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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...

Friday, December 31, 2010


I rarely address personal matters on this blog but I'll make an exception here: as of Dec 31 2010 I retired on pension, making me a fixed-income guy with a lot more time on his hands for matters both creative and critical.

Additionally, on Dec 7 2010 this blog enjoyed its third anniversary. From the first I didn't expect this sort of "culture vulture" blog to reap much net-attention, and those expectations were largely realized, but in my way I've valued the exchanges I've had, even the negative ones.

I probably won't do much more with my companion blog AMAZONS ASCENDANT unless some bolt hits me from the proverbial blue (though I still might write a Parthian shot to Heidi McDonald there). I am considering that while I continue to make the "older AA" a home for formal theoretical meditations, I may start at least a third blog to deal with my new AUM theory, but as applied to the medium of cinema, with little if any comics-commentary.

I think I'm on to something with the AUM system of phenomenological classification, but I don't want ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE to become totally devoted to this subject. Naturally I'm aware that the Internet needs another movie-review blog like Charles Reece needs an Essentials collection of SHOGUN WARRIORS (bad inside joke). What I'm envisioning would still focus a bit more on critical matters than do most movie-blogs, and provide more concrete examples as to why I keep harping on the broad applicability of myth-criticism to the popular arts.

I don't plan to write long essays for this film-blog. A possible model would be Dave Sindelar's MOVIE OF THE DAY files, currently hosted by the Classic Horror Film Board. My take on this format would identify a given movie's phenomenalistic content (atypical/uncanny/marvelous) and maybe touch on prominent myth-motifs. I doubt if I'll manage one a day but I may get into enough of a rhythm to make four-five a week.

Additionally, I've another blog-concept, this one comics-related, but I'm investigating the possibility of its being hosted by a site.

Far in the future I may investigate the possibility of doing a personal wiki. I'm leery of the evanescence of such Internet constructs yet I do like those cool hyperlinks. It might be a possible means of expounding more fully on my theories of the "superhero idiom," on which I've been working, on and off, for the past ten years. The few posts I've done on the subject here are the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

In closing, I will note what I've been meaning to note for months: that I now have an essay in a "real book" (as opposed to all the long-gone and long-forgotten JOURNAL articles). Here's a link to the Sequart advertisement. Mine is the one that asks the musical question, " Is the depiction of Rorschach an unfair caricature of the philosophy of Steve Ditko?" I've enjoyed working with Sequart and hope to do so again in future.

And at some point, I plan to start using a scanner. But no promises as to when.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Having compiled 30 mammorable moments from DC Comics History from my other blog and from other sources, here's twenty more, rounding my count off to 50, as I'm not quite motivated enough to make it to 75.

(31) "The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl," DETECTIVE #359. Ordinarily I'd avoid origin-stories as being "memorable moments" because, with a few exceptions, they're just devices to start the protagonist on the road to significant accomplishments. But I do think the Fox-Infantino Batgirl tale, in addition to being a good yarn that lays out the character's motivations pretty well, is historically significant thanks to the fact that Batgirl's creation was mandated by the 1960s TV show. Not that DC probably wouldn't have evolved a new Batgirl idea on their own someday, but it does mean that the show's TV producers ended up doing the comics some long-term good, whatever slings and arrows the campy show might've brought about in the short term.

(32) I was going to call this entry "Supergirl reveals herself," only to find that there actually WAS a Jerry Siegel story called "The Day Supergirl Revealed Herself," from ACTION #265 (1960), in which the title character got amnesia and showed herself in public, thus imperilling Superman's plans to keep her hidden in his fortress dung-- er, keep her in reserve as a "secret weapon." At any rate, I'm actually referencing a story roughly two years later, in ACTION #285, in which Superman reveals Supergirl's existence to the world at large.

(33) You have to love the title of the story in BRAVE AND BOLD #63 for its stupefying corniness alone: "Revolt of the Super-Chicks!" But historically speaking, it's the first time DC put the spotlight on two unrelated heroines teaming up even for one story, with no superguys to spoil the hen party.

(4) Not wanting to leave out the villains' accomplishments, I open with the female Mist's rape of Jack Knight in STARMAN...

(5) ...And then raise with the villainy of uncontrolled birth seen in GREEN LANTERN #81, in which the sterile Mother Juna (note the reference to Roman "Juno," and maybe to the Hindu term "yoni" as well) nearly destroys her planet Malthus by having so many children, Green Lantern and Green Arrow don't know what to do.

(6) Poison Ivy's another DC character whose debut rates mention. Her main object in BATMAN #181 is to dethrone three other Gotham crime-queens (who never appeared before and have only recently been revived). Just like a woman; she just has to be the center of attention! But she did launch a growing trend for female villains in the Bat-books, which is rather impressive given that aside from Catwoman BATMAN hardly had any female villains in the previous twentysomething years.

(7) Catwoman's the perfect example of a character who isn't really much to write home about in her first few stories, but who grows as writers build upon her. Not that all of the additions were stellar: Bill Finger's origin for his creation made her an amnesiac whose id got out of control. But in the early 1950s, just before the Comics Code arguably exiled Catwoman from the printed page for roughly ten years, she was briefly returned to full villainous status. In DETECTIVE COMICS #203 she gets pissed because she thinks Batman's been boasting about all the times he defeated her, and summarily goes back to crime-- and of course, the thrill of dueling with the Big Bat.

(8) The adult version of Lana Lang worms her way into the world of Superman and his unofficial "girlfriend" Lois Lane in LOIS LANE #7 (1959).

(9) Of course Lana was introduced much earlier as a Delilah-figure in SUPERBOY, who was perhaps worse than Lois in terms of trying to uncover Clark Kent's secret ID. Her most charmingly devious outing appeared in a tale wherein she deliberately exposed Superboy to red kryptonite to see if he'd mutate in some way and thus reveal his ID. That time it made him unable to control his powers, so he went around wrecking everything he touched. Hmm, a teenage girl making a teenage boy do stupid stuff. Who'd believe that?

(10) Sticking with the supermythology, I come to the first appearance of Lesla-Lar in ACTION COMICS #279 (1961). This tale was the beginning of a four-part plotline in the Supergirl backup feature which was a good deal more inventive than most of the stories in the Superman lead. This Jerry Siegel creation was a good if not exceptional villainess, but her tale's main historical significance is that it's one of the first multi-issue superhero tales to appear since the 1940s-- a comics-format that Marvel would later realize to greater lasting effect.

(11) In HAWKMAN #13 (first series), Hawkgirl, one of DC's more dynamic Silver Age heroines, gets to unequivccally rescue her male partner. Queen Alvit, an elvishly-named immortal who looks like a Nordic Valkyrie, tries to force Hawkman into becoming her new husband, and Hawkgirl bitch-slaps her pretty good.

(12) In AQUAMAN #18 the title hero weds his powerful girlfriend Mera, about a year before Marvel's better-known wedding of Reed and Sue Richards. One interesting historical consequence is that this bond makes Mera more a part of Aquaman's team rather than less. Precisely the reverse happened in FANTASTIC FOUR, though admittedly Mera's pregnancy wasn't milked for as much sentiment as Sue's.

(13) In JLA #60 perennial JLA foe Queen Bee masters the Leaguers by turning them into pretty little butterflies, and they're only saved from servitude by a fluke.

(14) In QUESTION #1 Lady Shiva beats the crap out of Vic Sage and almost kills him, but then decides to rescue him and give him a new life.

(15) In ADVENTURE COMICS #304, founding member Saturn Girl uses her telepathic powers to force everyone in the Legion to vote for her, so that she becomes the second member to be the Legion's leader, and the first female character to lead a team of mixed-gender superheroes. (Maybe even any mixed-gender team prior to this 1963 tale!) This mass brainwashing sounds like the act of a supervillain, but it turns out she did it to save Earth from a dire threat. And though Lightning Lad one-ups her by sacrificing his own life against said threat, the Legion votes to keep her as their leader anyway.

(16) In WONDER WOMAN vol. 1, #28, the horribly named minor character "Eviless" wins fame by forming a cadre of Wonder Woman villainesses. This is probably the first all-female group of villains in comics, or at least the first assembled from characters who had made previous appearances.

(17) In WONDER WOMAN #31, George Perez and Chris Marrinan give readers a version of the Cheetah that can and does go the distance with the super-strong Amazon.

(18) Continuing in the catfight theme, in NEW TEEN TITANS ANNUAL #1 Starfire's grudge match with her sister Blackfire merits inclusion on sheer viciousness alone.

(19) I can't say DC ever broke that much gynocentric ground in their various sword-and-sorcery books, but I did think the villainess Dark Majistra was one bad mother-- particularly since she was the hero's mother, and tried to kill him rather imaginatively in the four-part "Magic Odyssey" serial.

(20) And last on my list, I give you LADY COP #1. Reason being that, although the art avoids showing things very graphically, it seems to depict the first time a DC female ever kneed a DC guy in the groin.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The next set in my own list of formidable female figurations comes from my companion blog, AMAZONS ASCENDANT. Of the "top 50 female/male fights in comics" that I listed, only fourteen hailed from DC Comics. Of those fourteen, I count out six as not being quite significant enough to be included in a list judged on historical significance.

Here be the eight who made the cut:

Cassandra Cain's battle with Batman in BATGIRL #50

Supergirl's attempt to find 50 ways to make your lover leave you alone, from SUPERGIRL #15 (current series)

Wonder Woman's fight with Superman in JLA #143

Golden Glider's dastardly attempt to kill Flash's wife and parents in FLASH #257

Black Canary's kung-fu battle with Rabbit in BIRDS OF PREY

Star Sapphire's third battle with Green Lantern, in which she forces him to pledge his troth to her (that's the "if he loses he wins" part)

The (brainwashed) Girl Legionnaires kicking the collective ass of the Boy Legionnaires

In her first appearance, Knockout scoring a TKO on the New Superboy

As the hooker said one Saturday evening, "more to come."


One thing I liked about the list of nominees compiled on DC Women Kicking Ass is that it includes memorable acts by villain(esse)s, which the CBR list neglected.

Here's the entries that made it to my personal list of gynocentric glories, discounting the 3 or 4 that had appeared on the CBR list.

(7) Cheshire nukes a country in Deathstroke #19

(8) Silver St. Cloud figures out on her own that Batman is Bruce Wayne in Detective 479

(9) Oracle hiring Black Canary as an operative in the first Birds of Prey one-shot.
Incidentally, one might deem this the "formative moment" when Oracle went from being a supporting figure to a major player in the DCU.

(10) Amanda Waller goes Head to head with Granny Goodness in Suicide Squad #34

(11) Carrie Kelly becomes Robin in The Dark Knight Returns #2

(12) Cassandra Cain beats Shiva, leaves her hanging in Batgirl #73.

(13) Donna Troy finds her adoptive parents in The New Teen Titan’s “Who is Donna Troy?”

(14) Huntress gets her revenge on the man who had her family killed in “Cry for Bood” #6 (a particular favorite of mine, BTW).

(15) Black Canary calls Batman out about his treatment of the Huntress in Birds of Prey #79

(16) Katma Tui chooses to save a coworker before she saves her fiance, convincing her to become a Green Lantern rather thana wife and mother. Green Lantern #30

(17) Raven puts the Teen Titans together to fight Trigon in NTT #1

(18) Zatanna search to find her father finally ends in Justice League #51

(19) Black Canary crosses over from Earth 1 to Earth 2 and joins the Justice League (JLA #74)

(20) Harley Quinn makes her debut into comics with Harley Quinn/Mad Love

(21) Stephanie Brown becomes the first in continuity girl Robin in Robin #126

(22) Wonder Woman gives up her powers and becomes Diana Prince in Wonder Woman v.1 #178

I must admit that this sampling is fairly "Bat-centric," and that of the six I chose from the CBR list only one of them deals with the Super-mythology. Of course, as others besides me have commented, the mythology of Superman just never has been as inventive as that of the Bat-mythos. However, my own choices will feature not only more of the Superman stuff but also more works from the Silver Age, which period certainly has greater personal resonance to me than many of the latter-day developments.


Moving right along...

Starting with CBR's list of "75 most memorable moments in DC history," I find that it's a decent enough selection, but only six of these "points in time" focus on signficant aspects of the company's portrayal of female characters. They are:

(1) The rape of Sue Dibny. The actual story is pretty worthless, but it does provide a strong marker of the superhero genre's movement away from "juvenile pulp" and toward "adult pulp."

(2) Princess Diana's contest in ALL-STAR #8, in which she defeats her Amazon sisters for the privilege of becoming Wonder Woman.

(3) Terra's revelation as a villain in NEW TEEN TITANS #34. This issue also flirts with the "adult pulp" mode a bit in its implication of a relationship between the teen turncoat and the adult Deathstroke.

(4) Wonder Woman kills Maxwell Lord. Only a fair story, but Lord had become a strong supporting character in the DCU and the act sparked quite a bit of interesting debate in the fan community about "Heroes Who Kill." Unlike your bloody comic book elitists, I don't necessarily find such discussions ridiculous, even if they do usually generate more heat than light.

(5) Supergirl's heroic death fighting the Anti-Monitor in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Of course one might consider this more a "travesty" than a "triumph" since this character's erasure paves the way for the John Byrne version of Supergirl.

(6) The Joker shoots Batgirl. Many fans have come to find "The Killing Joke" rather overrated, and Alan Moore's expressed similar sentiments himself. And if the character had simply been magically healed up as with so many comic-book injuries, I'd probably not bother to list this incident. But it does lead into the transformation of the somewhat timeworn character of the Barbara Gordon Batgirl into Oracle, and even though it's not the sort of transformation Alan Moore would have wrought, he deserves credit for being a linchpin in that development.

Next: Stuff from DCwomenkickingass.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Also known as "a mammary bank." Obligatory rim shot.

Given the popularity of sites with names like SHE HAS NO HEAD!, it would be amusing to subvert that dominant and devote an essay here to reminiscing about nothing but tits in all their varying degrees of reality/fantasy. But in truth this essay takes its inspiration from a more standard form of list-making: "Memorable Moments in the History of [Fill in the Blank]."

A post on COMIC BOOK RESOURCES informed me of a CBR article entitled
"The 75 Most Memorable Moments in DC Comics History."

This CBR list in turn inspired a response from the blog DC Women Kicking Ass. In essence, the blogger asserted that female accomplishments in the DC Universe had been minimized or elided in the CBR list. There may be some justice to this claim, given that "the rape of Sue Dibny" gets a separate listing apart from "the death of Sue Dibny." I don't have anything against listing the "bad things" that happen to DC's fictional characters as being "memorable," especially since the list did include such male-disempowering events as "Roy Harper, Dope Fiend." Still, it does seem a misjudgment to give "Sue's rape" and "Sue's death" separate entries since both occured within the context of a single limited series, IDENTITY CRISIS.

A list of more female-empowering choices appeared on that blog here, and promptly got me thinking about what kinds of choices I'd make for mammor-- er, memorable moments for female characters in the DC Universe. I decided that my list wouldn't focus purely on the empowerment angle, as travesty is no less memorable and/or significant than triumph.

In Part 2 of this essay series I'll start by listing stuff that I agreed with from the two lists before I start making new deposits to the "bank."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


"X" as in "Xmas," of course. If it had been the other kind of "adult," there would have been at least three X's.

I say "adult" because most such Xmas specials, whether done as stand-alone programs or episodes of a series (the latter being the case with this very special Claymation episode of COMMUNITY), aim at being "all-ages."

But "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is, in essence, adult comedy about the pangs of the holiday season, about growing up and having one's family disappoint one, about the possibility of finding surcease from sorrow in a new "community" of friends.

For that reason, "Uncontrollable" may not play all that well with kids, though I plan to subject my nephew and nieces to it on Xmas Eve in order to find out.

The plot is an adult send-up of familiar holiday tropes. Quirky community-college student Abed has something of a mental breakdown due to a psychological problem not revealed until the episode's end. Abed sees everyone he encounters, especially his study-group "family," as Claymation figures based in Xmas themes. One might call this Abed's "licorice-night of the soul," with lots of wry jokes and absurdist fantasy. But for my money no teleseries has ever done a better job with dealing with Christmas in terms of how human beings create meaning for themselves through their ritual practices.

The episode's on Hulu. Merry Winter Solstice!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Once again I find myself pulled into a protracted online argument that will probably go absolutely nowhere, though it makes good fodder for TAA.

The subject: "Jack Kirby as Writer."

In the 1980s Kirby claimed to be the primary author of all of his Silver-Age Marvel collaborations with writer/editor Stan Lee, who allegedly rewrote certain Kirby story-concepts so that they no longer reflected Kirby's original intent. I have no doubt that many key concepts and tropes of the Marvelverse originated with the King, but his claim to truly "writing" the stories remains dubious. Surviving Kirby art from the period often shows notes about possible captions or dialogue, but such notes hardly constitute a fully formed script, and it's impossible to know whether or not Stan Lee contributed anything to the concepts during their collaborative plotting-sessions.

Now, on the aforementioned listserve, the idea's now going around that Kirby had a long and venerable history both drawing and scripting the comic books he produced during his long Golden Age partnership with Joe Simon.

Joe Simon went on record in THE COMIC BOOK MAKERS as claiming that he "never let Jack write" or words to that effect. I have tended to believe that, largely because the text-writing of the Simon/Kirby books shares so little in common with the 1970s-1980s works on which Kirby was credited as sole writer-- and I say that knowing that in comics as in most collaborative endeavors, one has to beware of any creator who sings, "I did it ALL my way," whether it's Joe Simon, Jack Kirby or Stan Lee.

While the captions and dialogue of the Simon/Kirby years generally depict fairly simple plotlines ranging from superhero battles to tortured romance, the text always (in my experience) displays a forthright clarity common to the other more gifted writers of the period, such as Bill Finger and Jack Cole. Since one of the online allegations is that Jack Kirby wrote all the "lead features" on which he and Simon collaborated, here's a sample from the caption introducing a SANDMAN adventure in ADVENTURE COMICS #78:

"Weirder than your wildest dreams are the sensational feats of Magno the Mystic-- and fully as baffling are the audacious crimes that take place whenever he enacts his miracles before wondering witnesses! But nothing is too fantastic for those fearless avengers of the night, The Sandman and Sandy, and once more they race along a dark and dangerous road of nightmare adventure to solve the strange riddle of-- The Miracle Maker!"

This randomly-chosen sample is pretty much of a piece with most of the purple-prose of pulp magazines and comic books, where everything is usually written in First Person Breathless. Now I'll compare it with a Jack Kirby "solo" caption from the 1970s, when he was first unalloyedly credited as the scripter. Here's an introductory caption from NEW GODS #2:

“On Earth, the home of mortal man, Orion the Hunter moves among strange allies and fearful enemies! Man is only dimly aware of the forces maneuvering, lunging for alignment on his world — for somewhere in man himself is the key to victory for the warring factions of the New Gods.”

Comparing the two side to side, I do detect in both passages a very similar cadence. The prose of this particular NEW GODS passage is a shade less purple, in spite of aspiring (as did the NEW GODS series generally) for greater poeticism than did the Simon/Kirby SANDMAN. So from *this* comparison alone, it seems possible that the two scripters might be the same man.

However, this particular NEW GODS passage does not, aside from the clumsy phrase "lunging for alignment," display the sort of awkward word-choices for which Kirby became famous in the 1970s, which the curious reader can read in the JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR article, "Jack's Wackiest Dialogue," seen in this Googlebooks excerpt.

Thus I still find a disconnect. Why are there so many clumsy word-choices in Kirby in his solo-billed days, and so few in the 1940s, when in theory he should have been a rawer, less practiced writer of copy?

Three possibilities suggest themselves:

(1) One is my earlier position: that in the 1940s Kirby really did work from the scripts of unbilled writers, though at times he may have provided essential ideas over which other scribes "ghostwrote" as Stan Lee did later. I now find this the least likely possibility.

(2) Another possibility is that Kirby provided full scripts for his Golden Age stories, just as he did his solo-billed works of the post-Marvel years. This Golden Age work *may* have possessed many of the same awkward word-choices seen in his solo-billed work later, but none of them were ever allowed to see print because they were "ghost-corrected" by other hands.

(3) The third is that in the Golden Age Kirby did possess a somewhat-purple-yet-efficient style of scripting, and needed no corrections whatever. However, following the sales-success of Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby chose to re-invent himself by attempting to make his older style of script-writing more resonant, more overtly poetic. Because Kirby had not practiced this skill, many of his attempts at poetic speech seem, as a Bookline review correctly said, "feverishly overwrought."

My opponents on the listserve would almost certainly champion Possibility #3, while caviling at any intimation that the King's late style might be less than stellar. I tend to favor Possibility #2, because it's hard for me to believe that any professional writer could so totally lose his basic skills as badly as Kirby seemed to once he struck out on his own. Moreover, his quirky style in the post-Marvel days never varied over the next twentysomething years, which suggests to me that this had been his real style of writing all along, and that fans simply didn't see it until Kirby took full billing for all the work.

I will, of course, look at any hard evidence to the contrary.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Back in this essay I wrote:

"the good critic needs both inductive and deductive skills to do his job"

Further, I specified that the inductive method best described those analytical skills with which a critic analyzed particular examples of a phenomenon and then strove to generalize based on the data garnered from said examples, while the deductive method best described the notion of putting forth a theoretical schema and analyzing phenomena in line with that schema.

Of the two, the utility of "categories," which I addressed at the end of this previous essay, seems far more greater for the purpose of deductive, highly theoretical analysis as opposed to inductive, quasi-empirical analysis.

As example, Aristotle's POETICS uses both. Inductive logic is employed when the philosopher discusses the effects that a "medium" has on the production of art (particularly music). However, when Aristotle formulates his generalization about the "power of action" concept-- in which it's generalized that the power of narrative protagonists has to be either average, greater than average or less than average-- that's deductive logic.

That's not to say every use of categories is insightful. Tzvetan Todorov's schema regarding his concept of the uncanny, fantastic, and marvelous follows the same logical process as does Aristotle's argument: what one might even call "the Goldilocks paradigm." However, as I noted earlier Todorov's schema has too little wide applicability because it is too focused upon the concept in the "middle" position, so that his analyses of the other two axes of his schema suffer as a result.

Nevertheless, where matters of fictional narrative are concerned, it's generally better (diverging from Goldilocks here) to have too many choices than too few. Arguably even in inductive logic the logician chooses, consciously or otherwise, certain common factors from which he seeks to generalize from his particular examples. If some factors are excluded in favor of others, this may be less a valid analysis and more a validation of one's own personal tastes, or the tastes of a culture which one has come to internalize.

In JONNYQUESTING PART 2 I alluded to a naive form of this subconscious exclusion. I gave examples of comments by JONNY QUEST's creators Doug Wildey and Joe Barbera to the effect that they might have wished to have modeled their cartoon-creation more after the realistic vein of Milton Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES than of, say, the TOM SWIFT books. This would not be a surprising preference for either man to champion, since both men grew up in a culture that almost always valorized "realism" over "fantasy."

Inductive procedures are largely useless for correcting cultural prejudices, for they cannot construct a schema capable of taking in the divergent narrative strategies of "literary realism" and "literary fantasy." In contrast, a deductive study of an "all-ages" cartoon like JONNY QUEST can show how those strategies are realized in different but equally-appealing types of stories-- but those strategies can only be seen with the aid of careful categorization.

Admittedly this process would be anathema to the creators who created such wild-and-woolly pulp-stories, but as Northrop Frye said:

"A snowflake is probably quite unconscious of forming a crystal, but what it does may be worth study even if we are willing to leave its inner mental processes alone."

Thursday, December 16, 2010


A quick review of the three categories before going on:

The category of the ATYPICAL describes the phenomenality of those works that take place entirely within a sphere of mundane causality, where no marvels are possible.

The category of the MARVELOUS is precisely the opposite. Of course it's a given that there must always be some resemblance to the reader's phenomenal reality of cause-and-effect: as Brian Attebury points out in his FANTASY TRADITION IN AMERICAN LITERATURE, "We cannot picture the unknown unless we hear it described in terms of the known." But the emphasis in a marvelous story is clearly upon the break with the commonplace natural law.

The UNCANNY is midway between the two. In cognitive terms it is *isophenomenal,* in that the rules of accepted reality are validated in the narrative, but in affective terms it is *metaphenomenal.* In Todorov's THE FANTASTIC he views the uncanny as being a category of "the real," as with his most prevalent example, the Radcliffean Gothic-tale, in which spooks and spectres are proven to be false or delusory. As I've noted earlier I don't agree with this categorization. On top of that, whereas Todorov only considers his "uncanny" within the sphere of horror-fiction, focusing on "the fake supernatural," i have in addition to "fake supernatural" nine other categories of "affectively metaphenomenal" story-elements. I won't detail all nine here, though in earlier essays I've mentioned that certain stories about psychotic madmen (though not all) fall within the sphere of the uncanny, a la PSYCHO.

Some of the other nine categories *might* be applied to this essay's subject, JONNY QUEST. However, though I lost any bid for "simplicity" on this blog long ago, I will invoke it here. Thus in surveying the phenomenality of JONNY QUEST episodes I'll only label an episode "uncanny" if it contains an element of "the fake supernatural," as per Todorov's reading.

The Mystery of the Lizard Men (18 September 1964)-- This episode begins with a sort of "sea-Gothic" conceit, in which enemy agents masquerade as "lizard men." However, the villains' attempt to use a laser-gun to shoot down an American capsule propels the episode into the MARVELOUS category, as such laser-weapons are an extrapolation from then-current laser technology.

Arctic Splashdown (25 September 1964)-- This episode, involving spies in the Arctic and polar bears, falls under the ATYPICAL

The Curse of Anubis (2 October 1964)-- story begins with a plot to fake an Egyptian curse, but ends with the MARVELOUS introduction of an invulnerable mummy

Pursuit of the Po-Ho (9 October 1964)-- an ATYPICAL adventure against savage jungle natives

The Riddle of the Gold (16 October 1964)-- another ATYPICAL adventure involving counterfeit gold and a mundane impersonator

Treasure of the Temple (23 October 1964)-- ATYPICAL lost-treasure search

Calcutta Adventure (30 October 1964)-- MARVELOUS in that it includes the heroes invading not only a hidden sci-fi installation that makes poison gas, but the villains are defeated by Dr. Quest's use of a "sonic gun"

The Robot Spy (6 November 1964)-- one of the most MARVELOUS episodes, in which an entire army fails to stop the invulnerable "robot spy," and again Quest's super-technology comes to the rescue

Double Danger (13 November 1964)-- another ATYPICAL impersonation-plot

Shadow of the Condor (20 November 1964)-- ATYPICAL thrills when Race Bannon is forced to engage in a biplane duel with a mad World War I aerial ace

Skull and Double Crossbones (27 November 1964)-- modern-day pirates; ATYPICAL

The Dreadful Doll (4 December 1964)-- UNCANNY, in that the villains use drugs to fake voodoo curses

Dragons of Ashida (11 December 1964)-- a mad scientist gives rise to MARVELOUS flesh-and-blood dragons

A Small Matter of Pygmies (11 December 1964)-- ATYPICAL jungle-adventure

Turu the Terrible (24 December 1964)-- MARVELOUSly, a giant pterodactyl survives into modern times

The Fraudulent Volcano (31 December 1964)-- Doctor Zin using MARVELOUS technology to make a dormant volcano blow its stack

Werewolf of the Timberland (7 January 1965)-- fake werewolf, so UNCANNY

Pirates from Below (14 January 1965)-- more modern pirates; ATYPICAL

Attack of the Tree People (21 January 1965)-- apes and blackmailers; ATYPICAL

The Invisible Monster (29 January 1965)-- a MARVELOUS (and scary!) invisible critter

The Devil's Tower (4 February 1965)-- madman forces natives to dig for diamonds; ATYPICAL

The Quetong Missile Mystery (11 February 1965)-- another MARVELOUS sci-fi installation with a missile buried beneath a swamp (!)

The House of Seven Gargoyles (18 February 1965)-- phony gargoyle; UNCANNY

Terror Island (24 February 1965)-- MARVELOUS giant monsters

Monster in the Monastery (4 March 1965)-- fake Yetis give way to a real one; ergo MARVELOUS

The Sea Haunt (11 March 1965)-- and topping it all off, a MARVELOUS marine monster

(And would you believe I just now got the joke of "Sea Haunt," a pun on that old 1950s deep-sea diving teleseries!)

So this analysis comes down to:

TWELVE episodes of JQ are in the "marvelous" category: Lizard,Anubis, Calcutta, Robot, Ashida, Turu, Volcano, Invisible, Quetong,Terror, Monastery, Sea H.

ELEVEN episodes of JQ are in the "atypical" category: Arctic, Pohos, Gold, Temple, Double, Condor, Skull, Pygmies, Pirates, Tree People, Devil's Tower

Using Todorov's schema only three fall into the "uncanny" category: Doll, Werewolf, and Gargoyles.

A straight comparison of "atypical" and "marvelous" gives the latter category a dominant position in terms of narrative phenomenality: sort of the narratological version of a "51% controlling interest."

However, the category of the "uncanny" functions as something like a "swing vote."

If one considers that the exposure of the supernatural element as false puts the episode's phenomenality into the domain of "the real," as Todorov does, then those three episodes join with those of the "atypical" and give reality the "controlling interest."

If one considers (as I do) that the simple evocation of the supernatural orients the episode's phenomenality toward that of "the unreal," and considers "the uncanny" as being no less an expression of the metaphenomenal than is "the marvelous," then "fantasy" retains the upper hand.

And this is without even taking into account a lot of the little fantasy-touches that are tossed into the series as diversions: minor inventions of Doctor Quest, or Hadji's famed "sim sim sallah bim" levitation gag.

So my verdict is that though Joe Barbera and Doug Wildey probably would *rather* have crafted a hard-hitting adult-pulp adventure series after the exampe of TERRY AND THE PIRATES, what they gave fans was a work that better fits into the idiom of the superhero.

Not all serial works are so affected by their use of fantasy-tropes. Marvel's long-running RAWHIDE KID was a serial that flirted off and on with various superhero conceits, particularly costumed villains. Yet a full-fledged analysis of the original series in terms of Rawhide's opponents would certainly put that character in the "atypical" mode, since Rawhide faced far more injuns and gunslingers than he ever did costumed cavaliers.

Next up: some justification as to why this kind of categorization is important.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Often, after I've attended a convention-panel and heard a professional make an interesting statement, I've wished myself trained in shorthand, to write the statement down quickly before the memory fades. Not having so trained myself, I'm relying only on memory when I recall the following--

At a convention in the 1990s, JONNY QUEST creator Doug Wildey was on a panel, and I remember him saying that he wasn't crazy about having to introduce sci-fi/fantasy monsters into the JQ mix, and that he did so as a means of appealing to kids. He gave me the impression that he much preferred the JQ episodes that focused on realistic adventure, such as "Shadow of the Condor." He also had choice things about what he and his fellow animators would've liked to have done to the cartoon-dog Bandit, but that's grist for some other mill.

Now, when JONNY QUEST debuted in 1964, it did so as a evening show for ABC-TV. So, unlike the Saturday morning cartoons directed wholly at juveniles, JONNY QUEST was trying, like Hanna-Barbera's earlier nighttime success THE FLINTSTONES, to appeal to both kids and adults with "all-ages" material. Unlike FLINTSTONES, JQ did not last more than a year and so ended up being recycled to Saturday mornings during those pre-cable days, where most juvenile watchers may have noticed in the show a harder edge than one usually found in the Hanna-Barbera superhero shows around the same time.

That harder edge, that element of rigor is important to the subcategory of popular fiction I've termed "adult pulp" in other essays. This hardboiled take on the adventure genre shows up in many fictional works of the early 20th century, such as those of Jack London and Dashiell Hammett. In GUNFIGHTER NATION literary critic Richard Slotkin refers to this form as the "blood-and-thunder" genre, and though American comic strips didn't seriously embrace this approach until the late 1920s, they had a pertinent effect on popular culture as a whole and on specific pop-cultural works, including, as a quote from this site makes clear, JONNY QUEST:

Although at first Jonny Quest seems most closely related to the Tom Swift, Jr. juvenile science fiction novels of the 50's and 60's penned under the name Victor Appleton, Hanna-Barbera co-founder Joseph Barbera in his autobiography My Life in 'toons cites the comic strip Terry and the Pirates as being the primary inspiration for Jonny Quest.

"It was a major departure for us, but both Bill and I had been hooked on adventure stories and superheroes since we were kids. As I've said, Bill and I really don't have much in common, but we both spent our nickels and dimes on movie serials and had read Frank Merriwell and Tom Swift novels as kids. I particularly admired Milt Caniff's long-running newspaper comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and that was the main inspiration for Jonny Quest - not only for some of the characters...but also in the sharp, angular look of the artwork, the emphasis on scientific gadgets and high-tech hardware, and the far-flung, exotic locales for the action."

Now, what's interesting about this reminiscence is that it shows JONNY QUEST as having a foot in two worlds: that of Tom Swift, which was directed wholly at juveniles, and of Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES, which was technically "all-ages" but written in a melodramatic vein meant to appeal a little more to adults than to children. Unlike Tom Swift, TERRY, as any comics-maven should know, did not actually have much in the way of "scientific gadgets and high-tech hardware," and it certainly did not have such kid-appeasing figures as Egyptian mummies and Tibetan yetis.

Indeed, I would say that Caniff, comic strips' foremost (albeit not first) proponent of realistic "blood-and-thunder" adventures, is also a Great Ancestor to many comic-book artists-- Severin, Kubert, and Toth as well as Doug Wildey-- who preferred to work in a more realistic vein of adventure. At least one could call it more realistic in comparison to the major superhero artists of the period: Kirby, Simon, Schuster, Kane, Peter et al. Kirby and the rest of these worked in an idiom where the marvelous, the uncanny and the atypical could merge at any given time, and none of the characters involved would give a second thought to clashing phenomenologies. The Caniff tradition, however, strove for realistic depiction, and so generally speaking the pulpish peregrinations of works in this tradition concerned *atypical* occurences within an *isophenomenal* setting.

JONNY QUEST may have the isophenomenal TERRY AND THE PIRATES as a major model, but in terms of phenomality the program bears more resemblance to the classic superhero model, in which stories may center about any combination of atypical, uncanny or marvelous elements. And because the original run of the teleseries was only 26 episodes, it will be easy to break down on this blog just how often the serial fell into each of the three AUM modes. By doing so I can then determine whether or not the series-concept qualifies to be placed within the category of the superhero idiom, much as I considered Zorro's fitness in this essay.

The breakdown will begin in Part 3 of "Theory in Practice."

Friday, December 10, 2010


Back in this essay I criticized a fantasy-film reference-work, R.G. Young's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASTIC FILM for holding fuzzy standards in terms of what the author counted as a "fantastic film." There's no introduction in the volume, so there's no way to tell how Young justified calling some of his cited works "fantastic." I assume that this author suffered from a tendency seen in many such compilers: the tendency to place a film's presentation of a mundane emotion, such as physical fear, alongside the fear suggested by the extra-mundane as if all were covalent.

To further illustrate the problems with this problematic categorizing, I decided to see how broadly my categories "atypical, uncanny and marvelous" applies to Young's choices. I picked one letter with a smallish number of entries, namely the letter "Y," and broke down all the films Young included into what I deemed their proper categories.

I won't bother detailing how many films fell into each category, but instead I'll comment on three examples therefrom. First and easiest were the films along the line of the Japanese monster-flick YOG MONSTER FROM SPACE. Clearly no one would question that a film about a giant space amoeba is a film belonging to the category of the marvelous.

A film like this presents more of a challenge. YOU'LL FIND OUT is a comedy starring bandleader Kay Kyser but slanted toward the horror-audience by its inclusion of three horror-actor icons: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre. But even had these characters been played by actors with no horror-associations, the script propels the film into the category of the uncanny. Readers of my Todorov essays should recall that Todorov thought that any work in which the supernatural was suggested but not proven to be real should be considered "uncanny," and that holds true even without my revisions of Todorov's theory. YOU'LL FIND OUT concerns in part a phony spiritualism racket, and while it's true that the audience is never really beguiled into thinking ghosts really exist, the film's flirtation with the marvelous also makes it a "fantastic film" (albeit not in the way Todorov would have used the term).

Finally, we have YOUNG AND INNOCENT, a film Young apparently included because it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a director who usually did thrillers in the "atypical" mode but dabbled in the world of the uncanny with films like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. But in this film the only fear presented is that of those mundane "tigers" called the police, as this imdb summation makes clear:

A film actress is murdered by her estranged husband who is jealous of all her young boyfriends. The next day, writer Robert Tisdall (who happens to be one such boyfriend) discovers her body on the beach. He runs to call the police, however, two witnesses think that he is the escaping murderer. Robert is arrested, but owing to a mix up at the courthouse, he escapes and goes on the run with a police constable's daughter Erica, determined to prove his innocence.

Of course, not all films in the shadow-area between *the atypical* and *the uncanny* are so easy to dismiss. Is any film with a serial killer *uncanny* because a lot of them, like PSYCHO, carry the uncanny's emotional tonality? Or can one dismiss only those that seem to treat the concept of the serial killer in a mundane fashion, which for me would include both Richard Fleischer's BOSTON STRANGLER and Hitchcock's own FRENZY?

These are questions whose answers I can only suggest in the space of a blogpost. In part 2 I'll deal with how all three categories can be viewed, not as three separate works, but in terms of entries in an ongoing serial.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Long and winding road, but at last I'm back to talking about the "50% of the 90% that's still pretty good."

I've stated that it's possible that what I'll now call the "naive reader" may not have enough acquaintance with "good work" to understand precisely why (to use one of the earlier examples) X-MEN is said to be "crap." For this reader, if X-MEN has a good beat and he can dance to it (so to speak), then X-MEN has a good style.

At the same time if the naive reader was raised in the U.S., then there's a strong chance that by middle school he was exposed to the *idea* that "good work" had certain associations that X-MEN does not. Thus the reader may be aware of the dichotomy, as presented to him through his cultural matrix, even if he can't put into words the literary qualities that Henry James is said to offer and that X-MEN presumably lacks. So in many cases the naive reader's problem is not one of complete ignorance, but of not being able to internalize the dichotomy. More, the reader usually cannot explain just what it is he likes about X-MEN, beyond the obvious things: identifying with the characters, enjoying displays of sex and/or violence, etc.

I've described this reader as "seeking something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws" that were summarized by Curt Purcell in his essay. Thus the reader may or may not be able to cognitively perceive a flaw like a poor writing style, but what remains constant in both cases is this "something" that I labelled "mythopoesis." Admittedly I was vague just what kind of myth-making I was addressing.

Essentially, what I meant by "mythopoesis" is the reader's formation of a "personal myth" in the Jungian sense of the word. This is more than just a summary of the reader's likes and dislikes: it is the "narrative" of his own life's nature. The naive reader's philosophical counterpart, "the sophisticated reader," will possess a personal narrative as well. However, in line with what I wrote of this type of reader in my last essay, this type of reader probably will have invested a certain "proto-critical" effort into consciously crafting his personal myth. His conscious personal myth probably will not be identical with his subconscious one, but the latter persona must logically be affected by the subject's attempt to "impersonalize" the persona with regard to conscious tastes and philosophical outlook.

Now, in the last essay I wrote:

A discerning appreciation for the ways in which the human mind constructs myths-- even while buttressing them with logical assertions and scientific evidence-- does not *have* to equate all myths as having the same content, or even the same form.

What is important to ask in all cases is what *dynamis* the artist expects to arouse in his reader...

The elitist view of the "Henry James/X-MEN" dichotomy assumes that the contrast between the two ALWAYS comes down to "substantive content" versus "divertissement." I don't oppose the notion that a lot of pop literature is consumed by its intended audience and quickly forgotten, but I don't think it's because all such works are inherently forgettable. And I think this even of works whose own authors may have conceived of doing no more than was necessary to keep food on their tables.

I suggest, rather, the naive reader remembers, however subconsciously, those elements of popular fiction that appeal to his personal myth, and forgets those that do not so appeal. The naive reader may not analyze why he thinks one type of pop-creation is better than the other, beyond simple platitudes: "Mike Hammer is better than a superhero comic because superheroes are for kids and Hammer is for adults." I presume this kind of judgment would hold sway even if the superhero comic were one written *by* Hammer's creator Mickey Spillane.

I suggest further that the sophisticated reader has the same subconscious reactions as the naive one. Once again, though, there is an attempt to construct a "conscioous smart filter" that explains to the conscious persona all the good reasons why the reader does like Henry James but doesn't like the Hernandez Brothers.

And here's where the elitist dichotomy breaks down. Though both the naive reader nor the sophisticated reader will have subconscious reasons, reasons pertaining to one's personal myth, for preferring Work A to Work B, they will also follow the same pattern of conscious justification. Thus the Hernandez-booster may downgrade Henry James for his reticence about sex, and the X-booster may downgrade Mike Hammer for being a fascist and/or racist sunnuvabitch. Elitist proponents can *claim* that the reasoned propositions of the sophisticated reader are different in kind from the less abstruse justifications of the naive one. But this too can be demolished as another "appeal to taste" rather than as a clear description of the mental processes involved in both scenarios.

In summation I think the difference between my explanation of human "crap-tolerance", focusing on the care and feeding of "personal myths," differs from Curt Purcell's concept of a "smart filter" in the following manner.

I *believe* Purcell is positing that the more complex functions of literary cognition evolve in linear fashion from the simpler ones.

I agree that the two are inextricably *related,* but not that the complex is simply an articulation of the simple.

As a post-Kantian myth-critic, I'm pretty much committed to the philosophy that the relation of the two is more like that of a hologram superimposed over a flat drawing.

What the hologram's made of and how it got that way would be food for more essays than I plan to write in future. But I will say this--

It ain't made outta Platonic Forms.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


One last time, from the conclusion of this essay:

I think [the reader's existence in an imperfect world]'s the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis."

Now, in a comments-post Curt Purcell speaks of the "conventionally rewarding elements" of a narrative. In DEEPLY, MADLY IF NOT TRULY I asserted that the canonical-fiction reader was no less invested (and willing to be immersed in) the type of "rewarding elements" that such a reader seeks. One may be called (after Fiedler) "unearned gratification" and the other "earned gratification," but it should be evident that as both are gratification, any differences between them must be differences of degree, not of kind.

As I've said before, in place of "gratification" I prefer my term "dynamization," which connotes nothing more than a movement of some item, entity or presence from a "static" to a "dynamic" state. In the case of art and literature, the movement takes place in the mind of the reader/audience, and is especially easy to see in the context of narrative fiction, which is generally expected to have a "static" beginning that sets up a situation and a "dynamic" end that resolves the situation. But the simple binary formula of dynamization applies not only to other forms of art but to all other "forms" (as Cassirer would call them) of human cognition.

Northrop Frye takes a Cassirerean tack in THE GREAT CODE when he writes that "mythical thinking is universal or poetic thinking, and is to predicative thought as narrative myth is to history." The main thrust here, in both Cassirer and Frye, is to indicate the development of one from the other, but a secondary focus is to indicate also the continued relationship of these cultural forms.

Myth, being imbricated with the concept of narrative, must also share the binary form of dynamization. For instance, even in archaic myths whose connotations are largely obscure to modern readers, the pattern is evident.

Jesus predicts that Peter will foreswear him three times before the cock crows.
Peter does indeed foreswear Jesus three times before the cock crows.

This is a simple narrative with none of Aristotle's "reversal:" Jesus says an unlikely thing will happen, and it does. What this narrative meant to its original audiences has been the subject of many theories, of course, but that original intent is irrelevant in a narratological vein.

What is not usually considered is that the same narrative movement pertains in terms of what Frye calls "predicative thought." The predicative thought may be buttressed with formal dialectical logic or scientific examples, but the formula remains the same.

Curt Purcell theorizes on the presence of a "passive filtering mechanism."
Curt Purcell, having provided a "reversal" of sorts by considering opposing thoughts, completes his meditation on the "smart filter."

For me the expressive breakthrough that comes to the audience from the presentation of a dynamic resolution is the motive force that makes possible not only myth in its most formal sense but all narrative, fictional and philosophical.

This is not a popular view. Opponents of "myth criticism" often act as if it endangers their hard-won intellectual boundaries, as when T.E. Apter says of Jung:

"Jung's endorsements of the mysterious and the fantastic are fundamentally platitudinous, neglecting as they do the artist's specific aims and rigorously drawn distinctions." (p. 142)

I don't believe this is the case for Jung or for Frye, at whom I've seen roughly the same criticism leveled. A discerning appreciation for the ways in which the human mind constructs myths-- even while buttressing them with logical assertions and scientific evidence-- does not *have* to equate all myths as having the same content, or even the same form.

What is important to ask in all cases is what *dynamis* the artist expects to arouse in his reader, and in my next essay on this theme that will take me back to the matter of what has been called "crap."


I've done a quick read-through of Apter's FANTASY LITERATURE, enough to realize that despite some promising insights here and there, this is just an adequate but theoretically unexceptional academic work. It isn't concerned with the exploration of fantasy-fiction as a whole, but with a more limited theme. I'd state this theme as "given how much litcrit territory has been taken over by psychological studies, in what ways does fantasy-literature FAIL to conform to psychological paradigms?"

Apter does an "apt" job of showing ways in which highbrow fantasy-writers like Conrad, Hawthorne and Borges diverge from those paradigms, which are always Freudian. Unlike Todorov and Barthes, who accept Freud's paradigms as heuristically sound, Apter frequently critiques Freud-- and yet, because she mentions him on nearly every page, the book ends up seeming less like a refutation of Freud's work than a compulsive obsession with his ideas. In contrast to thinkers like Fiedler and Bataille, who use Freud up to a point but make clear where they diverge from him, Apter doesn't succeed in communicating a greater vision of the many aspects of reality to which Freud was blind. She points out that "Freud's description of symbolic relationships is adequate only for an exceedingly naive allegory," which is an accurate pronouncement. But she fails to establish a heuristic model, as Fielder and Bataille do, that takes in what real insights Freud had and relates them to other spheres of cultural knowledge. Her judgments of various highbrow fantasy-authors seem reasonably sound, but her overall book is useless for anyone attempting to frame a general theory of fantasy, and for the same reasons as the Todorov work: an exclusive concern with fantasy only as executed by highbrow authors.

She does have, in addition to the critiques of Freud, a few telling criticisms of Jung. I think she underrates his insights as far as their usefulness in exploring literary fantasy, but I will admit that what most seems to turn her off-- Jung's sometimes unfortunate tendency toward the "platitudinous"-- is a fair hit.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


At the end of this essay I said:

I think [the reader's existence in an imperfect world]'s the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis." More on that later, though first I may give Curt Purcell a chance to tell me if he thinks I've misinterpreted his essay.

I did not come back to the specific idea of mythopoesis in my next essay on this subject. Instead I concentrated on the proposition that the literary experience of works possessed of formal excellence might be "homologous" with that of "crap" works:

I merely pointed out that a reader's narrarive "immersion" in "crap" is essentially homologous with that of a reader's narrative "immersion" in "good stuff."

Curt Purcell then responded to my example in the comments-thread.

One problem with your Henry James example, by the way, is that anyone who appreciates James very likely sees the "nothing happens" part as feature rather than bug. It's not a flaw to be screened (no matter how it may seem to other readers), but part of the point. For that very reason, I have my doubts, too, that anyone really gets immersed in James the way we're discussing. There's a great deal of literary fiction (and its antecedents) that seems premised on the notion that immersion is suspect, if not outright pernicious. Formal difficulty and a sneering eschewal of conventionally rewarding elements (i.e. those that directly stimulate strong primary affective responses) work in tandem to withhold from the reader an experience that's immersive to almost any degree.

The first definition I accessed for "homologous" comes from American Heritage online, and reads:

"Corresponding or similar in position, value, structure, or function."

Putting "position" aside as irrelevant, let's look at how literary fiction and popular fiction compare in respect to the other three.

It's true that a text written in the canonical literary tradition *dominantly* approaches the concept of narrative in a different manner than that of much if not all things written in the tradition(s) of popular fiction. (And yes, I'm aware that the two categories can spawn some interesting crossbreeds, but that's why I have the little stars around the word "dominantly," dontcha know.) As Curt says, canonical lit-fic often the "eschews conventionally rewarding elements" that underlie popular fiction's strongest appeal, so on that aspect alone they don't function identically as to how their narrative worlds function. Mickey Spillane wants his readers to enjoy said "rewarding elements." Henry James may have his own set of "rewarding elements" but he does communicate them to the reader more by suggestion and innuendo than by outright depiction. So the two aren't homologous by function.

In terms of cultural validation, it's obvious that the two aren't valued identically, though one may be validated with higher sales while the other may be validated with Pushcart Prizes. Further, it would be a betrayal of pluralism for me to value them identically, however much I thought the culture at large failed to give Mickey Spillane his proper due, as against the more validated Henry James. Pluralism requires that Spillane be valued on the terms appropriate to pop-fiction, not because someone thinks there are hidden "existentialist" currents in his work, while James is valued in terms of canon-fiction.

That leaves structure-- and yes, it's at this point that I will say that this is where all literary experience is indeed homologous, in terms of that basic structure I term the *dynamization.*

It's noteworthy that Curt Purcell should use the term "rewarding," for when I proposed the term "dynamization" in place of gratification in this essay, I also conceived the motivation for seeking this experience in art/literature came down to a perception of rewards:

I do believe that no one reads/views any work of art without some notion of a rewarding experience down the road...

Underlying this common quest for a reward of some sort, however visceral or intellectual the reward may be, is a structural movement from one state to another (what Todorov called two "equilibriums)."

I realize, as Curt points out, that the enthusiastic proponent/reader of Henry James does not consider the criterion of "nothing happens" to be a flaw. But in bringing up James I was responding to Purcell's assertion about how the "smart filter" would work in order to screen out any narrative phenomena that might disrupt the reader's quest for the reward:

a poor writing style goes unnoticed, technical mistakes are ignored, awkward plot developments are accepted, embarrassment and self-consciousness aren't provoked by one's enjoyment of story elements that might otherwise seem silly or childish, etc.

Many if not all of these examples arise in the reader's mind due to social constructions about what is or isn't a poor writing style, about what is or isn't a silly story-element. Building on this example, Curt's "smart filter" works to screen out elements of pop-fiction that the reader knows to be deficient by SOMEONE's criterion-- say, for our Mickey Spillane reader who doesn't want the action spoiled by worrying too much about Spillane's style. This reader may even have some acquaintance with "good" writing-- as against my earlier example of the juvenile TWILIGHT-reader-- but it may be that when the Spillane-reader gets a thriller, he wants thrills, quick and dirty, and the rough Spillane style is good at delivering that, as the James style would not be.

By extension, then, I'm saying that the James reader is no less aware that many SOMEONEs don't like reading fiction made up lots of pregnant pauses. I see this reader making more of a conscious, as opposed to subconscious, choice as to what standards of the "rewarding experience" he will advocate. I fully agree with Curt that for the reader of canon-fiction "immersion is suspect," but I think it's only the immersion of those who disagree with that reader's tastes. The canon-reader is just as interested in being immersed in an experience as the pop-reader, but the former is concerned with getting an experience that he considers *unique* (or relatively so) while the latter is concerned with getting an experience he considers somewhat *typical,* but presented in an *atypical* manner.

I confess I can't prove that other readers of canon-fiction get immersed in that fiction, either by pure logic or by citation of my own experiences in that bailiwick. But when I read any book by a critic who has devoted his life to the study of art and literature, even one I disagree with-- say, Theodor Adorno-- I usually get the sense that they *are* immersed, if not in the immediate experience of what they read, then in its place in their conceptual universes.

In a Northrop Frye essay entitled "Mouldy Tales," which I covered in greater depth here, Frye suggests that certain genres invite the reader to simply throw himself into the narrative, while other genres invite what might be called a "proto-critical" attitude, in which the reader is more or less "reviewing" the author's accomplishments even as he experiences the story. But even this "proto-critical" reader is getting some personal validation as he reads. "Aren't I smart to understand what Conrad meant by this?" Or, alternately: "Aren't I clever to figure out that the Hernandez Brothers are really not all they're cracked up to be?"

As I wend toward this conclusion I still didn't manage to work in the relationship of mythopoesis and dynamization, but by and large it may not bear on Curt's specific arguments anyway.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


...isn't that very like saying that it's in nothing? Or rather, that it's so diffuse that it might as well be like the atomic particles that make up all the things we perceive as "things?"

I'm not sure why Freudians seem to want to find sex in *everything.* I find it entertaining in certain cases; I even argued that Superman's romance with a mermaid might be deemed an Oedipal encounter.

But face it, if you find sex in *everything,* then you're the philosophical equivalent of the player/tramp who will sleep with anything that moves. Some discrimination wouldn't hurt.

Case in point: another selection from Alex Vernon's ON TARZAN-- though with the preface that this is still not an overall review of the book, just a quick philosophical rebuttal of one point.

In the same chapter I cited earlier, "Monkey Business," Vernon (who uses the term "Tarzania" for the totality of Tarzan-tales in all media) says:

I would like to speculate that the cannibalism omnipresent in the plots of 'Tarzania' texts is male homoeroticism, displaced. That the anxiety of men being eaten by men substitutes for the anxiety of, well, men being eaten by men.

Though Vernon's supposition is addlepated, I have to admire the piquancy of that line. It's easily worthy of one of Vernon's cited influences, the late great Leslie Fiedler (whom I've sometimes contemplated analyzing here in a compare-contrast with Northrop Frye-- though only my less sane moments).

Still-- really? Sex is so dominant in this Freudian fandango that even the act of eating-- more fundamentally necessary to individual survival than sex can ever be-- becomes a "beard" for a displaced sexual impulse?

Granted: cannibalism is a cultural creation that is not identical with eating for survival. Still, to use one of Vernon's examples, a still-uncivilized Tarzan does consider performing the act on the body of a dead native enemy at a time when Tarzan is honestly hungry, and when he doesn't know any reason why he shouldn't eat a dead man the same way he eats a dead deer. Naturally, author Burroughs invokes his own version of a moral "categorical imperative" to keep Tarzan from falling into this particular sin.

Further granted: there have been many instances in literature and culture where food and sex are intertwined in one manner or another, ranging from the relatively highbrow (the dinner-scene in the film TOM JONES) to the deliberately lowbrow (the black cannibals hunting white women in Robert E. Howard's "Man-Eaters of Zamboula.")
But it seems to me that the Tarzan scene in question is purely about the Levi-Straussian question, "what is it right to eat," and that sexual concerns are just too marginal to bring in-- unless one is trying, as many academics do, to find a ratiocentrist pattern that seems to throw a sheen of rational psychological cognition over any number of irrational-seeming events, literary or otherwise.

"Ratiocentrist," by the way, is my newly-minted term for critics who attempt a little too hard to impress intellectual paradigms on every facet of culture or literature. I conceived it as a counter to Derrida's "logocentrism," and though Vernon is more aligned to the banner of Freud than to that of Derrida's tiresome Marxism, Vernon shares the same overconfidence in a given intellectual paradigm to subsume everything.

I've written elsewhere that after Freud started using *libido* to connote the energy of sex, Jung tried (without success) to protest that since the term meant "life," it would be better used to connote the energies of any and all activities of life, sexual and nonsexual. Regardless as to whether two of those activities-- here, eating and sex-- are endlessly subject to conflation in culture, in reality they are separable and should not be conflated at the drop of an intellectual paradigm.

There may well be instances of cannibalism in "Tarzania" that might better fit Vernon's paradigm of "homoeroticism," though that paradigm might be compromised if any of the possible cannibal-victims are female, which puts us right back into hetero territory. Since Vernon doesn't mention any such male-female cannibal encounters (though he mentions rape a whole lot), does that mean that there are none, or that mentioning them would have weakened Vernon's case for unbridled homoeroticism?

More on these matters anon.


In this essay I said:

...for Todorov, once a spooky story decreed that there were no real ghosts, that story fell into the domain of the merely rational.

I later countered that opinion by asserting:

If the reader gets the frisson of horror from a “phony vampire” story, then the story is on the same affective plane as the “real vampire” story, however different their cognitive aspects.

Continuing in my survey of fantasy-criticism, I've now started T.E. Apter's 1982 work FANTASY LITERATURE, which begins promisingly by downgrading some of the psychological investigations of fantasy (both Freudian and Jungian) and declares that the purpose of fantasy in literature "must be understood not as an escape from reality but as an investigation of it." (FL, page 2)

Even more striking is another line on the same page, which almost sounds as if written to counter Todorov's all-or-nothing cognitive approach:

"The problematic fantasies in Hawthorne, Conrad, Hoffman, Kafka, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov and Borges cannot be isolated within a generally stable world, nor can answers as to the status of the fantasies solve the questions they raise."

The same principle applies to less highbrow forms of literature. Tod Browning executes both a "real vampire" story (DRACULA) and a "phony vampire" story (MARK OF THE VAMPIRE), yet the latter story does not, as I assume Todorov would maintain, fall conveniently into the domain of the rational simply because the "status" of the vampire is proven fake. The uncanny world of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE may seem a bit more "stable" than the marvelous world in which Dracula is a real threat, but both films evoke a frisson foreign to the world of, say, a thriller in which the possibility of vampires can never come into play at all.

Possible future posts on Apter as I continue her book.

Friday, December 3, 2010


"That's the rankest psychologism, and was conclusively shown to be hogwash by Gottlob Frege in the 1890s!"-- Sheldon Cooper denying the power of neurobiology to subsume theoretical physics on THE BIG BANG THEORY

At the risk of committing an oxymoron, I recently finished reading a light-hearted work of academia, authored by one Alex Vernon, which book goes by the none too prepossessing title ON TARZAN. I may do a deeper review of the book itself in a future essay, but in this one I want to address only one assertion by Mr. Vernon, which should provide a concrete example of "the perils of overstatement" I mentioned in the essay THE EMPIRICIST OF DREAMS.

In Chapter Six, titled "Monkey Business," Vernon principally addresses the application of modern academic concepts of homoeroticism to Tarzan. Vernon's project covers not only the original Burroughs canon but a wide variety of Tarzan-adaptations, and the one assertion with which I take issue concerns a 1957 Tarzfilm starring Gordon Scott, TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI.

On page 109 Vernon starts out by describing a subversively erotic moment in the film "when two female characters ogle at Tarzan bathing in a small waterfall. 'I like the way it ripples,' one of them says as water rolls over [Tarzan's] torso."

So far so good. I don't know when I originally saw SAFARI but on a re-viewing in recent years I thought this was a nice bit of covert sexiness. As Tarzan was in those days family entertainment the hero naturally doesn't get to have actual sex with either of the onlooking damsels, though he does get to swim around with one in a manner recalling the erotic aqua-ballets between Weismuller and O'Sullivan.

However, like many academics overinvested in "psychologism" (knew I'd find a use for that BIG BANG quote), Vernon has to stretch things a little too far:

"The tactic backfires: looking through these women's eyes we occupy their feminized position and, if we are men, a homoerotically charged one."

To deliberately misquote Tonto, "Whattya mean 'we,' homoerotically inclined man?"

I'm not claiming that it's impossible for some male viewers, even dominantly straight ones, to have some erotic response to Gordon Scott's pecs.

But I am claiming that it's impossible for ALL male viewers to have that response, with or without supposedly identifying with the owners of the "female gazes." And because it's impossible, it's silly for academics like Vernon to take this "feminization by the gaze" concept so seriously. It was a weak concept when Laura Mulvey proposed it in the 1970s. Thirty years later, it still represents the psychologism of academic wishful thinking.

Without doling out "too much information," I don't mind saying that I enjoyed a response to the SAFARI scene, but I suspect that I, and any male hetero viewers who took the scene as it was written, did not conceive of themselves as somehow separate from the hero-figure of Tarzan. I rather imagine the scene was titillating for most male heteros because they identified with Tarzan getting the admiring female gazes, not with the women doing the gazing.

Of course, that's not to say that the gazes are not important. They are, but not in an identificatory way for the male viewer. They're rather signifiers that communicate, "The hero can get lucky if he plays his cards right."

I'll deal with some of the other pains and pleasures attendant upon my reading of Vernon's ON TARZAN in a future essay.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


“What does rock ‘n’ roll mean but fucking?”—Nigel Cox, TARZAN PRESLEY.

""Say, whoever you are, you know what Freud said about dreams about flying? He said it means you are really dreaming about having sex."
"Really? Then tell me, what does it mean when you dream about having sex?"-- Neil Gaiman, SANDMAN #15.

My title is one of my many puns-that-no-one-else-gets. This time the source is more obscure than usual, as it's the first line of Clark Ashton Smith’s epic poem THE HASHISH-EATER: “Bow down, I am the emperor of dreams.”

So who’s the “empiricist of dreams?” Well, though Sigmund Freud's far from being the only reductivist in the game, he does cast a long shadow over the interpretation of dreams and related fantasies, whether explicitly (as in the statement of the SANDMAN character Rose Walker) or indirectly (as in the quote from a Nigel Cox book-- which I confess I obtained from a secondary source).

To be sure, certain manifestations of pop culture *are* about nothing but sex, though maybe not quite in terms of Freudian psychology. Whatever one thinks about the multivalence of rock 'n' roll, clearly "Skinemax" movies and Tijuana Bibles can't be concerned with very much else. However, the Sandman’s riposte to Freudian dream-interpretation should remind one of the perils of overstatement.

In this essay I asserted that Frederic Wertham, obsessed with finding evidence of comics’ overabundant sexuality and violent transgressiveness, was unable to comprehend that certain fictional fantasies, such as the fantasy of crimefighting, might have some relation to an audience's fear of violent crime in the real world, as opposed to those fantasies being a "cover" for something else, like hatred of one's father. Later, in yet another essay I approved of Carl Jung’s ability to see fantasies as having their own integrity as psychic creations, as opposed to being camoflague for other psychological conflicts. Jung might have expanded on the Sandman’s riposte by saying that even though human beings cannot fly, fantasies of flight don’t automatically translate into the more “realistic” activity of sex. It's as easy to suppose that the fantasy of flying could connote for an audience the pleasure in being able to behold what is impossible in the normal world. From such contemplations, not tied in and of themselves to specific "realistic" referents, there arises what Kant calls sublimity and what the 1940 film THIEF OF BAGDAD calls "the beauty of the impossible."

The battle between Freudian reductionism and Jungian amplification has been fought on other fronts, as when Northrop Frye describes the “distinction between two views of literature that has run all through the history of criticism. These two views are the aesthetic and the creative, the Aristotelian and the Longinian, the view of literature as product and the view of literature as process.”—Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 66.

Frye probably borrowed the terms "product and process" from the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, while his opposition of Aristotle and Longinus may remind some readers of this blog of a similar opposition by R.A. Habib, which I reprinted in THE SPHERE OF LONGINUS. I frankly don’t like Frye's terms “aesthetic” and “creative,” which Frye himself doesn’t use often, either in the ANATOMY or elsewhere. I much prefer the opposition he makes in another essay, quoted here, between a story’s “narrative values” and its “significant values.” In contradistinction to what Frye writes in this section of the ANATOMY, I would say that while I agree that Aristotle is indeed more aligned to the view of literature as product, this goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to see literature as a means of transmitting “significant values.” Thus literature is just one step up from rhetoric, in that its purpose is to convey those values through a fictional fa├žade, much as Freud would’ve believed that a dream’s purpose was to convey the psychological truths of sexual repression. In contrast, though Longinus wasn’t without his own concern for “significant values,” on the whole he seems more concerned with pure “narrative values” when he speaks of how poetry’s effects bring forth the internal ecstasy he calls “the sublime.” This in turn squares up with Jung’s tendency to value dream-fantasies for their own communicative power, not as representations of something else.

I may as well also reference this essay too, where I compared the two different species of Frye-values with Jane Ellen Harrison’s concepts of *moira* and *themis.* In essence art and literature worship at the fanes of both “gods,” even if particular works may be more slanted toward one than the other. The flying horse of Powell’s THIEF OF BAGDAD seems to signify the raw exuberance of fantasy far more than it does sex, but the aerial ballet of Superman and Lois in Donner’s SUPERMAN is clearly more in the Freudian mold. In between the two I find Gaiman’s SANDMAN, for though I quote one of its stories to support Jungian priorities, that work generally succeeds in “worshipping” both *moira* and *themis* in such a way that one can hardly separate “narrative values” from “significant” ones—a consummation devoutly wished by many readers, if one rarely achieved.