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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, April 19, 2018

STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PT. 2

Just a minute ago, I concluded Part 1 by saying:

In the upcoming Part 2, I'll justify the connection of the two types of meaning with my title regarding the nature of strong and weak propositions.
I'll try to set down my theme statement as succinctly as I can, but some grounding for my use of the word "proposition" is necessary. 

It's widely stated that of the usual "parts of language"-- declarative, interrogative, imperative or exclamatory-- propositions are filed under the heading of declarations. 

Now, this is surely true when one is speaking of language as it is used in one-on-one discourse, or even in discourse between one and a multitude. However, literature is not concerned with outright declarations as such. Sir Philip Sidney argued that "the poet never affirmeth, and therefore never lieth." This is tantamount to stating that the poet's declarations are structured more as possibilities than absolute truths.

Obviously, there are some poets who do "affirm" more than others, but Sidney's analysis is on target. Commonplace language deals with strong propositions, but literature favors weaker propositions.

Further, even within literature, there's a hierarchy of strength between the concrete, lateral/literal meaning, and the abstract, vertical meaning of both overthought and underthought.

To return to the two LI'L ABNER sequences referenced in Part 1, it's evident from the way Al Capp works that his cycles-- usually running from four to six months-- could be unified in terms of their action, like "D. Yokum Visits," or simply a motley group of episodes, like "General Bullmoose Debuts." 

The propositional strength of the lateral meaning in both is equally strong, for the lateral meaning is identical with "everything that happens in the stories." Disgustin' Yokum using his unearthly ugliness to turn Wild Bill Hickup into a stone statue and Li'l Abner letting the Slobbovians legally change him into a female are equally strong propositions, in terms of the reader's engagements with them-- though obviously, neither story-structure possesses any "truth-value" for reality as such.

Yet the abstract vertical meaning is even weaker than the assorted vicissitudes associated with "the stories." Many readers can read past the symbolic discourses in LI'L ABNER without noticing their existence, while others will read them purely in terms of their alliance to didactic discourse, as in "Capp is a great satirist, because he makes fun of rich people").

Yet the weakness of weak propositions is also their strength, for readers inevitably seek to justify their appreciation of favored artists via abstract propositions. 

At the same time, even though "Visits" is like a well-constructed brick kiln, while "Debuts" is sort of a tumble-down brick house, it's the latter, less organized work that gave birth to one of the strip's more recognizable characters, General Bullmoose, while Disgustin' Yokum is most probably barely remembered even by Capp's remaining fans.

Thus the weakness of weak propositions can be both a strength and a weakness at the same time.

STRONG AND WEAK PROPOSITIONS PT. 1

In short, ODKIN SON OF ODKIN is an assortment of odds and ends, lacking the relative unity of KING OF THE WORLD. But certainly many of those conceptual "bricks" possess considerable mythic power by themselves, even if they aren't assembled into a satisfying structure. In contrast to the works I've labeled inconsummate, the symbolic value of the building-blocks has not been distorted. The value merely "lies in state," like one of Atlan's bodies, and fails to come alive.-- NEAR MYTHS: ODKIN, SON OF ODKIN.

This 2016 essay is the only one in which I adapted Levi-Strauss's concept of bricolage to literature. I'm sure other critics have ventured the comparison, though I also tried to tie it to the Aristotelian concept of the "unity of action," which in two essays, here and here, provides my "line between fair and good." In the second essay I compared different examples of Jack Kirby's work, just as in ODKIN I had opposed two examples of Wally Wood's work. It occurred to me, though, that two of my essays on Al Capp's LI'L ABNER might better illustrate both bricolage and unity of action, not least because the two story-cycles-- ["D. Yokum's Visit"] and ["General Bullmoose's Debuts"]-- were produced right on top of one another, at a time when the artist's powers of expression were undiminished (in contrast, say, to Wood's debilitating condition at the time he completed ODKIN).

"Visit," starting in late December 1952 and lasting through March of the next year, is shorter than "Debuts," lasting from March to August 1953. Brevity sounds like it might be conducive to Aristotle's unity of action, since the philosopher argued that the most unified works should focus on one primary action, though not without the potential for assorted subplots. (For instance, the primary action of THE ILIAD is "the wrath of Achilles," though there's room for quite a few subplots about Paris and Helen, Hector and his family, et al.) However, in modern fiction brevity does not necessarily confer unity.

In the second part of THE LINE BETWEEN FAIR AND GOOD, I mentioned that the superior works were those that seemed to articulate a sort of "theme statement," though I was careful to distinguish between themes associated with discursive thinking, or "the overthought," from those associated with symbolic discourse, or "the underthought." I also specified that these themes could reinforce one another, though they did not necessarily have to do so. In the case of both Capp story-cycles, Capp succeeded in having them reinforce each other for the most part, though I consider the overthought and underthought weaker in "Debuts" as opposed to "Visits." Thus, since Capp's powers of expression had to be roughly equal when he produced the two sequences, I had to decide what if any factors led him to de-emphasize what I've started calling the "vertical meaning" of "Debuts." And back in RETHINKING THE OVERTHOUGHT, I identified the somewhat competitive partner of vertical meaning, "lateral meaning:"

The literal meaning is, amusingly enough, also the "lateral meaning;" one arrives at it by following the progression of events and expressed feelings from point A to point Z, and that is "what happened"...Most readers quite logically are concerned with lateral meaning, which takes in both "the function of sensation" and "the function of feeling"-- and in truth, the abstractions of both overthoughts and underthoughts are only possible when constructed on the foundation of concrete experience. Thus, I personally can still enjoy many narratives that don't have much in the way of abstract meaning, as long as they excel in terms of sensation, feeling, or some combination thereof. 

Thus it seems to me that Capp's approach to ABNER, from its genesis in 1934 to its conclusion in 1977, was one which, like most comic strips, privileged lateral over vertical meaning, as I mentioned in 2015's STRIP NO-SHOW:

What the elitists missed, however, was that comic strips, even at their greatest levels of excellence, were always hampered by the factors of serial progression. Certainly Sunday pages like NEMO and PRINCE VALIANT could get away with a somewhat "painterly" approach to comics-narrative, but they were the exceptions. Most story-strips, whether they appeared only on weekdays, on Sundays, or in a combined form, chose to pursue a straightforward linear narrative-- again, one designed to seduce the readers into regularly partaking of the newspaper that carried the comic. Caniff may have been the paradigmatic figure here, in part because one can see him channeling the "invisible style" of most Hollywood films of his time.... This linear narrative, in essence, followed the same association I've outlined for the sensation and feeling functions. The visual part of a given strip communicates what kinds of sensations that the characters are experiencing, and the verbal part gives it feeling-context: whether the reader is supposed to be happy or sad when a given character is killed.
While there's no inevitable conflict between vertical and linear meaning, any more than there is between overthought and underthought, such conflict can take place when the artist becomes a little too "workmanlike" in terms of how he assembles the "bricks" of his storylines. This is particularly true of Capp, who shows a particular fondness for piling one story-trope atop another, with no detectable concern for Aristotelian unities.

In the upcoming Part 2, I'll justify the connection of the two types of meaning with my title regarding the nature of strong and weak propositions.


ANOTHER POLITICAL RANT

This one I decided to preserve in case it gets removed from CBR, though the incident that provoked it is pretty nugatory. After I expressed the opinion that the two guys in the Philadelphia Starbucks incident were "troublemakers," one poster asked me my reasons:

___________

they came into the shop, asked to use the restroom, and were told they couldn't without being customers.

You would think that if they REALLY needed to use the restroom, and REALLY planned in advance to wait for a friend as they later claimed, they would have bought some lousy low-priced item so that they could wait in comfort. Instead, they decided to sit around and buy nothing, which indicates that they got their dander up because the manager didn't defer to their sense of entitlement.

Some little details I bet none of the esteemed news media will cover: did the friend of these poor, offended individuals ever show up to verify their story?

Did they really just sit them holding their water for the entire time that it took for (a) the manager to ask them to leave, (b) for her to get through to the cops, (c) and for the cops to arrive? Wow, such a testament to fortitude. Right up there with Rosa Parks.:p

edit: Okay, now I've come across a news item in which the guys' names are given, and they said they were there to keep a meeting for a "real deal"-- and in THIS item, the "friend"/investor IS named-- but the early versions of the news items were negligent with these details, and I doubt most readers cared anyway. Then the question once more becomes, "If you're going to meet at a public place for a business deal, why the hell wouldn't you buy a damn cuppa coffee to smooth things over?"

No mention in the above CBS news piece of the allegation that they asked to use the bathroom first, but until I see something further, I tend to suspect CBS elided that detail to make a better story.

SECOND EDIT:

Yeah, TIME does mention the bathroom allegation here, so CBS is crap.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: [GENERAL BULLMOOSE DEBUTS], LI'L ABNER (1953)

There are almost no scans online for me to pirate for this week's essay, except this one:



And it happens to be the same scan I used in an earlier essay: the cover of Kitchen Sink's nineteenth collection of LI'L ABNER strips, where I reviewed the continuity I entitled "D. Yokum's Visit." In contrast to the relative unity of "Visit," the next six months is something of a motley group of loosely associated plotlines, of which the most important one is the introduction of Capp's menacing magnate, General Bullmoose. There also aren't many scans of him, which seems odd given that he's one of the few support characters whom an earlier generation knew pretty well, if only thanks to the 1959 film.  Here's one not from the "Debuts" continuity:




Most of the plotlines are exemplars of what I've called "lateral meaning," for they have no point except to engage the reader in terms of both kinetic and dramatic potentialities: "If the Reader Likes Character D, he'll be interested in seeing how Challenge K affects him." They go like this:

(1) Shortly before the birth of the first child of Abner and Daisy Mae, perennial jinx Joe Btfsplk wanders back into Dogpatch. He's warned to keep away from the expecting parents, lest he jinx their unborn child. He descends into an underground cave, but the cave happens to tunnel down under Abner's house, so that bad things start happening to the Yokums anyway.

(2) To better support his future offspring, Abner tries to find work, without success. However, perhaps due to the jinx, two strangers from the quasi-Russian realm of Slobbovia show up in Dogpatch. One is female wrestler Tara Legoff-- one of Capp's many statuesque beauties-- and her manager-father, Rip Von Legoff. They want to find a quintessentially American female sparring partner for Tara, but for some damn reason, the only one who meets their requirements is Li'l Abner. So Abner dresses up in drag and goes on the road, and Rip helps him fake his death so that Daisy Mae won't miss him, or something like that.

(3) Thanks to the newspapers covering the gorgeous lady of wrestling and her dolled-up sparring partner, the great financier General Bullmoose decides that he wants his puny son Weakfish to marry whoever wins in a bout between Tara and "Li'l Anya." The Slobbovians, hot to marry into money, decide to have Tara use a killer-move on Abner, and though he doesn't die, he does lose. 

(4) His job terminated, the big lummox decides to go back to Dogpatch, only to find out that his bereaved wife has chosen to remarry, in order to give Baby Yokum a father. Abner faces assorted delays that keep him from Daisy Mae's side-- not least an encounter with Capp's zoot-suited evildoer Evil-Eye Fleegle-- but in the end, Abner returns and stops the wedding. Daisy Mae then gives birth without ever showing any visible evidence of being pregnant.

Now, all four of these plot-threads satisfy the reader's need for lateral meaning, but only in Plot #3 does Capp "go vertical." Some of his vertical meaning consists of discursive "overthoughts," like naming the manipulative multi-millionaire after the Bull Moose Party, which ran Theodore Roosevelt for president in 1912, and having the character use a motto based on a saying attributed to General Motors: "What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the country." But there's a deeper level of "underthought."

The Roosevelt reference is actually more meaningful than the motto, for Capp draws Bullmoose as a huge, muscular old man with a walrus-mustache. He's intensely turned on by the photos of Tara and Li'l Anya, but knows he can't mate with them anymore ("If only I were eighty again"). He chooses to defer his lust to his son Weakfish, a puny fellow who protests, "But father-- I'm only 52." What we have here, then, is a literary myth with both psychological and sociological ramifications: one in which a powerful father somehow gives birth to a sickly son. Oddly, Bullmoose never brings up the most logical motivation-- that he wants Weakfish to marry a "wild beast of a woman" so that he'll sire a son better than he is. The only motivation he gives is that such a marriage will supposedly make Weakfish capable of running Bullmoose's empire if Bullmoose should ever drop dead. Weakfish, however, is in love with a specimen of femininity as puny as he is: "Olivia de Backache." (Possibly this was Capp's little shot at Olivia de Havilland's portrait of Melanie Wilkes, the dishrag-like character from 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.) Weakfish musters just enough courage to try eloping with Olivia. However, Bullmoose finds out, and with "two phone calls" he reduces Olivia's father to penury. Weakfish, agreeing with his father that the Bullmooses cannot "have a pauper's blood in our family." jilts Olivia-- though no one brings up the fact that neither of the "lady wrestlers" are of the moneyed classes.

While Abner/Anya has no desire to marry Weakfish, Tara is clearly interested in Weakfish's money. Thus the outcome of the match works out well for the two contenders, though not for Bullmoose's shrimpy son. He's last seen running out of the wrestling-hall as Tara chases after him. That's how Capp leaves them, the picture of an unmasculine man being pursued by a super-feminine woman. The only good thing in Weakfish's future is that, unlike the Dogpatch males who get ambushed and married by predacious women during Sadie Hawkins' Day, the scion of the Bullmoose line will probably get killed on his wedding-night.


QUICK STAN LEE COMMENT

Something I posted on the general subject of Ditko and Kirby leaving Marvel in the 1960s, and the "end of that era:"

I agree with the general feeling [about how good Kirby was in the sixties], though I'm also a fan of Kirby's NEW GODS and a handful of his other self-scripted works. However, we should keep in mind that Stan Lee probably would have left Kirby and Ditko if they hadn't left him. Stan quit being a regular scripter in the middle 1970s, and I believe his main excuse was that he just had so much to do campaigning for the Marvel Age of Comics, he had no time for writing. There's probably some truth in this, but I think that if he'd really wanted to do it, he'd have found a way. I'd have to check the timing, but at some point in the 1970s he started pulling down a salary as "publisher," to the extent that he could even step down as chief editor, and ceased to have anything to do with the published comics. Though I get the sense that Lee really got a kick out of writing at times, it was a job first and foremost, and when he got a chance to step down and make money doing something else-- something that allowed him to express the persona he'd created as a "god of comics"-- he did it, and barely did any writing after that.  It's also possible that he, more than Kirby or Ditko, was getting burned out on regular comics. I like a little bit of his mid-70s work, but even his best stuff is pale next to his lesser sixties work.

Friday, April 13, 2018

ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE PT .4

End-thoughts on the Narrative--

In previous installments all of my examples of fictional psycho-killers have been singular. However, it's possible to have more than one psycho-killer in a given narrative. Again using films as an easy resource, "dual psychos" are a favorite device in the realm of the "fake psycho" narrative. For instance, 1964's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, which numerous critics deem the first of the Italian "giallo films," has two people donning the mask of the killer at different times during the story.




Thereafter, the dual-psycho film became common, ranging from 1971's BAY OF BLOOD to 1996's SCREAM. However, it's relatively rare to encounter two psycho-killers who are not initially associated with one another, and when this trope is used, it tends to yield comic results, as with the 1987 film PSYCHOS IN LOVE.


The comedy may stem from violating the "one gimme" premise associated with most films in the subgenre. However, this may tend to be more true of films in either the naturalistic or uncanny domains, given that FREDDY VS. JASON works as "straight" horror despite its use of assorted comic touches. 



However, marvelous psychos don't seem to lend themselves to the concept of the extended family. The most family iteration of the "weird family" arises from the American "old dark house" film, implicitly named for the 1932 film THE OLD DARK HOUSE. 


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However, though the HOUSE is full of weirdos, only one of them is intentionally murderous, and his status as a "psycho killer" is debatable. 1965's SPIDER BABY is probably a better exemplar of a family of psycho killers.


Of course, the first two TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE films qualify, even though Leatherface remains the primary psycho. 


 Rustic environments seem to breed families or even whole societies of psychos. The 1972 DELIVERANCE presents a whole society of degenerative hillfolk, though it remains firmly within the naturalistic domain-- unlike the more overtly weird WRONG TURN franchise of "killbillies." However, the largest psycho-killer society is almost certainly the town of hostile Southerners described by H.G. Lewis's film-title, TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!



One last note on the psycho-killer narrative is that it has proved so popular as to spawn hybrids that don't quite conform to my model. The first four films in the LEPRECHAUN series are almost indistinguishable in tone from the ELM STREET series, in that both concern a hideous supernatural being who kills indiscriminately and makes many bad jokes. However, the Leprechaun is "outside horror," in that he has no psychological motives; he's just evil. 



There are even a few serial killers who make pacts with the devil for their marvelous powers, such as the Cenobites of the HELLRAISER film-franchise. But in this and similar cases, it's understood that whether the modern-day killer calls upon Old Scratch or Leviathan, his powers are rooted in a tradition of folkloric magic outside the province of the cruder, but more normative, psycho-killer narrative.


ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO KILLER NARRATIVE PT .3

In Part 2, I attempted to better define the psycho-killer subgenre by contrasting two classes of monster: one whose roots are in psychological processes as modern culture understands them, and one in which the monster originates from processes allied with either archaic folklore and magic, or with innovations in science. However, it belatedly occurred to me that my distinction drew on one made by Stephen King in his 1981 essay-book DANSE MACABRE. Having realized this, I chose not to go back and reread the King passages on this subject, since it's probable that I'd deviate from his theory in any case. In this 2013 review of several CHILDREN OF THE CORN films, I said:

In his nonfiction work DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King made a distinction between "inside horror," dealing with the sort of horror stemming from human motivations, and "outside horror," dealing with horror stemming from the nonhuman.  
Without implicating Stephen King further in my own theorizing, suffice to say that for me, "outside horror"-- or any comparable fictional affect, for that matter-- is based on human perceptions of nonhuman forces or entities. These perceptions include discovering the nature of the nonhuman, which can only be comprehended through one of two cultural concepts. If it's something that seems to hearken back to the earliest times of humankind, it's "magic." If it's something that is better allied to the advance of current human knowledge, then it aligns with the cultural concept of "science." In fiction the concept of magic give rise to such forms as "high fantasy" and 'supernatural fiction," for which there is no handy portmanteau term, while the concept of science has given rise to two non-identical portmanteaus: "science fiction" and "speculative fiction."

Now, based on these brief descriptions, one might expect everything in the latter cultural concept, "science," to also align with the concept of modernity. However, in the history of literature both "fantasy" and "science fiction" have been traditionally rejected by critics who claimed to represent the spirit of modernity, ranging from Edmund Wilson to Theodor Adorno. My interpretation of this phenomenon is that the apostles of modernity emphasize the status quo of current existence to such an extent that anything that either "goes back" or "goes forward" is often rejected out of hand. Thus, even though the concept of science has proven vital in modernity's rejection of the concept of magic, the apostles must reject fiction about science that has not happened yet just as much as they reject fiction about magical forces and entities.

I mentioned in Part 2 that in the domain of cinema, the most common iteration of the psycho-killer monster is a human being whose evil stems from his psychological motivations. Further, I asserted that most films about such monsters generally pursued either a naturalistic or an uncanny phenomenality. However, there are a few monsters who have marvelous aspects, even though I find that these do not explain their evil, as Dracula's evil is explained by the folkloric tradition of vampirism. The most common form of the marvelous psycho-killer is usually a revenant of some kind. Freddy Krueger is the most famous ghostly killer, though sometimes one sees the body rather than the soul survive death, as with the Maniac Cop--



And "Uncle Sam" from the 1996 video of the same name.


And then there are also psycho-killers whose spirits become embodied in nonhuman objects, like the celebrated Chucky.


Occasionally marvelous psycho-killers don't technically die, but are possessed by unfathomable forces that make it impossible to kill them, as with Michael Myers--


While Jason Voorhees is noteworthy for starting out as an uncanny psycho-killer who graduated to marvelous status once his producers decided it was just too complicated to revive him the old way.



What all of these marvelous psychos have in common is that there's usually very little expatiation on the "rules" that make their existence possible, in contradistinction to the type of rule-based narratives one finds in fantasy and science fiction. Again, the aberrant psychology of the psycho-killer, the thing that makes him kill and kill again, is the main feature of these films. I would say this probably applies to psycho-killer fiction in general, but can't claim to be deeply read in the history of prose psychos.


It's also noteworthy that when ordinary humans have to battle marvelous psycho-killers, only rarely do they use any rule-based strategy. The Dream Warriors of the third Freddy Krueger film articulate some very vague rules about forming "dream bodies," but one simply doesn't see a strong emphasis on such abstractions.

Part 4 coming up next.