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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, January 18, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: HELLSING (1997-2008)

Ye shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised. Ye must be proud of your enemies; then, the successes of your enemies are also your successes.-- Nietzsche,  "War and Warriors," THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA.

Since the rise of the distinct genre of horror-fiction in the 19th century, the vampire subgenre has often centered its horrific thrills upon the victim's loss of identity. The vampire breaks down the normal borders of his victim's whole being. The attack may be physical, as in drinking someone's blood, or it may be on a psychological/metaphysical level, forcing the victim to drink vampiric blood, so that he or she loses even the identity of a victim, becoming instead another being poised on the borders of the living and the dead. Bram Stoker's DRACULA provides the "ur-text" of vampire mythology for later authors, and the majority of authors have followed Stoker's example, focusing upon vampirism as a series of metaphysical and/or psychological assaults upon the victim's individual will. Vampire-tropes are less often used for large-scale sociological myths, except when they're merged with other metaphenomenal tropes, like the apocalyptic war between good and evil.

War threatens the human sense of identity in a much less personal manner. When wars are staged on the apocalyptic scale, it doesn't matter whether they take place in naturalistic or metaphenomenal domains, for all such "world wars" draw countless persons from numerous realms, forcing them to subsume their individual desires in order to defeat a common enemy. DRACULA presents the reader with a covert, small-scale conflict between the Transylvanian Count and a band of English citizens (and one American) led by the Dutch doctor Abraham Van Helsing. But what if a "world war" took place between the living and the undead, with two of the undead pledged to defend the living against a mad warmonger?



Kohta Hirano's ten-volume manga epic HELLSING takes its name from Stoker's vampire-hunter Van Helsing, though it's hard to imagine that the author wasn't aware of the accidental pun in the name, implying that "hell" could "sing." The story takes place in what seems to be an alternate world, in which Protestants and Catholics still mount armed campaigns against one another. The Protestants of England are represented by the organization Hellsing, masterminded by Lady Integra Hellsing, descendant of the original Dutch doctor. However, the group Hellsing's purpose is not to skirmish with Catholics but to guard against eruptions of the supernatural. Only two historical events are repeatedly stressed in HELLSING: the Van Helsing group's original defeat of Dracula in the late 1800s, and the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. How much time has passed, and how many other differences there may be in the world's post-WWII makeup, are not things Hirano bothers with, as one of his primary purposes is to render to his readers a big, noisy shonen fantasy full of blazing guns and bloody fangs. It's also a loving tribute to other pop-cultural myths other than than Bram Stoker's, for it includes references to APOCALYPSE NOW, DUNE and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Even Hirano's generic name for the monsters in his world-- including not only vampires but zombies and a few werewolves-- betrays its pop-culture roots, since the name of the monsters, "Midians," is most likely borrowed from the monster-filled city of Midian in Clive Barker's 1988 novella CABAL.

And yet, Hirano weaves a tapestry that is as deep as it is wide: one that evokes not only the vampire-myth's concerns with personal identity, but also the philosophical concepts of Friedrich Nietzsche as they apply to the chaos of war and the nature of the human will.


Even before the threat to England proper begins, Integra is forced to fight for control of Hellsing following the death of her father. Her corrupt uncle plots to slay Integra and almost succeeds, except that Integra stumbles upon a hidden secret of her distant Dutch ancestor: the dessicated corpse of Count Dracula, held in a room in Hellsing headquarters. In time-honored cinematic tradition, Integra sheds blood upon the corpse and it comes back to life, slaying her attackers. But unlike most versions of the master vampire, this one becomes the servant of the female descendant of his own slayer, and becomes her primary weapon in the ensuing conflict. He even signifies his subjugation by taking the reverse-name "Alucard," even though Integra is fully aware of his true identity. However, as if to prove that old habits die hard, especially among the undead, Alucard uses his power to enlist his own servant: another Englishwoman, the naive but feisty police officer Victoria Seras. Throughout the hellacious battle that comes, Victoria serves as something akin to the callow new recruit in war-films, and it's through her eyes that the reader sees the horrors of bloody battle.



Stoker's fictional Dracula was the bane of England in the 1800s, but Nazi Germany became a real-life threat over thirty years later. In the midst of sectarian quarrels between the Protestants and the Catholics, a recrudescent quasi-Nazi movement arises. I say "quasi-Nazi" because the movement has no preoccupation either with the tenets of Nazi belief or with Hitler's desire to bring all of Europe under his aegis. Rather, a mysterious leader, known only as The Major, marshals massive forces against England, forces including both mortal men and "Midians," since only the latter have the power to battle Alucard. The Major's only purpose is to unleash "the dogs of war" at every opportunity, apparently agreeing with Nietzsche ( though the philosopher is never directly quoted)-- regarding the salutary effects of war:

Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause.


I won't go into great detail about the military maneuvers of this "Second Blitz" or about the many side-stories respecting supporting-characters. However, I should mention Iscariot, the Catholic assassination wing, in which Hirano seems to have conflated the stories of the arch-traitor Judas and those of the Hebrew Zealots, the anti-Roman terrorists from the era of Jesus of Nazareth. Iscariot's foremost killer is Irish-Catholic Anthony Anderson, an inhumanly strong human being who would rather fight the master vampire than the Major. To religious fanatic Anderson, the vampire is the epitome of blasphemy. (Anderson's scenes, though brutal, always convey a bit of humor, since the assassin speaks in a thick brogue that makes Barry Fitzgerald sound like Noel Coward.)


Alucard shares sentiments of both the Major and Anderson. In life, Alucard fought in the wars between his people and the Ottoman Turks, and saw so much slaughter that he came to conceive of human fighting as a form of "prayer" to an uncaring God. At some point he even thinks that hecatombs of wasted lives will attract God's attention, thinking that "Jerusalem will descend" as a result. Yet Alucard, unlike Stoker's Dracula, is disgusted with his prolonged existence, and fantasizes about being destroyed by someone like Anderson. Further, whereas Stoker's Count never remembered any of his victims, Alucard is a composite being, who has no true shape (or identity) of his own, and who is made up of all the previous souls he's devoured. In fact, in the climax the Major even finds a way to use Alucard's formless nature against him.

The climax illustrates Hirano's skillful opposition between the human will and the will-lessness of monsters like Alucard. The Major reflects to Integra that he knows it would feel "wonderful" to become a vampire, to exist through "combination with the existence of others, the fusion of lives, the unification of minds." Yet he believes that fragile humanity is more glorious, due to the individual's sense of identity. "What's mine ist mine. Each hair, each drop of blood. I am me," says the Major, putting forth a Nietzschean take on Aristotle's law of identity. Even after it's revealed that the villain is a cyborg-- accounting for his youthful looks many years after WWII-- he insists, prior to his destruction, that "so long as I haf my own vill... I'll still be human!"


Admittedly, because HELLSING is a big noisy shonen manga, it's not concerned with philosophical subtleties. But among the ranks of hyperviolent fantasy-adventures that also have philosophical undercurrents, HELLSING is one of the best of its kind.







Sunday, January 14, 2018

SECOND PRESENCE, ECCENTRIC, BUT NOT PERIPHERAL

The title refers back to the 2016 essay THIRD PRESENCE, PERIPHERAL. That title referred to presences in a narrative peripheral to the concerns of the focal presences. These peripheral types might be actual characters, like the genie-figures I mentioned, or they might be presences that have no personality, like the unseen germs that devastate the Martian fleet in both H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS and the 1953 film-adaptation.

"Peripheral" was a term I was trying on for size as a permanent critical term, but "third presence" was more frivolous, merely playing on terms like "third person plural." More recently, I've replaced what I originally meant by "peripheral" with "eccentric." The latter, connoting everything outside the center of a given narrative or group of narratives, seemed to make a better pair with my opposing term "centric," connoting everything pertaining to said center.

And yet "peripheral," though not useful as an ongoing term, isn't without meaning in my system. The periphery of a circle is not just everything outside the center, but the circle's outer limits-- and this is indeed what I was talking about when I spoke of the influence of certain entities upon the combative mode of a given work.

The most normative form of a combative narrative is the one in which the narrative action is worked out between the centric"protagonist" and the dominant "eccentric element," the "antagonist." In 2013's PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX, I stated:

Though it's possible that I'll encounter some exceptions, there seems no way to demonstrate the persistence of the narrative combative value unless there is some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax. 
I then provided for a few variations. For instance, the combative struggle could be interrupted so that there was no clear victory between the opponents, as is the case in the kaiju film KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. I also noted that sometimes the victory might be obtained not by the centric presence, but by someone allied to the centric presence.

Another variation is seen in my review of the 2012 DARK SHADOWS,wherein vampire protagonist Barnabas Collins has a violent conflict with the villain but is taken out of the fight, after which the villain is destroyed by the main character's allies. But as long as there has been some narrative plot-thread to leads inevitably to some sort of spectacular combat, it doesn't matter if the combat follows the dominant pattern of the main hero overcoming the villain.  In fact, though it's rare for a combative film to end in the defeat of the hero, it does happen, most memorably in 1982's BLADE RUNNER.

Now, an ally to the centric presence is, like the antagonist, an "eccentric presence." So is (to cite one of the examples from THIRD PRESENCE) a character like the witch in THE COURT JESTER. The witch uses hypnosis on protagonist Hubert, enabling him to mount a spectacular fight against his enemy, but that influence falls short of bringing about a spectacular victory, even though Hubert does (sort of) best his adversary. Specifically, I said that when "the protagonists are not not empowered by [their genies'] influence," there took place an "inconsummation of the transitive effect." Yet, I don't believe I ever stated outright that the reverse-- a consummation of the transitive effect-- took place whenever an 'eccentric presence" did indeed empower the protagonist. DARK SHADOWS is one of many film-works in which the combative mode is maintained even when the hero is aided by some eccentric presence, as I've charted in movies like HOOK, BARBARELLA, and even such obscurities as THE HOODED TERROR.

So in some scenarios, the "eccentric presence" is "closer" to the aims of the centric presence, and so it enjoys something like "secondary" status insofar as it helps the hero bring forth the spectacular climax necessary for the combative mode. Other eccentric presences, however, are closer to the "periphery," and so are closer to being "third persons" in the equation. They may have effects that are important to the narrative as a whole, for the religious theme of the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS could hardly be realized without the germs, seen here as part of God's plan, killing off the invaders. Yet the germs' influence undercuts the spectacular violence of Earth's battle against the Martian invaders, rendering Earth's military might nugatory. A contrasting example, one that consummates the transitive effect, is found in 1991's HOOK. In Barrie's PETER PAN, Peter Pan is spared of the dirty work of killing Hook by kicking the pirate off his ship, into the jaws of Hook's secondary foe, the crocodile. The novel's beast is only an unwitting ally to Peter Pan, but he furthers the combative mode just as the germs disperse it. Similarly, the taxidermically-preserved corpse of the crocodile in Spielberg's HOOK serves a similar role. Even though the creature no longer lives, its body still possesses the fatal charisma of Barrie's beast, and so it again serves the purpose of executing the villain so that the hero need not do so.

I have some additional thoughts pertaining to the transitive effect as it applies to both serials and stand-alone works, but these should be worked in the forthcoming second part of A KNIGHT OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY, PT. 1

One of the great curiosities of comic-book mythography is that even though the heroes-- and occasionally, the demiheroes-- are the protagonists with whose will the audience identifies, often much of the mythicity resides within the villains and/or monsters who are in the position of supporting players....as I detailed here, Will Eisner's feature THE SPIRIT was such a genre-chameleon that it's arguable that the titular hero had little myth to call his own, and most of his villains were no better.-- BAD WILL ON TOP (not a reference to Will Eisner), April 2016.

I touched on the importance of the Sir Walter Scott oeuvre in this 2013 essay, but the truth is that I had not then and do not now have a deep acquaintance with Scott's works, unless one counts film adaptations. I did read one book, THE TALISMAN, over thirty years ago, but despite enjoying the work, I wasn't moved to keep reading Scott, probably because he wrote little or no metaphenomenal fiction. I've now finally amended this lack somewhat by finishing what is arguably Scott's most famous novel, IVANHOE.

Though there haven't been that many film/TV adaptations of IVANHOE in comparison to assorted other classics, it's still a name to conjure with, even among people who don't know much about Scott or 19th-century literature. It seems to be the first novel to successfully revive the medieval tradition seen in European courtly romances, but in a naturalistic world, without dragons, faeries, etc.  But according to writer Nancy Springer, who penned both a foreword and an afterword to the 2000 Tor edition of the public domain novel, the knightly hero himself is something less than successful.

Who is the real hero of Ivanhoe? Certainly not Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself, for never was a title character more palely drawn. Even though he is the common thread that strings the novel together, he is all but invisible... He is a pawn, exercising no control of the events around him, a piece of plastic with almost no personality...

Springer then goes on to argue that the true heroes of the novel are two of Scott's supporting characters. One is Richard the Lion-Hearted, newly returned to England following his captivity during the Crusades, a "vibrant, quirky personality" who makes common cause with Robin Hood and his Merry Men in order to recover his throne from Prince John. (IVANHOE is said to be a key influence on the 20th century's development of the Robin Hood narrative.) The other hero is Rebecca, a beautiful Jewess and daughter of money-lender Isaac. Rebecca is easily the most vivid character in the novel. She's also, to bring in my concern for mythicity, the most mythic character, for it's through Rebecca and Isaac that Scott addresses the contemporary sociological concerns of his culture, regarding the emancipation of the Jews in England. Although the novel takes place in a 12th-century England where such an emancipation is not possible, Scott constantly calls attention to the travails of the Jewish people through the experiences of the Jewess and her father. For years prior to my reading of the novel itself, I occasionally encountered statements that Ivanhoe, who inspired romantic interest in both Jewish Rebecca and his Christian inamorata Rowena, should have wed Rebecca. I share the sentiment, though Scott sets things up so that such a marriage is socially impossible, which may well have been the state of the real world in those days.

Since my opening quote references "villains and monsters," who are usually the carriers of what I call "bad will," I should note in passing that not much of IVANHOE's mythicity inheres in its villains. These are largely the Norman overlords allied to the reign of Prince John, but except for one, most of them seem to me to be standard bad guys, only differentiated by their particular circumstances. The exception is the Templar Knight Sir Brian deBois-Guilbert, who, like Ivanhoe, has returned to England from the Crusades, though the two apparently clashed for some reason even though they were on the same side. At one of John's tournaments Sir Brian espies the lovely Rebecca, and he spends most of the novel trying to win her over. Scott does devote some attention to the torments of the lovelorn knight, whose affection is not reciprocated even before Rebecca falls for Ivanhoe. But Sir Brian doesn't sustain much of a symbolic discourse, for all that Scott makes an effort to critique the elitist and "bigoted" order of the Knights Templar through the evil knight.

From all my statements on centricity, it should plain that I have no problem with a main character having little color-- or mythicity-- of his own. For me Ivanhoe is as much the star of Scott's only story with the character as the Spirit is of his long-running serial adventures. Springer's metaphor of a "common thread" catches some of the sense of Ivanhoe's role in the narrative, but she apparently does not realize how often famous works may be organized around an essentially unremarkable character. The Spirit is not really any better-characterized than Ivanhoe-- Eisner tended to refer to his hero as something along the lines of a "big dumb Irishman"-- and as I mentioned above, most of the mythicity of the Spirit's serial adventures inhere in his supporting characters, just as figures like Rebecca, Richard and Robin Hood are more mythic than Ivanhoe himself.

In both cases the undercharacterized, under-mythicized character functions as a organizing factor. In place of Springer's thread-metaphor, I've repeatedly used the image of the circle with diverse elements swirling about inside it, as when I described these elements as incarnations of "centric and eccentric will." My formulation suggests that there is no firm rule that the hero of a given narrative, whether it is of a serial or a stand-alone nature, must be "the most interesting man in the room." At the same time, there's no rule that he cannot be, or that the narrative's centric will may not include an ensemble of characters who are at least strongly interconnected in some way, be it no more than two or even an indeterminate number.

(Examples of the former would include pairings like those discussed in ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE: the two monstrous enemies in 1934's BLACK CAT and the literal monsters in 1968's THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Examples of the latter would include "swarm-types" like the Aliens from the ALIEN franchise and the Martians from Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS, as well as what I'll tentatively call the "diversified swarm," in which the entities have a common origin but take on diverse-looking appearances, like the Cartagrans from the two-film WAXWORKS franchise.)

My screed is obviously not a one-on-one response to Springer's assertion: she's concerned only with vividness of characterization. Her meditations on Ivanhoe, according to my system, concern only"the relationships of discrete personalities" and so belong to the potentiality I've called "the dramatic," while "the mythopoeic" deals with the "relationships of symbols." Further, "the dramatic," like "the kinetic," belongs in a different bailiwick than "the mythopoeic" and its kissing-cousin "the didactic."
From THE LONG AND SHORT OF WILL:

Plainly, what I call a work's "lateral meaning," glossed with a combination of two of Jung's psychological functions, is confined to what sort of things happen to the story's characters (sensation) and how they feel about those developments (feeling). The function that Jung calls "intuition" finds expression through the author's sense of symbolic combinations, which provides the *underthought* of a given work, while the function of "thinking"finds expression through the author's efforts at discursive cogitation, which provides the work's *overthought.* 

(I note, with yet another digression, that the opposite of "lateral meaning" ought to be "vertical meaning," which takes in both underthought and overthought, in keeping with my use of the term "vertical" here. More on this in another essay.)

Thus, I reject Springer's thesis that a work's "real hero" must be its most dramatically interesting person. A given author may merely wish to use the "centric will" of a given protagonist as an organizing factor, and nothing more, and there have certainly been even duller protagonists within good stories (or story-serials) than either Ivanhoe or the Spirit. Still, this should not overlook one last structural quibble: that a dull viewpoint character is not the same as a dull centric protagonist. Ivanhoe is the star of his show because he provides this linking function, and this contributes to what I've called an *endothelic* status, wherein the "narrative is focused upon the will of the viewpoint character or of someone or something that shares that character's interests." A contrary example of this would be Lemuel Gulliver, who is as dull as Ivanhoe but who, despite being the viewpoint character, is not as important as the worlds he explores. Thus GULLIVER'S TRAVELS fits the category of the *exothelic* in that the narrative is focused on "something outside the interests of the viewpoint character, though not necessarily opposed to them."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: AMERICAN SECRETS (1992)

  “There are no Communists on this world. There were on mine. They’re all dead now.”—J’onn J’onzz, AMERICAN SECRETS.



The DeMatteis-Badger MARTIAN MANHUNTER mini-series was the first major re-interpretation of the J’onn J’onzz character following the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event. Certain aspects of that series are touched upon—and occasionally subverted—in the 1992 AMERICAN SECRETS by Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barretto. It was, in those days, good business sense to maintain some degree of fidelity to the most recent version of a comic-book character’s continuity, even if the visions of writers DeMatteis and Jones could not be more different.

SECRETS takes place in the decade of the 1950s, apparently not long after J’onn J’onzz, a citizen of Mars, became exiled upon the planet Earth. Thus it's also some time before he became a known superheroic presence, particularly through hie membership with the not-yet-assembled Justice League. If the 1992 story had truly been in line with the 1988 mini-series, then J’onn would have no true recollection of his real life on Mars, as it’s not until 1988 that he knows he’s lived with false, concocted memories since he began his time on Earth. Jones doesn’t overtly dispute the DeMatteis scenario, but it’s important to Jones’ narrative that the hero does remember at least his sense of communion with his vanished people, as well as being able to assume his true, “cone-headed” form when he pleases. One minor reason for this, I would imagine, was that once hardcore fans knew the “big reveal” of the mini-series, there was no longer a compelling reason not to make use of the new Martian Paradigm. This was particularly true given the different ambitions of the two writers. DeMatteis was concerned only with penning a eulogy for a solipsistic, psuedo-poetic civilization, but Jones’s intent is sociological. He explores the cultural differences between the new “DC-Mars” and the post-Crisis version of "DC-Earth"—which, by the way, had consolidated two separate cosmogonies, so that the Justice Society, which formerly inhabited another Earth, now shared a common history with the later Justice League.

The dominant impression of American in the 1950s decade has often been characterized as a time of lockstep conformity, as evidenced by such real-world events as the McCarthy hearings and the advent of the Comics Code. Indeed, once the Justice Society’s history was integrated with that of DC’s current heroes, an explanation for their inactivity during the 1950s had to be propounded: one in which the earlier superheroes, crusaders for justice during the war years, retired from the public scene due to Congressional inquiries.

It’s arguable, though, that the decade of the 1940s evinced greater conformity, and that the social codes of that era began to break down in the 1950s, resulting in a strange admixture of conformity and rebellion. The burgeoning medium of television put forth images of contented nuclear families in shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Yet on the margins of society dwelled the disaffected Beat poets, well represented by Allen Ginsburg’s classic phrase, “lizard-headed hipsters” (which phrase makes an early appearance in SECRETS). It was a time in which Americans set themselves up as a capitalistic bulwark against godless Communism, and yet the abuses of money-hungry gangsters resulted in the growth of Communism in Cuba, so that the tiny island became a blemish upon the escutcheon of the Western Hemisphere. And of course, in the same decade when most Americans believed that comic books were purely the province of children, EC Comics and MAD magazine commenced, forming the vanguard of what most historians deem “adult comics.” Dalton Trumbo contemptuously referred to the decade as “the time of the toad.” But through the efforts of Jones and Barretto, it’s more like “the time of the lizard,” in which the lizard, in real life a creature of instinct, becomes rather an image of alien intellect, expressed through the science fiction image of the bug-eyed monster.

Jones and Barretto structure their story after the fashion of the hard-boiled detective story, a genre that prospered throughout the heyday of the pulp magazines and lived again through the newer venue of paperbacks books, even as paperbacks killed off the old pulps. I would imagine that the authors made that choice in part because the Martian Manhunter first saw print in 1955, as a backup feature in DC’s DETECTIVE COMICS. Yet this “man from Mars” didn’t solve crimes by following clues, like the magazine’s headliner Batman. J’onn J’onzz vanquished criminals using his super-scientific Martian powers, while remaining concealed from humankind in the identity of police detective John Jones.


However, in AMERICAN SECRETS J’onn/John must follow the pattern of the hard-boiled detective story. Like the private dicks of earlier days, J’onn has to learn how to follow instinct rather than logic, operating from “a word here, or a hunch there.” A club for Beat poetry leads J’onn to investigate a nationally popular television quiz show, “The Big Question.”  In the process of asking his own questions, J’onn crosses paths with one of the performers, child-star Patty Marie—and minutes later, J’onn sees another performer seemingly murdered during the show’s on-air broadcast. The Martian watches in disbelief as the show’s producers soothe the audience by claiming that the murder was a technical illusion. Another chance encounter at the studio leads J’onn to investigate a record promoter, and that encounter leads the Martian to meet a country-boy singer named Presl—er, Preston Perkins. Then Preston directs the curious alien to an encounter with a crazy artist who makes books about “lizard-headed conquerors,” and this encounter eventually leads the manhunter—accompanied by both the well-coiffed singer and the distressed child star-- to hunt down the heart of the conspiracy, with the help of comic books.





The preceding paragraph covers only the most basic aspects of the first of the three SECRETS installments, and leaves out a lot of stuff, like lizard-headed cops and men who burst into flames whenever J’onn gets too close to the truth.  J’onn himself is the only unifying agent that links all the pieces of the puzzle, for only he, the alien under cover, can discern the little differences in human culture, the differences that might seem like ordinary human conservatism to other humans, but which stand out to the real alien as indicators of extraterrestrial influence. The investigation also allows Jones and Barretto to satirize the real-life aspects of American conservatism, all of which, so far as we know, were not managed by aliens.

One of these was the growth of the suburb, the closed-off community separated from the city proper. Certain early suburban communities were called “levittowns,” and Jones spoofs these with a suburban division named “Leavitzville,” which also puns upon the title of TV’s family-comedy “Leave It to Beaver”—although the too-perfect family J’onn encounters sports the name of “the Andersons,” a borrowing from “Father Knows Best.”

A second aspect is the position of comic books in American culture. In Leavitzville the Martian meets a publisher of comic books, one Melvin Keene, who is a conflation of two major real-life individuals. Predominantly Keene is a fictional version of William Gaines, for Keene, like Gaines, published a line of boundary-pushing comic books, lost his business due to societal and governmental pushback, and survived only by continuing to publish a satirical comics-magazine (MAD in the real world, NUTS in the DC Universe). Yet Keene is also his own father, for the fictional figure is also William Gaines’ famous father, Maxwell. Maxwell Gaines in effect gave life to almost every major DC hero who wasn’t Superman or Batman, as well as bringing a bunch of the superheroes together as the aforementioned Justice Society. Maxwell’s contentions with other DC personnel resulted in a buyout, after which Maxwell briefly published “Educational Comics”—and upon his death, William inherited the company, changed it to “Entertaining Comics,” and made pop-culture history. When the EC line failed, William Gaines had to have MAD distributed by American News, the same company that distributed the comics of his father’s old partners, and later Gaines was obliged to sell MAD to a company that became part of the Time-Warner empire.



Finally, the Martian has his first encounter with the Golden Age, when he finds that even the heroes of the Justice Society have been subverted by the conspiracy. Or have they? One of the heroes discloses a nonsense-word—itself a distortion of one that appeared in various MAD spoofs—and makes it a vital clue that leads the Manhunter to his quarry. And it’s at this point that J’onn J’onzz experiences the quintessential 1950s irony of “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Almost everything in SECRETS works on the same level as the best hard-boiled fiction: as a sort of existential thrill-ride. The only exception is a sequence in which Jones gilds his lily a bit too much. Most of the conspirators believe the same illusion that they project upon the masses, but one exception is “Whitey.”  This kid-actor plays the titular boy-star of Jones’ imitation “Leave It to Beaver” teleseries, but Whitey isn’t a believer in the cult of niceness and decency. The boy--assuming that he’s a real kid, that is-- uses his stellar position to get lots of adult privileges—smoking and getting laid. He even tries to get familiar with Patty Marie, who, whatever her character’s age, is still a child in spirit. I wouldn’t have a problem with depicting this type of scuzzball character in a story where he fit the prevailing concept. But in this story Whitey’s just an indulgence, a needless red arrow to point out how bad the bad guys are.

SECRETS is not one of the better known graphic novels of the nineties, possibly because its appreciation hinges on the reader’s knowledge of DC cosmology. Additionally, its theme diverges from the academically dominant pronouncement of elitist critics: to the effect that “adult comics”like EC were true art and that superhero comics were merely meaningless “commodity art.” Jones’s theme celebrates creativity in any form, and thus SECRETS is—perhaps appropriately—in disagreement with the current ruling class.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

QUICK POLITICAL RIPOSTE RE: TRUMP

Ivanka Trump recently tweeted her support of an Oprah speech regarding sexual harassment, for which, of course, she had to be punished-- not for being against sexual harassment, but for not automatically believing that her father was guilty of same.

I wrote on the usual dumb liberal board:

While it's likely that Trump has been at the least inappropriate with women he's barely known, I don't think Ivanka is wrong in not considering the popular verdict to be fact, when as yet it has not been proved in court. Most of the time, it seems Trump buys off the women suing him. What a deep commitment to justice the plaintiffs have!

Trump's remarks about his daughter's sexual attractiveness also do not prove he's literally attracted to her. It says something about the liberal deafness to humor-- even the bad humor of an uncritical narcissist-- that they can't even CONSIDER that he might be joking when he says he'd be dating Ivanka if he wasn't, you know, her dad. 

And yes, I've seen all the extant quotes. Again, it's baffling why liberals go after Trump for petty crap when he's said and done far worse stuff. Do they think that going after even the petty crap makes them seem unrelenting? Maybe to the converted; others are likely to see it as equally petty.

Monday, January 8, 2018

NEAR MYTHS: "AND SO MY WORLD ENDS" (JLA #71, 1969), MARTIAN MANHUNTER 1-4 (1988)

J'onn J'onzz, a.k.a. "the Manhunter from Mars," remains one of the more quixotic DC characters; a C-list character in terms of being able to sustain his own feature, but strongly recognizable thanks to his long association with the Justice League.


The character's origins, first appearing in a backup strip in DETECTIVE COMICS #225 (1955), were not much more auspicious than various other SF-themed DC characters from the 1950s, though he did get more buildup than, say, Captain Comet or the Knights of the Galaxy. If one dates the Silver Age by beginning with 1954, the first year that the Comics Code took effect, then J'onn was one of the first Silver Age heroes, though he was slow, unlike 1956's Flash, to display any "legs." His nature is not unlike Superman's, with whom he shares several super-powers, though Manhunter also has the propensity of changing his shape as he wishes. Manhunter, like Superman, also a convenient weakness to mitigate his great powers; instead of kryptonite, commonplace fire. But whereas the Man of Steel is an infant when he's rocketed from Krypton to Mars, the Manhunter from Mars is a full-grown Martian adult when the teleport-beam of Earth-scientist Doctor Erdel whisks J'onn from his native world to that of Earth. J'onn J'onzz seemed to accept this exile from his people with remarkable equanimity; for the next fifteen years, during which he briefly enjoyed a stint as a headliner in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, he hardly ever expressed a desire to go home. On rare occasions readers saw glimpses of J'onn's race still living on Mars, but the Martians were portrayed as  no more than a run-of-the-mill alien people.


The findings of the 1964 Mariner-4 flyby, which convinced most people that there was no life on Mars, didn't have any effect on DC's version of Mars until 1969. By that time, not only had J'onn J'onzz lost his series berth in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, editors had dropped him from the Justice League. This fact probably contributed to the decision of the Justice League's then-current writer, Denny O"Neil, to devise a retcon story, in which it was revealed that J'onn's people no longer existed in the DC Universe. "And So My World Ends" in JLA #71 posited that at the time J'onn had been transported to Earth by Doctor Erdel, a war had broken out between J'onn's race of Green Martians and the never-before-seen White Martians. In fact, when J'onn was ":untimely ripped" from his world, he had been serving as a military commander for his people. J'onn shows up on Earth once more and involves the Justice League in investigating a new threat from Mars. The story concludes when the last Green Martian is confronted by the last White Martian.


They fight, and J'onn wins a bittersweet victory, becoming the last Martian. Nor surprisingly, later writers contravened this position, while Steve Englehart revised the O'Neil scenario slightly. O'Neil's story suffered from sloppy logic; if J'onn really had been yanked away from his planet during a crucial military situation, wouldn't he have eventually appealed to his JLA pal Superman to simply take him back to Mars? So Englehart, while not contradicting the events of O'Neil's story, suggested that J'onn had grown away from his world even before everyone on Mars had died. Nevertheless, "And So My World Ends" remains a significant near-myth, in giving the Martian Manhunter greater resonance as the last surviving Martian-- which, while not technically true, rings emotionally true.

The 1986 CRISIS series made it possible to revise all the continuities of DC comics-characters. No one was rushing to revise J'onn J'onzz for a new series, but by chance the 1987 reboot of the JUSTICE LEAGUE under Keith Giffen, Marc DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire gave the old Martian new life. Manhunter had already returned to the League as a regular member in pre-Crisis days, but during the DeMatteis tenure he became the "straight man" to the new "funny JLA." J'onn became more popular with fans, which almost certainly contributed to DC's greenlighting a 1988 mini-series by DeMatteis and Mark Badger.



True, the four-issue MANHUNTER story tailgates on a plot-development from the JUSTICE LEAGUE comic, and several JLA members serve as support-cast-- and comedy relief-- appear in the narrative. However, the life of J'onn J'onzz and his Martian heritage is given a serious treatment, albeit of the "everything you think you know is wrong" nature.

In the JLA story, J'onn ingests a spore in order to save humanity from the spore's effects. Then he begins seeing a strange fiery specter that he originally takes as a hallucination brought on by consuming the spore. But it's soon evident that others can see the specter, and that it can wreak real-world effects. Moreover, the entity claims to be H'ronmeer, one of the gods of Mars, and for a while one wonders if the god is trying to claim worship from the Martian, as the assertive deity of Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" pursues the poem's narrator.

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.        5
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasm├Ęd fears,

But in time it's evident that H'ronmeer has something else in mind. He spirits the Martian away from his allies, and drops him off (J'onn spends a lot of time falling in this story) in the company of none other than Doctor Erdel. Not only the Erdel in this continuity not dead like his predecessor, he also teleported to Earth a Martian suffering from a massive trauma. In his true Martian form, J/'onn is not a muscular, beetle-browed green humanoid, but a green humanoid whose limbs are almost impossibly attenuated.


While giving aid and comfort to the exiled alien, Erdel talks him into using his shapeshifting power to take his beetle-browed appearance, in order to look less alien. Erdel even used hypnosis to reprogram J'onn so that the Martian thought Erdel had died. J'onn was so traumatized by the events on Mars that he even destroyed the teleport-apparatus, which is DeMatteis' explanation as to why the character never tried to travel back home.

And what were those events? O'Neil followed the standard association of the planet Mars with the God of War, but DeMatteis makes his Mars a place of mystic peacefulness, with not a White Martian in sight. J'onn, as he undergoes the katabasis of his repressed memories, thinks:

"Was there a time when Martians murdered each other? Once, perhaps, in the dim past-- but violence was an aberration among us, not a natural state. We were a race of poets, mystics, seers and dreamers."

When the Martian race perishes, it doesn't come about from the influence of War, but from his old fellow horseman Pestilence. Plague takes the Martian race, and J'onn has spent years repressing the hideous memories, particularly of the deaths of his wife and daughter. Further, it's revealed that the Martian's supposed vulnerability to fire is psychological, not physiological. In the last years of the pestilence, the Martians tried to avert the sickness by burning the carcasses of the dead,  a strategy which DeMatteis  probably borrowed from real-life practices during Europe's Black Plague. Thus, Erdel snatched J'onn away from certain death alongside his people, though J'onn's "survivor guilt" caused him to want to bury the memories-- as well as, perhaps, motivating him to be a hero on his adopted planet Earth. Even H'ronmeer's fiery appearance is the result of J'onn's phobia toward fire: originally he was a god of life, not of "fire and death."



Finally, the life-god's motivations are revealed. Even though J'onn did not remember the true fate of his people any more, somehow his repression caused the massed spirits of the Martians to remain tethered to the planet, rather than ascending to what DeMatteis calls "heaven." Once J'onn has made peace of the "warring" sides of his being, he's able to bid farewell to his people, and truly accept his new home on Earth.

Significantly, the story concludes with an encomnium to "the man who discovered Mars, Ray Bradbury." It seems likely that DeMatteis seized upon the renewed interest in the Manhunter character to rewrite his origins to something more poetic than the O'Neil revision. In terms of both myth and poetry, DeMatteis is not able to reach any of Bradbury's heights, and if I were judging only that part of the story, I would consider MARTIAN MANHUNTER a "null-myth."

Over the years, though the O'Neil and DeMatteis versions have contributed to the established character of J'onn J'onzz. White Martians made a return to DC's continuity, and since they like J'onn have proven to be vulnerable to fire, it's a given that DC writers chose to ignore the psychological angle re: the Manhunter's weakness. However, though DeMatteis's take on "mystic Martians" is not very deep, he contributed much to the image of J'onn J'onzz as the "wise shaman" figure, to whom the Justice Leaguers often turn for guidance. I believe that the idea of his "true form" persists as well, and that the extinction of the Martians is now something of a conflation of both the O'Neil and DeMatteis stories. It's not a very deep myth, but it has had over the years some compelling moments, especially for a "C-list" character.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

MYTHCOMICS: PIPSQUEAK PAPERS (1967-68)



Wally Wood's PIPSQUEAK PAPERS, first serialized in Wood's WITZEND magazine and reprinted in one issue by Eros Comics in 1993, is an ironic fantasy akin to his later WIZARD KING duology, reviewed here and here. In keeping with its name, PIPSQUEAK occupies a much smaller tapestry, for the story is only twelve pages long, originally set forth in three installments, respectively four, three, and five pages long. However, the story's conciseness enables Wood to explore his psychological concerns with unusual acuity.

Without delving into Wood's biographical background, it's sufficient to state that the artist, despite showing a unique facility for drawing glamorous women, often chose to focus on the shadow side of femininity. In the hands of a lesser artist, this would have boiled down to incoherent misogyny (or, in the case of a female artist, misandry). But Wood takes the simple trope of "how men and women repeatedly screw each other, and not in the good way" and gives the bare trope the power of an obsessive sexual mythology.

The story's first panel introduces its representation of feminine nature: the perpetually nude nymph Nudina, as she awakens one morning from the heart of a flower. Wood's captions specify that as she gambols about her fantasy-forest, she has the habit of posing an "eternal question" to anyone she meets: "Are you a man?" The reader has no idea how many times she's done this, or for what purpose, though later Wood grounds her repetitive guilelessness in the fact that Nudina's virginity renews itself every morning, no matter what's happened to her in the past. In any case, the reader first sees Nudina address the question to an unmoving humanoid sitting on a rock. He doesn't respond, for reasons that are explained later.

However, Nudina has a constant admirer who has apparently professed love to her many times before, a sprite named Pip. Nudina claims that she loves him as well, but she won't join with him because he looks like a "baby man," and just isn't developed enough to satisfy her. A few panels later Nudina's "love" is called into question, for Pip tells her that "my heart is yours." Being literal-minded, the nymph tells her suitor to send the object in question to her, and when a messenger brings a heart to Nudina's corner of the forest, she shows herself to be more voracious than virginal by cooking the heart and eating it.

Immediately afterward, a demonic fellow called "Llewd" approaches Nudina, and takes her "are you a man" question as an invitation. Pip-- who didn't really send the nymph his heart, just that of a slain animal-- attacks Llewd and gets kicked to the forest-curb for it. The sprite wanders away, and bumps into the same immobile humanoid Nudina saw before. Pip figures out that it's an artificial humanoid, whose skull is open so that its maker can put in a proper brain. Pip is small enough to crawl into the android's head and take control of it, much to the annoyance of Smug, the scientist who made the artificial man, and who can't stop Pip from making off with it. Pip uses his new body to trounce Llewd, at which point the "innocent" Nudina demands that her rescuer cut off the would-be rapist's head. Llewd takes a powder and Nudina surrenders herself to her rescuer-- the implication being that somehow, Pip is able to merge his equipment and the humanoid's to good effect.

Smug, however, retaliates by summoning a giant monster, instructed to find Pip and recover the artificial man. Meanwhile Nudina, despite having Pip around, manages to lead on at least two more forest-denizens, whom Pip again has to trounce, so that he begins to suspect that she's getting herself molested on purpose.



Then Nudina finds out that Pip is inside the body of her current boyfriend. The caption tells readers that she's secretly pleased to find out that the "baby man" who loves her is her indirect lover, but this may be because it gives her an excuse to become more demanding. Pip briefly finds surcease by appealing to her vanity, devising a literal pedestal and putting her on top of it to be admired. This doesn't last long, but Pip's problems get worse when he briefly leaves the humanoid and promptly loses it. The giant monster shows up, demanding to reclaim Smug's property. Pip cravenly saves himself by convincing the creature that Nudina is the humanoid Smug wants. Despite Nudina's protests that she's going to bear Pip's baby, the sprite watches while the monster carried off Nudina, and then goes home to bed.

Jaded Pip, however, can't completely forget his early, more innocent love. He begins to experience twinges of pain, and a forest-physician tells Pip that his "little heart is breaking." The sprite goes looking for the missing android, in order to trade it for Nudina, currently in the custody of Smug and being forced to clean the scientist's cave for him.

Pip's quest is promptly interrupted by a female sprite, Lascivia, who has no problems with the size of Pip's equipment. Then Pip has pain-twinges again, and resumes his quest, although Lascivia disputes the doctor's opinion, claiming that "we sprites have no emotions." Finally Pip re-acquires the android, and takes it back to Smug. Pip considers beating up the scientist and absconding with both Nudina and the android, but Smug has too many monsters backing him up.


However, feminine desire is once more a problem even when Pip and Nudina are free, for he realizes he can't satisfy her without the android. He tries to steal it, but Smug is too clever. The scientist captures Pip and recaptures Nudina, keeping them prisoner in his cave to use as drudges. Thus Pip not only loses his freedom, he must share his quarters with a woman he loves but can't satisfy, who is more demanding than ever in her pregnancy. Further, when her birth-pangs begin, Pip's pains return in what seems like the ritual of couvade. Then Nudina has her child, and Pip tries one last time to distance himself by wondering if he's really the father. Nudina shows him that the newborn is exactly identical to Pip-- he can even walk like Pip after being born-- and so Pip can't even be unique in his misery.

If this story had a moral, it would read something like, "Don't trust women; they're just endless chasms demanding sacrifices to their egos or their desires." It's a banal moral, and presumably there are one or two hetero women somewhere who might hold similar opinions regarding men. Still, I'm not sure there's a female author who has expressed her animus with as much ingenuity as Wally Wood.