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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, December 25, 2020

DEPARTMENT OF COMICS CURIOSITIES

I happened to be paging through the early issues of the Golden Age Captain America, when I came to issue #14 (1942), and found myself face to face with-- The Yellow Claw!

But he had nothing to do with the 1950s character, whom Steranko and others revived for Marvel Comics, much less anything to do with the 1915 Sax Rohmer novel of that title.


Here's the first "Marvel" Yellow Claw:




He's got no backstory, though he makes one remark about Americans, so presumably he's not one. He's just a weird masked dude who kills people with poisoned flowers, and who is brought to heel by Captain America and Bucky. 


And that's about all there is to say about him!


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

NULL-MYTHS: REAL BOUT HIGH SCHOOL (1998-2001)

 




I don’t know how closely the manga REAL BOUT HIGH SCHOOL follows the source novels, but if the former is an accurate reflection of the latter, then the manga-artists can’t be blamed for the overall messiness of the concept.


I’ve remarked here that BOUT falls into a popular tradition wherein teenagers go to high school not to get grades and learn things but to have a microcosm set apart from adult life, where the teens can enjoy romantic hookups and play crazy games. BOUT takes place at the fictional Daimon High, where the principal allows the students to engage in full-contact martial arts battles for no particular reason. On some level BOUT may be a spoof of Japanese students’ enthusiasm for all sorts of school clubs, not least those revolving around martial training, since this has been the subject of many other manga, including YAWARA and BATTLE CLUB.


In addition, though the students of Daimon High are many decades removed from the ancient traditions of medieval Japan, one of the most high-profile students there, Ryoko Mitsurugi, sincerely wants to attain the superior attitude of a samurai, even if she’s only armed with a non-fatal kendo sword. Though she’s not a contentious person by nature, she has enough pride to get pulled into the Daimon tradition of “K-fights.” She also has some minor romantic travails, mostly with an obstreperous brawler named Shizuka. It’s not clear whether Ryoko has any real erotic feeling for Shizuka, and his apparent passes at her seem largely to spring out of his tendency to trash-talk everyone. But she gets in minor fights with Shizuka at almost every opportunity, leading to a big culminating battle between the two of them in the last volume.



The manga boasts a few strong early scenes in which Ryoko tries to suss out how to be a “great woman” in the modern world, and even the crazy principal has an interesting moment, when he reflects that for the Japanese, their own society takes the place of a watchful God. But halfway through the manga-continuity, the story goes off the rails. Ryoko takes a bunch of girl vigilantes under her wing, and they spend a lot of time fighting various ill-defined rowdies. In the early episodes BOUT seems to be about as naturalistic as a martial-arts adventure can be. Then in later episodes Shizuka and other characters show themselves capable of manipulating “chi” in order to perform uncanny feats of might, though Ryoko still just has her kendo sword to fight with.


At best, BOUT has a few amusing moments appropriate to its farcical concept, and it’s short enough that anyone who decides to read it won’t be wasting much time.

MYTHCOMICS: [“LIMIT,’] (NISEKOI, 2015?)

 



The most symbolically ambitious long arc in NISEKOI (examined more fully here) consists of sixteen chapters, each of which sports a one-word title. Since the arc isn’t given any special designation, I’ll name the arc by the chapter-title that seems most to embody the narrative content. The chapter “Limit” is so called because one of the characters uses the term in that section, but the term recurs late in the story, and it’s possible to imagine that the arc is a melodramatic meditation on the nature of physical and mental limitations, on the necessity of both surrendering to and transcending them.




Most mythcomics within the romance-comedy genres center upon the male and female leads, who in NISEKOI are the high-schoolers Raku Ichijo and Chitoge Kirisaki. “Limit,” however, centers upon one of the characters of the serial’s subordinate ensemble, Marika Tachibana. I’ve mentioned in my overview of the series that the two leads and most of their support-cast knew one another as children, and that most of them forgot that acquaintance until meeting again in high school. Marika is one of the exceptions. She’s a sickly child, and Raku’s friendship to her in childhood causes her to dedicate her life to overcoming her weaknesses, in order to mold herself into the perfect woman for Raku once they’re in their adolescence. I also observed that Marika is somewhat similar to Chitoge in being given to extreme behavior, and that Marika’s father was a police chief, in marked contrast to the parents of Raku and Chitoge. Their families are both loosely associated with underworld activities, though not of an order that has any impact on the series’ comical aspects, so that no major “cops and robbers” conflict ever manifests. But in “Limit” readers also learn that Marika’s mother belongs to an aristocratic Japanese family, and that maternal influence proves far more pernicious than that of the lords of the gangsters.





Whereas the sham romance portrayed by Raku and Chitoge eventually blossoms into the real thing, Marika doesn’t get any such escape from the fate of being a Tachibana woman. In “Limit” artist Naoshi Komi provides a brief overview of this aristocratic family, one in which for centuries all of the women are born sickly and are largely confined to their own aristocratic world. Given the structure of Japanese society, Komi can’t very well claim that the Tachibanas are matrilineal, but he implies it, by stating that the sickly Tachibana women nevertheless control the family in all eras. Marika’s mother, Chika Tachibana, is said to value her daughter only as a means of continuing the aristocratic line, though she allows her daughter to attend regular high school and to attempt to win over her childhood love Raku. Failing that alliance, Marika is expected to return home and to marry a much older man in order to preserve the Tachibana bloodline, turning her back on the world of youth and becoming a virtual duplicate of her mother. Marika’s destiny is to take part in a real arranged marriage, while Raku and Chitoge are obliged only to play-act at a possible unison.




In earlier eras Japanese children were raised to consider such marriages inevitable. Raku’s generation is thoroughly modernized, so all of Marika’s schoolmates are aghast at her fate. These children of 21st-century Japan are almost utterly out of contact with the traditions of old Japan. They know ninjas only from pop culture and are surprised when they learn that the Tachiabanas have their own private ninja guard. They go to Shinto shrines to have their fortunes told, but their real temples are game arcades and soba shops. Marika is the only one truly rooted in the traditions of Medieval Japan, and she wants no part of them. Unfortunately, she’s a secondary character in the story of Raku and Chitoge, and in romances like this one, the race does not go to the most desperate.




Still, friendship has its value too. Because of her ill-defined illness (loosely compared to anemia), Marika is abducted back to her mother’s domicile, where Chika calls the tune and even her husband gets consigned to the dungeon if he talks back. But Marika has a resourceful rich-girl friend, one Shinohara, and she alerts Marika’s high-school buddies as to Marika’s sad fate. Chitoge, the girl who most often quarreled with Marika, leads the intrepid high-schoolers on a quest to liberate the Tachibana heir. What results is sort of a cross between the climax of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE—the visual quote of the church-scene is pretty unmistakable—and one of Japan’s “ninja war” spectacles. Yet though Marika needs help from her friends, there’s still a great deal of emphasis on the young woman’s determination to defy her fate. Even her alienated mother Chika comments enviously on how strong her daughter is, implying that she Chika would have liked to escape her aristocratic fate.



The relationship between the two women may be the most mythic portrait of a mother-daughter psychological conflict in the medium of comics. While Marika is oriented upon winning Raku’s love and advancing into adulthood, Chika looks as if she’s been frozen in time. When Raku meets the senior Tachibana, he mistakes her for a sister to Marika, and Marika herself claims that her mother is “a thousand years old.” Komi supplies no explanation for Chika’s appearance, any more than he does for a minor support-character who looks like a child but claims to be older than the adolescents. Japanese manga artists may have any number of reasons for depicting adults with childlike appearances, but in NISEKOI it seems to signal the aforementioned envy Chika feels for her daughter, allowing her to become frozen in time even as she’s frozen emotionally. When Raku tries to make Chika to have mercy upon Marika, the matriarch engages in sophisms about the relative nature of good and evil to defend the sacrifice “the One” for “the Many” of the lineage. And when Raku asks Chika to confess her love for her daughter, Chika just responds, “Don’t make me sick.”





Yet the big battle of high schoolers vs. ninjas does bear fruit. Marika escapes her wedding, but she can’t escape the limitations of her own body, and she admits to her savior Raku that she’ll have to return to the bosom of her family for medical treatment. Nevertheless, the sheer daring of the teenage assault causes Chika to relent and cancel the arranged marriage, allowing Marika to chart her own course. This course includes her realization that she has to give in to the inevitable romantic union of Raku and Chitoge, even while threatening to come after Raku again if he doesn’t do right by his true love. Marika even plays a major role in the series’ last arc, overcoming her own limits by making certain that Chitoge comes together with the man Marika wanted to marry.





There are many Japanese stories in which the main characters are obligated to surrender their personal desires to serve the greater good. But even amid all the slapstick and sentiment, “Limit” puts forth a valid argument for the contrary verdict, in which desire trumps duty and provides a new avenue for growth and transcendence.

NEAR-MYTHS: NISEKOI (2011-16)

 



There are various structural similarities between many of the iterations of the teen-humor comics-genre both in America and Japan. Obviously, whenever a series focused on high-school teens is meant to continue indefinitely, the teens will remain frozen in time, eternally youthful and without the possibility of matriculation or maturation. One may find intimations of adult life in various stories written both for ARCHIE and for URUSEI YATSURA, but the characters will never exist outside the high school microcosm. They will take infinite numbers of tests, play an infinite numbers of sports games, and ceaselessly play pranks on teachers and make romantic hookups, and nothing more. High school is almost a variation of the Greek realm of Hades, where those sentenced to abide therein must repeat the same actions ceaselessly.




However, Japanese publishers are far more renowned than their American counterparts for teen-humor serials which come to a definite end. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the high school microcosm will always be treated any more realistically. I’ve no direct experience of the “light novel” series REAL BOUT HIGH SCHOOL, but judging from the 1998-2001 manga adaptation, the titular school, where students fight one another in extravagant martial matches, has nearly nothing to do with the way a real high school functions. The school is simply there as an excuse to bring together an assortment of same-age teens for the purpose of romance and slapstick hijinks. A variation on the theme appears in Ken Akamatsu’s LOVE HINA. Some of the characters still go to high school while others live as “ronins,” would-be collegians striving to ace their entrance exams. But school is just the place where the principals go to take their tests, and all the romance and slapstick ensues at the dormitory shared by the hero and his harem of nubile love-interests. Unlike REAL BOUT, LOVE HINA does conclude with all of the characters matriculating and advancing to the next phases of adult life.




NISEKOI, translated as “false love,” follows the overall arc of LOVE HINA in that high school has a definite end, the action of the series taking place over four years. Most of the escapades do take place at the school, where tests and teachers take a back seat to romance and slapstick, though several plot-threads also involve the home life of either the two main characters, Raku Ichijo and Chitoge Kirisaki, or of members of the subordinate ensemble. Indeed, though Raku and Chitoge first become aware of one another at school, their respective families force them into sustained propinquity. Raku is the offspring of a well-to-do Yakuza family, though the teen has no intention of becoming a gangster, while Chitoge is the scion of an American crime-combine, the Beehive, which comes to Japan to conduct business. In a reversal of the main plot of ROMEO AND JULIET, the two adolescents must pretend to date one another in order to soothe tensions between the rival gangs—sort of a high-schooler version of political marriages designed to create international alliances.




Author Naoshi Komi makes a handful of direct references to The Shakespeare Play That Launched Several Thousand High School Renditions. However, if Raku and Chitoge resemble any Bard-characters, they would be the incessantly quarreling Beatrice and Benedick of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Yet in NISEKOI "Benedick" is just an average guy with a streak of righteousness, while "Beatrice" is a short-tempered, half-Japanese half-American tsundere chick with the habit of punching out anyone who pisses her off. Raku takes the brunt of most of Chitoge’s temper tantrums, which sometimes makes the “false love” imposture hard to sell. However, after the first year Komi largely drops the plotline of the rival gangs, though Claude, one of Chitoge’s guardians, plays a significant role throughout the narrative. Far more important to the story is that five other young women also begin pursuing Raku with varying degrees of intensity, and one of them is Kosaki, a girl whom Raku has loved since middle school. Kosaki reciprocates Raku's feelings, but neither has been courageous enough to confess their feelings. Of course, none of these rivalries would really matter emotionally if Raku and Chitoge’s feelings for one another were entirely false.




The other seekers of Raku’s affections are intentionally more over-the-top, which in many respects makes them less credible in the competition. Tsugumi is Chitoge’s martially skilled bodyguard, who dresses as a boy but has tortured feelings for Raku and fears to upset her cherished mistress. Haru, sister to Kosaki, isn’t much of a rival either, since she knows of her sibling’s feeling for Raku and thus never confesses that she too finds Raku appealing. Yui, though no relation to Raku, spends a lot of time at Raku’s house when both are children, and though she desires him he can only think of Yui as a sister. The only girl who comes close to rivaling with Chitoge and Kosaki is Marika, the daughter of the local police chief (who’s well acquainted with the activities of both criminal gangs). Marika is as given to obstreperous behavior as Chitoge, but she can express her feelings for Raku openly, while Chitoge is far more ambivalent. These tangled relationships become even more involved when the characters learn that all seven of them crossed paths as small children, and that most of them forgot their shared past after being separated. Komi uses an artful Dickensiasn device to keep this subplot percolating, though the backstory never overpowers the primary consideration: that Raku, even if he likes having a harem on some level, can’t keep both Betty and Veronica.

Far more than eros, NISEKOI celebrates the bonds of friendship. Granted, it’s an idealized friendship, one so intense that even rivals like Chitoge and Marika will go to the wall for one another. There’s a mature tone to the adolescents’ discussions of love, even though there’s still plenty of Takashashi-style absurdity to keep things lively, ranging from guardians using ninja-style weapons to a super-chemical designed to force Raku into playing Prince Charming by kissing all of his would-be paramours in their sleep. In the final analysis, NISEKOI is strongest in terms of the dramatic potentiality, though one particular sequence deserves separate consideration as a mythcomic.


CALLING ALL ENSEMBLES

 


I’ve established here and elsewhere the way that a narrative’s centricity can be either concentrated upon one starring character or distributed across an ensemble of characters. And in this essay I showed how a particular narrative with a huge cast of characters, DC THE NEW FRONTIER, could center upon a more limited ensemble of characters who possessed stature superior to all of the others. I’m contemplating a more involved definition of stature with respect to centricity, one that might define stature as a sort of “motive force,” something that impels the narrative, but I haven’t concluded those meditations.

Because of my recent reading of the manga NISEKOI, which I’ll discuss separately, I’ve noted that it’s not impossible for a narrative, particularly a serial one, to possess two ensembles, a superordinate one and a subordinate one. The subordinate ensemble does not simply consist of all the supporting characters within the narrative. In DC THE NEW FRONTIER all the characters who lack centric status are simply support-characters. A story with a subordinate ensemble, however, has a collection of characters who function in the same way as the characters in a superordinate ensemble, except that the former simply lack the stature of one or more starring characters.

I’ve expended a fair amount of attention to the interlinked teleserials ANGEL and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. According to my lights, BUFFY is always focused on the titular character, and every else in the story exists to support her. However, her “inner circle” of allies, informally called “the Scooby Gang,” function to have strong interactions with Buffy and to generate plot-threads centered temporarily upon them. Originally the subordinate ensemble includes only Xander, Willow and Giles, while later seasons introduce a variety of other featured characters to the ensemble, including a former adversary, Spike. However, some of the Scooby Gang’s allies—Angel, Riley, Tara—never reach the same stature. Angel is transformed into a foe and then leaves the show to star in his own series, Riley only lasts one season as a temporary boyfriend for Buffy, and Tara is killed in order to give her lover Willow a new emotional arc.

Angel starts out his own series as the sole star, with just two characters, Cordelia (a transplant from the BUFFY show) and Doyle forming a subordinate ensemble. But within the first season Doyle is slain and Cordelia inherits his precognitive talent, which makes her character more consequential. In addition, another refugee from BUFFY, Wesley, joins the team. The stories shift to stress the importance of the team rather than just Angel, and from then on Angel and all of his form a superordinate ensemble. Though other characters join the team  the ANGEL series never generates a corresponding subordinate ensemble but only handfuls of disparate support-characters.




Some serials may generate huge subordinate ensembles in which none of the characters ever quite eclipse a single central figure, as I’ve observed in both DRAGONBALL and BLEACH. A number of serials in the romantic comedy genre center upon a male and female lead, such as both URUSEI YATSURA and RANMA 1/2. Both of these Takahashi serials generate populous casts who function as subordinate ensembles, and URUSEI in particular includes a number of stories in which the romantic duo of Lum and Ataru is sidelined by the activities of ensemble-characters like Mendou or Ryunosuke, though none of these characters ever assume greater stature thereby. NISEKOI follows this basic paradigm in that the serial’s main emphasis is a romantic couple, but the activities of the subordinate ensemble are more centered upon either enhancing or undermining the romance of the two main characters.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: THE SON OF TARZAN (1915)

 


The first two Tarzan books display a high mythicity, and, going on memory, the third, BEASTS OF TARZAN, at least displays some interesting motifs. However, the fourth book—THE SON OF TARZAN, the only entry in the Tarzan series not to star Tarzan himself—lacks the imaginative free play seen in the earlier books. SON’s plot consists of dozens of melodramatic incidents piled chock-a-block on top of one another. This is not a bad thing in itself, since Edgar Rice Burroughs remains one of the best blood-and-thunder writers in pop culture history.


Jack Clayton, son of Tarzan and Jane, makes a couple of brief appearances in earlier novels as an infant, but SON begins with the character as a pre-teen in the England of 1915. Despite knowing nothing of his aristocratic father’s history as an “ape man,” Jack displays an unstinting fascination with all things jungle-related. This fascination leads him into contact with one of Tarzan’s enemies from previous books, one Paulvitch, and an attempt to return a captive ape to Africa. The latter task causes young Jack to become stranded in Africa, where in jig time he’s transformed into a junior version of his father through contact with Tarzan’s old ape tribe. They dub the boy Korak, and he drifts away from his memories of civilized life and his parents with extraordinary ease. Like Tarzan, Korak immediately starts making enemies in Africa, due to his possession of an un-beastlike strain of compassion.


Whereas the second Tarzan book benefitted from a resourceful main villain, SON splits its focus with three more limited dastards. A cannibal king, Kuvudoo, has the least to do, followed by a nasty Swedish ivory-poacher, Malbihn and an Arab chieftain, known only as the Sheik. All three are brought into conflict by Korak by their attempts to prey upon the novel’s female lead Meriem, who plays “Jane” to Korak’s Tarzan.


Meriem presents a more interesting character than Korak, if only because she’s the subject of an involved Dickensian foundling-plot. The Sheik, desiring revenge on Meriem’s French father, kidnaps the child, takes her to his own tribe of Arabian bandits, and raises her as his own offspring. The Sheik subjects Meriem to a series of parental cruelties that make the abuses of Tarzan’s ape-father look like benign neglect. Korak rescues her and schools her in jungle-survival, though this doesn’t keep her from being the constant prey of the book’s villains. Nevertheless, Meriem is a more dynamic character than Jane, and though she’s not a formidable fighter, she defends herself ably on a couple of occasions, hearkening back to the female lead of Burroughs’ “Mucker” series. Meriem also learns how to swing her way through the African jungle, and arguably this makes her one of the first “jungle girls” in pop fiction.


Jane was menaced by the threat of rape once in the first book and by romance with someone other than Tarzan in the second book. Meriem is threatened with rape by the Swedish raider, with cannibalistic consumption by Kuvudoo’s tribe, and with illicit romance with a young English nobleman. Further, although the Sheik fades in importance after Korak first rescues Meriem, the Arab leader comes up with the most horrific doom for the young girl: attempting to marry Meriem to his half-brother, who is both a half-caste (described as looking “black”) and an apparent victim of syphilis, since part of his face has been eaten away by “disease.” Though the Sheik does not state his game plan outright, his overall plan seems to be not just to despoil Meriem by having her “uncle” rape her, but to have her impregnated with a non-white child as well.


Though SON OF TARZAN boasts no positive characters of color, it must be admitted that the blonde Swede Mailbihn is just as rapacious as any denizen of Africa. Further, though the young English nobleman, Morison Baynes, doesn’t want to rape Meriem, he does plot to take her back to England as his mistress, which rates as a lesser form of degradation. Baynes starts out as an egotistical bounder and a coward, a loose satire on the entitlement of the sons of civilization. However, Baynes’ feelings toward Meriem become protective and he ends up sacrificing himself for her, which is the much same fate Burroughs meted out to William Clayton, Jane’s most prominent suitor in the first two books.


The jungle romance of Korak and Meriem never becomes as ardent as the early lovemaking of Tarzan and Jane. This is certainly because the two of them begin their relationship as pre-teen youths and implicitly only develop romantic feelings in a gradual and decorous fashion. One assumes that Jack Clayton learned something about the birds and bees before his jungle sojourn, but Meriem doesn’t get any such schooling at the hands of her nasty adoptive father, and initially can only think of Korak as a “big brother.” The author inevitably is obliged to show the two young people fall in love, but Burroughs never seems very comfortable with these scenes, and remains vague about the characters’ respective ages during their largely chaste interactions.


Burroughs doesn’t really elaborate a distinct myth-persona for Korak, and toward the book’s end Korak himself states, “There is only one Tarzan; there can never be another.” I take this as the author’s tacit admission that Tarzan is his superior creation, and in future books Korak only appears a few times in supporting roles. The character only became a regular headliner in the 1960s, when Gold Key Comics published KORAK, SON OF TARZAN, a well-done juvenile series loosely based in Burroughs’s concepts, accrue any great personality, appearing to be nothing more than “Tarzan Lite,” an athletic ape-boy who’s never quite as lusty or as savage as his old man.






THAT SOCIAL DISEASE CALLED ART

 

As Rousseau more or less pointed out, a lone man or woman doesn’t need human society just to keep fed or sheltered. But human society brought forth language, and language brought forth all forms of art, even those that, like painting and music, don’t require the use of words. Still, it’s possible to break down all forms of communication into either sensory tropes or narrative tropes. The first are standardized scenarios that transmit information through the stimulation of a recipient’s senses, while the second are standardized scenarios that transmit information through explication. I’ve noted the distinction between the two forms of communication here.


The various schools of myth-criticism are united by the proposition that the earliest forms of human narrative—whether one believes that myth or folklore was paramount—are intensely relevant to art as we know it today. The greatest difference is that while the members of a traditional tribe are for the most part limited to their traditions (though not without cross-pollination from other tribes), modernity has allowed any patron of art to sample whatever art-form he might care for, from almost any time or place.


But because art is a social disease—and by that word I mean less a malady than a necessary infection, like the bacteria that dwell in human stomachs—almost no patron consumes art without desiring to see his tastes mirrored in others’ good opinions of this or that work of art, or even a particular genre of art. Northrop Frye was one of the few critics of the 20th century who attempted to portray the entire spectrum of art, and he did so by viewing art through the lens of archaic mythic narrative. This led in part to his formulation of the theory of the four mythoi, based in part on the general idea of the “four ages of man,” as noted here. After putting forth this epic formulation in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, Frye didn’t expound that often on the mythoi in later essays. One exception, though, appears in the essay “Mouldy Tales,” pointing out that critics of his time tended to be either “Iliad critics” (preferring tragedy and/or irony) or “Odyssey critics” (preferring comedy and/or romance). Whenever I look at critics who have endured into my own time, I see a similar division. Few are the reviewers who can appreciate all four mythoi with equal enthusiasm, and those who conceive a dislike for a particular mythos often take the attitude that the world would be better off without the entertainments that take an audience’s mind away from “the finer things.”


To Iliadic critics—and I tend to think that they’re usually in the majority—the idea of “ritual” expressed by Frye and the Cambridge School would be anathema. If they have any opinions on the role of ritual in art, they may conceive all works of “unearned gratification” to be ritualistic in nature, an endless cycle of titillating bread and circuses.


It's less important to point out that the obvious reply—that there are as many bad works in the categories of dramas and ironies as in the other two less celebrated mythoi—than to note that all four mythoi depend on the ritual use of both sensory and narrative tropes to accomplish certain ritual effects. For instance, Faulkner’s A LIGHT IN AUGUST pursues tropes most relevant to the *pathos * of the drama, and the author calls attention to his chosen mythos by having the character of Joe Christmas—note the initials—slain in a mock crucifixion. To be sure, authors may avoid such overtly mythic tropes. The protagonist of Coetzee’s DISGRACE is rendered pathetic by social humiliation and non-fatal physical injury. Nevertheless, DISGRACE is still a novel about pathos, even with the absence of overt mythic references. Coetzee works with sensory and narrative tropes to put across the minatory mood most associated with the “serious drama,” though the sense of menace is not so great as to propel the novel into the realm of irony.


Critics, as much as authors, often have fixed in their minds an “ideal reader” who is without doubt a projection of whatever the critic or author himself finds desirable. But the critic is particularly vulnerable to forgetting the function of art in society. This does not mean “winning hearts and minds through constant carping,” such as one used to see on the HOODED UTILITARIAN. Rather, it means that even if one does not subscribe to Frye’s mythoi-system, a full-spectrum analysis of human art shows it to be polymorphic in every era of human existence. Because of this fact, art could not have continued to pursuit different forms unless all of the forms had a vital function in human society as a whole. I tend to think that the forms are relatively constant because the “four ages of man” are archetypal states in human consciousness, without their being confined to any particular age. Allowing for the exception of pre-teen children, who are probably not the best audience for scathing ironies like CANDIDE, most of the radicals of Frye’s mythoi—the heroic contest, the endurance of suffering, the descent into death—can in theory prove appealing to anyone at any stage of actual life. As I also mentioned in FRYEAN BLIND, I don’t agree with the radical that Frye assigns to comedy, in that I feel comedy ought to be defined by a more “jubilative” radical, though Frye”s ruminations on the subject are still invaluable even if flawed in this respect.

OUT WITH THE BAD WILL, IN WITH THE GOOD PT. 3

 

Most of my considerations on “persona-types” follow the broad patterns laid down in archaic societies, where a character is “good” if his actions enhance society and “bad” if they do not. Fiction, not being more than an analogue to real life, had no problem in promulgating heroes who are all good, and villains who are all bad.

At the same time, if one surveys the various personae of art, one sees some interesting admixtures of good and bad not only in the personas of “hero” and “villain,” but also those complementary types I call “the monster” and “the demihero.” In a purely statistical sense, most heroes and demiheroes are aligned with “goodness,’ and most villains and monsters are aligned with “badness.” In the following sections, I’ll outline various exceptions to these rules. I have categories for various types of exceptions, though these are only meant to be broad trope-types rather than critical formulations as such.


BAD HEROES include…



OUT FOR BLOOD—these are the heroes who serve the public good but are really in it more for personal gratification of bloodlust than for moral reasons. Examples include the Punisher and Marv of SIN CITY.




OBSESSED BY IDEALS—this type is the opposite of the previous category, in that the hero does good despite the fact that he’s overly rigorous in his pursuit of justice. These include Itto Ogami of LONE WOLF AND CUB with his devotion to being a pitiless assassin, Hugo Drummond of BLACK DOSSIER. A somewhat offbeat idealist is the half-insane Badger, as seen in the story “SnakeBile Cognac.”



HEROISM CORRUPTED—the will to do good has been soured by bad experiences, so that the hero no longer has a strong moral compass, as seen in Rorschach and the Comedian in WATCHMEN.




GOOD VILLAINS include…


GENTEEL THIEVES—professional burglars like Catwoman and Lupin III never really cause society any harm with their ripoffs, and thus give readers all sorts of fun diversions from the moral order.




THEY MIGHT GOT A POINT—these are villains who embody ideals that society might use a little more of. The prisoners of DEADMAN WONDERLAND are villains until they’re given heroic inspiration by lead character Ganta, while in TALES OFHOFMANN Mister Nobody and his Brotherhood of Dada embody capricious chaos as an anodyne to normalcy.





THEY DIDN’T MEAN TO DO GOOD—but authors work in mysterious ways, as seen with the plutocrat General Bullmoose in LI'L ABNER and with Judge Dredd’s reluctant ally Spikes HarveyRotten.




CONVERTS TO GOODNESS—Sometimes villains turn to the non-dark side just because they’re attracted to the good guys, though this may be more understandable with Kree-Nal being swayed by the Jaguar, and less so with “the StarCreatures” getting starry-eyed over two Earth-schmucks. Sesshomaru of INU-YASHA, however, loses his villainy due to adopting a cute little girl. The Providers of THE GAMESTERS OF TRISKELION are reluctant converts in that they become benevolent overlords due to losing a bet.



GOOD MONSTERS include…



VENGEANCE-SAVIORS—the monsters are out to avenge themselves and end up helping good people, as happens with Black Jubal in THE MAN WHO WOULD NOT DIE. Janus, the son ofMarvel’s Dracula,  appears to get empowered by angelic forces to slay his unregenerate father, though Janus never seems all that “angelic.”





MONSTERS WANT LOVE TOO—sometimes these are just domesticized monsters like Dick Briefer’s comedy version of FRANKENSTEIN, or the grotesque romance seen in “LowerBerth.” Brother Power believes in peace and love like his hippie brethren though he tends to hit as hard as his nastier opponents.



ACCIDENTAL TERRORS—ah, the Tribbles are so cute, and the Shmoos so useful, until they get in the way of normal operations.





IRREGULAR HEROES—Both of the best-known swamp creatures, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing, possess a “thing” for fighting evil, but not on a regular basis. Monsters who commit to full-time heroism, like the Thing and Vlad from HACK/SLASH, are just plain heroes.




BAD DEMIHEROES include…


IDEALISTS UNLEASH EVIL—Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll are the best known examples, but types like Gustav Weil and Joy Eden are cut from the same cloth.





RACING LIKE THE RATS—these are conniving types who often seem to meld with the regular ranks of society but are always on the lookout to swindle or steal. Some of them have irregular moments of heroism, like Cerebus the Aardvark, but they usually revert to type in the end. Simon Stagg of METAMORPHO sometimes helps the Element Man, but is just as likely to undercut the hero. Dynamo City presents a whole society devoted to ruthless acquisition.




THE EVIL OF BANALITY—Wally Wood’s New York in “My Word” might be better named “No Fun City.” THE CABBIE has Christian visions but money’s his real god, though unlike the rat-racers he’s not honest about it. In “A Taste ofArmageddon,” all the inhabitants of Eminiar-7 line up to surrender their lives to automated extinction.



PUFFED UP WITH NO PLACE TO GO—the category of the braggarts. A few, like J. Jonah Jameson, are dimly aware of their own failings and so have their enormous egos threatened by persons of superior attainments. Most are like Rudy Crane of EYE EYESIR and Doctor Pritchard of HANDS OF THE RIPPER, seeking to demonstrate their braggadocio and ending up deflated.








Monday, December 14, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: “MACGONIKKLE’S MONSTER” (BORIS KARLOFF’S TALES OF MYSTERY #66 (1976)

 


The Gold Key title BORIS KARLOFF’S TALES OF MYSTERY was my favorite horror-comic of the 1960s, though even in my adolescence I think I was aware that many of the stories were pedestrian. The title was spun off from its short-lived precursor BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER, probably because the publishers realized that the book’s real selling point to juveniles was the image of the aging horror-star, at which point they simply paid the actor for his likeness and dropped any reference to the 1960-62 teleseries.


Even the better stories in KARLOFF’S were almost always very simple “the worm turns” narratives. The stories had the comfy familiarity of an old robe, in that they usually depicted either some innocent crossing paths with some boogieman and barely surviving, or some scurrilous creep committing a crime and getting punished for it. “MacGonikkle’s Monster” is a rare exception to the pattern, but not for its unexceptional art (by journeyman Frank Bolle, according to GCD). Few if any Gold Key stories were ever credited, and “Monster” is no exception, but it seems as if the unknown author was at least having fun with the typical KARLOFF’S tale.


As the story opens, a man who looks like a stereotypical Scot—complete with cap and kilt, though he’s missing his golf clubs—is trying to sell an old house to a wealthy young entrepreneur, Reggie Belton. Reggie states that the only reason he’s buying “this crumbling wreck-of-a-house” is because of a strange statue on the grounds: a stone sculpture of a knight squaring off against a dragon of comparable size.



However, once the purchase has been made, Reggie reveals to the seller that he plans to use the statue as a colorful background for magazine spreads. The former owner protests that the knight in the sculpture is a representation of “the Macgonikkle,” a legendary Scottish knight, and that no true Scotsman would make such venal use of a legend. Reggie retorts that he is a Scot, but “not one of you tweed-and-heather, country-gentleman Scots! I’m from one of Glasgow’s dark, rotting tenements! Went to work at 13!”


This dialogue is highly unusual for a main character in a comic-book horror-tale, given that it sounds like something that might’ve been said by one of the “angry young men” of 1960s British cinema. But Reggie’s more amused than angry at the grievances of his new neighbors. When he tools about the town on his motorbike, old grouches complain that the old owners used to drive around in limousines, thus establishing that even if they themselves don’t have enough money for conspicuous consumption, they enjoyed seeing their local lairds do it for them. Everyone in town hates him, but one pretty if shrewish girl explains the legend of the Macgonikkle to Reggie. It seems that in medieval times the young knight married a humble shepherdess, who was also desired by a local wizard. The wizard sent a dragon to attack the knight, but a great light swallowed both of the combatants. For some reason apparently neither the medieval Scots nor their descendants ever suspected that both knight and dragon were turned into the statue at the traditional home of the Macgonikkle. However, the descendants have a legend that the great nobleman will return in “a light ten times that of the sun.”






Thus far the unidentified writer seems to have set things up for the supernatural to hand out a comeuppance to Reggie, who naturally credits none of the old Scottish lore. He proceeds with his photographic endeavor, using strobe lights to capture the images of svelte young models standing in front of the knight-and-dragon statue. Inevitably both knight and dragon come to life and begin their conflict once more. However, when the Macgonnikle slips, Reggie rescues him and enables the knight to slay his enemy—at which point both archaic entities fade into nothingness. Reggie, still wedded to the bottom line, laments, “I didn’t get a single shot of them.”




The comedic capper almost compensates Reggie for his loss, in that the local Scots celebrate him for rescuing their sainted hero. However, as if seeking to needle the conservative villagers, he informs them that he plans to erect a “futuristic” Magonnikle sculpture, presumably for more photo-shoots. The story ends with all of the locals jeering at their former hero—who seems to enjoy their recriminations.




Most similar stories, as noted, would have gone the obvious route and chastised the “new money” millionaire for sneering at ancient legends. But the “old money” Scots are the real targets of comic mockery here, not least because they’re so besotted with their love of old legends that they blow off Reggie’s actual heroic deed in saving the Macgonikkle. The unlisted writer even reinforced his trope of “person of humble origins ascending to greatness” by having Reggie’s rise to prominence mirrored by the Macgonnikle’s medieval wife. She could have been any catchpenny princess, but the writer went out of his way to make her a humble shepherdess instead—who despite her low birth was presumably able to continue the ancestral line before her esteemed husband went the way of all statues.

Friday, December 11, 2020

FUN WITH PHENOMENOLOGY

 

I mentioned here that I recently decided to import the concept of intentionality into my system. One reason for this change of mind was a recent re-red of Roger Brooke’s 1991 tome JUNG AND PHENOMENOLOGY.


Though I’ve devoted several thousand words to the subject of literary phenomenality, I’ve had only a mild interest in the philosophy of phenomenology. One reason is that, even though I believe my Fryean-Jungian-Campbellian system is basically in sympathy with the project founded by Edmund Husserl, I found Husserl’s writing less than compelling, though at least he wasn’t as abominable as Hegel.


For me Brooke offers an easier introduction to phenomenology than did Husserl, precisely because Brooke is making an extended compare-and-contrast between the familiar conceptual terrain of Jung and the schemas of phenomenology. Brooke marshals ample evidence to demonstrate his thesis: that Carl Jung’s depth psychology was at heart in tune with phenomenology, despite assorted inconsistencies. Those problematic areas of Jung’s thought, according to Brooke, arose whenever Jung attempted to line up his psychology with hard science; what Brooke incisively calls “the bland positivist categorization of observables.”


Despite this backsliding, Jung’s core philosophical concept, that the psyche provided the core of human experience, mirrors Brooke’s chosen definition of the phenomenological concept of intentionality: “Intentionality means that consciousness is always and necessarily directed toward an object that is other than consciousness itself.” To be sure, Brooke finds some fault with Jung’s tendency to become almost solipsistic in his attempts to advocate the psyche’s centrality in human experience. Yet as it happens, in my early reading of Husserl I detected a possible current of solipsism, though Brooke does not signal any awareness of such vulnerabilities in his chosen philosophy. For instance, Brooke writes:


For Husserl the essence of a thing is not to be confused with its factically given properties (weight, extension, and so on). Rather, the essence of a thing is given within the imaginative intuition of the consciousness which discriminates that essence from its empirical contingencies.


A few pages later, Brooke writes that Jung’s concept of “amplification is essentially similar to Husserl’s method of free imaginative variation.” I certainly agree with Brooke and with anyone else who downgrades the sort of “empirical contingencies” that thinkers ranging from Comte to Freud have advocated. Still, Brooke doesn’t elucidate any phenomenological concepts that firmly avoid the critique he makes of Jung, that of being too enfolded in the solipsism of the psyche. That does not mean that there aren’t such concepts, merely that Brooke doesn’t map them out.


My own solution to this conundrum is probably nothing like whatever Brooke might present. In my essay AND THE HALF TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE I drew an extended comparison between two of my inspirations, Jung and Joseph Campbell. I found that precisely because Jung was so focused upon viewing every human experience as reflective of a shared, sometimes “collective” psyche, Campbell is more relevant to the study of literature because of the latter’s concentration upon what I call “epistemological patterns.”


Jung possibly followed Kant in the belief that observations about the “outer world” in which human beings live do not demonstrate any ultimate truth about that world. This may be true, and it’s possible that philosophy’s long preoccupation with “pure reason” was a mistake, except in a purely utilitarian sense. However, reason plays a vital (though not central) role in allowing humans to discern patterns in the world, whether cosmological or sociological, metaphysical or psychological. No humans share exactly the same perceptions of the world, and therefore every philosopher—and every creative writer—will see significance in different patterns, or combinations of patterns.


Neither Jung nor Campbell were as intensely focused upon art and literature as was Northrop Frye, and I would guess that neither Brooke nor any of his fellow phenomenologists concentrated on that discipline either. But all of them would seem to agree on valuing “free imaginative variation” as opposed to “empirical contingencies.” The role of reason is not to determine the forms produced by the imagination, but to provide something akin to a medium in which the forms may flourish. Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, but one needs water and the other air to do so.


It's arguable that for centuries art and literature have performed the task of searching for “essences” via the imagination. Brooke cites a commentator who summarizes Husserl’s process by saying “we carefully investigate what changes can be made in a sample without making it cease to be the thing it is. Through the most arbitrary changes, which wholly disregard reality as it is and which therefore are best made in our phantasy, the immutable and necessary complex of characteristics without which the thing cannot be conceived manifest themselves…”


Because free variation is paramount in art, any observations that artists make about empirical contingencies prove secondary. Eugene O’Neill may think that if he emulates Freudian theories of psychology in a play like MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, the play has tapped into “reality,” and indeed many critics would agree with him. William Butler Yeats may feel the same way if he conceives a metaphysical magnum opus like A VISION. But non-fiction is the place where pure reportage of allegedly empirical contingencies is the primary value. In the worlds of art, with special emphasis upon narrative fiction, such contingencies become transformed into epistemological patterns, and they exist not to portray a world of “fact” but to add deeper context to the phantasms of the imagination. In this, the canonical artist is in no way superior to the toiler in popular fiction; at most, the canonical artist is just better about making his chosen flights of fancy seem grounded in reality. But for a myth-critic like myself, Eugene O’Neill has no greater imagination than Frank Miller, and Yeats has nothing on Steve Ditko.

FRYEAN BLIND

 One detail I didn’t mention in my quasi-review of THE POETICS OF MYTH is that when the author presents his rather rushed summary of Northrop Frye’s contributions to myth-criticism, Meletinsky conflates two different selections of Frye’s work, quoting from both ANATOMY OF CRITICISM and from an essay from six years earlier, “The Archetypes of Literature.” But Frye’s arrangement of his mythoi is not the same in these two works. Meletinsky ends up telling readers that Frye has equated comedy and romance with the seasons of summer and of spring, which is true in the essay. But in ANATOMY, Frye reversed the two comparisons. Given that the book represents the fullness of the critic’s thought, this was a rather clumsy mistake on Meletinsky’s part.


However, Meletinsky’s section on Frye did remind me of a topic I brought up in my essay THE FOUR AGES OFDYNAMIS. I said in that essay that I couldn’t find any evidence that Frye had based his four-season, four-mythos schema on anything in Ovid. A fresh scrutiny, though, reveals that a page or two before Frye begins his first section on this subject, entitled “The Mythos of Comedy: Spring,” he does make reference to other famous quaternities, including “the four periods of life (youth, maturity, age, death).” There’s not much chance that Frye was unaware of Ovid’s famous poem. It’s more likely that the “Four Ages of Man” as Ovid conceived them simply did not line up with Frye’s conception of his four mythoi, which took its principal influences from myth-ritual scholars like Gilbert Murray and Theodor Gaster.


Without question Ovid’s four ages are more persuasive than Frye’s foursome, not least because “death” is not really a period of life. In the ANATOMY Frye is acutely conscious that spring is associated with images of rebirth, not least in his own religion of Christianity, and also that historically Greek New Comedy tended to focus on the attempts of young men and women to be married despite the opposition of tyrannical authority figures. Thus, the critic leapfrogs over the period of actual childhood—Ovid’s “frail shoots and grasses”—so that he Frye can draw symbolic comparisons between mundane marriages of young people and the sacred union of God and humankind. In my early readings of the ANATOMY I was blown away by all of these mythopoeic allusions. Yet in later years I’ve come to decide that there are some problems with pages and pages of criticism on the subject of comedy that barely addressed the functions of humor.

Just as problematic is Frye’s attempt to disassociate the mythos of adventure-oriented romance with the “age” in which heroes venture forth to battle dragons and witches. Since Frye’s spring-protagonists must necessarily be adolescents, his summer-protagonists would have to be of a somewhat later age in order to represent “maturity.” In real life, however, adolescent males are more likely to seek combat-glory before they marry and settle down, even if New Comedies and their descendants tend not to depict that aspect of life. In my own writings, I tend to see that all of the strivings of adolescents, whether relating to Eros or Thanatos, belong on the same plane, since both activities are dominantly associated with persons in their “hardened” summer-phase.

Raymond’s FLASH GORDON represents a perfect balance of both romance in the word’s usual sense and in its sense as a story of adventure.





In contrast, as I stated in FOUR AGES, comedy depends upon the frustrations of incongruity, and these frustrations aren’t exclusive to, say, the “heavy fathers” of Greek New Comedy. Slapstick humor, which may well have been prominent in Greek Old Comedy, may involve no romantic interest whatsoever. The incongruity can arise when the victim’s expectation of immunity from harm is thwarted by a banana peel under the shoe or a pie in the face. Yet Frye was right in thinking that comedy was essentially a mythos about “coming together:” it’s just not a union defined by romance. Rather, nearly every mortal ever born can laugh when a fictional character, good or bad, gets humiliated because every mortal ever born had experienced humiliation in some form, if only during the vicissitudes of childhood. Frye’s concept of comedy, centered upon the experience of adolescents, would seem to have nothing to say about a humor feature like SUGAR ‘N’ SPIKE, where the titular toddlers are constantly trying to make sense of the confusing adult world, but always fail because they see things “through a milk-bottle darkly.”



Frye’s period of “age” lines up loosely with what Ovid calls “the temperate season…midway between quick youth and growing age,” but Ovid’s conception remains superior here as well. The protagonists of serious drama need not be middle-aged, any more than the protagonists of comedy need be children (although it’s been remarked that Hamlet seems to have been a student at Wittenberg long enough to have left adolescence behind him). But in the mythos of drama the protagonists begin to feel the limitations of their personal power, just as living things begin to wane in autumn. Despite many of the adventure-trappings in the teleseries STAR TREK, the serial is at its heart a drama, given that it constantly deals with such limitations, even in such triumphant narratives as “Arena” and “Day of the Dove.”




Clearly what Frye means by “death” is a specific period of human decrepitude, the last phase for any given mortal before he or she dies, and Frye is entirely correct in lining up this state of existence with the season of winter and the mythos of the irony. Comedy levels human beings because everyone shares the humiliations of early life, but in a state of being in which life still holds endless hopes. Irony levels human beings in the opposite manner, separating rather than uniting, reminding us that we all die alone. The only redemption from the season of winter in actual life is the knowledge that one’s limited life may be perpetuated by either literal offspring or by “good works” that go down in history. In literature this slight satisfaction may give rise to a bittersweet black humor, so that even when an irony-tale ends with some sort of romantic alliance—as we see in both Voltaire’s CANDIDE and Elio Perti’s THE TENTH VICTIM —the romance only succeeds because the principals manage to isolate themselves from the madding world.





Sunday, December 6, 2020

VECTORS OF INTENTIONALITY

 

In the three-part EQUAL AND UNEQUAL VECTORS series, beginning here, I referenced the way authorial well manifested in all of the conceptual categories on which I’ve meditated here, though the three essays were concerned only with the category of centricity. This essay will be concerned with the category of literary phenomenality.


A word first, though, about my use of the word “intentionality” in the title. This term has various associations in various schools of philosophy, but here it means exactly the same as the concept of “authorial will.” Based on my readings I’ve often thought the twentieth-century concepts of “intentionality” were not substantially different from what Arthur Schopenhauer meant when he spoke of “will,” and that the later term might have been introduced by writers who didn’t necessarily want to seem overly indebted to Schopenhauer. I’ve resisted using the term “intentionality” because my system does owe a lot to the Gloomy Philosopher. Yet I must admit that at times “will” is a lot less malleable as a term than the later conception. “Vectors of intentionality” simply sounds better to my ear.


My 2017 essay ECCENTRIC ORBITS supplies a case in point. At that time, I was still heavily influenced by the “circle metaphors” propounded by Northrop Frye, and so I attempted to conceive of different forms of phenomenality in terms of “centric will” and “eccentric will.” At some point I abandoned these terms, even though I still deem the logic of the ORBITS argument sound. One problem with the circle metaphors is that though they work fairly well for a complete finished work, such as a Dickens novel, said metaphors don’t work as well for serials conceived as open-ended works, whether they come to a definite end or remain indefinitely open. Whitehead’s metaphor of force-vectors works better for a teleseries like ANGEL, which, as I mentioned in the first VECTORS essay, changed its centricity-vectors from non-distributive to distributive during the process of serialization, Clearly one would not see such a transformation in a novel, even one that appeared in serialized form. It is at least easier to state, if not any easier to prove, that the character of Spike doesn’t have a centricity-vector equal to that of Buffy in her series but does have a vector equal to Angel’s.





The ORBITS essay gives several examples where the phenomenality becomes fuzzy due to authorial intentionality. There’s no doubt, for instance, that Frank Miller has a definite purpose in putting a ghost into “Nancy’s Last Dance,” one of the sub-stories of the movie SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. This would seem to be the first time Miller put any sort of marvelous phenomenon into any SIN CITY tale. The presence of John Hartigan’s ghost, though, does not transform Miller’s cosmos into a place where ghosts or any other marvelous phenomena can be reasonably expected to make appearances. Thus, within the SIN CITY cosmos, the marvelous phenomenality possesses a subordinate vector. In contrast, Miller’s creative preoccupation with tropes of the uncanny—bizarre crimes, freakish flesh, superlative skills—appears with enough regularity that the entire series can be fairly judged as uncanny in its phenomenality. Thus even if there are occasional SIN CITY stories that lack uncanny tropes, the naturalistic phenomenality also possesses a subordinate vector.


Now, when I used the word “regularity” above, I do so while renouncing all previous attempts to *quantify * the appearances of this or that phenomenality within a work or series of works. My current conception of vectors supersedes even the concepts of “active and passive shares,” a critical stratagem by which I attempted to formulate a logical alternative to making a simple “head count” of each depiction of metaphenomenality in a series.





To hearken back to the RAWHIDE KID/RINGO KID contrast I offered while working on the active/passive formulations, both of these series, unlike SIN CITY, did not offer regular depictions of metaphenomenality, and so it would be easy to perceive both serials as dominantly isophenomenal. But where RINGO KID only has one measly mad doctor who departs from all the other naturalistic threats that the titular hero encounter, RAWHIDE KID used metaphenomenal opponents in a peripatetic manner. With RINGO, my perception is that the workaday creators, with or without the input of editors, assumed that their readers wanted westerns that were dominantly naturalistic in terms of what could happen in them: gunfights, cattle stampedes, et al. With RAWHIDE, though, the creators attempted to vary the mix. In contrast, the Rawhide Kid usually encountered gunfights and cattle stampedes, but from the earliest to the last of the series initiated by Lee and Kirby, there was always a strong vector encouraging the appearance of the metaphenomenal. As with SIN CITY, RAWHIDE KID had so few examples of marvelous phenomenality that the corresponding vector would be subordinate. However, even though the RAWHIDE creators did not keep uncanny phenomenalities front-and-center as Miller did in SIN CITY, I judge that the potential for the uncanny becomes a superordinate vector, rendering the naturalistic vector subordinate, even though the number of naturalistic stories proved superior.




A third example appears in yet another “weird western,” the teleseries KUNG FU. When I first started my project of reviewing all of the episodes in 2013, I knew that the series did not boast a huge number of episodes with a marvelous phenomenality, though on finishing the project I did find more than I anticipated (often using mild forms of marvelous tropes like telepathy or oracular pronouncements). But I knew in advance of the project that some episodes depicted Caine’s Shaolin skills as no more than naturalistic in essence—probably because those scripts didn’t need anything more—while other tales took evident pleasure in showing the priest showing off “superlative skills,” whether in minor actions like bending jailhouse bars or in major accomplishments like walking unharmed through a pit of rattlesnakes. As with RAWHIDE KID, it doesn’t matter how often the episodes were either naturalistic, uncanny, or marvelous. It only matters as to which of the three phenomenalities assumed a superordinate position. That determination can’t be deduced from a simple head count, but by an intuitive assessment of a given serial’s total concept, as it is perpetuated through various creators, usually following what insiders term a “series bible.”

Over the centuries, the disciplines of science and philosophy have remained in strife. Much of this strife may be seen as a conflict between science’s intention to judge the world’s phenomena in terms of quantity, while philosophy is far more concerned with quality. Literature, though not allied to philosophy in any fundamental sense, is conceived along roughly the same propositional lines: propositions have truth based on the qualities they enhance in the lives of audiences. I attempted to see if there was any method by which arguments regarding quantity could be used to buttress those regarding quality, but I have of late decided that the conceptual divide is insuperable.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: “A PIECE OF NIGHT” (SKORPIO,1993)

 



In terms of visual tropes, the character of Cybersix—created in 1993 by two Argentinians, artist Carlos Meglia and writer Carlos Trillo—appears to be composed of pop-culture quotations. The heroine wears a slouch hat (The Shadow), leaps about a city’s rooftops while wearing a really long cape (Batman) and high heels (Batgirl) and maintains a civilian identity in part by obscuring her face with glasses (Superman). To be sure, none of these characters concealed their identities through cross-dressing, and the grotesque cityscape drawn by Meglia makes Gotham City look like a playpen. Yet, more importantly, Meglia and Trillo are also oriented on making their genetically-engineered character into a meditation on the nature of identity.


The Cybersix origin story—not officially translated into English, but available on the Net in fan-renditions—sets up the character less as a standard hero than as an often pathetic (albeit smoking hot) monster. When Cybersix initially begins patrolling the vaguely European city of Meridiana, she’s not seeking criminals to bring to justice; she’s seeking victims to prey upon, just to stay alive. Though her monstrous nature is not in any way her fault, she’s haunted by a sense of anomie from the sphere of normal life.



The character is first seen in her “Clark Kent” persona, that of Adrian Seidelman, a male teacher of literature at a Meridiana high school. Though her femininity is concealed behind glasses and beneath bulky men’s clothes, even her hidden charms attract the attention of a randy teenage girl, and this predicament in turn leads to Adrian being hassled by some of the teen girl’s classmates. Adrian is then “saved” by fellow teacher Lucas Amato, whose build is as big and beefy as Adrian’s is slight and unthreatening. Because of her singular nature, Adrian/Cybersix has no friends. But Lucas happens to need a confidante, and he bends Adrian’s ear about his new discovery—which just happens to be the rumored existence of a weird woman in black leaping around the rooftops of Meridiana. Though Lucas is employed at the school as a biology teacher, Lucas also has a “double identity,” since he became a teacher in lieu of his true passion, journalism. After much dancing-around about who and what Cybersix is, she finally divulges at least part of her story to Lucas, much as Superman disclosed part of his history to Lois Lane.


The proto-heroine owes her genesis to ex-Nazi mad scientist Von Reichter, who perhaps ended up in Meridiana after deciding that a hideout in Argentina was just too cliché. Whereas the Nazis of the Third Reich sought to convince ordinary men that they were supermen, Von Reichter decided to make his own super-beings via genetic manipulation. In addition, the scientist designed his artificial “children” to blend in with established society in order to slowly build power for himself. But some of his projects proved less successful than others. He destroyed an entire group of experimental servants, the “Cyber” line, because they weren’t obedient enough to suit him, and later bred a more servile group, sometimes called “Technos.” Of the original Cyber line, only the female designated Cybersix survived, thanks to the intervention of one of Von Reichter’s human servants—not coincidentally, an African Black, who becomes Cybersix’s surrogate father. To further complicate her survival, all of Von Reichter’s creations can only endure if they get regular doses of a serum called “sustenance.” Cybersix’s father steals a supply of sustenance that lasts through her childhood, though eventually she has to find a new source.



Like Superman before her, Cybersix conceals the part of the backstory in which she gets a double identity. Even in her youth she realizes she must journey to Meridiana and harvest sustenance from her Techno “brethren,” but that she cannot enter the city without identification. She chances across a wrecked car in which a father, mother and male youth have all perished, so young Cybersix poses as the slain boy Adrian Seidelman.


The imposture proves successful enough that Adrian establishes her credentials in the city. However, on the first night that she seeks to plunder a Techno for sustenance—which she takes, orally but non-fatally, in approved vampire fashion—Cybersix realizes that sooner or later she’ll compromise her cherished civilian identity. Because this particular Techno works in the capacity of a prostitute, Cybersix raids the hooker’s closet, stealing all the accoutrements she will use in her night-stalking persona: the hat, the long cape and dark bodysuit, and the high heels. Indeed, at one point in the story Cybersix flashes back on posing as an actual prostitute in order to lure other Technos into her web, so that she can harvest them. Whereas a real prostitute trades sex for money, Cybersix vamps her victims for a one-way transaction—though one could argue that she’s stealing back the life her “Bad Father” would have denied her.


What keeps Cybersix from being an unregenerate monster is that she does have a conscience. At one point in her conversation with Lucas on a rooftop, one of Von Reichter’s assassins tracks the heroine down. The two super-powered warriors fight, and the assassin almost goes over the side of the building. Lucas persuades Cybersix to spare the pawn’s life, and she pulls the killer to safety. The killer attacks again and plunges off the building to his death. Cybersix treats the incident with dark humor-- “Now I’ll go to heaven”—but her sardonicism does not distract from her need to be more human, particularly in the eyes of Lucas. A romantic connection will inevitably be made between the two of them, though arguably Meglia and Trillo are primarily concerned in using romance to give Cybersix the human dimension she lacks.



Trillo draws a loose parallel between Cybersix and real-life Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who sustained four separate authorial identities. In the origin story, Cybersix defines herself by only two personas: the daytime life of Adrian and the nocturnal existence of the sustenance-sucking vampire/prostitute. Her creator defined her as a third identity, that of a failed experiment, even if she turned out to be a Frankenstein’s monster set to destroy her creator’s livelihood. But by the end of “A Piece of Night,” Cybersix has taken a step toward a fourth identity: that of becoming a city-patrolling hero after the examples of Batman and the Shadow. I’ve not read more than the origin tale, but I would still hazard that her struggle to embody heroism took many more unexpected turns than the careers of most American crimefighters.