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

Sunday, March 29, 2020


The sixth Fu Manchu book is arguably the best in the series, with the possible exception of the novel that introduces the devil-doctor. It’s definitely the first book in the series that doesn’t feel like a bunch of episodic events strung together, which may be the result of Rohmer treating his small cast of characters after the fashion of archaic Greek drama.

New viewpoint character Alan Sterling is certainly a huge improvement over the dull Shan Greville from books four and five. Though Sterling’s occupation of “roving botanist” doesn’t sound as promising as the career of roving archeaologist Greville, Sterling’s a much more decisive hero, managing to slay two of Fu Manchu’s dacoit servants, albeit with a handgun. And while Greville merely fantasizes about enacting the “Troy complex” when he first meets Doctor Petrie’s beauteous wife Karameneh, Sterling actually does manage to steal the titular “bride of Fu Manchu.”

Sterling’s flower-hunting profession is key to his involvement in the story, for he consults informally with the redoubtable Doctor Petrie, investigating a deadly new contagion in France. The contagion is of course the creation of Fu Manchu, and both Petrie and Denis Nayland Smith have been drawn to France to foil the doctor’s plans for world domination. (Petrie, incidentally, catches the disease he’s trying to cure and spends most of the novel at death’s door, though his prior discovery of a vaccine ends up nullifying Fu’s plans.) Yet Sterling is the first to make indirect contact with Fu’s fiendish plans, for in addition to menacing the world with a disease carried by hybrid flies, the doctor’s brought his prospective bride to France as well. Fleurette (French for “little flower”) charms Sterling the mment he has a meet-cute with her, even though he’s given reason to suspect that she’s the kept woman of an older master. By the magic of authorial fiat, though, Sterling crosses paths twice more with Fleurette, and his slaying of the second dacoit leads Fu Manchu to abduct the botanist.

Indeed, being a botanist is apparently the only thing that saves Sterling’s life. Fu Manchu’s French hideout is one of the first and best of all “supervillain lairs,” a massive underground laboratory devoted to diverse researches, replete with exotic plants, fearsome animals (not least a spider “as large as a grapefruit”), and a deformed, artificially-grown humanoid called a “homunculus.” Moroever, Fu Manchu has considerably upped his game in terms of servants. In the previous five books, most of Fu’s servants seem to be near-mindless assassins, and the doctor’s principle stratagem seems to be trying to find ways to foment in the East against the interests of the West. But Fu’s French laboratory is staffed with the finest scientists from East and West—some of whom are supposedly dead, and all of whom have been subjected to chemical brainwashing. The prospective plague is of course Fu’s principle threat, but he needs botanists like Sterling to help with his research, not least to improve on his elixir vitae, which keeps Fu vigorous despite his considerable age.

As in previous books, though, the master scientist outsmarts himself, this time by bringing Sterling into closer contact with Fleurette. The devil-doctor is certainly aware, in his magisterial way, of Sterling’s attempt to flirt with Fleurette, but evidently the villain assumes that once his people subject Sterling to the brainwashing, the young man will no longer pose any threat. But Fu’s rebellious daughter Fah Lo Suee doesn’t want her father to give her any siblings—particularly not a son, who would in theory supplant her—and so she makes sure that Sterling’s brainwash-chemical is compromised, and the botanist remains mentally free, albeit in captivity.

Because of this relative freedom, Sterling does unveil some of Fleurette’s mysteries, learning that she’s half-Arab and that from childhood she’s been schooled to become “the perfect woman” in terms of bearing and intellect, the better to be the mother of a new son of Fu Manchu. (Apparently Fu tried this before with the Russian mother of Fah Lo Suee, but he blames the fruit of that union on the “taint of a distant ancestor.” Whether it’s a paternal or maternal ancestor, Fu does not say.) Rohmer also tosses out the idea that Fleurette may have prophetic powers that could aid Fu Manchu in his quest for dominion, though she’s not really seen showing any such propensities. Indeed, Sterling is seen having more than his fair share of precognitive episodes, though Nayland Smith attributes these incidents—like seeing the face of Fu Manchu in a dream-reverie, long before meeting the villain face-to-face—to some sort of empathic connection between Sterling and Fleurette.

It’s not clear why the doctor, who’s willing to brainwash almost everyone in his service, does not do the same to Fleurette, so that she would feel for him such adulation that love with another man ought to be impossible. As it is, Fleurette only feels immense respect for Fu, her substitute father-figure, though Rohmer provides no scenes of character-interaction between Fu and his intended. Whatever the doctor’s reasons for not covering his bets, Sterling succeeds in winning Fleurette from her master. Surprisinigly, while Fu Manchu is willing to consign thousands to plague-death in order to reshape the world, he isn’t willing to contravene the power of love, either by killing Sterling or by belatedly brainwashing Fleurette. (He does take out some of his frustration on the traitorous Fah Lo Suee, expressing his contempt for Western chivalry as he personally flogs his daughter—which action may speak volumes about why she’s so often a thorn in his side.)

Nayland Smith belatedly enters the novel to lead police forces on the compound, but though the police rescue Sterling, Fu escapes with both Fleurette and Doctor Petrie (whose death the mastermind fakes, with the long game of making Petrie into another slave). The pursuit does lead to Fu Manchu being captured by French police, though, as in the first novel, the mastermind uses his skills of illusionism to escape and menace the world once more. Both Petrie and Fleurette are liberated, but by then Sterling has learned a further secret from Nayland Smith: that Fleurette is actually the long-lost daughter of Petrie and Karameneh.

It’s at this point that Sax Rohmer does seem to borrowing a bit from the Atreus Saga. Eighteen years ago, the Petries believed that their infant daughter had perished of illness. In truth, the medical mastery of Fu Manchu placed the child in a cataleptic state, and then allowed one of his agents to raise the girl to maturity, always with the plan that Fleurette would become Fu’s bride later.

I’ve mentioned in my review of INSIDIOUS DR FU MANCHU that Rohmer first characterizes Karameneh as someone who might be Fu’s “servant, daughter, or lover,” though only the first appellation proves literally true. Petrie manages to enact his own “Troy complex” by stealing the heart of Karameneh, and though in the second book Fu Manchu retaliates by trying to eradicate Karameneh’s memory of Petrie, love restores the former slave’s memory. Indeed, Fu’s first “rebel daughter” repays him in kind: he messes with her mind, and she shoots him in the head. After the introduction of the villain’s genuine daughter, she proves alternately obedient and rebellious to her father’s will. Fleurette is the first female character who has the potential to be “servant, daughter and lover” to Fu Manchu, and though she’s not as willful as either Karameneh or Fah Lo Suee, Rohmer does give her more wit and personality than most of his femmes fatales. Surprisingly, no one in the novel makes any comment at all upon Fu’s motives for choosing to steal the child of the Petries. The logical supposition of most similar thrillers would be that he did so for base revenge. However, over the years Rohmer built up the image of Fu Manchu as a magnanimous foe, so mere vengeance would have seemed out-of-character, even though the act of child-stealing has the same emotional impact on its victims. The author may have wanted this magnanimity in order to explain why the villain does not (for example) ever attempt Karameneh’s life for her act of rebellion. (He does kidnap Karameneh in the third book, but once he’s used her as a chess-piece against Petrie, he never bothers her again.) The next book repeats this pattern, as Book Seven shows Fu kidnapping Fleurette, not for vengeance but to use her as a pawn in his unending chess-game.


Posted this on my political forum re: the mini-controversy regarding "the China virus:"


[the OP] spoke of "ethnic scapegoating." I reiterate that it's not incorrect to speak of a virus in terms of its point of origin, and that by NOT doing so, you open the door to losing track of persons who may be responsible for the virus' promulgation.

For instance, on an episode of THE VIEW this week, Lisa Ling found fault with Trump's lack of action in the first two months (which she describes as "months and months," as if half a year transpired). While (falsely) claiming that she didn't want to play the blame game, she claimed that Trump's only possible reason for using the term "Chinese virus" was to "deflect" from his own lack of action. "Wag the Pekingese Dog," if you will.

She also talked out of both sides of her face. One minute she claims she has "no love for the Chinese government" and that she found their hushup "indefensible." Yet the next minute she claims that it wouldn't made any difference to whether or not the U.S. took the disease more seriously as to its "severity?" Hello? Does anyone actually believe that, if the Chinese gov't had been totally transparent in January, Trump would not have ramped up defenses then, instead of in March?

This sort of willful amnesia is precisely what I'm talking about. Ling is of Chinese extraction, and some of her people have undoubtedly been attacked or inconvenienced by dimwit racists. But her problems don't excuse her attempt to rewrite the same history we've all experienced. At the end of her screed Ling even claims "we should be asking China for help" in managing our situation. Yeah, if I were Prez I don't think I'd be in any great hurry to follow China's lead. I don't have to believe that she likes the Chinese Communist government to realize that she's the one using the virus as an excuse to attack Trump on the usual talking-points of supposed inefficiency and supposed racism.

On a semi-related note, I heard some idiot reporter on MEET THE PRESS ask Joe Biden if Trump "had blood on his hands." Wow, talk about playing to the peanut gallery! At least Ling was relatively subtle in her partisanship. ADDENDA: the idiot reporter was Chuck Todd, whom I've never watched before, and plan not to watch again.

Monday, March 23, 2020


Jim Starlin rose to prominence at Bronze-Age Marvel like the proverbial comet. After he took over writing and drawing Marvel Comics’s moribund CAPTAIN MARVEL title, he spun an inventive tale of the mad demigod Thanos, who worshiped a feminine incarnation of Death and ascended to godhood with the help of a Lee-Kirby artifact, the Cosmic Cube. Indeed, it could be argued that this was the first multi-issue narrative that rivaled those of Lee and Kirby. Captain Marvel defeated Thanos by playing on the villain's ego, but though the hero later passed away, the demigod proved far more durable. During Starlin’s tenure on the feature WARLOCK—one portion of which I reviewed here—the artist-writer arguably pursued his cosmic vistas to even greater effect. It was in the stories devoted to Warlock—a reworked version of a Lee-Kirby character known only as “Him”—that Starlin slightly pilfered motifs from the work of Michael Moorcock, and evolved the idea of a “soul gem.” Though Thanos was largely left alone by other Marvel raconteurs, possibly in deference to Starlin, over time one soul gem multiplied into several, all with different properties from the jewel used by Warlock. By the early nineties, Starlin apparently decided to weave a tapestry capable of dovetailing all of these continuity-additions into his own cosmos of personal concerns.

Though in the early nineties I was still keeping a weather-eye on Marvel comics, I didn’t read INFINITY GAUNTLET or any of its subsequent spin-offs. I was far from pleased by either Marvel’s exploitation of the concept of the “multi-series crossover,” or with Starlin’s dubious Metamorphosis Odyssey, one part of which I negatively reviewed here. So I ignored this saga of the “soul gems,” which, when placed upon Thanos’s glove, bestowed on him the power of “the Infinity Gauntlet.” To the extent that I even was aware of the series’ basic plotline, I probably would have thought it to be little more than a reworking of that first “Cosmic Cube” story.

Now that I’ve read GAUNTLET, I think this is an accurate judgment, but in this case, Starlin improved upon the earlier story. The CAPTAIN MARVEL narrative is a fun cosmic superhero tale, but it shows little insight into the master villain and his perverse fascination with a feminine version of Death. Further, GAUNTLET, despite being prefaced by several issues of a Starlin-scribed SILVER SURFER feature, and being tied in to various other Marvel features, shows a surer mythic discourse than the big-screen film it inspired, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

One superior aspect of Starlin’s narrative is that the initiating action of the story begins on a metaphysical plane too ambitious for the live-action movie. It’s Death herself, not Thanos, who gets the idea that the universe has become too prolific with living beings, and needs to be culled. In the movie Thanos is given a more “realistic” motive, that of wanting to prevent suffering by thinning the universal herd, but this putative realism is one that begs not to be examined too closely. In this case, a strong metaphysical myth—“Death Gets Tired of Too Much Life”—proves far more resonant than a weak sociological extrapolation. At any rate, Death resuscitates Thanos from whatever grisly fate he last met, and sends him out to gather the Infinity Gems. With these, he crafts the Gauntlet, with which he can wipe out half of all living beings with one snap of his fingers.

The snap” which received so much emphasis in INFINITY WAR appears for just one panel in GAUNTLET. Still, like the movie-makers, Starlin gets a lot of mileage out of the resultant drama, as various Marvel characters lose friends and loved ones, though to be sure Starlin devotes less attention than the movie does to rank-and-file humankind. But then, Starlin takes far more time than the movie did to explore the villain’s psychology, suggesting that Thanos's eroticization of the force of Death reveals his basic fear of failure in life. Not that psychology is in the driver’s seat here. The forces of life are championed by most of Marvel’s major heroes, as well as almost all of Marvel’ quasi-omnipotent beings, from the famed Galactus to the obscure Living Tribunal (who, in a demonstration of cosmic legalism, chooses not to join the fight against Thanos because it’s the nature of life to devour life).

In contrast to, say, SECRET WARS, where all of the combined heroes share roughly the same narrative emphasis, most of the champions in GAUNTLET come “on stage” just to speak a few lines and toss a few blasts, fists, or adamantine claws at the god-powered evildoer. Thanos gets so much attention from Starlin that he’s almost the star of the show. However, Starlin subtly allows the narrative to be dominated by the hero who functioned most often as Thanos’s nemesis following the demise of Captain Marvel: the aforementioned Warlock. With this character, Starlin may have been subconsciously influenced by another myth from the Lee-Kirby bag of tricks. Lee and Kirby gave readers a dynamic opposition between the angelic Silver Surfer and the planet-devouring Galactus, and Starlin uses similar motifs, contrasting the arrogant, world-destroying “false deity” Thanos to the calm, almost Christ-like mien of Warlock. Nevertheless, Starlin’s variation on this metaphysical myth has its own organic charms. When Thanos’s would-be mistress Death spurns him for the act of assuming godhood, he tries to scorn her in return by creating a female version of himself, but one who mirrors his own desires. You certainly wouldn’t catch Galactus creating an erotic double of himself in order to stroke his ego.

There are flaws. Starlin devotes considerable space to a character he didn’t invent, Nebula, the granddaughter of Thanos. But though she manages to steal the Gauntlet from her ancestor, she remains a flat character, both here and in most of her appearances. In this particular case the Marvel Studios films improved on Nebula in terms of her dramatic impact.

In my review of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, I called attention to the way in which the filmmakers used the event of “the Snap” to evoke the tragic sense of “survivors’ guilt” following a great catastrophe. Like most cosmic Marvel sagas, the events of GAUNTLET have no more lasting impact than sweeping the pieces off a board in order to initiate a new game. INFINITY WAR borrows the ending of GAUNTLET—the scene of a contented Thanos, satisfied to live a bucolic existence and give up being a super-villain. In both stories, this conclusion is designed to be shattered at some future time. Nevertheless, whatever Starlin chose to do with Thanos in his next big cosmic extravaganza, the narrative within GAUNTLET is so impressively coherent that one may choose to believe that within this one story-arc, Starlin really did bring his massively insecure malefactor a measure of peace.

ADDENDUM 11-26-2020: The more I think about it, the more I believe that Thanos really IS the star of this particular show, not least because he passes on his burden to Warlock. That would explain why Warlock, despite being the master organizer, is to some extent outmaneuvered at the conclusion-- for all that Starlin had another epic on the horizon.


The title of Sax Rohmer’s fifth “Fu Manchu” book has garnered some fame thanks to the Boris Karloff adaptation. The book itself is not one of the author’s more outstanding books in the series, however, being very close to being a potboiler.

MASK uses most of the same cast from DAUGHTER. Again the viewpoint character is the extremely dull Shan Greville, and again he’s brought into the world of Oriental crime through his ties with his employer, archaeologist Lionel Barton, and Barton’s niece Rima (still Greville’s romantic interest, whom he marries at the book’s conclusion). In DAUGHTER one of Barton’s discoveries incited the interests of Fu Manchu, and MASK follows the same pattern. This time Barton starts out in Persia, where he unearths several relics—including the titular mask—belonging to El Mokanna, the long-dead leader of an Islamic revolutionary cult. Fu Mancnu seeks to obtain the relics in order to create the illusion of a recrudescent El Mokanna, one able to stir all the hordes of Islam to rise up against the West.

Also back from the previous novel is Fu Manchu’s daughter. The previous novel showed Fah Lo Suee making a gambit to take over the Si-Fan from her aging father. In MASK father and daughter seem reconciled, though in a conversation with Greville, Fu mentions that he had to purchase his daughter’s aid with an inducement; that of allowing her to pursue her ardor for Greville. Given that Fah is as much a master of mind-altering drugs as her father, she has little trouble in bending the rather passive protagonist to her will. Rohmer keeps everything between the two of them G-rated on the surface, but probably even in the thirties no reader believed that she and the doped Greville exchanged nothing beyond kisses. Fah gets almost as many good lines in the novel as her august progenitor, and indeed the other British characters in the novel are not even close to being as interesting than the Asian mastermind and his quixotic daughter. (Even after his defeat by Nayland Smith and Barton, Fu is magnanimous enough to send Greville and Rima a very expensive wedding present.)

Greville also plays a role in Fu’s plan to gain the relics from Barton, but the main action of the novel becomes repetitive, almost verging on a game of “relics, relics, who’s got the relics.” When Fu captures Rima in order to blackmail Barton into giving up the El Mokannna treasures, Barton—repeatedly portrayed as an egotistical man-child—switches the originals with forgeries. On one hand, Barton’s gambit foils the plans of the devil-doctor, as it’s implied that the Mokanna plot fails when Fu can’t produce the real artifacts to impress certain “learned Moslems.” On the other, Greville and Nayland Smith are never comfortable with Barton’s chicanery, given that he, a Briton, shows less of a sense of honor than the Chinese villain.

Clearly Rohmer chose to recycle a concept suggested in both the third and fourth books, wherein some charismatic figure—both times, one that would’ve been impersonated by Fah Lo Suee—was set up to incite massive revolts in the East. In MASK Rohmer very loosely models his fictional “El Mokanna” character on the historical Islamic figure known as “the Mahdi.” Not surprisingly, Rohmer has no interest in how El Mokanna’s uprising might work in the real world, or how it would work to the benefit of Fu Manchu. “The rising of the East” belongs to the world of sociological myth, existing purely to speak to the anxities of colonial Europe. Fu Manchu had his origins in similar anxieties, specifically spawned by the Boxer Rebellion. Yet, once Rohmer settled into the demands of writing regular installments in the devil-doctor’s career of crime, the author became increasingly less interested in the idea of some vague Asiatic menace, and began showing Fu more as a master of intrigue and espionage.

Aside from some of the usual tricks with drugs and mindreading, Fu Manchu doesn’t display much of his signature inventiveness. He shows Greville a chemical that can make steel as brittle as chocolate, but though this resource is used in a later chapter, it’s not overly memorable. The novel’s most significant moment is Fu’s revelation that he’s at last found an “elixir of youth,” Since Fu is last seen in DAUGHTER as an infirm old man, Rohmer may have consciously realized that his villain no longer cut an impressive figure, and that as the writer he had to give Fu a literal immortality, anticipating the immortality Fu would enjoy in popular fiction. At this point in the series, Fah Lo Suee, said to be about thirty, has not yet partaken of the elixir herself. But even without immortality, she seems far less comfortable with her superhuman status than her magisterial father.

Friday, March 13, 2020


In my review of Dennis Wheatley's 1934 novel THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, I mentioned that the book struck me as being more "cosmopolitan" than some pop-fiction of the period. For instance, the ensemble of the first book included Rex Van Rijn (American), Richard Eaton (a presumably Christian Brit), Simon Aron (Jewish Brit), and the Duc de Richleau (Frenchman). One of DEVIL's support-characters, Eaton's Russian-born wife Marie-Lou, becomes a de facto addition to the "four musketeers," who during Wheatley's career were equally known for battling both foreign intrigue and supernatural evil. Yet I also had a dim memory of some dodgy racial aspects to the next of Wheatley's supernatural outings, the 1941 STRANGE CONFLICT, though I hadn't read it in over twenty years.
I've now finished re-reading CONFLICT, and my negative memory of the novel's racial politics were more than justified. It must be said that, to the extent that one can put aside an awareness of those politics, CONFLICT is nevertheless a suspenseful action-adventure story, though not as involving, or as symbolically inventive, as DEVIL RIDES OUT.

CONFLICT takes place in 1941, when England is suffering under the impact of the Blitz. Though the Duc and his friends are not directly involved with the British military, they're nevertheless enlisted for a special mission. It seems that the German forces have been continually attacking British naval positions with uncanny accuracy. Since there seems to be no physical way for German agents to have gained such intelligence, the Duc searches for metaphysical solutions. Sure enough, when the Duc and two of his friends unleash their astral bodies-- something that was old-hat in Wheatley when Doctor Strange wasn't even a gleam in Steve Ditko's eye-- they do indeed find that an evil adept has been spying on British naval positions, and transmitting said info to the Nazis. The "five musketeers" must then track down the adept and block his attempts to help the Axis forces.

In DEVIL RIDES OUT, Wheatley devoted considerable energy to researching the purported occultism-theories of his time, and he wrought an imaginative tapestry from that raw info, producing one of the best "occult detective" novels of the 20th century. There are some inventive touches in CONFLICT, but Wheatley is not nearly as interested in metaphysics this time around. Instead he's advocating a sociological theme that might be considered out-of-step even in his own era: the idea that "people of color" need to keep their place.

In today's political climate, it's also impossible to distinguish a "racial myth" from a genuinely racist myth. All sociological myths have some elements of chauvinism, and thus I've defended various authors, from Sax Rohmer to Margaret Mitchell, from the charge of "active racism." I cannot, however, make any such defense of Dennis Wheatley, because I think he's actively pushing the idea that European and American colonizing forces should never have ceased their dominion over what President Taft called "our little brown brothers."

Though the Nazis are the proximate cause of England's sufferings, somehow Wheatley never manages to address what modern readers consider the Third Reich's defining characteristic: an attempt to extol the Aryan Race above all the so-called "mongrel hordes." Despite the fact that one of the musketeers is Jewish, there's no mention of Jews suffering in concentration camps. Wheatley saves all of his anger for the maltreatment of other Europeans, such as French and Polish peoples. Wheatley's concerns are so Eurocentric that he never says much of anything about the Pacific conflict, though one unnamed Japanese agent has a minor role in CONFLICT. Wheatley does call the agent a "Jap," but the author shows no overt animus toward Orientals, and the enemy spy even gives a half-decent account of himself, using judo against the Herculean American Rex. Apparently Wheatley saved up all of his resentments for persons of the Negro race, showing no awareness that the Nazis shared similar sentiments.

About a hundred pages into the novel, the Duc and his aides encounter the enemy adept and fight him on the astral plane, where all of them change their shapes continually. At one point the adept assumes the form of "a brawny Negro," which turns out to be a half-truth at best. The adept escapes the heroes, but they find a clue that leads them to the adept's home base in Haiti. The quintet travels to Haiti, and on the way they pick up an apparent ally, a mute young woman named Philippa. At this point, the reader has no real evidence of any animus toward Negroes, not least because Philippa is presented as a perfectly comely young woman, despite being an "octoroon."

However, once the travelers arrive in Haiti, they're given constant evidence that the country is a cesspool, one that badly needs European or American oversight to be run properly. To be sure, most of these negative observations stem from an apparent benefactor, a very educated "Mulatto" named Doctor Saturday, who's perhaps not above prejudice when he claims that mulattos are inevitably smarter than pure Negroes. Nevertheless, one suspects that Wheatley is making Saturday the vehicle for his own sentiments, while allowing his sturdy Brit heroes to rise above such invidious statements. In addition, since Saturday regales the travelers with copious stories about the practice of voodoo, only a very dim reader would not suspect that Saturday is actually the mystery adept, who showed his "true color" on the astral plane by making himself look like a Negro man. Though there are a few instances in which the heroes encounter Haitians who don't fit the stereotypes of laziness or stupidity, Wheatley clearly puts his thumb on the scales to show that black people cannot self-govern. And even the "octoroon" Philippa is actually one of Saturday's pawns, in that she's actually a zombie whom Saturday assigned to keep tabs on his enemies. Despite being mute, she would seem to be the most high-functioning zombie in all literature.

The only positive thing one can say about Doctor Saturday is that, in order to make him a real threat, Wheatley can't avoid depicting him as a brilliant opponent to the musketeers. That said,, he's still a pretty flat figure in comparison to an impressive "racial myth" character like Rohmer's Fu Manchu. His entire motivation comes down to his having been rejected by his British Caucasian father, and this instills in him the desire to see the British people wiped out by the Axis forces. Neither he nor any other character points out that his Nazi masters might want to see his race similarly wiped off the face of the Earth. It's hard to believe that Wheatley was unaware of Nazi racial theories, and so I suspect that he didn't want to say anything that would palliate his message. Indeed, even Wheatley's gods share the author's prejudices. In one sequence, Saturday conjures up the goat-god Pan to use his power against the Duc. Pan, however, considers himself a European god, and in due time he manages to turn the tables on the "half-caste" sorcerer, driving him to his death with a "Pan-ic attack."

With the possible exception of the early "Bulldog Drummond" novels, STRANGE CONFLICT may be the most relentlessly Anglophilic novel of the 20th century. It ends with the Duc pronouncing an encomium on the so-called "Anglo-Saxon race," claiming that it is "the last Guardian of the Light" and "the Bulwark of the World." After the publication of CONFLICT, Wheatley wrote five more "political intrigue" novels with the musketeers, concluding the series with one last "supernatural adventure," published in 1970 even though it dealt with the heroes in the 1950s. It will be interesting to see how the author reacted to the complete dissolution of the colonial world that he advocated.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


Since some years had passed since I'd read THE CABBIE, Marti Riera's ironic satire of DICK TRACY, I decided to peruse some randomly chosen Chester Gould continuities before I put forth any comments on Riera's work. I found that not only did Riera successfully ape the cartoony grotesqueries of Gould's work, he also successfully riffed on Gould's righteous "crime does not pay" nostrums.

To my knowledge CABBIE seems to be Riera's best-known work in the United States. I saw some talk online about a possible sequel to the one-shot work from 1987, but I had no problem with regarding this comics-album as a stand-alone work, despite an ending that's mean to frustrate the average reader's desire for closure.

No actual name is given to the titular protagionist. A spirit-voice calls him "Cabbie ForHIre" once, but I think this was probably a pun. Even his sister just calls the blond cab-driver "Cabbie." He's just an ordinary working-stiff, but his life changes when he thwarts a thief trying to rip off one of the Cabbie's passengers.

The Cabbie gains a measure of social approval for his brave act, but his home life shows that he's no hero. He lives a macabre existence, for his mother has kept the dead body of Cabbie's father inside a coffin in their apartment. In addition, she holds over his head the promise of a great inheritance Cabbie's father left behind. It seems likely that the mother takes this action to make sure Cabbie keeps her with him, rather than packing her off to an old-folks home.

However, the criminal whom Cabbie sends to jail, the aged John Smith, just happens to encounter his equally crooked son while in prison. John Smith Junior-- whose name reminds one of Dick Tracy's faithful adopted son Junior-- swears vengeance on Cabbie. Once Junior is out of stir, he finds Cabbie's apartment and takes out his wrath on the driver's mother. This accidentally works to Junior's advantage. When Cabbie comes home, Junior hides in another room, and he overhears the mother-- albeit reluctantly-- reveal that the inheritance is hidden in the father's coffin.

Junior and Cabbie then begin a long battle over the bounty in the coffin. Cabbie plays detective and follows the thief to a shack near a sewage dump, where Jones's white-trash family lives. However, though Cabbie overtakes Junior, the would-be hero lets his guard down when Honey, Junior's under-aged sister, comes on to Cabbie and slips him a mickey. Thus Cabbie ends up in a standard Gould death-trap, though with a modernistic touch in that the hero is doomed to be drowned in sewage and shit.

Cabbie escapes, of course, and in a very roundabout way he crosses paths with Junior again, which also aligns with Gould's frequent utilization of wild coincidence. However, Riera uses coincidence to undermine Gould's adventure-mythos. Cabbie's sister Mary-- who is a "working girl"-- comes back into his life after the mother's passing. At the same time, Junior, despite having gained Cabbie's fortune, thinks it's a great idea for his dimbulb little sister to get trained in the arts of prostitution, just as if it was a perfectly respectable profession. And guess who gets tapped to train Honey?

Other developments: Cabbie kidnaps Honey, which results in Junior half-killing Mary, and John Smith Senior busts out of jail. I mentioned above that there's a moment where a spirit-voice, claiming to be from Saint Christopher, patron of motorists, speaks to Cabbie, and the voice does so a second time, but from the mouth of the unconscious Honey. But because the voice never has any great effect on the narrative, I tend to dismiss these spiritual manifestations as hallucinations on Cabbie's part, as well as sarcastic send-ups of Chester Gould's tendency to wrap his sympathetic characters in Christian pieties.

After tons of blood-curdling violence and suffering, most of the Jones family perishes, and Cabbie pursues Junior back to the sewage dump. There's no final battle, though, and it's just chance that allows Cabbie to survive while Junior is consumed by the earth, as is all the money he stole from Cabbie. (I suggest that Riera was promoting some equivalence between money and shit.) That lack of closure I mentioned suggests that Cabbie and Honey, the last survivors of their respective families, may cross paths once more, but Riera frustrates that possibility, and leaves the Cabbie amiless and impoverished, "a straight-arrow hero [who] ends up on the zig-zag path of disorder."

Monday, March 9, 2020


Over the years, I've hammered out a relatively simple (for me) definition of my terms "lateral meaning" and "vertical meaning." In my 2020 post PATTERNS AND POTENTIALITIES, I reviewed how I evolved the terms from my readings in both Schopenhauer and Northrop Frye. Heretofore, I've applied the conjoined terms only to literature. However, I recognize that Schopenhauer, unlike Frye, is not writing only about literature, and so it behooves me to see whether or not the terms apply in any way to the conditions of life on which the gloomy philosopher based his analyses.

In STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PART 2, I noted, with reference to a couple of LI'L ABNER continuities:

To return to the two LI'L ABNER sequences referenced in Part 1, it's evident from the way Al Capp works that his cycles-- usually running from four to six months-- could be unified in terms of their action, like "D. Yokum Visits," or simply a motley group of episodes, like "General Bullmoose Debuts." 
The propositional strength of the lateral meaning in both is equally strong, for the lateral meaning is identical with "everything that happens in the stories." Disgustin' Yokum using his unearthly ugliness to turn Wild Bill Hickup into a stone statue and Li'l Abner letting the Slobbovians legally change him into a female are equally strong propositions, in terms of the reader's engagements with them-- though obviously, neither story-structure possesses any "truth-value" for reality as such.
Yet the abstract vertical meaning is even weaker than the assorted vicissitudes associated with "the stories." Many readers can read past the symbolic discourses in LI'L ABNER without noticing their existence, while others will read them purely in terms of their alliance to didactic discourse, as in "Capp is a great satirist, because he makes fun of rich people").

If "lateral meaning" in a fictional story can be fairly defined as "everything that happens in the stories," then that term's application to an individual actual life would be "everything that happens to that individual in his life."

In contrast, no one lives one's life with any instinctive understanding of what that life means. A subject's definition of his life's "vertical meaning" depends on whatever set of abstract propositions he chooses to favor, whether those propositions make him a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist, etc. Just as abstract ideas provide something of a counterpoint to a given narrative in literature, a person's ideas about himself provide the same counterpoint, even though the relation between the individual and his self-definition may not be as stable over time.

Just as I've argued with respect to literature, daily life furnishes individuals with a "strong proposition." Events A, B, and C ineluctably take place within a fictional LI'L ABNER story and cannot be argued away (though in theory another story might contradict those events). Similarly, Events X, Y, and Z in an individual's life also cannot be argued away (however much the individual may re-define the meaning of said events).

By comparison, one's own "vertical meanings" have a weaker propositional strength, and are much easier to change over time. Up until roughly the age of twelve, I was a Christian. I doubt that I thought about any alternative up to that point; it was simply a part of my cultural landscape that I accepted, though I'm sure there were examples of Scripture that left me scratching my head over how much, if at all, it applied to me and my culture. "Believing Christian" would have been my "vertical meaning" at age twelve, but at some point after that, I began to investigate, as much as was possible in those pre-Internet days, the ideas behind other religions. I don't dismiss the possibility that events in my "lateral life" may have affected my drift away from the Christian religion. but whatever the reason, by the time I attended college I considered myself a "philosophical pagan." (It was pretty easy to be this sort of worshiper: I created my own idea of sacrality a la Blake and didn't have to put any offerings in any plates.)

It might be argued that some psychological continuity existed between "Christian Gene" and "Pagan Gene," and that such a continuity might be an overall "vertical meaning" that subsumed both. The same idea of an overall "theme" would also hold true for individuals who drift away from any form of religion to the philosophical outlook of, say, atheism, though it might be impossible for any individual to have enough distance to judge the matter.

Of course, the events of one's life are not, even in a metaphorical sense, propositions as such. They compare with the pseudo-propositions of a literary text only in terms of their relative strength when compared to "vertical meanings," which are propositional in nature.

More on this later.


After reading this guest-post  on the CRIVENS blog, concerning politics in the comics, I left this observation:

I've made comments similar to Barry's on my blog. While I think art is fundamentally non-political, art also subsumes everything that's important to both artists and audiences-- and that includes politics. My general feeling is that I'm not opposed to seeing an artist represent a POV alien to my own, as long as he does a reasonably good job setting forth his principles. The death of political discourse in art comes about whenever artists surrender to the temptation not to argue, but to preach.

To which the blog-meister KID respondcd:

Well observed comment, GP, but do you think it's possible that 'preaching' is sometimes the best way to kick-start discussion on both sides of the 'argument'? Hopefully Barry will contribute his observations.

My short answer is that I don't think that the strategy of preaching usually sparks greater discussion. Preaching is the purest form of rhetoric, in which the speaker starts from the assumption that he's tapped into some unassailable position, and everything he says from thereon is just support for that position. One can argue against a preacher, and maybe even refine one's own position better, but you can't really get the preacher to concede any important ground. That's why I don't consider (for example) Steve Ditko to fit this paradigm. He takes a position and can't be swayed from it, like the preacher-type. Nevertheless, Ditko presents arguments, not preachments. Some of his arguments are strong and some are weak, but there's a quality of rational debate in his work that makes me esteem it, even if I would never validate Ditko's beliefs.

My counter-example is not an exact parallel to Ditko, since my selection is not an artist. Still, since I'd briefly discussed Frederic Wertham with Kid in an earlier post, I feel like using the famed anti-comics activist as my example of the preacher-type. Once Wertham formulated his negative judgment of American comics, he stuck to that judgment for the most part. (One of the doctor's last books, which I've not read, makes more or less benign comments about comics-fandom, though I'm told that Wertham never precisely reverses any of his positions from SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.) Wertham's method, though, is not rational discourse, like Ditko's. The first chapter of SEDUCTION provides Wertham's entire rationale-- children are like garden-plants, and must not be exposed to insidious influences-- is set forth. From then on, Wertham is just like an old-time preacher, castigating the comics-industry with examples of its many sins-- racism, sexism, commodification of violence (i.e., ads for "Daisy rifles" and so on). Even back in 1954, one had to expect that the good doctor was loading the dice in his own favor, though not until 2013 did Carol Tilley examine Wertham's records in detail, proving, as Bleeding Cool put it, "Frederic Wertham Lied and Lied and Lied About Comics."

Yet, even if Wertham's supporting evidence had been without blemish, his approach would still have been that of a preacher. I don't believe that he sparked any deep discussions regarding American pop culture in his own time. Naturally, once the effects of his work became part of history, his preachments became a bellwether for later arguments, both pro-Wertham (Bart Beaty, critiqued by me here) and anti-Wertham (David Hadju's THE TEN CENT PLAGUE). 

In general, preachers only prosper when they tap into some societal concern greater than their preachments. Wertham wasn't by any means the first person to critique American comics, and not a few later writers have blamed his success on the American public's desire to find some scapegoat for perceived troubles, like "juvenile delinquency." Still, it's significant that not every aspect of the psychiatrist's fanaticism was shared by that public. For instance, the doctor hated the very Comics Code he helped spawn because he thought that the Code still allowed children access to "crime comics," even in a purportedly tamer form. Wertham, in a sort of wacky foretaste of the 1967 Motion Picture ratings code, wanted all comics to be off limits to children under fifteen-- which, of course, would have killed American comic books in the medium's comparative infancy. No adults of the 1950s would have been caught dead reading comic books, and adolescents in their late teens typically gravitated away from comics in that period, as they began using their surplus money for dating and other pursuits. To the best of my knowledge, none of Wertham's allies shared his vision of an utterly squeaky-clean magazine-rack, and even the Senate Committee that investigated the medium in 1954 only issued stern warnings to the comics industry, rather than taking any of the actions Wertham advocated.

Wertham's negative example as a "preacher-type" doesn't necessarily mean that no one at any time has ever used the preaching-technique for generally beneficent purposes-- though the definition of goodness may depend, as the saying goes, on "whose ox is gored." But Wertham is nevertheless a key example of an individual using the technique of preaching to quell, rather than encourage, discussion.

Saturday, March 7, 2020


Probably the last time I addressed the matter of ethnic sidekicks in the comics was my 2015 essay INCORRECTLY CORRECT. I noted in part that, because it's traditional for hero's sidekicks to use bad English and to have homely faces (the better to make the hero look good), it wasn't necessarily racist for an author to use an ethnic character who either used bad English, looked funny, or both.

That said, though I have a strong liking for the BLACKHAWK comics-feature, at least during the early 1940s, the character of the Blackhawk team's "mascot" Chop-Chop proves a bit of a strain. Chop-Chop's fractured English is not nearly as tortured as that of Milton Caniff's "Connie," as I mentioned in the earlier essay. Still, when one sees the original, pint-sized, pigtail-wearing Chinese character running around with amidst the tall, chiseled-jaw Caucasian heroes, it's hard not to think that Chop-Chop is being ridiculed for both his height and his foreign-ness. I would part company with the ultraliberals who would claim that ANY such depiction is automatic evidence of racism. For me, the *continuous* nature of this particular "sidekick-trope" is more worrisome.

Here's the character in his first comics in MILITARY COMICS #3, where he looks more transparently like a dupe of Caniff's Connie, in that he wears a similar hat and is not overly fat, but he seems to be far more dim-witted than the Caniff character.

Within a few months, Chop-Chop took on his more familiar portly shape, plus his signature weapon: a large meat-cleaver, though I doubt he ever actually used it to chop human opponents.

This version of the character persisted into the very late years of Quality Comics' run of the BLACKHAWK comic. In addition to providing comic relief in the Blackhawks' adventures, Chop-Chop appeared in his own solo strip, which was always oriented on buffoonish comedy. Here's the first page of the next-to-last solo Chop-Chop tale from BLACKHAWK #94, slightly redeemed by the excellent art of Paul Gustavson.

In the very next issue, Chop-Chop is less cartoonish in the lead adventure in BLACKHAWK #95 (1956), wherein the heroes contend with a Chinese lady pirate, one Madam Fury. It's noteworthy that all of the other Chinese characters in the story are drawn realistically, and that even Chop-Chop has lost some of his bigfoot characteristics.

Oddly, this issue also sports the last of the solo Chop-Chop stories, and for what is probably the first time, he's missing his trademark pigtail, though it's present in all of the Blackhawks stories within that issue.

The next issue, #96,  is the first to totally abandon both Chop-Chop's pigtail and his solo feature, which is replaced, for the remainder of the Quality BLACKHAWK run, by stories about wartime conflict. He does continue to wear his traditional "coolie costume" while the other Blackhawks all wear their blue outfits.

As for the character's infamous hatchet, I didn't study all of the Qualities leading up to issue #96, but I did see the weapon present in some of the early 1950s tales. While the early Chop-Chop usually fought criminals in comic ways, like bonking them on the head, the version from #96 on uses his fists as ably as any Blackhawk, even though he's still short, rotund, and a mangler of English. Plainly some editor decided to update the Chinese Blackhawk's image for some reason. The changes to Chop-Chop may be connected to the eventual sale of the BLACKHAWK property to DC about a year later. Alternately, the alterations may have come about if someone who administered the Comics Code took a dim view of this sort of ethnic humor.

DC Comics took over the magazine with issue #107, and Chop-Chop stayed roughly the same for some years. The biggest change was that under editor Whitney Ellsworth, the stories emphasized science fiction and costumed villains far more than real-world political threats. After scanning a number of these, my blanket conclusion is that the English-mangling was gone by the late 1950s, but that Chop-Chop was just sort of "there," neither funny nor particularly dynamic. Only in 1964-- long after Jack Schiff had assumed editorial duties-- did Chop-Chop finally abandon his traditional "coolie colors," when issue #197 decided to give all of the Blackhawks red-and-black uniforms. In this issue he evidently took a "slenderizing" course, for now he looks as good as the rest of the heroes, except, of course, for being a shorty.

Issue #203 then gave Chop-Chop an origin-story that explained his name as connected to his martial-arts prowess, in keeping with American pop culture's growing enthusiasm for Oriental fighting-styles. Here he's seen defeating the hulking Stanislaus.

I don't know whether or not later versions of the Chop-Chop pleased comics fans or not. At any rate, 1964 marks the death knell of the "Chinese mascot" trope from the Golden Age series. I was raised on the BLACKHAWK of the 1960s, which always consisted of very ordinary formula-stories. But even though the Golden Age stories feature a more freewheeling, pulpish form of adventure, I certainly don't mourn the passing of buck-toothed, English-mangling Chop-Chop-- which may be about the only good thing ever to come of DC's Silver Age BLACKHAWK.