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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

THE READING RHEUM: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1934)

One of the few things I'll do to celebrate Halloween is to review the first of Dennis Wheatley's books about a group of occult detectives, sometimes called "the four musketeers."




At the time Wheatley began his series of novels featuring this group of crusaders, a lot of the occult detectives in both America and Europe tended to be rather low-wattage in their adventures-- some examples being Algernon Blackwood's "John Silence" and Sax Rohmer's "Moris Klaw." One of the few rip-roaring occult adventurers, Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, enjoyed almost twenty years of adventures starting in 1925. But De Grandin's violent little Frenchman was crafted with the pulp-readers of WEIRD TALES in mind, and so the stories I've read are all characterized by sex and sensation without much subtlety.

British writer Dennis Wheatley, like many other English writers renowned for supernatural stories, didn't deal exclusively with occult subject matter. The first novel to feature the four heroes-- American Rex Van Rijn, Britishers Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, and the French aristocrat Duc de Richleau (unquestionably named for the Dumas character)-- is a realistic suspense novel, published in 1933. However, the very next novel in the series, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, introduces the idea that the Duc-- an older man who serves as mentor to the others-- is an expert in the occult. When Simon is suborned by a devil-cult headed by an evildoer named Mocata, only the Duc recognizes the reality of the threat. Along with his staunch American ally, the two of them seek to free Simon from spiritual bondage. In addition, young Rex takes a fancy to one of the prettier cultists, a woman named Tanith, and romance blooms, though she is even more important to Mocata's devilish rituals than Simon is. A little later in the story, Richard Eaton, his wife and his innocent child also become embroiled in the supernatural battle between good and evil.

Wheatley's novel has just as many pulp-elements as anything in Seabury Quinn, but Wheatley devotes considerable effort to building up a consistent mystic cosmos, clearly derived from the more ambitious ideas of occultists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Unlike Bram Stoker, Wheatley doesn't propound a strict dichotomy between Christian miracles and Satanic perversities: the Duc often mentions the beneficent aspects of pagan religions that he can use against Mocata's evil. Given that one of the later novels, STRANGE CONFLICT, shows a streak of racist sentiment, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT seems thoroughly cosmopolitan about other cultures. Simon Aron is Jewish, Eaton's wife is Russian, and though there are Satanists of other races, there's no intimation that they're bad because of their race. Wheatley clearly based Mocata on the scandalous magician Aleister Crowley, but Wheatley actually propounds a theory of how Magick works, even quoting Crowley at one point. This is certainly one of the strongest "occult detective" novels in existence, as well as a good rousing adventure-tale as well.

The Duc and his friends appeared in eleven books in all, though only three of them focused on occult topics. As I mentioned, I don't remember the second book, STRANGE CONFLICT, to be nearly as good as DEVIL RIDES OUT, but I may give CONFLICT a re-read before delving into the third and last one, GATEWAY TO HELL.

MYTHCOMICS: DEVIL BY THE DEED (1984)




The title DEVIL BY THE DEED suggests that even though creator Matt Wagner has given his protagonist the name of a famous literary monster, this Grendel should be judged not by his lineage (the original Grendel was the offspring of the Biblical Cain), but by the totality of his deeds, both good and bad. In the history of pop culture, a fair number of features in pulps, movie serials, and comic books focused upon villains. Yet Grendel has less in common with “the Secret Society of Super-Villains” than with the recherch√© charms of Fantomas, at least in terms of showing the attractions of criminality.

I didn’t follow Grendel when he debuted in the early 1980s, when he seemed to be one of many characters inspired by the vogue for ninjas. I was aware of the character’s strong appeal for fans, but those who followed the character’s first appearances in 1982 were doomed to disappointment when his magazine was cancelled before Grendel’s first story-arc was finished. However, Wagner both recapitulated and completed the original arc in DEVIL BY THE DEED, but with a difference. This time Grendel’s story was distanced through the device of being narrated by a chronicler, albeit one whose identity is not revealed until the tale’s conclusion.






In the BEOWULF poem Grendel is an inhuman monster slain by the titular strongman hero, but Wagner reverses the human-inhuman dynamic. His Grendel is a normal-looking human who alternates between two identities: that of social butterfly Hunter Rose and of his alter ego, Grendel, a  sword-wielding assassin who controls all criminal activity in the unnamed city where Hunter dwells. His one significant opponent is Argent, who rather than having the name of a “wulf”  looks like one, being a near-immortal being cursed to take wolf-man shape. His name, a synonym for silver, is clearly a reference to the association of werewolves and the moon-colored metal, even though Argent does not transform, and is entirely on the side of the angels against this “devil.” Yet despite these tacit references to the BEOWULF mythos, the story that most glosses DEVIL BY THE DEED is the tragedy of Oedipus.



The chronicler of the story, later revealed to be female, starts the story by relating that she meant to write the story of Grendel in order “to clear my mother’s name,” but that she ends by becoming “as enraptured as [my mother] was with the man whose given name was Eddie but who eventually engaged the world as GRENDEL.” The name “Eddie” is never again mentioned, nor does the story reveal any details about Eddie’s parents, aside from the intimation that they had wealth and thus gave Eddie the freedom to develop his “almost limitless brain capacities.” However, the significance of the young man’s name is seen when it’s revealed that “Eddie” became a man by knowing a woman twenty years his senior, a woman with the possibly assumed name of “Jocasta Rose.” The lady with the Sophoclean name allegedly perishes without leaving any records of her presence, save in Grendel’s diaries, as conveyed through the agency of the narrator. By this choice of names, Wagner signals the strong possibility that Grendel’s first sin is that of sleeping not with his literal mother but with a mother-substitute. The young polymath then assumes the name “Hunter Rose” for the rest of his life/fictional existence, at least as far as DEVIL is concerned.  The invented cognomen could mean any number of things, though it may significant that both the name Rose and the flower are most commonly associated with femininity.



Sophocles’ tragedy of the original Oedipus alludes to, but does not emphasize, the fact that the hero has conceived children, now grown, from the bed of incest. Neither Hunter Rose nor his lupine adversary father children, and yet, both of them become paternally protective of a nine-year-old girl, Stacy Palumbo. (Her surname is Italian for a type of dove.) Stacy, an orphan like Hunter, is not aware of the greater conflict going on between Grendel and Argent, but comes to know both of them because at one time or another both law-keeper and law-breaker attempt to leverage information from her adoptive uncle Barry Palumbo. Uncle Barry is then poisoned and his girlfriend goes down for the murder, but some time after Hunter Rose adopts the twice-orphaned girl, she eventually finds out the truth about Grendel, and uses her “inside knowledge” to bring about the destruction of both Grendel and Argent. However, as the narrator—Stacy Palumbo’s own grown daughter—reveals, the wages of sin are still destruction, as Stacy herself succumbs to insanity as the result of her actions.




I won’t discuss the specifics of Stacy’s retaliatory plan here, save to state that, as in many tragedies, it depends on being able to take advantage of familial loyalties. The climactic, mutually-injurious battle of Grendel and Argent is distanced through the agency of the narration, though Wagner is careful to build up the final combat with at least one other Classical reference, in that one of Grendel’s diaries refers to Argent as “my Hector.” I have not followed all of the later iterations of Grendel, so I’m not sure how final his “final fate” actually was. But Wagner does succeed here not just in giving the fate of his supercriminal an elegiac tone, but also giving him a larger significance, ending the chronicle by stating that Grendel “is the demon of society’s mediocrity.” The creators of Fantomas probably would have empathized.
 

Monday, October 28, 2019

NARRATIVE AND SIGNIFICANT AMPLITUDE PT. 3

In the first two sections of this intermittent essay-series, I argued with myself that the "significant values" of a given work, or set of works, could affect the "narrative values" of the item under discussion.  However, only recently did I consider this effect could be metaphorically illustrated in mathematical terms.

In the original ACTIVE SHARES, PASSIVE SHARES argument, I surveyed the Silver Age Marvel comic-series, of which I said:

I could and did do a statistical survey on another Old West hero: the Rawhide Kid of Marvel Comics, the company descended from the publisher who did "Ringo Kid" in the 1950s. When I counted the number of Rawhide's purely isophenomenal adventures, and compared them with those in which he'd enjoyed encounters with metaphenomenal entities, the latter worked out to about eight percent of the total stories. So, by the "51 percent rule," Rawhide could not belong to "the superhero idiom" any more than could the Ringo Kid.
But this presumes that every metaphenomenal story in the series has exactly the same value as every isophenomenal story; that one story equals a value of "one." Yet in EXCESSIVE COMBINATORY FORCE, I said:

So I have at least made the essential statement that for the combinatory mode as for the dynamicity-mode, "excess of strength is proof of strength," as Nietzsche aptly said.
By this paradigm, a story with metaphenomenal elements is "stronger" than one without them, if only in the degree to which the former type forces the reader to utilize his imagination. Given that strength even in the non-imaginary world carries more value than comparative weakness, then it's arguable that every metaphenomenal RAWHIDE KID story ought to have a value of more than one.

To be sure, I fudged the original percentages by allowing a value of "one" simply to each issue of RAWHIDE KID, even though some of the earlier issues contain more than one story with the starring character. Since I felt that the feature progressed away from multiple stories fairly soon, I decided I didn't want to count out every story, with the result that I regarded the whole run of the KID as comprising 113 "points" (at least two issues featured reprints before the title went all-reprint).  Of those 113, I considered that 15 of the stories had metaphenomenal content, though I'll note here, as I did not in the earlier essay, that only two of them are "marvelous" and all of the others are "uncanny."

Now, whatever calculator gave me eight percent I evidently misused, because when I tried the operation today, it came out as a little over 14 percent. The error makes no difference to the 51 percent rule: eight and fourteen are equally unable to enjoy a "controlling interest."

So, if I posit that each isophenomenal story, because it makes no great appeal to the imagination, is only worth one point, then that gives 98 points for the roughly 98 isophenomenal stories in the Kid's original run.

Now suppose that I say that a marvelous-metaphenomenal story is worth not one, but five points. Only two stories in the run are unquestionably marvelous in nature, the "Red Raven" story and the "Living Totem" tale, so with those added we have 10 points for the stories themselves, 108 points for the grand total.



Then there are thirteen "uncanny" stories, so I'll arbitrarily assign them three points to each of these. So the subtotal of metaphenomenal stories becomes 10 + 39, equaling 49, and the total points overall are 147. Out of 147, 49 is roughly 33 percent. It's still not 51 percent or more, but it begins to look more like the sort of "passive share" I argued about earlier.

Now, I could continue to jigger the ratings of the metaphenomenal stories until they did raise above fifty-one percent, but if I set that standard in stone, then it would be totally arbitrary. By asserting greater values for the metaphenomenal stories in a merely theoretical manner, this adjusted paradigm adequately illustrates the principle of the passive share I sought to explore.

A contrasting example, brought up in NARRATIVE AND SIGNIFICANT AMPLITUDE PT. 2. was that of the 1960s TV serial LOST IN SPACE. I wasn't concerned with sussing out phenomenology here, but the appearance of the combative mode, and as with RAWHIDE I assigned every story (including parts of continued stories) just one point. Eighty-three stories meant eighty-three total points, Nineteen of the episodes were combative, which registers as 23 percent of the whole.



But to be consistent with my assertions in EXCESSIVE COMBINATORY FORCE, the higher dynamicities of a combative work should be valued higher than those that lack this dynamicity. So the total number of points for the subcombative episodes, assigning each one point, is 64.

Since combative dynamicity doesn't make quite the same appeal to the imagination as does metaphenomenality, I'll conservatively assign the value of three to the nineteen episodes. So the subtotal for the combative episodes is 57 and the overall total is 121. The subtotal is about 44 percent of the total, so it too does not meet the 51 percent criteria, though it too is closer to being a "passive share." However, because combative adventure does not seem to have been as important to LOST IN SPACE as metaphenomenal content was to RAWHIDE KID, it's possible that the significant value of the former might have a negativizing effect upon the whole of the teleseries. More on that later, if I get suitably inspired.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

NEAR MYTHS: LANN (1984)



Frank Thorne's space-opera spygirl LANN enjoyed just one serialized adventure in the pages of HEAVY METAL during 1984. While LANN is primarily another sexy-adventure comic like the GHITA series, Thorne changes things up a bit by placing this heroine's adventures in your basic routine space-opera setting, and by giving the new girl a look distinctly different from both Ghita and Ghita's more famous predecessor Red Sonja.

The plot for LANN is fairly simple. Lann, who works for an intergalactic agency called "C.I.," is charged with finding the two grown daughters of a skeevy crime-lord. This gives Lann the chance to show off her capacious charms while seeking information in all manner of bawdy space-bars and bordellos. Ghita traveled with two helpers-- an older man and an obedient troll-- and Thorne alters the latter to a mute droid named Glitch, while keeping the same basic template of "dirty old man" in the person of Lann's mechanic Shard.



Rigorous character definition isn't exactly on the menu for these sort of quasi-Rabelaisian hijicks, but Lann is more than just a boobalicious blowup-doll. From the first page of the story, Thorne makes clear that Lann is some years older than her twenty-something bod. He apparently doesn't want to rain on any reader's parades by revealing just how old she was before she received a "recycled' body. Still, the dialogue between Lann and Shard on page 2 suggests that Shard has already seen Lann's previous body, and that said body was perhaps closer to his own age, since now he claims that "you've made me into an instant dirty old man." Thorne doesn't make the age-discrepancy central to the story, but it becomes a leitmotif throughout, with Lann herself opining, "It's vanity that chose youth over morality." When Lannn has a random hookup with a middle-aged reprobate, he remarks, "This is the first time I've felt easy with a dame young enough to be my kid." She merely hints that they may be closer in age than he thinks. The intrepid sex-agent also hooks up with a genuinely younger conquest, but this doesn't turn out well for him or for her.



Simple though Lann's sole outing may be, Thorne's work is distinguished by his ability to suggest the interactions of sex and violence as comprising a single vision of total excessiveness for its own sake. I wonder sometimes if any comics-artists in this politically correct era has even attempted to follow in Frank Thorne's impressive footsteps. I would tend to think that his only rivals might be Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, but even their sexy work is often hamstrung by their catchpenny politics.

Monday, October 21, 2019

NEAR MYTHS: "DAWN OF THE DARK" (2014)



"Dawn of the Dark" is the final volume of the "harem adventure" manga ROSARIO + VAMPIRE, wrapping up, in rather rushed fashion, multiple storylines and character arcs established during the serial's ten-year run. I say "harem adventure" because even though author Akihisa Ikeda starts out the story with a typical "harem comedy" setup-- which is mirrored by the two seasons of the goofy anime adaptation--  the story is soon dominated by the mythos of adventure. Vampire Moka Akashiya and mortal-turned-monster Tsukune Aono, the main romantic duo of the series, are joined by several other adolescent yokai (Japanese for "monsters") to thwart a plot to cause a major conflict between the human race and the race of monsters, who have been concealing their existence from humans for centuries.

Since I've chosen to rate the concluding arc of ROSARIO as a near-myth, I'm not going to devote a lot of time to detailing the fine points of said arc. Suffice to say that Ikeda never totally exploits the mythic power of his original conception. At the series' opening, the reader meets Moka, a thoroughly winsome girl vamp when mortal Tsukune accidentally gets enrolled in a "school for monsters." Moka, though she projects an aura of sweet innocence, actually has a "Miss  Hyde" side, which is restrained by the "rosario" (a cross-pendant hung around her neck). Tsukune is the only one who can remove this talisman from Moka, and whenever he does, it's the equivalent of unleashing the demon within the innocent girl. Tsukune, in addition to being chased around the school by four other hot monster-babes, is frequently confused by his relation to "the two Mokas": the "outer" one that wears the rosario and is usually cute and rather shy, and the "inner" one without the cross-pendant, who's a powerful badass who often regards the weak Tsukune with contempt. Even when one plotline obliges Moka to infuse Tsukune with her own blood, making him into an "instant monster," the male character is still nowhere the equal of "inner-Moka" in terms of power.

Since the series starts out wiith, and is named for, the mystic seal that inhibits Moka's formidable powers, the concluding story-arc also involves the necessity for binding a far more dangerous demon. This is Alucard, who appears as a crossover between Godzilla and one of the Aliens--




--though, to be sure, he was originally a more human-like monster, when he was known as (big surprise) the 15th-century lord Dracula. Ikeda eventually pits Tsukune and his fighting harem-girls against a monster-organization called "Fairy Tale," who are responsible for a plot to unleash this titanic monster on humankind. Alucard, though technically not related to Moka, serves as a kind of "evil father-figure," particularly because his first wife, the vampire Akasha, binds him into a deep sleep by infusing him with her energies.


Akasha is then rescued from her bondage to Alucard for a time, apparently so that she can sire Moka by another vampire, one Issa. However, because Alucard remains a threat to Moka, Akasha designs the rosario-charm as a means of protecting Moka from the Big Bad-- though to be sure, the nature of the charm is re-interpreted in the finale a few times as the protagonists learn new information.

The most interesting psychological myth of the series is that Akasha doesn't just make the rosario, but also imposes a clone of herself over the natural personality of Moka when she's still a child. Thus, "angry Moka" is closer to the real nature of the heroine, while "sweet Moka's" personality is modeled on that of Akasha-- though, to be sure, Akasha always comes off as being no less of a badass than "angry Moka."

Does this mean that, throughout the early arcs of the series, young Tsukune is actually falling in love with Akasha, not with "inner Moka?" Ikeda tries to provide his readers with reasons as to why this is not the case: that the Akasha-persona is essentially a clone, a nearly blank slate, and that once Akasha completely departs the series for good, the two Moka-personas become interfused, and she's more like a combination of her Jekyll aspect and her Hyde aspect. I suppose Ikeda's basic idea here is that of a mother shielding her daughter from the depredations of an evil father-figure, but the symbolic discourse never really gells.

Still, though "Dawn" and its preceding arcs are decent reads, I never felt that Ikeda had a good handle on the symbolic aspects of his vampire mythology, or any of the other monsters, whether they were derived from the stories of Japan (the "snow maiden" Mizore) or Europe (the "succubus" Kurumu). They're all very amusing, but never intrinsically fascinating, in contrast, say, to the much more rigorous vamp-mythos of DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

NULL-MYTHS: "THE BRIDE AND THE BOLD" (ALL-NEW BATMAN/BRAVE AND BOLD #4, 2011)



I'm nostalgic enough that I think I enjoyed the 2008-11 cartoon teleseries BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD just as its creators intended: as a salute to the antic wackiness that dominated many Silver Age DC Comics. As I noted in this essay, the creators of the teleseries, rather than seeking to produce another "campy" Batman, rather sought to orient the crusader toward the form of "hip humor."

It's a tough form of humor  to do well, given that hipness rather easily devolves into Borsht-belt schtick-- and that's what I found on display in a TPB that collected several issues of DC's attempt to emulate the cartoon. The comic was launched in the same year that the cartoon wrapped up, and most of the adventures are mediocre but inoffensive visits to the goofier side of the DC Universe. "The Bride and the Bold," though, provides a good exemplar of a null-myth, in that writer Sholly Fisch fails to exploit the symbolic aspects of his narrative.

Oddly, Fisch starts off his story by referencing one of the most mythic comics of DC's Golden Age. Eros, the Greek god of love, seems to have been doing a close reading of William Marston's early WONDER WOMAN issues, for he complains that Wonder Woman isn't spreading "love" as Marston's heroine claims to be doing, that instead the Amazon is just getting into a lot of brawls with super-villains. Indeed, at the time that Eros gets so torqued off, the Amazon happens to be teamed with Batman in stopping the improbable criminal alliance of Giganta and the Mouse-Man. Eros then takes it into his head to force Wonder Woman and Batman to fall in love, apparently with the idea that greater love will be promoted in the world if two superheroes get publicly married.








This leads one of Batman's many amours to assume the role played by Doctor Doom in the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards, as she sends every nearly goofball villain in DC's history to disrupt the wedding.




I have to admit I liked seeing the resurrection of the DC-World's Zaniest Villains, even in a story as paper-thin as this one. One balmy Marston villain even makes the cut, the Blue Snow Man, though most of the Wonder Woman foes are from the nutty Silver Age Kanigher era, like the aforementioned Mouse Man, the Paper Man, Egg Fu and the Crimson Centipede.



Though Fisch's apparent reverence for Distinguished Craziness may equal that of the BRAVE AND BOLD cartoon, he's unable to give Eros, his primary "villain," a compelling reason to do what he does, and as a complete cop-out reveals at the climax that the two heroes weren't really enthralled, but went through the wedding because-- well, they read the script, so they knew that someone would send a lot of villains to fight them. Sorry, Solly; that's not hip, it's just lame and lazy. The BRAVE AND BOLD cartoon knew how to make the simple motivations of both heroes and villains take on mythic import, if not mythic content-- and I suspect that the remainder of the issues in the comic's 16-issue run fail this test as well.


NOTE: Though there are a huge bunch of DC heroes at the wedding who engage the villains in battle, none of the heroes in the story are "centric" to the story except for the primary team-up figures, Bats and WW.

MYTHCOMICS: "REVENGE OF THE ROBOT REJECT" (BRAVE AND BOLD #55, 1964)



DC's title THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD is known primarily as the "Batman and--" team-up feature. However, at various times the title played host to swashbuckling tales, "strange sports stories," and showcases for possible regular features. But for about two years before Batman became the feature's exclusive selling-point, the title also played host to a number of more inventive crossovers. I assume that the men behind the comic approached these crossovers in the same spirit as the Golden Age JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA: a title in which the company's strong sellers could theoretically boost the weaker properties.



By the time "Revenge of the Robot Reject" appeared on stands in 1964, the Atom had enjoyed his own feature for roughly three years, edited by Julius Schwarz, and the Metal Men for two, edited by Robert Kanigher. This story, edited by George Kashdan, shows writer Bob Haney and artist Ramona Fradon-- best known for their co-creation METAMORPHO-- attempting to mimic the relevant aspects of both franchises. Haney's script delves far more into the Metal Men mythology than that of the Atom, though he finds a satisfactory premise that allows him to play the Tiny Titan off Doc Magnus's six robot heroes-- who are, for any not hip to the feature, are Gold, Iron, Mercury, Tin, Lead, and Platinum (the only female robot, and the only one who gets a nickname, that of Tina).

In the regular METAL MEN feature, Kanigher tended to soft-pedal any intimations of the robots' inventor as being their parent, even in the figurative sense that one sees in Mary Shelleys' FRANKENSTEIN and the Universal adaptations thereof. In contrast, "Reject" starts out with Magnus having his six robots visit an orphanage to entertain the kids. Tina, the only female robot in the group in 1964, was always seen expressing her undying love to her creator, and "Reject" is no exception. However, I don't think Kanigher's METAL MEN ever showed Tina waxing maternal, and in the opening scenes of "Reject," Tina is apparently so charmed by all the munchkins that she suggests that she and Magnus should marry and have kids. When her bemused creator reminds Tina that a robot can neither marry nor conceive, she cheerily responds that Magnus could just build "cute little robot replicas of you and me."



Once Magnus and his six quixotic creations return to their HQ, Tina's burst of erotic enthusiasm is still with her, and as a result she dances about, unintentionally courting thanatos so that she falls to her death into a generator. In the regular title, this isn't a problem, since the Metal Men are always getting reduced to piles of mangled scrap, only to be magically resuscitated by their inventor's peerless skills. But this time, Magnus can't restore Tina, because her atomic structure has been altered somehow. The next seven pages then read like a quickie version of "Ten Little Indians," as each of the other Metal Men also fall victim to peculiar accidents, and again, Magnus cannot revive any of his "children."




Magnus sits alone in his laboratory, emulating Dorothy Gale as he muses that he'll miss his sexy female robot most of all (not exactly in those terms, of course). Then the villains responsible for the Metal Men's decimation appear. One is the first robot Magnus ever created, Uranium, and also the "reject" of the title, since Magnus attempted to destroy him. The other villain is Uranium's own creation, a silver female robot named Agantha, who bears a nodding physical resemblance to Tina and whom Uranium designed to be his version of Magnus's "girl robot creation." (In other words, Uranium may not be Magnus's literal child, but the robot-reject's doing his darnedest to follow the scientist's example.)  Uranium announces that through his command of all elements, he was able to remotely guide the Metal Men to their respective dooms and then to alter their atomic arrangements so that Magnus couldn't bring them back. He did all this because he resents that Magnus tried to destroy him-- even though a flashback shows Uranium being callously destructive, much like the element he's made of-- and because now he wants Magnus to help him devise a world-conquering weapon. Agantha is just as vicious, though she does pay the scientist a backhanded compliment: "If it weren't for [Uranium] here, I could go for you-- now that your platinum girlfriend is gone."






Threatened with immediate death for non-compliance, Magnus helps the project to buy time. He also manages to send out a distress signal. Ray (The Atom) Palmer receives the signal in his own lab, dons his costume, and rushes over to Magnus's HQ to help. Being unobtrusive, the Atom's able to infiltrate the HQ and figure out what's been happening, and being a physics major, he assembles the remains of the Metal Men and figures out how to use his "atomic"  skills to restore their integrity-- at which point the robots reconstitute themselves.



Meanwhile, Uranium's project is finished, but he's still victim to daddy issues, unable to kill Magnus because "he is the man who gave me life." Agantha, who's become Lady Macbeth in a few pages, has no such compunctions and prepares to destroy the robot-maker.

In burst the Metal Men, and Tina, though she didn't witness Agantha flirting with Magnus, immediately calls her a "silver hussy." The two ductile damsels fight it out, with Tina winning due to her greater knowledge of the elemental sciences (is silver really more vulnerable to sound-waves than platinum? I dunno). Uranium proves a tougher nut to crack, for his creativity doesn't stop with making his own robot-doll. He reveals that he can manifest the radiation in his body into three missile-shaped mini-minions, who are named after their types of radiation, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. (The reader shouldn't need more than one guess as to why these energy-constructs look like missiles.)



Though the radiation-minions can't harm Lead, the other Metal Men get kicked around pretty good. The Atom, who's been confined to the sidelines during this high-powered scuffle, suggests that they take Mercury aside and bond his atoms to those of Lead. That way, when Mercury attacks Uranium again, the radiation-minions can't hurt him. Uranium can't understand what's happening, and keeps bombarding Mercury until the villainous metal exhausts himself and devolves to a hunk of inert radium. Magnus does express some regret for his own hubris: "It was really all my fault from the first! I made you wrong, to start with!"

The psychological myths about robots and their creators are fairly lightweight here, but Haney does a good job-- better than many of Kanigher's stories-- at putting forth the cosmological myths necessary for both of the crossover-features. Maybe all the elemental research in this toss-off tale helped inspire him to co-create the Metamorpho concept with Fradon.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

SOAP OPERA SOAPBOX

I've watched reruns of the original 1966-71 DARK SHADOWS twice before this, but only in this third re-watch that I've started attempting to analyze the series in terms of its mythicity. But to even make the attempt, it's necessary to dwell on the way the series told its stories, particularly in terms to the topic of structural length.

I introduced my CATEGORIES OF STRUCTURAL LENGTH last year, in which I made one reference to the form of melodrama known as the soap opera, in my section dealing with "the long arc:"

the long arc also takes place within a larger continuity, but like the short arc doesn't entirely stand on its own. The American "soap opera" did not originate the long arc, but it's the genre best known for particular plot-lines that could be extended for weeks, if not longer.

Now, I should specify that there are two different subspecies of soap operas, and that when I made this statement, I was speaking of what I'll term the "weekday soap" rather than the "weekly soap." While there may well be any number of other subspecies of which I'm not aware, I think of "soap opera" as productions that appear five times a week on daytime television. (I presume that early radio dramas of this type, of which I know nothing, followed this general tendency.) For most of my life, television dramas that aired on a weekly basis-- almost always in the evening-- tended to be episodic stories with only marginal continuity between one another. Eighties serials like DALLAS and DYNASTY weren't the first "weekly soaps" on television, but since then they've provided a storytelling model not only for serials in the exact same mold but also those that alternate between long arcs and self-contained short stories, like most of the seasons of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

Despite the fact that I'm now going to generalize on the structure of the weekday serial, I confess that I've only followed three in my lifetime: the supernatural soap DARK SHADOWS, the spoof-soap MARY HARTMAN (which was technically a "weeknight" serial), and PASSIONS, which was a little of both. Still, I believe that the typical weekday serial consists almost entirely of long arcs, short arcs, and the occasional vignette. The narrative appeal of the soap opera is that for the most part it forestalls pleasing resolutions-- perhaps very loosely comparable to the Freudian notion of disavowal-- with the result that even when a given problem seems to be wrapped up, a new problem ensues so quickly-- often one introduced through the uses of subplots-- that there's no real pleasure from the first difficulty's solution.

If it's accurate that the first American soap was a 1930 radio drama called PAINTED DREAMS, then it may be that newspaper comic strips like 1924's LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, began utilizing the essence of the long arc first. Yet even though a number of comic strips appeared on six out of seven weekdays-- and sometimes on Sunday as well-- the comic strip doesn't make heavy use of subplots, except to lead into the very next ensuing storyline. The weekday soap comes closer to the jumble of real life, in that neither long arc, short arc, nor vignette has dominance. The viewer seems to be seeing regular lives-- even those of 18th-century vampires-- to be unfolding before them.

Following the innovations of Stan Lee's Silver Age Marvel comics, the comic-book medium was able to master many of the rudiments of the weekday soap. Nevertheless, even though comic books had a greater potential to master narrative forms than did comic strips, they weren't published as often. Even the rate weekly comic-book feature could not develop its narrative any more quickly than could a weekly television serial.

Because there's so little resolution in the weekday soaps, the writers behind the scripts tend to repeat themselves a lot. Thus a serial like DARK SHADOWS exhibits not Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" but an "eternal recursion," going by this American Heritage definition of the word:

A method of defining a sequence of objects, such as an expression, function, or set, where some number of initial objects are given and each successive object is defined in terms of the preceding objects. 

With this in mind, a serial like DARK SHADOWS doesn't have "continuity" so much as endless variations upon a theme, which become more and more complicated as new information is added.
The serial starts out in 1966, and its central Gothic mystery seems to be the familial background of Victoria Winters, who may or may not be related to the Collins family. Victoria's relation to the Collins past shifts into a new phase with the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins. Though the two of them originally have no direct relation to one another-- Barnabas is searching for the reincarnation of his long-dead lover Josette, and thinks he's found her in Maggie Evans-- but eventually Victoria becomes identified, however imperfectly, with Josette. At the same time, when the actress playing Victoria leaves the show, the serial simply shifts into exploring other mysteries of the Collins family, with or without involving Barnabas.

It's almost impossible to analyze a single episode of a weekday soap like DARK SHADOWS, because the incidents of one episode are designed to lead quickly, albeit often not seamlessly, to yet more and more incidents, with hardly a breath taken to reflect upon the Meaning of It All. Rather, SHADOWS can only express any mythicity in its primary structural forms of the long arc, the short arc, and the vignette-- which I'll attempt to show in a forthcoming review.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

NEAR MYTHS: AIRBOY 1-50 (1986-89)

Of the many patriotic comics-heroes born in and around the WWII years, Hillman Comics' AIRBOY seems to be the only American character who survived long past the war's end. This may be because, even in the absence of a shooting-war, Airboy still appealed to young readers thanks to the appeal of having his own personally owned plane. Without having come close to reading all of the character's Golden Age exploits, I'd say that in general the art and writing was somewhat better than many comparable postwar series, and of course, I discovered a high level of mythicity in these three interrelated stories. AIRBOY's last issue appeared in 1953, the same year that Hillman quit publishing comics for good. Since I'm not aware that any of their titles were attacked during the anti-comics craze, it may be that the company simply decided that comics were no longer profitable enough to bother with.



I recently committed myself to re-reading the entire AIRBOY series from Eclipse, which I've long considered one of the company's best productions. I don't know if the Hillman properties had fallen into public domain or if Eclipse actually purchased rights from someone, but Eclipse was certainly devoted to creating a "Hillman-verse." Even from the first couple of issues in 1986, writer Chuck Dixon and his various artists not only created a modern-day legacy version of Airboy, but also brought  back some of the original heroes, some of whom were simply older (Sky Wolf) and some of whom had been transformed (the armored Iron Ace gets turned into a robot).

The new Airboy, David Nelson III, doesn't know anything about his father's heroic past, knowing him only as the head of an aeronautics corporation. The relative innocence of the youth (whose age isn't specified, though he doesn't look fifteen like the Golden Age version) is shattered, both when his father is slain and David learns that his dad was selling arms to a tyrannical regime in the made-up South American realm of Bogantilla. However, David also learns of his father's heroic deeds, and that his revolutionary airplane "Birdie" is still functional, so he dons his dad's old outfit and goes looking in Bogantilla for his father's slayers. There he and his allies (among them the aforementioned Sky Wolf) find out that David II was empowering the tyrants because their master, Airboy's old sorcerer-foe Misery, has extorted the former hero's obedience by threatening his old love Valkyrie, kept in cryonic preservation for the past forty years. The New Airboy avenges his father in part, though Misery escapes, and revives his father's former lover. However, since the new hero looks the same as the old one, Valkyrie is attracted to David. As for his reaction to her, this cover sums it up.



For the next forty-nine issues, Airboy and various allies-- not least the Heap, the original swamp-monster of comics-- alternate between fighting in relatively realistic paramilitary conflicts and fending off the plots of arch-enemy Misery. But the series' most piquant appeal was the "will-they-won't-they" romantic sparks between Airboy and Valkyrie. Clearly, even though Eclipse had designed David III to look just like his father, he wanted her to see him for himself, as opposed to being simply his father's lookalike. Valkyrie, even though she's been revived after the fashion of the Silver Age Captain America, seems to adjust to eighties America pretty easily, but she's got considerable ambivalence toward her potential swain. Little is ever said about the rocky Oedipal issues that  might arise when a son courts his father's old lover, except for a throwaway line that tells readers nothing about New Airboy's actual mother except that she, like Valkyrie, was a pilot. Only once or twice does Valkyrie put her ambivalence into words, as in a dialogue from AIRMAIDENS SPECIAL #1. After a female friend (specifically, a legacy version of Hillman's Black Angel) questions Valkyrie about the latter's feelings, Valkyrie says, "It's just that Davy's younger than I am. When I'm with him, I don't think about that. But when we're apart, I feel as though I 've picked someone up off the school yard. And his father and I..."

That's about all the Oedipal exploration seen in the fifty issues, though there's not much doubt that David III is of legal age. Chuck Dixon, in concert with such artists as Tim Truman and Stan Woch, always supplies dependable action-formula, though in the final issue editor Cat Yronwode remarked that even in the eighties it was a lot harder to do an aviation-series set in the real world than it had been during WWII.

Though the series' main appeal was the romantic soap opera, it did scrupulously follow up on some of the appeal of the early Valkyrie appearances. I remarked in the above cited review that there was an age discrepancy between the Golden Age hero and his femme fatale. There was also a brief flirtation with sadism, and this seemed again on display in this cover for 1988'S AIRBOY AND THE AIRMAIDENS.


I don't know how many comics-fans of the eighties were invested in seeing the Hillman heroes back, but I for one did enjoy the revivals of such interesting obscurities as the Bald Eagle and Rackman. However, the series didn't really ever establish a modern-day identity for New Airboy, perhaps in part because its makers were so preoccupied with building the Hillman-verse. Further, Dixon didn't introduce any interesting new villains for the hero, though he did a creditable job of making Misery into a master fiend worthy to stand alongside the best of the eighties arch-foes.



Only once does the series come close to the level of mythicity in the Golden Age Misery stories: in the final issue, done by Dixon and Andy Kubert, with Adam Kubert providing inks. Like his father before him, Airboy ventures into the supernatural domain of Misery and manages to end the villain's menace-- though, unlike his father, this Airboy vanishes from the sight of his allies, and so, even though Misery doesn't claim the hero, his disappearance carries the value of a "faux death." In the final issue's editorial Yronwode mentions the possibility of reviving the hero for an Eclipse graphic novel, but it never happened, though the Airboy franchise did surface again under the aegis of other publishers.

It wasn't the best ride of the eighties. But it was worth a try, nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK? PT. 3

At the end of the second part of HOW WEAK IS TOO WEAK, I said:

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

Given that I started this series talking in part about the sixties animated series JONNY QUEST, it's natural that one of my examples of a leader who does have combative status-- despite not being all that dynamic-- is Benton Quest of the same series. (I'll pass on making any judgments of later iterations of the franchise.)

First, like Benton's son Jonny, the scientist takes a back seat to the hyper-dynamicity of bodyguard Race Bannon. The good doctor is never seen fighting hand-to-hand, and is only occasionally seen using a pistol or rifle.




Clearly he can use a more exotic form of weaponry when pressed--




And he even creates weapons that can take out giant eye-robots.







So, even though Benton's not seen kicking a lot of ass, he contributes considerable dynamicity to the ensemble.

In contrast, there's the portentously named Commander Adama of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.



Despite his being theoretically in command of the "battlestar" and of the entire stellar wagon train it escorted, Adama always seems generally removed from the action whenever the Cylons attack. I'm not going to say that he never gives a crucial command in a given narrative. However, the entire attitude of the GALACTICA production frames Adama as a figurehead-- which is perfectly true, in terms of actor Lorne Greene's star-power compared to the appeal of his less-known co-stars. Further, Greene had become internationally famous for playing Ben Cartwright for fourteen years. and though Daddy Ben did his share of fighting and shooting alongside his sons, the Ben Cartwright character became invested with a paternal gravitas-- which is almost certainly what the GALACTICA producers wanted from Greene. In contrast, all the action is given to Adama's "sons"-- the real one, Apollo, and the figurative one, Starbuck-- who are the ones who get out there and battle Cylons.




Indeed, even though Adama and a handful of other non-combative characters are indubitably *centric" with respect to the characters important to the serial narrative, none of them are important with respect to the combative scenes. Thus, from the combative standpoint, Adama does not share the combative status of the younger space-soldiers, who in general tend to go out and fight the enemy without any input from their "old man."

Saturday, October 5, 2019

A FINAGLING FOLLOW-UP

About two years ago, in this essay, I rendered this judgment on the A&E series BATES MOTEL:

Not until 2013, with the premiere of the BATES MOTEL teleseries, did some raconteur develop the Norma character. Yet although Norma overrides Norman's character in the story proper, extrinsically Norman is still more important than Norma, even in BATES MOTEL.

At the time I wrote this, I hadn't actually finished the series, though it was wrapped in 2017, the same year I wrote the essay. I wasn't overly enamored of the series, though I respected the performances of the lead actors Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. However, now that I finally worked my way through all five seasons, I would say that Norman and Norma comprise a two-person ensemble. Indeed, one of the last shots in the fifth season concludes with a dying Norman imagining himself reunited with Norma as if the two of them have passed on to some heavenly reward beyond the ugly toils of life.

Further, though Norman's persona is, as in all other iterations, that of a "monster," Norma Bates is more of a "demihero." She commits a couple of murders, but generally in situations of self-defense, and her crimes are outgrowths of her desire to make a better life for herself in the motel business. She has some strange vibes with Norman, but not as strange as his toward her, and so her nature aligns with the quality of "positive persistence" I described here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: ["IN PLUTO'S KINGDOM"] (WONDER WOMAN #16, 1946)

[The feature story in this issue is in three chapters and thus has three separate chapter-titles, but IMO none of these titles capture the story as well as "In Pluto's Kingdom," the title given on the cover.]




"Surely, O goddess, that [story of Pluto abducting Persephone] is but a myth..."-- Wonder Woman speaking to her own goddess, Aphrodite.



It's odd for Wonder Woman, at any time in her varied history, to dismiss a story from archaic Greece as a myth, and it's particularly odd for her to be doing so when she's standing there talking to a literal goddess. Since this is one of the late tales written by William Marston's secretary Joye Murchison, I was tempted to wonder if the writer was simply not that familiar with the character and her mythos. However, having heard how intensely Marston protected his creation, I think it's likely that he kept close tabs on whatever Murchison wrote. Further, Marston frequently rewrote archaic Greek myths to fit his vision, so it's likely he was OK with the line, since it served to set up a re-interpretation of the Pluto-Persephone story.

"Kingdom" starts with the main heroine's regular supporting chorus, the Holliday Girls, commiserating with Lorrie, one of their number, who's apparently had a terrible nightmare of being attacked by a "black monster." The other girls disregard Lorrie's fears, but the next morning Lorrie's absent from her room, which shows evidence of a terrific struggle. The ladies also find that Lorrie's attacker was apparently so busy subduing her that he dropped a telltale item: a huge black two-pronged fork (apparently accurate to some artistic representations of Hades/Pluto), The ladies call in Wonder Woman, who heads off to Paradise Island to get the straight dope from Aphrodite. It's at this point that Wonder Woman makes her peculiar "but a myth" remark, after which it's revealed not only that Lorrie was abducted by King Pluto, but also that he's taken her to his true refuge, which is not an underworld domain but the actual planet Pluto.


The reinvention of Pluto's domain isn't the most interesting aspect of the Murchison tale. Though references to sex in the Marston-verse appear in covert form, Murchison re-interprets the Greek myth to elide the idea that Pluto stole Persephone in order to marry her. Rather, in a flashback to Persephone's abduction, Pluto says to the maiden, "You shall bring light to dark Hades." This is clearly a rejection of the sexual aspects of the "abducted maiden" trope, making it possible for Murchison to instill in King Pluto a desire for luminescence in place of that of carnal pleasures. (Why he particularly wants beautiful young girls for his living lamps is not explained.)



Before Wonder Woman can figure out how to get to the far-distant planet, the Holliday Girls seek out Steve Trevor. He shows them a special army project, a spaceship that just happens to be capable of reaching "the farthest planet in the universe." The girls, not content to wait for their heroine, hijack the ship and head for Pluto. Wonder Woman spies the takeoff and manages to go along. As soon as the whole contingent arrives on Pluto, the ground opens up and sucks them in. Then, rather than being ravished, the ladies suffer a fundamental body-soul division. Their flesh-and-blood bodies disappear into Pluto's realm, but their souls take on the form of "color bodies" of varying hues. The color bodies of the heroines are taken by black-cloaked minions to the court of King Pluto, who reveals that he's done this division thing many times before. He uses the color-bodies of other mortals to light his dark halls, and their flesh-bodies become his slaves.



Wonder Woman and the Hollidays fight back, but the ensuing struggles are something of a seesaw affair, since Pluto has custody of the women's bodies. Finally the Amazon makes possible the re-union of her and her friends with their normal forms, but King Pluto escapes in a sky-chariot. The Amazon cant' get the space-rocket started again, so she takes possession of one of the monarch's horses, with which she's able to return to Earth by herself. She obtains a handy dynamo from a scientist-Amazon and then journeys back to Pluto, intending to use the dynamo to re-start the ship and get the Hollidays back home. However, during this time King Pluto has also been busy on Earth, taking Steve prisoner. Wonder Woman, upon returning to the dark planet, is forced to do the King's bidding to save Steve's life. In addition, Pluto takes possession of the dynamo, and once he finds he can use it to light his kingdom, he wants to be rid of all of his "color guards" as well as the mortals from Earth. The Amazon manages to release the slaves who still have color bodies, and uses the king's own chariot to get everyone back to Earth. King Pluto loses most of his slaves (except the ones that are implicitly nothing but dead bodies), but he gets to keep the dynamo, which more or less ensures that he won't need to come raiding for living souls again. Apparently no one recompenses Earth for losing an expensive spaceship, though.



The division of mortal bodies into "dark" and "light" forms more or less corresponds with certain archaic Greek views of the afterlife, at least those that imagined a "celestial" Heracles living on Olympus while a "chthonic" version of the same hero continued to exist in the underworld. "In Pluto's Kingdom" fits in with Marston's favorite trope-- that of the liberation of slaves from bondage-- though there's nothing here about the peculiar attractiveness of bondage, under the right conditions. Maybe there's no discussion of such pleasures, or any other similar stimulation, because King Pluto is a rather unattractive fellow. (It;s possible all of his masculinity is in that big fork he leaves behind rather easily-- and, significantly, Wonder Woman's still holding his fork by the story's conclusion.) But even though this version of Pluto isn't precisely the lord of a death-realm, it's interesting that the hero does have to give him something in compensation for freeing his servants-- a pertinent example of what one might call "better living through electricity."