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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

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

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE TIME MACHINE (1895)

In my 2017 essay TREES, MEET FOREST (GOD), I wrote about the problems of focal presence in H.G. Well's TIME MACHINE:

I don't consider "the Time Traveler" to be the star of Wells' TIME MACHINE, and from one standpoint I might teem "time itself" to be the star. However, the bulk of the narrative does center itself upon the Eloi/Morlocks period of future-history, and so it's possible to see that one period as the focal presence of the Wells narrative.

Primarily I did a quick re-read of the Wells novel to compare story-points to those of the 1960 film adaptation. I won't attempt a full review as such, but it's interesting that Wells' hero shows no interest in traveling to the past, like his rough progenitor in Twain's CONNECTICUT YANKEE, but only to two future periods: that of the Eloi and Morlocks, and that of the Earth's final death-spasms. Both visits are designed to undermine the narrator's naive belief in progress and human perfectibility, but the doleful end of the world functions almost as a coda to Wells' message of utter degeneration, rather than as a source of conflict in itself. The novel's main conflict revolves entirely around the seeming inversion of Marx's "rise of the proletariat," wherein the old ruling class simply degenerates into bland imbecility and the working-class becomes content to rule from the underworld, turning their fellow humans into breeding-stock. In contrast to the protagonist of the 1960 film, once the Traveler comes to a full realization of humankind's ultimate fate, he takes no action to change the dominant power-structure despite his aversion to the Morlocks. Perhaps Wells felt that the Eloi deserved their fate due to their ancestors' abuse of power. Certainly the narrator shares Wells' general disinterest in violent conflict, which would crop as a outright philosophical stance in 1933's THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME:

What has happened during the past three and a half centuries to the human consciousness has been a sublimation of individuality. That phase is the quintessence of modern history. A large part of the commonplace life of man, the food-hunt, the shelter-hunt, the safety-hunt, has been lifted out of the individual sphere and socialized for ever. To that the human egotism has given its assent perforce. It has abandoned gambling and profit-seeking and all the wilder claims of property. It has ceased altogether to snatch, scramble and oust for material ends. And the common man has also been deprived of any weapons for his ready combativeness and of any liberty in its release. Nowadays even children do not fight each other. Gentleness in difference has become our second nature.


It would seem that by 1933 Wells actually came to feel that there was something to be said for all of humanity evolving into Eloi, as long as there were no recrudescent savages.

I should also note in passing that I recently discovered a passage in a 1935 H.P. Lovecraft essay, "Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction," which supports all of my previous attempts to suss out "focal presences" in fiction that are not human beings per se:

Inconceivable events and conditions form a class apart from all other story elements, and cannot be made convincing by any mere process of casual narration. They have the handicap of incredibility to overcome; and this can be accomplished only through a careful realism in every other phase of the story, plus a gradual atmospheric or emotional build-up of the utmost subtlety. The emphasis, too, must be kept right—hovering always over the wonder of the central abnormality itself. It must be remembered that any violation of what we know as natural law is in itself a far more tremendous thing than any other event or feeling which could possibly affect a human being. Therefore in a story dealing with such a thing we cannot expect to create any sense of life or illusion of reality if we treat the wonder casually and have the characters moving about under ordinary motivations. The characters, though they must be natural, should be subordinated to the central marvel around which they are grouped. The true "hero" of a marvel tale is not any human being, but simply a set of phenomena.

ABUNDANCE AND EXPRESSIVITY

I thought about relating this essay to the CRAFTING WALL STONES series, but it's not actually related to what MW herself wrote. Rather, in passing she made a partial quote of a famous passage from Matthew 12:34 (King James version):

O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.

In this case I chose not to check the original context of the passage, for I'm not interested in the moral stance taken by the speaker. I like the idea of "the abundance of the heart," though, for it takes me back to a subject I've not addressed much in recent years: the idea that all of the arts begin as expressive forms and only gradually are mitigated by considerations of reason, morality, et al. Ernst Cassirer was often my guide in this respect:

"Whatever we call existence or reality, is given to us at the outset in forms of pure expression. Thus even here we are beyond the abstraction of sheer sensation, which dogmatic sensationalism takes as its starting point. For the content which the subject experiences as confronting him is no merely outward one, resembling Spinoza's 'mute picture on a slate.' It has a kind of transparency; an inner life shines through its very existence and facticity. The formation effected in language, art and myth starts from this original phenomenon of expression; indeed, both art and myth remain so close to it that one might be tempted to restrict them wholly to this sphere."-- Cassirer, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, p. 449.

The Biblical speaker is only interested in the moral statement that bad people must and will reveal their badness through their words. I'm more interested in the fact that art, whether good or bad, proceeds from a given person's desire to express him/herself. That desire may be inextricably linked to the desire to make one's daily bread, or to any number of other personal factors, but the desire to make art is in itself sui generis. 

Now it should be obvious that what creates "abundance" in one heart may not do so in another. However, it seems indisputable that the best-regarded creators are those that are in touch with what moves them personally, rather than simply pleasing their readers. To reference briefly one aspect of CRAFTING WALL STONES PT. 2, I don't think that comics-artist Marie Severin would have necessarily created work on the same level as Wood and Kurtzman had her femaleness simply been overlooked. It's quite possible that she would have given more work if the industry had not been ruled by "the old boy's network." However, it doesn't follow that she would have created works of genius had she enjoyed constant employment, since there were innumerable toilers in the vineyards whose works only occasionally rose to levels of excellence. 

Where creativity is concerned, there's something to be said for unleashing one's demons. Since Heidi McDonald mentioned Wally Wood, I'll cite the example of his PIPSQUEAK PAPERS.

Even though I extolled PAPERS as one of my chosen mythcomics, it should go without saying that this is not an example of a work with widespread appeal. The story of "baby man" Pip and his discontents with femininity, while extremely expressive, does not measure up in other respects to Wood's best EC work, or even his superhero tales. I would imagine that many would judge the PAPERS to be a misogynist work, and it's axiomatic that Wood is not particularly fair to the fairer sex herein. But then, bitching about women was something that gave "abundance" to Wally Wood's heart, and so informs his art as much as a similar negativity toward femaleness informs the art of William Faulkner.

Rumiko Takahashi, whom I used as a counter-example against Marie Severin's staid formulaic qualities, is another artist whose creativity is, in my opinion, fueled by the abundance of the heart, even when it contains extreme negativity against the male of the species. Certainly even her endless assaults upon her character of Ataru Moroboshi argue that she was in part using him as a punching-bag in retaliation for male offensiveness of one kind or another. 

Sheer expressivity, of course, is worthless by itself; it has to mediated by excellence in what I've termed the four potentialities in order to communicate anything. But contrary to the Matthew citation, both good and evil things can be spoken by real human beings, who in every culture are ruled by disparate notions of good and evil-- and this is why art is often better when it too reflects an inextricable mixture of good and evil.

Monday, April 29, 2019

CRAFTING WALL STONES PT. 2

Assuming that one validates my equation between artistic creativity and Mary Wollstonecraft's concept of "virtue" as it is determined by the sexual division of labor-- what then?

Well, if everyone viewed such discrepancies in virtue as the result of a long-standing biological process, we wouldn't get things like THE OBITUARY MARIE SEVERIN SHOULD HAVE RECEIVED, in which we learn, according to author Alex Dueben, that it represents "the career she could have had, had she been born a man."

Not since the days of "Spiderbuttgate" have I seen such a display of blithering ressentiment, in which the shortcomings of any person who fits an intersectional profile can be excused by references to "endemic sexism."

Now, I wrote my own obit for Marie Severin, combined with one for Gary Friedrich, who coincidentally passed on the same day. Mine was not a general assessment of either comics pro, aside from crediting them both with "better-than-average formula entertainment," which assessment I would apply to both pros separately.

What we have here is sheer revisionism, an attempt to build Marie Severin up to a major figure in comic books. In the comments-section, Heidi McDonald avers:


Looking at the work here, Severin should always be mentioned in the same breath as Wood and Kurtzman.

To say the least, I do not agree. Severin simply was not that imaginative. Forget comparisons to Wood and Kurtzman; Severin was not even as accomplished as a contemporaneous "Marvel Bullpen" artist like Bill Everett. Everett is of course most famed as the creator of the Sub-Mariner, but even if one compared Everett's accomplishments in the Silver and Bronze Ages to those of Severin in the same period, there's nothing on Severin's resume that even rates with Everett's co-creation of Daredevil. Indeed, Everett even created one of Marvel's most prominent sixties villainesses, Umar the Unrelenting--



--whom Severin also drew a few issues later.




Now, if one agrees with my proposition that, based only on their Silver-and-Bronze Age contributions Everett was superior to Severin, is there a biological explanation for this opinion? Certainly I would not advocate Camille Paglia's explanation, as discussed in Part 1, to the effect that Everett's abilities in male projection-- and being able to write his own name in the snow-- had anything to do with it.

But Everett may have been a better creator simply because, being a man, he was more invested in excelling in a largely male arena, while Severin was not so invested.

Granted, one can certainly find male practitioners who weren't even as good at formulaic entertainment as was Severin. But on the whole, there were simply more good male creators than there were female ones, and no revisionism can change that.

I assert, further, that there are a fair number of female comics-pros who not only show exceptional creativity, but who arguably can excel their male contemporaries. An example would be Rumiko Takahashi, one of the foremost manga-artists, who IMO easily outpaced her former manga-teacher, the recently departed Kazuo Koike. I admire Koike's writing on such properties as LONE WOLF AND CUB and LADY SNOWBLOOD. But even allowing for the manga-works I have not read, I would say that Takahashi displays a far greater profusion of disparate characters and concepts. And she did so, even though it seems likely that Japan had its own tradition of "endemic sexism."



CRAFTING WALL STONES PT. 1

The title of this  essay is an extremely forced pun on the name of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN I've recently started reading. I knew when I began that VINDICATION is a precursor to "first-wave feminism." However, even though I have always approved of the practical goals of the first wave, I never thought Wollstonecraft would prove so useful to me in combating "third wave feminism," that bloated monster of Nietzschan ressentiment. Further, the author-- whose name I'll abbreviate to MW just because I feel like it-- proves insightful in buttressing some of my own theories on what I'll call the "sexual division of creativity."

In one respect I might have anticipated such an application, once I knew that one of the bastions of male privilege whom MW assaults is the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Camille Paglia, whose views on gender-creativity I'll soon reference, asserted that Rousseau was the font of Western liberalism. Paglia does not comment on Rousseau's sexism, but claims that he is one of the main sources of the liberal idea that social engineering can "fix" any apparent problem-- an outlook shared by most if not all third-wave feminist authors.

For example, most third-wave feminists would agree that if there is an apparent discrepancy in the creative accomplishments of the two primary genders-- the dominant one being that there are no female playwrights equal to Shakespeare, no female comics-artists equal to Kirby or Tezuka-- then that discrepancy must spring from social inequity, and social inequity alone. It's all about the old boys' club, silencing women's voices, and other forms of ressentiment. The sexual division of labor can have no relevance when one is seeking to prosecute a supposed enemy.

In the first chapter of SEXUAL PERSONAE, Paglia asserts that there is a real gap in the accomplishments of feminine creators in comparison to those of masculine ones. Her explanation for this discrepancy is rooted in a complicated synthesis of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. However, though Paglia freely calls upon various Nietzschean terms, such as the "Apollonian-Dionysian" duality, Freud will be seen to be the dominant influence:


Art makes things. There are, I said, no objects in nature, only the gru¬ 
elling erosion of natural force, flecking, dilapidating, grinding down, 
reducing all matter to fluid, the thick primal soup from which new 
forms bob, gasping for life. Dionysus was identified with liquids— 
blood, sap, milk, wine. The Dionysian is nature’s chthonian fluidity. 
Apollo, on the other hand, gives form and shape, marking off one being 
from another. All artifacts are Apollonian. Melting and union are Dio¬ 
nysian; separation and individuation, Apollonian. Every boy who leaves 
his mother to become a man is turning the Apollonian against the Dio¬ 
nysian. Every artist who is compelled toward art, who needs to make 
words or pictures as others need to breathe, is using the Apollonian to 
defeat chthonian nature. In sex, men must mediate between Apollo and 
Dionysus. Sexually, woman can remain oblique, opaque, taking plea¬ 
sure without tumult or conflict. Woman is a temenos of her own dark 
mysteries. Genitally, man has a little thing that he must keep dipping 
in Dionysian dissolution—a risky business! Thing-making, thing- 
preserving is central to male experience. Man is a fetishist. Without his 
fetish, woman will just gobble him up again. 

Hence the male domination of art and science. Man’s focus, directed- 
ness, concentration, and projection, which I identified with urination 
and ejaculation, are his tools of sexual survival...


Thus Paglia is firmly in the Freudian camp that claims "biology is destiny." There's even a passage a few pages later in which Paglia seems to be advocating Freud's tendency to view male sexuality as primary and female sexuality as epiphenomenal, as when she claims that "art is [man's] Apollonian response toward and away from woman."

As stimulating as I find Paglia, I can't subscribe to her system, since I regard biology as being at best "partial destiny."

So, even before reading MW, I began to think in terms of sociological explanations that would be rooted not in Rousseauist wishful thinking, but in the sexual division of labor as we understand it today. The statement that "men hunt and women nest" may not be entirely fair to either gender. However, it certainly has broader applicability than the old "damn that boy's club" rant.

As it happens, MW seems to have touched on this problem in her time. VINDICATION continually argues in favor of women receiving a broader education than European culture tended to allow in that time. However, despite taking males to task for the faulty reasoning, MW seems to be a stranger to the circular argument of endless ressentiment seen in third-wave feminism. Rather than simply prating about boys' clubs, MW says:

Let it not be concluded, that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must, therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain, that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God.

To be sure, lest this be misinterpreted, Carol Poston, editor of Norton's second edition of VINDICATION, adds this footnote:

Being physically inferior can lead to women's being morally inferior: not just physical size but [man's] worldly pursuits allow men a greater opportunity to make moral choices and thus attain virtue.

MW, in addition to cautioning her readers that she does not "wish to invert the order of things," asserts that men may at a particular time attain greater virtue than women because their "worldly pursuits" give them the chance to make moral choices. This in no way contradicts her advocacy of woman's right to full education, but rather, sees the division of labor as bringing about womankind's inability to attain virtue through informed choice.

MW is not addressing artistic creativity at all, but her concept of "virtue" applies to my concept of creativity as it exists in the temporal world-- as I'll argue further in Part Two.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

HOSTS, HEAVENLY AND OTHERWISE PT. 2

One of the biggest problems for my theory of centricity pertains to the concept of the "rotating team" franchise.

I consider myself fully cognizant of the most important crossover-permutations of crossovers in popular fiction. The earliest examples seem to be short-term, usually dealing only with two established characters or concepts encountering one another, like the 1920 SHE AND ALLEN. John Kendrick Bangs' four "Associated Shades" stories, which I have not read, may be the first time someone invented the idea of a "team" whose members were fairly fluid, though most of Bangs' characters were historical rather than fictional figures.

As far as I can tell, the first true "rotating team" concept appeared in 1963, DC Comics had been trying since 1955 to score a hit in its anthology series THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD. Though DC was sometimes able to use the series as a showcase for serials that graduated to their own series, such as the Justice League, nothing caught fire within the magazine, until issue #50 teamed up two of the company's lesser lights, Green Arrow and the Martian Manhunter. Batman began enjoying team-ups irregularly in issue #50, but not until issue #74, in 1967, did he become the exclusive co-star in the series, using his TV-amplified clout to help DC try to hype its vast array of non-bat characters.



In many respects, this innovation resembled the core idea for the Golden Age Justice Society, whose principal raison d'etre was to use the more popular DC heroes to spark readers' interest in lesser lights. I tend to doubt that any of the 1960s lesser lights burned any brighter thanks to hobnobbing with Batman, any more than 1940s flops like Starman and Hourman had benefited from their temporary association with the Flash and Green Lantern. But once BRAVE AND BOLD became dominated by the Caped Crusader, the series provided its writers with a dubious challenge: that of finding rationales for teaming up the urban hero with characters rooted in wild concepts of SF and fantasy, like the Metal Men and Green Lantern, or even in different time-frames, like Scalphunter and Sergeant Rock.

Now, had any of these short-term team-ups appeared in one of Batman's own books, then the team-up characters would be mere "guest stars," and the charismatic action would be non-distributive, descending only to the Big Bat. But in theory, even though Batman is a constant presence after 1967, the concept of the franchise should mean that Batman shares charisma with any of his co-stars--

-- with just a few exceptions. Most of the time, the co-stars either had their own franchises, or had enjoyed such regular berths at some point in DC's history. However, on a few occasions the Bat teamed up with one of his famed enemies, and I would consider all of these to be subordinate rather than coordinate figures, because the villains had not previously enjoyed their own franchises.

Here's the crusader being forced to team up (sort of) with the Riddler--



And here he is with Ra's Al Ghul.

And then there was Bats and the Joker:


Admittedly, by the time that the Brave and Bold Bat had to make a temporary alliance with the Joker, the Crown Prince of Crime had enjoyed a short-lived nine-issue solo series. But since he wasn't really known as a starring character despite that series, I would say that he too became as much a subordinate figure as Riddler and Ra's, due to the dominant approach of the BRAVE AND BOLD series.

A similar aesthetic came to pass when Marvel attempted to sell Doctor Doom as a regular co-star in the title SUPER VILLAIN TEAM UP.  Though the Sub-Mariner was also a regular for the first nine issues, issues 10-12 11 focus upon Doom's (non-team) encounter with a genuine Marvel fiend, the Red Skull. Admittedly #10, seen before, still shows the "team" of Doom and Namor above the series-title, the next two spotlight Doom and the Skull.



Namor gets the above-title billing in #13 again, but then it's Doom and Magneto in issue #14.


Following a reprint of an earlier Doom-Skull tale, the series then finishes up with a two-parter with neither Doom nor Namor, but presenting the Red Skull working alongside a far less popular Marvel menace, the Hate-Monger.


Since at the time Red Skull, Magneto and Hate Monger had not enjoyed serials of their own, all of them would be subordinate figures, even as the Joker, Riddler and Ra's are within the context of BRAVE AND BOLD, and so Doctor Doom alone is the sole coordinate in the stories without the Sub-Mariner. HOWEVER-- in the final two issues, it can be fairly judged that both the Red Skull and the Hate-Monger share the centric position. In the absence of a figure who dominates the narrative, the way Batman dominates most texts in which he appears alongside one of his vilains, the two villains here are coordinated as the unchallenged stars of the story.


MYTHCOMICS: RAT GOD (2015)





Richard Corben’s meditation on both the era and the art of H.P. Lovecraft is a rara avis indeed: a critique of turn-of-the-century American racism that eschews ego-boosting righteousness in favor of a plain-spoken realism about the ways human beings treat one another. And despite being a dramatic work at its core, RAT GOD is also brilliantly funny in many places.

The main setting is New England in the 1920s (taking place partly in Lovecraft’s fictional city Arkham), and the main character is a physical doppelganger for HPL, here given the staidly respectable Anglo-Saxon name of “Clark Elwood.” Though none of the Lovecraftian gods appear in the story, Corben has Clark swear by Cthuilhu and Yog-Sothoth, and use fancy words like “gibbous”  and “eldritch.” However, before the reader encounters Clark, RAT GOD’s first eleven pages deal with two Native Americans, a brother and sister, fleeing from tribal enemies in the wilderness, apparently back in the days before the advent of Columbus. A totem with the image of a “rat god” appears once, but Corben does not explicitly align either tribe with this repulsive deity.

Though the title of Corben’s work begs associations with HPL’s  “The Rats in the Walls,” the greatest similarity is that of protagonists are, at the outset, initially sure of being at the top of the ethnicity-totem pole. After page 11,  the physical struggles of the aboriginals give way, via a time-shift, to the struggles of Chuk and Kito, a brother and sister who are implicitly descendants of the first siblings—though by the 20th century, their struggles  have more to do with defining themselves in a world now owned by white people.



In point of fact, Kito, sister to Chuk, does not appear on page 12, but she’s the subject of a conversation between Chuk and Clark. Chuk informs Clark that though they’ve never met, Chuk is aware that Clark is dating his sister. Clark, having been unaware that Kito is at least partly Indian, is not pleased with Chuk’s revelation. Clark picks a fight with Chuk and gets quickly beat down. (Clark is far more pugnacious than any HPL protagonist: he’s something like a Robert E. Howard character who can’t really fight but sometimes wins by sheer doggedness.) As Clark licks his wounds he remembers his encounters with Kito in Arkham, with whom he falls in love even though “she’s kind of funny looking.” In the course of their dates, Kito reluctantly relates her escape from a “rat hole” called Lame Dog. 




This town was originally an ancient settlement of the Cthanhluk tribe, but it was taken over in the 1800s by white gold-hunters. The gold-seekers soon left, leaving Lame Dog to be dominated by what Kito herself calls a “mongrel hybrid” made up of white and red people. However, even with most of the white settlers gone, there’s still one rich white guy in charge of things, Zachariah Peck, whose ancestor studied the pagan practices of the Cthanhluks. Kito relates how she and Chuk escaped Lame Dog without Clark ever tipping to the idea that she too may be of mixed race. The two lovers quarrel when Clark finds out how she makes her living, and though Clark intends to forgive her her trespasses, he learns that she’s fled back to Lame Dog. Despite all of his Anglo-Saxon misgivings, Clark pursues the object of his desire.







The town of Lame Dog might be termed an “Innsmouth for rats.” The residents, all of whom encourage Clark to get lost, often have a rodent-like look about them, regardless of their race or social station. One such is Gharlena, a grotesque but earthy young white woman who tries to seduce Clark. Far less earthy is Damon Peck, son of the patriarch Zachariah, who initially tries to get rid of Clark as well, only to change his mind when he gets the idea that Clark may serve as a catspaw with which to slay Zachariah. The patriarch follows in the footsteps of HPL’s evil de la Poer family, having built up a religion based on human sacrifice. However, instead of using regular-sized rodents, Zachariah’s religion worships a giant flesh-and-blood rat-creature. Damon asserts that the giant animal is some sort of mutant. However, given that Corben has suggested the existence of an aboriginal rat-god, Damon may not be privy to all the mysteries of his father’s cult.



Without giving away all aspects of the story’s ending, suffice to say that Clark’s quest for Kito has a more satisfying conclusion than the story-arcs of most HPL characters.  To be sure, Corben doesn’t let Clark keep his delusion of racial superiority. By the end of RAT GOD, he’s a long way from the man who starts out the story claiming that “my family has been the racial backbone of New England for generations.” Rather, he becomes thoroughly implicated in the mixed-race world of Lame Dog. Thankfully, though, Corben resists any impulse to cast even margjnalized races as suffering, sinner-against innocents. Whereas Lovecraft took the position that all humans were doomed to descend into a hell of degeneracy, Corben plays with the images of miscegenation and perhaps some sort of spiritual bestiality in order to emphasize the common visceral heritage shared by every ethnicity. And, for what it’s worth, it’s also a world where women are free to be every bit as visceral and degenerate as any man.

THE READING RHEUM: THE RATS IN THE WALLS (1924)


                         
SPOILERS (story’s ending discussed herein.)

As I’ve stated elsewhere, there’s no doubt that H.P. Lovecraft was what I term a “passive racist," though the meaning I give the phrase probably differs strongly from the way more ideological types use it. HPL indubitably took pleasure in believing his Anglo-Saxon heritage to be superior to most if not all other ethnicities, even those that shared roughly the same skin coloration. I call his racism “passive,” however, because I’m aware of no evidence of his taking either private or political action to marginalize other ethnicities, and by this standard his racism largely seems to come down to a lot of  “big talk” between Lovecraft and his intimates.

His stories and poems, however, stand as the great exception. It would be foolish to see HPL’s stories of horror and fantasy to be about primarily about racial matters, even with a story like the one considered here. For modern audiences “The Rats in the Walls” has the reputation of being one of the author's most offensive stories, since its protagonist Delapore constantly flings about a forbidden epithet in the form of his black cat’s name, “Nigger-Man.” Given the fact Delapore owns more than one cat but only mentions the name of the black one in the course of the story, it’s not unreasonable to imagine HPL taking a childish joy in maligning persons of the Negro race. At the same time, though, Delapore—one of the few HPL narrators with a detailed background— may be displaying a particular animus toward black people in keeping with said background. Though the bulk of the story takes place in the 1920s, Delapore as a child witnesses the burning of his family’s Virginia plantation during the American Civil War. Aside from the name Delapore gives his cat, though, black people play no role in “Rats,” except for a brief mention that one of Delapore’s distant relatives left the family, allied himself with Negroes and became a “voodoo priest.”



Though HPL was not above writing stories suggestive of racial miscegenation, “Rats” is not one of them. Delapore, though born in America, is aware that his English forbears have a vaguely sinister reputation, dating back to the Roman era. In his middle years, Delapore,  having lost his wife to childbirth and his only child to World War I, travels to England to reconstruct Exham Priory, the ancient dwelling place of his family, originally known as "the De La Poers." During this project Delapore hears many horror stories about his ancestors, who are deemed as the scions of evil by local villagers. His own research suggests that the de la Poers were the result of religious rather than racial crossbreeding, combining the traditions of Druidic sacrifice with the Roman cult of Cybele. (For some reason, in HPL’s world Cybele’s forbidden rites have nothing to do with castration and everything to do with cannibalism, but then, cannibalism was one of HPL’s preferred sources of horror.)  One legend from antique times claims that the locals suffered a plague of rats proceeding from Exham Priory, and once Delapore moves into his new digs, imagine what he starts to hear scuttling around in the walls…

Delapore eventually learns the dread secret of the de la Poers, which involves the use of rats to devour dead bodies, and even some suggestions that the family was acquainted with at least one Lovecraftian demigod, Nyarlathotep. This being, to whom HPL gave the epithet of “the crawling chaos,” was a particularly appropriate choice. There’s no doubt that at the time of the story’s writing, HPL would have considered his branch of the Caucasian race to be at the top of the heap, so he isn’t undermining his belief-system by showing the degradation of the de la Poers. But it’s significant that, in contrast to ideologically racist writers of the same period, such as Thomas Dixon, in HPL’s world being white is not any sort of protection from degeneration. Chaos is everywhere in HPL’s world, and neither the right skin-color nor the right religion is any protection.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

HOSTS, HEAVENLY AND OTHERWISE

In KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY PT. 1, I argued against Nancy Springer's view that Ivanhoe was not the central character of the book named after him. I compared him to the serial hero The Spirit, saying in part:

From all my statements on centricity, it should plain that I have no problem with a main character having little color-- or mythicity-- of his own. For me Ivanhoe is as much the star of Scott's only story with the character as the Spirit is of his long-running serial adventures. Springer's metaphor of a "common thread" catches some of the sense of Ivanhoe's role in the narrative, but she apparently does not realize how often famous works may be organized around an essentially unremarkable character. The Spirit is not really any better-characterized than Ivanhoe-- Eisner tended to refer to his hero as something along the lines of a "big dumb Irishman"-- and as I mentioned above, most of the mythicity of the Spirit's serial adventures inhere in his supporting characters, just as figures like Rebecca, Richard and Robin Hood are more mythic than Ivanhoe himself.

To adjust this slightly to the new terminology introduced in the STATURE REQUIREMENTS essays,  both Ivanhoe and the Spirit enjoy the centric position because their respective authors have invested them with charisma, which is identical to the "organizing factor" I used in place of Springer's "common thread." In the case of non-serial hero Ivanhoe, his charisma is established early in the novel and remains the main organizing factor based on the "charismatic action" he takes then, even though other characters later shine more brightly. Ivanhoe doesn't even get to best the villain at the climax, though the hero's mere presence does ensure the villain's defeat.

Now, though one might say that Ivanhoe "plays host" to the supporting characters of his novel-- making him what I would call a "non-distributive" type-- the Spirit, as a serial hero, has a related but distinct dynamic. Though the Spirit is the undisputed star of many of his exploits, he plays very little role in some SPIRIT tales, sometimes appearing for no more than a single panel, having no actual impact on the story's events but still serving as an organizing factor. It should be a narrative given that no serial feature lasts long by focusing only upon the hero: usually he is required to become involved in the dilemmas of other people, whose stories take the forefront in a literal sense even if they still remain under the aegis of the star. In STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 5, I pointed out how the Joker provides most of the plot-action in THE KILLING JOKE, while Charlie Collins is the plot-center of the TV-episode "Joker's Favor." But I maintained that these were still Batman stories, that his charisma was only distributed to a partner such as one of the Robins.

The Spirit's only long-term partner was Ebony, but none of the Spirit's charisma was distributed to him, nor was it distributed to any of the many characters who provide the main plot-action of stories like "Wild Rice"  or "The Curse." The Spirit is thus non-distributive. There are many other ensembles that are arguably more varied than that of Batman and Robin: the three-man team of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in Classic STAR TREK, Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates in RAWHIDE, and some (though not all) of Jason's allies in THE ARGONAUTICA. However, though these ensembles are distributive in the sense that there isn't just one non-distributive character at the center of the mix, one might view the ensembles themselves to be non-distributive in comparison to a given narrative's support-characters. Thus all of the fabled TREK side-characters, despite their fame, do not receive any distributed charisma due to the original serial's concentration on its "holy trio."

Structurally, though, many exploits of THE SPIRIT are much more obvious about their status as "short stories brought under the SPIRIT umbrella" than are comparable TREK stories in which Spock, Kirk and McCoy have to involve themselves in, say, the personal affairs of the problematic lovers in "Metamorphosis." Both the Spirit and the TREK-team are non-distributive with respect to all of the (usually) one-shot characters they encounter, but the Spirit seems much more akin to the figure of "the storytelling host."

I won't try to trace the lineage of the storytelling host in modern times, but will note that one of the oldest examples of a continuing host would be Lord Dunsany's "Jorkens tales." In modern media everyone is familiar both with real-life celebrities playing the role of story-host, such as Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock, and with totally fictional characters created for this purpose, as with EC Comics' famed characters the Old Witch and the Crypt Keeper.

But here's the rub: though it could be argued that the presence of, say, the Crypt Keeper provides a familiar point of reference within a given narrative, he does not become an "organizing factor" because he's not actually a part of any of his stories (with the exception of one humorous "origin of the Crypt Keeper" tale). Thus none of the charismatic action from the author centers upon the Crypt-Keeper, Doctor Graves, Baron Weirwulf or any of these fictional types, except in those rare cases where they become focal presences in a given story. In contrast to the way Charlie Collins is a player in a BATMAN story, or Zephram Cochrane is a player in a "Kirk, Spock and McCoy" story, the stars of a TALES FROM THE CRYPT story like "Lower Berth" are the two monsters who join in unholy bliss-- not the familiar Crypt Keeper.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "THE BATTLE OF THE GODS" (ACTION COMICS #351-353, 1967)

My recent re-examination of the Golden Age Captain Marvel series-- unquestionably sparked by the appearance of the SHAZAM movie, though I've not yet seen it-- reminded me that I had one unused essay from years ago, based on an Otto Binder-Wayne Boring SUPERMAN story in which Binder recycled some of the tropes he'd used during his Captain Marvel tenure.

This is definitely the last of the essays I wrote in this format: starting out with a summary of the narrative's action and then analyzing said action separately, like the first "official" mythcomics I produced for this blog.

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QUICK SUMMARY: Superman encounters Zha-Vam, a mysterious eight-foot-tall villain whose name is an anagram of six Graeco-Roman gods—Zeus, Hercules, Achilles, Vulcan, Apollo and Mercury—whose powers the villain possesses.   In addition, Zha-Vam wears a belt studded with “buttons," each of which is inscribed with a letter (in English!) When a button it pressed, it temporarily gives Zha-Vam an extra power associated with some myth-entity whose name starts with that letter (for instance, the first button he presses is “T,” which makes him a gigantic “Titan” who flings Superman out into space.)  Zha-Vam shows no interest in power or gain, but merely exists to constantly one-up the Man of Steel.  Superman finds himself unable to cope with the vast array of powers the villain can call forth, but determines that Zha-Vam not only possesses the invulnerability-power of Achilles, but the “Achilles Heel,” as well.   But when Superman seeks to vanquish the “Super-Olympian” by attacking his heel, the hero finds that Zha-Vam has protected it with a “sock” of Kryptonite beneath his leaden boot.   Zha-Vam almost kills Superman, but decides to spare the Man of Steel for further humiliations.   At last Superman journeys back to ancient Olympus and learns that Zha-Vam was created from a body of clay by certain Greek gods who foresaw that their glorious legends would be obscured by the Man of Steel’s great fame.   To counter Zha-Vam’s advantage, Superman seeks out other gods who have quarreled with the Olympians, and these gods bestow on Superman a belt containing their powers.   Superman and Zha-Vam duel until Zha-Vam resorts to his Kryptonite weapon. However, Superman calls up Atlas, who having lifted the Earth is stronger than Zha-Vam.   After disposing of the Kryptonite and knocking out the villain with a blow to his heel, Superman returns Zha-Vam to Olympus, whereon the gods turn the villain back into clay and resolve not to attack Superman again.

If one knows something of the history of the story’s writer Otto Binder, one might be tempted to ask, “What the SHAZAM got into Binder when he created ZHA-VAM?”



The simple explanation is that Binder, one of the most prolific contributors to the mythos of the Golden Age Captain Marvel, was doing what all longtime writers do: re-visiting old concepts, whether out of sentiment, creative economics, or a little of both.   And in this case the concept was one of the keystones of the Captain Marvel mythos—though not one Binder originated—that is, the anagram of “Shazam” that gives Captain Marvel his god-derived powers. For the uninitiated, Cap Marvel’s mythic donors were Solomon, Hercules, Achilles, Zeus, Atlas, and Mercury.  Four of them also appear in the name of Zha-Vam, and one is invoked by Superman, but tellingly neither Solomon nor any other Judeo-Christian figure makes an appearance in the Superman tale.  Still, creative economics aside, one cannot help but think that Binder would’ve found it ironic to invent a character based on Captain Marvel to battle Superman, since Fawcett’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Superman also contended during the Golden Age—albeit in a legal battle, in which DC claimed that Fawcett had derived the Captain from the Man of Steel.   Indeed, the lengthy suit certainly contributed to Fawcett ending its use of adventure-characters in 1953 (the company dabbled in comics in later days, most notably with a DENNIS  THE MENACE line). Fawcett’s capitulation was the first “victory” of Superman over the “World's Mightiest Mortal”—a victory recapitulated by the Zha-Vam saga.  However, such was Binder’s mythopoeic imagination that he made much, much more out of this faux “battle of the comic-book gods” than one could ever have expected for what seems a simple children’s comic.



Even discounting legal wranglings, the literary process by which characters derive from one another, play off one another, and sometimes even cannibalize one another are not far different from the way archaic gods frequently absorbed one another’s characteristics, occasionally making a total turnabout from their original natures.   Not a few critics have pointed out that during the Golden Age Captain Marvel’s magical origins allowed for more fairy-tale-ish whimsy in the Captain’s adventures than were seen in those of the SF-based Superman.   And yet, with the demise of the Captain, some sort of cannibalization did seem to take place, as during the late fifties and early sixties Superman’s mythos became much more consciously “mythic” than it had been in the forties.   But though some critics have credited Binder with this rennovation, he was only one of several writers employed by editor Mort Weisinger, and for that matter, other extrinsic sources may have helped midwife the change in emphasis.  Indeed, one could as easily say that, if Hercules and cognate figures began to appear more often on Superman covers, it could also stem from the growth of fantasy-films of the period, also aimed at the same juvenile audience—Harryhausen’s “Sinbad” and “Jason” films, the Italian “Hercules” movies, and so on.   But, even having said that, Binder was one of the key figures in putting new wine in the old bottle that was the Superman mythos.




Oddly, though Superman and Captain Marvel were both figures with multitudinous wondrous powers (one of the aspects that Zha-Vam plays upon), they developed in diametrically opposing ways.   According to an anecdote in Steranko’s history, Captain Marvel was first conceived as a team of heroes with varied talents, but the success of Superman led to the “team” being re-conceived as a solo hero with assorted powers of mythic donors.   However, once conceived, Marvel’s powers remained fairly steady, while Superman, who started off as simply an embodiment of strength (including super-tough skin and super-strong legs for jumping), accreted over the years a veritable cornucopia of wild powers.   In the Binder story, Superman seems outclassed by a foe with powers far more multitudinous than his; powers drawn from the storehouse of archaic myth of many lands (although most of those named are from the Norse or Graeco-Roman pantheons, excepting only one Hindu deity).   It might even be said that Zha-Vam is that very storehouse, from whom both Superman and Captain Marvel take their natures, even as modern-day myth-figures.



To be sure, Binder plays fast and loose with many of the myth-figures he invokes. (He sometimes even footnotes his own changes, such as noting that Zha-Vam’s “Jason” power allows him to sow dragon-teeth that give rise to real dragons, not human warriors as in the Argonautica tale).   And the device from which Zha-Vam draws his powers, though possibly indebted to the archaic Thor’s “belt of strength,” could as easily be derived from the precedent of Batman’s utility belt.   (The 60’s show was still on the air when this saga debuted in 1967.)   Yet the way Binder uses the belt is more resonant of archaic myth-stories than most comic-book uses of such gimmickery (such as the aforementioned utility belt).   For instance, the first part of the three-part tale, Action #351, merely establishes for Superman the endless variety of his opponent’s powers, but the middle part, in #352, Zha-Vam invites Superman three times to press a belt-button himself, to choose which of Zha-Vam’s powers the hero will grapple with.   This motif aligns Zha-Vam with the myth-figure I call the “Task-Setter,” since he/she often gives the hero some impossible task to achieve (sometimes even associated with the task-setter’s own defeat).   Two times Superman tries to choose an “easy” power to contend with, but he is bested and humiliated both times.   The third time, though, he tries to circumvent the task and attack the villain’s Achilles Heel, not unlike Alexander “solving” the puzzle of the Gordian Knot by cutting it.  Though the hero is defeated thanks to Zha-Vam’s kryptonite back-up plan, it does get the superhero thinking “outside the box,” so that his next major move, in #353, is to discover Zha-Vam’s origins.



Said origins are perhaps the most symbolically resonant of Binder’s hidden mythopoesis.   For instance, nowhere in the story does Binder mention the story of how the Olympian gods overthrew their forbears the Titans (even though the name “Titan” is the first power conjured by Zha-Vam).  But clearly Superman (whom the gods call an “upstart”) is to the gods what they themselves were to the Titans; the new kid in town.   And even though Binder could have had any or all of the six donor-gods actually create Zha-Vam (indeed, the classical Vulcan/Hephaestus was said to have had his own “manmaking” talents), the script has Zha-Vam brought to life from clay by the Titan Prometheus (drawn by artist Wayne Boring to be physically taller than the gods, and as tall as his “offspring” Zha-Vam).   Apparently, though the Prometheus of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is best known as an arch-rebel against Zeus, this Prometheus is reconciled to serving Zeus (an event loosely foreshadowed in the same Greek play).   Or, if Binder did not know his Aeschylus, he may just as easily have patterned his villain’s creation on a less far-removed invocation of the Prometheus myth, for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.”  Certainly the visuals of Zha-Vam’s birth from a clay body recall the filmic birth of the Frankenstein Monster--  who is, like Zha-Vam,  a “man of parts.”



Perhaps the most mythopoeic theme of the story’s third section, though, is that, though Superman wins the battle, he does not do so with his own powers, but by taking on powers analogous to Zha-Vam’s.   Faced with a villain who uses a Zeus-given belt full of powers, Superman seeks out a similar belt from Neptune, brother to Zeus.   And the last figure Superman calls upon is the Titan Atlas, whose feat of “supporting the world” is a punishment for rebellion against Zeus—in other words, it takes a Titan to defeat the creation of a Titan (note: in Aeschylus, Atlas is brother to Prometheus.)   But perhaps the most telling trope is that Superman’s calling upon the reservoir of myth to defeat his enemy could be viewed as a comment on the aforesaid “cannibalization” of Captain Marvel’s mythos, by Binder and others, to feed the mythos of Superman.   Personally, I consider the melding of the Shazam-style whimsy with Superman’s science-fictional settings to have resulted in the best version of the character yet seen.  And while not all critics equally esteem the Weisinger-edited period of the Superman feature, most are agreed at least that this period birthed the greatest number of characters and situations that are still considered to be the touchstones of the Superman mythos, making the Weisinger years the feature’s most “myth-friendly” period.



Admittedly the Zha-Vam saga may in some particulars appear a bit too whimsical  to many contemporary critics (I found myself chuckling a bit at the notion of the kryptonite sock).   But one can also read the saga as a sort of a comic-book version of Star Trek’s “Who Mourns for Adonais,” in which an ancient deity makes a bid to regain lost fame in contemporary times.   It’s a given that by the story’s end such gods must pass away, but in the Star Trek tale, one is still filled with regret for the lost glory of the gods.  Superman himself does not mourn the demise of the gods.  To him, they are dangerous menaces to his career,  rather than being the perceptors they were to Captain Marvel. Yet it’s hard to believe that Binder didn’t script this story as a way of delving into the phantasmagorical creations of archaic myth-makers.   As a modern writer, he might never truly be among their company.  But he does, in this critic’s opinion, hew closely to their spirit.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE BLACK MONK PT. 2

The aforementioned CLASSIC HORROR post came about when a poster mentioned this essay on the blog GOTHIC WANDERER, wherein author Tyler Tichelaar makes this argument with respect to the King Richard character in MONK:

The Crusader: This last character is the real superhero of the novel. He arrives at the castle while Sir Rupert is away and attempts to put things to rights. All the while, his identity is kept hidden because he wears a velvet mask. He is described by Eldred as “a whopper,” meaning he is large and strong, true heroic elements, yet his mask is more reminiscent of the Gothic. It is interesting that his name in the book is “The crusader”—he is the masked crusader, but that is not such a far cry from the “caped crusader,” Batman. In the end, it amounts to the same thing—he is fighting crime to see the castle saved and returned to its rightful owner. The astute reader will guess his identity before the novel is over—he is King Richard, and his return restores the social order to not only the castle but also to England.


I'm glad Tichelaar drew my attention to the book, and I can see why he draws attention to the resemblances between the "crusader" (not given a capital in the reissued novel) and later types like Batman. However, I see some objections to this comparison.

As I said in Part 1, I don't view "the crusader" or any of the other goodguy character in MONK, to be the main characters. They all exist to react against the schemes of Morgatani, much as Nayland Smith and Petrie define themselves by striving against Fu Manchu. Now, when one is dealing with putative ancestors of the superhero, it might not be strictly necessary that all such ancestors should be the stars of every show. Indeed, I tend to view Dirk Peters, a supporting character in Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 CONFESSIONS OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM, to have certain "superhero-like" qualities.

Like Peters, the disguised Richard is, as Tichelaar says, shown to be very strong. However, there's nothing really "super" about his strength: he's just a tough, experienced warrior. Furthermore, the crusader doesn't actually do much in the story. He fights off a trio of assassins, and bullies Eldred and Agatha-- and that's about it. Morgatani tries to take his life a couple of times, but the two of them never engage directly, though Richard does seal the Black Monk's doom at the end.

I surmise that Tichelaar's biggest reason for viewing the crusader as a proto-superhero is that during part of the novel, he wears a mask, in contrast to the Richard of IVANHOE. However, the mask is only briefly an element in the crusader's getup. When he first comes to Brandon Castle, posing as a pilgrim, he enters with his regular face hanging out, and is simply fortunate that no one there recognizes him. The author then reasoned that a subtle fellow Morgatani probably would recognize the true King of England, though-- and for that reason, the author belatedly has the disguised king wear the velvet mask, at least until he's ready to unveil himself to all and sundry.

In a word, I don't consider that everyone who wears a mask fits the mold of the superhero. In this essay,  I noted how a character in Zane Grey's 1912 RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE went around in a mask, and was even given a fancy name, but that this character in no way participated in the superhero idiom:

This employment of a "masked rider" trope is thus entirely functional.  Bess wears a mask not to create an attitude of awe, as Zorro and the Durango Kid do, but only to camouflage her gender. (Since she is not known by any locals save the rustlers, the mask doesn't even serve to conceal her identity.)

Richard's mask does conceal his "secret identity," but again, I don't consider that he has created a double identity by donning a mask. Until the other characters in the novel are made privy to the Big Secret, he's just a pilgrim who evinces some weird habits.

If the crusader even had a moment in which he crossed swords with the main villain, as Nayland Smith and Petrie do with the minions of Fu Manchu, I might deem King Richard to be sort of a "subordinate hero" figure. But like the Richard in IVANHOE, the crusader is little more than a plot-device. He's less a subordinate hero than the "wild man" Nemoni, or a couple of the knights who more or less stand in for the absent Sir Rupert.

So-- supervillain yes. Superhero no.


THE READING RHEUM: THE BLACK MONK PT. 1

This review will cover two separate aspects of the 19th-century penny dreadful THE BLACK MONK, much as I did with Part 1 and Part 2 of my Fu Manchu-review. As usual, I discuss stuff about the ending, so SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS:


When a post on CLASSIC HORROR suggested that this serialized novel might be "the first superhero novel," I naturally had to give it a try. Though a prologue specifies that the book may've had more than one hand contributing to its rambling structure, the credited writer is the English author James Malcolm Rymer, best known for other "penny dreads" like VARNEY THE VAMPIRE and one of the first SWEENEY TODD books. 

Though MONK is not a rewrite of Scott's 1819 IVANHOE as the prologue claims, both stories take place in or around the 12th century, ostensibly the time when England's King Richard had gone off to the Crusades, leaving his brother John to run the country. MONK has definitely borrowed a Scott subplot. The primary plot of IVANHOE concerns the young titular knight's attempt to claim his bride Rowena while incidentally rescuing the Jewess Rebecca from an evil Templar Knight. However, a major subplot involves the cover return of Richard the Lion-Hearted to England. Scott imagines that Richard, after being ransomed from captivity in Europe, makes a clandestine return to his native land, hobnobs a little with Robin Hood, and then finds time to restore his rule over England and oust his ambitious brother John from the throne. 

I don't know how conversant the average "penny dreadful" reader would've been with IVANHOE by the time BLACK MONK was being serialized in 1844-45, so maybe the revelation of its mysterious "crusader's" secret identity was a really big surprise for that reader. Maybe I wouldn't have seen this plot-thread so transparent had I not recently read IVANHOE for the first time. Suffice to say, though, Richard is even more dilatory here about getting back to his throne, as he stops for several days at the fictional "Brandon Castle."

Brandon Castle is a great Gothic domain. First of all, there's one section of the castle, "the Grey Turret," where no one goes anymore because it's rumored to be haunted. The novel begins as the castle's lord, Sir Rupert Brandon, mourns over the untimely death of his wife Alice, and eventually leaves the castle to expunge his sorrows in the Crusades, Once he leaves, the castle is the site of two contending forces. One faction is made up of the various servants and men-at-arms who are loyal to Rupert (and who, though clearly viewed by the author as "good guys," were a little too "bully-boy" for my taste). The other faction is overtly represented by two of the lesser nobles who were siblings to the deceased Alice: the domineering Agatha and her cowardly brother Eldred. But the only reason that the two of them have any chance to gain dominion over the castle is because they have their own resident demon: the titular Black Monk, an evil Jesuit priest. Though banished from the castle by Rupert, the Black Monk conspires to have revenge upon the absent knight through the use of conspiracy, apparent hauntings (which he *may* create through psychic projection), alchemy, poisons, and his own Herculean strength.

Or so we arrive at the reason THE BLACK MONK is not IMO the "first superhero work," even if by that one means the first thing to emerge after the decline of the chivalric romances, circa the 15th-17th centuries. It might technically be called "the first supervillain work," though, for the novel is not based around a hero, but a villain. MONK has less in common with IVANHOE, which is the story of a hero's conflict with a memorable but subordinate villain, than with the popular Gothics of the previous generation, where fiends with named like Manfred and Montoni were the most powerful presences. The Black Monk himself, given the single proper name Morgatani, is not any deeper than any of the novel's other one-note characters. But Morgatani is definitely not just a mundane villain on the level of Dickens types like Uriah Heep and Daniel Quilp. Morgatani, thanks to his metaphenomenal attainments, is definitely an ancestor to the "super-villain"-- and unlike many other Gothic villains, Morgatani's even a combative type, able to stand toe-to-toe in a swordfight with his major opponent, a mad forest-dweller named Nemoni (possibly named for Heracles' beastly foe the Nemean Lion). When, toward the end of the novel, he declares, "I am the evil genius of Brandon Castle," he takes his place at the head of early super-villains like Robur and Fu Manchu.

Now, I've written in other essays that I believe that the superhero and the supervillain are part of the same idiom, so in THAT sense, THE BLACK MONK has some importance to what I've termed "the superhero idiom." Still, on balance I feel that MONK is more of a transitional work to the fully formed idiom, much like (to name an even earlier putative ancestor to the superhero) Rudolf Raspe's 1781 wonder-working fictionalization of the real-life Baron Munchhausen.

As to the claims of any of the book's heroes to be a "superhero"-- see Part 2. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "THE SIVANA FAMILY STRIKES" (MARVEL FAMILY #10, 1947)

During the Golden Age of Comics (1938-54), DC Comics' Superman and Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel competed on newsstands for the dimes of juvenile readers and in courts for the right of the Big Red Cheese to challenge the Man of Steel. But who won the aesthetic battle, if one concentrates only on the stories that appeared up to 1954? (Partly in response to the court-case, Fawcett quit publishing Captain Marvel and its other adventure-characters in 1953.)

Both of these super-powered characters had extremely resonant origins, as I've analyzed here and here. However, later adventures of Superman, Captain Marvel, and the various starring characters linked to the Captain tended to be very simple, gimmick-oriented short stories. This shouldn't be surprising, since the majority of all Golden Age stories in all genres are on the same aesthetic level. The most one could say is that the level of writing and artwork in the Captain Marvel universe was probably a little higher than was seen in the Superman mythos.

The Fawcett universe builds up some features of the hero's mythology-- the role of the Captain's literally spiritual mentor Shazam, the role of the ancient gods in assorted stories-- while, in contrast, DC only rarely used the world of Krypton to give Golden Age Superman a mythic background. Yet even though mythic elements were more present in the Captain Marvel cosmos, they still weren't all that well developed-- with the exception of this 1947 story, authored by Otto Binder and drawn by a bevy of artists, including C.C. Beck, Pete Costanza, Jack Binder and Bud Thompson. Binder may have striven to come up with something a little more elaborate this time, given the momentous nature of the encounter between the heroes (the Captain, his sister Mary Marvel and buddy Captain Marvel Jr) and the titular "Sivana Family." Although Doctor Sivana had appeared in Marvel's first outing, while his evil offspring Georgia and Sivana Junior had shown up in separate stories, this was apparently the first time all the Sivanas joined to fight all of the Marvels. In many ways this story combined both a "brains vs. brawn" theme and a "science vs. magic" theme, with the result that magic is represented by good-looking brawn (including the demure-looking but powerful Mary Marvel) and science by ugly nerds.



Sivana starts the hostilities by informing his kids that he can soon destroy the Marvel Family with a special machine, though his machine needs "power even greater than that of the atomic bomb." Binder, building on erroneous research to the effect that atom bombs back then used two existing elements (plutonium yes, neptunium no), has Junior tell his papa that there's another powerful element capable of yielding the power they want. The element exists in three different forms-- electrium, neutrium, and protium, which Binder has transparently named after the traditional three particles of the atom-- but these forms don't exist in the same temporal era. Protium is the earliest form, which will transform into neutrium in 10,000 years, and then into electrium in another 10,000 years. None of the element-forms alone will give the Sivanas the power they want, but the villains can obtain all three forms by using time-travel.

Here's one of two places where Fawcett's concepts of magic and science overlap willy-nilly. Sivana and his kids board a spaceship, for the good doctor has already invented FTL travel. "According to Einstein"s formula," the mad scientist exults, going at light-speed will throw the ship "out of the universe, into Eternity." I rather doubt Einstein said anything like this, especially since Fawcett's idea of this realm of space-time is that it's dominated by Old Shazam's personal mountaintop, the Rock of Eternity. Unscientific though the trope is, it provides one of Fawcett's most mythic uses of the mountain, as a cosmic axis around which real space-time revolves. Once Sivana's ship lands on the Rock, it's easy for him and his kids to employ three separate space-crafts to zoom through time to the respective eras where they'll find the necessary element-forms.

The spirit-form of Old Shazam, seeing the villains' advent, alerts the Marvels. The heroes change from their mortal forms into the Marvel Family and each of them pursues one of the time-ships.



Now, Binder could have simply sent the Sivanas and their pursuers to three unrelated locations. Gardner Fox had done something similar in a 1942 JUSTICE SOCIETY story. Instead, Binder links the element-quest to one of the West's enduring legends, that of the sunken city of Atlantis.



Mary Marvel follows Georgia Sivana to the ancient era when Atlantis had not yet sunk beneath the ocean-waves, so Mary's segment gets to explicate the pattern for the next two segments. Georgia uses archaeological remains to track down the element protium to a scientist, Chal-Patzun, who, like another Jor-El, has failed to convince his fellow Atlanteans of their common danger. The scientist plans to use the protium to prevent the city's inundation, but Georgia interferes by trying to steal the precious element. Mary Marvel arrives to stop the nasty girl, and then finds out that Chal-Patzun has laid plans to assure that, even if he can't save Atlantis, future members of his family will revive the sunken city in a far-off era.



Binder's attempt to extend the family-metaphor not only to the scientist and his descendants but also to the element-forms is a bit strained, but better too much ambition than too little. Since Mary can't be allowed to win this easily, she suffers a reversal when she transforms into her mortal form. Georgia gets hold of one vial of protium, but leaves two others behind, so that over thousands of years they will take on the forms that Sivana and Sivana Jr, will seek. Georgia also absconds with the bound Mary and leaves Atlantis to its historical doom.



The segments devotes to the exploits of Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr inevitably follow the same progress. Sivana seeks out the 20th century, where a scientist named Patterson, descended from Chal-Patzun, rather improbably knows all about the situation with the three elements, and even knows (but has never revealed) the location of the sunken city. Sivana forces Patterson to seek out Atlantis, and once there, the villain promptly steals a second vial of the element, which has now converted into neutrium. Captain Marvel shows up, but Sivana uses an artificial means of transforming the hero into his helpless mortal form. For good measure, Sivana shoots Patterson dead, but since the scientist was too good a villain to lose, there are never any consequences for this murder.



And much the same happens in the far far future to the two Juniors. In the future a young scientist, Chass Passon, finds his way to sunken Atlantis after locating the records of his ancestor. Miracle of miracles, the ancient machine built by Chal-Patzun, and it even works with the one remaining vial, which now contains electrium. Captain Marvel Jr attacks Sivana Jr, but can't keep the wily youth from getting away. In due course, this hero too reverts to his mortal form and gets knocked out by Junior, who gets away with the electrium and with his captive. Chass Passon is injured but apparently not slain, and perhaps lives to enjoy the repute of re-discovering Atlantis.



The evildoers converge on Sivana Senior's laboratory and power up his mystery machine with the three element-forms. Then Sivana twists the knife on the three de-powered heroes, revealing that they can no longer call down their magic lightning because the machine sets up an "electron shell" around the planet Earth.




For the second time, magic and science overlap in a way that another junior, John W. Campbell, would never have countenanced. And for the capper, the Sivanas-- who believe that their great science will make them lords of the world once the Marvels are gone-- decide to execute their enemies through the supposed "sport of kings"-- which should really have been called "the most dangerous game."



However, even if the Marvels don't have deep-thinking brains, they possess as much if not more cunning than the villains, and in due time the Sivanas are once more defeated and imprisoned.

Golden Age Superman stories often avoided the fantasy-potential of their heroic character in favor of mundane mysteries and romantic melodrama. In contrast, the Captain Marvel line never suffered from a shortage of fantasy-concepts. Yet it was rare for the fantasies to be given the symbolic density of this Binder story. All too often, Fawcett authors "coasted" on the general sense of fairy-tale whimsy. Ironically, after Fawcett was out of the superhero business, DC's Superman line began employing ex-Fawcett people like Binder, and the Super-Universe began using more fairy-tale elements. However, perhaps because Superman had more of a romantic tradition-- in contrast to Fawcett, which usually avoided romance-elements-- the Silver Age super-books crossbred fantastic whimsy with the deeper emotionality of melodrama, yielding a product superior to either of the Golden Age concepts.

Here's the entire "Sivana Family" tale.