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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CLEANING AROUND THE CENTER

In CENTRIC AND DIFFUSE WILL PT. 3 I compared my early use of terms like "dominant" and "subdominant" in the early history of this blog, and why those terms fell to the wayside:

The word "dominance" descends from the Latin dominus, meaning a lord or master,  and this imagery more or less accords with the thoughts I expressed in JUNG AND SOVEREIGNTY. And yet, though I don't reject any of these meditations, in recent years I've been drawn less to the image of a "master" lording it over lesser elements, and more drawn to the image of the circle. If a given narrative has elements characteristic of all four Fryean mythoi, one may see the centermost circle as being the myth-radical that most determines the total content of the narrative.  
I attempted, not very frequently, to work out a terminology for describing the way "lesser elements" give way to a "sovereign element," whether speaking of a given work's myth-radicals or of its distribution of spectacular and/or functional forms of violence, as seen in CENTRIC AND DIFFUSE WILL PT. 2. In fact, most of what I've theorized about the "centric/diffuse" word-pair concerned differing forms of dynamicity, as seen in THE NECESSITY OF SPECTACLE PT. 2:

When opposed megadynamic forces exist in a narrative but are not the main focus of the narrative, such a work is "subcombative" and the opposed forces are what I will term "diffuse forces" rather than "centric forces"-- on which I may write sometime later.

On this blog I've only occasionally mentioned  Northrop Frye's geometrically based distinction between "the centrifugal and the centripetal:"

"Frye uses the terms 'centripetal' and 'centrifugal' to describe his critical method. Criticism, Frye explains, is essentially centripetal when it moves inwardly, towards the structure of a text; it is centrifugal when it moves outwardly, away from the text and towards society and the outer world."-- Wikipedia, "Northrop Frye."

Despite not making reference to those precise terms, though, this section of Frye's ANATOMY was a great influence on me. I would imagine that when I wrote these words, I was thinking to some extent about the "diffuse forces" being like unto the so-called "centripetal" force, that tends outward from the center, while the "centric" were like unto "centrifugal force," tending toward the center.

The big problem, though, is that "centric" and "diffuse" aren't really viable opposites, though the former does have a more workable antonym: From Dictionary.com:

CENTRIC: "pertaining to or situated at the center."

ECCENTRIC: "not having the same center; not concentric."

Usually when I've introduced a new term in place of an old one, I've simply let the old blog-label remain unchanged and started new tracings for the new term. However, since as of today I only had six tracings for the labels "centric force" (or "will") and its original opposite, I've scrubbed away the old, mixed-up terms in the labels, but not in the essays themselves. From now on, I'll use only "centric will" for any element that assumes a central position in the narrative, and "eccentric will" for any element outside the center.

While most bloggers don't trouble to revise old essays, even in their labels, I do so whenever I come up with a formulation that better clarifies my position. I've revised these two forms of authorial will with the expectation of using them to further illustrate another theoretical concept. The concepts of both the "51 percent rule and of its corrollary of "active and passive shares," last referenced here, has become vital to my method of sussing out the importance of divergent elements within narratives. This terminological "house-cleaning" has thus come about in order to bring the two forms of authorial will in line with the general idea of how centricity is achieved, and what it means.

 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

STRUGGLE VS. COMBAT PT. 2

Here's an illustration of the difference between "struggle" and "combat," one that doesn't invoke Kantian concepts like "dynamic-sublime."

Character A uses Force X to push character B backward.

At the same time, Character C uses the same amount of kinetic energy, Force X, to push character D backward.

The amount of power exercised by A and C is thus identical. However, the act as a whole is different when we learn that:

Character B is standing at the edge of a water-filled pool, and will fall into deep water if he loses his balance.

Character D is standing at the top of a long stairway, with many many steps to fall if he loses his balance.

In THE THREE PART HARMONY OF DYNAMICITY, I designated three separate terms for assigning a level of power to any given character. I'll arbitrarily cut these down to two for the purpose of this thought-experiment, and say that any demonstration of personal power that does not reach the highest level, "the megadynamic," automatically falls into one lower category, that of "the mesodynamic." Often, whenever I've parsed out the level of power a given character possesses, I've utilized close textual reading to decide whether or not there's any proof in the text that allows me to rate the personal power or, say, Hamlet in comparison to Coriolanus. I found, in other essays on dynamicity, that Coriolanus had a valid claim to megadynamicity while Hamlet's claim was not nearly as strong.

But in the parallel examples offered above, nothing is said about the power-level or even the skill-level of the persons performing the act of assault. They use the exact same force in both cases, so it's impossible to judge if one possesses more than the other. However, the person assaulted in the second situation is more likely to be seriously harmed than the person in the first situation. Granted, Character B may fall into the pool and hit his head on the concrete surrounding the pool, or there may be other complications that keep Character B from keeping afloat in the pool. But these are special cases, whereas when Character D goes off the top of the stairway, it's very likely he will be injured by that fall no matter what his particular circumstances (barring things like the power of invulnerability and so on).

So in this parallel situation we have someone exerting the same amount of force-- which may or may not indicate how strong the character doing the pushing is-- but the result of one shove is unlikely to result in serious injury, and the result of the other is extremely likely. So "intent" can have some effect upon the dynamicity of a given character's actions, even when the actual force may not be all that spectacular.

I addressed the question of "intent vs. execution" in this 2015 essay, where I considered two films in which the culminating fight-scene was not executed very well. Yet I judged that one of the two films conveyed the general sense of a battle between opposed megadynamic forces, because this seemed to be the general *intent* of the director, while the director of the other film did not provide even slight textual clues to indicate his protagonist's power. Using the current set of terms, I would say that the former film exhibited "combat" while the latter exhibited only "struggle," but here the subject of intent was extra-diegetical. In the parallel situations above, "intent" is intra-diegetical; each character providing the push-force is aware of how much potential damage will wreak on the person pushed. Character A is not likely to think that a fall in a pool will seriously harm Character B, while Character C knows that a fall down a stairwell will add enough kinetic force to the original Force X to seriously injure Character D.

Thus, in terms of the context of the respective acts, Character A's act is that of mesodynamic struggle, while Character C's act is that of megadynamic combat.


Friday, October 27, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: ZERO'S FAMILIAR (2006)

As with the earlier MAYO CHIKI, the manga ZERO'S FAMILIAR could never be one of my mythcomics because it derives from a prose novel-series.



However, ZERO's has even less claim to symbolic density than MAYO CHIKI. It's an amiable enough comedy-fantasy, but it does not develop its mythic themes. I won't attempt to write a single essay on it here, but will include, for possible later reference, some of the notes I've made on the manga-series for my "superhero idiom" project.

OVERVIEW: In the extradimensional world of Halkegina, several kingdoms, all loosely modeled on medieval European domains, exist alongside real dragons and griffins. Aristocrats who can practice real magic rule the various countries. Young nobles, such as Louiss de la Valliere, attend schools to hone their mastery of magic, but Louise happens to be one of the worst students. When all students in her class are called upon to call up their destined familiara, Louise opens a dimensional gate to Earth. High-school student Saito Hiraga walks through the doorway and becomes bonded to Louise. (It’s later suggested that Earth and Halkeginia have interacted before, and that the two youngsters may be distantly related to a famous mage-and-familiar pair from the early history of Halkegina.) Louise is initially scornful about having a human being for a familiar, and treats him like a lowly servant, and sometimes as a dog, literally on a leash. However, the two teens become drawn to each other, and Louise becomes jealous if Saito even looks at another female. Both become involved in a battle against Reconquista, a rebel movement aimed at forcing Halkegina to serve one rule.

And my interpretation:

 Despite the comical “boy-meets-girl” plot-lines, the interaction of Louise and Saito—one a noble, the other a “commoner”—reflects a familiar trope in Japanese fiction: that of the lordly “daiimyo” and his faithful samurai, seen through the prism of “witch and familiar.” There are light S&M tropes in the relationship as well, though it’s noteworthy that Saito isn’t yanked into Halkegina against his will. Rather, he enters the dimension-doorway out of curiosity and boredom with the mundane Earth-world, and so in a sense he enters into the relationship willingly.

ETHICS AMONG THE SUBCOMBATIVES PT. 3

At the end of Part 2 of this series, I said:

In Part 3 of this new series, I'll explore some of the ramifications involved when a subcombative work aligns itself with themes most often seen in combative works.
This comment grew out of my reading of a particular subcombative work, Mark Twain's PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. The ideal expressed in Twain's work is one I find uncharacteristic of most subcombative works. I take this snippet from Chapter 17:

She was great in battle—we all know that; great in foresight; great in loyalty and patriotism; great in persuading discontented chiefs and reconciling conflicting interests and passions; great in the ability to discover merit and genius wherever it lay hidden; great in picturesque and eloquent speech; supremely great in the gift of firing the hearts of hopeless men and noble enthusiasms, the gift of turning hares into heroes, slaves and skulkers into battalions that march to death with songs on their lips. But all these are exalting activities; they keep hand and heart and brain keyed up to their work; there is the joy of achievement, the inspiration of stir and movement, the applause which hails success; the soul is overflowing with life and energy, the faculties are at white heat; weariness, despondency, inertia—these do not exist.

Now the thematic reason that Twain writes eloquently of "the soul-- overflowing with life and energy" is to serve a greater purpose, to make clear what values Joan incarnates, the better to serve the book's theme, to show readers what was lost when she was destroyed by vicious and small-minded persecution. In the terms I've appropriated from Theodore Gaster, Twain's JOAN OF ARC most closely aligns with the *purgative* mode:

First the rites of mortification, symbolizing the temporary eclipse of the community. Next the rites of purgation, by which all noxious elements that might impair the community's future welfare are eliminated. Then the rites of invigoration, aimed at stimulating the growth of crops, the fecundity of humans and beasts, and the supply of needed sunshine and rainfall throughout the year. Finally, when the new lease is assured, come the rites of jubilation; there is a communal meal at which the members of the community recement their bonds of kinship by breaking bread together, and at which their gods are present.

Still, I find it interesting that, in the section printed above, Twain frames Joan's virtues in terms that I consider more linked to the mode of invigoration. This is a very different approach from, say, George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN, where the author is more concerned with seeing Joan not in terms of her immediate impact on France's fortunes on the battlefield, but in terms of intellectual history:

“A Frenchman! Where did you pick up that expression? Are these Burgundians and Bretons and Picards and Gascons beginning to call themselves Frenchmen, just as our fellows are beginning to call themselves Englishmen? They actually talk of France and England as their countries. Theirs, if you please! What is to become of me and you if that way of thinking comes into fashion?” 

Shaw's SAINT JOAN is much more unified in terms of its mode, which I would consider that of *mortification,* which I've lined up with the Fryean mythos of irony. Twain, however, returns me to the concept of "subdominant elements" as expressed in this 2011 essay:

“Subdominant” indicates that a given narrative makes extensive use of the elements of one mythos even though the narrative as a whole fits another mythos better.
Now, although Twain's JOAN OF ARC is still a drama in the *purgative* mode, the author also makes a subdominant invocation of the *invigorative* mode. This means that it aligns itself, like such classic works as THE ILIAD, with my "narrative rule of excess," as glossed by Nietzsche.


 "To demand of strength that it should not express itself, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength."-- ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS.
What's fascinating is that while THE ILIAD is concerned with its heroes, who display this "thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph," Twain's work is concerned with an inspirational figure who encourages Frenchmen to fight and overcome their English enemies. At the same time, her ability to inspire warriors in the field does not extend to the legalists and religionists of her own nascent nation, and this is the "Achilles heel" that dooms her. Still, Twain's perception of "the rule of excess"-- obviously, through his own distinct cultural lens-- arguably makes his JOAN OF ARC a deeper and more artistic accomplishment than, say, SAINT JOAN.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

STRUGGLE VS. COMBAT PT. 1

My overview of the "Hammer Dracula series" in TRANSITIVE MONSTERS PT. 2 moves me to advance a minor term, that of "struggle," in contrast to "combat."

In numerous essays I've noted how some works possess the potential for the combative mode but fail, for assorted reasons, to achieve this special archetypal synthesis. In 2013's SEMICOMBATIVE VS. SUBCOMBATIVE,  I noted that if one could, in theory, distinguish between subcombative works that portray the act of combat and those that have no action that even comes close to the act. But because my panoply of theoretical thoughts is complicated enough, I chose not to bother incorporating the term "semicombative."

Yet it seems to me that it might be useful to have a term for acts of fictive violence that *almost* make the grade. TRANSITIVE MONSTERS 2 demonstrates that the only combative works in the Hammer Dracula series are the four films in which the master vampire contends with one of Hammer's versions of Bram Stoker's Professor Von Helsing. The other four films nevertheless end with violent struggles, usually between the vampire and some young swain, but I judge these to be subcombative because  "the implication [of these films] Is always that ordinary humans can only muddle through and win by last-minute flashes of inspiration."

I suggested some of the theoretical distance between the struggle and the combat in one of my observations from STORMING ACROSS THE THRESHOLD PART 2:


[Regarding] BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH--As much as their cinematic progenitor, the 1933 King Kong, both depend on giant critters wreaking havoc in big cities and then being defeated by whatever forces human beings can muster against them. In the end, no matter what specific arguments I put forth, they boil down to the subjective feeling that BEAST only tromps its way over the megadynamicity threshold, while BEHEMOTH "storms" across, in part because it shows a greater propensity toward the "dynamic-sublime."
I don't foresee re-using the metaphorical distinction between "tromping" and "storming" again, but it seems to me that a lot of the subcombative works described in the STORMING essay are best seen as films that involve "struggle," but fail to concentrate the action-elements enough to produce that instance of the "dynamic-sublime" called "combat."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "FIVE BILLION YEARS" (GREEN LANTERN #200, 1986)



I noted in my mythcomics analysis of "The God Killer" that it was only a part of a greater saga, but that I didn't find the entire story to have the necessary symbolic density necessary for a mythcomic.

"Panther's Rage" is rambling and episodic, and though it's never boring, its myth-themes are not integrated enough to make me list the entire arc...
"Five Billion Years" is a similar case. It's the culmination of a long arc involving DC's space-opera superhero and many of his fellow Green Lanterns from assorted planets. If that wasn't complicated enough, the greater arc is tied into DC's multi-feature epic, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, and works in a lot of DC history seen in stories like THE SECRET ORIGIN OF THE GUARDIANS and THE SECRET LIFE OF STAR SAPPHIRE. (Below is a quick contemporaneous recap of Star Sapphire's origin.)


 In addition, this arc proved notable for building up the character of Guy Gardner, the Bad Boy of the Lantern Corps:



Most of these developments, however, relate purely to lateral meaning as I described it in RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT. The symbolic density of myth comes into being through the mythopoeic potentiality, which aligns itself with a narrative's "underthought" and frequently, though not invariably, is granted greater profundity by its interaction with the "overthoughts" of the didactic potentiality. Lateral meaning describes what the characters experience physically and what readers should understand of its emotional meaning, and so the lateral elements of this story-- things that relate purely to Hal Jordan's romantic problems or his duels with old and new enemies-- are irrelevant to the matter of myth.

The underthought of "Five Billion Years" reveals yet another "secret origin" for the Guardians of the Universe. Although Green Lantern's mentors spend most of their career looking like sexless, hyper-intellectual dwarfs, "Five Billion" hearkens back to their origins as gendered entities-- which begs the intellectual question, "what happened to the other gender?" In short, the Zamarons-- who, since their introduction in John Broome's Star Sapphire origin, were always depicted as all-female-- are called upon to be the missing "other half" of the mortal race that gave rise to the Guardians.

The confrontation of the Guardians and the Zamarons has one extrinsic purpose, to link the events of the GREEN LANTERN comic to upcoming, post-Crisis events like the MILLENNIUM mini-series. However, Englehart is skillful enough to give this "big event" a strong intrinsic meaning, in that the reunion of the two sexes is touted as an evolutionary necessity. One Guardian says:

The race born on Malthus and and developed on Oa and Zamaron must be regenerated to create a new breed of immortal...

But before this can happen, the most prominent Guardian must duel the most prominent Zamaron to prove the former's fitness to mate with the latter. Since the duel takes place in terms of energy-blasts, the event shouldn't convey any anti-feminine sentiments except to those determined to find that sort of thing.



After the head Guardian proves, at least by implication, that he and his fellows still have the Stuff, they and the Zamarons fly off to some celestial plane, telling the Green Lanterns that they too must evolve, so as to be their own masters. Their own personal "devil" Sinestro attempts to tag along in the guise of a Guardian, but he's caught, and confesses, in very Earth-centric terms, that his intention was to become "a lurking serpent in your new and secret haven."

From what memories I have of MILLENNIUM and the somewhat related NEW GUARDIANS title, I don't think the Guardians succeeded in coming up with their "new breed." In any case the little blue men didn't stay away very long, but returned to the GREEN LANTERN within the next twenty issues, prior to its cancellation.

On a minor side-note, Englehart tries to extend his evolution-metaphor into one of Green Lantern's battles, as the hero bests the mentally endowed super-villain Hector Hammond, telling Hammond, "You've reached the far end of your evolution, while I'm still going." But it's at best a forced metaphor at that point. Whatever the long-term execution of the "Guardians have sex" concept, "Five Billion Years" does manage to impart a sense of space-opera grandeur to the proceedings.


Monday, October 23, 2017

THE CONFEDERACY AND THE DUNCES PT. 2

Just another statement of general principles re: the Confederacy on some forum...

____________

Neither the Union nor the Confederacy was innocent of making profit from slavery, the South simply made more, to the extent that they didn't want to give up those profits when the North sought to marginalize them politically. And when I say "they," I mean not just "rich Southerners," but everyone who profited from Southern States enjoying prominence in politics. For that matter, the whole country profited from the industry of the South, and the same logic you use against the Confederacy could be turned against the Union. After all, the Union promoted emancipation as a war strategy, but what did it do for freedmen after the war? Allowed the South to institute Black Codes; allowed those "rich Southerners" to reclaim their property if they signed loyalty oaths. So, even though the Southern States  were "traitors," the "legitimate authority" of the Union can be seen as being no less opposed to the interests of black people. So your basic reducio ad absurdum would be that neither Union nor Confederate officers should be honored, because neither one did much to help black people.

The North did not fight the war, as Lincoln supposedly claimed, to free slaves. The serious abolitionists had moral reasons for wanting abolition, but the general indifference of the post-Civil War North to the fate of freedmen indicates that black people were just pawns that the North had employed against the South.

Given that neither side acted for dominantly moral reasons, neither side deserves monuments on that basis. But by the same token, since there is a "lack of morality" equivalence between them, one should not be denied while the other is allowed. Monuments may or may not be used at times for political reasons, but the dominant reason is that of a culture writing itself a Valentine that romanticizes the strengths and ignores the faults. You want to say "the South was nothing but a rotten cesspool," when the truth is that, judged from the position of the slavery issue, the whole country was a rotten cesspool. But there's no political advantage to be had from getting rid of all monuments in the U.S., so it all becomes about "Southern heritage is nothing but slavery" and making the South into a scapegoat for the sins of all.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: “THE PERIL OF PAINGLOSS” (GIANT-SIZE WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #5, 1975)






Marvel’s 1970s title WEREWOLF BY NIGHT proved to be the company’s second most long-lived “horror-hero” title of the decade, excelled only by TOMB OF DRACULA, one arc of which I discussed here. The WEREWOLF series was far more uneven in quality than that of the vampire count. As a result, neither fans nor critics paid a great deal of attention to the stories of Jack Russell, a modern American man laboring under a curse that changed him into a wolf-man on full-moon nights. However, on occasion the feature did yield some unique mythopoeic gems.

At the time of this story—one of two stories in the series drawn by Filipino artist Yong Montano—writer Doug Moench had been associated with the title for some time. Normally, the Werewolf stayed close to the soil of Marvel-Earth, having fights with other freakish denizens of that world—hunchbacks, vampires, other werewolves, and the occasional evil magician. But in Moench’s last long story for the feature— a story of almost forty pages, appearing in the last issue of the feature's annual edition—the writer decided to transport Jack Russell into a world like himself: alternately ruled by day and by night.

The first thirteen pages take place in Jack’s normal domain of Marvel-Earth. His friend Buck Cowan, who knows all about Jack’s unwanted transformations, suggests that they visit a renowned occultist, one with the colorful name of Joaquin Zairre. However, not only does Zairre give the duo no help in their quest for a werewolf cure, the Satanist decides to use Jack as a sacrifice to his unholy master. When the first full-moon night draws near, Zairre kidnaps both Jack and Buck and takes them to a subterranean cavern. There Zaiire plans to shoot Jack with a silver bullet as soon as he transforms into a werewolf. Apparently the sacrifice of a guy who turns hairy is just not good enough. The setup, consciously or not, emulates a pattern seen in  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars," in that the hero is placed in a life-or-death situation just before he symbolically “dies” and is translated to another plane of  being.


To be sure, the other world in “Paingloss” comes looking for Jack rather than waiting for him to show up. Jack becomes the Werewolf, but before Zairre can fire his silver bullet, another silver device intrudes: a magical silver lasso that springs out of an underground pool and drags the hirsute hero into the water.

It’s no less typical to see scenarios in which a feature’s hero is transported to another world for the purpose of drafting him to help the “good guys” against the “bad guys.” Since Jack’s alter ego is a ravening monster who’s not particularly altruistic, Moench solves this problem by revealing, in due time, that the Werewolf's abductors actually want to put him a menagerie owned by the queen who rules the otherworld. This otherworld is named "Biphasia," and as I mentioned earlier, is explicitly identified with Jack’s own plight, conveyed through Jack’s narration: 

Like my soul, it was a place torn in two—light and darkness, intelligence and savagery.


To an extent Moench follows a pattern seen in many high-fantasy novels of the time, in which “light” is equated with goodness and “darkness” with evil. However, even in Jack’s narration, Moench qualifies this equivalence, having Jack wonder if Searland, the eternally bright half of the world of Biphasia, is truly “a place of innocence,” or if it’s really just a “mirror” to the evil of “Shadow-Realm.”


One of the two beings who abduct the werewolf is just a slightly comical mage, but the other is the “Paingloss” of the story’s title. He is an inhabitant of Shadow-Realm, which means that he looks like a negative-image of a Caucasian human, garbed more or less like a fantasy-version of a knight: his flesh, hair and clothes ebon-black and outlined in white. 


Paingloss and his mage-buddy are located in Shadow-Realm when they put the snatch on Jack, and so he remains in werewolf form while he occupies the dark side of Biphasis. However, when Paingloss tries to take his prize to Biphasia’s ruler Delandra—who lives in Searland—the Werewolf changes back into Jack Russell, just as he would in the daylight of Earth. Delandra-- who is half like a Searland denizen, half like a Shadow-Realm inhabitant-- is then pissed at her knight Paingloss for having brought back an ordinary man for her managerie. Moench states that there's a brooding love affair between Delandra and Paingloss, and that, for reasons that remain obscure, Delandra could not give Paingloss her favors until he achieved the task of bringing back a rare beast. Privately, Jack finds the queen a spoiled brat, since it's evident that she cares more about her private zoo than about an impending invasion by the Shadow-Realm. 



Though the story is a long one compared to the average Werewolf tale, there really isn’t time for more than a Cook’s Tour of Biphasia. No sooner is Jack rejected than he’s shanghaied into helping Paingloss fight his former master Sardanus. In order to give Jack a more heroic role, Paingloss asserts that Sardanus also plans to invade Earth after he gains control of Searland. 



In an oddly short climax, Paingloss and the Werewolf defeat Sardanus, after which Paingloss’ wizard sends Jack home. Jack manifests in the cavern just in time to see his friend Buck deck Zairre. The Satanist then falls into the underground pool; implicitly becoming a death-substitute for Jack Russell, much as Alcestis descended to Hades to take the place of her husband. When Zairre doesn’t come up, Buck assumes he’s drowned, but Jack privately suspects that the Satanist was sucked into the world of Biphasis. The story ends with the hapless Jack taking cold comfort in the fact that he saved the world, even though no one else will ever credit the story.


Moench’s story is far from perfect. The relatively fresh idea of having the story’s hero being abducted for a menagerie—all to serve the ego of a spoiled queen—is dropped too quickly in favor of the catchpenny menace of Sardanus. One of the more interesting visuals of Moench and Montano is that Delandra’s palace is actually a huge ark stuck in the side of a mountain, but the pace of the story won’t allow for any explanations of this, nor of the imaginative creatures called “lustrums,” albino dwarves who ride the backs of big white snails. I imagine a better story would have ensued had Moench just left out the standard “dark lord” schtick and had focused on the story on Paingloss, Delandra and her menagerie. Maybe he might have even suggested some textual reason why he chose to name his big strapping knight-warrior after Voltaire’s “Pangloss,” who becomes famous in CANDIDE from claiming to everyone who will listen that humans live in “the best of all possible worlds.”  Still,even though Biphasis lacks the intellectual rigor found in Middle-Earth, there is a mythopoeic level of imagination at work in this largely forgotten story-- far more, in fact, than Moench showed in his better known WEIRDWORLD stories, which I found derivative and lacking in symbolic vigor.

NARRATIVE AND SIGNIFICANT DISCOURSES

In keeping with my observations in DISCOURSES WITH LIVING SYMBOLS, I've advanced the idea that when an author who is in touch with the mythopoeic potentiality-- even if only temporarily-- he displays the greatest ability to generate discourses of symbolic density. These discourses may exist either for the author's own delectation and illumination (Kafka) or, more typically, for the entertainment and/or enlightenment of his audience.

In my essay POETRY IN MOTION PART 3 I noted how Frye made a distinction between the narrative and significant values of literary narratives. To boil Frye’s argument down to its essentials, he regarded a given element as having a “narrative value” to the extent that it functioned to play a role in the way the narrative was constructed, while a “significant value” applied to an element which was meant to serve the purpose of a pattern hypothetically extrinsic to the narrative, what is usually called “theme” or “meaning.”

This week’s “near myth” essay analyzes MAYO CHIKI, a manga derived from a Japanese “light novel” series. My analysis identified a psychological pattern of clansgression, but this pattern was largely extrinsic to the narrative in which the characters are involved. This pattern can only be deduced by looking at Jirou’s psychological quirk-- that of desiring a love-partner who bears some resemblance to his younger sister—as if it were the hidden meaning toward which the story’s events point. This, then, would be dominantly a “significant discourse," since the narrative serves the primary purpose of piecing together the story's events, after the fashion of inductive reasoning, in order to reveal a meaning. 

However, it’s possible for an author to structure his narrative not to reflect a hidden significant value, but more as a commentary on other narratives. This reflects the "top-down" approach of deductive reasoning, and I term this form a “narrative discourse.”

I touched on an example of a “narrative discourse”—albeit without this terminology -- in my essay on “The InjusticeSociety of the World,” Robert Kanigher’s first story for the Justice Society of America series in ALL-STAR COMICS. Kanigher’s tale was not the first time a superhero feature had teamed up a group of villains to oppose a hero, or group of heroes, but it seems to be the first time a comics-writer used this narrative situation to create a Carroll-esque mood of inverted values. This too stands scrutiny as a psychological pattern in my quasi-Campbellian sense. However, the reader can only apprehend the particular qualities of Kanigher's narrative by comparing them to the broad patterns of other, similar narratives.

This distinction came to mind as a result of my mediations on this week's mythcomic, which will be immediately forthcoming.

Monday, October 16, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: "MAYO CHIKI" (2010)

I've wondered on occasion if it would be possible to find much mythic material in the genre of teen humor comics. At present I haven't come across much of interest in American teen comics, but I must admit that the Japanese show a genius for infusing wacky adolescent antics with weird psychological touches.

One psychological aspect of the 2010 manga MAYO CHIKI led me to consider whether or not at least a portion of the finished story might qualify as a "mythcomic." However, MAYO CHIKI did not begin as a comic book, but as a series of light novels, which in turn were adapted to both manga and anime. Since from the first I've focused on mythcomics only if they were original to the comics-medium, MAYO CHIKI does not qualify. The novel series as a whole may comprise a literary myth, but the manga does not generate that myth, but only transmits the myth from the prose works, though some details may have changed in the translation. 

There's no reason, though, that I can't treat the manga as a "near myth," with the stipulation that it's derived from a primary source.

In some ways, MAYO CHIKI is a typical enough Japanese teen comic. It begins with a male character who is, at least on the surface of things, "average," and then creates a situation in which he's pursued by a small harem of pretty girls. 


However, in the case of MAYO's POV character, Jirou Sakimachi, he's got a biological peculiarity. He was raised by a mother who was a pro wrestler, and who, for no clear reason, constantly used Jirou as a "sandbag" (by which the translation means a "practice dummy.") In addition, his younger sister Kureha is also a wrestler, and has doled out the same punishing treatments to Jirou since she became old enough to wrestle. As a result of all this punishment, Jirou bleeds from the nose whenever he even comes into sustained contact with a female.


For some thirty years at least, it's been a well-traveled trope in Japanese culture to depict male sexual excitation in the form of nosebleeds. However, going by the dialogue in the second manga-opus, Jirou supposedly does so as an avoidance technique. "If you made bloodshed," another  character suggests to Jirou, "they'd stop hitting you, isn't it like that?" This may not be the whole truth, but the authors clearly meant it to be part of Jirou's makeup. In addition, it provides the girls in his harem with an excuse to "cure" him of his reticence toward women, while they can feel confident that he's not likely to become an aggressor. 

Further complicating the romantic drama is that the girl Jirou likes the most, Subaru Konoe, can't be seen publicly as a girl. For assorted reasons Subaru, in order to serve as butler to the heiress of a rich family, has to pretend to be male. For the bulk of the series, there are endless misunderstandings about the relationship between Jirou and Subaru, most of them revolving around the idea of "boys' love" (a particular fascination for high-school girls, it seems). In fact, Jirou's sister Kureha-- who lives with him, even though their mother is conveniently out-of-country for the whole story-- is one of the students who enthuses most about her brother being united with the supposedly male Subaru.



"The portion" I mentioned in paragraph two is the last few installments of MAYO CHIKI's conclusion. Jirou proposes to Subaru, but she has a widowed father, Nagare, who seems to hate Jirou on general principles. Nagare won't allow any marriage unless Jirou fights him, and he's a much better fighter than Jirou. The young man is forced to ask his sister Kureha to wrestle him again-- by this time, Jirou's mostly mastered his bleeding-problem-- and of course, Kureha clobbers him just as she did in the earlier practice sessions. However, though Jirou doesn't win the fight with Nagare, the younger man scores enough points that his future father-in-law has to concede him some respect, paving the way for a future wedding. To be sure, though, the authors manage to contrive a method by which Jirou doesn't entirely have to give up his "harem" in all respects.

In section 36, though, the authors choose to give Nagare a strange connection to Jirou that goes beyond the standard trope of the "heavy father." Jirou asks the older man why he hates him, and Nagare replies that Jirou reminds him of his younger self. Nagare then finds out Jirou's surname, which he's somehow avoiding learning in 36 volumes, and makes the odd revelation that he was a boyfriend to Jirou's wrestler-mother. This gives Nagare another reason to resent Jirou, because he's the child of the man who beat out Nagare for the favors of Jirou's mother. Yet it ends up meaning a little more than that.

While Nagare is in no way physically related to Jirou, the revelation that the former was at least a potential love-interest to Jirou's mother makes Nagare a "symbolic father." He thus takes the place of Jirou's deceased real father who is referenced even less than Jirou's mother. And if Nagare is Jirou's symbolic father, then Nagare's daughter is also Jirou's symbolic sister.

Though Japanese manga-works are awash with replete with numerous narratives of sibling-incest, it's not overtly suggested that Jirou has ever had a sexual response to the younger sister with whom he lives, or, for that matter, to his absent mother. He's also not an overt masochist, as he's never shown enjoying the violence Kureha wreaks upon him. But Subaru the symbolic sister may be seen as a displacement for Kureha the real sister, and possibly for the mother as well.



One cannot really interrogate the interior feelings of a fictional character, who has no depth. But one can inquire into the ways that the living authors encode certain patterns in the characters. One thing that *may* have been going on in the authors' skulls was that though they claimed that Jirou's nose-bleeding served as an avoidance-technique, they arranged things so it's not impossible to read it normatvely, as an indicator of sexual stimulation. That would mean that Jirou may have undergone some sexual stimulation through his contact with his family-members, and that this, and any masochistic stimulation, was so unwanted that it manifested in spontaneous nose-bleeds from any and all sustained contacts with females. The nose-bleeds don't stop until Jirou is united with a female whom he doesn't consider a familial transgression. And yet-- because she's a "symbolic sister"-- first seen trying to beat up Jirou when he accidentally sees her in her underwear-- one may argue that Jirou is still fulfilling the familiar pattern of sibling-incest, albeit only on a symbolic level.

In conclusion, MAYO CHIKI, even if it doesn't possess the full density of a mythcomic, seems far richer than anything one finds in the teen humor titles of America. Whether one considers that a boon or a deficit will depend on one's definition of "innocent entertainment."


Friday, October 13, 2017

MYTHCOMICS" "BEING BIZARRO" (ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #7-8, 2007)

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?== Adam's complaint to God, John Milton, PARADISE LOST.

Milton’s famous line from PARADISE LOST—essentially a more sophisticated version of the adolescent’s aggrieved cry, “I didn’t ask to be born”—sometimes appears as a preface in some editions of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. The attitude proves of key importance to understanding the story of a being created to be one-of-a-kind, and thus isolated from the human society of his all too mortal creator.

In this essay I’ve discussed Alvin Schwartz’s original “Bizarro” story from the SUPERMAN comic stirp, with particularly emphasis on the narrative’s indebtedness to the story of FRANKENSTEIN. Not only does Bizarro’s physiognomy resemble the angular countenance of the Universal film-monster as essayed by Boris Karloff—although Bizarro’s flesh looks rather like chalk-colored stone—but Bizarro too is an “imperfect copy” of normative humanity. True, Bizarro specifically emulates the form of Superman, an alien being who looks human but has “powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals.” But Schwartz frequently emphasizes that Bizarro, like the Frankenstein Monster, is a form of life that stands outside the normative biological process, and which may be considered not unlike God’s creation of mankind from the medium of clay.

Mary Shelley codes her reference to the Judeo-Christian narrative by giving the book the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” In some legends the Graeco-Roman Titan is said to be able to sculpt living men out of clay, and Frankenstein does essentially the same thing by sculpting a monster out of the “common clay” of dead bodies. Some critics have objected to the logic of Frankenstein’s piecemeal construction of the Monster, asking whether it would not have been more practical to simply revive a single dead body, whose parts were biologically designed to work with one another. But Shelley’s mythopoeic design was sound. By having Frankenstein choose random body parts with which to make his monster, she furthers the idea of his godlike status, choosing organs as Prometheus would have chosen this or that lump of clay to turn into a human being.

Schwartz’s Bizarro is obviously not made of disparate body parts; he arises as a result of radiation interacting with what Schwartz calls “unliving matter.”  At the end of the comic strip narrative, Superman, less than pleased to have an imperfect copy of himself running around loose, manages to devolve Bizarro back to his constituent elements—his “common clay,” if you will—though the last strip is unusually coy about showing Bizarro’s inorganic remains “on-camera.”

Later iterations of the Bizarro mythos in DC comic books of the Silver Age sought to emphasize broad farce rather than tragic alienation, and thus the “imperfect Superman” was given a planet-ful of other Bizarros, mostly copies of characters from Superman’s mythos. For a time they all inhabited a faux version of Earth, but cube-shaped instead of round, and they all spoke in reverse-logic, saying “Goodbye” in place of “Hello,” and so on.



“Being Bizarro” is a re-writing of Bizarro mythology by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. It's a two-part story that takes place within a twelve-issue arc SUPERMAN arc, but the overall arc is outside my consideration here.  There are no direct references to either Shelley or Schwartz in this tale, though it’s interesting that artist Quitely dispenses with the “classic” chalk-faced look of the Bizarros, making them all look like they have faces of white clay.



In this re-imagining, the Bizarro phenomenon does not start out with one imperfect duplicate being conjured forth by some scientist’s invention. Rather, the “common clay” from which Morrison’s Bizaaros originate launches an attack against the living denizens of Superman’s world. From a domain termed “the Underverse,” also described as part of the “cosmic sinkhole” underlying normative reality, a “planet eater” organism seeks to prey on Earth. Despite the metaphysical nature of this proposition, Morrison’s script draws upon biological patterns. Thus the planet-eater takes the shape of another planet in order to mimic Earth’s appearance, but the organism botches the job and looks like a big cube in space. The Underverse then sends forth Bizarro-duplicates of living beings, one of which is a “Super Bizarro” who successfully duplicates some, though not all, of Superman’s p;owers. The duplicates that reach Earth can infect humans and turn them into Bizarros, which argues that Morrison sought to crossbreed the Bizarro mythology with the still popular “zombie infestation” stories.

Superman, after defeating the Super Bizarro, decides that a direct attack may discourage the invading planet-eater, so he launches himself into space until he reaches the planet called “Bizarro-Home,” and—he hits it. He hits the planet-eater so hard that it retreats back into the cosmic sinkhole. However, as soon as it does so, the shifts in gravity and solar radiation drain Superman of his powers. The planet, just like its clay-faced pawns, is not equipped to understand Superman’s plight, but in another display of protective mimicry, it produces more Bizarros, all imbecilic parodies of people whom Superman knows in his world. These new duplicates include goofy versions of Justice League heroes, and even a Bizarro Jor-El, who calls himself “Le-Roj.” 



(As Bizarros of the Silver Age never inverted their names, this is probably Morrison having fun with a trope more associated with Mister Mxyzptlk.)  However, one duplicate the planet does not intentionally produce is an “aberration” who calls himself “Zibarro.”



While the Super Bizarro is a “funhouse mirror” reflection of Superman’s powers, Zibarro seems a more direct reflection of Superman’s intellectual capacities. Zibarro is the only being on the planet capable ot talking in whole sentences and of feeling finer emotions. If the Frankenstein Monster and the original Bizarro were outcasts from human society by reason of their freakish physiques, Zibarro is alienated from his own people by virtue of his superior intellect. The soul-cry of the anguished nerd resonates as Zibarro complains to Superman, “Must only Zibarro search for poetry in this senseless coming and going?” The other Bizarros overhear this plaint and mock him, “Ha ha ha; Zinarro am King of Cool!”



The hero’s sympathy for Bizarro-Home’s only intelligent being doesn’t obviate his own mission: to get off the planet before it makes its complete descent into the Underverse. Superman gets an inspiration, though, from the presence of Le-Roj, who acts as if he were the father of Zibarro, even though there’s clearly no normal biological link. The Man of Steel decides to build a rocket to take him out of the Underverse, just as Jor-El’s rocket saved infant Kal-El from the destruction of Krypton. To accomplish this,, Superman has to con the other Bizarros into helping him by employing their own reverse-logic—and even then, his plan may be foiled when the Bizarros get the idea of using the rocket to get rid of the irritant of Zibarro.


I’ll refrain from detailing the way in which Superman manages to escape destruction and to return to his own adopted world. The main emphasis of the narrative is on the courage of Zibarro, forced to do the right thing despite enormous temptation, and on his role in fulfilling Morrison’s idea of teleology. While Superman promises to return and liberate Zibarro at some later date, the Man of Steel voices his real opinion of the aberration’s place in the scheme of things when he tells Zibarro, “I know you think of yourself as a flaw, an imperfection, but you’re something more, Zibarro. You’re proof that Bizarro-Home is getting smarter.” Zibarro’s sacrifice, his re-descent into base matter, resembles the devolution of Schwartz’s Bizarro, though Morrison has extended the associations in many intriguing directions. Prior to the world’s descent into “the All-Night,” Le-Roj—whose reversed name looks like “Le Roi,” French for “The King”—perishes upon a sacrificial pyre, wearing a stereotypical king’s crown on his head as he dies.



I don’t imagine that in the near future Morrison will re-visit his version of the Bizarro mythology, which is just as well, since this rethinking seems uniquely suited to his own priorities. Some myths just don’t travel well, and I for one would have to see someone like Mark Waid put his hands on Morrison’s concepts.

Friday, October 6, 2017

ETHICS AMONG THE SUBCOMBATIVES PT. 2

In Part 1 I noted that even though two unrelated films were both subcombative, they had widely divergent attitudes toward evoking the affect of courage.

I read Mark Twain's 1896 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC for the first time this week, and I was rather surprised to find Twain, the master satirist, delivering the legend of "the Maid of Orleans" with complete seriousness. He only utilizes his trademark humor to delineate some of the side-characters in Joan's dramatic arc, but contrary to my expectations the book was surprisingly affecting.

In terms of the book's plot and main character, it rings in as a subcombative work. Joan herself does not fight, but simply leads her troops to victory up to the middle portion of the book, and the rest of the story is inevitably devoted to her martyrdom at the hands of her political and religious enemies. To be sure, however, there are a handful of strong fight-scenes in the book. Even more surprisingly, Twain endorses a view of Joan's glorious greatness that seems at odds with such down-to-earth Twain characters as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Here's how the POV character-- implicitly speaking for Twain himself, IMO-- sums up the greatness of Joan in Chapter 17, during the ardors of her accusation.

Consider. If you would realize how great Joan of Arc was, remember that it was out of such a place and such circumstances that she came week after week and month after month and confronted the master intellects of France single-handed, and baffled their cunningest schemes, defeated their ablest plans, detected and avoided their secretest traps and pitfalls, broke their lines, repelled their assaults, and camped on the field after every engagement; steadfast always, true to her faith and her ideals; defying torture, defying the stake, and answering threats of eternal death and the pains of hell with a simple "Let come what may, here I take my stand and will abide."
Yes, if you would realize how great was the soul, how profound the wisdom, and how luminous the intellect of Joan of Arc, you must study her there, where she fought out that long fight all alone—and not merely against the subtlest brains and deepest learning of France, but against the ignoble deceits, the meanest treacheries, and the hardest hearts to be found in any land, pagan or Christian.
She was great in battle—we all know that; great in foresight; great in loyalty and patriotism; great in persuading discontented chiefs and reconciling conflicting interests and passions; great in the ability to discover merit and genius wherever it lay hidden; great in picturesque and eloquent speech; supremely great in the gift of firing the hearts of hopeless men and noble enthusiasms, the gift of turning hares into heroes, slaves and skulkers into battalions that march to death with songs on their lips. But all these are exalting activities; they keep hand and heart and brain keyed up to their work; there is the joy of achievement, the inspiration of stir and movement, the applause which hails success; the soul is overflowing with life and energy, the faculties are at white heat; weariness, despondency, inertia—these do not exist.
Yes, Joan of Arc was great always, great everywhere, but she was greatest in the Rouen trials. There she rose above the limitations and infirmities of our human nature, and accomplished under blighting and unnerving and hopeless conditions all that her splendid equipment of moral and intellectual forces could have accomplished if they had been supplemented by the mighty helps of hope and cheer and light, the presence of friendly faces, and a fair and equal fight, with the great world looking on and wondering.


This subcombative work, which recognizes the importance of "exalting activities," makes a marked contrast with Shakespeare's 1602 TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. Like JOAN, TROILUS is a work which includes a handful of violent scenes which are not integral to the main arc of the plot. Troilus, unlike Twain's Joan, actually engages in one or two briefly described martial encounters on a battlefield. Yet Shakespeare, who sometimes emphasized the ethic of glory in earlier plays, rejects that ethic firmly in TROILUS, as I noted in my commentary here:


....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.
In Part 3 of this new series, I'll explore some of the ramifications involved when a subcombative work aligns itself with themes most often seen in combative works.

TRANSITIVE MONSTERS PT. 2

In TRANSITIVE MONSTERS , I concluded my discussion of combative modes in two horror film-serials with this paragraph:

On a related note, I have not yet finished re-screening all of the Hammer DRACULA films. However, even if I never get around to SCARS OF DRACULA, I tend to believe that the combative mode in the key films of the series-- notably HORROR OF DRACULA and BRIDES OF DRACULA-- that all films within the series will be subsumed by the combative mode, even those that I've judged to be individually subcombative, like TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.
In recent months, I've concluded a re-screening of all of the Hammer DRACULA films, and have reviewed all of them on my film-blog except for the last, sometimes known as THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA. The last film is an anomalous one in that the narrative emphasis is not on the vampire lord, but on "the seven brothers," a group of kung-fu fighters who become allied to Van Helsing in his quest to destroy the vampire count. Thus, what I write about the series concerns only the eight films preceding SEVEN BROTHERS-- HORROR OF DRACULA, BRIDES OF DRACULA (which doesn't actually have Dracula in it, though Van Helsing's character carries over from the first film), DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, SCARS OF DRACULA, DRACULA 1972 A.D., and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Of these eight films, the first, second, seventh and eighth are combative, while the other four are not. As I said, BRIDES does not involve Dracula, but it features a bracing climax in which Peter Cushing's Van Helsing defeats the centric monster, one Baron Meinster. This was also the only film of these eight that did not include actor Christopher Lee as Van Helsing's opponent. It's arguable that Van Helsing's destruction of Meinster-- trapping the vampire in the shadow of a cross, created by windmill-blades-- is the most strikingly original of the four combative films.



Now that I've made these observations re: the combative mode in the series, I hypothesize that the Hammer producers found it hard to conceive of any mortals opposing their forceful fiend unless the opponent was (1) Van Helsing himself, (2) forces allied to Van Helsing (the "seven brothers"), or (3) a strong Van Helsing analogue. Such an analogue appears in 1963's KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, in which a Professor Zimmer unleashes a magical curse-- in the form of a flock of bats-- upon a clutch of evil vampires.


As I mentioned in the review, this climax was one that Peter Cushing didn't want to perform for BRIDES OF DRACULA, so that the curse-work was recycled into another movie. KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was not in the Dracula/Van Helsing series, yet strangely, it's the only Hammer film outside the series that had a combative conclusion, in contrast to four other non-series entries: THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, and TWINS OF EVIL.

As my reading of the Dracula series stands, it's evenly divided between combative and sub-combative, which would make it difficult to judge the series as a whole according to my original standard, the 51 percent rule. Of course, the first part of TRANSITIVE MONSTERS was written after I formulated a more exacting formulation for judging the combative mode and related matters, the active share/passive share theory.  By this formulation, the actual number of combative stories within a mythos is not the final determinant, which gives me an "out" for any series that's evenly divided between combative and subcombative entries.

Generally speaking, given a 50-50 situation, t have tended to favor the combative over the subcombative. The "King Kong" series of Merian C. Cooper comprises just two interrelated films, the 1933 KING KONG and its same-year sequel SON OF KONG, but the first film's combative characteristics have proven more culturally significant than the sequel's subcombative theme of self-sacrifice.

However, in contrast to my prediction in Part One, I've determined that the eight-film in the Dracula-focused series-- even though it includes one vampire who is a "Dracula wannabe"-- is dominantly subcombative.

To show this, I'll contrast the Dracula series to that of Freddy Krueger. I expounded upon the latter series in Part One, showing that although the first two films in the series were subcombative, the next four all stressed the idea that average teenagers could become aware of Freddy's dream-based depredations and could, with some mental training, turn themselves into "dream warriors." Though Freddy Krueger is always the star of the show, ordinary humans can "ramp up" their abilities to fight him on his own terms.

There's no such "ramping up" in any of the Hammer Draculas that don't include Van Helsing; the implication is always that ordinary humans can only muddle through and win by last-minute flashes of inspiration.

In DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS the vampire is only defeated when one of his enemies shoots holes in the ice Dracula just happens to be standing on.



In DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, the vampire's male opponent Paul manages to push Dracula off the edge of a cliff, but the only reason this stops the vampire is because he just happens to get impaled on a cross that another character tossed off the cliff earlier.



In TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, the only reason Dracula's opponents survive is because they just happen to be in a church during his attack and have access to a cross.


And in SCARS OF DRACULA, the count is defeated not by his human opponents, but by the heavens themselves, when lightning strikes the metal rod Dracula happens to be holding.



The attitude of the Hammer producers toward the potential of any character save Van Helsing contrasts strongly with that of Bram Stoker, where ordinary men like Jonathan Harker and Quincy Morris do "ramp up" to slay a monster far more powerful than they are.

I'm not trying to claim that dumb luck never plays a role in the victories of more megadynamic characters. But when a series shows no interest in giving its villain/monster a range of worthy opponents, then it suggests that they are more interested in evoking the expression of "fear" than of "courage," to draw upon the opposed affects mentioned in this essay.

And if the series is more invested in fear than in courage, this, more than its pure percentage of combative episodes, aligns it with the subcombative mode.

ADDENDA 3-3-2018: I've completed a review of THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, a.k.a. THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. I stated above that I didn't consider this to be part of the normative "Dracula series" because the 1974 film placed its narrative emphasis upon the "seven brothers" rather than Dracula. I've amended this opinion on the movie's focal presences to one in which Peter Cushing's Van Helsing and David Chiang's "Hsi Ching" are the principal heroes, given that Ching's six brothers and one sister are subordinate, merely functional characters. Further, I now realize that there's an even better reason to exile LEGEND from the Dracula canon: because the film's continuity doesn't jibe with that of the normative series. Thus, though I realize that a lot of film-serials have at best modest continuity-- the Godzilla serials, for example-- this kung-fu/horror melange is better understood as an entity separate from the rest of the Hammer Draculas. Yet, even if I did deem LEGEND as part of the Hammer "Drac Pack," it's presence would not undermine my argument that the series as a whole is dominantly subcombative.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

WORK PLAY LOVE

In this review from my movie-blog I touched on the dialectic of work and play indirectly. An otherwise average episode of the teleseries KUNG FU, "The Hoots," brings the hero Kwai Chang Caine into prolonged contact with a group of Hutterite sheepherders. The "hoots" are defined in terms of their extreme pacifism and abstemiousness, and while Caine lives a life that is arguably no less disciplined, he does not define discipline in terms of self-denial. Indeed, Master Po tells Young Caine that, "The purpose of discipline is to live more fully, not less."

The scene evolves as follows: while Caine stays with the sheepherders, he pays for his keep with work. He begins cutting wood, singing a work-song as he does so. Schultz, the de facto leader of the group, objects to Caine's singing because he feels that work must be identical with "suffering." Caine expresses the opinion that singing makes the work go more easily, so why not do it? Nevertheless, the Shaolin accedes to his host's wishes but the overall trajectory of the episode is that Caine is right about the practicality of using play to lighten one's work-load, and that Schultz's desire for public suffering-- both his own, and that of his community-- stems from pride: the pride to show off how well he can wear the hair-shirt.

My first comments about the dialectic of "work and play" appears in the two-essay series THE DIVIDING LINE, starting here. I said back then:


In any case other play-acting creatures, just like humans, begin as entities with no ability to work, even if other animals aren't helpless for as long a period as humans. Both animals and humans can, however, play even if they can't work, at least in the most exploratory and unstructured manner. And though humans have a longer development period than other animals, humans don't remain isolated from the concept of work all that much longer than our fellow beasts: if their "vacation" ends with the onset of adulthood in about a year or so, the human freedom to do nothing but play ends not with adulthood but with a protracted period of learning which, because it has a discrete purpose, must be considered as "work."
So human children become intimately acquainted with the dialectic of work and play early on. But because most adults prioritize the need for play in children's development, one may symbolically identify juveniles with the activity of play.

Conversely, though adults too exist within a continuum in which they balance work and play, the essence of being adult is that an adult must work to make it possible for children to grow, develop, and play-- at least until said adult is old enough to retire from work (at least in theory) and to devote the remainder of his life to "play," if he so wishes.

I spoke of how an adult builds on his childhood experience to achieve a "balance" between the elements of work, activity that must be done, and play, activity one is pleased to do. However, I didn't comment upon the basic idea that elements of play are sometimes used to make work more pleasurable, though in FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PT. 2 I mentioned that the two activities were interdependent:

 I mention this to emphasize that both "work" and "play" are interdependent necessities, not opposed in the conventional sense that people oppose, say, "right choice" and "wrong choice."

The activities are interdependent in part because of the way humans, and many other higher animals, have evolved to explore the world in a playful context before settling down to the business of sustaining oneself, i.e., "work." The observations that a creature makes, or does not make, in its developmental phases may well determine the creature's fitness to survive in its adult form.

Whether or not non-human animals practice any activities comparable with "work-songs," or even Disney's take of "whistling while you work," I cannot say. I think it inarguable that human beings have been pursuing this strategy for centuries. One might choose to judge it purely as an evolutionary adaptive practice, though I believe this would be too simple. At the conclusion of FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PART 2, I said:

Can one meaningfully draw parallels, then, between the freedom to make moral choices and the ability to change one's phenomenological perspective within fictional narratives? I obviously think so, even with my knowledge that most people are not conscious of those differing perspectives. 

I chose to focus in that context upon "phenomenological perspective" because in that essay I started out contrasting "discursive thinking" and "mythical thinking." However, play need not involve phenomenology as such. Freud suggested that a baby who threw his toys out of their cribs over and over were in the grip of a "repetition-compulsion." But this overlooks the possibility that the baby, learning that his parent will pick up the toy and put it back in the crib, may simply be indulging in a rudimentary form of "play," one oriented on controlling the somewhat unpredictable parental unit.

Play can be a way of sussing out the way the normal world works, if only by contrasting normal behavior with abnormal behavior. To the Hutterite Schultz, the "normal" was defined by labor, suffering, and avoidance of conflict, while Kwai Chang Caine was concerned by the interaction of work and play, the (seemingly) normal and the (seemingly) abnormal, the peaceful mind and the need to fight to defend the body. To be sure, Schultz's over-emphasis on "work" may have come about in reaction to others who played too much: "the house of mirth" to his "house of mourning." But both of the houses include "many mansions," and it would seem that an ability to spend some time in both houses is intrinsic to learning how to live-- and love-- more fully.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "WHERE LURKS THE CHIMERA" (TOMB OF DRACULA #26-28, 1974-5)

The 1971 modification of the Comics Code sprang from both economic and cultural forces. As I pointed out in this essay, in the late 1960s American comics-publishers needed new outlets beyond the standard juvenile audience. The original Comics Code came about because the genres of crime and horror brought the industry unwanted publicity. Crime never made a major comeback, but horror never entirely left, surviving throughout the Silver Age in relatively restrained “mystery” tales. But the Warren line of black-and-white magazines, beginning with CREEPY in 1964, consistently demonstrated a market for more visceral horror. Thus it was only a matter of time until other publishers sought to capture that market in four-color comics. It would be interesting to know what cultural indicators convinced the industry leaders that the game was worth the candle, but in any case, the early 1970s saw a marked increase in horror-titles from “the Big Two." With a few exceptions DC Comics focused largely on anthologies, while Marvel usually chose to feature particular characters related to the theme of terror.




Marvel’s most long-lasting success in this department was TOMB OF DRACULA, launched in 1972. In some respects thiis version of the vampiric count had a lot in common with Marvel’s world-beating villains, in that Dracula preened and postured almost as much as Doctor Doom. But Marvel’s count was crafted so as to take advantage of certain constant themes in vampire mythology—in particular, that of religion.

“Where Lurks the Chimera” is the title of the first of three stories running from TOMB #26-28. Though the title displays a cookie-cutter portentousness typical of Marvel story-titles, this time it’s actually relevant to the theme of the story.

In Greek myth, a chimera is a fearsome monster, notable for being a tripartite beast, with a goat’s head, a lion’s body, and a serpent’s tail. In the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan story, the chimera is a magical statue created long before the nation of Greece existed. Wolfman possibly chose to name his fictional statue after the Greek creature to address a major plot-point: that in the past the statue has been broken up into its three constituent pieces, and that only recently have the pieces been recovered and brought together. The statue is rumored to confer immense powers upon its owner. This is reason enough for a certain world-beating vampire to chase after it.

Though vampire stories appear around the world, the tradition of the fictional vampire is rooted in Christian belief and folklore Most of the TOMB stories prior to this one did not stray far from these origins, but Wolfman expanded the compass of the central character’s adventures. This time Dracula contends not only with a rival villain who also wants the Chimera—later revealed to be an evildoer named Doctor Sun—but also with a young Jewish man who seeks to protect the statue from falling into evil hands.

Though many comics-professionals of the period were Jewish, including Marv Wolfman, Jews were not given much literal representation in comics until the 1970s. The statue of the Chimera, though, is first seen in the hands of two yarmulke-wearing Jews living in London: young yeshiva-student David Eschol and his father Joshua. Joshua is the image of the saintly old learned Jew, confident in his unwavering faith and his ability to remain uncorrupted by the availability of the Chimera’s power. He might be deemed a descendant of the “Rabbi Lowe” character of the classic "Golem" narrative. 


David is much more uncertain about handling a “creature of nightmare,” and as things turn out, he’s proven right. Joshua’s acquisition of the Chimera’s three sections prompts Doctor Sun to send a gang of thugs to the old man’s shop. The thugs kill Joshua, club David unconscious, and abscond with the Chimera—or rather, two parts of the Chimera, for David manages to keep hold of the tail-piece.

Dracula arrives at the Eschols’ shop too late to claim his prize, but he does see that David still possesses the one segment. While Dracula himself goes to look for the other two segments, he sends one of his human agents—a previously introduced young woman, Shiela Whittier-- to contact David and to keep tabs on him. Shiela, in contrast to most of Dracula’s pawns, is actually in love with the vampire. The count is at least slightly moved by her loyalty, though, given his aristocratic ego, he believes that he’s owed such fealty from all those who serve him.

I’m omitting various irrelevant subplots, as well as Dracula’s peril when he tracks down Doctor Sun and is almost slain in a death-trap. But once the vampire recovers, he tracks down David and Shiela. As if seeking to assuage his ego—he was almost killed by Sun, after all—Dracula confronts David and demands the tail-piece. He then demonstrates his ability, even with the incomplete segment, to conjure forth a giant fire-lion in the sky, which spits fire down on London, and then sends a shower of rain to put out the fire.




Wolfman’s script is a little vague as to why David so quickly yields the segment to Dracula, even though the vampire does not use his hypnotic power on the young man. Why does David do so?
Early in issue #26, one of Wolfman’s captions reads: in part, “for all these years David Eschol has never once strayed form the path outlined by his forefathers. But before the night is done, the path of his youth shall venture down many new roads—all but one of which shall lead to hell.”  If his father is the face of the unwavering Believer, David is cast in the role of the Doubting Thomas. As David comes to a realization that Dracula incarnates the evil his father foreswore, David defends himself, using a Star of David to hold off Dracula after the fashion of the more popular cross.


Yet Dracula’s evil is seductive. He plays upon David’s religiosity by claiming that the Jewish god, if he created the world, is therefore also the creator of all evils. David weakly refutes the charge with the “free choice” argument. Dracula fires back with the “great man” argument:

“Man does not have his choice in things. He follows the will of his betters—and he is destroyed if he does not.”

Despite never having met David Eschol before, the count intuits that the young man is gnawed by doubts, and promises to give David a sense of ”order,” much as his own father did, albeit in a thoroughly demonic mirror-image. David does not exactly give in, but he lowers his guard, giving Dracula the chance to attack. However, David wounds the vampire with the Star of David—at which point the henchmen of Doctor Sun arrive, capturing all three; David, Sheila and the vampire.

If the story;s second part is largely about David’s temptation, the third places its emphasis upon lovelorn Shiela—though the last part of the “Chimera” tale suffers from incredibly poor plotting by Wolfman. The story opens with Doctor Sun—still not as yet named or seen on-panel—gloating over his captives and boasting about the fact that he now possesses all three parts of the Chimera, giving him access to “the power of the cosmic eternal.”


Yet, the only thing Sun does with this power is to torment his captives with horrific visions. Dracula is surrounded by all of his regular enemies—Blade, Rachel Van Helsing, and so on—who try to destroy him. David sees his own father speaking the same heretical words Dracula spoke earlier, such as, “There is no God! There is no supreme being! I lied!” Only Shiela is actually shown a vision that reflects an unwelcome truth: a vision in which Dracula seems ready to make love to her, and yet turns into a skull-headed avatar of Death in the end.

Since Dracula is the star of the comic, he alone manages to break free of the false visions. He overcomes Sun’s henchmen, though the master villain escapes. Dracula reclaims the Chimera-statue, but his blasé trust in Shiela’s unconditional love causes him to drop his guard. Shiela snatches the statue from him and shatters it. Dracula is of course enraged, but even David reviles Shiela for her actions, saying that, “you had no right”—showing that he has to some extent internalized his father’s mission of being the custodian of arcane objects. Only Shiela is practical enough to realize that that the Chimera could bring only death to the good and the evil alike.  She and David leave together, and Dracula is too overcome with indecision to stop them. To be sure, though, both young people meet unhappy fates in the next issue, in keeping with the tone of a horror comic.



On a minor note, Wolfman’s history for the creation of the Chimera hearkens back to the pre-historical eras of Robert E. Howard, whose works Marvel had the license to adapt during this period. The statue’s maker is given the name “C’thunda,” and since a lot of Marvel writers back then made ample use of Lovecraftian references, this name might be a shout-out to Lovecraft’s demon-god Cthulhu. On the other hand, “C’thunda” also sounds a lot like the Greek word “chthonic.” This signifies things pertaining to the earth and the underworld, and, coincidentally enough, a Marvel writer later used this word to make up their own earth-deity, “Chthon.” It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to the creator of the Chimera, an airborne beast, unless one sees the creation of its demonic power to be nothing but another road leading to the domain of Hell. Regarded in this light, the answer to the question "where lurks the Chimera" would seem to be "in the depths of the human soul."