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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

THEMATIC REALISM, PART I

In the JUSTICE LEAGUE review I referred briefly to a concept I termed "thematic realism," whose opposite might well be called "thematic escapism." The first I associate with what Jung called "directed thinking," wherein the author is seeking to make a definite point, which can descend into pure allegory (though it doesn't have to). The second is more akin to Jung's "intuitional thinking," wherein the author is less concerned with thematic concerns than expressing some emotional state or states. The conflict between the two within some creators is aptly caught by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his response to a reader who thought that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" had no moral:

"I told her that in my opinion the poem had too much; and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geniestarts up, and says he _must_ kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son."'

Coleridge's example of the Arabian Nights tale is, like the JUSTICE LEAGUE story I critiqued, not especially concerned with morals as such-- or at least, not to the extent that the ANCIENT MARINER is. Both tales are, in a formal sense, "escapist," though I note that I use the word non-pejoratively. Neither Gardner Fox nor the Arabian Nights scribe existed in a time before fiction had been used for didactic moral purposes, of course, but both stories can be fairly regarded as "vacations from morals." It is not that the protagonists of the tales do not perform actions that the reader considers "good" rather than "bad,"but that there is not a true moral dialectic as such.

By contrast, a tale like Coleridge's MARINER, or (to give a superheroic parallel to the JLA tale) WATCHMEN, are clearly tales that are much concerned with analyzing the ways mortal men deal with the moral elements in life, no matter how fantastic their situations. There's nothing wrong with this kind of fiction, and I don't necessarily share Coleridge's opinion that MARINER would have been improved by lacking a moral, especially since he proved himself more than able to summon such a non-moralistic expressiveness in poems like KUBLAI KHAN. However, there is in comics-fandom a considerable prejudice toward a belief opposite to the one Coleridge expresses: that a narrative is *always* superior because it addresses specific dialectical moral issues. Not only is not the case, it can be a prejudice that falsifies the genuine polysemous quality of literature, as I'll show with another example in Part II.

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