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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...

Monday, February 18, 2008

MOVING FURNITURE, TRADING SYMBOLIC SPACES


Following the death of Steve Gerber I did what I imagine many admirers did: I revisited some of his most-celebrated works, one of which was his stint on the superhero team-book THE DEFENDERS.

After hauling out that particular part of my collection and reading not only Gerber’s take on the group but that of other authors, I began to wonder: how much of the feature would stand up to myth-critical scrutiny? The concept of THE DEFENDERS—a loose coalition of several of Marvel’s “outsider-heroes”—had often received from fan-critics favorable comparison with Marvel’s AVENGERS, often considered to be more generic, and thus less creatively anarchic, than THE DEFENDERS. However, the appearance of creative anarchy is hardly a guarantor of a work’s possessing the complex symbolism I’ve dubbed mythicity.

To repeat what I said in “Myths Without Fantasy,” any kind of story may attain to the complexity of myth, and any element of narrative storytelling—a plot-event, a setting, a piece of dialogue, or a turn of characterization—can have the potential to go from a simple variable to a complex one. At the simple level, such elements are manipulated by the author to serve the ends of the story, which (as per this article’s title) I consider to be akin to the simple act of moving one’s furniture from one place to another. However, where one encounters the author bringing in extra levels of associational complexity, often not necessary as such for the story’s smooth functioning, one is dealing with another level of symbolic discourse, where the simple is “traded” for the complex, rather than simply being moved from one spot to another.

The first six adventures of THE DEFENDERS—three in issues of MARVEL FEATURE, and the first three issues of the super-team’s own magazine—are entertaining instances of “furnitute-moving,” which, for the superhero genre, means lots of lively fights. For Marvel superheroes in particular, it also means that the furniture one is moving has been passed down through many hands, as in theory every story in the so-called Marvel Universe may be viewed as part of an ongoing palimpsest, an endless series of texts which authors may add to, correct, or even erase. With that in mind, though I can say that I think DEFENDERS #4 is the first tale in the series to attain mythic complexity, it’s hard to speak of that story alone because it’s imbricated with so many other elements in past tales. Some of these elements possess mythicity, and others are just unadorned furniture, but before I can speak of the first mythic element that proves significant, I have to speak of all the others that contributed to the character of The Valkyrie. I’ll begin that next post.

On a side-note, I don’t want to give the impression that every single story in the Marvel corpus is referential in the extreme, but obviously, from the time of the company’s conceptual retooling in the early 1960s, the idea of rewriting other discourses, even by the same authors, became part of Marvel’s dominant narrative strategy. For instance, between issues 1 and 2 of the company’s flagship title FANTASTIC FOUR, one can see some changes that were simple mistakes: the trip to the moon in #1 is remembered as a trip to Mars in #2. However, Lee and Kirby also changed their original notion of the Fantastic Four from one issue to the next, with the first issue showing them as shadowy, freakish outcasts—not too unlike the much later Defenders, in fact—while the second, with no explanation, posits that the group-members are suddenly lionized celebrities, heirs to such heroic fame that even the alien Skrulls have heard of them. The latter change is not simply a “mistake,” but involves a shift from one discourse to another. This ability of discourses to shift from one level to another will be easy to observe as I begin surveying the textual history of the Valkyrie.

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