Featured Post

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...

Saturday, May 15, 2021

DON’T GIVE A FEIGE

 


Upon completing my viewing of the FALCON AND WINTER SOLDIER streaming series, I’m moved to comment on some of the parallels between Kevin Feige, founder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stan Lee, the founder of Marvel Comics in its crucial sixties incarnation.


Stan Lee, like his mostly middle-aged colleagues at Sixties Marvel, certainly had no idea that their company would someday become a major influence on the course of American pop culture. Certainly, there could have been no thoughts of a coherent “universe” as such; early on, there would have been nothing more than the attempt to cross-promote Marvel’s various titles through the act of guest-starring appearances. That said, once the idea of an interacting universe caught the attention of the fans, Lee certainly did much to promote the idea, sometimes with minor effects, like having the Avengers consult Paste-Pot Pete on the subject of glue removal. The overall effect was playful, since comics were dominantly aimed at children.


Yet Lee made some cautious responses to fans who wanted to expatiate on heavy subjects like politics and philosophy. The ruminations of the earth-imprisoned Silver Surfer were never deep, but Lee knew how to dramatize the tone of the character’s forlorn exile from the heavens. As for politics, in the late sixties the editor apparently realized that America’s youth was trending toward liberalism. Thus he largely dumped the anti-Communist rhetoric of the early sixties—even though such rhetoric contributed to one of the better FANTASTIC FOUR stories—and he attempted, with mixed results, to write stories about hot-button issues like student protests, the Vietnam war and the Black Experience.


In one interview, Kevin Feige claims to have been far more of a film-nut than a comics-nut. Most of his professional efforts appeared in films that were “superhero-like” in some way, and unlike many pros who only dabbled in superhero films for sake of career advancement—Christopher Nolan for example—Feige seems to have intuited that he could make superheroes his specialty long before the launch of the first MCU film in 2008.


Still, when he produced IRON MAN, Feige would have known that the continuity game had proven very profitable for Marvel Comics. He would also have known that the 1980s had given birth to a new method of cross-promoting properties: the “crossover event,” sometimes involving the linked plotlines of five or six ongoing features, sometimes encompassing developments in all of a company’s titles. The first few MCU films were poised to build to a “regular crossover” insofar as the heroes of THOR, IRON MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA and INCREDIBLE HULK would coalesce into THE AVENGERS. Managing such a crossover situation within the medium of theatrical film was arguably more involved than doing so at a comics-company. But Feige took things even farther. Starting with the second THOR film, Feige introduced the potential for a “crossover event”—one that would involve all the franchises under his control-- and he did so by drawing loosely upon one of the first such events from Marvel Comics: Jim Starlin’s “Infinity Gems” narratives.


Within the context of comics aimed largely at kids, Stan Lee was stronger at philosophy—at least insofar as he could convey philosophy through characterization—than he was at politics. Feige took the opposite course. Though he didn’t signal his full political agenda in the earliest films, over time the success of the MCU allowed him to indulge in considerable Leftist constructions—not least with the dissolution of SHIELD, whose spy-games had been of inestimable service to the Marvel Comics superheroes. But his philosophical scope never progressed beyond politically informed platitudes, and his interpretations of such Marvel favorites as Thor, Ant Man, Wasp, Black Panther and Spider-Man show a disinterest in strong characterization and a tendency to drift into inane comedy.

In conclusion, although Stan Lee and Kevin Feige both found new ways to make superheroes appealing to mass audiences beyond the sphere of kids, they diverged sharply in their strategies. Stan Lee did so by opening up the dramatic potential of superheroes, giving them all different voices and orientations. Initially Feige showed some skill with superhero dramatics in IRON MAN, which he might have learned from observing the way Sam Raimi transferred the saga of Peter Parker into his superior take on SPIDER-MAN. But over time Feige came to emulate Lee less than Jim Shooter, the Marvel editor-in-chief who launched the first “crossover events” at the company. Thus in the AVENGERS film-series a promising emotional arc, such as the romantic interaction of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, is conveyed through by ham-fisted exposition, because the script requires far more emphasis on forcing lumps of event-oriented plot-action down the throats of the viewers. I frankly cannot guess how Feige will further monetize Marvel characters for fun and profit in the next ten years. However, it's worth remembering that Stan Lee's "golden years" petered out in the space of a little over ten years-- and he was much more creative than Feige on the latter's best day.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

DEPARTMENT OF COMICS CURIOSITIES #3

 Two things of interest in YOUNG ALLIES #5, scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Don Rici:



First, the villain menacing the kid-heroes is named the Owl, but unlike the Daredevil villain he's got no particular owl-like characteristics, except maybe the shape of his head.



Second, whether or not it's the first time, Stan starts a rivalry between Bucky and Toro, mostly on Toro's side, since he doesn't like being bossed around by leader Bucky. I assume that Stan was following through on the Human Torch-Submariner animus, but it's interesting that he would play around with the "heroes who don't like each other" in this sort of kid-oriented book.

COMBATIVELY YOURS

                 

In the three-part LOVE OVER WILL (FOR NOW) series, starting here, I listed five of the mythcomics I’d reviewed here because I deemed that they all rated as “accommodation narratives” rather than “confrontation narratives.” In my many observations on the combative mode in confrontation narratives, I’ve continually sought to make clear that although many narratives resolve conflict through violence, said narratives are only combative if the violence has a particular level of organization. I further observed that many other narratives of the accommodation type resolve conflict through romance and/or sexual activity, and that they would follow the same dichotomy. The stories would only be “combative,” so to speak, if two or more characters with *megadynamic * wills are brought into conflict, with that conflict resolved by their romantic interaction. 


That essay-series didn’t look at any of the accommodation narratives through the lens of the four mythoi, as I did with four confrontation narratives in STATURE REQUIREMENTS. I’ve now improved my interpretation of the mythoi through the metaphors of “the four ages of man” in the DYNAMIS essays, starting here, and so I’ll use that approach in comparing and contrasting four accommodation stories, one for each of the four mythoi.


Again, for an accommodation narrative to register as combative, the contending wills must have a high level of dynamicity, expressed in terms of sexual rather than martial conflict. If the tropes of combative energies in battle are embodied by famous myth-stories like Odysseus slaying the suitors (“extroversive”), the tropes of energetic sexual cooperation are embodied by a model like the one in Yeats’ “Solomon and the Witch,” wherein Solomon and Sheba have such great sex together that it seems as if the whole word has been temporarily annihilated (“introversive”). This would be the kind of interaction that Hollywood advertising calls “tempestuous,” so that’s what I sought in the four examples I’ll examine. Three of the examples are taken from the LOVE OVER WILL series, while the fourth is new to these considerations.




In the DYNAMIS essays, I’ve allotted the mythos of comedy to the fourth age of man, in which the main character, regardless of his age, emulates the condition of a child seeking to negotiate his way through the arbitrary, often ludicrous rules of society and/or nature. In “She Tried Her Own On,” a self-contained story from the series DOMINA NO DO, the humor proceeds out of nature. Lead female Hikari has been keeping her supposed boyfriend Takeshi in her mansion for some time, subjecting him to her confused sadomasochistic attentions. Then, like the Melancholy Dane, she begins to have “bad dreams.” She imagines that Takeuchi menaces her with a titanic phallus, despite the fact that she’s seen his actual joystick and wasn’t consciously impressed. But Hikari begins to feel guilty about having abused Takeshi, so she decides to “walk a mile in his wang” by having her sorcerous grandma give Hikari a temporary penis. The experience doesn’t fill the young woman with anything akin to “penis envy,” but the ordeal does solve Hikari’s nightmare-problem, because now she can imagine “dueling” Takeshi in her dreams.       





Next of the four ages is that of adolescence, when the thoughts of young men and women turn to goals of heroic accomplishment. In the NEW MUTANTS story “To Build a Fire,” one of the titular heroes, Magma, finds herself stranded in the Amazonian rainforest with Empath, a member of the Hellions. Though the New Mutants and the Hellions belong to rival mutant schools, the ongoing continuity had Magma leave her team to sojourn with the “bad” mutants. The reasoning for the “school transfer” always remained murky, but the author’s main purpose was probably just to get Magma and Empath together. As her name suggests, Magma can call streams of lava from the vasty depths of the Earth. In contrast, Empath’s mutant power is entirely mental: he can persuade almost any woman to fall in love with him. When the two teens are stranded in the forest, they quarrel about whether Magma should use her power to call attention to their plight. The young woman gives evidence that she’s attracted to the rather skeevy Hellion even when he’s not using his power on her, and the mere fact that he might try to master her—albeit only mentally—may have a lot to do with her refusal to “give it up.” The story concludes with an accommodation between the two, in that Magma does use her power the way Empath wants, but only after both belting him and kissing him, leaving him confused about whether he influenced her at all.



Like “To Build a Fire,” “Rite of Spring” is a nonviolent story within a series that is dominantly violent (and within the combative mode as well). Like most stories centered upon a monster-protagonist, the SWAMP THING series falls into the dramatic mythos, particularly because Swamp Thing’s experiences as a monster don’t emphasize thrilling physical triumph (as with say, the Thing of the FANTASTIC FOUR), but the tragic dimensions of life, of the limitations that dog every mortal’s tracks when he transitions into the third age of man. The swampy protagonist, however, gets a bit of a new lease on life, since in “Rite” his female companion Abby, after having followed him around as a friend-in-need, suddenly confesses feelings of love for the plant-monster, who has been harboring similar affections for years. Since the Swamp Thing is a mass of plant-growths in humanoid form, he doesn’t have the equipment to consummate a romantic relationship after the human fashion. So instead he encourages Abby to “eat of his flesh,” a specific tuber growing from his body. Not only is the tuber psychotropic, it apparently enhances Abby’s psychic senses so that she can behold the spirit-energies of living things that Swamp Thing can normally see. Swamp Thing and Abby then link minds and experience an ecstatic communion with all the surrounding life-forms of the swamp—which is portrayed as being both as intense and as intimate as any human coitus.



The hero of RAT GOD is actually more of a demihero, an upright New England man who finds himself entrapped in a Lovecraftian cosmos, including a degenerate town that I called “an Innsmouth for rats.” Clark Elwood does find himself forced to fend off a cult that worships the titular rat god, but whereas H.P. Lovecraft would have emphasized the brooding terror of the rat god and his followers, Richard Corben focuses on Elwood’s overly flattering view of his own racial heritage, as against, say, the local Indians. The only reason Elwood gets embroiled with the rat-worshippers is out of sexual passion, as he pursues his love-interest Kito. The real cosmic joke on Elwood is that he doesn’t realize that Kito is an Indian girl, meaning that cohabitation with her ought to be verboten for an upright Caucasian. This sort of a joke, in which the protagonist is caught in some ludicrous situation that he has no power to meliorate, is characteristic of the final age of man, as a person loses his health and faculties with increasing age. To Elwood’s credit, he does overcome his prejudices on a basic “but I really want her” level, and though Elwood’s not a real fighter he does show enough determination to outwit the rat-worshippers. Afterward, Elwood settles down to some sort of romantic consummation with not only Kito, but also with a rather degenerate looking white woman named Gharlena. This is about as close to a happy ending as one ever gets from a predominantly ironic narrative, and like the conclusion of Voltaire’s Candide, the hero does not so much triumph as escape from the craziness of the madding world.



I mentioned in QUANTUMS OF SOLIPSISM PT. 2 that the master tropes governing the organization of the violent combative mode were either “univectoral” or “multivectoral.” The first three of these “combative love-attacks” emphasize the back-and-forth exchanges of Hikari and Takeshi, of Swamp Thing and Abby, and of Empath and Magma, so all three would be multivectoral in nature. Only RAT GOD would be univectoral, since the story’s main emphasis is upon Elwood, with Kito, despite her erotic charms, taking the position of a support character.  


Sunday, May 2, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: ELFEN LIED (2002-05)

 



Both fantasy and science fiction have made extensive use of what I choose to call the “persecuted parallel race” trope. Within the subgenre called “high fantasy,” human beings not infrequently find themselves in conflict with elves, or with elf-like humanoids, often with the implication that the kinder, gentler humanoids are doomed. Science fiction’s parallel races usually boil down to random mutations (A.E. Van Vogt’s SLAN, Marvel’s X-MEN) or to controlled mutations (Marvel’s INHUMANS). The controlled mutations tend to appear early in prehistory, and in the tradition of lost-race novels they tend to inhabit remote areas of the globe. The random mutations are birthed by ordinary humans and so usually have no civilization of their own, but rather have to “pass” as ordinary humans while concealing their supernormal nature.


Even though ELFEN LIED has a name that conjures with fantasy, Lynn Okamoto’s series combines aspects of both of the science fiction variations. The mutants here are humanoids possessed of small head-horns—very similar to those of the “oni” of Japanese folklore—and of fantastic energy-powers. One character in the story, though possibly an unreliable narrator, claims that the Diaclonii (“two-horned”) dominated humankind in archaic times. However, apparently the two species shared a common ancestor, a “Mitochondrial Eve,” because the Diaclonii intermarry with human beings, so that their uniqueness is absorbed into the human genome. Yet occasionally the Diaclonus DNA re-appears in the form of what is termed a “vector virus.” This virus can infect human males so that their female mates bring forth horned humans—but these progeny are always females with no reproductive abilities. Still, certain shadowy government agencies are still aware of the Diaclonus threat and will do anything to destroy the rival race and maintain human hegemony.




Ordinary humans like ELFEN’s viewpoint character Kouta certainly have no awareness of a race of super-powered people existing on the margins of society. Kouta, about to enter college, moves to a seaside town in Kanagawa Prefecture so that he can occupy an empty house owned by his aunt and commute to college in Tokyo. Giving him the tour of his new digs is his female cousin Yuka, whom Kouta has not seen in many years. Yuka formed a crush on Kouta in those days and still desires to win his affection, but Kouta hardly remembers her. Eventually Kouta learns that he repressed his memories of those days because of a tragedy that beheld his family at the same time—but even all of this soap operatic turmoil plays second fiddle to the two youths’ encounter with one representative of the persecuted parallel race. On the local beach they meet a strange nude woman with horns on her head, but who doesn’t seem to understand Japanese except to utter the odd syllable “nyu.” The youngsters dub the strange girl “Nyu” and take her in out of well-meaning charitable impulses.



Yet Nyu has another identity. She escaped the less than tender care of a Japanese experimental facility, where they gave her the name of “Lucy” (possibly in reference to the famed australopithecine fossil?) Lucy is the first female Diaclonus to appear with full generative powers, and the government decided to set up a facility to study her in the vicinity of Kanagawa. Most of the experimenters wished to use Lucy to find a cure for the vector virus, the better to eradicate humankind’s only competitors—but once she escapes, most of them want to simply kill her. (At least two outliers, though, hope to impregnate her so that they can bring forth a new race to obliterate the old.) Because Lucy has suffered so much at human hands, she’s already committed numerous murders by the time she encounters Kouta and Yuka, and Lucy is as bitter and ruthless as her alter ego Nyu is innocent and clueless.




ELFEN LIED is not a densely plotted story, in that the tale oscillates between two types of narrative. One type is primarily domestic, consisting of all the small, homey interactions between Kouta, Yuka, Nyu and a handful of other young people in their sphere—interactions that include Yuka’s considerable jealousy of Nyu. The other type is martial, as the many agents of the government pursue Lucy, and she retaliates with merciless carnage. All twelve volumes of ELFEN LIED—named, incidentally, for a famous German poem/song—are rife with ultraviolent gore that goes far beyond the simple shonen hijinks of DRAGONBALL Z. The violence has a deep sociological mythicity, given that Okamoto configures the human/Diaclonus conflict to reflect all the long-forgotten wars between humanity’s prehistoric (but human) competing species, as well as the endless strife between nations and races. Yet Okamoto’s true genius is seen in his conception of the Diaclonii’s mutant powers, for the horned people can project “phantom hands,” also called “vectors,” that can rend almost anything in their path—usually tearing heads from necks, or torsos from hips. At one point a character mentions a folklore monster, “the Kama-Itachi,” who is known for dismembering victims with its claws, and this is almost certainly one of Okamoto’s inspirations for his Diaclonii and their vector-hands. However, the overall effect of all this gore is to remind the reader at all times as to how pitiably vulnerable the human body is, so that even the slaying of the most villainous characters has a repugnant viscerality.





To be sure, Okamoto is careful to remind the reader as to how hellishly human beings treat one another even when no parallel race is involved. The only “way out of hell,” so to speak, is through the intrinsic nobility of the young and the innocent, who have not been as corrupted as their elders. Yuka, for instance, does not allow her animus for Nyu/Lucy to prevent her from staying at the house. And while I don’t want to specify the particular trauma Kouta suffers due to the past deeds of Lucy, suffice to say that he does manage to cherish the good half of Lucy’s nature, and to redeem the piteous monster from her climactic fate. ELFEN LIED may well be well one of the saddest comics-serials ever executed on Planet Earth, but like the best manga, tragedy puts its characters through the mills of the gods so that their readers are strengthened by their example.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

RUNNING ON ABOUT DISCOURSE

In the 2016 essay AFFECTIVE FREEDOM,COGNITIVE RESTRAINT and in the two parts of 2019’s AND THE HALFTRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE, I aligned the didactic and mythopoeic potentialities with, respectively, my categories of “cognitive restraint” and “affective freedom.” I made heavy use of Ernst Cassirer in these essays, but for this one, I’ve decided to take a different path in order to dilate on the salient differences between the ways these potentialities operate.


In literature as in other cultural forms, all potentialities express themselves through processes of discourse. The discourses of “lateral meanings” deal with concrete subject matter—that of what sensations the subject experiences, and of the subject’s emotional reactions to those sensations. In contrast, the discourses of “vertical meanings” concern themselves with abstractions, with the didactic making use of “ideas” while the mythopoeic makes use of “symbols.” For the sake of argument, I will treat both ideas and symbols as if they existed as discrete monads, which is not the way either are experienced. Both ideas and symbols are best expressed in the form of typical story-tropes. Levi-Strauss was pleased to term these tropes “mythemes,” conveniently ignoring how such monadic forms were dispersed throughout all forms of human communication, not just myth.


Didactic discourse and mythopoeic discourse are not as intimately entwined as those of the kinetic and dramatic potentialities. The discourses can appear independently of one another, or they may intertwine within a narrative to support one another, or they may conflict with one another so as to confuse the narrative. An example of the last-named would be Steve Ditko’s story “Am I Roma…,” which I explicated it in this post.


The word “discourse” stems from a Latin root meaning “to run around.” However, all four discourses run in different ways, though I’ll only discuss the two vertically aligned potentialities here.


The didactic discourse runs in the fashion of a single contestant in a one-on-one foot race. The course of the race may be winding or straight, but the contestant runs in as direct a line as possible from start to finish. Didactic discourses may employ idea-tropes as disparate as “Christ died for our sins” or “Capitalism is doomed by its own excesses,” but the discourses are always aimed at teaching some sort of linear lesson to listeners.


In contrast, a mythopoeic discourse is more akin to a team of runners in a relay race, opposed, naturally, by a corresponding team. There’s still a goal that a given team aspires to reach first, but achievement of the goal depends on the successful interaction of all players on the team. Symbols can be used to help convey linear lessons, but their primary potency is poetic and associative. In my first post on the ARCHIVE, I quoted William Butler Yeats, who asserted that “symbols are an endless inter-marrying family.” The interactions of members in a family is of course analogous to the concerted efforts of a relay-team, and symbol-tropes in a mythopoeic discourse only win their “race” when they work so as to reinforce one another.


As noted, the vertical discourses align respectively with the categories I’ve termed “cognitive restraint” and “affective freedom.” Didactic discourse aspires to teach, and while some teachers seek to help students learn how to think for themselves, it’s implicit that each student will still end up choosing to advocate favored ideas over non-favored ones—in essence, “restraining” any potential tendency to advocate the latter idea-group. Even writers who analyze myths, both religious and literary, must use didactic discourse to assign a particular set of values to the myths analyzed. In this essay I showed how Claude Levi-Strauss advocated a “scientific” approach to myth and stated that he believed that mythic activity was on its way out of human culture. By contrast, Ernst Cassirer championed myth as an irreducible element of human culture. But both had to use didactic discourse to explain their respective ideas and philosophies. The didactic discourse thus is at its strongest within the sphere of non-fiction but has a more tendentious hold in fiction.


The mythopoeic flourishes in fiction but only appears sporadically in non-fiction, and then usually only in commentaries on fictional constructs, such as Raymond Durgnat’s FILMS AND FEELINGS. Mythopoeic discourse doesn’t so much send a message as open up all lines of communication. In contrast to the old saw “If it feels good, do it,” the mythopoeic discourse says, “If it seems significant, symbolize it.”


Mythopoeic discourse aligns to the category of “affective freedom,” meaning that symbols can combine in any way a creator may please to arrange them, irrespective of logical amenities. To be sure, mythicity takes on greater value when an author relates the symbols to the epistemological patterns that the audience recognizes from the world of experience. But I’ve argued, as did Cassirer in MYTHICAL THOUGHT, that mythic symbols are not gain their power from simply copying what audiences see around them. Cassirer had a more Platonic emphasis than I do. On page 3, he speaks of how Plato valued myth as signifying “the world of becoming” in contrast to the adherents of the allegorical school, and throughout the book he emphasizes myth’s potential to dissolve the boundaries between inner reality and outer reality (particularly on page 156). I agree, but for me the dissolution comes about when myth and its near relative literature make use of “real” epistemological patterns for “unreal” purposes.


In mythopoeic discourse, “perfect freedom” not only doesn’t mean “perfect service,” said freedom can be free of any utilitarian purpose. Case in point: Robert E. Howard’s 1936 novelette BLACK CANAAN, recently reviewed here. I pointed out that although Howard placed his story of an aborted race-war in a real location-- an Arkansas town named Canaan-- the author showed no real interest in reproducing the realities of life in that time (post-Civil War) and place. I noted that the outcome of the Civil War made no difference to the novel, and that Howard had no interest in what inequities might have contributed to the mutual hatred between the whites of Canaan and the blacks of the neighboring swamplands, called Goshen. Going purely by the content of the existing story—while acknowledging that the author was forced to cut his original draft for publication—it’s apparent that Howard wanted a pure “clash of civilizations.” The only motivation for the strife is rooted in the tropes of fantasy-fiction, in that Howard imagines the blacks of Goshen as having made diabolical alliances with elder voodoo-deities. Yet this is certainly not a didactic argument, since Howard says absolutely nothing about the presumed Christian orientations of the Canaanites.


Indeed, the only references to Judeo-Christianity devolve also to the blacks of Goshen. Howard named his imaginary swampland after the Egyptian domain where the pre-Exodus Jews were kept in bondage, before they escaped the land of the Pharaohs into Canaan. This symbolic trope is reinforced by the history of the way blacks of pre-emancipation America identified with the pre-Exodus Jews, which I tend to believe a Southerner like Howard could not help but know of. Thus, in the story the minions of Saul Stark, by rising up against white Canaanites, duplicate the action of the archaic Jews who conquered archaic Canaan and transformed that land into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.


But what message was Howard sending in the story? None, I would venture. While he certainly could have infused his story of a fictional uprising with his own political opinions, as did many other authors, here Howard only cares about a conflict of good and evil. And even Howard’s concept of “good” may be problematic, since the righteousness of protagonist Kirby becomes compromised by his unquestionable hunger for the “forbidden fruit” of the quadroon voodoo-priestess, the Bride of Damballah. If Howard had wanted only to denigrate the evil represented by Black People—whom, to be sure, he denotes with the customary Nasty Taboo Word of the period—he could have left out this tantalizing sorceress. From first to last, though, she has Kirby under her thrall, and she’s defeated only by the chance intervention of a minor support-character. The hero enjoys the final triumph over the evil Stark, but Kirby doesn’t win because he’s white, and in many ways Stark and Kirby are mirror-images of each other, each striving to make sure his own race holds the whip hand.


There’s no harm in admitting that such a story has no moral to offer, but it’s far from proven that a story with a moral is necessary superior. On a personal note, in my youth I probably liked a good number of preachy stories, since my own ethos was still being formed. But today I tend to find even the best “idea-tropes” in fiction to have less value than the best “symbol-tropes,” while in non-fiction I often fault authors who load their arguments with clumsy symbolism, as per Frederic Wertham’s tortuous comparison between children and garden-flowers. Both discourses have their strengths, but the races they run come off to best effect on level playing-fields.  



Wednesday, April 21, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: THE SKULL-FACE STORIES (1929-1934), BLACK CANAAN (1936)

 




It’s interesting to reflect on what factors might have led Robert E. Howard, fairly early in his writing-career, to pastiche the Fu Manchu stories of Sax Rohmer. WEIRD TALES printed the first story in Howard’s series, “Skull-Face” in 1929, but Rohmer had not written a new Fu Manchu story since 1917. Despite the early popularity of the Fu books in the nineteen-teens, Rohmer reputedly wanted to end the series, but later decided to return to his most famous character. Possibly some silent-film adaptations of the Fu stories, appearing in 1923 and 1924, helped revive general interest in the character, and it’s been theorized that the announcement of a pending sound-film adaptation in 1930 may have persuaded the writer to pen DAUGHTER OFFU MANCHU, which appeared in that same year. Robert Ervin Howard may have heard about these revival rumblings in advance of DAUGHTER’s publication, and if so maybe he sought to steal some of the older author’s thunder.


Of course, it’s also possible that Howard had simply enjoyed the earlier Fu-novels, particularly because they addressed contemporary concerns about the relationship of white people toward people of color. Rohmer was not given to theorizing about any proposed hierarchy of various races, but even by 1929, a few years before Howard birthed Conan, such theories were clearly a big part of Howard’s intellectual makeup. In fact, the British Rohmer is more concerned with the theme of Europe vs. Asia than he is with inherited racial nature. Indeed, Fu Manchu stands as a refutation of the notion of racial limitations, since he is a master of all sciences from both the modern and ancient worlds.


The four tales I term “the Skull-Face stories” are something of an anomaly, because Richard A. Lupoff, the editor of the 1978 Berkley paperback collection SKULL-FACE, didn’t just include the two extant stories featuring the titular villain—one of which was an unfinished Howard effort, which Lupoff finished. The editor also included two stories, one unpublished in Howard’s lifetimes, both of which featured a villain named Erlik Khan. This later creation did resemble Skull-Face in terms of modus operandi: that of enslaving his henchmen with opiates so that someday the dark races might rise up to conquer the light-skinned ones. I’m glad that Lupoff bracketed the four stories together, for the sake of Howardian scholarship. Nevertheless, the two villains are not identical, any more than are their respective heroic enemies, even though these heroes both share the first name “Steve.”


The three later stories — “Lord of the Dead,” “Taveral Manor,” and “Names in the Black Book”—are passable timekillers, but I have little to say about them. “Skull-Face,” however, is a more delirious exercise, for all that its villain is not the main character, as is the case with the Fu Manchu stories. The central figure of “Skull-Face” is Steve Costigan, a veteran of World War One. For years he’s suffered from what our age calls PTSD, and he’s ended up finding surcease from sorrow in a Limehouse hashish-den. At the story’s opening, Costigan has run out of money and is on the verge of becoming an utter wastrel.


However, the operator of the hashish-den—initially called the Master, and appearing to be a living skeleton—decides to make Costigan his henchman, asking him, “You who are a swine, would you like to be a man again?” Howard never fully justifies the reason why this villain—whose other enforcers are non-whites, ranging from Chinese to Arab to Black African—chooses to employ this one white man as a pawn, even giving Costigan a serum that gives him temporary super-strength. However, at one point, Costigan saves the Master’s life and Costigan considers them even. The evildoer still seeks to make Costigan his slave. Luckily the hero, being a typical Howardian he-man, breaks free, thanks in part to help from Skull-Face’s only other white servant, a beautiful maiden named Zuleika, and from a redoubtable English cop modeled on Rohmer’s Nayland Smith.


Howard’s story, originally serialized in three parts, rambles quite a bit, just as the early Fu stories did. During the episodic chapters, Skull-Face takes on at least two other names, “Kathulos of Egypt” and “the Scorpion.” (The former name is probably an in-joke on H.P. Lovecraft’s demon-god Cthulhu, while the latter might be a reference to the villain in Rohmer’s 1919 novel THE GOLDEN SCORPION.) Unlike Rohmer, Howard has no interest in “the romance of the Orient.” And whereas Fu Manchu is served by henchmen with no thoughts or personality, all of Skull-Face’s minions are major assholes, so that the reader can look forward to the many scenes in which the mighty white hero beats them all to butter.


I certainly cannot claim that there’s no racist content here, not when Howard claims that Skull-Face’s avowed people, the Egyptians, are a people “more despised than the Jews.” Howard apparently based this absurd assertion on the same sort of racial theories that informed the Conan stories, which often posited the idea that certain races, be they Egyptian or Chinese, were not fully human like Caucasians. Howard goes a step further here, in that he eventually reveals that Kathulos is actually a revenant from ancient Atlantis, revived into a mummy-like state by arcane magic/science. For all of Skull-Face’s resources, though, he’s largely a cardboard fiend, with none of the perspicacity of Rohmer’s devil-doctor.


I don’t imagine that a story like “Skull-Face” promoted racism in anyone who wasn’t already racist. It does reject people of color from the table of privilege, and flatters the status quo, but both the good guys and bad guys are so broadly drawn that few would deem them any more than overheated entertainments. Further, though I’ve established in other essays that the mythopoeic impulse can appear in any authors despite their holding offensive beliefs, “Skull-Face” doesn’t really offer any memorable mythic images. Even Howard’s playing to White Americans’ fears of a Black Uprising—a thing readers would never find in Rohmer—lacks any sort of imaginative conviction. (That said, Howard does have Skull-Face mention that he has no intention of liberating Blacks, since he believes they should be his slaves as they were for the Atlanteans.)



Coming from deeper recesses of the mythopoeic mind is Howard’s 1936 short story “Black Canaan.” Here too we encounter the notion that a non-white people, specifically American Blacks descended from Deep South slaves, are not fully human. However, here Howard grounds his fantasy in the notion that because Black Africans predate Caucasians as a culture, the former’s ancestors conferred on all their descendants an inhumanity stemming from their interactions with monstrous demon-gods.


“Canaan,” which takes its title from a real-life Arkansas city, takes place in the 1870s and is told from the viewpoint of heroic white local Kirby Bruckner. The earlier Union victory over the Confederacy has made no difference in the wilds of this domain. Here, white people call the shots while blacks brood in “the jungle-deeps of the swamplands,” which are patently a displacement for the real jungles of Black Africa. Neither Kirby nor any other white character acknowledges any inequity in the hegemony: Howard wants to portray the enmity of whites and blacks for one another to be an inevitable clash of civilizations, not anything founded in social injustice.


Oddly, the individual who warns Kirby that the blacks may be rising against their masters is an old black woman, who enjoys an “Ides of March” moment at the story’s beginning and then disappears. Kirby, being a doughty hero, braves Goshen, the swampy recesses near Canaan, to investigate the rumor. He learns that there is a “conjure-man” named Saul Stark who is stoking the Black folk to rise up against the whites (Howard purportedly based the character on a real-life personality from the period, albeit not one involved in fomenting race wars.) But Kirby meets an even more insidious threat in a young “quadroon” woman who beguiles him in the forests, summons Black henchmen to attack him, and ultimately masters him with what may be either hypnotism or real magic. The mysterious woman, given no name and addressed just once as “the Bride of Damballah,” is a source of endless allure for Kirby. This white hero is clearly capable of lusting for forbidden fruit, a vice one would never find in a genuine frontier-hero of the the 1800s hero, such as Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bummpo.


Saul Stark and the Bride are two of Howard’s best villains. They make no complaints about white people’s injustice; they’re both willing to bring about chaos for the sake of sheer power. And in “Canaan” Howard also makes a much more substantive reference to Lovecraft than anything one sees in “Skull-Face,” for by some magic Stark can transform his hapless worshipers into fish-like monsters a la the piscine predators of HPL’s Innsmouth.


Howard’s use of Biblical lore also enhances the mythicity of the story. The Biblical Saul, of course, embodies the trope of the illegitimate king, and Stark seeks to carve out his own kingdom in an illegitimate manner, though the latter-day Saul does have the blessings of the only “gods” that have objective reality in the story. It’s of even more interest that while Canaan is the name of the town inhabited by the whites, Goshen was the name of the land where Pharaoh sent the Jewish slaves prior to the Exodus. It’s patently absurd to imagine that Howard was not aware of the extent to which American Blacks identified with the Jews of the Exodus through the common theme of slavery, and that if Goshen was the place to which Stark’s minions were confined, even as the Jews were confined, Canaan was the land of plenty that both Jews and Blacks aspired to conquer. It goes without saying that Howard’s tale upholds the status quo both in the historical era and in Howard’s own environment. Nevertheless, Kirby’s partial attraction to the deep truth of humanity’s savage origins ensures that the whites’ triumph is at best a temporary one.


THE READING RHEUM: CABAL (1988)

 



I finally read Clive Barker’s CABAL. Long ago I’d seen the theatrical version of NIGHTBREED, the 1990 film Barker adapted from his own work, and had enjoyed some of the Marvel Comics extensions of the franchise, particularly the Nightbreed-Cenobite crossover JIHAD. I recently contemplated reviewing the “director’s cut” of NIGHTBREED, and for that reason decided to immense myself in the source novel.


Despite the many accolades given to Barker, I find him off-putting. I’ve only read an assortment of the “Books of Blood” stories and one novel, THE DAMNATION GAME, but I’ve found all his fiction poor in terms of both style and characterization. In fantasy, horror and SF, one doesn’t necessarily expect Melville or Faulkner in terms of great characters, and often I’ve been able to get pleasure out of texts in which the characters existed purely to provide a flesh-and-blood justification for an author’s ideas. One can even accomplish this with a straightforward meat-and-potatoes style, as I’ve found in the better works of Stephen King (one of the writers whose endorsement helped bring Barker to prominence).


Barker’s style is hard to analyze. Many passages are clearly meant to be soulful and tormented, but Barker’s choice of images and metaphors is often trite. Take as example this second paragraph in CABAL’s first chapter:


What time didn’t steal from under your nose, circumstance did. It was useless to hope otherwise, useless to dream that the world somehow meant you good. Everything of value, everything you clung to for your sanity, would rot or be snatched in the long run, and the abyss would gape beneath you, as it gaped for Boone now, and suddenly, without so much as a breath of explanation, you were gone. Gone to hell or worse, professions of love and all.


This is not, IMO, poetic writing, but hortatory: it’s telling the reader how he should feel about the character of Boone and his lover Lori. Barker’s opening shots are meant to make the reader sympathize with the couple’s plight before he even knows what that plight is. Barker informs the reader that Boone’s gone through some tough times, which have led to his consultation of Decker, a psychoanalyst. Unfortunately for Boone, the respectable analyst leads a double life, for on the side Decker’s a psycho-killer who slaughters victims in gruesome ways. Evidently no one nurtures the least suspicion about Decker, least of all the trusting Boone. Nevertheless, Decker rather randomly decides to frame Boone for the murders. The evil representative of authority succeeds, and Boone is sent to an asylum.


However, in the asylum Boone meets a resident named Narcise. This peculiar fellow, who may or may not be some sort of monster, puts Boone on the trail of Midian, a mysterious city out in the wilds of Alberta. Boone, having already heard of the legend, escapes imprisonment and seeks out Midian. Both Lori and Decker follow him, albeit for vastly different reasons.


The various seesaw developments in Boone’s predicament aren’t of much consequence, but one might have thought that Barker would throw his all into the depiction of the people of Midian. The idea of a “city of monsters,” an inversion of a normal human community, is a theme on which a fair number of horror-writers have discoursed, and much of the idea’s attraction rests on the visual fascination of diverse specters gathering together into a community, whether for purposes of drama or comedy. Unfortunately, Barker’s description of the Midianities is deliberately vague, and none of the monster-people stand forth as either good characters or icons. Barker implies loosely that the monsters are the risen dead, who have somehow transcended death and have gained assorted metamorphic powers. The monster-people were brought to their own Jerusalem by a savior-god named Baphomet, and Boone ends up almost destroying the community, though in a tortured metaphor this action makes Boone the group’s new leader, under the name of Cabal. There’s a dodgy reckoning between Cabal and Decker, which I suppose makes this a combative work, though it’s not an outstanding one. Barker’s usage of traditional names like “Baphomet” and “Cabal” (derived from the Hebrew “kabbalah”) proves scattershot, so that despite considerable potential Midian is just “middling” in the myth-department.


Having read that Barker’s earliest creative endeavors were in the theater, it occurs to me that some of his hortatory musings read a little bit like stage directions. The author obviously possesses a sincere love of fantasy and horror, but there’s something overdetermined about his monsters. Even the ones given more than a quick line of description feel like they were invented to illustrate some didactic “chaos vs. order” theme, rather than having any fictive life of their own. Of the Marvel Comics characters known as “Nightbreed,” only Boone, Narcise and Peloquin appear in CABAL.


I also read the Barker short story “The Last Illusion,” which introduced occult detective Harry D’Amour and which was adapted (purportedly with many alterations) into the film LORD OF ILLUSIONS. The style and characterization aren’t any better, but the story has the virtue of brevity. Since I am an afficianado of crossovers, I’ve given some thought to reading his recent book THE SCARLET GOSPELS, in which detective D’Amour crosses paths with Barker’s most famous creation, the Cenobites. Given Barker’s international success, I don’t expect the characterization to be much improved. But if I’m lucky, maybe his style has gotten a little better since CABAL.

MYTHCOMICS: “THE ONE CLEAR WAY” (CHRONO CRUSADE, 2004)

 

 


As much as I admire the mythic tropes informing Daisuke Moriyama’s CHRONO CRUSADE, I’ve determined that they don’t cohere well enough to bring about the complexity and concrescence of a full-fledged mythcomic. I’ve occasionally identified some long serials, like HELLSING and DANCE IN THE VAMPIREBUND,  as episodic novels that possess such concrescence. But CRUSADE never feels as unified as these works. Structurally I label it as a “basic serial,” often an assemblage of short stories, vignettes, short arcs and long arcs, closer along the models of MAYO CHIKI and NISEKOI. And just as I was able to rate one arc within NISEKOI as a mythcomic, CRUSADE does have one long arc that proves sufficiently concrescent.



I’ve chosen to label this concluding arc the title of its first chapter, “The One Clear Way,” because these nine chapters embody the central heroine’s quest to find her way in a chaotic universe. I’ve already written a summary of the manga’s concept for my review of the anime TV collection, and so won’t repeat the details here. All I need mention is that early chapters establish that heroine Rosette Christopher has made a demon-pact in order to rescue her beloved brother Joshua, and that her will to use the services of “good demon” Chrono has the effect of shortening her life. At the commencement of the arc, Chrono and Rosette have mounted an attack on the demon-lord Aion, both in order to liberate Joshua and to foil Aion’s plans to destroy Earth. Chrono warns Rosette not to call upon his power, since she’ll drain her own life force. Rosette then states her credo (at least, according to the authorized English translation):


I’d rather go forward together, getting bloodied and bruised along the way, than be unharmed but have to do it all alone. And if I can make that happen—I have no problem offering my soul to a demon.


I should note that, even though the Magdalene Order is nominally religious, its main purpose is that of fighting literal demons who imperil the physical world, not the inner demons that plague human souls as Christianity imagines that struggle. It would be impossible for a Christian nun to offer her soul to a demon, given that there are no “good demons” in orthodox Christianity. In essence, Rosette’s real religion is her familial devotion to her brother, and so everything she does has the purpose of bonding with him once more—though arguably she forms an even deeper bond with her “demon lover” Chrono. Yet her struggle also reflects the need of all human beings for reciprocity, for acknowledgment from the significant others in one’s life. In that same first chapter, Chrono echoes that need, thinking, “Together, we can share our sadness and our pain. Even so, people keep on struggling, without complaint—searching for that one clear way.”



Fittingly enough, Rosette is separated from Chrono when she has her climactic face-down with Joshua, who has become an unthinking demon due to having had Chrono’s horns grafted to his head. When Rosette seeks to make him realize who he is, Joshua repudiates her, claiming she’s not his true sister. The two of them fight, and Rosette’s last resort is to use her pistol to shoot off one of Joshua’s transplanted horns. This gambit re-acquaints Joshua with the world of pain and loss, i.e., humanity, and he completes her task by ripping the other horn off his head by main strength.



Despite casting off his demonic personality, Joshua still has supernatural powers, and he joins Rosette in fighting the minions of Aion. But just as Chrono finds Rosette again, she seemingly succumbs to her contract, and her body shuts down. Aion appears on the scene to gloat at his enemy’s demise, and he compares Rosette’s sacrifice to that of the founder of the Magdalene Order, Mary Magdalene. (There’s no direct relation to the Biblical figure, though Moriyama may be linking her name, and that of Joshua—a variant of Jesus—to evoke not a sibling relationship but the maternal one of Mary to Jesus.) Aion departs to pursue his world-destroying scheme, but Azmaria, another of Rosette’s allies, arrives and states that it may still be possible to bring back Rosette’s wandering soul.

 


We then see Rosette on a locomotive train, implicitly transporting her soul, and those of the other passengers, to the land of death. She feels herself drained, of “all passion spent” in the words of Milton, and she reflects that her life was filled with running all the time, so that now she feels reconciled to her fate. However, one of the other passengers is Rosette’s ancestor Mary Magdalene, and she helps the young nun realize that she still has unfinished business with Chrono. In a moving scene, Rosette casts herself from the train as if falling backward into a pool—and she rejoins her body once more. She then prepares to join Chrono in an assault upon Aion.


However, Chrono has come to love her too much to let her waste her life in the final conflict, and he freezes her, denying her the chance to charge into battle. Chrono engages in solo battle with Aion, but artist Moriyama doesn’t allow the reader to see exactly what transpires, save that Aion is defeated and the world is allowed to return to peace. No one knows precisely what befell Chrono, but Rosette swears to wait until he returns, even if it takes fifty years.



Not surprisingly, even the dissolution of the demon-contract doesn’t allow Rosette that much time. She becomes less the hard-driving hero-nun, becoming pacific as she waits, though she avers that “waiting can be a kind of fighting, too.” She holds on longer than any of her friends expect, but ultimately, they aren’t with her when death takes her. But in her last moments, Chrono does indeed return to her, possibly because he too has crossed over. All that one can tell from his few panels is that he has a cloth wrapped over his eyes, which are presumably wounded or missing, while his horns—which he re-attached to his head during the fight with Aion— seem to be gone. Whatever the attachment of the two characters in life—and Moriyama is oblique about how much “eros” obtains between the two of them—apparently nun and demon enjoy a hieros gamos in the afterlife. And though it has nothing to do with the mythicity of the arc, I would remiss not to mention that “The One Clear Way” rates as one of the great sentimental conclusions to any literary work. A fair number of Japanese heroes and heroines may perish at the end of their stories, but it’s rare that their fates are so illustrative of both the perils and rewards of the mortality we all share.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

NULL-MYTHS: BLOOD AND JUDGMENT (1986)




I should preface my remarks on Howard Chaykin’s four-issue SHADOW series by stating that I was never (unlike the celebrated Harlan Ellison) a strong fan of the character prior to Chaykin’s take on him. Growing up in the sixties, I heard fragmentary references to the hero and his mythology, most of which probably stemmed from the popular radio show rather than from the pulp magazine series wherein the crusader originated. There were no paperback reprints of The Shadow until 1975, and the only comic book that took a shot at reviving the Master of Darkness was an insipid superhero title from Mighty (Archie) Comics in the mid-sixties. The short-lived DC Comics adaptation in the early seventies was my first real exposure to any accurate version of the character, and though I found the series enjoyable, it was not one of the high points of the period. Sadly, most revivals of the Shadow in comics since then have failed to last into the high numbers of the pulp magazine’s decades-long run, and the hero was scarcely served any better in the media of TV and movies. These days, I’m reasonably well acquainted with the mythology of the character, especially through copious reprints of the original pulp tales. But even now, I’m not a big Shadow fan.


I didn’t like the four-issue BLOOD AND JUDGMENT any better in 1986 than I do now, but I must admit, it stands as one of the few times a comic-book adaptation of the Shadow made good money for its publishers. To be sure, a lot of extrinsic factors played a part. In comic books the relative freedom of titles aimed at the “mature readers” in comic-book specialty stores made it possible to stretch the boundaries of what one could do in “masked avenger” narratives, resulting in what I’ve chosen to call “adult pulp” in contrast to the juvenile variety seen in most though not all actual pulp magazines. A lot of eighties comics were just the same puerile stories with greater sex and ultraviolence—THE OMEGA MEN comes to mind—but there were valid makers of adult pulp as well, talents who shone in the eighties as they never could have in the seventies. Miller and Moore were the top of the heap, but Chaykin, something less than a “fan-favorite” in the seventies, became a Big Name Creator with First Comics’s 1983 publication of AMERICAN FLAGG. Whatever FLAGG was, it wasn’t just warmed-over clichés with more violence ladled on top, and at least three (if not more) critics for the hero-hating COMICS JOURNAL reviewed the title in its heyday. (I was not one of them; despite initially liking the series, I just didn’t have much to say about the feature back then.)


By the middle eighties DC had fully embraced the aesthetic of adult pulp, with the four-issue SHADOW series appearing in May 1986, roughly three months after the debut of Frank Miller’s wildly successful THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Miller explicitly stated that at the time he thought of RETURNS as a “brass band funeral” for the superhero genre, even if Miller’s reborn bat ended up becoming more of a meal ticket in the long run. But what did The Shadow mean to Howard Chaykin?


As seen in the first link above, Harlan Ellison manifestly despised Chaykin’s take on the character. I expressed some doubts as to how “mythic” the original pulp character was, but on the whole, if a creator wanted to reduce a famous hero to a travesty of his (or her) original self, I thought said creator ought to have a really good reason, beyond putting money in his bank account.


Having reread BLOOD AND JUDGMENT, I don’t think Howard Chaykin gave a ripe fart about the Shadow or his mythology. He does take various elements of the pulp stories—principally, the ideas that the Shadow acquired his mental skills in some far-Eastern domain, and that Lamont Cranston, the hero’s supposed alter ego, was merely one of his many disguises. Since BLOOD AND JUDGMENT takes place contemporaneously, Chaykin gives the Shadow a straightforward hero-origin. After crash-landing in a Tibetan super-science enclave named “Shambala,” pilot Kent Allard is enlisted to become a “paladin” for the Shambalans, who for vague reasons want to have their own urban avenger fighting crime in big cities. Chaykin puts no more into this origin than he must to make the story work; he’s manifestly uninterested in the Shadow’s career and barely gives a reason for his retirement to Shambala for some 35 years. Super-science does allow this version of the Master of Darkness to remain young while all of his former aides have become doddering old men and women. Apparently Shambala gave Allard a nose-job as well, since by 1986 he’s become the spitting image of Reuben Flagg.


What interests Chaykin is presenting a raucous, ribald vision of the modern world. It’s never a vision of great depth, but it certainly has a personal vibe to it. There’s copious violence—a mystery villain, Preston Mayrock, starts killing the Shadow’s former aides in order to lure the hero out of hiding—but the real emphasis is kinky sexuality. This makes an odd fit with The Shadow, who was one of the least sexual of the pulp-magazine heroes. Chaykin’s ageless Shadow has already fathered two offspring—both fully-grown Asian men. In addition, he is served by an agent named Lorelei with a super-sexy voice (her word balloons are all hearts) and after he seduces a woman who hates him, she ends up calling him “master.” Preston Mayrock is even more of a fount of perversion, being a wheelchair-bound old man who’s married a ripe twenty-something chippie. He allows his wife to screw his clone-replica “son” because Preston plans to have his brain transplanted into Preston Junior’s body.


It’s all very racy, but not much better developed than one of the “saucy stories” from the pulp-magazine era. The prose stories of the original Shadow were naïve and juvenile, but they weren’t incapable of depicting shades of feeling and characterization. The only time Chaykin’s era doesn’t seem like a self-satisfied parody of a hero is a single scene in which the villain sics guard-dogs on the Shadow, and the hero spares the “innocent ones” by mastering them with mesmerism. Without characters to engage the reader, most of Chaykin’s visuals prove busy and ultimately off-putting.


For me the only positive aspect of this mini-series is that because it sold well, DC kept this SHADOW series going for nineteen more issues, usually scripted by Andy Helfer and penciled by such luminaries as Bill Sienkiecwicz and Kyle Baker. Most of these stories are not much deeper than Chaykin’s, but Helfer embraced a more genial, Miller-like comedic approach in adapting the adventures of this classic crimefighter, so they’re more fun to re-read than Chaykin’s smarmy sensationalism. His outlook worked better with a series of his own creation, though, on a side-note, I reread a handful of the AMERICAN FLAGG installments and found them also lacking in mythicity.   


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: “DHARMA,” GRIMJACK #33-34 (1987)

 



Grimjack, one of the more successful features from the long-defunct First Comics, wasn’t a particularly outstanding character, being little more than the standard Wolverine-style “tough guy.” The series’ main strength was its setting, in that Grimjack inhabited a weird city, Cynosure, which allowed the hero to easily access countless dimensions. Thus, if any of the creators wanted to have Grimjack jaunt into a world inhabited by demons, or one modeled on the American Old West, Cynosure made such possibilities realities.



Prior to the “Dharma” two-part story (written by John Ostrander and penciled by Tom Mandrake), Grimjack enjoyed a sexual interlude with a ghost able to take material form, given the slightly risible name of “Spook.” The hero goes looking for the reasons behind Spook’s death, but in the process he’s severely injured before he plunges into the dimension of the ghost’s origin. An elderly woman named Satyavati stumbles across Grimjack and transports him to “the palace of Lord Nara,” which is the only setting one sees in this domain, whose inhabitants bear names and attire modeled on the people of medieval India.



Satyavati is an exception, for Grimjack notices that she’s not of the same ethnicity as the other denizens, and she claims that her original name was the European “Jenvieve.” Satyavati also reveals that she knows that in life Spook bore the also-European-sounding cognomen “Gen-Marie.” But to keep the old woman from giving the hero too many clues, scripter Ostrander conveniently shunts her out of the action while Grimjack acquaints himself with his suspects: Lord Nara, his wife Lakshimi, their daughter Maya, their strongman retainer Hanuman, and their guest Lord Pandu, a prince from another realm who’s come to court Maya. Hanuman, a professional warrior after Grimjack’s own heart, expounds on “dharma,” the set of moral laws by which the world’s inhabitants live, which boil down to the idea that everyone has a destined role to play. Hanuman cannot understand Grimjack’s “lone wolf” status, claiming that “to be a masterless man is a terrible thing.”



At that point, Spook makes her advent, uttering dire but non-specific threats. Pandu drives the ghost away with the intensity of his attack, but she promises to return once more. She does not seem to recognize her former lover, and her visit leaves Grimjack no closer to the truth. Later, a scream in the night causes the hero to rise from his bed and investigate. The scream comes from a serving-maiden, for she discovers the dead body of Hanuman, oddly missing his head.



Grimjack quickly deduces that because the head was removed cleanly, Spook cannot have committed the murder. Satyavati belatedly identifies Spook as her deceased daughter but gives the detective/exorcist no further information. The next night Grimjack goes prowling the castle again, and witnesses a war of spirits, as the ghost of Hanuman engages in pitched battle with Spook. Grimjack tracks down the individual using Hanuman’s decapitated head to summon Hanuman’s ghost and finds Lord Nara. Grimjack puts an end to the ritual by destroying Hanuman’s head, so that his ghost vanishes. Spook retreats again, and Grimjack justifies his action by telling Nara of his love for the vengeful spirit: “I’ll see her at peace, whatever the cost.”



Nara then unravels the murder-mystery; that despite his marriage to Lakshimi he took up with Satyavati’s daughter Amba, who originally went by the “Gen-Marie” moniker. He was so besotted with the younger woman that he considered giving up his kingdom for her, and thus going against the social roles of his dharma. Lakshimi retaliates by contriving to bear her husband’s first child (presumably by tricking him into having sex, though Ostrander doesn’t say so). Nara then tries to give Amba a kiss-off, but when she threatens his unborn child, Nara strikes and accidentally kills his former lover. Nara buys some peace of mind by exiling the spirit of Amba, a.k.a. Spook, to another dimension. However, during Spook’s absence, she bonds with Grimjack, thus bringing the hero into the tangled business.


The resolution isn’t particularly winsome, in that Grimjack is perfectly willing to sacrifice both Nara and Lakshimi for their respective misdeeds, purely for the purpose of sending Spook to her “rest.” But the hero’s ruthless maneuver makes no difference, for the ghost is obsessed with killing the innocent Maya, thus forcing Grimjack to slay his former lover.


The story’s not overly impressive either as a character-piece or as a moral argument, but it does sustain some interest as a myth-comic due to its opposition of the hero’s ruthless individualism and the ideals of a predetermined moral nature. Ostrander borrows most of the Hindu names from characters in the Mahabharata epic, but there are no real parallels here, aside from the fact that the epic has its own share of “dharma-drama.”

Monday, April 5, 2021

VECTORS OF INTENTIONALITY PT. 2

Toward the end of the first VECTORS OF INTENTIONALITY, I mentioned the propositional nature of fiction, and this reminded me of some of my meditations regarding "strong and weak propositions," beginning with this 2018 essay.

Now, my use of "propositions" in the earlier essay was somewhat different in that I was speaking more of how fictional propositions affected audiences in terms of what might called "audience-will" rather than "authorial will." I asserted that for audiences, the lateral meaning of a text usually has greater propositional strength than its vertical meaning, simply because the lateral meaning of any single reader's life generally arouses stronger conviction than any set of principles by which that reader might seek to interpret his life.

Authors, on the other hand, follow slightly different patterns. A few authors are so devoted to their principles that they produce works that are devoted to those vertical meanings. John Bunyan, for instance, wrote his allegory A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS to illustrate his Christian beliefs, showing little or no penchant for depicting his fictional characters as beings with lives parallel to those of real readers. 

On average, most authors who literally sing for their suppers know that they need to please readers with fictions that feel like "life as people live it." This can sometimes inhibit the author's devotion to the vertical values, but it's not exclusively a failing of commercial fiction. In canonical fiction as well, many authors simply find it harder to elaborate the abstract vertical concepts, given that from one standpoint it may be seen as harder work than producing the illusion of lateral perceptions. 

While the metaphors of "strong propositions" and "weak propositions" were oriented on describing "audience-will," they might also be descriptive of the different levels of concrescence in the four possible forms of discourse.

Some readers, obviously, desire to read some particular set of tropes with complete indifference to any complexity; one thinks of the stereotypical pictures of the "romance reader" and the "superhero addict." Yet even in hardcore fandoms, the "better works' in the genre are almost always those distinguished by some concrescence of either the kinetic, dramatic, didactic or mythopoeic potentiality. or by some combination of such concrescences. So, from the standpoint of authorial will, a work may be extremely concrescent in a particular poentiality, and may for that reason earn the love of an audience. However, not every audience is equally primed for every concrescence. Thus, Melville's MOBY DICK failed to charm the author's contemporaries, but gained classic status with later generations. That said, usually extreme popularity of a work does depend on some perceived concrescence by some audience at some time.







Friday, April 2, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: MORE MARTIAN BOOKS

 



A hardcore devotee of Edgar Rice Burroughs might know how thoroughly the author plotted his books ahead of publication. Thus it’s only my opinion when I state that A PRINCESS OF MARS, reviewed here, feels rather made-up-on-the-run, with Burroughs devoting most of his story to John Carter’s “wild Indian” battles with both “redskinned” humanoid Martians and the monstrous four-armed green Tharks. In the two subsequent books, though, Burroughs seems to be giving more thought to the makeup of Mars and the role that Carter would play in the planet’s destiny—to say nothing of his providing some perhaps unintentional meditations on his notion of a hero who supposedly never ages.


PRINCESS concludes on what must be deemed one of the best cliffhangers in literary history. After Carter wins and weds his beloved princess Dejah Thoris, duty forces him to attempt saving Mars by re-activating the atmosphere plants that keep the planet’s denizens alive. Before Carter even knows whether or not he’s been successful, his sojourn on Mars comes to an end and he finds himself back on Earth. Twenty years pass, both on Earth and on Mars, before the hero is once more able to return to Mars through a process loosely modeled on (but never explained as) the concept of astral-body travel.


Providentially Carter’s second sojourn takes him to the very heart of both Martian biology and Martian religion: the Valley Dor. Many Martians believe that when they perish, they will float down the River Iss (clearly indebted to the mythos of Egyptian Isis and her association with her river-borne husband Orisis) and enjoy eternal paradise in the Valley. Carter, as both a new culture-hero and a debunker of myths, learns the truth: whether alive or dead, Martians who go to the Valley end up having their blood drunk by bizarre plant-men, and their flesh eaten by giant white apes. And if that’s not enough, the Valley also plays host to a contingent of white-skinned Martians, called Therns, who also drink the blood of wayfarers—and they are in turn preyed upon by a race of black-skinned pirates. (Carter, a Virginia-born veteran of the Civil War, passes the comment that it’s unusual for a Southerner such as himself to think that the Black Martians are all surprisingly handsome.)


The reality of Dor is one of religions deception, best represented by an elderly Thern woman who pretends to be the Goddess Issus. (Burroughs probably borrowed this image of an evil old witch-woman from Haggard’s character Gagool in KING SOLOMON’S MINES.) However, not all of Dor’s mysteries are so easily dispelled. One of the Black Martians tells Carter a fabulous story of the origin of all Martian races. There was in distant times a Great Tree that manifested buds attached to its branches, some of which became the mindless plant-men later, while others developed into the forms of the apes, the Tharks, and of the Black Martians (who deem themselves “the First Born” among humanoid Martians). Carter never proves or disproves this impressive myth, since the Great Tree is long gone, but Burroughs invites the reader to take this particular story “on faith,” as it were.


While sojourning with the Therns and the Black Martians, Carter encounters many avatars of War, just as he did in the first book. But only in GODS and the sequel does he find his faithfulness to Dejah Thoris—who is kept offstage for most of the book—challenged by two avatars of Love. Red Martian Thuvia and White Martian Phaidor—both implicitly of a later generation than that of Dejah, and thus symbolically “daughter-figures”—both throw themselves at Carter. For his part, he remains comically confused by this development, since he has absolutely no lady-killing abilities, except those that stem from his ability to slaughter enemies. GODS ends with a cliffhanger which sots out the young women in terms of morality: Phaidor is the “bad daughter” who tries to slay Dejah Thoris, while Thuvia, “the good daughter” who renounces her affection for a married older man, tries to save Dejah from Phaidor.




The mythic events of the first half of GODS are rather undercut by its second half, wherein Carter goes back to chasing around Mars getting into bloody fights. WARLORD, the final book in the “Carter trilogy,” reverses this tendency. Two of his enemies, the Thern Matai Shang and the First-Born Thurid, manage to capture Thuvia, Phaidor, and Dejah Thoris, forcing Carter to chase the villains hither and yon. Yet all this derring-do, impromptu though it is, makes him so prominent that he ends becoming the planetary “warlord” to the entire planet, thus allowing him to organize the strife-filled nations of Mars in a manner that later generations would condemn as imperialistic. Toward the end of the book Carter meditates, “Today, by the might of my sword and the loyalty of the friends that my sword has made for me, black man and white, red man and green, rubbed shoulders in peace and good fellowship.”


I won’t sneer, as might some critics, at Burroughs’ conception of his hero as an ultimate fantasy of martial competence. However, at times this focus keeps Burroughs from letting his hero relate to others in any other terms save martial ones. In one case, this is inadvertently amusing. Partway through WARLORD, Carter, absent from Mars for twenty years, fights at the side of a handsome twenty-something warrior who manages never to state to Carter his name or lineage, so that eventually Burroughs can spring the Big Surprise: he’s Carthoris, whose name combines the names of his father John Carter and that of his mother Dejah Thoris. Apart from being a little thrown by this development, Carter never relates to Carthoris as father to son; the younger man is just another boon battle-companion. Clearly the author didn’t want to clutter his martial fantasy with lots of emotional baggage, which may be another reason that Carthoris is a deadly dull character. The youth’s only other function in WARLORD is to serve as a consolation prize for Thuvia; if she can’t have the already married “father,” she can at least enjoy a romance with the age-appropriate “son.”




To be sure, romance doesn’t go that easily for the couple in the fourth book. Just as the Lord of the Jungle stepped back from the spotlight to let his son Korak shine in THE SON OF TARZAN, John Carter is conspicuously absent from THUVIA, MAID OF MARS. Carthoris and Thuvia remain in love as they were at the end of WARLORD, but Thuvia’s father affiances her to an older ruler to maintain a treaty. The young lovers seem doomed by the forces of societal commitment, but to their good fortune, a gang of schemers abscond with Thuvia to unexplored parts of Mars. This gives Carthoris an excuse to chase after them, even if he’s pledged to defend her engagement to a man she doesn’t love.


The potential for young-love angst would have been enhanced had either Carthoris or Thuvia been particularly memorable, but both are dull characters, far less lively than their counterparts in the Tarzan saga, Korak and Meriem. Carthoris, who has inherited some of his father’s fantastic abilities, gets almost all of the physical action rescuing the lady fair. That said, Thuvia gets a little more to do than a lot of Burroughs-heroines, and so I judge THUVIA to be one of the few novels in which hero and heroine deserve to share co-billing, in contrast to the status of Jane Porter and Dejah Thoris, who are both adjuncts to their respective paramours. In addition, Thuvia may be the only Burroughs-heroine who has her own “superpower.” When she’s introduced in GODS OF MARS, Thuvia manifests an unexplained ability to control animals, which may have been the author expanding upon Tarzan’s rapport with jungle creatures. Thuvia uses her power against some of Carter’s enemies in her first appearance, but in the novel named for her, she only employs her skill to stop lion-like “banths” from attacking their prey, be it her own self or one of her adversaries.


The most amusing section of THUVIA places Carthoris in the isolated city of “Lothar” (a possible influence on the name of Superman’s enemy, perhaps?) Lothar only has two occupants, both of whom can call up “phantom bowmen” via their fantastic mental powers. One Lotharian calls himself a “realist” and the other styles himself an “etherealist,” which philosophical stances are meant to parody some of the philosophies extant during Burroughs’s era. Both men prove eager to put aside their high-minded thoughts for the chance to copulate with the Maid of Mars, and both are ultimately routed by the masculine superiority of Carthoris.


I don’t judge THUVIA to share the deeper mythic resonances of the first three Martian novels, and as memory serves, most of the rest of the Martian novels share the fourth book’s relative lack of ambition.