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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...

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, and almost always modeled on 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: