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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, January 31, 2017

THE SUBJECTIVITY WAS ROSY

I stumbled across Dirk Deppey's current blog, which I mentioned before in two posts, here and here. He had supplied a link to one of my old essays in which I argued with him, and I thought that my response-essays would probably be the last I'd write about him.

Then I see that he's got a quote from me in his current portal:

"Like most Journalistas, Dirk Deppey is spiritual kin to Fredric Wertham."

I don't have anything new to say about either the original context of my remark or about the wry, jokey context in which Deppey presents it. So instead I'll touch on something that interests me more: the subjectivity of taste.

I've occasionally discussed my belief that the decade of the 1970s, more or less equivalent to the so-called "Bronze Age of Comics," was a crucial creative time for mainstream American comics. Deppey, in a 2007 essay, found the decade more than a little wanting:

And then there were all the old Marvels of my childhood. At last, I could read all the good stuff that I'd heard people praise, but that I'd never had a chance to see!
Actually reading them disabused me of any notion that these were good comics. Jim Starlin's stuff approached "vaguely interesting," once or twice, but beyond that? Crap. Killraven? Crap. Marvel's horror line? Crap. The early Conan and Red Sonja comics had nice art, but were all written in that stilted voice that Stan Lee had used for Thor comics. ("Zounds!") Even those old X-Men comics quickly lost their luster once I could no longer read them with a nine-year-old's eyes. Hell, the first half of Frank Miller's run on Daredevil was nowhere near as cool as I remembered it.


Obviously, I don't care about his opinions any more than Deppey would care about mine. What I care about is the question as to what individual taste means in a social context.

I scraped at the iceberg of an "intersubjectivity solution" here and here, where in essence I was giving one of Tom Spurgeon's broadsides more attention than it really merited. Deppey's above comment also doesn't really amount to much in analytical terms, but as I said in the intersubjectivity essays, both my opinion that Marvel's KILLRAVEN was good and Deppey's ppinion that it was "crap" are right insofar as they capture whatever expectations either of us has for quality fiction. I summed up the essentially non-rational nature of taste in KIRBY'S CHOICE PT. 2:

Every expression of personal taste, I suggest, is informed by what I will now dub "proto-propositions."  In attempting to justify my liking of FANTASTIC FOUR over CHALLENGERS, my mind might initially formulate the proto-proposition, "I like The FANTASTIC FOUR better than CHALLENGERS for the emotions in FF."  With conscious thought I can expand this statement into a full-fledged proposition, one phrased so as to show how the FANTASTIC FOUR characters show many dimensions while those of the CHALLENGERS do not, complete with examples and counter-examples to support my propositional logic.  Equally valid is the proto-proposition of a fan who might not like superheroes of any kind: "I like CAPTAIN MARVEL better than HUMAN TORCH because the first one shows superheroes as silly"...  But no matter how good or bad the formal proposition, it remains rooted in a "proto-proposition" that expresses whatever validates the individual subject...

So, as I'm sure I've said a few other times, it's idiotic to debate tastes; all one can only debate the fully logical propositions one uses to defend one's tastes. Deppey chooses to defend his 2007 tastes by the usual elitist attempt to run down the tastes of others, in this case by claiming that anyone who liked the works must have read nothing but comic books.

I suspect that what protected me from 1970s Marvel worship despite having read a bunch of them as a kid was the fact that I read too much prose at the time to ever consider such comics as the be-all and end-all of storytelling. I wasn't exactly reading Proust as a child, but even 1970s YA novels like O.T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City had a depth and grounding to it that was absent at Marvel — or DC, or Charlton, or anything else that published for the spinner racks during the years that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were president.

Since I know the kinds of things I was reading around the time I was also reading 1970s comics, I think it far from likely that my liking for Bronze Age comics was a consequence of considering them "the be-all and end-all of storytelling." There may well be some extreme comics-fans who would never read anything but funnybooks. But then, where are the statistics to prove that they were typical of the fandom of the period? I noted in KIRBY'S CHOICE PT. 2 that 'even *intersubjective* agreements are significant only to the degree one finds their statistical dominance important.'

Without any such statistics, Deppey's assertion by itself is just another proto-proposition with nothing to back it up-- and one which validates the individual subject, Dirk Deppey, as a Person of Taste as against the Undiscriminating Rabble.

A final note: I wouldn't mind arguing on some more current Deppey topic if he cared to write something more current. However, an awful lot of space on the site is devoted to the films of Pedro Almodovar, and I can't very well argue about those-- given that they are such unremitting crap.

Monday, January 30, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: MARVEL'S ORIGINAL GHOST RIDER (1967-1971)

To repeat one of my observations on null-myths from this essay:

...when I originally started using the term "null-myth" here, I was primarily applying it to story-elements whose mythic content was negligible in their execution (albeit not potential).
And:

....because of my realization that on occasions a given work may have symbolic potential, and yet does not use it because of some flaw in the execution, I've started utilizing "null-myth" as a label for all examples of "frustrated mythicity"

I've devoted a handful of posts lately to the Gary Friederich/Mike Ploog Ghost Rider of the horror boom, so it occurred to me to go back and reread the first Marvel character of that name. Though I was a hardcore collector by 1966-67, it's my memory that I didn't buy the seven issues of the character's own magazine on newsstands, nor his second series as a feature in the 1970s anthology comic WESTERN GUNFIGHTERS 1-7. I wasn't aware till long after that period that there had been an almost identical "Ghost Rider" from the Golden Age, published by Vincent Sullivan's "Magazine Enterprises," and that one of the creators of that character-- though he credited Sullivan with dreaming up the basic idea-- was Dick Ayers, who penciled all the episodes of the Marvel character until his arc concluded in WG #7. Indeed, this blogpost and its responses include the assertion that Marvel may have cancelled the featured title because of a threatened lawsuit from Sullivan.



I remember getting a very basic enjoyment out of the first seven GHOST RIDER issues, because it was a very basic imitation of earlier Marvel features. The first issue introduces schoolteacher Carter Slade, journeying to a podunk Western town when he comes across an apparent Indian massacre. He tries to stop the Indians, who turn out to be white men in masquerade. Slade is shot and mortally wounded, but an orphan boy comes across his body and tries to take him to town. Instead the boy encounters a tribe of real Indians. The tribe's medicine man Flaming Star not only saves Slade from death, he gives the schoolteacher a sacred mission: to become a white-garbed crusader for western justice, using a special set of illusion-tools that Flaming Star has devised. Slade duly signs up for the task of becoming the Ghost Rider with very little protest, and gains the orphan boy Jamie as a confidante.

Slade meets the rest of his cast upon arriving at the podunk town: beautiful Natalie Brooks, her hothead brother Ben (who becomes the town sheriff in the first issue), and Natalie's fiancee Clay. Slade is immediately smitten with Natalie, which was surely Gary Friedrich's attempt to emulate the soap-opera melodrama prevalent in most Marvel titles of the decade. For the next seven issues, Slade tries to balance his duties as a teacher with fighting costumed varmints like the Tarantula and the Sting-Ray as the Ghost Rider, all the while mooning over a woman who vaguely suspects his affection but is still deeply in love with her fiancee.

I don't know if the GHOST RIDER magazine could have succeeded at the time had there been no prospect of a lawsuit. Both Marvel and DC continued to publish westerns throughout the 1970s, so clearly someone was buying them, even in reprint form. But the feature had a number of problems, for both Friedrich's writing and Ayers' art were never more than adequate. Around the same time John Buscema's art was becoming a dominant Marvel house style, despite the fact that the artist had little interest in superheroes, and Ayers' largely functional layouts probably wouldn't have grabbed the typical Marvel reader for many more issues, anyway. The lawsuit, if genuine, would have made the matter academic, as Marvel would soon divert the trademarked name into a property that no longer resembled any Vince Sullivan work: the Friedrich/Ploog "Ghost Rider."



Further, though Friedrich and Ayers had earned some fan-respect for their collaboration on the "Sergeant Fury" title, neither one succeeded in giving the Sagebrush Spook a memorable rogues' gallery. But even more germane to my topic of the "null-myth" was the aforesaid angle of the "romantic fantasy."

It was typical enough for Marvel titles to deal in romantic conflicts, sometimes between the main hero and some male member of his support-cast. Marvel's flagship title FANTASTIC FOUR started off by suggesting that Ben Grimm might nurture some affection for the fiancee of his friend Reed Richards. However, in the next few issues there were no more overt hints of Ben being interested in Sue Storm, and the idea that she was already Reed's fiancee was also dropped. The "sympathetic villain" Sub-Mariner showed up and started questing after Sue's affections, but he wasn't one of the main heroes in the title. Thus GHOST RIDER seems to be the first time a central Marvel hero become besotted with another man's fiancee. He nobly kept his feelings to himself, but the one time Natalie suspects his affection, she maintains a loyal attachment to her fiancee Clay-- which, for most readers, would have signaled that the whole romantic fantasy wasn't about to go anywhere.

I mentioned that Natalie had a brother, Sheriff Ben Brooks. He was clearly constructed by Friedrich and Ayers as a cowtown version of J. Jonah Jameson. He immediately took a dislike to the Ghost Rider despite the hero's good deeds, and so existed largely to complicate the main character's life. But where the Jameson character in SPIDER-MAN took on a fairly logical psychology over time, Ben Brooks was just a functional plot-device, nothing more.

As I re-read these old comics, though, I thought of a possible fix: what if the fiancee Clay had been the one who had an irrational hatred of Ghost Rider, and what if he, rather than the negligible brother, had been the sheriff? Clay was never shown to be aware of Slade's affection for his intended, but it would have made for a slightly better psychological myth if he'd been the one repeatedly gunning for the Ghost Rider, his animus stemming from some subconscious awareness that the Rider and his romantic enemy were one and the same.



To be sure, I know why Friedrich didn't go that way: Clay also had a double identity, functioning as one of Ghost Rider's villains. But even when this fact was revealed, Friedrich didn't seem to know how to get any dramatic heft out of it. Friedrich left the series before its final issues in WESTERN GUNFIGHTERS, and writer Len Wein stepped in with a story that terminated Carter Slade's career as a hero, and transferred the mantle to Slade's brother Lincoln-- though this transfer also became academic in the wake of a new and different Rider.



All that said, in a strange way Carter Slade's history as a man tempted to be a seducer ended up being transmitted to his brother. Re-dubbed "the Phantom Rider" in later Marvel comics, Lincoln did what Carter would not, succumbing to his passions and using drugs to seduce the superheroine Mockingbird-- who was, at that time, the wife of superhero Hawkeye. So in a strange way, the "frustrated mythicity" of the original Marvel Ghost Rider bore fruit in another incarnation.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "A DREAM OF FLYING" (MIRACLEMAN, 1982)

(Note: "A Dream of Flying" is the title of the first MIRACLEMAN story, and is used for a Marvel Comics reprint of material with the character. In my review-usage the title denotes what I deem the first main arc of the MIRACLEMAN story, from the beginning to the death of the hero's principal villain.)

Though WATCHMEN will probably continue as the main touchstone for many readers regarding the talents of Alan Moore, MARVELMAN-- renamed MIRACLEMAN in its first and subsequent American reprints-- may carry more cultural weight in the long run. When the character first appeared in the first issue of Great Britain's WARRIOR magazine (1982), Moore's idea of examining the superhero in more realistic terms was far from new, as evinced by the 1970s works of creators like Steve Gerber (for DEFENDERS) and Ross Andru (for THE FLASH)-- to say nothing of the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN of the 1960s.



What Moore did was to up the game. Lee, Gerber and Andru all remained firmly within the ethos of melodramatic entertainment, but Moore created a sociological and psychological myth of the superhero that embraced the dominant critical attitude he'd apparently grown up with: that of literary modernism.

In this essay I touched on the salient differences of modernism and post-modernism as regards popular culture, so when I define Moore as a modernist, I'm thinking primarily in terms of my distinction that "modernism was essentially tied to a realistic paradigm not appreciably different from that of representational realism, and that post-modernism was in essence a reaction against that realistic paradigm."



In short, though Moore did not invent the idea of "the realistic superhero," he brought the idea in line with one particular philosophical outlook: that of rejecting the fantasy-appeal of violence and regarding it as a violation of "real" human values. Though not all literary modernist authors favored this view-- Jack London being a major exception-- it's a common trope throughout the early 20th century. A cogent example would be Simone Weil's 1939 essay THE ILIAD, OR THE POEM OF FORCE, whose radical interpretation of Homer's classic epic was grounded in a rejection of the credo of "force" that had plunged the world into a Second World War.

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

In old interviews Moore stated that in his MIRACLEMAN work he was seeking to exorcise the part of him that loved the "fascist power-fantasies" of the 1950s "Marvelman," of which MIRACLEMAN was a more "adult" reboot. Throughout the first large arc of the story crafted by Moore and various artists, the inhuman "force" which Miracleman incarnates-- as well as his fellow "monster" Kid Miracleman-- is treated as a source of horror rather than as an occasion for juvenile excitement. Moore's "overthought," as I've employed the term here, is clearly to interrogate the genre of superheroes for its love of "force before which man's flesh shrinks away," as Weil puts it. In many respects, Moore's tone sounds not unlike that of Frederic Wertham, decrying outrageous fantasies in favor of humble normalcy.

And yet, despite the mediocrity of this "overthought," Moore was-- and possibly still is-- too much of an artist not to allow for a deeper "underthought," in which he can still see superheroes and supervillains as transcendent presences. Thus we get this authorial observation during the city-smashing battle between Miracleman and his opposite number, Kid Miracleman.

They are titans, and we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls. We are only human. We will never grasp their hopes, their despair, never comprehend the blistering rage that informs each devastating blow… We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts, never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred… …And perhaps we will be the less for that.

This poetic aside does not nullify the thrust of Moore's modernist critique, of course. In the "real world," superheroes are not made by stalwart young chaps being given powers by saintly old wizards. Such expenditures can only come from the government, and the government only makes such expenditures in the name of war-technology. That said, Moore can't quite resist the allure of  a key trope of superhero fiction: the "supervillain-as-master-manipulator." The man responsible for turning an ordinary English bloke into an Aryan god is not a faceless bureaucrat, but the closest reality can come to a "super-villain:" an obsessed schemer whose whole project is to use the "superman technology" as a way of gaining personal immortality. The villain can only do all this through one of the most popular tropes in modernism: that of "everything you know is wrong"-- in this case, causing ordinary bloke Mike Moran to become consubstantial with Miracleman.



By now it should be obviously that I'm passing over the specific permutations of Moore's plot, with his confused double-identity hero and his no-less-confused wife, for the key to A DREAM OF FLYING lies in Moore's "Readers' Digest" version of Friedrich Nietzsche. Put bluntly, I don't think Moore read the German philosopher with any great insight. Nevertheless, as a teller of fictional stories, he's allowed to bowdlerize, as long as what he produces is a *good story.* Nietzsche serves the same purpose for Moore that he did for Wertham: he's a name everyone knows as a proponent of a "superman philosophy."



Happily, Moore only selects one or two actual quotes from the philosopher: like Wertham, Moore's real target is capital-F fascism. Both of the main villains of the arc-- "opposite number" Kid Miracleman and master manipulator Doctor Gargunza-- are strongly associated with Nazis. In the case of the former, he rants that "the real era of the Overman is here." Gargunza, though he is of Mexican nationality, ends up working under the Fuhrer himself, not to mention enjoying kaffeeklatches with famed "Nazi philosopher" Martin Heidegger, whose only purpose in the story seems to be as a stand-in for Nietzsche. Gargunza defects to England-- possibly a comment from Moore on the alacrity with which Allied nations accepted ex-Nazis into their midst. In Old Blighty the unscrupulous scientist comes in contact with the alien technology that will make the Miracleman project possible. Thus, as Moore points out at least twice, Gargunza is in a philosophical sense the "father" of Miracleman, but he hopes to become a "son" by impressing his brain-engrams upon the persona of the infant offspring of Miracleman and Mike Moran's wife.


The "Flying" arc ends with Mike Moran escaping a trap by Gargunza-- a trap which, like those of most super-villains, is entirely unnecessary, compared to the ease of shooting the vulnerable alter ego in the head. Moran manages to re-assert his Miracleman persona. First he kills various thugs working for Gargunza, all of whom seem to be practicing modern Nazis ("Forty years we have waited for you, for the first of the blonde gods that would replace us"), and then the hero executes Gargunza while Moore's captions invoke the "Star Light Star Bright" verse.



I don't take seriously Moore's political take on superhero psychology; while it's deeper than that of Steve Gerber, it's still fairly shallow. I do, however, regard him as a leading creator in the modernist tradition-- and my next mythcomic will show how one can examine some of the same content through a more "postmodern" lens.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

UNTIMELY RUMINATIONS #1

The end of 2016 also brought the end of the oldest comics-oriented fan-apa in the U.S., CAPA-ALPHA, of which I was a member. The apa will continue in an electronic format but I chose to terminate my participation with the conclusion of the paper format.

I'm also in the process of sussing through a lot of the old apa-zines I accumulated. I only want to keep stuff that I think I may use for reference later, including my own works. However, I'm egotistical enough to want to preserve a few observations I made back in the olden days, possibly to build on said insights later

Here's something I wrote (with a little language clean-up) back when the 1996 SUPERMAN cartoon premiered.

_______________



I agree that SUPERMAN has not proven to have a "vision at work." Maybe it's because it's harder for creators to agree on what Superman means than Batman. As a very loose comparison I can see more agreement on Batman's meaning within the works of Englehart, Miller, and O'Neil-- different as each writer may be from each other-- than I see regarding Superman's meaning in works by Maggin, Moore and Byrne. I did get one mythic buzz from the first episode, though. In the concluding scene between Superman and Luthor-- largely copied from a similar scene in the LOIS AND CLARK premiere-- there's a line where Luthor says something about "owning" Metropolis. The line itself is not special, but it made me realize that Luthor stands in the same position as the somewhat corrupt master of Fritz Lang's film METROPOLIS. This character, name of Fredersen, controls the city in a ruthless manner, but he's brought back to a sense of common humanity by his son Freder. In the cartoon Superman becomes a more combative version of this "son" figure. I don't know that anyone ever explored the Luthor-Superman relationship as being between "evil father and righteous son" in a sustained manner. However, there is a weird Jerry Siegel tale in which Luthor journeys through time and space to Jor-El's Krypton. There the villain seeks to inveigle Superman's mom into marrying him instead of Jor-El, with the idea that when he Luthor returns to his own time and space, Superman won't be able to interfere with anything his "father" does. It's a pretty weird story, even for 1960s Weisinger-Superman, but it may contain a dollop of psychological truth.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "EXECUTIONER'S HILL" (WEEKLY MANGA ACTION ?, 197?)



(Note: my translation of this LONE WOLF AND CUB story is the one provided in issue #12 of the First Comics reprint-effort.)

I won't attempt in this post to cover every aspect of the complicated manga-saga LONE WOLF AND CUB, a series taking place during the era of Japan's Shogunate rule. Main character Itto Ogami, a master of the samurai sword and executioner to the Shogun, is cast out from his lofty position due to the political maneuvers of his enemies. With the fall of his aristocratic house, he wanders Japan as a masterless ronin, hiring out his sword as a master assassin, but with a price on his head from his enemies. His only companion is his very young son Daigoro, whom Itto usually pushes in a baby cart.

This image alone, a melding of the worlds of innocence and violence, is quintessentially Japanese in character. That said, not every LONE WOLF story is equally mythic. Some stories are simply tales in which Itto takes on some powerful foe and wins out. Other stories succeed in communicating the rigor of the samurai ethos but characters may remain flat.

"Executioner's Hill" displays more mythic resonance than the average tale. It starts with six roving bounty hunters, impoverished due to a lack of victims. One of them complains, "The world's gotten peaceful too damn fast." The group's leader, known only as Shiwasu ("boss"), tells them that they'll have to go looking for fresh hunting-grounds. However, on their way out of town, they spot Itto with his baby-cart. Siwashu gets the idea that Itto must be saving up the gold he earns for his assassin-jobs in order to vanquish his foes and rebuild his family line, so that Daigoro can inherit this status. The hunters manage to capture Daigoro, hoping to use the child to blackmail Itto into surrendering his money.



The LONE WOLF world is one in which the desire for money and creature comforts is distinctly inferior to the pitiless road of the samurai-- particularly one who, like Itto, views that road as the road to hell itself. Itto will not yield anything for the life of his son, since he regards both of them as fated to die on their path of violence. Thus creators Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima craft a sociological myth opposing the path of self-interest and comfort to that of selfless, though not especially beneficial, violent action. I wrote in this essay that Lady Snowblood, another of Koike's creations, was one of "a long line of Japanese heroes whose raison d’etre concerns committing brutal actions with a near-mystical detachment." Itto Ogami is perhaps even more effective in transmitting that ethos than Snowblood.

There are some other poetic tropes in the story: both Itto and his main adversary Shiwasu are compared to wolves, with Shiwasu clearly being portrayed as the wolf who has become relatively "tamed" by civilization. In addition, the story displays a high level of craft with respect to action sequences like this one, allegedly a major influence on Frank Miller (cover artist for this First reprint).


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

THE PESKINESS OF POSSIBLE RESOURCES

One of the consequences of my brand of literary pluralism is that I can't dismiss any particular genre or genre-work without sussing it out for myself (in contrast, naturally, to the elitists who depend on good reputation to make their determinations). However, it can be a lot of work to make such judgments.

Take today's review on my film-blog. In the history of popular films, or even of SF-films or buddy-comedies, REAL MEN is pretty negligible. But it did serve a purpose in terms of stimulating an aspect of my "superhero idiom" theory, which I continue to refine "behind the scenes" even when not posting about it here.

In most of my ruminations on works within the superhero idiom, I've paid a great deal of attention to the resources of both heroes and villains-- by which I mean (for the most part) weapons or non-sentient helpers. This can create a problem, though, with respect to a lot of works in which both heroes and villains struggle over some item that they both want, but which isn't something the combatants can employ against one another in a fight, as Wonder Woman uses her lasso and the Joker uses his acid-squirting flower.

REAL MEN is problematic to my system. It qualifies as a "combative comedy," given that if focuses on its heroes-- two good guys in this case-- mounting a struggle against assorted enemy agents. But neither the good nor the bad guys use anything but standard firearms and mundane fighting-techniques. There is one silly moment where some of the villains dress up in clown-outfits for no good reason, and this element by itself does push the film into the realm of the uncanny-metaphenomemal, as per my formulation of the trope "outre outfits, etc." However, I found myself wondering: if REAL MEN had dropped that one visual joke, then the only remaining source of the metaphenomenal was that of the aliens, who offer humanity one of two gifts: a "big gun" or a good package." Toward the end of the film good guy Bob Wilson reaches the aliens and gets the "good package," which is meant to benefit humanity, thus foiling the attempt of the bad guys to get the super-weapon.

The viewer of REAL MEN never sees the "big gun" that the villains desire to possess. However,  the gun's function in the story is allomorphic with many of the scientific objects or processes that villains ceaselessly seek to acquire in assorted serials, such as BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD, LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE, and THE MASTER KEY.

All three of these serials bear a slight structural similarity to REAL MEN in one respect. Just as the villains in REAL MEN have one metaphenomenal aspect-- their "clown posse"-- the villains of these serials usually have one or two gimmicks that lift them out of the isophenomenal domain. However, it would be easy to imagine their scripts leaving out those piddling gimmicks, just as one could imagine sending out the clowns.

In my review of THE MASTER KEY, I was at one point particularly exercised by the fact that for most of the serial the viewer sees both heroes and villains in mostly mundane circumstances, except that from the first they're struggling over a scientific breakthrough that allows one to harvest gold from the ocean. I wrote:

The Nazis, working under a mysterious figure called "the Master Key," are trying to obtain the scientific breakthrough of Professor Henderson, whose "Oroton Tubes" can harvest raw gold from the ocean, presumably without spending more than one uses for the harvesting-techniques. Despite the efforts of G-Man Tom Brant (GUNSMOKE's Milburn Stone in his salad days) and his aides, the spies do capture Henderson, but the scientist fears being killed if he simply gives up his secret. He cooperates only to the extent of buying time with requests for the materials to build the Tubes. Thus, as in many serials, both good and bad guys are sent chasing after any number of McGuffins. The idea of a gold-making device is sufficiently advanced that it registers as a marvelous phenomenon, although one doesn't see it in action more than once or twice. 

And later:

 So why is my phenomenality-category still bifurcated? In essence, though the masked mastermind and the zap-trap seem like last-minute additions to the story, they are still *centric* to the story, whereas the gold-machine is truly *peripheral."

Though I'm not going to alter what I wrote in the review, I'm reversing myself on this verdict. The gold-machine might be function the same as a more mundane McGuffin, but it is meant to change the scope of the adventure in the same way that a death ray or some similar gimmick will. The gold-making device has been originated by a scientist aligned with the Allies, but the narrative danger was that it would fall into the hands of the Axis and thus endanger the outcome of the War.

In a handful of other essays I've used this distinction between "in posse" and "in esse:"

  1. A child living is in esse, but before birth is only in posse.-- from Your Dictionary's definition of *in esse.*
My original context for using these paired terms was to state that a particular work-- namely Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE-- possessed clansgressive aspects *in posse* even if neither Collins nor his audience recognized them (more on which here). I've thus belatedly realized that I was only considering the resources of both heroes and villains *in esse,* while overlooking the fact that sough-after McGuffins can function as resources *in posse.* Even if the villains never actually get the powerful dingus, narrative suspense is generated by the possibility that they might-- and so the dingus-- in this case, the gold-making process-- is allied to the sphere of the villains' resources.

More on these matters as they occur to me.

Monday, January 23, 2017

NEAR-MYTHS: ["GHOST RIDER'S ORIGIN], MARVEL SPOTLIGHT 5-8, 1972-73)

I've cited a number of near-myths already, as well as talking about why they aren't as *inconsummate* as the null-myths,  but my recent re-readings of the original 1970s Ghost Rider comic underscore my thoughts regarding a "fair" work that lacks the "unity of action" that could have made it good.

First, though artist Mike Ploog shares credit on GHOST RIDER with writer Gary Friedrich, I believe Ploog's orientation probably was the controlling creative influence. For one thing, early in 1972 Ploog had originated, with three other writers, the WEREWOLF BY NIGHT feature, which ran in the previous three issues of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT before the lupine protagonist received his own series. Ghost Rider took the SPOTLIGHT position for seven issues before he also gained his own title.

Both the Werewolf and the Ghost Rider were heroes who transformed into monsters with the fall of night, though Ghost Rider soon dispensed with that trope. More importantly, both characters had extreme daddy issues. In the case of Jack "Werewolf" Russell, his natural father had died, and his mother remarried a man Jack didn't care for. When the mother also passed on, she forbade Jack to show his stepfather any disrespect, and so for a time Russell had to tolerate the man, whom he dimly suspected of having caused his wife's death. Some time later, the stepfather was vindicated, but in the first stories Ploog established the idea of a transforming-hero filled with rage at a father-figure, but forbidden to act against him.


GHOST RIDER was more complicated, though not always in a good way. As a child Johnny Blaze loses his natural father, a motorcycle-daredevil (the mother is not mentioned in the Ploog issues). Since the father had been part of a traveling carny-act, young Johnny is adopted by another carny-family: the Simpsons. Crash Simpson was almost an alloform of the late Mr. Blaze, being another middle-aged daredevil rider, and he and his wife became surrogate parents to Johnny. However, their natural child Roxanne was not in Johnny's eyes a "sister," and as they grew older a mutual attraction surfaces.



Before either young adult can do anything about it, though, another tragedy strikes. During a practice performance Johnny's bike catches on fire. He rides it away from the surrounding watchers and ditches it, but Mrs. Simpson runs after him and is killed by the blast of the exploding cycle. Before she dies, Johnny's surrogate mother asks him to refrain from risking his life as a daredevil, and he agrees. Not only does this parental taboo restrain Johnny from exercising his natural riding talents, it further alienates Roxanne. She deems him a coward for not riding in the show, and worries that her father is getting too old to do so.

On top of these dramas, one day Crash announces that he's going to attempt a dangerous stunt, partly because he's contracted cancer. Johnny's reaction is a strange one since there's been no mention of any religious tendencies on his part: he calls up the Devil and makes a bargain to save Crash's life.


The bargain goes sour when Crash dies of the stunt but not the disease. Johnny then duplicates the feat in memory of his surrogate father, briefly earning Roxanne's ire for his having let her father do the stunt in his place. However, that ire is quickly forgot when the young woman witnesses Satan coming to claim his prize. Roxanne somehow uses her supposed "purity" to repel the demonic presence (maybe it's a good thing she and Johnny didn't have pre-marital sex, eh?) But now Satan's power causes Johnny to transform into a skull-faced being with hellfire powers.



All this would be a fairly routine setup, except that, unlike Johnny's natural father, Crash Simpson comes back-- not as a HAMLET-esque spectre requiring revenge, but as an emissary of Satan, perfectly willing to sacrifice Johnny so that he Crash can get out of Hell free. He's also more than willing to sacrifice his own living daughter to this end, but instead he ends up fighting the Ghost Rider in Hell itself.



Despite all these perfidious actions, though, the "bad father" again does a turnabout. Overcome with sudden paternal affection for his surrogate son, Crash revolts against Satan, makes it possible for Johnny to get back to the real world, and presumably remains in Hell, being tormented for eternity. Roxanne forgets everything that happened to her and the rest of issue #8 is devoted to confronting the hero with a new menace.

The setup of WEREWOLF has an almost Freudian feel-- the hero abominates his "new father" but is forbidden from taking action against him. In contrast, there's some Jungian potential in the GHOST RIDER arrangement, in that the state of "father-ness" is in line with what Jung called a "superordinate idea." Johnny's never-seen natural father "Barton Blaze" functions as an "absent father" in that his death takes him out of Johnny's life. Though Johnny apparently enjoys being raised by the Simpsons, Crash Simpson seems no more than a token father-replacement: in the first issue he neither provides Johnny with a role model-- which Johnny already has-- nor does he restrict him overmuch. (If he's aware that Johnny has a crush for Roxanne,  the story doesn't show it.) Only after Mrs. Simpson interferes with Johnny's natural development, forbidding him from being a cyclist, does Johnny come in for censure from both Crash and Roxanne. But the surrogate mother's motives for demanding Johnny's sacrifice-- given that he's not even her natural child-- come down to little more than a plot-device. (It's particularly amusing that Johnny, not Roxanne, is the one seen talking to Mrs. Simpson on her deathbed, demonstrating that the creators weren't overly concerned with any character except Johnny Blaze.) Even Johnny's attempt to garner a favor from Satan might be construed as an appeal to a "father-imago," given that the Devil is traditionally "the Father of Lies." Further, one issue after Ghost Rider got his own comic, Marvel readers met the Devil's actual offspring in the "Son of Satan" feature (with which Gary Friedrich, though not Mike Ploog, was also involved).

Crash Simpson's double-turncoat is even less well-imagined. Ploog and Friedrich don't bother to venture any reason as to why Crash-- who seems to have been a largely good fellow in life-- ends up under Satan's aegis in Hell. Nor is there any attempt to explain why he turns on Johnny and Roxanne so easily: the creators are purely concerned with presenting the Ghost Rider with one crisis after another. Despite this rambling introduction, though, the visual appeal of the character clearly struck a chord with readers, for he enjoyed a much longer career than most of Marvel's  1970s monster-heroes. Whether he ever managed to appear in a mythically *good* story, though, remains to be seen.


Friday, January 20, 2017

SO-- PRESIDENT TRUMP PT. 2

There's not much to write about Trump's uneventful inauguration today. I did notice an awful lot of religious rhetoric being used to sanctify the proceedings, which I found unusual given that Trump did not run an overly religious campaign as compared to George Dubya, or even Jimmy Carter.

Earlier in the week, however, there was this rather interesting revelation on Tuesday's episode of the VIEW. In short, singer Jennifer Holliday had accepted the president-elect's invitation to perform at the inauguration, and she backed out because, in her words:

“I was receiving death threats at this point,” Holliday said. “I was receiving death threats from black people, the N-word from black people. They were saying they were going to kill me.”

Holliday also said that she backed out because many of her gay fans apprised her of their opinion that Trump was going to endanger their hard-won status, but she did not say that the gays called her offensive names or threatened to kill her.

I plan to bring up this lapse in liberal etiquette on a certain forum, where, in the past year, it's been a regular thing to castigate the Right through the bad example of an event known as "Gamergate," though it would have been better called "Dumb-or-Dumbergate" (i.e., both the original criticism and the reactions to it were extremely dumb). The dominant trend of the forum's remarks has been to imply that only Conservative White Males ever sink to the low depths of making threats against public figures.

The Holliday Event also demonstrates that no people, including black people, have any intrinsic "right" to use the Big Nasty Taboo Word, and that the epithet doesn't smell any better being used for an ultraliberal purpose than for an ultraconservative one.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "EYE EYE SIR" (WITCHES' TALES #24, 1954)

Though the word "mythic" is sometimes used as shorthand for seriousness and importance, there's no reason mythic works can't be humorous. Indeed, Northrop Frye's four "mythoi" cover both two "serious" forms and two "unserious" forms, and I've already included a number of comedic or ironic works in my attempt at a canon of mythcomics.

However, the stories selected for this canon do have to sustain a level of symbolic complexity, and even many of the classic MAD stories of the early 1950s don't reach that level. An exception is "Mickey Rodent," which sustains a sociological myth relating to the human use of language and custom. 

This week's mythcomic falls more into the psychological department. EC influenced more than a few comics-companies of the early 1950s, and according to this Bhob Stewart essay, Harvey Comics was one of the main disciples. In fact, by 1954 each Harvey title became oriented on a particular theme, with that of WITCHES' TALES being (as Stewart puts it) "funny horror." The story "Eye Eye Sir" could have appeared in any of the many imitators of MAD, and in its five short pages it outdoes a lot of MAD tales in giving the reader a winsome spoof of both horror and hardboiled detective fiction a la Mickey Spillane. As the only creator-attribution in GCD is that of artist Sid Check, I have to refer to him here as if he was the sole author.

I imagine many modern readers would find it difficult to understand how much the Mickey Spillane books changed 1940s pop culture. His work would probably be excoriated by the sort of ideological critics who worship at the feet of Laura Mulvey, who liked to conflate "the male gaze" with both sadism and scopophilia. Sadly, even a broken clock will be right a couple of times each day, and there's not much doubt that Spillane's work is all about males gazing at hot women-- to whom the Spillane heroes seek to make love, even if they must kill the women later-- and killing lots of male criminals along the way, often in explicitly sadistic fashion.




The image of the tough private dick cleaning his gun at his desk is immediately spoofed by Check in a very MAD-esque sequence; catching his finger in the cartridge. But more than the gag, I like the backstory provided by the voiceover of narrator/hero Rudy Crane, who mentions first that he got kicked out of college for trying show his female teacher "a couple of laughs-- after school." He's also established to be, not a street-smart guy living by his wits, but a counterfeit shamus who's been set up in the private dick business by a rich daddy.

No less archetypal is the entrance of the gorgeous female client into the detective's seedy office, but Check puts a spin on it: the lady doth wear heavy blue-lensed glasses. Every male in the story will remark upon the glasses, offering un-subtle confirmation that "guys don't make passes at girls that wear glasses." Even if one had never seen this sort of humorous repetition in a MAD comic, a reader could hardly fail to draw the conclusion that there's something special about these glasses.



Client "Lucy Latour" hires Crane to find her husband, who left her three years ago when he went out for a loaf of bread. Crane then escorts her to various places to interview witnesses about her husband, and when Crane isn't pawing at Latour-- apparently not much dissuaded by her married status-- he's roughing up the interviewees with barely concealed sadistic glee ("I grabbed him by the collar. I wished it was his throat.") 

Then on page five, we finally see what's behind the glasses.



Though "Eye Eye Sir" is a jape, I strongly suspect that the author(s) knew about the notorious ending of Spillane's 1952 KISS ME DEADLY. In this essay I examined some of the symbolic complexities of both the book and, to a lesser extent, the 1955 film adaptation. In the novel, Mike Hammer's femme fatale projects the illusion of beauty through her face alone, and conceals what Spillane calls "a picture of gruesome freakishness" beneath her clothes, "from her knees to her neck." Given that "Eye" must conclude with a joke, albeit a very creepy one, there's no explanation of why Latour has, in place of eyes, "two big sockets with candles inside them," as if she were some sort of humanoid jack-o-lantern. But like the ending of KISS ME DEADLY, it's a great joke on a concupiscent male. Here's Rudy Crane, whose only reason for wanting to see the gorgeous dame's eyes is to imagine them shining with love for him, and all he gets-- assuming, by the narration, that he survives-- is a look of utter and complete emptiness.

The entire story can be read here.



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

THE LINE BETWEEN "FAIR" AND "GOOD"

I recently ran through all of the film-reviews I'd rated for "mythicity" on my film-blog for the past six years, and as I did I noted how many of them had received the rating of either "good" or "superior." Not surprisingly, there weren't a lot of these, and though I didn't amass totals for either "fair" or "poor," my overall impression is that the vast majority of my reviews got a "fair" rating.

When I started the "1001 myths" project in June 2015-- which took in a smattering of earlier blog-reviews-- the only specific statement I made regarding the level of mythicity in the stories selected was this paragraph:

Starting the week of June 28-July 4, I will start posting at least one review of a comic book that meets my criteria for being "mythic." I would like to do two, but that may not be realistic. It's also occurred to me that it might be instructive to post not only an analysis of a consummate "myth-comic," but also one of an *inconsummate* story. Such stories make good counter-examples, in that they will possess myth-elements-- as do all narratives, by virtue of being narratives-- but the story uses them poorly or not to their greatest potential. It might also serve to make clearer that I don't regard "mythic complexity" as some sort of rapture that descends upon the writer as from heaven. Some raptures result only in babbling, while others culminate in a poetry that transcends all the Babel-like confusions of language. 
There's clearly no "rating" associated with my idea of the "consummate 'myth-comic,'" so it's more than a little likely that on some level I associated it even with comics that were either "good" or "superior." I didn't stick with analyzing "null-myths" for very long, but clearly they compare pretty well with the rating of "poor mythicity," partly in line with my remark about "babbling" and partly in line with my formulation of why potentially mythic texts end up as mere null-myths.

...because of my realization that on occasions a given work may have symbolic potential, and yet does not use it because of some flaw in the execution, I've started utilizing "null-myth" as a label for all examples of "frustrated mythicity." Thus far all of the null-myths I've identified thus far have frustrated their potential due to one of two reasons. Either their authors UNDERTHINK the UNDERTHOUGHT-- that is, the authors show some realization of the power of myth-symbols on their own, but said authors use the symbols as if they were static functions, like Joyce's door... Or they OVERTHINK the OVERTHOUGHT, in that they impose some mental straight-jacket around the potentially free-flowing images and symbols. This might include phenomena as intellectually disparate as the over-intellectualizations of figures like Sim and Ditko, as well as instances where some editorial consideration overrides the free flow.-- MORE NULL-MYTH NOODLINGS.
 
So "null-myths" are works in which the mythic potential is "poor"-- but what works are merely "fair" (without yet even getting to the question of what "fair" itself means)? The simplest answer is that these would be the "near-myths" that I started formally identifying in this May 2016 essay, where I wrote:
I've defined a "null-myth" as a narrative that shows potential for mythicity / symbolic discourse but fails to articulate that potential to its best effect. In contrast, "a near-myth" is a part of a narrative that sustains a mythic kernel of meaning, but does not become unified into a fully-developed "underthought" throughout the narrative.
So, to answer my question as to what provides the line between "fair" and "good," it would seem to be the "unity of action" I described in THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS.

I may use this line of thought to a lead-in to another question, regarding whether it's most beneficial to have a "unity" of idea between a work's overthought and underthought, or whether the two exist on essentially separate but intersecting mental planes, not unlike the interdependence of harmony and melody in music.

Friday, January 13, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE SHAMAN" (SHOWCASE #87, 1969)



"The Shaman" was the third and last story in SHOWCASE to feature the "white Indian" teen Firehair. All of the stories were both written and drawn by the character's creator Joe Kubert, but whereas the first two stories fall into a purely naturalistic domain, this one, as the cover clearly shows, seems to depict magical phenomena. I'll give the game away from the start, however: most of the young hero's mystic experiences take place within a fever-dream, so that the story falls into the domain of the uncanny through its use of the "delirious dreams" trope.

It's established in the two previous entries that Firehair doesn't fit into either the white or the Indian world, and thus he begins "The Shaman" alone, riding his pinto into a "strange land" that seems to be "scarred with a terrible wound" (the Grand Canyon). Firehair ponders that any tribe that might live here "must be as strange as the land on which they live." He's then immediately attacked by a hungry mountain-lion, which knocks him off his horse. As Firehair's mount flees, the young man tries to fight off the big cat. He and the creature fall off a cliff, but Firehair saves himself by grabbing a root and hauling himself back to solid ground. He's been badly clawed though, and he's forced to wander on foot, looking for someone who can help him. At some point in the real world he collapses into a dream, and the dream begins with him encountering the "strange" tribe he imagined before.




As the above section shows, the tribe immediately accuses Firehair of being guarded by an evil spirit, and the tribal shaman claims that he sent the mountain cat to kill him. The witch-doctor also demonstrates his supernatural power upon the youth, but refrains from killing him because "the death of evil should be a lesson for all." Firehair is then placed on upon a pedestal-like rock in the center of a pit filled with rattlesnakes: "the Circle of Venom." This pointless punishment takes the form of an initiatory ordeal, given that the hero must then strive to keep from falling asleep, lest he tumble into the snake-pit. Firehair blacks out briefly, but though he doesn't fall off the pedestal, he does behold that the tribal grounds have become enswathed by a "colorless sky mist." Then the tribesmen remove him from the pedestal with a bridge, and the shaman leads Firehair and a small party of braves to their next rendezvous. The Shaman goes in front, and the hero thinks of him as "the poisonous head of a writhing serpent."

The group ends up in one of the canyons-- referred to as "the earth's bowels"-- and Firehair sees the cave "drenched in a red light." The Shaman positions himself in front of a "bottomless abyss," calls out to a "spirit of the nether-world." Out of the abyss, filled with red smoke, rises a colossal man with the head of a coyote, and this spirit-figure declares that he cannot take Firehair into his domain until he faces the "supreme trial," facing "He-That-Holds-the-World."




This means that the group must now seek out the site of "the Black Pool," another cave where all of the lighting is blue and everything is cold and overgrown with ice-shapes. The Indians arrive at the shore of the forbidding Black Pool and tie their human sacrifice to a nearby "stone shaft." Then out of the pool comes He-That-Holds-the-World, a gigantic prehistoric-looking turtle, intent on gobbling down its victim. Faced with a creature too huge to fight, the hero takes his first decisive action in the dream: screaming the Blackfoot "cry of battle." This somehow results not only in the splintering of the shaft holding the hero, but also the collapse of the ceiling above. Firehair's last thought, as the dream ends, is that "all was darkness-- the end of life."




However, the next moment he awakens from his fever-fantasy in the care of a friendly tribe of Navajos. He meets in real life the same shaman he met in his dream, who informs Firehair that he's been unconscious for three days, because his wounds had become "poisonous" (by which Kubert certainly means "infected"). He even uttered his war-cry while in his delirium, and now that he's awake, he sees a kachina doll that some tribal child made to help him through his illness.




There's nothing startlingly original about Kubert's main concept: of a character who sees aspects of reality reflected in a fever-dream, but there are a lot of good touches here: that the "evil" that the dream-shaman wishes to cast out is actually the real-life infection that the good shaman seeks to defeat. The Circle of Venom is also a further elaboration of the poison-effect. The chilling effect of the second cave is probably meant to connote the hero's bodily chills, and something similar is probably true of the red cave, even though it's not specifically said to be hot. It's possible to interpret Firehair's prescient visualizations of both the shaman and his doll as dream-interpretations of things he sees in his delirium, though the possibility of some psychic intuition is also left open.

In addition, Kubert has loosely evoked familiar Native American myth-figures here for his dream-journey. Since these figures have different names in different languages, many texts simply use generalizing English names like "Coyote" and "Turtle."  However, I think Kubert might have been less inspired by actual Native American myths than by the "weighing of the heart" ritual in Egyptian myth, wherein jackal-headed Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased-- and if the dead soul is found wanting, he's devoured by the monster Ammit. Additionally, the "sky is falling" myth-theme is a vital one in general world mythology. There's a fascinating parallel between the tuirtle-creature that "holds the world," which is defeated when Firehair more or less breaks a pillar, also a common symbol for whatever-supports-the-sky-- though here the destruction of both turtle and pillar result in the end of the dream, rather than of the real world. It's a shame that Joe Kubert didn't turn his superb artistic tales to this sort of mythopoeic story more often during his nonetheless impressive career.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4

The long-term applicability of the concept of the artifice-mode is that it finally allows me to formulate a solid rationale for all of my declarations that such-and-such a character was "larger than life," like this one from my review of EYES OF A STRANGER:

EYES debuted in theaters at a time when psycho-slasher films were still in ascendance, but this film's killer has little in common with the more colorful fiends of the period: he isn't deformed, wears no distinctive mask or clothing, and uses no special gimmicks or bizarre methods to commit his murders-- all in spite of the fact that one of the writers credited with the EYES screenplay also worked on the seminal 1980 FRIDAY THE 13TH.  Nevertheless, for all the naturalistic touches here, the script does give the villain a larger-than-life quality that confers a sense of dread to the proceedings.

I later contrasted this psycho-film with NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, where I said of the killer-- who does have a minor "gimmick" in his ability to disguise himself--

Gill proves a far more more consummate actor than Kate, for his gimmick is to assume various disguises in order to get the older women to let him into their apartments, whereupon he kills them. Yet, despite this disguise-skill, Gill never inspires the "dread" that I look for in uncanny psychos, even of the mundane sort that appears in EYES OF A STRANGER. Everything about Gill, as well as his functional double Brummer, is easily explained by Freud's emphasis upon "physiological concepts," as Jung termed them.

But "physiological concepts" are just a specific example of the 1968 film's adherence to pure verisimilitude, of its attempt to minimize the role of "artifice" in fictionalizing the real story of the Boston Strangler. I described this tendency in Part 1:

an author's focus upon verisimilitude means that he automatically seeks to limit the potential "affective freedom" of his work, in favor of a "cognitive restraint" based in his own acceptance, and that of his potential audience, of all the rules of consensual reality.

I may have on occasion connected "affective freedom" with the author's ability to generate discourses of symbolic complexity, but if I have done so, this would be a mistake. "Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude, and that freedom can be found in any uncanny or marvelous work, regardless of its symbolic complexity, a.k.a. "mythicity." Indeed, I have rated both EYES OF A STRANGER and NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY as "poor" in terms of their mythicity, but the former is uncanny specifically because its author(s) show a greater appreciation for the inherited tropes of slasher-fiction, while the authors of LADY do not.

Sometimes that appreciation does not even take the form of any single trope that can be definitely nailed down. I recently labeled the 1987 film THE STEPFATHER as uncanny, and this psycho in this movie is, like the one in LADY, a chameleon who changes his appearance in order to ingratiate himself with his future victims. I also rated STEPFATHER as poor in relation to mythicity, but although there's a little more of an attempt to psycho-analyze the killer than one sees in EYES OF A STRANGER, there's also a sense that the Stepfather's madness is something outside the boundaries of a reasonable world. Neither Christopher Gill nor Jerry Blake wear any truly bizarre disguises a la Norman Bates, and their methods of murder are fairly mundane. But Blake's madness is "larger than life" because his creators, unlike those of Gill, seem far less preoccupied with proving that the killer's madness is typical for madmen of his type-- which means, in short, privileging "cognitive restraint" over"affective freedom."

In short, when in future I use the term "larger-than-life," it will be applied to narrative entities and situations that *seem like* (see POWER AND POTENCY 2) they are greater than life, even though they are not greater in a cognitive sense. Such things become "anti-intelligible" because at the core they are more aligned with the domain of artifice--the home of both stereotypes and archetypes-- than with the domain of verisimilitude.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 3

So far the only thing I've written about any linkage between archetypes and the concept of artifice-- which should properly be considered a "mode" given that it, like verisimilitude, deals with ways that authors create their stuff-- is this section from EFFICACY, MEET MYTH:

if myth [NOTE: as Frye is using the term] is really defined by the transhuman powers of deities, then what is being transmitted from the clearly mythic story of "Euripides' Ion" (where the protagonist is the offspring of a god) to the verisimilitudinous story of Oliver Twist? It seems likely to me that the way myth [NOTE: by which *I* mean "archaic mythology"] interacts with "the constructive principles of story-telling" is that myth supplies archetypes that have an expressive, emotive appeal irrespective of their phenomenal context. Thus, Frye is much nearer to the truth later in the ANATOMY, when he defines archetypes as "complex variables." I believe that though the literary critic distanced himself from the psychological views of Jung, Frye may have been exposed to Jung's argument about the archetypes as a structuring principle.
So what Frye calls "the constructive principles of story-telling" should take in both "verisimilitude" and what I have renamed "artifice," since in the same section where he introduces his two terms, he states that, "Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other."   

Now, though Frye elsewhere defined archetypes as "complex variables," I don't think he's always consistent in emphasizing their complexity, be it potential or actual. For instance, I don't deem the use of the "birth-mystery plot" in OLIVER TWIST to be particularly complex, although the archetype by itself *can* be turned to more complex ends. Though I believe Frye had been exposed to some modern semiotic theory, such as I invoke in my differentiation between simple and complex variables, he sometimes uses the word "archetype" to describe any trope in a modern story that resembles a story from archaic myth.

I, however, favor the Segal definition of the archetype cited earlier, since I think it best coheres with Jung's writings on the subject:

An archetypal experience is not any emotional event but only an overwhelming one, the extraordinariness of which stems exactly from the power of the archetype encountered through projection.

What makes archetypes "overwhelming?" I would say that it is the same complexity of associations that I have elsewhere termed "the combinatory sublime." Simpler associations characterize simple variables, and I would say that the "birth-mystery" aspect of OLIVER TWIST is pretty simple, even compared to its use in, say, GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

We can easily imagine that Dickens, in composing both works, draws upon his knowledge of "birth-mystery" plots in earlier myths and literary works. But if OLIVER is a simple version of such plots, and EXPECTATIONS is a complex one, then it stands to reason that artifice as a mode embraces both simple variables ("stereotypes") and complex variables ("archetypes.")

More to come in Part 4.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 2

At the end of PART 1 I stated that I would investigate a particular archetypal trope, that of the "birth-mystery plot," across the three phenomenalities of the NUM theory. The two examples more or less introduced by Frye in the earlier quoted section from his ANATOMY were Oliver Twist (my selection of a Dickens "mystery orphan") and Ion (from the Euripides play of the same name). Within the domain of "the uncanny," the most famous example of this trope is almost inevitably Tarzan. whose origin-tale may be more widely known than that of the other two.

I'll backtrack here just enough to reference my 2013 statement here as how the uncanny differs from the purely naturalistic, both in terms of the principle of "strangeness" and in terms of a potential for combinatory power:

What Todorov fails to comprehend here is that the "quite rational explanations" in USHER do not dispel the sense of something bizarre taking place, as is seen when the "statue" in WINTER'S TALE seems, ever so briefly, to have come to life.  The slight nods to possible rational explanations in USHER do not the banish the strangeness of the House, with its face-like facade, its doomed occupants and its cataclysmic descent into the tarn.  This is the common element of all of my ten uncanny-tropes.  In each case the uncanny-author plays a game that resembles the game of the advocate of naturalism, in that he does not violate causality.  But he does so not to reify "the real," as Todorov suggests.  He does so to create a "supra-real world," one in which there is a far greater potential for combinatory sublimity than in any naturalistic work. 

Now, in PART 1 I made a brief comparison between the narrative strategies of Oliver's creator and the dramatist of ION:

the author [Dickens] will seek to emphasize that, say, Oliver Twist is the product of an unjust social system, rather than the obvious spawn of either a fiction-writer or of any mythological entities that might stand in for the author. (Again following Frye's example, the god Apollo exists to "explain" the provenance of his mortal son Ion, in more or less parallel fashion to the sacrificed giant whose death "explains" the origins of the universe.)
Now, the caveat must be made that Euripides did not "invent" Ion as the other two invented their respective characters. Nevertheless, an author who follows the basic outlines of a traditional myth-tale about a traditional character tacitly accepts the phenomenality implied in that material, and anyone who attempts to produce a mythology out of whole cloth, as Tolkien did, is likely to pursue roughly the same narrative strategies as the archaic authors, as far as how the gods function with relation both to mortals and to godly kindred.

Again I return to the definition I formulated of the three phenomenalities in response to my reading of Roy Bhaskar: 

In the NATURALISTIC category, all phenomena are both "coherent" and "intelligible."
In the UNCANNY category, all phenomena are "coherent" in that they do not exceed the cognitive//physical nature of causality, but some phenomena are not "intelligible" given that they may prove unintelligible by the standards of the NATURALISTIC.
In the MARVELOUS category, some phenomena may be neither "coherent" nor "intelligible."

(Note:my current term "coherent" substitutes for the discontinued one "regular.")

Everything in Oliver Twist's world is both coherent and intelligible, just as certain things in Ion's world are neither coherent nor intelligible. In the world that Burroughs created for Tarzan, however, he pursues some of the same goals as the naturalistic author as described in Part 1:

an author's focus upon verisimilitude means that he automatically seeks to limit the potential "affective freedom" of his work, in favor of a "cognitive restraint" based in his audience's acceptance of the rules of consensual reality. 

But Tarzan is not strictly intelligible as is Oliver Twist. I'm not speaking of incidents in the first book that strain credulity, like the ape-man teaching himself to read, because Burroughs wants his readers to believe that this miracle falls within the bounds of naturalistic possibility. Rather, it's that the author allows his character an "affective freedom" that exceeds the type of affectivity normally possible for characters in naturalistic worlds. Burroughs isn't being literal when he styles Tarzan a "forest god," but the impression of godhood is conveyed by the hero's strength, which on one hand is entirely human in its scope, and yet on the other hand has been developed to an extent most men never experience, including jungle-dwelling tribesmen who haven't been raised by apes.

Marvelous works by their nature must privilege the world of literary artifice, whether they are creating a whole world of marvelous things (Tolkien again) or just one marvelous thing in an otherwise natural-seeming world (Verne, and, in a narrative sense, Euripides). Naturalistic works privilege the perceptions, by the author and his culture, as to the restrictions of verisimilitude. The uncanny author utilizes strategies from both domains. Poe in Todorov's example of "House of Usher" allows his reader to pursue a naturalistic interpretation if he really wants it, but the author doesn't buttress that interpretation with assorted facts about the tendency of houses to sink into tarns at the least provocation.

In Part 3, I'll get back to the matter of how archetypes and artifice go together.

ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 1

An archetypal experience is not any emotional event but only an overwhelming one, the extraordinariness of which stems exactly from the power of the archetype encountered through projection.-- Robert A. Segal, THEORIZING ABOUT MYTH, p. 93. (quoted in greater context here).
A stereotype is defined by bare functionality.
An archetype is defined by some degree of "super-functionality."-- A QUICK ASIDE ON FUNCTIONALITY

The primary similarity between (1) the many facets of "the archetype" as described by Jung and others and (2) the concept of "artifice" that I introduced in EFFICACY, MEET MYTH is that both are abstract constructions. Both are built up not from observed experience but from patterns one projects upon abstract ideas about experience. Such abstractions tend to intermingle willy-nilly, which is why my EFFICACY essay might have been better titled ARTIFICE, MEET MYTH, since I was arguing that my new term provided a more effective substitute for Northrop's Frye use of "myth" in the particular Fryean schema I quoted.

Still, "efficacy" wasn't without significance. Cassirer introduced the term as a way of seeking to understand the "non-causal causality" one finds in myth, as one sees in favorite tropes like that of the giant who is dismembered to create the universe. I drew a comparison between Cassirer's definition of efficacy as a "translation and  transposition of the world of subjective emotions and drives into a sensuous, objective existence" and viewing this as comparable to the will-based process by which a literary author creates a world out of his own "subjective emotions and drives."  No matter how much an author may think that he's attempting to hew close to observed experience, the moment he seeks to create fiction-- as opposed to nonfiction and memoir-related works like those of Harvey Pekar-- he will always impose some sense of order on his fictive world that parallels that of the cosmic order one finds in myth.

Nevertheless, many authors seek to buttress their visions of real life with direct observations that they or others have taken from experience, and all such attempts to bring the fictional world into line with observed experience fit under the heading of Frye's category "verisimilitude." Ironically, "verisimilitude" can even take in inaccurate information. In HENRY IV PART 1, Shakespeare makes Henry and Hotspur the same age, which was not historically accurate. However, misinformation serves the same purpose in the play that accurate information would: to give the audience a set of particulars fact about the antagonists.

The author who wants to be admired for his verisimilitude, then, endeavors to imply that any subjective concerns that inform his work are logical extrapolations from his observations of experience. Thus, even when he employs an archetypal trope, such as Frye's example of the "birth-mystery plot" in various Dickens works, the author will seek to emphasize that, say, Oliver Twist is the product of an unjust social system, rather than the obvious spawn of either a fiction-writer or of any mythological entities that might stand in for the author. (Again following Frye's example, the god Apollo exists to "explain" the provenance of his mortal son Ion, in more or less parallel fashion to the sacrificed giant whose death "explains" the origins of the universe.)

I'll state then a general maxim: no fiction-author can ever completely succeed in divorcing himself from the domain of artifice and totally cleaving to the domain of verisimilitude.

That said, an author's focus upon verisimilitude means that he automatically seeks to limit the potential "affective freedom" of his work, in favor of a "cognitive restraint" based in his own acceptance, and that of his potential audience, of all the rules of consensual reality. And that means that the "will" incarnate in the work of a (usually) naturalistic author like Dickens is not quite the same as what one sees in the work of one best known for marvelous scenarios, like Euripides, or of one who uses the same archetype in an uncanny work-- more upon which in Part 2.




         

Thursday, January 5, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: [MISERY & VALKYRIE], AIR FIGHTERS/ AIRBOY (1943/1946)




This week on my film-blog I looked at three episodes of STAR TREK-- all written by different writers-- because I felt that they were all riffs on an idea important to the show's producer, and because they seemed to complement one another, like images in a triptych-painting. Here I'm going to investigate three separate stories of the 1940s hero Airboy, even though they weren't published concurrently and may have been written by different authors. I've usually only considered stories that were unified continuities, but these three tales seem united by mythic theme rather than plot.

The first story appears in AIR FIGHTERS COMICS #12, less than a year after Airboy's debut in November 1942. GCD credits the first story to one Harry Stein, though the other two lack attribution, but all three were drawn by artist Fred Kida. The story introduces a new villain, Misery, who looks like a walking skeleton and sometimes wields an axe. The weapon may have a stand-in for the scythe of the Grim Reaper, since Misery has been designed to be a "Grim Reaper of the skies." He's given an origin of sorts, though the script doesn't make the matter entirely explicit.



Duray-- whose reasons for being in India are not disclosed-- is a martyr to the science of unpowered flight, and the Airtomb, the stone structure that marks the place of his sacrifice.  Over the next two centuries, the Airtomb becomes a symbolic harbinger of death to fliers, but it only seems to show itself as a direct threat in 1943, moments after Airboy has shot down an Axis plane. As if in retaliation the Airtomb shoots down several RAF planes, but eludes the young hero. He finally seeks out the legendary location of the plane in Calcutta, and meets the craft's eerie pilot.



Eventually Misery overcomes Airboy and hurls him into a ravine styled "The Black Hole of Calcutta." The real "Black Hole" was a dungeon in which several British officers of the 1700s perished, and it somehow became a standard trope to describe a horrible place. Here it's become almost a gateway into some dismal underworld, full of "poisonous gases."



Airboy escapes the ravine, fights Misery again, and then, by weird coincidence, a volcanic eruption takes place. Airboy escapes while Misery is engulfed by lava. He defiantly claims that he'll live again, even though "the Earth has robbed me, Misery, of my victory."

Misery doesn't appear for a few years thereafter, but two issues later (labeled volume 2, #2), Airboy meets another foe whose name carries one similar connotation, in a story drawn by Kida but not credited to an identified author. The Valkyrie is a pilot for the German forces, and commands an all-female squadron, "the Aurmaidens." While she and her aides are purely mortal, her name is derived from the Nordic valkyries, who were also, as Misery professes to be, "collectors of brave men."

No sooner does Valkyrie perpetrate a successful attack on the RAF than Airboy follows her all the way to Germany and attacks her base. She takes to the air and the two of them square off, but Airboy loses because he's too much of a gentleman to shoot a woman.




An interesting psychological "split" than ensues during Airboy's captivity at the base. Valkyrie wants the secrets of Airboy's plane, and is more than willing to whip them out of him. As the scene shows, she shows the hero no mercy whatsover, being entirely committed to the German cause.




This torture-scene may be deemed a loose parallel to the hero's consignment to the Black Hole of Calcutta, in that he's totally within the power of evil. However, this time the softer side of femininity arises to his defense. The other Airmaidens are impressed with Airboy's bravery and good looks, so after he's stuck in a cell, they liberate him and hide him elsewhere. The base commandant sees through the girls' innocent act and orders them whipped. Valkyrie doesn't have any sentimental side where an enemy of her country is concerned, but she can't abide having her "friends" whipped even though they're guilty of traitorous activities. Valkyrie tries to save them while at the same time worming the hero's secrets out of him.




Airboy yields Valkyrie the secret of Birdie, and she fully intends to betray him. However, when Valkyrie tries to leverage her knowledge to save her friends, the arrogant commandant won't cut her a break. It would be tempting these days to wonder if Valkyrie enjoyed some deeper relationship than "friends" with her fellow lady-pilots-- something not unlike a later group of aviatrixes in Ian Fleming's GOLDFINGER. In any case, the commandant's intransigence costs him both his best pilots and the secrets of Birdie, for Valkyrie and her Airmaidens join Airboy and turn against the Nazi cause. In addition, though Valkyrie did not become a regular figure in the Airboy feature, she did become an off-and-on girlfriend-- an interesting breakthrough, since she's clearly an adult and he is, as the previous cover states, fifteen-year-old "jail bait."



Three years later, in another story with no author-ID but drawn by Kida, Airboy-- who has met Valkyrie once or twice in the ensuing years-- encounters both characters at once. The title of the comic has been changed to AIRBOY, but it's issue #12 within the same publishing-volume. Though Stein might have been the author on the first Valkyrie story given the continguity with the first Misery story, this one might have been by anyone seeking to bring together two evocative characters from the past-- the better to shore up the hero's appeal, since he'd been created for a war that had been concluded for roughly half a year (January 1946). The opening splash portrays Misery's domain, "the Black Hole of Calcutta," with some of the traditional iconography of Hell.




As the story opens, Airboy crosses paths with Valkyrie in Burma. He makes a somewhat indelicate reference to "the old Nazi days," and though a new reader wouldn't know what he's talking about, Valkyrie doesn't take offense and even gives him major lip-lock before leaving on her flight-assignment. For his part, Airboy learns why the base commander has summoned him. Not only have several British planes inexplicably disappeared, the commander has received a note from Misery, who claims to be flying the Airtomb once again. While Airboy goes off in quest of the villain, he also finds out that Valkyrie's plane has disappeared. Then, to his horror, he sees her plane attacking British crafts, and her "old Nazi days" seem to have come back once more.




It will surprise no one that Misery has placed Valkyrie in thrall. Once again Airboy is forced to fight and subdue her, after which he flies them both to the site of the Airtomb near the fabled Black Hole. Once he's there, Misery-- whose sole reason for enthralling Valkyrie was to use her as bait--offers the hero her freedom in exchange for his own. While most commonplace stories would have simply had the villain escort the sacrificial hero away, the story's author throws in this lovely bit of grotesquerie:



However, like most villains Misery underestimates the power of friendship; she comes to herself and pushes the villain into the ravine while saving the hero. However, the fall doesn't stop the fiend, who later manages to trap Airboy inside the Airtomb. The craft is, like the Black Hole, filled with deadly fumes, albeit those of helium, which apparently helps the incredible craft fly. Again, Valkyrie saves the hero from death-- more or less performing a function to that of her mythic namesake-- and the villain is left to gnash his teeth in frustration.

From what I can tell the characters came back again in later stories, but they entirely lost their engagement with the myth of the ultimate doomed "hero of the skies," who soars through heaven but is eternally fated to crash to earth with the rest of mortal beings.