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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, March 29, 2019

CONCRESCENCE AND THE KINETIC PHENOMENALITY

At the end of CONCRESCENCE AND COMPLICATION I wrote:


....since I've gone to great effort to expound upon the ways in which complexity can only be judged through examination of the four potentialities, I won't repeat that argument here, except to say that I've allowed for the possibility that symbolic complexity is not the only form of complexity.

Some time before adopting the term "concrescence," I illustrated the ways in which different comics-artists constructed fight-scenes, arranging all of the "quanta" of kinetic representations in order to satisfy the reader.  I used Jack Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR #3 as an example of a "good kinetic discourse," while Mike Zeck's SECRET WARS was an example of a "bad kinetic discourse."

Here's a more specific example of Kirby art from the same FF Annual:




In the previous panels, the Cobra leaps on Captain America's back. The Cobra's "kinetic quanta" consists of attacking enemies in a "snake-like" fashion, while Captain America is the epitome of speedy athleticism. Not only does the hero stymie the villain's attack by slamming Cobra into a wall, he then uses the Cobra's body as a bludgeon against his next opponent. Since the Executioner is a super-strong demigod, the hero has to then duck and dodge his opponent's blows-- though the ending of this particular contest is not seen, since Kirby moves the action to other heroes and villains, all battling to prevent the wedding of Reed and Sue (or something like that).

In contrast, here's a scene from Zeck's SECRET WARS, in which a bunch of heroes attempt to make a frontal assault on Galactus:




Zeck may well have been constrained to follow the demands of editor/writer Jim Shooter, but whoever was to blame, there's no attention to the logic of the combative activity depicted here. The good guys shoot rays or throw rocks, Galactus shoots rays back at them. There's no attention to the distinctive "energy-quanta" represented by any of the heroes, much less Galactus, who, based on previous depictions, shouldn't even bother to engage in such a fight. The same scene could've been created with different heroes in place of those used.

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.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "CLOUD OF WITNESS" (SON OF SATAN #4-7, 1976)

NOTE: I'm using "Cloud of Witness," the title of the first story in this four-issue arc, to denote the whole arc. I'm not sure why writer John Warner chose this title. Curiously enough, "Cloud of Witness" is the title of a 1891 compilation of devotional prayers, but this would seem to have nothing to do with the content of the arc. If anything, "Cloud" seems to be moving away from the Judeo-Christian basis of the "Son of Satan" mythos.

The brief run of the "Son of Satan" feature in two Marvel magazines, MARVEL SPOTLIGHT and THE SON OF SATAN, followed the pattern of Satanic films that became more popular following the success of 1968's ROSEMARY'S BABY. Daimon Hellstrom, the son of the Devil and a mortal woman, is first seen as an adult who has renounced his paternal heritage but undergoes periodic werewolf-like transformations from a super-powered devil's spawn to a Catholic priest. The priest angle was quickly dropped, and when writer Steve Gerber took over the series, Hellstrom became sort of a combination superhero/exorcist. Gerber also brought in some non-Christian elements into the mix, but during the MARVEL SPOTLIGHT run the whole never exceeded the sum of its parts.

John Warner became the writer for the series when SON OF SATAN became a solo title. The first three issues delve heavily into the opposition of Hellstrom and his father, but this sequence ends with Satan foreswearing any more involvement with his son's life. Warner almost certainly took this tack in order to ground the feature within the Western tradition of ceremonial magic. The arc from issues #4-7, however, were Warner's last hurrah on the series, and the title was cancelled following the publication of an inventory story, reviewed here.



In this essay, I observed that certain stories, such as the Golden Age HAWKMAN origin, might be fairly simple with respect to their dialectic overthoughts, but complex with respect to their symbolic underthoughts. "Cloud of Witness" follows the same pattern. Starting with issue #3, Warner and his assorted artists (mostly Craig Russell and Sonny Trinidad) set up a new direction for Hellstrom, including a new job (occult instructor at Georgetown University) and a new support-cast. The first new addition to the Hellstrom cast is a fellow teacher (and inevitably romantic interest), Saripha Thames. She's later revealed to be a practicing witch who doesn't believe in Hellstrom's father, thus refuting the common conflation of witches and Satanists in American pop culture. To some extent Hellstrom finds himself alienated from this hotbed of occultism, since in his earlier exploits he rarely interacted with large groups, as he does when he's obliged to teach a course to a roomful of students. Thus Warner uses the standard revising of a serial character's setup to delve somewhat into the character's lack of socialization.



But since he's also a superhero as well as an occultist, he has to meet a new villain. although his introduction to this foe comes through a hieratic dream. Once he arrives at his university apartment, the hero falls asleep and finds himself beholding a procession of Egyptian votaries. There's also a "cloud" of incense-vapor that the dreaming Hellstrom likens to "ambrosia," the food of the Greek gods, and inhaling this shifts him to another dreamscape. He meets the image of his mother, who claims that she's about to enter a convent. Hellstrom is never less than aware than he's in a dream, not least because in life his late mother only talked about becoming a nun.



However, the Christian piety is immediately undercut when this "bride of God" greets and embraces her "demon lover" Satan, and Hellstrom is repulsed by his mother's acceptance of this unholy union.



As the dream-parents fade, Hellstrom encounters the puppet-master of the dream: an androgynous, satyr-horned being named Proffet, who claims to be an oracle. Despite the satan-son's attempt to escape the dream, Proffet keeps propelling the hero into more dreamscapes, not least being a confrontation with the two parts of his own soul, the destructive "darksoul" and a normal-seeming Hellstrom who's able to wield a cross to subdue the evil "dark half." Finally the dream ends and Hellstrom wakes up in his apartment, but his next conflict is signaled by a mysterious explosion from the apartment neighboring his own.



Though Hellstrom never met the other apartment's occupant, it's plain that the latter was involved in occultism, because the explosion throws his corpse against a wall in the posture of the Tarot "Hanged Man." Hellstrom reads the "symbolic allegory" of this supernatural manifestation, interpreting the body's posture as that of "a pyramid surmounted by a cross-- or an ankh." Warner does not mention that this opposition of images duplicates that of the dream-fight between the two Hellstroms, where a symbol of life (an Egyptian ankh) transcends an image of death (a pyramid, which is, of course, a glorified tomb, and thus reflective of all the death-imagery in the dream).



To be sure, Warner's beginning is more mythic than his resolution. The villain who caused the occult student's death is a megalomaniac who's taken the supervillain name "Mindstar," and he was attempting to capture the student, for very involved reasons, to turn him over to his divine perceptor, the Egyptian god Anubis. Because Mindstar screws up his mission, he attempts to confuse the issue by convincing the god that the Son of Satan is Anubis's quarry. This proves a rather weak plotline, largely setting up Hellstrom's superheroic battles with Mindstar. Still, at least Anubis conforms to the representation of both death and destruction, the negative elements with which Hellstrom regularly contends. Indeed, Saripha, though not yet romantically involved with Hellstrom, invokes the pagan powers of life to help Hellstrom against the Egyptian god of death.



Had the series continued for a time, Warner probably would have come up with some inventive takes on Marvel characters with an esoteric edge. As things stand, the short run of the SON OF SATAN comic merely hints at some tantalizing possibilities.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "RANDOM CHOICE" (SECRET ORIGINS OF SUPER-VILLAINS #1, 1999)

Psychological myths, as I've mentioned, are not the same as just as any functioning psychological aspect of this or that fictional character. As with the other three myth-categories, myths about human psychology depend on revealing a deep, symbolically-rich structure to the phenomenon under consideration. There are any number of non-mythic works which may suggest such a structure in a superficial manner, but in order to formulate a literary myth, the structure must possess symbolic density. Psychological myths are also independent of what I've termed the "dramatic potentiality," which is principally about the interactions of fictional characters rather than their deeper aspects/


The GREEN LANTERN villain Sinestro, from his debut in GREEN LANTERN #7 (1961), has always been regarded as the hero's arch-enemy. That said, writer John Broome only provides a sketchy account as to how the red-skinned alien-- whom Green Lantern once calls "my Satanic-faced foe"-- becomes the universe's only renegade Green Lantern. The readers are only told that, through an unknown process, the Guardians of the Universe selected Sinestro to serve as galactic cop to his star-sector, including his birth-planet Korugar. After a period of serving nobly in the Corps, Sinestro fell victim to "the virus of power" and established himself as a despot over his people, after which the Guardians stripped him of his ring and his station, and then exiled him to the anti-matter universe Qward, where evil and destructive impulses are the norm. The Qwardians had already appeared about half a year earlier in GREEN LANTERN #2, but they had no leader as such. Broome presumably decided that a world of evil needed a ruler, and what better ruler than a "rebel angel" cast out by his heavenly bosses?



Sinestro's background remained sketchy for the next thirty-plus years, until Ron Marz and Scott Kolins put forth a "secret origin" in 1999.

The story is structured as a tale being narrated by a  Guardian named Ganthet to a cloaked figure who, by the end of the framing device, proves to be Hal Jordan during his brief tenure as the Spectre. No reason iks given as to why Jordan, who was Sinestro's greatest enemy when the former was a Green Lantern, is belatedly hearing this secret origin at this late date.

Prior to this origin-tale, there had been dozens if not hundreds of villains who started out as non-entities who choose to rebel against society by becoming evildoers. Marz, having been a comics-fan, had almost certainly seen many, many origins in which the villain's motivation was resentment, and it's possible that for that reason Marz decided not to follow that bif of cliched psychologizing.



Instead, the future villain-- whose real Korugarian name has, Ganthet says, long been forgotten-- begins as a nonentity who nurtures no obvious resentment of anyone. Sinestro begins as a low-ranking anthropologist on his homeworld, described by Ganthet as a "relatively unremarkable man." His only passion revolves around his project of reconstructing an ancient Korugarian city from its ruined condition, and his passion stems, Ganthet says, from his need for symmetry and order. Marz does not enlarge on how Sinestro reconstructs a whole city by himself, but at the opening of the narration, he's all alone amid the dead dwelling-places-- just as an alien Green Lantern crashes into one of the reconstructed buildings.

Sinestro, showing none of his future remorselessness, strives to help the alien. The creature, knowing that he's being pursued by the enemy who defeated him, passes his ring to Sinestro in what it obviously a mirror-image of Hal Jordan's ascension to ring-bearing status.



Seconds after Sinestro receives the mystic jewelry, the alien's enemy, one of the Weaponers of Qward descends to the site and begins attacking Sinestro. Though the Korugarian has no time to learn how to work the ring, he uses his knowledge of the archaic city, and the Qwardian is "crushed by the clockwork structure of Sinestro's mind" when the neo-Lantern drops a building on the warrior's head.



However, the destruction of the only thing Sinestro cares about pushes him toward the path of ruthlessness. Since he has been harmed by the city's demolition, he turns a deaf ear when the alien Lantern begs for the return of the ring in order to heal his fatal wounds.



The Guardians, unaware of Sinestro's complicity in this death, allow the Korugarian to assume the status of guardian of his star-sector-- after which the rest of Sinestro's career follows its designated course. The only other interesting detail Marz supplies is that when it comes time for the Guardians to punish the renegade, they choose to send Sinestro to Qward "because the irony of it appealed to us." Since there's no such irony as such in the original Broome backstory, Marz presumably means that said irony proceeds from Sinestro's revised history. Since the renegade first distinguished himself by defeating a Qwardian warrior, giving him over to the Qwardians would be not unlike a U.S. cavalry officer surrendering a rebellious Indian scout to a tribe that wants to kill him. But the Guardians' sense of poetic justice trips them up, because Sinestro harnesses the great resources of the anti-matter world against the world of goodness.

The frame-story wraps up with some nattering about correcting old mistakes, but the meat of the story is Marz's idea of giving evil a more mundane origin than Broome's notion of the seductiveness of power. Marz purposely does not give Sinestro any sort of personal life, and a writer more wedded to cliche would have probably harped on the character's inability to make interpersonal connections, as indicated by his passion to resurrect a dead city. Rather, Marz is interested in showing evil arise from "random choice." Sinestro's stated passion for order is presented as if it came about by fiat, rather than from his pedagogical history, and so his decision not to return the power ring to its original owner also comes about from a random choice, the choice to find a new orderliness in the career of a Green Lantern. In accordance with his established history, he distinguishes himself for a time, but since Sinestro has made his choice in response to a new passion, itself coming about from a random encounter, he's easily seduced to the "virus of power."


DITKO AND FIGHTIN' FOOLS

I wrote this in response to a CHFB poster who wondered why Ditko had expressed (in a conversation) a dislike of seeing heroes fight amongst themselves, and why he liked Ayn Rand, whose "characters only cared about themselves."

_______________


I've only read a handful of Rand works, but IMO it's not correct to say that the characters only care about themselves. They care about high ideals based in rational choices, and such rationality is conveyed even through the medium of aesthetic accomplishments, such as Howard Roark and his architectural designs. I think Ditko believed that he conveyed such rational ideals through his art as well. 

I don't think Ditko was ever that crazy about the concept of heroes fighting each other. He drew things like Spidey/Human Torch battles because Stan Lee was the editor and Stan, at that time, emphasized heroic crossovers, often with fights brought on by big misunderstandings. I don't think you'll find any such hero-fights in SPIDER-MAN when Ditko began to be credited with plotting. After Ditko left Marvel for Charlton, he created the Question and a new version of the Blue Beetle, but though the characters appear together in mufti in BLUE BEETLE #5, they never team up in costume. In the Question story for MYSTERIOUS SUSPENSE #1, an anonymous character gushes about how great it is to see "heroes with feet of clay," but Ditko frames this enthusiasm so as to make the opinion seem foolish.

Given that Ditko's history shows him to be uncompromising in his ideals-- at least, as much as he could possibly be in mainstream comics-- I would bet that at the very least he resented having to be a tool of the company, being required to hype other characters that he had nothing to do with. (Think of SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #1, where he pretty much had to work in almost all the 20th-century Marvel characters into his story.)  Kirby, who co-created so much more of the Marvel Universe, had no problem with working in characters he didn't create, though fan-critics have opined that he never really got the Spider-Man design right. There's no way to be sure whether Lee or Kirby first came up with "quarreling heroes." Either one of them could've been inspired by the example of DOC SAVAGE, as well as remembering the fan-excitement that accompanied the battles of the Golden Age Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. But Ditko just didn't dig that sort of thing.

I am pretty surprised that he would even comment on the Avengers fighting amongst themselves. I have a dim memory that he did a few make-work AVENGERS issues, so maybe even at that late date he was rather discouraged to see that Stan Lee's meet-and-fight trope was still regnant. 

As for Hawk and Dove, Ditko could've used the same excuse he used once for Spider-Man's faux pas: that they were too immature to know better.The Atlas character you remember, the Destructor, starts out as a punk but quickly gets religion and becomes a stand-up guy.

Monday, March 18, 2019

INVESTMENT VS. FASCINATION PT. 2

At the end of PART 1,  I asserted that the dominion of the process of fascination over that of investment came about when "the other" received more narrative charisma than "the familiar." The former category doesn't have to be evil as such-- the Japanese "Mothra" films are a case in point-- but in some way the incarnation of the other cannot be subsumed within the audience's concept of what is familiar.

Today I finished a review of the 2005 film DOOM, in which I compared the movie to its video game iterations and to its supposed filmic influence, the 1986 ALIENS. DOOM, unlike ALIENS, presents a rather complicated dynamic of centric will, so I'll begin my analysis with the simpler dynamic of ALIENS. As I stated in the review, I view all works in the ALIEN franchise to be "exothelic," in that they depend more on fascinating the audience with the bizarre nature of the killer aliens than on building up the audience's investment in the human heroes, primarily Ellen Ripley. That's not to say that such investment does not exist. Obviously, no other hero to be found in the subgenre of "killer alien movies" has been more important to audiences than Ripley. But the ALIEN films emphasize the fascinations of the exothelic over the familiarity of the endothelic.

Now, rather than addressing DOOM as yet, I'll segue to a film-franchise that resembles the ALIEN franchise in having a simple dynamic: the live-action STARSHIP TROOPERS serial, whose films I reviewed here and here. The first film is, like the source novel, centered upon the activities of the various Earth-soldiers who go to war against a race of alien "Bugs," and the next two films in the series more or less follow the same formula. I confess that in the original review I regarded STARSHIP TROOPERS 2 to be something in the nature of an ALIEN-clone, which meant that within my system the centric will would be represented by the Bugs. Further, this determination caused me to determine that the film fell within the mythos of the drama rather than the irony seen in the other two films. However, upon re-viewing TROOPERS 2, I've decided that the Bugs still weren't emphasized as much as the humans. Indeed, Captain Dax, the soldier who perceives the insanity of the Earth's military fascism, is the most important character in that film, just as John Rico is for the first film and Lola Beck in the third one. Further, the fact that Dax perishes and fails to change the destructive course of his people makes the film cohere with the mythos of irony (I've added a correction to the original review).

Now I mentioned that the process of investment did not necessarily mean that the audience endorsed everything that a centric character said or did; it only means that the audience feels able to understand where that character comes from. Thus, even if a character like John Rico has been effectively brainwashed by his culture, the audience still feels in him a familiarity about the nature of his fictional will; how he lives and what he desires. So, now that I've revised my view to state that Rico, Dax and Beck are all investment-type centric characters, I can state my determination that the franchise as a whole (including the somewhat marginal animated video) is endothelic.

So, with these examples in mind, is DOOM endothelic (investment-centered) or exothelic (fascination-centered)? I stated that I felt that none of the starring human characters incarnated the narrative charisma, even though the character of Reaper is the nominal "hero," even as Ripley is the nominal "hero" of the first four ALIEN films. More precisely, I said:

Whereas ALIENS is a film in which the titular extraterrestrials are on center stage, dwarfing the importance of the space-marines fighting them, determining the "main characters" of DOOM becomes a little more dicey, given that the actual Martians are all dead. However, their genetic legacy-- that of passing on the mutagen  that can enhance either "good" or "evil"-- has more central importance to the narrative than any of the three human characters. A quick check of Wikis about the video game suggests that there's no generic name for the "Doom Monsters," probably because they are largely supposed to be either Hell-demons or humans possessed by demons. So for my own satisfaction, I'll state that the stars of DOOM are indeed the Doom Monsters-- and, since both Sarge and Reaper become affected by the mutagen, they become reflections of the mutagen's potential to create both monsters and monster-fighting heroes.
So in DOOM, neither Sarge nor Reaper is really "the hero," but both together can be subsumed by the ensemble-concept of "the Doom Monsters," since both are infected by the mutagen, which makes it possible for them to re-play the catastrophe that destroyed the Martians. The mutagen furnishes the connective tissue between the "good guy" and the "bad guy" so that they're both part of the same ensemble. I observed the same dynamic prevailing with the two opposed monsters of THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and the two opposed psychics of John Farris' THE FURY. Of course the ensemble "Doom Monsters" also includes the long-vanished Martians and the humans who become mutated menaces-- though not any of the "victim" characters who don't become transformed.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 6

Before going on to the essay I mentioned in PART 5, I'll follow up on my remarks regarding distributive and non-distributive applications of charisma.

I mentioned in PART 4 that there were situations in which heroic characters could remain on the periphery of a ensemble while remaining subordinate to the ensemble. It's also possible for a very large group to be subordinate to one centric protagonist, even when that group has elements in common with the centric ensemble.

I've already discussed my determination that Ivanhoe, the protagonist of Scott's novel, is inextricably the focal presence of the narrative, even though the character may not be nearly as interesting as many other characters in the story. But few of the support-characters of IVANHOE play off one another to the extent one expects of a real ensemble-narrative.

To turn to an example generally deemed the centerpiece of Western fiction, Aristotle opined in the POETICS that THE ILIAD served as a model for his concept of "unity of action." The philosopher states that, despite all the many side-stories involving both Greek and Trojan warriors, the epic poem is primarily about "the anger of Achilles," in that the story begins with Achilles withdrawn from the battlefield in anger, and concludes with the hero mastering his rage to some extent when he releases the body of Hector to Priam. If Aristotle is judged right, then all of the other characters in THE ILIAD are subordinate to Achilles. Thus the charisma of the Greek warrior, at least in Homer's rendition, is non-distributive.

In contrast, at a much later date Apollonius Rhodius attempted his own epic, THE ARGONAUTICA, which like THE ILIAD consisted of imposing a single order upon an assortment of myth-tales. That said, although one may argue, after Aristotle, that the quest of heroic Jason for the Golden Fleece is a single action, the quest isn't as indubitably tied only to Jason's charisma as THE ILIAD is to the charisma of Achilles. Not a few comic-book people have asserted a basic identity between Jason's assemblage of many heroes for the quest and the 20th century's invention of the "superhero team." Questions of direct influence, however, are less important than discerning basic structural similarities, and I would say that the idea of  a multi-character ensemble is far more important to THE ARGONAUTICA than it is to THE ILIAD. The most prominent warriors of Homer's epic-- Odysseus, Ajax, et al-- tend to have adventures that are simply side-notes to the theme of the great Achilles' anger, which, both extrinsically and extrinsically, determines the course of the poem. However, in THE ARGONAUTICA, there are assorted moments where this or that hero performs a task that advances the achievement of the quest. Examples of these feats include Calias and Zetes driving the harpies away from Phineus, and Polydeuces using his specialized boxing skill to defeat a mountainous enemy. So in Apollonius's work, the charisma is clearly distributive, and characters like Polydeuces and Heracles are clearly coordinated with Jason's centricity .

That said, it isn't necessarily the case that every single character who went along with Jason is a crucial part of the ensemble. Hylas, allegedly the lover of Heracles, exists in the poem simply to be swept away to his doom by a water-nympth, and this event provides the occasion for Heracles to leave the quest. Whatever the provenance of this story-element in oral myth, this circumstance does give Apollonius the chance to create suspense as to whether the endeavor can succeed without the presence of the Greek strongman.

So perhaps the true determining factor here is whether or not the characters associated with the ensemble undertake a particular type of action important to the story-- possibly "charismatic action." I devoted Part 4 to explaining why the Black Widow in the 1960s AVENGERS series did not belong to the centric ensemble, in contrast to Marvel's Hercules, and my distinction was not that the Widow simply was not a member of the team, but the fact that her actions in the story did not contribute substantially to the ensemble's assorted "quests."

Thus, even though THE ARGONAUTICA, unlike THE ILIAD, distributes its charisma to a group of characters, all of whom are "coordinate clauses" to one another, some characters allied to the group remain subordinate, or, as the lingo of the theater has it, they remain 'spear-carriers."

This brings me back, in my usual circuitous fashion, to the comment I made at the end of ENSEMBLES DISASSEMBLES:

....if I were ever moved to list exactly which characters in the compendious CRISIS [ON INFINITE EARTHS] belonged to the ensemble, I would probably include only those that had a very strong influence upon the outcome of the overall plot.

At some future point I may investigate why I deem that certain long-running serials, like the manga-serials DRAGONBALL and BLEACH, are non-distributive like THE ILIAD, rather than distributive like the Jason epic.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

POWER AND POTENCY PT. 5

This is just a quick follow-up to Part 4, which discussed the knotty problem of imputing "power" to fictional characters who have no power save that of being alive when they used to be dead. SPOILERS in advance.

In Part 4, I noted that Golden Age character Major Victory was one such character. Some afterlife judge returned a nameless patriot to life, giving him a costume and a mandate to fight the Axis. One story imputed a limited super-power to Victory, but this is seemed to have been created for the writer's convenience in that one tale. However, most readers would still deem Victory a superhero, if only because he wears a costume.

My newest inductions into the superhero idiom don't wear costumes, but like Victory, they are characters who were dead and became alive again through supernatural means. I've just finished my review of the 1999 telefilm PURGATORY, and in that review, I noted that though the story starts with a band of outlaws, it actually centers on five characters-- the one savable member of the gang, and four residents of the town Refuge. The four residents are all famous gunfighters-- Wild Bill Hickock, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, and Jesse James-- who, like the rest of the townfolk, have been brought back to life to serve a purgatorial sentence, to see if they're worthy to enter heaven.



The four reborn gunfighters, obviously, don't look like anything but ordinary men in ordinary clothes, and they have no special abilities. The rules of the game seem to suggest that they can be wounded by the guns of the mortal outlaws, although none of them are so wounded. The principal threat to their well-being is that, by fighting the bad guys, they may lose their chance at heaven. Nevertheless, there's no question that the climactic gunfight has the same combative value that it would in any commonplace western-- and since one side of the fight is fought in part by dead-alive men, it also becomes relevant to the world of metaphenomenal narratives.

Thus the four gunfighters of PURGATORY would be another example, like others discussed in this series, where the heroes have "potency" but not "power" as such.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "THE METAL WOMEN BLUES" (METAL MEN #32, 1968)

The DC feature METAL MEN provides a variety of good examples of my current metaphor for literary complication as seen in this essay.

The original creators of the franchise, writer Robert Kanigher and penciler Ross Andru, didn't work on this particular issue, though they had collaborated on most if not all issues up until issue #29. The next two issues were written by Otto Binder and penciled by Gil Kane, and on #32, Binder's story was illustrated by Mike Sekowsky. Since Sekowsky became editor on the feature with #33, replacing long-time writer-editor Kanigher, it seems very likely that Kanigher was being edged off the title, even though he collaborated with Sekowsky for a time. However, clearly before Sekowsky became the new boss, Binder was instructed to follow the storytelling example of the almost-old boss. Back in the day, I could hardly tell the difference between the Binder stories and the preceding Kanigher tales, though now I can see that Binder's plotting was much tighter, despite his emulation of Kanigher's writing-practices.



"The Metal Women Blues" begins typically enough. Tin is being fawned over by his girlfriend Nameless, the only robot in the group not created by Doc Magnus, and the second of two female group-members, the other being Tina, the platinum doll infatuated with her creator. The other male robots-- Gold, Lead, Iron, and Mercury-- petition Magnus to creates mates for all of them. Magnus initially refuses, until Tina points out that if he creates a mate for her, she might become less enamored with Magnus. (Admittedly this is something Kanigher's lovelorn platinum robot would never say, but possibly she's merely trying to help her male comrades.)

In no time, five new robots join the group, known collectively as "the Metal Women" even though they have one male member-- which is just good payback for the years in which the Metal Men sported not one but two female members. However, though the four lady automatons are attracted to their opposite numbers, Platinum Man has no desire for Tina, preferring to keep their association formal-- which puts Magnus back behind the romantic eight-ball.



Just like in a Kanigher story, the two groups are immediately called into action against an alien threat: a giant automated machine. And it's at this point that the girl robots evince something less than shrinking-violet behavior.



"I know I made a mistake," says Magnus, "when I didn't incorporate 'timidity' in the metal women's responsometers. But I didn't want them to be too 'tame' for the Metal Men." However, not only are the lady-bots fairly aggressive, they're actually good at the business of being mechanical superheroes, which causes the males to label them "female glory-hogs." (To be sure, Nameless is unchanged, though for a time she sides with the other "girls," and Lead Girl isn't a glory-hog, just so dumb she makes Lead look swift of wit.)



However, the beings who sent the automated destroyer are observing the contumely, and they decide to take advantage of the situation. The villains are a group of nearly identical 'female robot Amazons," who are all haggish-looking and who are given no raison d'etre at all, just as many of Kanigher's menaces came from no place and had no rationale for their existence. (Maybe some robot-maker made them all look like his shrewish wife, a la I, MUDD?) The Amazon Queen, realizing that the males' vanity has been wounded, sends a "cute girl-robot" to lure the metal guys into a trap. (The cute but unnamed robot-girl even goes armed with "Chan-oil #5 perfume.")

In no time, the trap closes on the guys, who are reluctant to fight "weak women.' The Amazons promptly kick the Metal males' asses and get their broken bodies out of sight, except for Platinum Man, who gets his weight boosted so much that he sinks beneath the earth.

The girls do follow, but they catch sight of Platinum Man in his hole, and he briefs the lady-bots on the strategies the Amazons used against the Metal Males. Thus the Metal Women defeat the Amazons tout suite.



However, since the feature's status quo had to be maintained, the Metal Women then try to rescue Platinum Man, just as a flood of magma flows up into the hole he made. And so the Metal Men return to their normal lineup. Magnus offers to build more inamorata but the guys all decline-- though as a final joke, Mercury gets caught trying to keep the cute girl-robot for himself (being an inferior creation, she simply falls apart in the wake of her creators' destruction).



"Metal Women Blues"-- which is titled "Robot Amazon Blues" on the cover-- is as cornball as anything Kanigher wrote. However, it does maintain a good level of symbolic complexity as well. It begins by showing the guys, who just want women to fawn over them, having their lives complicated by female crusaders generally as competent as they are. While the Metal Women are just "sisters doing it for themselves," though, the Robot Amazons are thoroughly negative incarnations of negative female aggression-- made even less appealing by the fact that they're all ugly.

Binder's most interesting symbolic touch isn't, strictly speaking, necessary for the story's plot, and it illustrates how even a juvenile story sometimes has deeper layers. While the Amazon Queen is busy working on the cutesy robot, the former observes that the unnamed femme metale is made of an alloy of all the metals being lured-- mercury, lead, tin, iron, and gold-- which brings up the loony but amusing idea that in this universe, intelligent robots "stick with their own kind."

CONCRESCENCE AND COMPLICATION

...though Cioffi's book doesn't reference Aristotle, clearly his structural summation of how anomalous presences impact on "conventional social reality" is of a piece with Aristotle's concept of the "Complication" (literally "Desis"= "tying or binding"), while the way in which the viewpoint characters (my term) respond to the anomaly comprises the "Resolution" ("Lusis"= "untying.")--
ANOMALOUS ENCOUNTERS: RESOURCE.

 This focus on concrete modes of relatedness is essential because an actual occasion is itself a coming into being of the concrete. The nature of this “concrescence,” using Whitehead’s term, is a matter of the occasion’s creatively internalizing its relatedness to the rest of the world by feeling that world, and in turn uniquely expressing its concreteness through its extensive connectedness with that world. Thus an electron in a field of forces “feels” the electrical charges acting upon it, and translates this “experience” into its own electronic modes of concreteness. Only later do we schematize these relations with the abstract algebraic and geometrical forms of physical science. For the electron, the interaction is irreducibly concrete.-- INTERNET ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY.

I've been using the imagery of wave formations whenever I've invoked the idea of amplitude, but here's another metaphor for connectedness: that of the knot-imagery put forth by Aristotle.

Since the beginnings of this blog, I've defined the significance of literary symbolic activity in terms of complexity. The idea of complexity as a value does not seem to appear as such in Aristotle's POETICS, in that the bulk of his argument focuses on art's ability to describe the good and the beautiful. The philosopher does use the categories of "simple" and "complex," but the categories reflect nothing save whether or not a given work contains what Aristotle called "the recognition scene." A simple narrative doesn't have a recognition scene; a complex narrative does.

Aristotle doesn't connect these categories to the "desis/lusis" dichotomy, which I assume was not original to him. However, I think that Aristotle found a moral value in the recognition scene, and that by the trope's presence, it gave a given narrative a greater moral potential. Thus a play like Euripides' MEDEA is simple because it possesses no turnabout scene, in which a protagonist realizes his "connectedness" to some other person or event, as Sophocles' OEDIPUS does.

For my purposes, the presence or absence of a recognition scene makes no difference. However, I find it interesting that the literary activity Aristotle calls "tying" is often rendered in English as "complication," while "untying" is often rendered with the French word "denouement," which originally had the same meaning of "unraveling."

Aristotle's logic is persuasive. Clearly he has examined, in his analytical manner, the way a given author creates interest in his protagonist's struggles by "tying" him up with one or more complications, and then "untying" him in such a way that the hero is either delivered up to good or bad fortune.

As a description of the authorial process, this is accurate, but I don't think it describes the finished literary narrative. I would certainly agree that the process by which Oedipus pieces together the clues regarding his true identity is a complex process. However, the metaphor of an unraveled knot doesn't adequately describe the conclusion of OEDIPUS REX, which is no less complex than all the knotty complications that lead up to the conclusion. The only way in which the play's denouement resembled an untied knot is in terms of a viewer's relief once he knows what has happened to the protagonist and all other significant characters. But the actual narrative process, by my lights, is either (1) simple all the way through, (2) simple in some places and complex in others, or (3) complex all the way through. Not surprisingly, these three levels of complication line up fairly well with my analysis of the levels of literary quality I called "poor," "fair," and "good." At the time I wrote that essay, I was using Aristotle's term "unity of action" to explain the presence of complexity in a given discourse; now, the concept of concrescence has largely usurped the place of said unity.

Thus, for me, every narrative is a knot, perhaps most visually approachable through this representation of different levels of complexity in molecular knots:



Now, since I've gone to great effort to expound upon the ways in which complexity can only be judged through examination of the four potentialities, I won't repeat that argument here, except to say that I've allowed for the possibility that symbolic complexity is not the only form of complexity. I've also allowed that "simplicity" has a role to play even in the most complex narratives. But focusing just on symbolic discourse, then a symbolically poor work would resemble the simple knot "A," a fair work would resemble B or C, which are more complex by virtue of having more crossings, and a good work would resemble D or E.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

AGAIN, DANGEROUS EQUITY PT. 3

Just a quick follow-up to this quote from John W. Campbell Jr. in the last essay--
A bum of Italian ancestry is a W; a bum of Jewish ancestry is a K, and a bum of Negro ancestry is a N.

In that essay I observed that this statement, by itself, is not an indicator of true racism. It suggests that the speaker is aware of the basic truth that every ingroup- be it racial, religious, ethnic or political-- has its share of "good apples" and "bad apples." This is such a commonplace to verge on truism, though it's still better than the sort of identity politics that extends the grace of great suffering even upon the rottenest apples in the barrel.

In that essay, I defended that one statement, though I concurred with Alex Nevala-Lee that other Campbell statements were indefensible. But now I'll point out that even though I believe that Campbell's statement as it stands has a basic logical truth, it's utterly useless in a societal sense.

Obviously, Chris Rock can get away with telling a largely black audience that some black people really are "niggahs," because of the way they act. And one can find no small quantity of other examples in which a member of an ingroup uses a slur to apply to himself, but would not accept hearing the same slur from a member of an outgroup.

It's all but impossible for a member of an outgroup-- as WASP Campbell would have been to the three groups he references-- to use any given slur to apply only to the rotten apples of a particular ingroup. The assumption will always be that the slur is being used across the board, and this applies as much to people who claim marginalized status as to anyone else. To cite a personal example, I once happened to provoke the ire of a black panhandler by simply looking in his direction. His precise motives for calling me a nigger I'll never know, but I would guess that-- aside from hoping I'd throw money at him to get rid of his odious presence-- he felt he was getting even with flinging at me an epithet used against his people. Further, I don't think he was using the epithet purely against me; he almost certainly would have used the insult against any white person who ticked him off.

So Campbell's rationale, while consistent logically on its own, has no use-value within culture as a whole. Obviously the only real societal solution of the problem of ingroup epithets is that no one, even without the ingroup, ought to use them. However, making a taboo of any word insures that its power will become even stronger, so neither general nor specific taboos have any use-value either.



Saturday, March 9, 2019

AGAIN, DANGEROUS EQUITY PT. 2

Following up directly on PT. 1--

As I said, Nevala-Lee's evidence from the final chapter of ASTOUNDING leaves no doubt in my mind that John W. Campbell Jr. was more than a casual racist. However, there's one citation Nevala-Lee tosses out as if it proved the case for racism as much as, say, the editor stating that "the Negro does not learn from example."

In a mid-1960s letter (page 360), Campbell justifies the use of racial epithets to describe specific individuals within a given ethnicity who are what Campbell calls "bums." And while I don't think I have any overly sensitive readers of this blog (mostly because I don't usually have any), I will palliate the editor's offensive language with the use of initials in place of words:

A bum of Italian ancestry is a W; a bum of Jewish ancestry is a K, and a bum of Negro ancestry is a N.

As I said, Nevala-Lee presents this bit of evidence as if it supported his case as well as the one about Negroid learning capacity.

In truth, it does not, and it coincidentally bears a strong resemblance to the train of comedic logic used by Chris Rock in stand-up routines like this one.

Now, since Nevala-Lee presents other evidence that Campbell did not confine his application of racial epithets only to persons who sinned against probity in some way, one may decide to consider the "bums only" argument moot, since it was being made by a racist. I don't consider it so, although I will cheerfully agree that Campbell probably only used the argument as a justification of his general racism.

However, Nevala-Lee's uncritical citation of this passage indicates to me that he's not capable of sussing out the difference between the statements "Everyone of Race X is a N" and "Only rotten people in Race X are Ns."

And that, without belaboring the point any further, constitutes negative equity: the use of accusations of unfairness to perpetuate unfairness.

Case closed.


AGAIN, DANGEROUS EQUITY PT. 1

To preface this essay, I'll quote myself once more on the topic of negative and positive equity:




'In finance the word "equity" transmuted from connoting a principle of social fairness to something closer to a properly modulated exchange of capital.  The financial term has also begotten the offspring "positive equity" and "negative equity." On this site I found a felicitously simple definition of these secondary terms: from the point of view of a bank, "positive equity adds value to the bank, while negative equity takes value away"... In short, "positive equity" is achieved when someone points out a genuine abuse of fairness, while "negative equity" is achieved when someone uses the concept of fairness incorrectly, to be unfair to someone else.'

In Part 2 of January's essay-series EMANICIPATION VS. FREEDOM,  I commented on the opening chapters of Alex Nevala-Lee's ASTOUNDING. I commented upon the promising nature of a book on the "neglected topic" of the effect of John W. Campbell's editorial reign at ASTOUNDING SCI-FI, but I also found fault with the author's need to "virtue signal" on what Campbell should or should not have done in his heyday with respect to racial matters.


As I've now finished the book, my early anticipations of the work's quality as a cultural biography of the men profiled was fully justified. Further, though I do not retract anything I wrote about Nevala-Lee's opening remarks, I should note that he does not "virtue signal" throughout the text, which would certainly have damaged the credibility of the work. Only in the last chapter (not counting an epilogue) does Nevala-Lee substantially return to the topic of "race in modern America" that he raised in the first sections.


In my remarks, I made this statement:



Campbell may have been racist in specific ways-- and this is something Nevala-Lee may well be able to demonstrate in future chapters-- but he certainly was not racist because he didn't have some visionary apprehension of another generation's concept of equity.
In that last chapter-- titled "Twilight" after one of Campbell's most famous short stories, and referencing the editor's declining years and death-- Nevala-Lee does indeed demonstrate that John W. Campbell was more than a casual racist. To be sure, I had heard the accusation once or twice from other sources, though I personally would not have been able to weigh in with any informed opinion. I had read a fair number of Campbell's reactionary editorials from the last decade of his life, when ASTOUNDING had been remolded into ANALOG. Said editorials usually stayed away from the topic of race, though I do remember one essay in which Campbell inveighed against the "burn baby burn" politics of Stokely Carmichael and gave his approval to the accomodationist approach of Martin Luther King Jr. And Nevala-Lee does not reference Campbell's editorials either, finding more than circumstantial evidence both in Campbell's letters and in anecdotes from people who knew the editor. There is, for instance, more than enough evidence to state that Campbell nurtured an animus against the Negro race, and that even some of his favorable judgments-- as when he told Jewish writer William Tenn that he Campbell considers the Jews "homo superior"-- were also couched in racist diatribes. In my earlier essay I scoffed at Nevala-Lee for suggesting that Campbell could have made any difference to American racial politics in the 1940s with his little SF-magazine, and I still scoff at that. However, I also argued:


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

And, mirable dictu, one anecdote attests to Campbell's having resisted the currents of the new cultural paradigm, in that he reportedly refused to publish Samuel R. Delany's NOVA because it had a non-white protagonist.


So, it would appear, from everything I've summarized about Nevala-Lee's disclosures, that the balance of his complaints against Campbell should constitute "positive equity." And for the most part, this holds true. Except---


See Part 2.


Friday, March 8, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "LIFE AND DEATH AND THE END OF TIME" (LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #50, 1988)

ENTROPY:
a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder-- Merriam Webster online.

From the POV of a Silver Age DC enthusiast, John Byrne would be the incarnation of entropy. DC continuity was constructed slowly and erratically during the Silver Age, and was then codified into a regularized cosmos during what I term the Bronze Age. But by 1986, DC continuity was deemed unwieldy in comparison to competitor Marvel Comics. Byrne, who insisted on revising the Superman continuity to exclude Superboy, was one of the key players who degraded the established continuity, though to be sure if he hadn't done it, someone else would have.

Of course, the re-ordering of post-1986 continuity had a drastic effect on the profitable feature LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, which was based on the idea that the 20th-century crusader Superboy periodically traveled to the 30th century to have adventures with a cadre of similarly teenaged heroes, the Legion. For the first few years, writer Paul Levitz compensated by inventing the idea of a "pocket universe" where the Legion's continuity was maintained. Yet, since the company didn't want, contra Byrne, any sort of Superboy flying around, that hero had to be killed-- killed by the same entity who created the pocket universe, the Time-Trapper.



This particular Legion villain had gone through some pre-1986 revisions himself. He was invented as a toss-off villain in the story "Menace of Dream Girl," wherein he prevented the heroes from traveling to the future (providing a contrast to the debuting heroine Dream Girl, who could at least intuit future occurrences). Hamilton's story implies that the Trapper is just another sci-fi mastermind, though a later Levitz story makes him into a member of a super-powerful race, the Controllers. By the time of this 1988 story, though, the Trapper becomes the embodiment of a cosmic principle:

They have called him by a thousand names. He is night. Death. Apocalypse. Eternity. Entropy. Time.

The opening pages of "End" show the solitary robed figure of the Time Trapper in a wasteland far removed from the Legion's era, while the captions inform the reader that "all things have ended here, even those that never began... If logic wars with faith over the nature of the beginning, so too it must over the ending. Logic decrees that all things begun, must end."

To say the least, this was not the typical language of a Levitz LEGION story. The elevated, philosophical tone comes closer to what Levitz sounds like in the 1978 tale "The Summoning." Clearly, whatever Levitz's personal opinion of DC's 1986 revisions, he determined that he could give his readers a good story extrapolated from the editorial mandate that "old guard" Superboy had to die. Levitz couldn't alter that policy, but he could create a situation in which the feature's incarnation of entropy was punished for his crime.

Having established the cosmic background of the villain, Levitz approaches the heroes of the Legion in more basic terms, That said, he interweaves two plotlines that are germane to the attempt of the Legionnaires-- spearheaded by their resident genius Brainiac 5-- to avenge Superboy, The first plotline involves a "friend of the Legion," Rond Vidar, who appears to have come back to life despite having been slain by his villainous father. The second thread relates to another character introduced in two earlier stories: Rugarth, a scientist accidentally transformed into another cosmic being known as "the Infinite Man." Rond's mystery is resolved later in the story, but the Infinite Man poses an interesting moral problem, since he's brain-dead and cannot agree or disagree with the role given him by Brainiac 5.





Both of these subplots, not coincidentally, involve persons who may be able to transcend death, thus setting up the suggestion that the degradation of entropy may not be the final answer to all things, as the prologue supposes.

To make the vengeance-drama more personalized, the entire Legion doesn't voyage into the entropic world to combat the Trapper. Only the four members who witnessed Superboy's death make the journey: Brainiac 5, Duo Damsel, Saturn Girl, and Mon-El (who, incidentally, was conceived as something of a Superboy knock-off). To say that the heroes are overmatched is an understatement. Duo Damsel, who lost one of her natural three bodies in an earlier adventure, loses her last extra body.



And Mon-El, the most powerful of the group, unleashes a lot of power but fails just as hard.




However, the Trapper is given some pause by Rond Vidar, whose mysterious return to life is explained by his mastery of a Green Lantern's power.



Yet in the end, Brainiac 5's plan depends on introducing the incarnation of entropy to his conceptual opposite, The green-skinned genius argues that the theory of entropy is countered by one arguing that "time itself is infinite, folding back on itself in endless cycles-- and each end may simply be a new beginning." The incarnation of this principle is, of course, the Infinity Man.






Naturally, the Legionnaires survive this cataclysm and go on to other adventures, just as the Trapper comes back in new incarnations. Levitz ends the story in circular fashion, repeating some, though not all, of the captions from the prologue, but suggesting that even the Trapper's kingdom of entropy has proven temporary.

This story, while consequential to LEGION fandom, didn't have a lot of impact on comics as a whole, certainly not as much as this week's "near-myth," "The End at Last."  Levitz and Giffen produced a better symbolic discourse in their "End of Time." But as I argued in this essay:

Though I define the quality of mythicity in narrative as that of symbolic complexity, not everyone uses the word "myth" this way. Often when the average person describes Superman or Batman as a "myth," they simply mean that they are extremely popular with many people, as some myths in the archaic world undoubtedly were. However, since not all archaic religious myths had widespread popularity-- some being confined to this or that isolated tribe of "fanboy" worshippers-- it follows that not all literary myths are going to be world-beaters either.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

NEAR MYTHS: "THE END AT LAST" (STRANGE TALES #146, 1966)

Since this week's mythcomic falls into the domain of a metaphysical myth, this gives me an excuse to look at one of the most famous metaphysical myths in mainstream American comics.

Two issues prior to STRANGE TALES #146, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had just finished the longest, most ambitious story-line in the "Doctor Strange" feature, during which the master of the mystic arts was forced to run from pillar to post, fleeing the minions of his earthly enemy Baron Mordo, who in turn had been granted superior magical power by the extra-dimensional dictator Dormammu. Strange attempts to cope by petitioning another entity, the mysterious Eternity, for help-- thus giving rise to one of Ditko's most visually arresting creations.




However, once Strange does find Eternity-- made to look like the cosmos in humanoid form-- the cosmic being simply tells Strange to pull himself by his own bootstraps. What seems like a brush-off turns out to be the simple truth: Strange does manage to defeat both Mordo and Dormammu without any special resources, ending both threats for the time being in #144.



The done-in-one story in #145 is so negligible that few fans back then could have anticipated that it would give way to "The End At Last"-- which was also the end of the Lee-Ditko collaboration on the good doctor or on anything else, for reasons that have been discussed on the web in great detail.

It starts out with Dormammu, smarting from his recent defeat, deciding to make another foray against the Earth-magician. In addition, the mystic madman decides to launch a pre-emptive strike against Eternity, just in case the ethereal incarnation of the cosmos might give him some trouble.




Thus Dormammu seals Eternity away in his own dimension and spirits Strange into yet another occult contest. However, Eternity doesn't stay sealed very long.







Ditko's artistry was at the top of his game here, and arguably he would never produce another magic-scape battle equal to this "clash of thaumaturgic titans." Dormammu is apparently destroyed, and Strange just barely escapes the dimensional chaos.




Yet despite the intensity and artistry of Ditko's panels, the story lacks the concrescence I've found necessary for a mythcomic. Dormammu, as always, is no more than a typical blustering tyrant despite his unique appearance, while Eternity, while pleasingly enigmatic, remains too abstract to take on any deeper resonance. Even though I would presume that Ditko's Randian outlook permitted no religious sentiments as such, I can't help feeling that he called upon Biblical myths in order to ring down the curtain on the "Doctor Strange" universe by bringing together a figurative "God" and a figurative "Satan"-- though the tone of the contest reminds me more of the pre-Adamic rebellion of Satan and his forces against God than the final conflict of Revelations.

But, even though metaphysical myths allow for more abstraction than the other three types, Ditko's opposition of "upstart evil" and "a force beyond good and evil" simply doesn't generate the symbolic discourse necessary for a full-fledged mythcomic.