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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...

Saturday, October 27, 2012


In FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE I noted that the "fake vampires" of the 1935 film MARK OF THE VAMPIRE qualified as the focal presences of that narrative.  I haven't yet commented on the dynamics by which "many" focal presences-- or at least more than one-- become "one" in occupying the imaginative center of the narrative.

What I call the "ensemble" here is essentially in line with Wikipedia's definition of the theatrical term "ensemble cast:"

An ensemble cast is made up of cast members in which the principal actors and performers are assigned roughly equal amounts of importance and screen time in a dramatic production
In MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, the illusive vampires Mora and Luna are an ensemble of two: although Bela Lugosi was the actor with the greater star power, Carroll Borland's Luna is equally important to the story insofar as both cultivating the vampiric hoax and symbolizing the incest-theme suggested by the main plotline.

It's also possible for some films to have an ensemble of two in which the characters are opposed to one another yet are potential dangers to the normal viewpoint characters, as seen in 1934's THE BLACK CAT.  Here Lugosi's Verdegast and Karloff's Poelzig are deadly enemies, and their contest is the main plot of BLACK CAT.

 Verdegast is nominally more sympathetic than Poelzig, but the dynamic between them is not one of "hero" vs. "villain," where it's generally true that either the hero or the villain is the imaginative center of the narrative.  If anything their contest seems closer in spirit to the contest of two monsters, where one is wholly malign while the other is somewhat benign, at least with respect to innocents pulled into their drama. A similar effect "opposed ensemble-characters" appears in more extreme fantasy-films, like the 1968 "kaiju" flick WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.

As my title implies, it's standard practice that features focused on teams of heroes-- like the AVENGERS-- or even villains-- like THE SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS-- have "ensemble" centers as well. 

With dramatic programs, it can be argued whether or not a villainous forces is part of the "ensemble" or not, as with Alexis Colby on DYNASTY or Benjamin Linus on LOST.  I would tend to say that in these particular cases, the villain is opposed enough to the "good" heroes that he is more a regular cast-member than a part of the ensemble.  But I'll reserve judgment as to other permutations.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I've made numerous comments here and elsewhere about the falsity of Kelly Thompson's criteria for her February 2012 essay (link above).  At the same time, I pointed out in OBJECTING TO OBJECTIFICATION that one can find genuine examples of societal objectification in particular social situations.  However, these examples don't compare across the board with hyper-sexualization in fiction.

Without further comment, here's a good example (better than mine) of the real-world consequences of objectification in a particular milieu.  Thanks to Brittney-Jade for a succinct and accurate essay.

Monday, October 22, 2012


       As I’ve commented numerous times on this blog, there are times when the viewpoint character of a given story is not the imaginative center, the focal presence, of that story.  Rather, the center can easily be some phenomenon to which the viewpoint character bears witness—the wonders of the Center of the Earth in the Jules Verne novel, or even a manifestation of non-sentient radiation, like the “Crazy Ray” of the 1925 Rene Clair film or the magnetic phenomena of 1953's THE MAGNETIC MONSTER.

But what about “fake phenomena?”  My NUM theory outlines ten tropes through which it is possible for a fictional work to suggest the affective tenor of the metaphenomenal even if the phenomenality of that work does not breach cognitive causality.  Among these tropes I include that of the “phantasmal figuration,” in which a given phenomenon has suspicious underpinnings.  Often this means that some human agency has faked the phenomenon.  However, I also include within this trope such works as HAMLET, where one is not precisely sure whether the protagonist has witnessed the true ghost of his father or, as Hamlet himself says, something sent by the Master of Lies.

One of the best known examples of the phantasmal figuration is Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  The story strongly suggests that the supernatural figure in the story, the Headless Horseman, is purely a creation of Brom Bones, rival to Ichabod Crane, and that whatever spectre Ichabod sees is merely Brom in disguise. 

And yet, despite the fact that the story gives readers the dominant impression is that the Horseman is merely an illusion, I would still say that the Horseman is the “focal presence” of the story.  It is this illusion that the reader cares about; not the ignominious defeat of Ichabod nor the triumph of Brom.  In most “phantasmal figuration” works, the illusion takes precedence.

One interesting variation on the “phantasmal figuration” appears in the 1935 Tod Browning MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, reviewed here.  In this film, it appears as if two vampires—Count Mora and his daughter Luna—have arisen from the dead and are vampirizing the locals.  It's eventually revealed that Mora and Luna are merely actors pretending to be vampires, and that there is a merely human agency behind the bloodlettings.  However, the "real vampire" has not created the illusion of the two vampires as a cover for his activities, as the Horseman is created by Brom Bones.  Rather, the vampire-actors are hired by a policeman.  This officer hopes that the presence of phony vampires will “catch the conscience of a killer,” so to speak, and cause the real murderer, one "Baron Otto," to out himself—which, however improbably, he does.

So are Mora and Luna still the focal presences of the MARK story, even though they are not the creation of Otto, the way the Horseman was the creation of Brom Bones?  I would say so.  The two vampires, even though their illusion proceeds from the detective’s finagling, still offer a parallel to the nature of the mundane “vampire” of the story, as I noted in my review regarding the repeated incest-theme.
As David Skal comments in THE MONSTER SHOW, the original script by Endore included a backstory for the long-dead count: that he and his daughter had an incestuous liaison, after which they both perished in some sort of suicidal pact. Or possibly Mora killed Luna, since Luna's character shows no death-marks, while Mora sports a bullet-wound in his temple to depict how his persona perished by his own hand-- a wound left unexplained in the diegesis, since MGM didn't allow any direct reference to incest.

       Yet, in an interesting psychological twist, the Browning-Endore script does manage to put across a quasi-incestuous motive for Otto's crime, for late in the film he reveals that he, guardian and implicit replacement for the late patriarch, coveted Irena for himself. To the extent that Otto incarnates the Freudian myth of the "bad father" who covets his own daughter, the essence of the Mora-Luna relationship does make it into the film in displaced form.

    The example of MARK OF THE VAMPIRE serves to establish that there need not be a one-to-one correlation between the illusion and the one who creates the illusion.  Inspector Neumann is responsible for the illusion, but he remains a supporting rather than a central character.  In the end he functions largely as a stand-in for the persona of the script's author, who constructs the story of   
Mora and Luna to reflect that of the real villain Otto.

Sunday, October 21, 2012



Harry Potter, my go-to example for the drama, has the *megadynamicity* and *centricity* I associate with the normative superhero, but he does not conform to the superhero archetype because he belongs to the dramatic mythos rather than the adventure-mythos.

Years ago, when I began to think in terms of separating heroic protagonists in terms of their conformity with one of the four Fryean mythoi, it was initially enough for me to discount a character like Potter from the superhero idiom purely for not being aligned to the mythos of adventure.  The same logic still applies to comic heroes like Ranma Saotome and ironic heroes like Marshal Law, and I still do subscribe to that logical conclusion.  These characters are as close to "the superhero idiom" as any characters in these mythoi came come.

However, in DEMIHERO DELIBERATIONS I noted an example of a protagonist, Dr. Erasmus Craven of the 1965 comedy film THE RAVEN.  This character possessed "super-powers," a.k.a. marvelous megadynamicity, as well as centricity. Is he a "comedy superhero?"  Decidedly not, I said, for the simple reason that Craven did not conform to the type of *intellectual will* characteristic of the true hero, but represented rather than an *instinctive will.*


HARRY POTTER-- megadynamic/ centric / representation of intellectual will/ dramatic stature
DR. CRAVEN-- megadynamic / centric /  representation of instinctive will / comic stature

It occured to me to ask, given this parallel, how do I demonstrate that Harry Potter represents the sort of intellectual will of which I speak.  Instinctive will I defined thusly:

Endurance, more than courage, is the hallmark of demiheroes like Alice and Jonathan Harker.

Which defines Harry Potter, endurance or courage?  Harry is a hero within a dramatic mythos, which means that though he possesses a fair chance to win (which he does in his final outing), the mythic emphasis is upon the chance that he might not; that his author might outrage millions of readers by killing her creation.  This makes Potter a *kenotic* figure, so that even though he wins, the possibility of his losing was far more real to his readers than it would ever be for a comic hero like Craven or Saotome.

I do think, though, that though the Potter books pay a great deal of attention to the degree to which Harry endures loads of suffering, I would say that he still shows *intellectual will* in that he chooses to delve into the mysteries of his parents' heritage, the private tragedies of the other adults brought into his sphere, and, of course, into assorted magical mysteries.

Comic demihero Craven never quite exerts himself this much.  He's obviously trained himself in the arts of magic, but his final determination to fight Scarabeus seems more "reactive" than "proactive."  Their battle does qualify for what I've termed the quality of Kantian "dominance," because it involves the collision of two greater-than-average forces. If anything, there's even more emphasis places on the final magical contest of hero and villain in THE RAVEN than between Potter and Voldemort in the final Potter book.

And yet, because Craven does not possess the same stature as a hero within his own mythos, or a hero from any other mythos, I find that it makes the most sense to style him a "demihero," indicating a different-- though not automatically "lesser" stature-- than true comic heroes like Ranma Saotome.


Thursday, October 18, 2012


Re: the aforementioned "practical application":

In EXCLUSION CONCLUSION I mentioned that though I had opposed the particular type of exclusionism endorsed by Peter Coogan's 2006 critical book SUPERHERO: THE SECRET ORIGIN OF A GENRE, but admitted that my own system was also founded on various forms of exclusion, as with, say, assigning certain works, especially those of a serial nature, to one Fryean mythos rather than another.

The difference between my system and Coogan's, I believe, is that I don't assert that my categories are proscriptive in nature.  I articulated the "51 percent rule" as a means of dealing with the potential of a given author or set of authors who may choose to vary the elements of the stories they produce, particularly for a serial concept.  I admitted that though there might be potential exceptions to the rule, 'most creators start with a given mythos, make only token shifts to other mythoi, usually proving "loyal" to a particular emotional *dynamis.*'

Now, in Part 1 of this series I examined in some detail the first two stories featuring the Marvel Comics character Henry Pym.  This is a prime example of a story-concept in which the authors began with one scenario, appropriate to a "one-off" non-continuing character, and then changed that scenario for the purpose of making Pym into a recurring hero, and a costumed one at that.

There's no question that Ant-Man belongs to that category I have loosely termed "the superhero idiom."

But what about Henry Pym in his original conception?

Well, at the beginning of GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW PART 4 I said:

I established in Part 3 that though Northrop Frye had dealt with the nature of protagonists’ power-of-action—henceforth called *dynamis*—purely in terms of its physical nature, and thus as a “narrative value,” *dynamis* of any kind or degree must possess “significant values” as well. As I observed here, *dynamis* can apply to either of the principal axes of narrative—plot or character—though in this essay I will deal with it only with respect to characters.

At present I’ve discerned only two (though there may be more) universally applicable significant values. Universality means that they will apply to any *dynamis,* no matter whether one speaks of characters who symbolize “might” in their respective narrative worlds—which can be anything from Superman to Dirty Harry—or those who represent a more compromised form of *dynamis,* as with Kafla’s “Joseph K” or Graham Greene’s Henry Scobie, who both exist primarly not to act but to suffer.

At the time I wrote this (March 2012) I had not yet revised my terminology for what I called the "physical nature" of *dynamis*; I was still following Frye's example re: his term "power of action."  In August 2012 I finally gave this "narrative value" its own term, that of *dynamicity.*  Thus I can recast the theory expressed in March to say that protagonists in any mythos are defined by one narrative value, that of *dynamicity,* and two significant values.  In GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW 4 I specified that one of these would be *centricity,* the quality of being the focal presence of the story, and the other would be *conviction.*  However, I set aside the second term in STATURE REQUIREMENTS, where I stated that "conviction" could be used as an ancillary term for a process of audience-conviction but that the term *stature* would take its place, connoting the power-of-action alloted to a protagonist based on the mythos dominating his story or stories.

So, Henry Pym.

Clearly the Pym of "The Man in the Ant Hill" doesn't demonstrate high *dynamicity.*  Given that he's drawn by action-expert Jack Kirby, it's not surprising that this hubristic scientist wins one of his fights with a human-sized ant.  But during the bulk of the story, Pym is shown running like mad from the attacking ants.  Going by the three-part dynamicity scale introduced in this essay, Pym is at best *mesodynamic,* and not the sort of rare type (like Jack Burton) who can exceed his limitations.

Is Pym the imaginative center, the focal presence, of "Ant Hill?"  I would say so.  I have seen innumerable stories in which some cipher-like viewpoint character comes across some oddball metaphenomenal presence-- which can include normal creatures, like Pym's ants, who are only unusual/dangerous because of the protagonist's special situation.  In fact, about a month before Pym became Ant-Man, Kirby again illustrated a story of a man stuck amidst a hive of giant insects-- this time, bees.

In this story, the bees were the stars, the main character was a viewpoint character who lacked centricity. But the Pym story really is about him first and the ants second; it is his struggle to achieve humility that motivates the story.

Finally, with respect to the remaining significant value, Pym's stature is not that of any type of adventure-protagonist, but that of a hero belonging to the mythos of drama, like most of the characters in these suspense/horror tales.  His *pathos,* not his *agon,* is the most important aspect of his story.

Now, within my system it is possible for the protagonist of a dramatic narrative to have aspects similar to characters belonging to the "superhero idiom."  Harry Potter, my go-to example for the drama, has the *megadynamicity* and *centricity* I associate with the normative superhero, but he does not conform to the superhero archetype because he belongs to the dramatic mythos rather than the adventure-mythos.

But where one may deem Potter a *hero*-- or even a "superhero"-- purely within the sphere of his mythos, the Henry Pym" of "Man in the Ant Hill" is not even close to being a drama-hero, even though he is both the viewpoint character and the focal presence of the story.  He is best deemed a *demihero,* in that he incarnates what I've termed "instinctive will" rather than "intellectual will."

In contrast, the moment Pym appears in "Return of the Ant Man," he shifts toward the domain of the intellectual will.  True, Pym doesn't start out with the desire to become a costumed superhero; this decision is thrust upon him by the intrusion of enemy spies upon his project.  However, even before the "anti-radiation gas" project ever begins, Pym is taking a much more "proactive" stance than he did as a demihero, when he foolishly tested his serum on himself without any sort of back-up plan.  He's not only re-concocted his serums, he's decided to pursue his studies of ants on a basis that suggests personal risk, which is why Pym designs a costume strong enough to protect him from ant-bites.  Whereas in the "Ant Hill" he plans to make a "grand gesture" to embarass his rivals but is undone by his own ineptitude, in "Return" he successfully makes a bigger-than-life gesture by turning his experimental garb into a superhero costume, saving not only his own life but the lives of the FBI agents. 

Thus as Ant-Man Pym does fulfill all three of the values I've determined for the superheroic figure within the adventure-genre, possessing megadynamicity, centricity, and adventurous stature.

In closing I will mention that the narrative opposition of heroic and demiheroic qualities is one that informs one of the superhero genre's most famous tropes: that of the double identity.  But that's another essay.


Since it’s not that long ago that I wrote two pieces on “The Care and Esteeming of Little Myths,” it’s entirely appropriate that I should focus now upon a literally little myth-figure, that of the Silver Age Ant-Man,.  With this character I plan to show a practical application of my demihero-concept—though the actual application will appear in Part 2.  This essay I’ll devote only to charting the transformation of Henry Pym from demihero to superhero.


I’ll begin with a quick summation of “The Man in the Ant Hill,” from TALES TO ASTONISH #27 (January 1962).



Henry Pym begins his fictive life as a Frankenstein manqué.  When his colleagues criticize him for “ridiculous theories” that “never work,” and tell him to “stick to practical projects,” he boasts that he’ll soon prove himself “a greater scientist than any of you.”  This inflated ego leads the scientist to invent two serums: one that can shrink anything to insect-sized proportions, and another that can restore the object to normal.  He’s already made it work with a chair, but because one of his hypothetical uses involves shrinking people (as in transporting troops to war), he tests it on himself. 
 He somehow forgets to put the enlarging serum within reach, runs out of his house in a panic, and falls afoul of a troop of hostile ants.  He improbably seeks shelter in the ants’ own hill, and almost drowns in the ants’ supply of honey.  One kindly (?) ant saves him, but the other ants attack again.  He drives them off with a lighted match and outwrestles one hostile ant with a judo move.
  He escapes the anthill and tries to get back to his house.  Providentially the one friendly ant helps him again, so that he reaches the enlarging serum.  Restored to normalcy, he throws away the serums and tells his colleagues that from now on he will “stick to practical projects.”  The story ends on a note of humility, as a caption says that he’ll never “knowingly step upon an ant hill,” because of the “one small ant to whom he owned his very life.”


Eight months later, within a week of Spider-Man’s debut in AMAZING FANTASY #15, “The Return of the Ant Man” appeared in TALES TO ASTONISH #35 (September 1962).


The story recapitulates in a few panels what happened in the earlier story.  Then Pym changes his mind: having destroyed the original serums, he decides to concoct them again and then hide them away for safekeeping.  His experiences in the ant hill bring about a growing fascination with ants.  He devises a cybernetic helmet that will allow him to communicate with them, as well as a “protective costume” to shield him when he shrinks again to meet the creatures on their level.  However, the U.S. government comes calling, casually asking this expert in diverse technologies to come up with “a gas to make people immune to radioactivity,” which will supposedly be an immense advantage in a nuclear conflict.  The agents of “a nation on the other side of the world” learn of the research and agree that this gas would be a great asset.  Though Pym’s laboratory is guarded by FBI agents, the foreign agents overpower them and demand the anti-radiation formula.  Pym patriotically refuses to give it up.  The spies lock everyone up while they search the lab for Pym’s notes, after which they plan to blow up the lab and everyone in it.  Pym luckily is confined to a place where he can get to both his costume and his shrinking serum.  Once he “gets small,” he returns to the anthill in his yard.  He dominates most of the ants with his helmet because “my wavelength is stronger than theirs,” except one big ant whom he must conquer with his human-sized strength and yet more judo.
He has one more quick conflict with a beetle which is “the size of a dinosaur” at this level.  Then Ant-Man leads his troop of obedient ants into the house.  With their help he frees the bound FBI agents and inconveniences the spies until the good agents overcome them.  He returns to his lab and enlarges, having concealed himself so that neither the spies nor the agents are aware of his role in the dramatic upset.  He concludes the adventure by wondering whether he will become Ant-Man again, though an enthusiastic final caption confirms that he will do so by “the next issue of TALES TO ASTONISH.”


On a side note, Ant-Man apparently makes some more public deeds of heroism before the story in TTA #36, for that story begins with the populace celebrating Ant-Man as a “living legend.”  It may be of some interest that in this respect the Ant-Man feature followed the same trajectory as the first two issues of the FANTASTIC FOUR series, which also started out with the heroes performing their first deed without officially revealing themselves to humanity at large, while their second adventure began with them already celebrated as great heroes by the entire free world.


It’s interesting that “Man in the Ant Hill” partakes of a pattern well used by the “Atlas” suspense/horror tales of the late 1950s and early 1960s: what might best be called the “hubris avoided” pattern.  Pym is not a bad man, but he pursues science in the name of fanciful dreams.  When this causes his practical-minded colleagues to sneer at him, he overcompensates by wanting to be considered greater than all of them.  Yet perversely, he tests his shrinking serum on himself, which has the effect of “cutting him down to size.”  He even conveniently forgets to place the enlarging serum where he can reach it, and makes his situation worse by panicking and running out where the hostile ants pursue him.  Only one ant—the equivalent of a “friendly native” in a jungle-story—enables Pym to survive his foolish endeavor, and to put aside his hubristic ways.


In contrast, since “Return of the Ant Man” is meant to launch a continuing superhero, the Pym of this tale is almost without any inappropriate ego: not only does he patriotically agree to help the government on a project he doesn’t even come up with (and which works only in terms of comic-book logic), he doesn’t even announce his presence to the FBI agents.  Of course, by the next issue Ant-Man has found that becoming a fulltime superhero has its ego-building perks as well, though in keeping with the superheroes of the period, it’s never asserted that this is his primary motive.


More in Part 2.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Just for a laugh, let's take Gary Groth's paradigm and see whether or not it applies to him just as it does to Sim.

Once more into the Groth-quote:

Consider this: TCJ, as has been pointed out, sold half of what Cerebus did. (That sounds about right: Cerebus probably sold around 20,000, the Journal around 9,000). Surely, a greater proportion of Cerebus readers cared about Dave Sim and Cerebus than that of Journal readers. It was Sim who first published a Dave-Sim-Is-Hitler analogy comment in a forum that would have far greater impact on Dave Sim’s livelihood than the Journal — his own comic, read exclusively his his own fans. Logically, then, Sim did far more to cultivate what he perceives as the Sim-Is-Hitler public persona that he believes currently exists (which, keep in mind, only exists in Sim’s head). So, we have several layers of lunacy at work here: the first is that there’s wide perception of Sim-as-Hitler (which there isn’t) and the second is that the Journal was solely responsible for this when it was in fact Sim’s own Cerebus that was, logically, far more responsible…..

Let's suppose an analogous situation, but with Groth as the subject.

Groth writes an editorial that, surprise of surprises, at least one of his readers doesn't like.

That reader writes a letter to the JOURNAL, calling Groth "an aesthetic Nazi."

Groth decides to print this letter in order to refute it, as I presume Dave refuted the letter in which one of his readers called him a Nazi. 

I think the idea of Groth-as-Nazi is such a striking piece of satire that I commission a Bigtime Artist to do a sketch of Groth in jackboots, maybe strutting in front of a barb-wire fence in which a bunch of superheroes are confined.  Maybe Nazi-Groth says something like, "Our good friend Doctor Wertham was entirely too EASY on you."  I print the sketch on my blog.

Miracle of miracles, though my presence on the web garners far less attention than that of COMICS JOURNAL, the image of Nazi-Groth creates a little controversy. 

Now, if I understand Groth's logic above correctly, then it follows:

Any responsibility I might bear for the dissemination of the Nazi-Groth image is far less than the responsibility Groth himself bears for:

(a) Printing the offending letter publicly in order to refute it,

(b) Penning an essay so offensive that it moved a reader to call him a Nazi,

(c) Both of the above.

Isn't logic wonderful?

Monday, October 15, 2012


Shows how much attention I pay to either Fantagraphics or Aardvark-Vanaheim these days, as I just found out last week from this BEAT post that there had been some lengthy discussions as to whether Dave Sim might allow Gary Groth, Inc. to republish CEREBUS in a bookstore-friendly version.

The "blam" in the title refers to the fact that the discussions seem to have blown up in everyone's faces, but I'm not interested in discussing the viability of seeing these two dialectically opposed comics-figures become "strange bedfellows."

One of the many comments Sim made (through a representative) was to vent his resentment of a cartoon that the JOURNAL published in which he was compared to Hitler.

... I was certainly surprised when one of the individuals responsible for labelling me as being co-equivalent with a Nazi concentration camp commandant was suddenly — quite publicly — talking about publishing my work and breathing new life into it... And if I did respond then I would be reinforcing the legitimacy of me being depicted as a concentration camp commandant, 18 years later. Otherwise why was I negotiating with them/him?"-- from "Dave Sim Responds" here.

Sim's aggrievement also doesn't concern me here just now.  Still I found my eyebrows substantially raised by Gary Groth's refutation of Sim's objection, helpfully excerpted on THE BEAT.

Consider this: TCJ, as has been pointed out, sold half of what Cerebus did. (That sounds about right: Cerebus probably sold around 20,000, the Journal around 9,000). Surely, a greater proportion of Cerebus readers cared about Dave Sim and Cerebus than that of Journal readers. It was Sim who first published a Dave-Sim-Is-Hitler analogy comment in a forum that would have far greater impact on Dave Sim’s livelihood than the Journal — his own comic, read exclusively his his own fans. Logically, then, Sim did far more to cultivate what he perceives as the Sim-Is-Hitler public persona that he believes currently exists (which, keep in mind, only exists in Sim’s head). So, we have several layers of lunacy at work here: the first is that there’s wide perception of Sim-as-Hitler (which there isn’t) and the second is that the Journal was solely responsible for this when it was in fact Sim’s own Cerebus that was, logically, far more responsible…..

What amazes me about Groth's comment here is that while I was a constant and (I think) thorough reader of CEREBUS back in the day, I had no idea what 'Dave-Sim-is-Hitler-analogy-comment" Groth referenced.  Groth states that it appeared in response to the incendiary issue #186, but the comment wasn't originated by Sim, though he did respond to it.

I'm having a lot of trouble figuring out how Sim responding to a comment "did far more to cultivate... the Sim-Is-Hitler public persona."  Did anyone remember this lettercol exchange before Groth mentioned it as a proximate cause that inspired the offending cartoon?

I don't think that Sim is "responsible" in any way for fomenting the intellectually lax "Sim-Is-Hitler" meme, even with the consideration that he could have chosen not to print the originating comment in the CEREBUS lettercol.  I can imagine that many people who didn't like Sim's views would have made comparisons between Sim and Hitler had Sim never printed that comment, or any similar comment, and also if THE JOURNAL had never printed the offending cartoon.  Comparing one's enemies to Hitler has spawned its own "law," if one can fairly call it that.

But if you ask me what did the most to spread the Godwinian comparison-- some little comment in the CEREBUS lettercol, or the fullblown cartoon in the JOURNAL-- well, obviously, the JOURNAL cartoon had the greater effect.  Such is the power of the image: *seeing* a comics-celebrity like Sim in Nazi attire will always sear its way into the cerebral synapses in the way that a verbal debate cannot.  I don't imagine that the JOURNAL's low sales prevented the dissemination and discussion of the cartoon in many quarters that paid no attention whatever to the lettercol referenced.

By saying this, I do not side with Sim on the question of whether it was right or tasteful for Groth to have published such a cartoon.

But Groth's attempt to shift the burden to Sim's shoulders is more than a bit egregious.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012


The demihero can be resourceful, can be powerful, can be central to the narrative.  But he must embody “instinctive will” in its life-affirming guise, even as the monster does in its (generally) life-denying guise.-- DIAL D FOR DEMIHERO, PT. 3.
In this essay I gave examples of demiheroes who were *microdynamic* (TV's Carl Kolchak) and *mesodynamic* (Stoker's Jonathan Harker), but I didn't cite one who was in the high *megadynamic* range of power, nor show that it was possible for a demihero to have power and still be ruled more by "instictive will" than by "intellectual will."

In the interests of symmetry, here is one such:

I reviewed the film in which Doctor Erasmus Craven on my movie-blog here, along with another AIP horror-film starring Vincent Price.  I'll confine myself to one quote from the review in order to establish the character's demiheroic nature.

Just from this bare description it’s plain that like the protagonist of PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Craven is “craven” regarding the overshadowing history of his father’s exploits.  Though he’s willing to help the bad-tempered Bedlo, who seems to have earned his transformation by quarreling with Scarabeus, Craven wants no trouble with his father’s old enemy—

However, Craven is lured out of his self-confinement when the "raven" of the title tells him that he might find his "lost lenore" at the domicile of his father's old foe.  After assorted twists and turns, the film finishes up with Craven and Scarabeus duelling one another with magical spells.  Though the spells invariably have a comic tone, they nevertheless represent a level of power I've termed megadynamic, not least simply because they are marvelous in nature, as explicated at the conclusion of the essay MEGA, MESO, MICRO PT. 2.

I don't think that, despite Craven's possession of "super-powers," that anyone would ever view him as a distant cousin to the more mystical heroes, whether they are costumed types like Doctor Strange and Doctor Fate, or more worldly-looking types like Siegel and Schuster's Doctor Occult.

I anticipate one objection to the comparison might be that Craven follows a different narrative pattern than the occult heroes-- not in terms of my Fryean-derived mythoi, but simply in that he is a "one-shot" character whose narrative arc is resolved in his sole appearance, while the others are meant to be serial opponents of crime/evil.

However, in no way is the superhero idiom dependent on seriality.  Here's another film that has, at present, dealt with a one-shot mystic protagonist's struggle to define his place in the world.

Admittedly, SORCERER'S APPRENTICE could be turned into a serial property with little or no effort.  Nevertheless, my point remains undiminished: the 2010 film revolves around a main character who also must come to terms with his powers and oppose evil-- a theme certainly not derived from any of the original contexts for the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," whether from Goethe or Disney. Both of these stories are comic in tone, and the Nicholas Cage film transforms the image of the apprentice-as-bumbler into one befitting the stature of an occult hero.

At the same time, in keeping with my earlier remarks on *stature* as a quality that defines *dynamis* of a given character, it's not Craven's participation in a comedy that makes him a demihero.  In the above essay I used Ranma Saotome as a character who was a definite hero even though he inhabited a comic universe and so possessed a stature different in kind from that of, say, Buffy Summers.  But for symmetry's sake, I may as well also cite a comic hero who happens to have mystical powers.

I'm not going to detail the case for Lina Inverse of SLAYERS as a comic hero rather than an adventure-hero; anyone interested in how I parse such arguments should probably reread my series ADVENTURE-COMEDY VS. COMEDY-ADVENTURE, beginning here.

By these comparisons I have, at least to my own satisfaction, defined the narrative functions of hero and demihero (aka them "life-affirming forces") as functions that transcend any particular mythos.  I anticipate returning to the subject at some point, however.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


“They’re very important, these comic book movies, because they’re our modern myths.”—Bryan Singer, SUPERMAN RETURNS: THE COMPLETE SHOOTING SCRIPT.


On this Comic Book Resources thread I found myself arguing against an overly rigid definition of myth.  Though the argument was short-lived, it reminded me somewhat of the more epic-in-scope tsunamis in which I took part on The Board of the Terminally Dense,  before said board descended into complete intellectual worthlessness.  I wasn’t able to make headway against the reign of rigidity there or on CBR, but the experience moved me to write a little on the question, “What is myth?”


As I’ve emphasized in earlier essays, those who claim flatly “superheroes aren’t myths” aren’t concerned with the applicability of myths to literature generally, as I am.  They simply wish to deprive the superhero genre of any such defense in order to knock the props out from its supporters, who range from the “insider” fans who support the comic books themselves to the “outsider” professionals like Singer, seeking to ratify the translation of comic-book fantasies into those of the cinema.


One of the hoariest anti-myth arguments depends upon defining myth in a functionalist manner.  In this definition a myth can only be a particular type of story, designed to provide stories of the gods or of archaic rituals, all of which have one purpose: to lend coherence to human tribes and societies.  A common corollary to this argument is that myths must be absolutely believed by those societies.  This imputation of complete and unwavering belief on the part of ancient societies sets myth apart from any form of literature, in which it's assumed that no one invests "belief."  This argument denies mythicity even those forms of literature that transmitted, in literary form, archaic myth-narratives otherwise lost to moderns, such as one finds in the works of Homer and Firdausi.


I myself have distinguished between religious myths and literary myths in this essay, defining the former as “closed rituals” and the latter as “open rituals.”  In the latter form, the author is often allowed the freedom to invent new stories from canonical myths, as when Euripides rewrote the sequence of events in the "labors of Hercules" to fit his play HERACLES.  Religious myths are thought of as “closed” by their more stern-minded proponents, who deny that they possess truth if they are changed.  But the senselessness of this attitude is shown in that many religious myths do change both their form and substance over time without losing their social function and effectiveness.


The question of “belief” isn’t one that deserves much refutation, in that no one can prove how deeply or intensely archaic societies believed in their societal myths.  Joseph Campbell devoted the chapter “The Lesson of the Mask” in PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY to the fallacy of absolute belief, demonstrating that even for ancient societies belief is a “game” first and foremost, and that religious literalism is mere “vulgarization” that goes against the essence of what myth is and what myth can do.


Once it is evident that the dividing-line between religious myths and literary myths is real only insofar as individuals “believe” in the distinction, one may be open to an interdisciplinary approach like that of Ernst Cassirer, who devoted his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT to the proposition that “mythical thinking” was a fundamental proclivity of humankind that was not confined those narratives which nominalists choose to call “myths.”  In essence “mythical thinking” is the counterpoint to what Cassirer calls variously “empirical” or “theoretical” thought.


In his opening chapter “Mythical Consciousness” Cassirer advances this oppositional argument.  After advancing the notion that both empirical thought and mythical thought have their own definitions of “causality” and of the nature of the perceived “object,” Cassirer says:


“According to Kant the principle of causality is a synthetic principle which enables us to spell out phenomena and so read them as experience.  But this causal synthesis… involves a very specific analysis…. It is a fundamental flaw in Hume’s psychology and his psychological critique of the concept of causality that he does not sufficiently recognize this analytical function… Mere local or temporal contiguity is transformed into causality by a simple mechanism of ‘association.’  But in truth, scientific knowledge gains its causal concepts and judgments through an exactly opposite process.”


That process, which depends on singling out “a specific factor in a total complex as a ‘condition,’ is alien to mythical thinking.”  Myth actually does depend on laws of association rather than analytical proof: “Animals which appear in a certain season are, for example, commonly looked upon as the bringers, the cause of this season; for the mythical view, it is the swallow that makes the summer.” Thus, Cassirer concludes: “Hume, in attempting to analyze the causal judgment of science, rather reveald a source of all mythical explanations of the world.”


To be sure, Cassirer does not address in this book the provenance of the mythical imagination in literature.  He does address in general terms the transition from “the mythicial image world and the world of religious meaning to the sphere of art and artistic expression.”  But it seems plain to me that literature functions far more through “association” than through “analysis,” and that it depends just as much as myth on creating “networks of fantastically arbitrary relations,” a phrase borrowed by Cassirer from one Hermann Oldenberg.

If one disproves the idea that myth can only be defined through its association with ratifying social structures, as I believe that I have, one is free to understand its essence as being true to what I called earlier “the free flow of associations,” a.k.a. “symbolic complexity,” and to see how it manifests in literature as readily as in religious myths or in pedagogical folklore.

Cassirer does not focus great attention to the imaginative process that spawns the “networks of arbitrary relations,” as does Campbell, and neither of them explicitly makes my point that such complexity arises as a “super-functional” quality from narrative tropes that, by themselves, are merely “functional.”  In this I take added influences from Northrop Frye and from Vladimir Propp, and I aver that their theories participate in an interrelated “network” of theories whose joint effect is to diminish the dogmatic stance of sociologically-oriented functionalism.


Monday, October 8, 2012


At the conclusion of TRUISM LIES PT 3 I appended this note:

I can't tell if others can see my comment appended at the end of Part 2 of the Chicken's essay; on my computer it says the comment's still awaiting moderation.
Today I checked the Chicken's essay, and saw that the answer is in the negative.  This suggests that editor Julian Darius no longer wishes to tolerate my broadsides at Chicken Colin on his site, even though my only comment, aside from the link to the "TRUISM LIES" essays, was to say that the Chicken's political nonsense was easy to refute.

So much for the spirit of open debate at Sequart.


Returning now to the hitherto-sketchy idea of “intellectual will” vs. “instinctive will” expressed in this essay.

I’ll reiterate that of the four persona-types outlined in HERO VS. VILLAIN, MONSTER VS. VICTIM PART 1, any of them can be “protagonist” or “antagonist” as delineated in AGAIN SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS PART 4. 
As a general rule two of the four, the “hero” and the newly christened “demihero,” are the life-affirming forces, while the “villain” and the “monster” exist to thwart the forces of life.  However, experienced readers will be familiar with other permutations. 
A comics-series like MAN-THING portrays its monstrous protagonist doing good not as a conscious act but in response to instinctive tendencies. 
In the short-lived JOKER series of the 1970s, the titular villain still performed many of the same evil deeds he performed as a Batman antagonist, but in the majority of Joker-stories his efforts had the effect of putting other felons back in the pokey.


For simplicity’s sake I choose to define the story’s protagonist not as the person or presence most emphasized in the story—“the focal presence,” the “imaginative center”—but as the character with whom the audience principally identifies, while the antagonist represents whatever forces the protagonist struggles against.  Yet identification and imaginative focus are not the same.  I’ve frequently cited Lewis Carroll here.  One identifies with Alice, but Wonderland provides the audience’s imaginative focal point.


Admittedly, the focus is not always so easy to sort out.  In most Batman-Joker stories, it’s a given that Batman is both the identificatory character and the imaginative center.  The Moore-Bolland KILLING JOKE provides a rare exception in that the narrative shifts the imaginative focus to the Joker as it relates a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime.  Batman is still predominantly the identificatory character through whom the reader is lessoned in lunacy.  Arguably the hero loses some of his heroic status as he becomes the “Alice” lost in the demented “Wonderland” of the Joker’s madness.


I’m aware of a slight tendency on my part to categorize characters as “victims/demiheroes” if they are lacking in dynamicity (Carl Kolchak, Doctor Who) or centricity (Jonathan Harker of the DRACULA novel).

Yet that’s not what I meant to communicate when I formulated this schema.  The demihero can be resourceful, can be powerful, can be central to the narrative.  But he must embody “instinctive will” in its life-affirming guise, even as the monster does in its (generally) life-denying guise.


In my current analysis, both Doctor Who and Kolchak are heroes of the subcombative type.  Though they lack the *dynamicity* that would make them combative heroes, they do exercise “intellectual will” in order to stymie the forces of disorder.  Bram Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, on the other hand, is a *mesodynamic* type of protagonist who nevertheless ups his game enough to become a key player in the fight against the monstrous focal presence/antagonist Dracula.  Yet I judge that his type of heroism is governed less by a heroic ideal than by the instinct to protect himself, his home and his ingroup against all aggressors.  Thus, he provides a mirror to Dracula, the monster whose main focus is also self-preservation.


The instinct of self-preservation, though, does not rule either Batman or the Joker.  Their respective devotions to “order” and to “chaos” are often—though not invariably—framed as intellectual propositions.  The Moore-Bolland KILLING JOKE devotes its narrative to the Gospel According to the Joker, depicting the Joker’s madness as an insight into the true nature of the world.  Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, in contrast, depicts the Batman’s vigilante quest as one in which the protagonist breaks man’s law in order to protect a higher law—admittedly one perceived through Batman’s particular blend of ruthlessness and compassion.




By chance I stumbled across a quote that may illuminate some of the differences between these different yet complementary forms of human will.  Following the spinal trauma Christopher Reeve suffered in 1995, the actor wrote in his autobiography STILL ME:


“What is a hero?  I remember how easily I’d talk about it, the glib response I repeated so many times.  My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a courageous act without considering the consequences… Now my definition is completely different.  I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to perservere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”


Reeve, though he was an actor whose job was to play fictional characters, speaks here of normative, real-world definitions of heroism, making no comment upon the depictions of heroes in fiction.  But his remarks do have application to the archetypes of heroes as we find them expressed in fiction.  Endurance, more than courage, is the hallmark of demiheroes like Alice and Jonathan Harker.  It also underlies the “raison d’etre” for the majority of monsters, though one cannot generally call their acts “heroic.”  Dracula seeks to survive by finding new feeding-grounds. The Man-Thing is psychically sensitive to the emotion of fear, and attacks anyone who broadcasts that emotion in his presence, which may include innocents as readily as malefactors.


Heroes and villains are more focused on “grand gestures,” made in defiance of consequences.  Not all villains are larger-than-life like the Joker: Batman often fights criminals who are no more than *mesodynamic,* though on occasion a sufficient number of ordinary crooks present an extraordinary threat. 

 Even the mundane crooks as portrayed in these stories want more than simple survivial.  Typically they desire wealth, which may be seen as establishing a form of willed control over their environment.  This will to control often manifests in the crooks forming their own society counter to that of honest citizens.  Unlike monsters, who are most often seen as forces gone out of control, villains seek to exercise total control, be it of city-neighborhoods or the entire world.  The hero responds in turn with his own counter-efforts to control the pernicious counter-society of crime.  Those efforts—whether they stem from a vigilante like Batman or a constituted legal authority like Judge Dredd—also go beyond the criteria of simple survival, emphasizing the power of the law to curtail the will of the lawbreakers.       

















Wednesday, October 3, 2012


I want to draw a connecting line of sorts between the concept of the demihero as thus far outlined here, and some of my earlier examples of how the viewpoint characters of a given story might not always be the *focal presences* of the story.  I might latterly define the *focal presence* as the "imaginative center" of that story, without which one cannot imagine the story taking the same basic shape.

Here are some demiheroes in the "occult crusader" category.  First, from the teleseries FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES, we have viewpoint characters Micki, Ryan and Jack:

Then from the telemovie and the series it spawned, we have Carl Kolchak of THE NIGHT STALKER:

Now, none of these characters possessed great *dynamicity.*  They perservered against the forces of the occult largely by using either dogged persistence, trickery, or a limited amount of knowledge about how to find occult countercharms.  All of them skew toward the "fair" end of the mesophenomenal category.  They are subcombative figures in that none are capable of manifesting any great degree of *might.*

I also assign both teleseries to the realm of the drama in its melodramatic form.  While there are occult crusaders who fall more properly into the mythos of adventure, the general tone of both teleseries emphasizes the *pathos* of how various types of monsters or occult forces are unleashed upon innocent humanity, only to be banished at the last moment by a demihero, or team of demiheroes, who can just barely manage the task.

Both Kolchak and the FRIDAY THE 13TH team are the characters with whom the audience identifies.  However, Kolchak is the imaginative center, the focal presence of all the NIGHT STALKER stories; the audience tunes in to see how the intrepid reporter gets the better of whatever fiend happens to be preying on the innocent.

In contrast, the FRIDAY team is not the focal presence of the series.  Rather, the imaginative center of the series is the antiques shop "Curious Goods" from which the late relative of Ryan and Micki, one "Uncle Louis," dispensed an infinite number of cursed objects designed to cause havoc amid mankind.  Uncle Louis only rarely appears in the series (as a shade living in hell), but his shop is the imaginative center of the show, not only because it is the source of the antagonistic forces opposed by the protagonists, but also because the antagonistic forces are the ones whose nature the audience must primarily understand.  The three demiheroes take a decided back seat to the cursed objects they are morally obliged to corral.

Monday, October 1, 2012


In the first part of HERO AND VILLAIN, MONSTER AND VICTIM I said:

While both of [the processes of plerosis and kenosis] are particularly abstract as described above, plerosis is best conceived as the life-force engendered by the contest of hero-and-villain, taken seriously for the adventure and humorously for the comedy, while life is purged or otherwise compromised in the black-comic irony and in the drama.
I didn't write anything about the "monster-victim" trope there, but I did so in Part 2:

The hero's [by which I meant the protagonist's] power of action is often compromised, so that it's credible when and if he meets a dire fate-- which fate is summed up by the triumph of "monster over victim," aka the reality principle.  
I discarded the formulas featured in Part 2, but this segment should make clear that my initial idea was to imply that the "victim" was a character whose *dynamis* implied failure more than that of the other life-force figure, the "hero"-- even though, to complicate things all to hell, in literary studies the word "hero" can mean pretty much any protagonist-figure in any sort of story.  It even applies to a loathsome viewpoint character who deserves to be destroyed, like the nasty protagonist of this Steve Ditko horror-tale "The Gentle Old Man:"

In Part 3 I re-arranged my formulation so as to emphasize the stature of the "victim" as a life-affirming force that is more compromised in some way; he's bound to lose in the irony-mythos, and even when he wins in the comedy-mythos, it's principally due to the forces of luck.  In contrast, the hero, the conceptual opposite to the "victim," possesses a superlative chance of triumphing in the adventure-mythos and a fair chance of doing so in the drama. 

Yet "victim" really doesn't suggest a character who can win under certain circumstances, but rather, someone who's already lost the game.  Therefore I've invented the term "demihero" for a protagonist whose power is compromised in a given manner.

I also stated in Part 3:

The victim's true characteristic is to be allied to the ludicrous just as the hero is allied to the serious, as per my various remarks on these Schopenhaurean categories. With this in mind, "victim" should not connote a disempowered state within the sphere of narrative analysis, for when he is a primary actor he can be quite powerful. But he creates the expectation of losing even as the hero does of winning. And further, most victims encounter conflict in what I term an "intuitive" manner-- that is, not actively seeking trouble as heroes often do, but simply seeking to live life on a basic level-- just as many if not all monsters seek to do.

I explained this distinction with reference to Schopenhauer's dichotomy between intuitive and abstract representations.  What Schopenhauer called "abstract," I translated as "intellectual," and as of this essay I've decided that I think "intuitive" is also misleading for my purposes, so I'm now changing my dichotomy as being between "the intellectual" and "the instinctive."

The nasty protagonist of "The Gentle Old Man" is not really fit to be called a "hero" or a "villain," but in some ways he does mirror the nature of the "monster:" he wants what he wants when he wants it, with no intellectual mediation.  He is a "non-innocent victim," a character who deserves to be destroyed, so that the anomalous force represented by the "gentle old man"-- what would be "life-denying" in the case of an innocent victim-- ends up doing good by removing him from society.  As a shorthand to describe his tendency toward failure, I term this character a "demihero."

But just as I stated with regard to victims, demiheroes need not be utterly helpless.  Consider the character Jonathan Harker, pictured below as played by David Manners in the 1931 DRACULA.

In the original novel Harker is a victim who has a limited ability to fight back against the focal character of Dracula.  He's much less competent in the stageplay that gave rise to the 1931 film, while he's disposed of rather ignobly in 1958's HORROR OF DRACULA, reviewed here.  Regardless of his degree of efficacy in each rendition, he's still essentially a demihero, in that he never inspires the notion of triumph on his own, though in the novel he does at least manage to form part of a joint task-force that takes down the superior dynamicity of the vampire-lord.

Now, I'm not contradicting myself by citing two examples from dramas.  When I write that the drama is defined principally by the conflict between a comparatively empowered hero and a monstrous opponent, this is a generalization that doesn't preclude the idea that in some dramas the less empowered demihero is the sympathetic viewpoint character.  Similarly, even though the irony is the least favorable to the happy ending, the irony's version of the hero does sometimes appear, as with my frequent example of Marshal Law.

More on these matters later.