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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...

Monday, July 19, 2021

THE SONS OF EL TOPO (2016)

 



                             

In my review of the cult-film favorite EL TOPO, I noted that its writer-director was so scattershot in his use of mythic motifs and religious rituals that I imagined him as a younger man just getting started in the surrealism game—though in point of fact, Alejandro Jodorowsky would have been about 41 at the time.

 

Despite TOPO’s success on the midnight movie circuit, Jodorowsky had zero luck getting a cinematic sequel made. It was over twenty years later, according to Wikipedia, that the director attempted to launch such a project. About another twenty years later, the filmmaker, who had also established himself in the world of European comics, decided to take his movie-script and collaborate with Mexican artist Jose Ladronn in producing THE SONS OF EL TOPO. This consisted of two European-style albums, each of which was named after one of the magical gunfighter’s two sons, the very Biblically named Cain and Abel.

 

SONS is just as devoted to the episodic structure of a surrealistic work as its “father in another medium.” However, whatever changes Jodorowsky wrought upon the script over the years, the story of Topo’s offspring displays a more fine-tuned approach to the complexities of myth-symbolism. The movie was basically the story of a western gunfighter undergoing an “imitatio Christi” with added dollops of Eastern symbolism and gobs and gobs of sex and violence. In EL TOPO Jodorowsky provide viewers with the skeleton of a myth. But in SONS, he put some flesh on them bones.

The opening pages of the first album, CAIN, reproduce the essential scenes of the film’s conclusion: Topo frees the mutants and sees them slaughtered, Topo slaughters the slaughterers, Topo commits suicide and his grave is adorned with the combs of honeybees.

 

However, in between the last slaughtering and the self-immolation, some time ensues, during which Topo becomes known as a peerless saint, possessed of phenomenal powers. During this time, the son he left behind in a Franciscan monastery, known in the film only as Hijo, is re-christened Cain. Topo’s first son seeks out the saint in his desert haven, furious that his irresponsible father is now so venerated. Cain can’t bring himself to slay Topo, but because he knows that the saint’s current wife has an infant son, Cain threatens to kill his half-brother Abel. This is a big mistake. Emulating the father-god of the Old Testament, Topo places a mark upon Cain’s brow, indicating that anyone who acknowledges the young man’s existence will be cursed. Only after doing this does Topo immolate himself. Possibly this satisfies Cain’s bloodlust, because in this period he’s seen about to ride away with both infant Abel and Abel’s mother in a peaceable manner.

 

Years pass—at least fifteen, since by the next time we see Abel, he’s a grown man of about that age. Cain, who’s been fruitlessly wandering all this time, still looks the same, which is to say that he always looks like a young Jodorowsky when he played El Topo. The gravesite of the saint has undergone physical changes, for the earth around the site has formed a “Sacred Isle,” surrounded by a deep trench filled with acidic waters. Further, seven pillars of pure gold have erupted from the earth surrounding the grave of the still-powerful-in-death saint. This golden bounty is attractive to all manner of greedy men, from bandits to priests, but only innocents can cross the stone bridge linking the Isle to the world around it.

 


Cain shows up again, complaining about his sufferings under the curse, and haranguing his dead father for its removal. Obligingly, and for the only time in the story, Topo’s spirit shows up. But when Cain charges his father’s ghost with violent intent, Topo simply flings him away. This sequence serves mostly to introduce the reader to Cain’s continued adventures as he skulks away, while all around him refuse to acknowledge his presence. Cain has other encounters as he wanders from place to place, but the only one of lasting consequence is his encounter with a young woman about to be forced to become a nun. She falls in love with Cain at first sight and deserts her people to follow him. She’s never given a name, but since in the movie the kid is given the faux-name of “Hijo,” meaning “son,” I’ll belatedly christen the girl as “Ninita,” “little girl,” which is the appellation one character applies to her.

 


The actual conflict gets going with Abel. He and his unnamed mother now operate a wagon with a puppet-show for juvenile entertainment, and in this period they’re first seen performing a show in which a puppet representing the Spirit of Death is foiled by two young lovers. In contrast to the play, though, Abel’s mother is stricken with a heart attack. She manages to stave off death long enough to make Abel promise to bury her next to her saintly husband. Abel expresses concern that such a trip will lead them into bandit country. The mother counsels Abel to send for Cain to be their protector, using a trained eagle, name of Angela (of course), to find the cursed brother. She dies, while Abel begins transporting her by wagon to the Sacred Isle.

 


The eagle does indeed lead Cain to Abel’s wagon, though by that time the outlaw—who does not reciprocate Ninita’s love— has callously left her behind with a super-religious enclave. (He never comments on the fact that he’s done to her exactly as his father did to him.) Cain bears Abel’s mother no animus but he’s reluctantly to do anything for the father who cursed him—and besides, the woman’s body, instead of decaying normally, emits a fragrance that will attract thieves. Abel sweetens the pot by promising to help Cain get hold of all the gold surrounding their father’s resting place, and Cain agrees. Ninita then shows up as well, having escaped the religious goons and somehow followed Cain across the desert. Abel promptly desires the very woman who can see no one but his brother.

 


I’ll abbreviate a long segment of the story in which Cain and Abel must contend with a bandit army, whose colonel has been enchanted to think himself a beast, not unlike the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar. As the brothers leave the bandidos, though, Cain persuades the colonel’s whore Lilith to come with them, offering her the golden bounty in exchange for her charms. But escaping one bandit army just leads the travelers into another one, and this time the brothers can only escape after the cursed Cain receives a roundabout “blessing” from his dead father, and Abel imitates his brother’s murderous ways. The volume ABEL ends with the mission being left up in the air, for Cain departs in the company of Ninita, while Abel continues with his mother’s body to the Isle, where one assumes Lilith will find some way to get her hands on the gold, if only by seducing Abel.

 


While Jodorowsky does work some esoteric non-Christian imagery into SONS, just as he did in the TOPO film, the core of the story is stronger for its reliance on Judeo-Christian symbols. Foremost among these is the story of two brothers separated by their father’s erratic will, and the mention of that patriarch’s blessing even conjures with another pair of Biblical siblings, Esau and Jacob. Cain and Abel are almost a split of the original Topo’s two sides, killer and visionary, while the two women in their lives are literally “nun and whore.” Medieval lore includes various stories of saints whose mortal forms proved incorruptible even after death, and I appreciate that Jodorowsky developed one small element from the film—that of the saint’s grave being surrounded by bees—so that now the gravesite is surrounded by bees’ honey—which, in ancient times, was often used as a funerary preservative. The name of Lilith, Adam’s first wife in rabbinical stories, is nicely applied to a sort of “bad mother” to both Cain and Abel, as if to compensate for their being “good boys” by taking the “good mother” to her resting place. Jodorowsky never uses the phrase “seven pillars” as it occurs in Proverbs 9, or their connection with wisdom. But it’s surely no coincidence that Ladronn draws seven pillars of gold, though it’s hard to say if even the saint Topo seems especially “wise” in his dealings with his sons. The story does end up feeling somewhat unfinished—the last image is of the beast-colonel still barking like a dog—but I tend to feel that Jodorowsky wanted to frustrate any readers who wanted an ending with all loose ends tied up. For myself I can easily live with the unfinished feel of the story, because the bizarre inventiveness of the journey more than compensated for the lack of destination. Like the film EL TOPO I judge this work to belong to the mythos of irony, although SONS is a fully combative work, as violent as any of the more gruesome spaghetti westerns.


Monday, July 12, 2021

DEPARTMENT OF COMICS CURIOSITIES #5

 I've not managed to find time to review my copy of MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN-- THE DAILIES, a hardbound reprint of the earliest appearances of the influential prestidigitator. But my reading did support the claim that in the early strips, Mandrake seems able to perform actual magic, rather than simply mesmerizing his victims to imagine their guns turned into snakes, et al. However, to keep the hero from having things too easy, creator Lee Falk occasionally threw in a monkey wrench by claiming that Mandrake could only effect his magic if he looked into the eyes of his opponents. Thus, if Mandrake was blindfolded, he couldn't do his magic.

I'm currently rereading the appearances of DC's Mandrake-imitation Zatara in ACTION COMICS, and though most of the time Zatara just does his magic with no restrictions, here's an interesting exception from ACTION #21:




Odd, that this mighty magician couldn't influence birds. Assuming this story was from the usual scribe Gardner Fox, did Fox have some Falk-like thought about limiting his hero's powers by claiming they didn't work on lower animals? Quien sabe?


Sunday, July 11, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: PILGRIM’S PROGRESS 1-2 (1678-1684)

 




Despite my having made a relatively recent reference in this post to John Bunyan’s 17th-century Christian allegory, I never had any desire to read the thing. But the work was nominated by a local book club, so I gave it a go.


As I expected, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS was not stimulating in and of itself, but it does furnish me with some insights regarding its place in European Lit, not least because its two sections—published respectively in 1678 and 1684—have never been out of print, unlike the rest of Bunyan’s largely theological writings. Both parts take the form of a dream stemming from someone who may or may not be Bunyan. The first part’s narrative concerns a Christian seeker, literally named Christian, who leaves behind his wife and children in order to find his way to Heaven—though it’s not actually stated that he has died. Though death would be a fitting excuse for deserting one’s family, the allegory presents Christian’s actions as those of a living man, and thus emblematic of a good Christian’s priorities. I’ve read nothing about the genesis of Part 2. Yet since it concerns how Christian’s wife and children follow in his footsteps and also attain Heaven, I can’t help that one of Bunyan’s contemporaries gave the author some static about the immorality of family-desertion, even if Bunyan believed that Scripture justified the original act. So Part 2 is “the Rest of the Family Gets to Heaven,” with a narrative so close to the first one that it might be deemed a foretaste of Hollywood sequel-itis.


Since I found Bunyan’s religious philosophy shallow at best, the book’s primary interest to me is its place in the history of fantasy-literature. Bunyan, having been born in 1628, belonged to the generation after the reign of the Elizabethan playwrights. Some of these playwrights were staunch realists, like Ben Jonson, but others, like Marlowe and Shakespeare, had no problem with portraying fantasy-content on stage, and often in a much more freestyle manner than one got in the religious plays of the Middle Ages. Bunyan feels like a throwback to the era of Christian allegories like ‘Everyman,” and though there’s ample fantasy content in both parts of PROGRESS, figures like giants and demons are rendered nugatory since they take place within the confines of a dream. (In my system this would make the whole work “uncanny,” BTW.)


I’ve argued elsewhere that the 17th century started out as a more realistic age, as exemplified by the successful reception of Cervantes’s 1605 DON QUIXOTE, a burlesque of the chivalric legends that had delighted previous generations. But PROGRESS may be an even more insidious attack on the noble knights of Arthur. Christian’s peregrinations usually consist of the seeker encountering false prophets, with names like “Mr. Legality” and “Mr. Worldly Wise,” who try to lure him from his path. But on one occasion, Christian dons armor and fights a similarly outfitted demon named Apollyon. The fact that Christian loses the fight, but remains on his path nonetheless, may have signified something to Bunyan that escapes me. Certainly Part 1 doesn’t emphasize the combative mode, but combative elements do surface again in Part 2. “Christiana” and her children encounter, as did her husband, giants and demons, but since they’re not able to fight, a knightly savior, “Great-Heart” sorts out the fiends in their stead. Neither section of PROGRESS is a combative work, but it may be that the scenes of violence—notably, one in which Great-Heart beheads the giant Despair-- may have played a role in the enduring popularity of PROGRESS. (A few centuries later, the author Philip Jose Farmer paid Great-Heart homage by inventing a new character, “Greatheart Silver,” for the pulp-oriented paperback series WEIRD HEROES.)


I had a lot of trouble making progress through PROGRESS, given that its philosophy is simplistic and its humor mostly confined to the funny names of the false prophets. The only section I really liked appeared in Part 1. Christian gets his armor, appropriately, from an armory, and in that holy sanctum the owners have stored a host of famous death-dealing weapons from the Old and New Testaments, such as the sling of David, “the hammer and nail with which Jael slew Sisera,” and Samson’s “jawbone of an ass.” Bunyan never makes any studied observations about the significance of this sacred arsenal, but the mere fact that he chose to enumerate so many of these Biblical weapons may say something about his ideas of “muscular Christianity.”

Friday, July 2, 2021

SLAVE WAGES PT. 2

So how did slavery evolve, and what does it mean in the history of human culture?

Going only by historical records, we know that slaves are mentioned in the Sumerian Code of Hammurabi, circa 1792 BCE. At least one online reference asserts that it's unlikely that hunter-gatherer tribes, for which we have no historical records, were unlikely to have practiced the custom, but I disagree. Many though not all Native American tribes conformed to the hunter-gatherer economy, and the current historical consensus is that at least some tribes maintained slavery customs prior to the incursion of Europeans. While I don't suggest a direct equivalence between Native American hunter-gatherers and those of prehistoric times, I find it a foregone conclusion that if the former could maintain slaves within a hunter-gatherer economy, then so could tribes in prehistoric times.


Going with the assumption that slavery did not just magically spring out of nothing in the kingdoms of Sumer, how might the practice have evolved at the tribal level?

Warfare has been repeatedly associated with the taking of slaves. One would not expect that at the tribal level, one tribe would take a huge quantity of prisoners from their opponents along the line of the storied Babylonian Captivity of 597 BC. But it would be easy enough for a small tribe of, say, forty-fifty people to keep a handful of slaves from another tribe in thrall.

Now, why would they do so? One theory of motivation might be called the "eff you" theory. This would suppose that after an armed conflict, one tribe takes prisoners and keeps them in bondage in order to say "eff you" to the free members of the competing tribe. This motivation is certainly consonant with the ornery aspects of human nature. However, after a while I theorize that the "eff you" appeal would wear off, and the slavekeepers, if motivated by nothing but acrimony, would simply kill off their captives. 

Another motivation could be that of ransom. The tribe that takes living prisoners can then demand recompense for the return of the prisoners. If the owning tribe doesn't get what they want, they keep the prisoners as slaves. However, this too would seem to be a self-defeating motivation, especially since the owning tribe has to keep feeding the slaves/prisoners.

The last feasible motivation is that of economic security. Once a tribe reaches a certain point of organization, every one understands the principle of societal exchange. Aside from the tribe's leaders, everyone else has to make one-on-one exchanges to get what they want. The tribesman who figures out how to make stone tools, for instance, has a skill which he can use to acquire goods through barter if not through standardized currency. Now, if a farmer wants to get free members of his tribe to plow his field for him, he has to pay these laborers, and he may not want to pay the price.

Slavery, at base, is a form of economic security. If you're rich enough to own a slave, then the slave has to perform the labor you require. The slave cannot negotiate; the slave can only accept your terms or try to escape bondage in some way. The efficiency of slavery may not extend to the culture as a whole. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel produced detailed statistics to show that the custom of slavery in the American South did not substantially enrich the Southern States as a whole, due in part to factors like the Fugitive Slave Laws. But the slaveowners profited, precisely because they could overwork their possessions if they so pleased, restrained only by the economic costs of purchasing a new slave if the old one died.

Now, for centuries, there seems to have been little or no animus toward the practice of slavery in most cultures. The Jews inveighed against their people having been kept in economic bondage by the Egyptians, but this did not prevent them from owning slaves, as we know from the custom of the Jubilee. Serious anti-slavery rhetoric does not seem to have proliferated until the 18th century, when Europeans and Americans began arguing about the concept of natural rights. If any comparable developments took place in China, India or the Muslim countries, I'd be happy to look at any evidence of same.

In conclusion, the prevalent idea that any slaveowners took slaves for any reasons supervening those of economy-- say, that of subordinating a given group of people just for the diabolical joy of making them into an inferior class-- logic does not support this sort of false reasoning.


MYTHCOMICS: “MOURNING PREY” (AMAZING ADVENTURES #39, 1976)

When mainstream comic books began a somewhat more adult-oriented phase during the Early Bronze Age—which was also the time when I began thinking more coherently about comics characters as myths—I might have judged most of the better works “mythic” simply because they dealt successfully with larger-than-life topics. This POV didn’t prevent from perceiving that a lot of stories that played around with such topics were just pretentious twaddle. But when I did encounter a well-executed series with genuine mythic concerns, I probably saw the whole series as mythic. These days, however, my analyses depend on closer reading. Thus, some stories in a given series may seem primarily dramatic or didactic in their appeal, and only one or two are truly mythopoeic.



Marvel’s KILLRAVEN series, a post-apocalyptic take on H.G. Wells’ THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, started out as largely generic and unremarkable. The series took on its greater complexity (mythic and otherwise) once writer Don McGregor began collaborating with penciller P. Craig Russell, and many of the stories they executed are enjoyable on the purely dramatic level, such as issue 32’s “Only the Computer Shows Me Any Respect.” One of their strongest mythopoeic tales, however, was also the one that concluded the series. Years after the termination of the KILLRAVEN series, McGregor and Russell re-united one last time on a Marvel Graphic Novel featuring one more adventure of the heroic title character and his roving band of Martian-fighters. This reunion was interesting but flawed in many respects, suggesting the Wolfean aphorism “You can’t go home again.”



The letters-column of AMAZING ADVENTURES #39 notes that the featured story was not intended to be a conclusion to the peripatetic series, since the news of cancellation came down after the story’s completion. Indeed, “Mourning Prey” even devotes one panel to foregrounding a story for the next issue, which tale would of course never be told. But the unnamed person answering the letters opined that “Prey” did provide a “haunting” conclusion to the series, and with this sentiment I readily concur.





“Prey” is rife with allusions to various ambivalent states of mind. On the extrinsic level, this parallels many of the ways that post-apocalyptic stories enact their charms upon their readers. The readers realize that within the story, the characters suffer greatly from having their formerly peaceful world severely restructured. But remodeling the world gives the author the chance to shape things to mirror his own preferences, and from that flows the basic appeal of the subgenre. On page 16 Killraven says, ‘Earth will never be the same as it was before the Martian invasion.” Readers identity with the hero’s travails, but at the same time they know that their pleasure stems from that chaotic upheaval.



Like most of the McGregor-Russell collaborations, “Prey” starts out with Killraven and his band of Martian-fighting “Freemen” wandering through some strange environment for some ill-defined purpose—in this case, the Okefenokee Swamp in January 2020. January usually connotes the demise of the old year’s troubles and the promise of a new year’s bounties. Russell’s art certainly conveys the sumptuosity of a swamp far more baroque than any in ordinary reality, but McGregor’s prose contradicts this impression, as Killraven is made to think that “the morning future seems empty and dead.” Throughout the story McGregor finds three or four other ways to work “morning” into the tale, though none of the characters—Killraven, M’Shulla, Old Skull, Carmilla Frost and their local guides Huey and Louie-- ever draws the parallels that McGregor wants the readers to draw between this word and the homophone “mourning.” Carmilla is the first character to voice the latter word when she bestows the name of “Mourning Prey” upon the creature that attacks the Freemen during their trek. Here too McGregor combines ambivalent content — “mourning” because of the creature’s “melancholy quality” and “prey” because she seems intent on making the Freemen her victims. Omitted from Carmilla’s exegesis is the likelihood that the name really stems from a play on the words “morning prayer,” a religious observance which usually connotes hope, not unlike the month of January. No one in the story uses the word “pray,” though toward story’s end we do get mention of a “communion.”



The story not only opens in media res, it skips back three times from real-time to yesterday-time before finally remaining in real-time for the duration. I’ll forswear all the diegetic hopscotching and stick to a linear telling. While Killraven, his friends and the guides are tromping through the swamp, they find their way blocked by a series of webby cocoons hanging from the thick trees. Not willing to go around, Killraven blasts the cocoons with his pistol. Out rain dog-sized caterpillars that attack the travelers. While in the process of fending off the creepy-crawlies, the hero spots a golden-hued, unspeaking woman flying overhead with butterfly-wings, glaring at them. Later that night the rebels make camp, and Carmilla meditates on the butterfly-woman’s genesis, without ever explicitly claiming that she’s the result of Martian genetic manipulation. Moments after Carmilla puts a name to the “sentient identity” of the strange female, Mourning Prey attacks the group, commanding a horde of golden butterflies able to spit formic acid. Killraven himself seems to suffer a telepathic assault from the woman, who seizes him and lifts him into the sky. Killraven levels his pistol at her head, but for some reason does not fire. Then, before she’s flown high enough to injure the hero, Mourning Prey drops Killraven into the swamp-waters. While both he, M’Shulla and one of the guides are knocked out of action, somehow Mourning Prey spirits away Carmilla, Old Skull, and the other guide. Killraven and M’Shulla tromp around the swamp looking for their friends and having flashbacks to the yesterday-action.



Then the sound of Old Skull’s flute leads them to a blissful arbor, where Mourning Prey and her butterflies are entertaining the missing trio. Old Skull claims that through telepathic contact the butterfly-woman has realized that the travelers didn’t mean her any harm (a conclusion not entirely believable: surely Killraven guessed that giant cocoons had some sort of living beings in them?) But in any case Mourning Prey forgives the injuries done her, and by coincidence just happens to be ready to send forth her butterfly-progeny to seek out their individual fates, whatever they may be. Russell sells this shaky conclusion with intense images of “an embrace by sight, a communion of hands,” and Killraven watches raptly as the butterfly-mother’s brood—who may or may not develop as she did—fly off into the sunlight.




The poetic trope of the ugly caterpillar metamorphosing into the lovely butterfly sees sustained usage here, almost as much as all the references to the “sunsets and dawns” mentioned in McGregor’s closing paragraph. Indeed, Mourning Prey’s chimerical change of heart may mirror the dual nature of reality as it’s experienced both by fictional characters and real readers: the dark experiences of loss and death, counterbalanced by hopes for renewed life and rebirth. This ambivalence appears even in a possible but unconfirmable inspiration for the butterfly-woman’s cognomen: the “mourning cloak” butterfly. The living creature was so named by various Germanic/Nordic peoples in reference to a myth-image of a widow who, though garbed in the dark colors of mourning, allows just a little bit of color to show in her attire, the better to express her hopes for a renewal and recovery of future life.

Monday, June 21, 2021

REMEMBRANCE OF JOURNALS PAST

 Reader YBY wrote in the comments-section of this post: 

I always figured the people who worked [at the Journal] were true believers in the whole "comics should be grown-up and complex" view.

 As it happens, some ruminations on my experiences with the Journal fit in with another topic, so here goes.


On the general subject of making comics grown-up, the Journal didn’t start out with that high-toned ambition when the magazine began in 1976. In terms of content, the early Journal celebrated and criticized the same topics that engaged the greater part of comics fandom: genre-work from the major publishers and old fandom-favorites like EC Comics and the Carl Barks ducks. The Journal wasn’t the first fanzine to have couched its criticisms in a more intellectual tone, but Gary Groth succeeded in finding an assortment of writers who shared his waspish view of the medium-- including me-- which may have only been possible because mainstream fans had become more venturesome in their tastes in the early 1970s. At some point, the news section of the magazine became more adversarial toward the big companies (and some smaller ones), and that adversarial nature made the Journal notorious for its focus on controversial issues. Nevertheless, despite some of Groth’s later pronouncements, the Journal was still a fanzine. For what I remember as a full year, the magazine’s subscription page featured a still from the then-current STAR WARS hit, in which the movie’s characters were made to say something like, “That’s no fanzine—it’s too big to be a fanzine!” Some of the most memorable genre-celebrating essays of early issues included Cat Yronwode championing the mythic aspects of the WONDER WOMAN feature, and Ed Via devoting a long essay to the subtleties of Miller’s DAREDEVIL.


In this essay I provided a snapshot of the shift away from genre-celebration in the 1980s, the same period when Gary and Co. decided to emphasize “art” in the Journal while letting Amazing Heroes deal with all the genre-work. Still, while I was still contributing, I persevered in attempting to analyze the makeup of genre in my reviews whenever possible, rather than dismissing genre as the domain of mere hacks. I give credit to Gary Groth for giving Journal space to my very favorable review of Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS circa 1987, even though various personal remarks made it clear that he Groth abhorred the work. But by the early 1990s, the bloom was off the rose: genre was the enemy, and most of the writers were only too happy to jabber about commodification and similar Marxist fantasies in order to increase the magazine’s alleged intellectual heft.


In various essays I've argued that, in addition to the Marxist cant, many Journal writers subscribed to the Pedagogical Paradigm, claiming that superheroes could only appeal to children and that therefore modern fans were just as a bunch of big man-babies. No doubt the converted choir found this nonsense gratifying to their egos, but none of them had any better concept of what Art was than had the writers of the Frankfurt School, from whom many Journalistas sedulously copied. And yet, the dislike of genre may run even deeper than that.


In Malcolm Heath’s commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, Heath describes the philosopher’s definition of the term “tekhne,” meaning a special level of excellence that a superior member of any profession—artist, philosopher, politician—reaches when he masters his craft. Yet, as if to contradict this emphasis on intellectual assiduity, at the opening of the Metaphysics Aristotle says (according to Heath) that “unreflective experience may produce the same result as ‘tekhne.’ In general, the ability to do something well does not depend on understanding, nor does understanding necessarily imply an ability to do it well.”


Because Art has so many multifarious dimensions to it, I’ve often disputed judgments by various critics whom I found overly dependent on judging Art by some purely intellectual metric. Such critics, while comfortable with a Harvey Kurtzman, had no vocabulary for dealing with the genius of a Jack Kirby, except to call him a “primitive” or something like that. I sought to use the mythic arguments of critics like Frye and Fiedler to argue for a wider perspective, and at one point I even asked Gary Groth if he’d want to print a regular series on “myths in comics.” He did me another favor by refusing the proposal. While I don’t recant anything that I wrote back in those days, back then I hadn’t yet defined what factors were shared by both religious and literary myths—a commonality I would now abbreviate to “poeticized knowledge.” Without a sound definition, my survey of the topic would not have been adequate, and any “myth-essays” I might have written back then would have suffered.


I will note in conclusion that when critics—in the Journal or anywhere—celebrate works for adhering to some intellectual concerns, they’re just doing what they were taught in school. Anything I learned about HUCKLEBERRY FINN in elementary or secondary school was almost certainly framed in purely intellectual terms, as in, “Twain does XYZ in order to signal his deep revulsion toward slavery.” That’s the sort of simple idea on which that high-school kids can base meaningless essays, in order to show that they at least paid some attention in class. Anything deeper, such as Fiedler’s claim that Huck and Jim represent a homosocial union that divorces both males from the troublesome world of family life, has to come later, when an individual has learned how to deal with abstractions of all kinds, not just with those that serve some narrow “pro-social values.” In fact, if the Pedagogical Paradigm applies to anyone, it would be to all those who avoid the deep waters of myth and symbol in order to content themselves in the kiddie-pool of rationality—


The big man-babies.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

NEAR MYTHS: THE THREE CAMILLAS

In literature the name "Camilla" first appears in Virgil's Aeneid, written between 29 and 19 BC. There's no evidence that any character with that name appeared in earlier Roman myth, though because she was an athletic huntress-type, she might have originally been either a servant of the Hunt-Goddess Diana/Artemis, or even a mortal version of Diana herself.




In JUNGLE COMICS #1 (1940), an artist billed CAW (identified on GCD as Chuck Winter, best known for co-creating DC's "Liberty Belle") did a thinly disguised ripoff of Rider Haggard's novel SHE. An explorer named Jon finds the requisite lost city of white people in the African jungle, all descended from Vikings. This "Lost Empire" is ruled by an immortal queen named Camilla, who stays immortal with the help of a sulphur spring. She tries to make Jon her consort, but he resists, and ends up destroying her Viking city. With the destruction of her spring, Queen Camilla ages and dies.



In the very next issue, Winter virtually reprised the same story, presenting a queen with the same name, but ruling over a people descended from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, while the explorer she romanced had a wholly different name. (Note that despite her supposed Mongol descent Camilla II looks like any old blonde flapper of the time.) The most interesting near-mythic aspect of this story is that despite originally possessing no science themselves, the Mongols somehow acquire super-science over the centuries thanks to the "raw materials" in the area, including some mineral that gives off "flexodium, a radium ray unknown to the outer world." Camilla II's city is also destroyed by her unwilling consort but she refuses to be rescued, walking back into her burning city, never to be seen again. The story is mostly interesting as a predecessor to the 2018 BLACK PANTHER film, in which African natives acquire super-science purely by their access to a magical mineral, not because they have any contact with advanced technology outside their world (in contradistinction to the way Wakanda was portrayed in its first FANTASTIC FOUR storyline).




Apparently, having tried on two versions of the same Haggardian idea, Winter decided he liked the first one better, so Camilla I, despite having already died, gets better, as does her previously destroyed Lost Empire-city. She has another encounter with the white explorer in JUNGLE COMICS #3, and this time he escapes without blowing everything up. Then in issue #4, it appears that Winter decided to give his evil queen a moral makeover. Camilla I gets tossed out of her own lost city, wanders around a while, and runs into Jon and his girlfriend Ruth. She suddenly reveals magic powers, turning Jon into a block of ice. Yet once Jon goes back to normal, he and Ruth help Camilla I regain her throne, and she swears to be a good queen from then on. By issue #6 Winter was gone, replaced by Bob Powell, and Camilla suddenly develops swordfighting skills.



Camilla I's first brush with mythic complexity occurs when she decides in JUNGLE COMICS #7 to challenge the powers of "Hades itself." (By now, the idea of Camilla I's having been a Viking has been utterly forgotten.) She takes with her a hunchback named Caredodo, introduced in the previous issue, and the two of them face down Mephistopheles, who looks like every standard devil ever created, and Satan, who for a change has a more Dante-esque look, being a two-headed green monster. Camilla I conquers Satan with the use of a Christian cross, and a visiting angel descends to grant the courageous woman a wish. (Maybe he thought he was a genie?) She wishes for Caredodo to be transformed into a handsome cavalier, whom she named "Sir Champion," which makes one wonder if her wish was more for her own amatory benefit. 







However, Camilla and Champion only enjoyed about twenty more adventures-- none of which were particularly romantic-- before her status as Queen of the Lost Empire dwindled away. In JUNGLE COMICS #27, Camilla makes a brief reference to her former status as the queen of a city of lost Vikings before she dons a zebra-skin and becomes just another Sheena-like jungle crusader. I haven't read all of these, but I doubt there's anything close to symbolic complexity therein.


MYTHCOMICS: "THE TIGER WOMEN OF WILDMOON MOUNTAIN" (JUNGLE COMICS #13, 1941)

 I stated in my review of THE CITY OF SHIFTING SAND that I wasn't especially enamored of the sort of Golden Age comics-story where "anything can happen." This may explain why I've been less fascinated with the cult of Fletcher Hanks. To the best of my knowledge, this Golden Age artist was almost completely forgotten by organized comics-fandom. In the past ten or so years, some of Hanks's work saw print in Art Spiegelman's RAW magazine, and since then there have been three collections of the work he did for assorted Golden Age publishers. 

Without attempting to analyze in depth Hanks's appeal for later afficianados of comics, I think it boils down to what I called "freewheeling silliness." Hanks's heroes, such as the superhero Stardust and the jungle-magician Fantomah, encounter grotesque beings that pop out of nowhere and start killing innocents. After a lot of killing, Hanks's heroes decide to exercise their powers-- which often seem limited only by whatever the artist happened to think up-- and the heroes destroy the villains, usually in equally grotesque, sometimes monotonous ways. 

One can find other Golden Age stories that offer as little rationalization for their heroes and their boogiemen, but Hanks does have a singular artistic approach to his material, in that even characters who are supposedly good looking come off as subtly distorted. Hanks's flights of fancy are not mythic in themselves, but I did find one story that suggests the complexities of myth, even without rationalizations.



So on the first page, Fantomah-- a protector of some African jungle, whose origin and powers are never explained-- learns that the local tribes are being invaded by strange women riding on the backs of tigers. Fantomah instantly knows that they are "vahines" (a Polynesian word meaning "woman" or "wife"), and that they come from a place known as Wildmoon Mountain.

The image of wild huntresses may owe less to anything from Polynesian sources than from the Greek stories of the hunting-goddess Artemis and her forest-dwelling acolytes. At the very least, even in 1941 most pop-fiction raconteurs knew something of the Greek Amazons, as seen by the creation of Wonder Woman and her "isle of women" in the same year. But the vahines have a destructive purpose like nothing I've seen in other Amazon-tales. The tiger-women decide that they want to kill all of the other women in the world, so that "men will be at our feet." It's not just the ruthlessness that impresses me, but the sheer chutzpah of thinking that a handful of women could monopolize all the men in the world in order to rule them. (Are the vahines perhaps thinking of having lots and lots of daughters over time?)

Fantomah starts summoning jungle-animals to fight the vahines, and while she's doing that, the evil females wipe out all the women in a village. 



To their credit, the vahines apparently anticipate Fantomah's tactics, for they bring along a "glow-worm oil" that makes them shine like phantoms. Whether the animals believe that the invaders are actual ghosts, or because they think they're on fire, they won't attack the vahines with that glow. Fantomah signals her displeasure by transforming into her skull-headed "wrathful goddess" aspect.



Fantomah exerts her "powerful will"-- which for some reason she couldn't manage before another tribe's women gets wiped out-- and she nullifies the ghost-glow. Then Fantomah's minions destroy the tigers and send the vahines leaping for the trees.



At last the heroine's pet vultures use their talons to grab the vahines by their long hair, after which the birds transport their prisoners back to their point of origin, Wildmoon Mountain. Up to this point the name sounded like nothing but an idle poeticism, possibly with a slight connection between moon-worship and the worship of Artemis/Diana. But Fantomah's powers bring a shining, "super-sized moonstone" from inside the mountain, and according to one of the vahines, this is an object of their veneration, without which the women cannot survive.



Fantomah then decides to let the tiger women get hoist on their own petard. By the jungle-heroine's will, the giant moonstone suddenly has something like a magnetic attraction, and when the vultures drop the vahines, they all get attached to their god-stone, and then get pulled into the orb's interior, as if it was a giant womb. Then Fantomah cancels earthly gravity under the giant globe, and it rockets away from the earth and into space. Perhaps appropriately, the moonstone collides with Mars, the nearest planet named for a male god. The vahines are utterly destroyed and Fantomah takes pleasure in the return of jungle peace.

As contrived as Hanks's story is, the base idea of a band of women trying to get rid of all worldly competition has few if any precedents. It reminds less of any literary ancestors than of the observations of ethologists speaking of the sometimes vicious ways that female creatures, particularly apes, retaliate when they have competition for the males of the tribe. Yet no men actually appear in the story, not even to come to the defense of their women. This doesn't exactly satisfy the provisions of the "Bechdel Test," insofar as the vahines talk about men with the plan of dominating them. But it might be the first comic-book story in which the entire conflict revolves entirely around a battle of powerful women.



Wednesday, June 9, 2021

SLAVE WAGES

 In April 2021 Louisiana state representative Ray Garofalo got in trouble because he made this obviously humorous remark in a debate over education:

“If you are having a discussion on whatever the case may be, on slavery, then you can talk about everything dealing with slavery: the good, the bad, the ugly,” Garofalo said.

The mere fact that he was quoting an old Sergio Leone film-title ought to have made clear that he wasn't making an in-depth judgment on the conditions of slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, righteous liberals descended like locusts, and Garofalo had to walk back his comments to some extent.  

Perhaps even more insidious are recent cancellations of actress Ellie Kemper and BACHELOR host Chris Harrison due to the appearance of giving props to the Confederacy in one way or another. As with the crusades against Confederate statues and flags, the Left has decided to play the part of the Inquisition in this game of race-shaming, and they're not likely to back off on what seems to have been a political success for them, at least for the present.

I'm going to avoid repeating the observations I made in THE CONFEDERACY AND THE DUNCES, but I wanted to address the specific idea that everything in a given hated culture must be abolished. The BACHELOR tsunami came about because Harrison dared to take lightly the stigmatization of a contestant who had attended a so-called "antebellum party." This sort of event probably has little or no political ramifications, being the equivalent of people dressing up for a Halloween event. But the Left must attack everything even tangentially connected with the Confederate States.

In this essay I wrote:

The pro-slavery proponents were, without doubt, greedy and venal people. But you know what? Every damn country has to make allowances for greedy, venal people in power. That’s the only way anyone ever manages to create a unified nation, and it’s only with a unified nation that wrongs can be redressed and slaves liberated.


The only addition I'll make to this is that every people who has exerted power over other persons has also produced a range of both great and banal art. Most of Western culture descends from the innovations of the Greeks, who did not for an instant question the propriety of keeping slaves to do the dirty work. I can't claim that the literature of the Southern American states before or immediately after the Civil War was as pivotal of that of the Greeks. Nevertheless, the ornate fashions and architecture of the Southern plantations still has the power to impress moderns on the aesthetic level, even if they may abominate the institution of slavery. Note as example the final episode of the 1980 teleseries DESIGNING WOMEN, which concluded with the female characters-- all of whom were liberal soapboxes for the show's liberal producer-- dreaming that they were wearing GONE WITH THE WIND outfits.



The wages of slavery, in the social sense, can only be trauma and turmoil. But every culture oppresses some underclass at one time or another, and at no time has that fact kept any such cultures from producing "good" things alongside the "bad" ones. Thus it's logically impossible to render such a judgment only against American Southern culture prior to the Civil War's conclusion.





 


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

SOCIAL DECONSTRUCTIONISM

For a politics forum, I wrote the following mini-essay as a means of expressing some of the ambiguities in human "ingroup chauvinism" as a counteractive to the poorly reasoned ideology of "race as socially constructed." I largely anticipated that the reasoning would be lost on the ultraliberal ideologues, and my prediction proved true. One moron thought I was trying to float some sort of racial murder-fantasy, when it should be entirely evident that the standards I'm applying to my hypothetical African tribe are being applied across the board to all human ingroups, all of whom participate in the same practice of phenotypic chauvinism.

___________


First, so I don’t have to type “social construct doctrine” over and over, I will abbreviate it as SCD.

SCD came about as an overreaction to European theories about human racial groups from the 19th and 20th centuries. Many if not all of these theories tended to promulgate absolutist ideas about the respective capacities of the racial groups, often with the probably intentional effect of putting the white race on top of the heap. A reaction against this polemic was natural.

SCD, however, decided that the best solution was to claim that race was a social construct. Sometimes the rhetoric asserted that “race” was given the context of “species,” but I seriously doubt that even the most xenophobic theorist would have claimed that the various human races could not interbreed, given so much evidence to the contrary. The principal purpose of SCD was to assert that racial differences had been invented by Evil Overlords seeking to stigmatize some differences and champion others. The use of the term “cline” came into vogue as a way of discussing phenotypic differences between groups without bringing the taboo word “race” into the question.

To test the validity of SCD, one must abandon both the worlds of Eurocentric pundits and their equally impaired opponents, and seek to imagine how phenotypic differences might have resonated with homogeneous groups “in the wild” as it were.

So I imagine a homogeneous Black African society in pre-colonial Africa, far removed from contact with any heterogeneous societies. Since there’s nearly no exogamy, most everyone in the tribe shares the same hair and skin color. There could be a few neighboring tribes, but they’re genetically almost identical to Primary Tribe. The natives have no cognizance of any humans who are not black skinned and wiry haired, and if they imagine the forest beasts taking on human form, the magical animals share all the routine appearance of the tale tellers.

Given this scenario, the tribe can have no concept of race, and no overlord would seek to advance one. But given that humans like to feel good about themselves, the phenotypic norm would still be the tribe’s aesthetic baseline. If your skin looks black, you’re healthy, but if it turns grey from illness, that will be physically repugnant.

Now imagine that into this tribe is born— the first albino infant ever. Imagine further that the child’s mother and father are the only ones present when the baby is born.

They look over the infant. There’s nothing in their experience to account for this. They exchange looks, and simultaneously opt to smother the child and bury it.

Now, we are not privy to their thoughts. SCD would say that, even without the tribe having a concept of race, they kill the child because they’re afraid that their neighbors will abominate the atypical infant, and that this would be the equivalent of “constructing race.”

But what if their primary thoughts are aesthetic? What if the parents themselves are repulsed by the infant’s color, and they feel shame at having produced such a bizarre creature? In the real world, we certainly have ethnological evidence of parents who have slain or abandoned offspring for no better reasons.

Proponents of SCD are stuck in a box. They MUST believe in some form of “race construction” by the society in order to remain on-point against the Evil Overlords. But often it’s the people, not the Overlords, expressing preferences that have nothing to do with social controls as such.

Ah, that was good exercise. Wish I thought the bulk of responses would provide me with as much.



Tuesday, June 1, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: PROMETHEA #1-32 (1999=2005)

 







I’ll start off my analysis of PROMETHEA by celebrating the intricate, near-visionary artwork of J.H. Williams III. Of the hundreds of artists who have attempted to depict supernatural realms for the comics-medium, Williams deserves to be counted as one of the five most accomplished such raconteurs.


For the rest of the analysis, though, it’s almost inevitable that I must generally speak of this series as if it sprang unassisted from the fragmented brow of writer/co-creator Alan Moore. And there exist two separate but equally important reasons for viewing Moore as the project’s shaping influence.


On one hand, this series was one of several continuing features released by the Wildstorm (later DC) imprint “America’s Best Comics.” Moore founded the company, conceived most if not all the features, and wrote the majority of the scripts. The imprint ran from 1999 to 2005, concluding more or less with the run of PROMETHEA.


On the other hand, the feature was conceived as a forum upon which Moore could expatiate his views on the subject of the Western tradition of occultism. Allegedly, as the result of Moore’s 1990s research into magical concepts for the FROM HELL graphic novel, the author became fascinated with these mystic disciplines, and proclaimed himself as a “ceremonial magician” in 1993. While it’s hard to assess what Moore might have done with ABC had Wildstorm not sold the imprint to DC Comics, it seems unlikely that PROMETHEA would have continued much beyond its 32-issue run, given that the series’ continuity was clearly designed to come to a definite conclusion. Even if PROMETHEA had enjoyed “X-Men sales” in the direct comics market, an iconoclast like Moore probably would not have prolonged the title once he’d said what he wanted to say.


Now, the mere fact that a given work is produced from a hellacious amount of research into a given subject does not mean that the author will produce from that research a work strong in symbolic discourse. In this essay, I cited a Gardner Fox story in which the author reeled off an assortment of factoids about the properties of minerals, but the story as such did not comprise a cosmological myth. The same principle holds true for this work: Moore could not produce a mythcomic simply by deluging his readers with tons and tons of info about mystic systems like the Tarot and the Kaballah, or about the careers of occultists like John Dee, Austin Osman Spare and the unavoidable Aleister Crowley. Many sections of PROMETHEA feel a bit like school-masterish lectures on occultism, or (perhaps worse) the exultations of a fan desperately asking his audience, “Isn’t all this stuff cool?”


Fortunately, Alan Moore does manage to impose a loose structure on the 32 issues (compared by Moore to the 32 paths of the Tarot). The master thread of the series is Alan Moore’s celebration of all things feminine, using as his focal point an icon of heroic femininity, more or less emulating the example of the Golden Age Wonder Woman. Of course, Promethea was not designed to continue as long as readers were willing to buy the heroine’s adventures. But perhaps more importantly, Moore’s heroine is a vehicle of an adult sexuality impossible to the DC character—and in part, Promethea concerns sex because sex is also a vital part of ceremonial magic, at least in Alan Moore’s interpretation.


Though Promethea’s physical appearance conjures with the Amazing Amazon, her nature is probably closer in essence to that of the Golden Age Captain Marvel. College-student Sophie Bangs is the “Billy Batson” of the series. As the result of her research into a supposedly fictional character who appeared in various 20th-century media, Sophie finds that she can call upon the archetype of Promethea from an otherworld known as “the Immateria.” Promethea then transforms and takes over Sophie’s mortal body in order to battle the evils of the mortal world. But even though Moore gives Sophie the trappings of a life for a “double identity” heroine—residence in a “great metropolitan city,” a handful of supporting characters—the author’s interest is clearly not focused on righting wrongs on the earthly plane, but on exploring the joys of assorted otherworlds, generally patterned on Tarot and Kaballah formulations.


Moore labors mightily to give his heroine a feminist gravitas. She seems to be an archetype who, before encountering Sophie, has conferred her power on numerous women (and at least one man who had a woman’s nature, so to speak). Moore loosely implies that Promethea may be a mythic reaction against Christian patriarchy, since the writer references the historical figure of Hypatia, a female intellectual murdered by religious fanatics during early Christendom. But at times the feminism angle makes a difficult fit with the exploration of occult traditions, since most of the well-known ceremonial magicians—the aforesaid Dee, Spare, and Crowley—were male. Perhaps to make up for this lack, Moore devotes a subsidiary thread to another of his favorite subjects: that of the intertwining history of fictional creations. Some earlier incarnations of Promethea arose from the archetype merging with mortals like Sophie. Yet it seems that some of the incarnations may have been taken on life in the Immateria because they appeared in fictional narratives, which can range from a pulp-fantasy “barbarian queen” to a gender-flipped version of Windsor McCay’s LITTLE NEMO. (Moore does not really bother to suss out this particular cosmos-building point.)


At any rate, focusing on the role of female characters in fiction helps shore up the feminism theme a bit, though Moore’s main purpose is still the exploration of magical states of being. Being a canny comics-maker, Moore probably realized that he needed to sell PROMETHEA as a superhero comic, and so he dutifully introduced many of the requisite elements—marauding villains like Jellyhead and the Painted Doll, a team of local “science-heroes” roughly modeled on the Doc Savage Crew, and even an occult conspiracy-group, the Temple. Moore even rings in a crossover of sorts, revealing that other ABC heroes exist in Promethea’s world. But Moore does little with all of these elements, because they’re essentially commercial distractions from his main concerns.


Considerable narrative space is consumed as Sophie, accompanied by her preceptor and predecessor Barbara, journeys through the various spheres of the Kaballah in search of Barbara’s husband, though he serves no function in the plot but to provide the two females with a motive to go “sphere-exploring.” As I said, some of Moore’s salutes to Chokmah and Binah and all the rest are a bit pedantic—even for a reader familiar with the topics, as I am—but some of them succeed as rough visual poetry on particular themes, of war, of peace, of emotion and of intellect. One of the myth-images that Moore invokes most frequently is that of the Biblical “Whore of Babylon,” though naturally the author turns the Christian connotations around, so the “whore” is just the other side of the “virgin” coin, and both are seen more as vehicles through which the energy of the Godhead manifests. Indeed, in some vague manner Promethea is also consubstantial with the Great Whore, in that both are supposed to bring the world to an end. Moore attempts to give his heroine this myth-status without delivering anything but an “apocalypse deferred,” which might seem fairly original if the author hadn’t used a similar trope at the end of his SWAMP THING run.


I can appreciate that Moore’s vision of a world liberated by his feminine icon is a pansexual world, wherein the author approves of all things sexy, whether they might be despised by the Right (homosexuals) or the Left (old men sort-of getting in on with sweet young things). On the minus side, it wouldn’t be an Alan Moore production if the author didn’t take some gratuitous swipes at other authors. In issue #6 the Promethea with the “barbarian queen” persona takes on an equally fictional wizard who is the conglomeration of all the bad writers who wrote the heroine’s adventures. I’m not sure why Moore thought a jihad against pulp writers was necessary, especially since one of the writer’s attacks is unfounded. (Sorry, Alan, it’s correct to describe a breast as “heaving;” breasts, like chests, heave when the owner is stressed or excited.) And if anyone is unable to cast stones at bad writing, it would be the poet who penned numerous doggerel-lines like this one from PROMETHEA #12:


“Around and round the fable goes,

“Eternal like Ouroboros.”


In the end I remain ambivalent about PROMETHEA. It certainly does have mythic content, though in some cases the intellectual conceits rein in some of his more inspired moments. His most mythic line, and the one most in tune with his concerns, interprets the Biblical pairing of “doves and serpents” as the tension between the serpentine desire to rise and climb in the struggle for life, versus the sacrificial bird’s descent into death for some greater cause than life. If every one of Moore’s lines ventured that deep, I’d be able to talk about him in the same breath as Melville and Hawthorne.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

DEPARTMENT OF COMICS CURIOSITIES #4

 I lost interest in my crossover project on OUROBOROS DREAMS some time back, but though this one isn't great, it is one of the most peculiar.

In FEATURE COMICS #81 (1944)-- a comic whose headliner was the long-lived but nearly forgotten Doll Man-- a humorous character named Blimpy got himself shrunk to doll-size. So he calls Doll Man about his predicament, and the hero refuses to help because it would break "union rules."





On a totally unrelated subject, here's a late fifties cover from Simon and Kirby's THE FLY:




It's a pretty cool cover, unless one stops to wonder why a superhero who can fly is bothering to swing at the villains on a rope.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THE CITY OF SHIFTING SAND" (ALL FLASH #22, 1946)




Prior to reading all the issues of ALL FLASH on ReadComicsOnline, I might have thought that it might have been a little more venturesome, even for a kid's comic, when the whole forty-something pages of each magazine were devoted to one story at a time. Certainly in the Silver Age, the most mythic stories of the Barry Allen Flash were those in which the writer (usually John Broome) could devote as much space as possible to his imaginings. 

But such was not the case. All the "book-length" adventures of the Golden Age Flash (a.k.a. Jay Garrick) were pretty much of a piece with the short stories he'd enjoyed in anthology comics like the original FLASH COMICS. That is to say, the tales had a sort of freewheeling silliness-- one story in ALL-FLASH sports the title "Anything Can Happen"-- but,. following one of the arguments of Coleridge, this was just "fancy," not the deeper form of imagination. Ironically, the only story I found mythic in ALL FLASH appeared during the period when the magazine was once more devoted to three short tales per issue.

"The City of Shifting Sand" starts off with a schtick that hadn't been used in the regular FLASH stories for a time, wherein Jay Garrick relates one of the actual adventures of the Flash to his "liar's club" as if it's a story he made up-- without, of course, mentioning that he himself is the Flash. In a world of superheroes and supervillains, I would think no one would feel the necessity of trying top "reality" in that manner. but such is the conceit.

In contrast to the more freewheeling science-fantasies in THE FLASH, ""City of Shifting Sand" starts off by grounding its wild notion of "sand-people" with explanations of the function of sand in human culture, for glass, pottery, et al. Appropriately for a fantasy, sand's importance to human culture is just the first step to imputing intelligence to the substance.



As the Flash, Garrick comes to the rescue of a man beleagured by the sand-people, but like a number of heroes after him, he finds that sandy villains don't present good targets.



Later, Flash comes across a city of silicone men, who are more like glass than their sandy brethren. They, quite naturally, resent the hegemony of carbon life-forms and plan to eliminate the competition. John Broome, the unbilled author, has some fun hypothesizing that the glass-men are nourished by sunlight, which is one of the weapons they plan to use against humanity.



Like villains of the carbon variety, the sand-men make the mistake of putting the hero into a gradual death-trap, from which of course he breaks free. Having learned that the sand-people store their energy in their hearts, Flash then attacks the silicon beings in such a way as to disrupt their energies. Moreover, he defeats the silicon men in their redoubt simply by "leaving the solar light on," while exposes the creatures to so much energy that they all perish of "overeating."





Compared to some of the better cosmological myths of Silver Age DC, "CIty" may seem to be built on a foundation of "shifting sand." But in contrast to most SF-stories in the comics of the time, the pseudoscience is rendered with an eye toward internal consistency-- even if, in the last panels, Garrick seems so disturbed that his jacket goes from orange to off-white.