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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...

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

PREHENSIONS AND PERSONAS PT. 1

 In NOTES ON WHITEHEAD PT. 3, I expressed my regrets that the philosopher had not chosen to define many of his terms more precisely in his most famous book, PROCESS AND REALITY. I wasn't even able to get a concise sense of what a "prehension" was, even in the chapter "Theory of Prehensions."

However, by sheer chance I found a definition without even looking for it. I happened to pick up an old book I'd not read through despite owning it some twenty years: COLIN WILSON, a literary study by one John A. Weigel, devoted to examining Wilson's works up to the year 1975. I have only read two of Wilson's philosophy books, none of which include RELIGION AND THE REBEL. It's from this book that Weigel alternately quotes and paraphrases Wilson's take on Whitehead's concept of the prehension, which is far clearer than anything Whitehead wrote in PROCESS AND REALITY.

Of central importance is Whitehead's idea of "prehension," which is dramatically defined, following Whitehead's specifications, "as that act of the soul, reaching out like an octopus to digest its experience." Fixing on "prehension" as the basic act in existentialism, an act carefully to be distinguished from "apprehension," which is based on intellectual rather than soulful understanding, Wilson rests his own case.

Wilson's "octopus" metaphor brings to mind a more primitive form of organic life: that of the one-celled amoeba, which has no perceptual organs and so assesses its contact with the "outside universe" purely by touch. I feel like I've resorted to the amoeba once or twice to suggest the base process of perception somewhere, but even if I haven't, I.A. Richards did, as I noted in my summation of his book PHILOSOPHY OF RHETORIC here:

...the lowliest organism-- a polyp or an amoeba-- if it learns from its past, if it exclaims in its acts, 'Hallo! Thingembob again!' it thereby shows itself to be a conceptual thinker.

Richards doesn't specifically link his notion of conceptual "sorting" to Whitehead, though as I also note he mentions Whitehead elsewhere in RHETORIC. Both Wilson's octopus metaphor and Richards' amoeba metaphor stress the faculty of perception through non-intellectual methods, which I would broadly compare to Jung's concept of the organism reacting to the world through the irrational functions of sensation and of intuition. Moreover, such metaphors cohere well with what I have labeled Whitehead's "theme statement" for the whole of PROCESS AND REALITY:

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

Since I discontinued my reading of PROCESS, I cannot say whether or not Wilson's use of the term "soulful" is accurate with respect to Whitehead's heuristics. But for me, "soulful" embodies a "concrescence" of all four of the potentialities, acting in unison to sort experience in all its multi-faceted variety. And it's with this covalence in mind that I'll examine the idea of prehensions in line with my concept of the four literary personas in my next post.

 


Monday, October 18, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: XICCARPH (1972)




I started seriously reading prose science fiction in the late 1960s, and aside from horror tales, that was close to being the only form of metaphenomenal fiction around for most of the decade. There were a few exceptions to this tendency-- J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis-- but I didn't happen to read them during that decade.

As I remember, though, I got my first substantial taste for reading prose fantasy in the early 1970s, and Tolkien's best-selling LORD OF THE RINGS was the cause, because it stimulated Ballantine Books to issue a substantial series of fantasy reprints from 1969 to 1974. To be sure, Lancer Paperbacks had already started the ball rolling by issuing new editions of the works of Robert E. Howard, but somehow I didn't encounter these in the early 1970s either. 

It didn't take me long to find out that devotees of early fantasy spoke in reverent tomes of the 1930s pulp magazine WEIRD TALES, and that of all horror-and-fantasy authors who appeared in its pages, Robert E, Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith were deemed the top of the heap. Lovecraft's horror-and-fantasy works had seen paperback reprint in the 1960s, but Smith-- who for most of his life was more of a verse poet than a prose-story writer-- had wait for the Ballantine imprint. Editor Lin Carter did a sterling job of selecting some of the choice stories, and though Smith never became as popular as the other two with later generations, these volumes still give one the easiest access to this writer's ouevre.

As I do these days with everything I read or re-read, I wanted to evaluate Smith's work through the lens of myth-criticism. The Carter selections are organized into four reprints, each of which is given the title of one of Smith's fantasy-lands. Not all stories in every volume take place in the titular locale, for Smith tended to toss off new landscapes at the drop of a hat rather than devoting himself to any particular one, as Howard did with Hyboria. My chosen volume, XICCARPH, boasts six subdivisions, all devoted to different locales.

Many of the tales in XICCARPH were just decent reads, but not worth discussing in detail (SPOILER warnings for those I do so discuss). Here are the exceptions:

The entries for "Xiccarph" focus upon what may be Smith's only continuing character, for just two stories. In "The Maze of Maal Dweb," a young man, native to the fantasy-planet Xiccarph, finds out that his beloved has been abducted by the evil wizard Maal Dweb, who rules the world with his magical skills. The youth successfully penetrates the wizard's sanctum, full of bizarre garden-growths and weird automatons, but Maal Dweb has the hero outpaced from the first, so it's an unhappy ending for him. The sorcerer's triumph is somewhat mitigated by the fact that he only steals young women for aesthetic purposes, turning them into beautiful stone statues for his contemplation. Smith must have liked the character, for he then wrote "The Flower-Women," in which Maal Dweb journeys to another world and decides to play hero, liberating a race of delicate flower-women from a cabal of wizards descended from lizards-- lizard-wizards, if one chooses. Smith's depiction of his worlds are highly colorful but not particularly mythic.

Three stories are set on a loose SF-locale, "Aihai," but all of these I found unexceptional. The only point of interest is that one story, "Vulthoom," is named after a Lovecraftian-styled alien god, and that comics-writer Gardner Fox recycled the name, slightly altered to "Volthoom," for a Silver Age JUSTICE LEAGUE continuity.

"The Doom of Antarion," though, presents a more mythically-dense concept. Modern-day Earthman Francis Melchior (note the Biblically inspired name) runs an antiques shop and spends all his free time star-gazing. He holds an enduring fascination with two seemingly contradictory spectacles: those that are "steeped in the mortuary shadows of dead ages," and those that suggest "the transcendent glories of other aeons." Smith incisively notes that these desires are both rooted in Melchior's distaste for "all that is present or near at hand," which might be seen as a comment on the tastes of horror-and-fantasy readers in general. While pursuing his astronomical observances, the protagonist, not unlike that other Melchior, fixates on one heavenly body in particular, "one minute star" that fills the antiquary with "intimations of loveliness and wonder." In due course, Melchior finds his earthbound spirit drawn to the planet Phandion that orbits the distant star, and that spirit merges with the living body of a poet named Antarion. But even though Phandion satisfies all of Melchior/Antarion's desire for exotic beauties-- including Antarion's beloved Thameera-- the world is doomed to perish when its sun dies. Thus "transcendent glories" fall victim to "mortuary shadows," and the antiquary Melchior then returns to his own body, haunted by the memories of the transcendence he so desired. I might observe that Edgar Allan Poe showed a similar passion for both "glories" and "shadows," and that here Smith produced a very Poe-esque take on the psychology of both passions.

Of the other four stories in the collection, only one other, "The Monster of the Prophecy," stands out, and it's interesting in that it reverses the verdict of "Antarion."  On contemporary Earth a poet named Theophilus feels estranged from his fellows by his poetic sensibilities (which may make this character a stand-in for Smith himself). Theophilus considers suicide, but a scientist invites the poet to join him in an experiment. Though the scientist looks like an Earthman, in reality he's a non-humanoid alien-- possessed of five arms, three legs, and three eyes-- from a world called Sabattor. The alien wishes to return home with a specimen of an Earthman, and asks Theophilus to accompany him voluntarily. The poet has no attachments to his Earth-life and he accepts. Though for some time the human finds it fascinating to learn the ways of an alien world, the attractions of being a scientific curiosity pale, and his existence brings him trouble from Sabattor's small-minded priesthood. Oddly, though, Smith gives Theophilus a somewhat happy, if macabre ending, as he ends up living out the rest of his life as the love-mate to one of the non-human alien females, who, like the protagonist, is a poet without an audience on her native world.  The happy ending is not without a certain irony, but here the irony is directed not at the main character but at the world in which he was born.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: “SECRET OF THE TRANSFORMATION” (WEEKLY SHONEN SUNDAY, 1997)

Long after I wrote my first analysis ofan INU-YASHA narrative, I formulated my CATEGORIES OF STRUCTURALLENGTH in 2018. With those formulations in mind, I’ll now label Rumiko Takahashi’s “feudal fantasy” as a “basic serial,” in that the finished narrative consists of interpolated “stand-alone” stories, short arcs, and long arcs. The arc considered here, identified as SECRET OF THE TRANSFORMATION after one of the chapter-titles, is an extra-long arc that encompasses five other long arcs.


In my earlier summary of the series, I related only the factors that bore directly upon the arc under consideration, THE BLACK PEARL. Some of the things I omitted become more important in the TRANSFORMATION sequence, such as the fact that the two-person ensemble of half-demon Inu-Yasha and modern mortal girl Kagome expands to five principals. Thus for the balance of the narrative, the ensemble also includes demon-hunters Miroku and Sango, both roughly the same ages as the first two heroes, and a juvenile fox-demon, Shippo, who provides substantial comedy relief.


The quintet’s members are united by the desire to gather all the scattered shards of the Shikon Jewel and to keep the powerful shards out of the hands of both meddlesome mortals and rapacious demons. Many of the demons who menace the heroes are just one-off marauders, but there are also continuing opponents, In addition to the two ambivalent figures I mentioned in BLACK PEARL—Kikyo, a revenant version of a mortal woman Inu-Yasha once loved, and Sesshomaru, the half-demon’s hostile half-brother—there is also the series’ “big bad,” Naraku. Long before Kagome travels back to Sengoku Japan to meet Inu-Yasha and the others, the medieval bandit Naraku suffered injuries which brought him under the ministrations of the shrine-maiden Kikyo, then pledged to Inu-Yasha. Naraku lusted after Kikyo, and when he could not have her, he gave his injured body up to being consumed by demons, who molded him into a mortal-demon hybrid. In this form Naraku caused the death of Kikyo and the imprisonment of Inu-Yasha, until Kagome travels in time and releases the demon-youth from his magical confinement. From then on, Naraku continually hectors the jewel-hunters with dozens of plots, so that for its entire run INU-YASHA strongly resembles the scenarios of a RPG fantasy, with the heroes sussing out each new threat to their lives and managing to counter it.


TRANSFORMATION actually concerns two major changes at this point in the series. I mentioned in the BLACK PEARL summary that Inu-Yasha inherited from his late demon-father a magical sword, Tetsusaiga, and that throughout the series the demon-hero must learn all the ways in which the sword can transform itself through its occult powers. I left out the fact that when he first appears, Inu-Yasha is alienated from his mortal side and that he yearns to become a full demon—but that when he undergoes this “transformation,” it finds it’s not all its cracked up to be.


Some lesser transformations have already taken place: as mentioned before, Kikyo has returned as a revenant, pursuing her own obscure purposes. Sesshomaru, though as passionless as ever, allows a little human girl, Rin, to accompany him in his travels, possibly showing the demon’s potential for human growth, though he may be on some level imitating his half-brother’s penchant for acquiring human beings as allies. As for Naraku, he has just begun to unveil his most formidable talent. The villain, created from a congeries of demons, displays the ability to “split off” new entities from himself. Prior to TRANSFORMATION, he’s already used this process to create two other demon-allies, Kagura and Kanna, and the story that launches the long arc under consideration is entitled “The Third Demon.”


The ogre Goshinki, the newest of Naraku’s self-spawned servants, attacks Inu-Yasha and his allies. But when the hero wields Tetsusaiga, the ogre catches the huge blade in his teeth and snaps the metal to pieces. This not only deprives Inu-Yasha of his weapon, it breaks a preventive spell laid upon him by his late father; a spell to reign in Inu-Yasha’s demon-half. Inu-Yasha goes berserk with demon-rage and slaughters Goshinki, but now he presents a danger to his friends, even after he temporarily reverts to normal.




The swordsmith Toto-sai intervenes with some much-needed advice. He can fix Tetsusaiga—a blade carved from a fang taken from Inu-Yasha’s dead father—but only by pulling out one of Inu-Yasha’s own fangs to use in the sword’s re-construction. The smith fixes the sword, but he relates that Tetsusaiga is no longer powered by the magic of the hero’s dead sire, but by Inu-Yasha’s own resources—and thus the hero finds it much harder to wield the huge weapon. Meanwhile, Sesshomaru comes up with his own deviltry. He finds the dismembered head of Goshinki and forces a rogue smith to make a new sword from one of the ogre’s fangs—thus producing a new weapon, Tokijin. Sesshomaru uses the weapon to duel Inu-Yasha, only to be shocked when he senses his half-brother’s new demonic potential.



The fraternal conflict is put on hold when Inu-Yasha’s company is forced to deal with a new threat from Naraku. This plot comprises another long arc of stories, starting with the winsomely titled “The Fourth One,” and none of these developments directly relate to TRANSFORMATION’s master-thread. Somewhat more germane is an arc beginning with “Kikyo’s Crisis,” in which Kagome is tormented by seeing Inu-Yasha’s feelings for his former lover, though this arc largely exists to set up more developments down the road. An arc starting with “The Castle’s Ghost” then follows up on a plotline involving Sango’s brother having been suborned by Naraku.



Then we at last get to the story entitled “Secret of the Transformation,” wherein Inu-Yasha crosses paths with a minor marauding demon. After getting separated from his sword, Inu-Yasha again transforms into his full-demon form and mangles the marauder—but once more, he poses a threat to his own people. Sesshomaru chooses this moment to intrude on his brother’s life once more—and this time, there’s no question that Sesshomaru is capable of slaying the bestial version of Inu-Yasha. Yet the full demon spares his sibling, with the excuse that “there’s no virtue in killing a beast that doesn’t know who or even what it is.” Once Sesshomaru has departed, Kagome puzzles over his motives: “It’s as if he came to stop Inu-Yasha’s rampage.”





The puzzle of Inu-Yasha’s brother must wait for a future story, but Toto-sai finally reves what the hero needs to gain mastery of Tetsusaiga’s powers and thus of his own demon-nature. Inu-Yasha’s new quest is to journey to the place where his late father imprisoned a huge dragon-demon, Ryukotsusei, and slay said dragon. While in combat with this demon, Inu-Yasha is belatedly informed that his sire perished of wounds he took in the process of jailing the dragon. Thus, even though Inu-Yasha professes no goal beyond mastering his own abilities—a thing possible only if he can “surpass my old man”—the narrative of TRANSFORMATION inverts the conclusion of BLACK PEARL. In PEARL, Inu-Yasha accepted the last bequest of Tetsusaiga from the father he never knew. Here, despite claiming that “I wouldn’t waste even a drop of sweat avenging [my sire],” the hero performs the ultimate act of filial piety by slaying his father’s killer. And he does so after facing a “last temptation,” for he briefly casts his sword aside and becomes a pure-demon again to fight the dragon-thing. But he regains his purpose, reclaims the sword, and instinctively taps a new power from the sword, with which he obliterates Ryukotsusei. From then on, the accounts between the hero and his late father are squared, and Takahashi makes few if any references to either of Inu-Yasha’s parents in the rest of the continuity. Future stories continue to show Inu-Yasha finding new methods to employ his father’s bequest against his many enemies. But only once he’s discharged his last duty to his demon-father can Inu-Yasha pursue his own human destiny.






Saturday, October 16, 2021

NULL-MYTHS: PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL VOL. 1 (2018)




I''ve never read any of the PUNISHER features with any regularity, even back when the character's popularity skyrocketed in the nineties. I've enjoyed odd issues in the same way that I've enjoy Chuck Norris films: lots of extravagant action with not much plot or characterization. Nevertheless, the Punisher has gone through many permutations, and so it's possible that he might take on mythic stature in one tale or another.

I picked up a library copy collecting PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL from the 2010s. I had some vague memory of having heard that this one was one of the better Punisher titles, though now that I've read the collection, I feel sure that I must've heard some compliments for an earlier incarnation of the title. All of the stories in this collection, authored by Matt Fraction, are lightweight in the extreme. I've read little or none of the work for which Fraction became popular in the 2010s, but his other work must have more content than this garbage. 

The eighties was a time in which many comics professionals, particularly those from Merrie Old England, began producing "grim and gritty" versions of superhero features aimed at the dominantly older DM comics-audience. Yet all of these pros had been raised on the G-rated comic books of the Silver and Bronze Ages, and many of them sang the praises of the comics' "age of innocence." Grant Morrison did a story of an aging superhero in some issue of ANIMAL MAN, Neil Gaiman did a Riddler story, and Alan Moore wept crocodile tears for lost innocence with the Kool Aid Man.

A reader could read any of these and get the gist of Fraction's work on the first twelve issues of WAR JOURNAL. Of course, Moore, Morrison and Gaiman all showed numerous times that they could do much more than self-conscious parody. But that's all there is to Fraction's Punisher.

Here's Frank Castle deciding that he just won't put up with the silliness of the Silver Age, by blowing away the Stilt Man's junk.



Later, at the supervillain's wake, a bunch of classic and not-so-classic villains, mostly from the Silver Age, get together and talk about the Good Old Days as if it was all a big game, and didn't involve them trying to murder the heroes who interfered with them.



(On a side-note: even though these old villains used G-rated violence, G-rated violence can still kill a person! One of the main virtues of SPIDER MAN HOMECOMING was the bracing scene in which the movie's version of the Vulture shows just how dangerous a flying villain can be to a non-flying crusader.)

There's not much more to these twelve issues than the dubious pleasure of seeing a "realistic" hero blow away all these colorful fantasy-figures. Fraction has no psychological insight, even of a deconstructive kind, into either the Punisher, his allies (an obscure seventies villain, Rampage, gets recast into the role of the main hero's weapons maker), or any of the villains. It's all pseudo-Moore sardonicism with none of Moore's skill with satire. It's as if Fraction read Moore and the other "adult pulp" writers of the eighties and thought that their pretensions to realism were the only things worth imitating. 

Oh, and I don't know if Fraction started this, but now the vigilante hero has a deep and abiding regard for Captain America for some reason-- apparently because Cap beat up Frank Castle during some army training maneuvers? These issues take place around the time that Steve Rogers was temporarily killed off, so there's an arc of stories dealing with how a new, white-nationalist version of the Hate-Monger tries to usurp Captain America's uniform. Fraction is just as incompetent in dealing with "real problems" like racism as he is in playing games within Marvel's immense fantasy-cosmos.

Next to self-important tripe like this, even throwaway trash-tales of Castle shooting up a bunch of drug-dealers are preferable by far.




Monday, October 11, 2021

PROBLEMS VS. CONUNDRUMS

                     

 I’ve been meditating on the familiar opposition of “problem and dilemma” for possible application to my theories regarding the narrative interactions of lateral meaning and vertical meaning. The regular opposition goes as follows:

 

A problem is a difficulty that has to be resolved or dealt with while a dilemma is a choice that must be made between two or more equally undesirable alternatives.

 

For reasons I’ll discuss shortly, the idea of the “problem” aptly sums up the literary appeal of a text’s lateral meaning, because this is the part of the story in which the reader primarily invests himself, to see how the main character deals with the difficulties he faces, even if said character’s solution may be to avoid said difficulties.

 

However, “dilemma” in no way sums up the appeal of a text’s vertical meaning for readers. So, as my title suggests, I’m substituting the concept of the “conundrum,” variously defined as “an intricate and difficult problem” or “a difficult problem, one that is almost impossible to solve.”

 

My last major statement regarding the lateral and vertical forms of meaning appeared in 2016’s THE LONG AND SHORT OF WILL. In the passage that follows, I didn’t utilize the term “vertical meaning,” since at the time I was preoccupied with seeing how that meaning could expressed by the joint terms “overthoughts and underthoughts,” but both of these together were always intended to make up my concept of vertical meaning.

 

Plainly, what I call a work's "lateral meaning," glossed with a combination of two of Jung's psychological functions, is confined to what sort of things happen to the story's characters (sensation) and how they feel about those developments (feeling). The function that Jung calls "intuition" finds expression through the author's sense of symbolic combinations, which provides the *underthought* of a given work, while the function of "thinking"finds expression through the author's efforts at discursive cogitation, which provides the work's *overthought.* It's possible for a work to be so simple that both its underthought and overthought amount to nothing more than cliched maxims, like "good must triumph over evil," but even the most incoherent work generally intends to engross the reader with some lateral meaning.

 

Nowadays I would reword this statement to elide the reference to overthoughts and underthoughts, because over time I have began to find these terms cumbersome. From my current position it’s easier to speak of all these narrative meanings in terms of their potentiality-alignments: “lateral meaning,” which is comprised of the kinetic and dramatic potentialities, and “vertical meaning,” which is comprised of the didactic and mythopoeic potentialities.

 

As for the essay’s observations on the concepts of “close sight” and “far sight,” these remained unchanged, and the notions of “the problem” and “the conundrum” can be used to symbolize the different ways each of the meaning-formations appeal to readers.

 

As stated above, the lateral meaning is that which presents the reader with the immediate, close-range difficulties in the lives of one or more characters, difficulties which must be solved in some fashion, just as difficulties in the reader’s real life must be solved in some way (even if the reader, like the fictional characters, may make the wrong choice).

 

Vertical meaning, however, is the part of the story that allows the reader to contemplate the character’s conflicts from the long-range view, with the understanding that those difficulties metaphorically embody some “conundrum” regarding the nature of human life. The conundrum exists alongside the problem, and since it’s more abstract in nature, the reader doesn’t necessarily expect to see the conundrum solved, even badly, because it embodies some intellectual or imaginative conflict inherent in human life.

 

Rather than starting with an example drawn from high culture, like HAMLET or LIGHT IN AUGUST, I will begin with applying the conundrum-concept to the two examples of mythopoeic and sub-mythopoeic meanings seen in my essay regarding two Silver Age ATOM stories. Both stories dealt with the Tiny Titan's battles against an insect-themed villain, the Bug-Eyed Bandit, produced by the same creative team and within months of one another. Though I was primarily oriented on the second of the two stories to show its qualifications as a mythcomic, I also included a rationale as to why the earlier story did not qualify as a mythcomic. I argued that the first “Bug-Eyed” story did not have a strong cosmological meaning, because the villain used generic robot-insects against the hero. However, in the second “Bug-Eyed” story, author Gardner Fox more strongly patterned the robot-insects on the capabilities of real insects. This narrative strategy produced a fictional “simulacrum of knowledge” and thus gave the story a stronger mythopoeic meaning. In both stories, the hero's problem is identical; to defeat the villain, primarily through the use of kinetic displays of force. (One story also has a very minor dramatic problem, to keep the villain from kidnapping an old flame, but the kinetic problem is paramount.) There is no didactic conundrum, but the amplification of the villain's insect-theme provides a mythopoeic conundrum; one best summed up as a fascination with biological adaptations in real animals.  

Now, neither of these comic-book stories makes any pretension toward the didactic form of virtual meaning, so a more complex example is needed to show how didactic and mythopoeic conundrums may exist separately or work in tandem.

 One of the most familiar master-threads found in “Classic” STAR TREK pertains to the crew of the Enterprise seeking to interact with more primitive peoples without violating the “Prime Directive” by interfering with the primitives’ cultures. The second-season episodes “Friday’s Child” and “A Private Little War” both deal with the same range of kinetic and dramatic problems that arise when the Federation’s political rivals, the Klingons, attempt to gain favor with primitive peoples without showing the Federation’s high-minded restraint. In “Child,” a Klingon agent abets an ambitious warlord to overthrow a ruler who is friendly toward the Federation. In “War,” Klingons give relatively advanced weapons to one tribe of planetary primitives to use against another tribe.

In both stories, the Enterprise-crew must seek to mitigate the Klingons’ influence, and so the “problems” that involves the lateral meaning are virtually identical, even if the solutions are not. “Child” is more of a straight thriller, with no deep reflections about the effects of both Klingon Empire and Federation upon the lives of the primitives. “War,” on the other hand presents the viewer with conundrums that invoke both the didactic and the mythopoeic potentialties. The didactic conundrum is the more obvious, since most viewers would have noted the direct parallels to the then-current Vietnam War, in which Americans had to continually arm their allies in order to offset the forces empowered by the rival superpower of Red China. Allegedly the original script was far more caustic regarding the activities of the “Americans,” i.e., the representatives of the Federation, and series showrunner Gene Roddenberry reworked the didactic conundrum so that it implied that the heroes had to do what they did to prevent the spread of Klingon influence. Not having seen the original script, I can’t say whether or not its author utilized the same mythopoeic tropes that appeared in the finished, Roddenberry-edited script. However, because of the way Roddenberry changed the didactic meaning, the mythopoeic meaning changes somewhat as well. When at the climax Kirk muses that they must introduce “serpents” into this planetary “Eden,” the meaning carries a sense of a less didactic, more mythopoeic conundrum. The implication is that, even as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden provided humankind with a chance for self-determination, Kirk’s ambivalent gift, putting more advanced weapons in the hands of the planetary primitives, may also be a rough but necessary means of setting the natives on their own course of self-determination.

 

As with the two ATOM stories, the problems in the two TREK stories are the same as far as involving the viewer in the travails of the main characters. However, “Private Little War” suggests an enduring conundrum that supervenes the particular problems of the particular situation. “Friday’s Child” implies a possible conundrum but does not seek in articulating it in terms of either the didactic or mythopoeic potentialities.

It's worth mentioning a couple of TREK examples which register only in terms of either a didactic or a mythopoeic conundrum. The third-season episode "The Savage Curtain" places Kirk and Spock in the position of "acting out" the struggle between good and evil for the education of some very literal-minded aliens, the Excalbians. The didactic conundrum implies that the struggle between good and evil-- essentially defined as altruism and selfishness-- is a difficulty that never ceases to confront mankind, no matter what happens to any particular heroic protagonists. But despite the evocation of legendary figures from Earth and from Vulcan-- whether historical like Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan, or made-up types like Sarek and Colonel Green-- none of these characters make strong use of any symbol-tropes. Even the appearance of a vaguely witchy villainess named "Zora" is given no stature as an incarnation of female evil, in marked to comparison to the "Lady Macbeth"-styled villainy of Nona from "Private Little War."

In my reviews of the first four STAR TREK theatrical films, though, I was rather surprised that the one with the weakest dramatic problem was also the one with the strongest mythopoeic conundrum: STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE. The closest thing the film comes to a didactic conundrum is its attempt to show Mister Spock's vaunted logic as inferior to human emotion, but this is underdeveloped in contrast to the predominant mythopoeic conundrum: that of depicting a newly-born machine intelligence recapitulating its creators' need for emotional connection, and enacting a hieros gamos with a human being in order to gain said connection.

I indicated above that I was cycling out the terminology of "overthought and underthought," originally derived from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins by way of Northrop Frye. I think the terms had a certain usefulness to me, indicating that the "overthought" springs from conscious, often utilitarian forms of thought while the "underthought" springs from subconscious, more playful cogitations. But I value symmetry above everything, and so in future I may start using the following terms:

KINETIC PROBLEM-- how a protagonist solves a short-range problem with the use of kinetic applications, usually in the forms of "sex and violence." Aligned with Jung;'s "sensation function."

DRAMATIC PROBLEMS-- how a protagonist solves a short-range problem with the use of dramatic interactions with other characters. Aligned with Jung's "feeling function."

DIDACTIC CONUNDRUM-- how a protagonist reacts to a long-range conundrum through didactic assessments. Aligned  with Jung's "thinking function."

MYTHOPOEIC CONUNDRUM-- how a protagonist reacts to a long-range conundrum through symbolic embodiments. Aligned with Jung's "intuition function."


Friday, October 8, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THE MAN HATER" (SECRETS OF SINISTER HOUSE #6, 1972)

 i've not usually had a very high opinion of the DC Comics horror anthologies of the late sixties and early scventies, though they did serve as the crucible for the company's rebirth of horror in the 1980s. However, since I have an abiding interest in Gothic fiction, I decided to read through the whole run of a title initially devoted to Gothic romance, SINISTER HOUSE OF SECRET LOVE. Wikipedia claims that DC sought to emulate the craze for DARK SHADOWS, though there might also be some influence from the Gothic paperbacks of the period. In any case, SECRET LOVE changed its name to SECRETS OF SINISTER HOUSE with issue #5, where the company burned off its last horror-romance tale. Then for the remainder of its run it was just another horror-anthology, complete with a female horror-host named Eve (later worked into the SWAMP THING cosmos). 



The only mythcomic I discerned from the title's eighteen total issues was "The Man Hater" by Robert Kanigher and Bill Draut, and it's like the majority of anthologized horror-stories of the period, focused mostly on the notion of "the biter bit." However, Kanigher gets a little more into sexual mythology than the rest of SINISTER's contributors-- which might be said to make the story more "Gothic" than all the other offerings.



The story first shows us the central character Valla, in the act of offing her first husband, a big game hunter, by the unlikely method of dropping his stuffed rhino-head on him and thus impaling the unfortunate fellow. The next page reveals that Valla became a "black widow" murderess because she formed an Electra-style fixation on her father-- and when her father failed to return her affection, she killed him by rigging the brakes of his car-- skills she obtained while trying to emulate the father's interest in cars, by learning the "masculine" skill needed to work on automobiles.

Kanigher doesn't dive too deeply into Freudian waters, but it's pretty clear that Valla suffers from a repetition-compulsion: she likes the feeling of having killed her nasty dad, and she seeks to re-experience the emotional thrill by marrying rich older man and killing them, ostensibly for their inheritances (she calls one of these two husbands a "dirty old man" as she murders him). She claims that her first husband called her "princess," which Valla may or may not have instigated: either way, it sounds not unlike the sort of pet-name that a father might use for his daughter. "Man-hating" mania aside, Valla does maintain a strong relationship with one older male: a Hindu whom she addresses only as "Guru." 



Kanigher wastes no time explicating Valla's relationship with Guru, and for the most part he exists just to set up the "biter bit" finish. At most one might hazard that Valla hangs out with the old fellow because he's too old to seem threatening and because he feeds her ego by telling her that she used to be a real princess in ancient India. 





However, Valla's murder-lust makes her impatient for more victims,. and the police become aware of the unusual rapidity of her three mates' deaths. So they pursue Valla, who flees to her guru for help, as if he was indeed some all-powerful father-figure. The guru seems OK with helping Valla escape the long arm of the law, and he works a reincarnation-magic that sends the man-hater back in time, so that her soul will inhabit the body of that archaic princess mentioned earlier. (What happens to Valla's body? Who knows?)



Now, even though Guru has no hostile intentions toward Valla, he's patently Kanigher's means of doling out poetic justice to the murderess. And many writers would have simply placed the princess in some terrible but unimaginative situation-- being imprisoned for the rest of her life, or being sick with a plague. But Kanigher works things so as to avenge the men who were deceived with female deceptiveness, by having her wake to find herself about to die by the Hindu custom of suttee, wherein the wife is burned alongside the body of her deceased husband. Thus patriarchy has its fit revenge, as a girl desirous of being a princess found out that in India at least, to be a princess was to be little more than an appendage to the fate of a hated man-- even when the man himself was already dead.



Thursday, September 30, 2021

THE FULL VALUE OF THE HALF-TRUTH

 The first time I encountered the following quote online, I didn't think it sounded much like Aristotle, even speaking as someone who's not an expert on the philosopher:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

And sure enough, it turned out that an accurate version of the quote from the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS reads:

It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible.

The first quote apparently comes from an early mistranslation of the ETHICS. Possibly the translator was misled by the passage dealing with the relative nature of "precision" that one can discern regarding a given subject. (For instance, the chemical composition of a particular compound can be determined with far more accuracy than the nature of a process such evolution, which can't be broken down and analyzed in the same manner.) The mistranslation seems to be an endorsement of relativity for its own sake.

Now, I believe that in philosophy one can only entertain thoughts up to a certain point before accepting or rejecting them. However, in literature, "thoughts" are not truths, but rather "half-truths" as I argued here.  "The poet never affirmeth," said Sir Philip Sidney, which I interpret as meaning that the nature of "poetry" (i.e., literature) is one that changes depending on the viewpoints of both its authors and its audiences. Art is primarily meant to be an activity of "play," no matter how often it's used to perform "work." 

Now, even though the fake Aristotle quote doesn't apply to his philosophy, it does hew a little closer to one of his pronouncements in the POETICS, where the philosopher states that the act of poetry is mimesis or imitation, and that the poet must imitate one of three categories of phenomena: 

things as they are, things as they are said or thought to be or things as they ought to be

In Renaissance times mimesis became equated with verisimilitude, with imitating "things as they are," and thus the term passed into literary history with a meaning that endorsed a form of real-world fidelity that Aristotle would never have endorsed. Whatever the philosopher preferred to read or watch on stage, he explained that the range of imitation had to extend beyond the observable world, even though presumably Aristotle would have desired some "degree of precision" even when dealing with the hypothetical, with "things as they ought to be."

In my earlier essay I emphasized the idea of "half-truths" as a form of "weak proposition," meaning that the author may be as unserious about what his narrative proposes as the audience is in entertaining the notion. Of course, some authors and some audiences can become very serious about how much a given proposition represents reality, but it can even be difficult for an author and his audience to remain on the same page. For instance, take the well-known phrase, "Hell is other people" from Sartre's play NO EXIT. Sartre himself argued that he didn't mean to give the line the connotation that most listeners got from it. Yet the listeners are not necessarily wrong in the way that Aristotle's translator was wrong. 

One key notion I argued in the cited essay was the importance of epistemological patterns to the process of concrescence in fiction. It's not that any work of fiction necessarily seeks to make definitive statements about epistemology. But in the process of any act of imitation, it's natural though not inevitable for authors to attempt buttressing their fictional works by drawing upon patterns that represent the "real world." Often these patterns are based upon propositions that the consensus-audience no longer accepts, or does not accept universally, ranging from the Oedipal theories of Freud to the 19th-century theories of "the Hollow Earth." To the audience, what's important is whether or not the author can make even the most absurd proposition "entertaining"-- and this, not real-world applicability, is what gives even the weakest of weak propositions a peculiar endurance, if not strength in the usual sense.





Wednesday, September 22, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THE ICEBOUND MAIDENS" (WONDER WOMAN #13, 1945)

 One of the most intriguing images in the entirety of William Marson's WONDER WOMAN canon appears on page eight of "The Icebound Maidens." The Amazon, having voyaged to Paradise Island to counsel young Amazons in facing their challenges with willpower, is assigned to do the same for "the daughters of Venus." Prior to this tale, Marston had built four stories around the planet Venus, inhabited by beautiful winged girls who, like the Earth-Amazons, worshipped love and beauty in the incarnation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. "Maidens" is the final Marston story using the Venus-women, and this time the writer merges this myth-trope with that of an icon of Judeo-Christian belief, that of the Garden of Eden. In the Old Testament, God commands that Eden is off limits to mortals once Adam and Eve are expelled, appointing one or more cherubim to stand guard with a "flaming sword." In an audacious image, Marston's Aphrodite is seen commanding a hand with a flaming sword-- presumably a denizen of Heaven, not exactly on speaking terms with pagan goddesses-- to propel the entire Garden of Eden to a subterranean domain beneath the ice of Earth's South Pole.



To be sure, Marston has no interest in engaging in involved cross-comparisons between Greek and Jewish myth. He wanted a broad contrast between Eden, a land of life, and the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, a land of death. Aphrodite transforms one Venus girl into an Earth-female (which effectively means clipping her wings) and sends her to live in Eden, renamed "Eveland" to stress its new status as a "land of women." Providentially, the girl's name is Eve, so even if the First Man is gone from Eden, an avatar of the First Woman is still allowed to rule therein. And as the Hebrew God gave Eve to Adam for company, Aphrodite gives the second Eve a "spirit daughter" with the odd cognomen of "Eve Lectress" (a labored pun on the Greek name "Electra," more on which later). Somehow, possibly through parthenogenesis, dozens of other maidens join Queen Eve and Eve Lectress in the subterranean garden. 



But though the Eveland girls have left men out of their hortus conclusus, the ruthless male element asserts itself. Though one might expect that Eden has all the pleasures that the Venus-girls could want, Eve Lectress is lured into Bitterland, the "dark ice caves" where dwell the brutish Seal Men. Periodically the Seal Men, who cannot stand strong light, capture Eveland girls and make them work in their gardens. These gardens require blinding light to nurture the males' favorite delicacy, "pomoranges," and so the Seal Men want the maidens to toil on their behalf, even though eventually even the Eden-girls will lose their sight with these labors. The title "Icebound Maidens" refers to the fact that the cold-hearted villains literally keep a supply of replacement girls on ice for future use.



Wonder Woman ventures into the domain of the Seal Men and frees all of their prisoners, but somehow conveniently forgets about looking for Eve Lectress, nor does Queen Eve mention not having recovered her daughter. As the heroine journeys back to man's world, she finds she has a stowaway on her invisible jet: a young Eveland girl who claims her name is "Nema." The origin of this Marston-name is fairly obscure: it doesn't seem to scan well whether one compares it to "Nemea," the Greek valley from which the Nemean Lion hailed, or to the Hebrew word "amen," which is what "nema" spells backwards. Whatever the name's meaning, Nema is Eve Lectress, running away from home because she's guilty of her transgressions-- though Marston doesn't explicitly condemn her for seeking out Bitterland for unstated (maybe sexual?) reasons. 



Wonder Woman allows "Nema" to mingle with the Holliday Girls, so evidently she doesn't figure out the girl's true identity. But after a few days someone from Eveland rings up the Amazon on her mental radio, summoning Wonder Woman back to the garden. The heroine takes along all of the Holliday Girls and Nema, who still doesn't reveal her true nature to anyone. It seems that because Eve Lectress is missing, Queen Eve, acting the part of the Greek fertility-goddess Demeter, goes looking for her in the unfertile domain of Bitterland. The queen is almost executed by King Rigor (like "rigor mortis?"), the nasty lord of the Seal Men, but the Amazon rescues Eve and all other prisoners once again.



By Part Three of "Maidens" Princess Diana must have started  to feel like a bouncing ball, for a little later she'/s again forced to return to the South Pole. This time, however, it's her own ingenuity that provides the excuse. Diana has invented a "telepathograph" which has potential value to spy on the thoughts of foreign agents. (I don't know if Marston plotted the story before or after the surrender of Germany in May 1945, but it probably wasn't before the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan in July; in any event, this segment contains no explicit reference to the WWII conflict.) In any event, the new spy-device can only be tested at the South Pole, so the Amazing Amazon takes Steve Trevor to test the device.





The subject of the telepathograph gets abruptly dropped after it functions much like the mental radio, alerting WW to the fact that those Eveland girls are in cold water again. The heroine meets with Nema, who still hasn't come clean to her mother, and they go in quest for King Rigor's new captives. Steve follows, but he's caught and sentenced to work in the blinding light of the pomorange gardens. Around the same time, Wonder Woman and Nema are captured, and for some reason King Rigor is the only one who figures out that Nema is Eve Lectress with a dye-job. Rigor tries to blackmail Queen Eve into sending him a steady tribute of girls for servitude by threatening to flood the fertile garden with the destructive waters of male potency (or something like that). 



Wonder Woman escapes imprisonment and runs a scam on the otherwise clever king. When the monarch attempts to sacrifice several de-thawed maidens to the Seal Men's effigy, a fire-mouthed "walrus god," the Amazon substitutes statues for the sacrifices, and then fools Rigor into thinking she can revive the slain girls from death. This road-company Lord Hades capitulates and signs a treaty with Queen Eve, and the latter generously claims that the women of Eveland will still supply the Seal Men with their precious "pomoranges," though nothing is said about what the women will get in exchange.

Despite the references to the Eden trope in the early pages of the narrative, clearly the Demeter-Persephone myth was central in Marston's mind. While Eve Lectress has nothing in common with the most famous owner of the "Electra" name-- the daughter of Agamemnon who gave her name to the "Electra complex"-- but Marston may have known that an Oceanid named Electra was supposed to be one of Persephone's companions before she was abducted by Hades. Queen Eve never quite duplicates Demeter's feat of laying waste to the Earth while she searches for her lost daughter. Possibly this was because "Bitterland" stands in for the image of the Earth made infertile? To be sure Marston's handling of Eve Lectress's motivations is clumsy in the extreme, and I tend to believe that Marston was dancing around the possibility of Eve the Second having a fling with one of the Seal Men. Though Rigor is a standard homely monarch, he has a fairly handsome son, Prince Pagli, though Pagli and Eve II are never seen together. ("Pagli" seems derived from the name of the Italian opera Pagliacci, which means "clowns"-- and if there's any symbolism there, it went past me.) The "pomoranges" are visually modeled on ordinary oranges, which flourish in the very light that the Seal Men despise-- but symbolically, these made-up fruits are more strongly linked to the Greek fertility symbol of the pomegranate. In the Persephone myth, the daughter of Demeter makes the mistake of eating pomegranate seeds in the underworld, which means that she must return periodically to the world of Death-- during which time Demeter causes the mortal world of living things to undergo the "rigors" of winter. 

In closing I'll note that Marston's assistant Joye Murchison recapitulated many of these Persephone-elements in the 1946 story "In Pluto's Kingdom." This time, however, Pluto-Hades abducts women not to make them labor in harsh light until they go blind, but to serve as sources of light to Pluto's dark kingdom.


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

INHUMAN DESIRES





 In a recent post on RIP JAGGER'S DOJO Rip devoted a few posts to Marvel's Inhumans features and noted, "The Inhumans always proved to be a hard sell for a self-titled ongoing series."

I had made a similar observation in my review of the 1998-99 INHUMANS graphic novel by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee:

The Inhumans were introduced in the mid-sixties by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in FANTASTIC FOUR, and the prevailing wisdom is that they were mostly Kirby's designs. However, subsequent attempts to launch the characters in their own series were largely unsuccessful. Though personally I liked the characters, I found that they were too static and lacked a viable group dynamic. The pattern for THE INHUMANS slightly resembled the Lee-Kirby THOR. In both features, the stories alternated between a fabulous otherworld where most of the characters had super-powers, and visits to the mundane world of humanity. Yet, what worked for Thor-- a central character with a retinue of support-figures-- didn't really work for the five main characters of THE INHUMANS. One reason was that four of the continuing heroes-- Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Triton-- were eternally deferential to Black Bolt, who was not only the leader of their group, but their absolute monarch, and the ruler of all the Inhumans who dwelled in the remote city of Attilan. This meant that it was difficult for writers to evoke the standard formulas of Marvel interpersonal drama.

 

Now, to pull at these threads somewhat, I should not that a "viable group dynamic" is not a guarantee for success. The Silver Age (roughly 1956-1970) gave rise to a larger number of adventure-teams than had been typical for the Golden Age. One of the few teams that had endured from the early 1940s until the mid-fifties was Quality Comics' BLACKHAWK, and this was the only feature that DC Comics continued, starting in 1956, after allegedly purchasing all of the properties owned by Quality once that company dissolved. It may be no coincidence that Jack Kirhy and Dave Wood initiated another team of uniformed crusaders the very next year, resulting in the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, which endured throughout the remainder of the Silver Age. Then within the next three-four years DC and Marvel respectively debuted JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and FANTASTIC FOUR, which both enjoyed more long-lasting success than any team that debuted in the Golden Age. JUSTICE LEAGUE survived even though it did not originally boast any sort of "group dynamic," while the FF practically defined said dynamic. Both BLACKHAWK and CHALLENGERS, which were "old school" in terms of interpersonal drama, were gone by the early seventies. At least one of Marvel's team-books with the new emphasis on drama, THE AVENGERS, prospered. However, a good group dynamic didn't save X-MEN, which concluded its first run in 1970, even though it was resurrected to spectacular success in 1975. And of course a number of solo Silver Age characters from both Marvel and DC also pooped out by the early seventies, notably THE SILVER SURFER, which had received just as much promotion in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR as had THE INHUMANS.




All that said, the thing that currently interests me most about the Inhumans is that Jack Kirby designed them at a point where Marvel was doing very well with most of its line, even if Kirby himself felt that he was getting the short end of the stick in a business sense. Some fan-sources assert that Marvel had some notion of launching THE INHUMANS as a full series sometime in the mid-sixties, but that this plan was dropped, so that the characters didn't get their own berth until debuting as a "co-feature" in 1970's AMAZING ADVENTURES. I tend to believe that Kirby thought the characters up without much input from Lee when the group appeared in 1965 (not counting the solo appearance of the character Medusa, who had appeared sans origin a year or so earlier). But the fact that Kirby didn't seem to have imagine any raison d'etre for these characters suggests to me that in his own work he didn't focus on interpersonal drama to the degree that Stan did. Kirby certainly knew how to evoke drama and pathos, and he probably contributed his fair share of such moments in FANTASTIC FOUR. Nevertheless, I think he did it largely because that's what his editor Lee wanted, not because the continuing "heroes with problems" was his creative preference. Indeed, most if not all of the "team-books" that Kirby did after ending his collaboration with Lee hearkened back to the "old school approach" of the Golden Age. Whether Kirby did the Boy Commandos or the Forever People, a Newsboy Legion for the forties or for the seventies, the team-members were mostly "a swell bunch of guys," which phrase was once applied to the Justice Society of the forties.

To be sure, Kirby's Inhumans, whether in the pages of the FF or in their own feature (a few of which Kirby wrote and drew), were more dour than brimming with bonhomie. But I'm not sure that anyone who followed Kirby's act with these characters ever managed to give them more complex or evocative characterizations-- even though, as noted above, Jenkins and Lee did a better than average job.

 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THE HORRIBLE HOUSE" (ADVENTURES INTO TERROR #29, 1954)

 Probably no trope has been as heavily used in horror comics than that of "the biter bit," where some nasty or even merely unpleasant person meets some terrible comeuppance at the hands of some monstrous entity. Most of these stories depend on a fairly simple turnabout, but this 1954 horror-tale from pre-Marvel Atlas has an extra level of complexity to it.




Unlike many such stories, there is no interest in the psychological outlook of the main character, known only as Mister Belding. The unknown author of the story, who may have been the attributed artist Al Eadeh, presents Belding as a man terrified, like many real people of the 1950s, of an impending nuclear holocaust. Belding is also revealed to be a misanthrope, who states on the second page that "I hate people! I've lived alone all my life." There's no authorial interest in how he got that way; only in his colossal ego: "If anybody survives an atom bomb attack, it should be me!" 




When he has a house built far from the cities that will be the logical targets for A-bombs, his builders give him two related warnings. One builder claims that he'll "go crazy with loneliness," but Belding claims to be immune to any need for human companionship. Another builder warns that the remote area is swampy and that it won't bear a proper foundation-- which alone ought to signal to Belding that there's a logical reason why no else lives in the area. But Belding is obsessed both with being alone and isolated from the atom bombs, so he has the house built anyway.




Unfortunately, one night Belding receives a visit from neighbors he didn't know he had. It seems that at some point someone constructed a cemetery on the swampy land, but the graves all sank into the earth and were apparently forgotten by everyone. 



The "gotcha" then transpires, as Belding's house collapses not from nuclear assault but from the instability of the marsh lands, and Belding's refuge becomes just another of the sunken graves. As an added insult to the injury of suffocating to death, Belding's conversation with the specters suggests that he won't just die and lose all his earthly goods, he'll have to put up with the company of other repulsive dead people like himself for eternity-- a hellish fate for a would-be hermit. (Though one might argue that the spectres may be things that Belding is simply imagining as he dies, which would make the tale uncanny in its phenomenality, the story would lose much of its horror if Belding wasn't about to be tormented throughout his afterlife-- and so I judge the story "marvelous.")

The last ironic twist is a character making the risible comment that the house must have sunk in accordance with Belding's wishes: that he built on the land because he wanted an "underground shelter" against the holocaust. This does raise the question as to why Belding didn't simply construct a real bomb shelter in a more dependable place, but the realistic inconsistency is what makes Belding's misanthropic mania mythic in nature. The author is not interested in a psychological study of nuclear apprehension, such as Philip K. Dick produced about a year later in his similarly themed short story "Foster, You're Dead." But in addition to giving the comics-reader his expected "gotcha-grossout," "House" catches much of the same equation between privacy and death found in this famous couplet from Andrew Marvell:

"The grave's a fine and private place,

"But none, I think, do there embrace."




Monday, August 30, 2021

NO FOOL LIKE AN OLD PRO

 By odd coincidence, just as I decided to devote a little attention to the oeuvre of Gerry Conway, I became aware that back in May of this year he'd been fulminating against manga, as covered by this BOUNDING INTO COMICS essay. The substance of Conway's rant is that he wishes Japanese manga would be taken to task for "rampant sexism and misogyny."

Some respondents to the piece were quick to point out that Conway was a hypocrite, given that he had a hand in creating one of DC Comics' most outstanding (ha ha) sexy heroines, Power Girl. 



There's a pinch of truth in this riposte, but on the whole, I tend to think that Conway only barely sexualized Power Girl in the few "Justice Society" stories for which he was responsible. I suppose she basically fits with the "titillation" category I suggested here, but the stories are just basic superhero fare, so for the most part any later hyper-sexuality attributed to Power Girl in later years is really not Conway's fault. Further, though I have not read all of Conway's work, I would tend to state that in all of the considerable number of  stories that I have read, Conway tended to "work clean." Some of his collaborative artists-- particularly Wally Wood, the co-creator of Power Girl and her boob-window-- had a strong effect on how some of Conway's stories turned out. Further, if I were to compare Conway to another mainstream work-horse like Doug Moench, my verdict would be that Moench works a lot more sexuality into even theoretically G-rated material than Conway ever did. 

But even if one agrees that Conway tended to work clean, does that in any way validate his opinion of the Japanese manga industry, beyond the level of a statement of personal taste? Any regular reader of this blog will know that my own taste allows for quite a lot of transgressive material in my reading, so clearly my answer is likely to be "no," even IF Conway had mounted an articulate campaign against sexy manga. His tweets against "sexism and misogyny" as cited in the above essay provide no examples of the things he found offensive, and in a follow-up tweet, cited here, Conway merely conflates all manga sexism with the fetishization of underage girls.

Another riposte against Conway is that, even though at one point he largely left the comics field for the greener fields of television, he's filled with envy of the way that manga has eclipsed American comics-work in terms of American purchases. This is certainly very possible, though in theory one would not be wrong in pointing a particular publisher's sins despite the success of that publisher's wares. But Conway's tweets don't even come up to the level of Frederic Wertham's fulminations, which were often misleading and poorly sourced at the best of times.

In contrast, even though I have similar disagreements with Tony Isabella for a more recent tweet on comic-book sexuality, at least his rant is more focused. This month he was apparently filled with high dudgeon because DC Comics still makes use of the character Deathstroke, whom Isabella claims to be guilty of "child molestation." This article on BIC speculates that Isabella's ire may have raised because DC is due to debut a new mini-series, "Deathstroke Inc"-- which would be the first time the popular villain would enjoy his own series since his nineties feature.

I personally have little investment in the character, beyond recognizing that he has generally proven to be an effective villain in other characters' features, though considerably less so as a headliner. His claim to fame in the "offensive sexualization" sweepstakes is clearly his dalliance with the underaged psycho-villain Terra in NEW TEEN TITANS.



I thought the original sequence was nothing special. During their lauded NEW TEEN TITANS gig, creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez had put forth a number of stories in which Evil Older People attempt to take advantage of Pretty Younger People, whether in a non-sexual sense (Batman constantly bullying Robin) or in other sexual scenarios (the Greek god Zeus attempting to seduce Wonder Girl). It's my opinion that when Wolfman and Perez depicted, somewhat obliquely, a relationship between forty-year-old Deathstroke and fifteen-year-old Terra, the creators were just flogging a new version of a clansgression-trope they'd been using to good effect. I don't remember that in the day the storyline became a huge controversy, but in any case, it's now become enough of a hot button issue that some DC raconteurs even rewrote the story to elide the offensive material. 

Isabella's rant, though more focused, is not any better articulated than Conway's. Even though Wolfman and Conway presented Terra as both violent and demented, current politically correct fans have tried to eradicate any sense that she might be responsible for her own actions. The relationship, whatever it was, must be entirely the fault of the older man. To be sure, Isabella himself does not demand that the character should cease to exist, the way Conway would apparently like to see all manga scourged of their transgressive content; Isabella seemingly just wants to make sure Deathstroke doesn't star in any new series. Surprisingly, Isabella doesn't make an issue, as does Conway, of a deleterious effect on young readers, though I would not be surprised to find that to be one of his considerations.

The thing that both of these "old pros" have in common is the notion that comics in general ought to be held to the standard of the mainstream industry for which they have worked. Unlike a lot of the Journalistas of decades past, I personally can appreciate the need for a "G-rated" mainstream, and I've not been especially sanguine about the virtues of underground comics and their "let it all hang out" aesthhetic. But as far as I'm concerned, the genie got out of the bottle as soon as the American comics-medium became inevitably focused upon older readers. Some of these readers may yearn for the simple G-rated comics of their youth. But sex sells as much to them as to anyone else, and if current comics have any advantage over current Hollywood, it would be that the former can still occasionally do good stories (as well as bad) with transgressive sexual subject matter-- which I may define a little more extensively in a future essay.

TENDER LOVING SADISM PT. 2

 


 

 

                                    


The NAGATORO manga I examined in Part 1 is more nuanced in its depiction of psychology than your average goony manga-comedy. That said, an analogous series like Naoshi Komi’s NISEKOI engages with the subject of female-male sadism in ways that are both more complicated and more complex (which are not the same in this case). Three particular stories stand out as relevant to this topic.

 

The introductory tale, “The Promise,” establishes a sketchy background for male protagonist Raku Ichijo. Raku, who has just begun his first year of high school, lives on an estate with his father, the head of a Yakuza mob, and with several other male Yakuza who don’t seem to be family relations as such. I say “sketchy” because according to the English translation Komi makes no comment as to the disposition of Raku’s mother, who’s only revealed to be living in America late in the series. The translation says nothing about whether Raku’s parents are divorced or separated, though the former seems more likely since the two remain in separate worlds at the story’s conclusion. The mother’s absence becomes relevant in that Raku, who wants nothing to do with the violent activities of the Yakuza (comedic though they are in the narrative), has assumed a quasi-maternal role in the house. Since he doesn’t like fighting, Raku’s become an expert cook and serves his Yakuza brethren all of their meals. The gangsters insist that some day Raku will assume the “capo” status of his father. Raku repeatedly denies that he will do so, fretting, “How come I’m always surrounded by violence? I look forward to the day when I can leave it all behind and lead a peaceful, quiet life.”

 

Sensible as this desire may be, it would have made Raku a very dull subject for his creator. Thus he’s flung into a new conflict in high school, which ensures that “my life became an even worse never-ending struggle!” Late-arriving first-year transfer Chitoge Kirisaki bounds into Raku’s life when she vaults the wall around the high school and accidentally knees Raku in the face. The two teens repeatedly quarrel with one another, with Chitoge insulting Raku for being an unmanly whiner. His purported unmanliness becomes underscored by the fact that the model-gorgeous Chitoge is also a superb athlete who does not hesitate to knock Raku’s block off when he insults her. Then Raku learns that Chitoge, half-American and half-Japanese, is the daughter to the head of an American gangster organization that’s moved to Japan. To prevent Raku’s Yazuka and Chitoge’s gangster-group from fighting with one another, the respective heads of the two gangs convince their offspring to fake a love-connection. Further complicating Raku’s life is that he already pines after Kosaki, a fellow student he’s known for years, and though Kosaki feels the same way toward him, neither has been able to get up the nerve to confess their feelings. Ergo, more “never-ending struggle.”

 

Naturally there would be no story if Raku and Chitoge did not develop feelings for one another, despite her tendency to lose her temper with him. Yet though Raku never becomes physically tougher, he does often end up playing the typical male role of the rescuer, particularly since Chitoge loses her nerve when confined to any dark or confined place. More wacky complication ensue when more girls become drawn toward Raku—principally Chitoge’s bodyguard Seichiro and Raku’s “family-arranged fiancĂ©e” Marika.

 





The second story for consideration is “Transformation,” occurring at least one year later. By this time Chitoge has become consciously enthralled with Raku’s ordinary-guy charms but she hasn’t confessed her feelings. Raku feels some degree of attraction to all four members of his “harem,” but he steadfastly believes that Kosaki is the girl for him. On New Year’s Day Chitoge gets together their whole “gang”—Kosaki, Seichiro, Marika, Raku’s friend Shu and Kosaki’s friend Ruri—and they all barge into Raku’s house to celebrate the New Year. (Some Yakuza are around but they’re kept off to one side and don’t actively participate in the story.) All the girls get drunk on “whiskey bonbons,” and all except Ruri become erotically charged toward Raku. In fact, Chitoge threatens to beat him up if he doesn’t kiss her, and there’s an intentionally ambivalent scene in which the four girls gang up on him—though the reader doesn’t see what they do to him and Raku himself blocks out the memory of the incident. Since the reader has repeatedly been assured that the four teenagers are all “good girls” at base, it’s unlikely that anything more than an osculatory assault took place. But this speaks to the fact that the “rape of Raku” proves amusing, as it (almost) never would with a female protagonist, specifically because male rape by female is so improbable.

 


At the time of “Test,” it’s still only been “over a year” since the beginning of the false love. Chitoge considers confessing her infatuation to Raku, who remains clueless that their fake relationship has become real to the both of them. Though he’s spent much of that year being clobbered by the irritable Chitoge, he seems to have accepted this fate as the consequence of dating a “gorilla girl.” Here he voices a fairly rare complaint about his status as her punching bag:  “we've been through a lot.... like you hitting me… and hitting me… and hitting me.” This provokes Chitoge to claim that “it was your fault all of those times,” and Raku replies that, “I’m pretty much totally defenseless.” To be sure, the above translation deviates from the official one, but I choose to believe that the latter translation is closer to Komi's thought, since it's funny to see a boy talking about being defenseless before a girl’s anger. Further, as with the “sort-of rape” in "Transformation," it would not be amusing were the genders reversed. Raku almost, but never quite, sounds like a masochist, though it might not be unfair to state that he has some submissive characteristics. Oddly, though, Chitoge defers to him to function as the “leader” of the group, particularly during the events examined in the longarc I’ve entitled “Limit.” And Raku does end up (SPOILERS) becoming the new head of the Yakuza sect, which he somehow makes over into a law-abiding organization. One might say that his ability to accept the chaos of Chitoge in his life makes him better suited to deal with all other forms of cultural chaos.

In any case, though these three stories don’t plumb the full depths of Komi’s take on the male-female power dynamic, they are among the most crucial for seeing how Komi both deviates from and reinforces gender tropes--