Featured Post


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

Saturday, February 29, 2020


Note: BETTER THAN BATMAN is culled from seven NIGHTWING stories that did not appear in a single run of issues. I'm reviewing the TPB collected edition. This NIGHTWING series followed on the heels of a previous serial, GRAYSON: AGENT OF SPYRAL, in which Dick Grayson briefly gave up his superhero ID to work undercover with the titular spy-outfit. Tim Seeley, writer of BETTER, was one of the collaborators on the GRAYSON series.


Prior to Stan Lee's application of soap-operatic continuity to the medium of comic books, ongoing serials-- such as DC's "Batman"--observed an implied status quo. On occasion the hero might discover some unknown facet of his personal history, like the 1956 tale "The First Batman," wherein the Caped Crusader learned that his father once wore a costume like his own. The ascendancy of Marvel Comics made it difficult for a writer to toss out such "big revelation" stories that failed to affect the series as a whole.

Soap operas depend on uncovering secrets. It was relatively easy in the sixties and seventies to reveal, say, that Captain America's girlfriend from World War II was still alive. However, by the 21st century, writers had to stretch credulity to disclose brave new enigmas. For the 2002-03 Bat-series HUSH, Jeph Loeb concocted the notion of "Bruce Wayne's best childhood friend," who, rather predictably, turned to be something of Bruce's "evil double." For the 2011 COURT OF OWLS storyline, Scott Snyder posited that for centuries Gotham City had been ruled by a secret society of criminal financiers, whose existence went undetected by Batman for the entirety of his career, up until the "Court" revelations.

BETTER THAN BATMAN has a specific linkage of COURT OF OWLS, wherein it's disclosed that at one point the evil Owls had planned to abduct the orphaned Dick Grayson, in order to make him one of their assassins. Bruce Wayne's adoption of Grayson inadvertently foiled that scheme. Grayson
-- now a twenty-something superhero who gave up the Robin-identity to take the name "Nightwing"-- took this revelation personally. He became an agent of Spyral as part of a long-range plan to infiltrate and undermine the international forces of the Court. However, at the start of BETTER THAN BATMAN, he's forsworn his role as a secret agent and has resumed his Nightwing identity. The Owls are aware of his double identity, as well as that of Batman, but the arrogant aristocrats believe that they've succeeded in blackmailing the former Boy Wonder into their service. In order to monitor Nightwing more closely, they assign him a partner, an international criminal named Raptor.

From their first meeting, Raptor-- who also knows the secret identities of both Nightwing and his former Bat-partner-- shows an unusual personal interest in his new ally, telling him that he Nightwing needs "a better mentor," since "everything Batman taught you is wrong." This assertion comes at a time when the off-and-on association between Batman and Nightwing is under some strain. In this Seeley is also following a "series bible" that generally finds Nightwing to be more human and thus more fallible than the monomaniacal Batman. Yet, rather than simply parroting this observation, Seeley attempts to give this psychological myth some sociological support.

The Court of Owls represent "the new plutocracy." continually seeking to advance their goals at the expense of underprivileged people-- including their tendency to swell the ranks of their assassins from low-income families, such as Dick Grayson's family of circus-performers. However, according to Raptor, Bruce Wayne is no better, having adopted a young orphan purely for the purpose of bringing him into the superhero fold, just as the Owls would have made young Dick into an assassin. Raptor does not belong to the "one-percenter" class of the Owls, and he constantly calls attention to this fact in his quasi-Marxist lectures to his new partner: "The three-headed beast of branding, marketing, and advertising is the most powerful human force in the world." Nightwing cooperates with Raptor for the same motive he had during his earlier service to the Owls: seeking to gather more information on both the Owls and their criminal opponents. However, while the Owls had no power to sway Nightwing's sympathies, the hero is somewhat fascinated with Raptor's devil-may-care attitude and his casual defiance of the law. Both Batman and Batgirl (the Barbara Gordon version this time) fear that Raptor could tempt Nightwing into a life of criminality, if only because Dick Grayson grew up with an abiding love of the Robin Hood mythos (hence the origins of the name and costume of "Robin the Boy Wonder.")

More significantly, though, Raptor turns out to be A Person From Nightwing's Past. His identity is a little less contrived than that of the aforementioned villain Hush. Yet the Hush-story is probably an influence on Seeley's tale. Not only is Raptor an acquaintance of Dick Grayson's parents, he's been watching Nightwing's career from a distance for as many years as the hero has existed. In the end, not only is Raptor oriented on taking down his alleged employers the Owls, he also wants to exterminate wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne, on the theory that everyone rich deserves death.

On an intellectual level BETTER THAN BATMAN appears to be a refutation of the Marxist politics of Christopher Nolan's revamp of the Batman-origin. However, Seeley's mythopoeic imagination gives this basic notion more affective appeal, by lending far more resonance to the tropes of child-abduction and/or child-murder. One of the side-plots of BETTER includes Nightwing and Raptor venturing into a labyrinth, not unlike the one Scott Snyder introduced in COURT OF OWLS. But Seeley explicitly relates the Owls' maze-fetish to the Classical Greek myth of the minotaur, which is all about-- the sacrifice of the young and innocent.

In the end, the status quo is naturally preserved: Nightwing rejects Raptor's embrace of criminality and remains faithful to his adopted Bat-family. But in keeping with the story's repeated motif of the hero as an acrobatic circus-performer ("Being up in the air is my first love"), Seeley gives his audience what it wants: the illusion of danger, in keeping with an artful balancing-act.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


I've been giving some thought to the different creative eras through which Batman has passed, and found myself posting this on CHFB:


There was a time I would've scorned Batman's first post-Code era-- the period I like to call "Candyland Batman," because everything's so bright and colorful. However, over time I've found that the period has a wonky charm at times, including the "Robin Dies at Dawn" story mentioned elsewhere on the board. But it's not one of my favorites.

One of my favorites is the period of "Gothic Batman," going from the character's debut through maybe the next four-five years, which is the period when most of the best villains appear. I might extend this period to 1946, since I don't think the creators quite got a proper handle on Catwoman until '46, with "Nine Lives Has the Catwoman."

There's not a clear transition between the WWII and the postwar years, but lately I've been calling the next era "Dark Procedural Batman." There's not a real sense of Gothic craziness any more, but there's still a strong emphasis on a vision (admittedly juvenile) of the pervasiveness of crime. Batman is still a little spooky at times, but he usually relies on rational solutions to fight crime. Costumed villains are a little lighter in tone, such as the Riddler.

The period following "Candyland" is sort of a mashup of "Dark Procedural" and "Gothic." It starts with very rational (if still gimmicky) stories during "the New Look," mostly written by Gardner Fox and Robert Kaniger. Some Gothic elements start coming back, like the return of the Scarecrow, though the influence of the TV-show also brings in a few more Candyland elements (Mister Freeze, the Monarch of Menace). Arguably this concept of Batman goes on through both the goofy Frank Robbins period and the fan-beloved collaborations of O'Neil and Adams, and maybe-- maybe-- this era culminates with the Englehart-Rogers sequence.

After that, I can't claim that I've studied the eras that followed as closely, so I'll end by my favorite periods are "Early Gothic" and "Procedural-Plus-Gothic."

Monday, February 24, 2020


One of the more interesting characters introduced in Carl Barks's UNCLE SCROOGE stories was the sorceress Magica De Spell.

In this essay Don Rosa opined that "Barks... seemed to really disdain the use of a character with occult powers." I agree that this seems to be the way the villainess started out. In her first appearance (UNCLE SCROOGE #36, 1961), Magica appears at Scrooge's door, billing herself as a "sorceress" and asking to buy one of his dimes for a dollar. Scrooge, though laughing up his sleeve at the idea of a modern-day sorceress, takes her up on the offer, but mistakenly lets her take his "Number One Dime," the first dime he ever earned, and thus the foundation of his fortune. (Barks gets good comic mileage out of the rich duck's scorn for folkloric beliefs, only to reveal his own superstitions.)

For the rest of the story, Scrooge and his perpetual allies, nephew Donald and his three nephews, strive to get back the dime before Magica-- who is, interestingly enough, an Italian duck-witch, loosely patterned on Gina Lollobrigida-- plunges the Number One Dime into Mount Vesuvius, all to make the talisman into a "super amulet." In this tale and in Magica's next two appearances, the witch-lady shows no special powers, and can only defend herself with sleep-gas bombs. However, in the character's fourth appearance, Magica gains control of the wand of the ancient witch Circe, and from then on, Magica assumed the persona of a mystical powerhouse. Though Barks did not write/draw many Magica stories, it was this version of the villain that became enshrined in later comics and cartoons-- and, contrary to Rosa, I believe that Barks re-worked her to make her more "occult" so that she would prove a more formidable opponent.

"Oddball Odyssey" opens with Scrooge seeking out Donald and his three nephews to invite them to join him in seeking the treasure "that Ulysses took with him from the ruins of Troy." Scrooge's source of information is a letter written by a supposed descendant of the enchantress Circe, who claims that Ulysses left the treasure on her island. The three nephews observe that Scrooge seems enthralled by the idea of finding this mythical treasure, and that their uncle Donald, as soon as he catches the perfume on the letter, also becomes captivated with this grand quest. Once the nephews hear that the mysterious benefactor wants Scrooge to bring along his Number One Dime, they're sure that it's all a scheme of Magica De Spell. Unable to dissuade Scrooge and Donald from this exploit, the nephews go along on their one-sail boat all the way to some Mediterranean island.

The nephews' guess is confirmed when a disguised Magica tries to make Scrooge give up his dime in exchange for phony treasure. However, though the nephews rescue Scrooge, Magica's low-level con leads her to new heights. In her frustration, she kicks through a wall in the old temple where she's run the con, and breaks into a hidden room. There she finds the wand of Circe, and uses it to force the ducks to remain on the isle, just as the original enchantress did with Ulysses.

Magica also forces Scrooge to choose between his beloved dime and his beloved relations. Reluctantly, Scrooge accedes to the will of the sorceress.

Scrooge escapes being turned into an animal, but his relatives then carry the fight to Magica, using their various skills as animals-- Donald as "slow but steady" turtle, the nephews as pigs-- to thwart Magica's plan to melt down Number One.

Scrooge then shows up and manages to break the wand, thus returning his relations to normal. The ducks don't get detained on the island as long as Ulysses did, but their leavetaking is less dignified, since as they flee Magica tries to bean them with her phony treasure-trinkets.

Three issues later, though, Magica's back with a restored wand, and she evinces almost godlike powers. Scrooge's money bin is repeatedly assailed by lightning bolts and cyclone winds, and Scrooge explains to his relatives that Magica's still trying to acquire Old Number One.

For her part, Magica provides exposition for the reader about her great new powers, about having "scrounged secrets" from old temples and caves that have given her control over the elements. Most interestingly, Magica advances a fairly sophisticated theory for the origin of the Greek pantheon: "those gods were more likely live sorcerers than figments of ancient dreams." This theory allowed Barks to have his cake and eat it too: he doesn't have to show his witchy villain garnering power from either old gods or, for that matter, Satanic sources. Instead, it's implied that ordinary mortals can generate magic powers from study of the universe's secrets, which is certainly an odd thing to find in a Disney comic book of the period.

Magica journeys to Duckburg and makes more direct assaults on the money bin, but Scrooge counters her efforts with advanced technology. On top of this, one of Magica's assaults even makes Scrooge richer, thanks to the luck given him  by the dime.

At last Magica uses her wand's shape-changing power on herself, capturing Scrooge and becoming his double in order to gain access to the bin.

However, once again those smart little nephews suss out the deception. Scrooge intervenes as well, stealing back his dime from her, only to get a few painful "souvenirs" of his tilt with the witch.

Barks didn't use the character much longer, but these prove his best stories with Magica, in that they show a clever opposition between the days of modern-day science and the eras of ancient mysteries.

Saturday, February 22, 2020


In Part 1, I attempted to show how the didactic and mythopoeic potentialities could be in conflict within the scope of one particular short story, that being a particular Steve Ditko tale. In this essay I'll hold forth on how the conflict can help or hurt a particular creator's creativity.

I would not rate highly most of the films on which del Toro served as writer and/or director, either specifically as metaphenomenal films or generally as cinematic works. I got moderate entertainment from PACIFIC RIM and the first HELLBOY, was bored with MIMIC and the HELLBOY sequel, and had a strong positive reaction to PAN'S LABYRINTH, though I've not been moved to watch it again since seeing it in a theater back in 2006. I saw 2017's Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER and frankly loathed its politically correct tedium so much that I've had no stomach even to trash it. But some positive mention of CRIMSON PEAK-- the film he wrote and directed immediately prior to SHAPE-- caused me to seek out the film on DVD. After watching both the movie and del Toro's commentary-track, I posted this review on my movie-blog. In short, I rated CRIMSON as del Toro's best work, which is doubly ironic since the movie only enjoyed moderate success and certainly did not display as wide an appeal as SHAPE. Even allowing for the possibility that SHAPE may have been given a greater publicity-push by its studio, I can't deny the obvious fact that the later film succeeded with its target audience and CRIMSON did not.

Elsewhere I've described CRIMSON as a "love letter to Gothic melodrama." It may be that, even though I was fascinated by the layered density of symbolism in the film, its basic Gothic premise-- young bride comes to a mysterious house and learns terrible secrets about her groom-- was too static and/or old-fashioned to appeal to audiences in 2015. In contrast, SHAPE has a far more accessible gimmick, and one with a clearer narrative thrust. In 1962, Elisa, a downtrodden cleaning-woman, both mute and of Mexican extraction, works at a government-run installation. Elisa discovers that the installation is studying a strange "Amphibian Man"-- a clear shout-out to 1954's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON--  and she falls in love with the alien-looking but intelligent humanoid. When the young woman finds out that the Evil White Man running the project plans to dissect the Amphibian Man, Elisa and her cohorts successfully break the humanoid free and return him to the sea, and in addition, Elisa's romantic feelings are rewarded by a "happily ever" union with her beloved.

Despite SHAPE's derivative nature, it could have been a decent film, had del Toro not subsumed the mythopoeic potential of his concept by trying to teach the audience a lesson about the pernicious influence of Evil White Men. I could have tolerated a certain degree of didacticism had I felt that villainour Colonel Strickland had been more than just another stereotype. But it wasn't enough for del Toro that he should be a government drone lacking empathy-- which is actually not too far from the characterizations of most humans in the 1950s Creature-series. But when del Toro found it necessary to have Strickland expose his genitals to Elisa and the other cleaning-women-- inevitably, all women of color-- then I could no longer view SHAPE as anything but an interminable series of virtue-signaling. Evidently some audiences were able to either (1) focus on the romance and action while ignoring the political signaling, or (2) largely shared del Toro's political sympathies and so did not mind the film;s clunky posturing.

Now, I've repeatedly said that I view the primary purpose of art to be expressive rather than intellectual, but that intellectual concerns can generate emotion that their concerns, while didactic, can bleed over into an artist's expressive potential. No such "bleeding" takes place in SHAPE, but something of the kind does occur in CRIMSON PEAK.

During del Toro's commentary for CRIMSON, he goes into great detail about his aesthetic influences, but makes only occasional references to the moral universe of his film's characters. And certainly CRIMSON had as much potential as SHAPE to be a tiresome didactic lecture. Heroine Elsa-- whose name is, oddly, similar to that of SHAPE's Elisa-- is an heiress, but her family's money comes from hard-headed business practices, not from aristocratic entitlement. In contrast, Elsa's groom Thomas Sharp is an English baronet, and thus he does come from "old money," though Elsa eventually learns that the family's "absent father" squandered the family's riches. As a result Thomas and his sister Lucille inhabit a decaying manse right out of Poe's "House of Usher." Further, in the hope of renovating the property, the Sharps have taken up the practice of bride-murder, in which Lucille pimps out Thomas to wealthy matrons, and then covertly murders them so that Thomas inherits their fortunes. Elsa is just another target to Lucille, but because Thomas falls in love with the American heiress, the siblings fall out over killing Elsa, despite the fact that the two of them have been incestuously entwined since adolescence.

In his commentary del Toro talks about the film's theme as a need to break away from the past. A small-minded approach would have made CRIMSON an indictment of Old European aristocracy, and nothing more. Such a reading of CRIMSON is possible, but only by ignoring how thoroughly fascinated del Toro is with his subject matter. Didactically, he may have wanted to say that the corrupt siblings should have broken with their polluted past, and that Elsa, despite being initially deceived, is on a path to truth by rejecting their ways and overcoming Lucille's emnity. Yet, because del Toro was in love with the Gothic melodrama, he shows far more investment in the perverse world of the Sharps than he ever does in Elsa's journey to self-knowledge. That's what makes CRIMSON PEAK a rich treasure-trove of mythic images and discourse, while the only "shape" in SHAPE OF WATER is that of being an over-intellectualized reflection of a real myth, that of Universal's "Creature" films.

Monday, February 17, 2020


I posted this today on CHFB:


I recently came across a link to a Gail Simone twitter-thread that addresses some of the comments on this thread (about the BIRDS OF PREY film).

Simone, as some here will know, is famous for being one of the most celebrated BIRDS OF PREY scripters. Her twitter defends the right of the filmmakers to go "off model," saying in part:

I believe the truly great characters are elastic. You can pull them and bend them, you can stretch them. The great ones snap back. We all know what their core is. They snap back.
Now, the fact that Simone liked the film, and doesn't feel offended by the filmmakers' changes, doesn't in itself make me feel obliged to like the film. For all we know, she may have been as offended as any of us by other films in which comics characters got changed about.

In some ways, the "snap back" theory-- which I''ll attribute to Simone even though I'm sure others have voiced similar things--  is the inverse of the old "lost chance" theory. Back in the sixties, hardcore comics fans resented the Batman live-action show, because it traduced the more serious stories in the comic book. To these fans, the Batman TV show was a lost chance to show the fans' favored character in a good light, to explain to outsiders why they the fans found the character appealing and not merely "kid stuff."

The eventual fate of Batman, of course, would seem to validate Simone's "snap back" theory.  Probably no non-fans in the sixties were enthralled enough with the show to start buying Batman comics. Yet both the Bat-mania that briefly captivated an adult audience and subsequent re-runs of the sixties show, gave Batman a lot more media-currency than he'd ever had before. In the seventies comic-book Batman "snapped back" to a level of quality far beyond those of the mid-sixties "New Look" stories. It's even arguable that some comics-creators brought back "Dark Gothic Batman" as a reaction against the TV show's version, which I'm tempted to call "Candyland Batman." Tim Burton's 1989 BATMAN capitalized on this mode, and some publicity at the time even speculated about whether or not a "serious Batman" could prosper after the example of the sixties teleseries.

All of this doesn't mean that there are no situations in which a bad version of a concept or series poisons the well. The box-office failure of 1997's BATMAN AND ROBIN certainly kept the Big Bat off the live-action screen for a time, though it didn't hurt the character so much that he couldn't recover from the debacle, either in comics or in other media. On the other hand, for some characters there really was just one shot at success, and a mediocre adaptation can undermine future potential-- as witness the ancillary results of 1986's HOWARD THE DUCK.

I don't think total fidelity to the original comics is necessarily a solution, either. For me, all arguments regarding the role of fidelity boil down to one formula:

"There are good changes, and there are bad changes."

As to what makes one change good and another bad-- that can only measured through the lens of subjective perception.


Despite sporting a great title, and having earned a Nebula nomination back in the day, THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH is definitely weak sauce from the illustrious Philip K. Dick.

I read the book something like 20 or 30 years ago, and though I remembered nothing about the story, I recalled a feeling of general disappointment. On occasion re-reading novels many years later can reveal new levels one may not have perceived earlier. Not here, though.

The plot includes all the usual Dick tropes: alien invasion via conceptual manipulation rather than martial attacks, drugs opening "the doors of perception," illusions that may be another form of reality, men with one or more divorces (like Dick himself), psychic technology, and questions about authentic experience. But PALMER fails because its characters are bland and uninvolving.

"Pre-cog" Barney Mayerson is the starring character, and like most of the others, he lives in a sort of futuristic version of Madison Avenue promotional concerns. Most of the other characters are significant because of their relation to Mayerson-- his boss Leo Bulero, his ex-wife, and his current girlfriend-- but in his best books, Dick has an unparalleled ability to flesh out the lives of even support-characters. But the monotony of the faux Madison Avenue milieu makes all of the characters seem flat and undistinguished. This particularly hurts the novel in Mayerson's case, for he seems just like an unfeeling jerk for the early chapters of the book-- but by the novel's middle, he experiences a great sense of guilt over an action he fails to take. Thus, when Dick devotes the rest of the novel to Mayerson's desire to atone for his wrongs, the emotion seems forced.

The one character outside Mayerson's sphere is the legendary explorer Palmer Eldritch, who has made contact with aliens in the Proxima galaxy and is attempting to market on Earth a hallucinatory drug made from alien lichen. But the hallucinogen has effects far beyond those of anything on Planet Earth, and Mayerson eventually suspects that Eldritch is either the pawn of an alien invasion, or a simulacrum of the original explorer. Like the androids of Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, Eldritch possesses three signs of his inhuman nature-- in Palmer's case, artificial eyes, jaw, and arm. The novel calls these "stigmata" only once, and they never take on any associations with what "stigmata" signify, either in ancient or mainstream Christianity. Despite Dick's liberal references to Christianity in PALMER, his character's religions crises fare no better than the characterizations, and on the whole I hypothesize that Dick wrote the novel without adequate planning. The previous year the author wrote the less heralded MARTIAN TIME SLIP, which despite its absence of critical approval is a superior work in every way.


After formulating my distinctions of the longest structural forms in Part 1-- the compact novel and the episodic novel-- I should point out that a partial reading may be deceptive.

Last year, partly in response to the release of the film ALITA BATTLE ANGEL, I read some of the chapters of the manga. I rated IRON MAIDEN as possessed enough concrescence to qualify as a mythcomic, which is naturally predicated on recognizing it as a "long arc," but the following long arc, KILLING ANGEL, did not qualify for the same status.

To date, I still have not re-read all of ALITA, but it occurs to me that when I do, the entire series might qualify as an "episodic novel," and thus as a mythcomic in itself. If I made that judgment, then the fact that KILLING ANGEL lacked a certain level of concrescence would not affect my judgment of the whole series, any more than a mythically-weak chapter of (say) MOBY DICK would affect my judgment of the whole book.

In some cases, if a given work or series of works has been left incomplete, it's hard not to make a partial reading. I stated in Part 1 that I could have considered the eleven issues of Jack Kirby's NEW GODS series to be an episodic novel, even if the author had not been able to craft an ending for the series many years later. The ending that Kirby used in HUNGER DOGS was probably very different from anything he might have written had he concluded the series in 1971. Yet I would say that the mythic discourse of those eleven issues was strong enough to view them as a technically incomplete but symbolically complete novel.

Similarly, Steve Gerber's VOID INDIGO only enjoyed one large-sized graphic novel and two issues of a regular-sized comic book, before hostile fan-reaction to the series encouraged publisher Marvel Comics to shut down the series. Possibly I might not have liked whatever ending Gerber might have designed for the series, but I felt that the early part of his discourse was strong enough that I deemed VOID also to be akin (to borrow Aristotle's metaphor) to the acorn that, under the right circumstances, has the power to give rise to an oak.

It's hard to state with precision exactly when the discourse is strong enough to subsume any weak elements. The Don McGregor long arc "Panther's Rage" in BLACK PANTHER #6-17 is one in which I did not find a strong enough discourse overall, though I critiqued two of the McGregor stories, "The God Killer" and "Thorns in the Flesh, Thorns in the Mind" as possessing the same strong mythicity as an isolated short story, even though they're part of a larger arc. On a side note, I would probably rate the entire "Panther's Rage" highly concrescent in terms of the dramatic potentiality, since I'm of the opinion that interpersonal dynamics were the main focus of McGregor and his collaborative artists.

Thursday, February 13, 2020


Once again, I append a "part 2" to an essay written over a year ago. Just the way my mind works, it seems.

In the first CATEGORIES, I formulated seven forms of narrative, oriented upon but not confined to the medium of comics: the vignette, the short arc, the short story, the long arc, the novella, the compact novel, and the episodic novel. These formulations grew from earlier meditations on the ways in which symbolic/mythopoeic discourse arose with the sub-medium of comic strips, so the idea of mythicity was primarily my subject. I would tend to say that any of the other "domains" I've addressed on this blog follow the same narrative rules, but I don't choose to follow any of those threads at this time

At the end of the first essay, I cited one form of narrative that was somewhat outside my concerns:

Just to be clear, most serial endeavors are really just assemblages of ongoing episodes with no structuring principle, usually combining short stories and long arcs. Akamatsu's LOVE HINA is not a novel, episodic or otherwise, just because the author has in mind a summary wrap-up story.

What I simply implied in that paragraph I'll make more explicit here: such "assemblages of ongoing episodes" don't share a common "structuring principle," which I later related to such terms as "concrescence" and "epistemological patterns." Thus, I can declare a particular handful of Classic STAR TREK episodes to be mythic discourses, because each of those episodes follows the structuring principle that makes mythic discourse possible. But there's no single structuring principle uniting all of the episodes, good and bad. OPERATION ANNIHILATE is a bad "alien plague" story, and I can demonstrate how even a bad episode shares some of the some story-tropes found in a good episode on the same theme, such as THE NAKED TIME. But stories about the virtues of Federation society, whether mediocre like THE OMEGA GLORY or superior like THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, are not inherently tied to the tropes of the "alien plague" story-type. It's certainly possible to imagine an episodic novel that somehow dovetailed both themes and made them part of a greater whole. But Classic STAR TREK is not structured even to attempt such a synthesis.

Since "assemblage" is not an apt term in this case, from hereon I'll substitute the term "basic serial." The basic serial in most iterations is not meant to be structured at all; only parts of it, be they short stories, long arcs, or other forms, display the sort of patterns that can be judged in terms of concrescence.

To date, STAR TREK is the only series for which I've reviewed every episode, and oddly, it's one of the few serials that I would consider to be "mythic" not just in the epistemological sense, but in the lesser sense that a vast number of people, even  non-fans, are aware of its themes. Whenever I've reviewed whole serials in a single review, like this one, I've usually given them only a "fair" rating of mythicity, though this was meant to be only a general judgment. Now it occurs to me that it's impossible to give any rating higher than "fair" to a basic serial, since greater concrescence is not tenable in that form. The only serials that I envision proving an exception to this rule would be those that don't fit the scattershot format of the basic serial-- in other words, novellas like THAT YELLOW BASTARD, compact novels like HELLSING, and episodic novels like Kirby's NEW GODS.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020



The word “apocalypse” originally connoted an unveiling of the reality underlying the illusion of ordinary life. For several generations, the Japanese people lived in the shadow of a real-life catastrophe, that of nuclear devastation brought on when scientific research uncovered the titanic powers hiding beneath physical phenomena. With the cessation of war, the nation eventually returned to the lesser rigors of daily existence. Still, in Japanese cinema  normalcy was periodically menaced by an incarnation of chaos in the form of a dragon breathing atomic fire.

DEADMAN WONDERLAND takes place in a fictional future, though for the most part the world looks almost indistinguishable from that of modern-day Japan. However, the world of viewpoint character Ganta Igarashi does have its own apocalyptic shadow: that of the patently fictional Great Tokyo Earthquake. Ganta, like most of his middle-school peers, knows nothing about the cause of the cataclysm, which occurred when he was a small child. In his innocent existence—going to school in a rebuilt Tokyo and enjoying a mild home life with a father who’s barely seen during the entire series—Ganta doesn’t know of the link between the disaster ten years ago and Deadman Wonderland. Like most Tokyo citizens, Ganta doesn’t know anything about the Wonderlannd, except that it’s a private prison that broadcasts gladiatorial contests between its incarcerated residents. Certainly Ganta doesn’t know that the bizarre edifice just happens to exist at the former epicenter of the quake.

Innocent Ganta soon gets an education in hard knocks. One fine day, all of the students in his class are slaughtered by a weird, super-powered being whom Ganta describes as “the Red Man.”  Ganta alone survives the massacre, and since no one else beholds the spectre of the true killer, the authorities find it expedient to condemn Ganta as a mass murderer.  In no time, the young man is sentenced to the life of a prisoner in Deadman Wonderland, the first step in his journey to knowledge—not only with regard to the prison’s relevance to Tokyo’s apocalyptic history, but also to the youth's own familial background. As is often the case, children suffer for the sins of the previous generation.

On Ganta’s first day “in stir,” head guard Makina tells him, “Absurdity is your new reality.” To the reader, one patent absurdity is the way the prison operates. Though Ganta and his fellow inmates wear collars that can stun them if they rebel, the Wonderland doesn’t otherwise restrict their movements. Though some areas of the prison are off limits, inmates are allowed to wander from cell to cell, much as if they occupied a college dormitory. But this freedom is perhaps explained by the fact that though not every prison is termed a “deadman,” all of them receive periodical doses of poison from their collars, and so will perish if they don’t labor to earn an antidote called “candy.”  The gladiatorial games, which citizens on the outside believe to be fake spectacles, exist to make money for corrupt warden Tamaki, though even his strings are being pulled by a darker mastermind.

The real meaning of “deadman?”  For reasons relating to the cataclysm ten years ago, many inmates have mutated, acquiring a weird super-power called “the branch of sin.” In essence, the deadmen (and deadwomen) have the ability to make weapons out of blood from their opened veins.  Spikes, whips, flames—deadman-blood seems as malleable as the energies of a Green Lantern’s ring. Ganta himself proves to be a deadman, and finds that he can shoot blood-projectiles from his fingers like bullets from a gun. Ganta must use this new talent to preserve his life in various contests, even while trying not to become corrupted by the perverse indifference of both convicts and officials.

But the prison’s greatest absurdity is Shiro, who seems to come out of nowhere and doesn’t occupy a cell like the other convicts. Shiro, a teenaged albino girl with white hair and red eyes, displays immense strength and agility, though she doesn’t initially show deadman-abilities. She acts as if she knows Ganta, though he does not reoognize her, at least initially.  Shiro usually talks like a small child, though she can sometimes speak in more adult tones, and not surprisingly it’s eventually disclosed that the two of them did know each other as children. Warden Tamaki and his overseer know all of Shiro’s secrets, though, and these villains aspire to use the convicts of Deadman Wonderland for insidious purposes.

Like many “new fish” sentenced to prison, Ganta is an uncorrupted innocent who seems doomed to be overwhelmed by the evil of both the prison and its prisoners. Most of the support-characters whom Ganta encounters have manifested their deadman-powers in line with suffering various personal traumas, and they essentially embrace the Wonderland’s horrors rather than confront their own demons. But Ganta, despite his apparent “everyman” nature and comparative weakness, becomes a rallying-point for his fellow trauma-victims. Minatsuki, a vicious, foul-mouthed patricide, initially scorns Ganta for his bleeding-heart empathy. But after she’s been exposed to his relentless purity, she finds herself seduced by the prospect of hope. Ganta’s loyalty to one friend even leads his temporary inmate-allies to reject him for a time. Yet Shiro, in one of her rare moments of eloquence, brings the lost sheep back to the fold by telling them, “If bad memories are stronger than you are, don’t blame it on Ganta.”

This and other lines evince the common theme of WONDERLAND: the uniquely Japanese take on Nietzchean self-overcoming. I’m tempted to the belief that no one but a Japanese author could have a hero rage, “I want to become strong enough to beat the crap out of my weaker self.” Ordinary life is seen to be an illusion, and yet a necessary illusion for all that. Ganta and Shiro are linked by the sins of the older generation—in particular, of Ganta’s deceased mother, one of the scientists who unleashed both the earthquake and the “branch of sin” mutation.Yet through the efforts of her children, real and adopted—through Ganta’s persistence and in spite of the the monster hiding behind Shiro’s seeming looniness-- it turns out that even deadmen can resurrect themselves. WONDERLAND’s many wonders cannot be explicated in a single blogpost. However, in contrast to many of the narratives that pretend to evoke the lunatic spirit of Lewis Carroll, authors Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou succeed in creating a world no less governed by insanity. Yet they also manage to show how, in the vein of Dante, one must descend to the deepest circles of hell before one has any hope of returning to the world of light and comparative sanity.    

Monday, February 10, 2020


In the midst of his birthday celebration amid the other X-Men, Nightcrawler’s soul is stolen from his body. With the help of Doctor Strange, the X-Men conjure forth the spectre of the entity responsible for their friend’s “death:” a sorceress named Margali. She pulls Strange and the X-Men into the same other-dimensional prison to which she’s condemned Nightcrawler's soul: a world fashioned to resemble Dante’s Inferno.

Once the mutants and the master magician find their quarry, his “soul” has the same solidity as his body, and the heroes battle against the various demons as they follow Dante’s course of escape: descending to the center of hell. Once there, Margali reveals herself, but claims that she had nothing to do with the other heroes appearing in her other-dimensional world.

Her daughter Jimaine appears, attesting that she was actually responsible for bringing the other heroes to the hell-world, to help Nightcrawler. Margali relates that she became Nightcrawler’s foster mother when he was an orphaned infant, and that she raised him beside her natural children Jimaine and Stefan. However, Stefan apparently went mad and slaughtered people, forcing Nightcrawler to slay the young man. Margali, upon learning the truth, forgives her foster son and returns everyone, including Jimaine, to the real world.

At this point Jimaine reveals that she’s been watching over Nightcrawler for some time, disguising herself as a young woman, Amanda, whom Nightcrawler has been dating. This revelation—that Nightcrawler has been dating his foster sister—and perhaps more than dating, since he references “all we’ve done together”—raises the possibility that Nightcrawler might have had romantic relations with Jimaine while still living with her, Margali, and Stefan. Indeed, the tenuous explanation allotted to Stefan’s madness suggests that author Chris Claremont might have tossed in that rationale in place of some variation of “the Laertes trope,” in which a devoted brother seeks to kill his sister’s lover, whether out of sexual jealousy or mere protectiveness.

Saturday, February 8, 2020


At the conclusion of the first WORK PLAY ACT essay I wrote:

How does "play" manifest in a performance, be it live or preserved on celluloid? It may be through innumerable bits of physical "business" that convey to the audience a more organic sense of the character's actuality, or it may be something more sweeping, a mental concept of the character that assembles all of the disparate "parts" of the performance into a whole greater than the sum of those parts. But in any case, the profession of the actor seems particularly apt as a means of distinguishing the interacting forms of work and play.

In the essay I cited Humphrey Bogart as an example of an actor renowned for his performances in many films, not least the 1941 flicks HIGH SIERRA and MALTESE FALCON. I focused on those two films because it was rumored that both lead roles were originally offered to George Raft, an actor of more limited abilities. The likelihood that Raft would have done little for either of these roles does not, of course, mean that Bogart alone could have depicted the characters well. Without doubt, many actors existed then, and still exist now, who could've brought the same level of acting-imagination to those lead characters that Bogart did.

Now, the scripts for both films were above-average as well, so any actor embodying those characters might be said to have "a leg up." In the majority of my movie-reviews I've tended to credit any mythicity films may possess to their writers or their directors. Understandably, the primary aspect of the acting craft relates to the dramatic potentiality: the art of showing how a given character interacts with other characters. The actor can also put across aspects of the other three potentialities-- the kinetic, the didactic, and the mythopoeic-- but in most cases, I would tend to think that the actor translates these from the script he or she works with.

Having conceived of this general rule, I considered possible exceptions. George Raft in MALTESE FALCON would not have been able to bring many of the potentialities of the script to life, even as, arguably, Ricardo Cortez failed to do playing Sam Spade in the 1931 adaptation. But what about actors who realize potentialities that the script does not?

In this review I gave the 1992 SLEEPWALKERS, directed by Mick Garris from an original script by Stephen King, a "poor" rating for its mythicity. If I were rating the film on its other three potentialities, it would prove equally dismal on the didactic level, but might get a "fair" in terms of kinetics (lots of sex and violence). "Dramatic" is a little dicier, since most of the main actors-- Brian Krause, Madchen Amick, Ron Perlman-- turned in no more than serviceable performances for the undercooked, inane script. But I had to give special credit to Alice Krige:

King may have been thinking of Egyptian myths involving incestuous content when he conceived Mary and Charles, for like Horus and Isis in certain tales, the mother and son are sleeping together. As a plot-point this doesn't add much to the story. But it does allow for the film's one source of merit. Though the other actors put across competent performances, only Alice Krige, playing Mary, distinguishes herself. She brings to the under-scripted role a heady ambivalence, in that she's simultaneously a woman jealous of her young lover's possible affections for their targets, and yet also a mother who cherishes her son and perhaps, on some level, wishes he could have a normal life with someone other than her. But as I said, this is only suggested by Krige's performance, for the thud-and-blunder script gives her no help at all. 
Given that I've not seen the script used for the 1992 film, it's not impossible that Krige was given some cues by it, or by director Garris, that enhanced her performance. However, I think it's more likely that she showed the same quality of acting-imagination that I imputed to Bogart in the earlier essay. Much of this imagination was dramatic in nature, just as I've described it in the excerpt. At the same time, Krige's acting shades into the mythopoeic, insofar as one can see in her attitude a complex of emotions comparable to, say, Isis linking up with her son-lover Horus. I doubt that Krige got any help at all from the script, but in a really good script on this mythic theme, Krige's performance would have enhanced by the narrative of such a film. To see how such a film on that theme might be done right, one might look at Stephen Frears' 1990 adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel THE GRIFTERS. Even though the Frears film takes place in a dark and seedy reality, with no metaphenomenal presences whatever, the interaction between son John Cusack and mother Angelica Huston is actually closer to both the dramatic and mythopoeic potentialities of the Isis-Horus myth.