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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...

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH" (THOR #360-362, 1985)

To get the crappy taste of the mediocre THOR: RAGNAROK out of my mouth, I went back to some of the original comics. I chose to seek out stories from Walt Simonson's 1980s tenure, since Simonson's work got a distinct "shout-out" in RAGNAROK's credits.



One of the movie's more clumsy contrivances was its revision of a longtime THOR antagonist. Skurge the Executioner. In RAGNAROK he's nothing but a polyglot of poorly conceived tropes, for he starts out as an incompetent comic relief, graduates to being the cowardly stooge to the central villain (though by chance he's saved from performing the act of execution for which he's named), and then does a turnabout near the conclusion to die a sacrificial death. Only the turnabout is indebted to Simonson's treatment of the character, though the Marvel artist did so with infinitely greater care than the movie's scripters.

In this essay, I examined the 1964 Lee-Kirby story that gave birth to the Executioner and his most frequent partner-in-evil, the Enchantress, as well as some of their exploits both together, separately. and in tandem with mortal super-villains. The Executioner's primary image in his first appearance is that of a man enthralled by a beautiful and fickle woman, though not without some independent thought (he betrays the Enchantress's plans because he covets Thor's hammer). He betrays her in a more insulting manner in AVENGERS #83, choosing to leave the Enchantress for another woman because his inamorata frequently flaunted her romances with other men in his face. The two characters continued to scheme together for the most part up until 1985, when Walt Simonson apparently decided that the Executioner-- on whom he bestowed the proper name "Skurge"-- ought to get a truly Viking sendoff.

The THOR issues cited above-- subsumed under the Tennyson-derived title of the first issue, "Into the Valley of Death"-- followed a long epic storyline involving the fire-demon Surtur and the evil elf-lord Malekith, the latter of whom was adapted in 2013's THOR THE DARK WORLD. But after the conclusion of that epic, the titular thunder-god had a new problem. As a result of Malekith's mischief, a handful of mortal souls-- all unconscious, so that they would not affect the narrative-- were unjustly stranded in the Nordic death-realm Hel, ruled by the goddess Hela. In contrast to the hyper-violent and largely unmotivated villainess of RAGNAROK, Marvel's Hela was all about her realm: both protecting anything within her compass and trying to lure heroes like noble Thor into her grasp. As a death-goddess, both the archaic goddess of the Scandinavians and Marvel's version of her incarnated a negative image of femininity, the "womb=tomb" that would inevitably devour even the most puissant male warriors.



Simonson's strong emphasis on female characters in Thor's Asgardian world, whether beneficent or maleficent, was uncharacteristic during its formative Lee-Kirby period, when the Enchantress and Thor's girlfriend Sif were the only female characters to make regular appearances. Female characters were so rarely seen in the "Thor Boys' Club" that in the 1970s scripter Roy Thomas even devised a continuity-based explanation as to why the Asgardian women were hardly ever seen in the magazine. Lee and Kirby's comic-book adventures were not inappropriate for an adaptation of Nordic myth, which tended to emphasize masculine martial achievements. Simonson, however, chose to give equal emphasis to the feminine side of the Nordic god-home, to the extent that, even prior to "Valley," one saw a great deal of "the war between men and women."



Comics-authors have not often depicted this "biological warfare" with a very even hand, as witness the polar opposites of Dave Sim and the Brothers Hernandez. Prior to "Valley," though, Simonson approached his faux-Viking world with a strong dramatic sense of the pain that both men and women could inflict upon one another. Long faithful Sif, for instance, is to some extent distracted from her love for Thor by an alien who falls in love with her, Beta Ray Bill. Thor remains faithful in spirit but he's enthralled by a love-spell, placing him under the romantic control of Lorelei, the sister of the Enchantress, though technically Lorelei's real lover Loki is pulling the strings. During Thor's enchantment, Lorelei causes him to strike Sif down, and only the most literal-minded reader could resist the temptation that he's striking her because of her potential betrayal. In a parallel development, the Enchantress-- now gifted with the proper name "Amora"-- throws Skurge over for another lover.



Thor has been freed of his enchantment when he decides to pursue the mortal souls sent to Hela's realm, but not of his troubles with Sif. Thor's excursion includes several male Vikings and Thor's best friend Balder, but Skurge, Thor's long-time sparring partner, volunteers to go along as well.

Far more than the surviving Nordic myths, Simonson's version of Hel is dominantly feminine. There are various male revenants who battle the Asgardian heroes, and a huge dog, Garm, who stands as sentinel outside the death-realm. But Hel is not only ruled by a goddess, it's constantly represented by female presences. Angerboda, a "mother of monsters," gives Thor directions to the death-domain, and then tries to kill him as well. When the male warriors enter Hel, they're beguiled by what seem to be living women: Balder by the deceased Nanna, Thor by Sif and Skurge by Amora. But all of these blandishments are cast aside, and Thor is obliged to battle Hela herself-- whose touch can destroy the living with old age-- in order to return the lost souls back to the living world. Significantly, both male and female are humiliated during the conflict. Thor removes Hela's cloak, showing her to be a half-dead old hag. However, Hela claws Thor's handsome face so badly that he's obliged to cover it with a cloth for the rest of the story.



Though Hela gives the Asgardians safe passage, she tries to undermine their brotherhood by making Skurge look as if he betrayed them. This backfires on her when Skurge replies with major masculine violence, using his executioner's axe to destroy Hela's ship Naglfar. The Asgardian expedition is forced to retreat from the endless hordes of Hel, but the enemy is in danger of overwhelming them before they can cross the bridge over the river Gjoll. Thor plans to hold the bridge while his allies escape. Skurge, who has become his "brother in pain," rabbit-punches Thor and takes his place.



While the Asgardians escape with their prize, Skurge holds the bridge against incredible odds, until finally being overwhelmed and becoming one of the spirits in Hel. (A later story frees Skurge from Hel, admitting him into Valhalla, the domain of the honored dead.) Back in Asgard, Thor sends the souls back to their mortal bodies, after which Thor and Balder swear to drink to Skurge's memory.



It would be easy to see this opposition between the masculine world of force and the feminine world of manipulation as unflattering to the latter. I don't think that this was Simonson's intention. Hela is a goddess of immense stature, Sif is conflicted in her romantic inclinations but never less than honest, and even the Enchantress comes off as empowered in her determination not to be tied down to one lover. (In a later issue, though, she's torn between mourning the Executioner and feeling outrage that he's left her in this typically display of male courage.) Further, near the end of the arc, Balder reflects that "the sword is an evil gift to the living." This isn't just indicative of Balder's particular character, but also of the greater theme about the "male and female war." Positive and negative images of both genders twine their way through "Valley," and though Thor's facial wounds are eventually healed, the travails endured by him and and his spiritual double Skurge represent the inevitability of the "war of the sexes," as well as the deeper nature of the wounds inflicted.




Wednesday, November 15, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: 'SPIDEY SAVES THE DAY!" (SPIDER-MAN #40, 1966)

“I had a big argument with Steve Ditko, who was drawing the strip at the time. When we had to reveal the identity of the Green Goblin, I wanted him to turn out to be the father of Harry Osborn, and Steve didn’t like that idea,” Lee explained. “He said, ‘no, I don’t think he should be anybody we’ve seen before.’ I said ‘Why?’ He said ‘Well, in real life, the bad guy doesn’t always turn out to be someone you’ve known.’ And I said, ‘Steve, people have been reading this book for months, for years, waiting to see who the Green Goblin really is. If we make him somebody that they’ve never seen before, I think they’ll be disappointed — but if he turns out to be Harry’s father, I think that’s an unusual dramatic twist that we can play with in future stories.’ And Steve said ‘Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.’ And I said ‘In real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin.’ And so Steve was never happy about that, but since I was the editor, we did it my way.”

According to this essay, Ditko later claimed that the argument about the Goblin happened, but that it merely served as a "straw that broke the camel's back." It appears, then, that when Ditko worked on his next-to-last issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, all of the setup elements in #37-- in which Norman Osborn assaults Spider-Man and seems implicated in the attempted murder of Professor Stromm-- were completed "under protest." Ditko then walked away from Marvel with SPIDER-MAN #38, obliging Lee to coinplete the remainder of the Green Goblin story in #39 and #40 with the artistic aid of John Romita.

It's interesting that in this much later expatiation about the Green Goblin story, Lee emphasizes "an unusual dramatic twist that we can play with in future stories." In 1966, though Lee couldn't have known back then how long the Spider-Man franchise would last, he must have guessed that the concept had more than a few good years in it. However, there's no indication in the previous Lee-Ditko stories that either creator had much of an idea about what I'd call "the myth of the Green Goblin." He was, in all of his appearances, simply a masked mystery villain who haunted the hero's tracks. Lee and Ditko occasionally exploited the mystery of the Goblin's identity very briefly, but there was no real sense as to why he was more of a menace than, say, Mysterio. Even the story in #39-- the punnily-titled "How Green Was My Goblin"-- is little more than set-up.



However, "Spidey" in #40 shows Lee going from zero to sixty. For all the blather from fans who want to believe that Lee's artists created the whole show, it's patently absurd to think that John Romita--who had just assumed the job, and who subsequently claimed that he assumed Ditko would eventually return to the feature-- was the primary creative force here. Lee understood that continuing readers wanted a payoff, and thus he almost certainly reverted back to the much-lauded moment in SPIDER-MAN #10, where Jonah Jameson reveals his jealousy of the featured hero in a self-examining soliloquy.

The bulk of the story falls into two main sections. It begins with an unmasked Spidey chained and captive in the Goblin's lab, and trying to get the villain-- who has just revealed his identity-- to keep talking until Spidey can break free. The Goblin does indeed keep talking, revealing his origin as he does so, and then he sets the hero free for a culminating fight. The hero wins, but with the knowledge that even if the villain goes to jail, he'll reveal Spidey's identity. Fortunately for the hero, Norman loses his memory of ever having been the Goblin. For a time, his threat was ended, though every time the character re-appeared, Lee teased the reader with the possibility that the Goblin might still return, as indeed he did, though not for several years.

It's the origin, though, that gives the story the mythic resonance earlier Goblin stories did not have. In essence, it's a Jekyll and Hyde story, but one in which the villain is changed by accident, a la the Hulk. But unlike the majority of latter-day Jekylls, Norman happens to be a father, whose son Harry is one of Peter Parker's friends.



While Norman tells Peter the story of his origins, he ends up revealing that his idea of being a father is tied up in conspicuous consumption:



Note that in the second panel, Norman considers his excellence as a parent dependent on what other people would think:"I wanted everyone to see what a great father [Harry] had." Lee's main purpose in making Norman a ruthless businessman was to show how he had lost his way: that he'd become obsessed with making money, deluding himself that he was doing it for Harry. Thus he's a Jekyll who's already given in to his dark side before he ever comes across the "Hyde formula"-- which he examines for no reason but to see if it can make him more money. Significantly, the formula was created by Professor Stromm, the man Norman sent to jail, so in a sense Norman's transformation into the Goblin might be seen as Stromm's revenge.



I would imagine that the main reason that Lee has the formula turn green before it explodes in Norman's face was to give a reason as to why he later chose to become a green-hued super-villain.




Still, it's interesting that, though Lee doesn't make the connection, one of the main associations of the color is that of-- money. One thing neither Lee nor his collaborators even comment on, even subconsciously, is the question as to why a tough-minded businessman would chosen a Halloween motif for his super-villain costume. I realize that originally Lee and Ditko merely wanted a mystery villain with no particular motive for riding a mechanical broomstick and tossing explosive pumpkins. Yet, since a goblin is one of many impish creatures who were designed to be caricatures of human beings, Norman's decision to become a murderous man-witch makes a certain amount of sense.



Friday, November 10, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "A THING IS BORN" ( BROTHER POWER #1-2, 1968)

What a difference an issue makes.



Back in February, I devoted two essays-- here and here-- to stories in which DC raconteurs revived Joe Simon's 1968 character "Brother Power the Geek." I preceded these formal analyses with the essay SIMON SESSION, which provided an informal overview of Simon's post-Kirby career. I stated that I'd only read the first of BROTHER POWER's two issues, and that, though I found "a few interesting mythopoeic touches" in the first issue, I didn't think I was missing much in not having read the second one.



However, I recently acquired the second and last issue of BROTHER POWER, and upon giving both issues a more intensive reading, I've decided that, inconclusive though the story is, it sustains enough complication to rank as a mythically satisfying story-arc. In a similar vein, I rated Wally Wood's THE KING OF THE WORLD as a mythcomic, even though the second part of Wood's serial didn't provide the same quality.

Nothing can be said about Simon's "Geek-out" project without stating that it was one of various attempts by DC Comics to court the so-called "youth culture" of the late Silver Age. Earlier I summed up these attempts by saying, 'I did not read BROTHER POWER back in the day, and what little I initially heard about it made it sound like another misguided attempt by way-over-30 comics-makers to appeal to young readers by trying to sound “hip.”'

There's no question that Joe Simon was a middle-aged man at the time he created Brother Power, and moreover, since he identified himself as a Republican, it might seem incongruous for him to attempt a heartfelt evocation of the hippie ethos. Indeed, the cover-copy for issue #1 tries to suggest that the story will give the readers a titillating look at the "dangers in hippie-land." This ballyhoo was an outright lie, but it sort of fits the serial's often carnivalesque mood. Though I've never read any of the issues of SICK that Simon edited during the 1960s, I'd hypothesize that by 1968 he'd already touched on counterculture topics in his "magazine of sick humor," and that in BROTHER POWER he was trying to meld his taste for such humor with the requirements of a superhero title.  At the same time, BROTHER POWER labored under a lot of restrictions, for the Comics Code couldn't allow depictions of the sex and drugs associated with the hippie movement. Yet it seems unlikely that Simon would have taken advantage of the freedom of the "underground comics movement" had he been given it. Indeed, whereas most DC raconteurs merely pasted a few "hip" phrases or motifs over completely traditional stories, Simon's GEEK is interesting in that he understood at least a few aspects of the counterculture, but chose, for the most part, to subvert that ethos with his own conservative outlook.

Here's a bullet-point breakdown of events in the two issues, which I've conflated under the first chapter-heading in issue 1, "A Thing is Born:"

(1) In 1968 San Francisco, a small community of "peace and love" hippies find themselves continually bullied by a gang of nasty bikers. (Cops, who probably persecuted hippies far more than bikers, are at most an incidental threat in "Thing.") The battered longhairs retreat to an abandoned tailor shop-- specifically abandoned because of the hippies' "unkempt" presence-- and try to clean their blood-soiled garments. One hippie, Brother Max. has soaked his clothes so much that he's afraid they'll shrink, so he puts them on a life-size tailor's dummy. Then, for the next three seasons, all of the hippies apparently forget about both the clothes and the dummy, which just sits in the tailor shop, soaking up various substances-- blood, dust, rain and machine oil. (This bit of forgetfulness, as well as some of the other things the youths do, might suggest that there was indeed some drug-consumption going on, and that Simon just didn't show it.) Once three seasons have gone by, a providential lightning bolt strikes the dummy, and brings it to life. 




Moments later, the bikers conveniently decide-- a whole nine months later-- to take over the hippies' "pad." Brother Power, converted by the lightning into a super-strong golem (my term), routs the mean motorcyclists. The hippies, who call one another "brother" (no sisters are around at the time), dub the living dummy "Brother Power." One of the less generous youths also calls him a "geek," though this was probably meant to follow from an earlier line in which a biker calls the dummy a "freak." But the connection was lost when editors forbade Simon from using the term "freak" for his protagonist, forcing the less logical substitution of "geek."




(2) Brother Power, initially mute, learns to talk, and though he's not very attractive at the start, the hippies accept him as one of their own. However, the Geek's presence amid the hippies attracts the attention of a group of evil circus-people, who run "the Psychedelic Circus."





The Circus-People kidnap Power so that they can exhibit him in a full-fledged freakshow. The addled hippies want Power back, but somehow get sidetracked when they decide that their enemies, the bikers, must be the real culprits behind the kidnapping. This inspires one of the daffier scenes in the story, in which the hippies dress up in superhero costumes and confront the bikers with a "comic book hero happening." Of course the bikers again beat up the hippies, after which they protest that they're innocent of this particular crime. Only by pure chance do two hippies stumble across the current location of the Psychedelic Circus. Then, by dint of uncharacteristic bravery, they save Brother Power from a freakshow that looks strongly influenced by the artwork of "Big Daddy' Roth.




(3) Cindy, the first hippie-girl with an actual name-- as well as the only female character of consequence--  stitches the somewhat damaged dummy together, and also pretties him up a little. This inspires romantic inclinations in Power. However, instead of trying for some of that "free love," Brother Power seeks to impress his lady-love the old-fashioned way: by Getting Ahead in Life. With some support from his fellow freaks, Power runs for president, on a platform of "love, peace... flower power." Unfortunately, the only thing the campaign accomplishes is that it makes the Circus-People aware of Power's whereabouts. The poor losers trump up charges against Power and set the cops on his tail. The distressed dummy goes on the run, and then does a "King Kong" off the Golden Gate Bridge, disappearing into the bay-- for the time being.




(4) Issue #2 picks up with Power, temporarily "dead" from his immersion, being fished from the bay and set up in what seems a patently Christ-like posture. Power's rescuers are a bunch of "urchins" called "the Clinkers," who look somewhat like a gang from a 1950s "jay-dee" film. The Clinkers, like the hippies before them, are oppressed by another group of goofballs: "the Berlin Airplanes," young guys who dress like World War One fighter-pilots and even pilot their own glider. During an Airplane-attack, Power comes back to life and trounces the intruders with a none-too-peaceful outburst of violence. However, despite being made part of the Clinker community, the dummy doesn't care for their do-nothing ways any more than he did for the hippies' inactivity. Power seeks employment at a grocery store, sounding like a character out of Horatio Alger when he states that he doesn't "mind starting at the bottom." Predictably, he doesn't remain in the position of a simple grocery stock-boy for long. 




(5) Diligence at the grocery-store leads Power to a new job at a plant that makes missiles for space exploration, but, as will later be established, has no connection with munitions. At the same time that the Geek goes to work on the factory's assembly-line, the owners are worried that they may soon go bankrupt if they don't solve their current production problems. They've opted to bring in a supposed mathematical genius, Lord Sliderule, who dresses in Renaissance clothes and is accompanied by tumbling dwarfs (!)  Sliderule only accepts the job so that he can eventually sell the factory's secrets to foreign powers, but before he can even make a phony pronouncement, Brother Power figures out a solution to the problem. Power is promoted to plant foreman but he naively allows the dethroned Sliderule and his flunkies to remain employed on the assembly-line.





(6) Though he's forbidden from using sex or drugs, Simon does manage to work in a hippie-protest. Power's old longhaired chums show up, under the impression that the factory is making missiles for wartime use. (This is as close as the stories dare come to a countercultural take on the conflict in Vietnam.) Power soon sets them straight, and even gets them to give up their lotus-eater lives and become productive citizens.




However, vengeful Sliderule sabotages a test-missile and makes it look like the Geek done it. It comes out that Power is still wanted from last issue, so the Governor of California-- an unnamed but very recognizable Ronald Reagan-- calls for Power's arrest. Again the misunderstood mannequin flees, this time hiding in one of the factory's missiles. Sliderule sets off the missile, and Brother Power is sent into orbit. The villains are arrested, and the story ends as the hippies wonder if they'll ever see their Geek again.




It's probably just as well that Simon never let the completed third issue be seen, for the two-issue arc, though very episodic, probably represents everything Simon had to say about the counterculture. I don't for a moment think that he was as personally fascinated with the subject as he claims in a promotional text-piece. I believe he saw, as much as any artist of the time could, that the counterculture represented a potential shift in values. As a professional creator, he wanted to see if he could make a living from his take on it-- even though, as I said, he frequently undercuts most of the most cherished images of the ethos. His hippies are good-hearted but generally foolish, and even their rejection of what Simon calls the "grey flannel, split-level world" is cast aside when their charismatic leader convinces them of the value of good hard work. Brother Power talks a lot about peace, but both of his stories display roughly the same amount of fighting as a Captain America tale. Only in one area does Simon hold something in common with the hippie ethos. A lot of male hippies were accused of being no less chauvinistic than the majority culture, and in the short-lived world of Brother Power, females exist only as sources of "romantic inspiration"-- making quite a marked contrast to the gynocentric bias of Rachel Pollak's above-mentioned GEEK reboot.

In closing I should address Simon's claim to sole authorship. He receives sole credit on the title-pages of both issues, but it was eventually revealed that the pencils were actually provided by Al Bare, a Golden Age comics-artist who had worked with Simon at SICK MAGAZINE. However, since Simon made assorted claims about having stage-managed many of the artists with whom he worked-- including Jack Kirby-- it doesn't seem unlikely that Bare may have worked from breakdowns or even just thumbnails provided by Simon, so that in essence Bare may have been drawing things exactly as Simon wanted them, even right down to the "Big Daddy" Roth visual quote. Originally I didn't care for Bare's mix of frivolity and sombre freakishness. However, now I find that at times the art communicates a lyrical charm, one not entirely at odds with the counterculture's emphasis on visual intensity. 





Thursday, November 9, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: JACK QUICK FROST (1966-67)

In essays like this one, I've argued that during the fifteen-year partnership of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Simon may have functioned as a "quality control" for Kirby's sometimes undisciplined creativity. If so, then Sinon's business relationship with Kirby may have operated much in the same way as Stan Lee's editorial authority over Kirby during the latter's first Marvel tenure. This hypothesis provides at least a tenable explanation as to certain changes in the quality of Kirby's work once he did all the writing and editing of his features in the 1970s and (mostly) from then on.

I've quoted Simon as stating that he usually assumed writing duties during his collaborations with Kirby; that he often wrote out scripts or, being an artist himself, provided Kirby or other artists under his aegis with roughs or thumbnails. This arrangement wouldn't keep Kirby from making verbal suggestions about stories, just as he did with Lee. Some of Kirby's claims to have "done it all" elicited many fans-- and even professionals like Alan Moore-- to credit Kirby's claims by asking how much work of consequence Lee produced without his two most creative collaborators, Kirby and Steve Ditko.

I've already given my answer to that question elsewhere, but it seems fair to ask the same question about Joe Simon's creativity apart from Kirby. However, he linked up with Kirby so early in his career that Simon doesn't have a lot of non-Kirby work on his resume. Like Lee, his professional career in mainstream comics came to an end by the early 1970s, and the most notable items on that resume are a few short-lived features for DC Comics, the editorship of SICK MAGAZINE from 1960 to 1968, and a much briefer editorial post for Harvey Comics' "Harvey Thriller" line from 1965 to 1967.

Technically, the first titles from the "Thriller" line were largely reprints of older material, and even when the line began issuing assorted superheroes in late 1966, editor Simon included large quantities of anthology-style stories as backups to the super-doers. Simon had worked on many superheroes during the Golden Age, not least his co-creation Captain America, and had worked with Kirby on sporadic genre-revivals in the 1950s, such as FIGHTING AMERICAN and Archie's FLY and SHIELD properties. Given that the genre enjoyed an upsurge in the early 1960s, one might have thought that if Simon cared much for the genre apart from channeling Kirby's greater enthusiasm for it, then that creative interest would have showed up in the Harvey Thriller line. Indeed, some fans have speculated that the only reason Harvey Comics started the "Thriller" line was to be in a position to take advantage if the BATMAN teleseries became popular when it debuted in early 1966.

If this was Harvey's game-plan, they took their sweet time about reacting to the show's immediate success, since the "Harvey Heroes" didn't start appearing until late 1966-- and when they did, costumed cut-ups like Jigsaw, Pirana, Spyman and the Bee shared a lot of space in their titles with assorted works that looked like whatever old pros like Wally Wood and Al Williamson happened to have stuck in their rejection drawers. Worse, what makes the Harvey Heroes "null-myths" was that though Simon aped Stan Lee's "heroes with problems" schtick at times, it seemed clear that Simon couldn't invest enough conviction in the costumed characters to make them attractive to the juvenile readers of the era.

One immediate indicator of Simon's disaffection was that most of his "Harvey Heroes" couldn't even come up with decent names. Spyman and Pirana (apparently that was how Simon thought it should be spelled) were just passable, but it's hard to imagine a kid fantasizing about sporting a name like JIgsaw or the Glowing Gladiator. The Bee was particularly schizophrenic name-wise. In his two stories, he was called "the Bee." But on both of the exterior covers, he was called "Bee-Man"-- a transparent ploy to have a logo resembling that of a certain chiropteran hero. And then there's-- "Jack Quick Frost."


At least, that's what he's called most of the time, without much explanation-- except that a few times someone uses the name "Jack Be Quick Frost," which must be one of the most cumbersome puns of all time. Frost starts out as government agent James Flynn, who gets flash-frozen into an iceberg-- a swipe from what Marvel had done with the reborn Captain America?-- and so gains super-freezing powers. A stronger influence on the hero is probably the "Mister Freeze" character from the BATMAN teleseries. The TV character, derived from a one-shot villain from the Batman comics, had debuted in Batman's first half-season, and Jack Quick Frost swipes Mister Freeze's vulnerability-gimmick: that of being in danger if he doesn't have access to deep-freeze temperatures.



Technically Simon may not have drawn or written any of these features. Still, I tend to think he would have followed the same habits he'd built up: sketching out what he wanted for raconteurs like Otto Binder and Jack Sparling (credited on GCD for the first of Jack's two adventures). Binder had written dozens of comics stories by the time of the "Thriller" line, and I think it's unlikely that he would have floated cutesy name-puns like "Jack Be Quick Frost," which sound like something Simon might've cobbled together for FIGHTING AMERICAN or SICK. Yet, as the above section shows, though Simon probably tried to work in BATMAN-references, the writer has clearly been told to emulate Stan Lee's style. "Biting icicles," indeed.

There are other bits of carelessness even in just two issues: the character is seen using a freeze-gun on the cover of his first appearance (again, like Mister Freeze), even though in the stories proper he always projects cold-rays from his fingers. But the thing that makes me choose Jack Quick Frost as a "null-myth" is the fact that Simon couldn't even keep his own psuedoscience straight. In his last appearance, fighting his sole enemy "Lord Lazee," Frost is exposed to dry ice.



But the whole point of dry ice is that it has a refrigerating effect on whatever it touches. It may feel like it burns when touching a normal person's flesh, but it shouldn't have any deleterious effect on a superhero who likes things cold.

And with this ignominious comedown, "the coolest hero in comics"  came to a much deserved end. Apparently Simon kept the rights to a lot of these characters, but there's no indication that he owned this one-- whose real name probably ought to have been "Jack Quick Buck."

Monday, November 6, 2017

ECCENTRIC ORBITS

I borrow the phrase "eccentric orbits" from astrodynamics. Wikipedia saith:


The orbital eccentricity of an astronomical object is a parameter that determines the amount by which its orbit around another body deviates from a perfect circle.


In my numerous reviews of and investigations into the many domains that make up fiction-- not least those of phenomenality-- I've often found myself faced with such "deviations." Most works of art, whether they are naturalistic, uncanny, or marvelous, display a "centric will" on the part of the author. Plot and characters are strongly organized around the author's concept as to what things are possible in his world. 

Three convenient examples of differing phenomenalities were first cited in NUM-INOUS CONFRONTATIONS, VIOLENT SUBLIMITY, PART 1 and PART 2. At the time I wrote these essays, I was investigating Kant's concept of sublimity only in terms of dynamicity, and had not yet formulated the corresponding concept of the combinatory-sublime. I summed up three films with respect to their phenomenalities, as follows:


In DIRTY HARRY, as noted before, the hero dwells within an entirely naturalistic cosmos... In ENTER THE DRAGON, the hero dwells within a cosmos that largely appears naturalistic but deviates in a few vital aspects, which have a marked effect on Lee's struggle for dominance...In STAR WARS, the heroes dwell witin a cosmos that may be "natural" to them but which is clearly "marvelous" to us. 
Planets that have almost no eccentricity (like Earth) come as close as is physically possible to describing circular orbits. All of these cinematic works have a similar uniformity of "orbit," there are no elements of naturalistic, uncanny, or marvelous phenomenality that conflict with the "centric will" expressed in the main story.

And yet, I've often encountered works that manifested such conflicts. For instance, here's how I strove to sort out the phenomenality of Wilkie Collins' famous 1868 crime novel THE MOONSTONE, from this film-review:


The famous plot of THE MOONSTONE deals with a fabulous diamond, originally from the head of a Hindu idol, which is stolen from India by a reprobate British officer.  After the thief dies he leaves the diamond-- rumored to be cursed-- to his niece Rachel, a heiress being courted by her two first cousins Franklin and Godfrey.  (Nowhere in the novel does anyone remark on this level of consanguinity: one assumes that both Collins and his original English audience found it unremarkable, at least for the aristocracy.)  A trio of Indians, dedicated to returning the holy diamond to India, haunts the steps of Rachel and her protectors.  Because the unnamed Indians are so fantastically dedicated to their unique task, Collins' novel *might* be classified as uncanny because the Indians' "bizarre crime" (which is only a crime in the technical sense of the English law, of course) makes such a strong affective impact on the reader, and takes on a near-supernatural aspect at the conclusion even though technically nothing supernatural occurs.  The same logic applies to the "exotic lands and customs" trope.
The one aspect that propels the novel into the "marvelous" category appears early in MOONSTONE and never comes up again.  Because Collins wanted to give his Indians an almost supernatural ability to be wherever he wanted them to be-- and because he surely knew that they would hardly blend in well with British society-- Collins has one of his characters overhear the Indians using an unnamed English boy in a divinatory ceremony.  It establishes the possibility-- which the reader must take seriously even if no one in the novel does so-- that the boy is a real medium who can tell the Indians at all times where to locate the diamond.  It's a clever device, and I personally consider it veracious enough to classify MOONSTONE as "marvelous," even though I realize most readers won't take note of it.

In my newly re-formulated terms of "centric will" and "eccentric will," I would say that the centric will of Collins' novel falls into the phenomenal domain of the uncanny, because the actions taken by the Hindu seekers to recover their sacred diamond comprises the "center" of the narrative.  Their one "marvelous" talent, that of using a medium's psychic talents for guidance, is invoked by Collins only to make it credible that the Hindus are able to track down the diamond when they have no other means to do so. Thus, the one marvelous element in THE MOONSTONE expresses an "eccentric will," a will that deviates from the novel's central-- and uncanny-- concerns.

I  mentioned a similar concern in ASPIRIN FOR ANTHOLOGIES, which dealt with the often perplexing phenomenalities of stories set in Frank Miller's SIN CITY universe. After explaining that one story in the film SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR had an absolutely veracious ghost-- which provided the only example of the marvelous-metaphenomenal-- I explained:

My review therefore classifies SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR as a "marvelous" film. Over the years I've classified other films as marvelous for the same reason: a film, being a unitary construct, cannot be just a "little bit marvelous" any more than a birth-mother can be "a little bit pregnant"... I'm playing around with some possible re-classifications that might better represent the roles played by the uncanny and the marvelous, when it is clear that they do NOT cohere with any thematic underpinnings. But I confess it probably won't provide me with an effective aspirin for all my taxonomic headaches.

I also mentioned a couple of other films in which marvelous elements played very marginal roles, and played around with the term "marginal-metaphenomenal." However, this term wouldn't work over time, since there have been many works, like Collins' MOONSTONE, where the work's centric will is uncanny, while only one or more eccentric elements are marvelous. A better example than the one mentioned in the ASPIRIN essay is 1971's HANDS OF THE RIPPER, wherein the "ripper" character is a crazy girl who begins acting like Jack the Ripper, and the only marvelous element is that of a psychic who figures out what's going on.

A week or so after finishing the ASPIRIN essay, I finally formulated the "active share, passive share" corollary, first stated here and here. These essays established the precedent that in some cases a narrative's combinatory mode might overrule its dynamic mode. Thus, even though from the POV of dynamicity, the Marvel cowboy-hero The Ringo Kid technically dwells in a "marvelous" domain because of his one encounter with a mad scientist, the symbolic underpinnings of his universe are dominantly naturalistic. The marvelous elements in RINGO KID comprise what I originally called a "minority passive share," and I now choose to link that concept to the notion of "eccentric will."
Similary the psychic elements in THE MOONSTONE and HANDS OF THE RIPPER also amount to eccentric elements, putting them in the minority passive share category.

I played around with the notion of a bifurcated phenomenality in my review of a martial-arts dud called THE SHAOLIN BROTHERS, wherein the centric will (and majority share of interest) revolves around a naturalistic core, and the elements of the marvelous are out on the periphery. Hence my name for them at the time-- "the peripheral-marvelous"-- has been subsumed by the concept of eccentric will.

Going by the current hypothesis, I would probably rate SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR as dominantly uncanny, thanks to the fact the conspicuous roles of Marv and super-ninja Miho, while the ghost's appearance, while not without all importance, amounts to a sort of perturbation in the orbit of the work as a whole.



Friday, November 3, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "HIMON" (MR. MIRACLE #9, 1972)

As I said in this essay, the "strongest mythic discourse" in Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" tetralogy was the title NEW GODS, while the other three titles followed more episodic patterns, akin to the majority of mainstream comics of the period. One can find mythic content in the other three features, however, and, not surprisingly, it appeared to best effect in MISTER MIRACLE #9, which was something of a conceptual bookend to issue #7 of THE NEW GODS. Both are "backstory issues" that fill in many of the blank spaces in Kirby's multi-issue epic.


As I also noted in the above essay, Orion, the featured hero of THE NEW GODS, shared a common heritage with and the title character of MISTER MIRACLE. During the childhoods of the two heroes, a devastating war between the worlds of Apokolips and of New Genesis comes to a conclusion. The truce is cemented by an exchange of "war hostages," with Darkseid's child Orion being raised on New Genesis, while Highfather's son is raised on Apokolips. Darkseid confides in his aide Granny Goodness that his long game is to force HIghfather's child to endure such torments in his upbringing that he will eventually flee Apokolips, thus ending the truce at a time that proves convenient for Darkseid. Thus Granny dubs the child of New Genesis "Scott Free" with a note of sarcasm, though Jack Kirby has his own idea on the nature of freedom.

Young Scott Free is raised to be just one more pawn in Darkseid's planetary tyranny, where all inhabitants swear to "live and die for Darkseid." Darkseid even conceives himself as being something of an authoritarian parental figure to Scott, though he's perfectly willing to kill Scott in order to launch the war. However, Scott fortunately receives a better parental figure in the form of the character introduced in the story's title, Himon.



Purportedly the character was named for a real-world acquaintance of Jack Kirby's, name of "Hyman," but Himon is designed to be a great thinker after the fashion of scientific heroes like Edison and Einstein. Given a grandfatherly appearance, he claims credit for many of the crucial inventions in the history of Apokolips, such as "the Boom Tube" and "the Mother Box," a mini-computer able to draw upon the power of the supernatural "Source." He admits, in conversation with Metron of New Genesis, that his discoveries "fostered Darkseid's power," and so he operates as a rebel on Apokolips, constantly seeking to undermiine Darkseid's totalitarian power. He doesn't use the standard guerrilla tactics of the rebel, though in one case he does take vengeance on one of Darkseid's evil servitors. Instead, because Darkseid's power is founded on convincing his subjects to efface their own lives in his name, Himon seeks to inspire the beaten-down natives of Apokolips to find themselves. This includes not only Scott Free, who has been raised to be one of Darkseid's obedient troopers, but also a "kid-gang" like some of those who appeared in Simon-and-Kirby features of the 1940s.



In contrast to Darkseid's "world of conflict," Himon seeks to inspire natives, like gentle Auralie, to express themselves. This leads to Scott's first encounter with his later lover, Big Bards of Apokolips, who liberates Auralie from Himon's company yet seeks to keep the innocent girl's transgression secret.

However, Himon's attempt to recruit disciples for a "kinder, gentler Apokolips" is foredoomed. Kirby undercuts his own use of a cute kid-gang by presenting them as the victims of an (admittedly bloodless) execution. (The one exception is the complainer seen two panels above, one Kreetin, who seeks to save himself but ends up perishing in an ignominious fashion.)



Of course, from the creator's point of view, the execution of the kid-gang merely exists to give Scott Free a foretaste of what it really means to "live and die for Darkseid." Finally, he bolts:


Barda helps Scott elude his pursuers, but, in keeping with the continuity established by previous issues, she doesn't succeed in escaping Apokolips with him. Just as Himon and Metron show Scott the way to reach sanctuary on Earth, Darkseid appears.



Darkseid's plan is served whether Scott leaves Apokolips alive or dead. But though the evil overlord was surely willing to let Scott be executed by any of Darkseid's underlings, he isn't willing to kill Scott himself. Being a Machiavellian type, Darkseid apparently would rather have Scott surrender himself to death, so that he will "live with the majesty that is the power of Darkseid." Scott doesn't buy the villain's sophistry, and escapes to "find himself."


Prior to this issue, the basic concept of "Mister Miracle, Escape Artist and Superhero"-- allegedly based on Kirby's acquaintance with Jim Steranko, an amateur magician/escape artist-- didn't succeed in reaching this high level of symbolic density. That said, it seems that Kirby always had in mind some association between the broad concept of freedom and the specific motif of the superhero's "daredevil escapes from the villain's death-traps." In "Himon" at least, the artist succeeds in making the art of escape a metaphor for eluding the temptation to let one's individuality become subsumed by the tyrant's aura of power.

There are other motifs in the story worthy of comment, not least the self-serving character of Kreetin, who might be seen as Kirby's version of such Shakespearean self-servers as Thersites and "wind-changing Warwick." But any consideration of such motifs will have to wait for separate examination.






Thursday, November 2, 2017

SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here, owes something to statements by literary critic Northrop Frye. Frye chose this metaphor because he imagined a given literary work as having both an inward and outward motion. The former motion determines how the elements within the narrative interact with one another, while the latter determines how the "total vision" of the narrative relates to its readers.

The circle metaphor remains useful, but its invocation of centrifugal and centripetal motion may be a little too rooted in the domain of physics. The making of a work of art involves a creator-- let's assume just one, for convenience-- who may be seen as one part God and two parts Frankenstein. His artwork is akin to a living creature, and if it's anything like the ones we know, then the creature's biological nature is determined by its DNA sequences. The standard illustration of the DNA sequences is usually rendered as the familiar double helix. Yet some online sources have chosen to render the genetic code in circular form for purposes of illustration.



The reason for this, I assume, is that for purposes of illustration the circle still offers a strong image as to how the dominant influences on the organism's genetic code-- what I have called "centric will" in my "literary genetics"-- assume the centermost position. Consequently, the recessive influences on the organism's genetic code revolve outward from the center, akin to my "eccentric will."

The creator may use only "intelligent design" to bring forth his work, or he may create it, so to speak, by the seat of his pants. But whether in a given work conscious design plays a larger part than the subconscious variety, or vice versa, the work always evolves its own code, consisting of both the way the narrative elements interact and the way they impact upon readers.

Since this blog began, I've practiced my own study of "literary genetics," even though I only used this label a few times. It's occurred to me that the majority of my ruminations have been devoted to sussing out what elements in any narrative are the most centric, and thus dominate the work's character, and what role, if any, all the "eccentric" elements play. These ruminations have been complicated by the fact that sometimes the patterns assumed by all of these elements relates to the way they work inside the narrative-- what I'll call "intra-diegetical" in this essay-- while others relate to the way the elements work upon their readers, and perhaps even the creator himself, since he is, after all, "the first reader."

After scanning over my blog-entries for some time, I've determined six categories of "artistic alleles" I've been examining, in one form or another, since the blog began in 2007. The six are as follows:


(1) FOUR MYTH-RADICALS-- first addressed in detail in NOTES TOWARD A SUPERHERO IDIOM. I view these plot-and-character radicals underlying four corresponding literary mythoi as "Extra-Diegetical" because over time the literary mythoi have arisen from the four "ritual moods" identified by Theodore Gaster, whose work I last referenced here.

(2) THREE PHENOMENALITIES-- first codified as the AUM theory here, though I soon altered this into the preferred acronym NUM here. I should add that my phenomenology has been guided by Aristotle's original concept of "pity and terror," which with the help of C.S. Lewis I finessed these broad categories into the more precise ones of the sympathetic and affective affects, which in turn reflect the affective potentials of the phenomenalities. All three phenomenalities are created by patterns within narratives, and so are "Intra-Diegetical."

(3) TWO MODES, THE COMBATIVE AND THE SUBCOMBATIVE, first explored in detail in STALKING THE PERFECT TERM: THE COMBATIVE.  The exploration of the differences between combative and subcombative characters led me to distinguish three levels of dynamicity. as explained in MEGA, MESO, MICRO. This category is also "Intra-diegetical" in that it pertains only to how the dynamicity of fictional characters can be sorted out. I've devoted a fair amount of space to the thematic consequences to the work as a whole when it creates opposed characters with combative potential but then chooses not to resolve the conflict in a combative manner, cf. Wells' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.

(4) FOUR PERSONA-TYPES, which originally started out as two "word-pairs," "hero-villain" and "monster-victim." I soon determined that "victim" was too limiting a term and modified it to "demihero." Persona-types follow patterns that descend, like Gaster's four moods, from ritual and religious sources, not to mention being influenced by my readings of Hobbes and Schopenhauer. Similarly, the deternination as to whether the central persona is *exothelic* or *endothelic* depends on "Extra-Diegetical" considerations.

(5) FOUR INFORMATION-BEARING FUNCTIONS: These functions, last elaborated here, are largely extensions of Joseph Campbell's four functions. Since they deal with information from the real world being translated into fictional terms, these are "Intra-Diegetical."

(6) The most recent-- and probably the last-- of my code-categories is the four potentialities, introduced in FOUR BY FOUR, though I'd been cogitating on the subject for many years previous. Since these all deal with the creative propensities of the authors themselves-- whether favoring Jung's concepts of sensation, intuition, thinking or feeling-- this category is clearly "Extra-Diegetical."

For good measure, I'll toss in that the terms "Intra-Diegetical" and "Extra-Diegetical" line up with Northrop Frye's "narrative values / significant values" distinction. but I chose not to use Frye's terms, since they don't adapt well to adjectival form.

I mentioned in CLEANING AROUND THE CENTER that I considered relating these various conceptions of centric and eccentric will to my rules for sussing out centricity, the 51 percent rule and the "active share/passive share" corollary. However, that will have to wait for another essay.