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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...

Friday, December 29, 2017


He Chaucer lacks the high seriousness of the great classics, and therewith an important part of their virtue.-- Matthew Arnold.

I seem to be one of the few people in the country who didn't like THOR: RAGNAROK, and found its over-dependence on jokes to be an indicator of how little the show-runners "got" the character.  However, the more I think about it, the failings of RAGNAROK may indicate even more about the problems of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as put forth by the fellow most associated with its success, studio chief Kevin Fighe.

I say this with the full knowledge that FIghe's version of "the Marvel Universe" is not likely to be surpassed within my lifetime. Fighe clearly gets some of the key elements that made 1960s Marvel a success. Had there been no Marvel, it seems unlikely that (1) fans would have been motivated enough to create the direct market, and thus (2) mainstream comic books probably would not have survived their distributor problems of the 1970s.

Fighe has reportedly called himself a "fanboy," and almost all of his cinematic credits support this assertion. Prior to 2008's IRON MAN, Fighe worked in a production capacity on fourteen films, all based on superhero characters. In time he may be seen as being every bit as influential as Jim Shooter in promoting Marvel as a "superhero-first" company. And in some ways, FIghe "got' Marvel better than Shooter. Fighe understands three major aspects of Marvel's "Silver-Age" success;

(1) The Continuity Thing.

Stan Lee, as editor of the Marvel Line, probably had no aim beyond cross-promotion whenever he had Spider-Man try to join the Fantastic Four and the like. However, as time went on, he apparently found that continuity was not only popular with readers, it was a useful tool for a writer. For instance, in 1964's AVENGERS #4, he and Kirby whipped up a villain, Baron Zemo, who used a super-glue against two of the heroes, Giant-Man and Captain America.

How to get out of it? Well, you have the Avengers consult another expert on glue, the Human Torch's foe Paste-Pot Pete (whose face Kirby apparently forgot, making him look rather like his sometime partner the Wizard).

More importantly for the MCU, Lee also found a lot of material simply in having heroes from different milieus, and with different speech-patterns. Here's Daredevil trying to prove his "mad skills" to a certain thunder-god.

Whereas a lot of writers would have written the two characters indistinguishably, Lee understood that a thunder-god wasn't going to talk the same as a modern superhero. This discovery also led to another aspect of Lee's approach:

(2) Heroes with Problems.

For Stan Lee, this was clearly another device to draw readers into the fictional worlds of the Marvel characters, so that they would buy each and every issue of a given series, rather than just picking up random issues according to chance. But there's every indication that Lee himself became invested in the characters, as when he decided that he wanted to lay near-exclusive claim to chronicling the adventures of the Silver Surfer when the character graduated to his own series. I can't be positive that there might not have been some hard-boiled business decision behind Lee's claim, since he'd publicly admitted that Jack Kirby alone created the character. However, Lee definitely attempted some things he never attempted in other Marvel features, such as making his main character a Christ-figure.

(3) The Prevalence of Humor.

Of these three aspects of Marvel's success, this is clearly the one that Kevin Fighe most emulates. Long before the rise of Marvel Comics, Lee's writing demonstrated an ability for "snappy patter" in humor comics like TESSIE THE TYPIST and MY FRIEND IRMA, and in many ways he simply translated that talent to the 1960s superhero books. However, he also made much of the humor flow from character, which had generally not been the rule for the superhero genre. Most of the Marvel features of the Silver Age were replete with a jazzy sense of humor, and even the more "serious" titles, like the aforementioned THOR, allowed for moments of whimsy, as seen with characters like "Volstagg the Magnificent."

Ironically, SILVER SURFER was possibly the only Lee-written title that boasted no humor of consequence, which may have contributed to the feature's early demise.

I believe that no fans familiar with Silver Age Marvel would dispute these three aspects as major factors in the Marvel success,but I think there's a fourth one that usually goes unacknowledged, and that is Lee's flirtations with what Arnold, in the quote above, called "high seriousness."

What Arnold meant by the phrase doesn't matter to me here, since the phrase has taken on a life of its own. In general it connotes a sense of gravitas, and is almost always applied to works of literary merit. At the time Lee made his first breakthroughs with Marvel, it's a given that the forty-something editor had no illusions about the status of comic books, no matter what he may have said later in his "bullpen bulletins." He knew that they were deemed lowbrow entertainment, and that any efforts he made to "elevate the form"-- like SILVER SURFER-- were aimed to impress fan-readers who wanted something a little different with their superhero action.

But even though Lee probably knew that he'd never be "taken seriously," he showed a talent for scenes of faux high seriousness, even within a lowbrow context. For instance, here's Thor facing the death-goddess Hela from the Mangog saga I analyzed here.

Granted, Jack Kirby staged the visuals that contribute at least fifty percent of the page's serious tone. Still, it's easy to imagine a modern writer-- say, Peter David-- trying to dialogue the same page, and missing the boat entirely. Lee's amateur experience in the theater, however limited, seems to have contributed to his sense of how to show characters both in their "light" and "heavy" moods.

My personal interpretation of Fighe is that he's someone who may have read Marvel Comics like a demon, but who was into Marvel, like many readers, mainly for the jokes. The rapid-fire quips of Downey's Tony Stark read a lot more like the snappy patter of the Stan Lee persona than they do like the relatively sober-sided Stark of the comics. Fighe even showed some facility with characters with a basically serious outlook, like the Evans version of Captain America, finding ways to exploit humor in other characters without hamming up the main hero.

In the first two THOR films, one can see Fighe and his collaborators trying to do something similar, keeping Thor basically serious while allowing support-characters-- in particular Kat Dennings' "Darcy"-- to provide the humor. That said, Fighe's Thor films don't really make any organized attempts at "high seriousness." The wars of the gods and the giants have no more mythic resonance than the opposing parties of a videogame, and thus it's not surprising that the figure of Hela the Death-Goddess becomes similarly over-simplified in RAGNAROK.

The only other time that Fighe attempted another Marvel feature grounded in Lee's lowbrow version of high seriousness was the 2016 DOCTOR STRANGE. I've not yet been able to force myself to re-watch this artless adaptation for purposes of review. But the mere fact that it had to import some dumbed-down humor into the straight-laced STRANGE mythos in the form of the master magician's CAPE speaks volumes about the producers' inability to do anything without the support of jokes, no matter how inane. Thus I shouldn't have been surprised when THOR RAGNAROK stuck a bunch of pratfalls into the encounter of two of Stan Lee's more poker-faced characters, the thunder-god and the master of the mystic arts.

Before seeing RAGNAROK, I had numerous warnings as to how much comedy to expect, but I like to think that I kept an open mind, hoping for something no better or worse than the two GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films. But when the film started out with Thor, chained in Muspelheim and teasing info out of evil Surtur--

-- and I realized that it was just a steal from a similar scene in 2012's AVENGERS, with a bound Black Widow interrogating her captors--

-- it became clear to me that Fighe's MCU is beginning to cannibalize itself, and with less interesting results that when Marvel Comics began repeating themselves so badly in the 1970s.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


When holiday-seasons roll around, I sometimes give thought to the idea of organizing these essays on a holiday theme. However, it's not often that comics-makers have succeeded in coming up with symbolic discourses about seasonal events. One exception, perhaps more appropriate for Easter than for the current season, is the Moore-Bissette "Rite of Spring." Indeed, the magazine, released in March 1985, may be the only example of a 'springtime comic book." If there are others, this is still probably the best.

I used "Rite" earlier in the essay LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION as an example of  a sexual activity free of any aspect of physical violence, summing up the action thusly:

SWAMP THING #34's story "Rites of Spring" (Moore/Bissette/Totelbein) features about the most non-violent sexual encounter one can imagine, since the sex act is abstracted into an interweaving of minds rather than bodies. The narrative concept is that because Swamp Thing doesn't have a penis, he uses one of the hallucinogenic fruits growing on his vegetable body to give his human love Abby an ecstatic ride into his enhanced consciousness. Thus the mind-sex scenes in ST #34 bear kinship with those Hollywood sex-scenes which depict the literal sex-act as a flurry of abstract movements, with lots of touching but no hint of one body actually entering another body. I imagine that a simplistic Freudian would read the significant value of this story as an instance of "castration anxiety." But since the sex-scene takes place in a story that hypothesizes that all living things possess energy-fields to which Swamp Thing and Abby are both attuned, it's more accurate to the narrative to see "Rites of Spring" as a celebration of Jungian energy/libido in all things. In addition, to the extent that Swampy does "put" his consciousness "into" Abby, he doesn't function as a castrated male in narrative or significant valuations.
The "mind-sex scenes" in "Rite" would be enough to make it a mythcomic, but it also belongs to a much more prevalent myth-image, that of "the woman and her demon/monster lover." Prior to this issue, the characters of Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane, who functioned as support-cast for many of the early Wein-Wrightson stories, had been married for some time. However, the marriage was on the rocks even before Abby's evil uncle Anton possessed Matt's body and used it to have indirect sex with his niece, before he was defeated by both the swamp monster and Cable herself.

Prior to Alan Moore's tenure on the feature, I don't believe other writers had even entertained the notion that Abby Arcane could entertain any feelings for Swamp Thing beyond a certain distanced respect. But Moore was in those days the guy who went the extra distance.

To be sure, though Matt Cable's body is still alive, there's not much chance of his recovery. and it's clear that, in keeping with the changing of winter to spring in the story proper, Abby's feelings have also undergone a seasonal shift, so that she's fallen in love with the monster. In turn, Moore reveals that Swamp Thing, even though he no longer thinks himself to be a human transformed into a plant-creature, has been in love with Abby for a long time. Since the two of them can't have sex, Swamp Thing suggests a communion of spirits, which can be obtained when Abby eats one of the tubers growing on the plant-man's body.

Abby then gets to see that the world of animal life and death is suffused with interweaving energy-fields, merging the cosmological world of life-processes with the metaphysical world of spirit.

This "good trip" lasts for eight pages, most of which must be read vertically rather than horizontally, which is one of the few truly artful uses a comics-artist has made of said arrangement. The trip then culminates in a figurative orgasm, an experience beyond words.

In contrast to the many interactions of woman and monster that are predicated on violation-- not least that of the vampiric intruder-- Moore and Bissette are clearly seeking to break down the barriers between the human world and the world of "the other," at least insofar as it makes for a better story. This storyline led to other developments, such as a hybrid spawn from Abby and Swamp Thing, but the narrative of issue #34 never feels like a set-up for future events, and can be read with only minimal acquaintance of preceding continuity. To my knowledge Bissette's designs here constitute one of his highest achievements, while Moore-- whose command of poetic elements in his prose hasn't always proved sure-- never hits a false note with his visual accompaniments. Even when Abby sees visions of rodents fucking and fighting in their holes, Moore's images of "small hearts spilling poppies of blood on  black earth scented with urine" causes even the images of violence to become subsumed by those of sex.

I'll add that the subsumption of violence applies to the story as a whole, for though the tale follows the violent encounter with Abby's uncle, here there is no villain to be defeated, no cataclysm to be averted. Of course even 1985 readers knew that this was an idyll at best, that by the next issue Swamp Thing would again be battling gruesome entities. Still, like the story I discussed in THE BASE LEVEL OF CONFLICT,  this one is more about overturning expectations than about fighting opponents. In an addendum to the original essay on said story, I fleshed out my original view:

I still assert that the predominant appeal of "The Last Night of the World" is its defiance of audience-expectations re: the equanimity with which the viewpoint-characters-- and implicitly, all other people in the world except the children-- meet the world's irrevocable end. But this conflict arises from the combination of a dire situation with reactions which do not seem to fit that situation...
"Rite of Spring" is, like the Bradbury story previously discussed, devoted to presenting an ordinary person, in this case, Abby, and presenting her with new insight into the familiar world she knows, thus transforming her perceptions. If there is a conflict, it's one appropriate to the theme of springtime, in which the old expectations of winter gives way to the rebirth of vernal possibilities.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


The cover to BATMAN #99 doesn't include any images of the crusader's second most famed felon, so I'm leading off with the cover of the 1966 paperback reprint of the story "The Golden Eggs," which to my knowledge is the only place where the tale has seen reprint.

The paperback obviously came into being to cash in on the 1966 teleseries. The series patently diverges from the comic in many ways, some of which greatly annoyed comics-fans, as I covered in the course of the three-part BATTLE FOR BAT-LEGITIMACY series. However, one of the things that the series got right was the thoroughly unrealistic concept of the "pattern-criminal."

The "pattern-criminal" was the name I applied back in The Day to all characters whose crimes followed some sort of pattern that had intense meaning for said characters. These crooks didn't simply stick up banks or museums at random, but constructed their heists like theatrical performances designed to one-up the forces of law and order generally, and Batman specifically. To be sure, the comics did "pattern-crimes" better than the series did, given that the comics were exclusively aimed at an audience invested in enjoying escapist, unrealistic "cops-and-robbers" stories.

I would assume that there may have been some precursors to this form in prose fiction, particularly in pulp fiction, but even the weird fiends of the DOC SAVAGE feature don't seem nearly as fetishistic about their crimes. So far as I can tell, Bill Finger invented the concept in comic books with the 1940 debut of the Joker in 1940. In his first appearance the Clown Prince's only fetish-crime consists of killing off his victims with a "venom" that makes them grin horribly as they expire. Yet Finger didn't immediately apply the notion to all of Batman's antagonists. Both Hugo Strange and the Cat-- later, Catwoman-- appear in the same issue as the Joker, but their crimes don't follow any pattern as such.

Both Joker and Catwoman began emphasizing "pattern-crimes" over the years, as did the aforementioned "Birdman Bandit," the Penguin. He first appeared in DETECTIVE COMICS #58 (1941), but despite his bird-like appearance, he committed no "bird-crimes" at the time, but was defined more by his use of weaponized umbrellas.

Later Penguin stories had the master malefactor switch off between patterning crimes after birds or after umbrellas, but many of these stories didn't pursue the patterns with enough symbolic complexity to propagate. This Finger-Moldoff story, whose title is borrowed from the fable of "the Goose with the Golden Eggs," is one of the exceptions.

By then, it was quite common for supervillains to seize upon some reversal in their fortunes, and to seek to turn it around, the better to demonstrate their insidious inventiveness. As the story escapes, the Penguin has escaped one of his hideouts just before Batman and Robin break in. He takes refuge in a second, rather shabby hideout, but he's brought one item from his old digs with him: a box of bird-eggs. Nothing daunted, the villain then gets the idea to pattern his next crimes according to whatever birds hatch from the eggs, as if to show off his brilliance at being able to profit from the vagaries of fate. The one vagary he can't fathom is a single egg in his collection that he doesn't recognize.

I won't spend a lot of time on each of the Penguin's "golden egg" crimes, but they all share a cosmological aspect, in that they reproduce scientifically observable ornithological factoids. Like most of the ego-driven Bat-villains, the Penguin gives the lawmen a clue as to his impending plans. In one scene, he sends the remnants of a herring-gull eggshell to police HQ. Batman, whose knowledge rivals that of the super-crook, knows that the crime will follow the herring gull's pattern of dropping clams from great heights in order to break their shells. So of course the Penguin uses a helicopter with a claw-attachment to lift a safe out of a skyscraper-office.
Each crime is an occasion for writer Finger to show off his research into bird-lore, and in one of the endeavors, Penguin's main crime is accompanied by a distraction-technique, fooling the Dynamic Duo into chasing the mad laugh of a "kookaburra."

In the end, the crimefighters trail their foe to his hideout. Penguin gets the drop on them with one of his umbrellas, one holding an artificial bomb-egg. (If he'd been the TV-villain Egghead, he would have dutifully called it an "eggs-plosive.") Penguin is hoist on his own petard when the "mystery egg" hatches, releasing a baby alligator that bites his shin and allows the heroes to disarm him. He returns to durance vile as usual, not forswearing crime as such, but casting a pox on all eggs.

Monday, December 18, 2017


In Part 1 I said, "I'd been giving more thought to the categorization of different types of presences, focal or non-focal, that appear in fiction." To be more specific, while most of my writings here about persona-types have concerned focal presences-- i.e., the stars of whatever stories I'm discussing-- the idea of personas applies just as much to any support-characters. I've touched on these classifications on occasion, though it's occurred to me that it might be enlightening to explore a particular type of supporting-character: the authority-figure who either empowers or initiates the central protagonist (what Vladimir Propp might call the *donor.*)

I did touch on an example of a powerful figure who was not the star of his show in PALE KINGS AND DEMIHEROES:

Gaiman's work in THE SANDMAN generally rejects the heroism expoused by earlier DC characters who shared the "Sandman" name. Nor is Morpheus alone in being a great ruler who exists largely to police his domain: this principle also applies to the character Lord Emma in LOVE IN HELL, though admittedly he (she?) is a support-character to the starring demiheroes of the series.

As I said in my review of the manga-collection, the two stars of the series are Rintaro, a minor sinner consigned after his death to a lesser form of Hell, and Koyori, the female demon assigned to levy punishment on him. However, Hell itself is a "character" in the story, for most of the narrative deals with Rintaro learning the ropes of an afterlife that looks suspiciously like the life of a living wage-slave. Both Hell and its usually-unseen ruler mirror the quality I've termed elsewhere "positive persistence," and so they, like the protagonists, are also demiheroic.

"Negative persistence," however, dominates the persona of the monster. The monster desires the ordinary life which the demihero usually obtains as a matter of course, but for whatever reason the monster cannot fit into that matrix, and usually either parodies its nature (the vampire, who seeks a new aristocracy of the undead ruling the living) or tears the matrix to pieces in fits of unreasoning rage (Godzilla, the Frankenstein Monster). The persona of the monster can even be attached to entire races of sentient beings who function as monsters to human protagonists: the Martians of H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS are a familiar type, and in the same line are Buck Rogers' nonhuman adversaries, The Tiger Men of Mars.

Villains, however, have a quality of "negative glory" that makes them more pro-active than monsters. I touched on two authority-type villains, both of whom were coterminous with their environments, in ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS PT. 2:

In the SON OF SATAN story "Dance with the Devil, My Red-Eyed Son," the soul of Daimon Hellstrom is apparently drawn down into Hell, with whose denizens he must battle. Only by story's end does the reader le I arn that this particular version of Hell is not one that exists independently of its satanic master, for it's actually Satan's own dream.
In a less direct manner, some environments can be seen as being more metaphorical expressions of a character's good or evil: thus in Kirby's NEW GODS saga, New Genesis embodies the creative empathy of its patriarch Highfather and Apokolips is the expression of the corruption of its master Darkseid-- though admittedly both worlds already show those predilections, long before either of the respective "New Gods" comes into existence.

As for heroes, it's fairly easy to see the heroic virtue of "positive glory" in support-characters like Odin, Lord of Asgard, or Doctor Strange's perceptor The Ancient One. It's perhaps a little harder to countenance when the donor-figure merely gets the ball rolling, such as the mysterious "Voice" that gives powers to the Hawk and the Dove, or the goddess Rama Kushna in the original DEADMAN story. Still, even if these presences don't do anything more than place the heroes on the path of heroism, they too align with the plerotic value of positive glory.

The same formula applies with respect to donor-figures who initiate heroes but are not sources of numinous authority. This would include types like Mr. Miracle's teacher from the story "Himon," who seems relatively human even though technically he, like the aforementioned Highfather, is a "good New God." Another parallel example is Io from the 2010 film CLASH OF THE TITANS. A new creation with no parallel in the original 1981 film. Io doesn't precisely set Perseus on his heroic path, but she does watch over him from his childhood onward, and she gives him a certain modicum of martial training that aligns her with the figure of the authoritative donor.


The reason I wrote this sequel to the 2014 essay OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER was not because that particular subject had been occupying my mind on-and-off for the past three years. Rather, I returned to that obscure topic because I'd been giving more thought to the categorization of different types of presences, focal or non-focal, that appear in fiction, as seen in September's PALE KINGS AND DEMIHEROES. These meditations got me thinking not only about following up on the implications of the 2014 essay, but also about the application of my persona-classification system to non-focal figures.

A quick recapitulation of the roots of said system: first, though I said this at the beginning of the PALE KINGS essay:

The strongest influence on my theory of the four persona-types has been the work of Schopenhauer, but I'll confess that Northrop Frye's writings on literary dynamis had an impact on the theory...
This was an oversimplication on my part. It's true that Frye's ANATOMY influenced only the concept of the four mythoi, and that his theories contributed little if anything to my concept of literary personas. However, Frye's work led me to a deeper consideration of one of his influences, Theodor Gaster, and my conceptualization of persona-types coalesced from my attempt to bring Gaster's concepts of "plerosis and kenosis" into line with Schopenhauer's concepts of will, as I expounded in Part 1 and Part 2 of WHEN TITANS GET CROSS-COMPARED. A short summing-up of the Gaster concepts appears in this essay, where I cross-compared Gaster's categories with Frye's four mythoi:

,,plerosis is best conceived as the life-force engendered by the contest of hero-and-villain, taken seriously for the adventure and humorously for the comedy, while life is purged or otherwise compromised in the black-comic irony and in the drama.

One of my major differences with Frye is that I don't think he paid enough attention to persona-types in the ANATOMY. Here's his meditation on figures of aristocratic authority, who inhabit what he calls the "high mimetic mode:"

 If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy, and is primarily the kind of hero that Aristotle had in mind.

This formula overlooks certain distinctions between different types of rulers. Some of these protagonists are genuinely heroic in all senses of the word, such as Homer's Achilles. But others, despite their level of authority, are closer to being what I term "demiheroes," which means that they align more with the idea of the sacrificial victim than of the hero. Indeed, Shakespeare's most famous protagonists-- Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth-- are closer to being victims than to being heroes. Frye passed away in 1991, but I imagine that if he had somehow lived long enough to become acquainted with the two examples I contrasted in PALE KINGS AND DEMIHEROES-- Neil Gaiman's Morpheus and Nozomu Tamaki's Mina Tepes-- then I hazard that he would have seen in both of them the pattern of the high mimetic mode. Despite the fact that both characters possess supernormal powers that make them somewhat superior to their natural environment, Frye might have perceived that they were both rulers of fantasy-realms and were thus forced to deal with limitations upon their powers. I think the fact that both characters possess temporal authority is less important than what they do with it. Both Morpheus and Mina seek to consolidate their kingdoms, but the former seems concerned mostly with maintaining a status quo-- which in my mind associates him with a very high rank of demihero-- while Mina Tepes is more heroic in nature, forging her kingdom against a horde of opposing forces.

It would seem axiomatic that such authority-figures can also take on the persona-roles of either "monsters" or of "villains," but I'll deal with those eventualities in Part 2.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


In OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER from December 2014, I toyed with the conceit that all of my persona-types could be applied to non-sentient focal presences, addressing a science-fiction tale published by DC Comics story in 1959:

[The story's] focus is the spectacle of an entire world resounding with titanic "tick-tock" sounds, by which planetary doom is averted. This trope loosely aligns the "Tick-Tock World" with the agon of the heroic figure, though I would hesitate to classify this particular focal presence as a "hero."

I'm glad that I added the word "loosely," for the more thought I gave to the matter, the more I came to the conclusion that it was impossible, even in fiction, for a non-sentient presence to be either a hero or a villain. One of my earliest comments on the subject of the persona-types was to the effect that the types I call "heroes" and "villains" were, in Milton's words, "sufficient to stand"-- or to fall, if they so choose. In contrast, the other two types, "monsters" and "demiheroes" are governed by what I've called "existential will," in that they cannot transcend their existence. Further, my association of the "Tick-Tock World's" protective function failed to take into account that the world does not choose to do anything, protective or otherwise; the fact that its physical nature staves off "planetary doom" is merely part of the planet's exotic nature. Therefore, it is as much of a "demihero" as "the Destroyed Earth," the other passive environment discussed in the 2014 essay; the former planet is simply one that manages, even passively, to erect a defense that the other world cannot, much as I've frequently shown sentient demiheroes like Jonathan Harker managing to defend themselves against monsters like Dracula.

And what of the other persona, the monster? Well, I briefly touched on Rene Clair's silent film THE CRAZY RAY for purpose of contrast, saying that, unlike the Destroyed Earth, the focal presence of the Crazy Ray really was the source of "chaos on a global scale," and that in itself would argue a similitude with the persona of the monster. This also applies to other non-sentient phenomena that get out of control, whether they are objects created by man (the mystic statue of the Chimera, seen in this TOMB OF DRACULA story) or have come into being through geologic processes, like the natural wind-tunnel from the serial PERILS OF NYOKA, discussed here. If they possess what I've termed "negative persistence" in excess of their potential for "positive persistence," then they are concepts analogous to monsters; if the converse, they are concepts analogous to demiheroes. Further, most of the "worlds gone wrong" that inhabit science fiction are analogous to monsters, in part because they breed monsters. The Morlocks of Wells' TIME MACHINE and the Mutates born in the film WORLD WITHOUT END-- both discussed here-- would qualify for this persona, as would the Cursed Earth with which Judge Dredd contends in this myth-comics story.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


"Nothing ever happens without Dolores."-- offhand dialogue from minor character.

Since the name Dolores means "sorrows" or "sadness," writer Jerome Charyn may have meant to convey that sadness was an inevitable aspect of the human condition or some such. It's a reasonable assumption, but I have to admit that one can't make that good a case for such a theme in the American author's collaboration with French artist Francois Boucq. THE MAGICIAN'S WIFE won the Fauve d'Or prize at Angouleme in 1986, and the stand-alone album, after being out of print for many years, has recently resurfaced from Dover Publications, though I'm reviewing here the 1987 edition published by Catalan.

Though Boucq's highly detailed art is beyond reproach, Charyn's script is never as clever as he seems to think it is. I've not read any of Charyn's fiction, but in his introduction to the Catalan edition, the author makes clear that he idolizes the French approach to "bandes desinees." This may be a reason why, although WIFE does qualify as a genuine mythcomic, the writer shows, like many French comics-practitioners, a cavalier attitude toward the little details that add to a strong symbolic discourse.

Still, WIFE shows an admirable psychological structure. Within the first few pages of the album, the reader is introduced to a group of characters living in a house in 1956 Saratoga. Rita, a girl of perhaps ten, is being raised by her mother, a widow following the death of her husband in Korea. The unnamed mother works as a maid in the house of a reasonably well-to-do family. However, all the reader knows about the lady of the house is that she gardens all the time, while the lady's husband never seems to come down off the roof he's repairing. The couple's one child, an adult named Edmund, plans to become a professional magician, and the action remains at the house only long enough to establish the relationship between the chimerical Edmund, little Rita, and Rita's mother.

Modern politically correct readers would no doubt be disturbed by Edmund's teasing of Rita, claiming that he plans to marry her someday. It's obvious, though, that Edmund is not a follower of Humbert Humbert, for he never makes any inappropriate approaches to Rita when she's a child. Rita doesn't fully trust Edmund or his predictions of their future relationship, but she's even less than pleased when she happens to spy on Edmund making love to Rita's mother.

Edmund gets his way: not only does he become a successful magician, he talks Rita's mother into coming along, whereupon both mother and daughter become part of the act. In contrast to real stage magic, Edmund does seem to possess some sort of supernatural pipeline, but only when working with Rita, who becomes the star of his show. Predictably, as Rita comes into the bloom of adolescence, her mother's looks wither and eventually Edmund wants to send the older woman away. Rita alternates between being captivated by Edmund's charms and remaining loyal to her mother, but as Edmund predicted in her childhood, the sense of erotic interest wins to some extent. However, not long after Edmund marries Rita, Rita's mother passes away. Rita, racked by guilt, flees Edmund and his magic act, taking a job as a waitress in a New York coffeehouse.

Nevertheless, Rita is unable to forget her "demon lover," and begins imagining him in place of other men she encounters. Complicating things further is that during one of the magical performances, Edmund apparently unleashed a "werewolf spirit" in Rita-- and now, far from his control, mysterious bloody murders begin transpiring in New York. Though there is a relatively mundane solution to the murder-mystery- a solution provided by a French detective who seems to know more than he should about Rita's history with Edmund-- Rita finally decides that she has to find out what's happened to her husband. Oddly, amid all the suggestions of violence and perversity, the two are reunited in a relatively upbeat conclusion, though nevertheless I tend to view MAGICIAN'S WIFE as belonging to the Fryean mythos of the irony.

The fact that the name "Dolores" is sprinkled throughout the story indicates that Charyn wanted it to signify something, though it may have been no more than a private in-joke. It's first used as the name of a Saratoga jockey's horse, but it seems to have some special meaning to Little Rita. Charyn also attributes the name to an unseen maid who finds the body of Rita's deceased mother, and to a strange sorceress who holds Edmund in thrall. Still, this motif is undeveloped, as is Charyn and Boucq's view of magic. Since they remain non-committal on the subject of whether Edmund and Rita's magic is real or illusion, WIFE doesn't sustain any metaphysical myths. However, the psychological relationship between Rita and Edmund does achieve a mythic status, and so MAGICIAN'S WIFE succeeds in that department.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


Responding to THIS item:

If, as the essay says, it's true that Marvel's Valkyrie and Grandmaster characters are even temporarily popular, it has nothing to do with how good they are, as characters. I for one think they're godawful. I like how the script skirts the fact that Imitation Valkyrie has evidently been capturing people to die in Grandmaster's games for some good little time, But hey, she can't be implicated in slavery and murder, because she represents GIRL POWER!

No, they're popular because Marvel knows how to sell even a crappy script with loads and loads of humor. People remember enjoying the laughs in RAGNAROK and so everything is ennobled thereby. This is the mainstreaming advantage of the MCU that the DCEU didn't quite get, Joss Whedon's belated employment notwithstanding.

Frankly, I think Geoff Johns is probably part of that problem, but that's me.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


Though I've devoted a number of mythcomics to the topic of sexuality, none of the comics I've addressed deal with the act of sex itself, but with sexuality as it occurs within culture, usually in such genres as adventure and romantic drama. Sex itself-- which I talk about under the blog-label "sex" rather than 'sexuality"-- is, within the literary continuum, primarily a cosmological phenomenon, in that it deals with bodily functions. Sex can also have, in literary works, psychological, sociological and metaphysical connotations, but most of these are manifested within the corpus of "sexuality."

What people commonly call pornography is literature that focuses primarily upon some aspect of the sex act. The acts depicted may be "hardcore" or "softcore." In my estimation the more specific the work is about the specificity of the sex act, the less it is about the symbolic discourse surrounding the plot and characters involved. However, I have found at least one exception, thanks to a writeup on TV Tropes.

So far as I can tell, DOMINA NO DO is an original manga work, written by one "Zappa Go" and illustrated by Sankichi Meguro. It's a comedy-romance in the "hentai" style. Most of the material in its 41 chapters is softcore, along the line of LOVE HINA, but there are a few scenes are close to hardcore, though in Japan there are still various restrictions on what is shown. Part 35 displays these restrictions, for even though it's a comic take on the differences between male and female sex organs, a lot of the imagery is adumbrated through devices such as dream-imagery.

Some quick backstory: average high-school youth Takeshi is abducted and taken to a private estate owned by an insanely rich family, the Dominas. He learns that the oldest daughter, Hikari, is a previous acquaintance, with whom he enjoyed a brief friendship back in grade school. However, teenaged Hikari has recently been encouraged by her parents-- a practicing sadist/masochist couple-- to make a marriage of convenience. Desperate to avoid an arranged marriage, Hikari convinces her parents that she still holds a deep romantic longing for her childhood friend. Since her parents are both rich and insane, they more or less buy Takeshi from his worthless middle-class parents-- who almost completely disappear from the narrative-- and make him their permanent "guest' in their capacious mansion.

Most of the stories in DOMINA are, despite their hentai aspects, pretty typical comedy-romance. Obviously, once Hikari is forced to remain in close propinquity to Takeshi, she begins to relate to him as a human being more than as a possession. And in Chapter 35, this is exploited for comic effect with regard to one of Freud's favorite tropes: what he termed "penis envy."

Because the Dominas are super-rich, they have access to all sorts of mystical resources. Hikari, despite having seen Takeshi's penis and having deemed it less than impressive, has dreams in which an incredibly well-hung Takeshi advances on her. She wakes up before anything happens in her dream, and she theorizes that it's because in a previous adventure she seemed to witness Takeshi making love to another girl. Adding to her distress is the fact that she sees Takeshi socializing with Hikari's twin sister Kageri, which threatens her potential relationship with the young man. 

Hikari's youngest sister Akari and one of the estate's many maids observe Hikari sulking around, and for some reason decide she needs a lesson in male sexuality. Then, when that doesn't seem to soothe Hikari's adolescent sensibility, her grandmother decides to let her walk a mile with male equipment. Not only does this mean that she has to adjust to new bathroom habits, she even gets to find out what it feels like for a male to get busted in the balls. Since she did that very thing to Takeshi in the previous adventure, this causes her to experience a degree of guilt, and for the first time, she tenders an apology to Takeshi, who can barely understand the change in Hikari's attitude. The grandmother then takes off the spell, and everything goes back to normal-- except that Hikari has one more comic dream. I won't describe the dream, which almost seems like a direct refutation of Freud.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


I just posted this short diatribe on CBR Community:

What a tool John Oliver is:
“Because it is reflective of who you [Dustin Hoffman) were, if it happened, and you’ve given no evidence to show that it didn’t happen, then there was a period in time, for a while, when you were creepier around women. So it feels like a cop-out to say, well, this isn’t me. Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
I like how the media whores are focusing on a single clip from the panel that makes it sound like Oliver won the argument, when in fact, Hoffman made a very cogent defense of his position; that he was willing to apologize for possible offense but that he didn't appreciate being judged simply because somewhat made an allegation. It's pretty obvious that there was no "evidence" that Hoffman could have given that would have pleased this rabid witch-hunter.
I'm so glad I never thought he was funny in his Daily Show appearances.

As yet I haven't seen a complete transcript of the remarks Hoffman and Oliver made to each other at a function given by the Tribeca Film Institute, but here's one of the partial breakdowns. Youtube has a few films of the event, but either they're incomplete or the sound gets bad at some point.

I haven't had the occasion to rail against the abuses of ultraliberals on the subject of sexuality since July's HOW TO HANDLE A TOXIC MALE. Thus I've had no occasion to address what's now being called the Weinstein Effect, which came about following the investigation into Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual abuses in October 2017.

While the investigation of Weinstein has been so well documented that it's clearly justified, one can't say the same of most of the "Me Too" brigade. Another of Oliver's idiocies is his claim that Hoffman's accuser "has no reason to lie." This shows an absurd ignorance of the way human beings operate in the real world. The ultraliberal narrative would have people believe that every single person-- whether male or female, hetero or homo-- is crying "Me Too" because they couldn't speak at the time due to fear of recriminations. Oliver apparently cannot even countenance the idea that people might lie, or at least exaggerate, in order to feel validated. Just as soldiers have lied about their martial exploits in order to be seen as heroes, Franken's accusers have by this time been exposed to dozens upon dozens of celebrations of the "courage" of the women who came forward, no matter how belatedly. I don't doubt that Al Franken may indeed have smooched or groped a woman without her consent at least once in his life. But is that really "sexual abuse," and does it justify the senator's resignation-- which, it has been alleged, may transpire soon?

Leeann Tweeden, the radio host who made the first allegation against Franken, got an apology-- though not a confession-- from Franken in response. Her response was to read it on an episode of THE VIEW on November 17, and thus she joined the ranks of women who had suffered in silence, but who would now display their immense courage by giving testimony against powerful men who could no longer hurt them. In the course of the interview she claimed that she was not calling for Franken's resignation. She claimed that what she was attacking was not comparable in any way to lesser sexual approaches, claiming, "I don't want men to be afraid to talk to women at a bar."  Another VIEW lady chimed in by saying something about how men had to learn how to seduce a woman, and though Tweeden isn't responsible for that remark, I think she and the women of THE VIEW are on the same page in having unrealistic expectations about men.

Make no mistake: actual rape is a crime. But the things Tweeden described Franken doing, while also illegal, were not in the realm of forced sexual assault. Based on Tweeden's descriptions, they amoun to little more than attempts by a male to get a female in the mood. They are, to be sure, supremely stupid ways for men to romance women, and they almost always fail, since women don't as a rule "get in the mood" in this fashion. I'm not defending these lame attempts at seduction, but they simply should not be considered to be as invasive as rape. They are crimes at the time they occur, but are they crimes over a decade later?

Clearly the moral logic of a "statute of limitations" does not affect the court of public opinion, and now a senator, one who seems to have promoted good works in his governmental career, must be judged guilty over acts he MAY have committed years ago.

And that's how the Sexual Inquisition works.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "WORLD WAR III" (JLA #36-41, 1999-2000)

Last week I devoted a mythcomics essay to a THOR arc in order to purge the bad memory of THOR: RAGNAROK. In contrast, the JUSTICE LEAGUE film, released the week after the THOR flick, provided a much stronger translation of a comic-book concept, in this case of DC's most venerable team-feature. So this week's essay is more in the nature of celebration than of catharsis.

The JUSTICE LEAGUE comics title of the 1960s has never received a lot of respect even among Silver Age comics-fandom, and one reason may be that the early comic, for several years written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky, is perceived as being too "old school." Most team-features in both the Golden and the Silver Ages followed what I'll call a "plot-based model," in which "character moments" are kept to a minimum, as the author concentrates on the events of the plot, usually showing how the members of the team work to overcome some common enemy. The plot-model seems like an easy row to hoe, as indicated by countless spoofs of the model, but DC Comics pursued it almost exclusively, even when Marvel Comics in the 1960s advanced a "character-based model" that over time become the dominant paradigm.

Both models have their weaknesses. The character-model lends itself to bathetic soap-opera, which in modern comics has further degenerated into allegedly arty bathos. The plot-model often depended not on symbolically rigorous concepts but on weak contrivances. This vacuity dominates most of the Silver Age team-books-- BLACKHAWK, CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, SEA DEVILS, and RIP HUNTER TIME MASTER  Fox's JUSTICE LEAGUE was one of the plot-modeled team-features of the Silver Age to overcome the model's limitations, for Fox was largely responsible for making the League's adventures all about the heroes' experience of "the sense of wonder." Only a few of the Fox-Sekowsky adventures are symbolically dense enough to qualify as mythcomics, as I've shown with "Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers" and "The Justice League's Impossible Adventure." But aside from a few clunking null-myths, such as "The Plague That Struck the Justice League," most of the Fox oeuvre offers at least strongly conceived "near myths." In fact, the current JUSTICE LEAGUE movie approaches its team-building story in much the same way that Fox launched the original series.

Prior to Grant Morrison's run on the JUSTICE LEAGUE title, few raconteurs on the book showed Fox's penchant for the sense of wonder. There were some uneasy attempts to shift the feature in the direction of the character-model-- "Justice League Detroit," anyone? But Morrison, aided by the pencil-work of Howard Porter, is the first author to exploit the original plot-model for all that it was worth, as well as providing enough "character-moments" to make his project palatable to Marvel-ized tastes.

Seventeen years before the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie, Grant Morrison also sought to devise a bridge between the wonder-scape of Fox's JLA and that of Jack Kirby's slightly later "Fourth World." Morrison was far from the first raconteur to provide a crossover between the superheroes and the "science fiction quasi-deities" of Kirby's universe, but he seems to be the first who understood how to get the best out of both worlds. Kirby's Fourth World cosmos is very different in tone than the Fox-scape, but the two are fundamentally both indebted to the "plot-model," and Morrison alone found a way to meld the two aesthetics. The current film only achieves this synthesis once or twice, but then, the filmmakers were primarily concerned with introducing the heroes, and the film's use of Fourth World characters and concepts is much more scattershot.

Morrison crossed over Kirby's "New Gods' and the JLA in his arc "Rock of Ages," but this, while a great deal of fun, wasn't nearly as mythically resonant as the author's final arc in his tenure, "World War III." Earlier issues also introduced the League to the champions of "Wonder-World," which in essence was a Mount Olympus for superheroes who had evolved to the level of gods. However, the gist of the story was to pit the League and some of Kirby's New Gods-- Orion, Metron, Mister Miracle and Big Barda-- against a seemingly unstoppable threat, the Wonder-World champions were primarily created to be the victims of the new menace.

The menace is Maggedon, the Anti-Sun, a non-sentient weapon created by "the Old Gods" who, in Kirby's cosmology, preceded the newer super-deities. Mageddon escapes its exile at the end of space-time and destroys the Wonder-World heroes by emitting radiations that fill the heroes with rage and despair, so that they murder one another. That done, the super-weapon then makes a beeline for Earth. and as it approaches, the world undergoes the first symptoms of Maggedon's influence. Nations begin gearing up for a world war, and even the Justice League's regular villains become pawns of the extraterrestrial invader. Said villains include master planner Lex Luthor, who helmed an analogous bad guy-group in "Rock of Ages," and two old Fox-fiends, the Queen Bee and a substantially revamped Shaggy Man. For good measure, Morrison adds a villain he created in earlier issues of this tenure: Prometheus, a computer-nerd gone berserk.

Yet, although this is clearly a plot-heavy continuity, forcing the Leaguers and their allies to prevent a war opening up on multiple fronts, Morrison doesn't neglect the "character moments." The evildoer Prometheus plays the part of Faust to the League's long-crippled intelligence gatherer, Barbara "Oracle" Gordon, offering her the chance to walk again if she betrays the good guys. The then-current Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, experiences a crisis of self-confidence, and the angel Zauriel-- allegedly Morrison's substitute for an unavailable Hawkman-- must remonstrate with his fellow angels to coax them to come to mankind's aid. Morrison gets a lot of humorous mileage out of the sometimes manic Plastic Man, but even characters who aren't overly funny get good lines. These include Kyle Rayner telling Luthor that he's being "outsmarted by a giant eyeball," and even the brutal Shaggy Man referring to Orion as "Mr. 'Was-God-an-Astronaut.'" Morrison crafts strong moments for all of the heroes, and even strives, in his use of the New Gods, to pepper their dialogue with Kirby-ish touches, like calling Maggedon's interior "techno-active."

At the same time Morrison knows that the "friendly enemies" relationship of DC's most iconic characters, Superman and Batman, lies at the core of the modern JLA. The climax of WAR involves Superman trying to defeat Mageddon directly, with the result that the super-machine enslaves him. There's more than the suggestion of Biblical imagery here, in that Metron poetically describes Maggedon as "dragging its broken chains across the stars"-- and during Superman's captivity, he carries much of the resonance of Samson chained in the Temple of Dagon. One panel even makes Superman's eyes look overshadowed, as if he might be as blind as Samson, though this may have been no more than a fortuitous accident.

Maggedon enslaves Superman by filling him with a despair that plays on the hero's sense of "survivor guilt." Batman, speaking to the hero through a telepathic link, essentially "out-guilts" the machine, causing the Man of Steel to rally and to defeat the Anti-Sun with his own solar-based powers: the "positive sun" besting the "negative sun."

I should note in closing that though Morrison pays full respect to Kirby's Fourth World, the later author places a lot more emphasis on the idea of humankind's evolutionary destiny, which, in essence, argues that everyone can be a superhero. The author's meditations on metaphysical evolution are arguably better worked out in the later "Being Bizarro" sequence from ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. Nevertheless, I can find no substantive flaws in Morrison's homage to the wonder-working proclivities of the Silver Age JUSTICE LEAGUE, which, like all good homages, is as much about what the modern author likes as the thing being homaged.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Like many if not all comics-readers, Alan Moore's 2007 BLACK DOSSIER was the first time I'd ever heard of THE BLAZING WORLD, a utopian fiction published in 1666 by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. From what I've read online, Cavendish's work has only been revived in the last decade or so by feminist scholars.

I've now read THE BLAZING WORLD, though not any of Cavendish's other works, most of which tended to fall into the format of Renaissance-era philosophical discourses. WORLD's level of philosophical thought feels fairly derivative of the Greek and Roman authors then being re-discovered in Europe, supplemented by a few tropes dear to the heart of English aristocrats, such as the topic of aristocratic rule. It's probably not fair to judge Cavendish by WORLD alone, since utopian novels are generally boring affairs, including the 1516 Thomas More work that started the whole thing. But though I can validate feminist academia's project to reclaim lost female voices from the days of a dominant patriarchy, I have my doubts, based on WORLD, that Cavendish ranks as more than a curiosity. Certainly it's silly to deem WORLD "the first science-fiction novel," just because Cavendish's utopian otherworld includes SF-tropes like hybrid animal-men. If you're going to judge a work as science fiction simply because of the presence of such tropes, then Cavendish is obviously still a long way from first, out-firsted by the classical author Lucian of Samosata. It's possible that the main reason Moore referenced Cavendish was because of the work of those aforesaid feminist scholars, because there's not a lot of common ground between the respective themes of Moore and Cavendish.

In short, Cavendish's WORLD is an example of what I've caused ratiocentrism. Her viewpoint character, a young noblewoman called "the Lady," is precipitated into what SF-authors now call a parallel world. The Lady is instantly married by the Emperor of the Blazing World. As Empress, she's in the position to learn about all the government and philosophy of her new realm, though there's never much of an explanation about the otherworld's most prominent feature: humanoids with animal aspects, such as "bird-men," "bear-men," and, perhaps most improbably, "lice-men." All of the animal-men have particular societal functions, which sounds like a simple restatement of the Great Chain of Being, as re-formulated by European Christian scholars. This is one of the things that seems least like Alan Moore's anarchic system of belief, and though he puts the animal-men into his version of the Blazing World, he doesn't assign them any particular thematic function. Either he or artist Kevin O'Neill did stick in a cameo shot of one moderately famous insect-man: "Turan," mentor to the Simon and Kirby Silver Age character "the Fly."

I believe that Moore's re-use of the Blazing World is in essence just another synonym for the occult concept of "the astral plane," on which Moore had already descanted in his 1999 PROMETHEA series for ABC Comics. But whereas Moore is fascinated with the influence of the irrational upon human thought and desire, Cavendish clearly falls into the category of reason-worship. In one section, the Empress rails against the abstruse syllogisms of the realm's logicians, who are satirically pictured as descended from magpies, jackdaws, and parrots. The Empress says:

I have enough, said she, of your chopped logic, and will hear no more of your syllogisms, for it disorders my reason, and puts my heart on the rack; your formal argumentations are able to spoil all natural wit; and I'll have you to consider: that art does not make reason, but reason makes art, and therefore as much as reason is above art, so much is a natural rational discourse to be preferred above an artificial: for art, is for the most part, irregular, and disorders men's understandings more than it rectifies them, and leads them into a labyrinth whence they'll never get out...

In the end, though the Empress does not forbid the bird-men to carry on their logic-chopping, she stresses that they need to keep these labyrinthine meditations to themselves, rather than letting them escape to cause societal unrest with the greater populace. I think I'm justified in seeing the long shadow of Plato-- or rather, of his own fictional utopia, the Republic-- as having provided the better part of Cavendish's ideas about reason's precedence over art.

I don't know exactly why Moore chose to allude to Cavendish's concept, though it may be largely because she's a female creator from the generation immediately after that of Shakespeare, whose influence is much more significant in DOSSIER. I strongly doubt that Moore worships reason as Plato' and Cavendish do, given that Moore concludes DOSSIER by talking about what I termed 'the opposition between "matter's mudyards" and the "radiant synthesis" of this multi-story mashup.' But then, no author ever really adapts another author with complete fidelity. Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of HAMLET is really Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET, not Shakespeare's, Steve Ditko's SPIDER-MAN is nothing like the raw Simon-Kirby concept with which Ditko started, and Alan Moore's idea of THE BLAZING WORLD is only minimally connected with that of Margaret Cavendish.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


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


“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.