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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...

Friday, April 27, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: HACK/SLASH: GIRLS GONE DEAD (2004)

It's probably not a coincidence that, a week or so after finishing my ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE  series, I turned my attention to an omnibus of stories featuring the adventures of two hunters of killer revenants. Of the two protagonists, only one's name, that of Cassie Hack, is in the title. As far as I can tell, "Slash" just indicates the monster-killing activities of Cassie and her seven-foot-tall male partner Vlad.`In fact, Cassie’s the one who gives her partner the name “Vlad," which is surely meant ironically. The big, slow-speaking fellow is not a smooth undead seducer, but a hulk who displays both the sensitivity and brutality of Dracula’s conceptual opposite, the Frankenstein Monster.



Though the origin-story for the duo has some mythic aspects, the solo 2004 adventure, subtitled "Girls Gone Dead," proves one of the best observations of the sex-and-violence dynamic of the psycho-killer narrative.  The title plays on a series of popular "spring break" titillation videos, "Girls Gone Wild." Making fun of the prurient Spring Break rituals of youthful idlers is at best easy prey, and it's to the credit of creator/writer Tim Seeley that he goes after bigger game.

I should note in passing that though Seeley sometimes drew his characters, in this outing, the second for the heroes, one Frederica Manfredi handles penciling chores. I can't say whether or not Manfredi contiibuted any input to the setup-- two grim hunters venturing into the surf-sun-and-sex world of Palm Beach-- but it adds a little extra to the production to see a female penciler contributing to a story that doesn't totally trash the idea of sexual embodiment.



Like many other supernatural crusaders before them, Cassie and Vlad begin their adventures by investigating media  reports on mysterious deaths. Vlad doesn't know quite what to make of all the prancing, semi-nude bodies, the wet T-shirt contests, and shutterbugs trying to snap pics of feminine nips. Cassie, having been raised in-- and essentially rejected by-- mainstream youth culture, surveys all she sees with a combination of bitterness and ill-concealed longing. Seeley makes clear that she's correct to consider the Palm Beach to be "a place where a bunch of pre-adults can spend mommy and daddy's money, drink like fish, paw at each other, and not have a care in the world." Still, it's a world she can't help but find enticing, compared to her crusade of demon-slaying-- which, the origin makes clear, allows her to fight her own inner demons by expunging killer revenants-- which Cassie terms "slashers"-- from the real world.


This “Palm Beach story” is far more Cassie’s tale than Vlad’s, since parties with her fellow adolescents belonged to a world that Cassie left behind to pursue her demon-slaying career. In the grand tradition of the Protestant Work Ethic, young Cassie tries to put aside her personal needs to investigate the slasher-murders. She finds two enemies who may incarnate a “Catholic Ethic,” even though it seems filtered through the dominant Protestantism of the U.S.


The undead member of the psycho-killer team is Father Wrath. In life he emulated the “fire-and-brimstone” rhetoric of Protestant holy-rollers, inveighing against gays and Jews, despite presenting using the name of a psuedo-Catholic priest and wearing Catholic vestments. Yet casting stones didn’t insure that he was without sin, for he secretly liked to dress up in women’s clothes, and eventually lost his life when he approached the wrong hookup.



Yet he’s wholly controlled by the still-living Laura Lochs, whom Cassie calls a “Catholic school girl from hell,” though for no reason beyond Laura’s prim-and-proper garments. Laura was once engaged, but she didn’t believe in sex before marriage. Her beau then sought easier pickings at a Spring Break wet T-shirt contest, thus giving Laura a permanent mad-on against the beach-blanket bacchanale. She somehow stumbled across a magical book full of spells capable of reviving and controlling dead people, which led her to re-animate Father Wrath.



Cassie escapes the deadly duo, but not without gleaning the germ of their plan: to massacre a beach-house full of “Girls Gone Naughty” party-goers. While Vlad waits as backup, Cassie has to force herself to act the part of a “normal girl” to infiltrate the party. Early on, her mission is compromised when one of the male party-people slips Cassie some vodka. Yet Cassie isn’t attacked, and she actually starts enjoying herself with the casual juveniles even as she thinks things like, “Why am I dancing? I don’t dance. I hate these people.” Laura and her puppet-priest show up to begin the slaughter, resulting in a big blowout in which Vlad duels Father Wrath and Cassie takes on Laura. The highlight of the battle includes a moment in which prim Laura is subjected to a “wet T-shirt” ordeal, playing off the ritual that seduced her boyfriend, before she and Father Wrath are defeated—though Laura makes at least one return appearance.



I won’t claim that Tim Seeley’s script is strikingly original. The psycho-killer subgenre is rife with narratives in which a psycho-killer is spawned by human sinfulness, resulting in the killer’s obsession with avenging those wrongs. A number of psycho-killers, whether explicitly religious or not, devote themselves to crusading against “the beast with two backs,” and their jeremiads are always pathetic, doomed to fail against the irrresitable tide of human sexuality. Seeley isn’t concerned with the social roles embodied in repressive religious practices, only with spinning an escapist story combining tits and terror. What makes “Girls Gone Dead”interesting is its resistance to other pervasive social narratives. Early in the story, a young woman—one of Wrath’s impending victims—observes that Spring Break is just “beads, beer and showin’ your tits to strangers,” and her friend replies that if the woman wanted tamer fare, “you should have went to a church picnic.” In contrast to the alleged dominant pattern of psycho-killer films, it’s the comparatively “good girl” who’s first to die.

Similarly, the relatively minor incident in which a bad boy slips Cassie vodka does not end with that guy, or anyone else, attempting to rape the heroine. Such a scenario would be fully in keeping with the narratives approved by WAPsters and their current philosophical kindred, the #MeToo movement. Cassie really does loosen up after being given strong drink, and she continues to drink on her own, as well as making fleeting connections with strangers. Only grim duty forces her to abandon the carefree revels and have her showdown with a woman as obsessed as she is, who also uses a male partner for “muscle” just as Cassie does. In the end, the wages of “anti-sin” exert a higher price than those of plain old sin, and it’s hard to believe that Seeley doesn’t want his readers to make the same conclusion—which is at least a more complicated theme-statement than one gets from the majority of psycho-killer tales.





Tuesday, April 24, 2018

AN ILIADIC ODYSSEY

I'd been meaning to re-read Homer's ILIAD for some time, and it happened that I had the chance to do so following my re-reading of Shakespeare's TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, discussed here.

My first thought is that although I contrasted Homer's original account of the Achilles-Hector duel with Shakespeare's ironic rewriting of the event, the prose account I excerpted doesn't allude to one important aspect of the fight: that Hector loses in large part because Zeus wants Achilles to win. The two warriors exchange blows and fail to inflict telling wounds. According to translator Richard Lattimore, Hector, wearing the armor of Achilles stolen from Patroklus, charges the Greek warrior. Achilles, who knows the armor well, hits a weak point and wounds Hector. The Trojan pleads to have his body ransomed, but Achilles mercilessly kills him. Later the Greek degrades Hector's body for several days before the Trojan king Priam succeeds in ransoming the corpse from Achilles.

Throughout the conflict, the gods perform many tricks to keep the Greeks on the defensive, and even to keep any other Greek hero from performing Achilles' destined deed of slaying Hector. (At one point, it looks like the Greek Ajax might be able to take Hector, but since this would ruin the story, the gods intervene to save Hector's life.)

Now, from one standpoint the idea of the Greek deities rigging the fight might seem to be no different than Shakespeare's revision, in which Hector is caught without armor and slain by Achilles' troop of warriors. But there's a world of difference between an inequity between men-- which is what Shakespeare presents-- and one between men and gods. There's nothing equitable about the way the gods treat mortals, but to an archaic Greek, this would just be the nature of things. By the very nature of the gods, they send mortals both good and bad fortune, and when it's the latter, mortals can only face their fate with as much courage as possible. Hector's evil fate, of course, mirrors the prophecies of Achilles' own impending downfall, not seen in Homer's epic but repeatedly referenced through prophetic allusions.

Prior to the discovery of other, older heroic epics, the ILIAD seemed to be the oldest extant version of a legendary battle between destined opponents. Myth-fragments referenced battles that took place long before the Trojan War, not less Zeus' combat with Typhon, and indeed the ILIAD references most of the most famous Greek heroes of olden days: Heracles, Jason, Bellerophon. But these fragments were not archaic art at its best, and Homer's epic is, with the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first flowerings of narrative art that is not purely religious in nature.

While discussing the book with friends, I was amazed that they had no real regard for the greatness of either Achilles' deed or those of other warriors, such as Ajax and Diomedes. Over and over, they insisted on reading the inequitable actions of the Greek gods as being no more than metaphors for human propaganda, of the tendency of human leaders to con young people into giving their lives in the name of glory. But this overlooks the fact that war is, as often as not, a response to the inequities of fate. Fate often gives one tribe riches and another impoverishment. and to the extent that the second tribe loves life as much as the first, the impoverished ones are thus more likely to risk their lives for gain and for glory-- which can be, but are not always, interdependent. I'm not saying here that human beings don't go to war for bad reasons; obviously they do. But the idea that war is always wrong-- or even always avoidable-- is one of the key mistakes of the Neopuritan liberal.

QUICK BEAT COMMENT #672

I don't think it was "unfortunate" for the comics-subculture as a whole that early DM fans were superhero-centric. Of course, it was unfortunate for individual artists and publishers who didn't want to do superheroes.

I said earlier that many fans at the time-- though of course, not all-- had a sense that the superhero genre concealed an untapped potential. They started getting the first sense of that potential developing with the breakthrough works like WATCHMEN and DKR, and these are still keystone works to later comics-afficianados for that reason. They also provided a business model for later, non-superhero works in terms of publicity and monetization, if nothing else.

If a comic like LUMBERJANES enjoys fiscal success today, it's because of those early, faltering steps.

Friday, April 20, 2018

STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PT. 3

Today I looked at Part 2, and added a sentence to describe how declarations are supposed to carry "truth-value. The affected paragraph now reads:

It's widely stated that of the usual "parts of language"-- declarative, interrogative, imperative or exclamatory-- propositions are filed under the heading of declarations. This means that the speaker is declaring his statement to have "truth-value," whether he's saying "it looks like it's going to rain" or "Sequence X of LI'L ABNER is better than Sequence Y."

This was necessary because I later stated the equivocal relationship of literary declarations to the truth of experiential reality.

Disgustin' Yokum using his unearthly ugliness to turn Wild Bill Hickup into a stone statue and Li'l Abner letting the Slobbovians legally change him into a female are equally strong propositions, in terms of the reader's engagements with them-- though obviously, neither story-structure possesses any "truth-value" for reality as such.

In the play-religion of the Discordians, their Principia Discordia asserts that the worshipers of the Goddess Eris do not have dogmas, but "catmas," which are defined by the felicitous phrase "relative meta-beliefs." Be this as it may for the Discordians, literature has always been about "relative meta-beliefs," as per my earlier citation of Sir Philip Sidney. Much later, Northrop Frye would speak of a "protecting wall of play" that insured that the reader's investment in stories was less than 100%.

That said, some "relative meta-beliefs" are better justified than others. That's why I borrowed Susanne Langer's term "consummation." I don't think that Al Capp consciously planned out the themes I find in his stories, but I find the ones in "D. Yokum's Visit" to be consummately worked out on the symbolic level. In contrast, in the subsequent storyline, only the sequence directly pertaining to General Bullmoose, his son and the lady wrestler Tara Legoff rises to a high level of symbolic density. Partisans of gender politics would probably decry a perceived reactionary attitude in the sections pertaining to Li'l Abner dressing up like a girl, because at no time does he embrace his "feminine side." For me, though, the sections misfire because they don't really play with any of the symbolic qualities of being male, female, or even something in between. Even worse is a section that takes place merely to delay Abner's return to Dopatch for a few more weeks. He gets trapped on New York's "Floogle Street" by a curse from Evil-Eye Fleegle, and Mammy Yokum has to intervene to disperse the curse. This could have been a cool sequence all by itself had Capp chosen to use it as more than a gimmick to keep his narrative pot boiling, but such are the vagaries of deadline creativity.

FTR (if any), the way in which the "Bullmoose" sequence retains its symbolic integrity despite being part of a greater whole is comparable to the way a given story in a greater continuity may be set apart from that continuity, as I considered when I analyzed "The God Killer" separate from Don McGregor's rambling "Panther's Rage" narrative.





Thursday, April 19, 2018

STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PT. 2

Just a minute ago, I concluded Part 1 by saying:

In the upcoming Part 2, I'll justify the connection of the two types of meaning with my title regarding the nature of strong and weak propositions.
I'll try to set down my theme statement as succinctly as I can, but some grounding for my use of the word "proposition" is necessary. 

It's widely stated that of the usual "parts of language"-- declarative, interrogative, imperative or exclamatory-- propositions are filed under the heading of declarations. This means that the speaker is declaring his statement to have "truth-value," whether he's saying "it looks like it's going to rain" or "Sequence X of LI'L ABNER is better than Sequence Y."

Now, this is surely true when one is speaking of language as it is used in one-on-one discourse, or even in discourse between one and a multitude. However, literature is not concerned with outright declarations as such. Sir Philip Sidney argued that "the poet never affirmeth, and therefore never lieth." This is tantamount to Sidney's stating that the poet's declarations are structured more as possibilities than absolute truths. 

Obviously, there are some poets who do "affirm" more than others, but Sidney's analysis is on target. Commonplace language deals with strong propositions, but literature favors weaker propositions.

Further, even within literature, there's a hierarchy of strength between the concrete, lateral/literal meaning, and the abstract, vertical meaning of both overthought and underthought.

To return to the two LI'L ABNER sequences referenced in Part 1, it's evident from the way Al Capp works that his cycles-- usually running from four to six months-- could be unified in terms of their action, like "D. Yokum Visits," or simply a motley group of episodes, like "General Bullmoose Debuts." 

The propositional strength of the lateral meaning in both is equally strong, for the lateral meaning is identical with "everything that happens in the stories." Disgustin' Yokum using his unearthly ugliness to turn Wild Bill Hickup into a stone statue and Li'l Abner letting the Slobbovians legally change him into a female are equally strong propositions, in terms of the reader's engagements with them-- though obviously, neither story-structure possesses any "truth-value" for reality as such.

Yet the abstract vertical meaning is even weaker than the assorted vicissitudes associated with "the stories." Many readers can read past the symbolic discourses in LI'L ABNER without noticing their existence, while others will read them purely in terms of their alliance to didactic discourse, as in "Capp is a great satirist, because he makes fun of rich people").

Yet the weakness of weak propositions is also their strength, for readers inevitably seek to justify their appreciation of favored artists via abstract propositions. 

At the same time, even though "Visits" is like a well-constructed brick kiln, while "Debuts" is sort of a tumble-down brick house, it's the latter, less organized work that gave birth to one of the strip's more recognizable characters, General Bullmoose, while Disgustin' Yokum is most probably barely remembered even by Capp's remaining fans.

Thus the weakness of weak propositions can be both a strength and a weakness at the same time.

STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PT. 1

In short, ODKIN SON OF ODKIN is an assortment of odds and ends, lacking the relative unity of KING OF THE WORLD. But certainly many of those conceptual "bricks" possess considerable mythic power by themselves, even if they aren't assembled into a satisfying structure. In contrast to the works I've labeled inconsummate, the symbolic value of the building-blocks has not been distorted. The value merely "lies in state," like one of Atlan's bodies, and fails to come alive.-- NEAR MYTHS: ODKIN, SON OF ODKIN.

This 2016 essay is the only one in which I adapted Levi-Strauss's concept of bricolage to literature. I'm sure other critics have ventured the comparison, though I also tried to tie it to the Aristotelian concept of the "unity of action," which in two essays, here and here, provides my "line between fair and good." In the second essay I compared different examples of Jack Kirby's work, just as in ODKIN I had opposed two examples of Wally Wood's work. It occurred to me, though, that two of my essays on Al Capp's LI'L ABNER might better illustrate both bricolage and unity of action, not least because the two story-cycles-- ["D. Yokum's Visit"] and ["General Bullmoose's Debuts"]-- were produced right on top of one another, at a time when the artist's powers of expression were undiminished (in contrast, say, to Wood's debilitating condition at the time he completed ODKIN).

"Visit," starting in late December 1952 and lasting through March of the next year, is shorter than "Debuts," lasting from March to August 1953. Brevity sounds like it might be conducive to Aristotle's unity of action, since the philosopher argued that the most unified works should focus on one primary action, though not without the potential for assorted subplots. (For instance, the primary action of THE ILIAD is "the wrath of Achilles," though there's room for quite a few subplots about Paris and Helen, Hector and his family, et al.) However, in modern fiction brevity does not necessarily confer unity.

In the second part of THE LINE BETWEEN FAIR AND GOOD, I mentioned that the superior works were those that seemed to articulate a sort of "theme statement," though I was careful to distinguish between themes associated with discursive thinking, or "the overthought," from those associated with symbolic discourse, or "the underthought." I also specified that these themes could reinforce one another, though they did not necessarily have to do so. In the case of both Capp story-cycles, Capp succeeded in having them reinforce each other for the most part, though I consider the overthought and underthought weaker in "Debuts" as opposed to "Visits." Thus, since Capp's powers of expression had to be roughly equal when he produced the two sequences, I had to decide what if any factors led him to de-emphasize what I've started calling the "vertical meaning" of "Debuts." And back in RETHINKING THE OVERTHOUGHT, I identified the somewhat competitive partner of vertical meaning, "lateral meaning:"

The literal meaning is, amusingly enough, also the "lateral meaning;" one arrives at it by following the progression of events and expressed feelings from point A to point Z, and that is "what happened"...Most readers quite logically are concerned with lateral meaning, which takes in both "the function of sensation" and "the function of feeling"-- and in truth, the abstractions of both overthoughts and underthoughts are only possible when constructed on the foundation of concrete experience. Thus, I personally can still enjoy many narratives that don't have much in the way of abstract meaning, as long as they excel in terms of sensation, feeling, or some combination thereof. 

Thus it seems to me that Capp's approach to ABNER, from its genesis in 1934 to its conclusion in 1977, was one which, like most comic strips, privileged lateral over vertical meaning, as I mentioned in 2015's STRIP NO-SHOW:

What the elitists missed, however, was that comic strips, even at their greatest levels of excellence, were always hampered by the factors of serial progression. Certainly Sunday pages like NEMO and PRINCE VALIANT could get away with a somewhat "painterly" approach to comics-narrative, but they were the exceptions. Most story-strips, whether they appeared only on weekdays, on Sundays, or in a combined form, chose to pursue a straightforward linear narrative-- again, one designed to seduce the readers into regularly partaking of the newspaper that carried the comic. Caniff may have been the paradigmatic figure here, in part because one can see him channeling the "invisible style" of most Hollywood films of his time.... This linear narrative, in essence, followed the same association I've outlined for the sensation and feeling functions. The visual part of a given strip communicates what kinds of sensations that the characters are experiencing, and the verbal part gives it feeling-context: whether the reader is supposed to be happy or sad when a given character is killed.
While there's no inevitable conflict between vertical and linear meaning, any more than there is between overthought and underthought, such conflict can take place when the artist becomes a little too "workmanlike" in terms of how he assembles the "bricks" of his storylines. This is particularly true of Capp, who shows a particular fondness for piling one story-trope atop another, with no detectable concern for Aristotelian unities.

In the upcoming Part 2, I'll justify the connection of the two types of meaning with my title regarding the nature of strong and weak propositions.


ANOTHER POLITICAL RANT

This one I decided to preserve in case it gets removed from CBR, though the incident that provoked it is pretty nugatory. After I expressed the opinion that the two guys in the Philadelphia Starbucks incident were "troublemakers," one poster asked me my reasons:

___________

they came into the shop, asked to use the restroom, and were told they couldn't without being customers.

You would think that if they REALLY needed to use the restroom, and REALLY planned in advance to wait for a friend as they later claimed, they would have bought some lousy low-priced item so that they could wait in comfort. Instead, they decided to sit around and buy nothing, which indicates that they got their dander up because the manager didn't defer to their sense of entitlement.

Some little details I bet none of the esteemed news media will cover: did the friend of these poor, offended individuals ever show up to verify their story?

Did they really just sit them holding their water for the entire time that it took for (a) the manager to ask them to leave, (b) for her to get through to the cops, (c) and for the cops to arrive? Wow, such a testament to fortitude. Right up there with Rosa Parks.:p

edit: Okay, now I've come across a news item in which the guys' names are given, and they said they were there to keep a meeting for a "real deal"-- and in THIS item, the "friend"/investor IS named-- but the early versions of the news items were negligent with these details, and I doubt most readers cared anyway. Then the question once more becomes, "If you're going to meet at a public place for a business deal, why the hell wouldn't you buy a damn cuppa coffee to smooth things over?"

No mention in the above CBS news piece of the allegation that they asked to use the bathroom first, but until I see something further, I tend to suspect CBS elided that detail to make a better story.

SECOND EDIT:

Yeah, TIME does mention the bathroom allegation here, so CBS is crap.


ADDENDUM, addressing to a CBR guy:

I didn't bother to respond to [your post] at the time, but an interesting detail caught my eye when I looked at several of the news summaries:

[QUOTE]Nelson and Robinson, black men who became best friends in the fourth grade, were taken in handcuffs from the Starbucks in Philadelphia's tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, where Robinson has been a customer since he was 15.[/QUOTE]

So one has to presume that Robinson was the source for this indirect quote, and also that he's telling the absolute truth, due to the principle of AVANTAL: Alleged Victims Absolutely Never Tell Any Lies.

But the question then becomes, for me at least:

If Robinson had been frequenting that Starbucks shop during the year or so that the alleged racist served as manager--

Does that mean that he was a PAYING customer?

Or was he just a THEORETICAL customer. who has been observed by said manager on other occasions to sit around and not buy anything?

But no, such a scenario is clearly impossible, since we all known that only white people commit so-called "racial microaggressions."


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: [GENERAL BULLMOOSE DEBUTS], LI'L ABNER (1953)

There are almost no scans online for me to pirate for this week's essay, except this one:



And it happens to be the same scan I used in an earlier essay: the cover of Kitchen Sink's nineteenth collection of LI'L ABNER strips, where I reviewed the continuity I entitled "D. Yokum's Visit." In contrast to the relative unity of "Visit," the next six months is something of a motley group of loosely associated plotlines, of which the most important one is the introduction of Capp's menacing magnate, General Bullmoose. There also aren't many scans of him, which seems odd given that he's one of the few support characters whom an earlier generation knew pretty well, if only thanks to the 1959 film.  Here's one not from the "Debuts" continuity:




Most of the plotlines are exemplars of what I've called "lateral meaning," for they have no point except to engage the reader in terms of both kinetic and dramatic potentialities: "If the Reader Likes Character D, he'll be interested in seeing how Challenge K affects him." They go like this:

(1) Shortly before the birth of the first child of Abner and Daisy Mae, perennial jinx Joe Btfsplk wanders back into Dogpatch. He's warned to keep away from the expecting parents, lest he jinx their unborn child. He descends into an underground cave, but the cave happens to tunnel down under Abner's house, so that bad things start happening to the Yokums anyway.

(2) To better support his future offspring, Abner tries to find work, without success. However, perhaps due to the jinx, two strangers from the quasi-Russian realm of Slobbovia show up in Dogpatch. One is female wrestler Tara Legoff-- one of Capp's many statuesque beauties-- and her manager-father, Rip Von Legoff. They want to find a quintessentially American female sparring partner for Tara, but for some damn reason, the only one who meets their requirements is Li'l Abner. So Abner dresses up in drag and goes on the road, and Rip helps him fake his death so that Daisy Mae won't miss him, or something like that.

(3) Thanks to the newspapers covering the gorgeous lady of wrestling and her dolled-up sparring partner, the great financier General Bullmoose decides that he wants his puny son Weakfish to marry whoever wins in a bout between Tara and "Li'l Anya." The Slobbovians, hot to marry into money, decide to have Tara use a killer-move on Abner, and though he doesn't die, he does lose. 

(4) His job terminated, the big lummox decides to go back to Dogpatch, only to find out that his bereaved wife has chosen to remarry, in order to give Baby Yokum a father. Abner faces assorted delays that keep him from Daisy Mae's side-- not least an encounter with Capp's zoot-suited evildoer Evil-Eye Fleegle-- but in the end, Abner returns and stops the wedding. Daisy Mae then gives birth without ever showing any visible evidence of being pregnant.

Now, all four of these plot-threads satisfy the reader's need for lateral meaning, but only in Plot #3 does Capp "go vertical." Some of his vertical meaning consists of discursive "overthoughts," like naming the manipulative multi-millionaire after the Bull Moose Party, which ran Theodore Roosevelt for president in 1912, and having the character use a motto based on a saying attributed to General Motors: "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the country." But there's a deeper level of "underthought."

The Roosevelt reference is actually more meaningful than the motto, for Capp draws Bullmoose as a huge, muscular old man with a walrus-mustache. He's intensely turned on by the photos of Tara and Li'l Anya, but knows he can't mate with them anymore ("If only I were eighty again"). He chooses to defer his lust to his son Weakfish, a puny fellow who protests, "But father-- I'm only 52." What we have here, then, is a literary myth with both psychological and sociological ramifications: one in which a powerful father somehow gives birth to a sickly son. Oddly, Bullmoose never brings up the most logical motivation-- that he wants Weakfish to marry a "wild beast of a woman" so that he'll sire a son better than he is. The only motivation he gives is that such a marriage will supposedly make Weakfish capable of running Bullmoose's empire if Bullmoose should ever drop dead. Weakfish, however, is in love with a specimen of femininity as puny as he is: "Olivia de Backache." (Possibly this was Capp's little shot at Olivia de Havilland's portrait of Melanie Wilkes, the dishrag-like character from 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.) Weakfish musters just enough courage to try eloping with Olivia. However, Bullmoose finds out, and with "two phone calls" he reduces Olivia's father to penury. Weakfish, agreeing with his father that the Bullmooses cannot "have a pauper's blood in our family." jilts Olivia-- though no one brings up the fact that neither of the "lady wrestlers" are of the moneyed classes.

While Abner/Anya has no desire to marry Weakfish, Tara is clearly interested in Weakfish's money. Thus the outcome of the match works out well for the two contenders, though not for Bullmoose's shrimpy son. He's last seen running out of the wrestling-hall as Tara chases after him. That's how Capp leaves them, the picture of an unmasculine man being pursued by a super-feminine woman. The only good thing in Weakfish's future is that, unlike the Dogpatch males who get ambushed and married by predacious women during Sadie Hawkins' Day, the scion of the Bullmoose line will probably get killed on his wedding-night.


QUICK STAN LEE COMMENT

Something I posted on the general subject of Ditko and Kirby leaving Marvel in the 1960s, and the "end of that era:"

I agree with the general feeling [about how good Kirby was in the sixties], though I'm also a fan of Kirby's NEW GODS and a handful of his other self-scripted works. However, we should keep in mind that Stan Lee probably would have left Kirby and Ditko if they hadn't left him. Stan quit being a regular scripter in the middle 1970s, and I believe his main excuse was that he just had so much to do campaigning for the Marvel Age of Comics, he had no time for writing. There's probably some truth in this, but I think that if he'd really wanted to do it, he'd have found a way. I'd have to check the timing, but at some point in the 1970s he started pulling down a salary as "publisher," to the extent that he could even step down as chief editor, and ceased to have anything to do with the published comics. Though I get the sense that Lee really got a kick out of writing at times, it was a job first and foremost, and when he got a chance to step down and make money doing something else-- something that allowed him to express the persona he'd created as a "god of comics"-- he did it, and barely did any writing after that.  It's also possible that he, more than Kirby or Ditko, was getting burned out on regular comics. I like a little bit of his mid-70s work, but even his best stuff is pale next to his lesser sixties work.

Friday, April 13, 2018

ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE PT .4

End-thoughts on the Narrative--

In previous installments all of my examples of fictional psycho-killers have been singular. However, it's possible to have more than one psycho-killer in a given narrative. Again using films as an easy resource, "dual psychos" are a favorite device in the realm of the "fake psycho" narrative. For instance, 1964's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, which numerous critics deem the first of the Italian "giallo films," has two people donning the mask of the killer at different times during the story.




Thereafter, the dual-psycho film became common, ranging from 1971's BAY OF BLOOD to 1996's SCREAM. However, it's relatively rare to encounter two psycho-killers who are not initially associated with one another, and when this trope is used, it tends to yield comic results, as with the 1987 film PSYCHOS IN LOVE.


The comedy may stem from violating the "one gimme" premise associated with most films in the subgenre. However, this may tend to be more true of films in either the naturalistic or uncanny domains, given that FREDDY VS. JASON works as "straight" horror despite its use of assorted comic touches. 



However, marvelous psychos don't seem to lend themselves to the concept of the extended family. The most famous iteration of the "weird family" trope arises from the American "old dark house" film, implicitly named for the 1932 film THE OLD DARK HOUSE. 


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However, though the HOUSE is full of weirdos, only one of them is intentionally murderous, and his status as a "psycho killer" is debatable. 1965's SPIDER BABY is probably a better exemplar of a family of psycho killers.


Of course, the first two TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE films qualify, even though Leatherface remains the primary psycho. 


 Rustic environments seem to breed families or even whole societies of psychos. The 1972 DELIVERANCE presents a whole society of degenerative hillfolk, though the film remains firmly within the naturalistic domain, unlike the more overtly weird WRONG TURN "killbilly" franchise. However, the largest psycho-killer society is almost certainly the town of hostile Southerners described by H.G. Lewis's film-title, TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!



One last note on the psycho-killer narrative is that it has proved so popular as to spawn hybrids that don't quite conform to my model. The first four films in the LEPRECHAUN series are almost indistinguishable in tone from the ELM STREET series, in that both concern a hideous supernatural being who kills indiscriminately and makes many bad jokes. However, the Leprechaun is "outside horror," in that he has no psychological motives; he's just evil. 



There are even a few serial killers who make pacts with the devil for their marvelous powers, such as the Cenobites of the HELLRAISER film-franchise. But in this and similar cases, it's understood that whether the modern-day killer calls upon Old Scratch or Leviathan, his powers are rooted in a tradition of folkloric magic outside the province of the cruder, but more normative, psycho-killer narrative.


ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE PT .3

In Part 2, I attempted to better define the psycho-killer subgenre by contrasting two classes of monster: one whose roots are in psychological processes as modern culture understands them, and one in which the monster originates from processes allied with either archaic folklore and magic, or with innovations in science. However, it belatedly occurred to me that my distinction drew on one made by Stephen King in his 1981 essay-book DANSE MACABRE. Having realized this, I chose not to go back and reread the King passages on this subject, since it's probable that I'd deviate from his theory in any case. In this 2013 review of several CHILDREN OF THE CORN films, I said:

In his nonfiction work DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King made a distinction between "inside horror," dealing with the sort of horror stemming from human motivations, and "outside horror," dealing with horror stemming from the nonhuman.  
Without implicating Stephen King further in my own theorizing, suffice to say that for me, "outside horror"-- or any comparable fictional affect, for that matter-- is based on human perceptions of nonhuman forces or entities. These perceptions include discovering the nature of the nonhuman, which can only be comprehended through one of two cultural concepts. If it's something that seems to hearken back to the earliest times of humankind, it's "magic." If it's something that is better allied to the advance of current human knowledge, then it aligns with the cultural concept of "science." In fiction the concept of magic give rise to such forms as "high fantasy" and 'supernatural fiction," for which there is no handy portmanteau term, while the concept of science has given rise to two non-identical portmanteaus: "science fiction" and "speculative fiction."

Now, based on these brief descriptions, one might expect everything in the latter cultural concept, "science," to also align with the concept of modernity. However, in the history of literature both "fantasy" and "science fiction" have been traditionally rejected by critics who claimed to represent the spirit of modernity, ranging from Edmund Wilson to Theodor Adorno. My interpretation of this phenomenon is that the apostles of modernity emphasize the status quo of current existence to such an extent that anything that either "goes back" or "goes forward" is often rejected out of hand. Thus, even though the concept of science has proven vital in modernity's rejection of the concept of magic, the apostles must reject fiction about science that has not happened yet just as much as they reject fiction about magical forces and entities.

I mentioned in Part 2 that in the domain of cinema, the most common iteration of the psycho-killer monster is a human being whose evil stems from his psychological motivations. Further, I asserted that most films about such monsters generally pursued either a naturalistic or an uncanny phenomenality. However, there are a few monsters who have marvelous aspects, even though I find that these do not explain their evil, as Dracula's evil is explained by the folkloric tradition of vampirism. The most common form of the marvelous psycho-killer is usually a revenant of some kind. Freddy Krueger is the most famous ghostly killer, though sometimes one sees the body rather than the soul survive death, as with the Maniac Cop--



And "Uncle Sam" from the 1996 video of the same name.


And then there are also psycho-killers whose spirits become embodied in nonhuman objects, like the celebrated Chucky.


Occasionally marvelous psycho-killers don't technically die, but are possessed by unfathomable forces that make it impossible to kill them, as with Michael Myers--


While Jason Voorhees is noteworthy for starting out as an uncanny psycho-killer who graduated to marvelous status once his producers decided it was just too complicated to revive him the old way.



What all of these marvelous psychos have in common is that there's usually very little expatiation on the "rules" that make their existence possible, in contradistinction to the type of rule-based narratives one finds in fantasy and science fiction. Again, the aberrant psychology of the psycho-killer, the thing that makes him kill and kill again, is the main feature of these films. I would say this probably applies to psycho-killer fiction in general, but can't claim to be deeply read in the history of prose psychos.


It's also noteworthy that when ordinary humans have to battle marvelous psycho-killers, only rarely do they use any rule-based strategy. The Dream Warriors of the third Freddy Krueger film articulate some very vague rules about forming "dream bodies," but one simply doesn't see a strong emphasis on such abstractions.

Part 4 coming up next.



Thursday, April 12, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "CRACKS" (SHOWCASE 94 #7, 1996)

I didn't follow much of the KNIGHTFALL continuity in the 1990s Batman titles. I knew at least generalities: that, after the original Batman had his back broken by the villain Bane, a substitute for the Caped Crusader had to be found. One Jean-Paul Valley took over the mantle, albeit wearing a high-tech suit-- possibly an editorial comment on the then-popular vogue for Image-style heroes-- and passing himself off as the authentic crimefighter.

I've usually found Peter David's writing, however entertaining, to be antithetical to the notion of symbolic discourse. However, David succeeds in this "imitation Batman" story due to two other overriding factors: that the art is supplied by Craig Russell and Michael Gilbert (both credited for both penciling and inking chores), and that here David is able to work with the rich mythology of the Bat-universe.



As the Jae Lee cover makes clear, this is a story devoted to Batman's frequent foe, the Penguin. In contrast to the Golden Age version reviewed here, the nineties version of the criminal no longer involve him committing clever, bird-based robberies. "Cracks" is structured like a crime story, focused on the Penguin-- whose criminal status is concealed under the veneer of respectable
activity-- being interrogated by Commissioner Gordon at police headquarters. At the time the story opens, "Armored Batman" has been operating for some time, though many persons-- including both Gordon and Penguin-- suspect that Valley is not the real deal.

The wordless first page establishes that the Bat-signal-- artfully reflected in the Penguin's monocle-- is shining in the sky, and the dialogue on the next relays that the signal has gone unanswered for half an hour. Gordon needs Batman because Penguin has boasted of having kidnapped the Commissioner's wife, and that she's doomed to perish in a giant egg about to fill with poison gas. What does Penguin want, to reveal her location?

Of course, Penguin isn't going to reveal his desire right away. He masks it by blathering about the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, and states that both he and Gordon are dinosaurs because they came from a time that valued "style and finesse." (Implicitly another shot at the banality of Image Comics, which David was wont to criticize more than a few times in that decade.) Then the villain challenges the cop to figure out what he Penguin wants in exchange for the information.


Eventually, after much cat-and-mouse dialogue, Penguin does reveal what he wants-- to affirm his suspicion that New Batman is a "decoy"-- but Gordon takes it further. Forced to play psychologist, the cop baits the villain by asserting that he suffers from "the most massive inferiority complex in all of Gotham," and that the real reason he wants so badly to know about Batman's fate is because he wants "to be treated by Batman as if he's important." There was nothing startlingly new in this observation. Penguin's first appearance played upon the scorn he received for his birdlike appearance, and later iterations, especially one by Denny O'Neil, made his complex explicit. But David does add, in counterpoint to the evocative art, a leitmotif in which Penguin constantly throws bird-metaphors in the Commissioner's face, and then finishes by claiming, "We both worship winged creatures, but I can still function without mine. Can you?"

Gordon's final strategy is one which Batman himself has been known to employ: dragging an unrepentant villain to a rooftop, and asking him if he wants to learn how to fly.

However, to the cop's good fortune, Valley-Batman then appears on the same rooftop, revealing the reason for his absence: that he'd already ferreted out the location of the Commissioner's wife, and didn't want to waste time answering the signal. And though the reader knows it's not the real Batman, the hero makes clear that, as far as crooks like Penguin are concerned, he'll always "be there" to stop them. Then the final page once more echoes the image of the Bat-signal reflected in Penguin's monocle-- only this time as an symbol of the "cracks" in his pose of superiority: his existential fate, insofar as a comic-book villain can have one, to suffer eternal defeat at the hands of a hero.






Wednesday, April 11, 2018

ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE PT .2

In addition to the other names given the "psycho killer" subgenre that I mentioned in Part 1, "serial killer" is often used to designate the subgenre in film. It's true that in this sense "serial killer" and "psycho killer" mean almost the same thing, and the former even implies that "the killer must kill again," to borrow the title of a 1975 giallo film.

However, "psycho killer" is a better term in another respect. Unlike other types of murderous monsters, the psycho killer is separated by being the creation of psychological forces, which in turn stem from his place within the cultural concept of monsters: the sense of *modernity.*

If one dates horror fiction from the rise of the Gothics in the 18th century, then most of the classic monsters are linked to their predecessors in archaic folklore: vampires, werewolves, and demons. Even Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Monster, despite serving as a prototype for the later science-fiction genre, owes some inspiration to the writings of alchemists like Albertus Magnus. Early cinema was a little more devoted to killers who didn't owe that much to archaic lore, such as the 1925 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, adapted from Leroux's 1910 novel. But even in films, the best known names in horror either sprang from archaic ideas about magic, like Dracula and the Golem, or from an opposite strain: that of proto science fictional concepts like Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Doctor Moreau.

Technically, any of these monstrous menaces might be deemed "serial killers" insofar as they kill a lot of people during their exploits. But vampires, werewolves and the results of mad science don't kill first and foremost out of their psychological maladjustment. Such monsters are the products of magic or mad science, not of bad parenting or broken homes.

The modern idea of "psychology" stems from the late 19th century, and over time provided a new model for motivation. The aforementioned Phantom, of course, pursues a goal of romantic fulfillment in compensation for the physical disfigurement that makes normal life impossible for him. To be sure, the Phantom doesn't actually kill many people in the original novel, but cinematic adaptations have tended to ramp up his kill-count.

Thus I favor "psycho killer" over "serial killer" because the former already implies seriality, and it also implies that the *character* of the killer: that he/she is either a "true psycho" or a "fake psycho." The latter category, of course, would not be conceivable unless audiences could credit the idea of a serial-murdering psycho as a real threat.

Now, in real life "psychos" are considered to be the results of an entirely naturalistic process, However, in fiction, it's possible to have a psycho-killer who conforms to the tropes of the naturalistic, the uncanny or the marvelous. The one common factor they all share is the idea of *modernity.*

Now, whether one is talking about a "modernity" taking place in modern times or in earlier, post-industrial eras, it's as easy to see an uncanny psycho-killer operating with the same basic modus operandi as a naturalistic one, as I pointed out in PENALTY FOR THRESHOLDING. However, what sort of psycho-killer can be both modern and marvelous?

And the answer is "a gho-gho-gho-GHOST!"-- albeit only a very recent revenant.

Thus Freddy Krueger qualifies as a marvelous psycho-killer--


However, the Headless Horseman, were he a real specter, would not, since he's become a thing of legend over the course of years. The same applies to the gigantic spectral helmet that kills a victim at the beginning of THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO.




More examples in Part 3.

Friday, April 6, 2018

ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE PT .1

I'm as guilty as anyone of using fuzzy terms like "psycho films" and "slashers" to describe works of art-- usually, though not exclusively, theatrical films-- that are really about a subgenre which would be most accurately termed "the psycho killer subgenre."

The "slasher" cognomen came into common usage in reaction to America's psycho-killer films of the 1980s, since many of these featured killers who brutally slashed up their victims. Naturally, the idea of a "slasher killer" was considerably older, dating back at least to Jack the Ripper. Throughout the 20th century, a number of serial killers were given a "slasher" nickname, as with the "Windsor Slasher," who committed his crimes in 1945 Ontario. Still, it should be obvious that the term doesn't capture the essence of the psycho-killer subgenre, since many fictional psycho-killers may rely on acts of strangling or bludgeoning.

The pejorative term "psycho" probably originated as a shortened form of either "psychotic" or "psychopath." However, the slang was never meant to be precise, and colloquially people use "psycho" just as easily for anyone who displays psychological problems, not just a violent psychotic. Thus a film like SECRET CEREMONY, in which Mia Farrow's character is weird but not dangerous to anyone, might be called a "psycho film" but not a "psycho killer film." 

Even when the psycho is dangerous only to him/herself-- as with the 2010 BLACK SWAN-- one might choose to deem that psycho-narrative to fall within the "psycho killer subgenre/"  However, I would venture to say that when most persons hear the term "psycho killer," they think of someone who is a danger not to himself but to other people, often many other people, for reasons akin to, though not always identical to, the motivations of the "serial killer." In my essay ESCALATION PROCLAMATION I stated that the authorial practice of continually escalating violence within a narrative has long been a tried-and-true method of keeping audience interest:

 A single violent act, such the sort of unsolved killing that initiates most murder-mysteries—including two of Poe’s three efforts in that genre—merely serves to incite the average reader’s curiosity.  What incites that reader’s deeper identification is the repetition of violence.  Through repetition of violence, the reader’s potential fears for the story’s characters are escalated.  Which character may die next? Can the hero save the next victim from the villain’s machinations?

So, even though technically a "psycho killer" narrative could be about a psycho who kills just one victim, or even is a danger to him/herself, the dominant *expectation* of the audience is that the psycho killer is going to be dangerous to many people.

Now, there are many films in which a killer kills many people, but the killer is not "psycho" in any recognizable way. Crime films are a pertinent example, where it's usually evident that the murderer is simply murdering his way to prosperity, in an immoral yet essentially rational manner. Yet one also cannot be a total literalist about defining psycho-killer narratives, because by weight of tradition, the subgenre includes two types of psycho:

(1) The "true psycho," who actually has some psychological breakdown that tied in to his/her depredations,

(2) The "fake psycho," who is rational but has assumed the appearance of a psychopath in order to commit his crimes. This tradition dates back at least to Edgar Wallace thrillers of the 1920s like THE BLUE HAND (which gave rise to a 1967 film). One "fake psycho" film even fakes the deaths the killer supposedly commits-- though the effect on audiences is identical up to the point that the deception is revealed.

More in Part 2.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: ["THE DEATH OF IRIS"] THE FLASH #270-283, 1979-80)

This mythcomics essay didn't start as a blogpost, but as an essay for Robert Young's COMICS INTERPRETER magazine.  The issue for which the essay was intended wasn't published to my knowledge, and since the last recorded issue came out in 2004, I probably wrote it around that time. The magazine's demise anticipates the overall death of the print-magazine comics-fanzine, culminating in the end of the print COMICS JOURNAL somewhere around the  beginning of this decade.

Since it's an essay, it's longer and gets more into my personal aesthetics. I had occasionally thought about re-reading the FLASH issues analyzed in order to see if they still met my mythopoeic standards, and finally, I did so. I cleaned up a few cumbersome sentences, and I follow up the essay with a couple of extra comments, but substantially this post is the same as the essay submitted in 2004.
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In WHAT WAS LITERATURE?, critic Leslie Fiedler observed that the “mythopoeic power” of works, whether of high or low literature, was “independent of formal excellence.” If I had a hammer capable of pounding this insight into the skulls of comics-readers everywhere, I would use that hammer—on about 50% of the readers.   The other 50% could go on being elitists, populists, or nothing in particular, which would still leave me opponents with whom to debate. But the converted 50%, thanks to their newfound appreciation of Fiedler’s insight, would be granted greater understanding of the the amazing variety of myth-symbols present in all levels of literature, not to mention better posture and 75% fewer cavities than the other group.  But as I have no such hammer, I had to write this essay instead.

Fiedler does not explicitly define in the book what he means by “formal excellence." As far as this essay is concerned, it connotes the totality of literary qualities that have traditionally impressed the cultural elite against which Fiedler was reacting. It would thus take in elements like distinctive style, originality, mature content, and the one that concerns me most here, what I call “thematic complexity.”   I stress this over what’s usually called just “theme” because almost any coherent narrative has some sort of theme, no matter how simple—the triumph of true love, the defeat of the forces of evil. But simple themes do not generally impress the elite. I have nothing against the appreciation of thematic complexity in literature, but I think that often readers of an elitist bent overlook another kind of complexity in their search for deep themes about the meaning of life—what I will call “symbolic complexity.”  This complexity may be what gives some of these simple works about love and death the power to survive over generations, even when the works may have crafted as “throwaway entertainment,” and certainly lack much “formal excellence.”

At this point I should probably warn any elitists reading that they should probably just stop right here, as most of them have hardened their hearts (and heads) against the notion that myths and symbols have any value apart from how they are used in a narrative to enhance the theme.  Many of them have expended considerable intellectual resources to sound the clarion call for “comics as respectable art,” which often (though not exclusively) means comics with complex themes.   Because theme is predominant in the minds of elitists, they often have no ability to see how symbols can work apart from theme even as they work together, not unlike harmony and melody in music.   In any case I have a little tired of answering the charge of being simply a “superhero apologist” (as one Milo George was good enough to tag me on a message board), as well as being bored with the usual predictions of what will happen if the barbarians of pop culture should ever be allowed past the gates of respectability in any way: the downfall of civilization, rioting in the streets, and no new issues of EIGHTBALL.

In one way, though, fans of trashy genre-literature (whether they are myth-critics or not) have one thing in common with the elitists: both groups are faced with an often-staggering mass of garbage through they must dig to find gemstones. Most elitists solve this problem by ignoring everything that seems thematically conventional, unless it is given the gloss of superior technique. Fans, for their part, will keep on trucking through the muck and mire in search of whatever kind of gems they prefer, but most of them are guided by their individual tastes.  The unique situation of the Hunter of Modern Myths, though, is that he may find himself discerning interesting gems—mythologems, to be precise-- in works he doesn’t particularly like (as I will be doing here).   However, assuming that even a cynical elitist will take that critic’s word on the matter of his own tastes, one might consider this relative detachment a rebuttal of a classic elitist canard: that the myth-critic is merely attempting to use archetypal discourse to justify his nostalgic affection for things he read in childhood.   Indeed, the sequence I’ll be critiquing from the adventures of “the Fastest Man Alive” is actually devoted to tearing down much of what I have liked, in a nostalgic sense, about the character of the Flash.

But then, at times destruction can be as interesting as creation, as is testified by Camille Paglia’s interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous opposition of Apollo and Dionysus in art:

“Art makes things. There are, I said, no objects in nature, only the grueling erosion of natural force, flecking, dilapidating, grinding down, reducing all matter to fluid… Dionysus was identified with fluids; blood, sap, milk, wine.  The Dionysian is nature’s chthonian fluidity. Apollo, on the other hand, gives form and shape, marking off one form from another.  All artifacts are Apollonian.”—Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 30.

The most common characterization of the superhero by the elitist is an Apollonian one.  The superhero is, we are told, the staunch defender of order at all times, which in itself proves him a potential fascist.  And even many of those who style themselves fans of the superhero genre would prefer to see their character unsullied with Dionysian darkness.  As I began this essay, issue #2 of DC’s crossover-miniseries, IDENTITY CRISIS, came out, occasioning considerable ire from many fans for its flirtation with such darkness.   This darkness took the form of the rape and murder of Sue Dibny, a character of some thirty years’ vintage (and who originally appeared in the FLASH comic).   The fans that did not like this development did not think such excessive violence belonged in a superhero comic, which was meant to be a fun, “all ages” form of entertainment.

Though I disagree with this conclusion, I sympathize on one symbolic level.   Most characters of genre-literature, particularly those in continuing series, are “Apollonian artifacts,” conventions given human form that do not even try to be three-dimensional human beings. One does not have to be Leslie Fiedler to suggest that it must be something akin to a mythopoeic power that keeps certain genre-characters fresh over generations.   Further, the superhero may be the most artificial of cultural artifacts, for he resembles nothing “real,” in the way that the fictional cowboy is patterned on his historical forbears.  There’s some logic behind the idea that the superhero’s adventures should be as strictly ritualistic as a Noh drama: nothing but endless tales of good conquering evil, in the form of a bizarre superhero constantly thwarting equally-absurd supervillains—which formula does, in truth, describe the early adventures of the Flash. 


When DC Comics introduced the character in 1956, he represented the first major attempt to revive the genre of the superhero, which had seen its greatest popularity during WWII and had been largely unpopular for almost ten years following the end of the war. Perhaps because of the period in which he began, the Flash then developed into the most Apollonian of superheroes.   Whereas even Superman had the catastrophe of planetary destruction lurking in his past, the Flash barely possessed any background at his start, and certainly not a tragic one.   He began as police scientist Barry Allen, first seen sitting around his laboratory reading a comic book of the original FLASH (the first, WWII-era version of a speedster-hero, also from DC Comics), and wondering what it would be like to have super-speed.  With that, mirable dictu, a lightning bolt crashed through his window, splashed various chemicals upon Barry, and endowed him with the desired power of super-speed.   From there he went on to encounter a colorful “rogue’s gallery” of villains, most of whom chose some natural phenomenon on which to base their powers or weapons—the Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, the Top-- and who would go around stealing things mostly so that the Flash would come out and fight them.   

As developed under the aegis of editor Julie Schwartz, artist Carmine Infantino, and writers like John Broome and Gardner Fox, this Flash was distinguished by all sorts of Apollonian charms—a breezy humor, ingenious psuedoscientifc rationales for all the absurdities, and almost no emotional conflicts.  (I might except a tale in which the Flash’s “evil double,” a speedster called Professor Zoom, tries to steal Barry Allen’s fiancĂ©e Iris West: the Flash actually gets refreshingly angry at this act of bride-stealing.)

And yet, the Dionysian was in the early superheroes as well: in the violence of most of their origins (like the aforementioned death of Krypton), and often in the fear-invoking appearances many of them assumed in their crimefighting identities: the Batman, the Hangman, the Spectre. When the Flash appeared in 1956, the industry had been largely purged of overt sex and violence by its acceptance of the Comics Code Authority as a means to assure parents’ groups that comics with the Code seal were safe for Little Timmy.  Without knowing whether IDENTITY CRISIS will prove to be anything possessed of any sort of complexity, I can say that the Dionysian will always invade even the most conservative-seeming genres, and that both the elitist scoffers and the nostalgic fans are both wrong: one for not recognizing those dark undercurrents, and the other for not appreciating what complexities they can engender.   



And so at long last I come to that version of THE FLASH that was in many ways the antithesis of the “classic FLASH” of Schwartz and his creative team.  I recall being rather less then enthralled in 1979 when this new version took shape. New editor, Ross Andru took over the FLASH feature, promising on the cover of #270 that “starting with this issue—Flash’s life begins to change, and it will never be the same again!”  Andru’s editorial tenure lasted only thirteen issues, from #270-283. Cary Bates, who had been the principal writer on the title for some years, executed all of the Andru-edited issues, though the tone of the Andru tenure was so different from what Bates had been doing under editor Julius Schwartz, so I hypothesize that Bates was working from an editor’s plan.  The artists probably had next to no influence on these issues, given that during this period the penciling-chores changed hands five times. 

From an aesthetic angle, I’m ambiguous about the aforementioned changes, but in retrospect I see that there is method in the madness that editor Andru and writer Bates inflicted on the Flash’s life: a method that consists of disrupting the Apollonian pattern of the hero’s adventures with elements of chaos—drug running, police corruption, madness, suspicions of infidelity, and ultimately, the death of the Flash’s longtime spouse, Iris West-Allen.  For writer Bates this was fairly new territory, as he’d written the Flash’s adventures in “classic mode” for many years previous. Andru, for his  part, was essentially continuing in the more Dionysian mode of one of his earlier seventies’ assignments: as penciller for Marvel’s SPIDER-MAN series, during which, perhaps not coincidentally, that hero’s longtime girlfriend also bit the dust. Other motifs from the SPIDER-MAN series seem to make the leap as well: Barry Allen becomes more of a “Hard Luck Harry,” with his boss busting his chops and his wife nagging him about missing dinner to fight crime.  But symbolically, the most interesting thing is Barry Allen becomes implicated in an experiment that creates a Frankenstein-like monstrosity that almost incarnates the chaos overtaking his life—as well as his wife.

Indeed, the literary myth of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN bears strong resemblance to certain aspects of the Andru years, particularly in respect to the symbol of the doppelganger, the “evil twin” that does the things his good twin will not.   In contrast to many of the cinematic adaptations of FRANKENSTEIN, Shelley’s monster hews close to the doppelganger pattern, obsessively killing off all the persons, friends and family, whom Frankenstein values, including his new bride.  The Andru-Bates continuity also manages to duplicate many of the same motifs, though one cannot be sure how conscious the creators were of such parallels.

I wrote before that Barry Allen was “implicated” in the creation of a monster, but his contribution is more indirect than Frankenstein’s.  In the first issue, Barry is invited to a demonstration of a new “aversion therapy” process designed to reform criminals; a process which its inventor, Dr. Nephron, based on a criminology thesis Barry Allen wrote in college.   Possibly Bates introduced this twist only to give Nephron a reason to invite Barry to see the process demonstrated, but the effect is to render Barry complicit for having “postulated the possibility of organic causes for criminal behavior.”   Barry has considerable reservations about Nephron’s use of aversion therapy, and eventually uses his authority to have the project shut down—temporarily, as it later develops.


And as if all this is not enough to come down on the poor fellow, at the same time his wife’s giving him grief, a much younger girl, name of Melanie, comes into his life; a girl who idolizes him for being a powerful superhero.   No, it’s not a presentiment of “American Beauty,” given that Flash never actually seeks her out. At the outset she seems to be stalking him, using her mind-control powers to facilitate her search for her idol.   Yet it could be argued that within the greater pattern of the story she is Flash’s fantasy-projection, since she's younger than his wife and much more appreciative of his superhero career.   Indeed, she becomes something of a siren-like figure in the early issues, twice using her powers to summon him to her.   The first time she does so, in #272, she causes him to crash into a wall, much the way the sirens wrecked sailors on their reefs, and then stands over his unconscious body, saying, “I made you come to me, Flash.   I desired it—and it was so!   This proves I can make you do anything I want.”   This scene is the cliffhanger at the end of #272, but in #273 she doesn’t end up either making Flash do anything-- or doing anything to him-- and simply leaves the hero to wake up perplexed by the whole experience.  


However, by the end of #273 Flash has a more deadly opponent. Despite Barry Allen’s censure, Nephron continues his experiment on convict Clive Yorkin. The process turns Yorkin into a drooling, super-strong madman who imprisons Nephron in the same “therapy” device, reducing Nephron to a “vegetable.”   



Yorkin then escapes and somehow makes his way to Barry Allen’s house, motivated by a belief that Barry was one of his tormentors.   The madman spies on Iris, potentially setting up a scenario like the one where Frankenstein’s creation kills the scientist’s bride—but nothing happens at that point.  In #275 Iris, suspicious of her husband’s absences, uses a homing device to track him down—coincidentally, on the second occasion when Melanie decides to summon the Flash to a motel room.   Since Flash has no power to resist the teenaged psychic, the stage seems set for Iris to walk in a nonconsensual tryst—but the ditzy young teenager herself short-circuits that potential, for when she mentally forces the Flash to unmask, she’s disappointed by his “ordinary” looks (“I guess I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but whatever it was—you haven’t got it!”)    She leaves just as Iris arrives, and though Iris doesn’t catch her husband en flagrante, she still leaps to the usual conclusion.   Despite this, Barry manages to convince his wife of the truth, partly because he’s visibly distraught at having been called “ordinary.”  Thus the character that appeared poised to break up Barry’s marriage ends up bringing about a reconciliation between hero and wife, and even a brief discussion about having children.


That same evening, it seems the Frankenstein theme comes back into play.  Barry and Iris attend a costume party (with Barry in his own costume, and Iris dressed as Batgirl). The mad Yorkin follows them to the scene.   Barry is separated from Iris by circumstances too complicated to detail here, but by the issue’s end, Barry hears Iris being attacked. He bursts into a room and sees Yorkin standing over her dead body, in what seems a direct emulation of the famous bride-slaying scene from FRANKENSTEIN—though in a world of Dionysian chaos, all is not as it seems.



In #276 Yorkin escapes, and Flash goes a bit mad himself for a time, trying to convince his fellow Justice Leaguers to help him bring Iris back to life, and fighting with them when they profess helplessness.  By #277 he recovers enough to attend Iris’ funeral and to decide he should quit the superhero game.   Issue #277’s cover how divided against himself he is, in that the cover shows Flash rushing at a seeming duplicate of himself.   As it happens, it’s merely a trick of Flash’s old foe Mirror Master, who causes the hero to collide with a mirror-created image of himself before the hero manages to vanquish the villain.   But it’s interesting nonetheless for showing another take on the doppelganger theme, as are the words Barry uses when he goes before an audience to confess his “double life,” prefatory to resigning.   The crowd, fired by rumors of the Flash’s quitting, fails to understand what he’s talking about and drowns him out yelling, “We want the Flash!”   At that point Melanie reappears, having thought better of her dismissal of Barry’s “ordinary” nature, and persuades him to keep his superhero identity.  By doing so, she effectively puts to rest any “temptress” image she might have originally projected, and becomes not only an ally to Flash, but something of a “faithful daughter” to take the place of the one he never had.

Of course, with the apparent murderer of Flash’s wife on the loose, there wasn’t much likelihood of Flash really quitting, and he and his new “daughter” continue looking for the elusive madman.  Things come to a head in issue #280, in which Melanie manages to track down Yorkin to a condemned town, abandoned because the “whole place had become one giant sink-hole!”  (One might call the town a physical reflection of Yorkin himself, whose thoughts, Melanie finds, “reek of death and decay.”)   She also learns she cannot use her mind-powers on him, which stands as something of a reversal of her dominant position over Flash earlier: where earlier she controlled him, and could perhaps have “raped” him had she so chosen, here Melanie first perceives Yorkin as “that cold vile sensation!   I feel as if my mind’s been GROPED!”    She isn’t even able to summon Flash to her side, though conveniently the hero finds Melanie and Yorkin through following an unrelated lead.  Melanie then becomes a temporary enemy to the speedster, for her psychic powers boost Yorkin’s evil thoughts and repel Flash with “waves of fear.”  A seesaw battle then causes the three combatants to fall into one of the sink-holes.  Then, at a point when the madman has almost bested Flash, Melanie projects into his mind the image of Iris, which fortifies the hero and allows him to escape the sink-hole with her, leaving Yorkin to be deluged by falling mud (“his fall the final insult to the groaning earth beneath”).

So is the villain well and truly sent to his proper hell?  Well, as I hinted above—yes and no, for at the conclusion of this issue (the last in which either Yorkin or Melanie appears), new evidence comes to light, affirming that though Yorkin was a madman and murderer, he was not the killer of the Flash’s wife.   Once again the ground is pulled out from under Flash’s fleet feet, as he runs from pillar to post trying to find the real killer. And when he does find him, the final and most important doppelganger motif crops up, for it’s revealed that Iris’ true killer was an earlier rival for Iris’ affections, the aforementioned Professor Zoom.   





Zoom, unlike other villains, was dependent on the Flash for his identity, being that he was a denizen of the future who despised the historical records of Flash’s heroism and so used his super-science to become a speed-powered criminal version of Flash.  He even adopted a costume exactly like the hero’s, except for a reversal of its primary colors-- hence his secondary cognomen, “the Reverse-Flash.”  Only in one way is he exactly like the Flash, for he confesses that “I truly loved Iris Allen with a passion… the same passion that compelled me to snuff out her life” when she rejected his advances.   (As an odd doppelganger touch by Bates, Zoom even mentions that he disliked the hair style Iris had adopted at the time of her death, a style with which Barry Allen himself was less than taken.)  

Once again Flash manages to defeat Zoom, and despite his temptation to take full vengeance, spares the villain’s life, purposing to take him back to the future in Zoom’s time-machine, for legal execution.   But Zoom booby-traps the machine to take them “to an era where no human being can possibly exist—before the very creation of the universe itself” and mocks Flash, saying, “You and I are going to die together!”   Flash leaps from the time machine to take his chances in the time-stream, while his “other self” yells, “You can’t leave me to face the end alone--”   The circumstances at the end of Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN are not precisely the same, but there is some resemblance, in that creator and creature pursue one another through an arctic waste, terminated only when the creator dies and leaves the creature alone to face eternity.   Unlike Frankenstein, the Flash (indirectly responsible for both the creation of Zoom as well as the maddened Clive Yorkin)  is seen to survive in his next issue, but by that time the editorial reins passed to Len Wein, so that Ross Andru’s last issue ends, perhaps fittingly, with both the hero and his double apparently lost “beyond the brink of time itself!”


As has so often been the case in comic books, the insidious Professor Zoom also did not meet his final fate in eternity, but returned for more encounters with the hero: indeed, he outlived the Flash, who perished in the DC crossover-event CRISIS.  I doubt any later writer would have cared to bring back either Clive Yorkin or Melanie, though, since many fans considered this something of a low point for the series (which largely went back to “classic mode” until the title was finally cancelled).  For although Zoom killed Iris, both Melanie the “beauty” and Yorkin the “beast” were the principal Dionysian elements introduced by Andru, and can be seen as having symbolically presided over the death of Iris and all other changes in Flash’s life.   Indeed, the cover of their last appearances, #280, latches onto the story-element of Melanie having been accidentally turned against Flash, but exaggerates it for maximum effect, showing the beauty being cradled in the arms of the beast while nonchalantly telling Flash to “buzz off,” as if Melanie and Yorkin are allies under the skin.  So perhaps it’s fitting that the two of them disappear at the same time, just a few issues before Andru left the book.

Now, in focusing on the symbolic complexities of this story, it’s true that I’ve left out a fair amount of narrative material that wasn’t all that complex: the aforementioned subplots regarding drug smuggling and police corruption, for instance.   And I can practically hear some smartass Journalista saying, “You also left out the detail that the story SUCKED.”   My reply, of course, would be that I said early on I only esteemed certain elements of the story, not the story as a whole: in terms of its conscious thematics it’s rather mediocre, and visually hindered by a hodgepodge of conflicting art-styles.    I can’t even claim that it’s as entertaining on the level of simple genre-fare as is a better-conceived saga like the “Kree-Skrull War” from the Thomas/Adams AVENGERS—and yet, though I find the latter more entertaining, I don’t discern that extra level of symbolism in the AVENGERS tale.   The Andru/Bates FLASH also has the added attraction that it demonstrates how easily the elements of the Dionysian could invade even the most Apollonian of heroes, a full six years before the so-called “grim and gritty” movement in comics supposedly began with Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Moore’s WATCHMEN, and a much longer time prior to IDENTITY CRISIS.

There are certainly better works out there, some possessed of both thematic and symbolic complexity, and surely given the old “what comics would you take to a desert island” test, any of these would make the cut before this FLASH tale.   But since none of us is voluntarily going to that desert isle any time soon, we are left with sorting out questions of merit in all its manifestations, and with trying to constantly hammer our interpretations into others’ skulls.   And whether this hammering serves to let in some light into darkness, or just increases the degree to which the skulls are already cracked, also remains to be “sorted out” by posterity.     ______________________________________   
Two minor additions:

One odd detail about Clive Yorkin's transformation is that it comes about because he's dyslexic, which supposedly causes his brain to interpret the negative input from Nephron's aversion process as pleasurable. Writer Bates doesn't even try to make this bit of "comic book science" seem logical-- much less giving a reason as to why Yorkin gets super-powers from the process. Yet the explanation proves modestly interesting in that it means the reason Yorkin can shrug off the aversion therapy is that he reverses "pain" into "pleasure," a symbolic reversal that slightly resembles that of Milton's Satan saying, "Evil be thou my good."

And though I made copious comparisons of Clive Yorkin to Mary Shelley's monster, I see I neglected to toss in a possible influence from James Whale's two FRANKENSTEIN films, both of which starred-- Colin Clive.