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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...

Friday, May 2, 2008

RAYMOND'S RACIAL MYTHOS II

Following up on some of the thoughts expressed in "Raymond's Racial Mythos," here's the most substantial item I could find in FLASH GORDON's first year that suggested the racial mythologizing that gives the strip its greatest claim to symbolic complexity. In the sixth 1934 FG strip, villainous Ming threatens to subject Dale to a "dehumanizing machine" which will make her like the races on the planet Mongo. He even specifically says "We on this planet," not just his own Chinese-looking race. He claims that Mongo has "progressed far beyond you Earthlings. The reason for our success is that we possess none of the human traits of kindness, mercy or pity-- We are coldly scientific and ruthless."

Since the dehumanizing machine never appears again in FLASH GORDON's first year, I doubt Raymond and/or Moore ever brought it up again. In terms of what mythicity the machine has, it clearly fits Joseph Campbell's "sociological" matrix of meanings, since the machine is a device to explain the contrast between the ruthless society of Mongo and the civilization of Earth, which in theory lives by the very traits Mongo renounces.

This opposition was certainly not original with Raymond and Moore. Since the rise of the "Yellow Peril" concept in Europe and the States, works in this category showed a particular fondness for portraying American characters as the salt of the earth-- essentially kindhearted despite being able to beat bad guys to jelly-- while the foremost representatives of the Yellow Peril, the Chinese, were often seen as both hyperintellectual and devoid of mercy. Raymond and Moore could easily have derived this conception from the early books in Sax Rohmer's FU MANCHU series; certainly they follow Rohmer's idea of naming a Chinese (or Chinese-looking) villain after an entire Chinese dynasty.

But just how complex is this sociological myth? Not very. Indeed, it may be the closest one can get to the state of null-mythicity without losing any claim to complexity whatsoever.

It's not just that the use of this narrative device is brief. I've noted in "Dragon Lady Dreams" that Milton Caniff put forth a single Sunday strip in which the Dragon Lady claimed to be a literal incarnation of a Chinese dragon. The explication of this idea occupies no more or less space than the bit about the dehumanizing machine does, and it too is a narrative element that is probably never visited again by the author. Yet I would say that the TERRY strip possesses a high degree of mythicity.

The reason is that the essence of symbolic complexity is its propensity to create resonances between different parts of a narrative, particularly one that develops in a serial fashion. The dehumanizing machine is a typical enough sci-fi device to explain a sociological disparity between Earth and Mongo-- the sort of thing Edgar Rice Burroughs might have used in similar tales-- but if FLASH GORDON kept coming back, again and again, to the sociological disparity, even if the machine itself never appeared again, then the resonance would have been consistently developed. And based on my scattered readings, I don't think that the strip does so in any significant way. Indeed, Raymond and Moore didn't even keep their own notion of the disparity consistent within the next few strips, for, as I noted earlier, Flash garners his first alien ally, the lion-man Thun, because he wins Thun's sympathy with the tale of Dale's imprisonment. Clearly not all races of Mongo have been dehumanized, and indeed many of those who look inhuman are more humanistic than the Asian-looking "Mongolese."

In contrast, the sociological myth of East vs. West is generally consistent in Caniff''s TERRY, and the one strip about the Dragon Lady's supposed inhuman credentials is merely a small part of that larger mythos, and her mythic characterization does not vary the way various FLASH characters change at the author's fancy. Therefore within TERRY's first year that strip expresses high mythicity while FLASH's remains pretty low at the start. That Raymond's art greatly improves over time goes without saying, but I would have to subject the rest of his oeuvre to further analysis before I could say whether or not Flash proves more than a mythic "flash in the pan."

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