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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...

Saturday, February 24, 2018

'M' FOR EFFORT PT. 2

The tentative formulation of the concept "effort" as representing a sort of *tertium quid* between the differing levels of dynamicity and phenomenality means that everything written in STRUGGLE VS. COMBAT PT. 2  is invalid.

I wrote at the end of the essay:


in terms of the context of the respective acts, Character A's act is that of mesodynamic struggle, while Character C's act is that of megadynamic combat.T

But now I perceive that if the level of effort in both characters' acts is the same, then there can be no transition from the lower to the higher level.

So, from now on, in my system, characters who perform homicides by pushing people off ledges, running them down with cars, and other such minor efforts, must be consigned to the level of the mesodynamic.

Hmm, this may well be the shortest essay I write all year...

Friday, February 23, 2018

NEAR MYTHS: THE CELESTIAL MADONNA SAGA (1974-75)

Wikipedia features articles that are mere "stubs," but this essay is a "sub-stud," since I don't intend to lay out even the basics of the Celestial Madonna saga that occupied a couple of years in the AVENGERS title.



This was a popular sequence in the early 1970s, and I liked it as much as anyone back then. These days, however, I find that it lacks even the basic mythic underthought that I found in Roy Thomas's Kree-Skrull War. Indeed, Englehart's multi-issue continuity should be seen as a creative response to Thomas's project, which also concerned the operations of the alien Kree upon Marvel's version of Planet Earth. However, what was a minor failing in Thomas's narrative becomes a major liability in Englehart's story.

For both authors, THE AVENGERS was a book where they could seek to impress fans with meticulously interwoven plot-threads. The title's original scripter, Stan Lee, showed little indication to take advantage of the feature's potential for soap-operatic complication, but Thomas arguably gave the feature its narrative identity. Englehart's AVENGERS scripts are even more dense with plot-complications than those of Thomas. This is SOP today, but in the early 1970s comics were still a mass medium, expected to make most of their money selling to kids who might or might not read every issue. Englehart's story proceeds as if he's rock-solid certain that his readers care nothing for "done-in-one" stories; at most, he would throw in a story with a menace overcome in one issue. Yet the emphasis was clearly placed on the ongoing continuity, not any single conflict.



The "Celestial Madonna" of the title is the half-Asian heroine Mantis, who was (appropriately) sort of a camp-follower to the superhero group, not initially joining the team but simply tagging along when her beau, the former villain Swordsman, applied for membership. Swordsman was clearly just Englehart's way of getting Mantis into the group, for in due time Mantis's attentions strayed from him to the android Vision. Further, the group's adventures began to emphasize some of the mysteries surrounding Mantis's origins, while her former boyfriend was unceremoniously slain (at least, temporarily).

Thomas's Kree-Skrull War built up plot-elements from Lee/Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR, regarding the way the alien Kree experimented with archaic humans, turning some of them into Inhumans. These experiments by the warlike Kree had the long-range purpose of using the descendants of the Inhumans as a martial resource. Englehart, however, evinces a fascination with Eastern concepts of mysticism and unity, and so he posited that a group of peacenik, kung-fu fightin' Kree were exiled from the bosom of their people. These Kree, "the Priests of Pama," migrated to Earth and decided to conduct their own experiments. Without going into lengthy detail, Mantis was the result of their attempt to create a "perfect human being," whose exalted status was signified by the "Madonna" term.



Most of the "Celestial Madonna" saga consists of adequate but unexceptional superhero action, as the Avengers charge about fighting Kang and other menaces, giving Englehart leeway to concentrate on the development of his creation Mantis. I can't say that I consider Mantis all that impressive a myth-figure; once one knows her origins, she loses most of her dubious charm. She's perhaps the first of the author's more self-absorbed character-types, but Englehart doesn't compensate for her obnoxious qualities with any deeper psychological complexity. She's also something of a one-note joke: having been a prostitute in the past, she's "the whore" who becomes "the madonna."

Thus, given how episodic and convoluted the saga is, it lacks the unifying theme of a good myth-comic, and must be rated as just an assemblage of many differing myth-motifs. Not least of these involves the Swordsman's body coming back to life, animated by the spirit of a tree, which Mantis then marries so that she can birth a super-baby.




Yes, it definitely read better in 1974.

NEAR MYTHS: THE THOUSAND WIZARDS OF URD (1981-82)



THE THOUSAND WIZARDS OF URD, Frank Thorne's follow-up to GHITA OF ALIZARR, shared its origins: appearing first as installments in Warren's 1984 magazine before being collected in an album-like volume. URD is, like GHITA, a very bawdy take on Red Sonja, the character whose fan-popularity boosted Thorne to comparative celebrity. But whereas I found GHITA interesting enough to invoke Bataille to describe its interactions of violence and sexuality, URD is just very well-drawn sword-and-sorcery.

I won't dilate on the plot, since there isn't much of one. GHITA had an episodic plotline as well, but the episodes were strengthened by an overarcing goal: Ghita's mission to re-take the city of Alizarr. The story featured a lot of "sword" but not nearly as much "sorcery." URD reads like Thorne decided to shift the balance this time, with a lot more magical phantasmagoria, closer to the content of the Thorne-Clair Noto collaborations on RED SONJA. However, perhaps because artist-writer Thorne is so focused on depicting his S&S world as a place of infinite bawdiness, there's not a lot of room for enchantment. (And I never figured out the reference to "thousand wizards," since' there's just one. He can project himself into various phantom duplicates, but he certainly doesn't come up with a thousand such proxies.)

It's some months after Ghita and her boon friends Thenef and Dahib have kicked the trolls out of Alizarr and assumed the reins of power. Having been used to the wastrel life, they decide to cut out on their boring royal duties for a while and check out a traveling acting-troupe, for which Ghita and Thenef performed. But their vacation comes at a bad time, for Rahmuz, the wizard of Urd, conspires to get rid of Alizarr's current rulers and take over. The three friends do indeed overtake the acting-troupe, which leads to Ghita hooking up with a handsome actor and thus making her sometime lover Thenef jealous. But more serious problems arise, as Rahmuz's threats flow thick and fast, ranging from a tribe of nasty dwarves to an Asian assassin. Eventually Rahmuz captures Ghita, and tries to sacrifice her in an otherworldly dimension referred to as "the Ebony Sea."  The foul-mouthed heroine wins out, of course, and is reunited with her friends. There's a small suggestion that things might grow more serious between Ghita and her almost-old-enough-to-be-daddy mentor, but Thorne naturally prefers to end things on a bawdy note. To the best of my knowledge, that's where the sage of Ghita ended-- possibly because Thorne said everything he had to say with the character.

Thorne's writing is heavy and sometimes repetitive, but the tone is at least consistent, and there are flashes of strong wit throughout. The biggest problem with URD-- which looks forward to the near-shapelessness of 1989's RIBIT-- is that Thorne loses control of the story. In the GHITA graphic novel, the heroine meets a strange unicorn, "the Ghibelline," which apparently wants to mate with her. I interpreted this as Thorne having a laugh at the medieval "unicorn-and-virgin" trope, However, the unicorn appears again in URD-- and it turns out that it contains the spirit of Khan-Dagon, the man who raped Ghita and somehow imprinted male attitudes upon her. This by itself would be an okay turn of events, but then, by the end of the story, Ghita once again encounters Khan-Dagon-- and this time he's one of Rahmuz's undead soldiers in the Ebony Sea. It's as if Thorne became obsessed with reiterating this part of Ghita's mythos, rather than moving on to fresh ground-- obsessed to the extent that he didn't really plot out why the dead ruler turned up in either of these peculiar places.

THOUSAND WIZARDS OF URD offers lots of hard nudity and loose language, as only Thorne could render them, but it's unfortunately also the place where the stronger threads of the Ghita-myth start to unravel.




Thursday, February 22, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "MIDEAST MADNESS" (TALES OF THE JACKALOPE #3, 1986)

Today R.L. Crabb's TALES OF THE JACKALOPE is a largely forgotten funny-animal comic book. It came out about two years after the debut of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, and should probably be seen as a reaction to the Turtles' success in the direct market, though not to their success in the mainstream market, since that was still a little ways down the road. I have a vague memory that JACKALOPE was one of the few independents of the "black-and-white glut" that Gary Groth praised in the JOURNAL, though I don't intend to go looking for the exact quote.

The other six issues of JACKALOPE are enjoyable anthropomorphic amusements, better drawn than the majority of the quickie black-and-whites, and they benefit from a cute idea: centering around the mishaps of a jackalope named Junior, and his squirrel pal Suicide. The first issue relates the folk-history of how jackalopes originated from the interaction of jackrabbits and antelopes. Junior at least favors his rabbit-daddy more than his antelope-mother, since he looks like nothing but a very lanky anthropomorphic rabbit, who happens to have antlers.



"Mideast Madness" presents an interesting sociological myth, one at odds with many of the Islamophobic messages seen in 1980s pop culture. I don't say this to express easy contempt for such messages, since I've stated my agreement with Salman Rushdie that freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend. But one may find interesting forms of expression in push-back against reactionary positions.

The cover-- the only art I can lift from the web-- looks like it ought to be expressing Islamophobic sentiments, as the two starring critters, Junior and Suicide, are surrounded on all sides by evil Moslems, though as it happens the weasel (?) with the knife isn't actually in the story. The bird on the left is Khadafy Duck and the one in the middle is the Ayatollah Khokamamie, and it should be unnecessary to spell out what 1980s figures are being spoofed here. In reality, the two Islamic leaders had nothing to do with one another except for the way they affected American sentiments toward Islam, but here, the two of them are joined in a great super-villain version of Jihad. Junior and Suicide journey to the land of "Ilibystine," where the inhabitants worship the name of "Moolah." The two American anthropomorphs are looking for Junior's cousin One-Eyed Jack, who sent them a postcard about some sort of espionage plot involving a mysterious "capsule."

Arriving in Ilibystine, the travelers' first contact with a native is a benign one. He tells them to get away, because "it is against the law to be a foreigner in this nation." However, the moment he gets a clear look at Junior's antlers, he runs away from the "horned devil." The travelers hike to the nearest city, making an attempt to conceal Junior's horns, but a hostile crowd attacks them. Junior and Suicide are saved, after a fashion, by Khadafy, who acts in the name of the religious leader Khokamami. Khadafy shows his guests his hospitality by hanging them by the arms, because he thinks that Junior must be in league with Jack, who's hidden the mysterious capsule from his "Mooslam" enemies. Khokamami shows up, also wanting info from the captives, and the two villains expatiate on their plans to further division in the world. Khokamami gives the Americans a lecture on the evils of the Crusades and the evils of self-expression. Their Jihad is rooted in a metaphysical manipulation of the "false gods" of the outside world, and the only thing that can stop their plans is a Far Eastern weapon called "the Cosmic Capsule."

Junior and Suicide are in danger of suffering tortures beyond those of super-villain monologues, but two agents of foreign powers intrude on the scene and rescue the squirrel and the mo-- er, jackalope. Both agents have punny names, one being counter-intuitive-- a tough bull-guy who calls himself "T-Bone"-- and the other being totally incorrect, "Ninjun," who is essentially a "ninja Indian." His combination of a black ninja-suit with an Indian-feather-- seen below from the cover of issue #5-- fairly screams "only in the eighties."




After Ninjun and T-Bone spirit Junior and Suicide away, the four of them make common cause and find One-Eyed Jack. Jack gives Ninjun the capsule, and the quintet race to intercept Khokamami and Khadafy as they conjure forth the "false gods." The logic doesn't track too well, but the "gods" seem to be mythic representations of the United States and Russia, respectively a giant eagle and a giant bear. Khokamami wants them to fight and destroy one another-- which I guess would somehow weaken the power of the real Great Powers. Ninjun prevents this by firing the "cosmic capsule" into the sky, and after it explodes, it unleashes a "fallout" consisting not of radioactive particles but of people, whom Ninjun calls "the most powerful force on Earth." The conflict of the giant bear and the giant eagle is averted in a manner that just misses being sappy: the people spell out the word "peace," giving the giants no further excuse to fight, or to intervene in the affairs of Ilibystine or any other Mooslam country.

"Madness" is equal parts silly slapstick and non-interventionist screed, and certainly differs from the Islamophobe narrative by suggesting that American intervention is no more desirable than that of Russian Communism. It's also a dated work-- today, few if any persons even remember "Qaddafi's Line of Death," so that a modern reader won't have any clue as to what Crabb is spoofing when he has Khadafy Duck draw a line in the sand. But though it's not a major myth-comic in terms of popularity, it's noteworthy for taking a slightly off-kilter approach to sociological discourse.


ANOTHER QUICK POST-PRESERVATION

I'm participating in a discussion of Forrest J. Ackerman's dubious legacy on the Classic Horror Film Board, and decided to preserve  a couple of my comments here, possibly for fuller development than can be presented on a messboard.

-------------

Following up on some of the posts that talk about the difficulty of separating the artist from his art-- or in Ackerman's case, the laborer from his labor-- it helps me to consider that even "depraved" people may have periods of inspiration in which they do or make things that prove valuable to a lot of other people. However, when the inspiration passes, a lot of times they just go back to being plain old crappy people, whether they're perpetually on the make, or swindling victims, or praising fascists.

The point's been made before that not everything depraved in one time-frame is depraved in another, so I won't belabor it, except to state that the point is more of a cautionary warning than an endorsement of relativism.

AND

Well, FJA wasn't a scholar, not even an amateur one, so I don't know that there's any reason for anyone to quote him about anything. For all I know he may have made various pretenses toward scholarship, but I haven't seen them in my few copies of FM. His whole persona hinges on communicating a "gosh-wow" attitude about the things he loved, or said he loved, to his monster-philic readers. I don't have any firm memories of my early encounters with issues of FM, except that when I first laid eyes on a newsstand copy of THE MONSTER TIMES, I remember thinking, "Hey, this has real substantive articles in it, not like FAMOUS MONSTERS!" (Or thoughts to that effect.)

For me his main virtue was that of creating a sense that the overlapping worlds of "SF/F/H" were not just a bunch of unrelated productions. Good and bad, they were all part of a greater whole, and that whole was of interest to fandom, whether the reader was learning about the latest Hammer production or some silent film that came about before the reader was ever born. Of course, one may say that keeping track of everything gave FJA a lot of grist for his publication-mill; but that's the bottom line for almost every endeavor. Somewhere or other I read that he didn't even really like horror that much; that "sci-fi" was his true love. But in terms of his effect, he did get across that sense of "fan-connectedness," which I assume is the main reason people made the trek to visit the Ackermansion.





Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"M" FOR EFFORT

“To stay cheerful when involved in a gloomy and exceedingly responsible business is no inconsiderable art: yet what could be more necessary than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part. Only excess of strength is proof of strength.”-- Nietzche, TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS.

My current theoretical terminology doesn't exactly need yet another arcane term. Yet the idea of "effort"-- defined by Dictionary.com as "exertion of physical or mental power"-- seems to gloss some of the ways that I've distinguished between two of my "big Ms," megadynamicity and metaphenomenality.

For instance, in the WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS series, I discussed that when a character's only claim to megadynamicity inheres in his weapon, the character must demonstrate "mastery" in order to reach the level of the megadynamic. In the section quoted, Nietzsche states that his ideal human being is defined by his "excess of strength" that are in turn the result of "high spirits." But "high spirits" are those that spur human beings to make the effort to transcend their own inertia, much as Twain describes with respect to Joan of Arc's inspirational power, cited in greater detail here:

But all these are exalting activities; they keep hand and heart and brain keyed up to their work; there is the joy of achievement, the inspiration of stir and movement, the applause which hails success; the soul is overflowing with life and energy, the faculties are at white heat; weariness, despondency, inertia—these do not exist.

Thus, I've credited some fictional characters with possessing at least an "exemplary" level of megadynamicity, such as Jack Burton and Hammer's version of Professor Van Helsing. Being able to use a knife or a faux-cross in an inventive way shows "effort," and thus boosts the character to the megadynamic level.

Regarding the nature of the metaphenomenal, I've noted that I don't consider a movie to have metaphenomenal content just because someone in the story thinks he's seen or heard a ghost. This happens in all versions of SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE-- a film often cited in the relevant concordances-- and in the B-flick HAUNTED RANCH. I commented on the latter film thusly:

...when characters fall for an extraordinarily simple deception-- like Snowflake, or like the hero of KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN-- or, for that matter, when they manage to scare themselves, like Laurel and Hardy in their short THE LIVE GHOST-- I don't think that channels any sort of eerie vibe. The audience remains removed from the spectacle of the goof who puts easy credence in ghosts, magic swords, or similar chimerae, because it's evident he has no discriminatory powers.
The "eerie vibe" I look for in uncanny works with the "phantasmal figuration" trope is produced when some agent within the story has managed to produce a phantasmal effect-- but only through some sustained effort. That effort might be fairly compared to the effort that the story's author must sustain in order to produce that effect within the story proper-- which may in future need further exploration in tune with my concept of artifice

WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS PT. 3

I discussed another type of "weaklings with weapons" in 2013's OUR ARMIES AT WAR, WITH MONSTERS. Though a lot of "giant monster" films are combative primarily in pitting two or more behemoths against one another, there are also those in which the primary conflict is between one behemoth and the amassed armed forces of a particular country.

KING KONG, the first major "giant monster" film, concentrates the early part of its narrative on showing how Kong is "king" over all the rival creatures in his own domain, but then concludes by having him shot down by American biplanes. 1953's BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, whose filming might have been encouraged by the successful 1952 re-release of KONG, came up with a giant reptile. But the filmmakers knew that the amassed power of the U.S. military could've blown away any old dinosaur, so they had to come up with a reason for the military to avoid attacking the critter directly. 1954's GOJIRA reversed that conceit. Whereas an atomic bomb simply woke up the Fathom-Beast, it both awakened and empowered Godzilla, making it possible for the giant monster to stride fearlessly through cannonfire, airplane missiles, and electrical fences. In my review I mentioned that Godzilla was, on one level, the symbol of any martial enemy of Japan, so that in a strange way, this most Japanese of monsters bears some resemblance to the forces of the Allied invaders, whose might is represented by the atom bomb itself.

Later Godzilla films always followed Kong's trope of pitting the Big G against other colossi, but the 1950s and 1960s included a smattering of giant-monster films in which the monster's only opponent was humanity's armed forces-- American in THE GIANT CLAW and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, British in GORGO and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, Danish in REPTILICUS, and Japanese in such non-Godzilla films as RODAN and MOTHRA, and THE X FROM OUTER SPACE and GAPPA THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTER.  In addition, DC Comics made a major contribution to the "soldiers vs. dinosaurs" trope in its "War That Time Forgot" series, which ran for eight years in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES.



I've read none of these stories, so it may be that none of them muster the necessary "spectacular violence" necessary for the combative mode, the same way BEAST WITH 20,000 FATHOMS fails the test. the 1950s flicks TARANTULA and THE DEADLY MANTIS also fall short for one reason or the other.

Now, on occasions, human soldiers are aided by some weapon that's just as metaphenomenal as the monster. The original Godzilla is vanquished by the "oxygen destroyer," and the Giant Claw, one of the few American monsters immune to military weapons-fire, is undone when scientists reverse the protective "meson-field" about the creature. But the use of an "achilles heel" weapon may not give rise to the combative mode, either.

In the end, the reason that the nameless soldier-hordes can qualify as combative entities is because there is a necessary connection between the warriors and their weapons, whose use the soldiers have implicitly mastered. But there must be diegetic evidence of such mastery, which I find in REPTILICUS but not in DEADLY MANTIS, as discussed here.



Saturday, February 17, 2018

WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS PT. 2

One of the most famous tropes of the superhero idiom is that of "strength concealed by weakness," or, alternately, "strength evolving from weakness." -- DJINN WITH SUMMONER, PT. 1.

The two  DJINN essays focused largely on characters who make use of "genie-like" entities to do their fighting for them. In some cases, like that of Ahmad from the 1924 THIEF OF BAGDAD and the eponymous star of Disney's ALADDIN, the main character demonstrates high dynamicity, at least for an ordinary human with no special powers. This dynamicity does not depend primarily on having a great weapon, like the aforementioned Richard Mayhew, but on a mastery of otherwise ordinary weapons.

There are a handful of exceptions. One is Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery hero Elric. Born an albino, Elric is only able to fight normal human opponents thanks to sorcery. As  the panels from CONAN #13 show, Elric can only match Conan's formidable strength by the use of his sword Stormbringer, which gives him  both physical power and fighting-skill.





Despite his dependence on his sword, Elric is still a megadynamic hero in a way that, say, Hubert Hawkins of THE COURT JESTER is not. Elric may not be able to fight without his sword,  but he must exert his own will to battle his enemies. Hubert's talents are thrust upon him by an outside manipulator, and so he remains at base a weakling even with a weapon. Stormbringer qualifies as a method of *interiorization,* which I defined as a situation in which "the hero's true, powerful self is concealed within him, and must be summoned from within." Magic potions are far more often used than magical weapons, ranging from the lotion that makes the classical Jason temporarily invulnerable to Popeye's spinach and Hourman's Miraclo pills.

Charms are even dicier than weapons. I've stated on other occasions that I consider Bram Stoker's DRACULA to be a combative novel, which implies that the starring vampire is opposed by other megadynamic forces, the vampire-hunters organized by Van Helsing-- or more specifically, the more physically prepossessing members of the coterie, mainly Jonathan Harker and Quincy Morris. Van Helsing, though not an active figure in the battles with Dracula, is the only member of the group who understands the undead's true nature, and so he's able to marshal such weapons as crosses and holy water against the Count. However, the power of these charms-- implicitly stemming from the power of Stoker's Catholic deity-- are not powers inherent in Van Helsing or any of his aides. The charms cannot be used without human hands guiding them, but the charms' power is not tied to the *will* of Dracula's antagonists. The megadynamicity of Stoker's vampire-hunters inheres not in their weapons, but in the personal fighting-skills of Harker and Morris in particular.

Thus, when the Van Helsing of the 1931 DRACULA wields a cross against his opponent, Dracula must yield, but he yields to the power of God, not to the power of Van Helsing.



Nevertheless, a vampire-hunter's *amplitude* may get boosted quite a bit by his daring or unconventional use of charms or similar devices, just as I demonstrated in WEAKLINGS Pt. 1 with respect to the Jack Burton character. In the 1958 HORROR OF DRACULA, As played by Peter Cushing, Van Helsing becomes a younger, more active man, who first stuns the Count by running along a table in spectacular swashbuckler-style in order to escape the vampire and expose him to the sun.



Moments later, Cushing uses a mundane object to make a cross. I'm fairly certain that Stoker never shows anyone stymie Dracula with a near approximation of a cross; I've always believed that the original Count was affected only by genuine religious icons. So Van Helsing is perhaps inventing an "allergy theory;" that vampries aren't affected by Christian supernatural forces but by their (the vampires') own allergic reaction to anything that even looks like a cross. Thus, even though Van Helsing neither receives power from a cross, nor channels any of his own through it, he does gain megadynamic status from his inventive handling of an otherwise mundane weapon.


Throughout the various works of supernatural horror, there are many other situations where a potential victim repels a monster with the help of supernatural forces that they summon through some charm or other medium, and once again, one can only determine megadynamicity on a case by case basis. For instance, at the conclusion of the 1932 MUMMY, the evil sorcerer Imhotep is foiled when a bolt of fire from the statue of Isis burns up the Scroll of Thoth and returns the mummy to the dust of his origins.


Isis, or whatever force is left of the once-popular deity,only intervenes in answer to the call of her former priestess Anck-es-en-Amon, currently occupying the body of a modern woman, whom Imhotep plans to kill. But there's no implication that either the priestess or her modern descendant have any power of their own; they only call up greater power that is not intimately associated with them, summoners who have no real contact with their djinns.

However, on occasion charms may be used as channels for inner power, rather than for external force. The obscure 1981 film JAWS OF SATAN looks, from this VHS art, much like the first image of Van Helsing seen above: a priest wielding the power of God through the instrument of the cross.



However, the script is more ambivalent about where the main character, Father Tom Farrow, gets his ability to fight demons. In this review I wrote:


Farrow certainly doesn't believe he's worthy of a visit from the Dark Lord himself, but in time, he finds out that he shares a special heritage. Back in the days when St. Patrick allegedly cast all serpents out of Ireland, one of Patrick's followers-- not the saint himself-- attracted the ire of the local druids. They cursed him and all his progeny to be slain by snakes, which were to be commanded by Satan himself in the form of a cobra-- or something like that.  
Though it's a ridiculous premise, I have to give the filmmakers props for the audacity of invoking ancient Irish curses to explain a bunch of hostile snakes. In the end, Farrow gets his Catholic moxie together, confronts the King Cobra with his cross, and exorcises it in a flash of flame. It's a poverty-row version of the EXORCIST exorcism, but I found that it does imply a greater conflict of supernatural forces, so that this cheapjack horror-film does become a combative drama. It helps that Farrow also isn't just any old priest, but someone with a special destiny and ancestors to avenge.

That "special destiny" is suggested in the climactic scene, where in my view Farrow seems to be pulling power out of himself, rather than down from heaven, in order to set his Satanic opponent on fire. So, like the Peter Cushing Van Helsing, Father Tom joins the company of the megadynamic elite for the way he combines his own strength with the charms of his faith.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: GHITA OF ALIZARR (1979)

The most famous sword-and-sorcery heroine was launched in the pages of Marvel Comics' CONAN THE BARBARIAN in 1973, but for the next three years no one at the company managed to find a proper venue to exploit her popularity with fans. She received an origin in 1975, one whose approach to the subject matter of rape has long been a bane to feminists, and later that year she finally received a berth in the second volume of MARVEL FEATURE, followed by her own comic. During this period artist Frank Thorne became inextricably associated with the character, not only drawing her adventures but also appearing at conventions in "wizard's garb" alongside models in Sonja-costume.
Thorne's tenure with Marvel's "she-devil with a sword" ended in 1978. Roughly a year later, the artist began a new swordswoman series, GHITA OF ALIZARR,  in the pages of Warren's 1984 black-and-white magazine, producing enough material that in the 1980s Catalan published two albums of the character's adventures. The first collected adventure is the only one I'll address here.



Ghita exists in the same sort of feudal fantasy-world as that of Red Sonja; one where the author has built his universe out of an assortment of archaic cognomens and/or nonsense-words. Ghita's name, as the artist cheerfully admits in his afterword to the first volume, is taken from the Hindu religious tome "The Bhagavad-Gita," the name of her city Alizarr appears to be a random nonsense-word, and the city's principal deity is named Tammuz, but has no resemblance to the Mesopotamian god. An additional Mesopotamian name, Nergal, appears as well, but again Thorne's version of this myth-figure is in no way beholden to the archaic myth.

Though Alizarr, the city of Tammuz, is currently beseiged by savage, Nergal-worshiping trolls, Ghita-- a dead-ringer for Sonja, aside from being blonde-- has no interest in participating in the war. She's been a whore for many years, and is currently the favorite of Alizarr's king, Khalia, though she seems to sleep with whoever she pleases. At the start of the adventure, she's just finished doing the two-backed beast with her old friend Thenef, who's drawn to look like Frank Thorne's wizard-persona. Thenef, sixteen years the senior to Ghita, has been something of a mentor to the young woman, which has apparently led to his becoming the court magician, even though Thenef is a fake with barely any real grasp of magic. Ghita's only comment on the impending invasion is to wonder if the leather-skinned trolls might prove tolerable lovers.

Then Ghita and Thenef are ordered to attend the bedside of King Khalia, severely wounded in a battle with the trolls. Khalia anticipates that he will soon die of his wounds, but he's come up with a solution to the troll problem. Khalia orders his favorite, his court wizard and some courtiers to descend into the royal mausoleum, where Thenef is expected to use the mystic "Eye of Tammuz" to revive Alizarr's long-dead warrior-king, the mummified Khan-Dagon. (In Philistine mythology, Dagon was sometimes given fertility-associations.) Thenef has no clue as to how to revive a dead man, and so he stands in danger of being revealed as a fraud. To save Thenef's life, Ghita takes hold of the Eye of Tammuz and crams into the gut of the dead mummy.

The gem works. Khan-Dagon returns to life, all signs of physical corruption erased. However, as soon as he sees Ghita, the former king has no ear for Khalia's purpose. The revenant kills Khalia, whose courtiers flee. Khan-Dagon throws Ghita down and proceeds to rape her. Only Thenef remains, but though he's not courageous enough to fight the rapist, he passes Ghita a dagger. She stabs Khan-Dagon back to death, possibly by dislodging the magical jewel in his gut, which Ghita keeps thereafter.



It's not clear from the narrative whether or not Ghita's been raped before, though one assumes that her profession forced her to deal with intemperate male attentions. She is, not as ultraliberal critics would wish, traumatized by the experience, but she is changed, for it appears that some of Khan-Dagon's personality has been transferred into Ghita's soul. As she and Thenef seek to flee not only the mausoleum but the beseiged city, Ghita takes along Khan-Dagon's sword and tries to wear his armor as well. The duo encounter Dahib, a half-troll conceived from the union of a human and a troll, and he uses his trollish talents to alter the armor so that Ghita can wear it (though, as with Red Sonja, not a lot of the swordswoman's charms get concealed). Then Ghita undergoes her heroic baptism of fire, when the trio encounter a small party of trolls. Ghita slaughters them all with Khan-Dagon's sword, and she escapes the city in the company of the false wizard and the devoted half-troll (who thinks the former whore to be the incarnation of the goddess Tammuz).



The remainder of Ghita's first adventure then focuses on her masculine desire to force the trolls out of Alizarr, rather than simply fleeing to the nearest possible refuge. This isn't to say that the former concubine accepts her unwanted transformation. Shortly after killing the trolls, Ghita muses, "Khan-Dagon. You are within me, and I loathe your presence." If an ultraliberal encountered this line out of context, he might assume that it was an automatic condemnation of "toxic masculinity." But in time it becomes clear that Thorne doesn't view Ghita as a victim. In his afterword he ventures that he would like to think of Ghita as being kin with the works of Rabelais. Be that as it may, Thorne's softcore sword-and-sorcery also has much in common with George Bataille's concept of the interpenetration of sex and violence./ On page 64 of the 1983 Catalan edition, there's a scene in which Ghita and Thenef have riotous intercourse after taking refuge with Dahib's tribe of fellow half-trolls. The caption, which seems to combine the POVs of both Thenef and Thorne, reads in part:

The seedy delirium of bordello life would mold Ghita. The implicit violence of whorish sex would breed explicit violence in the sword of Khan-Dagon. 
But despite the implied equivalence of To be sure, Ghita does not forget her old nature easily. At first she lays plans to re-take Alizarr with the help of the half-trolls and a giant monster right out of a Japanese "tentacle porn" comic.



But later she has her own monologue, renouncing Khan-Dagon's "mad schemes"-- even though he doesn't seem to be literally possessing her-- and swears that she will again become a true woman. A strange child appears to Ghita, as if to reflect back on an earlier statement that Ghita is infertile, but the child turns out to be none other than the goddess Tammuz, claiming that she somehow stage-managed Ghita's destiny. Ghita and her forces succeed in driving the trolls and killing their leader, but afterward she returns Khan-Dagon's sword to the sepulcher, in order to forswear the dead man's influence upon her feminine nature. However, since this story ends
with Ghita swearing to rule Alizarr with Dahib and Thenef-- and since there was at least one more adventure in her future-- it seems axiomatic that Ghita probably picked up that sword again.

Thorne's surging lines are true to the Rabelaisian spirit he invokes, but I must note that he doesn't delve as deeply into fantasy-imagery as he did in the RED SONJA title, one of which I analyzed here. As if to acknowledge the absence of wild fantasy, an incident in GHITA shows a forest-unicorn seeking out the swordswoman in the belief that she's a virgin fitting of his attention. It's probably not complete coincidence that RED SONJA #1 dilates on the same theme, portraying a more fulfilling-- and less explicit-- union between a girl and her horse.

Monday, February 12, 2018

WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS PT. 1

In MESSING WITH MISTER INBETWEEN PT 2 I explained my reasons for not deeming Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE star Mayhew to be a less than combative protagonist.

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. 

The sense of mastery-- which I also referenced as a form of Nietzschean "self-overcoming" in COMBAT PLAY PT. 4-- can be a factor that plays a vital role in determining whether or not a given character can be seen as possessing at least "exemplary dynamicity." of the type described in DYNAMICITY DUOS PT. 1.

Jack Burton, my earlier example, might be styled a "weakling with a weapon," just as Gaiman's Mayhew character is. Burton's weapon isn't even as special as the one Mayhew inherits-- it's just a common throwing-knife-- but Burton uses a common object in an uncommon way, while Mayhew uses an uncommon object in a common way. The former places a positive light on Burton's self-overcoming, while a negative light is cast upon the short heroic career of Mayhew.



Another example appears in the British SF-film THE TERRORNAUTS, which I reviewed in August 2013. Main character Joe Burke and his tiny coterie of allies are roughly on the same level of "ordinariness" that I find in the Gaiman character. However, for what it's worth, the characters do have to pass some tests before they can get hold of the super-weapons with which they repel a horde of alien invaders.

Suffice to say that the humans pass all the tests, despite getting no help from the comedy-reliefs.  This accomplishment proves that they've capable of rational thought, and they receive presents, such as a ray-gun weapon, as rewards from the automated test-givers.  They soon learn that there had been a living caretaker of the asteroid facility, but he has died, which may explain why they never get a proper briefing on their reason for being here.  Fortunately, they stumble across the answers through various accidents, one of which teleports Sandy to the very planet of which Joe Burke dreamed.  After a violent encounter with some savage natives, the scientists learn that an interstellar space-fleet, which previously caused the destruction of the asteroid's makers (I think), is now headed for Earth.  Burke and his fellows then activate long-dead weapons and manage to blast the interstellar fleet into dust (hence my LAST STARFIGHTER comparison). 

True, the everyman heroes get some help from electronic skull-caps that instruct them on the use of the space-station weapons.



However, they, like the main character of LAST STARFIGHTER, have to figure out how to use the weapons in combat. so that the film slightly anticipates the 1970s vogue for video games like SPACE INVADERS.





I mentioned in my review of TERRORNAUTS that I hadn't re-read the source-novel, Murray Leinster's THE WAILING ASTEROID, at the time that I reviewed the film. However, I eventually did reread the Leinster novel, and found that the film followed the novel fairly closely-- except for the one scene that makes TERRORNAUTS a combative film for me. Leinster's characters pass more or less the same tests and don the skull-caps-- but they don't get to play "first-person shooters" with alien invaders. Instead, the Earth-people simply unleash what might be termed a "Maginot line" of explosive asteroids, and the enemy ships blunder into them.

Leinster's conclusion, though it has the same narrative value in terms of destroying the alien threat, lacks the significant value of combative sublimity, and so his everypeople don't quite ascend to even the "exemplary" level of megadynamicity I observe in the movie's characters.

More on this subject anon.




Saturday, February 10, 2018

I GOT THE BEAT (POST) AGAIN

Responding to this BEAT-thread:

Heidi and I will certainly never be on the same page re: the quality of the MCU movies, since for me RAGNAROK is the "self-indulgent mess" and GOTG2 at least has a coherent story and better than average set design. In fact, the design of Ego's world, with all its faux-Hindu imagery, proves Heidi's point about the benefits of loosening the purse strings far more than any of the visuals in TR. 
I don't think that even with continued success MCU movies are ever going to permit a wide number of "individual directorial visions" or whatever one calls it. There's just too much damn money at stake. You want individual visions of Ant-Man; keep watching his latest comic-book outings. Maybe Edgar Wright will guest-author an Ant Man comic and we'll all finally see just what he might've done with a movie.
Moving to BLACK PANTHER, i'm going to play prophet and predict that, no matter how good or bad the film is, it will be one of the ten films nominated for "Best Picture" next year at the Oscars. I'm hypothesizing that the Academy will look upon the film as an opportunity to disprove the brain-dead accusations of the #OscarSoWhite crowd, and that the voters will see PANTHER as a superhero flick they can nominate, in the sure and certain knowledge that it, like DJANGO UNCHAINED, will have no chance to win.

While I don't really want to devote a lot of space to justifying my comment on the #OscarSoWhite mess, I'll toss out a few extra bon mots.

I'm constitutionally against the idea of using art primarily for the purpose of political issues, and that's why I deem #OscarSoWhite to be "brain dead."

Here's the tweet that started the Net-meme in 2015:

they asked to touch my hair.

OK, the author says that this was meant as a "cheeky" putdown of a mostly white nomination list. I suppose that this is an aspect of Afro-American humor that communicates best to other Afro-Americans. Maybe it's meant to imply that persons of The Unnameable Phenotype are always going to be nothing but curiosities to white people, that white people just want to touch the hair of black people, maybe in line with the old superstition-- that IMO no one is keeping alive except people like Reign-- that touching kinky hair brings good luck.

I've read nothing in any of Reign's online interviews that suggests that she cares about the quality of films or any other artistic medium. She cares, first and foremost, about representation of racial and sexual coteries, as if this representation is a good in itself. Clearly it would never occur to her that maybe the 2015 list of nominated films might have omitted POC nominees simply because the year had been bereft of outstanding POC works. No, in any such situation, the only solution must be a racist conspiracy.

And that, in my considered opinion, is brain-dead hyper-politicized thinking.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE KREE-SKRULL WAR" (AVENGERS #89-97, 1971-72)

Not a few critics have chosen to see the superhero genre as something apart from the confluence of tropes that are called "the SF genre." It's a dubious separation in a critical sense, but it makes sense in terms of marketing. Genres are formed more from reader-expectations than anything else, and it can be fairly said that, say, a character like Superman raises different expectations from a character like Adam Strange.

Marvel's FANTASTIC FOUR blurred the marketing distinction between the genres more than any prior superhero title. Though the heroes spent some time fighting super-crooks like the Frightful Four, they're better known for the many SF-concepts elaborated by Lee and Kirby-- the extradimensional Negative Zone, the "lost race" of genetically modified Inhumans, and the alien race, the Kree, who fostered the Inhumans' advancements, to name the three that have the greatest impact on Roy Thomas's "Kree-Skrull War."

By contrast, though the Avengers had their share of encounters with aliens and lost races, the feature always seemed squarely in the superheroic domain. Further, during the long tenure of writer Roy Thomas on the title, it sometimes seemed like "Fantastic Four West," in that Thomas borrowed a considerable number of villains from the FF: Diablo, the Thinker, and so on. Not until the Kree-Skrull continuity, though, did Thomas make a concerted effort to bring a "sci-fi" flavor to the series.



That said, AVENGERS #89 wasn't precisely Thomas's first effort to blend superheroes with SF. Marvel Comics's version of Captain Marvel debuted in a 1967 Stan Lee story, after which Thomas wrote five more stories before ceding the character to other hands. Thomas's first, very short run with the character-- a soldier of the Kree race, posing as a superhero on Earth-- is noteworthy for revealing a long-standing animus between the Kree and an earlier group of Lee-Kirby aliens, the Skrulls, whom Stan and Jack had mostly ignored for the latter part of the 1960s. Over a year later, Thomas returned to the hero's adventures, and attempted a reboot of the character with Gil Kane art and a new costume (seen in the illo above). Even this reboot was somewhat indebted to the FF feature, since it involved placing Marvel in the Negative Zone, which he could only escape by "trading atoms" with Earth-juvenile Rick Jones.

Thomas wasn't writing the CAPTAIN MARVEL feature at the time he began the Kree-Skrull continuity, but the character is the linchpin that brings the Avengers into a greater SF-tapestry. Issue #89 is largely concerned with revealing to the title heroes the relationship of Marvel and Jones, though it also informs the reader that there's been a power-shift on the Kree homeworld. The Supreme Intelligence, ruler of that world, is deposed by his former underling Ronan (both, incidentally, also FF creations). As soon as Ronan takes power, he sends a robotic Sentry to take Marvel prisoner, while Ronan himself speedily travels all the way to Earth to bring about the total devolution of the human race.


This plot, which lasts over the next two issues, is along the line of "what the Kree giveth, they can also take away." As mentioned above, an earlier generation of the Kree visited the Earth eons ago, and chose to foster the isolated race of modified beings, the Inhumans (whose adventures in their own title Thomas also wrote at one point). The Avengers pursue the abducted Captain Marvel and his captors, and prevent the Earth from returning to Bedrock-status.

Often in comic books, the defeat of an alien invasion had no repercussions on Earth's society. However, the three active Avengers in #89 all belong to groups that weren't quite human: the android Vision and two mutants, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Moreover, by the early 1970s Marvel writers tended, more often than not, to play up their heroes' sense of disaffection from their communities. Thomas goes so far as to have the Vision assert that "superheroes are, by definition, misfits"-- which observation foregrounds the result of the invasion: a massive anti-alien hysteria, at least in the U.S. (Other parts of Marvel-Earth do not weigh in.) Issue #92 is particularly prescient in having two Avengers argue the "government security vs. civil liberaties" question that later informed the CIVIL WAR arc of the 2000s. 

Meanwhile, for no cited reason, the Skrulls declare war on the Kree, forcing Ronan to hurry back to his homeworld. However, now the Skrulls, seeing Earth as a possible resource for their enemies, infiltrate the planet as well. The formidable Super-Skrull tries to destroy the city of the Inhumans, simply so that the Kree cannot enlist their super-powers. The villain also tries to subvert Captain Marvel, so that the Kree officer will reveal a special weapon that can turn the tide in the war. Some of the Avengers, as well as the captain, are abducted, forcing the other heroes to voyage into space to rescue their comrades, while simultaneously trying to keep the two alien races from wrecking the cosmos with their conflict.




The specific breakdown of the back-and-forth battles isn't mythically significant. However, it's interesting to see how Thomas developed of the "Chariots of the Gods" concept put forth by Lee and Kirby in their Kree stories.



By 1971, there was nothing new-- at least in prose science fiction-- about the idea that whole races of aliens and/or Earthmen had evolutionary pathways, or that some of those races still held advancement potential while others had stagnated. The aforementioned Rick Jones, the "ordinary guy" amidst the costumed champions, is Thomas's means of demonstrating this heritage. In order to quell hostilities, the Supreme Intelligence stimulates some deep psychic talent in Jones. His enhanced power literally stops the war. and, for good measure, conjures up a bunch of 1940s superheroes, as a way of celebrating the Golden Age's simpler images of super-humanity.



Thomas's script has a handful of plot-holes, but his basic SF-indebted conception passes the test for a fairly complex symbolic discourse. The narrarive of Kree-Skrull War is somewhat compromised by its noodlings about matters of continuity. This includes not just Thomas finishing up old plotlines (like the status of Black Bolt during Thomas's INHUMANS run) but also creating new narratives irrelevant to the war-story. It's in issue #93 that Thomas lays groundwork for further complications about the Vision character, with a derivative-- but still fun-- reprise of the 1966 FANTASTIC VOYAGE movie, replete with some gorgeous Neal Adams art.