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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

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

Friday, May 29, 2020

DARK GROTESQUES AND COLORFUL ARABESQUES


As I’ve noted here and thee, most serial narratives never evolve any sort of discourse-thread beyond the level of “good will triumph over evil.” Though I’ve defended the idea of the Golden Age Superman more than once, I can’t say that the execution of the idea rises above this level in its first fifteen years.

Although Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman as a response to Siperman’s sudden popularity, they evolved a far more creative property than either the Man of Steel or the great majority of Golden Age serial concepts. During the first six years of the feature’s history—the period I’ve termed “Gothic Batman”—displayed a unique approach to the characters, even though the stories might appear to advocate simple “good vs. evil” morals for the kid-readers. I, like many critics, have emphasized that the early years possess an extravagant, somewhat morbid creativity that bears some comparison with the better prose Gothics. And yet, it’s recently occurred to me that those years are also marked by a certain amount of whimsical fantasy, closer in spirit to stories of swashbuckling adventure than to Gothic deeds of darkness.

To be sure, both adventure tales and Gothic horrors loosely descend from the courtly romances of the Late Middle Ages, so such an alliance has a certain appeal. I’m now of the opinion that the introduction of Robin to Batman’s grim world insured that sinister Gothicism and fanciful adventure would become conjoined; a true marriage of the grotesque and the arabesque.

(I could write a long sidebar as to why I chose to hijack these art-history terms for my own purposes, without agreeing with the way the terms are used in art history, or by such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Walter Scott. But at present, it seems to me that commonplace dictionary definitions back up my usages, so I’ll let it go at that.)




As I stated earlier, Batman’s pre-Robin world depicts the hero battling common criminals, malefic masterminds and supernatural horrors with stoic determination. Batman’s seventh adventure, scripted by Gardner Fox, roots the crimefighter’s joyless struggle in personal tragedy. To be sure, though, a lot of earlier heroes began with traumatic backstories, ranging from Dick Tracy to the Lone Ranger to the Shadow. Indeed, Batman’s devotion to stamping out evil—with no reference to finding the killer of his parents—bears strong resemblance to the origin of the first Phantom, who devotes himself to fighting evil after losing a parent to vicious pirates, and then passes the same cause along to his descendants. But Golden Age authors did not tend to revisit origin-tales as have later generations. In a world where Robin never joined Batman, it would have been routine had readers eventually forgot the reason why Batman became a costumed hero.



Now, I’m not saying that the Golden Age stories, as we have them, make any more reference to the origins of either Batman or Robin than, say, the CAPTAIN AMERICA title kept coming back to the origins of that hero and his sidekick. However, in contrast to most features that paired superheroes and kid sidekicks, BATMAN continuously emphasized the daily familial interactions of Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward. Thus, even if a reader didn’t know exactly how the two characters came together, he’d be able to find out from readers-in-the-know that Batman quasi-adopted the Boy Wonder because they’d shared a similar tragedy. And even if some readers never knew about these interlinked origins, the authors knew, and they played the contrast of the worldly adult with the exuberant youth for all it was worth. (To be sure, once Robin shows up Batman rarely affects his original obsessed, near-humorless attitude, though on occasion the writers allowed the Big Bat a few moments of fear-inspiring brutality.)



Batman, then, despite his handsome face and ripped body, is at heart a grotesque, because the very look of his costume inspires fear more than admiration. Robin’s costume, in contrast, evokes the fanciful spirit I term arabesque. He affects bright daytime colors of red, green and yellow in direct contrast to Batman’s night-hues, and some of his garments, such as boots and tunic, are designed to evoke famed swashbuckler Robin Hood. Even his main weapon in early stories, a David-style sling, carries an arabesque quality in comparison with Batman’s deadly looking Batarang.



The dynamic between Batman and Robin also extended to the way the raconteurs created their super-villains.

Some villains project fearful visages, just as does Batman. These include such notabes as the Joker, the original Clayface, the Scarecrow, Two-Face, the Monk and Doctor Death.



Yet others, however destructive, project images that are more fanciful in character. Thus, the somewhat shorter list of notable arabesques includes the Penguin, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cavalier, and the Catwoman (who, it should be noted, had as her first costume a simple dress and a cat-head mask).



With the grotesque-arabesque distinction in mind, it’s possible to see that later creative eras can be seen as putting increasing emphasis on one mode over the other. “Dark Procedural Batman” doesn’t entirely eliminate all sinister content from the feature, but the Joker becomes more of a harmless clown, while villains like the Riddler and Killer Moth never project any sort of fearful aspects. I sardonically termed the period after the Comics Code ‘Candyland Batman” because the dominant art-style emphasized lots of daytime scenes and new villains who were usually characterized by bright colors, ranging from goony aliens to goofy one-note villains like the Kite-Man and Mister Polka Dot. This overemphasis on the arabesque resulted in a downturn of the BATMAN franchise, and the following era, “Gothic Procedural,” borrows from all three previous periods, emphasizing ratiocinative detective tales and occasional forays into the Gothic, but not entirely dropping goony sci-fi menaces. Probably most of Bronze Age Batman, to which I’ve assigned no name, became almost totally focused upon Gothic images and tropes.



What I find interesting is that in the 21st century, some fans-turned-writers have become intrigued by the arabesque craziness of the Candyland era. Grant Morrison revived bizarre figures like the Rainbow Creature, and the teleseries BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD celebrated all the light-hearted aspects of both the Bat-comics and numerous other DC features. Arguably, though, the biggest influence that the Candyland era ever had on the career of the Dark Knight was its effect on the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries, which took the wacky kid-fantasies of the early sixties and viewed them through an ironic prism. (And yes, I know that they borrowed story-content from the following era as well, but the show’s producers never showed the slightest interest in the franchise’s more grotesque aspects from any era.)

Thus, there's definitely something to be said for the aspect of Bat-mythology that Alan Moore called "funny uncle Batman." At some point in the future, I may incorporate this bachelor-thread concept into a wider analysis of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries.




DEGREES OF MASTERY AND BACHELORDOM


Back in April 2020 I formulated the term “master thread” as a perhaps less didactic substitute for the common literary phrase “theme statement.” Therefore earlier essays, such as February's CATEGORIES OF STRUCTURAL LENGTH PART 3, don’t use the term, though that particular essay does mention a “structuring principle” and its significance with the operations of concrescence.

Had I coined the new term back at the time of the February essay, I probably would have said something like, “Because a hyperconcrescent symbolic dialogue requires a very strong master thread, it’s impossible for the form termed a ‘basic serial’ to exhibit more than a fair level of mythicity.” This type of serial narrative—which henceforth I’ll term the “open serial”—lacks any potential for the closure one can generally find in the eight narrative forms discussed previously. “Closure” in this sense refers to the closure of the discourse, symbolic or otherwise, and has nothing to do with whether or not there currently exist a finite number of installments in the open serial.

The open serial, as I remarked before, can be comprised of several long or short arcs, several short stories, or combinations thereof. It’s because the open serial depends on a loose assemblage of sub-narratives that the overall narrative cannot attain closure. Not that its authors want such closure: the entire appeal of the open serial is that it gives its audience a constant situation that either does not change at all or changes very slowly. Open serials fall into three categories:

The Story with a Planned Conclusion—here, though the overall narrative may include any number of sub-narratives that don’t tie into one another, the author intentionally designs for the narrative to end with a culminating incident. LOVE HINA and many other manga fall into this category. The FUGITIVE teleseries also managed to wrap up its hero’s arc in its final season. In some cases, producers may plan for a serial to be open-ended, but upon receiving bad reviews, the show-runners successfully manage to wrap up a saga’s continuing arc just before termination, as with the one-season wonder GUNS OF WILL SONNETT.




The Story with an Accidental Conclusion—in this category, the narrative, though designed to be open-ended, is terminated by outside forces. Serials consisting of unconnected short stories, like Classic STAR TREK, have no culmination as such; they simply have a last episode. Dozens of serial narratives have simply stopped at an arbitrary point, leaving protagonists in mid-cliffhanger, a phenomenon I’ve frequently observed in the first few years of DC’s early title ADVENTURE COMICS. Up to the filming of the last episode of DARK SHADOWS, the production team apparently didn’t know whether there would be another season or not, so that the last episode concluded with a tacked-on narration explaining how things finally shook out. On rare occasions an arbitrary last episode seems to provide an accidental summing-up. MARRIED WITH CHILDREN’s final episode just happened to spotlight Kelly Bundy’s incredible lubricity and Bud’s eternal victimization, certainly a recurring motif throughout the show’s history.



The Never-Ending Story— in terms of structure this type is identical to the Story with the Accidental Conclusion, but this feature/franchise has existed continuously over many generations, executed by dozens of raconteurs. Thus, though a critic should know when the feature began, he may have no indication as to when it might end. Certainly I expect that, whenever Superman and Batman finally cease publication, I won’t be around to witness it.

All of these types of open serials are far too disorganized to maintain a master thread as such. At best—and here I reference the setup of my essay-title—one could devise “bachelor-threads,” which are, as per the collegiate metaphor, not as advanced as the masters. Bachelor-threads simply codify the most prominent story-motifs used in the open serial, but there’s no sense that they all add up to a coherent discourse.

MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, for instance, came close to expressing its own bachelor-thread with Al Bundy’s comic credo, “A Bundy never wins, but a Bundy never quits.” Still, this could use a little modification. The Bundys actually do win a few minor conflicts, but it’s usually because they’ve worked together. But because they feed off of fighting with one another, the thread might read more like, “Hell is the other members of your family.”



To segue to a serial more focused on long arcs, I could codify the thread of LOVE HINA as, “Constantly bothering girls (whether intentionally or not) gets you punched a lot, but at least that way you’re bound to wind up with a hot-looking sadist.”



Classic STAR TREK certainly lends itself to a more profound-sounding bachelor-thread, if one renders it as, “Humans, though advancing to the heavens with logic and reason, forever carry with them their primitive natures, which must always be controlled, sublimated, or, more rarely, weaponized (see “I,Mudd.”) But again, one can always find episodes that don’t exemplify this quasi-theme, usually because some writer has chosen to plop Captain Kirk down in a Roman arena or at the O.K. Corral.



A “never-ending story” is even harder to break down, since its focus may change over generations. In my essay THE MANY MYTHOI OF BATMAN, I attempted to break down the Cowled Crusader’s career into different “creative eras,” characterizing each era by the dominant visual and/or narrative tropes used by the storytellers. It would be functionally impossible to find even a single bachelor-thread that described all of the eras together. However, in my next essay, I’ll take a shot at formulating a bachelor-thread for the many disparate creative eras of the Dark Knight’s career.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

NEAR MYTHS: STARS AND S.T.R.I.P.E. (1999-2000)




Though I liked “Stargirl” a little better than most of the new heroes introduced at DC during the first part of the 21st century, I was fairly surprised to see the CW group decide to devote a series to the character. Though as I write this only one episode of the TV-show has aired, I’m currently theorizing that either Greg Berlanti or some other CW-bigwig had some notion of re-living the producers’ first big superhero hit, the equally teen-oriented SMALLVILLE. Be that as it may, I decided to look over the fifteen issues (fourteen regularly-numbered comics and a “zero”) in which Stargirl made her series debut.

Not surprisingly, despite the title, the feature has nothing whatever to do with American patriotism. STARS is first and foremost a legacy concept, devoted to a millennial version of a Golden Age DC series, “the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy.” To be sure, the original concept, conceived by Jerry Siegel,, did not display strong patriotic content except with respect to the costumes of its two heroes. In essence the Golden Age concept was yet another version of “Batman and Robin,” but one in which the teenager, rich boy Sylvester “the Kid” Pemberton, was the boss of a full-grown man, his employee Pat Dugan, a.k.a. Stripesy. The feature was not particularly successful, any more than was the super-team of which the two flag-draped heroes were members, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the others being the Crimson Avenger, the Shining Knight, the Vigilante, Green Arrow and Speedy. (The latter three were retconned as “Earth-Two” versions of characters who had become best known to readers as their Silver Age “Earth-One” counterparts.)

No comics-writer seemed in a great hurry to revive this part of DC history. A 1972 JUSTICE LEAGUE story revived the Seven Soldiers, explaining that the team’s members had been dispersed through time. The consequence of the time-travel gimmick was that all of these 1940s heroes returned to the 1970s without having aged, including teen-hero Sylvester Pemberton. He was the only one who got fast-tracked into a regular series, appearing for a time in DC’s revival of the Justice Society, while his partner Pat Dugan got out of the superhero game entirely. Dugan (and from now on I’ll use that name for him, even when speaking of his tedious-to-type identity S.T.R.I.P.E.) made occasional appearances. Pemberson at least enjoyed a varied history in his revival—using a “cosmic converter belt” (to upgrade from his former dependence on simple athletics), changing his name to Skyman, and ultimately getting killed.


I don’t imagine any fans were clamoring for a new version of the Star-Spangled Kid in 1999, but Geoff Johns had already made his bones with assorted “DC continuity” stories, and he presumably promoted the idea of a new character taking up the costume. Despite sporting the name of Courtney Whitmore—which, by accident or design, sounds nearly as upscale as Sylvester Pemberton—the new female “Kid” was just your basic middle-class high-schooler, albeit somewhat more athletic than most. However, she has the fortune—be it good or bad—that her mother divorces her father and eventually marries Pat Dugan.

Courtney fumes with teenaged hauteur about her mother’s new marriage and her own transplantation to a new dwelling-place in Blue Valley (traditionally the home of another teen hero, Kid Flash). However, the move coincides with Dugan’s decision to get back into the superhero game, building a gigantic robot exoskeleton for himself, given the aforesaid acronym. Despite resenting her new stepfather, Courtney soon learns about his heroic heritage. Though she mocks his old cognomen of “Stripesy,” she’s quick to take on the equally ludicrous title of “Star Spangled Kid” once she, like Pemberton before her, gets hold of a super-technological power boost. (To be sure, during the series a character suggests that she ought to call herself “Stargirl,” and at present that’s the name the character currently uses.)

For the most part, the short run of STARS is just another routine superhero opus, slightly enlivened by Lee Moder’s humorous artwork and various references to DC continuity. Neither of these justify my calling the series a “near myth,” though, and indeed Johns’s cumbersome use of continuity works against the serial’s only mythic aspect: the psychological bonding of a young girl’s to a new father, in order to replace the one who deserted her. In the space of fifteen issues, Johns had ample opportunity to show the relationship of Courtney and Dugan grow, as she comes to respect the man she originally resented as an intruder upon her family. But Johns is more comfortable with silly jokes than with any dramatic arc. A particular point where the continuity bug nullifies the drama is a scene when another of the Seven Soldiers, the Shining Knight, involves himself in the supervillain problems of the two stars. To satisfy readers with the continuity jones, Johns has the Knight go into a long recap of his history with the Soldiers and the All-Star Squadron. Yet at no point does the writer deem it necessary to tell his readers how all these hyper-dramatic stories of World War Two heroism sound to a child of the 21st century. This sort of shift in perspective might have contributed to Courtney’s ability to bond with her stepfather. But because their bonding feels forced, the current star-spangled team is just about as mediocre in terms of its psychological myths as the original Golden Age feature.

After the cancellation of the series, Courtney, taking the more mellifluous name of Stargirl, has mostly participated in larger super-groups. I haven’t read most of these, but given this middling beginning, I’d be surprised if she ever became much more than a pretty face and a cool costume.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: EMPEROR FU MANCHU (1959)




In my reviews of the Fu Manchu series, I’ve largely avoided references to the life of Sax Rohmer. But it’s well night impossible not to acknowledge that the final act of Rohmer’s most famous character saw publication the same year that the author passed from this mortal coil.

I believe Rohmer must have devoted considerable thought to Fu’s finale. For one thing, even though the author made his fame with a Chinese character, the settings of the stories never went further east than Persia. The author had more experience with the Middle East than the Far East, and thus Rohmer’s readers knew the latter only through Fu’s miscreant servants—Burmese dacoits, Sea-Dyaks from Borneo. So it can’t be coincidence that the final novel showcases Nayland Smith finally taking the fight to the doctor’s home ground.

Moreover, Smith chooses to steal a march on his perennial foe. The policeman receives intelligence that the doctor may have initiated a new project in Szechuan Province, and although Smith obviously has no authority in China, he takes it upon himself to send a spy to gather information. Smith selects an American agent, Tony McKay, who not only grew up in China with his family, but can pass as Chinese. Early in the novel Rohmer quixotically suggests that McKay’s Celtic heritage gives the agent some quasi-Chinese features. The author evidently thought better of this idea, since eighty pages into the novel he finally mentions that McKay’s maternal grandmother was Chinese. McKay also bears a grudge against the Communist regime, given that his family was dispossessed by the current government, but despite his long absence he knows the language and the ways of the people. In earlier novels there are a couple of isolated incidents where Caucasians successfully masquerade as Asians, as when Smith himself dons the disguise of an Egyptian. But no Caucasian masters the skill of trans-racial impostures more ably than does Fu Manchu himself, who often finds ways to pass as, say, a Frenchman or a German. Thus, when Tony McKay infiltrates Szechuan in the guise of fisherman Chi Foh, and even fools the doctor himself in terms of Chi Foh’s Chinese identity, there’s a sense of the tables being turned at last.



The sojourn in China also brings the Fu Manchu saga full circle in a political sense. In the first novel Rohmer very vaguely associates Fu’s organization—not yet called the Si-Fan—with a movement known as “New China.” Rohmer may have been thinking of the period Wikipedia calls the “New Administration” of China’s late Qing Dynasty, during which the rulers attempted to respond to the Boxer Uprisings with an attempt at constitutional government. Interestingly, the dynasty is said to end the very year Rohmer pubished his first Fu-story, in 1912. Chinese Communism does not seem to become viable until 1919, so it seems unlikely that Rohmer was thinking of that movement. The author says little if anything about Communist rule in China until 1948’s SHADOW OF FU MANCHU, so it seems likely that Rohmer began putting anti-Communist sentiments in Fu’s mouth in response to the general anti-Communist feeling in Western culture. In the later novels Fu makes clear that he would like to overthrow Communism, both in his country and elsewhere, and EMPEROR makes it clear that Fu speaks as a Chinese aristocrat, when he says, “Communism, with its vulgarity, its glorification of the worker, I shall sweep from the earth!” Yet in the final novel the master of the Si-Fan operates openly in China, with full cooperation from the local officials. When the novel’s lead female speaks of how the Communists regard Fu Manchu, she states that, “They treat him like the emperors used to be treated.”

Said female is Yueh Hua, a young Chinese girl who attaches herself to McKay, whose Western chivalry won’t allow him to neglect a woman in need, even when he’s trying to perform an intelligence mission for Nayland Smith. Yueh Hua proves herself one of Rohmer’s more courageous and resourceful women, in part because she’s got her own mission. Both young people travel by fishing-boat on Chinese watercourses, insuring that romance will bloom even while both are pursued by Fu’s forces, since the doctor suspects “Chi Foh” of being a Soviet spy. At the same eighty-page mark where McKay admits having had a Chinese grandmother, he finds that Yueh Hua is only half-Chinese herself. She too was raised in China but had a Western name, Jeanie Cameron-Gordon, and her mission all along has been an attempt to find her missing father, who just happens to be a scientist abducted by Fu Manchu.



To be sure, though, the rescue of Doctor Cameron-Gordon is a subplot, and for once Fu’s own plot is more preventive than offensive. The activity Smith detects is Fu gearing up to obliterate a Soviet installation in Szechuan, because the Soviets are messing around with plague-germs. Despite having once planned to unleash plague on the Western countries back in BRIDE OF FU MANCHU, the doctor doesn’t approve of the Soviets doing the same thing. But since he doesn’t want to overtly defy Russia, he concocts a roundabout plan to cultivate a horde of “Cold Men”—dead men brought back to life by Fu’s science—and to “accidentally” unleash them on the installation. Though other novels use the term “zombie” metaphorically, and ISLAND even repeats the commonplace notion that such creatures are merely drugged but still living men, here Rohmer yields to the temptation to have his emperor literally bring the dead back to life.

Yet, though in the novel’s final chapter Fu succeeds in thwarting the Soviet scheme, the Russians end up dealing a possibly mortal blow to the Master of the Si-Fan. It just so happens that, coincident with the investigations of Smith and McKay, a Soviet spy named Skoblov pilfers the Si-Fan’s most valuable resource: a coded register, revealing the identities of all of Fu Manchu’s foremost agents.

I won’t go into the specifics of the way that Smith gets his hands on this resource. Suffice to say that the novel ends with the suggestion that British justice may at last be able to triumph over the international cabal. Fu Manchu makes one final attempt to convince Smith that they ought to fight on the same side against the Communists, but predictably Smith makes him no promises. Rohmer does allow his villain the liberty of one last vanishing act: during the Cold Men’s attack on the installation, they really do get out of control, and Fu apparently disappears in a conflagration. Thus Rohmer crafts an ambivalent ending. Proponents of law-and-order can choose to believe that Smith's dogged efforts are finally rewarded with the Si-Fan's destruction, while those who have "sympathy for the devil" can please themselves that the rebellious spirit of Fu Manchu can never be put to rest.

THE READING RHEUM: THE WRATH OF FU MANCHU (1952, 1957-59)




Prior to Sax Rohmer penning his final Fu Manchu novel, the author also produced four short stories with the devil-doctor.

There’s not a great deal to say about the three very short tales published during the years 1957-59, which I would guess Rohmer finished prior to starting the final Fu novel. In the introduction to the 1973 paperback collection of all the fifties stories, “Rohmerologist” Robert E. Briney clarifies that the very short stories were written for magazines that allowed for very little space, and consequently little development.

“The Word of Fu Manchu” introduces another one-shot narrator, Malcolm Forbes, who because of a friendship with Nayland Smith becomes privy to one of the doctor’s many assassinations. Malcolm gets to enjoy a little flirtation with one of Fu’s exotic female agents—a woman named Miss Rostov, who seems to be the doctor’s first Russian henchwoman. But there’s no time for romance here, for Rostov disappears from the story and Fu himself shows up to collect the device he used to execute a wayward Si-Fan agent: a metal disc, similar to many such flunky-killing objects seen in Republic serials,

:The Mind of Fu Manchu” enjoys a female narrator, whom Fu briefly abducts in order to learn more of her scientist boyfriend’s experiments with anti-gravity. The tale offers little to readers, aside from giving them a follow-up to Fu’s experiments with alternate modes of aerial transportation, hearkening back to 1940’s ISLAND OF FU MANCHU.

“The Eyes of Fu Manchu” is easily the best of the shorties. Gregory Allen, also a member of Smith’s very long list of boon friends, happens to be working on methods of extending human life. Since this line of research remains of particular interest to the doctor, he sends another of his exotic ladies, one Mignon, to worm her way into Allen’s confidence. Oddly, though the mission sounds like it should’ve called for an experienced seductress, Fu apparently chooses Mignon for no reason but that she must do anything he says to save her captive father. Predictably, Allen and Mignon fall for one another, making one wonder if the devil-doctor missed his true calling as a yenta. Mignon gets some choice dialogue: having been told by Allen that he considered art as a career rather than science, she remarks, “Science creates horrible things, and art creates beauty.” Perhaps needless to say, Smith prevents Fu from adding Allen to his brain trust. The story may have been inspired by an incident in 1952’s “Wrath of Fu Manchu,” the only story in which Fu seems to be unsure that his elixir vitae can indefinitely preserve his insidious existence.

Though “Wrath” was composed before the three lesser stories, I discuss it last because it deserves the lion’s share of attention. I remarked in my review of RE-ENTER FU MANCHU that I thought perhaps Rohmer had no idea what to do with Fah Lo Suee after her last appearance in 1940’s ISLAND. However, I had completely forgotten that “Wrath” appeared in print prior to the last two novels. I would still maintain that that following her resurrection Fah doesn’t enjoy any standout scenes either in DRUMS or ISLAND, so that her absence in SHADOW isn’t all that much of a come-down. During her minor ISLAND-role as a phony “mamaloa,” Rohmer has Kerrigan claim that she’s still in her brainwashed identity of Koreani. That said, Fu claims that once more his daughter has disobeyed his will by siding with certain unspecified enemies.

“Wrath” eschews any reference to Fah’s brainwashed state; with no explanation, she’s back to being the enchantress of old, including recollecting her antipathy to her tyrannical father. To the extent that Rohmer thought about the matter, he probably reasoned that other characters had thrown off Fu’s brainwashing before, and thus it was no stretch to imagine this Oriental “superwoman” doing the same. Another Smith-buddy, a businessman named Thurston (who gets no romantic arc), witnesses a fascinating widow-woman named Mrs. Van Roorden (Fah in disguise) on a luxury cruise. A subsequent murder and a mysterious bequest of the murdered man put Smith on Fah’s trail after the ship disembarks in New York. This allows the policeman to infiltrate a meeting of the Council of Seven (presumably not the same one from the early 20th century).

Before Smith even fakes the identity of a member in order to sit in on the meeting, he’s somehow aware that Fu’s next plan involves attacking Fort Knox—though not for mere financial gain. Though the doctor no longer has a private island for a permanent base, he still wants the nations of the world to acknowledge the Si-Fan as a world power. Here he resorts to the stick (as he did in DRUMS) rather than the carrot (as in RE-ENTER), for he plans to demonstrate his power by using an atomic weapon to destroy the gold in Fort Knox. This scheme is neutralized by a piece of intelligence Smith learns in the Council-meeting—though this is far from the meeting’s most interesting aspect.

(Though the attack never transpires, it seems likely that Ian Fleming—often said to be a reader of Rohmer—borrowed Rohmer’s idea of a Fort Knox raid for the 1959 James Bond novel GOLDFINGER. Unlike Fu, Goldfinger really does want to loot the fortress of its golden hoard, though oddly, the 1963 movie shifts his motives back to a Soviet-inspired plot to destroy the gold’s value. The more things change--)

Before detailing the momentous encounter between Smith and the daughter of his great enemy, a quick review is needed. Fah and Smith barely interact in most of the early novels, and she never attempts to seduce him, though in “Wrath” Smith mentions some such attempt to Thurston. Then, at the end of TRAIL, when she believes that both she and Smith are doomed to be executed by her father, she confesses, in front of Smith, Fu and various strangers, that she is in love with Smith. Fu fakes slaying his daughter and brings her back in brainwashed form, but Smith never makes the slightest comment about her confession. Happily, Rohmer finally gave his readers a conclusion to this amour fou.

Fah Lo Suee presides over the Council-meeting, and since everyone wears exotic masks, she doesn’t initially see through Smith’s imposture. However, she spots him just as the meeting comes to a close, and, having got rid of the other members—who depart to be arrested by Smith’s colleagues-- she confronts him, asking him not just to give her sanctuary from her cruel father, but to become her lover.

In one or two earlier novels, Rohmer had Smith made some oblique comments on some disenchanting affair of the heart. Rohmer evidently did not forget this barely mentioned aspect of his bulldog policeman:

You are a fascinating woman, Fah Lo Suee, but I locked the door on women and the ways of women one day before you were born…

He admits that this is his presumption, since he doesn’t know when she was born. However, in the 1931 book DAUGHTER she’s said to be about thirty. So even though she’s kept her youthful appearance into her fifties thanks to the elixir vitae, she’s not chronologically much younger than he is. Fah Lo Suee intuits that he’s turned off by the apparent May-December aspect:

To yourself, you are an old man, because there is silver in your hair. To me you are the dream man of my life, because I could never make you love me.

It’s possible that in Rohmer’s mind there was some early encounter between the two that the author never committed to prose, and if so, Fah thus became one of the few Rohmer temptresses not to win her man. To be sure, other interpretations are possible. I’ve mentioned the likelihood that Fah loves Smith precisely because he’s been the foremost enemy of her distant and often indifferent father. Further, MASK OF FU MANCHU implies that Fah Lo Suee has enjoyed many light loves—including an implied chemical seduction of Shan Greville. Thus the reader can’t imagine, as he might with Karameneh and Ardatha, that Fah Lo Suee would come innocent to the bridal bed.

However, though at one point Fah seems close to breaking Smith down with her feminine charms, once more the spectre of Fu Manchu intervenes. Within a “flying saucer” of his own design, Fu has traveled all the way from Cairo to New York, and since he’s heard her willingness to betray the Si-Fan, he condemns his daughter to death. However, Smith’s police allies start breaking into the meeting-place. Fu triggers a device that will flood the building. Then he escapes with his aides, trusting that the water will destroy both his daughter and her beloved. However, one of Fu’s aides, who came along in the saucer, shows up to save both of them. Earlier in the story Fah has mentioned that Fu’s subordinate Huan Tsung was something of a second father to her, bringing her treats and giving her the “sweet perfume” nickname—and here Huan has gone behind his master’s back purely as an act of indirect service to his president:

Time heals all things—even the wrath of Doctor Fu Manchu. And a day must come when Excellency will rejoice to learn that his beloved daughter did not die the death of a drowned rat.

And that’s how Rohmer rang down the curtain on the daughter of Fu Manchu. She and Huan Tsung escape the law, and Smith returns to the workaday world, still giving no evidence of having been in any way personally affected by Fah Lo Suee’s exhortations. Given that in 1952 she went into hiding from her father, there was no way that she could have appeared in either of the last two novels, and it would have been pointless for the author to show the doctor mourning the supposed death of his only offspring. Even though Rohmer did not pass until 1959, it may be that during the 1950s he decided that he ought to wrap up all the loose ends of the devil-doctor’s saga while he still could. “Wrath” does so admirably with respect to Fah, ranking with the character’s best arcs in the thirties and forties.

On a small side-note, only twice did a character named Fah Lo Suee appear in sound cinema, and in neither MASK OF FU MANCHU nor DRUMS OF FU MANCHU is there much resemblance to Rohmer’s character. The five films produced by Harry Alan Towers simply substitute a wholly Asian beauty, Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), but she too lacks Fah Lo Suee’s rebelliousness and romantic yearning. To the best of my current knowledge, the character has been best served in the Marvel comic series MASTER OF KUNG FU. Not all of Fah’s appearances therein have been perfect, though on the whole it’s arguable that she often comes off better characterized in that adaptation than Fu himself. A small triumph, perhaps, but a triumph nonetheless.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: "FALLEN ANGEL" (BATTLE ANGEL ALITA, 1994-95)



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.



Thanks to this site, I was able to easily reread the entirety of the initial episodic novel featuring BATTLE ANGEL ALITA (later followed by two sequel narratives). And my verdict is that, as good as the entire ALITA is in terms of the kinetic, dramatic and didactic potentialities, the entire narrative doesn’t quite excel in terms of the mythopoeic narrative, in contrast to such novel-like manga-works as HELLSING and DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND.

In previous posts, I’ve treated two other arcs, IRON MAIDEN and KILLING ANGEL, and I regarded the former as mythpoetically rich and the latter rather less so. And of the arcs immediately following KILLING ANGEL, most of them display only fair mythicity. Alita encounters a new romantic interest, quixotically named “Figure Four,” who takes the place of her lost love Hugo, and meets a centaur-cyborg, Den of Barjack, who leads an uprising of Earth-forces against the tyranny of Tiphares. But the only mythic character Alita meets in these middle-range adventures is the mad scientist Desty Nova (“new destiny,” maybe?). Like the cyborg-girl’s adoptive father and re-creator Daisuke Ido, Nova is a denizen of the sky-city Tiphares. But whereas Ido left the sterile city to be closer to earthbound humans, Nova wanted to be able to use humans as fodder for his genetic experiments. And since Nova is in every way the obverse of Ido, it’s fitting that he’s indirectly responsible for Ido’s demise. Thus all of Alita’s earlier drives—to learn the nature of her earlier existence, to solve the secret of far-removed Tiphares—are rendered secondary to her mission of vengeance—though she eventually learns that in his way, even the fiendish Nova is a victim.


The sequence I term “Fallen Angel” lasts from parts 50-56. Prior to this sequence, Alita has been suborned by another Tipharean with an odd name, Mr. Bigott, who maintains a com-link with her and sends her on missions. Alita accepts this in part because Bigott promises to help her find Nova. But the young cyborg doesn’t take orders well, so Bigott uses his advanced technology to create two duplicates of the heroine. Both knock-offs are destroyed, one by Alita and the other by one of her allies. Alita ceases to obey Bigott—though she does keep contact with a “good Tipharean” named Lou—but then gets captured in Part 50 by Nova.


Nova plays mind-games with the cyborg’s programming, so that she dreams of meeting and contending against her dead Motorball opponent, Jashugan. Presumably Alita’s own mind conjures her idea of Jashugan, for the dream-warrior speaks in very Nietzschean terms:


The purpose of battle is to attain the greatest heights within your own limits.

When Alita fights her way back to reality, she confronts Nova again. He reveals to her a great secret about the aristocratic Tiphareans: that while Alita may have a human brain in a cyborg body, all denizens of the sky-city are human beings with bio-chips in place of their organic brains. 




When Bigott learns this truth, he goes mad and destroys himself. After fighting off Nova’s henchmen, Alita chops off the mad scientist’s head, and goes on to other adventures. These include defeating Den of Barjack when he tries to shoot Tiphares out of the sky, and contending with another of Nova’s creations, Eela, an immortal female who worships “the pleasures of the flesh” and compares human ideals to “the mold that grows on cheese.” But the mythopoeic discourse doesn’t really get going until the heroine’s nemesis comes back from apparent death. Tipharean technology allows Nova to resurrect himself, and he again traps Alita in another cyber-dreamscape.



However, this time Nova himself takes part in the psychodrama, and it’s possible to see his buried humanity surfacing even within his schemes to break Alita’s will. His scenario rewrites Alita’s history in the Scrapyard, so that this time both Nova and Ido unearth Alita’s broken cyber-body from the junkheap. Both of them become quasi-paternal figures to the young android, and there are moments suggesting that Nova himself has been seduced away from Promethean mad science to the ordinary pleasures of life.




During this period, Alita also learns her original nature. In her first existence, she was Yoko, a rather callous soldier from Mars, one of the many planets in the solar system colonized by Earthpeople. Mars and the other planets made war upon Earth over control of resources. The war brought about the division between the aerial station Tiphares and the ruined planet below, as well as apparently cutting off Earth from the other planets in the system. This time, when Alita awakes from the engineered dream, she does so with knowledge of the evil in her own nature.



This time, her awakening takes place on Tiphares, for the city’s officials have allowed Nova to return. Having already killed Nova once, Alita foregoes revenge to learn more about Tiphares. She soon learns that the bio-chipped residents of the city share none of her desire for self-knowledge. When a group of citizens learn that they literally have no brains, one of them cries, “We don’t want out brains! Give us our future!” Later, Alita, accompanied by Nova and Lou, finds the same insanity in the master computer governing the city: Melchizedek, who has the name of a Biblical patriarch and the appearance of a gentle old lady. (The computer, incidentally, provides the only strong maternal image in the overall narrative.) But upon being challenged, Melchizedek goes into meltdown, threatening to bring about a catastrophe that will destroy the city and a good portion of Earth-life.



Alita, who for the entire narrative has been by turns a seeking innocent and a pissed-off warrior-woman, can only save the world she knows by an act of sacrifice. Given a vital serum by Nova—who in his perversity instantly regrets having done anything to benefit humanity—Alita transforms herself into a rapidly expanding cybernetic conduit that not only overrides the computer’s program but also forges a link between Tiphares and the earth below. In a coda that takes place many years later, Alita’s boyfriend Figure patiently waits for her return—and strangely enough, it’s Alita’s “bad father” Nova, gone utterly mad now, who shows the youth a way to resurrect the world’s cyborg-savior.

Artist Kishiro may or may not have known a lot about the Hebrew system of Kabbalah, but one certainly can’t tell from the sparse teferences in ALITA. In addition to Tiphares, he only references one other sephiroth, “Ketheres,” and though Melchizedek does have a Kabbalistic connotation, it also has a lot of other Jewish and Christian meanings as well. Since the name here is applied to a computer ruling a city with overly tight apron strings, Melchizedek probably signifies little more than “a tyrannical god (or goddess) lording it over humankind.” In contrast to this negative image of feminine nature, Alita becomes an “angelic” mediator between Heaven and Earth, though her only message is not one of peace or forgiveness, but of potential. For, echoing the sentiments of Jashugan in her own way, Alita states her ideal:


If there is anything I desire for this world—it’s for everyone to fly with their own wings.

THE READING RHEUM: THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE (1886)




The biggest mystery of Stevenson’s classic story is not the identity of the repulsive little man known as Mister Hyde. Within a few years of publication that identity became pellucidly clear even to people who never read the story, thanks to stage and film adaptations. The mystery is, why is Stevenson’s actual story not as popular as the adaptations? After all, though DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were often very freely adapted, one still sees raconteurs occasionally going to the original texts for inspiration. With JEKYLL AND HYDE, not so much.

Most versions do capture, or try to capture, the sense of Hyde as a sort of Victorian predecessor to Sigmund Freud’s theory of “the id,” the part of the human psyche that simply “wants what it wants when it wants it.” Later raconteurs usually don’t favor the idea that Hyde is physically smaller than Jekyll. Sometimes this aspect is attributed to Hyde’s incarnation of Jekyll’s younger self (said to have been “wild” in college), sometimes to his being a sort of “troglodytic” throwback. Obviously, in stage and screen, this would have been impossible to convey without using two actors, thus obviating the challenge of seeing a performer essay both the “good” and “bad” sides of humankind. But in this case, size is not the main problem with Stevenson’s text.



The fact that Hyde’s identity is no longer mysterious has a deleterious effect on most readings of the prose tale, but that too is not the greatest difficulty. It’s closer to the truth to say that Stevenson, while he calls Hyde “evil,” is deliberately obscure about what evil acts the little fiend commits. Aside from losing his temper twice in public—trampling a little girl and killing an old man—one never sees what acts of reprehensible gratification Hyde carries out when he usurps Jekyll’s body. It’s beyond doubt that this was a conscious choice on Stevenson’s part, whether from fears of censorship or simply from the desire to make his readers use their imaginations.

But the story might have flourished with all of these flaws, had it not been for the biggest one: Hyde has no voice. Solid citizens like Lanyon report some of the things he’s said, for Hyde is certainly capable of ordinary human speech, and Jekyll’s notes attempt to convey his alter ego’s perverse nature. But, once again drawing comparisons to the creations of Stoker and Shelley, those two worthies give their monsters character through their own speech. Proportionately speaking, Dracula isn’t “on stage” much more than Hyde is, but the king-vampire has just enough dialogue to make his character indelible. And though the Frankenstein Monster’s adaptations don’t often favor the grandiloquence of Shelley’s creation, even mute versions of the Monster seem suffused with the simple sentiment, “Did I beseech thee, O my maker, to create me?”

Adaptations of Hyde not only have to enlarge upon his career of self-gratification, they almost have to create Hyde’s presence out of whole cloth. Stevenson only gives the reader the sense of Hyde’s abominable temper, his spite toward the “ego” side of his nature, but Hyde does not come alive as a character. Indeed, in Jekyll’s final confession, he characterizes Hyde as if the latter were some “inorganic” process. That notion works fine for the alien beings of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. A reader who wants to “get to know his id,” though, can only come away from Stevenson’s JEKYLL AND HYDE with a sense of vague disappointment.


Friday, May 8, 2020

CHALLENGER VS. DEFENDER PT. 3


In ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE and related essays, I’ve noted that though most focal ensembles are composed of characters who share the same cause, there are assorted exceptions. In SUBS AND COES PT. 2,  I noted that on occasion some teams, such as the Teen Titans and the Omega Men, who have a “stealth enemy” who functions as part of the ensemble for a time even though said traitor plans to destroy the other characters. Thus all the stories in which Terra pretends to be a superhero still place her, like the other Titans, in the narrative position of a defender, while whatever villains she battles alongside her team are the challengers of those stories. Only when Terra reveals her true intentions and joins with Deathstroke to destroy the heroes does she become a challenger-type.

“Opposed ensembles” present a knottier problem. Most such ensembles consist of two opposed characters who receive equal emphasis within the narrative. This stands in contrast to the many narratives built around a defender battling a formidable challenger (Sherlock Holmes/Professor Moriarty) or a challenger meeting his match in a canny defender (Dracula/ Van Helsing). Typically, opposed ensembles share a similar dynamic in terms of engaging the audience’s sympathies. For instance, in viewing the final fight in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, most viewers are likely to see the Wolf Man as a relative “hero,” given that the Frankenstein Monster looks like he’s about to do nasty things to a helpless female. But the entire narrative shows that both monsters are equally dangerous to humankind. Thus, even though the monsters end up fighting one another, in a greater sense both of them are challengers to the peace of humankind, whose defenders are represented here by a handful of imperiled characters.



Most of the opposed ensembles I’ve cited concentrate only upon two characters, where one is strongly antipathetic and the other may be somewhat sympathetic. M. NIght Shyamalin's GLASS is a rare exception, though it's preceded by two other parts in a series that are configured in more standard ways. The first film in the series, UNBREAKABLE, follows the standard dynamic of the superhero story, in which David Dunn fits the role of the defender and Mr. Glass, that of the challenger. SPLIT, the middle film, is patterned more on the dynamic of the monster-film, so that Kevin Crumb takes the role of challenger and his main victim is the defender. However, GLASS posits a situation in which a mysterious cabal takes the role of “challenger” to all three entities—hero, villain, and monster—and, despite the fight between Dunn and Crumb, the three of them have to defend their independence against the ruthless organization. However, it's very atypical for films in a series to shift the roles in this manner.



CHALLENGER VS. DEFENDER PT.2



Though the terms “challenger and defender” are patterned on the idea of physical conflict, they can be applied to any number of narrative forms, such as those involving a conflict of expectations.

In THE BASE LEVEL OF CONFLICT I observed that Bradbury’s short story “The Last Night of the World” as one that has nearly no conflict in the “X vs. Y” sense. A man and wife, the only characters in the story, become privy to the fact that the world is about to come to an end. Yet instead of their registering emotions of fear or frustration, the couple is totally okay with such a transcendent doom, implicitly because it’s better than the fate of nuclear annihilation. I noted in the essay that because the story focuses on the characters’ mental turnabout rather than on the phenomenon of the world’s death, so that in my current terminology, the world’s doom is the thing that challenges the select couple, and they are defenders not in the sense of rising to the challenge, albeit only in the sense of professing their total acceptance of their fate. Indeed, during my reading of Poe’s complete prose works, I became aware that in some of his vignettes—“Island of the Fay,” “The Oval Portrait”—the viewpoint characters have even less internal conflict. In both vignettes, the “defenders” are just windows into the author’s perspective, as he illustrates how something fair devolves into something foul.

The “conflict of expectations” feeds into a trope I discussed in CHANGING PARTNERS IN THE MONSTER-DEMIHERO DANCE, where I surveyed the use of the focal presence in a number of comic-book horror stories. I remarked that there’s a dominant tendency for the “monster”—what Frank Cioffi calls “the anomaly”—to be the star of the story. “The Gentle Old Man” overtly follows this tendency, while both “Grave Rehearsal” and “Bridal Night” do so in more covert fashion. At the beginning of each story, there’s an evil presence—respectively, Madame Satin and Count Von Roemer— both of whom take the role of “the challenger” and who seem more than able to overpower each of the viewpoint characters, respectively B.S. Fitts and Helena Ayres. But Ayres, though she is a defender, has greater power than Von Roemer and easily defeats him. B.S. Fitts does the same to Madame Satin, though Fitts only gains power after Satin has killed him.

Some defenders are the stars precisely because the evil in their nature calls up some sort of reciprocal evil, and this pattern is seen in both “The Speed Demon” and “Den of Horror.” The evils that doom both defenders fit the role of challengers, but they have a subordinate role, not least because they seem to evolve from the defender’s own nature, not unlike the doppelganger in Poe’s “William Wilson.” At the same time, irony doesn't always imply consubstantiality, for Prince Prospero, despite the way he perishes while defending himself from the Red Death, is not the personified plague's sole victim.

CHALLENGER AND DEFENDER PT. 1


Over a year ago I formulated two terms, “investment” and “fascination” in this essay. According to my system, these are the affects inspired by the two respective modes, the “endothelic” and the “exothelic,” which apply to a given literary work’s focal presence. Now I’ve formulated broad terms for each type of focal presence, to better illustrate the multifarious ways in which investment and fascination manifest.

Though Aristotle’s POETICS is the earliest extant work to speak of conflict as necessary to all narrative, not until the 19th century did ArthurQuiller-Couch distinguish particular dominant tropes by which conflict was organized. To this day, people who don’t know Aristotle, much less Quiller-Couch, should recognize these tropes-- “man vs. man,” “man vs. nature,” and “man vs. society”—from their use in middle school lit classes. Quiller-Couch’s formulation seems to follow the basic structure handed down from archaic Greece, in which a “protagonist” was the star of the show and an “antagonist” challenged him. But in the twentieth century, sometimes the antagonist proved the more fascinating narrative presence, even if a protagonist-like figure might be around to give the reader some investment. H.P Lovecraft’s 1927 SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE boldly stated that in supernatural fiction the “phenomenon” was the star, while in 1982 Frank Cioffi stated that narrative conflict came about when some “anomaly” interfered with the status quo.

Without a doubt, the trope “sympathetic protagonist vs. antipathetic antagonist” is the dominant mode in the whole of literature. Thus most works are concerned with showing the reader how a character in which the reader has invested positive emotions defends himself against a given challenge. The opposite trope, however, puts an antagonist—be he real or perceived—in the driver’s seat,, so the reader’s dominant response is that of fascination with “the other” (little as I like invoking Sartre’s tired concept). Contrary to Cioffi's somewhat Marxist tendency to extol the anomaly—what I am calling “the challenger”—as a positive force that breaks down the status quo, many challenger-focused narratives end up validating the “status quo” viewpoint of the figure I call “the defender.” As I type these words, I’m half-watching a film that’s yet another take on Richard Condon’s famous short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” There’s no question that Condon’s narrative focus is entirely upon the corrupt Count Zaroff, the man who decides to start hunting his fellow human beings. Yet this narrative strategy in no way compromises the POV of the defending protagonist, which maintains that Hunting Humans is Not a Good Thing. The same principle obtains with the various film-serials that focus less on the heroes than on the villains. The villains of THE PHANTOM CREEPS, THE WHISPERING SHADOW, and THE BLACK WIDOW are more interesting than the phlegmatic heroes, but the heroes still represent the right moral orientation.

As I discussed in INVESTMENT ANDFASCINATION PT. 3, sometimes the position of “challenger” can be an entire environment, often combining two Quiller-Couchisms: “man vs. nature” and “man vs. society.” In H.G. Wells’ TIME MACHINE, the nameless viewpoint character is essentially a rather passive defender of his time’s values. Those values are challenged and conquered when his time-machine reveals the horror at the heart of reality, summed up by the predacious relationship of the Morlocks to the Eloi. In the 1960 film-adaptation, Rod Taylor’s two-fisted scientist successfully defends his time’s ethics so strongly that he may be able to reverse the future world’s fall into entropy. Thus the original novel and its film-version evince the investment and fascination strategies respectively. However, the triumph or failure of the viewpoint-character is not the determining factor. WORLD WITHOUT END presages George Pal’s 1960 film by showing another corrupted future that can be saved. However, the titular world, the challenger, is the star even though its monstrous aspects are overthrown and tamed by the film’s dull defenders of the eternal verities.

Next up: curse-challenger and cursed defender.

ADDENDA: Just to line up all the categories, any work centered on a "challenger" would be exothelic, while any work centered on a defender would be endothelic.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

THE MOST FAMOUS SUBCOMBATIVE ADVENTURE

In ROBINSON, CRUSADER OF MEDIOCRITY PT.2, I detailed some of the problems with which I’d grappled in terms of assigning ROBINSON CRUSOE its place within my literary system. I didn't have any problems in stating that CRUSOE qualifies as “the first major work of popular fiction.” The book’s mode of communication is markedly different from the mode of earlier elite-culture works that happened to become popular with the masses, ranging from Shakespeare’s PERICLES to Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE. I also view CRUSOE, as well as its first sequel, as touchstones for the modern development of the adventure-mythos. However, this distinction must be qualified. Readers during the Enlightenment may have believed that chivalric romances belonged to an outmoded genre, but both “high” and “low” readers remained aware of how that type of fiction worked, how knightly heroes disported themselves. As I remarked earlier, Crusoe is anything but knightly in his bourgeois orientation, and though I do consider Defoe’s two Crusoe-novels to fall into the mythos of adventure, Crusoe himself is at best a demihero, and not a very impressive one. Even Friday, describing how he took the life of a wild bear just for kicks, comes closer to the model of the combative knight than does Robinson Crusoe.



Now, as my essay-title portends, Robert Louis Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND (published as a book in 1883 but serialized in a kids’ magazine two years previous) is also subcombative in terms of the dynamicity of its protagonist Jim Hawkins. However, while not all readers may think of ROBINSON CRUSOE as a pure adventure-novel, TREASURE ISLAND is practically a watchword for the mythos. To be sure, it’s preceded by many other classics in the same mythos, particularly the Big Three Perennials: Scott’s IVANHOE, Dumas’s THREE MUSKETEERS, and Cooper’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Yet though there had been numerous adventure-tales—now mostly unread—that featured juveniles as protagonists, ISLAND seems a breakthrough in terms of creating a true hero who simply happens to be a juvenile. By “true hero” I mean the type of character who fits the persona of “the hero,” more devoted to glory than immediate survival.


Hawkins is not utterly without economic motive. As much as his “good mentors” Livesy and Trelawney, and his ‘bad mentor” Long John Silver, Hawkins wants to profit by uncovering the lost treasure of pirate captain Flint. But there’s a sense in which the treasure gives Jim an excuse to get away from the mundane life of running an inn with his widowed mother. To be sure, he doesn’t expect to meet danger during the voyage to the isle of treasure (called “Skeleton Island”). Peril only looms its head when Hawkins learns that Silver has brought hardened pirates into the crew, who are willing to murder or maroon all of the ship's honest citizens, once the pirates have acquired Flint’s treasure. Nevertheless, twice in the story Hawkins boldly strikes off on his own, first to explore the island, and then to recapture the ship when it’s set adrift. Hawkins can’t fight or shoot, and he’s saved from being killed in his only battle-scene by losing his footing and falling down a hill. Nevertheless, Hawkins displays both the honor and courage of a hero. The sense of honor extends even to the duplicitous Silver, for Hawkins refuses to break his word to the pirate even to save Hawkins’ own life, and his courage is all the more remarkable because of the very real fears he experiences. Cinematic adaptations sometimes are accurate in conjuring with the terror-aspects of the boy’s early encounter with the fearsome Blind Pew, or Hawkins’ life-or-death struggle against the murderous Israel Hands. But the island itself is rarely shown as Stevenson shows it, as a place of potential malarial sickness, inhabited by “huge slimy monsters” (sea lions, unfamiliar to the young Englishman). And I’ve never seen a film that ended as the novel ends; with Jim Hawkins, years later, still haunted by nightmares of piratical iniquity, summed up by the memory of Long John’s parrot, mindlessly screaming “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

Like many of Stevenson’s works, TREASURE ISLAND was originally directed at young readers, for its original title was THE SEA COOK: A STORY FOR BOYS. I for one did not read the novel in my youth. My first memory was that of seeing a thirty-minute cartoon adaptation as an episode of THE FAMOUS ADVENTURES OF MISTER MAGOO, in which a version of Magoo, an actor rather than a blind old coot, essayed the role of Long John. The cartoon, like many live-action adaptations, played up Silver’s charm and wit, and downplayed the consequences of his intentions toward the honest treasure-seekers. I didn’t read the book until I was in my fifties or thereabout, when I sought to sort out the book’s relationship to the literary form of “the romance.” Indeed, Stevenson’s epigraph alludes to “the old romance, retold exactly in the ancient way,” which I take to be a reference to the chivalric romances, whose spirit Scott had revived in IVANHOE. To be sure, I doubt if any medieval romance ever had a villain as ambiguous as Long John Silver, who is the dark side of Hawkins as much as Hyde, five years later, would become the alter ego to Jekyll. Ironically, while Jekyll and Hyde perish together, Stevenson allows Silver to escape the fate he’s earned and to steal a sack of coins for his trouble, while Hawkins on the contrary is too haunted by his experience of “man’s inhumanity to man” to enjoy his share of the pirate treasure.

Despite the many horrific images in the novel, TREASURE ISLAND is entirely naturalistic, just like the Big Three Perennials. However, the book is indirectly responsible for spawning the cornerstone of the nineteenth century’s formulation of the superhero idiom. After reading ISLAND, H. Rider Haggard bet a friend that he Haggard could write a novel as good as Stevenson’s work. While there had been pirate adventures before ISLAND, KING SOLOMON’S MINES instituted the subgenre known as the “lost race novel.” Perhaps more importantly, MINES introduced one of the nineteenth century’s first serial characters whose adventures were both (1) predominantly metaphenomal in nature, and (2) predominantly based around the agon of combat. Allen Quatermain, star of MINES and the eight books that followed, does end up chasing a legendary treasure as does Hawkins. But Quatermain is a seasoned campaigner rather than a beardless boy, and though Haggard killed off his character in the second book, the series was popular enough for the author to bring Quatermain back in six “prequels.” To my knowledge Stevenson never wrote anything that belongs to the superhero idiom, but TREASURE ISLAND remains an important link in the chain of events that led to that idiom, ranging from Nick Carter to Tarzan and John Carter and on through the costumed offspring of four-color comics.

Monday, May 4, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: "MAD MOES" (THE SPIRIT, 1947)

For a city boy, Will Eisner occasionally displayed a flair for emulating the feel of country folklore. MAD MOES isn’t quite as good as his two-years-later hillbilly-yarn THE CURSE, in that the former jams a few too many events into its short space. But Eisner does succeed, more than in other tales using personification of non-human things or entities, in transforming a force of nature into something akin to a deity.





Eisner begins in a mock-Biblical mode, telling the reader that “In the beginning there was the desert, the dust, Mad Moes the river, and Lizard.” The character named Lizard is one of Eisner’s many eccentric old coots, and his nickname presumably stems from his habit of lazily sitting in the sun outside his shack, erected on a small island amidst the river. But Lizard is only important as an ally to Mad Moes, “a no good, shiftless, ornery river.” “Shiftless” in this case means being useless to most forms of life, for a caption relates that for vague reasons the river can’t be used for human trading and even fish can’t live in it. The “ornery” part comes about every spring, when snow melting in the mountains causes the river to flood the surrounding habitations of man—all except Lizard’s shack, which always gets miraculously spared.



The state authorities finally get fed up with Moes’s madness, and plan to dam the river. Surveyors ask Lizard for assistance, but the old fellow runs them off, claiming that he and Mad Moes are bosom friends. Much as the authorities would like to evict Lizard, they live in some peculiar state where eminent domain is trumped by squatters’ rights. Nevertheless, the old man can’t keep the authorities from setting up a boom town to house the personnel building the dam. But to make sure Lizard stays out of the way, the forces of law and order designate the land around Lizard’s island to be a national park, so that if he leaves, he gets arrested for trespassing. The story moves so fast that no one asks where Lizard gets his food (leftover victory garden?), and the scene shifts to the technical hero of the tale.

The Spirit happens to be in a neighboring city, breaking up an illegal gambling operation (supposedly aimed at “minors”) and sending its operators packing. But experienced criminals know how to use the law to their own ends. The gambler Stud Sharpe and his moll Queeny find their way to the boom town, which spells easy fleecings, and then stumble across Lizard’s island-shack. When they find out that the old guy’s shack is technically outside the bounds of the law, the gamblers set up a very humble version of a poker palace on his island. By luring in the local dam-workers, the gamblers not only line their pockets, they please Lizard, who’s willing to do anything that impedes the dam’s construction.

The unlikely ploy works, and the dam-project suffers from absenteeism (sort of like the dam-workers, who are talked about but not seen). Because the authorities are stymied by their own laws, they resort to calling in that famed “outlaw,” the Spirit. While the vigilante lays his plans for acing out the gamblers, the occupants of the shack have a falling out. Lizard tries to get romantic with Queeny, and to entice her, he reveals that he has a cache of gold nuggets, a bounty perpetually washed up on his island by the shiftless river. Up to this point the gamblers have apparently been planning to cut out as soon as they made a pile, but the promise of gold changes their plans. Sharpe easily swindles Lizard out of the rights to his land (a good trick, since Lizard doesn’t actually own the land) and kicks the old man out. Providentially, the Spriit shows up, and with a lit stick of dynamite forces Sharpe to play cards for everything the gamblers made off their victims.



While the card-game proceeds, Lizard seeks to invoke the river-god for vengeance. Though Eisner tells us that the dam-work has stalled, apparently it got far enough to confine part of Mad Moes’s bulk behind a sluice gate— and because it’s been raining hard, Moes once more has enough water to unleash a killing fury. Lizard unlocks the sluice gate, hoping that his friend the river will annihilate his former allies in the shack.

Back at the shack, the Spirit shows that a clean gambler can always beat a dirty one, recovering all the lost winnings. This is apparently not a good enough reason to extinguish his stick of dynamite, which has to remain lit so that Lizard can use it. Best not to ask how Lizard, swept along by the river-waters, manages to reach the island before the worst of the deluge, but the old coot grabs the dynamite, trying to use it against Sharpe and Queeny. Instead, the explosion somehow blocks off the deluge, so that no one perishes. Presumably once the Spirit delivers the workers’ lost wages, they hunker down and get the job done, for the last panel shows “the great renegade river” at last penned up behind a mammoth concrete dam, and the forces of law and order triumphant. Since the authorrties no longer need to isolate Lizard’s shack, the park-order is rescinded, and what was once Mad Moes’s river-bed is paved over for a superhighway. Yet in a visual sense at least, Lizard continues to attach himself to Mad Moes like a votary of a deserted temple, for now his shack has become a gas station, and the desert rat is still there, sunning himself.

Online research shows multiple origins for the name from which the river takes its monicker. “Old Man Mose” can be viewed as a generic term for any old guy, as a figure in American folklore, as a character in a LI’L ABNER story and as the subject of a Louis Armstrong song, possibly based on the Al Capp strip. Eisner’s use of the name plays to his love of puns, but the process is the reverse of what he would later do in THE CURSE. There, the famed bay known as the Zuiderzee is transformed into the name of the story’s female character, Cider Sue. Here, Eisner tinkers with the name of a folklore-figure and makes him into a river, a river somehow coeval with a real old man. Though MAD MOES is haphazard in terms of verisimilitude, this doesn’t affect Eisner’s ability to use a force of nature to illustrate the mythic war between law and lawlessness, a war that ends by dethroning a rather ornery minor god.

Friday, May 1, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: RE-ENTER FU MANCHU (1957)




Once again many years pass between books in the Fu Manchu series—almost ten years between 1948’s SHADOW OF FU MANCHU and this one, in 1957. And whatever Sax Rohmer was doing during that time-period, he didn’t devote a lot of his time to the plot of the next-to-last Fu-novel. RE-ENTER wins the honor of being the least interesting book in the series, and the one with the most internal problems.

This time the viewpoint-character is American Brian Merrick, who in general is no better or worse than most of Rohmer’s earnest young men. Because he’s the son of a U.S. Senator who has the ear of the American President, the Si-Fan evolves a plan that sends Merrick to Cairo, supposedly to rendezvous with Nayland Smith—though, for good measure, the FBI also has an interest in helping Merrick on his path to adventure. Merrick’s not that much of a “junior adventurer,” but he does have a romantic allure for two sexy women, with none of Shan Greville’s protests about not enjoying it. One lady is Lola Erskine, an American who’s eventually revealed to be an agent of the FBI, while the other, Zoe Montero, is a vaguely Middle Eastern girl in the service of the Si-Fan. It won’t be any great surprise as to which girl wins Merrick’s heart, but then, neither one is all that compelling. Zoe even comes close to betraying Fu Manchu’s confidence, but, as if in compensation for her not getting the guy, the doctor allows her to perform a final service to win her freedom from the Si-Fan.


Fu’s mercy toward Zoe isn’t precisely out of character, but it’s one of a handful of irregularities that make one wonder how well Rohmer thought things through. There’s no reference to Fu getting either support or trouble from the Council of Seven, and though Fah Lo Suee’s been missing since ISLAND, her long absence persuades me that Rohmer simply didn’t know what to do with her once he’d both resurrected and brainwashed her. Though the doctor was always shown to possess a wry sense of humor, RE-ENTER breaks character by showing him actually laughing. True, it’s sardonic laughter, when one of Fu’s subordinates makes a comment on their Soviet allies, but the reaction still seems poorly thought out. At least Fu’s alliance with the Soviets is merely a prelude to his betraying them, which means that the character’s contempt for Socialism is undimmed. However, I never got a sense of what benefit Fu received from the temporary alliance-- and indeed, said alliance almost costs him his life.


Granted, even the devil-doctor is human and capable of error. But to keep his ongoing relationship with the Soviets, he allows one particular Russian agent to take a sample of Fu’s priceless elixir vitae for analysis. In his conversation with Agent Gorodin, Fu expressly says that he did so knowing that the Soviets could not analyze the elixir, and that he Fu held that conviction when he allowed Gorodin to take the sample. But it’s not clear why Fu allowed Gorodin to gain total access to the doctor’s only extant supply of the rejuvenating chemical, which results in Gorodin trying to substitute a deadly poison. Fu doesn’t fall for this, of course, but why does he fall for the first gambit at all? As a result, the master villain almost perishes of old age until he can receive a supplemental dose of youth-potion from another source. It’s one thing for Fu Manchu to make mistakes because, on some level, he might like to have willing servants who obey him of their own volition. But it’s clear that he has no special regard for Gorodin, so why would he trust the agent?


Fu’s ultimate plot is actually designed to nullify the Communist control of the East and to substitute the rule of the Si-Fan. By either suborning or stealing the research of a German scientist with the interesting name of “Hessian,” Fu plans to impersonate Hessian and to present the American President with a revolutionary anti-nuclear defense, “the sound zone.” But to gain access to the President, Fu involves the son of Senator Merrick, and also uses Brian Merrick as a means of transporting Nayland Smith from Cairo to America. However, the Smith accompanying Merrick is a surgically altered double for Smith, who remains Fu’s prisoner while the double goes to the U.S. with Merrick. Inevitably, Smith not only gets free, he manages to fix things so that Fu’s agents mistakenly slay the double. Smith then plays his own double and manages to deceive Fu Manchu in a one-on-one interview. I’m not sure Rohmer remembered that he’d often shown both Fu and his daughter as being able to glean prominent thoughts from the brains of their opponents on occasion, which makes the success of such an interview improbable. On the other hand, in one novel Fah Lo Sues tells Shan Greville that she can only read minds when the subject is relaxed, so maybe Rohmer’s earlier works can be used to justify at least one later novel’s problem.

Perhaps it’s needless to state that no one gets the use of the revolutionary anti-nuclear defense, nor does Fu achieve any of his political ends. Possibly his animus toward Communism proves a vulnerability, since his foes know he won’t give it to the Commies. Despite some false notes for the evil doctor, his scenes are still the high points of this very weak concoction.