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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...

Saturday, September 28, 2019

THE WOKE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

ASPIRIN FOR ANTHOLOGIES PT. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 23, 2019

QUICK THOUGHTS ON STAR WARS FILMS

I posted this on a BOUNDING INTO COMICS thread--

_______

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

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

Monday, September 16, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: NEVADA 1-6 (1998)

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



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



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



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






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



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

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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK? PT. 2

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

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

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



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



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

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



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



Or that salute to dumb blondes everywhere, Dumb Bunny.






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



Tuesday, September 10, 2019

ON TRUMP'S "INSECURITY"

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

__________

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

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


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

Monday, September 9, 2019

COMICS HISTORY, STILL SECRET

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

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

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



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



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



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

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


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

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



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

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

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



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



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

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



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


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

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

Saturday, September 7, 2019

INDIVIDUAL VS. COLLECTIVE AMPLITUDE PT. 2

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

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

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

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




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

Friday, September 6, 2019

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



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



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



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



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



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



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





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

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