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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, June 29, 2018

NEEDFUL SPECIALTIES

Helen: Everyone's special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.


SYNDROME: And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. *Everyone* can be super! And when everyone's super...*no one* will be.


I have no reason to disbelieve Brad Bird, in interviews like this one, when he says that his 2004 INCREDIBLES wasn't informed by any readings of weighty philosophers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche. It's much more likely that he was primarily seeking to invest his big-budget superhero cartoon with as much drama and comedy as he could, the better to impress the "big kids" in the audience. His principal strategy was to take the superhero concept at face value and figure out what made the concept popular, as opposed to reading it as a fascist construction or the like.

As far as THE INCREDIBLES is concerned, the core concept is that of a hero with special abilities or talents rescuing ordinary people from assorted menaces. This was how almost all superheroes and their related congeners were treated in the pulps and comics of the early 20th century. However, in the 1960s Marvel Comic Books spearheaded a new paradigm. Now superheroes still strove to rescue ordinary human beings from danger, but the people didn't always reward their saviors properly, responding instead with pettiness, greed, and superstitious fear.

To my knowledge Brad Bird has never admitted his film's borrowings from Marvel's FANTASTIC FOUR. Though this indebtedness is very likely, it's less important to me than his translation of the Marvel paradigm into a standalone cartoon form. Bird may or may not be familiar with the earliest Lee-Kirby-Ditko breakthroughs, in which petty human responses to superheroes were used largely for comic relief. Yet later comics-writers expanded on these tropes to show the full span of human intolerance, which often led to situations in which superheroes were banned from active service to humankind.

Real superhero comics started out with heroes receiving nearly unconditional accolades for their deeds in the 1940s, and began dealing with more ambivalent responses from the 1960s on. Bird's scenario begins with a time of acceptance, wherein superheroes endlessly contend with super-villains and other threats and win public gratitude, but this period only occupies the first fifteen minutes of the movie's running time.

The period of rejection begins with the film's viewpoint character, Mister Incredible, who becomes the focal point of his world's paradigm shift. In the space of one evening-- when he's scheduled to marry the costumed heroine Elastigirl-- Incredible tries to get in a few more good deeds. The first indication of trouble-to-come is his meeting the obnoxious "Incrediboy," who presumptuously demands that the superhero adopt Incrediboy as his sidekick-- a demand Incredible instantly rejects. The same night, Incredible rescues an attempted suicide. This fortuitously leads him to encounter a crime-in-progress by super-villain Bomb Voyage. But Incrediboy, not one to take "no" for an answer, intrudes, arguing that his special rocket-boots make him fit to join Incredible's crusade, A complicated set of circumstances results in one of the villain's bombs destroying an elevated train-track, though Incredible manages to save the passengers. However, both the attempted suicide and the passengers then sue Incredible for injury-claims. (All are seen wearing neck-collars, which in pop-culture has become code for "phony injury.') These suits lead to the widespread banning of superheroes, who are forced to hang up their capes and live the same ordinary lives as everyone else.

The first quote at this essay's opening is from Dash, youngest child of Incredible and Elastigirl, fretting that he's been forced to conform to an unfair standard of ordinariness. He's what I'll call "the positive face of exceptionalism," which applies to a person who possesses exceptional qualities and seeks to use them well-- be it simply for self-fulfillment, as Dash initially desires, or for the protection of people without such qualities, which is the main orientation of Mister Incredible.

But what does it mean when Syndrome-- the embittered Incrediboy turned super-villain-- expresses the same sentiment? Syndrome, though he's aged fifteen years by the time Mister Incredible encounters him again, is more like a child than Dash ever is: a being of pure ego who has no empathy for victims and merely wants to be lionized. Syndrome plays an indirect role in bringing about the circumstances that exile Mister Incredible from the game of superheroes, but this isn't enough. His ego is so deeply bruised by the rejection that he must eradicate all of the retired superheroes from existence, humiliate and kill Incredible, and eventually become the world's premiere superhero by an act of phony heroism. Thus he's clearly the negative face of exceptionalism, desiring to be seen as the pinnacle of creation. Yet, once he's satisfied himself with duplicating Mister Incredible's popularity with ordinary people, he then plans to put an end to the raison d'etre of superheroes by giving artificial super-powers to everyone.

Since Syndrome is defeated without realizing any of his goals, Bird's story doesn't have to deal with what might or might not happen if the villain succeeded. But the question remains: why would it have been bad, to have a world in which everyone had artificial super-powers?

The answer may lie in the philosophical ruminations of Nietzsche, even if Bird never read him. Nietzsche's ideal of his Ubermensch is not covalent with any version of the superhero, with one exception. the motivation of magnanimity. The Nietzschean "superman" is magnanimous because he has so much more "spirit" than common people. Superheroes generally don't show as much contempt for the rabble as Nietzsche did, but there's still a sense that superheroes are frequently magnanimous for similar reasons. But even here, there's a crucial difference. Mister Incredible enjoys getting praise and plaudits for his super-deeds, but his deeds primarily spring from empathy: from the realization that ordinary people need his help. Syndrome has no motivation beyond lionization, and so it's easy for him to restructure the world so that it reflects his own mediocrity. Once everyone has access to artificially-enhanced superpowers, will anyone feel any need to feel empathy for those weaker than themselves?

Lastly, the opposition of "natural powers" and "artificial powers" begs some consideration. The only real superheroes the viewer sees are the four Incredibles and their family friend, Frozone; any others get only brief references. These five seem gifted with "natural" powers, though, because Bird provides no origin-stories, there's no knowing if they were all born with their powers like Dash and Violet. When Incrediboy makes his second audition to be Incredible's sidekick, he claims that not all superheroes have super-powers, meaning that there may be analogues to Batman and the Green Hornet in Bird's world. But this sort of niggling would have distracted from Bird's main theme: the opposition between that which is ordinary and that which is "super" or "special." Syndrome, with his plethora of weapons, is first and foremost an evocation of classic super-villains like Luthor, able to unleash a never-ending series of challenges to a hero or group of heroes. (It's also worth mentioning that a fellow named Xereb, rather than Syndrome, was originally going to be the movie's main villain, until the character of Buddy/Incrediboy impressed people enough to rework him into Principal Villain.) There's no suggestion that artificial enhancements are wrong when used for good purposes: the whole idea of Edna, costume-maker to the superheroes, depends on her being able to pursue her own ideals of excellence with the use of technological items like expanding fabric and invisibility cloth.






Thursday, June 28, 2018

DEATHBIRD DESCENDS

On the passing of Harlan Ellison this week, I wrote:

_____

I never met Ellison, though I saw him when he spoke at a local convention, maybe in the 1980s. He worked the crowd really well, saying that everyone in our city was "bug***k*, which got great applause, though I'm sure he said the same damn thing anywhere else he spoke. He read his story "All the Lies That Were My Life," which I didn't care for, but his reading was riveting. I saw him a couple more times at San Diego Comicon, usually teamed with Peter David, with whom he had worked out a cute routine of pretend animosity.

DAVID: "I'm just being puckish."

ELLISON: "Well, puck you."

His sixties classic tales made a big impression on me, particularly "Deathbird" and "Repent, Harlequin." I was still writing occasional reviews for COMICS JOURNAL when he and Gary Groth were sued by Michael Fleischer because of remarks Ellison had made about Fleischer in a JOURNAL interview. Personally, I think Fleischer was less offended by what Ellison had said than by the fact that a JOURNAL reviewer had just torpedoed Fleischer's prose book CHASING HAIRY around the same time. I felt like I had a ringside seat as Groth and Ellison became deadly enemies after Fleischer's suit was dismissed. The feud was incredibly convoluted, involving other players like Peter David and Charles Platt, and the magazine GAUNTLET devoted a long, well-researched essay to the mutual bad behavior of both parties, though all that took place before Ellison sued Groth to block the publication of a book touching on their involvement.

I disagreed with a lot of what both Groth and Ellison wrote, though I sympathize with Ellison's love of popular fiction. He was also an unapologetic "comic book guy" at a time when his compeers in fantastic fiction would not dream of being associated with that tawdry medium. 

I'm tempted to sum up his career with the words, "Not always deep, but never dull."

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "SISTER SYNDROME" (LOVE HINA BOOK 12, 2001)

I've already written a long summation of the LOVE HINA manga here, and so will write this essay as if the reader has already acquainted himself with the basics.

More often than not, manga-serials are written with a definite conclusion in the author's mind. This doesn't mean that every story that has a well-conceived ending necessarily has "unity of action." Still. I did regard the completed story of HELLSING to comprise one big myth, and though DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND is still a "work in progress," I judged that the most recent addition to its storyline suggests the high amplitude of a mythcomic.

LOVE HINA ends with the culmination of the romance between young lovers Keitaro and Naru. However, the stories leading up to that culmination are much more episodic in nature than, say, those of HELLSING, or even another comedy-romance like BECAUSE I'M THE GODDESS. Author Ken Akamatsu breaks up the forward progress of his main plot with countless wacky escapades, sometimes for the purpose of expanding on character-traits, and sometimes just for fun. Thus LOVE HINA as a whole does not meet the mythcomics test. However, I've analyzed one particular episode, SECRET OF THE MYSTERIOUS GIRL, as a story that shows high mythicity. The same principle applies to one of Akamatsu's more cohesive arcs, which I've titled "Sister Syndrome" after one of the story-titles used in the Tokyopop English translation.

If the underthought of LOVE HINA could be boiled down to a binary statement, it might read something like, "The lover who is not the guy's sister triumphs over those who are almost-sisters." Of all the women in Keitaro Urashima's "harem," Naru has the least resemblance to a sibling, and so from one point of view, she would seem to be the best possible mate for Keitaro. "Sister Syndrome," however, deals with one of the greatest threats to Naru's romantic hegemony-- Kanako, who has formed a passion for her adoptive brother Keitaro. She appears in the previous arc, showing up at Hinata House at a time when Keitaro is away studying archaeology, and she uses the Urashima name to take control of the dormitory and force everyone to obey her whims. Even before Keitaro returns, Kanako regards Naru as her primary rival, while for her part, Naru;s insecurities are brought out by the prospect of meeting a female with a more profound connection to Keitaro-- that of family-- than she Naru has.

Volume 12 begins with Keitaro returning to the dormitory. At this time he has confessed his romantic devotion to Naru, but she has not made a full reciprocation, due to her ongoing insecurities. When he first sees Kanako, he doesn't recognize her as his adoptive sister, since he hasn't seen her in years.


For her part Kanako mirrors some of Natu's own insecurities, reflected by her penchant for assuming complicated disguises. Uncertain of making open advances on Keitaro, she masquerades as Naru in order to get close to him and to find out what Keitaro thinks of his sister.



Keitaro has no conscious desire for Kanako, but her constant attentions start to wear him down somewhat. Strangely, even though Naru is rather repulsed by the idea of even adoptive siblings becoming intimate, she sympathizes with her rival, telling Kanako "I know you're siblings, but sometimes you just have to come right and say what's on your mind." This, as much as Kanako's masquerades, suggests a mirroring-effect between the two characters.



Keitaro starts having dreams about marrying his sister, but as if to prove his fidelity to Naru, he renews his attempts to court her. He invites her to the "Hinata Annex," an isolated building on the same grounds as the dorm. The Annex,, which in earlier days served as an inn, has acquired the aura of legend, in that any romantic couple would become bonded if they spent the night there. However, Kanako gets there first, and in the darkness Keitaro more or less pledges his troth to her, following the myth-trope of "the statement that can't be taken back."



Then weird things start happening to Naru, as if the legendary magic of the Annex is trying to keep Kanako and Keitaro together. Keitaro fights for his true love by trying to give Naru an engagement ring, but through the usual crazy antics, it lands up on Kanako's finger.



Naru responds to this setback by fleeing Hinata House and all of her friends. This allows Akamatsu to unleash yet more goofy antics as Keitaro and his harem give chase. This leads to an outright battle between Naru and Kanako, which Kanako, a real martial artist, wins easily. Note that the engagement ring seems to take on the aspect of a Tolkienian "ring of power."


However, Keitaro's conscientious rejection of his sister's erotic feelings finally has a reverse-effect on Kanako. She seeks out Naru and badgers her to declare her true feelings to Keitaro.



Still, to give Naru more time to sort out her feelings, Kanako uses her disguise-talents to make herself look like Naru, while Naru takes the appearance of Kanako. A more obvious example of the mirroring-trope would be hard to imagine.




Finally, Kanako surrenders to Keitaro's unconquerable passion for Naru, though she hedges her bets by telling him that she's not totally giving up on him.




And then there's a big climax in which Naru and Keitaro finally get it on-- though their differences keep driving the romance for two more volumes-- and even the women who wanted them to get together become inflamed with jealousy and try to kill them both.


In conclusion, I'll note that my assignment of the phenomenality as "marvelous" is dependent mostly on elements that are nominal in the story, like Kaolla Su's super-science toys and a species of flying turtle.

Friday, June 22, 2018

TRUMP: BORDERING ON GENIUS OR INSANITY?

A CBR post on President Trump's recent signing of the executive order to "keep families together."

______________


Here's another thing: failing any new revelations, I don't think the GOP obstructed Obama on the matter of immigration. This even-handed essay on his status as "deporter-in-chief" makes it sound like he pretty much did what he wanted on that score. There may well be laws he wanted to pass and couldn't, but my memory is that the GOP was far more concerned with unseating Affordable Care.

Regardless of Obama's legacy, the main point of my cynical post is that people forget a lot of dicey political matters if those matters aren't constantly shoved in their face by the media. I'm saying that now that Trump has signed the executive order, he's put the ball in the court of Congress, and it should go without saying that both sides will be wrangling over their respective agendas. Neither side will be primarily motivated by the suffering of young children, in my opinion. I mention Obama's legacy in part not to claim "both sides are the same," but that there were irregularities during his administration that were simply ignored by the media. I don't endorse Trump's concept of "fake news," but I think it's smart to remain aware of how the media often makes the news to serve an agenda. I used to think FOX News was egregious about its agenda, but Trump's regime has brought out some of the worst in CNN and MSNBC.

I don't know what Trump had in mind in increasing the criminal prosecution of illegals, and neither does anyone else here. I think it's possible that he showboated in order to impress his base, but that seems improbable, since even an egotist like Trump *must* have guessed how extreme the blowback would be. He went through a campaign in which the opposition tried to shame him with the "P**** video," so he knows that the primary anti-Trump weapon in the Left's arsenal is always going to be shame. I entertain the possibility that he knew how the Left would react when he upped the criminalization process, which then increased the already ongoing legal process of separation to the point that it became much more visible, so that not even modern journalists could miss it. Did Trump orchestrate this whole thing in order to get his Border Wall? That might be giving him too much credit, just as the other scenario may give him too little. The truth may be somewhere in between, though it's certainly not anything you're going to see on 24-hour news.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME" (X-MEN ANNUAL #9, 1985)



The original run of Silver Age X-MEN stuck close to the concept of "mutants" as articulated in prose SF: that mutants represented a step forward in evolution, implicitly governed by random materialistic factors. Chris Claremont's tenure on "the New X-Men" since 1975 opened up new terrain in the realm of metaphysical considerations. GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS subjects the heroes to a religions controversy in which a fanatic views all mutants as unclean tools of the devil. Claremont also displayed a taste for wreaking transformations on his protagonists, akin to sending them through funhouse mirrors. The best-known transformation is that of Jean Grey, who in the Silver Age was the humbly-powered Marvel Girl, and who under Claremont's handling changed into the goddess-like Phoenix. The heroine followed a trope common to both Faustian deal-makers and science-fictional overreachers, in which the characters succumb to the allure of unlimited power and liberty, which inevitably leads to some tragic downfall. Still, unlike Faust, Phoenix had no devil whispering in her ear.

Long after the climax of the Phoenix saga, this 1985 tale from Claremont and artist Art Adams goes full-bore Faustian, using one of Silver Age Marvel's favorite villains in the role of Mephistopheles (no relation to that other Silver Age Marvel villain).



The plot of "There's No Place Like Home" is as straightforward as the title's evocation of the theme from the 1939 "Wizard of Oz." The trickster-god Loki, having suffered an earlier defeat by the X-Men, strikes not at the first generation of superhero-mutants but at the next in line: the New Mutants. By chance all the New Mutants-- and their no-longer teen-aged teacher Storm-- are all feeling the blues about their travails in the world. Storm regrets the long-term loss of her weather-witch powers (eventually restored, of course), Sunspot hates the fact that mutant-hating mankind won't esteem him as a hero, and so on. And so, just as Doiothy Gale escapes mundane Kansas for the fantasy-land of Oz, Storm and the New Mutants get lured to the gleaming realm of Asgard. One New Mutant member, Magma, explicitly compares Asgard to the faerie-realms known to her Neo-Roman culture, though what Claremont probably has in mind is the Celtic version of faerie, in which everything is a deception. This is probably the first, if not the only, time that Marvel's realm of brawling Viking-gods has ever been cast in the role of a Celtic faerie-land-- while in turn, Loki, for his part, is explicitly called not just a trickster, as he is in the Nordic myths, but "the Lord of Lies," a name usually ascribed to the Judeo-Christian Satan.

This story, incidentally, roughly lines up with contemporaneous developments in the THOR comic, courtesy of Walt Simonson. Odin has died one of his many deaths, and Thor is absent, which apparently gives Loki the idea to dethrone his half-brother from his role as God of Thunder, by remolding Storm as a new thunder-mistress.

Soon after showing up in Asgard, many of the young heroes learn that the grass isn't greener on the far side. Sunspot is one of the few youths who enjoys the Viking life. But Magma, who has a thing for "the faery-folk," undergoes an unwanted transformation into a Nordic elf, Mirage somehow becomes a Valkyrie allied to the forces of Death, and of course Storm's recovery of her powers threatens to place her under Loki's control.



Fortunately the older generation of mutants, the X-Men, invade Asgard looking for the younger heroes This combination of two ensembles from two mutant-hero features means that no single character, not even cover-featured Storm, gets a lot of attention. All that's possible is that Claremont gives each of the seventeen protagonists at least one defining "character moment." That said, like "The Wizard of Oz," "Home" is coherent enough in showing how the very vivacity of youth opens young people to be seduced, both by feelings of marginalization and the desire to feel more important. Page eight has a cute moment wherein Storm and the New Mutants all voice their secret dreams, like so many Disneyesque Little Mermaids. The X-Men succeed in rescuing their young charges, and in one scene, Wolverine, the oldest hero on deck, chastises Sunspot for his boyish desire for accolades, as against fulfilling the duties of a full-grown man.


Not surprisingly, Sunspot gets on board with the program, while Storm finally rebels against Loki's control and relinquishes the facsimile Mjolnir. Everyone goes home and Loki remains in Asgard, determined to keep scheming.


Naturally, Claremont's story has its share of toss-off dramatics, like a subplot in which Wolverine is apparently going to die, and does not...


...but Art Adams contributes such a fine-lined rendering of the glories of Asgard, no less vital than those of Kirby and Simonson, that even the weaker aspects of the story have a mythic grandeur.

Friday, June 15, 2018

THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS PT. 3

In Part 2, I enlisted Jung's idea about function-sovereignty to champion Aristotle's preference for "unity of action" over Levi-Strauss's structuralist, "nothing-is-more-important-than-anything-else" approach to analyzing the themes of archaic myth. Yet the Jungian concept that most resembles Levi-Strauss's formulation of binary oppositions is that of enantiodromia. From PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES:

I use [Heraclitus' discovery of] enantiodromia for the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, onesided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.


Naturally, since I'm concerned with the themes of literary works rather than myths as such, I'm not concerned with Jung's idea about an unconscious "counterposition" arising in reaction to a "one-sided tendency" that "dominates conscious life." The writer of fiction may be drawing on both conscious and unconscious factors in his own mind, but the work he presents to the reader depends on a conflict between at least two opposed principles, usually personified into characters. Levi-Strauss implied such a conflict in his binary oppositions, though he does not seem nearly as interested in Aristotle's idea of the *agon,* the idea that conflict is fundamental to "poetry." If anything, Levi-Strauss's approach to the way a myth-tale approaches opposed forces resembles Tzvetan Todorov's model for an aesthetics that "just happens,' based not in conflict but in changing equilibriums.

…we must inquire into the very nature of narrative. Let us begin by constructing an image of the minimum narrative, not the kind we usually find in contemporary texts, but that nucleus without which we cannot say there is any narrative at all. The image will be as follows: All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.

I suppose Todorov may have de-emphasized the radical of conflict because he was aware of literary works that appeared to dispense with overt conflict. However, in my analysis of the Ray Bradbury story "The Last Night of the World," I found that even in a story with no apparent intrinsic conflict, there existed a conflict between what the story portrayed and the audience's expectations:

In the minds of some if not all readers of the story, there will be the expectation that if humanity were faced with an "end of days," it would be an occasion of great tumult, of "raging against the dying of the light."  What Bradbury's story offers is, in keeping with the literary audience to which it is directed, is a triumph of the "will to nothingness" against all the audience's expectations.

In Part 2, I gave my "binary opposition" to describe the potential underthought in a Jack Kirby story: "The ways of manly daredevils are better than the ways of unmanly mystics." The story was equally weak in terms of having a discursive overthought, which came down to nothing more than "good must triumph over evil." So what would a strong underthought on the same theme look like?

The Golden Age Origin of Hawkman might be seen as following roughly the same paltry "good vs. evil" overthought, though its development of its underthought is one of the strongest in the comics medium.



In Fox's Hawkman story, as in Kirby's Challengers story, the heroes are tough guys who prove skillful with weapons, while their respective enemies more or less align with the archetype of the evil sorcerer. So the opposition here would be not unlike that of "sword versus sorcery."

To move on to a different underthought which keeps to the same good-vs.-evil overthought, I'll cite Kanigher's 1947 "The Injustice Society of the World." In this story the underthought is more like "law vs. crime," perhaps best represented by the scene where the villains put the heroes on trial for their deeds against crime. This underthought is not nearly as well developed as Fox's Hawkman story. However, the Kanigher story is one of many that I've considered as mythcomics simply because the stories had one "binary opposition" devoted to giving readers a discourse regarding the opposed elements.



Similarly, I have at times given the mythcomics designation to works in which the overthought and underthought are both strong, though not necessarily forming a unity.

The 1982 graphic novel "God Loves, Man Kills" does provide such unity, though. This time the overthought isn't just a vague opposition of good and evil, but that of "religious doctrine versus biological reality." Various earlier X-Men stories had opposed the biological reality of mutantkind to human beliefs regarding normality. However, those earlier stories didn't reference the more controversial topic of religion, as Chris Claremont's story does.



Cyclops's speech depicts the positive opposition of the overthought, using logic to assert that mutants are part of humankind. In contrast, Reverend Stryker fulfills the negative function, anathematizing the abnormal and stressing the need for purification.



Since both of these philosophical postures relate to the history of ideas, they belong to the story's overthought. The underthought, however, is concerned more with the opposition of images and the numinous associations they carry. Elsewhere in the story, the sometime villain Magneto makes what I've termed the "separatist argument," that humans and mutants should be separated from one another. But his appearance in this panel gives Magneto a less rational appearance, making of him a sympathetic "devil"-- born up by magnetic waves rather than wings-- who storms the church-like meeting-hall of the obsessed preacher.



"God Loves" is not as rich in images and symbols as other stories, particularly the Hawkman-origin. Clearly Claremont's story functions primarily as a dramatic exploration of ideas, while the symbols are less important. However, "God Loves" is one of the better stories in which overthought and underthought form a significant unity.





Thursday, June 14, 2018

THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS PT. 2

A careful analysis of the text of this myth, which in one version alone takes up thirteen pages of Dorsey's work, discloses that it is built on a long series of oppositions: (1) initiated shaman versus non-initiated shaman, that is, the opposition between acquired power and innate power; (2) child versus old man, since the myth insists on the youth of one protagonist and the old age of the other; (3) confusion of sexes versus differentiation of sexes; all of Pawnee metaphysical thought is actually based on the idea that at the time of the creation of the world antagonistic elements were intermingled and that the first work of the gods consisted in sorting them out. […] (7) magic which proceeds by introduction versus magic which proceeds by extraction.-- Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthology

In STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PT. 1, I drew certain comparisons between Aristotle's concept of the unity of action with Claude Levi-Strauss's concept of bricolage. Levi-Strauss is far better known, though, for his concept of binary oppositions,  a few of which he cites in the quote above. Many of Levi-Strauss's analyses are much like the one above, citing an assortment of binary oppositions between abstract representations, such as "confusion of sexes versus differentiation of sexes." This would seem, on the face of things, to contradict Aristotle's dictum, which I last cited in THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS in February 2016.

The Unity of a Plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject. An infinity of things befall that one man, some of which it is impossible to reduce to unity; and in like manner there are many actions of one man which cannot be made to form one action. . . . The truth is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is always of one thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.

For the purpose of literary criticism, however, I think that these two insights can prove complementary, and once more I turn to the mediating influence of Jung, whose views of "sovereignty" I surveyed in JUNG AND CENTRICITY:


This absolute sovereignty always belongs, empirically, to one function alone, and can belong only to one function, because the equally independent intervention of another function would necessarily produce a different orientation which, partially at least, would contradict the first. But since it is a vital condition for the conscious process of adaptation always to have clear and unambiguous aims, the presence of a second function of equal power is naturally ruled out. This other function, therefore, can have only a secondary importance.

Jung, who devotes PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES to analyzing the many mental functions revealed by his depth psychology, ascribes "secondary importance" to any and all other functions as against the primary one, just as Aristotle says that the poet must confine his attention to "several incidents...so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole."

Of these three academics-- anthropologist, philosopher (and proto-literary critic), and psychologist-- the anthropologist is not especially interested in seeing a "unity of action" in his narratives (and here I'm considering Jung's analyses of the internal goings-on of his hypothetical patients as "narratives.") Levi-Strauss's orientation stems, I believe, from his having focused his studies primarily on the sort of often-fragmentary tales that he encountered in tribal peoples. This led him to view myths as fundamentally fragmentary, rather than being capable of forming "wholes" as Aristotle believes that stories should.

Anyone dealing with modern stories, of course, is not dealing with products of a tribal aesthetic. Such stories are usually informed by Aristotle's idea of *dianoia,* which I've loosely translated as "theme statement" elsewhere. In literature the "unity of action," the unity that arises from a given work's theme, does not preclude that other "imitations of action" that complement the main action. This concept of unity parallels Jung's concept of sovereignty, that a given personality-- or at least, Jung's abstraction of a personality-- will have other functions, but that a central function will be "in charge."

Now, often in my own myth-critical analyses of films and comic book stories, I've found that the most mythic works I've surveyed possess a strong underthought, one that often can be expressed as one of Levi-Strauss's binary oppositions.  In this essay, I summarized the potential (yet inadequately expressed) theme statement of a particular Jack Kirby-Dave Wood story:

Boiled down, the potential underthought-- for Kirby and Wood probably would never have become didactic enough to produce a complementary overthought-- might read something like, "The ways of manly daredevils are better than the ways of unmanly mystics." 
Kirby's NEW GODS series, which I also touched on the same essay, received a fuller examination in this mythcomics essay, and there too I summarized the implied theme of the short-lived series:

...where NEW GODS excels is in Kirby’s take on a theme that Tolkien himself had evoked. In a world where mythic good and mythic evil have palpable existence, and where their battle is the proper working-out of their joint destiny, how does good keep from becoming corrupted by the power of evil?

There are patently other binary underthoughts expressed in Kirby's saga, notably that of "father vs. son," but I would regard all of these are, as Jung says, "of secondary importance." 

More in Part 3.








Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE MAIDEN AND THE DRAGON" (ALIEN WORLDS #9, 1985)



In the early eighties Pacific Comics marketed a pair of anthology-titles, ALIEN WORLDS and TWISTED TALES. The principal editor of both magazines was Bruce Jones, who had "made his bones," so to speak, writing stories, many horror-themed, for the Warren line of magazines. Jones was certainly aware that Warren's approach to anthologies-- that of combining punchy short stories with lush artwork-- was not exclusive to that company. The combination of deft storytelling and finely delineated visuals had, even in the 1960s, been made famous by the EC Comics work of the 1950s. I don't think I would be projecting to say that TWISTED TALES was Jones' parallel to the publishing strategy of EC's gore-met offerings, like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, while ALIEN WORLDS was Jones' emulation of the company's more outre material from WEIRD SCIENCE. When Pacific Comics folded, a few more issues of both mags, probably consisting of inventory material, were published by Eclipse Comics, including the issue considered here.

"The Maiden and the Dragon," however, does not deal with the science-fictional content seen on the cover, as it's a magical fantasy-tale, of the sort EC also dabbled in from time to time. The title immediately suggests the standard fantasy-trope of a helpless maiden requiring rescue from a rapacious dragon by someone, usually a heroic knight. However, in the tradition of EC twist-endings, there's a reason why the maiden gets top billing here.


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

The story begins in a fairy-tale Persian city, "Harran," ruled by a caliph named Haroon Asim.  Asim's problem is not with serpentine beasts, but with the devourer Time. He has four daughters who might succeed him after his death as ruler of Harran and its lands. He loves the three elder daughters, but doesn't like the youngest, Bachquet, because her birth brought about the death of Asim's favorite wife. Bachquet, to whom Asim has not shown love, is probably the best qualified to inherit the caliph-dom, but Asim just can't decide.

One day he meets an old woman at a well, and tells her his problem. The stranger proposes that Asim devise a test for his four daughters, to see which one of them has "the right stuff." On the woman's advice, Asim seeks out a witch-woman-- never seen in the story-- and has himself transformed into a gigantic dragon. In this form the transformed caliph waits until all four of his daughters take a summer day near the sea. The dragon-ruler lurches out of the sea-waters and tells all four women that they are his prisoners. Then he asks the oldest daughter to return to the palace and to bring him her golden riches, in ransom for her sisters. The first daughter escapes, takes her gold, and flees the country. The dragon repeats his deal with the next two daughters, and they too choose their own safety and wealth over the fate of their sisters.



Finally, Bachquet the youngest is left. Asim can no longer let her go with any threat to her siblings, but he tells Bachquet that if she returns with her own riches, he will reward her handsomely. Bachquet does come back, unlike her sisters. However, she comes back not with gold but with a sword, and uses the weapon to slay the dragon. The "twist ending" is that Bachquet arranged this whole scheme; that she posed as the old woman to put a bug in Asim's ear, and so that she could commit regicide upon her unloved father without anyone ever knowing. (Presumably if any of the other sisters ever came crawling back, they'd verify Bachquet's story about the dragon holding them prisoner, and perhaps Bachquet even blamed her father's absence on the monster.)

I don't imagine that Bruce Jones was trying to do anything more than craft a good "O.Henry" gimmick. Still, here he works with material a little more resonant than that of the average horror-SF short story. The idea of the ruler apportioning his riches to his daughters is likely to have been borrowed from Shakespeare's play KING LEAR, where the titular king chooses to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, as long as they all pledge to him their undying love. The division of the kingdom is a disaster in Shakespeare, and in Jones' story, even the division of wealth ends up sowing disloyalty in the three daughters who actually *may* have some feeling for the caliph.

In LEAR, two of the ruler's daughters tell him what he wants to hear, while the third, Cordelia, refuses to give her father such extravagant flattery. Ironically, by the end of the play, it's clear that Cordelia, the one who seems to withhold her love, is really the one who loves her father best. Bachquet is more in the tradition of the EC underdog, who avenges ill-treatment with a carefully laid-out (if improbable) master plan-- and in this case, the ill-treatment is that her father withheld love from her because of the mere fact of Bachquet's birth. Thus Asim reaps what he sows-- though he does at least leave his least-loved daughter with an intact caliph-dom.

I would not call this a "feminist" story as such.  But at the very least, it's an interested "twist" on the "tale" of Maiden and Dragon.

NEAR-MYTHS: TONGUE*LASH (1996)

On the basis of this cover alone, I wanted TONGUE*LASH to qualify as a mythcomic--



--simply because it's a clever inversion of this famous movie poster.



Unfortunately, though TONGUE*LASH has a lot of clever concepts, none of them cohere into the form of a myth.

Writers Randy and Jean-Marc L'Officer and artist Dan Taylor concocted a world that looks rather like the ancient world of the Mayans somehow survived into a technological far-future era, one where men all wear modern-day suits, women wear hooker-outfits, and some obscure sect, "the Begetters," can produce animal-human hybrids.

Taylor's art is a lovely tribute to the work of Moebius, and, as if to anticipate any possible criticisms, each of the two Dark Horse issues states on the inside cover that the comic is "inspired by" the French comics-creator. But the L'Officer brothers failed to bring all of the elements of their unique world into perspective.

TONGUE*LASH-- named for its two heroes, female "Tongue" and male "Lash"-- function as futuristic detectives. They take a case involving a low-level scandal-- that of a prostitute becoming engaged to a high-level lord-- and find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes game. The heroes don't call themselves "detectives," but "diviners." And once or twice, they're shown consulting implements that are supposed to reveal future knowledge. However, most of the time Tongue and Lash ferret out info using the same tactics as mundane sleuths: asking inappropriate questions, roughing up lowlifes. So I can't help but wonder-- why call them "diviners" at all?

The L'Officiers spend a lot of time coming up with Mayan-sounding (or Mayan-derived) terms for professions, cultural practices, and so on. However, though one character mentions making a blood sacrifice to the "twin gods," there's no consistent sense of what role religion plays in this world. The plotters known as "the Begetters" are on the outs with the current government, apparently because the rulers think it's OK to have hybridized citizens (slaves?)  who have animal-heads, but the rulers don't like the fact that the Begetters can create animal-human hybrids who look human. Oh, and there are also some never-specified rules about who can or cannot use a special process called "Metatime," that allows one to enter another temporal plane-- but the authors choose to remain mum on what if any metaphysical significance this process has.

I suppose the L'Officiers were within their rights to keep the relationship of Tongue and Lash ambiguous, a la Steed and Mrs. Peel. However, the two detectives aren't exactly sources of sparkling wit, so they're not any more interesting than their under-described environment (though Tongue, rather like Mrs. Peel, gets the best fight-scenes).

I've heard it said that there's at least one more Tongue*Lash adventure out there, but I have not encountered it. And if there's any special significance to the masks worn by many male characters-- Lash's looks like the famed "gimp mask" in particular-- I couldn't find said significance in the story.


Friday, June 8, 2018

OVERTHINKING THEMIS, UNDERTHINKING MOIRA


Followers of Zeus claimed that it was with him that Themis produced the Moirai, three Fates.[10] A fragment of Pindar,[11] however, tells that the Moirai were already present at the nuptials of Zeus and Themis; that in fact the Moirai rose with Themis from the springs of Okeanos the encircling world-ocean and accompanied her up the bright sun-path to meet Zeus at Mount Olympus.-- Wikipedia entry on Themis.

I have to assume that the academics I've quoted on the subject of Moira's co-existence with Themis were influenced by something like the Pindar fragment cited above. In 2010's LURKERS ON THE THRESHOLDS, I wrote:

Just as [F.M.] Cornford had shown that Moira, a sanctity older than the gods, was identical with the origin of social order, so Miss [Jane Ellen] Harrison pointed to the ensuing process of social evolution, where Themis represents the behavior dictated by social conscience... Above all, Themis was "Justice in the realm of Zeus," which checked the primitive law of sacrifice and atonement, symbolized in a Mother Goddess who suffered a yearly death and rebirth through her son.-- Henderson, THRESHOLDS OF INITIATION, PP. 10-11.

I haven't read Harrison's THEMIS and so can't be sure if Henderson has correctly represented her views. Still, I also pointed out in LURKERS that Ernst Cassirer entertained similar views,  so to some extent the opposition of Moira and Themis has become independent of Harrison's specific views. For Cassirer, Moira represents human governance by a god-centered, "mythical" mode while Themis represents a man-centered "ethical" mode.

I've devoted considerable space to the difference between the Frye-derived concepts of "the overthought" and "the underthought," which I've aligned with the literary modes of "realism" and "escapism" respectively. Further, I would add that the "overthought," the more logical and discursive function of literature has displaced the function of the symbolically associative "underthought" in the world of criticism much as the ideal of Themis supposedly replaced that of Moira.

And yet, even though there's a place for works dominated by rational overthought or by "irrational" underthought, my concept of pluralistic tolerance doesn't keep me from finding superior those works in which overthought and underthought are balanced. In such works, the artist has access to what Jung called "the collective  unconscious" and the many archetypes found therein, rather than his simply using discrete symbols for the sake of allegorical illustration.

Perhaps the best illustration of the difference might be the various iterations of the STAR TREK franchise. Though there are certainly some inferior episodes within the three seasons of "Classic Trek," Roddenberry in his capacity as head producer (for the first two seasons, at least) infused the show with a substructure of mythical ideas that balanced the show's apparent enshrinement of sweet reason.



In my commentary on the second-season episode "Amok Time," I mentioned that even though the writer was Theodore Sturgeon, I suspect that Sturgeon came up with the idea for the story as one he hoped that a producer with Roddenberry's tastes would purchase: one focused on the struggle of two males over a female. Even the caveat that one of the two doesn't actually want the female-- that Kirk is actually fighting Spock with the object of saving Spock from a more dangerous antagonist-- does not banish the archetype that I've termed "Savage Masculinity." This archetype of "men gone wild" persists in many episodes penned by many authors-- all of whom, it's been alleged, Roddenberry re-wrote for his own purposes-- and helps keep the TREK universe from being too antiseptic.

Years ago I engaged in a mammoth re-watch of most of the TREK epigoni, all except for NEXT GENERATION. I searched in vain for any sustained use of an archetype with the mythic power I've associated with "Moira." But even though a lot of these episodes were entertaining, the writers of the epigoni had next to no understanding as to how to invoke the deep level of the underthought. Rational overthought dominates almost everything, and for the most part there's no sense that any other mode of thought can even exist.

Vulcans were not very popular with the executive producers of the epigoni up until the last series, ENTERPRISE. Even in that series, the series-makers were not able to grasp the dramatic contrast of Vulcan culture's conflict between impulse and rationality. But if there was any episode that best shows the producers' incompetence in the realm of Moira, it would be the 1997 VOYAGER episode, "Blood Fever."



Here the purely rational drama dwells upon regular character B'Eleanna Torres and her interaction with a minor crewperson, a Vulcan male named Vorik. Because the starship Voyager is far from the parent Federation and its planets, Vorik experienced a "pon farr" just as Spock did in "Amok Time." Like Spock, Vorik desires to get back to his homeworld to marry and spawn a designated fiancee. However, when circumstances seem to frustrate Spock in this goal, he at least contemplates having sex with a female crewperson to defuse his sexual torment. Captain Kirk makes it possible for Spock to carry out his ancient rituals of "marriage or challenge," but no one aboard Voyager can do this for Vorik. He works a Vulcan whammy on Torres, almost causing her to desire to mate with him. However, because such forced nuptials would be condemned as immortal by the show's audience, Torres is able to resist the Vulcan mind-magic. Finally Vorik initiates the "marriage or challenge" ritual, but this time, "the bone gets to fight." Torres roundly defeats Vorik in unarmed combat and defuses both his sexual desire and her own.

Now, the basic idea of a female character standing against a male aggressor CAN be archetypal. But here the writer of "Blood Fever," one Lisa Klink, merely uses both Vorik and Torres as flat representations of male desire and female resistance respectively. "Blood Fever" is by no means the worst example of a latter-day TREK-tale that has "too much Themis on its mind." Nowhere in the episode is there the sense that the "pon farr" is rooted in a centuries-old ritual designed to organize the interactions of males and females. Instead, it's just an inconvenient alien quirk that has to be defused so that Vorik can go back to being a useful member of the crew. (Not surprisingly, he never has a major plot devoted to him afterward.)

This suggests to me that the author's ability to make free associations with symbols has to be to some extent independent of moral considerations. Authors who are too concerned with framing moral messages cut themselves off from the depths of their own creativity. Thus the concept of Moira underlying Themis gives literary support to the philosophical opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Almost everything we call "higher culture" is based on the spiritualization of cruelty.”



Tuesday, June 5, 2018

ETHICS AMONG THE SUBCOMBATIVES PT. 4

In previous installments I've attempted to examine various subcombative works in terms of their relation to the overall concept of heroism. In brief, my previous estimations have been as follows:

(1) JUDEX the film is not only subcombative, but its titular character also bears little relation to the model of heroism I have constructed in essays such as 2013's RETURN OF THE MASTERY MASTER PT. 3. 

(2) MOANA is subcombative but the characters show heroism despite their inability to meet their foe in equal combat.

(3) Mark Twain's PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC, though a subcombative drama focused on the purgative sacrifice of the main character, shows a fascination with her ability to inspire men to "exalting activities," which Twain describes with a passion for their invigorating qualities ("the soul is overflowing with life and energy," et al).

(4) Parenthetically, I mentioned that even though Shakespere's TROILUS AND CRESSIDA centered on struggles of physical combat, just like Twain's JOAN, there's no sense in TROILUS that warfare brings forth any invigorating qualities. I did not say so previously, but I tend to view the two main characters of TROILUS to be demiheroes for the same reason that Judex is: their acts reflect no more than the "existential will" of persistence, rather than the "idealizing will" of glory.



The film I'll now discuss, 1955's THE COURT JESTER, is closest in structure to MOANA. The VHS cover seen above, whether it's original or derived from earlier art, capsulizes the inner conflict of the title character. Hubert Hawkins desires to be a hero, and for that reason, he joins a revolutionary movement led by an older crusader, "the Black Fox," who seeks to unseat the current usurper of the English throne. The rebels' ace in the hole is that they have custody of an infant whose proper legitimacy is a birthmark: a purple pimpernel on the baby's tush. The movie's opening number shows Hubert staging a complicated dance-scenario in which he appears to be the masked, Robin Hood-like leader of the rebels.



However, the viewer is quickly disabused of this illusion when the real Black Fox shows up. It's established that Hubert is not a fighter, only a performer, and that his main duty is that of caring for the infant heir to the throne. Not only is Hubert not the equal of the Fox, even the rebels' sole female member, Maid Jean, is given more trust than Hubert as a respected soldier in the cause.


Hubert's one compensation is that this female crusader (played by Glynis Johns) is not the inamorata of the Fox, the way that Maid Marian was to Robin Hood, and it turns out that she rather likes Hubert in spite of his lack of demonstrable manliness. For reasons too complicated to explain, the two of them end up forced to take the infant heir into the castle of the usurper-king, while Hubert poses as the king's new court jester. Thus, the protagonist who wants to be a hero ends up "playing the fool" for his enemies.



Hubert does get a shot at megadynamic heroism. The king's daughter takes a fancy to Hubert, and demands of her witchy servant to give Hubert protection. The witch uses hypnotism to convince Hubert that he's a great swordsman. Thus the witch, though she knows nothing of Hubert's desire for heroism, gives him the very persona he desires, even though, as I've observed elsewhere, Hubert remains subcombative because he never gains "mastery" of his other self, and only wins against his enemies by dumb luck and trickery.



However, jumping ahead to the film's end, it's interesting that when Hubert does save the day-- averting combat between the Fox and loyal supporters of the usurper-- it's through a manipulation of psychological factors. In short, Hubert figures out that the supporters will turn on the usurper if it can be proven that the rightful heir still exists-- and Hubert wins them over by showing them the "purple pimpernel" on the baby's butt.




Clearly, though the filmmakers could have allowed Hubert the opportunity to become conscious of his buried sword-skill, they probably felt that giving Hubert real fighting-skill obviated the comic persona of star Danny Kaye, the good-hearted bumbler, one who is almost likable here for his "feminine" qualities. However, even though Hubert is a bumbler for much of the film, he's still a protagonist struggling for a higher ideal, and so he, like the starring characters of Moana, qualifies for the status of the subcombative hero.

Monday, June 4, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: "THE DARK ANGEL'S KISS" (MASTER OF KUNG FU #109, 1982)

The long tenure of Doug Moench on Marvel's MASTER OF KUNG FU series-- favored with above-average art from the likes of Paul Gulacy and Gene Day-- in many ways outshines the early pattern of the kung-fu hero's adventures, as exemplified by the origin tale.  There can be little doubt that the idea of tying Shang-Chi to the world of superspy-espionage instilled new life in the original premise of "New Asia vs. Old Asia" (I.e., Fu Manchu's high-kicking son vs, his father, the embodiment of the Yellow Peril).

The years of Moench tenure were marked by exceptional use of kinetic and dramatic qualities. Further, Moench's writing, rather than aping the prosaic style of Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart, often displayed a poetic appreciation for resonant symbolism. That said, like most writers sustaining a regular feature, Moench didn't always have the luxury of crafting mythopoeic scenarios. This 1982 adventure is one of those that succeeds in this department.




"Dark Angel's Kiss" is constructed as a stand-alone story, though a reader can hardly understand it unless he is familiar with the rather expansive cast of characters. Central character Shang-Chi is relatively easy to comprehend, as he is the image of the lover of peace forced to take violent actions, much after the example of Kwai Chang Caine of television fame. His relationship with girlfriend Leiko Wu is of minor importance to the story, as seen in an opening sequence, where she and Shang make interesting use of a tennis-ball cannon.

The character from the title, an agent code-named "the Dark Angel," doesn't do much in the story either in terms of the main action. Her importance is that of a temptress, who draws the interest of Shang's fellow agent Reston, who breaks up with his old girlfriend in order to taste the Angel's kisses.


Shang and the other agents are somewhat taken aback by Reston's coldness toward his old girl, though there's the generally mature understanding that it's not really any of their business. However, Dark Angel, as a defector to England, falls under the sway of MI-6's new boss. Fah Lo Suee, the daughter of Fu Manchu. She happens to mention her current business with Dark Angel when she visits with her current lover, Zaran the Weapons Master, for the purpose of breaking up with him. Zaran, a hunter of beasts and men, does not take the breakup as well as Reston's girlfriend, so that Fah Lo Suee has to anesthetize him.





Zaran then decides to put a hit on the Dark Angel, which brings him into conflict with Shang-Chi at the same time the whole freelance agency decides to undertake an old-timey "fox hunt." Perhaps needless to specify, Shang-Chi keeps Zaran from killing Dark Angel.

In terms of its plot, "Kiss" is an undistinguished "stop-the-assassin" story. But it is one of the richer Moench stories in terms of giving its characters symbolically dense personas. Zaran the master hunter is contrasted with Shang-Chi, who explicitly rejects the passions of the hunting ritual (Shang even helps the fox-hunt's quarry escape). The two warriors battle in a Scottish graveyard, and when Zaran confronts the unarmed martial artist with knives, Shang-Chi arms himself with the thighbones of exhumed skeletons. Says Zaran: "That suits me fine, Shang-Chi-- a primitive, club-wielding savage against an advanced, tool-making warrior!" This opposition between the hero's basic style of fighting and the superior technology of his enemies is a frequent leitmotif of the Moench tenure, and it almost always signals a victory for the Master of Kung Fu. (Arguably, the teleseries KUNG FU initiated this leitmotif as well, though admittedly not within a superspy aesthetic.)

There's no subtlety to Moench's obvious parallels between Shang-Chi's sister throwing over her lover and his friend Reston choosing a new love over an old one. Yet these amours confer on the simple plot a sense of love as an unpredictable force of nature, one always subject to the vagaries of change. This provided a relatively mature attitude toward romance for a mainstream comic book of the period.

Gene Day's marvelous art poeticizes the violence of the encounter, but never more than the splash panel of page one, where Shang, Zaran and the other characters are imagined as playing-cards, implicitly set to 'trump" one another.