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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...

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

MESSING WITH MISTER IN-BETWEEN PT. 2

Not long after finishing IVANHOE, I also completed Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE, a 1996 novelization of a British teleseries on which Gaiman collaborated. I didn't care for the book, but I must admit that its lack of imaginative scope is probably due to the fact that all elements had to be kept within the bounds of an inexpensive live-action series.




In keeping with what I wrote earlier about the Scott work, I'm only interested whether or not NEVERWHERE qualifies as a combative work, and if not, why not. (SPOILERS ahead.)


In the tradition of Carroll's Alice, modern-day British businessman Richard Mayhew falls down the wrong rabbit-hole. He ends up in London Below, a perhaps extradimensional domain that has a separate but sometimes parallel culture to that of the real world. Mayhew, who possesses no physical skills, becomes involved with a small coterie of freedom-fighters as they're pursued by assassins sent by a corrupt angel. The novel concludes when one member of the team, named Door, manages to propel the assassins and their master into another dimensional plane.

In my view, though Gaiman devotes a lot of space to Door and the other allies, NEVERWHERE's focal presence is not an ensemble of connected characters, but Mayhew alone. Thus, by the transitive principles I've advanced, the novel can't be combative unless Mayhew has some claim to being a combative hero.

Now, whereas Ivanhoe is a protagonist with a lot of battle-skill who doesn't get a final combat-scene, Gaiman does put the microdynamic Mayhew in the position of a hero. Without getting into the plot heavily, one of the coterie, Hunter, seeks to destroy a fabulous beast, a sort of oversized wart-hog. Hunter, who is a masterful fighter, attempts to spear the beast, but she's gored fatally. She gives the spear to Mayhew, and then Hunter distracts the animal's attention. When the beast attacks Hunter, Mayhew spears it to death. For the remainder of the novel, Mayhew is credited with the monster's death, and is even called "the Warrior," even though he has no illusions about his capacity in that respect.

There have been some occasions where I've judged a work to be combative even if the principal protagonist was not the most powerful person around. In Part 1 of MEGA, MESO, MICRO,  I discussed the breakdown of dynamicities in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, as represented by main hero Jack Burton and two of his allies, reporter Gracie and tough kung-fu practitioner Wang.

Burton, like Mayhew, is the focal presence of the story, and just as Mayhew's ally Hunter is far more powerful than he, the same applies to Burton vis-a-vis his ally Wang. However, I considered Burton a combative protagonist because he's like Aristotle's hedgehog, possessed of one really good trick. Mayhew may kill a monster with a great weapon, but the weapon's just given to him, with no sense of his having mastered it. Further, the fact that he can only kill the beast because Hunter distracts it defuses his claim to combative status.

Thus, even though Ivanhoe doesn't get a final fight-scene, everything else in the novel makes clear that he has the capacity for such a battle. Mayhew is the opposite: he does participate in a final fight-scene, but he never really has the capacity even to touch the boundaries of the *megadynamic* combatant, as does Jack Burton of BIG TROUBLE.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE FANTASTIC ORIGIN OF THE RED SKULL" (TALES OF SUSPENSE #66, 1966)

In this essay, I cited the two-page origin of Batman as a mythcomic, deeming that its discourse could be separated from the main story it prefaces, the unremarkable "The Batman Wars on the Dirigible of Doom." The story "The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull" requires more mental gymnastics.



Lee and Kirby revived Captain America in AVENGERS #4 (March 1964), and a modern-day series for the Captain appeared in November of that year. However, after four Cap adventures in modern times, the creative team began retelling stories from the hero's appearances during the Golden Age. I'd speculate that Lee and Kirby had not yet decided what to do with the displaced patriotic fighter, and that they were testing his appeal as a wartime feature while keeping him active with the Avengers. However, after eight WWII issues, Captain America returned to modern-day adventures. Still, the Great War was still part of the story, since in TALES OF SUSPENSE #72 Cap faces off against the Three Sleepers, Nazi-created robots who had been created by the Red Skull as a much-delayed measure against the Allies.

One possible reason for Cap's visit to the past may have been that Lee and Kirby had decided to revive the Red Skull for the 1960s. Such a revival had happened before, when a version of the Red Skull had also appeared in the non-canonical stories of the Commie-busting Cap of the 1950s, but Lee and Kirby naturally ignored that iteration. Issue #66 seems clearly designed to impress Silver Age readers with the WWII record of Cap's greatest villain-- which suggests that by 1966 Lee was planning to have the Skull revived for Silver Age adventures. In keeping with Marvel's attempt to design dramatically strong origins for villains, such as the Mandarin and Doctor Doom, Lee and Kirby did the same thing for the Nazi fiend, who had never had a distinct backstory during the Golden Age.

The "fantastic origin" of the title, though, is not a self-contained vignette like Batman's: it's a narrative of roughly five pages that the villain relates to a captive Captain America. The frame-story, like "Dirigible of Doom," is nothing special: as a result of the Skull's capture of the flag-garbed fighter, Captain America is brainwashed and sent to kill the Allied commander, and this in turn leads to yet more involved plot-developments. None of the main story is mythic, only the five pages in which the Skull tells his story-- even though said narrative is occasionally interrupted by Captain America trying to assault his enemy.

The narrative owes much to the origin of the hero. Captain America starts out as a nobody, a spindly weakling defined only by his desire to fight for his country. The Skull doesn't even get a name, calling himself a "nameless orphan." Later stories, though, give the villain the proper name "Johann Schmidt"-- almost certainly a German-ization of the commonplace English name "John Smith." And though the origin of the Skull doesn't directly reference the economic depression of Germany that preceded the rise of the Nazis, there's at least a prevailing consciousness in Kirby's visuals that the nameless orphan lived in a time of hardship and privation.


The hero interrupts to tell the villain that "my early years were no bed of roses," which is probably an even more indirect reference to the American Depression. Lee and Kirby don't choose to press the parallel further, but simply concentrate on showing how the young orphan grows up as a virtual nobody. Then the Nazis rise to power by openly terrorizing the citizens to compliance, and Orphan-Skull admires not only their forcefulness, but that of the man who inspired them. The orphan-- whose face is never shown-- is working as a bellboy when Adolf Hitler himself comes to the hotel where the future villain works. Apparently the young man's sense of self is so meager that he doesn't even consider joining the Nazi ranks as a soldier, for he reflects, "[Hitler] has power-- and I am nothing."

Then the bellboy takes refreshments to his idol, and this changes his life.




One may fairly fault Lee for his purple prose here, with his Fuhrer stating that he, like the maltreated nobody, nurtures hatred "for all mankind." But then again, this is the myth of Hitler as a absolute devotee of evil, rather than an attempt to portray the flesh-and-blood chancellor of Germany. Thus in the not-yet-molded clay of the bellboy, Hitler sees his chance to give birth to "evil personified."




At this point, the bellboy-- who has received at least basic storm trooper training-- accepts the skull-mask given him, and totally incarnates the role his mentor created. Modern fans, examining the last two panels of the page above, have speculated that Kirby's original idea for the sequence was simply that the Red Skull took another soldier's gun and shot his former trainer to death. This would explain the surprised look on Hitler's face. However, Lee chose to emphasize the Skull's penchant for psychological terror, for in Lee's script, Hitler gives the order for the trainer to die, and the Skull spares the man's life by shooting the buttons from his jacket. I for one think that the revision makes the Skull more vicious: he doesn't just want to kill, he wants to degrade-- hence, he spares the man just so that he'll be a "slave" who will "obey your every whim."

Going by the Aristotelian model I used earlier, the early part of the bellboy's life was the "beginning," while his meeting with Hitler and his ascension to supreme villainy forms the "middle." If there is an end as such, though, it can only be the Skull's revelation that he did not content himself with being Hitler's loyal second in command. In addition to fighting the Allies, the Skull has started preying on Hitler's trusted advisers, undoubtedly because he plans to turn on his former master-- which was probably designed to serve as an obvious contrast to Captain America's altruism.



I should add in closing that at this point in Marvel's history, the creators might not have been ready to broach the subject of the Holocaust in a comic book meant for entertainment. Lee's script does work in the term "Aryan" twice. The first time, a storm trooper accosts a man on the street, saying "You are not a true Aryan." One page later, Hitler rants at a subordinate, "Must I create my own race of perfect Aryans?" In both cases, Lee's context is not explicitly racial, but seems to be shorthand for the concept that Nazis-- as opposed to the race of "Nordics" to which Germans supposedly belonged-- considered themselves "supermen."

Though the frame-story of "Origin" is not that interesting mythically, it ends with the Skull using a chemical treatment to brainwash Captain America into thinking he's a Nazi. If only Stan Lee had realized how much attention he could received back then, if he'd omitted the rationalization and just shown Cap turning Nazi, as was done in this overblown modern production.

Friday, January 26, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: ["SCALP ITCH"}, JOE COLLEGE #2 (1950)



In a previous essay I won't trouble to track down, I wondered whether or not American "teen humor" comics had any potential to produce the symbolic discourse necessary for a mythcomic. Just the fact that both Gershon Legman and Frederick Wertham took a few shots at the genre might indicate that there was some potential for gold, where these two ignoramuses saw only dross. Legman was a little more explicit than Wertham about the psychosexual undercurrents of the genre, though like Wertham he was content to cite one supposedly disruptive example of said genre to prove his contentions. I quoted him in greater detail in this 2008 essay:


...there are published not only a handful of female crime-and western-comics, but whole series of so-called 'teen-age' comic-books specifically for girls, in which adolescent sexuality is achieved in sadistic disguise... through a continuous humiliation of scarecrow fathers and transvestist boyfriends by ravishingly pretty girls, beating up the men with flower-pots and clocks and brooms..."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH (1949), p. 47.
This quasi-Freudian reading manages the feat of making teen humor comics sound a lot more psychologically interesting than they really are. I've seen Legman's one example, a 1947 Timely issue of JEANIE, and it's no than so-so slapstick, though it does have a scene where a pretty girl's father gets conked by his daughter when she mistakes him for a burglar. "So-so slapstick" pretty well describes the majority of all teen humor comics from Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages-- and I speak as one who, whether motivated by intellectual genre-curiosity or by nostalgia for simpler times, has sampled most of the titles out there. Such forgotten ARCHIE-imitators as ALGIE, GINGER, MAZIE, DEXTER, and Thoth knows how many others sometimes had nice art, but offered little more.

Then I came across my copy of JOE COLLEGE #2. There were only two issues of this Hillman title over the years 1949 and 1950, and none of the stories in #1-- which I read on COMIC BOOK PLUS-- were anything special. Nor were any of the stories in #2, except for the cover-featured "Joe College" story. The artist on both of Joe's stories was Bob Powell, and though Joe's first story is ordinary, Powell did dip into some psychological waters for the second and last tale. The cover shown above, though it depicts an imaginary situation (a savage Indian seeks to lift Joe's scalp under the pose of being a barber), captures the essence of the tale's screwball premise.

By 1949 "Joe College" was a term for a fun-loving college student, and that's all there is to the series' youthful protagonist as he attends his alma mater, Hardknox University. But in the story I've retroactively entitled "Scalp Itch," all of the mythicity inheres in the young WASP's encounter with certain not-yet-vanished Americans.



Following a page on which Joe accidentally antagonists a cranky red man named "Horse Feathers" (a decorous euphemism for "horseshit"), one of Joe's professors explains the complicated reasons why there's a whole quasi-reservation of Indians on the campus grounds, Long ago an Indian tribe donated the land to the college's founder, and in a very improbable exchange, they and all their descendants got to live in some mansion near Hardknox. One assumes that the campus provides them some upkeep as well, though the professor asserts that all their money comes from standing around the campus begging for coins. (This is how Joe antagonizes Horse Feathers; mistaking him for a statue of an Indian and passing remarks about the redman's ugly mug.) On top of these considerations, the tribe gets two more privileges. First, one of their women-folk is apparently allowed to "roam der campus until she finds a mate," and though it's an ordinary mortal woman named Princess Dreamboat, Joe has somehow heard about this part of the custom and claims "I thought she was just a myth." However, Joe hasn't heard the second stipulation: that once every ten years, the men of the tribe "are allowed to take vun scalp from vun student"-- and though in practice this means nothing more than shaving the victim's head, it's definitely a demonstration of resentment at white people, since the Indians "always pick der longest and blondest hair."

Naturally, the two customs converge upon blonde, hapless Joe. First, he rescues the wandering maiden "Princess Dreamboat" from a waterfall, and she promptly falls in love with him. (Joe somehow neglects to mention that he has a steady girlfriend.)



At the same time, it happens to be the night when the tribal members can enact their hair-cutting hazing ritual, and Horse Feathers almost gets his wish, until Dreamboat intrudes in fine Pocohontas style.


I'll omit one of the climactic turnarounds, in which Horse Feathers's evil intent rebounds on him, but I will reprint the other climax, in which Joe's girlfriend catches the Indian maiden spooning with Joe, and proceeds to give her a trim job.




The fact that the Indian girl wants the white guy's loving feelings, while the men of her tribe want to cut something off of him, shouldn't require a lot of comment, beyond the commonplace notion that "hair= virility" in myth and folklore. I particularly like Dreamboat's line, "I've just been scalped by a savage white woman." The little tear in Horse Feathers' eye is a coincidental bonus, which takes on extra humor given its resemblance to this famous "crying Indian" commercial image.


I have no idea if JOE COLLEGE was Bob Powell's first "teen humor" comic book, though I know that he worked in the genre again in later years. The artist's wild sense of humor looks forward to the inspired lunacy of the MAD comic book that began two years after JOE COLLEGE's demise. though, oddly enough, Powell didn't do much if any work for EC Comics.

The entire story can be read here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

MESSING WITH MISTER IN-BETWEEN

At the end of KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY PT. 2, I said:

Thus IVANHOE would seem to be an exception of a combative work that does not have the traditional climactic fight-scene, even though it's still thematically important that the hero be willing to undertake such a conflict. These formulations may also call for a modification of my positions on the narrative-significant schism as it related to the combative mode.

However, having re-read all of my posts that I tagged with the label "narrative-significant schism," I don't think any major modifications are necessary. Over the years I've tended to favor works to be combative if they satisfied both the narrative and significant values: that is, if they featured a major clash of spectacular forces toward the climax (narrative) which in turn the reader experienced with a sense of sublime satisfaction (significant). But I find that I didn't originally specify that this always had to be the case.

In early 2013 I posed this question at the end of MYTHOS AND MODE:

Whether or not the "narrarive/subjective" schism between meaning within and meaning without can influence the modes of the combative and subcombative will be seen in future installments of MYTHOS AND MODE.

I gave myself this answer in MYTHOS AND MODE 2:

In RISING AND FALLING STARS I established that it was possible for a work to fall into a given mythoi-category (say, “adventure”) even if one of its two major aspects—“plot” or “character” aligned better with another mythos.  This would only be the case when the “adventure-plot” dominated over the “drama-characters,” my chosen example being that of the James Robinson STARMAN. In a similar manner, narrative values can trump significant values in terms of determining whether or not a work is combative.  
So in my earliest meditations on the subject, I said that "narrative values can trump significant values," in contradistinction to the later notion that both had to be satisfied. My example in MYTHOS 2 was Shakespeare's MACBETH, which gives the reader a story which culminates in a battle between opposed figures (narrative value), even though the battle doesn't quite portray what I called "sublime dominance" (significant value) in that the reader/viewer doesn't see that both men are high-dynamicity figures.

That same year, I wrote TWICE THE MIGHT BUT LESS FILLING, and though I stressed examples where one of the two values was not satisfied, my wording doesn't make it inevitable that the failure of one value cancels the influence of the other.

...not every narrative that contains two opposed sources of "might" necessarily evokes the combative mode.  It's for that reason that I've distinguished the presence of both narrative and significant values within the combative mode.  The lack of one value or the other can cancel the narrative's potential for combative sublimity.
"Can"-- but not "will." Further, over the years I've cited a great number of combative works in which a final combat was mitigated by the presence of a hero's ally who actually delivered the killing blow: what I called "the triumph of the supporting ally" in this essay. In such cases, the narrative value is not quite fulfilled, in that the conflict is not directly resolved by the *agon* between protagonist and antagonist. However, there is at least a connection between the protagonist and his ally, and so the ally's actions are subsumed by the dynamicity of the protagonist, as long as said protagonist actually displays his/her own megadynamic power.

In essence, IVANHOE follows this pattern as well. Ivanhoe has the skill and power to thwart Bois-Guilbert, given that he has done so on previous occasions. His climactic victory over the villain is only put into question by wounds he sustained from a tournament-attack by all three of the book's principal evildoers. So the "significant value" is fulfilled, in that everything in the narrative sets up the potential for a clash between "two opposed sources of might." The "narrative value" is circumvented so that Scott can place emphasis on the internal conflict of Bois-Guilbert, who, over one hundred years before 1933's KING KONG, is another "beast" slain by a "beauty," since the knight dies of his "contending passions" rather than from Ivanhoe's weapons. Yet, Scott's novel, even though it critiques some of the problematic areas of medieval martial culture, still devotes so much space to other combative scenes that the reader can obtain the "narrative value" from other parts of the novel. I'd tend to think that this sort of "transitive effect" is only possible when it's been made quite clear that both protagonist and antagonist do possess the power to bring about a major combative clash in the narrative sense, even if that clash is forestalled for some reason. There's also a minor parallel in the 1956 FORBIDDEN PLANET, which I examined here, in that the protagonists, who possess megadynamic power but not as much as their enemy, must resort to strategy rather than force to win the war. In a sense, Walter Scott solves his hero's problem by giving the villain an "Achilles heel" that kills Bois-Guilbert-- though this wound would not have been fatal, if Ivanhoe had not shown up ready to fight.

ADDENDUM: I had intended to work in a reference to the title somewhere, but forgot it. FTR, "Mister In-Between" is just a metaphor for the intermediate state that a work falls into, when it satisfies an expected narrative value but not a similar significant one, and vice versa.

Friday, January 19, 2018

KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY PT. 2

Though it's possible that I'll encounter some exceptions, there seems no way to demonstrate the persistence of the narrative combative value [in a given work] unless there is some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax.-- PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX.

"Centricity" with respect to the Walter Scott novel IVANHOE, was addressed in Part 1, and in this section I'll be addressed the other subject in the post-title: combat-- or, more specifically, the way combat is handled at the climax of IVANHOE.

I wrote PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX in 2013, about a year after I settled on a definition of the combative mode in this essay. For the most part, I've been satisfied with the broad applicability of the statement seen above, but now that I've read Scott's most famous work, I'm glad that I hedged my bets somewhat with the statement about "exceptions." In this case, the exceptions don't "prove the rule," but they do make it necessary to expand the rule somewhat, to account for special cases.

For most of the novel, Scott arranges events that lead the reader to expect a major fight-scene at the novel's climax, between the title character and the principal villain, the Templar Knight Bois-Guilbert. It's established that the two of them previously clashed, with Ivanhoe coming out the victor. Their quarrel is not specified, but given that much of the story concerns the cultural tensions between English Saxons like Ivanhoe, and their Norman, French-speaking overlords, like Bois-Guilbert, it stands to reason that the knights probably quarreled for cultural reasons. Scott knows that by novel's end the truculent Saxons will be relatively placated when the righteous Norman Richard the Lion-Hearted ousts his bad Norman brother John. But even with that foreknowledge, Scott gives the reader every reason to want to see another "bad Norman," Bois-Guilbert, bested in direct combat.

Further, the two men are indirectly romantic rivals. Bois-Guilbert falls in love with the lovely Jewess Rebecca, and after taking her and her father prisoner for purposes of ransom, Bois-Guilbert is even willing to sacrifice his position with the Templars if Rebecca becomes his willing consort. However, Rebecca has conceived a "forbidden love" for Ivanhoe, though he is engaged to another woman, one of Christian upbringing. Ivanhoe's first encounter with Rebecca is marked by attraction on his part as well, but unlike Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe represses that attraction, obedient to the cultural laws forbidding intermarriage between Jews and Christians. (This is probably one reason a lot of readers don't like Ivanhoe, for not flouting those laws, though admittedly he's already defied his father earlier, by opposing that noble's intention to make a political marriage for Rowena.)

But later events oblige Ivanhoe to play the knightly rescuer to this "forbidden fruit." A group of Templars, having seen the extent of Bois-Guilbert's affection for the Jewess, accuse Rebecca of literal witchcraft, and plan to execute her. She can save herself only if a champion fights on her behalf, and Bois-Guilbert is assigned to oppose any champion she may summon. At this point Rebecca has once again rejected him, but he's still in love with her, and he tells himself that as long as he doesn't actually have to fight an opponent, her murder will be the fault of the Grand Templar. Then, Ivanhoe appears, and the two square off for a joust. The reader expects that Ivanhoe, even though he's taken wounds in a previous battle, will call upon inner reserves of strength and best his formidable enemy anyway. But that's not how Scott handles things.

The trumpets sounded, and the knights charged each other in full career. The wearied horse of Ivanhoe, and its no less exhausted rider, went down, as all had expected, before the well-aimed lance and vigorous steed of the Templar. This issue of the combat all had foreseen; but although the spear of Ivanhoe did but, in comparison, touch the shield of Bois-Guilbert, that champion, to the astonishment of all who beheld it reeled in his saddle, lost his stirrups, and fell in the lists.
Ivanhoe, extricating himself from his fallen horse, was soon on foot, hastening to mend his fortune with his sword; but his antagonist arose not. Wilfred, placing his foot on his breast, and the sword’s point to his throat, commanded him to yield him, or die on the spot. Bois-Guilbert returned no answer.
“Slay him not, Sir Knight,” cried the Grand Master, “unshriven and unabsolved—kill not body and soul! We allow him vanquished.”
He descended into the lists, and commanded them to unhelm the conquered champion. His eyes were closed—the dark red flush was still on his brow. As they looked on him in astonishment, the eyes opened—but they were fixed and glazed. The flush passed from his brow, and gave way to the pallid hue of death. Unscathed by the lance of his enemy, he had died a victim to the violence of his own contending passions.
“This is indeed the judgment of God,” said the Grand Master, looking upwards—“‘Fiat voluntas tua!’”


Scott does not enlarge upon the "contending passions" that cause Bois-Guilbert to expire without taking any real injury, though the author devotes a great deal of space before the death to showing that the Templar's desire for Rebecca torments him. He has the power to kill Ivanhoe, but if he does so, Rebecca also perishes-- and since he cannot simply surrender to Ivanhoe, his only alternative is apparently to "will himself to death." The mythopoeically inclined reader may choose to view Bois-Guilbert as the "negative image" of Ivanhoe, given that he can act on the desire that Ivanhoe will not countenance.

But what does the Templar's death mean, within the structure of the novel? There's no shortage of fight-scenes throughout the story, for IVANHOE is a novel aimed primarily at male readers. True, there are a number of scenes that take issue with the 13th-century code of honor, not only with respect to the treatment of Jews but also regarding the noblemen's nasty habit of raising money by ransoming people. Rebecca is every bit a spokesperson for the feminine penchant for peace as Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert are proponents of the masculine penchant for conflict.

And yet the central appeal of the novel is not really a critique of the knightly codes of honor and combat; it's more of a side-comment. In the past I've shown how certain works proved subcombative precisely because the author led readers to expect a major conflict, and then undermined that expectation. In MYTHOS AND MODE 2 I wrote this of Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS:

Despite the suggestions that [longtime enemies Coriolanus and Aufidius] may finally sort out the question of superiority by play’s end, CORIOLANUS is, unlike MACBETH, not centered around a combat.  Instead, Coriolanus’ arrogance brings about his disaffection from his fellow Romans, leading to a temporary alliance with Aufidius and the Volscians, and finally to an ignomious demise rather than a heroic confrontation.

Shakespeare goes after the "warrior code" in TROILUS AND CRESSISA with even greater vigor, as I suggested in THE TOILS OF TROILUS.

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

Clearly, in a narrative sense, Scott undercuts reader-expectations for a rousing final fight-scene in IVANHOE just as Shakespeare does in the cited plays. But-- does Scott do it for the same reasons that Shakespeare does it?

The answer is obviously no. The fact that Ivanhoe, even though he's not yet recovered from his wounds, is willing to risk his life for the gentle Rebecca clearly validates the better values of the knightly code; values which are entirely negative within both CORIOLANUS and TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. So how should my statement from PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX be amended?

Technically, I've already implied a solution in earlier essays. In KNIGHTS PART 1 I made a loose comparison between Scott's Ivanhoe and Will Eisner's Spirit only in terms of the relative simplicity of both starring characters. For the most part, it would be awkward to draw more extended comparisons, particularly because Ivanhoe was intended to be the star of one stand-alone work, while the Spirit was devised as a serial hero, intended to last over the course of potentially endless adventures.

However, it's often occurred to me that the Spirit himself might not be a combative hero, were I going purely by the 51 percent rule. Yet over the years I've refined this theory to take in the possibility that a series, such as that of the Spirit, may participate in the combative mode even if the majority of the character's individual adventures are not combat-oriented. In my final post on the LOST IN SPACE series, I mentioned that the series, despite various spectacle-oriented episodes, had a "dominant ethos" that was "directed away from combative resolutions." This is pretty much the same as saying that the dominant "significant value" of a series can overrule any disparate elements in the series. I have not yet applied this principle to stand-alone works like IVANHOE, but I have already implied that the subcombative significant value of TROILUS overrules the effect of any battle-scenes in the play. Thus IVANHOE would seem to be an exception of a combative work that does not have the traditional climactic fight-scene, even though it's still thematically important that the hero be willing to undertake such a conflict. These formulations may also call for a modification of my positions on the narrative-significant schism as it related to the combative mode.




Thursday, January 18, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: HELLSING (1997-2008)

Ye shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised. Ye must be proud of your enemies; then, the successes of your enemies are also your successes.-- Nietzsche,  "War and Warriors," THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA.

Since the rise of the distinct genre of horror-fiction in the 19th century, the vampire subgenre has often centered its horrific thrills upon the victim's loss of identity. The vampire breaks down the normal borders of his victim's whole being. The attack may be physical, as in drinking someone's blood, or it may be on a psychological/metaphysical level, forcing the victim to drink vampiric blood, so that he or she loses even the identity of a victim, becoming instead another being poised on the borders of the living and the dead. Bram Stoker's DRACULA provides the "ur-text" of vampire mythology for later authors, and the majority of authors have followed Stoker's example, focusing upon vampirism as a series of metaphysical and/or psychological assaults upon the victim's individual will. Vampire-tropes are less often used for large-scale sociological myths, except when they're merged with other metaphenomenal tropes, like the apocalyptic war between good and evil.

War threatens the human sense of identity in a much less personal manner. When wars are staged on the apocalyptic scale, it doesn't matter whether they take place in naturalistic or metaphenomenal domains, for all such "world wars" draw countless persons from numerous realms, forcing them to subsume their individual desires in order to defeat a common enemy. DRACULA presents the reader with a covert, small-scale conflict between the Transylvanian Count and a band of English citizens (and one American) led by the Dutch doctor Abraham Van Helsing. But what if a "world war" took place between the living and the undead, with two of the undead pledged to defend the living against a mad warmonger?



Kohta Hirano's ten-volume manga epic HELLSING takes its name from Stoker's vampire-hunter Van Helsing, though it's hard to imagine that the author wasn't aware of the accidental pun in the name, implying that "hell" could "sing." The story takes place in what seems to be an alternate world, in which Protestants and Catholics still mount armed campaigns against one another. The Protestants of England are represented by the organization Hellsing, masterminded by Lady Integra Hellsing, descendant of the original Dutch doctor. However, the group Hellsing's purpose is not to skirmish with Catholics but to guard against eruptions of the supernatural. Only two historical events are repeatedly stressed in HELLSING: the Van Helsing group's original defeat of Dracula in the late 1800s, and the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. How much time has passed, and how many other differences there may be in the world's post-WWII makeup, are not things Hirano bothers with, as one of his primary purposes is to render to his readers a big, noisy shonen fantasy full of blazing guns and bloody fangs. It's also a loving tribute to other pop-cultural myths other than than Bram Stoker's, for it includes references to APOCALYPSE NOW, DUNE and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Even Hirano's generic name for the monsters in his world-- including not only vampires but zombies and a few werewolves-- betrays its pop-culture roots, since the name of the monsters, "Midians," is most likely borrowed from the monster-filled city of Midian in Clive Barker's 1988 novella CABAL.

And yet, Hirano weaves a tapestry that is as deep as it is wide: one that evokes not only the vampire-myth's concerns with personal identity, but also the philosophical concepts of Friedrich Nietzsche as they apply to the chaos of war and the nature of the human will.


Even before the threat to England proper begins, Integra is forced to fight for control of Hellsing following the death of her father. Her corrupt uncle plots to slay Integra and almost succeeds, except that Integra stumbles upon a hidden secret of her distant Dutch ancestor: the dessicated corpse of Count Dracula, held in a room in Hellsing headquarters. In time-honored cinematic tradition, Integra sheds blood upon the corpse and it comes back to life, slaying her attackers. But unlike most versions of the master vampire, this one becomes the servant of the female descendant of his own slayer, and becomes her primary weapon in the ensuing conflict. He even signifies his subjugation by taking the reverse-name "Alucard," even though Integra is fully aware of his true identity. However, as if to prove that old habits die hard, especially among the undead, Alucard uses his power to enlist his own servant: another Englishwoman, the naive but feisty police officer Victoria Seras. Throughout the hellacious battle that comes, Victoria serves as something akin to the callow new recruit in war-films, and it's through her eyes that the reader sees the horrors of bloody battle.



Stoker's fictional Dracula was the bane of England in the 1800s, but Nazi Germany became a real-life threat over thirty years later. In the midst of sectarian quarrels between the Protestants and the Catholics, a recrudescent quasi-Nazi movement arises. I say "quasi-Nazi" because the movement has no preoccupation either with the tenets of Nazi belief or with Hitler's desire to bring all of Europe under his aegis. Rather, a mysterious leader, known only as The Major, marshals massive forces against England, forces including both mortal men and "Midians," since only the latter have the power to battle Alucard. The Major's only purpose is to unleash "the dogs of war" at every opportunity, apparently agreeing with Nietzsche ( though the philosopher is never directly quoted)-- regarding the salutary effects of war:

Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause.


I won't go into great detail about the military maneuvers of this "Second Blitz" or about the many side-stories respecting supporting-characters. However, I should mention Iscariot, the Catholic assassination wing, in which Hirano seems to have conflated the stories of the arch-traitor Judas and those of the Hebrew Zealots, the anti-Roman terrorists from the era of Jesus of Nazareth. Iscariot's foremost killer is Irish-Catholic Anthony Anderson, an inhumanly strong human being who would rather fight the master vampire than the Major. To religious fanatic Anderson, the vampire is the epitome of blasphemy. (Anderson's scenes, though brutal, always convey a bit of humor, since the assassin speaks in a thick brogue that makes Barry Fitzgerald sound like Noel Coward.)


Alucard shares sentiments of both the Major and Anderson. In life, Alucard fought in the wars between his people and the Ottoman Turks, and saw so much slaughter that he came to conceive of human fighting as a form of "prayer" to an uncaring God. At some point he even thinks that hecatombs of wasted lives will attract God's attention, thinking that "Jerusalem will descend" as a result. Yet Alucard, unlike Stoker's Dracula, is disgusted with his prolonged existence, and fantasizes about being destroyed by someone like Anderson. Further, whereas Stoker's Count never remembered any of his victims, Alucard is a composite being, who has no true shape (or identity) of his own, and who is made up of all the previous souls he's devoured. In fact, in the climax the Major even finds a way to use Alucard's formless nature against him.

The climax illustrates Hirano's skillful opposition between the human will and the will-lessness of monsters like Alucard. The Major reflects to Integra that he knows it would feel "wonderful" to become a vampire, to exist through "combination with the existence of others, the fusion of lives, the unification of minds." Yet he believes that fragile humanity is more glorious, due to the individual's sense of identity. "What's mine ist mine. Each hair, each drop of blood. I am me," says the Major, putting forth a Nietzschean take on Aristotle's law of identity. Even after it's revealed that the villain is a cyborg-- accounting for his youthful looks many years after WWII-- he insists, prior to his destruction, that "so long as I haf my own vill... I'll still be human!"


Admittedly, because HELLSING is a big noisy shonen manga, it's not concerned with philosophical subtleties. But among the ranks of hyperviolent fantasy-adventures that also have philosophical undercurrents, HELLSING is one of the best of its kind.







Sunday, January 14, 2018

SECOND PRESENCE, ECCENTRIC, BUT NOT PERIPHERAL

The title refers back to the 2016 essay THIRD PRESENCE, PERIPHERAL. That title referred to presences in a narrative peripheral to the concerns of the focal presences. These peripheral types might be actual characters, like the genie-figures I mentioned, or they might be presences that have no personality, like the unseen germs that devastate the Martian fleet in both H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS and the 1953 film-adaptation.

"Peripheral" was a term I was trying on for size as a permanent critical term, but "third presence" was more frivolous, merely playing on terms like "third person plural." More recently, I've replaced what I originally meant by "peripheral" with "eccentric." The latter, connoting everything outside the center of a given narrative or group of narratives, seemed to make a better pair with my opposing term "centric," connoting everything pertaining to said center.

And yet "peripheral," though not useful as an ongoing term, isn't without meaning in my system. The periphery of a circle is not just everything outside the center, but the circle's outer limits-- and this is indeed what I was talking about when I spoke of the influence of certain entities upon the combative mode of a given work.

The most normative form of a combative narrative is the one in which the narrative action is worked out between the centric"protagonist" and the dominant "eccentric element," the "antagonist." In 2013's PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX, I stated:

Though it's possible that I'll encounter some exceptions, there seems no way to demonstrate the persistence of the narrative combative value unless there is some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax. 
I then provided for a few variations. For instance, the combative struggle could be interrupted so that there was no clear victory between the opponents, as is the case in the kaiju film KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. I also noted that sometimes the victory might be obtained not by the centric presence, but by someone allied to the centric presence.

Another variation is seen in my review of the 2012 DARK SHADOWS,wherein vampire protagonist Barnabas Collins has a violent conflict with the villain but is taken out of the fight, after which the villain is destroyed by the main character's allies. But as long as there has been some narrative plot-thread to leads inevitably to some sort of spectacular combat, it doesn't matter if the combat follows the dominant pattern of the main hero overcoming the villain.  In fact, though it's rare for a combative film to end in the defeat of the hero, it does happen, most memorably in 1982's BLADE RUNNER.

Now, an ally to the centric presence is, like the antagonist, an "eccentric presence." So is (to cite one of the examples from THIRD PRESENCE) a character like the witch in THE COURT JESTER. The witch uses hypnosis on protagonist Hubert, enabling him to mount a spectacular fight against his enemy, but that influence falls short of bringing about a spectacular victory, even though Hubert does (sort of) best his adversary. Specifically, I said that when "the protagonists are not not empowered by [their genies'] influence," there took place an "inconsummation of the transitive effect." Yet, I don't believe I ever stated outright that the reverse-- a consummation of the transitive effect-- took place whenever an 'eccentric presence" did indeed empower the protagonist. DARK SHADOWS is one of many film-works in which the combative mode is maintained even when the hero is aided by some eccentric presence, as I've charted in movies like HOOK, BARBARELLA, and even such obscurities as THE HOODED TERROR.

So in some scenarios, the "eccentric presence" is "closer" to the aims of the centric presence, and so it enjoys something like "secondary" status insofar as it helps the hero bring forth the spectacular climax necessary for the combative mode. Other eccentric presences, however, are closer to the "periphery," and so are closer to being "third persons" in the equation. They may have effects that are important to the narrative as a whole, for the religious theme of the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS could hardly be realized without the germs, seen here as part of God's plan, killing off the invaders. Yet the germs' influence undercuts the spectacular violence of Earth's battle against the Martian invaders, rendering Earth's military might nugatory. A contrasting example, one that consummates the transitive effect, is found in 1991's HOOK. In Barrie's PETER PAN, Peter Pan is spared of the dirty work of killing Hook by kicking the pirate off his ship, into the jaws of Hook's secondary foe, the crocodile. The novel's beast is only an unwitting ally to Peter Pan, but he furthers the combative mode just as the germs disperse it. Similarly, the taxidermically-preserved corpse of the crocodile in Spielberg's HOOK serves a similar role. Even though the creature no longer lives, its body still possesses the fatal charisma of Barrie's beast, and so it again serves the purpose of executing the villain so that the hero need not do so.

I have some additional thoughts pertaining to the transitive effect as it applies to both serials and stand-alone works, but these should be worked in the forthcoming second part of A KNIGHT OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY, PT. 1

One of the great curiosities of comic-book mythography is that even though the heroes-- and occasionally, the demiheroes-- are the protagonists with whose will the audience identifies, often much of the mythicity resides within the villains and/or monsters who are in the position of supporting players....as I detailed here, Will Eisner's feature THE SPIRIT was such a genre-chameleon that it's arguable that the titular hero had little myth to call his own, and most of his villains were no better.-- BAD WILL ON TOP (not a reference to Will Eisner), April 2016.

I touched on the importance of the Sir Walter Scott oeuvre in this 2013 essay, but the truth is that I had not then and do not now have a deep acquaintance with Scott's works, unless one counts film adaptations. I did read one book, THE TALISMAN, over thirty years ago, but despite enjoying the work, I wasn't moved to keep reading Scott, probably because he wrote little or no metaphenomenal fiction. I've now finally amended this lack somewhat by finishing what is arguably Scott's most famous novel, IVANHOE.

Though there haven't been that many film/TV adaptations of IVANHOE in comparison to assorted other classics, it's still a name to conjure with, even among people who don't know much about Scott or 19th-century literature. It seems to be the first novel to successfully revive the medieval tradition seen in European courtly romances, but in a naturalistic world, without dragons, faeries, etc.  But according to writer Nancy Springer, who penned both a foreword and an afterword to the 2000 Tor edition of the public domain novel, the knightly hero himself is something less than successful.

Who is the real hero of Ivanhoe? Certainly not Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself, for never was a title character more palely drawn. Even though he is the common thread that strings the novel together, he is all but invisible... He is a pawn, exercising no control of the events around him, a piece of plastic with almost no personality...

Springer then goes on to argue that the true heroes of the novel are two of Scott's supporting characters. One is Richard the Lion-Hearted, newly returned to England following his captivity during the Crusades, a "vibrant, quirky personality" who makes common cause with Robin Hood and his Merry Men in order to recover his throne from Prince John. (IVANHOE is said to be a key influence on the 20th century's development of the Robin Hood narrative.) The other hero is Rebecca, a beautiful Jewess and daughter of money-lender Isaac. Rebecca is easily the most vivid character in the novel. She's also, to bring in my concern for mythicity, the most mythic character, for it's through Rebecca and Isaac that Scott addresses the contemporary sociological concerns of his culture, regarding the emancipation of the Jews in England. Although the novel takes place in a 12th-century England where such an emancipation is not possible, Scott constantly calls attention to the travails of the Jewish people through the experiences of the Jewess and her father. For years prior to my reading of the novel itself, I occasionally encountered statements that Ivanhoe, who inspired romantic interest in both Jewish Rebecca and his Christian inamorata Rowena, should have wed Rebecca. I share the sentiment, though Scott sets things up so that such a marriage is socially impossible, which may well have been the state of the real world in those days.

Since my opening quote references "villains and monsters," who are usually the carriers of what I call "bad will," I should note in passing that not much of IVANHOE's mythicity inheres in its villains. These are largely the Norman overlords allied to the reign of Prince John, but except for one, most of them seem to me to be standard bad guys, only differentiated by their particular circumstances. The exception is the Templar Knight Sir Brian deBois-Guilbert, who, like Ivanhoe, has returned to England from the Crusades, though the two apparently clashed for some reason even though they were on the same side. At one of John's tournaments Sir Brian espies the lovely Rebecca, and he spends most of the novel trying to win her over. Scott does devote some attention to the torments of the lovelorn knight, whose affection is not reciprocated even before Rebecca falls for Ivanhoe. But Sir Brian doesn't sustain much of a symbolic discourse, for all that Scott makes an effort to critique the elitist and "bigoted" order of the Knights Templar through the evil knight.

From all my statements on centricity, it should plain that I have no problem with a main character having little color-- or mythicity-- of his own. For me Ivanhoe is as much the star of Scott's only story with the character as the Spirit is of his long-running serial adventures. Springer's metaphor of a "common thread" catches some of the sense of Ivanhoe's role in the narrative, but she apparently does not realize how often famous works may be organized around an essentially unremarkable character. The Spirit is not really any better-characterized than Ivanhoe-- Eisner tended to refer to his hero as something along the lines of a "big dumb Irishman"-- and as I mentioned above, most of the mythicity of the Spirit's serial adventures inhere in his supporting characters, just as figures like Rebecca, Richard and Robin Hood are more mythic than Ivanhoe himself.

In both cases the undercharacterized, under-mythicized character functions as a organizing factor. In place of Springer's thread-metaphor, I've repeatedly used the image of the circle with diverse elements swirling about inside it, as when I described these elements as incarnations of "centric and eccentric will." My formulation suggests that there is no firm rule that the hero of a given narrative, whether it is of a serial or a stand-alone nature, must be "the most interesting man in the room." At the same time, there's no rule that he cannot be. Further, the narrative's centric will may include an ensemble of characters who are at least strongly interconnected in some way, be it no more than two or so many that their number is functionally indeterminate.

(Examples of the former, the "no more than two," would include pairings like those discussed in ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE: the two monstrous enemies in 1934's BLACK CAT and the literal monsters in 1968's THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Examples of the latter would include "swarm-types" like the Aliens from the ALIEN franchise and the Martians from Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. The latter category also takes in what I'll tentatively call the "diversified swarm," in which the entities have a common origin but take on diverse-looking appearances, like the Cartagrans from the two-film WAXWORKS franchise.)

My screed is obviously not a one-on-one response to Springer's assertion: she's concerned only with vividness of characterization. Her meditations on Ivanhoe, according to my system, concern only"the relationships of discrete personalities" and so belong to the potentiality I've called "the dramatic," while "the mythopoeic" deals with the "relationships of symbols." Further, "the dramatic," like "the kinetic," belongs in a different bailiwick than "the mythopoeic" and its kissing-cousin "the didactic."
From THE LONG AND SHORT OF WILL:

Plainly, what I call a work's "lateral meaning," glossed with a combination of two of Jung's psychological functions, is confined to what sort of things happen to the story's characters (sensation) and how they feel about those developments (feeling). The function that Jung calls "intuition" finds expression through the author's sense of symbolic combinations, which provides the *underthought* of a given work, while the function of "thinking"finds expression through the author's efforts at discursive cogitation, which provides the work's *overthought.* 

(I note, with yet another digression, that the opposite of "lateral meaning" ought to be "vertical meaning," which takes in both underthought and overthought, in keeping with my use of the term "vertical" here. More on this in another essay.)

Thus, I reject Springer's thesis that a work's "real hero" must be its most dramatically interesting person. A given author may merely wish to use the "centric will" of a given protagonist as an organizing factor, and nothing more, and there have certainly been other good stories that starred protagonists even duller than either Ivanhoe or the Spirit. Still, this should not overlook one last structural quibble: that a dull viewpoint character is not the same as a dull centric protagonist. Ivanhoe is the star of his show because he provides this linking function, and this contributes to what I've called an *endothelic* status, wherein the "narrative is focused upon the will of the viewpoint character or of someone or something that shares that character's interests." A contrary example of this would be Lemuel Gulliver. He's every bit as dull as Ivanhoe but Gulliver's not at the center of his narrative, which is focused rather upon the worlds Gulliver explores. Thus GULLIVER'S TRAVELS fits the category of the *exothelic* in that the narrative is focused on "something outside the interests of the viewpoint character, though not necessarily opposed to them."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: AMERICAN SECRETS (1992)

  “There are no Communists on this world. There were on mine. They’re all dead now.”—J’onn J’onzz, AMERICAN SECRETS.



The DeMatteis-Badger MARTIAN MANHUNTER mini-series was the first major re-interpretation of the J’onn J’onzz character following the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event. Certain aspects of that series are touched upon—and occasionally subverted—in the 1992 AMERICAN SECRETS by Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barretto. It was, in those days, good business sense to maintain some degree of fidelity to the most recent version of a comic-book character’s continuity, even if the visions of writers DeMatteis and Jones could not be more different.

SECRETS takes place in the decade of the 1950s, apparently not long after J’onn J’onzz, a citizen of Mars, became exiled upon the planet Earth. Thus it's also some time before he became a known superheroic presence, particularly through hie membership with the not-yet-assembled Justice League. If the 1992 story had truly been in line with the 1988 mini-series, then J’onn would have no true recollection of his real life on Mars, as it’s not until 1988 that he knows he’s lived with false, concocted memories since he began his time on Earth. Jones doesn’t overtly dispute the DeMatteis scenario, but it’s important to Jones’ narrative that the hero does remember at least his sense of communion with his vanished people, as well as being able to assume his true, “cone-headed” form when he pleases. One minor reason for this, I would imagine, was that once hardcore fans knew the “big reveal” of the mini-series, there was no longer a compelling reason not to make use of the new Martian Paradigm. This was particularly true given the different ambitions of the two writers. DeMatteis was concerned only with penning a eulogy for a solipsistic, psuedo-poetic civilization, but Jones’s intent is sociological. He explores the cultural differences between the new “DC-Mars” and the post-Crisis version of "DC-Earth"—which, by the way, had consolidated two separate cosmogonies, so that the Justice Society, which formerly inhabited another Earth, now shared a common history with the later Justice League.

The dominant impression of American in the 1950s decade has often been characterized as a time of lockstep conformity, as evidenced by such real-world events as the McCarthy hearings and the advent of the Comics Code. Indeed, once the Justice Society’s history was integrated with that of DC’s current heroes, an explanation for their inactivity during the 1950s had to be propounded: one in which the earlier superheroes, crusaders for justice during the war years, retired from the public scene due to Congressional inquiries.

It’s arguable, though, that the decade of the 1940s evinced greater conformity, and that the social codes of that era began to break down in the 1950s, resulting in a strange admixture of conformity and rebellion. The burgeoning medium of television put forth images of contented nuclear families in shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Yet on the margins of society dwelled the disaffected Beat poets, well represented by Allen Ginsburg’s classic phrase, “lizard-headed hipsters” (which phrase makes an early appearance in SECRETS). It was a time in which Americans set themselves up as a capitalistic bulwark against godless Communism, and yet the abuses of money-hungry gangsters resulted in the growth of Communism in Cuba, so that the tiny island became a blemish upon the escutcheon of the Western Hemisphere. And of course, in the same decade when most Americans believed that comic books were purely the province of children, EC Comics and MAD magazine commenced, forming the vanguard of what most historians deem “adult comics.” Dalton Trumbo contemptuously referred to the decade as “the time of the toad.” But through the efforts of Jones and Barretto, it’s more like “the time of the lizard,” in which the lizard, in real life a creature of instinct, becomes rather an image of alien intellect, expressed through the science fiction image of the bug-eyed monster.

Jones and Barretto structure their story after the fashion of the hard-boiled detective story, a genre that prospered throughout the heyday of the pulp magazines and lived again through the newer venue of paperbacks books, even as paperbacks killed off the old pulps. I would imagine that the authors made that choice in part because the Martian Manhunter first saw print in 1955, as a backup feature in DC’s DETECTIVE COMICS. Yet this “man from Mars” didn’t solve crimes by following clues, like the magazine’s headliner Batman. J’onn J’onzz vanquished criminals using his super-scientific Martian powers, while remaining concealed from humankind in the identity of police detective John Jones.


However, in AMERICAN SECRETS J’onn/John must follow the pattern of the hard-boiled detective story. Like the private dicks of earlier days, J’onn has to learn how to follow instinct rather than logic, operating from “a word here, or a hunch there.” A club for Beat poetry leads J’onn to investigate a nationally popular television quiz show, “The Big Question.”  In the process of asking his own questions, J’onn crosses paths with one of the performers, child-star Patty Marie—and minutes later, J’onn sees another performer seemingly murdered during the show’s on-air broadcast. The Martian watches in disbelief as the show’s producers soothe the audience by claiming that the murder was a technical illusion. Another chance encounter at the studio leads J’onn to investigate a record promoter, and that encounter leads the Martian to meet a country-boy singer named Presl—er, Preston Perkins. Then Preston directs the curious alien to an encounter with a crazy artist who makes books about “lizard-headed conquerors,” and this encounter eventually leads the manhunter—accompanied by both the well-coiffed singer and the distressed child star-- to hunt down the heart of the conspiracy, with the help of comic books.





The preceding paragraph covers only the most basic aspects of the first of the three SECRETS installments, and leaves out a lot of stuff, like lizard-headed cops and men who burst into flames whenever J’onn gets too close to the truth.  J’onn himself is the only unifying agent that links all the pieces of the puzzle, for only he, the alien under cover, can discern the little differences in human culture, the differences that might seem like ordinary human conservatism to other humans, but which stand out to the real alien as indicators of extraterrestrial influence. The investigation also allows Jones and Barretto to satirize the real-life aspects of American conservatism, all of which, so far as we know, were not managed by aliens.

One of these was the growth of the suburb, the closed-off community separated from the city proper. Certain early suburban communities were called “levittowns,” and Jones spoofs these with a suburban division named “Leavitzville,” which also puns upon the title of TV’s family-comedy “Leave It to Beaver”—although the too-perfect family J’onn encounters sports the name of “the Andersons,” a borrowing from “Father Knows Best.”

A second aspect is the position of comic books in American culture. In Leavitzville the Martian meets a publisher of comic books, one Melvin Keene, who is a conflation of two major real-life individuals. Predominantly Keene is a fictional version of William Gaines, for Keene, like Gaines, published a line of boundary-pushing comic books, lost his business due to societal and governmental pushback, and survived only by continuing to publish a satirical comics-magazine (MAD in the real world, NUTS in the DC Universe). Yet Keene is also his own father, for the fictional figure is also William Gaines’ famous father, Maxwell. Maxwell Gaines in effect gave life to almost every major DC hero who wasn’t Superman or Batman, as well as bringing a bunch of the superheroes together as the aforementioned Justice Society. Maxwell’s contentions with other DC personnel resulted in a buyout, after which Maxwell briefly published “Educational Comics”—and upon his death, William inherited the company, changed it to “Entertaining Comics,” and made pop-culture history. When the EC line failed, William Gaines had to have MAD distributed by American News, the same company that distributed the comics of his father’s old partners, and later Gaines was obliged to sell MAD to a company that became part of the Time-Warner empire.



Finally, the Martian has his first encounter with the Golden Age, when he finds that even the heroes of the Justice Society have been subverted by the conspiracy. Or have they? One of the heroes discloses a nonsense-word—itself a distortion of one that appeared in various MAD spoofs—and makes it a vital clue that leads the Manhunter to his quarry. And it’s at this point that J’onn J’onzz experiences the quintessential 1950s irony of “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Almost everything in SECRETS works on the same level as the best hard-boiled fiction: as a sort of existential thrill-ride. The only exception is a sequence in which Jones gilds his lily a bit too much. Most of the conspirators believe the same illusion that they project upon the masses, but one exception is “Whitey.”  This kid-actor plays the titular boy-star of Jones’ imitation “Leave It to Beaver” teleseries, but Whitey isn’t a believer in the cult of niceness and decency. The boy--assuming that he’s a real kid, that is-- uses his stellar position to get lots of adult privileges—smoking and getting laid. He even tries to get familiar with Patty Marie, who, whatever her character’s age, is still a child in spirit. I wouldn’t have a problem with depicting this type of scuzzball character in a story where he fit the prevailing concept. But in this story Whitey’s just an indulgence, a needless red arrow to point out how bad the bad guys are.

SECRETS is not one of the better known graphic novels of the nineties, possibly because its appreciation hinges on the reader’s knowledge of DC cosmology. Additionally, its theme diverges from the academically dominant pronouncement of elitist critics: to the effect that “adult comics”like EC were true art and that superhero comics were merely meaningless “commodity art.” Jones’s theme celebrates creativity in any form, and thus SECRETS is—perhaps appropriately—in disagreement with the current ruling class.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

QUICK POLITICAL RIPOSTE RE: TRUMP

Ivanka Trump recently tweeted her support of an Oprah speech regarding sexual harassment, for which, of course, she had to be punished-- not for being against sexual harassment, but for not automatically believing that her father was guilty of same.

I wrote on the usual dumb liberal board:

While it's likely that Trump has been at the least inappropriate with women he's barely known, I don't think Ivanka is wrong in not considering the popular verdict to be fact, when as yet it has not been proved in court. Most of the time, it seems Trump buys off the women suing him. What a deep commitment to justice the plaintiffs have!

Trump's remarks about his daughter's sexual attractiveness also do not prove he's literally attracted to her. It says something about the liberal deafness to humor-- even the bad humor of an uncritical narcissist-- that they can't even CONSIDER that he might be joking when he says he'd be dating Ivanka if he wasn't, you know, her dad. 

And yes, I've seen all the extant quotes. Again, it's baffling why liberals go after Trump for petty crap when he's said and done far worse stuff. Do they think that going after even the petty crap makes them seem unrelenting? Maybe to the converted; others are likely to see it as equally petty.

Monday, January 8, 2018

NEAR MYTHS: "AND SO MY WORLD ENDS" (JLA #71, 1969), MARTIAN MANHUNTER 1-4 (1988)

J'onn J'onzz, a.k.a. "the Manhunter from Mars," remains one of the more quixotic DC characters; a C-list character in terms of being able to sustain his own feature, but strongly recognizable thanks to his long association with the Justice League.


The character's origins, first appearing in a backup strip in DETECTIVE COMICS #225 (1955), were not much more auspicious than various other SF-themed DC characters from the 1950s, though he did get more buildup than, say, Captain Comet or the Knights of the Galaxy. If one dates the Silver Age by beginning with 1954, the first year that the Comics Code took effect, then J'onn was one of the first Silver Age heroes, though he was slow, unlike 1956's Flash, to display any "legs." His nature is not unlike Superman's, with whom he shares several super-powers, though Manhunter also has the propensity of changing his shape as he wishes. Manhunter, like Superman, also a convenient weakness to mitigate his great powers; instead of kryptonite, commonplace fire. But whereas the Man of Steel is an infant when he's rocketed from Krypton to Mars, the Manhunter from Mars is a full-grown Martian adult when the teleport-beam of Earth-scientist Doctor Erdel whisks J'onn from his native world to that of Earth. J'onn J'onzz seemed to accept this exile from his people with remarkable equanimity; for the next fifteen years, during which he briefly enjoyed a stint as a headliner in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, he hardly ever expressed a desire to go home. On rare occasions readers saw glimpses of J'onn's race still living on Mars, but the Martians were portrayed as  no more than a run-of-the-mill alien people.


The findings of the 1964 Mariner-4 flyby, which convinced most people that there was no life on Mars, didn't have any effect on DC's version of Mars until 1969. By that time, not only had J'onn J'onzz lost his series berth in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, editors had dropped him from the Justice League. This fact probably contributed to the decision of the Justice League's then-current writer, Denny O"Neil, to devise a retcon story, in which it was revealed that J'onn's people no longer existed in the DC Universe. "And So My World Ends" in JLA #71 posited that at the time J'onn had been transported to Earth by Doctor Erdel, a war had broken out between J'onn's race of Green Martians and the never-before-seen White Martians. In fact, when J'onn was ":untimely ripped" from his world, he had been serving as a military commander for his people. J'onn shows up on Earth once more and involves the Justice League in investigating a new threat from Mars. The story concludes when the last Green Martian is confronted by the last White Martian.


They fight, and J'onn wins a bittersweet victory, becoming the last Martian. Nor surprisingly, later writers contravened this position, while Steve Englehart revised the O'Neil scenario slightly. O'Neil's story suffered from sloppy logic; if J'onn really had been yanked away from his planet during a crucial military situation, wouldn't he have eventually appealed to his JLA pal Superman to simply take him back to Mars? So Englehart, while not contradicting the events of O'Neil's story, suggested that J'onn had grown away from his world even before everyone on Mars had died. Nevertheless, "And So My World Ends" remains a significant near-myth, in giving the Martian Manhunter greater resonance as the last surviving Martian-- which, while not technically true, rings emotionally true.

The 1986 CRISIS series made it possible to revise all the continuities of DC comics-characters. No one was rushing to revise J'onn J'onzz for a new series, but by chance the 1987 reboot of the JUSTICE LEAGUE under Keith Giffen, Marc DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire gave the old Martian new life. Manhunter had already returned to the League as a regular member in pre-Crisis days, but during the DeMatteis tenure he became the "straight man" to the new "funny JLA." J'onn became more popular with fans, which almost certainly contributed to DC's greenlighting a 1988 mini-series by DeMatteis and Mark Badger.



True, the four-issue MANHUNTER story tailgates on a plot-development from the JUSTICE LEAGUE comic, and several JLA members serve as support-cast-- and comedy relief-- appear in the narrative. However, the life of J'onn J'onzz and his Martian heritage is given a serious treatment, albeit of the "everything you think you know is wrong" nature.

In the JLA story, J'onn ingests a spore in order to save humanity from the spore's effects. Then he begins seeing a strange fiery specter that he originally takes as a hallucination brought on by consuming the spore. But it's soon evident that others can see the specter, and that it can wreak real-world effects. Moreover, the entity claims to be H'ronmeer, one of the gods of Mars, and for a while one wonders if the god is trying to claim worship from the Martian, as the assertive deity of Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" pursues the poem's narrator.

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.        5
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasm├Ęd fears,

But in time it's evident that H'ronmeer has something else in mind. He spirits the Martian away from his allies, and drops him off (J'onn spends a lot of time falling in this story) in the company of none other than Doctor Erdel. Not only the Erdel in this continuity not dead like his predecessor, he also teleported to Earth a Martian suffering from a massive trauma. In his true Martian form, J/'onn is not a muscular, beetle-browed green humanoid, but a green humanoid whose limbs are almost impossibly attenuated.


While giving aid and comfort to the exiled alien, Erdel talks him into using his shapeshifting power to take his beetle-browed appearance, in order to look less alien. Erdel even used hypnosis to reprogram J'onn so that the Martian thought Erdel had died. J'onn was so traumatized by the events on Mars that he even destroyed the teleport-apparatus, which is DeMatteis' explanation as to why the character never tried to travel back home.

And what were those events? O'Neil followed the standard association of the planet Mars with the God of War, but DeMatteis makes his Mars a place of mystic peacefulness, with not a White Martian in sight. J'onn, as he undergoes the katabasis of his repressed memories, thinks:

"Was there a time when Martians murdered each other? Once, perhaps, in the dim past-- but violence was an aberration among us, not a natural state. We were a race of poets, mystics, seers and dreamers."

When the Martian race perishes, it doesn't come about from the influence of War, but from his old fellow horseman Pestilence. Plague takes the Martian race, and J'onn has spent years repressing the hideous memories, particularly of the deaths of his wife and daughter. Further, it's revealed that the Martian's supposed vulnerability to fire is psychological, not physiological. In the last years of the pestilence, the Martians tried to avert the sickness by burning the carcasses of the dead,  a strategy which DeMatteis  probably borrowed from real-life practices during Europe's Black Plague. Thus, Erdel snatched J'onn away from certain death alongside his people, though J'onn's "survivor guilt" caused him to want to bury the memories-- as well as, perhaps, motivating him to be a hero on his adopted planet Earth. Even H'ronmeer's fiery appearance is the result of J'onn's phobia toward fire: originally he was a god of life, not of "fire and death."



Finally, the life-god's motivations are revealed. Even though J'onn did not remember the true fate of his people any more, somehow his repression caused the massed spirits of the Martians to remain tethered to the planet, rather than ascending to what DeMatteis calls "heaven." Once J'onn has made peace of the "warring" sides of his being, he's able to bid farewell to his people, and truly accept his new home on Earth.

Significantly, the story concludes with an encomnium to "the man who discovered Mars, Ray Bradbury." It seems likely that DeMatteis seized upon the renewed interest in the Manhunter character to rewrite his origins to something more poetic than the O'Neil revision. In terms of both myth and poetry, DeMatteis is not able to reach any of Bradbury's heights, and if I were judging only that part of the story, I would consider MARTIAN MANHUNTER a "null-myth."

Over the years, though the O'Neil and DeMatteis versions have contributed to the established character of J'onn J'onzz. White Martians made a return to DC's continuity, and since they like J'onn have proven to be vulnerable to fire, it's a given that DC writers chose to ignore the psychological angle re: the Manhunter's weakness. However, though DeMatteis's take on "mystic Martians" is not very deep, he contributed much to the image of J'onn J'onzz as the "wise shaman" figure, to whom the Justice Leaguers often turn for guidance. I believe that the idea of his "true form" persists as well, and that the extinction of the Martians is now something of a conflation of both the O'Neil and DeMatteis stories. It's not a very deep myth, but it has had over the years some compelling moments, especially for a "C-list" character.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: PIPSQUEAK PAPERS (1967-68)



Wally Wood's PIPSQUEAK PAPERS, first serialized in Wood's WITZEND magazine and reprinted in one issue by Eros Comics in 1993, is an ironic fantasy akin to his later WIZARD KING duology, reviewed here and here. In keeping with its name, PIPSQUEAK occupies a much smaller tapestry, for the story is only twelve pages long, originally set forth in three installments, respectively four, three, and five pages long. However, the story's conciseness enables Wood to explore his psychological concerns with unusual acuity.

Without delving into Wood's biographical background, it's sufficient to state that the artist, despite showing a unique facility for drawing glamorous women, often chose to focus on the shadow side of femininity. In the hands of a lesser artist, this would have boiled down to incoherent misogyny (or, in the case of a female artist, misandry). But Wood takes the simple trope of "how men and women repeatedly screw each other, and not in the good way" and gives the bare trope the power of an obsessive sexual mythology.

The story's first panel introduces its representation of feminine nature: the perpetually nude nymph Nudina, as she awakens one morning from the heart of a flower. Wood's captions specify that as she gambols about her fantasy-forest, she has the habit of posing an "eternal question" to anyone she meets: "Are you a man?" The reader has no idea how many times she's done this, or for what purpose, though later Wood grounds her repetitive guilelessness in the fact that Nudina's virginity renews itself every morning, no matter what's happened to her in the past. In any case, the reader first sees Nudina address the question to an unmoving humanoid sitting on a rock. He doesn't respond, for reasons that are explained later.

However, Nudina has a constant admirer who has apparently professed love to her many times before, a sprite named Pip. Nudina claims that she loves him as well, but she won't join with him because he looks like a "baby man," and just isn't developed enough to satisfy her. A few panels later Nudina's "love" is called into question, for Pip tells her that "my heart is yours." Being literal-minded, the nymph tells her suitor to send the object in question to her, and when a messenger brings a heart to Nudina's corner of the forest, she shows herself to be more voracious than virginal by cooking the heart and eating it.

Immediately afterward, a demonic fellow called "Llewd" approaches Nudina, and takes her "are you a man" question as an invitation. Pip-- who didn't really send the nymph his heart, just that of a slain animal-- attacks Llewd and gets kicked to the forest-curb for it. The sprite wanders away, and bumps into the same immobile humanoid Nudina saw before. Pip figures out that it's an artificial humanoid, whose skull is open so that its maker can put in a proper brain. Pip is small enough to crawl into the android's head and take control of it, much to the annoyance of Smug, the scientist who made the artificial man, and who can't stop Pip from making off with it. Pip uses his new body to trounce Llewd, at which point the "innocent" Nudina demands that her rescuer cut off the would-be rapist's head. Llewd takes a powder and Nudina surrenders herself to her rescuer-- the implication being that somehow, Pip is able to merge his equipment and the humanoid's to good effect.

Smug, however, retaliates by summoning a giant monster, instructed to find Pip and recover the artificial man. Meanwhile Nudina, despite having Pip around, manages to lead on at least two more forest-denizens, whom Pip again has to trounce, so that he begins to suspect that she's getting herself molested on purpose.



Then Nudina finds out that Pip is inside the body of her current boyfriend. The caption tells readers that she's secretly pleased to find out that the "baby man" who loves her is her indirect lover, but this may be because it gives her an excuse to become more demanding. Pip briefly finds surcease by appealing to her vanity, devising a literal pedestal and putting her on top of it to be admired. This doesn't last long, but Pip's problems get worse when he briefly leaves the humanoid and promptly loses it. The giant monster shows up, demanding to reclaim Smug's property. Pip cravenly saves himself by convincing the creature that Nudina is the humanoid Smug wants. Despite Nudina's protests that she's going to bear Pip's baby, the sprite watches while the monster carried off Nudina, and then goes home to bed.

Jaded Pip, however, can't completely forget his early, more innocent love. He begins to experience twinges of pain, and a forest-physician tells Pip that his "little heart is breaking." The sprite goes looking for the missing android, in order to trade it for Nudina, currently in the custody of Smug and being forced to clean the scientist's cave for him.

Pip's quest is promptly interrupted by a female sprite, Lascivia, who has no problems with the size of Pip's equipment. Then Pip has pain-twinges again, and resumes his quest, although Lascivia disputes the doctor's opinion, claiming that "we sprites have no emotions." Finally Pip re-acquires the android, and takes it back to Smug. Pip considers beating up the scientist and absconding with both Nudina and the android, but Smug has too many monsters backing him up.


However, feminine desire is once more a problem even when Pip and Nudina are free, for he realizes he can't satisfy her without the android. He tries to steal it, but Smug is too clever. The scientist captures Pip and recaptures Nudina, keeping them prisoner in his cave to use as drudges. Thus Pip not only loses his freedom, he must share his quarters with a woman he loves but can't satisfy, who is more demanding than ever in her pregnancy. Further, when her birth-pangs begin, Pip's pains return in what seems like the ritual of couvade. Then Nudina has her child, and Pip tries one last time to distance himself by wondering if he's really the father. Nudina shows him that the newborn is exactly identical to Pip-- he can even walk like Pip after being born-- and so Pip can't even be unique in his misery.

If this story had a moral, it would read something like, "Don't trust women; they're just endless chasms demanding sacrifices to their egos or their desires." It's a banal moral, and presumably there are one or two hetero women somewhere who might hold similar opinions regarding men. Still, I'm not sure there's a female author who has expressed her animus with as much ingenuity as Wally Wood.