Featured Post

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...

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

INHUMAN DESIRES





 In a recent post on RIP JAGGER'S DOJO Rip devoted a few posts to Marvel's Inhumans features and noted, "The Inhumans always proved to be a hard sell for a self-titled ongoing series."

I had made a similar observation in my review of the 1998-99 INHUMANS graphic novel by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee:

The Inhumans were introduced in the mid-sixties by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in FANTASTIC FOUR, and the prevailing wisdom is that they were mostly Kirby's designs. However, subsequent attempts to launch the characters in their own series were largely unsuccessful. Though personally I liked the characters, I found that they were too static and lacked a viable group dynamic. The pattern for THE INHUMANS slightly resembled the Lee-Kirby THOR. In both features, the stories alternated between a fabulous otherworld where most of the characters had super-powers, and visits to the mundane world of humanity. Yet, what worked for Thor-- a central character with a retinue of support-figures-- didn't really work for the five main characters of THE INHUMANS. One reason was that four of the continuing heroes-- Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Triton-- were eternally deferential to Black Bolt, who was not only the leader of their group, but their absolute monarch, and the ruler of all the Inhumans who dwelled in the remote city of Attilan. This meant that it was difficult for writers to evoke the standard formulas of Marvel interpersonal drama.

 

Now, to pull at these threads somewhat, I should not that a "viable group dynamic" is not a guarantee for success. The Silver Age (roughly 1956-1970) gave rise to a larger number of adventure-teams than had been typical for the Golden Age. One of the few teams that had endured from the early 1940s until the mid-fifties was Quality Comics' BLACKHAWK, and this was the only feature that DC Comics continued, starting in 1956, after allegedly purchasing all of the properties owned by Quality once that company dissolved. It may be no coincidence that Jack Kirhy and Dave Wood initiated another team of uniformed crusaders the very next year, resulting in the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, which endured throughout the remainder of the Silver Age. Then within the next three-four years DC and Marvel respectively debuted JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and FANTASTIC FOUR, which both enjoyed more long-lasting success than any team that debuted in the Golden Age. JUSTICE LEAGUE survived even though it did not originally boast any sort of "group dynamic," while the FF practically defined said dynamic. Both BLACKHAWK and CHALLENGERS, which were "old school" in terms of interpersonal drama, were gone by the early seventies. At least one of Marvel's team-books with the new emphasis on drama, THE AVENGERS, prospered. However, a good group dynamic didn't save X-MEN, which concluded its first run in 1970, even though it was resurrected to spectacular success in 1975. And of course a number of solo Silver Age characters from both Marvel and DC also pooped out by the early seventies, notably THE SILVER SURFER, which had received just as much promotion in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR as had THE INHUMANS.




All that said, the thing that currently interests me most about the Inhumans is that Jack Kirby designed them at a point where Marvel was doing very well with most of its line, even if Kirby himself felt that he was getting the short end of the stick in a business sense. Some fan-sources assert that Marvel had some notion of launching THE INHUMANS as a full series sometime in the mid-sixties, but that this plan was dropped, so that the characters didn't get their own berth until debuting as a "co-feature" in 1970's AMAZING ADVENTURES. I tend to believe that Kirby thought the characters up without much input from Lee when the group appeared in 1965 (not counting the solo appearance of the character Medusa, who had appeared sans origin a year or so earlier). But the fact that Kirby didn't seem to have imagine any raison d'etre for these characters suggests to me that in his own work he didn't focus on interpersonal drama to the degree that Stan did. Kirby certainly knew how to evoke drama and pathos, and he probably contributed his fair share of such moments in FANTASTIC FOUR. Nevertheless, I think he did it largely because that's what his editor Lee wanted, not because the continuing "heroes with problems" was his creative preference. Indeed, most if not all of the "team-books" that Kirby did after ending his collaboration with Lee hearkened back to the "old school approach" of the Golden Age. Whether Kirby did the Boy Commandos or the Forever People, a Newsboy Legion for the forties or for the seventies, the team-members were mostly "a swell bunch of guys," which phrase was once applied to the Justice Society of the forties.

To be sure, Kirby's Inhumans, whether in the pages of the FF or in their own feature (a few of which Kirby wrote and drew), were more dour than brimming with bonhomie. But I'm not sure that anyone who followed Kirby's act with these characters ever managed to give them more complex or evocative characterizations-- even though, as noted above, Jenkins and Lee did a better than average job.

 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THE HORRIBLE HOUSE" (ADVENTURES INTO TERROR #29, 1954)

 Probably no trope has been as heavily used in horror comics than that of "the biter bit," where some nasty or even merely unpleasant person meets some terrible comeuppance at the hands of some monstrous entity. Most of these stories depend on a fairly simple turnabout, but this 1954 horror-tale from pre-Marvel Atlas has an extra level of complexity to it.




Unlike many such stories, there is no interest in the psychological outlook of the main character, known only as Mister Belding. The unknown author of the story, who may have been the attributed artist Al Eadeh, presents Belding as a man terrified, like many real people of the 1950s, of an impending nuclear holocaust. Belding is also revealed to be a misanthrope, who states on the second page that "I hate people! I've lived alone all my life." There's no authorial interest in how he got that way; only in his colossal ego: "If anybody survives an atom bomb attack, it should be me!" 




When he has a house built far from the cities that will be the logical targets for A-bombs, his builders give him two related warnings. One builder claims that he'll "go crazy with loneliness," but Belding claims to be immune to any need for human companionship. Another builder warns that the remote area is swampy and that it won't bear a proper foundation-- which alone ought to signal to Belding that there's a logical reason why no else lives in the area. But Belding is obsessed both with being alone and isolated from the atom bombs, so he has the house built anyway.




Unfortunately, one night Belding receives a visit from neighbors he didn't know he had. It seems that at some point someone constructed a cemetery on the swampy land, but the graves all sank into the earth and were apparently forgotten by everyone. 



The "gotcha" then transpires, as Belding's house collapses not from nuclear assault but from the instability of the marsh lands, and Belding's refuge becomes just another of the sunken graves. As an added insult to the injury of suffocating to death, Belding's conversation with the specters suggests that he won't just die and lose all his earthly goods, he'll have to put up with the company of other repulsive dead people like himself for eternity-- a hellish fate for a would-be hermit. (Though one might argue that the spectres may be things that Belding is simply imagining as he dies, which would make the tale uncanny in its phenomenality, the story would lose much of its horror if Belding wasn't about to be tormented throughout his afterlife-- and so I judge the story "marvelous.")

The last ironic twist is a character making the risible comment that the house must have sunk in accordance with Belding's wishes: that he built on the land because he wanted an "underground shelter" against the holocaust. This does raise the question as to why Belding didn't simply construct a real bomb shelter in a more dependable place, but the realistic inconsistency is what makes Belding's misanthropic mania mythic in nature. The author is not interested in a psychological study of nuclear apprehension, such as Philip K. Dick produced about a year later in his similarly themed short story "Foster, You're Dead." But in addition to giving the comics-reader his expected "gotcha-grossout," "House" catches much of the same equation between privacy and death found in this famous couplet from Andrew Marvell:

"The grave's a fine and private place,

"But none, I think, do there embrace."




Monday, August 30, 2021

NO FOOL LIKE AN OLD PRO

 By odd coincidence, just as I decided to devote a little attention to the oeuvre of Gerry Conway, I became aware that back in May of this year he'd been fulminating against manga, as covered by this BOUNDING INTO COMICS essay. The substance of Conway's rant is that he wishes Japanese manga would be taken to task for "rampant sexism and misogyny."

Some respondents to the piece were quick to point out that Conway was a hypocrite, given that he had a hand in creating one of DC Comics' most outstanding (ha ha) sexy heroines, Power Girl. 



There's a pinch of truth in this riposte, but on the whole, I tend to think that Conway only barely sexualized Power Girl in the few "Justice Society" stories for which he was responsible. I suppose she basically fits with the "titillation" category I suggested here, but the stories are just basic superhero fare, so for the most part any later hyper-sexuality attributed to Power Girl in later years is really not Conway's fault. Further, though I have not read all of Conway's work, I would tend to state that in all of the considerable number of  stories that I have read, Conway tended to "work clean." Some of his collaborative artists-- particularly Wally Wood, the co-creator of Power Girl and her boob-window-- had a strong effect on how some of Conway's stories turned out. Further, if I were to compare Conway to another mainstream work-horse like Doug Moench, my verdict would be that Moench works a lot more sexuality into even theoretically G-rated material than Conway ever did. 

But even if one agrees that Conway tended to work clean, does that in any way validate his opinion of the Japanese manga industry, beyond the level of a statement of personal taste? Any regular reader of this blog will know that my own taste allows for quite a lot of transgressive material in my reading, so clearly my answer is likely to be "no," even IF Conway had mounted an articulate campaign against sexy manga. His tweets against "sexism and misogyny" as cited in the above essay provide no examples of the things he found offensive, and in a follow-up tweet, cited here, Conway merely conflates all manga sexism with the fetishization of underage girls.

Another riposte against Conway is that, even though at one point he largely left the comics field for the greener fields of television, he's filled with envy of the way that manga has eclipsed American comics-work in terms of American purchases. This is certainly very possible, though in theory one would not be wrong in pointing a particular publisher's sins despite the success of that publisher's wares. But Conway's tweets don't even come up to the level of Frederic Wertham's fulminations, which were often misleading and poorly sourced at the best of times.

In contrast, even though I have similar disagreements with Tony Isabella for a more recent tweet on comic-book sexuality, at least his rant is more focused. This month he was apparently filled with high dudgeon because DC Comics still makes use of the character Deathstroke, whom Isabella claims to be guilty of "child molestation." This article on BIC speculates that Isabella's ire may have raised because DC is due to debut a new mini-series, "Deathstroke Inc"-- which would be the first time the popular villain would enjoy his own series since his nineties feature.

I personally have little investment in the character, beyond recognizing that he has generally proven to be an effective villain in other characters' features, though considerably less so as a headliner. His claim to fame in the "offensive sexualization" sweepstakes is clearly his dalliance with the underaged psycho-villain Terra in NEW TEEN TITANS.



I thought the original sequence was nothing special. During their lauded NEW TEEN TITANS gig, creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez had put forth a number of stories in which Evil Older People attempt to take advantage of Pretty Younger People, whether in a non-sexual sense (Batman constantly bullying Robin) or in other sexual scenarios (the Greek god Zeus attempting to seduce Wonder Girl). It's my opinion that when Wolfman and Perez depicted, somewhat obliquely, a relationship between forty-year-old Deathstroke and fifteen-year-old Terra, the creators were just flogging a new version of a clansgression-trope they'd been using to good effect. I don't remember that in the day the storyline became a huge controversy, but in any case, it's now become enough of a hot button issue that some DC raconteurs even rewrote the story to elide the offensive material. 

Isabella's rant, though more focused, is not any better articulated than Conway's. Even though Wolfman and Conway presented Terra as both violent and demented, current politically correct fans have tried to eradicate any sense that she might be responsible for her own actions. The relationship, whatever it was, must be entirely the fault of the older man. To be sure, Isabella himself does not demand that the character should cease to exist, the way Conway would apparently like to see all manga scourged of their transgressive content; Isabella seemingly just wants to make sure Deathstroke doesn't star in any new series. Surprisingly, Isabella doesn't make an issue, as does Conway, of a deleterious effect on young readers, though I would not be surprised to find that to be one of his considerations.

The thing that both of these "old pros" have in common is the notion that comics in general ought to be held to the standard of the mainstream industry for which they have worked. Unlike a lot of the Journalistas of decades past, I personally can appreciate the need for a "G-rated" mainstream, and I've not been especially sanguine about the virtues of underground comics and their "let it all hang out" aesthhetic. But as far as I'm concerned, the genie got out of the bottle as soon as the American comics-medium became inevitably focused upon older readers. Some of these readers may yearn for the simple G-rated comics of their youth. But sex sells as much to them as to anyone else, and if current comics have any advantage over current Hollywood, it would be that the former can still occasionally do good stories (as well as bad) with transgressive sexual subject matter-- which I may define a little more extensively in a future essay.

TENDER LOVING SADISM PT. 2

 


 

 

                                    


The NAGATORO manga I examined in Part 1 is more nuanced in its depiction of psychology than your average goony manga-comedy. That said, an analogous series like Naoshi Komi’s NISEKOI engages with the subject of female-male sadism in ways that are both more complicated and more complex (which are not the same in this case). Three particular stories stand out as relevant to this topic.

 

The introductory tale, “The Promise,” establishes a sketchy background for male protagonist Raku Ichijo. Raku, who has just begun his first year of high school, lives on an estate with his father, the head of a Yakuza mob, and with several other male Yakuza who don’t seem to be family relations as such. I say “sketchy” because according to the English translation Komi makes no comment as to the disposition of Raku’s mother, who’s only revealed to be living in America late in the series. The translation says nothing about whether Raku’s parents are divorced or separated, though the former seems more likely since the two remain in separate worlds at the story’s conclusion. The mother’s absence becomes relevant in that Raku, who wants nothing to do with the violent activities of the Yakuza (comedic though they are in the narrative), has assumed a quasi-maternal role in the house. Since he doesn’t like fighting, Raku’s become an expert cook and serves his Yakuza brethren all of their meals. The gangsters insist that some day Raku will assume the “capo” status of his father. Raku repeatedly denies that he will do so, fretting, “How come I’m always surrounded by violence? I look forward to the day when I can leave it all behind and lead a peaceful, quiet life.”

 

Sensible as this desire may be, it would have made Raku a very dull subject for his creator. Thus he’s flung into a new conflict in high school, which ensures that “my life became an even worse never-ending struggle!” Late-arriving first-year transfer Chitoge Kirisaki bounds into Raku’s life when she vaults the wall around the high school and accidentally knees Raku in the face. The two teens repeatedly quarrel with one another, with Chitoge insulting Raku for being an unmanly whiner. His purported unmanliness becomes underscored by the fact that the model-gorgeous Chitoge is also a superb athlete who does not hesitate to knock Raku’s block off when he insults her. Then Raku learns that Chitoge, half-American and half-Japanese, is the daughter to the head of an American gangster organization that’s moved to Japan. To prevent Raku’s Yazuka and Chitoge’s gangster-group from fighting with one another, the respective heads of the two gangs convince their offspring to fake a love-connection. Further complicating Raku’s life is that he already pines after Kosaki, a fellow student he’s known for years, and though Kosaki feels the same way toward him, neither has been able to get up the nerve to confess their feelings. Ergo, more “never-ending struggle.”

 

Naturally there would be no story if Raku and Chitoge did not develop feelings for one another, despite her tendency to lose her temper with him. Yet though Raku never becomes physically tougher, he does often end up playing the typical male role of the rescuer, particularly since Chitoge loses her nerve when confined to any dark or confined place. More wacky complication ensue when more girls become drawn toward Raku—principally Chitoge’s bodyguard Seichiro and Raku’s “family-arranged fiancĂ©e” Marika.

 





The second story for consideration is “Transformation,” occurring at least one year later. By this time Chitoge has become consciously enthralled with Raku’s ordinary-guy charms but she hasn’t confessed her feelings. Raku feels some degree of attraction to all four members of his “harem,” but he steadfastly believes that Kosaki is the girl for him. On New Year’s Day Chitoge gets together their whole “gang”—Kosaki, Seichiro, Marika, Raku’s friend Shu and Kosaki’s friend Ruri—and they all barge into Raku’s house to celebrate the New Year. (Some Yakuza are around but they’re kept off to one side and don’t actively participate in the story.) All the girls get drunk on “whiskey bonbons,” and all except Ruri become erotically charged toward Raku. In fact, Chitoge threatens to beat him up if he doesn’t kiss her, and there’s an intentionally ambivalent scene in which the four girls gang up on him—though the reader doesn’t see what they do to him and Raku himself blocks out the memory of the incident. Since the reader has repeatedly been assured that the four teenagers are all “good girls” at base, it’s unlikely that anything more than an osculatory assault took place. But this speaks to the fact that the “rape of Raku” proves amusing, as it (almost) never would with a female protagonist, specifically because male rape by female is so improbable.

 


At the time of “Test,” it’s still only been “over a year” since the beginning of the false love. Chitoge considers confessing her infatuation to Raku, who remains clueless that their fake relationship has become real to the both of them. Though he’s spent much of that year being clobbered by the irritable Chitoge, he seems to have accepted this fate as the consequence of dating a “gorilla girl.” Here he voices a fairly rare complaint about his status as her punching bag:  “we've been through a lot.... like you hitting me… and hitting me… and hitting me.” This provokes Chitoge to claim that “it was your fault all of those times,” and Raku replies that, “I’m pretty much totally defenseless.” To be sure, the above translation deviates from the official one, but I choose to believe that the latter translation is closer to Komi's thought, since it's funny to see a boy talking about being defenseless before a girl’s anger. Further, as with the “sort-of rape” in "Transformation," it would not be amusing were the genders reversed. Raku almost, but never quite, sounds like a masochist, though it might not be unfair to state that he has some submissive characteristics. Oddly, though, Chitoge defers to him to function as the “leader” of the group, particularly during the events examined in the longarc I’ve entitled “Limit.” And Raku does end up (SPOILERS) becoming the new head of the Yakuza sect, which he somehow makes over into a law-abiding organization. One might say that his ability to accept the chaos of Chitoge in his life makes him better suited to deal with all other forms of cultural chaos.

In any case, though these three stories don’t plumb the full depths of Komi’s take on the male-female power dynamic, they are among the most crucial for seeing how Komi both deviates from and reinforces gender tropes-- 

Friday, August 27, 2021

TENDER LOVING SADISM PT. 1

 I've taken on many ambitious projects on the ARCHIVE over the year, but one project I'll never attempt is to figure out the role that fictional sadism plays in Japanese pop culture, even though I've often pointed examples of manga that were particularly engaged with this psychological concept. Still, I can point out some interesting variations on the theme.

I've finished a still-in-progress manga with the wordy title of PLEASE DON'T BULLY ME, NAGATORO, in which a minor form of sadism is used as a means of improving a potential romantic partner's intestinal fortitude. The premise begins with second-year high schooler Naoto, an extremely withdrawn young man who loses himself in the school's art club-- of which he's the only member-- in order to avoid engaging with his peers. His life changes, largely for the better, when a first-year student, a girl named Nagatoro, notices him and makes her mission in life to constantly torment the fellow, constantly insulting him for being a "virgin" and committing minor acts of physical abuse on Naoto's person.

Given that Nagatoro is a comely damsel despite her aggressiveness, Naoto is not entirely unhappy with her bullying. Even though she's being sarcastic when she calls him her "senpai"-- allegedly her superior in age and stature, with her being his "kohai"-- she brings Naoto out of his shell, sitting for him as his model so that he stops painting safe subjects like flowers and fruit. As of this writing the relationship is still in flux, with Naoto asking Nagatoro on their first date. But one particular episode is worth examination.

Because Nagatoro is one of the "cool kids" at the school, some of her female friends become interested in making fun of Naoto as well, though not with Nagatoro's personal motives. Since Nagatoro constantly calls Naoto a "pervert," the other girls in her pack do the same but with a significant difference.



In the story "Senpai is a Quiet Pervert," Nagatoro's peer calls Naoto a "herbivore," meaning that he has no sexual nature whatever. Nagatoro is quick to correct this misimpression:



The two girls argue, and Nagatoro offers to prove her judgment of Naoto's "quiet perversion" by searching out one of the erotic manga he keeps in the art room. Naoto alone knows that though he has an erotic manga nearby, it's not in the art room, so Nagatoro's quest is doomed to failure. But because he'd rather be thought a sex-obsessed loser than a sexless loser, he covertly gets hold of the manga and brings it into the art room-- thus supporting Nagatoro's vision of him.





It's not clear as to whether Nagatoro realizes what Naoto has done, but either way, she doesn't spare him her scorn. But in comparison to the opinions of the other girls, Nagatoro's insults will in future act as a goad, encouraging him to take a shot at finding a non-manga girlfriend.


LIKE A TROPE, ON THE WIRE

                           

 Whatever the virtues of my essay-series HOW CONTEMPT BREEDS UNFAMILIARITY,  it did not succeed in supplying a succinct “summation of my NUM theory,” so here’s a one-essay shot at simplification.

 Almost all Western critics from the 18th century on have formed their theories against a background of predominantly “realistic” literature, in which it is taken for granted that the world of literature ought to emulate the world one sees outside one’s window, or, failing that, the world one would have seen had one lived at a certain time and place. Only in the 20th century did some critics, such as Northrop Frye and Leslie Fiedler, attempt to articulate systems that accounted for the appeal of what is usually called “fantastic literature.” Even so, these authors still focused mostly on authors whose metaphenomenal visions had proved popular for centuries: Swift, Milton, Poe, et al.

My amateur “poetics” takes metaphenomenal literature as the starting-point and views all the developments of realistic literature as reactions against the literary formulas—tropes, as many call them-- of myth and folklore.

 

As it happens, the earliest literary critic—or at least, the earliest whose works have survived to the present day—lived in an era (384-322 B.C.) in which most major literary works took place in metaphenomenal worlds, whether they recapitulated the major mythic narratives associated with the Greek pantheon, as seen in Homer’s two epics, or simply used relatively minor fantasy-tropes, like the ghost that appears in Aeschylus’s THE PERSIANS. Because Aristotle’s literary world was full of gods, curses and oracles, his POETICS, the first extant statement of artistic principles, does not address in depth the subject of phenomenality; of how a given literary work portrays the nature of the phenomena available in its world. The POETICS makes several statements that are relevant to the subject of phenomenality, such as when the philosopher opines that comedy tends to be more down-to-earth than tragedy. But the closest Aristotle comes to an overall statement on what phenomena a work can portray is his elaboration upon the concept of mimesis (“imitation.”) For Aristotle, what he calls “poetry” is the “imitation of an action” of which the poet has conceived, and the philosopher breaks down three categories of narrative action of which the poet can conceive: “things as they are or were,” “things as they are said to be” (that is, things whose veracity the poet cannot vouch for), and “things as they ought to be.” The last category may have taken in for the rare narratives that paralleled what we now call science fiction, such as Aristophanes’ THE BIRDS (414 BC), which depicts the titular avians creating the imaginary domain of Cloud Cuckoo Land. But Aristotle does not offer more than one or two examples of each of these categories, for he did not live in a world whose literature privileged the naturalistic. There was no need to justify the metaphenomenal worlds of THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY, since everyone accepted them as genuine art.

 

If there is a “fatal flaw” in Aristotle’s categories, it would be his failure to point out that even the author’s depiction of “things as they are” were not windows upon reality as such; that they were, as much as depictions of gods and ghosts, literary tropes; formulas that were meant to evoke certain responses in their audiences. For instance, a scene in THE ODYSSEY depicts a servant’s recognition of the disguised Odysseus thanks to an unhealed scar on the hero’s leg. Even though the epic is full of gods and monsters, this scene is predicated on a naturalistic detail that convinces because everyone in the audience is familiar with the fact that wounds don’t always heal properly. Nevertheless, the scene is not “reality,” but an “imitation of reality.” It is not any less a construct than, say, a scene in THE ILIAD wherein Zeus makes the very un-human statement that, if he so desired, he could absorb all of his fractious fellow gods into himself as a show of his omnipotence.

 

Aristotle almost certainly knew that even realistic tropes were still products of human artifice, but he does not explicitly say so. There is no over-arcing statement to parallel that of the modern philosopher Suzanne Langer, who labeled all the productions of art as being “gestural,” i.e., that they gestured toward aspects of human existence without actually being coterminous with those aspects. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s works during the European Renaissance resulted in a misinterpretation of his concept of mimesis, so as to emphasize only “things as they are or were.” Of course, it may be that the Renaissance critics merely chose to emphasize the parts of Aristotle that validated their own culture, since during that period literature became increasingly naturalistic.

 

The predominant naturalism of 18th-century works like MOLL FLANDERS and TOM JONES as I said, a reaction against the older forms of European romance and religious rhetoric, which had served roughly the same cultural purpose in the European countries that Greek polytheism had served in Greece. That century saw a limited counter-reaction against naturalism in a short-lived vogue for “Arabian Nights” fantasies and the more protracted European fascination with Gothic horrors. In the 19th century the latter form of metaphenomenal literature also spread to the United States of America and affected the oeuvres of Poe and of Hawthorne. But the Gothics and all the subcategories of metaphenomenal fiction—eventually given the rubrics of “fantasy, horror and science fiction” in the ensuing century—were not regarded as being on the same quality-level as naturalistic literature. Not until the latter half of the 20th century did naturalism lose some of its hold on the Western psyche, resulting in the proliferation of so-called “speculative fiction,” much of which was given more literary cachet than the old “science fiction and fantasy.”

 

In my discussion of Aristotle I mentioned that Classic Greek literature could embrace both “naturalistic tropes,” which were often with the limitations of human fallibility and mortality,” and with “marvelous tropes” about gods and ghosts, describing imagined states of existence beyond the realm of human limitations. Gothic fiction was instrumental, however, in promulgating the interstitial category of “uncanny tropes.” Such tropes had existed even in mankind’s prehistory, and in my essay UNCANNY GENESIS I cited some examples of uncanny tropes from archaic story-cycles, such as the extra-Biblical “Bel and the Dragon” and “the Six Labors of Theseus.” But there’s no doubt that Gothic practitioners like Ann Radcliffe had a much more sustained effect in elaborating stories in which supernatural occurrences were “explained rationally.” In truth, though, the “rationality” of uncanny stories like THE ITALIAN and THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO is compromised from the start by even allowing for the possibility of the supernatural, in contrast, say, to Jane Austen’s Gothic spoof NORTHANGER ABBEY, in which the existence of the supernatural is not even slightly validated.

 

The domain of “the naturalistic” emphasizes conformity with whatever idea of “natural law” an audience may expouse, whereas the domain of “the marvelous” conforms to whatever concepts are seen as transcending natural law, be it through Christian miracles or futuristic inventions. The domain of “the uncanny,” though, endeavors to perform a high-wire balancing act between these two literary phenomenalities. It might be argued that some forms of “the uncanny” sway toward the domain of naturalism, as when the story’s hero unmasks a marauding ghost as sinister Uncle Eben. But other forms sway closer to the domain of the marvelous. Nothing in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original TARZAN story literally transcends natural law, however much one questions the probability of the hero’s advancement to his status of “lord of the jungle.” Tarzan is supposedly no stronger than a human male can be at the peak of development. But his immense strength SEEMS to make him a “superman,” as does his rapport with jungle-beasts like apes and elephants. And so, even though the author is working with a set of uncanny tropes akin to those of Ann Radcliffe, emphasizing *semblance* rather than *actuality,* Tarzan’s origins do not reduce him in stature in the way that arguably Uncle Eben is reduced by the revelation of his ghostly imposture.

 

All of these sets of phenomenality-tropes reflect the desire of human audiences to see stories that reflect either direct physical experience or indirect mental experience. It may be argued that the exigencies of physical existence signify that humans can never be “free” in the sense of being independent of those exigencies. However, literary work allows audiences to think and feel what it would like to enjoy such freedom, whether that sense of freedom is ultimately validated or frustrated. The freedom to think in terms outside those of immediate experience have arguably made it possible for humans to concoct real handheld communication devices to match those of the fictional STAR TREK. But even if no such innovations came about in response to fictional inspirations, literature is at its best when it offers its audiences the mimesis of all possible worlds.

Friday, August 20, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THREAT OF THE WITCH-WOMAN" (STRANGE ADVENTURES #156, 1963)

 Throughout the 15 installments of the John Broome-Murphy Anderson series THE ATOMIC KNIGHTS, the stories expoused an ethical stance re: science and culture most like John Campbell's ANALOG in the same era, a stance could be summed up as "pro-science no matter what."  In ATOMIC KNIGHTS, humanity misuses technology so as to bring about a nuclear holocaust, returning humans to a predominantly agrarian level, though they're still menaced by tinpot dictators, mutated creatures and lingering radioactivity. Yet despite all these calamities, the primary duty of the heroes is to recover all the benefits of science and technology in order to return humankind to its high estate. These particular heroes may fight for justice while wearing the armor of archaic European knights, but they only do so because the armor has been permeated with a unique power that protects the wearers from radiation poisoning. "Set a thief to catch a thief" in the world of apocalyptic SF, if you like.

Many SF-narratives can be fairly accused of "scientism," defined as "excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques," and one of the most frequently used strategies of validating science is to downgrade the influence of religion upon human subjects. One can find a lot of anti-religious rhetoric in prose SF, but comic books of the Silver Age tended to avoid the topic. Broome's script "Threat of the Witch-Woman" shows clear influence from the many stories that deal with the witch-hunting craze of 17th-century New England, but nowhere in "Threat" does Broome speak of religion as such. Instead, the idea of "superstition" is substituted for that more controversial topic.




The witch-hunting trials are usually seen as hysteria arising from the isolation of Christian settlers in the raw domain of colonial America, where devils were seen in every incident of bad fortune, to say nothing of red-skinned natives and darksome forests. Since the KNIGHTS feature had hurled humanity back to the status of rustic life, it must have seemed logical to Broome to use witch-hysteria for a story, albeit not in New England as such. The Knights' home base, the fictional town of Durvale, is said to be located in the Midwest, six years after the nuclear apocalypse, but they nevertheless find that one of the neighboring towns has become infected with witch-hysteria-- though at base the problem stems not from religion but from a new radiation-malady: "hallucination-sickness." 


The dialogue shown above-- in which the five Knights and their female comrade discuss the sickness-- is an excruciatingly earnest infodump, complete with the infamous "as you know" phrase when one Knight relates things that the other characters know but the reader does not. The character Herald, a schoolteacher, informs his friends that he beheld one of the "two-dimensional creatures" spawned by hallucination-sickness while he was checking on a student from the neighboring town of Harrow. The denizens of this town are antithetical to the pro-science beliefs of the Knights: "It seems the rest of the town doesn't believe in schools or science, or any progress! They fear progress, because they claim it led to the War!"



This critique of the misuses of science is patently ignored by the Knights, who are more concerned that someone in Harrow has been infected with the sickness. Though the malady hasn't been observed for very long, it just so happens that the Knights already have a potential cure available, so off they go to Harrow to minister to the afflicted. On their way they encounter Herald's student Fred Dromer, who reveals that one of the hallucination-creatures attacked the home of Harrow's leader Mister Fallow. It's not clear as to why Fallow and the other Harrow-ites figured out that the creature had been spawned by Fred's mother Henrietta, but in their superstitious fear they consider her to be that scourge of the seventeenth century, a witch. The Knights arrive just as the crowd prepares to execute Henrietta Dromer and stop the attempted murder. (In deference to the Comics Code, Anderson's art does not even suggest whatever method the townsfolk mean to use in killing the youthful young mother, just as Broome does not even wonder what might have befallen young Fred's father.)






However, despite having revived the archetype of the witch in superstitious fear, the Harrow-ites are correct: Henrietta is indeed responsible for calling up the vaguely devilish energy-beings. It's interesting that Broome titled the story "Threat of the Witch-Woman," since the whole point of the story is to prove that she is not a sorceress. Broome may have been in sympathy with the idea that some of the New England women who confessed to witchcraft were simply seduced by the psychological fantasias of having been seduced by Satan, but in place of psychosexual impulses, Henrietta is merely a vessel who accidentally empowers science-fictional "demons." The Knights observe that the hallucinations have a rudimentary intelligence, and that they seek to remain alive by keeping Henrietta locked in her trance. 




Ultimately the Knights free Henrietta from the energy-creatures, who fade away when deprived of their summoner, and the heroes take the woman and her son back to Durvale to be cured. In a last minute turnabout, Fallow and the other townsfolk show up, duly chastened and ready to accept the ways of science over superstition.

I don't think John Broome was a feminist as such, and therefore he probably didn't have much to say about the status of women in patriarchal society, which has often been a theme on which witch-hunt stories have expatiated. Yet it's worth remembering that he did create DC Comics's second version of Star Sapphire, analyzed here as a Jekyll-Hyde figure caught between a desire to be traditionally feminine and a coequal pleasure in being "the boss." The apparent widow-woman Henrietta Dromer has far less depth than Star Sapphire, and the reader knows nothing of her position in the Harrow community, but it's at least possible that when one hallucination attacks the domicile of town leader Fallow, that event may express some feminine resentment of Harrow's patriarchal leader. It's also of passing interest that in the Dutch language-- a language that would have been spoken in some New England colonies-- "dromer" means "dreamer." 

Of even greater mythopoeic interest are Broome's uses of the names "Harrow" and "Fallow." Harrowing is the process by which a farmer readies the land for planting seed, but over time the word has also taken on some emotional resonances: a fearful experience is said to be "harrowing," and the Messiah's descent into hell is typically called a "harrowing." Calling the town "Harrow" taps into some of these meanings as well as just evoking the idea of a farming-community. Of equal interest is Fallow's name, for when a farmer wants to allow overused land to "lie fallow" in order to replenish its nutrients, he does indeed harrow the land once more, but without introducing seeds. In the context of the story, the town of Harrow has allowed itself to "lie fallow" for too long by not accepting progress and scientific advancement-- and the Knights, by venturing into the staid town to purge it of an alien illness, have introduced the "seed" of rebirth.