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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Sunday, February 21, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: “PUBLIC ENEMY/LIFEDEATH” (X-MEN #185-186, 1984)

 



Though the X-Men character Storm was not the first Black superheroine, she became, within the subculture of comic book readers, the first one to gain fame both within the medium and in both live-action and animated adaptations. As one of X-MEN’s faithful readers, I wasn’t always happy with the directions long-time writer Chris Claremont took with either Storm or most of the other protagonists. Nevertheless, whatever status any of the seventies X-Men might have as literary myths comes principally from Claremont, even though said heroes had been created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum.


At least one of Claremont’s virtues as a writer of superhero melodrama might be seen as a vice from the vantage of formulating mythic discourse. In my essay STRIP NO-SHOW I advanced the notion that comic strips, even though they started off with a better reputation for quality work than did the rival medium comic books, labored under restrictions of format presentation that inhibited their mythic potential. Most comic strips remained satisfied with a simple lateral plot-progression, wherein the only “subplots” were usually introductions of future new plotlines. In the sixties comic books revealed a far greater capacity for what I’ve termed “vertical meanings,” some of which arose out of the ability of comic book authors to explore their concepts of character and society more than had their comic strip forebears.


Stan Lee was a pivotal figure in taping this potential, making him the Father of the Soap Opera Comic Book, and even if he didn’t hit one out of the park every time, he and his collaborators comprehended how to give the readers enough satisfaction that they kept coming back for more. Claremont didn’t deliver on satisfying wrap-ups quite as often, but he exceeded Lee in quantity, as an average issue of an eighties X-MEN might be juggling at least four plotlines at a time. True, sometimes the plots were editorially imposed. This fact is evident in the two X-issues I’m examining here, which coordinated one X-plot with developments in the “Rom Spaceknight” continuity. But Claremont also kept his readers coming back for more, and it’s in these stories that he took one of his most daring steps: to divest Storm, one of the group’s most popular members, of the very powers that made her unique.




“Public Enemy” places its focus on two of the group’s X-Women, Storm and Rogue. Unlike Storm, a charter member of the seventies team, Rogue had been introduced as a villain. After bouncing around various features, always being misunderstood like Marvel’s other outlaw-heroes, she switched teams and joined the X-Men roughly a year prior to “Public Enemy.” The cover teases the reader with the idea that Rogue may have returned to villainy, showing the image of Rogue grinning as she clutches the jacket of an apparently defeated Storm. In truth, the perception of Rogue as a public enemy is a false one fostered by two government officials, both hostile to mutantkind: familiar support-cast faces Henry Gyrich and Valerie Cooper. Rogue has been accused of killing a SHIELD agent, and that’s enough reason for Gyrich to lead a task force in order to hunt her down. Because Rogue is especially powerful—having assimilated the powers of the more celebrated heroine Ms. Marvel—Gyrich takes along with a special power-neutralizing ray-gun, invented by government-employed inventor Forge (introduced the previous issue).

By coincidence, Rogue, though unaware of the charges against her, suddenly gets antsy about her association with the X-heroes and flees their company without explanation. Storm, despite having been less than taken with Rogue when the latter joined the team, has conceived a respect for the newbie’s “sense of honor and decency,” and so she tracks down the fugitive heroine, concerned that she may suffer a “relapse.” Rogue, a Mississippi girl, has sought surcease of sorrow at a familiar old haunt: a section of the state’s most famous river, where Rogue first learned of her mutant powers. (One can tell that the issue was written pre-PC: Claremont writes elegaically of the Fall of the South without once mentioning the Evils of Slavery.)






Storm finds Rogue, and they talk, with Rogue expressing her continued concerns, that she could endanger her teammates because her ability to absorb others’ powers could hurt them. Storm proposes an experiment, giving her consent to let Rogue assimilate Storm’s powers and memories. (Later, in “Lifedeath,” Storm mentions how she had to cultivate mental serenity to keep her emotions from affecting the local weather, so in effect Storm seeks to give the tormented Southern belle a taste of the equilibrium she so desires.) After the transfer has been made, Storm passes out, but Rogue does experience an oceanic sense of connectedness to the elements, without any concomitant danger to herself or others. (To be sure, Rogue does suffer the temptation to vampirize Storm for more serene memories, but the better side of her personality wins out.)




However, Gyrich’s team tracks down Rogue and attacks. Rogue’s attempt to wield Storm’s powers forestall the agents but also imperil some bystanders. While Rogue and a recovered Storm seek to help the innocents, Gyrich draws a bead on Rogue with his anti-power gun. Forge, by some contrivance, arrives on the scene to avert Gyrich’s fire, though the ray ends up hitting Storm (possibly because of Forge’s interference, though Claremont doesn’t say so). An explosion stuns Rogue, who gets washed away in the river’s current. Forge recovers the similarly stunned Storm and takes custody of the heroine victimized by the illicit use of Forge’s own technology.




Though “Public Enemy” concentrates most of its narrative on Rogue, arguably Storm plays the more mythic role: that of the elemental goddess who gives all things to her friends/acolytes (even if this is more the province of Earth-deities than sky-gods). Rogue surfaces in a subplot to “Lifedeath,” confronting Valerie Cooper and almost immediately getting entangled with the “Rom Spaceknight” subplot. But most of the issue is devoted to the interactions of Storm and Forge, between a man who could make miracle-weapons and a woman who “once upon a time” could fly.




Storm risked her life to let Rogue temporarily emulate her powers and identity, but it’s quite a different thing to lose the powers that she associated with her identity. At the start of “Lifedeath,” Storm has been languishing in the scientific citadel of Forge for at least a day, since the reader first sees Forge trying to make the disconsolate former superhero take some nourishment. Apparently, Storm is so disassociated that she hasn’t even appealed for help to her friends at Xavier’s school, and they can’t locate her because she no longer has mutant powers.



Nevertheless, though Storm has never met Forge before, and is unaware of his role in removing her powers, she rallies somewhat, needing to talk to someone about her crisis, even as Rogue needed her earlier. “I was one with all creation,” she protests. Forge responds with his version of tough love, replying, “The goddess has become just plain folks.” He later reveals that he understands her impulse toward suicide because the injuries he sustained in Vietnam made him desire self-termination as well. The bond of shared suffering sparks the possibility of romance, though both of them find it difficult to communicate their emotions accurately. Storm does confess how her extreme self-enforcement of serenity constituted a sort of “spiritual celibacy,” which is her reason for having put off her original “regal” appearance in favor of “punk Storm”—though Claremont also implies that there’s another “celibacy” that can’t be fixed via fashion. However, their tentative romance comes to an end when Storm serendipitously finds out who’s responsible for draining her powers. Though in the next issue the two of them will be forced to make common cause against a greater threat, Storm leaves him, telling Forge that he is “hollow, form without substance” and that sooner or later, “I shall fly again.”


Without even looking, I feel reasonably certain that Storm’s de-powering made the list on the nineties site “Women in Refrigerators,” with the implication that the heroine was nullified in the service of repressive patriarchy. Of course, losing her powers did not strike Storm off the list of the X-Men, even though she didn’t regain her abilities for some years. Clearly Claremont’s basic intent here parallels a dozen or so Superman stories in which that hero loses his powers and has to prove his heroism using only his courage and intelligence. But Claremont, drawing upon the spadework of Stan Lee, deepened the sense of trauma associated with a loss of power or prestige. Thus, in these two stories, both heroines—one who fears connection and one who has always felt connected-- are subjected to extended suffering. Claremont used this trauma-trope a lot, and not always to mythopoeic ends. Sometimes, the agonies only served to keep the plot-pots boiling. But in these stories Forge the isolated scientist becomes an overreaching version of Rogue, the isolated heroine. And in reaction against the scientist’s solipsism, Storm’s struggle to regain her own identity takes on mythic stature. And she achieves that stature not because the character is Black, but because she’s a well-written character who happens to be Black.

RACE TO THE END OF THE WORLD


In February 2016 I responded to that year’s Black History Month in a semi-ironic fashion, with the post RACIAL OTHER MYTHCOMICS MONTH, wherein I devoted four mythcomics posts to any sort of racial myths that involved non-white characters. I don’t entirely dismiss the desire of non-white peoples to venerate figures who made significant contributions to society, or even the desire of white people to feel good for knowing about such contributions. (I still remember being a grade-school white liberal, congratulating myself because I’d read a book about the accomplishments of George Washington Carver.) The problem with fetishizing contributions because they came from people of color is that in the nineties the liberal rationale shifted from “we’re all in it together” to “it’s all us marginalized peoples against straight white men.” Putting aside the obvious fact that often the various “colors” within each of these Rainbow Coalitions don’t blend as well as the ideologues claim, this attitude would diminish the accomplishments of a George Carver if one invalidates the history of Western science as the creation of evil white men.


I said “would diminish” because for the most part attacks on the idea of science have remained on the fringes of the political system, unlike, say, almost every other fringe-idea championed by the Left. Attacks on history and literature, however, are far more in vogue. I’ve already noted the insipidity of the 1619 Project and of the attempt to “cancel”dead actors  associated with the film BIRTH OF A NATION. But in recent weeks the "corpse-fighters"—I call them that because they show their great courage by fighting dead people—have taken Western society’s Biggest Dead Literary Guy, the Bard of Horrible Racism and Sexism. A librarian, Amanda McGregor, wrote:


“Shakespeare’s works are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir,” MacGregor wrote, with the final word meaning misogyny aimed at black women.


Granted, I haven’t read the whole essay. But it does seem problematic to say that Shakespeare gave offense to Black women, given that there are none in his plays (except maybe in the minds of ideologues who imagine Cleopatra as a Nubian Soul Sister). Possibly the Bard sinned against Black women simply by not even mentioning them, in the same way another ideologue claimed that William Moulton Marston sinned by setting a Wonder Womanstory in Africa and simply not showing any tribal women.


What the ultraliberals seem to desire from Shakespeare are rah-rah moments for marginalized peoples, roughly on the same level as all the rah-rah trivia one sees in any Marginalized Peoples’ Month. Ideologues are enraged that the Bard would dare to portray a Powerful Black Man like Othello as being in any way fallible. To ideologues, only one fallibility is permissible: a person of color may be fairly upbraided for being too “white,” though he or she can find redemption by casting off the poison of whiteness and wreaking indiscriminate violence. (See my review for the pestilential film US.) I wonder if any of these raving goofballs are even aware of TITUS ANDRONICUS, in which the Bard of Hideous Racism gave us the character of Aaron the Moor, who, for all of his moral failings, provides Western literature with its first three-dimensional black character. But, hey, Aaron’s a supporting character, so he’s the equivalent of the black guy who always gets killed in the horror movie. (Sarcasm alert.) So all these inequities will be solved once we boot out Shakespeare and study the deep subtleties of a diverse author like Ishmael Reed. (Quadruple sarcasm alert.)


In the final analysis, the Left’s tendency to take an oppositional stance in their celebrations—Accomplishment X is wonderful because it was accomplished against the background of an evil white male hegemony— serves to generate nothing more clickbait journalism. In terms of developing a more diverse culture, it’s the equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

CRISIS OF INFINITE ENSEMBLES


 



Earlier I broke down the superordinate ensemble of DC THE NEW FRONTIER, separating off some characters from the others in the narrative on the basis of which ones had what I’m currently calling “stature,” which I may or may not further define as stemming from a sort of “motive force.” I said that I’d contemplated doing the same for CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS.


The problems of CRISIS are more formidable than those of NEW FRONTIER. In executing the 12-issue series, Marv Wolfman and George Perez were in effect providing a “send-off” for the often inconsistent “continuity” of DC Comics that had grown, Topsy-like, since roughly 1938. Thus, partly as an appeal to hardcore fans, they included countless DC characters who had enjoyed at least a brief series, though in the case of long cancelled heroes Wolfman and Perez limited themselves to those with whom their fans were somewhat familiar through revivals and retcons. (In other words, obscurities like Nadir the Magician and the Gay Ghost got no exposure here.) The creators also introduced a few new heroes who then went on to appear in post-Crisis features, though none of these proved especially popular.



Basically, Wolfman and Perez chose two methods for assembling their hundred-plus protagonists into action against the evil Anti-Monitor. Either a small group of heroes went on a mission of some sort, or a larger group participated in some big fight-scene. These tended to use characters purely for quick shots, making them functionally indistinguishable from the roles of “spear carriers” in theater. Of all those in CRISIS, only two fight-scenes focused on events that would carry over into extrinsic stories: the killing of the Dove, which would affect all future depictions of his brother/partner the Hawk, and Doctor Fate’s interaction with Amethyst Princess of Gemworld, which would give rise to a rewriting of Amethyst’s backstory, as I chronicled here.


Most if not all of the heroes who went on missions together, though, had sufficient stature in the narrative to be deemed part of a superordinate ensemble. Thus, in addition to the four characters mentioned above, this would include:


The Earth-One Superman, the Earth-Two Superman, Batman, the Earth-One Wonder Woman, the Ted Kord Blue Beetle, Firestorm, Geo-Force, the Jay Garrick Flash, the Barry Allen Flash, Kid Flash, Supergirl, the second Doctor Light, the Red Tornado, the second Wildcat, Captain Marvel, Power Girl, Uncle Sam, The Spectre, Captain Atom, Dawnstar, the second Firebrand, Mon-El, Jade, The Ray, J’onn J’onzz, the John Stewart Green Lantern, the Guy Gardner Green Lantern, the Blue Devil, Zatara, Madame Xanadu, the Thunderbolt, the Phantom Stranger, Doctor Occult, Deadman, Fury, and possibly the three characters created especially for CRISIS: Harbinger, Lady Quark, and Alexei Luthor.


A few villains took part in missions as well, such as Doctor Polaris. But since there was no substantive “team-up” between any of the DC heroes and villains for any length of time, I would not deem any of the villains to possess ensemble-status. As in the features where the criminals usually appeared, they exist to oppose the ensemble, not to enhance it.



Wednesday, February 10, 2021

FUN WITH PHENOMENOLOGY PT. 2

 In THE CAVE OF FREEDOM AND RESTRAINT, I sought to clarify the terms of my validation of subjective experience as against objective evidence. In this essay and in FUN WITHPHENOMENOLOGY, I noted that my project had some parallels with that of the phenomenologists, though I’ve read few of their works in their original forms. Yet the parallels are not all-encompassing.

In the earliest days of this blog, my meditations on myth were strongly influenced by my contemporaneous readings of Cassirer. Perhaps I sought to ground my critical outlook, already informed by Frye, Jung and Campbell, with substance drawn from a more strictly philosophical continuum. Even had I read Cassirer earlier, though, I don’t imagine I would have been an acolyte, since my primary interest was/is literature, and Cassirer never wrote a poetics. Indeed, in one essay I expressed doubt that the Marburg scholar’s literary priorities would have resonated with me. That said, Cassirer’s ideas of both literature and “mythico-religious” narratives were informed by his notion of “expressivity”—the attempt to bring forth the subjective universe spawned by objective phenomena-- and in some of my early posts I agreed with him on this point of commonality.


To the best of my understanding, the disciples of Husserl don’t ground phenomenology in any concept similar to “expressivity.” Rather, phenomenologists speak of isolating the “essences” of actual physical objects by ignoring their “empirical contingencies” and subjecting the objects to “free imaginative variation” (both terms taken from Roger Brooke). I don’t dismiss this methodology out of hand, since I haven’t examined its logic in detail. Still, it’s interesting that in a 2008 essay I sought to frame my one reading of Husserl into a Jungian-Campbellian sphere:


One might well wonder whether or not Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious would constitute [Husserl’s idea of] constancy…


In recent years I’ve began emphasizing the concept of epistemological patterns as a method of judging the symbolic discourses of myth and literature, albeit with the caveat that I’ve always followed Campbell on this point, even prior to formulating the specific term. Campbell took much from Jung, but in his epistemology, he diverges from the Swiss master’s purely psychological approach. In his better moments, Campbell seems to comprehend that myth-tales are valuable precisely because they do not represent what Brooke calls “empirical contingencies,” but rather build upon those contingencies, in order to create poetry rather than science.


Campbell’s version of epistemological patterns may have elements in common with Husserl’s essences, if only because they both seek to validate poetic activity for its own sake. However, Husserl and his acolytes are apparently seeking to ratify “free imaginative variation” as being in tune with reductive science, rather than viewing such poesy as epiphenomenal to physical matter. Since human beings are animals who have evolved the ability to imagine deviations in perceived reality—an ability I see as crucial to “affective freedom”—then everything human beings do stands an outgrowth of a scientific cosmos. This goes a little further than Cassirer’s attempt to find validation for the subjective realm through the backdoor of “expressivity.” One might still state, as did Philip Wheelwright, that some imaginative insights are better than others. (Wheelwright used the term “eminent instance,” which he seems to have borrowed from a similar term Melville’s BILLY BUDD.)


For instance, if one expresses the symbolic notion, “The lion embodies strength,” this is not just an aimless fancy, but the translation of a material fact into the world of mythopoesis. Yet though in a physical sense it might be even more correct to say, “the whale embodies strength,” the whale is simply not as “eminent” as the lion, in part because the world of the whale is comparatively removed from the world of human beings, who can under the right circumstances feel more kinship with the lion.


I don’t know whether I’ll investigate the phenomenologists in near future, but I note this divergence from Cassirer as a possible new road to explore.

NEAR MYTHS: “NIGHTMARE” (SUZIE COMICS #67, 1948)

 In the preceding essay I argued against the too-easy attempt to find syndromic significance in every fictional act of sex or violence. As I also mentioned, Gershon Legman had a unique take on the generally ignored comic-book genre of “teen humor:”

...there are published not only a handful of female crime-and western-comics, but whole series of so-called 'teen-age' comic-books specifically for girls, in which adolescent sexuality is achieved in sadistic disguise... through a continuous humiliation of scarecrow fathers and transvestist boyfriends by ravishingly pretty girls, beating up the men with flower-pots and clocks and brooms..."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH (1949), p. 47.

I’ve stated that I don’t think either Legman’s one cited example or the majority of teen hijinks embodied the syndromic sadism of female comics-readers of that period. But as a consequence of his overstatements, I have kept a weather-eye out for real syndromic sadism in any teen-humor comic book, though my main orientation is of course that of “Looking for Mister Goodmyth.”


I did come across some mildly suggestive material in a late 1940s MLJ (“Archie Comics”) feature named GINGER. This ditzy teen redhead debuted as a backup feature in another title—one devoted to a ditzy blonde named Suzie—and later enjoyed ten issues of her own title lasting into the early 1950s. So, I frittered away an afternoon glancing through the adventures of Ginger via the online Digital Comics Museum. As I expected, most of the redhead’s exploits were as expected typical enough, and none of them qualified as “Goodmyths.” But one tale, “Nightmare,” did have enough psychological material that qualified as a “near myth.”



Like many teen females before her, Ginger starts off the story by asking her father for money to buy clothes. This was a frequent trope in the series, and Daddy George responds as did most teen-humor fathers: he doesn’t like his daughter constantly milking him for money. However, this request is a little different. Ginger aspires to join a girls’ baseball team, so she wants money for a uniform. George doesn’t exactly call his offspring a liar, but he’s not sure of her sincerity. Thus, George follows his daughter to the team’s next game to gauge Ginger’s dedication to the sport.




Ginger takes her place on the team, but the girls are missing their pitcher. George, puffed up with memories of his glory days playing baseball, volunteers to pitch in the belief that he can easily smoke the girls on the other team. Naturally, he gets his ego slammed out of the park when the girls repeatedly belt his balls (so to speak). To top it off, when Ginger’s team goes to bat, George gets beaned by a ball, accidentally sent at him by none other than his darling daughter.




So far, the story’s dealing with standard “dumb daddy” stuff. But while unconscious, George has a dream, beginning with imagining himself to be a baseball, complete with face. George the Ball gets pitched at his daughter, who, to the delight of any remaining Freudians, wields a bat three times normal size. Ginger belts her dad out if the park and into a clothes store.




Once in the store, George becomes human again, and picks up the thread of the argument about having to buy his daughter’s clothes. A slightly Satanic salesman reveals that George must buy clothes for a couple dozen duplicates of Ginger, who probably represent George’s feeling of being overwhelmed with clothing expenses. The floorwalker then makes a bargain with George: if he can hit a ball out of the park, he’ll get the clothes for free. However, George’s feelings of inferiority then take Alice-style permutations. As the pitched ball comes at him, it expands in size while George shrinks, so that the ball creams him. However, this ends the titular nightmare. When George wakes, he retaliates by paddling the (mostly) guiltless Ginger. Some readers might have deemed this belated revenge for the many times she humiliates him and doesn’t get punished.


This story might indeed be deemed an example of syndromic sadism, since it does really lay on the “humiliate daddy” tropes, if only in the author's belief that this was what the audience for GINGER wanted to see. However, it doesn’t succeed as a mythcomic. It might do so if it were built only around George’s aggravations about Ginger’s sartorial needs, or only around George’s chauvinistic attitude toward women. But here the two tropes fight each other rather than complementing one another, and even the element of the Satanic salesman doesn’t enhance the story’s symbolic discourse.

SOCIAL JUSTICE VS. SADISTIC EROTICA PT. 2

In the essay SADISM OF THE CASUALKIND, I pointed out that writers like Legman and Wertham viewed every apparent act of fictional sadism to be deeply revelatory of how messed up the audiences were. In this the two authors followed the example of Sigmund Freud, who, despite his disavowals to the contrary, hardly ever met a cigar he didn’t deem a phallic symbol.


I’ve pointed out various salient differences between Wertham and Legman, but historically they’re on the same page insofar as both men believed that American popular entertainment offered far too much sex and violence for a healthy culture. At times both authors slanted their arguments to apply to the effects of such unwholesome diversions upon children, but both also caviled at the effects of bad books and movies on adults as well. Neither of them seemed capable of imagining that for the majority of consumers, the depiction of excessive sex and violence, even those configured into sadistic actions, provided little more than “casual” entertainment, temporary respite from the dull round of the workaday world.


Instead, for these worthies, everything in popular entertainment—the muscles of comic book superheroes, the “bitch-heroines” of paperback thrillers—denoted something deep and syndromic in American culture. Wertham in particular expressed the belief that children could be bent into deviance as easily as the proverbial twig, as if psychological syndromes sprang out of some “monkey see, monkey do” impulse. By saying this, I don’t deny that some individuals may have psychological syndromes that are brought to the fore by their encounters with various types of art. But this phenomenon certainly isn’t confined to encounters with popular entertainment. One of the most famous syndromic avatars of literary sadism was the Eton-educated Algernon Charles Swinburne, who didn’t need crime novels (or crime comic books) to write such odes to sadistic women as “Anactoria” and “Faustine.”



I should further note in some cases an author may repeatedly use transgressive materials not because they express some syndromic aspect of the author’s psychology, but simply as an avenue of captivating a large audience. Though I considered most of Gershon Legman’s identifications of sadistic entertainments to be fatuous, I agreed with him to some extent regarding Chic Young’s newspaper comic BLONDIE. Still, when I read a collection of the original BLONDIE strips from 1930, I found barely any such sadisterotic motifs there. The early strips are all over the place, even writing Dagwood out of the story for a time. The feature didn’t enjoy sustained success until Blondie became a hausfrau and Dagwood a harried victim of the middle-class rat-race. This suggests to me that Young may have happened on his formula — “torture the husband”—by sheer accident, and that he and others who followed the formula did so simply to make a buck. I would not even argue that a syndromic consciousness was behind the one BLONDIE episode that I’ve thus far identified as mythically concrescent, a two-page comic book story signed (but probably not produced) by Young.


Legman’s argument was that BLONDIE was important to American audiences because it showed an American housewife temporarily getting the better of her husband, though in theory she would always have to return to a condition of subservience. I have no way of knowing what BLONDIE strips Legman saw at the time he penned the essays in LOVE AND DEATH. Yet I tend to doubt that Young ever varied his act by much, so in all likelihood the only “subservience” Blondie ever suffered was having to cook Dagwood’s meals—though, as I showed in the analysis of “Shaved and Clipped,” she seems to have no problems telling him that she can cut off his meals any time she pleases.


I’ve also differed with Legman on the sadistic content of teen humor comics, for reasons I detailed in the BLONDIE essay and won’t repeat here. But because Legman made the assertion, I have at times sought to test his hypothesis, perhaps more rigorously than he did—as I will show in the ensuing “near myth” essay.

SOCIAL JUSTICE VS. SADISTIC EROTICISM PT. 1

 When I began this blog in 2007, ultraliberal SJWs were still in the process of attempting to brainwash American audiences into viewing straight white male privilege as an unforgivable sin. Back then, the paradigm claimed, this privilege was expressed in the form of the hegemony’s employment of sadistic acts upon the bodies of all those who did not share this privilege, be they women, nonwhites or LGBT. In the world of comic books, Superman could get beaten to death and Batman could have his back broken, and those manifestations of extreme violence said nothing about the repressiveness of conservative America. But ifa female hero like Tigra got beaten up, or if Spider-Woman lifted herbutt up high enough for males to gawk at,  SJWs insisted that this represented nasty straight white males exercising their privilege, and so It Had to Stop. It was, as I’ve pointed out before, the rebirth of a liberal form of lynch law that had in the forties had been largely confined to outliers like Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman.


In the greater world beyond comics, most such lynchings came from the conservative side of the tracks, as per the Moral Majority’s ill-fated 1980s attempts to “cancel” extreme sex and violence in popular entertainment. However, the 1990s gave rise to a subtler form of censure: the view of America as the “fruit of the poisoned tree.” In the 1960s the radical Malcolm X had more power to inspire the aggrieved than to effect change for Black people. However, American culture’s uncritical acceptance of Spike Lee’s 1992 biography (or hagiography) of Malcolm X might serve as a flashpoint for future developments, promoting the view that those who had suffered most from the old hegemony ought to become the arbiters of the new one.


The past five years gave rise to spectacles like the 2017 Oscar Awards, in which Hollywood liberals lined up to be flogged for the sin of whiteness. But once Americans started seeing once marginal groups achieving dominance, we started seeing less of the politics-as-sadism argument. Once the new boss is in charge, how credibly can he complain that the old boss is still putting the screws to him? Given far fewer depictions of marginalized groups being subjected to physical torments, the SJWs found a new lyric for an old song: preaching that SWM privilege leads to everlasting economic abjection. Since it’s also a given that, as someone in the Bible said, “there will be poor always,” ultraliberals finally found a cornucopia from which they can draw endless supplies of social outrage.


Most of the SJWs in the comics subculture who had pursued the old Wertham-Legman legacy seem to have dropped the sadism angle. I confess I don’t read THE BEAT regularly these days, but I’ve the impression in the past five years none of the BEAT’s clickbait has been as audacious as the 2008 post “The One with All the Comments.” In this blogpost—which did indeed garner a lot of comments —Heidi McDonald aligned American superhero readers with the audiences of the woman-bashing site “Superheroines Demise.” The Heidi-post has been deleted for whatever reasons, so it may be that the only surviving references to its audacity (and philosophical dishonesty) are those on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, particularly an essay entitled SADISM OF THE CASUAL KIND.


I suppose that nothing I wrote back then to refute Wertham, Legman and McDonald can be used to combat current SJWs and their reliance on the “economic abjection” argument. Still, on occasion the anti-sadism meme still crops up, most often in modern anti-pornography crusades that often sound barely distinguishable from the WAP crusades of the 1970s. I’ve repeatedly argued that sex and violence are integral components of literature, though without validating a given work just for being either sexy, violent or both. Therefore, in part 2, and the “near myths” essay following, I’ll explore some of the ways that sadism in literature can be fairly evaluated.


Saturday, February 6, 2021

DEPARTMENT OF COMICS CURIOSITIES #2

 Since the MLJ humor title SUZIE was entirely G-rated, I assume that the appearance of the term "fudge packers" in issue #78 was a reference to a real profession...

...But it's still pretty weird to read it with the modern slang meaning in mind.





MYTHCOMICS: “THE HEART OF GOLD” (GOLDEN LAD #1, 1945)

 Spark Comics was a short-lived comics company of the mid-1940s, founded by Ken Crossen, the creator of the prose-pulp hero The Green Lama. In addition to publishing a more overtly superheroic version of the Lama, Spark also published five issues of a boy super-duper named Golden Lad. Most of the hero’s adventures were penciled by the well-regarded comics artist Mort Meskin, while the protagonist’s origin-story “Heart of Gold” is credited by GCD to one Joseph Greene.


None of the stories revolving around Golden Lad himself are worthy of note, and the method of his heroic ascendancy is routine. Orphan Tommy Preston, who lives with his big-talking grandfather in the latter’s antiques shop, has a close encounter with a band of thugs when they rob the shop. By chance Tommy comes into contact with a relic, the Heart of Gold, and touching the Heart transforms the boy into a super-strong, bulletproof costumed hero. This origin marks Golden Lad as a “talisman-type” of hero, who has to have contact with some extrinsic object to transform. Indeed, the story behind the Heart of Gold is more interesting than that of the hero wielding it, despite the fact that this backstory doesn’t even fill two pages.



Tommy, wondering at the provenance of the relic, conveniently comes across a letter from the 1600s that explains all. The letter is written by Don Juan de Seville, a Spanish soldier who served in Mexico with an expedition of conquistadors. Seville is a horrified witness to the depredations of his countrymen as they force the Aztec people to serve as slaves. (Apparently the vignette takes place after the fall of the Aztec Empire.) Seville’s fellow conquistadors come up with a novel—if very impractical—means of terrorizing the locals. Somehow the soldiers take a lot of the gold they’ve stolen from the Aztecs, smelt it into a pool of liquid, and punish rebellious natives by tossing them into the molten gold. This would seem to be a very expensive way of executing one’s political enemies, since it would be difficult to reconstitute all the molten gold into something spendable. But as a mythic image, it’s rather potent, in that the golden pool of death symbolizes the ruthless gold-hunger of the Spaniards.


Seville decides that he will no longer serve this mission. But instead of simply deserting, the soldier decides that he wants to seek out an independent tribe of Aztecs, and that, to prove his good intentions, he’ll take a small sample of gold from the pool to give back to the plundered natives. However, when Seville escapes, he’s fatally shot by a fellow conquistador. Seville still manages to reach the native encampment. The Aztecs accept Seville’s gift as evidence of his good—one might say “golden” heart—and they reshape the glob of noble metal into the Heart of Gold. Apparently, the Aztecs plan to give Seville the Heart to save his life, and if Seville had accepted it, he would have become one of the world’s first leotard-garbed crusaders. But Seville feels himself too close to death’s door, so he predicts that someday the talisman will be used by another hero, who will utilize the Heart’s powers for good.



The main story of Golden Lad’s first outing contains none of these mediations on gold, either as an inspiration to greed or as the symbol of nobility, though I like to imagine that writer Greene might have derived the hero’s name from a famous ironic couplet by William Blake:


“Golden lads and lasses must

“Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”


Even if Greene took some inspiration from Blake, the main story doesn’t make Golden Lad particularly “golden.” But the vignette-backstory is at least worth its weight in mythological motifs.

WHEN IS A VIGNETTE NOT A VIGNETTE?

 The word “vignette,” which I referenced in CATEGORIES OF STRUCTURAL LENGTH, originally wasn’t applied to any sort of narrative, having been formulated to describe a type of illustrative design work. Only later did it take on such meanings, according to Merriam-Webster, as “a quick narrative sketch” or “a brief scene within a play or movie.”


For the purpose of literary analysis, I make a distinction between two types of vignettes. The non-narrative type of vignette may be set apart from the main narrative, but it doesn’t have its own unity, often existing solely to relate some information to the audience, as with a character’s flashback that uses past events to explain the present. The narrative type of vignette, though, does possess some form of unity, usually seen in the consummation of one of the four potentialities. I’ll provide examples by drawing on previous mythcomics analyses, which of course means that in both examples I’m emphasizing the mythopoeic potentiality.


In the version of Wonder Woman’s origin set forth in WONDER WOMAN #1, the author, having already introduced his character in both ALL STAR COMICS and SENSATION COMICS, opens with an extended flashback to show the beginnings of the heroine’s homeland Paradise Island. Princess Diana herself has not even been born during the first four pages of the flashback, which are devoted to the origin of the Amazons and the travails they suffer at the hands of cruel male warriors. I would deem this section to be a non-narrative vignette. In terms of form, it meets my criteria: that of focusing mostly upon the beginning and the end of the story, without much in the way of a middle. Once the reader gets to the point where Paradise Island is established, the natural response is likely to be, “Yes, and then?”


The two-page “Origin of the Batman” from DETECTIVE COMICS #33, however, is a narrative vignette. The origin-tale is not organically part of the larger story in which it appears, and in truth the same two-pager might have been inserted into any story in that time-period, with the same narrative results. Yet it’s not the vignette’s functional independence that gives it the quality of unity, but the way in which the mythopoeic potentiality builds from beginning (“young Bruce Wayne suffers the trauma of seeing his parents killed by a ruthless criminal”) to end (“mature Bruce Wayne decides to use the omen of a creature of darkness to terrorize the denizens of the underworld.”)


To draw upon my observations from the essay-series THE LINE BETWEEN FAIR AND GOOD, the difference is comparable between a “disorganized essay with a strong theme statement” and an essay well organized enough to reinforce its central argument with copious evidence.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: GOLDFINGER (1959)

 





Years ago, when I reviewed most of the James Bond movies for my NUM blog, I reread all of the books to compare whatever content they held in common with the films. I don’t plan to blog reviews of all of the books, but I decided to do so for GOLDFINGER, given that it’s arguably the most iconic of the Bond novels.


As others have observed, the seventh book in the series continued to build on Fleming’s penchant for larger-than-life villains, as seen in the previous DOCTOR NO and the future books involving SPECTRE mastermind Blofeld. To be sure, Mister Big, Hugo Drax and Rosa Klebb are similarly outsized, particularly Drax, who plotted to drop an explosive missile on London. But Fleming did start making slightly greater use of quasi-SF technology in both DOCTOR NO and GOLDFINGER: a jamming device in the first and a miniature atom bomb in the latter. That said, GOLDFINGER is not really “science fiction” despite the small A-bomb that the villain wishes to use to crack Fort Knox. The 1964 movie seems more in the SF-vein when its script substitutes a big laser for the bomb. The GOLDFINGER film also presented audiences with their first sight of a “spy car” outfitted with outlandish devices, whereas in the book Bond’s only special weapons are a pair of folding knives hidden in his shoe-soles. Between the knives, the A-bomb and Goldfinger’s insane plot to rob the U.S. gold depository, the novel is, like most of Fleming’s Bond books, purely uncanny in phenomenality.


The movie-depiction of Goldfinger’s super-villainy is so persuasive that it’s fascinating to note that none of the book’s villainy tropes appear in the first half. Fleming spends almost a hundred pages establishing the fragmentary background of Auric Goldfinger, a short man with seemingly mismatched body parts (perhaps reflecting a multi-ethnic background, as official record says he’s Latvian though his name suggests European Jew). All of the things viewers cherish in the movie—the “golden girl” murder of Tilly Masterson, Oddjob and his fatal bowler hat, Pussy Galore and the robbing of Fort Knox—are confined to the book’s second half. Early on, the only bizarre thing about the villain—reputedly the richest man in England—is that he has a special affection for gold that goes beyond simply smuggling it for profit. One suspects, though Fleming does not admit, that Goldfinger may have assumed one or both of his official names as emblems of his gold-fascination. Fleming doesn’t really create a psychology for Goldfinger beyond an unconvincing short man’s inferiority complex. However, Bond is a more rounded character despite the problematic aspects of his prejudices.


Though many critics of Bond overstate the case regarding the character’s racism and sexism, GOLDFINGER provides considerable grist for both mills. To some extent the villain with the Jewish-sounding name is not so much a stereotype of Jewry as he is that of a gauche non-British foreigner. Nonetheless, I accept the trenchant argument of Jacqueline Friedman in IAN FLEMING’S INCREDIBLE CREATION that social myths about Jewishness inform the character. Friedman observes that even if readers don’t believe the myth of the money-hungry Jew, the robbing of Fort Knox will still seem persuasive on an emotional level (“Doesn’t every Jew want all the money in the world?”) Far less subliminal is Fleming’s portrait of the villain’s Korean henchmen, largely represented by Oddjob, who dines on cats as delicacies and can barely speak due to a cleft palate. Oddjob appears in the wake of Fleming’s Doctor No—an urbane and intellectual super-fiend loosely modeled on Rohmer’s Fu Manchu (though clearly no match for the real thing). But Koreans had no major myths in the European consciousness, and so Oddjob seems no more than a rationalized ogre. There is one moment in which Bond attempts to respond to the Korean servant in human terms, though. In one scene, Goldfinger orders Oddjob to demonstrate his mastery of karate for Bond’s benefit by smashing up furniture. Bond is honestly amazed by such incredible skill, and the agent puts out his hand to shake, in order to salute the Korean’s mastery. Goldfinger warns his henchman to mind his strength as the two shake hands, implying that Oddjob is nothing more than a conscienceless brute who would enjoy maiming victims for amusement. It’s only after incidents like this that Bond makes a statement about the animal-like nature of all Koreans.


The case for Bondian sexism doesn’t stem this time from any sexual conquests with bizarre names like “Plenty O’Toole.” The hero has a consensual hookup with the villain’s aide Tilly Masterson and doesn’t find out for several chapters that Goldfinger has murdered her. The source for this information is Tilly’s vengeful sister Jill, but if the male reader was expecting Bond to score again with a second sister, Fleming blocks his hero’s conquest by making Jill a lesbian. Through the protagonist’s thoughts, Fleming offers his scornful opinion of homosexuality by deeming it “confused,” though the author may have introduced this element in part to spoof Bond’s lady-killing image. Jill is far more taken by Goldfinger’s lady crook ally Pussy Galore, though the two women never really cross paths and Jill dies in a foolish attempt to appeal to Pussy’s protection. I presume that later generations of lesbians have duly scorned Fleming’s psychologizing, particularly his analysis that the only reason Pussy turns lavender is because in her youth she was raped by her uncle. Pussy surrenders to Bond’s charms in the end, but the circumstances aren’t as clear a “win” for the forces of heterosexuality as they are in the 1964 movie. At the book’s conclusion, it seems evident that Pussy aids Bond against Goldfinger and Oddjob largely to save herself and to get in good with the law, so her comment to Bond that she likes him because “I never met a man before” may not be the whole truth. In any case, Fleming is never less than truthful in stating that hetero men may consider lesbians a challenge, and by putting that challenge into dramatic form, the author managed to make Pussy one of the most mythic lesbians in fiction, even as Goldfinger is one of the most mythic villains.