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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...

Sunday, June 28, 2020

TRAPPED IN THE NEGATIVE EQUITY ZONE


At the end of my PHARMAKON essay I wrote that “a second wave of Covid will be the least of our problems” in comparison to the ruthless exploitation of the American racial divide. A mere week later, as unhinged protesters assault statues of every political stripe and erect “police-free zones” in major cities, I find myself missing the old days. Back then, my greatest worry was charting the obnoxious virtue signaling of crappy movies like Jordan Peele's US or crappy TV shows like various Greg Berlanti shows, whether attacking them individually or collectively. (So far STARGIRL has kept the politicizing to a minimum, though I imagine it too will be drafted into service sooner or later.)

Observant readers will note that I said “protesters,” not “rioters.” I’m aware of the distinction, having been hugely amused during Spike Lee’s CBS interview, when he used the word “rioters” and quickly corrected himself. However, said distinction is specious. I don’t doubt the overall reports—even from Fox News—that the majority of protesters have not committed overt acts of violence, However, I would not call their protests “peaceful,” as the newsmen do, simply due to a lack of overt violence. Peaceful protests are those in which the protesters define their goals so that politicians can understand them, and then choose whether or not to accede to those demands, be it “save the whales” or “get us out of Vietnam.” But these protesters seek to bring not peace, but a sword of unending division. Their original demands were absurd enough, focusing on the impractical goal of defunding the police. Now those demands have escalated into the notion that America can purge the country of everything they deem to be politically incorrect—which includes, for some, the entire history of the United States.

On a political forum I responded to the idiotic statements of Senator Tim Kaine, who is apparently seeking to promote himself through the narrative that America was tainted by the sin of slavery from the country’s origins. I wrote:

The problem I have with Kaine’s pronouncement is that he willfully overlooks some facts about the forming of the nation. If the Constitutional Congress had not made compromises in order to allow slavery in some states, we would not have managed to form the strong Union that we have now.
The pro-slavery proponents were, without doubt, greedy and venal people. But you know what? Every damn country has to make allowances for greedy, venal people in power. That’s the only way anyone ever manages to create a unified nation, and it’s only with a unified nation that wrongs can be redressed and slaves liberated.
Kaine seems to be framing his complaint along the same absolutist lines as the 1619 Project: “Slavery is the Original Sin of America, and every white person is equally responsible for it.” I don’t agree with that verdict.



In this essay I’ve critiqued the transparent one-sidedness of the 1619 Project, in which Nikole Hannah-Jones excoriated the people who bought slaves but found no fault with the people who sold them. She did so for the same reason Tim Kaine chose to ignore the role slavery has played in society since archaic times: such a perspective makes America’s Original Sin seem less unique. Liberals are often fond of expressing great admiration for other countries and their political systems. How many of those admired countries, though, relentlessly cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes because of the deeds of their ancestors? If it were up to manipulative ideologues like Hannah-Jones, no one would even know anyone in Ghana ever contributed to slavery’s horrors.

In post-Covid America, the species of ultraliberal now called “the Progressive” has found a new way to purge himself of guilt: to project it upon everything that seems to signify the “systemic racism” of the existing power structure. All of the protesters, violent or not, have chosen to subscribe to this paradigm, and so the peaceful storks are implicated in the acts of the violent cranes, as the Aesopian moralist might frame it. Because they all believe in the fallacy of systemic racism, the rabble rousers pulling the strings have been able to turn their dogs loose on everything that supposedly represents the corrupt power structure—be it statues of musicians, abolitionists, or the guy who freed the slaves. It’s not really a purgation, but a dumb-show, in which the real target is not past sin, but present sin. Demonstrations with no true demands have only one agenda—to terrorize the more complacent members among the elite, in order to gain meaningless concessions. Many of these lily-livers are so chicken-hearted that they’ve sought to eliminate potential sources of controversy, in the delusion that such gestures will placate the mob.

There’s only one way in which the protestors have managed to promote racial equity: by bringing together the predominantly black plotters of Black Lives Matter with the predominantly white members of Antifa—an unholy alliance not unlike the one featured at the end of AVENGERS #74.



This superhero tale dealt with a white supremacist group, the Sons of the Serpent, seeking to foment a race war in America. Two TV pundits, a white conservative and a black radical, constantly stoke resentments with their inflammatory rhetoric, and in the end they're revealed to be the secret leaders of the Serpent coalition. This purely fictional resolution by writer Roy Thomas now seems prescient of current conditions, though what's occurred in reality is the unholy union of two factions of the Far Left: Black Lives Matter, whose best known representatives are of course black, and Antifa, whose members seem to be dominantly Caucasian. Both groups have been ardently trying to tear down the American government for some years now, but the perfect storm of Covid-induced frustrations and the single searing image of George Floyd's humiliating death have given both radical groups a following such as they could never have imagined earlier.

It is possible that some positive reforms may come of this Progressive uprising, but it will be impossible to prove that the same reforms might not have happened even without the protests. However, the negative effects-- what I've called "negative equity" elsewhere-- are entirely attributable to the protesters. Said effects range from actual Progressive demands to cancel this or that politically incorrect item, or the craven virtue signaling of those who "holler before they're hit," as seen in HBO's temporary sidelining of GONE WITH THE WIND broadcasts and Disneyland's elimination of cartoon characters from SONG OF THE SOUTH. Anti-Southern fanaticism has of course remained in the wind since the vogue for removing Confederacy statues. But the current fanatics have followed the lead of hatemongers like Spike Lee and Hannah-Jones, claiming that every aspect of the American political structure is hopelessly corrupt and can only be cleansed by burning it all down, as one BLM member recently opined.

I have a modicum of faith that they will not succeed. Yet on the whole, these alleged do-gooders will actually cause far more havoc than the most brutal cops out there, and with far more lasting effects.

MYTHCOMICS: “SAVING FACE” (THE QUESTION #13-14, 1987)





One of the aspects O’Neil frequently touched on in his Bronze Age Batman stories was the notion of the hero as a master martial artist. Prior to O’Neil, Batman fought like a boxer most of the time, with occasional touches of judo or wrestling. But even though the author imported into the Batman mythos many tropes of the martial arts genre, one particular trope—that of the use of martial arts as a means of personal growth—made no appearances in O’Neil’s Batman-tales, or, for that matter, in anyone else’s Bat-tales. The Cowled Crusader needed no personal growth; being Batman was his entire raison d’etre.

O’Neil did use the "spiritual growth" trope somewhat in the largely forgettable RICHARD DRAGON title, but not until the late 1980s did he find the proper vehicle to merge his interest in hardboiled crime with that of Oriental esotericism. Indeed, the foremost work to spring from DC Comics’s acquisition of Charlton Comics’ superhero characters was the first run of THE QUESTION, originated by O’Neil and artist Denys Cowan. To fans of Steve Ditko’s original blank-visaged crusader, this version must have seemed a travesty, foregoing Ditko’s trademark moral sbsolutism in favor of a hero who constantly had to “question” everything—culture, society, and his own inner nature. Indeed, the original hero, as presented in the first issue, literally “dies” before he receives tutelage by none other than O’Neil’s previous kung-fu stalwart, Richard Dragon.

I’ve already praised the metaphysical questions posed in issue #11, but the two-parter that I entitle “Saving Face” orients more on the sociological end of things. Following a “grabber” scene in which an army recruiter is killed while giving his enlistment pitch, Vic Sage, a.k.a. the new improved Question, converses with Doctor Rodor, his sometime mentor. Their short dialogue gives Sage just enough time to make a distinction between the tortures of coercion and the ordeals of discipline by stating that “discipline comes from inside.” Then Sage is called away to the scene of a disaster, where, all unknowing, he has a near-encounter with his next opponent.



Said adversary is Colonel DeBeck, an ex-military man full of the desire to castigate the armed forces of the United States for weakness and lack of discipline. To graphically illustrate this vulnerability, DeBeck and a small squad of other disaffected men attack a small detachment of soldiers giving a public demonstration of their training. Sage can’t reach the soldiers before DeBeck’s men slaughter them. Later Sage expresses a muted admiration for the sheer nerve behind the assault. In the guise of the Question, Sage tracks down DeBeck, but the former colonel summons his squad, and the hero is captured.



Rather than simply killing the vigilante, DeBeck tests the resolve of his opponent, burying him in the earth up to his neck, so that the hero can breathe and speak but nothing else. Yet DeBeck also claims that he withstood this same torture in Cambodia, and so promises that if the Question will go free if he surpasses DeBeck’s record for withstanding the torture.





O’Neil plays fair throughout the ordeal: the Question gets no lucky breaks or last-minute rescues from allies. To survive, the hero must use his Oriental meditative techniques to sink into himself, to escape the torment of being unable to move while exposed to the elements. He does receive a little imaginary help from a scorpion, on whom Sage projects the persona of his teacher Richard. Of course it’s really Sage giving himself “sage” advice: “accept the discomfort and pain and fear and cherish it. It’ll only leave when you invite it to stay.”



Without giving away the well-orchestrated ending, the Question does indeed survive his encounter with the honor-obsessed murderers, and goes on to continue his inquiries into other aspects of existence. In an interesting subplot, Sage’s girlfriend Myra runs for office, and the constant hectoring of the publicity machine causes her to dream of herself stripping on a stage before a crowd of horny gawkers.



NEAR-MYTHS: “CARNIVAL OF THE CURSED” (BATMAN #224, 1970)




It’s been roughly a week since the announcement of Denny O’Neil’s passing. I’m sure there have been any number of essays devoted to his contributions, and without looking I’m reasonably sure that most fans will mention most fondly his work on various Batman stories, while placing less emphasis on his contributions to such franchises as Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Iron Man. Were I writing a standard obituary, I would certainly write something similar. O’Neil wasn’t the first writer to steer the Batman away from gimmickry and toward Gothicism and gloominess, but he maintained a consistency of tone and an emphasis upon downtrodden humanity that redeemed even the most hackneyed plots.

When considering my favored subject, that of “myth in literature,” O’Neil certainly doesn’t rank alongside the creators who tally up the greatest quantity of mythcomics, such as Fox, Broome, and Kirby. Of course, even the best myth-makers, in order to stay gainfully employed, had to craft many, many stories that appealed to the reader’s desire for easily comprehensible lateral meaning, whereas the more difficult vertical meaning proved hit and miss. Indeed, a lot of the stories in which I’ve observed a high symbolic discourse seem to have done so without much conscious intention. I would’ve thought that, given his considerable investment in the Caped Crusader, there might’ve been a fair sampling of myth-tales during O’Neil’s various outings with the character. But even the stories with O’Neil’s most celebrated creation, Ra’s Al Ghul, only rate as near-myths.



“Carnival of the Cursed” also comes damn close to the mark. Batman learns of the murder of a jazz musician, Blind Buddy Holden, and jets down to New Orleans to find the culprits, simply because the crusader was a fan of the man’s music. Providentially, the hero arrives during Mardi Gras, so that the exoticism of the city’s Catholicism-driven holiday is on full display. Batman finds the murderers quickly enough, but he also finds that they have a powerful ally, an apish brute named Moloch. Without going into the specific reasons for the jazz-man’s murder, it’s not surprising that money is at the root of it all, so that I found myself wondering if the name “Mammon” might’ve been a more appropriate name for the villain. But the act of giving the grotesque evildoer the name of a pagan god certainly contributes, as much as jazz music and Mardi Gras costumes, to the impact of the story, ending with this page, certainly one of the most perfect denouements in commercial comics.



Friday, June 26, 2020

THE READING RHEUM: TARZAN OF THE APES (1912), THE RETURN OF TARZAN (1913)





In this essay I’m going to concentrate on three significant tropes in the first two Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (henceforth ERB). Thus, instead of recapitulating plot-points as I’ve done in most prose fiction reviews, I’ll assume that the reader is basically familiar with the plots, the better to concentrate on trope analysis.

Though ERB’s Tarzan books eventually fell into largely routine formula, the first two stand at the apogee of 20th-century literary mythmaking. Tarzan may have taken some inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s books about the animal-reared Mowgli (though ERB never admitted such an influence), and for the most part Kipling is still esteemed above ERB by most literary critics. But the first two Tarzan books exceed the admittedly fine Kipling works in terms of the complexity of ERB’s mythic rendering of the savage foundling idea. This complexity expresses itself through the author’s often unpredictable use of three major tropes, which I will call (1) the colonialism conundrum, (2) the cannibalism conflict, and (3) the consanguinity conjecture.

The prevailing notion that ERB was an ardent defender of colonialist policies may be one reason for critical disdain of his work (though it didn’t seem to do Kipling any great harm). In truth, TARZAN OF THE APES is often critical of European encroachment on Africa. Prior to the hero’s birth, Viscount John Clayton and his wife Alice have been sent to Africa so that Clayton’s new position will make it possible to bring a halt to “unfair treatment of British black subjects” in the Congo. Later in the novel, long after Tarzan has grown to manhood amid his adoptive ape-clan, a tribe of Black Africans moves into the apes’ territory while fleeing the depredations of Europeans seeking “rubber and ivory.” To be sure, ERB certainly shows aversion to some aspects of Black African culture and physical appearance, which he knew only through secondary sources. Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, ERB does not demonize whole races. If Tarzan takes charge of an entire tribe of Black Africans, as he does in RETURN OF TARZAN, it’s because Tarzan has by that time been exposed to Europe’s recorded knowledge regarding battle tactics. Thus he can successfully command the Waziri tribe to repel the assault of Arab raiders because Tarzan has access to the same sort of tactical knowledge that gave the Arabs an advantage in tribal Africa.

Cannibalism is one of the practices that ERB attributes to certain tribes of Black Africans. I’m certain any number of parvenu intellectuals could mount defenses of the practice, citing Western misinterpretations of what the ritual did or did not mean in real-world Africa. ERB, however, treats cannibalism not specifically as a perversion of Black Africans, but as one that descends from humankind’s animal forbears. Not until Tarzan has grown to maturity among the apes is he allowed to participate in the ritual of the Dum-Dum. During this tribal gathering, the apes make noise upon a naturally occurring (and highly improbable) jungle-growth that serves as a giant drum. As the anthropoids drive themselves into a frenzy dancing to the drum-rhythm, they nerve themselves up for the ultimate transgressive act of their kind: devouring the flesh of a slain ape from a rival tribe. ERB does not make learned comparisons to the long history of cannibalistic practices, particularly those known from archaic Greece, but there can be little doubt that the author suggests that the Dum-Dum is the ancestor to such rituals, even as apes are ancestors to men.

Tarzan himself comes very close to sullying his palate with this meal. But when he tries to get a taste of the forbidden fruit, he’s attacked by his foster-father Tublat, mate to Tarzan’s mother Kala and the ape-man’s long-standing enemy. Tarzan slays Tublat and spends weeks recuperating from injuries, but the question of further participation in the cannibal-ritual does not come up again. Further, once Tarzan finds the cabin of his late parents, he has begun to think of himself as something other than an ape.
Thus, when the tribesman Kulonga slays Tarzan’s adoptive mother, thinking nothing of eating an ape’s flesh, Tarzan slays Kulonga in vengeance, but cannot bring himself to devour Kulonga’s flesh.

I don’t deny that ERB invokes the idea of some mysterious “hereditary” aspect that causes Tarzan to refrain. Yet, to be sure, inn RETURN it is specified that Black Africans who don’t eat flesh despise those that do. Since it would seem unlikely to state that the non-cannibalistic blacks are guided by “heredity,” I would argue that on the contrary ERB has suggested a natural progression in culture to which black people have as much claim as white people: a “thou shalt not” injunction against the eating of one’s own kind. It is also an injunction that the wicked can choose to rebel against. In the last half of RETURN, Jane is set adrift on the sea in a lifeboat after her ship is wrecked. With her are other escapees: some other sailors, her fiancĂ©e William Clayton (Tarzan’s cousin), and Nikolas Rokoff, a loathsome fellow who’s continually made attempts on Tarzan’s life throughout the novel. The other sailors die and are thrown overboard, because William will not allow Rokoff to eat their dead bodies, but later Wiliam himself stands in danger of being killed and consumed by the wicked Russian. Clearly, Rokoff’s being white does not immunize him from attempting omophagia, even if only for pure survival. That particular peril is ended when the lifeboat reaches land.

The implied distant relationship between apes and men brings up the issue of possible consanguinity between the two species. Though ERB’s readers may have told any number of jokes, racist and otherwise, about the interbreeding of apes and men, few of them would have literally believed that any fruit could come of such a union. ERB skillfully suggests this possibility in a purely metaphorical sense, thus allowing his readers to take pleasure in the fantasy without violating the dictums of science. For instance, the one thing that almost everyone knows about Tarzan is that he became a physical marvel due to being raised by apes. Indeed, most imitations reproduce this same trope. What practically none of them seek to duplicate is the incident of Lady Alice’s symbolic rape. Though Alice is already expecting at the time, ERB has an unnamed ape attack her. She manages to shoot the ape, killing it, but its body falls atop her. Thereafter, Alice loses her mind and endures only long enough to give birth to her son before dying. Clayton is then slain by Kerchak, leader of the ape-tribe, paving the way for Tarzan to be adopted by Kala. I suggest that, though ERB could have terminated Lady Alice via any number of exotic diseases, he knew that on a subconscious level his readers would read the ape’s attack as a “rape,” so that in a symbolic sense, Tarzan is half-ape because, as the superstition goes, “his mother was scared by an ape.”

Jane, of course, is also famously menaced by an ape, and this one, Tarzan’s foster-brother Terkoz, is explicitly looking for a new mate after being routed from his tribe. ERB was probably aware that in reality apes didn’t generally seek to cohabit with humans, but he loads the dice by portraying Terkoz as being in a crazed state. One must admire the cleverness of ERB, to have Jane menaced physically by Tarzan’s foster brother, after having revealed that her principal suitor is William Clayton, Tarzan’s male cousin and thus a brother-analogue.

ERB’s strangest experiment with consanguinity appears in the last quarter of RETURN OF TARZAN. In the latter half of TARZAN OF THE APES, the author foregrounds the existence of Opar-- the first of many, many African lost races ERB will produce-- by having Jane’s scholar-father reference the strange civilization. Yet ERB takes his sweet time about bringing the Oparians on stage, given that they don’t appear until after Tarzan has completed a long series of unrelated adventures—being challenged to a duel in France, fighting bad Arabs and helping out good ones, getting tossed off a boat by his nemesis Rokoff. Presumably ERB wanted to show his hero undergoing a wanderjahre after nobly foregoing a romantic union with Jane, for those wanderings had to come to an end once he returned to the jungle and inevitably married his one true love. Further, once the hero was ensconced in Africa with his wife and his faithful Waziri, he could—and did—encounter the Oparians numerous times.



Just as Rokoff’s white skin did not shield him from backsliding into the iniquity of cannibalism, the white skins of the Oparians does not prevent them from being corrupted by consanguinity. Tarzan makes his first acquaintance with the men of Opar—all ugly, apelike brutes—when they capture him for sacrifice to their sun-god. However, the ape-man soon learns that all of the Oparian women are comely beauties, most especially High Priestess La. She intends to sacrifice the intruder to her god, only to fall in love with him after he rescues her from a crazed male. After that, La gives Tarzan a mini-history of her people’s colonization of the jungles of Africa. She claims that they had many colonies, but that they lost all heart when they learned that their mother country had “sunk into the sea.” This leads to all colonies save Opar being overwhelmed by the “black hordes.” But though Opar remained strong against black tribesmen, the denizens chose to commingle with the semi-intelligent apes like those that raised Tarzan. Indeed, the only reason Tarzan can communicate with La is because they both know ape-lingo.

La’s history of her people’s degradation is a masterpiece of equivocation. On one hand, ERB has La argue that the reason the men are all ugly is because the ones who stayed inn Opar were “the lowest types of men,” while the women are good-looking because they descended from the noble lines of the priestess-clan. On the other, as if to tacitly admit that this eugenics fantasy is nonsense, ERB throws in the detail that some Oparians apparently couple with apes willingly: “in time we will no longer banish those of our people who mate with apes, and so in time we shall descend to the very beasts from which ages ago our progenitors may have sprung.” Of course, even if La admitted that a lot of current citizens were still mating with anthropoids, this wouldn’t explain the radical physical differences between males and females, any more than does the eugenics scheme. In essence, Opar escapes these categories because ERB as an author is fascinated with the opposition of Masculine Ugliness and Feminine Beauty. To be sure, this serves one immediate purpose, to make La fall hopelessly in love with Tarzan as the incarnation of Masculine Beauty. But one can’t help but feel like there’s more to Opar than setting up that particular plot-point.

By way of wrapping up, I’ll note that the one thing I don’t think Opar signifies is “apes=black people.” Had ERB wanted to suggest that the Oparians had degraded themselves by intermarrying with a tribe of Black Africans, he certainly could have done so without bringing apes into the picture. Rather, the males of Opar take on the brutishness of simians not because they are literally born of human-ape unisons, but because their mothers are all “scared by apes.” While this sort of thing has no deleterious effect upon Tarzan’s good looks, the male Oparians are perhaps further compromised by their living in a dying society, while the ape-man lives out in the wilds, coping with danger and death every day. In a strange sense, Tarzan becomes more conscious of his humanity by observing the things his ape-brethren cannot do, while the Oparians have surrendered any illusions about the difference between the two species. As for the Oparian women, perhaps in ERB’s world infants with two X-chromosomes just aren’t as vulnerable to having their humanity scared out of them.


THE READING RHEUM: THE MUCKER (1914), RETURN OF THE MUCKER (1916)





A year or so after writing TARZAN OF THE APES and its sequel, Edgar Rice Burroughs—perhaps not yet aware as to how much of a permanent blockbuster he had in his ape-man—wrote these two books. The basic structure of the MUCKER books was the same as those of the first two Tarzan tales. Hero grows to maturity in rough environment; meets a woman and falls in love; gives her up to a rival who belongs to the same class as the woman; goes through a series of adventures and then meets his beloved by chance, whereupon they’re united for good despite class differences.

Next to the Tarzan books, though, the Mucker books are set in a world much closer to our own. Billy Byrne, the “mucker” of the title, grows up in the concrete jungles of Chicago. He has no father to speak of and not until halfway through the book does ERB reveal that the mother who raised Byrne abused him until he was too big to take abuse any more. Byrne’s real mentors are the toughs of the Chicago slums, and thus he grows up committing petty crimes and despising the law and rich “swells.” There’s no “nature’s nobleman” in this character: Byrne cares nothing for fair play, being entirely willing to kick a man when he’s down. He’s been taught to admire only raw strength, and though he’s not a “superman” like Tarzan, he’s about as strong as a big man can be.

As with most ERB books, the hero gets propelled from one locale to another with uncanny rapidity. Thus there’s no need to dwell on the specific circumstances that take the Mucker to sea, where he becomes tentatively allied to modern pirates. In the course of this new life of crime, though, he meets a beautiful upper-class woman, Barbara Harding. Despite her rarefied origins, though, Barbara tells Byrne what she thinks of him when he commits an egregious assault on a helpless man. This stymies Byrne, who’s used to women fleeing him in fear, and against his will he finds himself impressed with the young woman’s courage. Nor is Barbara’s courage limited to words. Whereas Jane Porter often seems like a milksop, Barbara defends herself against a potential rapist by stealing his knife and stabbing him with it. She also fights, to the best of her ability, at Byrne’s side when the two of them are faced with a horde of Malay Islanders descended from a clan of exiled Japanese. (These polyglot Asians comprise the only metaphenomenal element in either of the two books.)

To be sure, though ERB writes more realistically about Byrne than he did about most of his protagonists, he surely knew that his audience wouldn’t tolerate him alluding to Byrne’s past sexual history. Yet, ERB does rise to the occasion, so to speak, when Byrne, having fallen inextricably in love with Barbara, finds himself alone with Barbara on their primitive island. That he resists the impulse to rape his beloved is not a surprise in the end, but that ERB presents the situation at all is certainly noteworthy.



Sadly, the sequel is not nearly filled with as many pulpish thrills as the first novel. Byrne, having nobly told Barbara to marry a man of her own class, promptly gets put in jail, breaks free, and makes friends on the road with an intellectual hobo named Bridge. Then he and Bridge wander down to Mexico, where they have quasi-western exploits during the rise of Pancho Villa. Byrne fights a lot of guys, meets Barbara again, and has a happy ending.

In both novels ERB makes no bones about allowing his character to use insulting terms in reference to other ethnicities. To an extent this may be mitigated by the fact that most of the people receiving the insults are unremittingly hostile toward white people, though the second novel has a smattering of “good Mexicans.” Still, though the author doesn’t censor his protagonist, he does make fun of the mucker’s limitations. In one scene, Byrne and Bridge are speaking to a friendly Mexican who does not speak English, any more than Byrne speaks Spanish. Byrne refers to the Mexican as a “dago,” and when Bridge tells the mucker that the other fellow is not of Italian descent, Byrne complains, “So whoever said he was an Eyetalian?”



Wednesday, June 17, 2020

NOTES TOWARD A MORE EXTENSIVE BAT-ANALYSIS


So I ask myself the question: given that I’ve become keen on the idea of sussing out how many, if any, episodes of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries (hereafter BATMAN ’66) qualify for myth-status, I must ask myself if there’s any special approach I should use.

Whenever I’ve reviewed individual episodes or story-arcs within the open-ended DC BATMAN comic-series, it’s been possible to deal with each discretely. However, a closed series—one which, as I noted earlier, simply came to an arbitrary end upon cancellation—is somewhat different. When teleserials last no more than three years, they usually keep roughly the same roster of producers and creative talents. It’s not impossible for such a series to change its creative priorities in some radical way, as can be seen in the differences between the first and second seasons of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 2TH CENTURY. But on the whole, the episodes of a short-run show tend to cohere a little better than those of a long-running comics series.

Another complication is the distinction between a “one-tier” approach and a “two-tier” approach. Without altering my position about dominant mythoi—that every serial concept is dominated primarily by one mythos—it’s obvious that some serials are more overtly devoted to one mythos, while others may seek to “sample” from other mythoi to “switch things up.”

For the most part, every generation of BATMAN comics offers its readers the invigorating elements of adventure, with only minor references to modes of drama, comedy, or irony. This would be a one-tier approach.




BATMAN ’66, however, explicitly sought a “two-tier” approach according to the public statements of producer William Dozier, offering invigorating thrills to the kids in the audience, while giving the adults campy, ironic asides about the absurdity of the events depicted. I’ve repeated my reasons for viewing ’66 as dominated by the mythos of adventure various times, so I won’t repeat those reasons here.


Now, in my essay FANTASIES OFINNNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE, I made a direct comparison to two “two-tiered” concepts: that of BATMAN ’66, an “adventure-irony,” and that of Wally Wood’s WIZARD KING duology, an “irony-adventure.” In the essay, which focuses primarily on my reasons for pronouncing WIZARD KING an irony, I attempted to show how the invigorating elements of normative fantasy-adventures—LORD OF THE RINGS, PRINCE VALIANT—proved secondary to Wood’s concentration upon motifs of doom and deception. Yet, it must be admitted that although Wood’s version of a fantasy-scape can’t be taken at face value, his mortificative ironies are not nearly as harsh and discordant as those found in the most severe "one-tier” irony, such as the Mills/O’Neill MARSHAL LAW. The story’s reluctant hero (and viewpoint character) is not especially appreciative of the strange beauties he encounters. But the reader sees what Odkin does not—the wonder in winged boats floating across the sky, or mammoth earth-ogres coming to life after eons. Thus there is a sense that the fantasies of innocence exist to comment on the fantasies of experience, even if the latter get the primary emphasis.

Any analytical approach to BATMAN ’66 would have to be note how the episodes play off the two mythoi constantly, even though the emphasis goes in the opposite direction. To illustrate, here’s a brief cross-comparison.




Very few actual Batman comics-stories were adapted to the teleseries, but a telling exception is 1952’s “The Joker’s Utility Belt.” In every way the original comic is a thoroughgoing adventure-story, with no elements of drama, irony or even comedy to distract from the tale’s focus: yet another duel between Batman and the Joker. As the title implies, the villain’s main ploy is that of biting the hero’s style, as the Crown Prince of Crime begins wearing a belt full of useful gizmos, albeit all patterned upon jokey conceits, like sneezing powder and a hand buzzer. Naturally, the Joker puts Batman and Robin through their paces—literally, on a conveyor belt leading to a furnace—until the heroes turn the tables and consign the villain to durance vile once again.



Dozier and his staff adapted this story to the fifth and sixth episodes of the teleseries’ first season, which were respectively entitled “The Joker is Wild/Batman is Riled.” Not many comics-stories were adapted at all, but “Joker is Wild” is amazingly close to the original model, particularly in comparison to the Riddler-story that was used for the season’s first and second episodes. The TV-script doesn’t use nearly as many campy asides as did the average first-season episode, but the most significant departure appears at the end of the sixth episode. Batman has defeated the Joker’s minions, including a beautiful gang-moll named Queenie (not present in the 1952 comic-tale). As the sober-sided crusader prepares to take the malefactors in, Queenie tries to see if she can negotiate some leniency via her tempting body. Batman’s response—calling the gang-moll a “poor, deluded creature”—is out of character for the comic-book hero, but totally appropriate for the campy series. Having Batman sound a bit like a priggish defender of moral virtue does not in any way diminish his heroic accomplishments, those of figuring out the Joker’s plot and defeating his forces. But it’s a transparent signal to the adult audience, that the Cowled Crusader is first and foremost a hero for children who don’t know anything about the temptations of sex.



Now, pointing out the particular usages of either adventurous or ironic elements does not in itself constitute the value of “mythicity.”Mythicity is, as I’ve written before, not equivalent with artifice. The literary devices of artifice are the primary vehicles through which mythicity is expressed, but the "driver" of each vehicle is only mythic in nature if he’s communicating not just the bare facts of his artificial existence, but also the manifold joys of epistemological reflection. How many such “drivers” I will find in BATMAN ’66 is at this point an open question even to me.


NOTES ON WHITEHEAD


In December 2018 I adopted Alfred North Whitehead’s term “concrescence” into my system without having read any works by Whitehead, as opposed to secondary commentary. All I really knew of Whitehead was that his major work PROCESS AND REALITY was based on the notion that many if not all philosophies before his own were far more focused on seeing the universe as a “product” rather than an ongoing “process.”

I’ve now read the first two chapters of PROCESS AND REALITY, and while I don’t see the “product/process” dichotomy as yet, the idea of reality as an ongoing process seems central to his thought. To be sure, I find Whitehead tough going in that he tosses out terminology as complicated as Kant’s, but with less explication. His diction is at least less convoluted than that of Hegel, but I suspect I might have been better off if I’d started out with one of his earlier, less ambitious works. Possibly, as he begins going into more detail about the distinctions between his system and those of earlier philosophers, I’ll be better able to place him in context.

Given that I liked his adaptation of the medical term “concrescence,” I am pleased to see that this was not just some random toss-off, but a central aspect of Whitehead’s system, allowing one to see how “any one actual entity involves the other actual entities among its components.” I’m reasonably sure that he doesn’t approach his schemes about reality and actuality from the Jungian/Kantian standpoint I favor, and though he views literature as part of that reality, it’s clearly not going to be one of his principal concerns. But so far I am satisfied that his project aligns to some degree with the principles of pluralism that I’ve expoused here. However I may disagree with him, I currently think that he’s more an ally than an opponent.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

MYTHCOMICS:["HOW LONG O LORD?"] (1970?)

For this week's mythcomic I've chosen a particular variation on one of Charles Schulz's most famous jokes; Lucy goading Charlie Brown into trying to kick a football, only to yank it away so that he collapses into a painful humiliation.

Here's a routine, non-mythic version of the joke:



Of the many humiliations Schulz put his star character through, this one was one of the most often repeated. I'm reasonably sure that it resonated with both Schulz and his readers because it placed Charlie Brown in the position of willfully choosing to be sucked into Lucy's cruel trickery. But all of the "football gags" I've seen are pretty simple and straightforward, and thus not the stuff of myth--

Except this one.




To spell things out, I'm not saying that a given PEANUTS cartoon is automatically mythic simply because lay preacher Schulz worked in a Biblical quote or reference. The strip I've entitled "How Long O Lord" maintains an intense (if brief) mythic discourse in striking an unlikely parallel between the mundane interactions of two modern-day suburban children and the mythic interaction of an Israelite prophet and the God of his fathers. The comparison becomes incongruous, and thus humorous, precisely because the readers of the strip know that Schulz is not serious about it.

Yet, even if neither Schulz nor his readers believed that Lucy and Charlie Brown were enacting any sort of *imitatio dei,* Schulz is at the very least commenting upon the ongoing but intentionally static relationship between Lucy and Charlie Brown, between the "con girl" and her fall guy.

It will be noted that in the preceding passages of the Book of Isaiah, God has charged the prophet with a duty to preach to the rebellious people of Israel. Lucy's interpretation, that the prophet is expressing a "protest" against "the finality of the Lord's judgment," is not the only possible reading, but it may well be the dominant one in modern times. Many other "Lucy and the football" jokes stress Lucy coming up with some new ploy by which to gull her hapless victim. Here, though, Charlie Brown himself gives her a clue as to how to con him once more. By comparing the girl-bully's deceptions to a deity's perverse determination, he's initially conferring self-importance on himself, giving his suffering the stature of a prophet's ordeals. Lucy simply plays along with Charlie Brown's self-inflation, talking scripture as if she were agreeing with her target's desire to "beat the odds." But in the end she fulfills the role of a pitiless God-- maybe more in the line of a deity worshiped by Sisyphus than one venerated by Isaiah-- and pulls the football once again. This time, she adds eternal insult to injury by proclaiming that he's going to be the victim of crafty bullies like herself "all your life."

On a side-note, one of the other "Lucy and football" jokes of later years includes a brief post-defeat conversation between Charlie Brown and his sister Sally. Sally can't understand why Charlie Brown allows Lucy to gull him repeatedly, and asks if he's in love with Lucy. Charlie Brown's odd response is, "I should hope not." To the best of my knowledge, Schulz never suggests any sort of "crush"-level affection between Lucy and Charlie Brown, even though both characters are entirely capable of crushing on other kids their age. But Lucy clearly enjoys not only deceiving and insulting Charlie Brown. He's also the character she most often browbeats with her self-glorifying displays of illogical whimsy, and whereas her brother Linus occasionally finds ways to undercut Lucy's gigantic ego, Charlie Brown rarely, if ever, does so. But this reserve doesn't stem from any feelings of love.  Rather, it's the relationship between completion and incompletion. Lucy may be a demanding termagant, but she almost always knows what she wants, and that gives her a degree of power, even when her desires are never fulfilled (cf. Schoeder). Charlie Brown can never demand anything of anyone, and on some level he envies Lucy's peerless confidence. And this is the deep appeal of his futile attempts to kick the football: Lucy will always have one up on him, but he'll always keep trying to catch up with her, albeit without ever comprehending how she managed to supersede him so easily.

Friday, June 12, 2020

THE COVID PANDEMIC AND THE RACE-HATE PHARMAKON


Liberals have attempted to paint the events of the past two weeks as a vindication of their emancipation ethic. However, said events have several differences from the entirely rational quest for the civil rights of colored persons in the 1950s and 1960s. The death of George Floyd on May 25 was more akin to the sowing of a dangerous and unpredictable wind, resulting in the reaping of an even greater whirlwind (Hosea 8:7, if your’re curious). As I listened to funeral eulogies attempting to confer positive political meaning upon the death of Floyd by such luminaries as Al Sharpton and Shelia Jackson Lee, I had no sense that any of the speakers had examined either the political or philosophical aspects of emancipation as thoroughly as did Martin Luther King. George Floyd was just more grist for their political mills, and their message was, as it has been with so many modern progressives, “give us what we want or there will be trouble.”

The specific injustice of George Floyd’s death need not be questioned, even were it demonstrable that Floyd in some way provoked or assaulted the arresting officers. There is reason, though, to question whether or not Floyd’s murder was racially motivated. Though the specific cop guilty of Floyd’s murder was white, his three accomplices break down as white, black, and Asian. As hard as Kamala Harris may try, she can’t quite make this incident equivalent to an entirely racially motivated killing, as with the example of Emmett Till. Indeed, the base image caught by the phone of a Minneapolis resident—that of a white cop forcefully kneeling on the neck of a black man—has such visceral appeal that it transcends the racial divide. For blacks, the image may well connote “what all whites would really like to do to all blacks.” However, no matter how often pea-brained pundits claim that whites never get killed in police incidents, many if not all whites are likely to imagine themselves being similarly victimized by the police.


But the Floyd image, horrific as it is, may not be the main source of the current social upheaval. On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor, a young med-tech resident of Louisville, Kentucky, was shot by police who invaded, without warning, the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. Taylor was far more of a model citizen than Floyd, who had served five years in prison for robbery with a deadly weapon. Yet while the litigation arising from her death continues, Taylor’s tragic death did not galvanize both blacks and whites across the U.S., to say nothing of having impact upon foreign countries.

The most immediate difference is that no image was captured of Taylor’s suffering, while every moment of Floyd’s final struggles for life was committed to video. Chauvin’s actions, whatever their intent, bring to life the memorable phrase Orwell puts in the mouths of his tyrants: “a boot stomping on a human face, forever.”

Yet I think a more pertinent difference is the timing of Floyd’s death with respect to the tensions of the Covid pandemic.

By the power of strange coincidence, the date of Breonna Taylor’s death is the same day President Trump declared a national emergency. Throughout the remainder of March and all of April, the majority of American states locked down to some extent, as did the majority of countries afflicted with Covid. The lockdown, whatever its merits in terms of curbing the spread of the highly infectious disease, wrought almost unprecedented havoc upon the American economy. The psychological devastation stemming from the rigors of lockdown may have been even greater, though, requiring huge adjustments in customary behavior to counteract the disease.

Both Left and Right were not slow to politicize the disease. Joe Biden accused Trump of racism when the president shut down borders. Later, when some states failed to follow Trump’s advice on re-opening, the president’s intemperate rants did little to calm troubled waters.

The notion that Covid victims of color were more adversely affected than whites seems to have gained ground in early April. On April 10, Surgeon General Jerome Adams responded to the assertion by stressing that Covid had its most deleterious effects upon victims with pre-existing conditions, and urged the communities of colored persons to take better care of themselves. This did not sit well with liberals who wanted to blame systemic racism. To my knowledge no one ever produced a study proving that poor whites were being given better health care than poor persons of color, which might have given the lie to the political mendacity. Instead, Trump’s regime found it expedient to sideline Adams as a spokesperson, which unfortunately allowed the Far Left to claim their political assertion to be proven fact.


May was marked by tremendous conflicts regarding the termination of the lockdown. Some states re-opened with relatively little trauma, but others prolonged the safety measures, sometimes with commandments as irrational as those of a Roman emperor, as with Michigan governor Kathryn Witmer’s injunction against people planting gardens. The prolongation may or may not have slowed the pandemic, but it certainly inculcated a variety of reactions about the nature of authority. For once, the liberals were championing the authority of the states regarding the lockdown—a marked change from earlier attitudes toward issues like slavery and abortion.

Nevertheless, by May 23 most of the country had re-opened to some degree. But for many, the pandemic was like a curse upon the land after the fashion of old Greek plays. On the conscious level, everyone knew that there could be no reason; it was all just the rampage of a nasty little virus; something beyond human control.

But when there arose a new spectre of white-on-black race-hatred—that was something that the society could seek to control. To be sure, though, the “control” was less a rational act than a ritual of expiation. The ancient Greeks used such rituals in festivals like the Thargelia, wherein the authorities would sacrifice one or more citizens to the gods. The sacrifice was termed a ^pharmakon,* a cure designed to cast out the evil infecting their society.

Liberals have been attacking the systemic racism of police departments for many years, and unfortunately, policemen have committed enough acts to give the Left fodder for the fire—even if some events, like that of Ferguson, generated more heat than light. But none of the earlier attacks or the fulminations about them led to widespread calls to “defund the police.”

I’m not particularly worried that any major city will make any major changes. The people on top know that they need cops to defend them against the sort of yahoos who rioted all week following Floyd’s death. All the dutiful admissions of systemic racism are no more than the usual virtue signaling, designed, like the shield of the aegis, to ward off the spears and arrows of outraged pundits. Some specific good works may proceed from this tsunami of aggrieved sentiments, but again, there are no Doctor Kings here, attempting to foster a new understanding between the haves and the have-nots. There are merely people who claim to be have-nots, attempting to get more slices of the pie for themselves. The of of the have-nots will not be appreciably improved, and the racial divide will be ruthlessly exploited throughout the coming presidential election.

In other words, a second wave of Covid will be the least of our problems.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

THE BAT-BACHELOR THREAD


I concluded my GROTESQUES AND ARABESQUES post without formulating a “bachelor thread” for the Batman comics-series, because I wanted to rethink the matter somewhat more in relation to the influential 1966 teleseries. I’m never going to attempt to review all the Batman comic books, but I have considered doing an episode-by-episode myth-analysis of the teleseries. To do so, I would need to determine what aspects of the comic’s “bachelor-thread" the series-writers chose to follow, and what aspects they replaced with others.




My original thought for the Batman comic in toto was going to be something like, “the darkness of trauma, though usually breeding monsters, may also breed a slayer of monsters.” I even had this approximate notion in mind as I began GROTESQUES AND ARABESQUES, but in the midst of crafting the essay, I began to think a lot more about how Robin had altered the aesthetic of the series. Though he as much as Batman suffered a trauma that caused him to become a crusader against evil, Robin certainly does not become a “creature of the night.” If anything, his bright, colorful costume suggests the stubborn renewal of life and light after the temporary reign of darkness. The legendary Robin Hood was almost certainly the exemplar on which the teen hero was modeled, but arguably over time the more important connotation was that of the robin as “the first bird of spring.”




 Robin’s vernal presence certainly doesn’t dispel the monsters of fear and darkness, of course. He debuts after Batman’s encounters with a handful of early, somewhat crude grotesques—Professor Hugo Strange, the Monk, and the Duc D’Orterre—but the Boy Wonder is on the scene for all the major grotesques: the Joker, Clayface, Scarecrow, Two-Face. And because of the visual and narrative interplay of the grim Dark Knight and his playful “squire,” the writers began coming up with more villains who were more sprightly in nature, foremost being the Penguin. (As noted elsewhere, it took the writers a while to come up with a well defined version of Catwoman.)



So, having made Robin’s presence more essential to the overall development of the Bat-mythos, the bachelor-thread for the overall series must balance the elements of darkness and brightness. Additionally, although the heroes are victims of trauma, many of the villains are less traumatized than simply maladjusted, usually by virtue of greed. Obsession rather than trauma as such seems to define the Bat-mythos. Batman himself starts the ball rolling by extending his chosen identity to such tools as the Batarang and the Batmobile; the Joker follows suit with a poison that causes his victims to laugh themselves to death, and so on. So perhaps a trial thread might read something like, “Though the Greeks wanted to find beauty only in bright things and ugliness in dark ones, virtue and vice have equal propensities to be either light or dark, depending on the nature of the obsession.” This thread-concept would even remain in operation during the era I call “Candyland Batman,” when Batman himself is very nearly the only character who projects any grotesque affects, and nearly every new villain is conceived along the lines of the Penguin’s arabesque obsessions, thus leading to crooks who base their crimes on the use of kites and freeze-rays and polka dots.



The idea of obsession, incidentally, glosses my earlier ruminations on the nature of artifice. Most if not all familiar literary tropes incite in their ardent readers a heightened feeling like that of obsession, but one channeled through the matrix of game-playing. The very attraction of a literary trope lies in the fact that it is artificial, like the rules of any game. Truly ardent lovers of mystery-fiction never tire of the consummatory pleasures they receive from the masterful resolution of a whodunit, while an outsider to such pleasures can only wonder, as did Edmund Wilson, “who cares who murdered Roger Ackroyd?” Obviously the love of the game runs deeper in some than in others. A Gary Groth may start out loving the aggressive fantasies of superheroes and barbarians, only to lose his taste for those pleasures, and to spend most of his career lecturing other readers on the childish nature of their fantasies.



When such fantasies are seen through a distancing lens, such as that of the campy irony present in the Batman teleseries, some audiences are pleased to think that they’ve escaped the hidebound rule of the old game, and entered a more challenging, more adult form of play. This would seem to the case with a 2014 essay by Noah Berlatsky, in which the author could not imagine why Bat-fans didn’t want to toss out old; childish Batman in favor with new, ironic Batman. I answered his question with my essay-series THE BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY, but for the purpose of this essay, I want to look at how the teleseries attempted to rewrite the rules of the comic book’s scenario.



The essence of the word “irony” is that of saying one thing and meaning something else. William Dozier and his collaborators were certainly not the first pop-culture dabblers in this domain. Al Capp’s LI’L ABNER, though dominantly a broad comedy, is full of instances where characters revisit familiar story-tropes to indirectly make fun of them.The most famous of these appeared when simple-minded Abner would geek out on the gory misdeeds of his comic-strip hero Fearless Fosdick, a blatant send-up of DICK TRACY. There had been various superhero spoofs in comics and in cartoons before ’66 BATMAN. But Dozier and Co had the inspired notion to adapt the overall mythos of an established superhero-serial, playing it straight for kid-viewers but injecting any number of sly asides to please the adult audience.





This was, of course, a game no less restrictive than the rules of the Bat-comic, and nothing shows this more than the pastel-filled visual approach of the ’66 show. At the time of the show’s airing, DC’s two Bat-features had just made an attempt to reject the aesthetics of Candyland Batman, since the books weren’t selling as well as desired. This shift in editorial policy led to a very modest revival of grotesque/Gothic imagery, as seen in the May ’66 appearance of the Death-Man.


 However, though Dozier et al borrowed from a few stories that appeared during the post-Candyland phase, the show-runnners were largely married to the aesthetics of Candyland Batman, where villains with weird obsessive traits popped up for no particular reason, almost existing purely to counter Batman’s own crimefighting obsession. Mister Freeze was one of the few TV-villains to be given a particular reason for his criminal career. Usually, though, if there wasn’t something about a villain’s modus operandi that really begged for explanation, the writers dispensed with even simple melodramatic motivations.



In the universe of ’66 BATMAN—a admixture of both adventure-tropes and ironized versions of them— both the heroes and their villains still had their obsessions, but they barely tied in to any life-events (Batman mentions the cause of his crimefighting obsession once or twice, almost as an afterthought; Robin, like the majority of villains, gets no origin at all.) Thus the rules of the show were far more formalized than those of the comic book. For instance, during the first two seasons, the two-part episodes all have cliffhangers at the end of the first segment. Building on producers’ statements about their audience, presumably the idea was that kids would be worried about the heroes’ survival while adults would wonder what absurd trick the writers would use to save the good guys. Since all episodes in those seasons had to have a cliffhanger, every villain had to nurture the impossible dream of devising a deathtrap good enough to extinguish the Dynamic Duo. In such a ritualized world, neither darkness nor dark obsessions really exist. So my makeshift Bat-bachelor thread, when passed through the devouring gullet of the ’66 Bat-serial, becomes: “Virtue and vice alike take the form of pastel, often psychedelic arabesques, and virtuous arabesques only triumph over those of vice because the rules say that they must.”



That said, Dozier et al knew that they couldn’t quite undercut all the rules of the comics-feature, or they couldn’t be sure of winning over the kids. Thus, Batman and Robin’s fights are never burlesqued as one sees in most superhero spoofs. The gigantic sound-effects provide a distancing effect for adults, but do not efface the effects of two heroes who are just so good with their dukes that they can outfight three or four plug-uglies at once. Similarly, though Robin no longer serves the purpose of “brightening” Batman’s Gothic domain, he still fulfills the same role of the junior hero receiving tutelage from his elder. Though the duo’s goody-good personas are often subverted, the familial affection between the two is played straight.

To conclude, if I was ever to perform a critical analysis of ’66 BATMAN, I would have to look at each episode to see how well it balanced the use of adventure-tropes with irony-tropes, and whether or not the balance attained the higher levels of mythic discourse—just as a sustained analysis of all Batman stories might emphasize the balance between dark grotesques and colorful arabesques.


THE READING RHEUM: THE MOON POOL (1918-1919)





Abraham Merritt’s THE MOON POOL first appeared as an open-ended short story, followed by a novel that concluded the story, both of which were printed in ALL-STORY WEEKLY. This fantasy-drenched "lost race" tale was largely responsible for the author’s meteoric rise to fame for a relatively small number of fantasy-novels. Because the revised novel was a “fix-up” of two related stories, close analysis shows some problems with overall tone, though in the end Merritt manages to bring the sections together in terms of his dominant myth: that of modern man being ravished by elder mysteries.

The short story, the first work to carry the title “The Moon Pool,” is narrated by a botanist, Walter Goodwin, who journeys to Polynesia to gather information for a book in his field. Goodwin meets a colleague, Throckmartin, who within the last year journeyed to the same area for his own research. Twice in the novel Merritt draws attention to Throckmartin having been accompanied by his “youthful” wife and an “equally youthful” junior collaborator, and in so doing, the author manages to suggest some extra-marital impropriety, with the older man made to wear the cuckold horns.

But although Goodwin perceives that Throckmartin has become “one who had borne some searing shock of rapture and horror,” the older man’s catastrophe has nothing to do with sexual betrayal as such. Throckmartin’s research party encountered a transcendent, godlike entity known as “the Dweller,” who manifested in a “moon pool” located within ancient ruins. The Dweller then spirited away everyone but the older man, leaving Throckmartin traumatized by the experience. Goodwin does not know what to make of his colleague’s story, or the fact that Throckmartin has a strange brand on his chest, one which seems hard as stone. As if anxious to prove the truth of Throckmartin’s claim to Goodwin, the Dweller manifests, this time spiriting Throckmartin away as well, leaving Goodwin to ponder his weird encounter with something that seems both of Heaven and of Hell.

In the novel-sequel, originally titled “The Conquest of the Moon Pool,” Goodwin speedily puts together a rescue-party to probe the ruins of Nan-Tauach, which seems to suggest construction by ancient builders with great technological prowess. On his way Goodwin picks up three other investigators. One is a Norwegian sailor, Olaf, whose wife and daughter were also spirited away by the mysterious Dweller. The second is Larry O’Keefe, an Irish-American pilot whose “hydroairplane” was knocked out of the sky by a cyclone, forcing him to drift on the sea-waves until being rescued. The third is Marakinoff, a Russian provocateur conducting his own one-man investigation, who infiltrates Goodwin’s expedition but proves to be a general troublemaker. The four of them investigate a strange “moon door” in the ruins, and pass through it, leaving behind the rest of the rescue party.




The door apparently transports the travelers through time and/or space, for they find themselves in a strange civilization, utterly isolated from the modern world and possessed of a formidable super-science, including disintegrator weapons. This civilization, run by a privileged class called “ladalas,” also worships an energy-entity called “the Shining One,” who happens to be identical with the Dweller witnessed by Goodwin. The women of Nan-Tauach are all beautiful elf-women, but the men tend to be short and almost dwarfish (perhaps owing something to the tropes used in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Opar” stories). O”Keefe instantly falls in love with the first woman he sees, despite the fact she’s got a humanoid frog in her company, but the woman, name of Lakla, disappears from sight and from several chapters thereafter.

The modern-day quartet then get introduced to the hidden city’s wonders by the high priestess of the Shining One: Yolara, a cruel-looking beauty. This character continues Merritt’s theme of uniting rapture and horror, since Goodwin refers to her as “a queen of hell and a princess of heaven—in one.” However, unlike the virginal Lakla, Yolara’s been around, and has apparently enjoyed as her lover one of the dwarf-men, Lugur (whose name, incidentally, resembles that of the mythic villain Loki, whom the Norwegian Olaf thinks responsible for all of his suffering). Lugur is less than pleased with the outer-world visitors when Yolara begins pursuing O’Keefe, and such is the priestess’s beauty that O’Keefe does come close to forgetting all about the story’s “good girl.” In this development one sees Merritt morphing the suggested theme of the short tale—two men in conflict over a woman—into one involving two women fighting over a man.

The outworlders get to witness a summoning of the Shining One, who pulls sacrificial victims into his own world, where it feeds off their energies. Later Goodwin and company will learn that both Throckmartin’s group and Olaf’s relations exist in a “dead-alive” state from which they never return. Marakinoff makes common cause with Lugur and largely departs the main storyline, implicitly contributing to evil plot-hatching. Yolara drugs O’Keefe in order to make him marry her, but Lakla finally shows up, and reveals to the reader that she’s the priestess of another group of ethereal entities, “the Three Silent Ones,” and she upsets Yolara’s plans. However, the things that Yolara has learned from O’Keefe inspire her to follow the example of Rider Haggard’s famed villainess She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. She plans to unleashing her super-scientific weapons, as well as the Dweller, upon the modern world. Goodwin pictures the entire world being reduced to “a ruined planet” by the seemingly unstoppable power of the Shining One.


Some “lost city” stories place the heroes in the position of bringing down a corrupt hierarchy of “haves” in order to liberate the “have nots.” This theme is minimally suggested in MOON POOL, but Merritt doesn’t pursue it, and indeed, none of the characters in Nan-Tauach are strongly drawn except for Yolara, Lugur, and Rador, a dwarf-man who allies himself to the travelers. The travelers are no better. Goodwin is a colorless scientific theorizer. Marakinoff is a standard Russian schemer, and Olaf is a standard Nordic berserker. As for Larry O’Keefe, he’s positioned as the story’s male romantic lead, but he’s certainly no Leo Vincey. Indeed, O’Keefe may be the crappiest hero ever to bring down a lost city. At heart O’Keefe is a standard Irish stereotype, just as Olaf is a standard Nordic stereotype. But because O’Keefe’s entire being is made up of banshees and blarney stones, he seems like a blathering blockhead rather than an admirable heroic figure. Merritt gives O’Keefe a loopy way of speaking, interspersing his words with exclamations of “Yip” and “Yow,” and he wearies both Goodwin and most readers by stubbornly insisting that the Irish “little people” are real but that scientific speculation is all ‘superstition.”

Thus none of the characters from modern-day Earth are anything but useful props for the author. Lakla the good girl and Lugur the spurned lover are equally flat. Because Merritt expends a lot of effort delineating the charms of Yolara’s cruel beauty, I was tempted to see her as the novel’s “starring villainess,” a deliberate parallel to Haggard’s SHE. But though Yolara dominates the middle third of the book, she fades in importance with respect to the revelations of the novel’s final chapters, detailing what the Shining One is, and how it was brought into being by the endeavors of the Three Silent Ones. By this I make the determination that the Shining One, rather than any of the humans fighting for or against it, is the focal presence of the novel.


Though that history posits that the city of Nan-Tauach pre-existed the coming of the Shining One—implicitly, as a survival of the even more archaic continent Lemuria—in a symbolic sense the sinister beauties of the ancient city is one with the fallen nature of the Shining One. Everything in the city, like the Shining One, is depicted as a series of prismatically-colored, lapidary beauty, but it’s a beauty like that of the Gorgon (to which Yolara is often compared). As author Merritt takes great pleasure in describing the interfusion of loveliness and wickedness, of heaven and hell, and in future novels he develops this trope to greater effect. Here, however, he fudges his own aesthetic somewhat by using dull sticks like Lakla and O’Keeffe as his romantic pair. Some theorists have argued that H.P. Lovecraft’s concepts of his “Great Old Ones” may owe something to the amorphous beauty of the Shining One. But if Lovecraft read THE MOON POOL, I imagine him being dismayed by the novel’s resolution: that of having the monster-god weakened by the love-feeling of hero and heroine, prior to its being destroyed by its creators.

Appropriately, though, Merritt does bring the novel full circle by having Goodwin exiled from the land of wonder as was Throckmartin. Oddly, the vehicle of this exile is Marakinoff, who attacks Goodwin on a bridge to prevent his Western rival for enjoying the fruits of his research. In the fall the Russian dies and Goodwin returns to the mortal world. He’s unable to access the Moon Pool again, but gets another shot at delving into worlds of wonder in a follow-up novel, THE METAL MONSTER.

Monday, June 1, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: GRENDEL TALES: THE DEVIL'S HAMMER (1994)




DEVIL'S HAMMER is one of many spinoffs of Matt Wagner's GRENDEL franchise, albeit one in which Wagner had an ancillary role: authoring a 3-part backup series in the three 1994 issues of this Dark Horse comic. However, I'm concerned only with the primary serial, which seems to be the source of the magazine's title. and was written by Rob Walton and drawn by Bernie Mireault and Kathryn Delaney.

I've had only intermittent encounters with the Grendel Franchise, so I'm sketchy on some of the developments in HAMMER. The events take place in a futuristic setting, when humanity has been conquered by a tyrant known as "the Grendel-Khan." Further, the forces commanded by the Khan include a dedicated array of knights called "Grendels," who view the idea of Grendel as a transcendent principle in their lives.



Christianity still exists in this world, but it's been largely exiled to the rural parts of the country (whatever country it may be) and reduced to the level of medieval monasticism. The story's narrator is a monk named Petrus Christus (Rock of Christ), who lives according to his religion's definitions of good and evil. He suffers a severe trauma when five Grendel-knights massacre an entire city, Ourador, leaving only Petrus alive to tell the tale.



Petrus seeks out a local monastery, regarded by Christians as "the New Jerusalem on Earth," and confers with its abbot, Sebastian Chiesa. This monk also survived an earlier encounter with the five killers, who tormented him by shooting him with arrows targeted to non-fatal parts of his body. As if to do the legendary Saint Sebastian one better, this Sebastian doesn't have the arrows removed from his body, but allows them to remain, "as testimony to Christ's sovereignty over flesh and the devil."
Sebastian counsels Petrus to allow God to punish the Grendels "in the fires of the next world." But Petrus seeks vengeance, and since he's apparently more of a practiced warrior than the average priest, he decides to infiltrate the Grendels by joining their ranks.



With very little difficulty, the monk joins forces with the five slaughterers of Ourodor-- the leader Mahound, Kali (the only female), Klunni, the Lotus, and Bill, the last being the only one who wears a mask like that of the 20th century Grendel. Mahound, whose name is derived from a medieval corruption of Mohammed, claims that he and his fellows stand far above the "dullards" who serve the Grendel-Khan, for only Mahound's group serves "the indestructible power and indescribable joy of Grendel."

Because the Grendels have no current plan to attack anyone, Petrus baits them into attacking the monastery again, while secretly planning to ambush the knights separately. Instead, he himself gets ambushed by the Lotus, who spouts quasi-Taoist aphorisms like, "The mask that is worn is not Grendel." Petrus manages to slay the Lotus, after which the monk experiences a non-Christian epiphany, standing in a baptismal river while a raven bites off one of his ears. (Neither ear is missing when reality as such resumes.)






Petrus then has an extended conversation with mask-garbed Bill, who confesses a loss of faith, partly because he and his fellow killers cannot equal the rapacity of nature. "We could displace the oceans of Earth with gore," he tells the monk, "and the universe wouldn't bat an eye." Petrus leaves Bill to wallow in his existential torment and ambushes both Kunnil and Kali, killing one and trapping the other, Bill shows up, kills Kali, and tries to kill Petrus, suspecting that the latter has become Grendel's new Messiah. The monk kills Bill and rushes to the monastery to head off Mahound. Petrus and Mahound fight, but though Mahound loses, he like Bill believes that it's because the spirit of Grendel has chosen Petrus as his vessel. He also reveals that there's a "truth" that Petrus must learn about the revered abbot.



I won't reveal the nature of that truth here, but suffice to say that it doesn't do anything to shore up Petrus's waning Christian values. Yet even before the revelation comes out, Petrus is apparently possessed by the actual demon-spirit of Grendel. During the abbot's attempt to exorcise Petrus, the former monk speaks of himself in Biblical terms: "I am the eyes and ears of Heaven. My name denotes my office in the celestial court. Neither apostate nor fallen-- you know me, abbot, as Adversary." With these references, Walton is almost certainly evoking the Old Testament version of Satan, who accused mortals like Job in order to test their faith in God. But clearly the reader is not supposed to invest in the hierarchy of God and his angels, and if the Grendel-spirit is real, then it's because it embodies something more profound about the universe than any god, a principle to which Petrus surrenders herself before he too perishes:

There was never anything beyond the darkness. It was the darkness itself, and the darkness only, that I was meant to see.