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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...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


A Myth-Analysis of “The Justice League’s Impossible Adventure!”

I’ve been recently arguing with a messboard opponent that the essence of myth, both in its religious and literary manifestations, is opposed to any kind of dialectical thought. Indeed, it’s arguable that dialectical thought (what Cassirer would also call discursive thinking) is what transforms archaic myth into religion, and what separates so-called “high” literature from its lower forms. I don’t oppose the idea of such a separation, but I don’t assume that the form of literature that has been infused with dialectical thought and/or ideology is superior to the form without such discursive manipulations. Works belonging to the first form I’ve denoted as works of “thematic realism,” because the themes they pursue are meant to have realistic application to the world in which the audience exists. Works of the second form—which include the superhero adventure mentioned above, from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #59—are naturally unrealistic in the thematic sense, but as I hope to prove, lack of realism does not equal lack of relevance.

JLA #59 begins, as many of the feature’s adventures do, with some of the superheroes being spirited out of their headquarters by unknown forces—specifically, five members: Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and the Martian Manhunter. They find themselves on an alien planet with a red sun, which immediately deprives Superman of his fantastic powers. (As Superman was the only hero capable of flying off the planet into deep space, this development was probably writer Gardner Fox’s strategy for keeping all five heroes planetbound.) The Leaguers soon encounter their alien hosts: a trio of identical purple-skinned “wise men” types, who call themselves “the Impossibles” (a name that would be risible even if it wasn’t shared by a trio of 1960s animated superheroes from Hanna-Barbera). The Impossibles claim that they possess an inerrancy that any Catholic Pope might envy, since everything they do is for the best—and their purpose in abducting the quintet is to take away their super-powers. And though their inerrancy sounds Catholic, their impulse seems guided by Protestant virtues, since they choose these five heroes because none of them earned their powers, which were all gained either through the circumstances of their birth or a fortuitous accident. “Fate giveth and fate taketh away” seems to be their motto, but the Impossibles, despite being numerically equivalent to the Greek Moirae, don’t actually know the future, and are fascinated to see what good will come of their tampering.

In short order, one of the Impossibles’ machines reduces all five heroes to mortal status. Moments later, the three wise aliens are blasted by rays from some unseen source. Before slumping into comas, the Impossibles assert that they have been attacked by their enemies “the Contras,” and that “Without us—should we be destroyed by the Contra Creatures—the entire universe will be dominated by sheer evil.” The heroes immediately accept the truth of the Impossibles’ declaration, perhaps being of the belief that any beings called “Contras” must be contrary to good (and this many years before the word acquired its current political charge!) As the quintet dashes forth to battle evil, the Martian Manhunter notes that even though they’ve lost their powers, they’ve also lost their weaknesses.

Appropriately enough, the villains are five in number too, but whereas the Impossibles were identical, the Contras look as they came from five different worlds: a crystal man, a walking brain, a spiral-creature, a flower-man and a “living neon-being.” “Everything on that world must be different from everything else,” reasons one of the heroes before they engage the Contras in battle. All five heroes get ignominiously trounced, though two of them are saved from death by the fact that they don’t possess their super-powers. Thus the powers the heroes did not earn are providentially taken away just when they would have proved a fatal burden.
The Contras approach the unconscious Impossibles, bent on killing them. Flash theorizes that the Contra’s weakness may be that they “never do anything the same”—which is the writer’s way of making it possible to bestow on the villains any weakness he chooses, some of which are identical to those of the heroes. Superman just happens to find a chunk of meteoric kryptonite, which he uses to destroy the neon-being. Aquaman, following somewhat more scientific principles, traps the walking brain by immersing it in the ocean and submerging it, reasoning that “no brain can do without oxygen for more than six minutes.” The Martian Manhunter, now able to handle fire without ill effects, manages to burn up the flower-being. The crystal man and the spiral-creature are defeated without resort to specific weaknesses, since within the pages of the JLA neither of the heroes who deal out those defeats—Flash and Wonder Woman—have specific weaknesses to utilize against these villains. (I specify “within the pages of the JLA” because in Wonder Woman’s own feature, she was sometimes said to lose her powers when chained by a man, but Gardner Fox’s JLA doesn’t draw on that bit of Amazon mythology.) In the end, all five aliens are destroyed with a ruthlessness unusual to the milieu of 1960s superheroes. This may account for why none of the Contras ever speak. Because they don’t, the Contras never entirely seem like sentient beings, and so the heroes can demolish them as cheerfully as if they were smashing inanimate matter, even though both the brain and the flower-being seem to be modeled on living things.

In conclusion, whether by direct or roundabout means, all the Leaguers regain their powers from their acts of Contra-smashing, which is as good as saying that they have now “earned” the abilities that fate gave them earlier. Upon recovering, the Impossibles exult in an “I told you so” moment, and return the quintet of Leaguers to their headquarters for some last-panel badinage about the impossibility of their adventure.

I used the word “providentially” earlier. In one sense, JLA #59 is about the myth of Providence, in which the will of a benign God sorts out men’s fates according to their desserts. In broad form it’s the same theme that informs both Alan Moore’s PROMETHEA and C.S. Lewis’ NARNIA books. However, unlike those works—both of which attempt to deal with the Providence-theme in dialectical fashion, however successfully—the JUSTICE LEAGUE adventure doesn’t advance a true dialectical argument. This lack of a dialectical element, however, does not adversely affect the story’s complexity. JLA #59 uses many of the same elements that a dialectical story would have used, such as the opposition of stability (the Impossibles) with chaos (the Contras). The story’s game of “vanishing powers and weaknesses,” though, is arguably one that comes forth in its full glory only in a tale able to ignore the demands of thematic realism, and to focus on what the 1940 film THIEF OF BAGDAD calls “the beauty of the impossible.” If one hypothesizes that one of the chief pleasures offered by the superhero genre is that of beholding the flagrantly impossible, then the rather-comic name given to these purple-skinned purveyors of providence may be entirely appropriate. After all, though in all likelihood no audience-member for this story has ever lived in a world where one can be sure of being “right” at all times—much less regarding the correct apportionment of good and evil—this fact does not remove the pleasure of viewing a world where the impossible is real.

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