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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...

Thursday, October 17, 2019

NULL-MYTHS: "THE BRIDE AND THE BOLD" (ALL-NEW BATMAN/BRAVE AND BOLD #4, 2011)



I'm nostalgic enough that I think I enjoyed the 2008-11 cartoon teleseries BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD just as its creators intended: as a salute to the antic wackiness that dominated many Silver Age DC Comics. As I noted in this essay, the creators of the teleseries, rather than seeking to produce another "campy" Batman, rather sought to orient the crusader toward the form of "hip humor."

It's a tough form of humor  to do well, given that hipness rather easily devolves into Borsht-belt schtick-- and that's what I found on display in a TPB that collected several issues of DC's attempt to emulate the cartoon. The comic was launched in the same year that the cartoon wrapped up, and most of the adventures are mediocre but inoffensive visits to the goofier side of the DC Universe. "The Bride and the Bold," though, provides a good exemplar of a null-myth, in that writer Sholly Fisch fails to exploit the symbolic aspects of his narrative.

Oddly, Fisch starts off his story by referencing one of the most mythic comics of DC's Golden Age. Eros, the Greek god of love, seems to have been doing a close reading of William Marston's early WONDER WOMAN issues, for he complains that Wonder Woman isn't spreading "love" as Marston's heroine claims to be doing, that instead the Amazon is just getting into a lot of brawls with super-villains. Indeed, at the time that Eros gets so torqued off, the Amazon happens to be teamed with Batman in stopping the improbable criminal alliance of Giganta and the Mouse-Man. Eros then takes it into his head to force Wonder Woman and Batman to fall in love, apparently with the idea that greater love will be promoted in the world if two superheroes get publicly married.








This leads one of Batman's many amours to assume the role played by Doctor Doom in the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards, as she sends every nearly goofball villain in DC's history to disrupt the wedding.




I have to admit I liked seeing the resurrection of the DC-World's Zaniest Villains, even in a story as paper-thin as this one. One balmy Marston villain even makes the cut, the Blue Snow Man, though most of the Wonder Woman foes are from the nutty Silver Age Kanigher era, like the aforementioned Mouse Man, the Paper Man, Egg Fu and the Crimson Centipede.



Though Fisch's apparent reverence for Distinguished Craziness may equal that of the BRAVE AND BOLD cartoon, he's unable to give Eros, his primary "villain," a compelling reason to do what he does, and as a complete cop-out reveals at the climax that the two heroes weren't really enthralled, but went through the wedding because-- well, they read the script, so they knew that someone would send a lot of villains to fight them. Sorry, Solly; that's not hip, it's just lame and lazy. The BRAVE AND BOLD cartoon knew how to make the simple motivations of both heroes and villains take on mythic import, if not mythic content-- and I suspect that the remainder of the issues in the comic's 16-issue run fail this test as well.


NOTE: Though there are a huge bunch of DC heroes at the wedding who engage the villains in battle, none of the heroes in the story are "centric" to the story except for the primary team-up figures, Bats and WW.

MYTHCOMICS: "REVENGE OF THE ROBOT REJECT" (BRAVE AND BOLD #55, 1964)



DC's title THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD is known primarily as the "Batman and--" team-up feature. However, at various times the title played host to swashbuckling tales, "strange sports stories," and showcases for possible regular features. But for about two years before Batman became the feature's exclusive selling-point, the title also played host to a number of more inventive crossovers. I assume that the men behind the comic approached these crossovers in the same spirit as the Golden Age JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA: a title in which the company's strong sellers could theoretically boost the weaker properties.



By the time "Revenge of the Robot Reject" appeared on stands in 1964, the Atom had enjoyed his own feature for roughly three years, edited by Julius Schwarz, and the Metal Men for two, edited by Robert Kanigher. This story, edited by George Kashdan, shows writer Bob Haney and artist Ramona Fradon-- best known for their co-creation METAMORPHO-- attempting to mimic the relevant aspects of both franchises. Haney's script delves far more into the Metal Men mythology than that of the Atom, though he finds a satisfactory premise that allows him to play the Tiny Titan off Doc Magnus's six robot heroes-- who are, for any not hip to the feature, are Gold, Iron, Mercury, Tin, Lead, and Platinum (the only female robot, and the only one who gets a nickname, that of Tina).

In the regular METAL MEN feature, Kanigher tended to soft-pedal any intimations of the robots' inventor as being their parent, even in the figurative sense that one sees in Mary Shelleys' FRANKENSTEIN and the Universal adaptations thereof. In contrast, "Reject" starts out with Magnus having his six robots visit an orphanage to entertain the kids. Tina, the only female robot in the group in 1964, was always seen expressing her undying love to her creator, and "Reject" is no exception. However, I don't think Kanigher's METAL MEN ever showed Tina waxing maternal, and in the opening scenes of "Reject," Tina is apparently so charmed by all the munchkins that she suggests that she and Magnus should marry and have kids. When her bemused creator reminds Tina that a robot can neither marry nor conceive, she cheerily responds that Magnus could just build "cute little robot replicas of you and me."



Once Magnus and his six quixotic creations return to their HQ, Tina's burst of erotic enthusiasm is still with her, and as a result she dances about, unintentionally courting thanatos so that she falls to her death into a generator. In the regular title, this isn't a problem, since the Metal Men are always getting reduced to piles of mangled scrap, only to be magically resuscitated by their inventor's peerless skills. But this time, Magnus can't restore Tina, because her atomic structure has been altered somehow. The next seven pages then read like a quickie version of "Ten Little Indians," as each of the other Metal Men also fall victim to peculiar accidents, and again, Magnus cannot revive any of his "children."




Magnus sits alone in his laboratory, emulating Dorothy Gale as he muses that he'll miss his sexy female robot most of all (not exactly in those terms, of course). Then the villains responsible for the Metal Men's decimation appear. One is the first robot Magnus ever created, Uranium, and also the "reject" of the title, since Magnus attempted to destroy him. The other villain is Uranium's own creation, a silver female robot named Agantha, who bears a nodding physical resemblance to Tina and whom Uranium designed to be his version of Magnus's "girl robot creation." (In other words, Uranium may not be Magnus's literal child, but the robot-reject's doing his darnedest to follow the scientist's example.)  Uranium announces that through his command of all elements, he was able to remotely guide the Metal Men to their respective dooms and then to alter their atomic arrangements so that Magnus couldn't bring them back. He did all this because he resents that Magnus tried to destroy him-- even though a flashback shows Uranium being callously destructive, much like the element he's made of-- and because now he wants Magnus to help him devise a world-conquering weapon. Agantha is just as vicious, though she does pay the scientist a backhanded compliment: "If it weren't for [Uranium] here, I could go for you-- now that your platinum girlfriend is gone."






Threatened with immediate death for non-compliance, Magnus helps the project to buy time. He also manages to send out a distress signal. Ray (The Atom) Palmer receives the signal in his own lab, dons his costume, and rushes over to Magnus's HQ to help. Being unobtrusive, the Atom's able to infiltrate the HQ and figure out what's been happening, and being a physics major, he assembles the remains of the Metal Men and figures out how to use his "atomic"  skills to restore their integrity-- at which point the robots reconstitute themselves.



Meanwhile, Uranium's project is finished, but he's still victim to daddy issues, unable to kill Magnus because "he is the man who gave me life." Agantha, who's become Lady Macbeth in a few pages, has no such compunctions and prepares to destroy the robot-maker.

In burst the Metal Men, and Tina, though she didn't witness Agantha flirting with Magnus, immediately calls her a "silver hussy." The two ductile damsels fight it out, with Tina winning due to her greater knowledge of the elemental sciences (is silver really more vulnerable to sound-waves than platinum? I dunno). Uranium proves a tougher nut to crack, for his creativity doesn't stop with making his own robot-doll. He reveals that he can manifest the radiation in his body into three missile-shaped mini-minions, who are named after their types of radiation, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. (The reader shouldn't need more than one guess as to why these energy-constructs look like missiles.)



Though the radiation-minions can't harm Lead, the other Metal Men get kicked around pretty good. The Atom, who's been confined to the sidelines during this high-powered scuffle, suggests that they take Mercury aside and bond his atoms to those of Lead. That way, when Mercury attacks Uranium again, the radiation-minions can't hurt him. Uranium can't understand what's happening, and keeps bombarding Mercury until the villainous metal exhausts himself and devolves to a hunk of inert radium. Magnus does express some regret for his own hubris: "It was really all my fault from the first! I made you wrong, to start with!"

The psychological myths about robots and their creators are fairly lightweight here, but Haney does a good job-- better than many of Kanigher's stories-- at putting forth the cosmological myths necessary for both of the crossover-features. Maybe all the elemental research in this toss-off tale helped inspire him to co-create the Metamorpho concept with Fradon.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

SOAP OPERA SOAPBOX

I've watched reruns of the original 1966-71 DARK SHADOWS twice before this, but only in this third re-watch that I've started attempting to analyze the series in terms of its mythicity. But to even make the attempt, it's necessary to dwell on the way the series told its stories, particularly in terms to the topic of structural length.

I introduced my CATEGORIES OF STRUCTURAL LENGTH last year, in which I made one reference to the form of melodrama known as the soap opera, in my section dealing with "the long arc:"

the long arc also takes place within a larger continuity, but like the short arc doesn't entirely stand on its own. The American "soap opera" did not originate the long arc, but it's the genre best known for particular plot-lines that could be extended for weeks, if not longer.

Now, I should specify that there are two different subspecies of soap operas, and that when I made this statement, I was speaking of what I'll term the "weekday soap" rather than the "weekly soap." While there may well be any number of other subspecies of which I'm not aware, I think of "soap opera" as productions that appear five times a week on daytime television. (I presume that early radio dramas of this type, of which I know nothing, followed this general tendency.) For most of my life, television dramas that aired on a weekly basis-- almost always in the evening-- tended to be episodic stories with only marginal continuity between one another. Eighties serials like DALLAS and DYNASTY weren't the first "weekly soaps" on television, but since then they've provided a storytelling model not only for serials in the exact same mold but also those that alternate between long arcs and self-contained short stories, like most of the seasons of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

Despite the fact that I'm now going to generalize on the structure of the weekday serial, I confess that I've only followed three in my lifetime: the supernatural soap DARK SHADOWS, the spoof-soap MARY HARTMAN (which was technically a "weeknight" serial), and PASSIONS, which was a little of both. Still, I believe that the typical weekday serial consists almost entirely of long arcs, short arcs, and the occasional vignette. The narrative appeal of the soap opera is that for the most part it forestalls pleasing resolutions-- perhaps very loosely comparable to the Freudian notion of disavowal-- with the result that even when a given problem seems to be wrapped up, a new problem ensues so quickly-- often one introduced through the uses of subplots-- that there's no real pleasure from the first difficulty's solution.

If it's accurate that the first American soap was a 1930 radio drama called PAINTED DREAMS, then it may be that newspaper comic strips like 1924's LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, began utilizing the essence of the long arc first. Yet even though a number of comic strips appeared on six out of seven weekdays-- and sometimes on Sunday as well-- the comic strip doesn't make heavy use of subplots, except to lead into the very next ensuing storyline. The weekday soap comes closer to the jumble of real life, in that neither long arc, short arc, nor vignette has dominance. The viewer seems to be seeing regular lives-- even those of 18th-century vampires-- to be unfolding before them.

Following the innovations of Stan Lee's Silver Age Marvel comics, the comic-book medium was able to master many of the rudiments of the weekday soap. Nevertheless, even though comic books had a greater potential to master narrative forms than did comic strips, they weren't published as often. Even the rate weekly comic-book feature could not develop its narrative any more quickly than could a weekly television serial.

Because there's so little resolution in the weekday soaps, the writers behind the scripts tend to repeat themselves a lot. Thus a serial like DARK SHADOWS exhibits not Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" but an "eternal recursion," going by this American Heritage definition of the word:

A method of defining a sequence of objects, such as an expression, function, or set, where some number of initial objects are given and each successive object is defined in terms of the preceding objects. 

With this in mind, a serial like DARK SHADOWS doesn't have "continuity" so much as endless variations upon a theme, which become more and more complicated as new information is added.
The serial starts out in 1966, and its central Gothic mystery seems to be the familial background of Victoria Winters, who may or may not be related to the Collins family. Victoria's relation to the Collins past shifts into a new phase with the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins. Though the two of them originally have no direct relation to one another-- Barnabas is searching for the reincarnation of his long-dead lover Josette, and thinks he's found her in Maggie Evans-- but eventually Victoria becomes identified, however imperfectly, with Josette. At the same time, when the actress playing Victoria leaves the show, the serial simply shifts into exploring other mysteries of the Collins family, with or without involving Barnabas.

It's almost impossible to analyze a single episode of a weekday soap like DARK SHADOWS, because the incidents of one episode are designed to lead quickly, albeit often not seamlessly, to yet more and more incidents, with hardly a breath taken to reflect upon the Meaning of It All. Rather, SHADOWS can only express any mythicity in its primary structural forms of the long arc, the short arc, and the vignette-- which I'll attempt to show in a forthcoming review.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

NEAR MYTHS: AIRBOY 1-50 (1986-89)

Of the many patriotic comics-heroes born in and around the WWII years, Hillman Comics' AIRBOY seems to be the only American character who survived long past the war's end. This may be because, even in the absence of a shooting-war, Airboy still appealed to young readers thanks to the appeal of having his own personally owned plane. Without having come close to reading all of the character's Golden Age exploits, I'd say that in general the art and writing was somewhat better than many comparable postwar series, and of course, I discovered a high level of mythicity in these three interrelated stories. AIRBOY's last issue appeared in 1953, the same year that Hillman quit publishing comics for good. Since I'm not aware that any of their titles were attacked during the anti-comics craze, it may be that the company simply decided that comics were no longer profitable enough to bother with.



I recently committed myself to re-reading the entire AIRBOY series from Eclipse, which I've long considered one of the company's best productions. I don't know if the Hillman properties had fallen into public domain or if Eclipse actually purchased rights from someone, but Eclipse was certainly devoted to creating a "Hillman-verse." Even from the first couple of issues in 1986, writer Chuck Dixon and his various artists not only created a modern-day legacy version of Airboy, but also brought  back some of the original heroes, some of whom were simply older (Sky Wolf) and some of whom had been transformed (the armored Iron Ace gets turned into a robot).

The new Airboy, David Nelson III, doesn't know anything about his father's heroic past, knowing him only as the head of an aeronautics corporation. The relative innocence of the youth (whose age isn't specified, though he doesn't look fifteen like the Golden Age version) is shattered, both when his father is slain and David learns that his dad was selling arms to a tyrannical regime in the made-up South American realm of Bogantilla. However, David also learns of his father's heroic deeds, and that his revolutionary airplane "Birdie" is still functional, so he dons his dad's old outfit and goes looking in Bogantilla for his father's slayers. There he and his allies (among them the aforementioned Sky Wolf) find out that David II was empowering the tyrants because their master, Airboy's old sorcerer-foe Misery, has extorted the former hero's obedience by threatening his old love Valkyrie, kept in cryonic preservation for the past forty years. The New Airboy avenges his father in part, though Misery escapes, and revives his father's former lover. However, since the new hero looks the same as the old one, Valkyrie is attracted to David. As for his reaction to her, this cover sums it up.



For the next forty-nine issues, Airboy and various allies-- not least the Heap, the original swamp-monster of comics-- alternate between fighting in relatively realistic paramilitary conflicts and fending off the plots of arch-enemy Misery. But the series' most piquant appeal was the "will-they-won't-they" romantic sparks between Airboy and Valkyrie. Clearly, even though Eclipse had designed David III to look just like his father, he wanted her to see him for himself, as opposed to being simply his father's lookalike. Valkyrie, even though she's been revived after the fashion of the Silver Age Captain America, seems to adjust to eighties America pretty easily, but she's got considerable ambivalence toward her potential swain. Little is ever said about the rocky Oedipal issues that  might arise when a son courts his father's old lover, except for a throwaway line that tells readers nothing about New Airboy's actual mother except that she, like Valkyrie, was a pilot. Only once or twice does Valkyrie put her ambivalence into words, as in a dialogue from AIRMAIDENS SPECIAL #1. After a female friend (specifically, a legacy version of Hillman's Black Angel) questions Valkyrie about the latter's feelings, Valkyrie says, "It's just that Davy's younger than I am. When I'm with him, I don't think about that. But when we're apart, I feel as though I 've picked someone up off the school yard. And his father and I..."

That's about all the Oedipal exploration seen in the fifty issues, though there's not much doubt that David III is of legal age. Chuck Dixon, in concert with such artists as Tim Truman and Stan Woch, always supplies dependable action-formula, though in the final issue editor Cat Yronwode remarked that even in the eighties it was a lot harder to do an aviation-series set in the real world than it had been during WWII.

Though the series' main appeal was the romantic soap opera, it did scrupulously follow up on some of the appeal of the early Valkyrie appearances. I remarked in the above cited review that there was an age discrepancy between the Golden Age hero and his femme fatale. There was also a brief flirtation with sadism, and this seemed again on display in this cover for 1988'S AIRBOY AND THE AIRMAIDENS.


I don't know how many comics-fans of the eighties were invested in seeing the Hillman heroes back, but I for one did enjoy the revivals of such interesting obscurities as the Bald Eagle and Rackman. However, the series didn't really ever establish a modern-day identity for New Airboy, perhaps in part because its makers were so preoccupied with building the Hillman-verse. Further, Dixon didn't introduce any interesting new villains for the hero, though he did a creditable job of making Misery into a master fiend worthy to stand alongside the best of the eighties arch-foes.



Only once does the series come close to the level of mythicity in the Golden Age Misery stories: in the final issue, done by Dixon and Andy Kubert, with Adam Kubert providing inks. Like his father before him, Airboy ventures into the supernatural domain of Misery and manages to end the villain's menace-- though, unlike his father, this Airboy vanishes from the sight of his allies, and so, even though Misery doesn't claim the hero, his disappearance carries the value of a "faux death." In the final issue's editorial Yronwode mentions the possibility of reviving the hero for an Eclipse graphic novel, but it never happened, though the Airboy franchise did surface again under the aegis of other publishers.

It wasn't the best ride of the eighties. But it was worth a try, nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK? PT. 3

At the end of the second part of HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK, I said:

In a future essay I'll develop further the notion that leadership sometimes engenders the privilege of combative status-- but also, sometimes not.

Given that I started this series talking in part about the sixties animated series JONNY QUEST, it's natural that one of my examples of a leader who does have combative status-- despite not being all that dynamic-- is Benton Quest of the same series. (I'll pass on making any judgments of later iterations of the franchise.)

First, like Benton's son Jonny, the scientist takes a back seat to the hyper-dynamicity of bodyguard Race Bannon. The good doctor is never seen fighting hand-to-hand, and is only occasionally seen using a pistol or rifle.




Clearly he can use a more exotic form of weaponry when pressed--




And he even creates weapons that can take out giant eye-robots.







So, even though Benton's not seen kicking a lot of ass, he contributes considerable dynamicity to the ensemble.

In contrast, there's the portentously named Commander Adama of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.



Despite his being theoretically in command of the "battlestar" and of the entire stellar wagon train it escorted, Adama always seems generally removed from the action whenever the Cylons attack. I'm not going to say that he never gives a crucial command in a given narrative. However, the entire attitude of the GALACTICA production frames Adama as a figurehead-- which is perfectly true, in terms of actor Lorne Greene's star-power compared to the appeal of his less-known co-stars. Further, Greene had become internationally famous for playing Ben Cartwright for fourteen years. and though Daddy Ben did his share of fighting and shooting alongside his sons, the Ben Cartwright character became invested with a paternal gravitas-- which is almost certainly what the GALACTICA producers wanted from Greene. In contrast, all the action is given to Adama's "sons"-- the real one, Apollo, and the figurative one, Starbuck-- who are the ones who get out there and battle Cylons.




Indeed, even though Adama and a handful of other non-combative characters are indubitably *centric" with respect to the characters important to the serial narrative, none of them are important with respect to the combative scenes. Thus, from the combative standpoint, Adama does not share the combative status of the younger space-soldiers, who in general tend to go out and fight the enemy without any input from their "old man."

Saturday, October 5, 2019

A FINAGLING FOLLOW-UP

About two years ago, in this essay, I rendered this judgment on the A&E series BATES MOTEL:

Not until 2013, with the premiere of the BATES MOTEL teleseries, did some raconteur develop the Norma character. Yet although Norma overrides Norman's character in the story proper, extrinsically Norman is still more important than Norma, even in BATES MOTEL.

At the time I wrote this, I hadn't actually finished the series, though it was wrapped in 2017, the same year I wrote the essay. I wasn't overly enamored of the series, though I respected the performances of the lead actors Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. However, now that I finally worked my way through all five seasons, I would say that Norman and Norma comprise a two-person ensemble. Indeed, one of the last shots in the fifth season concludes with a dying Norman imagining himself reunited with Norma as if the two of them have passed on to some heavenly reward beyond the ugly toils of life.

Further, though Norman's persona is, as in all other iterations, that of a "monster," Norma Bates is more of a "demihero." She commits a couple of murders, but generally in situations of self-defense, and her crimes are outgrowths of her desire to make a better life for herself in the motel business. She has some strange vibes with Norman, but not as strange as his toward her, and so her nature aligns with the quality of "positive persistence" I described here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: ["IN PLUTO'S KINGDOM"] (WONDER WOMAN #16, 1946)

[The feature story in this issue is in three chapters and thus has three separate chapter-titles, but IMO none of these titles capture the story as well as "In Pluto's Kingdom," the title given on the cover.]




"Surely, O goddess, that [story of Pluto abducting Persephone] is but a myth..."-- Wonder Woman speaking to her own goddess, Aphrodite.



It's odd for Wonder Woman, at any time in her varied history, to dismiss a story from archaic Greece as a myth, and it's particularly odd for her to be doing so when she's standing there talking to a literal goddess. Since this is one of the late tales written by William Marston's secretary Joye Murchison, I was tempted to wonder if the writer was simply not that familiar with the character and her mythos. However, having heard how intensely Marston protected his creation, I think it's likely that he kept close tabs on whatever Murchison wrote. Further, Marston frequently rewrote archaic Greek myths to fit his vision, so it's likely he was OK with the line, since it served to set up a re-interpretation of the Pluto-Persephone story.

"Kingdom" starts with the main heroine's regular supporting chorus, the Holliday Girls, commiserating with Lorrie, one of their number, who's apparently had a terrible nightmare of being attacked by a "black monster." The other girls disregard Lorrie's fears, but the next morning Lorrie's absent from her room, which shows evidence of a terrific struggle. The ladies also find that Lorrie's attacker was apparently so busy subduing her that he dropped a telltale item: a huge black two-pronged fork (apparently accurate to some artistic representations of Hades/Pluto), The ladies call in Wonder Woman, who heads off to Paradise Island to get the straight dope from Aphrodite. It's at this point that Wonder Woman makes her peculiar "but a myth" remark, after which it's revealed not only that Lorrie was abducted by King Pluto, but also that he's taken her to his true refuge, which is not an underworld domain but the actual planet Pluto.


The reinvention of Pluto's domain isn't the most interesting aspect of the Murchison tale. Though references to sex in the Marston-verse appear in covert form, Murchison re-interprets the Greek myth to elide the idea that Pluto stole Persephone in order to marry her. Rather, in a flashback to Persephone's abduction, Pluto says to the maiden, "You shall bring light to dark Hades." This is clearly a rejection of the sexual aspects of the "abducted maiden" trope, making it possible for Murchison to instill in King Pluto a desire for luminescence in place of that of carnal pleasures. (Why he particularly wants beautiful young girls for his living lamps is not explained.)



Before Wonder Woman can figure out how to get to the far-distant planet, the Holliday Girls seek out Steve Trevor. He shows them a special army project, a spaceship that just happens to be capable of reaching "the farthest planet in the universe." The girls, not content to wait for their heroine, hijack the ship and head for Pluto. Wonder Woman spies the takeoff and manages to go along. As soon as the whole contingent arrives on Pluto, the ground opens up and sucks them in. Then, rather than being ravished, the ladies suffer a fundamental body-soul division. Their flesh-and-blood bodies disappear into Pluto's realm, but their souls take on the form of "color bodies" of varying hues. The color bodies of the heroines are taken by black-cloaked minions to the court of King Pluto, who reveals that he's done this division thing many times before. He uses the color-bodies of other mortals to light his dark halls, and their flesh-bodies become his slaves.



Wonder Woman and the Hollidays fight back, but the ensuing struggles are something of a seesaw affair, since Pluto has custody of the women's bodies. Finally the Amazon makes possible the re-union of her and her friends with their normal forms, but King Pluto escapes in a sky-chariot. The Amazon cant' get the space-rocket started again, so she takes possession of one of the monarch's horses, with which she's able to return to Earth by herself. She obtains a handy dynamo from a scientist-Amazon and then journeys back to Pluto, intending to use the dynamo to re-start the ship and get the Hollidays back home. However, during this time King Pluto has also been busy on Earth, taking Steve prisoner. Wonder Woman, upon returning to the dark planet, is forced to do the King's bidding to save Steve's life. In addition, Pluto takes possession of the dynamo, and once he finds he can use it to light his kingdom, he wants to be rid of all of his "color guards" as well as the mortals from Earth. The Amazon manages to release the slaves who still have color bodies, and uses the king's own chariot to get everyone back to Earth. King Pluto loses most of his slaves (except the ones that are implicitly nothing but dead bodies), but he gets to keep the dynamo, which more or less ensures that he won't need to come raiding for living souls again. Apparently no one recompenses Earth for losing an expensive spaceship, though.



The division of mortal bodies into "dark" and "light" forms more or less corresponds with certain archaic Greek views of the afterlife, at least those that imagined a "celestial" Heracles living on Olympus while a "chthonic" version of the same hero continued to exist in the underworld. "In Pluto's Kingdom" fits in with Marston's favorite trope-- that of the liberation of slaves from bondage-- though there's nothing here about the peculiar attractiveness of bondage, under the right conditions. Maybe there's no discussion of such pleasures, or any other similar stimulation, because King Pluto is a rather unattractive fellow. (It;s possible all of his masculinity is in that big fork he leaves behind rather easily-- and, significantly, Wonder Woman's still holding his fork by the story's conclusion.) But even though this version of Pluto isn't precisely the lord of a death-realm, it's interesting that the hero does have to give him something in compensation for freeing his servants-- a pertinent example of what one might call "better living through electricity."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

THE WOKE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

The title puns on the James Bond movie "The World is Not Enough," the third of the Pierce Brosnan films-- which seems appropriate to me, since this was the first time the Bond films really became politicized, and subjected to what we now call the "woke" opinions of ultrafeminism.

I noted this screed by MCU producer Kevin Feige in a Debate Politics post:

So, the notion of representation onscreen, in front of and behind the camera, somebody asked me once, so is Black Panther a one-off? I said, no, it’s not a one-off. This is the future. This is the way the world is, and the way, certainly, our studio’s going to be run going forward, because it brings about better stories. The more diverse the group of people making the movie is, the better the stories.
And I wrote:

OK, so all you need to do to make better stories is to make the characters more diverse? It has nothing to do with thinking out the characters in greater detail, right? Like why Black Panther is so torn up by learning of his uncle's death, when the people watching the movie have no reason to believe there was any particular tie between T'Challa and the uncle?Yeah, that's not the way good storytelling works.


Though  the post didn't generate a lot of debate, one guy seemed to think that the Panther's crisis of  confidence didn't come about not because of the death of his uncle, who committed treason by becoming "radicalized" and trying to sell Wakandan super-weapons to terrorist groups sponsoring Black Liberation. Rather, the poster thought the Panther's crisis evolved because the uncle's kid was left behind in America, rather than being taken to Wakanda-- which led to said kid growing up to become the murderous Erik Killmonger, who challenges the Panther for the Wakandan throne. Now the main scene that sets up T'Challa crisis of confidence is one that takes place shortly after Killmonger has issued his challenge, with the Panther confessing his doubts to his mother. His first words on the subject are as follows:

He killed  his own brother and left a child behind with nothing. What kind of king-- what kind of man does this?

So in this section, the killing of the uncle and the orphaning of T'Challa's cousin are on an equal plane. But the future Killmonger is not mentioned again as an object of pity. After the mother says that her late husband was not "perfect," T'Challa goes back to talking about the uncle:

[My father] didn't even give [my uncle] a proper burial. My uncle N'Jobu betrayed us, but my father, he may have created something even worse.

Presumably T'Challa means Killmonger, though the villain shares the same goal as his late father: to put Wakandan super-weapons into the hands of radicals. Killmonger is only different in scope, since he implies that he has terrorist cells all over the world, ready to liberate black people from bondage-- though the nature of that bondage is never spelled out, except with reference to the status of black people in the United States. The mother then reinforces her condemnation of her husband's actions by telling T'Challa: "You can't let your father's mistakes define who you are"-- at which the scene shifts to other concerns.

The strange thing about this scene is that a few scenes previous we've seen a flashback in which one of T'Challa's courtiers, Zuri, reveals that he was present when the father killed N'Jobu, and that he did so to keep N'Jobu from killing Zuri. T'Challa is horrified by the revelation, but like his mother in the later scene, he doesn't seem to think protecting old Zuri's life holds much importance beside the killing of Uncle N'Jobu. Given that no one forces N'Jobu to attack Zuri-- and that T'Challa is quite aware that N'Jobu has betrayed his nation-- there seems to be no real reason as to why the uncle's death rates as such an enormity.

T'Challa's speech with his mother suggests that he may have felt young Killmonger should've been brought back to Wakanda, though he doesn't precisely say so at that point. I rather wonder whether the child, given his vengeful tendencies, would have simply forgiven and forgotten his father's death even if he'd had the benefit of a Wakandan upbringing, but the film doesn't address this possibility.

This raises for me the likelihood that although the real "mistake" of T'Challa's father is that of fratricide, the specific fate of Young Killmonger is less significant than what Killmonger symbolizes: the exile of Black Africans to the land of white devils, specifically because people of their own race sold them for profit. I say "symbolizes" because not once in the film does anyone address the fact that Black Africans made a lot of money selling off the people of neighboring tribes. Yet, if there's  any real-world counterpart to Wakanda's fantasy-land of endless wealth, it might well be the empires of such nations as Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, which made themselves rich catering to the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

ASPIRIN FOR ANTHOLOGIES PT. 2

In my original 2015 ASPIRIN FOR ANTHOLOGIES, I was concerned with mapping out the phenomenological affiliations of each of the separate stories in the SIN CITY films, which were reviewed here. This sequel-essay, however, is concerned not with phenomenology but with mythicity.

Today I reviewed the 1962 film TALES OF TERROR, the fourth of Roger Corman's cycle of Poe-or-Poe-curious movies. I noted in the earlier essay that anthology films have to receive different critical estimation than other forms of anthology:

...the problems of what I'll call "non-centric serials" are nothing next to that of anthologies in the medium of cinema. In other media-- I'm thinking primarily, though not exclusively, of prose, comics, and television-- every story within a serial anthology stands on its own. However, a film-anthology represents a concatenation of stories that cannot stand apart from one another, unless they are surgically separated. In some anthologies, the stories are not associated in any way, except by dint of appearing in the same collection. Some are tied by virtue of being adaptations of the work of a single author, as is the case with 1963's TWICE TOLD TALES, and some are associated through a common framing-device, as in 1945's DEAD OF NIGHT, where all of the stories may been dreamed by a single interlocutor, leaving it unclear as to whether the stories "really" happened or not within the film's diegetic reality.

I later reflected on the possibility that the second of the two SIN CITY films, subtitled A DAME TO KILL FOR, might actually be best ascribed to the phenomenality of "the uncanny" even though it contains one indisputably marvelous element-- that of Hartigan's nearly impotent ghost. What I called "the thematic underpinnings" of Frank Miller's SIN CITY world align much more with the uncanny than with the marvelous, and thus I considered the possible that the one marvelous element might be deemed of marginal significance.

I have no problem with rating the phenomenality of TALES OF TERROR as dominantly marvelous, since only the second of the three segments, "The Black Cat," is uncanny in nature. But if I were rating each of the segments separately in terms of their complexity of symbolic discourse, "Morella" would be "good," "The Black Cat" merely "fair," and "M. Valdemar" would come in as "poor." Yet I chose to rate the entire anthology-film as "good."  My rationale for this decision-- the 'aspirin" that relieves me of my analytical headaches-- is that I've already rated some extended sequences of related stories as mythically "good" even when they contain portions of the whole that are less-than-good. 

A pertinent example appears in my review of the 1983-86 color-comics series COYOTE, as written by Steve Englehart. These sixteen issues necessarily comprise a "centric serial," in that all of the stories are centered upon main hero Coyote, and so the form of this sequence of stories is radically different from the "non-centric" film TALES OF TERROR, which is very loosely tied to other "Poe-cycle" productions in that all are "adaptations of the work of a single author." Yet the same principle seen in COYOTE applies, and in the same manner. Thus Englehart and his collaborators begin COYOTE on an extremely high note of mythicity, but the symbolic discourse crests at one point and the serial ended on a lower note:

Englehart also worked the continuity of the “Djinn” story into Coyote’s mythos reasonably well, but over time the writer created too many wild subplots, so that the series came off as belonging to the “everything plus the kitchen sink” school.

My entire reason for championing complex symbolic discourse has been to throw a light upon this particular aspect of the creative process, which can develop in any form of literature, "high" or "low." I consider that once an author has reached a high amplitude in his symbolic discourse, he's achieved much of the "high spirits" that Nietzsche found so instrumental to creativity-- and thus, even if later segments of the same project may not rise to the same heights, the later segments are somewhat ennobled by their connection to the earlier ones, at least in THE COYOTE SAGA. And for analogous reasons, TALES OF TERROR gets a "good" rating just because "Morella" shows writer Richard Matheson at his best, even if he doesn't sustain it for the later parts of the film.

Monday, September 23, 2019

QUICK THOUGHTS ON STAR WARS FILMS

I posted this on a BOUNDING INTO COMICS thread--

_______

I don't dismiss the idea that [the STAR WARS producers] may've come out with "too much, too fast," but that wouldn't have been a problem if the people in charge of STAR WARS had taken as much care to keep their content (rather than just the actors) truly "diverse."

IMO a better comparison than Pixar would be the MCU, because Pixar's releases aren't part of a shared universe. I have a lot of problems with assorted MCU movies, and with Kevin Feige's take on the Marvel Universe. But I would never deny that Feige is a canny producer. He knows how to come out with three-four movies a year and not have them step on one another. Some are big and cosmic, some are smaller and more comical than cosmic. But the tone of NEW STAR WARS is all one big brown blur. I think the producers of the SW universe all trying too hard to keep the brand looking the same, and that results in a tiresome sameness.

Monday, September 16, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: NEVADA 1-6 (1998)

In general I didn't like a lot of Steve Gerber's post-Bronze Age work. The antic creativity present in such 1970s features as THE DEFENDERS, MAN-THING and HOWARD THE DUCK faded in favor of an often nihilistic sourness. Possibly this feeling caused me to quickly pass over NEVADA, a six-issue 1998 Vertigo series by Gerber and artist Phil Winslade. But now it seems to me one of Gerber's best accomplishments from the latter part of his career.



In a roundabout way, NEVADA arose from one of the author's more bizarre inspirations. The story goes that in 1977 Gerber missed his deadline for HOWARD THE DUCK #16, and that, rather than simply reprinting an earlier HOWARD story, he and some artists whipped together a series of illustrated meditations on life, the universe, and everything, sometimes through the eyes of the acerbic duck, sometimes from Gerber himself. One two-page piece allowed Gerber to express his absurdist take on the then-prevalent "obligatory fight scene," in which a Las Vegas chorus girl and her pet ostrich battled an animated lamp. Many fans didn't care for the stratagem-- one reader wrote simply "Next time go reprint"-- but supposedly Neil Gaiman opined that he'd actually like to see such a story. Twenty years later, Gerber and Winslade produced NEVADA, though not from Marvel, the publisher of HOWARD, but under DC's Vertigo imprint.



Like many Gerber protagonists, the Vegas showgirl Nevada, whose birth-name is not disclosed, would have no luck if not for the bad kind. She dances for her living at the tacky "Nile Hotel and Casino," has an assortment of cool, trippy friends, and shows her essential kind-heartedness by rescuing her pet Bolero (named for the Ravel ballet composition) from an ostrich farm. Though she has some ongoing hassles, like a rejected boyfriend who won't take "no" for an answer, she came to Vegas to start a new life. To be sure, we learn nothing about the old life except that at nine years she auditioned for a Christmas church play by portraying the Virgin Mary with a pillow that realistically showed the icon as "great with child," thus evoking the ire of Christians who didn't like too much reality in their religion. As if to satirize religion in general, her featured dance at the Nile is a re-enactment of the Egyptian story of Osiris' dismemberment, but given a snarky feminist denouement.



However, soon Nevada has bigger problems than a stalker (who, by the way, gets totally trounced by one of Bolero's deadly kicks). Some innocent tourists at the Nile get literally dismembered by an alien visitor from another realm, and Nevada finds herself the victim of time-slips, causing her to encounter cavemen or to witness a guillotine-execution during the Reign of Terror. Who's responsible? Is it Mister DeVesuvio, a mysterious crime-boss who has a glass tube in place of his head? (A similar character, Ruby Thursday, appeared in Gerber's DEFENDERS.) Or is it the drunken sot Odgen Locke, who once taught theoretical physics but now seems to be able to transform himself into an angel-winged warrior? But no, the real culprit is a cosmic event breaking down the boundaries between worlds, which incidentally makes possible the invasion of the aforementioned killer alien. Nevada actually meets and kills the alien, but there's an unnamed higher power who wants her special talents to be a "Rift Warrior," a defender of the cosmic order.






There have been dozens if not hundreds of reluctant heroes since the debut of Marvel Comics, but Gerber isn't interested in characters who make token protestations before easily acceding to the call of destiny. Through the author's Bronze Age work alone it's clear that Gerber enjoyed the allure of combative heroes while still feeling a lot of ambivalence about the use of violence, particularly sanitized violence, as a means of escape. Thus when Nevada's abducted by the "higher power" to put her through an ordeal called "the Hammer," we're not talking a few strenuous training-sessions with Master Yoda. Instead, Nevada goes through tons and tons of patented Gerber mindfuckery, leaving the reader wondering if her cosmic perceptor is on the side of the angels or not. But Gerber does make Nameless Higher Power the vessel of one essential nugget of wisdom: that most of sentient suffering arises from a hunger so great that it rises to the level of universal decay, not unlike the principle of entropy expoused by the villains in the Man-Thing tale "How Will We Keep Warm When the Last Flame Dies."  Nevada, despite her distrust of her perceptor, Nevada does have the stuff to fight back a downfall that could be brought about not by an evil overlord, but rather by "some moronic soul whose ego cannot endure being second in line." And thus Nevada does become a Rift Warrior and forces back a greater invasion of alien dipsticks bent on destroying the fabric of space-time



After this, the dancer returns to reality, though not without more attendant troubles. Clearly, the author left the door open for more stories with Nevada, Bolero and their quirky pals, but since it was a creator-owned project, this was the last show for the Vegas showgirl. Perhaps it's just as well that she went out on a high note. Nevada sums up her situation and her mordant but courageous philosophy in a letter, ending in part with the words:

"So what do you do when reality bites back and the new life falls apart. I can only speak for myself. Fuck it raw and keep dancing."

Saturday, September 14, 2019

HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK? PT. 2

This will be one of my least theoretical pieces, since I've pretty much laid down, in the first HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK, my rationale as to what factors are needed to allow a comparatively low-dynamicity (such as the principal example in that essay, Jonny Quest) to function as part of a high-dynamicity ensemble.

This week I finished reviewing a modestly successful superhero spoof, 1999's MYSTERY MEN. The basic concept is that of six sad-sack superheroes trying to make good in the big city, and most of them don't have much power at their command, unlike the local "golden hero" Captain Amazing. Just as Race Bannon's fighting-prowess somewhat uplifts the juvenile star of JONNY QUEST, those Mystery Men who are at least fairly formidable-- the Shoveler, the Bowler-- more or less transfer some of their mana to other characters, such as the Invisible Boy or the Blue Raja. Of course, the whole point of the film is to take the theme of prizing "the stone the builders rejected," and even the weakest characters get a chance to shine in the course of the film.

The Invisible Boy (Kel Martin), for example, can only turn invisible when no one's looking directly at him.



And the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) attempts to discomfit by throwing forks at them.



If either of these characters appeared as a solo character, I would probably classify him as a "subcombative superhero," one of the exceptions to my general rule that superheroes are defined by the act of combat. (If I ever get around to re-reading all of the issues of FLAMING CARROT-- the absurdist Bob Burden comic from which the Mystery Men were launched-- he too would quite possibly join the ranks of the subcombative type, despite exotic weapons like his "baloney gun.")

By a similar process, I also validated the character of Merryman in THE INFERIOR FIVE in the third SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES post. Merryman, the leader of the Inferior Five, is consistently characterized as the group's "98-pound weakling," Even on those rare occasions that he wins a fight, it's usually by some contrivance, as when he faces a faux-Hulk who just happens to have the proverbial glass jaw.



However, Merryman does have a function in guiding his scatterbrained gang of super-doers, and this gives him enough mana to be deemed a combative superhero, even though he wouldn't be if everyone in the group was on his microdynamic level. As it happens, though, the Inferior Five also boasts some powerhouses like Awkwardman, a super-clumsy version of Superman--



Or that salute to dumb blondes everywhere, Dumb Bunny.






In a future essay I'll develop further the notion that leadership sometimes engenders the privilege of combative status-- but also, sometimes not.



Tuesday, September 10, 2019

ON TRUMP'S "INSECURITY"

To an online poster who claimed that Trump was massively insecure, I wrote this.

__________

I don't think that's the whole truth about Trump. Consider that he made his bones with his base by being combative with the press. That's an image that, once established, he has to constantly re-affirm in order to keep that base.

Now, it may or may not be true that he's combative in the first place because he's insecure about one thing or another. In fact, I remember some celebrity on an interview show opined that back in the nineties, he'd hung out with Trump a fair bit, and the celebrity claimed that the one thing you couldn't kid with the Donald about was his wealth. More than a few anti-Trumpers have claimed that the real reason he's concealed his tax returns is because he doesn't want it known that he isn't nearly as rich as he advertises.


All that, however, does not change the fact that Trump's followers like the fact that he doesn't just passively accept the abuse of the press-- and I think it was abusive even before he started yelling "fake news"-- and so he constantly jabs back at the press in ways that few Presidents have done. I'm not claiming that he picks his fights wisely, but it's not coming ONLY from insecurity.

Monday, September 9, 2019

COMICS HISTORY, STILL SECRET

I suppose I'm late to dinner on this one, given that Robert Kirkman's SECRET HISTORY OF THE COMICS showed up in 2017. I probably heard about the AMC series but just didn't get round to it, but I've now seen all six, roughly hour-long episodes.

The six episodes are replete with a lot of information, sometimes from creators involved in a given era's products, sometimes from their descendants, and sometimes from celebrities who simply want to voice an opinion (Famke Janssen, Michelle Rodriguez). A lot of this information is fairly common knowledge in fan circles, so calling it "secret" is a stretch. To the non-fan community, all this info is not so much "secret" as "obscure," but I surmise that THE OBSCURE HISTORY OF COMICS would prove a non-starter.

I found three of the six-- dealing respectively with Superman, Milestone and Image-- to be efficient but unremarkable, while one dealing with the image of New York City in comics before and after the 9-11 event to be somewhat overblown and a little too uncritical of the Christopher Nolan Bat-films. The other two documentary episodes, though, were much more interesting, albeit for different reasons.



Episode One, "The Mighty Misfits Who Made Marvel," proved fascinating in that it was a thoroughly even-handed treatment of the creative/business relationships of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Frankly, a lot of fan-critics could learn how to produce a balanced argument from this episode. Having been a fan/critic for over forty years, I thought I knew pretty much all the publicly available info about those relationships.  



But "Misfits" surprised me, by excerpting actual dialogue from a 1986 radio call-in program, wherein Stan Lee spoke at length with Jack Kirby about both their differences and their undeniable creative harmony. This section alone makes the whole Kirkman documentary-series worth watching.



However, with every bit of good, there's a little bit of bad, and that's what we get with the much more ideologically skewed "Truth About Wonder Woman." There are some decent tidbits of info here, though not much one could not find in the same-year biofilm PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN, which can't be termed a documentary record in any case.

But like many other commentators, many of the so-called "comics historians" in this segment can't resist scoring ideological points. After a quick-and-dirty survey as to how William Moulton Marston got "in" with DC Comics and originated the successful franchise of Wonder Woman, the segment then makes claims that DC was getting a lot of criticism about the bondage elements in the WONDER WOMAN comics, without really saying much about the nature of the criticism itself. Since the majority culture of the 1940s paid nearly no attention to comic books, I would assume that the documentary is talking about irate letters from parents, since even Doctor Wertham wasn't critiquing comics in the very early forties. A little more specificity in this department would've been preferable. 


The outside criticism, according to the documentary, caused publisher Max Gaines to attempt to rein in Marston. This did happen, according to some of DC memos that have survived today. But "Truth" doesn't elucidate how much control Marston had over the franchise, due to the unique contract he had negotiated with the company. Rather, according to the voice-over of narrator Keri Russell (who also voiced Wonder Woman in a direct-to-DVD production), Max Gaines tried to vitiate Marston's control of the character but putting Wonder Woman in the Justice Society. 

The documentary conveniently leaps over the fact that a short 9-page introduction of Wonder Woman, by regular creators Marston and Harry Peter, had appeared separately from the main Justice Society story in ALL-STAR COMICS #8 (late 1941). Interestingly, this short debut, meant to function as a lead-in to the release of the Amazon's regular berth in SENSATION COMICS (January 1942), takes place in the same month as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Clearly, this "advance sample" was taken in the spirit of publicizing Marston's creation.



When Wonder Woman made a literal appearance in a Justice Society story, it took place in ALL-STAR COMICS #11, released the following summer. The adventure shows all of the featured members of the JSA, plus "honorary member" Wonder Woman, engaged in battling Japanese troops in the Pacific Theater. This, according to the documentary, was part of Gaines' insidious plan to wrest control of the Amazon from Marston, because Wonder Woman's segment was scripted by JSA regular Gardner Fox. "Historian" Tim Hanley says:

In one of [Wonder Woman's] early appearances as part of the Justice Society, writer Gardner Fox doesn't quite know what to do with her, so he decides to make her the secretary of the team. All the other male heroes go out to save the day, and she stays behind to keep the notes.

As it happens, Wonder Woman, though she is a "honorary member" due to the convoluted rules of the JSA (which was primarily about promoting characters without their own title), gets just as much action as any male hero in "The Justice Society Joins the War on Japan." Wonder Woman gets to beat up a lot of Nipponese soldiers, and is justly celebrated by American soldiers.



The changeover came next issue, ALL-STAR #12, in which Wonder Woman takes the secretarial role for the first time, with little explanation.



However, given that the use of Wonder Woman in the feature was under the control of the feature's editor, not the writer, Hanley is clearly wrong to blame this development on Fox. There is also no reason to think that Gaines, who did have such control (though he probably would've executed his will through Sheldon Mayer), was trying to seize control. I think it's more likely that Marston objected to having Wonder Woman written by someone else, even though he was already writing the characters in her title feature, as well as in SENSATION COMICS and COMIC CAVALCADE. It's more likely that Gaines, who could not have altered Marston's binding contract, was simply trying to use the Amazon's appeal to help boost the sales of his title.

ALL-STAR COMICS #13, however, took a departure from this "secretary" status, when all of the then-active heroes, including Wonder Woman, were booby-trapped by Nazi spies, who sent all of them soaring into space, where they would presumably be doomed. Instead, all of the heroes had separate adventures on exotic planets, after which they returned to Earth and kicked ass on the fifth columnists.



Roy Thomas's TwoMorrows publication, ALL-STAR COMPANION, examined all of the Justice Society issues in detail, and devoted a sidebar to Wonder Woman's role in issue #13. The sidebar chronicles how regular writer Fox wrote an adventure for Wonder Woman on the planet Venus. Marston wasn't pleased by the script, and wanted the chance to rewrite the story. Gaines apparently okayed the rewrite, thus leading to the only Marston-Peter collaboration to appear in ALL-STAR.


The story, in which the Amazon helps winged female Venusians overcome brutal male invaders, is enjoyable if a bit on the typical side. The existence of this second and last WONDER WOMAN solo JSA-adventure is also not mentioned in "Truth," and so there is no consideration that maybe a harried editor like Max Gaines may have imposed the "secretary solution" simply because he was tired of fighting with Marston over stories. Did this solution appear in issue #12 as an implied warning to Marston, who may have complained too much over the Amazon's depiction in #11? I offer this as speculation only, but if it bears any resemblance to the historical truth-- which is really a genuine "secret" by this time-- then it would seem that Marston ignored the "warning," kept up the complaints, and so had to watch his character relegated to "guest appearances" in the JSA. I would further assume that there was nothing in Marston's contract that prevented such guest appearances, and thus from one standpoint Wonder Woman's secretary status came about simply to "punish" an upstart author, not to reduce her importance as a feminist icon.

Oddly, the documentary's over-ideological interpretation of Max Gaines and Gardner Fox is entirely at odds with its treatment of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as "messy" human beings, who should not be judged in terms of being heroes or villains. Perhaps the somewhat polarizing nature of Marston's WONDER WOMAN mythology invites such over-political readings.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

INDIVIDUAL VS. COLLECTIVE AMPLITUDE PT. 2

In my first essay on this subject, written three years ago, I pointed out the way a given group of characters might accue mythic amplitude even though said mythicity inhered only in the character's membership in the group, my first example being the Injustice Society of the World. Then I cited another example, the portrayal of the X-Men in the graphic novel GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS, and noted that all of the mutant heroes had a collective form of amplitude even though individually they were less than distinctive.

This week's mythcomic, "A Dream of Monsters," follows the latter pattern. Four of the six heroes-- Quantum Queen, Elvar, Dartalon, and Aviax-- have no mythic identities individually, but only collectively, insofar as they are part of Clonus's brood of mutated "children." Re-Animage has a little more individual mythicity, simply because his creators had to devote some cosmological thought to the process by which his body regenerates. The mental mistress Psyche, however, plays a more central role in the tale insofar as she is "the good mother" against Velissa's "bad mother," though even so, "Monsters" seems to be much more about the Frankensteinian story of Clonus-Prime, his wife Velissa, and the Hatchlings. Later stories in the short-lived WANDERERS series made some attempts to give the heroes some myth-status, as when Aviax, a fellow who can turn into various types of birds, fights an evil scheme that involves the extermination of birds, but all of these stories failed to imbue the sketchy characters with any symbolic stature.

In THE INJUSTICE SOCIETY OF THE WORLD, the starring heroes of the Justice Society don't have much mythicity compared to the villain-group. In the earlier tale A CURE FOR THE WORLD, the Society-members have more mythicity, but only in the collective sense. None of the heroes' particular skills or potentialities are emphasized, bur rather, all of them are made into vessels for the story's message regarding the liberating effects of democracy. If the same story had been told with six different DC heroes, it probably would have read about the same.

It is, however, not impossible for a narrative to sustain both individual and collective myth-amplitude, at least better than "Dream of Monsters" does. In THE JUSTICE LEAGUE'S IMPOSSIBLE ADVENTURE, five League-members are transported to an alien world by a group of judgmental beings named "the Impossibles."  The Impossibles remove the powers of Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and J'onn J'onzz simply because all five received their abilities without working to earn them. The powerless heroes are then obligated to defend the cosmic judges against a group of predacious aliens. During the battle, most of the heroes find that the removal of their powers turns out to be a Good Thing, because it either removes their weaknesses or prevents them from having their former powers turned against them. (For instance, Aquaman is attacked by mental waves from a brain-creature, but he realizes, somehow, that the waves could've slain him had he still had his telepathic powers.) So collectively, all the members share the amplitude of "earning what was not earned," but since the script exploits each of their individual myth-identities, each hero also has an individual myth-amplitude.




ADDENDA: Since, going by Google, I seem to be alone in appreciating JLA #59, I'll add that although Gardner Fox works into the story the weaknesses of Superman and J'onn J'onzz readily enough, he couldn't really do this with the other three. The Flash has no specific vulnerabilities, Aquaman's weakness of needing immersion in water only takes place after a full hour, and Fox probably didn't even know that the Amazon, as written by her creator, lost her strength (sometimes) if a man chained her-- or welded her bracelets together-- or whatever Marston wanted to write at the time. That's probably just as well, as we spared a scene in which Wonder Woman had to say, "The Crystal Man welded my bracelets together, but since I don't have my Amazon strength, I-- uh-- well, I'm still chained up!" (Oddly, the story does give Wonder Woman a psychological block, which is slightly appropriate, just because her creator was of the psychological profession.)

Friday, September 6, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "A DREAM OF MONSTERS" (THE WANDERERS #1-5, 1988)



Most comics-fans are more than a little familiar with the many revisions of major DC Comics characters like Superman and Wonder Woman following the 1985 "Crisis" mega-event. But of all the characters revised following the Crisis, the team of future-heroes known as "the Wanderers" may be the most obscure. Prior to 1988, the team had only appeared a couple of times as guest-stars in DC's successful LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES feature, and there were no indications that anyone had designed the seven characters of the team to be a continuing franchise. I would guess that when writer Doug Moench and artist Dave Hoover pitched the idea of THE WANDERERS as an ongoing series, their interest had less to do with their fascination with the characters than with the chance to promulgate a somewhat darker vein of science fiction than what usually appeared in the LEGION's "space opera with superheroes."



Most of the Crisis-era revisions didn't necessitate killing the original version-- the pre-Crisis incarnation of Wonder Woman proving the exception to that rule-- but WANDERERS #1 starts out with the deaths of all seven heroes by forces unknown. The dead bodies of the heroes, floating around in their derelict spaceship, are discovered by a being belonging to the race called "Controllers," said race being a familiar presence in the LEGION cosmology. This individual, eventually dubbed "Clonus-Prime," finds the slain heroes while he's in the midst of tracking the monsters responsible for attacking both the Wanderers and various other alien races. (These creatures are not given a specific name as such, so for the rest of the essay I'll call them "the Hatchlings," a name given to one of their intermediary development-stages.) Clonus-Prime takes time out from his pursuit to arrange a rebirth for the deceased stalwarts, but only in an indirect (and somewhat confusing) manner. He intends to bring the Wanderers back in new bodies cloned from their corpses. However, since Prime doesn't want to get off the trail for too long, he first clones himself. This results in an identical twin, usually named just "Clonus." Clonus-Prime downloads some or all of his memories into Clonus, and then leaves. Clonus, who possesses all of his "parent's" scientific skills and also inherits the immortality common to all Controllers, gets to work and tries to clone new bodies for all seven. One of the seven clones does not take, but the other six prove viable, although for reasons not well explained, Clonus modifies most of their powers and appearances, as well as growing them to adult status in a matter of weeks. 



Once they "come alive," the six clone-heroes possess all of the memories of their "primes," or originals. Yet they're more than a little alienated by their new physical forms, and some of them are angry to have been made into lab-rats by their new "father." For the first five issues, the heroes' main mission is to learn what forces destroyed their primes. None of them seem to have any memories of their predecessors' final moments, which is perhaps just as well, since the saga of the new Wanderers is already fairly confusing, owing to its being started in media res. Moench puts forth a familiar but still appealing idea-- that of giving a murder-victim a second chance to find his murderer-- but whereas this is given an elegant simplicity in a feature like DC's DEADMAN, the concept becomes vitiated by the demands of a team-book. Team-concepts flourish when the team-members all have separate concerns and thus butt heads over their respective priorities-- but with a few exceptions, the New Wanderers all share the same overall problem: that of being reborn in mutated forms, and of finding their murderers.



Further, even in the first five issues-- easily the best arc in the feature's 13-issue run-- Moench does not succeed in creating strong interpersonal dynamics for the members, despite a transparent attempt to make two of the heroes look like, respectively, Nightcrawler and Wolverine of THE X-MEN. The two female team-members keep the names they started with, Psyche and Quantum Qneen, but the four males all assume new monickers-- Elvar, Dartalon, Aviax, and Re-Animage-- none of which are any better than their primes' cognomens. The heroes get a little time to experiment with their powers before the next catastrophe: an assassin from the Controller universe. Clonus reveals to his "children" that in that universe, cloning is expressly forbidden, which is why Clonus-Prime fled his own cosmos in order to perfect his cloning-procedures. So the Wanderers must continue their own quest for their murderers while a stalker pursues them. For good measure, both Clonus-Prime and Clonus perish, though the latter survives as a computer-program in the Wanderers' starship. One of the heroes, the intuitive Psyche, discovers an infant Hatchling in the ship and hides the imp from the others, seeking to use her mental abilities to purge the Hatchling of the violence inherent in its species.



To say the least, this overplotted narrative proves ponderous in the extreme. The mythic meat of the story, though, might be called Doug Moench's subversion of the novel FRANKENSTEIN. Clonus-Prime's obsession with cloning bears some comparisons with the obsession of Shelley's character to make a "new Adam" out of diverse body-parts, and many critics have commented that Frankenstein's primary sin was to attempt to create a human being through science rather than using the tried-and-true organic methods.



Clonus-Prime, though ultimately responsible for the genesis of the Hatchlings, does not make his monsters exclusively through science. Before he's even created his first clone, he meets a human woman of the Legion-verse, and the two of them fall in love. Clonus-Prime and Velissa repeatedly try to conceive the old-fashioned way, but they fail to bear any children due to biological incompatibility. Unlike Clonus-Prime, Velissa ages like all mortals, but rather than simply letting her perish naturally, he prolongs her life via cloning, making new young versions of Velissa and then euthanizing the aged bodies. For generations Clonus-Prime keeps making new versions of Velissa, as well as continuing to try biological reproduction. But as the Controller-assassin eventually reveals, clones can't be allowed to reproduce, or they will produce monsters. It's not clear as to why Clonus-Prime never knew this, but it's due to his ignorance that he and Velissa eventually do bear children: the Hatchings, who reproduce asexually and are hostile to all species save their own kind. Thus in a sense Clonus-Prime is ultimately responsible both for killing and for re-birthing the Wanderers (sort of like series-creators Moench and Hoover).





The climax of "Dream" also touches on Frankensteinian themes, for the Hatchlings not only escape their father, they take their mother Velissa with them, and she's kept alive by their will, as a sort of zombie-queen. Though her husband has the greater responsibility for the Hatchlings' depredations, the image of Velissa presiding over her ravening offspring reminded me of Frankenstein's fears that if he created a bride for his monster, she would become the mother of a new race of monsters. In contrast to Velissa, Psyche is the "good mother," in that she's successful in using her emotion-based powers to purge her adopted Hatchling of its violent tendencies. But Psyche can't save the whole nest of Hatchlings, and thus the arc I've named "Dream of Monsters" comes to a cataclysmic conclusion. 

For the remainder of the series, Moench and Hoover, rather than working on the dynamics of their ensemble, placed more emphasis in showing each of the Wanderers trying to find their individual destinies in various new situations. Even the best of these stories are rather predictable and unaffecting, despite the creators' attempts to play up the melodramatic angles. As a team the "X-Wanderers" were a failure, but the initial arc, however tortuous, does have a few memorable myth-moments.