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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, January 31, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1912) PT. 2



The e-book image shown above depicts Fu Manchu (for once, depicted as he is in the novel, with no mustache) alongside a female character. Though this character is not Fu's famous daughter, I referenced Fu's association with his offspring in my study of the 1971 Bat-story "The Demon Lives Again:"

In his early adventures Fu Manchu has no daughter. That said, the first story-arc introduces a femme fatale, Karameneh, and when Doctor Petrie asks who she might be, Fu’s perpetual opponent Nayland Smith speculates that she might be the arch-fiend’s own spawn.
Whereas some authors, such as Conan Doyle, wrote a lot of stories without significant female characters, Rohmer usually did include women in his tales, albeit almost exclusively as romantic interests for male heroes. In INSIDIOUS, viewpoint character Doctor Petrie follows his old friend Nayland Smith during a murder investigation. Petrie happens upon a mysterious Asian-looking woman who is later revealed to be the unwilling slave of Fu Manchu. Karameneh, whose name means "slave" in her native Arabic, falls immediately in love with Petrie and he with her. In Petrie's case, he seems enthralled by her combination of both "white" and "non-white" aspects, for she has "the skin of a perfect blonde" yet also "had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole's." Throughout the novel Karameneh, though superficially loyal to her Chinese master, stealthily works to keep Petrie (and, incidentally, Nayland Smith) from being killed by the devil-doctor's devices. Early in the novel, Petrie questions his friend about Karameneh's status, and Nayland Smith says:

She is either Fu-Manchu's daughter, his wife, or his slave. I am inclined to believe the last, for she has no will but his will, except-- in a certain instance.

By "certain instance" the policeman means that Karameneh has acquired some will as a result of her amour fou with Petrie. Nayland Smith underestimates Karameneh's resourcefulness, though, as she saves the two Englishmen time and time again, and in one case she even anticipates Fu Manchu's famed skills for disguises, making herself up as a male Chinese hunchback (!) It may be argued that Rohmer simply wanted to give his heroes an inside ally, given that they were so heavily overmatched in their encounters with the malevolent mastermind. The idea that she may be Fu's daughter is never seriously entertained, given that there's no resemblance between the two characters. Yet Karameneh's constant interference with the plans of her master bears some similarity to standard tropes in which a lovelorn damsel aids her romantic swain against her overly domineering father. (Shakespeare's MERCHANT OF VENICE is perhaps the best known use of the trope.) Rohmer gets a little humor out of a scene in which the slave-woman outright tells Petrie that she will betray her master if only Petrie would "master" her and force her to talk, and Nayland Smith wryly dubs this one of the mysteries of the Oriental mind:

... she would adore you [Petrie] for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!
In a late section of the novel, Karameneh is further redeemed when it's revealed that she has a brother, also one of Fu's slaves, and that Fu holds his life hostage against the woman's good behavior. Petrie provides some minor aid in liberating the brother (who I believe is not seen again in the novel-series), and thus Karameneh is free to desert her master. In a later novel she marries Petrie and is only seen sporadically thereafter, which may be the main reason she appears rarely if at all in film or TV adaptations of the Fu Manchu stories.

Though the character's resourcefulness is her most appealing trait, in the book's first chapter she too is briefly caricatured with the trope of "Oriental death." The first case investigated by the English heroes is one in which a man dies, and Petrie discerns on the victim's hand "a faint red mark, not unlike the imprint of painted lips." A few pages later, when he meets Karameneh, he wonders if the "bloom of her red lips" bears any relation to the red mark on the murdered man. Yet this association with a poisonous insect is as close as Rohmer comes to demonizing this particular Asian, and for the rest of the novel Karameneh remains eminently sympathetic. Rohmer may have been a little more comfortable with Asians from the Middle East than the Far East, although it's my recollection that when the author does introduce Fah Lo Suee, Fu's genuine half-Chinese daughter, she too remains sympathetic despite her inability to win free from her "heavy father."

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1912) PT. 1






In my essay THE BAD APPLE DEFENSE PT. 1, I provided an overview of Sax Rohmer's famed villain Fu Manchu, though as a caveat I mentioned that I had not read the Rohmer novels in some years. Toward the end of the essay I said:

Rohmer's "bad apple defense"-- that Chinese criminals are not representative of the Chinese people as a whole-- is the dominant strategy used by professional fiction-writers who choose to utilize negative characters from stigmatized or marginalized outgroups.
In the section of Rohmer's self-defense that I've seen on Wikipedia, the author defends himself by stating that an awful lot of Chinese who emigrated to England happened to be fleeing justice in their own lands. This defense may apply to some of Rohmer's books. However, now that I've recently reread the first novel, usually titled THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, I find the defense largely irrelevant.

For one thing, all of the evil Asians therein are agents of a foreign power, which Fu himself also serves. Thus none of them, from urbane manservants to half-naked dacoits, are simply societal outcasts on the run from the law.

The first of the novel's episodic adventures concerns heroes Nayland Smith and Petrie ferreting out the gimmick Fu uses to execute one of his victims, said gimmick being "the Zayat Kiss," a poisonous centipede. Some thirty pages later, Petrie belatedly feels the necessity to draw a comparison between the devil-doctor's methods and more mundane instances of heathen cruelty:

no white man... appreciates the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese.

Petrie then follows this up by reading an article from a New York newspaper, reporting on a case of a Chinese resident of Hawaii committing infanticide, implicitly of an unwanted female offspring:

The authorities have no doubt that infanticide by scorpion is a growing menace...

So in the first book at least, Rohmer is not only dealing with Asian criminals: Chinese people as a whole possess this "unemotional cruelty," in that they are willing to get rid of female offspring by promoting such "accidental" poisonings. Though I commented in my essay that Fu Manchu was "more often a racial caricature than a racist one," I must admit that in this revealing excerpt Rohmer showed a racist bias toward a particular Asian people as a whole, though the bias may be mitigated somewhat by the fact that female infanticide in China was a Real Thing, in Rohmer's time as in this one.

That said, Rohmer isn't interested in the sociological heritage of China; he just wants to use a real-world phenomenon to underscore the daunting cruelty of his Chinese super-villain. Further, there's nothing mundane in the motives or the methods of the devil-doctor: early in the novel, Nayland Smith tells Petrie:

You need not fear shots or knives. The one whose servants are watching us scorns to employ such clumsy, tell-tale weapons.

Thus, even though Fu Manchu inherits his people's dispassionate love of suffering, he has his own lofty standards for murder, which include in this novel such exotic methods as strangulation by Phansigar, a poisonous green gas which is used to suggest the fulfillment of an Egyptian curse, and (best of all in my opinion) the use of a mutant strain of mushroom to kill a roomful of British police:

Like powdered snow the white spores fell from the roof, frosting the writhing shapes of the already poisoned men. Before my horrified gaze, the fungus grew. It spread from the head to the feet of those it touched; it enveloped them as in glittering shrouds. 

In fact, I highly doubt that Rohmer's imagination ever reached more delirious heights than this one scene. Throughout the novel Asians are associated with both lower forms of life and with disease. The one time Petrie must touch the devil-doctor in order to frisk him, the physician feels as though he has "touched a venomous reptile." And such tropes even extend to Caucasians who get a little "too Asian." Sir Lionel Barton-- probably Rohmer's take on the real-life explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton-- keeps his London house staffed with various Asians, and has in his house so many Oriental oddments-- including an Egyptian mummy-- that the house has a "smell... which is almost malarious."

Yet, for all of these unquestionably negative associations, Rohmer never stops singing the praises of his master villain.

... no trace of fear showed upon [Fu's] wonderful face, only a sort of pitying contempt.
... an explorer of nature's secrets, who had gone further into the unknown... than any living man.
Fiend though he was, I admired his courage.
...a superman of incredible genius...

In addition to being called a "superman" twenty-six years before that other fellow, Fu is likened to a god. Petrie compares the mastermind to "the Master of the Show" in OMAR  KHAYYAM, who is implicitly God or at least Fate. And following the fungal annihilation of the police, Fu himself memorably rants, "It is my fly-trap-- and I am the god of destruction."

Though Fu Manchu was not the first Asian villain in literature, I tend to think no other author spent so much time celebrating his fiend's admirable (if caricatured) qualities. That may have much to do with the character's long life in popular culture, at least within the 20th century.

More ruminations in Part Two.

Monday, January 28, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "RAMADAN" (SANDMAN #50, 1993)

A few months back, an acquaintance asserted the extinction of the literary tradition of "Orientaliam." In its original use, this term usually concerned non-Oriental artists, principally Europeans and Americans, who attempted to reproduce the tropes associated with Oriental cultures.

(Parenthetical aside: it's currently incorrect to use the term "Oriental," with "Asian" being preferred, though both words connote "Eastern-ness." I'll use "Oriental" just because that was how this quasi-genre was traditionally denoted, ranging from William Beckford's VATHEK to the pulp magazine ORIENTAL STORIES.)

My associate was largely correct about the extinction of literary Orientalism. However, one of the few exceptions to this rule appeared as recently as 1993: in the stand-alone story "Ramadan" in SANDMAN #50.



According to Craig Russell's statements online, Gaiman wrote the script with Russell in mind, and the choice was borne out in full. Visually, "Ramadan" is a powerful evocation of many of the visual tropes common to medieval Arabic culture-- minarets, semi-clad harem-maidens, genies and ifrits, weird beasts like a Pegasus and a phoenix, and lots of calligraphy-inspired lettering (the last courtesy of Todd Klein). As for Gaiman's story, it might be characterized as a love-letter to the Thousand and One Nights, whose stories are frequently referenced-- although the content of the "letter" might be seen as a farewell missive.



Only once in the story does Neil Gaiman define for his readers the Muslim custom of Ramadan, though there are throughout the narrative references to the fasting-rituals associated with the holy day. Fasting is a form of renunciation, of giving up the pleasures of the body-- food, sex, etc.-- to commemorate the day. But main character Haroun Al-Raschid, ruler of the medieval city of Bagdad, finds himself obliged to give up his entire city.

There are many types of stories in the Nights-- comical, tragic, ribald, adventurous-- but Gaiman chooses to embody his Bagdad with the world-weariness best represented by "The City of Brass."
Gaiman spends six pages establishing that Bagdad is a place of incomparable marvels, but that all of its joys and wonders fail to give surcease of sorrow to its ruler.



Gaiman flawlessly emulates one of the many repetitive structures of Arabian-Nights narratives: that of having a hero pass through a series of imposing chambers in order to obtain some prize or treasure. Using a key of gold, Haroun, whose disquiet remains obscure, traverses chambers full of forgotten prisoners and fabulous treasures, swords that hang from the ceilings and flames that never die, and two of the eggs of the Phoenix. (One of the eggs, we are told, hatches the Phoenix's scion while only Allah knows what is born from the second one.) The prize that Haroun gains is a device he uses to summon Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, into his company-- and though Morpheus does come, he's not pleased to be called "as one might summon a steward."



Gaiman keeps the reader curious about the ruler's motives as long as possible, when the reader finally learns that he fears that Bagdad, City of Wonders, is destined to go the way of all flesh, and all cities, to be consumed by time and death. Haroun proposes to sell his city to the Sandman if Morpheus can assure him that its wonders will never die. Intrigued by the mortal's selfless offer, Morpheus agrees, and the City of Wonders joins the Sandman in his world of eternal dreams. Haroun for his part continues to live out his life in a now ordinary Bagdad, and like his people he no longer remembers his previous existence. All will live out commonplace lives in a commonplace world, and this extends to the Bagdad of the present, where a young boy has just heard the whole story of Haroun's sacrifice from an old teller of tales. However, though the story is infused with the spirit of Arabian-Nights pessimism, Gaiman allows a ray of hope, telling us how the boy, despite his hunger and poverty, because "behind his eyes are towers and jewels and djinns, carpets and rings and wild afreets, kings and princes and cities of brass."

"Ramadan" shares with other SANDMAN stories the theme of using dreams to anneal the miseries of real life. However, it's also one of the few stories I've covered that has nearly no overt conflict. There is no real conflict between Morpheus and the ruler of Bagdad; rather, the conflict is within Haroun,.who seeks to protect his fabulous city rather than simply enjoying its wonders until he himself passes from the world. His ability to act against the expectations of the readers bears some resemblance to the conflict in Ray Bradbury's "The Last Night of the World," which I analyzed here. Most amusingly for a pastiche of the Arabian Nights, Gaiman frequently has supporting characters start to unwind some long Oriental tale, but neither Haroun nor Morpheus will stay to hear, given that both are more intimately involved in the greater story of the wondrous city's preservation.









Wednesday, January 23, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: FROM HELL (1989-96)




A graphic novel as dense as FROM HELL might seem to challenge my assertion that any work with a significant underthought can be boiled down to a concise “myth-theme statement.” Here’s what I came up with:

Royal surgeon Doctor Gull, the epitome of Victorian erudition and respectability, comes to embody the principle of male-over-female ascendance when he takes on the mantle of Jack the Ripper, at once serving the British Crown and his own personal project, that of ascending to mystical supremacy through the killing of women.

As I’ve frequently done in analyzing other collaborative works, I’ll focus on the creative partner whom I consider the dominant influence. Thus, regardless of what artist Eddie Campbell brought to the table in creating this graphic novel, I’ll only discuss Alan Moore here—not least because FROM HELL reflects one of Moore’s most interesting facets. I’ve often recounted how Moore himself has frequently taken on “politically correct” positions in his work, as seen here—and yet, he’s also been attacked for any number of supposed literary sins, often from pundits whose idea of art comes down to being “more politically correct than thou.” It may be significant, as a bellwether of Moore’s artistic impulses, that FROM HELL includes copious references to the non-conformist English poet William Blake, who is not exactly a familiar figure in Ripper-fiction. It was Blake, in one of his most quotable quotes, who said that in writing PARADISE LOST John Milton did better with Satan than with God because Milton was “of the devil’s party” without knowing it. I will show that some of the overthoughts of Moore’s works may “talk the talk” of ultraliberal politics, while the underthoughts don’t always show the author “walking the ultraliberal walk.”

Consider the graphic novel’s title. The proximate relevance of “From Hell” is that the phrase appeared in one of the various letters purportedly written by the Ripper during the killer’s reign of terror. Since in real life “Saucy Jack” was never identified, no one can know with certainty that the real murderer wrote that particular letter. Yet whoever did write it, regardless of his or her reasons for so doing, was clearly conjuring with the idea that Jack the Ripper was akin to a demon from the “bad place.” In Moore’s Ripper-cosmology, the very first letter to coin the name “Jack the Ripper” is a journalistic fraud, born from a capitalistic desire to sell newspapers. However, the “From Hell” letter, which is sent to police some time later, does come from the killer, and mad William Gull has an even more complex reason for invoking the spectre of the devil’s domain, as he confesses to his uncomprehending partner-in-crime Netley:

…in [Dante’s] INFERNO he suggests that the only true path from hell lies at its very heart—and that, in order to escape, we must go further in.



Given the thoroughness with which Moore cites his many references in the back of the novel—including not just other fictional and non-fictional takes on the Ripper, but also copious other aspects of British culture or history that Moore finds relevant—it’s fair to say that he’s sought to synthesize all of the major treatments of Jack the Ripper. One view of the Ripper, that he was a sexual deviate titillated by the killing of women, finds some representation in FROM HELL, as does a more politicized reading, in which the Ripper is a murderer sanctioned by the ruling class to eliminate enemies of the British Empire.  Further, Moore builds upon the historical suggestion that the real Gull was a Freemason to make the fictional Gull a practitioner in the English tradition of High Magick. Gull’s idea of escaping hell—which I understand to be the grubby “real world” of death, endless suffering, and frustrated sex—is to “derange his senses” through the act of brutal murder.



 It’s true that the repressive British government—the incarnation of male rule, despite the sovereignty of Queen Victoria-- begins the career of Jack the Ripper. First, an illicit romance and marriage takes place between Crown Prince Edward and a shop-girl. After the relationship is quashed by those in power, four prostitutes, made desperate by the crushing poverty of their lives, attempt to blackmail the throne with their knowledge of the scandal. This causes Victoria herself to call upon her surgeon—who has somehow become something of a royal hitman—to solve the problem. Gull’s murders of his victims, however, are far more brutal than necessary for the British Crown’s purpose. Gull's purpose is to “derange” himself out of his own intellectual sphere, in order that he can achieve some sort of mystical attainment. Thus Gull is akin to a demon unleashed by an unwise conjurer, one who brings forth the worst in all of London’s inhabitants.



Even Moore’s viewpoint character, Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard, finds his life compromised by the Ripper’s activities. Though Moore’s Abberline is a stolid, unimaginative man unaware of Gull’s magical aspirations, he’s unknowingly pulled into Gull’s greater project via an attempted extra-martial (on his part) affair with one of Gull’s intended victims. Abberline, like the victimized prostitutes, is also a lens through which Moore allows the reader to see the hellish sufferings visited by the upper classes on all the lower ones—though ironically Abberline, in one of his first lines, states that he’s unimpressed with socialists, who are all “middle class”types.

I won’t attempt to explicate Gull’s “Mystic History of Great Britain” and how that discourse fits into the greater history of worldwide patriarchal dominion.  But even though Gull is unquestionably a devil, he is, like Milton’s Satan, a fascinating one. He sums up the copious mythological altercations of males and females thusly:

‘Tis in the war of Sun and Moon that man steals woman’s power, that Left Brain conquers Right—

While Gull’s employers may be concerned with keeping their reign over unruly women, as well as other outsiders like Jews and revolutionaries, Gull is not defined by their political motives. Though I find Moore’s use of the “left brain-right brain” paradigm anachronistic, the writer makes it explicit that Gull kills women so that he can gain access to their mysterious, irrational “right brain” power. This hyper-intellectual version of the Ripper is validated insofar as his murders do vouchsafe him visions of other times and places, so that FROM HELL, unlike many Ripper-stories, enters the domain of the marvelous. Yet, despite Moore’s condemnation of Gull’s brutality and masculinism, the author can’t help but make Gull a “sacred monster” whose evil outstrips that of his contemporaries. When his fellow Masons call Gull to account, he tells them frankly that he does not deem any of them his peers.  Following his final whore-murder, Gull has a vision of the 20th century’s marvels, and he excoriates the dwellers of the future for their shallowness:

With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succors you. It is inside you… See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you! I am with you always!



Naturally, the idea of Jack the Ripper equating himself with Jesus Christ can’t help but carry a satirical tone. Yet Moore seems altogether serious about seeing the Ripper as a “black root” at the heart of all mankind.  This “root” seems more or less akin to Jung’s “Shadow,” which for Jung remains part of human psychology no matter how advanced humans may become. Because of such moments, in which Moore seems to have become fascinated with his incarnation of evil, he escapes the banality of merely political creators, who ceaselessly promote the idea that all darkness will give way to some intellectual light.

In keeping with its title, FROM HELL is a profoundly pessimistic novel, drenched in a Spengleresque mood of historical futility. Perhaps its most depressing—albeit bracing—aspect is even though no reader is likely to believe that Gull can escape hell through his techniques of derangement, Moore offers no light at the end of the tunnel for anyone else, either.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "CORPSES, COAST TO COAST" (VOODOO #14, 1954)

Like the 1951 story "Crawling Evil," "Corpses-- Coast to Coast" is a story credited only to "the Iger Shop" on the Grand Comics Database. Within the realm of comic books, "Corpses" is a rare zombie-story in which no literal zombies appear, since the whole thing is a dream. And the whole story is also celebrated by a few online sites as a weird fever-dream. However, in contrast to most of the dim-witted attacks on Communism seen in comic books, "Corpses" is also a clever spoof of the movement, particularly its history at organizing labor unions in the United States.

First, here's one of the sigils designed for the 1905 association "Industrial Workers of the World," a.k.a. "the Wobblies:"



And here's the first page of "Corpses," which also presents a three-letter sigil for the world's new conquerors, the United World Zombies.




The narrator of the dream, identified in the narrative as "Z-One," is focused on just one highly improbable form of striking labor: that of grave diggers. Z-One, although he claims that he's an undertaker by trade, is actually one of the men responsible for the strike. Instead of being concerned that his establishment is being filled up with unburied corpses, he and his confederates simply make the cadavers "the raw material of one of the greatest revolutions ever planned."



The dead bodies-- including females as well as males-- are then "reactivated" at a special plant and sent out to conquer America. Not surprisingly, zombies sound a lot like the 1950s idea of doctrinaire Stalinists. "No fear, no minds," says Z-One's superior (getting the order of things somewhat backward), as he reminisces about some "old days" to which the reader is not privy (but may well go back to 1905 and those other unionizing efforts).



In no time, and with no real sign of warfare, the zombies take over the world, and invite all "non-zombies" to either "become zombies or die."On page 5 Z-One explains that there are some jobs that "regular zombies"-- presumably the ones that died and deteriorated somewhat-- can't do as well as can living people who are transformed into "synthetic zombies."

However, Z-One admits that even world conquest can have its down side, for "it seems that zombies can be just as stupid as so-called people!" For reasons that the dream does not explain, one faction of zombies attacks the government of "Big Z" with nuclear weapons, and even the leader himself perishes. Z-One ascends to power, hoping to "make the world safe for zombiocracy." There the dream ends, and the tale-teller delivers one last loony revelation to his listeners-- though, since there's no evidence for it in the story proper, I tend to disregard it as a lame joke.




In some ways this is a pretty even-handed spoof, since Z-One is also taking stabs at particular phrases associated with American hegemony ("making the world safe for democracy") or even the capitalistic ideal of slave-workers ("They work 24 hours a day, and never need any rest.") But what most makes me consider the story mythic is the idea of human cadavers being transformed into zombie laborers, simply because the grave-diggers are striking and thus leaving the country open to the reign of the dead.

The whole story appears on Comic Book Plus.

NEAR MYTHS: "STATUE OF LIMITATIONS" (WOLFF & BYRD #15, 1997)

Batton Lash, best known as writer-artist of the comedy feature SUPERNATURAL LAW, a.k.a. WOLFF AND BYRD, COUNSELORS OF THE MACABRE, passed away of brain cancer on Jan. 12, 2019. I met Lash only once at a San Diego con, but enjoyed talking to him and generally enjoyed WOLFF AND BYRD.

I haven't read all of the comics, but from the dozen or so stories I've read, Lash stuck closely to a basic template. Some supernatural being-- a ghost, a vampire, a swamp monster-- gets in trouble with the law and the titular counselors defend him, usually finding some obscure legal reason to exonerate the piteous creature. Sometimes the creature escapes the long arm of the court, sometimes he's successfully re-socialized, but readers could always expect lots of puns, like the one in the story I'm looking at here.



"Statue of Limitations" is a little unusual in that Lash parodies one of the lesser lights of the monster-world: the statue that comes to life. Indeed, the best known examples of "living statues" don't usually have horrific overtones, ranging from the classical tale of Pygmalion and Galatea to comic takes like ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, a 1943 stage musical and later a 1948 film.

This time the supernatural boogie-person doesn't actually cause any chaos herself. She's an archaic statue known as Cerelia , and she's on display at a big-city museum. An ordinary schmo named Tim Jacobsen becomes so entranced with Cerelia's, uh, "statuesque" beauty that he jumps atop the statue in front of many other museum-visitors. Lash doesn't say much about what Jacobsen may have been trying to do, but the eventual effect is that the statue comes to life.

Usually, when inanimate beings come to life, they can't wait to get out there and taste the joys of life. But Batton Lash suggests that maybe a statue, whose purpose has always been standing around and being looked at, has no such desires. The museum-managers are irate at Jacobsen for having animated their priceless exhibit (what Lash cleverly calls a "sex objet d'art"), but Cerelia doesn't show any sign of running away. She's been brought to life many other times in her existence, always by men who idolize her as "the perfect woman," just as Jacobsen does. Wolff and Byrd have to play referee between their client Jacobsen and the museum-owners, who want their statue back-- though I wonder if a simple statue would have been more of a money-maker than one that comes to life and is perfectly willing to be stared at, unlike, say, most real women.

A more obvious comic take on this theme would've been only to spoof Jacobsen's idealization of women, and Jacobsen certainly comes under fire for this male tendency. (He gets a living woman at the end of the story, but it's suggested that he's going to over-idealize her too.) However, Cerelia is interesting precisely because she's the incarnation of feminine stasis, making it hard to say which came forth, the idealization of femininity or the feminine attempt to get idealized . As Cerelia herself puts it:

I suppose I could just sit here and let you adore me-- but that's as far as I go.

Monday, January 14, 2019

SUBS AND COES PT. 2


The principles of subordination and coordination also serve to further elucidate many of the complications regarding focal presences that I’ve touched on in earlier essays.

In CREATOR AND CREATED ENSEMBLED HE THEM, I gave various examples regarding the ways in which figures in horror-fiction did or did not share center-stage (and thus the centric will).

I opined that in Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, the titular medical student and his abominable creation share center-stage, which means, in my current jargon, that they are “coordinated.” However, the Universal film-series promotes the Monster to the position of the sole focal presence, while both his creator and all of the other scientists who interact with the Monster are “subordinated.”  The Hammer film-series takes the opposite tack: Baron Frankenstein incarnates the centric will of all his films, and his various creatures are subordinated.

Stevenson’s JEKYLL AND HYDE anticipates this same pattern. No one reading the tale  cares that much about Jekyll, because he is subordinate to the presence of the mysterious Hyde. Of the film-adaptations I’ve seen, only THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL subordinates the peril of Hyde to the tortures of Jekyll.



Though most narratives have tended to emphasize the creator over the created, or vice versa, I’ve always explored some of the situations in which two opponents share center-stage, rather than following the more common paradigm in which a superordinate protagonist faces off against a subordinate antagonist.  However, in the former situations there’s usually some intrinsic connection between the characters of this sort of ensemble. I mentioned in ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE the kaiju film THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, in which a good giant monster contends with a bad giant monster. However, though the monsters are separate entities, the bad one is the de facto clone of the good one, so that they are almost as intimately tied as Jekyll and Hyde. There are no literal links between the characters of my other example of “opposed centrics,” Hjalmar Poelzig and Vitus Verdeghast of 1934’s BLACK CAT. However, though these two war-weary enemies are not even related to one another as much as are the Gargantuas, the narrative emphasizes their many similarities, to the extent that they seem like symbolic siblings.



Of course, this too is a question of emphasis. Just as creators and creations can take on individual superordinate status, so can siblings. The two films examined here, 1935's THE BLACK ROOM and 1964's DEAD RINGER, contain siblings who are aggrieved with one another, but neither film focuses on both siblings. In BLACK ROOM the “good twin” is subordinate to the bad twin, who then attempts, unsuccessfully, to emulate the good brother. DEAD RINGER takes the opposite tack: it’s a good twin who must masquerade for a time as the bad twin, and the film emphasizes that character’s “Jekyll-like” agonies rather than the menace of the film’s Hyde-figure.

The Jekyll-Hyde paradigm is the most common model for fantasy/SF narratives: the supernormal "creation" is the focus of the story, not the person who created it. However, when there's a particular type of "intrinsic connection" between creator and created, this can result in a greater focus upon the creator-figure. For instance, in the 1956 FORBIDDEN PLANET, the menacing Id Monster is the concatenation of Doctor Morbius's unleashed passions, so the centric will focuses on him, not upon the deadly thing he's created.  



To cite a (deservedly) more obscure example, I noticed upon reviewing Ulli Lommel's 1980 BOOGEYMAN that the viewpoint character had an unusually close relationship to the titular monster, unleashing it much as does Morbius:

...it's slightly interesting that although Willy is set up to look like another Michael, Lacey is both the person who revives the evil ghost and the person through which it manifests. She's also the one who apparently fantasizes about her brother killing hot women, which isn't totally off-the-beam since he almost does kill one woman. But the fact that she's both the one who unleashes her brother's madness and the malice of her mother's lover makes me wonder if she's not the true "boogieman" of the movie.

The concept of coordination is also one that allows me to break down the way centricity works with large ensembles that may, for a time, include individual members who are out to cause harm to the group as a whole, much as Hyde has a hostile attitude toward Jekyll. Some examples of this narrative strategy would include:

Wonder Man and the Swordsman in THE AVENGERS





Terra in THE NEW TEEN TITANS



Both Plastique and Lashina in SUICIDE SQUAD



Demonia in OMEGA MEN



However, again some sort of “connection” is necessary before such a “stealth enemy” might be considered as being coordinated with the rest of the ensemble. Terra, Lashina and Demonia remain in their respective ensembles for many exploits before their perfidy is uncovered, so that for a time readers may internalize them as being “real members.” However, I've stated in Part 1 that each story’s centric will is separate from that of every other story. Therefore, as long as Plastique, Wonder Man and Swordsman have functioned as members of an ensemble even for the better part of one story, then they are coordinated with the other members of the ensemble,  even if that one story ends with the “stealth enemy” being exposed and ejected. 

SUBS AND COES PT. 1


Upon re-reading my May essay TRANSITIVE AND INTRANSITIVE ENSEMBLES, I now believe that transitivity does not apply to the principle of centricity.

The word “transitive” descends from the Latin verb “to go across.” In past essays I’ve applies the term to other literary domains, such as dynamcity and phenomenality. Because there are gradations between the constituent levels within these domains. I’ve often investigated narratives in which it’s unclear as to whether a fight within a narrative “goes across” the conceptual barrier separating the subcombative from the combative, or whether a particular focal presence within a narrative goes across the conceptual barrier separating the naturalistic from the uncanny.

However, there are no comparable conceptual barriers in the domain of centricity. When I wrote the ENSEMBLES essay referenced above, I tried to apply “transitive” to characters who, though they might seem subordinate in some way to a featured character, actually participated in an ensemble with that main character, and so qualified as centric presences. My example of this was Robin, boy sidekick to Batman. Conversely, another “boy sidekick” could be “intransitive” even though that character served some of the same narrative functions as Robin to Batman, and here my example was Junior Tracy with respect to his preceptor Dick Tracy. Whereas Robin would align with the “centric will” expressed by the narrative, Junior would align with the “eccentric will,” as he existed to enhance the “centric will” incarnated only in Dick Tracy.

An author’s decisions about how much emphasis to place upon a character, or set of characters, may be made consciously, or he may proceed subconsciously, simply following other author’s templates. However, a given decision as to who gets ‘center-stage” in a given story is not constructed from the same sort of intra-textual discourses that I find in the construction of dynamicity or phenomenality. Whether the author is writing a stand-alone narrative or a serial one, each story or story-arc must keep a single focal presence, or a single ensemble of focal presences, and that is a predetermined decision, made for the sake of narrative clarity.

Within serial narratives, the ongoing composition of the centric will may change over time.  However, each change takes place within either a new story or a new story-arc. In the first few exploits of Batman, he alone incarnates the centric will of the feature. After Robin enters, the Batman and Robin team becomes an ensemble of two, still incarnating much the same centric will. Twenty years later, Batman plays a lone hand again, and then, if Robin only occasionally appears, his status is that of an “eccentric” guest-star. However, when a new story presents a new Robin, the ensemble-of-two is reborn as if it never left.

In contrast, the phenomenality of the BATMAN feature is built up through a discourse.  As long as Batman, with or without Robin, fights crime wearing a wild costume, this confers an element of the uncanny upon any adventure, even if the hero fights nothing but commonplace pool sharks and holdup-men. In such stories, the element of the uncanny vies with that of the naturalistic, and dominates it, satisfying the reader’s desire for a discourse in which something unreal dominates specters of the allegedly “real.” But centric will does not dominate eccentric will. The latter simply exists as a contrast to the former.

While cogitating on the possibility that centricity might be described through some better metaphor, I meditated a bit on Jung’s use of the term “superordinate.” Since this word is  defined as  “a thing that represents a superior order or category within a system of classification,” it seemed to apply to my idea of a centric will that was simply a given of the author’s whim, rather than through intra-textual discourse.

So I then meditated whether or not the different functions of “characters in an ensemble” and “characters not in an ensemble” could be related to the superordinate position of the centric will. I started playing with the terms “coordination” for the first and “subordination” for the second, and then promptly looked them up on the Net to see if anyone had made previous use of them.

As it happened, I found that the terms did have a previous usage in linguistics, albeit not one that I remember from early language classes. These terms can apply to either conjunctions or to clauses, but the clauses seem most applicable to my project.

A subordinate clause is a clause that would make no sense if taken out of the whole sentence. A coordinate clause is a clause that has meaning independent of the sentence.

It seems axiomatic that the total meaning of a given narrative can be rendered into a single sentence, since students are perpetually forced to come up with such sentences when teachers assign them to boil down a work’s “theme statement.” With that in mind, from a structural standpoint, every character, setting, or event in a narrative is not unlike a clause within the narrative’s overall “theme sentence.”

Just as it’s possible for a sentence to consist of just one clause, a narrative can have a centric will represented by just one focal presence/ clause (Batman by himself).

However, as a sentence can also consist of several clauses, the centric will can also be comprised of an ensemble of two “clauses” or more. In the latter case, the individual members of the ensemble have, at least within my analytical system, the status of “coordinated clauses.”

There are, of course, other presences within the narrative, presences that I have identified as incarnations of the “eccentric will.” Their stature is not on a par with that of any of the “coordinated clauses.” They have, as per the cited definition, no meaning when taken out of the narrative’s  “theme sentence.” Thus Junior Tracy, unlike Robin, can only be a “subordinated clause.”

What makes Robin “coordinated” and Junior Tracy “subordinated” is essentially a matter of what I’ve called *stature.” Originally I used the term in STATURE REQUIREMENTS  to denote the stature that characters in different mythoi had with respect to one another. However, in that usage as in this one, stature is a quality that can only be deduced from the author’s arrangements of the story’s focal presences, and not—as I’ll say again, hopefully for  the last time—not from intra-textual discourse.

VERTIGO REVISIONS

I asked on the Captain Comics Forum whether or not there were any "big events' in the comics industry around the turn of the century, and one poster asserted that around that time Vertigo Comics revised certain contractual terms, resulting in many properties being published by Image and other publishers. I will update this item when I have more information, but here I wanted to preserve my thoughts on the subject.

_______

Right now I think that we're at a point when the comics medium is about as popular as it's going to get. While American comics will probably never again have the huge readership seen in the Golden Age, and probably won't even ever equal the medium's popularity in Asia, we're now at a point where collections of genre works-- which to me means BONE as much as BATMAN-- share bookstore shelf space with the arty stuff, even when that "shelf space" is a virtual one like on AMAZON.

I had not heard anything about what Mark said about Vertigo changing its licensing terms, and thus making it possible for Image to upgrade its, er, image. At a glance this would seem to make it possible for Image and other companies that aren't the Big Two to cross over into the profitable "young adult" market, since by all indications no one can beat the Big Two at superheroes.


So if this change took place in the late nineties, then yes, that would be an industry game-changer, and might indeed mark the conclusion of the Late Bronze Age, as Image and others managed to garner the bookstore acceptance that many eighties companies-- not least my old stomping-ground Fantagraphics-- sought for so long.


Does anyone have further info on the licensing revisions?


ADDENDUM 6-6-17: I could've sworn I posted this somewhere on the Archive, but here's my current breakdown of the Comic Book Ages, as I represented on the aforementioned forum:

GOLDEN AGE-- 1936 (or slightly earlier)-1955-- The form gets physically defined and is marketed mostly to kids even before the debut of SUPERMAN, though the Man of Steel is definitely the first property that puts comic books on the map in pop culture.
SILVER AGE(1955-1970)- the comics are hemmed in by the Code, though oddly this has the effect of forcing at least two companies, DC and Atlas-cum-Marvel, to get better.
EARLY BRONZE AGE (1970-1986)-- Though undergrounds and Warren magazines  paved the wall, 1970 marks the industry's first concerted efforts to appeal to older readers with CONAN, GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, the return of horror comics, and, when newstand distribution withers away, attempts to woo the direct market with adult material
LATE BRONZE AGE (1986- 2000, maybe)-- DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, MAUS and WATCHMEN are the first graphic novels to really catch the attention of the mainstream press, which marks the first time comics have a chance to break out of the ghetto. There are some movements that may have seemed like steps backward, like Image in the 90s, but even Image Comics didn't stick to their own "bulky and banal" brand much beyond that decade. The nineties is also the era that manga TPBs made significant gains in bookstores, which gave bookstores in America-- and, I assume, other nations as well-- the financial base to start carrying more graphic novels. 
MODERN AGE, or IRON AGE (if you can avoid the negative connotations) might be from 2000 to now, except that I can't think of a particular publication or industry development that takes place in 2000 or shortly thereafter. There's one development outside the realm of comics, since 2000's X-MEN IMO initiates the first of the big-screen superhero films not based on Superman or Batman. (Whatever the successes of the Burton BATMANs, BLADE, and the Turtles, I would say X-MEN made superheroes seem like a dependable commodity.) But Hollywood's response to comics seems outside the boundaries of the comics industry, so I don't really want to use X-MEN as a transition-point-- even though it sorta is. 

And now I'll add that I've decided that the correct marker for the Iron Age is, indeed, the shift of DC Comics away from creator-owned properties, which has been enormously important for Image and many other companies insofar as giving those publishers "first look" at valuable properties-- almost as important as the shrinkage of the market that gave rise to the Silver Age.

Friday, January 11, 2019

EMANCIPATION VS. FREEDOM PT. 3

In Part 1, I quoted Fukuyama on a philosophical question posed by Nietzsche:


 Is recognition that can be universalized worth having in the first place? Is not the quality of recognition far more important than its universality? And does not the goal of universalizing recognition inevitably trivialize and devalue it?


Contemporary television serials are possibly one of the best mediums by which ideologies can produce widespread, albeit trivialized, forms of the ethic of emancipation. When television was dominated by conservative and occasionally ultraconservative creators of content, the emancipation ethic followed the "melting-pot" paradigm that I mentioned in Part 2.  Persons who did not conform to the WASP image of normality were not condemned for their differences, but there was the expectation that, say, a heroic Black American would be devote his energies to the benefit of the American status quo.  A character like Barney Collins of the 1966 MISSION IMPOSSIBLE provides an apposite example. In the Hegelian terms promoted by Fukuyama, Barney received "recognition" of his talents and his heroic nobility because he served the status quo by curbing the excesses of foreign dictators. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, then, provides a fair example of the trivialization of recognition along conservative political lines.





 In the ultraliberal morass of current television, a series, or a group of related serials, are far more likely to pursue liberal ideals of "identity politics," whether the identity is defined in terms of a character's race, religious heritage, or sexual proclivities. My apposite example of this current trend is the so-called "Arrowverse," usually identified with show-runner Greg Berlanti and incarnated in four current TV-shows on the CW Network: ARROW, THE FLASH, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, and SUPERGIRL (which originally debuted on CBS but moved to CW in the show's second season).

The Arrowverse's identity politics orientation does not touch on the matter of religious heritage very often, so this aspect does not come into play. In terms of the representation of racial identity, the four shows have not followed the tendency of race-bending established franchise-heroes. Green Arrow, the Flash and Supergirl, depicted as Caucasian in the comics, are all played by Caucasian actors, and most of the "Legends" follow the same pattern, with the exception of short-lived members like Hawkgirl and Kid Flash.

However, the Berlanti-verse has invested heavily in the idea of "gender-bending" various characters in terms not of sexual identity but in terms of sexual proclivities, to wit:

ARROW started the ball rolling with the character of Sara Lance/White Canary. Sara was an original creation for the teleseries, though she was loosely patterned upon the comics-character Black Canary, and was apparently conceived as a lesbian early on. Sara did not stay on ARROW but was later spun off on the LEGENDS OF TOMORROW show. However, a gay version of Mister Terrific-- who debuted in the comics as a straight character in 1997-- joined the ARROW show in 2015.




THE FLASH, though it rewrote the hero's origin so that he now had a Black American "father" and "sister," didn't "gender-bend" any previously existing characters, such as those based on DC-characters Vibe and Killer Frost. In the course of one of the Arrowverse-crossovers, however, regular FLASH villain Captain Cold was revealed to have a gay doppelganger in another universe.



SUPERGIRL, though it introduced "Black Jimmy Olsen" as the Arrowverse's most notable "race-bending" up to that point, did not signal its investment in LGTB concerns during the show's first season on CBS. When the second season commenced on the CW, the original-to-TV character of Alex Danvers, adoptive sister to Kara "Supergirl" Danvers, belatedly discovered that she was a lesbian without ever having realized it, thanks to an encounter with a cop named Maggie Sawyer. Sawyer, a character who debuted in the SUPERMAN comics-universe, was "ambiguously gay" in her first appearances, though eventually her lesbian status was fully embraced by DC. The TV-version of Sawyer did not remain as a regular on SUPERGIRL but Alex Danvers remained as the representative for this particular strand of identity politics. In the fourth season, the show introduced a new character who will be defined as "trans," and though created for the teleseries, Nia Nal is loosely patterned after "Dream Girl" of the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES franchise.



LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, obviously, started out with a lesbian character as one of the regular members, and she was eventually joined by regular girlfriend Ava in Seasons 3 and 4, whose status is that of a support-character, rather than being a member of the Legends team. None of the Legends regulars were gender-bent, though in Season 4 the group recruited DC character John Constantine. In the comics Constantine has been loosely defined as bisexual, but according to online essays, the comics have not tended to focus on the character's homosexual encounters very often, while Season 4 made one such liaison a going concern for several episodes. There has also been a suggestion of possible romance between Constantine and "Citizen Cold," the gay doppelganger of FLASH's Captain Cold.




Now, what's my point in laboriously listing all the examples of gender-bending in the Arrowverse? Obviously nothing I could write would change Greg Berlanti's patent conviction to his liberal emancipation ethic. His interpretation of the liberal ethic seems based on the "monkey see, monkey do" principle, essentially taking the position that the only way TV can help achieve equity for LGTB people in reality is to bombard viewers with LGTB characters, and hope that said viewers, if not already liberal in their sentiments, will become more liberal in attitude by exposure to such characters.

Here, however, Berlanti's intent is far more consistent than his execution. Speaking only for myself, I consider most of the LGBT characters in the Arrowverse to be extremely mediocre,  both as characters and as representatives of identity politics. The only character who seems authentic both as a character and as a homosexual is Mister Terrific of the ARROW series, expertly portrayed by the actor Echo Kellum.



In some cases, the actor may be good but the character-arc is mediocre. Like many fans, I applaud the fact that the Arrowverse gave actor Matt Ryan the opportunity to portray John Constantine once more, following the demise of the 2014 NBC teleseries in which Ryan first essayed the character. However, his homosexual story-arc was jejune in the extreme, as are most of the arcs involving Sara and Ava,  which are also not well-served by the wooden line-readings of Cathy "White Canary" Lotz. Chyler Leigh provides decent thesping for the character of Alex Danvers on SUPERGIRL, but since her primary function on the series is to be an ally to the central heroine, being a lesbian doesn't really hurt or help her.

I assume that Berlanti's deluge of LGBT characters within a relatively short span of time is predicated on roughly similar liberalizing strategies seen in earlier eras. I stated in Part 2 of this series that the racial liberalization seen in television shows and even comic books of the 1960s broke down many of the old barriers of white privilege vis-a-vis creating all characters as WASPs. However, it's my conviction that people didn't respond so much to mediocre Black American characters like the aforementioned Barney Collins, but to those the audiences found more distinctive and memorable, like the contemporaneous 1960s character Alexander Scott of I SPY.



Berlanti follows the current trend of identity politics, assuming that as long as you keep showing "noble gays" to the public in great quantity, the public will embrace gay people in response to this fervent appeal to social equity. But I don't think that's the way it worked for the liberalization of 1960s attitudes toward Black Americans as fictional characters. White people may remember the presence of a Barney Collins or a Julia Baker (from the titular series JULIA), but mediocre characters don't change opinions. Whatever the real-life failings of Bill Cosby, his portrayal of Alexander Scott puts across a character who is enjoyable because he is rounded as well as being black. Similarly, even though Nichelle Nichols' Lieutenant Uhura appeared in far fewer scenes than did Diahann Carroll's Julia, the former made a more lasting impression because her character was better conceived, both as a character and as a black woman.



Both the melting-pot paradigm and the paradigm of identity politics substitute political status in place of vivid characterization. They fail because they conceive of the audience as imitative monkeys, and when their politics become known, they're more likely to conjure forth King Kong than Curious George.






Thursday, January 10, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "THE BULLY" (DAREDEVIL #257, 1988)



When Frank Miller left the DAREDEVIL feature for the first time in 1983, subsequent creators had a hard act to follow. I've read all the subsequent stories by such talented people as Klaus Janson and Denny O'Neil, and I remember barely anything from this post-Miller period. In contrast, while I was not a huge fan of writer Ann Nocenti, whose tenure lasted from 1986 to 1991, I have to admit that her DAREDEVIL stories offer a fresh take on Miller's transformation of the feature into hard-boiled crime.

"The Bully," graced by splendid art by John Romita Jr., is not precisely a stand-alone story, though it can be read independently. As the cover makes clear, once again the starring hero contends with the ultraviolent vigilante known as the Punisher. However, the main plot of "Bully" intersects with that of an issue of PUNISHER published in the same month as DAREDEVIL #257. In the first story, executed by Mike Baron and Whilce Portacio, the Punisher searches for a culprit who has inserted cyanide into aspirin tablets made by the company for which he formerly worked. The vigilante fails to corral the perpetrator, Alfred Coppersmith, but continues to pursue the poisoner. I have not read the PUNISHER story but apparently it loosely overlaps the events of the DAREDEVIL story.

Many of Nocenti's stories tend to come off as somewhat rambling. "The Bully" is a happy exception, dealing with the problematic nature of violence without simply issuing the standard ultraliberal/ Marxist denunciation. In fact, there is no single character in the story who fits the dictionary definition of a bully. Nocenti seems to be using the process of "bullying" as a metaphor for any unjust use of force against a less powerful individual. 

Nocenti also observes that "force" may be in the eye of the beholder. No less than three times does some character in the story muse on the facelessness of enemies in modern society. 



First, the Punisher, prior to gunning down a gang of drug-dealers, thinks to himself that "the enemy is everyone, anyone, and no one."

The second instance merges the idea of the faceless enemy with that of the bully. Daredevil seeks to garner information on Coppersmith by interviewing one of the man's former work-mates. The worker tells the hero how Coppersmith was laid off by the aspirin company, where Coppersmith had worked for many years, because he simply couldn't master the complex computers introduced by the bosses. The worker opines, "How do you fight it when a computer takes over? It's like when a big new bully moved in on your block. But who do you fight? The enemy is technology! How do you fight that? Where do you strike?"

Finally, the unemployed Coppersmith is seen alone in his apartment. He looks like the standard depiction of a bully: a muscular fellow seen doing reps with weights. Yet though he looks like a bully, he's the one who feels bullied by the company that fired him, and to himself he justifies his indiscriminate poison-murders by musing, "All men, any man. My enemy is faceless."


Given that slipping poison into medicine-pills should strike most readers as a contemptible form of violence, Nocenti is remarkably successful in making Coppersmith seem mildly sympathetic in his derangement. The criminal is duly overtaken by the Punisher, but Daredevil intervenes to keep Coppersmith from being executed. Inevitably the two fighters clash, seen through Coppersmith's eyes, who is too stupefied by the fight to escape. Indeed, he continues his "bully" theme by thinking to himself, "There's no difference between the two of them. Both bullies, and all bullies think they're the one that's right. Everybody can't be right." Coppersmith doesn't quite have enough self-awareness to apply this insight to his own campaign of violence, and in fact he finally does try to escape, only to be crowned into dreamland by Daredevil. 



The resolution of the conflict between the heroes is more fully explicated in the PUNISHER cross-over story. But before Coppersmith has his lights knocked out, he has a strange insight that belies all the rhetoric about bullies and faceless enemies, as he watches Daredevil and Punisher battle:

I feel like I'm witnessing something superhuman, something special and powerful-- like this is the best of the best-- and they're fighting over ME--

Daredevil wins the argument by taking Coppersmith into custody, and the story ends as lawyer Matt Murdock meets with the addled murderer. Murdock tells Coppersmith that though he will go to prison, he deserves mercy because "society must take care of the people it crushes."

While "Bully" covers some of the same territory seen in Miller's tenure, Nocenti has a refreshingly un-derivative take on the violence of the superhero genre; neither fully approving nor disapproving. 
I'll note in closing that though the story includes a subplot involving a long-running Daredevil-foe, Typhoid Mary, even the subplot works in unison with the main theme. During the subplot, Typhoid easily manipulates her boss the Kingpin with sex, thus showing that there are ways to "bully" even without violence. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

EMANCIPATION VS. FREEDOM PT. 2

At the end of Part 1 I said:

In Part 2 I'll address some of the ways current popular fiction devotes itself to universal recognition /equity without showing any insight as to the "quality" of said emancipatory representations.
I decided to put off the examples I had in mind at the time in favor of a quick look at an example of what I've called "negative equity" not in popular fiction, but in a non-fictional work about popular fiction.

I've just started reading Alec Nevala-Lee's 2018 book ASTOUNDING, which purports to chart the historical development of American science fiction through the medium of the magazine ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION. The book's subtitle specifies that Nevala-Lee concentrates on the intersections of three major figures of science fiction-- writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, and ASTOUNDING editor John W. Campbell Jr.-- and one figure of cultish notoriety, L. Ron Hubbard. Having finished only the prologue and first chapter, I have no doubt that he's put a huge amount of research into the lives of these four intersecting figures, and as of this reading, it seems like this is going to be a very good read into a very neglected topic.

In the prologue, however, Nevala-Lee feels the need to "virtue signal," by attacking early science fiction for being too WASPy:

Campbell's writers and their characters were almost exclusively white, and he bears part of the blame for limiting the genre's diversity. At best, this was a huge missed opportunity. ASTOUNDING, which questioned so many other orthodoxies and systems of power, rarely looked at racial inequality, and its lack of historically underrepresented voices severely constrained the stories that it could tell.

This is, in a word, garbage. I might qualify it as well-intentioned garbage, but it's still garbage.

That all or most of Campbell's writers were white is a half-truth. Some writers, like Isaac Asimov, were descendants of European Jews, so they did look "white," though by virtue of their descent they were not necessarily deemed "white" by the time's more conservative standards. One can certainly argue that even Jewish writers still created characters who were dominantly WASPs, which may be an overstatement, though not by much.

But Nevala-Lee's attempt to place blame bears no relation to any truth, save that of ideologues who mouth truisms like, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." To such ideologues, it's always easy to tell someone else to sacrifice their livelihoods on the altar of social justice. If John W. Campbell bears "part of the blame," then it's a blame shared by not only popular culture of the thirties and forties but also the majority of so-called "high culture." During these two decades, and most of the next two as well, there was essentially no mass market for non-white characters. If one wants to indict as racist the whole of American culture for the first half of the 20th century, one can certainly do so. But John W. Campbell's share of blame for that cultural racism is so  infinitesimally small that it's hardly worth mentioning-- unless one wishes to show off one's own virtuousness.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were marginal changes that went against the cultural grain, such as Sidney Poitier movies and the presence of non-white heroes in ensembles like those of I SPY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and Marvel Comics's THE AVENGERS. During this period, perhaps one might fairly fault a given editor or writer for keeping things too WASPy. But in the 1930s and 1940s, no one could have fought against the current of white privilege without drowning-- certainly not the editor of a science-fiction magazine, back in the days when the genre was deemed little more than "Buck Rogers stuff." It's really not a "missed opportunity" if the opportunity wasn't there at all.

Particularly egregious is the cant about "historically underrepresented voices." Nobody in the 1930s or 1940s would have even understood what that meant, for those were the days of the diametrically opposed cultural concept of "the melting pot." Campbell may have been racist in specific ways-- and this is something Nevala-Lee may well be able to demonstrate in future chapters-- but Campbell certainly was not racist because he didn't have some visionary apprehension of another generation's concept of equity.

Nevala-Lee's prologue also sings some sad songs about the marginalization of female voices. There may be a little more evidence for women being kept out of science-fiction's "boys' clubs," though even then, most of the evidence comes from women of Caucasian heritage who managed to write professionally under ambivalent cognomens like Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore. I've seen no evidence to suggest that persons of color, of either gender, had that much interest in breaking into the science-fiction magazines. Often it takes a cultural revolution before any marginalized outgroup starts thinking seriously about crashing the gates of the favored ingroup.

I also object to the politicized thinking that asserts, even indirectly, that a given genre's worth can be measured in terms of how many "underrepresented voices" it champions. But I'd need a whole nother essay to do justice to that topic.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

EMANCIPATION VS. FREEDOM PT. 1

In this blogpost, responding to one of THE BEAT's superficial attacks on so-called female objectification, I wrote:

The whole "who's exposed more" question should never have been one of pure equity.  Equity is something to be observed in the workplace or the boardroom, but not in fiction.  Fiction is a place where fantasy reigns, and as I said in the essay, it's simply a lot harder to sell hyper-sexualized fantasies to women than to men.  I tend to think that this is because in general men are hornier bastards than women, but others' mileage may vary.
Equity should never have been the question because equity of this sort is not feasible.   There will probably always be more sexualized female characters in pop fiction than sexualized male characters-- but that doesn't mean that the latter don't occur at all, or that one can slough off all the chiseled chins and buff bodies as manifestations of "idealization."

I've not written much about "equity," but now I want to see it in a continuum that relates to a wider concept I will term "the ethic of emancipation." Equity, the theoretical fair treatment of everyone in a society, is a modern concept that has come about in democratic societies largely because these tend to subscribe, at least overtly, to the ideal of emancipating those who are enslaved, disenfranchised, and so on. The ethic extends back through human history, but in modern times the United States has become the country most intimately associated with emancipation, beginning with the country emancipating itself from England. Radical ultraliberals ceaselessly cavil about the false ideals purportedly put forth in the Declaration of Independence, in which "all men are created equal" is said to have connoted "white men only" (which argument Stephen Douglas made explicit in 1858). However, the nation's commitment to emancipation still exceeds that of many if not all other nations since the States' formation, and one of the many liberations that made far more progress here than elsewhere than in other countries is that of women's suffrage.

The problem, however, is that often those who rise do so by making someone else fall. Ultraliberals in recent years have gone beyond the sensible demands of early liberals, and have chosen to stigmatize what they are pleased to call "straight white males" (and occasionally "straight white females" as well) in order to carve out new terrain for the non-meek who shall usurp the earth. The less vitriolic ultraliberals take the position that dull straight white people will be much improved by this exposure to diversity, so it's all good.

However, in THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN, Francis Fukuyama explored, among other things, some of the problems with the idea of "universal recognition"-- Fukuyama's Hegelian term for the idea of a emancipation from all hierarchies that bar the goal of total equity.

For Nietzsche, there was little difference between Hegel and Marx, because their goal was the same, a society embodying universal recognition. He, in effect, raised the question: Is recognition that can be universalized worth having in the first place? Is not the quality of recognition far more important than its universality? And does not the goal of universalizing recognition inevitably trivialize and devalue it?


In Part 2 I'll address some of the ways current popular fiction devotes itself to universal recognition/equity without showing any insight as to the "quality" of said emancipatory representations.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: DEMON STAR/ GOTHAM'S MOST WANTED (2011-2)





                                      

In structural terms Grant Morrison’s Batman stories of the 2010s bid fair comparison with Dave Sim’s mammoth CEREBUS epic. Both are less like novels, graphic or otherwise, than assemblages of inter-related novels on the same themes. Here I’ll concern myself only with the culminating storylines, the novels DEMON STAR and GOTHAM’S MOST WANTED, which are some though not all of the novels united under the rubric BATMAN INC.



One of the overriding themes of Morrison’s Bat-pedia is that of the relation of the hero to family. For these two novels, the core of this conflict is a rewriting of the Barr/Bingham graphic novel, BATMAN: SON OF THE DEMON. Barr’s script for SON, which I examined here, posits a situation in which Batman pretty much forgets about his whole extended Bat-family for the sake of joining the house of Al Ghul. In contrast, BATMAN, INC. brings many of the characters who comprise the Bat-family into open conflict with Talia Al Ghul. Further, the Bat-family goes beyond the protectors of Gotham, and extends to several Batman-emulators from other countries:  an Amerindian Batman, a British Batman, and so on.  In this Morrison referenced a 1955 Bat-tale, “The Batmen of All Nations,” but the Scottish author’s purpose goes beyond the simple gimmick of the original story. Batman himself states one aspect of that purpose early in DEMON STAR, where the hero meditates to himself, “The first truth of Batman. The saving grace. I was never alone.”



Part of Morrison’s kaleidoscopic plot involves Batman having had a vision of a terrible future, which may or may not come to fruition. But a far more crucial thread, introduced in the arc BATMAN AND SON, deals with the rewritten history of Batman’s interaction with Talia. In this version, Talia drugs Batman in order to have sex with him, but instead of bearing his child naturally, she has the fetus removed and raised through artificial means.  Talia names the child Damian, apparently in homage to THE OMEN, and when he reaches the age of ten she introduces Damian to the father who never knew his son existed.  Given that Damian’s mother gave her son the same ruthless League-of-Assassins training that she received from her father, the boy proves a handful, to say the least. However, by the time of DEMON STAR, Damian has become re-socialized enough that he can function as one of the crusader’s many “boy wonders.”








However, Talia has had many more irons in the fire beyond tormenting the hero with an unruly child. She’s taken over the League of Assassins from her father, and has used the League’s super-science to create clones of Damien,  as well as co-opting the “Man-Bat”  serum from its inventor to create a scourge of man-bat ninjas. Further, she creates a subversive organization, Leviathan, in order to spread chaos in Gotham. She does all this because in Morrison’s world, Batman does not choose her over the war on crime.



Leviathan, whatever the name portends in Biblical lore, is one of the many incarnations of evil feminine will within the BATMAN INC. storyline, and is joined by other such learned references as the Greek image of the Medusa and the Hindu visage of Kali Ma. Still, references to myth aren’t necessarily mythic in themselves; they have to take on their own resonance within every new story.



Many Bat-writers, including Denny O’Neil, tended to sentimentalize Talia Al Ghul, but Morrison does not. He presents snapshots of her early history being raised by Ra’s Al Ghul, and the reader sympathizes with her, especially when it’s strongly intimated that Talia’s mother Melisande was cast aside by Ra’s when she got old, and that ultimately he had her killed. Further, for the first time, a writer suggests that Ra’s may have had a darker motive for encouraging the union of his daughter and his foremost enemy: that Ra’s wanted a grandson into whom the soul of Ra’s could be transferred, thus insuring his continued immortality. But Talia is no better. She allows Damien to bond with his father, but only with the hope that her son will eventually choose mother over father. She also keeps in reserve one of the Damien-clones, artificially grown to manhood and wearing the cowl of his “father.” The clone, who is never even given the dignity of a name, ends up murdering his “brother” and being murdered in turn by his mother. ”Leviathan has many children,” Talia asserts, “Leviathan is mother to no one.”



I’ll have  to pass over a host of Morrisonian references, though I’ll mention that he excels in his usage of the Medusa-imagery, and proceed to the Big Climax. In part it’s a riff on “The Demon Lives Again,” since Talia beards Batman in his cave and challenges him to a swordfight. However, she does so wearing some imitation Bat-garments, which she quickly discards while mocking him: “I’ve beaten you at your childish game of clues and traps, masks and toys.” Yet earlier Batman perceives that her real animus is toward the father who ruthlessly used her, and Talia’s fate is decreed, not a passing scorpion, but by one of the many members of the extended Bat-family—one who was supposedly slain by the League of Assassins years ago. Thus the Mother of Monsters is slain not by her mate, but by one of his symbolic “daughters.”