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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


(Interested parties should probably read the WHO'S BURIED IN GRANT'S TOMB essay before reading this one.)

Not that Steven Grant's entombing essay is sufficient to keep it buried, but in it Grant seems to have made every effort to bury mythology, right beside the oeuvre of Joseph Campbell.

Where to start? How about these statements?

"Mythology isn't even storytelling. Mythology – it's important to differentiate between its nature and its artifacts; the stories are the artifacts – is a civilization's environment. It's a means by which members of that civilization make sense of the world and the times they exists in."

This is an oversimple attempt to separate the message from the medium which might be more persuasive if Grant had a better cognizance of the nature of that message.

While it's true that in theory one can separate the notion of mythology from the notion of storytelling, in practice the two have been so thoroughly imbricated upon one another that the separation-game isn't worth the candle. The Greek mythos is usually translated by Them What Knows as "speech, utterance," and from there the word eventually comes to have in archaic Greece the association of "narrative" or "story," as it does in Aristotle's Poetics. Saying that a culture's mythology is its "environment" doesn't say all that much more than "story," though the conceit may be Grant's attempt to take in all aspects of mythology that don't seem constructed as pure narratives, such as ritual and popular superstitions. However, "environment" alone doesn't define the nature of myth, or what elements a given culture chooses to preserve in its myths. Archeologists have dug up cuneiform texts of both the Epic of Gilgamesh and prosaic merchants' documents. Archaeologists can certainly learn things about ancient Sumerian "environment" from a Sumerian merchant's "bill of lading," and certainly the merchant who wrote it was concerned to "make sense" of the business transactions that comprised his "environment." But I don't think any archaeologists are likely to consider a bill of lading to be a mythic work, nor, given the requisite translations, any ancient Sumerians would think so either.

I've stated before that while not all stories or story-elements possess mythicity, any of them *potentially* can. This is why the notion of mythology is not so easily separable from that of storytelling, because the very nature of narrative discourse is one that constantly moves, as Northrop Frye pointed out, between extremes of myth and verisimilitude. Thus to label the particular stories (whether high in mythicity or not) of a particular culture as "artifacts" is to define the resultant stories as pure products and to ignore the process that makes them.

Grant further states of stories produced for an oral culture (I presume he means both myth-stories and anything that might not fit his environmental definition) that "their content and meanings shift with the demands of the times." I have no problem with a definition of myth that states that the myths were conceived within historical matrices. However, it's important to keep in mind that myth does not attempt to reproduce history as history, but seeks to transcend the historical matrix, to focus on perceived aspects of one's "environment" that seem to be eternal or at least exemplary. Grant is correct to call myths "analogues of reality," though he then turns right around and evaluates them in terms of their relevance to consensual reality:

"It [Kirby's FOURTH WORLD] fixates on good and evil, where we're all now very aware, even if we don't admit it, that the concepts are basically nonsense. To have meaning they require a singular society, and a reason why multiculturalism is denounced by many is that it forces a constant reexamination of what those terms mean. In a world of moral relativity – and, yes, that is our world, and, really, always has been – we need better terms than those."

It's long been a popular sophism, ranging from writers as diverse as Diderot and Sade, to observe that many cultures have divergent definitions of good and evil, the implication being that all of these local manifestations render the mythic theme of "good vs. evil" to be less than universal. It's a sophism in that one is simply choosing to see the trees instead of the forest. It's interesting to speculate about how the defintions of "evil" encoded into an Egyptian myth might be very different from those revealed by a Semitic myth, but the differences between the two do not eradicate the similarities. Mot and Apep do represent different aspects of evil, but the narrative actions that defeat these enemies of life are more similar than they are different. It's also questionable as to "singular" these societies were, for archaic societies had to deal with invasions and usurpations as much as modern ones do. Such factors *can* make a difference as to what gods are worshipped in any given era. However, such historical factors do not overthrow the populace's desire to see a perceived evil defeated, and the dialectic of Apep's defeat does not substantially change whether the force for good is played by Ra or Horus or Bast. And our world of "moral relavitity" has not erased our populace's desire to see the "good vs. evil" theme played out-- and by "populace" I do mean the same "multicultural" American audience that turned out in droves to see STAR WARS. Building on Grant's theory, it should have been only "singular" societies, like say Japan's, that would have enjoyed such a simplistic theme.

Clearly, despite having some acquaintance with current definitions of mythology, Grant has allowed himself to be seduced by the Dark Side of Allegorism. The Dark Side of Allegorism is powerful, and, as I discussed here, occasionally even subjugated Joseph Campbell, however temporarily. But even though Campbell may have occasionally contradicted himself here or there, he never undermined his own arguments as badly as Grant does here.

Early in the article Grant tells us:

'almost no one using the "Campbell structure" had ever actually read Campbell, or they would have gleaned his important but widely overlooked caution that it only has meaning as unconscious structure – and conscious application voids it of meaning and resonance.'

Keep that in mind. Grant is saying that "conscious application" voids myths of "meaning and resonance."

Later Grant says:

"Not that our civilization doesn't have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it."

Now, someone correct me if I'm off base here-- but aren't all the authors of what Grant calls "modern myths" trying to make sense of the world CONSCIOUSLY???

Why doesn't "conscious application" void Darwinism and Marxism of meaning and resonance, as Grant thinks it does for artists who consciously apply myth-like materials in their works, as with the main focus of his attack, Grant Morrison?

The only (extremely charitable) rationale that makes any sense of this major inconsistency in Grant's argument might be that he doesn't think modern-day myths are, like their supposed archaic cousins, "analogues of reality." Now that moderns have science, they just need scientific hypotheses to take the place of fantastic constructs. It's still a glaring error in Grant's argument, though, and further points up the shortcomings of his interpretation of mythology as something archaic peoples used to "make sense" of their "environment."

Here's a simple example that should explain what mythology was really about:

Consider the phenomenon of a river. How mysterious is it in terms of its etiology? Does it really need to be "made sense of" in Grant's terms, even by prehistoric peoples? I think not. If Neanderthals could figure out how to grow crops, they could deduce what made rivers run. And yet world mythology records countless myths as to how this or that river originated, often through interaction with some god or hero: Heracles, Cuchullain, Shiva.

The only reason archaic peoples would have for "making sense" of such a mundane (if life-enhancing) phenomenon would be in terms of what empiricist Grant would call "nonsense." They were not explaining the river but sacramentalizing it, relating its existence to exemplary actions that happened in the past.

Now, Grant is entitled to his belief that modern humanity is long past such sacramentalizing fantasies, though I myself don't think current reality proves his case. And I'm not just speaking of modern religion, but also of the mythopoeic power of art, which Joseph Campbell (unlike Grant) correctly sees as a major aspect of what makes human beings human. It's through the use of "nonsense" (or what empiricists consider nonsense) that humankind attains the full range of its sensibilities, which include, but are not confined to, rationality.

And that's why Grant was right about "conscious application" even though he applied it to the wrong subject. The "scientific myths" of Darwinism and Marxism are immensely persuasive discursive constructs, but all forms of literature, even its worst manifestations, are closer in spirit to both ancient and modern forms of religious myth than any consciously-applied rational construct.

In conclusion, I'll wrap this up by saying that even though Grant's essay grew out of his review of Morrison's FINAL CRISIS, mine did not. I read a couple of issues of FC, liked them OK, and decided to wait for the TPB. So I'm not explicitly defending FC by tearing apart Grant's argument-- though I do think that both Kirby and Morrison are high on my list of makers of modern myths.


Well, since by "tomb" I mean this essay by comics-author Steven Grant, as it appeared on his CBR forum PERMANENT DAMAGE, then the entombed one can only be...

Joseph Campbell.

Or, more precisely, the life-work of Joseph Campbell (the man himself having departed the mortal coil some years ago). But to the extent that a deceased man *is* the work by which society knows him, then Grant's essay does bury Campbell's work under his (Grant's) suppositions.

In another essay I'll be covering other aspects of Grant's essay on mythology, but here I'll just focus on the one part of his essay where he brings in Campbell as support for positions that don't accurately represent Campbell. Here's the relevant section:

'A lot of people at that time were fixating on mythology as storytelling, prodded on by Joseph Campbell's work deconstructing heroic myths into a 12 step "hero's path. Little did I know George Lucas had tapped into the Campbell "formula" (not to mention Kurosawa films) as a structural tool for STAR WARS, quickly rendering the "Hero's path" a Hollywood gimmick used (mostly badly) in film after film after film after film, in the delusion it lent the material meaning and resonance. Obviously, almost no one using the "Campbell structure" had ever actually read Campbell, or they would have gleaned his important but widely overlooked caution that it only has meaning as unconscious structure – and conscious application voids it of meaning and resonance. But that's the result of most formal structures. If that's what you focus on, you end up with material whose only meaning if what it draws via reference. It's ultimately dead-end nostalgia, replicating form without content or context.'

As I've read most of Campbell's work, Grant's paraphrase of this "caution" sounds more than a little "off." On the PERMANENT DAMAGE message board, I asked Grant if he could tell me where Campbell said what Grant said he said, and Grant replied:

"I could if I wanted to spend three weeks rereading his books. It should be somewhere in MYTHS TO LIVE BY..."


I didn't find it.

Now, it's possible that Grant rephrased something from MTLB that I just don't recognize, or that Campbell actually said something closer to the "caution" in some other sourcework. The way Grant phrased the "caution," it's not in agreement with other themes in Campbell's work, but it's a given that from Aristotle to Wittgenstein there's never been any philosopher who has been able to keep his observations free from inconsistency. Given this inescapeable condition, one has to evaluate any philosopher -- even a "popular philosopher" like Joseph Campbell-- according to his dominant themes. For reasons I'll be getting into, the "caution" seems at odds with Campbell's dominant themes, but I'm less interested in sussing out whether that's Grant's fault or Campbell's than in examining the nature of Campbell's dominant themes and why Steven Grant take on mythology is not supported by them.

In rereading MTLB the closest thing I foound to Grant's "caution" appears on page 88.

"A distinguished professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Dr. John W. Perry, has characterised the living mythological symbol as an 'affect image'. It is an image that hits one where it counts. It is not addressed first to the brain, to be there interpreted and appreciated. On the contrary, if that where it has to be read, the symbol is already dead."

At first glance, this sounds a great deal like Grant's comment about modern literary myths being "dead-end nostalgia." But it isn't, for in Campbell's very next sentence, he makes clear that he expects that the affect image will pass through what Grant calls "conscious application:"

"An 'affect image' talks directly to the feeling system and immediately elicits a response, after which the brain may come along with its interesting comments."

Certainly there's nothing in this passage to suggest that Campbell thought that he thought that conscious apprehension of a myth-image or myth-structure was voided of "meaning and resonance." Campbell's point here is rather that the "feeling system" must be the first mode through which one understands the image/structure, or else all you've got is a dead symbolism. I suggested in this essay that intellect and emotion (an oversimple dichotomy, but one that can be used without compromising the main point) enjoyed more of a struggle in the production of art than one imagines they did in the production of archaic myth. Clearly Campbell's observation about the brain's "interesting comments" indicates some rapprochement between thinking and feeeling, and as such this quote, like many others I find in Campbell, do not much support Steven Grant's notion that once the conscious brain comes in, all meaning and resonance bids a fond adieu.

Now, Grant doesn't quite so far as to suggest that Campbell supports his position that "stories are not myths," so I can't very well refute what Grant doesn't claim. But in general Campbell makes strong associations, if not conflations, between myth and art, so I think it unlikely that he would have agreed with Grant's demythologization of stories. Campbell does warn his readers against taking the content of myths too literally, but as I noted in the earlier essay he believes that myth can only be comprehended "with the artist's eye" rather than the scientist's.

As memory serves, Campbell expressed pleasure with Lucas' supposed translation of the "hero's journey" paradigm into the STAR WARS films. There seems to be no reason to assume that Campbell's approbation was insincere; that he really thought any mythic resonance had flown out the window because it had been "consciously applied." One may cavil that Campbell was not a literary critic, and so anything he says about art has to be examined in that light. But whatever inconsistencies about the roles of art and myth may appear in Campbell's published works, as a whole they really don't say what Steven Grant thinks they do.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Or, Statement of the Unification Theory, Part 2.

Here's a seven-point, quick-and-dirty explanation as to how Schopenhauer's conception of the Universal Will is the only worthwhile foundation for a pluralist poetics.

(1) Philosopher Immanuel Kant put forth an argument often cited as a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. The argument in brief: that there is a disconnect between the world as interpreted by human senses-- what Kant calls “phenomenon”-- and the world as it is beyond our senses, the “noumenon.” According to Kant, we can never know reality, only our senses’ version of it.

(2) Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer disagreed, feeling that we could infer one thing about “reality:” that it was the creation of a sort of Universal Will. He inferred this from the presence of “will” in all living things (and possibly inanimate things as well.)

(3) Was Schopenhauer right about “Will” inhering in every aspect of our reality? We do not know. However, we CAN be sure that “Will” inheres in every aspect of the various LITERARY realities we humans create, since we KNOW for a fact that they are all “willed” into existence by their creators (and sometimes, however indirectly, by audiences as well).

(4) The notion of “Will” inhering in all literature has interesting applications for the commonplace notion that all literary productions revolve around “conflict” of some kind. for all conflict is in essence the conflict of opposing wills. This remains the case even in the type of story termed "man vs. nature," and even when the nature evoked is a man's struggle with a nonsentient adversary, such as a protagonist struggling to survive in a barren desert. It is still a conflict of wills not because either the writer or any of his readers believes that brute nature has a will, but but because the story cannot help but represent nature as an opponent whose rigors the protagonist must outlast.

(5) By emphasizing “Will” as the radical root of all literary activity, rather than supposing it to be some intellectual message which the author or authors seek to communicate, one is in a better position to understand the many different modes by which authors express both thought and emotion. Many of these modes are what we call “genres,” because they utilize elements of character-types, emotional tone, time-period or setting. Some genres depend heavily on rational thought, others on flights of subjective fancy.

(6) The tendency of most literary criticism, as traced back to Aristotle and classic Greece, generally values literature according to its ability to convey reasoned ideas; what Aristotle calls dianoia. But though Schopenhauer's philosophy offers no counter to this tendency, the work of another Kantian scholar, Ernst Cassirer, does. Cassirer emphasized that all human reason is inseparable from what he called the “expressive” faculty, which grows out of the way human beings emotionally interpret their universe. (I view this action as an act of “will,” whether Cassirer did or not). This expressivity is more than the emotional reactions of any particular person or culture, for it has a consistent aesthetic appeal over centuries. In THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE Cassirer notes: “The symbolic process is like a single stream of life and thought which flows through consciousness, and which by this flowing movement produces the diversity and cohesion, the richness, the continuity and constancy, of consciousness.”

(7) Finally, by using expressiveness rather than reasoned thought as the foundation for literary study, one can more adequately understand the sometimes conflict-heavy interrelationships of emotion and reasoned thought as both occur in literature of all types, canonical and popular. In most popular works, such as SUPERMAN, the point of the work is to be broadly expressive. Reasoned thoughts may appear as a side-dish, but the expressive function holds the high card. In some of the more arid literary or would-be literary works, such as Daniel Clowes' DAVID BORING, the point is to subvert the expressiveness of certain images to the benefit of the author's intellectual theme, thus putting dianoia in the catbird seat. Both of these pursuits have their own validity though one may be tempted to prefer those works where the expressive and the rational play off one another in an ongoing struggle/dialogue. Alan Moore's BLACK DOSSIER at least makes the attempt to do something like this, though to see the struggle of authorial functions at their best, one can't do too much better than Herman Melville's MOBY DICK.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I saved for last the mythos of adventure. Frye’s schema, probably derived from Theodore Gaster’s formulations of Greek dramatic structure in his book THESPIS, begins with the mythos of the adventure/romance and cycles through tragedy, irony and comedy. But I think it could be interesting to view the adventure/romance as developing from the comedy-mythos rather than being simply the prelude to the tragedy/drama. While no literary mythos is inherently more mythopoeic than any other, historically the adventure-story has been the best source of myth-motifs in popular fiction, since adventure shows the least tendency to compromise with base reality.

FLASH GORDON (1936)—There are a lot of great CDM serials that deserve more recognition, but this translation of the Alex Raymond comic strip works on two levels. On one, it’s a faithful recapitulation of Raymond’s space opera, given a great deal of verve by worthy B-list actors like Buster Crabbe, Charles Middleton and the underrated Priscilla Lawson. On another, even though the FX are frequently primitive, their very sparseness enables one to better enjoy using one’s imagination by “seeing through” the effects.

BATMAN (1989)— The Richard Donner SUPERMAN is a high watermark, but it failed to birth a new paradigm for the superhero adventure-film, and that’s what makes the Tim Burton BATMAN an exemplary film in its subgenre. As STAR WARS succeeded in making the space opera relevant to adult audiences, the Burton BATMAN did the same for the costumed hero, transforming Bat-camp into punk Gothic.

RIKKI-OH (1991)—I haven’t seen the Saruwatari manga on which this live-action flick is based, but RIKKI-OH is a classic of cheesy, extravagant action. The scenario is simple: supreme martial artist Rikki is unjustly consigned to a hard-core prison, where the corrupt warden and guards continually strive to break his spirit with all manner of tortures, only to be regularly defeated by Rikki’s martial mastery. It’s action for the sake of action alone, and even bad special FX contribute to the pulpy pleasures.

THE MYSTERY OF MAMO (1978)— Japanese anime had tremendous influence on the development of the adventure-mythos in the medium of cinema, so it’s tough to pick one CDM that best captures the potential of the anime adventure-film. MAMO was the first of the adaptations of Monkey Punch’s LUPIN III, and unlike the later Miyazaki-directed CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, MAMO gives its adaptation of Punch’s thief-hero a bit more adult tone. The SF elements are damn cool as well.

SPIDER MAN 2—There are a few missteps in Raimi’s Spider-Man adaptations. For one, he never seem to know how to pace the dramatic scenes, as with his conversations between Peter Parker and Aunt May. But SM2 is exemplary in showing the potential for using the tool of CGI in an imaginative manner, bringing to cinematic life the sort of spectacles that were once confined only to the comics page. The melodramatic elements are better handled than in the first film, and Alfred Molina realizes Doc Ock's raving egotism perfectly, but the film's main accomplishment is to translate, as well as possible, the superb fight-choreography of Steve Ditko to the big screen.


Irony is, in essence, the tragic vision translated to a world where man was never “sufficient to stand,” as Milton had it. The irony may verge into black humor but with or without strong humor all ironies are dominated by a vision of a world without the glories of tragedies and romances or even the sheer dumb luck that blesses the hero of the comedy.

GHOST WORLD (2001)— I’m no great fan of the work of Daniel Clowes, but there’s no question that he evokes a world of ironic ugliness and surreal tackiness like no other comics-professional today. Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of the GHOST WORLD graphic novel is not quite as concerned as the original with the distanciation of emotional states, but Zwigoff’s own brand of black humor abounds, particularly in the scenes that expand the Crumb-esque character played by Steve Buscemi.

DEATH NOTE (2006)—Live-action movie version of the Oba/Obata manga series has the same ruthless vision of the TV-anime, in which the only “gods” are the Japanese Shinigami, who exist to write in their books the names of the mortals destined to die. Such a book falls into the hands of handsome alpha-male Light Yagami, who then arrogates to himself the right to kill whomever he pleases by inscribing the names of his victims in said book. The story then traces the pursuit of this self-appointed executioner by his own Inspector Jauvert, the gnomish “L”—a nice reversal of the hero/villain expectations.

BARBARELLA (1968)— Jean-Claude Forest’s sexy space-fantasy might have borrowed a lot of paraphernalia from FLASH GORDON, but the tone of Barbarella is more Rabelais than Raymond. At times Vadim’s best work verges on straight comedy, but the satirical elements dominate, particularly in the scene of Barbarella’s most memorable combat-scene, where she out-orgasms a mechanical sex-machine.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)—I suspect this anthology-film, made up of tales from the EC-horror comic book, would be more popular with comics-critics if it had a tonier cast and direction, maybe along the lines of the 1945 anthology DEAD OF NIGHT. But EC Comics weren’t aimed at an elitist audience, and so the match between the grossout-tales of the comics and the stalwarts of commercial horror-cinema (Freddie Francis, Peter Cushing) proves a fine match to embody EC’s sadistic visions of sparagmos.

FRITZ THE CAT (1972)-- Here’s another one I haven’t seen in many a moon, but memory tells me that the Ralph Bakshi film successfully translated the gross world of 1960s underground comics. Fritz’s creator Robert Crumb was so repelled by Bakshi’s translation that afterward he did a story that killed off the famous feline, implicitly rejecting any further association between his work and such commercial entertainments. Or maybe Crumb didn't like Bakshi showing the grossness of Crumb's works unleavened by whatever "intellectual implants" (as I called them earlier) added on. Who knows?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


As I noted earlier, the comedy manages to bring forth incongruity so as to provoke laughter, but with greater ebullience than one gets from the bleak humor of the irony. For this reason the mythos of comedy is attuned to stories that are, for lack of a better term, more “life affirming.”

BLONDIE (1938)— Few comics-critics praise the form of the situation comedy, and those that mention it at all choose to dismiss even its most excellent expressions as “middlebrow” or some such drivel. The Chic Young comic strip was one of the first and best modern formulations of the familiar “clever wife/stupid husband” trope, which as I mentioned here sometimes edged into mythopoeic territory. The first BLONDIE film begat about twenty more in the series, but the end scene of the first film—in which Blondie has to explain to a peeved judge that her husband is just a big dumb child— perfectly captures Marshall McLuhan’s analysis of the strip’s motif of “mothering-wedlock.”

FINAL URUSEI— While ONLY YOU, the first animated film of Rumiko Takahashi’s URUSEI YATSURA, would make a better introduction to the zany Takahashiverse, FINAL is noteworthy for translating the last stories of the manga series (not yet translated into English). Understanding all the slapstick gags does require some prior acquaintance with URUSEI’s huge supporting cast, but the key story—the “love is hell” relationship of schmuck Ataru with alien princess Lum— shows great psychological acuity even while portraying that hell as “devoutly to be wished.”

THE MASK (1994)—The original stories published by Dark Horse have more of the irony’s darkness, but the Jim Carrey film is a pure slapstick romp, in which nerd Stanley Ipkiss gains a magical mask that allows him to express his id in any idiosyncratic way he pleases, including the everynerd dream of making it with Cameron Diaz.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991)—This one might make the list just on the strength of the opening scene, translating Charles Addams’ famous “Christmas carolers” cartoon. It must be admitted that the cartoons provided less of the template for Sonnenfeld’s film than the “altogether ookie” 1960s TV show, but Sonnenfeld makes the family even ookier than before, particularly in upgrading the character of Wednesday Addams from an oddball little girl to a budding young Sadean tormentor.

POPEYE MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR (1935)—The enormous popularity of the Popeye cartoon shorts from the Fleischer Studios birthed three “long cartoons,” which I understand sometimes played as second features in some theaters. Popeye’s battle with Sinbad (played by perennial antagonist Bluto) is a great comic send-up of the adventure-mythos, best exemplified by the scene with an awe-inspiring roc that Popeye reduces to a turkey dinner.


As noted earlier, what I call the “drama” is based on the Fryean category of the tragedy, but I’ve chosen to use the former word to allow for works that do not end tragically.

(1) WATCHMEN (2009)—I might have some problems with particular choices made by Zack Snyder in the adaptation of the Moore-Gibbons graphic novel, but I don’t object in principle to Snyder’s elimination of the ironic elements in favor of something closer to a drama with superheroes in it. Indeed, most of the comic books influenced by WATCHMEN chose drama over irony. Most of the strong scenes are simply good translations of those in the novel, though Snyder improves one or two. The scene where Rorschach expresses disbelief that the Comedian would be caught “crying” is one such.

(2) NAUSICAA IN THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984) —This early Miyazaki work is still one of the best early anime-films to use adventure-motifs in the service of drama. Admittedly I’ve not seen it in a long time, but key scenes still stick with me over 20 years later.

(3) OLDBOY (2003)—I’ve not read the original Korean manhwa by Minegishi, but this is a very suspenseful revenge-drama in which ordinary schmuck Oh Dae-su is pulled off the street and imprisoned for over a decade without any knowledge as to his captors of their motives. He goes hunting for both his captors and the answers.

(4) AKIRA (1988)— Given the degree of skull-bursting violence that erupts throughout the length and breadth of AKIRA, I could understand it if some critic chose to to categorize it as “adventure.” Yet I tend to privilege as “adventure” those works that feature a strong conflict between a hero and an adversary, and here the conflict is more than of ordinary protagonist Kaneda seeking to save his former friend Tetsuo from the scientifically-implanted psychokinetic powers that turn Tetsuo into a psychotic god. This Frankensteinian parable, like the original by Mary Shelley, is much more about pathos than agon.

(5) BLUEBERRY (2004)—I don’t think this is the ideal filmization of the hard-bitten Lieutenant Blueberry stories of Charlier and Giraud/Moebius, but as with Snyder’s WATCHMEN, it’ll have to do till a better one comes along. The standout scene takes place when Blueberry enjoys a psychedelic “trip” that feels in sync with the design strategies of Moebius in his more science-fictiony works.

Monday, April 13, 2009


As noted in an earlier post “CDM” is my acronym for a “comics-derived movie,” a movie based on a comic book or comic strip source, even if nothing more than the name is borrowed for said movie. A “movie” I consider to be anything that has the same basic form of a theatrical film, even if the work under discussion actually first appeared on television or as a direct-to-rental release. Yet I make some exceptions in terms of form for works that did appear first in big-screen theaters. I can regard as a movie a multiple-part serial that tells one story, as long as it did appear in theaters, but I would not include a multi-part serial that was made for video or DVD rental, since such serials are designed to be viewed in the home, more after the fashion of television shows than films. And one of the “movies” I do cite is closer in length to a film short than to a feature film, but the one I'll cite is three times longer than most other shorts in the series, so I deem it a featurette. Also, I rate live-action and animation together.

I got this idea from coming across another blogger’s list of 20 best CDMs. I had no interest in putting another "best films" list out there, but I've noticed that many such lists are disproportionate in their preference for “serious drama.” So I thought it would be interesting to formulate a list in the best pluralist tradition: a list that would represent the best in each of the four mythoi I’ve talked about elsewhere: comedy, drama, irony and adventure. By choosing five examples of exemplary movies in each mythos-- that is, works that reveal something significant about the type of stories told-- I propose to talk about what each accomplished in terms of its storytelling mythos.

The plan for the next few days is to devote one blogpost to each of the four mythoi, with short reviews of the films chosen. Again, the purpose is not just to list what I particularly thought to be "the best," which is a fun but critically meaningless exercise. Of course I doubt I'll convince anyone as to the hidden interrelationships between movies with killer zombies and movies in which disaffected teens simply act like zombies, but that's the way the Golden Age comic book crumbles.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


I'm backburnering the essay I said I'd do next to clarify my thoughts on the following.

Northrop Frye's poetics is probably the Moby Dick of all literary theories. To refute him adequately one would have to have the same level of literary knowledge he had, and then to show why his schema did or didn't encompass as much of literature as Frye claimed it did. To the best of my knowledge the few Ahabs who have made the attempt have gone down with their ships (=theories) like their fictional precursor.

But naturally, no system is perfect, nor (I believe) would Frye have claimed his was.

Because the theory of mythoi is drawn from Frye's imagined "quest-myth"-- in which he imagines a protagonist cyclically passing through each of the four mythoi as a human being passes through the seasons-- some of the phases may be overdetermined by this model.

Earlier I commented:

'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 anagnorisis, or “discovery,” even in comedies that are not about overt romantic themes, but that would be a project for another time.'

Naturally I'm not going to attempt such a project on a blog in any depth, but here are some thoughts I formulated after re-reading Frye's sections on comedy and irony.

The so-called "New Comedy" of the Greeks still comprises much of the formulas of contemporary comedy-- but not all. It would be hard to find very many New Comic setups in the hundred-plus "Three Stooges" shorts, where the emphasis is almost entirely on violent slapstick. So "discovery" in the sense of bringing about connubial happiness doesn't seem adequate to take in everything that comedy can do, especially since it can be argued that Frye's other three modes-- irony, tragedy, and romance-- use anagnorisis in their own distinctive manners.

I'd argue, though, that both romantic comedies and slapstick japes like the Stooges use the notion of "discovery" with a tonality not present in the other modes. Frye generally pairs romance and comedy because they resolve their conflicts with upbeat conclusions, as opposed to tragedy and irony, which resolve conflicts with downbeat conclusions. Yet though the romance generally ends in an upbeat way, it could be asserted that it is rarely a surprise that it does so. The same could be said of tragedy and irony: once it's suggested that the story's theme is that of the fall of a great man, or the descent of a mediocre hero into a hell of greater mediocrity, the progress is pretty much the same all around.

Comedy's theme is also predetermined by its genre, but it does depend much more on the tonality of sudden surprise. Only sudden surprise provokes the sort of disinterested laughter that is as amused by the discomfiture of the hero (say Charlie Chaplin) as by that of Chaplin's opponent, against whom, in theory, the audience should want to see discomfited.

Romance, irony and tragedy are usually not quite so disinterested, for they are more invested in following through on a specific myth-theme, symbolized by narrative actions Frye terms agon, pathos, and sparagmos.

The narrative action of "discovery," though, could mean not just the discovery of the new society postulated by Frye from New Comedy, but also the discovery of pure incongruity in any seemingly-normal situation. It could be found as much in Woody Allen's comic meditations on the need for relationships, as in Moe using a scissors to catch Larry by the nose. (I should add that I'm partial to the incongruity theories of humor as put forth by Kant and Schopenhauer.) In any case, if in future posts I make use of the myth-theme anagnorisis to characterize comedies, this is the meaning the word has for me.

The element of anagnorisis makes a strong if more predictable showing in romances and tragedies, but it might be at its weakest in the ironic story. Frye does not identify the radical of irony as he does with romance, but of the four mythoi irony would seem the one most predetermined by fate (i.e., the author's decision to portray a world without significant freedom).

Though Frye speaks of the (often mundane) horrors that dominate the irony, he never explicitly links that form to the genre of horror, as I have. I don't mean to suggest that all horror stories fall under the mythos of irony, but certain ones do. In classical mythology one might think of stories in which a victim perishes ignobly-- say, Actaeaon-- as the ancestors of ironic horror, in contrast to the noble, tragic horror found in the story of Oedipus.

One reason I've decided to clarify these two details of my system is that one of my next planned posts is to deal with what I deem the 20 most exemplary CDMs, which I'll write as a way of giving further examples of particular examples of modes.

And if the reader doesn't recognize the term CDM, that's because I just made it up.

CDM= Comics-Derived Movie

More later.