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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...

Thursday, May 31, 2018


I’ve not yet read the majority of the “Valerian” graphic novels by Christin and Mezeries. Of the three that I have read, though, I see a number of repeated tropes, which have their best effect in the 1975 GN considered here, “Ambassador of the Shadows.”

More than any other French science-fiction comic of the period—if not of all time—the Valerian series evokes what enthusiasts of science fiction came to call “the sense of wonder.” “Shadows” begins with a prologue in which the reader sees dozens of nonhuman and quasi-human races developing on their own worlds, venturing into space, and making contact with one another. All of these assorted interactions, which writer Christin treats more as legend than as history, lead to the creation of a titanic space-satellite, “Central Point.” This grand confluence of races is a trope common to many science fiction subgenres, but is perhaps best known for its association with the  space opera subgenre. At its best, the trope conveys to readers a sense of “the extraordinary diversity of the universe,” as the 1981 English translation of "Shadows" phrases it.

That said, American space opera is often though not always dominated by tropes associated with imperialism, in which human beings are seen as the natural leaders of the universe’s nonhuman sentients. At least in the novels I’ve read, Christin and Mezeries consistently reject this world-view, often satirizing the tendency of Earthmen to assume their innate superiority. In a related trope, even though the series is named for a male “time-space agent” in the service of the Earth-rulers, Valerian’s female partner Laureline is often the center of the action, and“Shadows” is certainly one instance of this tendency. Finally, whereas most American space-operas follow very linear plots associated with finding treasures or terminating threats, the stories of Christin and Mezeries tend to be picaresque, with characters lurching from one fantastic situation to another. This quality may have hurt the recent Valerian adaptation, CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, with American audiences. (The film borrows some story-tropes from "Shadows" but is not a straight adaptation.)

Following the prologue, the story’s main action begins with Valerian and Laureline piloting their ship to Central Point. At the opening the two agents only know that they’ve been assigned to deliver Earth’s ambassador to Central Point. The ambassador is never given a name in the English translation: for my own convenience, I choose to call him “A” from now on. Just as the ship is about to dock, A—who continually treats the agents as his flunkies—reveals a secret mission. Central Point is apparently administered by a rotating leadership, rather like an interstellar United Nations, but A and his superiors plan to pull off a coup. Just as Earth assumes the rotating leadership, A will put forth a proposal to bring the various planets into a rigid federation, with the Earth-people as the “keystone.”

The agents’ reactions are telling. Valerian consistently plays the “good boy,” stressing their need to obey their superiors and making excuses for A’s snooty behavior. Laureline is the knowing rebel, who calls “bullshit” on A’s supposed beneficence. However, because of their previous experience with alien life, A chooses to entrust the agents to care for A’s ace-in-the-hole: a tiny armadillo-like alien called a “grumpy converter.” Though the precise nature of A’s coup is never disclosed, A strongly implies that he’s going to use the “grumpy”—a creature able to reproduce great quantities of monetary tokens—to bribe some of the extraterrestrials into voting for the new federation.

The coup, however, never has the chance to get started. Valerian and Laureline escort A to the Earth-segment of Central Point without incident. But just as A begins to address his fellow Earthmen in some minor rallying speech, a contingent of unfamiliar aliens breach the hull, knock down all opposition with “cocoon guns,” and abduct A. Valerian, still the dutiful son, pursues the intruders’ ship, but his heroic attempt fails and he’s simply taken prisoner alongside A, and for most of the rest of the story, the plot-action centers on Laureline. Only at this point does it become clear to a first-time reader that Laureline and Valerian are lovers. Thus the heroine is motivated to find the kidnappers not because of the Very Important Personage they’ve abducted—a personage whom Laureline doesn’t like, or approve of—but by personal affection. At least in this story, the space-opera’s celebration of “the call to duty” is minimized by Christin and Mezeries.

Most of Laureline’s potential allies have been rendered immobile by the cocoon-guns, though she picks up a “comedy relief” sidekick, Colonel Diol, who despite his rank is merely a minor functionary. However, Laureline also has the grumpy converter. She has only to feed it any monetary token, and the grumpy can reproduce the token in great quantities, sort of like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold. Further, just at a time when Laureline has no clue as to who the kidnappers were or where they’ve taken their prisoners, a trio of aliens, the “Shingouz,” show up and offer information in exchange for several pearls of great price. This becomes the leitmotif for Laureline’s picaresque journey. Centaur-men, blob-people, experts in dream-manipulation—all of them are happy to help Laureline on her way, as long as she pays them well. (Mezeries gets more than a little tragicomic effect from showing the little creature continually exhausted by the demands of the aliens, who are at least the equals of human beings in terms of sheer greed.) Only one race, the humanoid Zools, don’t seem interested in gain: having lost their own world, they serve to maintain the interstices connecting the various habitats of Central Point.

Laureline finally sees, through a dream-image, that Valerian and his ambassadorial companion have been taken to “the World of Shadows.” The unnamed inhabitants of this world knew what A and his Earth-allies planned to do, and they engaged the kidnappers to bring A into their midst. Further, they reveal to A and Valerian that they’re aware of Earth’s intentions: to back up their coup with a show of military force. The Shadow-people assert that they’re capable of destroying the Earth-forces with their “extrasensory powers,” but to make things simpler, they subject A and Valerian to brainwashing in order to bring about some kinder, gentler scheme. 

It’s never quite clear what the Shadows's design is. Laureline finally reaches the Shadow-World and manages to secure the release of the two hostages without any violence. However, it seems that the authors wanted to show that one didn’t need super-powerful aliens to effect revolution. A gets back to Ccntral Point with his two bodyguards. Yet before he can even give the speech given him by the Shadow-people, the Zools decide to institute a new, more moral regime in Central Point, and the whole Earth-contingent gets kicked off the satellite.

It's interesting that "Shadows," in contrast to the film it inspired, has very little violence. Of course, there's some real-world validity in the idea that an agent seeking information may have to spend more time reaching for his wallet than for his Walther PPK. Laureline, thanks to her access to the almost magical talents of the grumpy, fortunately has no limit on her ability to spend, and the non-violent tone of her adventures might take a different turn if her authors had denied her access to the money-making beastie. The anti-imperialist idea of foiling the Earth-people's coup carries a strong appeal, but it seems muddled by the authors' desire to provide two endings: one in which the Shadow-people monkey with the ambassador, and one in which the Zools come out of left field to further embarrass the Earth-regime. The romantic arc of Valerian and Laureline is underdeveloped given the story's insistence on their strong feelings, and the authors undercut the arc further by having Valerian fail to appreciate Laureline's efforts on his behalf. But on the whole, though the two heroes have their functions within the overall tale, they are less mythic personages than most of the aliens they encounter, or even Central Point-- which is a phenomenon I've written about in more depth in INDIVIDUAL VS. COLLECTIVE AMPLITUDE.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


One of the CBR threads informed me of this VOX article discussing the interactions of utilitarian philosophy and "deonotological philosophy" in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

Frankly, I've yet to find any MCU movies, except possibly the original IRON MAN, which articulate a coherent philosophical stance. In any case, I responded to the essay twice in the CBR thread. First:

In the essay the writer associated "the greater good" with pure, unfettered utilitarianism. I think that's an overstatement, and the writer himself brings up an extreme case of real-world utilitarianism, as well as pointing out that sooner or later Thanos will just have to start killing again. It's pretty hard to regard either example as being truly "for the greater good," particularly since the result is a total acceptance of brutality as a means to an end. 
BTW, if there's one intellectually dishonest aspect of INFINITY, it's that it doesn't really specify why Thanos thinks that galactic overpopulation is a given. At least when Ra's Al Ghul excoriates the ecological chaos of Earth, it's something readers can see for themselves.
The "no-kill" policy is often framed as a preventive to unfettered utilitarianism. Sometimes the arguments in its defense are clever; sometimes not.  But the policy isn't quite as divorced from real-world consequences as the Kantian model suggests.


 I'm not convinced that utilitarianism applies to INFINITY WAR. I think it's a big weakness of the script that the heroes have access to two stones, the destruction of which will prevent Thanos from the specific goal of destroying half the people in the universe. But OK: say that in some alternate world, the heroes succeed in destroying one or both stones, whether it costs Vision his life or not. What happens then? Thanos just shrugs his shoulders and goes home? Hah, we're talking about someone who's already wiped out multiple worlds with his space-army. No, thwarted of his goal, Thanos takes revenge and obliterates Earth.
On another thread I saw someone complain that the Wakandans were being needlessly sacrificed to protect the Vision's life. I wasn't particularly fond of the "ticking clock" trope involving the Vision. But the Wakandans are not being used as cannon-fodder. It's their bloody world too, and they've just as much reason as anyone to defeat Thanos.  Suppose the movie starts out with a pure endorsement of utilitarianism: some hero who doesn't mind "trading lives" kills Vision right off, defeating his larger goal. The menace doesn't go away; Thanos just goes after the whole world, and Wakanda's isolationism doesn't help it one damn bit. So here's another case where, in contrast to the thrust of the online essay, pure utilitarianism leaves those involved no better off than they were before.

I didn't bother pointing it out on the thread, but this 1980 issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA, written by Mike Barr, plays Captain America and the Punisher off one another as representatives of what might be called "enlightened vigilantism" vs. "unenlightened vigilantism," or what I called "unfettered utilitarianism."

Morally, Barr's story does set up its oppositions better than INFINITY WAR does. In this scene, the Punisher takes the utilitarian POV, referring to his ethic of treating the war on crime in terms of real war, while Captain America holds to a vision of moral compass, stating that there's a moral code that the "good guys" should advocate.

The upshot of the story is clearly in Cap's favor, particularly when it's revealed that one of the Punisher's "hits" on a big mob-meeting would have killed  not only real criminals, but also an undercover police agent. The Punisher escapes Cap and, to the best of my knowledge, rarely encounters such challenges to his utilitarian POV in his own title-- much as, in my own experience, the critics of the HOODED UTILITARIAN website rarely responded well to having their regressive ethics challenged.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


John Byrne's 1980s tenure on the SUPERMAN titles has almost nothing to recommend it in terms of symbolic discourse. In every way, Byrne seemed dedicated to reducing the florid creativity of the Silver Age down to his drably functional revisions. Still, his revision of the Weisinger version of Krypton was not entirely of his own invention, but was borrowed from the 1978 Richard Donner film, wherein the Man of Steel's homeworld was re-imagined as a glacial, over-technologized place.
Given Byrne's enthusiastic endorsement of the Donner Krypton in his 1980 COMICS JOURNAL interview, one might have thought he'd never want to write any stories about such an unappealing environment.

Yet the 1987 WORLD OF KRYPTON, written by Byrne and (principally) penciled by Mike Mignola, is the only time Byrne contributed anything interesting to the Superman mythos.

The story begins a thousand years before the birth of Jor-El, with Van-L, father of Jor-El. In those days, Kryptonians enjoyed near-immortality, hardly ever bothering to sire children, thanks to their advanced techniques in cloning. The opening sequence of issue #1 makes clear that most Kryptonians live a privileged life.

Clone technology makes it possible for Van-L's potential girlfriend Vara to be instantly repaired when she loses an arm in a crash. However, the ethical debate over the immorality of cloning is growing, because the clones are kept in stasis and never allowed to take on individual identities. (The "anti-clonists" use the slogan "minds for the mindless" a couple of times.) Eventually Vara-- whose name references that of Superman's mother "Lara," though she's presumably no relation-- becomes a radical "anti-clonist," and accuses her fellow citizens of being virtual "cannibals." However, what really stokes the cultural conflict-- and even leads to a series of destructive wars-- is the abuse of a clone by Nyra, the mother of one of Van-L's contemporaries, one Kan-Z.

What kind of abuse? Well, I referenced this particular taboo in my analysis of Jerry Siegel's 1960 "Superman's Return to Krypton"-- but where the taboo in that story is purely symbolic within the boundaries of the narrative, Byrne's KRYPTON makes the taboo of incest more literal. Nyra, because she does not believe any woman is good enough for her son Kan-Z, abducts one of her own clones from its facility,. Somehow she contrives to grow the clone to maturity, educate her, and give her a separate identity, all for the purpose of marrying her son to a version of herself. Kan-Z's reaction is to kill his mother and her clone, and to attempt his own death. Later Kan-Z too becomes an ally of the "clones rights" terrorists, whose most radical group is called "Black Zero," after this earlier Superman villain.  

Apparently in Byrne's world incest is worse than cannibalism, for the scandal of Nyra's deed sparks a thousand-year-war, as well as the ultimate destruction of the planet by Black Zero. As if to disavow the sybaritic lifestyle of earlier Kryptonians, the post-war Kryptonians become extreme isolationists. They no longer need clones to extend their lifetimes, having invented other anti-aging techniques, but they've become the inhumanly glacial humanoids seen in Donner's film and Byrne's rewrites.

Mignola's art is consistently gorgeous, but Byrne's ability to invest his characters with dramatic heft is seriously lacking. However, I will give props to the schematic sociological myth he devises for Krypton: first too sensuous, then too abstemious. This stratagem succeeds in characterizing the homeworld of DC:s pre-eminent hero in terms of unpleasant extremes, as against the "divine middle" embodied by the Planet Earth.

Given Byrne's tendency to rewrite earlier stories. it's not hard for me to believe that he caught onto the way Jerry Siegel concealed the quasi-incestuous theme of his story by giving Superman's Kryptonian lover the name "Lyla Lerrol," a shuffling of the name "Lara," Byrne thus creates both a bad mother and a not-so-good girlfriend, Nyra and Vara, before introducing the "good mother" who will make possible the birth of a "savior" of sorts. Byrne doesn't devote nearly as much attention to the two main male characters, dramatically or symbolically. Van-L's name doesn't seem to hold any strong associations, though an old SUPERBOY story does state that one of Superboy's ancestors is named "Val-El." As for "Kan-Z," I can't help but note that his name resembles that of the American heartland where the infant Kal-El ends up; i.e., "Kansas." But the latter confluence may not have been consciously intended.


In recent weeks SYFY has debuted a teleseries devoted to Superman's homeworld, so it seems a good time to descant on the subject of Krypton.

Though "Man Who Destroyed Krypton" is executed by Otto Binder and Al Plastino, two regulars in editor Mort Weisinger's stable, the story's also an early example of a comic-book "retcon." Usually in the Weisinger-verse, newer stories rewrote older ones with no concern as to what had been established before. However, this time there seems to be a marked attempt to play to fannish ideas of "continuity" by proposing a new paradigm-- though it was one that largely renounced by both fans and later professionals.

Oddly, the tale begins with Superman learning of an extraterrestrial menace from mundane law enforcement authorities. Through their sources, the top cops have established that an alien operative, Black Zero, plots to destroy the Earth. Superman locates the alien, who has a bit of news for the Kryptonian. Years ago, Zero was sent to destroy Krypton because his bosses, a planetary combine called "the Pirate Empire," feared the planet's culture could prove a threat to their conquering aims. Before he even tried to eradicate the world, though, Zero encountered the warnings of Jor-El, to the effect that the world was already on the brink of destruction. Zero checked things out, and found that Jor-El was wrong, but that the nuclear reaction inside the planet could be re-started. Thus, Black Zero, rather than cruel fate, was responsible for billions of dead Kryptonians.

Thus, Superman's mission becomes twofold: he must both save the Earth and capture the destroyer of Krypton. (Preumably Zero has destroyed other worlds for the Empire as well, though somehow these other worlds are never mentioned.) Zero eludes the Man of Steel, but the hero receives help from one of the Phantom Zone prisoners: Jax-Ur, who was in Silver Age SUPERMAN stories was usually framed as the brains behind the other Kryptonian criminals. Jax-Ur and the other Zone crooks are genuinely desirous of vengeance for their homeworld, and they persuade Superman to release Jax-Ur alone, after he swears a criminal's oath not to double-cross the hero.

Naturally, Superman succeeds in thwarting Zero's plans for Earth, and Jax-Ur gets the chance to take the vengeance that Superman won't take: turning Black Zero into a stone statue and then smashing it to bits.

The story's most interesting myth-moment is not so much the rewriting of Jor-El's doomsaying-- which, as I said, most fans did not like and which most pros ignored-- but the fact that the theme seems to be "set a genocidal madman to catch a genocidal madman." For Jax-Ur is sent to the Phantom Zone for a sort of "accidental genocide," in that he's testing a missile and unintentionally destroys a Kryptonian moon inhabited by 500 people. Binder's story does not reflect on Jax-Ur's past history, but since Binder created the story in which Jax-Ur first appeared, it's at least feasible that he remembered that bit of continuity-trivia when he chose Jax-Ur to be Superman's ally.

Monday, May 21, 2018


I've just written a very brief exploration of Poe's PIT AND THE PENDULUM, but wanted to expand on the subject on my theory-blog to further explore the remarks made in OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER PT. 2., where I said:

...I briefly touched on Rene Clair's silent film THE CRAZY RAY for purpose of contrast, saying that, unlike the Destroyed Earth, the focal presence of the Crazy Ray really was the source of "chaos on a global scale," and that in itself would argue a similitude with the persona of the monster. This also applies to other non-sentient phenomena that get out of control, whether they are objects created by man...or have come into being through geologic processes...

In my Poe-fragment I noted:

 ...whereas a setting like the House of Usher has become monstrous simply by dint of absorbing the nature of the corrupt Usher family, the prison-cell that encloses both the Pit and the Pendulum has been designed to be monstrous by its creators, the torturers of the Inquisition.

That said, I don't think of the Cell with the Pit and the Pendulum as a focal presence. Rather, the story's focal presences are the Inquisitors, the conscious architects of the cleverly designed torture-device, just as the Ushers, the unconscious architects of the titular House of Usher, are the focal presences of their story.

There are, however, other Poe stories in which a "non-sentient phenomenon" is the star of the show. The great storm of A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM, which is uncanny only in terms of the "natural science" Poe attributes to it, rates in my system as a "monster." The naturalistic sketch-story THE ISLAND OF THE FAY, however, presents a "demiheroic" physical setting upon which the unnamed narrator projects both his desires for innocent happiness and his fears of doleful death.


In CREATOR AND CREATED ENSEMBLED HE THEM I sussed out the centricities of various "mad scientists" and their creations. In Stevenson's DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, Jekyll's alter ego Hyde has the greatest centricity, and is therefore the story's focal presence. In Wells' ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, the beast-men creations of the scientist are less central to the story than Moreau himself, and so he takes the position of the focal presence. However, in Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, both the creator and his creation share the spotlight.

From these books, it should be clear that the title of a feature doesn't indicate the focal presence, and as I've noticed elsewhere, this is equally true in other media. As others before me have noted, the Universal Frankenstein series is principally about the monster, while the Hammer series concentrates on the scientist.

This principle applies across the board to many comics-features. BATMAN started as a concept with just one focal presence. But the addition of Robin, BATMAN became known as an ensemble of two focal presences for the next twenty-odd years. After Robin went away to college, the serial feature frequently alternated between Batman on his own, and Batman rejoined with a new Robin, though some of the Robin-rebirths didn't go so well.

I would tend to say that whenever a comics-feature presented a team-mate as an "equal partner," then that partner, however nugatory he might be as a character, became an equal focal presence in the feature. Yet this sense of equality had to flow more from the creators' attitude toward the character than from the character's representation in the stories. As a contrary example, the comic strip introduced "Junior" to the DICK TRACY in 1932, and the youth got more than a fair number of storylines devoted to him. But he was not treated as an equal partner, and so he remained one of the main character's support-cast.

In the terminology I've introduced here, then, Robin has a transitive effect in terms of his centricity, so that he's centric to the action even in stories where he has no significant role. Junior, though, has an intransitive effect in terms of centricity. Whole story-arcs can be centered on him, but he's never really the focus, but rather a reason for central character Tracy to take action. Tracy is always the "common thread" of the stories, even if he doesn't appear that much in a given arc, much the same way that Will Eisner's Spirit is that feature's common thread even in stand-alone stories where the masked detective barely appears.

Titles of movies and movie-serials are similarly deceptive. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR picks up story-lines that are established in other movies, particularly AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and Captain America shares the stage with about eleven other costumed characters. Yet the other Avengers and hangers-on are in the same position as Junior in the DICK TRACY strip: intransitive. The main thrust of the story focuses on two aspects of Captain America's personal cosmos: the fate of his old friend Bucky Barnes, and the need to keep himself and his fellow superheroes free of government oversight (which attitude is to a slight extent justified by the events of INFINITY WAR). The other heroes of CIVIL WAR are more in the nature of "guest stars" than supporting characters-- even the Falcon, who had the status of an equal partner during a brief period of the CAPTAIN AMERICA comic book, but did not achieve that status in the movie series.

But though the title of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR correctly foregrounds the fact that it's a Captain America film in a series of Captain America movies, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is not focused only upon the Avengers in the diegesis. The title in this case only functions to provide a semblance of continuity with the 2012 AVENGERS film, but in structure the story is just as much a sequel to the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY film. INFINITY WAR's structure is directly patterned upon one of Jim Starlin's many superhero smorgasbords, which in turn owes its lineage to early multi-character mashups like Marvel's SECRET WARS. To be sure, not every character in such mashups is necessarily a focal presence. For instance, Shadowcat's quasi-pet Lockheed the Dragon, who was never a focal presence in the X-MEN titles, did not become one just because he also took part in SECRET WARS. He would still be intransitive in terms of centricity, just like Junior Tracy-- but almost every other hero in the story would be a focal presence, whether that hero played a large or small part in the story. (CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS also tosses in many hero-cameos that simply don't register high in terms of centricity.)

But INFINITY WAR doesn't have those niggling problems, and so all the featured heroes of the Avengers and the Guardians groups are focal, as is the one solo act, Doctor Strange, making a total of nineteen focal presences in all. The only characters who aren't part of the ensemble are those who weren't ever focal in other films: "helper-types" like Nick Fury, Wong, et al.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


While reading some online Golden Age comics courtesy of the site COMIC BOOK PLUS, I investigated the now-obscure company known as "Chesler/Dynamic." Scarcely any of the superheroes published by Chesler became renowned, even within the small enclave of Golden Age enthusiasts, but one character caught my eye because he (almost) fits my parameters for the concept of "potency" as expressed in earlier sections of this essay-series.

MAJOR VICTORY didn't create much fuss in his time. He only had about four-five adventures, and though he appeared in three issues of his own comic, all of the Major's stories in the comic were reprints of stuff that had appeared earlier, particularly in DYNAMIC COMICS, where the Major almost lost the cover-spot to Chesler's hero "Dynamic Man."

Nevertheless, he had an interesting origin. Unlike many costumed heroes, Victory never has a name. He's introduced as a guard at a wartime facility. A saboteur breaks in, and the guard sacrifices himself trying (and failing) to defuse the saboteur's bomb.

Simply coming back from the dead was nothing special even in the 1940s, nor was it unusual to see a revival take place thanks to some celestial presence with some vague patriotic appeal-- this one being "Father Patriot," who I guess is the propaganda-version of "Father Christmas." Anyway, the mentor revives the heroic no-name and gives a flag-themed costume, resources, and a superhero name so that he can go forth and battle the Axis evil. It's a decent enough costume, but one wrinkle I for one have rarely encountered. Major Victory has no powers here. He shows off admirable athleticism as he boards a plane and manages to take out an enemy squadron--

But he had no real powers as such, unlike comparable types like Kid Eternity and the Fighting Yank.

To be sure, there's one incident when Victory gets his strength ramped up by hearing a simulacrum of the Liberty Bell. But this seems to have been a toss-off, not integral to the original idea, particularly since he doesn't use the super-strength for the remainder of the story.

So if one were going to ignore the temporary super-strength and focus only on what makes the Major "marvelous," it would be the fact that he's come back from the dead, Since he tries to avoid getting shot or falling from great heights, the implication is that he can't come back to life ever again, either in his original body or another one. So he's marvelous not in terms of his personal powers, but in what might called an "existential" sense: the fact that he's a man alive when he shouldn't be. This provides a strong parallel to the line of thought in POWER AND POTENCY PT. 3, where I discussed various time-traveling protagonists whose only "super power" was that of existing in a time-frame where they never would have existed, except for a time-travel device. I will attempt to explore these parallels in the concepts of potency at a later time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


In my essay on the EC Coniics story "Daddy Lost His Head," I remarked that the story had a bit of a "pro-feminist outlook." The tale, credited to artist Jack Kamen and co-scripters Al Feldstein and William Gaines, concerned a little girl named Kathy who was tyrannized by her bad stepfather. Ab old woman with the suggestive name of "Mrs. Thaumaturge" gives Kathy a magical helping hand, with the result that her bad dad loses his head in a non-figurative fashion. Apparently the editors at Fantagraphics liked the title of the story, since said title featured in one of the company's selective reprints of the EC oeuvre. 

To be sure, EC probably wouldn't win any awards from modern feminists, as their stories of horror and suspense were often filled to the brim with trampy ladies and cheating wives (for instance, Kamen and Feldstein's "Piecemeal," printed a couple of years later). Since all or most of the EC personnel were men, it's not surprising that their stories played to male fears or insecurities-- which, to a pluralist critic like myself, is all to the good.

Over a year after "Daddy" appeared in print, some unbilled creator or creators produced a horror-story for a lesser-known company, Superior Comics. "Crawling Evil" seems like a deliberate inversion of Kathy's psychological situation, one that exacerbates male anxieties by portraying women who use their witchiness for evil rather than self-defense.

The splash page for "Evil" is crudely drawn but captures the raw vitality of a free-flowing imagination. If it were less formulaic in its construction, the narrative might be indicative of a trampling fetish, though the subject's a moot point since the creators-- credited simply as "the Iger Shop" in Craig Yoe's HAUNTED LOVE reprint-- will probably never be identified. (Curiously, though, Bradford Wright's COMIC BOOK NATION states that sadomasochistic images were common in the Iger Shop, and that much of the work was produced by women.)

The story's opening puts an emphasis on femininity as a source of evil. Here main character Lorna is just a little girl when she witnesses her granny-- also her only parental figure-- spit at some male road-workers who are just minding their own business, though it's clear that Granny has a reputation for the "evil eye." Lorna asks her grandma for an explanation, and the otherwise unnamed beldame tells Lorna that she wishes all men were dead because one of them left Granny at the altar. The old woman still made a marriage of convenience to a "spineless fool," and that before Lorna's grandfather died, they gave birth to Lorna's father, who is now also dead. No mention is made of Lorna's mother or any maternal relations, but clearly Granny is the only woman in her life. Lorna immediately feels indignation against all men like her granny does, and begins destroying her male dolls while Granny cackles triumphantly.

By the next page Lorna's a young woman and Granny's dying, but the old bat hates men so much, she won't even call for the local male doctor. Strangely, despite having converted Lorna to her man-hating religion, Granny waits till she's on the death-bed to reveal a greater secret, that she's concealed a book of witch-magic behind the fireplace. Granny also warns Lorna of some unspecified "danger" but kicks the bucket before telling Lorna what it is.

Lorna, who unlike her granny has never had a man romance her, throws all of her libido into becoming a self-taught witch. A stranger comes to her door, seeking shelter, and Lorna decides to try her magic on him. She kisses him while mentally reciting the Latin phrase "dies irae et dies ilia"-- which, rather comically, is taken from the first lines of a popular Roman Catholic hymn, and simply means "day of wrath and day of doom." The man is transformed into a crawling victim of the evil spell, and Lorna kills him, not by stomping on him, but crushing him in the pages of her magic book.

Lorna's next act is to bid farewell to the local yokels by driving her car at a road-crew like the one she and her granny met years ago. She apparently injures no one in that incident, but this act sets her on a whirlwind tour of man-hating murder, wherein a caption tells us that "Lorna wandered the world over, always hating men-- and living off them!" Page six makes her modus operandi clear: she charms men into spending money on her, and then kisses them, transforming them into worms. On this page the mature Lorna is finally seen performing the trample-fetish on one of her victims.

Lorna also keeps traveling to avoid being suspected by any local cops, and it's clear that she "squishes" more than a few more lovers, though for the climax to work, she must leave a lot of them alive, to suffer their fate. Then, Lorna's normal libido finally overtakes her perverted habits. She dates a square citizen named Dan, falls in love with him, but refuses to let him kiss her magically tainted lips. He steals a kiss when she's sleeping, and he devolves into wormdom. Worse, when Lorna wakes up she steps on poor old Dan. Distraught, she takes poison to punish herself. But the worms that she didn't squash have waited to have their turn.

I should point out that though I naturally saw the phallic implications of the worm-forms, other online fans have been more imaginative. One pointed out that killing the first victim between the pages of the witch-book might also count as getting crushed within the female "danger zone" (my term), while another fan thought that the sight of the worms swarming all over dying Lorna might be construed as "killer sperm," finally having their way with the man-hater.

While "Crawling Evil" is obviously too brain-fried a story ever to be popular with most comics-fans, it may be the source of a considerably inferior spoof by Daniel Clowes, "Crawl, Worm," seen in an inset picture on the cover of a 1988 LLOYD LLEWELLYN comic. Clowes' story is markedly inferior to the original Iger Shop tale in every way, except that Clowes is much better at being superficially supercilious.

Thursday, May 10, 2018


Following the Silver Surfer's 1966 debut in The Galactus Trilogy, the character became a peripatetic guest-star in assorted Marvel features, with the exception of his one starring role in the backup tale of FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #5. As I noted in my essay on the Trilogy, the SF-trope of menacing Earth or some comparable planet with a world-destroying being had been done before, The Trilogy, however, succeeds in infusing the story of Galactus and his rebellious herald with a dense level of symbolism, largely drawn from Judeo-Christian mythology. However, the Trilogy also offers a more mundane point of interest for fans of Silver Age Marvel, given that it's the one time in the history of the Lee-Kirby collaboration that Lee unequivocably credited Kirby with inventing one of the characters totally on his own, repeatedly asserting that the Silver Surfer appeared in the story sans any input from Stan Lee.

Without rehashing the many facets of the Lee-Kirby history, suffice to say that when the Surfer appeared, he had no explicit origin. He's consistently portrayed by Lee and Kirby as an alien humanoid, who, much like Galactus, is beyond human comprehension, and who shares none of the emotions known to Earth-people. From a "Skrull's-eye" view given to the reader, it appears that the Surfer has existed for some time as Galactus's herald, and it seems implicit that in the past the silver-hued, surfboard-riding extraterrestrial has guided his gargantuan master to devour planets that may have been inhabited. Certainly the Surfer evinces no initial compunction about drawing Galactus to the Earth, and only within the course of the narrative does he develop a conscience against killing, which brings about his opposition to his master and the Surfer's concomitant exile to the Planet Earth.

Reportedly Jack Kirby had conceived an origin for the Surfer, and he was not pleased when Stan Lee, working with John Buscema, presented his own origin for the hero in SILVER SURFER #1. To my knowledge, Kirby never spelled out exactly what his intended origin would have looked like, but clearly it would have proceeded from the initial idea that the Surfer was distinctly not human. Lee must have been on the same page with this conception back in the day, for in FANTASTIC FOUR #55, the Thing picks a fight with the Surfer out of jealousy over Alicia Masters, and Mister Fantastic tries to tell his partner that the Surfer doesn't even understand human modes of expression because "he isn't even human." I've theorized that some of Kirby's original concept was possibly recycled into 1978's SILVER SURFER graphic novel, the last collaboration of Lee and Kirby. Although the dialogue establishes that the story is "in continuity" with the origin given by Lee in the 1968 tale, there are suggestions that the Surfer may be, like other characters in the GN, an emanation from Galactus's own being, not unlike the stories of angels being directly manifested by the Will of God.

But in 1968, Lee distances himself from Kirby's 'science-fiction angel." It appears that Lee wanted to humanize the Surfer, probably to make the character more relatable to the average comics-buyer. At the same time, clearly Lee wanted the Surfer's debut to be perceived as an event, since the story premiered in a 25-cent "book-length" format to start, though by issue #8 the feature was retooled for the 15-cent market and kept that status until cancellation at issue *18. Lee had received approbation from his fans for the philosophical musings of the Surfer and other Marvel characters, so it's likely he thought that the SURFER title was a chance to see if the audience would support a continuing character with an extremely heavy philosophical attitude.

For the first six pages of SILVER SURFER #1, the protagonist evinces the same speechifyin' tendencies seen in his earlier appearances. He rails against the "unforgivable insanity" of the human race with whom he's been consigned to dwell, and speaks of humans' "hatred, fear, and unreasoning hostility." He's met with animus even when he rescues astronaut John Jameson from a watery death, which is certainly a patent reference to one of the earliest feats of Lee's most popular martyr-hero, Spider-Man. Then on page seven, the Surfer begins recollecting what his life was like before he was the Surfer-- and this remembrance of things past, though occasionally interrupted by present-day interludes, forms the bulk of the story.

Lee's retconned Surfer is still an alien, but one with an entirely mortal nature. In that life, the Surfer was Norrin Radd, a native of Zenn-La. Despite the resemblance of the planet's name to that of James Hilton's pacifistic paradise Shangri-La, Zenn-La is drawn from the science-fiction trope of the overcivilized civilization, one whose inhabitants are supported by such glorious technology that they need do nothing but live in sybaritic stagnation. But here Lee reverses the formula of the Surfer inveighing against the savagery of Earth-people, for the mortal Norrin is discontent with the complacence of his people, observing that "those to whom no distant horizons beckon-- for whom no challenges remain-- though they have inherited a universe, they possess only empty sand." His girlfriend Shalla Bal, also introduced for the first time here, is as happy as any other Zenn-Lavian with their unchanging status. Norrin alone mourns the loss of real history: of his ancestors' renunciation of warfare, of the dawning of an Age of Reason, and, most relevant to Norrin, the culture's era of space-exploration. 

However, an invader appears to menace the peaceful world. Since the locals have forgotten how to practice eternal vigilance, they fall back on their sole defense: a great super-weapon. The use of the weapon wrecks half the planet, but the invader's craft takes no harm at all. Norrin, though he has no method of retaliation, chooses to confront the invader in a spacecraft, if only to learn what menaces his world. He gets more than he bargains for.

Galactus, possibly impressed by Norrin's courage, deigns to justify his planet-devouring proclivities with one of Lee's best lines: "If your own life depended upon stepping on an ant hill-- you would not hesitate." When Norrin continues to plead for the lives of his people, Galactus happens to mention that he would be willing to spare living  beings if he had a herald capable of searching out worlds that could nourish a world-destroyer's appetite, but without intelligent life. Norrin responds by offering his services to the planet-eater, even though it means cutting all ties with his mortal existence. 

At the same time, though Norrin gives up his beloved to become the Silver Surfer, cutting ties with Zenn-La doesn't seem to affect him much. In this quasi-Faustian bargain, the hero loses the girl but he pursues a higher passion: the exploration of the universe's ceaseless wonders. However, though in this iteration the compassionate Surfer is able to guide his master away from some planets with intelligent life, he's unable to keep Galactus from imperiling Earth because the master just happens to be really hungry. In other words, Lee exonerates the Surfer from the deeds of his earlier, indifferent-alien persona, and ends the story by having the depressed alien state to the reader that "my destiny still lies before me."

I've omitted the interludes, though one of them is interesting because it shows the Surfer musing in "Ozymandias" fashion on a long-dead civilization. To be sure, Lee isn't interested in cosmic relativism. In this story at least, Lee celebrates the period of civilization in which people are still young and vital, yet wise enough to renounce war and pursue the goal of enlightened exploration. It's  not a particularly deep proposition, but there's a germ of a good idea in it that could be given more sophisticated treatment. The biggest problem with Lee's retcon of the Surfer is that the character's constant jeremiads against violence were not likely to prove popular with an audience that wanted to enjoy spectacles of violence. Most Marvel heroes in those days showed some reluctance to fight, but once they were pressed to do so, they were usually allowed to feel moments of triumph for overcoming a powerful opponent. The Surfer, awash in his ongoing Christ-complex, could never take satisfaction in his victories, and this-- perhaps more than the feature's almost total lack of humor-- may have spelled doom to the first outing of the silver-hued sky-rider.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


Having just viewed and reviewed an obscure Zorro-derivative swashbuckler-flick, TERROR OF THE RED MASK, its slightly offbeat narrative construction leads me to expatiate on the transitive effect once more.

First, when I call RED MASK "offbeat," I'm not saying that there's anything original about this low-budget potboiler. As I remarked in the review, it's a little unusual to see the ostensible star of an adventure-film not play the titular masked avenger, but not quite unheard of. In the 1940 serial THE GREEN ARCHER, the top-billed Victor Jory gets the most lines, as a two-fisted insurance investigator looking into the strange goings-on at a castle haunted by the phantom-like "Green Archer." And yet, Jory's character is not really the focal presence of the story, which centers on the identity of the mysterious archer and his relationship to the crooks hiding in said castle. The insurance guy can fight well and proves more than a little ingenious, but the story is not about his character meeting a challenge, but about the mystery that challenges him. There are also a wide number of other serials in which a titular hero or heroine is aided by a figure I'll term an "ally," who isn't central enough to the story's melding of plot and character to be considered a focal presence. Indeed, in the case of a serial like PERILS OF NYOKA, the heroine's ally (played  by future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore) does more fighting and shooting than the top-billed heroine, but she's ineluctably the star of the show.

The story of TERROR OF RED MASK, though, is about the struggle of a skilled but otherwise ordinary mercenary, Lex Barker's Marco, to decide whether he'll devote his services to a well-heeled but evil ruler, or side with the freedom-fighters commanded by the mysterious Red Mask. The film emphasizes Marco's choice, and the revelation of the masked crusader's identity proves secondary. I would assume that the scriptwriters churned out this routine effort out of half-remembered storylines taken as much from Robert Louis Stevenson as from Johnston McCulley, but because they didn't follow the McCulley model as stringently as most Zorro-type flicks, it becomes MY challenge to ask whether or not this story with a masked avenger who is NOT the main star qualifies for inclusion in the superhero idiom.

Drawing on the line of logic I used in THIRD PRESENCE, PERIPHERAL, the answer is "no," though not without some qualifications.

In that essay, I observed that even works that had both metaphenomenal content and a struggle between high-dynamicity opponents might not always qualify for inclusion in the superhero idiom. In that essay, I wrote the following of the obscure oater PHANTOM OF THE RANGE:

The only metaphenomenality in either PHANTOM OF THE RANGE or its remake is that the crooks hire a henchman to pose as a ghost-- albeit in one of the least convincing disguises of all time.

Because the phony ghost adds no power to the villains-- the main hero doesn't even contend with the ghost, who is shot by his confederates-- his slight metaphenomenal presence does not activate the transitive effect, 

For similar reasons, I would say that even though the red-masked ally in the swashbuckler qualifiesa as a metaphenomenal presence, and even though the Red Mask has, unlike the phony ghost in the old western, considerable dynamicity, there's still a "disconnect" that keeps the transitive effect "in neutral." Even though the Red Mask becomes an ally to the centric hero Marco by the picture's conclusion, the ally's metaphenomenal nature does not transfer to Marco, and so Marco's story is, like that of the cowboy-hero in PHANTOM OF THE RANGE, an isophenomenal arc.

In conclusion, thus far I've come across one example of a fictional work in which a metaphenomenal ally did transfer his charisma to an isophenomenal centric hero, and that's 1925's DON Q, SON OF ZORRO.  But in that case the transitive effect is strengthened by the fact that DON Q is a direct sequel to MARK OF ZORRO, so that the later film-- like its main character-- would have not have existed except for the activities of its patrilineal predecessor.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


A CBR post alleges that some people had complained about BLACK PANTHER being "anti-white," albeit with no links to people actually saying this.

I've just posted this.

Is BLACK PANTHER "anti-white?"

Well, certainly the politics of the film, positing an African fantasy-civilization that did not suffer the depredations of Europeans, is only viable because of "white guilt" over real-world depredations. (No mention of "brown guilt" on the part of the Muslim peoples who organized the majority of the slave trade, naturally.) But alluding to "white guilt" is not the same as projecting an "anti-white" attitude.

However, suppose you have a movie of dominantly white characters in which one of the sympathetic characters calls two full-grown black men "black boys."

That movie would be no more, and no less, "anti-black" than BLACK PANTHER is "anti-white."

That said, I'm glad this subject was raised. I just finished discussing political correctness with my brother-in-law, who took the position that the "P.C." mentality was really about politeness, about encouraging Americans to treat people the way they want to be treated-- an argument I've encountered on this forum a few times.

Had it occurred to me then, I could have brought BLACK PANTHER up as a perfect refutation. Mild though the film's reverse-racism is, it still demonstrates that for P.C. people, courtesy is a one-way street.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


I don't know how often Jay Kinney and Paul Mavrides collaborated, but GCD comments that they'd used this story's two main characters in previous works.

The Mavrides cover to this issue of ANARCHY COMICS is only related to its lead story in a loose thematic manner, depicting a futuristic armageddon in which humankind has been reduced to the status of cavepeople in the Big City.

Though the story must take place in the 1980s, given that satellite TV is available, the script clearly riffs on the 1950s enthusiasm for atomic-bomb shelters. Crotchety Bud Tuttle is first seen seated in one such bunker, eating from his ten-year supply of granola while waiting to behold "the Big One" via his satellite-dish hookup. However, the only nuclear strikes in the story appear in simulations run at the ironically named "Martin Luther King U.S. Missile Research Lab." Dritz Bodkin, a neighbor to cranky Bud, drives home from the lab, ready to chill out for the weekend.

He does encounter "fallout" of a sort, though, for a bunch of refrigerators come hurtling down upon the freeway where Dritz drives. These weapons of conspicuous consumption are flung by the Breatharyan Liberation Front, a group of emaciated fellows who believe that human beings ought to subsist on air rather than food (a spoof of a real-life group, the "Breatharians," who claimed to be able to subsist for long periods without food intake).

Back at the bunker, Bud is watching signs of the impending Apocalypse on his TV, like this one:

Unfortunately, Dritz, driving with a refrigerator on top of his hood, smashes into Bud's satellite dish. Bud is so busy raging at Dritz that when a garage band begins producing a cacophonous noise, Bud mistakes the racket for air raid sirens and jumps back into the bunker. Dritz, just as panicked, follows, only to find that Bud has locked them in for ten years. For six of those ten years, the two goofs live on water and granola. Then the automatic hatch opens and the two of them make their way to the surface. They find that the Breatharyans have taken power, at least locally, and that as soon as Dritz offers the locals some of his granola, the anti-food people run yelling for cops.

Bud and Dritz fall in with two of the competing TV-preachers seen earlier, Jesus and the Anti-Christ (the one without the thorn-crown and halo), who, along with Mary Magdalene, are also fleeing the cops. Before the cops even show up, though, the Rapture ensues, taking all the believers up to Glory. (Jesus remarks "I'm glad to be rid of those sanctimonious creeps.")

But the Rapture isn't the only game in town. The People's Guard shows up, boasting that they can now establish a "classless society" with all the believers gone. Jesus and the Anti-Christ get into a fistfight, and then two more beings from pagan armageddons, the Midgard Serpent and Siva the Destroyer, get in on the act. Bud and Dritz retreat back to their bunker, taking one cow with them so that they can have milk with their granola.