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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, 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-- 

Friday, August 27, 2021

TENDER LOVING SADISM PT. 1

 I've taken on many ambitious projects on the ARCHIVE over the year, but one project I'll never attempt is to figure out the role that fictional sadism plays in Japanese pop culture, even though I've often pointed examples of manga that were particularly engaged with this psychological concept. Still, I can point out some interesting variations on the theme.

I've finished a still-in-progress manga with the wordy title of PLEASE DON'T BULLY ME, NAGATORO, in which a minor form of sadism is used as a means of improving a potential romantic partner's intestinal fortitude. The premise begins with second-year high schooler Naoto, an extremely withdrawn young man who loses himself in the school's art club-- of which he's the only member-- in order to avoid engaging with his peers. His life changes, largely for the better, when a first-year student, a girl named Nagatoro, notices him and makes her mission in life to constantly torment the fellow, constantly insulting him for being a "virgin" and committing minor acts of physical abuse on Naoto's person.

Given that Nagatoro is a comely damsel despite her aggressiveness, Naoto is not entirely unhappy with her bullying. Even though she's being sarcastic when she calls him her "senpai"-- allegedly her superior in age and stature, with her being his "kohai"-- she brings Naoto out of his shell, sitting for him as his model so that he stops painting safe subjects like flowers and fruit. As of this writing the relationship is still in flux, with Naoto asking Nagatoro on their first date. But one particular episode is worth examination.

Because Nagatoro is one of the "cool kids" at the school, some of her female friends become interested in making fun of Naoto as well, though not with Nagatoro's personal motives. Since Nagatoro constantly calls Naoto a "pervert," the other girls in her pack do the same but with a significant difference.



In the story "Senpai is a Quiet Pervert," Nagatoro's peer calls Naoto a "herbivore," meaning that he has no sexual nature whatever. Nagatoro is quick to correct this misimpression:



The two girls argue, and Nagatoro offers to prove her judgment of Naoto's "quiet perversion" by searching out one of the erotic manga he keeps in the art room. Naoto alone knows that though he has an erotic manga nearby, it's not in the art room, so Nagatoro's quest is doomed to failure. But because he'd rather be thought a sex-obsessed loser than a sexless loser, he covertly gets hold of the manga and brings it into the art room-- thus supporting Nagatoro's vision of him.





It's not clear as to whether Nagatoro realizes what Naoto has done, but either way, she doesn't spare him her scorn. But in comparison to the opinions of the other girls, Nagatoro's insults will in future act as a goad, encouraging him to take a shot at finding a non-manga girlfriend.


LIKE A TROPE, ON THE WIRE

                           

 Whatever the virtues of my essay-series HOW CONTEMPT BREEDS UNFAMILIARITY,  it did not succeed in supplying a succinct “summation of my NUM theory,” so here’s a one-essay shot at simplification.

 Almost all Western critics from the 18th century on have formed their theories against a background of predominantly “realistic” literature, in which it is taken for granted that the world of literature ought to emulate the world one sees outside one’s window, or, failing that, the world one would have seen had one lived at a certain time and place. Only in the 20th century did some critics, such as Northrop Frye and Leslie Fiedler, attempt to articulate systems that accounted for the appeal of what is usually called “fantastic literature.” Even so, these authors still focused mostly on authors whose metaphenomenal visions had proved popular for centuries: Swift, Milton, Poe, et al.

My amateur “poetics” takes metaphenomenal literature as the starting-point and views all the developments of realistic literature as reactions against the literary formulas—tropes, as many call them-- of myth and folklore.

 

As it happens, the earliest literary critic—or at least, the earliest whose works have survived to the present day—lived in an era (384-322 B.C.) in which most major literary works took place in metaphenomenal worlds, whether they recapitulated the major mythic narratives associated with the Greek pantheon, as seen in Homer’s two epics, or simply used relatively minor fantasy-tropes, like the ghost that appears in Aeschylus’s THE PERSIANS. Because Aristotle’s literary world was full of gods, curses and oracles, his POETICS, the first extant statement of artistic principles, does not address in depth the subject of phenomenality; of how a given literary work portrays the nature of the phenomena available in its world. The POETICS makes several statements that are relevant to the subject of phenomenality, such as when the philosopher opines that comedy tends to be more down-to-earth than tragedy. But the closest Aristotle comes to an overall statement on what phenomena a work can portray is his elaboration upon the concept of mimesis (“imitation.”) For Aristotle, what he calls “poetry” is the “imitation of an action” of which the poet has conceived, and the philosopher breaks down three categories of narrative action of which the poet can conceive: “things as they are or were,” “things as they are said to be” (that is, things whose veracity the poet cannot vouch for), and “things as they ought to be.” The last category may have taken in for the rare narratives that paralleled what we now call science fiction, such as Aristophanes’ THE BIRDS (414 BC), which depicts the titular avians creating the imaginary domain of Cloud Cuckoo Land. But Aristotle does not offer more than one or two examples of each of these categories, for he did not live in a world whose literature privileged the naturalistic. There was no need to justify the metaphenomenal worlds of THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY, since everyone accepted them as genuine art.

 

If there is a “fatal flaw” in Aristotle’s categories, it would be his failure to point out that even the author’s depiction of “things as they are” were not windows upon reality as such; that they were, as much as depictions of gods and ghosts, literary tropes; formulas that were meant to evoke certain responses in their audiences. For instance, a scene in THE ODYSSEY depicts a servant’s recognition of the disguised Odysseus thanks to an unhealed scar on the hero’s leg. Even though the epic is full of gods and monsters, this scene is predicated on a naturalistic detail that convinces because everyone in the audience is familiar with the fact that wounds don’t always heal properly. Nevertheless, the scene is not “reality,” but an “imitation of reality.” It is not any less a construct than, say, a scene in THE ILIAD wherein Zeus makes the very un-human statement that, if he so desired, he could absorb all of his fractious fellow gods into himself as a show of his omnipotence.

 

Aristotle almost certainly knew that even realistic tropes were still products of human artifice, but he does not explicitly say so. There is no over-arcing statement to parallel that of the modern philosopher Suzanne Langer, who labeled all the productions of art as being “gestural,” i.e., that they gestured toward aspects of human existence without actually being coterminous with those aspects. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s works during the European Renaissance resulted in a misinterpretation of his concept of mimesis, so as to emphasize only “things as they are or were.” Of course, it may be that the Renaissance critics merely chose to emphasize the parts of Aristotle that validated their own culture, since during that period literature became increasingly naturalistic.

 

The predominant naturalism of 18th-century works like MOLL FLANDERS and TOM JONES as I said, a reaction against the older forms of European romance and religious rhetoric, which had served roughly the same cultural purpose in the European countries that Greek polytheism had served in Greece. That century saw a limited counter-reaction against naturalism in a short-lived vogue for “Arabian Nights” fantasies and the more protracted European fascination with Gothic horrors. In the 19th century the latter form of metaphenomenal literature also spread to the United States of America and affected the oeuvres of Poe and of Hawthorne. But the Gothics and all the subcategories of metaphenomenal fiction—eventually given the rubrics of “fantasy, horror and science fiction” in the ensuing century—were not regarded as being on the same quality-level as naturalistic literature. Not until the latter half of the 20th century did naturalism lose some of its hold on the Western psyche, resulting in the proliferation of so-called “speculative fiction,” much of which was given more literary cachet than the old “science fiction and fantasy.”

 

In my discussion of Aristotle I mentioned that Classic Greek literature could embrace both “naturalistic tropes,” which were often with the limitations of human fallibility and mortality,” and with “marvelous tropes” about gods and ghosts, describing imagined states of existence beyond the realm of human limitations. Gothic fiction was instrumental, however, in promulgating the interstitial category of “uncanny tropes.” Such tropes had existed even in mankind’s prehistory, and in my essay UNCANNY GENESIS I cited some examples of uncanny tropes from archaic story-cycles, such as the extra-Biblical “Bel and the Dragon” and “the Six Labors of Theseus.” But there’s no doubt that Gothic practitioners like Ann Radcliffe had a much more sustained effect in elaborating stories in which supernatural occurrences were “explained rationally.” In truth, though, the “rationality” of uncanny stories like THE ITALIAN and THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO is compromised from the start by even allowing for the possibility of the supernatural, in contrast, say, to Jane Austen’s Gothic spoof NORTHANGER ABBEY, in which the existence of the supernatural is not even slightly validated.

 

The domain of “the naturalistic” emphasizes conformity with whatever idea of “natural law” an audience may expouse, whereas the domain of “the marvelous” conforms to whatever concepts are seen as transcending natural law, be it through Christian miracles or futuristic inventions. The domain of “the uncanny,” though, endeavors to perform a high-wire balancing act between these two literary phenomenalities. It might be argued that some forms of “the uncanny” sway toward the domain of naturalism, as when the story’s hero unmasks a marauding ghost as sinister Uncle Eben. But other forms sway closer to the domain of the marvelous. Nothing in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original TARZAN story literally transcends natural law, however much one questions the probability of the hero’s advancement to his status of “lord of the jungle.” Tarzan is supposedly no stronger than a human male can be at the peak of development. But his immense strength SEEMS to make him a “superman,” as does his rapport with jungle-beasts like apes and elephants. And so, even though the author is working with a set of uncanny tropes akin to those of Ann Radcliffe, emphasizing *semblance* rather than *actuality,* Tarzan’s origins do not reduce him in stature in the way that arguably Uncle Eben is reduced by the revelation of his ghostly imposture.

 

All of these sets of phenomenality-tropes reflect the desire of human audiences to see stories that reflect either direct physical experience or indirect mental experience. It may be argued that the exigencies of physical existence signify that humans can never be “free” in the sense of being independent of those exigencies. However, literary work allows audiences to think and feel what it would like to enjoy such freedom, whether that sense of freedom is ultimately validated or frustrated. The freedom to think in terms outside those of immediate experience have arguably made it possible for humans to concoct real handheld communication devices to match those of the fictional STAR TREK. But even if no such innovations came about in response to fictional inspirations, literature is at its best when it offers its audiences the mimesis of all possible worlds.

Friday, August 20, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: "THREAT OF THE WITCH-WOMAN" (STRANGE ADVENTURES #156, 1963)

 Throughout the 15 installments of the John Broome-Murphy Anderson series THE ATOMIC KNIGHTS, the stories expoused an ethical stance re: science and culture most like John Campbell's ANALOG in the same era, a stance could be summed up as "pro-science no matter what."  In ATOMIC KNIGHTS, humanity misuses technology so as to bring about a nuclear holocaust, returning humans to a predominantly agrarian level, though they're still menaced by tinpot dictators, mutated creatures and lingering radioactivity. Yet despite all these calamities, the primary duty of the heroes is to recover all the benefits of science and technology in order to return humankind to its high estate. These particular heroes may fight for justice while wearing the armor of archaic European knights, but they only do so because the armor has been permeated with a unique power that protects the wearers from radiation poisoning. "Set a thief to catch a thief" in the world of apocalyptic SF, if you like.

Many SF-narratives can be fairly accused of "scientism," defined as "excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques," and one of the most frequently used strategies of validating science is to downgrade the influence of religion upon human subjects. One can find a lot of anti-religious rhetoric in prose SF, but comic books of the Silver Age tended to avoid the topic. Broome's script "Threat of the Witch-Woman" shows clear influence from the many stories that deal with the witch-hunting craze of 17th-century New England, but nowhere in "Threat" does Broome speak of religion as such. Instead, the idea of "superstition" is substituted for that more controversial topic.




The witch-hunting trials are usually seen as hysteria arising from the isolation of Christian settlers in the raw domain of colonial America, where devils were seen in every incident of bad fortune, to say nothing of red-skinned natives and darksome forests. Since the KNIGHTS feature had hurled humanity back to the status of rustic life, it must have seemed logical to Broome to use witch-hysteria for a story, albeit not in New England as such. The Knights' home base, the fictional town of Durvale, is said to be located in the Midwest, six years after the nuclear apocalypse, but they nevertheless find that one of the neighboring towns has become infected with witch-hysteria-- though at base the problem stems not from religion but from a new radiation-malady: "hallucination-sickness." 


The dialogue shown above-- in which the five Knights and their female comrade discuss the sickness-- is an excruciatingly earnest infodump, complete with the infamous "as you know" phrase when one Knight relates things that the other characters know but the reader does not. The character Herald, a schoolteacher, informs his friends that he beheld one of the "two-dimensional creatures" spawned by hallucination-sickness while he was checking on a student from the neighboring town of Harrow. The denizens of this town are antithetical to the pro-science beliefs of the Knights: "It seems the rest of the town doesn't believe in schools or science, or any progress! They fear progress, because they claim it led to the War!"



This critique of the misuses of science is patently ignored by the Knights, who are more concerned that someone in Harrow has been infected with the sickness. Though the malady hasn't been observed for very long, it just so happens that the Knights already have a potential cure available, so off they go to Harrow to minister to the afflicted. On their way they encounter Herald's student Fred Dromer, who reveals that one of the hallucination-creatures attacked the home of Harrow's leader Mister Fallow. It's not clear as to why Fallow and the other Harrow-ites figured out that the creature had been spawned by Fred's mother Henrietta, but in their superstitious fear they consider her to be that scourge of the seventeenth century, a witch. The Knights arrive just as the crowd prepares to execute Henrietta Dromer and stop the attempted murder. (In deference to the Comics Code, Anderson's art does not even suggest whatever method the townsfolk mean to use in killing the youthful young mother, just as Broome does not even wonder what might have befallen young Fred's father.)






However, despite having revived the archetype of the witch in superstitious fear, the Harrow-ites are correct: Henrietta is indeed responsible for calling up the vaguely devilish energy-beings. It's interesting that Broome titled the story "Threat of the Witch-Woman," since the whole point of the story is to prove that she is not a sorceress. Broome may have been in sympathy with the idea that some of the New England women who confessed to witchcraft were simply seduced by the psychological fantasias of having been seduced by Satan, but in place of psychosexual impulses, Henrietta is merely a vessel who accidentally empowers science-fictional "demons." The Knights observe that the hallucinations have a rudimentary intelligence, and that they seek to remain alive by keeping Henrietta locked in her trance. 




Ultimately the Knights free Henrietta from the energy-creatures, who fade away when deprived of their summoner, and the heroes take the woman and her son back to Durvale to be cured. In a last minute turnabout, Fallow and the other townsfolk show up, duly chastened and ready to accept the ways of science over superstition.

I don't think John Broome was a feminist as such, and therefore he probably didn't have much to say about the status of women in patriarchal society, which has often been a theme on which witch-hunt stories have expatiated. Yet it's worth remembering that he did create DC Comics's second version of Star Sapphire, analyzed here as a Jekyll-Hyde figure caught between a desire to be traditionally feminine and a coequal pleasure in being "the boss." The apparent widow-woman Henrietta Dromer has far less depth than Star Sapphire, and the reader knows nothing of her position in the Harrow community, but it's at least possible that when one hallucination attacks the domicile of town leader Fallow, that event may express some feminine resentment of Harrow's patriarchal leader. It's also of passing interest that in the Dutch language-- a language that would have been spoken in some New England colonies-- "dromer" means "dreamer." 

Of even greater mythopoeic interest are Broome's uses of the names "Harrow" and "Fallow." Harrowing is the process by which a farmer readies the land for planting seed, but over time the word has also taken on some emotional resonances: a fearful experience is said to be "harrowing," and the Messiah's descent into hell is typically called a "harrowing." Calling the town "Harrow" taps into some of these meanings as well as just evoking the idea of a farming-community. Of equal interest is Fallow's name, for when a farmer wants to allow overused land to "lie fallow" in order to replenish its nutrients, he does indeed harrow the land once more, but without introducing seeds. In the context of the story, the town of Harrow has allowed itself to "lie fallow" for too long by not accepting progress and scientific advancement-- and the Knights, by venturing into the staid town to purge it of an alien illness, have introduced the "seed" of rebirth.


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

RHETORICAL FLOURISHES PT. 2

 I begin by admitting that I'm going to apply I.A. Richards' "tenor and vehicle" categories for other purposes than simply the diagramming of isolated metaphors. Here I'm interested in the potential of the two-part construct to discuss the function of mythicity in literary work.

From the blog's beginnings I had defined "mythicity" as "symbolic complexity," and had frequently used Joseph Campbell's functions as a methodology for showing how different categories of knowledge played into the symbolic process. However, it was only in this 2019 essay that I began speaking of the things being recapitulated in symbolized forms as "epistemological patterns." To boil down a great deal of complicated verbiage, I decided that even though it had become fairly common to speak of modern literary products as "mythic," the elements of literary narratives that most nearly approximate the nature of archaic myths are those that break down the narrative's universe into epistemological patterns-- and that they are more "mythic" according to their sheer density of conception. 

Two years prior to that essay, I had rejected an insight from Northrop Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM that I had prized for years during the formation of my own myth-criticism: Frye's insight that "myth is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other." Most of my ruminations about "affective freedom" and "cognitive restraint" probably owe something to Frye's formulation, but in ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 3,  I pointed out that I didn't think Frye's use of the term "myth" cohered with my own. For him, myth was essentially a treasure-trove of literary tropes, which might or might not be complex in the epistemological sense (as per my negative example of OLIVER TWIST). 

Yet, I confess that it's impossible to speak of "myth" without speaking of "tropes." Even when a given narrative in a literary work fails to invoke a complex epistemological pattern, a given reader may often recognize mythic potential through a manipulation of tropes, even in a simplistic manner. I've frequently remarked that little if anything in the early SUPERMAN stories of Siegel and Shuster does one find anything I consider "mythicity." But juvenile readers of SUPERMAN comics recognized Superman as a breakthrough in the sense of bringing a super-powerful hero into a contemporary setting. Those young readers probably didn't think of the hero's alleged archaic models, such as Herakles and Samson, as being anything more than tough guys killing beasts and monsters, and so they would not have even apprehended the epistemological aspects of the archaic figures. 

So I began thinking: are not familiar tropes the only means by which archaic myths communicate their epistemological patterns? Stories of Herakles have nearly no verisimilitude to them; they involve familiar stories of the hero's feats, his humiliations, and his ultimate death. Say that one believes that Herakles' victory over the Hydra represents, say, the archetypal hero's struggle against chthonic nature. No one in the story will voice such an interpretation; only later rationalists of the myth might do so. Yet the metaphysical epistemological pattern is present even if it is not stated outright, being communicated only indirectly, through the familiar arrangement of events in the trope-scenario. It's on this same level that I believe Frye was thinking of "the birth-mystery plot" that he finds in OLIVER TWIST.

In Richards's essay, he claims that before his essay critics had to make clumsy formulations of the two parts of metaphor being "the underlying idea" and "the imagined nature," or "the principal subject" or "what is resembles." He offers a more precise set of terms, calling "the thing referred to" as "tenor" and "the thing compared to it" as "vehicle." As a more concrete example, Richards offers a poem which compares "the flow of the poet's mind" (tenor) to "a river" (vehicle), though he points out that in some constructions the tenor is the most important element, and in others, the vehicle assumes greater significance.

My current concept, then, is that the expanded metaphorical structure that I have called "the mythopoeic potentiality" in literature may also be broken down into these two conjoined elements, where the epistemological pattern is "the thing referred to," the "tenor," while the familiar tropes through which the pattern is expressed is "the thing compared to it," the "vehicle." 

And so, in a roundabout way, I end up validating one aspect of Frye's argument re: myth and naturalism, even if I do so in a way that allows me to also validate the very different insights of authors like Jung, Cassirer and Campbell.


RHETORICAL FLOURISHES PT. 1

 I've recently finished I.A. Richards' 1936 THE PHILOSOPHY OF RHETORIC, which, despite its imposing title, is a slim book consisting of six lectures the literary critic gave on the interrelated topics of rhetoric and metaphor. I don't believe I have read any of his work previous to this one, though in other essays I had encountered what may his most oft-quoted analysis: that of defining "metaphor" as a construct of two essential elements, which he labeled "the tenor" and "the vehicle." In Part 2 I will look at how these terms impact on my current concept of metaphorical meaning.

One of the odd things Richards says in Lecture is a self-comparison to the work of Alfred North Whitehead, whom I first discussed on this blog here.


It will have been noticed perhaps that the way I propose to treat meanings has its analogues with Mr, Whitehead's treatment of things.


Given that my reading of Whitehead was spotty at best, I'm no expert on him any more than I am on Richards. Still, I'm not seeing much resemblance between the advocate of process reality and the critic who became best known for the boosting of "close reading" and the New Criticism. It's possible, since Richards' next line is somewhat facetious, that this was an inside joke on his part.

In this short book Richards does address some other salient matters besides the "tenor and vehicle" subject. For one thing, he's comparable to Philip Wheelwright in assuring readers that the very richness of human language is an advantage, rather than a deficit, to the practice of rhetoric and its related usages of metaphor. But even more useful to me is his concept of conceptual thinking as "sorting."

A perception is never just of an *it;* perception takes whatever it perceives as a thing of a certain sort. All thinking from the lowest to the highest-- whatever else it may be-- is sorting.

He further supports this by asserting that "...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."

Any regular readers of this blog should be able to anticipate my attraction to this notion, given the considerable quantity of categories I've reeled out over the past thirteen years. And this influences me not only in terms of theory. In one of my introductory pieces to my newest blog, THE GRAND SUPERHERO OPERA, I remarked that I didn't feel particularly interested in reposting my "supercombative" film reviews by order of publication or alphabetically by title. What I found most challenging was to repost the essays by "sorting" them according to actors who had distinguished themselves in each of the items under review-- making it a little tougher on myself by establishing that each actor got only one post to his or her credit. (In a few cases I may expand this to include other creative personnel when I feel like it.) 

Oddly, it's in this section on "sorting" that Richards uses the ten-dollar word most associated with Alfred North Whitehead, which is also the word I have remorselessly appropriated for my own use.

A particular impression is already a product of concrescence. Behind, or in it, there has been a coming together of sortings.

I don't see in this statement anything that resembles Whitehead's concept of concrescence, but it's of minor importance, since Richards does propound a stimulating discussion of the ways in which human beings utilize the constructs of metaphor-- more on which in the subsequent post.


 


Monday, August 9, 2021

NULL-MYTHS: "A HOUSE NAMED DEATH" (SUB-MARINER #41-42, 1971)

 As I've mentioned from time to time, I don't generally do "null-myth" reviews just for ordinary junky comics. A comics-story has to be particularly bad to earn such a review, and not just in terms of having bad verisimilitude, but bad mythicity/artifice as well. Even given these self-imposed strictures, I find it amazing that I haven't managed to savage more than one of the many works of Gerry Conway up till now. 

In the early seventies I turned 15, and I very nearly hated every comic with Conway's name on it. In retrospect, I would give him his due by saying that unlike a lot of other pros who turned out tons of undistinguished formula-work, Conway did seem to have a genius for co-creating characters with great potential-- the Punisher, the Man-Thing, Killraven-- though usually that potential was realized not by Conway but by some later raconteur. I despised most of his famed run on SPIDER-MAN, and the best that I can say of it is that he was no longer trying to be "artsy" on the title, as he was in some of his early scripts for DAREDEVIL and THE SUB-MARINER.



I take the title "A House Named Death" from the cover-copy of the second story in this SUB-MARINER two-parter. At the time of this tale, the feature was clearly losing steam, and the editors sought to give Prince Namor a new cachet by killing off his beloved (4-5 years before Gwen Stacy in SPIDER-MAN) and sending the hero off on various peripatetic adventures. "House" essentially sticks the Atlantean prince in a sci-fi Gothic. One night, the prince is flying along, minding his own business, when some guy on the ground zaps Namor so that he falls. The mysterious guy is joined by an aged woman, and they skulk off into the darkness.



Namor wakes up on the cobblestones of a nearby small American town. where he's immediately succored by Lucille, an attractive young brunette. He apparently recovers enough that she can lead him to shelter, given that she couldn't carry him by herself-- and as it happens, Lucille's dwelling place is the house of her aunt, first given the peculiar name "Aunt Serr." Namor is weak from both his injuries and his lack of exposure to water, though no one in Conway's story, including Namor, ever thinks about his getting access to some H2O. After Lucille gives Sub-Mariner a little set-up on his circumstances, he passes out again-- and wakes up chained in a room by Aunt Serr, whom the reader recognizes as the old lady from before. Auntie relates some of her personal tragedies to Namor, about her birthing a "devil spawned monster" due to radiation exposure, and she seems to be contemplating some "unformed" master plan and thinking about using Namor to help her. The prince breaks loose but gets zapped again by Auntie's son, who is now revealed to have the body of a humanoid-shaped slab of rock.



After some more fights and histrionics, Auntie shows Namor the mechanism she'd used to cement her hold on the locals, which she has also used to transform them into a bunch of multiform monsters, though we don't find this out until Part 2. At the end of Part 1, Auntie reveals that she's used her machine on her niece, causing Lucille to transform into a hot energy-girl, whom Auntie wants to be the bride of her monstrous son. Lucille, who in this form is totally under Auntie's mental control, zaps Namor for the cliffhanger ending. 




Possibly Auntie and her rockhead son think Namor's dead, for Part 2 begins with him recovering in the wilderness, where the villains desposited him. Conway tosses in an oddball erudite reference to the Spartan custom of abandoning deformed infants in the wild, yet he can't find time to note that the rain falling upon Namor's form, courtesy of artist George Tuska, must be restoring the prince's strength. Sub-Mariner wanders into town, and, after another gratuitous fight-scene, meets the town's residents, whom have all been made into monsters by the woman who wants her freakish son to have a town of freaks to cohabit with (though there's no indication that "Rock" ever does so). Soon Namor meets the rest of the townfolk, who bear Aunt Serr no good will for their fate.



The only thing Namor learns from the freak-people is that they claim that Aunt Serr has no niece, which may mean that none of them have ever laid eyes on Lucille (despite the fact that she was first seen traipsing around their town in her human-looking form). Namor can't comprehend this mystery, so he makes a frontal assault on Auntie's house again, and once more gets knocked for a loop by Lucille's powers.




 For anyone who may've come in late to the story, Auntie soliloquizes once more about her plans to mate Lucille with her son, and she makes a loose implication that she may have created Lucille from some artificial process, as she threatens the energy-girl: "Do as I say, you silly fool-- lest I return you to the dissipator." Possibly Conway meant to imply that this was the same device by which Aunt Serr transformed normal humans into monsters, though if so then the "dissipator" must be one of the more all-purpose multi-tasking machines ever depicted in Marvel Comics. Namor recovers just as Big Rock Serr comes in, and as they fight again, the townspeople sneak into Auntie's lab and blow everything up. Lucille, still for some strange reason more attracted to Namor's biceps than to Big Rock's literal "boulder shoulders," finally turns on Aunt Serr, blasting the old lady and then using her power to send Sub-Mariner careening out of the house, saving him from being consumed in the conflagration.



The one amusing thing I noticed on this reading of the "House" tale is that Aunt Serr's name is almost certainly meant to be a pun on the word "answer." But like everything else in the story, this wordplay is inconsummate since even the reader who "gets it" can have no strong idea what it references. Aunt Serr may believe that her mad course is the only "answer" to her dilemma, and Conway gives her a few lines in which she waxes Nietzchean: "No man is free... Only by succumbing to the will of the universe-- of those greater than themselves-- can they find true freedom." But it's a clumsy moral at best.

The verisimilitude blunders throughout the story are considerable, but those affecting the mythicity are far worse. Conway might have penned the story of a woman who felt her personal creativity cursed by the uncaring fates, and who decides to mutate all the "norms" in order to make them share her misery. The subplot about "how do you handle the problem of Lucille's origin" goes absolutely nowhere, and Conway further undercuts his own narrative by working in a bunch of irrelevant ongoing subplots, one of which is meant to cross-promote events transpiring in Conway's continuity for DAREDEVIL. In the annals of out-of-control stories in the medium of comics, "A House Named Death" deserves some sort of retroactive Golden Raspberry at least.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

HOW CONTEMPT BREEDS UNFAMILIARITY PT. 4

 I ended the previous essay in the series on this observation:

From one viewpoint, if the prehistoric myth-maker was trying to counter the unfamiliarity of the physical world with images of the familiar (like making the sun into a godly charioteer), the authors of metaphenomenal fiction were challenged by the familiarity of science's reading of the physical world into generating new images of the unfamiliar.

By "new" I meant images that were not wholly rooted in traditional mythico-religious concepts of unfamiliar presences or activities. Given my Jungian outlook, I don't believe that any such images are ever completely novel. The renascent dinosaurs of THE LOST WORLD are functionally identical with the dragons of knightly romance, even though each carries its own specific mystique. But because of the influence of science-based naturalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, both dinosaurs and dragons had to be justified as never before. So even a magical dragon has to explained as having originated in some special locale, like Oz, Middle Earth, or some period of Earth-history not yet governed by science, like Howard's Hyboria.

In fact, all marvelous things or entities, being a contradiction of naturalistic law, are implicitly separated from the naturalistic order by some *estrangement* from either the laws of time, space, or both. This deduction underscores the one of the flaws in Rudolf Otto's system. In the quote I cited in Part 1 of this series, Otto speaks of "the uncanny" as "a thing of which no one can say what it is or whence it comes." This raises the question as to what if any term the Lutheran Otto would apply to such Biblical marvels as the Ark of the Covenant or the burning bush. 

With the literary forms of uncanny phenomena, there's much more of an attempt to conform to the rules of naturalistic law. To my knowledge the term "uncanny"-- which debuted in the 18th century-- doesn't take on any literary significance until it appears in the works of Otto, Ernst Jentsch, and Sigmund Freud. None of them focus on the exact same interpretation of the world, but it can be argued that they all have in common is what Jentsch calls "psychical uncertainties." 

The Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe, most of which appeared at the end of the 18th century, may or may not ever use "uncanny," but they became famous for setting up supposed supernatural occurrence, only to explain it away with some contrivance. What is often overlooked, though, is that the feeling of the "uncanny uncertainty" is not necessarily dispelled by the revelation of the contrivance. Indeed, the contrivance itself, while not usually extravagant enough to contravene laws of time or space, may be sufficiently imaginative that it *seems* to depart from the naturalistic world. In Sherlock Holmes' world, no real demon-hounds can exist. Yet how realistic is a world in which murderers plot to kill their victims with trained dogs covered in phosphorescent paint?

In order to create strangeness of either phenomenality, the author must take a temporary holiday from verisimilitude, and draw upon tropes that exist not in the real world, or in our perceptions of it, but exist purely within the corpus of literature. Such tropes are fiction's conduits to the unfamiliar-- though, after a time, they too can become overly familiar, and can only be rejuvenated by seeking to put new wine in old bottles.


A LOVECRAFTIAN SEGUE

The following quote was taken from a letter written by H.P. Lovecraft to the pulp magazine ALL-STORY. This excerpt appeared in an essay in the collection LOVECRAFT AND INFLUENCE, analyzing the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs on the Providence author. In his essay "A Reprehensible Habit," Gavin Callaghan did not elaborate on the context of the letter, except insofar as it illustrated his thesis, and the ellipses in the excerpt are presumably Callaghan's.

If. in fact, man is unable to create living things out of inorganic matter. to hypnotize the beasts of the forest to do his will, to swing from tree to tree with the apes of the African jungle...or to explore... the deserts of Mars, permit us, at least, in fantasy, to witness these miracles, and to satisfy that craving for the unknown, the weird, and the impossible which exists in every human brain.


Though Burroughs' name is not mentioned, the references to Tarzan are unmistakable, and it's likely that the part about creating creatures from inorganic matter alludes to ERB's 1927 Mars-novel THE MASTER MIND OF MARS. What's more significant to me and my NUM formula, though, is that HPL speaks of the uncanny feats of Tarzan as being as much a "miracle" as the marvelous super-science of Mars. I find this intriguing because HPL himself wrote very little in the way of "uncanny" horror fiction, one exception being "The Picture in the House," a story of rural cannibalism. Almost everything he himself penned fit into his definition of "supernatural horror"-- though by this he didn't mean traditional ghosts and goblins, but usually his own unique take on super-science. My memory is that in his long essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," HPL barely alludes to anything in the realm of the uncanny-- which would not be unusual, since by definition the uncanny does not include the genuinely supernatural-- not to mention anything "miraculous."

I've long maintained that the factor uniting the uncanny and the marvelous is the quality of "strangeness." I deduced this general law from the many examples of compendia of fantastic film that always include fearsome psychos alongside forbidden planets, fake ghosts alongside real ones, and so on-- a recent example reviewed here. But of course, long before there were any such compendia, pulp magazines like WEIRD TALES offered both uncanny and marvelous terrors to their readers. HPL's letter records the personal testimony of a fan who liked both types of weird fiction-- even if he himself concentrated on just one of the two in his own creative endeavor. 

On a side-note within this segue from the current "strangeness/unfamiliarity" essays, I would say that HPL didn't take many tropes from ERB, given the latter's emphasis on physical adventure and romance-- with one exception, for some of ERB's works are as fascinated with the concept of societal devolution as those of the Providence horror-meister.



Friday, August 6, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: [“ORIGIN OF A SPECIES”] (THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF CYCLOPS AND PHOENIX 1-4, 1996)

 


       

 

I wasn’t regularly reading Marvel’s line of X-books in the late eighties. I did purchase secondhand issues, so I was vaguely aware of the debut of two major X-villains, “Apocalypse” in Louise Simonson’s X-FACTOR and “Mister Sinister” in Chris Claremont’s X-MEN. But few such developments had any personal resonance for me once I was no longer reading with a sense of total involvement. I even scoffed at the latter villain, since his design seemed derivative of the X-Man Colossus. Eventually I came to understand that Sinister was some sort of clone-maker, which became significant in the long and winding “Madeleine Pryor saga," and that Apocalypse was an immortal badass dedicated to “the survival of the fittest.” Most of the stories collected in the TPB “X-MEN: THE RISE OF APOCALYPSE” didn’t make me any more invested in the two villains. The one exception, though, was the mini-series THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF CYCLOPS AND PHOENIX, written by Peter Milligan and illustrated by John Paul Leon and Klaus Janson. The four issues possess no over-arcing story-title, so I’ve chosen one of the intertitles to designate the whole narrative: issue #2’s “The Origin of a Species.” The cover-copy promises the reader a more specific origin—that of Mister Sinister—while the cover itself shows the figure of Apocalypse, Sinister’s sometime partner-in-evil, looming in the background.

 





Origin-tales require their authors to turn back time’s winged arrow figuratively, but in “Species” the time-shift is literal. With the help of your basic “time lord intervention,” X-heroes Cyclops and Phoenix are charged with journeying back to 19th-century England to prevent the immortal Apocalypse from wreaking havoc in that timeframe. The heroes are dropped Terminator-style (i.e., buck naked) into 1859 London—which date Milligan clearly chose because it was the year in which Charles Darwin published ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES. It’s also a time-period when Marvel-Earth harbored no mutants except Apocalypse, who was spawned in ancient Egypt. In effect Cyclops and Phoenix have entered a “terra incognita” for their kind, a singular era in which the scientific idea of mutation was first codified—as well as one in which the conflicts between humanity and inhumanity took on new dimensions.

 


Coincident with the arrival of the heroes, Apocalypse awakens from hibernating in a time-capsule beneath the sewers of London, without much detail about when and why he chose that site for his big sleep. Upon awakening, the villain doesn’t seem to have any particular big scheme in mind, though as always, he’s raring to unleash the dogs of war upon humanity as part of his personal eugenics program. But by dumb luck he happens to learn the name of a scientist named Essex—and thereby hangs the story of the first collaboration of Apocalypse and Sinister.

 


The reader meets Nathaniel Essex and his wife Rebecca before either Apocalypse or the heroes. Following a two-page teaser which takes place in “real time,” Milligan and Leon send us back one extra month, to show us the background of the Man Who Will Be Sinister. Essex, a prominent English biologist, is seen at his estate reading the recently published Darwinian magnum opus. He complains to Rebecca—who is pregnant with the couple’s second child—that Darwin is “still shackled by too many moral constraints.” Rebecca, a mother-to-be who’s already lost their previous child to illness, defends the need for morals to structure society. But Essex, despite never having seen a super-powered mutant in his life, intuits that “some humans might, in time, evolve into gods,” and so he has no use for anything reminiscent of a Christian god and his restrictions.

 


Later, Essex unveils his radical theories to a conference of the British Royal Society, which the celebrated Darwin himself also attends. The obsessed scientist confirms the influence of “incremental changes” upon the flow of life, but also argues for the position we now call “saltation theory,” which allows for sudden, rapid transformations as well. To illustrate his almost religious conviction, Essex imitates one aspect of the Frankenstein mythos—constructing a hybrid organism out of corpses, apparently “mutated” by the addition of angel-like wings—though he stops short of the Full Victor, since the corpse-construct is no more alive than any other medical cadaver. The gathered scientists are revolted by this mix-and-match approach to biology, and Darwin opines that Essex has been addled by the loss of his son, broadly implying that the new theory is compensation for that loss. 

 


Essex’s reaction to this rejection is precisely that of Frankenstein: he buries himself in experimentation on unfortunate “freaks” taken prisoner by a local band of cutpurses, “the Marauders” (figurative ancestors of a similar group of henchmen Sinister will use in the 20th century). Rebecca sees her husband more and more consumed by his inhuman crusade, and by the end of this jaunt into “one month ago,” she intuits that he may even have defiled the grave of their first son for his experiments. This is the resolution of the two-page teaser I mentioned earlier, wherein pregnant Rebecca is seen feverishly digging up her first child’s grave—and finding an empty coffin. A reader might reasonably expect that Essex exhumed the corpse to revive it, but Essex doesn’t do resurrections, and Milligan doesn’t ever say what the scientist did with the boy’s remains—though the fact that the kid was named “Adam” brings in yet more Shelleyan overtones.

 

Around this same time, Apocalypse wales up and just happens to question one of Essex’s Marauder-henchmen, which makes the villain eager to talk with the scientist. Cyclops and Phoenix not only arrive naked, they also get separated into very different venues. Cyclops manifests in the depths of the sewers from which the Marauders cull their deformed quarry, and, despite an early contretemps, he ends up making allies of London’s quasi-Morlocks. Phoenix gets to make a more celestial descent, crashing through the roof of Westminster Abbey during services. Leon and Janson (whose inks here are some of his best work ever) get quite a bit of visual mileage out of the contrast between the “upper” and “lower” worlds, which contrast is of course something Milligan exploits throughout the SPECIES script.

 

Milligan explicitly refers to the relationship between Essex and Apocalypse as a “Faustian bargain,” but like Faust, Essex hasn’t completely given himself over to evil. Essex does put Apocalypse (deftly wearing a human disguise) in contact with a society of corrupt aristocrats whom the mutant can manipulate, and these sordid rich guys are also an X-reference, for they make up the 19th century Hellfire Club—albeit long before it was taken over by the full-time villainous club-members who make life difficult for the X-heroes in the 20th century.

 


When Cyclops and Phoenix finally encounter Essex, they recognize him as the man who caused them endless suffering with his cloning science, and Cyclops is mightily tempted to play “kill baby Hitler,” even though Essex has not yet become Mister Sinister. Apocalypse fights with the duo and spirits away Cyclops, after which he binds the hero and makes him listen to screeds like, “You cannot combat strength with goodness and loyalty, only with greater strength.” Meanwhile, Essex regains a little of his humanity by succoring Phoenix when she’s injured. However, it’s too late for the Man of Science. Rebecca dies in childbirth, taking her second child with her, and leaves her husband with his new identity, that of being entirely “sinister.”

 


Apocalypse continues his plot to make Earth into a “modern Golgotha” (by which one assumes he means a “hill of skulls,” not the site of a transcendent savior). Phoenix tries to rescue Cyclops, but the villain subdues both crusaders. Apocalypse then confers super-villain status upon Essex, so that he becomes “forever branded” as Mister Sinister. However, the machinations of the high and mighty are laid low when some of Cyclops’ lowlife-allies venture into Apocalypse’s lair and free the X-heroes. By that time Apocalypse is off to foster the, uh, apocalypse. Phoenix manages to restrain Cyclops from killing the nascent super-villain Sinister, and to some extent Sinister responds by telling the heroes where they can find Apocalypse. The two of them prevent Apocalypse from one of his dastardly deeds, but the time-spell starts wearing off, drawing them back to their own era. Apocalypse, his plans foiled by both Sinister and the X-Men, returns to his hibernation chamber, the better to set up continuity with whatever Marvel writers had him do next.

 

In my review of GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS, I noted that only rarely had X-writers managed to use the implicit themes of the X-concept to best effect. “Origin of a Species” can take its place as one of the few times an author managed to use those themes to meditate on the divided nature of humanity. There are no super-powered mutants, but our myths of exaltation and damnation are as real as the proverbial Berkleyan stone. “Species” concludes in 1882, as the mutated Essex attends the funeral of his former colleague Charles Darwin. The story ends with the villain reaffirming his commitment to inhuman experimentation—and yet, the last image is that of a music box that once belonged to Essex’s wife. Sinister discards the trinket, trying to put the past behind him. But the “camera’s” focus on the box, uttering its bell-like sounds, may be sounding the toll for the eventual overturning of his evil devotions—to the extent, that is, that any comic-book super-fiend’s destiny can ever come to an end.

HOW CONTEMPT BREEDS UNFAMILIARITY PT. 3

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which I would exclusively appropriate the name of Imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control, laxis effertur habenis, reveals "itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant" qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement... Coleridge, BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA, PT. 14.


 

Coleridge's concept of art as a vast fusion of many different contrary aspects of life substantially agrees with my notion of the dialectic between "the unfamiliar" and "the familiar." In the previous two essays, I've defined a "primary familiarity" that applies principally to "life-as-we-live-in-every-day," and a "secondary familiarity" that is applied to the construction of abstract conceptual forms. I discussed the forms of science and of myth, connecting the latter to the practice of art by speaking of "mythology and its expression through art-works." By this I was not implying an absolute identity between myth and art. I believe that both forms strive for a fusion between the familiar and the unfamiliar, in contrast to science's quest for total familiarity of a quantifiable nature. However, regardless as to how deeply myths were believed by their adherents in pre-technological societies, the myth-tales were promulgated with the idea that the society OUGHT to believe them, at least to some degree. The stories of art and literature are promulgated with the idea that the listeners don't necessarily have to believe in them, particularly once the stories began to diverge from stories associated with religions concepts. 


Myth by definition needs concepts that extend beyond familiar life, since myth is meant to explain the workings of the universe through gods or giants or spirits or whatever. Fiction, however, can represent states of existence that go beyond immediate phenomena ("metaphenomenal") or it can represent states of existence that strongly resemble immediate phenomena ("isophenomenal.") We don't know how sort of isophenomenal  stories might have been related by early tribal humans, because most surviving narratives do have mythico-religious associations. Still, one may fairly assume that primitive humans had their versions of simple naturalistic stories even as we do-- fish stories about "the one that got away," or "Your mama is so fat that, etc." Still, for many centuries, metaphenomenal tropes seemed dominant, with the higher classes in, say, medieval Europe telling stories of knights chasing Grails while the lower classes told stories of talking wolves and horses. Centuries would go by before literature would to some extent embrace the POV of science, coming to focus more on stories of ordinary people moving around in a world without magic or miracles.

 In reaction to this sense that the naturalistic world had become more dominant-- arguably showing "contempt" for the old religious myths-- one also sees artists in say, post-Renaissance Europe making more of a freestyle use of magic and miracles than one saw in medieval Europe. Certainly Shakespeare's MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM feels more like the playwright's personal and playful take on fairies than like any attempt to adhere to any mythic or folkloric concept of fairies. Roughly a century later Europe would begin to see the rise of what some call "proto-science-fiction," as seen in Swift's 1726 GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, while, about forty years after that, we see the invention of the first Gothic novel with Walpole's 1764 CASTLE OF OTRANTO. As different as these two eighteenth-century works are from one another, they both depend on challenging the familiarity of the average reader by opening them up to new worlds of unfamiliarity-- though it's axiomatic that no metaphenomenal work can be too totally divorced from the familiar world, or it would be impossible for readers to understand, to say nothing of failing to exercise what Coleridge calls art's "synthetic" power.

This is the sense in which I'm claiming that Aesopian contempt-- the sense that things can be taken for granted, including the predominance of a naturalistic phenomenality-- "bred" unfamiliarity. At a time when it was difficult if not impossible to put forth new mythico-religious concepts, due to the vested interests of established religions, literature develops a wide number of genres designed to perpetuate a sense of unfamiliarity within an apparently familiar world. Even many "high class" artists, particularly among the English and German Romantics, launched such experiments with metaphenomenal material, as we see with Hoffmann's GOLDEN POT and "The Sandman," Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, and Coleridge's own experiment with vampire-fiction, the unfinished ballad CHRISTABEL. From one viewpoint, if the prehistoric myth-maker was trying to counter the unfamiliarity of the physical world with images of the familiar (like making the sun into a godly charioteer), the authors of metaphenomenal fiction were challenged by the familiarity of science's reading of the physical world into generating new images of the unfamiliar.

Hmm, I believe I need at least one more essay to clarify the specifics of the differences between the uncanny-metaphenomenal and the marvelous-metaphenomenal. Possibly tomorrow.