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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...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

MERIT RAISED IV

For this final essay I'll start by recapping the salient points from the three previous essays:

(1) I began by stating that although WATCHMEN and SQUADRON SUPREME, two thematically-related works, both made John Jakala's bloglist of literary-merit comics, I considered that only the former possessed significant literary merit. However, my reasons for that determination did not spring from either of the two most widely-known lit-crit approaches, that of the ethical and the aesthetic, even though I concurred that if I *had* used either approach SQUADRON would have failed the merit-tests either way. I believe that the Gruenwald work also basically fails the test for significant merit via my favored approach, that of archetypal criticism, but critiquing SQUADRON through an archetypal lens may demonstrate aspects of latent symbolic discourse often overlooked by the other two approaches.

(2) I further stated that while I felt that the focus of ethical criticism was upon moral *content,* and that of aesthetic criticism was upon *style,* the focus of archetypal criticism was upon *literary form,* upon the type of story the author was trying to communicate, which attempt largely predestines the symbolic discourse of a given work. Thus it's important to distinguish how works belonging to the same genre can fall into different modes. WATCHMEN and SQUADRON both to a large genre called "superheroes" as well as a smaller subgenre: "pastiche-superheroes used to comment on the 'normative' manifestations of the genre." However, based on how the authors structure their respective characters' "power of action," each falls into a different mode, and whether each work passes or fails the archetypal merit-test depends on the dominant parameters of that mode. Thus WATCHMEN succeeds as an ironic take on the superhero genre and SQUADRON fails as a "high mimetic," quasi-tragical superhero work.

(3) Both of these modes as well as Frye's "low mimetic" mode (which might include something like Bendis' POWERS) exist in a descending scale from the mode of romance. In this mode, protagonists have a "power of action" which, though not capable of creating aspects of reality as are the powers of the gods of myth, is still ineluctably positive. In romance (which connotes what most people call "adventure"). the hero's actions generally result in desireable outcomes, occasionally marked by tragic, comic or ironic touches but not fundamentally attuned to the demands of those mode-forms. As the "power of action" becomes increasingly attenuated going down the scale, the mode becomes more responsive to the perceived demands of "reality," even in works that have the phenomenal content of fantasies. Thus the "power of action" generally becomes more and more negative in tone going from romance to high mimetic to low mimetic to irony.

Now, on new stuff:

I mentioned before that WATCHMEN and SQUADRON shared themes in common in that both are about the abuse of societal power by superheroes. I didn't mention that they're opposed in terms of how that abuse manifests, with SQUADRON focusing on superheroes abusing power by becoming rulers, while WATCHMEN concerns superheroes abusing power by obeying corrupt rulers (though the plot-point that begins the story, the murder of the Comedian, has nothing to do with any action by any governmental body). Moore's ironic view of superheroes is extrapolated from the image of the normative superhero in its romance-mode, where the hero is shown dominantly serving the status quo. This is one fear people would logically have of superheroes "if they were real," that they would be used as tools of oppression by the rulers, while SQUADRON embodies the opposite fear: that the superheroes might become rulers.

In the normative superhero work, it's a given of the romance-mode that the hero is neither a lackey nor a tyrant; he simply *is,* and barely needs more than a ghost of a motivation to become a costumed do-gooder. WATCHMEN, being further down the "power of action" scale than SQUADRON, renders its protagonists with great detail as to their psychological foibles and existential crises, until the mythological universe of Moore and Gibbons seems like one of those visions from Gnostic theology: a world of pure suffering and alienation. As characters the Squadron-heroes are much more simply designed. In terms of verisimilitude they're not much more complex than the simpler normative superheroes, and most of Gruenwald's attempts to give each of them psychological complexity merely seem to be layered atop figures that remain resolutely flat. But although Moore delves deeper into his heroes' dark hearts, he isn't able to capture one aspect of psychology that Gruenwald does: a credible motivation for any individual, no matter how messed-up, to become a costumed vigilante. At best Moore suggests that his Watchmen become "masks" as a means of self-actualization: Rorschach in particular dons a mask that suggests the chaos he perceives in all of lived existence (and not just his own). But given his ironic cosmos it's perhaps not surprising that there's little reference in WATCHMEN to one of the cardinal superheroic motivations: the desire to help others, to ease the suffering of the afflicted.

In contrast, though Gruenwald's heroes are not drawn with any great verisimilitude, they always maintain some capacity for empathy, which makes their devotion to their twin "callings"-- both as superheroes and as benevolent tyrants-- more logical. This is an example of the sort of "latent symbolic discourse" I referenced in the first paragraph, where one observes that Gruenwald had some definite intuitions about his revision of the normative superhero mythos, but that he didn't quite carry them through.

In my post on ethical criticism, I criticized three of the heroes as being inadequate vessels of moral agency, and I still believe that Gruenwald did not manage to use his high mimetic superheroes as well on the ethical plane as did, say, Frank Miller in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Still, there are some promising elements that suggest certain mythopoeic intuitions that might have been better-developed. Of the three character-related plotlines I castigated for being facile moral agents, the one involving the Golden Archer-- who brainwashes his superhero girlfriend into loving him-- doesn't succeed any better in the mythopoeic department than in the ethical one.

The plotline with Hyperion (pastiche of DC's Superman) comes a little closer to a successful symbolic discourse. True, there's nothing exactly new about a goodguy hero fighting a malefic counterpart who embodies many of his self-oriented desires, which is what happens when the goodguy-Hyperion is displaced by such a counterpart, who promptly forms a romantic liason with Power Princess (pastiche of DC's Wonder Woman). But at the conclusion of the inevitable "duel of duplicates," Gruenwald shows an interesting ambivalence toward how the "good" hero destroys his duplicate. On one hand Gruenwald exonates "good Hyperion" from the charge of willful murder by rationalizing that "bad Hyperion" is just made of "psuedo-matter," and thus is apparently not any more alive than the Superman villain Bizarro. On the other, Gruenwald borrows a little from the Greek myth of Orion as far as punishing an overreaching hero, so that "good Hyperion" is struck blind (albeit temporarily) as a result of the duel. Thus as in many archaic myths the hero is allowed the pleasure of destroying a foe and subsequently chastised for going beyond the normal limits of social existence to do so.

Lastly, though I caviled at one of the specific plotlines involving the character of Tom Thumb-- who, as I noted, is a little too goody-good in being conflicted about stealing a vital serum from a despotic overlord-- this dwarfish hero is probably the most interesting figure in SQUADRON in a mythopoeic sense. Once or twice Gruenwald makes references to Thumb seeking to make a "deal with the devil," but this Faustian metaphor goes nowhere and isn't even exclusive to the character (Nighthawk uses the same phrase). Thumb is no Faust, but a Hephaestus amid the traditionally-gorgeous superhero "gods." Tom Thumb is the nearest structural parallel to the character of Rorshach in WATCHMEN, in that both are outsider-heroes whose existence adds a dark counterpoint to the fantasies of beauty and power embodied by superheroes, just as maimed Hephaestus did for the Greek gods.

Of course, as should be obvious, I still think WATCHMEN succeeds in terms of its use of symbolism than does SQUADRON, but the archetypal view demonstrates that the Gruenwald work is not entirely worthless because it does not attain to the same level of significant literary merit. If nothing else, SQUADRON is certainly significant in historical terms as one of the first works to begin expanding the normative superhero work into divergent literary modes, and making those modes more a part of the "mainstream."

FINAL NOTE: Since I noted "negative manifestations" of the other types of criticism, I may as well say that the archetypal approach has one too, which I may as well call "formalism," the belief that merit is automatically accrued to a work simply by fulfilling the accepted demands of the form. I think I've avoided doing that here, though.

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