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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...

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

STAR WARS, NOTHING BUT STAR WARS

For my last ARCHIVE essay of the year, I thought I might put together something a little more accessible to the casual reader (if any) than the previous "Concrescence and the Kinetic Potentiality." And since this year I devoted several essays on my movie-blog to reviewing most of the as-yet-unreviewed-by-me live-action films in the STAR WARS series-- concluding with an analysis of the current RISE OF SKYWALKER-- I'll make the Lucasverse my last ARCHIVE subject for 2019.

In 1978, when Bill Murray sang the lyric in my title for an episode of SNL, he was playing the part of a lounge-singer making up lame lyrics to please an audience of barflies. The main focus of the schtick was to make fun of the way commercial performers tended to latch onto items of popular culture in order to sell themselves. In a different era, Murray might've constructed the same idea around, say, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

And yet, though the comedian couldn't have known that the original 1977 film would be anything more than a flash in the pan, he could well have been aware that STAR WARS had garnered an adult audience far beyond anything seen in past SF-successes. I find it unlikely that the same schtick, done in 1968, could've sold the idea that a lounge-singer would've tried to appeal to a bunch of adult drinkers with insider references to any other fantasy-film, even a popular one like PLANET OF THE APES.

There had been a handful of fantasy-works in various media that somewhat escaped the "fantasy is for kids" cultural judgment. DUNE and THE LORD OF THE RINGS attracted an audience outside the world of hardcore SF-readers. The James Bond book-series and its attendant movie-adaptations trafficked in sci-fi gimmickery and villains that resembled the freakish fiends of the DICK TRACY comic strip. The fifties generated a handful of SF-films that enjoyed some qualified support from adult audiences, such as Howard Hawks' THE THING, and the late sixties mirrored that development with the first of the APES films (though later ones became more kiddified) and Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Comic books remained a marginal medium despite adults' brief flirtation with the irony-drenched world of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries. Yet Marvel Comics changed up the game by introducing the formula of "heroes with problems," and while Marvel's penetration of "the real world" was minimal during its strongest creative era, its long-term influence on American culture would make possible the current hegemony of "superhero movies for all ages."

Yet, for all of these influences, the eventual validation of metaphenomenal entertainment for adults all comes down to "nothing but STAR WARS." In my review of the original film, I wrote:

...the religion of the Force works well in the first film because it's become the underdog in the galactic empire. Whenever the materialistic minions of the Empire mention the Jedi, it's only to sneer at the absurdities of their beliefs. To them Darth Vader's continued existence is little more than an indicator of the foolishness of having faith in anything but machines-- and the fact that Vader himself had taken on the semblance of a machine is merely a further confirmation of their world-view.
Luke Skywalker's existence defies the Empire's passion for "technological terrors," and whether or not Lucas meant him to be Vader's son at the time hardly matters. By inheriting Obi-Wan's mantle as the new embodiment of Jedi spirituality, he supplants Vader in the cosmos as Jacob supplanted Esau. This is the unlikely turnabout that Lucas teaches his audience to hunger for, and it plays as much a role in the franchise's success as the aforementioned love of pulpish extravagance. Indeed, without Lucas having crossbred the magic of fairy tales with the machines of SF, the furor over STAR WARS might have petered out over time like many other fannish enthusiasms, no matter how hard big corporations labored to keep them stoked.

George Lucas's scattershot research into fairy tales, archaic shamanism, and mythology clearly touched a cord in the American psyche, not mention the psyches of a great many other world cultures. And its popularity with adults was reflected in one of America's earliest instances of "political correctness," on which I reflected in my essay TRIBAL IN PARADISE:

STAR WARS was the test-case for racial representation. Not long after the film came out, I recall hearing a black comedian say something like, "Tell the truth, white people; you like STAR WARS because it means ya'll gonna leave alla us behind!" There may be more truth than humor in that statement, and Lucasfilms was quick to remedy the lack of POC in the SW universe by introducing Lando Calrissian in the second movie.

This wasn't pure tokenism, though. The Lucasverse as we now know it recapitulated a number of political attitudes, not least Lucas's favored trope of "lots of little good guys can beat a big bad guy." This is best illustrated in the first film in the Rebels' triumph over the Death Star. In addition, an early draft for STAR WARS would've also included a primitive tribe of Wookies beating a contingent of Storm Troopers, even though the story-idea didn't show up on celluloid until Lucas reworked the Wookies into RETURN OF THE JEDI's Ewoks. Reportedly Lucas was not entirely pleased that the only well-known black actor in the cast was "off-camera" in the form of Darth Vader's voice, but the appeal of James Earl Jones' baritone overcame those reservations. Thus I would surmise that Lucas probably didn't engineer the role of Lando Calrissian merely to profit from tokenism. He probably sincerely believed in a judicious forms of racial representation, much like that similarly-liberal toiler-in-fantasy-fields Gene Roddenberry. However, Lucas he didn't virtue-signal quite enough to head off his critics in 1999, when the buffoonish Jar Jar Binks was assailed for being a modern reincarnation of Stepin Fetchit.

The prequel series displeased a lot of viewers for a lot of reasons, but on the whole the series proved a success-- not just in terms of box office, but also in showing how thoroughly the viewing public had become enthralled with the Lucasverse cosmology. That said, even in the sixteen years between RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE, countless film producers sought to pursue the grail of the "Big Lucas Pay-Off," seeking to subject the once marginal genres of science fiction, magical fantasy and superheroes to the big-budget treatment. Television showed a similar transformation, though obviously Hollywood's Veblen-esque investment in conspicuous consumption didn't play so well on the small screen. Still, serials like XENA, HERCULES and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER demonstrated methods of bringing in big ratings on a small budget. For all anyone knows, the increasing profitability of sci-fi and superheroes may have played a role in encouraging George Lucas to return to his long-neglected franchise.

There's not much doubt that the "Rise of the Box-Office Profits" motivated Disney to purchase the Lucasverse, but here too, it's hard to say if pure profiteering explained the whole megilla. In my essay FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PART 4, I called attention to the way Disney strategists re-wrote Lucas's "Clonetroopers" scenario from the prequels in order to start off the new series with an appeal to racial priorities. Thus the first promo for FORCE AWAKENS opens with the sight of a Storm Ttrooper unmasking and revealing the face of a black man (or at least, a face whose ethnicity is less ambiguous than that of actor Temeura Morrison, who played the mercenary from whose cells all Storm Troopers were supposedly derived).




Now, with the Disney trilogy is complete, it's possible to state categorically that the company's vaunted commitment to diversity did not extend to making Finn a halfway interesting character. In my review of FORCE AWAKENS, I pointed out that this revelation could be seen as a war to replay what I called "the African Diaspora," insofar as Disney's white-clad troopers were abducted from their worlds and forced to serve the Empire/First Order. However, even if the persons responsible for crafting the Finn character had some such intention-- and the idea is re-emphasized anew in RISE OF SKYWALKER-- the producers failed utterly at making Finn even as compelling as a Lucas toss-off like Boba Fett. That said, other new characters in the Disneyverse-- Poe, Rose Tiko, Holdo-- were no better characterized, so Finn certainly wasn't singled out for half-assed treatment. The one decent new character, Rey, got most of her mojo from being tied to one of Lucas's legacy characters in a literal sense, and with others in a more symbolic sense.

It may be a measure of Disney's perceptions about the adult audience's investment in the Lucasverse that the company chose to virtue-signal the company's commitment to diversity. However, it should be noted that, even if Lucas and his collaborators might have been influenced by tokenism in crafting Lando Calrissian, they still managed to make Lando an interesting character despite the creators' possibly-monetary motivations.

Even before SKYWALKER appeared in theaters, the first two films in the Disney trilogy were excoriated for their virtue signaling, though this criticism tended to focus less on people-of-color than on a perceived overemphasis of female characters. I feel that this criticism is partly justified in the cases of Holdo and Rose Tiko, who were such ciphers that I find them unlikely vessels of female empowerment. However, I will defend Rey against that charge. I don't think that Lucas's STAR WARS cosmos was ever directed exclusively to the male gender, and I think that Princess Leia stands as a major femme formidable, even if it's true that Carrie Fisher was less than entranced with her role. Rey has been accused by some critics of being a "Mary Sue" in terms of how easily she attains power and formidability. But while I might share some critics' concerns about the depiction of her path to power, I felt all three Disneyverse films succeeded in making her a vital character, one not defined by the gender wars. Thus, when Rey takes the name "Skywalker" at the end of SKYWALKER, I for one embraced that conceit. For me, the gesture demonstrated that, even when the new-verse was compromised by venal virtue-signaling, and dull diversity-concerns, it still was possible for people who weren't George Lucas to create at least one character that escaped such banal politicization.


Monday, December 30, 2019

CONCRESCENCE AND THE KINETIC POTENTIALITY PT. 2

In Part 1, I concluded the essay with these words:

In the case of the kinetic phenomenality, the operation of concrescence depends on bringing together disparate elements into what appears a seamless whole, just as it does with respect to symbolic discourses.

In that essay, I viewed the physical dynamicities expressed by two artists-- Jack Kirby and Mike Zeck-- and gave my reasons for viewing a Kirby panel as "good kinetic discourse," while Zeck's panel was"bad kinetic discourse." Nevertheless, in previous essays, I've gone on record as stating that even badly done kinetic discourses may fall within the combative mode. One such essay on that subject was INTENT VS. EXECUTION. In that 2015 essay, I compared two mediocre movies, 1956's WORLD WITHOUT END and 1984's AMAZONS, both of which conclude with less than impressive fight-scenes. Yet, since I rated AMAZONS as combative and WORLD as subcombative, for me this begs a question regarding the function of concrescence in this conceptual model.

Oddly, though INTENT links with an earlier essay that discusses the narrative-significant schism. I didn't bring that concept into play in any direct manner. However, I gave Paul-Michael Glaser's AMAZONS credit for having a combative "intent" that I did not find in Edward Bernds's WORLD:

So, even though both Paul Glaser and Ed Bernds fall short in terms of execution, I give Glaser the nod because his work shows some "intent" to provide a combat that resolved the differences of the opponents, while Bernds seemed unaware that his main hero had to do something at least semi-impressive. 
It belatedly occurs to me that what I called "execution" in the essay parallels with the concept of a work's narrative value with relation to the combative mode: that if the work doesn't display the contending of impressive energies, then it cannot be combative. Yet, though Glaser's film isn't much better in terms of showing those contending energies, it does show "intent," which in my system would line up with a "significant value"-- ergo, the concluding fight is important TO THE READER for such-and-such a reason.

Thus, I find that while the kinetic discourse of both works may be inferior in terms of narrative values-- and thus, not fully concrescent-- AMAZONS is concrescent with regard to the significant values possible for both works, while WORLD is not, and so registers as subcombative.

 




Wednesday, December 25, 2019

COMBATIVE CHRISTMAS COMICS #8-9

"Look what's coming down the chimney! It's an imitation of ALIEN (though technically it's a supernatural demon-thingie...)"



And let's not forget how Marvel put the "Sweet Christmas" in the Xmas season, when HERO FOR HIRE #7 pitted Luke Cage against a villain called "Marley" in a story titled "Jingle Bombs."


Sunday, December 22, 2019

COMBATIVE CHRISTMAS COMICS #5-7

"You see this cat Claus is a bad mother--"
(Shut your mouth!)
"But I'm talkin' 'bout Santa!"

_________

Here's a team-up between Santa Claus and Superman, where the jolly old elf helps the superhero fight Toyman. Claus himself doesn't participate in the action, but his elves make a bunch of toys that out-fight the villain's killer devices.

________

One of the better comics-versions of a "bad Santa" appeared in BADGER #70. The hero meets a fat greasy biker-type in a bar, and it turns out he's "Klaus," who's sworn off delivering toys on Xmas.  Badger goes with him to the North Pole, watches as Klaus beats up a rebel elf, and talks the foul-mouthed fellow into making his Xmas journey. Badger does end up having to discipline Santa when he's naughty, though. Lots of good jabs against political correctness.

______

Not nearly as good is this LOBO CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. Some Lobo-stories combine a certain amount of wit along with the skull-busting ultraviolence. Not this one, though.




Thursday, December 19, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU (1916)

Apparently it took Sax Rohmer about four years to bring his villain back into play, though he took pains at the end of the first book to set up the probability of the devil-doctor's return.



From first to last, all of the Fu-books are episodic, though the early ones are explicitly cobbled together from stand-alone short stories that had appeared in serial magazines. RETURN therefore keeps the exact same structure as INSIDIOUS. Nayland Smith, accompanied by stalwart buddy Doctor Petrie, is either trying to find the doctor's current hideout in England or to prevent the fiend from assassinating someone, be it an influential voice in world politics or a simple traitor to the "Yellow Power" movement. Not until the third novel would the author dedicate the name "Si-Fan" to Fu's group. Still, in the second book Rohmer backs off on any associations between the Oriental evildoer and what was called "New China" in the first novel.

RETURN is not nearly as compelling as that first book, for Rohmer isn't really building on his villain's mythos to any great extent. Fu again puts the hit on several citizens, using various dacoit servants, exotic plants and animals, and even a "curse of the mummy" situation that conjures with the idea of a risen creature in wrappings (though it turns out to be just another dacoit). Some of these death-devices are reasonably clever, though there's nothing as wild as the fungus-room seen in INSIDIOUS.

Rohmer does follow up on the first novel's assertion that Fu is not the master of the Chinese movement. The real leader even shows up, "off-camera" as it were, though future novels will establish that over time the devil-doctor takes over the whole shooting-match. Rohmer continually spotlights Fu's immense genius and his sense of personal honor, though the author can't resist tossing in a barb at the "childishness" of the Chinese people. This putdown appears during the novel's most interesting sequence. Petrie, while looking for a missing Nayland Smith, stumbles across a literal rara avis: a white peacock loose in the city. Providentially, the doctor captures the bird and leaves it with an aide. He's then captured by Fu's fiends and imprisoned with Smith, but when he learns that the peacock is part of a Chinese ritual to honor the doctor, he's able to use the bird to buy freedom for himself and Smith.

The novel's biggest contribution to the Fu-mythos is the explicit statement that the doctor can brainwash people so thoroughly that they forget their old lives and become his servants, not always totally enslaved servants. Karameneh, Fu's Arab servant from the first book, illustrates the doctor's new propensity, for though she and Petrie have exchanged love-glances, the doctor expunges her memory, so that she does not remember Petrie, Smith, or even her own brother Aziz. Nevertheless, she senses her connection to Petrie, and even before that, she impulsively reveals to him that Fu hasn't exactly been a kind master, since she has lash-marks on her shoulder. Eventually, she does recover at least part of her memory toward the conclusion, though she disappears from Petrie's life once more, setting up her inevitable return in HAND OF FU MANCHU-- though Fu's own return seems more dubious, as he's last seen getting shot in the head by Karameneh, who chooses fidelity to her English lover over loyalty to her cruel master.

ADDENDUM: I should note how this novel stands in terms of phenomenality and mythicity. Though there's nothing as way out as killer fungi, Fu's ability to mind-wipe victims with his drugs-- sans any major side-effects-- would seem to fall into the "marvelous" category. However, unlike the first book, this one doesn't make the grade as "high-mythicity fiction."

THE READING RHEUM: MOLL FLANDERS (1722)

I've devoted four posts to Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE, which I consider to be the starting-point for Western popular fiction. Until recently I had not read Defoe's second-best-known novel, MOLL FLANDERS, though I'd seen a couple of cinematic adaptations. In one 2014 essay,
however, I conjured with Defoe's Moll as an example of an early female character who was not a "damsel in distress." I said back then:

According to the summaries I have read, CRUSOE, unlike OTRANTO, has no significant female characters at all, so it neither proves nor disproves Colangelo's assertion. None of Defoe's other works fit my criteria for popular culture, though it is worth noting that Defoe was not hostile to the idea of empowered female characters, given that his second best-known novel is 1722's MOLL FLANDERS. The titular character probably is not a femme formidable, though Wikipedia notes that she "begins a career of artful thievery, which, by employing her wits, beauty, charm, and femininity, as well as hard-heartedness and wickedness, brings her the financial security she has always sought."

Now that I have read MOLL, my conjecture-- probably based  as much on film-adaptations of the Defoe novel as on the Wiki summary-- is borne out. Moll starts out life on the down side, being born to a prostitute-mother in Newgate Prison. Moll-- whose titular name is made-up, though supposedly Defoe based her on a real woman with the same first name-- is separated from her mother at an early age. However, at age eleven she's apprenticed as a maid to a well-to-do family. This circumstance eventually leads her to her first romance, when she hooks up with one of the young men of the family. However, he seduces her with promises of marriage, but has no intention of making her anything but his mistress. This character-- who goes unnamed, like most of Defoe's characters here-- becomes one of several men whom Moll beds and/or weds in her quest for security, though none of these liaisons really "take." The early mortality of men during 18th-century England spares Moll from the fate of being a black widow murderess, though Defoe gets rid of male characters so quickly one might suspect him of murderous tendencies being exorcised through fiction.

In truth, Defoe seems to have a proto-feminist concept of Moll. On occasion men come to Moll's "rescue" with greater monetary resources, but it's almost as often that she makes her own money in clever ways, particularly in the latter half of the novel, when she becomes a professional thief. The only real time a male "rescue" really counts comes near the conclusion, when she's faced with hanging, and an unnamed minister manages to get her sentence changed, so that she's transported to America. But none of the "rescues" are so structured as to make Moll seem a "damsel in distress." I suppose she wouldn't be "feminist" these days because she generally uses sexuality and trickery to get ahead in life, rather than either political action or even the forceful endeavors of a femme formidable, like some of the female knights and rulers I've discussed elsewhere.

Both of Defoe's most famous characters, Robinson and Moll, incarnate the spirit of the entrepreneur as it was being re-defined in post-Renaissance Europe, and I would say that Defoe gives both of them as much agency as was possible for their respective genders in that time-period. Moll does suffer a certain amount of mistreatment by males, but she's usually able to escape being controlled-- so that if one deems her the First Lady of Popular Fiction, she definitely escapes the status of being "a damsel in distress."


A VIEW TO TWO PILLS

"every single person needs to go to Africa to experience [the African experience]"-- Boris Kodjoe, THE VIEW 12-19-19.

"....four hundred years, to assess something [slavery in America] so foundational-- it [an upcoming TIMES essay on that topic] had to be something really big."--Kodjoe's collaborator Nikole Hannah-Jones, same program and date.

Not long after Kodjoe extols the wonders of Africa and urges others to visit-- though it's hard to tell if he's talking about all persons regardless of race-- co-host Sunny Hostin mentions the famous slave markets in Ghana, which are still maintained today as tourist attractions. There is no discussion of who built the markets or who brought the slaves to the market; only the suffering of the slaves and Kodjoe's determination that slavery does not define the status of Africans.

Well, if the Portuguese-- the builders of the markets-- were also responsible for capturing and selling all of the slaves in those markets, then Kodjoe might be have something. However, it's common knowledge that the people of Ghana, as well as traders from other tribes, fully participated in taking and selling slaves in those markets. This online essay, in fact, makes the salient point that Europeans by themselves could never have harvested so many slaves, because whites were extremely vulnerable to African diseases like malaria.

Of course Kodjoe is not interested in Black African complicity in the slave trade, though one might ask what's so glorious about Ghana if so much of its history is defined by participation in the African slave trade. But at least he, unlike journalist Hannah-Jones, doesn't go so far as to claim that the character of the United States of America is defined by its participation in-- guess what-- slavery. Indeed, Hannah-Jones goes so far as to claim that slavery is part of America's very foundations, and that its heritage influences all sorts of modern ills, like the lack of universal health care.

But of course, if we're going to say that a country is defined by everything that happened in its beginnings, then why isn't slavery "foundational" in Ghana as well? Surely no one would assert that Ghana, or any other African realm, had no acquaintance with the African version of slavery. The standard progressive response has been to say that European slavery was a thing apart from old-fashioned tribal slavery in sub-Saharan Africa. So maybe that's how Kodjoe and Hannah-Jones would absolve Ghana of its complicity in the slave trade. They weren't doing the worst version of slavery from the very first; those evil white devils TEMPTED them into that complicity with filthy lucre. So Ghana started out with a lesser evil, and later embraced a greater evil-- and so their evil isn't as "foundational" as that of the United States.

Ah yes. Pull the other finger, progressives.



Tuesday, December 17, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: :TALES OF HOFMANN" (DOOM PATROL #50-52, 1991)

The three-issue sequence I've termed "Tales of Hofmann" (after the first issue's title) might be the first "Christmas in the comics" story  in which Xmas only plays a niggling role. As the cover of one
collected edition shows, the Patrol's perennial villain "Mister Nobody" is seen wearing a Santa hat in a few panels, and apparently the story does take place at Christmas, since the chimerical character is seen giving away a toy-store's merchandise to thrilled kiddies. However, there's not much Yuletide content in the three issues. Nobody and his comical cronies also parody the Last Supper, though that theme would seem to have more to do with Easter. 



To be sure, the date that most concerns writer Grant Morrison in this sequence is not December 25, but Election Day 1976, when some parodists, probably associated with the Yippies, started the first "Nobody for President" movement. Morrison doesn't directly reference that historical event, but "Hofmann" is a positive ode to all things Yippie-ish, and to all aspects of the counterculture's determination to break down "the doors of perception." For instance, the "Hofmann" of the title is not the horror-story writer associated with the famous opera, but Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized and ingested LSD. 

Mister Nobody, originally a minor functionary in the Silver Age DOOM PATROL, was re-imagined by Morrison and artist Richard Case as an opponent for their version of the Patrol. However, whereas the original Patrol had contended against the preachily named group of villains known as "the Brotherhood of Evil," Mister Nobody brought together a bunch of freaky fiends to become his "Brotherhood of Dada." Though his original group were exiled from Earth, Nobody returns to the mortal plane, and promptly recruits yet another merry band of pranksters, and then decides to run for president of the United States. The members of the current Doom Patrol-- Robotman, Rebis, and Crazy Jane-- don't quite know how to deal with this non-destructive rampage, any more than cops of the sixties and seventies knew how to cope with the planned insanity of the Yippies.



As in most if not all of his DOOM PATROL scripts, Morrison firmly endorses an ethics of ecstasy and resistance to the "tedium" of ordinary existence. That said, he might be a little more cautious than the average Timothy Leary disciple, given that he does show a "bad trip" on the part of one of the recipients of Nobody's distribution of LSD-like experiences. However, even if the superheroes aren't quite ready to shut down these wacky malefactors, the U.S. government is more than prepared to do so.



While Morrison could have simply created some standard government super-operative, in "Hofmann" he shows his enthusiasm for "found art." The cover of DOOM PATROL #51 reproduces, albeit with alterations, an unused cover for a DC series that was never launched, concerning a disguise-master named "Yankee Doodle." Probably this aborted concept owed something to similar fare like the pulp-character SECRET AGENT X, but naturally Morrison's concern is to show his version of Yankee Doodle as an agent of the repressive status quo.

The one thing that keeps "Hofmann" from being the best example of a Morrison DOOM PATROL script is the fact that the three issues utilize a somewhat bizarre melange of contributing artists: not only the dominant penciler Richard Case but also Stan Woch, Rian Hughes,, and (most jarringly) Jamie Hewlett. But Morrison still presents a rich discourse regarding humankind's problematic ability to imagine anything, versus their confinement to the Tedium of Ordinary Life.


Monday, December 16, 2019

ON MASTERING SELF-MASTERY PT. 2

I concluded Part 1 by sketching out three primary story-tropes used by fictional characters to demonstrate self-mastery:

(1) Combat between bodies, which in fiction usually takes place as "hand to hand combat" between human beings, though it can also include beasts in combat with claw and fang, and all analogous conflicts.



(2) Combat through the use of "extensions," which can range from weapons modeled on those of the real world to unreal "super-powers" not natural to the human form, such as X-ray vision, fire-breathing, or even peculiar uses of parts of the human form, like stretching this or that part of one's anatomy.



(3) Combat through the use of physically independent pawns, which can be other human beings, beasts, robots, etc.

In Part One I stated that with the first category, it's relatively easy to get a sense as to whether the combatants demonstrate greater-than-average dynamicity, what I termed "megadynamicity" in this 2012 essay. The second two, however, can be more elusive.

In my recent essay THE INVISIBLE FORCE OF INVESTIGATORS, I stressed that most "police procedurals" don't allow for "battles of personal glory." Many though not all shows in this genre are all about the power of cops to sweep through the city and overpower the criminal element by dint of superior numbers. The viewer assumes that every fictional cop has been through some form of training, both in armed and unarmed combat, but the stories themselves do not generally stress whatever megadynamic talents the policemen and policewoman may possess. Thus I would not label the cop-characters of HAWAII FIVE-O or LAW AND ORDER as megadynamic. In contrast, some less "procedural" cop-dramas definitely emphasize the violent conflict of order and chaos, ranging from cinema's DIRTY HARRY series to the gleeful absurdity of T.J HOOKER.



Now, in a less "civilized" genre, such as the western, one usually presumes that anyone who wields a gun knows how to use it-- or at least, any man. In every medium, the western tends to represent women as wielding weapons purely in self-defense. A female western character on average is at best mesodynamic, which means more or less that she can wield a gun well enough not to shoot herself with it. Only a precious female characters are touted for their skill with weapons. The real-life trick-shooter Annie Oakley has given rise to fictionalized versions like the 1954-57 teleseries with Gail Davis.



That said, a given character may demonstrate self-mastery, but not in a combative situation. In 1935 Barbara Stanwyck starred in an equally fictionalized version of the famous markswoman's life. However, this version of ANNIE OAKLEY was a romantic drama, with no combative content.




To segue a second time, I've sometimes debated with myself as to when a character with a gun registers as *mesodynamic* rather than "megadynamic." Prison-films-- particularly of the species known as "women-in-prison"-- can prove highly variable in this regard. A lot of guns are fired at the conclusions of THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE and SWEET SUGAR, but I derived no sense that most of the character shooting off big guns were especially skilled. As with the character of Mayhem, discussed in Part 1, their power comes not from themselves but from the sheer power of the weapons they acquire.

In contrast, though a number of female characters in the 1974 CAGED HEAT wield guns, the big shootout at the conclusion shows that the two characters played, respectively, by Erica Gavin and by Roberta Collins are skilled at picking off armed enemies from a considerable distance. I don't plan to review HEAT in the near future, as I found it somewhat boring. But at least director Jonathan Demme set up a situation in which his "femmes formidables" had to exchange sustained fire with a bunch of unsympathetic prison-guards, thus satisfying the combative mode.




Moving on to the second of the difficult categories, it's a given that there are many characters in fiction who are capable of unleashing vast armies against other armies: kings and queens, emperors and empresses, popes and popesses (?) But countless stories merely imply this power without seeing it in operation, just as numerous police-types do not demonstrate their dynamicity but simply imply it. Shakespeare's kings are forever going to war about this or that, but it's not a given that all of them are megadynamic figures, particularly when the wars are conveniently offstage. Henry V is easy to pronounce as "combative" in part because he's out there fighting with his troops. But Macbeth comes to power by assassination, and though there's a fight between Macbeth and Macduff while their respective armies contend, it's hard to state outright that either of them is a megadynamic type.

In this situation, female rulers may be no less complicated. Shakespeare's Cleopatra does not fight in the trenches in the fashion of Henry V, or even the Bard's tough-gal version of Joan of Arc. But the play does attribute to her the indirect power over Egypt's armies, so that one might indeed regard her as satisfying the combative mode. However, there are numerous Cleopatra tales-- not least Shaw's CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA-- in which the queen displays no queenly dynamicity, and thus she would register as mesodynamic at most. I might say the same for the Timely Comics version of the character Venus, though since she's given a definite super-power in later stories, the determination is perhaps moot.

COMBATIVE CHRISTMAS COMICS #2-4

This 1976 reprint includes four Xmas-superhero stories, only three of which are combative.




First up is a story from a special Superman one-shot, "Superman's Christmas Adventure," in which the Man of Steel battles a mad-scientist, Doctor Grouch, who wants to force Santa and his elves to convert to capitalism. Grouch does boast a sky-ship and a gas-gun, and almost kills Lois Lane in a fire, but he gets religion at the end, so all's well.



Wonder Woman, while not explicitly celebratiig Christmas herself, solves the problems of a troubled marriage, gives a couple of kids a happy holiday and nails some Nazis for good measure in "The Story of Fir Balsam."



Finally, the Sandman and Sandy don't meet Santa per se, but end up both fighting crooks and helping a wrestler in Santa-gear, in "Santa Fronts for the Mob."


Saturday, December 14, 2019

NEAR MYTHS: "THE SON OF SATAN" (VENUS #10, 1950)

Thanks to the site READ COMICS ONLINE I've now read the entirety of Timely Comics' 1948-52 series VENUS, which devoted itself to the travails of the Graeco-Roman love goddess while she abode on the planet Earth.

GCD has no speculations about who wrote the first issue or most of the rest of them, though Wiki alleges that Stan Lee had some credits on the love-goddess. I frankly don't remember if I noticed Lee's name on any of the stories, but all of the stories are so dull that if Lee wasn't the originator he must've decided to follow the basic template in very sedulous fashion. For most of the run, prior to the attempt to inject a horror-story vibe, most of the issues read pretty much the same. Venus, who came to Earth to learn about love, falls head over heels with a fellow who publishes a magazine about pretty girls, or something like that. Because he's in love with her he makes her the magazine's editor, and most of the goddess's adventures concern her either fending off the backbiting attacks of an envious secretary or being courted by other-worldly swains. For instance, in issue #10, she's pursued by "the Son of Satan"-- no relation to the later Daimon Hellstrom-- and she almost gives up her precious womanhood to him, until her ally Apollo sends down a sun-disc to sweep the satanic spawn away. Of all the stories, this is the only one with halfway inventive myth-content, since by accident or design the story replicates a visual aspect of the Greek story of Ixion.



Beyond the possible Ixion reference, the closest thing that this odd title had to a running myth-theme was the idea that Venus was frequently called upon to surrender to the fate worse than death, only to be saved at the last minute. Then she would return to the side of her publisher-boyfriend, though at no time do the couple make noises about getting engaged. I would surmise that this theme of female sacrifice was one that the creators-- probably, but not definitely, all male-- was one that they thought a romance-reading female audience might relate to. I don't know how VENUS compares to other Timely romance-comics of the period, but in the early issues there's so much concentration on the visual elements of feminine glamour that the series seems to have more in common with Timely's line of "pretty girl" books, which were more oriented upon pleasing that fiendish "male gaze."

The series is on the whole less interesting than debating what might've made the publishers give it the green light. The first issue appeared with a cover-date of August 1948, which means that issues were actually on the stands roughly two or three months previous. And in that same August, Universal Studios released ONE TOUCH OF VENUS. Aside from the basic idea of the goddess Venus coming to Earth and falling for a mortal, the movie doesn't have much in common with the comics-series. However, it does seem possible that Lee or someone at Timely was aware of the property, which debuted on stage in 1943 and had been floated for a possible movie adaptation in 1945. (For that matter, the play was loosely based on a prose novel dating back to 1885.)

Another small point in common is that the comic-book Venus, like the one in the Ava Gardner movie, possesses no powers while on Earth. Indeed, she isn't seen wielding any power but her basic authority while on Olympus, so one might guess that the creators were trying to steer the character's adventures away from male-oriented fight-scenes. On occasion, as in the "Son of Satan" tale, Venus calls upon other gods to help her, which might be deemed a "super-power" of sorts. But in the Golden Age series she doesn't even have the ability to compel people to fall in love with her, which was evidently an invention of Bill Everett when he briefly revived the character in a 1973 Sub-Mariner story. Everett was not involved in the series' romantic arc, but only contributed to the horror-stories of the title's final phase, when the editorship was evidently trying anything to keep the series afloat. Nor surprisingly, the Evreett-drawn stories were the only reprints Marvel published prior to collecting the whole series in archive form.  Possibly Everett, who gave his revised version of the goddess a new secret identity, had some thoughts of floating a new series with the character, but we'll probably never know.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

ON MASTERING SELF-MASTERY

I've recently hunted through past posts and added the tag "self-mastery" to any post where I used the Nietzschean term "self-overcoming." I find Nietzsche's term a little too obscure for my own use, but "self-mastery" serves to express the ways in which fictional combative characters illustrate humankind's ability to do more with their "might" than to dominate others. I wrote in 2015's NIETZSCHE VS. THE NEOPURITAN NANNIES:

Nietzsche is interested in war and violence only as forces within humankind that must be overcome by the overman-- not indulged in, like the Nazis to whom Frederic Wertham compared the philosopher. The overman was Nietzsche's solution to the vagaries of rule by the mob or by the tyrant:

Now, in fiction combative characters embody a plethora of philosophical attitudes, and Nietzsche's idea of self-mastery diverges even from that of, say, Frank Miller. (Interesting side-note: in ZARATHUSTRA Nietzsche castigates a "Spirit of Gravity," which is a value Miller and his co-writer Azzarello champion in THE DARK KNIGHT MASTER RACE. ) But I would still argue that the semantic manner in which both the philosopher and the comics-writers express the idea of self-mastery is essentially the same.

Now, in COMBAT PLAY PT. 4, I  used the ideal of "fair play" as an example of what I then called "self-limitation" and considered essentially identical with "self-overcoming:"

In my own lit-critic cosmos, the ideal of "fair play" assumes the role of "self-limitation" that is, in Nietzsche's philosophy, occupied by "self-overcoming."

And yet, I find that I've used it not in terms of limiting oneself but also in terms of exceeding limits. In WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS PT. 1, I compared two protagonists whose dynamicity was certainly not at the highest level, but who both utilized particular weapons to overcome obstacles. I argued in part that although Richard Mayhew of NEVERWHERE gained possession of a super-sword and used it to kill a monster, he lacked the quality of "self-mastery," since the weapon's power did all the work. In contrast, Jack Burton of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA didn't command a lot of power with his one weapon, a simple throwing-knife, but like Aristotle's hedgehog he mastered one good trick. Thus his triumph over the villain Lo-Pan is entirely the result of Burton's self-mastery.

In my philosophical cosmos, the acquisition of a skill or power comes about through a process of self-monitoring, a subject's attempt to understand his or her natural limits at a given time, after which the subject seeks to exceed said limits, to gain greater self-mastery. The appeal of fair play is affective rather than cognitive; the subject believes, for instance, that he shouldn't use a weapon if his opponent does not have one. Thus, in THOR #152, the thunder-god "sheathes" his hammer after destroying his foe's mace.



However, this "noblesse oblige" gesture can have an objective effect, in that it forces a given character to "dig deeper" in order to defeat a worthy opponent. Of course, one doesn't need the gesture, since combative narratives are replete with dozens of situations wherein combatants seek out worthy opponents purely to improve themselves. DRAGONBALL frequently uses this scenario, in that the Seiyans Goku and Vegeta repeatedly challenge one another, even when on relatively friendly terms:



Having dovetailed these two related concepts, my next consideration is: what are the most familiar story-tropes through which fictional characters may demonstrate self-mastery?

Both of the two previous examples fall into the most elementary category, that of the hand-to-hand battle. This is also the easiest trope with which an author can express self-mastery.

The trope of weapons-use, however, becomes more complicated, as seen in the WEAKLINGS WITH WEAPONS analysis, wherein I found that Mayhew did not display self-mastery even though he had a bigger, badder weapon than did Jack Burton. An even greater complication is that any form of "super-power" not intimately tied to the human body becomes similarly problematic. If Nightcrawler's ability to teleport demonstrates self-mastery, can one necessarily say the same of a comical type of teleporter like Ambush Bug?

The third major trope of self-mastery is that of the indirect commander: a figure whose main role is often to order others into battle. In this essay I said that I discounted the "Adama" character of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA in terms of "combative status" because he functioned largely as a figurehead. Yet there are millions of villains who are basically "master planner" types who get henchmen to do their fighting for them. However, the difference between Adama and, say, Fu Manchu is that the latter's genius for evil infuses every errand his servants perform in his name.



More on these matters later, perhaps.

COMBATIVE CHRISTMAS COMICS #1



The vast majority of Christmas comics are about extending the olive branch of peace and brotherhood to all humankind.

But of course, superheroes are about extending knuckle sandwiches to the unrighteous, and so sometimes they gotta dish out some Krampus-style violence.

Case in point: this 1975 story from MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #8. The title "Silent Night, Deadly Night," anticipates a later slasher-franchise, and the typically weird Steve Gerber story teams up the Thing and the Ghost Rider against the FF's occasional foe the Miracle Man. Seems that the evildoer has chosen to follow the supervillain-version of the "Imitatio Dei," creating a "miracle child" through whom he call rule blah blah blah.

There aren't a lot of these combative stocking-stuffers, but I'll see how many I can come up with during the month of December.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

THE NEVER-ENDING BATTLE OF REALISM AND ESCAPISM

Here's a mini-essay I wrote in response to a post on this CHFB thread regarding the recent demise of highbrow film critic John Simon:

__________


I may write a longer essay somewhere in response to this, but for now let me break this down into a couple of different factors.

First, to clarify my position, I have my own problems with certain aspects of "comic book movies," though my complaints are more in the nature of whether or not they could be better as comic book movies, and not because of their effects on other movies. 

Second, I don't want anything I say here to be misconstrued as a defense of contemporary "serious movies." I think they've been in an awful slump for the past twenty years, which is not outside the influence of the so-called "summer blockbusters," though it's arguable that superhero movies as such didn't become a dominant genre until 2008, when the MCU found ways to make even formerly second-rate comics-characters marketable. So IMO I think the slump in quality may have come from other factors, though it's arguable, I suppose, that if there'd been no MCU there would still be continued TRANSFORMERS and NINJA TURTLES franchises.

Third, I think things like CGI effects and hyper-active editing are not directly responsible for any lack of variety in modern movies. I think these are epiphemona to the greater phenomena of "escapist entertainment," and for a couple of centuries, even before movies existed, critics and "serious artists" have caviled at the influence of unserious entertainment. Before we had movies, William Wordsworth carped about carnival sideshows, for Thoth's sake. The argument about the deleterious influence of summer blockbusters, of STAR WARS specifically, and even barely related entertainment phenomena like "slasher films" have been around since the seventies. Maybe some really good films have been killed off because producers were chasing the bright shiny ball of The Big Pay-Off, but I don't think "Good Films" have ever really ceased to be made at all, even if studios make them more for the purpose of the sake of reputation than for filthy lucre. When I go through Oscar's best-films nominations for the 1990s-- by which time  high-priced genre films were all over the place-- I still think a lot of those films stand with the best of Classic Hollywood. But once we get into the 2000s, there's a notable fall-off in quality.

To sum up, it's that drop-off from one decade to the next that makes me suspect other factors, some curious failing that separates a good drama like AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) from a empty exercise like CHICAGO (2001). 

I have no theories as to what caused this failing, which I've seen for the last 20 years in most of the alleged "best films."

But I just don't think escapist entertainment is the cause-- which, to bring this post back to the main topic, is one of my big disagreements with both "highbrow" critics like Simon and "middlebrow" types like Siskel and Eberr. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

NULL-MYTHS: "INVISIBLE TERROR" (WONDER WOMAN #19, 1946)




In 2016 I devoted three posts to disputing Noah Berlatsky's hyper-judgmental estimation of a 1946 WONDER WOMAN story. (Like most of  the full-length stories of the period, this one had three separate chapter-titles, and I've chosen to denote the story as a whole with the first such title, "Invisible Terror"). I also preserved some of my disputatious remarks on my own blog, which is fortunate for my own records, since as of late it would seem that much of the old Berlatsky HU (for "horribly useless,"  of course) has been deleted. The original NB essay survives on another site, however.

At the time that I wrote my conditional arguments against NB, he had one advantage over me, in that he'd apparently read the whole story, and I had to go on what he and one other blogger had posted online. Though WONDER WOMAN #19 had been reprinted in the DC ARCHIVES series by 2016, I wasn't interested enough to pay full price for the reprint, even if I could have found one (it's my memory that a lot of copies were marked up on Amazon, possibly because of the scandalous contents of "Terror"). However, this year someone recommended to me the site READ COMICS ONLINE, and lo and behold, it reprinted the full text of WONDER WOMAN #19. And that I have read the story, I would partly concur with NB that it is a racist story, though I have no idea why he would call it "enduring" in his essay-title. I suppose the evidence of Marston's racial beliefs "endures" insofar as persons of later generations keep referencing his works, but on the whole, I would say that whatever racial sins Marston committed in his lifetime have proven generally ephemeral in terms of their effect on popular culture.

Not surprisingly, NB did not bother to place the 1946 story into its temporal political context. The story takes place in the same "real-time" of its publication, about a year after the Axis powers have been defeated. This did not mean that the victorious Allies could assume that everything would become hunky-dory, though, and "Terror" is one of many "recrudescent Nazi" stories that circulated in pop culture for the next couple of decades. The "invisible terror" of the title is a "brain wave of death" perfected by a group of diehard goose-steppers, and it kills several top U.S. officers before serendipity, in the form of the Holliday Girls, puts Wonder Woman on the track of said Nazis. As it happens, they've come to the U.S. to abduct one particular woman who, for reasons never disclosed, can fuel the brain-wave machine really well: Marya, an eight-foot-tall Mexican mountain woman introduced in an earlier story.  The Amazon doesn't overtake the Nazis and their prisoner until their fleeing submarine has homed in on their base of operations in Africa, where the remainder of the story's action takes place.



It's in "Terror's" last two thirds that all the racial myths appear. In my essay SOMEWHERE, WONDER WOMAN IS BEING MISTREATED, I wrote:

I confess I have not read the story in question, but-- genocide? According to this blog-writeup of the same story, it looks to me like WW and her buddies manage to win back the Africans from the Nazis, who were "threatening [the natives] with their [the Nazis'] death-ray." It's true that WW and her buddies win out by playing upon the foolish superstitions of the natives, and their natural sense of rhythm, etc. But of what relevance is it that "Hitler loathed black people?" The story in question was dated September/October 1946, so it's long after the conclusion of WWII, and Hitler's presumptive death. The die-hard goose-steppers of this story have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by attempting to persuade the natives that they can become part of the coming regime. I don't imagine Marston bothered to work out this scenario very carefully, but WW#19 is certainly of a piece with many wartime stories in which Axis agents are seen suborning or subverting established Third World cultures.

Now that I've read the story, I can't claim that the African natives of Marston's story are all being kept in line by the death-ray, as this page shows:



Dozens of Marston stories prior to this one had shown a conflict between two opposed groups, usually an all-women group and an all-male group. Here it's two all-male groups, given the ludicrous names of "the Meanugs," an aggressive tribe which allies itself to the Nazis, and "the Zoogoos," a victimized tribe who apparently have provided the Nazi scientist with the brain-energy he needed for his attacks, prior to his capturing Marya. NB excoriates Marston for having dared to depict the Meanugs wearing swastikas, and thus supposedly advocating the genocide of Africans, but there's no evidence in "Terror" that anyone plans to exterminate all Africans because one tribe tried to ally itself to the Nazis, nor does the swastika's use connote anything but the Meanugs' desire to share in the Nazi's return to power.


NB also assails Marston for not having written a story showing the African women being liberated, as he'd done with many other cultures, usually belonging to fantasy-domains. However, on the next page the Meanug leader remarks that Marya and the Amazon are "not weak like our women," and for me this opens the possibility that Marston simply knew nothing about the women of the various African tribes except a reputation for subservience. (Only one African woman is seen in the story, fanning the Nazi scientist, though later a tribesman makes a joke about a fellow being afraid of his wife.) I would hypothesize that Marston may not have sought to promote some ambitious project involving African women precisely because he was writing about a real world about which he knew little, and therefore he fell back on the better-known trope of two warring tribes of men. (I myself would tend to believe that in that period most Black African tribes were dominated by patriarchy.)

Still, Marston isn't all that concerned with liberating even the victimized male Zoogoos (some comical version of "Zulus?"). Some Zoogoos offer to become slaves to Steve Trevor when he rescues them from a lion, and another group act like sheep when Wonder Woman and Marya see them being summoned by so-called "voodoo drums." (FWIW, it was fairly common in those days for Americans to characterize native African beliefs as "voodoo," inaccurate though it was.) Such is Wonder Woman's heroism that she sacrifices herself to Meanug captivity to keep the Zoogoos from being slain.



To her good fortune, Steve Trevor arrives and saves Diana's bacon, after whch she captures the witch doctor. Interestingly, the native compares the death-ray to the alleged effects of voodoo, in that both can strike people dead at a distance.



Since the ray has such insuperable power, Wonder Woman fakes the Meanugs into capturing her, and as I noted in THOU ART THE WONDER WOMAN, this aggravated yet another online critic into attacking Marston for being insensitive to Black Africans and their history of bondage. But the Amazon's reference to being given a "dog collar" is just a toss-off joke, and really doesn't deserve so much acrimony.

Actually, the worst racial trope in the story occurs when Trevor enlists Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls to take advantage of the Meanugs' by playing on their sense of "rhythm."



Naturally, Wonder Woman inevitably defeats the villains and neutralizes the death ray. Admittedly nothing is said about how things will shake out between the overthrown Meanugs and their former victims, but that's a long way from assuming Marston was advocating "genocide."

Now, though I've said that most of the criticisms of "Terror" are hyperbolic and logically unjustifiable, I'll state that it's still a pretty bad story. But it's not bad simply because it played to dominant racial myths about Africans. It's bad because it's a dime-a-dozen colonialist fantasy, and because Marston doesn't devote any of his high-flown rhetoric to ironing out the differences between the warring tribes, as he'd done so often before. Maybe he had a racist disposition to believe that Black Africans couldn't sort out their own, and that they had to be guided by more civilized nations. I don't fault him for not being as progressive as modern readers think everyone should be, but he should at least have followed through on his professed beliefs across the board.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: THE DARK KNIGHT, MASTER RACE (2015)

They'll kill us if they can, Bruce. Every year they grow smaller. Every year they hate us more. We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.-- Superman, Book 3, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

When Frank Miller wrote those words circa 1986 for THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS-- his "brass band funeral" for superheroes-- he gave no indication that there was any real way to reconcile the domain of  the colossal super-crusaders and the domain of the Lilliputians whom the heroes are destined to save from peril.

(Sidebar: In THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA Nietzsche often railed against mediocre people, for whom one of his many epithets was "the small men.")



Over rhirty years later, Miller and Brian Azzarello raise these same issues once more in THE DARK KNIGHT MASTER RACE. (To be sure, the progress from TDKR to TDKMR was interrupted in 2001 by a weird, carbuncle-like growth called TDKSA, but so far as I can see, this interruption plays no role in the progression between the 1986 work and the 2015 work.) Seven pages into Book One of MASTER RACE, Wonder Woman-- who has moved with her Amazon sisters to the Amazonian rainforest in South America-- saves a tribe of Indians from a rampaging minotaur. And as she vanquishes the monster, the thinks:

When they are threatened, we are there, and they name us saviors-- until they call us threats.

However, in contrast to Superman's frustrations in TDKR, the Amazon Princess seems to accept the absurdity of the sacrifice with samurai-like stolidity:

The same, a hundred times. A hundred hundred times. We know that, and we are still there for them. You taught us to be that way.



The "you" of which the Amazon thinks is Superman himself, the father of Diana's two children, an infant son named Jonathan and a teenaged daughter named Lara. Later the reader will learn that the Man of Steel has become a man of ice, retreating from his heroic duties into a frozen stasis due to his disappointment with the people he's served so long. The reader sees his self-exile through the eyes of his half-Kryptonian, half-Amazon daughter, who gets no answer when she asks her entombed father, "Why did you let the ants knock you from the sky?"



To be sure, Batman, the ostensible star of the show, has been gone for a while too, though a caped crusader makes the scene in Gotham City. However, it's not the aging and ailing Bruce Wayne, but his protege Carrie Kelley, formerly the first female Robin and now masquerading as her mentor for reasons that are never entirely clear. Really Old Batman doesn't make an on-panel appearance until Book 3, but he seems to have lost most of his zeal for crimefighting.



Though other superheroes are still around, DC's "Big Three" are largely removed from the current scene. Superman's hibernation in particular gives rise to his opposite number: a cult devoted not to the service and protection of humankind but to mastering all life. And his own daughter is the vehicle of the cult's rise, for while visiting her comatose father in his Fortress, she discovers the Bottle City of Kandor, and decides its inhabitants ought to "get big." And to accomplish this, she seeks DC's smallest hero, the Atom, who as it happens is just as given as Diana to waxing philosophical, though he's more scientist than samurai:

Everything-- for Stephen Hawking's brain to a molten flash of goo bubbling at the earth's core-- shared an undeniable commonality--



This belief in commonality, profound though it is, leads him to assist Lara and her Kandorian friend Baal (note the Old Testament cognomen) in enlarging a coterie of Kandorians to human-size. The Atom assumes he's going to get good men and true. What he gets a cult of Kandorians, led by a Manson-like old fellow named Quar, who believe that the ants ought to be worshiping them.

It's not clear how aware Lara is of the cult's purpose when she abets their ascension. However, she's a hot-headed teenager, who resents her father's absence and her mother's attempts to control/discipline her, and she doesn't exactly rush to combat Quar's cult. (It's strongly suggested that she's hormonally motivated, since she's a teenager who perhaps wants a boyfriend able to survive mating with her, though she ends up falling out with false-god Baal.)



 At any rate, the cult runs roughshod over humanity and neutralize most of the heroes, starting with Atom and moving on to Flash and Green Lantern, though Aquaman and the two offspring of Hawkman and Hawkgirl remain on the periphery. (This is perhaps the closest we'll ever get to seeing Frank Miller write a Justice League story.) Though the Kandorians can't rid themselves of Superman quite so easily, their real foe is Batman and his protege, who are able to combat the cult more with strategy than with brute force. Miller and Azzarello certainly make much more judicious use of DC continuity than Miller did in TDKSA, though only hardcore insiders will get the references to the Lazarus Pit, and even I, hardcore though I am, have no idea why Green Lantern conjures up the image of Bat-Mite in one panel. Yet, for all of the juicy superhero action and continuity, MASTER RACE's greatest accomplishment may be that of giving the lie to all the penny-ante intellectuals who dismissed THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as "fascist."



In my 1987 review of TDKR, I challenged this canard, though I qualified that view by suggesting that Miller might have "left himself open to such criticisms." But over the past thirty years, I've witnessed the irrational attachment that most psuedo-intellectual critics have to the "superheroes=fascism" meme, and now I believe that nothing Miller could have written then would have deflected that knee-jerk reaction.

Miller, as I said elsewhere, deals in visceral scenarios, not abstract propositions, so his answer to the fascist accusation appears in the form of the heroes having internal dialogues about heroism. The Atom's early musings about commonality prove central to Miller's response, and though the hero's meditations are qualified by some of his own experiences, he's certainly validated in that he ends up saving the day when the bigger heroes (yes, even Batman) fail. In Princess Diana's internal monologue provide a counter to Quar's ascension to godhood via the rays of a yellow sun, she argues that "specialness" must be cultivated as "something we can grow into, through curiosity, exercise, and discipline." And Superman, whose voice dominates the final coda, reverses his earlier animus to the incredibly shrinking mediocrity of humankind:

Ultimately, we understand how small our role really is-- that the lives we affect are potentially even greater than our own.

Superman also refutes the tendency of human beings to think of superheroes as gods, stating that "that's not even what we aspire to be." Miller and Azzarello are clearly not speaking only of four-color mystery-men, but of all human impulses toward heroism, however one may choose to define them. In a balanced viewpoint one could never be conflated with the ambitions of either historical fascists or super-villains like Quar, who sacrifices one of his own daughters as a "super-suicide bomber" whose exploding body annihilates Moscow-- though I feel relatively sure that some reviewer somewhere has complained about Miller and Azzarello having used Islamic motifs for his villains. (Quar has three Kandorian wives who wear veils. Oooooohhhh--)



In this post I've left out a lot of good stuff about TDKMR and some not so good stuff. Regardless, it's a given that, even if MASTER RACE's philosophy is more articulate this time round, this graphic novel can never surpass the place TDKR occupies in comics-history. But given that dopes like Frederic Wertham attacked superheroes by conflating Nietzsche and Nazism, it's fascinating to see these creators echo certain Nietzschean conceits that I identified in this meditation on the INCREDIBLES movie:

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. 







Tuesday, December 3, 2019

MEDITATIONS ON MILLER



I don't have any plans to review THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, Miller's 2001 follow-up to the 1986 DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. However, with the help of Google I see that I did insert one observation on the messy sequel in my 2010 essay LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION:

It's a little harder to talk about narrative or significant values in TDKSA because it's something of a jumble of Scenes Frank Miller Thought Would Be Really Cool. 
But I felt I should make a few comments on the 2001 work, given that I, like many fans, probably expected more of the same when Miller teamed with Brian Azzarello on the 2015 DARK KNIGHT: MASTER RACE. I don't know what the critical consensus on MASTER RACE was, though Wiki asserts that it received more "positive reviews" than TDKSA. But for me, reading MASTER RACE was like reading a thirty-years-later sequel to TDKR in terms of the continuity of theme and content. True, MASTER RACE used a lot of stuff from TDKSA, but I almost felt that Miller and Azzarello were simply obliged to pick up on story-material executed by some other bozo, the way (say) Roger Stern might concoct a good story based on some moldy, half-forgotten plot-thread.

Of course, that's just an idle fantasy, since I know that TDKSA wasn't an exception in the Miller oeuvre. There's also HOLY TERROR, to which I gave a negative review despite my tendency to condemn all the politically correct hand-wringing I saw from most critics at the time. I faulted TERROR for its many narrative failings, but Miller also produced a number of lame projects that had no connection to his ostensible political leanings.



For instance, there's the 1994 one-shot SPAWN/BATMAN, a monumentally stupid crossover that combines the worst excesses of writer Miller and artist Todd Mac Farlane. Whereas TDKR had been basically respectful to the Batman mythos despite pushing some of its characters to extreme positions (Batman has sadistic tendencies, Catwoman becomes an implicit prostitute), SPAWN/BATMAN seems to be the birthplace of the near-parody known as "the goddamn Batman."



Speaking of which, about eleven years later Miller and Jim Lee teamed up to produce an even more acidulous version of the Caped Crusader, in the form of the 2005-08 serial ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN.



Yet, even though I think all three of these are mammoth wastes of time, I feel that they aren't simply the work of a disinterested hack. All three spring from Miller's distinct creative impulses, which include (1) a conviction to move the reader with any number of visceral appeals, and (2) a tendency to defuse all the intense visceral stuff with sprinklings of absurdist humor. When I look upon these three Miller misfires, I see them as Miller letting his taste for absurdity overrule all of his other creative propensities.

That said, 2001's TDKSA, while it sometimes seems like Miller's love letter to the craziness of Silver Age DC (right down to a gratuitous reference to the Legion of Super-Heroes). does have a few inspired moments, which is more than the other three have going for them. I've forgotten a lot of the silly shit in the rambling storyline, but I must say that I was amused by the idea that some weird version of Robin-- less a DC creation than the "Burt Ward Robin" of television-- becomes immortal in order to take down Batman, and even has conversations when his head's been separated from his body.


 Happily, though, MASTER RACE didn't continue in this dubious direction-- more on which later.

Monday, December 2, 2019

THE DARK KNIGHT REBORN (1987): REVIEW EXCERPT

As a preface to my impending review of THE DARK KNIGHT: MASTER RACE, I decided that the short mythcomics review I posted for the 1986 DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was insufficient for my needs. That blog-review was short in part because many years previous I’d already written a longer piece for COMICS JOURNAL #114 (Feb 1987). During that period I was not yet a word processor convert, so I sent the JOURNAL typed pages at the time. If I say so myself, this was one of my best essays for the JOURNAL, as well as being the only essay of mine selected for reprint in a scholarly volume, CONTEMPORARY LITERARY CRITICISM (also the most remunerative). I considered retyping the original review for a blogpost, but it’s just too damn long. Therefore I’m opting to post only a portion that will tie into the MASTER RACE review.


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The heroic role of Batman as a parental protector and spiritual "father" to his children is glibly oversimplified by Cindy Carr's review in the VILLAGE VOICE LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. She parodies the book thusly: "Dammit. Someone has to stand up to the subhuman cretins who terrorize innocent law-abiding citizens." Said review then goes to characterize the first two volumes as "neoconservative propaganda" and Batman as "Rambo in a cape."

This is a significant criticism, not because it is true, but because it shows that Miller did not quite succeed in distinguishing his product from the trashy level of RAMBO, though there are numerous subtleties to DARK KNIGHT that RAMBO and its ilk do not possess. It's hard to see how a critic could label the work "neoconservative," insofar as Book I contains a panel juxtaposition in which a TV interview asks two men-on-the-street for their opinions on Batman and gets a favorable review from a conservative bigot who hopes "[Batman] goes after the homos next" and an unfavorable verdict from a liberal hypocrite, who preaches reforming the socially disadvantaged but would "never live in the city..."



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Of course the very concept of a vigilante summons up images of Nazi storm troopers and the Ku Klux Klan, so knee-jerk negative reactions are to be expected. by seeming to identify Batman with such reactionary forces, by not clearly setting Batman apart, Miller has perhaps left himself open to such criticisms, thus obscuring the real essence of his thought-- that is, to provoke debate of the issues, without allowing his personal authorial voice to intrude, by using Batman as a "wild card" who fits none of our standard categories.

END EXCERPT

END NOTE: Since writing the above, I have come to see the RAMBO franchise to be something more than simple "trash." However, there's no question in my mind that Batman is both a better conception and has had a much greater impact upon popular culture.