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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...

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


One of the most pure "metaphysical myths" in comics appeared in HEAVY METAL. "Shaman" is noteworthy in that even though it involves a conflict of wills between Mexican magicians, there are none of the flamboyant mystical battles that fans know from DOCTOR STRANGE and similar features.

The story turns on a very basic conflict. Shaman Don Jose receives an appeal from a local woman whose child has suffered the curse of another shaman, whom the child's father insulted.. Don Jose relates that the other shaman, Eligio, "was a great shaman" versed in many powers as a result of traveling to "Wirikuta, the land of the gods," but that "now he draws his powers from the forces of evil, and does their bidding." Accordingly, in order to heal the infant, Jose goes into a trace, beating a shaman's drum. The "sacred peyote" is mentioned but Jose does not take it, suggesting that artist Kirchner had read enough Castaneda to know that even though Mexican shamans did use natural drugs to move into the other world, in time they were supposed to able to do so without such aids.

Guided the good spirit of "Kauyumari, the Brother Deer," Jose enters the sacred realm of Wirikuta, which is in essence the same dimension that Western occultists call "the astral plane. Eligio expects Jose's challenge, and attacks him first with locusts that devour Jose's astral form.

Jose overcomes this  threat through his ability to accept death, so that his own dissolution does not disturb him. Next Eligio tries to unleash what Jose calls "the dark side of my own nature," which takes the form of devouring serpents.

After this ploy fails, Eligio mounts a third attack, attempting to imprison the good shaman. Again, Jose overcomes by simply refusing to acknowledge the evil shaman's power over him.

The final confrontation ensues  when the two shamans meet, both displaying complex spirit-forms, one rather totem-like:

In contrast, Jose projects what might be described as a Meso-American mandala, a symbol of wholeness. Again, there is no combat as such, but Jose's demonstration of greater personal power allows him to free the cursed soul of the infant, and to banish Eligio from Wirikuta. A significant detail is that as the evil sorcerer flees, he's joined by the three animals that comprised his polymorphic totem, who may be the "false guides" of whom Jose speaks.

Then, when Jose returns to the mortal world, the infant's curse is broken, and Jose adjures the mother to caution her husband about future discourteous interactions with Eligio, despite the fact that the bad shaman's power has been broken.

Though the plot of "Shaman" is simple, Kirchner embeds it with an artist's appreciation for the integrity of artistic symbols, drawn, quite naturally, from the traditions of Meso-American art. In contrast to the more melodramatic mystical serials, Kirchner is concerned with one simple ritual-- the casting out of evil-- which according to mythologues like Jane Ellen Harrison, may be the core appeal of human religion.

Friday, March 23, 2018


The subject matter of LUNATIC LAWMEN got me thinking once more about the elements of artifice that I've said are responsible for propelling a narrative from the naturalistic world of affects-- one where all affects are dominated by either fear or admiration-- to the uncanny world of affects, dominated by dread or by fascination.

Once more, here's one of my most recent statement on "artifice" as a principle in ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4:

I may have on occasion connected "affective freedom" with the author's ability to generate discourses of symbolic complexity, but if I have done so, this would be a mistake. "Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude, and that freedom can be found in any uncanny or marvelous work, regardless of its symbolic complexity, a.k.a. "mythicity." Indeed, I have rated both EYES OF A STRANGER and NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY as "poor" in terms of their mythicity, but the former is uncanny specifically because its author(s) show a greater appreciation for the culturally transmitted tropes of slasher-fiction, while the authors of LADY do not.
Once again, I started thinking about what makes "Psycho A" dreadful and "Psycho B" merely fearsome, and somehow I also started thinking about another of my phenomenality-tropes, the "phantasmal figuration," probably because I'd just reread what I said about that trope having influence upon the conceptual domain of Shakespeare's HAMLET.

Then it struck me that the salient difference that I perceived in Psycho A and Psycho B had much to do with what I called "the eerie vibe" in M FOR EFFORT: 

The "eerie vibe" I look for in uncanny works with the "phantasmal figuration" trope is produced when some agent within the story has managed to produce a phantasmal effect-- but only through some sustained effort. That effort might be fairly compared to the effort that the story's author must sustain in order to produce that effect within the story proper-- which may in future need further exploration in tune with my concept of artifice

This suggests to me that there's a threshold-crossing 'effort" involved in the villain who creates the titular deception of Doyle's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, while there is no such effort in, say 2009's ONDINE. It's significant to me that though I reviewed ONDINE in 2014, before I'd formally conceived the principle of "effort," I stated that Ondine the phony mermaid was of a naturalistic phenomenality because she didn't really try to be anything else:

Ondine herself does little to build up her mythic persona; both Syracuse and Annie want to believe it, perhaps to escape their own mortality and limits. However, in the end it's revealed that Ondine's name is the only thing mythical about her. She is in reality a Romanian drug-mule who lost her last shipment. She fled to Ireland to escape her vengeful bosses, but the stranger in town spots her and brings in his confederates, resulting in a fight between the drug-runners and Syracuse.

In similar wise, the "uncanny psycho's" physical acts may be identical to those of the "naturalistic psycho"-- but what the former has, and the latter lacks, is that the former has a deeper investment in the insane rules of his world, rather than being determined by the "physiological factors" that dominate the latter's world. I return to C.S, Lewis, who manifestly did not believe that "dread" was simply an extrapolation from "fear:"

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. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

Building on Lewis's comment, then, Psycho A is dreadful because the viewer sees more of "what he is," through the culturally tropes of psycho-fiction. Thus he, like Lewis's ghost, is dreadful because of what he is, and not what he can do.

Further, Psycho A projects his twisted vision of the world in defiance of the "real world," just as the instigator of a "phantasmal figuration" does-- or for that matter, any agent of any of the other eight "uncanny" story-tropes I've identified. I won't go down the list at this time, but an equally relevant trope is that of "delirious dreams and fallacious figments." Leaving aside the "figments" part of the equation for a possible later essay, "uncanny dreams" also require much more "effort" on the part of their diegetic dreamer than "naturalistic dreams" do from their creators.

For instance, in my review of THE STILL OF THE NIGHT, I noted that Roy Scheider's dreams were almost totally derivative of experienced reality:

However, though the imagery is creepy-- a weird little girl with a teddy beat, for instance-- the images are clearly straightforward representations of things the dreamer has seen in real life, which marks STILL as being strongly influenced by Sir Alfred's SPELLBOUND. 

Contrast this to the way the dreamer of FRIDAY THE 13TH foretells the recrudescence of Jason Voorhees, even though her conscious mind knows that "his" crimes were committed by Jason's now-dead mother:

What's fascinating about this sequence is that even though Alice, like all of her friends, is fundamentally innocent, on some level she accepts and internalizes the guilt of Mrs. Voorhees.  Even though she wakes from the dream, she ends the film telling the surrouding officials, with an unshakable conviction, that Jason is "still down there," under the lake, haunting it with his unquiet spirit.  

The dreamer in an uncanny film, just like his uncanny brethren the psycho and the phantasm-maker, is always fully invested in the larger-than-life artifice of his world, making a consistent effort to embody those tropes rather than allowing them to be banished by the clear light of day.

ADDENDUM: Though "the uncanny" as I've defined it can only exist within the sphere of narrative literature, I will note that there have been incidents in the real world in which living persons attempted to take on the aura of something uncanny. I mentioned one such example, the real-life "Jack the Ripper," in A MOVABLE HELLFEAST.


I devoted a good deal of space to the setup for the Silver Age "Adam Strange" feature in my essay on the story "Shadow People of the Eclipse," but for clarity's sake, I'll repeat a little of it here:

Adam Strange became DC’s most prestigious space-opera hero of the period when Schwartz  came up with a “thinking man’s” version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. In Burroughs’ Martian cycle of stories, Carter and other Earth-heroes not infrequently found themselves transported to the exotic world of Mars, where they would immediately get involved in assorted feats of derring-do. In similar wise, a device called a “Zeta-beam” regularly transported Strange, an archaeologist on the planet Earth, to the planet Rann in the Alpha Centauri system—a planet that was repeatedly menaced by alien invaders and extraterrestrial creatures. Though Strange promptly outfitted himself with a fancy uniform and some of Rann’s superior technology—a jet-pack and a ray-pistol—the essential appeal of the stories was that the hero always used logical thinking and good old American know-how to defeat the exotic incursions. The series also provided Strange with a little more erotic reward for his efforts than most superheroes got. A beautiful Rannian girl, Alanna, fell in love with him—but most of the time their union couldn’t prosper, for the Zeta-radiation in Strange’s body would wear off and he’d cycle back to Earth, condemned to wait for another beam to take him back to the world of his lady love.
I also mentioned in that essay that many of the stories were gimmick-driven, often based in the editor's attempt to catch the eye of the impulse-buyer, and that only occasionally did the stories-- usually collaborations by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino-- ascend into the realm of the mythopoeic. However, perhaps Fox, the primary architect of the stories, was on something of a roll in 1962, for the story considered here-- "Conqueror" for short-- appeared just one issue after "Shadow People."

"Conqueror" also led me to realize just how often the series structured its perils around the idea of disappearance and what we now call "alien abduction." "Shadow People" reads a bit like a cross between THE ODYSSEY and an alien abduction yarn, but only a handful of people, including Adam Strange, are kidnapped by the alien Llyrr. However, a lot of stories deal with Planet Rann's whole population being abducted or transformed somehow, or even with the planet switching its place in the cosmos with some other planet. In the Burroughs "Mars" books, there's little if any explanation of the force that transports John Carter and other heroes to Mars. But because it was a regular recurring element in the Adam Strange stories-- a device by which the creators sought to make readers continue to purchase the series-- its presence may have encouraged Fox to place "cosmic checkers" with planets and their populations in similar fashion.

"Conqueror" is not quite that cosmically oriented, but the cover does show Fox's penchant for exploiting images suggestive of Frazer's "sympathetic magic," wherein an image of a person can influence what happens to the person.

The visual element of the lightning striking the statue may have been a suggestion from editor Julie Schwartz, for in truth the bolt from the heavens plays only a very minor role in the story.  But it does begin with both a re-appearance and a disappearance, for as soon as Strange manifests on Rann, he sees his sweetheart Alanna waiting for him-- only to behold her vanish before he reaches her, seeming to dissolve into smoke. Strange's reaction is muted by modern standards, due to DC's tendency to downplay strong emotion, but Infantino's body language does suggest that Strange is wracked with doubt about Alanna's fate. He promptly seeks out Alanna's father Sardath in the capital city, but the scientist has no clue about the disappearance. For once, Rann seems free of alien intrustions, and the only thing going on in the city is that its citizens have recently set up a statue of Adam Strange, commemorating his past accomplishments.

Fox's script doesn't overtly touch on the usual connotation of such statues-- that they usually commemorate the heroic dead. However, the equation is suggested when the force behind Alanna's disappearance manifests in the statue. The energy-display from the sky causes Strange to fade away just as Alanna did. Then the entity inside Strange's image projects a telepathic voice to Rann's citizens, explaining that he is "Ikhar the Undying, master of the mineral world." He proclaims that he now rules the planet, and that he sent both Strange and Alanna offworld to eliminate Strange as a threat. (He never says why he chose to include Alanna in his plans, since she didn't usually play an active role in helping Strange repel alien invaders.) While the statue of Adam comes alive and struts around as if alive, the mineral-being inside it further informs the citizens of other details. Both Strange and Alanna have been turned into petrified versions of their living selves, and left to wander in space inside a spaceship far off in uncharted space-- in fact, the same ship by which Ikhar came to Rann. The mineral-creature can transport his intelligence into any inorganic object, but he needed the ship to cross space-- and now he's using it as a prison in which the "inert, lifeless bodies" of Strange and Alanna are to be "carried eternally onward through an interstellar emptiness."

What Fox has done here is to re-arrange tropes common to the ideas about the afterlife, so that lifeless bodies, rather than free spirits, are hurled into a void of "emptiness." However, even though Strange has been outmaneuvered, his body contains residual zeta-radiation, and so once he's in the ship, he transforms back to a living human being. (The cynic in me wonders why Ikhar has a working atmosphere in the spaceship, since he, being a mineral entity, shouldn't need to breathe-- and he certainly had no reason to supply Strange and Alanna with breathable air.) Alannah remains in the petrified state Ikhar wrought upon her, but Strange manages to figure out a way to take her with him when the zeta-beam effect causes him to jaunt back to Planet Earth.

Though the trip to Earth doesn't undo Alanna's petrifaction, the interval gives Strange time to devise a tnethod to defeat Ikhar. Suffice to say that when the zeta-effect transports Strange to Rann once more, he's worked out a clever way to take advantage of Ikhar's boast that he can project his being into any mineral substance. Strange tricks the alien into entering an organic object that simply looks inorganic, and, mirabile dictu, the effect is just like trapping a genie in a bottle. (There are quite a few genie-in-a-bottle tropes in Fox's work overall, but that's another essay.) Ikhar is obliged to reverse all of his "spells," including that of enchanting Alanna, and then is released once he swears not to be bad again, more or less like the genie in the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.

It's an engaging story, with a bit more sense than most of the heroes' nearness to real death. Like all of their real-life readers, even heroes must eventually be transformed from the "quick" world of the living to the "dead" world of inorganic inactivity-- though "Conqueror" gives Strange and Alanna the respite of reversing that entropic trope, and of enjoying impermanent life a little longer.

Thursday, March 22, 2018


While messing around in Merriam-Webster's online thesaurus in search of a title for this essay, I was surprised that a search for synonyms for "heroic" included the following:

crazy, foolish, half-witted, insane, lunatic, mad, nutty

I think this connotation of "heroic" occurs only under specialized circumstances, as when someone of faint heart thinks that a hero is "crazy" for attempting some heroic act. Yet it's a fortuitous cross-comparison, because I gave some thought today on the significance of "crazy heroes" for my NUM formula.

As I've noted on many occasions, there are certain works which just barely seem to cross the threshold of the naturalistic into the uncanny. In this 2012 essay, I gave three examples of thriller-films that had a very "naturalistic" look overall, though I asserted that one of them, EYES OF A STRANGER, registered as "uncanny" thanks to certain diegetic factors:

EYES debuted in theaters at a time when psycho-slasher films were still in ascendance, but this film's killer has little in common with the more colorful fiends of the period: he isn't deformed, wears no distinctive mask or clothing, and uses no special gimmicks or bizarre methods to commit his murders-- all in spite of the fact that one of the writers credited with the EYES screenplay also worked on the seminal 1980 FRIDAY THE 13TH.  Nevertheless, for all the naturalistic touches here, the script does give the villain a larger-than-life quality that confers a sense of dread to the proceedings.  For one thing, though the psycho-rapist never earns a distinctive nom du crime, on occasion the heroine, news reporter Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes), dubs him "the Phone Freak" because he preys on women after tormenting them with lascivious phone calls. 

I mentioned the example of "the Phone Freak" earlier on this blog in my more recent essay ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4, as one of a handful of examples of "psycho killers" who attained a "larger-than-life" quality that I subsumed under the term "artifice."

But this conception returns me to the line of thought expressed in my "Power and Potency" series, where I drew a comparison between G. Wilson Knight's thoughts on Shakespeare's character Hamlet and the general idea of the "perilous psycho."

G. Wilson Knight's essay on HAMLET implies this opposition between body and non-body when, as I showed in Part 1, Knight imputed to the moody Prince of Denmark a power that was not a literal power, saying that "the poison of [Hamlet's] mental essence spreads outward among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal."  When he wrote this, Knight was not being at all literal, as his use of the acid simile demonstrates. Hamlet has no more physical power than any other human being, but because he has "held converse with death," he *SEEMS LIKE* he has become something more than human. But the "seeming" takes place purely upon the mental/spiritual/"non-body" plane of being.
Until reading Knight, I had always classified HAMLET and most of its film adaptations as instances of the trope I call "phantasmal figuration." However, Knight's description makes Hamlet sound very much like the type of uncanny-or-naturalistic figure of another trope: "the perilous psycho."  In terms of the play proper, one may argue back and forth whether or not Hamlet, in feigning madness, may have actually gone mad. But whether the Danish prince is mad or merely infected with a pestilential cynicism, his attitude has given him a special "potency," even though he has no special power-- just like all of the "psycho" characters I've studied.

The "psycho" usually takes the persona of either a monster or a demihero, but I began thinking: is it possible to view any mostly naturalistic "heroes" as being uncanny purely because they're, well, somewhat crazy?

Often I've put forth examples of heroes who are uncanny in terms of their appearance. In this essay, I asserted that the oater-hero the Durango Kid was one such uncanny hero, even thought there was absolutely nothing to separate one of his adventures from a Roy Rogers western except for the Kid's uncanny garb.

I've also defined some heroes as being in an uncanny phenomenality due to the monsters they oppose, as I did in my review of 1984's FEAR CITY, wherein traumatized boxer Matt Rossi makes it his business to take down a weird serial-killer.

But to be a direct parallel to the example of EYES OF A STRANGER, my hypothetical "lunatic lawman" would have to have nothing special about his appearance, his resources, or his antagonists.

Now, as it happens, vigilante lawmen are frequently figures of terror to criminals in a manner analogous to the way serial killers terrorize ordinary citizens. But since I've said that the Phone Freak invokes "dread" rather than just simple "fear," as my 2012 essay argues in detail, a mostly naturalistic hero would have to do the same thing. This is less common for heroes than for monsters, since heroes are usually pretty flamboyant about who they are and what they do.

One possible example of a "crazy hero" type might be the ex-'Nam vigilante hero. This hero-type was largely initiated by the incredible popularity of the paperback hero The Executioner, who in 1969 began his run of over 400 novels and almost certainly influenced Marvel Comics' Punisher. I've read only one of these novels and so could not make any determinations about the series without much more research. However, according to my system, the only way that such a hero could be uncanny would be if his acts were so crazy that they went beyond the basics of the heroic type. For instance, here's a description by blogger Joe Kenney of a particularly horrific execution pulled off by one of the Executioner-imitators, the Penetrator:

The battles are mostly one-sided, with the goons no match for Hardin's skills. Regardless the action sequences are all well staged and expertly rendered, particularly a great scene where Hardin gets a small army of mobsters stuck in a canyon and lobs white phosphorous down upon them. This is probably the most brutal treatment I've ever seen delivered to the mob in a men's adventure novel! 

Having read few works in this genre, I probably can't do more than make general hypothetical statements. However, another possible example of a "crazy hero" might be seen in 1984's RED DAWN. I judged this film as uncanny largely because of it's "what if" situation of showing a Russian invasion of the United States. But the heroes of the film, Jed Eckert and his "Wolverines," have taken a certain uncanny potency by virtue of following in the footsteps of aboriginal Americans. Thus Eckert may be the "crazy hero" who offers the best contrast to the almost naturalistic "crazy monster."

Friday, March 16, 2018


The essay's title is a pun on the Latin expression "in media res," "in the middle of things," which is generally only directed at stories that don't begin at a standard beginning, but start at a theoretical middle and then fill in the blanks about what went before. "Res" by itself denotes "a particular thing," as one sees in such Cartesian terms as "res extensa," and the word "resolution" is traced from the same root.

My response to the Scott novel IVANHOE was the proximate cause for me to write KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY PT. 2-- in which I examined the novel as an exception to the general principles exposed in the 2013 essay PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX. However, IVANHOE was not the first time I'd ever taken note of combative works which did not actually conclude with an act of combat.

Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS is arguably the most influential combative fantasy-work in which there's a great deal of fighting throughout the early and middle parts of the epic, not unlike IVANHOE. Yet none of the battles can unseat Sauron, who for some critics is really the titular "lord of the rings." Only by Frodo's action-- casting the One Ring into the inferno of Mount Doom-- can Sauron be destroyed. But Frodo's attempt to complete his act of renunciation fails, as his will bends to the ring's insuperable power.

The only thing that saves Middle-Earth from subjugation is the accidental intrusion of another hobbit, even more obsessed with the ring than Frodo. Gollum springs upon Frodo and bites off the finger on which Frodo has placed the ring, after which Gollum conveniently falls, "precious' and all, into the lava pit below.

Oddly, this essay makes clear that at one point Tolkien did consider a fully combative conclusion, which would have included Frodo and Samwise battling one of the Ringwraiths on Mount Doom. But this does not change the fact that Tolkien did indeed choose the less combative ending, even as Scott did with IVANHOE.

Thus, both of these are exceptions to my general rule that the narrative value of the combative mode arises when there exists "some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax." I still believe that this formulation applies to the great majority of combative works. but that it's also possible for the mode to manifest at least when such spectacle has appeared in the middle portion of the narrative.

In truth, I'd already deemed some narratives to be combative even when they, like LORD OF THE RINGS, featured most of the spectacular violence in the middle and concluded with a menace being defeated by some "Achilles heel" maneuver. After the armies of man fail to vanquish the 1954 Gojira, the apocalyptic beast is defeated with a comparative lack of spectacle when he's dissolved by "the oxygen destroyer."

At the same time, there's a transitive equivalence between the mundane weapons of the military and the super-weapon. I made a similar point, without invoking the transitive effect, when discussing the 1956 film FORBIDDEN PLANET in this essay:

To be sure, when the Id Monster is defeated, it isn't because of the clash between the weapons of Earth-science and the power of the Krell machines.  The Monster is defeated by undermining the source of its power in Morbius, who is in essence the Monster's Achilles heel.
Nevertheless, without the clash of energies that establishes how potent the Id Monster is, there would be no narrative perception of the need to seek such a vulnerable point. 

An intransitive effect, however, rears its head in the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS adaptation of H.G. Wells, as I wrote in this essay: 

In the film as in the Wells novel, what saves the human race is not some last-minute strategy or new weapon, but a lucky break having nothing to do with Earth's defenders.  In the book, Wells stresses only irony in the fact that the Martians perish from Earth-bacteria, while the 1953 film reverses this ideological interpretation, regarding the bacteria's presence as an expression of divine providence.  But regardless of which interpretation is favored, in neither case can Earth's defenders take any credit for the Martian defeat.
Another corollary to this formulation is that some of the works that have violence "in the middle" are, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, not really deeply concerned with the spectacle of combat. My main example of such a film in PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX is 2002's MINORITY REPORT, which has one spectacle-scene inserted into a middle section, and my "in media" formulation does nothing to change REPORT's subcombative status. In the end, it comes down to something of a judgment call, not unlike my ruminations on "active and passive shares," in which the critic must decide how important the elements of spectacular violence are to the narrative.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


(This Brubaker-Lutes collaboration originally appeared in five 1998 issues of DARK HORSE PRESENTS, but I've chosen to cite the date of the 2001 compilation since that's how most readers will encounter the work.)

If you look up the term "film blanc" online, you'll find citations that claim it means a film with an upbeat attitude, as against the "film noir," the "black film" that often if not always emphasizes pessimism. Long ago, though, I remember some obscure film-criticism essay in which the author argued that "films blancs" would be a proper term for films that still evinced the same downbeat emphasis as films noirs, but did so without the conspicuous use of heavy shadow and dim lighting. The one example I recall was the highly colorful 1945 production, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.

THE FALL, a black and white comic, feels like a film blanc along these lines. Although color's not part of the equation, neither black nor white is given any special attention. Lutes's linework is simple and clean, abjuring showy visuals and thus generally emulating the unobtrusive "classic Hollywood" style of storytelling. Thus Brubaker's modern-day "noir" script takes center stage.

Like many of the classic films noirs, THE FALL focuses on a semi-decent schmuck who blunders into the worlds of sin and crime, at least partly in response to his own moral ambivalence. The immediate significance of the title is with the season of fall, for both front and back covers of the collected work depict many orange-hued autumn leaves against a black expanse, their continuity broken only by a prostrate human hand.

The first panel of the story proper, taking place in 1988, places the hand in context: a woman is seen being hurled from a high roadway by a mostly unseen assailant. Thus her physical fall is correlated with that of the change of seasons-- and with a change in time, for once the setting of the murder has been established, the scene shifts to one of a man, our protagonist Kirk, raking leaves in a yard, about ten years later.

Kirk is defined by his job and by his ambivalent relationship with women. It's loosely implied that his former girlfriend Mara, seen only briefly in the story, ended the relationship, and Kirk, working for peanuts at a service station, is taking the split hard. He even feels alienated in his own apartment, because he's obliged to share the quarters with Jeff, a male roommate who implicitly does not fill the void for Kirk. It's his depression over Mara that moves him to take a walk on the sinful side.

A female customer, never before seen by Kirk, turns in a lost credit card to Kirk while he's alone at the register. Since it's a Gold Card, owned by a man named Wasserman, Kirk decides to use the card to do some shopping and alleviate his romantic depression. Then he destroys the card, assuming that no one can ever trace the petty theft back to him. However, the young woman turns up again, and Kirk learns that her name is June, and that she's married to the man who lost his card.

June may have a name that suggests summer rather than autumn, but she's got the deceptive nature of a true femme fatale, even though her stakes are petty ones. She doesn't want to inveigle Kirk into a life of crime; she just wants him to do unpaid chores around her house-- like the raking of leaves seen at the story's beginning. Brubaker's script implies that she enjoys having Kirk under her thumb, and truth to tell, the aimless Kirk rather enjoys the diversion she brings to his life. He even goes beyond their stated arrangement, digging up her garden for a replanting project-- at which point he finds something that ought not to be in a garden.

Rather than asking the guileful June about the purse, Kirk plays amateur detective, trying to find out about the purse's owner. He even falls a little in love with the missing owner, somewhat after the fashion of the 1944 film LAURA, and thus becomes even more fascinated when he learns that she was a woman named Emily, and the victim of an unsolved murder. I'll forego the fine points of Kirk's investigation, except to say that it leads him to yet another complicated skein in his relationship with June Wasserman, as well as making an ally who's the spitting image of Emily.

Without commenting on the identity of Emily's killer, I will note that he inverts the humorous "dominance" theme between Kirk and June. The killer waylaid Emily on the high roadway hoping to get sexual favors-- an appropriate site, since it was also a "make-out" locale-- and ended up killing her in the process. Brubaker and Lutes soft-pedal the references to the "women's empowerment" theme, but it's significant that at the climax, a female character is responsible for both Kirk and the killer taking the same big fall that Emily did a decade previous.

I confess that there's no single character in THE FALL whom I would deem truly mythic. The most mythic presence in the story is the unnamed site of Emily's death, since it functions as a locus that mediates between the world of the civilized roadway and the dark passions of nature, which end up precipitating not only Emily but also Kirk and the killer into the bosom of the forest below. Yet, just as the locale is a place where the symbols of "a physical fall" and "the season of fall" come together, a third correlation looms when one considers the Judeo-Christian concept of humankind's "fall" into a sinful existence. Since Kirk, unlike the killer, survives the deadly plunge, and goes on to pursue a more equitable relationship with the quixotic June, one might have deem that he experienced a "fortunate fall"-- one that started with a petty theft and ended with the solution of a murder. Or, as Thomas Aquinas put it:

"God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom" 

Friday, March 9, 2018


The two-part "Black Panther" story in FF #52-53 treats the advancement of the scientific wonderland of Wakanda in a spirit of ttriumphalism, celebrating the innate ability of the Third World to attain the lofty position of the Western nations. The recent film adaptation naturally takes the same celebratory attitude. I suspect, though, that any sequel to the film will not explore, as FF #54 does, the possible downside to scientific advancement.

EVIL EYE follows directly after the defeat of Klaw. The issue contains many excellent character-moments-- Lee and Kirby were still at the peak of their collaboration here-- and it continues the ongoing plotline of the Inhumans trapped in their own Great Refuge. I discussed both of these in detail in a more comprehensive essay, but here I'll elide everything not directly concerned with the narrative's main plot: the encounter of two of the heroes with the specter of one such vanished civilization.

...Lee hasn’t forgotten that Johnny is still a college student, for when he announces that he’s going to fly to the Great Refuge just to feel closer to his lost love, the hero mentions that he still has “a few weeks of vacation time left.”  (Apparently Metro College is a progressive one, giving students multiple weeks of break-time!)  Wyatt volunteers to go with his roomie, but because he can’t fly alongside Johnny, the Panther gives them an extra gift: a spherical ship called a “gyro-cruiser,” in which to travel to their destination.  Wyatt’s dialogue makes explicit the liberal intentions of the creators, as he comments, “Apparently the talent of inventive genius is not limited to any one place, culture, or clime!”
With that, the two young men take off, and the senior members of the team disappear for the remains of the tale: one of the rare times none of them participate in any action more heroic than a ball-game.  Gliding over the ground, the gyro-cruiser takes Johnny and Wyatt into “the open desert to the north”—implicitly, North Africa—and into a sandstorm.  The storm itself doesn’t harm them, but the shifting sands cause the craft to plunge into a underground “crevice” The crevice proves to be a man-made shaft that drops the travelers into a buried temple with a monstrous bas-relief.  (The statue’s design dominates page 10 much the way a giant panther-statue dominates page 4.)  Within the temple Johnny and Wyatt find a man dressed in quasi-medieval clothing and apparently sleeping in a super-scientific throne.  

The moment they enter, he wakes and stuns them with a handheld weapon that Johnny compares to a “flashlight,” and then he demands to know, in archaic language, what century it is.  The knight identifies himself as Prester John, aka “The Wanderer,” and states that seven centuries have passed since he, once a contemporary of King Richard the Lionhearted, was placed in “the chair of survival” by the “men of Avalon.”  He relates how, after some unspecified service to Richard, he wandered in search of the “countless wonders of far off lands,” but found his greatest triumph in “finding the fabled isle of Avalon.” 

Like the Great Refuge Avalon is pictured as a super-technological redoubt in the midst of more primitive human cultures, but unlike the Refuge Avalon was destroyed by its own technology, evoking both the legend of vanished Atlantis and modern fears of nuclear devastation.  The Wanderer concludes his lecture by once more displaying the power of his weapon, which he calls “the Evil Eye.” He temporarily places the duo in an unbreakable dome that just happens to resemble the dome surrounding the Great Refuge.

Prester John releases his captives, having only wanted to impress them.  The Torch, convinced that the Evil Eye can be used to destroy the Inhumans’ confining barrier, begs to borrow it.  For reasons that are not immediately clear, the knight claims that such a loan is “impossible.” If he intends to explain further, his words are lost on the lovestruck Torch, who snatches the Evil Eye from the Wanderer’s hands.  He’s flown out of earshot, on his way to the Great Refuge, while the Wanderer tells Wyatt: that without the use of a “safety button,” the Evil Eye’s power will build until it explodes.

Wyatt and Prester John follow Johnny in the gyro-cruiser, which is suddenly able able to fly through the air.  (One presumes that its earlier mode of travel-- gliding on the ground-- was emphasized to make it seem more natural when the sphere fell into the temple-shaft.)  In addition to the craft having the ability to fly, it also stocks a handy “polarizer gun,” able to shoot a “solidified ray of light.”  With this weapon Wingfoot, thanks to possessing “the blood of Comanche warriors,” knocks the Evil Eye from Johnny’s hand just in time.  The weapon hits the ground and explodes with a mushroom cloud, “like an actual A-bomb.”  Johnny survives the blast but for a moment he can only feel “blind rage” against Wyatt for his part in destroying a tool capable of freeing the Torch’s lady love.  He subsides just as quickly, with Wyatt refraining from mentioning that Johnny’s own rash act caused the weapon’s destruction—and the issue ends with Johnny sinking dejectedly to his knees in a perfect expression of adolescent angst: “Maybe it would have been better—if you hadn’t saved me!”

The figure of the Wanderer is an interesting one as he’s one of the few characters Lee and Kirby introduce in the Middle Period who never returns.  Indeed, though he was purportedly placed in the “chair of survival” in order to testify to future generations as to the lost glories of Avalon, he’s never seen again after the last page of #54, nor does Lee devote even a quick reference to his disposition.  

As mentioned before the fate of Avalon is plainly a cautionary tale about nuclear catastrophe, underscored by the way Avalon's artifact explodes with a mushroom cloud.  Even the Inhumans subplot, which has no direct relation to the Wanderer plot, has Black Bolt enter a chamber whose name—“cyclo-electronic chamber”—clearly evokes the word “cyclotron.”  One might surmise that, even though Lee and Kirby were touting the desirability of a third-world country like Wakanda gaining technological parity with the West, the creators may have had some misgivings, knowing that technology had already let a nuclear genie out of its bottle.  It’s significant that even though Prester John was evidently English and had traveled all over the world, Johnny and Wyatt find him in North Africa. The Crusades aren’t mentioned, but King Richard’s name strongly implies that Prester John served in the Crusades.  Why does he return to North Africa for his big sleep?  Probably the contiguity of fictional Wakanda to real-life North Africa suggested to the creators the possibility of a lost Crusader who woke from a prolonged sleep (also typical of a more archetypal knight, King Arthur). This made it possible for the former knight to relate all manner of wonders from the viewpoint of a medieval native. Lee and Kirby don’t directly preach as to the possibility of their own culture vanishing, as they do through the lecture of Galactus in FF#50, but surely the concern never wholly left their minds.    

One other point is the Evil Eye itself.  In folklore an “evil eye” is a power possessed by those of magical abilities to will evil upon others through a glance, sometimes without conscious intention on the part of the one with the baleful eye.  This may be a symbolism that carries over to the device fashioned by the doomed scientists of Avalon: their Evil Eye, possessed of the power to destroy others, ends up being destroyed by its own power, even as its makers are.   

Thursday, March 8, 2018


I concluded Part 3 of ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE  with this statement:

it stands to reason that artifice as a mode embraces both simple variables ("stereotypes") and complex variables ("archetypes.")

I followed up this distinction in Part 4:

I may have on occasion connected "affective freedom" with the author's ability to generate discourses of symbolic complexity, but if I have done so, this would be a mistake. "Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude, and that freedom can be found in any uncanny or marvelous work, regardless of its symbolic complexity, a.k.a. "mythicity." 
Although both of these are abstract conceptions, the best way to figure out how they work is to treat them as if they were physical objects, able to be broken down into their constituent parts.

Archetypes, both in their Jungian and Fryean conceptions, stand outside the realm of the semiotics disciplines of Saussure, Pierce and Morris. Yet clearly many ideas from semiotics coincide with those of archetypal psychology and "myth criticism." Frye's concept of simple and complex variables sounds a lot like Morris's distinction between straightforward "signals" and more involved "symbols," and they both also resemble Wheelwright's arguments for a spectrum of language ranging from the *monosignative,* or "denotative," to the *plurisignative,* or "connotative." So even though the term"archetype" may have special usages, it's not hard to see that it bears a strong relation to semiotics, the study of signs, even though Jung probably would not agree that an archetype reduces down to a linguistic sign.

"Artifice," however, cannot reduce down to something as elementary as a "sign." I said that it lined up with an author's intention to privilege tropes peculiar to literary expression than to "tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude." My use of "trope" is probably closest to the definition cited at Dictionary.com:

any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and
irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.

Within a naturalistic phenomenality, the author must always privilege verisimilitude, though it's always possible to bend the rules of the strictly probable to suit the audience. The 'birth-mystery plot" from Dickens' OLIVER TWIST is an artifice designed to begin the main character's life without any of the familial support that most children receive in their upbringing. Nothing that happens in the early chapters of the novel is purely outside the domain of the naturalistic, in which, as I've said before, reality is both coherent and intelligible. Yet, once Dickens has generated the maximum pathos from his character's plight, the author bends the rules so that Oliver's first, Fagin-inspired attempt to burgle a house puts him in contact with the character of Rose, who just happens to be Oliver's long-lost aunt. At the same time, Dickens must use a certain amount of verisimilitude in setting up the situation-- for instance, Fagin's gang must have good reason to think that the house is worth robbing. There's some artifice in Oliver's deliverance from the hardships resulting from the mystery of his origins, but not enough to render it "anti-intelligible--" and further, all the "literary or rhetorical devices" Dickens uses, whether allied to artifice or to verisimilitude, should all be seen as tropes.

So, whereas archetypes can be seen as related to, or identical with, those atomistic entities we call "signs," both the artifice-mode and the verisimilitude-mode are related to those "molecular entities" built up from the sign-atoms. Jung probably did not use the term "trope" back in his day, but in some essays he did use "motif" as a more neutral term than archetype, and I imagine that for him "motif" carried the same meaning that "trope" does for readers today.

One scholar whom Jung influenced, Joseph Campbell, was attracted to the use of the term "signs," though his orientation seems more toward ethology than semiotics. In this early essay, I hazarded a parallel between Campbell's concept of supernormal signs and Frye's concept of complex variables:

For the purpose of this argument I'll assume that though Campbell's "supernormal sign stimuli" don't share the same philosophical etiology as Frye's "complex variables," the two writers are essentially talking about the same thing: the power of certain signs to evoke far stronger responses-- affective and perhaps cognitive as well-- than do their opposite numbers: "normal sign stimuli" and "simple variables." Both Campbell and Frye frequently addressed the interpenetration of art and myth, though naturally each man hewed to his specialty.

However, of late I've been doubting that "supernormal signs" are adequate for talking about either Fryean or Jungian archetypes. Ethologists evolved the notion of such signs for talking about the instincts of lower animals, to better understand how, to use one of Campbell's examples, a newborn chick might fear the image of a hawk even though the newborn has never seen a hawk before. But most lower animals are not able to respond to images or motifs beyond the level of the simple "sign." In contrast, as soon as human beings were able to formulate language, and to begin the long process of symbolic elaboration seen in culture, they took the step into the domain of the pure symbol. The images we see in early man's cave-paintings may vary between sign and symbol, but by the time we see an image as elaborate as "The Sorcerer" from Trois-Freres, we're probably not dealing with a simple sign, but with a "molecular" trope built up from many "atomistic" signs. Thus I would say that as a rule, there are no "supernormal signs" in human culture, only "supernormal tropes."

A partial exception is suggested by this passage from Philip Wheelwright, last printed here:

Certain particulars have more of an archetypal content than others; that is to say, they are 'eminent instances' which stand forth in a characteristic amplitude as representatives of many others; they enclose in themselves a certain totality, arranged in a certain way, stirring in the soul something at once familiar and strange, and thus outwardly as well as inwardly they lay claim to a certain unity and generality.-- FOUNTAIN, p. 54.

I gave my own example of both an "eminent instance" and its "non-eminent" relation:

It's true that one cannot say, in any meaningful context, that real eagles are more important, more significant, than real mudlarks. However, in any symbolic universe the symbolic (or gestural) eagle is worth more than the symbolic/gestural mudlark. 

And yet, by the end of the essay, I've noted that the richness of the symbolic eagle is still something that resulted from an ongoing process:

The concept of complexity, which suggests an "eminent instance" with a huge accretion of associations, not unlike the outer periphery of a black hole:
In short, then-- Tropes, good. Signs, not as good.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Here's a small revision to my terminology in this section of GOOD WILL QUANTUMS PT. 2:

....the function of sensation as Jung and I conceive it is entirely "pre-cognitive," while that of feeling is "post-cognitive." It doesn't help me at all to use 'affect" in both senses, so from now on I will take the first-stated position: "affects" are *quanta* that belong to the post-cognitive function of feeling. In contrast, the function of sensation, being non-judgmental, is concerned rather with dynamicity in its purest state, as stimuli that either enhance or detract from the subject's life-quality. This brings me back to Kant's concept of dynamicity as "might" or "strength," and thus I reconfigure the earlier statement of the potentialities thusly:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of strength-quanta.
The DRAMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of affect-quanta.
The DIDACTIC (formerly "thematic") is a potentiality that describes the relationships of idea-quanta.
The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbol-quanta.

There's a viable logic in defining the quanta of the sensation-function as "strength" or even "might," given that I've sometimes used the latter term as a catchall for any and all physical activity-- which would include an organism's attempt to suss out its environment through the use of the senses. Yet both terms don't seem wholly adequate to describe what the organism is specifically doing when it uses its senses, as opposed to other activities.

I still believe that sensation must be concerned with "stimuli that either enhance or detract from the subject's life-quality," and that this is the foundation for all later formulations about "the good and the bad," and for the attempts of higher organisms to articulate their "gut feelings" into the full-blown affects that belong to the function of feeling. But the word "strength" doesn't work so well, even though I chose it in part to ground the feeling of sensation within the mode of dynamicity. just as the other irrational function, that of intuition, is grounded within the combinatory mode.

The activity of Creature A's sensation-function does have its "strength" associations, at least with respect to whether Creature B can be eaten, or may try to eat Creature A. And yet, there are numerous examples where there is no competitive aspect to sensing one's environment. Just moving about in the environment involves sensing what it's like. For birds it's understanding. through the senses, the currents of the air; for fish, it's understanding, through the senses, the currents of the sea, and so on.

What all sensory activities seem to hold in common is not so much strength or might but *potency.* The sea has a potency both to help a fish find its prey and to escape its predators, and that potency is realized only through the creature's senses.

I have actually uses "potency" earlier in an unrelated sense in 2014's POWER AND POTENCY, but given that I'm so thoroughly influenced by Northrop Frye, I think I would be remiss if I didn't coin at least a handful of terms that had more than one distinct meaning in my system. Also, given the relationship of the terms "kinetic" and "potential" in physics, it makes sense in literary terms for "the kinetic" to arise from something that at least sounds like "the potential."

Thus, in any future meditations about the potentiality of the kinetic:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of potency-quanta.

Friday, March 2, 2018


Perhaps predictably, given that I reviewed the MCU BLACK PANTHER this week, I decided this week's mythcomic would be the original appearance of the Marvel character.

As I recall, both Lee and Kirby claimed they formulated the Panther character in response to the American civil rights movement. Though the political troubles may have been the proximate cause for the Panther character, the two-part story has less to do with American sociological myths than with those pertaining to America's relationship with the Third World. Even in 1966, the dominant attitude of Americans toward the Third World was often-- though not always-- characterized by paternalism toward what Kipling called "our little brown brothers." In the majority of pop culture, Black African culture had not changed since the 19th century, and it consisted of nothing more than assorted backward, often superstitious tribes. The creators had already depicted other exotic civilizations within the sphere of the FANTASTIC FOUR feature, such as the Atlanteans and the Inhumans. In both of these pocket-universes, the natives commanded super-technology beyond that of regular human existence. Lee and Kirby seem to be the first to depict such a hyper-advanced civilization dominated by Black Africans, though technically the fantasy-world of Wakanda is of recent vintage.

I'll pass quickly over the events of the first half of the story. The super-quartet receives an invitation to visit the African nation Wakanda, along with the gift of a super-scientific flying ship. The heroes accept, though the Thing, always the cantankerous type, speaks for the majority of readers in associating all things African with a certain Edgar Rice Burroughs creation: "How does some refugee from a Tarzan movie lay his hands on this kinda gizmo?" The team's leader Reed Richards wonders if the mysterious Black Panther has some ulterior motive. Sure enough, the heroes-- accompanied by Johnny Storm's college-buddy Wyatt Wingfoot-- reach Wakanda, and are immediately trapped in a "techno-jungle," a complex of machines concealed beneath the African vegetation. The Panther himself introduces himself by attacking them, even though he appears to be no more than a super-athlete armed with a handful of weapons. He calls it a "hunt," suggesting a "most dangerous game" motive, but in the ensuing issue, the Panther-- not yet given the proper name "T'Challa"-- reveals that his attack was a means of testing himself against an encroaching enemy. The African chieftain skillfully outmaneuvers the superior fire-power of the four Americans, often forcing them to encounter technological traps. Ironically, another POC hero, Wyatt Wingfoot saves the day, for while the Panther is busy with the foursome, Wyatt sneaks away, knocks out the Panther's henchmen, and frees the Human Torch from captivity, so that the featured heroes recover and force their host to surrender.

Issue #53 is the richer half of the narrative. According to the backstory, Wakanda was still a basically primitive land in the Panther's own childhood, and it's been largely through the chief's efforts that it's been brought into the 20th century, and a little beyond. And ironically, this advancement came about in response to an invasion from the West.

As the Panther narrates, when he was a child his father T'Chaka ruled the tribe, and the tribe venerated a "sacred mound" composed of the unique vibration-absorbing metal, vibranium. (As a side-note, though it's likely that neither Lee nor Kirby knew anything about bonafide African mythology, it's quite possible that one of them was drawing upon the Egyptian story of the primeval mound from which life sprung.)

In contrast to the current film, there's no indication that the tribesmen had any interest in developing the metal for technological use. The impertinent Thing interrupts the story to complain that he knows just where this story is going: that "everything wuz hunky-dory until the greedy ivory hunters made the scene." Though this line would be judged politically incorrect today, in truth it represents little more than a common strategy found in Lee's writing. Often Lee would reuse commonplace pop-culture tropes and make them seem fresh by having the characters remark on how cliche they were.

In place of greedy ivory hunters, the story posits greedy vibranium hunters, led by the European-looking Klaw. He's one of the more one-dimensional Marvel villains of the Silver Age, consumed by the monomaniacal ambition to use vibranium to master sound as a weapon, and with that weapon, to master the world itself. Klaw-- Lee calls him "the unsmiling," as if to indicate his lack of affect-- personally shoots the Panther's father, ending the young boy's "hunky-dory" womb-state.

The crude weapons of the tribesmen are no match for the weapons of Klaw and his men, but Kid Panther repels their assault by turning one of their own super-weapons against them, shattering one of Klaw's hands in the process.

The story returns to the present, with the Panther telling his somewhat abused guests that within the space of his twenty-something years, he managed to build Wakanda into a techno-paradise, as well as becoming "one of the richest men in the world." It's a point of minor irony that he did so by doing something akin to what Klaw wanted to do: the Panther derived small quantities of vibranium from the mound and sold them to other nations, thus amassing his uncharacteristic wealth and power. Yet he's always known that his nemesis would return someday. Not surprisingly, Klaw chooses to return just when the Fantastic Four are still around.

The main heroes are tasked with holding off Klaw's sonic creations: two crimson-colored colossi, respectively resembling an ape and an elephant. Both Lee and Kirby gave this section of the story short shrift, for neither Kirby's visuals nor Lee's captions explain why the apparently invulnerable sound-elephant fades into nothingness just when it seems ready to stomp the Thing into orange-aid.
Their focus was on giving the readers the satisfaction of vengeance, as the Panther corners Klaw in the evil scientist's lair, and causes the lair to blow up. (Naturally, Klaw comes back again and again, often crossing swords-- or rather, his sonic arm-- against the Panther's claws.)

Lee and Kirby clearly conceived of spinning off the Panther in some fashion, since at the closing he strongly implies his plans to pursue a superheroic calling. He didn't get the chance to do so until he joined the Avengers two years later. The team-berth didn't lead to much development of the character, though by coincidence it led to a major reassessment of his mythos when the Black Panther received his own series in 1973. But that's another story.