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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

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 fiancée 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.     

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