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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...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE DOLL'S HOUSE" (THE SANDMAN #10-16, 1989-90)

In the same year that Neil Gaiman began his long run on THE SANDMAN title, he also did a couple of (apparent) tryouts for the SWAMP THING title: scripts that appeared in SWAMP THING ANNUAL #5, reviewed here. One of Gaiman's stories, which revived DC's "Brother Power" character, posited a world of "doll elementals" as the reason for Power's existence, in line with the plant elementals Alan Moore had introduced as a rationale for Swamp Thing's existence.

Over the next two years the SANDMAN title showed Gaiman stretching his creative muscles, as he varied between "short dreams" (essentially stand-alone stories, often featuring Morpheus of the Dreaming as the "host") and "long dreams" (longer, more involved story-arcs, some of which did not bear fruit until the end of the series). The first long arc, "The Doll's House," also invoked the image of dolls, but, like the famous Ibsen play, with a somewhat negative connotation, in which dolls were seen not as magical non-living presences-- as in the Brother Power story-- but as metaphors for being helplessly controlled by another's will.

As rendered by then-current Mike Dringenberg, the world of the Dreaming was taking on increasingly more complex, almost Jungian connotations, and this in part accounts for readers' enthusiastic reception of a world where dreams were real. "Doll's House" is perhaps not the best exemplar of this unique perspective. Though it's a long arc, parts of it are still more like short stories than anything, particularly "Men of Good Fortune," which has nothing to do with the plot of the arc, though it has a loose thematic relationship to the rest of the story.



At this point in the series Morpheus, having been released from magical captivity, is dealing with various problems in the dream-world he rules. Four entities, his "creations," have escaped the Dreaming, and there's an additional threat in the appearance of a "vortex," a rare phenomenon in which a mortal manifests the ability to wreak havoc on the dream-world. Morpheus must corral his errant creations and terminate the threat to his kingdom.

I said that Gaiman's conception was "almost" Jungian, because at this point Gaiman is still strongly oriented upon the Alan Moore model. In his early works for DC Comics, Moore helped pave the way for 'adult comic books" within the context of genre-productions, and one of his main strategies was to take an ironic or reductive view of key genre-fantasies. I won't attempt to recount the fine details of Gaiman's arc, particularly since they don't dovetail particularly well, but almost all of them relate to the ides of exposing some personal or cultural fantasy as deeply flawed or misunderstood. Taking them on an issue-by-issue basis:



#10-11 -- this issue introduces Rose Walker, the mortal vortex, who will in time learn that her everyday waking existence is actually a threat to the world of dreams.



#12-- Superhero Hector Hall, who took upon himself the identity of "the Sandman" within the pages of another DC comic, is exposed as nothing but a ghost with delusions of grandeur, manipulated by two of the nightmare-creations that escaped Morpheus' realm. The issue not only undermines the original Simon-Kirby conception of a "dreamworld superhero," from which Gaiman's Sandman was very loosely derived, it also features a few sequences in which a young boy experiences fanciful dreams evocative of Windsor McCay's "Little Nemo," but wakes up to ugly realities (a rat biting his face, for example),



#13-- the "Good Fortune" issue, in which Morpheus allows a mortal man to enjoy virtual immortality. During Morpheus' visit to Elizabethan England, it is revealed that a certain Bard owes his talent to having made a Faustian bargain with none other than the King of Dreams.

#14-- Morpheus tracks down one of his nightmare-creations, the Corinthian, to a very special convention, in which seasoned serial killers come together to discuss their avocation. In addition to destroying his creation, Morpheus forces all of the mortal killers to see themselves without the benefit of self-delusion. To some extent comic-book conventions and their attendees are the butt of the issue's satirical jokes, though it's reasonably clear that Gaiman isn't drawing a one-on-one comparison of comics-fans and serial killers.




#15-16-- Morpheus finds that the last of his errant creations, an entire dream-realm known as Fiddlers' Green, has taken mortal form and come into contact with Rose Walker. Though Morpheus' initial contact with Rose saves her from one of the serial killers, he then tells her-- within one of her dreams-- about her true nature, and that he must kill her to prevent her from destroying his world. He almost does so, but learns, through a very involved plot-line I won't recapitulate, that one of his supernatural siblings has been manipulating him to commit that transgression in order to destroy him  Although Rose survives, she lives on with the feeling that all of humanity are merely "dolls" to greater, merciless forces, echoing Shakespeare's theme in KING LEAR: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport,." However, in his confrontation with his plotting sibling, Morpheus reveals a new wrinkle: that he and all of his metaphysical kindred are also merely "dolls," for they are brought into being by the passions and aspirations of mortal beings. At the end the sibling in question refuses to acknowledge the truth revealed by Morpheus, and the story ends with her thinking that she's "nothing like a doll at all."



It's a promising theme, that of the interdependence of mortals and their archetypal creations, but "Doll's House" doesn't live up to its potential. It's obviously an amalgam of separate story-ideas that Gaiman sought, only with partial success, to meld into a unified structure. Nevertheless, even if this early Gaiman work goes a little overboard with all of the "beautiful dreams hide nasty realities" schtick, there's still enough attention to the symbolic resonance of the dream-world that it isn't totally reductive in nature. One example is "Fiddler's Green," who is apparently the incarnation of an Earthly Paradise, without any attempt to reduce him to something else. Rose Walker is a little on the dull side, as if Gaiman wanted to make her as simple as possible for contrast's sake, but I found this simply made it harder to invest much conviction in her character.

It's a flawed story, but not so over-intellectualized as to fall into the category of the "null-myth," and it does prove to be of major importance in elucidating Gaiman's not-quite-Jungian concept of a universe of dreams.




Friday, June 16, 2017

JUST ANOTHER ADAM WEST ANECDOTE

I won't assert what many fans of "1966 BATMAN" have asserted: that Adam West-- who passed on June 9, 2017-- was the Only Real Batman. Over the years I've enjoyed the show and West's performance in it. Indeed, I shudder to think how the show would have been sunk had the producers decided to cast Lyle Waggoner in the role. But yeah, I could always imagine a Batman who was more true to the comics. Strangely, at some point-- possibly in his biography?-- West made the claim that the show did reflect what was going on in the BATMAN comic. Assuming he actually looked at some comic book before making that statement, what might he have seen that might've given him that impression? Some issue from the "Bat-Mite" period, perhaps?\




But that's merely speculation. Twice I saw Adam West, strictly from the POV of a fan attending a convention. The first time I went before him and got his autograph-- for a friend, since I don't collect autographs-- I found him a personable guy. I think I asked him something about his failed TV pilot LOOKWELL, but I don't remember what he said any more than I recall my question.

The second convention-encounter makes a slightly better story. West was taking questions from the floor and I was one of many in the audience. It seemed to me that the questions were either slow in coming or rather mediocre-- maybe both-- so I came up with one. Since I have a mild interest in how actors block out action for the camera, with or without the use of stuntpeople, I asked something about a scene from "The Bat's Kow Tow." At the end of the episode, Batman pursues Catwoman (played by the pneumatic Julie Newmar). Somehow she eludes him long enough to get up on a building-ledge one story up from the alleyway where Batman's running around looking for her. The camera cuts to make it look like she leaps down from the building, lands on Batman's back and knocks him to the ground, after which they play out the remainder of the scene.

So I asked about how the stunt was done, making the caveat that I was pretty sure Julie Newmar had probably just jumped off a ladder or something. I didn't think it was too likely Newmar would have had a body double for such a scene-- her body was pretty hard to double!-- but I thought West might have some little story about how the scene was done, even if he had to admit that some stuntman had taken the fall, not him.

While a straight answer might have been mildly entertaining, West then showed his ability to think on his feet and get a much bigger laugh out of the audience. Knowing that pretty much any straight guy in the audience would have loved to have had any physical contact with Newmar-- even that of having her fall on top of him-- West merely pointed over his shoulder, at his own back, and said simply, "See my back? SHE'S STILL THERE." And yes, he got his big laugh.

I suppose it's possible that West might have recycled some schtick he'd done before, in some other context. Any actor who makes the rounds of conventions cobbles together lots of jokes or tall tales with which to amuse listeners. But I'd like to think he was quick-witted enough to cut through the trivia-nature of the question in order to come up with something on the spot. It would go a lot toward explaining the intelligence with which West imbued the character. West's Batman could say the most cornball things, and yet, because West sold us all on the idea that Batman believed every word he said, there was a strange sense of conviction that served as a great counterpoint to all of the absurdities. And partly because of West's talent, a show that might have been pure silliness became a part of our entertainment mythology, in a way that not even good silly shows like GET SMART could ever emulate.





MYTHCOMICS: "BATTLE FOR WOMANHOOD" (WONDER WOMAN #5, 1943)

Since I just finished my review of the new WONDER WOMAN film this week, this week’s mythcomic will be another selection frojm the Golden Age WONDER WOMAN mythos created by Wulliam Moulton Marston.

Though I’ve analyzed other Marston stories here and here, both stories display a tendency seen during the first year-and-a-half of the feature’s existence: a lack of significant villains for the hero to battle. Prior to the 1943 story “Battle for Womanhood,” the Amazon’s only outstanding foes were the rather tedious spy-chief Paula Von Gunther and the evil scientist Doctor Poison, who was both the heroine’s first costumed enemy and her first transvestite opponent. There were also an assortment of villains from exotic cultures, outer space, and of course from the Olympian pantheon, but these evildoers tended to lack any strong character-traits. Nowhere is this better seen than in the otherworldly enemy who racked up the greatest number of bouts with the Amazon: the god Mars, who incarnated all the bad aspects of the male gender. But though Mars caused Wonder Woman a lot of trouble, he never became anything more than an abstract evil. However, the war-god indirectly gave rise to the heroine’s first major foe, Doctor Psycho, and this character opened the floodgates for one of the Golden Age’s best rogues’ galleries.

“Battle for Womanhood” commences with Mars receiving a report from a female slave (wearing leg-irons, no less). The report concerns the growing prominence of women lending their efforts to the Allied conflict with the Axis powers. Mars fears that women “will achieve a horrible independence;” further, once women are no longer considered “the spoils of war,” they will “grow stronger than men and put an end to war.” But because Wonder Woman has bested the war-god and his underlings in past encounters, none of them want to face her wrath again. One of the god’s underlings, “the Duke of Deception,” solves the problem, for he’s made contact with a mortal who hates women as much as Mars does. So the Duke—who looks like a short, wizened man in Greek armor—descends to Earth. Emulating the gods of Homer’s Iliad, who spoke invisibly to the Greek warriors in the field, the Duke appears at the side of the mortal cat's-paw, whispering in the man’s ear in order to egg him on—and that’s the last readers see of Mars or his servants in the narrative.



The cat's-paw is none other than a brilliant but embittered scientist, Doctor Psycho. The story implies that this is his real name, not an assumed cognomen, but it’s also probably a mild self-parody on the part of Marston, given that he held a PhD in psychology. Psycho—a short, ugly man with an over-sized cranium—is seen receiving an honor at a medical college. His specialty is never disclosed, though his research involves the use of radium. Psycho’s male classmates, mostly depicted as square-jawed swains, mock the runty fellow for his ugliness, calling him “pumpkin head.” Even Psycho’s own fiancée, a student named Marva, doesn’t want him to “get mushy” with her because he’s so homely, though she claims to admire his brilliant mind. Slightly later, Psycho even sees a college athlete, Ben Bradley, putting the moves on Marva, and it’s plain to both Psycho and the readers that her protests are weak at best. Psycho considers letting Marva out of her engagement, but before he has the chance, that same night someone steals radium from Psycho’s lab. He falls under immediate suspicion, and to make matters worse, Marva testifies that she saw Psycho leave the lab immediately after the robbery. Marva sincerely believes Psycho committed the crime, though the captions establish that she's simply mistaken: that the thief she saw was merely crouched down, not actually as short as Psycho. The scientist spends several years in prison due to Marva’s testimony, and when Psycho receives news that his former fiancée has married Ben Bradley, he’s convinced that the two of them framed him for the theft. As soon as Psycho gets out of prison, he captures Bradley and forces him to confess that he was the thief. Psycho gets his revenge by forcing Bradley to swallow a chunk of radium, knowing that it will burn holes in the man’s stomach. (Perhaps it’s an appropriate punishment, to attack the intestines of a specimen full of testosterone-fueled masculinity.) However, Bradley tries, without success, to save his miserable life by claiming that Marva masterminded the frame-up.



Psycho doesn’t want to kill Marva, though. Telling her that “death is too good for you,” the villain hypnotizes Marva, so that she agrees to marry him, and presumably no longer discourages him from “getting mushy.” However, Psycho’s main focus is that of using her as his own cat's-paw, to undermine the advancement of women generally. Though Psycho has studied the occult sciences, he apparently has no talent for channeling the ectoplasmic powers of the spirit world. However, he can tap such energies through a female medium. In all successive appearances of the villain when scripted by Marston, Psycho always needs a female to make his evil magic, so it may be that Marston was thinking of something along the lines of the legendary sorcerer Simon Magus, whose legend includes him traveling with a female companion who possessed mediumistic talents.

Psycho’s principal schtick is that he can, as he later tells Wonder Woman, “materialize a body and wear it like a cloak.” Thus he embarks upon a scheme to undermine America’s faith in its female workforce, which is presumably the goal that Mars’ agent inspired him to seek. He makes the public announcement that he and his medium can conjure forth the spirit of George Washington, the country’s founding father, to counsel the nation on its future fate. Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor are both on hand when “George Washington” appears on a stage, though it’s really just an ectoplasmic shell inhabited by Psycho and conjured forth by Marva. (In keeping with Marston’s affection for bondage, Marva is both bound and blindfolded during the experiment.) “Washington” voices the fears of a patriarchal culture, claiming that “women will betray their country through weakness,” and predicting that feminine carelessness will bring about the destruction of a major artillery factory. Naturally, Psycho makes this prediction come true.



Wonder Woman tries twice to expose Psycho’s tricks, without success, and it’s hard to say what would have been her next move, if Psycho hadn’t chosen to enact a frame-up on three female secretaries at the same army base where Trevor works. Though the frame-up works, and the secretaries are jailed, Trevor takes it upon himself to investigate Psycho once more. This time Psycho, instead of playing a waiting game, decides to render Trevor unconscious. The villain then creates an ectoplasmic double of Trevor and uses it to summon Wonder Woman via her much-used “mental radio” device. In short order Psycho not captures the Amazon, he splits off her astral body from her physical form, keeping the latter in a cage and chaining the astral form to a wall with “bands of psycho-electric magnetism.” Psycho, though he debates killing Trevor before deciding to use him, never says what he plans to do with Wonder Woman. Maybe he thinks death’s also too good for her as well. Or maybe he’s content to double his bondage pleasure by causing her to be literally "beside herself."



For once Wonder Woman does absolutely nothing to win free. Psycho is only foiled because he imprisons Steve Trevor instead of simply killing him. Because of this, Trevor is able to send his own mental message to Wonder Woman’s sidekick girl-gang, the Holliday Girls. They show up on Psycho’s doorstep, and Psycho tries to get rid of them by assuming another disguise: that of a handsome Latino lab assistant. Possibly Psycho’s own buried desire for female regard betrays him in this, for his handsome disguise causes the girls to start pestering him for dates. (Indeed, it’s not entirely clear as to whether they still remember the mission they’re on.) Because the villain becomes distracted, he loses mental control of the devices imprisoning the heroine, who rejoins her body and then frees both Trevor and Marva. Psycho is captured, and Wonder Woman addresses Marva’s general wimpiness with an empowering homily: “the better you can fight, the less you’ll have to.”



Marston was apparently intrigued enough with his new villain that, in addition to giving him the first of the three stories in WONDER WOMAN #5, the evildoer also appears in the third tale, retroactively titled “Return of Dr. Psycho.” It’s a much simpler story, in which Psycho uses an ectoplasmic double to escape his execution in prison and to fake his death. The only interesting aspect of “Return” is the fact that the villain once again needs a woman to create his psychic shells, though he’s forced to choose someone other than Marva to achieve this task. This is nearly tantamount to saying that only the gender that possesses a womb can also create things in the psychic realm, which seems like a rather strange dictum for a male author to propound.


Dozens of academic papers have been written on the notion that “narratives of masculinity” in fiction always have conceptual holes in them that allegedly prove the impossibility of the whole narrative. By this logic, it ought to be possible to find just as many holes in “narratives of femininity,” if one wished to play such a one-upping game. I don’t doubt for a moment that Marston means it seriously when he foresees women becoming a beneficial force on society through legal and cultural emancipation. However, I find it significant that in this story about a man seeking revenge on the female sex because of perceived wrongs, the main heroine lacks her usual competence, and even the females who come to her aid only are brought in at the last minute, by the agency of another man. Moreover, while a lot of Marston’s female victims are sympathetic despite being one-dimensional characters, Marva is both one-dimensional and unsympathetic. Marston says nothing about her motives for remaining engaged to a man she doesn’t love, but I speculate that the motives could have gone beyond mere admiration for his mind, into the realm of the fortune hunter. Surely Marston was familiar in his time with women who went to college not for their betterment, but to marry men who might earn big bank accounts in future. Even putting that aside as sheer speculation, Marva also seems rather stupid in her conviction that Psycho committed the radium theft, given that she didn’t even see his face. Since she does marry Psycho’s rival later, one might argue that on some buried PSYCHO-logical level, she wanted to get rid of an unattractive fiancée, even if her conscious mind wanted to marry for money. By creating a male villain who sins only because he’s been “sinned against” by a woman, Marston pokes a sizable hole in his own anti-male rhetoric, and draws a picture of feminine fallibility that no empowering slogans can efface.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

PENALTY FOR THRESHOLDING

I reviewed both the 1987 STEPFATHER and the 1993 PRAYING MANTIS  in the same month in 2017, but it only recently occurred to me that the later film exemplifies what I said at the end of the first review:

While there's no question in my mind that Jerry is a "perilous psycho" in the uncanny mode, I had to think whether or not STEPFATHER also made use of the uncanny version of the "bizarre crime." Certainly Jerry's not an artful psycho: he clubs one victim to death with a board. But I finally decided that his motif of moving from family to family in pursuit of his twisted ideal qualified as a bizarre crime in itself-- though of course, like any uncanny facet of a narrative, it can be reconfigured to take on a purely naturalistic phenomenality, as one indeed sees in some of STEPFATHER's imitators.

I don't think that PRAYING MANTIS was an intentional copy of STEPFATHER, foi the later movie just doesn't seem to "quote" the earlier one the way a true knock-off emulates its original. It's interesting, though, that the movie to which MANTIS has been most often compared (on IMDB) is also from the year 1987: the Theresa Russell vehicle BLACK WIDOW.  In any case, here are the similarities and differences:

(1) Both narratives deal with a psycho who repeatedly moves from family to family, killing as he or she goes. However, Jerry Blake kills all the members of the family into which he marries, while Linda Crandell kills only the man whom she marries.

(2) In both films, the cops assigned to the case assert that the unknown killer must have a major trauma in his or her background. In both films, the trauma is never revealed to the audience.

(3) Both psychos are artless killers who display no more particular creativity in their methods of murder. Blake uses blunt objects or edged weapons, while Crandell uses poison.

(4) In both films, young members of the family into which the psycho marries are largely responsible for exposing each evildoer, though the initial person to suspect Crandell is the sister-in-law of the first wife of Crandell's intended victim.

(5) In my critical opinion, neither film does much of anything with the psychological potential of their scenarios.

Given that I've stated that there's no single element about the uncanny film that couldn't have appeared in a naturalistic film, it behooves me to ask then: what makes Jerry Blake an uncanny psycho, while Crandell's only naturalistic? I've alluded to at least part of the answer in saying that the "twisted ideal" Blake pursues gives his "bizarre crime" the tonality of the uncanny. In contrast, Crandell really doesn't have an ideal as such: she's merely compensating for her past trauma by trying to find someone who won't betray her, possibly in the form of a father-substitute. This would also accord with what I've written about the nature of all naturalistic fictions: that they must always seem to be "logical extrapolations from [the author's] observations of experience."

Since the physical phenomena in STEPFATHER and in MANTIS are essentially identical, the only thing that can possibly separate them is that the former is far more invested in the tropes of story-telling-- that is, in the principle of artifice-- as opposed to that of experience, a.k.a. verisimilitude.


"Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude...-- ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE PT. 4.

But once again, I stress that I can only make such a judgment by imaging a *threshold* that separates the limitations of "affective freedom" in a naturalistic work from its more intense expression in an uncanny one. It's a subjective judgment that STEPFATHER just barely manages to step over that threshold, despite all of its similarities to PRAYING MANTIS; that STEPFATHER is more a figure of uncanny artifice akin to the much more outrageous-looking Jason Voorhees (in his early incarnation, that is). But I still favor this approach over a "recipe" mentality, in which, say, the presence of any psycho of any kind automatically crossed into the greater category of the metaphenomenal.

Friday, June 9, 2017

PROPPIAN PONDERINGS PT. 3

I'm returning to the topic of this brief "series," last seen in 2014, because one of the films I've just reviewed speaks so well to the "two forms of will" elaborated there:

I should have said earlier that these two forms of will, these "two souls" that seem to dwell in every human's breast, only appear in fictional characters to the extent that their creators choose to emphasize one or both.  It is possible to have characters who are purely devoted to glorious ideals, or purely devoted to the persistence of ordinary existence.  It is also possible to have combinations of the two, but one form of will must dominate over the other...

In my review of the 1971 Hammer film TWINS OF EVIL, I remarked that although it was part of a trilogy of vampire films based on Sheridan LeFanu's novel CARMILLA, TWINS did not center on the menace of the vampires, in contrast to most films containing vampires. Rather, the "star" of the story, played by the top-billed Peter Cushing, is a (17th-century?) witch-hunter named Gustav Weil.

(I should note that top billing in itself doesn't equate with the star of the story. The most extreme example of this is that Bela Lugosi gets star-billing in the serial THE WHISPERING SHADOW, but he plays neither villain nor hero, but simply a red herring-type.)

Weil is apposite to the matter of fictional characters whose creators have given them combinations of both the idealizing will, with its "glorious ideals," and the existential will, "devoted to the persistence of ordinary existence." As the film begins, the viewer sees Weil and his cohorts burning a young woman to death on the suspicion that she's a witch. This act makes it impossible for most viewers to assign him the status of the hero, so by my system he could still be one of three other personas: villain, monster, or demihero. Villains are suggest a devotion to the pure ideal of contravening good, but it's soon apparent that Weil thinks that his witch-hunting serves the purpose of his version of Christianity and of his community. It would be possible for a witch-hunter to be a monster who, in the name of pure survival, has become estranged from his community due to his obsessions: this formula appears in another Peter Cushing role, his "Baron Frankenstein" as portrayed in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.   Yet Weil seems to blend in with his community, even though not all the locals approve of his witch-finding activities. Thus at first, Weil seems closest in tone to the negative form of the demihero: the type who I observed in this essay to be "a loathsome viewpoint character who deserves to be destroyed."

Yet, as the movie's plot unfolds, Weil's dedication to his cause is shown to be sincere even if he makes poor choices regarding the objects of his persecution. Further, vampires in Weil's world are real, and thus he's not totally unjustified in crusading against evil. But the new information still doesn't elevate Weil to the level of a heroic figure like the Van Helsing of Hammer's DRACULA series. It's not just that he's fallible, but he's fallible in a way that shows the negative consequences of the existential will. Thus, at the climax Anton, the "hero" (but not "star") of the story finally makes Weil aware of his failures, Weil still does not take on the stature of the hero, even when he leads his followers in an assault upon the castle of the vampire. Weil has some idealizing will in him, but it's been trumped by the existential will, the part of him that has been content to attack impotent victims rather than assail the true source of evil. I observed a similar admixture of "the two souls" in Cushing's Baron Frankenstein as well, as I chronicled here, but in the Baron's case he is estranged enough from the community to be deemed a "monster."

On a side-note, TWINS seems to be a rare example of a horror-film oriented on the demihero rather than the monster; to date I've analyzed only one other such film here. But in that film, the monster dies and the demihero survives, while in TWINS OF EVIL, it's the demihero and the monster who are the real "twins," in being diametrically opposed evils that are both destroyed by film's end.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "THE PEERLESS POWER OF THE SILVER SURFER" (FF ANNUAL #5, 1967)

In my essay on the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, I wrote:

For all that the Surfer is not integral to the conflict's resolution, he combines some fascinating Judeo-Christian motifs. It's hard to say whether or not either Lee or Kirby drew any conscious parallels between the Surfer and the Christian Son of God, not least because the latter does not rebel against his heavenly father. Rebellion is more the department of Satan/Lucifer, who is generally characterized as being opposed to the good fortune of humanity. Nevertheless, I think it possible that Lee and Kirby's collaboration brought a fortuitous confluence of ideas, possibly one that neither creator could have pulled off alone. In the Surfer's later appearances, the character became more visibly an Imitatio Christi, though Kirby still tended to emphasize his inability to comprehend human mores.
The Silver Surfer made a few appearances in the FANTASTIC FOUR title before the character finally received his first solo appearance in a short tale in FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #5, about a year and a half after his first appearance. I have the sense that though both creators hoped to find some way to spin off the hero into his own series, they might not have quite known what direction to pursue. Yet this story-- the only solo-starring role for the Lee-Kirby Surfer, before Lee decided to launch a Surfer series in 1968 with John Buscema-- does touch on some of the same themes that Lee would explore without Kirby. For instance, many Kirby stories begin with a little gratuitous action, and this one is no exception: the Surfer is just flying around on his board when some duck-hunters fire at him.



After the Surfer sends the hunters running for cover, he moralizes on the unique penchant of human beings to hunt other creatures for sport. I recall that in the day this prompted a letter from a fan who's seen a Lee-Kirby tale in which the alien Skrulls were seen in hunting-activities, but even without this continuity-cop input, it does sound pretty unlikely that the Surfer has never seen any other sentient beings hunting for sport.

More successful on the next page is a moment where the Surfer, far from being a stranger to human emotions, now seems attuned to the massed emotions of humankind. I view this as the real beginning of the Surfer's "Christ complex," in which he takes on the appearance of a secular savior toward humankind. Prior to this story, the Surfer tended to keep his distance from the sufferings of humans, like a distant deity. But where Galactus took the role of a "destroying angel" in the Galactus trilogy, here the Surfer becomes a de facto  "creator-god."

The sky-rider's sensitivity to emotions leads him into the company of Quasimodo, a sentient computer created by the Mad Thinker, last seen in FF ANNUAL #4. The Surfer feels pity for the mechanical being, and liberates him from bondage.



However, Quasimodo isn't immediately impressed with the form he receives. Kirby, a long-time fan of the 1923 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME film, clearly modeled the living computer on the tragic freak from the movie. But that Quasimodo, despite his crude upbringing, tried to show some kindness to the gypsy girl Esmerelda. This Quasimodo not only fails to thank the Surfer for the alien's act of largesse, he immediately starts bitching about how his "creator" didn't give him a better looking mug. Lee or Kirby may have also had in mind something like the attitude of Mary Shelley's Monster, when he quotes Milton about not getting a good break in the looks department:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?



Of course, Quasimodo is also the creation of a super-villain, so maybe the apple simply doesn't fall far from the tree. The villain blasts the Surfer, apparently killing the alien. Then Quasimodo goes on a rampage, tearing up New York (at least one King Kong visual quote appears here), until the Surfer shows up. Following a seesaw battle, the Surfer takes back his gift of life, and returns Quasimodo to stationary status-- though of course later stories resurrected the villain for further use.



It should be noted that there's a strong psychological motif here regarding physical appearance. Quasimodo is so sensitive about his looks-- even though he's only been ambulatory for a few minutes-- that during the battle he thinks the New York citizens are worried about the Surfer because "he is handsome, and I am ugly!" It's long been a commonplace trope in comics to pit ugly villains against handsome heroes, and even though the Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR mitigates that trope somewhat with heroes like the Thing, clearly Kirby didn't mind playing up to the audience's tendency to equate ethical superiority with physical attractiveness. It's possible that on some level the rejection of the "ugly villain" also represented for Kirby-- and possibly for Lee-- the rejection of what are usually called "baser instincts," such as cruelty and envy. This would accord with the tendency of Lee and Kirby in their Surfer-collaborations to see the "handsome" Surfer as the embodiment of the "higher instincts," even though, truth to tell, a number of the Lee-Buscema stories portray the hero as being somewhat corrupted by his interactions with human culture.But that's another story.



Wednesday, June 7, 2017

POINTLESS ARGUMENT PRESERVATION

Some junk from the aforementioned BEAT post:

I admit I didn't know "sealioning," which sounded like it came from the same mindset that gave us "mansplaining," and sure enough, it is:

the name given to a specific, pervasive form of aggressive cluelessness, that masquerades as a sincere desire to understand

At least you should get your own jargon right. You're free to think me clueless, as I am to think the same of you, but there's nothing I've written here than connotes false sincerity. Arrogance, yes, impatience with narrow politicized thinking,yes. But the closest thing to false sincerity appears in your inability to admit that you made a bad comparison between Plummer's non-fictional essay and a completely unrelated fictional comic by Sophie Labelle. And once your mistake was pointed out, you assumed a pose of sincere disdain for anyone who chose not to acknowledge your supposed wit-- thus, "making it all about you."

By the way, can anyone explain to me why advocates of queer theory (as Plummer must be, since he's queering Dick Grayson) are so in love with Frederic Wertham? Isn't this the guy who was warning American parents about how their children were going to be corrupted by those evil comic books, which presented salacious images of smooth rich men luring young men into decadent ways? There's a word for people like Freddy Wertham, and it does have the word "queer" IN it, but it isn't "queer theorist." (HInt: the last part rhymes with, "tater.")

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

"STOP IT, YOU'RE JUST ENCOURAGING HIM!"

Yeah, once again I tossed out a quick, snide jibe at an essay to which THE BEAT linked here: an essay in which the author claimed that Robin was a "queering influence" upon the Batman mythos. After my jibe, one reader differed with my opinion. I imagine that Heidi probably wanted to say to him-- well, what I say in the title. I responded, in keeping with my general distinction between the natures of fiction and non-fiction, I wrote:

Fictional comics about "toxic masculinity" can be directed at specific audiences because fiction does not (or should not) have to meet tests as to real-world applicability.
Non-fictional articles may indeed be written to target audiences, but in theory they ought to meet the test as to real-world applicability.

Now, from the little bit I had read of the essay, it had nothing directly to do with the contrasts of fiction and non-fiction. But now I've obligated myself to critique this newest (yawn) queeritude quitique of Robin the Boy Wonder. Here, lemme read it while I do my daily Sudoku...

___________

OK, let's go down the list of the sins of "Dick Grayson vs. Toxic Masculinity:"

Author Jess Plummer foregrounds his thoughts on Dick Grayson's oppositional status by focusing on a forthcoming, out-of-continuity miniseries in which Nightwing Will Kill the DC Universe, more or less. Plummer correctly tags this as a likely borrowing of the current "Hydra Captain America" schtick, but then decides that the choice of Dick Grayson signifies that "Dick Grayson makes straight men nervous." This is because, from the conception of the original Robin, the youth has functioned as "a damsel in distress" to his mentor Batman.

Frederic Wertham is then credited with having "picked up on" this startling truth, and with having popularized the "queering influence" of Robin on the Batman mythos. (Plummer cleverly inserts a comic-strip excerpt in which Robin is forced to dress in a frilly Louis XIV-looking gown, as if this sort of thing happened all the time in Batman comics.) Plummer then informs us that Queer Robin so informed the Bat-serials that the only reason DC Comics introduced new female characters was to deflect readers from suspecting the awful truth, that Dick Grayson was just Jaye Davidson in drag.



Plummer then quickly vaults over the romantic history of the Robin character to focus upon his NEW TEEN TITANS alliance with "his taller, stronger, much more aggressive girlfriend Starfire." There follows a Werthamesque meditation on Nightwing's "non-gendered name." We hear nothing about the intermittent romance with Barbara Gordon--




-- but Plummer is quick to vault ahead a few more years to the (out-of-continuity) DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, whose main significance is to portray a dead Robin. We are told that this is yet another assault on the Robin persona, even though Dick Grayson is alive but off-panel while Jason Todd is the one who died.



Another pole-vault, and we're in 2004, talking about the death of Stephanie Brown (not killed directly by Black Mask's power drill as I recall), and the return of Jason Todd as an amoral "hero" (which, even though he's come BACK to life, is I guess still being raked over the coals after a fashion). Then we finally get down to Plummer's theme statement: Robin is being continually killed and tortured because straight readers and/or creators see him as That Ole Debbil, the Queering Influence.

Oddly enough, this bit of "straightbaiting"-- in which straights are automatically assumed to be out to degrade and mortify anyone who may upset their sexual applecart-- borrows the exact same non-logical rhetoric as "queerbaiting." While there may well be many comic-book readers who do not like Robin, it's intellectually irresponsible to interpret those anti-Robin sentiments as part of some subconscious jeremiad against Robin's "queering influence."

Finally, I'll close by noting that Plummer doesn't appear to be very good about reading current stuff either. since he makes the statement.

You’ll never see Batman sexually assaulted while disassociating.

Oh, REALLY--



Not to mention the fact that, although Morrison did rewrite the events of the Barr-Bingham "Son of the Demon" graphic novel, he specifically has Batman task Talia with having drugged him at the conclusion of BATMAN INC.

Yes, just another day at the "How Dare They Marginalize Me and Then Not Admit It" corral.



Monday, June 5, 2017

A NOSTALGIA FOR SYNTAX

SYNTAX: --  the way in which linguistic elements (such as words) are put together to form constituents (such as phrases or clauses)-- Merriam Webster online.

After not having read THE HURTING for a couple years since I tried to engage blogger Tim O'Neil on the subject of Stan Lee, I happened across his newest post, TRUE BELIEVERS, part of a longer series of essays that I've not read. The substance of BELIEVERS is O'Neil's sussing out of his particular attachment to Marvel Comics and its characters. It's a refreshing piece in that, even though the author expresses more than a little disenchantment with current comics, he doesn't put forth some Grothian notion that comic books were a juvenile phase he should have grown out of, or that his life was hugely improved once he sold his soul to art-comics, or some such. For the most part, O'Neil attempts not to draw any morals:

Do you know why we care? I go back and forth – I’m not sure why I feel the way I do. There’s no conclusion here. Don’t look for a revelation, unless it’s your own. Certainty is comforting. It’s familiar. I don’t want to speak unless I know exactly what I’m about to say, and I don’t want to express an opinion unless that opinion is completely solid. It’s a lot harder to say, “I don’t know.”
I don’t know why comics hooked me. All I know is that they did. All I can do is try to tell you what I feel and think. Maybe you can provide your own answers.

I still found some grounds for disagreement, though, in the definition of one's attachment to a given mode of entertainment purely in terms of nostalgia, an attempt to re-connect with pleasurable aspects of one's upbringing:




There’s an old saying, credited to a man named Peter Graham, that the Golden Age of sci-fi is twelve. Knock a few years off and the same goes for comics: the comics you read as a kid will always be the best comics. Nothing will ever come close in your eyes to that first rush, from back before you knew enough about the making of the books to become cynical. Even if the comics you grew up with were awful (and they most likely were), they will always be the pure and uncut high for which you will hunger for the rest of your life.

This needs some modifications. First, I think it should be "the GOOD comics you read as a kid will always be the best comics." I can't speak for O'Neil, but my earliest memories of reading comics as a kid were informed by the sure and certain knowledge that some comics were memorable only because they were so bad. My memories are hazy of my earliest encounters with comic strips and kids' comic books, but I have a few recollections of displeasure. The earliest one I can conjure up had to do with my general disappointment that Gold Key's adaptation of the Warner Brothers cartoon characters not only failed to reproduce the hilarious anarchy of the animated shorts, but they also delivered far less entertainment than even middle-level funny-animals like WOODY WOODPECKER and TOM AND JERRY, much less the greatness of the Disney books.




Second, without endorsing Gary Groth's views on maturation, one does form different likes over the years. The child-reader who was grossed out by the DICK TRACY comic strip of the early 1960s became more tolerant of bloodshed by the 1970s, enough to appreciate at least mildly gory titles like Marvel's 1971 WEREWOLF BY NIGHT. So one's nostalgia isn't exactly the fixed point in time O'Neil describes. It's more of a continuum, formed by the fact that childhood becomes adolescence and one's priorities change, even if (arguably) one's basic tastes do not.



Third, I do have some problems with the idea that one only approaches entertainment in a spirit of weakness or disempowerment, though I don't rule those out entirely. O'Neil happily doesn't dwell on this too long:

I needed something. I needed something to hold onto when so much about the world didn’t make sense. I didn’t exclusively gravitate towards particular characters, although I obviously have my favorites just like everyone else. The characters themselves, I have always maintained, are relatively unimportant: what matters is the whole. What matters is that it hangs together into something resembling a cohesive aggregate entity, one story being told over decades by hundreds of people. 

But because his focus is exclusively personal, I think O'Neil misses seeing a pattern applicable to fans of all forms of entertainment: the reader's desire for coherence, to suss out many different views or takes on life and to decide what applies to said reader. One doesn't need the medium of an interconnected universe for this.

The word "syntax" is usually applied only to the way that words are used to form sentences, but it applies no less to the ways in which the ideas behind the words  cohere. This is something every person "needs" whether the world makes sense to them or not. People, whether they write stories or not, build up meaning through syntactical constructions, and an understanding of how this occurs becomes part of the Social Contract. I can't substantially disagree with Gary Groth if I don't understand how his conclusions proceed from his premises. So I think nostalgia for past pleasures, at least with respect to entertainment, stems from gaining a sense of empowerment as we master different levels of syntactical awareness.

In conclusion, O'Neil's essay again takes a shot or two at Stan Lee, but since I've already disagreed with his premises here, there's no need to repeat myself on this score. However, the reason I've continually referred to "modes of entertainment" is because I don't think anything O'Neil writes about comics applies only to comics:

Comics started off a shady business built to entice children into spending their money. They are still a shady business built to entice children into spending their money, but inflation and retail conditions meant their audience grew older without ever growing up. Just like me.
There may be individual artists who will starve in garrets for their individual visions, or will keep their works to themselves without any intent of publishing them. But none of these eccentrics ever created an art-form. Theater, literature, music and the visual arts become regularized activities when individuals in a society realize that they can specialize in singing or play-acting, and from this stems the role of "the professional," who must be paid for his or her services, so that he can continue delivering his art to society instead of stopping to plant corn or whatever. And none of these forms would gain traction if they did not offer the audience a way to see life through as many viewpoints as possible-- all of which adds up to a "syntax of experience."

Friday, June 2, 2017

A TINY TORRENT OF CENSORSHIP

Any one who's read this blog for any length of time will have noticed that I've often complained about having some of my cyber-remarks deleted or censored. By some divine irony, it's almost always been by persons who take the political position of liberals, which may say something about the intellectual wherewithall of current liberals, at least in the comics community. This last week, however, brought in a bumper crop of three, though I was only tangentially involved in one of them.

The tangential one appeared on this BEAT post. The substance of the original post was to record how some conservative pushback had appeared against using comic books in schoolrooms due to a perceived "liberal agenda." Most of the posters assumed a fairly liberal stance in response to the topic, but one fellow, whose longlong name I'll abbreviate to "Eor," made two posts of a more or less conservative tone. The second post contained two very short remarks, arguing (as I recall) that the liberal notion of "sexuality is a social construct" was no more objective than many conservative notions. I agree with the latter topic, and just wrote, "Good one." Then Heidi deleted the second post and it looked like I was agreeing with Eor's sole remaining post.

I also decided to test the depth of the intellectual waters at the Superhero Hype Board by reprinting THE CONFEDERACY AND THE DUNCES there, sans the title. I flatter myself that it should be clear that it was not an overarching defense of the Southern cause-- yet the dozen or so responses to the thread were concerned only with condemning the Confederacy as the Ultimate Evil. On top of that, someone asked for the thread to be closed, and so it was. So much for enlightened debate there.

Much less surprising was the deletion of two posts on a "pro-LGBT" thread on CBR Community. While I had never posted on said thread before, I'd been something of a gadfly against the knee-jerk ultraliberals for some time, so I imagine that some moderator was simply over-reacting against an innocuous post. On the LGBT thread, someone used the phrase "straight privilege" as if it were a self-evident thing. My two posts requested a definition or citation of what the poster thought it meant. No one responded, except the moderator, who after deleting my posts penned a self-righteous screed in which he thought it was dumb for anyone to question the existence of straight privilege. I didn't say it didn't exist, and I wasn't necessarily planning to debate anyone on the subject, but the moderator just didn't want to deal with heavy matters like definition of terms.

So I guess I'll be looking for new forums in future for debate potential. I suspect the ones with "comics" in the title have all been played out.


MYTHCOMICS: COYOTE #1-16 (1983-86)


In AN ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY I gave pride of place to the first two issues of Steve Englehart’s Epic-published COYOTE series. At the time I wrote that, I hadn’t given the rest of the Coyote-tales a close reading: either the seven installments that appeared in ECLIPSE MONTHLY magazine or the remaining fifteen in the Epic series. I only remembered that after the first two solo-feature issues, in which Englehart’s script was beautifully realized by artist Steve Leialoha, both story and artwork fell off drastically in quality. Yet, given that I’ve said it’s possible to have a significant symbolic discourse even when other qualities are lacking, I decided to re-examine the full Coyote series.

I found no reason to change my opinion of the ECLIPSE MONTHLY stories, which I touched on briefly in a review for COMICS JOURNAL #85 (1983). This sequence introduced Coyote, a hero named for the Native American trickster-god. He possessed shape-shifting and dimension-crossing powers, the heritage of a meandering and confusing backstory. With almost no motivation, the hero began clashing with his principal adversaries: a secret organization called the Shadow Cabinet. These assorted spy-jinks led me to label the Eclipse series as “American Werewolf gets a shave and plays James Bond.”  I also noted that collaborator Marshall Rogers was guilty of “cardboard figures and meticulously cluttered panels.” At best the Eclipse stories rate as near myths.

The sixteen Epic issues, however, do manage to realize a “density of discourse” that raises them to the level of “good myths.” Englehart had established in the earlier stories that Coyote got his supernatural powers as the result of being raised in a society of eldritch beings: a were-coyote foster-father and a vampire foster-mother. But in the Epic series, Englehart deepened the protagonist’s connection to Native American lore and culture. Though Coyote’s “origin-story” is laid out without a lot of attention to motives or consistency, it does establish that Coyote, a mortal man, was actually chosen by the Native American coyote-god to help drive out the Europeans who conquered the lands of the red men. This revised origin didn’t come to much in terms of plot, but it allowed Englehart to intermingle two forms of narrative: the modern-day, superspy-like adventures of his hero, and vignettes about the original coyote-god’s adventures in the world that existed before the Caucasian invasion. I don’t know to what extent Englehart’s vignettes derived from real Native American folklore, although some of the details are certainly provided by the writer himself. The significance of the vignettes is that Englehart emulates much of the earthy humor that characterizes authentic Amerindian folktales. One outstanding vignette, possibly the height of the Englehart-Leialoha collaboration, deals with Coyote’s creation of the Milky Way by his impulsiveness.



And what of the main story concerning the hero? Well, in 1983 I wrote that he was one of several contemporary heroes who were more concerned with “maintaining personal freedom” rather than expousing total altruism (I was big on the theme of altruism vs. selfhood back in the 1980s.) Coyote, having much of the nature of his trickster-god, is full of youthful self-confidence, contempt for those of lesser attainments, and just plain horniness. Indeed, whereas James Bond of the Movies often got to bone at least two women per film—albeit separately—Coyote is a true “harem fantasy,” in which he hooks up with two sisters (one white, one phenotypically black) and later with a third hottie, a female Russian assassin. Issue #16 concludes not only with Coyote’s victory over the Shadow Cabinet, but also his success with getting at least two of the hotties to remain in his personal seraglio. I’m not sure if any modern American comics-creator would even be able to pitch, much less have published, such a politically incorrect male fantasy.



Further, Englehart does manage to tie together Coyote’s current enemies with the mythic past of the folklore-Coyote, for the Shadow Cabinet is largely run by magical beings called:”Crows.” Native American folklore has its share of crow-gods, but it’s not clear if these are gods, though in one of the past vignettes the Crows are seen as the persistent adversaries of the coyote-god. At the very least, the presence of the Crows keeps the Shadow Cabinet from being just another globe-spanning secret organization.

Ironically, in 1983, I wrote just the opposite, stating that I thought the Cabinet was meant to be more than “SPECTRE or Hydra;” that it was a metaphor for Englehart’s view of the “grasping-and-taking aspect of American business.” I no longer think Englehart applied this metaphor to the Cabinet itself: now I think it really was just another SPECTRE, albeit with overcomplicated origins (including aliens!) Yet throughout the sixteen Epic issues, Englehart adroitly contrasts the anal-retentive tendencies of Anglo culture with the more freewheeling spontaneity of Amerindian ways. He also works in interesting commentaries on the three “Religions of the Book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all of whom appear as minor players in the pagan conflict of Coyote and the Crows.



On a side-note, Marvel’s publication of the Coyote series also gave Englehart a venue inn which to publish his four-part collaboration with Steve Ditko, “The Djinn.” Only one installment of the series had seen previous publication, but Marvel published the whole series, much to the delectation of Ditko enthusiasts, since the series featured some of the artist’s best eighties work. Englehart also worked the continuity of the “Djinn” story into Coyote’s mythos reasonably well, but over time the writer created too many wild subplots, so that the series came off as belonging to the “everything plus the kitchen sink” school.




Issue sixteen concludes with the words, “James Bond is problematical, but—Coyote will return!” it takes a special kind of nerve to claim that your comic-book character has a better chance to return than that internationally famous superspy 007. But in this Englehart proved a better writer than a prophet, for Coyote hasn’t turned any new tricks in the comics since 1986.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

THE CONFEDERACY AND THE DUNCES

Every Thou in the world is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually re-enter into the condition of things. In objective speech it would be said that every thing in the world, either before or after becoming a thing, is able to appear to an I as its Thou. But objective speech snatches only at a fringe of real life.-- Martin Buber, I AND THOU.
Within the last week New Orleans removed its last Confederate statue, but the anti-Confederacy meme has been brewing at least since the 1990s. Because the Confederacy was based upon the "peculiar institution" of slavery, and because more than a few supporters of the southern states declared their absolute allegiance to that institution, many modern Americans have come to view any sympathy for the Confederacy as a similar allegiance to any and all forms of racism. Thus any modern displays of sympathy for the losing side of the American Civil War have been broadly interpreted as advocacy of racism. This might be logical if Rebel flags were largely being flown by members of the Klan or similar societies. However, the assumption of racism has become so endemic that it's caused retroactive condemnation of old TV shows like THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, simply for displaying the flag as a decoration on the car. Twice on the 2009-2013 animated TV show THE CLEVELAND SHOW, the title character was shown gaining minor victories over entrenched Confederate sympathies in the fictional city of Stoolbend, Virginia (allegedly patterned upon Richmond). Even though Cleveland was generally characterized as a fool, in this respect he was shown to be entirely justified in challenging this status quo. The scripts for both shows endorsed the idea that modern-day Confederate sympathies connoted modern-day anti-black prejudice.





If I were a black person, I suppose I too might take at face value all statements of historical Rebels, and thus conclude the principal question of the American Civil War was whether or not black people were foreordained by God to be slaves. But as a white person who may know a bit more about the way white people think than a lot of non-whites, I'd say that the Civil War was predominantly a war between two groups of white people, and the fate of black slaves was simply the "bone" over which the two dogs were fighting.

One can find innumerable justifications for slavery. often religious in nature, in the records of Confederacy advocates. But the primary justification, since slavery became an American institution around 1620, was economic. In addition to the perks of free labor for landowners, the 3/5 compromise of 1783 ensured that even a partial count of the slaves in southern states would result in a greater allotment of delegates in the federal government. While many reformers objected to slavery on moral grounds, it seems likely to me that the Republican legislators who introduced the ban on slavery in U.S. territories were more concerned with breaking the hold that Southerners had on the government. (Notably, seven presidents prior to the Civil War were born in the above-mentioned Virginia.) The fact that the northern states had few if any laws against slavery suggests that had it been economically advantageous for those states to harbor as many slaves as the south did, there might never have been a Civil War at all.

In another essay I applied Buber's above remarks to the "peculiar institution," noting that:

It would seem obvious to me that the real-world injustice of slavery is all about what Buber calls the "I-it" relationship, of an "I" (the slaver or slaveholder) reducing a sentient being (the slave) to the status of an object.
And yet, in the above quote Buber stipulates that every Thou is fated to "continually enter into the condition of things." Human beings have been enslaving other human beings for centuries, and while not all institutions of slavery are equally motivated by profit, it would be naive to assume no economic advantage, particularly in the case of African slaves. One online writer, whom I've not been able to locate again, remarked that sub-Saharan Africa was virtually a "one-stop shopping" for the slave trade. For whatever reason, black people were one of the favorite targets of the Arab slavers since the ninth century. African slaves were commonly employed throughout the Middle East and were even traded as far abroad as China.

The fact that "everybody did it" doesn't make it right, of course, and the making of people into things, no matter who does it-- is fundamentally immoral. However, it is also very nearly inevitable, given the tendency of human beings to judge the morality of their ingroups in terms of self-interest; and to efface the fact that said ingroups have usually attained their position by debasing or marginalizing other peoples. American Southerners were indubitably dishonest about not admitting that they wanted slaves because slaves were profitable. But I don't think that they were dishonest in interpreting the Civil War in terms of a battle between the interests of two groups of white people. This interpretation became encoded in culture and literature as the "brother against brother" trope, and this had made it possible for the re-united culture to tolerate the honoring of war heroes of the Confederacy, even in some northern states.

In modern times, however, Confederate monuments, and any and all paraphernalia associated with honoring the famed "Lost Cause" (Rebel flags, names on public schools) are charged with sending the wrong message. The mayor of New Orleans endorsed this interpretation, stating categorically that Civil War monuments contributed to the city's "exclusionary attitudes." He further stated that "now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history."

Many defenses of the monuments assert that they want to see history preserved. This is not precisely my defense, for I'm quite aware that monuments and paraphernalia for any cause cannot present a sophisticated view of history. In my opinion the main reason that the descendants of the Confederacy insurrection want the monuments is one of ego-gratification. I can't say that none of them have any desire to use Southern memorabilia as a means, say, to rally against the supposed evils of multiculturalism. But I find it unlikely that all of them do, and to those that simply want the pleasant illusion of the "brother vs. brother" theme, the insistence that Black Americans' feelings should be honored above their own is not likely to lead to greater collegiality. Indeed, I suspect that these sort of demands only foster more "exclusionary attitudes," rather than supporting the cause of diversity.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Our ancestors pay the price for who we are." If there are any people on this planet who possess absolutely no interest in validating their ancestors, I'm not aware of them, and I don't agree with the mayor that a given ingroup can simply "move past" their history. Ideally the ingroup should be cognizant of the ways in which their ancestors debased or marginalized other peoples, but the idea of defining any ingroup's heritage purely in terms of those acts is mere rhetoric that springs only from-- guess what-- self-interest. I suppose it might be empowering for Black Americans to imagine White Southerners going around, for the rest of their lives, wearing sackcloth and ashes for the sins of their ancestors.

But it's not going to happen. And any rhetoric that seeks that end is also-- a Lost Cause.




Wednesday, May 24, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: "THE MAKING OF A MAN" (ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN #145, 1963)

Just to show that the same author can produce a "poor myth" as easily as a "good myth" when he uses his favorite conceits badly, here's a story that ACQ's Richard Hughes published about four years after "Queen of Uranus." In contrast to "Queen," which was a pretty decent insight into feminine psychology, here Hughes attempted to use his Thorne Smith bag o'tricks to define the male star of the portentously titled "Making of a Man."



The story starts out in typically Hughesian fashion, presenting protagonist Bill Weston as a brow-beaten weakling who, thanks to the influence of a mean aunt who threatens to send him to an orphanage, continually dodges conflict throughout his life. Hughes may have thought of the majority of comics-readers as similar dreamers who "sought refuge in... books," and yet dreamed of being he-man adventurers. (Indeed, Hughes' fan-favored feature HERBIE is postulated on almost nothing else.)



By a series of unfortunate accidents, Weston gets stuck in a rocket that takes him to the far-off planet Lomara. On the fortunate side, though, Weston is able to breathe the atmosphere of Lomara. Even more fortunately, for no particular reason being on Lomara endows Weston with super-strength a la Burroughs' John Carter.



Hughes then takes the next logical step, having Weston rescue a princess, name of Lynda (Hughes was not Burroughs' equal in coming up with exotic names). However, in a strange inversion of the John Carter mythos, Lynda and other, uniformly-gorgeous females rule the planet. The ugly pot-belled goons that attacked Weston and held the princess captive are the males of the planet's humanoid species, and whom Lynda regards as being "of a lower order." Weston, rather than becoming a sword-wielding warlord a la Burroughs, uses his scientific knowledge to repel the males' next assault on the females. This sounds like a great escape from Weston's earlier humiliating routine. Yet Hughes clearly doesn't want Weston to even think about staying on the alien world, for at battle's end he's already thinking about going home (naturally, so that Weston can deal out a comeuppance to the bullies of Earth).



It turns out that even though the battle was won, the war is bound to be lost to the men, who have greater forces and who desire "an equal voice in government." Clearly this was a toss-off story for Hughes: he was interested neither in the female Lomarans' claim to greater mental powers or the male Lomarans' desire for equity, only in what both of them could do for his protagonist's damaged ego.



I'm not sure about how conscious Hughes was of his title's irony. Since he drops the John Carter fantasy almost immediately, that might suggest that the writer meant to play around with the usual tropes of "manhood-making." Still, the story seems too clumsily assembled to suggest intentional irony. The real reason Hughes is in such a hurry to get Weston and Lynda back to Earth is because Lynda brings with her a treasure-trove of diamonds, and that allows him to buy out his old company and kick out his mean boss.



So, is the moral that "the making of a man" is all about-- marrying a rich babe who has a fortune? Even for a comedy, this is a pretty muddled message.

The whole story can be read here. In line with the thoughts expressed in this essay, the story is subcombative because Weston's "John Carter" act is not carried through to the climax.

MYTHCOMICS: "QUEEN OF URANUS" (FORBIDDEN WORLDS #58, 1959)

Just to get the obvious joke out of the way: of whose anus was the main character supposed to be queen, anyway?



Like most of ACG's stories, this one was written by the editor in charge of the line, Richard Hughes. Following the institution of the Comics Code, ACG continued to print comics books with titles that seemed to promise the thrills of the horror-tale-- FORBIDDEN WORLDS, ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN-- but what Hughes served up was more in the nature of supernatural whimsy, along the lines of Thorne Smith. Since the ACQ line survived until 1967, Hughes must have found a readership of some sort. Many of his stories focused on misfits or nebbishes who had their lives changed, often for the better, by encounters with the supernatural or science fictional presences.

I commented on this story a while back when it was reprinted on this entry of "Pappy's Golden Age Comics Blogzine," stating the following

I'll give Richard Hughes this much: he might not have been especially insightful about feminine psychology, but he is at least making some attempt in this respect.
Basically, Miss Purdy (as in "you shore are purdy") isn't so much pursuing her own path as butting her head up against societal expectations. Her tension suggests to me that she doesn't have any philosophical reason for wanting not to get dolled up; she's masochistically enjoying the disapproval she gets from society in order to stage an ongoing "pity party." Didn't Aristotle say something about how the man who walks around with a hole in his clothing may be showing off just as much as the man who wears fine clothes?
The story's joke is that when Kryptos ("hidden") responds favorably to her dowdy looks, she doesn't exactly respond to him with such fervor. His appreciation, though, gives her the gumption to get gussied up, which wins her the approval of her peers-- which is arguably what she's really been after all along with her "dressing down."

To expand on the "pity party" interpretation somewhat, here's the second page of the story, which will indirectly play into Miss Purdy's encounter with real aliens:



Note that Purdy was assigned to complete a creature-costume a month ago, and that when her principal Mr. Cannon asks her about it in a very professional manner, she complains about all her troubles managing "the children," as if she were a wife grousing to her husband. Clearly Purdy has put off her assignment-- a responsibility that she shares with the other teachers at the school-- because she seeks attention in a somewhat masochistic manner. On a subconscious level she wants to be dressed down so that she can complain about her lot in life. Yet she's conscious that she meant to be "charming" to Mr. Cannon, and that she made a bad job of it. At this point she's not even aware of having any romantic interest in Cannon, but her interaction with the mild-mannered principal shows that she wanted some validation from him.

On the same page she seeks validation as a teacher from the children by trying to get them to share her interest in her collection of tektites (meteor fragments). The kids don't care about rocks; they want to know that she's going to have the creature-costume ready for their play. The final panel suggests that Purdy has identified with the tektites as something outside the dull round of her existence.

Sure enough, the meteor-fragments are her gateway to redemption. The tektites start glowing, and two child-sized aliens show up in Purdy's room. whisking her away to meet with their ruler Kryptos. The alien, who describes himself as "overlord of Uranus," tells Purdy that the tektites were sent by the Uranians to remote parts of Earth to provide homing-beacons for Uranian scoutships. The story says almost nothing about why the Uranians wanted to visit Earth, but the broad implication is that they're simply making a covert scientific study of Earth-people, even though their leader Kryptos finds the faces of Earth-people "hard, selfish, empty of feeling." Yet he's immediately smitten with homely Purdy, and invites her to come back to Uranus with him and reign as queen. Purdy, though confused, is deeply affected by Kryptos' ardor, and immediately seeks to upgrade her appearance.




"I've got a reason to do something about my looks," she says to herself. This line reinforces my above interpretation that at base, Purdy always wanted attention, but she took the easy way, choosing to eschew makeup and pleasant attire, drawing negative attention in the fashion of the individual who refused to mend the holes in his garments.

I can see how a critic might make the error that the story is all about socializing women to look pretty for men. But Hughes repeats on page 31 Cannon's judgment that Purdy suffered from tenseness, and puts it in the head of Purdy herself: "Now that I'm no longer tense, the children have quieted down!" A refinement of this catchpenny psychology would be to state that. along with Wilhelm Reich, that people often maintain defensive, "armoring" reactions to potential conflict. But once Kryptos sees beauty where everyone else-- including Purdy-- saw only plainness, Purdy is able to "strut her stuff" with confidence. The children respond positively to her new confidence, and so does Principal Cannon.



It will surprise no reader that when Kryptos sees the changes, he proves that he only liked her because she was so different from the majority of Earth-people, which is, at base, no better than liking someone exclusively because one is beautiful. It's also significant that before Kryptos manages to express his horror at Purdy's refined appearance, she's already decided not to accept his proposal. Purdy is more than happy to release Kryptos from his commitment, and in a rather commonplace twist ending, all Purdy wants from the alien is one of his men's conveniently child-sized costumes, to use in the play.



An additional note: I'll admit that it's hard to be sure whether or not Richard Hughes was enough of a wordsmith to know that the Greek source for the name "Kryptos" carried the original meaning of "things hidden." If he did know it, then Hughes may have been referencing the hidden nature of Purdy's psychological complexes. But of course, comic books have made the root-word famous in the context of the adventures of DC Comics' Man of Steel-- and I must admit that "Queen of Uranus" might also carry the connotation of a rewritten Superman/Lois Lane encounter; one in which the alien does NOT get the girl.

Both the full story and the others in the comic can be read here.