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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

NON, NON, SHAENON! (part 2)

I'm going to try to squeeze all my remaining responses to the Shaenon Garrity piece, and my responses to it on THE BEAT, into one post.

First, just to get it out of the way, here's a link to the 6-19-09 Garrity essay in which she claimed that a thread I started on Comicon.com had a "typical" title-- which was a roundabout way of claiming that my thread was of a piece with posts about "crazy things John Byrne said." As I asserted in the comments-section of the essay, I started the thread to debate the ethics of Bryan Talbot's gossipy book on comics-pros, with special reference to comics-fandom's whipping-boy Dave Sim. Garrity did not respond to me. Guess she was busy dreaming up more "half-assed" essays.

I don't know about other Garrity essays, but the 10-25-10 essay certainly qualifies. As I noted in Part 1 the "ten things" are her interpretation of interviews she had with assorted under-age-30 interviewees, in which she claimed she could prognosticate the "future of comics"-- though one of her first points is to assess the past with a Gary Grothian "had they but listened to me" hubris:

The comic book could have survived if the direct market hadn't been run, since the 1990s, like a less competent and smellier version of one of those fly-by-night outfits that hawk gold on the Glenn Beck show, but, as Kurt Vonnegut said about the fate of the planet Earth in general, we were too damn lazy to try very hard…and too damn cheap.

I don't defend every manifestation of the DM and the various strategies used both by "mainstream" and "independents" to exploit it. But Garrity's critique is so general as to be meaningless, which is one reason that on THE BEAT's comment-section for this item I accused her of "telling elitists what they want to hear." Elitists love to characterize mainstream comics (and distribution channels thereof) in terms of the Sammy Glick vulgarian hustler stereotype. The real world is more complicated: however much Stan Lee SEEMS to embody the stereotype, a close reading of his career will show divergences that don't conform to it. Further, it's easy for someone who's never been in a position of corporate responsibility to loftily proclaim that (say) Paul Levitz didn't do enough, but the critique means nothing without reference to some example, preferably culled from the "real world," where some business concern actually *did* something akin to what Garrity claims should have been done.

Garrity's overconfidence as to the potential reformation of the audience's tastes by some comic-book version of Irving Thalberg is similarly undercut by her listing of the "canon" of comics-icons with whom her interviewees show "passing familiarity." Of the five, WATCHMEN certainly did raise a bar of cultural perception as to what comic books could do. I can't say the same of the other four, however. CALVIN AND HOBBS, DEATH NOTE, BONE and NARUTO are all very-good-to-good genre offerings, but there's nothing about any of them that substantially changes the game, and the case of the two manga canon-entries is complicated by the fact that they gained some of their fame thanks to having had their anime adaptations air on national television. On a side-note, one wonders whether CALVIN AND HOBBES would have gained its formidable reputation had it had the misfortune to debut today, when, as Garrity herself tells us, "newspaper comics are dead."

A less-justifiable thesis is that "monthly comic books are dead." I can easily believe that Garrity's audience of young-uns aren't aware of the monthly format, and that the exposure of collected TPBs in bookstores has led many to 'wait for the trade,' presumably without even being aware of the monthly. However, the current habits of the under-thirties are not set as in stone. If they should happen to advance past that magical age of 30, to a point where many of them will gain access to more discretionary income, maybe *some* of them will be invested enough to seek out periodical comics, and thus help shore up their status as "loss leaders." Garrity clearly subscribes to the elitist argument that the DM dominated by the "Big Two" will die off as soon as its aging customer base does so. This certainly could happen. But I find it revelatory that to my knowledge no fan-writer has ever suggested that comics-fans might conceivably *change* their habits as they pass the Age of No Return. It's within the realm of possibility, especially considering the aphorism that You Can't Trust Anyone Over Thirty.

Some minor disagreements on the "Manga Has Changed the Game" point: manga probably doesn't deserve any credit for changing attitudes about the "fun" of having merchandisers spin off cool crap from your characters. Todd MacFarlane re-established that meme long before manga TPBs became popular, and no matter how much a Bill Watterson may abhor the (ha ha) "commodity fetish," Charles Schulz's example remains both more pertinent to (and visible within) American culture. Also, while I don't rule out the possibility that a future generation of comics-masters will be influenced more by NARUTO than by BATMAN, we haven't seen this blossoming of manga-influenced wunderkind quite yet. Scott McCloud's a helluva creator, but I can't think of too many manga-babies on his creative level.

Finally, I'll pass over the "girls rule boys drool" part of the essay because it's just too tiresome to refute.

A final note with reference to THE BEAT argument, that has nothing to do with Garrity's essay. In the course of the comments there I took a shot at Tom Spurgeon, no better or worse IMO than a lot of the shots he's taken at me or at others. He responded to my shot with a couple of posts, one of which ends thusly:

I won’t read your response. Mwah.

I find this amusing because I once broke off an argument with him on Comicon.com because I disliked his continued misrepresentation of my position. A little later he was good enough to tell me I had been a "pussy" for walking out.

Wonder if that's one of those famous "applies to thee but not to me" elitist insults? Have a nice life yourself, Tom.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Darn it all.

Not only do I still have to pursue several more points in my "superhero idiom" series, only to have it interrupted by the challenge (such as it is) of responding to an online essayist who almost certainly won't answer my points. Now I've had an interesting breakthrough in terms of reconfiguring my concept of metaphenomenality, and I'd like to start on that too.

However, that's got to wait until I get hold of Tzvetan Todorov's 1975 book THE FANTASTIC: A STRUCTURAL APPROACH TO A LITERARY GENRE. I remember reading it, or part of it, back in college, but had major problems with its rationale, as did SF author Stanislaw Lem, who tears the book apart in this essay.

Nevertheless, I think some of Todorov's concepts could be revised for a Fryean scheme of "the fantastic," which would be a nice irony since Todorov himself attempted to tear apart ANATOMY OF CRITICISM in his book.

If I do get the book in the near future I may put off some of my continuing idiomatic analyses for a while.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Over on Comixology Shaenon Garrity has written an essay, "Ten Things to Know About the Future of Comics," which bears the subtitle:

"Being a Manifesto Based on Talking About Comics with the Young People of Today, Sometimes in the Classroom, Usually Not, Occasionally Sober."

Naturally, since all of Garrity's conclusions are derived from talking to "young people of today," I'm happy to show off my moldyoldiness by spoofing her with a reference to a play/film which no one under 30 will recognize.

It's my intention here to demonstrate some major flaws in Garrity's recent essay, but in passing I'll note that on one other occasion I've butted heads with Garrity. The incident involved Garrity's writing a scathing essay about Comicon.con and other comics-forums. In her essay she mentioned me rather prominently, and I found this a fairly distasteful experience since I've tried to distance myself from Comicon.com for the last three years, and I thought (and still think) that Garrity's essay was (to put it mildly) off base. I may deal with that earlier essay in a future posting; for now, I'll just deal with one of those ten things.

The gist of Garrity's essay is to demonstrate current attitudes of the under-30 crowd as culled by her through (I guess) personal interactions of some sort. I'd be the last to dismiss anecdotal evidence, but I do think that in this format it's subject to a certain amount of intepretative abuse. I have no reason to think Garrity abuses her evidence quite as much as the inimitable Frederic Wertham, Master of the Invidious Anecdote. However, there's one major exception, and therefore I'm going to jump over her first five "things" in order to get to the major weirdness of Thing Number Six.

6. Superheroes are not comic-book characters. They're characters in movies and TV shows. If superheroes or superhero-like characters appear in a comic, that's cool, but it's not what comics are generally about. The Umbrella Academy, for example, is a fantasy story, kind of a goth Harry Potter, about a group of kids born with strange powers who are trained to use those powers at a private school run by a mysterious old man. It's not a superhero comic. The X-Men? Oh, I used to love that show!

Now, most of Garrity's "things," while arguable, are probably at least debate-worthy, maybe even when one is "sober." But this one reads like something cooked up in the local drunk-tank.

Pause while I change to address-mode.

Ms. Garrity, I can easily believe that your underthirties (whatever their range of ages may be) may be totally uninterested in any comics aside from a small number that comprise what you call their "canon," presumably one assembled by word-of-mouth.

I can easily believe that none of them follow superhero comics, which (as many hardcore fans agree) are off-putting to the casual browser, as well as being prohibitively expensive.

I can easily believe that few if any of these potential readers are even interested in superheroes in their mainstream manifestation. I can believe that in many cases they may see movie-adaptations of particular superheroes and not realize that a movie like MEN IN BLACK or maybe even IRON MAN is based on a comic-book franchise.

What I do NOT believe is the notion that they have come to associate superheroes more with "movies and TV shows" than with comic books. The only way I could believe this would be if all those surveyed had possessed the incredible luck never to have encountered floppy comic books or trades thereof, AND never saw an article anywhere that started with the infamous phrase:


Either that, or all those surveyed are incredibly stupid.

(End address-mode.)

OR-- they told the surveyor what the surveyor wanted to hear. How many kids who testified, "Yeah, Batman and Robin were gay and we all knew it," were doing anything but telling Good Doc Wertham what he wanted to hear?

And why might Garrity have "wanted" to hear it? Well, there's a virulent strain of comics-readers who, not satisfied with the very real cultural marginality of mainstream comic books, are determined to make said comics even more marginal than they are. Is Garrity one of these? I cannot say at present, but maybe I'll figure it out in future installments.

"Shhh-- be vewwwy vewwy quiet. We're hunting ewitists."


The answer to the question posed here is simply this:

Three of the characters referenced are artificial beings who possess, through whatever comic-book magic, human-like sentience. Even a comics-fan of modest knowledge should probably know that the three referenced are the original Golden Age Human Torch, the Vision of AVENGERS fame, and the manga-born Cutey Honey.

The other three-- Electro, Gigantor, and the improbably named Bozo the Iron Man-- are all robots in human form, but without any trace of sentience. If they are focal presences, then they are such in the same manner as the nearly-unseen phenomenon of "The Crazy Ray" seen in the movie of the same name, discussed here.

Nevertheless, just as a mass of crazed radiation is more the star of that film than the negligible viewpoint characters, the three non-sentient robots are both the focal presences and the "heroes" of their respective narratives. A well-concieved list of heroes within the superheroic idiom will include Gigantor, not his teenaged controller, who in American markets went by the name of Jimmy Sparks (seen here performing what looks like a Hitler-salute).

This does not mean that the non-sentient mechanical creation is always the star of the show. A counter-example would be the Mach 5 of SPEED RACER fame. In some ways this fantasy-vehicle is used to evoke wonder as is the power of Gigantor, but on average the narrative of the SPEED RACER manga and anime place far more emphasis on the heroic driver himself.

More on this distinction later.

Monday, October 25, 2010


At the start of FOCAL GROUPINGS: RESOURCE I posed this question:

"Is it possible for the 'hero' of a narrative to be something other than a human being, or something given the sentience of a human being (a real animal like Kipling's jungle animals or an imagined creature like a unicorn or an alien)? Can it be something without sentience, such as an artificial creation, or even a setting?"

Part 4 of AGAIN SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS demonstrates that such settings as Jules Verne's "Center of the Earth" can indeed be the central focus of a given narrative, even if that narrative needs some awestruck human narrator to communicate the significance of that setting. But what of my other example, the nonsentient "artificial creation?" For the present I'll discount the potential examples of robots and androids, as they often take on either the appearance or the actuality of sentience.

Early American science fiction is certainly full of artificial anomalies,as summed up by Frank Cioffi:

“Status quo” science fiction. . . . opens with a conventional picture of social reality. . . . This reality is disrupted by some anomaly or change--invasion, invention, or atmospheric disturbance, for example--and most of the story involves combating or otherwise dealing with this disruption.

"Invention" is the sort of anomaly that I imagine Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch would have placed in the category he called "Man vs. Machinery." I see the appeal of this category, for in many cases machines, having been crafted by man, may be judged as things apart from "Nature" as such. However, in science fiction most fabulous "inventions" are fabulous not so much because of how man makes them (an operation usually left to the imagination) but because of what natural forces the inventions unleash.

Take for example Rene Clair's 1922 silent film, which was given the sort of English title appropriate to the milieu of pulp magazines: THE CRAZY RAY.

This short film, originally no more than thirty minutes (but slightly padded in some versions by distributors), takes a very Vernian approach to the "ray" of the English title. The mystery begins when an unnamed night watchman atop the Eiffel Tower descends and finds everyone in Paris deprived of motion. He wanders a city of statues for awhile until finally coming across a small handful of human beings still able to move, who explain that they just descended to Paris via a plane-- the common element being that of "height" here.

Both the shortness of the film and the Vernian approach assure that all of these characters are simple stereotypes; some, like the original viewpoint character, never even get names. After a few adventures in which the survivors motor around Paris enjoying taking things with impunity, they all become morbidly depressed at the lack of human society, and somewhat competitive over the one "living" female in their company. They're all saved from a dire fate when the author of the citywide paralysis, an experimental scientist, reveals that he unleashed the ray that froze Paris. However, after a little prolonged suspense about whether or not he can reverse the process, the scientist does so and the Cioffian anomaly comes to an end.

The viewpoint characters cannot be judged the focal presence of this narrative. They go through the motions of their mobility, so to speak, with the narrative emphasis being on the "what happened to stop the world" element. The scientist's invention, "the crazy ray," is the focal presence here, falling into the antagonistic position in the "man vs. nature" category.

In my next essay, having demonstrated that an inanimate object does not need to possess even the image of having sentience in order to be a focal presence, I'll turn to the only sort of inanimate objects who are *directly* relevant to the adventure-mythos and to the superheroic idiom within that mythos: the aforementioned android/robot creation.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


In Part 3 of this essay-series I dealt with two examples of the "Man vs. Man" conflict, one centered on the presence of a protagonist (or protagonists, if you include the Watson character) and one on an antagonistic presence, whereby I will justify my observation that a focal presence can as easily be a setting or a non-sentient object as a person.


To doff my critical hat once more to Arthur Conan Doyle, I choose for the protagonistic type Doyle's novel THE LOST WORLD. Although the novel is named for its metaphenomenal setting, I find that the viewpoint characters are also the focal presences of the story: Doyle's irascible Professor John Challenger, budding young hero Ned Malone and experienced old hand Lord John Roxton. All three possess strong *dynamis* both in physical and psychological terms, and although the Lost World itself has its fascinations, those fascinations are in essence a reflection of the heroes' personalities, which are so wholeheartedly devoted to red-blooded adventure that the tale almost verges on parody of the genre.

However, a fair number of the adaptations of LOST WORLD have taken the opposite tack. The 1925 film, for instance, de-emphasizes the characters in favor of focusing on the miracles of modern-day prehstoric survivals, as portrayed by the stop-motion of Willis O'Brien.

Moreover, Doyle's novel took its strongest influence from a writer who tended to emphasize "Nature" as his focal presence while giving only cursory attention to his viewpoint characters: Jules Verne. In Verne's VOYAGE AU CENTRE DE LA TERRE, Verne uses the same trio of character-types Doyle would exploit: young everyman hero, wise older man, and a strong hero-type aged somewhere between the ages of the other two. Verne's characters in VOYAGE and elsewhere are not without their charms, and they have a good deal more personality than many of the simple stereotypes that followed in their wake within pulp science-fiction. But in Verne a setting like "the Center of the Earth" is the star, the focal presence, far more than any of his characters-- and much the same pattern is seen in the settings of 20,000 LEAGUES and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON.


ODD JOHN, the Olaf Stapledon novel I mentioned in Part 3, would make a perfect example of the protagonist-centered version of the "Man vs. Society" theme, inasmuch as the main conflict for psychic superman John Wainwright is his attempt to find some place in the sun for himself and his fellow mutants. In contrast to the centered nature of ODD JOHN, however, one may view both 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD as examples where the antagonistic society is the focal presence of the story, not the particular (and doomed) struggles of the viewpoint characters.

In addition, I would also extend this theme to certain literary fantasy-worlds not usually referenced when the theme of "man vs. society" comes up. Nevertheless, both the OZ books of Frank Baum and his successors and the two WONDERLAND works by Lewis Carroll are also fundamentally books wherein a person from our "normal" isophenomenal world must try to suss out the nature of a fantasy-land which may not appear to be a "society" in the usual sense but which does still have some underlying metalogic behind it. But here the OZ books, even though they don't continue with Dorothy Gale as protagonist, give a strong centricity to the characters of those who explore the wonders of Oz. By contrast, though admitttedly Alice only has two books for her exploration, it's clear that Carroll isn't especially interested in using Alice for anything but as a "cat" who is continually dumbfounded by looking at a "king"-- that is, the world of Wonderland, which includes everything from kings and queens to hatters and, of course, a certain breed of cat as well.


This type of conflict becomes trickier, as it can include anything from a character's struggle with his personal bad habits to a literal schizophrenic divide between his good and bad sides. Since I've used metaphenomenal examples for the others, I'll do the same here, but with the caveat that I believe one can find the same centered and decentered forms in isophenomenal fiction.

For the more centered type, I choose Matthew Lewis' seminal 1796 Gothic novel THE MONK. Although the novel does boast other subplots, the "star" of this show is unquestionably the non-heroic Ambrosio, a pious monk tempted into a wealth of depravities by Satan. Many "tempter" stories have been executed where the "star" of the tale was the Devil, who generally manages to tempt the tempted figure into some colossal blunder, but Ambrosio is the focus here, for Lewis devotes considerable space to making credible and personal the monk's seduction, which leads to the quasi-Oedipal fate of his unknowingly killing his mother and raping his sister.

In contrast to the emphasis on the personal disintegration of THE MONK's protagonist, Stevenson's STRANGE CASE OF DR, JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a story in which the viewpoint-providing protagonist is another of those almost nugatory figures seen in Verne and Carroll, while the antagonist is literally split between his doomed good side and his ascendant bad side. Indeed, most cinematic adaptations do away with the minor viewpoint character of Utterson and make Jekyll the protagonist, though almost always one whose personality recedes before the force of the novel's focal presence, the daemonic Edward Hyde.

To sum up:

Protagonistic focal presences include Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger, Odd John Wainwright, Dorothy Gale and Ambrosio the Monk.

Antagonistic focal presences include Dracula, the Center of the Earth, the Brave New World, Wonderland, and Edward Hyde.

Given that the superhero is a genre formed from a confluence of other metaphenomenal genres, the above schema becomes important in answering the question as to what characters within superheroic stories can be called "superheroes," and which are simply "presences" that relate to other genres. For instance, in my "Defining the Superhero" article for COMICS INTERPRETER, I toyed with the notion that Paul Atreides of DUNE might technically fall within the range of the superhero idiom, albeit one in the *mythos* of drama rather than the more normative adventure *mythos.* But now I find it questionable, within the scope of the DUNE series, to wonder whether Atreides was the real "star of the show," as opposed to the world of Dune/Arrakis itself.

I'll deal with other applications of this schema in Part 5.

Monday, October 18, 2010


'WHEN I told John that I intended to write his biography, he laughed. "My dear man!" he said, "But of course it was inevitable." The word "man" on John's lips was often equivalent to "fool."

"Well," I protested, "a cat may look at a king."

He replied, "Yes, but can it really see the king? Can you, puss, really see me?"

This from a queer child to a full-grown man.'

-- opening lines to Olaf Stapeldon's ODD JOHN (1935)

Stapeldon's opening lines to ODD JOHN (considered by some the best SF novel on the theme of "the superman") are useful here because the lines emphasize the act of "looking" at some fantastic presence before whom the unremarkable narrator is, as the phrase goes, no more than a cat looking at a king.

As detailed in my essay FOCAL GROUPINGS: RESOURCE, Dwight Swain formulated his concept of the "focal character" in response to his observation that on occasion the character on whom the reader was meant to be most oriented might be a character seen through the eyes of another. Of the assorted examples Swain gives, I find two, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Stoker's Dracula, to be most useful in explicating how the focal figure-- which I will actually call "the focal presence"-- can be either the protagonist or antagonist along the model of the Quiller-Couch schema.

As it happens, both the novel DRACULA and the serial-concept "Sherlock Holmes," even considered only in terms of their original creators' works, fall under Quiller-Couch's "Man vs. Man" opposition. However, each takes a very different narrative path to depict its "focal presence."

In the case of the Sherlock Holmes stories, viewpoint character Watson is (usually) in a position of commenting on Holmes' brilliance as Holmes sets himself to solve mysteries occasioned by other human beings. Not all of these mysteries involve crime as such, as with "The Man with the Twisted Lip." But all the stories concern some manner of human-engineered deception which Holmes must uncover. In this endeavor viewpoint character Watson functions both as a sounding-board and, on occasion, an ally against physical peril, so in any given story the two of them together take the protagonist's position in the "Man vs. Man" formula.

In contrast, the "focal presence" of Stoker's novel, the Count himself, is essentially in the position of the antagonist in the Quiller-Couch schema-- the second "Man," as it were. Dracula is seen through the eyes of many viewpoint characters, but although the reader is meant to sympathize with all of them-- Mina, Jonathan, Van Helsing-- far more than with Dracula, nevertheless Dracula is the focal presence because it is his mythology, not that of the viewpoint characters, that the reader explores. Indeed, despite occasional efforts by later hands to create stories focused around these subsidiary characters-- Van Helsing in the 2004 movie, Mina Murray in LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN-- all the characters are still best known for being *aspects* of Dracula's mythology.

This inversion is more than just a matter of making the villain the star of the show. When the author "de-centers" the narrative by making an anomalous presence more the "star" than the actual viewpoint characters, the author has moved away from the classical model of Aristotle and his moral lessons, and more toward the territory of Rudolf Otto. Otto wrote in his IDEA OF THE HOLY that when one encountered what one perceived as "the numinous," one's attitude would be:

"blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute."

This de-centered posture is definitely typical of both ODD JOHN and DRACULA, for all that the narrator in the first is simply the admiring chronicler of John's life while the narrators in the second are attempting to destroy the daemonically dreadful figure of the Count.

In Part 4 I will examine the other three oppositions I've adapted from Quiller-Couch's schema in terms as to whether their focal presences are centered upon a "man" protagonist or upon one of that man's prospective opponents: Nature, Society, or Himself.


Even as I created a simple resource to deal with Dwight Swain's notion of the "focal character," here I'm creating a resource to sum up Frank Cioffi's idea of "the anomaly" as expressed in his 1982 critical book FORMULA FICTION, which I briefly reviewed here.

Cioffi's main purpose in the book is to suss out the attitudes found in science fiction stories toward that which seems anomalous or unusual:

“Status quo” science fiction. . . . opens with a conventional picture of social reality. . . . This reality is disrupted by some anomaly or change--invasion, invention, or atmospheric disturbance, for example--and most of the story involves combating or otherwise dealing with this disruption. At the story’s conclusion, the initial reality (the status quo) reasserts itself (ix).

Status quo science fiction served to affirm existent reality in much the same way that other popular genres of the troubled 1930s affirmed values such as family, the love ethic, manly heroism, the American Way, and the like (ix).

The “subversive” formula. . . [is] a variety of SF that comes directly out of the status quo formula and, in fact, closely resembles it. . . . In the subversive formula, the anomaly is not expelled, but somehow incorporated into society; in short, society is subverted by it (ix.)

Rather than demonstrating how society snaps back to normal after any disruption, subversive science fiction depicts how society adapts to and incorporates the anomalous. . . . The anomaly is making an impact on the social structure depicted: altering it, subverting it, destroying it (x).

However, Cioffi is careful to point out that any formula story is likely to use the same basic approaches to storytelling:

The “classic detective story” (as defined by John G. Cawelti) takes a similar structure [to that of the status quo formula story]. Into a fairly conventional and familiar world a crime intrudes, and by the story’s conclusion, the crime is solved, and the integrity of society is reinforced (40).

It even more closely resembles the “fantastic journey” variety of adventure story: the protagonist of a central group of characters journeys into the unknown or the forbidden but safely returns to the comforting, familiar world by the end of the story. Horror stories often exhibit a similar structure. The horror element is introduced into a conventional world (or sometimes arises through placement of conventional types in a horror setting such as a haunted house) and causes excitement, chills, and thrills; but finally the real world reasserts itself and order reigns (41).

An ur-text. . . is formed by looking for conventional plots, heroes, conflicts, and anomalies which appear in large numbers of stories but only rarely appear all at once in any one tale. The ur-text, then, is a composite picture of the most oft-repeated and conventional features of a formula. . . . The ur-text . . . is entirely conventional, containing more clichés than a writer would ever be able to sell in one story. Conversely, no story would be able to sell without at least a good portion of these ur-text features (42).

(Brief pause to tip my hat to Gary L. Pullman of CHILLERS AND THRILLERS-- see bloglist-- for putting these references on the web.)

Now, though Cioffi's book doesn't reference Aristotle, clearly his structural summation of how anomalous presences impact on "conventional social reality" is of a piece with Aristotle's concept of the "Complication" (literally "Desis"= "tying or binding"), while the way in which the viewpoint characters (my term) respond to the anomaly comprises the "Resolution" ("Lusis"= "untying.") I don't agree with Cioffi that all responses to anomalous presences in science fiction or any other genre can be neatly categorized between a "status quo" type and a "subversive" type: for me a given story is better categorized according to the Fryean *mythos* its author dominantly follows. What's most valuable about Cioffi's formulation is that his analysis reveals that in much science fiction, and implicitly in other genres as well, the "anomaly," which in standard literary studies would be in the position of the "antagonist" to a viewpoint "protagonist," may actually be the focus of a given story while the protagonists are, in essence, rather forgettable.

For instance, Cioffi references A.E. Van Vogt's 1939 short story "Black Destroyer," mentioning that its first sentence takes place in the viewpoint of the rapacious alien Coeurl, prior to his ALIEN-like encounter with spacefaring humans. In Arthur Quiller-Couch's terms, this would be a "man vs. man" encounter even though Coeurl is only symbolically a "man" in that he is a sentient creature like his opponents. However, though the reader's sympathies will usually side with the human protagonists in this and similar stories, in "Black Destroyer" antagonist Coeurl is the memorable "star of the show," much as Dracula (to cite again one of Dwight Swain's examples) is the star of the novel named after him, rather than any of that novel's sympathetic viewpoint characters.

I don't plan to return to Cioffi in further essays on the "superhero idiom" theme, which is one reason I chose to isolate reference to him in this resource. But his FORMULA FICTION, despite its Marxist-sounding bias, remains valuable to the analysis of the complexities of genre fiction.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


As intimated at the end of DUELING QUOTATIONS II, I first encountered the term "focal character" on Wikipedia fairly recently, although the term helped me answer a narratological question on which I'd been meditating at least since I wrote about Frank Cioffi's concept of the anomaly in this 2008 essay. Said question, which impacts directly on the SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS essays, might be best framed as, "Is it possible for the 'hero' of a narrative to be something other than a human being, or something given the sentience of a human being (a real animal like Kipling's jungle animals or an imagined creature like a unicorn or an alien)? Can it be something without sentience, such as an artificial creation, or even a setting?"

Obviously if my answer were 'no,' I wouldn't be writing these essays. However, this 'resource' essay won't argue the question; that'll be in SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS III. This post will deal only with the provenance of the term "focal character," though I plan to re-configure this term for my own purposes.

As one can see in the earlier Wiki citation, the term "focal character" traces back at least as far as a 1965 commercial writing-book, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, by Dwight V Swain. It's certainly possible that Swain derived the term from another source, but I've found no evidence for it online, so for the time being I'll assume he invented the term. Unlike the "literary instructor" mentioned in my addenda to the TRAILS OF SUSPENSE essay, Swain was a published fiction-writer, though judging from online approbations the TECHNIQUES book seems to have been Swain's greatest claim to fame:

His first published story was "Henry Horn's Super Solvent", which appeared in Fantastic Adventures in 1941. He contributed stories in the science fiction, mystery, Western, and action adventure genres to a variety of pulp magazines. His first published book was The Transposed Man (1955), which appeared as Ace Double D-113, bound dos-à-dos with J.T. McIntosh's One in Three Hundred.-- from the Wiki entry.

Since I think I have that Ace Double, I may have read the Swain contribution, but I have no memory of it. In any case, Swain first introduces the term in Chapter 3 of TECHNIQUES, as a means of teaching the aspiring writer how to convey "feeling" through the characters to the putative reader. Swain's first important point in the chapter deals with the idea of "orientation:"

"...a story is essentially subjective, not objective. Consequently, it needs to be as strongly oriented as a person... a story is never really *about* anything. Always it concerns, instead, someone's *reactions* to what happens."

For Swain, the "focal character" is the character through which the reader perceives these reactions, and initially Swain seems to be talking about the commonplace notion of what is called variously the "protagonist," the "main character," or the "viewpoint character." However, Swain soon departs from this identification:

"Does this mean that the term 'focal character' is a synonym for 'hero?' Not unless Sammy Glick is a hero in Budd Schulberg's WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN. Or Macbeth. Or Dracula. Or Elmer Gantry." Swain then adds that though readers are accustomed to focusing upon heroes who have "positive" aspects, "a focal character may prove the opposite, yet still intrigue us even as we loathe him."

Swain then also demonstrates cases in which the viewpoint character may be the same as the focal character (Huckleberry Finn, for one) and cases in which the two are separate. Of the examples he chooses for the latter, the most effective is that of Conan Doyle's Doctor Watson, who is the viewpoint character through which the reader perceives the true focus of Doyle's story, who is of course Sherlock Holmes.

This insight, however, isn't followed very far, for on average through the remainder of the book Swain tends to talk about his hypothetical focal characters as if they were, like the example of Huck Finn, identical with viewpoint characters. Clearly, Swain's only reason for coining the term was to clarify the options open to any aspiring writers: that one could choose to make the focal character a figure seen through the eyes of viewpoint characters, as in his most pertinent (IMO) examples, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. I'll touch on these examples in AGAIN SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS PART 3, and how a "viewpoint character" who is more an observer or catalyst than a primary focus makes it possible for something non-human to be the story's focus, the true "star of the show."

In closing I will remark that as a result of my online searches I learned that another author, narratologist Gerard Gennette, also made use of the term "focal character" within the scope of a more advanced academic theory. However, Gennette's usage does not seem to have seen print in book-form prior to 1965, and even if it had, I find it improbable that Swain, by all indications a simple formula-writer, would have encountered Gennette in any form. Whatever the merits of Gennette's narratological system, they don't for the present concern my mediations on the question of heroes and focus characters.

Friday, October 15, 2010


As observed in several of my Norhtrop Frye essays, Frye's schema of four *mythoi* was evolved with a heavy influence from the first pronouncements Aristotle makes in the POETICS on the nature of portraying characters in literature:

"Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are."-- translation, S.H. Butcher.

But in what ways should the artist seek to portray these "men in action," who would now be called "the heroes" of their stories? In Part XV Aristotle starts out by stressing moral rectitude:

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.

Of course, throughout the POETICS Aristotle deals largely with "Tragedy," referring the reader to other remarks about "Comedy" elsewhere, so here he doesn't have to deal with the average and less-than-average "men in action" that dominate comedy and satire. Still, he does have to deal with the notion of tragic heroes who have flaws:

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it.

To be sure, in the POETICS the character's moral excellence is seen as subordinate to the exigencies of the plot, which breaks down into two essential parts, usually translated as "Complication" and "Resolution." The sphere of the "complication" includes what Aristotle calls the *agon* or "conflict," but modern writers generally speak of a story's "conflict" in roughly the same terms as Aristotle's "complication."

Skipping ahead a few centuries, the British literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch attempted to set down patterns as to what variety of entities or forces a story's protagonist might contend against. Quiller-Couch listes seven basic types of conflict, but many (including myself) tend to pare them down to less. My chosen four are as follows:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Himself

Now the advantage of Quiller-Couch's formulation is that it opens one to speculate to a greater extent as to how literature works upon the audience than does Aristotle's rather prescriptive insistence on "moral purpose," much less his controversial theory of catharsis. In my SPHERE OF LONGINUS essay I quoted M.A.R. Habib on Longinus:

whereas Aristotle actually prescribed necessity and probability, universality and typicality; as the bases for poetry's engagement with the world, Longinus advocates precisely what deviates from such universality.

I also remarked on Longinus' significance to the litcrit tradition of understanding the symbolic nature of art, in that he sought to understand the way certain effects produced in audiences the condition of *ecstacy.* The effect of this insight for Romantic critics was to shift the emphasis of literary inquiry from the dominant notion of "moral purpose" to what I call "aesthetic purpose." To reference Frye once more, it takes the inquiry away from what Frye termed "significant values" of conscious theme and shifts it to the "narrative values," through which one apprehends the nature of narrative apart from moral purpose. (See this essay for details on the values.)

In a very different manner I believe Quiller-Couch also shifts attention from an "ought" to an "is" in his anatomy of conflict (which I confess I've only read from summarizations). On the face of it, Q-C's breakdown looks as if it might simply recapitulate Aristotle's interpretation of poetry as "moral purpose" gleaned from poetry's mimesis of "men in action."

But because Q-C's analysis virtually puts the antagonist on the same footing with the protagonist-- and because he gives us antagonists who in some cases are mere conceptual entities, like "nature" and "society"-- he paves the way for the notion that a hero, far from being uniformly a moral agent, may be more "aesthetic" than "moral," and may not even be a "man" as such. And this formulation can only be understood through the consideration of the *focal character* I mentioned at the conclusion of DUELING QUOTATIONS II-- which the next essay will examine.


I haven't written in great detail about what I have termed "the superhero idiom" since this essay in July 2008. Of course a great deal of what I've blogged here has laid the groundwork for exploring such an idiom within the sphere of a greater *mythos*, termed "romance" by Northrop Frye and rechristened "adventure" by me. But now that I've provided on this blog an overall sketch as to how that sphere functions in respect to other spheres, it's time to narrow my focus once more.

Though I wrote several essays and/or reviews on topics superheroic during the 1970s and 1980s for assorted fan-magazines, the genesis of my current efforts to formulate a theory for the superhero idiom can be seen in my essay "Defining the Superhero" in COMICS INTERPRETER #1 (2002 or thereabouts). I've gone beyond a lot of the rough theorization presented in that essay, but one concept I expressed therein still has relevance here. Just as Charles Derry sought to define the "thriller" genre in terms of what the name of the genre said about the genre's content, I sought to define "superhero" by breaking down the word "superhero" into its constituent elements in order to ask what the word says about the genre's content.

However, when you split "superhero" into its two elements, "super" and "hero," one gets a graphic lesson in the difference between "that which is merely complicated" and "that which is fucking COMPLEX."

The element "super" is the merely complicated one. Since "super" means roughly "that which is beyond" some ordinary level or status, I interpret it as being an indicator of what lit-critics call "the fantastic" and what I call "the metaphenomenal," which term is explained in this essay. There are perhaps countless particular variations on how a hero can be super/fantastic/metaphenomenal, but all can be seen as iterations of a single idiomatic pattern which is the mirror-image of the "isophenomenal" pattern; that is, one where the phenomena presented do NOT go beyond a perceived ordinariness.

"Hero," however, becomes excruciatingly complex due to colloquial conflation of two overlapping but non-identical meanings: (1) a figure who has done something exemplary, whether in fiction or real life, or (2) the so-called "main character" in a story, whose centricity may well be the only thing exemplary about him, her, or even "it."

That "it" qualification will become important in Part 2, by way of sussing out whether it is possible for an "it" to be a hero in the sense of (2), no matter how little "it" may be one in the sense of (1).

Thursday, October 14, 2010


From a blogpost by Jonah Lehrer by way of Curt Purcell's GROOVY AGE:

Double-scope integration integrates two mental assemblies, two notions, two thoughts that conflict in their basic conceptual organizations, because they are based on conflicting frames or conflicting identities. The result of this integration is a new conceptual array, a "blend," that has a new organizing structure and emergent meaning of its own. In "double-scope" integration, there are two input menial spaces that we typically keep quite separate, but there is also the invention of a blend that draws crucially on both of them.

I thought of this observation while recently reading (or attempting to read) Claude Levi-Strauss's 1969 work THE ELEMENTARY STRUCTURES OF KINSHIP, where L-S addresses what he calls "the 'polymorphism' of child thought:"

...it must be allowed that infantile thought represents a sort of common denominator for all thoughts and all cultures. This is what Piaget has frequently expressed in speaking of the 'syncretism' of child thought, which, however, seems dangerous to us since it admits of two different interpretations. If by 'syncretism' is meant a state of confusion and undifferentiation in wich the child's distinction between himself and another, between people and objects, and between the objects themselves, is poor, there is a risk of being content with a highly superficial view of things and overlooking the main point. This seeming 'primitive undifferentiation' is not so much an absence of differentiation as a different system of differentiation from [that of adults], and furthermore the result of several systems being in co-existence, and the constant transition from one to another."

Should I also bring in Coleridge to have his say? Nah, not today. But I will note a mild disagreement to one statement by Curt:

Here's my theory. Every fictional work is essentially a guided fantasy or daydream in which we cast ourselves as the protagonist or viewpoint character.

I would amend this to say that the "guided fantasy" can also coalesce around what a Wikipedia article calls the focal character, about which I'll have more to say in future essays.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


"I think there’s this essential human desire to have a unified field theory. Everyone is like, “I want to unlock the single secret to Lost.” There isn’t any one secret. There is not a unified field theory for Lost, nor do we think there should be, because philosophically we don’t buy into that as a conceit... The great mysteries of life fundamentally can't be addressed."-- Carlton Cuse, WIRED, 4-19-2010.

I watched all of the LOST Season Six extras last month, but to put it mildly there's not a lot of bang for the LOSTphile's buck in the DVD collection. The producers of the show, notorious for their aversion to definitive statements about the series-mythology, don't really provide any earth-shattering answers in the vignette-sequel "The New Man in Charge," but the commentary-tracks, at least, gave a clear picture of the producers' trickster-y mentality.

For instance, on the track for "Across the Sea," the producers have the chance to address one of the late-blooming mysteries they tossed out in that episode-- to wit, was the adoptive mother of Jacob and the Man in Black herself a smoke-monster? Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof hem and haw, admitting that it would've been really tough for a middle-aged woman to slaughter a whole villageful of people without Smoke Monster skills. But ultimately they refuse to answer the question, claiming (rather absurdly) that such a divulgence would compromise the audience's ability to debate the nature of evil.

One would think that with the series finished and not much likelihood that either man will helm a recrudscence of the franchise, the two men would just 'fess up and admit that the writers wrote themselves into a corner and got out of it with a bit of typical LOST obscurantism. Of course, that admission could raise more problems than it would solve. Were Cuse and Lindelof to affirm that Unmamma was a Smokey, the consistency-minded would ask: "Then why didn't Unmamma just slaughter the unwanted visitors to her island the first time they came?" Certainly Unmamma had no problem killing Claudia, mother of the two brothers. Logically, a surgical strike on the remainder of the colonists (or whatever they were) would have prevented the trespassers from luring Man-in-Black away from Unmamma's sheepfold. I for one would've respected the producers a bit more if they'd just said straight-out: "We screwed the pooch on that one."

At the same time, I can appreciate that creative people are always, in one sense or another, tricksters of a sort. I don't buy it when Cuse and Lindelof tell audiences that they were wrong to devote their attentions to the mysteries Cuse and Lindelof raised, because they the audiences ought to have been really focused on the human stories involved. But I *can* appreciate that some superlative creative talents are a lot better at establishing mysteries than they are at solving them, and that on one level these talents are justified in talking any kind of talk that helps them sell their wares. In comic books, I find that Grant Morrison and both Hernandez Brothers fit the same category. Morrison and the Hernandezes don't have the excuse that they're working alongside dozens of other creative collaborators-- writers, actors, musicians-- but the pattern remains the same. For any creator whose strength lies in the evocation of mystery rather than its solution, the (re)solution is always going to be of secondary importance.

I can also appreciate what Cuse says re: "the great mysteries of life." Most of the authors who have ascended to the ranks of canonical literature do so in part because they capture a sense of the imponderable nature of life, to whose questions there are no "answers," as there are so often answers to fictional questions. And by and large, I think there were many times that LOST's producers succeeded in catching that sense of imponderability. One of my favorite such scenes appeared at the conclusion of Season 1, Episode 12, "Whatever the Case May Be," wherein Shannon labors to translate the notes of Danielle Rousseau. As she realizes that the notes are the lyrics of the French song "La Mer," she sings them, and the pathetic tonality of the song symbolizes the gulf between the intent of Rousseau when she wrote the notes and the reception they receive from a stranger, Shannon, desperately trying to interpret the meaning. This would be remain a strong moment of "mystery" in a positive sense even if the producers had never troubled to follow up Rousseau's backstory.

Similarly, I didn't care that much if some characters, including the godlike Jacob, were often bound by arbitrary rules, which were inevitably concepts devised by the writers to make the narrative work. For instance, such rules had to be in force to both keep the Man in Black confined to the island and yet prevent him from killing off the candidates who might take Jacob's place should MIB kill Jacob. I don't even mind that we don't know precisely why Ben *could* kill Jacob-- whether it had to do with the location of the murder, or Ben's state of mind, etc. A precise explanation in that case would if anything dissipated the sense of a profound mystery, patterned on (but not limited to) the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

OTOH, there are times Cuse and Lindelof used the "no united field theory" as a crutch to avoid narrative problems rather than to sustain the sense of mystery. In one of the commentaries, Cuse and Lindelof wander off into a windy rumination about MIB's motives: "does the MIB choose to follow the rule, or does he *have* to follow it?" But while this could have been a valid question in other narrative circumstances, it's not supported by the LOST narrative. I was highly amused, after hearing this, to come across a deleted scene in which Smokelocke directly tells Sun, "Do you think if I could break the rule I would still be HERE?"

With that bit of Cuse-Lindelof flummery in mind, it's not surprising that "New Man in Charge" takes a dismissive attitude to fans' remaining questions. I can only say that I for one never cared much about why Dharma used polar bears, and while the explanation for the "Hurley-bird" was mildly interesting, that too was a mystery that I could have simply chalked up to the Island's imponderable nature. As for the revelation that the pregnancy-problems were caused by the island's wacky electromagnetic effects, this is, like the matter of the Smoke-Unmamma, an answer that just raises more questions. Why did the pregnancy-problems manifest at some times and not others? Pierre Chang talks as if the negative effect is confined to creatures brought near the Orchid (implicitly for the time/teleportation experiments), but by the time the castaways arrive it's affecting every conception on the island. And how much are we supposed to think Ben Linus knew about the island's magnetic monstrousness? If he knew a lot, he wouldn't have enlisted the help of baby doctor Juliette, as she'd have no resources capable of quelling the effects. But if Ben knew very little about the Island's electromagnetism, that makes the character look like a dunce unable or unwilling to research the very cynosure to which he's devoted his life. Offhand, I'd say he had to know *something,* as he seems pretty unsurprised in the episode where he witnesses the Oceanic plane being shreded in mid-air. But of course what Ben knew and what Ben did were largely governed by the convenience of the writers.

As I said, I expect trickery from creators at all times, and have my own standards as to what are good tricks and what are bad tricks. I'd certainly say that LOST managed far more good ones than bad ones in its complicated evolution, and that's probably my last word on the serial, aside from finding ways to work the show into my own personal "united field theory" of literary production.

ADDENDUM: Ahhh, I forgot to mention Walt's return. Yeah, I guess it's nice to establish that he'll apparently play some part in redeeming his dad's lost soul, but c'mon! NOTHING about his bilocation skills?? For shame!

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Re: the title-- it's "attack" as in "attack of the neglected Hispanic/Latino characters who are continually underrepresented in popular fiction of all genres," FWIW.

As I write this, "Hispanic Heritage Month" is almost over, but I decided to use the occasion to compile my own "top ten" of Hispanic characters who have proved significant in comic books and strips. A year ago one of the CBR boards did roughly the same thing, albeit only for Marvel characters. I'll include characters who didn't start out in comics (the first two on the list, in fact) as well as any whose racial makeup is part-Hispanic, part-anything else. The only ones not included would be anyone doing "brownface," such as that Golden Age DC Comics character The Whip, who was a white guy who talked in a fonny accent.


(1) ZORRO-- the big enchilada; probably one of the few Hispanic characters who remains well-known since his invention. I'm most familiar with the Alex Toth comics from the 60s but Zorro's had his share of excellent work by other hands.

(2) THE CISCO KID-- The Kid had his high point in a series of comic strips by Rod Reed and Jose Luis Salinas, running from 1951 to 1967.

(3) MAGGIE CHASCARILLO-- where the two LOVE AND ROCKETS guys are concerned, I choose to focus only on one Hispanic character from their respective serials. Thus Maggie stands as a representative for all the varied Latino characters of Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" series.

(4) LUBA-- same thing as above, with Luba standing in for the wealth of "Palomar" characters created by Gilbert Hernandez.

(5) GORDO-- from the comic strip of the same name.

(6) BALDO-- ditto, with the notation that BALDO's one of the few family-humor strips, Latino or otherwise, that I find attractive to the eye.

(7) FIREBIRD/LA ESPIRITA-- I have no idea what the character's doing at Marvel these days but Steve Englehart did a great job of taking a rather rote character from Bill Mantlo's HULK run and fleshing her out to good effect in WEST COAST AVENGERS.

(8) EL AGUILA-- a minor Marvel Comics player invented by Dave Cockrum and Mary Jo Duffy for the POWER MAN/IRON FIST comic. Not a bad character but chiefly interesting for the late Cockrum's usual flair with inventive costumes.

(9) I'd like to include a DC character here, too, but damn it, I just didn't like any of them. So I'll default back to Marvel for the second (and female) version of The Tarantula, seen to best effect in the early issues of HEROES FOR HIRE.

(10) Lastly, I really wanted to include a good Hispanic villain, but I'm not sure there really are any. It might be argued that in early westerns both "black" and "red" antagonists took on a certain mythic force, "brown" ones don't seem to have been as significant, and much the same disparity seems to hold in comic books and strips. At the moment the only one who seems to break from the "bandit lord/bandit queen" mold of the westerns might be the two-shot IRON MAN villain "The Crusher," but he may not be the best choice as he died early in his career and probably isn't memorable to anyone who didn't grow up with the Archie Goodwin IRON MAN run.

I'll probably put that one out on some boards and see if anyone has a better nomination...


I got curious about one of the authorities cited by Charles Derry in THE SUSPENSE THRILLER, one Basil Hogarth, because what Hogarth wrote about thrillers sounded to my ears more like a description of pure pulp-adventure than the somewhat more realistic strain of suspense Derry was analyzing. Only once in TST does Derry quote Hogarth's 1936 book WRITING THRILLERS FOR PROFIT, and it's surprising that Derry quotes him at all, given that Derry gets more substantial help from authors like Highsmith and Rand. Here's an abridged sample from the one Hogarth quote Derry uses:

It is necessary to put the heroine and hero in great danger at regular intervals, just snatching them from the jaws of horrid death in the nick of time. Climax must be piled on climax, and the whole thing must move swiftly... Force and threats play an important part in the plot... The more violent the action the better. Large man-eating apes, poisonous snakes, murderous negroes and bloodthirsty Chinese, surly Mexicans and plotting anarchists may run riot.

On first impression it sounds more like Hogarth was trying to get his readers to write less like Patricia Highsmith and more like Robert E. Howard! Not that there's anything wrong with that (contrary to elitist opinion), but if nothing else Hogarth's comments help show just how confounded the territory was, from the early 20th century on through today, between adventure and suspense.

An amusing factoid came up when I attempted to figure out what credits Hogarth had to his name, since Derry seemed to think that Hogarth was a professional thriller-writer. I found nothing, but thanks to a poster named "Doctor Kiss" on THE CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD, it turns out that Hogarth wasn't a professional in the sense Derry believed:

"Basil Hogarth was a 'literary tutor' who offered courses in writing from his office on Bloomsbury Street in London. He published substantially on classical music in British popular magazines during the 1920s and 1930s, in addition to bringing out several more of these 'how to' guides through a variety of publishers during the same period: MUSIC AS A PROFESSION (1925), HOW TO WRITE PLAYS: A GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL PLAYWRITING (1933), THE TECHNIQUE OF NOVEL WRITING: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR NEW AUTHORS (1934), PERFECT MEMORY BY PSYCHOLOGICAL METHODS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE (1935), SELF-MASTERY THROUGH PSYCHO-ANALYSIS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR LAYMEN (1936). Several of these titles were reprinted multiple times during the 1930s and 1940s.

If Hogarth's reported date of birth is accurate - 1908, according to the British Library and the Library of Congress - then he got started on writing these guides while still in his teens (?!). His other work of note is as editor of the book-length collection of essays and transcripts THE TRIAL OF ROBERT WOOD (1936), about a celebrated British murder case. Advertisements for Hogarth's Bloomsbury Street office were still running in the press in the early 1950s.

There's no evidence that I can find of Hogarth having ever been an actual thriller-writer, and his 'how to' guides show no evidence that he had experienced any particular personal success in the fields which he wrote about."-- quoted with the permission of the writer.

One wonders what kinds of "thrillers" Hogarth grew up with, that he defined the genre in the above manner. A good candidate would probably be the BULLDOG DRUMMOND series of novels by one "Sapper," which are impressive on a number of levels, not least their mind-boggling xenophobia.

In any case, I imagine Hogarth's been pretty much forgotten by everyone but this one quote in Derry's book. But at least the excerpt from his book on thrillers provides an interesting snapshot as to how one early 20th-century Brit author viewed the genre.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


"The concept of a protagonist who is not in control thus seems virtually universal to the [suspense thriller] genre"-- Charles Derry, THE SUSPENSE THRILLER, p. 19.

In his 1988 analysis Charles Derry restricts his observations purely to the medium of films in sussing out the genre he terms "the suspense thriller." But though he doesn't analyze any thrillers from the prose medium, Derry does quote a number of prose-thriller writers in support of his observations, such as Patricia Highsmith, Ayn Rand, and Boileau-Narcejac. In addition, Derry, influenced in part by the genre-theorist John Cawelti, provides a rigorous schema by which he attempts to separate out the essence of the "suspense thriller" from other genres with conceptual overlap, principally the detective/mystery genre and (to a much lesser extent) the horror genre. In doing this, Derry follows in the footsteps of both the thriller-writers and other academics, who seem to more or less agree that mystery and horror are the genres most often confounded with the suspense genre. This is basically accurate as far as it goes, but I think Derry and his fellow academics neglect another genre (also a "mythos" in my Fryean system), which would give some of their conceptualizations wider literary applicability. Obviously, I can't devote more than a broad outline as to how the genre/mythos I term "adventure" stacks up against that of "suspense," but Derry has given me some intriguing starting-points.

Early in the book Derry, careful to state that he wishes to deal only with the suspense-genre in its cinematic manifestations, advances a Caweltian definition based on the content of suspense-thriller films:

"Perhaps the suspense thriller can be perceived not so much as a group of films which thrill their audiences (although this may often be the case), but as a group of films whose content consists essentially of thrills."

Though Derry later devotes a chapter to his concept of the thrill, he never quite arrives at a way of distinguishing the unique thrill of the suspense-genre from those of other genres, such as horror and adventure. This may render certain aspects of his argument problematic, since in my essay THRILLER KILLING I observed that "even a glance at Wikipedia gives one of a cornucopia of subtypes-- action-thriller, horror-thriller, erotic thrillers-- that wander all over the genre-map." Indeed, if one were to define a thriller in the manner that one of his citations, Basil Hogarth, does-- as "any type of fiction... in which the sensational element preponderates," then almost every genre conceived in the last hundred years could be called a "thriller."

Plainly, a given sensation-- say, the threat of a entity that means harm to the viewpoint-character-- will be pretty much the same in any genre. What distinguishes the "thrills" of a suspense-story, a horror-story or an adventure-story must then be the way the narrative presents the thrill to the audience.

It's understandable that Derry doesn't attempt to say much about distinguishing the thrills of either horror or adventure from those of suspense. For one thing, Derry correctly sees the suspense-thriller as belonging to a greater category of "the crime-genre," and so he spends most of his energy distinguishing his chosen subject, suspense, from other categories of crime-tale, particularly the detective/mystery genre. I don't fault him for having done so, for the sake of his argument's clarity; I merely wish to expand the size of the lens Derry uses.

For instance, in Chapter 4, he posits a schema by which one can view crime-stories according to how much they emphasize the victim, the "detective," or the criminal. As long as one is only speaking of the crime genre, which almost always takes place in contemporary urban settings, this is appropriate. Stories that emphasize a "detective"-- and I will explain my added quotes shortly-- include such subgenres as the "classical detective," "the hard-boiled detective," and "the police procedural."

Derry's definition of the last of these, the "police procedural," is the main reason that I put quotes around his concept of the "detective." Derry defines this genre too broadly, saying that it is "composed of all those works which emphasize a professional policeman (or police detective's) adventures as a member of society's law-keeping forces." This is a problematic definition because although many policeman-heroes are technically "detectives" in terms of their official rank, such as Derry's first-mentioned example of DIRTY HARRY, many are not "detectives" in the narrative sense seen in either the classical detective tale (Sherlock Holmes) or the hard-boiled version of same (Philip Marlowe). Dirty Harry's labors to determine what villain to blow away constitute "detection" about as much as do a medieval knight's labors to find out the location of a dragon for the killing.

Moreover, my concept is that the police procedural is usually a good deal more realistic in tone than either DIRTY HARRY or various other examples Derry cites. And sure enough, a minute's search on Google brings me to a more precise definition than Derry's, from current crime-writer Jim Doherty:

A police procedural is nothing more than a piece of crime fiction (in any medium) in which the main, or at least a major interest, is the authentic depiction (or at least the APPEARANCE of the authentic depiction) of the profession of law enforcement.

Toward the end of the chapter in which Derry sets forth his victim/criminal/"detective" schema, Derry does recognize a thematic difference between the genre he seeks to define, "the suspense thriller," and those genres that critics insist on calling thrillers but which aren't relevant to Derry's concept of suspense. Derry seeks to define these other thrillers as expeditiously as he can:

"These genres on the left of the triangle [schema] should not be called thrillers, but if critics insist on occasionally doing so, they should be aware that these genres are more 'process thrillers' than 'suspense thrillers.'"

He further notes that the "leftie" thrillers tend to "present some distinct moral ethic... as a consistent value from beginning to end, whereas the suspense thrillers tend to examine and investigate an existing morality or individual commitment to a new code, arriving at some final position by the end." He doesn't address "process thrillers" again for the greater part of the book, except for a couple of pages in Chapter 9, where he notes the appearance in the early 1970s of "a new kind of thriller... exploring violent, almost fascist sensibilities." Among the films cited in this grouping are DEATH WISH (which is compared to DIRTY HARRY), RED DAWN, and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.

Putting aside the value judgment in Derry's "fascism" canard, it seems obvious to me that many if not all of the works Derry struggles to disentangle from his suspense thrillers (again, thanks to the mislabellings by other critics) are best seen through the generic lens of the adventure-mythos. In this mythos, as Northrop Frye pointed out, protagonists do not usually alter their basic moral stances as much as do some (though not all) suspense-heroes, and the reason ties back to Derry's pronouncement in the first quote referenced above: narratively it's just as important for the adventure-hero to essentially remain in control as it is for the suspense-hero to lose some degree of control.

That said, there are of course any number of exceptions. One may argue that on one level the first adventure of Dirty Harry ends with a certain loss of control in that after killing the villain he flings away the badge that represents his ties to law enforcement. Conversely, the suspense-hero of 1977's BLACK SUNDAY-- a film Derry surveys in his "political thrillers" section-- does undergo more doubts than Dirty Harry during the course of the story, but at film's end he "mans up" and decisively kills the villain, as Derry himself points out.

Exceptions often don't either prove or disprove the rule, however. I've noted in earlier essays that I deem the suspense-genre to be most strongly affiliated to the mythos of drama. In this characterization I follow Frye's remarks on the type of protagonist dominantly seen in tragedy:

He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature.

This clearly contrasts with Frye's remarks on the concept of the hero seen in the romance/adventure mythos:

...the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended...

In a future essay I hope to go into greater detail as to how the *mythoi* of adventure and drama are at once "natural enemies" and "rival siblings." For now, I'll end by saying that although Derry's SUSPENSE THRILLER's focus prevents it from framing the suspense genre within the totality of possible genres, Derry's analysis of the genre itself remains both formidable in its scope and inspiring as to the author's ability to suss out common themes in a variety of disparate-seeming stories.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Before I put aside my copy of Susanne Langer for the time being, it occured to me to revisit my ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY, posted in September 2008, to look over the "50 essential items" I listed there and see what if any relevance they had to my recent ruminations on Langer's dichotomy of symbolic modes.

In my essay comparing the symbolic concepts of Samuel Coleridge and Susanne Langer, I wrote:

So-called "high" and "low" forms of literature, then, preserve some of the myth/tale dichotomy in terms of the usage of presentational or discursive modes, but either can be strong in the *mythicity-force* irrespective of what mode it dominantly takes.

This I find indubitably true of all of the 50 items listed, whether they were particular standout stories or entire runs of a series by a particular creator or creative team. Regardless as to whether the comics cited could be considered of a "high" or a "low" idiom, the mythicity each of them possesses remains complex regardless of that idiom.

Still the two have important differences in other respects. "High" literature can be defined, from a myth-critical vantage, as literature that does what Coleridge claims in his Biographia essay, where the author uses his "conscious will" to shape the materials supplied by the so-called "primary imagination. The creator toiling in the fields of "high" or canonical literature expects to impose a theme upon the phantasms of the imagination, much as (in a different context) Jane Ellen Harrison argued that early myth's early phase, dominated by the "Moira," or fate, gave way to a second phase, that of "Themis," which dealt with the ordering of myth as attuned with "behavior dictated by social conscience." The parallel to the operations of "high" and "low" literature need not be belabored.

I do find that most of the symbolisms offered by my 50 choices dominantly fall into Langer's "presentational" mode, where the symbol-complex is offered up sans much in the way of rational meditation. Some strong particular examples of this mode include Quality's "Karlova Had a True Underworld" from BLACKHAWK #14, with what I called its "weirdo racial myth," and the peculiar alliance of crime and oral fixation in Jack Cole's "A Match for Satan" from TRUE CRIME COMICS #2. Stories like these work primarily by an aesthetic logic and little more.

There are of course "mainstream" works which succeed in blending the non-discursive concepts of the presentational (say, the whole Batman mythos) with discursive symbolism, seen to best effect in Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Some of the discursive focus is merely "how-would-this-shit-work-in-the-real-world" speculation, and critics have been mixed as to how well Miller succeeded on this score. He does somewhat better in terms of projecting his own personal theme onto the raw matter of the Batmythos, though there's not much chance that anyone will be placing TDKR in the realm of "high" art anytime soon. The Moore-Gibbons WATCHMEN probably has a better shot, not least because the novel is a closed system with no ties to a mythos of interrelated stories.

One can see something of the same "discursivity first" pattern in a number of the contenders to canonical/"artcomics" status, such as CEREBUS, JAR OF FOOLS, and PALOMAR. Like WATCHMEN JAR OF FOOLS is a self-contained GN,which in turn makes for a self-contained theme, though I confess I find the ongoing sagas of Sim and Hernandez more ambitious. CEREBUS would seem to be especially indicative of Coleridge's standard that the work of secondary imagination "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate," since unlike the other candidates listed the author Sim more or less re-created his own chosen theme partway through his continuing epic, switching from a Jungian relativism to a conservative Christianity.

I mentioned earlier that there existed certain canonical works, such as Carroll's ALICE books, where discursive concerns were present but were also more strongly concealed by a wealth of presentational materials. It's interesting that this approach is shared both by certain "mainstream" works, such as the Morrison/Quitely DOOM PATROL, by at least one "artcomic" on the list, Chester Brown's YUMMY FUR. Moreover, a work like Windsor McCay's DREAMS OF THE RAREBIT FIEND proves harder to classify that either of these two, since it was syndicated for a mass audience yet seemingly wore a mantle of "classiness" not much affected by most of the strip's contemporaries. It may be that for these three works, many of the discursively-based barriers that critics erect to keep DARK KNIGHT on one side and PALOMAR on the other prove extremely negotiable. Indeed, Morrison's DOOM PATROL, despite its genre affiliations, may excel both McCay's DREAMS and Brown's YUMMY FUR in the discursive department, while remaining equal in the realm of the mythically significant.