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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


“The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypal theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvelous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or doomed to defeat… is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.”—Northrop Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 192.

When I referenced these four mythoi in essays like NOTES TOWARD AN IDIOM OF THE SUPERHERO, I wrote:

“By contrast, a work that purports to put aside the element of adventure for other elements is by Frye’s definition deviating from the mode of romance.”

For “other elements” I probably should have said “the elements of other myth-themes.” A given work may share elements of all four myth-themes in varying proportions—may include elements suggestive of conflict, of catastrophe, of abjection, and of rebirth—and yet still have be more strongly oriented toward one theme rather than to any of the other three. I would revise Frye’s terminology here with regard to one of his themes, however. Though he says that pathos can be present in a work whether or not the protagonist is a victim or a victor, the word “tragedy” inescapably suggests that he must be a victim. Therefore for tragedy I will substitute “drama.” Colloquially Americans understand “drama” as applying to works that are more “serious” than either romance or comedy, though such “drama” is still a good deal more accessible to most audiences than is the continuum Frye calls irony/satire.

(I should add that Frye’s definition of comedy proper is strongly predicated on the model of Greek New Comedy, which dominantly centered about the idea of young lovers successfully being joined despite some opposing force. It may be possible to see the theme of anagnoris, or “discovery,” even in comedies that are not about overt romantic themes, but that would be a project for another time.)

For an example of a work that shares elements that might support all four themes, I’ll cite BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. For instance, in contrast to many “normative” superhero works, the BUFFY teleseries could easily viewed as a drama with action-elements, given the show’s focus on the agonies and ecstasies of teens confronting both the horrors of adult life as well as real monsters. Yet to solve the question of which narrative elements predominate—those of action or of drama—one might compare BUFFY to the book-series HARRY POTTER. Though different in medium, POTTER also pursues the subject material of young people balancing the demands of school and of supernatural menaces. But elements of pathos in POTTER are often, unlike most conflicts in BUFFY, resolved without a single punch in anyone’s face. If it is demonstrable that BUFFY’s problems are usually solved or even tempered by violent action, then BUFFY is dominated by the agon of the romance.

One could also make a case for BUFFY as an irony. Often the show’s the characters are reduced, physically and emotionally, to an extent that parallels similar developments in the Moore-Gibbons WATCHMEN, which I’ve already cited here as an ironic take on the superhero romance. Additionally, BUFFY’s universe is, like that of WATCHMEN, a world without transcendence, where the Powers of Evil basically control the universe and can only be beat back a little at a time. But despite these moments of sparagmos (i.e, “tearing apart”), the characters of BUFFY are never quite as thoroughly humiliated by events as are the Watchmen. Despite the fact that WATCHMEN’s Doctor Manhattan possesses more raw power than any of the BUFFY heroes, the former is powerless to take meaningful action, at least on the planet of his birth. The “power of action” for the BUFFY protagonists is far more expansive.

The narrative structure of BUFFY also succeeds in part as a New Comedy, beyond the surface elements of the witty repartee for which the series is well known. Admittedly, when the teleseries concludes Buffy Summers is not married or even “with anyone.” But it could be argued that even without a marriage she has not only preserved the nucleus of her own “Scooby family” despite all opposition, and ends up “propagating” a new family by activating all the women who have dormant “Slayer potential.” This would parallel the theme of anagnorisis insofar as her “discovery” of a new way to combat evil births a new society. Yet the “Slayer society” is a warrior clan, which by its nature cannot suggest the sort of stable social order in which real children can be nurtured. A better example of the superhero put forth as pure comedy might be Rumiko Takahashi’s RANMA ½. Though the adventures of Ranma Saotome vary between high adventure and low sitcom goofiness, the constant focus of the series is the how Ranma and his reluctant betrothal Akane “discover” the depths of their feelings for one another and become reconciled to them. These characters are no more married at the conclusion of the series than Buffy is, but the final story does at least feature an attempt to get them married, even if it descends into comic chaos. More, it’s implicit that these two teenagers are destined, by their creator’s fiat, to have the New Comic “happy ending” at some undisclosed point in their futures.

(Yes, I know some people wouldn’t deem Ranma Saotome comparable with costumed superheroes, even though Ranma can punch through stone walls and triumph over any number of super-powered adversaries. But despite the sitcom-feel of many RANMA-stories, Ranma may be closer in spirit to Buffy—or Batman, for that matter-- than either Harry Potter or any of the Watchmen, since comedies and romance-adventures both tend toward the upbeat rather than the downbeat.)

It seems clear to me that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s narrative emphasizes most prominently the elements of the romance-adventure. Comic repartee and familial bonding help Buffy triumph over both the agonies of personal pathos and the perhaps-darker aspects of an ironic universe, but neither repartee nor bonding overshadow the elements of the agon, of the combative hero’s ability to kick evil in the teeth. Buffy’s triumph doesn’t eradicate evil, but she deals the Powers of Evil a substantial setback. And whereas constant vigilance against future threats would not be the sort of “triumph” most comedies could sustain, for a romance/adventure it’s satisfying, for the hero is identified with his (or her) endless struggles than his (or her) social role.

And thus, despite possessing elements germane to the other three mythoi, BUFFY belongs most to the romance-adventure category. From this we can deduce that an ambitious superhero work does not necessarily need to renounce the elements proper to the romance-adventure mythos simply to appear more “sophisticated,” despite elitist critical cant to that effect.

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