "authorial confusion" stems from the author using mythopeoic symbols in a desultory manner, as if they were mere functionalities, or allowed the symbols to be reined in by didactic considerations. However, there's also the possibility that the author may allow himself to be overwhelmed by his own symbolic prolificity. Like the monarch who complained that Mozart had "two many notes," an author can produce "too many symbols" for his narrative to support. Case in point: Frank Thorne's four-issue Comico title, RIBIT.



RIBIT is almost impossible to summarize. It takes place in some vague future in which there abound references to 20th-century culture, but there's no physical resemblance to any 20th-century settings. Thorne's world is a phantasmagoria out of Bosch, in which both magic and science are hopelessly intermingled. In essence, it's a one-shot feature that allowed Thorne to draw any damn thing he felt like drawing, whether it worked within the context of a narrative or not.

For most of the story, the title character looks like a three-foot-tall version of Thorne's most famous comics-character, Red Sonja. Ribit starts out as the lizard-like familiar of a sorceress named Sahtee, and though Ribit is not human, she nurtures a devotion for Thog, a big ox of a human who works for Sahtee, Sahtee, like a lot of fantasy-sorcerers, has rivals, and she tries to create a formidable warrior-woman as a servant. The creation goes awry with Sahtee's magic combines with little Ribit, who then turns into slightly bigger Ribit. Ribit has no real loyalty to Sahtee, though, being totally devoted to Thog. Nevertheless, events transpire to get Ribit, Thog and Sahtee-- who gets transformed into a furry little homunculus-- involved in a lot of crazy fantasy-world shenanigans. 



I note with amusement that in the Grand Comics Database entry for this series, the contributor didn't list any character except Ribit-- which may indicate that he simply threw up his hands at Frank Thorne's tendency to whip out a new character every few pages. The result is definitely an "embarrassment of riches," in the sense that the art always looks impressive and imaginative, but there's not much context to any of it, except that one can be sure that whatever Thorne drew amused the heck out of him. 



(Incidentally, from the angle of the combative mode, Ribit occasionally demonstrates some fighting-talent, but the stories are so shapeless that Thorne clearly had no intention in creating a warrior-woman to rival Red Sonja. Indeed, by series' end Ribit goes back to being a lizard-- which makes one wonder what kind of lizard Thorne ever heard, that made the sort of sound associated with frogs?)

In my review of PRINCESS KNIGHT, I said that the "problematic structure" of certain works by Tezuka might 'stem from the same "problem" one finds in the works of Jack Kirby: both artists were just so damn creative they sometimes overwhelmed their own narratives with "new stuff."' Yet I felt that PRINCESS KNIGHT still had some structure, enough that I termed it a "near myth." RIBIT reminds me of the later issues of the RED SONJA. Supposedly Thorne worked on these with two writers, the very wordy Roy Thomas and comics-newcomer Clair Noto, but these issues-- aside from issue #1, reviewed here-- look like Thorne just drew whatever struck him as fun to draw. This was a sad state of affairs, because Thorne's artwork was at its best depicting Sonja's world of fantasy-- but the stories wandered and made no sense.



To sum up, RIBIT is an example of "underthinking" rather than "overthinking." Or as I put it in AFFECTIVE FREEDOM, COGNITIVE RESTRAINT:

...freedom without a complementary form of internal restraint is, as Janis Joplin sang, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even in fiction, where the boundaries of affective freedom *may * sometimes exceed those of religious mythology, cognitive restraint is necessary to make the essentially mythic ideas relevant to living human beings.

QUICK THOUGHTS ON INHUMANS PREMIERE



I write this essay the day after a two-hour INHUMANS "film" premiered on ABC-TV. This broadcast premiere follows what has been described as a "disaster," when the same two hours debuted exclusively on IMAX theatre-screens.

I had no high hopes for this franchise. In my review of the 1998 Jenkins/Lee graphic novel, I commented that the characters had failed to enjoy success in comic books partly because they were "static." Of course, the history of the comics-characters doesn't speak to their potential as a franchise in other media-- look at ANT-MAN, a marked failure in the medium of his birth but an adequate performer in his cinematic makeover. But, prior to the debut of the INHUMANS show, Marvel Television attempted to boost the appeal of the franchise by interweaving a very vague version of the Lee-Kirby concept in with the story-lines of their currently-running teleseries AGENTS OF SHIELD. I found these Inhumans-Shield stories witless and tedious, but that was no surprise, since SHIELD had been witless and tedious even before it started trying to build up the Inhumans. Clearly ABC-TV was forcing one modestly popular franchise to attempt supporting a completely unknown entity. It's been suggested that one reason for this strategy was that, seeing how 20th-Century Fox had profited from their cinematic rights to the X-Men, Marvel Entertainment wanted a new set of "merry mutates" over which it had exclusive control.

However, the SHIELD show did not adapt the classical "Royal Family" or any support-characters from various versions of the comics-franchise. Thus, the ABC pilot was free to build upon those characters with no reference to anything that had happened on the SHIELD show. That show merely alluded to the comics' idea of the "terrigen mists" through which the Inhuman citizens of Attilan mutate themselves in new, often fantastic, sometimes super-powered forms. Thus the two-hour film introduces audiences to the Royal Family who have always been the stars of the INHUMANS franchise-- Attilan's monarch Black Bolt and his super-powered cousins, Gorgon, Karnak, Medusa, Triton, and Crystal. The pilot also introduces the family's pet Lockjaw, a colossal canine with a penchant for teleportation, and Black Bolt's scheming brother Maximus.

I won't review the two-hour film, in part because it's a continued story that may not be resolved until the last of the show's eight episodes. I can to some extent understand why anyone who splurged to see the film in IMAX would feel cheated, for in terms of production, it's just another TV-movie. Sets and FX are more expensive than they would be for a commonplace SF-themed teleseries, but they can't compare with the outlay for Real Hollywood Features. If you're looking for big-budget eye-candy, the INHUMANS two-parter is not for you.

Still, I'm amazed that anyone would call this "jaw droppingly awful television." The characters are not precisely the same as their comics-templates, but that may be a plus, since the Royal Family has sometimes come off like a bunch of royal bores. Scott Buck is credited as the "showrunner," which presumably means that INHUMANS is written by a team of scripters. But Buck or someone has devoutly researched the original comics-series, with good effect to the dramatic arcs for the show's seven main characters (eight if you count the dog). One of the better moments, in which Evil Maximus shears away Medusa's formidable tresses, is taken from the Jenkins-Lee graphic novel. Not every arc is equally entertaining. But if there's even one good arc-- such as the complex relationship between Black Bolt, his wife Medusa, and Maximus, who desires his brother's wife-- that's one more good arc than AGENTS OF SHIELD has.

I've encountered some complaints about the quality of the FX. I admit I can see some flaws-- especially with the animation of Medusa's prehensile locks-- but it's not that much worse than most of the FX on television. Slightly flawed CGI doesn't bother me. I grew up seeing most of the TV-aliens sport zippers in their backs.

I might dislike a lot of the behind-the-scenes deal-making, but the dubious machinations of the SHIELD-INHUMANS crossovers certainly didn't make SHIELD any worse than it already was. The debut for the show proper has some decent character moments and some interesting plot-developments. (Lockjaw uses his teleport-power to dump Black Bolt in the middle of a New York street. Howcum???)

I've seen many, many TV-debuts weaker and less appealing than THE INHUMANS. It's rumored that it will never get any more episodes due to the IMAX failure, which proves that whoever engineered that idea was a complete idiot. But it doesn't prove that Scott Buck's INHUMANS deserves to be dumped on in egregious fashion-- particularly when AGENTS OF SHIELD is a much deserving target.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DISCOURSES WITH LIVING SYMBOLS

In DISCOURSES WITH DEAD MEN, I said:

So any artistic narrative always has this dual potential: it can be produced for a wide audience, or for the author alone. Psychic mediums notwithstanding, artistic narrative-- which term here subsumes also music and the visual arts-- is almost the only way that artists can keep "talking" with people long after the artists themselves are dead. To some extent non-fictional narrative shares some of the power of the arts, but artistic narrative seems to hold much more power to remain relevant to audiences born long after the narrative was originated.

I also mentioned in the same essay that I began addressing the subject of "discourses" recently as a way of sussing out the function of the mythopoeic potentiality, whose content is sometimes hard to separate from that of the other three.

Yet, once one is able to isolate a work's symbolic discourse, it often provides much more of a meaningful connection to the author's work than any of the others. One may not care for an author's ability to transmit sensory experiences, personalities, or intellectual ideas, or if one grants that the author has some ability, one still may not like the world-picture he transmits. But there's something ineluctably persuasive about the symbolic process. One can reject whatever intellectual ideas may be attached to it, and yet still admire the author's ability to converse in the language of symbols.

I'll take as example C.S. Lewis, whose non-fiction I've frequently discussed on this blog. While I find Lewis's ruminations on literature stimulating, his remarks on religion have often struck me as narrow-minded and self-serving, particularly in MERE CHRISTIANITY. In this book, Lewis responded to questions about the Christian religion, originally propounded via radio. Here's the one I disliked the most.

“Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the 'Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.”

Intellectually, this is nonsense. Lewis is trying to distance religion from its involvement in the witch-hunts of the past by claiming that modern religionists are too educated to believe in such nonsense. Yet he can't completely condemn the fanatics of yesteryear, stating that if he could believe in people who made deals with the devil, he would regard them as "filthy quislings" deserving of death. His position also suggests that at the time he wrote this, whatever "wiccan" practices existed in England had gone so far underground that an educated man like Lewis could believe that no such persons existed in modern times. Lewis passed in 1963, so it's possible he never encountered the idea of modern witches worshiping archaic deities that were in no way affiliated with Satan. Even if Lewis had known of such cults, the writer would probably have given them no more respect than outright Satanists.

Yet, within his creative work, Lewis could entertain syncretic visions of religion. Narnia, despite being patterned on Christian belief, reproduces many of the images and icons of Greek paganism, and in THE LAST BATTLE, there is a dim suggestion that Aslan is not exclusively a "Christian" deity, but will give sanctuary even to righteous men who do not worship him.

The irony of my title is that, while I know that symbols are not alive apart from the role they play in the language of living persons, they can take on a "life" of their own, Indeed, the symbolic formulations of an author may seem much more "convivial" to a reader than the characters or the plot that serve as vehicles for symbolic events-- sacrificial dramas, world-saving conflicts, etc. Nor is there any symbolic formulation that is absolute. Lewis's Aslan is just one of thousands of literary sacrificial dramas, and one may name others that share none of Lewis's particular themes, but which still possess the same "unity of action" I've identified with strong symbolic discourse in this essay.  The 1971 film THE OMEGA MAN is concerned with many intellectual subjects foreign to Lewis, not least being an American preoccupation with racial matters. However, it is an evocation of the sacrificial pattern no less valuable than that of NARNIA. I quite preferred the film to its prose source material. Yet even though I found Matheson's I AM LEGEND less formidable in its mythic "unity of action," there would have been no OMEGA MAN had the novel not suggested the theme to the film's scriptwriters.

Despite my usage of the established term "unity of action," the unity involved in plurisignative communication is far more about unifying a plurality of affects, both sympathetic and antipathetic. For myths of sacrificial figures, it's about transcending the death that we know all mortal entities must experience. Aslan literally transcends death, while Robert Neville's transubstantiation is more figurative, but symbolic constructs may be said to enjoy both literal and figurative transcendence, if only because, having never lived, they can never really die.




Monday, September 25, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: THE INHUMANS #1-12 (1998-99)

Given the negative press being given to the new INHUMANS movie, it seems appropriate to look at one of the better renditions of these Marvel characters.



The Inhumans were introduced in the mid-sixties by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in FANTASTIC FOUR, and the prevailing wisdom is that they were mostly Kirby's designs. However, subsequent attempts to launch the characters in their own series were largely unsuccessful. Though personally I liked the characters, I found that they were too static and lacked a viable group dynamic. The pattern for THE INHUMANS slightly resembled the Lee-Kirby THOR. In both features, the stories alternated between a fabulous otherworld where most of the characters had super-powers, and visits to the mundane world of humanity. Yet, what worked for Thor-- a central character with a retinue of support-figures-- didn't really work for the five main characters of THE INHUMANS. One reason was that four of the continuing heroes-- Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Triton-- were eternally defential to Black Bolt, who was not only the leader of their group, but their absolute monarch, and the ruler of all the Inhumans who dwelled in the remote city of Attilan. This meant that it was difficult for writers to evoke the standard formulas of Marvel interpersonal drama.



In this 12-issue maxi-series, writer Paul Jenkins and aritst Jae Lee found a way to exploit some of the "monumentalism" of the Inhumans theme, by focusing upon the enigma of Black Bolt. The character possesses a plurality of powers, but the one that most determines his character relates to his voice. Black Bolt is a "silent king" because even a whisper from his throat can unleash catastrophic sonic destruction. Early in the series, Jenkins's script even specifies the touch that his own parents-- and those of his brother Maximus-- were slain when Black Bolt uttered a calamitous sound. Jenkins uses captions to speculate on what Black Bolt may be thinking during the story's events, but in keeping with the usual depiction of the character, "thought-balloons" are not used for him (thus making him a distant pioneer to the many "mature" works of the 1990s that foreswore the use of balloons).



Brother Maximus, a prisoner in Attilan, is one of the threats to the Inhumans' peaceful isolation, and it's soon revealed that he has a hand in an outward threat: a group of mercenary soldiers, secretly funded by both Russian and American schemers. The soldiers surround Attilan and begin bombarding the force-field defenses of the super-city. To the expressed surprise of the four "junior" members of the Royal Family-- that is, Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Triton-- Black Bolt refuses to take violent action against the invaders. Even when a few rank-and-file Inhumans suffer death or injury because of the invading humans, Black Bolt stays his hand, with no explanation. 


Thus the stratified nature of Inhuman society-- one in which Black Bolt is a messianic figure to a population where every citizen is "a subspecies of one"-- is used to beguile the reader as to the king's true motives. The field-leader of the invaders thinks that the Inhumans' king withholds violence due to a sense of noblesse oblige. "Being a man of honor," opines the military man, "it would be beneath him to destroy us." One of Black Bolt's subjects asks him. "What are you afraid of?," suggesting that he may withhold violence because the king was traumatized after killing his parents. 

Subplots also deal with some of the serpents in the Inhumans paradise. Earlier stories established the existence of the Alpha Primitives, a breed of lookalike Inhumans with no special powers, and though Lee and Kirby treated them simply as "shock troops," later authors, including Jenkins, put a "Morlock" spin on the Primitives, claiming that they were created to service Attilan's miraculous technology. "Their breeding," comments a character, "gives [the Primitives] no choice but to work the machines." The Inhumans' penchant for maximum diversity, in theory, sounds like it ought to prevent body-shaming, but Jenkins and Lee establish that there exists a "darkward" section of Attilan, as the dwelling-place for mutations who prove less than optimal. In addition, another subplot deals with some of the young people of the city, who are about to undergo their genetic transformations, and how some of them, following said transformations, began to show signs of pretension.

Still, the narrative emphasizes the unfathomable mystery of the monarch's apparent lack of initiative. Even when the conclusion reveals that he has been playing a dangerous game of chess against his opponents, the sense of mystery is not lessened. Lee's artwork, in contrast to the hyperkineticism of the Inhumans' artistic creator, gives the story's events a slow, stately gravitas, even evoking Egyptian art-motifs to convey the stasis of a monarchical rule-- as we see in the splash page to the cleverly named chapter "Sonic Youth."



Jenkins and Lee aren't able to do nearly as much with the other four members of the Royal Family, though each of them does get some attention. Karnak, who began as something of a gimmicky type, comes off best, as Jenkins makes his special power-- that of finding any physical flaw in a structure, so that he can break it-- a metaphor for the flawed nature of society and the physical world. In the end, even fantastic super-powers cannot reverse what Karnak calls the "entropy" of the world. But Black Bolt, despite his silent reserve, ultimately justifies his people's faith in him, and finds a way to put off doomsday for just a little longer.


 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

PALE KINGS AND DEMIHEROES

The strongest influence on my theory of the four persona-types has been the work of Schopenhauer, but I'll confess that Northrop Frye's writings on literary dynamis had an impact on the theory, even if I renounced his confusion between dynamis and dynamicity in the essay DYNAMIS AND DYNAMICITY. Frye showed a slight tendency to equate social station with "power of action," probably because he was following Aristotle in his groundbreaking formulations in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.

To quickly summarize between the personas of the "hero" and the "demihero," one incarnates the value I've called "positive glory" while the other incarnates that of "positive persistence." I won't repeat the distinctions I've made in earlier essays' I merely revisit this topic to correct my possible tendency to assign the persona of the demihero to the "ordinary man" rather than figures of high social station. (Not that this is a dominant tendency, as seen in some of the characters cited in DEMIHERO RALLIES.) 

Since positive persistence is not really correlated with social station, it's entirely feasible for demiheroes to be not only aristocrats, but rulers of whole domains, who may command considerable forces. However, not all kings and princes function to display "glory," and many function simply to keep their positions stable, a practice which allies with the value of persistence, as much as any of the "ordinary man" protagonists I've touched on.



Within the medium of comic books, one example of a powerful ruler is DC Comics' Morpheus, a.k.a. The Sandman. I've reviewed only two works in Neil Gaiman's corpus of Sand-stories, here and here, and in both of these storylines Morpheus is largely concerned with simply keeping his dream-empire stable for however long the universe lasts. He does undertake a personal duel of sorts in "A Hope in Hell," so he's certainly not without courage. However, for the most part Morpheus does not engage in any form of combat, nor is he concerned with the hero's goals of casting out evil in order to promote good. Thus the Lord of the Dream-World aligns with similar demiheroes who only perform positive actions when pressed to do so, like the LOST IN SPACE characters, to whom I've perhaps devoted the most analysis, starting here.



An example of heroic rulership appears in Nozomu Tamaki's DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND. The "bund" of the title is the domain ruled by Mina Tepes, queen of the world's vampires. Mina, like Morpheus, spends a fair amount of time protecting her empire from incursions, and though she and her retinue are much more violent than Lord Moepheus, the difference between them is more one of their personas than of physical dynamicity.  In the arc titled THE SCARLET ORDER, the origin of the vampire race is revealed, and Tamaki makes this narrative reflect elements of heroic glory:

Vampires are in essence spawned by a mystic force known only as "the Darkness," and its goal is much the same as that of the three vampire-lords from the first arc: to successfully begat a child to perpetuate its heritage. Tamaki's description of the Darkness' methods reminded me somewhat of the Hindu myth of Prajapati, who creates a woman to be his mate. Like Prajapati, the Darkness must then seek to overcome the woman's resistance to spawn the offspring he desires. But the unnamed "Woman" does resist the dark god's purpose, just as Mina resisted the corrupt desires of the three lords, and from the fact of the Woman's defiance springs the history of the vampire race.
By comparison, Gaiman's work in THE SANDMAN generally rejects the heroism expoused by earlier DC characters who shared the "Sandman" name. Nor is Morpheus alone in being a great ruler who exists largely to police his domain: this principle also applies to the character Lord Emma in LOVE IN HELL, though admittedly he (she?) is a support-character to the starring demiheroes of the series.

Interestingly, very few American-made superheroes have any propensity to be rulers, whether due to aristocratic birth or simply taking power by force of will. Thus they must be seen as "ordinary men" who make the transition to heroic status, which only shows that even characters who start out as demiheroes can feel the demands of "noblesse oblige."

Monday, September 18, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "WHEN THE EARTH BLACKED OUT" (STRANGE ADVENTURES #144, 1962)



DC Comics' ATOMIC KNIGHTS series-- a short-lived one, lasting only 15 installments from 1960 to 1964-- was a little more sophisticated than many of the one-shot stories that usually made up the contents of STRANGE ADVENTURES, a DC anthology mag that had been running since 1950. Celebrated editor Julius Schwartz edited the bulk of the issues, and they probably represented his own taste for gimmick-oriented science fiction.

In this series, atomic war broke out in 1986, obliterating the majority of human, animal, and plant life. Nevertheless, Old Earth made a pretty quick recovery, for by 1992 small enclaves of humanity have begun eking out a living from the rare farmlands not poisoned by radiation. Later critics complained that ATOMIC KNIGHTS trivialized the damage that a real atomic war would wreak upon the planet, but writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson were just following a fairly standard SF-scenario, wherein some cataclysm forces a new generation to remake civilization after the Apocalypse.

For the task of restoring order, Broome created a character named "Gardner Grayle." Half of his name was taken from that of Broome's writer friend Gardner Fox, while the other half was a play upon the "Holy Grail" of Arthurian legend. However, this particular knight wasn't seeking any holy object, but rather a return to relative normalcy. In fact, Broome advances the rather peculiar notion that Grayle is "exactly average:"



Since Grayle's supposed "average" status never influences any of the stories, I tend to see it as emblematic of the normalcy the hero and his friends sought-- although only in an intrinsic sense. In an extrinsic sense, the series was designed to be novel and exciting, rather than "normal." Grayle, seeking a way to protect humanity from the perils of fascist bosses and mutant species, joins with four other men (and eventually a young woman) to become a fighting-force. They chance across a handful of archaic armor-suits, which have become super-hard thanks to nuclear radiation, and so they become the Atomic Knights. For their "noble steeds," the Knights acquire mutated dalmatians that are now as big as horses. (If there's any element of ATOMIC KNIGHTS I've heard Silver Age enthusiasts enthuse about, it's those big spotted fire-dogs.

In the early issues of the series, neither Grayle nor anyone else knows which of the eight nuclear countries brought about the chaos. In "When the Earth Blacked Out," the Knights learn that none of them deliberately caused nuclear war. Rather, long before the war, a race of mole-people-- whose origins are never explained-- used their advanced technology to trigger the war. The mole-men, who have been around "for decades," waited a few years for the radiation to die down, and then made their move.

Having existed under the earth so long that they have only vestigial vision, the mole-men plant a strange plant, presumably of their own cultivation, which is capable of exuding so much black vapor  that, given time, the vapor will form a perpetual cloud to block out the sun's rays. Once the Earth falls into total darkness, the mole-men will conquer Earth.

The Knights seek to destroy the darkness-plant, but the mole-men have formidable weapons, and though they can't see, they can sense the approach of other living things through their heat-signatures. One of the knights comes up with the salient solution: defeat them with cold light-- the light of fireflies-- which will hurt the mole-men's eyes but not give them any advance warning. Appropriately, the Knights choose to use a familiar Halloween talisman to banish creatures of darkness: jack-o-lanterns with fireflies inside. (Not sure what keeps the insects from simply flying out.)



Naturally, the gambit works. The Knights defeat the mole-people and send them back to their underworld domain.



An interesting moral point is advanced at story's end. Though the mole-people caused the destruction of Earth, one Knight, Douglas Herald, stipulates that humans "cannot escape responsibility," for "we made the surface of the earth an armed camp-- a global tinder box. The mole-creatures provided only the spark that set off the dreadful holocaust."

This was one of the few ethical statements in what was ultimately a lightweight adventure-series. But Broome's mythopoeic talents are far more interesting than his moralizing, and the idea of using jack-o-lantern's to drive off creatures of darkness is one of his best concepts.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 4

In the previous incarnations of this line of thought, I've been writing about the many ways in which authors might "finagle" the "focal presence" of their works, so as to leave critics like myself (all right, just me alone) puzzled about what object or character serves as the expression of the authorial "will" behind the work. Over the years I've honed my skill at trying to suss which object or character is most important to the author of a given work. However, some recent meditations revealed to me that I went in the wrong direction concerning the 1964 historical-horror film, THE BLACK TORMENT, reviewed back in 2012.

I revisited the film's narrative again in 2015 for FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 2. The common theme in this essay was about works that focused upon "phantasmal figurations," wherein some eerie figure is revealed to be the creation of a living person's imposture for one reason or another. In this essay I wanted to make the point that, although the weird phantasm wasn't what it appeared to be, the idea of the phantasm was still the expression of the author's will; the axis around which the narrative revolved.

In THE BLACK TORMENT, Richard Fordyke, a nobleman living in 17th-century England, remarries after the death of his first wife, and brings Wife Number Two back to his castle as its new mistress. I generally praised the film, though not without pointing out the script's immediate indebtedness to Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel REBECCA and its film adaptation, which were both in their turn indebted to Chartlotte Bronte's 1847 JANE EYRE.

All three works shared one basic narrative concern: that of a female character trying to make herself fit into an estate owned by an eccentric man. In the case of JANE EYRE, the title character's relation to the estate's owner Rochester is at first professional-- she's been hired as a governess-- but the two of them develop a romantic entanglement. This relationship is complicated by the fact that Rochester is actually still married, though his wife has gone insane and has to be confined to an attic-room, thus giving rise to the story-trope of "the madwoman in the attic." Eventually the first wife perishes and Jane takes her place.

In REBECCA, Du Maurier's feminine protagonist-- deliberately given no name by the author-- becomes the second wife of wealthy Maxim de Winter. However, as she comes to his estate of Manderley to take her position as Maxim's wife, she finds that everywhere she looks, she finds evidence that her husband's deceased first wife Rebecca still rules the house, kept "alive" by both Maxim and Manderley's dictatorial housekeeper.

BLACK TORMENT, as I noted, takes from both sources and possibly Stevenson's DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE as well. Lord Fordyke is accused of living a double life as a serial murderer. In FINAGLING PT. 2 I argued that, even though this was proven not to be true, and that the murderer was part of a scheme to destroy Fordyke's new bride, the "phantasm" of Fordyke's "evil twin" provided TORMENT's focal presence.

But recently I found myself meditating on how much TORMENT has in common with the works that most probably influenced it. Elizabeth Fordyke, a.k.a. Wife Number Two, is more than a little unsettled by the accusations of her husband's insanity. However, in the final analysis, she's not a spineless weeper like Du Maurier's Rebecca, but is closer in spirit to Bronte's Jane Eyre. Elizabeth, not Richard, uncovers the scheme to frame her husband, and even shoots Richard's "mad twin brother," who is the culprit in the slayings. Her action, not those of frenzied Richard, expose the plot, much as Jane Eyre's determination serves her in uncovering the mystery of the attic-madwoman.

None of the characters in BLACK TORMENT are as well-developed as those of Bronte, admittedly. Still, simple though Lady Elizabeth is, she is more significant to the story than the phantasm whose existence she disproves. So she, the phantasm's potential victim, is the star of the show, much in the way that Sherlock Holmes is always the focus on THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, no matter how much time is devoted to the Hound's mystery.

Ironically, a few months before I wrote FINAGLING PT. 2, I testified to my own tendency to consider the "monster-figure" of any horror-film to be the focal presence, in my April essay
SON OF THE BRIDE OF THE NON-MONSTROUS DEMIHERO. I wrote this to report my finding that the closest thing to a "monster" in 1944's THE CLIMAX was not the star of that particular show:

In horror-films that are centered-- as most are-- upon the figure of the monster, the monster's victims-- almost always demiheroes-- are usually not given much depth. But THE CLIMAX is interesting for inverting the pattern, though there isn't much of an increase in character-depth. That is, the real star is not top-billed Boris Karloff as the malefic Doctor Hohner, but singer Susanna Foster's character Angela..

That said, Elizabeth's actions only signal her status as a focal presence if they prove to be an expression of the authorial will, which as I wrote here, is either endothelic or exothelic. In BLACK TORMENT, the most important "will" is that of the woman who solves the mystery, rather than the mysterious presence threatening her, so it is endothelic. However, it's easy to imagine a narrative that showed some viewpoint-character doing almost the same type of investigatory actions-- and monster-slaying-- that Elizabeth performs, but that narrative would still have its imaginative center in the monster being destroyed. A fitting parallel would be the character of Frank in 1943's SON OF DRACULA. Frank is forced to destroy the two monsters in his life, both the reborn Count Dracula and his former fiancee-turned-vampire. But this story is exothelic, because it's more concerned with what the monsters do than how a hard-pressed demihero manages to thwart them.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "IN THE LAP OF THE GODS" (SUB-MARINER #57, 1973)



In my previous essay I noted how the design of Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner showed considerable influence from Classical Greek iconography. The Golden Age stories featuring the character don’t evince much interest in Greek mythology as subject matter, however, and even Stan Lee’s reboot of the character in the 1960s barely touches on matters Hellenic, except for establishing at some point that Namor worships Neptune, the Greek god of the sea.

However, in the late 1940s, Everett produced a new character whose connections to Greek myth were more explicit, at least in terms of her origins. This was Venus, first seen in VENUS #1 (1948), and, as her name suggested, she was literally the Roman goddess of love, whose legend was at least partly patterned after that of Greece’s love-goddess Aphrodite. 

At present I've not yet read more than scattered reprints of Venus's adventures. My general impression is that most stories did not delve into her mythological background, and from what I've seen she seems to have chosen to live life on Earth as a mortal, since she doesn't display godly powers on a regular basis. The early stories seem to follow the pattern of supernatural comedies a la Thorne Smith, while the later period, concluding with VENUS #19, emphasized horror and science fiction thrills. With the termination of the magazine, the character disappeared from comics for over twenty years. However, in the early 1970s Marvel Comics reprinted a few of Venus’s adventures, which may have led to her brief revival in the pages of SUB-MARINER #57.

During this period, Bill Everett had been given the chance to essay the character he had originated, sometimes both writing and drawing Namor’s adventures, sometimes working in tandem with writers like Steve Gerber. “In the Lap of the Gods” is the best of Everett’s 1970s efforts, and may be his single most ambitious story. Not only did he bring together two of his creations for the first time, he used their “team-up” as a platform to address the subject of war.



To be sure, the tale, like a lot of Golden Age stories, depends rather heavily on coincidence. In the midst of a stormy sea, Sub-Mariner beholds a “rocky pinnacle” rise from the ocean, complete with an Andromeda-like maiden atop it, waiting for rescue. The rescue is interrupted by a blazing sword from the heavens, which the reader—though not Namor—soon learns was thrown by none other than Ares, the God of War. Namor has more pressing problems. The rock-pillar starts sinking, and as he prepares to carry the unidentified woman to shore, she suddenly morphs into a different woman. Nevertheless, Namor takes her to safety ashore, and the woman, who calls herself “Vicky Starr,” takes her leave without so much as a thank-you.


The scene shifts to Namor’s then-current support-cast. One of them is Mrs. Prentice, who, in her youth during the 1940s, was Namor’s sometimes lover Betty Dean. The other is Namorita, the daughter of Namor’s cousin. In this story Namorita has become obsessed with campaigning against continued American involvement in Vietnam. In contrast, Mrs. Prentice represented the Older Generation that tends to trust in the government’s wisdom. During their exchange it comes out that Namorita’s teacher at college is one “Vicky Starr,” who is also an anti-war demonstrator. However, the morning paper alerts Namor’s cousin that Miss Starr’s car was wrecked near the ocean, so Namorita calls upon Namor to search for the missing teacher.


Namor, puzzled that the very woman he rescued has gone missing, searches the area. A mysterious dolphin shows up and encourages the Sub-Mariner to give chase. They end up at a “massive island” that has apparently appeared from nowhere, and the dolphin reveals itself to be the first woman Namor saw on the pillar. She reveals that she is Venus, Goddess of Love, and that the island was conjured into being by her eternal opponent, the God of War. Venus shows the Sub-Mariner how armed conflict has erupted upon the new island, and, though the island’s inhabitants are never seen, Venus asserts that if the island-war continues, “the pestilence of warfare will spread to all nations.”  Venus wants Namor’s help in defeating Ares, though she never troubles to explain why she didn’t identify herself to Namor the first time they met. Perhaps it would be charitable to assume that she waited until Ares launched his scheme, the better to overcome any doubts the sea-monarch might have.


Ares shows up, and chases down Venus. He removes the girdle about her waist, which object gives Venus the power to encorcel others with love-spells. (Why she doesn't use the girdle on Ares the first time she sees him goes unexplained, except that it would have shortened the story a lot and left the main hero with nothing to do.) The Sub-Mariner joins the fight, and though Ares is said not to be at home in the sea, he gives Namor a pretty good battle by shifting his shape into various sea-creatures, more like the Greek Proteus than like the Hellenic war-god. Ares battles Namor to a standstill, but the key to Ares’ defeat proves to be the recovery of the love-girdle. Once Ares is exposed to its rays, he loses his resolve for battle, and obeys the goddess’s command to end the conflict on the island. In fact, the whole island disappears, and Venus once more morphs back into the identity of schoolteacher Vicky Starr.


The final page, in which the name on Vicky's door is the same she used in her 1940s series, should probably be taken as a shout-out to the earlier series, rather than an attempt to launch the franchise again. As it happens, Everett died in February 1973, a.month after issue #57's January cover-date. Of course. the comic book probably appeared on newsstands two or three months earlier, and Everett had completed or semi-completed scripts and/or art that continued to appear in the title for a few months following his demise.


Now, the mere fact that Everett’s story conjures with archaic myth-figures does not make it “mythic” in my definition. The artist was probably aware of the story in which Ares and Aphrodite are shown as lovers, though he quite sensibly leaves out inconvenient details, like Aphrodite’s canonical marriage to Hephaestus, god of the forge. As William Moulton Marston did before him, Everett uses the war-god and the love-goddess to delineate opposing tendencies in the human soul. The Golden Age SUB-MARINER stories don’t delve into the depths that WONDER WOMAN did, but it should be noted that even though Sub-Mariner was a character formed in the crucible of war, one can find instances in which the character, or his author, comments upon the ultimiate foolishness of martial pursuits. HUMAN TORCH  #5, in which Namor becomes puffed-up with false glory and strives to conquer the globe, is probably the best example. In the Golden Age, there was no necessity to concoct an “island of war,” since war had already spread to almost every corner of the globe. Still, within the context of the 1970s, the martial island serves to concretize the fears that another World War might come into being, if humanity fails to “give peace a chance.”


A few other touches add to the story’s mythic density. I'm guessing that the 1948 Venus didn't have a love-inspiring girdle, but regardless of the item's provenance, it’s a patent vaginal symbol, and its victory over Ares’ very prominent sword may be seen as a renunciation of male bellicosity. I’ll also point out that although Namor was always rather bellicose in his own way, he, unlike a lot of Golden Age heroes, was frequently surrounded by female characters who often (though not always) sought to ameliorate his ferocity. The allusions to the continuing conflict in Vietnam could have dated the story, but Everett strikes the right touch of outrage in Namorita’s desire to see the madness end. There’s even a  loose imputation that American democracy is as vulnerable as any tyranny to letting war get out of control, for while Mrs. Prentice places her faith in the democratic way, Namorita puts her faith in her cousin, the monarch of a sub-sea kingdom. “I never noticed anything very ‘democratic’ about Namor,’ fumes the young mer-girl.  It wouldn’t be hard to see this story as Everett’s belated take on Marston’s love-war formula, in which women of good conscience ought to be making the decisions, and strong men are at their best when they serve as champions of peace.    

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

NEAR-MYTHS: ASSORTED SUB-MARINER STORIES

Several months back, I complained about the lack of mythicity in the origin of the Golden Age Human Torch.  I must admit, however, that I don't think Carl Burgos' creation ever had great potential, since the conception of the Torch always seemed fairly gimmick-oriented.

In contrast, Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner-- who debuted alongside the Torch in the same 1939 issue of MARVEL COMICS-- always seemed to have a lot of unused potential, whether the character was handled by his creator or by latter-day talents. 

For one thing, the Sub-Mariner (a,k.a. "Prince Namor") has a great visual design. With his triangularar head and pointed ears, he seems to me like a less hirsute version of the Greek god Pan.







And that's not even taking into account the ingenious (if improbable) attribution of his power of flight to the tiny wings on his heels, obviously derivative from Hermes/Mercury's winged sandals.




The Sub-Mariner's origin-story is extremely promising, pitting the youthful hero against the surface world due to an attack on his people, also called "sub-mariners" (and not called "Atlanteans" until the 1960s reboot). 



However, with a real World War threatening to engulf America, there was no possibility that the Sub-Mariner's storyline could have continued to focus on a war between sub-mariners and surface dwellers. Namor quickly dropped his grievances against Americans and became a crusader against the Nazi menace for most of his Golden Age career. Yet his best-remembered stories are those when he was still somewhat on the side of the devils, as when he battled the not-so-human protector of surface dwellers, the Human Torch.



Indeed, one of these encounters even involved Namor hurling a tidal wave against New York City, though he repented of his warlike acts and went back to being a good guy, without anyone raising a stink about the death and destruction he had caused.



The 1960s reboot heightened Namor's role as a decent guy embittered by the way nuclear testing had dispersed the people of his Atlantean empire. (Later continuity rewrote this story to exculpate Americans once again.) Namor was most frequently opposed to the Fantastic Four, though he was made more sympathetic due to his rather goatish lust for Sue "Invisible Girl" Storm. The character didn't get his own series until 1965, in TALES TO ASTONISH #70. Unfortunately, Stan Lee and Gene Colan got off to a poor start with a soggy quest-story that couldn't compete with similar tales from Lee and Kirby in the THOR title. 



Things looked up somewhat when Sub-Mariner got his own title, written for several years by Roy Thomas.For a time, artist John Buscema also gave the series an epic feel somewhat reminiscent of Hal Foster's PRINCE VALIANT. However, no single story or set of stories used the hero to best effect. The closest Namor came to glory during his own magazine's run was when Thomas and Buscema had him encounter the denizens of another sunken city, Lemuria. This was the most ambitious serial in the history of the Silver Age comic, but though it introduced the artifact known as "the Serpent Crown"-- a major trinket in Marvel continuity-- the Lemurian tale lacked cohesion. The character's mythos also suffered from a mediocre set of  villains who failed to challenge the hero on a deeper conceptual level, as the Fantastic Four's foes did for that group. 



For the most part, later series starring Namor also failed to use his mythic potential. However, I finally re-read one particular stand-alone story that meets my mythcomic criteria-- and interestingly enough, it's by Namor's creator Bill Everett, who was allowed to write and draw several issues of the Silver Age title the artist passed away. The story even manages to play into the element usually neglected in Namor stories: i.e., his relationship to the Greek deities, as well as commenting on the character's intrinsic connection to humankind's practice of the art of war. More on this story anon.



Monday, September 11, 2017

THE TOILS OF TROILUS

In MYTHOS AND MODE PT. 3, I spoke of three principal ways in which a given work failed to achieve the combative mode despite having some of the requisite elements, and I used one Shakespeare play as an example of each of the three. One way was exemplified by TITUS ANDRONICUS, which had both the necessary narrative and significant elements but simply chose not to resolve the conflict in a combative manner: I might call this the "diffuse type." Another path was exemplified by HAMLET, which had the narrative elements but not the significant ones relating to character-dynamicity, while the last was exemplified by CORIOLANUS, which had the significant elements but not the narrative ones. The third choice is one in which the main character and his enemy possess great dynamicity and seem to be building to a major combative resolution, but chose to frustrate that potential.

I recently reread TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, a play written about three to five years before CORIOLANUS. I remembered nothing about the play from whenever I last read it. Yet I decided, given my earlier statements on Shakespeare's proclivities for fictive violence, that I should re-read it, at least partly because the play's actions takes place during the action of the Trojan War. According to one source, the classic work most associated with that conflict, Homer's ILIAD, had not been fully translated into English when the Bard wrote his play. Thus it's hard to know if he knew more than generalities about parts of Homer's plot-action. Further, neither of the characters in the title-- two young Trojans in love (hmm, that sounds strange)-- appears in Homer. Both were born from medieval accretions to the main tale, accretions continued by authors ranging from Boccaccio to Chaucer, and since the story had proved popular in Shakespeare's time the Bard apparently chose to try his hand at the legend.

(Note: although Cressida does not appear in Homer, she's probably derived from the character Chryses, a prophet's daughter claimed by Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces battling Troy. When circumstances make it necessary for Agamemnon to return Chryses to her father, he then swipes another "spoils of war" female from his subordinate warrior Achilles, and this leads to Achilles' famous reluctance to continue pressing the fight against the warriors of Troy.)

TROILUS has two plot-threads. One, dealing with the Trojan lovers, demonstrates no more narrative potential for the combative mode than does ROMEO AND JULIET. The other is nothing less than the quintessential combative moment of THE ILIAD: the duel between Achilles and Hector that, in Homer, marks the beginning of the end for Troy.  Toward the end of the play, main character Troilus does take the field and fights a warrior or two,  but he really has nothing to do with Shakespeare's (probable) attempt to one-up Homer by destroying the integrity of the Achilles-Hector battle. Here's a prose translation of the relevant scene from Homer:


Now, the fine bronze armour he stripped from mighty Patroclus when he killed him covered all Hector’s flesh except for one opening at the throat, where the collarbones knit neck and shoulders, and violent death may come most swiftly. There, as Hector charged at him, noble Achilles aimed his ash spear, and drove its heavy bronze blade clean through the tender neck, though without cutting the windpipe or robbing Hector of the power of speech. Hector fell in the dust and Achilles shouted out in triumph: ‘While you were despoiling Patroclus, no doubt, in your folly, you thought yourself quite safe, Hector, and forgot all about me in my absence. Far from him, by the hollow ships, was a mightier man, who should have been his helper but stayed behind, and that was I, who now have brought you low. The dogs and carrion birds will tear apart your flesh, but him the Achaeans will bury.’

And now here's Shakespeare's reworking:


ACT V SCENE VIII Another part of the plains.
[Enter HECTOR]
HECTORMost putrefied core, so fair without,
Thy goodly armour thus hath cost thy life.
Now is my day's work done; I'll take good breath:
Rest, sword; thou hast thy fill of blood and death.
[ Puts off his helmet and hangs his shield behind him ]
[Enter ACHILLES and Myrmidons]
ACHILLESLook, Hector, how the sun begins to set;5
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels:
Even with the vail and darking of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector's life is done.
HECTORI am unarm'd; forego this vantage, Greek.
ACHILLESStrike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.10
[HECTOR falls]
So, Ilion, fall thou next! now, Troy, sink down!
Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain,
'Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.'

So, in essence, Shakespeare undercuts all the glory and honor associated with the great duel-- though, to be sure, Homer seems quite aware of the innate brutality of the war itself-- and makes Achilles into a honorless dog who lets his personal guard the Myrmidons, chop down Hector when the latter has partly doffed his armor.

There's a lot of other support for the notion that Shakespeare meant to vilify the very idea of Classical Greece's idea of heroes and their heroic deeds, but I don't mean to explore that here. My main concern is to locate this Shakespeare play within the sphere of the playwright's handling of violent conflicts, and thus I find that TROILUS AND CRESSIDA follows the same pattern as CORIOLANUS, of which I wrote:

CORIOLANUS was my choice for a play that had the potential for the significant combative value, in that its opposed characters Coriolanus and Aufidius were both portrayed as exceptional warriors seen lusting to kill each other at the play's outset.  However, because the play's plot does not end with a combat between these two well-matched characters, CORIOLANUS is not combative in the narrative sense.
I'll forego further comment on the play, except to say that it strikes me as a play in which the writer's desire to satirize something he didn't like-- in this case, the general macho swaggering of the Greeks, and even Troilus's male chauvinism-- but without managing to bring any of his satirical characters to the semblance of life. By comparison, CORIOLANUS is much more successful on a roughly similar theme. The Roman general of the play's title is also something of an egotistical butthead, but he's a much more nuanced character than any of those in TROILUS AND CRESSIDA.

Friday, September 8, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE END OF THE WORLD" (MARVEL TALES #102, 1951)

With the dawning of the Atomic Age, comic books like other media became obsessed with the possibility of planetary apocalypse. I touched on this in the essay OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER, regarding the 1950 EC Comics story "The Destruction of the Earth." My main concern in this essay dealt with the determination of certain types of focal presence, and I found that in "Destruction" the focus is on none of the human characters, but on the planet Earth itself, as the EC artists imagined the spectacular destruction of the world.

Such is not the case with Basil Wolverton's "End of the World," first published in Timely-Atlas's MARVEL TALES and more recently in Dark Horse's one-shot reprint title, PLANET OF TERROR. Like most of the weird SF-stories for which Basil Wolverton has become famous in the comics-world, "World" is just six pages. Yet, even apart from Wolverton's signature art-- in which he skillfully uses shading and forced perspective to give his science fiction an almost tactile sense of organic life-- the story is a deeper consideration of the psychological costs of Doing the Right Thing, even when one has no viable alternative.

Whereas the scientist in "Destruction of the Earth" is of no importance, "World" centers upon the quandary of Earth-scientist Julius Kane in the year 2429 A.D.




Kane, having discovered a new destructive power, plans to keep it to himself. Yet the authorities have been keeping tabs on him, and they want him to turn over any and all discoveries that may help them in their ruthless path to conquest. A little later in the story, Kane's antagonist General Alexander tells him that most of the world now believes that "aggressive warfare is the noblest pursuit of man." This seems to be confirmed by what Kane sees on his "telion screen."





Since a newsman blandly reports for all to hear that Earth plans to conquer the "friendly," human-like natives of Mars, Kane apparently has good reason to believe that General Alexander speaks for his world. Knowing that his new discovery is capable of wrecking entire planets, he decides that his only course is "to blast this war-crazy world out of the killing business." He successfully cons Alexander into making a test of the new weapon on Earth's moon, but his purpose is to cause the moon to collide with his own homeworld.


In the ensuing chaos, Kane escapes the General's clutches, fleeing in an air car while all around the world goes to hell. His air car crashes into another such vehicle, and by the grace of Melodramatic Convention, Kane comes face to face one last time with his nemesis Alexander.




Though Alexander looks ready to strangle Kane in panel 3, the outcome of the fight is not seen, possibly because the unmanned air car crashes. Kane, continuing his narration from page 1, tells the reader that he doesn't know what happened next, but that considerable time must have passed by the time he revived from "a state of embalmment or suspended animation." But he has lived through the chaos only to bear witness that he's alone on the demolished planet Earth; that all other people are presumably dead (though we see no actual bodies). Though Kane made the right moral choice, his only reward is to dwell for the rest of his life upon the world he killed, while the fragments of the moon circle the Earth like a monument to his deed. "End of the World" is thus one of the darkest ironic myths seen in 1950s comics, and may well be Wolverton's best short story. It goes deeper than just evoking the terror of atomic war, speaking rather to the individual's alienation from his society, and yet, his concomitant suffering for having destroyed his own people in the name of a race whom he never even sees.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

DISCOURSES WITH DEAD MEN

At the beginning of last year's THE QUANTUM THEORY OF DYNAMICITY, I said:

From the beginnings of this blog I've maintained that a narrative's "mythicity" inheres in its ability to focus on *symbolic discourse;* which is another name for the author's use of narrative to explore the way his (or her) symbolic representations interact with one another.

It occurred to me that I ought to refine this a little. While the statement by itself is not incorrect, it neglects one of the author's main reasons for "exploring the way his (or her) symbolic representations interact with one another," and that is for the purpose of communicating to persons other than him/herself.

For commercial writers, it goes without saying that the main purpose of writing any sort of narrative is to make money. Robert Heinlein famously boiled down the author's purpose by saying, "Let's not kid ourselves; we're fighting for [our readers'] beer money." This brass-tacks statement isn't all that well exemplified by Heinlein himself, since he established himself from his earlier works as a writer primarily invested in one type of fiction, whose works always followed his personal conception of ethics. Indeed, Heinlein's career seems almost "artsy" next to the practiced cynicism of the genuine formula-writer, who may toil under a number of pseudonyms, writing whatever the market will bear at a given time, be it hard-boiled crime or ladies' Gothics.

At the other end of the spectrum. we find a smattering of works produced by authors who had no expectations of circulating them to a general public. at most showing them to selected acquaintances. Shelley's play PROMETHEUS UNBOUND is a "closet drama" in that it was never meant to be performed on stage, though of course it did see book publication. Franz Kafka published very little of his writing in his lifetime, and ostensibly told friend Max Brod to destroy his works after Kafka passed-- which Brod chose not to do. Shelley and Kafka may have desired acclaim at one time or another, but patently both wrote certain works that were more about pleasing themselves.

So any artistic narrative always has this dual potential: it can be produced for a wide audience, or for the author alone. Psychic mediums notwithstanding, artistic narrative-- which term here subsumes also music and the visual arts-- is almost the only way that artists can keep "talking" with people long after the artists themselves are dead. To some extent non-fictional narrative shares some of the power of the arts, but artistic narrative seems to hold much more power to remain relevant to audiences born long after the narrative was originated.

Though my writings on "discourse" go back at least to 2008, I began writing about the topic more frequently in essays like QUANTUM THEORY because I found that the word had applications beyond what I call "the mythopoeic potentiality." Though I have generally focused on the ways in which "super-functional" elements in a narrative interact, I've also come to the recent conclusion that one cannot escape the use of elements that are more purely functional, if only for purposes of contrast. I alluded to this aspect of narrative most recently in GOOD WILL QUANTUMS PT. 4, stating that characters who are "simple" rather than "complex" can provide an audience with much-needed diversion. Indeed, one may observe similar phenomena in real-time discourse. What speaker, having delivered a monologue on something of Great Import, does not seek to "lighten the mood" with a joke or two?

I'll note in conclusion that some of the most interesting literary discourses to have taken place came about because an audience wanted more of something that a given author never meant to pursue. If (a) an author decides to do a "one-off," after which (b) the audience says, "We want more," and (c) the author complies by giving them more, then--

Who then is in control of the discourse?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A QUICKLY BEATEN POST SEQUEL

My initial reason for writing this was just to link to last year's post, since THE BEAT has recently announced the essentials of the "Nazi Captain America" plotline have been concluded. To no one's surprise, it was, as I said, all a big kerfluffle designed to grab readers' attentions and sell more comics. Allegedly the Cosmic Cube was involved, which may be the rationale by which the story's writer claimed that Cap's nasty Nazi nature was "real," or as real as things get when you have devices with which you can change reality.

Whether or not the creators of the storyline managed to comment on "creeping fascism" or not, I can't say. I read a snippet of the story in some Free Comic Book, and I found it to be sub-Bendis drivel. I have no reason to doubt that the writer, one Nick Spenser, really thought that he was saying something meaningful about the dangers of fascism, and it may be that the piece I read did not capture the totality of his ambitions. To say the least, though, I'm skeptical of that.

Nevertheless, even if Spenser wrote a bad, possibly pretentious comic book, his deed is probably not more blameworthy than the legions of readers and pundits who lamented the storyline as some sort of terrible blow against diversity. Political correctness has become so pestilential that apparently one cannot even depict any character who seems allied to the forces of darkness without incurring an immediate and ill-conceived attack.

The impending HBO series CONFEDERATE has been attacked in similar fashion. I find it highly unlikely that the show's producers intend to use their postulate-- that of imagining an alternate world where the Southern States seceded from the Union-- to champion the values of a slave-holding society. I think it extremely likely that the producers will use the show for the opposite reason, to critique said values. There's no way to tell whether the show will be good or not, until we see it-- but to the partisans of political correctness, one should never do anything that in any way might encourage the forces of fascism. In such a repressive climate, a concept like Norman Lear's Archie Bunker-- that of using a racist character to critique racism-- would be well-nigh impossible.

And so, to all the politically correct partisans, I can only let Archie speak for me: