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

Monday, July 19, 2021




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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Monday, July 12, 2021


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

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

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

Sunday, July 11, 2021



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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 2, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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