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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 30, 2016


In Steranko's HISTORY OF COMICS, the author records a statement from Golden Age comics-writer Bill Woolfolk, in which Woolfolk admits having ripped off the story of the 1942 film WHITE CARGO (reviewed here) for the story "Tondeleyo." If Steranko correctly quoted the former comics-writer-- and Steranko's quotes are problematic, since he didn't cite sources-- then Woolfolk didn't really remember the story he'd written, since the only thing the Blackhawk-tale takes from the movie is the name and alluring appearance of the title character.

The 1942 movie is an entirely naturalistic story of a white trader who "goes native" in Africa when he succumbs to a dark vixen's charms. The Tondeleyo of comics is also a temptress, but it's implied-- without any outright verification-- that she may the incarnation of some metaphysical evil. Since her nature and even her final fate remain ambiguous, the adventure falls into the sphere of the uncanny, as determined by the trope I term "phantasmal figurations," similar to the films reviewed here.

For one thing, even though the splash suggests an alliance between the sarong-clad woman and the Master of Evil, Tondeleyo plays no favorites in the game between the Allies and the Axis. The first page depicts the unexplained suicide of a famed German flyer, Oberst, and the only clue left behind is a white rose, identical to one Tondeleyo wears in her hair.

As for Blackhawk, he's first seen issuing a challenge to a whole German compound, tossing around Nazis as he invites them to come for a dogfight above Blackhawk Island. The hero gets away with ridiculous ease, while the Nazis plot to attack in force, rather than in an honorable equal combat.

When Blackhawk gets back to his refuge, though, he finds a surprise: a sarong-clad young woman, Tondeleyo, has showed up on the island. Her beauty has such an effect on Blackhawk and his subordinates (except, as will be seen later, the comic-relief Chop-Chop) that they agree to let her intrude upon their all-male ranks. The heroes aren't portrayed as eager to prey on a beautiful woman, for they barely if at all make any passes at the mystery girl. Possibly the writer meant to imply that their initial motive is chivalry to a helpless woman. Then the news comes that their aerial challenge will be met. The pilots are all glad to meet the foe, but Tondeleyo suddenly begins to exert her insidious will upon the oldest member of the Blackhawks, Hendrickson. While the others go out to meet the foe, Hendrickson loses the will to fight, makes a lame excuse, and remains behind.

An air battle ensues, complete with some comedic action from the Chinese mascot. The victorious heroes return to their HQ, and Blackhawk arrives just in time to keep Hendrickson from killing himself-- the same way Oberst did, out of fear that he'd turned into a coward.

Blackhawk then interacts with Tondeleyo, who turns on her full charms. He almost kisses her-- which is the closest the story comes to anything overtly sexual-- but is interrupted. In the "days that follow," Tondeleyo slowly saps the fighting-spirit of all the pilots. In WHITE CARGO, it's clear that the victim of the vixen's charms has been physically seduced by her, but this story portrays more a seduction of the spirit, since it seems unlikely that this Tondeleyo has actually slept with any of the Blackhawks. Chop-Chop seems immune, but it's not clear whether or not she troubled to turn her charms his way.

Finally, when another German air-attack approaches, only Blackhawk is able to summon the gumption to get into a plane and meet the enemy. His plane crashes into one of the German crafts, and the other heroes, enraged by his apparent death, are mobilized to charge into their planes and handily defeat the enemy.

Blackhawk, however, has not died-- though the story doesn't trouble to explain just how he survived a mid-air crash. He's evidently sussed out, on some dim psychological level, that Tondeleyo is the seed of his men's ennervation, even though there's no attempt to portray her as a literal spirit, demon, etc. In a last act of quasi-chivalry, Blackhawk prevents Chop-Chop from killing the native girl. However, as she flees male wrath, she's apparently killed by one of the crashing German planes, very indirectly avenging her murder of Oberst. The story ends with Blackhawk musing, "She was evil-- who can say when evil really dies?" Earlier Blackhawk intuits some deeper aspect of her nature-- as witness his unusual idea that he's met her somewhere before-- so he's apparently realized that she was either a spirit or a mortal possessed by such a spirit. In any case Woolfolk's story gains considerable symbolic amplitude by refusing to put a name to her nature, and thus transcends the narrow racism of WHITE CARGO.

The entire story, with all of the meticulous Reed Crandall art, can be read here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


My analysis of MARSHAL LAW: FEAR AND LOATHING pointed out how Mills and O'Neill crafted a darkly ironic world that existed "between shit and piss," wherein human striving was essentially futile in the face of an Oedipal stranglehold. However, though Freud's writings often seem just as thoroughly pessimistic, it isn't impossible (with a nod to SEINFELD) to have a "Festivus for Oedipus"-- that is, to use Freudian tropes to put across themes of adventure and comedy.

Though the genres of horror and the superhero have often been at odds in the minds of fans and practitioners, Michael T. Gilbert's MISTER MONSTER feature is a happy exception, and to judge from his essays in ALTER EGO, Gilbert himself is that rare animal able to appreciate the strengths of both genres, and to see them with a certain humorous tone without assuming (as I think Mills does) that "satirical disdain= truth."

The character of Mister Monster might qualify for the definition of "found art," since in 1971 Gilbert happened across a 1947 issue of the Canadian SUPER DUPER COMICS. In this issue, an artist named Fred Casey had just taken a monster-fighting plainclothes hero, "Doc Stearne," and put him in the superhero togs of "Mister Monster" for the costumed character's first and only appearance. As Mister Monster was obviously in public domain, Gilbert chose to revive the character, keeping both the superhero name and his not-especially-secret ID (while giving "Doc" the somewhat humorous personal name of "Strongfort.") Since Gilbert's re-creation of the character in 1984, Mister Monster-- a hard-nosed fighter against evil, though made somewhat lovable by his occasional blunders-- battled vampires, Martians, mummies, and even a doppelganger for Godzilla (whose trademarked name was obviously off-limits to casual usage). But in all his peripatetic adventures, he didn't have an origin.

I should note up-front that one major element of this origin is a variation on a fantasy-theme largely originated by Lee Falk's PHANTOM and popularized by Michael Moorcock: "the Eternal Champion." In ORIGINS we learn that Mister Monster is part of such a tradition: that for centuries there has been a line of heroes who took the name "Mister Monster" in various historical periods, always with an eye to fighting supernatural evil. 

In ORIGINS, however, the foremost scions of evil, the Inner Circle, lay an insidious plan to bring an end to the "Monster" family line, by compromising his ability to have an heir. 

Jim Stearne, who would eventually be the father to the current crusader Strongfort Stearne, had a "steady girlfriend," Gloria, who under ideal circumstances would have become the mother to Strongfort. However, the Inner Circle manipulated events so that Gloria became disenchanted with the demands of the hero's life, and married someone else. 

The Circle then maneuvers Jim Stearne into marrying one of their own kind. Not only will she talk him out of continuing his career as a monster-fighter, she's in theory unable to bear a child, being that she is a vampire able to "pass" for human. But before the vampiress-- significantly named "Lilith," after the "bad mother" demoness of Jewish lore--  can manage to kill Jim with her emasculating attentions (mostly through over-feeding him), Lilith does give birth to a male child, Strongfort. The psychological myth here has some resonance with the standard Freudian narrative, given that Young Strongfort, a potential monster-hunter from the first, begins to realize that his mother is a hostile force in his life, while his father has become a fat, useless hulk. To further complicate the story, the adult Strongfort has blocked all of this out, partly because he's ashamed of knowing that his father shirked his heroic duty, so that Gilbert has to have other character reconstruct the past action in one way or another.

A more negative artist would have used the Oedipal conflict of son and mother to satirize the impotence of human relationships. But although Gilbert does play the conflict up to its melodramatic heights, he also emphasizes the sheer force of Young Strongfort's innate heroism, as he resists the adult vampires who try to kill him near the story's end.

I won't give away the ending, which reveals the most important reason why the adult Strongfort has blocked out most of his childhood experiences. But, as if to put the Freudian cherry atop the milkshake, it's also revealed that Strongfort's current girlfriend Kelly Friday is actually the daughter of Gloria and the man she married on the rebound. But though Strongfort is evidently having sex with the daughter of the woman who was almost his own mother, here too the emphasis is on the invigorating effects of self-knowledge. The hero ends up learning that the father he'd learned to be ashamed of died a hero, and though the reader is meant to laugh at some of Mister Monster's pretensions, Gilbert shows this voyage to self-knowledge as essentially ennobling. At the same time, there are a lot of jokes in ORIGINS that reflect Gilbert's own nostalgic pleasure in weird popular creations. Whereas in MARSHAL LAW Mills  his version of "Mars Attacks" cards in order to sneer at American pop culture, Gilbert enjoys "sending up" famous tropes like the "injury-to-the-eye" motif, in such a way that one can step back from the tropes while still seeing their fundamental appeal.


Re: last week's mythcomics review: I spent so much time recapitulating the backstory of the hero that I somewhat neglected the "psychological myth" that I credited with making it a "mythcomic." I usually don't have any scruples about disclosing plot-developments, short of tossing out a spoiler warning at times, but for anyone who wants to know what the Oedipal narrative was behind Mills and O'Neill's FEAR AND LOATHING, here's a short summary.


MARSHAL LAW #1-6 (CB) (1986-87)--  “Fear and Loathing”—(M/S):I/S.1, (M/S):I/V.3 (+)—The superhero-hating policeman MARSHAL LAW is faced with a mystery: who is the SLEEPMAN, who goes around raping and killing women dressed like the celebrity-superheroine CELESTE? It eventually comes out that the killer is DANNY, the offspring of (1) CELESTE’s current superhero- boyfriend THE PUBLIC SPIRIT, and (2) the SPIRIT’s previous lover VIRAGO, whom the SPIRIT tried to murder when she revealed herself pregnant. VIRAGO survived the murder-attempt and raised DANNY with an eye to avenging herself when her son was old enough. During his childhood his mother punishes DANNY for any display of his powers, so that he acquired a sense of inferiority and worthlessness. Additionally, he may have associated his mother with pain, so that when he became the SLEEPMAN in adulthood, he was in part raping and killing his tyrannical mother—who may or may not have used a few feminine wiles on him to make him do her bidding. It’s also clear that DANNY has the same tastes as his father, so in killing women who look like CELESTE—as well as, eventually, the real thing—he’s transgressing against his evil, neglectful father. To complicate matters further, DANNY works for MARSHAL LAW as a computer-tech, and admires the lawman as a substitute father, and in his killing-campaign he also manages to kill off LYNN, the girlfriend of his “good father.” In the final confrontation THE PUBLIC SPIRIT finally manages to murder his former inamorata VIRAGO for real, and MARSHAL LAW takes out both him and his demented son. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016


I recently defended Marvel's Doctor Doom from the imputation of racism on a CBR thread. I won't bother to cite the thread, since it's so freaking long no one who might read this will bother to seek it out, but here's the gist of my defense, referencing a two-part ASTONISHING STORIES (scripted by two separate authors, Larry Leiber and Gerry Conway) in which the master villain encountered the Black Panther and made some politically incorrect remarks about Panther's subjects being "vicious primitives:"


I think the author is trying to say that Doom recognizes in the Panther the image of nobility that he himself has internalized. It's true that he has no respect for Panther's subjects, but keep in mind that he also has no respect for his own Caucasian subjects. Doom is generally portrayed as a supreme egotist: he resented the Latverian nobility not because they tyrannized his people but because they tyrannized him and his family. Lee and Kirby, focused on writing exciting adventures for juvenile readers, probably wouldn't have wondered why Doom never put his former people in positions of Latverian power. Yet the way Doom's (admittedly limited) psychology is constructed, it makes total sense that he wouldn't. Being a villain of almost solipsistic proportions, he cares only about his own suffering, his own ideology of success-- which means becoming an icon of aristocratic tyranny, like the nameless aristocrat who causes the death of Doom's father. Yet he also wants to believe that he's not a petty man. That's why he spares the Wakandan from further torture, not because he cares about the man's sufferings, but because gratuitous sadism lessens the majesty to which he aspires. In the Over-Mind arc, Lee memorably has Doom say that "many demons" rule him, but "not those of pettiness or fear"-- or for that matter, racism, which would also diminish his sense of personal majesty.


(Note: I'm using the graphic novel designation for the untitled six-part story as originally released by Epic Comics. I have not read any additional materials within the TPB collection.)

I've referenced the Pat Mills-Kevin O'Neill creation MARSHAL LAW in various essays, like this one, but this essay is the first one I've devoted to its status as a mythcomic.

It's nearly impossible to imagine this project having been published without the influence of the 1986 WATCHMEN. Like the Moore-Gibbons work, MARSHAL LAW conforms to the mythos of the irony, but the Mills/O'Neill approach to satirizing superheroes diverges from many of the Moore/Gibbons strategies.

For one thing, the WATCHMEN superheroes evolve in much the same way as normative American superheroes: assorted characters who possess independent origins.  The superheroes of the MARSHAL LAW world share the same origin, aligning them with the "one-gimme" rule propounded by prose science fiction-- which, so far as I can tell, seems to be a rule Pat Mills usually followed in the serials he wrote for British comics. Most if not all superheroes in the LAW world are created by the technology of the U.S. government in a near-future timescape, and all for the purpose of making "supersoldiers" to serve in foreign wars. Some of the super-types merely have enhanced strength or endurance, while others have more exotic super-powers, like flying or "pumping ions."

For another comparison, whereas WATCHMEN only devotes one narrative thread to the employment of super-types as the tools of American imperialism-- mainly, the character-arc of the Comedian-- this is the primary focus of MARSHAL LAW: that supersoldiers exist so that the U.S. can ride herd on other countries. FEAR AND LOATHING does resemble WATCHMEN in that the reader barely encounters any reference to political situations or technological advancements in the world outside the U.S.: both are clearly focused upon portraying America as a thousand-pound gorilla that no other nation can oppose, and that can only be challenged, if at all, from within.

Mills and O'Neill also diverge from WATCHMEN's acknowledgement of the existence of American crime and even super-criminals, for in MARSHAL LAW, all the criminals are superheroes home from foreign wars. A few super-types have attained the lofty heights of public celebrities, usually because they function as mouthpieces for the government. But most of the retired supersoldiers have deteriorated into costumed, ultraviolent gangbangers, while a few others are simply shell-shocked basket cases.

Joe Gilmore is the only veteran seen in FEAR AND LOATHING who isn't either a basket case or a gangbanger, though everything he does is still in a sense determined by his former military service. Loathing what the modern superheroes have become, he somehow becomes a special police operative in the city of San Futuro (a bombed-out version of San Francisco). As the masked officer Marshal Law-- who wears something like a policeman's fancy dress-uniform crossed with fetish-wear-- Gilmore is able to use his special powers, and even a special superhero hideout, to monitor the activities of rogue superheroes when they cross the line and break the law. The narrative makes it clear that Gilmore hunts superheroes-- and no other criminals-- because he hates their perversions of morality, and possibly because he himself, as a former supersoldier, did things in wartime that he's not proud of. More than one character remarks that Marshal Law's outfit looks "gay," though any gayness Gilmore may possess is laced with sado-masochistic elements (Law's mask looks like bondage gear and his bare arms are encircled with lines of barbed wire).

WATCHMEN's events are triggered by one murder, but the narrative of FEAR AND LOATHING spring from the serial rape-murders of young women. All of the victims are killed while wearing the costumes of Celeste, a cape-celebrity whose sole accomplishments come down to being born with huge knockers and being affianced to America's greatest superhero, the Public Spirit (patently Mills' derogatory take on the original superhero, Superman). Marshal Law has no proof that the Public Spirit is the serial killer-- eventually identified as an ulcerous-looking "Batman type" called "the Sleepman." But for years the Marshal has borne a grudge against the Public Spirit for being the respectable face of America's imperialistic policies, and also suspects that years ago the Spirit murdered his previous fiancee, a cape-celebrity named Virago, to keep his name clear of scandal. I won't discuss the Sleepman's true identity, except to say that from the first it's plain that he's not going to be Marshal Law's most hated super-type, since there wouldn't be any suspense to such an easy resolution-- though the script comes up with a valid reason for the "hero-hunter" to go after his most loathed opponent as well.

The simplistic political outlook wouldn't give FEAR AND LOATHING any status as a mythcomic, but its psychological myths, heavily indebted to Freud, do display the necessary complexity. Marshal Law, the Public Spirit, the Sleepman and two other major characters are locked together in a complicated "family romance" that I won't attempt to lay out here. It's perhaps enough to note that one of the principal characters remarks on the "Oedipal" nature of his conflict, and then promptly tries to claim it doesn't mean that much. I take this to be the author's own process of disavowal: he wants to be able to evoke the emotional charge of Freudian tropes and patterns, but he has one of the characters distance himself from said patterns, as if trying to proclaim independence from his destiny as an authorially determined figure. While I've said many times on this blog-- even this very week-- that I don't think Freud counts for much as an observer of human nature, his tropes and patterns still possess great power within the expressive world of literature. Indeed, the Freudian matrix is perfect for this level of irony, as it helps Mills and O'Neill consistently depict a world born "inter faeces et urinam," between shit and piss.

An unintended irony of MARSHAL LAW is that the only time Mills seeks to place any positive value on anything, it's devoted to human beings who are safely deceased. After the dubious hero of the story has vanquished all of the evildoers-- and has even found himself implicated in the same evil of the Freudian "authority-figure" that takes in the Public Spirit-- he visits the gravesite of his girlfriend, one of the victims of the Sleepman. He mentally repeats his catchphrase-- "I'm a hero hunter. I hunt heroes. Haven't found any yet." Then for the final panel, the camera shows him walking through the cemetery, surrounded by gravestones and monuments, and finishes by thinking, "But I know where they are." This implies that there is some nobility to be found in the departed, implicitly the deceased soldiers with whom Gilmore served. And yet, the satire of Mills and O'Neill has shown nearly every other aspect of human activity to be fraught with hypocrisy and concupiscence, so it seems a bit of a cop-out to give special dispensation to the dead-- particularly those who willingly served in imperialistic wars.

I'll note in closing that though FEAR AND LOATHING shows that Marshal Law is implicated in the evil he fights, most of the other installments in this erratic series don't follow up on this trope. Thus the series largely devolves to assorted scenes of the hero finding new and increasingly repetitive ways to destroy superheroes, with very mixed results in terms of scoring satiricial points.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Before getting into the last of my current meditations on the nature of literary dread, it occurs to me that I ought to supply a definition for the term "superordinate," as used by Jung in his (translated) quote about "superordinate ideas"-- particularly since I've usually validated Jung's approach over that of Freud and his "physiological factors."

word that includes the meaning of more specific words. For example, “vehicle” is the superordinate of words such as “car” and “truck.”-- Macmillan Online.

In the passage I originally quoted,  Jung does not get into the standard contrasts between "the concrete" and "the abstract," but elsewhere he regarded Freud as a reductionist while his own approach depended on the "amplification" of meanings."Superordinate," then, means looking for an abstract formulation that designates a greater order within which a phenomenon fits, as opposed to finding a base phenomenon toward to which a phenomenon can be reduced.

Now, though I prefer Jung to Freud, the latter's focus on "physiological factors" can be stimulating, and the same applies to his followers, such as James Twitchell.

I came back to Twitchell because the other week I was meditating on the nature of the "threshhold experience" that takes place when a given trope is transformed from its naturalistic potential to an uncanny actuality. I've said many times that the various uncanny tropes, while being no less defined by causal coherence than their naturalistic kindred, manage to become "anti-intelligible," thus comprising a phenomenality midway between the naturalistic and the marvelous.

But what does it mean to become "anti-intelligible?" My meditations at the end of EFFICACY, MEET MYTH includes this observation:

....while I would still support this basic construction [of the "death-trap trope"], I would not emphasize the fact that the "death-trap" is "improbable," but that it is an extreme example of "literary artifice." That artifice would exist even in a story where a given trap was justified in some quasi-realistic context, and does exist even in Dickens' naturalistic version of a "birth-mystery plot." But even within the context of "myth as artifice," the concept of a "mythopoeic purpose" lying behind said artifice is still applicable, even after the concept of probability has gone down the tubes.
What the Batman death-trap and the Dickens "birth-mystery plot" have in common is not a presence or absence of probability or verisimilitude, but the fact that they call attention to their status as fictional creations, thanks to their having been so frequently used over the years. "Artifice," while not exactly a principle in itself, stands counter to "verisimilitude," which is dependent on the author's observations about the workings of the experiential world.

For whatever reason, while I was thinking about the nature of literary artifice-- which I do not deem to be identical to "myth," as Northrop Frye did-- I thought of James Twitchell's attempt to define his brand of "horror" as a set of Freudian tropes. In JUDGING DREAD PART 2 I quoted the author's association of horror with the idea of "creeping flesh," and thought something along the lines of, "If 'creeping flesh' is the ideal physiological factor that underlies Twitchell's summary concept of horror, what would be a 'superordinate idea' that might support a Jungian concept, not just of horror, but all forms of metaphenomenal literature, both uncanny and marvelous?"

Oddly, though Twitchell isn't that invested in semiology, he says:

The art of horror is the art of generating breakdown, where signified and signifier no longer can be kept separate-- p. 16.

This language-based metaphor describes not a physical interaction, but that of two abstractions of language, locked together in an eternal dance in which it's almost impossible to know one from the other. This is also the nature of both verisimilitude and artifice, since as Frye observed, literary narrative needs both.

Thus, when I say that Norman Bates is an uncanny psycho while Christopher Gill is a naturalistic one, I am saying that Norman's status as an artifice has assumed greater importance than his potential verisimilitude, and that this sense of artifice-- apart from how much *mythicity* he may incarnate-- is what makes him "anti-intelligible," more "signified" than "signifier."

More on these matters later, possibly.


That the experience of horror is first physiological, and only then maybe numinous, is revealed by all its hybrid and mutant linguistic forms.-- James Twitchell, DREADFUL PLEASURES, p. 11.
...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.-- Kant, CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON.
By this early statement in DREADFUL PLEASURES, Twitchell makes clear his Freudian, and counter-Kantian, position: the "experience of horror" arises principally from physiological factors:

...the shiver that we associate with horror is the result of the constricton of the skin that firms up the subcutaneous hair follicles... From this comes the most appropriate trope of horror: creeping flesh, or "the creeps."-- PLEASURES, p. 10.

Kant's concept of "a priori"influences upon human experience doesn't come up in the course of the book, but Twitchell does find time for a few disparaging words on Jung, making clear that he would probably also dismiss the Swiss psychologist's concept of "superordinate ideas" as well, much less that of the collective unconscious.

In defense of his primarily physiological definition of horror, Twitchell follows an interesting, if ultimately incorrect, line of thought. Whereas, as I showed here, Ann Radcliffe promoted the sublime superiority of terror over horror due to the former's greater ability to "expand the soul," Twitchell rethinks both terror and horror along doctrinaire Freudian lines, and valorizes horror precisely because it emphasizes "body" over "non-body." In contradistinction, while Radcliffe wanted to minimize the significance of horror because it was too explicit, Twitchell minimizes his version of terror because he deems it rooted only in transitory phenomena:

...terror will pass... but horror will never disappear, no matter how rational we become about it"-- p. 16.

Shortly after this statement, Twitchell makes a statement that almost sounds Jungian:

;;;the eriology of horror is always in dreams, while the basis of terror is in actuality."-- p. 19.
 However, the "dreams" Twitchell has in mind are what might termed the Freudian "collective unconscious," because they are a concatenation of images and symbols rooted purely in physiological factors. Twitchell's figures of horror are primarily those literary figures that have stood the test of time-- Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Mister Hyde--because he believes that they all owe their long-lived nature to being in tune with Freudian complexes. In contrast, figures of "terror" are not so much those that are "actual" in the sense of a naturalistic phenomenality, but in the sense of being overly dependent on transitory "fads" and obsessions of a particular time-frame. Thus he finds most of the sci-fi terrors of the 1950s to be beneath his scholarly notice, because they're merely rooted in transitory fears of The Bomb or Communist invasion. (He does devote some space to 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET, surely because it upholds his Freudian paradigm.)

As I noted in Part 1, Twitchell is aware of Rudolf Otto's use of the term "dread," but he's not interested in the "numinosity" of Otto or of C.S. Lewis, only in the Freudian concept of "the uncanny." Freud's "uncanny" is no less subsumed by physiological factors than anything else: it's just that these factors have "gone underground," becoming what Twitchell calls "projections of sublimated desire." This is the reason that Dracula and his kindred outlast terror-figures like "big bug films" and "The Leech Woman," because the latter represent transitory, overt fears, rather than those that have (so to speak) become "sublime" by virtue of being "sublimated."

Though Twitchell's book stimulated new trains of thought for me when I read it in the 1990s, it was rather painful to read the early chapters this time. For one thing, it's easy to refute his idea that "the Freudian collective unconscious" (as I'm calling it) was responsible only for the great figures of Dracula et al. Plainly one can also find numerous Freudian tropes in any number of the 1950s SF-flicks that Twitchell sneers at, such as THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES. I'm not saying that BEAST is an exemplary film by my own lights. But if one is going to claim that "sublimation of desire" is the key to the excellence of Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN or Stoker's DRACULA, then that criterion ought to apply to every work that fits that formula, and not just to those works that have already acquired some cachet in literary circles.

Further, because Twitchell is something of a literary snob, he fills the pages of DREADFUL PLEASURES with numerous pontifications on the history of horror in legitimate art and literature, while showing considerable ambivalence on the status of pop-fiction horrors. Sometimes it sounds as if the "slasher-killers" of the 1980s are mere figures of terror, and other times it sounds like they may participate in the same Freudian dreamscape as any other "Mr. Hyde"-like figure. I think that Twitchell, like many academics who seek to deal with popular art as if it was as simple as its critics aver, falls victim to the same tyranny of "the literary" that I criticized in Todorov:

I suspect Todorov's emphasis on horror-story authors stems from literary elitism. In 1970, names like Poe and Hoffman were still accepted in the Land of the Literary Canon, but Wells and Verne had barely established a foothold in academia, much less modern authors of SF (including Lem himself), or any authors of fantasy except for perhaps Carroll. By the mid-to-late 70s this would change, but clearly Todorov's theory is geared to highbrow tastes only. Arguably the horror genre is privileged by Todorov not because it possesses the best or more fulfilling examples of "the fantastic," but because artists known for their more naturalistic works, such as Balzac and Dostoyevsky (also briefly mentioned in TF), dabbled in it.

It's a mark of Twitchell's literary elitism, that he chooses to focus on just one form of the metaphenomenal and builds his entire theory around that aspect, rather than seeking to see that form (in this case, horror) in a continuum with its kindred. This approach may be designed as a sort of "defense mechanism"-- in Freudianism, a "disavowal"-- to convince other academicians that the speaker does not plan to overthrow the standard categories of literary excellence. It's a shame that Twitchell's schema doesn't stand serious scrutiny, but at least it does provide me with some interesting insights into my own more pluralistic conception of the narrative arts-- as I'll discuss in Part 3.


C.S. Lewis's analysis from AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM remains my touchstone for the distinction between fear and dread:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost.

Lewis formulated this opposition by drawing on Rudolf Otto's 1917 THE IDEA OF THE HOLY. However, a much earlier distinction appeared in a 1826 analysis by Gothicist Ann Radcliffe, where she distinguished between "terror" and "horror." This analysis, later given the title "On the Supernatural in Poetry" by an editor, isn't particularly well-organized. In essence, Radcliffe-- whose Gothic novels depended on suggestion rather than explicit gore and gruesomeness-- has her principal character argue that "terror" is a much subtler and finer emotion than "horror," which is all about the explicitness. Here's her most definite statement on the difference:

Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.

This doesn't really clarify the matter all that much, but a later section makes clear that Radcliffe equates the sublimity of terror with that of the merely suggested, the merely imagined. When an interlocutor asks the speaker what he thinks about Milton's line, "On his brow sat horror plumed," the speaker essentially co-opts MIlton's use of the word "horror" for the speaker's (and Radcliffe's) idea of "terror:"

As an image, it certainly is sublime; it fills the mind with an idea of power, but it does not follow that Milton intended to declare the feeling of horror to be sublime; and after all, his image imparts more of terror than of horror; for it is not distinctly pictured forth, but is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades, the great outlines only appearing, which excite the imagination to complete the rest; he only says, ‘sat horror plumed ;' you will observe, that the look of horror and the other characteristics are left to the imagination of the reader; and according to the strength of that, he will feel Milton's image to be either sublime or otherwise. 

According to this site, Radcliffe was not a fan of explicit gore, and wrote her book THE ITALIAN (which I have not read) as a pointed response to the excesses of Matthew Lewis's 1796 Gothic novel THE MONK (which I have read-- meaning that I can personally attest that the Lewis book definitely does not hold off on "distinctly picturing forth" its ghastlier scenes).

If there are any significant parallels between the formulations of Ann Radcliffe and of C.S. Lewis (by way of Otto), it would seem to be the mutual attempt to define the nature of fear based in purely physical causes. Lewis' tiger can only inspire fear because there's no deeper concept to be understood about it, save that it's an animal capable of killing a human being. This is only a partial parallel to Radcliffe's use of "horror," which "contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates" both the soul and the faculties. But her contrast to "terror," like Lewis' contrast to the "uncanny" feeling of seeing a "ghost," is pretty clearly based upon the familiar body/mind duality, which poet Octavio Paz more aptly rendered into a duality between "body" and "non-body" (or as I once called them, "corporeal" and "non-corporeal.")

To further complicate the matter, although Lewis is to some extent addressing the question of different phenomenal presences in different situations, Radcliffe apparently has no interest at all in aligning either "terror" or "horror" with any type of phenomena. Though she doesn't mention THE MONK in the above essay, it's plain that she would class it as a work of "horror" simply because it "distinctly pictures forth" all of the unseemly situations it includes-- ranging from the monk Ambrosio's (naturalistic) incestuous union with his own sister, to his (marvelous) doom at the hands of a demon, who flings Ambrosio's body from a great height and allows the monk to perish in agony. If anything, Radcliffe's distinction of "distinct" and "indistinct" is closer to my distinction between "clean" and "dirty violence" in this essay:

I said in an earlier essay that I would address the differing "intensities" of violence in fiction, by which I meant what I called "clean violence" vs. "dirty violence." These are NOT meant to be covalent with my versions of Twitchell's preposterous violence and its unnamed opposite. I refer to the "intensities" of clean and dirty because they are determined purely by how intensely the work does or does not present scenes of violence. As I see it preposterous violence and its opposite are not determined by intensity of effect but by narrative function.

Again, the parallel is still not exact. Still, just as the proponent of "suggestive terror" does not want to "freeze the soul/faculties" of the reader by bringing in gross effects, the proponent of "clean violence"-- my principal example being the 1977 STAR WARS-- is also seeking to avoid grossing out the audience, albeit for a very different aesthetic purpose.

Now, my own definition of "dread" moves away from Lewis's example of a "ghost:" to anything covered by my Ten Tropes, which occur in both naturalistic and uncanny forms-- the first forms inspiring only "fear," while the second may inspire fear but more importantly inspires "dread" as well. The latter comes about because even though both forms obey the laws of causal coherence, the uncanny forms violate the law of intelligibility. In the interest of further defining the process through which intelligibility is violated, I'll devote the upcoming essay JUDGING DREAD PART 2.

Friday, December 9, 2016


During 2013 I devoted a great deal of blog-space to investigating the source of C.S. Lewis' trinity of "fear, dread, and awe" as he expressed them in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN. These terms, in less organized form, stemmed from Rudolf Otto's 1917 THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, which Lewis had read and appreciated. Both writers fall into the philosophical category of "Rationalists," whom Kant defines as those who "intellectualize experience."

I also wrote, in HOLY NUMINOSITY PART 2, that I believed Sigmund Freud may have encountered Otto's book and the author's use of the term "the uncanny" to describe a Rationalist's conception of religon, and that Freud then hijacked the term for his own Empiricist project. However, on reconsideration it's more likely that Freud derived the term from a 1906 essay by fellow psychologist Ernst Jentsch, especially since he's mentioned in the text on Freud's work. I don't imagine there's any way to prove that Rudolf Otto did or did not read the Jentsch essay, and in any case it's perhaps more likely that he was drawing upon the way the word was used in demotic speech.

Otto's religious conception of the word is central to his argument, as he argues that tribal cultures were governed by what he called "daemonic dread," the fear and fascination of imagined spirits. Otto didn't argue for any one-on-one equivalence between this form of worship and later forms, particularly the author's own Christianity. Yet he suggested something of a teleological relationship, in which the greater form more or less grew from the latter, even as Aristotle imagined great tragedies growing from the crudities of satyr-plays. This was plainly a different approach to the idea of "superstitious dread" than that of Freud, who would largely consign all religious to the dustbin of failed ideas.

These Empiricist-Rationalist intellectual arguments have not died out in these later decades: they simply found new expression, such as that of James Twitchell's 1987 DREADFUL PLEASURES. I'm in the process of rereading this book, but I'm not so much concerned with tracking its highly Freudian interpretation of the horror-genre, as I am with Twitchell's attempt to reduce the genre's appeal to the "physiological factors" that Freud used as the bedrock of his system.

Freud's disaffected disciple Carl Jung was perhaps the first major voice to detract from Freud's emphasis on the physiological. In my essay WAKE ME UP BEFORE I IMAGO-GO,  I featured this segment from Jung's 1936 essay outlining his opposition to Freud:

Now religious ideas, as history shows, are charged with an extremely suggestive, emotional power. Among them I naturally reckon all "representations collectives," everything that we learn from the history of religion, and anything that has an "ism" attached to it. The latter is only a modern variant of the denominational religions. A man may be convinced in all good faith that he has no religious ideas, but no one can fall so far away from humanity that he no longer has any dominating "representation collective." His very materialism, atheism, communism, socialism, liberalism, intellectualism, existentialism, or what not, testifies against his innocence. Somewhere or other, overtly or covertly, he is possessed by a supraordinate idea.

I tend to think that Jung's "superordinate ideas" probably come closer to what Otto was trying to say about the relation of "the uncanny" to "the numinous," even though as a religious man Otto would have opposed Jung's tendency to subsume religion into pure psychology.

Just in reading the first chapter of DREADFUL PLEASURES, I'm impressed by Twitchell's foursquare effort to define the horror-genre through "physiological factors." He quotes Otto just once in the first chapter, clearly doing so in order to distance himself from Otto's concept of "dread." (After a quick summary of Otto's project, Twitchell avers that "My concerns are thankfully less transcendental.")

I don't for a moment believe that Twitchell's project as a whole has broad applicability to either the specific genre of horror or metaphenomenality in general. However, I think that some of his observations may impact upon the concept of *artifice* that I broached here, and in future essays, I'll be investigating these matters more fully.


At the end of one of Colin Wilson's books-- probably MYSTERIES, though I have not hauled it out to check-- I recall that he made a gender statement that would prove utterly unacceptable with many modern readers. Paraphrasing from memory, I believe that Wilson typified women as being "close-sighted" in that they tended to be concerned with immediate reality, while men tended to be "far-sighted," concerned with making long-range plans.

I would imagine that most people can think of examples in which this or that person does or does not conform to the generalization. I'm not interested in the gender statement as such, but only in the contrast of "close sight" and "far sight." These formulations, which are abstractions of the human eye's capacity for both types of visual perception, dovetail fairly well with my notions of the way the literary experience works for readers, as I noted here.

It may be that my revised versions of overthought and underthought will in future serve me as shortened forms for the respective effects that "the function of thinking" and "the function of intuition" have upon literary narrative.  I concluded in REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE PART 3   that both myth-critics and ideological critics were in a similar unenviable position as far as converting the majority of readers to pursue more abstract readings of texts. Most readers quite logically are concerned with lateral meaning, which takes in both "the function of sensation" and "the function of feeling"-- and in truth, the abstractions of both overthoughts and underthoughts are only possible when constructed on the foundation of concrete experience. 

Plainly, what I call a work's "lateral meaning," glossed with a combination of two of Jung's psychological functions, is confined to what sort of things happen to the story's characters (sensation) and how they feel about those developments (feeling). The function that Jung calls "intuition" finds expression through the author's sense of symbolic combinations, which provides the *underthought* of a given work, while the function of "thinking"finds expression through the author's efforts at discursive cogitation, which provides the work's *overthought.* It's possible for a work to be so simple that both its underthought and overthought amount to nothing more than cliched maxims, like "good must triumph over evil," but even the most incoherent work generally intends to engross the reader with some lateral meaning.

A further comparison of the two forms of "sightedness" extends to my terms of the two types of will in literature: "the idealizing will" and "the existential will," on which I descanted in the 2013 essay APES AND ANGELS:

First, "existential will" lines up with a focus upon immediate reality:

This will I'll term the "existential will," because it is a will to remain attached to all the affects that call up everyday sensory existence; our feeling of being inextricably a part of the physical world.

While "idealizing will" lines up, not so much with "long range plans," but with ideals that have a sweeping, long-range applicability to humankind as a whole, whether those ideals serve "good" or "evil:"

This will I'll term the "idealizing will," because it seems obvious to me that any "idea" to which a subject becomes emotionally attached becomes an "ideal."
By the power and glory of the transitive effect, then, a given work's lateral meaning may be said to incarnate the "existential will" of all of the characters combined, who are inextricably focused upon their own interests within the diegesis. The work's underthought and overthought, whatever their quality of expression, would then incarnate the "idealizing will" of the plot-action as a whole: that which often receives the cumbersome and inaccurate term of "the theme." I've tended to speak of the two types of will in identifying characters within the diegesis as being heroes, villains, monsters, or demiheroes. However, here I'm addressing the dual ways in which the reader interacts with the text: identifying with the characters' travails within the diegesis even as he may (sometimes) seek an extra-diegetical meaning to the entire narrative, and so the two types of will have a different function when applied to the possible reactions of the reader rather than the functions of the characters.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


I've commented numerous times on the positive effect of the "long arc" form of narrative on the potential mythicity of stories. However, as with everything else there are good and bad ways to pursue the structure of the long arc. It's for this reason that I've found it hard to discern a mythic underthought in many of the influential Claremont X-MEN stories. The potential is always there, but Claremont always seemed in a hurry to tick off plot-points, so that he often neglected to get the full mythopoeic potential out of his situations. However, I will admit that the bigger an author's ensemble gets, the greater will be his tendency to tick off plot-points.

The Marvel team THE DEFENDERS, launched in 1971, was a refreshing change from most of the Marvel titles of the period, with their heavy emphasis on a soap-operatic form of plotting. The project's initiator Roy Thomas had been as instrumental as any other writer, save Stan Lee, in the use of soap-opera plotting, as indicated by his long run on the AVENGERS title. In contrast, DEFENDERS seemed a comparative throwback to Marvel's Golden Age, in which powerhouses like the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner occasionally teamed up purely to beat up a lot of Axis opponents. DEFENDERS, which started out as a teamup of Doctor Strange, the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner, was similarly uncomplicated by subplots: the three powerhouses simply encountered the menace of the month and kicked its ass.

Continuing plot-lines did surface, of course, along with some melodramatic content, and many of these featured the ongoing character of The Valkyrie, who debuted in issue four and remained with the group for most of its run. However, subplots were not a major focus of the title in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, of course, Claremont's X-MEN had become the defining model for team-up books, and in the last few years of the DEFENDERS title the group become more like a standard Marvel ensemble-title. The three powerhouses of the original book had been sidelined as the creators chose to combine a motley crew of characters to become "The New Defenders." The new team was comprised of three characters from the original 1960s X-title (Angel, Beast, and Iceman), one from the AVENGERS of the 1970s (Moon Dragon), the perennial Valkyrie, and one team-member created explicitly for the title, The Gargoyle (about whom, the less said the better).

The last phase of the DEFENDERS title was written first by J.M. deMatteis and later by Peter B. Gillis, while most of the issues were drawn by Golden Age artist Don Perlin. None of them did their best work on the title, and Perlin's work, while competent, was not likely to win favor with eighties X-fans whose idea of good art started and ended with John Byrne. Most of the stories from this period are horribly complicated, and the characters rarely if ever have room to "breathe," strangled as they are by an overabundance of plot-threads.

One issue, however, managed to focus on a particular character's psychological struggle without neglecting the role of the other ensemble-members: "Hungry Like the Wolf." To be sure, it's not a stand-alone story as several preceding issues are devoted to examining the situation of Moon Dragon. The character's brief tenure as a superhero in AVENGERS did nothing to eradicate her long-standing "god complex," and in that title her former allies are forced to bring her to justice when Moon Dragon attempts to become a tyrannical deity on an alien world. Her fellow Avenger Thor hauls the would-be god before the Asgardian lord Odin, who once sentenced Thor himself to mortality as a means of promoting his humility. The Omnipotent One imposes a similar verdict on Moon Dragon. while on Earth, she must wear a metal headband to curtail her mental powers. She ends up in the company of the Defenders but keeps seeking ways to remove her imprisoning band, Finally, in issue #139, she has a sort of psychological meltdown, shown below:

The dominant plotline, though, is not directly about Moon Dragon. Angel gets wind of mysterious murders being committed on the reservation of the Jicarilla Apaches. While investigating, the group meets and joins with Native American hero Red Wolf (long without a regular berth since the cancellation of his title in the mid-1970s). When the heroes descend into a mine associated with the murders, they are translated into another world: the domain of Asgard's trolls. The trolls capture the heroes, and their leader reveals that he's crafting a new array of weapons for an assault on Odin. To this end, the trolls have been capturing Apache victims to drain them of their blood, that mortal fluid being necessary to temper the trolls' newly forged weapons.

Though Jack Kirby was the pre-eminent designer of many Marvel Comics characters, his trolls in the THOR title were just big hairy orange-skinned guys: they're nothing to conjure with. Perlin's consciously crude approach to the villains' rendering actually makes them look more imposing, like the hideous boogiemen they are in European folktales.

I must admit that there's nothing startlingly original about Gillis' plot: in some ways it's a standard Marvel situation, wherein a character with delusions of grandeur gets his or her ears pinned back. Indeed, one of Marvel's earliest continuing characters starts out as a guy getting a lesson in humility. But Gillis does strive, more than most mainstream authors of the time, to make Moon Dragon's struggle mythically resonant. I don't even need to get into the involved subplot about her association with an alien temptation-figure: the core of her personal struggle is that she wants to rebel against Odin's authority, and she gets the opportunity to do so when the trolls' leader offers her a Faustian bargain. With just a little help from her, he can take off the restricting headband, which he wants for his own purposes. Moon Dragon, still shaky from her earlier ordeal, is mightily tempted, but at the last moment she not only refuses the bargain, she manages to free her fellows from captivity, resulting in the defeat of the trolls' designs.

I can understand the priorities of those comics-fans who abjure the sort of involved plots in mainstream comics: they like a strong, organized story that shows respect for Aristotle's "unity of action." My take on said unity owes something to the Greek philosopher, but I part company from him in that I don't believe that the conscious "overthought" is the sole definition of a work's dianoia.
I'm influenced by philosophers like Cassirer and Langer, who averred that discursive thought is always preceded by what Cassirer called "mythical thought." A mythic "underthought" needs to be developed, just as a discursive overthought does, but each is developed according to its own dynamic-- and just as real myths are born from dozens of interlacing stories, so too are the mythic underthoughts of modern literature. I admit that some of my liking for "Hungry like the Wolf" may stem from the interaction of familiar Marvel characters like Odin and Red Wolf. Yet Gillis does try to give his pleasingly-vicious trolls some of the archaic diction of fairy tales, rather than the quasi-Shakespearean lingo seen in the Lee-Kirby title. Here's the troll leader, addressing Moon Dragon on the subject of the headband:

"He was ever most fond of rings, was nasty Odin! But we trolls are oldest of smiths-- older than dwarves, older than Aesir!"

And later:

"Odin is mickle (very) powerful, little mind-witch-- but trolls are clever!"

I admire Gillis for sneaking, into a superhero book, a quick reference to the role of rings in Norse literature, a role most popularized in the Niebelungeid (even if that work was more concerned with dwarves rather than trolls). It gives what would otherwise be a standard superhero melodrama a little added depth-- even if the remainder of the title's run unfortunately fell victim to the curse of overcomplication (to say nothing of being cancelled to make way for Jim Shooter's New Universe).

Thursday, December 1, 2016


As I discussed in MYTHIC MANGA, the serial DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND is an unusual beast. The first "super-arc," so to speak, was reprinted into 14 collected volumes, but did not have an ending as such. In 2014 author Nozomu Tamaki began a new arc, SCARLET ORDER, that proved short enough to be collected into 4 volumes. It's still not quite the end of the story, for Tamaki purposely left some plot-threads dangling. However, there's now enough of a "beginning, middle, and end" to judge the nature of the underthought informing BUND.

Here's the summary of the serial's setup that I wrote in this 2011 post:

I reviewed Kim Newman’s alternate-world take on the DRACULA mythos, in which Dracula became consort to the Queen of England and turned Old Blighty into a haven for his vampire spawn. I wasn’t enthused with the Newman work, but Nozomu Tamaki wreaks wonders with the same basic idea. Here it’s a man-made island that becomes a haven for a kingdom of bloodsuckers: quite naturally for a manga-series, the island has been built off the coast of Japan. The heroes of DANCE are Mina Tepes, queen of the vampires, who facilitates the worldwide emigration of her people to the island, and Akira, her werewolf bodyguard. DANCE also sports a large cast of allies and villains, most of whom are incredible hot-bods. But Mina and Akira are the focal heroes, and their complicated relationship is the core of the series as they defend their makeshift kingdom (the “bund” of the title) against assorted threats—meddling human beings, assassins, conspiracies, and, most formidably, three vampire overlords, the last survivors of “the 100 vampire clans.” Grotesque horror and frenetic action dominate the storylines, though Tamaki makes considerable time for comic byplay and the Japanese “cult of cuteness.”

Since the original manga came out, BUND has been targeted for some of its "lolicon" elements. I wrote, quite presciently if I may say so, that I didn't think Tamaki was simply presenting these elements either to sate the taste of lolicon-readers, or even just to appeal to the aforesaid "cult of cuteness." I wrote:

...Tamaki is clearly playing around with the concept of “lolicon,” teasing the reader with the possibility while making clear that Humbert Humbert doesn’t live here. In the first DANCE continuity, Mina meets Akira for the first time in seven years, and uses an assortment of stratagems to make him want to serve as her bodyguard willingly, rather than out of a sense of impersonal duty. One of these stratagems includes disrobing in front of him. Her pre-pubertal form doesn’t entice Akira, but making him uncomfortable accomplishes the same end: that of helping her manipulate him into her service. This is made palatable by the fact that she does have an abiding love for him, and clearly would like to assume her mature form in order to be with him. During a dream-sequence in TPB volume 6, Mina imagines herself living a normal human life, which attests to her romantic desires for Akira, though only in mature form.

I might have added that because Mina has the form of a child-- even though technically she's much older than the college-age Akira-- sex isn't a force that can get in the way of their friendship. To be sure, since it's a Japanese work, it's strongly suggested that the "Vampire Bond" between the two was brought about by the forces of destiny. Still, Tamaki goes to considerable lengths to make the relationship work on its own dynamic, apart from its basic samurai/daimyo structure.

I also remarked in MYTHIC MANGA upon the tendency of some manga-artists to structure their long arcs after the model of prose novels. This was clearly evident in the original arc's use of numerous subplots, and it pertains just as much to the shorter arc as well. The principal subplot concerns Mina and Akira's encounter with a pair of vampires-- one Japanese, one American-- who date from the period of Admiral Perry. (MADAME BUTTERFLY is even wittily referenced, as Tamaki knows that this is a touchstone for many readers.)

There's also some follow-up on subplots from the previous arc. One is that of the character of Josie, Japan's diplomatic liaison to Mina's bund.

Both Josie and the vampire couple function in the SCARLET ORDER help Mina and Akira come to understand the significance of a mystic gemstone known as the "Akamitama." Both Mina's allies and her enemies struggle to acquire this particular McGuffin, but for once, the item in question is not just something for the opponents to fight over. Rather, the gem proves to be a gateway into the distant origins of the vampire race, which even the oldest "living" vampires are not privy.

I'll hold off on discussing that origin in detail, but aside from its strong construction, I find it particularly pleasing that it confirms the "anti-lolicon" theme that I discerned in the earlier arc. Vampires are in essence spawned by a mystic force known only as "the Darkness," and its goal is much the same as that of the three vampire-lords from the first arc: to successfully begat a child to perpetuate its heritage. Tamaki's description of the Darkness' methods reminded me somewhat of the Hindu myth of Prajapati, who creates a woman to be his mate. Like Prajapati, the Darkness must then seek to overcome the woman's resistance to spawn the offspring he desires. But the unnamed "Woman" does resist the dark god's purpose, just as Mina resisted the corrupt desires of the three lords, and from the fact of the Woman's defiance springs the history of the vampire race.

As yet I haven't read the original criticisms of BUND as summarized in this Wikipedia essay. I assume that those criticisms stem from a misreading-- purposeful or otherwise-- of Tamaki's intentions, Frankly, I think even Nabokov's original LOLITA-- which generally gets a critical pass because of all the high-falutin' philosohizin' that makes it sound Really, Really Literary-- is constructed with enough ambiguity that it's possible for the Patron of Lolicon to enjoy it on that level, rather than interpreting the novel morally, as Nabokov *may* have intended. In contrast, while the aforementioned Patrons *might* be able to get some jollies from BUND, it seems to me that Tamaki does everything possible to de-eroticize the sight of Mina, in such a way that it might work against the fantasies of the Patrons even better than Nabokov's staid academic hauteur. Additionally, the fact that both Mina and her distant ancestor prove themselves formidable in fighting against being kept "barefoot and pregnant" by an obnoxious male gives them much more relevance to feminism than one could find in Dolores "Lolita" Haze.

I will note in closing that not everyone will be pleased with the cliffhanger-like conclusion of SCARLET ORDER. It doesn't bother me because I'm reasonably sure Tamaki means to use that cliffhanger as a jumping-off point for a new arc, one that will probably, like ORDER, take place some time after the previous arc's culmination.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Though contemporary Japanese manga (and its various Asian cousins) can be episodic, they're best known today for their sprawling, multi-chapter story-arcs. I don't have an in-depth knowledge of the development of comics in Japan, though I'm aware that the medium's best-known early exemplar, Osamu Tezuka, varied his approach between generally episodic works (ASTRO BOY) and longer, more involved storylines (PRINCESS KNIGHT). Many manga-serials of the past twenty years have gone even further than Tezuka. Eiichiro Oda's ONE PIECE, initiated in 1997, depicts a fantasy-world replete with enough characters and character-arcs to rival (in quantity at least) the novels of Dickens.

Very few American comic books sought to go beyond purely episodic stories until the mid-1960s, when Marvel began making its storytelling mark. Some of the "long arcs" at Marvel resemble simple film-serial cliffhangers, but others may have been more influenced by the narrative example of American comic strips. This online essay asserts that post-WWII Japan was definitely affected by the importation of newspaper strips, though of course there may a host of other factors that influenced the country's fascination with long, involved story-arcs. It's possible that, while the American comic book remained strongly wedded to the short story, Japan made greater strides in the realization of the "novel in graphic form," simply because they had no preconceptions against the idea.

Now, in earlier essays like this one, I've asserted that narratives have 'had their greatest capacity for mythicity when they possessed the traditional "beginning, middle and end," which worked to maximize a given story's potential for "connotative associations."' However, the majority of "long melodrama" comic strips of the classic period lack the scope of the novel in terms of such associations, because "each of these story-lines is just one narrative arc, without a lot of complementary development," 

I certainly wouldn't say that all of the long multi-chapter arcs in manga are necessarily better developed than those of the best classic American comic strips, but the potential has generally been better realized, perhaps because some Japanese authors have emulated the intricacies of the prose novel. At present ONE PIECE has not yet concluded, so it can't be judged in its entirety, but Oda has often laid down involved plot-threads in one sequence that would not culminate until a much later sequence. Whether or not Oda's execution of those plot-lines proves felicitous or not is a separate matter; he's using novel-like narrative devices that were only very rarely utilized in "long melodrama" comics, with an occasional exception like this DICK TRACY sequence.

This week's mythcomic will be DANCERS IN THE VAMPIRE BUND, which boasts a heady complexity of plot and character. However, the original 14-book sequence of BUND, completed in 2012, was something of a novel-fragment. Two years later, the author came forth with SCARLET ORDER, a four-volume follow-up, which might be loosely regarded as the "end of the novel" (although some plot-threads were not resolved, and were certainly intended as lead-ins to further tales). Despite its heavy fantasy-content, BUND is written largely like a political thriller, and this raised the danger that the author might have created too many characters and story-arcs to allow for a reasonably clear "beginning, middle, and end." However, I'm pleased to see that there is a sense of resolution in SCARLET ORDER, so that I can finally put the series on my list, after having alluded to its potential excellence back in this 2011 quasi-review.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


"The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have..., intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice."-- Chris Claremont, 1982 quote.

Ever since I analyzed GOD LOVES MAN KILLS a few weeks ago, I've been intending to blog something about the politicization of the X-Men.

In a post entitled QUICK NON-POLITICS POST, I wrote that, "...one can believe that, in the real world, nothing is free from political associations. However, in fiction that freedom does exist, even if it's only a freedom of the imagination."  I also said that those critics who would equate everything in art with "political rectitude" are in effect saying that "Man really is made for the Sabbath, not the other way round."

Yet many artists, like Claremont, draw attention to their political allegiances, and one cannot know if a given artist does so out of a sincere desire to change the world or merely to cash in on a particular social trend.

The downside of doing this, of course, is that as soon as one declares a political position as representative of one's art, some critics will begin circling like sharks. Most shark-critics care nothing about what the author intended; their passion is to subject the work to a moralistic purity test. I can't count the number of times I've seen forum-posters complain that X-MEN is no good because it doesn't reflect their political perceptions. Some even go so far as to assert that reading about mutant prejudice is just a dodge for not talking about real-life forms of prejudice. And then there are critics whose heads are so far up their butts that they can't even organize a coherent thought.

In The X-Men as racial allegory, blacks are indeed a serious threat to the white social order. And let us make no mistake: it is the white social order. No blacks appear in that first issue. The soldiers on the base are entirely comprised of good Aryans. Moreover, The X-Men offers us a racial allegory (of black and white) in black and white: “evil” mutants or blacks who want to take over America and “bad” mutants or blacks who will put their lives where their mouths are andfight their rebellious brothers for the very social order that cannot accept them.-- Julian Darius, X-MEN IS NOT AN ALLEGORY FOR RACIAL TOLERANCE.

I found this old 2002 essay while looking for an example of the "politics above everything" attitude, but the essay's fervid, Werthamite rhetoric exceeded all of my expectations. It anticipates the worst of Noah Berlatsky, using ridiculous hot-button words :like "good Aryans" and ignoring basic facts of comic book publishing. Even if one could tentatively agree with the idea of a one-to-one equivalence between "mutants" and "blacks," the author conveniently sidesteps the fact that comic books of this period, the first half of the 1960s, rarely depicted blacks at all. I suspect this state of affairs came about largely because one of the assaults made by Original Wertham was the stigmatization of race in Golden Age comics. Thus, by the late 1950s: allusions to non-whites, like allusions to sexuality, were elided because the publishers sought to placate the Comics Code organization (which, admittedly, they themselves founded to avoid governmental controls). Saladin Ahmed comments in this 2014 essay:

The Code also contained the surprising provision that “ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.” Given the countless depictions of monkey-like Japanese and minstrel-show black people in Golden Age comics, one might think this provision a good thing. But Murphy soon made it clear that this provision really meant that black people in comic books would no longer be tolerated, in any form. When EC Comics reprinted the science fiction story “Judgment Day” by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando (which had originally been printed to little controversy before the Code), Murphy claimed the story violated the Code, and that the black astronaut had to be made white in order for the story to run.

Given that the "purity tests" of ideological critics are worthless for evaluating art, the pluralist critic should be aware that even an author who calls attention to his own politics may not be entirely truthful. I don't doubt that Claremont consciously evoked racial and political themes, but he did so in the context of an escapist action-adventure. It should go without saying that one of the primary functions of "racial difference" in Claremont's X-Men is not to lecture (implicitly white) readers about their political shortcomings, but to evoke strong individual characters about whom the readers can give a damn. 

This basic fact of fiction-making makes absurd the sort of readers who fault a given X-title for not being diverse enough, or for distracting readers from the "real world" and its problems. Such readers are not interested in the art of fiction, but the artifice of non-fictional diatribes.

Monday, November 21, 2016


In this essay I cited Haney's "Origin of Metamorpho" as an example of a narrative dominated by its symbolic underthought. Another comics-story that I've praised for its "symbolic amplitude" is Gardner Fox's 1940 "Origin of Hawkman," but prior to Hawkman Fox was also a key player in the forging of the mythos of the  Batman. In the two months preceding this week's selection, Fox gave the Caped Crusader his first encounter with the world of the supernatural, forcing Batman to deal with a master vampire, The Monk. The ensuing story, entitled "Peril in Paris"on GCD, is not as well known, but it better illustrates my concept as to how the "unity of the underthought" can appear even in the most delirious of pulp-tales.

A little while after his vampiric encounter, Bruce Wayne decides to stay in Europe for a time. Strolling through the streets of Paris, he mistakes a stranger for an old acquaintance-- apparently by the man's build, since there's no other point of similarity.

The blank-faced man disappears into the crowd, and Wayne doesn't immediately seek to investigate. Then, by the sort of coincidence beloved by pulp authors, Wayne encounters a young woman menaced by knife-wielding Parisian thugs known as "Apaches." The young woman, Karel by name, just happens to be the sister of Charles Maire, the blank-faced man, who regales Wayne with the story of his tragedy. At a bal masque (masked ball) the siblings encountered a strange man, the royally-named "Duc D'Orterre," who courted Karel with an eye to gaining her money. When Charles interfered, the Duc summoned his Apache agents and had Charles taken to his subterranean lair in the Parisian sewers, where Charles' features were burned off with a strange ray. (It goes without saying that the story does not bother with any niceties of verisimilitude, like explaining how Charles can talk without a mouth.)

Wayne volunteers the services of the Batman to investigate the Duc's perfidy, but the hero finds that the villain has ample weapons and devices of torment ready and waiting.

It's interesting that the Duc calls his torture-instrument a "wheel of chance," for this is a common synonym for the roulette wheel or its many analogues-- not to mention the medieval idea of the "wheel of fortune," which would lift mortals to victory at times before dashing them to death. Nothing in the 10-page story specifies that the Duc is a gambler, but his attire comes closer to suggesting that profession than it does that of a mad scientist or a crime-boss living in the sewers. The cane that projects a blinding ray adds something to the total effect, though to be sure the Duc's dominant image is that of a pointy-eared Satan, complete with a dolicocephalic skull that gives him an inhuman appearance. (Were it not for the various marvelous aspects of the story, the Duc's eerie physiognomy would be enough to place him in the uncanny trope of "freakish flesh.")

Batman gets free of the wheel, though it's not one of his more clever escapes: he simply breaks his bonds by main strength. However, the Duc manages to propel the hero into a "flower garden," in which all of the blooms have female faces.

The human-faced flowers are never explained, though one is tempted to suppose that the same ray the Duc used to erase faces could transpose other faces onto any medium he desired. The Duc then leaves Batman in his new prison and has his Apaches kidnap Karel and Charles, bringing them to his lair. However, the villain apparently does not know that his flower-women can speak to the crusader telepathically. They guide Batman out of the garden, just in time for him to rescue Charles from the wheel of chance. The Duc tries to escape with Karel in a car, and Batman pursues in his Bat-gyro. The hero manages to descend to the car, battle with the Duc, and then to leave the villain to a fiery death as he leaps free with the young woman in tow. The story concludes with Bruce Wayne bidding farewell to Karel and her still faceless brother.

Both the Duc's appearance and his subterranean location align him with Satan, and the idea of stealing faces, or placing them in some incongruous situation, aligns with the idea of the Devil tricking men into surrendering their souls and then consigning them to various punishments of Hell. Dante's "Wood of Suicides" would be the best known example of transposing human souls into plant-life. However, the Devil usually doesn't confine himself to one gender or the other, so the Duc's garden of female flowers may also owe something to Bluebeard, who kept the bodies of his previous wives in an abbatoir. It may also be no coincidence that Fox had Batman battling a Satan-like entity so soon after vanquishing a vampire. Fox doesn't invoke any images of Christianity in the "Monk" story, but that two-parter does borrow heavily from Stoker's DRACULA-- and Stoker associates his bloodsucker with the Christian devil fairly early in the book. For that reason, I consider "Peril in Paris" to be a metaphysical myth, in which the hero defeats either Satan or an agent of the devil, though the villain's metaphysical evil is displaced through such genre-tropes as "the mad scientist" and "the Parisian crime boss."