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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, August 30, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: "THE KILLER SLOT" (ALL-AMERICAN MEN AT WAR #109, 1965)

The vast majority of DC war comics of the Silver Age-- which I, as a non-expert, perceive to be the heyday of the company's execution  of the genre-- tend to be fairly straightforward "gotta out-tough the enemy" potboilers. Robert Kanigher produced tons of these by-the-numbers combat-capers< But as with his superhero and western works, on occasion he came up with something in a mythic mode. In "The Killer Slot," he sought to work in his (undoubtedly simplified) comprehension of Amerindian psychology into just such a "tough it out" scenario.

"The Killer Slot"-- which is a pilot's name for a zone in which one plane has another at a disadvantage-- begins in media res. WWII "Navajo Ace" Johnny Cloud has been forced to land by another ace, one Von Kleit, Grinning goosesteppers take him prisoner, and for good measure mock him for being a Red Man:


 


Naturally, Cloud breaks free without getting immediately shot dead. Yet, rather than being, like most protagonists, solely concerned with his mission, Cloud becomes morose for having brought shame on his warrior heritage. This conveniently reminds him of an incident in his youth on the reservation, wherein he and his girlfriend rescued a falcon from a marauding hawk. This whole situation takes place near the cave of local shaman-type "Smoke-Maker," and that's where Cloud and his girlfriend take the smaller bird, believing that the falcon is dead. Smoke-Maker claims that even dead birds cannot rest without taking a last strike at an enemy. Providentially, the falcon seems to come to life, at least long enough to attack the hawk, after which both are joined in death.



This doesn't exactly sound like a good omen for the hero of a continuing serial. Having finished this segue into the distant past, Cloud finally fills in the reader on the dogfight that led to his current situation. After shooting down some enemy planes, Cloud sees a lone American soldier on the ground, being menaced by a German tank. Cloud rescues the grunt, with the amusing thought that the tank-gun reminds him of  "a cowboy with a six-shooter." Naturally, this time the "Indian" wins.


However, Cloud's heroic action leaves him open to his plane being forced down by two German fighters, and thus we return the reader to the present time. Cloud wanders around a while, moping about being shamed because he didn't manage to strike back against the enemy, and then finds the soldier he saved. The unnamed fellow expresses his shame for having failed his own martial attempts, at which point Cloud realizes that white people also feel the same shame as Indians over failure, which presumably soothed the egos of the readership.




The soldier, even in his wounded condition, helps Cloud regain his downed airplane. As the Navajo Ace takes off, he only has a split second to shoot down the enemy ace Von Kleit (never actually seen on-panel) before he Cloud falls victim to the Killer Slot. Probably no readers were surprised when Cloud, in taking down his enemy, did not suffer the fate of the dead falcon. But even if "Killer Slot"-- graced with somke really nice aviation-art by Irv Novick-- doesn't transcend the formula of the "tough-guy war-hero," Kanigher did somewhat better here in melding the psychology of shame with the imagined warrior code of a Native American hero.

Friday, August 28, 2020

EQUAL AND UNEQUAL VECTORS OF AUTHORIAL WILL, PART 1

Though my rough reading of Whitehead’s PROCESS AND REALITY did not convert me to process philosophy, I profited once again through my exposure to his gift for terminology—with the usual caveat that my use of a Whiteheadian given term will not necessarily agree with Whitehead's use of it.

In assorted sections, Whitehead speaks of what he calls “primary feelings” as “vectors.” The Merriam-Webster definition of the word is as follows:

A quantity that has magnitude and direction and that is commonly represented by a directional line segment whose length represents the magnitude and whose orientation in space represents the direction.

So in physics, a vector indicates a magnitude of physical force oriented in a particular direction. How could this concept apply to the discipline of literary studies?

I return to one of the bedrock formulations of this blog, from the essay SEVEN WAYS FROMSCHOPENHAUER:

Was Schopenhauer right about “Will” inhering in every aspect of our reality? We do not know. However, we CAN be sure that “Will” inheres in every aspect of the various LITERARY realities we humans create, since we KNOW for a fact that they are all “willed” into existence by their creators (and sometimes, however indirectly, by audiences as well).

In this essay I applied this concept of will to literary conflict. Yet all aspects of art—characters, settings, plot-tropes—derive from authorial will. Similarly, all of the multifarious literary categories I’ve introduced on this blog—dynamicity, mythicity, the combinatory-sublime and so on—are the prisms I use to view patterns of authorial will, patterns formed by the unceasing interactions of authors swiping from each other, competing with each other, and writing love letters to each other.

In other essays I may choose to investigate the vectors to be found in other domains. Here, though, I’ll address only the domain of centricity.

In STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 5, I utilized the term “charisma” to indicate the way the author dispersed his will to characters or phenomena in the narrative, asserting that the centric presence was the one that had received the greatest amount of charisma. The concept of vectors does not invalidate any of these formulations, but the vector-metaphor proves more useful, particularly since, in mathematics, one can speak of both equal and unequal vectors.

The most typical situation in narrative usually presents one protagonist in a particular situation. In most such narratives, the protagonist embodies the greatest magnitude of authorial will; whether he prospers or perishes, he’s the character on whom the reader most focuses. This is also the usual model of the endothelic mode, in that the protagonist, no matter how flawed, is the one with whom the reader identifies. However, there’s also a counter-tradition, that of the exothelic mode/ In this mode, the reader identifies less with the protagonist than with the situation enfolding the protagonist, be it a confrontation with a menace, like Dracula, or with an environment, like Wonderland. In INVESTMENT VS. FASCINATION PT. 2, I illustrated these opposed modes. H.G. Wells’ book THE TIME MACHINE proved exothelic, concerned largely with showing the reader the entropic worlds of the future. In contrast, the 1960 film-adaptation was endothelic, focusing less attention on the worlds visited by the Time-Traveler than on the deeds of the Time Traveler, WHICH in essence signified his ability to transcend entropy. To employ the new terminology, Wells’ Future-Earth possessed a centricity vector exceeding that of the main character or anything else in the novel, while in the movie the Time Traveler possessed that superior and unequal vector.

In essence, once one has identified the superior unequal vector, it doesn’t especially matter as to the magnitude of the other vectors. Some of the subordinate vectors may be equal to one another, and certainly this would be the case of all the supporting characters in the 1960 TIME MACHINE film. But none of the subordinate characters play a role in determining centricity, except in terms of sheer contrast to the dominant vector.

Now, I said that the one-protagonist schema was the most frequently used one. Still, the idea of the ensemble-schema—wherein two or more characters “share the spotlight,” so to speak—is at least as archaic as the other schema. In STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 6, I observed that I thought the ARGONAUTICA of Apollonius should be judged an ensemble-narrative. Obviously the same schema applies to most “team” narratives. At the same time, though, serial narratives can change their stance in this regard. In STATURE REQUIREMENTS PT. 3 I contrasted two TV-serials, ANGEL and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. BUFFY, in my current terms, would be a series built around one starring protagonist from start to finish, meaning that Buffy Summers always embodied an unequal vector of authorial will, while her helpers were all inferior to her but roughly equal to one another. However, I observed that ANGEL started out much as BUFFY did, focused largely upon the titular protagonist. Yet by the series’ second season, I noted a shift in which Angel’s associates became increasingly important to the ongoing narrative, so that by the series’ conclusion Angel and his associates shared equal vectors of authorial will.


Even some stand-alone narratives require close attention. For the first twenty minutes of the schlock-film SHE DEMONS, the film looks like it’s going to center around the adventures of its lead male and female characters, a no-nonsense he-man and a shrewish rich bitch. It would have been easy to arrange their island-encounter with a mad scientist in such a way that their triumph over him reinforced their characters. But the script for SHE DEMONS suggests that the author was more invested in his mad-scientist character. Once the Nazi madman comes on stage, the romance of the lead male and female takes second place, as the writer places far more emphasis on the evil Nazi’s inventiveness and his wavering attachment to his mutilated wife. The titular “she demons,” in addition, are nothing more than the scientist’s creations, and thus are not superior in centricity to him—though arguably their centricity-vector might be unequal to that of the romantic duo.

LAST NOTES ON WHITEHEAD


As I entered the last third of PROCESS AND REALITY, I found that the author began introducing not less but more specialized terms, to the point that I found most of the text unfathomable. So I confess I merely spot-read the rest of it, only marking the odd phrase or sentence, I’m glad that I did at least that much, for by so doing I did find one of Whitehead’s most all-embracing theme statements.

There is nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt. Also there is nothing which belongs merely to the privacy of feeling of one individual actuality. All origination is private. But what has been thus originated, publicly pervades the world.

With whatever accuracy, I will state that I find this passage fully congruent with the ideals of pluralism, as well as with the concept of intersubjectivity as I expounded upon the idea here. And with that broad statement, I will now leave Alfred North Whitehead in peace.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

NOTES ON WHITEHEAD PT. 3


I continue making slow progress through PROCESS AND REALITY. As I said previously, the philosopher throws at his readers a huge quantity of specialized terms. I feel a mild kinship with Whitehead, given I too am given to breaking down the blooming, buzzing world into dozens of specialized categories. Because of that, I’m aware that this blog is probably hard going for any neophyte readers. Still, with a blog it’s possible for a blog-reader to trace a given term back to its first usage, as long as the author provides the proper pathways. I’m over halfway through Whitehead’s book and I have no clue as to what his term “prehension” means, except that it’s certainly derived from the English “apprehension.”

Part 3 may eventually provide some insights, since it sports the title “Theory of Prehensions,” but I’m more interested in his opening chapter, “The Theory of Feelings.” As I understand Whitehead, his process theory strikes down the long-established dichotomy between “objective” and “subjective.” Subjective feelings arise from objective causes, and thus participate in those causal nexuses, as opposed to the dominant view that any subjective feelings are epiphenomenal to the primary phenomenon. From Section 1 of Chopter 2:

A simple physical feeling is an act of causation. The actual entity which is the initial datum is the “cause,” the simple physical feeling is the “effect,” and the subject entertaining the simple physical feeling is the actual entity “conditioned” by the effect… Therefore simple physical feelings will also be called “causal” feelings.”

Without worrying about Whitehead’s precise connotations, I’ll point out that Schopenhauer also wrote his own account of a form of “simple feeling,” which at one point he called “the percept.” These feelings, he specified, were the sort that both reasoning humans and reason-less animals had in common. Reasoning humans alone, however, were capable of thinking in terms of the form Schopenhauer called “the concept.” I have yet to see Whitehead write anything about Schopenhauer, though presumably the gloomy philosopher would be as irrelevant to process philosophy as Kant is said to be. Yet there may be at least a rough parallel between Schopenhauer’s terms and the categories Whitehead describes as the twofold aspect of concrescence:

In each concrescence there is a twofold aspect of the creative urge. In one aspect there is the origination of simple causal feelings; and in the other aspect there is the origination of conceptual feelings.

On the same page Whitehead defines conceptual feeling:

A conceptual feeling is feeling an eternal object in the primary metaphysical character of being an “object,” that is to say, feeling its capacity for being a realized determinant of process.

I think I follow Whitehead’s general thrust, but as I stated earlier, I’m just that not interested in the philosopher’s ontology. I do find appealing his general defiance of the object-subject dichotomy, in that “feelings” are not mere abstractions, given that they arise, as modern science tells us, from the neural pathways of the brain. I have more investment in the ways in which Carl Jung extended the insights of Kant and Schopenhauer into Jungian psychology (which, for what it’s worth, is roughly contemporaneous with Whitehead’s process philosophy). And thus, inaccurate as it may be to the spirit of Whitehead, I tend to translate his idea of “simple feelings” and “conceptual feelings” into a schema like that of Jung’s “feelings” and “intuition.”

Thanks to Jung’s schema, I evolved my theory of how narrative functions on two levels, that of the “lateral meaning” and the “vertical meaning.” To the extent that Whitehead’s concepts can be loosely translated into my Jungian-influenced ones, then “lateral meaning,” composed of Jung’s “sensation” and “feeling,” compares somewhat with “causal feeling,” while “vertical meaning,” summed up by the “thinking” and “intuition” functions, would roughly line up with “conceptual feeling.” Obviously, though, I like Jung’s terms better, since they allow for greater specificity. Whether or not Whitehead would consider Jung tainted by the dominant “objective-subjective” dichotomy is anyone’s guess.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: [“THE MOUTHWASH BOOTLEGGERS”], DICK TRACY (1946)




[Given that the original Gould continuity had no title, I’ve chosen to label the sequence after a phrase used by Tracy to describe his opponents.]

In Jay Marder’s definitive study of DICK TRACY and the strip’s author, it’s mentioned that Chester Gould tended to script his storylines in a rather free-form fashion, making things up as he went along. This may be one reason that even when Gould conceived compelling villains, their stories all follow the same pattern: (1) exposition on the type of crime being committed, (2) the detection of the crime by Tracy, another cop or some witness, (3) the criminal’s exposure, pursuit, and capture or demise.

Since the only comics I read up to age 10 were the kiddie-types, I don’t know that I saw anything comparable to a “rogue’s gallery” in such entertainments as Popeye, Mighty Mouse, or Uncle Scrooge. But I *may * have got my first taste of such an assemblage of diehard fiends in the 1961 DICK TRACY TV-cartoon. At a time when the ongoing TRACY strip wasn’t coming up with any decent do-badders, the cartoon culled weird crooks from assorted periods of the comic—most memorably, Flat Top, the Brow, the Mole, Pruneface, and Itchy. Even as a kid I knew that the cartoon was terrible—Dick Tracy barely appeared, serving only to introduce the hijinks of lesser comedy-cops—but I liked the villains. Eventually, the mass reprinting of the TRACY strip gave me a chance to see all of the great villains in their original storylines.

Having read the original stories now, I find that most of the famous villains boasted only fair-to-middling adventures, lacking the concrescence that makes mythicity possible. Flat Top, the Brow, and Pruneface were all masterpieces of visual design, but one was just a contract killer and the other two were just spies. Gould just didn’t give them personalities to match their physical attributes.

Gargles, principal villain of THE MOUTHWASH BOOTLEGGERS, is not as memorable as the more famous TRACY rogues. He doesn’t have a freaky physique like the Brow or Pruneface, or even a vocal peculiarity like Mumbles. Gargles is most like Itchy: defined by a weird habitual activity—Itchy scratches himself all the time, and Gargles habitually gargles at every opportunity. And though this felon doesn’t have a backstory, and barely anything like internal thoughts, it’s possible to imagine that at some point in his life he decided to channel his personal obsession with mouth-cleanliness into a racket, albeit the unlikely one of bootlegging mouthwash.

But BOOTLEGGERS doesn’t start with Gargles. Rather, Dick Tracy stumbles across a man who gets choked to death in a revolving door, apparently because his drunken girlfriend keeps pushing on the door, not comprehending that she’s killing him. On the face of it, the incident sounds like a candidate for “The Darwin Awards.” But it doesn’t take the master detective long to figure out that the dead man—George Empire, head of a pharmaceuticals empire—fell into the revolving door because some third party slugged the victim from behind. Tracy is uncommonly generous toward the drunken woman—a local radio celebrity with the bizarre name of “Christmas Early”—in that she’s never charged with accidental manslaughter. Later on, she even helps the top cop track down the real murderer of George Empire.



Though Christmas didn’t witness Empire’s assault, nor catch sight of the assailant, she later remembers that the rich man was complaining about trouble with a “mouthwash salesman.” But even before Christmas makes this recollection, the reader has the privilege of seeing said salesman in action. Gargles, who apparently doesn’t mind the nickname given that he’s seen gargling at every opportunity, runs an operation in which his confederates concoct phony mouthwash consisting of colored sugar-water. Gargles’ thugs then extort small druggists into buying the bogus germicide by damaging their stores—most often, by smashing their store windows (which will prove an important point later).



Here it should be interjected that it’s extremely unlikely that any crook anywhere ever made money with a “mouthwash protection racket.” Almost certainly Gould simply wanted to rework some of the story-tropes associated with the Prohibition years—during which time gangsters did force vendors to carry cheaply made, often dangerous liquor—so the author just transferred said tropes to the idea of “mouthwash bootlegging.” Probably the idea of Gargles and his freaky habit came first, and Gould tailored the crime to fit the villain’s compulsion.

Toward the end of the story, Gargles admits that he personally assaulted George Empire, but at the story’s opening, the reader does not see this, nor does Gargles see clearly the face of the woman in Empire’s company. However, by the God of Comic-Strip Coincidence, he happens to be very fond of Christmas Early’s morning radio-show—so much so that he writes her a fan-letter. At roughly the same time, one of Gargles’ victims makes a complaint to Tracy’s department. Christmas just happens to be on hand when Tracy reveals a clue that the analysts found going over the phony mouthwash, and the radio-star connects the clue with the fan-letter. Having determined that the unidentified bootlegger listens to the radio show, Christmas decides she’s going to “wring a dinner date out of a murderer” by pitching woo to him on-air. However, Chirstmas is spared this dubious date when Tracy tracks down Gargles’ current residence. But though Tracy’s squad exchanges gunfire with the bootlegger’s henchmen, Gargles himself escapes, hiding inside a rigged-up flower-box display.




Throughout this narrative, Gould also re-familiarizes readers with characters from a previous arc: professional singer Themesong, one of Gould’s many precocious brat-kids, and the kid’s mother. In the earlier arc Themesong and her mother lived in poverty while the little girl sang for pennies on the street while covering for mobsters. But like other such sinning juveniles, Tracy converts the child to the ethics of law and order, so that in BOOTLEGGERS Themesong supports herself and her mother with her singing-talents. However, being on the side of law and order doesn’t protect one from the vicissitudes of evil. Gargles, having temporarily eluded the police, wishes dearly for the chance to kill Christmas Early, having overheard that she was complicit with Tracy. However, the gangster realizes that he has to lay low, probably in “some germ-ridden dump”—and who does he choose to rent a room from?



For some days, neither Themesong nor her mother notices anything odd about their new renter, except that he gargles a lot. However, Themesong gets a new camera and snaps photos of several locals, including one of Gargles. Instead of simply ignoring the incident as any smart crook would, the bootlegger becomes hyper about re-acquiring the photo, even without knowing that Dick Tracy is acquainted with Themesong and her mom. As if to goad him further, Themesong and her mother just happens to take her film to a local pharmacy for development—and it’s one of the pharmacies Gargles shook down. The pharmacist only has a minute to recognize the photo as his earlier tormentor, when Gargles enters, killing both the druggist and Themesong’s mom. Themesong escapes with the photo, but Gargles escapes the cops by hiding in a coffin-sized tool box belonging to a repair truck. The repair truck is only nearby to fix the drugstore-window smashed earlier by Gargles, but this bit of good fortune proves deceptive.



While Gargles gets transported to the truck’s destination, a glass factory, Themesong mourns her mother. Christmas Early shows up, giving Themesong the chance to air her grievances on the air, warning Gargles to give himself up. The radio broadcast does reach the glass factory, but if it doesn’t soften Gargles’ hard heart, the girl’s description of the fleeing felon helps the factory-workers identify the fugitive. At the same time, Tracy’s squad arrives on the scene. Gargles takes refuge in a high room, but when Tracy makes a frontal assault—the detective being protected by a sheet of bulletproof glass—the villain loses his footing and falls. In addition, several sheets of breakable glass fall as well. Thus the glass-breaking thug—who, incidentally, complains twice about “cracked glass” being a source of germs—gets turned into the equivalent of veal cutlets. However, his throat remains whole long enough for him to confess to the killing of George Empire—a very uncharacteristic generosity from this brutal gangster, but one which Gould evidently wanted so as to tie things up 
neatly.



One impressive aspect of BOOTLEGGERS is that Gould evidently gave some thought to the ironic way in which he would kill off this particular transgressor. All of the early references to glass in Gargles’ life seem inconsequential until the reader sees that he’s destined to be impaled by glass shards. Another impressive aspect is that not until the end does Christmas Early’s name take on possible significance. The dominant connotation of the words “early Christmas” is that someone receives a gift ahead of the Christmas season. If as I believe this notion was being directed at the character of Themesong, then the “gift” is also steeped in irony, for Themesong loses a mother before she gains a musical mentor. “I’d like to get into radio like you are,” the grieving tyke informs Christmas, and although neither character made many more appearances, it’s suggested that Christmas becomes Themesong’s manager, and perhaps substitute mother. This scenario does not fulfill as obvious a wish-dream as the one in JUNIOR TRACY FINDS A DAD, wherein Junior’s natural father, a blind old man, gets killed off so that it becomes convenient for Junior to be raised by his ideal dad, tough cop Tracy. Still, even without wish-fulfillment as such, Gould orchestrated a rather strange three-part harmony between a clean-freak gangster, a celebrity implicated in manslaughter, and a good-hearted brat-girl with talented tonsils and a termagant tongue.  

Friday, August 14, 2020

UNCANNY ARTIFICE


In response to some comments on this post on my movie-blog, I started thinking about Rudolf Otto again. Some time back I devoted over half a dozen posts to my reading of Otto’s most famed book, THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, which originally I knew only through a C.S. Lewis essay. Though I believe these posts show how Otto’s thinking informed his concept of “the uncanny,” I wrote them before I had fully formulated my literary concept of “artifice,” influenced by but not determined by some of Northrop Frye’s formulations.

When Rudolph Otto published IDEA OF THE HOLY in 1923, he was in effect challenging an intellectual tendency in his time to define religion purely in terms of either “naturalistic” or “marvelous” phenomenologies. Religion, of course, was in every clime and time justified in terms of a phenomenology that transcended the strictures of space and time. Creation-myths show this transcendence of natural law most clearly. The world is created from some marvelous series of events, whether it springs from the bones of fallen giants or from God moving on the face of chaotic waters. A few scattered skeptical accounts of universal genesis did appear during certain archaic periods. Still, it’s fair to state that the assertion of purely naturalistic explanations didn’t really gain ground until the growth of non-religious or even anti-religious philosophies in Europe’s post-Renaissance eras.

Otto, being a Lutheran theologian, was inevitably allied to the notion of a marvelous Christian theology, in which God had sent his only begotten son to be sacrificed by and for humanity. He was, as IDEA makes clear, quite aware of the intellectual currents of the preceding centuries, which tended to view not only the world, but religion itself, as reducible to natural causes. For instance, in 1902 William James had in essence taken an empiricist attitude in analyzing THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. And while James’s catholic approach to world religions may have influenced Otto, the theologian rejected James’s emphasis on naturalistic explanations of religious practice.

As I commented in HOLY NUMINOSITY PART5, Otto held to the Christian belief that other religions were not valid in terms of revelation. Yet he also advocated what might called an Aristotelian sense that the “crude, primitive forms” of early religion had at least foreshadowed “the more highly developed forms of the numinous emotion,” that is, the ability to experience the awe and dread lurking beneath the naturalistic appearance of the universe. I don’t believe that Otto says all that much in IDEA about the reality of Christian metaphysics, but only because he’s more concerned with showing how his notion of “the numinous” pervades all religions, crude and advanced alike.

What makes the early religions crude by Otto’s lights is that they derive their “daemonic dread” from entities that Otto considers unreal in terms of phenomenology—ghosts, abstract forces like mana. An advocate of naturalistic phenomenology would of course argue that the entities of the higher religions, such as heaven-sent saviors, were just as unreal, but Otto does not argue this point. His concern is to show that human beings have a special capacity for transcendent emotions which are not reducible to naturalistic affects like fear or lust, and that this capacity appears in both the lesser and the greater religions.

Though Otto does not systematize his use of the term “the uncanny,” he applies it largely to the crude religions of daemonic dread. Modern readers of any persuasion might tend to view a ghost-story as a concept belonging to a marvelous phenomenology, but Otto does not believe primitives to be capable of such advanced concepts. The ghosts of early pagan stories are mere fancies, having no more reality than a ghost in a Sherlock Holmes tale—my comparison, not Otto’s. But in Otto’s paradigm, even a crude concept of ghosts still invokes the numinous capacity, which makes the early pagan fancies relevant to Otto’s project of defining all religious activity as rooted in something other than naturalistic causes. Otto does not use the term “artifice” at all, certainly not as I am using it. However, in effect he has stated that made-up stories, stories that have no real relevance to the phenomenological nature of the universe, stimulate emotions that exceed the limits of naturalistic phenomenology.

In this essay I revised Northrop Frye’s opposition of “myth” and “verisimilitude,” suggesting that, because “myth” had so many divergent meanings, “artifice” was a better term for the totality of the fictional (and religious) tropes through which human beings create coherent narratives. “Artifice” always draws upon this imagined totality to give narratives structure, just as “verisimilitude” draws upon the totality of lived experience to give narratives credibility.

Since I am not a materialist, I do not argue against phenomenologies that explain the visible world in marvelous terms, as proving-grounds for the war of Good and Evil or as a meaningless mote in the eye of an indifferent god. I only state that as soon as human beings translate their concepts of the marvelous—no matter how those concepts are obtained—into narrative, then they must structure concepts of the marvelous by the use of artifice; the use of elaborate tropes. In Jesus’s time, the Romans used real crosses for the mundane purpose of punishing thieves and rebels. But although Christian religion asserts that Jesus died on a real cross made of real wood, the real substance of the Christian cross is composed of earlier story-tropes about sacrificial victims perishing in or around trees. Eventually such tropes become so elaborate that the cross, rising from a hill called Golgotha, becomes covalent with the Tree of Knowledge, and the hill with the skull of the long dead Adam.

Now, uncanny phenomenologies do not diverge this much from verisimilitude. Causality remains naturalistic, but the events depicted suggest the presence of the numinous through the heightened emotions possible only through the appropriate tropes. Though the story of King David is often seen as a precursor to the meta-narrative of the Messiah, not that much of David’s story is marvelous in nature. If one discounts from the narrative the implicit will of God in David’s exploits, David’s closest encounter to anything that even seems marvelous is the story of the giant Goliath. Yet Goliath is not a mythic giant, but a mortal who happens to be about ten feet tall—an unlikely, but not indubitably marvelous, stature. Verisimilitude is much more of an influence upon the narrative of King David than upon that of the King of the Jews, but in the end, David’s story is also meant to stimulate, through artifice, the sense of what Otto calls “the numinous.”

In my writings I’ve usually referenced the Kantian concept of the sublime in place of the numinous, an association Otto explicitly denied, for reasons relating to Otto’s concept of his own religion. In essence, my long and winding exploration of the different phenomenological categories of fiction exists to refute Tzvetan Todorov’s purely empiricist formulation of those categories I call “uncanny” and “marvelous,” which he viewed as subsumed by “the Real.” Otto would probably not endorse any of my conclusions. But I like to think he would prefer them over the dreary materialism of either Todorov or any similar Marxmallow pundit.

STAN, JACK AND JOE STUFF

In response to this post about Jack Kirby and credit-sharing, I wrote:


Kirby did one long interview with COMICS JOURNAL back in the 80s, which I confess I haven't reread for years. It's my memory, though, that he said something to the effect that, "Back in those days (the Marvel years), nobody ever thought any of this stuff would be worth anything." Now, on one hand, this might be an oversimplification, since Kirby certainly knew that Superman had become a huge franchise. On the other hand, even in the sixties, he might've had had little faith in other franchises to become valuable over time; that maybe Superman was a special case, and therefore anything he co-created with Simon or with Lee was just going to be a passing fad. On the third hand (?), he also probably knew that Martin Goodman would never have made an equitable deal with him no matter what, so taking more than his fair share of credit was the only way he'd feel like he'd gotten back at Marvel's inequities-- even though it meant marginalizing the contributions of Simon and Lee.

All that said, I should add that from everything I've read of Jack Kirby, he tended to re-invent almost every script given him-- and I think that he was aware as to how much new stuff he brought to the table. I don't think that creative process is enough to establish him as "sole creator" of any collaborative enterprise, though. The finished product has to be the basis of any creative judgment, and if Comic A was based on an idea by Stan Lee, then visually elaborated by Jack Kirby, and then subjected to scripting-alterations by Lee again-- then Kirby's not the sole creator.

In the CRIVENS essay Kid brings up Kirby's tendency to omit former business-partner Joe Simon from later discussions. I agree that this does not always reflect well on Jack Kirby-- and yet, I don't think that Kirby work-relationship with Simon was quite the same as the Kirby-Lee relationship.

For one thing, the devoted comics-historian has a pretty good idea as to how Stan Lee wrote stories in the twenty-odd years before his collaboration with Kirby. But Simon teamed up with Kirby so early in their respective careers that Simon's creative personality is harder to pin down.

Here's how I speculate things went down in the Simon-Kirby Shop: Simon may have discussed story ideas with Kirby before either of them put pencil to paper, just as Stan later discussed ideas with Jack. But since Kirby was far more the production powerhouse. I speculate that Kirby probably did the lion's share of the penciling during the partnership, and that he probably never "wrote" a script in that whole time, but simply poured the story as he saw it out onto the drawing-board. I tend to doubt that either Simon or Kirby wrote the dialogue on these collaborations, though, since neither of them showed themselves facile with good dialogue in later days. I suspect they used a host of unidentified scripters, particularly during the Simon-Kirby days at DC, since DC editorial insisted on a more formal approach to scripting than the two artists had known at Timely. The scripters were probably hired by Simon, so in a sense Simon extended his sense of the story through these intermediaries, in contrast to Stan Lee's approach, where he himself usually did the scripting (though on occasion an intermediary would be credited with finishing the script to a Stan-plot.)

In my essay SIMON SESSION I said:

Following the dissolution of Joe Simon’s partnership with Kirby, though, almost nothing Simon authored has accrued a fan-base. I’ve argued that he may have provided “quality control” for Jack Kirby, whose wild creativity sometimes resulted in incoherent narratives. However, very little of the material Simon authored without Kirby shows even modest creativity.

I still believe that Jack Kirby needed "quality control" during most of his career, and during the Kirby-Simon partnership much of the work that they did spans the gamut from "pretty good" to (more rarely) "really good." But it's one thing to get quality control from someone who doesn't have much creativity, and another thing to get it from someone who does possess the creative spark. To repeat myself once more, I don't seek to justify Kirby's omission of Joe Simon's contributions, though I can see why Kirby might've imagined that he was the only one doing any heavy lifting in that relationship.

From my outsider's standpoint, though, the synergy between Kirby and Lee was far different, and I think Kirby got from Lee as good as he gave. But Kirby had spent a long, long time spinning his fantasies on the drawing-board, and he probably wasn't all that sensitive to the ways in which Lee MAY have turned him in new directions. Years later, when Kirby was seeking to reclaim his original art from the recalcitrant Marvel Comics, the artist said many dismissive things about Stan's talents, and some fans have taken those pronouncements as gospel. To me, the obvious fact that Kirby's later solo productions abjured the "soap opera" approach of Marvel proves to me that Kirby did not originate this approach to characterization, despite the fact that together Kirby and Lee could do soap-opera tropes better than anyone else in the business.

Kirby, unlike most professionals in his time, had an incredible capacity to remember and recast dozens of story-tropes from dozens of genres, so that much that he did, alone or in collaboration, seems like raw creativity unleashed. But he didn't always know the best way to channel his own creativity, precisely because he was so many-faceted. In addition, that creativity insured that he could never be entirely comfortable just cranking out stories for a client like DC Comics, and even if he didn't especially want to work for Marvel at the start, the ways in which his talent responded to Stan Lee's innovations re-defined the superhero genre at a time when the comic-book medium lay on the edge of extinction. Without the intense fandom that arose from Marvel Comics, it's possible that few readers would even care these days about sorting out who did what, and why.


THE READING RHEUM: YELLOW PERIL (1978)








Given that this year I finished re-reading and reviewing all of Sax Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu” stories, I decided I might as well also address this light-hearted Rohmer-pastiche/satire.

All that I know of author Richard Jaacoma is that he reportedly worked for “Screw” Magazine. Possibly this experience led him to the notion of rewriting the pulpish but sexually restrained Oriental adventures of Rohmer into what the Berkley paperback cover-copy calls “a porno-fairytale-occult-thriller!” There are indeed assorted scenes of pornographic encounters or of sexual rituals allegedly based on the disciplines of Tantrism. Yet it would not be impossible to write out all the sex-scenes and still have a reasonably coherent pulp-adventure, so the pornography seems of secondary interest.

In the late 1930s, central character Sir John Weymouth-Smythe works for the British diplomatic service in Bangkok. However, he’s actually an agent for his government, and unlike the more noble lawmen in the Rohmer novels, Smythe regularly undertakes missions to assassinate anyone who might threaten British interests in the region. Jaacoma, however, is not that interested in the seamy side of early imperialism, though he does have Smythe and other characters justify their actions in terms of service to “the White Race.” Despite his desire to keep the “Yellow Race” in its place, Smythe is in love with Beth-Li, the half-Asian daughter of his Bangkok superior Laight. Yet their love seems not meant to be. The insidious Doctor Chou en Shu, master of a murderous band of dacoits, shows up in the diplomatic offices, conducting a bizarre sexual ritual in which Beth-Li and both of her parents willingly participate. Smythe interrupts the ritual, but Chou en Shu escapes with Beth-Li. Later, for reasons that are never really explained, Smythe is hoaxed into believing that the evil doctor has killed Beth-Li. This does motivate Smythe to follow Chou to the ends of the earth in quest of vengeance—though it does seem that the kidnapping alone would’ve accomplished the same thing.

Smythe is forced by his superiors to make common cause with other agents of a “white power” in order to track down Chou—and they just happen to be extremely perverted and vicious agents of the Third Reich. To his credit, Smythe doesn’t find the Nazis to his liking, even though to the last he remains ignorant—like many real persons in The Day—as to the nature of Germany’s “final solution.” Smythe’s mission is further complicated by learning that what the Germans want from the Chinese doctor is a mystical talisman, the Spear of Destiny. (Jaacoma even provides citations from non-fiction author Trevor Ravenscroft to buttress the story of the talisman.) Significantly, Jaacoma’s book appeared in its first edition three years before Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK made it to theaters, though the basic idea of opposed groups chasing after super-weapons extends back to serials of the 1930s decade. To his chagrin, the chauvinistic Smythe learns that Chou en Shu is more or less fighting on the side of the angels, attempting to prevent the deadly powers of the Spear from bringing about planetary destruction. (There are also a couple of references to the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, though I tend to think Jaacoma just threw these in as window-dressing.)

Although Sax Rohmer sometimes strained credibility by having his Asian supercriminal utilize comic-booky devices like disintegrator rays, Jaacoma has even less restraint than the creator of Fu Manchu. YELLOW PERIL contains such delirious scenes as the German agents slaughtering a horde of dacoits with the help of a band of killer yetis, and Chou en Shu and Hitler fighting for possession of the Spear in a struggle showing that both are possessed by eldritch entities. But this is not a complaint: the pulps—to which Rohmer’s works are thematically related—were great because of their unbridled extravagance.

Now, given that Jaacoma borrows from Rohmer such character-names as “Sir Denis” and “Weymouth” (a minor support-character in early Fu Manchu books), it would not be hard to view YELLOW PERIL as an invidious satire of the Rohmer books. I cannot be sure that this was not Jaacomas’s intent, for without question he means his readers to sneer when his characters prate about the fate of the “White Race.” Rohmer was not a doctrinaire racist, but he can be fairly accused of having played to the chauvinism of his readers with the trope I’ve called the “brown or yellow killer hiding under every bed.” Jaacoma guides his readers to realize that Smythe’s casual bigotry is only skin-deep, and much of the novel shows how he transcends those attitudes to some extent. In the Fu Manchu books the starring villain shows admiration for the dogged efforts of his opponent Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and here Chou en Shu shows an almost fatherly affection for Smythe despite the agent’s desire to kill him. Some Oedipal issues are suggested by the fact that (a) Chou en Shu has sex with Beth-Li not long after Smythe does, and (b) in the end Smythe feels moved to address Chou as “father”—though purely in a symbolic sense, since Smythe’s real father was a distant man who died long ago. I don’t think Jaacoma gives any of his characters any of the psychological depth one can find in the best pulp-ficiton characters; neither Smythe nor his Oriental opponent are as resonant as Nayland Smith and Fu Mamchu. However, because Jaacoma does critique the sociocultural attitudes of 1930s racial attitudes, and because he attempts to show some of the grey areas in the black-and-white worldview of the pulps, I do give YELLOW PERIL a rating of high mythicity, despite its assorted flaws.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

MYTHCOMICS: SHINING KNIGHT 1-4 (2005)




Prior to this post I’ve only reviewed the ZATANNA section of Grant Morrison’s multi-part “Seven Soldiers” continuity. A science-fiction writer, whose name I’ve forgotten, coined the term “mosaic novel” for a novel-length work composed of sections related only by theme rather than by plot, and that distinction applies well to Morrison’s overall project here. Unlike the usual comics-crossover, in which protagonists of various serials appear in one another’s features until some interlinking plot is resolved, the various “Seven Soldiers” segments largely stand independently of one another in terms of plot, except for a two-issue “wrapup” title. Not all of the standalone segments qualify as mythcomics, but given that the four-issue SHINING KNIGHT miniseries deals with matters as mythic as the Matter of Britain, it is at the least a strong candidate.

In DC Comics’s Golden Age, the original character called “Shining Knight” was one Sir Justin, a paladin of King Arthur’s court, though unlike most such warriors Justin had a steed right out of Greek mythology: a winged horse named Winged Victory. Reversing the course of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Justin gets catapulted into modern times, giving him the chance to wield his sword against modern-day crime. To comics-fans of the last thirty years or so, Justin’s solo crime-fighting career proved less resonant than his membership in the Seven Soldiers of Victory, which united seven (sometimes eight) of DC’s heroes after the fashion of the same company’s more successful Justice Society of America. All of the Soldiers were revived in the 1970s, although most of them, including the Shining Knight, had no more status than occasional guest-stars in other heroes’ features. Morrison’s Shining Knight, however, might be described as a sidereal version of Sir Justin, having only a few general aspects in common with the original. Similarly, Morrison’s references to DC’s Seven Soldiers group does not follow established DC continuity.

The strongest point of comparison is that both Sir Justins come from the court of Arthur, and both are hurled into modern quotidian times. But Morrison’s knight beholds the Fall of Camelot—one very different from either the standard depiction or even Jack Kirby’s rendition for his title THE DEMON. Camelot falls not to human plotters like Mordred and Morgan LeFay, but to an inhuman race of pale-skinned humanoids known as “the Sheeda.” This name is indubitably derived from “Sidhe,” the archaic Celtic name for the faery-folk, but the humanoids seem independent of any earlier DC-depictions of faeries, and appear to hail from another dimension, sometimes called “Eternal Summer’s End.” With superior technology, the Sheeda harrow Camelot and force humanity to forget that “one brief shining moment” before the Sheeda leave for the next ten thousand years (by the reckoning of the Sheeda’s ghastly queen, at least).

Sir Justin, however, unhinges the Sheeda’s future victory. She—and yes, this is the big reveal of the mini-series; Justin is a female knight—enters the Sheeda-queen’s Castle Revolving, and tries to wreck the invaders’ plans by hurling the queen’s Cauldron of Regeneration into a pool of magical fluid. Justin’s action does nothing to avert Camelot’s fall, but she and her winged horse—called Vanguard, and given the ability to speak-- plunge into the pool after the cauldron. Thus Justin, her horse and the cauldron end up in twentieth century America, where all will become involved in the Sheeda’s next attack upon humanity.

The mini-series, however, merely sets up the resolution of the second invasion, and thus the main plot of SHINING KNIGHT deals with Justin’s attempt to cope with the fallen modern world, particularly after being separated from Vanguard. The Sheeda-queen even sends a smoky demon called Guilt to torment the outcast knight—though the demon’s name should probably be “Survivor-Guilt,” as the creature seeks to convince Justin of the futility of all struggle, now that the world and friends she knew are all gone. Naturally, being a hero, Justin manages to reassert her defiance. Nevertheless, the Sheeda-queen has yet other schemes with which to subdue the defiant Justin—and one scheme involves the corruption of one of the last surviving paladins of Arthur, the one known in his time as “the Perfect Knight.”

In keeping with other Morrison works like TALES OF HOFMANN, the author is at his strongest when devising complex poetic metaphors for the ugliness of the ordinary, and for the beauties of the extraordinary. The high seriousness of the hero and her main opponents doesn’t give Morrison much outlet for his antic sense of humor, but said humor does manifest in a supporting character, Vincenzo, whose history is given more detail in another “Seven Soldiers” segment. For a good portion of the story, Vincenzo takes custody of the injured Vamguard, bestowing on the winged horse the name “Horsefeathers”—which might sound merely descriptive, until one recalls that in an earlier time this was a cleaned-up way of saying “Horseshit.”